Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Raymond Ellis Jr.

by Andrea McDonald

Raymond Ellis Jr. clutched his hat in his hands as he sat down in front of the man in charge of hiring.  Mr. Hudson was that man’s name, and he was a big man: his one chin sat on the one below and when he reached for the papers on his desk, he couldn’t bring his hands together without squeezing his chest.  When he did that, his too-short tie popped out from beneath his jacket like a poker stick.  Raymond Ellis Jr.’s eyes were riveted on that tie.

“You’re black,” said Mr. Hudson.


Raymond pulled his eyes down to the desk calendar.  October 5, 1964.  He would always remember the date.

“Says here you got yourself a degree in business. That right?”


“You sure?  You sure this ain’t someone else’s information?”

“No sir.  I mean yessir.  I’m sure sir.”

“How’d you do that?”

“I went to university sir, as you’ll see on my resume.”

“We don’t often hire black men.”

“No sir.” Raymond gulped, but noted with some relief that Mr. Hudson had said black men, not black boys.

Mr. Hudson buzzed his secretary on the intercom.  “You got the background report, Miss Wilson?”

The door opened and Miss Wilson, a middle-aged woman in sturdy shoes and a stiff grey dress came in, placed a file folder on the desk, glanced at the young man sitting opposite, and smirked before thrusting her chin in the air and turning to go.

“Something funny, Miss Wilson?”

“Nothing, nothing at all, Mr. Hudson,” she said as she closed the door.

Raymond Ellis Jr. turned his hat in circles and his foot tapped the floor. He stared at the shoes he’d bought at the charity shop and spent an hour polishing the night before.  They protruded out from his skinny ankles where his pants stopped.

“Hmmm,” Mr. Hudson said, pushing back in his chair, “seems we got ourselves a problem.”


“Says here you were arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, 4th of July, some years back.  You go to jail?”

“Yessir.  Juvenile Hall.”

“Charged with disturbing the peace, and aggravated assault.“  Mr. Hudson threw the file on the desk.  “You in some kind of gang fight?”

“No sir. I was defending-   someone.”

Mr. Hudson tapped his pen on the desk and stared at Raymond.  He didn’t ask for clarification. He just sat there, staring, as if he had a huge scale on his desk, and it was tipping back and forth in a wind storm.  Raymond felt his whole future was sitting on one side of that scale, and he felt it sinking.

Then Mr. Hudson sat forward.

“Best tell me about it, son,” he said.

And so Raymond did, and though his words were brief and correct on account of the university education, his mind played it out just as it happened those many years ago when he was fourteen.

“Raymond baby, help your poor mamma get outta this chair, that’s it.  Law, it’s hot, and I got to get me to the bus fore I’s too late.”

“Why Mamma, where’s you going? It’s Saturday. You don’t got to work today.”

His mother heaved herself out of her chair with his help and shuffled across the room, turning sideways to squeeze out the door.  She was an enormous woman, with ankles each as wide as an elephant’s foot and arms that fell in folds.  She was so fat she’d had to stop working as a maid and instead had taken a job as a short order cook, where she only had to move a few feet from the grill and could rest on a stool throughout the workday.  But work she did, and hard.  She had five mouths to feed and no husband in sight.

Raymond leaned forward.  “My mamma is a big woman, sir.”

“You got something to say about big people?” Mr. Hudson said, squeezing his gut in.

“No sir.  But it done-  does factor in.”

“Go on.”

“Never you mind where I’s going,” Mamma had said. “Got me something to do.  Gonna bring home twenty-five extra dollars. Now, I see you sometime round supper.  Have yourself a good day, today.  You been workin’ extra hard and you should get out an have some fun. Bye now, son.”

When she left, Raymond washed the breakfast dishes and put them in the cupboard, swept the floor and put the trash in the can in the shed out back. Then he rounded up his three little brothers.

“Hey.  I got me three dollars and man, they’s burning a hole in my pocket,” he said.  He fanned his pant leg.  “Why, looky.  See the smoke?”  His little brothers giggled. “I got to get rid of them, sure nough, and fast, before they burn the pants clear off me.  What say we go spend them down to the State Fair?”

His little brothers cheered.  He swooped the youngest up and hurried the others out the door and onto the street.  They waited at the corner for the downtown bus, and boarded by the rear door.

“I took my little brothers to the State Fair.”

“Uh huh.”

Raymond smiled as his young brothers squealed on the midway rides and stuffed pink cotton candy that smelled like bubblegum into their mouths, and then made silly hats with the empty paper cones.  They were marching along pretending to be wizards when Raymond pulled them together.  “I got a quarter left for each one a us,” he yelled over the carnival music.  “What should we spend em on?”

Their eyes darted past the clown juggling bowling pins and the yellow tin ducks clacking side to side in the shooting gallery;  they landed on a picture of a sword swallower painted on the side of a canvas tent.  “The side show!” they yelled back.

Raymond had really wanted to ride the roller coaster one more time, but when he saw his little brothers’ faces shining and felt them tugging at his shirt, he led them into the first of the tents.  It smelled of mildew and was dark except for a light shining on stage. They watched a little man dressed as a lady pull his beard and speak gibberish that was supposed to be Russian.

The boys pouted.  “That ain’t nothing much,” Raymond said. “Lets us see what’s in the next tent.”  They moved with the crowd into the next area, where a man in purple pantaloons and a sparkly vest ran his sword across his bare chest.  Blood appeared to gush from his wounds.  The boys stood open-mouthed.  He moaned woefully and then ran his dagger over a burning fire.  Flames leaped from its edge.  The boys gasped as he slid the dagger down his throat with a flourish.  “Man,” Raymond said, ”don’t that just beat all!”

Mr. Hudson cleared his throat. Raymond sat silently staring at his shoes.

“Go on,” Mr.Hudson said.  “What happened at the State Fair?”

The crowd pressed them into the adjoining tent as the fire-eater pulled out the dagger, wiped his chest, and dropped onto a stool to await the next group.  Once inside the last tent Raymond and his brothers looked up at the stage.  “The Amazing Dora!” a banner read.  “See the Fattest Woman on Earth!”  They saw a portrait of a woman with mountains of snow white flesh billowing over her skimpy costume.

A curtain opened, and out shuffled a black woman, clad only in a bikini.  As she plopped onto the stool the effect was like a water balloon landing from a great height without breaking.

“Well, speak up son,” Mr. Hudson said, and shifted in his seat. “What happened?”

Raymond sat up straight. “I saw my mamma there.  She had replaced-  she was in a freak show, sir.”

Mr. Hudson stifled a smile.  “Well,” he said, ”don’t that just beat all. Tell me more, go on. “

Raymond gathered his brothers and tried to cover their eyes as he pushed them out the door.  “Hey, what you doing, Raymond?” they yelled in unison, unaware that the woman they strained to see was their mother.  At the sound of their voices, she shielded her eyes from the glaring spotlight and stared into the crowd.

“Is those my babies?” she asked. “Raymond, is that you out there?”  As she saw him, it was as if that water balloon had burst.  “I’s sorry, baby, but we need the money.”

Raymond was about to speak when a rough looking man in a cowboy hat yelled out, “I want my money back!  I came to see Dora, not some fat Nigra.” Then another man joined in and the crowd began to grumble.

Raymond could feel the shock and his temper surging together in his stomach. “You shut your mouth,” he yelled at the first man.

“You come on over and make me,” the man shot back.

“You need the money?” another man yelled out, and laughed. “What, so you can eat more? Ain’t you fat enough, Nigra?”

“Yah,” chided another, “you’re so fat you could sink the Titanic!”

“Well sir, some men started insulting my mamma, and I-  and I-“

Mr. Hudson leaned well forward in his chair.  His tie lay on his desk.  “What d’you do, son?”

“I’m afraid I hauled off an’ hit one or two of them, sir.”

Mr. Hudson leaned back.  He leaned so far back in his chair it looked like it might topple. He dragged one knee up and perched it on the other one, until it slid off.  But he said nothing.  At length he put both feet down, leaned forward, and grasping the job file with two hands, tapped it on the desk.  Still he was silent.

Raymond dropped his head and stared at his feet.  The bizarre image of him sitting in the bottomed out pan of the scale kept flitting through his head.  I’m done for, he thought, and with that his mouth opened and words tumbled out without his consent.

“They dragged me outside and got the sheriff.  I served two years.  And all the time I was in there I kept thinking how I’d let my mamma down.  She couldn’t help being fat, no sir. The doctors, they all said so.  And there she was, humbling herself to all the world, and I was spending a whole dollar for the four of us to see it.  Money I should a put toward food so she didn’t have to do such a thing as that.”  He stood up.  “Thank you Mr. Hudson.  I’ll be going.”

Mr. Hudson cleared his throat. “Not so dawg-gone fast, son.  I know a good man when I see one.  Don’t matter what colour.  Seems to me you got some papers to sign before you come to work on Monday.  Now don’t you be late.  I got no patience for lateness.”

“Yessir.  No sir!” said Raymond Ellis Jr. 

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