The following is from Denise Nicholas’s novel, Freshwater Road. Denise Nicholas is an actor and writer who has starred in numerous films and TV shows, including Room 222, for which she earned three Golden Globe nominations, and In the Heat of the Night, for which she also wrote several episodes. She lives in Southern California and is currently at work on a memoir.
The echoes of shoe heels on hardwood, the rustling of suit pants, the thistledown of summer dresses swishing on bare legs in the cool lobby as the white citizens of Pineyville went about doing their morning business. Reverend Singleton, as always dressed in a tailored suit like he still lived in Chicago, walked in favoring his bruised back. Stiff-lipped Sister Mobley, the bodice of her print day dress trimmed in white lace, followed clutching her Bible, holding it out from her body like a shield. Geneva Owens, looking ready for church, carried herself as if she’d been coming in the front door of the Pearl River County Administration Building for her entire life. This time they were joined by Mr. Landau in dark summer slacks and a long sleeved shirt and Dolly Johnson, her cotton skirt and blouse ensemble giving her the look of a clerk typist, The two newcomers stayed close behind the veterans, eyes glued to Reverend Singleton’s aching back.
On their first attempt, the whites had dropped their voices to a whisper when the group entered the lobby through the front door. Today, in their self-conscious attempt to ignore them, their voices rose and bounced around the lobby, talking about this and that over the event taking place in front of them. Celeste was mindful of Sheriff Trotter’s promise to blow her brains all over the lobby. She wondered why Mr. Heywood hadn’t already come tearing down the stairs. Maybe they’d be ambushed at the top of the stairs this time. Inching toward freedom, she thought.
Just as the small group rounded the balustrade to go up the stairs to Mr. Heywood’s office, the sure-footed sound of hard police shoes thunking fast through the hall announced Sheriff Trotter and a deputy as young and robust as Trotter himself. Celeste put her hand on Geneva Owens’s arm, as much to keep from running as to give support to the older woman.
Trotter and his deputy held handcuffs out and ready. “Y’all back, huh?” Trotter’s face pressed toward lightheartedness, his tone a chiding imitation of a benevolent shopkeeper.
Every muscle in Celeste’s body pulled tight in preparation for the blows she had every reason to believe would be coming soon. She had a fleeting wish that Mr. Landau hadn’t been talked into this nonviolence thing. A few passing whites stopped to watch. When Sheriff Trotter smiled, they smiled with him. He was their sheriff.
Reverend Singleton stiffened. “Yes, sir, we are. We’ve come to see Mr. Heywood about registering to vote.” His clear preacher voice lifted above all other voices in the high-ceilinged lobby.
Celeste held her breath. Her jaws clamped, her forehead sank into furrows and frowns in memory of Sheriff Trotter’s gun against her temple.
Trotter fumbled for his next words. “Well, he’s…he’s not here today.” His phony jocularity lost heart. “You turn and let me get these cuffs on you. I get y’all situated in a cell, then go see if I can find him. How’s that?” His lips turned corners, bent like pipe cleaners. He swiveled Reverend Singleton and brought his wrists together to fasten on the cuffs. Reverend Singleton winced. The deputy did the same with Mr. Landau who had a face of stone so set and unmoving he might have been a sculpture carved in some forgotten hinterland.
Trotter recognized Mr. Landau. “You one of them working over at Crown Zellerbach?”
“I am.” Mr. Landau didn’t say “sir.”
A silence hung in the air where that “sir” had lived for years. They might hit him, and hard. That “sir” defined the entire relationship between Negro men and white men. Nobody smiling now. Celeste knew that white business owners in town had tried to get Mr. Landau fired from his job when his truck had been identified outside the church during voter education class. So far they hadn’t succeeded.
Celeste eased closer to the deputy, hoping he’d be the one to handcuff her. Stay away from Trotter. She scanned the lobby for any Negro people who might be witnesses in case things got out of hand, in case Trotter drew his gun. If any had been there, they’d already scurried out that back door when they saw Reverend Singleton, Celeste, and the others coming in the front. Didn’t want to be associated with the protestors, the agitators, hadn’t found defiance in themselves yet.
Trotter reached for her arm. His face flushed and his blue eyes hardened into granite the way Shuck’s eyes had when he’d met J.D. for the first time in front of the student union on campus. She brought her other arm to the back, making it easy for him.
Unlike the day before, Trotter couldn’t have been more polite. He must have been caught off-guard then. It was possible that since the world had its eyes on Mississippi, the state government had decided to at least feign civility towards its Negro citizens. Some national press still swarmed all over the state. No way to know how long it would last. But civility or not, they were headed to jail, and the only thing they’d done so far was come in the front door of the building and ask permission to register to vote.
Dolly Johnson volunteered her wrists in front of her body. The deputy slid her strappy straw bag up onto her shoulder, spun her quickly, and brought her arms around her back with a good yank. A woman from the small crowd of onlookers said, “Oh, my,” her voice sounding almost like a fainting moan of sexual pleasure. Perhaps she recognized Dolly Johnson as the Negro woman who had the blonde-haired child and needed to express her joy at seeing Dolly publicly shackled. Celeste gave a look to Dolly, a confirmation that it would be okay.
Dolly’s face got pinched and dark. She cut her eyes at the deputy, who cuffed her, then gently pushed her toward the rest of the shackled group, his thin face and diluted blue eyes intent on his work.
Mr. Landau’s face masked whatever he felt. Reverend Singleton had spent a good hour convincing him that nonviolence hadn’t yet run its course, that there was a power in this he’d never know by using a gun. Now, here he was in handcuffs for trying to do what the Constitution guaranteed. He wasn’t a man who could’ve withstood chains.
The officers handcuffed Sister Mobley and Geneva Owens last, holding their Bibles and purses for them. It was all done in a few short minutes with not a voice raised or a scuffle heard. No need to excite people. The white citizens of Pineyville went back to their business, inured overnight to this new activity in the lobby of the public building. The Negroes had been handled satisfactorily. No guns drawn, no ministers flying across the lobby and crashing to the floor. No aching cry from the lungs of a terrified child. Celeste felt grateful to be alive and maneuvered herself as far away from Trotter as possible. Again, she expected the white people in the lobby to applaud the imminent incarceration of the troublemakers. They didn’t.
The deputy hustled Celeste and the other women to the women’s jail in an L-shaped lip of the building on the back parking lot, near the Negro entrance. Reverend Singleton and Mr. Landau disappeared, led to the Negro men’s section—the jail that Leroy Boyd James had been dragged from before he was shot and thrown into the sludgy Pearl River.
One by one, the deputy removed their handcuffs and pushed them into the cell. When the door clanged shut, the women were standing in a small concrete square with two metal-framed bunk beds, a scummy seatless flush toilet without toilet paper, and a face bowl whose metal finish barely showed through brown filth crusted over it. Not a piece of soap in sight. They hadn’t been processed in, no fingerprints taken, no photos snapped. No legal proof that they’d been arrested. The old trick. The other cell across the hallway stood empty. Celeste climbed up to one of the top bunks and figured that Dolly, who was younger than either Sister Mobley or Mrs. Owens, would take the other top bunk. Instead, she sat herself down on the bottom bed, then stretched out on the filthy mattress.
* * * *
Trotter’s deputy came through the lock-up door and stood at their cell, his key ring clanking on the bars as he opened it. “You, up top there, you come on with me.” He had more Mississippi drawl than Trotter. He beckoned to Celeste with his long muscular arm. His other hand was on his hip, near his gun. “You Celeste Tyree?”
Celeste climbed down from her bunk thinking he knew very well who she was. “Yes.” The word “sir” was on a slow passage from her brain, but a fearful quick catch of breath and a missed heartbeat caught it, laid it down. Good. She didn’t want her cellmates to see her fear. She stood up straight, had no purse to grab; there was Kleenex in one pocket of her skirt, her tiny change purse with payphone money in the other along with her Social Security card and student ID. Her number was up. Her luck, Shuck’s luck, had run out.
Mrs. Owens stood out of her bed, dread filling the gullies on her face.
Sister Mobley prayed out loud. “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.”
The deputy looked at Sister Mobley with a full face of contempt.
Dolly Johnson scooted to the edge of her bunk, dangling her legs over the side like a child.
Celeste felt like she was being led to the firing squad. The deputy reached for her arm and pulled her through the cell door, his hand like a cold brace on her. He relocked the door.
He walked, checking her behind him, down the short hall and through a metal door, then down a flight of stairs that she’d forgotten coming up little more than an hour ago. The tan walls were broken by closed dark doors, her tennis-shoed footsteps quietly padding behind his police shoes clomping on the concrete floor. Celeste counted doors, then began humming, “Ain’t gon’ let nobody turn me ’round, turn me ’round.” She didn’t remember these doors from their walk into the jail. Maybe it had been the pull of the handcuffs taking her attention. Fear shutting down the mind as it had done in the car with Matt. Her hands were free now. She watched the deputy’s holstered gun bouncing gently with the rhythm of his legs.
She couldn’t hold the freedom song in her head. When the deputy passed a clean, white porcelain drinking fountain, Celeste saw no Whites Only sign. She stopped to drink, delighted to have the cold water in her mouth. It tasted like first snow. As the cold stream flowed down her throat, the deputy shoved her head hard into the fountain. She vomited the water as her mouth slammed into the shining chrome spigot. A quiet crack, then she saw her blood going down the drain as pain shot from her mouth up into her head. Stunned, she moved over to the side, her brown hand slipping from the white porcelain bowl. As she turned to face the deputy, her feet tangled into a knot and she stumbled to the floor, her head and back bumping into the wall. The black of his police shoes was the last thing she saw.
In a tunnel of cottony fog, she heard the words, “That water’s not for niggers,” then floated off dreaming of following Mary Evans into the Whites Only ladies’ restroom in the train station on her first night in Jackson. Signs up, signs down. “Miss’sippi ain’t nothing to play with, girl.” Coming back to, her head and mouth throbbing, blood still leaking. Lips were blood-packed things. Her hands were limp, her neck crooked, one leg folded under her at the knee, one straight out. Gym shoes with pocks of orange earth like dried blood from walks to the outhouse, from helping Mrs. Owens in her tiny patch of yard. Thank God, she thought. I wore my gym shoes. She knew that it was her lip that bled and now felt like an inflated balloon, ran her tongue over her teeth with tears gathering in her eyes.
Celeste heard a second voice and looked up to see Sheriff Trotter standing with his deputy. They grabbed her under her armpits, hoisting her to her feet, her shoes barely toeing along the concrete floor until they reached a door and went into a small room. They sat her in a hard chair, her lip a few paces behind every move she made. The deputy left the room and was back in seconds, it seemed, with a glass of water that he slid toward her on the dark tabletop. She wondered where the water had come from.
“Go ahead. You so thirsty.” Trotter stood by a barred window, his arms folded across his chest, his eyes deepened into his head and looking dark. She remembered them as blue, but not today.
Celeste stared at the water, needed to drink, but dared not reach for it. She’d been bullied into self-denial so quickly. Her lip had stopped bleeding, had left blood on the front of her blouse. The lip had disassociated itself from the rest of her mouth. She glanced up at Trotter, whose outline fuzzed in the sunny backlight then cleared.
“Go on.” He gazed out the window.
She shook her head “no,” words stuck in her chest somewhere. She needed ice more and none was offered. If it had been, she wasn’t sure she’d have had the courage to reach for it. Fear of physical pain was too fresh in her mind.
Trotter turned to her. His eyes went yellow in the sunlight. “That lip’ll heal.”
Celeste’s hands lay flopped in her lap, her feet wound around the legs of the chair, her blouse buttoned and blood splattered and untucked. She felt her change purse in her skirt pocket, hoped her student ID and Social Security card were still in there, too. Throbs like hammer blows along her back, her head, and in her mouth. Didn’t know if she’d been hit in the head, too, had been completely out, or just floated in shock on the corridor floor. She was still alive, and she hadn’t been raped. Maybe her luck ran still, but thin. She needed to see a real doctor, a dentist, finally took her finger and smoothed it across her front teeth. One tooth was cracked.
“You want a mirror?” Trotter had an overly dramatic look on his face, dismissive of her injury as if it was a fake theatrical moment.
She shook her head again. She’d better wait until she got back to Mrs. Owens’s house, then realized that maybe she wouldn’t get back there, that they didn’t have to let her go. They might do what they did to the three boys, release her in the middle of the night and call the Klan to ambush her. Home never seemed so far away, like a mirage in an ever-receding distance.
“You might well be ruining your future down here meddling in things that have nothing to do with you.” Trotter sat on the window ledge, the sun haloing behind him.
Celeste shoved thought to his words, fighting to hold her chin up and level wanting to hide her swollen lip. “I’m not sure I understand.” Then it hit her. This wasn’t about being a coed on some plain of trees in a four-seasoned place, or sitting in Shuck’s bar pretending to be Dorothy Dandridge playing Carmen Jones with a cigarette hanging from ruby red lips. This was the real deal. She thrust her head up and looked squarely at him, then parted her lips and showed him the crack in her tooth that she hadn’t seen herself.
Trotter turned away, eyes drifting around the room, then out the window again. “You’re being charged with a felony.” Trotter’s voice broke into staccato phrases with little beats between. “Endangering the lives of others.” He glanced at her. “I can’t protect you, and I can’t protect those you’re dragging into this.” He paced in front of the window. “Anything could happen.”
She kept her head up, staring at him, her lip flopping around like a too-fat pancake. No looking down at the dirt. No eyes drifting off to Africa. Just keep looking him in the eye. Protecting us was not what he’d sworn to do. And nothing that happened here would matter in Michigan and if it did, she’d fight it. True, there were students in southern schools arrested in the movement who lost their places in those schools. She knew better for students coming down from northern schools. His fabricated tactic wasn’t going to work.
“Anything has already happened. For years.” Her voice felt craggy, clogged.
“What if I came to your neighborhood and set about inflaming your neighbors against you?” He glanced out the window again like he was really talking to someone out there instead of right in this room.
Celeste tried to figure which side of the building they were on. The sun wasn’t really behind him, but the harshness of the light let her know they were up above the tree line. The jail faced east. It was past noon.
“And when you go back to your life in your big fancy school, what do you suppose is going to happen to these people you’ve riled up?” He looked directly at her.
She wanted to say she hoped they’d vote people like him out of office. “They’ll become full citizens in this state as well as in this country.” Her lip moved in slow motion. How did he know that she went to a big university? Ah, the files. There were files on all the volunteers all over the state, files that passed from the White Citizens Councils to the Klan to the local authorities and back again.
“You people seem to think you’re the only ones who have rights.” He went back to looking out the window.
“I don’t think that.” She spoke carefully, not wanting her lip to bounce because it hurt, keeping her teeth from touching top to bottom for fear the crack would become a break. “The right to vote, the will to be represented by people who have your interests somewhere in their agenda is all I’m interested in here.” She needed to be quiet, rest her panging mouth.
“Have you looked at your people?” He had genuine surprise in his voice. “They better off here with us than back in Africa. Wouldn’t you say?”
Her anger swelled like tidewater in a storm. “We’ve been here as long as you. We helped to build this country, too. The only difference is we never got paid for the labor and we can’t vote in Mississippi.” She needed to calm herself. Be wise. He held all the cards. Let him have his way of thinking. She’d never convert him anyway. Just like she’d never change Wilamena. This cost of being Negro is the very thing Wilamena had warned against. But she wasn’t Wilamena and wouldn’t be even if she could. “Maybe there’ll come a time when all of this seems like a bad dream.”
He breathed as if hit, something deep catching him. He turned slightly to the side. She saw his profile, the strength in his body and his forehead. He was a handsome man. When he turned fully back to her, there was something deep in his eyes, as if he wanted to run from everything in his head. Like Ed Jolivette doing a second-line at Otis’s bar in Hattiesburg. Too much to bear. Ed danced it out. What did Trotter do? The grief stayed in his eyes for a second before the chill returned. The wall slid down like a steel drape.
“We gon let y’all go today. But I’m telling you, you keep this up and nobody will be able to stop the people who’ll rise against you. Do you understand?” He walked so close she could smell his sweating body. He turned his face away.
From FRESHWATER ROAD. Used with permission of Agate Publishing. Copyright © 2016 by Denise Nicholas.