There was, far off in the distance, down the road, an empty shell of a house that belonged to a man and a woman that came from way up north someplace. I can’t remember where. It was sad to see the blowing leaves, across a deserted road, past deserted houses, past vacant lots where folks use to live, some of them died, and where some of them were born. The houses had lived and died just like their residents, inhabitants and now they gone, deserted houses, empty like a tomb long buried, long forgotten-lost. Thinking back on the times brings joy and lightness, it brightens my eyes and lightens my heart like the leaves blowing in the wind.
Whoever knows the one thought that it requires to trigger introspection or reassessment of the trajectory that ones life is taking. Does it require a historic event that lights the fire to turn back and look from where you came and look up to wherever you goin’? Which way lights a path? Which way leads to a road paved and smooth? Easy? You can’t go back. I know that. So, where am I goin’? Where am I going? Sometimes I wish I could just be a lost ball in high grass, go away and never worry about nothing. It’s not easy forgetting all the things you said you’d always remember, but it numbs and burdens the body so that forgetting is the only hope you have. It’s a familiar feeling that eats your insides and feels good at the same time. Like a moth being drawn to a flame.
When the man and the woman came from up north they brought with them a child about two years old that seemed to do nothing else but cry and ball its head off, and the woman was carrying one in her belly that popped out not long after they got here. The husband, Burton Means, was a willowy-looking man with reddish brown hair and whiskers on his tobacco-stained chin, about down to the first button on his shirt. He was mostly clean but didn’t have but two changes of clothes, so he was usually wearing a brown wool suit, or black slacks and a plaid jacket of forest green and mustard yellow. He had a pair of overalls for the field and a pair of run over, broke down boots that were lucky to still have soles and be recognizable as shoes. When they arrived the wife was friendly enough and most of their neighbors greeted them with the cordial indifference and suspicion afforded to those who had deserted up north and rubbed shoulders with Yankees. This put them in an awkward position as most southerners view deserters as suspect and sometimes with hostile appreciation. A curiosity to be tolerated; barely.
So the bawling child kept bawling and it seemed like his lungs would burst, then he’d stop, gasp for air, and then start off all over again. It was painful to listen to, to say the least, and if I hadn’t been so curious I’d have turned and left, crying baby and all. My shoes had been spent and already relined with cardboard. It felt like I had walked a hand full of country miles and I still had a bucket more to go.
When I said I would deliver the message for the strange woman that had a baby about to bust her seams, talked funny, dressed funny, and even kept her money folded and hidden in funny places, I didn’t realize it was so far. It didn’t seem like it was far, sounded like it was right across town, but as I set out and started asking folks and inquiring it got further and further and further. The last place I stopped for a drink out of the well told me that it wasn’t far, but that already seems like that was a far piece back.
I should have recognized the signs when my foot started itching that something wasn’t right. If something’s not right my left foot starts to itch one of those itches you just can seem to scratch. I had never seen the strange woman, and why she was at the fish fry was an even stranger mystery. Reverend Prichart could preach but that never brought any of the folks from across the way over to our side of the road. The road was the dividing line, the line between the haves and the have-nots. The privileged and the not-so. The old folks always say if you live long enough you’ll see some of everything. Well, I feel like at twelve I’ve seen it all. A pregnant white woman at the annual fish fry creeping about in the shadows, in the dark, asked me, a little Black child, to deliver a letter.
Now Sundays were for church and picnics by the river. Once a year the church held an annual fish fry that brought folks down from up north and up from down south. The fish fry would last way into the night and sometimes up until the morning, past dawn and through breakfast. Fish and grits got to be one of my favorite combinations.
Reverend Prichart’d preach from sun up to sun down. Many of the ladies made eyes at him and commented on his good looks, which I didn’t see. I think he was good-looking if you closed one eye and looked at him sideways with the other. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder and somebody must a been holding his beauty hostage cause it hadn’t been around to visit in a month of Sundays, in my opinion. Many folks were tired and feel asleep leaning on the shoulders of kin, and kids against a tent pole, or sitting straight up, but nobody went home. Nobody wanted to miss they blessing or the second coming and neither did I.
There had been a big blow-up at church a few weeks back when Reverend Prichart decided Hell and Damnation would be his message that particular Sunday, on the particular Sunday that Viola Beams decided to attend church. Viola being well known in the community, paid her tithes, volunteered at church functions, sang in the choir, and was generally liked in spite of being looked down on and despised by some over her position on abortion and performing them at a profit while at the same time providing a service needed and wanted by many and acknowledged by few. Viola was the town midwife, abortionist, and psychologist rolled into one and her customers were the down on their luck, can’t afford any more mouths to feed families which included most of the Black families and plenty of the white. Viola took particular exception to the message in the sermon, as she believed that it was directed at her. “When Pharaoh decreed the firstborn to die he was the enemy and the enemy is sometimes clothed as a friend among us.” The reverend’s voice rose and fell with emphasis in the usual places with hushed tones and sustained vibrato in others. “The wicked shall be cut down like a blade of grass.” The reverend looked directly at Viola, which caused most of the congregation to turn and look too. Some looked out of habit. Some looked out of curiosity. Others looked out of shame. They searched for her reaction. They waited for her response. Viola barely blinked an eye. The air around her did not stir. She met reverend Prichart’s stare with one of her own as the tension hung in the air. Thick. The reverend moved on. “Can I get an amen?” The congregation obliged with amens, and yes sirs, and hallelujahs. The congregation moved on but Viola did not. This was the last time the two were together in the same room. Until now.
Reverend Prichart would preach his usual “loaves and fishes” and David and Goliath. He stuck Jonah and the Whale in the middle and ended with the deliverance of the Jews from Egypt by Moses and the parting of the Red Sea. That stirred the crowd as tambourines thumped and shouts of hallelujah and amens left several women prostrate on the ground, fanned and tended to by the ushers and the mothers of the church.
As I backed away from the crowd a hand clutched my shoulder and called my name, “Little Lady.” How did the strange white woman know my name? “Little Lady.” Yes, that’s me. Little Lady Capricious Honey. “Little Lady I’ll give you a dollar if you deliver this letter for me.” A dollar! I could do a lot with a dollar. A whole dollar just for delivering a letter. She reached down and pulled a damp dollar from someplace I don’t want to think about or even speculate the location but I took the dollar just the same. Chewing gum, licorice, and Mary Jane’s won’t care where the dollar came from and neither would I as I stuffed them into my mouth by the handfuls.
I remember passing this house a few times while out creepin’ about, doin’ nothin’ and searchin’ for more of the same. Since then I have walked past it so many times, that house, it became nonexistent, unnoticed, unacknowledged, and a non-concern. This day it felt different, I don’t know how or why but it was different. Maybe because I had business there. Maybe because I know more about the people living there.
I passed this house on the many nights that my friend Julie and I would sneak out after everyone else had gone to bed. Slippin’ out past bedtime was just something we do. We didn’t think about it, we didn’t plan it. Like I said, it was something we do. During the summer we’d slip out most nights and stay out ‘til almost mornin’. Julie and I’d visit familiar places and try to catch up on all we missed seeing in the spring and fall while we were in school.
I could not, and would not deny myself the knowledge of knowing what was in the note. There was nothing that said don’t look. The strange woman gave no warning. It wasn’t sealed in an envelope. No longer moist from perspiration I unfolded it and read, “Baby on the way!”
Becky Sue, the pregnant woman with the bursting seams, with money in strange places was at fish fry to get Viola. Viola would deliver the baby she was carrying as no white doctor would risk their practice or standing in the community to deliver the baby of an unwed mother and an adulterous one to boot. Viola sent the woman in my direction to deliver the letter to the baby’s father and the other half of the adulterous couple.
I knocked on the door and the man answered looking quizzical and confused. He appeared just as surprised as I was to be standing there on his front porch. The unexpected delivery and unexpected visitor aroused suspicion and stoked the imagination. I handed him the note that he quietly took and shut the door. No thanks. No acknowledgement. Not even boo. Nothing. It’s just as well.
There was a certain kind of urgency and expectancy that arrested the household and put everyone on notice, something was about to happen and whether it was good or bad was secondary to the knowledge that it was coming just the same. You could put on your best face, wait, with questions that might be wrongly interpreted, gave a sense of interest, or hinted at the slightest curiosity where there was none. Indifference was a justifiable and secure position, or better, a posture of indifferently indifference served a purpose beyond understanding.
Burton Means felt an immediate sense of obligation and duty that was quite odd since he never demonstrated, or exhibited these feelings before. Burton Means immediately left in his jalopy of an automobile. I returned to the fish fry. The crowd had thinned a little but still had a sizable number of people testifying and bearing witness. I saw no sign of the pregnant woman or Viola.
After about two or three years the first bawling baby started to go to school and the second one was starting to get about in the yard and moving faster than his mama and sometimes his daddy could run after him. It was last week, or the week before last that I saw the wife tiptoe up to Viola Beams gate and step in the yard but then she turned around and went on back down the road. I wondered, for a minute, but didn’t think too much about it until we saw the fire on the way home from school one day, it was out in the barn, and the smoke was black as tar and thick as the mud down by the creek bottoms. The oldest bawling child that went to school ran in the house hollering Mama! Daddy! ‘cept they didn’t answer and he ran out the back toward the barn that was already collapsing and already had flames leaping out.
The news of the soon-to-come baby really broke the spirit of the wife and caused her days to be filled with thoughts of how she could fix it and turn it around. The thought of a third bawling baby took the color right out of her cheeks and the little curl there was left out of her hair. The first baby liked to killed her, came into the world feet first, twisted and backwards from the beginning and upsetting everyone and everything every since. The second one came before she had a chance to recover from the first and it seemed like her life had been a hell ever since. She recognized that the incessant crying came from the husband’s side of the family and that they were nothing but a bunch of cry babies themselves. Somebody had always done them wrong, didn’t give them what they thought they deserved and caused them to be angry in their actions and their thoughts. When she first left with her husband she was trying to get out from under the heel of her own mother and father who insisted on attending church every Sunday for the morning and the evening service in addition to doing the Lord’s work in between by visiting and tending the sick Monday through Friday after completing the daily chores, of which seemed to be endless. Knowing that her husband fathered a child with another woman did nothing to help and quite possibly tipped the scales and sent her on an emotional tailspin.
First she cried. “How could you? You said you loved me!” Next she threatened to leave and take the children with her but soon realized it was an empty threat with no bite. “I’ll kill myself,” she hurled in one of her fits of anger, to which Burton laughed and shined her on.
The smoke hung thick, and the still humid air caused it to sit. When the wife’s family heard about what had happened they sent for the oldest child to come and live with them. What happened to Burton Means and the younger child is not known. Soon after the fire, Becky Sue, Burton Means, and the baby disappeared. Some say of up north. Most folks don’t speculate, just hunch their shoulders and move on.