Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born in Missouri, a border state, in a town–Sedalia–that was the scene of a skirmish in the Civil War. My mother’s people were from Virginia, and she took the side of the South whenever we played my American Heritage Civil War board game. I always won.
My town was divided by a railroad that ran through the state east to west, St. Louis to Kansas City. White people lived on the south side of the tracks, blacks and a few scattered poor whites lived on the north. I worked in an ice plant located along the tracks for three summers, which is the setting of the story “Bo Peep.” The ice plant served the railroads and the chicken processing plant on the north side of the track.
During the middle years of the 19th century my town was the end of the Chisholm Trail, the route that beef cattle were driven to put them on trains in my home town for shipment to the stockyards of Chicago. Cowboys were paid at the end of the cattle drive, and promptly spent their money on the Main Street of town in bars and whorehouses that sprang up there to separate them from their earnings. The whorehouses and the music were black, the cowboys were mainly white. Scott Joplin played in those bars and composed the first nationwide ragtime hit–“Maple Leaf Rag”–in my home town; I used to pass by the publisher’s wooden-frame building on my way to school.
Eventually, of course, the logistics of getting beef from feed lots to American tables was streamlined, and the cattle drives died out. My town was left with its whorehouses, which serviced large portions of the state until Sedalia was declared “off-limits” to servicemen in World War II, which put most of them out of business. When I was growing up, there was only one left, in the shadow of a bridge across the tracks, which we would cross when we were drunk and feeling adventurous to look at the girls, and watch the crap games, and play the jukebox.
The white man—Clete–who could imitate a cow was backing his truck up to the loading dock, looking over his left shoulder as he turned the wheel. Once he had positioned the truck flush up against the concrete, he turned off the engine and, with a mischievous grin on his face, emitted a long, low “Mooooooo” that caused people walking on Main Street to stop and turn their heads to look for the animal whose presence on a busy thoroughfare of a county seat would have been so out of place.
Clete’s truck was full of watermelons, which would be unloaded and stored at the ice plant. A black man came out to greet the truck and its driver; the arrival of a shipment of watermelons was a cause for subdued celebration on the dock, since the high school boys who unloaded them would inevitably drop one, and the entire crew on the day shift would stop what they were doing to eat the broken fruit. If the boys made it all the way to the front of the truck bed without breaking one, the black man—Zip—would take the last one and would make an arch show of dropping it on the loading dock without attempting to disguise that he did so on purpose.
Zip opened the door to the ice room and yelled at the two white boys inside to come out. “Hey, y’all—got a truck fulla melons out here for you to unload.” The boys, who should have been sixteen by law, were underage high school football players recruited to work by the owner, who promised their parents a summer of heavy lifting would build them up.
The boys came outside and got to work, walking the melons down the concrete ramp and into a walk-in cooler that opened onto the street. A heavy scale sat just outside, and people would drive up to the curb and buy the melons by the pound. It was cheaper than getting them at the grocery store.
Zip and Clete stood talking as they watched the teens; one of the boys grumbled to the other that he didn’t see why they had to do all the work, but not loudly enough for Zip to hear him. It was all the same to them; as long as Zip was outside, he wasn’t inside pushing ice through the chute into the cold room for them to drag uphill with their tongs.
An old car pulled up to the curb, its body a patchwork of colors; the roof green, the hood a rusty brown, one fender light blue, the rest of the body grey. The driver was an old black man in overalls with a grey beard. He was known as “Bo Peep” for reasons no one could remember exactly; one theory favored by some was that it was because his head was wrapped in rags. This supposed connection was doubted by some, although the turban-like mess on his head did look like the hair in some pictures of the nursery rhyme character.
His passenger was a black boy wearing new blue jeans and a striped t-shirt. “Go on and git it,” the old man growled at the boy, who got out of the car and walked up to the loading dock. He hesitated before speaking to Zip.
“I need a fifty-pound block of ice,” he said.
“Axe one of those two there, they’ll git it for you.”
The boy turned to the teens, who hadn’t heard the exchange between the boy and the man.
“I need a fifty-pound block of ice,” he said to the first one who passed him between the truck and the cooler.
“Zip—what do you want us to do? Unload the watermelons or wait on customers?” the teen said with irritation.
“You go on and git the ice, I’ll take your place for awhile.”
The boy put his jacket back on and went inside to the ice room. Zip turned to Clete and said “Well, guess I better earn my pay.” He looked over his shoulder at the office window that looked out over Main Street. The owner was at his desk, but he was turned away from the window, tapping the keys of an adding machine.
Zip picked up a melon and, as he stepped off the truck, let it fall through his hands. It broke cleanly into two pieces when it hit the payment. “Uh oh,” he said with a smile that exposed a gold tooth. “Look what I gone and done.”
Clete began to laugh, but the one teen who was still unloading the truck didn’t even stop. He wanted to get the extra work done and get back inside; he still had to fill three hundred bags of ice that day.
“Long as it’s busted, we might as well eat it,” Zip said, and he took a knife out of his pocket and began to cut the melon into pieces.
“What happened?” the owner said as he emerged from the front office door.
“Aw, I dropped a melon,” Zip said. “Accidents happen.”
“Seems like every truckload I buy I end up paying for one I can’t sell.”
“Sure is tough luck,” Clete said, shaking his head as he suppressed a grin. “Here’s the bill,” he said as he tore a white piece of paper off a pad that he replaced in his shirt pocket when he was done.
The teen emerged from the ice room carrying a fifty-pound block with his ice tongs. “Where you want it?” he said to the boy.
“In the trunk of that car there.” The boy followed the teen and yelled to the old man “Bo Peep—open it up.”
The old man got out of the car and walked to the rear of the car where he opened the trunk. The teen started to put the block of ice in, but he stopped him. “Wait ‘til the boy puts the sack down,” he said. “Spread that out,” he said to the boy, pointing to a burlap sack on the floor of the trunk. “Put it on that,” he said to the teen.
When the teen was done he walked back up the loading dock, where Zip and Clete were eating as the other teen carried the last melon off the truck. The owner, an older white man, had dropped his usual gruff demeanor and joined the two men outside with a stack of paper plates that he handed to them. “C’mon, have a piece, might as well eat it,” he said to the teens, before walking down the block to pick up a paper bag in the street. He could use that for a customer who bought rock salt, he thought to himself.
The two football players sheepishly took pieces of the melon from Zip, and the five of them stood together eating, feeling the warmth of the sun on their heads as the sweet juice cooled their throats. “There’s another bag down there if you want it, Mr. Cunningham,” Clete said, as he pointed down the street to the west. “I’ll get it,” one of the teens said, and he ran off to grab it before the wind blew it away.
The old black man had started to get in his car, but when he saw the others eating melon he went up to the loading dock, not saying anything, and inspected the broken melon while the group’s attention was diverted. He took a thick slice and turned furtively to go back to his car; his motion caught Zip’s eye.
“I saw that, Bo Peep,” he yelled. “Bring that back here, lest you gonna pay for it.”
The old man stopped and stood still as the men and boys on the concrete slab above him looked down in the street at him. His eyes shifted from resistance to pleading as he directed his gaze at the owner, whom he figured was the only one with the power to overrule Zip.
“Aw, let him have it, Zip,” the owner said. “I can’t eat it all, I’ll be up all night peeing.”
The old man’s head began to nod, and one loose strand of the rag on his head bobbed up and down like a streamer.
“Thank ye,” he said to the owner.
“Take one for the boy there, too,” the owner said.
“Much obliged,” the old man said. He glared at Zip as he came forward, took a second piece, handed it to the boy through the window, and drove off, eating as he went.