Brother will turn against their own brothers and hand them over to be killed.

Matthew 10:21


MAY 31, 1921   

Seven-year-old Luella gripped her younger brother Kenny’s hand with ferocious strength, running hard in the night, her arms thrashing against the tall weeds as she angled away from the flames.  The burning Johnson grass surged in the wind, an angry monster, raging forward, snapping at her legs and clawing at her clothes.  Her body flinched as gunshots erupted close by and bullets tore through the air.  Painful screams obscured other sounds and for a moment there was an unnatural silence broken only by the echo of their ragged breathing and their feet striking the ground.

Kenny sobbed quietly, and the grass sizzled and cracked in agony while a swarm of grasshoppers leapt above the smoke racing in front of the fire.  Luella’s eyes burned, her nostrils flared and her heart raced as the flames took on new strength and surged toward them in a wild frenzy.  She gasped and inhaled smoke and smelled death on the wind as another escaping family cut across their path and bumped into her.  Knocked off the trail, her legs collided with Kenny and they both tumbled into the grass.  The family in front of her crumbled in an explosion of gunfire and shrieking pain as their writhing bodies fell on top of her and Kenny, saturating them in blood and fear.

It had begun two days earlier after the Sunday preacher had explained that true evil has its own intent, its own design and existed without boundaries or faces or names—the Lord made wicked for a day of evil, according to Proverbs.

Luella was more familiar with evil than most adults and while returning home from the store that day she’d thought this must be the day for evil the preacher had referred to.

Wickedness might remain hidden in the shadows, but Luella was intimately aware of its presence.  She had a nose that smelled evil the way others smelled warm bread baking on the opposite side of town.  Today it began as a faint itch inside her nostrils and progressively became a distinctive irritation impossible to ignore.  Her scalp tingled and goose bumps erupted on her arms.  She rubbed her small hands across her black skin as she walked, shifting the grocery sack from one hand to the other, praying this demon was only passing through not coming to visit.

Luella had smelled a demon last year before Mr. Brown killed his wife and newborn baby, who was born half white and wasn’t Mr. Brown’s baby after all.  Now the Devil was here again, the sensation intense, the fear debilitating.

That day a rank scent of rotten eggs had drifted on the air and a gust of heat touched her skin—so hot she swore it came directly from hell.  Luella knew about hell.  It was the preacher’s passion.  She’d lowered her head and quickened her pace toward home.  The Devil was coming with a vengeance and destruction was sure to follow.

Her grip tightened on the paper bag with the mustard and relish Momma sent her to get for the Memorial Day picnic.  Momma said Memorial Day is a remembering day.  We should remember the heroes who died in World War I, but Papa said it is a forgetting day.  Everyone forgets the original Memorial Day honored the battle between slavery and freedom.  During President Woodrow Wilson’s Gettysburg speech the President said the quarrel between the North and the South was forgotten.  The only thing forgotten, said Papa, is equality does not equal separate bathrooms and drinking fountains.  Momma and Papa disagreed, but both decided that remembering and forgetting were best done on a full stomach.

Nineteen-year-old Dick Rowland rounded the corner as she hurried toward home.  Luella’s shiver became a shake and she knew the demon was rushing toward her as unavoidable as stampeding cattle.  Dick was the shoeshine boy working in the white district and Luella enjoyed watching his quick hands and listening to his rapid dialogue and how he punctuated each pause with a swift snap of his shoe-shine rag.  He was always nice, but his hands were stained with polish and she wondered how he ate without getting the taste in his mouth and she frequently caught herself staring at his tongue to see if it was stained also.

The shoe shine store only had one bathroom and since coloreds were not allowed to use a white bathroom Rowland went to the Drexel Building and rode the elevator to the top floor to use the colored bathroom.  He stood there now, his hand on the building door, smiling at Luella.

“Those are pretty shoes Lu, and I know your momma puts a nice shine on them, but for ten cents I’ll make them sparkle like your uncle Larry’s bald head when the sun hits it on a hot day.”

Luella smiled and started to giggle, momentarily forgetting her crawling skin.

“Those shoes will look better than the day you first put them on your feet.”

Luella was about to reply, but the itch in her nose made her sneeze and her awareness of the demon increased.

“Well, bless you.  I’ll take that sneeze as a maybe.  You come see me before Sunday and you’ll have the best looking shoes in church.”

He smiled and opened the door and hot air boiled out in a swirling mass that rotated and coalesced into a black eddy of foulness.  Luella coughed and her eyes stung and hives erupted on her legs as the air turned foul and the outline of a creature both beautiful and repulsive, sculpted in darkness and malevolence, took shape beside the doorway.  It appeared insubstantial as vapor, a dim silhouette no more than a shimmer, until shadows hidden beneath trees limbs and building overhangs rushed toward it creating solidity.

Luella felt the demon looking in her direction and immediately turned her eyes away.  I’m not looking.  It don’t see me and I don’t see it.  She lowered her head and hurried down the sidewalk hastening toward the Negro neighborhood in the Greenwood area of Tulsa often referred to as “Little Africa.”  As soon as Luella turned the corner the unpleasant sensations lessened and she paused and leaned against a building and shivered violently even though it was a warm day.

About the book

Dick Rowland smiled to himself as he listened to Luella’s shoes striking the sidewalk.  She wore the left outside heel more than the right.  In six months her momma would be bringing the shoes in for new heels and he would make more than ten cents off that.

He pressed the button for the elevator and waited for the door to open.  Sarah Page was the seventeen-year-old white girl who operated the lever that moved the elevator to the desired floor.  He wondered how much they paid her to sit on a stool and move a lever up or down, stopping when the selected floor light illuminated.  She wasn’t very good at it and often stopped the elevator several inches above or below the floor level forcing him to step up or down when he entered and exited.

Even though he took the elevator to the bathroom several times a day, he sensed Sarah was uncomfortable when the door closed and they were alone.  He always gave her a cheerful hello and stood as far from her stool as the elevator allowed as she stared at the wall and fidgeted, high strung as a chicken when a fox sniffs around the barn door.  Any Negro man knew that messing with a white girl was a quick road to jail followed by a long drop at the end of a short rope.  Lately Dick just looked away and they both pretended the other wasn’t there.

While waiting for the elevator earlier, Rowland had the distinct sensation that someone stood behind him. Each time he’d looked he was most definitely alone and he’d had to resist the crazy notion of spinning rapidly to catch a glimpse of a mysterious lurker.

Finally, the elevator chimed and the door opened several inches above the floor level.  Sarah quickly looked away when she recognized Dick.

Dick lowered his head to avoid her eyes and instead looked at her shoes, which were always scuffed on the sides and it made him feel better knowing his own shoes were carefully polished.

He glanced down and took a step—and later told a friend he’d felt a hand give him a hard shove on the back—he stumbled and his right shoe caught the elevator lip and he fell forward landing directly against Sarah Page.  He tried to brace himself and caught her shoulders, his face brushing her chin, her mouth against his ear.  He heard a sharp intake of breath and then she screamed so loud he thought his ear drum might burst.

Frantically he pushed himself away from her.  His left hand slipped from her shoulder and touched her breast as he regained his balance.  Sarah twisted away so rapidly she fell from the stool to the floor.  Rowland compounded his mistake by offering her his hand to assist her to her feet.  Sarah hyperventilated, her face quivered and her eyes rolled like a crazed mare.  She looked at the offered hand and threw her head back keening in a frenzied panic, screaming and kicking and swinging her purse.

As Dick stumbled rearward his heels hit the gap between the elevator and the floor and he fell hard on his back, his head striking the floor with a thud that left pinpoints of light dancing before his eyes.  He scrambled to his feet as Sarah curled into a ball in the opposite corner sobbing so rapidly she couldn’t breathe, her purse clutched tight to her chest, her face distraught.

After a moment of indecision Dick turned and ran toward the door as Craig Jackson, the clerk who worked in the clothing store, rushed toward the elevator calling Sarah’s name.  Just before Dick exited the Drexel building he turned his head back and saw Craig holding Sarah by the arm.  Her trembling hand gestured toward him as they spoke.  Dick closed the door behind him and hurried away, unsure of where he should go, his need to use the bathroom forgotten.  And for a moment he thought he heard a dark laugh and once again felt a shadowy presence.

About the book

Luella paused when she heard the woman’s terrified screams floating out an open window from the Drexel Building and knew the demon was doing what demons do, and without looking back she burst into a run.  The Devil, no longer content to lurk in the dark shadows, had stepped into the bright sunlight in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Within two hours Little Africa buzzed with the news.  The clothing store clerk called the police and reported Sarah Page was assaulted in the elevator and he witnessed Dick Rowland running from the scene.  The police took a report and Jake Simmons, a Negro policeman, went to Little Africa and arrested Rowland and took him to the Tulsa County Courthouse jail.  Some people said he brought Dick in so they could get his side of the story.  Others insisted it was for his own safety, while a few said there was already talk of a trial.

Luella played with her little brother Kenny, but remained close to the kitchen listening to Momma and Papa discuss the incident.  Uncle Larry stopped by and Luella couldn’t help staring at his bald head as she remembered her conversation with Dick hours earlier.

“Don’t worry about Dick Rowland,” said Papa.  “Everyone knows he’s a good boy.”

“That’s right,” replied Uncle Larry.  “Half the businessmen in town stop in for a shoe shine and several attorneys; both Negro and white said they would represent him for free.”

Momma shook her head in a negative way.  “I ain’t saying nothing against that Page girl, but some women, white and Negro, get fancy ideas in their head that ain’t no closer to the truth than varnish is to vanilla.  We don’t know what that girl told the police.”

“Yeah, but—” Papa said, attempting to reply, but momma held up her hand letting him know she wasn’t finished speaking.  Papa stopped in mid-sentence waiting patiently for her.

“You remember what that mob did earlier this year to Roy Benton?” said Momma.

“Sure do,” said Uncle Larry.  “You get a few hundred men together and talk up the anger and pass out the liquor and a small fire becomes an inferno.”  He drew out the last word slowly, pronouncing each syllable and pausing like he wanted praise for his vocabulary.

“You’re right,” said Papa, nodding in agreement.  “You got a conflagration.”  Uncle Larry frowned and Momma shot Papa a quick smirk before she continued.

“That’s right,” said Momma.  “They dragged Roy Benton out of jail and hung him.  And he was white.  What do you think they will do to a Negro boy for molesting a white girl?”

“Now it won’t come to that,” said Papa.

“Humph,” Momma snorted.

“He’s right,” replied Uncle Larry.  “We got a lot of Negroes here that fought in the war and we got guns and know how to use them.”

Momma just shook her head.  “We got about ten thousand Negroes living in Greenwood.  Those white men outnumber us twenty to one and they got guns and fought in the war just like you did.  You men and your guns goin’ get us kilt.”

Papa reached over and rubbed her arm.  “Now, it won’t come to that,” he guaranteed her.  “It won’t come to that.”

Her daddy’s words and touch reassured her mamma, but Luella knew this wasn’t about whites and Negroes.  A demon had come to town and a lot more people than Dick Rowland would die before the demon left.  The preacher said the Devil had a big taste for wickedness and Luella knew the demon had brought his appetite.

That night she thought the sunset was an unusual color of red, exactly like the blood they collected in a basin when Papa butchered the pig they bought from Mr. Shackelford.  Luella curled up in bed beside Kenny and wondered why the Devil returned so frequently to Tulsa and who would be the first to die, and she held Kenny tight and prayed for a short visit on the opposite side of town.

During breakfast Uncle Larry burst in the house without knocking, waving the local newspaper in front of him.  He breath was labored, his face agitated, and his hands shook as he brandished the paper before slapping it on the table.

“It’s bad.  It’s real bad,” he said, his voice rising with each word.  He pushed plates and food to one side, ignoring Momma’s dark look, and unfolded the Tulsa Tribune on the table.  Everyone leaned forward and read the caption spread across the front page.


Momma and Papa read the story, grim faced and angry.

“That ain’t the way it was at all,” said Papa.  “This is misinformation.  Everyone is going to be riled.”

“It’s sensationalism,” agreed Momma.

“Sure is,” replied Uncle Larry.  “The newspaper boys are standing on the corners yelling, get your paper, Negro attacks white woman, get your paper…and white folks are buying the papers so fast they’s having to run a second printing.  But this ain’t the worst of it.”

“What could be worse?” asked Papa.

Uncle Larry opened the paper to the editorial page and Papa began reading with Momma standing close, reading over his shoulder.  She straightened, her face expressionless.  “Oh Lordy,” she said quietly as her hands clenched and unclenched on the back of Papa’s chair.

The editorial said the whites were inflamed at how the Negroes disregarded the laws of common decency and now, after an egregious attack against a white woman, it was time to say enough is enough.  When laws don’t protect our women, lynch justice will.

“That editor is just making a lot to do about nothin’,” said Papa quietly.  “They even call him Diamond Dick.  That poor Dick Rowland is an orphan and a bootblack and he ain’t never seen a diamond.  In fact I haven’t either.  Just a lot to do about nothing.”

“You’re wrong this time,” replied Uncle Larry.  “After reading this, come sundown there will be a mob at the courthouse.  We done been talking at the barber shop this morning and me and some of the guys are getting our guns and marching to the courthouse in formation like we did in the army and hep the Sheriff protect Rowland.  We think a show of support now might prevent a problem later.  Are you with us?”

“Larry Colberts!”  Momma screamed it loud enough to make us all jump.  Kenny looked like he might cry and Luella soothed him with a hug, her eyes on Momma who paced the floor like a caged bobcat as she spoke.  “I knew you since you were a boy and you was always doing stupid things that got your brother into trouble.  Well, now he ain’t just your brother, he’s my husband and you ain’t taking him with you on no harebrained scheme that will get him kilt.”

As Uncle Larry planted both hands on the table and stared at Momma, the wrinkles on his face deepened and his eyes hardened to cold granite.  “Well, I wouldn’t expect no woman to understand anything about military tactics.  We is going to protect Rowland,” he spit at her.

“Well, who is going to protect us from stupid men?” screamed Momma.  Then she took a deep breath and let it out slow and it seemed all her anger dissipated like vapor.  “Larry, how many men have you got signed up for this show of force?”

“About twenty-five,” he said rather proudly.

“That’s a good number,” replied Momma.  “Now what would you do if twenty-five white folks marched in here to Greenwood all in formation carrying rifles and shotguns pretending they’s still in the Army?”

“Why, I’d go get my gun,” Larry replied without hesitation.  “I’d get my gun and give them what for.”

“Exactly the reaction you can expect from those white folks when twenty-five of you darn fool men march to the courthouse.  Only they’s about twenty-five-thousand of them white men and maybe you ain’t all that good at your numbers, but that is a whole lot more than you can count.”

Uncle Larry turned so mad his bald head started to glow like a firefly.  “Sharon, just because you finished school doesn’t make you so much smarter than everyone else.  There’s a lot of folks that think it made you uppity.  So, Miss nose-in-the-air, do you have a better plan?”

“Actually I do,” said Momma.  “I’m going to see Roscoe Gordon’s momma.”

Papa looked up.  “Now that just might work,” he said smiling at her.  “Hot damn if that ain’t a good idea.”

Momma shot Papa a loving smile and squeezed his shoulder.  “Papa, you watch your tongue in front of the kids.”

“Yes’m,” he replied matching her smile.  Luella smiled, pleased at the obvious affection between her parents.

Later, Roscoe burst into the house about four in the afternoon, breathing hard from running, his face flushed with excitement.  He was twelve and as white as any white person Luella ever saw.  Some folks said his momma must have been sneaking away to the big house, but momma said anyone with eyes can see he looks just like his papa, only white, and how we all have white in us, and it just decided to come out all at once with Roscoe.

“Miss Sharon, Miss Sharon,” he said.

“Slow down, Roscoe,” Momma replied.  “Just tell us what you saw.”

“Yes ma’am,” he replied catching his breath.  “I did like you said and stayed around the white folks and no one suspected.  The Sheriff and his deputies are holed up inside the courthouse with guns and there were over a thousand white folks around the building.  Most people were waiting to see if there was going to be a lynching.  But they’re all gone now.”

“Gone,” said Papa, surprised.  “What do you mean gone?  What happened?”

“Well, it just got real quiet and then up the street came about twenty-five or thirty of our folks marching like you see during the parades and your brother Mr. Larry is out front calling cadence and the men all had rifles and shotguns and they marched right to the courthouse steps and Mr. Larry yells out to the Sheriff they are here to protect Rowland.  The Sheriff sent them home and they left and then the white folks left.”

“Good,” said Papa, “so it’s all over.”

“No, it ain’t over,” replied Roscoe, shaking his head, his eyes wide.  “Those white folks were all yelling it’s a nigger uprising—get your guns.”

“Oh, Lord help us,” said Momma quietly.

“We aren’t in an uprising are we?” asked Roscoe.

“No Roscoe,” replied Momma.  “It’s just men being stupid.  You sit down and let me feed you.  Then in a couple of hours you make your way up there again.  I have a feeling it’s going to be a long night.”

Luella tried to eat as well, but her stomach had tumbled all day like the hamster cage she saw at the pet store.  The Devil was planning some special evil and she felt the tension building like dark storm clouds on the horizon.

That afternoon Momma made a cake as if everything was normal.  They finished dinner and Kenny was waiting patiently for Momma to cut the cake when they heard distant gunfire so faint it was almost indiscernible.  Luella thought it was fireworks celebrating Memorial Day.  Momma and Papa looked at each other and Luella saw the fear in their eyes as they looked at her and Kenny.  Momma put the cake back on the counter without cutting it and sat at the table without speaking.  In the distance the shooting increased and became louder.  Luella felt welts on her skin.  Shortly after, Roscoe returned to the house with a chilling tale.

After seeing the Negroes march to the courthouse with guns, thousands of whites returned with guns and ammunition.  Others broke into the pawn shops and the National Guard Armory, referred to as the Home guard, to steal guns and ammunition.

Cars full of Negroes armed with guns repeatedly drove in caravans toward the courthouse and back again until over a hundred Negroes were driving from Little Africa to the courthouse again and again.  Their truck beds were packed with armed men, their weapons aggressively protruding from their car windows, all in an attempt to prevent the whites from lynching Rowland.  The whites perceived it as a Negro uprising and a rumor circulated that five hundred armed Negroes from Muskogee were coming on the train to participate in a mass insurrection to kill all the whites.

Within hours several thousand more armed whites massed outside the courthouse.  They blocked the sidewalks and streets and lawns and slowly a chant began that grew so load the rumble vibrated the windows and drowned out the sounds of the caravan.  “Give us the nigger.  Give us the nigger,” they repeat like a mantra.  The Sheriff and his deputies barricaded themselves inside the courthouse refusing to acquiesce.

A car of Negroes stopped in front of the courthouse and Uncle Larry got out and waved a gun at a white man who grabbed the gun and wrestled it from him.  The gun discharged and that was the spark that set Tulsa on fire.  Both groups fired at each other and Negroes and whites fell wounded and dead in the streets and on the sidewalks.  Negroes raced their cars back to Little Africa and dug trenches and set up defensive positions like they did during WWI.  The Devil danced in the street.

Men of both races loaded up in cars and drove through the dark shooting at people and into homes.  The whites broke into sporting goods stores and more pawn shops, taking guns and ammo.  One policeman told each man, “You are now deputized.  Here’s a gun, now go get a nigger.”  The liquor stores were emptied next and most men had a gun in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other.  A lot of the men wore their Army uniforms and decorations like when they’d returned from the war.

“What about the Home Guard and the police department?” asked Momma when the tale had been told.  “Maybe they can stop this.”

Roscoe shook his head.  “There’s no help there.  The police department and the Home Guard were told there was a Negro uprising and ordered to do whatever was necessary to stop it.  They formed up outside the courthouse into groups and were ordered to go house to house and kick down doors and burn homes, and round up every Negro in Tulsa who surrenders, and kill every Negro who don’t.  They’re coming and there isn’t much time.”

“I’m warning everybody,” said Roscoe, “but a lot of people refuse to leave their homes.  Some men are staying while the women and children leave, but I saw one man running to town saying they had hitched up their wagon and fled north towards Nowata, but whites blocked the road killing everyone going that direction.  Little Africa is completely surrounded and I’m guessing over ten thousand men with guns are waiting for the signal to attack!”

By the time Roscoe left Luella’s house the black business district was in flames and the night sky glowed red for miles.  One white group entered a building and rounded up anyone inside.  If there was resistance they were killed.  If guns were found in the house, everyone was killed.  The Negroes were forced into the street—whites searched them for money and they were killed if they resisted.  The men, women and children not killed in their homes were required to hold their hands over their heads and run to the internment center with some of the whites shooting at their heels or legs as they ran.  If they fell behind, men in cars ran into them, knocking them sprawling onto the ground.  A second white group followed the first, and looted stores after it was emptied of Negroes, taking what they wanted before torching the building.

Firefighters responding to the blazes were shot at if they attempted to put out the fires.  They were only allowed to contain fires that ensured they did not ignite the white districts.

The Mayor called in the National Guard and contacted the Governor for additional support.  The Governor put the Oklahoma City National Guard, referred to as the State guard, on a train to Tulsa, scheduled to arrive at nine the following morning.

Patrons of a local movie theatre did not hear the shooting, but someone rushed inside screaming, “Nigger fight! Nigger fight!”  Just as everyone turned to look at him a Negro chased by a mob ran into the theater.  Armed whites ran after him shooting indiscriminately.  He was gunned down along with many patrons still in their seats.  Terrified people fled into the streets where they were shot as they ran.  Many whites were shot by other whites too excited by events or too unskilled with their weapons.  Gunshots were going off everywhere when the local train stopped at the station.  The train immediately pulled out again without discharging passengers.  Later they reported thousands of people running through the streets with guns, shooting at every Negro they saw.

A white doctor, unaware of the riot, heard gunshots and rushed outside to assist.  He saw a wounded black man, shot and bleeding, writhing on the street, surrounded by a group of angry whites who refused to let the ambulance take him away.  He said the Negro was shot many times in his chest, and several men in the crowd were slashing him with knives and laughing as they watched him die.

Many Negroes stood their ground and defended their property until their ammo ran out and many whites and Hispanics took up weapons and helped defend the Negroes, others hid Negroes refusing to turn them over to be killed or interred.

A famous black surgeon felt he was above all this and remained in his beautiful house pretending the riot was not happening.  When the mob came to his door he opened it with a smile on his face and a glass of wine in his hand.  He raised his free hand and smiled saying, “don’t shoot boys, it’s me.”  They shot him three times and dragged him to an internment center and left him to die of his wounds.

By the evening an estimated twenty-five thousand whites were moving toward Little Africa to put down the uprising.  Some were boys as young as ten carrying guns and some men were passing liquor to their sons.  “Hell, if he’s old enough to kill a nigger he’s old enough to drink,” one man said.

The mob organized into three groups surrounding Little Africa while waiting for the attack signal.  Black smoke covered the night sky, but the bright fires were visible everywhere and cast a blood red appearance over the city.  One carload of men couldn’t wait any longer and yelled, “let’s go kill some niggers.”  They drove up the street, but no one followed, and their bullet-riddled car and dead bodies were later found in Little Africa.

When Roscoe opened the door to leave, Uncle Larry burst in.  His face swollen and bruised, one hand held his shoulder, blood seeping through his fingers and dripping down his arm.  His breathing was ragged and he leaned against the door jam, his voice subdued.  “They’s coming this way,” he said quietly.  “We’s all going to die.”  Momma looked at him without sympathy or compassion.

“You stupid man,” she said, her voice dripping with contempt.  “If I had a gun I would shoot you myself.  Get out of my house.”

Uncle Larry looked toward Papa, but Papa didn’t meet his gaze and then the door opened and he was gone and Luella never saw him again.  The gunfire was louder, now, and the light from the fires illuminated the sky.

Momma was fond of saying that a man had numerous internal gears, but often sat in neutral.  A woman had one speed but moved all day long.  Papa shifted into high gear, closed the door and swiftly grabbed items from the house.  Momma secured the small amount of money she always kept hidden from Papa.  “Luella,” Momma said, “take Kenny to his room and get his bear and bring a blanket.  We may be sleeping in the woods for a while.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Luella replied.  She grabbed Kenny’s hand and ran upstairs.

“What about the cake?” asked Kenny.  “Aren’t we going to eat the cake?”

“Not today,” replied Luella.  She quickly pulled the blanket off the bed and rushed toward the stairs dragging Kenny by the hand.  She overheard Papa talking to Momma.

“South through the woods may be our best option.  There will be whites looking to shoot us, but the woods are big.  We stay off the roads and keep south all the way to Bixby.”  Momma nodded, tears in her eyes as she took a last look around the house.

Kenny pulled on Luella’s hand.  “We forgot my bear,” he said.  Luella nodded and they ran back up the stairs, her body itching so violently she had to force her legs to move.  They heard a crash downstairs, then a gunshot and a scream and more gunshots followed by sounds of furniture breaking and the roar of men whooping and laughing.

“Search the house, then burn it,” a voice said.  Feet stomped up the stairs as Luella looked around frantically before grabbing Kenny and pushing him under the bed.  She crawled in beside him, both of them shaking with fear.

Footsteps entered the room and Luella saw shoes all around the bed.  Someone turned over the dresser while searching the room and Kenny’s bear fell to the floor only a foot away from his face.  He instinctively reached for it and a man’s foot came down on his hand.  Luella covered Kenny’s mouth as he tried to scream, then the foot was gone.  She heard the crackle, then the flames as they set fire to the curtains.  Footsteps and drunken laughter drifted away and there was silence except for the hungry flames chewing up the curtains and burrowing into the walls.

They remained under the bed, scared, breathing hard, afraid to move until the smoke finally drove them out.  Luella gripped Kenny’s hand and together they crawled on their hands and knees toward the door.  Flames devoured the curtains like a ravenous beast, and climbed the walls and spread across the ceiling as it feasted on the dry wood.  The wallpaper peeled and curled in pain.  The furniture that wasn’t taken was slashed and set on fire, and the floor was burning in several places.  The house was in flames and they crawled from one smoldering spot to another until they reached the door.

Holding Kenny’s hand Luella led him through the house, both coughing and choking.  Papa taught her about house fires and she knew to stay low and cover her mouth with her dress.  In the kitchen she pulled them to their feet and led Kenny around their parent’s bodies sprawled beside each other on the floor.  She stepped on something soft, and saw she was standing on the fresh baked cake Momma had made.  Scraping it off her shoe, they ran out the front door.  The entire sky was red.  Every house on both sides of the street had flames racing up the sides of the buildings and roaring from the open doors.  Dead people were lying in the streets.  A truck full of naked and near naked colored women rumbled down the street with men trotting beside the truck hooting and screaming and pointing at the women they desired.  Other cars raced through the streets with Negroes tied to the bumper, dragged until they died.  Several bodies hung from balconies, ropes around their neck; a few moved their legs in a feeble gesture as their hands clawed at the ropes.  A block away, men broke windows and fired rifles into the houses and shouted in unrestrained joy.  Kenny flinched at each gunshot.

Luella grabbed Kenny and pushed him back into the burning house.  He struggled when she forced him close to the flames.  She held him close and kept her body between him and the fire.  Her dress ignited and pain seared her legs as she pushed and dragged Kenny through the burning house toward the back door.  She burst out the door and fell to the ground rolling and beating at the flames until they extinguished.  The back of her legs were burnt, her left shoulder was alive with pain, her hair singed to the scalp on the left side and when she felt her face, her eyebrows were gone.  Her hands were burnt the worse.  The rush of adrenaline helped her ignore the ache as she pulled Kenny to his feet.  He was trembling, flames reflected off his wide eyes as he looked at the burning city.  “Lu,” Kenny asked.  “Is the whole world on fire?”

Luella ignored the question, her mind leaping ahead thinking of how they could cut through the alley to the pasture.  From there they would angle toward a hog pen less than a mile away and burrow down in the mud.  Her grip on Kenny’s hand tightened as she looked around to get her bearings in the dark.  Women, children and several men ran in all directions.  Gunshots and shouts and screams filled the air.

Burning wood crackled and snapped, and for a moment, surrounded by devastation and death, Luella clearly heard the Devil’s laugh floating on the wind following the flaming embers as they swirled in the air.  She clenched her jaws against the sound and pulled Kenny and together they ran toward the hog pen.

Whites charged into Little Africa on foot, in cars, walking, running, screaming and giving Indian yells as they attacked.  Small planes flew overhead dropping dynamite and Molotov cocktails, shooting at any Negro moving in the street.  Luella flinched when the guns discharged or the dynamite exploded.  Kenny screamed and screamed and screamed and Luella attempted to hush him, but when nothing worked she screamed also and somehow their screams were liberating and made the horror less real and together, hand in hand, they ran screaming until her throat became raw.  Tears streamed down her face as she dragged Kenny, encouraging his short legs, pushing and pulling and heaving him to his feet when he fell, forcing him to keep moving.

They passed Negroes in hastily dug trenches surrounding Little Africa, but the Home Guard set up machine guns and pounded the positions, killing all pockets of resistance.  Terror ensued and fleeing coloreds were shot as they ran.  Even women carrying small children were gunned down.

Luella’s grip on Kenny’s hand became hard as steel.  Her fingers were numb, her arm muscles cramped and unresponsive.  She was afraid she was hurting him, but that fear was miniscule compared to what was occurring around her.  The tall grass whipped her legs, irritating her burns.  Several times she tripped in the dark and fell hard.  Others were running and gunshots were everywhere.  An airplane dived toward them with guns blazing and dirt erupted around them and two people in front of her exploded in a spray of blood.

She bumped into another runner and veered away.  Kenny tripped, and slammed into her legs and they both struck the ground rolling.  There were more shots and a woman screamed and crashed into Luella driving the breath from her body.  Luella felt her left arm snap.  Intense pain made her numb and she felt dizzy and for a moment the world seemed silent and she heard her heart beating in her veins.  Then the world returned to normal and sounds assaulted her ears and gunshots and screams filled the evening with chaos.  The woman on top of Luella made gurgling sounds, and shuddered and quit moving and Luella smelled the woman’s bowels loosen.  Guns went off nearby and she heard men approaching.  She struggled, frantically pushing at the woman with her good arm, attempting to slide from under her dead weight.

“Damn, looks like that woman is still alive,” a voice said.  There was another shot and Luella felt the woman’s body jerk as the shotgun blast hit it.  “That should take care of her.  Check her out, Johnny.  Make sure that nigger is a good nigger.  Robert got one of them, but I think there is another.”

Luella heard approaching footsteps.  Trying not to breath in the smell, she grabbed Kenny’s hand and pulled him under the lady as far as possible.  “Don’t move or make a sound,” she whispered holding his arm tight and giving him a small squeeze to encourage silence.  She saw the features of a young boy outlined against the red sky.  His gun held to his shoulder, the muzzle shaking as he took one small step after another closing the distance between them.

“Hell, Johnny, don’t be afraid,” his father yelled.  “Your brother Robert shot three already.  Shoot them and let’s go.  Robert is killing those niggers running toward the trees.  He’s going to need more ammo before God’s work is finished.”

Luella saw Johnny nod and swallow several times as he slowly leaned over and poked the woman with the end of his gun.  He prodded her again and nodded, his face tight, his hands shaking.  As he straightened he saw Luella under the woman and jumped backward, his gun flying toward his shoulder.  He stood like that a moment staring down the gun barrel at her.  Luella squeezed Kenny’s hand knowing she’d failed him and they were both going to die.

Johnny’s head jerked and he gazed at the sky above Luella and his expression changed.  A serene look covered his face and his eyes went wide and unfocused, his features ecstatic, his body relaxed.  “Johnny,” the father shouted, “shoot those niggers and let’s go!” 

Johnny turned his head toward his dad.  “Yes, sir,” he yelled in reply.  When he looked toward Luella, his head moved back and forth as if searching for something that was previously there, but had disappeared, and then his eyes settled on her.  Their gaze locked and Luella thought she saw tears on the boy’s face as he pointed the gun at her head.

“Yes sir,” Johnny replied again and the words came out in a whisper and his finger tightened on the trigger.  His eyes never left Luella’s as he moved the gun away from her and squeezed the trigger.  The gun roared and as Luella felt the rush of air and buckshot hit the ground, dirt splattered on her face and she shook so hard her teeth clattered together.

Her ears rang from the blast as Johnny laid the gun down, grabbed the woman and rolled her off Luella.  Their eyes touched again for a moment and Luella felt a warmth in them and then he picked up the gun and spun on his heel and with a strange glance toward the sky he left.

Luella closed her eyes trying not to sob and tears ran down her face.  She lay still, gripping Kenny’s hand and listening to the voices close by.  “Another good nigger,” someone yelled and several deep voices laughed.  “Hell, George,” said a voice, “anyone that can shoot that good ain’t had enough to drink.  Take a shot of this.”

The voices moved away and Luella started to rise when she heard a little boy’s voice.  Opening one eye she saw a man and a boy outlined against the burning sky.  The boy, not much older than her, held a rifle he could barely lift.

“Okay, Billy get ready,” said a man’s voice.  “There’s a nigger running from your right to your left for the woods.  See him?  Good.  Now you got to lead him.”  The gun went off so close Luella jumped.

“Damn,” the man said.  “Reload and try again.  Don’t forget to lead him.  Niggers run fast when you’re shooting at them.”

Luella heard more gunshots.

“I think I got one, Pa.”

“Hot damn, he hit the ground hard,” the man said.  “No, don’t run up on him yet.  They’re like wild animals, dangerous when wounded.  Let him bleed a little first, then we’ll see how good your shot was.  What’s the first thing you do after you shoot?”

“Reload,” said Billy.

“That’s right.  You’re going to be a hell of a hunter.  Bet you’re the only boy in your grade that’s already shot a nigger.  Come on.  Let’s see if he’s dead.”

Luella waited until the voices moved away, and rolled to her feet.  “Okay, Kenny,” she whispered.  “We can move now, they’re gone.  You were so good.  I’m proud of you for being quiet.  Kenny?”  She tugged and pulled on the lady moving her slightly and then, using Kenny’s arm, she pulled him out from under the dead woman.

At first she thought the blood belonged to the lady, but Kenny wasn’t moving, and after a closer examination she knew he would never move again.  First Momma and Papa and now Kenny.  It had to be a mistake.  She sat on the ground beside him, holding his limp hand, and the tears started again and then she sobbed hysterically, her good arm shaking him harder and harder, willing him to respond.  Repeating no, no, over and over she frantically dragged him through the grass until she fell exhausted to the ground, breathing in great gasping sobs.

Several people ran past her.  One woman carrying a baby hesitated like she wanted to help, but then she shifted her baby into her other arm and continued running as more gunshots approached.  Luella said one final no in a firm voice just like her momma did and her hysteria disappeared and she leaned over and kissed her brother softly on the cheek before standing.

“Yes, Kenny,” she whispered softly looking down at him.  “The whole world is on fire.”  Then she turned and ran as fast as she could, cradling her broken arm with her good hand.

The hog pen was already occupied by a family who’d burrowed deep in the mud and piss and stench and resented her intrusion on their hiding place.

“There ain’t room enough for us all,” the father yelled.  “You get the hell out of here, girl.  We ain’t getting killed because of you.  Get now.  Go.”

She went, but before leaving she scooped up a handful of mud and smeared it on her shoulder and the side of her head to sooth the burns.  Then she turned and ran toward the dirt trail that led through the woods.  A wagon pulled by mules rolled past.  The family huddled in the front, the back of the wagon stacked with furniture.  They didn’t offer her a ride and she didn’t ask.  Minutes later she threw herself in the ditch when a gun blasted close by.

One of the mules screamed and dropped to the ground followed by additional gunshots and loud pleading.  Luella buried her face in the dirt and closed her eyes, but could not shut out the screams as men dragged the family off the wagon and shot them.  The parents were shot first as the mother pleaded with the men.  Then the children were killed, the wagon looted and the bodies searched for money.

Luella waited until it was quiet before climbing out of the ditch.  She was lost, but moved in the direction that took her as far from the fire in the sky as possible.  As long as her legs were moving she didn’t think as much about Momma and Papa and Kenny.  It seemed therapeutic.  Sometimes she cried for them as she walked and sometimes she cried for herself.

A spotlight appeared from nowhere and swung toward her.  She dropped to the ground and crawled into a briar patch, the thorns tearing at her exposed skin as she forced her way through the barbs quivering with fright as footsteps approached.

“Thought I saw something over here, Fred,” a voice said.  The beam of light pierced the darkness a foot above her head and lanced to the right.

“Nothing but briars here,” said another voice.  She remained huddled against the ground, too afraid to move even though thorns painfully tore at her skin.

“Well, I ain’t going in there,” said the first voice.

Luella exhaled a small sigh of relief.

“Just shoot up in there and let’s go.  We’re missing all the fun.”

There was a loud blast as buckshot tore through the briars and a small scream escaped her mouth.  Her shriek was overshadowed by the sound of gunshots.  The briars deflected most of the pellets and slowed others, but several imbedded into the back of her legs.  She bit her lip trying to remain quiet and her body quivered all over and soft whimpering sounds escaped her throat.

After the footsteps moved away she crawled out of the briars.  Luella stood and a sudden bout of shakes rattled her body so violently her legs collapsed and she fell back into the thorns.  She waited until the shaking stopped and crawled out of the thorns, hardly feeling the barbs puncturing her hands and knees.

Luella regained her feet and walked the rest of the night, slowly putting distance between her and the red sky.  Blood seeped from her wounds and her seared hands caused her such pain that occasionally she glanced at her fingers, surprised to see they were not on fire.

When daylight arrived the city of Tulsa was covered in smoke heavy as winter fog.  More than fourteen hundred homes and businesses covering over thirty-five blocks in Tulsa’s Greenwood district, a prosperous area known as the “Black Wall Street,” was destroyed as if hit by an atomic bomb.  Piles of brick and rubble and a few lonely chimneys stood in the ruins like sentinels guarding a nightmare.  The fires were extinguished, but buildings smoldered for days and smoke covered the horizon as far as the eye could see.  The fighting lasted sixteen hours and literally every Negro business and home was destroyed.

One black church was still standing and a white woman kept screaming to burn the nigger church to the ground until someone more intelligent pointed out that it might be a Negro church, but it was in a white neighborhood and would ignite their own homes.

The Oklahoma City National Guard arrived on the train at 9 a.m. and declared martial law.  The State Guard, as they were called, diffused the fighting, treated both white and Negro with respect and by noon the city fell into a silence that only exists after incredible turmoil.  Bodies were stacked like cordwood in the streets and a community of seven to ten thousand Negroes was deserted.  Everyone was either dead, detained at detention centers, which were livestock stalls converted for that purpose, or fleeing for their lives through the woods.

Over eight hundred whites were admitted to local hospitals for injuries.  No records were kept of the injured blacks and no one knows how many died in the internment centers.

No arrests were made and no charges were filed for the loss of life and property that happened during the race riot.  Although the police questioned Sarah Page, the written account of her statement disappeared and there is no record of what she told the police.  But whatever conversation transpired, it is generally accepted that the police determined what happened between the two teenagers was not an assault.

The county attorney received a letter from Sarah Page expressing her wish not to prosecute the case against Dick Rowland.  All charges were dismissed at the end of September, 1921.  Dick Rowland immediately moved to Kansas and was never heard from again.

The Tulsa Tribune Editorial that instigated the riot was purged from the papers and no known copy exists.  Experts estimate between three-hundred and three-thousand blacks were killed in the largest race riot in the history of the United States.  The number is disputed, but many eye witnesses said they saw trucks full of dead bodies dumped in the river and other mass graves around Sand Springs.  Large holes were dug in the cemetery pauper fields and filled with bodies.  It is a tragedy covered up so effectively that most people are unaware it occurred.

Luella didn’t know any of that information until years later.  She continued walking, ignorant of where she was or where to go.  Hot during the day and cold at night she slept for only an hour or two on the hard ground.  Her dreams were filled with raging fire and screaming children and she often woke shaking and crying.  Each time, she got up and began walking again, always moving away from the smoke.  All she knew was to keep walking.  It was no longer therapeutic, but she didn’t know what else to do.

For many days she saw Negroes fleeing and whites driving in their automobiles—faces filled with quiet shame—gave assistance.  Always she hid.  Trembling.  When she considered asking for help she remembered the bodies of her parents and the blood covering Kenny and she remained in hiding.  At night she curled up wherever she could, sleeping in the rain and mud.  She drank from a cow trough and stole a handful of oats from the feed bin of a farm and filled her dress pockets with oats and grain.  Her legs were stiff and crusted with blood.  Cuts, scratches and insect bites covered her body.  Her burns were less painful, but a bad case of diarrhea hit her on the fourth day, and by the end of the week she was feverish, lightheaded and dehydrated.  She continued walking each day.  No destination in mind.  Moving was her only purpose.  It was all she had, and she thought she might die and her spirit might continue walking, forever roaming the earth looking for sanctuary.  Several times she saw farm houses and wanted to stop, but always something stimulated her fear.  Dogs that barked, or cars that approached too rapidly, or a scent of smoke that reminded her that the world was burning.  Whatever the reason she always resumed walking.

Almost two weeks after the Tulsa Race War, Charlie Brown stepped out on his porch early in the morning thinking about the work he intended to accomplish that day.  Charlie had farmed his twenty acres for years and finally rented another ten from a white family down the road.  Late at night he worked the other field and saved his money until he eventually purchased a used tractor and now he rented several parcels of land.  When the weather allowed, he spent thirty minutes on his front porch each morning drinking two cups of coffee and listening to his thoughts without his wife telling him what he was supposed to think.

He sat there rocking quietly today, considering what he saw, pretending he wasn’t looking at what he was looking at.  Humming to himself as he rocked, he waited for his wife.  She was a take-charge type of person and would know what to do.  He heard the screen door open behind him and Charlotte, his wife of twenty-five years, stepped outside.  He smelled the second cup of coffee she brought, but he didn’t turn his head.

“Honey,” he said in a whisper, “I’m going to tell you something, but I don’t want you to react to what I say.  You understand me?”

Charlotte put her hand on his shoulder.  “If you’re about to tell me you been seeing that widow Nelson that be smiling at you on church day, I’ll pour this hot coffee on your head and put rat poison in your food.  I’ll see you dead before I see you with that hussy.  She’s got ugly teeth, and no man of mine is going to be with a woman with ugly teeth.”

Charlie heard the smile in her voice as she put the coffee mug in his hand, taking away the cold one.  He ignored her comment.

“I don’t want you to look yet, but there’s a little girl standing at the tree line past the left corner of the barn.  She looks mighty used up.  Her clothes are torn and I think she’s covered with mud and maybe blood.  Looks like a wild creature.  She needs help, but I’m not sure how to go about it.  She is staring at us as we speak.  Appears jumpy as a deer and ready to run at any moment.”

Charlotte casually rotated her body until she saw the girl, without being obvious.  “Oh, Lordy,” she whispered.  “Oh, Lordy.  That poor child.  Do you see where she’s standing, Charlie?  Do you see?”  Her voice was so taunt it cracked.

“I see,” said Charlie calmly, “but it don’t mean nothing.”

“Don’t mean nothing?” she said, her voice rising with emotion.  “It’s a sign, that’s what it is.  A sign.  You don’t go disregarding no sign.”

Charlie sighed.  “It ain’t no sign, Charlotte.  Our baby’s been dead for six years.  It ain’t no sign, and after we help this girl we need to contact the Sheriff.  She’ll have parents somewhere that are frettin’ about her.”

“You ain’t contacting nobody until I says you can, Charles Eugene Brown.”

Charlie sighed again, expecting that would be her answer.

“She’s standing on our baby girl’s grave,” said Charlotte, her voice full of awe.  “Like our baby done sent her to us.  She even looks about the same age our baby would have been.”

“It don’t mean a thing,” said Charlie again, but with less conviction this time.  “Right now we gots to figure out how to help that girl.”

“You leave that to me, Charlie.  You just go on about your work and leave that to me.”

Charlie smiled, expecting that answer also.

It took two days of putting out food and water, talking softly to her like she was a skittish colt and singing every hymn she knew before Charlotte lured her into the house.  It was another day before she got her into a bathtub and gently cleaned her.  The open sores from the buckshot were infected and the burns needed care.  Charlotte gently removed the pellets and rubbed a soothing ointment on Luella’s entire body.  Luella’s arm was healing naturally, but its angle looked slightly bent.  Charlotte splinted it and hoped for the best.  Her burnt hair was a mixture of dirt, briars and bugs.  Charlotte shaved her head and rubbed more ointment on the burnt scalp.  Luella’s fever broke on the fourth day.

The food and Charlotte’s gentleness worked its magic on Luella’s body, but her mind was slow to heal.  Three weeks passed before Luella spoke a word, but once the words started the damn burst and the story and tears flowed for hours.  Some of the tears belonged to Charlotte and Charlie as they listened.  As always, Charlotte seemed to know what was needed, and when the words stopped but the tears continued, she carried Luella to the rocking chair and held her tight, her little chest quivering as she sobbed.  Slowly Charlotte rocked and sang “Amazing Grace,” her voice a quiet whisper as she stroked Luella’s bald head with the same rhythm of the chair until Luella fell asleep.

Charlotte gave Charlie a meaningful glare, but it was unnecessary.  He never again mentioned the Sheriff, and life continued as if Luella had always been there.  She was introduced at church as a niece who came to live with them, and no one questioned why she stayed.

Later in life, when Luella’s second parents died, she turned the house into an orphanage taking in strays, runaways and unwanted kids.  She managed as best she could growing her own food and occasionally receiving money from the church.

Once she took in an Indian child which caused an uproar at the church.  The congregation might donate money for the orphaned Negro kids, but at that time in Oklahoma an Indian was at the bottom of the social totem pole.  Even the Negroes looked down on them, and for two months times were hard and friends whispered about her among themselves.  But Luella’s backbone was made of steel, and in the middle of a church sermon at the Saint John’s Baptist Church when Pastor Hargrove mentioned compassion toward others, Luella suddenly stood up and began to speak, her voice carrying to the entire congregation.

Initially everyone thought she was testifying, and there were Amens and Hallelujahs, but then her words turned hard and fell like stones on the congregation and they shifted uncomfortably and became exceptionally quiet, and lowered their heads in shame and when she stopped speaking the silence was so great you could hear her dress rustle as she sat and no one spoke for a minute, then someone quietly said Amen with great conviction and it was joined with more Hallelujahs and Praise the Lords, convincing the pastor it was an opportune time to pass the plate.  When the deacons brought the offering to the front it was handed directly to Luella.

From that day on there was no criticism, and somehow she managed to pay the bills and take care of the unwanted children.  She took in whoever had a need regardless of their sex or race, and acted as cook, teacher, disciplinarian, and financial officer.  She was a tireless, one-woman band, and often looked at the children thinking she didn’t save Kenny, but she would save as many others as possible.

Luella was forty-nine years old and like her second papa, got up early in the morning to sit on the porch and watch the sunrise and drink her coffee before the children got out of bed.  It was one of the few quiet moments she had each day.  If a stranger witnessed the ritual they would see a woman sitting in her rocking chair sipping her coffee and describing the sunrise in a conversational voice although she was alone.  But Luella didn’t consider herself alone and each morning she spoke out loud thinking that in some way Kenny could hear and enjoy the events he missed in life because of his early death.

Luella stepped on the porch on a crisp autumn day and quietly closed the door and sat down with a heavy sigh, feeling very old as she held the warm mug in her scarred hands.  Suddenly her nose began to itch and goose bumps rose on her skin and she shivered as if winter arrived unexpectedly.  Then a gust of air hot as the inside of an oven washed across her porch and danced on her skin until beads of sweat glistened on her face.

Luella’s expression turned grim and she set her coffee down and rapidly rose to her feet, the years falling away with each step like leaves drifting to the ground.  She entered the house and returned with her Bible in one hand and her shotgun in the other.  She sat again in her rocker looking at the horizon and flexing her hands feeling the burnt, twisted skin bend and stretch.

“So, you’s decided to come back for some more evil, has you,” she whispered at the dark sky.  “Well this time I’s be ready for you.”

Luella opened her Bible to Ephesians 6:13 and read out loud to the morning air.

Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the Devil.

She closed the Bible and placed it beside her.

“Yes sir, Mr. Devil, it’s not over between you and me until we’s square for Kenny and Mamma and Papa.”  I ain’t got no armor, but I’s got the good book and a loaded shotgun.  She ran her hand across the smooth stock and smiled grimly.  “You and I’s goin’ have a reckoning and there’s goin’ be some sad singin’ and slow walkin’ before I send you back where you came from.”  She settled back in her chair rocking in anticipation, her aches forgotten, her body charged with energy.

About the book

At the driver’s door I rested both hands on the handle and imagined the previous owner.  Definitely feminine, young, vibrant, adventurous.  She brought a smile to my face.  Sometimes the hopes and dreams of the owners still resonated from the interior and I sensed emotions long gone, or heard the whispers of old conversations that lingered like a faded aroma.

The left front fender and driver’s door was badly damaged so I walked to the other side and climbed through the passenger side door, smiling wide-eyed at all the knobs and buttons.  I turned each knob, pushed each button, caressed every switch as I sat in the driver’s seat, my feet too short to touch the floor.

Then, reverently, my hands moved lightly over the steering wheel, searching until I found the exact position on the wheel she placed her hands as she drove.  My fingers clenched the wheel and I shifted in the seat, intuiting how she sat, sensing her body and adjusting mine until everything felt synchronized.  My mind drifted, searching for the highway in front of us.

A light breeze brought a faint scent of her perfume, and the smell of Aqua Net hairspray and the stale odor of cigarettes.  I closed my eyes, feeling her hand grip the wheel, her nylon covered legs moving as she shifted gears, excitement in her throat as she pressed the accelerator, the window down, the music up, the wind caressing the side of her face, teasing her hair.  Extracting pleasure in the vibration of the road and the throb of the engine, she raced down the highway, no destination in mind, just gratification in the journey.

The sun descended and she turned on her headlights, her thoughts exciting, irreverent, and edgy.  My left hand tapped the steering wheel.  We turned the radio volume up and she rocked her head and moved her body with a fluidity and grace impossible for most men to achieve.  Little Richard came on the radio singing “Long Tall Sally” and we rotated the volume knob higher.  She pushed in the cigarette lighter and reached in her purse for a pack of Lucky Strikes.  Tapping out the cigarette, she slid it between her lips in a practiced sensuous move, her right hand slapping the seat as we waited for the lighter to heat up.  Little Richard cooed Baby we’re having some fun tonight, as she lit the cigarette and inhaled deeply, holding the smoke in her lungs, bobbing her head, swaying her body, and waving the lighter like a small torch.  My little body moved with the unusual rhythms, my lungs full of heady smoke as the nicotine burned my nostrils and stung my eyes in a way I enjoyed.

We leaned forward to replace the cigarette lighter and glanced at our self in the rearview with a satisfied smile and a small toss of the head.  The lighter caught the edge of the ashtray, slipped from our fingers and fell to the floorboard.  “Damn it.”  The words and smoke mixed together and both poured from her mouth.  I tasted them on my tongue, strange and exciting.  My head felt light from the nicotine, and suddenly I was aware of everything at once.  The music pounding in my ears, my left hand tapping the wheel, the tires vibrating against the asphalt, the wind caressing my neck, and I knew this is what it feels like to be aware of life.  Synchronized with the pulse of God.

The lighter was lying on the passenger floorboard.  When she reached for it we lost sight of the road.  The car swayed sharply and she jerked her head up staring into glaring headlights reaching out of the darkness.  Then a horn blared and tires squealed, and a wild collision of sound and movement ripped the air apart.  In the middle of a spinning world I heard the echo of tearing metal and roaring engine blending together like a wild beast, and a giant fist punched me in the chest and I felt things collapse and break inside, and then the sounds died and for a moment there was blackness.  Suddenly I was aware of the engine sputtering and Little Richard screaming “woohoohoohoo.”

A knife stabbed my chest with each breath and the engine jerked and sputtered.  I coughed and blood gurgled from my open mouth and dripped down my chin.  I tried to move my arm to wipe away the wetness.  My fingers twitched slightly, but my arm seemed as distant as the moon and refused to obey my commands.  Then my chest jerked repeatedly as the engine sputtered again.  The engine stopped and for a moment the world was quiet as could be and I heard the earth take a breath and then the darkness rushed in surrounding me with noise and the DJ’s voice floated in the air.  I know you enjoyed that.  Now here’s a special song for all you lonesome guys and gals.  And Fats Domino softly sang You made me cry when you said goodbye.  I felt the tears on our face and the darkness became darker and the music faded as Fats’s cheerful voice sang ain’t that a shame.  My tears fell like rain.  And the salty sounds of the saxophone diminished into silence as if the darkness absorbed its resonance.

Maybe I passed out, I’m not sure.  I only know that I suddenly gasped for breath and clutched my chest, struggling to exit the car, but my small legs refused to respond; sharp pains radiated through my body and I pushed and pulled and dragged myself with numb arms toward the open door and fell hard to the ground, leaving Sally somewhere in the past trapped in a yellow car on a black night with a growing pool of red spreading around her.

Slowly my breath returned to normal, sensations entered my lower body, and I stood on shaky legs, my face damp with tears that flowed for Long Tall Sally.  Then I turned and walked slowly toward the house, the taste of cigarette smoke in my mouth, the last strains of a bluesy saxophone lingering in the air, and my hand of its own accord tapping the side of my leg as Duke walked beside me, a concerned whine building in the back of his throat.

About the book

I found myself lying on the ground, the heat of the day still lingering in the dirt.  Birds, insects, and wildlife hid in the shadows waiting for the night breeze.  My body suffered from the heat, but I felt untouched, godlike, removed from reality.  At that moment, I was an animal.  Not human, not aware of time or thought, but feral, untamed, waiting for my prey, as I too, hid in the shadows, anticipating the soft breeze touching the night.

In the distance, a bird chirped—just a small trilling tone that resonated in my mind—until I realized the sound was intended for me.  Focusing on the pitch, I wrestled with it until I understood the bird.  It was calling my name.  Telling me that the wind approaches.  My senses anticipated the initial gust that stirred the grass and cooled the sweat on my body.  The breeze carried a scent of smoke.  My nostrils dilated, and I inhaled deeply.

Suddenly, I saw it.  My body jerked with a sexual response, and then a sense of satisfaction and comfort settled over me as I watched a tiny flame ignite on the roof of Dad’s house.  It caressed the dark night with a tenderness that brought tears to my eyes.  The fire was not impressive, but it established itself nicely, advancing outward in all directions like a disturbed ant colony.

Shingle after shingle ignited without precision or organization, just random beauty in its tenacity.  The slowness of its advance created a painful ecstasy.  I gasped as the flames took on new strength and surged across the roof.  The beauty affected me so deeply that I sobbed quietly, my breath ragged.  The fire became an angry monster, raging forward, snarling at the wood and snapping in the breeze.  I wanted to match its frenzy, run toward the flames and caress them with my hands, dance with them in the wind, sway with the rhythm of their heated touch.  I felt entranced, unable to separate reality from what was in my head.

Somewhere I heard a scream that caused an unnatural tranquility to settle over the night.  The animals became quiet.  The insects froze.  The trees held their branches still, their leaves quivering silently.  Beyond the stillness, the wood sizzled and cracked in agony.

I don’t know if I stood, or only dreamed I was standing with my arms raised toward the sky, inhaling smoke, and spinning in circles as though the gods had stolen my wit.  My heart racing, my arms thrashing, a primal scream erupted from my throat.  The dormant night came to life, as if the world waited for this very moment.  The birds squawked in glee.  The insects and animals joined in.  The Johnson grass caught fire and flames raced toward me, flickering like an old time movie projector.  A swarm of grasshoppers leapt into the air, their wings beating out a thank you on the night wind.  Fireflies danced above my head like Independence Day sparklers.  I ran toward the blaze, tears on my face, arms outreached to envelop my lover, knowing I would lie down with her, roll in ecstasy, be caressed by her flickering fingers, but never hurt by her embrace.

It may have been real or a waking dream, but once again I found myself lying in the grass watching the house as the flames engulfed it.  I was losing my mind, but knew that killing Dad would bring peace to my world.  The rifle was the only thing that was real at the moment and I hugged it tight, taking comfort in the smooth stock, the warm wood, and the cold steel.

My clenched hands gripped the rifle as I breathed deep, caught in orgasmic bliss at the thought of him dying.  In the smoke I smelled his death.  The insects made noises like bullets penetrating his flesh.  The birds chanted words of encouragement.  God was on my side, urging me to fulfill my destiny.

About the book

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