Deborah Johnson’s first novel, The Air Between Us, received the Mississippi Library Association Award for fiction. She grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, where she attended a Catholic girls’ school. She went on to attend Lone Mountain College, which now forms part of the University of San Francisco. She lived for nearly two decades in Rome, Italy, where she worked as a translator and an editor, as well as at Vatican Radio. After returning to the United States, she became executive director of a small charitable foundation in the South. She now lives and writes in Columbus, Mississippi.
Excerpt from The Secret of Magic
Penguin Random House
Imprint: Berkley Trade Paperback Reprint
© Deborah Johnson 2015
Excerpt from Chapter 2
“…Two boys, one girl. Two white, one black. I guess that was part of the scandal, the mixing up of these children. It’s not how we think of the South. It’s certainly not how the South thinks of itself. But I guess the unsolved murder played its part as well. In the book’s popularity, I mean.”
“You guess?” Thurgood wrinkled his forehead, pulled his glasses back up to it. “A children’s book with killing in it?”
“His—” She stopped and corrected herself. “Her novel was about children, and I read it first when I was a child. But it wasn’t really for us. I wouldn’t say that.”
“You sure know a lot about it.”
Regina had the grace to blush. “Some I remembered. I called over to the public library, and they told me the rest.”
How could she explain The Secret of Magic to Thurgood, all it had meant to her and the spell it had cast? How she had lain, night after night, in her young girl’s bed, curled up under blankets and quilts. Her hand clutching tight to a heavy aluminum flashlight. Her eyes racing words across the page. Her heart rat‑tat‑tatting against her ribs. Her mind desperate to find out what happened next.
Three children. A dead man. A wide-open forest.
Now Regina wondered if she still had it. She wondered if it had been packed up, like everything else, like her mother had been, like she had been, and carted to their new home, Dr. Sam’s brownstone, smack in the middle of Harlem’s lovely Edgecombe Avenue.
“It was a very involving novel,” she said to Thurgood.
She realized how pompous she sounded when he threw back his head and laughed. And this time she laughed with him, tentatively at first, and then until tears started. The laughter was a relief.
“Did Ida Jane get involved with it?” Thurgood wanted to know. “The book, I mean.”
Regina shook her head. “Early on, M.P. Calhoun calls Lemon, her hero ,a ‘black Nimrod.’ Mama didn’t care that Nimrod was in the Bible, even though I told her it was. She said it was a demeaning and antiquated way of describing a colored man and she had no intention of continuing on with any book in which that word was used. You know how she is.”
Again, the laughter. “Sounds like Ida Jane. But you did read it.”
“I read everything back then, even cereal boxes, and Mama always kept huge piles of books for her and for me. Library books, mostly—that’s all we could afford—but when I heard about this one, I wanted it right away. It took me a month to save up, but I got it. I read it straight through first, then immediately took it up again and reread a little each day. I did that for a long time.”
“It certainly caused a ruckus. Murder and Mayhem. Threatened Miscegenation.” Thurgood’s eyes twinkled. “A wonder M.P. Calhoun didn’t see herself in trouble, living in Mississippi and writing stuff like that. Such a sensation… I wonder why it never got out she was a woman before?”
“Maybe timing,” speculated Regina. “As I recall, Magic came out in the spring of 1929—I was maybe eight—no, nine. Six months later the stock market fell, then came the Depression. After that was the war. All of this could have moved her out of the limelight, if that’s what she wanted. Still, who knows?I imagine that book made a lot of money for her. Everybody in my school was reading it back then, and mine was a Catholic school, so most of the kids in it were white. As I remember, it was banned in six of the old cotton states,including her own, and banning always seems to help sales. People get curious. I imagine M.P. Calhoun wouldn’t have actually needed to produce another. And it seems like she didn’t.”
Thurgood cocked his head.
Regina said, “I called Walter Winchell’s office over at the Daily Mirror. Somebody was there on a Saturday. With a gossip column like his, turns out Saturday’s their biggest day. This somebody called out to somebody else and came back saying that after that first book, M.P.Calhoun never wrote another word. Or at least another one that’s been published. She seems to have just disappeared into thin air. Of course they said ‘he,’ as in ‘he disappeared.’ I didn’t correct them.”
“Lots of people read tha tMagic book. There might stillbe a curiosity about him—about her. A curiosity that, maybe, she wouldn’t welcome. I thought it best not to put Winchell’s office on the scent—at least not yet.”
Curiosity got the better of Thurgood for a moment. “Well, who did it? That book murder, I mean.”
“You never find out,” said Regina, thinking quickly back. “They get close, but the children—they’re in the forest all alone. At night. Next thing you know, the sheriff turns up and maybe a parent or two.”
“How’d they find them, the children? How’d the parents know where to look?”
It was hard to remember all of it now, but at least some of it was coming back to her.
“Daddy Lemon,” said Regina. “I think he knew where they were and alerted somebody.”
“See, what did I tell you?” exclaimed Thurgood, triumphant. “Your mama was right. Sidling up to white folks like that…That man was nothing but an Uncle Tom hiding himself out behind a Daddy Lemon face.”
It wasn’t like that. But Regina thought the better part of valor at this moment might be to let the matter slide.
“Interesting,” said Thurgood.
But there were a lot of interesting things in this life, and probably a good many of them were waiting for him on this desk right now. He’d already stuck his reading glasses on his forehead. Now he reached a hand up to pull them all the way off.
“The thing is,” Regina said quickly, “you know about Joe Howard Wilson, too.”
She took up the envelope, pulled out the newspaper clippings, and asked, “MayI?” When Thurgood nodded, she walked over to his desk, cleared a small space, and laid out the slurry of articles that had accompanied M.P. Calhoun’s cryptic communication.
She had numbered everything, except the note itself, with the same deep blue ink with which she had written on her letter paper. But foolscap was not vellum. Inkbled into the cheap paper like blood flowed into veins. It sieved into snatches snipped from the Afro-American out of Thurgood’s hometown of Baltimore; TheNegro Voice from Tulsa, Oklahoma; Pittsburgh’s Courier; three differently dated issues of Jackson, Mississippi’s Black Leader; and four of the Revere, Mississippi, Fair Dealer. This last was printed on the thinnest paper of all. Altogether, there were nineseparate stories. Regina had counted. She laid them out in chronological order. Their emboldened headlines reminded her of the beginning outlines of a novel, a tale.
“Negro papers. We’ll print on anything,” said Thurgood. He glanced over at the vellum envelope. “Not like M.P.Calhoun.”
He’d put his glasses back on his nose and come up beside her. He took the top clipping, held it high. Even though the light was dim, they could see the whole of his office through it chairs, books, unfinished legal briefs. And not just vague outlines but colors, too, everything captured by the black‑and‑white tragedy of what had happened to Lieutenant Joe Howard Wilson on his way home from war.
The clipping he held was from The Chicago Defender. It was dated January 15, 1946, almost ten months earlier, and was bylined by one Charles John Steptoe. Everybody at the Fund knew who Charles John Steptoe was, and a fortunate few actually knew him, although Regina didn’t. He was a journalist famed for flamboyant folksiness and for what he himself immodestly called “a certain grandiloquent way with a word. ”His specialty was the nascent area of Negro civil rights.
Thurgood said, “Lots of folks from Mississippi in Chicago now. Black people been going up there since before the Great Flood of ’27; by now it’s taken on almost the magnetic appeal of a Promised Land. The Defender sells a lot of papers when it prints a Mississippi story. Folks want to keep up with what’s happening in their home‑town. Let’s read what Mr. Steptoe has to say for himself.”
Revere, Mississippi, January 1946
The illustrious product of a one‑room Rosenwald Colored Children’s School in Revere, Mississippi, Joe Howard Wilson went on to the Revere Colored High School (two rooms this time), and from there to a private Negro institute in North Carolina. He graduated Morehouse College in Atlanta with Honors at the age of 19. It was Judge Charles Pickett Calhoun, his father’s employer, who reportedly paid for this stellar education. I call it “stellar” because I am a proud Morehouse Man myself.
Lt. Wilson participated in ROTC in college and, fulfilling his patriotic duty, signed up early in the war for the Army. It goes without saying that he served in a segregated unit, as all units for our colored soldiers were segregated and still are. Trained in Alabama, he was sent to Italy, where he distinguished himself and rapidly rose to the rank of 1st lieutenant.
He received the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism at the Battle of Castel Aghinolfi, where many of the men in his platoon were killed, including his best friend, L.C. Hoover with whom he had roomed at Morehouse. Lt. Wilson was honorably discharged from the Army just after V. E. Day. Still in his decorated uniform, he landed in New York and took a train straight from there to Richmond, another to Atlanta, and then yet another from Atlanta to Birmingham, Alabama. In Birmingham he boarded a Bonnie Blue Line inter‑state bus ultimately bound for Aberdeen, Mississippi. He got off it once in Tuscaloosa and again in Aliceville, where he made a call home to his father on the public telephone because he had promised to do this. Lt. Wilson paid for the call himself. Aliceville is some thirty miles from Revere, Mississippi, just over the statel ine. After making that call, Joe Howard got back on that bus, rode off in it. And disappeared… for two weeks.
Eventually his body was found floating facedown in the Tombigbee River. My sources tell me it was obvious this decorated war hero had been beaten and perhaps tortured before his body was dumped. Naturally, there was an out‑cry. But the coroner of Jefferson‑Lee County said the body’d been in the water too long for him to make what he called “anything near a determination as to cause of death.” Said he couldn’t be certain. And the judge had all kinds of excuses why it took him so long to pull together a grand jury. If there was no cause of death, then how could a grand jury decide that an actual crime had been committed? And if a crime hadn’t been committed, then how could it indict anybody for committing that crime?
And that, my friends, was the sad end of that.
Other clippings told much the same tale.
Negro Veteran Found Floating in the Tombigbee River!
1946 AND CAN THIS CRIME GO UNPUNISHED—EVEN IN MISSISSIPPI?
The Revere Fair Dealer demanded to know this—in twenty‑four‑point bold type.
“I guess it can,” said Thurgood. He stared at her.
Regina stared back. They were both thinking of her father, of Oscar Robichard, of what had happened to him, and she knew it. “There’s nothing about lynching in any of this. It seems like Joe Howard was beaten to death, then thrown in the river. That’s what I read.” This distinction was important to her. She thought of the picture in her pocket—the old colored man and the young colored man, leaning close into each other, smiling. She lowered her hand into her jacket and ran her fingers along the snapshot’s jaggededge. Her face hardened. She didn’t want what had happened to her daddy to have happened to this young man. And what had happened to her mama and to her, the “survivors”—she didn’t want this to have happened to Joe Howard’s proudly beaming daddy. More than anything else, she didn’t want that.
“Not hanged,” she repeated. “Beaten.”
A breeze rattled the shade at the window. Regina loosened her grip on the snapshot. Eased her fingers away, aching and stiff.
“Only two articles more,” she said, and her voice was steady, her tone a lawyer’s balanced one.
The first of these had been clipped from something called The Revere Times Commercial. Then ewsstock was good. No Negro, no Afro-American, no Colored, no Black in the title. It was not one of theirs. The Times Commercial seemed to be a general‑interest newspaper owned, edited, and published by, they read, one Mister Jackson E. Blodgett. The Mister had not been left to conjecture. It had been fully spelled out and writ large just beneath the masthead.
“Thinks well of himself,” said Thurgood, “but I never heard of him.”
From the looks of it, this particular piece of news had found a home deep within the recorded comings and goings of Revere, Mississippi. The small one‑inch‑by‑one‑inch notice had been attached onto the newspaper’s title page with a single straight pin. It looked like something you actually might find hidden in the forgotten backend of a paper, dropped in among ads for twenty‑five‑cent house dresses a tKresge’s and church notices and a sale on children’s shoes at the local TG&Y. Mary Pickett Calhoun had used her blue ink to underline the date.
The Jefferson‑Lee County Grand Jury, called in this State of Mississippi ruled January 18,1946, that the Negro whose body was found floating in the Tombigbee River last October met with the adventure of an accident and was drowned.
“So they called one after all.” Thurgood paused. “I wouldn’t have expected that, not in Mississippi. Why, I wonder? Now, that’s intriguing.”
This time it was Regina’s turn to ask why.
“Because the judge must have called the grand jury back into special session,” saidThurgood. “There’s no mention here of any other case and nothing about the mundane things they handle at their regular call‑ups, two ,three times a year—stuff like jail upkeep and forest fire prevention and what’s going on with the tax sessions. There’s nomention of any of that here.”
Regina said,“Do you think this is about Lieutenant Wilson?”
Her boss whistled through his teeth. “Who else? First thing you got to learn about down there is they don’t ever call a colored person by his rightful name in a white newspaper. Most they ever write is ‘auntie’ or ‘uncle’—and that’s just when some old auntie and uncle’s perfected living a perfect God‑Fearing, and especially White‑Folk‑Fearing, life. This is surely Joe Howard Wilson they’re talking about. Why else would that Calhoun dame have included it?Dates matchup, too. He disappeared off that bus in October 1945. The grand jury came back January 1946. That makes sense.What doesn’tmake sense is why this is all being sent to us now,so long after the fact. If this M.P. Calhoun cared so much, why didn’t she get in touch back when we might actually have been able to do something?”
Regina said, “There’s one more. It’s the last.”
This, too, was from The Revere Times Commercial. It had been front‑page news on October 8,1946, just the week before. BothRegina and Thurgood bent close to read about a fire in someplace called the Bottoms. The house—“destroyed beyond knowing”—had belonged to a Mr. Jackson Blodgett, whose official residence was listed as 600 Main Streetin Revere, where he lived with his wife, Mae Louise Wynne Blodgett, and his twenty‑three‑year‑old son, Wynne Vardaman Blodgett. The burned structure had been something called a “homeplace.” Neither Thurgood nor Regina had any idea what a homeplace was.
But for whatever reason, its blazing seemed to have caused quite a stir. The fire department had been called out, and the police and the sheriff, even though the flames themselves had been quickly extinguished. Not a total loss, the Times Commercia lreassured its readership. For his part, Mister Blodgett expressed nothing but praise for the efficient carrying out of duty on the part of all concerned. He and his wife would be eternally grateful, he added, in print. Indeed, a barbecue had been hastily organized for the firemen—all volunteer—the policemen, the sheriff, his deputies, their wives, and their children at what appeared to be yet another Blodgett residence, “Magnolia Forest, their magnificent plantation on the Black Prairie.”
Regina looked up. “Magnolia Forest? That’s in The Secret of Magic.”
“Hey, look at this,” Thurgood said. He pointed to a half‑page ad, taped to Joe Howard’s small notice.
NATHAN BEDORD FORREST “BED” DUVAL V
DISTRICT COURT JUDGE
A NAME KNOWN AND TRUSTED IN REVERE FOR YEARS
“I wonder if it’s just a coincidence,” Thurgood said, “this being included.”
“Strange she’d send a political advert along when she could have just as easily omitted it. Especially since she doesn’t seem that interested in our actually coming at all.”
Regina reached over to pick up the vellum envelope again and there was a ladybug on it, fat and speckled. Maybe it had crept out of the letter. She thought she’d actually seen it doing this—just barely, out of the corner of her eye. But could this be possible?The ladybug made her think again of M.P. Calhoun’s book, The Secret of Magic, with its hidden portal forest, with its cunning, dark animals, with those two old, old ladies who lived there alone, with the brother who had once lived with them, and with those three children who had set out to find him. Or what was left of him. Regina watched as the ladybug spread its wings, trying them out in the stillness of Thurgood’s office. She moved her hand away very slowly, and closed her eyes. When she opened them again, the ladybug had disappeared.
“I want to go there.”
Shocking words. Shocking even to Regina. This was not what she had planned to say to Thurgood . . .