~ Bamberg, South Carolina, 1914 ~
There isn’t an easy way to tell him.
It doesn’t matter how many times Ambrose takes off his straw hat to scratch his tangled, red hair. He must find a way to tell the boy. He figures it better happen now rather than later. It’s not even his choice to tell him.
He must do it, or else he won’t come back.
A sharp grit grinds his gut. Ambrose remembers the feeling – like the time he told his five-year-old daughter why he had to shoot their old, basset hound. The animal was limping away from the farm trying to find a place to die. Ambrose introduced pain and death into her vocabulary.
No true, God fearing man wants to be the hammer chipping away a child’s innocence. He thinks innocence is only a vulnerable, but tough-looking brick that must be smashed to create an adult.
Ambrose takes a stained handkerchief out of his overalls’ pocket. He dabs it on his forehead as he watches the early sunset touch his fields of soybean plants, cotton, wheat and corn. He has employed men – black and white – in his grist mill and on his farm. He pays the most in Bamberg County and uses modern farm equipment.
Yet, for him, the most valuable thing on his soil is the footprints of two little boys. Their little hands dig in the mud, especially if it’s after a recent rain. Several times when the boys play, Ambrose stops his combine in the wheat field. He watches his nephew run through the cornhusks trying to find his friend.
“Let the boys have a little more time,” says Ambrose’s wife, Addy, as she walks onto the porch and caresses his shoulders.
“JD’s got to come in for his bath,” Ambrose replies. “I think I see Pastor Eth driving up in his wagon now.”
Ambrose watches Pastor Eth Benedict pull the reins. His black horse stops, and the pastor pulls the break. He climbs out of the wagon like a little child. The footstep is a long way down for his short legs.
The black man walks to the bottom of Ambrose’s porch steps.
Pastor Eth never comes up the steps. Ambrose doesn’t mind if he chooses to, but he doesn’t invite him, either.
No one says anything.
“Did you have a safe ride over here?” Addy asks.
“Why yes, Mrs. Addy. It is such a beautiful day that I had to slow down to look at God’s country.”
Ambrose recalls the first time he met Eth. One of the workers brought the pastor to meet him. A then graduate of Tuskegee University stood there in his navy blue suit jacket and bow tie. He came back to run his father’s church in the small, black town of Benediction – about fifteen miles south of Bamberg. Ambrose learned a part of Eth’s ministry was dedicated to help black men become better educated and find good jobs.
Over the last ten years, Ambrose did what he could to secure jobs for some of Eth’s men.
Recently, JD and Eth’s son, Smokey, have made business personal. Too personal for JD’s father’s comfort.
“Where are the boys?” Eth asks.
“I imagine they’ll be running back here in a few minutes,”
Ambrose says. “I told JD they had a few more minutes to play. Aurelia Jean went with them.”
The sound of weeping, heavy breathing and running catch Ambrose’s ear. He puts his hat down on the porch railing. Right into his arms, Aurelia Jean wraps her arms around him.
“Daddy, daddy, those boys are so mean.”
He looks into her puffy, brown eyes. She sticks out her lower lip. Her face is red and full of freckles. Two auburn braids hang over her dirt covered overalls.
“Where are the boys?”
“I don’t know Daddy,” Aurelia Jean says looking over her shoulder. “They were chasing and throwing dirt balls at me.”
“Why were they doing that?” Addy asks.
“JD said I couldn’t play with them, ‘cause I’m a girl. Then he told Smokey girls are scared of dirt, and they started grabbing mud and throwing it at me.”
“Come here darling,” says Addy picking up her five-year-daughter. “That’s how boys are.”
Ambrose looks at Addy and their daughter. Deep in his gut, he feels a flame of guilt.
When they married in January 1906, he told Addy with a big smile that they’d have several sons and daughters working side-by-side on the farm. Three times he lowered a small wooden coffin into the ground. The first two were boys and the third was a girl.
Since then, Addy and Ambrose had one healthy child.
Addy carries Aurelia Jean into the Wilkins’ house. She stops to gaze at Ambrose. He nods his head, and his heart still skips a beat just like the first time he’d laid eyes on her.
He needs to tell JD for her sake. He can’t stand the thought of her sick again and then knowing she’ll never see her beloved nephew, because Ambrose couldn’t follow Andrew Bannister’s wishes.
“You thought about what you’re going to say,” Pastor Eth says.
“You know me,” says Ambrose walking down the stairs. “I’m trying to think of a way to explain things in the fewest words possible.”
“I don’t like this at all,” say Pastor Eth.
“I know, but I ain’t changing my mind.”
“These boys have become good friends. When I look at them, I see hope. I see the way the world should be.”
“JD’s father thinks the world should be the way it is now.”
“Why are you letting a rich fool like him tell you what to do?”
Pastor Eth asks.
“I told you last week why.”
“Uncle Amb,” shouts JD running to the porch with Smokey.
“What have you done to your face and hands?” Ambrose asks.
Mud looks as if it is painted on to JD’s skin. His black eyes sparkle while he laughs non-stop with Smokey. They glance at each other and another wave of laughter comes over both the boys. They fall to the ground grabbing their bellies.
“Get up now,” says Pastor Eth pulling his son up by his elbow. “Ethan Smoke Benedict, III, what do you got to say for yourself?”
Smokey covers his mouth and continues to laugh. His dark red curls appear flattened by sweat.
Ambrose remembers Eth’s wife was thirty-four when she gave birth to Smokey.
“I want to be brown like Smokey,” says JD as he jumps off the ground.
“So I said, ‘Let’s dig up some mud and paint your face,’” Smokey says.
“Is that when you boys threw mud at Aurelia Jean?”
“Yes sir,” JD says. “We was busy painting my face, and we didn’t want her around.”
“We’ll talk about that later. Now say goodbye to Smokey,” Ambrose says.
He watches JD and Smokey exchange some secret handshake. Pastor Eth glances at Ambrose. It is the kind of look that would’ve made Ambrose break eye contact and stare at the ground as a little boy.
Pastor Eth wraps one arm around Smokey and helps him onto the wagon. Smokey grabs his father’s hand as he climbs into the driver’s seat. The two set off down a dirt road leaving the Wilkins’ land.
“Come up here, JD. Sit on this swing here for a few minutes with me.”
The little boy runs up the stairs and sits by his uncle. He moves his bottom around a few times before he is still.
“What is it Uncle Amb?”
“You won’t play with Smokey anymore.”
“We didn’t do anything that bad to Aurelia Jean … why, one time I pushed her into –”
“This has nothing to do with Aurelia Jean.”
The smile on JD’s face sinks slowly like a ship anchor. All the fairytale – sparkle dust, or whatever it is that makes children’s faces shine – disappears from JD.
“You can’t play or talk to Smokey on this farm anymore.”
“That ain’t fair. We ain’t done nothing too bad,” says JD as tears glide down his cheeks. “That’s not fair.”
“You haven’t done anything wrong.” Ambrose puts his arm over the top of the swing. He leans in close to JD. “I want you to think hard. When you visit shops in Bamberg, do you see black children with whites? Are there black children at your school?”
“No,” says JD wiping his face with his sleeve. “It still ain’t fair. Smokey’s my friend.”
“I know it’s not fair, but –”
“Then why can’t I play with him?”
Ambrose’s memory relapses to the unpleasant occurrence of the prior week. Andrew Bannister’s driver pulled a shiny Model T in front of his house. Usually, Addy and Ambrose hug JD and send him on his way in the car with a black driver and black nanny. This time, Andrew stepped out of the passenger side cane first. He approached the porch like he was entering his own house.
Inside, Ambrose wanted to punch him, really punch him. He yearned to see him get kicked to ground and beg for help.
“Surprise to see you here,” Ambrose said.
“What’s this I hear about my son playing with a colored boy?”
“My, my, you get straight to the point, every time.”
Bannister looked over his shoulder. Smokey and JD were running to the house. When he saw his father, JD hid behind Smokey’s back. Ambrose thought if Bannister’s head was a volcano – which he read about in a national, science newspaper – it would’ve exploded enough lava to destroy a civilization. He watched Bannister tense and burst past his car to the opening of a cornfield. He snatched JD by the arm.
Ambrose thought Bannister walked past Smokey as if he was a row of corn.
“Fix this, Ambrose,” said Bannister marching up the stairs. He lowers his voice, “Fix it or I’ll see to it JD never visits your sorry family again!”
“Did you hear me?” asks JD as Ambrose returns to the porch, sunset and the subject of two boys who can’t play together.
“Yes, I did.”
Ambrose observes JD cross his arms and poke out his lower lip.
“Because that’s just the way things are,” Ambrose says.
JD’s tears and Ambrose’s handkerchief take the mud off his face. Ambrose observes his eyes still begging for an answer; a logical answer that makes sense to a child. JD leans against his uncle’s chest.
They rock and watch the last sunlight disappear until there isn’t anything but black.
Author: R.T. Dickinson
I currently work as a co-writer and editor for a client’s memoir, freelance lesson plans for the South Carolina Bar Association, and perform other short-term writing jobs.
My professional writing was recently published in the Montcross Area Chamber of Commerce by Bizwell Corporation in North Carolina. I've worked as a staff writer for several newspapers in North Carolina, including: the Kings Mountain Herald, the Belmont Banner, The Selma News, and The Observer News Enterprise. I've freelanced for The Cayce-West Columbia News and The Fort Mill Times in South Carolina. In May 2008, I graduated from the University of South Carolina in Columbia with a bachelors in History and a minor in English.
My first and foremost project is my book, Sons of the Edisto. The Way Things Are is a short story created from my back stories or history of a main character within the manuscript. I also write contemporary fiction and some poetry.
My website is: https://sites.google.com/site/rtdickinsoncom/
My website is: https://sites.google.com/site/rtdickinsoncom/