Walking Around Money

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinteresttumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinteresttumblrmail

by Paul Miles

Paul Miles was born and raised in Austin, Texas. In keeping with his drifter nature, he has never been out of the city for more than two weeks at a time. He occasionally annoys the customers at a neighborhood taco joint by pecking out short stories on a blue 1972 IBM Selectric with a sticky h key. His work has appeared in Polyphony, Plot Magazine, and the Cross Plains Universe anthology.

~~~

Mrs. Coulston told the man from Henry Wallace’s Department of Agriculture that I could run a projector. He came by our house and asked after me—I don’t think anyone had ever done that before. Anyway, my mother came to our room and told me a Negro gentlemen wanted me, which was her way of saying he looked distinguished because we always called ourselves colored. He told me what he needed—it would be Sunday afternoon and all I would have to do is thread the film he’d give me and run the projector after he gave a little talk. For that, he would pay me three dollars, one now and two after, which was pretty good walking around money.

It was Friday evening when he’d come. He had business in, I think he said Bryan and Rockdale. And like I said, a dollar was nice to have, but it was too late to go and do anything that day.

When I woke up on Saturday, my father and my brother Elijah had already gone out to the dry cleaners my father owned. The rest of our family sat around the red table we had then and ate breakfast, which was scrambled eggs, cheese grits, bacon, with some toast to sop it up with. My sister Jewel was reading from a letter we had got from our cousin Murray, who was a truck driver in the Army somewhere in Europe. He’d tried to tell us where in the letter, but there were black strikethroughs on the letter in those parts.

After we finished eating, I had a chore to do with my brother Ed. We had to go and gather some wood for the stove; the logs were kept in a white painted shack on the other side of our property. Between the house and the shack was a field, left grey and empty in winter. We took the wheelbarrow, bouncing across the field’s empty rows to the shack—opened the door, which I hated going in there because one time at night I’d opened it and a bat flew right by my face. Anyway, there was nothing like that this time and we piled some old logs into the barrow and brought them back to the house. Ed pushed and I held my hand over the top to keep them from jostling out. Thinking back on the letter, I asked Ed if he thought any of the Germans they captured would end out back here. He said he figured not, since the camp seemed pretty full.

When we piled the logs against the side of the house, my chores were done for the day. As I think I said, it was winter, the coldest I would ever be until some eight years later when I stood bayonet to bayonet with a Sumatran orangutan screeching Mandarin from its voicebox less than two miles from the Yalu, which obviously is another story. We didn’t have school and we didn’t have any work to do in the fields, which we would have had if it had been spring or summer.

I had told Ed about the dollar I’d got and he’d given me an idea of how to spend it and make even more money, which he was always good at. We borrowed the wheelbarrow and headed towards the main part of town. Hearne, Texas is separated in half by railroad tracks and the colored people live on the east side, whites to the west—though the Negro cemetery is on the white side of town, which I’ve never understood. Anyway, Ed and I came to Main Street, to the Piggly Wiggly, or was it Schwegmann’s then, I don’t remember—anyway, we had one fancy sort of grocery store in the center of town, kitty corner from the city hall. We started to go in, but Mr. Crossley, the store manager who I remember had a face kind of like a hog, said let me see your money, and I held it out for him. Then he said only one of you can come in, and I turned to Ed, since this was his idea, but he shrugged and muttered, “I don’t give a shit,” which is the way he’s always talked. So I went in.

I bought a bunch of stuff like bread and chocolate and some bologna meats and then me and Ed put it all in the wheelbarrow and headed out towards the Nazi prisoner of war camp. Now it was about noon—I could tell because in Hearne they always fired off the air raid siren to let everybody know that it was suppertime. The POW camp was back across the colored part of town and just outside the city limits. After the war, they made the camp into the colored elementary school. Two of my sisters went there. After we heard the siren, we figured we just as well could stop off at home to eat. Ed figured the Nazis weren’t going anywhere. Mama wasn’t there so we made some sandwiches and had sweet tea. We sat outside for a little while, then we got back to the wheelbarrow and rolled it the rest of the way to the camp. Like always, we could smell the camp before we saw it. If the wind blew wrong, the stench from the camp would cover the whole colored part of town. With hindsight, it would be easy to say that it was the smell of a slaughterhouse, but I really don’t remember it that way. To me it was more like the sharp haze from a soldering iron. And I also remember the white folks always saying that they couldn’t smell a thing.

Camp Hearne, which is what they called it, was a big square carved out of the thick Brazos woods. The ground was red clay not black like the rest of the bottom land nearer the river. They’d built some of the buildings out of the trees they’d cut down but the rest were standard Army tin. The fence was made of barbed wire, which reached high over our heads. We’d been inside the camp before because my father’s dry cleaners had some of the business of laundering uniforms for both the Germans and the American guards. Ed said we couldn’t just walk in the front so we rolled the barrow off the road and through the trees towards the back of the camp. When they’d built the place, they’d cut down enough trees so there was a gap between the camp and the woods, except in the back where I guess the soldiers had gotten lazy because the tree line was almost up against the fence. We could see the Nazis walking around—to be honest, they looked the same as any other white folks, maybe less kept up because some of them had stopped shaving. And we could see the guards walking along inside the fence, green helmets with a red “A” on them. Ed and I stayed in the trees so they couldn’t see us. He told me to watch—he’d been to the camp more than me because he was older—watch and the guards’ll turn around. And they did.

We came out of the trees, rolled the wheelbarrow right up to the fence. Ed whistled to some Nazis he saw kicking a ball around and motioned for them to come on over. They did and we showed them what we had. What Ed knew was that some of the Germans had money—their families back home sent it to them or they got paid by the US government for doing work. They couldn’t hardly speak English and we couldn’t take in their language, but we held up fingers and pretty much understood one other. They would shove money through the gate and we tossed the food over the fence. It was fine till we heard a yell and saw one of the guards running towards us, hand on his pistol holster.

“Goddamit,” Ed said as he stuffed the money into his pocket. The Nazis gathered their food and ran away laughing as this roughneck white boy comes huffing up and grabbed us both by the neck: “What’r you two niggers doing?”

Which seemed kind of obvious really, but anyway. The guard marched us up to the gate and I guess he would have called the town police or something but there was Dad’s red Ford pickup truck. He was at the camp on a laundry run and now we saw him coming out of the barracks with my oldest brother Elijah. Ed muttered under his breath when he realized Father had seen us.

He came up quick and the guard asked. “Are these yours?”

He said yes and pushed us towards the truck, with his eyes kind of darting back and forth to see if anyone else was watching. He and Elijah tossed the laundry sacks into the back of the pickup, Ed hopped into the back and reached back to help me up into the truck bed.

One of the reasons I knew I couldn’t spend my life in a small town is that I never figured out how to ride natural in the back of a pickup truck. We were in there with about six or seven big white canvas sacks and I sat in the bed because I could always imagine me falling out if we hit a bump. Ed stood up and leaned against the tailgate.

We came up to the dry cleaners—a tiny red brick building just near the tracks but still on the colored side of town. We hopped down from the truck and carried the sacks into the store. It might have been freezing outside but it was always like a furnace in the cleaners. In summer, you could almost faint if you didn’t take regular breaks. Even now the heat hit you the moment you opened the door. And those sacks were heavy; Ed and Elijah could hoist two at a time, so could my father. I could barely carry one and by carry I mean practically drag the sack behind the green countertop and into the back.

My Uncle Garland, just back from the Pacific—he limped but never complained about it, said he had the luckiest wound ever—was working with my father at that time and he started to separate out the sacks, Germans on one side, the guards on the other. As the Germans’ clothes tumbled out, he stepped back and covered his nose, gingerly picked up one of the shirts. It was stiff with caked blood. Uncle Garland said “Look at this—every damn time.”

I leaned in closer to see as his thumb rubbed through the blood and caught against what looked something like pink flesh, like a fish after you scale it. He nicked it off and it dropped to the floor.

My father frowned at him and said: “Aw, quit messin’ around and throw that shit in the fucking washer,” which was the way they talked to each other when there weren’t any women around.

Then Elijah and I joined in to help, knowing my father would expect it. He motioned us towards the sacks with the guards’ clothes and kept the ones with the German’s clothes for himself and my uncle. Ed did kind of hang back at first, and asked if he would get paid.

“How about if I pay you in not taking a belt to your ass?”

Ed didn’t move and then the old man laughed and said, “50 cents each, how’s that?”

Then we started working hard and after a second watching us my father said: “And how many times to I have to tell you all to keep away from that camp, anyway? Just stay away from there, hear? Leave it alone.”

Sunday was church. We all dressed up and walked together to Mount Zion which at that time was only a block away from our house. We sat down in the same pew—Dad, Ed, Elijah, Jewel who was the nearest to me in age, Big Sis, the oldest, Mama on the end and me, Henry, which I’ve been meaning to mention my own name, in the middle. Even though it was winter, when the church was full and it always was, it got hot and so everyone had their fans with the drawings of prayerful hands and I remember it was a sea of them flitting away, some fast and some slow and in a rhythm. The service was pretty long and I remember thinking I was sitting still but maybe not because Big Sis thumped me in the back of the head a couple of times.

After we got out, it was time for me to go to help the Agriculture man. My father gave me a ride to the Elks lodge in his pickup. It was about two in the afternoon and he—I can’t remember his name—was waiting for me at the door. The Elks was the one place on the Negro side of town where all the men went to let off steam. It had been the old apothecary shop and when that business failed, my father along with some of the others in town, had bought up the location. The Agriculture man was meeting me here because he wanted to talk to just the colored farmers who would come into town from all over Robertson County. A different white bureau man had already come through for the whites.

Anyway, the Elks lodge had a projector and a screen you could set up on a tripod. The only others in town were locked up at school—or maybe the Kiwanis had one, I don’t know. I went about setting up the screen towards the back wall while the Ag man was up front letting people in and gladhanding. I rolled the little green stand they kept the projector on to a spot on the floor marked with old white tape. Then I went and asked him for the film. He jumped like he’d forgotten the most important thing, but it was in his pocket—one old-looking 8 millimeter reel. I peeled it out a bit as I walked back to the projector. The film was pretty worn down; some of the sprockets were torn through and it had been heavily spliced with tape. I went ahead and started to thread it as all the men began to sit down around me—there was maybe 50 or 60 of them, a few locals still in their Sunday clothes, but mostly sharecroppers, who generally wore grimy dirt-caked overalls. They filled all the chairs and some others were leaning up against the walls.

The agriculture man gave me a look as he walked towards the front to start and I nodded that I was ready. He held out his hands for quiet and went right into how there was an infestation spreading from the Deep South and they expected it would reach Texas in the next planting season. While he went on, I tightened up the rear spool so that the film would run steady and made sure the bulb was in right, which I knew was a problem with this old Bell and Howell. I guess I got busy with my hands because he said now we will see a little movie and he said it sharply so I think he’d already given me the high sign once or twice.

When I switched the movie on, the first thing on the screen was the seal of the US Department of Agriculture and then “Henry Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture” underneath in big letters. Then the title: “Menace of the Boll Weevil.”

One of the fellows standing against the wall—who would be dead by August—threw out a crack, “Menace to my money.”

And everybody laughed as the movie showed a cotton field in full bloom which meant that it was maybe from the last year. A bunch of colored people with sacks slung around their shoulders were picking down the rows—just like me and my brothers and sisters did every summer. Then one of them dropped out of sight, like he’d been hit from the back, and another, and then another until they were all gone and the field seemed empty and there was a sudden jump in the film where it’d been spliced and now we were in a hospital, I guess, with some boy just a little older than me sitting on a table with his shirt off and his eyes rolling around in his head. On his chest, there were three big fist-sized bumps that seemed to be slowly moving across his body. The film pulled back to show two doctors in masks and gloves standing next to him. One of them took out a little ruler and held it against the bump so we could see it was about 5 inches long and probably two inches deep. Then the camera swiveled to show another one of them moving up his arm, only it was nearer the surface; when it got to his bicep it broke partly out of his skin—it was scaly like a pillbug only milky white—then it went back under and kept rolling towards the boy’s shoulder but at that moment there was a pop and the film burned through on the screen. I stopped the projector fast as I could only the old splicing tape they’d used had caught on fire against the hot bulb and it ate up the rest of the film before I could put it out. The Ag man frowned a bit and said: “Well, there wasn’t much more of it, anyway.”

He stayed to take questions, but everybody was mostly quiet and muttering to one another as they went ahead and left. I put away the screen and rolled the projector back into its closet. The agriculture man shook my hand to thank me and gave me the two dollars he owed me. As we walked out of the lodge, he told me it was an old movie so it wasn’t my fault that it blew up on us. I asked him where he was headed as we got into his old green Ford sedan and he told me that we were his last stop before heading back to Dallas, which was quite a long drive. I told him I hoped he’d be careful and he should try and be out of our county by sundown to be safest. He let me out at home and as I went inside I realized that I was really in clover. I had the three dollars from him plus the two I’d made at the camp with Ed plus the 50 cents from working at the laundry for five dollars fifty cents total. I couldn’t even think of five dollars worth of anything I wanted at that time, to be honest.

Once home, I stripped out of my Sundays, threw them in the wash my two sisters were getting ready to do—which got me a cutting look—-and after I got dressed they ran me out of the house by telling me my brothers’d gone fishing down at the Brazos. Ed would fish even if he knew the water was empty and Elijah was probably just tagging along.

I went down to the river and walked along the bank until I found them just past the highway bridge you take west to Gause and Thorndale. Ed was standing right at the river’s edge, lazily tossing his line into the brownish water; Elijah was sitting on a rotting tree trunk eating some cheese and crackers, which he let me have some of. It was maybe four o’clock. The sky was dull grey, no clouds, like it’d been all week. I looked out into the water and teased Ed that he wasn’t going to catch a thing.

Ed didn’t say anything to that but started to pull his line in and then we could both see what first looked like a giant oil slick moving under the water’s surface stretching almost from bank to bank. Elijah saw it too; he stood up off the log and came over to stand by us. I say the thing looked like an oil slick but it was moving slow and steady like the current itself was moving it along. Now out in the middle of the river, I could see something folding itself out of the water’s surface, which looked a bit like a stovepipe, but colored a rubbery sort of blue. It swayed and suddenly inside my head there was a hissing and I’d been looking at the Brazos river but now I only saw white, like an empty movie screen lit by the projector’s light.

And I was on my back on the river bank face up to the grey sky. My head hurt. I could feel blood running out of my nose. I turned slowly and saw Ed, who was on the ground too, blinking with pinkish tears leaking from his eyes.

A jeep came barrelling down the river’s edge then, coupled with a second jeep over on the other side. It slowed as it came near us. There were three men in the jeep, the driver, passenger, and one in the back seat holding up a long metal pole, all of them in uniform wearing the helmet with the red “A” on it. Looking across the Brazos, I could see the other jeep was the same. And the light hit just right so that I noticed that there actually were spider web-like strands connecting the two poles. The officer in the passenger seat looked at us and said, “They’re all right, keep going.”

And they drove on down around a bend in the river and were out of sight as the three of us struggled up to our feet. Elijah was wiping the blood out from his eyes, looking after the tracks where the jeeps had gone and actually, years later when he was a professor at Prairie View, he was one of the ones who got to the bottom of what had gone on, but that is another story which I realize I have said a lot here, and I apologize.

“Walking Around Money” by Paul Miles originally appeared on Revolution SF, February 2011.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *