This is a story about Freedom, the horror of losing it and the long complex battle to fight for it. It is also a story about women who may never be known to history but who show great strength and resolve in the face of tyranny, large or small.
Chapter Chapter One
Clarissa Witherspoon was tired.
She was even tired of being tired. Her umbrella dripped along the floor of the bus and made a puddle behind the drivers seat, under his right shoe.
“His own damn fault,” thought Clarissa, as she watched the stream of water overtake his heel then with quiet determination, his whole shoe. “Bus should’ve come on time,” she thought, looking out of the rain pelted window.
It wasn’t Clarissa’s nature to be ill willed. It was the circumstances of her life that carved the moods that clung to her. Today was a particularly grumpy day mostly because of the rain. And even though Clarissa rode the bus every day, the ride always made her uneasy so she blamed her irritation on the weather, the bus company, or the driver, however amiable he might be. She also saw the causes of her discomfort arising from the other passengers, the state of the world and the position of the moon.
Her generous doling out of blame wasn’t always unwarranted. The man beside her was far too big for his seat, just a tiny bit smelly and he snored into his newspaper. She sighed and thought with longing about her cozy bed with her midnight blue quilt and her warm kitchen with its taste of home. Her bedroom window looked over a willow tree that gave her comfort despite the weather-worn piece of towel that was stuck on one of its branches. It was home. She knew how to transform even the drabbest of apartments into a haven.
She longed for a day, just one whole, uncluttered day, to linger over her coffee and read the newspaper, but this was only Thursday. Her workweek stretched too far past this morning since she had agreed to work on Saturday. A day of leisure was ingloriously out of easy reach and this thought made the bus ride all the more tedious. Her mind as it always did, drifted to the past. Not the recent past but the history laden days of her much younger years. Riding a bus, any bus, always connected her to the past and to “The Movement”. She had lived through the high moments of the quest for civil rights and she mused about how it had shaped her life. She thought about Rosa Parks and her famous bus ride.
“I’m as tired as she was,” thought Clarissa, almost chuckling to herself. But Jamaica, Long Island, was not Alabama and no white man was demanding her seat. She saw no heroic gesture looming over her during her ride to work. In fact, there were few white faces on her bus. No one really cared where she sat. They rumbled along as the rain made splashing noises on the windows. Clarissa passed the time as usual, wondering if she could name all the apostles, but she only got as far as Saint Thomas before her memory shorted, so she switched to naming the musicians that had played with Count Basie. She could do justice to neither list, so she just continued to mumble her frustration as the bus pulled to a stop in front of a butcher shop.
As she pulled the cord for her stop, reaching over the very large man who still slept, she realized it was not such a good thing to be this tired on her way to work. How would she feel, she wondered, on her way home? She had been awake from very early, maybe five, maybe six, since the sun had slid so brazenly in through the slats of her blinds offering a broken promise of a fine day, and sleep had moved just beyond her reach. She heard the heavy, clumping footstep of Mr. Barber upstairs.
“Somebody buy that man a thicker carpet,” she had grumbled as the clatter of garbage cans being emptied out on the street finished the symphony of her dawn. South Jamaica had its own brand of morning.
On days like this she longed for the quiet mornings of her youth, where the only sound was the banty rooster calling the sun from its heavenly chamber. As a child she loved to be awake, lying still on her cot so as not to wake the boys. She liked to feel the morning air for just awhile before Momma called all her flock to the dazzling effort of wringing from the tired soil one more season’s harvest. Then she would feel the soft earthen floor under her bare feet as she pulled her dress over her head hoping for some hot corn bread and coffee. Then it was out onto the field for the day. It was the land that owned them. They were tied to the land, trying to stay one half step ahead of hunger.
Not all the memories of her childhood were sweet ones and often the shift back to present time happened readily.
Today, the small burst of morning sun had not fooled Clarissa. She brought her purple and blue umbrella with her and raised it triumphantly as the skies opened on her way to the bus. She grinned impishly at the men holding newspapers over their heads, running for cover. Her umbrella was a cheerful reproach to the rain and she felt superior under its protection. Now she leaned heavily on its curved handle as she disembarked. She thanked the driver, in her own way forgiving him for making her stand out in the rain, and lumbered down the few steps of the bus.
The rain had slowed to a drizzle and, by now, was just barely umbrella worthy. Clarissa liked this part of town. It was quiet and the small shops were quaint and interesting looking. There were flowerpots along the edge of the curb in some places and a cozy looking coffee shop next to the butcher’s. For a brief moment she was tempted to sit with a steaming cup of mocha reading the New York Times, feeling very urbane. But she thought better of it and made her way dutifully along the avenue and into Henson and Sons.
“There she is, the light of my life,” shouted Mr. Henson from the back. “Will you marry me today?”
“Can’t propose on a rainy day, darlin’. It’s bad luck. Must wait till the sun is shinin’.” Clarissa shook her umbrella and left it at the door.
The gentle banter with Mr. Henson was her favorite part of the day and she blessed Mrs. Delano for her choice of butcher shops. She bought four pork chops and three steaks and had Mr. Henson add it to her employer’s bill. She blew Mr. Henson a kiss as she left. The sun was beginning to break through the clouds and the air had that sweet, grassy after- the-rain smell.
Clarissa trudged up the hill with her package, past vine covered gardens and pansied walkways.
“She’ll probably make me polish the damn silver,” she chuckled as she walked. “Rubbin’ my po’ fingers to my po’ black bones,” she grumbled half aloud, “while she runs off to her fancy, shmancy country club. Damn.”
Jamaica Estates was a lovely tree lined avenue of stately houses owned by doctors lawyers and even the President of the City Council. It was a white haven far from the chaos of south Jamaica and set apart from the ordinary world, simply by the archway that led into its interior. The avenue sloped uphill and at its brow stood the neighborhood church claiming its religious domination over the street, not by its charm but by its sheer size. The Catholics always know how to choose a piece of property, she thought. Her employer’s house was not so far past the church, and once she got to the brow of the hill the rest of the walk went by quickly.
She had a key to the back door. She left her umbrella to drip in the laundry room as she hung her coat by the broom closet.
Clarissa was not Catholic, but she was at times a fervent believer. Her faith hinged on the fact that her Mother was, in her eyes, a saint of God, but beyond that, she was never sure exactly what she believed. The fact of God, she was sure of, but the how and why of God was completely beyond her.
In her youth she often sang hymns in the morning, sending her honeyed words skyward to the throne of the great Holy Father God in His golden palace in the sky. Now, as at other times, she wondered whether God was perhaps white after all and simply taking care of his own, leaving poor old black women like her to fend for they’s self till they just dropped from old age.
“Good, sweet Lord Jesus,” she said under her breath, “where is you and what is you thinking?”
The Delano kitchen was warm and smelled of fresh coffee which made Clarissa smile as she tied her apron and began to assess the day’s work.
“Good morning, Clarrie” chirped a slim, middle aged woman in a perfect blue ensemble, her blond hair just touching the collar of her blue silk jacket. “I’m a little late for my meeting,” she said as she glanced at the clock in subtle but unmistakable reprimand. “I’ll
be out of your way in just a minute. Jeremy is not feeling well so he’s home from school. Would you mind terribly bringing breakfast up to him?”
“Don’t mind,” Clarissa said, without looking up. She was fingering the silver tea set that had been laid out for polishing. “Don’t mind a bit.”
“Don’t mind shit,” she thought. “I just hope my Momma don’ see me now.” Indeed Clarissa’s mother would have turned away in dark dismay seeing her Clarissa in such an inferior position, working as a domestic in such a rich, whites-only suburb. Momma Witherspoon had been a sharecropper, poor as a rat’s behind, but independent in her own way and damned proud. They all had to work hard, overwhelmingly hard since Poppa was gone, but they all did what they needed to. They all climbed onto Momma’s proud train and rode with her wherever she took them.
Share cropping farmers in the early 30’s occasionally wondered if their lives would ever get better. Freedom is a relative term and the croppers discovered a form of slavery to the land, to the seasons, to the landlords and to the white boys always looking for trouble. Times were hard for everyone in South Carolina and landlords often functioned without a soul or heart. A black family without a man found difficulty lurking behind every tree. Mrs. Witherspoon though, was a woman to be reckoned with.
Once, as a child, Clarissa had watched in amazement as Momma chased the landlord off the front lawn with a burst from her shotgun. He had come for the rent two days early, but he would never be that bold ever again.
“Rent’s due when it’s due,” said Momma as she put the shotgun carefully back behind the washboard. “Ain’t due till it’s due.”
None of the kids ever gave Momma no lip. Zekyel had tried it once, but his behind felt the power of her indignation and he never sassed her again. No one did.
Clarissa put the kettle on to boil and set the teak tray on the kitchen table, musing about what young Jeremy might want to eat. She was not overly fond of Jeremy since he sassed his mother something awful and Clarissa hated seeing it. It was none of her business but she hated to watch how he intimidated and brow beat her. It would have been different for her to sass the lady, but such disrespect should never come from a child to a mother. Never.
It was bad enough that Mrs. Delano had a bullying husband. But a bullying child is completely overboard and against nature.
As she thought about it, the strange prickly feeling started moving up the back of her neck, settling over her skull. It was not uncomfortable, just very odd. Very odd. It was stronger than before. She rubbed her head and thought about the breakfast to distract from it.
Jeremy was seventeen. He was tall, athletic and handsome. He had something of an attitude and although he was never overtly rude to Clarissa, she felt his thinly veiled disdain.
“I’ll just bet he’s sick,” mumbled Clarissa. “He didn’t do his damn homework, that’s all. I should bring him some of Momma’s gruel. That’d fix his ass.” She chuckled softly. Momma Witherspoon was never unkind, but she was a strong woman and had raised strong children.
Clarissa had looked forward to having the house to herself. It was one of the few perks of her job. Being home alone in a grand, immaculate home gave her great pleasure. She had to work hard to get it all perfect in the six hours that she was there, besides taking care of the silver tea set, starting the dinner, doing the laundry and watering the numerous houseplants. At least if she was alone she could play the stereo and sit on the sofa for her lunch.
With Jeremy home, that small pleasure was lost to her.
Mrs. Delano was fluttering about the kitchen, putting things in her briefcase, finishing her coffee, jotting down items on a notepad and checking her computer. Clarissa wished she’d hurry and be gone. “If she’s so damn late, why ain’t she out the door?” Clarissa thought as she put two eggs on to boil. Jeremy liked boiled eggs and toast. A burst of maternal softness made her put some marmalade for the toast in a small jar on the tray.
Clarissa’s son had liked marmalade. He had been so easy to please, so appreciative of any little kindness. For a moment she imagined she could see his little face peering over the counter saying “Thank you, Momma”. His smile would light up all the gathering dark of the world. She put the thought away. “Don’t go there,” the inner voice told her. “Don’t go there.”
She unwrapped the pork chops and set them in a bowl of flour. She had forgotten to wash her hands and Mrs. Delano reminded her by putting the small hand towel on the table near her.
Clarissa chuckled as she washed up. “Better clean yo’ hands girl,” she thought. “Could get some of your cooties on the white man’s dinner.”
She was aware of the great blessing the Almighty had given her in the power to dance around within the privacy of her thoughts. Her inner dialogue kept her entertained and sane as she went about the job she was both immensely grateful to have and at the same time hated with at least most of her might. She went dutifully to the sink and felt the warm water sooth her ruffled pride. As she dried her hands on the towel she thought about her days as a singer and the wonderful gigs in New York, in Harlem, in San Francisco. Sometimes she sang as she worked, but that was only when no one was around.
“Don’t go there either girl. Just do what you gotta do.”
By now, her voice was low and raspy anyway, having been fecklessly treated with too much gin and the smoky interiors of the clubs she sang in. Too much living. Too much raucous laughter. Too many tears. She didn’t remember all the words of the songs either. Thought she’d never ever forget. So many songs. She knew the words backwards and forwards. But now, the words tumbled into each other and didn’t flow like before. Like long before when the trumpets and horns carried that wailing sound and she could make the customers stop talking and listen to her sad, dusky, velvety voice.
Mrs. Delano had no idea about her past and Clarissa wanted to keep that part of herself safely locked away where no one could get at it. It was hers and hers alone. She was proud like Momma even though it came out in different ways. But she had her pride. She knew that Mrs. Delano would have been impressed that she had sung with Louie Prima and with Count Basie. If they had seen photos of her in her prime in one of her slick, skin-tight, black cocktail dresses that were her signature, they’d talk to her differently. She knew.
The egg timer shouted at her and cut short her reverie. Orange juice, eggs, toast, marmalade, and coffee. She gave in to the coffee even though she disapproved of teenagers drinking coffee. She herself had started on coffee at age nine, but she worked in the field for eight, sometimes ten hours a day. Coffee got you through. It was a necessity. For Jeremy it was a luxury, but as she put the small pot on the tray she was startled to see him coming down the stair in his pajamas and robe. She could see him from her spot in the kitchen. He trudged, heavy footed, to the bottom of the stairs, spotted his mother in the parlor and went toward her.
Actually, she thought, he did look sick. He was flushed. His eyes looked glassy. She watched from the kitchen as he began talking heatedly to his mother, waving his arms. He was angry about something. Very angry. Nasty angry. “So like his father,” thought Clarissa. His mother looked small, defensive. He ranted at her. Clarissa couldn’t hear the conversation but he was clearly bullying his mother who was trying, somewhat feebly, to counter his arguments.
Clarissa felt the prickly thing again. This time it was strong. Becoming stronger like a great storm gathering momentum with each breath. It moved up her spine and across her scalp. She had never felt it like this. She couldn’t make it stop.
Jeremy stormed into the kitchen and brushed past her to take the breakfast tray. She was on him before he knew it. The prickly thing had taken her over. She grabbed his arm and a voice that was not hers, deep and growly, burst through the wall of caution she had built so carefully over the years
“Who do you think you are chile? Don’t you dare ever, ever talk to your mamma with such a mouth. You hear me? You hear?” She shook his arm as she spoke. “You nasty
little spoiled brat. If I ever hear you talk to her like that again I will smack your ass so hard it will burn. Don’t think I won’t do it, you little shit. Now go and apologize to your mother.”
Her eyes blazed with a fierce dark energy. She was no longer the deferential old black lady. She released her iron grip on his arm. She pointed toward the parlor where Mrs. Delano was crying softly. “Did you hear what I said, chile? Go. Now!”
Jeremy stood speechless. He had never seen Clarissa like this. He had never seen anyone like this. The hair at the back of his neck stood up and a slight chill moved through him. He felt her vise like grip on his arm and was amazed at her strength. There was no thought. No resistance. He felt himself under the sway of her voice and, as if in a trance, went into the parlor.
“Mom,” his voice was hesitant, shaky. “I’m really sorry.”
Mrs. Delano’s tears gave way to stunned silence. She simply stood and stared after him as he went back to the kitchen, picked up his tray and took it up the stairs to his room, slamming the door behind him. Mrs. Delano stood at the foot of the stairs, looking in amazed silence up toward Jeremy’s closed door.
After a while she came back into the kitchen where Clarissa was tossing pork chops up in the air and clubbing them into small bits with her carving knife. The strangest bit was the sound of her singing, in her amazing, dusky voice. “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy..”