Authors: Alan Duff
I FOUND ONE OF MY
bosses in upset state in the office shed on site, when
I had gone to ask my next instructions for the earth-mover machine I
operated. Not the Albert B Romney I knew.
Into nigger mode the instant of seeing he'd been crying, I asked
the ground at his feet where he would like me to go next. Expecting
anything from being yelled at to him punching or kicking me because
that was how it was.
More and more I found such treatments insulting to Negro manhood,
as my involvement with civil rights became more fervent, even if in an
underground capacity helping distribute newsletters and organize protest
marches. I should be glad something was making Albert B Romney
miserable, yet I wasn't. What sort of man would feel that?
He and his partner Jake McRory, both men of average intelligence
who yet understood the fundamentals of this earth-shifting game: that
it was to drive men and machines to the utmost every hour every day,
and to work men beyond paid hours, machines past manufacturers' best-usage
recommendations. And when things came inevitably to occasional
sudden halts, with busted engines, working parts pushed too far, then to
blame the men. Machines sat dumb and useless and with most operators
being Negro, easier to assault, abuse, deduct from his pay, hurt his family
with total forfeiture of owed wages, fire him on the spot for negligence.
Or put him on the next available machine and work hell out of both.
And if any fired man came back demanding his pay, stick a gun in his face
and ask to be reminded of how much was owed.
Our contract was to build a fixed distance of levee the east side of the
Mississippi River, another contractor completing the other side, spring
and summer months best before the flooding season risk increased. A
crew only thirty strong, we sometimes did achieve the impossible, if for
no thanks from our hard-nosed bosses.
Including a man said to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan — and
he was crying?
Something made me ask, everything all right, boss? When usually I
would never be so impertinent. He told me to come inside the office, he
had coffee brewing.
Jess, he began as he poured the black liquid into my metal cup, then
his own. Y'all got family members outside your own you truly love?
Yes, sir, guess we all have those. You meaning like, cousins and
nephews, uncles and aunts?
Yeah. And nieces too. Well, I lost mine on Saturday. My brother
Elmer's girl. Took her own life. Nineteen years of age and she doesn't
want to live? She was like my own child.
Tears started rolling down. I knew out of habit to show him I was
looking away, but decided the hell with that and took eyes back and kept
them there, steady as a machine working a delicate line, seeing he had
made such a personal confidence in me by crying openly.
You're a good worker, Jess Hines. You never stand around windbaggin'
and complaining. Just do your job. And you saw death in the
war. Think I don't know you're a veteran? You must have seen close
buddies die in front of your eyes. Did you?
I sure did.
Does a man ever get over it?
Boss, depend who the man is. How close the bond.
We was close. In fact, Jenny-May said she loved me more than her
own daddy. I guess on account of my brother's drinking, being twice as
bad as mine which my ex-wife said was bad enough.
My boss gave this weird grin. Guess from not used to talking to
a nigger like an equal.
Like to offer my heartfelt condolences, boss. Admire you still here
on the job, I do.
Appreciate it, Jess. Last time I felt like this was losing my best hunting
dog, got ripped by a wild hog up in the hills back of where you live. Died
in my arms carrying him out to the truck. You hunted Pushaw Hills?
Yessir. As a youngster, before I discovered dancing and girls was
Nothing better than your dogs bailing up a hog. Working the hairy
beast into a spot it can't escape from. Don't know many white men love
dancing like you niggers. The girls, well, sure. They a different hairy
beast. We all men, even you guys. Grinning knowingly, like two old
buddies doing chick talk. Motherfuckers hung like mules. You born that
Born with what I was born with, boss. Don't know if I'm blessed or
just ordinary. Never did the womanizing thing.
He pointed. I could tell. You used to be a drinker, right?
Yessir, something bad.
Ain't bad if you got charge of it. Drink is the cheapest ride from a
man's true troubled soul there is. My niece she hated it, my brother's
drinking. A beautiful girl she was too, very sensitive. You failed to notice
a new dress or shoes she was wearing, she'd run off to her room and sulk.
Old Uncle Albert here learned to go after her when I overlooked her
female vanity needs, say sorry and what could I buy my favourite niece to
make up? Was going to pay her wedding costs myself. Now, she's gone.
His tears spilled openly, no pretense at playing a-man-don't-cry, he
Well, naturally I got up and went round the table and took him up
and just hugged my boss. Hell, like he said, some things we're just men
the same are we not?
And he took it, my gesture, for what it meant. Just a simple gesture of
a human to another. In a few minutes, a few hours at most, things would
be back to the same: he'd be yelling at me, I'd be either pretending not
to hear because of my machine noise, or falling over myself to please
Half a foot shorter than me, the man I was hugging yet a strong man
physically. What he was mentally — this unfathomable redneck normally
a nigger-hater — I do not know. Me comforting was nothing new: our
Negro women had been mammies to their children ever since we got
here from Africa, our house-servant men intimate confidants to hear their
masters' every secret even the most awful. Been taking these people in our
embrace a long time. Wiped their baby bums and wiped their adult eyes,
blinded our own when they committed murder, never blinked when the
murdered was one of us. Though never was it the other way round, that
they had comfort and unseeing, forgiving eyes to give us.
How did she pass on, boss?
Hanged herself. My brother found her in the garage, called me up
screaming. I drove like a maniac over, had to cut her down. Just nineteen
years young. Had to slap my brother out of going for another bottle of
whiskey: not this time, big brother. We owe to be sober, give this innocent
a proper farewell. All day yesterday at the funeral parlor preparing her for
tomorrow's funeral. I find my brother's so much as sniffed a drink, be his
I'm so sorry, boss. Almost called him Albert.
Have to make a speech, in church. When I'm no God-fearing man
even if I been raised on hellfire and brimstone. Knew too many crotch-grabbing
preachers and money-making shysters to believe. What kind of
thing would you say, Jess? So I can see her off right.
I suggested he talk about the troubled spirit in every person, male and
female. Just like the beast dwells in each and every heart. And who of us
knows which can take control of our minds, when we get caught with
defenses down, in a time most vulnerable. Or succumb to the weakness
every person carries, even the strongest.
I appreciate your advice. I tell you, seeing a hanged body is not a pretty
sight. You know, the neck stretched, eyes bulging, a God-awful color.
Almost languidly I said, no, sure ain't a pretty sight. In my mind seeing
that lynched Negro sister. And looking at my distressed boss recalling what
he saw of his beloved niece. Passing before my mind's eye endless line-up
of Negroes hanging, like strange fruit, from a vast plantation of poplar
A course you niggers are more used to death than we are. Guess you
get kind of immune to it, do you?
Feels like we are immune, sometimes, boss. It does. Down to my
fawning nigger talk, so to tolerate the sublimely ridiculous.
I figured that. I loved that girl something special, I did.
She leave a note, boss? Make us understand better when they say why.
But sadder when the why is just plain misdirected thinking.
Hines, you done read my mind exactly. She didn't leave a note, not
even to say farewell to her favourite uncle, or accuse her daddy of drinking
away her life by being too drunk to see his girl in trouble. You got children
Wondering for one split second if to mention my son in New Zealand,
real enough in my mind to proudly claim. But the rule was, you never get
too close to a white person, hurts less when it turns sour as it always does.
That river of difference is wider than Old Miss.
Got two daughters live in Biloxi last I heard, I told him.
Like that, huh? Been a while since you seen them?
A long while, yes.
One of the nigger curses, you find it hard being daddies 'cause you
can't be husbands.
I heard that. Yeah. What slavery did? You know, being sold and traded,
moved everywhere, split asunder my momma used to say of my daddy and
her own, grandfathers too.
Could be, Jess Hines. Could be. Albert rubbed his chin. He was not
an attractive specimen, mostly in need of a shave, pot belly from the beer
he and his partner drank to quench their day thirst. The harder stuff at
And could be it's just the way your race is.
Then Albert looked at his watch, said, I thank you for sharing this
moment with me, but the show must go on. You can move to helping
Larry. And listen, how many times I have to tell you, make that machine
scream in reverse, it's when you lose so much time going backwards on
slow. Let's get going now.
Sure thing, boss.
THIS IS NOT A VILLAGE
— it's a dump. As I move from the sealed to a dirt
road, muddy from rain, in front of me a cluster of shacks in a pine clearing
revealed in a dawn sun. People moving around, yet to notice me.
I have been to a place kind of similar, when I was about ten and went
with Mum and her friend to a funeral in a remote Maori community way
up in the bush. Her first cousin had been beaten to death by a drunken
husband. We got to this ramshackle settlement, found the meeting house
down the end of a pot-holed dirt road, a neglected building that in any
Maori community is supposed to be its heart, proudly kept in pristine
We weren't greeted in the traditional way with respect and formal
welcome. Instead made our own way past groups of drinking men calling
out lewd comments on Mum's good looks and what they'd do to her
given a chance. Kids my age and older gave me the evils and held up
clenched fists. I heard Mum tell her friend for once she wished Henry
was here; he'd sort out these ugly violators of Maori culture and human
dignity. But she was determined to pay her cousin last respects.
The corpse looked like it was: beaten to death. A woman near the
coffin told my mother she better not stick around long or someone would
scratch her pretty face to ribbons. Mum said to her friend in not the
quietest voice, I think they're inbred.
At the community dining room we found more people drinking than
preparing food for guest mourners. Mum paid her customary contribution
and took us out of there. We drove out over a rutty dirt road with houses
that bush grew right up to, strewn with rubbish and car wrecks, dangerous
dogs running loose, untended toddlers roaming loose. Mum crying for her
cousin having to suffer in death as she did in life.
Well, this place here looks worse, even with the sun rays split ten
thousand times by the pines and birds in song, a woman singing as if at
Chooks run loose, mean dogs growling at me get told to stay, snorting
pigs in crudely built enclosures suggest the source of an awful stench.
This is just after six in the morning and kids, black as night most of them,
are already up and running around in the puddles from last night's heavy
That is, till they see me. And all movement halts and so does human
I must look a sorry sight, desperate for a shower or bath, clothes I've
slept in and bits of straw all over me from the hay barn I dossed down
in last night. And the blinding realisation these people are seeing me as a
white person. Me, a
Men who had been standing around scratching genitals, picking noses,
honking and spitting, smoking cigarettes are now frozen poses staring at
me. At this ghostly figure arrived with a suitcase. My utter dislocation no
doubt showing like any neon sign in the towns our bus passed through.
In my worsening confusion at going from one town to the next, I'd
missed the Greyhound bus due to arrive in daylight hours. I always knew
the two and a half miles from Whitecave to here could be the hard part,
as there would surely not be taxis in a town with a population of 1700. I
planned to hitch a ride or just walk. The bus I did catch arrived just before
midnight, dropped me alone in a strange town with a suitcase and no hotel
showing an open sign, no lights showing life. I had stuffed up. Wandering
the few streets wondering what to do then after a while a truck pulled up
and two men demanded to know who I was.
Had my lie ready. I'm from New Zealand — where's that? Well, it's
kind of close to Australia. A country they had heard of. Told them I was
on a mission for my dying father to say goodbye to a man he made close
friends with during World War Two. Lives in a place called Piney Woods.
Waited for the explosion.
Which almost came — literally. A gun came out the driver's window.
The passenger sighting me down a rifle barrel. That's nigger country, he
My father did tell me. But he is dying and they were like brothers.
With a nigger?
After checking me out by torch light and it being declared
I was definitely what I claimed to be, with my accent, and fact I passed for
white in their eyes, they took me to a barn nearby so I could delay my arrival
to a respectable hour. Warned, don't be boasting about no nigger friend of
your daddy's, not round here. Others might not be so understanding.
An older man takes a cigarette from his mouth to ask, can we be heppin
you, suh? You must be lawse.
Somehow I get his way of speaking, that heppin means helping and
lawse means lost. Kids are shouting my presence, that
a white man is here!
People pour out from the high houses, up on log foundations; they spill
down wooden steps, leap from verandas, and quickly surround me. In the
crowd a large woman exclaims,
Everyone is open-mouthed in
disbelief. A kid says,
It's a ghost!
Though I can't feel hostility.
A hundred times I have planned and rehearsed this, introducing myself
at my father's village, to his Negro community. I intended to say with
great pride, I'm here to meet my father. His name is Jess Hines. Thought
I'd be coming to a neat suburban community, colored-only, with oaks and
elms and magnolias like in the library books I'd pored over on the South,
and that my father's house would stand out as one of the best, if not
best. I wasn't expecting a mansion, had read up on the vast economic
differences between blacks and whites, that here in the South they lived
segregated. But I figured on a dwelling fit for a Negro of pride and, I
had just presumed, of ambition; a man still going places, despite the racial
Instead I can't speak. The trees are ugly pines. House is not the right
description for a single one of these raised shacks. I'm trying not to show
disbelief, hoping disgust is not betraying my forced effort at smiling. The
smells are so bad I fear violent retching or throwing up. Somewhere the
putrid smell of rotting meat. And about one hundred ebony-skinned
people staring at me in shocked silence.
Is this Piney Woods?
It surely is. Looking me more than up and down, every set of eyes
trying to slot me.
I think you got the wrong Piney, son.
Is there another Piney Woods in Whitecave?
Nope, this is it. You sure you got the right state? Maybe a different
county? Lots of places called Piney Woods, like they got three towns
called Cairo. Who you looking for? This is a coloured community.
Man by the name of—
I am suddenly so overcome I cannot say my father's name. Everyone's
waiting for the announcement. I wish my father would appear. This is
ridiculous, madness itself. What was going through my head to come all
this wearying, confusing, life-changing way without letting my father
A woman steps forward. Claims my voice with her smile.
Well, if you sure this is the right Piney, then we bid you welcome. I'm
figuring I know who you looking for. She looks to my right, at a figure
closing quickly, though I dare not show alarm or defensiveness, even if at
an intending attacker. It would look bad, and like I was scared. I know the
rules of manhood.
The woman beams at me. But I cannot reciprocate, just too dislocated.
Not a child moves nor any other adult. The woman has hands clasped
together, head cocked at an odd angle, as if I am a spiritual apparition.
Never felt so alone. The approaching figure is now in my peripheral
Then I hear my name — not that I'm very familiar with it.
You can't be Mark, surely?
My first thought is, I'm called Yank.
I turn and there's the man, the face I know so well from photographs.
It is him. Recognition instant, yet an apparition himself: as if he doesn't
belong here either. As if this is but a pausing place on his way to great
achievement, a resting place on a great life journey. It has to be.
For he is all over with pure presence. Tall, fine looking, dark but not
Are you Mark?
The voice is rich — richer than I expected. I must have either nodded
or said yes. For his face breaks open with smile that could light the darkness
here, darkness not of skin complexion nor night but the place these people
have been put: at the bottom of the heap.
Mark? Are you Mark? Oh God, but this cannot be happening. I don't
Did you say Mark . . . ? Lena's son . . . ? From New Zealand?
I can only nod to his checklist. Relief coming over me like imminent
fainting spell. I have been saved by this imposing figure, better looking
than the photographs, familiar yet a complete stranger. I can hear the years
racing to meet right here in the woods-shaded dirt. Yet see his confusion,
even a little anger at my stupid surprise arrival.
I'm sorry. I should have let you know.
No. No, he cries. Grabs me in his arms.
Father oh father, I was told you died, that you were killed in the war. You
were the unmentionable in the house I grew up in; I had to invent you in
my mind. Till one day you sprang to life in written words. You weren't
the all-American white hero I assumed: you were what is standing before
me now. Tall, dark and beautiful. These years of exchanging through
letters were never real. No flesh, no real meaning.
It was worth it, every moment of doubt and confusion and fear about
coming here: in my own father's arms for the first time.
And everyone is cheering and clapping and whooping in happiness for
us. That woman's beaming face. A son has come home.