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Authors: Ravi Howard

Driving the King

BOOK: Driving the King
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For Laura, Ellis, and Cole


The art of fiction is an art of make-believe.

—Albert Murray,
The Hero and the Blues

Chapter 1
Montgomery, Alabama

11:40 A.M.

he inbound plane was too far to see, but it would arrive on time. The desk clerk at the Centennial Hotel had called Eastern Airlines for me, and the operator said the flight had left Midway on schedule. I worried about that snow Chicago folks talk about, Lake Michigan spinning up its own kind of winter and airlines canceling flights on account of it. A clear sky was a sign that my plan might work after all. Time and weather had been kind, and the flight had surely crossed the Tennessee line by then, coming south over Alabama. In twenty minutes, Nat Cole would be on the ground in Montgomery.

I found a parking spot in the row of hired cars, just across the tree line from the rental lot. The sedans and
trees had the same holiday colors—pearl and candy red on the Christmas bows and paint jobs. Garland did for the bare branches what chrome did for the fenders and the grilles. All the new models were built low, like they'd been stepped on. Seemed like everything was made with rocket ship lines, like a Ford or a Spitfire might get launched into space and take a trip around the world.

The airport was built low just like the cars parked in front. In the year I'd been gone, that stretch of country pasture had been cleared and paved, and a brand-new terminal had been built, futuristic, or somebody's best guess at what the future might look like. Concrete awnings and steel-framed windows. Red clay had settled on the base, and a good bit still caked the grout of the low bricks. It was a young, new place that looked as much planted in the ground as it did built.

As new as the place was, the line of hired cars told me I was in the same old Montgomery. My Packard fit right in with the older rides and their Negro drivers, some behind the wheel and some on the sidewalk, waiting for whoever was on that plane out of Chicago. Aside from that new airport, Montgomery's sidewalks had changed. Boycott walkers had filled them for a year. The busses looked old and empty, like the locust shells I used to find in the woods. They carried something fearsome once,
but in the end, they were nothing but husks I could crush in my hand.

From what I had seen, the people enjoyed their walking. For those who didn't, a ride was easy enough to find. In the week I'd been back, I had seen many a driver pull to the curb to let walkers slide into empty seats and let the tires move for them so they could spare their feet a mile or two.

I offered a couple a ride that morning on my way to the airport. I watched them while I pulled to the side of the road. The girl had said something to make the boy laugh, but laughter or no, they were quick to glance my way, taking in the strange car slowing down on that empty stretch of Selma Highway. Maybe a year's worth of violence had taught them as much. The girl had turned a golf club into a walking stick, shiny bamboo with the iron head turned into a handle. Selma Highway had few sidewalks and enough Johnson grass for critters and snakes. That stick might come in handy if she found loose footing or creatures. There were other hazards. Some of the boycotters had been messed with, beaten. But the two of them looked in my car, saw my face, a kind black stranger with empty seats, and knew they had no reason to worry.

“Car pools don't always come this far out, so we appreciate you stopping,” she said.

He tipped that apple cap at me and then to the young lady as he held the door for her. Seemed they were sweet on each other. I could tell by the way they said thank you and you're welcome with nods and eyes, nary a word.

The young man was on his way to the same place I was, wearing the uniform of the porters at Dannelly Field. The young woman wore the blue smock of Colonial Bakery, red-and-yellow logo just like the bread wrappers. They had the jobs that required first names stitched onto their chests, but I asked them all the same, introduced myself properly. With that the three of us headed down Selma Highway, Yvette Haynes, Claude Washington, and me. When they called me Mr. Weary, I told them Nathaniel was just fine.

Yvette folded her sweater into her canvas bag, and took out an apron wrapped in plastic. Half of Montgomery walked with their work whites wrapped up or folded inside out to keep them clean through all that traveling. Every season brought a different kind of road dust—pollen, red dirt, mud, crushed leaves. The boycott was a new kind of season, and it had brought problems besides the dust and the weather. The covered clothes were a shield for Yvette as much as that bamboo was her sword.

“They throw things at us sometimes, Mr. Weary. I can't show up at work looking any old kind of way if and when they do.”

Her apron was bleached clean, but the satchel carried the smell of vanilla and cinnamon. Every piece of Christmas sweets Colonial made had a little nutmeg, and that canvas had some of the scent, too. The car smelled a little more like Yuletide, which was as much the season as it was the boycott's anniversary.

“Me. I'm fine walking. Did me some good. Got back down to my playing weight,” Claude said. “I was all-county everything at Carver High School. Shortstop. Point guard. Free safety. I believe I told Yvette that. She might have seen me when we used to run all over her boys at Booker T.”

He said as much, resting his arms on the front seat, putting on like she wasn't right next to him.

“I believe you reminded me a few times. Didn't give me enough time to forget.”

When we got to the Colonial gates, Yvette thanked me for the ride and told Claude she'd see him that afternoon. After he let her out, he was about to get in the front seat before I stopped him. “No, you're fine back there,” I said. He'd be on his feet carrying bags all day, so he might as well stretch out.

“If I clock in early, they don't pay me until the hour starts. But they'll tell me to get busy just the same.”

“Don't work for free, Claude. If they got money to build this place, they got money to pay you. I'm on the clock, so
you might as well keep me company until the plane gets here.”

Claude switched hats, folded the corduroy into his satchel, and put in its place the red porter's cap.

“Glad you stopped.”

“It's what I do. Seems strange to leave somebody walking with an empty backseat.”

“Some won't bother, though. Especially chauffeurs. They'll pass in a hurry and kick dirt up in your face in a hot minute. Scared their white folks might find out they rode somebody.”

“The man I work for won't give me any grief for riding you and Yvette. If he still lived here he'd be walking, too.”

Claude gave me a look, and then he turned his eyes all around the car, from the ceiling's stitching down to the pinstripe upholstery and the heartwood floorboards. He stared at everything like my boss's name was stitched somewhere, an autograph in silver thread. They do good work in Detroit, but mine wasn't factory. The custom work gave that old car a second life, new guts on good bone. It might as well look better than it did the first time around.

“He lives in Los Angeles now, but he was born here. Stopped over in Chicago to see some family on his way, but he's on the next flight. I want you to get his bags for me.”

“What's his name? I like to know their names when they get off the plane.”

“You'll know his name when you see him. Nat Cole's on that flight.”

“Nat King Cole?”

“Yep. Nat King Cole.”

“Coming here? To Montgomery?”

“This is home. If a man can't come home, then home ain't about much.”

I looked through the rearview, but Claude wasn't looking at me. Seemed he was staring at the radio that was quiet just then. Whatever he heard he was spinning in his head.

“How old are you?” I asked him.

“Twenty-one. Well, I will be come January.”

“You remember what happened last time Nat Cole was here?”

“From people talk about it. Gang of white boys came out of nowhere. They say one jumped all over him. Then the white boy got jumped on. Some soldier.”

“They tell you what happened after?”

“Sent the soldier off to Kilby. Hell, he might still be there.”

“No, I'm out now, Claude. Been free for a year and some change. Went to California, but I'm home for a spell.”

He touched the bill of that cap and tipped it just so, and then he pulled it off completely.

“Welcome home.”

We do that hat tip for all kinds of reasons. Respecting somebody's home. Speaking of the dead and buried. Excuse me and much obliged and farewell and anything else.

“You know anybody in Kilby, Claude?”

He said so and called a name; the whole while his fingers and nerves made a handful of taps on that hat, the patent leather hard as a tambourine.

“You pray for him then. Write him a letter and tell him you're praying for him. Then pray for him some more. Even if he gets out. You pray they don't send him back.”

The hat went back on his head, and he nodded while he straightened it.

“Why you come back from California? I damn sure wouldn't come back.”

“A few good reasons. People need to see my face to know I'm still here.”

If I said more I would have to say it all. And it was ten until the hour by then, and we both had schedules to keep.

“The young lady. You asked her on a date yet?”

The stammering told me the answer even if he couldn't outright.

“Sounds like you want to see her somewhere else besides this road every day.”

“Yeah, but I want to make it nice. Not just a movie or something. Some place real nice. You know what I mean?”

“I know exactly.”

I pulled a twenty from my billfold, young, fresh-cut money that had not seen many hands other than mine.

“That's yours for this business I need you to take care of. Nat's getting off that plane with his road manager. Skip will handle his own bag. Nat's got two. I don't like to carry his bags, because I need to watch for trouble. Need to have my hands free.”

He looked at my fingers then, that bit of mangle and the knuckle swelling that never went away, some from the war and some from Kilby.

“That won't be a problem,” he said, and folded that money in his pocket.

“Second thing, I want you to talk to Yvette this afternoon. Ask her to the Centennial Ballroom tonight. You asked why I came back. To give you a show.”

Claude Washington, Carver ballplayer who could run a country mile, needed a second to catch his breath.

“I believe I can. Absolutely,” he told me. He smoothed that chest pocket like the money needed tending. “I thank you. My eagle came a little early this week.”

“How it's supposed to be. Make your own paydays, Claude.”

He breathed out one good time. That all-county-everything voice came back.

“Only thing is, Nat Cole doing a show in town and I haven't heard a thing about it. I'm kind of nosy, and something like that I'd know about.”

“Kind of a secret, for a few more hours at least. Last time the whole world knew Nat Cole was on his way, and the wrong folks were ready for some trouble. They need to stay in the dark. But since you like to hear things on the vine, now you can be the one to spread the word.”

“Seems like he'd be downtown somewhere. The Paramount or the Empire or some such.”

“You couldn't sit in the front row downtown, now could you? When I say this show is for you and yours, I mean it.”

“What about the white folks?”

“Not your worry.”

A chauffeur parked right behind me and got out to clean the grille of his people's Cadillac. It was easier while the metal was still hot, but the grime looked like pine tar with needles and sawdust mixed in. That driver was wiping so hard, he was liable to break a sweat. Maybe he worked for some of that old money up in lumber country. He had his work cut out, trying to keep the shine without scratching the chrome.

“Me and Yvette in the front row.”

Not the least bit of question in what Claude said. He just liked the way it sounded, as he should have. On that night when Nat Cole was attacked, I had been in the balcony with a girl and all kinds of plans in my head. Those forever kind of plans.

“White tablecloth. Candle. A little card on the table with your name on it. Just like we do it in Los Angeles, on Central Avenue and Sunset and whatnot.”

He looked off somewhere, his mind already sent on ahead to the evening.

“What if she says no?”

“She walks through that dust with you every morning, so it seems like she'd be keen on a show.”

His soles tapped against the pine of the floorboards. Maybe Claude was a pacer, walking back and forth when he had something on his mind. The tapping turned to the scrape of him pivoting, to look through the back window toward the runway in the middle of that pastureland. There it was, not much to see yet, but the plane had dipped under the lowest of the clouds.

“Here he comes now, on his way to give you a show, my friend,” I said.

Claude opened his door in a hurry, and I heard an engine. It wasn't the plane's noise, because the propellers were too far to hear that turning. On the other side of the
near fence, another redcap sat on a tractor hooked to a flatbed meant for the luggage.

“What's Mr. Cole carrying?”

“Two Hartmann cases.”

“The rawhide ones or waxed?”


“Good. Rawhide looks old after a while. The waxed hold up nice. They ought to look like the money you pay, if you ask me.”

One last question before he closed the door.

“That one who jumped on Nat Cole. Some people say you beat that cracker with a trombone. I heard some say trumpet. I'm wondering which way is true.”

“Neither. I beat him with a microphone.”

Claude tipped that hat once more, and I noticed then the rough patch in the patent leather where his fingers had rubbed away the gloss.

BOOK: Driving the King
9.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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