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Twenty-and-One
Flood # 7
July 1965
When you’re a man who works and you work for a man who knows folks who need work, word gets around, and a man gets busy and loses track of the busy body world. Just like that, Big Daddy Time goes whistling on by.
As it turned out, when he went to get his driver’s license—what he thought was kind of late—when he was eighteen, it turned out that he was younger than he thought he was. He came to Baltimore in 1956 just before he had thought he would turn 13. But in October of 1961 he was informed that he was only 16. It was as if he had been given two years of life by the Almighty. So now, in the light of a new day, on the tenth anniversary of his Daddy’s death, well into twenty-and-one and coming up quick on twenty-and-two, he drove his flat black 1954 Cadillac Downhome, not quite Downhome, just to Atlanta where his Mamma had moved.
He had only gotten his license back in the day so that he could save time from job to job and had ridden the cheapest rattletraps he could buy. Ten years without a vacation, working two and three jobs, it was time for a break and a visit Downhome. Slick Larry and Aunt Bell were still back up in Turners and Alvin was off in college to become that suit and tie kind of man that would make Aunt Bell less worried about his prospects. There was the other children too, still kids, all girls, as Slick Larry wasted no time cutting the rug with Aunt Bell.
Mamma was in Atlanta, but he circled it and decided on a cruise by his childhood home first.
“Pop,” just south of Atlanta on Route 19 went the front passenger side tire. Hell, he had just bought this thing from Slick Larry’s big-talking friend and there he was on the side of the road, having devoted himself so much to work and being able to buy what was needed, that he had never—being a sharecropper and then a city kid—developed the knowledge of auto mechanics. Heck, the tires he was told were brand new, though now he had his doubts.
Well, changing a tire was just common sense. He had the iron and the tire back there in the trunk and would just get to it. At least he would not be cursed to work on the traffic side and would not get clipped by any passersby while he jacked it up, unscrewed the lug nuts and changed that tire.
There was at least all that was needed in the trunk and he had had the sense to make sure the spare was well inflated before he took this trip. There was not much to it, just learning another simple job.
The front was jacked, the hub cap was off and he was at it with the tire iron when two fellas happened on by on the side of the road, admiring his car, giving him shifty looks. One was damned near as big as him and the other was taller but skinny, both wearing hats, leather billed dress hats, like a beret of polished slickness that had aspirations of playing ball, but with a bill too short to help a body in the outfield with a fly ball.
“Hey, Slick,” said the tall skinny one as the big one—both about his age—inspected his Cadillac with a pretentious sneer on his face.
He looked up with some anger in his cheeks and snarled, “Slick? Who you callin’ Slick, Slick.”
The big man then came around the front end and stood somewhat menacingly as the thin one came up alongside the car doors on the berm where he was—this was some crooked business he could tell. These Georgia boys had marked him for an out-of-towner, a city boy, a soft target.
“Well, you lookin’ all slick, got the slick ride…jus’ thought we’d change that tire for you and you’d give us a ride down the road.”
With a snarl Israel retorted, “I gots dis. Whatchyall no accounts know ‘bout changin’ tires anyhow? Jus’ keep yo shiftless asses on down the road and stay out a ma bidness, Boy!”
“Now, now, Slick,” eased the thin man as the other took a step towards him, and Israel realized that the big one had been looking for cars coming and none were in sight. They were making their move.
He bull charged the thin man to his left and pushed him down in the dirt as the big man came around the passenger side fender. He stomped heavy as he could, all 250 pounds, on that skinny ankle and heard it crack. He then turned around just in time and the big man hesitated, as big as him but made smaller by the lack of a tire iron in his hand!
Remembering younger days, he brought that tire iron across that brown brow and split it all open in a bloody mess. Then, as the big fool brought his hands to his head and began to turn away in that “Please don’ whip me massa” dance, Israel, thinking of maybe a gun or knife, turned and saw the thin man digging in his pocket and leaped as high as he could, bringing both heavy heels down on that skinny pelvis and heart a great crack and a bitchmade moan.
Then standing over the ruined con man, whose hand had just been retrieving a kerchief to dab his lying eyes, he commanded the bleeding big man, “You fogot sumtin’ chump. Take dis bag a bones wit yah and be on down da road less I beat ya ta deaf!”
Israel stood like The Man his own self as the big bleeding fool picked up the skinny, broken slick-talker like he were his wife, and carried him on down the road.
He stood and watched sometime to make sure they were on their way.
As he went back to his tire work a car coming north, slowed, saw him, did a U-turn and parked behind him. It was a white man in overalls with big greasy hands, a short man, but strong.
“Can I help you out?”
Israel grinned down the road at the now distant and limping figures leaning on one another like two ant-sized monkeys in the distance and the man, catching his meaning grinned and exclaimed, “Oh, I didn’ mean with them—seems you sorted that out. Looks like the original tires—with new painted white walls. That spare you puttin’ on probably the best of the lot.”
It then occurred to him that this man was a trove of useful lore, “Well sir I don’t know squat about a car—just bought it. But I work, got me some cash handy for a lesson if you wouldn’t min’ learnin’ me what I needs ta know.”
The man extended his hand, coming somewhat closer and said, “Jervis Watts. Own a small garage. I’ll do ya right, no charge en sell you some decent tires for a fair price.”
“Oh,” he said, bending in his overall, “you dropped your hat.”
It had been years since he stopped wearing a hat and began to say it wasn’t his, thin figured that hat was justly his and graciously laughed and took the fine hat and beat the dust off of it, “Well thank ya, Sir, I wouldn’ wan’ ta be caught in the Georgia sun witout ma hat!”
He took the man’s hand, shook and smiled, “Israel, Sir, Israel Flood—you show me how this thing runs too, right?”
And they both laughed as they worked together on changing out the tire, Jervis handy with the tips.
Life had its ironies, always would. And, a good forty years down his life’s road, it would strike him as ironic that he would be telling this story to a man with whom he was working hand-in-hand, a white man, who knew less about cars than Israel had when he was all of twenty-and-one, a white man who had never even drove a car, if a body could believe that.

For the ten years I knew old Flood, he always wore a polished leather cap with a slight bill and anytime someone rubbed him the wrong way, threatened him or engaged him in workplace banter, he’d name them, “Slick,” a term he would forever coat with derisive wit.
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