Konch Magazine - Excerpt from “Uncertain Shepherds” by Ray Smith, Buffalo’s Langston Hughes
         Uncertain Shepherds
        by Ray Smith
                Three days from December evening drinking buddies are having their first drinks at their favorite bar. All of the regulars are there except the two youngest participants, Eli and Pundidy. Eli is the first to show up. He orders a drink and sits silently at one end of the bar. He usually talks a lot but this evening seems to have something particular on his mind. Finally he speaks up.
                “I am tired of getting laughed at all the time,” he says, especially about the way I talk and walk and the clothes I wear and everything else I brought with me from down home. I bet none of you have ever been to Egypt like I have. My father sent me there last year after I graduated from high school.”
                “No I haven’t been to that place you’re talking about,” says Norman, “but I know something about being teased. When’s the last time it happened to you?”
                “It was last summer when we were having one of them base ball picnics,” says Eli. “I called Ralph’s way of running bases a slew footed wobble. Everybody laughed as if it was the funniest thing they had ever heard or seen. They weren’t laughing at the running as much but as my description of it.”
                Ralph gets up and struts to the end of the bar where Eli is sitting and tries to
duplicate what he was doing at the picnic.
                “Is this the way I looked? he asks, eyeing Eli. Herman, an older member of the group starts walking towards Ralph.
                “No man, that’s not the way you looked,” says Herman. “Watch what I am doing. He gets in step with Herman and together they strut to the end of the bar.
“Now that feels more like it did at the picnic, says Ralph. “How did you know what I was doing?”
                “Because I was watching you all the time, says Herman. The on lookers are amused but not Eli.
                “There you all go laughing at me again!” says Eli. “It was laughable at the time and it is still is. Clowning doesn’t change anything. I know what I saw. It was funny at the time and it’s still laughable. But you all just wait. I’ll learn your city ways soon enough.”
                The dancing duo returns to their seats and Ralph continues snickering. But Jacob, the oldest member of the group and the one most prone to dark moods also has a concern.
                “When I told some of you I was a talking blues poet you laughed at me too, he says, “telling me there was no such a thing.”
                Jacob is married and has three children. He likes playing softball and often plays with the children against the adults.
                “I can’t get anyone to go fishing with me except Herman,” says Morgan. “Even my wife won’t go unless I bribe her with a shopping trip.”
                A few other concerns are expressed, most of which have never been heard before but everyone seems to have something to say.
                “I wish someone would teach me how to play poker better,” says Herman. “I can’t seem to remember when the joker’s higher that the ace.”
                Herman enjoys socializing with the group and occasionally brings his accordion.
                “Has anyone ever wondered how I got to be so evil acting?” asked Jacob. “That’s a story worth hearing.”
                “I wish I could get a better paying job and buy me a new car,” says Ralph. I use up too much time working on the wreck I got, and too much money catching buses.” Ralph is the best mechanic in the group and he has also taught himself how to play the stock market.
                “We haven’t ever heard so many serious concerns expressed before.” says Herman.”
                I think it’s a good idea to talk about real stuff sometimes.”
“I agree,” says Morgan. “We don’t really know each other all that well. We could
use my basement as an initial meeting place.
                Pundidy, a consummate reader with an ever expanding vocabulary, arrived at the bar in a happy mood. The group is quiet but he doesn’t want to deal with anybody’s silence so he attempts to wake them up.
                “I haven’t had my first drink yet and you dudes are already relaxed. Give me a little time to get a little buzz going, OK? I’m not ready to go to sleep yet.”
                “There’s nothing wrong with being serious sometimes” says Morgan.
                “I like the serious talk too,” says Eli. “It helps me learn more new words quicker.”
                “That’s all well and good,” says Pundidy, “but your mellow mood won’t last
forever. You can doze off and drink later on. I’ve already had my Siesta.”
Eli scrutinizes Pundidy. He’s just arrived and already he is using unfamiliar words.
                “What’s this Siesta you’re talking about? I’ve never heard you use that word before.”
                “Never mind,” says Morgan. “I don’t want to give up the reason for this meeting.
                How much do any of you really know about me?” Before anyone can respond Pundidy chimes in again.
                “My friends and brothers, please, bear with me a little. We can get together later with no joking or teasing. I’ll name a time and place, OK?”
                “We have already agreed to meet at my basement, says Morgan. Anybody’s got a           problem with that can stay home.”
                “Any of you heard me yet?” asks Jake. “I’ve been trying to let all of you know I am not coming if I can’t do some of my talking blues!”
                Herman stops drinking long enough to ask Jake a question.
                “Who ever heard of talking blues brother Jake?” Won’t you need a guitar or a piano or something to go with it?”
                “I used to play the guitar and sing a little until my voice and my hands got messed up.”
                “We can sing or say or do whatever we want,” says Morgan, “long as it’s serious. No dumb stuff or name calling.”
                “I guess I’ll have to be on my best behavior, says Pundidy, “OK?”
                “You can tease and clown if that’s all you know!” says Morgan. “Better still, maybe you shouldn’t show up at all.” Pundidy mimics a pout and acts as if his feelings are hurt.
                “If my joking is so bad why is everybody always laughing?”
                “Every laughing face isn’t happy,” says Jacob. “Sometimes it’s just a front.”
                “I can be as serious as anybody” says Pundidy. “Clowning has never been a problem before. I think I’ll miss this gathering all together!”
                “Don’t do that, Pun” says Eli. “How am I gonna learn new words if you aren’t here?”
                “My blues talking’s got some words you may not have heard before.” says Jacob.
                “You can learn from that.”
                “OK,” says Eli, “but don’t use too many big words or go too fast.”
                “They’ll be slow and easy.” says Jake. “That’s the way I do them.”
                One by the members of the group leave except Pundidy. He stays long enough to finish two drinks before heading home. When he enters his apartment no one is there to greet him. Painfully aware of the silence he reaches for a book from a pile of six on his kitchen table. Soon he is absorbed in reading. Being involved in so many books at the same time wasn’t unusual for him. But the information acquired doesn’t give him any increased status with the group. It does, however, arm him with a factual platform. He uses words as a shield as well as a sword. They are protective as well as offensive weapons. He has few friends and being part of the group is important to him.
                As a strategy he decides he will support Jacob’s desire to read his poetry. That should make his presence acceptable.
                Morgan is envious of his talking all the time and thinks he talk too much. But he has to admit conversations are more interesting when he is around with his wit and verbosity. He is everybody’s favorite and is usually more humorous than critical.
                Pundidy is looking forward to this new type of meeting and hopes it will provide an opportunity for him to reveal that he’s an orphan. Morgan hadn’t said he couldn’t come and he has already decided to minimize his humor. Still he prefers to be welcomed and he wonders what, if any, new information will be revealed.
                Jacob has been practicing his rhyming every day. He wants to be ready for the meeting in Morgan’s basement. The group will be hearing him performing for the first time. His wife, Sally Jean, believes he has a natural gift and hopes one day he will be a recognized poet. But she wonders why his words come out the way they do.
                Whatever the reason she believes they flow from somewhere deep inside him where the memories of his life resided. She joins him in the library, listens quietly and this is what she hears:
             Know why a rat runs from a cat? Why a Ford ain’t a Cadillac?
                Why a nickel’s not worth a dime? Why some folk can’t keep time?
                Nobody knows for sure.
                Some days running and some days fight. Some see darkness looking for light.
                What looks like day might just be night.
                Nobody knows for sure.
                Sally Jean has always been puzzled about the subjects her husband
chooses to rhyme about.
                “Why you switch from rhyming about animals and automobiles to dancing and fighting?” she asks. “I can’t see how they go together.”
                “I speak what I hear in my head,” he says. “Never had any reason to do otherwise.”
                “Would it hurt to use other words and change them just a little bit?” she asks.
                “Maybe they’d be easier to understand and people would like them better. I know I would.”
                “You probably right,” he says. He’s not truly convinced. “If I get through tonight’s meeting I’ll think about making some changes. Listen to the rest and tell me what you think.”
                Mountains one day change to sand. Change to desert without rain.
                No matter what we say or plan.
                Only the blues remain.
                Only the blues remain.
                Jacob ends his performance and gazes at his wife.
                “Was that any better?’ he asks. “You’re hearing them just as they came to me.”
                “Some of the new parts are better.” she says, “but they’re still hard for me to
                “Maybe so,” says Jacob. He lowers his head on his elbow and then rises up smiling at his wife. He often has to remind himself that the experiences of black men will never be precisely known or understood by black women. Black men are the special target for those who want to injure them, not black women.
Jacob’s wife can almost taste her husband’s disappointment and wishes she hadn’t
been so frank. But Jacob is confident the lyrics will be appreciated by the men at the meeting. They are used to his harsh voice but not as a vehicle for performing. He is sure they will get the messages because they will be familiar to them.
                Herman Singletary is the only member of the group who isn’t black. He and Morgan grew up and played together in the same neighborhood in Mississippi. When they became teenagers everything changed. Adult rules determined they couldn’t do certain social activities together. Dating girls who were not of their own race was forbidden.
                Occasionally, they tried sneaking around but it was too difficult and dangerous. Both families disapproved of race mixing.
                By the time they reached adulthood, the south had survived the Civil Rights movement to some extent and certain minor changes were allowed. The races could socialize in a few situations such as joint church services. Housing remained separated but so close that they were almost neighbors. As young men they both needed to be a part of something collective; to belong somewhere. Morgan joined the Baptist Church. It was a close as he ever came to being a follower. Attendance was sporadic and he never participated in any committees other than the usher board.
            Herman joined the Klu Klux Klan. He would have joined the Masons except he didn’t have enough money. The Klan affiliation was sufficient until he fell in love and married a black woman. The South had changed but not that much. Herman found himself criticized and isolated on all sides. His wife’s family couldn’t stand him and the Klan threatened to run him out of town. That gave him an excuse to quit the Klan and when Morgan told him he’d found work in the North Herman jumped at the chance to go with him.
                Morgan couldn’t explain how he and Herman remained close friends for so long until they had very little in common with the others.
                Ely was young and inexperienced, but he was ambitious and he respected Morgan.
                Jacob has a quiet manner that bordered on sullenness. He won’t go fishing with Morgan, but he always volunteered to do the gutting and the cooking, a task Morgan didn’t much care for.
                Ralph is always borrowing money but he is the best mechanic in the group.
Morgan didn’t loan money, but he let Ralph work on his car and saved a bundle.
Herman enjoyed fishing but didn’t seem to understand fishing etiquette. He spent
most of his time sitting on the edge of the river playing his accordion and disturbing the stillness. But he packed a good lunch and always brought along a classy bottle of wine.
                Morgan’s sports hero was the great Ted Williams who was also an avid
fisherman. He and Herman attended baseball games together. Occasionally Eli and
Pundidy came along with them. Even there Pundidy got on Morgan’s nerves; always second guessing the refs and coaching from the bleachers.
                Whenever there was drinking Herman’s manner was usually quiet and sociable. However when he drank too much he became loud and belligerent, demanding hugs or high fives and threatening to injure anyone who didn’t comply. It was belligerence without substance and he soon drifts off into a grinning and embarrassing sleep.
                On Christmas Eve Morgan's wife, Arleen Lucinda, notices her husband is
unusually anxious. He put away all of the children's clothing and toys and dusted
everything in the basement. This wasn’t the first time his friends had visited.
                “Are you alright baby?” his wife asks. “Can I help with anything before I go?” They have been married for twenty years and she can read his every mood. Maybe some food would help.
                “Don't you think we should fix a little something for them to snack on?” she asked. “They should be drinking so much on empty stomachs at their age.”
                “Jake’s bringing something,” her husband says. “And we'll be doing more talking that anything else.”
                Mrs. Morgan watches as he gets up and attempts to sweep the floor again.
                “Are you sure you're OK?” she asks. “I think I'd better stay home.”
                “I’ve told you I'm alright!” he says. “You don't need to stay on my account. “It's just that we’re planning on having what they’re calling serious conversations and I’m not sure how it’ll turn out.”
                “After all these years, you mean to tell me there's something new to talk about?" she asks.
                “That's what they want to call it; something new. We’ve never met like this before and yes, I’m just a little nervous, that’s all.”
                He sits at the table in the center of the basement and stares at the door at the top of the basement stairs. Mrs. Morgan tries to reassure him.
                “Can't be that much different from what you've heard before. Whatever it is, you can handle it, like always.”
                They hear footsteps coming down the stairs. Morgan hurries to put the broom away as Jacob and Herman enter. Each is carrying a bottle. Morgan’s wife greets them.
                “Come on in fellows. Aren’t you a bit early?” she asks. “My husband’s waiting and the others should be here soon.”
                She kisses her husband on the cheek and goes up the basement stairs, purse in hand.
                Herman and Jacob have arrived early for different reasons. They place their bottles on the bar at the far corner of the basement and join Morgan at the table.
                “My wife is driving me crazy with this Christmas thing!” says Herman.
                “She’s running around the house like she can’t wait till tomorrow when the kids come home. I had to get out of there.”
                “I promised to help Ralph sell some Christmas trees,” says Jacob. “He’s gotten hold of a few and says the price goes up on Christmas Eve. We may have to leave, but we’ll be back.” Morgan brings a bottle and glasses to the table and pours the first round.
                “Let’s drink a toast to all the good times we’ve had together,” says Morgan. They clink glasses.
                “And what we’ll be dealing with tonight,” says Herman. Jacob sips his drink quietly as he wonders about Ralph’s idea of selling trees.
                “Did either of you ever help Ralph with his tree selling scheme?”
                “I did, about two years ago,” says Morgan. “The trees were so beat up nobody wanted them. It didn’t work out so great but he did sell a few.”
                “Why does he think it’s such a good idea?” Herman asks.
                “Ralph says folks who wait till the last minute will buy anything regardless of quality. That’s his entrepreneurial theory.”
                Herman points an accusing finger at Morgan, grinning all the time.
                “Where’d you get that big word from?” Morgan smiles back. “What big word?”
                “On-tray, or whatever it was you just said.”
                “Can’t you guess? I got it from Pundidy.”
                They clink glasses again. Laughter floats easily around the table as Ralph comes down the stairs dragging a tree. It’s about three feet tall with a few branches thinly covered with pine needled. Morgan and Herman exchange looks of puzzlement. Jacob is having a difficult time controlling his laughter. He stares at the tree and then at Ralph.
                “You call that a tree? he asks. It looks more like a Christmas stick. How much did it cost?
                “It didn’t cost me much of nothing.” Ralph says. “I paid for this one and two others and the man who was selling them gave me three more.”
                “I hate to ask.” says Herman, “But what did you pay for the whole bunch?”
                “I paid thirty dollars. If I sell two for fifteen dollars each I’ll have all my money back. Anything more will be clear profit!”
                “You think somebody will pay fifteen dollars for this branch?” asks Jacob.
                “They were selling for forty dollars this morning,” says Ralph eyeing Jake and frowning. “You gonna help me or not?”
                Jacob looks closer and examines the flimsy branches.
                “Can’t we cover it up? What will my friends think seeing me dragging around something like this?
                “If your friends got any sense they’ll know you’re helping a crafty business man make some extra money,” says Ralph.
                “Are the rest of them any better than the one you got there?” Jake asks.
                “They’re all about the same,” says Ralph growing impatient and starting up the stairs. “It’s already eight o’clock, man! We gotta get moving!”
                Jacob finishes his drink and follows Ralph. “If I am not back in two hours, call my wife,” he says.
                “What should we tell her?” asks Morgan.
                “Tell her I’m missing in action; got arrested littering with dead trees.”
                Everybody’s laughing except Ralph. He is becoming increasingly irritated. “This ain’t no joke Jacob. You got to believe in yourself; grab an opportunity when it comes along, he says with increased irritation. ”Flow with the power of the market place. Now is the time to buy short and sell quick! Are you coming with me or not?” he asks. Jacob gets up and follows Ralph as he drags the tree up the stairs.
                “I sure hope you know what you’re doing,” says Jake. “I am not use to wasting my time.” Their departure allows Normand and Herman to return to a familiar low keyed manner of conversing. Morgan wants to know how Herman made out with Christmas shopping.
                “Did you convince your wife to spend less this year?” he asked.
                “All Georgette talks about is how much everybody else is spending and that she doesn’t want to look bad. I keep telling her this isn’t a contest.”
                “My wife agreed to a budget,” says Morgan, “but three days ago she asks for another two hundred dollars. She needs something for the children when they come home.”
                “My daughter’s away at school but that doesn’t help much,” says Herman. “Every month she’s in my pocket.”
                “It seems like supporting children goes on forever,” says Morgan. “A friend of mine says there’s only one difference. The spending shifts from children to grands and then to great-grands.”
                “What do you suppose would happen if we sold our houses and moved away?” asks Herman.
                “My kids are so slick,” says Morgan,” they’d find us no matter how far we
moved. In the meantime, while we are waiting tell me what more you need to know about poker?”
                “Show me how playing well would take my mind off all the money that just
disappeared.” says Herman. They laugh together.
                Morgan starts to deal as Eli comes down the stairs. He’s wearing a shirt and tie and carrying a book bag. A smile lights up his face.
                “Looks like I’m just in time.” he says. “Deal me in cause I could use a little extra cash.” He throws his book bag on the couch and pulls up a chair.
                “You’re just in time for  some expert instructions,” says Morgan. “Teaching two is just as easy as one. Open for a dime and ten dollars  the max. Don’t put any more money on the table than you can afford to lose.”
                Eli takes three dollars from his pocket and throws them on the table. “You two are in some big trouble now!” he says still smiling. “These are my last dollars and they want some company!”
                “You sure are talkative this evening,” says Morgan. “Have you been drinking?”
                “I had a little taste at the school party, that’s all.”
                “Let’s see if I can break you lose from them green dudes you got there.” says Morgan.
                “Not a chance in a blue moon,” says Eli. “I feel luckier that a blind man with x-ray vision!”
                Herman notices Eli’s glassy and half-closed eyes. “Better get this boy some coffee before he accuses us of cheating. Looks like he‘s already sleeping.”
                “I can see well enough.” he says. ”Go ahead and deal.”
                “While he’s so smiley-faced and happy we ought to teach him what he can’t learn in school.” says Morgan. “What’ll he think when he wakes up in the morning and his green fellows are gone?”
                “He’ll think Santa Claus took them up the chimney while he was half asleep,” says Herman.
                Eli puts his money back in his pocket and folds his arms across his chest. Soon he is rocking back and forth in his chair.
                “What’s the matter my man?” ask Morgan. “I thought you wanted to play.”
                “I’m feeling lucky alright but I’m not too trusting. There is more slickness between you two than a pair of foxy mules. I may be tipsy but I’m not unconscious.”
                “Who you calling a mule?” asked Morgan.
                “And who you calling a fox?” asked Herman.
                “Take whatever name that fits you,” says Ely. He laid his head on the table and closed his eyes.
                “It looks like he’s sleeping already,” says Morgan. “He won’t be getting any lessons tonight. “Let’s drink to all our friends who will soon  be here, to enjoy this evening of good fellowship and revelation and whatever.”
                “Good fellowship,” says Herman.
                “Good evening,” says Pundidy as he comes down the stairs.
                “Come on in,” says Morgan. Have a drink. Tonight’s gonna be serious but you can loosen up a little bit longer as you don’t get too heavy in your word game.”
                “I’m cool,” says Pundidy. “No excessive verbiage or ribbing tonight.”
                “I’m going to be serious too,” says Eli, as he raised up from the table rubbing his eyes. “Let me tell you what I have been studying in night school.
Pundidy seems surprised. “I didn’t know you were attending classes,” he says.
“It’s not like regular classes you understand. I’m learning how to run heavy
construction equipment; bulldozers and backhoes and stuff like that. By spring I’ll have my license and then I can make some real money.”
                “I like to see a young man trying to get ahead like I did when I was your age,” says Morgan. ”Can’t start too soon son, that’s what I say.”
                “My wife’s thinking about going back to school too,” says Herman. “She dropped out from studying nursing when we got married.”
                “I’ve often wondered,” says Pundidy, “how did you and your wife get together living in the South and all?”
                “I had been noticing her ever since we were teenagers.” says Herman. “We both grew up in a neighborhood where blacks and whites lived next to each other. After graduation we ended up working at the same department store. Some days we walked home together.”
                “What did your parents think about it?” asked Eli.
                “Nothing at first, but when they caught us holding hands my father laid down the law. He said there was nothing wrong with getting a little bit every now and then but don’t even think about bringing her home.”
                Morgan was curious; he’s never heard this story before. “How’d you go from holding hands to getting married?” he asked.
                “There came a time, I think it was her birthday,” says Herman, “and I bought
her a gift. She was so happy she kissed me and looked me dead in the face. Then she hit me with the most wonderful smile I’d ever seen; more beautiful than the sun breaking through the clouds. I was so hooked and overjoyed that I proposed on the spot. It took her three months to say yes.”
                Eli didn’t know the South that Morgan and Herman remembered. He thought segregation was absolute and marriage out of the question.
                “Weren’t you expected to stay with your own kind?” he asked.
                “Mingling and messing around was OK as long as nobody tried to change the rules. I liked living where I didn’t have to wear a label on my sleeve,” says Herman. But nobody wanted to let us alone. They wanted us to be only what they wanted.”
                “You don’t stop being white by living next to us. Don’t you still think like they do?” asked Eli.
                “I think for myself Eli!” says Herman indignantly. “Some black people are more racist than I’ve ever been; always calling each other degrading names. They think marrying a black person proves that you are not a racist. But it doesn’t go like that. I’m the same as I’ve always been. My children missed family holidays especially Christmas because we couldn’t stay in Mississippi.”
                “I always enjoyed the way Christmas was celebrated down South,” says Morgan.
                “The focus was on church and family.”
                “I liked it too,” says Herman. “First time I ever got an orange was in church. At home we usually got practical gifts like clothes for dress-up times and table games. Wagons and bikes came later when we were older.”
                “Isn’t it sort of hard on your children?” ask Pundidy.
                “Not as bad as it was in the South.” says Herman. “People, black and white, called my children half-breeds or mongrels!”
                Eli is trying to guess the meaning of a word he has never heard before. “Is hybrid anything like being high class?” he asked. Pundidy tries to help out.
                “It’s different from being clearly or simply black or white,” he says. “The mixing of races is supposed to create a new type of inferiority but it’s nonsense! There’s no such thing as a pure or superior race. All blood is the same, except for different types.”
                “How come there’s so much talk about bad blood?” Eli asks.
                “There’s no such thing I tell you!” says Pundidy, “with an authoritative expression on his face. “Brothers in the same family look different because each has a different blood mixture that comes from all their ancestors. That’s why white people don’t all look or act the same.”
                “My wife and I can’t figure out what our children should be called,” says Herman.
                “There’s no category that fits them exactly.”
                “Changes are happening fast,” says Pundidy. “Maybe when they grow up it won’t matter so much.”
                Herman was frustrated and confused. “They got to be called something,” he says. “How are they going to fill out a job application?”
                Pundidy offered additional dubious suggestions without much enthusiasm. “We can only hope that one day new categories will be created or such information won’t even be necessary,” says Pundidy.
                The answer satisfied no one and the group slips into an uneasy silence until they hear Ralph and Jacob coming down the stairs. Jacob is smiling from ear to ear.
                “You all feel like letting two wealthy businessmen join the party?” he asked. “We did so well with them trees that next year we’ll be selling Easter bunnies too”
                “If you don’t stop making fun of me,” says Ralph, “I’m gonna go upside your head with the last tree I left outside.
                “That might work,” says Jacob still laughing. “It’s about the size of the switches my mama used to have.”
                Jacob’s laughter was contagious. Herman and Morgan were grinning and pounding the table; even Pundidy was giggling.
                “It isn’t that bad,” says Ralph. “Wait a minute. I’m going to go get it.” He rushes back up the stairs and out the door. Herman has calmed down enough to ask the question that’s on everybody’s mind.
                “How many trees did you sell, Jake?
                We sold the best two we had. After that all we got was laughed at and folks staring at us like we were crazy. I was snickering so much Ralph kept getting mad at me.”
                “What happened to the rest?” Herman asked.
                “He gave away some trees to folks who promised to pay later.”
                Ralph returned dragging a three-foot tree resembling the one he had before. He stood it in the middle of the floor straightening the branches.
                “This isn’t top shelf,” he says, “but for some folks it’s better than nothing.”
                Eli got up and staggered over to where Ralph was examining the tree.
                “You right about one thing,” he says. “It sure isn’t top shelf. It’s more like bargain basement.”
                Ralph cradled the tree in his arms as if it were a baby. “You all just don’t
understand!” he says. “Nothing is achieved without some chance-taking! That’s why I invest in the stock market and why I voted for Rockefeller for president when all you dummies went straight Democratic.”
                He glared at the group. They seem to be enjoying a joke. And Herman is skeptical about what Ralph has said about Rockefeller.
                “What you and Rockefeller got in common?” he asks.
                “We both investors so we got to stick together.”
                “You get your quarterly dividend?” asked Morgan.
                “I got it last week.”
                “How much you get this time?”
                “Thirteen dollars and forty cents.”
                “Damn!” says Morgan, acting surprised. “You’re really making the big bucks.”
                Laughter explodes around the table but Eli can’t see what’s so funny.
                “Big bucks my eye!” he says. “I could make that much in one day picking up bottles and turning them in for the deposit.”
                “That is hardly the point my uninformed friends,” says Ralph.
                “My investments make money even while I’m sleeping!”
                “Is that why you gotta hit the streets selling trees and dragging me along?” asked Jacob.
                Ralph tucks the tree under his arm and heads back up the stairs. Half way up he turns and faces his buddies who are watching him in varying degrees of hilarity. “I’m going to show all of you how a real business man thinks. Before midnight this unlikely branch will be in somebody’s living room. Who wants to bet?”
                “Betting on that’s a little risky,” says Eli. “Are you giving up any odds?”
                “I’m the one taking all the risk,” he says. “If nobody wants to bet, I’m out of here.”
                He leaves his friends still smiling but Morgan, moved by Ralph’s determination,
doesn’t join in.
                “I’ve got to admire his stubbornness,” he says. “Most would have given up by now, but he’s still trying.”
                “Sometimes you gotta know when to quit. Every dream’s not supposed to happen, no matter how hard you try,” says Herman.
                “The best men never quit,” says Jacob. “That’s the way I’ve been all my life,
through the tough times and all the rest. If I had quit I wouldn’t be here today.”
                Morgan is thinking about Jacob’s tough manner. He doesn’t take much foolishness from anyone. But the two of them have a way of playing around and Morgan is curious. He decides to gently push Jacob for more information.
                “Jake, my man, you always been so pleasant and friendly I figured life must have been easy for you. Is that the way it was?” Jacob knows Morgan is teasing but he still takes the bait anyway.
                “I was raised in one of them really bad parts of South Carolina. I mean really bad!”
                “How bad was it?” asked Eli.
                “It was so bad the roosters had to crow long and loud before anyone would get up.”
                Jacob smiles at his joke and then gets serious.
                “I can laugh about it now but it wasn’t funny back then. Even as a child I was catching it from white people. My mama said it was because I had too much mouth and didn’t know my place.”
                “You ever get stopped and messed with even when you weren’t doing anything wrong?” asked Eli.
                “It happened to me a lot, but that wasn’t the worse part. Let me do one of my poems first and then I’ll tell the rest.”
                “I thought you said you couldn’t sing?” asked Morgan.
                “I can’t sing any more, not with this gravelly voice I got now,” he says. “Since I can’t sing the words I talk them. “Now listen, here I go.” Jacob claps his hands in time with his talking:
                Whistle blows at midnight, Captain he doesn’t hear.
                Captains round the corner, drinking luke-warm beer.
                When we’re working evenings, singing quiet songs.
                Captain he be listening, listening all night long.
                When we working mornings, watching out for snakes.
                Captain he is watching, standing at the gate.
                We hoe grass and gravel, so it won’t grow long.
                Captain’s never sleeping, singing a night song.
                Gates are always locked up, locked up tight and strong.
                Jacob finishes and waits but all he hears is silence.
                “Damn!” he says, “It couldn’t have been that bad.” he says. “Why you all so quiet?”
                The group is impressed but no one seems to know how they should react; they know that what they heard is unique; not like regular music or poetry. But what was it?
            Pundidy is also sure they have heard something extraordinary. He shares Jacob’s disappointment and doesn’t want him to feel unappreciated. He tries to think of a positive way to react. “That was really great Jacob!” he says. “How did you manage to put all those words together?”
                “They come from my life, just as I lived it,” he says. “Nothing’s made up. It’s real, just like it happened.”
                “Pundidy is right,” says Morgan. “That was really a special treat.”
                “We didn’t know you had that much talent.” says Herman. “Look what we’ve been missing all these years. Maybe Jake and I should get together and form a duo like I was talking about.”
                “Sounds to me like prison poetry.” says Morgan. “You ever been locked up?”
                “More than once but I don’t know how much of that I can talk about; the ending hasn’t happened yet.”
                “Share as much as you can,” says Herman. “If it’s half as interesting as what we’ve heard so far I’d like to hear more. But let me share something about my life with you guys while I got the courage.”
                “That’s OK with me,” says Jake. “I’ll do more when you finish.”
                “This is sort of like a confession,” says Herman, “Something I got into when I was young.”
                “You ever been jailed- up, like I was?” asked Jacob.
                “No, I haven’t, but after you hear what I got to share, maybe I should be.”
                “What could be worse than losing your freedom?” asks Jacob.
                “I used to belong to the Klu Klux Klan,” he says. “Wearing a white sheet didn’t do anything for me but that’s what I did.”
                Jacob glares at Herman. “That’s nothing to joke about,” he says.
                Ely remembered the stories of fear and intimidation he’d learned from his family; about how the Klan harassed and terrorized black communities.
                “The Klan was before my time,” he says, “but my grandfather told me about it; said he saw a real lynching. Did you ever take part in anything like that?”
                “All I did was parade around in a white robe and attend meetings.”
                “Did that make you feel superior?” asks Pundidy cautiously. He had nothing but nervous recollections about the Klan’s history.
                “That’s what it was supposed to do.” Herman says. “They told me being white made me special. But it was hard to believe because every day I saw black men better than me.”
                “So why did you marry a black woman?” asked Eli, “Did you think some of her blackness would rub off on you?”