My memories of growing up in a small Southern town are colored in the vibrant hues of love, fellowship and camaraderie, the earthy tones of upturned field rows and split fire wood, the crisp whites of the First Baptist church and linens on the clothes line, but those memories are also tinged of the dark purples and reds of regret.
Like many small towns, we had a mysterious character for the children to fear and be cruel to. Ours was a black man who walked the streets, limping; his body and face covered with white-pink scars, his lips contorted and eyebrows gone so that his face was in a constant expression of disgusted surprise.
We ran from him, yelled after him and the nastier kids threw things at him. We joked that he would come for us on Halloween and images of him haunted us when dusk caught us on our bikes. We called him Bartow.
His presence is a constant in the backdrop of my childhood memories as steady as the two separate waiting rooms at Dr. Grainger’s office and two sets of bathrooms at the barbeque restaurant.
I hadn’t thought much of Bartow in years – whether from growing out of the irrational fear or whether perhaps our ridicule had driven him from public view – when I saw him again the first time. I was in college and had moved back home my senior year. In addition to working at a jewelry store, I also picked up a job at the local tavern as a waitress/bartender/short-order cook depending on the need.
The tavern was host to the good local folk as well as bikers and rednecks, thus, in the alternate universe that is a small Southern town, offered me little threat as a young lady. Southern graces being what they are, reinforcing my own personal safety was Jerry. Jerry was a massive man that had the skills, demeanor and brute force to maintain civility at such an establishment as he was proprietor to.
Reporting to work the Wednesday afternoon of my first week, Jerry piled me up in his beat-up pickup truck to make the rounds to the bank for quarters, the Bi-Rite for celery and margarita mix and so on. When Jerry turned down one of the roads that lead to the borough of shanty houses where the black folks lived I was a little confused. He said we were going to pick up Bartow and didn’t utter one more word about it.
Soon thereafter I learned the story of Bartow (or at least the story as it was told to me) and his subsequent relationship with the owner of the only redneck juke-joint in town. Bartow’s disfigurement fell upon him with the boiling hot grease his young wife had thrown on him in a jealous fit of rage some twenty years before. Disabled and defaced, Bartow’s life as a young newlywed came to a halt and thus began years of torture and embarrassment.
I’m a little fuzzy on this but I think Bartow’s mother was a nanny or did odd jobs for Jerry’s mother so the two boys had a history that dated them right smack dab in the middle of the recently desegregated South of the 1960s. Jerry’s mom raised four kids by herself, working three jobs when his dad walked out on them so the help was a necessity not a luxury.
As it turned out, it was Jerry and Bartow’s routine that Jerry would pick him up, bring him to the bar and then take him home each night. Bartow would sit quietly at the end of the bar, sip beer (on ice with a straw from a Styrofoam cup), have some supper and watch the big screen TV. He was brutally shy and would avoid speaking, much less making eye contact, with anyone. From time to time, someone new would wander into the bar and, not knowing Jerry, of Bartow’s immunity or the history between the two men, would try to call out the black crippled at the bar. Jerry would handle the newcomer, politely at first and if that didn’t work, by the back of his mighty hand.
Whether from my own shame or curiosity or both, I‘m not sure, but I set out to befriend Bartow. For months he wouldn’t speak to me. I deserved his silence but it bore out a hole in my gut and I kept at it. I’d often ride with Jerry to pick him up or take him home, trying all the while to engage him in conversation. I’d bring him clothes I’d steal from my dad’s closet and banana bread from my mom’s kitchen. I’d have his drink ready just the way he liked it as soon as he came through the door and cook extra wings and mozzarella sticks with the customer orders to give to him.
I’m not sure at what point he finally gave in and began a dialog with me but from then on, he and I were fast friends. He had one of the best senses of humor of anyone I’ve ever met and was smart as a whip. On slow nights, he’d sit with me at the bar while I did my homework and we’d ponder the latest theorems and philosophies. We were doing just that the day Princess Diana died and we sat side by side watching the coverage. He cried. I remember wondering how someone who had lived the life he had could feel sorrow for someone so privileged as a princess.
Our friendship forged on until spring came and brought with it my college graduation. Bartow bought me a peace lily. He may have just thought it was nice or made for an appropriate gift but I needed to believe that it came with forgiveness. I haven’t seen Bartow in many, many years — I’m not even sure if he’s still alive — but I will never forget him or the gift he gave me when he decided to let me know him.