The choir swayed from side to side, singing, in call and response, “I’ll be caught up to meet Him, I’ll be caught up to meet Him,” while the family slowly filed into the sanctuary. The church was filled with well-dressed mourners. Some fanned furiously, some craned to see whose company they shared, some were bored as they waited for the service to begin, and a few honored the dearly departed.
It was the attractive and smartly dressed young woman’s turn to view the remains. Remains, the young woman thought. A lifetime of trying to be somebody, only to end up as remains for all eternity.
She noticed his hair. As he had gotten older, he stopped using the potato and lye concoction to conk his hair. But much to the surprise of his immediate family, he had good hair—real good. Miscegenation was alive and well in the Old South.
A concerned church lady in a stiff, starched uniform put her arm around the young woman and nudged her on. Not a moment too soon, the young woman thought, because she suddenly had the urge to spit on the remains.
She looked past the two people behind her in line to the sister of the deceased, who was bawling her eyes out. To be expected I guess, the young woman thought. She is his blood. I, on the other hand, am not, and I’m glad the son-of-a-bitch is dead.
The Southern Railway train started to chug to a slow grind as it began to make its umpteenth stop, this time at Mount Royal Station in Baltimore. There must have been a thousand-one horse towns and whistle stops between South Carolina and Maryland. Lilly Ann, a slim and strikingly beautiful woman of twenty-three, sat in the colored car of the train, with her equally skinny, seven-year-old daughter, sleeping on her shoulder.
It was hot and crowded in the colored car, and Lilly Ann knew her daughter was hungry. They had eaten all the fried chicken, ham sandwiches, and apples that her mother Gertie had packed for them for the long trip from Fairfield to Baltimore. Coloreds weren’t allowed to eat in the dining cars; Jim Crow made sure of that. You packed your own food or went hungry. Funny more people didn’t die of food poisoning.
Lilly Ann had named her daughter Billie in honor of her favorite singer. But unlike Ms. Holiday, her daughter had never been much farther than the front yard of Gertie’s old shack, and the awesomeness of a world never seen had completely exhausted her.
Baltimore was the destination, partly because Billie Holiday grew up there in the twenties. Lilly Ann had made the trip up North several times: a couple of times to visit her brother in New Jersey, and other times to visit her sister in Baltimore. It was during one of those visits that she met her future husband.
The train whistle signaled that it was pulling into the station, and Lilly Ann gently shook Billie to rouse her. “Wake up honey chile, wake up,” Lilly Ann said. Disoriented at first, the child stared wide-eyed at her, then pressed her forehead against the train window. “Grab you knapsack, and let’s go chile.”
“Yes ‘um, I’m coming,” Billie said, rolling her tongue around her mouth.
Lilly Ann straightened her dress over her slim, but curvy figure, and smoothed her finger-waved hair. The dress had been practically brand new when Miss Branford, one of her old employers, gave it to her.
Lilly Ann was used to turning heads everywhere she went. She was a smidge under five-feet ten inches tall, with long limbs and high cheekbones inherited from some distant and unknown Native American ancestor. You would think she owned the world the way she walked with her head held high. And that was her plan—that is, before Billie—but she hadn’t given up on that dream entirely.
She gathered her beat-up old suitcase and an assortment of bags and boxes as best she could. “Here, Billie. Tote this,” she said, pushing a worn paisley satchel toward the child.
“Yes, ‘um,” Billie said, suddenly wide awake and curiously looking around her new surroundings.
“Hurry up, hurry up! We gotta git off this train before it takes us clean to Philadelphia,” Lilly Ann urged.
They hurried off the train and passed the porter, who tipped his hat. Lilly Ann felt his eyes following them as they departed and stood on the platform.
As the train picked up steam and started to chug out of the station, Lilly Ann suddenly remembered that she had forgotten to grab her hatbox. It contained a navy blue silk straw hat that had a matching navy blue silk ribbon circling the crown of the wide brim, and a rhinestone brooch where the two ends of the ribbon met.
“Oh no, no! I done left my navy blue silkstraw,” Lilly Ann said as the train picked up speed. “That was for my weddin.’”
Not a good omen, she thought.
Gertrude Cunningham—Gertie, to most folks—sat on her porch, slowly rocking in her weatherworn chair and chewing reflectively on her corncob pipe. She wore a dirty, loose-fitting cotton print dress, with an equally dirty apron over it. Her hose were rolled up on her wizened bowlegs and knotted at her knees, and her gray hair hung in two braids over her shoulders. Her rheumy eyes were the color of her hair, and they sometimes appeared as cold as steel. Her eyes had chilled many to the bone when she chose to direct her steely gaze their way.
Some people thought she was blind, and others were frightened of her or called her a witch. But she had a gift. She knew it, and she used it. It was an innate ability to see into the souls of folk, to glean their true intentions, their real pain, their darkest secrets. What she had, others paid money to acquire—they were called psychologists and therapists—but the gift had just been dropped on her. She didn’t know why, but she used it. It was, after all, God’s way of helping her provide for herself. She did readings, handed out potions, and sometimes cast spells for a small fee. She personally didn’t believe in those things, but she knew what she knew, and that people accepted her gift only when it was packaged with a gimmick.
As Gertie rocked, she thought about her granddaughter. “Gwine miss my baby,” she said out loud. Sure, she’d miss her daughter, Lilly Ann, the youngest of her six children, but not like she’d miss Billie.
Billie had taken the monotony out of her days. They picked wild strawberries, chased the chickens, and made hoecake bread, and Billie’s lines and squiggles on her notebook from the little one-room schoolhouse fascinated Gertie. She couldn’t help Billie with her schoolwork, so she pretended to be busy bustling around the kitchen, but she silently prayed that the little girl did well and learned all she could. And besides, Billie was also another source of income. When Lilly Ann went on her trips up North, she often got some days’ work and sent money home for Billie’s care.
Gertie was shaken out of her reverie when she spotted Laura, her neighbor, coming through Mr. Blackshear’s tobacco field and frantically waving like a semaphore flagman. Gertie acknowledged her by nodding, knowing full well that Laura could not see her head moving from that distance.
No need wasting any motion, she thought. She be here soon enough with her usual greetin.’
Sure enough, Laura approached the porch, dabbing her forehead and neck with a red-checkered gingham handkerchief. She also carried a small burlap sack that she gingerly rested against a porch support.
“Mornin,’ Miz Gertrude. How do you do this fine mornin’? Where’s the lemonade?” Laura said in one breath.
“I be fine for an ol’ lady, and the lemonade where it always be, Miz Laura.”
“Mind if I have a glass?”
“No ma’am, and don’t mind if I have one, too!”
The porch was at the back of the house, so Laura entered the kitchen and fetched freshly squeezed lemonade, which was already poured into two glasses, from Gertie’s icebox. To the left of the door sat a wood-burning stove, and a small window overlooked the porch.
On the other side of the window were shelves full of Gertie’s mysterious ingredients. Some she threw in various stews and soups, and others in concoctions for her clients. To the right of the door was a rough-hewn, small wooden table with four straw bottom chairs where the family took their meals, Billie did her homework, and Gertie received clients. In the far corner, opposite the table, sat Gertie’s rocking chair, which she often pulled to the center of the room to catch the warmth of the pot-bellied stove that resided there. In the chill of the autumn and the cold of the winter, it was the focal point of all activity until everyone was snug in their beds. The far side of the kitchen led to a short hall. To the left was Gertie’s room, and to the right was the room Lilly Ann and Billie had shared.
Backing out of the dilapidated screen door, Laura handed Gertie a glass of lemonade and sat down on a straw-bottomed chair next to her.
“Did Lilly Ann and Billie git off all right?”
“They did. Miss ’em already, ’specially Billie.”
“Now, Gertie, don’t be selfish. Billie needed to get away from here, and I know you don’t begrudge Lilly Ann a husband.”
“No, Laura, I don’t, but I never met the man. Never even talked to him on the telephone contraption down at the general store. I did see a picture of him, but I didn’t like what I saw. The marriage just ain’t sittin’ well with me. My spirit is restless ’bout it.”
“What did you see? What do you think it is, Gertie?”
“Don’t know … Ain’t be revealed to me yet.”
“Gertie, I know you not usually wrong ’bout these things, but maybe this—”
Gertie cut her off, not wanting to give voice and life to her fears. “Maybe you right. Just a mother not wantin’ to let go.”
Gertie was very troubled, and she knew Laura wanted to help put her mind at ease, but didn’t know what to say. Gertie, after all, was the one with the third eye, but she couldn’t put her finger on what was amiss in Baltimore. She glanced over at Laura, who patted her on the hand, and, for a moment, they sipped their lemonade in silence.
Laura broke the silence. “I’m sho’ you’ll figure it out and find a way to fix it. When you think ’bout it, you know James Hayes wasn’t much of a choice, either. Besides, his daddy woulda cut him off if he had married Lilly Ann.”
“You right, Laura. Won’t no need to buy the cow anyway. He already had the milk. He was nice enough, I reckon, and quiet, but despite his daddy, he weren’t about much.”
Laura nodded without speaking and Gertie continued. “Lilly Ann never did talk much about James before she asked to take company with him. I didn’t know she was already seein’ him on the sly befo’ she asked permission to bring him home. I took one look at the grown man, and dared her to see him again or I’d take a switch to her little fresh tail. Little good that did.”
Gertie’s third eye never revealed the time and place of their rendezvous.
After the two women had sat for a while longer, Laura started to take her leave when Gertie reminded her of her task. “Don’t you have somethin’ for me?”
“Almost forgot,” Laura said. She picked up a burlap sack from its resting place and gingerly handed it to Gertie. “Your goose egg.”
“Appreciate it,” Gertie said as she carefully took the sack.
“I started to boil it, so I wouldn’t break it, but I thought better of it.”
“Boil it! Damn you, Laura. I ain’t told you to boil my goose egg.”
Laura laughed it off. “See, I knew it was a raw goose egg spell,” she said as she headed down the steps, smiling. “See you in church tomorrow?”
Gertie grunted and waved a dismissive goodbye. After Laura took off toward the tobacco field, Gertie gathered her small, but spry, sixty-two-year-old frame and started for the screen door. She had to mix a potion for her first appointment of the day.