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Flotation Jones
and the Watermelon Man

by Ron Van Sweringen

Chapter 4

It was late afternoon before Flo woke up. The aroma of mint oil was still pungent on her skin. She lay quiet for a long time, playing a game in her mind: if she didn’t move, the events of last night would fade like a bad dream.

The face of the beautiful girl who was murdered would not leave Flo alone, so she got up. The pair of red high-heeled shoes on the bedroom floor suddenly made her realize how much her life had changed.

Mammy was quiet across the kitchen table. She watched Flo eat sparingly, a piece of toast and a cup of coffee, pale with milk and sugar.

“Tell me what happened to you, chile,” Mammy said softly.

The sound of concern in the old woman’s voice tore at Flo’s heart. She wanted to tell her everything, but the cold look in Mayor Bucknell’s eyes when he said “Forget everything that happened tonight” made her stop short. What she had seen was dangerous, and for Mammy’s protection, better off kept to herself.

“They took me to a place called the White Palace,” Flo began, watching the old woman’s face closely. “A lot of white folks was there drinking and dancing. Mr. Bucknell paid me twenty dollars to sing.”

“Oh, Lawd,” Mammy exclaimed, “I done heard of it. A gamblin’ place and ho house.”

A hard knock at the door ended the conversation and Flo was happy to be spared any more questions for the moment. When Mammy opened the door a barefoot white man stood on the front porch.

“You owe me money, woman,” he snapped at Mammy, spitting a wad of tobacco juice out of his mouth. “Your rent on this here cabin is fifteen dollars a month. You’re two months behind, means you owe me thirty dollars.”

“I only pays Mr. Williams,” Mammy replied. “Where is he?”

“Dead and in the ground, woman. I’m his son and this piece of paper says you owe me two months rent.”

“Mr. Williams trusts me when my work is slow,” Mammy said. “I only has ten dollars for now,” handing him a bill.

“Are you deaf, nigger,” he shouted at Mammy, his hands curling into fists.

“Here’s your money,” Flo said sharply, shoving the crumpled twenty-dollar bill she had earned the night before into his hand. “Now leave us alone.”

“Don’t smart-mouth me, girl,” he said, taking the money. “You’re talking to a white man.”

When he was gone, Mammy sat down at the kitchen table. With her hands on her forehead, the tiredness was obvious to Flo.

“Oh, Lawd,” she sighed. “Ain’t got no work and now we gonna lose this place to live.”

“No,” Flo replied, putting her arms around Mammy’s neck. “Mr. Bucknell promised me twenty dollars every Saturday night to sing at the White Palace. I’m gonna see to it we gets a better place.”

Mammy felt the determination in Flo’s voice and decided to ask no more questions about last night. From now on she would have to put her trust in the Lord.

Mammy went to bed that night still wondering about the driver of the black Packard automobile, but something told her to bide her time.

* * *

Overnight all the black folk in and around Black Water Town knew about Flo being whisked away by the Klan. Some figured she wouldn’t be seen again. Most figured it was best to keep out of it and stay alive. Not so at the Lightning Rod House of Hair on 9th Street, run by Oggie Phelps.

Flotation Jones was the main topic of conversation that Friday afternoon and Oggie Phelps was the master of ceremonies. He was short and plump on top of his four inch platform wedgies and nobody could twist a better cornrow. Friday was green eye-shadow day and Oggie never spared the horses when it came to beautifyin’ himself. Oggie Phelps was a force of nature and the little town of Black Water, Louisiana was used to him. Just as they were used to tornadoes and hurricanes.

“Come on in, honey,” Oggie gushed when Flo appeared in the doorway of his shop. “You’re right on time.” Dryers went up and eyeballs popped as Oggie led Flo into a back room.

“I got my instructions, honey,” Oggie said, baby-stepping around Flo on his wedgies. “Mr. Bucknell done paid for everything. Hmmm,” he added, his hands on his hips. “If the good Lawd done give me a voice and that there other thing he give you, I could maybe be a star, too.”

Four hours later Flo saw someone in the beauty shop mirror she did not recognize. Gone were the ribbon-woven cornrows. Large black curls, soft and shiny, had taken their place. When she shook her head, they moved gently. She had never seen hair like that on a black girl, except for Lena Horne, in the movies.

* * *

Flo made her way along the aisles of the farmers’ market, looking for the Watermelon Man. She hadn’t seen him since last Saturday, but she still remembered his strong hand holding her and the way he spoke up when they took her away.

She told herself that she needed to thank him. What she really wanted was to see his dancing black eyes again. When she caught sight of his watermelon truck, she was disappointed. Another young man was selling the watermelons.

“I’m after Tucker Waters,” she said hesitantly. It was the first time she had spoken his name out loud since Mammy told it to her.

“He done moved on,” the young man replied. Then almost as an afterthought, he added, “Will I do, miss?”

* * *

Saturday evening at six-o’clock, the black Packard automobile picked Flo up for the drive to the White Palace. Rain pelted down and condensation fogged the automobile windows. It was humid and uncomfortable inside the car and Flo asked the driver to crack the windows for some air. The face that turned to her in response caused Flo to fall back in shocked surprise.

“I done got a job as one of Mr. Bucknell’s drivers,” smiled Tucker Waters, winking one of his dancing black eyes at Flo and gunning the motor.

Proceed to Chapter 5...

Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen

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