Six Out Seven by Jess Mowry: all rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work by any means except short excerpts for use in reviews. The Kindle edition, to date, is the only legally authorized ebook or web-accessible edition of this work. If you find this book being offered anywhere else, either as a download or to be read online, it is there without the author's permission (aka STOLEN PROPERTY) and in violation of copyright law.
Six Out Seven
© 1994 - 2011 Jess Mowry
There's something sad about a prison bus.
Seeing one on the road, most people only look once and then turn away; word to the mothers and fathers that life doesn't always flow like a child's summertime dreams. Young bloods hanging together or cruising in cars might snicker and joke, but they'd do the same in a graveyard at night, denying that coffins could wait in their future. A prison bus is a concept gone wrong, like worms in a Big Mac or Mickey Mouse in Ku Klux Klan robes. Maybe it's because a bus is such a harmless, friendly thing... a bright yellow one carries kids full of dreams, and a Greyhound is silver and gleaming and going somewhere.
A prison bus goes nowhere. Its route is a side-slip in time, like a wrong turn down a dead-end road, leaving its travelers confused and angry and late for their true destinations.
Corbitt Wainwright thought these things as he sat mostly naked in a tree. His legs were drawn up in the broad, spreading fork, his arms crossed over his knees and his chin dropped on top. His eyes were slitted against the sun, concealing what could have been anger as the prison bus rumbled past. The bus was a faded, gray, nothing kind of color, like the weather-worn asphalt of the narrow country road. The fierce sunlight glinting on massive window bars made Corbitt think of his father's ancient shotgun, the black so worn on its barrels that sometimes they seemed to be silver.
Buses were trucks in a way, and trucks fascinated Corbitt like trains had captured the hearts of restless country boys a century before; big beasts of burden, snorting smoke, sweating heat, and smelling of the man-strength of hot iron and oil. Trucks, like trains, never seemed to rest; always moving on, and never a part of the land they passed through.
School-day afternoons, weekends, and the long days of summer vacation usually found Corbitt at the truck stop a mile west of his home. The huge machines were familiar to him: he could tell a Freightliner from a Kenworth while it was still just a blur in the distant heat-haze; a Cummins engine from a Caterpillar when it was only a faraway moan, and was almost always right, running to wake a dozing pump-jockey as the trucks began down-shifting whenever they were going to pull in.
Buses stopped too; the Greyhounds only for passengers because they fueled and serviced in Jackson. They seldom needed anything the truck stop could provide, never seeming to have breakdowns, and even flat tires were rare. But most of the drivers let Corbitt wash the windshields. He always did a good job, using sun-hot water from a black plastic bucket. A couple of jockeys had been fired for splashing a hot windshield with cold water and cracking it. Corbitt's formula was a dash of ammonia in the water, just enough to crinkle his nose as he balanced on one of the pump-island ladders. The jockeys let Corbitt borrow their ladders because washing a Greyhound's windshield wasn't expected of them. Corbitt had noticed a long time ago that a lot of people never did much more than what was expected of them.
The Greyhounds' glass collected amazing yellow mosaics of splattered bugs from the trip through the valley, and it was hard work scrubbing off those sticky, sun-fried messes. Corbitt cleaned the mirrors too; carefully, because the drivers had them adjusted with scientific precision and would pitch the furies if they were moved. That the Greyhound drivers, princes of the road, trusted Corbitt to wash their mirrors was an honor of sorts. Corbitt liked the way the big buses trembled, their engines loping in that impatient idle that marked a Detroit Diesel. The drivers usually paid him a dollar, though Corbitt had to split it with the jockey whose ladder he'd used.
That was just a business thing, and no more than expected.
There were local buses, too, and Corbitt knew their names like he recognized the trucks: GMs, Carpenters, Waynes, Superiors, and Bluebirds. But whatever company had built the prison bus hadn't put their name on it.
Maybe, Corbitt wondered, they'd been ashamed to?
Now he sat hidden by the tree's lush leaves and the denser, twisting vines that were slowly strangling it to death. Earlier that morning as he'd crossed the fields, he'd thought of sitting on the roadside fence to watch the bus go by. But when he'd seen it coming, far down the shimmering ribbon of road, with sun-struck hellfire reflecting off glass and bars, he'd run back and climbed the tree instead. You didn't wave to a prison bus any more than you'd wave to a funeral car. That might make the people inside even sadder.
Corbitt didn't want to make his father sad.
His eyes blurred with tears. All he could see were shadowy profiles behind the bars and glass, as if nobody inside even cared to look out because they were no longer a part of the land they passed through.
The nothing-colored bus dwindled into the greens and browns of the valley on its side-slip journey to nowhere. The moan of its
engine faded to a murmur as it slowed for the New Crossing bridge. Corbitt heard the deck planks rattle, and then the bus was gone. Blue exhaust-haze ghosting above the road, and the scents of hot iron and oil were all that remained. It was mid-morning, Sunday, the road stretched empty now, and only the sleepy drone of insects stirred the steamy silence. A crow flapped past, following the road in the hope that the bus had killed something.
A feeling came to Corbitt, new yet strangely familiar, as if he was in a place between the future and past, alone in the tree and looking both ways. It was as if the past had ended when the bus had gone by. So, what was the next thing? It seemed for all his thirteen years Corbitt had been hearing people talk of the next thing; as if everything now was just temporary and they were waiting for the next -- and hopefully better -- thing to appear. Was that why so many never did more than what was expected of them?
But how would it come, Corbitt wondered, and how would you recognize it? Would there be a sign, like in magic? Could you hear it in the distance like an oncoming truck, downshifting just for you?
Corbitt listened to people a lot. It wasn't really eavesdropping because most folks acted like he wasn't there anyway. His dad always said that even a mule could pass for smart if it kept its mouth shut and its ears and eyes open. But Corbitt wasn't sure he believed that anymore. Even though he listened hard and didn't talk much -- at least to white people -- he still seemed to get treated like a jackass. Lately he'd started to wonder if all he was doing was side-slipping in time... slip-sliding away, like an old song said? Maybe there was no next thing coming for him? And, if this was as good as it got, maybe he was stupid for thinking it wasn't good enough?
Corbitt sighed and closed his eyes. Or, maybe his next thing had already come down the road, slowed, and then gone on without him because he'd been too stupid or lazy to run out and flag it down?
Despite the tree's shade, it was hot, even for Mississippi in July. It was wet, sticky heat like a blanket of steam and the northern truck drivers hated it. One had told Corbitt that it made you slow and lazy. Maybe it did? Northern people always seemed smarter and faster-talking. Maybe that was why a lot of southern whites didn't like them? If that was true, then it seemed unfair that he'd been born here.
Most of the northern whites were friendly. Sometimes they told him jokes. Corbitt usually tried them out on his brothers, Lamar Sampson and Toby Barlow. Sometimes Sherry Cooper, too. Toby got them all right off; Lamar, you sometimes never knew; and, naturally, Corbitt didn't tell the really dirty ones to Sherry, not even the funny dirty ones.
Last year, a young white lady with big pink sunglasses, who had gotten off a Greyhound to buy a Pepsi, had asked Corbitt a lot of questions about who he was and what life was like for him. She was going to college in California and studying Social Anthropology. She had seemed surprised that Corbitt knew what anthropology was, even if he'd never heard of the social kind. Anyway, he'd felt as if she was trying to be nice, but she was too serious about everything. She'd asked if he knew any folk tales, so he'd told her a joke. Not a dirty one, naturally, but a plain old little niggerboy joke, a funny one like white kids told to each other at school when they thought black kids weren't listening. A lot of white people relaxed if you did that, but the young white lady had only gotten more serious. She'd even written the joke down in a notebook. Anyhow, the lady had asked permission to take his picture and had made him stand in front of the battered row of rusty oil-drum garbage cans around back of the building to do it. Having to pose like a poor little niggerboy bothered Corbitt. He'd read that primitive people in Africa thought you captured a piece of somebody's soul when you took their picture; like something that could be used against you in Voodoo. Corbitt thought that was a lot of shit. Besides, Mrs. Griffin said that was nonsense, and she of all people should know. Then too, he got his picture taken every year at school so it was in the yearbook, and if somebody wanted to stick pins in it, nothing had jabbed Corbitt yet. Still, the thought of his picture in California being studied by Social Anthropologists -- he'd looked it up at the library -- was sort of strange. But the lady had given him a five-dollar bill and bought him a bottle of Pepsi. He'd traded the Pepsi back to the truck stop store for a Coke after the Greyhound pulled out, and buried the fiver with his other secret money in a Prince Albert can beneath the old bridge.
Corbitt ran over the joke in his mind: Little niggerboy goes to a sawmill, tells the man his daddy needs some two-by-fours. Man asks how long he wants them. Little niggerboy thinks for a minute, then says he's gonna want 'em a long time because they buildin’ a house.
Funny to figure that going to college in California. Well, if the lady wanted to call it a negro folk tale, that was her problem.
Damn it was hot! Even to him, and he lived here. Corbitt's good clothes were put away for school in the fall, and he wore only his ragged summer jeans, which were threadbare and faded sky-blue. Two seasons ago they'd been overalls, but he'd gotten too tall for the straps since then and the front flap hardly reached his chest, so now he wore them like jeans, held at his waist by a wide brown belt with a big square brass buckle that some trucker had thrown away. Both knees were ripped open, a back pocket was gone, and the cuffs were frayed to ribbons and reached only part way down his shins, while the front flap hung like an indian boy's loincloth. They rode so low on his narrow hips that a few curls of hair usually showed. Only the lady on the Greyhound had ever looked twice at them; nobody here thought worn-out rags looked out of place on a black boy.
Or maybe a little niggerboy joke,
Corbitt shucked his jeans and relaxed back naked in the wide tree fork. No one could see him concealed by the curtain of leaves so he might as well be comfortable. He dug an almost empty pack of Top tobacco from his jeans' pocket and carefully rolled a cigarette. His fingers were slim and very long as if they could spin silken webs They were also quick and sure, and he didn't waste a speck of tobacco.
Corbitt was tall for thirteen, almost six feet, and slender without being skinny, his long body tapering from wide shoulders to lean hips that made keeping his jeans on a perpetual problem. It was as if he hadn't been born to wear clothes. His bones were slim and fine beneath tightly defined muscles, like something built to crouch for hours in wait, then leap out and run for miles in chase. He might have looked fragile if he hadn't been so tall.
And he wasn't just black; he was so amazingly black that even other black people made jokes about it... blacker than a telephone... so black you had to look twice to see him once. His smooth midnight skin seemed to absorb light instead of reflecting it. Like space.
Corbitt Wainwright, born to live naked and run, liked to read more than just about anything else; like the joke about a greyhound -- the four-legged kind -- being a seventy-mile-an-hour couch potato. This was probably why, instead of having the washboard belly one might have expected with a build such as his, he had a little chub at his middle, sort of like the ebony ghost of a little baby's bottom that would have hung a bit over his jeans if he hadn't worn them so low. He'd probably spent half his life naked, but he didn't run much, and then almost never when it was expected. His grades in P. E. reflected that. He might have been fat if he hadn’t been poor -- the Mississippi kind of poor -- and he wouldn’t have minded, though he’d never seen a fat greyhound, even in books.
There was a tiny library in New Crossing, a bigger one in Starkville, and the number of his dog-eared library card was stamped between the covers of an amazing amount of their books. He’d gotten some awards for reading, but he didn't give a shit. That was like getting a prize for eating. Or for taking a shit. His dad read a lot, too, and was always bringing home old paperbacks from the Starkville second-hand store. Corbitt liked best to read about starships and space and alternate universes, where side-slipping in time could get you somewhere... usually better. Often in the hot summer nights he'd lie on his back by the river reading a book by the light of a lantern and occasionally gazing up at the stars and dreaming they would be his next thing.
His eyes were clear and black, startlingly large for his face, and as shiny as polished obsidian. He had prominent cheekbones, a nose like a small snub of nothing, and hair as bushy and wild as an ebony dandelion puff. His lips never quite met over big white teeth, and turned up at the corners, giving him a sort of V smile even when there was nothing to smile about. He didn't know it but his face was the face of a prince. His people had been warriors and rulers in a faraway land a long time ago. Because they were fierce fighters, and smart, few had ever been captured and chained. It was probably an accident or a betrayal that caused Corbitt to exist where he was today... though most people called it living. But his people had also been kind, and had had no word in their language for greed, so maybe it wasn't surprising that not many were left anywhere in the world. Those few would have recognized Corbitt in an instant, but that was a story he'd never read in a book that would never be written.
In this time it was a nice face, and about the only part of him to reflect his true age. But it was so black that most people couldn't see the real Corbitt behind it, though almost everyone liked his smile.
Today, Corbitt didn't feel like smiling.
The nothing-colored bus to nowhere had been his father's next thing. Not all next-things were better. That was a new thought for Corbitt.
Corbitt's mind didn't so much wander as flick about like something darting from tree to tree through a sun-dappled forest in search of prey. Now came an image of Sherry Cooper by the river, poised naked with the water flowing at her feet. He felt a stirring in his loins, a sensation that had become familiar in the past few seasons. He glanced down, watching his shaft rise between his legs despite his sadness... his shaft had a mind of its own.
There was a rustle of feathers overhead; a dry sound like dead old leaves in Autumn. Corbitt looked up to see a crow land on a branch. Maybe it was the same one that had been following the prison bus. But all crows looked alike... though probably not to other crows. The bird's feathers gleamed like oiled gunmetal, and it seemed to look down at Corbitt with slyness in eyes of frozen gold. It gave a croak that sounded too much like a smart-ass chuckle to Corbitt.
"Go to hell," Corbitt told it. His loins cooled.
Corbitt ignored the crow and considered getting drunk. But what good would that do? He couldn't stay drunk until his father came home, so it would just be a waste of time and money. Corbitt didn't have much money, and he wasn't sure how important time was.
He pulled a blue Bic lighter from his jeans and held it up to a sunbeam, squinting at the fluid level. Butane was a liquid under pressure; a captive liquid sort of serving time until it got released and became a free vapor once more. He'd read the term, free vapor, in a book. Somehow it had a nice sound. Besides, a vapor was almost nothing, and nobody expected anything from nothing. The lighter was almost empty. Corbitt turned the tiny valve all the way down before firing his cigarette with the briefest flicker of flame. The lighter was one of his treasures; a thousand times more meaningful than any award for book-reading. A truck driver had given it to him that spring... a white man from the north who'd bummed a hand-rolled Top cigarette from Corbitt as if white men asking for spit-licked cigarettes from thirteen-year-old Mississippi black boys was the most natural thing in the world. The gleaming blue Marmon-Herrington the man drove had OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA painted in small letters on the doors below the company name. Corbitt knew that California was technically in the west, but when you were black in the south most everywhere better was always north.
Inside the truck stop building, behind the counter in the little room where Mrs. Rudd sold bus tickets and passengers waited, was a huge map showing all the places Greyhounds went. Corbitt had gone in and studied it. Oakland was thousands of miles away, though it might as well have been light-years.
The white truck driver had called him son -- not boy, the way most whites except that bastard Shilo Bates were always careful not to do -- or even kid, the way most whites did... at least to his face. They had sat in the shade of the truck in the dusty back lot and talked about engines and truck stuff while smoking Corbitt's cigarettes. The man had bought Corbitt a beer, and hadn't once asked what life was like for him. Corbitt had caught a glimpse of a picture in the man’s wallet: it showed a pretty black woman and two chubby gold-colored boys in swim suits on a bright green lawn with a nice house behind them. It was only an accident that Corbitt had seen the picture, and he was happy about that. He wasn't sure why, but it wouldn't have meant as much if the man had intentionally showed it to him. Corbitt watched all the time for the shiny blue Marmon-Herrington but it never passed through again... or maybe it had but he'd missed it? The lighter was almost empty now, but Corbitt planned to keep it anyway.
Naked in the tree, his thoughts darting through the sunlight and shadows of his mind, Corbitt smoked his cigarette with the same casual grace as he did everything. Besides, his father always said that if you were going to take the time to roll a cigarette you should also take the time to sit back and enjoy it. Corbitt never smoked and worked at the same time. Of course, Lamar Sampson never did either, but that was mostly because he got whopped if his mom or dad caught him smoking. Now, as he smoked, Corbitt's eyes gazed out through the curtain of leaves, across the shimmering road and the hazy green-and-brown fields to the faint purple hills in the west. A feeling stirred inside him, close to but different from the restlessness between his legs. A next thing was coming. He could sense it like faraway thunder or the eerie hollowness in the air just before a tornado touched down. The signs were all around, yet there was no definite one to guide him. Not all next things were good -- he knew that now -- and if you sometimes had to help them happen by doing more than just what was expected, then maybe you could also hide from a bad one just as he'd hidden from the prison bus?
He glanced up at the crow, but it also seemed to be searching the distance. Corbitt wished that he'd asked his dad more questions. Man-questions. It was sad to realize all he should have asked now that he couldn’t. His mother didn't always understand his questions... she got the words right but sometimes not the real question behind the question. It was sort of like, if he got drunk today, so fucked-up drunk that Toby and Lamar would have to carry him home, his mom would think he'd done it because he was sad about his father. She wouldn't understand that all he really wanted to do was break the hateful continuity of these recent days. But then, getting drunk would almost be what was expected of him. Corbitt wanted to do something more than what was expected of him; especially for his mother. There were already too many problems, and most were caused by money. And now, with his father gone, there would be hardly any money.
Maybe, he thought, that's what it was... the scary hollowness in the air he wanted to hide from. Maybe it wasn't a next thing but only the fear that he'd never be able to do any more than just what was expected of him.
Corbitt's eyes caught a tiny movement at the edge of the road: a field mouse. He tried to imagine what that vast empty grayness ahead looked like to a mouse. Could it even see the other side? The mouse wanted to cross over, but Corbitt could sense its fear; so small to him but so huge to the mouse. Yet he could see what the mouse could not -- through sharper eyes from a higher perspective -- that the country road stretched clear for miles and was perfectly safe to cross. Corbitt's V of a smile touched his lips. He whispered, "Go for it, little brother. Just over there be your own next thing, an’ a good one, all soft an’ green with lots of good food an’ waitin’ for you.”
The mouse hesitated, made a short darting run, but then scampered back to refuge in the roadside weeds again. Its sides were heaving in fear as it stared across to the tall grass ripe with seeds.
“Go for it," Corbitt urged in a whisper. "Listen, I know my ownself how that ol’ empty gray be so scary to you. But it only so much of nothin’. Gonna stay hungry ‘cause you scared of some nothin? Keepin’ yourself here be just what expected of you. So, go an’ do somethin’ more than expected.”
A smile sparked in Corbitt's eyes as the mouse hurried straight across for its next thing. Suddenly, a gunmetal blur fell from the sky and the crow caught the mouse in its beak. It beat the tiny body on the pavement then began to rip it apart. The frozen-gold eyes seemed to find Corbitt's, and the bird gave its croaking chuckle again.
"Bastard!" yelled Corbitt. A stone would have killed the crow in an instant -- Corbitt seldom missed -- but he had nothing to throw. Dropping from the tree, he dashed to the fence. The crow glanced at him, but only chuckled again and went right on ripping at the mouse. There were stones along the fence, a whole abundance of good killing stones, but Corbitt only slumped against the wooden bars, sobbing and pounding his fists on the rail. "You bastard! You goddamn little black bastard!”
The crow ignored him as if knowing he couldn't or wouldn't kill. After a minute, Corbitt straightened his back and wiped at his eyes. It was only a mouse. Who gave a shit what happened to a goddamn Mississippi mouse? Returning to the tree, Corbitt slipped his jeans on and began walking slowly across the field.
End of excerpt. This book is available on Kindle.