The next morning we discovered the motel had free breakfast and we took advantage of it. Janice was hostess and since we had kinda overslept, we were the only guests so she came and sat at a table with us. When we finished eating, she asked if we'd be coming back through Hattiesburg. She asked us, but she was looking at Keith.
"Yeah, if we can locate Mrs. Blanco and find LaTasha's grave," Keith replied. I assumed he had told Janice all about our quest.
"Give me a call as soon as you know and I'll get you set up with a room. Good luck."
We hit the road again at 9:00. The trip to Carriere should take about an hour and a half at most. I started out as driver and shortly after we left the motel, my cell phone rang.
"Oh boy," Keith said. "We're in deep doo-doo now. You've got to answer and I bet it's your mom."
While I pulled in to the emergency lane, Derrick answered the phone. "Well, hello, Mrs. McCarter...Yeah, we're having a great time...yeah, I think I can find him."
Derrick handed me the phone and I took a deep breath and said, "Hello, Mom. Everything ok?'
"Better than ok. Your dad and I managed to get the rest of the week off and thought we'd drive on up to North Carolina. How's that?"
"Well, that great, Mom. When are you leaving?"
"10:00, 10:30, I'd guess.
"So we'll see you Friday at 2:00, 2:30 latest. That's great."
"Not Friday, Son. Your dad took the car to get the oil changed and we'll leave as soon as he gets back. It's what? 9:30 now. He should be back by 10:00, 10:30. I suspect we'll start as soon as he gets back, eat lunch in Gainesville and be at the house 3:00 at the latest, I think."
"Uh, that's great Mom. But, Mom, we're not exactly at the house right now."
"Well, that's fine. We won't be there until mid-afternoon. When do you expect to get back?"
"Maybe late tomorrow, tomorrow night," I said, trying to sound nonchalant.
"What are you doing? Where are you?" Mom asked, and added kinda slow like, "I'm not fooled, kid."
"You know I-59?" I asked.
"Can't recall it," Mom said. "Guess you need to educate me."
"Well, it runs from Chattanooga to, I think, New Orleans."
"Annnd?" Mom asked, a bit of a threat in her voice.
"Well, right now, we are in the emergency lane-nothing wrong, just so I can use the phone-somewhere between Hattiesburg and Carriere, Mississippi."
"Tom, what, may I ask, is going on?"
"Well, Mom, it's a long story."
"Tom, I have time."
I told Mom the whole story. When I finished she was silent for a long time. "Mom, you still there?" I asked.
"I'm not really sure, Tom. I'm not really sure. I need some time to think. I'll call you back after I talk with your father. I'll talk to you later."
"Bye, Mom. Enjoy North Carolina," I said and switched off the phone, handed it to Derrick, started the car and pulled back on to the interstate.
"Well?" Keith asked.
"Well, what? Did you expect me to lie to Mom?"
"Nah, I knew better, but I thought you'd try to fudge things a little bit. Actually, Derrick, you need to know your boyfriend and his parents are kinda weird. The parents essentially treat old Tom as an adult, almost, and equal to them, almost. But then there have been times when they have had to pull rank on their baby."
"He spoiled?" Derrick asked as he leaned over and blew into my ear.
"Actually, of course, he is. He has never wanted anything he didn't get, never been told no, always allowed to fuck around. Yeah, he has been allowed to do just about anything he wanted unless it really endangered him or someone else, then he was hauled in right quick. Otherwise, he was allowed to sink or swim. He was always told, "Get yourself in, get yourself out. Right Tom?"
I had never thought of it quite that way, but when I did..."Keith's right," I answered.
"Yeah, like he wanted a car and his dad got him this piece of junk. He told me he was gay and I told him to get lost and his dad took him to North Carolina to sort things out and his mom forced me to go to North Carolina so he could make up to me. No problem with his being gay, but he had to deal with the hurt it caused." Keith was speaking without any indication he was kidding and I didn't think he was.
"The kid's spoiled by having really great parents who were so thrilled at finally getting a kid, they could have spoiled him rotten, but really, this car is kinda a metaphor...."
"Ho, ho, ho, now we are going to use the honors English language defense," I laughed.
Keith laughed and said, "Yeah. Derrick, you saw this car when his parents gave it to old Tom. They do things like that all the time. They gave him a way to get what he wanted rather than giving him what he wanted. Capeesh?
"Capeesh," Derrick laughed. "Guess he had to find one thing he wanted himself though," and blew in my ear again.
After we had been driving for forty-five minutes, I noticed Keith had gotten very quiet. I mean he hadn't been chattering before, but he really got quiet. Minutes later Derrick said "Exit 10 coming up, Tom. That's our exit. Carriere's right ahead."
Well, what would you expect a town of seven hundred souls in the Mississippi Delta to be? Yeah, well, that's what it was. I had thought I'd go to the police station and ask about Miss Daisy Blanco, but there was no police station. There was a school, but it being summer, it was empty. There was a general store with gas pumps outside in the middle of what I guess was town. I pulled up in front of it and went inside. Several elderly men were sitting around a cold pot belly stove-the same place they would sit in winter, I suspect, playing checkers.
"Can I help you, young man?" a middle aged woman with gray hair asked as she came from a back room.
"I hope so, Ma'am," I responded. "I really need to locate Miss Daisy Blanco."
"Yes, Ma'am, and I was told she lived in Black Bottom."
"You have business with her?" one of the checker players asked.
"Well, kinda sir. What I really need is to know where her granddaughter is buried."
"Why're you interested in a grave?" another checker player asked.
"Well, Sir, her boyfriend didn't get to go to her funeral and say goodbye and all that and it's causing him some real problems."
"She had a white boy?" the first checker player asked.
"No sir," I answered and said no more. The men went back to playing checkers and I turned back to the woman.
"She was the girl that was raped and killed herself?" she asked.
"Well, her mother brought her back, but I'm not sure where she got buried, being a suicide and all. Miss Daisy died back just before Christmas and she's the only one of them Blanco colored left around here. I guess you are out of luck. Drive far to get here?"
"From North Carolina."
"That's far. Sorry we can't help." She turned and walked back into the back room.
I was satisfied I had just been brushed off and that probably anyone of the people in the store could have told me where LaTasha was buried, but would not. Unwelcome outside interference in their lives. Rural Mississippi was good at protecting itself from outsiders.
I went back to the car and just said I got no help from anyone. "Maybe if we just drive around a bit we can find someone who will help. I think it'll have to be a black person."
We drove around town just a bit until we had a general idea of the white side of town and the fact that it was closed to us. We, literally, crossed the tracks and drove along a narrow dirt road toward some rundown houses. It had to be black bottom, not that we saw people, but it was rundown and the road dirt. Yeah, it was the "housing" provided by massa.
About the middle of the cluster of houses was a small church with an excuse for a playground beside it. Several young kids, all under ten, I'm sure, were playing in the dirt. I pulled up close to the church and Keith and Derrick got out and walked to the playground and started talking to the kids. The kids were shy, but from where I was in the car, I could see they were warming up to the two young men. After talking with the kids for a few minutes the two came back to the car and got in.
"Of course we couldn't ask directly about LaTasha," Keith said, "but we did find out how to locate the preacher. Maybe he can help us out. We need to go back and get on US 11 and head south to Ozona. The preacher works in a tractor place there."
Half an our later we were in Ozona-which was probably smaller than Carriere, but I wouldn't swear to it. Finding a tractor place was easy since there were so few businesses and houses in Ozona.
We decided it might be best for Keith to ask about the preacher. The kids didn't know his name-they kept telling Derrick and Keith his name was Reverend.
The two got out and walked toward the tractor place where two black men were standing, apparently talking about a piece of farm equipment they were leaning on. Both stood up as the two approached and after they all shook hands and talked a few minutes, Keith turned toward me and motioned for me to come over.
When I reached the four, Keith said, "Reverends, my friend Tom McCarter. Tom, Reverend Micheaux and Reverend Micheaux. They are brothers.
"It's a pleasure," I replied as I shook hands with the two men. About forty or forty-five I guess, both were wearing John Deere work uniforms with "Micheaux Farm Equipment" stitched over one shirt pocket. The other pocket had their name stitched over it, one read Matthew Micheaux and the other Luke Micheaux.
"Their brothers Mark and John are out working on equipment in the field."
"Fellows, why don't we go inside where its cool and have a coke?" Matthew asked, speaking in a soft accent which was definitely not from Georgia or Carolina!
When we were seated in the large office, showroom and parts department lobby, Keith said, "Reverends..."
"Call us Matthew and Luke, everybody does," Luke said. "Kids, elderly ladies and people at church are the only ones who call us Reverend."
"Are Mark and John preachers too?" Keith asked.
Both brothers laughed heartily and Matthew said, "Sorry, but the two run a juke joint between here and Carriere. They get the sinners on Saturday night and we get them Sunday. But what can we do for you three fine fellows?"
"Well, we are looking for Miss Daisy Blanco, but the folks at the general store in Carriere told me she was dead," I answered.
"You only got that much because you were white," Luke said. "To the folks in that store, there are four kinds of people in the world, "us, our colored, them and other colored."
"But they told you right," Matthew said. "I funeralized her a couple weeks before Christmas. Real sad. None of her children bothered to come."
"Well, you still might be able to help us," Keith said. "We wanted to find her so we could find a grave." Keith then told the brothers why he was looking for LaTasha's grave. "Know that may sound weird, but I think maybe if I could talk to her at her grave then I could get on with my life."
I noticed the two brother exchanging glances as Keith told his story and was sure they knew something about the situation.
"Keith, we need to get our other two brothers together with you," Matthew said. "See, when my church, Carriere Church of God in Christ, learned LaTasha had committed suicide, they absolutely refused to allow her to be buried in their cemetery. Since their's is the only cemetery in Carriere where African-Americans are buried, that upset Miss Daisy no end. I was sorry for her, but there was nothing I could do about it. So I called Luke."
"To make a long story short," Luke said, "my church, the Ozona Church of God in Christ, was equally as opposed to allowing her to be buried in the cemetery here. All the time, of course, Miss Daisy's heart was being torn out. Her daughter, LaTasha's mother, was telling her how terrible churches were and how Miss Daisy had worked her fingers to the bone for the church in Carriere and they wouldn't bury her granddaughter--which was true."
"Mark and John got wind of what was going on and let us know right away that the people at the juke joint were a lot more compassionate than the self-righteous church people. They went to Miss Daisy and told her they would take care of her granddaughter," Matthew said.
"And they did. I don't know where the girl is buried because when Matthew and I offered to say words over her, Miss Daisy said, 'No, thank you. You take care of them church people. See if you can keep them out of hell. I'm sure somebody can say some words."
Matthew added, "And that's all we really know. I did hear by the grapevine that there was a fair group at the burial which took place in an old cemetery somewhere back in the bayou. A singer from the juke joint sang and our brothers did the sermon..."
"Which I was told was better than either one of us could have done," Luke said, and I was sure he wasn't joking.
"You fellows just wait here a minute and I'll see where Mark and John are and when they'll be back," Matthew said as he got up and headed back to his private office.
The weather outside was deadly-temperature was over a hundred and and the humidity was close to a hundred. The inside of the building was thankfully air-conditioned and we three relaxed at having made some definite progress at finding LaTasha's grave.
We were just relaxing, chatting with Luke when my cell phone rang. Derrick had said, "You better keep your phone handy since your mom is going to call back. If you don't answer you'll really be in hot water."
"If you want some privacy, go into my office," Luke said, pointing to the office beside the one where Matthew was on the phone.
"Thanks," I said as I flipped the phone open and walked toward the office.
"Tom, it's your father..."
Not good. When Dad referred to himself as my father, it was usually not good news. "Yes, Dad," I answered.
"Your mother told me some fantastic tale about your being in Mississippi. Do you have any idea what may have caused her to dream up such a thing?"
"Well, I guess she got the idea because that's what I told her. I'm in Mississippi."
"Just exactly where are you in Mississippi?"
"I am in the office of Mr. Luke Micheaux at Micheaux Farm Equipment Company in Ozona Mississippi."
"Tom, this conversation is getting stranger all the time. Maybe I best just let you tell your own tale."
I reminded Dad of how concerned Derrick and I had been about Keith and how Keith had suggested he thought he might be able to get on with his life if he could say goodbye to LaTasha. I also told him I thought that if I had asked about us going, I would have been told no. "Both Keith and I told Derrick if you or Mom said no, that would end it, so we decided not to ask."
Dad questioned me about our driving, about whether or not we had gotten any sleep and finally he asked what we had learned about LaTasha's burial.
I told him how we had located someone who would probably take us to the grave. When I did, he said in spite of the fact that we still had to deal with our taking an unapproved trip, he did think we had done a good job of detective work.
"When do you plan to be back in North Carolina?" he asked.
"If all goes well, we'll spend the night in Hattiesburg again and be home tomorrow--late."
"Well, be careful and take your time. We'll talk when you get here."
We said goodbye and I folded the phone.
When I reached the lounge area where the crew were sitting, Matthew had not returned.
"In real hot water?" Keith asked.
"Remember the time we ditched school and Dad called me on the cell? Remember that conversation? This one was like it. I think he's really proud of us for trying to help you out and ready to kill us for just taking off." Keith nodded.
"Mark and John are on their way," Matthew said, joining the group. "They were just finishing up that job at the Audubon Plantation when I called. They were really interested in talking with you fellows."
We sat, talking, killing time. We asked questions about rural southern Mississippi and they asked about North Carolina. It took awhile to get them straightened out about where we actually lived. When we had the North Carolina-Georgia connection straight, Derrick said, "And I'll not try to tell you anything about how I fit in since I came from Baltimore less than a year ago!" The brothers laughed.
It was half an hour before a big GMC diesel dually with a Micheaux Farm Equipment logo on the door pulled into the front of the business. When Mark and John got out of the truck they could have passed for twins of Matthew and Luke.
"Ever try to swap places with your brothers?" Derrick asked.
The two brothers laughed. "Plenty of times when we were at school," Luke said. "Mark and John have threatened to take over our pulpits some Sunday. Would be a wonder to witness."
The two late comers walked into the lounge where we were all sitting. It was obvious they had been out in the heat and humidity, working. Not only were their originally neat, pressed uniforms sweat stained, but dusty and dirty as well.
Introductions were made all around and as soon as that was done, Mark said, "We need to shower and get on fresh uniforms. As soon as we do that, how about we take you fellows to lunch. It's that time, little after."
"Sounds good," Matthew said.
"Not you, dumbass," John said. "But I guess you can tag along."
"Watch your language around these young men," Luke said.
"They've heard worse," John responded with a laugh.
As soon as the two were cleaned up, we all went to Sooky's Place, a small café behind a feed and seed store. I expected the only customers to be black, but there were about as many whites as blacks. Sooky was, however, very black and very large.
"Well, if it's not the Micheaux sinners and the Bible boys," she said as we walked in. "And who be this you towing in?"
John introduced us and told Sooky why we were in Mississippi. When he did, she made it very clear she thought the juke joint people had been better than the sanctimonious Christians of Carriere and Ozona. Luke said under his breath to Matthew, "Think I know Sunday's sermon," as John led us to a table.
The food was plentiful, good and hot-spicy hot. Some of it was completely new to me-crawfish for one. And we all ate entirely too much. When we finished, Sooky refilled our tea glasses and sat down at the table with us since the lunch hour was just about over.
"Sooky sang at LaTasha's burial," Mark said.
"Beautifully," John added.
"Look, you be awfully young to be dealing with rape and suicide. Told that poor girl was gang-raped. Raped myself when I was sixteen by someone I knew. That was bad enough, but that poor girl." Sooky shook her head, then said, "Privileged to sing at her burying. Let me let out some of the anger I be holding in for years."
Later John told us Sooky had been seeing a white boy. "She should have known nothing would come of it and when she asked him what about the future, he got angry and raped her. He got off, of course."
After lunch, we went back to the tractor dealership and Mark and John asked if we thought we could stand a ride in a pickup and we laughed. Keith had to tell them about his truck and they got a kick out of an African-American redneck. The dually was a crew cab, so the three of us and the two brothers got in. Matthew asked about his and Luke going along and I saw a real spark of fire in John's eye when he said no.
We rode along the highway for maybe five miles, then turned onto a dirt road. It looked as if its only function was to get into the fields on each side.
"I hope you don't think we were being nasty when we told our brothers they couldn't come with us," Mark said. "When their congregations refused to let LaTasha be buried with their saints, Matthew and Luke should have stood their ground. They are all for loving your neighbor and that sort of thing, but it has to be the right neighbors."
"Actually, we get along fine so long as we don't let church interfere," John said. "It's really kinda silly, but it goes back to before we were born. Daddy was a preacher too and when the voter registration drives came to Pearl River county, he was all peace and love and don't rock the boat. Mama was at the head of the march. How they ever managed to get together, I don't know, but they did and somehow or other, Matthew and Luke followed in Daddy's footsteps and Mark and I followed Mama's."
"It seldom matters, but when something like a poor girl who has been raped and couldn't take life anymore escapes, sanctimonious old ladies and men without backbone step in and decide she's too contaminated to be buried in their holy ground-well, it really pisses me off."
"The undertaker gave her mother twenty-four hours to find a place to put her. Mark and I had been kinda looking after Miss Daisy since all her kids had left her high and dry. She was at her wit's end when her daughter said she was finished and told the undertaker just to put LaTasha any place he could and left town. Miss Daisy called me."
"We went to her place and when she told us what she was up against, we told her we would take care of everything. We got the undertaker to release the body to us-it was his ass if he let anyone know we had taken it-we got a group of our friends together and we took LaTasha to an old cemetery where some good people--slaves mostly--had been buried years and years ago. We thought they'd welcome a fresh face and they did."
The dirt road had long since disappeared and we were driving into the bayou. We finally stopped and the two brothers led us to a grave beneath a huge old oak. There were stones about, marking old graves. In the midst of the old graves was a new one, LaTasha's.
We all stood around the grave, silent, for several minutes, then Mark and John turned and walked back toward the truck. Derrick and I, arm in arm, followed. When we reached the truck, I said, "Mark, John, you'll never know who much this means to us and especially to Keith. I was afraid he might take the suicide escape after LaTasha died." We then talked quietly about LaTasha. All they knew about her was what little Miss Daisy was able to tell them. We talked about her-how she had been a wonderful young woman living in hell. "But a hell we didn't know about. She never said anything about it," I said.
"When we brought her here, every single one of us felt like she had thanked us," Mark said. "It was weeks before John mentioned it to me and after we both had the same feeling, we talked to the others and they all felt the same way."
"Yeah and we still talk about it sometimes," John said. "Like Sooky, everyone of us had something in our past that held us back, made us unhappy, seemed to keep our life from being what it should be. And after the funeral, every single one of us had experienced something, like Sooky saying she had turned loose old anger."
"Ok, that sounds ok but what John is not telling you, every single person who was beside that grave when we had finally seen LaTasha had a decent burial has had a conversation with LaTasha. I guess it was like a dream, but I was not asleep. It was kind of a vision, yet LaTasha and I were as alive as any of us standing here. It was real."
I guess I wanted to believe the two brothers, but this was a little much. I was charging it up to some influence of southern Mississippi voodoo when Derrick asked, "You saw her?"
"Yeah, I did," Mark said. He then started talking about how LaTasha looked, how alive she was and how beautiful. At first he could have been describing any pretty young African-American, then he got specific. He had to have seen LaTasha or a photo to have been that accurate in his description. I had a sudden thought and asked if she was wearing any jewelry.
"She was. She had a ring on her left middle finger, a silver ring with a vine engraved around it."
I didn't know what to say. Keith had given LaTasha a silver ring with an ivy vine engraved around it after College Park had fancy signs marking the historical district as "Ivy City". He told her it was to mark her as his "College Park girl."
When Keith came back, John asked if he was ready to go and he said, "Yes, I am ready to get on with my life." It was only when we were on our way back to Hattiesburg that I noticed he was wearing a silver ring on his left little finger, a silver ring with ivy engraved around it.