He was old and black…negro…colored he’d say and he had been for a good while. “I know you.” He said. “You watch me thru de windah.” I nodded as our first conversation concluded.
He drove his old mule down the newly-paved asphalt roads, begrudgingly regal on an old scrap tire his plow rested…the point hidden inside the body of the tire like a smuggled dagger…the plow proper riding like a lazy sultan on a black magic carpet as the ancient negro caressed callous-worn bent limbs that hung over open road like wooden Jesus on the cross.
Garden plots had once been the rage and his daily bread. Before Piggly Wiggly and Winn Dixie had come. His fields to till had shrunk with the surrender of the Axis powers. His empire had briefly swelled during the war in Korea but Vietnam had not born fruit as of yet…and it would not. Vietnamese gardens went to seed. Still he made his living and his rounds thru the neighborhoods. Old women paying him to turn their gardens in the old ways so a lucky kid could watch earth roll like a fat black baby reaching for his only toy.
I never saw him plow. Only heard stories. “Ole Jim, his furrows are the straightest you’ll ever see.” My dad studied his work. “Nobody puts in a garden like that these days…no one has enough land here in town.” It was true, I suppose. By the time his mule got started, it was time to turn around and even I knew enough to say mules don’t like to plow in a circle. “Get them going in a straight line by setting some stakes first to put in the first row…with a string if you have to…then stay same distance from it on your next runs. Have a pocketful of corn and give him a nibble at the end of a couple of rows. He’ll pull straight as a hawk on the fly.” My granddaddy used to say.
When Jim ran out of gardens, he could have sold his mule and put himself out to pasture but he didn’t. He went to work taking care of the last stable in our neighborhood. In the quarters, next to the colored cemetery. Old rundown horses and mules no one cared enough to kill. They kept the grass eat down around the headstones and conch shells…the occasional disrespectful dung pile was merely a cost of doing business.
His other job in the warmer months, if you could call it a job, was to watch the swimming hole. In the old days, as the story went, the black kids could swim as well as the whites but after LBJ, the black daddies went their own way and no mama or auntie could teach or wanted to teach a half-drowned clawing child to swim. So by default, the black kids watched the white kids swim and called us crazy because we went into water over our heads.
Old Jim watched. Smoked. Rolled another. Said nothing unless he was asked unless it was a warning not to drown and always by one of us…never one of them. He would nod his head. Smile softly. Say “Yes, Lawd” and “No, chile” with equal enthusiasm. Watching the black kids refuse to swim he would become melancholy.
While he watched us, he worked with his leather saddle bags…his “grip” he would call it and he would make magic and rope.
At times, I would just sit and watch those hands…whipping and twisting like an oyster shucker winning a money bet and at times caressing and combing his work and I would wonder who had taught him…and the one before…and the one before.
He’d look at me. Out of his grip would come a handful of hair. Mane and tail. I do not know how he got it. I know it was considered cruel to cut a horse’s tail too short but the mane, I suppose was fair game.
He would card it…run it thru blocks with a bed of tiny nails to straighten it out and give me a hank. “Hole dis, chile”, and he would have me holding a coke bottle’s thickness of hair…like a limp kitten…and then he would start to spin a strand with a whirling contraption that looked like a one-armed propeller and he would tell me to back away and to feed it myself and the first time I was nervous but got the hang of it until the hair ran out. Then he would grab other strands into three or more piles and start to weave, braid and plait. He would twist and turn and say, “No, chile” or “Yes, Lawd” and pick from already prepared piles of yellow and black and white and red and he would call the horse by name and its real color…not those of the spectrum…but those of a man who had to know which was the roan and which was the dun.
The new rope would be spliced into a piece he was working on in another pocket of his grip and the rope was black and gold and red and white and a checkerboard pattern if you took it and spun it slowly in your hands and he would smile because you noticed.
“Why do you sit and watch us?”
“Is my jawb, chile.”
And he would say no more.
One of the older boys called to me…one of the swimmers…”hey, last name- you can swim, can’t you?”
Of course I could swim; he was baiting me.
“Better’n you! Better’n anybody here!”
“Nobody likes a bragger.” Under his breath.
“Yessr”…the sir part said real low…just between the two of us.
“You know what good times is?” I didn’t think I knew the answer, so I didn’t say.
“…when nobody can hear your belly and you can sleep all night without having to stand watch…thems is good times…when you got a hoss dat call to you at dark tellin’ you good night…and a woman you don’t have to talk to…she just know”…he paused…”dat’s good times…when yo babies be piled up on you like sacks of taters and you laughing and crying and praying so hard you wakes ’em up and dey looks at you and goes back asleep. Dat’s good times.”
“Go on, now.” And he would sit with the rope between his palms…wide and white on one side…wide and black on the other except for the scars and fingernails…tightening the weave he would say…getting it to set. And he would wet it and watch it dry until it was just right and then spin it and tighten it and it would have the consistency of liquid glass. At times he would pull on it with his teeth or put it under his feet and try to pull it apart but I think he was just messing with me then…and the piece would go back into the grip because the sun was getting down into the trees.
He would walk back up toward the cemetery…head low, whistling or singing to himself…brogan shoes scuffing clay or asphalt. People would honk or wave as they went by or they would pass him in a cloud of dust…he waved either way.
And once in a while, men would stop and money would go one way and a worthless lasso or halter would go another…the uncounted money disappearing into an empty pocket…and later that night would vanish into a horseless barn a work of art.