The Consequent Touch of McHenry Feathers

 

One





World went dark.

His father long since gone but rarely there even before, passed
into smoke and ash by alchemy of cremation, he walked the broken sidewalk a man
yet a boy still, with a boy’s acceptance of what is given without thought to
meaning or consequence. Yet also a man, with full burden of all handed a boy in
a fatherless home when he comes of age, his mother and grandmother looking to
him, holding out hope he will break from the inevitable past, the circular path
of once known. He strode the shadowed street alone, live oaks reaching,
stretching, black in the damp air.

His father coming at him out of memory with ‘lazy meskins never
learn how to drive worth a damn; ought to send ’em all back’ and then gone
before indigo shadows again swallowed him whole, limbs arcing overhead,
ancient, mute, silhouetted by the heavy morning light. Turning his eyes aside
as the clay-colored form approached, thinking not laziness but robbery, sloth
in alternate form, he tensed until the other passed and then he breathed again
the stale air of once heard and still remembered, tattooed but unseen.

Beyond the sliding shadows buildings topped the ragged trees, the
red brick bell tower among them calling out its twelve notes of quarter hour in
sets of four. He quickened his pace. The tilted sidewalk, rent by wayward
roots, patient, relentless, shortened as he neared the campus flats that stood
just across the leaf-littered street. Then the broad trees fell away all at
once, the sky opening, cloud-strewn, filled with light as he sprinted across
the road and up the narrow drive, stopping before a tall, windowless warehouse,
its sliding doors open and already busy with men in blue work shirts and
trousers.

Sweat slid between his shoulder blades. He stopped, taking a
breath and then approaching the wide doorway where a man the color of plums,
old but not old, hair half to gray, angular face sprinkled here and there with
stubble, stood just inside the entrance, a veil of blue smoke floating about
his head. The old man squinted, studied him like a cat might, unspeaking,
disinterested, with a cloudy eye that revealed little of consequence. The man
held his crooked arm at angle, iron-thin, muscular, tense as a drawn bow, a
hand-rolled cigarette squeezed between thumb and forefinger hovering inches
from his lips. The other hand rested on his bony hip. The man pulled on the
misshapen cigarette, letting smoke drift from his mouth and past his eyes
before asking if he was looking for anyone in particular. When the man said ‘here’
it sounded to him like ‘he-uhn’, boy like bu-oyh, but the man’s voice seemed
cordial enough, almost formal, and he soon left at the man’s direction for the
department office.

He walked the broad driveway lined with truck and flatbed,
lifeless white beneath bluish lights, some old and scarred with rough use, some
gleaming new, as faces all shades less white stopped talk, stopped work to
watch him pass. A cackle of laughter escaping the crowd like a trap-caught crow
sent the burn of blood across his face in a searing wave. He glanced left, then
right, vengeance twisting his throat into bitter spasm. Split lip, bruised
knuckle, bloodied nose, the mad-dog world rising up on all sides flashed in and
out of his daydream until his grandmother’s quavering voice silenced the blood
with one word, familiar, quiet, laced with long known and often seen. No
toleration for intolerance, she named his father as seen and truly was to the
then-boy’s face so as a man he again felt cold shame pass through his chest,
showing his flaw as anger and anger as flaw.

He could see them both now, his mother at the broad window facing
the back yard and his grandmother’s small cabin-like home beyond, hands above
the porcelain sink of soap-covered plates, drain board of just-rinsed glasses,
above them a clear green vase of climbing ivy flanked by African violet and
pansy. His grandmother seated nearby, reading the daily paper out loud, or
Tolstoy, even Bronte if the mood was right, through rimless bifocals.

The scene faded as he stood before the dim office, breathing air
laced with telltale exhaust, gasoline, paint thinner, before pushing open the
office door. Behind a green metal desk left from the last war or earlier, the
boulder form in white shirt not blue hunched over a pad and scribbled,
horn-rimmed glasses flashing reflected light. He stood beneath the humming
fluorescence, the sound of men arriving for work barely audible above the man’s
ragged breath. He waited as the man hunched, scribbled, then the broad head
rose, eyes blinking, jerked from him, beyond to the door and back before
nodding him to the chair. The man cleared his throat, spit into an unseen waste
basket and turned to him, his mouth forming the first word.

 

I see here your name is Glenolden Spencer. What do they call you,
son?   

            I go by Noll, Mr. Breaks.

            The coloreds here call me Elgy, so I guess you can do the
same unless you have an objection to it. I’d understand if you did and wanted
to be treated different from them boys.

            No, that’ll be fine.

You’re sure you want this job? It’s hard physical labor every day.

I’m sure. I need this job.

I understand your father has passed and you’re the man at home. So
it’s just you and your mother, then?

My grandmother lives out back of us, me and my mother, in a little
house of her own.

Well then, you’ll be working with Feathers.

            What will I do with them?

            What?

            What will I do with the feathers?

            Feathers is a colored feller, and a no-good lazy one at
that.

            I’ll be working with a black man?

            Call him what you want.

            My father would’ve called him worse.

            Sounds like I would’ve gotten on with your father but
we’ve got to watch what we say around these boys. If they get stirred up, they
can be trouble.

            So, I’ll be working with a black guy name of Feathers?

            You need to understand something, son. You’ll be the only
white man in the department except for me and you won’t see much of me. You
still want the job?

            Yes sir, my mother lost her job so I’m in need of work,
even if it’s working for a black man.

You’ll be working alongside him. You’ll keep an eye on him and let
me know what he’s up to. You can do that, can’t you?

            You’re the boss and I’ll do what you say.

            These colored boys are as bad as the bean-eaters when it
comes to getting out of work. You know what I mean, don’t you son? Sure you do.
Feathers is a bad influence on them all. He’s got some fool idea he’s better
than me and you. He claims he has a whole house full of books but I don’t
believe it. Speak of the devil, here he comes now. Don’t you let on what I told
you.

            -The door opened and the man who earlier had given him
directions ambled in.

            Feathers, this is the new worker I told you about. He
goes by Noll and he’ll need you to show him the ropes around here. He’s got the
license and can drive a double-axel truck. Now take him along and get right on
setting up for the big shindig at the President’s house. I’m going to go make
sure them other boys have cleared out the vines by the reflecting pool.

            - Elgy walked out the door.   

            Do I call you Feathers?

            My name is McHenry Feathers. I go by Hen.

            Hen Feathers? You’re joshing me.

            Looky here son, I put up a hay bale of trouble over that
name. Don’t you start off wrong with me now.

            Alright.

            No sir, you show me some respect and call me by my right
name.

            I will. I mean, I didn’t mean any disrespect… Hen.

            Alright then, sit down so I can learn you. I won’t work
with a man until I learnt him.

            Learn me? Why do you want to do that?

            You’re a white man. I’m a black man and I got to work
alongside you. Now I’m not happy about it but if I’m going to be working with
you I have to learn you. Otherwise, we might have trouble.

            I’m no trouble, long as I’m treated right.

            That’s right. A man can treat another man with respect if
he learns him.

            How do you learn someone, then?

            Well, we have ourselves a sit-down talk. Sit and tell me
your name again.

            I’m Noll Spencer.

            I knew a man once named Spencer, served with him in the
war but he wasn’t from here so I don’t suppose you’d know him.

            Probably not.

            Tell me about you, Noll Spencer.

            What do you want to know?

            Everybody got a mama and a daddy. Tell me about them.

            I live not far from here. My grandmother lives with us in
a cabin behind the house. She came there after my grandfather died. The cabin
is old and was built for servants. That’s about it.

            You’re not much of a talker, Noll.

Well, my mother taught high school until she lost her job.

            Uh-huh, I could tell your daddy was gone.

            What?

            Your daddy’s not gone?

            He is.

            See what I say? I could tell.

            You guessed. You couldn’t tell.

Sure I could. Looky here, I know something about growing up
without a daddy. My own daddy ran away soon as I was born.

            My father didn’t run away, he died. I’ll bet you didn’t
know that, did you?

Still gone. How do you all pay the bills with no man about the
house?

How’d you get so nosy?

We’re just talking here, Noll.

I don’t know if I want to tell all this to a…

Looky here, don’t you start throwing names around or you won’t
last. We all got to work together so you better learn to get along with men not
like you.

            My grandmother tutors college students.

            Things must be tight.

We’re getting by.

            But your mother’s a teacher and your grandmother too?

            My grandmother is seventy-eight and still tutors college
algebra.

            Uh-huh, I could tell you come from teachers.

            How could you tell? I just told you is all.

No sir, you got that learnt look about you and in your words but
you don’t act uppity. Some folks do. My aunt was a teacher but she never acted
like she was better than other folks. World needs more teachers, that’s a fact.

            It seems like all I’ve ever done is go to school.

Why are you here when you should be in college your own self?

I have to work.

Not in a place like this you don’t. You got to get that college
degree. You don’t want to get stuck here. Listen to me son. Now, I’m not a
believer myself but my granny used to say God helps them that help themselves.

I don’t need anybody’s help or anybody’s advice either.

Ha! Was I preaching again? I get to going and don’t know when to stop.
But your education is important. You can’t just let yourself…

You don’t believe in God?

That’s right. The meanness of this life cured me of that.

I feel like I’ve spent half my life at church. My grandfather even
has a room there named after him.

Oh, I was raised in the church too. My granny would take it no
other way. She used to say there’s no word except for the word of God. But what
I saw in the war and what I saw after that, the way we were treated all those
years and still are, cured me of the church. I decided a man’s word was what
mattered and God would have to be one mean son of a…

- A young man rushed through the door.

What are you doing here, boy?

Where’s that Elgy, Hen?

He’s gone over to check on work at the reflecting pool, where you
ought to be right now. Why are you here instead of there? You’re going to get
yourself fired.

Already done that.

What are you telling me, Ranse?

Elgy pushed me too far yesterday so I got right up in his face. He
turned white as a ghost but he didn’t say a thing, just left.

So, why you think you’re fired?

I came in early to talk to him but he sent his man Lio out to the
street, tell me I’m fired and can’t even come on the property.

You’re looking for trouble, Ranse. I can see it in your face.

Naw.

Why are you here then?

I got my reasons.

You got your reasons. Well then, tell me what you got your jacket
on for. It’s already hot out there. Old Hen’s got to wonder why you keep your
hand in your pocket. What you got in there, boy?

I got nothing.

Go on now, show me what you got.

You mean this knife here? It’s just from my kitchen is all. I
forgot I had it.

You forgot, huh? What’re you up to, boy?

I got to go.

That’s right. You go on home and stay there, you hear? I’ll see
you when I get off from work. I’ll be doing my own talking to that Elgy.

This is my business, old man.

Don’t you backtalk me. You get on home now.

It’s my business but I’ll go.

- He walked out the door.

Young man always looking for trouble where he don’t need to. That
Ranse is too hot-tempered for his own good. When he gets mad he stops using his
head and he just acts. A man’s got to use his head in this world, especially if
he’s a black man.

What was he going to do?

I hate to think what he might do with that temper of his.

My father had a temper. He’s been gone a long time but I remember
that.

He knock you around, son?

My mother too.

And leave you to remember him that way.

I’d just as soon forget him.

Think on that, son. Not too many men are all bad, even ones with a
temper. You might can take some good away from him if you look for…

What’s that yelling?

Lordy, it sounds like Ranse. Come with me, son.

-They rushed through the door.

 

            Hen’s round head jerked side to side, rocking, hitching
birdlike with every other step as Noll let go the door and hurried to follow,
metal blinds clattering behind like frightened geese. Hen’s thin hair flashed
bits of silver beneath the humming lights. Beyond, Ranse stood facing a short
blue-shirted man a yard outside the yawning door, red-clay skin of one thin
against the gunmetal other. Glints of knife blade skittered across the smooth
floor like gunshots.

Noll moved up beside Hen as they came upon the two men and he
looked from one to the other, his circular past sliding up under consciousness,
dim cognition, unacknowledged thought, coming to him again as sure as planets
move about the sun. Like animals, he mused, with no regard for civil due, law,
expectation but mere base instinct surging under brown skin and black. Go ahead
and cut, kill, he muttered under his breath, the loss of mindless beast no loss
at all.

He stood by as Hen surveyed the standoff, cat-like, his cloudy eye
jumping here, there, emotionless, silent but for his ragged breath. He coughed
long, hard, guttural so that the two men turned looking as he spat and wiped
his mouth with the bony back of a hand, mumbling to himself, before they again
faced each other. The square clay-colored man shrank before the rangy bulk of
Ranse. Hen’s voice then calm, emotionless, oddly deep for one so thin yet firm
and without hesitation, sounded against the metal walls. Talking reason,
deliberation, he sidled up to Ranse, a gnarled hand up as if to halt movement,
suspend the moment.

Ranse cocked his head, hearing the voice, turning to Hen, Noll
just behind. His eyes red, dilated, wild with threat, locked onto Noll. Hen
looked from one to the other, the slightest shake of his head toward Noll
nearly imperceptible. Ranse turned back to the little man. No contest there,
Noll thought. The man stood arms out, ready for flight, sweat staining the blue
shirt, the dark spreading across his lean chest. Noll could see he wanted no
trouble but had found it as Elgy’s messenger. Noll started to turn and leave
them to it but stopped, instead taking a step toward the three men, hearing his
own voice before realizing he had spoken.

 

Leave him.

-Two words enough but the third out before even the sound reached
his ears.

Boy.

-Ranse turned back to him, eyes narrow, knuckles stretched against
the knife handle, moving toward him in heavy bulk. Noll had seen the look, the
intent to harm, make right all humiliation, all defeat, trade one’s own pain
for the pain of another. His father’s eyes flashed before him, dangerous,
violent, determined, and he readied himself. Then Hen stepped into the space
between them, hand to Ranse’s chest, just a touch and then held there. Angle
iron thin, all bone and sinew yet unbending he held his hand still and with the
other reached for the knife, palm up as he spoke, calm, level.

Boy meant nothing by it, Ranse. Word slipped from him like a
dropped glass, regretted before the sound of his voice even gone from this
place. Give me the knife, son. Give me the knife and go on home.

What do I do, then? My mother and aunt and sister, they count on
this paycheck. What do I tell them? What I did was wrong but that Elgy, he
deserved worse. I’ll talk to him and get back my job. He’ll give it back to me
and if he won’t…

No, Ranse. There’ll be no harm to nobody today, you hear?

It’s not right.

I know that, son. There’s no fairness to it but Rogelio and Noll
aren’t Elgy. Lio only did what Elgy told him to. You know he didn’t like it but
he did it because he had to. You expect him to get his own self fired too when
he has kids to feed? You have only yourself.

My mother and sister, aunt too.

They stopped being children long ago, Ranse. They’ll be alright.

They count on me, Hen.

Sure they do, boy. So, you get yourself on home and we’ll work it
out when I get there.

-Ranse’s eyes flashed once at Noll, then he took the knife blade
in his fingers, put the handle in Hen’s palm and walked out the door,
disappearing down the tree-lined sidewalk. Lio turned and vanished around the
corner without a word. Noll turned to where Hen stood, squinting at him.

Why’d you go and aggravate that boy? I nearly lost my touch with
him.

It’s not my fault he’s a dumb jungle…

There you go again with your racist talk.

I’m not a racist.

Sound like a racist to me.

You’re the racist, accusing me like that. It’s not your place to…

Maybe you’d like me to call you a bigot instead.

You can’t talk to me like that, you black…

You learnt that from your daddy, I bet. You’re bound to turn out
just like him the way you’re going.

How would you know?

Seen it before.

I won’t ever be like him, not ever. You have no right to say that.
You don’t know me.

You’re right about that, boy. I don’t know a thing about you and
you don’t know a thing about me. So we got to wait and see. That make sense to
you?

I guess it does.

We won’t get anywhere working against each other. We already got
enough working against us in this place. What you just saw ought to tell you.
You understand what I’m saying?

I think so.

You got to leave all you heard outside of here, make up your own
mind about people. What I do know of you, I believe you can do that.

I didn’t mean to say what I did.

I could see that, son. I’m not a man to lie.

It seemed wrong, Ranse against such a small man. I didn’t want to
see him get hurt.

You think I was trying to keep Lio from getting hurt?

I didn’t like the unfairness of it is all.

You got it wrong, boy. I was protecting Ranse. He’s big, I can see
that for myself but he’s just a kid. Lio grew up on the streets and knows how
to fight. He wouldn’t hurt Ranse if he could help it but when there’s a knife
you never can tell. You and Ranse is another story.

Well, I could see you stepped in for me and I’m sorry you had to.
I just heard the word said that way too many times.

You mean your daddy?

That’s the way he was. He died a long time ago but it’s like he’s
still here.

How long has it been?

Over a year.

Son, don’t you know a year or two is no time at all when you lose
someone?

It seems a long time and then it doesn’t.

Noll, the past follows you just like it does me and Ranse and Lio.
What happened is part of you no care if you like it or not. What matters is
whether you let the past be who you are or who you were. You can decide that
for yourself.

I’m not sure I know how.

Treat a man with respect. Take him at his word and you’ll make a
start at it.

What will happen with Ranse?

Don’t know but that boy, he’s all twisted up. I have me a bad
feeling about it, a real bad feeling. Now, we better get on to work. We got
ourselves a hot one today.