Strangers No More
Jason lifted his short-brimmed hat off his eyes and peered out of the rain splattered window of the Greyhound bus. The wide-open land and green grass was long behind him. Towering buildings etched themselves into the gray horizon, resembling images from the gothic novels the teachers forced them to read in high school. The tropes of castles on hilltops, feisty damsels, and arranged marriages were about as much of his reality as him going to the moon.
“Thought you was gonna sleep straight through, young man.”
Jason turned his stiff neck toward his seat mate and was met with a smile. “Hope I wasn’t snoring.”
“I’m used to it. My late husband could lead a chorus when it came to snoring.”
Jason felt his cheeks heat. “Sorry ma’am.”
She patted his arm. “No need to apologize. You missed the last rest stop. Hungry?”
It was his grumbling stomach that actually woke him and, he wondered if she’d heard that too. “I appreciate you asking, ma’am, but I can hold out ‘til we get to New York. Thank you, though.”
She tipped her head a bit to the side, sizing him up. Jason shifted in his seat, tried to flatten the wrinkles in his pants. “First time traveling to New York?”
“You really don’t have to call me ma’am, not after having spent the last fifteen hours together. Edith Hall.” She stuck out her hand.
Her round cheeks and perfect marcel waves streaked with silver, reminded him of his Aunt Faye. She was the only one in the family that stood behind him when he announced that he was leaving Atlanta. She was his father’s eldest sister and the only one of six siblings that had ever been out of the state of Georgia. His father swore up and down that New York was the devil’s playground and probably the reason why Faye ran through two husbands and was lining up a third. He couldn’t understand why Jason had to leave his home and family to go carry the message of Dr. King. He had plenty of folks to do that. He was being stubborn and unreasonable, his father had railed. There were the weeks of silence, his mother’s stoic tears, and too many shut doors, but Jason would not be deterred. He was a grown man--all of twenty-four years old. He knew his own mind and he understood that he couldn’t wait around for someone else to do the work. What his father failed to realize was that he’d gotten his stubborn streak honest. He was no more than eight or nine when he’d watched his father sit on the porch night after night with a shotgun across his lap while the black pick-up trucks filled with rowdy Klan members threatened to set the house on fire if he didn’t sell his land. His mother begged him to sell, but his father refused. It could have cost him his life, all of their lives, but he’d done it anyway. A man gotta stand for what’s right, his father had said, and defend what’s his. Jason knew his moment to do what was right had arrived. He couldn’t sit still any longer.
“Sure you won’t have some?”
Jason blinked Edith back into focus. On her lap was a Tupperware bowl. She snapped opened the blue plastic cover and the mouthwatering aroma of fried chicken drifted up his nostrils and set his stomach to howling.
Edith chuckled. “Your mouth may be sayin’ no, but your belly is sayin’ yes.” She lifted the bowl toward him. “Go on now. Don’t be shy. Help yourself.”
Jason licked his lips. The chicken was a perfect golden brown and he instinctively knew that it was seasoned just right. “If you insist. My mama always told me to accept blessings when they’re offered.”
“Sounds like a wise woman.” She pulled some paper napkins out of her purse and handed them to him.
Jason sunk his teeth into golden meat. The skin crunched just right, the juice and seasoning burst in his mouth. His lids fluttered close and he hummed in appreciation.
She dug in her bag and pulled out a thermos. “Lemonade?”
“Yes, ma’am. Ms. Edith.” He wiped his mouth with the napkin and gratefully took the cup of lemonade. “You have family in New York?”
“Some. Most of my family is still in Birmingham. I moved to Atlanta about five years ago. But when my husband passed last year, and with all the mess down South . . .” her expression pinched. “I figured it was time for me to finally pull up stakes and come North. Just went back home for my cousin’s wedding. What about you?”
“No, ma’am. Everybody’s back home in Atlanta.”
“Hmm. Big move coming up here alone. New York is not like anything you every seen before I can tell you that.” She laughed. “More chicken?”
“I think I will. Thank you.” He chewed with pleasure. It reminded him of what his mother always said ...something about the kindness of strangers.
“Got some place to stay?”
“Uh, yes. As a matter of fact . . .” He wiped his mouth and hands with the napkin then dug inside pocket of his suit jacket and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. “My aunt Faye has a friend that runs a rooming house in Harlem.” He opened the paper.
Edith took a peek at the paper and mouthed the address. One Eighty Eight, One Hundred and Twenty Sixth Street and Amsterdam Avenue. “Pretty decent over there.” She bobbed her head in approval. “You should be fine. Clean streets. Plenty of places to eat. Folks are respectable.”
He wasn’t quite sure why he was willing to take the word of an almost stranger. He supposed there was that ‘Aunt Faye’ thing about Edith that made him feel everything would be just fine. Her assurances eased the rope of tension that tightened in his gut. Jason refolded the paper and put it back in his pocket. “That’s good to know.”
“Well, son, I’m going to take a little nap. Wake me when we get to New Jersey.”
“New Jersey? I thought you were going to New York.”
Edith smiled. “Eventually. I plan on visiting a ‘friend’ if you get my meaning.” She winked.
“Oh . . .”
She returned the Tupperware and thermos to her purse, adjusted her hips in the seat, leaned her head back and shut her eyes.
Now that he was wide awake and his belly was full, he wished he did have someone to talk to. He stole a glance at Edith. Her mouth had dropped open and her full lips fluttered ever so slightly when she exhaled.
Jason turned back toward the window. It would be dark soon, but at least the ran that had followed them all the way from Atlanta had finally stopped. By the time he reached New York it would be close to ten. Then he would still have to find his way to Harlem.
He’d heard all about Harlem in some way or the other for as far back as he could remember. Back home, Harlem was touted as some kind of mecca for Negros. It was a lot like the south just fancy and fast, his aunt had warned. He’d find out soon enough.
The bus banged and bumped along for at least another hour and Jason wondered who really led the chorus in Edith’s house, because she had certainly struck up the band. He caught the eye of a young woman in the opposite aisle two seats ahead of him, who smiled at him in sympathy and mouthed the word ‘sorry,’ then went back to whatever was on her lap.
Jason craned his neck around the seats to get a better look. She was busy writing in a notebook. He leaned back. One thing was certain, she had the biggest afro he’d ever seen on a real person. He’d only seen them on actors or models or revolutionaries in the magazines, newspapers or on television. Her halo of hair rose above the headrest like a crown. What was most arresting, though, were her eyes and skin that were all the same amber hue as her voluminous hair. It was as if she’d been painted by an artist that loved only one color. The big gold hoop earrings gleamed against the monochrome palette. He knew from reading the papers and watching television that there was a major movement for big ‘fros -- as they were called--at least up north. Back home all the women still pressed and greased their hair until it shined like new money and was as straight as a ruler. Saturday afternoons there was rarely a woman or girl to be found outdoors. Saturday was as close to a religious holiday as one recognized on a calendar. Saturday was press and curl day. Every beauty shop in town was filled from opening to closing for those who could afford the service. For others, grandma’s or aunty’s kitchen with hot comb, curling iron and plenty of Dixie Peach fit the bill. Seemed like the whole town smelled like sizzling hair and pomade on Saturday afternoons, and if a woman couldn’t get to the beauty salon, they pulled out their wigs that made them look like the actress Dianne Carroll or one of the Supremes. The young woman sitting ahead of him was definitely not from the south.
The bus eased to the right, followed traffic and took the exit ramp.
“Last rest stop before New York City,” the driver announced. “Get out and stretch your legs, use the facilities, but be back here in thirty minutes.”
Jason lightly tapped Edith’s shoulder. Her bottom lip clamped to the top. Her shoulders shook as if she was wet and her eyes inched open.
“We’re in Philadelphia. Last rest stop before New York,” he said with the authority of one that had taken this trip many times before.
“Is that right.” She covered her mouth and yawned. “Guess I should stretch my legs. At least two more hours to go.” She pushed to her feet, adjusted her pillbox hat and smoothed her skirt that screamed for mercy across her hips. She reached above her head to the rack and took down her suit jacket and light overcoat, put both on and made her way down the aisle. She stopped halfway and looked over her shoulder. “Coming?”
“I think I’ll stay.”
She shrugged then walked off the bus.
Everyone got off except for the woman with all the hair. The low murmur of static sounding voices drifted back toward him, and he realized it was a radio.
“Oh my God!”
Jason’s head snapped up.
“Bastards. Oh my God.”
He jumped up and hurried toward her. “What is it? What happened?”
When she turned to look up at him her liquid fire eyes were filled with tears and his insides shifted, ready to fix whatever was wrong.
Her nostrils flared as she tried to suck in air. “They blew up a church in Birmingham. Four girls were killed. Little girls!” Her balled fist pounded the seat in front of her.
Jason’s expression knitted. What she was saying wasn’t registering. “Who blew up the church?”
Her head whipped back in his direction. Seconds earlier her expression was one of utter sadness, now it was coated in a sheen of fury. She shook the radio in his face. “Who do you think? We didn’t blow up our own damned church!”
The pin prick of reality sucked the air right out of him. He dropped down in the seat opposite her. He saw the night riders drive past his home, threaten his family, the echoing stories of folk that had just turned up missing played in his head. This was different, though. He couldn’t fix this. This was something deeper than evil.
“This is why we must rise up,” she said, pointing vehemently at some unseen enemy. “Because until we do, they’ll keep killing us.”
She threw him a look that had him believing he was the enemy she spoke of.
“Dr. King teaches us to turn the other cheek that passive resistance is the way forward. The only way.”
She rolled her eye. “So you’re one of those do-gooders, huh?” She twisted her body in the seat so she could face him.
Jason experienced an electric shock zap his chest when those eyes zeroed in on him—accused him. She crossed her bell-bottomed legs on over the other and rocked her sneakered foot back and forth.
“Where has all the marching and praying and begging gotten us. Tell me that do-gooder.”
“Change takes time.”
“Four hundred years isn’t long enough?” she challenged, even as the light of defiance left her gaze only to be replaced by something akin to amusement. “What’s your answer then do-gooder?”
She was baiting him, amusing herself with his discomforting lack of a comeback.
“It’s like Brother Malcolm said, ‘by any means necessary.’ I chose my voice.” She picked up a black and white notebook and waved it over her head like Reverend Samuels did with the bible during Sunday service.
He was pretty sure that the good book was the last thing on her mind and he wondered what the folks back home would think of this fiery young woman with revolution for hair and flames for eyes.
“No offense to your beliefs but Malcolm preaches violence. That’s not the way. We can’t bring ourselves down to the level of our enemy.”
She smirked and leaned forward. She was inches from his face and he could see the specks of gold in her eyes.
“You’re just like the rest of the idealists. You don’t understand the message. It’s not about violence. It’s about not backing down in the face of the enemy.”
With the power of her gaze she held him immobile. He wanted to look away, but he couldn’t or maybe he didn’t want to.
The passengers began to return, and the spell was broken. They filed on the bus, one by one, their expressions reflecting the devastating news they’d surely heard. A pall of despair came with them, spreading, flooding the metal container washing over everyone and everything until the bodies were limp from trying to fight against what they believed they could not change.
The young woman jumped up from her seat. “Now is not the time for tears, brothers and sisters,” she shouted. “Now is the time to rise up against our oppressors.”
The passengers, many who’d seen and lived through what she’d only read about, indulged her with patronizing smiles as they shuffled to their seats.
Jason watched the fire in her eyes dim then extinguish. She threw him a look of disgust, shook her head and flopped back into her seat. “This is why we can’t overcome.” She slid over to the seat near the window and turned her back on him.
Jason opened his mouth to protest, but the passenger returning for his seat cut him off. He slid out of the way, just as Edith climbed on board. Her eyes were puffy, and her hat was askew. He took a last look at the young woman and back at Edith and knew where his loyalty rested. He took her arm and ushered her to their seats.
“Are you all right, Ms. Edith?” He helped her sit, then squeezed by her to slid into his seat.
She shook her head back and forth. “Lordhavemercy,” she muttered. “A church. I grew up in that church.” She turned tear-filled eyes on Jason. “One of those babies is my childhood friend’s grandchild.”
Jason took her soft hand in his. “I’m terribly sorry, Ms. Edith. Is there anything I can do?”
She pressed her lips into a tight line, locking any words behind her teeth, leaned back and closed her eyes.
The trip from Philadelphia to New Jersey was eerily quiet. Even the noisy engine and bumps in the road seemed to realize and take pause.
“New Jersey,” the driver finally announced and eased into of the bus lanes at the depot.
Edith turned to Jason. “You take care of yourself up in New York. World could use more good men like you.” She patted his shoulder.
“I plan to. And I’m real sorry for your loss.”
Her smile didn’t reach her eyes, but it was no less sincere, he knew. She gave a short nod, gathered her things and followed the somber procession off the bus.
Once the aisle cleared Jason craned his neck above the seats hoping, for reasons that he couldn’t quite explain, that the girl with the giant hair and fireflies for eyes would be sitting alone.
She was gone.
A familiar disappointment pooled in his chest. It was the same feeling he had the day he saw Brenda walking home hand in hand with David Hopper the captain of the basketball team. He’d spent weeks building up the nerve to ask her to the senior dance. He’d helped her with her math project and even loaned her his shoulder to cry on when her dog ran off. None of that mattered. He was the ‘nice guy,’ that was a good friend. David was ‘the man,’ that got the girl.
He settled back in his seat, pulled his hat down over his eyes, determined to put the stunning rebel out of his mind, but from behind his closed lids she smiled at him. Once he got settled maybe he’d go to that place B Flat that he’d heard about, get a taste of New York.
# # #
Anita was on the hunt for her oversized tote that she’d gotten for a steal from a local street vendor on 125th Street. The vendor, of Nigerian descent, swore on the souls of his ancestors that the bag was made by hand by a woman from his tribe. Anita had serious doubts, but she bought it anyway.
She slowly scouted out her overcrowded studio apartment, lifting throw pillows, discarded jeans, empty plates. Every available space, which wasn’t much, was covered with black and white notebooks, pens, writing pads, and crates of albums. She promised herself that she was going to clean up and get her space into some kind of livable condition. Her mother would be appalled, which was one reason why she never invited her over. Instead she trekked out to Brooklyn every single, solitary Sunday to have dinner with her parents. Her parents lived in Bedford Stuyvesant in the same four-story brownstone that she was born and raised. She grew up where ten-foot ceilings, parquet floors, claw foot tubs, chandeliers and stain glass windows were ordinary. Now her entire apartment could fit into her mother’s kitchen.
So, the visits served a couple of purposes. They eased her conscience about keeping her parents away, and the reasons why she left in the first place. They also reaffirmed to them that her job as a waitress kept a roof over her head, allowed her to pursue her poetry and that her politics hadn’t gotten her locked up or worse. Where was that tote?
She had a set later that night at the B Flat Lounge up on Lenox Avenue and one-twenty-fifth. She planned to try out some new material. She’d written three poems about the four little girls, but the one she’d worked on for weeks was all about the man she’d met on the bus ride back from Atlanta. A feeling like panic began to rise in her belly, that feeling she got when she couldn’t find the light switch in a dark room or walking alone at night. It was only a notebook but it was the only record she had of him.
He wasn’t even her type, but she hadn’t stopped thinking about him. The soothing timbre of his voice she heard in her dreams, or sometimes when she was trying to pay attention to a customer’s order. A few times she’d thought she saw him walking along Lenox or Amsterdam Avenues in that same tan suit he wore on the bus. But it was never him. She wasn’t sure why she couldn’t shake him off like she did most ‘do gooders.’ Maybe it was because there was a part of her that felt as if their conversation needed to be continued. She hated leaving things unsaid.
In the meantime, she needed to find that tote with her notebook inside then head over to the job she hated more than broccoli. The job paid the bills, she reasoned, and gave her the flexibility she needed. But still.
She got down on her hands and knees and looked under the pull-out couch. Dust, a random slipper--and her tote. She reached under and pulled it toward her. The panic eased. She pulled the notebook out of the bag, flipped to the pages about him as if to assure herself that the words remained.
Silly. She shut the book, stuck it in her bag, grabbed her jacket and keys then headed out.
Donna Hill: "I am a multi published author with more than 70 titles in print, three of which were adapted for television. I am an Assistant Professor at Medgar Evers College in New York and live in Brooklyn with my family."