Luther's father, a man he couldn't remember knowing in the flesh, had left the family for East St. Louis when Luther was two. He'd run off with a woman named Velma Standish, and they'd settled here and Timon Laurence had eventually set up a shop that sold and repaired watches. There had been three Laurence brothers--Cornelius, the eldest, and then Hollis, and lastly, Timon. Uncle Cornelius had often told Luther he wasn't missing out on much growing up without Tim around, said his youngest brother had been a man born feckless and weak for women and liquor since about the time he learned what the 2 two were. Threw away a fine woman like Luther's mother for nothing more than junk pussy. (Uncle Cornelius had pined throughout Luther's life for Luther's mother with a love so chaste and patient it couldn't help but be taken for granted and grow, through the years, entirely unremarkable. It was his lot in life, he'd told Luther not long after he'd gone fully blind, to have a heart no one wanted except in pieces and never as a whole, while his youngest brother, a man of no defi n-able principles, culled love to him as easily as if it fell through the rain.)
Luther grew up with a single tin-plated photograph of his father. He'd touched it so many times with his thumbs that his father's features had softened and blurred. By the time Luther grew to manhood there was no way to tell if his own features bore a resemblance. Luther had never told anyone, not his mother or his sister or even Lila, how deep it cut to grow up knowing his father never gave him a thought. That the man had glanced at this life he'd brought into the world and said to himself: I'm happier without it. Luther had long imagined he'd meet him one day and stand before him a proud young man of great promise and watch regret fill his father's face. But it hadn't worked out that way.
His father had died sixteen months ago, along with near a hundred other colored folk while East St. Louis burned around them. Luther got the word from Hollis, the man's block letters looking pained and cramped on a sheet of yellow paper:
Yor Daddy shot ded by white men. Sorry to tell you.
Luther walked out of the freight yard and into downtown as the sky was beginning to darken. He had the envelope Uncle Hollis had sent his letter in with his address scrawled on the back, and he pulled it from his coat and held it in his hand as he walked. The deeper he traveled into the colored section the less he could believe what he saw. The streets were empty, and much of the reason, Luther knew, had to do with the flu, but it was also because there wouldn't seem to be much point to walk streets where all the buildings were either blackened or crumbled or lost forever beneath rubble and ash. It reminded Luther of an old man's mouth, where most of the teeth were missing, a couple broken in half, and the few that remained leaning to the side and useless. Whole blocks were nothing but ash, great piles of it that the early-eve ning breeze blew from one side of the street to the other, just trading it back and forth. So much ash that not even a tornado could have erased it all. Over a year since the neighborhood had burned, and those piles stood tall. On those blown-out streets, Luther felt as if he were surely the last man alive, and he figured that if the Kaiser had managed to send his army across the ocean, with all their planes and bombs and rifles, they couldn't have done more damage.
It had been over jobs, Luther knew, the white working-class folks getting more and more convinced that the reason they were poor was because the colored working-class folks were stealing their jobs and the food off their tables. So they'd come down here, white men and white women and white children, too, and they'd started with the colored men, shooting them and lynching them and setting them afi re and even driving several into the Cahokia River and then stoning them to death when they tried to swim back, a job they'd left mostly to the children. The white women pulled colored women off the streetcars and stoned them and stabbed them with kitchen knives, and when the National Guard came, they just stood around and watched it go on.
July 2, 1917.
"Your daddy," Uncle Hollis said, after Luther showed up at the door of his juke joint and Uncle Hollis took him into the back offi ce and poured him a drink, "was trying to protect that little shop of his never made him a dime. They lit it on fire and called for him to come out and once all four walls were burning down around him, he and Velma came out. Someone shot him in the knee and he lay there on the street for a while. They handed Velma over to some women, and they beat her with rolling pins. Just beat her about the head and face and hips and she die after crawling into an alley, like a dog gone under a porch. Someone come up to your father, and the way I was told, he try to get to his knees, but he can't even do that and he keep tipping over and pleading and finally a couple white men just stand there and shoot him until they run out of bullets."
"Where's he buried?" Luther said.
Uncle Hollis shook his head. "Wasn't nothing to bury, son. They got done shooting him, they picked him up, one on each end, and they tossed him back into his own store."
Luther got up from the table and went over to a small sink and got sick. It went on for some time, and he felt as if he were puking up soot and yellow fi re and ash. His head eddied with flashes of white women swinging rolling pins onto black heads and white faces shrieking with joy and fury and then the Deacon singing in his wheelchair-rocker and his father trying to kneel in the street and Aunt Marta and the Honorable Lionel A. Garrity, Esquire, clapping their hands and beaming big smiles and someone chanting, "Praise Jesus! Praise Jesus!" and the whole world burning with fire as far as the eye could see until the blue skies were painted half black and the white sun vanished behind the smoke.
When he finished, he rinsed his mouth and Hollis gave him a small towel and he dried his lips on it and wiped the sweat from his brow. "You hot, boy."
"No, I'm okay now."
Uncle Hollis gave him another slow shake of the head and poured him another drink. "No, I said you are hot. There's people looking for you, sending word up and down and across this here Midwest. You kill a bunch of coloreds in a Tulsa joint? You kill Deacon Broscious? You fucking out your mind?"
"How'd you hear?"
"Shit. It's burning up the wires, boy."
Uncle Hollis shook his head. "Police think some other fool did it. Clarence Somebody."
"Tell," Luther said. "Clarence Tell."
"That's the name." Uncle Hollis stared across the table at him, breathing heavy through his flat nose. " 'Parently you left one of them alive. One they call Smoke?"