Eddie and Percy crouched on the wood floor of their private fort, a three-foot deep pit in Eddie’s backyard, destined to be a small pond after the next serious storm. The plywood roof Eddie’s father Raymond built from an old drafting table in his architect’s office was braced six inches above the edge, providing views in all directions like the rotating gunner’s station on top of a tank. The Florida sun warmed the place like an oven, even in October.
Emerson Elementary was on double sessions and they got home just before lunch–Eddie in first grade, Percy in second–along with Eddie’s brother Ray Jr. in third. Ray Jr. said forts were for babies, so his role in this adventure was to throw rocks at Eddie and Percy from across the yard.
Spanish anger blasted from a transistor radio the size of a paperback book balanced on a small wood shelf carved out of the dirt wall. “That’s Castro.” Eddie tuned down the volume. “In Cuba. They cranked the transmitter up all the way. Ray said you can hear it clear to Atlanta.”
Percy carved a small hole in the dirt wall with the bottom of a candle they used for secret voodoo ceremonies after dark.
“Does he like third grade?”
“I guess. He skips sometimes, though. He and Robby play war at Beau’s house like they’re Confederates.” Eddie wasn’t too keen on war. “Mommy said we’re going to look at houses Saturday.”
“Look at houses? Where?”
“At one of the new developments.”
“I don’t know.”
“Can I come?”
“I guess. She said we can put the top down. Dzzzzz.” Eddie imitated the sound of the convertible top in his mother’s new Buick, suspending one hand next to each ear like a flap, and gradually lowering them until his fingertips touched his shoulders.
Two pairs of feet in black flat shoes approached on the lawn. “Turn that off.” Eddie’s mother Betty bent down and peered into the gunner’s station. “Time for lunch, boys.” Eddie turned off the radio, pushed open the trap door and followed his mother toward the house.
Percy’s mother Ida grabbed Percy’s hand as he climbed out. “You too, now. Miz Hubert’s in a hurry.” Ida couldn’t get used to calling her Betty, no matter how much she wanted her to. Percy climbed out of the fort. Ida noticed mud on the back of his shirt and shook her head. “You’re all dirty. Go in the laundry room and change before I serve.”
Betty and Ida walked into the kitchen. Betty opened the refrigerator and removed a bowl of home-made Brunswick stew, then held the door open as Ida removed a loaf of bread, plastic packages of sliced ham and cheddar cheese, a jar of mayonnaise, and a smaller jar of mustard.
The Huberts moved south when Betty’s husband Raymond got a junior partner job at L’Engle, Smith and Dale, a prominent architecture firm in Jacksonville. They could never afford a maid in New Jersey. The agency Betty called had asked if she minded having Negro help and of course she said no. When they first arrived, Raymond said he wanted to see how things went for a while before they bought a house, so they rented a three-bedroom, two-bath cinderblock tract house painted grey, with jalousie windows and a single carport. The place wasn’t exactly Betty’s dream come true, but at least it was bigger than their two-bedroom apartment near her mother’s house in Hoboken. The Southwood neighborhood had been carved out of a pine-tree farm. The “woodland setting” referred to in the brochure consisted of six-foot-tall pine saplings planted in unnaturally straight lines that seemed to go on forever behind the backyard, like soldiers in formation.
Betty had proposed to Ida that Percy walk home from school with Eddie and Ray Jr. after the first session at Emerson let out at eleven. “That way, none of the boys will be alone in the afternoons, and you and Percy can take the bus home together when you finish up at three.” Ida appreciated her thoughtfulness.
Betty poured the stew into a pot and turned on the burner. “This looks wonderful. I’m so glad we found you, Ida. Can you believe it’s been over a year?”
“Nothing fancy, just a recipe I got at a church social a while back.” Ida retrieved a spreading knife for the mayonnaise from a drawer below the toaster and began assembling sandwiches.
Betty and Ida were both in their late twenties, but that was where the similarity ended. Ida was a social type, a real talker who had opinions she never minded sharing. She loved to talk about her husband Matthew, their neighbors and church friends, and their trips to the beach.
Betty was shy by nature. She and Raymond hadn’t known anyone when they first moved down and hadn’t managed to make any friends since. Half the houses in Southwood were owned by out-of-town investors, and there weren’t many people around, particularly during the day. Betty felt blue when she and Raymond drove into town and saw a group of people sit together in a park or restaurant, laughing, talking and having a good time. She taught herself to close her eyes and take deep breaths at times like that, until the longing went away.
Ida finished the sandwiches and took them on a plate through the swinging door into the dining room. She had been housekeeping since graduating from high school nine years before. Her husband Matthew worked for the Afro-American Insurance Company, founded in 1906 by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, an entrepreneur who sold death policies to black folks when white insurance companies wouldn’t. He was on the road most of the time and had to cover car expenses from commissions, so he didn’t bring home much money. But it was steady work he enjoyed, and he always made it home in time to spend the weekend with Ida and Percy.
The following Monday, Eddie and Percy piled into the backseat of the Buick with the top down and Betty behind the wheel. When they first arrived in Jacksonville, Betty was feeling wobbly about all the big changes in her life, so Raymond traded in the old brown Studebaker they drove from New Jersey for a big red Buick Electra 225 convertible. Raymond said it would cheer her up, make her feel more Florida! Betty was a little nervous driving it, as if she were putting on a big show amidst all the Fords and Plymouths. But on a sunny day with the top down, wearing a bright red scarf over her hair and fashionable sunglasses, she had to admit he was right.
Betty usually went on these tours on Saturday mornings when Raymond was catching up on paperwork at the office, which was almost every Saturday. She rarely brought the boys, but Eddie, who seemed more interested in beautiful things with every passing day, practically begged this time. And once Betty said Eddie could go, Percy wanted to go. The two stuck to together like glue.
Truth be told, being guided through beautiful, perfectly decorated model homes by handsome salesmen expert at making her feel comfortable provided a temporary respite from the feeling that she didn’t really fit in. Just imagine having all your friends over for a dinner party in this formal dining room, Mrs. Hubert! Wouldn’t your mother love to have her own room with a private bath when she comes down for a visit? That bar-be-que of yours every July 4 out on the spacious patio will be the hottest ticket in town!
She drove through the neighborhood and out to the four-lane, passing McDonalds, Winn-Dixie and three gas stations in a row. Just beyond a huge asphalt parking lot with a shopping center behind, the traffic slowed.
“What a circus,” Betty said, as they crept past police cars blocking the on-ramp to the new expressway. The traffic finally broke through, and she drove under the overpass as Eddie and Percy leapt to their knees on the rear seat and watched a line of flatbed trucks rumble by above.
“Wow. It’s a tank!” Eddie said. “What’s going on, Mommy?”
“I’m not sure, but Mr. Castro just closed down the American casinos in Cuba, stole our property. Turn around and sit back down, you two. President Kennedy knows how to handle those people down there.”
“Mr. Castro?” Eddy asked, dropping down to the plush-leather seat. His mother’s voice sounded wavy, like the time his father forgot her birthday and she almost cried.
“That horrible man you boys were listening to on the radio, not as if you’d understand anything in Spanish, which is probably for the best, if you ask me.”
“I’m hungry,” Percy said. “Can we get some ice cream Miz Hubert?”
She hated that, all the people down here calling her Miz all the time. “No honey. Your mother’d be upset if I let you spoil your lunch.”
A few miles down, they crossed a bridge over a wide canal. Just beyond a marina filled with tall sailboat masts on the far shore, the highway made a gentle curve in front of a sweeping expanse of freshly mown lawn. Betty noticed a small sign in elegant script: “River Plantation, by appointment only.” She pressed the brake and flicked on the blinker, guiding the Buick onto a tree-shaded gravel drive leading to a parking area hidden from the highway by a row of camelia bushes covered with fragrant white flowers.
A tall, slim salesman in a beige tailored business suit approached the car.
“Uh oh,” Percy giggled, crouched down on the floorboard, and pulled Eddie’s jacket over his head.
“Welcome to River Plantation, Madam. I’m Bob Allen. He touched the driver’s side door and smiled. “Allow me?”
Bob opened the car door and Betty introduced herself and Eddie. Bob led them on a boardwalk along the lake to the sales office and into a lounge area with several chairs and a big stone fireplace. On a conference table by a large picture window overlooking the golf course was a scale model of River Plantation, including a miniature golf course, tennis courts, clubhouse, and hundreds of homes the size of matchboxes.
Percy followed Eddie inside.
“And who is this?” Bob asked.
“Oh, that’s Percy,” Betty said.
Bob removed a purple lollypop from his pocket and whispered into Percy’s ear. “Go wait in the car now.”
“I’m sure he’d just be bored, you know,” he added, smiling at Betty.
Segregation in the south, Betty had discovered, was much stricter than in New Jersey, and more strictly enforced—in homes, schools, stores, and restaurants, even water fountains and public restrooms. The only Negroes she ever saw in their neighborhood were domestic servants like Ida, and a few at the boys’ school. People seemed to stay in their own area, and the Negro areas were always worse.
Bob held the door open, and Percy went back outside.
“Finally! How may I help you Mrs. Hubert?”
“My husband Raymond is an architect.” Betty lifted her chin slightly. “He’s a junior partner at L’Engle, Smith & Dale. We’re considering moving up.”
“I’m quite sure you’d be comfortable here. We have the best element in town at River Plantation—doctors, lawyers, business executives. High achievers, you know. Would you like to see the models?”
“I suppose.” Betty replied disdainfully, pushing her sunglasses up the bridge of her nose with her index finger. She didn’t get this kind of respect up north.
“Right this way.” Bob led them through an oversized sliding glass door next to the fireplace and onto a sidewalk lined with Ligustrum bushes. “We’re in phase three of four, with over five hundred homes sold.” Bob turned and lowered his voice, “And in case you were wondering, River Plantation is restricted.”
Betty nodded. They crossed a street lined with spindly, newly planted crepe myrtle trees, each attached to the ground by four wooden stakes. They soon stopped across the street from three of the most beautiful houses she had ever seen.
“We have the Mt. Vernon, the Belle Meade, and the Drayton Hall, each named for a famous historic home in our Southland.” Bob gestured toward the homes reverently. Betty took Eddie’s hand and stepped down a gravel path past a wrought-iron lawn jockey to the Mt. Vernon, a two-story southern colonial with a veranda and six white columns.
Bob unlocked the door and they toured the house. It was everything Betty had ever dreamed of—Heart Pine floors buffed to a hard shine, walnut table and six high-backed chairs in the octagon-shaped dining room, five-foot-tall fireplace with a marble mantle in the living room, thick oriental rugs everywhere. Four bedrooms—two furnished for children, one as a large master suite with sliding glass doors overlooking a rose garden, and the last for guests; three tiled bathrooms, a sunken den across the back with an adjacent enclosed screened porch overlooking the canal.
“Lakefront lots are still available,” Bob said as Betty gazed at a sailboat motoring by on the canal, “but lots with access to the Intracoastal Waterway sold out last year.”
In the kitchen, Bob pointed out the smooth round edge of the yellow Formica countertop, the spacious cabinets, the suite of matching appliances, and the new automatic garbage disposal. Around the corner was a room-sized pantry and a separate laundry room with a washer, dryer, water softener, and a built-in ironing board.
They walked back to the foyer and Bob turned around for one last look. “What do you say?”
In this house, Betty thought, I would be somebody. “It’s beautiful.”
The second two houses were almost as nice, but Betty was sold on the Mt. Vernon. “It would be nice to have a guest room in addition to a room for each of the boys, so they didn’t need to double up when my mother comes down to visit,” she said as they walked back to the sales office.
“You have two children,” Bob said. “So, Percy is...”
“Oh no,” Betty said, blushing. “My second boy is Ray Jr. They met Percy at Emerson Elementary.”
“Emerson.” Bob sighed.
“I know, I know,” Betty arched her left eyebrow. “If we’d only known when we first moved here.”
“We see it all the time.” Bob shook his head as they stepped through the sliding door. “Did I tell you we built a new school and donated it to the county? It’s for children of residents only.”
Back in the sales office, Bob handed Betty a thick brochure and led her and Eddie over to the window, pointing out the rolling green fairways of the members-only golf course, the country club, tennis courts, private restaurant, and swimming pool. Betty had never been a member of a country club. She had never even been inside a country club.
“If Mr. Castro could see this, he’d understand America, right young man?” Bob mussed Eddie’s hair.
“Yes, sir,” Eddie replied.
Ida and Percy sat on the bus as it moved slowly up Old St. Augustine Road in the rain.
“He handed me a lollypop like I was a baby,” Percy said, his feet dangling below the seat. “And they didn’t let me see the houses, either.”
Ida put her arm around Percy’s shoulders and pulled him close.
“It was fun waiting in the Buick, though. It’s nicer than Daddy’s car. It has leather seats and electric windows, and automatic transmission, and...”
“I get the idea, son. What do they need a new house for anyway? They’ve only been down in Southwood for little over a year,” Ida said. Betty didn’t seem to be the type to show off. That car of hers was Raymond’s doing.
“Miz Hubert says they want four bedrooms so Eddie and Ray Jr. can each have their own and they don’t have to share when people come to visit.”
That made sense to Ida, if they could afford it. She knew Betty thought they were friends, and she did too, a little. But Ida also knew her getting a paycheck every week made it something different than friendship.
The bus lurched to a stop, and they stepped off. Ida felt pinpricks of drizzle on her cheek as they crossed the road and went into a small corner market where she picked up a half-gallon of milk, oatmeal, bacon, a bottle of aspirin, and the afternoon paper for her father.
They walked on the hard-packed sand street under live oak trees that formed a canopy over the neighborhood to the sturdy, wood-frame, shotgun house where Ida was raised. When her mother died of cancer a few years back, Ida, Matthew, and Percy moved in to help her father who was retired from the railroad and had health problems.
The rain came just as they arrived home, playing a tune on the tin roof as they took off their shoes on the front porch and went inside.
“Hey Pop, how’re you doing?” Percy waved to his grandfather and went down the hall to his room.
“Sorry we’re late.” Ida kissed Pop on the cheek and took the grocery bag into the kitchen.
“If you worked the morning shift at the cigar factory down on Twentieth Street, you’d be back here by three,” Pop said loud enough for Ida to hear.
Ida came back wearing an apron with pictures of sunflowers, ignoring his comment. She didn’t want to work in a cigar factory. Pop’s suggestion was part of his campaign to get her away from housekeeping and start working a job with more independence. She handed him the newspaper and began pulling the windows closed.
“You keep saying you’re tired of cleaning some white lady’s toilets to put food on the table,” Pop said. “Like that woman in Arlington, who piled six kids worth of laundry on you like they were running a hotel, with the agency saying ...”
“... with the agency saying laundry wasn’t included, but her saying it was if I wanted to keep the job.” Ida closed the window next to the front door and pulled down the shade.
“Yes, ma’am.” Pop nodded as Ida removed a stick holding up a single-hung window near the dining table and guided it closed.
“And how I babysat the Robinsons’ kids, not included, mowed their lawn, not included; with them bouncing between patronizing and demanding. Then Miz Robinson fires me when I tell that boy of theirs who cussed me to shut up before I wash your mouth out with soap.”
She felt herself starting to get mad and didn’t want to ruin the evening. “Any mail?”
“Sears catalog holiday edition.” Pop pointed to a thick book on the coffee table. “The wish book, they call it. What are you wishing for this year?”
Ida had thought she might get Percy a winter coat, but not what she might want for herself. “I don’t know, Pop. What do you want?”
“You getting that certificate in Secretarial I looked into would be a nice gift to me, and to yourself. You think about that?” Pop had offered to pay for a correspondence course in office work—typing and organizing, how to set up a filing system, commonly used terms and etiquette.
“Pop, I wish you’d back off on that. I got enough on me these days.” The Huberts aren’t so bad, Ida thought, compared to the others. She closed the last window and sat down on the lumpy couch next to her father.
“Listen, baby. You heard this before but ...”
“... but I learned early on what my father knew and, yes, his father before him. You think all those people, raising their kids like little Hitlers disdaining anybody who isn’t white, and them all smiley to your face ‘cause deep down they’re all cowards... You think they give a shit about you havin’ a good life, bein’ happy?”
Ida knew Pop was right, but one day followed the next and she was always busy. She took a deep breath and listened to the wind as it blew around the trees outside and whistled through the attic. The house flexed with the seasons like it was part of them—chilly in the winter even with the gas stove in the hall running on full, warm in the summer but not so bad under all the trees, trembling in the fall wind, like now.
“You and me and that boy of yours in there, we need to carve out our own sweet place in this world. Ain’t nobody else goin’ to do it for us, least of all the white man.”
She didn’t need a fancy house, fancy car, fancy everything. All she wanted was to earn a steady income without giving up her self-respect in exchange, so they didn’t have to worry about bills and had enough money for Percy to go to college someday if he wanted to. And office work was better than rolling cigars in some sweatshop.
“When’s Matthew back from the route?” Pop asked.
“He’s in Brunswick Thursday, back here Friday morning. I think we’ll take Percy out to the beach this weekend.” American Beach was a colored-only beach up in Nassau County. She felt free there, not surrounded by white people she had to try to please, make allowances for, and cater to. “Recreation and relaxation without humiliation,” the brochure said, and it was true.
Pop smiled and nodded. “Y’all go on. I’ll stay here and hold down the fort.”
Ida hugged Pop’s neck good night, cleaned up the kitchen and made sure Percy got his bath. Then she went in her and Matthew’s room and started filling out the application.
As the Hubert family ate spaghetti and meatballs at the dining table, Raymond watched the news on the television in the den while Betty described River Plantation.
“And there’s a big stone fireplace in the living room, and a big porch across the back too. And you should see the kitchen!”
Raymond had come to understand his wife’s obsession with looking at new houses all tricked out with swimming pools and furniture, the more expensive the better. She never had much growing up and always aspired to more, something they had in common. “It’s you and me against the world,” he told her the day they were married.
“Mr. L’Engle and his wife moved to River Plantation last year, got a big place on the canal,” Raymond said.
“See? It’s even good enough for your boss! And they have garages not carports. You’d just love the Mt. Vernon.”
“Mt. Vernon. I can guess what that looks like,” Raymond said. “By the way, I got assigned to the courthouse project today.” He was hoping to talk the client into something more up to date than the usual variation on colonial, something with lots of glass, clean lines and interior spaces that flowed into each other.
“That’s nice. And the boys would go to a different school, too, a new one in the county district.”
“And it has four bedrooms, so the boys won’t have to bunk together when we have overnight guests.”
“Finally,” Ray Jr. said.
Eddie tossed a piece of spaghetti at his brother that sailed over Ray Jr.’s head and stuck to the wall instead.
“What a sissy,” Ray Jr. said, jumping up from his chair.
“Quiet boys,” Raymond said. A television announcer interrupted the regular program for a special report, a speech from President Kennedy at the White House:
“Good evening my fellow citizens. This government has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is in preparation...to provide a nuclear strike capability...”
The president called the action “deliberately provocative” and announced the immediate naval blockade of Cuba. He also called upon Chairman Khrushchev to “halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace.”
“So that’s why we couldn’t get on the new expressway today,” Betty said. “The Army must be sending troops and tanks down to Homestead.”
“Daddy, is there going to be a war?” Eddie asked.
“No.” Raymond wasn’t sure one way or the other, but it seemed like the right thing to say. “You boys finished eating?”
Eddie nodded. Ray Jr. pretended to balance a bazooka on his shoulder and fire at the television. “BAAM. BAAM.”
“Calm down, boys,” Raymond said. “Betty, tell us more about the house.”
“The school is in the county district. Did I mention that?”
Betty backed through the swinging door into the kitchen with dirty spaghetti plates in her arms and returned with the River Plantation brochure. She placed it on the table in front of Raymond, whispering in his ear as she reached for his empty iced-tea glass. “The salesman said it’s restricted.”
Raymond glanced at her, then the boys.
“Don’t tell me you weren’t wondering,” Betty said.
Raymond knew how things worked. At the firm, Negroes were given janitorial and security jobs, but not much else. Architects, assistants, and even secretarial positions always went to whites. “There’s none of them qualified for anything else,” his boss Mr. L’Engle told Raymond.
Eddie and Ray Jr. left the table and Betty went into the kitchen to wash the dinner dishes. Raymond flipped through the brochure—a photo of a lake with a fountain, drawing of a typical streetscape after the trees matured. He stopped on the page with a drawing and floorplan of the Mt. Vernon model.
So this is the one Betty was so excited about, he thought. Traditional wasn’t his thing, but he had to admit it was well-designed and appropriately scaled. Nothing like the cramped, wood-frame rowhouse with aluminum siding where Raymond grew up in Weehawken that was recently torn down and replaced by an expressway on-ramp.
This was a house his father would instantly hate. Too grand, he would say. He was proud to be a plumber, to work with his hands, not like those pie-in-the-sky architects in suits and fancy shoes, like Raymond, bringing clients to the jobsite to complicate things, to make themselves seem necessary. Raymond worked his way through a small state school. He had a lot to prove.
Betty made an appointment with the salesman in a few days. Raymond decided to go down and take a look, if they weren’t all blown to bits by then.
The following Wednesday, the family met Bob at the River Plantation sales office for a tour of the property. Raymond was impressed with the construction quality. Hurricane-proof reinforced concrete block walls with brick veneer facing, custom wood windows with working shutters, high-quality, insulated sliding glass doors, everything good and tight. And it was spacious, like Betty said, with four bedrooms and a utility room separate from the garage. He couldn’t pretend he wouldn’t enjoy living there, but how could they ever afford it?
Later that afternoon, they were given a tour of River South Elementary by the principal, Mrs. DeLaney Putnam, a woman in her mid-fifties with deftly applied white powder makeup and a shock of grey hair teased into a stern, round helmet.
“This is even better than the school in Jersey,” Betty noted as they sat down in front of the desk in Mrs. Putnam’s office. Eight air-conditioned classrooms in each of three wings extended from a central administration building with a cafeteria, assembly hall, art room, nurse’s station, and “quiet room” where first graders took naps. Raymond noticed children Ray Jr.’s age playing kickball in a field outside, next to a reduced-scale baseball diamond lighted for night play.
“I didn’t show you everything, either. This is a school day and we don’t want to interrupt. You understand,” Mrs. Putnam said. “We also have a library, a science lab, and a full-time physical education teacher. I noticed you saw the play field, Mr. Hubert.”
“Yes, I did. It’s much better than Emerson, where our boys are now.”
“I know what you mean.” Mrs. Roselle pursed her lips. “Under the current circumstances, it’s difficult for them to attract the best teachers. Anything else today?”
Betty noticed the boys fidget on the couch under the window. “Nothing I can think of.”
“There is one more thing, now that I think about it,” Mrs. Putnam said. “Y’all being from up north and all, you might not know to ask.” She moved a stapler from one side of her desk blotter to the other. “Since the court decision in ‘54, some of the schools up in Jacksonville are mixed. Mostly high schools, you know, but some elementary, too, like Emerson.”
“Mixed?” Betty asked.
“Integrated.” Mrs. Putnam thrust her chin forward, touching her teased hair with her fingertips. “We are too, technically, but being in the county system, we don’t have as much...concentration.” She aligned the stapler precisely against the edge of the blotter. “We have just one here at River South Elementary.”
“One?” Betty thought she must seem like she wasn’t too bright. That happened a lot down here.
Mrs. Putnam straightened up in her chair and raised her voice. “One Nigrah, you know.” The corner of her lip pointed down. “So don’t y’all worry. Your boys will be fine.”
Mrs. Putnam escorted the Huberts back to the school entrance. Just as they turned the corner to the entrance hall, a siren rang out from a large metal speaker attached to the top of a telephone pole in the parking lot out front.
“Don’t worry,” Mrs. Putnam said. “It’s just a drill, duck and cover. Everybody under a table, right quick.”
Raymond and Betty each grabbed one of the boys and pulled them under one of two library tables positioned against a nearby wall. After thirty seconds, the alarm stopped and they all stood up, brushing dust off slacks and skirts.
“Y’all come back soon now, you ’heah?”
Raymond piloted the Buick down the four-lane highway toward home. The top was up, and the boys were both quiet in the back seat.
“What do you think?” Betty asked.
“About the house?”
“Yes, about the house, and the school, all of it.” Raymond hadn’t said much in front of Bob. Betty assumed it was some kind of negotiating ploy.
“The school is much better than Emerson, that’s for sure, probably because it’s not integrated. These people down here...”
“I know, I know,” Betty said, shaking her head. They passed under the expressway. Orange wood barriers blocked cars from the entrance ramps. “I see it too. But we have to think about the boys.”
They continued for another mile or so then turned into Southwood—power lines drooped from one creosote pole to another, mosquito-infested drainage ditches rather than storm sewers, carports rather than garages, no sidewalks or tree-lined streets.
Raymond turned in the driveway, moved the shift lever into park, and switched off the engine. “I’m not too keen on it,” he said softly, trying not to upset Betty. “We can’t realistically afford the payments, can’t even afford to furnish the place after we move in. The country club is nice enough and I could start back with tennis, but the initiation fee is even more than the down payment on the house, which we don’t have, either.”
They sat quietly in the car and the engine ticked as it cooled down. Betty looked out the windshield at the gray concrete block wall and remembered the view of the Mt. Vernon from the street. She wanted desperately to move and thought they could find a way somehow, financially. But Raymond was conservative about money, and he wasn’t comfortable with it. And she didn’t want to make a fuss.
“This place isn’t so bad, is it?” Ray asked.
“Not so bad.” Betty looked into his eyes—earnest, steady, and kind. She ran her finger gently down the side of his face. She was tired of the ups and downs, anyway, getting all excited then falling back down to earth. “Maybe we should give it another year, see how things go.”
They smiled and kissed.
Raymond pulled away. “Oh, Christ, I forgot to tell you. Mr. L’Engle invited us over for dinner day after tomorrow. I told him we were looking at the house and ...”
“Your boss asked us over for dinner in two days?” Betty hit Raymond’s shoulder playfully with her balled up fist just as the door to the utility room opened and Ida’s head appeared.
Stephen L’Engle was around fifty, dressed in a Harris Tweed jacket, white oxford shirt and alligator shoes—a robust man at the top of his form. His wife Evelyn was about the same age, with shrewd eyes, soft grey hair swept up into a chignon, and a regal bearing that inspired respect from everyone she met.
The bell rang and they both arrived in the foyer at the same moment.
“What are their names again?” Evelyn asked as a gentle breeze from the canal drifted through the house.
“Raymond and Betty Hubert. He’s a keeper, knows about all that modern stuff clients think they’re supposed to want these days. The wife, well she’s ...”
“... a little rough?”
Stephen nodded, and she opened the door, smiling.
A servant collected coats and served drinks in front of a huge coquina-rock fireplace in the living room. Evelyn led a tour of the house, a scaled-up version of the Belle Meade model customized with higher ceilings, a library, and five bedrooms instead of three.
Dinner was delicious–New Orleans Beef Grillades with risotto, and candied yams served on dishware painted with street scenes of St. Augustine. Probably not their best china and silver, Betty noted, but not paper plates, either.
“How is the courthouse project coming?” Mr. L’Engle asked Raymond as they finished a peach cobbler dessert, and the servant who took their coats poured coffee. “You fellas got a proposal ready for the county?”
“We put some ideas together.” Raymond was nervous. “It’s not exactly what people are accustomed to down here, a little modern, you know, but they’ll come around.”
“They’ll come around doesn’t sound too good to me. You need to sell, sell, sell. Show ‘em pictures of that new courthouse that opened down in Orlando last year. Clean, modern buildings are going up in every downtown in America these days.” Mr. L’Engle removed the cloth napkin from under his collar and put it on the table. “Bring it by my office before y’all present.”
“You a golfer?”
“Not really, Mr. L’Engle. I played tennis in Jersey.”
“Call me Stephen.”
“Yes, sir, thank you, sir,” Raymond said. “At my firm up north, we worked with the State of New Jersey on an office building, concrete and glass, with ...”
“You should learn. Too much jumpin’ around with tennis. Golf is the best game for selling, plenty of time for chit-chat while y’all drive around in a cart.”
Betty had never seen Raymond so nervous. He was a superstar, as far as she was concerned, but Mr. L’Engle was treating him like some wannabe. She decided to change the subject.
“You have a lovely home, Evelyn.”
“Thank you dear. We moved out from the city a couple years back.”
“Right after that disturbance in Hemming Park downtown,” Stephen said. “One of those lunch counter sit-ins got violent when some good men from the community tried to encourage the coloreds to move along. Then a colored street gang came in and...”
“Now Steve, let’s not get into all that,” Evelyn said.
“Axe Handle Riot they called it, even made it into the New York Times, set our business recruiting efforts at the chamber of commerce back ten years.” Stephen waved his hand in the general direction of downtown.
Betty looked at Raymond.
“Worst stock market crash since ‘29 back in May, market down twenty-two percent in one day, Russians taking over Cuba. And on top of it all, these demonstrations. What is it the coloreds want anyway?” Stephen made his hand into a fist and pounded on the table. “Progress will happen, in its own sweet time.”
“Don’t worry, dear,” Evelyn said, touching Betty’s arm. “We’re safe here at River Plantation. It’s restricted.” She caught Stephen’s eye, tilted up her head and pursed her lips.
Stephen lowered his voice and turned toward Raymond. “I’ve heard good things about you, son. They tell me you’re doing a fine job with the team.”
Raymond nodded, his mouth full of risotto.
“There’s a lot to learn, though. Down south, business is done in private—clubs, restaurants, church gatherings, places where decision-makers gather. Just this week I was over at the country club here in River Plantation and made the acquaintance of two gentlemen interested in developing a nice piece of property out at the beach...”
Evelyn smiled at Betty. “They’re gonna talk shop for a while. So, tell me, are you two enjoying our Southland? Stephen tells me you have two young boys at home.”
Betty brightened. “Yes, we’re getting used to things. Ray Jr. is in third grade and Eddie just started first, both at Emerson Elementary. They love the beach.”
“Isn’t that nice. You can take them downtown to the symphony, too. The matinees on Saturday are wonderful for children.”
“Oh. Okay, sure. You guys are from here then?”
“Born and bred, generations back.” Evelyn provided a summary of their lives—two children, a daughter at the University of Florida and a son at The Citadel, a military college in Charleston. They were active in the Founders Club at the Cummer Gallery, went shopping in Atlanta a couple times each year, and skiing in the North Carolina mountains in the winter.
“You two meeting people, making friends?” Evelyn asked. “Joining a church is a good way to...”
“Oh, the churches! They ring our bell twice a day at least. They never give up!”
“Not all churches, dear,” Evelyn chuckled. “And you must always be polite.”
“I know, I know.” Betty took a mouthful of white wine. The strong taste made her tongue pucker, and she swallowed quickly.
“I host a book group. You’re welcome to join. We meet here every two weeks, just us girls. You should come join us next time, see if you’re comfortable.”
“Oh, I’d love to. Thank you so much, Evelyn.”
“Time for the news!” Stephen said. He and Raymond pushed their chairs back from the table, and Raymond led the way to the library. “We’ve been watching this Cuba business pretty closely.”
Betty and Evelyn followed, taking places on a couch near the fireplace, and Raymond stood nearby leaning on the mantle. Stephen turned on the television and fiddled with the antenna for a moment before the black-and-white picture cleared, and he moved to a recliner by the window. On the television screen, Russian ships turned away from what looked like a row of American ships.
“That’s the blockade,” Stephen said, as a reporter summarized the situation.
... the nation was a hair’s-breath from nuclear Armageddon yesterday, when Soviet ships came close to breaching the American naval blockade. Just moments before American ships were rammed, Soviet vessels hit the brakes and turned around. In a victory for President Kennedy and his advisors, the naval movements today suggest the Russian fleet will not dispute the blockade, which could change the dynamics.... High level talks are ongoing...
“Looks like the Russians stood down,” Raymond said.
“That’s right, but it isn’t over yet,” Stephen said. “The communists are still at our doorstep. We all need to pull together.”
Evelyn looked at Betty and rolled her eyes. The news reporter had been replaced by a commentator who read from a script:
... Castro will break down. It’s just a matter of time. He and the Russians can’t compete with us, with All Men Created Equal.
Evelyn helped Betty with her coat in the front hall as they prepared to leave.
“I’ll call you on the book club, hon.”
“Congratulations, Betty,” Stephen said. “You’ve graduated to hon.” They all laughed.
“Thank you for inviting us. We had a great time,” Raymond said as he and Stephen shook hands.
“As did we, son. And keep in mind what we talked about. We’re keeping an eye on you, Ray.” Stephen removed a pipe from his inside jacket pocket in preparation for his after-dinner smoke.
A few days after Betty and Raymond’s triumph at the L’Engles, the Cuba mess got resolved and the rest of their year was a blur. Business at L’Engle, Smith & Dale was slow—the roller-coaster economy made customers jittery—and Raymond’s Christmas bonus was half what he expected. The Huberts went up to New Jersey for the week between Christmas and New Year’s. They stayed with the boys’ grandmother in a narrow asphalt shingle-covered row house in Hoboken with burglar bars on the windows and concrete where a flower garden used to be out front. Sleeping in Betty’s old room was a vivid reminder of the cramped, joyless way of life she had been determined to overcome when she married Raymond.
Soon after they arrived from the airport, the boys were antsy, so Raymond took them for a walk in the snow while Betty unpacked. Betty’s mother had always been a hypochondriac, suffering for years with one ill-defined ailment after another that supposedly prevented her from having a normal life. She never forgave Betty for abandoning her, moving across the country to be a big fish in a little pond as she put it. Her only relative nearby was her brother in Jersey City, Betty’s uncle, who her mother hadn’t spoken to in years.
Betty tried to make the best of the situation while she hung up Raymond’s shirts and placed the boys’ clothes in the chest of drawers where she stored her own sweaters as a teenager. Conversation with her mother was awkward. She claimed Betty’s accent was changing and asked if she was becoming a southern belle, half kidding and half not. She was one to talk, Betty thought, with that mawkish working-class Jersey accent. Would that be so bad?
After a week in Hoboken, the Huberts spent an awkward New Year’s Eve with Raymond’s parents a few miles away. They weren’t accustomed to having kids around and seemed bothered by the boys’ antics, spurred on by the enthusiastic crowds in Times Square on television. Raymond’s father wasn’t too interested in hearing about Florida. He had recently been laid off from his plumbing job and they were planning to retire to a mobile home park downstate near Atlantic City.
Ida and Matthew took Pop and Percy to visit Matthew’s uncle Percy in Savannah over the holidays. Percy’s namesake practiced civil rights law and had recently lost the Alderman election to the city council there by only two hundred votes. When Ida first met Uncle Percy and his wife Lavinia, they seemed high-toned. They lived in a big, three-story brick house across the street from Forsyth Park with a huge fountain and lots of Magnolia trees draped with Spanish moss. The first floor was Uncle Percy’s legal office. The second was the main entrance, with the front door on a landing reached from the street by brick stairs with beautiful wrought iron railings; quite lah-dee- dah.
But they weren’t rich. Aunt Lavinia was expert at extracting every possible discount from grocery coupons. Their two girls were on scholarship at Armstrong State College and rode the bus to the campus every day. The house was beautiful, but it had been built during slavery days and was practically falling down. Half the windows didn’t open. Two bathrooms were completely closed off, and a third-story porch out back sloped down so much Ida forbid Percy to go out there. Two similar houses on the other side of the park had been restored recently, one by a white family with two children, and the other by two middle-aged men from Atlanta. Uncle Percy and Aunt Lavinia’s place looked shabby in comparison.
Uncle Percy joked that he didn’t need an elaborate office or big car in his line of work, “just a good suit, well pressed, and a big mouth.” Many of his clients were pro bono, civil rights cases important for what he called “the movement.” They didn’t go on vacation much and couldn’t afford health insurance, Ida noted, but they were doing important things.
Ida had begun the correspondence course in Secretarial and brought classwork with her on the trip. She didn’t have any great enthusiasm for office work at first, just took the classes to please Pop, but the more she learned about it, the more she liked it. She imagined herself sitting at a clean desk with her own telephone, typing important letters, filling out forms just right. Like Uncle Percy in his law practice, she knew she’d never get rich at it. And it might seem pretty low to most folks—waiting on white men in offices instead of white women in houses—but it was skilled, professional work outside the domestic realm with well-dressed, polite people who treated each other with dignity and respect.
On the drive back home, Percy announced that he planned to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and run for the Jacksonville city council, when he was older. Matthew and Ida smiled at each other, and he squeezed her hand.
As promised, Evelyn included Betty in the book group. Harriet, at seventy the oldest member by fifteen years, wasn’t sure about having a Yankee gal involved. But when Evelyn suggested the group select Gone with the Wind as their next book “to help educate the new member about our history,” Harriet agreed. The meetings were at Evelyn’s home, elegant affairs that included two hours of reading and literary discussion at ten, lunch on the deck overlooking the canal at noon; then reading book reviews aloud followed by early cocktails at three. “They make a day of it,” Betty giggled to Ray when she arrived long after he had come home from the office on the afternoon of the first meeting, slightly drunk.
Betty was youngest of the ten women and the only one with elementary school-age children. Three had college degrees in the humanities, and one, a former Miss Florida, had been to finishing school. Most were involved in a charity–Vivian, the head of the local United Fund drive, Nettie Lou, a minister’s wife, Georgia, married to a committee chairman in the state legislature in Tallahassee who made sure that Florida A&M University, “the Negro school with a wonderful marching band,” was fully funded most years, in spite of the obvious challenges involved with teaching students who were “less well-equipped.”
At first, Betty thought her comments must have sounded silly. Like when she said Reconstruction had been a good thing, and the women helped her understand that it was actually cruel and set up expectations that could never be met. They were eager to educate Betty about what Evelyn called “the messy reality of the Negro situation on the southern ground.”
“All the current fuss with the coloreds is overblown,” Harriet announced. “The constant coverage of sit-ins and demonstrations and such in the newspapers and on television just gets them all stirred up.” Some of the conversations seemed odd to Betty, but all the women were unfailingly polite. They referred her to the best doctors in the city and regularly brought presents for the boys. Betty went to Evelyn’s hairdresser and began wearing her hair longer and softer than she had up north. She felt welcome in the group, as long as she was polite and avoided certain subjects.
Then the first week of February arrived, and all hell broke loose when Ray Jr. and Percy got into a fistfight at school. It all started when the boys were assigned to kickball teams that were, in keeping with long-standing tradition, known as the Yankees and the Rebels. At Emerson, there were usually enough Negroes and Yankee expatriates from the Jewish and Catholic neighborhoods to cobble together a Yankee team. All the other boys, white southerners, made up the Rebel team.
Percy and Eddie were considered Yankees, of course. But Ray Jr. had perfected a full-throated Rebel yell and loved showing it off at every opportunity to make sure his friends in third grade knew he was one of them, so he ended up with the Rebels.
One Friday morning, the teams were assembling on opposite ends of the yard when Ray Jr. gave Percy a shove as they passed each other behind a hedge. Percy shoved back and the two ended up in a fistfight, or as much of one as a seven-year-old and an eight-year-old can manage. By the time the sixth-grade teacher/coach broke them up, Ray Jr. had a nasty cut on his lip, and they were both in serious trouble.
The assistant principal arrived at Betty’s house with both boys, knowing Ida would likely be there as well, and a difference of opinion emerged.
“He did it. Look at this,” Ray Jr. said, pointing to the cut on his lip, long since covered with a band-aid by the third-grade teacher/nurse.
“He started it,” Percy said, pointing to Ray Jr.
“I did not! Ask Eddie! He was right behind me!”
In the uncomfortable position of having to choose between his brother and his best friend, Eddie did what any six-year-old would do. He started crying.
“Oh, stop this,” Ida said, grabbing Percy’s arm. “It don’t matter who started what. Both you boys are responsible. You hear that, Percy?”
Betty and Ida thanked the assistant principal for his help and assured him nothing like this would ever happen again. Betty suggested Ida and Percy go home early to give the boys some breathing room, and Ray Jr. was sent to his room for the rest of the day.
When Raymond came home from work at the usual time, Betty could tell something was wrong. But she wanted to get what happened between the boys out in the open and related the day’s events at school.
“Well, who started it?” Raymond shuffled through the liquor cabinet in the dining area until he found a half-empty bottle of scotch and filled a glass.
“I don’t know, each one blames the other.”
“So they both screwed up, big deal.” Raymond sat on a dining chair and looked out the sliding glass door at the small back yard surrounded by a chain-link fence.
“I know. That’s what Ida said.” Betty stood next to Raymond’s chair with her hand on his shoulder, following his gaze outside. “But Percy’s bigger than Ray, even if he is a year younger. And you know how the Negroes are down here.”
Ray put the glass down on the table and looked up at Betty. “What does that mean?”
“Nothing. You just have to watch them, understand what they’re capable of. We were talking about this at Evelyn’s last week.”
“What they’re capable of? He’s only eight years old, Betty. And what’s he doing with that Confederate battle flag taped to his bedroom wall?”
She turned around, facing him. “It’s not a big deal. He just wants to fit in,” she said. “And it’s a symbol of honor and sacrifice, too.”
Raymond refreshed his glass, screwed the cap on the bottle and stood up.
“I’m sure Percy just had trouble restraining himself. I’m not sure he’s such a good influence on Eddie. Evelyn says...”
“Evelyn, Evelyn, Evelyn...”
“She has years and years of experience in these matters, Ray. And she’s helping me understand things. I think it might be better if Percy goes home in the afternoons instead of spending time here with Eddie.”
Raymond noticed Eddie climb out the trap door on the fort in the backyard, a tall feather attached to the side of his red fedora blowing in the breeze. He looked up, smiled, and waved at his father. Raymond waved back.
“I understand southern people better than you do. You have to admire how they’ve risen from the ashes of defeat despite their ... burden.” Betty could tell his mind was a million miles away. “What’s your news?”
“The firm lost the competition for the new courthouse. I showed our modern proposal to the partners and they loved it. We had their full support, went into the meeting with the county feeling good.” Raymond returned the bottle to the cabinet. “But the county went for a proposal from Hill/Latrobe, a big box with some strange columns along one side and a massive parking lot in the front.”
“Oh, no. What did Stephen say?”
“It’s back to Mr. L’Engle, now. He blames me, even though the partners approved it, says I spent too much time on the design instead of getting close to the decision makers, making them comfortable. But the mayor’s son-in-law works for Hill/Latrobe. I can’t beat that.”
“I’m sorry, honey,” Betty said.
“He said it’s not enough to have good ideas. I need to be able to sell them if I want to make partner. It’s time to play ball, son.” Raymond deepened his voice and added a Southern twang like Stephen’s.
The next day, Betty told Ida that Percy couldn’t stay at their house in the afternoons anymore, “to keep peace between the boys.”
“Did Eddie see what happened?” Ida asked as she washed the breakfast dishes. Betty usually dried, but today she leaned against the doorjamb with her arms folded.
“No. I’m sure he has nothing to say.”
Ida looked at Betty over her shoulder. Their eyes met and Betty’s face turned pink.
“Let’s scrub the kitchen floor after you’re finished with the dishes, Ida. It’s been a while.” Betty turned around and left the room, allowing the swinging door to slam back and forth on the hinge without catching it with her hand like she usually did.
Ida knew Percy didn’t start it. He told her and she believed him. It was a small thing, one of many slights she had recently chosen to ignore; like when Betty asked her and Percy to eat lunch in the kitchen instead of the dining room with her and Eddie, or when she spelled out the chores to be done in writing, as if Ida might forget to empty the wastebaskets or vacuum under the couch, after all this time. She also knew nothing could possibly be gained by confronting Betty.
A few minutes after Ida and Percy left, Betty was in the kitchen sprinkling sparkles on a rack of cookies before they went in the oven when Eddie pushed open the swinging door and sat at the breakfast table.
“Sweetie, what happened with your brother and Percy?”
“What do you mean?”
“About the fight at school. You remember.”
Eddie’s soft, green eyes filled with tears. He was so cute, sometimes he looked like a puppy. Betty wouldn’t dream of punishing him no matter what happened, but she had to know.
“It’s all right, sweetie. Did your brother start it?”
Eddie nodded. “Percy was walking from the sidewalk, um, across the field to the Yankee’s team and Ray, um, sort of pushed him. Then his third-grade friends cheered and things just started up.”
Eddie’s version didn’t seem too exact, but Betty figured out the important part, that it wasn’t Percy’s fault, that Ray Jr. started the fight, probably to impress his friends. And Eddie didn’t rat on his brother in front of the assistant principal because he wanted to be one of the cool kids, too.
Eddie sat nursing his sniffles while Betty applied sparkles on the last few cookies, put the rack in the oven and turned on the timer.
“Mommy, is it a lie when you don’t tell everything you know?”
“It can be, but some situations are complicated.” Betty remembered something Harriet said at their last book club meeting, that there was a certain habit of mind in the south that allowed people to see things that weren’t logical as true, in the larger context. “Like in church,” she’d said. “All that rising from the dead stuff isn’t logical, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”
Betty kissed the top of Eddie’s head and looked into his eyes. “Let’s keep this stuff about the fight between us, okay sweetie?”
Ida and Matthew sat in their coats on a large blanket on top of the sand dune, watching the waves slowly roll in beyond The Rendezvous, a bar in a low brick building just above the tide line. It was closed for the season, like the other storefront businesses along the palm-lined main street that connected the swimming beach and a few big houses on the oceanfront to most of the rental cabins.
American Beach in the first week of February was cold, but Ida had to get away from the city for a couple of days after the tense exchange with Miz Hubert. It was a relief to be in a place where her every waking moment wasn’t a calculation of what any white person nearby might be thinking or expecting. Matthew had had a busy week, driving their ten-year old Chevrolet on the long route through Brunswick, Woodbine and the other little towns off Route 17 up to Savannah to collect insurance payments from customers in rusting trailers and old shotgun houses with leaky roofs and peeling paint.
“Percy can take the bus home by himself in the afternoons,” Ida said. “He did it before. And Pop will be home, so it’s not like he’d be there alone. We’ll manage, like we always do.”
“He’s a little man. You know it.”
“I bet Miz Hubert didn’t even ask Eddie what happened. She just assumed Percy started it.”
“That’s just white people,” Matthew said. Some of the folks he collected insurance payments from were white. He knew to take his hat off and bow a little when he asked for the monthly payment, like he was ashamed to even mention it. And he knew not to approach the front door if people were arguing inside. White folks usually wanted black folks to think they didn’t have a problem in the world.
“I thought she was different. We were getting along just fine. Maybe I said something ...”
“Don’t assume it was you.”
A cold breeze swept up the dune and Ida buttoned her coat. “Sometimes I get tired of dealing with white people’s problems.”
“Then you’re in the wrong line of work,” Matthew said, chuckling as he put his arm around her.
“But you don’t have to at Afro-American,” Ida said. “I wish I could work there, Matthew. My course is coming right along. We’ve talked about this before. Why can’t I just...”
“You know the rules, baby,” Matthew said. Afro-American required a credential for secretarial positions and Ida wasn’t finished with her correspondence course yet. They stood up and rubbed sand off their legs and packed up the remains of their picnic lunch.
“But I’ll graduate by the end of the year. Maybe there’s a junior position, trainee, or something like that, just to get my foot in the door.” Ida put the plates, cups and utensils from their lunch into a picnic sack as she thought about what Pop told her ... we got to carve out our own sweet place in this world. Matthew collected their trash in a grocery bag and dropped it in a container nearby.
The wind kicked up and the sun slanted in the western sky as they made their way through the deep sand back to the cabins at the land side of the dune. Matthew knew if Ida was fired from another maid position the agency would stop sending her out. And they needed the money she brought in, with his commissions down like they had been lately.
He clasped her hand and they stopped, her eyes bright and clear with a trace of sadness. A tear slowly rolled down her cheek and he took her in his arms.
“I’ll ask around again. Maybe there’s something.”
The next few weeks in the Hubert household were difficult. Betty and Ida were polite on the surface, but an undercurrent of tension simmered beneath their measured smiles and Ida’s diligent work. No more shared recipes, lunches, or chatting about the kids. Ida stuck to the list Betty made every day and kept quiet. Eddie and Percy still saw each other at school, but Betty told Eddie to keep his distance.
Then early one Saturday morning in April, Betty’s uncle in Jersey City called to relay the news: Betty’s mother had had a stroke the night before and was not expected to live. Betty rushed to New Jersey and went straight to the hospital from the airport, but by the time she arrived, her mother had passed away. Her brother Stan lived in Dallas and couldn’t be bothered handling arrangements or even coming to the poorly attended funeral service two weeks later. “We weren’t close,” he said. “Why pretend?”
Betty was left to sift through her mother’s things by herself, a huge task that involved unpacking boxes in the cellar that hadn’t been opened in decades. Most of it was junk not worth saving—old broken lamps, empty coffee cans, moth-eaten sweaters, brochures from retirement communities in Sarasota. Stacks of House & Garden magazine from the 1940s and ’50s covered the top of an old desk, the corners turned down on pictures of beautifully decorated Dutch Colonial homes on large, suburban lots, houses that bore no resemblance to the narrow rowhouse in Hoboken full of second-hand furniture and piles of the Newark Star-Ledger. Betty couldn’t help noticing how few family photos her mother had saved over the years, two pictures from her wedding at Niagara Falls, one of Betty and Stan as children grinning next to a Christmas tree, another from Stan’s college graduation.
She felt a little responsible for her mother’s cramped and narrow existence. She had never involved her in the boys’ lives when they still lived nearby, never invited her to visit them in Florida, knowing the modest house in Southwood would confirm their move had not been the stunning success portrayed in Betty’s letters. There was a small inheritance but nothing for Stan, which made her feel even more guilty.
Betty returned to Florida and her life continued. Business at L’Engle, Smith & Dale had not picked up in the new year, and Raymond was afraid Mr. L’Engle might have to make some adjustments to staff if they didn’t bring in some new clients, so they put off using the inheritance to start a college fund for the boys, just in case. She looked forward to the book-group gatherings and had even managed to win over Harriet, who invited her to tea at a ramshackle old house straight out of a horror movie in a declining neighborhood near downtown. But as time wore on, she began feeling like a poor relation, ashamed of her plain dresses, the awkwardly presented congealed salads Ida prepared as her contribution to the potluck desert table. She suspected she’d never have a life of comfort and grace like most of the other ladies, the life she had always wanted, the life her mother had always wanted but never managed to secure for herself.
On June 1st, Betty threw a birthday party for Ray Jr. Raymond took the day off from work and they made a big deal of it. Betty baked four separate small cakes, each one a train car connected to the others with a stick of licorice. It was a lot of work and the kids loved it. Ray Jr. even invited his friends from the Rebel team. To Betty’s surprise, Eddie invited Percy, the only Negro there. They apparently had remained friends and palled around at school just like before.
Once the kids were no longer distracted by presents and cake, things became awkward. Percy’s presence, this time with Eddie at his side, seemed to provoke Ray Jr. They almost had a replay of the incident in the schoolyard until Raymond intervened, sending everyone home.
Two days after the birthday party, Ida had just left for the day and Betty was getting ready to go to Winn-Dixie when the phone rang. It was Bob, the salesman from River Plantation.
“Betty, we have a limited-time special you and Raymond might be interested in. Country club initiation paid in full if y’all buy a home by July first,” Bob said breathlessly. “A Mt. Vernon like the one you liked so much just fell out of escrow. It’s not on the canal, but it has a golf-course view and it’s ready to move into now! You folks qualify for low interest rate government-backed financing, too. The Feds want to get the right people in here. If y’all are ever going to buy, now is the time.”
Betty thanked Bob and hung the telephone in a cradle mounted on the kitchen wall. Disentangling the phone cord, she remembered the beautiful houses her mother had marked in the magazines and retirement brochures; a lifetime of dreams never acted upon. She imagined stepping over the threshold of her Mt. Vernon for the first time, except it got mixed up in her mind with Evelyn’s house, with higher ceilings and a library, women from the book club politely chatting in the living room, a breeze blowing in from the canal through the open sliding glass doors.
She removed a package of lemon Kool-Aid from a cabinet and mixed it into a pitcher of water. She filled a glass and took a drink to steady herself as she looked out the kitchen window at the backyard and the army of saplings beyond.
Then she put down the glass and dialed Raymond’s office.
“No, Betty. We can’t afford it. And I’ve been thinking,” Raymond said, lowering his voice. “Things aren’t working out for me here. Maybe we should go back north, start fresh. I could do residential work. Lots of subdivisions going in up there, just like here.”
“I thought you said you could meet new clients at the country club. It’s an entrée to the best homes, including most of the women in my book group.”
“Here we go...”
“Like Dolores, whose husband owns three car dealerships, or Estelle, whose husband is a vice-president at the railroad. And the Jacksons own a big chunk of a supermarket chain.”
“It’s not just that. I’m better at design than sales. I’ve never been a good schmoozer.”
“Maybe not now, but you can learn,” Betty whined. “Remember that Dale Carnegie class you took in Jersey? There’s a chapter down here, too.”
“You sound like Mr. L’Engle.”
“... who would never give you a good reference if you quit, you realize that, right? And it’s a lot more competitive up north. Do you really want to go up against men from Yale and Princeton for a job designing bathrooms in tract houses?” She was angry now. This was not the fight Betty had prepared for.
“We don’t have the money, Betty. That’s the bottom line.”
“I have it all worked out. We can use the inheritance from Mama for the down payment. It’s not much, but it’s enough to get one of those low-down mortgages the FHA is pushing. Bob said the government is trying to get the right people in there...”
“That money was for the boys college!”
“If you make partner, we’ll have money for the boy’s college and lots of other things.”
“I have to go. We’ll talk about it tonight.” Raymond hung up. He’d never cut Betty off like that before. He imagined himself back at his parents’ place up north, tail between his legs, father sitting in that moth-eaten chair of his, tipping the ash off the end of a cigar. So here you are, son, back where it all started, leaving out what Raymond knew he was thinking. That he had been right all along, that Raymond should never have become an architect, wasn’t college material, wasn’t worth investing in.
He looked out the window at Hemming Park filled with office workers on their afternoon break, chatting, sharing cigarettes, some coming out of Woolworth’s from a late lunch at the counter where the sit-in had sparked the Axe Handle riot two years before that Mr. L’Engle had described at dinner.
Raymond had no illusions about what their life would be in River Plantation, segregated behind walls and gates like the British in their colonies, carving out good lives for themselves at the locals’ expense. But I didn’t invent the system these southerners have down here, he told himself. The River South school was much better than Emerson and would lead the boys to a better high school, and maybe a good college. They’ll need to fit in to be successful down here just like I do, he thought. Ray Jr. already had a southern accent. That was a start.
Maybe Betty was right.
Betty ran into the bedroom, closed the door, and called Evelyn on the extension. “Raymond just got home. He agreed to buy the house! We won’t have the boys in that horrible school any longer!”
“We were wondering when you’d come to your senses, Betty. Now we’ll practically be neighbors. I’ll sign you up for a good seat at the Friday Musicale at the club. And you’ll need help, too. My maid Della’s sister is looking for a placement.”
Betty paused. She had assumed Ida would come with them, but maybe that wasn’t the best idea. Evelyn had mentioned before that Ida seemed a bit familiar, as she put it. Maybe it was time for a change.
“You’ll be doing more entertaining, of course,” Evelyn added, “and the desserts you bring to our meeting are, well ... they’re a little basic. Is your Ida up to the level you’ll need here at River Plantation?”
Della had been with the L’Engles since their college-aged children were Eddie and Ray Jr.’s age. Ida had mentioned early on that her husband Matthew didn’t make much money—which often seemed to be the case with colored men, unfortunately—and that they depended on the money she brought in. Ida’s being let go after barely eighteen months could make finding something else more difficult. But I’m running a household, Betty told herself, not a social service agency. Ida would find something else, eventually.
“I suppose it might be time for a clean break, after her boy Percy caused all that trouble with Ray Jr.”
“It’s up to you, dear, but I know what I’d do.”
The next few days went lightning fast. Raymond and Betty filled out an application at the bank for a government-backed loan and transferred money for the down payment into the home escrow account. They decided not to tell anyone until the loan was approved, but Bob must have been right about them being just the kind of owners River Plantation wanted because the approval came through in less than a week.
Now Betty had to deal with the Ida situation before she told the boys. She decided to give Ida a week’s salary rather than notice, to avoid any awkwardness that might arise if she continued coming to work knowing she was out of a job. And she’d have to tell her soon so they could start packing.
It was Tuesday the eleventh of June, and Betty was holding the Buick steering wheel as if it was the only thing keeping her vertical as she sped down Hendricks Avenue toward Ida’s house. She had just seen a Buddhist monk in Vietnam set himself on fire on television as some kind of protest; so soon after the Cuba mess! What was the world coming too?
Betty had been this way before on her way downtown to the symphony or shopping, but as she turned onto Old St. Augustine Road, the neighborhood changed. The two-lane blacktop was lined with drainage ditches half full of stagnant water that separated the pavement from gas stations and auto repair shops, a printing plant, a liquor store, and an old lumber mill. Betty had made a mental list of things she could bring up if Ida became difficult—how she used furniture polish instead of oil on Betty’s china closet; how she never volunteered to reimburse Betty for the cost of Percy’s lunches; how Betty let Ida off work to go to the doctor even when she didn’t look sick. She was sure she could come up with more, if necessary.
Another turnoff onto a dirt road and Betty guided the Buick past several dilapidated shanties with metal roofs, front porches with rocking chairs, and cars without tires up on blocks in front yards overgrown with weeds. What else did she expect?
She crept forward until she saw a metal mailbox with the name JOHNSON in reflective letters balanced on top of a black iron post and turned onto two parallel strips of sand that served as a driveway. The house was in better shape than most in the neighborhood. It was freshly painted, and the metal roof was firmly supported by thick, straight rafters. The deep porch surrounding two sides wasn’t sagging, unlike others on the block. A light on the ceiling came on and Ida opened the front door.
“Miz Hubert? Is that you?”
Betty stepped away from the car and onto the porch. “Ida? How are you?”
“I’m fine. Come on in. Is something wrong?” Ida held the screened door open. The furniture reminded Betty of her mother’s. Shabby, but clean couch and chairs, thin white cotton drapes covering old double-hung wood windows, family pictures on the wall, a pencil drawing of a big sand dune with ocean breakers below. President Kennedy was speaking on a small television on top of a low cabinet painted blue.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, Ida. There’s something that can’t wait.” She smiled nervously and fussed with her purse clasp.
“That’s okay, Miz Hubert. Pop went to bed early. And Percy’s next door playing board games. I’m surprised we can’t hear them over there, whooping and hollering. Have a seat.” Ida gestured to the couch. “I’ll get us some refreshments.”
Betty sat down and watched President Kennedy on the television:
...If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?
One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free...
Ida returned and handed Betty a glass of tea. She sat on a wicker chair next to the television and turned down the volume.
“Did you hear about George Wallace blocking the door to the University of Alabama today? He tried to keep a colored man out, but federal marshals made him step aside. Isn’t that something?”
Betty set the iced tea on an end table without taking a sip. “Isn’t it just? Don’t they have an Agricultural & Mechanical college up there?”
Ida smiled. “What brings you down this way?”
“Ida, we’re moving to River Plantation.” Betty said it slow, then let it settle.
“River Plantation is, you know, a much better area.” Betty continued in a rush as if she was making a case. “You know how difficult it’s been for us to meet people. And we’re joining the country club!” She straightened her collar. “Raymond’s boss Mr. L’Engle and his wife Evelyn have agreed to sponsor us! She’s the lady who hosts the book club out there. You remember the book club I’ve been going to? And Ida, the house is beautiful, just like I’ve always wanted. It makes me feel like...”
“That sounds like good news, Miz Hubert. Congratulations.” Ida sipped her iced tea.
“The boys will be transferring to River South Elementary School too, in the county system. Oh Ida, you wouldn’t believe the facility. It has a library and a science lab, and Emerson has been such a disappointment.”
“I’m familiar with Emerson.”
“Oh yes, of course you are.” Betty blushed. Raymond told her the most important thing to keep in mind was that she was the boss, and Ida was the employee. It was Betty’s right to let her go.
“Ida, dear, Raymond and I have given this a great deal of thought, you know, and ... we’ll be doing a lot of entertaining of course, with our new friends and all, and we thought you might not be... well, we thought you might not be comfortable in that kind of environment, if you know what I mean. It’s not your fault. You just haven’t had as much experience as some.”
Betty opened her purse, removed the severance check, and placed it on the coffee table. “And there was that business with Percy attacking Ray Jr.,” she added, her voice almost a whisper. “We just think it would be best for all concerned if...”
“Stop.” Ida sat up straight.
“You can’t fire me, Miz Hubert. I quit.”
Betty’s face turned hot. What in the world...
“I’m going to be a secretary at the Afro-American Insurance Co where Matthew works.” The job hadn’t come through yet, but this wouldn’t be the first time Ida had lived on hope. “I’ve been taking a correspondence course.”
“Correspondence course? Why, Ida, you never mentioned that.”
“I won’t make much more money, at first anyway. But we don’t need big fancy houses and cars to feel good about our lives.”
Betty was astonished. “Well, I don’t like your tone, Ida. You never mentioned you were looking for another job. It seems you’ve been keeping things from us, after all we’ve done for you.” Betty stood up. She began listing the transgressions that occurred to her on the way over. “...and to think how little Eddie took your Percy under his wing ...”
Betty’s voice gradually became louder and louder as she proceeded with her litany of abuses. Ida wasn’t surprised it had come to this. She had always known white people live in a delicate world of their own making, that people like the Huberts run things and black folks need to maneuver around them.
But then it occurred to her. This time, Ida had a choice. She reached over and turned up the volume on the television:
“... there are negroes unemployed, two or three times as many compared to whites, inadequate in education... unable to find work, denied equal rights, denied the opportunity to eat at a restaurant or lunch counter or to go to a movie theater, denied the right to a decent education...”
“And what about that time I gave you some of Ray Jr.’s old shirts... “Betty was yelling over the president by now. “Ida, turn that down!” She blushed and covered her mouth. She had never thought Ida capable of such... well, such rudeness.
Ida watched the television without moving.
“And to think I treated you like a friend.” Betty grabbed her purse, rushed across the room, and stormed out.
Ida turned the volume down and started fanning herself with a magazine. The Buick’s engine started, and she looked out the window as Betty backed out of the driveway and sped down the dirt road.
“... I ask the support of all our citizens. Thank you very much.”
Two weeks later, the moving van in the driveway was loaded, and Betty was wiping down the kitchen counter one last time. Raymond and the boys were out back filling in the fort with buckets of dirt they skimmed from a bare patch of lawn behind the carport. Ray Jr. wasn’t too keen on changing schools, but Raymond had promised him a new bicycle and toy gun, so he was bearing up.
Eddie wasn’t. Betty even promised him a battery-powered miniature Cadillac convertible with a Ken doll driver in a tiny lavender blazer that he’d been begging for, but it didn’t work. He liked his room. He liked the fort. He didn’t want to leave school. Most of all, he didn’t want to leave his best friend, Percy.
Raymond picked up the wooden gunner’s station roof and walked toward a pile of trash by the curb. Eddie grabbed the trap door swinging off one side, crying as he tried to pull it out of his father’s hands.
“I don’t wanna go. I don’t wanna go,” Eddie screamed.
Raymond had never seen Eddie so upset. He was usually the easy one. “Don’t worry son. Everything is going to be fine.” He grabbed Eddie’s wrist, yanked his hand off the door, and kept walking.
Eddie grabbed Raymond’s leg. “No, Daddy.”
“Don’t be a sissy. Stop crying. We’re going somewhere safe.”