This morning I learned of the death of a man I haven’t seen since I went off to college some forty years ago. Just reading his name in the local newspaper that his wife sent to me triggered a flood of memories, because we grew up in the same town, and were best friends.
From the minute we met there was a magical chemistry between us. The sort that instantaneously connects two boys in a way you can understand best if you spent your boyhood in a small town.
I must have been nine years old when I met Beauregard Hodges. I said he was my best friend⎯in some ways he was better than a brother to me. Perhaps he became the brother I never had. Yet although we kept in touch, after I left for college we never saw each other again.
When I opened the heavy package from Bo’s wife and unfolded the newspaper, a packet of letters fell out. All the letters I had written to Bo over thirty years’ time. He had saved them, just as I have saved his letters to me. Tied up in string in the back of a desk drawer, they are the only remaining evidence of our friendship. Now I know that I must take them out and read them.
But there was something else in that package. Something long forgotten and completely unexpected⎯a bronze oarlock, buffed and polished like no oarlock has ever been. His wife Esther said in her note that Bo kept it on his desk and used it as a paperweight. He told her that if and when he passed he wanted me to have it. I know exactly where he got it, and why he polished it and kept it where he could look at it all those years.
As I am sure it did for Bo, seeing the oarlock rouses bright, un-faded memories of my early years in Greneville. When I look at it, I find myself re-living boyhood adventures; trials and lessons, naive experiments with sex, countless narrow escapes and the learning that comes with them⎯some, harrowing failures⎯a few, victorious.
But more than anything else, that old bronze oarlock is a reminder of my last summer ever in Greneville⎯a summer when two innocent men lost their lives. One whose luck ran out, and another who, never knowing why, died in my stead.
It obviously wasn’t one of my ‘victorious’ episodes, but it gave me a first glimmering of what we in the legal profession call ‘compromise’, a nice euphemism for twisting failure and loss into something you can live with. Because that’s what happened that summer, when two boys, neither of us yet 20 years old, decided to challenge the most powerful man in Greneville.
How naive we were! Planning it all out, figuring it backwards and forwards, as we used to say. It carried us finally, out onto a swift, dangerous river at night, in a leaky eighteen-foot lapstrake row boat; Beauregard Hodges and I, on that big river, in that old boat, trying to convince ourselves that making that crossing might save two lives - one of them my own.
Bo’s bronze oarlock sits on my own desk now holding papers down, a generic and utilitarian boat fitting serving a purpose it was never designed for. It glints at me in the lamplight, lustrous and solid. Sometimes late at night, I swivel back and forth in my old chair staring at it, remembering that river...that night....
Far ahead in the failing light, some good distance upriver, I can make out a solitary buoy. It would be Black ‘21’, marking the western flank of the ship channel. Below me, the high, plumb bow of the skiff cleaves the still water and with each stroke I hear a faint gurgling chuckle that dissolves into a quiet sigh as the long narrow skiff settles back, awaiting yet another sweep of the oars to move us forward across the darkening water. The river’s broad serpentine dorsum is silvery, and shimmering as though the deep channel has somehow absorbed the waning light of day and now reflects it back into the limpid evening to hold night at bay. Alone with my thoughts, I stand tugging at the worn bow line, knee braced on the gunwale against the rhythmic surging of the boat.
Behind me, absorbed in his own musings but still as ever and always, testing his will and strength against all challenges real or devised, Bo Hodges draws the long oars through the water with determination, nosing the boat toward a dark and formless destination.
Stealth being a major prerequisite to our success, it was my idea from the beginning that we should row across, and do it at night. Bo was unconvinced and cast his vote for saner modes, like the old ferryboat. When I shook my head, he said,
“And how about the risk of it, Max? You know I don’t much like crossing that river to begin with, and we’d be out there at night with no lights, floating around in that ship channel with nothing but a pair of oars."
“Well, there is that, Bo. But what if we do go across on the ferry, even supposing we could spare the eight bucks? Is there any use of even going over if we’re going to let the whole town in on it? How’s that going to help old man Ross? And how do you think we’d tote that gun and the rest of the stuff? In my school briefcase, maybe?”
“Well, how about hiring a boat, then? You know, Smitty or one of them guys. Most of them know how to keep their mouths shut.”
“Shit and double shit, Bo! There’s only one way. Row over, and if we’re not killed or something, row ourselves back. And you damn well know it.”
“I guess. But all those hours out there just gives us too much time to think about it and maybe change our minds, that’s all.”
After that, no more words passed between us on the matter for we both understood what we were letting ourselves in for. The sparring was just a way of testing our sagging confidence.
After some hours of steady pulling, a dark mass began to separate itself from the watery horizon. Water and sky had been previously so near in color and texture that their junction was indistinguishable to my searching eye. Now, seeing the faint outline of trees, I felt relieved, for the land astern had long since disappeared from view in the same dark blending.
In further confirmation, miles upstream from our intended landfall a faint navigational beacon came into view as I searched the umbral gloom that was now ascending the easterly sky to engulf our little vessel in the anonymity of night as the last shards of sunlight were fast disappearing in the west. We seemed to be alone on the wide stream and I felt the better for it.
But to realize our own destination some good distance below the light we must now pull hard directly for that flickering pinpoint, adjusting our course to make up for the set of the current that wanted to sweep us downriver, where miles away, river broadening into estuary, then into bay, the gray Atlantic would admix and salinate the water before sending it up again on the next flood tide.
We both knew from experience that despite our young and determined backs, a pair of oars was barely a match for the three-knot current, so we had set out from town some time before slack high tide that evening. Even so, the ebb tide was now starting to take us.
I made a sound not quite speech, and Bo turned momentarily to see where I pointed, then resumed his steady rhythm, altering course toward the light, more by experience than navigational principles, for although never by night, we had made this trip before. In a small boat the channel currents feel the same day or night, and there is an instinct about it more useful than navigational geometry or textbook theories.
Feeling the boat subtly shift direction as Bo made his course adjustment, I allowed myself a deep breath, and studying the dark horizon again for whatever I might still be able to perceive, I continued my watch. There was no sign of moonlight and no stars were yet visible. It seemed in fact, that except for that faint, intermittent flasher on the head of the island, the measured cadence of the oars in the oarlocks, and their watery plash, all other lights and sounds had been swallowed up in the looming darkness. Even the piping calls of chimney swallows, lifting and falling along the evening shore, were far behind us now. Only the breathless moment of a summer evening passing into night remained.
Because I needed to believe it, I told myself for perhaps the fifteenth time that we were doing the right thing. I noticed that I was pulling the bow painter taut against the regular surging of the boat as if to quiet a horse by keeping a tight rein. As though someone could see and take me for a lubber I dropped it, and held my wrist close by my eye to study the luminous hands of my wristwatch inside the curl of my fingers. Nearly nine o’clock. It was time to row.
Scrutinizing his face as we traded places, I wondered if Bo was feeling any of the same apprehensions that were nibbling at the edge of my own courage. But his eyes were downcast and he gave no sign as we passed each other in the mid-section of the narrow rowboat, he stepping forward, I aft, to take his seat.
The thwart beneath me and the grips of the oars were still warm from Bo’s touch, and as I began my own rhythm, the measured, woody, cluck…cluck…de-cluck of the oars in the oarlocks, their movement through the water, its thick, oily resistance—each lent reassurance. As Bo had done for his hour I too put my back into it, determined to do my half and more, glad for wood and brass and muscle to bolster my sagging confidence and distract my imaginings.
But naturally enough, minute by minute, stroke by stroke, rowing steadily—which required little attention after all⎯my thoughts drifted to the little locker beneath my seat where a small cache of weapons lay wrapped in flannel against dampness, and yes, discovery. And accompanying that image, invited or uninvited, recent events crept into my mind. I began to wonder what we could possibly have had in mind, arming ourselves so. If my intentions were to take a stand beside Pappy Ross to confront the source of our common threat man to man, why did we need a veritable arsenal of small weapons? Were those two sheathed blades, sharpened to a razor's-edge in my own kitchen, and the rust-spotted revolver, tested by neither of us, and the compact, greasy box of cartridges with its little brass corners and portentous weight⎯were they alone providing the courage that seemed now to be draining from me like granules of sand through the neck of an hourglass?
I told myself none of this had to happen. I wanted to believe that I might just have kept quiet and walked away from the whole thing. In my few tentative inquiries others certainly walked away from me⎯citing determination to mind their own business for the safety of their households or for themselves. Their excuses, for that’s all they ever were, was that Pappy Ross would never admit it or deny it, so what did it really matter if he was stuck with the blame⎯”crazy as he is, he’ll never go to jail anyway”, and other equally specious arguments.
In the end it came around to, “Why should I get involved?” those five awful words that allowed Chief Coombs to have his way with me unimpeded. Except for Bo, not one other person I turned to for help was willing to stand and be counted, especially when they heard the name of Chief of Police, Charles Coombs, a man whose hard ways were well known to anybody who ever ran a red light in Greneville.
The only reason Chief Coombs thought that he could intimidate me into believing his story was because I was young and without any real family support. The only family I had was my father and he was always away. Too busy making political deals to be a real father⎯unless his monthly check can be counted. At least that was my theory. Otherwise, could Charlie Coombs have talked me into pretending I believed it was old man Ross who did the killing? I truly doubt it. Men like Chief Coombs gain and keep their little allotment of power only because they learn early on whom they can intimidate. Had any grown man been there to see what I saw, or if there had been two of us instead of just me alone, Charlie Coombs would be the one facing jail.
Now too, as always when I row a long distance, the rhythmic sound of my steady strokes began to speak to me with other memories, tumbling, confused ⎯of my mother’s heart beat, steady and thick as I lay with my head on her breast, of soft, evening swells toppling on a beach, each wavelet followed by that eternal moment of silence before the next falls.
But those were memories for better times, blotted out now by another more sinister rhythm, the cadence of footsteps coming up the outside wooden stairs to my little garage apartment, heavy and relentless. And I, knowing very well who it is, counting the footfalls until the buzzer rasps.
When I opened the door that day, Chief Coombs was standing there with my bamboo fishing rod in his hand⎯a birthday gift from my father.
“I brought your fishing pole back. You dropped it on the towpath, Max. I thought you might want it. Money don’t grow on trees, you know.”
I held the screen door and reached for it but by some sleight of hand he pulled the door open and stepped into the room without giving it to me. He looked around quickly, up and down the street in one professional sweep, then held out the fishing rod again.
“We have to talk some, don’t we?”
I took the fishing rod and stood it in the corner behind the door. “I suppose we do, sir.”
“Is your father still up in the capital? I haven’t seen him around in a while. I guess they’re still in session up there.”
Charlie Coombs wasn’t one for idle chatter and I could see it was making him uncomfortable. Yet I stood there dumb, not understanding how this had anything to do with what had to be the real reason for his visit. So I just nodded and walked across the room to the kitchen end and fetched down two mugs and took the pot of coffee off the stove, motioning him to a chair at my little table. I felt like I wanted to say something but I truly don’t remember what because whatever it was, it never got as far as my throat. I began to fill the mugs but my hand started to shake, so I stopped and set the percolator down between us. I was sure he’d noticed.
“Look,” he said. “We both know why I’m here. Down there under the canal bridge yesterday⎯you think you saw something that you didn’t actually see. You do, don’t you?”
Again I nodded without saying anything. What was there to say? I didn’t think I saw it. I knew I saw it, from start to finish; Coombs⎯jodhpured, leather-strapped and jack-booted, bringing his nightstick down across a man’s head—once, twice, three times. Because the old tramp had the audacity to ask him for money and the temerity to actually touch him.
Fishing pole in hand, I stood there on the tow-path as though my feet and legs had taken root there with the rest of the weeds by the side of the old canal. The cold-blooded violence of it struck me with such force that I simply could not make them move. I might have slipped behind the parapet of the old bridge but by the time I came to myself, Coombs, eyes blazing, had already turned and discovered me. I remember wondering later that night what could have provoked such brutality. Certainly not a harmless old drunkard sleeping it off under a bridge who tugged on the chief’s sleeve for a handout.
It was the Chief’s eyes, nearly insane with rage, that finally brought me around. I turned then and fled full tilt from them and from the vision of the violence I had witnessed. Pounding along the towpath with fists and arms pumping like one of our best high-school quarter-milers, realizing too late that I had dropped my fishing pole where I stood. And Coombs’s own voice, a little thick with liquor, unwittingly spurring me on, “Hey kid! Come back! Wait a minute!” Then,
“I know you! You’re Max Parish! Max Parish . . . .”
Now, sitting opposite him at my little round table, I was starting to understand that he had come for only one reason - to convert me from witness to accomplice. I was determined that he wouldn’t succeed but I was afraid that he would see it in my face so I kept sucking at the coffee mug, my hands shaking more and more.
If he did see he chose to ignore it, because he began to weave an unbelievable tale about finding the tramp already dying, and putting him out of his misery like a dog run over by a car, or a horse with a broken leg. I was hearing things like, “blood all over”, and “too far gone”, and “already unconscious”. But it was too obvious a ploy, even for a kid my age. I remember thinking, ‘Is this the best he can come up with?’
“It was old man Ross who done the dirty part of it. I saw him running off. Running just the way you did, except you weren’t the one who killed him, were you? If I hadn’t seen old man Ross with my own eyes though, and with you running away like that, some might even conclude it could of been you yourself that done it. But I saw Ross do it and not you, and that’ll be my testimony if it’s ever needed and if it comes to that.
“Course I thought it through, and decided out of respect for your father’s position that we should do everything we can to keep your name out of this. You understand how something like this could hurt him, don’t you? All I done was to put the poor old tramp out of his misery. I’m sure you’ll see that if you think it over some. A policeman’s life is not easy, Max.” He made another half-hearted attempt at a smile.
“Now I don’t want you to worry about your own safety. And I don’t think at this point you have anything to worry about as far as being blamed or any of that. That’s the real reason I come—that and to return your fishing pole of course.” With that he stood up and reached a beefy hand across the table. It was damp and clammy, and if he hadn’t already noticed, he now knew for sure that my own hand was trembling.
“When you talk to your father, tell him hey for me, will you Max? I’m not going to say anything to him about this. We’ll just be smart you and I, and keep it between ourselves. I know how strict and hard fathers can be.”
His descent of the outside stairs was a lot quieter than his ascent. And I noticed too that there was no patrol car in the street below. That meant that he had parked it around the corner. Thinking of my father’s reputation, of course.
As soon as I saw his car pull away, I ran across the lawn to Bo’s kitchen, and banged on the screen door. When I told him about the chief’s surprise visit, Bo just smiled. “How thoughtful of the chief to return your fishin' pole.”
Bo, having experienced Coombs’s brand of law-and-order first hand, was quick to see the real threat, however cloaked. That failing a satisfactory outcome with Pete Ross, to keep himself off the hook the chief would surely turn on me - my father and his position be damned, an obvious conclusion which I admit evaded me. Whether it was because I didn’t want to see it or because of simple unvarnished stupidity I didn't know but the principal reason is clear to me now. It’s because Bo was black and I am not, and it speaks of the practical value of the school of hard knocks that was Bo’s, while I could bring to bear only the common sense of an eighteen year-old Southern white kid of some privilege, which is to say of course, none at all.
But if opposites attract, it explains our friendship too. For if Bo’s education certainly didn’t want for those hard knocks, and mine had been, up to that time, as smooth as silk. I didn’t know it then, but a remedy for that lapse in my education was at hand and already in the works.
I was so deep into my reverie that I failed to hear Bo's warning until he stepped back and shook my shoulder. “Max!” he said, “Stop rowing! There’s an old trawler or something upriver, it’s heading our way.” I twisted myself around and peered into the darkness.
“I can't see a thing.”
“Neither can I, You can hear it is all. It sounds like a diesel, somewhere upstream, and it’s getting louder. Listen now!”
We coasted to a stop and the river fell utterly silent around us. Not a ripple disturbed its viscous surface. I sat still, my oars quiet in the water. After a moment I heard it too - a slow, steady, chug….chug….chug, becoming ever louder, ever closer. But somehow it wasn't a diesel sound. Not like any diesel I ever heard. I sat there trying to place it, to figure what the sound could be. Then it struck me.
“That's no trawler, Bo! And that’s no diesel! It’s a ship’s propeller chomping into the water. I bet it’s a big empty, and it’s heading our way probably riding bow-high. He won’t be able to see anything!”
I checked our intermittent flasher on the head of the island and reckoned that we were smack in the middle of the ship channel. Long-keeled as she was, there was no time even to turn our boat about. I yanked an oar out of its oarlock, plunged it deep and started to paddle the skiff backwards.
“Grab the other one!”
Almost toppling overboard, Bo lunged at the other oar and began to sweep it through the water on the opposite side.
With agonizing reluctance the boat began to move sternward. I peered into the impenetrable murk.
“Paddle like hell! It's getting louder!”
“How about we wave the flashlight around?”
“Forget it! The guy in the bridge can't see shit over the bow! He just sets his course by the range lights and radar⎯he’s probably up there reading! Oh Jesus, Bo! Paddle!”
In the next few minutes, nearly overcome with terror, we pulled that boat out of harm’s way by sheer strength of will⎯and not a little impassioned prayer on my part.
Just when we were nearly exhausted and not ten feet away, an immense rampart of riveted steel materialized out of the darkness, towering out of sight above us, its black topsides and red anti-fouling paint spotted and streaked with rust⎯rust which appeared strangely lurid, as though lit from within by some hellish fire, and in its sheer height and bulk blotting out night sky and river, and indeed all else. It pulled a hissing line of phosphorescence along its waterline as though it had just that instant rolled up whale-like out of some watery abyss, a malevolent Stygian gate that might open its maw at any moment and swallow our skiff whole and us along with it.
As it swept past seemingly endless, it drew nearer and nearer as if the helmsman was deliberately steering a new course just to smash us. Instead, it was the skiff that was being drawn toward the ship as it proceeded immutably along its own straight path in the channel. Far above, a wavering yellow beam pierced the darkness to settle on us for a long moment, and I heard a rough foreign voice shouting, “. . . .some crazy people dere”. I searched up along the steel wall in surprise. Someone had seen us! But the ship's railing, and any human form near it, remained obscure in that hellish gloom.
And then, in final and indifferent menace the huge propeller came into view⎯only half-submerged under the stern of the un-laden ship, its huge, saber-like blades chopping into the water heavily and robotically, like some primitive and mindless destroyer. It slowly began to pull our boat into its boiling wake as we stood awestruck, our forgotten oars trailing alongside.
Bo came to himself first.
“Holy Jesus, Max! Paddle like hell! It's suckin’ us under!”
Suddenly he was pulling his oar almost the entire length of the boat, scraping it along the rail like a madman. I dug my oar deep and followed suit.
But after making a complete rotation in its whirlpool our rowboat was left gently rocking in the ship’s wash while we stared in disbelief at the high stern vanishing ghost-like into the night. A single stern light faintly illuminated an indiscernible national flag lazily flopping on its staff, and across the rounded fantail below it, barely distinguishable, the ship's name and port of call; “Advance Carrier - Singapore”.
Bo sank down next to me on the thwart. After a time, he said, “It's a sign.”
I understood at once and didn't dare meet his gaze for fear he would discern my own, similar misgivings.
“Come on, you're just dogged out, Bo. Let's just sit here for a few minutes and clear our heads. I’ll row the rest of the way.”
“It’s a sign, I tell you. We got to turn around.”
I started to place the oars into the oarlocks but he put his hand on my wrist.
“I want to go home. I mean it, Max! This crossing is jinxed. I’ll help you work it out another way.”
“What other way? There is no other way, Bo. We’ve got to warn Ross and that’s it. Look! You said yourself, the darker the better, don’t you remember? It’s now or never. You agreed tonight was the night to try for it.”
“Yeah, that's right, try for it! So now we did, and now it's over. Too many things going against us. I got a bad feeling, Max. I want to go back.”
I looked at my wrist watch again, holding it close in the curl of my fingers. It was a mistake.
“What’s it say?”
“Eleven o'clock. A little after.”
“So what are we gonna do? Wake Ross up? Charlie Coombs ain’t coming out across the river this late. Not like us nuts! Let me get at the oars, Max. We’re heading home.”
“What if the chief’s already come and gone? Don’t you want to see if. . . .”
“Then it’s over anyway, ain’t it? And if he did go over, you know he likely took a couple of deputies along, an’ they’ll be hanging around. Old Man Ross prob’ly has a regular arsenal in that shack.”
I shook my head. Not at the idea that the police chief might indeed take deputies along but at Bo’s dogged persistence in the idea.
“We thought about that! We talked it to death, Bo! If the chief decides to head across he’ll go it alone. He has to save his own ass and there are only two ways. Ross is one of them and I’m the other. Do you think he’ll want a witness?” Bo didn’t answer.
“Aw. . . . the hell. . . .” I said. I dropped the oars into the oarlocks. “I’ll row us to hell home.”
But there on that black, swift river in that blackest of nights, Bo must have been able to see something in my eyes that made him suddenly change his mind. Or maybe it was the terminal hopelessness of my voice.
“Aww. . . .get up out of the way! Go stand lookout. I’ll row. And you can stop worrying. We’re not gonna turn tail.”
It came to me again what a friend I had in Bo Hodges. Bo rumbled the oars out and turned to me, good humor in his voice.
“Get up in the bow and keep a lookout, Max! We wouldn’t want to just get bowled over now by some big old empty on a dark night like this, would we? I got the oars. Go ahead.” A little too good natured now, he made a show of searching the river. “Where the hell are we anyway? We must of drifted a lot.”
I knew it was just to make me feel better and I hated that I would have to act grateful. It was almost enough to make me want to turn around and head for home anyway and to hell with what Coombs might do on the island. At least I’d be off the hook for awhile. Or maybe for good if the chief found who he was looking for and didn’t decide that I was too dangerous to have around even so.
But Bo pretended not to see it, so I stumbled forward and took the painter in my hand again and scanned the horizon to try to locate the flasher on the head of the island.
“There!” I pointed back over Bo's head with an outstretched arm. The skiff was facing in the opposite direction, just right to take a pull on the oars and head straight for home.
“Got it!” Bo said, and began to pull one oar and backwater with the other. It was either fight it out with Bo and end up at square one again or accept it and go on.
By the time we turned the skiff about and I resumed my vigil, a gibbous moon, orange and hazy, was squatting over the still-dark tree-line of the island. I suddenly realized that the presence or absence of moonlight was the one thing we hadn’t thought about.
Spell-bound, I watched the moon lift free. It was turning clear and white, the river and night sky suddenly crystalline, the island visible. And we were rowing straight into its silvery path.
Bo was leaning into it again and he began to sing to himself, soft and deep in his throat. I had heard him sing many times but never anything like this. A kind of call-and-answer field chant, dredged up out of some recollection unknown to me, singing both parts himself in time with his rowing. I knew it was for me. The sweet, repetitious simplicity of it flowed over me, washing away my adolescent fears, which appeared silly now with moonlight pouring down, the oars steady and sure, the old boat back on course in the deep summer night.
In a matter of an hour’s time, the bow of the skiff was grating up a stony shingle. We had come ashore about a mile below Ross’s cabin at a deserted amusement park. The remnants of rotting tents flapped slowly in the moonlight like pale, ghostly raiment, an abandoned Ferris wheel, an absurdly small merry-go-round, and squeaking swing sets, all rusting into oblivion. It was the place that Pete Ross and his wife Muriel, only ever known to us as “Mammy”, had operated every summer as sort of sharecroppers, splitting the profits with some absentee owner up in the capital.
One on each side, we dragged the rowboat up beyond the high tide line and made the painter fast to a broken piling. When I reached into the little locker under the seat to pull out the revolver, Bo shook his head and wagged a long finger so I left it where it was and we started off single-file along a path well known to me.
The path meandered up through high woods for most of the distance and then dropped back down near the shore for the last quarter mile. A tidewater meadow, awash at high tide, prevented a straight walk along the beach from the amusement park up to Ross’s place. As kids, we used to like to scare ourselves with talk of quicksand there.
“You ever been up to Ross’s place, Bo?”
“I think so, I was up there with you once.”
“That’s right,” I said. “It was a cold-ass day in early November. We came over free on the last ferry of the season and went up there looking for Ross. How old were we, thirteen?”
“Must of been. I know I was just finishing up with high school, that would of made you around thirteen.”
For most of the way we followed along single-file. It was easy going, because by now moonlight was streaming down through the leafy canopy like cold blue daylight, turning the sandy path into a bright ribbon winding through mountain laurel and swarming honeysuckle.
“Didn’t old Ross live in Greneville once upon a time, Max? Before he got crazy?”
“He didn’t get crazy, Bo. He just lost his wife and decided to drop out, that’s all.”
“So that’s it,” he said. “I wondered why a man would want to do that⎯take himself away from people and hole up that way.”
“The talk was, Mammy’s death nearly drove him over the edge. The only family they ever had was each other⎯no kids, you know. When she passed, it tore him apart. Pappy depended on her for everything.
“I remember when he lived on the mainland we used to hang out up there at his old place on the highway. They ran some kind of a motel that never seemed to have any customers, and down the back lot by the railroad there was a sort of a barn, where we all hung out to listen to Duke Ellington records. Pappy called it the game room. That was where I first learned about jazz, and how to drink beer. And learned how to play ping-pong. It was Mammy who taught us. She was women’s state champion for years. We had great times in that old place, Bo.
“But you must know all this⎯why didn’t I ever see you there?”
“You know better than to ask me that. That’s white man’s stuff, Max.” I looked over my shoulder to see if he was joshing me.
“Half the musicians who hung out up there were colored guys, Bo. In fact, the best . . . .hey! Hold up a minute. I think we’re getting close.” We had been coming down through big pines.
“We better split up, Max. How about one of us goes down and follows along the beach and the other sticks to the path? We might just see a boat pulled up somewhere⎯if you still think Charlie Coombs came over.”
I wasn’t likely to forget that.
“All right Bo, but let’s not go in there like bulls in a china shop. Meet me at the edge of the clearing where the trail comes out, okay?”
A moment later he disappeared into the trees without a sound and I continued along the path alone.
When I reached the clearing, Bo was squatting by the side of the path staring off toward the cabin.
“Nothing much along the beach,” he said in a low voice. “I been watching here at least a couple minutes. If Ross is in there he must be sleeping.” He looked up at me. “And there’s no sign of Charlie Coombs either. Him or a boat. Now what?”
“Now we go down and knock on the door, Bo, what else?”
Acting a lot braver than I felt, I started off across the clearing with Bo right behind me. By the time I reached the steps to the porch the hairs were standing up on the back of my neck. Bo saw what I saw and put his hand on my shoulder. The cabin door was off the latch and standing part way open, the screen door flung back. No lights nor lanterns, not a sign of life anywhere. Everything was dead quiet. I cupped my hand by my mouth.
“Are you sure you didn’t see a boat down there, maybe pulled up in the weeds out of sight?”
“I told you, Max . . . .”
I swallowed hard, went up on the porch and knocked on the door frame. If Charlie Coombs was in that cabin we would soon know it.
“Pappy? . . . .Ross? It’s Max, and Bo Hodges out here . . . .” Silence. I knocked again, and waited. Then, still scared, I pushed the door open and stepped into the cabin, Bo right behind me. Moonlight streamed in the windows, and it was easy to see that the place was empty, but not in that abandoned way when you can tell nobody lives in a place by the dead look of it. Everything looked orderly and it had a lived-in feel about it. Shined-up coffee pot on the stove, kindling and logs in the fireplace ready for a match, bed made up. Even a piece of curtain on the window next to it. Except that there was no sign of Pappy Ross. Or anybody else.
“You thinking what I’m thinking, Max?”
“Well, either he found out somehow that the chief was coming across and took off, or Charlie Coombs got to him before we did. And there’s only one way to find out which.”
I walked across the room and opened a door, but it was only pantry shelves full of canned food. Bo said,
“Let’s go home then, and find out, Max.”
All that effort for nothing. It suddenly came to me what could have happened if Charlie Coombs had been waiting for us there in that cabin in that remote place. I felt my stomach heave. Outside on the porch I said,
“I want to ask you something, Bo, and I want the truth. Have I been stupid for wanting to warn Pappy? I mean face it, somebody’s going to get nailed for killing that vagabond, and it’s not going to be Charlie Coombs. Isn’t it better if it’s Pappy Ross instead of me? One of us is going to be the fall-guy, that’s certain. Indirectly, you’ve been trying to tell me that ever since this thing began only I’ve been too stupid to see it. If Ross gets blamed he’ll probably get off because they’ll conclude it was because he’s nuts. But if they blame me, even with my father’s help, I’ll probably end up behind bars, if not worse. That’s it, isn’t it? And that’s what I ought to be thinking. Maybe I’ve been wrong all along. I mean old, worn-out friendships only go so far, right? If Charlie Coombs wants to frame Ross for the killing, why should I get involved? I ought to be taking care of number one like everybody else does, right? Tell me straight, Bo. Tell me the truth.”
Bo told me the truth but not then. He just stood there looking at me for a long time until finally I could see a blood vessel pulsating on the side of his forehead. At last he said, “Let’s go back across, Max.”
So we set out again along the path up through the big trees that would lead us to the skiff.
Nothing more passed between us until we were well into our crossing and already past the channel, sometime around three in the morning. Bo let the skiff coast to a stop and turned around to face me.
“Back there on the island you asked me to tell you the truth, Max. Well here it is. For one thing, you’re not stupid for feeling like you have to do the right thing for a friend. For wanting to warn old Ross that somebody’s coming to get him for something he didn’t do. You knew then, and you know now that it’s the right thing, the only thing in fact. Because ever since the time of the pyramids, men have been coming in the night to take innocent people away. And a line has to be drawn, doesn’t it? You’ve known Pappy Ross since you were a little kid. He’s your friend, Max. Just because he’s a little cracked now because the world’s got to be too much for him it don’t mean men like Charlie Coombs should be allowed to cut him down like some kind of mad dog in the street while they get away with cold-blooded murder. As long as there’s one person around with the courage to try to do what we did, sooner or later Coombs is going to get what’s coming to him.
“And here’s what I think about that other stuff you said, about just looking out for number one, and all that shit. I think you’re tired⎯tired and not thinking clear. When we tie up, we’re heading up to George’s All-Night to get us some ham and eggs. And then we’re both going home to get some sleep. Tomorrow’s another day, ain’t it?”
He drew the oars in a long, smooth sweep. Then another, even more perfect. Then he paused, and held the oars so the blades skittered along the surface. “That’s all I got to say for now.” And then he was into his steady pulling again.
Bo rowed the whole way. I don’t believe either of us spoke another word.
We did go to the diner. It was close to five in the morning by the time we got there. When we were walking across the parking lot who should we spot but Chief Coombs sliding into his patrol car, his smooth blue-shirted belly hanging over his shiny black police belt. I know he saw me, but he pretended not to. I think that was when I knew.
When we sat down at the counter we had our coffee, but we didn’t eat ham and eggs, or anything else for that matter. After we ordered neither of us felt much like eating because when he put the platters down in front of us George couldn’t wait to give us the good news.
“Did you guys hear? Chief Coombs brought in the guy who clubbed that drunk down by the canal! Single handed, too! He was just in here. It was old man Ross, that crazy old coot lives over across to the island. He was the one the chief suspected from the start. Chief let it be known about that he’d get his man, and he did, by damn!
“Chief said when he read Ross his rights, he practically confessed to it, then all of a sudden lit out down through the woods arms flapping like some kind of scarecrow with the chief hot after him. I guess there was shooting because two deputies just went down t’river and carried the body up. Real cops and robbers stuff. Wish’t I’da been there to see it! We’ve got ourselves one hell of a Police Chief, ain’t we?”
One hell of a police chief. I shuddered, thinking what must have taken place over on the island, and what might have been our fate had we arrived there an hour earlier. The ship that almost ran us down probably saved our lives.
Bo put some money on the counter and we walked out into the damp gray light past the old boat yard and crunched along the gravel road that would lead us up into town.
It was over. I realized now that I would have to leave Greneville, probably forever.
“It had to happen sooner or later, Max.”
“Why does it have to be so excruciating, Bo? It’s a hell of a painful way.”
Bo looked at me and threw his arm over my shoulder.
“There ain’t no other way, Max.”
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All Rights Reserved.