from the chapter Emmett Till in the novel Jackson
Jeanine drove a light green ’59 Rambler. It was a hardtop, but it suited her perfectly. The little houses looked like homes with no secrets as we drove along the little streets that night. We didn’t talk too much for a while and then she spoke. “So, has Melvin told you about his daddy?” I nodded no, silent.
“He doesn’t like to think about that part of our lives, but I tell him it is important. You never want to shut the door completely on your past.” I thought that to be good advice on living life and said so. We had the windows down and I could hear music off in the distance. Soul music. It sounded like the Temptations.
“We came from Greenwood. There was a movement there. Us being quiet people, we weren’t quick to get involved. We knew better.” She looked at me. “You don’t go messing with a still snake.”
She looked back at the road and went on talking. “We were young, though. We got caught up in it with the college people and all that power of their believing. You started thinking you were safe. And that’ s dangerous. For us.” She looked over at me.
“The students and people were all coming to Greenwood. Melvin’s daddy got caught up in the fever of it all. He wanted a change. After the Freedom Ride in ’62, we all wanted it. It was right there. All those young people were coming in on the buses and Bob Dylan even came once. And sang some of his own songs.” She stopped and nodded at me. “How could you not go when Bob Dylan is there? It was an exciting time.”
“Jackie took to going to the meetings and even some of the protests. But, I was still hesitant.” She added, “I should have trusted my instincts.” She looked out of her window like she was lost in in the night.
“He died. Melvin’s dad.” I didn’t want to ask how, but I wanted to know, too.
“My husband, Jackie.” She pushed the accelerator down with one of her ballet slippers. Her lips went white and she went on. “The police came with riot gear one Saturday when there was a peace protest march right up the main road, Washington Avenue. We thought we were invincible that day.”
She went on, “They had dogs and one of the officers turned ‘em loose on the protesters. “Sic’ ‘em,” that man said. “Sic’ ‘em! On people. On human beings.” She said the words like even after all this time, she still couldn’t believe it. “One of those dogs bit Jackie in the leg and he ignored it. I will never forgive myself for that.”
“The doctor just patched it up and that bite got infected. Streaks went up his leg and by the time they gave him Penicillin, it was too late. The poison stopped his heart.” I could tell she wanted to break down and cry, but she wouldn’t let herself. I bet Jeanine never let anyone see her cry. I waited for her to go on. What could I say, anyway? I wanted to tell her she was the bravest person I’d ever met. I wanted to be just like her and I wanted to tell her. But, I was quiet.
“We came here to Jackson,” she said, looking over at me. “For a better life. That’s what Jackie had fought in the war for. For us to have better way. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to try and live your life as a good life. Sometimes, that’s the only thing.”
Jeanine was the kind of person whose insides lived up the outside. And, Jeanine was a beautiful woman. She said, “Seems like whenever you let your guard down and forget to think like a negro, something happens.” She was looking up at the sky, though, and not really talking to me.
Jeanine pulled the car to a stop outside the Duprees’ big home. I could see shadows upstairs in the bedrooms moving around. We sat for a second and she said, “Jody you be careful there.” She pointed up at the house. “They are dangerous people. Especially that boy. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” I nodded to her. I already knew, but hearing her say the words made it more real.
“Lie low. You can’t ever outrun hate.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I got out of the car. “And, Jody, you know Melvin is special, don’t you?”
I mouthed ’yes,’ but she’d already pulled away. “I know that,” I said to nobody. I watched the little Rambler driving away until it was swallowed it up by the dark. I stood out there a long time after she left.
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