The Ballad of Honeybee Wallace

Bryan Alston Patrick

Some folks called him the first real life superhero. Most dismissed the tales as tall with some seed of truth. Others told the stories of Booker “Honeybee” Wallace as polemical parables charged with racial politics. The legendary bluesman, learned at the feet of the venerable Nectar Rollins, sang the roof off with rusty golden pipes, fighting injustice with heartbreaking harmonic transgressions, giving voice to the voiceless. He played St. Louis and Kansas City with Billie Holiday; New Orleans, Houston and Tulsa with John Lee Hooker. He marched for civil rights with MLK. He once wrestled a grizzly bear into submission up in Montana, or was it Wyoming? Depends on who it was telling the story. Or how ’bout the Great White he killed with nothing but his carving knife down in the Gulf of Mexico? He beat a whole gang of Klan boys with his bare fists. Some say there were ten of ’em. Others claim twenty or more.

Then there was the time he was locked up for car theft after lifting a Plymouth Fury off the broken leg of nine-year-old Tamara Davenport. Her mother, Caroline, was a pill-popping lush shielded by her family’s name and money. When she spaced on setting the break, her car rolled backward on a slight hill. The curb stopped its momentum but not until it had little Tammy’s leg pinned.

Honeybee worked in the wood shop right across Maple Street and saw the whole thing through the big front window. He came barreling out in a cloud of sawdust, charging across the street, lean and athletic, kinetic and coordinated, his dark skin shiny with sweat, on display with his muscular build in the coveralls he had worn to work with no shirt underneath.

Caroline screamed at the sight of a large, dirty, black man coming at her. The calamity turned heads. Big Ed Larson was taking a break after rotating the tires on Maryanne Franklin’s Caddy. He was standing outside the open garage doors smoking a Camel with one hand in the pocket of his greasy, blue coveralls.

Joanne Dupree was on her way out of a routine checkup with Doc Foley. He had escorted her just in time for both of them to witness Booker Wallace’s astounding feat of strength.

Winnifred Peterson was strutting her stuff midday as she did, pretending she had somewhere to be while really just wanting to be seen in the fancy clothes she bought with her husband’s money while he was up in Jackson “doing business” with the Widow Bernadette Adams.

Felicia Rollins pedaled slowly by on her pink bicycle, speeding up as the incident unfolded next to her, wanting to distance herself.

It was Doc Foley who would later be quoted repeatedly in connection with the anecdotal retelling of the rescue. He even did a couple of television appearances well into his retirement, guesting on early-’70s talk shows in tacky plaid suits provided by the producers and the puffy white muttonchops he had grown to keep up with the times.

“A sudden spike in adrenaline can give a person strength that seems superhuman,” he repeated himself, “but is, in fact, totally human. I’ve seen it firsthand.”

Joe Harrison ran the wood shop and knew Booker as well as anyone. Nobody had worked for Joe longer than Honeybee. They were friends as much as employer–employee. And not because Joe was the type of guy to pal around with his subordinates. Years of friendship, loyalty and trust had transformed their working relationship into something more that neither man would have labeled as anything other than “running the shop.”

Honeybee built and repaired guitars on the side. There weren’t enough instruments or players around in those days to make a business out of it, but the extra work was a nice little added revenue stream. Eventually, Joe started taking in violins, cellos and violas without telling anyone it was Booker working on them. The side business grew methodically over a period of years, fed by new music students learning to play at the middle and high schools in neighboring counties, bringing in enough additional money to modernize the shop and keep it shiny.

Joe recognized the value Booker brought in and compensated him accordingly, well enough to afford him a nice, tidy two-bedroom home on the black side of town. Life had been alright for a while. Racially speaking, it was a period of relative yet superficial peace. The prejudicial attitudes were always there but mostly held within and seldom spoken aloud. Not because folks were particularly enlightened but simply because most of them preferred the quiet life. They didn’t feel strongly enough one way or another to cause a commotion.

Sheriff Mills was another story. His deputy, Pop Regan, was there on the scene, but Mills appeared within minutes of the accident report. The station was less than two blocks away, right around the corner on Main, between Willow and Maple.

Doc Foley had called for an ambulance, on its way from one town over. They didn’t have their own hospital yet.

Meantime, he directed Booker to carry Tammy to his office where he could set the leg himself if necessary, depending on how long that ambulance might take.

“Now hold up a dang second there,” said Sheriff Mills upon arriving at the scene well after the fact. Everybody saw what happened. No sense in rehashing what was in no way mysterious.

It was like Mills wanted to mess with old Honeybee just to mess with him. Nobody understood what was going on exactly.

Mills listened to several people, including Doc Foley, recount what had just happened. Caroline forgot to set the break and the car rolled onto little Tammy.

Her leg was badly broken as it was, but everyone agreed it would likely have been so much worse had it not been for Booker acting so quickly with such an impressive display. Most who witnessed the incident felt Booker had likely saved Tammy’s life.

“That don’t make a whole lotta sense now does it?” Mills asked, seemingly rhetorical yet looking at Caroline who seemed to be the one person following him at all.

Did she know something they didn’t?

“Caroline was much closer to the incident,” Mills pointed out. “She had the best view. If she says Booker Wallace was trying to steal her car and that’s what caused the accident, I have no reason to doubt her.”

“But Sheriff,” Joe said, “Booker was inside the shop, working with me.”

“Now Joe. I hate to go and be a stickler on this,” Mills said, “but working in law enforcement obligates me to be just such a stickler. Unless you were able to keep an eye on Booker in an ongoing unbroken fashion, continuously without disruption or distraction, I don’t rightly see how you can be certain he was inside your shop for the entire duration of the accident.”

“I wasn’t,” Joe stammered. “Of course I didn’t. That’s not even the point, Sheriff. We—that being Booker and I—took notice of the calamity outside the front window at precisely the same instant. We exited the shop together in order to investigate the disturbance.”

“So then I’m correct in ascertaining you were not in fact paying complete and total unbroken attention to the whereabouts of your subordinate,” Joe wasn’t the only person within earshot to note Mills’ careful omission of the “n” word, as though he was deliberately sidestepping any potential allegations of racial bias that might await him somewhere down the road in the legal system.




“I simply do not and will never understand how Caroline Davenport could stand by and let that nasty old Sheriff Mills take Mr. Wallace to jail. After he saved her little girl,” Winnifred said, two or three sips into her second martini. “I hate to think what this world is coming to.”

Joanne Dumont rolled her eyes warmly at her friend’s charmingly familiar foible. “This world isn’t coming to anything it hasn’t already been for eons, Freddie.”

“But I’ve never seen anything like that. A person so obscenely ungrateful she would falsely accuse a colored person already in danger for his life in the course of routine day-to-day goings-on. I mean, is it not bad enough to have to worry about being lynched for looking the wrong way at a white woman?”

Freddie gestured at the bartender for a refill, anticipating the nearing conclusion of her cocktail.

“I recommend slowing down on those, Freddie,” Joanne said. “You’re becoming melancholy.”

“I am not melancholy. Why is it melancholy to express passion regarding an injustice?”

“It’s not the substance of your statements, Freddie. It’s the tone.”

“What tone? I do not have a tone.”

“You have a sort of weepy, maudlin tone when you get into your cups, Freddie. Especially when anything comes up in conversation concerning the downtrodden and their plight.”

“Who’s talking about the plight of the downtrodden? I’m concerned about an injustice done to an actual person with whom we are both acquainted.”

Maybe it was the martinis or the melancholy or something more deliberate coming out on purpose. It was subtle, but even Lloyd the bartender noticed the look passing between them. As a bartender bound by implicit confidentiality, Lloyd would never mention, suggest or hint that Joanne Dumont had perhaps liaised with Booker “Honeybee” Wallace after a now legendary performance at the Dixie Chicken roadhouse on Route 9. Anything he or anyone might have said would have been speculation and, in any case, bad for business.

The secret had been kept perfectly between the two participants. Honeybee was driving a truck back then, before Joe offered him the job in the wood shop. The Gibson acoustic known as Luanne rode in the sleeping compartment. Most nights Honeybee curled up next to her, but the night at the Dixie Chicken changed things. Stories told of Honeybee thereafter always included details from that performance, whether or not the armchair historian recounting was there or knew anyone who was.

Joanne Dumont was. Having a few and kicking up her heals for the first time in the year since her husband, Jack, had been killed in action overseas.

She recognized the man onstage from town. They had attended different high schools, of course, but they were close in age. Two or three years apart at most, yet worlds away.

His voice and lyrics and guitar chords opened a door to another world. Whisky and cigarettes. Neon lights and blue notes. Sweet seduction.

Booker had earned the nickname Honeybee from a heavyset blues and soul singer named Cassie “Gumbo” Jefferson. She said his “fretwork is so sweet, but he got a sting in his string too that’a make you cry.”

Minor pentatonic fury and elastic blue notes. Honeybee was known for his acoustic playing but that night he was on a Gibson hollow-body electric, melting metal strings with murky microtones from a musical netherworld. Exploring the spaces between.

Joanne moved to a table in front of the stage, drawn into the sound and the something bigger that was happening. Honeybee noticed her during an extended lead-guitar interlude, during which he was free to focus on her but she was too shy to hold eye contact. Anyone paying attention would have observed the connection.

The place was crowded enough that night to make some money. A number of long-haul truckers like Booker were there drinking and mixing it up with a comfort level enjoyed by periodic regulars. The perfect balance of familiarity and transience. With little chance of wearing out your welcome coming through two or three times a month.

Most of them wouldn’t have cared what anyone else was doing, but maybe there were a few locals who would talk. Joanne had been popular in school. There were those jealous sorts who took pleasure in what they perceived to be hard times descending upon her, beginning with her husband’s death. They acted sympathetic to her face, saying how sorry they were for her loss, asking if she needed anything, don’t hesitate to ask, everything will be okay, but she could tell the difference and after a while began to delight in the quiet defiances, breaking little rules here and there, acting brazenly aloof, making off-color jokes, purposely offending the pretenders, that would incite the hypocrites to break their silence and in doing so give themselves away. Among themselves they shook their heads together, “poor Joanne,” this and that, pretending to not enjoy reveling in rumors of her misfortune.

Had anybody seen anything conclusive, no doubt the rumors would have spread like news of a political scandal in those days when moral outrage could still be convincingly manufactured.

Freddie wasn’t like them. She was unusually intelligent, college educated, well read and cosmopolitan. Some folks might have called her erudite or even enlightened. When she had stressed the word “acquainted,” all she really meant by the remark was that she knew and understood and wished Joanne trusted her enough to tell her the truth about everything, to keep no secrets.

“Caroline didn’t set the break.” Freddie went on. “And that’s not the worst of it. You could say it was a Freudian slip of sorts. Not a misstatement but the behavioral equivalent. An accident motivated by an unconscious desire.”

“What are you saying? Caroline wanted to harm her own daughter?”

“Tammy is pretty and talented. She gets so much attention and her parents are well off. She has everything Caroline didn’t have.”

“But that’s common in society. Many people have new money. That’s not. I wouldn’t want to think that’s enough to run a child over.”

“Unconsciously. It was an accident, but she knows deep down the real truth because she’s glad it happened. The broken leg could keep Tammy from dancing. Make her ordinary. Caroline enjoys that and for it she feels incredibly guilty. She feels awful. She hates herself for hating her daughter. Now here comes Sheriff Mills, asking her but sort of telling her, ‘Booker tried to steal the car, did he not?’ And it’s so absurd but so incredibly convenient she can’t pass it up to assuage her own guilt. It wasn’t her fault at all. Booker caused the accident. That’s her out, you see.”

“You nearly have me convinced. I suppose it makes a convoluted sort of sense. You could have made a fortune in psychiatry, I imagine. All you would have to do is tell your patients such stories about their own motivations. True or not, they would believe you were helping.”

“Yes, I agree. But I would need a plaque on the wall and one of those things between my legs. Allegedly Dr. Freud thought highly of them.”

Joanne had to suppress a snicker with the back of her knuckles. She cleared her throat and collected herself quickly to circumvent the sort of head-turning laughter Freddie could elicit from her.

“In any case, whatever it is going on inside Caroline Davenport’s head bears little on the matter by comparison to that dreaded Sheriff Mills.” Freddie added.

Joanne saw Joe come in the door and motioned him over to their booth.

“Did you see him?” Freddie asked. “Is he okay?”

Joe nodded.

“I worry about him alone with that good ole boy sheriff.” Joanne said.

Joe sighed. “Booker Wallace can handle himself.”




“You could bend those bars and let yourself out,” Joe whispered after looking both ways. There were no hidden cameras or microphones in those days. The sheriff’s department didn’t even have a one-way window for lineups. But still, he said it with humor in his voice and eyes. A joke between friends bringing some levity to a grim situation.

“But I couldn’t really now, could I?” Booker had said, leaving it there with a glance at the front wall, just outside Mills’ office.

His eyes returned to Joe’s face, finding a kind, avuncular smile. It was then that Mills stuck his head out the door, tacitly announcing time was up with a tight-lipped look of annoyance that would have been right at home on the face of a petulant child unable to tolerate disappointment of any kind, driven to tantrums by totally unjustified egocentricity and lacking the reflective faculties to recognize his own ridiculousness.

Joe gave him the nod of compliance, mostly for Booker’s sake. First order of business was getting his friend out of the clink. Meantime, they had to keep the peace so he could walk out of there intact when the time came.

His eyes met the Sheriff’s long enough to convey agreeability. And he couldn’t help notice Mills glance at the same photo on the same wall right outside his office. There were several like it hanging around the main area of the department. Black-and-white group shots of sheriffs and deputies and support staff over the years, most of them taken right outside the building. They got earlier moving back from the reception area toward the office. The one right outside Mills’ office was maybe ten years old, back when Mills and his older brother, Brant, were both young deputies.

Mills gave it a parting glance and tailed Joe to the door, locking up behind him. Hearing the bolt turn, Joe hesitated on the front steps. As he started down the wheelchair ramp, he noticed the blinds tilt shut inside the door.

It was dusk. Dark enough outside that indoor lights were beginning to glow. Early enough that the drunk tank was still empty. Some nights it stayed that way in a town small enough to string a few consecutive crime-free days together.

Joe walked to his truck knowing Booker and Mills were inside the building, just the two of them. He gripped the car key in his hand at the bottom of the ramp. His boots thunked down loose wooden planks thrown together quickly in response to a recent state ordinance and at least one citation from the governor’s office threatening sanctions for lack of compliance.

On the last plank he turned and looked back at the locked glass doors with the blinds in privacy position. A sheriff who did anything he wanted in a state that tacitly encouraged him and others like him. Routine injustice masquerading as its own foe. Then, like the majority of the population, he looked away and proceeded to his vehicle.




Mills chewed tobacco like there hadn’t been health warnings. He spit through the bars on to the floor of Booker’s cell. Aiming away from the prisoner’s feet amplified the disrespect. It was spitting on more than the person, making a broader more demeaning statement while at the same time casting doubt on the Sheriff’s intentions. He only spat on the floor of a cell that would be mopped up and thus did nothing wrong or abusive. Spitting directly on a prisoner would lower the Sheriff, make him culpable in some way even without anyone around to judge him.

Booker didn’t react or respond at all. He stood pillar still with his eyes on Mills.

“You was there that night, wasn’t you?” Mills said, tonguing another brownish loogie on the concrete floor, blackened over time from all kinds of things including without limitation blood, vomit and urine.

“What night is that, sheriff?”

“You was eyeing that picture,” he said, pronouncing it “pitcher.” He leaned on the bars, putting his arms through so that he rested on his elbows, almost like he was the one locked up. “I saw you.”

“I see several pictures on the far wall, Sheriff. Can’t much make out the details of any one of them from way over here.”

“That’s real interesting, ’cause you was clearly focused on the one of the bunch that has my brother in it. He was only with the department for less than a year. But I supposed you likely know that, do you not?”

“I was not aware of the duration of your brother’s tenure on the force, Sheriff.”

“You sure is uppity for a.” Mills left a blank for some reason. Again he spat on the floor. Like punctuation.

“For a?”

Mills smirked again and shook his head. “You ain’t gonna make this easy, are you?”

“I don’t mean to be difficult, Sheriff. I just don’t know very much about what happened to your brother. From what I recall he was killed in a shootout during the investigation of a crime.”

“What crime was that?” Mills asked. “You remember that little detail?”

“If I recall correctly, some men lit a cross on fire in the yard of a negro family and those same men lynched the oldest son.”

“What they lynch him for?” Mills asked. “Allegedly?”

“I don’t remember that, Sheriff, if I ever knew.”

“Them boys said he raped a girl name of Shirley Houston,” Mills said. “Did you know Shirley?”

“I did not.”

“No, I wouldn’t reckon you would. She was several years ahead of you in school, what I recall.”

“In any case, I’m sorry for what happened to her and to your brother. I’m sure he was a good man.”

Mills smiled incredulously. “Now, you know damn well my brother wasn’t killed in the line of duty, don’t you?”

“I thought you said he was?”

“Dammit, boy! I said that’s what the paper said. That’s the official account. Signed off on at the time by Sheriff Addison. But you and I both know that’s fiction just like the news article. Hell, my brother wasn’t even shot.”

“He wasn’t?”

“No. He wasn’t. Somebody hit him with something. Shattered his jaw. Broke a bunch of ribs. Messed him up so bad he bled internally and died from his injuries.”

“Wow,” Booker said, with perhaps just a hint of insincerity.

“Me and Sheriff Addison kept that to ourselves. Thought maybe someone real big and strong cold-cocked him with a blunt object. Part of a tree branch or a big rock. Possibly a length of pipe. We never did have a suspect fitting that description.”

Booker feigned confusion. “But didn’t you say there were men from the Klan there? Covered in robes and hoods, I assume? Could it not have been one of those men, didn’t want to get caught?”

Mills glared at Booker.

“Oh, I see. Your brother wasn’t there on duty. He was one of the Klan members so then, none of the others would have hurt him.”

“That’s right. See? You do know more than you was saying. We didn’t find no one matching those physical traits ’cause we had no way of knowing we was looking for a ten-year-old boy.”

Mills paused to stare at Booker.

“You was around nine or ten back then, was you not?”

Booker shrugged. “I don’t remember exactly when all that happened. It’s just something I remember folks talking about over the years.”

Mills shook his head again, pursing his lips to eject the toxic byproduct that had been pooling in front of his lower teeth. The stream arched over several inches and hit the concrete with a stiff splatting noise roughly the pitch of dry leaves crunching underfoot.

“I wondered for years what happened to my brother. Could never figure it. Searched high and low for a murder weapon. Another man who mighta been there. We know ole Theo didn’t do it on account of he was being lynched at the time. His little girl Felicia was eight. Don’t think she could a done it.” Mills paused. “But I bet you knew little Felicia. Two’a you was friends. I bet you snuck out your momma’s house to go see her that night. Y’all two was off sneaking a kiss I betcha. Jigs always did develop faster than whites. That is a well-known fact, ain’t it?”

Booker stood listening, silent and placid, in the spirit of a sane person trying not to upset a person already in the midst of a breakdown.

“I bet y’all was hiding out in the crawlspace underneath Theo’s little hovel out there in the woods. The boys started poking round the house, seeing who else might be home, who might’ve seen what. My daddy and his people, they didn’t worry back in the good ole days. They did what they pleased. Didn’t have them Hoover boys come sniffing around every time some jungle-bunny went MIA.”

Booker’s face and eyes gave away nothing. He was cool as fresh overnight snow untouched by the morning bustle.

“You was sharp back then just like now. I heard you play that guitar and sang all sweet and soulful. You got a gift. More than one apparently. I bet you knew just precisely what was ’bout to go down if those ole boys found you and that girl. I bet somebody took his hood off too soon, thinking he was all by hisself. Unseen by prying eyes.”

Booker said nothing. But his eyes relaxed into a persistently mellow stare, admitting the truth without giving Mills the satisfaction.

“When I heard about you picking that car up this morning I knew. You was the one I been looking for all these years. You’s the one killed my brother and you didn’t need a pipe or a rock or a stick to do it. You did it with your bare hands. Maybe you can do it whenever you want like Clark Kent or maybe just when a little girl is in trouble. I don’t know or rightly much care. I know it was you and you gon’ damn well sit in that jail cell until you find the strength within yourself to tell the truth.”

Booker kept quiet, as though uncertain as to whether Mills was done saying whatever he had to say.

“Well, dammit! What about it then?”

“What about what, Sheriff? I’ve told you what I know. I suppose I could make up some tall tale as I’ve done in songwriting from time to time but you asked for the truth.”

Mills sneered and looked Booker up and down like a rough beast. “Mm-hm.” He grumbled. “Truth is you killed my brother. Let’s see how a night in a cold jail cell does for your character. I bet you be ready to tell some truth come morning.”

Booker stayed quiet.

“I think I’m a go have me a drink and then, who knows? Perhaps I’ll mosey over and pay Felicia Rollins a visit, if the mood strikes me. Something tells me she’ll be a trifle more conversational when I turn the screws.”




Joanne had too much to drink at the restaurant and then at Freddie’s place. She started crying somewhat randomly. Freddie saw the mascara running and hopped up to address the situation developing on her white heirloom sofa.

“Oh Freddie I’m just a mess now.”

“There, there,” Freddie said, peeling off tissues from a decorative wooden box. “You had yourself a few too many. Happens to the best of us.”

“Thank you, Freddie.” Joanne sniffled into a tissue.

“Just remember this next time you decide to describe me as melancholy.” She spoke into her purse, through which she was digging for something.

“I’ll remember,” Joanne said. “I got carried away thinking about our night together just now.”

“Which night is that?” Freddie said absently, not grasping it at all.

She got the compact mirror from her purse and handed it to Joanne, who was staring at her with smeary-black eyes, tacitly imploring her to get it. Freddie wasn’t getting it. Joanne opened the compact as though it contained the last clue to the mystery.

“Ohhh,” Freddie said, “that night. I see. It hadn’t occurred to me we were in this territory now. But go on. What about it?”

“Well, I’ve never experienced anything like it,” Joanne said, wiping dark goop away from her eyes with new ease provided by the mirror, stretching her face as she did, making more surface area.

“I can only begin to imagine,” Freddie said, sipping at the very last of a gin and tonic diluted by mostly melted ice. “And I don’t mind imagining one bit.”

“But here we are in the comfort of your lovely home. Warm and cozy. And that beautiful man is locked away in a cell for saving a little girl’s life. And that wicked old Sheriff Mills will almost definitely be reelected come spring. What sort of a world do we live in, Freddie?”

“A cruel one,” Freddie said, polishing off every last watery drop to avoid fixing another. “A cruel, nasty world that keeps us coming back for the occasional moment of heartbreaking majesty.”

“Yes,” Joanne said, putting the mirror down with a deep sigh. “I had such a moment like that once. Haven’t had one since. Haven’t needed it.”

“He was that wonderful, wasn’t he?”

Joanne didn’t answer with words but with a quiet look of peaceful satisfaction.

“I’ve watched him play that guitar on several occasions,” Freddie said. “I always knew those hands and fingers were something very special.”

The two friends gradually began smiling and after that giggling. When they settled, Freddie asked, “Where do you suppose Booker got the name Honeybee?”

“I always heard he learned to play guitar from the Texas bluesman, Nectar Rollins.”

“He was drawn to Nectar, so to speak?”

“Yes. That’s it.” Joanne had a satisfying, reflective breath. “But, personally, I suspect it’s because he’s so sweet, but he will sting.”




Deputies Barton and Hughes went over to Mills’ place around ten the next morning. He hadn’t shown up for work by then and that was too late for Mills, even with a bad hangover. They had arrived with Alka-Seltzer and Bayer aspirin expecting to find the boss in bad shape.

They did.

“I guess he won’t be needing these.” Barton’s fingers opened up lily-style to display the aforementioned emollients.

Hughes was doubled over puking eggs over easy into the sheriff’s kitchen sink. The gore was way beyond anything either officer had encountered in his brief career in small town law enforcement. The smell that went with it blended spoiled meat with hot copper. Hughes’ partially digested breakfast was nowhere near its redolent rival.

Barton adopted an analogy on the spot that would serve the department well in gently conveying the brutality of the situation.

“Sort of like a jack-o’-lantern all smashed on November first,” he said.

Mayor Buchanan pointed out shortly thereafter that “a jack-o’-lantern doesn’t tend to leave behind a headless carcass.”

Still, folks seemed to understand what Barton meant by the vandalized pumpkin example. You could see it in the wincing and grimacing and hear it in the groaning of a person upon making the visual connection.

Someone had barreled through the backdoor of Mills’ house and bludgeoned him well past the point of his demise until the bone and tissue that had once composed his face and hair and skull and brain were pulverized and spattered and smeared from the edge of his living area through the dining nook onto the caramel and bear-brown linoleum kitchen floor.

Shards of flesh, tendon and muscle dangled from the open gullet along with a piece of brain stem.




A strangely long time passed before anyone noticed the grip marks on the two bars of the cell once occupied by Booker Honeybee Wallace. It was more than a year after his release. That had taken weeks due in part to the murder of Sheriff Mills and the ensuing investigation that was further protracted after state officials took over the jurisdiction following a brief street fight with acting Sheriff Lorne Hughes.

Freddie, Joe and Joanne put together Booker’s bail, which had taken more time than legally allowed to set in the first place and to process in the second. The bail itself was set insanely high for reasons that were obviously racial to anyone half awake at the time, as the dubious word of Caroline Davenport was the only thing propping up the bogus charge.




They moved to New York City in the middle of a snowstorm. Joanne had been there before; Booker had not. He had traveled back and forth across the south and southwest as a trucker. He had been to Atlanta, New Orleans, Dallas, Albuquerque, Phoenix and Los Angeles. There was no place like Gotham.

“It’s usually not this quiet,” she told him as they held hands near the ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center.

A few prying glances came their way from the ice, white parents skating with their kids, but they were quickly averted in self-policing moral pretense. For the most part, big-city folks didn’t seem to care much about a white woman and a black man going together. Those who did kept it politely to themselves in cosmopolitan 1971.

There were neighborhoods they couldn’t visit in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, but most of Manhattan island from SoHo to Harlem was safe, albeit crowded, with plenty of covert racial prejudice. The biggest difference was people minding their own business. As many people who came to New York City chasing fame and fortune, there were just as many who came for invisibility. With so many others crowding the spotlight, there was plenty of room in the shadows.

Joanne sold her property and most of her things. The decision had been made easily and swiftly. Of course, Freddie had been the person she told first.

Her old friend had teared up immediately and said, “I really cannot wait to come visit you in New York City.”

Joe held back tears handing Booker his last paycheck. It took so much clinching he gave himself the hiccups. They parted with a handshake and a tacit understanding. There was nothing to be said mostly because what needed saying was the kind of thing didn’t fit into words. Of course Joe was welcome anytime but they both knew he’d never get around to making the trip up north. There on the porch of the shop was the last time the two men would look each other in the eye.

Felicia Rollins happened by on her bicycle as Joe and Booker wrapped up. She pedaled slowly in a white dress with yellow flowers and white sandals worn with dainty white ankle socks. She was a grown woman dressed like a girl riding a pink bicycle with a banana seat. People wondered was there something wrong with Felicia. She didn’t say much. She picked up her groceries once a week along with a new paperback. Usually she read romance but sometimes adventures or mysteries. Lately she’d been getting into scarier novels. Tragedies with dark, supernatural themes. She stared at Booker as she passed them. No smile or clear show of any emotion. The two of them had been inseparable as kids and then suddenly become estranged. Joe caught her looking and nodded politely as she turned away. He got chills. Felicia wasn’t sorry to see Booker go. She was afraid of him.

The last time she had been with Booker he had terrified her beyond imagination. He had saved both their lives but left her fearing him more than the men who would have killed them. The same men who had killed others who looked like them. She never spoke to him again and only ever looked at him in that way that said how could you. Felicia Rollins was Booker’s first heartbreak. Nectar may have taught him the blues but it was Felicia who gave it to him in the first place.




Joanne had no idea how to make a living because she had never needed to. Jack’s pension and life insurance had kept her afloat just fine and then came the inheritance from her folks who had both passed away young, a fact that may have consciously or subconsciously influenced her sudden decision to relocate. Joanne had one brother, Mason, who had moved his wife and three children to Houston years earlier. They split their inheritance right down the middle with no fuss.

Otherwise, it turned out there was plenty of money to be made in New York and the northern cities generally if you could sing and play guitar. Booker did both extremely well, and the more time he spent singing and playing, the better he got. Plus, there was work building guitars at a factory in Queens.

They rented for a while and then bought an apartment on West 96th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway in which they lived the rest of their lives together.

Charles Mingus had married Sue Graham several years earlier, paving the way for mixed-race couples in the music world. Booker and Joanne found themselves embraced by Harlem and Greenwich Village, where Jimi Hendrix had lived and built a studio and also dated white women out in the open. His recent passing seemed ever present in the hearts and minds of Villagers, as did his music blasting out of open apartment windows, pubs and cafes celebrating open air as the weather warmed.

Booker and Joanne weren’t controversial in the Village. They were hip. Miscegenation was en vogue.

“Are you happy?” she asked him one afternoon strolling through Washington Square Park. It was their first spring.

Booker kind of smirked at her. “I wish I’d moved here twenty years ago. I have no idea why I stayed in the south.”

“Me neither.”

“I suppose I just couldn’t picture anything else at the time.”

One night three kids pulled a stickup on a side street in Harlem. It was late after a gig Booker had played backing up a young soul singer at the Apollo. Middle class people with money were headed off from the theater on foot in all directions. Stickup kids knew an opportunity when they saw one.

Joanne felt Booker’s fist tighten in her hand and she held his arm still with everything she had. He would have had to throw her off. While he could have easily, she knew he would never.

“If we give you the money we have,” she said to the biggest of the three kids, one of the two holding knives, “will you please leave us be?”

The kid had put on a fierce face to begin with, going by what he had learned from someone else who had been a stickup kid before him. Put on that serious, threatening face like a mask to intimidate right off the bat, gnashing his teeth and tilting his head back, aiming his chin and squinting through slits.

But Joanne hadn’t sounded afraid when she spoke or had any hint of fear in her eyes. It was obvious, at least to the leader of the crew, that she was very concerned about avoiding some kind of incident. She was concerned for the three of them rather than afraid for herself or her man.

The mask made of sneering and gnashing teeth fell off. His expression softened.

“Yeah,” he said with a sort of relief in his voice. “Lemme have what you got. And don’t play. Gimme all of it.”

They took the loot and left as promised. Booker and Joanne stood for a moment, giving themselves a breather and the stickup kids some distance. She squeezed his hand as residual adrenaline shot through her system. It would be a minute until that settled down. Maybe several.

“Well, that was expensive,” Booker said, after the kids were long gone.

He had been flush from his piece of the door. Joanne, however, only had a little walking-around money. She was entitled to two free drinks for being Booker’s guest at the venue. She knew better than to walk around with more cash than she needed and besides, the kids had been pleasantly surprised by the generous and hassle-free payday.

“I disagree,” she said with the prompting eyes she used to give Freddie, imploring her to find the answer on her own without making a polite southern girl say something untoward out loud.

Booker’s eyes shifted up and back as he made the connection. “No, you’re right.”