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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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A Piece of Saw

By Theodore Ledyard Browne

The Magpie, May 1929, p 51.

The "Deep Evening" poolroom pulsated with its usual gathering of factory hands, mill owners and low characters. It was six o'clock. Amid the stench of tobacco smoke and body odor, black men played pool, shot crap, argued and frequently came to blows.

In a corner near the bootblack stand, Candy had isolated himself from the rest of the crowd and was absorbed in watching a game of pool, when he was suddenly slapped on the back.

Turning around, he met the broad grin of Shorty Stevens, whom he had met that morning after his release from jail.

"You'se a confidenshul friend of mine, Candy," he said slowly, "en lemme tell yuh something right now. Take a fool's advice, boy, and keep yo eyes glued on Buck Gardner."

At the mention of Buck's name, Candy's oily, black face hardened into an ugly scowl. To him no name was more odious than Buck Gardner's.

"Whut de hell I car 'bout Buck Gardner? He ain't no more'n a meat-man lak myself. I sho ain't 'fraid of 'im," he declared boastfully. "Tell de truth, I ain't afraid of no man on Gawd's earth."

"T'ain't a mattuh o' being 'fraid o' nobody. I jes wanna warn yuh. While you was cooped up in jail, I'se seed Madge wid Buck several times. Dey done got mighty close since you wus away.

"Madge ain't caring nothing 'bout 'im," said Candy, with rather half-heated attempt at a smile. She's jes fooling 'im long. I ain't fraid of 'im taking my gal. Madge's got sense. "She ain't 'some-timey' lak dese other wild-headed gals 'round heah. I been going wid huh fuh two years; I oughta know."

"You caint be too sho' bout any of 'em, boy," said Shorty skeptically. "Dese wimmen folks is pow'ful tricky. De very time you figures you're in power, cat's de very time she's steading how to trick yuh."

Suddenly, there came a racket from the outside, a blowing of tin horns, intermingled with noisy chatter. The clangor sub sided, struck up again and then a sooty, black, robust figure burst into the poolroom, garbed in red and white ginghams, with a red and white bandanna around the head.

"Halloween!" cried Shorty. "Bless if dat ain't ole Zack dressed up like A'nt Dinah."

A torrent of gay masqueraders poured into the poolroom, women dressed in men's clothes among them. For awhile shouts and laughter filled the room.

"Let's celebrate," cried Shorty fervently. "Dere's a dance at the Elk's Hall; let's go!"

Candy capitulated and they jostled their way to the street. They found the hall already thronged with drunken revelers and decided to remain outside for a while listening to the noisy jazz band. An unpleasant thought came to Candy as he stood there. He wondered why it had come to him just then. Could Madge be inside "carrying on" with Buck?

The door opened and two besotted couples left the place. It opened a second time and Candy's eyes settled upon Madge. She was alone. Why had he not thought of Hallowe'en before? Madge always depended upon him to take her this night

But things did not turn out as he expected. Madge ignored his stare and spitefully engaged in a talk with the door keeper.

Candy, heated with jealousy, went over to Madge, took her by the arm. and to the amusement of the chubby doorkeeper, roughly drew her aside.

Madge looked beautiful that night. She was dressed in a circus rider's costume, the snowy whiteness of which became her bronze colored skin, and made her seem like some dark water nymph.

"Whut you mean by trying to act so'dicty' tonight?" he asked gruffly.

The girl hesitated before replying.

"I mought as well tell you now," she said, "I'm tired of you. I lak a man who 'puts out' sometimes. Cain't nobody live offern love alone nowadays. Hit's high time you foun' dat out."

For a moment, Candy was rendered speechless. He stood staring at her blankly, out of the whiteness of his big, round eyes, frozen mute by what she had told him.

Finally speech came to him, but it was feeble and harsh. "Don't I put out when I'se got hit?"

"When you'se got hit!" she sneered mockingly.

Anger possessed him. He clutched her bare shoulders with both hands. His piercing gaze met her unmoved one.

"Whut you think I went to jail fuh?"

"Selling likker, I reckon," she answered coolly.

"You reckon! You knows whut I went dare fuh—you— dam hit—fuh yo sake!"

"Youse a lie!" Madge retorted hotly. "You jes wonted t' git some easy money fuh yosef. You ain't never gin me nothing —but a lotta hot air."

She struggled in vain to free her shoulders, for he held them with a vise-like grip.

"You knows I tried t' git money so you could buy dat fur coat. But I wus caught, dat's whut, en put in jail. Now you wonts t' disown hit."

He withdrew one tremblin hand and before he realized it, had struck her a blow in the face. She screamed. Then Candy felt Shorty's hand upon his shoulder.

"Leave huh 'lone, boy. Ain't no use getting in trouble over no woman. C'mon, let's go home," he coaxed.

But Candy still held Madge while she fought to release her self. He seemed uncertain what to do.

"Turn me loose!" she was shrieking and cursing.

Finally, obeying Shorty's entreaties, Candy released his grip, and was about to take leave when Buck appeared in the doorway.

"Whut you raising de debbil fuh? Dat corn likker giving you all dat hell?" he inquired of Madge.

He was so drunk that he could hardly stand. He did not see Candy. The latter swore wrathfully and made an effort to reach his enemy, but was restrained by a friend.

Candy returned home that night, a disillusioned, beaten man, rejected and wronged by one from whom he least expected injury. It was a painful rejection.

The next day, while at the poolroom he was told that some one was waiting for him outside. Leaving the game, he went to the door.

"C'mon out! Don't be 'fraid! T'aint nobody but me, honey," he heard a familiar voice say. It was Madge.

"Whut you come heah to me fuh?" he asked.

Candy had made up his mind to deal severely with Madge, to impress her with the fact that he could live content without her. But that playful smile so characteristic of her seemed to drown his severity and weaken him.

"Fuh Gawd's sakes, man, don't look at me lak dat!" she laughed, and, changing to a serious tone, she said, "Aw don't pay whut happened last night no mind. T'wont my fault. T'wus dat bad likker made se say dem things. I don't know whut de debbil I wus saying. Hit's de truth! Oh, let's forget hit, honey." Madge took his big, rough hand and, squeezing it coaxingly, looked up into his face and smiled.

"Lissen, baby! Wanna make some easy money?"

"Doing whut? Stealing? Ef dat's whut youse gotta say, you mought ez well save yo' breath."

"Who said anything 'bout stealing? Gimme time to say what I has t say.

He shrugged his shoulders, making a gesture of indifference with his hands.

"Go haid," he told her. "Ain't nobody stoppin' yuh from saying.

'Barton wont's yuh t' run his still down at Elephant's Falls tonight and tomorrow night. Said he'd gi' yuh sixteen dollars. He wonts de likker fuh de white folk's fair next week. You'd betuh grab hit."

"Lak hell I'll take hit. I jes came out o' jail, en I ain't planning no early trip back. Damn a likker job, en—" he was about to say "you too," but he checked himself. "Furthermo', I'm going t' work Monday at de saw mill."

But Madge knew Candy's nature too well to give up coaxing, him.

"Dese cops ain't pecking on no white man, specially ef he relays dem off. Hit's only dese nigguh bootleggers dey grabs."

Won over by this second thought he became the dupe of Madge's project. Two night's work. Sixteen dollars. Of course he would take it.

Startling news swept through the crowded poolroom the following evening and dulled the hilarity that usually infested the place. A whiskey still at Elephant's Falls had been raided, and Candy had been caught and was now in jail.

One early morning, a month later, a train of negro prisoners, single file, and linked together by a chain around each ankle, plodded alongside a wry-faced white man at whose side hung a heavy revolver. On their shoulders, the "chain gang' carried pick axes to dig a ditch they had started.

The rising of the sun from behind the hills transformed the surrounding heavens into a crudely beautiful painting, such as a gifted child artist might unconsciously have painted with his water colors.

The sight was beautiful to behold, but its beauty hardly seemed to arouse the convicts. They went about their work of digging the ditch indifferent to the colorful panorama that was about them. Instead, as they broke the earth with their pickaxes, they filled the fresh, morning air with song:

"Trouble, trouble
I has hit all my days,
Hit seems lak trouble's
Going last me to my grave.
"Tell me high yallar,
How long I has t' wait?
Kin I get you now,
Or mus' I hesitate?"

But upon the face of one there was a look of suffering and worry.

"I gut a lettuh from home," he told the short man at his side. "Sis said muh wus bad off sick, en heah I is far way from huh. Sis said she keeps asking fuh me." He gulped as though his grief were choking him, then shook his head remorsefully. The short man shook his head too, and looked with eyes of hopeless pity at his friend.

"Huh heart's bad-leaking heart," he muttered.

"Boy, I feels damn sorry fuh you. I ain't kering bout mu self, 'cause I ain't gut no sick mudder t' wurry bout. Hit's tough! Tough! In a way, boy, I'se mighty glad dey sent me up heah. I gut even wid my nigguh. I tried t' bust his skull open. Dirty scoundrel! I'd gi muh life t' see you git even wid de nigguh dat framed you."

There was a look of astonishment on the gloomy man's face.

"Whut you mean Shorty?" he asked. "Who—who dat framed me?"

"Ain't you know who t'wus?"

"Swear fo' Gawd, man! Tell me! Quick, Shorty! Tell me!"

"Buck! He's de cause of yo' being heah on this 'chain gang'. He was a 'stool pigeon' for ole police Sargeant Brinkley. You know he ain't nevah laked Barton, who you was working fuh. Buck know'd dat too, en got you de job, so he could frame you."

Candy's eyes grew bigger. He gritted his teeth and looked about him madly, as though anticipating an escape. Looking down he saw the chain—the thing which held him from his dying mother. He cursed it under his breath.

He raised his chained leg, and to his utter amazement, discovered a piece of saw used for cutting iron. He had noticed before the iron foundry nearby. He had also noticed a wooden box and pair of baby carriage wheels near the ditch. Perhaps children had gotten the saw from the trash pile in back of the foundry, and had made a toy wagon.

Candy clutched the saw to his chest and a look of grave deliberation swept over his face.

"Boy," he said to his bewildered comrades who continued to dig at the ground to keep from attracting the guard's attention, "de Lawd mus be wid me. He mus 'tend fuh me t' kill dat nigguh!"

Off and on for three hours, Candy stole moments when the guard was not watching, to saw away his bonds. It was pains taking, scrupulous work, but at length he succeeded.

Word was whispered to the other convicts to keep quiet. The ditch meandered past a big tree. He would crawl until he reached the tree, then would run quickly across the open lot to the railroad tracks, and there board a freight train.

While the guard had his attention attracted by a cart and horse passing in the distance, Candy made up mind to flee. Through the muddy water in the ditch, he waded until he reached the tree. He looked about carefully. The guard was still watching the cart and horse. Now he would make his way across the field to the tracks, for he saw a train approaching in the distance.

As he ran, he heard shouts behind him. Could it be that he was trapped? He became sick with fear, but dared not stop.

"Halt! Halt!"—he heard the words distinctly. There was another sound, like the discharge of a gun.

Candy felt holes being bored into his head and back. Some thing hot, denser than perspiration, ran in streams down his face. He rubbed his face with his hands, looked at them. Blood! He shut both eyes tightly. Blood! Everything was blood. What on earth had happened?

"Muh! Muh!" he shrieked. He was too weak to go further, and sank helplessly down on the grass covered earth. "Hep me! Muh! I'm dying! Some water, Muh! Quick! Oh, Gawd, have mercy! Hit's all over!"

"I bet he's dead, too," one of the convicts said to another.

"Damn right," agreed the other. "I know he is. Po' boy, I feels fuh 'im. En now he won't git even wid dat hell cat en Buck."




The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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