You are on page 1of 5

The Mississippi River

I hope it doesnt get as hot today as it did yesterday, Mrs. Sherman said as Marys skilled
hands worked the pressing comb through Mrs. Shermans hair. I dont want to sweat my hair
out before church tomorrow. There was a little electric fan rotating lazily on a table nearby,
blowing feebly on the two women. Mrs. Sherman was Marys second customer of the day; she
started early, around seven, to avoid the heat of the day. There were two more customers coming,
and she hoped to be finished around noon or shortly after. Mary planned to go see Aunty in the
afternoon and take her some food.
Sammie and Daisy finished their chores, and were outside taking care of baby Luvenia.
Little Clarence was also with them. Napoleon was with his friends in the park, or so Mary
Its going to be just as hot as yesterday, I think, Mary said, blowing smoke off the hot
comb, gauging the heat. The window was open and she heard some kind of commotion outside.
She paid no attention; it sounded like children. I wonder if those kids are out there fighting
again. Then the noise was inside, downstairs. A thunderous clattering on the steps gave Mary
pause. What in the world ? She put her comb to the side and craned her neck to look out the
open door of the apartment to see what was causing the ruckus. Before she could get off the stool
the first kid burst into the room, stopping at the door. Miss Green! Miss Green! Napoleon got
Drowned. Drowned. The word was like a flint igniting a spark deep inside her, too deep
for recognition.
What are yall talking about? Her voice was unbelievably calm. The spark shed felt
was quickly making its way up to her conscious thoughts.
Napoleon was swimming, and uh in uh the river! And then uh he jumped
in and uh then he uh then he didnt come up, Cooper stammered. He was one of
Napoleons best friends. He was standing in her doorway straight from the river, naked except
for short pants, which were still wet, and he was ashy white from the water. Mary looked at him.
He looks so much like Napoleon.
Her knees felt about to give way; she started to tremble, and thought she might have to sit
down, but she couldnt. What chall talking about? She was trembling violently, and the
shaking now reached her voice. What chall talking about?! She paced the room, wringing her
hands violently as if trying to relieve them of the filthy news. What chall talking about?!
Where is Napoleon?!!! By now, most of the neighborhood stood in her door. Where is
Napoleon?!!! Mary screamed the words and stamped her right foot on the floor so hard that the
room shook.
Both her hands shot straight up into the air. Jesuuuus, Jesuuuus! Help me Lord. My
baby, my baby, my baby, Jesuuuus! Mary kept stomping with her right foot, shaking her head
no, still flailing her arms high. She paced circles in the floor, gasping deeply. It was hard to
breathe. She shook her head and repeated his name, No Jesus, no Jesus, not my child,
Napoleonnnnn! Napoleonnnnn !
Mrs. Sherman and some of the neighbors, all crying now, were trying to console Mary,
but she refused, as if accepting their help would make it true. She pushed their hands away and
kept shaking her head, No, Lord Jesus, no, help me Lord, I cant take this, thats my baby, Lord!
Jesuuuus! Mary stamped again, fell onto a chair and sobbed.

When the police walked into Davids pool hall, all the occupants stiffened. In most cases,
the police were looking for someone who had broken the law, or suspected of such. So when the
two white cops walked into the pool hall, Robert Lesters first thought was, Whos going to jail?
David was back in his private room doing some paperwork. Although running numbers was
against the law, the police never busted anybody for it, except maybe some big shots, certainly
nobody on their level.
Does David Green own this place? one of the cops asked the nearest pool shooter.
I dont know who owns it; I just come and shoot pool. Nobody ever gave the police
information about anybody, whether they knew it or not.
Well, who does know? The cop spoke to the room in general.
Yes sir, may I help you? Robert walked up to the cop with as pleasant a smile as he
could conjure up.
Are you David Green? the second cop asked, his annoyance apparent in his voice.
No sir, Im the manager, can I help you? Robert suspected the worst. He didnt know
what David might have done, and he wasnt sure if he should let the cops know that he was in the
Well, its kind of important that we speak to him. The first cop spoke up again with
more patience than his partner did.
Hang on for a minute; Ill let him know youre here to see him, Robert said, backing
away from the cops. He knocked on the door in the back room, but didnt wait for a response.
David, theres two cops here to see you, should I send them back? Robert asked,
sticking his head in the door.
What do they want? David asked, sounding a little startled. He stood and put on his suit
I dont know, they wouldnt tell me.
Okay, Ill be right there. David was apprehensive; he couldnt imagine what they
wanted. When Robert turned around to tell the cops that David would be right out, they were
standing right behind him. They had probably heard the whole exchange.
Oh! Excuse me, Robert said after bumping into the cop standing closest to him. He
said he would be right out. Robert then walked back to the tables, looking back at the cops with
a puzzled expression.
David stepped out of the room adjusting his jacket, and closed the door behind him.
Are you David Green? the first and more compassionate cop asked.
Uh, yes. Is something wrong officer? David was puzzled; he still had no idea what they
wanted. Its Otto. Something has happened to Otto. Hes in jail or A thousand thoughts went
through his head in a split second, and he was a bit unnerved.
Do you have a son named Napoleon, around thirteen? The first cop did the talking.
Well, yes. David was really puzzled now. Napoleon was a good boy and never got into
trouble. So what has Napoleon done?
Im afraid we have some bad news. Your son drowned earlier this morning in the
Mississippi River, and we need you to come and identify the body. There was compassion in the
cops voice; perhaps he had a son himself. David just stood there. He couldnt collect his
thoughts. He attempted to say something once or twice but nothing came out. He cleared his
throat as if he was about to speak but again, nothing. Then he walked past the cops to where
Robert was standing.
Im going to be gone awhile. If Im not back by closing just close up and Ill see you
tomorrow, David said, zombie-like, without emotion. Something has happened to my boy.
Is Otto all right? Robert, all excited, was afraid that something terrible had happened to
No, its Napoleon, David said in a solemn tone, and walked out of the pool hall with
the two cops.
They took David down to the city morgue and told him the story that the kids had given
them: Napoleon had dived off some rocks and never came up until they saw him floating in the
water face down. Although David didnt show any emotion as the cops spoke, his mind raced.
This has to be a mistake; he cant be He wouldnt allow his mind to think the word dead.
He must have hit his head on some rocks, the more compassionate cop said, as they
walked into the morgue.
The sterile smell of a hospital mixed with formaldehyde assaulted Davids senses. He
followed the cops down a long corridor until they reached double swinging doors. Once inside,
the cop spoke with an attendant, who then got up from his desk and took them down another
long dimly lit hallway with metal refrigerator-like doors on either side. The doors were stacked
one on top of the other. Hes in number twenty-eight, bottom, the attendant said. David felt a
temblor go through his body. Hes in number twenty-eight, bottom.
Here we go, number twenty-eight, the attendant said, sounding detached. With the two
cops and the attendant on one side and David on the other, the attendant pulled out the metal
drawer; its contents covered with a sheet. Without fanfare or ceremony, he pulled back the cloth
revealing Napoleon, seemingly asleep, ashy white from the water that had taken his life.
David gasped, his resolve shaken. It took him a couple of minutes to recover. Physically
shaken, slightly weak in the knees, he just stared down on his second son. He wanted to scream
or holler, do something, but nothing came. He just stared. His trance was broken when the first
cop spoke.
Is this your son? He spoke with as much empathy as possible. I think he hit his head
when he dove off that rock. He pointed to a bruise on Napoleons head.
Yes, thats my son. David had never thought about how much Napoleon looked like
Mary until that very moment. Mary, oh my God, I got to get home to her. He knew that she was
out of her mind by now. As he rushed from the morgue after signing some necessary papers, he
headed toward home, unaware of the tears flowing freely from his eyes. He did not attempt to
hide them.
A worrisome thought popped into his head. The services we gotta have a funeral. Ill
have to stop on the way.
David pushed his way into the apartment through all the concerned neighbors and
children. Mary had calmed down, somewhat. There was still the occasional outburst, but the die
was cast, her child was dead.
I went down to the morgue to identify him, David said, almost without emotion as he
took Mary into his arms. When Mary looked into his eyes for answers, she could tell he had been
crying. His eyes were red and a little puffy. I stopped at Wades Funeral Home. Theyll pick him
up and let me know when hell be ready for the services. David rocked slowly with Mary in his
arms, trying to control the catch in his voice.
When he did ease Mary into a chair, she sat looking blankly into space. By now all the
people had gone and the room seemed surreal, and extremely hot and humid. Sammie, Daisy,
and little Clarence cried. Little Clarence didnt know exactly why. He thought, Napoleon must be
hurt or something. He had no concept of death yet. He thought that after a time Napoleon would
return home.


Boom, boom, boom! Otto, open the door! Otto! Buster, crying and screaming, beat at
the door of their room, locked from the inside.
Okay, okay The still-sleepy Otto pulled himself together and rolled out of the bed.
Looking down on Alice, who was starting to stir, he smiled and pulled his pants on.
Boom, boom, boom! Otto, open the damn door! Buster screamed at the door.
Okay! Okay! Im coming Buster, hold your horses.
Otto was annoyed at Buster for making such a racket. Alice sat up in bed with the quilt
held up in front of her. She looked at Otto, puzzled as to what was wrong with Buster. When Otto
slid back the lock and opened the door, he was taken aback by the way Buster looked. His eyes
were red and swollen and he was crying.
Whats wrong, Buster? His first thought was that something had happened to his
Its Napoleon, hes dead, he drowned in the river. Buster fell into his friends arms and
Hold up wait a minute, what are you talking about? Otto said as he held Buster by the
shoulders and put him at arms length. Now slow down and tell me what you are talking about.
He knew what Buster had said, he understood every word; but somehow it wouldnt sink in.
I said Napoleon is dead, fool! Buster screamed at the top of his lungs. He never saw
Alice until she broke down and started crying. Otto just stood on the spot. He couldnt collect his
thoughts. Before he could think of what to do next, tears started to blur his vision.
Mamaaaa, Mamaaaa! Otto turned, and in one motion put on his shoes, never lacing
them, grabbed his shirt and was out the door with Buster on his heels. He ran blindly through the
streets all the way home. He burst in the front door downstairs screaming, Mama, Mama,
Mama! and took the steps two and three at a time. When he opened the door, the first person he
saw was his father.
Papa, Papa, wheres Mama? David just tilted his head toward the bedroom, signaling
the end of their estrangement. When he opened the door both Sammie and Daisy were sitting on
the bed and Clarence was sleeping. Mary was sitting in a chair just looking out the window. The
room was hot and his mother was fanning herself with one of the fans from church she had
brought home.
Otto fell on his knees by his mothers chair, put his head in her lap, and cried like a baby.
This started both the girls crying again. Mary only patted her son on the head. She felt drained,
still trying to make sense of what was happening. She was used to Napoleon coming home in the
evening. It was hard to imagine him not coming home to eat. It was harder imagining him not
coming back at all.
Miss Sally had heard the news that afternoon as it engulfed the neighborhood like a
raging wild fire. She took the news pretty badly, but still being sickly herself, she couldnt make
the trek up to the Greens apartment, even though it was only a few blocks from where she lived.
Later that same evening, it occurred to Mary, in her muddled state, that somebody needed to be
with Miss Sally. She was exceptionally close to Napoleon.
Mary, though in a zombie-state and moving almost by reflex alone, told Otto to stay with
the kids so she could see about Miss Sally. The walk through the neighborhood to Miss Sallys
was surreal. The activity in the streets seemed to have stopped, and though people came up to
offer condolences, Mary felt like she was in a dream.
When Mary reached the house, she stopped and looked up at the front door. The
memories of their first days in St. Louis rushed at her like waves at eventide. Tears sprang up,
blurring her vision as she took one step at a time. With each step, the tears became more like a
waterfall; she could hear Miss Sally hollering at Otto and Napoleon Boy didnt I tell you to
stop that running? Ottuh, Davuh, I mean, Napoboy, you know your name, come in here
and go to the sto
Mary walked inside the front door, stopping again as all the memories assaulted her. She
could hear Napoleon hollering behind his brother to wait for him as he ran down the steps and
out the front door. Miss Sally hollering after them, for the umpteenth time, I betcha heads gon
roll if yall dont stop all that racket! By the time she went into Miss Sallys parlor, Mary was
Miss Sally was sitting in the semi-darkened room, rocking, and staring blankly into
space. Her trance was broken when Mary came into the parlor. Mary could see that Miss Sally
had been crying, or was crying; it was hard to tell. Mary took a seat on the ottoman and gently
held Miss Sallys hand. Without a word, they both cried and rocked.
Hes in the Lords hands, baby, hes in the Lords hands, Miss Sally said through her
veil of tears. He knows best, the Lord Jesus knows best, hallelujah, praise his name, yes Jesus.
Her singsong tone sounded as if she were preaching from a pulpit. Baby, just put your trust in
the Lord, hell deliver you, hell see you through this troubling time. Just believe in him. Miss
Sally broke down sobbing at that point and Mary hugged her, crying heavily herself as she
consoled Napoleons aunty.


You might also like