Konch Magazine - Part Two of Excerpt from "Uncertain Sheppards" by Ray Smith
 
        PART II
      
        “That had nothing to do with it! I already told all of you that I love her and still do. I was looking for some way to feel better about myself. That’s all.”
        “Wasn’t there any other way?” asked Pundidy. “Couldn’t you have gone to college or something?”
        “I barely made it out of high school!” he says. “And I failed both the aptitude and the agility test when I tried to join the Navy. The idea of being white didn’t change what I really was.”
        “The only real superiority,” says Morgan, “is money. Green is the color that counts whether you’re white or not.”
        “Having self-pride, that’s what matters,” says Jacob. “It isn’t your race or whatever they label you with that make you a man. It’s how you carry yourself. I never allowed myself or any part of my family to be disrespected. If a price has to be paid, a man pays it, no matter what!”
        “Would you give up your life to protect your wife or mother?” asks Pundidy.
        “Of course I would,” says Jake. “What do you expect I would do? And what kind of a dumb question is that.”
        “You can’t die but once, not even for your mother,” Pundidy says.
        “Any fool knows that! You come up with the damnedest ways of viewing life.”
        “I’m only pointing out....”
        “Damn, what you pointing out!?” says Jake. He is becoming more irritated and soon his anger will be difficult to control.
        “I’m explaining to you and anyone else who listens what it takes to be a real man!” says Jake.
        Morgan recognizes Jacob’s rage and tries to re-establish the peace. “Let’s keep it civil, Jake. We’ve never passed any licks between us before; no need to start now.”
        “I never could back down; didn’t matter who was doing the pushing. That’s how I got in the trouble I’m fixing to talk about.
        “Speak on that Jacob without shouting and we’ll listen. We can all hear well
        enough.”
        “Alright, Morgan, I’m cooling down.” Jacob sits for a few minutes calming himself before proceeding. “I only got into a few little scrapes when I was young. Life wasn’t all that bad, but back in those days there was nothing more dangerous to white men than a black boy trying to be a man.”
        “Didn’t your parents try to warn you?” asks Morgan.
        “They did, but I was so big and strong nobody could tell me anything. My mother decided that since the white men would find a way to kill me, she might as well do it herself.” Jacob smiles at the thought of his mother actually trying to kill him. “My father mostly sat around looking depressed and wringing his hands. I hated going to town with him always smiling taking off his hat whenever we encountered a white man.”
        “You were risking your life! Didn’t he explain that to you?” asks Eli.
        “He only told me to be respectful in their presence and to never raise my voice or look them in the eyes.
        “What our fathers taught us wasn’t so unusual considering the circumstances,” says Morgan. “They explained the world to us as best they could and had stories to back it up. Niggers getting beat up and put in jail and even killed.”
        “Couldn’t they have banded together and fought back?” asks Jacob.
        “There weren’t enough men ready to fight so they decided to stay alive and take care of their families.” says Morgan. “Battling to maintain a dubious brand of manhood was too risky. I never liked it but I could understand why the men took the stance they did.”
        Jacob gets up from the table and strides angrily about the room. “It’s better to die like a man than to live like a dog,” he says. “That’s been my way even when nobody agreed with me.”
        “Didn’t you say something about a tough life making you a man?” asks Eli. “How did it help you to be a man?”
        “It didn’t really help me much at all,” he says. “Standing up for myself actually cost me a lot, but by the time I learned better it was too late. Really bad things happened to me the third time I went to jail.”
        Pundidy can’t believe what he’s hearing. “You acted up, even in jail? Didn’t
        that make it worse?”
        “Sure did, but I didn’t care,” says Jake. “I was sent way out into the country near farms and factories and was rented out to the owners. But I figured I could handle it. It wasn’t exactly a chain gang but just as bad. The guards could treat us any way they wanted. In those days I could sing a little and played the guitar. And that was part of the problem.”
        “I heard that prisoners who were entertainers had an easier time,” says Herman.
        “It could have been the same for me,” says Jake. “The guards liked my playing but when I refused to play for them they decided to break me. One night they took me way out in the woods. They had a rope with a noose on the end and told me if I didn’t play I’d soon be swinging from a tree.”
        “Sure took a lot for you to get the message,” says Eli. “Did you think they were inviting you to a party?”
        “I was supposed to get scared but all I did was laugh and then I smashed my guitar up against a tree.” Jacob's face tenses up as he describes what happened next. “Breaking my guitar was the last straw. They held my arm up against a tree and smashed my right hand with the butt of a rifle. My hand hasn’t been the same since. Then they put a rope around my throat and tied me to a tree. It was so tight I could hardly breathe. I was left there all night but I never screamed or cried out. Next day someone cut me loose and took me to the hospital tent.”
        “With all they did to you, did you ever think of giving up, changing your ways?” asks Morgan.
        “There could have been a better way, but at the time it just wasn’t in me,” says Jake.
        “How did you recover and get better?” asks Herman.
        “They kept me in the hospital tent for about four weeks.”
        “How come you couldn’t sing anymore?” asks Herman
        “The rope around my neck messed up my singing voice. I’ve had this gravelly voice ever since. My right hand could hold a shovel but it couldn’t finger a guitar. Talking the blues is all I can do.”
        Herman was puzzled. “If you returned to work why didn’t things get better?” he asks.
        “That’s what I was hoping. I even toned down my angry attitude but it didn’t help. The guards who took me to the woods in the first place seemed disappointed that I wasn’t dead.”
        “How long was your sentence and when did you get out?
        “Now that’s the part I’m not sure I should speak on. It could get me into trouble even after all these years. I didn’t actually serve all my time; I escaped.”
        Herman, listening closely, has been unable to tie the story he is hearing to the man he thought he knew. “What made you think you needed to try and escape?” he asks.
        “Because the guards kept threatening to get back at me,” he says.
        “Threatening you with what?” asks Herman.
        “Taking me back into the woods and finishing the job.”
        “And there wasn’t anything else you could do?” asks Herman.
        “I tried everything I could think of, says Jake, “but one night one of the guards took me back in the wood. Even though I acted like a perfect fool he was clearly determined to hurt me so when I had a chance I grabbed his rifle and shot him.”
        “Did you kill him?” Eli asked.
        “I don’t know for sure,” says Jacob, “but I dropped the rifle and ran as fast as I could. When I reached a wide stream I jumped in and swam for about two hours. “It was the beginning of a very hot day and there were no sounds that caused concern so I stayed on the side of the road until my clothes dried.”
        “What did you do next?” asks Eli.
        “I had some sense of where I was and what was going on so I began looking around. There were trucks on the road picking up workers. I was able to board one of the trucks and I stayed with that type of work.”
        “Didn’t anybody ever come looking for you?” asks Herman nervously wondering what he would have done under the same circumstances.
        “They may have but I had two lucky breaks. The first was being in jail under a wrong name. The second was remembering my real name. After about a year I applied for and got a Social Security card under my real name. I’ve been using it ever since.”
        “You said you paid a price. What was it?” asks Eli.
        “I couldn’t return home so I don’t know if my parents are alive or not; that’s been the worst part; never seeing my family again.”
        “Is all your rough life history the reason you and I have never been close?” asks Herman.
        “It wasn’t anything personal,” says Jake. “I ain’t too nice to nobody, black or white. Tough times changed me that much. But I’ve been trying. My blues poetry helps me to mellow out some and it’s the main reason I keep on doing them. You’ all want to hear another set?” Before anyone can respond Jacob starts clapping and reciting Locomotion Blues. During his performance the group joins him and starts clapping too.
        My country is a locomotive rolling down the track.
        Country is a locomotive rolling down the track.
        Can’t keep rolling where there aren’t any tracks.
        A train can’t buy and a train can’t steal.
        Train can’t buy and a train can’t steal.
        Train can’t move when the captain’s got the wheel.
        Train needs water and a train needs coal.
        Got no heart and it’s got no soul.
        Don’t get sick and it doesn’t catch cold.
        Keeps on chugging with the Captain’s gold.
        Train’s got reasons just to stand still.
        Cause the Captain blows the whistle
        And the Captain pays the bills.
        But the trains got to try and make it up the hills.
        One day the Captain going to lose his mind.
        Quit his growling and start in crying.
        Quit acting like he’s so bad.
        That’s the day we all be glad.
        Locomotive country’s bound to slow down.
        Country and the Captain get run out of town.
        Folks of the town start dancing in the street.
        Things get better and there’s plenty to eat.
        When the Country’s motion is frozen in a crack.
        Can’t move much when the wheels go flat
        And the snakes fight back.
        And the lights go out
        And the grass wears out
        And you can’t hear a shout.
        And you can’t keep rolling where the grass won’t grow.
        And it soon might snow.
        And you can’t find a boat and the grass is for goats.
        Can’t keep rolling when there isn’t a boss.
        And there isn’t any glory when the train gets lost.
        And there ain't no singing when the singers are gone.
        The worker’s remain but the train’s rolls on.
      
        Clapping continues long after Jacob is finished. He smiles and rocks from side to side. “Guess you all liked that one pretty good. Want to hear some more?”
        “That’s enough for now, Jake.” says Morgan. “We liked it just fine but let’s give someone else a chance to have their say. Who wants to go next?”
        Pundidy hesitantly raises his hand. “There is something I’d like to speak on, but I’m not looking for sympathy. I just want to get it out and be done with it.”
        “What did you do, steal a dictionary?” asked Morgan, trying to make a joke; catches himself and apologizes.
        “Sorry about that Pun. I’m the one who said there’d be no clowning, and I’m the first to start. Go ahead man, say what you want.”
        Pundidy clears his throat and looks at the faces around the table. “None of you never heard me talk about my family because I never had one. I was raised in an orphanage and don’t remember anything about my biological family.”
        “Can’t you name your mother or anyone?’ asks Jake.
        “All I can remember was living with a group of children. We were always cold and hungry. I was about four years old.”
        Jacob is thinking about how long it’s been since he’s seen his family. He can’t imagine growing up without them.
        “Who brought you there, I mean, to the orphanage?” Jake asks.
        “I don’t know. All I remember is the name of the place. It was called the Cradle for the Innocent. My earliest recollections are about being sickly and cared for in a bed. I was read to almost every day and by the time I was six I was reading on my own.”
        “Did anyone ever come to see you or the other children?” asked Eli.
        “All I remember was adults who came to adopt. They never talked about anything else. Nobody seemed to be just visiting,” says Pundidy. “It was like being under a dark cloud of uncertainty. I couldn’t understand where I was or why I was there. Gradually I blended in with the others.”
        “I’ve often wondered how it would have been for me, if I wasn’t with my family,” says Morgan. “I grew up on a farm too, just like Eli. We had enough of everything, especially work. Everyone working all the time was how we made it.”
        “I was part of a large family too.” says Herman. “There were lots of hugging and always someone to play with or to help out in a fight.”
        “We were seldom hugged or picked up,” says Pundidy. “And we learned early the only reason adults were there was to take someone home with them. I had little understanding of what that meant, except it was some place away from the cold and crowded place where we lived. We thought home must be a fantasy or a remote dream.”
        Pundidy feels an unfamiliar sadness creeping over him but he manages to continue. “I remembered the children smiled a lot and the adults always smiled back. Home must be a place of smiling.”
        Eli has his own recollections of family life. “Living with my own family was hardly warm and happy,” he says. “Our farm was small and there was never enough of anything. Life was a daily struggle. I miss my family but not all the hassles that were constantly going on. It improved after my father got a better job and I finished high school. We all left the farm and went our separate ways.”
        “My saddest memories,” says Pundidy, “was watching children raise their hands towards adults. They were hoping to be picked up or at least touched and they sensed touching had something to do with being adopted.”
        Morgan is seeing Pundidy in an entirely different light and it touches his heart. “Why don’t you spend some time with me and my family like I suggested?” he asks. “Get an idea of what family life is like? It won’t be the same as your own family but there’s no way to go back to where you came from.”
        Pundidy is unable to respond immediately to Morgan’s proposal. In fact he hardly hears it. His thoughts and visions are back at the nursery as he continues to share his memories of what it was like.
        “Each child developed their own way of getting noticed,” says Pundidy. “They would grab the hand of the nearest adult or stand smiling in the center of the visitor’s room. Once I tried to hook up with a family but the staff discouraged it. They said I was needed as the visible and polite show-piece, helping to teach the other children; proof that the staff was doing a good job. I was displayed but not for adoption; encouraged to perform but not allowed to mingle with the audience.”
        “It must have been hard on you,” says Jacob. “A man needs to know who he is and where he came from.”
        Pundidy continues. “When I was twelve a family wanted to adopt me but the staff told them I was too old. One night I slipped into the office, found the family’s address and ran away. I was hoping to find them but I got lost and ended up living on the streets.”
        “I remember my days of wandering,” says Jacob. Being on your own in a strange place isn’t easy.”
        “I found my way back, stayed until I was eighteen and left as soon as I could,” says Pundidy. “The first day on my own I saw a sign in a library window. It said ‘Library helper wanted.’ I didn’t know what it meant but I applied anyway. When they heard me speak they thought I was a college graduate and hired me on the spot. Within six months I was an assistant librarian.” Pundidy smiled wondering what would have happened to him if he hadn’t been so fortunate. “Can you imagine how great it was for me to be working with books and getting
        paid for it too? I could take home as many as I wanted. And I read constantly.”
        “Seems to me you treat books like a female,” says Eli, smiling. Pundidy rolls his eyes at him.
        “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asks.
        “It means that when I curl up with something, especially something sweet, I want that somebody to hug back. Books can’t do much hugging at least not that I know of. That’s why all my romancing is always with a warm and alive and breathing somebody.”
        “Books do have a kind of aliveness,” says Pundidty. “And you are correct about one thing. I do have difficulty connecting with real people.” Looking somewhat depressed he continues. “Using words isn’t the same as talking to someone. Maybe that’s why I can’t find a steady girl friend or pick a wife?
        “No man has ever picked his wife all by himself,” says Morgan.
        “They chose us. We just think we did the picking. A little smooth talk doesn’t hurt but if they got their eyes on someone else, forget it.”
        “Then why hasn’t someone chosen me?” asks Pundidy sadly. “Words are all I know. I’m OK in discussions but not much good at anything else.”
        The men listen attentively with a certain amount of compassion.
        “Even small talk that you guys do so easily is difficult for me. Whenever I try talking to a woman they end up giggling; treating me like I’m some sort of a freak or a verbalizing machine. When that happens all I want to do is get back to a quiet corner, alone with my books, books that never talk back or make you feel bad or laugh at you or cause you to cry.”
        The men have never seen Pundidy in such a state. They lower their eyes in uncertain silence; Eli is the first to respond. “Buffalo ladies don’t seem to mind the way I talk,” says Eli. “They say they like country boys. I thought they were just being nice and would like me even better if I talked like Pundidy.”
        “There must be more to communicating than the size of the words,” says Herman. “When Georgette got to me it was with a look and a smile and a squeeze. Hardly any words at all.”
        Pundidy is downcast but tries to regain some of his usual swagger. “Exposure to words is more than simply reading or hearing the sound. You
        have to study them, look for hidden meanings, wisdom, a better understanding of..., of, things.”
        “There are things we know or think we know because of a touch.” says Jake. “I once thought of a poem that rhymed like that, but the two notions never came together in my head so I had to let them go.”
        The conversations continue to swirl around comparing one type of success with another. Morgan opts for utilizing what he calls mother wit. “We’ve been given enough common sense to figure out what to do in most situations. Searching for perfect answers will always be a mystery. If that isn’t enough then maybe we should leave the other stuff alone.”
        Eli thinks education is the best road. Jacob tried to make a case for practical experience. “You can only know by doing,” he says. “Digging a ditch can’t be learned from a book! You don’t know it until you’ve done it!”
        Ralph comes down the stairs as the various positions are being debated. “You all sure have some loud house-shaking voices,” he says. “I could hear them half a block away. What’s all the noise about?”
        “We’re discussing the various approaches to success. You can join in if you have an opinion,” says Herman.
        “I got one alright, but first I want to tell you all how I got rid of my last tree.”
        He reaches into his pocket, pulls out a piece of paper and waves it back and forth in front of the group as if it were a hypnotic fan. It arouses the group’s attention and awakens their curiosity. What’s Ralph up to now? Ralph seems to be anxious to tell his tale but he doesn’t want to rush it. Better to prolong the mystery.
        “An experienced businessman like myself believes in diversification. First, I put a little bit here and some over there and a little more around the corner. You know what I mean?” Ralph asks.
        “What bits and pieces got to do with anything?” asked Jacob.
        “I’m going to get to the clarifying parts in a minute,” says Ralph. “In fact I can tell both stories at the same time.”
        “What two stories you talking about?” asks Herman. “Playing the stock market isn’t the only way to make money. Sometimes I do it on the street. Yesterday I put a few dollars on a number that I dreamed and it came out straight!”
        Jake is in a hurry to get back to his blues talking; he wants Ralph to hurry up and make his point. “We glad you got lucky, man, but what’s it got to do with knowing?”
        “Dreams are just another way of reducing the odds. It’s not a for sure thing. Nothing is, but it’s worth a try,” he says. “I believed in my dream and I played the number that the dream gave up, and look what happened! I’ve already gotten paid. How you gonna beat that? Don’t you see the connection?”
        “How often you play a dreamed-up number?” asks Morgan.
        “Two or three times a week.”
        “And how often you hit?” asks Herman.
        “About three times a year.”
        “Haven’t you ever heard of luck?” asks Herman. “When that number came out that’s exactly what it was, luck! If it were otherwise you’d hit more often. Doesn’t that make sense?”
        “Has anybody ever got rich playing the numbers?” asks Eli. “Even if you hit, all you ever get is an extra, unexpected holiday, another party time and then back to the grind.”
        “What I believe in is the security of a good paying job like I got,” says Morgan.
        “Playing the horses is better than playing the numbers,” says Pundidy. “You can get a feeling it’s possible to determine a horse’s ability.”
        Jacob had been waiting with diminishing patience to finish what he’d started. He doesn’t want all his practicing to be wasted.
        “I’m ready to do another blues-story,” he says. “Aren’t you all ready yet?
        “Hold on now,” says Ralph. “I haven’t explained how I got rid of the last tree. After I collected the numbers money this old man came up to me looking like some body’s grandfather and asked if he could have the tree on credit. I was feeling so good I was ready to give the tree away, but not quite.”
        Ralph is ecstatic, happier than he’s been in a long time. Eli, on the other hand, doesn’t like the way the story is progressing. He is mostly concerned about the way it’s going to end.
        “You mean to tell me you couldn’t show a little charity, not even at Christmas time?” he asks.
        “Suppose he never shows up,” asks Jacob. “Won’t you feel cheated?”
        “Let me finish!” says Ralph. “I gave him my address and we agreed he could pay when he could.”
        “What does any of this have to do with knowing for sure?” asks Jake.
        “Good will, my man, good will. Whenever I show a touch of compassion in a business deal it always comes back to me like a wave. Something particular, something beneficial will happen to me in the near future. The power of a dream has a chance to be productive.”
        Morgan thinks Ralph is much too happy.
        “You sure you haven’t been hanging out with Pundidy?” he asks. ”Or maybe you stopped off for drink?”
        “Watch how my good luck multiplies next year and beyond,” he says. “I don’t need alcohol or conversation to be successful. Talking and drinking doesn’t make anything happen, but now that I that I think of it making good business choices is sort of intoxicating. It picks me up, and gives me a warm and happy feeling.”
        Herman is listening but he’s also thinking about what he’s been missing.
        “I know what I’d like to do next year or sometime in the near future,” he says.
        “Make peace with both my families and maybe return to Mississippi. I’d even stay if it’s OK for the children and if I can find a job.”
        “Going back might be too dangerous for me,” says Jacob. “I could be arrested but it might be worth the risk.”
        Pundidy is listening with interest to the hopes and dreams of the other men.
        “Maybe a family and children would make up for what I’ve never known,” he says. “But I don’t know how to go about it.”
        Morgan hears the various comments and decides to shares with the group.
        “I got to be a union steward and I’ve held the position for twelve years. But I missed out twice running for union president. If I could achieve that one wish before I die, I’d be happy.”
        “Don’t forget about the money part,” says Eli. “I’m going into business for myself after I get my license but I want to leave something for my children. Education and money; that’s what makes a difference.”
        “Can any of us achieve all we wish for, and if we do, would we really be any better off?” asks Herman.
        “I would be happy and absolutely satisfied if I could wake up one day as a white man,” says Ralph. “I wish I’d been born that way. It’s the only valuable item that money can’t buy! That’s been my dream ever since I learned about power and how the world works.”
        “Is there anything sillier than a dumb white man used to be black?” asks Jake.
        “Being white doesn’t help much but don’t be mistaking me for a fool either Jake.”
        “I am not saying that, but you ain’t black either.”
        “Why do I have to be black or white?” asks Herman. “Why can’t I just be me?”
        “You got a black wife and one foot in each camp, but that don’t clarify much of nothing!” says Jake. “Everybody gets labeled, so why not you, and your children?
         Herman is burning with frustration; his answer is slow and deliberate. “It seems to me that black people are just as bad as whites,” he says, “They are always putting people down and putting them into separate boxes.”
        “When a white man speaks about racism,” says Jacob, “he only knows half of the story.”
        “What’s that got to do with labeling?” asks Herman. “White folks created them boxes, and the labels, and the race cards, not us. But we’re stuck with ‘em just like everybody else. It was Pundidy who said that maybe one day, labels won’t be needed but that day hasn’t come yet.”
        Morgan knows Jacob is right but he also agrees with Herman. “Nothing much has changed during our lifetimes,” he says. “The deck is still stacked and somebody else is holding all the aces. Old road blocks have disappeared but now they’re new ones. Take what’s been happening to my children in college.”
        “I thought they were doing fine,” Herman says. “Last time I saw them they were excited about learning so much.”
        “The teachers are always asking them sneaky questions like black people know all about each other,” says Morgan.
        “What type of questions?” Eli asks.
        “Mostly questions about well-known black people like Farrakhan and Mohammad Ali. They think we all live under the same collective tent and my children should have a perfect understanding of all manners of black behavior. ‘What’s up with Farrakhan?’ they ask, or ‘Why did Cassis Clay change his name?’”
        “Don’t college teachers know everything, just like Pundidy?” asks Eli.
        “They’re not interested in facts or reality,” says Morgan. “All they’re looking for is an answer that gives them a chance to make fun of inexperienced young, black kids.”
        “It looks like they’re using one of them lawyer’s tricks,” says Pundidy.
        “What lawyer tricks you talking about Pun?” asks Jacob.
        “Asking a question and hoping for an answer that will create confusion without clarifying anything.”
        “We taught our children to recognize exactly what the teachers were up to,” says Morgan. “The professors were practicing a calculated kind of fake ignorance. My children knew exactly what they were up to the minute they started talking.”
        “White folks are always trying to get into our heads. It makes me sick!” says Jacob. “They think it’s one of their rights!”
        “You all are making too much of what they’re trying to do.” says Eli. “Be happy, live your own life. They can’t get into your head unless you let them. They don’t have a special key that unlocks black heads!”
        Jacob is angrily remembering how he got his crippled hand and the scars on his neck. “I’m not thinking about their words,” he says. “I just want them off my back and to quit telling me what I can’t do. Stay out of my life! That’s all I want from them.”
        Pundidy has become unusually quiet. An aroused consciousness has allowed him to perceive a peculiar revelation. He is sensing something about the group that he never noticed before. It came to him as he was thinking about their collective history. Does any part of the past remain?
        We are all cousins if good times and ancient rainbows are remembered. We are children of the pyramids; pyramid people can take care of themselves and each other. We can endure like the pyramids if only we continue to remember who we are and where we came from.
        The emotional impact is gone in an instance but because he wasn’t paying attention to what the group was talking about, he didn’t pick up on the topic of conversation that was going on around him. It went something like this: Jacob is still fuming about how white people use words to sell their beliefs and keep black people believing only what they want them to believe. Pundidy’s participation comes at a good time. Who in the group knows more about words than he does? He attempted to share an overview of what is involved in the subject of their concerns.
        “It’s not always possible to avoid the power of verbally expressed stereotypes. We all have been conditioned by the same shared cultural experience. We believe in the same fantasies; victims of the same illusions that can’t be avoided. There is only the stuff that’s out there now and there’s no place to hide.”
        No one seemed to get the point and Pundidy is again left with another veil of silence as the group continues to talk about their own particular concerns.
        “The only thing I want to avoid is dying poor,” says Ralph. “I’d like to spend my final days lying around on beaches, owning a big car and doing whatever I want.”
        Jacob attempts a smile. “You can’t take your money or any of them other toys with you wherever you end up going.”
        “Can’t smuggle in your manhood either,” says Ralph, pointing a teasing finger at Jacob.
        “If we can’t then we aren’t going,” says Ralph and Jake in unison.
        Even Pundidy gets the joke but a somber Morgan is frowning and doesn’t join in the laughter.
        “You can joke about it if you want,” he says, “but the thought of death scares me.”
        “Isn’t any need to be scared,” says Ralph even as he thinks about his twin dreams of wealth and whiteness. “The end comes to all of us, rich or whites, ready or not.”
        “I could deal with death sneaking up on me in my sleep,” says Morgan. “But the way death gradually lets you know it’s coming; just as it’s doing to my father. Every time I see him he’s closer to absolute helplessness. He can’t even brush his own teeth even though he keeps trying and it’s like watching the dying process unfolding right before my eyes, chiseling away at him bit by bit.”
        “It might be easier to help him if we knew for sure exactly what comes next,” says Pundidy.
        “I’d be happier knowing if my parents were dead or alive,” says Jacob. “At least I would have a better idea what I should be doing; trying to be with them or something else.”
        “When my father was in his prime he could do anything” says Morgan. “He played all the sports, worked twelve hours a day and danced all night if he felt like it. Now he’s losing everything that made him a man.”
         Jacob softens up as he sees tears welling up in the corner of his friend’s eyes.
        “Every man has to deal with his time of leaving as best as he can,” says Jake. “There’s no easy way to get ready. Just keep on being a man as long as you can.”
        Morgan can no longer hold back his tears. “Every year I visited him on his birthday,” he says. “Last year I planned to give him my old car. Jake and I drove down together with two cars, Remember that Jake?”
        “Yes, I remember,” says Jake. “I was to bring us back but he was so weak we couldn’t teach him how to drive. I can still see him drawing back in pain when I tried to shake his hand.”
        “My dad hated asking for help. All that remains is the shell of the man he used to be but he fights on. I couldn’t hug or touch him anymore,” says Morgan, tears streaming down his cheeks. “It seemed like he hurt all over. Is that all we got to look forward to, the same depressing helplessness that can’t be avoided?”
        “You won’t have to go through it alone.” says Herman. “You’ll have family and children and Jake and me, and whoever else is still around.”
        “I wish I had something or somebody to be connected to or to cry over like
        Morgan,” says Pundidy. “He has both church and family. I have neither. Tears are proof of aliveness. Only the already dead are incapable of crying over something.”
        “My faith has gotten me through many difficulties,” says Morgan, “but leaving this earth as a cripple is hard to swallow. Why is so much suffering the prelude to heaven? Why can’t we just fly away and be there? And what will my family need me for when I can’t do anything for them?”
        “You raised your children well and now they’re strong and self-reliant,” says
        Herman. “Some day they will be able to take care of you.”
        Morgan begins to calm down and when he hears the others speak about their hopes and wishes he turns his thoughts to Pundidy again.
        “While all of you are considering your escapes and future hopes I’m going to make time for Pundidy at my house,” says Morgan. “Experiencing a family will help him know what to do when the lady of his dreams tries to grab him up.”
        Pundidy is now enjoying an unfamiliar and happy enthusiasm when he hears what Morgan is planning for him. “This is the best get together we ever had,” he says. “Let’s do this again sometime soon, maybe every month, if it’s OK with Morgan.”
        “How about meeting every month on the third Wednesday?” asks Morgan. “Would that work?”
        “Hell no, that’s too often,” says Eli. “Remember, I’m trying to building a business.”
        “Let’s not decide yet,” says Herman. “We all might be able to visit Jake’s hometown at the same time. Can any of you imagine all of us living together in Mississippi?”
         “Not me,” says Eli. “Can’t any one state handle this much diversity. We’d probably be living on the run.”
        “What do you mean living on the run?” asks Ralph. “And diversity? I’ve never heard you use that word before.”
        “It’s possible we might be living on the run because we couldn’t find a place large enough for all of us,” says Eli. “And diversity is a word I heard some politicians using. They didn’t seem to like it much so I figured it must be a pretty good word.”
        “Anybody got other suggestions about a different meeting place?” asks Morgan.
        “I think I’d like to meet on Mars every sixteenth month,” says Eli,
        “Have you forgotten about Egypt and the pyramids already?” asks Jake. “It’s like I said before. In about two years I’ll be so well trained I’ll be able to take you any place you want to go.”
        “In the meantime,” says Morgan, “how about meeting every month on the third Thursday?”
        “Let’s not decide yet,” says Herman. “We all might still be able to visit Jake’s hometown together.”
        “Then put me on the list too,” say Morgan, “I’m not dead yet.”
        “Maybe if we made the death trip together it wouldn’t be so bad,” says Eli, but no one is listening except Pundidy. Jacob and Herman continue to comfort Morgan. Jake’s arm is wrapped around Morgan’s shoulder. Herman uses his shirt sleeve to blot the tears from Morgan’s his eyes.
        Pundidy is wondering what else they can do. “It might help if we tried to do something different, something we have never done before.”
        “I think I know what I can do for Jake,” says Ralph. “How about I made a trip to Mississippi? Maybe I can find Jake’ family and talk to them.”
        “My family won’t talk to just anybody, if I remember correctly,” says Jake.
        “I’m ready to go,” says Ralph. “Just tell me what to do and how to do it.”
         “My sister Beverly was the prettiest thing in our neighborhood,” says Jake. “Suitors came from miles around. She made them all stand on the front lawn in a group and gave them her standard message; that she wasn’t interested in hooking up with no country boys. These were good looking college boys,” says Jake. “But it didn’t make any difference to her. Some of them felt so bad they left town.”
        “Why don’t I claim to be the son of one of them fellows?” says Ralph.
        “It’s OK with me,” says Jake. “Long as you don’t claim to be white!” Jake catches himself and addresses Herman. “Excuse me Brother Herman. I didn’t mean it like it sounded.”
        “It’s OK but just remember what I’ve been trying to say to you and all the rest of this group; whiteness never did me any good!”
        The mood begins to lighten up even further. Tears are being exchanged for timid smiles. Ralph is being coached on how to pull off the masquerade.
        “I’ll let you use my car,” says Morgan, “but you got to tune it up first.”
        “You can wear my cool blue suit,” says Eli. “Just remember where you got it from,” says Eli. “And you’ll need some dancing lessons too. Don’t want my suit to be embarrassed. I’ll teach you and no-dancing Pun at the same time.”
        “I can dance a little,” says Pundidy, “but I’ll let you play teacher for a while. I think I got a way to help out Jake. How would it be if I wrote down some of his blues-poetry nice and neat? Someone may want to publish them.”
        “I like the sound of that,” says Jake. “Maybe when Herman and I try to hook up in show business I’ll get to be as famous as Mickey Mouse.”
        “Then you’re definitely going to need back-up,” says Herman. “My accordion will be just the thing. How about calling ourselves, Salt and Pepper?”
        “What about Black and Blue?” says Jake.
        “Or maybe Butter and Beans?” says Herman.
        “Chitlins and Chill-out sounds pretty good too,” says Jake.
        “How much heavy equipment you gonna need to get us to Mississippi together?” asks Jake.
        “Now, don’t go rushing my business plans too fast,” says Eli. “It won’t be ready until next year. Then I’ll be able to do the Mississippi and the Mars thing too.”
        “What is going to happen in twelve months to make that much of a difference?” Jake wants to know.
        “Haven’t I told you all about my innovative invention?” Eli asks.
        “If you did I must have missed it,” says Jake. “Run it by me again.”
        “I can’t reveal all of the details,” he says. “It’s supposed to be a secret.”
        “How are you going to use something that none of us have ever seen and keep it a secret?” asks Jake.
        “You’ll see it before its time to go,” says Eli.
        “Whoever said we didn’t need special meetings was dead wrong!” says Jake. “I thought that going to Mars and even Mississippi was just a joke but you guys are serious.”
        “I am serious about connecting up with both of my families in Mississippi,” says Herman. “But that has nothing to do with going to Mars. We need to continue some serious conversation about what we are really up to and whether it can be done together. I can’t speak any further on the secret stuff except to say that it’s connected to my plans to start a business.”
        “Going to Mars doesn’t fit in with me and Herman’s show business aspirations. I don’t even know if they have any blues up there; let alone poetry.”
        “I think we should continue holding special meetings just to share with each other how our special projects are developing and how we might be able to help each other,” says Pundidy. “Everyone won’t be involved in the execution but haven’t we have always been interested in what each of us was doing?”
        “I’m trying to bring my two families together,” says Herman. “And Jake is trying to learn the status of both his parents.”
        “Why don’t we ask Herman and Norman to coordinate the planning for the next few months,” asks Jake. “We don’t want to lose contact with each other but we still need to move on our own priorities?”
        “I think I can be involved,” says Eli. “In fact if they are willing I’ll inform Norman and Herman first.”
        “This is why special meetings are a good idea” says Jake. “It isn’t like we are getting into each other’s business. We have been doing that all along. But a little planning and a little playing mixed together, even if we call it silly time, isn’t going to hurt. Norman and I will help coordinate what you all want to stick with including when special meetings might be needed. After three month we will decide what our services are worth.”
        “Isn’t all of this getting to be a bit complicated?”  Ralph asked. “It used to be fun.”
        “Be careful next time you feel like teasing a b from Mississippi,” says Eli.
        “He might end up being so successful you’ll end up working for h.”
        “Is that bar of ours still open?” asks Herman. “That ought to be the official way to end a special meeting.”
        The group without any further discussion downs whatever is left in their almost empty glasses and rushes out the door heading for Bernie’s.