Preview of “Seminole Summer”

CHAPTER ONE

A warm westerly breeze brought the tropical smells of South Florida to Terry and he breathed deeply through his nose. The sweet scent of oleander mixed with the muskiness of rotting vegetation.

“I hate the stink,” Mama said.

He liked it. The odors were a mix of swamp vegetation, abundant flowers, decaying humus, and rain-swept air. Beyond a limestone and shell dike, Lake Okeechobee stretched as far as the eye could see. Aromas of the area were accented by the sounds—the whirr of insects, the croak of amphibians, a distant cry of waterfowl.

Mama tore rationing stamps from a book, counting. The man putting gas in their car stood with a foot on the running board, watching amber fluids whirl a propellor inside a glass bubble. Each gallon made musical “tings” as audible proof of delivery.

“That’ll be two dollars, ma’am.”

Mama gave him her stamps, then paid him.

“You folks with the government?” he asked.

“No.”

“Don’t see much traveling these days unless it’s government people. Where you headed?”

“Belle Glade. Camp Osceola.”

The attendant examined a dipstick. “Oil’s okay.” He slammed the hood and squinted toward the horizon.

“Looks like rain, don’t it? Rains here every day come June.”

“I know,” Mama said. “Belle Glade was our home once before.”

Home. It had a comforting ring of finality. Terry considered asking if he could go up the dike, but he also wanted to hurry along. Go home.

A gentle breeze set saw grass in motion, serrated leaves rasping. An iridescent blue dragonfly rode cattail fronds. Everything was green here. Not like Birmingham, Alabama, where smelting smoke smelled of sulfur. Airborne iron ore turned white clouds gray and red silt powdered everything. He’d never smelled a single flower there.

“I’m thirsty, Mama,” Ann said. The four-year-old sat in the rear seat of the ’41 Chevy amid boxes, blankets, items they’d need immediately when they got to Camp Osceola.

Mama bought three Coca-Colas with change from her snap purse. She stood under the service station parapet next to a container marked “kerosene.”

“How much longer, Mama?” Terry asked.

“Drink your cola and we’ll go.”

Soda seared Terry’s throat, bubbles up his nose. Ann made sucking sounds, pulling the cold drink between compressed lips.

“How much deposit for two bottles?” Mama inquired.

“Four cents.”

Mama paid, got in. Terry wished he hadn’t hurried his own drink. Ann sipped with agonizing slowness. She always made good things last longest. Terry secretly suspected it was a way to torment him for bolting his own.

“Smell the lake, Mama?” he asked.

“Stagnant,” she said.

“I have to go to the bathroom, Mama,” Ann announced.

“You should have asked at the station, Ann.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t drink any more cola,” Terry suggested.

Mama laughed.

“If she drinks more cola,” Terry reasoned, “she’ll have to go all the worse.”

“It’s a good ploy, but I don’t think it’ll work.”

A long row of Australian pines curved along the highway. A hyacinth-choked canal ran like a ribbon beside the road, black waters cloaked in blue flowers.

“Do you think Mr. McCree will still be there, Mama?” Terry asked.

Mama brushed away red hair with the back of her hand. Her face was a fiery blush.

“I can’t wait to see if he’s still there,” Terry said.

“He was old, Terry. Four years ago, he was old.”

“He could climb trees.”

“That didn’t make him any younger.”

He caught a hint of impatience as Mama looked across a sugarcane field. The chant of workmen laboring in unison, sweaty bodies glistening, keeping cadence with a singsong melody. The Gullah ballad was a lyrical refrain, men moving in concert, machetes falling on thick juicy stalks. The sound fell away as they passed.

“Will we live in the same house as before?” Terry asked.

“No. Your daddy isn’t manager anymore. But we’ll be somewhere in Camp Osceola.”

Mama glanced at him, her hair wet from humidity and perspiration. She manufactured a smile, asking, “Happy?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

After a moment, she said softly, “It can’t be any worse than Birmingham.”

Terry watched her lapse into thought, a now common thing: thinking about Daddy overseas, maybe. Or the war.

“An alligator!” Terry shrieked, pointing. It was past. But then, another. And another—basking on the banks of a canal like prehistoric logs. Mama’s expression told him it could be worse than Birmingham.

But he loved it. The flowing fields of tilled cane, rich black muck drained by canals, the thump of pumping stations that drew water from some lower level on apparently flat land. He enjoyed the heat and the sticky night air, the hum of insects. Yes, there were mosquitos, and gnats could envelope the face in a maddening horde, but these were prices he willingly paid for the truly good things. With Mr. McCree he would eat wild bananas, small and pungent. They would cook fish basted with tiny limes that sweetened the meat. Even the ever-present fetid stench of decaying matter was heady perfume.

“Mama, I have to go to the bathroom,” Ann warned.

“Stand on your head,” Mama commanded.

Ann dutifully assumed an upside-down position on the rear seat, her skirt covering her face.

“Look,” Terry remarked, “the airfield.”

Bi-wing craft with open cockpits stood outside a small hanger. On the metal roof, there was a painted circle with an arrow designating “north.” The planes were used to dust crops with insecticides.

They drove by Belle Glade Elementary School. He hated it before and didn’t anticipate it now. But this was summer and fall was eons away.

They passed between packinghouses and the rumble of conveyor belts was wonderfully familiar to Terry. He saw women in rubber boots and aprons culling vegetables. The hiss of the washing machines sent a misty spray over the platforms. Terry smelled tomatoes.

“May I come back, Mama?”

“Not today.”

The icehouse loomed and Terry leaned out the window looking for Bucky, his cross-eyed friend of four years ago.

“Tomorrow, maybe?” he asked.

“Maybe.”

He saw no child. Only men feeding three-hundred pound blocks of ice into a shredder, the flume of crystals blown up a chute and into one end of a railroad fruit car.

“Lettuce, I think,” Terry said, as if answering a question.

“Celery, perhaps,” Mama added.

They cleared the packinghouses, bumped over railroad tracks and crossed a bridge, the auto tires sucking hot asphalt and viscid creosote. There it was: Camp Osceola.

The administration building was whitewashed and blinding in bright sunshine. Tractor-drawn mowers were cutting grass. Oleander blossomed in pinks and red and filled the air with their sweetness. Guava trees and date palms had been planted as ornamentals. Terry had never been happier than here, when Daddy managed the migratory labor camp before the war started. The flux of workers was constant—leathery-skinned men and their wives, with carloads of children to assist in harvesting crops—Camp Osceola gave them refuge. The free clinic inoculated their children. There were movies every Thursday night at the camp auditorium.

“It’s the same,” Terry exulted.

“Yes.” Mama didn’t sound relieved.

“Mickey!” A scream. “Mickey!”

Mama parked at the administration building and even before she opened the door, the car window was filled with Velma Mason. Her broad shoulders pushed through, her arms around Mama’s neck. Velma was crying, saying again and again, “Mickey. Mickey.”

On the back seat, Ann pushed aside her skirt for an upturned view of the woman.

“What in the world?” Velma demanded, seeing Ann.

“She had to go to the bathroom,” Mama explained.

“Does that work?”

“Up to now.”

“Come on, child,” Velma said, taking Ann. “We’ll find you a potty somewhere.”

“Mickey Calder,” a man with a round face and dimpled chin approached, his arms outspread. “You get younger and more beautiful every year, Mickey.”

“Edward, you liar. But I love you for it.”

“Which is our house?” Terry questioned.

“There,” the man pointed down “C” Street to an asbestos slate-sided dwelling not two blocks distant. “First house on the right.”

Then, to Mama, “It’s the best we could do, Mickey. There’s nothing for rent in town, as you know. We had to pull strings to get this.”

“It’s fine, Edward.”

“We’ve aired it, cleaned it. Thanks to Velma, mostly.”

The man cast a blue-eyed glance toward the office, as if wary for Velma. “Burrell lost the newspaper. Alcohol. He never got over what happened with his boy. They live across the street from where you’ll be. Well! The moving men got here yesterday.”

“Before us?”

“The mysterious ways of war, Mickey. Some things are late, some never come, and others stun you with early arrival. Say thanks to the Almighty and be glad they came at all.”

“I’m glad, believe me.”

“May I send some of the workmen to help?”

“No. It’s a one-person task, I think. I don’t know where to begin, Edward.”

“How is Gerald?”

“He’s in Poland investigating some sort of atrocity.”

“What are his chances of coming home?”

“I don’t know. He doesn’t let me forget that there is also a war in the Pacific. ”

“Surely to God he’ll not be going there.”

“I pray not, Edward.”

Terry stood in the shade of the administration building, listening.

“… man’s inhumanity to man …”

That was something from Daddy’s last letter. A part Mama skipped in the reading of it to him and Ann. Terry always went back later to read what Mama’s impromptu censoring had omitted.

“… unbelievable, deliberate and systematic murder of …”

Velma Mason was returning, holding Ann’s hand. The woman moved with heavy-footed strides, planting her thick legs firmly, her shoes run over at the heels and sides. She swung her free arm with each step, and a roll of fat above the elbow jiggled in syncopation.

Alone with Mama for a moment, Terry asked, “Who was that man?”

“That was Edward Rollins, Terry. You remember Mr. Rollins. He became manager after Daddy left here.”

“I don’t remember him.”

“I should have introduced you. Come on—let’s go see the house.”

There was a small screened porch. Two bedrooms. Not as spacious as the manager’s house. But still—

“I’ll go get my boy, Lamar,” Velma volunteered. “He can help unload your car.”

“Velma, not now. We can …” But Velma was moving with astonishing speed toward her own home across the street. All of the houses were the same on “C” Street. Farther back in the camp, more houses, one bedroom only, set side by side as were these. Then there were the “shelters” made of metal with a single large room for bunk beds and a kitchenette to feed the most transient of the camp’s inhabitants.

“Our house is full of boxes and things,” Ann reported.

“We’ll get it straightened out in a day or two,” Mama responded.

“Where can we sleep with all these boxes?”

“I could go stay with Mr. McCree,” Terry said.

Mama ignored him. She gave Terry two packages to carry. Toothpaste, soap, things for the bathroom.

“All the beds are broke,” Ann cried.

“They aren’t broken, Ann. They come apart for moving.”

“Get out of the way, Ann,” Terry ordered.

“Hey, Terry!”

Terry knew Lamar. But it had been nearly four years since December 1941. He was unprepared for the size of the sixteen-year-old. Lamar’s head seemed too small for such girth, his neck thick, flowing into rounded shoulders. His biceps rippled when he walked, but the impression of athletic prowess was lost in a rolling gait that reminded Terry of Lamar’s mother.

“I can help,” Lamar said. “I’m strong.”

“Okay. Ask Mama which …”

But Lamar didn’t wait. He stacked several heavy cartons one on top of the other and lifted them all.

“Move out of the way, Ann!” Terry yelled. Lamar brushed past, through the door, and Terry heard Mama exclaim, “Oh! Lamar. You startled me. My, how you’ve grown.”

“I’m strong now, Miss Mickey. Want to see my muscle?”

“I see your muscle, Lamar. Put those boxes over there.”

Terry eased the screened door closed, using his fanny as a buttress, and walked toward the bathroom.

“Feel my muscle.” Lamar extended an arm, fist clenched.

Pressing with a single finger, Mama said, “That’s something, all right.”

“My ma said for me to help you, Miss Mickey.”

“Lamar, I don’t think there’s that much to do.”

“I’ll get the big stuff, Miss Mickey.”

“Lamar, wait a minute …”

Lamar lunged across the room, going for the door. “I can get it, Miss Mickey!”

He threw open the screened door, slamming Ann backward off the steps. Her scream brought him up short, his brown eyes wild as he wheeled to look at Mama. “I didn’t mean to,” he said.

“It’s all right, Lamar.” Mama moved around him, going to Ann sprawled in a clump of hydrangea.

“I didn’t mean to hurt her.”

“It’s all right. Come on, Ann.” Mama lifted the girl to her feet.

“I skinned my elbow, Mama!”

“We’ll doctor it.”

“I’m bleeding blood.”

“We’ll take care of it. Come inside.”

Mama turned to reassure Lamar, but he was gone.

“He ran,” Terry noted. “I think he got scared, Mama.”

“Finish unloading, Terry. You can do that while I tend to Ann.”

A rumble of thunder made Terry hurry. Up the street, toward the rear of the migratory labor camp, a steady pelting downpour marched evenly toward him. He heard children yelling. A man laughed in a house nearby. A radio blared. He was aware of eyes at the next-door house, peering through windows as he carried items inside.

“Rain coming, Mama!”

Ann was whimpering now, more to milk kindness than from any pain.

Terry dashed out, rolled up the car windows, slammed the door, and before he could return to the porch a deluge fell.

Steady, straight, heavy drops in tandem; the pavement sizzled and steam rose. The roar of rain on the roof drowned all other sounds. Terry stood at the porch door watching a silvery torrent cascade from the eaves. Beyond it all, a clear, blue sky.

It was over as suddenly as it had begun.

“It doesn’t rain anywhere else like it does here,” he said, when Mama came to join him. She put an arm around his wet shoulder and pulled him to her.

“Watch how the grass gets greener, Mama.”

Hibiscus blooms drooped, each petal hung with a liquid jewel of water that reflected the world around it. The scent of guava came stronger and Terry’s mouth watered in anticipation of that nearly forgotten flavor. Clusters of dates hung in golden racemes from the dripping fronds of palms. Crimson blossoms deepened in hue, the wet lawn greening as if by a painter’s brush. Pools of water made mirrors that captured the now white clouds passing overhead.

“I love it here, Mama.”

“I know you do.”

“I’m glad we came back.”

“We didn’t have much choice after I lost my job,” she said. “But I’m glad you’re glad.” She squeezed his shoulder gently.

“May I go out to Chosen, Mama?” To find Mr. McCree.

“Tomorrow, perhaps.”

“I won’t be gone long.”

“Tomorrow would be a better day.”

He trembled, a physical reaction much like that of an animal caged too long, waiting, waiting, waiting for the moment to jump and flee.

“Terry, you mustn’t expect too much. Remember how old he was? Things change.”

“So far, nothing is different.”

“But things—some things—have changed.”

“Please, Mama—tomorrow?”

She tried to smile, then gave a quick nod. “Tomorrow,” she said.

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