Denver explains that prior to meeting Deborah, he had never had a real conversation with a white woman. The last time he even spoke a word to a white woman, he “wound up half-dead and nearly blind.” The story went like this: as a teenager in Red River Parish, Louisiana, Denver comes upon a white woman whose car has a flat tire. Denver offers to fix it for her, and she gratefully accepts. However, as he is replacing the tire, three white boys on horseback arrive, none of them much older than himself. They call Denver “nigger” and throw a rope noose around his neck and pull it tight. The white woman doesn’t say anything to defend him. Back in the present, Denver states that he doesn’t like to speak of what happens next, since he doesn’t want anyone else’s pity.
This introduction establishes two critical parts of Denver’s character: that his experiences of racism and violence in life have made him resentful and fearful of white people; and that he is a proud man. Throughout the story, whether enslaved, homeless, or heartbroken, Denver never asks for anyone’s pity or sympathy and demonstrates a remarkably high level of self-reliance and durability. This speaks to his high quality of character.
“That’s just how things was in Louisiana in those days,” Denver explains. Such racist violence happened in Mississippi too—a few years later, Emmett Till would be beaten until one of his eyes fell out of his skull, then thrown into a river with a weight tied around his neck. Although these things don’t happen all the time, says Denver, the threat of them always lingers, hanging over the cotton fields where he works “like a slave” for thirty years, starting when he is a small child, even though slavery had supposedly ended decades ago.
This also introduces the theme of racism and modern-day slavery. Although the murder of Emmett Till sounds barbaric, like a story from a bygone era, it famously happened in 1955, when much of the country believed that such acts were behind them. As Denver’s life story illustrates, the racism that fuels slavery and the institutions that support it are still very present in the mid-twentieth century.
During all the years that Denver works the fields in Red River Parish, he can hear a freight train passing through town every day. One day, when Denver is “tired a’ being poor,” he hitches on the train and lands in Fort Worth, Texas. However, as a black man who can’t read, write, or do math, he immediately finds himself homeless. For decades before he meets Deborah, Denver is homeless, in and out of prison, and becomes mean and distant. However, Deborah is the “nosiest, pushiest woman I had ever met” and gets Denver to talk about all the things he has buried with the past, including the three boys and their noose. Denver says that he’s going to tell those things to the reader now.
This flash-forward introduces the character of Deborah as a determined woman who is ruthlessly persistent in pursuing Denver and learning about who he is. The passage also establishes Denver’s homelessness, a major theme in the story, connecting it directly to his escape from slavery and his lack of education or trade skills, leading instantly to further poverty.