Another portion of “Chattahoochee Child…”
The thermostat hanging on the porch read 100 degrees that Wednesday afternoon. I wiped beads of perspiration from my forehead. If only Grammy had given me permission to go to the swimming pool. The only way I kept cool was by wrapping ice cubes in a wash cloth, placing them on my head. I fanned myself with the morning newspaper. Papa and Grammy read it before going to the mill. I was alone, sitting on the porch when I heard sirens screaming in the distance.
Someone must’ve gotten too hot at the mill. The sirens were getting closer now. I peered over the porch, anxious to see if I could see them. The mill was only a block away from my Grammy and Papa’s wooden house. The sirens sounded as if they were approaching my direction. I stepped onto the sidewalk. A crowd of people blocked my view, so I moved closer, hoping no one would tell Grammy and Papa I was off the porch.
“What’s going on?” I heard a woman dressed in Bibb overalls say.
“It’s Barney. It’s bad,” a wrinkled man with a bald head answered.
I moved closer, reaching the man, I tugged at his overalls.
He glanced down at me, surprised to see a ten-year-old being so inquisitive.
“What happened to Barney? He’s my Papa’s best friend.”
“Ain’t you Jesse’s granddaughter?”
I nodded yes. The sirens screamed in my ears now. A Bibb City police car. An ambulance. Another siren screamed behind the two cars that had just passed. The coroner.
Someone gasped. I heard a woman say, “Oh. No. Here comes the coroner.”
I couldn’t help wondering what a coroner was. We hadn’t had that word on vocabulary test in school. Whatever a coroner was, I knew it meant something bad was happening, just from watching the movements and sighs of the curious crowds of Bibb City.
Barney lived two blocks away from Papa’s house. I could walk to it. I looked around for the wrinkled man who knew me as Jesse’s granddaughter. I hoped he wouldn’t see me crossing the street. I knew if I got caught crossing the street, Grammy would give me another tongue lashing and more restrictions. I lived on restrictions at Grammy’s house.
I jumped down to the curb, looked both ways, deciding to cross the road. The sirens were quiet now. I couldn’t see Barney’s house for the swarm of people standing around it. People were talking saying the coroner’s inside.
“Did Barney have another heart attack?”
I knew from all the whispering that my Papa’s friend was in some kind of trouble.
The wrinkled, bald headed man who knew me spoke up, “Barney got canned today. They sent him home. I saw him after it happened. He probably ended it.”
“Ended what?” I asked, the curiosity of a child visualizing a collection of thoughts inside my head. None of the thoughts were healthy. Somehow I knew, ‘ended it’ was not good news.
The coroner stepped outside, lighting a cigarette on the porch. A Bibb City police officer joined him. A few minutes later, two men carrying a stretcher left the house. One of the men tugged at the black cloth covering the stretcher. Something was under the black cloth. Please God, don’t let it be Barney.
A lady rushed from the house. I recognized her as Miss Evelyn, Barney’s wife. She was crying, ringing her hands, screaming at the stretcher. “Please don’t take him to the morgue…Just take him to the hospital. He’ll be fine…”
I made a mental note to look up the words coroner and morgue in my Webster’s Dictionary. The people standing around were being so careful, whispering softly into each other’s ears. I heard mumbles of ‘sh-hhh-hh…children are around. Don’t say nothing.’
The two men placed the stretcher inside the ambulance, closing the door when Miss Evelyn met them. One of the men attempted to stop her. She jerked her arm free.
“Just leave me alone,” she screamed. “I want to be with Barney.” She touched the ambulance door, and turned towards the crowd.
“Barney wouldn’t listen. I told him not to do it. I begged him to be quiet,” She cried. “He wouldn’t listen to me. He never listens to me, or anyone else. I told him…”
The lady dressed in Bibb overalls reached out to her. “It’s okay. Everything will be all right. The mill takes care of us. You’ll be fine. Let’s go inside.”
“The mill,” Miss Evelyn said. “They’re the ones who did this. The Bibb destroyed him. They killed my husband. To Hell with the Bibb.” She spat on the ground. “I hate that mill. Don’t let the Bibb kill all of you.”
About a crowd of 20 or more mill workers heard Miss Evelyn’s angry words. They mumbled something about her being sick.
“A nervous breakdown.” A woman’s voice said. “She doesn’t know what she’s saying.”
I turned away from the house, anxious to get back to Grammy and Papa’s house. I crossed the street, meeting Papa on the other side.
“What are you doing here, Missy?” He said.
“I-I-, uh, I heard sirens. I wanted to know what happened.”
“You’re always such a nosey kid. Go on. Get on home.”
“Yes, sir.” I said. “Papa, they’re saying bad things about Barney.”
“Barney’s dead,” Papa said. “It don’t matter what they say now. He was trying to do something, and now he’s gone.”
“Miss Evelyn said the mill did it. She said the mill killed Barney. Will they kill you, Papa?”
“Missy, I said go home. Now!” He shouted at me.
When Papa shouted, I dare not ask again. He used switches on my bottom when I misbehaved his commands. Sometimes those switches cut my skin, leaving whelps and deep scratches, hurting me so badly I hated to sit down.
“Yes, sir.” I said. I was worried about my Papa. His face was clenched. His forehead wrinkled. His lips tight. I didn’t like seeing that side of my Papa’s temper.