Tim Bryant will be joining us for our Lone Star Mystery Writers Panel, Wednesday, the 6th at 7PM, along with Reavis Wortham and Ben Rehder. His latest, Spirit Trap, deals with music, the past, and a unique view of things, much like his tale here.
SHIMMIE SHE WOBBLE
by Tim Bryant
Lee Ray Murvin, who most people called Sardine, was down on his knees barking like a dog, and Clement Whitaker was still trying to pour more oh be joyful into him, first from a wooden ladle and then from one of Sardine’s own boots, which along with his trousers and work shirt, were strewn across the hardwood floor. Micah Lockwood sat in a corner playing five-card stud with his friend and kettle drum player Henry Compton and trying to ignore Clement’s devilry, but you can only turn your back for so long.
“Let him alone, Clement. He’s had enough.”
Clement, who was every bit as tanked as Sardine but had the fortune of being Sardine’s foreman on day shift at the mill, was having none of it.
“You got no dog in this, Lockwood.”
Clement laughed at his own cleverness and barked at Sardine who flinched and backed into a corner. Sardine’s face was drenched in sweat, and he had a look behind his eyes that unsettled Micah.
“Get him some spoonbread to settle his stomach,” he said.
He stood up from the table and took a few steps toward the kitchen, where Anna was sitting with a paperback book creased on her knee, passing time until she could send everyone home and close down for another night.
Clement turned like a pitcher on the mound, hurling Sardine’s boot with enough force that it hit Micah’s left cheek like the foot was still attached.
Later, when the law showed up and wanted to take witness accounts, most of the men in the room agreed that it was at this point that they knew things had crossed the line. Two of them, in fact, stood up and left Anna’s Lounge immediately.
As for Micah Lockwood, none who remained had much argument with his claim that everything beyond that point was a big blur. If they agreed that he had lunged at Clement, they also admitted that Clement had it coming. Clement, sensing that he had his hands full, dropped the bottle but drew the ladle up, first in a defensive posture, but then began to poke and prod his opponent with it. That, they said, was when Micah pulled the fife from his pocket.
“No, not a knife,” they told the law. “A fife.”
Micah Lockwood had lived his whole adult life on a cotton farm outside Coffeeville. He seemed to have sprung from the black Mississippi soil fully formed, because no one had any recollection of either his family or his childhood. He played in a fife and drum band called the Coffeeville Ramblers. While they rambled all around Coffeeville, playing at weddings and funerals, family get-togethers and picnics, they never left Yalobusha County.
Micah played a six-inch, five-hole fife that he carved out of the cane fields which grew all along the back of the farm. You were liable to see him at Sweet Jim’s Domino Hall or Hully Gully’s or sometimes, like today, at Anna’s Lounge, but no matter where you saw him, he’d have that whistle in his hand or in his pocket.
By Saturday, September 28, 1935, both Coffeeville cotton farms had sold off their equipment, most of the workers moving north, where jobs were more plentiful. Lockwood lost his bass drummer to a factory job in Chicago and his snare drummer to a jazz band gig in Memphis, but he and Henry Compton stuck around, finding occasional work in the
turpentine mill or in the butcher shop or doing simple carpentry work on the houses and barns in the area.
That night, Micah Lockwood showed up at Anna’s just before the mill workers, driving his mule Oscar and a wagon but arriving alone. Henry Compton showed up a little later. The Mississippi Mud Stompers, a black string band popular all across the deep south, were scheduled to play just around the corner at Jim’s that night, having played to the
west in Clarksdale on the previous evening. The plan was to play cards until the music started and then head on over. Maybe in the breaks, the Mud Stompers would let Micah and Henry play a tune or two, or, if they were lucky, they’d be invited to sit in with them for a few.
Sardine Murvin showed up at Anna’s with the same idea, but only after stopping by Mattie Whitaker’s place to see if she would join him. Mattie was, by unanimous agreement, the prettiest girl in town. She had light brown hair that framed her face like a picture, and she dressed like no one around these parts. She looked like she belonged in Memphis or Chicago or maybe riding down river to New Orleans in a paddleboat. Anywhere but Coffeeville. Mattie was also sixteen years old. Eight years younger than Sardine.
The boot heel collided hard enough with Micah Lockwood’s nose that he immediately smelled blood. He had a habit of losing his temper when that happened. His eyes saw nothing as he swung wild with his first punch and caught air. Clement laughed, which was a mistake because it allowed Micah to readjust. The second blow caught Clement square in the gizzard. Clement shook it off and kept coming, jabbing the damn ladle into Lockwood’s ribs and trying to make a joke of it. Nobody else was laughing.
Clement never saw the fife until it welted him across the face with a loud popping sound that made Anna jump and drop her book. When the blowing end came blowing into the corner of his left eye socket, Clement hit the floor. Bottles scattered, reminding Micah of one of the arcade games at the fall carnival every year in Oxford. Clement didn’t come back up, and that’s when everyone realized the fife was still lodged there in his eye hole.
“I had it in mind that I was going to put a stop to all this nonsense,” said Anna. “But when I saw Mr. Whitaker rise up with that plank in his eye, well, that was more than I was in it for.”
Henry Compton went on to describe in great detail how Clement had pulled himself to his feet and had gone at Mr. Lockwood at full stride, taking a great leap into the air, only to come down on Micah Lockwood in such a way as to drive the wooden instrument so far back into his skull that it came near to poking out on the other side.
“We all looked down at him laying there on the floor,” Henry said, “and we agreed that that’s what it was, pushing against the back of his head like a worm trying to break through an apple.”
Several of the men collected the body and hauled it over to the Whitaker family house on Micah’s wagon, drawn by old Oscar. Only Micah wasn’t there by that point. They made most of the ride in silence, but when they got within eyesight of the place, they took a show of hands and voted not to implicate Micah. The fife had been worked back out of Clement’s head the same way it had gone in. No reason to get the Whitakers all worked up. Nothing good, they decided, would come of it.
Micah Lockwood, on the other hand, had a problem. When they returned his fife, covered in blood and brain matter, he measured it in his outstretched fingers and found that it came up short by an inch. A four-hole fife was enough to get him hung. The old Mississippi
Micah moved out of the cotton farm the following day and made his way up Shiloh Road, somewhere close to Shiloh Cemetery. Some people around Coffeeville claim that he stayed for three days and nights in the old Shiloh Baptist Church. That’s not right, but he did show up at the services there on the following morning.
“I’ve been washed in the blood,” he said, “Does that mean I’m bound
“My friend,” the Reverend Chesley Benefield said, “the Son of Man says if you’ve been washed in the blood, then surely you are already good as gold. Your garments have been made spotless before the Lord your God, and your place in glory is secured.”
And so Micah Lockwood walked into the woods, and that’s where he stayed for three days. And during that time, a great army of men was gathered, and they all went out to find Micah, because a price had been placed on his head. Clement Whitaker’s body had been taken to Oxford, where they scrubbed it and prepared it for burial, and, during
the preparations, Dr. Douglas Whitney had plucked the missing inch of cane fife from the skull of the dead man.
“That can’t belong to none other but Micah Lockwood,” said the dead man’s father Jonas.
The word got passed around so that everybody from Coffeeville to Tillatoba, from Greenwood to Shiloh, knew the name, if not the face, of Micah Lockwood. Because of this, the Yalobusha sheriff sent two of his deputies out to collect witnesses and set their stories down. As people began to compare the stories, a good two-thirds of the army
looking for Mr. Lockwood fell away. It wasn’t worth the money, they said. They didn’t want the blood on their hands. One group of men tracked him down in the woods above Shiloh and urged him to go farther. Travel west to Texas, they said, or north to Paducah,
Kentucky. Carbondale, Illinois.
“My father gave me this,” Micah said, holding his fife out to the gathered men.
“Your father?” one of them said. “We never knew your father. Surely he didn’t give you the fife. You’ve told us yourself, you cut it from the sugarcane growing along Cypress Creek.”
Micah tightened his hand around it until it disappeared from view.
“Not this very one,” he said. “But the gift of the pipe. He showed me how to play the Shimmie She Wobble. The pipe, he said, would deliver me.”
The men went away without having talked him into moving on, but they left him with a warning.
“It’s been two days. In one more day, the family of Clement Whitaker will have a funeral. His family will be arriving from Oxford and from Koskiusko. After he’s laid in the ground, after the last hymn is sung and the dirt shoveled back into the earth, they will come looking for you.”
The next morning, horses and buggies began lining up outside the Whitaker household well before the dew was off the grass. Family and friends, church people and workers from the turpentine mill. The women hurried inside, where they busied themselves preparing food for the masses. The men stood around outside, kicked at the ground and talked about the white deputies who came around and did a bunch of talking and then shrugged and left.
“Everybody knows who done it,” one of them would say.
“If he’d done it to a white man, them deputies wouldn’t of shrugged and walked off,” someone else would say.
They would stare at the ground again and then circulate like they were changing partners at a dance and start it all over again.
At ten thirty, the hearse pulled up with Clement’s casket, and, at eleven, everybody followed it solemnly through the town and out to the negro graveyard on the back side of the white one. A number of people came out to the graveside service who normally wouldn’t have bothered, including a handful of white men. They knew something was bound to
happen, and they either didn’t want to miss it or they planned to do what they could to help one side or the other when it did.
At the appointed moment, Reverend Cecil Calabash, with his stovepipe hat and his long gray whiskers, stood up and began singing, Death is gonna straighten out all you liars
one of these days.
It wasn’t any kind of song to be singing at a funeral. The townspeople knew it, and the mourners did too, but it didn’t stop them from joining in. As if to show the devil himself that they meant business, they followed that one up with all four verses of Keep On The Firing Line.
Just when things were starting to get so tense you thought Clement himself might leap up out of his box, the people in the town started hearing something that sounded like a big thunderstorm coming over the ridge from the west. Jim Swain, who was called Sweet Jim by everybody— even people who didn’t like him— came out of his place and looked up
in the sky.
“Oh my God, will you look what’s coming yonder,” somebody in the street said, and around the bend came Micah Lockwood. He wasn’t alone. He came walking into town with a full drum corps behind him. Henry Compton was there. Charles Freeman. Haskell Cook and Lum Johnson and Miner Gilliam. Micah, ten paces in front, was holding up a fife that seemed to catch the light of the sun, but he never once brought it to his lips. Instead, he was singing.
Glory glory hallelujah
when I lay my burden down,
I’ll go on to live with Jesus
since I laid my burden down,
Every round goes higher and higher
since I laid my burden down…
He was still two blocks shy of the cemetery when a woman came running by Sweet Jim and wrapped herself around Micah. A gasp came up from the gathering crowd when they saw who it was.
“Isn’t that Clement Whitaker’s mother?” said Anna.
No one could believe it, but it was Viola Whitaker, sure as the world. If Micah Lockwood hadn’t come walking past half of Coffeeville that morning, if it had just been a story passed around in the domino hall or at Hully Gully’s, no one would have ever believed it. But when he moved through, he did so with Viola embracing him as if he were her
own flesh and blood.
Praises went up from the crowd, who stepped back into the shadows if not into the buildings, mostly to get out of the way of the drummers, who were stirring up a dust cloud and shaking the ground beneath them with their rolling rumble. Micah kept his eyes fixed on a point straight ahead and in the distance.
“Micah Lockwood, I want you to hear me good,” said Viola Whitaker as she leaned into him. “If they kill you today— and there’s plenty who aim to do just that— I want you to know that they’re gonna have to go through me first. Do you understand me?”
“Yes ma’am,” he said.
“I’m not going to stand by and let that just happen,” she said. “You and me do understand each other, don’t we?”
“Yes ma’am,” he said.
She grabbed his face and turned it toward her. “I need to hear you say it, Micah. I need to hear it from you.”
He stopped walking for the first time since he’d started down the Shiloh Road.
“They kill me, they’re gonna have to kill you too, ma’am.”
“And why is that?” she said.
“Because you don’t want me going on to glory and seeing your boy today while you have to stay behind and wait for it.”
“You don’t get to just lay your burden down easy and expect me to pick it up and carry it for the rest of my days,” she said. “It don’t work that way.”
Jonas Whitaker dropped his Colt .45 to his side when he saw his wife holding Micah by the hand. Two other guns also got holstered at his signal. The crowd quickly enveloped the two and, when the drums came to a stop, a quiet confusion seemed to fall over the whole town, as in old biblical times when God confused the tongues of men. Viola looked
her husband dead in the eye.
“Love, you have a decision to make,” she said. “You can kill this boy and risk sending him to his reward, to be with our only son. If you do so, I pray that you send the bullets through me first and don’t punish me twice by leaving me behind again.”
She stood across Micah like the moon passing across the sun.
“I aim to send Micah Lockwood in the other direction, into the everlasting fire,” Jonas said.
His thumb and fingers danced nervously on the grip of his gun.
“I’ve been washed in the blood,” Micah said. “Lord have mercy.”
Jonas raised the Colt up. Micah closed his eyes and waited.
“That was the blood of my son you was washed in,” Jonas said, and pulled the trigger.
The single bullet cracked like a drumstick against the side of a drum, scattering teeth east and west. Micah opened his eyes to see the old man fall empty at his feet.
The food at the Whitaker house was left to spoil, and the crowd at the graveyard grew throughout the afternoon as Mr. Whitaker was made ready for burial next to his son. The only people who weren’t there were the white deputies, who were away in Jackson, and Sardine Murvin, who was laid up in his bed with a frightful case of turpentine poisoning.
“Where are we gonna put that boy?” Sweet Jim said.
“I say we throw Micah in the jail and let the deputies worry about him when they get back,” said one of the plant bosses.
“We don’t have a key,” said Sweet Jim.
“We could always lock him in the outhouse behind the church,” said the plant boss.
“Lock him in it and then burn it to the ground,” said Anna.
They might have done it if Reverend Calabash hadn’t stopped them on account of it wasting a perfectly useful outhouse. Seeing an opening in the proceedings, it was sixteen year old Mattie Whitaker who walked up to her mother’s side, and, placing herself between Viola and Micah, said that killing Micah Lockwood would make them all no better than
they claimed him to be.
“Micah never laid a hand on my daddy,” she said, “and he didn’t aim to kill Clement neither. On the other hand, you all are standing here in broad daylight with murder in your hearts.”
Lee Ray “Sardine” Murvin, as hard as he tried, had never won the hand of the beautiful sixteen year old, but it was because Micah and his music had won her heart years before at summer picnics and church singings.
And so Mattie kept Micah alive that day with a teenager’s love, and Micah and Viola kept each other alive for several more years with something deeper and darker, neither trusting the other to lay down the terrible burden they shared.
“Remember,” she would say, “it don’t work that way.”
On June 8, 1940, Reverend Benefield pronounced Micah and Mattie man and wife at the Old Shiloh Baptist Church, and all three of them moved into a shotgun house on upper Shiloh Road.
“Remember,” Viola would say.
A boy named Earl was born in 1942.
A girl, Nonie, came the year after.
Stories of far away wars arrived over a Rogers Majestic tabletop radio, but the names of the places were strange and seemed no more real than The Thin Man or The Shadow.
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”
The battles at home took a daily toll. Drought and sickness were enemies that couldn’t be charged. So, too, fear and vindictiveness. In the winter of 1945, Micah appeared on the streets of Clarksdale. He was telling a murderous tale that no one could quite believe and making a kind of music that hadn’t been heard around there.
“What kind of pipe is that you’re playing?” said a little boy who wasn’t much older than Earl had been.
The boy was holding a three-string guitar and looking like he wasn’t sure what to make of the ghost of a man before him.
“It’s carved out of bone,” Micah Lockwood said. “Pure bone.”
He pulled it from his lips with a kiss and handed it to the boy.”