What’s goin’ on down there—Klan meetin’?” Nathan pointed toward the corner of Main Street and Pine, just where we were headed.
Henry grabbed my arm. “It ain’t really the Klan, is it, Caleb?”
Sure enough, the sidewalk ahead was jammed with folks—white folks. Even for a Saturday, it was a crowd. My stomach knotted.
“Course not,” I told Henry. “It’s just some white people, not the Klan.”
“Same difference, ain’t it?” Nathan asked.
“Time for us to get off the sidewalk,” I said. “Look who’s coming.”
"The Hill boys.” Nathan spat into the street.
“Only Lonnie and Orris,” Henry said.
“Oh, well, we safe then,” Nathan answered. “I reckon you can take two of ’em by yourself, big and brave as you is.”
“Quit it,” I told them. “We got to move now.”
Henry looked at the street and shook his head. “Not me! That mud a foot deep. I ain’t gonna wreck my shoes.”
Lonnie and Orris, two of the three Hill brothers, nasty white trash who lived way back in the country, were coming up on us fast. We’d had a couple of run-ins with them before, and I didn’t want to mess with them today.
“It’s not that deep,” I insisted. “Come on.” I stepped down, and right away sticky red mud came up over my shoe tops.
“It ain’t that deep,” Nathan mocked.
“Outta my way, boy!” Lonnie Hill said. He and Orris were right in front of us. Lonnie shoved Henry, who lost his balance, fell off the sidewalk, and landed in the mud. Nathan jumped down, and the mud came over his shoes, too.
“Ain’t they ever gonna learn?” Orris asked his brother.
“Not likely. Way too dumb,” Lonnie said. They strolled away, laughing.
“Goddamn crackers,” Nathan muttered. “Who they think they is?”
“White boys,” I told him.
Henry pushed himself up from the mud. “I’m goin’ home,” he said. “Mama gonna get on to me about messin’ up these new overalls.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” I said.
“She didn’t want me to come with y’all in the first place. Mama say you two always gettin’ me in trouble.”
“Stay home, then,” Nathan told him. “We tired of draggin’ you with us anyway. You ain’t nothin’ but a baby.”
“And you ain’t nothin’ but a son of a bitch!”
Nathan pretended to be shocked. “Oooh! That any way for you to talk? And you gettin’ baptized tomorrow.”
“You, too. And how about the way you act? That way worse than the way I talk. ’Sides, it was you and Caleb taught me to cuss.”
“You was a good student, though. Took to cussin’ like a bull takes to a cow.”
“Both y’all, quit,” I told them. “Let’s get to the post office and then go home.”
“I ain’t goin’ to no post office,” Henry declared. “Not with all this mess on me. I’m goin’ home right now.”
“It’s on the way,” I reminded him. “Just wipe it off. This bag is getting heavy, and I’m sick of toting it all over town.”
“What’sa matter? Don’t you like bein’ your folks’ errand boy?” Nathan asked.
“No, I don’t. I’m sick of doing all Randall’s chores and mine, too.”
“You oughta remind your mama and daddy that slavery days is over,” Nathan said. “Tell ’em you a free man.”
“Oh, sure. And have Pop get all over me? No, thanks.”
If we goin’ to the post office, come on,” Henry said.
“Let’s stay in the street, though,” I said. “We can’t get any muddier, and look at that crowd now.” There were even more white folks standing on the sidewalk up ahead.
As we walked toward the corner, picking our way around pools of rusty red water, I realized what was going on. Davisville’s new restaurant, the Dixie Belle Café, was opening today, and folks were waiting to go inside for dinner. By the door stood a girl wearing a fancy old-fashioned dress with a frilly full skirt. She held a little white umbrella in one hand and carried a basket on her other arm. People were reaching into it for slips of paper.
“She some pretty,” Henry declared.
“She white,” Nathan told him. “Don’t you even look at her.”
Nathan swatted the bill of Henry’s cap. “Ain’t your daddy taught you nothin’? Black man look at a white woman the wrong way—pow! He gone.”
“I know that! All I said was, she pretty.”
“Yeah, she pretty, all right. Regular Scarlett O’Hara.”
Nathan often said Henry either was stupid as a guinea hen or had kept his head in the clouds so long, he didn’t know a thing about the real world. Nathan was right.
“Just keep going,” I told them. “And don’t stare.”
But Henry stopped in his muddy tracks. “Oh, Lord. That fried chicken sure do smell good.”
“I swear,” Nathan said. “You wanna live up to every one of them crackers’ notions about us colored folks? ‘Oh, Mammy, I jes’ got to have me some mo’ of dem collard greens and fried chicken. And don’t forget de yams and de co’nbread!’ ”
I kept quiet. Nathan was funny, but if I laughed, it would only egg him on.
He kept it up anyway. “Lemme pull out my harmonica so Henry can do a little dance— entertain de white folks. Maybe somebody throw us a penny.”
“Shut up!” Henry cried. “You got a big mouth.”
A couple of white men glanced in our direction. We were talking too loud.
I glared at Nathan. “When are you gonna leave him alone?”
He shrugged. “When it ain’t fun to mess with him no more?”
Just then, a man in the crowd said, “Well, if this ain’t my day!” He held up his slip of paper and announced, “ ‘Good for free fried chicken dinners for a family of four.’ ”
“Lucky dog,” a man next to him said. “All I won was a free piece o’ pie.”
People laughed, and then someone opened the doors to the Dixie Belle from inside and the crowd moved forward.
We went around the corner and faced a mud hole as big as a pond stretching all the way across Pine Street.
“No way,” Nathan declared. “Step in that and so long, brother!”
The sidewalk was empty on this side of the building, so I climbed back up and the others followed. We tried scraping the mud off our shoes, like that would help now. Mine were slimy with it, and I could feel water sloshing every time I took a step.
We passed the café, and Nathan and I were halfway up the block before I realized Henry wasn’t with us. I hurried back to get him.
“What is it now?”
“Look in there.”
On the other side of the café window stood tables covered in green and white checked cloths, with shiny chrome chairs around them. Directly by...