Taste of the Strange Fruit
by Levaniel Tukes
If you’re curious to know what happened, then I’ll tell you. One night, two other friends and I were downtown at the Jukebox Shack. Folks all over traveled there to hear some good old country blues. My friends and I enjoyed ourselves whenever we were down there. Well, until the night of August 7th, 1930, the night that changed my life, forever.
Horace and I waited near a dusty dirt road for Paul E, who was three years older than our senior. We lived in a community of poor blacks in Greenville, Florida. My father was a sharecropper and mother was a maid for Mark Andrew, the town sheriff. Every weekend I would sneak out to join Horace and Paul E at the Jukebox Shack. It was a thrill being out late night and unsupervised. Having a good time was the only thing that concerned me. The frequent women, music, and gambling were all fascinating to me. My parents, who were strict, prohibited me from going into town. My friends however thought differently. According to them it was life away from the fields, paradise.
One night Horace told me to meet him down a road near Randolph Lake, I agreed. I waited till the house was as quiet as a mouse before sneaking out through the bathroom window. Once in town I knew everything was suitable, until we were halted by a tall man wearing a straw hat with a cigarette hanging out the left side of his mouth.
“Hey, what cha kids doing here, huh?”
“Hey man, we’re here t’ enjoy the music like everybody else.” Paul E responded.
“Not here you aint, now you best goin get outta here boy, alla ya.” The man suggested, lighting his cigarette. I noticed a back entrance to the shack. “Paul, he’s right. Let’s go.” I added. We entered the shack through a back door that lead to rooms upstairs, where men took women to have hoedowns. Inside the shack there were folk’s playing cards, drinking hard liquor and having a good time. I looked over to my left and noticed Horace talking to a young girl. Paul E disappeared, perhaps drinking or playing cards with the older folks. Meanwhile, I was enjoying Bessie’s performance. I stood in the rear watching her stroll back and forth touching the men shoulders while singing. Her honey voice sounded amazing. She was so beautiful.
Suddenly, an argument between two guys erupted. Although I couldn’t see their faces, I could recognize one of their voices; it was Paul E. Horace rushed over to me, “That man from earlier spotted Paul E and now he’s tryna give him a beating,” he pointed out.
“Didn’t I tell you t’ go home boy, huh, didn’t I!” scolded the tall country man. He had Paul E jacked up against the wall by his collar shirt.
“Hold on now Jake. Spare the boy, he’s just a kid now,” pleaded one of the old men playing cards. “Shut up!” he retorted, “I’ma teach you a lesson now boy.”
He pulled a switch blade from out his back pocket. As soon as he did, Paul E jabbed him across the face. Thereafter, all three of us began to violently scuffle with the man. Everyone unexpectedly began to engage into a fist a cuff with each other. One man was stabbed to death and another had been beaten unconscious with a chair. Then a guy wearing dark shades pulled out a pistol and waved it in the air. Before he could pull the trigger two men grabbed at him, tussled the gun from out of his hand and then wrestled him down to the floor.
The whole place had been ripped apart due to the complete pandemonium. Horace, Paul E and I had eased our way out the shack into the streets undetected. As we walked down the street Paul E announced to Horace and I that he had something to show us. He led us to this dark alley.
“Check this out y’all”
My eyes expressed shock while my lips were glued together. “Hey, what’s a matter?” Paul E frowned, “Y’all act like ya never seen a pistol before.”
“I have,” Horace assured.
“Where you get that there pistol from Paul? I worried.
Paul E’s face expression grew remarkably disenchanted. He looked at Horace and I. “Listen, I found it in the shack during the middle of the brawl. It was in the corner and I grabbed it, that’s all."
“It depends; I aint tryna get mixed up in nothing.” I argued.
Do y’all wanna have some fun or not?” he asked. I was apprehensive.
“Get you mixed up,” Paul E laughed. “Horace, you think I’ll get you mixed up in something.”
“Well no…I mean, Timothy you always talking about striking gold and things that are adventurous. What could be more adventurous than this?”
For the moment, everything around me was completely obsolete. There I stood in front of my two childhood friends, staring at a loaded .38 caliber in the palm of Paul E’s hand. My hands were extremely moist. My face was soaked from sweat dripping down my face like rain. I was trapped in a cage with my back against the wall. The stare and pressure from them was like a cat on a hot tin roof.
“Whatever, let’s make haste t’ get it done man. I’m ready t’ go home now, it’s already late.” I emphasized.
“Hey, did y’all see that?” I observed looking at a vehicle parked alongside the curve.
“See what?” Paul E answered. They looked over my shoulder, but saw nothing.
“I thought I seen two people in the back of the-” the car then shook. We looked at each other with excitement.
“Alright let’s go,” Paul E commanded.
“Wait, w- hold on now,” I feared. “Y'all I dunno bout this.”
“Aw come on now. Tell me you wouldn’t wanna drive that fine automobile,” Paul E expressed. “All I wanna do is take it for a spin, that’s all.” He assured.
I’d be lying if I said my heart wasn’t pounding uncontrollably. It was an enormous amount of relent I felt walking toward the car. I wanted to turn back, but Paul would think I was a coward if I did. He was leading with his hand in his back pocket reaching for the pistol. Once at the car he tapped the window with the pistol, “Get out, come on hurry up,” he demanded aiming the gun at the man through the glass. Horace stood on the opposite side of the vehicle while I positioned myself in the back. Paul E opened the door pulling the man out. Surprisingly, the man was a white man. I was then totally convinced that there was no turning back. I was ready to die.
“Please man; take it easy on my woman.”
“Shut up!” Horace shouted as he grabbed the white girl out the car. He slammed her down on the concrete. The woman was half dressed.
“Listen, take anything you want. There’s money in the glove department, take it and leave man, please.” the man pleaded.
“Let’s go. Come on Timothy.” Paul E commanded.
I did; however, the man shockingly put up a resistance. He bellowed, ‘Oh no, you’re not taking my car!’ then suddenly they began to engage in a scuffle. Horace and I paused while the woman, on the ground, cried hysterically, pleading for Paul E and her man to stop fighting. Then all of a sudden we heard a tremendously loud gunshot.
“My god Paul E, you killed him!” Horace frantically exclaimed. I was at a standstill, as if I was standing for a lifetime waiting to see the man’s body drop to the ground. I was petrified; moreover, the woman was frenziedly screaming uncontrollably which made me even more nervous. Paul E was more in awe as he dropped the pistol observing our terrifying face expressions.
“Let’s get out of here man.” He stated, skipping over the dead white man’s body. We scattered in separate directions, vanishing into the darkness. There was an eerie feeling I felt on the way home. I had just participated in the murder of a white man. If you’re where I’m from, then you would know that killing a white man carried deadly consequences. I sneaked back into my bedroom through the window.
“Timothy, is that you?” my younger brother yelled, jumping out of bed with his fist bald.
“Yeah, now shut up before you wake ma and pa. Go back t’ bed, I’ll tell you about it in the morning.” I stated.
Meanwhile the woman cried out for the sheriff as she ambled into the office. Once inside, she’s halted by the deputy.
“Easy gal, take a deep breath and calm down.” he insisted, “Now tell me what happened?”
“They killed him,” the woman sobbed.
“Killed who? Who you talking about? Who are they?” the deputy interrogated.
The woman sat in silence. Thereafter the deputy had spoke to the sheriff behind closed doors. He informed him about the story; however, the sheriff behavior toward the situation is first nonchalant. Then he instructs the deputy to bring her into the office. When the woman enters the office, the sheriff incongruously rises from his chair. He approaches the woman quite gradual, examining her from head to toe.
“Carolyn, what happened t’ the side of your face,” the sheriff asked. Again, Carolyn remained completely silent and then broke out in tears.
“They killed em. He’s dead Mr. Andrew.” Carolyn informed hysterically with her hands covering her face. She sat down in a chair.
“Who’s dead?” asked the sheriff.
“Officer Hicks!” sheriff exclaimed.
“Who did it?” The woman sat voiceless.
“Gregory!” Sheriff Andrew shouted, loading bullets in a double gauge shotgun.
“Get Thomas on the phone. Tell em t’ get them boys ready.” He commanded.
“What about the paperwork?”
“Don’t worry bout writing a report,” he suggested, “We goin handle this ourselves.”
Carolyn led Sheriff Andrew and Deputy Gregory to the crime scene. Amazingly there was no disturbance of the car, body or murder weapon. Everything remained intact. Hick’s body laid face down on the concrete, his car parked undamaged along the curve, and the gun, scattered across the street.
“Yeah, it was right here where a tall black boy shot him dead. There were three of them in total.” Sheriff Andrew stared at the spiritless officer pensively without any emotions, meanwhile Deputy Gregory searched for the murder weapon. “That boy tossed the gun somewhere around here.” Carolyn noted. Eventually they found the gun across the street with the initials ‘DW’ carved on the handle.
“I know him,” Sheriff claimed. Soon after, a dozen cars full of irate white men had arrived. One of the men, totting a double gauge shotgun, jumped out an old green rusted truck shouting derogatory language.
“Where them niggers at Mark!” he scorned.
“Hold on now Thomas, we might have something here.” Sheriff stated examining the initiated pistol. “Y’all men follow me t’ Nelson Street,” instructed Sheriff.
Once on Nelson Street the mob turned chaotic, terrorizing every bar and shack until they found the suspected man, DW. Miraculously, the sheriff had restrained the unruly mob. “Simmer down y’all!” he commanded. “Where’s DW boy,” he asked an elderly bartender. The bartender pointed across the street where a man was sitting on some steps. The mob viciously marched across the street like an army to a battlefield. The man had his face down messaging an ice cold beer bottle across his head.
“DW,” Sheriff called out before hitting him with the pistol. Immediately after, the mob stampeded the man off the stairs. Again, Sheriff Andrew had to tame the riotous mob. “Alright get off him, goddamn you! Get off him right now, I tell you!” he screamed, shoving and pushing men away.
“DW, is this your gun?” asked Sheriff.
“Yes’suh Sheriff Andrew,”
“What you know about a dead white man up yonder?”
“A dead white man?”
“How’d you get them lumps on the side of your face boy?” Sheriff Andrew interrogated.
“From a brawl earlier tonight involving some guy and my little brother, sir.” he responded.
Sheriff looked over at DW’s little brother.
“Is this true Jake,” asked the Sheriff. Jake nodded his head.
“His name is Paul E.” Jake indicated. “He was with two other boys as well.”
“Paul E, that’s the troubled boy from across the tracks,” Thomas added.
“Yeah, I remember one of the boys yelling that name out.” Carolyn stated.
“Who are the others?” Sheriff questioned.
The bartender across the street noted Timothy and Horace as the others. He confirmed that he saw all three of them flooding out the bar into the streets.
Sheriff Andrew stood flabbergast. “Timothy,” he stated, “Why, I don’t believe you. Even so, explain how this gun with your initials carved on it is traced back to the crime scene.”
“I pulled the pistol out t’ help my brother. They were whipping on him mighty hard. As soon as I raised the gun inna air, I was wrestled down to the floor where it slid out of my hands.” DW explained.
At that moment, the beginning of the end was near, however I didn’t think anything bad would occur; after all we fled the scene quickly. There weren’t any witnesses besides that woman. Who could she point the finger at if she has no description of us? Therefore, I felt at ease. The town was quiet and I had fallen into a deep sleep. Then the sudden brightness of car headlights shined through the room window. My brother looked and saw at least a dozen vehicles heading toward the house.
“Wake up Timothy!” he whispered, forcibly shoving my shoulder.
“What is it Terry?”
“Sheriff Andrew and a million others are outside…with torches.”
My eyes had widened tremendously. I dashed to the window, wanting to believe otherwise until Sheriff Andrew parked his patrol car in the front yard. He gradually made himself up the stairs, knocking aggressively on the door. My parents woke up, both answering the door.
“Yes’suh Sheriff Andrew,” said my papa.
“I come for your boy Timothy. Is he here?”
“Well yes’suh, I’ll get him for you.” Papa insisted.
“Don’t bother; I’ll get him.”
“Watch these folks while I get this here boy.” Sheriff commanded.
“I terrifyingly placed the cover over my head, wishing it was a dream. But, it wasn’t a dream, indeed it was reality. The closer he got the tighter I held onto the sheets. He opened the door shining around the flashlight. Still under the sheets, I could feel him coming near, pulling the covers back while blinding me with the light.
“Get up.” he demanded.
My brother looked on terrifyingly as I attempted to get dress.
“You don’t need t’ get dressed now boy c’mon.” I remember looking out the window that night and observing the gray sky covering the bright full moon. There was no other source of light, but darkness as I was escorted to the blood thirsty wolves.
“Where you taking my boy?” papa asked. Sheriff ignored him, leading me out the house.
“Sheriff!” papa shouted.
“Boy, get yo black carcass back inna room. This doesn’t concern you!” Sheriff replied angrily; he paused, glaring at my papa. How did they know? Where were they taking me? What were they planning on doing to me? I asked myself, ‘Am I going to be booked for murder or perhaps near the park, floating in Randolph Lake.
As I prepared to die, they stopped by Horace’s house whereas four white men had forcibly entered. All I could hear were shouts, cries, and pleads as they relentlessly dragged Horace out the front door. In addition to beaten him down to the ground; they marched over him, kicking, and stomping him with their steel pointed boots. Meanwhile, his parents begged mercifully for the men to stop. They continuously beat him, throwing him in the trunk afterwards.
Next, we rode stealthily to the house of Paul E. Again, I heard scuffling in the back of the house. Apparently, Paul E had attempted to escape through the back door; however, they had the wooden shack surrounded.
“Yeah, that’s him. That’s the nigger!” she pointed out. The mobbed continued to beat Paul E so callously that they had to carry him to the car like a piece of luggage, throwing him in the trunk as well.
They drove us to a place as dark as black coffee. A place crowded with trees reaching heaven. Sheriff Andrew exited his vehicle. The men followed, some drunk, others sober; but all with deadly intentions. I lost control of myself with my heart beeping at a thousand miles per hour. My mind, lost at sea. My thoughts were gone with the wind. I witnessed men holding shotguns, ropes and torches aggressively pulling Horace out the trunk first.
“Come on boy. Hurry up, we aint got all night!” Thomas demanded, pointing a shotgun to the back of Horace. As I sink myself deeper in the seat, covering my eyes, all I could hear was the earsplitting sound of gunshots. Soon they’ll return and I’m anxious to know who will be next, me or Paul E.
“Please suh, it was an accident. Spare me please, please!” Paul E pleaded as they opened trunk and pulled him out.
The mob punched and kicked him. They dragged him while bystanders threw rocks at him. They had ripped his clothes off and then continued to mob him naked. The local people around cheered dramatically as they hoist Paul E in the air with the rope around his neck. In the course of action Paul E attempted to break loose. The mob lowered him as Thomas loaded bullets in a .38 caliber pistol, “Whoa,
Tom what you think you’re doing?” Sheriff questioned.
“I’m bout t’ put this boy out his misery.” Thomas indicated as he aimed the pistol directly at Paul E’s ear.
“Oh no you aint!” Sheriff declared, grabbing the gun from out of Thomas’s hand.
Sheriff examined Paul E from head to toe and then there was silence. Suddenly, out of the blue, I heard this horrific scream.
They had broken both his arms, dislocating them completely. At that point, I tried to escape by pounding on the car window. I feared for my life. They approached the car slowly carrying pipes, rifles, ropes and torches. Once the car door swung open I ferociously fought to get away; but they overpowered me and much like Paul E, they kicked, punched, and even stabbed me.
We wound up in the middle of the woods scuffling until I was unable to land any more punches. I succumbed while they continuously beat me lifeless. I had observed two human shadows standing simultaneously near each other on the ground. Soon after, everything had gotten extremely dark and blurry. There was a shortage in my breath and I was losing conscious.
Finally, after gaining conscious, everyone had instantaneously disappeared. I woke up in a deep sweat to a newspaper article beside me that contained a photo with my two friends hanging like a piece of fruit, strange fruit.