The back door of the Packard automobile opened slowly. A hush came over folks as a heavy-set white man in a wrinkled linen suit eased his way out of the back seat. Sweat beads stood out on his bald head and a cigar drooped from his parted lips. The most impressive thing about him was a large diamond ring on his little finger. It sparkled like a million firecrackers. Flotation had never seen anything like it.
“Take my advice, boy, and don’t get yourself killed over this,” the stranger said, dabbing his sweaty forehead with a handkerchief. “Ain’t nothin’ gonna happen to the girl. Mayor Bucknell just wants her to sing a few songs at a party he’s giving tonight.”
The Watermelon Man started to move forward, but Flotation pushed herself in front of him. “Don’t do nothing,” she whispered. “I’ll be alright.” As the car moved away, Flotation leaned out of the window.
“Tell Mammy,” she called, opening her closed fist. Her gold earrings fell into the sandy tire ruts and Watermelon Man picked them up carefully.
It took an hour of driving before the Packard turned off of Highway 67 onto a gravel road. There was a full moon and Flotation could see a light in the distance. As they drew closer, she made out a large two-story white house with columns on the front porch. Light poured out of the open windows and when she stepped out of the car, she was greeted by the heavy scent of Jasmine and the sound of piano music.
The front door opened and a tall woman in a fancy kimono stepped out onto the porch. She took a hard look at Flotation and said, “He’s waitin’ on you,” motioning upstairs with her eyes.
“Lawd, help me,” Flotation said to herself, trying not to tremble. Some instinct in her said not to show fear if she hoped to survive this night.
* * *
The news traveled fast and by the time Watermelon Man found directions to Mammy’s cabin, she was already waiting on the small front porch. A bandanna on her head was tied in the old style and she sat in a rocker with a palmetto fan in her hand.
“You the one stood up for my chile?” she asked. “I’m thankful to ya.”
“Yes, ma’am. My name is Tucker Waters,” he replied, bending forward to the old woman out of respect. “Miss Flotation don’t know me by that name,” he continued. “She knows me by the name Watermelon Man.”
“I’m mighty worried,” Mammy said softly, fanning her face. “That man what took her is high in the Klan. It ain’t good.” Tucker could see the fear in her eyes and did what he could to reassure her.
“I don’t believe they mean to do her no harm, ma’am. The man said it’s only her singing they want.”
“I pray to the Lawd that’s the truth. She’s a good girl. Ain’t been around no men. I seen to it. They could hurt her bad.”
* * *
The first thing that struck Flotation when she entered the house was the red wallpaper on the walls. It was shiny in some places, with big roses and what looked like naked babies all over it. The air was heavy with cigarette smoke and there was piano music coming from a room at the end of a wide hall. She tried to see into the room, but there were too many people in the hall, some of them dancing.
“Upstairs, girl,” said the man who brought her. Flotation followed him, her bare feet sinking into the plush carpeted steps. She didn’t turn, but she knew the woman in the kimono was behind her.
“I hear you can sing, girl. Is that a fact?” asked Mayor Bucknell, standing at the top of the stairs with a whisky glass in his hand. He was a tall man of about forty-five, with black hair and a moustache that moved when he spoke.
“Yes, sir,” Flotation answered, the vision of his dancing moustache stuck in her head.
“We’ll see,” he smiled. “Some of my friends are here tonight. Don’t make a fool out of me or you’ll wind up working in a bedroom, like the rest of the girls.” When Flotation and the woman in the kimono reached the bottom of the stairs, he called out. “Put some lipstick on her and find her some shoes to wear, May. Something red with high heels. We can’t have a songbird with bare feet.”
The room at the end of the hall was big with doors opening onto a screened-in porch. Colorful paper lanterns hung from the ceiling and a piano sat in the middle of the floor. Two other rooms with wide doorways joined the hall. All were filled with white folks drinking and smoking.
Several young women, surrounded by men, were dressed in kimonos and fancy undergarments. Flotation knew this was a “ho house” from the threat Mayor Bucknell had made to her. She also knew her only chance out of there was by singing.
Mammy had once pointed out such a house, on their way into Black Water Town. “There be a ho house, where women gets paid for lay-en with men,” she said. That house was not grand like this, Flotation thought. It was for black folks.
The shoes were bright red with sparkles on them. Flotation had never worn high heels before and it was a strange sensation suddenly being taller and having to balance herself when she walked, but she liked it.
“What you wanna sing, girl?” the white piano player asked, “and in what key?”
Flotation chose “Sleepy Time Down South,” but she didn’t know the key.
“Sing a line for me,” he said, annoyance in his voice. When she finished, he mumbled, “key of C.”
The talking and laughter in the large room suddenly quieted when Mayor Bucknell entered with a beautiful blonde girl. She wore a pale blue dress the color of a summer sky. Flotation thought she was the most beautiful thing in the world and found it hard to look away from her.
“Listen here, everyone,” Mayor Bucknell spoke up. “I have a surprise for you tonight. I hear tell we have a songbird in Hartford County. Tonight we’re gonna’ find out. Her name is Flo Jones. Make her feel at home.”
There was applause and some whistling as everyone moved away from the center of the room, leaving Flo and the piano player alone. Suddenly, the lights in the room were dimmed and a pink spotlight came on.
This was not like singing on the porch of the Emporium and Flo stood motionless as everyone in the room waited.
“Sit her up on the piano, where everybody can see her,” Mayor Bucknell shouted. “Now sing, girl.”
* * *
It was after midnight and the dusty road was deserted except for a stray dog. Mammy still waited on the small front porch, fanning herself and watching the full moon.
“Take care of my baby, Lawd,” she whispered. “She’s all I got.”
Tucker had gone into Black Water Town, hopeful of finding someone who knew where they had taken Flotation.
* * *
The piano player was almost as good as Black-Jack and Flo fell into the rhythm instantly. After a few bars, she heard him whisper, “Sing out, girl. Let ’em hear you. You got what it takes.”
Flo began to feel the music and she let her voice fill the room. The spotlight and cigarette smoke, thick in the air, created a pink haze around her. She realized something special was happening. It was like electricity on a hot night before a thunderstorm and it put goose-bumps on her arms.
When she finished singing, there was a burst of applause louder than anything Flo had ever heard.
It lasted until the deafening explosion of two gunshots tore through the room.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen