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Rendezvous on Lot 39 - Part 1: The Negroes Are Coming [Fiction]
At the end of World War II, alarming news spreads through a neighborhood in the Deep South. What, if anything, can the residents do about it?
The Negroes are Coming
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Viktor opened his eyes to find two grim-faced young men staring down at him. They wore gray military-style shirts with EMS embroidered on their arm patches. He was on a gurney. But he felt as if he’d been lowered into a tub of scalding water. Squinting under the fluorescent light, he saw the advancing form of a police officer.
“You have the right to remain silent,” she said.
Two gold badges—one on her blouse, the other above the shiny black visor on her cap—blazed in the reflected light. She was short with chin-length auburn hair. Intermittent static from the black radio on her left shoulder rushed at him like roaring surf.
“Are you going to cuff me?” he asked. Even to his own ears, the words sounded muffled, sarcastic.
“Not at the moment, sir. But you are under arrest.”
“I’m not exactly a flight risk,” he said.
She recited the rest of his Miranda rights.
When she finished, an orderly in a white coat wheeled him into the ward where the cries and moans of other patients told him what to expect next. Before losing consciousness, he had a vision of his father, who had been dead now for more than 10 years. Viktor had seen people on TV who said this kind of thing happens as you cross the threshold between here and the hereafter. But even in his present state, he wasn’t sure his time had come, though he found himself wishing for it.
The old man looked just as he did when Viktor was a boy. The crew cut and thin mustache. The square chest of a weight-lifter, his pale skin and thick laborer’s hands, the nails embedded with the black soot of steel-making.
The presence of his father brought no comfort. It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this, he thought as if to explain himself to the spectral image. But the old man said nothing.
Viktor’s family had landed in Atlanta after a long journey across the turbulent Atlantic. It was just after the big war. Not “the war to end all wars,” but the one that came after that. Viktor remembered being shuttled from place to place aboard smelly crowded trains, noisy busses, and finally the packed windowless cabin of a massive steel-hulled ship.
He had a vague impression of old women with garlic breath hugging him against their breasts, jowly men with white beards mussing his hair. Scratchy blankets. Snow.
Less vague was the memory of his mother shivering in the rain under a single overhead lamp as they waited for safe passage by train, her stockings torn, her shoes wet. He’d wanted to protect her even then.
These images were all he had left from that long-ago childhood journey. Eventually, most of them faded, giving way to the time when his true life began.
That, at least, was how Viktor thought of the day his parents made the down payment on a three-bedroom bungalow in a quiet subdivision called Indian Trail, a nod to the indigenous people who had originally inhabited the region.
In order to buy it, his father held down three jobs, and his mother had ironed clothes in a laundry. When at last they had enough for the house, they took hold of Viktor’s hands and danced in a circle. One of the first things his mother did on the day they moved in was hang the small icon she’d carried with her across the Atlantic—a gold-leaf image of the Virgin Mother and Child.
After they moved to the new house on Cherokee Lane, his father continued to work every day, and for a while Viktor had his mother all to himself. He planted flowers with her in the fenced backyard, dangled his bare feet next to hers in the fishless koi pond off the back porch. Trailed alongside her as she plucked blackberries from the fence on the sunny side of the house, occasionally popping a ripe one into his mouth, the dark juice staining his fingers.
Sometimes he sat with her on their red double-backed glider, his face resting on her bosom as she read old stories from a gilt-edged book that had belonged to his grandmother. The glider was shaded by a broad-leafed maple that grew on a large grassy lot, which was also part of the family’s property.
This additional yard had been sold to his parents along with the house and was officially known as Lot 39. Each year, his father paid two property taxes. One for the house, the other for the parcel adjacent to it. The family usually referred to their extra property as The Lot.
“Let’s go play on The Lot,” his mother would say.
Outside, she would make up some game, which would end the way it always did. Viktor would win, and his mother would lose, throwing back her head in a big laugh as her golden hair lustered under the warm Georgia sun. Her blue eyes shining, her white teeth flashing between full red lips. Then they would sit in the red glider under the broad-leafed maple, where she would read him a story from the old gilt-edged book.
No other house on Cherokee Lane had such a lot. His parents were proud of their property. Realtors offered to buy it several times so they could build on it, but Viktor’s parents turned down every offer. They were keeping the lot for their son, they said. One day it would belong to him. Maybe he would build a house of his own next to theirs someday.
But by the time Viktor was seven, he had a brother and a sister. His mother no longer had time to play on The Lot. Or to sit with him on the red glider beneath the shady green maple. She gardened less. Washed more. Hung white diapers on the clothesline next to her satiny white underthings and sheer stockings, which swayed back and forth as if dancing to music only the fishless koi pond could understand. Each season, the berries came and went, and only rarely did his mother get around to baking a pie before the birds and squirrels devoured everything.
Viktor was still very small when a short big-bellied man appeared on the front porch late one afternoon and asked to speak with his father. He wore a tan lightweight suit, a striped bow-tie, and a Panama hat. His jacket was unbuttoned, and his stomach stuck out over his belt like a watermelon. He carried a briefcase and was accompanied by several other men from the neighborhood wearing fedoras and short-sleeved shirts. Viktor often saw them mowing their lawns or climbing ladders to clean the gutters along the roofs.
“I don’t think this has anything to do with me,” Viktor’s father said, his Slavic accent setting him apart despite his efforts to fit in.
“This is important,” said the fat man. “And it concerns all of us. You need to hear us out.”
“Alright, but I don’t want to have this discussion around my wife and children. Let’s talk about it on The Lot.”
The last of the day’s sun drifted through the wide-fingered leaves of the old maple as the men huddled around the red glider as if it were a podium. Not one of them sat on it. Viktor followed them outside and watched from the blackberry vines.
“The Nigras are coming,” he heard the fat man say. Viktor had never heard of Nigras before.
“Who? What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about the darkies that just bought the Stephens place about two blocks from here. Nigras. Coons.”
“But if they can afford to pay,” Viktor’s father said, “why shouldn’t they buy any house they want?”
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“Now come on, Stefan. You been around here long enough to know what’s going on. If these people start moving into the neighborhood, everything we’ve all worked for will go straight to hell.”
“But what does this have to do with me?”
“Well, that’s what we want to talk to you about, Stefan. Now that the war is over, a lot of colored folk have forgotten their place. They feel like they can do whatever they want and live wherever they want. But I have a plan that may help you boys out.”
“What kind of plan?”.
“If you boys stick together, I believe I can get top dollar for your homes AND find you something even better for a very good price. But you’ve got to stick together and don’t all go selling at dirt-cheap prices. The Nigras are coming. We’ll likely see more of them now that they’ve started with the Stephens house. But we don’t have to be victimized by it.”
“We?” This came from Mr. Farley, a high school football coach who lived across the street. “We homeowners are the victims here, Grant. You real-estate folks stand to make quite a bit of money if all these homes hit the market.”
“Now don’t you start accusing me, Bob. It ain’t like that at all. I’m out here trying to help you boys. If you decide to sell, you don’t have to deal with me. You can deal with any realtor you like. But I’m telling you I’ve seen this happen before. I’m just trying to help y’all out like any decent white man would do.”
Viktor listened to all this from behind the blackberry bush, which still had a few treats the birds and squirrels had left behind. He pushed one into his mouth and let it dissolve like candy. The unripe fruit was slightly tart but not disagreeable. He picked another and another as he sat there watching the men, trying to puzzle out what they were saying to his father.
But the only thing he could think of was the story of Paul Revere, which his mother read to him from one of her books when she was studying to become an American. To arms, to arms. The Nigras are coming! The Nigras are coming! Was that the way it went? Viktor was not sure.
Finally, a man with a black handlebar mustache stepped forward. Viktor had seen him somewhere before but couldn’t quite place him. He wore a white T-shirt over his muscular chest, dungarees, and a pair of heavy black boots. Even when speaking quietly, his voice had authority. Finally, Viktor realized this was Officer Don, who looked different without his policeman’s uniform but no less powerful.
“I don’t know about the rest of you boys, but I’m not moving.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Fellas, my family has lived in this state since before that bastard Sherman burned his way to Savannah. And I can tell you right now there ain’t but one way to handle this situation. A few of us need to go on up to the Stephens place and have a little talk with the Nigras. I believe we can get them to listen to reason.”
On the following night, the neighborhood men held another meeting on The Lot. Viktor followed them outside just as he’d done before.
“Well, me and Coach Bob went on up there and offered the Nigras a fair price for their house. Bob showed them on paper that they would actually receive more money than they paid for the house in the first place.”
The realtor had on the same tan suit, but his shirt collar was open. He took off his Panama, patted his neck and forehead with a white handkerchief.
“I promised to find them a house even better than the Stephens place in a different neighborhood around their own kind where they were sure to be more comfortable. We were generous and nice. But they treated us very rudely.”
“Told us to get out and never come back.” Then the husband practically pushed me onto the porch and slammed the door.”
Officer Don stepped forward now as he’d done the previous night. “Well, we tried Plan A,” he said. “Now we have no choice but to use Plan B.”
“What is Plan B?” Viktor heard his father say, his old-country accent thickening his words.
Officer Don, who usually smiled and seemed quite friendly at street crossings now had a face of stone. His mouth became a thin taut line. He reached into a small duffle he carried over his shoulder and pulled out a piece of white fabric that looked like a pillow case with two holes in the front. He stuck his fingers through the holes and held one up to his face.
“Like I told you boys last night. My family has lived around here for generations. We know how to handle Nigras that don’t know their place. Tonight we need to pay ‘em a visit so they will understand the situation they’re in. Now listen boys, this is serious. We’ve got to do this together and keep it just between ourselves.”
Officer Don handed pillow cases to Coach Farley and another to the realtor. Then he reached into his bag and distributed its contents to the other men. But when he held out the hood to Viktor’s father, the steelworker did not accept it.
“I think I know what these things are for,” he said. “Is not right for me to do this thing.”
Officer Don looked at him without a trace of his usual smile. He shook his head slowly.
“You know, Stefan, a lot of folks down here don’t like foreigners. But I believe we have always accepted you. Never asked for a thing. Now maybe you don’t realize this, coming from overseas and all, but in order to get along in America, sometimes you have to make up your mind whose side you’re on. This is one of those times. Because the shit is about to hit the fan. And you are either with us or against us. Trust me, Stefan, you don’t want to be against us. It wouldn’t be good for you, and it wouldn’t be good for your family. If y’all plan to stay around here, you have to make an effort to fit in. Now are you going to take this damn thing out of my hand or what?”
Viktor’s father stared at the hood, then looked at the policeman. But said nothing.
“Well, Stefan. Make up your mind. What’s it gonna be?”
End of Part One—See the link for Part Two below.
@2022 Andrew ‘Jazprose’ Hill
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