"If she'd got there 'fore I picked up his face and tied it back on with my shirt, she'd be dead right now."
"That why you wanderin' around in your undershirt?"
"Yes sir, it is." Even munched on the cheese and thought how good an apple would be with it.
"You there when it happened?"
"Almost. Left the area on break five minutes earlier --"
"You know how it happened?"
"I got me a pretty good idea." Even finished his cheese.
"Well, you wanna tell me 'fore I have to read the cleaned-up union version in the Hattiesburg American?"
Even looked back toward the bridge wondering where to begin. Canaan knew most of it. That the "Bull Gang," a group of twenty-seven Negroes with varying degrees of mechanic skills, worked whatever the union said to work -- scraping out, hosing down, tightening up, loosening what needed to be, by careful degrees. Doing during their swing every low-down shitty job that needed doing, deep down where nobody else wanted to go. He knew they did it with both eyes wide open and steady on their work buddy.
Canaan knew Even worked irregular hours. He knew it was against union regulations. He also knew it didn't matter worth a shit because the union wouldn't let in the Negro in 1956. Union needed the Bull Gang like they needed their balls, but they'd rather take a rusted knife to their own crotch than admit it. Could've used their dues, too. But that didn't matter, either. Not one little bit. Colored was Colored and that was that. No use worrying over it. Better to work at worrying over whether or not your buddy's got his head on straight and able to watch the couplings right, or if he's worried about home or his woman or the numbers he's played and lost big on again and what he's gonna say to the bookie who broke his finger last month and said, "I'm goin' lower next time, nigger --" Better to wonder if that same nigger's closed off that valve good as you would, and is standing there readin' the gauge pressure like his own mama's where you're at. Flat on your back in the mud, breathing turpentine, underneath a pipe labeled three ways in yellow on black: "Warning" and "Toxic" and "Danger." No use worrying about a union in the face of pressing matters that pressed on a body a helluva lot more. Canaan knew these things as good as Even did. Better to tell it as it happened. And so he did.
He told about the siren five minutes into break. How he knew before it quit its scream what had happened. How he knew it was Willie and James because James was horny for a woman he couldn't afford who was driving him crazier by the second. Knew Willie let him slide because he'd had one just like her a few years back and sweet was sweet, no matter the cost. Even knew these things and told them to Canaan. He finished by saying how once the air cleared in sub-level two, the crew had found them both thrown against a boiler in a heap -- James still clutching his wrench, burned crisp by molten resin, and Willie splayed wide, his arms spread out like Christ, with no face.
"And that's why I'm an hour late home and shirtless." He finished the last of his Coke and set the bottle on its side, spinning it easy with his finger. He didn't tell Canaan how he couldn't help crying, Oh Jesus...Oh Jesus...Oh Jesus...while he picked up a sheet of skin that used to be a face and put it back on a bloody smear of a thing, or how he fought puking while he puffed off his old blue chambray and wrapped up the head before Willie's mama showed up looking for her only son and found him faceless.
The caution light at Center and Main blinked steady on and off in the middle of the empty intersection where most traveled through on a tractor or beat-up truck, but very seldom in a car. The Quarter -- pronounced "niggertown" by the white folks -- was still out of sight, still a mile beyond with his small house and others just like it lining red dirt streets named after flowers.
Reprinted from Mother of Pearl by Melinda Haynes. Copyright © 1999 Melinda Haynes. Published by Hyperion. No part of this excerpt can be reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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