Disclaimer: The following short story contains racially charged dialogue and disturbing subject matter as it reflects the characters and the period in which they exist. In no way does it express the views or opinions of the author.

“The hangman’s gettin’ his today.” A puff of cigarette smoke floated toward the open window. “Yessir. The hangman’s gettin’ his.”

  “Sit down, Joe. Enough witnesses out there already, ain’t there?”

  “What’s eatin’ you, Pal? Since when did you stop likin’ a good hangin’?” Pal looked back down at the revolver he’d been polishing for nearly an hour. It had been three long weeks since he’d been able to clean it. He couldn’t stand a dirty gun. Joe sat down at the other end of the table, exhaling a gray cloud. “There ain’t nothin’ you coulda done. Mitchell dug his own grave. What the hell were you supposed to do? Let him run off with them niggers?” Pal stopped wiping for a moment of thought, then resumed.

  “Ain’t no nigger ever done nothin’ to me,” he said.

  “It ain’t about what a nigger do. It about what a nigger be. A nigger be a nigger. You can’t trust a one of ‘em. Sure as shit, as soon as Mitchell’d got them up north, those damn spooks woulda put a bullet twixed his eyes and made off with his horse an’ his billfold. I’m tellin’ ya. Sure as shit.”

  “Why would they do that to someone just helped ‘em?” Pal asked.

  “’Cause they’s niggers,” Joe answered. “It’s in they blood.” He stamped his cigarette out on the table for emphasis.

 “Nigger blood don’t look no different than any other blood,” said Pal.

 “Sure it do,” said Joe, relaxing. He took out his pocket knife and began scraping the dirt from under his fingernails.

 “Didn’t look no different up in Kentucky.”

 “You just wasn’t payin’ no attention.”

 “Oh… I was payin’ attention.”

 “It’s in they skin, Pal. Come on. I know you ain’t missin’ that.”

 “No, I ain’t missin’ that.”

 “You can learn a nigger a lotta things. How to plow, how to plant, how to harvest, how to build. But you can’t change ‘em. You can’t wash out the nigger. You can’t learn out the nigger. They ain’t never gonna be no more than a bunch o’ damned monkeys. Any chance they’d get, them spooks’d be turnin’ this here country into Afr’ca, chuckin’ spears an’ bangin’ drums. Worst part is, it’d be us white folks chained up like we the slaves. Niggers would be goin’ ‘round murderin’ and rapin’ all our white women an’ chil’en. Lawmen like you an’ me, you know we’d be at the top o’ they kill list. That’s why we gotta keep ‘em under control, ‘specially them bad ones. Ain’t no tellin’ what a bad nigger gonna do.”

 “Ain’t no nigger ever done nothin’ to me,” Pal repeated.

 “Don’t mean they wouldn’t if’n you let ‘em.”

 “Don’t mean they would, neither.”

  “’Cause they’s niggers,” Joe answered. “It’s in they blood.” He stamped his cigarette out on the table for emphasis.
 “Nigger blood don’t look no different than any other blood,” said Pal.

 “The hell’s got into you, Pal?” Joe asked angrily. “You actin’ like there’s somethin’ wrong with killin’ a bad nigger.”

 “I ain’t sayin’ all that.”

 “What you sayin’, then?” Joe demanded, putting his knife away to face Pal who looked down at the gun in his hand.

 “What’s the difference ‘tween a good nigger and a bad nigger?” Pal asked, looking up at Joe.

 “What d’you mean ‘good nigger’? Ain’t no such thing as a good nigger, Pal.”

 “Just s’posin’ there were, Joe.”

 “But there ain’t-”

 “Just, s’pose.”

 “Well,” Joe shrugged after a moment, “a good nigger—s’posin’ there be such a thing—a good nigger know his place, an’ a bad nigger don’t know a nigger’s place.”

 “Okay,” Pal nodded. “What’s the difference ‘tween a good white man and a bad white man?”

 “I ain’t gotta explain a good white man. A good white man do good. A bad white man…” Joe shrugged again. “Well, a bad white man don’t know a nigger’s place, neither. Look at what Mitchell done, helpin’ them coons. He got it all mixed up in his head one way or ‘nother.”

 “So, a bad white man is the same as a bad nigger, is what you’re sayin’?”

 “Now, Pal, ain’t no white man the same as a nigger, good nor bad.”

 “Would you shoot a nigger if’n you caught him rapin’ a white girl?”

 “Sure as shit, I’d shoot that nigger dead.” Joe straightened up proudly.

 “Would you shoot a white man if you caught him rapin’ a white girl?”

 “That ain’t the same thing at all, Pal, an’ you know it.”

 “Why ain’t it?”

 “’Cause, it’s twice the bad if a nigger’s rapin’ a white girl.”

 “To you or to the white girl?”

 “If they ain’t no difference to the white girl, then she mixed up too!”

 “It’s the same crime ain’t it, rapin’ someone?”

 “Yeah, but it ain’t the same if a goddamn nigger do it.”

 “What makes it different?”

 “’Cause they niggers, Pal! That’s why they gotta be kept under control. Why you questionin’ ever’thin’?”

 “You mean make ‘em slaves?”

 “If’n that’s what it takes, an’ we both know that’s what it takes.”

 “Supposin’ you made a white man a slave, put him in chains, took his woman and children away. Supposin’ that. What do you reckon that white man’d do?”

 “That ain’t the same thing.”

 “It ain’t?”

 “You talkin’ ‘bout a white man. We dealin’ with spear-chuckin’ chimps.”

 “What would you do if it was you, Joe? What if you was just some ole whitey slave under the nigger’s thumb? Sweatin’ away every day in their nigger fields, getting’ beat every day with them nigger whips, always hungry, never seein’ your wife and girls again but knowin’, fearin’ that every day, some nigger’s stuffin’ ‘em good? You’d do everything you could to get away, wouldn’t you?”

 “Course I would.”

 “You’d fight back? You’d break out and run?”

 “Sure as shit.”

 “You’d make them niggers pay, wouldn’t you?”

 “You’re goddamn right.”

 “I suppose you’d steal yourself a horse too if’n you could find one, to get you far as you can, quick as you can, right?”

 “Sure as shit.”

 “You’d need food, so you’d steal some of that, too, wouldn’t you? An’ a gun? If one o’ them were to see you, try to stop you, you’d shoot ‘im wouldn’t you?”

 “Sure as shit.”

 “So you’d be runnin’, stealin’, and murderin’…” Pal looked down at the handkerchief in his hands, his thoughts pulling him back and forth. “Sounds a lot like the same shit bad niggers be doin’. There ain’t no difference.”

“… A good white man do good. A bad white man…” Joe shrugged again. “Well, a bad white man don’t know a nigger’s place, neither….”

 “Them niggers is property, Pal! White folks ain’t property o’ no man!”

 “But what was they first, Joe? Was they property first, or was they just niggers first?”

 “You talkin’ nonsense, Pal.”

 “It ain’t no nonsense that anyone would be doin’ the same thing if’n they was treated the same way. You said so yourself.”

 “So, what?”

 “So, there ain’t no difference ‘tween a bad nigger an’ a bad white man. We jus’ say there is ‘cause we’re white an’ ‘cause we’re the ones runnin’ shit. Switch things ‘round an’ niggers would be sayin’ the same ‘bout white folks. They’d be callin’ us property and bad ole whiteys. There jus’ ain’t no goddamn difference, Joe.” Joe looked a long time at Pal who’d gone back to wiping down his revolver, and he wasn’t sure if he should start to hate him or fear him.

 In Joe’s mind, the only thing more dangerous than a nigger, was a nigger lover. They were like spies. Turncoats. You couldn’t trust them, but you couldn’t identify one just by looking at him. They were tricky. They could circumvent law, spawn anarchy and rebellion. At the same rate, hadn’t it been Pal who’d taken the lead while they were hunting down that last group of runaways? Hadn’t it been Pal himself who’d cuffed Thomas Mitchell, his longtime partner? He’d even testified against Mitchell to the magistrate. If it wasn’t for Pal, Mitchell might be rounding up some more runaways instead of standing outside in line at the gallows. Perhaps, it didn’t matter much what Pal thought in his head because Pal didn’t let it get in the way of the job he’d sworn to do. They had to maintain the balance of law and order and keep the peace. Joe had always respected Pal, but in that moment, he realized he neither hated nor feared Pal. Joe wanted to be Pal in some different way he had yet to define for himself.

 “What would you do, Pal?” Joe asked, lighting a fresh cigarette. Pal looked over at him.

 “What would I do, what?”

 “What would you do if’n you was some spook’s slave, jus’ some ole whitey all chained up? What would you do?” Pal sat for a long time, staring at the table between them, his eyes heavy, the dark circles beneath them like the shadows of twin crescent moons. Joe was leaning forward slightly, squinting at him.

 “I can’t rightly say,” said Pal, holstering his pistol. He stood up slowly and approached the window, folding the cloth between his hands.

 “The hell you mean, you can’t rightly say? Why not?” Joe scoffed, second-guessing his newfound desire to be like Pal. “I wanna know what you’d do.”

 Running his thumb along the stitching of the handkerchief, Pal looked out towards the distant gallows. The sun was high, and he could see the one shade of light skin leading the line of dark. Mitchell was first up to climb the platform, and it occurred to Pal how quickly time passed in life. They’d been partners for almost nine years, and there was no question in Pal’s mind that if it wasn’t for Tom, he’d be a dead man. Pal felt pretty certain that he’d done the same for Tom, but even if he had, did it count for anything, now? If anyone had ever tried to tell him it would be his testimony that tightened the rope around his partner’s neck, he’d have knocked their teeth in. Tom didn’t look angry about it at his trial, though, almost as if he approved of Pal doing what was right, even if Pal didn’t like it. Yet, they’d both done what they believed to be right, hadn’t they? The difference was that one had acted according to his conscience and the other according to the law, but how do you string up a man for following his conscience? And if a man’s conscience runs counter to the law, does that make the man wrong or the law wrong?

 Pal couldn’t make heads or tails of it, and it had finally exhausted him. What would he do if the world was opposite? How the hell could he tell that if he couldn’t tell what he’d do in the world as it was? Pal did know, however, what Mitchell would do, and he hung his head as the black bag was lowered over Tom’s face.

 “I guess I’d be a good ole whitey.”


OTHER SHORT STORIES
BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

Enter: OBLIVION

Studies In gray.

THE SALESMAN

Tiny crumbs of asphalt crunched as Rudy parked his cab along the sidewalk. After turning his flag down, he reached over for the lunchbox on the passenger floorboard. It had been four days of peanut butter sandwiches, and he was hoping that today wouldn’t be the fifth. The tin container rattled open, and unwrapping the parchment paper revealed a jelly sandwich. “If that woman don’t beat all,” he chuckled.

   The city of Chicago and its citizens were alive and buzzing around Rudy like a hive of bees. The sun was affectionately combing its fingers through the heights of concrete and steel, down along the avenues, and toward the hidden lakefront. Checking his watch, he estimated that he still had about two minutes and quickly tore away the crust, stuffing a quarter of the sandwich into his mouth. As he chewed deliberately, Rudy considered what the monetary repercussions would be if he sucked it up and put down the fifty cents it would cost for a soup and sandwich at the diner on 5th Avenue.

   “Hiya, Rudy,” a young woman’s voice said through the window. Looking up, Rudy returned the greeting as he cranked the window down. “We should be ready in just a minute.”

   “No rush,” he said. “How you been, Margaret? Busy week so far?”

   “Not as much as last week,” she shrugged. “It’s only Tuesday, though.”

   “Sure is a pretty day,” Rudy commented. “I was thinkin’ about fishin’ on the lake tomorrow if it keeps up.

   “Yeah, it’s really nice out.”

   “Did you know that spring is my favorite season?”

   “I didn’t know that.”

   “Not too hot, not too cold. And you know what? Gloria was even out for a walk this morning.”

   “Really? How’s she been doing?” Margaret leaned one hand on the roof of the car.

   “Some days are better than others, days like today.” Rudy looked pensively ahead down the street. “Seems like it always gets better before it gets worse, but… it’s best to enjoy the good while it lasts. That’s why I don’t tell her about all this,” he admitted, wagging his thumb over his shoulder. “Wouldn’t be any good days if I did.”

   “Makes sense.”

   “Hey, Margaret, she’s ready. You all set?” Another woman had poked her head out from the door of the apartment building beyond them. “Oh, and we got two more calls.”

   “Two?” Margaret repeated.

   “Yeah, so we’re gonna need you to take one,” she confirmed before disappearing back inside.

  “I guess I spoke to soon,” Margaret said, handing him a folded piece of paper. “Here’s the address.”

  “What do you mean, here’s the address? You mean you ain’t comin’?” Rudy asked, suddenly anxious.

  “I’ve gotta stay for these other ladies.”

  “What about the one you got right now?” he demanded. “I ain’t one of ya’ll. I don’t know how to talk to these women.”

   “Nobody said you have to talk. Just drive her there like any other passenger.”

   “South Shore?” Rudy asked, looking at the scribbled address. “That’s near a half hour. Ain’t no woman can be quiet that long.”

   “Just turn on the radio.”

   “What if she doesn’t want no radio on?”

   “Here’s five extra dollars, okay?” Rudy glared at the folded bill in Margaret’s hand.

   “Fine,” he conceded, accepting the money. “But this ain’t gonna be no regular thing, you hear? I’m gettin’ too old to be consolin’ women and all that.”

   “Here she comes,” Margaret said. “Just drive.”

“Seems like it always gets better before it gets worse, but… it’s best to enjoy the good while it lasts. That’s why I don’t tell her about all this.”

Aggravated, Rudy inhaled another quarter of his sandwich before returning the rest to the lunchbox, muttering under his breath about the new generation and their ridiculous expectations on people his age. At least he would be able to get that soup and sandwich, now. What time did they stop serving that lunch special, though? In an hour, maybe? His estimation of the fastest route to take was paused as the woman he was to drive opened the door and took her seat in the back. She wore a pressed, blue dress, black flats, and one of the little hats all the women seemed to be wearing those days. Gloved hands tightly clutched a small, cloth purse over the edge of her knees.

   “All right, Jane, this is Rudy,” introduced Margaret. “He’s gonna drive you to the location just like we talked about. If you need anything, just tell him. Okay?”

   “Okay,” Jane nodded timidly.

   “You’re sure you want to do this?” Margaret squinted as she waited for a response. Jane nodded again, only silently this time, and with down-turned eyes. Margaret stood straight, closed the door, and hit twice on the roof.

Rudy pulled away from the sidewalk and began navigating toward the highway, the engine humming a different tone with each shift of the gears. He found himself occasionally glancing at her in the rear view. She didn’t seem but twenty years old. Maybe twenty-five. It was impossible to tell those days with all the young kids looking like adults. Her eyes couldn’t lie, though. They were tired, tired the way no kid’s eyes should ever be.

   “Where are we going?” Jane’s question broke him from his thoughts.

   “South Shore,” he answered curtly.

   “I’ve never been down that way. How far is it?”

   “Gonna be about twenty-five minutes, give or take. Depends on traffic.”

   “Is there a lot today?” she asked, with a hint of hope.

   “Roads are lookin’ pretty clear so far.” Rudy hoped this would be the extent of the conversation, and to help ensure it was, he asked, “Want to listen to the radio?”

   “Not right now,” she answered quietly. Rudy frowned. “Is it a nice place?”

   “You mean South Shore?”

   “The place we’re going.”

   “I don’t know. Ain’t never been there.” He couldn’t understand why she needed to talk to him, or better yet, why she couldn’t just listen to the radio.

   “Do you do this a lot?”

   “Well, I’m a cab driver, so…”

   “I mean for this,” she specified.

   “I ain’t part of what they do, but, sure, sometimes.”

   “So,” Jane began slowly, “you know what this is all for, then?”

   “I got a good idea.” Rudy cleared his throat uncomfortably.

   “And it doesn’t bother you at all?”

   “It ain’t my business to be bothered by.”

   “A friend of mine did this last year, you know. Maybe you remember her. Her name was Catherine—or Cathy, I guess. We all called her Cathy… and she had thick brown hair, always bobbed real nice. Pretty, straight teeth, too. A real nice smile. All the boys were—”

   “I don’t remember,” Rudy interrupted.

   “Oh, of course. I’m sure you see hundreds of people every day. Thousands maybe. I guess you couldn’t be expected to remember one.” Jane rubbed her thumbs along the strap of her purse. “I doubt you’ll remember me, even.”

   “There’s a lot of people in Chicago,” Rudy said, as if to imply that it was no fault of hers that she would be forgotten and in turn make up for his previous abrasiveness. Judging by her expression, however, his words seemed to have little effect. “What I mean is, I probably won’t remember you any more than I won’t remember anyone else. You know? There’s a lot of people.”

   “I knew what you meant,” she said. “Nobody’s special.”

   “I wouldn’t say all that,” he replied. “Nobody’s special to everyone, but everyone should be special to someone.”

   “Even if they haven’t been born yet?” asked Jane. Rudy remained silent, watching the lines on the road move slowly toward them, ever-increasing in speed until they jumped by and were gone. Like life, he thought to himself. It seems like everything to come is a slow haul until it arrives. Then, it’s over as if it never happened at all. “Who’s special to you?”

   “What’s that?” he asked, stealing a glance at his watch.

   “I said, who’s special to you?” Jane was studying him in the mirror, now.

   “I’m married.” Rudy focused on avoiding her gaze.

   “Oh? How long?”

   “Longer than you been alive. I married Gloria back in 1921,” he said proudly. “Ain’t looked back since.”

Her eyes couldn’t lie, though. They were tired, tired the way no kid’s eyes should ever be.

“That sounds wonderful. You two must really love each other.”

   “I love her. She tolerates me,” Rudy smiled. “No, I suppose we love and tolerate each other about equal parts. Marriage ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, you know, but it’s worth a hell of a lot more than folks like to admit.” At this, Jane blinked and looked blankly out the window. “I don’t suppose you’re married, are you?”

   “I’m engaged.”

   “Ah. Does he know about…”

   “No.”

   “I realize I’m just some old cab driver, but,” Rudy began, “don’t you think that maybe he might want a say in this, too? If he’s the man you’re marrying, he might actually want—”

   “He can’t know,” Jane interrupted. “It would ruin him.”

Rudy nodded, surprised at himself for feeling surprised at all. This was a grown woman, wasn’t she? She was as capable of infidelity as anyone else. For some reason, though, she didn’t strike him as the type. He’d lived long enough to understand that people are more than their appearances. But what does ‘the type’ even look like, he wondered. This lady appeared about as innocent as a baby jay. Although, wouldn’t an innocent appearance be advantageous for a cheater? “You’re doing this for his sake, then…”

   “What’s it any of your business why I’m doing this?” Jane snapped. “Maybe I’m doing it for me. Maybe I’m doing it for the baby. Did you ever think of that?”

   “No, I guess not,” he said, wishing like hell he’d taken Margaret’s advice. “Just seems like, if you got this far, you’d know why.”

   “I can’t take care of a baby on my own, no matter how much I might want to. What kind of life do you think some bastard child would have in this world? And I would be the one who let it happen. I would be the cause of it all, and I couldn’t live with that on my conscience.”

   “I’m confused, now. Is this for the child’s sake or for your conscience’s sake?”

   “Who says it can’t be both?”

   “Nobody, but I figure one’s gotta carry more weight than the other. Who says this baby can’t end up being somebody special? Don’t matter what other people say about him or who his father is if he decides to be someone special.”

   “No one is special to everyone, remember?” Jane shot back.

   “No one should want to be,” Rudy said. “Anyone that special is doomed to fail.”

   “So, you don’t think I should do this,” said Jane. “You think I’m going to hell? That I’m committing a horrible sin?”

   “Now, I didn’t say anything like that, but if that’s how you feel, then that’s on you,” said Rudy. “I ain’t no preacher to be tellin’ you how to live your life. It’s your decision to make. It’s your life unless you decide to have the baby, and then it’s his life, too. And if the father steps up, well then, I suppose it’s all three of your lives.”

   “He can’t know, I already told you.”

   “You mean… this is your fiancé’s baby?” Jane stared silently away. “I don’t understand why a man wouldn’t want to have a baby with the woman he loves.”

   “Because he’s a minister,” she confessed, “but we’re not married yet, and he’ll lose his position in the church if anyone were to find out. Like I said, it’ll ruin him. Everything he’s ever worked for will be gone.”

   “You’re saying he would want you to do this?” Rudy asked.

   “Of course not! If he knew I was here right now, he’d never speak to me again. This is a sin. Unforgivable.”

   “And if you kept the baby?”

   “I don’t know that he’d ever admit it was his. He’s a man of God, and a men of God don’t have babies out of wedlock. If I have the baby so I don’t commit a sin, he’ll leave me, and if I don’t have the baby and commit a sin and he finds out, he’ll leave me—even if it is to save his reputation.” Rudy watched Jane exhale from beneath the weight of this reality.

   “Last time I checked, there ain’t no sin that’s unforgiveable. It don’t matter what anyone tries to tell you, and, boy, don’t they ever try to tell you. I guess that’s one of the reasons why I quit goin’ to church. Ain’t no such thing as a man of God. A man’s a man, a woman’s a woman… either we’re all of God or no one is… nobody’s better than anyone else, no matter what position they got… whole damn thing is a scheme, and we—” Rudy was silenced by a sniffle from the backseat.

   As he listened to her whispered crying and considered the source of her tears, a foreign thought suddenly entered his mind. Perhaps this decision wasn’t simply a matter of having an abortion. That was the easy part. The choice that she must make, whether to sacrifice her soul, her conscience, or the one she loves, perhaps that was where the difficulty truly lay. And who could ever lightly make that decision for their own self much less for another person?

   Jane never responded to his words. The remainder of the ride was silent, and fourteen long minutes later—still leaving him a solid half hour to buy his soup and sandwich—Rudy was driving alone back towards the heart of Chicago, the tires drumming quietly down the road. He contemplated Jane until his stomach rumbled at him, and his thoughts returned to the diner. “Decisions, decisions,” he sighed.

    Tiny crumbs of asphalt crunched as Rudy parked his cab next to the sidewalk. After turning his flag down, he reached over for the lunchbox on the passenger floorboard.


OTHER SHORT STORIES
BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

Enter: OBLIVION

Studies In gray.

THE SALESMAN