No Wind in Paradise

by Bob Strother

Bobby Mason and I sat on the tarred flat roof of Liggett’s Grocery and Ice Cream Parlor, a brick rectangle as charmless as a shoebox, and where I spent most of my summer days. The July air was thick like a wool blanket and just as heavy. Only the shade of a giant poplar made the corner we occupied bearable.

Bobby used a forearm to wipe away the sweat beading up on his chocolate-brown forehead. “Old Man Liggett say he’ll start me on an ice cream cart before long.”

“Why would you want to do that?” I asked, watching the building’s parapet perform a slow hula dance in the rising heat waves coming off the roof. “Pushing a cart in this kind of weather, eight hours a day? It’d be hotter than Hades.”

“I’ll get paid more than I do for sweeping up and things,” Bobby said. “Besides, there’re all kinds of hells.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant by that. Bobby was seventeen, five years my senior. He often seemed older than that, though, and said many things I didn’t understand. Once, when I complained about some aspect of my home life, Bobby grinned and said, “Man, you living in paradise; you just don’t know it.”

My grandmother, who managed the grocery part of Liggett’s, said Bobby had a lot of trouble in his life—an ailing mother and an older brother who spent as much time in the jail as out. “Being black has never been easy, especially now,” she’d told me one evening as we listened to Randy’s Record Shack out of Nashville and Bob Dylan singing about answers blowing in the wind. “Things are changing and not everyone’s happy about it. Bobby’s been through things I hope you’ll never have to see, and knows truths beyond his years.” I didn’t fully understand what she meant, either, but at the time, it wasn’t a priority.

Bobby pushed off the rooftop and got to his feet. “Break’s almost over; got to go hose down the floors in the back.”

I joined him and we made our way to the corner where stacked wooden crates provided us a rickety staircase to the ground. “If you start pushing a cart, come by my house and I’ll buy an ice cream bar from you—a banana cream delight.”

He laughed. “I don’t think you’ll be seeing me in your neighborhood.”

Though I came in contact with many black people trading at my grandmother’s store, Bobby was the only one I really knew. Unlike the ice cream parlor, where only whites were welcome to come in and order a pineapple sherbet or a malted, blacks made up the majority of her business. She had befriended Bobby when he started working for the ice cream parlor, offering him free sodas and sandwiches, sometimes sending cold cuts home to his mother. After a while, he and I hung out together during his work breaks or after the parlor closed, as I waited for my grandmother to finish up the day’s receipts. Sometimes, in the dark, on the roof, we’d smoke cigarettes I’d filched from my grandmother’s pack. It didn’t matter he was black and I was white; he was the only older kid I knew who paid any attention to me.

During the middle of August, Old Man Liggett suffered a stroke and they brought in his nephew, Wiley, to manage the parlor while he recovered. I didn’t care much for Wiley from the get-go. He had a disapproving way of looking at people and a sardonic smile that twisted across his face like a snake crossing a road—especially when he was looking at Bobby.

A week later, as I helped my grandmother restock the grocery store shelves, Bobby slipped in through a rear door connecting the two sides of the building. “I just came to say goodbye, Miss Louise.”

“What do you mean, goodbye?”

Bobby looked over at me and then back to her, his eyes glistening with wetness. “Mister Wiley fired me, said he thought having a . . . nigger around cut down on his trade.”

My grandmother’s nostrils flared and her lips thinned. “I’m calling the Old Man,” she said, heading toward the pay phone in the corner.

“No ma’am,” Bobby said, shaking his head. “Please don’t do that. It’d just get you in trouble, and besides, I don’t think I want to work here anymore.”

She stopped and faced him again, her shoulders sagging. “What’ll you do?”

Bobby studied his shoes—high top Converses—for a moment. “I’m thinking maybe I’ll join up with the Army. I’m pretty sure I can get Momma to sign for me. The pay’s better, anyhow, and I can send most of it home.”

The family-size can of Bush’s baked beans suddenly grew heavy in my hand, and I placed it on the shelf, hoping no one would notice the moisture welling up in my own eyes. When I turned back, my grandmother had Bobby clasped in a tight embrace. He stared down at the top of her head looking surprised and pleased at the same time.

As many times as Bobby and I had clambered up onto the roof together, as many times as we had cupped a match and leaned in to light our cigarettes, I realized, at that moment, he and I had never touched. I don’t know if it was a conscious thing, on either of our parts, or if it was some sort of ingrained, subliminal awareness owing to the colors of our skins.

I walked over and stood nearby. My grandmother said, “You take good care of yourself, you hear me, Bobby?”

He nodded in reply.

When she backed away, I threaded my arms under his and pressed the side of my face against his chest. There were things I wanted to say, but I couldn’t decide on what they were, so I just pulled him closer. I felt the heat of his arms around my shoulders, and then, a moment later, he ruffled my hair. “You take care, too, little man. Things go right, I’ll see you when I’m home on leave.”

We watched him go through the door, turning left out of the store and down the sidewalk without so much as a glance toward the ice cream parlor.

Old Man Liggett died just after Thanksgiving, and Wiley settled in for what appeared to be the foreseeable future. During Christmas vacation, I again spent most of my time at the store, but it wasn’t the same without Bobby around.

On the Wednesday before Christmas, I parked my bicycle in front of the store and walked inside to find my grandmother sitting on a three-legged stool behind the meat counter, smoking a Lucky Strike and wiping her eyes with a Kleenex.

“What’s wrong, Grandma?”

She handed me a copy of the Times, folded to the local news section. I looked at the small heading on page three, near the bottom: Soldier killed in auto mishap. Bobby, riding in a car driven by another soldier, was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident, about a hundred and fifty miles north of Fort Benning, Georgia. They were on leave, coming home for the holidays.

I remembered Bobby’s infectious grin—you had to smile back at him no matter how you might be feeling—and realized I’d never see it or him again. I wanted to cry, too, but a wave of something else—something hard and hot rose inside me, and dried the moisture from my eyes. It was the same kind of anger I’d felt after my mother died of cancer, when I’d trashed my room, raging at an unknown malevolence I could not see or control, an anger that still simmered just below the level of my consciousness.

“I want to go to Bobby’s funeral,” I said.

“We’d probably be the only white people there.”

“I don’t care.”

She looked at me and nodded. “All right, then, we’ll go.”

Turned out there were a few whites at Bobby’s funeral after all, mostly women Bobby’s mother had done washing and ironing for at one time or another. When my grandmother spoke to Bobby’s momma, the old woman said, “Why, Miss Louise, thank you so much for coming. And I want to thank you for the nice cold cuts you sent home with Bobby. They were so good.” Then her gaze settled on me. “And you must be Josh. I heard a lot about you.” She took my hand in hers. “Thank you, Josh. Thank you for being my Bobby’s friend.”

Coming home on the city bus, I thought about Bobby and his mother, how his death had changed things for her, and how it had affected my grandmother and me. I rested my head on my grandmother’s shoulder. “It didn’t have to happen, you know, Grandma? It shouldn’t have happened.”

She patted my hand, the same one Bobby’s momma had held. “Most of life’s that way,” she whispered.

My grandmother went to bed early that night, and so did I. But shortly after midnight, I crept out my bedroom window, across the porch, and down to the sidewalk. I used alleyways where I could and avoided streetlights as I slowly made my way the ten or so blocks to the ice cream parlor. It was dark and quiet there, the streets deserted, the building closed up tight for Christmas Eve. Blinking holiday lights framed each of the big, fake-snow-encrusted plate glass windows. A green plastic wreath decorated the door, and a huge cardboard Santa stood just inside the entranceway, admiring a frosty bottle of Coca-Cola.

I remembered when, following my mother’s funeral, I had gone to live with my grandmother, still incensed with God and the world for its unfairness. She had said, “At some point in your life you have to give up anger, or it will destroy your spirit the way cancer destroys living tissue.” It had been good advice, but Bobby’s death had rekindled the embers of fury from somewhere deep inside me.

From the alley behind the building, I gathered the materials I would need, using the bottom of my coat as a makeshift basket. At the curb in front of the parlor, I stacked my collection of fist-size rocks, broken bricks, and asphalt chunks into a small pyramid. Bobby was home for Christmas, but it wasn’t the way he or I had wanted or expected. Now Wiley would get the Christmas he deserved.

The noise of the first window shattering seemed like an explosion. Shards of glass rained down everywhere, glittering like diamonds in the moonlight. The second, third, and fourth windows went quickly and sounded more like jangling sleigh bells to my ears. Holiday lights hung in disarray from the tops of the window frames, still blinking festively over the debris below. It was only when the front door glass burst into pieces that the alarm sounded and I knew it was time to go.

I was two blocks away before I heard the sirens, and I ducked into the shadow of a large boxwood as two patrol cars passed me heading toward the ice cream parlor. As I eased out from my hiding spot, a dry, stiff wind blew in, chattering big dead leaves across the sidewalk. It chilled my neck and ears, pressing like a hand at my back, urging me homeward.

Award-winning author and two-time Pushcart Prize nominee Bob Strother has had over eighty short stories appear in a number of literary journals and magazines. His collection, Scattered, Smothered, and Covered, was published in 2011, and his novel, Shug’s Place in 2013. His story “Doughnut Walk” was adapted for a short film in 2014. Strother is also a contributing author for Southern Writers Magazine.