The black man settled into the aisle seat next to the white woman. “I believe you’re one of those Freedom Riders, ma’am, so you won’t mind me sitting next to you, will you?”
She turned from the window, smiled openly. “Freedom Riders? Is that what they’re calling us, young man?”
His grin was friendly, but more guarded than hers as he adjusted his suit coat for more comfort. “I believe that’s what you’re calling yourselves, ma’am. And the newspapers have picked up on it, too. Congratulations, the name’s pretty catchy.”
She blushed. “I suppose the organizers do think it’s catchy. You know how everything has to have a slogan these days.” She extended her right hand. “Helen Westergrin.”
He offered his hand, but his eyes betrayed as they cowered left and right. “George Goodall, ma’am. Pleased.”
The Greyhound driver checked his mirrors, saw nothing that troubled him, and steered the bus forward into history.
“So what is your destination, Mr. Goodall?”
He polished his glasses with a bright white handkerchief. “Well, I’m just trying to get to New Orleans, Miss Westergrin, same as you.”
She wondered what he meant by ‘trying.’ She clapped her purse on her lap. “Isn’t that delightful. I’m sure we’ll become fast friends along our journey. I’ve never been to New Orleans, you know, or any place in the deep South for that matter. I’m sure I’ll find it all very lovely. And what is bringing you to the Crescent City---if I’m not being too personal?”
“Not New Orleans, per se, ma’am. Belleville, just a bump in Saint James Parish. That’s where I was raised. I’m going home for a visit.”
“How nice. So you make your home here in Atlanta now?”
“No, ma’am. I’m a student at Howard University. I was able to bum a ride this far, and now I find myself here on a modern version of the Underground Railroad---only it’s heading in the wrong direction.”
She frowned tolerantly, then patted his hand. “A college man! Your parents must be so proud. Now, you must tell me all about Louisiana before we get there.”
He smiled. “Tell the truth, Miss Westergrin, I’m not all that certain I’ll be riding the whole way with y’all.”
He watched her eyes working, but her mouth was still.
“See, you and your bunch are riding straight into a punchbowl of trouble.” He shook his head. “My cup’s already got all the trouble it can hold and it don’t need one more drop.” He was both surprised and pleased at how quickly the poetry of southern speech crept back onto his collegiate tongue.
She patted his wrist again---this time reassuringly. “Yes, there may be some unpleasantness up ahead, but we are all sworn to non-violence. This is a peaceful demonstration of our right to desegregate our grand nation’s interstate transportation routes.”
He wondered how long it had taken her to memorize that speech.
“Besides, we have been trained in how to handle local rowdies.” She held her head high. “We won’t be the ones causing any trouble, I can promise you that.”
He stared past her at the flying countryside and wondered where it was going in such a hurry. “Trouble doesn’t care who starts it, ma’am. And it holds no truck for good intentions, neither.”
She folded her hands over her purse. “But we are in the right, Mr. Goodall. Coloreds deserve…”
He grinned in mock reproach. “We prefer to be called Negroes, ma’am.” His voice and expression were both mild.
Her hand went to her throat. “Oh, of course, sir. I meant no…”
He patted her hand. “None taken, Miss Westergrin. None taken.”
A black man in a white shirt and narrow tie trundled up the aisle from the front of the bus. He held onto an overhead rail to keep his balance. He nodded with open curiosity at the black stranger in the aisle seat, but spoke to the woman. “Everything okay, Helen? Enjoying the Georgia scenery?”
She nodded. “Everything is just fine, Jim. Georgia is lovely, but I haven’t seen a single peach orchard yet. This is the Peachtree State, don’t you know?”
The man called Jim smiled. “Keep watching, Helen, we have a lot of Georgia still in front of us.”
She indicated the man sitting next to her. “Jim, this is Mr. George Goodall. He’ll be traveling all the way to New Orleans with us.”
The two men shook hands in a careful kind of way---taking note, taking measure.
“James Farmer, Mr. Goodall. Glad to have you along.”
The seated man tilted his head. “I’m just along for the ride, Mr. Farmer. No more than that.”
The standing man nodded. “That was all I meant, sir.” He glanced at the woman. “Helen.” He shuffled further down the aisle.
The woman leaned close. “Mr. Farmer is the Executive Director of CORE, our sponsors on this trip.”
The man nodded. “Yes, ma’am, I know who he is.”
“You don’t approve of us, do you, Mr. Goodall?”
He smiled. “Ma’am, have you ever owned a mule?”
The woman touched her lips and laughed. It was a pleasant sound, a genuine sound. “A mule? Good heavens, what would I do with a mule in Fort Lee, New Jersey?”
The man’s face spread open and he chuckled easily. “Beats me. Plant cotton maybe?”
They both sputtered laughter. Easy, friendly laughter.
“Mr. Goodall, I believe you are pulling my leg.”
He recoiled with widened eyes. “No, ma’am, that ain’t tolerated in the great state of Georgia!”
She hesitated for a moment, then slapped his arm and they both laughed again.
They sat comfortably as Georgia streamed through the rearview mirror like yesterday’s newscast.
After a while, the woman stirred. “Mr. Goodall, why did you ask me about owning a mule?”
His eyes were closed. “My granddaddy had a mule once. Orneriest four legs God ever put on His green earth. Jim---that was the mule---wouldn’t pull a plow, wouldn’t allow nobody to ride him. Bite? You bet. And kick? Hoo-wee, I’m here to tell you ‘kick like a mule’ is no idle expression, ma’am.”
She waited for him to go on, but when he didn’t, she asked: “Well, if Jim wouldn’t work, and kicked… like a mule, why did your grandfather keep him?”
He opened his eyes, but didn’t look at her. “Granddaddy said, ‘Sometimes it’s better to have a mule you know will kick you every chance he gets, instead of worrying about a mule that plans to kick you, but won’t give you no warning.”
She glanced out the window, and then looked back. “Your granddaddy has an interesting philosophy.”
He closed his eyes again. “If you say so, ma’am. Jim Crow.”
“The mule’s full name. Jim Crow.”
The sway of the bus had almost put him to sleep.
“Come to think of it, Mr. Goodall, I did have a mule.”
He opened his eyes, looked at her and blinked. “In Fort Lee, New Jersey?”
She stared at her folded hands. “Mine was the two-legged kind.” She glanced at his face, then looked away. “He could kick pretty good, too.”
He cleared his throat, and readjusted himself in his seat. “Yes, ma’am, the two-legged kind. I’ve known a few.”
They were quiet for a time.
“Whatever happened to that ol’ mule of yours, if you don’t mind my asking?”
She answered quickly, like she knew he’d ask, like she wanted to tell. “Prison. He’s in prison.”
He tilted his head and nodded slowly. “Well, then,” he said, “I guess you kicked him back, didn’t you?”
She faced the window, but he sensed she was looking inside. “Eventually. It took a long time, though. I took a lot of kicks.” She turned and looked darts at him. “A body will only be kicked so many times.”
The tires hummed and Georgia scrub eventually turned into Alabama pine.
“You wouldn’t be telling this country boy stories now, would you?”
She smiled a different kind of smile. Shrugged. “There’s somebody’s truth in every story, don’t you think, young man?”
He studied her over his glasses and shook his head. “Um-hmmm.”
Trees turned into houses, schools, and shops.
“So, Fort Lee, New Jersey, ma’am? Is that the truth?”
She raised her eyebrows. “Oh please, Mr. Goodall. Would I lie about something as boring as that?”
The driver parked at the stop directly in front of the Main Street Luncheonette. He opened the door, and without a word to his passengers, walked off the bus.
The riders---Freedom and otherwise---filed out onto the sidewalk, rolling necks, stretching stiff joints. Many drifted into the ‘whites only’ diner. Another sign directed ‘coloreds’ down a side alley.
A small group---three blacks and three whites congregated in the sunshine. James Farmer opened the front door to the luncheonette and allowed the group file past.
Helen Westergrin turned just outside the doorway. “You coming, Mr. Goodall?”
The man puffed on a cigarette he’d just lit. He buttoned his suit coat. He glanced toward the alley, puffed again, tossed the smoke into the gutter, and followed the woman into the diner.
“There be mules in here, ma’am. There be mules.”
♦ Lee Allen Hill is just a leftover hippie with a penchant for word-slinging.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.