Photo by Ales Krivec on Unsplash
Sitting on the edge of her bed, early evening sunlight stretching narrow shadows across the polished wooden floor, Mama whispers with her hands folded, “Dear God please, please let things go right. Please God, oh please.”
Mama tames and fastens her corset before leaving to fetch Poppa from the train station, just up the street. Her green eyes show worry rather than their usual sparkle of intelligence and mischievousness. Her fingers sweep with a timidness across her face. Her skin color and her green eyes cause white people to believe that she is a white woman. Sometimes she passes when it’s convenient and laughs to herself when she gets away with it.
A train whistle blows.
After studying herself in the mirror, Mama lowers her head, closes her eyes, and mumbles something under her breath. The floorboards creak as she hurries to the front door. The door closes, a lock clicks, followed by footsteps fading down the hall and disappearing after thumping down two flights of stairs.
Mama and I stay on the third floor of a boarding house, near the three-corner intersection on Main Street, not too far from the train station. Mamma says the railroad tracks cut across the three-corner intersection like scars on a slave’s back. It’s early evening and the streets are empty and still. No one is walking around or taking in a bit of fresh air. A gentle breeze nudges a yellowing page of an old newspaper from side to side as it skips along the street.
I can’t wait to see Poppa. I have never seen him before. I know he must be a handsome man for Mama to have fallen for him.
A big orange, quivering sun drifts down behind the closed factory at the end of town, and the shadow of the smokestack stretches the length of the whole block. I want them to get here before it’s dark. I wouldn’t be able to see them if it’s dark outside.
Suddenly, laughter shoots from around the corner of the old railroad station. They’re coming. It’s Mama and Poppa. They’re coming.
Mama turns the corner sprinting, smiling, and giggling. She has one hand on her flapper hat as she runs with perspiration glistening across her forehead. Right behind her is Poppa, the most handsome man that ever lived.
His black face glows with joy. He is the darkest-skinned man I’d ever seen. Old folks would call him blue-black. Even from this far up, I can see he’s strong and muscular. A keen sense of honor and the bearing of royalty sculpt his movements as they both run up the steps to the front door. I can now see why Mama always wanted for me to have his smile. It’s like the full moon reflecting on a lake. He is in a pinstriped, blue gabardine, double-breasted suit and spats wrap around a pair of shiny black shoes.
A key enters a lock. Feet pound up a set of stairs.
A train whistle blows in the distance.
They stop near the second-floor landing. Their heads are down, and their breathing is rapid. His dirt-caked fingernails grip the banister. Mama turns and lowers herself onto the second step down from the landing. She makes certain her knees touch as she eases herself onto the stair. Poppa leans against the wall with one leg resting on an upper step. Mama glances at his socks and notices their elasticity has been washed out and they drift down his ankle.
Poppa can’t help but smile. Mama gives him a clownish wink. They both know words have been unnecessary between them since, during their childhood, he taught her to ride his bike on the dirt path behind the church. This is the first time they’ve been alone since a long time. It’s been almost a year but feels longer.
The way Mama’s hands glide up and down her homemade dress, something more than windedness quiets her laughter and increases the thuds in her heart. Poppa looks at her as he catches his breath. Poppa remembers Mama’s barefoot footsteps creaking the wood planks on his back porch when they were kids. It’s the one memory he wishes to recall in more fullness. The only impression that stays in his mind is the smell of cinnamon.
While Mama looks down at the steps, Poppa eyes her and is still unable to even get a small notion of what she’s thinking. It’s not that her face is without expression. It’s more her expression, as customary, is beyond his understanding.
As they reach the top floor of the three-story boarding house, Mama dashes ahead to our door at the end of the hall. Her full-length skirt flounces as she runs.
She yells behind her, “Just you wait a minute.”
Train brakes squeal pulling into the station. Poppa looks out an open window at the end of the hallway. In a cone of streetlight, bugs are dancing and buzzing around in odd patterns as if a bad storm or the apocalypse is coming.
He eases his head back against the door frame and shifts his body so that his neck muscles can relax. Down the hallway a light bulb flickers.
Inside the room, a melody Mama hums blends with splashing water and clanging dishes. Silverware jangles and drawers open and close. Footsteps go from one side of the room to the other.
Poppa figures she’s up to something. It wouldn’t be like Mama to just invite him in. Of course, there must be a production. She begins singing another tune. Something bluesy. Her growling alto assures him that she is at least satisfied. She doesn’t seem unhappy. She’s not putting on a show because if she were, he would know without a doubt that she were being false. It could be that what he heard wasn’t true. They were just rumors and gossip. He speaks to the closed door, hands cupped against the wood.
“What are you doing in there?”
From inside comes a voice, distant, muffled but clear. “We are lucky we got here when we did. It looks like it might rain a little.”
“I heard last week that they closed the old schoolhouse back home. It was infected by some form of biblical pestilence. One plague or another. Locust or the death of the first born. Boils or frogs. Something.”
She again begins to sing.
He takes in a deep breath. He thinks to himself, “Maybe I should just throw caution to the wind and ask her about what I had heard. But if I ask and it’s untrue, then, she will wonder why I would ask her such a thing in the first place.”
The door swings open and the smell of piping hot sweet potato pie floats out. Poppa walks into the one room flat. Immediately to Poppa’s right sits a bed with a homemade colorful quilt spread across. A traveling trunk rests at the foot of the bed. To the left is a sink, a stove, and a long table. Opposite the door, are two windows. Framed in one window is the railway station with black telephone wire slicing the outdoors scene into uneven parts. From the other window, he makes out a few abandoned stores and, in the background, the silhouette of the shutdown factory. The corner to the right of the windows is bare. He thought if she could get a dresser or something, it would go nice in the corner.
In front of him, in the center of the room, two chairs sit on either side of a small wooden crate set upside down on the floor. The table on his left is sitting there without care or worry. On the crate are two place settings and in the middle is the culprit, an uncut freshly heated, sweet potato pie. He knew she was up to something.
“I could have just as easily been in here for all these wonderful preparations. I have not cast an eye on you since way too long.”
“Wash your hands in the sink or you can go on down to the baths and toilet down the hall if you prefer.”
Poppa walks toward the sink and turns on the water. As the water flows downward, there is a loud rumble from the pipes. Metal clanks and trembles under the floor stirring up a racket beneath him that vibrates the soles of his shoes. He splashes his hands under the water and is drying them on a white towel hanging from a nail.
“The water is so loud you can’t even hear yourself think. I already told the caretaker, Brother Johnson. He’s this old man that takes care of this place. He went in the basement and couldn’t find anything wrong.”
“Are these premises just for woman folk?”
“Ain’t but so much water coming out those pipes. You are drying your hands like it rained for forty days and nights. Get your behind over here and get at this world renowned, handmade, home cooked, sweetest of the sweet potato pies.”
The pie is amazing. Both sit silent while they chew. A dog barks.
“Those New York white folk sure are keeping up some noise about Wall Street going upside down as the papers say.”
“I confess that I add just a drop or two of fresh squeezed lemon juice that makes the sweet seasoning that much sweeter.”
Outside and down below, the backfire and detonations of a Model-T engine gets louder as it nears. Just as the car passes under the window, the engine coughs twice more and then the sober roar of the cylinders, working properly, fade into the distance.
The pie is finished.
As they did when they were kids, they sit and not say a word for long stretches of time. Mama looks at her guest. In a recent letter, Poppa wrote that his tour of Negro colleges giving lectures on Negro Art of the 19th century was well received. His hair, parted at the side and brushed toward the back, is how the young bucks sport themselves these days. A flash of pride gives Mama goosebumps.
“I have to say, young man, that you do have an increased air of sophistication about you.”
His face muscles tense to rein in the smile that threatens.
The clear liquid at the bottom of the jug anticipates that it won’t be around much longer. A rush of air flutters the curtains politely.
In the moonlight, a dog, a battered, timid, semblance of a prehistoric beast, casting a blue tinted shadow under the night lights, crosses the street and walks to the side of the railroad station and slides under the building.
“I see that dog on the street from time to time. I always wondered where he came from. And now I know where he lives. Or maybe it is one of the places that he lays his hat. Maybe it isn’t a he but a she. I wonder if she has any puppies.”
Mama lowers the bottom of the window, and the curtains cease their ballet. She walks back to where they have been sitting and circles around the wall where he thought a nice dresser would go.
The clear jug is empty. However, a forgotten canning jar half-filled with a syrupy brown fire, hidden behind a tin of sugar, finds its way onto the crate. Poppa takes a swig. Wiping tears from his eyes with the back of his hand, he exclaims in a sharp whisper, “Good Lord.”
Mama takes a bird sip and shakes her head from side to side. They sit quiet.
Poppa points toward the window.
“A minute ago, you walked as if something was there. Had there been something there?”
“I have always wondered about that dog. Just now it dawned on me that it might be a girl dog.”
“You walked around something that was not there.”
“I was wondering if she had any puppies. I did what?’
“Just now, you circled leaving the window as if something were there.”
“With all this,” she raises the canning jar, “in my blood, we are both fortunate that I didn’t start doing the Charleston.”
They both laugh but their eyes aren’t smiling.
“What was in the room? There?”
“Just an old trunk from the previous owner.”
She squints hard and tilts her head back for a short moment in order to sober up. That which caused them not to look into one another’s eyes on the stair is growing now. She wrings her hands together because she knows that once started, things might not ever be the same between them. She exhales and reasons that the drunken, regrettable evening, when they were together last, is really what threw the wheel off their proverbial cart. Now the cart is rumbling and bouncing down a hill toward a bitter, bitter end.
For years, Poppa would always curse what was flowing in his blood and going straight to his temples this night. He would always blame it on the liquor.
He hears, above the pounding thump in his head and the whoosh above his ears, his voice saying with strained ease, “When I was home, there were rumors about a young woman from our way being with child. Had you heard such rumors?”
Tension and relief both saturate the room now that it was out in the open.
“Rumors? Cruel lies more like it. Did this young woman still live in our hometown?”
Mama leans onto the back of the chair to steady her light head and maintain her composure.
“People who lack a certain expanse of vision often make up things to sully the reputation of those who, for whatever reasons, decide to venture forth and try to do something other than fester, wither, and die surrounded by lack of inertia.”
“But those who lack this expanse of vision often have direct lines of knowledge into people’s circumstances.”
“More often it’s concern.”
“Yes, a Doctor Bacote who is the second cousin of the former pastor of the Baptist church related certain news to the current pastor who…”
“…Who then related it to the whole damn town.”
Mama crosses her arms and returns to the window. Her gaze seeks comfort from the familiar. Nothing is familiar. The sidewalk, poles, lamps, potholes in the street, even the quiet hush aren’t familiar now. She experiences them as if for the first time.
“What do you want from me?”
“Just tell me why?”
“What do you care?”
“If I didn’t care I wouldn’t be here.”
She sees his grayed reflection in the window. Waves in the pane give his reflection the wobbling qualities of a spirit, an apparition, the flux, and flow of ambiguity, caught between two realms.
“I never want to put anyone in a position to give up their dreams on account of me.”
His reflection moves away from her. His reflection paces.
“I have responsibility.”
She turns quickly and snarls, “Responsibility. You only have responsibility to yourself, young man. Not to me nor anyone else. If you know me, as I feel that you ought to know me after all these years, you would not have even said the word responsibility to me. This is not you talking to me. This is all those people in our town locked into their traditions and their little notions of right and wrong speaking right now. Not you. No, not you.”
Her emotions overcome her, and she begins to sob for a few tight breaths. She stops herself by sheer will but remains trembling.
“There is a keen sense of morality that I’ve always based any of my decisions upon.”
Through chopping breaths—“Don’t beat yourself up. Do you absolutely know for sure the child was yours?”
“How could you even say such a thing.” He rushes to her and spins her around.
“When I heard the news, I realized how deeply fond I am of you. How I’ve been fond of you all these years.”
“When did you hear this rumor?”
He lets go of her. He turns and walks back to his seat. He sees it coming. He mouths these next words along with her as he begins to sit down. He knows her.
“You probably heard this rumor about four or five months ago to be exact. If you realized these so-called true feelings and believed them to be authentic, well, why didn’t you come then?”
They both remain still. Seconds seem like years when Mamma finally walks towards him. She sits across from him and takes his hand. At first, he resists and then he places his other hand on top of hers. He drops his head.
“I sent you letters. I heard nothing. Even afterward. I heard nothing from you. That’s when I asked Dr. Bacote to circulate a few insinuations.”
They sit still.
His voice trembles with such emotive force that his next words are incomprehensible.
He coughs a few times and then repeats, “Did you get rid of it because of my dark complexion? Did you get rid of it because you didn’t want a child with a dark complexion like me?”
She inhales a deep breath and cold flows through her veins. Numbness surges through her entire body. A high-pitched ring deafens her hearing, clouds her mind. A strange foreign unknown, unwanted pain sucks all sensations from her legs. She reaches down to her thigh and squeezes hard. She digs her nails into her legs trying to awaken herself from this nightmare. His questions, with unearthly force, changes everything, all their years of friendship, laughter, joy, and love, shifts its meaning in the twinkling of an eye.
She remembers the first time she laid eyes on him. It was the middle of the summer. She just came from up north with her aunt. She had no friends. She was scared, a terrified little girl who just lost her mother and was in a new world. One Sunday after church, she was fidgeting up under her Auntie Ida who was crushing cinnamon sticks at the table in the kitchen. Her aunt told her to go outside because she didn’t know how to keep still. She plopped on the steps leading down to the backyard. She was bored.
Swatting annoying bugs away from her face, movement caught her attention. Across the fence, in another yard, sat a boy. He was on his back porch eating peaches. Next to him she made out two or three more round globes of red and yellow heaven. The slurping and licking noises of the boy getting all the juices out of the peach and off his fingers ignited a strong urge deep down to taste sweet peach juice and to feel the peachy fuzz rub against her fingertips.
She loved peaches. She sized him up. He was a boy about her age with kind eyes and unsure fingers prying apart her favorite fruit. She got an idea.
Dropping onto her hands and knees and crawling to the back of the yard, she knew he couldn’t see her now because the bushes were high. At the end of her Auntie’s property, she inched under bushes between the two backyards, and sneaked into the alley next to his house. The buzz of bugs and the chirp of a bird let her know no one saw her. The slurping noises of those juicy peaches gave her courage. She tipped across until she got to the wall of his house.
A plan burst in her mind to climb up onto the side of the porch, being quiet so he would not hear her. Then she would walk as close to him as she could, without him noticing, and as fast as she was able, snatch the other peaches near him and be gone before he knew what happened. She knew she could outrun him. She was faster than anybody.
She eased her way up onto the side of his porch by climbing the railing behind him. He did not even notice. On tippy toes, she took one step. He was still looking forward enjoying himself. His head swayed from side to side. But with the next step, her left barefoot came down on a wooden plank which let off a loud moan.
He turned his head in a flash. She stood motionless knowing she was going to get into big trouble and might get a whipping for leaving the yard, which she was told not to do.
He sized her up. Then he nodded and lifted one of the peaches next to him and offered it to her. She smiled so hard her cheeks hurt. Looking at how happiness ignited her face caused him to smile too.
They sat next to each other slurping peaches and were never apart from each other, in spirit and in truth, from that day until now.
“I was looking for you. There were complications. I would have lost it anyway.”
They sit still and silent.
After several minutes, the empty canning jars made a thud when put down on the wooden crate. Both notice the absence of intoxication and the foreboding dryness coating the inside of their mouths. A clock tower strikes the top of the hour. Poppa gets up to leave. His train is due shortly.
“So why did you call me up here in the first place?” he asks as he stands.
“I got an offer to go to New York. The writer Missus Alice Dunbar Nelson liked a poem I wrote not too long ago. She wants me to work for her. I should be leaving from around here in a few weeks.”
“Is that the woman whose husband did her wrong?”
“Yes. The same.”
“Congratulations. I am really happy for you.”
They find themselves embracing at the door. She reaches into a pocket and pulls out a folded piece of paper.
“It’s a poem. Read it.”
He takes it and places it in his inside pocket.
Each stand still and silent. In each other’s eyes there is the frantic search for the right words, healing, reconciliation. But they can find none, not now, not for decades.
Outside Poppa stands under a streetlamp near the three-corner intersection. He unravels the paper and reads the poem.
It cascaded upon the earth
Was dark, the shadow, heard but not to sing
Removed by happenstance the memory
Alive leapt I with foot onto the ground
Yet joy and tears will ever be within
Not ‘til the dawn the dawn of love
Intended us to see
To reach upon the silent heart to
Live within the circle’s joyless sea
By seeing waves and whispered things a
Choice to love would never ever be
The poem slides into his back pocket. Turning, Poppa looks up at the building and squints his eyes. All he can see on the third floor is one window reflecting the glow of the streetlamp below. It is too dark now to see anything else. He brushes something off the front of his jacket and walks away. The tap of his shoes on the sidewalk fills the night.
On the third floor, in the dark, a hand pulls down a window shade.
Mama walks straight back to the chair without making a circle around the place she wanted to put my crib.
She sits. She doesn’t fight back tears.
In the distance, a train whistle blows.