April 15th, four thirty-six.
Barlowe Reed drove down an Atlanta parkway, heading south toward North Avenue. The car, a battered old Plymouth with sagging pipes, had seen its best days ten years before. Barlowe drove it slowly, like he halfway didn't want to go in the direction he was moving in. He chugged along, a twinge of irritation tugging at him. (It had nothing to do with the young boy riding his bumper.) Barlowe was always annoyed about one thing or another — usually some item he'd read in the paper. The source of this latest vexation, though, was more personal than headlines in the daily paper. Ever since he'd gone downtown that afternoon to pick up his income tax returns, his mood had soured.
Barlowe hated paying taxes. He couldn't explain it in fancy words, but the reasons were clear enough inside his head. Most folks didn't know the half of what the government did with all the tax money it collected, but Barlowe had his suspicions. He figured a lot of that cash financed dirty work: vast conspiracies, domestic and foreign; secret plots and counterplots; greedy, underhanded, fiendish stuff.
He glanced at the tax documents in the seat beside him and the vexation seemed to magnify. When he'd gone into H&R Block that morning, the accountant, a white man dressed sharply in a crisp shirt and tie, had smiled a big smile, like he had produced some financial masterpiece.
Accountants, Barlowe thought now, slugging forward. Charge an arm and a leg for doin nothin.
His taxes couldn't have required heavy lifting, and not for what that accountant charged. Please. He was a printer; an underpaid printer at that. In fact, he was so flat broke he had considered doing his own returns. In the end he decided to pay white folks to assume the risk. Let the government, the almighty Caesar harass them if some decimals and zeroes got mixed all up. Let Caesar go after them — not him.
Barlowe wondered how Caesar would use his money against him this time around. He hated that feeling: not knowing the particulars about such things; giving his hard-earned coins to Caesar, and in the blind.
But what could a man do? You had to render unto Caesar what Caesar claimed as his. Either render or break the law and foolishly deliver yourself into Caesar's hands.
He drove along, mulling Caesar. One day maybe he'd hit the number and get Caesar's foot off his neck.
He slouched down in the seat a little, the top of his bushy head peeking just above the steering wheel. He covered two more city blocks and spotted a car that made him sit up straight. Barlowe couldn't see the driver clear; it was the make of the vehicle that he took notice of. It was a Caddy, a gleaming, bright blue number with shiny rims and whitewalls scrubbed clean as a baby's butt. A Caddy. When it came to hogging the road, Caddy drivers were the worst.
The Caddy pulled out in front of him and settled into a lazy crawl. For several blocks the driver loafed along like the street was named for him. Barlowe pressed in closer, to send a message. The Caddy kept gliding steady, like maybe the driver was masturbating behind the wheel.
There was an American flag sticker pasted, dead center, in the car's back window. Barlowe grunted. "Um." Even more than taxes and Caesar, he hated flags. Ever since the planes struck, the things had sprung up everywhere. Houses, buildings, clothes, you name it; flags were attached some way.
He thought about that now as he trailed the Caddy. The patriot finally flashed a turn signal, swung a sharp right and disappeared.
Barlowe reached the post office and glanced at his watch. That Caddy had thrown his timing off. Every tax season he waited until the final day, April 15, and for good measure he got to his neighborhood post office only minutes before they locked the doors at five o'clock.
Inside, a white man, the supervisor, greeted him with a stale smile. He pointed toward a line that snaked to the cashier counter. People stood limply in a single file, their faces empty or tired or contorted in agony at the idea of having to wait in yet another line, with so much more stuff to be done in life.
Barlowe opted for the shorter line, the one leading to the stamp machines. There were only three people ahead of him, and five minutes left before closing time. He reached the front of the line and scanned the display window. He leaned in close and turned up his nose. Hovering behind him, a tall, spindly fellow in a Hawaiian shirt shifted impatiently on his heels. Barlowe studied the display again, to see if maybe he had missed something.
American flag stamps lined nearly every row! Only two rows, B-3 and B-4, offered other choices. Of those, one stamp hailed the invention of the Model T. (It may as well have been a flag.)The other stamp featured the bust of a brown-skinned woman. Barlowe didn't recognize the face right off, but the color suited him just fine.
He slid a five-dollar bill into the slot and paused before pressing the selection button. An announcement floated from somewhere off in a corner. "Post office closes in one minute!"
The man behind Barlowe shifted again, making a show of his impatience. Barlowe leaned down closer, concentrating on stamps. The man behind him clucked his tongue and stomped to the longer line.
Seeing the anxious shuffling, the supervisor approached. "Sir. Sir. Is there something I can help you with?"Barlowe nodded at the stamp machine and pointed at the stamp bearing the brown woman's picture. "I wont her."
"The Marian Anderson stamp is sold out, sir. We don't have time to restock the machine. If you want regular stamps for mailing returns, you'll need to get the flags."
"I don't wont flags."
"Naw. Don't wont em."
The supervisor frowned as his Homeland Security training came to mind. He gave the customer a good once-over, for information-gathering sake. Barlowe was a big-boned, corn-fed country boy. His face, the shade of cocoa, bore a slightly weathered look, like the faces you see on faded photos of people toiling in cotton fields. With thick, kinky hair, and lips full and broad, he looked a bit like Otis Redding before he'd made it big.
What stood out most about Barlowe, though, were the hands. The hands were rough as sandpaper. The hands were clean but harsh and stained with ink: red, blue, brown, yellow and black ink from the print shop where he worked.
Another postal worker, seeing his supervisor's frustration, sidled over to investigate. "Everythang all right here?" A short, dumpy man with jet-black skin and thick white hair, he brought to mind Uncle Remus storybook tales.
The supervisor turned to Remus and whispered: "This man says he wants stamps, but he won't buy flags."
Barlowe pointed again at the likeness of the brown lady. "I wont her." He nodded toward the supervisor. "He say he ain't got time to get some more."
Remus shrugged. "We bout to close up shop now, partner. You gotta do somethin." He turned and waddled off.
That gruff response wouldn't have seemed so off-putting if the two men hadn't met before. Some time back, Barlowe had come in that same branch to mail a package. He asked for a book of stamps, and the way old Remus acted you would have thought Barlowe handed him the winning lotto ticket. Remus slapped a vintage book of Duke Ellington commemoratives on the counter and hooked his thumbs around his suspenders, which stretched taut across his big belly like a pair of rubber bands about to snap. He poked out his chest, as proud as if he'd designed the things himself.
The stamps were so beautiful a full month passed before Barlowe could bring himself to mail a single one.
Now Remus headed to the front counter and pulled down the steel cage, to close up shop.
Barlowe turned to the supervisor. "I think I'll jus get my money back, then.""The machine doesn't give refunds, sir."
Barlowe pressed the change button anyway, but nothing happened. He nodded toward the counter. "Then I'll get it there."
"The counter is closed...I'm telling you, sir: You have to get the flags."
There was no persuading Barlowe Reed once he made up his mind about something. When he made up his mind about something, pressure of the sort now being applied only served to stiffen his resolve. When the supervisor finished saying his piece, babbling on about what Barlowe had to do, he calmly shook his head. "No."
The red light on the stamp machine began blinking.
"You're gonna lose your money."
Shortly, the blinking stopped.
"Toldja. Now we're officially closed." The supervisor walked away.
Barlowe took a few steps back to collect himself. He stood there a moment, his eyes flitting around in disbelief. He cursed, charged forward and rammed a knuckle into the machine. Whack! He banged it again, determined to knock his five dollars loose. Whack! Whack!
The third punch shattered the glass. The few Model Ts, and all the flag stamps, tumbled out. Barlowe stood back, surprised that the glass had caved so easy. He hadn't intended for it to break.
The supervisor returned when he heard the noise. He homed in on all the stars and stripes lying on the floor, desecrated. His lips quivered, like he wanted to speak, but no sound spilled out. He glared at Barlowe and wagged a finger, then turned and rushed from the room.
Within moments — seconds it seemed — the post office door flung open, and three police officers burst inside. The postal supervisor pointed downward. "Look! Right there!"
The cops panned the shattered glass and scattered stamps. They eyed Barlowe standing there, nodding slowly, like he knew how the thing might play out. The cops unsnapped their gun straps and started forward. "Aw right, buddy! Aw right! This is it!"
It wouldn't be so easy for them this time around. Barlowe Reed was experienced at this sort of thing. He came from a long line of people who were experienced at this sort of thing.
Before the police could get the whipping going, he calmly turned his back to them. Without being told, he placed both hands behind him and held the wrists close together, inviting the cops to clamp on cuffs.
The officers stood there looking dumb, trying to think this one through. Finally, one cop, the only woman among them, stepped forward and slapped on cuffs. Her partners shot her a disgusted look.
While the post office employees looked on, the officers escorted Barlowe through the double doors. They shoved him into the squad car and sped him off toward jail.
Along the way, the city whizzed by in a lightning blur. Barlowe sat handcuffed in the backseat, a mixture of sadness and triumph gripping him.
I have survived this one, he thought. I have survived this one.
Survival or no, he had also done the very thing he always took pains not to do. He had delivered himself to Caesar. And, too, he would be late filing his tax returns.
Copyright © 2007 by Nathan McCall