STRANGE FRUIT REVISITED
by Alberto Ramirez
“What’s in Bisbee?” said Abigail.
“A fair question for a native Bostonian,” said Charles
He poured himself a glass of Chardonnay and sat down beside her on the leather love seat.
“It’s this quaint little mining town turned artist colony in the heart of Cochise County,” he said.
“I know where Bisbee is, but I mean, why there of all places?”
“Because it’s just like heaven. My dad proposed to my mom in Bisbee, October 30, 1964. Right on the rim of the Lavender Pit. To hear her tell it, it was magical. Picture this. The Arizona sun painting the sky blood red, the burning smell of jack-o-lanterns in the air, blue-green specks of copper ore stirring at his feet as he got on one knee.”
“So let’s go to Bisbee. We haven’t gotten away in I don’t know how long. We can book the honeymoon suite at the Copper King Hotel, order room service, drink chilled prosecco by the pool, do it missionary style like virgins—”
“And keep our love in fine fettle?”
“Yes, that too.”
“So much for the Amalfi Coast.”
“The Tyrrhenian Sea! Bah! All the fashionable Scottsdale couples spend the holidays in the Mule Mountains.”
“Well, I guess if all the hip White Liberals are doing it.”
“Black Liberals, too, Abigail. I don’t want you to feel left out.”
“How thoughtful. Ok, let’s go to Bisbee.”
After they’d driven through the mountain tunnel, the road to Bisbee was all downhill. Charles turned up the radio, intoxicated by the Mingus track playing on KBZB-‘The Jazz Spot.’ The rhythm of it, the tizzy-and-toot of it, made him step on the gas. He liked jazz. It made him feel cool and was an unspoken pre-requisite for dating Abigail. Her father—the Pastor Bartholomew Sutton of the First Fellowship Baptist Church of North Dorchester—had had a hard enough time dealing with the fact that Charles was white. It helped that he liked jazz.
“Look at this splendor,” he said. “I mean, have you ever seen such beautiful scenery?”
“I can’t hear a word you’re saying,” said Abigail.
“Red hills, blue skies, air like wine. It’s like a postcard from heaven.”
“What did you say?”
“I said, ain’t it heaven,” said Charles, lowering the volume.
“Yes, it’s nice.”
“Nice? Nice is the duck pond in Bainbridge Park. This is fucking sublime!”
“If you say so,” said Abigail. “Wake me when we get there.”
Strange Fruit—a ghostly dirge for lynched black men—came on the radio and Charles casually turned up the dial.
“I love this song,” said Charles. “The way Billie sings it, it’s like she’s singing to me.”
“You do know what that song’s about, right?” said Abigail. Her eyes were closed.
“It’s a protest song against racism, based on the poem by Abel Meeropol—”
“Yes, but do you know what that song’s about?”
“It’s about the horrors of lynching in the South—”
“It’s a prayer in the dark. She’s singing to my grandfather Leopold who left Polk County, Florida in 1935 for a better life in Boston.”
Charles nodded, a little embarrassed, and quickly changed the subject.
“We’re here,” he said.
He parked on Howell Ave. in front of the hotel. Their car, a new Subaru—Charles called it a ‘Japanese Volvo’—was powdered over in red fairy dust from the drive in. Seeing this as she got out of the car Abigail couldn’t help but write on the windshield:
Help! I’ve been kidnapped! Check the trunk!
“Very funny,” said Charles. “Trust me, you’re going to love it here.”
Charles wheeled the luggage up the crooked, green steps and into the hotel lobby, which looked like it did in 1902. It smelled musty, the odor of decay, of dead things.
“Welcome to the Copper King Hotel,” said the clerk. “Do you have a reservation?”
“Yes. For Charles Ingram, Esq.”
The clerk glanced curiously at Abigail, then back at Charles as if they were a pair of different colored socks.
“We have you in the Honeymoon Suite for two nights. Credit card and driver’s license.”
Charles handed him his AMEX and ID.
“Are the border towns safe at night?” he asked.
“Depends on the town. Lukeville’s ok. Naco not so much.”
“Ok, well who’s playing in The Saloon tonight?”
“The Snooker Quartet.”
“If you like jazz.”
Abigail’s hand went up.
“Bah! Let’s get a cocktail, see for ourselves if the Snookers have got the goods.”
Charles signed the hotel register and was handed a room key.
“The bellhop can get these, right?” he asked, pointing to the luggage.
“Of course. Enjoy yourselves,” said the clerk, gesturing to The Saloon.
“Come now Abigail. It’s jazz night at the Copper King Hotel.”
The bar was an eclectic dive—1960’s London posh lounge chairs, a velvet painting of a naked waif waltzing with a well-hung satyr in a medieval forest, a black and white Philco TV anchored to the wall above the bar, and an All-American, red, white and blue Tiffany inspired Pabst Blue Ribbon neon chandelier. And despite the city ordinance banning smoking in public establishments (a sign on the wall read, if you’re smoking you better be on fire) there was smoke everywhere. Light jazz, the boozy Snooker Quartet in the dimly-lit corner of the bar, played a so-so rendition of ‘Take the A Train’, while the singer— an aging sex pot in a black sequin gown—took a break, sipped her whisky sour.
Locals and regulars—real open range cowboys in dusty Stetsons, bikers, The Desert Huns in their leathers, off-duty border patrolmen, resident artists and secret serial killers alike—held dominion over the bar, so Charles and Abigail sat at a high-top table near the jazz quartet and waited for the waitress to come around.
“What’s the verdict?” said Abigail. “Are they innovators or appropriators?”
Charles looked at the band, saw that they were all white musicians, except for the drummer, who looked to be part black, but it was hard to tell in the poor light.
“The drummer’s good,” he said. “As for the others, it’s too soon to tell.”
The waitress came spryly from behind the bar—Miss Bisbee 1955, busty, red-dyed bouffant hair-do, candy apple lips and cat-eye glasses—and b-lined to the young tourist couple.
“Welcome lovers,” she said. “Name’s Gayle. How are you tonight?”
“Pretty good,” said Charles.
“Where you kids from?”
“Nice. Staying awhile or just trucking?”
“We’re honeymooning,” said Abigail, winking at Charles. “Just here for the weekend.”
“Craft beer, whatever you got on tap,” said Charles.
“A glass of chardonnay,” said Abigail.
“Got it. Be back in a jif.”
The waitress returned with their drinks.
“Say,” said Charles. “Is this place really haunted?”
“Sure is,” she said. “Haven’t you seen America’s Most Haunted Hotels on TV? The Copper King’s top of the pops. It’s silly with spooks.”
“You ever seen a ghost?”
“All the time. Which room are you staying in?”
“We’re in 252.”
“Old Mrs. McCrery died of consumption in that room in 1907. You’re definitely going to see ghosts tonight.”
“That’s great Gayle,” said Abigail. “We’re going to need a few more rounds to make it through the night.”
“I’ll keep them coming,” said Gayle.
She scuttled back to the bar to tame the horde of thirsty regulars.
“To us,” said Charles, raising his glass to toast.
“Next year in New England,” said Abigail.
The jazz quartet broke into a half decent interpretation of ‘My Funny Valentine.’
“Want to dance?” said Charles.
Abigail nodded, went to get up, then looked coyly over her shoulder at the rabble of drinkers at the bar, thought better of it and sat back down.
“What? Them?” said Charles. “Come on, don’t mind them. Let’s dance.”
“I don’t know. I feel funny,” she said.
“Funny, like a mouse in a room of cats.”
“Stop it. It’s fine. You’re fine. Trust me.”
“Is that what you tell clients, Mr. Public Defender, so they’ll go along with a plea deal?”
“No, it’s what I tell my beautiful girlfriend so she’ll dance with me.”
“Fine,” said Abigail. “But I won’t enjoy it.”
They were good dancers from dancing late nights at the Ironwood Country Club in Phoenix, and moved as best they could in the tight corner. The spot-light shining on the singer cut across Abigail’s pretty face, and ran the length of her long legs as they spun slowly across the little makeshift dance floor. He held her close, and started to say, “You make me smile with my heart” when someone at the bar shouted, “Hey! Negro!”
Charles had heard the word before, a palindrome sounding the same way backwards as forwards, in all of its ignorant iterations—once while visiting the Maricopa County jail, an inmate or a guard, he wasn’t sure which, had shouted the N-word from the upper tier as he exited a client’s cell. Another time while driving cross country through the Deep South, a white lady in a Piggly Wiggly parking lot in Hattiesburg, Mississippi had said the word nonchalantly, as if she were saying good morning. But he’d never heard it quite like this, under these circumstances, while dancing with his lovely African-American girlfriend. The only constant was the visceral reaction he had upon hearing it. It was the same every time—a deep, mournful, sickening feeling. They kept dancing, but Charles was a little lighter on his feet now, weighed down by the feeling.
“Did you hear that?” he asked.
“Yes I heard it,” said Abigail. “Let it go. We’re guests here.”
“Guests, are we? Well, so much for small town hospitality.”
“Come on,” she said, leading him off the dance floor. “Let’s just go up to our room.”
He wanted to do as she asked, but was grappling with self-loathing for being white. But he wasn’t like the others. Years ago, during a sidebar with a judge in a racially charged trial, the Phoenix District Attorney had pointed accusingly at Charles and said, ‘You got a real quixotic sense of social justice, Ingram. I think you read one too many Civil Rights briefs during law school.’ If that didn’t absolve him for being white he didn’t know what would.
“Aren’t we good Americans?” he said.
“Yes,” said Abigail. “But not tonight. Let’s go.”
“Fine,” he said. “But I’m having one more drink.”
“Charles don’t! Whatever you’re thinking of doing, it’s not worth it. Let’s just go.”
“One more drink,” he said, handing her the room key. “Go upstairs. I’ll be right up.”
“I swear to God,” she said, grabbing her purse.
“Don’t be mad,” he said, but she was already gone, the rickety saloon doors swinging to a standstill.
Charles went to the end of the scuffed, mahogany bar and didn’t try in the least to get the bartender’s attention. He didn’t want a drink. He wanted living proof of the ghost who’d shrieked while he slow-danced with his girlfriend. He wanted to confront it and tell it to go to hell. It was still here, hanging back invisibly on a wonky stool and, like all apparitions, would make its presence known when least expected.
In the corner, the jazz quartet was wrapping up its set, an up-tempo rendition of ‘Black Orpheus.’ It sounded good to Charles. Forgetting that the place was haunted, he tapped lightly on the brass foot rest.
“They play pretty good,” said Charles to the white guy sitting next to him—a pock-faced, middle-aged man with a crew-cut and coke-bottle glasses. He looked like a permanent fixture, installed back in the 1950’s.
“Yea,” said the regular, not looking at Charles. “They’re okay. The other night they had a blue-grass band in here. They were something special.”
“You from here?” asked Charles.
“Yea, over on Sieling Loop.”
“How do you like Bisbee?”
“This town suits me fine,” said the regular.
From the pocket of his red flannel shirt the regular drew a crumpled pack of Red 72s and lit up.
“I used to live up around Apache Flats,” he said. “But I like it better in Bisbee. You can do what you like. Everybody minds their own god-damn business. People don’t bother you, much.”
“Sounds nice,” said Charles.
“Yea,” said the regular.
Suddenly remembering why he was here, Charles turned and scanned the bar, looked at all of the faces—the tough and rutted, mad, guileful, oblivious, high-spirited faces—and wondered, what does a racist look like anyway? He could not answer the question and decided to mind his own business and go up to his hotel room. He waved the bartender over to settle the tab.
“If you’re waiting on Sam,” said the regular. “You’re going home sober. I’ve been waiting here for about an hour.”
“Sorry, what?” said Charles.
“Sam’s a shitty bartender,” the regular explained, pointing to the end of the bar, where the pony-tailed barman was engrossed in the classified ads of The Bisbee Observer.
“It’s alright,” said Charles. “I was just leaving.”
“Not until you wet your whistle,” he insisted. “Come on now, Skeeter.”
The regular pounded his fist on the bar and yelled across The Saloon.
“Hey Sam,” he said. “Get off your ass and pour me another drink!”
The bartender looked up annoyed from his want-ads.
“Calm your ponies, Jeff,” he said. “I’ll be right there.”
“Come on,” shouted the regular. “Pour me another Negro!”
The word didn’t register right away or rather Charles wasn’t automatically triggered by it. It was as if his brain had released a heavy dose of opiate to deaden the sound and dull the subsequent perception of disgust and anger he felt when he heard it. But it wore off.
The bartender shuffled to the taps and poured a tall glass of dark stout from a homemade, black-face tap handle. A modern-day, antebellum relic fashioned by an ignorant brewer in some local, homespun brewery. Charles had seen this apparition before, ads with the same face, racist Americana in The Saturday Evening Post, circa 1930. Darkie Toothpaste with monofluoro phosphate. Uncle Remus Brand Syrup. N-Boy’s King Sized Licorice Cigarettes. Popularized by appropriators, white minstrel men in dark face. Here it was again. Sudden as an Asphyxiant, the feeling rose up in him again, and he could think of only one thing to suppress it. He wanted to object, like the good public defender that he was, but didn’t quite know who to address in that moment, turning first to the regular sitting next to him, then to the bartender, and lastly to his own white, perplexed reflection in the tarnished, antique mercury mirror behind the bar. Speechless and defenseless, he retreated to the corner, to the high-top by the jazz quartet.
It was late and Abigail was rightly furious by now. He reached into the pocket of his sports jacket, pulled out a leather billfold, took out a crisp fifty-dollar banknote, laid it on the table top for the waitress and got up to go. But something wouldn’t let him. He needed to make sense of what had happened so he could make things right.
“Excuse me,” he said, turning to the jazz singer who was perched precariously on a high-top stool, hitching up her black silk stockings.
“Yes,” she said, her voice raspy from cigarettes.
“Could you play a song for me?”
“What’d you have in mind, flutter bum?”
“Strange Fruit,” said Charles.
The jazz singer gasped.
“Oh no, I couldn’t sing that,” she said.
“Do you know it?”
“Well yes, of course I know it,” she said. “But I just can’t sing it. It’s too dark. Sorry, it’d kill the mood in here.”
“Thank you all the same,” said Charles.
Turning to go, he suddenly stopped and stared out the large, plate-glass window of The Saloon, at the flickering lights of this little desert town.
“Ain’t it heaven, though,” he said.
Closing his eyes, he felt hot tears streaming down his face, felt a humming deep down inside of his chest. It started way down low, then came welling up, loud vibrations resonating in his throat, becoming words. He was singing now, a protest song for Abigail, at the top of his lungs, with everything that he had in his paladin heart.
“Southern trees bear strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root, black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees …”
About the Author:
Alberto Ramirez graduated from UCLA with a degree in English literature. He has contributed work to Westwind Journal of the Arts, Angel City Review, Drabblez Magazine and LossLit Magazine UK. He is the author of the novel Everything That Could Not Happen Will Happen Now (Floricanto Press 2016), selected by Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club summer reading list 2017.