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Soda Springs: Chapter 4

On stocking feet, Rick and Charlie crept into the house. A light snapped on. Priscilla blocked their way. "Past midnight, Charles. Dare I ask where you've been all afternoon and half the night?"

"Took the grand tour. Lakeshore Drive. Downtown. Sloss Furnaces. Up to the Vulcan."

She glared at Rick. "So you came to see the sights . . . as well as the damn niggers."

"Mom, please don't use that word."

"What word's that, Charles? Damn?"

"You know what I mean. Nigg --"

"Don't breeze in from college correcting my English. You have no idea what's going on." Her mouth tightened. "Your daddy's been snapping mug shots night and day. They arrest them by the carload, and for every one they haul away, two more shuffle up. He didn't come home again tonight. And those so-called 'Men of God.' Reverend Shuttlesworth. Reverend King. They waltz into town, spew their hate, stir the coloreds into a frenzy, get them all --"

"We're pooped, Mom. Goodnight." Charlie nudged Rick toward the hallway.

"Sit. Both of you." She herded them to the kitchen. "You, Mr. Guest-in-my-home. You find disruption entertaining, do you?"

"It's a news story. That's why we came to Birmingham."

"Is that so, Charles? You came to visit niggers? Not me?" Priscilla cinched up her faded robe. In the fluorescent light, without makeup, her face was blotched and pasty. Tiny wrinkles snaking from her eyes mushroomed into a web that sagged into dark half moons. Scraggly ringlets drooped into her eyes. "Didn't it occur to you that I might have spent the day worrying, 'Was he arrested? Injured?' Or that I might have cooked all day, then ate by myself in a silent kitchen?" She flipped her head at Rick. "What did you tell him I said?"

"That you were, ah . . . angry. That you might kick him out."

"Really? Why not the truth: 'Man, she's pissed. She said if he's so hot for niggers, he should haul his sorry ass over to the Gaston.'" She mimicked Charlie's voice.

Charlie squirmed. Rick buckled under her stare.

"I thought so. Now, why did you choose to sneak in like thieves?"

No use to stir the pot, Rick decided, she was Vesuvius at the brink of eruption. Charlie hunkered like a kid in the principal's office. No one moved.

Finally, Priscilla clunked a bottle of port onto the table, then three glasses. She gulped a swig, then pulled a smoked ham out and hacked off two thick slices. "You eat. I'll talk. Here's what burns me up: outside agitators stir up the locals with their rabble-rousing sermons, their sit-ins, their marches, their demands. Oh, it's not that we're --"

"Outsiders? That's BS. It's nationwide, not just some little cadre of --"

"No, Mr. Outsider. This isn't a debate. You listen. Understood?"

It is a debate, Rick thought, and a scorcher. But he was the guest here. He nodded.

Priscilla joined them at the table. "Birmingham's not perfect. God knows the poverty and ignorance. And yes, prejudice. But we got on quite well before all this started." She spoke calmly now, but with the passion of someone who had been wronged.

Rick snatched up his glass and washed down an angry lecture on racism.

"Charlie, get your photo of Gladys. It's on my dresser." She turned to Rick. "I have a woman who cleans for me. She has the run of the house. Nothing is locked up. That's trust."

Charlie returned with a framed portrait of Priscilla with a Negro woman, her smile as engaging as Priscilla's, and with the same petite build. She could be Priscilla's sister -- except that one was white, the other Negro; one was the boss, the other her cleaning lady.

"It's not just me," Priscilla said. "Hundreds of families here depend on Negro help. The demonstrators are destroying that trust. I know teachers at Parker High. Fine teachers. Doing their best to bring up their people. Frankly, they don't have the facilities we have at Ramsay. We need to change that. But it takes time. You push people into corners, and they fight back.

"Oh, we have our hotheads. The city closed the parks to spite integration, even filled the holes at the golf course with cement. That's the epitome of ignorance; no Negro has ever played golf there. But when Bull Connor lost last week's election, we had an opportunity to let the new mayor make things right. Instead, the day after the election -- the very next day -- the agitators hit him with a list of 'unnegotiable' demands. Might as well have spit in his face.

"As for you, Mr. Rick. You should write about Birmingham. But remember: no single word typifies Negroes or whites. We come in shades, and not only color -- intelligence, ability, understanding. You capture that, and you will have done us all a service. But you have to be open to this city as it is, not merely go turning over rocks to prove your Northern biases."

Rick tried to hold himself in. "Look, I . . . rocks, my ass! And what Northern bias? You don't even know me. I was in that so-called riot today. Those cops don't believe in the right to assemble. Or legitimate protest. Felt like racist oppression to me."

"Hold up a sec," Charlie said. "Mom's right. You didn't see Dad out there busting anyone in the gonads. Not everyone in the South is a racist pig."

"No, you hold on, Charlie-boy. I didn't say everyone's a racist. I said --"

"Best you cool down," Priscilla said. "My point is this: if you came as an apologist for the Negro agitators, I don't want you in this house. If you're here to learn the whole story, you're as welcome as Charlie. Got that?"

Rick hesitated. He had seen enough in the park to paint Birmingham as racist -- the national press did. "Look, I'm only after the truth, I'm not out to --"

"No, don't answer now. Sleep on it. Right now I've got to get to bed. I've got students eager to learn. They deserve my full attention."

Read on: Jump to Chapter 5

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