The All-Black Town: Part 4

Marse Little had a general store on his place, and he encouraged his sharecroppers to buy there on credit. Now that he was free to decide where to take his custom, Truehart decided to go into Itta Bena instead to buy at Levy’s.

When Truehart came in, the burly man behind the counter—he must be Mr. Levy—asked him, “Can I help you?” Didn’t call him Mister, but didn’t call him boy, either.

“Sir, I need some flour, and my wife asked me to buy her a length of calico for a dress.”

“Do she have a preference as to color?”

It was hard to understand Mr. Levy’s way of talking. “I believe she favor red.”

Mr. Levy took down a bolt from the shelf. “Would this do?”

Truehart was surprised that Mr. Levy would be so courteous to him. “It would.”

“And flour, you said?”

“Yes, sir.”

Mr. Levy filled a sack with flour. He said, “I can put it on account. You can pay me when the crop comes in.”

Truehart put his money on the counter. “No, sir, don’t care to be in debt. I have cash. Pay you now.”

“I’m obliged,” Levy said. He took the money and laid the change on the counter. He said, “Who do you crop for?”

“Used to crop for Marse Little, but now I have my own place. Bought some land down by the river.”

Levy looked at him. He had a sad, sallow, lined face, a little like President Lincoln’s. He said, “It’s good to make a living.”

Startled, Truehart said, “It is, indeed.”

“Do you need anything else?”

“No, sir, but I’ve been wondering where you hail from. Never heard anyone who talk like you do.”

Levy laughed. He said, “I was born in Poland. And I talked Polish and Jewish before I talked English. Can’t get my tongue around it proper.”

“Are you a Jew?”

“I am.”

“Never met a Jew before. Only read about them in the Bible.”

“Before I came here I never met black folks before. Didn’t read about you in the Bible!” Still in good humor, he said, “Anyone who has cash is fine with me. You come back whenever you need anything.”

Truehart took his change from the counter and put it carefully in his pocket. “I will, sir. Thank you, Mr. Levy.”

Levy’s courtesy surprised him and troubled him. Truehart knew few white men who could speak courteously to a black man. He wondered about Levy’s life in Poland, so far away. He wondered if the folks in Poland oppressed the Jews, like the Egyptians had in the Bible.

Truehart went into Itta Bena a few weeks later to fetch Willow Bend’s mail at the post office. The postmaster made him wait until all the white folks had gotten their mail. He didn’t take money from Truehart’s hand, and he threw the stamps on the counter, saying, “Niggers needing stamps. Niggers writing letters. Don’t care for it, not a bit.”

Truehart walked down the street to Levy’s. He didn’t need anything, but he wanted to see if Levy would be courteous to him again.

Levy said, “I recall you. Did your wife like the calico?”

“Yes, sir, she did.”

“What’s your name?”

“Jim Truehart.”

Levy nodded and said, “Pleased to make your acquaintance. What might you need today, Jim Truehart?”

Levy couldn’t call him Mister Truehart. But he wouldn’t call him “Jim” or “boy,” either. Truehart said, “Don’t need it right away, but I’m thinking about a new rifle. A Winchester.”

Levy said, “Hope there ain’t trouble where you are.”

“No, sir. Just for hunting. We hunt deer and rabbit. Eat what we hunt.”

Levy took down a rifle from its spot on the wall behind his head. He laid it on the counter. “The newest Winchester,” he said. “A fine gun.”

Truehart asked, “May I touch it?”

“How else would you judge it?”

“Marse Little’s shopkeeper don’t let us touch the goods.”

Levy said, “I hear he gives short weight.”

It was true, but Truehart wouldn’t say so to another white man. He bent over the rifle, looking at the gleaming stock and the bright barrel. It was too hard to break the habit of not touching. He said, “It’s a fine thing. I ain’t quite ready to buy. I need to save up some money first.”

“Since you’re a good customer who pays in cash.”

Truehart smiled. “Yes, sir.”

“When you’re ready, I’ll welcome your custom.”

“Thank you, Mr. Levy.”

Levy’s decency warmed him. He wondered again how Levy had come to be a white man who treated black people with respect.