The Holly Tree’s a Negro juke joint north of Byhalia

Tommy visits the Holly Tree

      A little while into Mississippi, I pass over a creek and slow down. I see the Holly Tree on the left side of the road. It’s an old clapboard house. The yard is full of trash and weeds. Tar paper peels up from the roof as if the building suffers from psoriasis. A corrugated awning sags over the front porch. Some beer and RC Cola signs are nailed to the wall.
      I pull across the road and park in the dirt next to two old trucks. It’s early. The place will be packed by sundown. I step onto the porch. An old yellow dog lies on its side. Its muzzle is thin and gray. The dog opens and closes a film-covered eye as I pass. I pull the screen door open and step inside.
      Four colored men play cards. They look at me and shake their heads. I ignore them and walk to the bar. I ask the man behind it for a beer. A cigarette dangles off his lower lip. He stares at me with his hands on the bar, the left of which is scarred from a burn.
      “A beer,” I repeat.
I put down a quarter. He fetches up a bottle, opens it, and sets it before me. The coin remains untouched.
      “Now you didn’t come all this way for a beer,” he says.
      I take a swig. It’s cool and it gives me time to think of what to say.
      “No. This beer’s just a bonus. Someone called me. Said if I ask you, I’ll find out about a missing white girl named, Helen.”
      The man’s eyes open wide, his mouth opens wider.
      “A missing white girl? Here? Damn. You came a long way for a beer.”
      “I’ve traveled further.”
      He laughs and takes the coin and drops it into a box before joining a couple at the other end of the bar. I drink my beer as I listen to the jukebox. Some men make jokes. They laugh at me, but I don’t want any trouble.
      The door opens a little later and an old colored man walks in. He wears a worn out pair of overalls. His brogans are in worse shape; the leather is cracked and scuffed from years of use. He takes off his left shoe, looks inside, and sets it on the floor. I get up and walk toward him. His cloudy eyes are rheumy and his earlobes hang long. Several days’ grizzle coats his cheeks.
      “Dan? Dan Turner?”
      The man looks up as he takes a piece of cardboard from his pocket.
      “Who?” he says.
      “Are you Dan Turner?”
      “My name’s George Owens.”
      “Sorry. I got you confused with someone else. Can I buy you a beer?”
      “Sheeit. How ’bout you buy me a whiskey.”
      I get the drinks while George opens a knife and cuts the cardboard to fit his shoe. I come back and set them on the table. I sit across from him. He gestures with his glass, tilts his head, and empties the cup before I so much as taste mine.
      “Damn—that goes down better than ’splo. You come around here anytime, kid.”
      I work on my whisky while George cuts the cardboard for the other shoe.
      “So kid, you got a name?”
      “Tommy Rhodeen.”
      The cardboard’s too big. He takes it out and says, “So, Mr. Tommy Rhodeen, you come here expectin’ to find this Dan Turner?”
      “No. I was told I could find a girl I’m looking for. A missing white girl named, Helen.”
      George sets down the knife. The men playing poker stop betting; their heads turn our way. George scratches his chin and says, “Now, I don’t mean to make light of anyone’s misfortune. Especially someone who bought me a drink. But that is the funniest thing I’ve heard in a long time. You comin’ in here to find a missin’ white girl. Sheeit.”
      The men chuckle and go back to their game. George trims the cardboard; he puts it in his shoe. I need to go home. But then a woman whispers, “Helen,” into my ear and walks away.
      George and I watch her. She’s tall and wears her hair cut short with spit curls. She sits at a table in the corner and checks her makeup. Her face glows like honey. I nod at George. I get up and approach the woman.
      “What do you know about Helen?” I ask as I sit down.

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