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Ground Rules

by Gary Clifton

I hesitated at great length before writing of this misadventure because it rings a little too strange to believe. But as the adage goes, no story is as truly bewildering as the truth.

In the early 1950’s, my parents and I lived in a little house in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. Our house faced the rear of the Casa Loma, a beer joint that played ear-splitting music until 4:00 a.m. with the back door open. But we weren’t right next door, exactly: our house faced north across a city street and across a vacant lot about half a city block deep. The distance was probably 125 feet, door to door.

Earlier that year, neighborhood kids had been playing baseball on the lot when, near sunset, two men crashed out the rear door of the Casa Loma and tumbled down the stairs in a savage barroom brawl. Then one pulled out a little silver pistol and shot the other deader than good manners. Needless to say, the ballplayers scattered.

The owner of the Casa Loma was Mr. Henry C. Rucker (not his real name). He was husky, fiftyish, and an attorney. He drew a lot of water in the neighborhood, but black lawyers had a tough time making money in an area where money was as scarce as a new Cadillac.

I have no idea what followed the murder that a dozen or so kids had witnessed. But in the far narrower racial tolerance days of 1950, one black man murdering another was, sadly, more often than not regarded by the police merely as “misdemeanor murder.”

I was eleven that summer. The age limit to have a paper route was twelve, but I convinced the lady in charge that I was definitely old enough. And I landed the job.

Summer turned to winter. At 4:30 a.m. on a late November day, I stepped out into the bitter cold wind and walked across the vacant lot in the swirling snow toward the alley behind the Casa Loma. In the dim light, I saw Mr. Rucker dumping something into a garbage can in the alley.

Common sense said never to walk up behind a man like Mr. Rucker without giving warning.

“Mornin’, Mr. Rucker.”

“Hey, kid,” he replied without looking back.

The delivery truck dumped bundles of newspapers in front of Henry’s Drugstore up on the main drag. Eight or so carriers picked up on that corner. That morning, by chance, I was the only one there. I was sacking up my newspapers in a small entry alcove, which provided some cover from the wind.

The neighborhood wasn’t a war zone, but gunfire was fairly common. It seems strange to me now to imagine that an eleven-year old kid could recognize the two staccato barks I heard as pistol fire. I ducked when I should have run like hell. Like a large-mouthed bass, I peered around the corner in the direction of the shots, back toward the Casa Loma.

Mr. Rucker, in his white apron, was waving a revolver and chasing Jingles, a no-account pimp. Jingles was jerking at his automatic pistol, like it was jammed. He pointed it back over his shoulder and tried to pull the trigger.

Mr. Rucker raised his pistol. Two blasts, and Jingles went down like a wet rag. I hid behind the concrete pillar in front of the drugstore. Mr. Rucker came closer, pistol still in hand, and looked down at Jingles. Then he saw me.

Mr. Rucker’s eyes were calm. He showed not a trace of the deadly anger I’d seen the summer before in the brawl behind the Casa Loma. He stood, eternity in his hand, and studied me as I cowered in the cold.

I think I closed my eyes, waiting to take a bullet. God, how I wished I’d told Mama goodbye. Then, without a word, Mr. Rucker stuffed the pistol under his apron and walked away.

I sacked my papers and beat it the hell up into white people’s land. Nobody ever got shot there. I was still shivering a half-hour later when the cops found me.

Mr. Rucker was sitting handcuffed in the back seat of a police car, still wearing his white apron, his placid brown eyes still calm. Somebody who lived in one those second- or third-story walkups above the neighborhood stores had heard the gunshots, recognized Mr. Rucker and me, and dropped a dime.

A fat cop on the passenger side stepped out. He smelled of sweat and cigars and looked mad as hell. “Boy, we know you saw this dude shoot that pimp Jingles.” And he did not use the word “dude.”

I was plenty scared all right — terrified is more appropriate — but a lot more afraid of Mr. Rucker than the police.

I blurted something like: “He was cleanin’ the bar at his joint when I walked by there this morning. Couldn’t a’ shot nobody. Later, I heard shootin’, then saw Jingles on the sidewalk. Never saw no shooter. That Jingles is one damned bad character. If he got killed, not many folks are gonna be sorry.”

“White trash!” He slapped me, and my newspapers scattered in the wind. I stayed down, hoping he wouldn’t kick me, but he did anyway. Somebody who was driving to work saw the squad car and slowed, passing me lying in the street. The pair of cops climbed back into their car and spun off.

When I walked past the Casa Loma on the way back home from my paper route, I wondered, for no real reason, if the cops had caught Mr. Rucker holding a pistol. After the shooting, he’d walked back toward the bar. There was no sewer along the route or other handy place to stash the weapon. I wondered if he’d turned down the alley, seen headlights coming, and tossed it in the alley debris. And if the cops had had enough sense to look.

It wasn’t in the trash strewn about but, sure as ten years in the joint, I found it stuffed down inside the first can: a worn revolver. I took it home and hid it under a mattress.

The next afternoon, I saw Mr. Rucker out back of the Casa Loma, digging in trash cans. I wrapped the revolver in an old paper sack, crossed the alley, and handed it over to him.

Mr. Rucker, showing a partially closed eye and a face swollen from his time in police custody, flashed a gold-tooth grin. “I’ll be damned, kid... I’ll be damned. Ya done good.”

Seventy years have drifted past. Mr. Rucker is long dead. Urban renewal and bulldozers have consigned to the past the Casa Loma, the drugstore, and every other structure and most houses aound the main drag. And the police records of that time probably no longer exist.

Back in the neighborhood, the street rule was plain: That outsider cop was too dumb to realize that Mr. Rucker was a good man who never shot a damn soul who didn’t need killing. And what you knew, you best swallowed. That’s just the way it was around there.

I’ve spent many years waving a badge in neighborhoods like the one we lived in, but they were far from the Casa Loma. In all that time, I never forgot Mr. Rucker. I was always glad I could help a good man when he deserved and needed it.

Copyright © 2020 by Gary Clifton

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