Hissing hydraulic brakes, humming tires on wet asphalt, and hard, cold glass against my face roused me to the uncomfortable awareness that I was not at home in the warmth of my bed. Feeling my possessions safely beside me, I breathed a relieved sigh and cleared a spot on the fogged-up window to see damp gray sidewalks glistening in the dim amber light of a streetlamp.
“Li-i-ive Oak.” The Greyhound driver’s laconic drawl, along with the light in my eyes, forced me to accept that my sleep, however fitful, had come to an end. Seeing an aisle crowded with zombies staggering in the dingy cabin light, I decided to grab a little shuteye until the path cleared. That’s when I told myself I was getting too old for this sort of thing.
It’s not the first time I’ve had this conversation with myself. The end result is always the same—something in this nappy old noggin reminds me that I still have to work for a living. Spot has a puppy now, so there’s the extra mouth to feed. That brings the total to three if I include Jean McArthur. Not that I have to worry much about her, since there are always enough squirrels in the oak trees around the house to keep a cat with her hunting skills fat and sassy.
Then there’s the matter of the roof over our heads. Taking on a new assignment meant that I would be able to buy the house I’m renting now, with its own backyard where I can grow vegetables, and a fenced front yard where I can cultivate my favorite flowers. Who cares if I have to slice bacon so thin I can read the morning paper through it? At least I’ll finally have a place to call my own.
Besides, I’ve not made much progress on Herod the Great lately—seems as if all of my efforts to make great strides have resulted in nothing but jumpin’ up and down in the same set of footprints. I suppose it doesn’t help that everybody thinks I’m crazy for conjuring up a biblical epic in the first place.
That’s why I thanked my lucky stars when I got the telegram from Sam Nunn, editor in chief of the Pittsburgh Courier, about a Negro woman named Ruby McCollum. Seems she shot this mucky-muck white physician and newly elected state senator in the little farming town of Live Oak, Florida, almost three hundred miles north of where I made my home in Eau Gallie.
Nunn told me he had learned of the murder in this otherwise quiet little town after being contacted by Releford McGriff, the McCollum’s family attorney. McGriff had sent him a copy of the August 8, 1952, Suwannee Democrat, its front page emblazoned with Adams’s campaign photo and the headline DR. ADAMS SLAIN BY NEGRESS.
Not “Ruby McCollum,” you understand, but “Negress,” following the time-honored Southern tradition of reporting the trespasses of “Negroes” without names, villains without voices—a special breed of faceless creatures who were, by the very color of their skin, the usual suspects in any crime.
Nunn also informed me that he had already sent two senior staff reporters, Revella Clay and John Diaz, to cover the trial, supported by Alex Rivera, the paper’s lead photographer. Sometime toward the end of September, however, Nunn decided that the story had the potential to rise from journalistic slug lines to great Southern literature. He had even considered the possibility of serializing Ruby McCollum’s life story in the Courier.
That, he told me, was the reason he had called me into the case and pulled Revella Clay back to the office to edit my work. Needless to say, I crammed my typewriter into my suitcase and hit the road, anxious to cover a story that had all the drama and varied play of human emotions that fill the pages of great literature from Plutarch to Shakespeare.
From what I understood, it also offered a rare opportunity to cut to the heart of a murder mystery involving a sordid interracial love affair between two people who were equally prominent within their respective communities.
Nunn was right: there might be a book in it.
“Don’t your ticket say Live Oak?” a voice boomed overhead.
“Yes, sir,” I replied, grabbing my purse and briefcase with one hand and my tired old coat and hat with the other. Stepping off the bus and pulling my overcoat tight around me against the cold damp mist, I caught the smell that rain leaves after falling on dirt baked too long by the sun.
“Need a ride?” a cheerful voice greeted me as I was retrieving my luggage. I bent down to see an elderly colored man flashing a toothless grin. Gasping after lugging my belongings to the curb, I managed a “Yes, please,” making a mental note to cut down a pack a day on my cigarettes.
The driver jumped out of the cab like a twenty-year-old, circling it to grab my suitcase.
“Be careful,” I warned, thinking of my typewriter packed inside. “It’s heavy.”
“I’m use’ to it,” the driver replied, securing my suitcase in the trunk. “It do be a bit heavy, though.”
As soon as he had me settled in the backseat, the driver ran to his side of the car and started the meter. “Where you headed, miss?”
“I need to go to the corner of Woods Avenue and Southwest Sixth Street,” I replied.
“That be Matt Jackson’s place…you kin?”
“I’m a friend of the family.”
“You looks like one of them reporter fellas been snoopin’ ’round here lately…only you’s a woman.”
“How’d you guess?”
The driver chuckled, stealing a glance at me through his rearview mirror. “You lucky you come when you did—rain’s started to cool things down a mite. Before today, we ain’t had none in months. Had some hail, but that just made things worse—ripped up folks’ ’bacca sump’m awful!”
“I’m glad the weather has improved,” I commented, too tired to participate in the pleasantries expected of folks in this part of the country.
The driver stared at my reflection again. “Before you goes nosin’ ’round ’bout Ruby McCollum, I might oughta tell you she gots a date with Old Sparky.”
I knew that the driver was referring to Florida’s electric chair at Raiford, the very prison that Ruby had first been rushed to after the murder.
“You know her?”
“Ever’body know Ruby McCollum…ever’body.”
“You want to tell me about her?” I asked, intrigued by what the man might know.
“Like I done told you, miss, she a dead woman,” the driver insisted, bearing left to follow the bend in Highway 90.
“Do you think she shot Dr. Adams?”
“Everbody know she shot the doc. Rich niggah got upset about her doctah bill and done gone and shot the only doctah in Suwannee County visits colored folks. Gottah be a special place in hell for the likes of that woman.”
“Sounds like you already have her tried, convicted, and sentenced.”
“Good to meet you, Lijah.”
“I don’t know where you from, lady, but ’round these parts Ruby be lucky she made it to the jailhouse. ’Round these parts, most niggahs that shoots a white man done be swingin’ from some big oak tree befo’ sunset.”
“So why’s this McCollum woman so different?”
“Humph!” Lijah muttered. “’Cause she be rich, that why. If it’d be any other niggah, things be a whole lot different, I can guar-awn-tee you that this instant minute.”
“A rich colored woman in Live Oak?” I challenged, hoping to draw more out of the driver now that the rhythm of his voice, falling into the cadence of his native dialect, told me he was becoming more comfortable with me.
Lijah turned left onto a dirt road and stopped in front of a well-maintained two-story Spanish-style home with a tall Mexican palm planted in the middle of its circular drive. A thick twelve-foot bamboo hedge surrounded the house on three sides, almost touching the stucco walls, embracing it like a mother protecting her child. The driveway had a low brick fence guarded by two concrete lions. It was difficult to tell by the dim light of the streetlamp, but the house appeared to be some shade of light tan or yellow stucco.
“You see that place?” Lijah asked, pointing to the house.
I leaned over to take another look. This time, in the glow of the streetlamp, I saw a large detached building to one side, apparently a garage.
“That be the McCollum’s.” He paused for my reaction.
“My house would probably fit quite nicely inside the living room.”
“So would mine—’long with the outhouse.” Lijah turned and pointed across the street to one of the tin-roofed bungalows surrounding the McCollum house. “And that be Matt Jackson’s place.”
“In that case, I suppose I’ve arrived.”
Although it was hard to make out in the dark, Matt Jackson’s house, sporting a fresh coat of white paint, appeared to be better maintained than the other shanties in the neighborhood. Even so, it was eclipsed by his sister’s mansion.
Lijah got out of the cab to unload my suitcase and ferry it up the front porch steps. “That be fifty cents, ma’am.”
“Thank you,” I said, fishing four quarters out of the bottom of my purse. “I appreciate your handling that heavy suitcase.”
The old man flashed a broad grin. “Thank you kindly, ma’am. You give me a call if you needs to get ’round town while you’s here. Matt got a phone and he know my number.”
“I will,” I assured him, and he got into his cab and drove off.
While I walked up the porch steps enjoying the cool evening breeze scented with wood smoke from the neighborhood fireplaces, I felt a little uncomfortable about entering a relative stranger’s house when he was not at home. Matt had insisted that I stay as his guest while I was covering the trial, assuring me that I could help by keeping an eye on the house while he had to be out of town on family business. And I had already prepared myself to accept the inevitable gossip that was bound to circulate about a strange woman staying with him while his wife was out of town. So, I concluded that my uneasiness had more to do with the sense of responsibility I felt being charged with looking after someone else’s property.
Opening the front door with the key Matt had left under the doormat, I dragged my suitcase inside and flipped the wall switch to see a simply furnished, neatly kept living room: small overstuffed sofa and matching armchair with white crocheted lace doilies pinned neatly on the backs and arms. I stepped to a potbellied stove between the living and dining rooms and found it still warm enough to comfort my cold, arthritic fingers.
Having warmed my hands, I found a 1952 wall calendar from Mizelle’s Feed Store, hanging beside a door that Matt had told me led to my bedroom. Inside, I found the bed carefully made with a plush white chenille bedspread. The covers were invitingly turned down, and a small lamp on the bedside table cast a warm glow on the yellowing flowered wallpaper. On the wall in front of the bed was a mirrored dresser with a vase filled with bright bronze and gold chrysanthemums.
Throwing off my shoes, I fell back onto the bed. This is heaven, I thought, sinking slowly into the delightful feather-stuffed mattress that reminded me of home.