Thunder and Lightening
Copyright© 2020 by Lazlo Zalezac
“Dad,” said Bill as his father entered the house from work, “Abe came over and said we were invited over to dinner tonight.”
Jerry settled heavily into his chair, tired from another busy Saturday. It didn’t help that he had been out late the night before. He answered, “That’s nice of Sharon. I better go to the store and pick up some drinks.”
“Abe said that you shouldn’t bother bringing anything over. She’s happy about her new car and wants to thank you for teaching Martin how to fix up old cars,” replied Bill. He grinned as he added, “Abe mentioned that Henry would be there, too.”
The comment made Jerry grin, as he was well aware that Sharon was actively trying to entice Henry into something a little more permanent than the big black man was interested in having. He said, “It’ll be nice to talk to Henry.”
“You guys talk all the time. You were over at his house until midnight last night,” countered Bill. He had ridden his scooter over there and seen the latest indoor wall fountain the two men had built. It was really an outstanding piece of work.
“Hey, Henry wanted to deliver the wall fountain to the customer today. We had to finish it,” said Jerry. The fountain was bringing in ten thousand dollars. After taking into account the cost of materials, they’d make four thousand each. This was their third one and they had learned a lot after the first two.
“I think Abe’s mom would be happy if Henry was over at her place on Friday nights,” Bill joked. He had listened to Abe tease his mother about catching her kissing Henry. She had to threaten him with a severe beating before he had relented.
Jerry replied, “Is Abe upset about the idea of his mother dating Henry?”
“Hell, no. Henry is an important guy around here,” replied Bill. He had noticed that all of the kids in the neighborhood stood up straighter around Henry and everyone called him ‘sir.’
The comment brought a smile to Jerry’s face. Everyone respected Henry in this neighborhood. The fact that he and Henry were friends had eased a lot of tension in the area and prevented some of the hotheads from acting violent. He was about to comment when he heard the sound of a scooter pull up in front of the house and saw the reaction of his son. “Go ahead.”
Bill smiled and headed out of the house. Within a minute, Jerry heard the sound of the scooter starting and the pair driving off. After changing his clothes, he grabbed a Coke and went out to the porch appreciating the spring weather. His comings and goings were no longer news. The elderly across the street either ignored him or waved to him. He waved back to those that noticed him.
The sky was a clear blue broken only by little tufts of white clouds. A jet contrail cut through the sky and appeared to glow magically. The oak tree was growing leaves that in a few weeks would provide lots of shade. The front lawn was still a disaster area, but he wasn’t about to go through the hassle of planting grass. He had never entered the backyard because it was a wild mess of weeds. For all he knew, there could be a body hidden in it.
His private musings were interrupted by the arrival of Henry. The huge black man asked, “Got another one of those?”
“Sure do,” replied Jerry as he started to rise.
“Don’t bother getting up. I’ll help myself.”
A minute later, the black man settled on the porch beside Jerry and opened the can. With a grin, he took a sip and then said, “That neighbor of yours wants to tie me down.”
“A scrawny guy like you? I wonder what she sees in you,” remarked Jerry with a straight face.
“Women go crazy over my bald head,” replied Henry just as seriously.
Both of them broke out laughing with the ease of men that had traded a long-standing joke. Jerry noticed that Mr. Atkins was crossing the street and heading towards them. “I wonder what Mr. Atkins wants.”
Henry looked up and saw the old man shuffling his way across the street. Even as Jerry stood, Henry said, “We should probably meet him halfway.”
The pair of men walked to the street presenting a sight that would frighten people who didn’t know them. Over five hundred pounds of muscle walking side by side, both looking threatening by nature and prejudice. Frowning, Mr. Atkins stopped and said, “Boys, there’s a meetin’ at ma house tonight at eight. Both o’ ya be dere. Bring that olda boy from next doo’ ov’r wit ya.”
Respectful, both Jerry and Henry replied, “Yes, Sir.”
Mr. Atkins turned with a frown on his face and headed back across the street. The two big men stood there watching him go with puzzled expressions. Before the old black man made it to his house, Jerry and Henry returned to the porch. After sitting down, a very worried Henry said, “Something big must be happening.”
“The only time Mr. Atkins holds a meeting at his house is when something ugly is about to happen. Last time was when there were all them riots in town when the cops killed that kid. This was the only area where there wasn’t a problem. He called us together to make sure that folks stayed in their houses,” replied Henry.
“Smart man,” replied Jerry.
“Hell, he was scared. He’s seen stuff in his life that most of us can’t imagine,” replied Henry. Shaking his head, he said, “To tell the truth, I’m surprised that he invited you to attend.”
Stories had been told in the area about Mr. Atkins and he had listened to them trying to better understand hisneighbor. The stories suggested that his father had been hung by the KKK and that he had been forced to watch his mother get raped one night when they went to see a movie. He had bowed to whites his entire life, hating them with a passion the whole time. Jerry understood rage, but not hate. He figured they were close enough that he could deal with a man that hated, even if he was the subject of that hate. Nodding his agreement, he said, “Me, too.”
The pair sat there thinking their own thoughts. Jerry asked, “What do you think Martin is going to say when he finds out that he’s been invited?”
“I’m not worried about him. I’m more worried about his mother is going to say,” answered Henry. He looked over at Jerry and said, “It’s not good when you get invited. It’s time to act like a man. If you fail Mr. Atkins, nobody will listen to a word you say after that.”
The sound of scooters broke the silence that had fallen over the men. Jerry looked over and saw the boys returning from the store with bags of groceries strapped onto the rear carrier. They pulled up in the front yard and came to a stop in front of the men. Abe said, “Mom’s expecting you over at the house for dinner now that we are back.”
Jerry stood and locked the door of the house. Henry and he walked next door while the boys rode their scooters thirty feet to park them at the door. Abe held the door open for everyone after announcing their presence to everyone in the house. Henry shook his head and said, “You sure are lazy. Riding that bike such a short distance.”
“Hey, we had groceries.”
“Where are they?” asked Henry with a smile.
The two boys looked at each other for a second and went back outside after realizing that they had forgotten to bring the bags in the house. Martin came out in the living room and greeted them, “Come on into the kitchen. Mom is setting the table.”
The two large men entered the kitchen and it suddenly got a lot smaller. Sharon looked at them and said, “You two sit at the ends where you’ll have plenty of elbow room.”
The men sat down at the table to be out of the way. The boys returned with their two bags of groceries and set them on the counter. Sharon said, “You boys wash your hands and then sit at the table out of the way.”
Jerry winked at Henry and said, “Sounds to me like you need a man around here to keep the kids under control.”
Henry held up a hand to hide his mouth from Sharon and, with exaggerated motions, moved his mouth to say, “Thanks a lot, buddy.”
Sharon grinned but didn’t turn around, pretending to be busy with cooking. She said, “The thought never crossed my mind.”
Jerry burst out laughing at the look on Henry’s face. Neither one of them believed her for a minute. The boys returned from washing their hands and sat down at the table. Martin came in and helped his mother carry the food to the table. It was a spectacular meal with fried chicken, greens, mashed potatoes, gravy, and corn bread. The food was piled high on the plates. After she and Martin sat down, she said, “Dig in guys.”
Sharon stared in shock at the chaos that ensued. Forks spearing pieces of chicken flew out as spoons filled with potatoes and greens were used to load individual plates. It was a madhouse of activity as everyone grabbed food and piled it on their plate. She burst out laughing as she said, “This looks like a boarding house scene out of a movie.”
Jerry laughed as he took a slice of corn bread. Together, Abe and Bill replied, “We’re growing boys.”
Henry shook his head and filled his glass with iced tea. Once plates were filled with food, everyone started to eat. The only sounds to be heard were forks scrapping across the plates and groans of contentment as bellies filled. Henry and Jerry refilled their plates and ate some more as Sharon watched. After clearing their second plate of food, the two large men sat back with contented sighs. Jerry said, “That was outstanding.”
“You feed a man that kind of food and he’s not going to want to leave,” said Henry. Almost as soon as the words were out of his mouth, he started blushing as he realized what he had said.
Abe, one never to let an opportunity to tease someone pass, said, “Mom, sounds like your plan is working.”
Martin winked and said, “The fastest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”
Sharon threw her napkin across the table at Martin, but didn’t comment. Jerry changed the subject and asked, “So what’s the news on the bike?”
Abe sat up and said, “I found a 1938 Indian Sport Scout on the web at the library and won a bid on it for two fifty. It’s in pretty bad shape and missing some parts, but I know that it’ll fix up real nice.”
Sharon smiled and said, “He gave me the money to pay for it earlier today. It’s supposed to be shipped to us at the end of the week.”
Henry said, “Never heard of an Indian Sport Scout.”
“Oh, they were the main competitor of Harley-Davidson in the early days of motorcycles. I like the way they look.” Abe started talking about the Indian motorcycle company and the kinds of bikes they had built.
It was easy to tell that the young man had researched the motorcycle. That didn’t surprise Jerry as he recognized that the young man really was interested in motorcycles. Sharon had balked, but given in after she realized that if he had spent the time and effort to fix up the motorcycle himself that he wouldn’t be reckless when he drove it. When Abe wound down, Jerry turned to Bill and asked, “Did you look for a car on the web?”
“Yeah, I did. I found a nice 1952 Pontiac Chieftain.”
“Sounds to me like we have an Indian theme going on here,” replied Jerry with a grin. He was very familiar with the car and would buy it.
Bill grinned and held up his hand, palm side out, as he said, “How! Him Scout. Me Chief.”
Abe turned to Bill and said, “Chief, Big black man already been scalped.”
Henry broke out in laughter and said, “Young brave or chief try to scalp this big man, he get bottom paddled.”
Laughing, Martin stood and said, “I hate to say this, but I’ve got to go. I’m meeting Howard tonight.”
Jerry glanced at the end of the table catching Henry’s eye and said, “You might want to call Howard and let him know that you’re going to be late.”
“Why?” asked Martin surprised that Jerry would interfere in his life without being asked.
Henry answered, “Because you’ve been invited to a meeting at Mr. Atkins’ house.”
All laughter stopped around the table at the announcement. Abe stared at his brother with his mouth open, unable to believe what he had heard. Martin slowly sank back into his chair, as his legs threatened to give out on him. Bill looked around the room puzzled by the reaction of everyone. The silence was shattered when Sharon said, “Shit. You can’t be serious. He’s still young.”
“Mr. Atkins specifically told us to bring him with us when we came over at eight tonight.”
If the news about Martin being invited was a shock to Sharon, then the news that Jerry had been invited was the equivalent to an atom bomb being detonated in the living room. She looked over at Jerry and asked, “He invited you?”
“Yes, he did.”
Abe swore, “Shit. We better find a bomb shelter.”
Still confused, Bill asked, “Huh?”
Martin shook his head in disbelief and looked over at Jerry. He said, “Any idea what this is about?”
Henry concurred, “No idea.”
Frustrated, Bill asked, “Would someone tell me what is going on?”
Henry turned to Bill and answered, “Mr. Atkins is the unofficial law and order in this part of town. When he calls a meeting in his house, that means that the shit is about to hit the fan.”
“Mr. Atkins doesn’t like whites,” added Jerry. He paused and corrected himself. “That’s not quite correct. Mr. Atkins hates whites. They hung his father and raped his mother when he was a kid. That he invited me over, despite the fact that I’m white, suggests this is really bad.”
Sharon looked over at Jerry in surprise. She hadn’t known that he knew a little of the history of Mr. Atkins. “You knew?”
“I figured it out from little odds and ends that people said about him,” replied Jerry. Shrugging, he said, “He has a right to his feelings and I can deal with that. I understand rage and figure hate is pretty close to it. It isn’t the person that it is aimed at that is to blame, just the history that instilled it.”
Henry looked across the table at Jerry pleased with what he heard. If Mr. Atkins got angry with Jerry, he knew that Jerry wouldn’t hold it against him. There were some things that you just had to accept even if they weren’t your fault. His attitude would earn him some respect in the neighborhood.
Martin had listened to the exchange with wide eyes. He had just learned details about Mr. Atkins that he had never known and they explained a lot about how the old man acted. In a soft voice, he said, “Let me call Howard.”
The atmosphere in the room reminded Jerry of a funeral. The men were solemn, sitting in their chairs without talking. All eyes focused on Jerry when he entered, as though to say that he would have to prove himself this day or his time in this neighborhood was over. A few looked at him wondering if he was the reason that this meeting was being called. A number of them nodded a greeting in the direction of Henry, but Jerry didn’t get that kind of reception.
Mr. Atkins sat in his chair with a frown as if he were passing a kidney stone at the idea of having a white man in his house. Looking at Jerry, he pointed to a kitchen chair directly opposite of his to indicate where the large man should sit. Jerry nodded his head and sat in the chair. Seeing that no one else said a word, he didn’t speak, either.
From his chair, Jerry looked around the room taking in the furnishings. The room was crowded with chairs including some brought in from the kitchen. The carpet was old and worn, but not dirty. The average style of furniture dated back to the fifties and was covered with the nicks and scratches accumulated over forty to fifty years. It made him wonder what his house would look like to others when he was eighty something.
He took a minute to examine the men in the room. Martin looked worried and sat on the edge of his chair. Henry was his normal large self, but was trying to look bigger. An overweight black man sat in a chair with his hands folded over his belly and breathing hard. A couple of men, possibly brothers, were moving their hands nervously. They were both thin, but muscular. Two other men struck him as average guys. They sat there looking around wide-eyed at being there.
A small elderly black man entered the room and looked around. Spotting Jerry, he asked, “Wass da cracker doin’ heah?”