Sweet Home Alabama
Copyright© 2013 by Robert McKay
It was the day after Sweet Leaf's visit, a Saturday, that having talked over what we had, and gotten it organized in our minds, we drove over to Sam Howell's place. It was the first time I'd been up the driveway, the first time I'd been on the property in daylight. It looked odd without darkness and shadows all around.
No one was visible when we first pulled up, but by the time we'd gotten out of the Blazer Howell – it had to be him – had come out and was standing on the grass in front of the house. As we stepped in front of the Blazer and came into easy speaking distance of Howell, I realized that Cecelia was pulling on her fighting gloves. I wondered what she anticipated, but didn't say anything – I've learned over the years that hunches are useful things. More than once I've just had the feeling that I ought to take my gun with me, which I don't normally do when I get out of the Blazer, and found that it was handy to have it on my belt. If Cecelia was having a hunch, I wasn't going to interfere.
Howell looked at us, saying nothing. "My name's Darvin Carpenter," I told him. "Probably you've heard of me. This is my wife Cecelia."
"And I want to give you some names – Jordan Summers, Rich Gentile, Harper Bible, Jacob Freeman, John Clinch, Tal McGraw." I gave Jordan the southern pronunciation, as I'd heard it – as though the first vowel were an E. As I said each name, I saw Howell react.
But what he said didn't betray anything. "Why should those names mean anything to me?"
I grinned, and though I didn't know what it looked like, it felt like a shark's grin must feel just before it hits an unsuspecting seal. "Those men were all in your living room night before last."
That hit him – the meeting was, after all, supposed to be a secret from everyone else. "How do you know that?"
"Ah, you admit it," I said. "I know because I'm an investigator. It's my job to know things."
"And what if I had those men, or any other men, in my living room that night or any other night?"
"Well, I would imagine that conspiring to deprive people of their civil rights is a federal crime. And conspiring to damage private property most certainly is a crime under the statues of the state of Alabama."
"How do you know all that?" He seemed to actually want to know. I got the impression that for the moment he wasn't concerned with possible leaks in his conspiracy, but asked out of simple ordinary curiosity.
I didn't actually answer the question, but just said, "I told you – I'm an investigator."
I could see him pulling himself together. I didn't know whether he played poker, nor whether he was a good poker player or would make a good one. But I did know that what I'd just hit him with was about the same as an opponent, without drawing a single card, coming up with a royal flush right off the deal. Even a professional poker player might find it hard to be impassive in the face of such a staggering occurrence.
"Do you know," he asked, "who said 'segregation forever'?"
"Yeah, I do. But he was wrong."
"Well, that great man's prophecy will come true. When we're done, you'd better never come to Alabama, or we'll make you watch while we whip your nigger." His voice wasn't violent, but the words were as vile a collection of hatred as I'd ever heard.
I took a step toward him. "Was I you," I said in a voice that to my ears sounded deadly, "I'd apologize to Mrs. Carpenter."
He reached out his right hand and gave my left shoulder a shove. He'd made a number of mistakes, and the shove was one of them, but as I stepped back to keep my balance he made the big one. His left hand came around in a big looping swing.
My left foot was already back, so I blocked the punch with my right arm, and stepping forward with my left foot, I put my left fist hard into his mouth. It wasn't, perhaps, the sort of graceful, powerful jab that a professional boxer could deliver, but it went right to its target and smashed his lips against his teeth.
When I saw the blood all the anger and disgust that had been blocked up inside for three weeks broke loose. After that textbook block and jab, nothing was textbook. It wasn't a boxing match anymore – it was a down and dirty street fight. I don't remember exactly what I did, but I know that by main strength I got him up against the wall of the house and pounded him with everything I had.
And then I felt a yank on my collar, and as I went backward from the force of it I tripped over something behind my right foot. I landed on the grass so hard that it knocked the breath right out of me. I saw Cecelia between me and Howell, and as he started to lunge at me to continue the fight she shoved him back hard with both hands.
"Stay against that wall," she said in a growl, "or I shall most assuredly finish the job my husband began."
After that shove he was ready to stay on the wall – I'd hurt him and Cecelia hadn't exactly treated him gently. I could see that his nose was broken and his mouth was smashed, and there was a mouse already forming under each eye. His shirt was half torn off, and I expected he'd bruise up good from neck to waist. I couldn't remember exactly what I'd done, but I'd surely hurt him.
I started to get up off the ground, and without taking her eyes off Howell, Cecelia put her foot on my chest and pushed me back down – not brutally, but with enough force that it put me down on my back again. "Stay there, Darvin," she said, and it was an order. In the middle of everything else, I was glad that she was wearing moccasins that day – Lahtkwa style, perhaps the pair that Memphis had made for her, though I hadn't noticed the specifics of the stitching before we'd left the house.
Cecelia now said to Howell, "Do not move from that wall. And while you are there, you may wish to be grateful – I have saved your life."
Howell didn't move from the wall – he slid down it until he was sitting on the ground, his legs straight out in front of him. In 30 seconds or a minute I'd given him a thorough beating, and it seemed he was beginning to feel it.
Now Cecelia looked down at me. "If I let you up, Darvin, will you undertake to remain out of reach of this ... person?"
I glared at her. Just then I wanted to give Howell more of the same, and the only thing that kept me from grabbing Cecelia's leg and moving her was the fact that I love her.
She gave me a shove with her foot – again, not brutally, but I definitely felt it. "I have asked you a question, Darvin, and I require an answer."
I glared, but gave in. "Yeah, I'll stay away from him."
She lifted her foot from my chest, and I rolled to my feet. I switched my glare to Howell. "I don't much care whether you're grateful – right now, I ain't all that grateful. I'd as soon put you in a hole as look at you. Was you on fire, I wouldn't spit on you. Was I you, I'd apologize to my wife – but then I don't suppose you've got the brains God gave goat droppings, or you'd never have insulted her in the first place."