The year is 1936. Flotation “Flo” Jones lives in the bayou country of Louisiana. Flo is young, but not so young that she and Tucker Waters, whom she knows as “the watermelon man,” can’t catch each other’s eye. Flo also has a beautiful voice and a talent for singing, and the local mayor fancies her as a decoration for parties at his mansion. But the socializing is a cover for organized crime. Flo, Tucker and some friends will desperately try to escape its clutches.
“How much for a watermelon?” Flotation Jones asked the husky young Watermelon Man standing on the wagon and looking down at her.
“How much you got, girl?” was his reply. He had a wide smile and dancing black eyes.
Flotation rubbed the two coins together in her closed fist and looked up. “I got five cents.”
“Ain’t enough, girl. Now if you was pretty and light-skinned, instead of a lump of black coal, we might be able to work something out.”
“Suppose I was to have ten cents,” Flotation replied with a smile.
“That would be a different story,” the young man said, jumping down from the wagon. “We might could do some business then.”
“I don’t reckon so,” Flotation answered, turning to join the market crowd. “Seems you ain’t pretty enough or light-skinned enough to get my two quarters.”
“Git on out of here, girl,” he laughed, “’fore I set my dog on you.”
“He ain’t pretty enough either,” Flotation shouted back, swishing her skirt and dancing away on bare feet.
Truth be told, Flotation was mighty dark, not much Creole in her, more African like her slave grandfather. As for pretty, well she didn’t take after her mother in that respect exactly, but she did have good bones and a look of being proud about her. A fitting description of the sixteen-year old girl with yellow ribbons woven into the cornrows in her hair.
Flotation Jones was unusual in one respect: she could make a beautiful sound.
“The child always could sing,” Mammy Jones said. “Even ’fore she could walk, she could sing.” Mammy Jones was Flotation’s grandmother and protector, providing her with love and affection in the small cabin the two shared in 1936, near Black Water Swamp, Louisiana.
“Hold still, till I set this earring, girl,” Mammy said. “The catch is broken.” When Mammy Jones was finished, Flotation bent near the small mirror, admiring her reflection and the gold earrings shining in the lamp light.
“Now people will watch me.” She smiled, the gold hoops dangling against her black skin. The yellow ribbons woven in her hair and a bright red dancing skirt Mammy had sewn for her completed the picture.
“Be on your way, girl. I can hear Black-Jack’s piano already,” Mammy urged, opening the cabin door. It was dusk under the live oaks and Spanish moss leading down the sandy road. Small cabins lined the way. Playing children and barking dogs greeted Flotation as she passed.
A knot of grey unpainted buildings stood at the end of the road under a red-tinged sky, where the river made its bend. One was a church and the other was “Turners Emporium,” a rambling single-story building sided with clapboard and covered by a rusted metal roof.
An upright piano stood on the covered porch of the Emporium, and as she drew closer, Flotation snapped her fingers to its pulsating rhythm. Black-Jack was going full steam tonight and the music brought her to life.
Most of the chairs spread around the long porch were already full and knots of people stood in the dusty road listening to the piano music. Black-Jack had magic hands and a ten-inch spread from his thumb to his little finger. No black piano man in Hartford County could match him. He was a sight to see, tall and lanky with a black silk top hat on his nappy gray head. A red and white striped shirt with a black bow tie put him in a class of his own.
“Where you been, girl?” Black-Jack winked at Flotation. “Time to earn some green.” Cold bottles of beer were being served and a banjo man had joined Black-Jack on the porch when Flotation took her place in front of the piano.
“Tell ’em about it, girl.” Black-Jack smiled as he led into “Down On The Levee.” At first, Flotation’s voice flowed out soft and sweet like warm honey, her words clinging to the rhythm of the music. Something about the sound was hypnotic and folks couldn’t take their eyes off of her.
“Sing it again,” someone shouted as nickels, dimes and a few quarters bounced on the old wooden porch around Flotation’s feet. Four more songs followed, and when Flotation finished the last one, a few dollar bills lay with the coins at her feet. She picked them up hurriedly as Big Bertha had already begun to sing “A Good Man.”
Flotation watched the three-hundred pound woman swaying to the music. She wore a black dress and white Magnolia blossoms in her hair. Whoops went up from the crowd when she slowly raised the front of her dress up above her knees to expose a beautiful pair of chocolate legs.
“Still wanting a watermelon?”
Flotation turned with a start, to find the Watermelon Man looking at her with the same wide smile and dancing eyes. Only now he wore a clean white shirt and held a bottle of beer in his hand.
“You sure can sing, girl. I should have given you a melon.” He nodded. Before Flotation could answer him, a commotion broke out in the crowd as a large black Packard automobile made its way up to the Emporium steps. Folks stood back as the doors swung open and two men in white robes emerged. Both of them carried shotguns. The back window came down and a voice broke the silence.
“You, girl, with the ribbons in your hair. Get in the car.”
Flotation froze when she realized he meant her. She stepped back and suddenly felt a hand take hers.
“Come on now, girl. I don’t want no trouble.” The voice sounded agitated. Flotation started to move, but the hand on hers held tight.
“She don’t go nowhere without me,” a man’s voice answered firmly.
Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen