Two metal fans hummed loudly as they blew hot air, stiff with the smell of shoe polish and rusty metal, from one corner of the living room to the next. The living room was, really, the only room. Rufus McFadden lived alone in a century-old cabin, festooned with densely piled debris. Old newspapers, tattered shoes, hunched metal cans and wobbly crates gave the house a feeling of nostalgic intimacy for those who knew Rufus, but for strangers the house was a convoluted mystery of waste.
Intricate, narrow alleys snaked through the debris from the “parlor” where Rufus was sitting, into the “bedroom” corner, across to the “kitchen” corner, and back, by inscrutable geometry, into the “parlor.” He knew perfectly every invisible wall and doorway; the imagination is the best architect.
Rufus leaned forward in his ancient recliner, which slouched permanently, as if slain long ago. Beads of sweat glistened on his scruffy jowls and cheeks. He squinted his eyes, foggy with cataracts, and licked his lips. A torn, sweat-soaked shirt lay draped over his arm. His dark green slacks were soaked with sweat as well, but his leathery feet were dry, bobbing distractedly on the floor. Slowly, he wiped the sweat from the back of his broad, thick, black hands onto his chubby thighs. He wore no watch, owned no clocks, and never had. Having lived all of his sixty-two years in Mansen, Louisiana, Rufus had the only clock he needed: the sun. Find shade – tick! – when the sun is up and rest – tock! – when it is down.
As the sun stared down angrily at his sturdy, sheet metal roof, Rufus held a thread in one callused hand and a needle in the other. He held them carefully. He held them as though they were newborn chicks. He was trying to thread the needle, for he had accidentally torn the sleeve from a shirt and wanted to mend it. But the sewing was not going well.
Holding his breath each time, like a sniper, Rufus pinched the needle repeatedly, trying vainly for a better grip. Exhaling sharply, he let his sore hands droop. He ruffled his forehead and reached for a sip of water. The water was warm in his mouth. As Rufus lowered the glass, he noticed a small white boy leaning in his doorway. The boy, shirtless in oversized jeans, said nothing. Rufus licked water from his lips and blinked. He replaced the glass in a hollowed television set.
“Can I help you, young fella?” Rufus said.
“No, sir. I’m just watchin’,” the boy answered, matter-of-factly.
“M-hm,” Rufus intoned. “Ain’t much here for you to watch, boy. Just an old man tryin’ to sew.”
“You ever thread a needle afore?” the boy asked. He had a musical, glassy voice, edged faintly with the hint of a challenge.
“Well, acourse, son. I’m an old man. I done a lot in my days. Now run along now,” Rufus retorted.
The boy stuffed his hands in his pockets, and jerked away from leaning on the doorjamb. His lips formed a shallow, bloodless trench. He shrugged.
Rufus ignored the boy, preferring his stubborn needle and thread. He breathed heavily, his chest heaving like a bellows, his lips gaping. He was intent but fared no better with the thread. He pinched the needle a few times and then flicked his eyes up at the boy.
“I’m just watchin’,” the boy insisted, flatly.
“No, son, you distractin’ me. What’s your name, anyhow?” Rufus asked, resting his hands together peacefully in his lap. His feet bobbed slowly.
“Name’s Elroy. Elroy Tanner. My pa’s named Elroy, too. I ain’t never seen a man thread no needle.”
Rufus grinned. He shifted in his recliner and it grunted sleepily.
“I reckon you ain’t seen a lot, Elroy. Or I should say Elroy, Jr.”
Elroy stood still. He appeared confused that the old man was grinning. The fans buzzed, and the sun stared unblinkingly at the ground outside. A sudden breeze swept dust across the porch behind Elroy. In the doorway he looked like a shrunken angel of darkness, bathed in light from behind: he was a dangerous silhouette waiting for his wings to sprout.
“Maybe your hands are too big. Or maybe that needle’s just too tiny. You ain’t such a good sewer, is ya?” Elroy said. He was getting bored, and he didn’t like the old man smiling.
“How many needles you ever thread, hm?” Rufus answered. He was getting annoyed, and he was no longer smiling. He bent his head disdainfully down toward his needle and thread.
Unfazed, Elroy continued, “Well, none, I guess. Sewing ain’t for menfolk, anyhow. My mama done thread hundreds o’ needles. She say you gotta be pretty clever and careful to thread a needle. But you ain’t so clever, is ya … nigger?” He said this last word like he was in a spelling bee. NIGGER: N-I-G-G-E-R, NIGGER. Elroy bit into that jagged, adult word like it was a mysterious candy: hesitantly, curiously, as if it were a bit too big for his mouth or as if it might be poisoned. So much for boredom.
Rufus, who had been eyeing his needle and thread as Elroy spoke, suddenly twitched and pricked his finger.
“Lordamighty!” Rufus barked as he stuck his bloodied finger in his mouth. “What you say, boy?” The fans wheezed dolefully and paper rattled in nervous heaps.
“I just say you ain’t so clever, by my lights. Pa say niggers, leastaways nigger menfolk, cain’t thread no needles. He say they cain’t plow a straight line neither, or fall a live tree,” Elroy reported. A strong, sudden breeze kicked more dust, fluttering Elroy’s flaxen hair about his ruddy ears.
“Your pa say a lot, don’t he? Too much, I reckon. And I reckon you listen to him too much. So listen here: you in my house, uninvited, and you insultin’ me. I told you afore, now leave!” Rufus shouted. Blood oozed from his big finger into his palm. The old man wiped his hands clean with a rag.
Rufus was not a violent man, but he was a big man. Having spoken, he rested his hands on the arms of the recliner, like a king. Then he pushed himself halfway out of the chair towards Elroy. The chair groaned under him. He exhaled sharply, watching the boy with a cottony glare. Elroy took one startled step backward, yanking his hands from his pockets. His eyes wavered from Rufus’s for a moment – but only for a moment. He swayed forward slowly, realigned his bare feet, and crossed his spindly arms, like a defiant admiral on the prow of a doomed ship. Pa had taught him never to back down from a nigger. Not so long as black is black and niggers is black, he would say.
Silence clouded the air, save for the wheezing fans. Rufus raised his eyebrows, mockingly, as if to say, “Is that so?” He pursed his lips, closed his eyes, and slumped back in his chair, grunting in harmony with it. He flapped his hand at Elroy, as if warding off a fly, or scoffing at a clown performing a predictable – and unfunny – routine he’d seen too often.
Looking entranced, Rufus squinted, pinched the needle, raised the thread – and slid it smoothly through the eye. He looped a knot deftly and flipped the shirt into his hand. He fought back a wave of hot laughter, as Elroy slapped his feathery hands quietly to his forehead and then clapped them over his mouth. Even with his foggy eyes, Rufus could see shock shriveling the boy’s egg face. Grinning widely, he resumed sewing, his hands shepherding fabric and needle as ably as any tailor. He inhaled the rich smell of shoe polish, enjoying the small breezes his old metal fans sent him, in his house – in his parlor.
“Run along now, boy,” Rufus said. “Pleasant company is the first to leave, ya know. Mayhaps go tell your pa what you been up to.” A grin as faint as dew rested on his sweaty lips. He began humming a swift, hopping tune to which his needle and thread danced.
Elroy spun on his heels and sprinted home across the hot dusty fields. Rufus could just make out small bushels of dust bloom at his every step, until they disappeared along the bright horizon in the hills of Mansen, Louisiana.