Copyright 1997 by John L. Doughty, Jr.
One hot morning in June, I arrived in Indianola, Mississippi, many hours early for the B.B. King Homecoming Concert to be held that night in Indianola's Indian Creek Park. With time on my hands, I did one of my favorite things--bum around. I went in a few shops, bought a T-shirt, talked to some city folks, then ate lunch and headed for the outskirts of town and my kind of folks--cotton field folks.|
To me, Indianola personifies a Delta city. Cotton plants grow right up to the city limit signs. Near a city limit sign and a million cotton plants, I gassed up the Bluesmobile and headed for the Delta back roads. I drove aimlessly, in no hurry. Some time later, we--the Bluesmobile and I--came to a small and herein unnamed town.
I drove along the vacant building-lined main street, then parked the Bluesmobile beneath the shade of an oak. Without the air conditioner, the heat inside the car quickly became oppressive. I rolled down all four windows and sat there for a few minutes, letting the ever-present breeze blowing across miles of cotton fields cool me while I watched the street and decided whether or not to get out of the car.
Beyond me the street became a road and disappeared in the vastness of a huge cotton field. Seemingly at the end of that road a heat mirage shimmered like the surface of a lake. Across the street a woman entered a small grocery store, somehow remaining open in spite of the poverty and abandonment surrounding it. Then out of the door and into the heat stepped a kid about six years old and with a soft drink in his hands. He raised the drink, tilted back his head, then chugged down the drink as he walked along the sidewalk. Still chugging, he turned the corner and disappeared. So either the kid in me or the thirst in me made up my mind for me, and I got out of the car.
A couple of minutes later, I was leaning against the front of the store, enjoying the shade beneath the store's awning and chugging down my own soft drink. It was ice-cold and delicious. I'm sure I went "Ahhhhh."
Then from down the sidewalk to my left and from around the corner from which the kid had disappeared, came another kid, also about six years old but with no soft drink in his hands. He stopped and looked up at me in mild shock, probably startled at the sight of a strange white man leaning against the front of the store. The kid's clothing, a white T-shirt and blue shorts, was clean but well-worn, and he was barefoot. His T-shirt was too short, and I could see a shiny round section of his little brown belly. I said, "Hi."
He said nothing, just stood there and stared up at me through big brown eyes.
So I just sipped my soft drink and stared back. After a sip or two, during which I noticed that the big brown eyes seemed to follow the up and down movements of my soft drink bottle, I said, "You want one?"
He nodded his head.
I handed him down two quarters. He took them and darted inside the store. The screen door--as every screen door does when closed by a child--closed with a slam! I continued leaning against the wall and enjoying the shade and sipping my drink. Beside me, the screen door soon went slam! again, and the kid, a soft drink in his hands, quickly disappeared around the corner. Silence returned to my little shady oasis.
In that silence and from down the sidewalk to my right, I heard music. I listened closely, straining my ears. It sounded like Tyrone Davis. I left the shade of the awning and walked down the sidewalk, past an abandoned building with jagged glass hanging like crystal stalactites from rotting window frames. I reached the corner and turned in the direction of the then slightly louder music. It was Tyrone Davis.
Beyond me an empty street stretched out in the bright sunlight and seemed to end several blocks away in a cluster of shotgun houses. Beside me an empty sidewalk ran down the unbroken wall of the abandoned building. At the far end of that wall, I could see the opening of a door, and from that door I heard Tyrone Davis stop singing and then heard Little Milton start singing.
I walked down the sidewalk and up to the door. It was made of rusty black-painted screen, and the wooden door behind it was open, pulled back against the wall and out of sight. Through the rusty screen and inside the murky room I could see the dim outlines of tables and chairs. I saw the glow of a cigarette and then saw the dim outline of the person holding the cigarette and sitting at a table. It's a bar, I decided.
But, around me, I could see no beer signs or posters. Through the screen in front of me and inside the dim room, I could see neither the glitter of a jukebox nor the neon gleam of lighted beer signs. It's not a bar, I then decided.
A man who looked like he just crawled from beneath an oily tractor suddenly opened the screen door and stepped outside.
"Is that a bar?" I asked him.
"Yeah," he answered and quickly walked down the sidewalk and toward the shotgun houses.
It's a bootlegger joint, I realized. Wonderful!
I opened the screen door and stepped into an atmosphere in which the chill I felt had nothing to do with temperature. A not-so-glittery jukebox sat in the corner to my left. In front of it stood a young man, backed up to it like the jukebox was a heater and his butt was cold. He stared toward an empty space in the opposite corner.
Around a table near the middle of the room sat two middle-aged men, a thirtyish woman, and an elderly man who looked like Cab Calloway in khaki. The scarred and cigarette-burned surface of the table at which they sat contained four hands of cards placed face down and with red-spotted backs showing. The center of the table was heaped with a large green pile of perhaps a hundred wrinkled one-dollar-bills. None of the four faces around the table looked up at me as I entered the room. Another middle-aged man sat alone at a table beside the card-table. I joined him. "How y'all doing," I asked everyone as I sat.
Someone muttered, "Fine."
Not one eye had yet looked into mine. I felt invisible or like a fly on the wall. The only sound I heard was the snap of flipped-over cards and the swish of bills. Even the jukebox suddenly became silent. I then noticed that Cab and I were the only people not drinking. The man at the table with me held a Budweiser in his hand. The three people at the table with Cab held red plastic glasses in their hands. One of them finally took a sip, and I could see that the glass contained a clear liquid. Moonshine, I knew.
"I'm just passing through, y'all," I said. "I'm looking for some place with live music. Trying to find somebody playing the blues."
Cab, his eyes down at his cards, said, "Ain't no live music around here."
The young man at the jukebox-heater walked past the door to the small window and slid the curtain closed, making the room even darker. Then he returned to his heater and stared again at the space in the opposite corner.
Snap swish. Snap swish.
"Nowhere around here?" I asked.
Snap swish. Snap swish.
"What kind of game are y'all playing? I never saw it before."
Snap swish. Snap swish.
The young man at the jukebox heater reached over and slowly and quietly closed the wooden door. The room grew dark.
"Where you from?" the thirtyish woman asked as darkness descended.
"Natchitoches, Louisiana. Over in west Louisiana. Down below Shreveport."
"What you doing way over here?"
"Came over to see the B.B. King concert in Indianola tonight. Hoped I could get out in the country and listen to some local blues bands."
"That ain't what you doing."
"Yes, ma'am. That's what I'm doing."
The wooden door suddenly opened and sent a shaft of extremely bright light across the dark room. A man stepped halfway inside, looked at me, then did a double-take. He jumped backwards, and the door slammed shut. Darkness descended again.
"Gosh, y'all, I'll have to come back sometime and get y'all to teach me how to play pitty-pat. But I'll have to play with pennies; I can't afford to play with dollars."
"You got money," the woman informed me.
"No, ma'am. I ain't got any money."
"How you come way over here and stay if you ain't got money?"
"In a tent."
I grew bored of the silence and told them goodbye. They said nothing. I left the wooden door open when I walked out into the light.