It was late dusk when the bus pulled into some little town for a stop. ‘We get about ten minutes here,’ Bill said. ‘Let’s get off and stretch our legs. They’ve got a men’s room here if you need to go.’
The driver stood up and faced the passengers. ‘Ten-minute rest stop,’ he announced.
The whites rose and ambled off. Bill and I led the Negroes towards the door. As soon as he saw us, the driver blocked our way. Bill slipped under his arm and walked towards the dim-lit shed building.
‘Hey, boy, where you going?’ the driver shouted to Bill while he stretched his arms across the opening to prevent my stepping down. ‘Hey, you, boy, I’m talking to you.’ Bill’s footsteps crunched unhurriedly across the gravel.
I stood on the bottom step, waiting. The driver turned back to me.
‘Where do you think you’re going?’ he asked, his heavy cheeks quivering with each word.
‘I’d like to go to the rest room.’ I smiled and moved to step down.
He tightened his grip on the door facings and shouldered in close to block me. ‘Does your ticket say for you to get off here? he asked.
‘No, sir, but the others –’
‘Then get your ass back in your seat and don’t you move till we get to Hattiesburg,’ he commanded.
‘You mean I can’t go to the –’
‘I mean get your ass back there like I told you,’ he said, his voice rising. ‘I can’t be bothered rounding up all you people when we get ready to go.’
‘You announced a rest stop. The whites all got off,’ I said, unable to believe he really meant to deprive us of rest-room privileges.
He stood on his toes and put his face up close to mine. His nose flared. Footlights caught silver glints from the hairs that curled out of his nostrils. He spoke slowly, threateningly: ‘Are you arguing with me?’
‘No sir.’ I sighed. ‘Then you do like I say.’
We turned like a small herd of cattle and drifted back to our seats. The others grumbled about how unfair it was. The large woman was apologetic, as though it embarrassed her for a stranger to see Mississippi’s dirty linen.
‘There’s no call for him to act like that,’ she said. ‘They usually let us off.’
I sat in the monochrome gloom of dusk, scarcely believing that in this year of freedom any man could deprive another of anything so basic as the need to quench thirst or use the rest room. There was nothing of the feel of America here. It was rather some strange country suspended in ugliness. Tension hung in the air, a continual threat, even though you could not put your finger on it.
‘Well,’ I heard a man behind me say softly but firmly, ‘if I can’t go in there, then I’m going in here. I’m not going to sit here and bust.’
I glanced back and saw it was the same poorly dressed man who had so outraged Christophe. He walked in a half crouch to a place behind the last seat, where he urinated loudly on the floor. Indistinguishable sounds of approval rose around me – quiet laughter, clearing throats, whispers.
‘Let’s all do it,’ a man said.
‘Yeah, flood this bus and end all this damned foolishness.’
Bitterness dissolved in our delight to give the bus driver and the bus as good as they deserved.
The move was on, but it was quelled by another voice: ‘No, let’s don’t. It’ll just give them something else to hold against us,’ an older man said. A woman agreed. All of us could see the picture. The whites would start claiming that we were unfit, that Negroes did not even know enough to go the rest room – they just did it in the back of the bus; never mentioning, of course, that the driver would not let us off.
The driver’s bullish voice attracted our attention.
‘Didn’t you hear me call you?’ he asked as Bill climbed the steps.
‘I sure didn’t,’ Bill said pleasantly.
‘You mean to stand there and say you didn’t hear me call you?’
‘Oh, were you calling me?’ Bill asked innocently. ‘I heard you yelling “Boy” but that’s not my name, so I didn’t know you meant me.’
Bill returned and sat beside me, surrounded by the approval of his people. In the immense tug-of-war, such an act of defiance turned him into a hero.