Excerpt from 'Fearless Jones'
MY USED-BOOK STORE had been open for just about a month when the police showed up. I hadn't called them, of course; a black man has to think twice before calling the cops in Watts. They came to see me late that afternoon. Two well-built young men. One had dark hair and the other sported freckles.
The dark one wandered around the room, flipping through random books, looking, it seemed, for some kind of contraband. "Where'd you get all these books, son?" the other cop asked, looking down on me.
I was sitting in my favorite swivel chair behind the makeshift table-desk that I used for book sales and purchases.
"Libraries," I replied.
"Stole 'em?" the dark-haired cop asked from across the room. There was an eager grin on his face.
"Front'a each page marked discarded," I said, editing out all unnecessary words as I spoke. "Library throws away thousands of books every year."
I reached for a paper folder at the far end of the table, and the cop standing over me let his right hand drift toward his holster. I removed a sheet of paper and handed it over slowly.
"This letter," I said, "is from the office of the head librarian downtown."
The freckled and frowning cop used his left hand to take the letter from me.
I was put out by the roust but not surprised. The police weren't used to a Negro in Watts going into business for himself. Most black migrants from the South usually got jobs for the city or did domestic work or day labor. There were very few entrepreneurs active among us at that time. That's why I had asked Miss Ryan, assistant to the president of the county library system, for a letter of explanation. She had written the letter on official letterhead, addressed "To whom it may concern," stating that any library book marked discarded was no longer the property of the library and could be disposed of in any way that the current owner saw fit.
Upon reading this the officer's hand moved away from his gun.
"The law says that you're supposed to post business hours clearly on the front door," he said, letting the letter fall back on the table.
There was no such ordinance, and I knew it, but I said, "Yes, officer. I'll take care of it tomorrow."
I felt no rancor toward them. Being challenged by the law was a rite of passage for any Negro who wanted to better himself or his situation.
I HAD OPENED my nameless bookstore on Central just down from 101st Street. It was the only one of its kind for miles. I carried everything from Tolstoy to Batman, from Richard Wright to Popular Mechanics. No new books, but a used book is just as good as a new one as far as the reading goes.
At first I was scandalized by the thought that a library would discard a book, but once I realized the possibilities for business, I made the rounds of every library in L.A., carting off almost two thousand volumes in just over three months. Then I paid first and last month's rent on a storefront that was down the street from a Holy Roller church called Messenger of the Divine.
My friend Fearless Jones helped me throw together some pine shelving and I was in business. I bought magazines two for a nickel and sold them at twice the price. I traded one book or magazine for two of equal worth.
Business wasn't brisk, but it paid the rent and utilities. And all day long I could do the thing I loved best—reading. I read Up from Slavery, Tom Sawyer Abroad, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Mein Kampf, and dozens of other titles in the first few months. Whole days I spent in my reclining swivel chair, turning pages and drinking Royal Crown colas. Every once in a while I'd have to stop in order to sell an encyclopedia to proud parents or a romance to a woman who needed more than her husband had left at the end of a hard day's work. I had a whole army of little children helpers who'd sort and alphabetize for comic book privileges and maybe a free taco now and then.
For a solid three months I was the happiest man in L.A., in spite of the cops. I had a checking account, and for the first time in my life I was caught up on my bills.
But then Love walked in the door.
It was a cloudless day in October, the year was 1954. It wasn't hot or cold outside, but her dress was definitely a summer frock, white with a floral pattern. The thin straps lay loose on her brown shoulders. She didn't seem to be wearing anything under that dress—not that she needed to. The sunglasses had been pushed up to the top of her head, nestled in the big, floppy curls she'd had done at some beauty shop.
Her face is what scared me. It was too wide to be pretty and too flat to be handsome, but she was beautiful anyway. I wanted to feel my cheek rubbing up against hers.
The last time I'd felt like that about a woman I almost got killed. So the fast beating of my heart was a coin toss between love and fear.
"Is Reverend Grove here?'" she asked me in a breathy voice.
"Reverend William Grove. He preached with Father Vincent and Sister Thalia."
The skirt came down to the middle of her knees. Her legs were bare and her ankles were bound with thin straps of white leather snaking up from delicate sandals.
"I don't know any Grove," I said, forcing my eyes back to her face.
The name had some meaning to me, but it felt so distant that I thought it must be someone from long ago, maybe from down in Louisiana. Certainly not anyone this beautiful girl and I would both know.
She looked around the room, twisting at the waist to see for herself. She had a figure made for that kind of movement. Her eyes lit on a burlap curtain that hung over a doorway.
"Where's that go?" she asked.
"My back room," I said. Then it came to me. "You must be talking about the Messenger of the Divine."
"Oh yes. Yes."
The hope in her voice brought me up out of my chair. She moved toward me. Her hands reached out for me.
"They had a place look like mine down the street," I said.
"But they moved out. Must be two months ago now."
"What?" Her face went blank.
"Moved," I said. "Went away."
"I don't know. They moved out in the middle of the night.
Took everything. All that was left was an empty space and a few paper fans."
I was sad to make my little report because now there was no reason for her to stay and twist around. I realized that I had spent a little too much time lately wrapped up in books. I had the notion that I should go out to the Parisian Room that night.
Just then the young woman leaned backward and then crumpled forward, into my arms. As I stood there holding her steady, the fear fled my heart. At close quarters her scent was floral, but it was also sharp, like the smell after lightning strikes.
"You got some water in the back?" she whispered.
I nodded and led her through the heavy burlap curtain to the back room and put her on my cot. She was mumbling and crying.
"Are you okay?" I asked, perching next to her.
"Where did they go?"
I couldn't find the words to hurt her again.
"What am I gonna do?" she cried, turning her head, looking around in the dark as if the room might somehow transform itself into the church she sought. "Reverend Grove is the only one who can help me now."
"What's wrong?" I asked, thinking, even then, that I didn't really want to know.
"I have to find William. If I don't—" She broke off in tears. I tried to console her but she was bereft.
After a moment or two I heard the front door to the store come open. She heard it too and took in a quick breath. Her fear made me wary again. I rose up and went through the curtain to the store.
The man standing there was a study in blunt. His hairless head was big and meaty. The dark features might not have been naturally ugly, but they had been battered by a lifetime of hard knocks: broken nose, a rash that had raged and then scarred over the lower left side of his face. His eyebrows seemed to be different sizes, but that might just have been the product of a permanent scowl.
"Wherethegurl?" he said in a tone so guttural that for a moment I couldn't make out the words. "Wherethegurl?"
He was about six feet tall (I'm only five eight), but he had the chest and shoulders of someone who should have been much taller. He was a volcano crushed down into just about man size. His clothes were festive, a red Hawaiian shirt and light blue pants. The outfit was ridiculous, like a calico bow on an English bulldog.
"I don't—" I said.
"Wherethegurl, muthahfuckah!" He had the build of a fire-plug but moved like a cat. He had me by the arm and in the air before I could invent a lie.
"Where is she?" He looked around the room and saw that the burlap curtain was the only exit besides the front door. He threw me at the curtain, and I tore it down falling into the back room. He came in right behind me, looking at all the corners and then at the bed.
My eyes were on him.
"This your last chance," he said, threat heavy in each word. I dared a glance at the bed and saw that it was empty.
"I don't know, man," I said as bravely as I could. "She come an' asked about a church used to be around here. I told her that they were gone. So then she said she had to go to the bathroom." I gestured with my hand. He saw the door and flung it open with so much force that one of the hinges ripped loose from the wall. All that was revealed was a lidless commode and tin sink.
"Where is she?" He dragged me to my feet with one hand.
"She must'a gone out the back, man. I don't know."
I think he slapped me, but I've been hit by blackjacks that had more give than his fingers. The taste of salt came into my mouth and the lightbulb on the desk multiplied into a thousand stars.
"Wherethegurl?" a parrot somewhere said.
"She must'a gone out the back," I repeated.
"I'll kill you, niggah, no lie."
He slapped me again and I tried to think of what I could say to save my life. But I didn't know anything, not even the frightened woman's name. I decided that, since he was going to kill me anyway, I would go out bravely. For once I would be as brave as my friend Fearless. I had never stood up to a bully in my life. So at least this one last time, in a back room in Watts, Paris Minton would show some backbone. Fuck you, asshole, was on the tip of my tongue.
"Please don't, brother." My trembling words betrayed me. "I don't know nuthin'."
He slapped me again. My head turned around so far that I was sure my neck had broken.
"You a dead man," my attacker said.
A child's voice squeaked, "Mr. Minton, you okay?"
"Who's that man?" another child screamed.
I fell to the floor, noticing as I hit that my killer wore leather sandals on bare feet. As I lost consciousness I thought that if a man was going to kill me, he should at least wear grown-up men's shoes.