So there was my Jimmy sitting in the den, with his bare feet on the coffee table, watching the news on the TV. It made me happy just to see him, unexpected like that.
“You’re home early,” I said.
“You know what they’re saying?” He jerked his head toward the TV. It was Bobby Kennedy talking.
I sat down beside him on the old blue linen sofa, which has gotten awful faded, and ran my fingers alongside of his arm.
He pulled away. “All those college kids? They’re heading this way, down Route 29.”
“I don’t think they’ll stop here.”
His upper lip twitched.
“We got restaurants, don’t we?”
That made me smile. “You calling that hamburger place out on River Road a restaurant?”
“Don’t laugh. They mean to put colored at restaurant counters, and they’re riding the Greyhound with ’em.”
“Don’t tell Grandpa,” I said.
He squinted at me. “Grandpa! What about you? They’ll come to the library.”
“I doubt it.”
“Sure they will.”
“They won’t, honey. It’s not a restaurant. Besides, they’ll be heading for the cities, Atlanta, Birmingham, places like that.”
“But if they come to the library, what will you do?”
I put my arm around my son’s wide shoulders and stretched up to kiss his cheek. It’s still soft, that cheek. “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.”
“I worry about you, Mama. I do. They’re troublemakers, those kids. You’re so naïve.”
“It’s a library, honey, for children. At least my part is. They won’t come.”
“It’s the Memorial Mansion, for God’s sake.”
“All the more reason,” I said.
They called the public library the Memorial Mansion because of General Lee. He was supposed to have spent a night upstairs in the blue room in a four-poster bed when it really was a mansion, back during the War. The General had taken up old Harrison Langhorne’s offer of a rare good night’s sleep in that room when the Rebel troops were advancing or retreating, I can never remember which. When old Mr. Langhorne finally died at the age of 93, he left the place to Spottswood. The town fathers christened it the Memorial Mansion and turned it into a library. What else could you do with it?
I prefer working in the children’s section, maybe because I’m not much taller than the children. They put us in the basement, which would be gloomy except for the movie posters I’ve tacked all over the walls. Gone with the Wind and The Secret Garden. Makes things colorful. I love the smell of old paper and library paste almost more than I love the books, and definitely more than I love the white marble statue of General Lee that lords over the grounds out front of the Memorial Mansion. The mayor’s nephew, who’s an artist in New York City, got paid to create the statue, which is the general to the life, or so they say. He looks awful pompous.
That Saturday morning, I was demonstrating the dinosaur exhibit I’d set up on the front table for several of the children when something made me look up. A colored lady was just standing there, in the middle of the library, watching me. I was too shocked to speak. She looked to be about thirty, a clean-looking woman for all her dark skin, and she was wearing a blue-flowered cotton dress with large black buttons in the front. She didn’t look like anybody’s maid. No colored people are allowed in the library, except of course the cleaning lady and Harvey, the janitor. It’s not that there’s a “Whites Only” sign, like there is at the Spotswood swimming pool. Everybody just knows. And what I knew is I had to get this lady out of the library before somebody saw her.
“I’m sorry,” I said when I finally found my voice. “But I’m afraid you can’t use this library. There is a colored library over on Calhoun Street, and I’m sure it’s open today.” I spoke softly, hoping the children wouldn’t hear me.
The woman didn’t move. “I would like to use this one,” she said. She spoke her words carefully, like an educated person.
“I’m afraid that’s not possible.” I walked to the door and held it open. Several of the children looked up, their eyes wide with surprise, watching to see what she would do.
“Why?” The woman still didn’t move.
“This is a whites only library,” I said. I’d never had to say anything like that before. In Spottswood, the colored know their place.
The woman looked at me out of scared, dark eyes. “I am a high school teacher,” she said. “Here in Spottswood. And I need some books for my classes that are not in the Langston Hughes library. You have them here.”
I could hear the children beginning to react. “Who’s she?” “She don’t belong here.”
I had to act quick. “Look, Ma’am,” I said. “Please leave. You’re going to get into all kinds of trouble if you don’t leave right now.”
“I’ll leave when I’ve checked out my books,” the woman said. She was standing up real straight, like she belonged there, but her voice sounded squeaky.
“If you don’t leave, I’ll have to call the police,” I said.
“Why don’t you just give me the books? Then I’ll leave.”
I could see it was up to me. She wasn’t going to budge. I knew I was much too small to force her out, and the adult part of the library wouldn’t open for another hour. I considered phoning the cops, but I knew the local guy would call in all the squad cars and probably the fire department too and there’d be no end of trouble.
“Look,” she said, “all I want is Treasure Island and Call of the Wild.”
That made me stare. “Surely they’ve got those in the colored library.”
“Maybe they did at one time, but not now.”
I knew right then it was the wrong thing to do, but I had to get her out of there, and nothing else came to mind.
“OK,” I said. “But stand by the door while I get the books.”
She smiled for the first time and I could see she was almost pretty in a sad sort of way. Her mouth was thinner than what I’m used to with the colored, and her hair had been straightened and was neat.
Meanwhile, I could hear the children talking among themselves, getting louder. The woman turned toward the children, and they broke off mid-sentence. I quickly grabbed the two books off the shelf, checked them out to myself and handed them over.
“Now, go. Please,” I begged. “Leave the books in the return box outside, when you finish. Don’t come back in here. Please.”
The woman backed out the door, clutching the books. “Thank you,” she whispered.
“Hurry,” I said. I don’t know who was more scared, that teacher or me. I mean I would have lost my job if I was caught giving books to the colored, and we need the money. Not to mention I’d be bringing shame on my family.
“What’s that nigger woman doing in our library?” It was Dexter, of course. He’s got no breeding, comes from the mill side of town. Some of the other children were staring at me, waiting for me to say something.
“She was wrong to come,” I said, as calmly as I could manage, because you can bet I wasn’t calm. “But now she’s gone. And don’t you use that word, Dexter.”
“What word? Nigger? Nigger, nigger, nigger.”
I took him by the arm and pushed him ahead of me out the door. “Come back when you’ve learned how to behave in a library,” I said.
Daddy had barely seated himself at the head of the table that night when he shouted out, “Irma Mae, how come you let that nigger woman in the library?”
He gets more ornery by the day. My husband, James, looked up from serving the meatloaf and sighed. Jimmy stared down at his plate.
“How’d you hear about that, Daddy?” I asked, keeping my cool.
“Don’t matter how I heard about it. Why’d you do it?”
“I didn’t let her in. She walked in by herself. The door’s not locked. I got her out.”
“That’s not what I hear.”
“She’s a teacher.”
“I don’t give a good goddamn what she is; she’s a nigger and she’s got no right to set one toe in the Memorial Mansion.” The old man’s face was red and flecks of spit clung to the corners of his lips.
“Calm down, Daddy,” I said. How many times in my life had I said that: calm down, Daddy. I looked over at James, trying to signal him for some help. But he just smiled his tired old smile at me.
“Have some meatloaf?” he said.
“I told you it would happen,” Jimmy said. “I warned you. Now look. The shit’s gonna hit the fan.”
“Watch your language, Jimmy,” I said.
“You’re acting like a goddamn nigger-lover, and you’re telling your boy to watch his language?” Daddy stood up, knocking over his chair, and limped out of the room on his stiff knee.
We sat in silence, not looking at each other, taking small bites of meatloaf.
“He’s right, Ma,” Jimmy said.
“He’s a bitter old man,” I said.
“Everybody’s talking about it. That kid from the mill is spreading it around town. I worry about you.”
“Well, don’t. I took care of it.”
James reached across the table and patted my hand. “It’ll be all right,” he said.
Jimmy looked at his father with disgust. “It won’t be all right,” he said. “She’ll be back, this schoolteacher lady, and Mama will let her in, and then all hell will break loose.”
“Calm down, honey,” I said. But I have to say, he made me nervous. It wasn’t that I minded the colored using the library, especially the better class of colored like that teacher. What’s wrong with that? But it’s against the law, and I’m not one to break the law.
A week passed. Mr. Talbot, the head librarian, demanded an explanation about what had transpired between me and the schoolteacher, and he warned me never to let her or any other colored into the Mansion. I chose not to tell him I’d given the teacher books. I just prayed we’d get them back without anybody knowing who’d been reading them.
The following Saturday morning, I looked in the return box for the books, but no luck. That made me antsy, but I figured she’d bring them back sooner or later. I was re-shelving books, when I heard a commotion outside. Thinking the children were lining up, I unlocked the door and opened it.
There stood that schoolteacher, clutching the books tight to her chest, her dark eyes wide, begging. About twenty yards behind her, at least a dozen men milled about on the grassy lawn. I figured Dexter’s daddy had been watching for her. I tried to close the door, but she stuck her foot in and stopped me.
“Let me in, please,” she whispered.
“I can’t,” I said. “I told you.”
“Please,” the woman begged.
The men moved closer. I knew some of them, Buck Poindexter who manages the Buick lot and Ebb Williams who pumps gas at the Esso station.
“Hey, Buck,” I called out, “What’s going on?”
“We’re here to protect the Mansion from scum.” But it wasn’t Buck who answered. It was a man I didn’t recognize.
I could see them moving slowly in my direction and some of them were yelling, “Keep her out.” “Nigger bitch.” “Whites only.” It was a sorry sight.
The teacher grabbed my arm with her free hand. Her eyes looked wild. “Let me in,” she begged. “They gonna kill me.”
I’d never been this close to a black person before. I could see the dark circles under her arms. I could smell the sweat on her. It was mixed with some gardenia kind of perfume. I felt like I was about to faint. Meanwhile, the men over on the lawn kept bellowing and coming closer. And I could see that a couple of them were carrying sticks.
I just couldn’t leave her out there with all those riled up men. That’s the truth. So I let her in and shut the door.
“Quick,” I said, pointing to the stairs that led up to the main library. “You can get out that way.”
But she just backed herself against the wall and hissed at me. “Lock it. Quick. Lock the door.” The words came in short, jerky breaths.
Now that I was inside the library, away from the crowd of men, I was appalled at what I had done.
“I can’t,” I said.
Then I heard the roar outside, getting louder. It scared me so bad I ran over and flipped the bolt. Immediately, the door began to shake; the knob rattled.
“Unlock that door,” someone shouted.
I looked over at the window. Someone was peering in. The teacher was cowering against the wall, still clutching her books with white knuckles. I didn’t want to look at her.
I ran over to the desk and picked up the telephone.
“Who you calling?” the teacher whispered.
“No. Don’t. No. No.” She was scared for sure.
But I had already stopped dialing and was staring at the window.
“Mama, come here, Mama.” It was Jimmy’s face, paler than usual, and he was frowning and motioning with his hand for me to come to the window. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to see my boy. So I put down the phone and walked, in a daze, toward the window.
I raised the sill about an inch, enough so I could hear Jimmy. His face was pressed close to the windowpane. Behind him I could see the men standing out there on the green lawn, waiting. They were yelling something that I couldn’t make out.
“Unlock the door, Mama,” Jimmy said. His voice was low and calm. Like his dad.
“No,” the teacher screamed. “Don’t.”
“I can’t do it,” I told Jimmy. “I’m scared.”
“I know, Mama,” he said, “but I’m here. I’ll protect you; you just gotta unlock that door.”
I looked over at the teacher who was still clutching the books. “They’ll kill me if you open that door,” she said. “You know they will.”
I looked back out the window. This time I saw Tony Watson from Jimmy’s baseball team and Curtis Morris, the catcher. They were at church every Sunday. They weren’t going to kill anybody.
Jimmy was pleading. “If you don’t unlock that door, they’ll break the window. I’m the only thing keeping ‘em back.”
“What’s going to happen if I unlock it?” I asked.
“They won’t hurt you.”
I looked over at the teacher.
“What’ll they do to her?” I asked.
“What do you care?”
She was standing up straight now, looking hard at me, like I was her only hope. “You got to believe me,” she said. Her voice was squeaky, like it was when she had demanded the books and wouldn’t leave. “They’ll kill me.”
I could see over Jimmy’s head the men moving toward us. They were chanting something that sounded like “Whites only,” and several of them were waving those sticks.
“I can’t do it,” I told Jimmy.
Then somebody yelled, “Out of the way. Nigger-lover. Mama’s boy.”
Jimmy turned back toward the crowd. “Hell no,” he yelled back. “I’m with you. I’m just trying to talk some sense into her.”
Then they were grabbing Jimmy, pulling him away, knocking him down. Men I had never seen before. Big men. I started screaming. I didn’t even look at the schoolteacher; the only thing that mattered was my boy. I don’t remember unbolting the lock. I just remember the men, so many of them, streaming in the door, knocking down chairs, brushing books off the tables. All I could think about was Jimmy. I forced my way through those men, out the door, to my boy. I found him struggling to get off the ground, his face bleeding, his tee shirt torn.
“You crazy Mama,” he said. “You almost got me killed protecting that nigger.”
“Hush,” I said.
I put my arm around him and led him away from the crowd, back toward home. I could hear the shrill whine of the police siren. Thank God, I thought. They can’t hurt her now.
It wasn’t until the next afternoon that I heard the teacher was in jail, charged with disturbing the peace and trespassing.
“What about those men?” I asked Jimmy. “What did they get charged with?”
“Why would they get charged?”
“Well, they beat you up.” I looked him over. His face was scratched up, but otherwise he looked normal.
“I was in the way. Look, Mama, it’s lucky they didn’t charge you with anything.”
“You let that bitch into the Mansion. But, you’re OK. I fixed it up,” Jimmy said. “They won’t touch you.”
“How’d you do that?”
“I told the police she forced the door open and you couldn’t stop her, then she bolted the lock.”
“That’s not what happened.”
“That’s what you’ll say at the trial.”
“I can’t lie, Jimmy.”
“Who says you got to lie? I was at the window, watching. I gave my statement. You’re not gonna contradict me.”
I didn’t answer. But I felt sick all over.
They’ve closed the library, and the teacher’s coming up for trial. They’re expecting me to testify against her. Jimmy, the lawyers, the church, everybody. I keep seeing her, crouching over in the corner of the library in that blue flowered dress, hanging onto Treasure Island like her life depended on it, watching me with those dark eyes. Like a cornered animal. And those men yelling outside.
I can’t let her go to jail.
But then I think, she started it; she’s the one that got me into this mess. And if I tell the truth about that awful day, that I opened the door to her and locked it, my boy will be in trouble. And all he did was tell a white fib to protect his mama. That’s all he did.
But she’s a teacher. All she wanted was books.