I wrote this story based partly on my recollections of the piney woods of Northwest Florida, though it takes place in an earlier era.
Sugar and Turpentine
The year was 1933, and since he was white, Caleb Harley was paid twenty-five cents more a day than the Negroes who labored alongside him. It was the end of another week, and they waited in separate lines, the white men going first, to collect their wages, though most owed so much to the boss they had little or nothing to collect. After pocketing his pay, Caleb trudged home alongside a handful of white workers, the Negroes trailing behind them, everyone worn down from fourteen hours tending the trees and pots. Caleb ignored his throbbing muscles and aching back as he followed the sandy trail through the piney woods of Northwest Florida, distracted by the soft humming of the Negroes and thoughts of his wife, Mattie.
Most days Caleb was a chipper. He would cut and scrape the characteristic cat-face pattern into one side of a yellow longleaf pine tree, then hang a clay pot to catch the aromatic gum, move on to the next and repeat the procedure. But today he had been a dipper. He figured he must have collected and carried at least a thousand pots and emptied them into wooden barrels, which were then loaded onto mule-drawn wagons waiting to be driven to the still for processing into turpentine and resin. Caleb’s shirt was slung over his right shoulder, and he used it now and then to swat at the insects buzzing around his head and sticking to his sweaty back. In his left hand he carried a lunch bucket. When he neared a pine tree that had once been hit by lightning he drew away from the group, stopped and scoured the ground until he found what he was looking for. It was a fine piece of fat lighter, sap that had hardened into pure fuel, something Mattie could use to start her stove fire.
Caleb stepped up the pace as he passed the Negroes’ shanties and neared the white’s. He always felt a rush of energy when he got close to his and Mattie’s shack, no matter how tired he felt. Caleb pictured Mattie, maybe sitting on the stoop waiting for him. He felt a pang of hunger and hoped there were poke greens with fatback and black-eyed peas staying warm on the stove. He could almost taste them now.
But Mattie wasn’t on the stoop when he reached home, so he walked inside and called, “Mattie, Mattie. I’m home. Where you at, Sugar? You hiding from me?”
His words were met by a strange stillness—no aroma of supper emanated from the cold wood stove. Caleb was puzzled, but not worried. She’s probably down at the commissary, he thought. She had mentioned their needing coffee and sugar at breakfast that morning. Mattie had a sweet tooth, and though Caleb tried to save every extra penny he earned so that they could leave the turpentine camp and get their own place, Mattie would find something to spend those pennies on—a bright piece of calico cloth, hard candy, sweet-smelling soap. And he indulged her. He loved her that much. Still, by cutting back on tobacco and other things for himself, he had managed to save the extra twenty-five cents he made each day and put it aside in a small burlap sack he kept hidden under the roots of a stump behind the outhouse. Twenty-five cents a day, six days a week, for over five years. Four quarters were exchanged for a dollar, and five ones for a five dollar bill, giving him a nice, neat bundle. The last time he put a quarter in the sack he had counted $452 in fives and ones. It was nearly enough to buy the piece of land he had his eyes on. Then he would be able to quit this job and start working for himself.
Caleb went back out onto the porch and looked down the road. Evening was settling in and the stench of turpentine hung heavy over the camp. He walked around back to the pump that was shared with the other white families, and worked the handle until a steady stream of water flowed, then splashed his face, arms, and torso, rinsing the salt and sweat from his body. It would take kerosene and a hot bath with lye soap to cleanse him of the sticky tar and that lingering smell of piney pitch that Mattie hated so much. Since tomorrow was Sunday, and his day off, tonight she would heat water and fill the galvanized tub for his weekly bath. He returned to the stoop, sat down, and rolled his one cigarette of the day. As the sun dropped behind the row of camp houses, filling now with returning workers, Caleb smoked and listened to the familiar sound of a bob-white calling to his mate. But, still no Mattie.
They had been married less than a year, and he knew she was the one from the first time he saw her over five years ago at a community box supper near Brewton, Alabama. She wasn’t much more than a girl then—a beautiful girl with coal-black hair and skin like peaches and cream, already flirting and teasing the boys. But it was her eyes, a shade of blue that changed color from dark to violet—her eyes captivated him. That’s when he began to save his money.
Caleb finished his cigarette and reentered the house, wondering where she could be. He stood in the middle of the room looking at the rough hewed walls, the gaps that didn’t keep the cold out, feeling a growing sense that something was wrong. His eyes darted over the sparse furnishings and their meager belongings, and for the first time he noticed what was amiss. Mattie’s carpet bag and coat were not hanging on the wall hooks. Neither was her favorite dress, the pale blue print with lavender violets that matched her eyes. He stood staring at the empty room, a feeling of panic churning his stomach. Caleb ran out to the stump behind the outhouse and reached under the roots into the hollow cavity, feeling all around, and finding nothing. He withdrew his hand with a sense of desolation as cold and dark as the Black Water River in winter, then put both hands to his head and cried out, “Oh, Lord. Mattie. What have you gone and done?”
Without bothering to change from his pitch-stained overalls and work boots, Caleb ran to the wooden porch of his nearest neighbor. “Clare,” he hollered outside their open door. “You seen Mattie? Did something happen? She might be hurt or sick, or…” He didn’t know how to say what he was thinking, or he was afraid.
“She ain’t here, Caleb,” Clare said from the doorway. She wiped her hands on a soiled apron, looked down at the floor, not meeting his eyes. “She left this morning. Didn’t say where to.”
Caleb could hear the clatter of forks on plates, smell the butterbeans and bacon, and picture Clare’s husband, Rufus, and their four kids sitting at the wooden table, silent now, listening. He had wanted children, but Mattie was in no hurry, said she didn’t want to be tied down with a pack of kids like all the women in this hell-hole.
“What do you mean, left? Where would she go? Did you talk to her?”
“No, we didn’t talk none. A big ole motor car pulled up in front of your place and honked the horn round about noon. I saw her come out of the house and get in that jalopy. She was all prettied up and carrying that same satchel she had when you first brought her to the camp. Saw them drive away. I called out, ‘where you going, Mattie?’ but she never turned her head and looked back. Not once.”
Caleb didn’t understand. No one they knew had an automobile. There was a depression going on. Jobs were hard to come by and so was money. That’s why he was glad to have this job, even if it was what Mattie called ‘nigger work’. “Who was driving that jalopy?” he asked. He thought, maybe someone in her family came into money, drove up from Alabama and said they needed her back home—her mama was sick. His mind raced. But nothing made sense.
Clare put her hands on her ample hips and chewed her lower lip before answering. The rattle of cutlery at the table had stopped, and it seemed everyone was holding their breath, waiting for her words. Even the baby hushed his babbling. “It was the foreman’s son. John Childers’ son, Henry, come down from Georgia. I hate being the one to tell you, Caleb, but she’s been meeting up with that man for a while now.”
He stared at her, his mouth hanging open like a catfish out of water, feeling like that catfish, like he couldn’t breathe. Caleb knew that Mattie hated the turp camp. She was restless and short tempered, but he figured she just needed more time. That was another reason he bought her little gifts and trinkets. Caleb promised her everything would be better as soon as they got their own place. Just a little bit longer, Sugar. I’ll build you a fine house.
Caleb turned from the blow of Clare’s words and stumbled down the steps like a blind man. He entered his shack, not knowing what to do, then found himself in front of the cupboard, reaching up to the top shelf where a Mason jar half full of moonshine sat, untouched since Christmas. He sat down at the table, drinking right out of the jar, and when it was empty his head seemed to have cleared.
With measured calmness he started a fire in the woodstove and heated the kettle of water for his bath. When the kettle was steaming Caleb poured hot water into the wash tub, stripped off his filthy clothes and scrubbed his body with a stiff brush and lye soap until his skin was red and raw. Afterwards, he took the white shirt and suit he had worn when he and Mattie got married out of the chest, and dressed. The gabardine jacket hung loosely on his lank muscles and bony shoulders, but it didn’t matter. He slicked back his wet hair, wishing he hadn’t finished off that moonshine, but knowing where he could get more. He had just collected a week’s pay, seven dollars and fifty cents cash, and he put that into his suit pants pocket. The money made him think about the foreman, Childers, handing the few Negro workers, who weren’t always in debt, a five dollar bill, and then a one, as if the six dollars he was passing out for six long days of backbreaking work was an act of benevolence. Then he found the fat lighter in his coveralls and slipped it into his jacket pocket. He started to leave, but at the door he turned around, went back in and got his squirrel-skinning knife. When he left the shanty he didn’t bother to close the door behind him.
It was dark now, and the white sandy road glimmered like a phosphorescent snake under the full harvest moon, making it easy to find his way to the camp foreman’s big house near the turpentine still. Caleb took his time, walking steadily, calmed by the chorus of pinewoods tree frogs, katydids, and an occasional Chuck-will’s-widow. When he got near the house he hid behind a stand of wild azalea and calmly studied the layout. Protruding from the open door of a shed he spotted the rear end of a black Plymouth, the only automobile he had ever seen around these parts, except when the owner came down from Georgia in his fancy cream-colored Buick. Next, he checked the house—lights all lit up downstairs, big front door, one on the side that probably led to the kitchen. Everyone eating supper, he thought. No need to rush. It was early, and he had always been a patient man. When the time was right he would do what he came to do, then go and have that drink.
The juke joint, called the jook by everyone, was set up on the outskirts of the black quarters as a way of appeasing the Negro workers, and to keep them permanently in debt. It was the only place that had a ready supply of liquor, and was frequented solely by the Negroes. The white workers were allowed to walk the ten miles into town on a Saturday night. Jim Crow laws guaranteed that a man could get shot, no matter if he were black or white, just for shaking hands or standing too close to a person of different color. But Caleb had worked alongside black men for years, and he had learned to mind his own business and get along. The couple that ran the jook, Moses and his wife, Pearl, were decent folks. Pearl always had a big pot of red beans and rice ready to feed any man that came in hungry, no matter what color, rather he had a nickel in his pocket or not.
While he waited, Caleb slipped into the shed and stood beside the Plymouth coupe that had carried away both his wife and his dreams. He ran his hand along the smooth black hood, then down the curved fenders, walked around and admired the red-spoked, white-rimmed tires and wheels. He had never ridden in an automobile and wondered what it felt like. Caleb looked through the car’s window and satisfied himself that Mattie’s carpet bag wasn’t there. Then he took out his knife. It was unnecessary, but felt good to slash those tires and watch that jalopy sink down like a wounded bear. Caleb leaned back against the wall admiring his work, and breaking his own rule, rolled a second cigarette. Careful to remain hidden, he struck a match on a wooden plank, cupped his hand, and lit up, inhaling deeply.
While he smoked he thought. He wanted to get close to the house and look inside, see what was going on. He hadn’t heard or seen a dog, and figured he could get close and stay hidden behind some bushes near the windows. Caleb wanted to know for sure if his wife was in there. He would wait though, till the clouds swept over the moon’s face, then crouch down and run to those redbud bushes close to the house. He tried to relax as the moonlight bounced off the sheen of the Plymouth, casting Caleb’s own reflection back to him. He wasn’t pleased by this image, and pulled out his knife again, this time to gouge deep scratches in the shiny paint. Finally, his anger spent, he squatted on his haunches, smoked another cigarette, and watched the gathering clouds. At last the time was right. Caleb sprinted through the blackness to the side of the house and the protection of redbud and hydrangea. Crouching down, he carefully raised his eyes to the edge of the lighted window and looked into what must have been a dining room. A long table was laden with food growing cold.
The foreman’s pale, puffy wife, clown-like in red lipstick and a gaudy flowered dress, sat in a side chair, her arms crossed over the swell of her large bosom. Her mouth was screwed into a petulant pout, and in her round pie-face, piggish, red-rimmed eyes blinked away tears. Every couple of minutes she would dab at them with a twisted handkerchief.
Caleb heard the sounds of men’s voices, one loud, angry, the other whiny, but belligerent. He looked farther into the room and saw the foreman, his boss, John Childers, still wearing that same white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, his round belly testing the buttons of his pants. Childers paced back and forth along the table’s length, his face inflamed all the way through his bald head as he pounded a fist into his palm. “How dare you bring that woman into your mama’s home. I don’t care what it is you think you feel for her, she ain’t nothing but white trash, and she’s married to trash, a god-damned cracker, a turp dipper, you fool. No son of mine…”
“Now, hold on, Daddy. Don’t be talking about Mattie that a way. She never wanted to marry that turper. Her family made her when she was just a young’un. And he treats her like dirt, slaps her around, and gives her nothing. I love her, Daddy, and I’m taking her away from here. We’re going to Tallahassee, get her a divorce, and get married. And I aim to take her back to Atlanta with me. I don’t care what you or mama say about it.” The speaker was a medium sized man, already leaning to pudginess, with thin blond hair like his mother’s, a girlish mouth, and a soft chin. He looked like a weakling, a pansy, but his words fell like leaden blows on Caleb’s ears. He wanted to shut the bastard up, bust open that baby face and watch the blood run down his prissy linen suit. But, he held his ground, still waiting
Caleb couldn’t see Mattie anywhere, so he went to another window, another room, and there she was. He felt his heart lurch as he watched his wife, startling in her pale blue dress with violets, looking as smug as a dog with two tails as she strolled nonchalantly around the crowded sitting room examining knick-knacks. Mattie picked up a small porcelain figurine, studied it and put it down, smiling secretly.
Caleb wanted to cry out, ‘Mattie, it’s me, Caleb. Come on home, Sugar,’ but his mouth couldn’t form the words. At that moment he felt like a dead man, and could neither speak nor move. He watched her glide around the room, the sway of her hips behind the blue dress. Finished with her inspections, she sat down on an overstuffed chair and crossed her legs. The carpetbag was at her feet.
The spell that had paralyzed Caleb was broken when the foreman’s son burst into the room, followed by his agitated parents.
“Get your belongings, Mattie. We’re leaving,” said Henry Childers.
“You’re not going anywhere,” the foreman said to his son.
“I don’t need your permission, Daddy. I got a job in Atlanta, working for your own boss, the owner of this still, and that’s a company automobile out there, lent to me. You can’t stop me.”
“What about supper, Henry?” Mattie pouted. “I ain’t et nothing all day long.”
“That little tramp is not sitting down at my table,” the mother said.
“We can get a bite to eat along the way, Mattie.”
“Henry, why’re you doing this to me?” the mother wailed.
Caleb had heard enough. He needed to act while the clouds still obscured the moon. He crept around to the kitchen side and peered through a window. Polished pots and pans hung from the wall above a black wood stove, but he saw no one. Their cook, Maizie, must have gone home. He turned the knob of the door, and saw it wasn’t locked, then sprinted on cat’s feet back to the shed where he stood beside the hulking Plymouth, catching his breath. After he calmed down he looked around the shed for any scrap wood, anything that would burn. When he had gathered an armload he placed it in a neat pile under the automobile, near the gas tank. Caleb took the fat lighter out of his pocket and put it near the bottom of the pile of wood and lit it. It caught immediately and burst into flame. He watched the wood catch, and when the fire began to blaze, he hightailed it out of there to the cover in front of the house again.
Crouched down, hidden by hydrangea bushes, Caleb raised his head and looked in the window. John and Henry Childers hadn’t stopped arguing, the fat wife was sobbing, and Mattie still sat in the chair, swinging her crossed leg, looking a little impatient now. The carpet bag was still at her feet.
When the gas tank exploded it caught them all by surprise. The roof and doors of the Plymouth blew right through the shed. The black jalopy was a ball of fire—it ignited the timbers of the shed and set the building ablaze. The blast stopped the men’s words in mid-sentence and sent everyone running out the front door.
“Jesus Christ,” said Henry Childers. “That’s my boss’s motor car.”
“Get some buckets and water,” yelled the foreman. “We gotta get that fire out before it spreads to those barrels in the gum yard and the whole place goes up. It was that god-damned turper,” he added. “See what you done and caused messing with that woman.”
While the men rushed to the pump and hauled buckets of water to throw on the fire, the women stood on the porch, their hands over their mouths, and watched in silence. Caleb took the opportunity to slip through the kitchen door into the house. He made his way to the sitting room and found Mattie’s carpetbag near the chair where she had left it. He rummaged through her things, finding items he never had seen before—nylon stockings and garters and silky camisoles that must have been gifts from Henry Childers. How long she been betraying me, he wondered. His hands finally felt the familiar course burlap he had been looking for. He pulled out the sack and checked to see if the money was there. It was. Caleb tucked the sack into the inside pocket of the suit jacket and fled through the kitchen door into the piney woods. Before he was out of earshot he heard the foreman yell, “It’s got to the still. It’s gonna blow.”
The clouds in front of the moon parted like a curtain, illuminating his way through the longleaf pines, some so damaged from the ravages of cutting for sap they were mere skeletons of trees. Caleb knew these woods like the back of his hand, and he kept running until he came to the edge of the Negro quarters and heard the sounds coming from the jook— a steadily repeating bass pattern of boogie-woogie piano music and the shuffling feet of dancers. The plain plank building was shotgun style—nothing more than a long shed lined inside with whiskey and beer barrels, a piano on an elevated platform, and an open floor in the middle for dancing. In the back was a big wood stove and some curtained off spaces. Caleb stood outside the open door and watched. The place was lively with drinking, dancing. and gambling at makeshift tables.
When he stepped inside everything came to a halt, first the folks on the dance floor, and then the piano. The men lined up along the wall, some sitting on crates playing cards or shooting dice, most sipping moonshine, turned to stare. In the silence that followed, Caleb spoke. “I’m not stayin y’all. I just want a word with Moses. Y’all keep on doing what you’re doing and pay me no mind.” He knew Childers would have the law after him soon, and he was aware of the danger he might be creating just by being here, but this was the last place they’d come looking for a white man. He still had a little time.
A grizzled Negro, black as a raven, made his way through the crowd. He stopped at the piano and whispered something to the piano player. The man, a turper who had come down from Texas, nodded his head and started pounding out a new number. “What are y’all waiting for?” said Moses to the crowd. “Get lively. I want to see some dancin.” When he reached Caleb he said, “Looks like you could use a drink. Come on around back, Mr. Caleb, where it’s quieter.” As soon as he stepped outside, Moses must have seen the red glow hanging over the turpentine distillery, smelled the smoke, but he didn’t say anything. He sat down on a crate behind the building and invited Caleb to do the same. Neither man mentioned the fire that continued to blaze not more than a mile from where they sat.
“I can’t stay but a minute, Moses. But, I’ll thank you for a drink of shine.”
Moses took a pint from his back pocket and handed it to Caleb. “Where you goin in such a hurry, son?”
Caleb tilted the pint to his lips and felt the comforting burn as the liquor slid down his throat. “That’s good,” he said and sat the bottle on the empty crate. “I don’t know nothin for sure. Figure I’ll make my way to the tracks, hitch a freight goin somewheres.” He blew out a stream of air and reached for the pint again. After his second drink he faced the other man. “Before I go, I want to leave y’all something. I won’t be needing it anymore.” He drew the burlap sack out of his pocket and handed it to Moses. “There’s four hundred fifty-two dollars and fifty cents in there. I want you to divide it up amongst all the colored families. Make sure you and Pearl get your share too, hear.”
“What for you givin me this?” said Moses. “You worked for your money, same as the rest of us. It’s your’n.” He let loose a brown stream of tobacco juice from the gap between his front teeth.
“It weren’t the same, Moses. Take it. I don’t have time to argue.”
Moses, meeting Caleb’s gaze, must have read something in those steely eyes. “Aright. I’ll do like you axed me. But, hold on just a minute afore you leave.”
After Moses ducked back inside, Caleb pulled out his pouch of Bugler and rolled his fourth cigarette. The resonant voice of someone singing a lowdown blues song floated out to him from the juke joint: My gal’s got a heart like a rock cat down in the sea… Caleb leaned against the shed and blew smoke, feeling the sting of those words, but at the same time feeling something different—a sense of freedom.
Moses came back with a packet wrapped in newspaper. “You gonna need some food. Pearl got you some sweet taters, biscuits, and side pork here.” He watched Caleb put the packet inside his jacket before continuing. “Best thing is to hop a short line to Pensacola, then switch to a main line and head up north. That train be passin through here bout any time now.” Moses put a hand on Caleb’s shoulder. “You save yourself some cash, son?”
“I’ve got my week’s pay. I’ll be fine. He patted Moses’ shoulder, then turned and fled, the old black man’s final words ringing in his ears.
“Y’all be careful, hear.”
Oh, he’d be all right. He had seven dollars and fifty cents in his pocket.