A House in the Uplands

Glimpses of Britain and USA history

“What do you want to see me about?” Grady asked him roughly. “What do you mean by sending Martha to tell me you want to see me at this time of day?”

“Please, sir, Mr. Grady, I hate to bother you like this,” Uncle Jeff Davis began in a trembling voice, “but I want to ask a little favor of you and I was scared you might be going off again before I had a chance to speak to you, please, sir.” In his anxiety not to displease Grady any more than necessary, he began stumbling nervously over his words.

“Well, go ahead and say it and stop that mumbling,” Grady sad irrita­bly. “But next time wait until you see me come out of the house. I don’t like having niggers send for me.”

Shuffling his feet on the sand, Uncle Jeff Davis bowed and mumbled apologetically.

“Please, sir, Mr. Grady, all the little I want is for you to let me and my wife move off to town. We’re getting old, both of us, and I ain’t fit to work out in the fields like I used to. The heat just acts like the old devil himself out to get me every time I go out and try to do a day’s work. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t want to quit and move away to Maguffln. And if I wasn’t getting so old I wouldn’t mind the heat or nothing else because I sure do thank you for letting me work for you all this time, Mr. Grady, but me and my wife ain’t got much longer to live, noway, and we only want a little rest before the time comes to go. Please, sir, Mr. Grady, can we do that?” “Hell, no!” Grady shouted angrily. “What makes you think you can leave here and go off to live some place else? Who’s fed you all your life and given you a house to live in?”

“You has, Mr. Grady. Both you and your daddy before you done that. I sure do thank you for what you and him both done for me and my folks.” “Then what makes you think you can haul off and leave here without paying me for all that?”

“Pay you, Mr. Grady?” Uncle Jeff Davis said in a startled voice. “You heard me! you’re not deaf!”

“Seems like to me, Mr. Grady, I done gone and worked it all out in all these years. I don’t know how many years it’s been, but it’s been a heap of them, ’way back ever since I was old enough to stand up and walk between the plow handles. Seems like that ought to be long enough to work out the pay for the house and vittles.”

“Who put this idea in your head about leaving? Who’ve you been talk­ing to?”

“My boy, Sammy, please, sir. He came back from the war not long ago and got himself a good-paying job at the saw mill in Maguffin that pays him real money every Saturday night and he says he wants me and his mother to come to town and live with him, because he makes enough to rent a house for us all to stay together.”

“I’ve been wondering where he was,” Grady said. “Why didn’t he come back here and go to work for me instead of getting a job in town? Doesn’t he know better than that?”

Uncle Jeff Davis began to shake spasmodically as though he had chills- and-fever. He twisted his frayed field-straw hat in his trembling hands and looked down at the ground.

“You heard what I asked you! Why didn’t he come back here and go to work where he belongs?”

“I reckon it’s because you don’t pay out real wages in money, Mr. Grady,” he said fearfully. “Sammy’d rather work for real money at the saw mill, than only get some old clothes or something once in a while.” “He’s turned out to be one of these goddam uppity niggers,” Grady said. “He’d better stay in town, because if I ever catch him around here, I’ll knock some sense into him. I don’t want to hear niggers talk like that.” “Yes, sir, Mr. Grady. I know what you said.”

“All right, then. Get back on to the quarter where you belong and don’t ever let me hear any more of that biggity talk out of you again.” Uncle Jeff Davis shuffled his feet on the sandy yard, his hands picking nervously at the frayed edges of his hat. He moved backward a few steps, but he did not leave. Grady watched him surlily.

“Goddam it, what are you standing there for like that?” Grady shouted. “You heard what I said. Why don’t you do what I told you? Get on back to the quarter!”

“Please, sir, Mr. Grady,” he said beseechingly, “I ain’t aim­ing not to do exactly like you said, but I sure do want to move to town. Please, sir, me and my wife want to do that mighty much, Mr. Grady. I know you ain’t the mind who’d give out hard dealings to the colored, because your daddy used to-”

“Shut up!” he said. “I’ve heard enough out of you!” He moved down the steps to the yard in a threatening manner. “You’re going to stay here. How many times do I have to tell you that?”

“But, Mr. Grady, ain’t there some way of letting me and my wife off?” “Sure,” Grady said with a short laugh. “All you have to do is pay me what you owe me for your keep.”

“How much would that come to, Mr. Grady?” Uncle Jeff Davis asked hopefully.

“Five hundred dollars.”

The old Negro’s head moved slowly from side to side. Drops of tears glistened on his cheeks. His shoulders slumped downward and downward.

“Five hundred dollars,” he said partly aloud, still shaking his head dis­piritedly. “Mr. Grady, you know good and well I ain’t got nothing like that and never had. I ain’t had that much money in all the years I worked for you and your daddy both. Your daddy didn’t believe in paying out real money for wages, neither, and all I ever got from him was some old clothes and a sack of cow peas now and then, like you give me sometimes. That’s why I ain’t able to pay you what you say I owe. But I sure enough would give it to you if I had it.”

“Then get on away from here and stop arguing about it,” Grady ordered. “I’m tired of listening to you. And after this I don’t want to hear any more complaining out of you, either.”

“But please, sir, looks like you ought to do a little favor like that for me, after all these years when I ain’t never asked for nothing much but a little something to eat now and then. I’m too old just like I said to do much good no more on the land. I just naturally ain’t fit for hard work no more. My time’s pretty near up, anyhow.”

“I’ll tell you when to quit work, and I don’t want to hear of you quit­ting and running away, either. I know how to handle run-away niggers. I’ll have the sheriffs bloodhounds after you so quick you’ll think lightning struck you.”

“Then, please, sir, Mr. Grady, maybe you’ll just let my wife move to town, because she’s got the rheumatism something awful in her back and it pains her to stoop over the washtubs like she had to do. If you won’t let both us go, please, sir, just let her go. I’d be mighty thankful to you for all the rest of my life, Mr. Grady.”

Grady picked up a broken axe handle that was standing on end against the steps. He swung the handle back and forth in front of him several times, forcing Uncle Jeff Davis to back away from him.

“Go on back the quarter and keep your nigger mouth shut from now on,” he said. He moved towards the Negro, swinging the axe handle in a wide arc. “If you ever come up here again with that kind of biggity talk, it’ll be the last time I’ve heard all from you that I’m going to stand for.” Uncle Jeff Davis backed away, keeping beyond Grady’s reach and hur­ried towards the cabins, glancing back over his shoulder from time to time until he was out of sight.

From: A House in the Uplands by E. Caldwell