It was happening all along the way. Little white boys, barefoot, dashed up with the news. “Them that has helps them that hasn’t! And that way they all get free! Seen a rich man give a poor man two hundred bucks to pay off some’un! Seen some’un else give some’un else ten bucks, five bucks, sixteen, lots of that, all over, everybody!”
The white men sat with sour water in their mouths. Their eyes were almost puffed shut, as if they had been struck in their faces by wind and sand and heat.
The rage was in Samuel Teece. He climbed up on the porch and glared at the passing swarms. He waved his gun. And after a while when he had to do something, he began to shout at anyone, any Negro who looked up at him. “Bang! There’s another rocket out in space!” he shouted so all could hear. “Bang! By God!” The dark heads didn’t flicker or pretend to hear, but their white eyes slid swiftly over and back. “Crash! All them rockets fallin’! Screamin’, dyin’! Bang! God Almighty, I’m glad I’m right here on old terra firma. As they says in that old joke, the more firma, the less terra! Ha, ha!”
Horses clopped along, shuffling up dust. Wagons bumbled on ruined springs.
“Bang!” His voice was lonely in the heat, trying to terrify the dust and the blazing sun sky. “Wham! Niggers all over space! Jerked outa rockets like so many minnows hit by a meteor, by God! Space fulla meteors. You know that? Sure! Thick as buckshot; powie! Shoot down them tin-can rockets like so many ducks, so many clay pipes! Ole sardine cans full of black cod! Bangin’ like a stringa ladyfingers, bang, bang, bang! Ten thousand dead here, ten thousand there. Floatin’ in space, around and around earth, ever and ever, cold and way out, Lord! You hear that, you there!”
Silence. The river was broad and continuous. Having entered all cotton shacks during the hour, having flooded all the valuables out, it was now carrying the clocks and the washboards, the silk bolts and curtain rods on down to some distant black sea.
High tide passed. It was two o’clock. Low tide came. Soon the river was dried up, the town silent, the dust settling in a film on the stores, the seated men, the tall hot trees.
The men on the porch listened.
Hearing nothing, they extended their thoughts and their imaginations out and into the surrounding meadows. In the early morning the land had been filled with its usual concoctions of sound. Here and there, with stubborn persistence to custom, there had been voices singing, the honey laughter under the mimosa branches, the pickaninnies rushing in clear water laughter at the creek, movements and bendings in the fields, jokes and shouts of amusement from the shingle shacks covered with fresh green vine.
Now it was as if a great wind had washed the land clean of sounds. There was nothing. Skeleton doors hung open on leather hinges. Rubber-tire swings hung in the silent air, uninhibited. The washing rocks at the river were empty, and the watermelon patches, if any, were left alone to heat their hidden liquors in the sun. Spiders started building new webs in abandoned huts; dust started to sift in from unpatched roofs in golden spicules. Here and there a fire, forgotten in the last rush, lingered and in a sudden access of strength fed upon the dry bones of some littered shack. The sound of a gentle feeding burn went up through the silenced air.
The men sat on the hardware porch, not blinking or swallowing.
“I can’t figure why they left now. With things lookin’ up. I mean, every day they got more rights. What they want, anyway? Here’s the poll tax gone, and more and more states passin’ anti-lynchin’ bills, and all kinds of equal rights. What more they want? They make almost as good money as a white man, but there they go.”
Far down the empty street a bicycle came.
“I’ll be goddamned. Teece, here comes your Silly now.”
The bicycle pulled up before the porch, a seventeen-year-old colored boy on it, all arms and feet and long legs and round watermelon head. He looked up at Samuel Teece and smiled.