No good ever comes up on Choctaw Ridge
from JACKSON by Cindy Marabito
So, no good ever comes up on Choctaw Ridge. I wondered if maybe that bluff Roy and J.W. were looking for that night was indeed Choctaw Ridge. It was sure sour smelling out here on this dead river. I looked down at the thick, stagnant dark water and I wondered if there were snakes in it. They had found Bobo three days later floating in the river. He had a .45 bullet in his head and they’d tied a 75-pound gin fan to his neck with barbed wire. And they’d stolen that fan. In the magazine interview they got paid $3,000 for, the half-brothers said they tried to burn his shoes for three hours and made note that Bobo’s crepe-soled shoes had been real hard to burn.
There had been a trial if you want to call it that. The big fat sheriff, Clarence Strider, fit the stereotype of a bad man with a lot of power and a badge. He made the black people who tried to
attend the trial sit at the far back of the courtroom. All the black reporters from out of town had to sit at a card table apart from the white reporters. When a black congressman from Detroit arrived to witness the trial, Sheriff Strider tried to stop him from entering the courtroom until the judge overruled it. Congressman Charles Diggs was delegated to the same card table with those black reporters.
Teach’s magazine had a picture of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam sitting there in the court room. They could have been movie stars. That’s what I had thought when I had first looked at their photograph. Roy had a shock of thick wavy hair and J.W. looked like a youthful Broderick Crawford back when he was in Highway Patrol. They wore starched white shirts tucked into brand new khaki work pants like Pa Luther wore when he worked graveyards at the refinery. The town had also taken up a collection to pay for Milam and Bryant’s defense.
“What are ya’ll doing here?”
I was jolted back into the present by a man’s deep southern voice. I looked up to see a state trooper staring down at me with his hands on his hips.
I found my voice. “Nothing.” He was just there, all of a sudden like. Big men like him had a way of sneaking up on you.
“What’s up with her?”
“With who?” I asked.
He cocked his head over towards Grace who was sitting on the edge of the bridge crying, her head hung down low. I could see her reflection from his aviator glasses. “That your mother?”
“Yessir. We are here on a class project.”
“Class project?” His top lip raised to expose his upper row of teeth which had seen some good dental work. I could tell by the real gold. “At the bridge? What kinda class teaches that?”
I was about to answer when he got a message on his hand radio. He turned to talk to the piece of equipment in muted tones to keep me from overhearing official police business.
“I got ta answer this call, so ya’ll need to clear on out. There’s no loitering here.” He pointed towards the road like there was a sign. I didn’t see any sign, but I sure wasn’t going to argue the point. Grace was still sitting there looking out at the water and still crying.
“Yes sir.” I got up and began walking over toward Grace and Willie. “We’re just tourists,” I said, hoping that would encourage him to leave us alone.
“What’s wrong with her?”
“Nothing, sir. Like I said, we are just sightseeing where the Bobbie Gentry song was written.”
“Say, what?” He jerked his head over toward me abruptly, but his eyes were obscured by the shades.
“You know, ‘Ode to Billy Joe.’ The song.”
“Oh, that one. Gal used to live around here. Good song.” He pulled his pants up with his thumbs and let out a long breath. “Looks like we’re in for a hot summer.” He looked out over the land and didn’t sound like he was talking to me or anybody really. The words ‘Virtute et Armis’ were emblazoned across each of his shoulders. I found out later it meant ‘of valor and arms.’ I also found out Mississippi troopers were nicknamed ‘red legs’ due to the stripe down the side of their pants. It was a derogatory term regarding their stature among regular lawmen.
“Well, get your mamma and ya’ll get on out of here.” He looked in the direction of my own eyes and added, “Bad things happen round these parts. I wouldn’t want you gals to run into any harm. You hear me?” He looked at me closely, allowing his shades to slip a quarter inch down his nose. He had pure gray eyes.
“Yessir, we sure will.” I was already footing it across the old wooden trestles of the bridge toward Grace. I don’t think he even heard me answer. By the time I reached Grace and Willie, he was backing his Plymouth Belvedere squad car onto the main road with the siren on.
I had to drive us home. Grace fell asleep stretched out in the back and Willie rode shotgun. I have always been a good and a cautious driver. For some reason, my hesitancy in real life didn’t translate itself to my ability to handle the wheel. When I was driving, it was like I was another person, an adult in control. As I backed up to turn around and head for home, I thought I saw a man standing on the bridge looking at the water. He was really big and tall and he looked like J.W. Milam did from the pictures. I wondered if it was him looking down at that muddy water. I don’t think we ever saw Choctaw Ridge that day, but I didn’t care anymore.
The day of the trial, the jury had only taken 67 minutes to deliver a not-guilty verdict for the men who murdered Emmett Till. One of the jurors said it would have been quicker if they hadn’t stopped to drink pop. When the judge read the verdict, both J.W. Milam and Roy Byrant lit up cigars and kissed their wives.
I put my foot down on the gas pedal and pushed for home. It was Saturday.