I looked at the houses we were passing; shanties actually, with sagging porches, peeling paint and rusty tin roofs. The front yards were small, mostly packed dirt, lacking grass and flowers or any other type of beautification. There were a few older model cars, some pickups, all scabbed with rust and in various stages of disrepair. The street signs were pocked with bullet holes and scrawled with graffiti — some bent so they were touching the ground. “Poverty” was the first thought that struck me. The second was “hopelessness.”
“Makes you more appreciative of what you got, doesn’t it, kid?”
I nodded. “You can say that again.”
“Keep your eyes peeled for the address — two-four-two Rollins. These frigging houses all look the same to me.”
I looked over at Virgil Starke, my partner of only two days. He was a jowly, water-eyed guy of about fifty-five, with large, freckled hands and one of those bloated bellies that bespoke a fondness for the suds. His wrinkled white shirt had turned yellow from too much sweat and too few washings, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. A fedora was perched Mickey Spillane-fashion atop a head that was larger than usual, his horseshoe of hair rapidly turning to gray and in bad need of a trim. He was scowling at the street ahead, maneuvering a cigar from one corner of his mouth to the other. On his very best day, Virgil Starke was hardly a poster boy for the U.S. Marshals Service.
“What’sa matter, kid; you don’t like my looks?”
“If you don’t mind me asking; how long have you been a Deputy Marshal?”
“Way too long.”
“C’mon, that’s no answer.”
The cigar stopped dead at the right corner of his mouth, spewing smoke like a steel mill’s chimney. “Twenty-two years. I was a cop in Newark before that.”
“Do you have any plans on retiring?”
“Are you keeping an eye out for that address?”
“Yes, sir, I am. I see it right up ahead; the one with the wringer washing machine on the front porch.”
Virgil pulled over to the curb and we stared at the house for a few moments, neither of us saying a word. Compared to the others on the block, it was in pretty good shape, with frilly curtains in its windows and flowers planted along the walk.
Finally, Virgil expelled a weary sigh and got out, pulling a seersucker suit coat from the back seat and giving it a shake, as though that would magically free it of wrinkles. Then he slipped it on to hide his shoulder holster and fastened the middle button.
“Let me do the talking, kid.”
“What, you don’t trust me to open my mouth? And please call me ‘Tom’ not ‘kid’.”
“I’ll do the talking because I have the experience. You’re just learning.”
We mounted the porch under the watchful gaze of some passersby, and Virgil rapped on the door where a child’s drawing had been affixed with a thumbtack. It was a rendering of the house — a bit more magnificent — with flowers in the front yard and a bright yellow sun shining down from a blue sky. In the bottom right corner was the name “Roxie.” Judging by the artistry, the kid was trying to make her life a lot more cheerful than it was.
After a few moments, the door was answered by a Negro woman wearing a multi-colored dress the size of a tent, the breadth of her shoulders taking up the whole entryway. Her skin was the color of cocoa, the hair piled atop her head as black and shiny as the feathers of a raven.
“Good morning, ma’am,” greeted Virgil, holding up his badge. My name’s Virgil Starke and this is Tom Hodges. We’re Deputy Marshals, assigned to take your daughter - uh — ummm — to school.”
“My daughter’s name is not ‘uh-ummm’. It’s Roxanne.”
“Yeah, right, Roxanne.”
I chuckled to myself. Virgil was the one who insisted on doing all the talking, yet he couldn’t remember the child’s name.
“Well, come on in. She’s nearly ready.”
We entered a small living room, my eyes taking in the threadbare couch and chair; the discount coffee and end tables; a floral-patterned rug with frayed edges. A velvet picture of an African village hung slightly lopsided over an inexpensive stereo unit. Despite an overtone of poverty, the room was neat and I could sense a good deal of pride taken in its upkeep.
“Welcome to my home, gentlemen. I was just getting ready for work.” Her smile quickly gave way to a solemn look, her eyes closely appraising us. “Are you prepared to defend my daughter if things turn nasty?”
Virgil nodded. “Yes, ma’am, we are. It’s our job and we’ll carry it out to the best of our abilities.”
“I was expecting at least a half dozen of you.”
“Well, ma’am, I’m speaking from experience; sometimes the greater the numbers, the greater the problem.”
The woman considered this for a moment, slowly nodding. “I can see your point. And please; call me Loretta.” She turned, cupping a massive hand at her mouth. “Roxanne, honey; the Marshals are here to take you to school. They’re two very nice gentlemen. Roxanne!”
Moments later, the little girl peered around a corner, her big, chocolate-colored eyes intently examining us. Perhaps she didn’t like what she saw for her head vanished as quickly as it appeared.
Come on, Roxie, honey. These gentlemen are waiting on you.” When the girl failed to reappear, Loretta placed her hands on her hips, her voice edged with annoyance. “Child, you get out here this instant! You have to be there when school opens.”
I wondered in those few seconds whether Roxanne was a willing player or merely a pawn in her mother’s quest to break the color barrier. After all, in this situation it was the child who was going to take all the heat.
Finally, the little girl trudged into the room, her face sorrowful, her tiny shoulders bent under a burden that no one her age should have to bear. My heart felt as though it had been impaled on an icicle.
“Roxanne, honey; you shouldn’t have kept these gentlemen waiting.”
I looked at Roxanne’s red dress with white lace at the collar and hem; the red ribbon affixed to each pigtail; her skinny, knob-kneed legs. Her skin was the color of coffee grounds, a few shades darker than that of her mother. A pair of black patent-leather shoes topped off her outfit.
It struck me right then and there; how could anyone wish this little girl any harm, or hinder her right to a fair and equal education? It didn’t seem possible in the United States of America.
Virgil cleared his throat, rubbing thoughtfully at his chin. “Uh, Missus Watkins — perhaps your daughter would be better off wearing something, uh, you know, a little less bright.”
That’s her very best dress and it’s fitting that she wear it today.”
“Best dress or not, ma’am; she’ll be attracting all the more attention to herself. That’s what I would like to avoid. Maybe she can wear a darker color or possibly white.”
Loretta glared, working her jaw. “Roxanne will be wearing that dress, Mister Starke. This is a free country. And this is a free state, although Governor Faubus is trying his best not to make it so.”
“Okay, okay, it was only a suggestion — one concerning you daughter’s safety.”
Loretta’s face softened. “Yes, well, I certainly appreciate it. But that dress is as much a symbol as my daughter’s courage.”
I leaned close to Virgil, whispering out of the corner of my mouth. “Courage, my eye, that poor kid is frightened out of her wits.”
Virgil acknowledged my opinion with a barely perceptible nod. “Well, we had better get a move on if we’re going to get there on time. Missus Watkins, your daughter will be in good hands, I promise you that.”
Speaking of hands, I held out my right to the little girl and she peered up at me, blinking, as though she were trying to see the top of the Empire State Building on a hazy day. Then with a wavering smile, she grabbed hold of my hand and gave it a small squeeze.
“Are you ready to go, little miss?”
A smile finally caught hold, stretching from ear-to-ear. “Please, you can call me ‘Roxie.’”
“Well, ‘Roxie’ it is. And you can call me ‘Tom.’”
She looked to her mother, arching a brow. “May I, Momma?”
“Yes, child, you may.” Loretta offered her a sparkling wink
We made our way out to the porch, where Loretta scooped up her daughter and gave her a long hug. Then, with tears brimming in her eyes, she sniffled and turned back into the house. Roxie was about to follow, concerned, but I caught hold of her hand and gave her a gentle tug toward our plain black sedan.
“Momma doesn’t cry very often.”
“They’re tears of joy, Roxie. You’re doing a very courageous thing, today, and she’s proud of you.”
“I don’t feel courageous.”
“Sometimes it’s just below the surface, ready to burst out.”
My adlib philosophy seemed to calm Roxie down a little as I placed her in the rear seat and slid in beside her. Her right leg began to pump nervously and I soon noticed that mine was doing the same.
Virgil wedged himself in behind the wheel and snatched his cigar from the ashtray, firing it up with his Zippo. “Okay, this is going to be no more than a fifteen minute drive. When we get there, you two do exactly what I say. And I mean ‘exactly’. Because, people, this is not going to be a cakewalk.”
“I never thought it would be,” I admitted.
By this time, a small crowd had formed on the opposite sidewalk. They had remained pensively quiet as we left the house, but, as Virgil started the engine, they unleashed a resounding cheer, waving at Roxanne, a few giving her the thumbs-up.
“You’ve got a rooting section, kiddo,” I said.
She beamed at them, jutting her own little thumbs in the air.
We pulled away from the curb and Virgil made a quick U-turn, heading us toward our appointment with destiny. No one spoke for nearly a full minute, until I smiled and thumped Roxie on the knee.
“So what’s your favorite subject in school?”
“No kidding; that was mine too.” I pursed my lips and rubbed my chin, feigning deep thought. “Tell me; who was the first President of the United States?”
Roxie heaved an exasperated breath. “Oh, please.”
“You want something harder, huh? Okay, who was the sixteenth President?”
She giggled. “That is so easy, I won’t even bother to answer.”
“Well then, Miss Smarty-Pants; here’s a tough one. Who was our only bachelor President?”
“James Buchanan. His niece served as First Lady.”
“Hey, smart gal! Now, who was the only President to served on the Supreme Court?”
“William Howard Taft!” she exclaimed. “In 1921, he became Chief Justice! He’s buried in Arlington National Cemetery.”
“Wow! What do you think about that, Virgil? I bet she’s sharper with history than you.”
Virgil snorted, his cigar spewing great clouds of smoke. “History means diddly-squat to me, kid. I’m more interested in the future — the very immediate future.”
Roxie screwed up her face as though sucking on an extra-sour lemon, pointing a finger to the rear of the driver’s seat.
“Okay, you two; we’re on the last leg of the trip.” Virgil fished into his pocket and tossed an armband over his shoulder. It was a bright yellow with “Deputy U.S. Marshal” in bold black letters. “Put it on so they know exactly who you are.” He glanced back at me, somber-faced. “Don’t get too cocky. Sometimes that symbol doesn’t mean crap to people.”
With the moment fast approaching, Roxie slumped lower in the seat, her eyes growing as wide as saucers. Her little hand found mine for reassurance.
“I don’t know how close we can get,” warned Virgil. “Whatever the case, we march straight forward, ears deaf to whatever they throw at us. I’ve done this plenty of times so I know the drill. Just follow my lead.”
I peered out the front windshield and my heart rate picked up a few beats. I could see a crowd — perhaps a hundred in number — some of them waving signs, others, the Stars-and-Bars. As they spotted us approaching, they swirled in our direction, faces hostile, their shouts mounting in volume.
“There’s not as many as I expected,” noted Virgil, sounding relieved. “Most of the rabble-rousers must be over at Central High, where nine Negroes are trying to attend classes. We’re a side show, but you can never tell what might happen.”
“I see some local and state police,” I said. “It shouldn’t be too bad.”
Virgil snorted. “Shit, they’re no better than the rest.”
The curb was lined with cars and trucks, so Virgil double-parked next to an old battered Dodge. He hurled out of the car and flung open the back door, his cigar gone and his jaws set.
“Okay; show-time,” he snapped, touching Roxie’s arm. “Everything is going to be just fine. Tom and I are here to make sure of that. Okay?”
Roxie managed a tiny “yes.”
As I got Roxie out of the car, an egg splattered against the windshield and another plopped on the sidewalk, smearing my shoe with its yolk. The crowd pressed closer, screaming and chanting and hurling obscenities. They were a strangely diverse lot; from housewives and the elderly to rednecks in bib overalls and businessmen in three-piece suits. I even noticed a young woman, holding the hands of two wide-eyed toddlers. My God! How could hatred have ever reached such a level?
Virgil quickly led us to where a police sergeant was leaning against a telephone pole, observing us through a pair of aviator sunglasses, his jaws masticating a wad of chewing gum. His indifference to the situation startled me.
“Good morning,” said Virgil, trying extra hard to be civil. “I’d appreciate it if your men would move this crowd back.”
“You know; I can give you a ticket for double-parking.”
“You can, but you won’t. Now how about you doing what you’re getting paid to do.”
The crowd pressed closer, the din growing louder, every person knowing that the Sergeant was on their side. I tried not to read the signs or hear the curses, but it was impossible. This whole scene seemed impossible!
The sergeant shrugged, jerking a thumb over his shoulder, raising his voice to be heard. “They’re good folks, mostly! Just a little riled-up by Uncle Sam trying to force segregation down their throats! That’s how the Civil War started, you know; Washington trying to make demands of the southern states!”
Angered, Virgil moved nose-to-nose with the man. “I don’t have the time or the will to discuss history or politics. Now move this crowd back, or I’ll see to it, personally, that you’re busted to a goddamn crossing guard!”
The Sergeant moved his sunglasses to the end of his nose and peered over their top, considering Virgil for a few deliberate moments. Realizing the man’s sincerity, he turned and shouted to his men. “All right, boys! Let’s move these good people back! Get them off the sidewalk and onto the grass! Come on, come on, hustle it up!”
With a curt “thank you”, Virgil led the way, his eyes focused straight ahead, big hands ready in the event of trouble.
Undeterred, the crowd surged forward again, hissing and hollering and hurling the worst obscenities I had ever heard. Signs waved, joined by miniature Confederate flags. An old hag, her wizened face pinched by hatred, reached out and gave one of Roxie’s pigtails a vicious yank, causing her to cry out in pain. One of the cops laid a gentle hand on the woman’s shoulder and I heard him say, “C’mon, Ma; you’ve got to calm down.”
By this time, Roxie was squeezing my hand with the strength of a stevedore, her narrow shoulders hunched, eyes cast to the ground. I couldn’t even imagine what a terrible ordeal this was for her. Finally, we turned and began to cover the last little stretch to the front door of the school. Only a few steps more! An egg grazed my forehead, sending a tendril of yolk slithering into my eye.
And, then, just as I thought we would make it, two men stepped out of the crowd to block our way. One was a yokel with a bristling crew-cut and thick, black-framed glasses, feet planted firmly apart, his meaty arms folded determinably across his chest. Next to him, stood a sunken-faced, old man, dressed in overalls and a grimy John Deere cap. His smile reminded me of a knife slit in a piece of weathered rawhide.
“And where do you think you’re going!” demanded Fatso, basking in the admiration of the crowd.
“We’re going by you, through you or over you!’ snapped Virgil, not backing down for a second. “It’s your choice, pal.”
You’re not taking any pickaninny into that school. Not today, not any day.”
The old man began to do a crazy jig, cackling like a demented chicken. “No, sireee - no, siree - no l’il pickaninny in dat ol’ school!”
Spurred on by the confrontation, the crowd moved closer and I could feel its hatred in the air, snapping like an electrical charge. The local and state cops made only a half-hearted attempt at holding them back, their faces gleeful over the escalating danger we found ourselves in. If push came to shove, I couldn’t be certain which side they’d be on. And, then, I heard Fatso clear his throat, and before I could recognize or react to what was about to happen, he hawked a thick gob of spit directly onto the front of Roxie’s dress.
I headed for the inbred bastard with clenched fists, but Virgil shot out an arm to hold me back.
Fatso adjusted his stance, soaking up the supportive cries of the crowd, a smug smile spreading across his greasy, plump face. It took every ounce of willpower I had to restrain myself from rushing forward and wiping the smirk of his face. He knew that I couldn’t and his smile grew even broader.
Looking down at her fouled dress, Roxie calmly reached into her pocket and pulled out a small, laced handkerchief. Then, seemingly without a care in the world, she began to dab at the spittle. Finished, she neatly folded the hanky and returned it to her pocket. That touching display of adult-like dignity seemed to suck the air out of the fanning flames inciting the crowd. Their shouts, curses and jeers dropped to a murmur, and I actually spotted a few looks of embarrassment and grudging admiration. The signs wavered, some lowered. Feet shuffled and eyes lowered their gazes to the ground. Even the Sergeant’s jaws stopped working on this gum.
A big, broad-shoulder man stepped from the crowd and grabbed hold of Fatso’s arm. “That’ll be enough, now. You get on home.”
Oh, c’mon, Pa.”
“Don’t make me repeat myself, Lester. Better yet; get your butt to work and starting earning the money that’s paid you. Get along! Move it!”
With trembling lips and flushed face, Lester whirled and trudged off, his old cohort following close behind. The father turned to us, his eyes falling to Roxanne. He stared for a few moments, nodding, before rejoining the largely silent crowd. I suppose it could have been taken as an apology.
I bent down, whispering in Roxie’s ear. “Boy, little girl; you’re an ace at crowd control.”
She forced a grin. “Do you think that man’s spit will eat a hole through my dress?”
“You never can tell. It probably has a lot of acid in it.”
“Momma will be mad.”
“I was only kidding, Roxie.”
As the three of us hustled for the door, a cameraman for the Little Rock Gazette appeared out of nowhere, shouting ‘cheese!” When we turned in his direction, he snapped a picture; a photo that found its way onto the front page of no less than a hundred different papers.
We were met inside the door by a short, balding principal, the expression on his pinched face far from welcoming. ”Well, you’ve certainly turned this day upside-down. I bet my bottom dollar that you’re both from up north.”
Virgil placed one of his big paws on the principal’s shoulder, squeezing until he flinched. “You will escort Miss Roxanne Watkins to her assigned classroom and make sure that she’s properly settled. My partner and I will be here all day. And we would much appreciate two chairs and a couple of cups of hot coffee.”
“Oh, you would, huh?”
“Yeah, we would.”
Once again, Virgil’s no-nonsense approach won out.
Surprisingly, the day passed without incident, for small children, as it turned out, were much more tolerant and accommodating than their parents. Roxie, the free spirit that she was, managed to make friends rather quickly, her surprising intelligence drawing both admiration and respect from her teacher. Virgil and I stayed for the week, the crowd outside continuing to get smaller and smaller, until, on Friday, there were only two diehards in attendance.
Loretta invited us to supper four nights running and I gobbled down some of the best food I had ever tasted. After eating, Roxie would inevitably challenge me to a number of games — Monopoly, checkers and Old Maid — beating me thoroughly each time, giggling when I threw up my hands in defeat.
Virgil and I were replaced the following Monday by two other Marshals. On that bittersweet morning, with tears welling in her eyes, Roxie took down her drawing from the front door and presented it to me.
“This is for you to remember me by. It’s my best drawing, ever.”
I accepted it, my own eyes wet with tears. “Thank you, Roxie. I’ll frame it and hang it in a place of honor.”
I scooped her up with a hug and kiss. “I promise.”
Virgil stared down to where he was making circles with his foot. “What am I —- chopped liver?’
Roxie unfastened a yellow bow from one of her pigtails and held it out. “It’s the best I can do on such short noticed.” She giggled. “But you don’t have any hair to tie it in.”
And, for the first time since I met him, Virgil Starke started to laugh — a great, booming laugh that seemed to resonate throughout the whole neighborhood.
“Tom? Are you okay, Tom?” He feels a hand gently shaking his shoulder. “Hello, Mister Tom.”
With his thoughts interrupted, Tom stares up into the moon-shaped face of his favorite nurse, Miss Emily Patterson. “Uh — yes — I’m fine. I was just remembering something, so many years ago.”
“It’s time for your sleeping pill. Will it be water or ginger ale?”
“I’d rather have a shot of Jack Daniels.”
She laughs, craning her neck. “What’s that you’re holding?”
Tom holds up the picture for her to see; a house and flowers, with a bright sun shining down from above, still so very vibrant after nearly fifty years. “Oh, it’s just a gift from a very special little girl. Say, did I ever tell you that I use to be a Deputy U.S. Marshal?”
Emily chuckles as she pats his shoulder. “Oh, just about every day since you got here. Now take your sleeping pill.”
“You still have to bear witness, huh?”
“I still have to bear witness.”
After Tom swallows the pill, Emily bids him a ‘good night” and leaves.
The old man opens the drawer of his nightstand and pulls out a copy of Newsweek, reading the large print on its cover for the thousandth time – “Senator Roxanne Barnes, Woman of the Year.” His finger strays down to the face of a silver-haired woman, dressed in a conservative gray suit and white blouse, standing behind a bank of microphones. He fondly rubs the face for a moment, a lump forming in his throat, as his eyelids become heavy with sleep.