;

Mr. SOB

Photo: Getty Images. CC0/Public domain.

(inspired by a smattering of true events)

Had Jimmy Jackson known the mess of trouble I was about to get him into that summer he might have gone fishing instead of us becoming best of friends. If that wasn’t enough to upset the apple cart, after realizing he was also going to be sucked into the summer’s unpleasantness, my papaw, known as Bear by most everyone in the community, probably would have joined Jimmy Jackson along the river bank.

Jimmy and I met while working as part-time janitor and shoe salesman at Wright’s Department store in the summer of ‘62. We were the same age, having just finished up our sophomore year, but we attended different high schools on account of the dissimilarity in our pigmentation. The schools had yet to be integrated in the deep East Texas piney woods, located somewhere between Tenaha, Timpson, Bobo and Blair.

No danger you would mix us up if you ran into us, not just ‘cause of the obvious reason he was Night and I was Day – Jimmy sporting a polished coal complexion and me the hue of a cotton ball. I was the tall skinny fellow with a flattop, that be a haircut of the day that used axle grease to keep the hairs standing upright, whereas Jimmy, although shorter than me, but not by much, had a hairdo that looked like a close cut version of a wiry, wrinkly, crinkly, Brillo pad.

Our favorite topic of conversation, like there was any other, was baseball. While I was a fair to middling third baseman, Jimmy had earned the nickname ‘Jimmy-Do’ cause there was nothing he couldn’t ‘DO’ with a baseball from the pitcher’s mound – fast, curve, slider and knuckle balls, even a spit ball if it was a cloudy day, the stadium lights were turned down low or the umpire was distracted. I don’t recall if he ever threw a slurve ball, but no matter, whatever he throwed across the plate it was probably more merciful for a batter to capitulate, throw in the towel instead of embarrassing himself by repeatedly striking out. Jimmy-Do was hopeful of winning a baseball scholarship to UT, something that was now a possibility after the University of Texas opened its doors in ’56 to colored people (the word used at the time, which was an upgrade from “n***er”, and several years before MLK used the word “Negro” in his “I have a Dream Speech” in 1963).

Venson’s was the only café downtown open for lunch but it wasn’t an option for us – a “Whites Only” sign reminded one and all to tread carefully. About the only luxury open to Jimmy-Do and me was the park located next to the county courthouse.  If we were lucky we’d find ourselves a bench under a large oak tree or better yet a magnolia in full bloom with its added fragrance. We’d eat whatever we brung with us in a sack lunch while General Nathan Bedford Forest kept a watchful eye sitting astride his horse in Confederate Monument Square. General Forest was probably the best Calvary Officer, North or South, during America’s Civil War, but he was also remembered as the first Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan, something that didn’t sit particularly well with the colored population and a few white folks, small in number though they be, quietly held their noses when passing. Only once did someone try to encourage us to skedaddle ’cause of Jimmy-Do being colored and eating with a bona fide white person, yours truly. We got a few looks, especially from busybodies who had nothing better to do with their time, but they were dour sourpuss, skillful in leaving no doubt as to their displeasure.

Mr. Ray Wright was the manager of the shoe department and brother of the owner of Wright’s Department store. He was a fair to middling nice guy when he wasn’t riled up but he was also a meddler in his own right when it came to anything that differed from his own, like Jimmy-Do and me having lunch together in the park. Apparently word was out as to our stepping over the line on what was and what wasn’t acceptable behavior betwixt the races. Mr. Wright managed to hold his tongue, if not his raised eyebrows, till enough became more than enough. To be fair, had I learned to hold my opinions from those that differed from his own perhaps we wouldn’t have come to a clash at that point in time, but as it was, a rumor was mucking about that backed him into a corner where he had no place to turn till he dealt with the matter at hand. As rumor had it, I’d loaned Jimmy-Do five dollars, which wasn’t true. It was two dollars and I was paid back the next day. Mr. Wright saw himself as the man to set things right, first trying to come across as a grandfatherly type and when that didn’t work he got atop his soapbox, which he had plenty of experience doing as a licensed part-time preacher, whose specialty was converting others to the ‘Wright’ way of thinking – “Coloreds are good people, but God didn’t mean for us to mix with them or he would have made us all the same.” Preacher Wright was careful to try and set me on the straight and narrow when no customers were within earshot.

I managed to keep working at Wright’s Department store that summer due to the fact that I was moved to the men’s clothing department. As the ole saying goes, I should have learned to ‘Let sleeping dogs lie!’ My grandma, who we kids referred to as Mamaw, told me, “You were born a contrarian….like Jesus.” My mamma said, “You were born hard-headed, like Bear!” Papaw had earned the nickname Bear after he had a run in with a Grizzly while hunting Elk in Montana, and lived to tell the tale.  Actually most of the telling was done by my Uncle Max who was at a safer distance from the commotion. Each time he elaborated on the narrative, as the story unfolded before his listeners it seemed to intensify, growing in its intricacies and colorful details. As told to me, Bear had a bead on a trophy Elk with a set of 7×7 antlers and a 40.5” spread, give or take. He was a split second from firing his Remington 700, when out of the clear blue a roar, sufficiently loud enough that it shook the snow from the trees, caused Papaw to turn around to find, not more than a yard or two away, a full grown grizzly standing up on its hind legs and showing a mouthful of canines. My uncle swears the bear was nine feet tall standing upright. Fortunately for grandpa, as he turned to see what all the commotion was about he also pointed his rifle in the direction of the sound that grabbed his attention, which by providence the tip of the barrel ended up, more or less so, implanted in the open jaws of the roaring beast. Papaw’s scream and squeezing of his trigger finger occurred in the same split second, the former drowned out by the blast from his single shot bolt action rifle. Even though blown to Kingdom Come, the Grizzly’s momentum caused him to fall upon my gramps who, by the luck of the draw, landed next to a downed tree which managed to absorb much of the bear’s 650 pounds, even so knocking the wind out of Papaw and bruising him every which way, and for good measure breaking a couple of his ribs. He otherwise survived. I will admit just passing along this story to you after so many years have passed and far from where the action occurred, still gives me the heebie-jeebies.

It appears I have digressed. Where was I now? Oh yes, my hard-headedness, the run-in with Mr. Wright and what followed next. It seems to go against my crawl, even today, perhaps even more so, for a stranger to tell me I can’t do or must do something or can’t go hither or tither. All that does is force me to do the opposite. Translated: instead of “Letting sleeping dogs lie”, I found myself, more often than not, shaking the dog from his slumber.

What transpired the day that set off the fireworks and created a whole mess of trouble had much ado about Venson’s café and our totally innocent and inadvertent attempt to integrate the place. Venson’s had in addition to it’s ‘Whites Only’ section up front a room in the back reserved for coloreds to eat in whatever fashion they chose. The day I forgot to bring my lunch it occurred to me that while Jimmy-Do couldn’t eat up front at Venson’s, I could join him for lunch in the back. I cannot bring to mind ever seeing anywhere a sign at a restaurant frequented by non-whites that said ‘Coloreds Only’ or ‘No Whites Allowed’. Jimmy-Do, when pressed, could not recall a single case of a colored eatery forbidding ‘Whites’ to eat in their establishment, not that he ever saw a white person frequenting such a place, so there you had it. It would be fair to say Jimmy-Do thought I was crazier than a hoot-owl. In fact he came right out and said, “TJ, you crazier than a hoot-owl,” but we flipped a coin and I won, in a manner of speaking.

The backdoor entrance to Venson Café was through an alleyway, its potholes overflowing from a recent rain, the pavement letting off steam from the sweltering noonday heat. Cardboard boxes not tied down had blown and scattered in every which direction. A rat scampered hither and tither, probably trying to decide which rotten garbage pile had the most appealing smell. I had pretty much lost whatever appetite I had but we were near the entrance. Too late to turn back.

A scraggly looking unshaven colored man who looked to be on his last leg was sitting on an apple crate in front of the entrance to Venson’s. His eyes were focused on the ground like he was intent on watching two doodle bugs in a tight race, until Jimmy-Do hollered, “Hi Mr. Cobbs”. The man looked up, blocking the sun with his hand, not saying anything until we were almost in front of him. “Is dat you Jimmy-Do?” he asked. “Yeah, we, ah…. we just coming in to get a byte to eat,” Jimmy-Do mumbled, so low that a person could barely hear what he was saying. Mr. Cobbs didn’t say anything in reply, like the cat got his tongue, or maybe he was trying to make some sense to what he had been told. Jimmy-Do broke the uneasy silence by mentioning that Mr. Cobbs was Venson’s chief cook. Not sure why but he looked older than I think he might actually have been, maybe because he showed a few missing teeth when he spoke. He wasn’t all that wrinkled like most older folks I’d come across. My Aunt Ida was shriveled up like a raisin in the sun, from too much time picking cotton over in Louisiana. We kids sometimes referred to her, behind her back to be sure, as Prune face. To be honest about it, I wasn’t all that sure if colored folks could get burned, much less wrinkled from the sun.

A sudden roar from Venson’s kitchen exhaust fan caused Jimmy-Do and I to nearly jump out of our skins. Had you wanted to see two 15-year-olds trying to jump through a Hula Hoop at the same time, you could have bore witness to such an event that day. The exhaust fan sounded like a revved up jet engine blowing hot air mixed with smoke, grease fumes and sweet cooking smells through its vent.

The screen door creaked on its hinges, announcing our arrival as we entered Venson’s colored restaurant. According to local custom the horse should go before the carriage but we decided this time around to put the carriage before the horse, so that Jimmy-Do went in ahead of me.  We figured the customers would probably have less heart burn seeing Jimmy-Do enter first, who everybody knew as a top notch baseball player. The screen slapped me on the backside before I could step across the threshold, called a screen more for convenience sake given it had more holes than screen, which of course allowed the flies to come and go as they pleased. We needed a couple seconds for our eyes to adjust to the light in the room. The dinning area was opened to the kitchen, meaning the room was hotter than Hades, plus a couple of degrees. It was cooler outside in the Texas tropical heat. There was no air conditioning like there was upfront at Venson’s “Whites Only” section, just a small ceiling fan to help move around the hot air. A lone naked light bulb dangling from a wire attached to the fan was the main source of light for the room, that and what came from the kitchen.

Jimmy-Do grabbed us a table near the exit, perhaps with the thought for a quick getaway. The table and chairs were a little wobbly. Several pieces of laminated floor tiles were missing, explaining their wobbliness. Two other tables covered with checkered tablecloths and chairs with metal legs made up rest of the dining arrangement, leaving barely enough room left over to swing a cat.  A sign on a door adjacent to the kitchen read ‘toilet’. I suspected the other door with a small window covered by a curtain led to the front of Version’s ‘White Only’ area, given the sign read “No Entrance!” in big letters.

No more had Jimmy-Do and I sat down when an older couple vaulted from their table like they had been poked with a cattle prod, nearly upending their chairs after making a bee line for the door. They had hardly touched their food. We looked at one another but neither uttered a peep. A woman holding a rolled up newspaper and leaning back in her chair against the wall got up to clear the dishes off the table where the couple had been sitting.  She then resumed her seating position, re-rolling the newspaper, seemingly paying us a never-no-mind, when with no warning she slapped the wall with a loud bang, not once but twice. Jimmy-Do whispered that she was the waitress. “She also kills flies,” he added, like killing flies was part of her job description. She used the newspaper to scrape the dead fly’s remains off the wall. A head leaned out over the kitchen counter, a second head quickly followed suit, not I’m fairly sure to see what all the noise was about. Hearing the paper slap the wall was probably old hat. Both were looking straight at us, for no more than a split second mind you. Just as soon as I made eye contact the heads quickly retreated back into the kitchen, out of sight. No doubt Mr. Cobbs had informed them of our presence.

I was already well past Get Out of Jail Free wishing I had taken up Jimmy-Do’s offer to share his sack lunch and forego going to Venson’s Cafe. After what seemed like a lifetime our waitress had yet to take our order. We were her only customers. Not that I was all that hungry anymore but I was dying for something cool to drink. Even my sweat was starting to sweat. Jimmy-Do said that the waitress was afraid she could get into trouble if she waited on us. After a bit he motioned for her to come over to the table, which she did, reluctantly and at a snail’s pace. Leaning over the table, so as not to be overheard and barely above a cat’s breath, she said, “It’s against the rules for me to serve ya’ll”, and of course by “ya’ll” she meant me. A blind man could see she would have preferred swatting flies than talking with us. Her eyes glanced back and forth between us and the curtain, like her every move was being watched. Jimmy asked me what I wanted to drink and then asked the waitress to bring him an RC and a Nehi grape soda. “And bring ‘him’ two glasses of water….if you don’t mind,” I added. “He’s real thirsty.” She sat two sodas and two waters on Jimmy-Do’s side of the table and then vanished into the kitchen, leaving the flies to wander unmolested for the remainder of our stay.

No sooner had we received our refreshments when the ‘No Entrance!’ door opened and in walked a white fellow heading straight for our table. He looked familiar, about our age, but I couldn’t place the who or where but fortunately I didn’t have to. Scott Venson was the nephew of Abe Venson, the proprietor of Venson’s Café. Last year we had an Ag class together but he spent most of his time in the welding shop while I was busy with wood working. He was helping out his uncle for the summer; evidently his uncle now wanted him to have a chat with us. Scott came loaded with questions, which in a nutshell came down to: What were we, I, doing here, specifically why was I sitting in the colored eating area? No answer was sufficient for him. He suggested, which was a polite word for badgered, that I come up front to eat, without Jimmy-Do. I suggested (a polite word for refused) not to go without Jimmy-Do. “I will eat with Jimmy-Do whenever and wherever I choose to do so,” I said, finishing off my reply. Just about when it looked like our ‘friendship’ from the past was about to evaporate there was a tapping at the window, which stopped Scott in the middle of his unpleasantness, forcing him to interrupt and excuse himself momentarily, allowing for a short reprieve. He no doubt was consulting with his uncle. Jimmy-Do and I also had our own consultation.

Jimmy-Do wanted us to make a hasty retreat out of Venson’s. While I tried as best I could to understand the particulars of his thinking as a young colored fellow living in a less than friendly white man’s world, something inside of me wouldn’t give. It was like I was stuck in quicksand and couldn’t budge, even had I tried to. The immediacy of all what was taking place, the then and there, the ugliness of what had been said and what was prohibited – like two friends sitting down and having lunch together without the threat of Klan sympathizers coming out of the woodwork circling overhead like vultures or not being allowed to play baseball on the same team or going to the same school or just sitting in a park without having General Nathan Bedford Forrest starring down at us, like we needed his approval just to be friends. I found it way past difficult sometimes to apply what Jesus said about forgiving those that offend you seventy times seven times, especially when some folks don’t feel they need or want your forgiving. Sometimes it seemed wasteful of good energy.

Scott Venson’s return to the land of the colored was more subdued. He was wearing a less angry expression than what he was sporting a few minutes earlier. It’s safe to say he still wasn’t a happy camper, chomping at the bits that Jimmy-Do and I hadn’t been thrown out on our backsides. His Uncle Venson was apparently of a different opinion, although a sentiment originating not from the goodness of his heart I was later to learn.  Somehow or other Abe Venson was aware that Bear was my grandfather. He just got off the phone with Bear to let him know the trouble we were causing. Bear was now on his way down to Venson’s but it would be a few minutes till he arrived. According to Scott, given I had refused his offer to move to Venson’s white section to have lunch, Bear asked Mr. Venson for a favor – would he let us order lunch in the colored section and ensure we stayed put till he arrived, even if he had to rope and hogtie us. Scott motioned for the colored waitress to take our order and then proceeded to disappear back through the ‘No Entrance!’ doorway. We ordered a couple of burgers, fries and more sodas.

Our appetites had returned to a respectable level, bellies now filled with possibly enough room left for a slice of apple pie and a small bowl of cold vanilla ice cream. The more immediate problem was the need to drain my radiator. I’d given thought about trying to hold it in but when my eyes started watering I knew it was only a matter of time. The toilet was a few feet away but it was for coloreds only, although it didn’t explicitly spell that out in so many words. No way was I gonna go up front to the Whites Only toilet. It was not just the principle of the thing I had to consider, I knew if I went through that door Mr. Venson, his ill tempered nephew and who knows who else would do everything in their power to prevent me from returning. No doubt they’d sweat it out of me sitting in a room so hot no human, white or colored should have to sit in, knowing I’d have to drink all the glasses of water and soda they brung me; then would come the death blow, or as the French like to say, the coup de grâce, the trip to the Necessary Room. Separate schools, churches and water fountains were meant to keep the races apart but integrated toilets were unheard of, unnatural, taboo. To their way of thinking, it was just a matter of time before I had to throw in the towel and re-enter their world of piss and vinegar, so to speak.

I was indeed my mamma’s hard-headed son. In fairness to Jesus, I believe it’s in the realm of possibility he could also be seen as having an occasional touch of hardheadedness. Jesus got riled up a time or two and that’s just what we know of, once overturning the table of the money changers and driving them from the Temple, calling them a den of robbers and then he harshly rebuked the religious elite of the day, calling them self-righteous hypocrites looking out for their own interests while ignoring the poor and downtrodden. Since way back when, it seemed like little had changed. So I figured hardheadedness was not always a bad thing.  

For the first time in my life I was entering a colored toilet. It’s not that I entered into a world that I didn’t know heretofore existed. At some point we all gotta go. Not sure what I was expecting to find given it looked like most white toilets I had frequented. Maybe not as fancy as some or as sweet smelling where a fragrance had been added to the bowl but basically it was the same looking for a difference. I had hoped to get in and out before anyone noticed I was no longer at the table. It was, however, a wasted hope. I figure anxiety and taking a whiz don’t always go hand in hand, so to speak. I guess it’s like waiting in line at the urinal at a seventh inning stretch at a baseball game. You need to go until it’s your turn and then just knowing a whole line of folks are tap dancing waiting for you to hurry up causes you to be more anxious than is normally the case.

No doubt I had been missed while taking my sojourn to the colored toilet. The waitress was wearing a Catfish wide open mouth expression, hopefully not catching any flies in the process, and this time not two but three heads were frozen in place staring at me from the kitchen. Even Jimmy-Do had a stupefied, I can’t believe you’re still alive look on his face. The window curtain on the No Entrance! door window was moving back and forth like it was in a wind storm.

We still had a ways to go to finish up our deserts when the No Entrance! door opened and out stepped Bear. John Wayne would no doubt be proud that I’ve often times compared him to Bear, both were about the same height and build. John Wayne even had a deep raspy voice like my grandpa. If John Wayne broke a leg while filming, Bear could have stepped in without missing a beat, except Bear was a tad bit handsomer fellow. While Bear sometimes wore cowboy boots, hat and western garb, he was partial to dress shoes and pants and Stetson hats of different flavors, one of his favorite a Stetson Skyline Silverbelly fur felt Western hat. If he had an outward trademark that helped anyone see him coming from a long distance it was his cigars, which he pronounced seee’gars. When I was first growing up I didn’t realize a seee’gar could be smoked. On just one hand can I count how many times I saw him light up. Usually he just chewed on it, until there wasn’t nothing much left, execpt a messy glob of chewed tabaccee.  I should probably add that Bear and Mamaw were unwedded years earlier but they remained best of friends and saw each other more afterwards than when they were married.

“TJ, you and Jimmy-Do finish with your desert, then come up front when you’re done,” Bear said. I didn’t have a clue that he knew Jimmy-Do. He confounded our confusion when he added that he first met Jimmy-Do shortly after he was born. “Jimmy-Do I know your granddad,” Bear said. “I talked with him a little while ago and promised him I would bring you home. This is not the time or place to discuss such things so when ya’ll finished up here I’ll see you up front…, yes that means you too Jimmy-Do.” Jimmy-Do was about to say something but Bear stopped him in his tracks, putting an end to a one-way conversation. “Don’t argue, just do it,” he said, leaving little doubt it was akin to an order. It was. Bear said he had something to discuss with Abe Venson while we were finishing up our desserts.

To say Jimmy-Do was livid after Bear left, especially about going up front to the Whites Only area…. He knew he would be tarred and feathered or lynched, probably both. Once he managed to calm down to something resembling a serene panic, I pushed open the No Entry Door to Venson’s White Only domain, leading the way to who knows what was waiting for us, especially for Jimmy-Do. At one point Jimmy-Do seemed to stumble but I think it was weak knees brought on from a case of petrified fear. I was fearful as well but I wasn’t a colored man about to enter where colored folks had never traveled, were in fact forbidden to go. I also knew my grandpa and had complete trust that he would not have us walk into a snake pit, leastwise not without an exit in mind. He had his reason for having us go through the front door and not the way we came in. That was enough for me, scary as it was, but Jimmy-Do didn’t know Bear from a Grizzly so he had to put his trust in me, who I realized by then had gotten us into this mess in the first place.

Since when I can’t remember when, I was led to believe that the polar opposite of Hell, Fire and Brimstone was Heaven. That may be true when describing otherworldly, unearthly, supernatural wonders but if the lack of air conditioning in Venson’s colored restaurant was Hell on Earth, walking from that sweat box into Venson’s white’s only restaurant was not Heaven, more like visiting Antarctica in the winter while wearing your birthday suite. Freezing on the outside while sweating on the inside was a bad combination.

Bear was at the counter talking with Abe Venson but Jimmy-Do and I could see no point in dilly-dallying where we weren’t wanted or wanted to be. The temptation was to run for the hills but even at a snail’s pace we could get to the door leading to the street in pretty short time. Unfortunately we had to traverse a section of booths before we could get to the door. Fortunately lunchtime was about over so the place was almost empty except for a lone customer wearing painter’s overalls sitting betwixt us and the door. Trying to avoid eye contact while looking past him didn’t stop him from speaking his mind. “What you doing in here with that Nig**ar?” I tried ignoring him but he was persistent. “Hey boy I’m talking to you. Nig**ars aren’t allowed in here.” I heard Bear call my name. He motioned for us to stop where we were while he walked over to us, stopping just in front of the inquisitive fellow. Jimmy-Do and I stepped back a few feet to allow Bear to get comfortably in-between.

The painter fellow had a mean looking demeanor about him, in addition to a foul mouth, but in stature he was no more than a half-pint, which watered-down to some degree any attempt to portray himself as the big bad wolf. With Bear standing twelve feet tall beside him, other than a new found case of uneasiness all he managed to say was a weak, “Hello Bear. Good to see ya.” Bear looked to be studying him for several seconds before he said anything. “Mr…..Mr….,” Bear said clicking his finger in the air, like that would help him to remember the fellows name. “Mr…. Son of a Bitch,” he said, his finger stopping a couple inches from his face.

“Bear, I’m Dwayne La Blanche. I painted your…,” he said.

“Yeah, yeah, that’s right,” Bear said, interrupting Mr. La Blanche. “Your family is from Baton Rouge, if I remember correctly. You painted my barn a couple two or three years back. That’s right. You did a right good job. I’m putting up an addition to the barn and will probably have some more painting work if you’re interested.” Mr. La Blanche’s squirming was replaced with a nervous smile showing his yellow teeth. “And your wife–Lula isn’t it? I still remember her having you bring me the best pecan pie I ever ate.” Mr. La Blanche started to relax just a tad, even correcting Bear on his wife’s name after acknowledging his Mable did indeed bake Bear a pecan pie.

“Yes sir, Bear, I always have time to paint whatever you need painting. Let me know when. I’ll give you a fair price…and, and guarantee my work, just like I did the last time,” La Blanche said, like he and Bear were now old drinking buddies. Jimmy-Do and I glanced at one another, like what’s going on here. We were slowly inching towards the exit when Bear gave a slight signal with his hand that left no doubt that he wanted us to stay put.

“Mr. La Blanche, I don’t know if you met my grandson TJ and his friend…”

“I didn’t know this here boy was your.,” the painter injected before Bear continued what he was saying.

“You may have heard the name Jimmy-Do. This be his friend. He can pitch a baseball like nobody else that I know of.” Jimmy-Do’s name seem to ring a bell, although the painter said nothing he found it within himself to smile and nod at TJ and Jimmy-Do.

“Dwayne, as you might guess, my grandson and his friend are as important to me as…,” Bear said, pausing, like he was planting a seed, watering it and giving it time to sprout. “ It’s as important to me as your next breath is to you. So you can imagine how upset I would be if someone were of a mind to hurt or threaten either of them in any way,” Bear said, all the while keeping close eye contact with his reacquainted ‘friend’…. He stirred the pot, throwing in the mixture what he had just said, and allowed his message to simmer for awhile, just below the boiling point, before he continued. “I know you would get word to me if you got even a whimper of anyone planning to do harm to TJ or Jimmy-Do. I figure nothing happens that you don’t first get wind of it, which means you’d give me a phone call as soon as that happens, right?,” Bear said as a mater of fact while fidgeting in his pockets, looking for a pen and paper to write down his phone number. “Dang where did I put that pen?” Bear said, opening up his jacket to search the inside pocket. Mr. La Blanche turned white as a sheet, like he had seen a ghost, his eyes getting big as saucers. I could see no reason for his sudden change of demeanor but something or other had definitely upset him.

“Yes sir, I understand… If’in I hear of anything I will be the first to give you a call. I got…I have your phone number.”

“That’s good Dwayne. I spect I can count on you. I’m looking forward to you painting the new addition to my barn and any new work I might have for you, if you got the time. And be sure and have your wife Lula send me another of her pecan pies. I’m counting on you Dwayne.” Dwayne gave a nervous smile and they shook hands. “Ok boys my truck is out front. Let’s go.”

When we got outside Uncle Max and an elderly colored gentleman I didn’t know were waiting by Bear’s truck. Jimmy-Do said the elderly man was his granddaddy. Bear nodded, said everything was ok, then added that we should leave quickly while the getting was good. The first thing Bear did when he got in the truck was remove his jacket. The reason for Mr. LeBlanch’s discomfort became readily apparent. Bear was wearing a shoulder hoister, which I had never seen him wear before. He checked the safety on his pistola before handing it to me, butt end first, and told me to put it in the glove compartment. Only later after talking with Uncle Max did I understand the reason for Bear insisting on meeting us at Venson’s café and for us to stay put until he had come and fetched us. Some years earlier Bear and Uncle Max came upon Abe Venson in some thick underbrush while quail hunting when they found him beat to a pulp. He had been left there to meet up with his maker by some shady characters who he owed money. In a nutshell Bear and Uncle Max ended up carrying him on their backs two miles back to their car and then on to the hospital. Dr. said another couple two or three hours and he would have died. Mr. Venson, apparently feeling some obligation for saving his life, called Bear to warn him about two fellows who would be waiting for us in the alleyway, two fellows who did not have Jimmy-Do and my best intentions in mind.

Bear promised not to tell mamma what transpired that day, providing we agreed to stay away from Venson’s. I figured what mamma didn’t know she couldn’t worry about. We kept our promise, never again stepping inside Venson’s Café, but our little pilgrimage that day set in motion any number of events, most of them good, a few that otherwise may should have stayed buried.


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