For a white boy like me, Jimmy Clark was kind. He gave me a job and showed me Southern hospitality. This was Mississippi, the Magnolia State, and a white foreigner, French at that, was somewhat welcomed.
There was not an immigration bureau thousands of miles around and, for illegal wetbacks, Mississippi was a terra incognita where nobody asked questions to white folks as to why they were there. So, no question asked, I got a job with Jimmy Clark.
I had learned carpentry in Chicago. Jimmy Clark was rehabbing General Lee’s brother’s wedding house in Columbus, MS, a place belonging now to a Mr. & Ms. Forbes, very rich folks owning paper mills. Not that Jimmy Clark needed my expertise, but it looked good in the crew’s qualifications as far as the Forbes were concerned. Especially it made the crew go from two to three and that made it more serious a construction company into Ms. Forbes’ eyes. This was General Lee’s brother’s wedding house after all and three people were a minimum for such a grand enterprise.
Fact is, Jimmy Clark was pulling the job as far and as expensive as he could. We’d meet at 8 am, shoot the breeze having coffee until 10. Then it was time for breakfast, at Hardees’ or the Waffle House. By 11, we were back on the job site, time for coffee. By 11:30 am, Ms. Forbes would show up, sometimes right off the Forbes’ private helicopter. Jimmy Clark would take her to a grand tour. The crew, that means me as well, would pretend to be working, you could hear the skillsaws and see saw dust…
That reminded me of communist countries. I remember living and working in a town named Grotchka, 30 miles south of Belgrad. Everybody was working, so to speak, for the communist State. There was this big building underway downtown. From 8 to 11 am, on the job site, nobody was doing anything. At 11:05, everybody got busy. At 11:10 am, every weekday, the bus from Belgrad, with the Building Inspection State Official Controller aboard, was turning the last lace on the road leading to Grotchka. Here is the Danube, there is the job site. Guess what? Upon arrival, the apparatchik could only attests that everyone was working, hard.
Every day, his bus departed at 11:20, to the next town, to the next job site. So it went and nothing got done.
Imagine my surprise, me the carpenter from Chicago, finding myself in Dixie, which is no communist country, running my saw for nothing just so Ms. Rich Southern Belle could go home happy!
Jimmy Clark didn’t care. It was by now time for lunch. So we’d cruise easy to the best Italian sandwich in town or what not. Then it was time for coffee.
Time and materials, happy clients, who would blame Jimmy Clark?
By the way, do you know how they foreplay in Mississippi? “Get in the truck bitch,” that’s how. I was a French wetback, so, in the truck, I was always in the middle. But Jimmy Clark was generous and he, more often than not, paid for lunch. And because I was new there, he also showed me where to have a drink at night, that being the local Radisson hotel on Friday and Saturday nights to square dance with the rednecks. Jimmy Clark knew his way around Columbus, MS, and I was thankful for his Southern hospitality.
At the General Lee’s mansion, there was an old black gardener, Joseph was his name. While Jimmy Clark was running the job, he was taking care of the garden. The garden was beautiful and immaculate, whatever the season. I mean beautiful and tidy.
Old Joey knew Jimmy and his crew weren’t doing squat but he was more scared of Jimmy than of Ms. Forbes, so he stuck to his garden business. Sometimes, Jimmy Clark would give him a ride home. I was in the middle in the front, old Joe was standing on the flat bed outside. We would drop him to his shack, a one-room concrete blocks shack, with no sanitary. You’d hope that, working his whole life for the Forbes, Old Tommy spent his earnings in education for his children, which would explain the bare shack. I don’t know. Fact is, Old Joe always said “Thank you” to Jimmy.
One day, as we were doing nothing on the front porch of General Lee’s brother’s house, a young black kid tried to squeeze his way across the street real fast.
Jimmy woke up some.
“Hey Denis, how ya doing? What’s up? Why don’t come over here boy?” Jimmy said, somewhat loud, with a ferocious smile. The kid froze.
“Hey Denis, why don’t you come over here boy?” was saying Jimmy.
Jimmy didn’t make a move, didn’t get up or anything, just jeered and smiled, just sitting there having coffee. Instead of running for his dear life, young and terrorized Denis bowed his head down, crossed the street dragging his feet and came to Jimmy.
“So Denis,” Jimmy said. “Ain’t that I lent yo’ ass $20 four months ago?”
“Yes Sir Jimmy”, said the boy.
“Say Denis, didn’t you say you’d pay me back in 30 days?”
“Yes Sir Jimmy, that’s what I said.”
“That was four months ago…”
“Yes Sir Jimmy.”
“So what should I do with you boy, to teach you a lesson?”
I’m no linguist so you have to imagine the drawl trailing on that word ‘lesson’ to this Denis.
This was bright daylight, maybe 4 pm, coffee-break on a nice spring day in Mississippi. Jimmy got up and went looking into the back of his truck and pulled out a rope. Denis’ eyes were sheer terror, looking all over the place for help.
I was sipping my coffee and I was thinking: “A rope! What the fuck is this now?”
Terry, the other guy in the crew, was sipping his coffee as well and not moving, not saying anything but I could see his eyes were alert. It occurred to me that maybe Jimmy was somehow putting on a show just for me, the French fuck from nowhere, and Denis was just caught in the headlights.
So I went “what’s up Jimmy?”
In all his troubles, Denis was sincerely surprised by my accent. He didn’t know it was French, he didn’t know where it came from but it gave him hope.
Jimmy grinned. “I gonna show you Frenchie how we deal here with people who don’t pay their debts, ain’t that so Denis?”
The kid knew by then where my accent was from but he didn’t care that much by now.
Jimmy had a good smiley red face, with lots of reddish freckles and not that much red hair left. He was very proud of his pick-up truck, all painted black. Jimmy was a sturdy man, full of muscle and energy, married, two children, very strong. Square dancing at The Radisson on week-ends, I saw him make his moves. Always smart with the ladies, he was never short a grinning provocation. Yet nobody ever fucked with him and, in all due respect to General Lee’s brother, that day I figured I wouldn’t either.
So Jimmy, taking his sweet time and philosophizing on the virtues of paying debts, made a knot, a hanging knot, at one end of the rope and tied the other end of the rope to the back of his black truck. Grinning and discoursing, he put the knot around poor frozen Denis’ neck.
An old black lady across the street was watching the scene and crying: “What you doing to this boy?” “Let this boy go.”
I’m sure I would have helped if she had crossed the street but she didn’t and just walked away. Jimmy hadn’t missed a bit and was now starting the truck. Coffee was getting cold.
Sure enough, there went Jimmy driving, but very slowly indeed, so slowly in fact Denis didn’t know on what foot to stand so he started to hobble some. I didn’t know either where to stand but Terry seemed not to be worried.
Jimmy was just about to drive onto the street, talking about going around the block, and the situation was tense, save for Terry. That’s when the old lady courageously turned around and was coming back screaming “let that boy alone.”
I was trying too: “com’ on Jimmy, this is like France before the revolution.”
Only Terry laughed.
Jimmy never went any farther than the parking lot and, I guess, Denis was never in any danger. Grinning, Jimmy patronized the kid a bit more and set him free, of his debt as well. Then the kid took running.
The old lady went away, we went back to work and coffee. I saw old Joe looking at us, thinking to himself.
This is only an anecdote. Really, in between Ms. Forbes’ grand tours, our daily routine was that of Waffle House, Hardees, Italian sandwiches, coffee and a bit of work. At least it was good work because Jimmy Clark knew what he was doing.
I eventually discovered my own side of town, away from the Radisson, a side of the city Jimmy knew probably nothing of.
Abstract by Ellar Wise