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Read a Chapter: The Promised Land by Valerie Stocking

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Read a Chapter is *NEW* added feature at Beyond the Books! Here you’ll be able to read the first chapters of books of all genres to see if you like them before you buy them. Today we are featuring The Promised Land by Valerie Stocking. Ordering information follows. If you would like to learn more about Valerie, visit her website at www.valeriestocking.com. Enjoy!

 

It’s 1966, just two years after President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, and twelve-year-old Joy Bradford’s life is changing dramatically. Born and raised in the white suburbs of Connecticut, Joy is moving to Willets Point, Florida, to live with her mother Jessica because her parents are divorcing. Hoping it really is the Promised Land that her mother describes, she joins in Jessica’s enthusiasm only to find out how horribly wrong that vision is.

Unfortunately for Joy, the move does nothing to change her mother’s emotional and mental instability, resulting in a continuation of the physical and verbal abuse she is all too used to receiving. Her new school is years behind her old one, the kids dress and act differently, and on just the second day, Joy has a run-in with her geography teacher. Things are going from bad to worse until Clay Dooley, a mixed-race boy from that same geography class, offers his friendship. The two become close, sending shockwaves that dovetail with a growing sense of tension and unease in the community as a whole. Clay’s father Clytus, a well-educated black man, attempts to open his own clothing store in the white section of downtown Willets Point. This causes Jessica’s new lawyer cum boyfriend and leader of the local Klan chapter, Bill McKendrick, to join with other white citizens in using great force to block Clytus’ dreams. Tempers flare and emotions run high when Clytus refuses the Klan’s subsequent demand that he and his family move out of the white neighborhood they live in, setting off an explosive confrontation that will change them all forever.

An absorbing and suspenseful coming of age story set against the tumultuous backdrop of racial tensions in mid-1960’s America, Stocking’s blend of historical fact and fiction is as relevant today as it was during the explosive Civil Rights era. Probing the human psyche for the deep-seated fears that fuel the fires of racism and bigotry, she expertly builds characters who feel their very lives are at stake by the changing times. Full of insight and intensity, The Promised Land is a spellbinding journey you won’t want to miss.

 

Chapter One

 

AUGUST 1966

 

            Joy Bradford stared out the window of the moving train headed from New York’s Penn Station to St. Petersburg, Florida.  Her ungainly body was encased in a pair of Bermuda shorts and a white, sleeveless Ship and Shore blouse. She had unfashionably short, curly brown hair, and a splotch of acne across her forehead. She was twelve years old.

She frowned, blinking her eyes behind Coke-bottle thick, horn-rimmed glasses.  The area they were traveling through was very poor, with houses that were nothing more than dilapidated, one-room shacks. Some were tilting to one side, threatening to collapse.  Some of the roofs looked partially caved-in. Windows were crude openings, lacking blinds or curtains.

Aunt Margaret, who was traveling with Joy and her mother Jessica, had referred to the lean-tos that Joy was seeing, which had appeared throughout their trip, as “Niggertowns.”  The term bothered Joy.  When she’d been four, her mother taught her a rhyme, “Eenie meenie miney moe, catch a nigger by the toe. If he hollers let him go, eenie, meenie miney moe.”  She’d recited it proudly for their housekeeper Melissa, who had shouted at her, “Don’t you ever say that again.”

“Why not?” Joy asked.

“It’s a bad word for colored people.”

Joy had never seen her so upset.  “Okay, I won’t say it anymore,” she promised…

“What are you doing?”

Joy, startled, jerked away from the window, looking up as Aunt Margaret entered the room.

Aunt Margaret frowned.  “Come away from there.  That’s something you shouldn’t have to see,” she said.  “None of us should have to look at it.  It’s disgusting.  A cesspool.”

Joy eyed her, but was silent.

“Where’s your mother?” Aunt Margaret wanted to know.

Joy shrugged.  “She said she was going to the dining car to get us a table.”

Aunt Margaret looked at her watch.

“Yes, it’s about time for lunch.  Come along.”

Jessica Bradford was waiting for them in the dining car at a table adorned with a starched white tablecloth, white cloth napkins and ornate silverware.  She was an inch taller than Margaret’s diminutive five feet one, and slender. Her shoulder-length blonde hair hung in her face, partially concealing her high cheekbones and doe-like brown eyes. “Well, just a few more hours and we’ll be there,” Margaret said.  She took one of Jessica’s cigarettes from the Phillip Morris pack lying on the table and lit it.  Jessica automatically reached for a cigarette herself, got a light from Margaret’s flame and inhaled deeply.

“Everything should be ready at the house,” Margaret continued.  “Peter will be picking us up at the station, and I’ve notified Vivian and Carly to make up one of the guest suites.”

Jessica nodded, but said nothing.

“You don’t seem as enthusiastic now as you were before we got on the train,” Margaret commented.  “Getting cold feet?”

Jessica’s lips thinned.  She shook her head.  “Not at all.”

Joy shifted uncomfortably in her chair.  Ever since her mother had announced she was leaving Joy’s father, there had been tension between Jessica and Aunt Margaret.  Joy knew that Aunt Margaret liked her father.  Almost everybody did, except for Jessica.

Now, Aunt Margaret shrugged.  “It’s your life,” she said in a voice that was too loud.  “Of course, there’s also Joy to consider.”

“That’s one of the main reasons why I’m getting a divorce,” Jessica said.  “For Joy’s sake.”

Aunt Margaret squinted at her as she inhaled smoke, then shook her head.  “I still don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.  “Your husband is a fine, upstanding…”

“Creep,” Joy’s mother supplied.  In a lower tone, she muttered, “Drunken pervert.”

“Jessica,” Aunt Margaret said in a warning tone.  “Watch your language.”

Jessica snorted and stabbed her cigarette out in the glass ashtray beside her.  Then

she fumbled in her purse and produced a large bottle of Mylanta.

Aunt Margaret watched her disapprovingly.  “We’ll have to get you over to Doc Nelson once you’re settled,” she said.  “It isn’t normal for a person to be taking so much of that stuff.”

“Are you a doctor?” Jessica’s voice was loud.

Aunt Margaret took another pull off her cigarette and said nothing.

There was a pause while Jessica looked for something to pour the antacid into.  The only glasses on the table were filled with water.  She shook the bottle, unscrewed its cap, and tilted it back as she gulped the chalky liquid.  Her dark eyes roamed from side to side, checking to make sure no one noticed. Then she replaced the cap and put the bottle back in her purse.

“Good afternoon, ladies.”  A Negro waiter approached them and handed out menus.

“Good afternoon.” Aunt Margaret smiled what Joy called her Gracious-to-the-Help Smile.  She showed just a bit too much of her teeth, but the gesture was gone so quickly it left you wondering if it had been a grin or a grimace.

They ate in silence.  Joy hated it when things were this way.  Of course, it was far better than they’d been during the past year, when Joy and her parents were living under the same roof.  She gazed sourly at her mother, who left half her chicken sandwich on her plate and was lighting another cigarette.

When she couldn’t stand the tension any longer, Joy said, “I think I’ll go back to the room and read.”

“Go ahead,” Jessica said tightly.

Joy rose so quickly she nearly knocked her chair over.  She saw with dismay that there were two wet streaks left on the seat.  She perspired heavily from the backs of her thighs, but didn’t know what to do about it.

When she reached the room, instead of pulling out a book, she snuck two pages of plain white stationery from her mother’s tablet, picked up a pen lying on the table and began to write:

Dear Dad,

 

We are almost in St. Petersburg.  There are lots of oranges and palm trees and other things that aren’t so nice to look at.  The land is flat.  I don’t think I’ll have any problems riding a bike here.  We just ate lunch.  I like the food on the train, and the men who make up the rooms and wait on the tables are very nice.

 

She hesitated, tapping the tip of the pen against her front teeth.  Then she added,

 

I miss you.  Thank you very much for the five dollars you gave me just before we left.  I still have it, and I didn’t tell Mom about it.

 

Abruptly, she heard footsteps approaching the room, and Aunt Margaret’s voice

 

saying, “Come over for gin rummy as soon as you’re ready.”

Jessica mumbled something Joy couldn’t hear, then turned the knob on the door.  It was locked.  She tapped on the door, calling,

“Joy?  Are you in there?”

Hastily, Joy shoved the stationery under her pillow and put the pen back on the table.

“Joy?”

“Yes.  Coming,” she called, and opened the door.

Jessica stepped in and set her purse on the table.  “Are you all right?” she asked Joy.

“Fine,” Joy replied.

“Aunt Margaret wants me to play cards with her,” Jessica said as she stepped into the tiny bathroom and shut the door.

“That’s nice.”

“Do you want to play?”

“No, thanks.”

There was a pause.

“I wish I didn’t have to,” Jessica muttered.  “That woman cheats.”

Joy smiled.  She’d played cards with her aunt before, and knew that Aunt Margaret wasn’t dishonest. She just had a good memory and knew after a couple of turns who had which cards.  She very seldom lost.

After Jessica left the room to go next door, Joy got out the letter she’d been writing to her father and resumed:

How is Kitty? I miss her.  I miss you, too.

Joy stopped, aware that she’d already said that.  She thought of scratching it out, but that would leave a blotch on the paper, so she left it. She lay on her stomach on her bed, rereading what she’d written, trying to think of something else to say.  Finally, she wrote,

I hope you’re OK.  You can write me at Aunt Margaret’s address in Bellair.

 

Love,

Joy

She’d only used one of the two sheets of paper she’d taken from her mother’s tablet.  She rifled through Jessica’s cosmetic bag where she’d found the paper, searching for an envelope.  She managed to locate one jammed in a corner and pulled it out.  It was creased across the flap, but Joy smoothed it out and wrote her father’s address on it.   Then she put Aunt Margaret’s address in the upper left hand corner.  When she was done, she stuffed her letter in the envelope and sealed it.  There. Now she just needed a stamp.  She’d ask Aunt Margaret for one when they reached the house.  She’d also ask her aunt to mail the letter to her father.  She didn’t trust her mother to do it.

Joy put the sealed letter in her small suitcase underneath some blouses.  She spent the next half hour writing another letter to her best friend Karen.  It had been very painful to say good-bye to her.  They’d been close for nearly two years.

When she was through, Joy decided she’d ask her mother for an envelope.  She didn’t want to go snooping through Jessica’s luggage again.  Jessica might notice something was amiss and get suspicious.

Joy folded the letter to Karen and put it on the table.  There was no reason to hide that one, she thought.

They had stopped in some Florida town, and now they were jerking forward again, the train giving off its loud HOO-HOOOOO and thunketa thunketa thunk as it pulled out of the station.  Joy returned to her place by the window.

            It won’t be long now.

**

Sheriff Thaddeus Simms and Gil Meyers sat side by side on rickety folding chairs as they had for hundreds of Wednesdays, outside Willets Point Barber Shop, which was owned by Gil. Thaddeus was a tall, imposing man, six feet five and more than 250 pounds.  The little hair he had left Gil Meyers buzzed off every Wednesday.  Thaddeus’s face, which had been innocent-looking enough in high school to earn him the nickname Baby Huey, was hard and craggy with age, but his eyes remained an icy blue.

Thaddeus’ cheeks still smarted from the aftershave Gil had slapped on him a few minutes before.  He sat motionless with his eyes closed, feeling the Florida sun bake his face.  He wished there was a breeze.  Sweat was beading on his forehead and dripping down the sides of his nose.

“I hear he’s rented a place downtown,” Gil said.  Short, string bean thin with gangly arms and legs, he exuded an odor of menthol.

Thaddeus’s eyes flew open.  He stared dully at the seven-acre lot across the street.  It had had a For Sale sign on it for so long the sign looked weather-beaten.

“Them niggers is gettin’ awful uppity these days,” Gil added.

Thaddeus shrugged and said, “Don’t borrow trouble until it knocks on your door.”

“You know who I’m talkin’ about, don’t cha?” Gil pressed.

Thaddeus shifted his bulk in the uncomfortable chair, making it squeak in protest.

“I reckon,” he said.

“That nigger from Atlanta, Clytus Dooley.”

“What about him?”

“What are you gonna do about him?” Gil asked.

“Nothing, unless he breaks the law.”

Gil snorted.  Then he asked, “How’s the truck running?”

Thaddeus shrugged.  “You know.”

“What do you mean?” Gil was defensive.  “When I sold it to you I said…”

“I know what you said.  She’s got her moments, is what I’m saying.”

As Thaddeus said this, he couldn’t help but look at Gil’s brand new 1966 Ford

Fairlaine parked in front of the shop.

Must be in hock up past his chin.

Abruptly, Gil changed the subject: “Know who’s coming into town today?”

Thaddeus winced.  Sometimes he wondered why he bothered talking to Gil at all, but he kept his voice even when he asked, “Who’re you talking about?”

“You know who.”

“Why don’t you tell me?” he asked.

“Miss Jessica Arkasian.”

“You mean Mrs. Bradford,” Thaddeus corrected.

“She’ll go back to her maiden name after she’s took that surgeon husband of hers for all she can get.”

Anger flared in Thaddeus.  “She’s no gold-digger,” he said.  “She doesn’t have to be.”

“Well,” Gil said doubtfully.  There was a pause.  “She’s got a kid, I hear.”

“Yeah,” Thaddeus said noncommittally.

“Train’s pulling in, in about an hour,” Gil went on.  When Thaddeus didn’t reply, Gil added, “You gonna go meet ‘em?”

Thaddeus snorted.

“Are you?” Gil pressed.

“Why would I?” He wished Gil would drop it.  It was too damned hot to be talking.

“I’ll bet Bill McKendrick shows up to welcome ‘em,” Gil said, his voice full of needles.

Thaddeus said nothing.  But his hands, which had been resting in his lap, now moved to grip his knees.

“You don’t want him getting the jump on you again, do you?”

“Don’t know what you mean,” Thaddeus said.

But he did know, damned right well…

Gil laughed.  Thaddeus suddenly wanted a drink.  He glanced at his watch.  Another twenty minutes until he was on his official break.

“Come on, Thad.  I’ve heard she’s still a looker.  Don’t tell me you’re not interested.”

Thaddeus rose from the chair, adjusting the heavy belt containing flashlight, handcuffs and gun that rode on his hips.

“I haven’t seen her in almost twenty years,” he said.

“So?”

“So, people change.”

He watched as a satisfied smirk settled on the wrinkled features of Gil Meyers.  It was hard for Thaddeus not to punch him.  He imagined his knuckles connecting with Gil’s nose.  He imagined Gil on the floor, dazed, shaking his head, all the self-assuredness and mean pettiness knocked out of him.

“I just figured you’d want to know,” Gil said.

“I’d best get back to work,” Thaddeus said, glancing once again at his watch.  Seventeen minutes to go…

**

            “I need a drink,” Margaret Karlson murmured.  She stood wilting in a pink linen suit next to Joy and Jessica in the parking lot of the railroad station in St. Petersburg.  They were waiting for Peter, Margaret’s chauffeur, to arrive.  Margaret shifted impatiently from one foot to the other.  She inhaled the fetid air and tried not to grimace.  This was the worst part of the trip.  Why they put railroad stations in the middle of the worst cesspools of humanity she would never understand.  But at least they were off that wretched train.  Five days riding on that damned thing should have won her an endurance medal.  She blamed Johnson for the whole thing, of course.  It was his fault the damned airlines were on strike.  If only Goldwater had gotten in…

Joy stood next to her mother, her face shiny with sweat. There were dark, wet rings under her arms.  Margaret was aware of the perspiration dripping down her own chin, trickling down her neck.  She retrieved a tissue from her bag and mopped it up.  She glanced at Jessica and experienced a short burst of irritation.  Jessica never perspired.  And the sun loved her: she could bake in it for hours until her skin was as dark as a Negro’s.

“I’m going to start calling you my nigger niece,” Margaret told her.  She turned to Joy and added, “I don’t want any niggers in my family, do you?”

Joy stared stonily back at her. The child made Margaret nervous.

“I’m surprised Bill isn’t here,” Margaret said.

Jessica pulled a cigarette out of a beige leather case and put it between her lips.  “He’s probably working,” she said, fumbling in her purse for a lighter.

“Still,” Margaret said.  “Attorneys can take long lunches if they want to.”  She pulled a cigarette out of her own purse and waited until Jessica produced a lighter to incline her head towards the flame.  She inhaled deeply and said, “I’ll let you in on a little secret about Bill.” She paused and looked at her niece.  “He’s going to be the next D.A.”

Jessica puffed on her cigarette and said nothing.

“I’m financing Bill’s campaign.” Margaret paused to let that sink in, then added, “Don’t dare tell anyone.  It’s supposed to be a secret.  He’s going to be on radio, TV, everything.” Margaret watched her niece carefully.

Doesn’t she have any feelings at all?  If she’s fallen out of love with Mike, she can damn well get cozy with Bill again.

“Personal appearances, too, of course,” Margaret added.  “They say those are most important.”

Jessica was silent.  Margaret frowned.  “He never married you know,” Margaret said pointedly.

“Smart man,” Jessica said.

Margaret sighed in exasperation.

I give up!  She shot her niece a look.  For the time being…

She looked both ways, down the rows of cars in the parking lot, and then at her watch.

“Not where’s that damned…oh, here’s Peter,” Aunt Margaret said jubilantly as the black Cadillac limousine nosed its way toward them.  Peter, dressed in full livery, opened the driver’s side door and got out.  He was a small man, barely Margaret’s height, but as far as she was concerned he had the energy of two regular-sized men.

“Welcome home, Mrs. Karlson,” Peter said, bowing and tipping his hat.

“Thank you, Peter.  This is my niece Jessica Bradford and her daughter Joy.”

“Pleasure to meet you,” Peter said, nodding to both of them.  He gestured to the bags near them.  “Is that everything?”

“Yes,” Margaret replied.  To Jessica, she said, “Come on, let’s get in the air conditioning.”

As they climbed into the back of the limo, Margaret looked at her wristwatch, feigning surprise. “I had no idea it was so late. I’m ready for a drink.  Jessica?”

Margaret turned to her niece, pretending not to see the disapproval flash in Jessica’s dark eyes.

“No thank you,” Jessica said.

“What about you?” Margaret asked Joy.  She saw the girl’s eyes widen in surprise.

“Aunt Margaret, please,” Jessica protested.

“Why?  What’s the matter?” Margaret’s voice took on a defensive tone.  “We’ve been stuck on that God-awful train for days, and baking in the heat on that platform for God knows how long.  We’re entitled.  Aren’t we, Joy?”

Without waiting for a reply, Margaret opened the bar in the back of the limo and helped herself to a glass and a miniature of J&B.  “What would you like, Princess?” she asked Joy.  Joy didn’t reply. “Oh, come on,” Margaret said impatiently.  “Didn’t you tell me you were dying of thirst?”

“That was yesterday,” Joy said in a barely audible voice.

“It’s too early,” Jessica muttered.

“It is not.  It’s late afternoon.  How many people have cocktails at lunch?”

“Not everyone,” Jessica retorted.

“Well, it’s hours past lunchtime now.”

They hadn’t served any alcohol on the train before 2pm.  Margaret thought that was outrageous, and had argued with the help on board, but they refused to bend their damned rules.

Now, finally, Jessica was silent. Margaret experienced a sense of triumph.

I showed her.

Peter climbed into the limo on the driver’s side and shifted into drive.

“I bet I know what you’d like,” Margaret said to Joy.  She pulled a small bottle of green liquid out from the back of the liquor supply and took a fresh glass.

“You like mint, don’t you?” Margaret asked.

Joy shrugged.

“Huh?  Do you?” Margaret asked loudly.

“It’s okay,” Joy whispered.

“Here.  Try some of this.” Margaret handed her the glass, which was half-full of the green liquid.  Joy took a small sip.

“Isn’t it good?” Margaret pressed.

“Sure,” Joy said.

Margaret settled back against the leather upholstery, nursing her scotch.

“Oh, Jessica,” she said. “Did I tell you I invited Bill McKendrick over for dinner tonight?”

“No, you didn’t,” Jessica replied.

“It’ll be like old times.”

**

            Joy watched out the limo window as they made their way 30 miles west from St. Petersburg to Willets Point, Florida.

The car was the height of luxury, she thought.  Its upholstery was covered in suede, and the only things Joy could hear were the hiss of the tires and the subdued whir of the air conditioner.  It felt like a long ride to Joy.  However, as the cool, green crème de menthe coated her tongue and throat, she began to relax.  She loved the way it grew warm as it traveled down to her stomach.

They passed a golf course and a short block of boutiques. They made a right turn and were in a really fancy section now.  Homes spread out gracefully on immaculately manicured lawns.  Palm trees adorned the wide meridians.

Joy had never seen anything this opulent back home. It was impossible not to gape, even though she had been here four years ago. Enough time had passed for the impact of this wealth to strike her again.

The last time she’d been here, when she was eight, she’d gotten lost on the first floor of the Karlson home, between the dining room and the guest suite she was supposed to occupy.  She stumbled around in the dark, on carpeting so thick her feet sank into it, wandering through the breakfast gallery, the library, and the cavernous living room before she finally encountered a servant and timidly asked the way back to the kitchen.  The maid had found it terribly funny.

Joy remembered Aunt Margaret’s favorite part of the house was the elevator.  It was a tiny, plushly padded cubicle that whirred from the first to the second floor.  She and Joy went up and down, up and down in it. Aunt Margaret’s small dark eyes shone with childish glee as she said, “Press the button.  Going up.”

**

            Aunt Margaret resided in a two-story mansion on a large corner lot in Bellair, located in the northernmost section of Willets Point.  Like the other homes on the street, it was white stucco with a coral-colored roof and accents.  Jessica remembered it being bigger when they’d last been here, four years ago.

Things had been better with Mike then. Friends of Margaret and Gustav, Margaret’s husband, including several physicians, had tried to persuade him to move and practice urology in Florida.  He seemed amenable to the idea at first, but then backed down as soon as they had returned to Connecticut.

Now, Jessica gasped as she felt hot acid rising to her gorge.  She looked at her handbag, where she’d kept the large bottle of Mylanta, but then realized she’d transferred it to her luggage because the bottle was stretching the material of her purse.

Once they arrived at the house, Aunt Margaret ushered Jessica and Joy into the same guest suite Joy had stayed in four years earlier. It was done in French Provincial, all yellow and white, and boasted a huge separate dressing room and bathroom. Sliding glass doors led directly out onto the patio, which featured inlaid tile and an ornate fountain.

“Freshen up,” Margaret commanded. Her face was flushed, and her strident voice was a bit louder than usual. Her eyes fixed on Jessica’s. “I know you’ll want to look nice for our guest.”

Jessica pursed her lips, but her heart was pounding with excitement.

She’d met Bill after she’d graduated high school.  He was a few years older, with a lot more experience in the ways of the world than she.  She recalled that summer before she went to college.  Bill had just finished his second year of law school, and was full of promise.  She remembered the first time he kissed her in the parking lot of the Willets Point Country Club, how his lips had lingered over hers, coaxing them open.  She had ended it a few weeks later, after he’d started a fistfight with Thaddeus Simms.

Now, in Aunt Margaret’s house, the first thing Jessica unpacked from her red cosmetic case was the large bottle of antacid.  She found small paper cups in the bathroom, filled one with the chalky liquid, and downed it.

After Jessica and Joy had showered and unpacked a few things, Jessica sat at the vanity table in the dressing room, fumbling with a myriad of small tubes, vials, and sticks.  They left smeared, multi-colored trails of powder and liquid on the imported marble surface.

Jessica was aware of Joy watching her as she applied her make-up.  The girl annoyed her to no end.  She was disobedient and disrespectful, and she took Mike’s side in everything.  Further, Jessica found Joy’s beady-eyed stare behind those dreadful spectacles she wore unnerving.

The silence between them thickened.  Well, Jessica was damned if she was going to be the one to break it.

When she was through with her make-up, she rose and walked into the spacious closet. She hesitated, her hand poised over one of her mini skirts.  The hand wavered, then moved past, finally settling on a knee-length, pale blue dress that accentuated the narrowness of her waist and the curve of her hips.

“Can I wear some lipstick?” Joy asked timidly.

“No.”

Joy moved from one foot to the other, causing the loose shift she had changed into to sway. It concealed her growing bosom and the rest of her chunky body.

She was silent as Jessica applied carnelian colored lipstick to her mouth, puckered and pressed her lips into a tissue, leaving an orange smear.  Jessica sprayed herself from neck to chest with cologne in several rapid, waving motions, then turned to Joy.

“Let’s go,” Jessica said.

            They found Margaret alone in the den, having a cocktail. Margaret shook the ice around in her glass of scotch.  “Can you believe it?” she demanded.  “They’re actually letting niggers into white schools.”

Her face was flushed, and she mopped sweat from her chin with her free hand.

“That’s one of the reasons we need Bill,” she went on.  “These niggers are getting away with all kinds of things.  Everyone’s concerned about their damned civil rights.  What about my civil rights?  What about the rights of white people?  Don’t we count any more?  For God’s sake.”

She made a vague gesture towards the bar.  “Help yourselves,” she said.

Jessica nodded to Joy, who went to the bar and mixed a scotch for Jessica and ginger ale and grenadine for herself.

“What about that high-falutin’ one from Atlanta?” Margaret continued. “He thinks because he’s college educated he can come down here and do business with the whites.  It’s absurd.  No white person wants to be associating with coloreds that way. It’s unnatural, that’s what it is.  Unnatural.”

Jessica cleared her throat.  Margaret could carry on after a few belts.  Anyway, Jessica had other things on her mind besides race relations.

“How’s Bill these days?” She tried to keep her voice casual.

“As handsome and eligible as ever,” Margaret said, grinning broadly.  Jessica’s face grew warm.

As if on cue, the doorbell rang.  Margaret darted to the den door.

“I’ll get it, Vivian,” she bellowed. Unconsciously, she pressed her steel-colored curls against the side of her face with one hand as she strode out of the room.

There was a long silence.  Then Jessica heard Margaret’s voice, loud with excitement as she greeted her guest, followed by a man’s voice, much lower, murmur something indistinct.  There was a pause, and Jessica heard Margaret again, this time much closer:

“Right this way, Bill.”

She was followed into the room by Bill McKendrick.  He was a tall, burly man,  dressed in a dark grey suit, white shirt and striped tie. His grey hair was thinning on top.  He wore horn-rimmed glasses and had broad features.

Jessica almost blanched when she saw him.  He looked like an inflated version of the Bill she’d known 20 years ago.  Still, her heart shimmied crazily as Margaret marched him up to her and said, “Bill, you remember my niece, Jessica Bradford.  This is her daughter, Joy.”

Jessica noted with satisfaction that Bill didn’t bother looking at Joy.  Instead, his eyes lit up with interest and his eyebrows rose slightly as he took Jessica in.

“It’s a pleasure to see you again,” he said, extending his hand.

Jessica took it.  It was surprisingly smooth and soft.  He squeezed her hand gently.  She nodded and smiled.

Margaret stepped in.  “I’m hoping you’ll be able to help Jessica.  She wants to divorce her husband, and needs a good lawyer.”

Jessica was mortified.  Then she thought, Why not?  What the hell?

“I’ll be glad to help if I can,” Bill said.

“Let me get you a drink,” Margaret said.  “Still a bourbon man?”

Bill laughed and nodded.

“Tell us what’s been going on in the world of crime.”

Bill settled his large bulk into a loveseat across from Jessica.

“I saw the sheriff yesterday,” he said to Margaret.

“Thaddeus?  How is he?”

“Just fine, I think. Getting a little broad in the beam.” Bill laughed, then patted his own stomach. “Of course, I’m a fine one to talk.”

“What do you mean?” Margaret waved at him impatiently.  “You’re a big man, Bill.”  She turned to Jessica. “And he will probably be an even bigger man before the end of the year.”  She handed Bill a drink.

“Well, now, we don’t know that yet, Margaret,” Bill said, but he was smiling broadly.

Jessica tried not to look too impressed as she thought,

He’s confident.  He’s a man who’s going places.

“Oh, Bill.  You don’t have any competition to speak of, unless you count that nigger-loving peace-blabbing asshole from…”

“Aunt Margaret, please,” Jessica murmured.

“Well, it gets my dander up every time I think of that idiot saying equal this and equal that.” Margaret took a breath.  “What’s wrong with equal and separate?”

“Believe me, most people feel that way,” Bill said.  “We’ve got some pending business downtown with that fellow Clytus Dooley…”

“He’s the one I was telling you about,” Margaret said to Jessica.  “That left leaning nigger from Atlanta.”

“He’s applied for a permit to open a business downtown,” Bill said.

“In the white section, isn’t it?”

Bill nodded.

“Well, can’t you do something to stop him?” Margaret’s voice was strident.

“We’re trying,” Bill answered.  “But he seems to think the law is on his side.  He’s got some sanctimonious leftist lawyer from Tampa to represent him.  White, I might add.”

“Is he going to have white people working in the store?”

“If he is, they’re bound to be trailer trash who don’t know any better,” Bill said.  “The point is, do we want our hard-earned money lining this carpetbagger’s pockets?”

“No,” Margaret almost shouted.  She took a large gulp of her drink.  “What can be done to stop him?”

Bill smiled thinly.  In a soft voice, he said, “We’ll take care of it.”

At that moment, Jessica felt the scope of this man’s power, and smiled.

 He’s going to be mine.

            Jessica was removing her makeup in the dressing room after dinner when Joy came in.

“What do you think of Bill?” Joy asked as she leaned against the wall next to her mother.

“I don’t know.  Why?”

“Are you going to see him again?”

“Well, yes.  Didn’t you hear me make an appointment with him?  Aunt Margaret wants him to handle the divorce.”

“That’s all?” Joy asked.

Jessica shot her a look.  “What do you mean by that?”

“I don’t know. Do you think you might…date him?”

Jessica’s eyes turned hard. “I’m still married, for God’s sake,” she snapped. “Do you think I’m going to start running around with a man like some floozy? For God’s sake.” She picked up the blue-streaked tissue and continued removing her eyeshadow.

**

– Excerpted from The Promised Land.  All rights reserved.

 

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