I wanted my next story to be about a woman who had lived down the street for as long as I could remember. She was a quiet, unassuming woman, who aside from a polite nod if someone rode by, kept to herself.
My mother said she thought her name was Mary, but she wasn’t sure and couldn’t recall her last name, or if she had ever even known it. She had heard rumors that when her parents died, they left her some money and she bought that house. “She must be in her eighties,” mother said.
I considered my options about trying to get her story. She could be the kind of person who welcomed company, or she could very well meet me at the door with a shotgun. I’m not sure how accurate a woman in her eighties could aim, but I imagine she could still make a mess of you if she came close.
I threw caution to the wind and walked down to her house. I rang the doorbell, and this frail, white-haired woman answered, sans the shotgun, thank goodness. I introduced myself and asked if she had a few minutes to spare.
Clearly taken aback, she quietly said, “I guess so, but if you’re selling something, I’m not really interested.” I told her that I wasn’t a salesperson.
“I’m writing about ordinary people,” I said.
She smiled and asked, “do you think I’m ordinary?” I said, “maybe I should rephrase that. I’m writing about people who aren’t famous.” Again, she smiled and asked, “do you think I’m not famous?”
It was then that I decided to stop prefacing my poor attempts at writing with words like “ordinary and famous.”
She clearly had a sharp wit and I got the impression that she was toying with me. I liked it.
She invited me in and motioned for me to sit down. I said, “could you tell me your name?” Almost reluctantly, she said, “my name is Martha Jane McDaniel. What exactly do you want to know? Are you writing a book?”
I chuckled as I said, “I have no illusions of writing a book. I just like to hear peoples’ stories. Will you tell me yours?”
A look of sadness came over her as she said, “I’m not sure I want to do that.” When I asked why, she said, “I grew up in a different time. Much different than now. Much different than your time, and I’m not sure you would understand.”
“Try me,” I said. “You might find that I understand a lot more than you think. I just talked to a coroner who spent his entire life with the dead, and it marked him. To most of us, he was just an ordinary man, but he had a story to tell, which made him anything but ordinary…at least in my eyes. We all have stories,” I said, “and we’ve all been marked.”
“Very well,” she said.
I listened as she began.
“When I was sixteen, I met a boy. His name was Harley Jones. It was love at first sight for both of us.” She smiled as she said, “I used to practice writing ‘Mrs. Harley Jones’, over and over and over. I know that probably sounds silly to you, but back then…that’s what girls did.”
“Oh, how I loved that boy,” she said. “I would sneak out of my bedroom window at night and meet him in the park. He had to walk over five miles to meet me, but he said he would walk ten times that far for just one kiss. When I’d see him coming around the corner, I’d run up to him and he would pick me up and twirl me around like a baton.”
I was thinking, “young love. Is there anything better?” I asked why she had to sneak out to meet him. “Was it because your parents thought you were too young to have a boyfriend?”
Martha stood up and walked to the window. “No. It was because he had dark skin,” she said.
I was confused for a minute. “Dark skin?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. “He was dark skinned, or ‘colored’ as they said in those days. You see, I grew up in a time where the first thing you saw when you got on a city bus was a sign that said, ‘colored to the rear’. Sears, Roebuck and Company had water fountains labeled ‘white’ and ‘colored’. When you went to the movies, the sign said, ‘colored to the balcony’. Races didn’t mix then. Such fraternization was considered reprehensible, and it was also illegal.”
“But,” she said. “I didn’t see color. I wasn’t thinking about what was legal or illegal, and I didn’t give a cats’ patootie about what people thought. All I saw was a handsome, smart, gentle, kind and wonderful young man who I absolutely adored.”
She sighed and said, “one night, the police were patrolling the park and saw us together. You can imagine what happened next. They put us in the back of the patrol car, with Harley handcuffed and took us to the station. They called my father and told him where I was, where they had picked me up, and told him I was with a ‘colored boy’.”
“My father came to the station with rage in his eyes and hatred in his heart. He took off his belt, yanked me up by the arm and hit me all the way out of the room. I remember watching the police officers as they smiled with an almost approving look on their faces.”
“I was scared to death for Harley,” she said. “I was afraid of what the officers might do to him. I silently prayed for his safety and defiantly planned our next meeting.”
Martha almost smirked when she said, “my father put a lock on my window. He really thought that was going to keep me from sneaking out.”
“Did you continue to sneak out?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “My father was an every night drinker and he would regularly pass out in his chair in front of the television. I just waited for the familiar drunken snore, and as soon as I heard it, I’d walk straight out the front door.”
“After a few weeks,” she said, “Harley and I decided that we were going to run away and get married. The problem was that neither of us had a car, nor did we have any money.”
That familiar sadness returned as she took a deep breath and said, “desperate situations call for desperate measures. We agreed that we would steal money from our fathers’ wallets. It would be easy for me because my father always left his wallet on the table beside the chair. I’m not sure he ever knew exactly how much money he had. All he cared about was having enough to buy his beer.”
“I took ten dollars from my fathers’ wallet, and Harley managed to take five dollars from his fathers’ back pocket. We were going to meet at the park at midnight and then walk to the bus station, which was several miles up the street. I had packed a nightgown and a change of clothes. I was beyond elated at the thought of my life with Harley. I was also absolutely terrified that we would get caught.”
Martha looked down and said, “my fears were well founded. The bus station was within sight, and we were giddy with excitement. We had already agreed to get on the bus separately, so as to not draw attention. Suddenly, a car came screeching to a halt behind us. It was my father. Apparently, he had awakened and checked to see if I was in my room. When he discovered that I was gone, I guess he went a little insane.”
“He got out of his car with a piece of 2 x 4 in his hand. He struck Harley in the side of the head and the blow killed him instantly. All I remember is seeing the blood and hearing someone screaming. Then I realized that I was the one who was screaming. It was mostly a blur, but I remember the police arriving just a few minutes later. One of the officers stood over Harley, and casually lit a cigarette…like he was looking at a deer who had just been hit by a car.”
“Nothing ever happened to my father, of course. No one was going to file charges against an outraged father for killing a boy who was guilty of statutory rape…especially when it was a colored boy.”
“Two things happened after that night. I never forgave my father, and I never spoke to him again.” She smiled as she said, “but justice has a way of finding monsters and evening the score.”
I wanted to ask what she meant, but if judgement had been rendered by her hand, I was not the one to question any device of hers.
“You know,” she said. “This is a bit serendipitous…you asking me to tell you my story. I often thought of writing my story but I didn’t think anyone would be interested in an ‘ordinary’ person who lived in a time filled with blatant prejudice, and deep-seeded hatred. People want to forget those times. They want to close their eyes to those of us who witnessed such atrocities…those of us who suffered such great loss. It doesn’t make for a feel-good story.”
“No one will remember me,” she said, “but once…I had a young girls’ heart and a young girls’ hopes. I knew how it felt to love and I knew how it felt to be loved. I wanted to see the world through rose-colored glasses. I didn’t know that it was a cruel and violent place, where only certain lives mattered.”
Martha had been marked, both by profound love and unfathomable loss. She never married.
“Martha,” I said. “Of what do you dream?”
She closed her eyes and smiled as she said:
“That’s easy. I dream of Harley Jones.”
To be continued________