Meeting Mr. Nathan: An Excerpt
Louis stood at the head of the alley. Tents stretched as far he could see. Their flaps hung limp. It was hot. On the train down, two women had fainted and on the wagon ride over to the tent city his bowler had gathered a pocketful of dust. They had followed a high ridge that had stayed above water.
The land behind him was still dark with water stains even in the high summer heat. A dark line in the bowl of the ridge showed where the water had its high point. It had probably given the people in the tents some tense moments. The water was run off now, gone back to the Mississippi. The river was somewhere off beyond the stand of trees on the horizon. The paper said it should be back in its banks in ten days or so. There was no big rain in the forecast. The people would be moving out of the tent city and going back to their homes soon. What was there still, what would be wet and sodden. That sun would bake them dry though.
“Come on, Lou, he’s down this way.”
His cousin Alex set off down the aisle, counting tents as he went. Louis walked slowly behind him. No sense in working up too big a sweat when the sun was up high. He didn’t think there was going to be a beer down the end of the tent row, and a slug of whiskey always made him sweat harder. It was like pouring oil on a fire.
Alex was lean and shiny, like a new mint penny. He was just twenty-two and buzzing with ideas. This latest one was a big one. That’s why they were tromping down the tent row in the mid-day heat of high summer. Louis would rather be setting out back in the house by the river in Little Rock watching the big boats wander down the Arkansas River and wait for the breeze to tumble down from the high bluffs on the far bank.
“This is the one,” Alex said.
He rapped on the wood post that split the front in two. The flap was pulled back. The inside was dark. A man waved to them. “Come on in boys.”
Louis had to bend to clear the entrance-way. In the tent he could just stand straight. His head brushed against the hot canvas. Three men sat in the dim light around a campaign table. A gallon bottle sat in the center.
“Want a drink, boys?”
Alex sat down on a trunk pulled out by the side of canvas.
“Sure thing, Mr. Nathan,” he said.
“What about you, big fella? Like moonshine?”
Louis nodded. He eased himself down next to Alex. The man lifted up a mason jar from behind his chair, rubbed its lip with the inside of his shirt and poured a long draught of the clear liquid.
“You boys don’t mind sharing, do you?”
Louis reached out for the jar. His arms were longer, so he figured he would take it first. He took a long drink. The liquor was rough, rot-gut. It burned the back of his mouth and throat. He felt a warm rush in his blood. He handed the jar to Alex.
“Good?” the man asked.
“Rough,” Louis said.
The men laughed.
“Rough is what it is. Rough is what we’ve got here in the tent city. Can’t expect the fine stuff you city boys are used to. That’s the way it is.”
Nathan looked like a farmer. He looked like a man who had been outdoors a lot and wasn’t surprised by very much that happened around him. He didn’t have the air of somebody who wanted to give anything away, and he didn’t seem to have much interest in other people.
Alex said that he had a good way for making money. Louis figured that making money gave the man a reason for caring about people, at least as much as he needed to so that he could make the money, and that looking like a farmer made is easier to get the folk who were farmers to trust him.
Louis took another draught of the moonshine. The two men sitting with Nathan looked like they hadn’t moved for a long time. One was big, the other was a little bigger, and Louis wondered if they were muscle or if they were just men who didn’t have to move very much to get what they needed.
The men sipped at their mason jars. They didn’t share.
“We heard that you’re signing men on,” Alex said.
Nathan didn’t say anything.
Louis felt the sweat gathering on the band of his bowler. It was hot inside the tent. The sun wasn’t beating down like it was outside, but the air wasn’t moving. He debated for a second whether to take the bowler off or leave it on. If he took it off, the sweat would likely run down the sides of his face and the road dust would cake on his face. If he left it on, the sweat was eventually going to seep out like water wrung from a sponge. He figured it was better to leave it on.
“We’d be interested in the positions, if what we hear is true. We’re hungry for good work and would like to latch on with you,” Alex continued.
“You’re Will Roger’s boy, that right?” Nathan asked. “I’m sorry about what happened with your dad.”
“Thank you, sir,” Alex said.
“How’s your momma been doing in all this?
“She’s done all right, sir. We’ve been bunking with some family up in Little Rock.”
Louis took advantage of the conversation to take his bowler off. He was right about the sweat. It ran down his face, along his jaw and gathered at the point of his chin. He ran his hand across his chin and could feel the grime. His hair was plastered down on his forehead. He was sweating hard. He reached out and took another sip from the mason jar. It was about empty now.
“You’re from good family, young man. What about your friend here.”
“This is my cousin Louis. His dad and mine were brothers. He’s a Rogers too.”
“That a fact. Can you speak for yourself, big fella?”
Louis wiped his hand against the side of his pants and reached out.
“I’m Louis Rogers, Mr. Nathan. I’d sure like to learn more about this electricity deal that you’ve got going on.”