Gene Fletcher

Copyright 2015 by Gene Fletcher

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

The time was the 1950's. The place was a small town in the Deep South that was still segregated by law, tradition and custom. Under this system, it was not possible for a black man or woman to climb the social or economic ladders. Will was one of those men.

Will was the only man who could cut the hedge that surrounded the house where the Edwards family lived. I know that this is true because Miss Hazel said so. Only strangers and Black people called her Mrs. Edwards. Most of us called her Miss Hazel or Aunt Hazel. The Aunt in Aunt Hazel came from a long standing Southern custom of calling a person Aunt without regard to a specific connection by blood or marriage. Regardless of the title, everyone loved Miss Hazel.

She went on to explain that Will worked fast because he had, sometime in the distant past, worked for the circus and he learned to work fast to meet their deadlines. I am not sure how she came to know this about Will but she seemed quite certain that it was true.

Her proof of Will's value was the neatly trimmed hedge around the Azalea covered city lot where the Edwards family lived. The hedge and its maintenance forged a bond between these two that they managed to maintain through a number of years of potential strife in the small town where they both lived, one on the right side of the tracks and the second on the other side of the tracks.

Will was a black man who appeared to be ageless. Judging by his appearance, he was between age 50 and age 75 but he could have been any age and still have been Will. Life had not been kind to Will. Being a black man in the Deep South town of Cross City, Florida, in the 1950's was a hard life and it showed in the balding gray hair, the wrinkles in his face and the stoop of his shoulders. He had lost much of the fine, high stepping spirit that had dazzled the girls and caused the room to be filled with energy and dance. When young Will arrived, the room took on a new dynamic quality. Some of this quality from young Will could still be occasionally seen in old Will's eyes. His eyes were far more revealing than the face he put on for white people. His eyes had just a tiny glimmer of sparkle to remind us of the Will who once was a young man about town. When he was a man in his world.

Like most black people in the south, Will would put on his white mask, the one reserved for encounters with white people. His face would be like a blank canvas. This would insure that no emotion would show through. He would be the happy black man that most whites expected to see.

Like many other poor men and women, Will's life was built around the church and the local Jook. A Jook was a sort of poor man's nightclub at best and a dive at its worst. At its best, the music that was performed was really some of the best around. Establishments like this had musicians' that made musical history all over the South.

Unfortunately, these establishments had a well-deserved reputation for alcohol abuse and violence. On especially wild nights, it was said that the music was stopped periodically to  sweep-up and remove the bodies from the dance floor. The clientele was predominately Black but there were a few Whites who came in for the music or to live a little on the wild side.

The church filled a special spot in Wills life that was both religious and social. Will seemed to deal with the church in the same way that he dealt with life in general. He did the best he could considering the circumstances that he faced as a black man in the segregated South. He was faced with discrimination every hour of his life. And yet, he maintained a positive view of life and he appeared to enjoy life.

Just as Miss Hazel relied on Will to trim the hedge, Will relied on Mrs. Edwards to advance him a modest amount of cash from time to time. I watched this transaction a number of times. Mr. Edwards, a master story teller himself, would often describe these negotiations at family gathering. His descriptions were colorful and filled with the details of the deal as it was made.

It went something like this.

Will would appear in the back yard near the back door of the Edwards house where he would usually expect to find Miss Hazel busy in the kitchen or at work in her sewing room. If she did not see him after waiting a while, he might be brave enough to make a modest noise in hope of attracting her attention. He would not call to Mrs. Edwards and he certainly would not call to Miss Hazel. No black man would dare to speak to a white woman in such a fashion. Black men have been lynched for less. So, Will waited. Will was an old hand at waiting.

Eventually, he would get someone's eye and that person, usually Mrs. Edwards, would say "there is Will in the back yard ..... wonder what he wants"?  We all knew what Will wanted. Will wanted a cash advance to tide him over some crisis in his life.

The rules that they followed did not provide for a simple request for a cash advance against his future wages for trimming the hedge.

Will seemed to feel that each request required some justification in the form of a crisis that required immediate attention and some cash. These terms were unspoken but they were followed each time Will asked for cash.

Following local custom, Will never looked Mr. or Mrs. Edwards directly in the eye. Direct eye contact could be considered confrontational. The two people would make very little small talk. When asked, what do you want, Will? He would look away and say "my Ma Ma died and I needs some money to go to the funeral".

Mrs. Edwards would respond with, "I am sorry to hear that. How much money do you need"?

Will would reply, "$5.00 sho would hep".

Mrs. Edwards would give him the money along with an admonishment. "Now Will you be sure to come next week and cut the hedge. This makes $10.00 dollars I have given you and it's time to trim that hedge."

Wills reply would be, "Yas'mm," I'll be back next week."  And he would walk away with that ambling shuffle that was designed to keep white people satisfied that he was not an uppity Nigger. His pace and his body language were indicators that he was a "good Nigger who knew his place."  He ambled along, not very fast. That would run the risk of being called uppity. Not to slow. That could run the risk of being called a drunk.

When Mr. Edwards told this story, he often repeated a list of various crisis events that Will would relate as the cause of the need for cash. Among these were, My Ma Ma is sick, in the hospital, or dead.

It became a family joke to speculate as to where Will would bury his mother next time.

On one occasion, Will needed money to "lay on the table" at church. It seems that the collection was done by each person walking to the front of the church and placing their contribution on the table for all to see. To avoid the embarrassment of having no money to lay on the table, Will needed some cash.

When Mr. Edwards asked Will how things were going with the Revival at the Church, Will replied that things were doing fine and the Preacher was doing a lot of good work until he run off with one of the members of the congregation.  Mr. Edwards replied, "You mean he ran off with one of the lambs?"

"Yas sir, he sho did!"

Many times after Will had secured some cash from Mrs. Edwards, she would see him down town smoking a cigar and having a good time with his friends. After all, Cross City was a small town.

The secret to the success of this arrangement was that each party understood the terms although to my knowledge the terms were never spoken much less written for anyone to see. Will would keep the hedge trimmed and Mrs. Edwards would occasionally advance Will some cash. The total advanced would never exceed a certain limit. Rather than a simple statement to summarize the deal, they had this elaborate dance that they performed. Each party played by a set of unwritten rules. The details of these rules are difficult to explain because the rules may change depending on who you were talking to, what you were talking about and who else was listening.

This changing relationship between blacks and whites could be seen when two or three black people were approached by a white person, the body language would change as quickly as the tone of voice and the choice of words.

Only a person who lived in a segregated society can truly understand how complex the rules were and how the rules were rules but sometimes they were not rules. One thing you could depend on, the white person was right.

There were many relationships similar to the one that developed between Miss Hazel and Will. Each party to the deal had something of value to offer. Each party filled a need for the other. Each party had respect, in a fashion, for the other. In spite of all these positive factors, the color of Will's skin made the difference.

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