The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
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By C. Leo Barrow
Illustrated by Bernard Marks
The Magpie, May 1929, p 19.
". . . the impact of his solid fist would have felled an ox, and still the villain stood and delivered blow for blow. They labored; they milled about, kicked broken furniture out of their way as each tried to subdue the other by brute strength. The bad man feinted with his left, then, with cruel force, drove his fist against the point of his enemy's chin. Our hero staggered back and crashed against the up-turned table. But he rallied. A well timed fist drove the villain back. Another blow and"
Vincent's reply was automatic; his eyes never left the printed page. "and the gallant defender had his enemy on his knees. A third blow would have"
"Vincent, don't you hear me?"
A sigh came from the darkened regions under the window casement; a shapeless form stirred.
"Yes, ma'am. But, Ma, can't I fin"
"No you can't! How many times have I told you not to strain your eyes reading under the window? Get up from there! Now don't let me catch you sitting under that window again.
So sighing again, Vincent Summers, age twelve, un-knotted his stringy form and stretched it vertically. His cream brown face was masked in a mantle of melancholia. Why did he of all boys have to be so pampered, and chided by his mother? If she wanted him to be an angelic cherubim, he didn't. Why did he have to wear such silly clothes, and always keep them clean? "Don't touch that" and "Don't sit there" were all a nuisance. What good were his handsome clothes to him, any way? They had only caused him great harmsocially. Didn't the boys shun him? Didn't they call him "Lady" Summers? Hadn't his mother stopped his fight with Leon? Well, he knew he had been getting licked, but a man had to fight his own fights. Now he had the reputation of being a "mamma's angel chile." Doggone 'em! He would show them some time.
The sun's rays were almost horizontal. Twilight was approaching. No use in asking his mother to let him out. Too late for that. Vincent looked through the window down into the streeta street of brown boys playing "Hide and Seek," girls skipping rope and shouting in chorusa street of fun. And he must stay indoors, and keep company with the shadows. Even his chosen friends, books, were at times denied him.
"I want you to go to the store for me.
The melancholy mask vanished. He received his instructions, and left the apartment hurriedly. He intended to allow some time to elapse before he returned. As he reached the second floor corridor, a door at the end of the hall opened and a boy of his height, and seemingly his own age, walked out and, after a timid glance at Vincent, descended the stairsVincent following.
Yesterday he had watched furniture come in and two men hoist a piano to the second door of the building. He had wondered who the parties were that were moving in. This boy was probably one of the new tenants, "Lady" now thought. He stopped short. Was the boy in front of him going out into the street in his underwear? But underwear didn't have buttons on the seam. Those white, tight, "stove pipe" pants must have come from some foreignThe boy must be a West Indian!
In the street, in front of the entrance, was a crowd of boys cronies of Bill Hopkins, the block's bad boy. (To the mothers of boys of his own age, Bill was the terror of the block. But to the boys of the same judicial mothers, he was a hero. His fists accounted for that.) Bill greeted Lady's " 'Lo, Bill" silently. The next instant he saw the West Indian boy.
"Hey, fellahs, looka there." Then to Lady: "You know 'im?"
"Never saw 'im before," replied Lady. "Hey, listen. He jus' moved in apartment six. I looked in the mail box, and his name's St. Kits. Maybe that's where he came from. Lookat those pants, will yah? He's a West Indian!"
Of all the yelling mob, Lady screeched the loudest. He had started it, and he meant to enjoy himself to the fullest. The West Indian recognized "Lady" as the ring leader, and glared at him. Shrewd Bill Hopkins saw it.
"Go 'head 'n' punch 'im, 'Lady,' " he said.
It was somewhat sudden to Lady, but Bill Hopkins had recognized him. Bill had spoken. The noise hushed abruptly. There would be plenty of yelling and shouting to do in a moment.
"C'mon down the backyard, you lop eared West Indian. I dare you to!" (The backyards were a precaution against the possibility of his mother's seeing him and stopping the fight. )
At this, hilarious shouts arose. "That's right, Lady. Dare 'im to. Bet yah, he won't, he's a coward. Yellow-back! Yellow-back!" And they began pushing and shoving about. One boy grabbed one of the West Indian's feet and dragged him off the stoop. A crowd of boys grabbed his arms and legs, and, shouting at the top of their lungs, carried him bodily down the steps leading to the back courts.
There were no preliminaries to the fight. Lady pitched in immediately. The West Indian boy evidently knew how to use his fists, but was badly frightened, and the cries of "Atta boy, Lady. Sock 'im, Lady!" took all the fight out of him. He covered up as Lady rushed at him. The weak defence gave Lady courage, and he rushed and punched with all his might. The boy retreated before the furious attack, and found himself on the brink of a ten foot span of muddy water. Lady pushed him violently. As he tottered, he caught Lady's arm, jerked him forward, and both fell full length into the black pool. In the scuffle that followed, accompanied by the delighted yells of boys in a frenzy of mirth, the width of the muddy pool was increased, much of the mud being dug up by hands, feet, and very successfully, by clothes.
Out of it all, Lady emerged victorious. He was the hero of the hour, and he was acclaimed as such. Bill Hopkins approached him.
"You shore did lick 'im some, Lady." He cocked his head to one side and scrutinized Lady from head to foot. "What yo' mothah gain' say 'bout yo' cl'oes, Lady? They ain't dirty much."
"Oh, that's aw'right. My Mother won't say anything." Lady smiled but he knew it would be just the opposite. Still, he would take the consequences gladly. The mud on his apparel was a tribute to his newly acquired personality. It was his laurel wreath. He had shown them. Wasn't Bill Hopkins his friend now?
The next afternoon Lady was playing "Skelly" with his new friends and for many afternoons after that. He was in his element.
Cedric St. Kits, shunned by Lady's companions, began to force his way in. His two fists gained him awe inspiring notoriety. One by one he battered down the lesser boys of the crowd and Lady began to have grave misgivings as to his ability to overcome the vicious two-fisted West Indian a second time. Then news of serious importance reached Lady by way of Leon Gray, one of Cedric's recent victims, and Lady's friend.
Leon came up to Lady one evening with a grave face and widened eyes. "Cedric knocked the livin' daylight outa Bill Hopkins! Boy, he shore did lick Bill some. Bill's got 'n eye like a red balloon and a busted nose. An' listen. Cedric's after you. He says he's goin' to get you and get you good."
Lady was stepping lightly for the next two days. When he left his apartment, he closed the door silently, climbed the stairs to the roof, crossed six of them, and went down the stairs of the house on the avenue. He returned by the same route. He was never in the street playing with the boys for the simple reason that the crowd had made peace with the West Indian. Cedric St. Kits was duly installed (or rather installed himself) by the usual method, by way of fight. Cedric ruled the crowd by two hard and ready fists and Lady became the only outcast the only enemy Cedric had not yet "got."
But Lady's evading of Cedric could not last forever. In the course of time he would meet Cedric in the open where there would be no place to run. Some day he would be caught unawares in the street. The crowd snubbed him and the only way to prove himself worthy of the crowd's notice was to face Cedric and beat him. But Lady was afraid.
The sun was covering the avenue in a reddish glow. Lady walked slowly toward the corner house. The theatre on the corner was advertising a coming attraction with many pictures of the actors and scenes from the photoplay. Lady stopped to look at them. They were interesting, so he lingered. Happening to glance up, he saw Cedric striding toward him. He took a coin out of his pocket hurriedly, bought a ticket and went into the theatre. Lady sighed with relief after he had found a seat. Pretty fast thinking, he thought, and gave himself due credit. Someone eased into a seat behind him. He turned his head. Cedric!
The picture was unreeled once, twiceyet the boy behind him made no move to go. Lady shut his eyes and waited; he knew he was cornered. He was going to wait until Cedric left or stay until the house closed. The picture was shown a third time. It must have been eleven o'clock or more. Lady slumped further down into the hollow of the seat.
Suddenly the picture vanished from the screen. The picture house was in darkness save for a ruddy glow in the balcony. The theatre was on fire! The house became a bedlam of stampeded people rushing to the exits. Lady rose to go. The form of Cedric St. Kits confronted him. He had forgotten for the moment. Cedric grabbed "Lady" by the collar. "Lady" was maddened; the days of strain had been too much. He struck blindly and with all his force at the shadow of a face before him and,he connected! The hand on his collar loosened and he sped toward the exit.
Hearing nothing behind him, Lady turned when he gained the exit. The orchestra seats were empty. Lying in the aisle was Cedric. Lady's chest swelled. He had knocked out Cedric St. Kits! But his pride in himself was shortlived. The faming balcony was falling in sections. Cedric was right under it and the balcony would fall on him. Cedric would die!
His senses reeled. The shock, and the smoke he was breathing began to clog his brain. But he must get Cedric out. He ran down the aisle to the limp form and tried to lift it. Cedric was heavy, too heavy for his puny strength. He pulled and he strained. He could only drag him. He began a slow progress up the inclined aisle. The acrid smoke was getting the better of him but he struggled. He stumbled, fell, got up again, hooked his fingers in Cedric's coat collar, and pulled. He reached the entrance and staggered through the door. He heard the clanging of distant fire bells but they never seemed to reach him....
The white ceiling of the ward was the first thing Lady saw, then the white coverlets and the white clad nurse moving about the room. His brain was in a state of semi-coma and the restful atmosphere held itgave him the sensation of not being physical. That condition of mind was pleasing to Lady and he tried to retain it. He was just being. He supposed that that is all a spirit isjust a consciousness, nothing physical. His lazy mind wandered but it seemed to be disturbed by a vague something that gained strength. His nostrils quivered; he seemed to smell smoke. Then it all came back in a flash. He sat up in the bed and two shining eyes met his.
" 'Lo, Vincent, how you feelin'?" Lady's heart leaped.
"Fine 'n' dandy, Cedric. That was a swell show we saw las' night, wasn't it, Cedric?"
The Magpie Sings the Great Depression