World Turned Upside Down
Posted: 28 January 2012
Word Count: 2183
Summary: I've amended the ending - comments welcome.
The idea of making the doll came to me at church. The pastor was there this morning and about a dozen of the patriot women, the Jackson regulars, keeping Mississippi true. I like making things on a Sunday, I know it’s the Lord’s day but usually it’s quilting and other old crafts, so I figure that’s OK with Him. I found a shoe box and an old doll Katie’s got no need of, now she’s at college in Chicago. The eyelids open and close when you tip it back. I made some holes in the box and threaded some wire to hold the doll in place.
The pastor was in fine form, standing tall and broad shouldered with his fine head of white hair like snow on a majestic mountain. I love his voice, like God is in the room, in my head. Those fine words rising and falling with barely a pause so sometimes you are pinned to your seat by them and other times you have to lean forward to hear.
Charlotte sat next to me in a frock she made herself, all daisies on sky blue, very fetching. She took off her fancy new spectacles, the red ones with the turned up corners, and fanned her face with the hymn sheet. “What a fine figure of a man he is Betty,” she said under her breath. He is sixty now and we women cook for him and look after his house once a week. He never married but he would have made any woman proud.
The pastor was talking about all kinds of things and I drifted off and let the words blow around like blossom on the wind. He told the story of his ma and pa having to sell up for a pittance in 1934. They had to traipse around looking for work with their wagon of belongings and their Bible after share-cropping collapsed and the coloureds moved north. My daddy’s seed business went down. I thanked the Lord Dan joined the army before we wed. Then he said our new President takes orders from the Pope and I didn’t know that but I’m not surprised.
I took off the doll’s raggedy blue dress, I wanted it to be white with bright white ankle socks. But first I painted the face and legs and made the hair look right. It was a problem making it stiff and curly. I tried plaiting it but in the end I had to cut off all the hair and stick on some of the pastor’s pipe cleaners painted black.
He was saying that fear is the way to stop what’s happening in the schools. He said white folk shouldn’t take their children out. They should make the coloureds too fearful to go in. It’s all God’s fear so it will bring them closer to God. Coloured people were happy with things the way they were. Living in ghettoes up north is worse for them. There aren’t jobs for them up there, because white folks got there first. World’s turned itself upside down when it was all right the way it was. So let’s put the fear of God back into them. That’s when I thought of the doll.
Monday is the day the coloured children are going to be brought into the school. Charlotte said the federal marshals will be escorting them in like movie stars. She said it was a mistake for the men to kill those white boys who were trying to get niggers registered to vote because now the federal government is involved. We should use quiet ways, she said, to make them fearful. So we plan to be at the school, to make them fear the future and keep things the way they are.
I painted the shoe box black, fashioned some handles out of foil and wired that little doll in. The eyelids kept opening so I stuck them down with glue.
The next morning I rose early and waited for Charlotte to call. She said we’d march down to the school picking up the others on the way. I sipped my coffee and looked at the photograph of Dan in uniform. If he hadn’t joined the army before we married my life would have been very different. The Mississippi Rifles served us well when there was no work. It meant a roof over our heads, food on the table and clothes for little Katie and Sam when they were growing up. My heart was broken in pieces when his transport ship was hit by a Jap suicide plane but the pension saw me through. I still put some by for rainy days. Sam has his daddy’s Bronze Star in a case and we remember him on Memorial Day.
Katie came to visit last month and she was asking about life in the old days, in the 20’s and 30s when I was little and what did I know about the White Knights and the Klan. She should have stayed in the South. She was playing some new devil music, white boys pretending they were coloureds. My daddy used to say they have their music and we have ours. Keeps them in their place he said, gives them a way of letting steam out that’s building in their heads.
Charlotte came up the path carrying a placard. It said ‘Don’t let our children out the back door and let the Communists in through the front’. I said I liked it and poured her some coffee.
She picked up Dan’s photograph. “What would Dan and the Riflemen have done Betty?” she said. “Surely these times would have made their blood boil.”
“He would have been with us, shoulder to shoulder. With the menfolk anyway.”
“My Jed was out late again last night, meeting the other men. I told him I hope they’re not planning any trouble.”
We walked together to the school, calling for the other women on the way. A righteous crew, me with the shoe box tucked under my arm, Charlotte and the others with their banners and placards. There was honour in our stride. The sun was already hot and each time we passed a magnolia the thick scent hit us like a sweet wave. Sweat trickled down my spine to my girdle and I shivered. My chest swelled with pride as we got nearer and saw a small crowd already gathered and there was the pastor holding the Book high. I walked a little taller at the sight of him. He caught my eye and nodded when he saw the doll.
I couldn’t help smiling, my cheeks went hotter and I looked away. I go to him for Bible study once a week. He says I’m helping the Lord’s cause relieving his urges so he has more energy for the fight. It doesn’t take long. His head jerks back like some of those country preachers who speak in tongues and say you’re saved. He said not to speak of it.
We waited in the heat, listening to the pastor who kept going despite his face going red and sweat soaking into his collar. The police made a ragged line in front of us. O’Connor, the chief of police, tipped his cap and asked after Katie and Sam. He stood in front of me and Charlotte in his cap and white shirt and tie, big belly tumbling out over his belt like potatoes from a split sack. At nine o’clock the pastor stopped and we all looked down the road at the cars rolling past on the slick asphalt, their tyres made a wet sound like they were being peeled and I was so hot.
The teachers came out and waited opposite us, the men in shirt sleeves and the women looking nervous. There was one I hadn’t seen before, a young white man whose dark curly hair was too long.
A big black Buick sedan stopped and three marshals got out right in front of us. I smelled the hot air escaping from inside the car. They wore baggy double breasted suits and Homburgs, yellow marshal arm bands and tired faces. One patted the bulge under his jacket to show he was armed. Then out got one little nigger girl knee high to a grasshopper. She looked like my little doll in the box with her white dress, socks and pumps, carrying an orange string bag with a book and a ruler in it.
I leaned forward with the shoe box, down at her height, around O’Connor’s legs and I knew she’d look because it was a doll and she was only little. She smiled at the doll and looked up at me. “That’s you,” I said, “if you go in that school. You don’t belong in there.”
Then the Jewboy teacher’s hair was right in my face. “You go to Hell,” he screamed and his spit hit my chin and he grabbed the girl, pulled her over to the teachers and the women whisked her inside. The men teachers and the marshals stood looking at us like we were dirt on their shoes. The pastor held up the Book and called out to the heavens, “You who fear Him, trust in the Lord.”
“Amen. Amen. Fear Him,” we all said out loud over and over and I looked at Charlotte’s face and she had the Light shining in her eyes. The pastor looked down on me and laid his hand on my head and I felt a power inside of me.
Then footsteps came running fast through the heat, men ran past us, white shirts, white faces. I heard Charlotte call out, “Jed?” No other sound and they grabbed the Jew teacher and pulled him to the ground. O’Connor stood with us and the marshals pulled their guns but no shots were fired. I couldn’t see the teacher, just legs swinging back and feet kicking him where he laid. The teachers were flapping around shouting to let him go but some of the men pushed them back. There was a pause and the men picked him up by the legs and arms like a hog and ran with him. They were gone. Over to some pickup trucks under the trees, threw him in and drove away. Not fast now. No one was going to chase them.
O’Connor turned like he was looking where the mob had gone but made no move. The marshals edged to their car and one reached in to grab the radio, his finger pressed the button and he spoke fast into it. The other two stood behind him, heads swiveling, eyes wide, pointing their guns two-handed.
Through the school window I could see the principal screaming down the phone. The pastor and O’Connor walked over to the shade talking out of the sides of their mouths. We women walked back to our houses. We were quiet but held our heads high. Pictures flashed in my head, the marshals, the men running, the white shirts, the black shoes kicking, that little girl’s smile as she looked at the doll. One by one the women said goodbye and soon I sat in my kitchen with Charlotte, the shoe box on the table between us.
“That’s it,” she said. “Word gets back to Washington we’ll have the National Guard down here. I’d better get home so I can be there when Jed gets back. He’ll have to go hide somewhere. Don’t lose faith Betty. We are right and right will win the day.”
“You really think Kennedy would send in the National Guard?”
“He hates us as much as we hate them, damn Yankees”. She smoothed her skirt and turned the shoe box round to look at it. “The pastor liked this Betty. I saw him looking at you. You are his favourite, I’ve always thought.”
I looked down at the doll, I knew I’d colour if I looked at Charlotte. “He inspires us all,” I said. “We’re all children and need a leader to help us walk the right path.”
“True enough. Did you see that little coloured girl’s face though Betty? I swear she thought you had a present for her.” She laughed. “No use schooling them when they’re that ignorant. Can you imagine one of our own kids seeing that, the nightmares they would have had?”
After she’d gone I sat on and thought all about that, what Charlotte said, what we did today. I thought about that little nigger girl this morning and her smile when she saw my doll. That teacher pulled her away before she could tell what it was. I was cheated of the fear I wanted her to feel but he got his and she will get hers. I looked at the corpse doll in the box with her pouting lips and eyes shut tight. I thought about Katie when she used to play with the doll, lifting it in and out of the cot. Her little face like a mother feeding it milk or spooning in dinner. The nightmares Katie would have had.
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