A Boy-A Man: I Was. Be. Done Been.

Shahn Ben, 1898-1969, photographer, 1935, Farm Security Administration cropped

***Everybody significant to this memory is already dead.

There is still a Barbershop at the corner of Morrell and Walnut streets. Across the way is a rail stop and the roads are paved and level. Back in 1973 that area was an open field where some long gone business had left a broken slab and ridiculous patches of weeds, grass, pop bottle glass and gravel. One slice of that lot, furthest away from the bus stop, covered a water run-off ditch with high weeds and was good for hiding.

Jesse Lawrence was a pretty good hider. He was slightly built as we grew older and his once scatter shot laughter calmed into a silent, under-his-breath chuckle. We came to know that he was laughing by the twitch of his shoulders and corner of his mouth lifting to bare his dog tooth. He had changed when his right eye nearly closed after being hit by the playground swing. Now, he appeared and slipped away with silence and ease and remembrance. We practiced saying, “He was here, with us…Mr. Policeman” or to a staggering Mr. Lawrence. He was eleven. He ran fast and favored his left if you were throwing the football to him. He sometimes asked us to hold things for “a lil’ while”.

 At the Barbershop, Mr. Harold Milton was a model of The Talented Tenth Generation. Even now, him long dead and me at his age, I walk a line as thin as his mustache. I sorrow at my selfishness in not tucking my starched shirts above a belt and matching shoes, shined to a fit. My stride is neither as high or as tight. My interactions these days at the Barbershop, surely would fall below and behind Mr. Harold Milton’s gracefulness.

He spoke eloquently about standing upright and the legacy you built by ownership. His tiger’s eye pinky ring and cuff links were distinct elements of his haircuts, along with, the bay rum and a boar’s hair broom that finished off your time in his chair. His cash drawer was a blue, Savings & Loan deposit bag in the top drawer of a polished, five foot, cherry, oval mirrored stand. A thick brass rod encircled the white, marble basin and held a smoothing strope. Mr. Harold slid the razor along that leather strap in a fashion that suggested an undercurrent of recollecting violence.

What we knew on that late Summer afternoon when those two lives changed forever, was the rush and squealing tires of Mr. Milton’s red Cadillac a few blocks away. Ricky’s perfectly spiraled football whisked over the head of a new kid and thudded on the street. The red Caddy flushed into view and turned right with a fishtail, then chased onto Walnut Street, back toward Morrell. It was so unusual that nearly every boy playing that day cursed a very animated, “Damn!”

In the clearing dust cloud and riding the cusses, a slim figure stood up from the water overflow ditch. In unison another cuss ran through us as everyone recognized the Barbershop cash bag sticking out the leg of Jesse’s cutoffs. A moment later Jesse shook his pants and the frayed cutoff edged back his secret.

Jesse slipped away from the ditch and among us so quickly that we had to ask ourselves if it was really him. He grabbed the football away from Big Ricky and slipped a few feet away, tossing it back into the crowd and jogging a few away, waving his amazingly large and open palm for a return pass.

Just as the ball was pitched back to him Mr. Milton’s red Cadillac crunched to a stop behind us. It, like Jesse, emerging at its Master’s will…beck and command. Jesse tapped the ball down hard against the leg with a secret and stepped back into our group.

Mr. Milton’s gaze was certain and piercing as he lifted the cuff-linked maw of a hand to find Jesse. His commanding use of the word, “Son”, was a heavily stropped blade and boys peeled away from Jesse, who had squatted and was tying an already tight shoe lace.

Jesse rose to his full, five feet three inches, then spread his palms and fingers wide toward Mr. Milton. Mr. Milton advanced and we all froze anticipating an angry blow. Older men didn’t fight boys in our neighborhood, but his frantic street and alley searching for this boy signaled change. He stared into Jesse’s eyes and his angry posture relented. Mr. Milton stepped to the left of Jesse and spread out his huge, sleeved arm and an opened palm. “Give me what’s mine, Son”.

It took a minute to see that his sudden move had cut off Jesse’s escape. As Mr. Milton approached the boys around Jesse had spread. Now, we saw it. Jesse’s lip raised, exposing that dog tooth, then he tilted his head to Mr. Milton and the leather pouch slipped to the ground from up his pant leg.

Everybody stared at its thickness.

Mr. Milton waited for Jesse to pick up and hand back the money bag. When the boy crouched into the action we could see he had schemed to spring up and slice between the crowded bodies. Mr. Milton saw it too and spoke sharply, “I’ll need to see your pockets, Son”. The man’s loose fist jutted out and stayed Jesse in a crouch.

We spread away from the two of them as Jesse whispered, “I hid some of it under the Church. I ain’t got nothing else on me.” Mr. Milton pulled him up saying, “Well, let’s be on it, then.” and they started toward the Church, just half the block away. Jesse’s arm was swallowed in a tight grip as they ascended the short incline, passing the grassy ditch.

Three minutes later they were rounding the corner of the Church. Jesse was freed, but in close reach of a grimacing Mr. Milton and the Pastor. We were still grouped and swearing under our breaths about the whole thing when somebody said, “Awww Maaan…” and pointed beyond the Church to Mr. Lawrence hustling toward Jesse and the men with braided extension cords at his side. He began to swear and yelled at Jesse, “You bet not run!”, but the boy had already bolted.

Pastor and Mr. Milton turned and halted Mr. Lawrence with pleas and assurances that everything was returned. I watched a slim figure rising slowly against the Church facade at a spot flush with evergreen bushes and bordered by a brick planter. We avoided that spot for both the sickening smell of the bushes and the sticky sap on the sprig limbs. Jesse melded into place and calmed his breathing so as not to shake the hiding place. Mr. Lawrence and the men bustled past him and entered the Church side door assuming Jesse had sought its sanctuary.

Jesse stepped free of the hide, brushed the sticky green bristles from his head and face, then jutted across Morrell Street toward another hiding place. A moment later the men emerged from the Church. Mr. Lawrence’s braided extension cords were gone and he was apologizing profusely to Mr. Milton. Pastor draped an arm around the embarrassed, angry father and drew him back inside the Church. Mr. Milton slipped away and drew toward our bunch and his still idling red Cadillac with the open driver’s door.

His glance was brief. His nod, to us innocents, was joined with a wave and an embarrassed grimace before slipping into the red Cadillac. He sat for a minute, then stared up into the rise of Morrell Street that leveled out for about seventy yards in front of the Church, then gradually leaned into a slope, then ascended toward a tree-lined gully of the hill where Jesse’s family lived. Behind us the 47 Moore City Bus whined to a stop and expelled neighbors and diesel fumes and Mr. Milton stepped out his car holding some folded bills.

For some reason he picked me. “Junior, can you get this to Jesse? …just like I’m handing it to YOU!” His hand wobbled as it pressed the crisp half-fold against my dirty t-shirt. His other hand quickly came forward and placed a worn ten dollar bill atop the fold, ” This is for being my Man Friday.”

Mr. Milton turned back into his red Cadillac, shut the solid sounding door and sped off, passing his Barbershop and, eventually, the 47 Moore City bus.

Across Morrell and caddy-corner to the Barbershop was a place we called, the Little Store. There was candy, sodas and barbecue potato chips. The owners, Mr. Brown and Short Sam, had installed a row of washing machines and two dryers in a room next door. They had also put a pinball machine in the rear, near the always open door and exit to an alley. As a group we agreed to spend three dollars on pinball and junk food until Jesse slipped in from the alley to take his turn at getting the highest score.

Jas. Mardis is a 2014 Inductee to the Texas Literary Hall of Fame.

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