When mixed-race brother and sister Ganus and Kathyanne Bazemore move to Estherville, a small Southern town, they’re looking for a fresh start. They don’t know anyone and nobody knows them, but they are two bright, attractive young people looking for work. It doesn’t take long, however, before the two kids are subjected to the worst of the town’s lust, brutality, and bigotry. A gripping story of the pre–civil rights era South, Place Called Estherville offers a candid glimpse of one of America’s most troubling legacies. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Erskine Caldwell including rare photos and never-before-seen documents courtesy of the Dartmouth College Library.
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Place Called Estherville
By Erskine Caldwell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1949 Erskine Caldwell
All rights reserved.
For the time of year it was chilly inside the large, two-storied, white, colonnaded house, but a balmy spring breeze, smelling of dew-damp jasmine, was blowing intermittently through the open windows, and rustling the Sunday paper on the kitchen table. Outside, along both sides of the wide shady street, leafy wateroaks were swaying restlessly with the wind in their branches. Somebody from the country, in a mud-spattered sedan, late for morning services at the Baptist church, drove recklessly down the street and around the corner of the Singfield house.
Sitting at the kitchen table, comfortably at ease, with his arms resting on the white oilcloth and his legs crossed at the ankles, Ganus Bazemore was reading the sixteen-page Sunday Journal comic section for the third time that morning. Ganus was a tall, graceful boy of eighteen with handsome fulvous coloring and closely cropped black hair. He had finished most of his morning work and it was too soon to begin cooking Sunday dinner.
There was a slight disturbance behind him. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Stephena in the doorway. He immediately got to his feet and began to smooth his starched white jacket. He had not expected her to get up on a Sunday morning until time to eat dinner with her parents.
"Good morning, Miss Stephena," he said hurriedly. He fumbled with the top button of his jacket until he had fastened the collar. "I didn't know you'd be up and awake so soon today. I guess I must have let the time slip by."
Stephena leaned against the side of the doorway, an impudent pout on her lips.
"It's a fine day today," Ganus remarked distractedly.
Closing her eyes sleepily, Stephena yawned. Her dark brown hair was still uncombed, and she was wearing partly buttoned yellow silk pajamas and bright red satin slippers. She was a beautiful girl, tall and slender like her mother, with large brown eyes and full red lips. Though only sixteen, she was in her third year at high school, and had been having late dates, with the permission of her parents, since the previous summer, and often she had two or three afternoon car-ride dates on weekends. Her father, Charley Singfield, owned the largest hardware store in town, besides being president of the cottonseed oil mill, and he was wealthy enough to give her just about anything within reason that she and her mother asked for. The Singfield home, inherited from Charley's father, who built the grandiose, white, colonnaded mansion on Greenbriar Street after retiring from plantation cotton farming, was the most imposing structure in Estherville. Frequently, visitors from out of town, who had accidentally glimpsed some of the poverty and squalor of the Negro section in the south side, and who had remarked upon the dilapidated and unsightly shacks and shanties, were driven slowly along Greenbriar Street, and had the Singfield house pointed out to them as being a typical example of the town's fine homes.
Stephena ran her fingers through her tousled dark hair and shook it back from her face with a practiced toss of her head.
"What time is it, Ganus?" she asked in a drowsy voice. "I woke up and couldn't go back to sleep."
Ganus looked up at the kitchen clock on the wall. "It's almost eleven o'clock, Miss Stephena," he said. He watched her with admiring eyes. "You must have stayed out mighty late last night, Miss Stephena. You look awfully sleepy."
She nodded languidly. "I went to a party last night. I didn't get home till nearly three." Placing her hand over her mouth, she yawned again. "I had a wonderful time last night. I went with the nicest boy." She smiled dreamily. "But he's awfully timid."
Ganus looked down at her red satin slippers. He knew she was still looking at him and he felt uncomfortable. He could feel the silence of the huge house ringing in his ears while he tried to think of something to say. He shifted the weight of his body from one foot to the other.
"Your mama and papa have already left for church, Miss Stephena," he told her with sudden thought. "Mr. Charley said they were going to take in everything today, Sunday school and all." He knew she was watching him, and he was unable to resist the urge to look at her. He raised his head, his startled glance met her languid gaze, and he immediately felt a twinge in his throat as he became aware of the familiar manner in which she was regarding him through partly closed eyes. The provocative fluttering of her dark lashes frightened him, but, just as always in the past, he was fascinated by her in spite of his fear. Ever since he had come to work for the Singfields the summer before, when he and his sister, Kathyanne, moved to town from the country to live with Aunt Hazel Teasley after their mother died, he had been under Stephena's spell. Her attitude and demands were usually cruel, but he was helplessly beguiled by her; there were times when she teased him until the torment was more than he thought he could stand, but nevertheless he had always willingly and, sometimes, eagerly endured it. Once she had come into the kitchen hugging a pillow in her arms and dared him with childish audacity to take it away from her. He often wondered what would have happened if he had tussled with her for the pillow. As it happened, though, her mother came home unexpectedly, and Stephena ran upstairs to her room. Ganus swallowed hard and began talking in a hurried flow of words in an effort to conceal his nervousness and apprehension. "Mr. Charley your papa said he didn't go to church often but when he did go he wanted to do a good big job of church-going. He said it might be six months before he went to church again and he wanted to be sure to get enough religion from the preacher to last him all through a hot summer."
He suddenly began wondering why she had come to the kitchen instead of ringing for her breakfast. She was standing in the doorway regarding him in almost exactly the same inciting manner she had the morning she teased him with the pillow. Ganus shifted his weight awkwardly from one foot to the other.
"Is that all Papa said, Ganus?" she asked with a tantalizing smile.
He could feel the discomforting twinge grip his throat once more. He wet his dry lips. He knew she was purposely teasing him, but he did not know how to make her stop.
"Answer me, Ganus," she said with childish insistence.
"Miss Stephena, please don't start talking like that," he begged with a helpless feeling.
"Are you timid, too?"
"Please, Miss Stephena—"
"Then go ahead and answer me."
"If you only wouldn't make me say—"
She stamped her foot impatiently.
"Because you know as well as I do what Mr. Charley your papa said the last time, that's why." He spoke to her more brusquely than he was accustomed to, but he felt that there were some things he had to keep her from talking about.
"What did Papa say, Ganus?" she asked with pretended innocence. "Honest, I've forgotten. What was it about?"
Ganus reached behind him and found the corner of the table for his hand to grip. He realized how helpless he always was when she wanted to torment him.
"You know what Mr. Charley said he'd do to me if—if—if I didn't stay plumb-square in my place. Please, Miss Stephena, don't make trouble for me. I want to go as long as I live without that awful kind of trouble. It's bad enough just being a colored boy with the white folks all around, so please don't try to make it worse for me, Miss Stephena. I always want to do right. It's the only sure way for a colored boy to get along in this world and stay out of trouble. You know that, Miss Stephena, don't you?"
He hoped she would say something, because he wanted her assurance that no matter how much she teased him, she would not get him into trouble. She watched him with an amused expression until he turned abruptly and began busily preparing breakfast for her. She waited confidently until he suddenly looked at her with a darted glance of anxiety.
"Ganus—" she began in a slow, insinuating drawl.
Ganus turned his back and began talking in a loud tone, hoping to keep her from going any further. "Miss Stella your mama said to make you a fine fluffy omelet if you got up in time for breakfast and fix a lot of brown toast with heaps of butter and—"
He suddenly stopped when he heard the click of her high-heeled slippers on the kitchen floor. It was only a moment before she was standing beside him.
"I won't eat a messy old omelet, Ganus," she told him. "I want scrambled eggs in cream with fresh tomatoes cut up in them, and plenty of bacon."
Ganus looked at her with an uneasy feeling. "But Miss Stella told me to be sure and fix the omelet and I always want to do just exactly what your mama tells me."
"You heard what I said, didn't you, Ganus Bazemore?" she spoke out in a severe tone of discipline. "Aren't you going to do everything I tell you to do?"
"Yes, ma'am," he replied apologetically.
"Then do what I tell you and quit talking back to me like that. Who do you think you are? I don't stand for it one instant! Do you understand, Ganus?"
"Yes, ma'am, I understand, Miss Stephena," he said, nodding solemnly and going to the range.
A moment later she was again standing close to him and looking up into his face while he broke three eggs and began stirring them in a mixing bowl. He tried not to let his eyes meet hers, and she jerked the bowl from his hands and dropped it carelessly on the table. Then she turned to him with an ingratiating smile.
"Don't you like to do what I tell you, Ganus?" she asked. Her voice was low and intimate, and he could feel a weakness overcoming the strength in the muscles of his arms and legs. She had come so close to him that he could smell the familiar, enjoyably sweetish aroma of her body and he was entranced by the rhythmical rise and fall of her girlish breasts in the deep opening of her pajamas. "Don't you now, Ganus?" she asked persistently in the same ingratiating manner.
He stepped back, wetting his dry lips. He had become so distracted by the sight and smell of her that he could not remember what she was so insistently asking.
"Ganus!" she reminded him sharply.
"What—what did you say, Miss Stephena?" he asked in confusion.
"I said, don't you always want to do what I tell you, Ganus?"
"Miss Stephena, you know I always want to do exactly what you tell me," he assured her earnestly. "I always try to do that."
She turned away with a provocative movement of her hips and sat down on the edge of the kitchen table. After that she began swinging her feet back and forth.
"Ganus, what else did Papa say?"
"That's all Mr. Charley said. He didn't have to say more. He said plenty."
She threw back her head and laughed at him. Her swinging feet became a dazzling reddish blur in his eyes. It sounded as if her laughter were filling the whole house with a mocking echo.
"Are you scared, Ganus?" she asked presently.
He drew a deep breath before he could answer her. "I sure am, Miss Stephena. I want to mind my own business, like a colored house boy ought to, and not get myself in any kind of trouble. I've made up my mind about that."
"What are you scared of?"
"Of just exactly what I know deep in my bones I ought to be scared of, that's what."
"Are you scared of me?"
Ganus did not answer her.
Her feet moved faster under the table.
"I don't know what you mean, Ganus. You won't say what you're scared of. How am I to know?"
"Miss Stephena, you're telling a whopping big fib. You know just as well as I do."
She laughed at him and sat up erectly. The bright red satin slippers became motionless.
"Look at me, Ganus. Don't you think I'm attractive?"
He nodded almost immediately with a nervous jerky motion of his head. For a long time all he could see were her large brown eyes wavering before him, while confused thoughts tumbled through his mind. "You sure are pretty, Miss Stephena," he heard the strange sound of his own voice. He was surprised and frightened by the thoughts that raced through him, but he could not drive them away. "You're the prettiest girl there is. I never saw anybody so pretty before. I wish the Good Man had—had—"
"Had what, Ganus?" she spoke up quickly bending her body forward. Her shoulders twitched almost imperceptibly. "Had what, Ganus? Tell me. I've got to know."
He felt a cold dampness on his forehead and when he looked down at his hands, he could see tiny beads of perspiration breaking through the skin.
"I wish you wouldn't tease me about that—about things that can't be helped," he said, pleading with her. "It's not right, Miss Stephena. It's not right at all."
She thrust one of her feet forward and gazed musingly at the bright red satin. After a while she tossed back her tousled brown hair and looked straight at him.
"Ganus, what would you do if—if we were both the same?"
He knew at once what she meant. Shaking his head, he looked away from her and at the shady street outside the window.
"Have you ever thought about it?" she asked.
He shook his head determinedly.
"You have, though, haven't you, Ganus?"
This time he tried to pretend that he had not heard her.
"I've thought about it," she continued persistently. "You have, too. I know you have."
"Please, Miss Stephena," he pleaded, "don't make me say that."
She leaned farther over the edge of the table. "I won't tell anybody," she promised solemnly. "Cross my heart!"
Ganus swallowed nervously. "I wish you wouldn't talk like that, Miss Stephena. Or make me talk about it, neither. You oughtn't to. The last time you asked me that, I told you a boy like me oughtn't be opening his mouth about some things. It can make the worst kind of trouble there is. I sure don't want to get myself in that kind of awful trouble. I've heard of colored boys letting white people get them in trouble, and I don't want it happening to me. I want to stay as far away from bad trouble as the Good Man will let me. That's what I want to do as long as I live. Now, don't ever say that to me again. You keep quiet about that."
Her face flushed with anger. There was a tightening of the lines of her firmly compressed lips.
"I didn't think you'd dare talk back to me like that."
"I didn't mean it to sound that way at all, Miss Stephena," he tried to explain. "I was only saying what I was worried about. You know I wouldn't talk back to you."
"Stand on your head, Ganus," she commanded.
He had always done everything she told him to do. Many times while washing dishes or making beds or sweeping the floor he would wonder what she would order him to do when she came home from school in the afternoon. He had come to look forward to obeying her impulsive whims, no matter how absurd or difficult, and he always felt deprived of the opportunity to do something to please her when she stayed out late and did not come home until dark. There had been times when she made him skin-the-cat in the garage until he dropped exhausted to the floor; there had been other times when she would tell him to weave pins under his skin until the calloused palms of both hands or the soles of his feet looked as if they had been coated with shiny metal. She frequently thought of something new or difficult for him to do, but no matter how cruel or painful her demands were, he had always tried his best to do what she told him. This was the first time she had ever ordered him to stand on his head, and he wondered if that was because she had never happened to think of it before. He tried to recall how long it had been since he had stood on his head, and at the same time he was hoping he would be able to do it.
"I said, stand on your head, Ganus Bazemore!" she told him imperiously. "Didn't you hear me?"
He nodded and went to the center of the kitchen and lowered his hands to the floor. He did not look directly at Stephena, but he could watch her red satin slippers swinging under the table. He placed his head on the floor between his outspread hands and hurled his legs upward toward the ceiling. At first he almost lost his balance, but after frantically kicking his feet several times he was surprised to find how easy it was for him to stay on his head. He did not know how much time had passed when he felt himself becoming dizzy. He waited, hoping Stephena would hurry and tell him that he could put his feet down, and when she jumped off the table and walked past him to the door, he felt himself losing his balance and he hastily lowered his feet to the floor. He crouched on his knees until the dizzy sensation went away, and then, feeling proud of what he had accomplished, he slowly stood upright. It was then that Stephena ran to him and slapped his face as hard as she could.
Excerpted from Place Called Estherville by Erskine Caldwell. Copyright © 1949 Erskine Caldwell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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