Ages ago, for reasons of parental misjudgement, I studied at a small college in rural Virginia, Hampden-Sydney. While surprisingly rigorous, being resolutely Southern and as yet untouched by the foolishness that now degrades schools, H-S was also relentlessly preppy. The studentry tended to be vapid future bankers in small towns and pre-meds who would go to the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond. I loathed them, and they, me. At night, to escape, I walked wooded roads under the stars to smell the honeysuckle and listen to what the insects had to say.
One night I found Lanc’s store. Lanc — Lancaster Brown — was an old black man, in his eighties I’d guess. At any rate he had gone to France in a labor battalion in World War I and spoke of the beer gardens and other wonders. He was pretty slow by the time I met him. His had been a long life and not always an easy one.
The store was tiny, old, worn, and unpainted, with battered glass cases of candy and bubble gum, unpainted plank floors and, in the back, a potbellied stove that always had a fire of chilly evenings. The counter had a big jar of pickled sausage, behind it a box of Moon Pies — the credentials of Southern ruralhood. A Camels poster from about 1953 was tacked to the wall. From it a full-lipped and busty honey-blonde in a cowboy hat smiled down at the world.
Lanc was alone that night, sitting on the old church pew across the back wall that served as bench when company came. I asked for a coke. He got it for me. He was not dark-skinned, more earth-colored, being about the shade of the dispirited floppy hat he habitually wore. I think he was embarrassed by being bald as an onion. With a freshman’s sense of anthropological exploration I made conversation.
My grandfather, retired then, had been professor of mathematics and dean at the college. It proved a telling credential. As soon as he realized that I was Dean Reed’s grandson, I became almost family. Like many people in the region, Grandpa (as I always called him) didn’t like the racial situation, though he didn’t know what to do about it. But when a local black woman had needed extensive dental work, Grandpa had quietly paid for it. This was not unknown to local blacks.
He wasn’t at all what would today be called a liberal. He had none of the amour propre, too much respect for scholarship, and believed in personal integrity. Worse, he read Latin. He just had a sense of what was right and what wasn’t.
I soon got in the habit of dropping in on Lanc during my nocturnal tours of inspection. He usually sat on a broken-down chair, I on the pew. Light, what there was of it, came from a bare bulb hanging on a wire. On bitterly cold winter nights the store was warn and smelled comfortably of wood smoke and I was glad to be there. Lanc liked to roast apples or fry baloney on top of the stove. I ate vinegary sausage.
I was then known as Ricky but, mysteriously, he always called me Mickey. I supposed that oncoming deafness accounted for it. “Hey there, Mickey,” he would say when I appeared, “You come on in, sit right down. Yes sir, you sit right down.” He extended me credit and depended on me to keep track of the amount. I was Dean Reed’s grandson. He knew I would never short him. You can bet I didn’t.
We were a strange pair. I was very young, and knew nothing of life other than the small towns of Virginia and Alabama and what I had read in books. Lanc had grown up black in a countryside then more remote than it is now, a world with different rules and different people and utterly another place. And then found himself in Paris.
He would shake his head and smile bemusedly, as though still after so many years trying to understand France. Why, the beer gardens there, why you could go day or night — day or night — and the lights and how the people were dressed, and the women. In his time a black man didn’t talk about white women if he was wise, and Lanc didn’t much, even with Dean Reed’s grandson. Still it dawned on me that he hadn’t always been eighty years old, and that Paris wasn’t Atlanta.
I was very young.
I couldn’t talk to Lanc about much, I guess. The intricacies of differential equations and ancient victories in the Saronic Gulf were beyond him. I wasn’t sure how he had learned to read. None of this seemed to matter. We discussed whatever we could, mostly Paris and the army and local lore. Occasionally blacks within walking distance came in for bread or Spam. One night a high school girl came and asked Lanc where Jimmy was.
“He out coon hunting,” said Lanc.
“Two-legged or four-legged kind?” she asked, then saw me and giggled with embarrassment.
Things were not as Uncle Remus-ish as the evenings of fried baloney and Dr. Pepper might make them sound. There was real anger and hostility toward whites, but they knew better than to show it. One year I sublet a room from Ben Hairston, a black teacher at the local school. (I really didn’t like preppy snots.) Ben was in his mid-thirties, drove an old hearse he had picked up somewhere, and had slightly screwed-up eyes from having accidentally gotten drunk on wood alcohol. He had lived all over the eastern seaboard and definitely qualified as sophisticated.
Which may be why he misjudged things. One night he told me that he was going to a party, and would I like to come? Sure. Shortly afterward we walked into the basement of a house nearby, where a dozen people were dancing. It was instantly obvious that I was not welcome. I think it surprised Ben more than it did me. Five minutes later we were gone.
The years passed. In summer the fields and woods behind the store glowed with fireflies, or lightning bugs as I will always believe they are properly called, and frogs creaked in the marsh. From time to time came the quicksilver fluting of a whippoorwill. Lanc would always be on his pew, frying his baloney. For a while he seemed eternal, and the store a place not really in the surrounding world. One year after graduation I went by and the store was closed, Lanc’s house nearby locked. Dead, I suppose.
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be.