I was indecisive about whether to halt or whether I had enough gas, junk food and music. On my car’s player, Michael Jackson was singing about Ben. I liked that movie as a kid and loved the Jacksons even more. Still, I needed to have a rest stop, use a washroom, and stretch my legs. The sun was going down and I would’ve been miles ahead of where I was if it hadn’t been for the delay. One tire puncture was easier to deal with than two. A headache I did not need but one I had to deal with nonetheless, taking hours rather than minutes from my schedule. To say I was peeved was an understatement.
I made up my mind that the next town would be the place I laid my head for the night. Especially with that creeping tiredness touching my eyes, which drooped a few times with the intention to close. I fought against it as best I could. I wanted some hot food. The last time I properly ate was five hours ago, and eating junk food was not healthy at the best of times.
A large moon shone like a massive spotlight, illuminating a barren landscape with its undulation as far as my eyes could see. Dark fissures highlighted by the bright white light. Further to my right, and miles away, a dark rugged line seemed to follow me, a continuous ragged mountain range. Its name escaped me. To my left, nothing but complete emptiness and that up and down land.
Michael was now Living Off The Wall and my fingers tapped the beat on the steering wheel. I always enjoyed my favourite artist in the whole world. Glancing at my GPS, I couldn’t see any town for miles around. I imagined if there was one it’d be like the many I had already passed: small with strip malls on both sides of the highway and a cafe, a greasy eatery for truckers and short stay passer-throughs, a gas station, pharmacy and the inevitable sheriff’s station. The school or hospital would be miles away and not easily seen from the highway.
Suddenly, a ping. I glanced at the notification; a blob that was not there before had appeared on my GPS. The name of the place was Ocoee. I squinted. There was a town up ahead; I could see lights on the horizon and building outlines. Its name made no impression on me, and sounded like one those haunted places always found in the back of some beyond. I snickered at my own joke. I was not that way inclined to be afraid of the dark and the only time I heard about that stuff was when I grew up in the Caribbean and Grandpops told us young ones about Rolling Calf, The Lonely Woman and Black H’art man. His stories freaked out my sister and brother but I was always cool. Now an ex-army man, and seeing all that I have on my tours, I was certain I would not be scared of any haunted place or people. But I was only fooling myself. There were many nights where sleep was hard to come. I laughed even louder while listening to Michael face a Thriller Night.
I must have been less than a mile from the town when blinking blue and red lights suddenly flashed in my rear-view. I had not seen them creep up on me, and must have missed the cruiser’s headlights. Maybe I was just lost with Michael in a Lady in My Life – well, in his life. My lady was nowhere round. I had learnt from experience never to stop on lonely dark roads. One night in the city, and against years of knowing and my better judgement, I had stopped for a cop car that had trailed me for over five blocks. They said it was a regular stop, demanded my ID which I refused to give. Instead I held onto and shoved my work ID into their faces because I knew my constitutional rights. They threatened me with arrest since, according to them, I was obstructing an investigation into someone fitting my description that had robbed a liquor store and was seen running away. Bearing in mind I was walking home, had my work ID slung from a lanyard around my neck and was also carrying a heavy rucksack on my back. Based on their allegation, an officer decided he was going to handcuff me. I never saw the inside of their cruiser. Let’s just say they came off worse and I got off from having a police record or even seeing the inside of a prison. My ancestors definitely were with me then, through a superb lawyer.
The headlamps and strobe lights flooded my rear-view. I kept on at a reasonable pace, not speeding, willing my rental to reach the town’s street lights. I was just on the outskirts of Ocoee when the cruiser sped up, overtook me and skidded to a stop just in front, blocking my way. I screeched to a halt.
I waited to be approached by the cop or cops but nobody came from the cruiser. I had glanced at my dashboard clock just as I slammed on the brakes and I looked again to see that five minutes had elapsed. I wondered what they were waiting for, maybe trying to make me sweat or running my vehicle’s plate. I gave it another two minutes. Finally, I watched both doors slowly open and two state troopers alight.
They confidently walked over, one officer tall and thin and the other short and fat. Tweedledee and Tweedledum. I chuckled. With their flashlights blinding me, and about a metre from my front windows, the taller one stood back and shouted:
‘Let me see your hands!’
I stuck them out my window. The fat one worked his way to the passenger side, brilliant light brightening my car’s interior.
‘Where you headed boy?’ Boy? Is this not 2022? I thought.
‘Do you need to see my driver’s license and documents?’ I replied. I was not about to call him ‘sir’ or rise to his bait.
‘I asked you a question boy.’
That was the second time he called me ‘boy’.
I demanded, ‘Do you need to see my papers?’
‘I do the telling here boy.’ Third time.
I said nothing; my hands still out my window. I knew how these traffic stops frequently went and I could already see tomorrow’s news headlines. That was if anyone ever heard about my passing. Or should I say killing. I was in the boonies, the back of beyond and nowhere in particular. No other vehicle. Nothing but a wide expanse of empty land and a town away in the distance. I was alone and isolated. But I was not scared. During the last Gulf War, there was an incident where my unit and I became separated while in the Iraqi desert. I happened on an Iraqi patrol. After a brief firefight, I needed to evade capture, which meant being stealthy and doing grotesque stuff to careless stragglers. I had seen too much on my tour, death a constant companion. I had been scared then.
‘Get out, NOW!’
‘Can I’ve your name and badge number?’ He did not answer. Instead, he pointed the light at the rear seat as if looking for something. I could see him better with the deflected light and noticed his hand on his sidearm. I was not about to comply, I had seen too many incidences of Black men stepping out of their vehicles and dying. A friend of mine ended up that way. It was heartbreaking attending his funeral and watching his family, especially his mother, wailing and in complete sorrow. I wanted to kill those cops who had killed him.
‘Boy, you heard me?’ Fourth time.
There was not a fifth time of him calling me ‘boy’ since it happened suddenly, whatever it was. I saw the flicker of movement in my wing mirror, far in the distance. The light rapidly increased in size. Orangish-red, the hues constantly changing, shifting like a 60s kaleidoscope lamp I once saw in a thrift store. The colours reminded me of when I was in the field and cannon-fire lit up the sky, shooting shells on an unseen enemy. The tints now looked just like when the flames flashed from the cannon spouts. I watched the orb grow.
Officer Fats saw it first and he turned to look, eyes widening in terror. He mouthed rather than verbally said: ‘What the hell!’
The bright ball swiftly consumed my mirror and Officer Tall must have caught the light from the corner of his eye. He drew his weapon. Involuntarily I flinched and ducked down onto the passenger seat. I wanted to make certain I gave myself a living chance.
Abruptly, I heard both officers shouting, panic in their voices, then a barrage of shots shattered the night. They emptied their clips. I counted over seventeen shots; none splintered my windows or smashed into my car. A brilliant white light blinded me. I stayed low and covered my head with my arms, my eyes tight. Even behind the lids, I saw the hues morph in their multi-coloured dance. There was a loud whoosh, then total silence until night creatures slowly and quietly made their presence known once again. I raised my head. The officers and their cruiser were gone. The place they once stood vacant, like they never existed. The light was gone too, the night as clammy as it had been all along. I was sweating.
Hastily, I alighted and examined the area where the officers stood. The moon: my flashlight. Nothing. No bones, no blood. I sprinted to where the cruiser stood. Nothing. No debris. No remnants of a solid vehicle. It was unexplainable, and I hated mystery. I ran back and jumped into my car, started the ignition and squealed away, uncertain of what I had just experienced, wishing to be somewhere, anywhere else than on that dark road. I reached the town in less than ten minutes. I was bathed in perspiration and I couldn’t stop shuddering.
The town was not what I had expected. There were far more buildings, and many more stores. But there was also something strange. No other vehicle was on the road. No truck, car, bike or bicycle. The well-lit, broad throughway as empty as can be. The intersections with their functioning stop lights and roads that criss-crossed to somewhere. Every radiantly vivid store, on both sides of the street, seemed to have someone standing in front of it, waving. Maybe the owners, I thought. At first, I was unsure if they were waving at me, thinking they were just being neighbourly to those across the way. It was only when a smiling, waving, elderly Black woman directly pointed at me while I crawled by that I became self-conscious of everybody’s stare. They were gesturing too. She reminded me of my grandmother. I waved back.
Stopping in front of a rowdy, brightly-lit cafe – Joe’s Homestyle Eatery – I got out and surveyed the area to confirm I was not seeing what I was seeing. It felt strange having that many eyes on me, everybody cheery and nodding as if I had won some prize. I entered Joe’s. A door chimer clanged above my head and quietness suddenly descended on the throng. To my left, a long mahogany bar with stools in front, all occupied with patrons gazing at me as one. They all smiled. Booths to my right were taken; the couples and groups of people stared and beamed at me. I wanted to stop and check myself just to make sure nothing on me looked funny, like my shirt half in half out of my pants, or zipper being open. Behind the bar stood a big Black man, a pristine white apron around his massive frame. He edged me by at least three inches in height. I could hear pots and pans clash behind him and to the rear. Something smelt good: fried chicken. My stomach grumbled.
I nodded and glanced around. The feeling returned. Then it dawned on me . . . there were no white people. Not one. Not even on the drive in had I seen any, every single person so far was Black. Eventually, the patrons stopped staring, their murmurs and laughter returning as they paid attention to each other.
‘Hey brother,’ said the big Black man behind the bar, pointing to a large wood-framed black and white photo in the middle of a bare wall. ‘Welcome home.’
Home? I cocked my head and laughed. The photo was grainy, but I could see the wide street and buildings. It looked like Ocoee in daylight. ‘Home? I’m only passing through, and need some hot food and somewhere to crash for the night.’
The man grinned. ‘That’s fine brother. You’re safe here and a plate of fried chicken and doughy biscuits with a steaming cup of coffee is waiting for you.’
I laughed. My stomach agreed. ‘Thank you.’
A patron, a slim man, offered me a seat at the bar. He actually rose and proffered me the stool. I nodded, thanking him. I could not think when that had ever happened to me in the big city, no Black person – or any other person for that matter – gave away their seat. Ever.
Chortling, the big man came over and true to his word he was holding a plate of fried chicken, biscuits and a cup of steaming black coffee. I thanked him. He had a small soap dish and a towel for me to wash my hands.
‘You’re going to love the biscuits especially.’
‘Why?’ I asked while washing and drying my hands.
‘They’re just like how your Gran makes them,’ he chuckled.
I laughed and sarcastically said, ‘Sure.’ And bit into the biscuit.
It took my breath away; there was not one slight fault. This was her biscuit. I then sampled the fried chicken. Now, whenever Granma did her chicken it tasted so succulent I would close my eyes, savouring the flavour. I did that. This was no replica, this was her cooking.
‘No way!’ Shaking my head I opened my eyes. ‘Where am I? I know my Gran’s not here.’
The man guffawed, ‘Ocoee of course. Doesn’t it ring a bell?’
‘No.’ I shrugged.
‘Well, it should but don’t worry, you’re safe and will always be. As soon as you’ve finished eating, your room’s waiting.’
Nodding, I ate my food and drank my coffee before the man directed a woman to show me where I would stay. She suddenly approached from somewhere. I was extremely puzzled – she felt familiar too. She reminded me of my cousin, Michelle.
Up from my stool, and about to walk away, I said, ‘I don’t even know your name, sir?
He grinned. ‘That’s fine. Just think of me as a guardian angel.’
I nodded and laughed. I liked his candour for sure; there was something comfortable about him. The woman was medium height, and shapely with a welcoming oval face took my elbow and steered me across the empty street. It was just as empty as before.
‘How come there are no cars on the road?’ I asked. ‘And where are all the white people?’
She regarded me with mysterious brown eyes. I noticed how they danced as if she knew something I did not. I knew those questions to be right since nothing added up for me about Ocoee. She said nothing until we stood before a large, brown double door in a three-floored, brownstone building with continental windows. The lights were on like everywhere else in the town. If I did not know any better, I would have thought the town and its people never slept.
‘This is where you’ll be staying. There’s an usher at the desk and they’ll welcome you and help you with everything you need to know. Have a good night.’ Those were the only words she uttered, and I watched her return to the eatery.
I whispered, ‘Good night.’ She turned, smiling, and waved as if I’d stood beside her and whispered in her ear. I shook my head; Ocoee was definitely a strange town. I entered the building.
The lobby was luminously lit by large chandeliers, suspended by a long wire from a white stucco roof. Large paintings covered the walls and all of them had some depiction of Africa. I assumed as much because I recognised the scenery based on my own travels across the continent. A lavender smell permeated the building. It reminded me of burning incense. Spacious lounge chairs and large fauna in bulbous pots dotted the area. A bank of elevators stood to the right of a wide counter, where a slim man stood. He wore a goatee and had a bald head. There was something about the way he looked at me with his deep black eyes. It felt familiar. Another person who I felt some connection to, but I could not put my finger on it. Uncle Sid?
‘Good night sir. Welcome to The Black Wall Street Hotel,’ he said in a high voice, and with that inevitable warm glow. ‘You’re overnighting, right?’
‘I am.’ I confirmed.
‘Wonderful.’ He clapped his hands in glee, showed me a large register and offered me a pen. It looked ancient. A relic. I also couldn’t tell when last I needed to sign my name at any hotel. Real old school. ‘We have you in the Tulsa suite sir.’
I grinned. ‘Suite? All I wanted was a room and a bed. Wow! Listen, Mister?’ I deliberately waited for him to fill the gap. He did not. ‘I’m sure I haven’t heard about this town before . . .’
‘Ah,’ the man aired, smiling, ‘a few have but many are like you. Let me give you a quick history lesson.’ He paused, then explained. ‘November 1920, a town of five hundred residents. A thriving place of Black excellence, people doing well and just wanting to live their best lives. Unfortunately, that was not to be. Two brothers needed to defend themselves after being attacked by white men. Two of the white men died. In the ensuing carnage, the town was burnt to the ground and its nearly five hundred residents either killed or expelled. A massacre of the greatest proportions.’
I listened, my chest hurt. ‘I never knew,’ I murmured. ‘I . . . I’m sorry. So a new town was rebuilt?’
‘It’s okay, we overcame.’ The man slyly smiled and handed me a card key. That was as strange as me writing in a guestbook, the two incompatible. ‘What time would you like us to wake you sir?’
‘It’s fine,’ I replied, making my way to the elevators, ‘my alarm clock in my head will get me up.’
The man gesticulated and asserted, ‘It’ll be our absolute pleasure.’
‘Ok, if you insist. 7 a.m.’ I called, not wishing to be ungrateful. The doors slid open. I entered. ‘Good night, I did not catch your name?’ He waved and smiled, just as the doors glided shut.
On the third floor, four doors from the elevators, my room was definitely a suite. I wondered who was staying in the other rooms. African landscape and fauna and animal paintings adorned the walls, and the room was expansively furnished. More lavender. A silver ice bucket on a glass-topped coffee table was in the middle of the room, a dark bottle propped in its centre. For the second time of the evening, my breath was taken away. Unlacing my boots while seated on the bed, a ten-ton truck of tiredness crashed into me and the next thing I knew I collapsed, fully clothed. The soft mattress swallowed me whole and I was buried in its secured comfort. My sleep was the deepest and most peaceful I had ever had in my life. There were no war nightmares.
Someone shook me and slowly I opened my eyes; stared around. It took me a moment to comprehend where I was. I suddenly sat up, swinging my head to and fro. It could not be. I was looking at the barren landscape from my car. There were no buildings or smiling Black people, just a slow sun climbing into a blue sky and dust devils dancing over the brown earth.
I closed and then reopened my eyes. Nothing changed. I was not dreaming. I checked my watch: 7.01 a.m. A scented whiff teased my nose and I searched for the source. I knew the odour. It was right there on the passenger seat beside me, coming from a brown paper bag. There was a larger item, also wrapped in brown paper.
I opened the bag, and the smell of fried chicken blasted out. I retrieved the bag’s contents one by one: a thick white card cup emitted a strong aroma of coffee and a white cardboard box revealed fried chicken and biscuits. I gasped and sat back, surveyed the area again while switching on my GPS. As it booted, I grabbed the larger wrapped object and tore at the paper. I glanced at my GPS, it showed nothing for miles. No blip. No solid dot. No town. No Ocoee. Holding my breath, I stripped each piece of brown paper away. A large wooden frame, which held a grainy photo. I recognised the wide street and buildings, and saw something I must have missed the night before. People stood in front of their stores just like when I drove past; looking in one direction, toward the camera, toward me. One stare, one united gaze. And just off centre, in front of Joe’s Homestyle Eatery, was the big Black man. His eyes bore into mine. Smiling, he held up one hand as if waving.
I turned the frame and checked the back. It was plain except for a white square at the bottom right, the type artists used to describe their painting or photo. It read: Ocoee, 1919. Joe McLeod, mayor of Ocoee stands in front of his newly opened store. The residents of Ocoee . . . the text went on to say that the McLeod clan were the most prominent family in the town. I started trembling. Now I knew why there was a familiarity. I had grown up with it throughout my life. I experienced it at family reunions. I felt it in my elders and in the way they hugged me. It was in the town’s welcome and familiarity. It was in my DNA, the unseen denominator that traversed time and space. They were me; McLeod was my last name.
I sat in my car, covered my face with my hands and cried.
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