Through the bloody September twilight, aftermath of sixty-two rainless days, it had gone like a fire in dry grass—the rumor, the story, whatever it was. Something about Miss Minnie Cooper and a Negro. Attacked, insulted, frightened: none of them, gathered in the barber shop on that Saturday evening where the ceiling fan stirred, without freshening it, the vitiated air, sending back upon them, in recurrent surges of stale pomade and lotion, their own stale breath and odors, knew exactly what had happened.
“Except it wasn’t Will Mayes,” a barber said. He was a man of middle age; a thin, sand-colored man with a mild face, who was shaving a client. “I know Will Mayes. He’s a good nigger. And I know Miss Minnie Cooper, too.”
“What do you know about her?” a second barber said.
“Who is she?” the client said. “A young girl?”
“No,” the barber said. “She’s about forty, I reckon. She aint married. That’s why I dont believe—”
“Believe, hell!” a hulking youth in a sweat-stained silk shirt said. “Wont you take a white woman’s word before a nigger’s?
“I dont believe Will Mayes did it,” the barber said. “I know Will Mayes.”
“Maybe you know who did it, then. Maybe you already got him out of town, you damn niggerlover.”
“I dont believe anybody did anything. I dont believe any-thing happened. I leave it to you fellows if them ladies that get old without getting married dont have notions that a man cant-”
“Then you are a hell of a white man,” the client said. He moved under the cloth. The youth had sprung to his feet.
“You dont?” he said. “Do you accuse a white woman of lying?”
The barber held the razor poised above the half-risen client. He did not look around.
“It’s this durn weather,” another said. “It’s enough to make a man do anything. Even to her.”
Nobody laughed. The barber said in his mild, stubborn tone: “I aint accusing nobody of nothing. I just know and you fellows know how a woman that never—”
“You damn niggerlover! ” the youth said.
“Shut up, Butch,” another said. “We’ll get the facts in plenty of time to act.”
“Who is? Who’s getting them?” the youth said. “Facts, hell! I—”
“You’re a fine white man,” the client said. “Aint you?” In his frothy beard he looked like a desert rat in the moving pictures. “You tell them, Jack,” he said to the youth. “If there aint any white men in this town, you can count on me, even if I aint only a drummer and a stranger.”
“That’s right, boys,” the barber said. “Find out the truth first. I know Will Mayes.”
“Well, by God!” the youth shouted. “To think that a white man in this town—”
“Shut up, Butch,” the second speaker said. “We got plenty of time.”
The client sat up. He looked at the speaker. “Do you claim that anything excuses a nigger attacking a white woman? Do you mean to tell me you are a white man and you’ll stand for it? You better go back North where you came from. The South dont want your kind here.”
“North what?” the second said. “I was born and raised in this town.”
“Well, by God!” the youth said. He looked about with a strained, baffled gaze, as if he was trying to remember what it was he wanted to say or to do. He drew his sleeve across his sweating face. “Damn if I’m going to let a white woman—”
“You tell them, Jack,” the drummer said. “By God, if they—”
The screen door crashed open. A man stood in the floor, his feet apart and his heavy-set body poised easily. His white shirt was open at the throat; he wore a felt hat. His hot, bold glance swept the group. His name was McLendon. He had commanded troops at the front in France and had been decorated for valor.
“Well,” he said, “are you going to sit there and let a black son rape a white woman on the streets of Jefferson?”
Butch sprang up again. The silk of his shirt clung flat to his heavy shoulders. At each armpit was a dark halfmoon. “That’s what I been telling them! That’s what I—”
“Did it really happen?” a third said. “This aint the first man scare she ever had, like Hawkshaw says. Wasn’t there something about a man on the kitchen roof, watching her undress, about a year ago?”
“What?” the client said. “What’s that?” The barber had been slowly forcing him back into the chair; he arrested himself reclining, his head lifted, the barber still pressing him down.
McLendon whirled on the third speaker. “Happen? What the hell difference does it make? Are you going to let the black sons get away with it until one really does it?”
“That’s what I’m telling them!” Butch shouted. He cursed, long and steady, pointless.
“Here, here,” a fourth said. “Not so loud. Dont talk so loud.”
“Sure,” McLendon said; “no talking necessary at all. I’ve done my talking. Who’s with me?” He poised on the balls of his feet, roving his gaze.
The barber held the drummer’s face down, the razor poised. “Find out the facts first, boys. I know Willy Mayes. It wasn’t him. Let’s get the sheriff and do this thing right.”
McLendon whirled upon him his furious, rigid face. The barber did not look away. They looked like men of different races. The other barbers had ceased also above their prone clients. “You mean to tell me,” McLendon said, “that you’d take a nigger’s word before a white woman’s? Why, you damn niggerloving—”
The third speaker rose and grasped McLendon’s arm; he too had been a soldier. “Now, now. Let’s figure this thing out. Who knows anything about what really happened?”
“Figure out hell!” McLendon jerked his arm free. “All that’re with me get up from there. The ones that aint—” He roved his gaze, dragging his sleeve across his face.
Three men rose. The drummer in the chair sat up. “Here,” he said, jerking at the cloth about his neck; “get this rag off me. I’m with him. I dont live here, but by God, if our mothers and wives and sisters—” He smeared the cloth over his face and flung it to the floor. McLendon stood in the floor and cursed the others. Another rose and moved toward him. The remainder sat uncomfortable, not looking at one another, then one by one they rose and joined him.
The barber picked the cloth from the floor. He began to fold it neatly. “Boys, dont do that. Will Mayes never done it. I know.”
“Come on,” McLendon said. He whirled. From his hip pocket protruded the butt of a heavy automatic pistol. They went out. The screen door crashed behind them reverberant in the dead air.
The barber wiped the razor carefully and swiftly, and put it away, and ran to the rear, and took his hat from the wall. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he said to the other barbers. “I cant let—” He went out, running. The two other barbers followed him to the door and caught it on the re-bound, leaning out and looking up the street after him. The air was flat and dead. It had a metallic taste at the base of the tongue.
“What can he do?” the first said. The second one was saying “Jees Christ, Jees Christ” under his breath. “I’d just as lief be Will Mayes as Hawk, if he gets McLendon riled.”
“Jees Christ, Jees Christ,” the second whispered.
“You reckon he really done it to her?” the first said.
She was thirty-eight or thirty-nine. She lived in a small frame house with her invalid mother and a thin, sallow, un-flagging aunt, where each morning between ten and eleven she would appear on the porch in a lace-trimmed boudoir cap, to sit swinging in the porch swing until noon. After dinner she lay down for a while, until the afternoon began to cool. Then, in one of the three or four new voile dresses which she had each summer, she would go downtown to spend the afternoon in the stores with the other ladies, where they would handle the goods and haggle over the prices in cold, immediate voices, without any intention of buying.
She was of comfortable people—not the best in Jefferson, but good people enough—and she was still on the slender side of ordinary looking, with a bright, faintly haggard manner and dress. When she was young she had had a slender, nervous body and a sort of hard vivacity which had enabled her for a time to ride upon the crest of the town’s social life as exemplified by the high school party and church social period of her contemporaries while still children enough to be unclassconscious.
She was the last to realize that she was losing ground; that those among whom she had been a little brighter and louder flame than any other were beginning to learn the pleasure of snobbery-male—and retaliation—female. That was when her face began to wear that bright, haggard look. She still carried it to parties on shadowy porticoes and summer lawns, like a mask or a flag, with that bafflement of furious repudiat-ion of truth in her eyes. One evening at a party she heard a boy and two girls, all schoolmates, talking. She never accepted another invitation.
She watched the girls with whom she had grown up as they married and got homes and children, but no man ever called on her steadily until the children of the other girls had been calling her “aunty” for several years, the while their mothers told them in bright voices about how popular Aunt Minnie had been as a girl. Then the town began to see her driving on Sunday afternoons with the cashier in the bank. He was a widower of about forty—a high-colored man, smelling always faintly of the barber shop or of whisky. He owned the first automobile in town, a red runabout; Minnie had the first motoring bonnet and veil the town ever saw. Then the town began to say: “Poor Minnie.” “But she is old enough to take care of herself,” others said. That was when she began to ask her old schoolmates that their children call her “cousin” instead of “aunty.”
It was twelve years now since she had been relegated into adultery by public opinion, and eight years since the cashier had gone to a Memphis bank, returning for one day each Christmas, which he spent at an annual bachelors’ party at a hunting club on the river. From behind their curtains the neighbors would see the party pass, and during the over-the-way Christmas day visiting they would tell her about him, about how well he looked, and how they heard that he was prospering in the city, watching with bright, secret eyes her haggard, bright face. Usually by that hour there would be the scent of whisky on her breath. It was supplied her by a youth, a clerk at the soda fountain: “Sure; I buy it for the old gal. I reckon she’s entitled to a little fun.”
Her mother kept to her room altogether now; the gaunt aunt ran the house. Against that background Minnie’s bright dresses, her idle and empty days, had a quality of furious unreality. She went out in the evenings only with women now, neighbors, to the moving pictures. Each afternoon she dressed in one of the new dresses and went downtown alone, where her young “cousins” were already strolling in the late afternoons with their delicate, silken heads and thin, awk-ward arms and conscious hips, clinging to one another or shrieking and giggling with paired boys in the soda fountain when she passed and went on along the serried store fronts, in the doors of which the sitting and lounging men did not even follow her with their eyes any more.
The barber went swiftly up the street where the sparse lights, insect-swirled, glared in rigid and violent suspension in the lifeless air. The day had died in a pall of dust; above the darkened square, shrouded by the spent dust, the sky was as clear as the inside of a brass bell. Below the cast was a rumor of the twice-waxed moon.
When he overtook them McLendon and three others were getting into a car parked in an alley. McLendon stooped his thick head, peering out beneath the top. “Changed your mind, did you?” he said. “Damn good thing; by God, tomorrow when this town hears about how you talked tonight-”
“Now, now,” the other ex-soldier said. “Hawkshaw’s all right. Come on, Hawk; jump in.”
“Will Mayes never done it, boys,” the barber said. “If anybody done it. Why, you all know well as I do there aint any town where they got better niggers than us. And you know how a lady will kind of think things about men when there aint any reason to, and Miss Minnie anyway-”
“Sure, sure,” the soldier said. “We’re just going to talk to him a little; that’s all.”
“Talk hell!” Butch said. “When we’re through with the-”
“Shut up, for God’s sake!” the soldier said. “Do you want everybody in town-”
“Tell them, by God!” McLendon said. “Tell every one of the sons that’ll let a white woman-”
“Let’s go; let’s go: here’s the other car.” The second car slid squealing out of a cloud of dust at the alley mouth. McLendon started his car and took the lead. Dust lay like fog in the street. The street lights hung nimbused as in water. They drove on out of town.
A rutted lane turned at right angles. Dust hung above it too, and above all the land. The dark bulk of the ice plant, where the Negro Mayes was night watchman, rose against the sky. “Better stop here, hadn’t we?” the soldier said. McLendon did not reply. He hurled the car up and slammed to a stop, the headlights glaring on the blank wall.
“Listen here, boys,” the barber said; “if he’s here, dont that prove he never done it? Dont it? If it was him, he would run. Dont you see he would?” The second car came up and stopped. McLendon got down; Butch sprang down beside him. “Listen, boys,” the barber said.
“Cut the lights off!” McLendon said. The breathless dark rushed down. There was no sound in it save their lungs as they sought air in the parched dust in which for two months they had lived; then the diminishing crunch of McLendon’s and Butch’s feet, and a moment later McLendon’s voice:
“Will! . . . Will!”
Below the cast the wan hemorrhage of the moon increased. It heaved above the ridge, silvering the air, the dust, so that they seemed to breathe, live, in a bowl of molten lead. There was no sound of nightbird nor insect, no sound save their breathing and a faint ticking of contracting metal about the cars. Where their bodies touched one another they seemed to sweat dryly, for no more moisture came. “Christ! ” a voice said; “let’s get out of here.”
But they didn’t move until vague noises began to grow out of the darkness ahead; then they got out and waited tensely in the breathless dark. There was another sound: a blow, a hissing expulsion of breath and McLendon cursing in undertone. They stood a moment longer, then they ran forward. They ran in a stumbling clump, as though they were fleeing something. “Kill him, kill the son,” a voice whispered. McLendon flung them back.
“Not here,” he said. “Get him into the car.” “Kill him kill the black son!” the voice murmured. They dragged the Negro to the car. The barber had waited beside the car. He could feel himself sweating and he knew he was going to be sick at the stomach.
“What is it, captains?” the Negro said. “I aint done nothing. ‘Fore God, Mr John.” Someone produced handcuffs. They worked busily about the Negro as though he were a post, quiet, intent, getting in one another’s way. He submitted to the handcuffs, looking swiftly and constantly from dim face to dim face. “Who’s here, captains?” he said, leaning to peer into the faces until they could feel his breath and smell his sweaty reek. He spoke a name or two. “What you all say I done, Mr John?”
McLendon jerked the car door open. “Get in!” he said.
The Negro did not move. “What you all going to do with me, Mr John? I aint done nothing. White folks, captains, I aint done nothing: I swear ‘fore God.” He called another name.
“Get in!” McLendon said. He struck the Negro. The others expelled their breath in a dry hissing and struck him with random blows and he whirled and cursed them, and swept his manacled hands across their faces and slashed the barber upon the mouth, and the barber struck him also. “Get him in there,” McLendon said. They pushed at him. He ceased struggling and got in and sat quietly as the others took their places. He sat between the barber and the soldier, drawing his limbs in so as not to touch them, his eyes going swiftly and constantly from face to face. Butch clung to the running board. The car moved on. The barber nursed his mouth with his handkerchief.
“What’s the matter, Hawk?” the soldier said.
‘Nothing,” the barber said. They regained the highroad and turned away from town. The second car dropped back out of the dust. They went on, gaining speed; the final fringe of houses dropped behind.
“Goddamn, he stinks!” the soldier said.
“We’ll fix that,” the drummer in front beside McLendon said. On the running board Butch cursed into the hot rush of air. The barber leaned suddenly forward and touched McLendon’s arm.
“Let me out, John,” he said.
“Jump out, niggerlover,” McLendon said without turning his head. He drove swiftly. Behind them the sourceless lights of the second car glared in the dust. Presently McLendon turned into a narrow road. It was rutted with disuse. It led back to an abandoned brick kiln—a series of reddish mounds and weed- and vine-choked vats without bottom. It had been used for pasture once, until one day the owner missed one of his mules. Although he prodded carefully in the vats with a long pole, he could not even find the bottom of them.
“John,” the barber said.
“Jump out, then,” McLendon said, hurling the car along the ruts. Beside the barber the Negro spoke:
The barber sat forward. The narrow tunnel of the road rushed up and past. Their motion was like an extinct furnace blast: cooler, but utterly dead. The car bounded from rut to rut.
“Mr Henry,” the Negro said.
The barber began to tug furiously at the door. “Look out, there!” the soldier said, but the barber had already kicked the door open and swung onto the running board. The soldier leaned across the Negro and grasped at him, but he had already jumped. “The car went on without checking speed.
The impetus hurled him crashing through dust-sheathed weeds, into the ditch. Dust puffed about him, and in a thin, vicious crackling of sapless stems he lay choking and retching until the second car passed and died away. Then he rose and limped on until he reached the highroad and turned toward town, brushing at his clothes with his hands. The moon was higher, riding high and clear of the dust at last, and after a while the town began to glare beneath the dust. He went on, limping. Presently he heard cars and the glow of them grew in the dust behind him and he left the road and crouched again in the weeds until they passed. McLendon’s car came last now. There were four people in it and Butch was not on the running board.
They went on; the dust swallowed them; the glare and the sound died away. The dust of them hung for a while, but soon the eternal dust absorbed it again. The barber climbed back onto the road and limped on toward town.
As she dressed for supper on that Saturday evening, her own flesh felt like fever. Her hands trembled among the hooks and eyes, and her eyes had a feverish look, and her hair swirled crisp and crackling under the comb. While she was still dressing the friends called for her and sat while she donned her sheerest underthings and stockings and a new voile dress. “Do you feel strong enough to go out?” they said, their eyes bright too, with a dark glitter. “When you have had time to get over the shock, you must tell us what happened. What he said and did; everything.”
In the leafed darkness, as they walked toward the square, she began to breathe deeply, something like a swimmer pre-paring to dive, until she ceased trembling, the four of them walking slowly because of the terrible heat and out of solicitude for her. But as they neared the square she began to tremble again, walking with her head up her hands clenched at her sides, their voices about her murmurous, also with that feverish, glittering quality of their eyes.
They entered the square, she in the center of the group, fragile in her fresh dress. She was trembling worse. She walked slower and slower, as children eat ice cream, her head up and her eyes bright in the haggard banner of her face, passing the hotel and the coatless drummers in chairs along the curb looking around at her: “That’s the one: see? The one in pink in the middle.” “Is that her? What did they do with the nigger? Did they—?” “Sure. He’s all right.” “All right, is he?” “Sure. He went on a little trip.” Then the drug store, where even the young men lounging in the door-way tipped their hats and followed with, their eyes the motion of her hips and legs when she passed.
They went on, passing the lifted hats of the gentlemen, the suddenly ceased voices, deferent, protective. “Do you see?” the friends said. Their voices sounded like long, hovering sighs of hissing exultation. “There’s not a Negro on the square. Not one.”
They reached the picture show. It was like a miniature fairyland with its lighted lobby and colored lithographs of life caught in its terrible and beautiful mutations. Her lips began to tingle. In the dark, when the picture began, it would be all right; she could hold back the laughing so it would not waste away so fast and so soon. So she hurried on before the turning faces, the undertones of low astonishment, and they took their accustomed places where she could see the aisle against the silver glare and the young men and girls coming in two and two against it.
The lights flicked away; the screen glowed silver, and soon life began to unfold, beautiful and passionate and sad, while still the young men and girls entered, scented and sibilant in the half dark, their paired backs in silhouette delicate and sleek, their slim, quick bodies awkward, divinely young, while beyond them the silver dream accumulated, inevitably on and on. She began to laugh. In trying to suppress it, it made more noise than ever; heads began to turn. Still laughing, her friends raised her and led her out, and she stood at the curb, laughing on a high, sustained note, until the taxi came up and they helped her in.
They removed the pink voile and the sheer underthings and the stockings, and put her to bed, and cracked ice for her temples, and sent for the doctor. He was hard to locate, so they ministered to her with hushed ejaculations, renewing the ice and fanning her. While the ice was fresh and cold she stopped laughing and lay still for a time, moaning only a little. But soon the laughing welled again and her voice rose screaming.
“Shhhhhhhhhhh! Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” they said, fresh-ening the icepack, smoothing her hair, examining it for gray; “poor girl!” Then to one another: “Do you suppose anything really happened?” their eyes darkly aglitter, secret and passionate. “Shhhhhhhhhh! Poor girl! Poor Minnie!”
It was midnight when McLendon drove up to his neat new house. It was trim and fresh as a birdcage and almost as small, with its clean, green-and-white paint. He locked the car and mounted the porch and entered. His wife rose from a chair beside the reading lamp. McLendon stopped in the floor and stared at her until she looked down.
“Look at that clock,” he said, lifting his arm, pointing. She stood before him her face lowered, a magazine in her hands. Her face was pale, strained, and weary-looking. “Haven’t I told you about sitting up like this, waiting to see when I come in?”
“John,” she said. She laid the magazine down. Poised on the balls of his feet, he glared at her with his hot eyes, his sweating face.
“Didn’t I tell you?” He went toward her. She looked up then. He caught her shoulder. She stood passive, looking at him.
“Don’t, John. I couldn’t sleep . . . The heat; something. Please, John. You’re hurting me.”
“Didn’t I tell you?” He released her and half struck, half flung her across the chair, and she lay there and watched him quietly as he left the room.
He went on through the house, ripping off his shirt, and on the dark, screened porch at the rear he stood and mopped his head and shoulders with the shirt and flung it away. He took the pistol from his hip and laid it on the table beside the bed, and sat on the bed and removed his shoes, and rose and slipped his trousers off. He was sweating again already, and he stooped and hunted furiously for the shirt. At last he found it and wiped his body again, and, with his body pressed against the dusty screen, he stood panting. There was no movement, no sound, not even an insect. The dark world seemed to lie stricken beneath the cold moon and the lidless stars.
First published in Scribner’s, January 1931