Marilyn Dysart, author
I'm so excited about my new story I wanted to share a sneak peek with you!
Mississippi night. A crescent moon hung halfway in the dark black sky, creating shadows of things that may or may not have been real. Pond frogs croaked noisily like angry bulls as they lurked in the small pond behind Loretta E. Mays’ modest house. Nothing good ever happened after dark.
In the evening, Loretta always sat in the red upholstered chair in front of the small living room window. It was a perfect lookout; she could see down the gravel driveway from that overstuffed chair. She was extra wary tonight because she knew. She and her black friends were hosting Freedom Teachers. The good-olds had a way of reacting to her people under normal conditions. Now that things were moving beyond normal, there could be trouble. She hoped not. The two nice girls staying with her were trying to make a difference. They’d come down all the way from Wisconsin and Illinois to be teachers. She’d been a teacher, too. She reached her left hand behind the worn velveteen drapes. Her fingers wrapped around it. Yes. The shotgun was there.
Loretta was glad that the organization had insisted in driving the girls back and forth to school in cars with special drivers, drivers trained to spot trouble and try to avoid it however possible. Today had gone well, according to her girls. Marla had had a good experience teaching some history, and Samantha enjoyed her classes, too. She had been hungry for the details. Both girls had eaten a goodly portion of her home-cooked supper: creamed asparagus on biscuits. Loretta had insisted they move into the living room for her signature dessert, honey peach cobbler.
Now the three of them were in the living room, Loretta in her window chair and the girls, feet tucked under, on the worn cloth couch.
In the distance, she heard the faint sound of tires moving over gravel. The road past her house was a gravel one and not only could you hear the sound of tires spitting gravel through the air, but you could see the clouds of gravel dust billowing behind the car. Even in the dark, the gravel dust kicked up fog clouds you could see. She knew she could reach the loaded gun if the driver of the car was one of the good-olds.
Loretta could identify the car drivers just by their engine sounds. She relaxed her shoulders. Well, I’ll be. It’s my friend, Mr. Green. He is out awful late. He and his bride must be on their way back from tending to his father. I’m so glad it’s not the good-olds out looking for trouble.
Is Mr. Green’s father sick? Samantha asked.
Well, not exactly. You could say he’s more disabled than sick. It’s a long story that I may tell you another time.
What do you mean when you say ‘good-olds,’ Miss Loretta? One of my students said that today and I wasn’t exactly who he was referring to, Marla said.
I hope they told you about the good-olds—some folks call them ‘good-old boys’. Around here, we like to call them the ‘good-olds’ because more often than not, they aren’t boys, but rather grown men.
COFO told us that the Freedom Schools would be considered radical by some and that we should be cautious.
Say, girls, I’ve been wondering about something. I hear you talk a lot about COFO. What exactly do those letters stand for? I’m a card-carrying member of NAACP, and I know about the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—SCLC—and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—SNCC, but I hear you young folks referring to COFO all the time.
Marla answered. That’s a good question, Miss Loretta, about COFO. As you well know, NAACP, SCLC, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—SNCC—have been active here in the state for quite some time. Leaders in the organizations felt that it would be more effective if the organizations would reorganize into one giant organization to really step up voter registration. So, the umbrella organization they formed is the Council of Federated Organizations: COFO.
Thank you, Dear, for that nice explanation.
Are you afraid of the good-olds coming here? Samantha asked.
Some Latin words I read once, ‘In Omnia Paratus,’ mean to always be prepared for anything and so I keep my shotgun loaded and ready.
Marla put her fork down on her plate. You have a shotgun, Miss Loretta?
Loretta pulled back the drapes, unveiling the gun. We may never need to use this. But just in case, it’s loaded and ready. I don’t want you girls to worry, but if any of us gets threatened, we can use Old Betsy here to scare an enemy away. It’s best to fast talk someone out of bullying, but sometimes nothing works and we have to do what we have to do. Come over here for a minute, girls, I want to show you how to fire it.
Loretta gently lifted the shotgun into her lap and pointed the barrel away from the girls. Look at the carving on the barrel, here. My papa did all of this. Now, look here. To fire Old Betsy, you put the stock against your shoulder, point the gun, and just pull back here on the trigger. There’s nothing to it. But as I said, fast talking sometimes works. Other times, it might be better to go hide in the pond. Duck way down in the water with your face covered with some brush. There’re other things to do to be safe, too. We can talk about that another day. Now that we know the car going by was our folk, we can relax. I’d sure be grateful if you girls would tell me your stories. How did you get involved in the Freedom Teachers? Hearing your stories would fill my heart. . .
Now, just how did the two of you get involved in this Freedom Teacher project?
Marla answered Loretta’s question. After we graduated, we went our separate ways to college. Then our sophomore year, we heard about the Freedom Project and both of our sets of parents agreed to let us participate. The orientation week in Oxford, Ohio was the most exciting thing I’ve ever experienced—Marla, I know you’d agree, too. There was singing, lectures, training sessions. More singing. I can’t say they taught us everything we’d need to be super teachers, but we sure came down here inspired to teach.
Loretta leaned forward and placed her ear against the window screen. She snapped off the living room light switch. I’m sorry to interrupt your fine story, but you girls need to run out the back door, latch it back up, and head directly down to the pond. Let yourself off the dock slowly and then hand over hand, work your way along the underside of the dock as far back to the front as you can go. Don’t say anything. I’ll come get you when this is over.
What’s going on? Samantha asked.
It’s a car load of good-olds heading our way. Hurry now. Remember to latch the door. Go now. Hurry!
Samantha sensed Miss Loretta’s anxiety and grabbed Marla by her hand. Come on girl. Let’s get moving.
The girls half-ran through the kitchen. Marla pressed the screen open and Samantha let it close behind her. She turned the wooden latch to secure it.
Tires crunched gravel as a truck pulled into the driveway. Loretta stuffed the shotgun in a laundry basket and quickly readjusted several folded towels and sheets to hide the gun. She carried the basket out the front door and set it down on the porch. She picked up her heavy-duty flashlight. I recognize the truck; it belongs to Miles Grimes. She focused the flashlight beam onto the windshield. She needed to know how many men were riding with him. Good. His thirty-something son Homer was the only other passenger. Miles slowed the truck when he got close to her porch and steered it in a semi-circle so his window was facing the porch.
Well, good evening, Mr. Grimes and Homer. You are out late tonight.
Yes indeed. We’ve become aware that you might be hosting some Yankees here.
Well, Mr. Grimes, that may or may not be true. But what certainly is true, is your wife gave me a large order of washing to do today. I’ve got about half of it done and folded in this basket. You know I sure appreciate your family hiring me to do the washing. Since I retired, I don’t have much money coming in and your family sure has helped me to afford to buy a few necessities. Say, Mr. Grimes. Would you like to take this basket of already-done laundry home now, or would you like me to deliver it tomorrow with the rest, once I’ve finished.
Personalize. That sometimes works. Make a connection to the person’s family that would make them feel too guilty to try any violence. It had worked before.
Naw. You can bring it tomorrow when it’s all done. And Miss Mays, you watch your involvement with the outsiders. We’ve had a good life here in Linnville. We don’t need no agitators disturbing the peace—I’m sure you’ll agree with me.
Loretta stifled her impulse to correct his double negatives. I’m for peace, too, Mr. Grimes. Now when you get home, you give your bride a big smile from me and tell her again how I so appreciate my business partnership with your family.
He revved the engine and turned the wheel to exit her driveway. Whew. Good thing it was who it was. Homer could have taken us all out singlehandedly. His mother must have told him she paid me to edit his high school papers. Never could get his grammar straight.
Loretta sat down in the porch rocking chair. No need to believe they were really gone. Sometimes the good-olds got a second bout of racism and returned to a black home to really do some damage. She’d wait a bit ‘till the coast was clear.
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