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Authors: Ann Fairbairn

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #African American, #General

Five Smooth Stones

Five Smooth Stones by Ann Fairbairn

This gripping bestseller, first published in 1966, has continued to captivate readers with its wide-ranging yet intimate portrait of an America sundered by racial conflict. David Champlin is a black man born into poverty in Depression-era New Orleans who makes his way up the ladder of success, only to sacrifice everything to lead his people in the civil rights movement. Sara Kent is the white girl who loves David from the moment she first sees him, and who struggles against his belief that a marriage for them would be wrong in the violent world he has to confront. And the “five smooth stones” are those the biblical David carried against Goliath. By the time this novel comes to its climax of horror, bloodshed, and hope, readers will be convinced that its enduring popularity is fully justified.

 

This low-priced Bantam Book has been completely reset In a type face designed for easy reading, and was printed from new plates. It contains the complete text of the original hard-cover edition.
NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED,

FIVE SMOOTH STONES

A Bantam Book / published by arrangement with Crown Publishers, Inc.

PRINTING HISTORY Crown edition published December 1966

2nd printing..... January 1967

Literary Guild of America edition published June 1967 Bantam edition published July 1968 2nd printing 3rd printing 4th printing 5th printing 6th printing 7th printing 8th printing 9th printing 10th printing

All rights reserved. © 1966 by Ann Fairbaim. This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part, by mimeograph or any other means, without permission. For information address: Crown Publishers, Inc., 419 Park Avenue South, New York, N.Y. 10016

Published simultaneously In the United States and Canada

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PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

 

FOR MY FATHER

And Saul armed David with his armour, and he put an helmet of brass upon his head; also he armed him with a coat of mail. And David girded his sword upon his armour, and he assayed to go . . . And David said unto Saul, I cannot go with these; for I have not proved them. And David put them off him. And he took his staff in his hand, and chose him five smooth stones out of the brook, and put them in a shepherd's bag which he had, even in a scrip; and his sling was in his hand: and he drew near to the Philistine.

I Samuel 17:38-40

CHAPTER 1

There was a ten-dollar bill in Joseph Champlin's pocket on an evening in early March in 1933. Few Negroes in New Orleans during those days of a paralyzed economy could boast as much. With the ten-dollar bill was a fifty-cent piece; this he had made on a four-hour cleaning job. The ten dollars he attributed to the direct intervention of the Almighty in his troubled affairs. He budgeted his windfall in his mind as he walked along the banquettes of the Vieux Carré on his way home: coffee, coal, beans, rice, salt meat, oil for the lamps, something held back for his mother, and something to pay on the overdue rent

Geneva would be happy, he thought; Geneva would sure be happy. He planned to keep quiet about the ten dollars at first, giving her the four-bit piece when he came in, giving her chance to blow off steam because he'd worked for so little. He knew by heart what she would say, and he would not give her the opportunity to say all of it.

"Don't come crying to me, Li'l Joe Champlin!" Her voice would be sharp with worry, and there would be desperation behind it. In the early days of their marriage the sharpness had been less, more a thing of tone than of emotion. These days it sliced at his nerves. "Don't come crying to me. You think they gonna pay you good if you don't have no understanding first? Or even if you got an understanding. But you got no understanding at all, they going to take all they can get even if it's blood. They gonna take it and expect you to say 'thank-you-
suh
.'"

"You don't understand. Things is different. Things is bad, real bad. Even they got it rough."

"That ain't our fault."

"Sure as hell ain't, but there ain't nothing we can do about it. You knows damned well, Neva, I never done no job in my life till now I didn't have an understanding first how much I'd get. Li'l Joe Champlin got his price or he didn't do no work."

"That's because they knew you was the onlies' man could turn out the work like you do. Working like a pint-sized mule, half killing yourself."

"I'll get me my own price again, you wait and see, better times come."

"Better times ain't coming."

"They say they is. Seen it in the paper. Everything's going to be better now they got them a new President." Joseph Champlin laughed without sound. "You does a lot of talking, but I don't see as how you've had no better luck getting more'n a dollar a day washing dishes in that restaurant where they gets five dollars just for putting the water and bread on the table. That and maybe some beef ribs to tote home. What kind of a dog you tell them folks you was taking them bones home to?"

Then it would go on, Li'l Joe Champlin's voice quiet, soft; Geneva's rasping. It hadn't been like that when they'd first started living together, after he and his first wife, Josephine, had separated, or after he'd made her bis married wife. Now the nagging was wearing him down.

Usually, after a few hours of it he would leave the house, sometimes slamming the door, more often letting it close quietly behind him. Then he would walk, legs laden with fatigue, the meal Geneva had somehow managed to scrape together a burden in his stomach. Most of the time he wound up at Hank's Place and sat slim and straight at the counter, drinking his coffee slowly, making it last until he knew Geneva would be in bed. Sometimes he had a little money he'd held back, and then he would have a drink of bootleg or corn whiskey. If he didn't have the money even for coffee, Hank would trust him, winking at him to say nothing.

When Li'l Joe went home, it would not matter how harsh the words had been earlier. He would move quietly, as he always did, undressing in the dark, slipping into bed beside the tired woman who was his wife. Just as he felt sleep creeping on to obliterate the ache of living, one slender brown hand would reach out almost without volition, and he would grasp a fold of her nightgown, holding it tightly. If he woke up through the night and found it no longer in his grasp, he would reach out again, and return to sleep with its folds in his fingers.

Tonight there would be no need to leave the house, no preliminary quarreling or nagging. He would not let it get to that stage before he pulled out the ten dollars. He thought of telling Geneva he had earned the ten dollars, and then decided against it. She wouldn't believe him. He would tell her the truth—that he had found it, wadded into a ball, on the floor of the men's toilet in the Creole Club when he was finishing his job of mopping.

Joseph Champlin was forty-two in that year when the economy of the country had reached its nadir. He was a slight, brown-skinned man, quiet in his ways. He was respected and loved by his own people and in considerable demand by the whites as a worker, because he had the capability and drive to turn out more work in a day than most men twice his size. His top weight was one hundred and twenty-five; on the night Providence had led him to the ten-dollar bill it had dropped to one hundred and nine. He could not remember the time when he had not been known as "Li'l Joe" Champlin.

When the economic rigor mortis of the depression settled over New Orleans, it had been hard for him to take whatever came his way. Not that there had ever been work he was too proud to do. His mother had taught him that, speaking as often in French or Creole as she did in English. But there had been jobs he had refused to return to because he did not like the treatment he received as a Negro. He had always resented the patronage of householders more than he did the sometimes abusive, always profane, attitude of the white straw bosses on the docks or other manual jobs. He resented the "boy" of the genteel white far more than the "nigger" of the straw boss.

He did not make all his money by manual work. He could play banjo and guitar with the best New Orleans had to offer, and when times were good he was always able to make extra money playing.

He looked with contempt on his own people who talked "poor mouth," whose voices changed when they talked to whites. He had no more scruples than the next man when it came to lying to whites as a means of self-preservation or to please them and keep them in a good mood. Lying to whites was a fact of life; it was like keeping your head up and your eyes up when you worked on the docks around the cranes, because the cranes could mean a horrid death. But if he gave his word to any man, colored or white, he kept it. If they did not keep theirs, his was not given again.

Now hunger and want were threatening to strip his dignity from him as a vulture strips flesh from the bones of the dead; they were not unfamiliar, he had known them all his life, but not in quite the guise he knew them now. He had worked before his seventh birthday, and with the pennies bought salt meat to surprise his mother. Now hopelessness was added to hunger and want. That had not been there before. There had always been hope before, within the narrow, circumscribed world in which the color of his skin required him to live.

During his adult life he had never failed to stop at his mother's room on St. Peter Street on his way to a job, to drink a cup of coffee with her. He did not change the habit now; the difference was that he was not setting out on a job, but to walk God only knew how far before dark in search of one.

Irene Champlin was a small woman, almost tiny; it was from her the man called Li'l Joe inherited the delicate look, the slender bones, the slight frame, and the hidden strength. Her skin was as blue-black as her mother's had been when she had been brought to America as a child, eight years old, straight from Africa on a slave ship. Irene spoke precise and nearly perfect English because she had taken the fancy of the woman she had been put out to work for when she was a child and had been taught to read and write and speak properly along with her employer's children. She spoke Creole and French fluently because those were the languages spoken by her own family.

She was waiting for her son the morning of the day he found the ten dollars, coffee hot on the tiny stove, the strong black coffee of New Orleans, bitter with chicory. As Joseph Champlin drank the coffee, he knew he did not want to leave the little room, wanted to sit there quietly with her, drawing from her strength. He felt dead inside, and dreaded what he must face when he walked down the worn stairs and into the streets.

She waited until she saw the shadows of his face lighten a little, and said: "It's near your birthday, son. Pray to St. Joseph. Hell help you. And when the work comes, offer it to God."

He tried to speak lightly. "Looks like God don't need no work, Ma."

There was no softness in her eyes when she looked at her son, her first and only child, but behind them there was pain.

"God never made the mouth he wouldn't feed." She spoke in French.

He was silent a moment, did not answer directly; he had seen too many mouths in need of food these past months. "You need anything, Ma?"

"Nothing, son. I worked three days last week. You know that. Stop by tonight and I'll give you some rice and some sugar for Geneva. She likes plenty of sugar for her coffee."

He did not tell her they had used the last of their coffee that morning. He had not yet told her of the real poverty of his home these days. What must she have made last week? Two dollars? Some to put up for the rent, some for the coffee she loved herself, some for rice and beans and what she could pick up at the French Market for a few pennies—filleted fish backs, chicken backs—and she would make them taste better than some of the junk Geneva brought home from the restaurant where she sometimes worked. If he told her of their need, she would wait until he had left her room and go to their house, and if Geneva was not there she would open the door with the key they had given her and leave something in the icebox or on the kitchen table.

She sat at the little table by the window opposite him. "They're waking Ruth tomorrow night," she said. "Will you be there?"

"If I ain't working."

"It's the wake for your son's wife."

"I know, Ma, I know. I'll be there, I tell you, if I ain't working. If I gets a job, no matter what time of day or night it is there ain't nothing going to keep me away from it Reckon John would understand."

It had been six months, almost to the day, since his second son, John, born to him and Josephine twenty years before, had died under the wheels of the freight train he was hopping north to find work. John had been big and strong, with skin almost as black as his grandmother's, and had laughed a lot. "He laughs like his grandfather," Irene Champlin said. "Like my husband did."

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