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"Lester Changes"

                by Marcella Carri

 

Lester Monroe Was a Bad Bad Man

 If I die, please give this to my daughter Gertrude.

 

              I don't know if you remember Lester Monroe. Folks were not likely to discuss him in front of children.  He was a real bad man. Now that I think about it, if there ever was a man who had a killing coming, it was that fool, Lester Munroe. As a Christian woman of course,  I shouldn't judge a man lest I be judged, but I expect  at the very least,  Jesus is already terribly disappointed in me.

              I was hot, hungry and exasperated. It was about two o’clock that Sunday afternoon, and I was finally walking home from church. We had a visiting preacher who considered that the Lord had laid a heavy load of sin on some folks in our church.  He was convinced that only he could speak to this, and he had made up his mind nobody was going home until somebody was saved, if it took all Sunday to do it.

             It was indeed hot as the hinges of hell, and the ladies of the church were working their fans so fast they sounded like bees in a hive. Soon, ole Miz Pritchard got the vapors, and had to be carried from her pew; although, I did see her eyes open wide as the four elders carried her outside. I suspect, she was revived and in her buggy in about three minutes flat and on down the road.

             Finally, about one o’clock, two or three men and Lettie Turner couldn’t stand it any more and walked down in front of the church to be redeemed, even though everyone, but the visiting preacher, knew they had been saved years ago.

             Lettie gets saved every time we have a revival because it gives her a chance to confess her many sins. Mostly imaginary, if you ask me, although every time she testified, George Harrington did get very fidgety.

              It took another half hour to congratulate the redeemed before I could start my long walk home. In about one block, I knew how the Israelites felt trudging through the desert for forty years. My feet were all swollen up and my stomach was growling at the thought of the fried chicken and potato salad that was waiting for me in the icebox.

            The very minute I walked through my front door, I heard crashes and terrible moaning noises coming from my kitchen. I ran through the house without even taking my hat off. I could see Mister Lester Munroe was beating on Little Willie Washington right in my kitchen.  Now you know, despite his name, William was a pretty big boy, who probably could have defended himself, except of course he was black, so he couldn’t defend himself, because Lester was white.  What in the Sam Hill they were doing in my kitchen was a mystery to me.  Poor William was already bleeding mightily from his mouth and nose, and that fool Lester just kept punching him.  I swear I heard his ribs crack.

            “Stop! Stop that this instant!”  I screamed, but Lester didn’t even look up. I shouted again, “Stop that!”

             As  you may not know, I was there the night William was born. I helped his Mother Ava birth that child. They had just come back from Detroit. There was no one else around and the baby was coming too fast for anyone else to get there. Men, whatever their color, are useless as ticks on a hound at a time like that.  I shooed everyone out, and Ava and I got that baby born safe in no time. I was pleased to help. His family had worked for my husband, Tom, and I for years. They lived on our property, back before we lost everything, and Tom ran off like the coward he was.

             Now it certainly seemed like Lester meant to kill that boy. What could I do? Before I knew what I’d done, I grabbed the cast iron chicken fryer from the stove with both hands and hit Lester upside his head. I hit him with all the strength I had. I told him, "Don’t you get up too fast, Lester Munroe, or so help me God I’ll hit you again." But he did, so I did. Then, I kinda hit him one more time for good measure.

            Oh me, oh my oh, I’m definitely going to hell for this, I thought, as I sat down on the kitchen table trying to quiet my trembling knees. Ole Lester wasn’t moving a hair and he was starting to bleed all over the floor. I bent down to take a look, and his eyes were all glazed over like a hog whose been shot. I was pretty sure, he was dead all right. I had committed murder.  Oh me, oh my oh.

            Well then, I helped William up off the floor, sat him in the kitchen chair and got his face cleaned up a little. His eyes were swelling shut so he wouldn’t be able to see well enough to get home before dark. His ribs seemed like they might be cracked, but they weren’t poking out, so there was a good chance they weren’t broken. His breathing seemed painful but he wasn’t gurgling, so that was good. The new  problem was: how could I get him home without anyone seeing us?  Oh me, I was still shaking like a wet pup when all of a sudden, I thought of it. Ava Washington.

             William’s mother would know what to do. She could be trusted to use her head, even in this dire situation, but how could I get word to her clear over in colored town without anyone noticing? The back path was short and through the woods but it was a steep uphill trek to her house. I knew he couldn’t walk that far uphill by himself. The street was out of the question. A white woman just couldn’t go walking down Main Street with a bleeding young black man. This was 1938, but some things never change.

             Lester Munroe was still bleeding all over by the good rag rug. I had to throw my second best blanket over his face, so he would quit looking at me. That blanket still had some use in it, but it couldn’t be helped. Not only that, My blue voile dress with the practically new hand crocheted collar was ruined too. Why was I thinking about my dress at a time like this? Well,honey, I was too darn scared to think of anything else.

             I unpinned my Sunday hat and sat down and cried for a little bit. I wanted to take my corset off or at least loosen it up some, but there was no time. I cried a little longer, and then blew my nose real good.  I did consider praying for help, but Jesus wasn’t too likely to take my side in this. Crying didn’t seem to be helping either, so I got up, stepped over Lester and got a cool cloth for my face.

            William spoke up, “Miss Olive, I think I could walk a little, if you could help me home.”

            “ Oh  Child, we got to think about this for a minute. How am I going to get you home? Anybody sees us and this will all come out and I will go to jail. No judge will take my part for killing a white man for beating a black boy.”                                                  

            I asked him, “ What were you doing in my kitchen anyway?”

            “Mama sent me with them pickled peaches for you, cause she membered how you like 'em. She sent them jars over as soon as they were cool enough to carry. Told me she would skin me if I dropped one.”

            I looked up and saw, for the first time, the three glass jars of peaches sitting outside on the window sill.

“One got broke when Mister Lester grabbed me. I’ll get it cleaned up.”

             “You will do no such thing. Answer me child, now what were you doing in my kitchen?”

            “Well, I was  putting the peaches on the window sill when I saw Mr. Lester inside your kitchen. He was coming fast through the back door when he dropped  your necklace of pearls from his hands. I saw him. Then he saw me and saw me see him. He came after me and jerked me off my feet. I dropped that jar of peaches and he pulled me in inside the door and beat me. I told him I would not tell, but he wouldn’t stop beating me. Miss Olive, if you did not help me, I would, sure to sweet Jesus, be dead.”

            I walked over and put my hand on his shoulder.  “All right, All right, Child, don’t cry; we haven’t got time to cry.” I knew I had to get him out of my kitchen before my neighbors came home from their church. I couldn't have them involved in this. I rifled through Lester’s coverall pockets, and sure enough, there were my anniversary pearls, and sixteen dollars and a quarter.

“Miss Olive, I think I can make it to my house, we're gonna need a lil help.”

            “Sit still,  I told him. You can hardly make it across this kitchen floor. I’m going to take the back path and go get your mother. She will know what to do .”

            It was coming near twilight, and the lightning bugs were out as me and Ava hurried into the back yard, leading her ole mule pulling a sledge. You know, it’s a  wooden contraption used to drag heavy loads of branches when the field are cleared. We tie the mule’s halter line to the back porch  banister and got up the back steps into the kitchen.

             Poor Ava Washington  did let out a whoop when she saw her son’s battered face. William’s eyes were completely swollen shut now and his bottom lip was unrecognizable. I'll do what I can for tonight. I will fix him up better, tomorrow, when I get him home. Please chip me a little bit of ice, and I will tie it in a rag to get the swelling down. Can I leave him here tonight?'

I nodded my consent.

             Ava continued “ Right now, we need to get that nasty Mr. Lester out of here before anybody comes lookin´for him. I think it's gonna be okay. His lil skinny wife ran off cause he beat her so hard that her face is all sideways now. And the rest of his people are gone or in jail.”   Ava put the ice compress on William’s eye, then said “Nobody gonna miss Mr. Lester foe a lil while.”

            “Now,  Miss Olive, grab you up one corner of that blanket and real slow like,  We’ll pull him down the steps and onto the sledge. Thanks be to God, he long, but he scrawny.” We rolled him over onto my second best blanket and each grabbed a corner.

             Ava gasped and gave the burden one more pull. “Hold this door open, William. Then, when we gone, get in the back bed room and stay still till I come for you tomorrow, boy.”

            Well, don’t you know, Lester Monroe wasn’t a bit more accommodating in death than he was in life. Darn if he didn’t come bouncing off that blanket, twice, as we tried to get him down the porch stairs.  His head took sort of an odd bounce. We had to go inside and get William. It  finally took all three of us to get him pulled onto that sledge. We drew buckets of water from the well and washed off the steps as best we could.

“We’ll  need a shovel.”  Ava said, as she leaned onto the mule, her voice labored and breathless.

            “Just a minute,” I said. I was winded and still had on my Sunday shoes, which were ruined. Couldn’t be helped. I couldn’t catch my breath. My hands were on my knees, and  I was bent double.

 “I got another idea,” I said. “There is a dry well on the back of this old property, behind that far stand of cottonwoods.” I was breathing pretty heavy, because my corset was still laced tight- no time to take it off now.

             “ I was after Tom for years, to do a better job of covering that darn well before some child fell into it. But he was always too busy. I think the wooden cover should be pretty well rotted through by now. We can pry it off and dump Lester down there. I’ll get the crowbar. It is under the back porch step.” Thankfully, it was right where I remembered.

             “We need to get this sledge moving. I told Ava, “ You lead the mule and I will walk behind and scrub out the tracks with a tree branch. If we are careful, the wild honeysuckle vine will cover the rest  by next week. I think I have a rope in the chicken house. We can get it around Lester at least once so he won’t fall off. We need to hurry before anyone comes.”

            Well, it was a mercifully short trip and Lester only half slid off once more. We got the cover off the dry well without falling in ourselves. But you know, one more odd thing did happen. Just as I shoved Ole Lester Monroe down in to the blackness I could swear,  I heard him moan. It was pretty loud. Ava heard it too.

 “Did you…?” I started to say.

“No, I did not hear one thing, and neither did you.”

About that time, there was a series of loud thumps as he hit the sides and then the bottom of the well. There might have been another sound. I am not sure.

             We got the rotting wood cover back over the hole and brushed around the edges and down the path with small branches to cover the tracks.  Ava took the mule up  her path and I took my path where it forked behind the cottonwoods. Neither one of us said a  goodby. We just went to our homes.

            I burned up my best Sunday shoes and blue voile dress with kerosene, shared my chicken and peaches with Willie, who wasn’t very hungry. Then, I wrote myself a note to get Big Jim to repair the cover to that old dry well at the back of my property in a few months, before the first snow, so no one would fall in. It was dangerous.

           

 

Marcella Carri says "Lester Monroe and his demise are part of a novel I'm writing set in the depression. The courage of the people of that era fascinates me. So many things have changed, and so many things that should have, haven't. My work has previously appeared in excusemei'mwriting,com."