January 31, 2018
Jan 31, 2018
25 Min read time
Stories are dangerous. They can get you killed.
The truck rumbled to a stop at the far end of the campus, on the white side, within sight of the ghostly moonlit cornfields behind the fences. Chains clattered as the teenage boy beside Walter Stephens kicked his feet in rage. The older boy was the only one of the three of them whose legs and wrists were bound. The stocky Negro dorm master, Boone, had carried him out over his shoulder like he was a side of beef and dropped him into the bed of the white truck with a State of Florida seal. The boy hadn’t stopped cussing the whole time they sped away from the dorm, the truck bumping over rocks and stumps and knots of grass, every building ahead a fright in the headlight beams. The older boy’s lower lip was bleeding, or maybe his gums, the blood trickling on his chin. Neither Walter nor Redbone asked him what he’d done, but their small voices might have been lost inside the engine’s rumble.
“Don’t look at me, sissy,” the teenager said, so Walter kept his eyes away.
The truck passed the kennels, where at least half a dozen dogs the size of red wolves barked from behind the wires. The dogs ran fast enough to keep pace as the truck drove past, eager for a chase. The dogs sounded angry, not playful. Walter wondered what the dogs did when they caught you.
When the truck lurched to a stop and the engine click-click-clicked before it went silent, Walter’s heart bloated to his throat. The small wooden structure glowing in the bright headlights looked hardly bigger than a shed, painted bright white.
Maybe the Funhouse wouldn’t be so bad, with white boys here too—until a crack of leather striking flesh came from inside, and a boy’s scream.
Two white boys sat on a bench outside the closed door while a white man in a billed cap kept watch over them. Walter thought maybe the Funhouse couldn’t be so bad, with white boys here too—until a crack of leather striking flesh came from inside, and a boy’s scream. Walter had never heard anyone scream that way except Mama, in her dying. His blood burned cold.
“Let’s get ’im out,” Boone said to Crutcher, the fussy, thin Negro man who was always at Boone’s side. “Haddock wants him next.”
Walter’s body shook where he sat. Redbone scooted closer to him as Boone pulled down the truck bed’s door with a sharp, rusty whine. They felt each other’s hearts gallop with relief when Boone and Crutcher pulled the older boy out first and set him on his feet.
“I’m not goin’ in there!” the boy yelled, lunging away. Boone popped him with a knee in the stomach so fast that Walter barely saw Boone move. The teenager doubled over while Boone and Crutcher pulled him to the Funhouse door. “You’re all full of the devil!” the boy screamed.
Walter and Redbone looked at the white boys then, who in turn looked at them, their mirrors. Walter could swear he knew them although they had never met. The taller of the white boys, sandy-haired, also about twelve, was turning a small stone over in his palm. Walter wondered if he meant to use it as a weapon, but it was too small to be anything except a charm. Would he carry it through his whipping? Walter wished he had a stone to hold too.
The Funhouse door opened just as Crutcher signaled Walter and Redbone out of the truck. They climbed out like their limbs were stone. Walter saw only glimpses of a bare light bulb inside, the warden’s silhouette, another man behind him. Boone dragged in the wailing teenager while a white man led a young white boy out.
“Negroes wait on the other side,” Crutcher said, gesturing.
While he walked, Walter turned his head to lock eyes with the white boys as long as he could, as if they could stare a plan into each other’s minds. But soon he and Redbone were on the dark side of the shed, where six empty metal chairs waited, askew. Crutcher straightened the chairs to a line and gestured for them to sit. Then he went off to pace by the fence, lighting a cigar. Behind him, corn stalks shook in the breeze. Walter’s knees still trembled after he sat. Warden Haddock was lecturing inside the shed, but his voice was too low to make out. Walter heard only the sobbing.
“Maybe they’ll get tired,” Redbone said.
“They?” Walter’s body tensed so much that his chair’s legs rattled.
“Two or three hold you, one beats you. They lay you on a table. Take turns sometimes.”
“No talking. Talking’s what got you here,” Crutcher said, hushed. “If you can’t learn here, where will you learn?”
“I’ve learned, sir,” Walter said.
“Me too, sir.”
“Shush—you haven’t. Best you learn now. It’s a shame for the new one, but I hope you see now to stay far away from the Funhouse.”
Walter had planned to avoid the Funhouse as soon as he heard about the Reformatory’s whipping shed, and now he was here on his first night.
“Yes, sir, I see,” Walter said. His throat was crammed with tears. He wanted to say he was sorry for what he’d done, but he couldn’t remember: was this punishment for asking Redbone if anyone ever tried to run away, or because he’d eaten the apple tart while they were working in the kitchen? Was it because he’d been late to the dormitory, or because he’d kicked Lyle McCormack on Tobacco Road? He couldn’t count everything he was sorry for. He was sorrier he had to spend six months at the Reformatory when he couldn’t imagine six days, or six minutes. He was sorriest that Papa had been run out of town and Mama had died. His whole life was sorry. He’d barely kicked Lyle McCormack, and Lyle himself said he was fine. If only Lyle’s father hadn’t seen. If only Lyle hadn’t looked at Walter’s sister, Gloria, that way and touched her arm like he had a right to.
“Don’t go in there arguin’. Learn the lesson, say you’re sorry,” Crutcher said. “Can’t be like your daddy, fighting battles you can’t win. His way don’t work here.”
Spirits roamed free in this place. He felt them all around him.
Walter looked at Crutcher, startled. He couldn’t make out his face, so far off at the fence.
“You know my papa?” Walter said. “Sir?” He didn’t answer, so Walter asked again. “Mr. Crutcher, you know my—”
“’Course I do—from the mill,” Crutcher said. “Nobody in three counties don’t know the name Walt Stephens.” Walter heard admiration in his voice. Crutcher’s orange cigar ash flared to the ground. “You two choose which one goes first. One of you’s next.”
Perspiration sprang up on Walter everywhere at once.
“I’ll go first,” Redbone said, resigned. “Waiting’s harder.”
Inside the shed, the floor creaked. A sharp whistle, then a lash. The teenager yelped, crying. His whipping had begun. Two lashes. Three. Four. Five. The higher the number, each as hard or worse as the previous, the more Walter could feel his own shoulders, his knees, wincing with each one. The sound rocked through him. He thought the twentieth lash would end it, but it didn’t. Or the thirtieth. But after thirty-five lashes, when tears dripped from Walter’s face, the whipping stopped. The sobbing was gone too, and silence was worse. Walter sucked at the air. The chair’s seat beneath him was so damp, he couldn’t tell if he’d wet himself the way he had when he first stood in the warden’s office that morning. His terror of discovery then felt silly and long ago.
After Crutcher went to help bring the teenage boy out, Walter stared at the cornfield, wondering if there was a place to scale the fence, or a hole someone might have left unrepaired in overgrown brush. He would have cut off his arm to know. He would have tried to outrun dogs.
“They give you a wood chip to bite on,” Redbone said. “Don’t spit it out. Better use it.”
Crutcher signaled, and Redbone rose. Walter burned to say something to him, but he couldn’t make his mouth move and Redbone didn’t look at him anyway. Boone and a white man dragged the teenager out of the Funhouse by the shoulders.
Walter’s chair rattled when he craned to see the older boy being lifted back into the truck. He was relieved when the boy bucked and cried out again. Boone clapped the truck’s panel shut and patted the door, and the white man drove the boy away, toward parts of the campus Walter did not know. Then Boone pulled Redbone’s arm, and Redbone vanished behind the clapboard wall. Behind the closed door.
Crutcher strolled back toward Walter, but farther away this time, a good fifteen yards, so he could watch the white boys on one side and Walter on the other. Walter knew he could easily outrun Crutcher at this distance, if only he knew where to go.
Inside, the warden’s voice sounded jovial, as if he were meeting an old friend.
No delays. No scuffles. Redbone’s lashes began right away.
Fire. That was the feeling of the strap. Walter felt it in Redbone’s scream, loud and anguished and somehow surprised. By the second lash, the surprise in his scream was gone. For his third lash, Redbone must have gritted down hard on his wood chip, so his scream sounded more muffled. But whether they were loud or soft, Redbone’s screams scraped Walter’s ears raw and wrung out tears that drowned his face. His chair legs clattered when he sobbed. If Crutcher heard him, he didn’t let on.
“Mama?” Walter whispered to the shadowed corn. “I need you. I can’t do this. I can’t.”
The breeze picked up and dry corn stalks whispered, and Walter remembered when such things used to feel like a sign from Mama. If he saw a red bird (Mama’s favorite). If he heard a creak on the floorboards when his eyes were closed. But whispering corn wasn’t enough now.
“Please, Mama. I know maybe it’s hard to come, but I need you.”
Spirits roamed free in this place, which might mean other spirits could come and go. He felt the spirits all around him. He’d smelled the smoke as Boone drove him past where the shed had burned down in 1920. In the kitchen, he’d felt flicks of knifepoint to show him how many boys had died from a kitchen blade. Before Walter closed his eyes and wished him away, he’d seen a boy charred from head to foot standing over his bed. Then Boone had come to wake Walter and Redbone to take them to the Funhouse—far scarier than any spirit.
‘This isn’t everything. There’s more ahead for you than this.’
A ping sounded just below Walter’s pinkie where he was resting his weight on his chair. He heard it both from the metal and between his ears, amplified, a pulse. To be sure, he waited to feel it again. Ping.
So many feelings came at once: chiefly anger. Why hadn’t she come to him this way before now? But anger was quickly followed by tearful relief, and a joy like none he’d ever known, like breathing a new kind of oxygen. Then all of that gave way to pain again.
“Why I gotta’ be here, Mama? I can’t do this. It ain’t fair.” It was as if she were sitting in the empty seat beside him, almost as if she had never been gone.
Another ping, and this time Walter cupped his hand over the vibration so it tickled his palm. In that touch, Walter felt how sorry Mama was to see him like this, how she wanted to help, but couldn’t. Ping. This time, he felt her arms wrap around him and sway with him.
This isn’t everything, he heard Mama’s voice say inside his ear. There’s more ahead for you than this. This is only a moment.
Redbone must have dropped his wood chip. He howled.
“This isn’t everything. There’s more than this,” Walter said.
The ping tickled Walter’s palm, and his ears fogged, the howling far away.
• • •
True to its carnival nickname, the Funhouse looked twice as big on the inside, an endlessly long shed, at its center the table, lit from an overhead bulb as if it were a main stage. A transistor radio on the shelf by the door played a cheerful song like a county fair; a fiddle and a guitar and a singer who sounded like a cowboy. Laughter snapped Walter’s head around. Two shirtless, sweating white men were dealing cards over a stack of crates in the corner, their bare bellies jiggling. Everyone else was busy: Crutcher wiping down the table beneath the light, Boone locking the door behind him, and Warden Haddock rinsing his leather strap in a small sink. Walter tried not to notice how the water washed down pink. Methodically, Warden Haddock wiped the thick strap with a towel.
This isn’t everything. There is more than this.
“Not off to a good start, are you?” Warden Haddock said as he wiped. His face, already narrow, hollowed at the cheeks.
“No, sir.” Walter could barely speak through the coat of phlegm in his throat.
“You know what you did wrong?”
Walter longed to argue, but he remembered Crutcher’s warning. “Asking stupid questions, sir. I’m sorry, sir.”
Warden Haddock laid his strap down on the table and picked up a lighted cigarette from a clay ashtray. Walter held a wild hope he might say, Well, never mind all this, then—go’n back to bed. Instead, Warden Haddock studied Walter with his eyebrows raised, as if he might have heard wrong.
“‘Stupid questions’?” Warden Haddock said. Exaggerated, the phrase seemed monstrous. “That what you call it?”
Boone made a chuffing sound, glaring at him. Another mistake in a day of mistakes. Walter dared not answer.
“A ‘stupid’ question would be ‘Does the sun rise in the west?’” Warden Haddock said. “‘Do pigs like slop?’ Those are stupid questions. Way I hear it, ’less you’re callin’ Boone a liar, you were asking questions about how to run away.”
In the corner of his eye, Walter noticed the men at the crates flexing their arms, exercising their fingers. They had put their cards down. They were preparing to hurt him.
“Not for me to run, sir,” Walter said. “I was just asking if anybody ever did. . . .” Walter’s voice dropped away. Crutcher had told him not to argue. Keep his mouth shut.
“Why would you want to know if a thing is possible, Walter Stephens, ’less you thought you might want to try it? Explain that to me.”
‘I ain’t never gonna be on no rocket ship, no police detective, but I still want to hear it like a story.’
Everyone’s eyes came to Walter. Under the room’s gaze, his mind spilled empty.
Warden Haddock picked up the leather strap again, wrapping it from elbow to palm.
“Like . . .” Walter imagined the ping from Mama beneath his hand, as if she were whispering in his ear: “. . . like how in picture shows, people fly to outer space and can look down on the whole Earth. Or how Joe Friday chases down crooks on Dragnet. I ain’t never gonna be on no rocket ship, no police detective, but I still want to hear it like a story.”
The room was still while the men waited to hear what Warden Haddock would say.
After a time, the warden nodded. “‘Like a story.’ A kind of fairy tale.”
“Yessir,” Walter said.
“You believe that, Boone?”
Please please please please please.
Boone shrugged. “Dunno, boss. That’s what they both said. Like it was just a story.”
“Bullshit,” one of the white men said under his breath.
“Stories are dangerous, Stephens,” Warden Haddock said. “They can get you hurt bad. Get you killed. Your friend the storyteller just got thirty lashes. It’s not his first time here, and he should know better. I have to teach you too, and I’m not sure yet how many licks that’ll take. But however the Lord leads me, from now on, if you’re smart—and I think maybe you are—you’re not gonna want to hear no more stories.”
“No, sir.” Walter’s words were only air whistling between his chattering teeth.
Crutcher gently cupped Walter’s elbow like an usher leading him to the front of the church, and Walter’s body seized up, but he walked with Crutcher anyway—one step, two, three—toward the table where he would be whipped. Crutcher was gentle enough to fool him into wondering if he might be spared. Hadn’t Mama’s messages to him already been a miracle?
“Gimme your shirt.” Walter hesitated just long enough for Crutcher to say, “You don’t want to wear it. Fabric gets in the skin.” For the first time, Walter thought of his skin breaking; not bruises, not welts, but slashed-open flesh. Walter looked at Crutcher with pleading eyes: You know my papa and you know this ain’t right, and Crutcher’s eyes blinked away.
Boone tugged at Walter’s shirt impatiently, so Walter quickly pulled on the buttons, trying to tame his fingers’ strange dancing. Walter heard shuffling, all of the men moving to their places, penning him in. Ready to catch him if he ran. Warden Haddock’s boots snapped closer against the floorboards, thunder in Walter’s ears.
“He always so polite and quiet?” Warden Haddock said.
“Seems like he was raised nice enough.” Was Crutcher arguing for him?
“I don’t think you wanna bring up his rearin’,” Warden Haddock said, and Crutcher’s face puckered as he tried to hold his expression blank. Crutcher wasn’t the only one in Gracetown who knew Papa’s name. “But I’ll say this: he’s lucky I’m the warden and not some of those country boys, or he’d be out in a swamp with the Klan instead of here. My boys are already grumbling. So don’t try to say I don’t play fair.”
“I don’t know a man fairer, boss,” Boone said. “White or colored. That’s the truth.”
“I’ll take it one more step,” Warden Haddock said, and spat to build up anticipation like Reverend Jenkins turned to his spittoon when he was encouraged by the excitement from his flock. “I’d bet five dollars that gal was never raped by nobody, white or Negro.”
The walls seemed to vibrate. The two white men groaned angrily, and Boone and Crutcher shifted, uncomfortable, the amen corner silent now. The room felt weighted down.
“Know what? Make that ten dollars.” Warden Haddock said. “What you think, Walter Stephens? Did your daddy rape that white lady?”
Walter’s mouth was so dry that his tongue and cheeks felt glued to his lips. He could not open his mouth. To speak, he thought, might mean dying. White men talking about rape always led to a rope. That’s what Papa had said right before he climbed in the trunk of the pastor’s car.
“Sir, the boy don’t know nothin’ ’bout that,” Crutcher said, quiet as an undertaker.
“He’s not shy.” Warden Haddock nudged Walter with the tip of his boot, heavy pressure on his bare toes. Walter felt one of his toe joints crack. “Go on and say. Did your daddy rape that white lady?”
The word rape was profane. The first time he’d heard it had been last year, when the sheriff came looking for Papa. He’d asked the older boys at school what rape was even though Gloria wouldn’t tell him. It’s when a girl doesn’t want to, but you force her anyway, the sage eighth-grader, Pastor Jenkins’s son, had said. Sinners and cowards and drunks do that.
White men talking about rape always led to a rope.
“No, sir,” Walter whispered. “My daddy wouldn’t hurt nobody. He’d never do that. He ain’t a sinner or coward or drunk.”
By the way the warden’s head canted to one side as if to see him in better lighting, Walter realized he should have thought before he spoke. Only fright had made his words tumble out. Neither Crutcher nor Boone would look at Walter. Crutcher took one step away, pretending to search his vest pocket, as if hearing talk of the white lady would conjure her.
“So, you think she lied?”
“I think like you think, Warden Haddock.” Walter knew better than to say lie.
Warden Haddock slapped Walter on the back hard enough to sting and then rubbed the spot to soothe it. “There you go,” he said. “Everybody knows it. Just a bunch of vile stories the growers put Lucy up to cuz of all his union talk. Probably paid her and her loudmouth daddy and mama a pretty penny. All of y’all know it and won’t say. And leastways, I won’t visit the sins of the father on the son. The son pays for his own sins. Ain’t that right, Walter Stephens?” Warden Haddock continued to rub at the spot on his shoulder until a new alarm grew in Walter. Slowly, Warden Haddock slid his hand away.
“I don’t know for sho what my daddy did or didn’t do, sir,” Walter said, and his heart died a thousand deaths, and he wondered if somewhere in his exile in Chicago, Papa might have heard him.
“Hush. Yes you do,” Warden Haddock said. “A young man stands by his convictions. Hop on up on the table. The good Lord has seen fit to give me this opportunity to steer you to the right path.”
An angry white man yanked Walter so hard that the tabletop dug into his stomach and made him lose his breath. The man’s red caterpillar eyebrows frowned. Walter smelled sour beer on the man’s breath, in his sweat; he worked drunk most nights—
—like the men who had started the fire in 1920.
All thirteen boys had burned to death, screaming to drunken ears. Knowing what he shouldn’t made Walter dizzy.
The memory of Mama’s most recent touch gave Walter the strength to pull his leg high enough to try to hoist himself onto the wooden table. It was truly as if he’d never worked his body before, every part difficult to manage, like his newborn cousin Jackie, who had been named for Jackie Robinson. He thought of Jackie’s wobbly arms and legs as he nearly slipped from the plank, which was slick with sweat.
No, not sweat. The sharp, prickly scent was blood.
He looked behind him to the mud-splattered wall, and realized the tiny dark dots in random patterns were not mud. Blood patterns were sprayed like paint droplets against the dull planks. He would bleed here. His blood might fly.
“Take this,” Crutcher said, and shoved a thick, uneven wood chip into Walter’s hand. The chip was dry, fresh from a storage bin. Walter’s fingers shook around it. Crutcher leaned closer and whispered in smoky breath, “Bite down. Lie still as you can. It’ll be over quicker.”
Walter didn’t know when he had started crying. Warden Haddock made a tsk tsk tsk sound and Walter bit back a sob. Now that his shirt was off, the room seemed as cold as the freezer in the kitchen.
“What you waitin’ for, Walter Stephens?” Warden Haddock said. “Lie down.”
“Do what he say, nigger,” Boone said.
When Walter felt Boone grab his left arm, he hurriedly shoved his wood chip into his mouth. The wood almost jostled loose as three men grabbed and arranged his body with rough hands, but Walter raised his head high so the chip would fall against his molars. He imagined ants or wood mites crawling in his mouth, but his teeth sank into the soft wood, fused. Walter’s hot breath hissed in and out against the wood, but his jaw held on so hard it ached. His whole body heaved with his breathing.
The edge of the table pressed against Walter’s collarbone—only his neck muscles kept his head from dangling forward—and Walter suddenly knew that boys had died on this table during their beatings, their voice boxes crushed and necks snapped during careless handling. No, he would not move. He would do as Crutcher had said and lie still. He would do as Redbone had said and bite on the wood chip. He would remember what Mama told him.
“There is more than this,” Walter whispered against the wood in his mouth.
Stories are dangerous. They can get you hurt bad. Get you killed.
The floor creaked under the warden’s boot. A low whistle and snap sounded above Walter, and then pain tore across his back, as surely as if it had claws. Most of his scream stayed bottled in his throat. His jaw clamped down so hard on the wood chip that he was sure he’d loosened all his teeth. Just as Walter began to think the pain wasn’t so bad, the numbness wore off his back in a wave and he felt that his skin must have surely peeled in two.
Walter writhed and screamed. Then came the next blow, laid across the first. He would have spat out the wood if he could, if it weren’t so fixed to his teeth, because pain was choking him. Wild in him.
“Stop—” Walter tried to say, muffled, but the whistle and snap sounded, and his body went rigid, and when the lash came it seemed to snap his spine apart. Walter’s head flung right and left as he screamed, and if not for the wood chip he might have bitten his tongue off when his chin hit the edge of the table so hard he saw sparks before his eyes.
By the fourth lash, or the fifth—he lost count, one fire burning into the next—his throat was raw and his jaw pulsed and he was sure his back must be a solid pool of blood streaming to the floor. Pastor Jenkins’s hellfire could be no worse than this! Boys got beat like this for being late to curfew or fighting or talking too much at night? Boys got beat like this for everyday things his teacher might rap his wrist with a ruler for? The wrongness rang in his head.
“This ain’t right,” Walter tried to say—a mush against the saliva-drenched chip in his mouth, which still would not budge no matter how much he tried to scream. “This ain’t right!”
His outburst met another lash—a worse one. His skin melted open beneath the cutting leather, and he knew it was far worse than the rest as he flopped on the table. To hold him in place, a man clamped each arm harder on either side of him, another held both of his legs. The edge of the table dug into his throat, and for the first time Walter stopped screaming. His nose was clogged. The new panic from not breathing was worse than the pain, so he remembered to slow his hitching breaths. Don’t move. Don’t move. Don’t move. Soon, the men loosened their grip a bit and he could shift his neck enough to keep the table from crushing his throat.
For the next five lashes, maybe six, he whimpered but could not scream. He was melting from the table, beneath Boone’s muddy work boots and Warden Haddock’s pointed shiny snakeskin ones, beneath the floor, into the red-brown soil, past the long-forgotten ashes from the fire in 1920, all the way to the bones buried at the Reformatory cemetery everyone called Boot Hill. Vibrating pain coiled across his back, but no pain could touch him where he was buried in the soil. His body was far above him, the world black.
Kindred spirits awaited him here: boys who had been afraid of beatings and dogs, whose skin had been torn or charred, their flesh stabbed, whose bones had snapped, spirits circling the site of their shared desecration. They rose with a stink of the wrong done to them, and he could almost see them in the dark, straining to have their faces remembered.
I see you, he told them, and it almost wasn’t a lie because sometimes he did see what might be shadows of noses and chins in rows around him. I see you. And when he did not see their faces, he saw their stories: Jim, who had run away once too many times and his family never saw him again after they found a note from the sheriff tacked to their front door. Jesse, whose family had sold him to the Reformatory for fifty dollars because they thought it would teach him not to sass back. Russell, who went truant each fall to help his uncle paint houses. And Reynaldo and Justin and Emory and John, who had done nothing beyond being left behind by their parents, torn away by drink or sickness or death, just like him. The dead boys were called every name except Murdered: accident or oversight or cautionary tale.
“He fainted dead away,” said a voice he remembered was Crutcher’s.
Walter heard, but did not feel, the final lash do its unholy work across his tattered skin.
“I’ve got a headache anyways,” the warden said.
A fiddle’s whine from the radio niggled at Walter’s ear, bringing light through his closed eyelids. Even half senseless and full of rage and pain, he knew better than to open his eyes, or the warden might change his mind and keep whipping him. And if the warden spoke a single word to him, Walter worried he would spit in his face. Oh yes, he would.
There is more than this. In the grainy light of his returning, Walter Stephens heard his heartbeat, and the frantic pumping helped him remember: no, he wasn’t like the sullen ghosts who roamed this place. The warden hadn’t killed him—not yet—and Walter vowed he never would, just like Papa had outfoxed the lynch mob.
He was alive.
There is more than this.
He would learn.
There is more than this.
Like Papa, he would find a way to be free.
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January 31, 2018
25 Min read time