Through his worn leather gloves, Charlie Franklin could feel the heat radiating from the wooden ladder—just like everything else that was exposed to the sun. Most of the folks in Holly Bluff, Mississippi, took refuge from the scorching sun in their homes and screened in porches when the heat became unbearable. However, Charlie needed the work. He was young, strong and could handle the heat. He lived in the South all his life and was used to it.
He leaned a tall ladder up against the plantation home owned by the Huck family—a Pre-Civil War home passed down from generation-to-generation, inherited by Wally Huck. He lived there all his life and now shared it with his wife, Maggie.
Charlie’s muscles bulged as he hauled his heavy toolbox in one hand while he gripped the ladder with the other. His toolbox easily weighed over eighty pounds, making the ladder shake as he carefully climbed higher. When he reached the roof, he set his toolbox down next to the large piles of slate shingles that were stacked against the chimney. He stretched his back before he began his work, admiring the view from the roof. He could see everything.
In the front yard, there were two willow oak trees that towered over the house. In the backyard, there were three more bunched together. They provided well received shade to the house and yard during the summer months. Under one of the trees, an old tire hung motionless from a rope. Near the tire, Wally Huck’s old blue pickup was parked.
Beyond the trees toward the northeast, Charlie could see cotton fields that disappeared into the distance. To the west corn grew, and a few miles to the south, he could see the large patch of trees near his house where his dog, Max waited for him.
He removed a slate ripper from his toolbox and began his work. He slid it underneath a cracked piece of slate. He hammered the other end of the ripper, pulling out the nails until the slate became free. Then he replaced the broken slate with the new slate from the pile and new copper nails. He performed this routine over and over to all the damaged pieces.
By the afternoon, Charlie’s shirt was soaked from perspiration as the blazing sun hung over him. He took a moment to rest. He removed his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow. He eyed the sun’s position to get a sense of time before he continued his work.
After he had replaced all the cracked slate, his job was finally done. He stepped back and inspected his work. He was pleased. He noticed the sun was starting to head west. He had just enough time to clean up the broken slate, get paid, and get home before dark.
When Charlie was done cleaning up, he stood on the expanded porch that led to the back door of the Huck’s home. Through the screen door, he could see Mr. Huck in the sitting room, rocking in his chair, reading his paper. Wally Huck was in his mid-fifties. He was a white man with salt and pepper hair. He had on khaki colored pants that he wore high above his beer belly, aided by old brown suspenders.
Charlie knocked on the screen door, but Mr. Huck didn’t move. He just sat there and continued reading his paper.
After a brief moment, Mrs. Huck appeared at the door. She was in her early fifties and greeted Charlie with a warm smile. She had a sweet, soft voice that seemed to crackle when she spoke. “Hi Charlie, all done? Comin’ to get your pay, I gather?”
“Yes ma’am, all done,” Charlie said returning the smile. “I’m fixin’ to leave now.”
“Oh, would you care for some water?” She asked as she began to open the screen door.
“Just a second,” Wally said practically leaping from his chair. He strolled to the screen door wearing his usual frown. He removed his handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped the sweat from his neck. He stood face-to-face with Charlie with only the thin screen of the door between them. He made his sniffing obvious to Charlie and made an unpleasant face. “Why don’t you go home and clean yourself up, Charlie. Then come on back when you’re smellin’ a little better.”
Charlie took the hint that he wasn’t welcome in Huck’s home. “Yes, sir, Mr. Huck,” he said forcing a smile. “I’ll come back later tonight, all cleaned up like ya says.” He tried hard not to break his smile. Then he walked away carrying his toolbox.
After Charlie had left, Wally turned to his wife. “Where in God’s creation do you get the nerve woman?” His eyes looked if they were about to explode. “Inviting that smelly animal into our home, what’s wrong with ya?”
“I just thought he might be thirsty working all day in the hot sun and all,” Maggie said as she backed up cowering.
“What ya care if he’s thirsty or not?” Wally said. “Ya turnin’ into a nigga lover all of a sudden?”
Maggie stood dumbfounded. She didn’t know what to say. She became frightened when he became this way (mean and ugly), especially when it pertained to blacks, or “niggas” as he preferred to call them.
“What about me?” Wally said. “I’m thirsty, how ’bout asking if I want something to drink?” He peered at her with his steel blue eyes that shot threw her like arrows. He also wore that sour look on his face—the one she despised so much.
However, Maggie was his wife and she knew her place. She was also afraid of him, so she did her best to obey him—if she didn’t she knew the consequences. “I’m sorry, Wally. Would you like me to fetcha a drink?”
“What you think, ya dumb bitch? Beer ... cold!” His face was ugly and his voice truculent.
She finally had enough. She turned abruptly and heavy-footed into the kitchen.
“Don’t you pitch a hissy with me,” Wally said. “Or I’ll put my foot up your backside!”