Liars Don't Qualify
Edwards was born in Alexandria, Louisiana,
forty-one years ago. He was educated Qt the University
of Oslo in Norway. The short story in this anthology
won first prize in the Writer's Digest Short
Story Contest. In 1959 he won a Eugene F. Saxton
Fellowship for Creative Writing. His short story,
"Mother Dear and Daddy," is in John Williams'
anthology The Angry Black. Mr. Edwards is author
of the novel If We Must Die.
Will Harris sat on
the bench in the waiting room for
another hour. His pride was not the only thing that hurt.
He wanted them to call him in and get him registered so
he could get out of there. Twice, he started to go into the
inner office and tell them, but he thought better of it. He
had counted ninety-six cigarette butts on the floor when a
fat man came out of the office and spoke to him.
"What you want, boy?"
Will Harris got to his feet.
"I came to register."
"Oh, you did, did your?"
The fat man stared at Will for a second, then turned his
back to him.
As he turned his back, he said, "Come on in here."
Will went in.
It was a lit lie office and dirty, but not so dirty as the
wailing room. There were no cigarette butts on the floor
here. Instead, there was paper. They looked like candy
wrappers to Will. There were two desks jammed in there,
and a bony little man sat at one of them, his head down,
his fingers fumbling with some papers. The fat man went
around the empty desk and pulled up a chair. The bony
man did not look up.
Will stood in front of the empty desk and watched the
fat man sit down behind it. The fat man swung his chair
around until he faced the little man.
"Charlie," he said.
"Yeah, Sam," Charlie said, not looking up from his
“Charlie. This boy here says he come to register."
“You sure? You sure that's what he said, Sam'!" Still not
looking up. “You sure? You better ask him again, Sam."
“I'm sure, Charlie."
“You better be sure, Sam,"
"All right, Charlie. All right. I'll ask him again," the
fat man said. He looked up at Will. "Boy. What you come
“I came to register."
The fat man stared up at him. He didn't say anything. He
just stared, his lips a thin line, his eyes wide open. His left
hand searched behind him and came up with a handkerchief.
He raised his left arm and mopped his face with
the handkerchief, his eyes still on Will.
The odor from under his sweat-soaked arm made Will
step back. Will held his breath until the fat man finished
mopping his face. The fat man put his handkerchief away.
He pulled a desk drawer open, and then he took his eyes
off Will. He reached in the desk drawer and took out a
bar of candy. He took the wrapper off the candy and threw
the wrapper on the floor at Will's feet. He looked at Will
and ate the candy.
Will stood there and tried to keep his face straight. He
kept telling himself: I'll take anything. I'll take anything
to get it done.
The fat man kept his eyes on Will and finished the candy,
He took out his handkerchief and wiped his mouth. He
grinned, then he put his handkerchief away.
“Charlie." The fat man turned to the little man.
"He says he come to register."
"Sam, are you surer?”
"Pretty sure, Charlie."
"Well, explain to him what it's about." The bony man
still had not looked up.
"All right. Charlie," Sam said, and looked up at Will.
"Boy, when talks come here, they intend to vote, so they
"That's what I want to do," Will said.
"What's that? Say that again."
“That's what I want to do. Register and vote."
The fat man turned his head to the bony man.
"He says...Charlie, this boy says that he wants to
The bony man looked up from his desk for the first
He looked at Sam, then both of them looked at Will.
Will looked from one of them to the other, one to the
It was hot, and he wanted to sit down. Anything.
The man called Charlie turned back to his work, and
swung his chair around until he faced Will.
“You got a job?" he asked.
“Boy, you know what you're doing?"
“All right," Sam said. “All right."
Just then, Will heard the door open behind him, and
came in. It was a man.
"How you all'! How about registering?"
Sam smiled. Charlie looked up and smiled.
“Take care of you right away," Sam said, and then to
“Boy. Wait outside."
As Will went out, he heard Sam's voice: “Take a seat,
Take a seat. Have you fixed up in a little bit. Now,
"Thanks," the man said, and Will heard the scrape of a
Will closed the door and went back to his bench.
Anything. Anything. Anything. I’ll take it all.
Pretty soon the man came out smiling. Sam came out
him, and he called Will and told him to come in.
went in and stood before the desk. Sam told him he
to see his papers: Discharge, High School Diploma,
Certificate, Social Security Card, and some other
Will had them all. He felt good when he handed
"You belong to any organization?"
“Pretty sure about that?"
"You ever heard of the 15th Amendment?”
“What does that one say?"
“It's the one that says all citizens can vote."
that, don't you, boy? Don't you?"
"Yes, sir. I like them all."
Sam's eyes got big. He slammed his right fist down on
desk top. "I didn't ask you that. I asked you if you
the I5th Amendment. Now, if you can't answer my
"I like it," Will put in, and watched Sam catch his breath.
Sam sat there looking up at Will. He opened and closed
desk-pounding fist. His mouth hung open.
"Yeah, Sam." Not looking up.
"You hear that?" looking wide-eyed at Will. “You hear
"I heard it, Sam."
Will had to work to keep his face straight.
Boy," Sam said. "You born in this town?"
You got my birth certificate right there in front of you.
“You happy here?"
"You got nothing against the way things go around
"Can you read?"
"Are you smart?"
"Where did you get that suit?"
"New York?" Sam asked, and looked over at Charlie.
head was still down. Sam looked back to Will.
"Yes, sir," said Will.
"Boy, what you doing there?"
"I got out of the Army there."
"You believe in what them folks do in New York?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"You know what I mean. Boy, you know good and well
I mean. You know how folks carryon in New York.
believe in that?"
"No, sir," Will said, slowly.
"You pretty sure about that?"
"What year did they make the 15th Amendment?"
"...18...70," said Will.
"Name a signer of the Declaration of Independence who
"Boy, what did you say?" Sam's eyes were wide again.
Will thought for a second. Then he said, "John Adams."
Sam's eyes got wider. He looked to Charlie and spoke
a bowed head, "Now, too much is too much." Then he
back 10 Will.
He didn't say anything 10 Will. He narrowed his eyes
"Did you say just John
"Mister John Adams," Will said, realizing his mistake.
"That's more like it," Sam smiled. "Now, why do you
"I want to vote because it is my duty as an American
"Hah," Sam said, real loud. "Hah," again, and pushed
from his desk and turned to the bony man.
"I heard, Sam."
Sam leaned back in his chair, keeping his eyes on Charlie.
locked his hands across his round stomach and sat there,
"Think you and Elnora be coming over tonight?”
"Don't know, Sam," said the bony man, not looking up.
"You know Elnora,"
"Well, you welcome if you can."
"Don't know, Sam."
"You ought to, if you can. Drop in, if you can. Come
over and we'll split a corn whisky."
The bony man looked up.
“Now, that's different, Sam."
"Thought it would be."
“Can't turn down corn if it's good."
"You know my corn."
"Sure do. I'll drag Elnora. I'll drag her by the hair if I
The bony man went back to work.
Sam turned his chair around to his desk. He opened a
drawer and took out a package of cigarettes. He tore
open and put a cigarette in his mouth. He looked up at
then he lit the cigarette and look a long drag, and
he blew the smoke, very slowly, up toward Will's face.
The smoke floated up toward Will's face. It came up in
of his eyes and nose and hung there, then it danced
played around his face and disappeared.
Will didn't move, but he was glad he hadn't been asked
"You have a car?"
“Don't you have a job?"
"You like that job?”
“You like it, but you don't want it."
"What do you mean?" Will asked.
“Don't get smart, boy," Sam said, wide-eyed. “I'm ask-
the questions here, You understand that?"
“All right, All right. Be sure you do."
“I understand it."
“You a Communist?"
“What party do you want to vote for?"
“I wouldn't go by parties. I'd read about the men and
for a man, not a party,"
"Hah," Sam said, and looked over at Charlie's bowed
“Hah," he said again, and turned back to Will.
“Boy. you pretty sure you can read?"
"All right. All right. We"1 see about that." Sam took a
out of his desk and flipped some pages. He gave the
“Read that loud," he said,
"Yes, sir," Will said, and began: “'When in the course
human events, it becomes necessary for one people to
the political bands which have connected them
another, and to assume among the powers of the earth
separate and equal station to which the Law's of Nature
of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the
of mankind requires that they should declare the
which impel them to thc separation.'"
Will cleared his throat and read on. He tried to be dis-
with each syllable, He didn't need the book. He could
recited the whole thing without the book.
“’We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men
created equal, that they…’ "
“Wait a minute, boy," Sam said. “Wait a minute. You
that? You believe that about 'created equal’?"
"Yes, sir," Will said, knowing that was the wrong answer.
"You really believe that?”
"Yes, sir." Will couldn't make himself say the answer
wanted to hear.
Sam stuck out his right hand, and Will put the book
it. Then Sam turned to the other man.
“Charlie, did you hear that?”
"What was it, Sam?”
"This boy, here, Charlie. He says he really believes it."
"Believes what, Sam'! What you talking about?”
"This boy, here...believes that all men are equal, like
says in The Declaration."
"Now, Sam. Now you know that's not right. You know
and well that's not right. You heard him wrong. Ask
again, Sam. Ask him again, will you?”
"I didn't hear him wrong, Charlie," said Sam, and turned
Will. "Did I, boy? Did I hear you wrong?”
"I didn't hear you wrong?"
Sam turned to Charlie.
"Charlie. You think this boy trying to be smart?"
"Sam. I think he might be. Just might be. He looks like
of them that don't know his place."
Sam narrowed his eyes.
"Boy," he said. "You know your place?”
"I don't know what you mean."
"Boy, you know good and well what I mean."
"What do you mean?”
"Boy, who's..." Sam leaned forward, on his desk. "Just
asking questions, here?"
"You are, sir."
“Charlie. You think he really is trying to be smart?"
"Sam, I think you better ask him."
“Boy. You trying to be smart with me?”
"Sam. Ask him if he thinks he's good as you and me."
"Now, Charlie. Now, you heard what he said about The
"Ask, anyway, Sam."
"All right," Sam said. "Boy. You think you good as me
and Mister Charlie?"
"No, sir," Will said.
They smiled, and Charlie turned away.
Will wanted to take off his jacket. It was hot, al1d he felt
a drop of sweat roll down his right side. He pressed his
right arm against his side to wipe out the sweat. He
he had it, but it rolled again, and he felt al1othcr drop
behind that one. He pressed his arm in again. It was no
use. He gave it up.
"How many stars did the first flag have?"
"What's the name of the mayor of this town?"
"...Mister Roger Phillip Thornedyke Jones."
"…Capital T-h-o-r-n-e-d-y-k-e, Thornedyke."
"How long has he been mayor?”
"Who was the biggest hero in the War Between the
"...General Robert E. Lee."
"What does that 'E' stand for?”
"Think you pretty smart, don't you?"
"Well, boy, you have been giving these answers too
slow. I want them fast. Understand? Fast."
"What's your favorite song?"
“Dixie," Will said, and prayed Sam would not ask him
to sing it.
"Do you like your job?”
"What year did Arizona come into the States?"
"There was another state in 1912."
"New Mexico, it came in January and Arizol1a in
"You thil1k you smart, don't your?”
“Don't you think you smart? Don't you?"
"Oh, yes, you do, boy."
Will said nothing.
"Boy, you make good money on your job?”
"I make enough."
"Oh. Oh, you not satisfied with it?”
"Yes, sir. I am."
"You don't act like it, boy, You know that? You don't
act like it."
"What do you mean?"
"You getting smart again, boy. Just who's asking ques-
“You are, sir."
"That's right. That's right."
The bony man made a noise with his lips and slammed
his pencil down on his desk. He looked at Will, then at
"Sam," he said. “Sam, you having trouble with that boy?
Don't you let that boy give you no trouble, now, Sam.
Don't you do it."
"Charlie," Sam said. "Now, Charlie, you know better
than that. You know better. This boy here knows better
than that, too."
"You sure about that, Sam? You sure?"
"I better be sure if this boy here knows what's good
"Does he know, Sam?"
"Do you know, boy?" Sam asked Will.
Charlie turned back to his work.
“Boy," Sam said. “You sure you're not a member of any
“Yes, sir. I'm sure."
Sam gathered up all Will's papers, and he stacked them
very neatly and placed them in the center of his desk.
He took the cigarette out of his mouth and put it out in
the full ash tray. He picked up Will's papers and gave
"You've been in the Army. That right?"
"You served two years. That right?"
“You have to do six years in the Reserve. That right?"
"You're in the Reserve now. That right?"
"You lied to me here, today. That right?"
“Boy, I said you lied to me here today. That right?”
“Oh, yes, you did, boy. Oh, yes, you did. You told me
you wasn't in any organization. That right?”
"Then you lied, boy, You lied to me because you're in
the Army Reserve. That right?"
"Yes, sir. I'm in the Reserve, but I didn't think you
meant that. I'm just in it, and don't have to go to
or anything like that. I thought you meant some kind of
"When you said you wasn't in an organization, that was
a lie. Now, wasn't it, boy?”
He had Will there. When Sam had asked him about
organizations, the first thing to pop in Will's mind had
the communists, or something like them.
"Now, wasn't it a lie?”
Sam narrowed his eyes.
Will went on.
"No, sir, it wasn't a lie. There's nothing wrong with the
Army Reserve. Everybody has to be in it. I'm not in it
because I want to be in it."
"I know there's nothing wrong with it," Sam said. “Point
is, you lied to me here, today."
"I didn't lie. I just didn't understand the question," Will
"You understood the question, boy. You understood
good and well, and you lied to me. Now, wasn't it a
“Boy. You going to stand right there in front of me big as
anything and tell me it wasn't a lie?" Sam almost
“Now, wasn't it a lie?"
"Yes, sir," Will said, and put his papers in his jacket
"You right, it was,” Sam said.
Sam pushed back from his desk.
"That's it, boy. You can't register. You don't qualify,
Liars don't qualify."
"That's ______ spat the words out and looked at Will
hard for a sound, and then he swung his chair around
he faced Charlie,
"Charlie. You want to go out to eat first today?"
Will opened the door and went out. As he walked down
the stairs he took off his jacket and his tie and opened
collar and rolled up his shirt sleeves. He stood on the
house steps and took a deep breath and heard a noise come
from his throat as he breathed out and looked at the flag
in the court yard. The flag hung from its staff, still
quiet, the way he hated to see it; but it was there,
and he hoped that a little push from the right breeze
lift it and send it flying and waving and whipping from
its staff, proud, the way he liked to see it.
He took out a cigarette and lit it and took a slow deep
drag. He blew the smoke out. He saw the cigarette burn-
ing in his right hand, turned it between his thumb and
forefinger, made a face, and let the cigarette drop to
He threw his jacket over his left shoulder and walked on
down to the bus stop, swinging his arms.
OLIVER was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1943;
was killed in an automobile accident in 1966. She was a graduate
the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and was awarded
M.F.A. by Iowa University in 1966. Stories by Miss Oliver have
in Red Clay Reader, The Negro Digest, The Sewanee
and New Writing of the Sixties.
The bus turning the corner of Patterson and Talford Avenue
this time of evening. Of the four passengers standing in the
she did not recognize any of her friends. Most of the people
neatly in the double seats were women, maids and cooks on
way from work or secretaries who had worked late and were
from the office building at the mill. The cotton mill was out
town, near the house where she worked. She noticed that a
men were riding too. They were obviously just working men,
for one gentleman dressed very neatly in a dark grey suit
carrying what she imagined was a push-button umbrella.
He looked to her as though he usually drove a car to
immediately decided that the car probably wouldn't start this
so he had to catch the bus to and from work. She was
in the rear of the bus, peering at the passengers, her arms
reaching the over-head railing, trying not to wobble with every
But every corner the bus turned pushed her head toward a
And her hair was coming down too, wisps of black curls
between her eyes. She looked at the people around her.
of them were white, but most of them were her color. Looking
the passengers at least kept her from thinking of tomorrow. But
she would be glad when it came, then everything would be
She took a firmer grip on the green leather scat and
on her glasses. The man with the umbrella was two people
of her on the other side of the bus, so she could see him
other people very clearly. She watched as he unfolded the
newspaper, craning her neck to see what was on the front
She stood, impatiently trying to read the headlines, when she
he was staring up at her rather curiously. Biting her lips she
her head and stared out the window until the downtown sec-
was in sight.
She would have to wait until she was home to see if they were
the newspaper again. Sometimes she felt that if another person
a picture of them she would burst out screaming. Last Mon-
reporters were already inside the pre-school clinic when she
Tommy for his last polio shot. She didn't understand how
could be so heartless to a child. The flashbulb went off
when the needle went in and all the picture showed was
The bus pulling up to t1ie curb jerked to a stop, startling her
confusing her thoughts. Clutching in her hand the paper bag
contained her uniform, she pushed her way toward the door,
standing in the back of the bus, she was one of the first people
step to the ground. Outside the bus, the evening air felt humid
uncomfortable and her dress kept sticking to her. She looked up
remembered that the weatherman had forecast rain. Just their
she wondered, would it have to lain on top of everything
As she walked along, the main street seemed unnaturally quiet
she decided her imagination was merely playing tricks. Besides,
of the stores had been closed since five o'clock.
She stopped to look at a reversible raincoat in Ivey's window,
although she had a full time job now, she couldn't keep her
on clothes. She was about to continue walking when she
a horn blowing. Looking around, half-scared but also curious,
saw a man beckoning to her in a grey car. He was nobody
knew but since a nicely dressed woman was with him in the
seat, she walked to the car.
“You're Jim Mitchell's girl, aren't you?" he questioned, “You
the other one?"
She nodded yes, wondering who he was and how much he had
"Now honey," he said leaning over the woman, “you don't know
but your father does and you tell him that if anything happens
that boy of his tomorrow we're ready to set things straight." He
her straight in the eye and she promised to take home the
Just as the man was about to step on the gas, the woman reached
and touched her arm. "You hurry up home, honey, it's about
Before she could find out their names, the Chevrolet had dis-
around a corner. Ellie wished someone would magically
and tell her everything that had happened since August. Then
she could figure out what was real and what she had been
for the past couple of days.
She walked past the main shopping district up to Tanner's where
was standing in the window peeling oranges. Everything
the shop was painted orange and green and Ellie couldn't help
that poor Saraline looked out of place. She stopped to
to her friend who pointed the knife to her watch and then
her boyfriend standing in the rear of the shop. Ellie nodded that
understood. She knew Sara wanted her to tell her grandfather
she had to work late again. Neither one of them could figure
why he didn't like Charlie. Saraline had finished high school
years ahead of her and it was time for her to be getting
Ellie watched as her friend stopped peeling the orange long
to cross her fingers. She nodded again but she was afraid
the crossed fingers in the world wouldn't stop the trouble tomor-
She stopped at the traffic light and spoke to a
against the side of a building. Scuffing the bottom of her
on the curb she waited for the woman to open her mouth
grin as she usually did. The kids used to bait her to talk, and
she didn't have but one tooth in her whole head they ca1led
Doughnut Puncher. But the woman was still, the way everything
had been all week.
From where Ellie stood, across the street from the Sears
parking lot, she could see their house, all of the houses
the single street white people called Welfare Row.
men always made her angry. All of their articles showed how
the people were on their street. And the reporters never said
family wasn't on welfare, the papers always said the family lived
that street. She paused to look across the street at a group of kids
on one rubber ba1l. There were always white kids around
neighborhood mixed up in the games, but playing with thrm
almost an unwritten rule. When everybody started going to
nobody played together any more.
She crossed at the corner ignoring the cars at the stop light and
closer she got to her street the more she realized that the news-
was right. The houses were ugly, there were not even any
just patches of scraggly bushes and grasses. As she cut across
sticky asphalt pavement covered with cars she was conscious
the parking lot floodlights casting a strange glow on her street.
stared from habit at the house on the end of the block and
for the way the paint was peeling they all looked alike to her.
at twilight the flaking grey paint had a luminous glow and as
walked down the dirt sidewalk she noticed Mr. Paul's pipe
added to the hazy atmosphere. Mr. Paul would be sitting
that same spot waiting until Saraline came home. Ellie slowed
pace to speak to the elderly man sitting on the porch.
"Evening, Mr. Paul," she said. Her voice sounded clear and out
place on the vacant street.
“Eh, who's that?" Mr. Paul leaned over the rail, "What you
“How are you?" she hollered louder. “Sara said she'd be late
she has to work." She waited for the words to sink in.
His head had dropped and his eyes were facing his lap. She
see that he was disappointed. “Couldn't help it," he said
"Reckon they needed her again." Then as if he suddenly
he turned toward her.
“You people be ready down there? Still gonna let him go tomor-
She looked at Mr. Paul between the missing rails on his porch,
how his rolled up trousers seemed to fit exactly in the vacant
“Last I heard this morning we're still letting him go," she said.
Mr. Paul had shifted his weight back to the chair. “Don't reckon
hurt him," he mumbled, scratching the side of his face. “Hope
don't mind being spit on though. Spitting ain't like cutting.
can spit on him and nobody'll ever know who did it," he
ending his words with a quiet chuckle.
Ellie stood on the sidewalk grinding her heel in the dirt wait-
for the old man to finish talking. She was glad somebody found
funny to laugh at. Finally he shut up.
“Goodbye, Mr. Paul," she waved. Her voice sounded loud to
own cars. But she knew the way her head ached intensified
She walked home faster, hoping they had some aspirin in the
and that those men would leave earlier tonight.
From the front of her house she could tell that the men were
there. The living room light shone behind the yellow shades,
through brighter in the patched places. She thought about
the geranium pot from the porch to catch the rain but
her mind. She kicked a beer can under a car parked in the
and stopped to look at her reflection on the car door. The tiny
of her printed dress made her look as if she had a strange
disease. She spotted another can and kicked it out of the
of the car, thinking that one of these days some kid was going
fall and hurt himself. What she wanted to do she knew was kick
car out of the way. Both the station wagon and the Ford had
parked ill front of her house all week, waiting. Everybody was
sitting around waiting.
Suddenly she laughed aloud. Reverend Davis' car was big and
and shiny just like, but no, the smile disappeared from her
her mother didn't like for them to say things about other
color. She looked around to see who else came, and saw
Moore's old beat up blue car. Somebody had torn away half of
NAACP sign. Sometimes she really felt sorry for the man. No
how hard he glued on his stickers somebody always yanked
Ellie didn't recognize the third car but it had an Alabama license
She turned around and looked up and down the street, hating
go inside. There were no lights on their street, but in the distance
could see the bright lights of the parking lot. Slowly she did an
face and climbed the steps.
She wondered when her mama was going to remember to get
yellow bulb for the porch. Although the lights hadn't been turned
usually June bugs and mosquitoes swarmed all around the porch.
the time she was inside the house she always felt like they
crawling in her hair. She pulled on the screen and saw that
finally had made Hezekiah patch up the holes. The globs of
adhesive tape scattered over the screen door looked just like
She listened to her father's voice and could tell by the tone that
men were discussing something important again. She rattled the
once more but nobody came.
"Will somebody please let me in?" Her voice carried through
screen to the knot of men sitting in the corner.
"The door's open," her father yelled. "Come on in."
"The door is not open," she said evenly. "You know we
it open." She was feeling tired again and her voice had
an octave lower.
"Yeah, I forgot, I forgot," he mumbled walking to the door.
She watched her father almost stumble across a chair to let her in.
was shorter than the light bulb and the light seemed to beam
on him, emphasizing the wrinkles around his eyes. She could
from the way he pushed open tile screen that he hadn't had
sleep either. She'd overheard him telling Mama that the people
at the shop seemed to be piling on the work harder just
of this thing. And he couldn't do anything or say anything
his boss because they probably wanted to fire him.
"Where's Mama?" she whispered. He nodded toward the back.
"Good evening, everybody," she said looking at the three men
had not looked up since she entered the room. One of the men
stood, but his attention was geared back to something another
was saying. They were sitting on the sofa in their shirt sleeve's
there was a pitcher of ice water on the window sill.
"Your mother probably needs some help," her father said. She
past him trying to figure out who the white man was sitting
the end. His face looked familiar and she tried to remember
she had seen him before. The men were paying no attention
her. She bent to see what they were studying and saw a large
of white drawing paper. She could see blocks and lines and
man sitting in the middle was marking a trail with the eraser
of the pencil.
The quiet stillness of the room was making her head ache more.
pushed her way through the red embroidered curtains that led
"I'm home, Mama," she said, standing in front of the back door
the big yellow sun Hezekiah and Tommy had painted on the
above the iron stove. Immediately she felt a warmth permeating
skin. “Where is everybody?" she asked, sitting at the table where
mother was peeling potatoes.
“Mrs. McAllister is keeping Helen and Teenie," her
brother is staying over with Harry tonight." With each name
uttered, a slice of potato peeling tumbled to the newspaper on
table. "Tommy's in the bedroom reading that Uncle Wiggily
Ellie looked up at her mother but her eyes were straight ahead.
knew that Tommy only read the Uncle Wiggily book by him-
when he was unhappy. She got up and walked to the kitchen
"The other knives dirty?" she asked.
"No," her mother said, "look in the next drawer."
Ellie pulled open the drawer, flicking scraps of white paint with
fingernail. She reached for the knife and at the same time a pile
envelopes caught her eye.
"Any more come today?" she asked, pulling out the knife and
the envelopes under the dish towels.
"Yes, seven more came today," her mother accentuated each word
"Your father has them with him in the other room."
"Same thing?" she asked picking up a potato and wishing she
think of some way to change the subject.
The white people had been threatening them for the past three
Some of the letters were aimed at the family, but most of
were directed to Tommy himself. About once a week in the
handwriting somebody wrote that he'd better not cat lunch at
because they were going to poison him.
They had been getting those letters ever since the school board
Tommy's name public. She sliced the potato and dropped the
in the pan of cold water. Out of all those people he had been
only one the board had accepted for transfer to the elementary
The other children, the members said, didn't live in the dis-
As she cut the eyes out of another potato she thought about
first letter they held received and how her father just set fire to
in the ashtray. But then Mr. Bell said they'd better save the rest,
case anything happened, they might need the evidence for court.
She peeped up again at her mother, "Who's that white man in
"One of Lawyer Belk's friends," she answered. “He's pastor of
that's always on television Sunday morning. Mr. Belk seems
think that having him around will do some good." Ellie saw that
voice was shaking just like her hand as she reached for the last
Both of them could hear Tommy in the next room mum-
to himself. She was afraid to look at her mother.
Suddenly Ellie was aware that her mother's hands were trembling
"He's so little," she whispered and suddenly the knife
out of her hands and she was crying and breathing at the
Ellie didn't know what to do byt after a few seconds she cleared
away the peelings and put the knives in the sink. “Why don't you
down?” she suggested. "I'11 clean up and get Tommy in bed”
saying anything her mother rose and walked to her bed-
Ellie wiped off the table and draped the dishcloth over the sink.
stood back and looked at the rusting pipes powdered with a
film. One of these days they would have to paint the place.
tiptoed past her mother who looked as if she had fallen asleep
"Tommy," she called softly, "come on and get ready for
Tommy sitting in the middle of the floor did not answer. He was
the way she imagined he would be, crosslegged, pulling his
lobe as he turned the ragged pages of Uncle Wiggily at the Zoo.
"What you doing, Tommy?" she said, squatting on the floor be-
him. He smiled and pointed at tile picture of the ducks.
“School starts tomorrow," she said, turning a page with him.
"Don't you think it's time to go to bed?"
"Oh Ellie, do I have to go now?" She looked down at the serious
eyes and the closely cropped hair. For a minute she wondered
he questioned having to go to bed now or to school tomorrow.
“Well," she said, "aren't you about through with the book?”
his head. "Come on," she pulled him lip, "you're a sleepy
Still he shook his head.
"When Helen and Teenie coming home?”
"Tomorrow after you come home from school they'll be here."
She lifted him from the floor, thinking how small he looked to
facing all those people tomorrow.
"Look," he said, breaking away from her hand and pointing to a
shirt and pair of cotton twill pants, "Mama got them for me
While she ran water in the tub, she heard him crawl on top of
bed. He was quiet and she knew he was untying his sneakers.
"Put your shoes out," she caI1cd through the door. "and
will polish them."
"Is Daddy still in there with those men? Mama made me be
so I wouldn't bother them."
He paddled into the bathroom with bare feet and crawled into the
As she scrubbed him they played Ask Me A Question, their
version of Twenty Questions. She had just dried him and was
to have him step into his pajamas when he asked: "Are they
get me tomorrow?"
"Who's going to get you?" She looked into his eyes and began
him furiously with the towel.
"I dOn't know," he answered. "Somebody I guess."
"Nobody's going to get you," she said, "who wants a little
gets bubblegum in his hair anyway--but us?" He grinned but
she hugged him she thought how much he looked like his father.
walked to the bed to say his prayers and while they were kneel-
she heard tile first drops of rain. By the time she covered him
and tucked the spread off the floor the rain had changed to a
When Tommy had gone to bed her mother got up again and be-
ironing clothes in the kitchen. Something, she said, to keep her
busy. While her mother folded and sorted the clothes Ellie
up a chair from the kitchen table. They sat in the kitchen for
while listening to the voices of the men in the next room. Her
quiet speech broke the stillness in the room.
"I'd rather," she said, making sweeping motions with the iron,
you stayed home from work tomorrow and went with your
to take Tommy. I don't think I'll be up to those people."
Ellie nodded, "I don't mind," she said, tracing
circles on the oil-
“Your father’s going," her mother continued.
"Belk and Rever-
Davis are too. I think that white man in there will probably go."
"They may not need me," Ellie answered.
"Tommy will," her mother said, folding the last
dish towel and
it in the cabinet.
"Mama, I think he's scared," the girl turned
toward the woman.
was so quiet while I was washing him."
"I know," she answered, sitting down heavily.
"He's been that way
day." Her brown wavy hair glowed in the dim lighting of the
“I told him he wasn't going to school with Jakie and Bob
more but I said he was going to meet some other children just
Ellie saw that her mother was twisting her wedding band around
around on her finger.
"I've already told Mrs. Ingraham that I wouldn't be able to come
tomorrow." Ellie paused, "She didn't say very much. She didn't
say anything about his pictures in the newspaper. Mr. Ingraham
we were getting right crazy but even he didn't say anything
stopped to look at the clock sitting near the sink. "It's almost
for the cruise cars to begin," she said, Her mother followed
eyes to the sink. The policemen circling their block every
minutes was supposed to make them feel safe, but hearing
cars come so regularly and that light flashing through the shade
her bed only made her nervous.
stopped talking to push a wrinkle out of the shiny red cloth,
her finger along the table edges, .'How long before those
going to leave?" she asked her mother. Just as she spoke she
one of the men say something about getting some sleep. "I
mean to run them away," she said, smiling. Her mother half-
too. They listened for the sound of motors and tires and
for her father to shut the front door.
a few seconds her father's head pushed through the curtain.
me to turn down your bed now, Ellie?" She felt uncom-
staring up at him, the whole family looked drained of all
all right," she answered, "I'll sleep in Helen and Teenie's
Tommy?", he asked looking toward the bedroom. He
in and sat down at the table with them.
were silent before he spoke. "I keep wondering if we should
him." He lit a match and watched the flame disappear into
ashtray, then he looked into his wife's eyes. "There's no telling
these fool white folks will do."
mother reached over and patted his hand, "We're doing what
have to do, I guess," she said. "Sometimes though I wish the
weren't so much older than him."
it seems so unfair," Ellie broke in, "sending him there all
himself like that. Everybody keeps asking me why the MacAdams
apply for their children."
“Eloise" Her father's voice sounded curt. "We aren't
the MacAdams, we're trying to do what's right for your brother.
not old enough to have his own say so. You and the others
decide for yourselves, but we're the ones that have to do for
She didn't say anything but watched him pull a handful of en-
out of his pocket and tuck them in the cabil1ct drawer. She
that if anyone had told him in August that Tommy would be
only one going to Jefferson Davis they would not have let him
“Those the new ones?" she asked. "What they say?"
“Let's not talk about the letters," her father said. "Let's
go to bed."
Outside they heard the rain become heavier. Since early evening
had been accustomed to the sound. Now it blended in with
rest of the noises that had accumulated in the back of her mind
the whole thing began.
As her mother folded the ironing board they heard the quiet
of the police car. Ellie noticed that the clock said twelve-ten
she wondered why they were early. Her mother pulled the iron
from the switch and they stood silently waiting for the police
to turn around and pass the house again, as if the car's passing
a final blessing for the night.
Suddenly she was aware of a noise that sounded as if everything
broken loose in her head at once, a loudness that almost shook
foundation of the house. At the same time the lights went out
il1stinctivcly her father knocked them to the floor. They could
the tinklil1g of glass near the front of the house and Tommy
"Tommy, get down," her father yelled.
She hoped he would remember to roll under the bed the way
had practiced. She was aware of objects falling and breaking
she lay perfectly still. Her breath was coming in jerks and then
was a second noise, a smaller explosion but still drowning out
“Stay still," her father commanded. "I'm going to check on
They may throw another one."
She watched him crawl across the floor, pushing a broken flower
and an iron skillet out of his way. All of the sounds, Tommy's
the breaking glass, everything was echoing in her cars. She
as if they had been crouching on the floor for hours but when
heard the police car door slam, the luminous hands of tile clock
She heard other cars drive up and pairs of heavy feet trample on
porch. “You folks all right in there?"
She could visualize the hands pulling open the door, because she
the voice. Sergeant Kearns had been responsible for patrolling
house during the past three weeks. She heard him click the light
in the living room but the darkness remained intense.
Her father deposited Tommy in his wife's lap and went to what
left of the door. In the next fifteen minutes policemen were
While she rummaged around underneath the cabinet
a candle, her mother tried to hush up Tommy. His check was cut
he had scratched himself on the springs of the bed. Her
motioned for her to dampen a cloth and put some petroleum
on it to keep him quiet. She tried to put him to bed again but
would not go, even when she promised to stay with him for the
of the night. And so she sat in the kitchen rocking the little boy
and forth on her lap.
Ellie wandered around the kitchen but the light from the single
put an eerie glow on the walls making her nervous. She be-
picking up pans, stepping over pieces of broken crockery and
She did not want to go into the living room yet, but if
listened closely, snatches of the policemen's conversation came
She heard one man say that the bomb landed near the edge of the
that was why it had only gotten the front porch. She knew
their talk that the living room window was shattered com-
Suddenly Ellie sat down. The picture of the living room
kept flashing in her mind and a wave of feeling invaded her
making her shake as if she had lost all muscular control. She
on the couch, right under that window.
She looked at her mother to see if she too had realized, but her
was looking down at Tommy and trying to get him to close
eyes. Ellie stood up and crept toward the living room trying to
herself for what she would see. Even that minute of de-
would not make her control the horror that she felt.
were jagged holes all along the front of the house and the sofa
covered with glass and paint. She started to pick up the picture
had toppled from the book shelf, then she just stepped over the
Outside her father was talking and, curious to see who else was
him, she walked across the splinters to the yard. She could see
of the geranium pot and the red blossoms turned face down.
were no lights in the other houses on the street. Across from
house she could see forms standing in the door and shadows
pushed back and forth. “I guess the MacAdams are glad they
didn’t get involved." No one heard her speak, and no one came
to see if they could help; she knew why and did not really
them. They were afraid their house could be next.
Most of the policemen had gone now and only one car was left
flash the revolving red light in the rain. She heard the tall skinny
tell her father they would be parked outside for the rest of the
As she watched the reflection of the police cars returning to
station, feeling sick on her stomach, she wondered now why they
Ellie went back inside the house and closed the curtain behind
There was nothing anyone could do now, not even to the house.
was scattered all over the floor and poor Tommy still
not go to sleep. She wondered what would happen when the
spread through their section of town, and at once remembered
mall in the grey Chevrolet. It would serve them right if her
friends got one of them.
Ellie pulled up an overturned chair and sat down across from her
was crooning to Tommy. What Mr. Paul said was right,
people just couldn't be trusted. Her family had expected any-
but even though they had practiced ducking, they didn't really
anybody to try tearing down the house. But the funny thing
the house belonged to one of them. Maybe it was a good thing
family were just renters.
Exhausted, Ellie put her head down on the table. She didn't know
they were going to do about tomorrow, in the day time they
need electricity. She was too tired to think any more about
yet she could not go to sleep. So, she sat at the table try-
to sit still, but every few minutes she would involuntarily twitch.
tried to steady her hands, all the time listening to her mother's
voice and waiting for her father to come back inside the
She didn't know how long she lay hunched against the kitchen
but when she looked up, her wrists bore the imprints of her
She unfolded her arms gingerly, feeling the blood rush to her
Her father, sat in the chair opposite her, staring at the
space between them. She heard her mother creep away from
table, taking Tommy to his room.
Ellie looked out the window. The darkness was turning to grey
the hurt feeling was disappearing. As she sat there she could be-
to look at the kitchen matter-of-factly. Although the hands of
clock were just a little past five-thirty, she knew somebody was
to have to start clearing up and cook breakfast.
She stood and tipped across the kitchen to her parents' bedroom.
she whispered, standing near the door of Tommy's room.
the sound of her voice, Tommy made a funny throaty noise in
sleep. Her mother motioned for her to go out and be quiet. Ellie
then that Tommy had just fallen asleep. She crept back to the
and began picking up the dishes that could be salvaged, be-
careful not to go into the living room.
She walked around her father, leaving the broken glass underneath
kitchen table. "You want some coffee?" she asked.
He nodded silently, in strange contrast she thought to the water
that turned with a loud gurgling noise. While she let the wa-
run to get hot she measured out the instant coffee in one of the
cups. Next door she could hear people moving around in the
kitchen, but they too seemed much quieter than usual.
“You reckon everybody knows by now?" she asked,
and putting the saucer in front of him.
"Everybody will know by the time the city paper
comes out," he
"Somebody was here last night from the Observer.
make front page.”
She leaned against the cabinet for support watching him
circles in the brown liquid with the spoon, "Sergeant Kearns
they'1l have almost the whole force out there tomorrow," he
"Today," she whispered.
Her father looked at the clock and then turned his head.
"When's your mother coming back in here?" he
asked, finally pick-
up the cup and drinking the coffee.
"Tommy's just off to sleep," she answered.
"I guess she'll be in
when he's asleep for good."
She looked Out the window of the back door at the row of
that had separated their neighborhood from the white peo-
for as long as she remembered. While she stood there she heard
mother walk into the room. To her ears the steps seemed much
than usual. She heard her mother stop in front of her father's
"Jim." she said, sounding very timid, "what we going to
as Ellie turned toward her she noticed her mother's face was
calm as she looked down on her husband.
Ellie continued standing by the door, listening to them talk. No-
asked the question to which they all wanted an answer.
"I keep thinking," her father said finally, "that the
be with him all day. They couldn't hurt him inside the school
without getting some of their own kind."
"But he’ll be in there all by himself," her mother said
policeman can't be a little boy's only friends."
She watched her father wrap his calloused hands, still splotched
machine oil, around the salt shaker on the table.
"I keep trying," he said to her, "to tell myself that
to be the first one and then I just think how quiet he's been
Ellie listened to the quiet voices that seemed to be a room apart
her. In the back of her mind she could hear phrases of a
her grandmother used to sing, something about trouble, her
born for trouble.
"Jim, I cannot let my baby go." Her mother's
were carefully pronounced.
"Maybe," her father answered, "it's not in
our hands. Reverend
and I were talking day before yesterday how God tested the
maybe he's just trying us."
"God expects you to take care of your own," his
sensed a trace of bitterness in her mother's voice.
"Tommy's not going to understand why he can't go to
father replied. "He's going to wonder why, and how are we
to tell him we're afraid of them?" Her father's hand clutched
coffee cup. "He's going to be fighting them the rest of his life.
got to start sometime."
"But he’s not on their level. Tommy's too little
to go around
people. One of the others, they're bigger, they understand
Ellie still leaning against the door saw that the sun
the sky behind the hedges, and the light slipping through the
window seemed to reflect the shiny red of the table cloth.
"He's our child," she heard her mother say. "Whatever we
going to be the cause." Her father had pushed the cup away
him and sat with his hands covering part of his face. Outside
could hear a horn blowing.
"God knows we tried but I guess there's just no use." Her
forced her attention back to the two people sitting in front
her. "Maybe when things come back to normal, we’ll try again."
He covered his wife's chunky fingers with the palm of his hand
her mother seemed to be enveloped in silence. The three of
remained quiet, each involved in his own thoughts, but re-
Ellie knew, to the same thing. She was the first to break tile
"Mama," she called after a long pause, "do
you want me to start
the table for breakfast?"
Her mother nodded.
Ellie turned the clock so she could sec it from the sink
washed the dishes that had been scattered over the floor.
"You going to wake up Tommy or you want me to?"
"No," her mother said, still holding her
father's hand, “let him
When you wash your face, you go up the street and call
Tell him to keep up with the children after school,
want to do something to this house before they come home.”
She stopped talking and looked around the kitchen,
to her husband. "He's probably kicked the spread off by now,"
said. Ellie watched her father, who without saying anything
toward the bedroom.
She watched her mother lift herself from the chair and
push in the stuffing underneath the cracked plastic cover.
face looked set, as it always did when she was trying hard to
“He'll need something hot when he wakes up. Hand me the
she commanded, reaching on top of the icebox for
to light the kitchen stove.
Oliver, The Sewanee Review, Copyright @ 1966 by Uni-
of the South.
Crumpled Notes (found in
raincoat_ on Selma
to tell you
what I saw
the first attempt to march on montgomery.
there was that
taken off beds
and wrapped up
with belts, or
old ties, or string.
remember how we
had laughed and said,
will 'de lawd' get 10,000
sleep His multitude-
multiply them like loaves and fishes"
there they were
in the corner
by the altar-
mountain of rolled-up trust.
they were a
a mountain of
that we had not
and that He
would soon use.
in its unvalued
came from the
but in the
in the back
putting up that
50 mile radio
they won't mw
past the bridge."
(i should have
put it up-
it would have
been my bedroll)
He won't be
but we'll take
probably get gassed,
and that will
be the victory
bring them back to the church."
hear the old woman,
i guess we
won't get too far,
but I'm going
we've got to
(i wonder what
happened to that lady,
in the panic of
hooves, bull whips and gas?)
going" said the brown paper bags,
and sturdy old
medical committee meetings.
not that they
didn't want to--
but i couldn't
tell from the detached,
descriptions being professionally
whether they knew
what this war
How did that
quiet morning briefing...
expect tear gas,
you know the
match up to the
afternoon's screaming horror
of body after
body after body
(what does a
in this kind of
They never said
when He finally came
on the week
He never said
WHY he wasn't
the mayor and
sheriff and all,
just tell them
that ralph and martin are back.")
and they went
Picked up their
had laughed about
what 'de lawd'
if it rained)
and brown paper
sacks with toothbrushes.
and went to
their red sea...
only this time
there was no god
to part the sea
didn't show up.
I wonder would
it have been different
had he been
Would they have
Would they have
anointed by the Powers
a man is
allowed his weak moments
christs always seem to rise up
to take their
did that day.
one last thing remember.
i remember the
anger and rage
the children seen under hooves,
women standing, cowering under whips,
men breaking and running in humiliation.
screamed for a march
NOW, he said,
SHOW THEM WE'RE NOT AFRAID
LET'S ALL GO
MARCH ON THE COURTHOUSE.
And the first
to reach his side
and quiet him,
was not the
or the posse,
but a Man of
not the Way
we've got to be
leaders will tell us when to go."
he turned to
that Man of God
said, "I'm gonna get my gun"
into the crowd.
windows (pretty pictures)
they don't work
can't keep out
fertilize each spring
with stark fingers
the brilliant dawns.
through your north door
a lot of afraid.
dark side of the moon,
space heaters lit
desperately to prove
it's really earth.
that unexplainable rhythm
madmen's minds when
cracker starts murdering.
it's the fever
nothing to do after harvest...
it's revenge saved up
by the old wise ones.
they'll tell you it always starts
the end of harvest
continues on into the drizzle-damp
spaces called night.
shack blown to smithereens
hit and runs-
on till planting.
that they stop then....
slow down a little)
with your shot-gun cause
turned evidence against
cracker down the road,
your name is on a suit against
sheriff or a judge or a school board
dogs know you're nervous
bark a little more.
the sun going down each night
the end 0£ the relief it brought
that terror is reserved
the bear slows down to hibernate
won't let you go nowhere
don't start no how
to go if it could-
to the store
there's no money for the store.
don't go to school
if they had shoes
just sleep anyway
they're hungry and
school is warmer than home.
keep them home
around the wood stove in the bedroom.
kids at least
evidence of life.
More River to Cross
John L. Salter, Jr.
passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge"
the author of the Declaration of Independence
one of the most stupendous scenes in nature"
the midst of this stupendous scene
the second day of December 1859
sovereign state of Virginia
old Osawatomie Brown
confluence of rivers)
holding certain truths to be self-evident
had been first enunciated
the greatest Virginian of them all
bystander at the hanging
Thomas J Jackson
struck by the incongruity of Brown's
socks and slippers of predominating red"
sober black garb more appropriate to the occasion
frivolous touch that "predominating red"
could it have been a portent
J soon-to-be dubbed "Stonewall" Jackson?
the river and into the trees" you babbled
four years later
your blood ebbed away
shot by one of your own
it is still the second of December 1859
you glowing with the vigor of a man in his prime
watching while the body of Brown swings slowly
a cold wind off the mountains
exactly 37 minutes before it is cut down
less than half so many months
stupendous scene plus 24,000 contiguous square miles
no longer be Virginia
blue-uniformed sons will be ranged against you
the Army of the Potomac singing
Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave
his soul goes marching on"
you my friend
akin in spirit to the earlier John
have been seeing your picture in the papers
head anointed with mustard and ketchup
the lunch-counter sit-in
rubbing salt in the cuts where they slugged you
the police flailing you with clubs
sopping your shirt
pure downright peace on your face
a new kind of history
the people Harper's Weekly called
good-humored good-for-nothing half monkey race"
John Brown sought to lead them out of bondage
leading us toward that America
Jefferson foresaw and Abraham Lincoln
once again sprawls dying in his theatre box
must we always kill our best?)
dastard in the bushes spots the crossed hairs
the trigger and Medgar Evers pitches
on his face while the assassin scuttles
the night his beady rat's eyes seeking where to hide
incriminating weapon with the telescopic sight
heaves it into the tangled honeysuckle
vanishes into the magnolia darkness
Sees the Truth But Waits"
sickness is loosed now into the whole body politic
infection spreading from South to North and West
Rights" "Freedom of Choice" "Liberty of the
horse phrases with armed enemies within
the name of rights they would destroy all rights
freedom to death on the pretext of saving it
the cover of Jeffersonian verbiage
men move to destroy the Constitution
feign to uphold
their plots will miscarry
knows but that some unpainted shack in the Delta
house one destined to lead us the next great step of
the Osawatomie to the "Patowmac"
Alabama Tombigbee Big Black Tallahatchie and Pearl
down to the Mississippi levee in Plaquemines Parish
a long road
than a hundred years in traveling
now the Potomac again...
the bombing of a church in Binningham, Alabama, 1963)
dear, may I go downtown
of out to play,
march the streets of Birmingham
a Freedom March today?"
baby, no, you may not go,
the dogs are fierce and wild,
clubs and hoses, guns and jails
good for a little child."
mother, I won't be alone.
children will go with me,
march the streets of Birmingham
make our country free."
baby, no, you may not go,
I fear those guns will fire.
you may go to the church instead
sing in the children's choir."
has combed and brushed he night-dark hair,
bathed rose petal sweet,
drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
white shoes on her feet.
mother smiled to know her child
in the sacred place,
that smile was the last smile
come upon her face.
when she heard the explosion,
eyes grew wet and wild.
raced through the streets of Birmingham
for her child.
clawed through bits of glass and brick,
lifted out a shoe.
here's the shoe my baby wore,
baby, where are you?"
Sometimes a poet jolts his readers to attention by
taunting them, With his repeated first line and with a
careful structure of examples and details Abelardo
Delgado moves the reader along to the unforgettable
closing lines, which disturb with their tragedy and
truth. Abelardo, as he is usually known was born in
Mexico but came to live in Texas in 1943. Presently on
the faculty at the University of Utah, he has worked as
a community organizer and has written extensively.
america, see that chicano
a big knife
his steady hand
doesn't want to knife you
wants to sit on a bench
carve christ figures
you won't let him.
america, hear that chicano
curses on the street
is a poet
paper and pencil
since he cannot write
america, remember that chicanito
math and english
is the picasso
your western states
he will die
one thousand masterpieces
only from his mind.
Mississippi, at noon
the group of morning butterflies,
can sit down in the field.
mockingbirds will sing
air will blow on you
on the warm weeds.
can touch the bugs.
the field sun
can sit down with your friend
somebody can come shoot you both.
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