Excerpt from upcoming novel about black life in 1920's Indiana.
|THE ROPE SWING: A Novel By Kimarie Manhart-Freeman
There had been no rain for weeks. It was June and the grass was crisp and brown like autumn wheat. Indiana had never seen a dry spell such as this before. It almost rained but the sky changed its mind and left only a few drops on the earth. Wisps of white steam like the ghosts of earthworms rose and vanished in seconds leaving the smell of musty promise in their wake. No breeze for days either.
Make your own breeze, he thought. Luther took the length of rope he had in the shed. He wove it through the scrap board leftover from repairing the porch steps, tying knots underneath. He climbed the willow tree and looped the rope over the steadiest branch. Just to be safe he sat on it and pulled the rope till it made a stretching sound. He pumped harder until the earth became a fluid ocean around him and the air became mercifully cooler if by only a couple degrees.
It ain't right, he thought. No boy should have to live like this. Momma gone, me working all day with nothing to show for it. A trash day like this on an ordinary day is bad enough, but a birthday? He is five now already. Insisting on getting the well water himself, making the rope bed up and fluffing the down tick with a rug beater like he seen ol' Sis doing at the hotel. Lil' Jim was jumping and swatting the tick with all his might when he nearly fell of the bed. Luther walked in and the boy beamed with his face covered in sweat, "I fluffed that ol' tick up Pappy. Jes' like new, it's a fine tick Pappy, and still soft. See?" Lil' Jim ran his hand over the tick and pressed gently. Luther smiled and placed a chapped, ashen hand on his boy's shoulder, "Yes, you done a fine job son. Mighty fine. C'mon outside for a minute boy. Need ya for a minute or two."
Lil' Jim was curious and followed Luther out through the kitchen screen door and down the three yellow pine stairs he replaced at dawn. Damn good thing he made that rope bed for the two of them too or there'd be no rope swing neither. The boy was sharp and his eyes went right to the willow with the prize swaying in the breeze.
"Pappy! A swing! Now Jennie Anne can't go a pushin' me off 'cause this one is all mine!" Then he added respectfully, "And yours too Pappy." Lil' Jim smiled and hopped on the swing, "Push me Pappy! Push me high!"
It seemed to go on for hours but he didn't have the heart to stop. Even though the heat was making him sick. His boy needed something and this was all he had, that and a little wood toy he made,so he pushed until his forearms burned and the sun fell beneath the line of failing raspberry bushes on the hillside like a juicy peach into a straw basket. He began to think of the peach orchard he worked in back in Georgia. He left and followed his wife's family to Indiana at the behest of his father-in-law. His wife Maureen just wanted to go off with him and stay in Georgia, but Luther was old-school and wanted to honor her father. If he knew then what he knows now he'd tuck tail and run to Georgia with her away from her father. He met her in the orchard. She was a seasonal picker and they stuck together working the fields as a team. She worked as hard as any man but was every bit a lady. "No moonshine in the house, take off those shoes, no cussin' ", and so on. But when the sun went down, that was a different story altogether. In his bed she was a no lady and that suited them both just fine. One evening they were making peach ice cream and she passed up the stuff she loved. Said she had "no stomach for food and needed a rest is all." Lil' Jim was seven months old at the time. In five months she wasted away to nothing, the lovely curves turned to skin and bone. He stayed with her and the boy those last few weeks all day and all night. She sat in the sun on the iron bed he put there for her. She ached so that he had to place three bed ticks so she wouldn't cry out from the pain. No hugging because it hurt too bad. Just stroking her forehead and placing his hand over hers.
Her old man never came to see her once while she was ill. Blamed Luther for her being sick. Truth is he thought all the toying he did with her himself made her cursed. Maureen told Luther about her pappy and what he did. It broke his heart knowing why she wanted to leave when they first met. If only he did, maybe she'd be alive.
"Alright Pappy, I'm done for now. I'm hungry too. Pappy?", Lil' Jim looked up at his father's face and saw a far away look on it that made him feel uneasy. He grabbed onto his belt and Luther came out of his daydream.
"What's that son?", Luther replied softly.
"I said I'm tired Pappy."
"Alright then, let's go on inside and get washed up now." But in his mind he was back in Georgia with Maureen swinging on the rope swing he made for her behind the share cropper shack they lived in for 3 years as man and wife.Her shoulder length curly hair was combed into a braid and tied with a yellow ribbon. How his Maureen loved yellow. Just like her to make her own sunshine. It made sense seeing how she had precious little of it till Luther took her for his wife. But Luther now forced himself to remain focused on the boy. It was his day, such as it is.
Inside they washed up and Luther warmed up cold ham, butter beans, and bisquits from the ice box. He slathered the mustard on the bisquits as Lil' Jim loved mustard. Hot peppers too. Such a funny little man eating food hotter than a devil's temper. But anything Luther did, so did Lil' Jim. Since the passing of his mamma, he stuck like glue to Luther and refused to go to school in Miss Eunice Janison's house. Lil' Jim was afraid to go to school and find Luther gone too when he came home. Luther forced Lil' Jim to go but it was such a sorry sight, he let him do his learning at home since that day. Miss Eunice left books for Luther to help Lil' Jim study with and they passed the time reading most evenings. That suited them both just fine too. When they had finished eating, Luther told Lil' Jim to leave the plates, he was off duty tonight. He pulled a lemon merengue pie from the ice box and placed it on the table. His boys' face was radiant with delight.
"Ol' Sis made a mess of pies for a wedding and they gave her leave to take one home for herself and she gave it to you.You be sure and thank her now alright?"
"Yes Pappy. Why didn't she come though?", Lil' Jim looked a little sad.
"She'll be coming in the morning. She had to clean up the kitchen after the wedding. Don't be hard on Ol' Sis, she's 62 now. Look at this fine pie, Mmm-Mmm, get a load of that top, like a mountain. How many eggs you suppose Ol' Sis put in that thing?" Lil' Jim laughed, a sound that gave Luther back a piece of his soul each time he heard it. They ate the tangy-sweet pie, enjoying two pieces. When it was time to go to bed, Luther handed Lil' Jim a tiny parcel which he opened revealing a Jacob's Ladder wood toy. The little planks of wood seemed to climb infinitely with a flick of the wrist. Lil' Jim fell asleep with his treasure in his hand beside his pappy in their rope bed. Lil Jim's sleeping form reminded him of Maureen's final hours. Maureen lived to see Lil' Jim's first birthday and passed two days later. She breathed her last next to her boy while he napped clutching her dress. She was unable to breast feed him from the time he was seven months old and she took sick. "I'll never forget his smell.", she told Luther, " I can take that with me to forever. Luther we did good with this one, real good." She spoke with her eyes closed and she seemed to be comfortable. As he bent over to kiss her, he felt her breath rush out all at once onto his neck. He knew she was gone but it didn't seem real. He didn't know how long he just sat and watched them, like they were both just sleeping. He felt like he was in a dream and couldn't wake up. But he did, when Lil' Jim woke up and tugged on his mamma to no avail. Ol' Sis had been staying on there to help out. She had been keeping a death vigil for days now and came to Luther's side. She placed a heavy hand on his shoulder.
"Luther? You best get on outta here. I'll do the layin' out for ya. Take that child outside with ya now. It's bad luck keeping a little one in a passed one's room." She guided him to his feet and placed Lil' Jim into his arms. He walked like as one dead himself to the porch, dutifully leaving Ol' Sis to her bitter task. She cleaned and dressed poor Maureen. Since she had just passed it was easy laying her out for the coffin. Ol' Sis was thankful for that much. She helped lay out her Aunt who died in the night and was found some 6 hours later. She had to break the hips to get her to lay flat. Ol' Sis let out a cry with each snap as if it were her own bones, and so they were in a way. Maureen was easier on her hands but harder on her heart. Maureen was an angel and loved her boy to no end. It was unfair for her to be taken like that and Ol' Sis was asking God to help her accept it and not be bitter.The funeral went quickly and Luther didn't recall much after that during the next few weeks. His ears and his eyes didn't work like they should, and what they heard and saw he couldn't make sense of anyway. His only focus came from within his heart. His boy needed him and that's what kept him going.
Now on Lil' Jim's fifth birthday, he lay beside Luther in happy sleep. Lil' Jim let out a contented, soft laugh and Luther wondered, was Maureen visiting him while he slept? He fell asleep wondering what made him happy.
Ol' Sis was as good as her word. She was in the house and making the morning meal before the rooster knew where his voice was. The smell of her coffee greeted Luther's nostrils. Nobody made coffee like Ol' Sis. A widow with no children, she found her place in life helping everbody she came in contact with. She developed a special bond with Luther and Lil' Jim. She more or less became the granny they needed. They called her Ol' Sis because she acted like a mother hen from the time she was 11 years old. She knew heartache and it made her look old before her time. But her heart was ageless and her hugs were powerful. Her husband was just 31 years old when he dropped dead. He'd been complaining of a headache that day and then he just fell. She resolved to give the love she could no longer give her husband to everyone she still could. So here she stood fixing grits, bacon, biscuits, and owl-eye eggs. She caught sight of Luther, " Hey Luther! Where's my sunshine baby?"
Luther scratched his head and was about to reply when Lil' Jim came running out of the bedroom.
"Ol' Sis! You did come! Did you see? I ate two pieces of pie 'cause it was so good! I saved you some too! Can I have coffee? I'm five now! , holding up his left hand to prove it.
Ol' Sis tried not to laugh as Lil' Jim was trying so hard to be grown-up and laughing would wound his manly heart, so she said, " Well, so you are. And how do you want that coffee?"
Lil Jim looked confused, " In a cup please."
Ol' Sis let out a laugh that shook her round belly as well as the room, "One cup of coffee coming up baby."
She made a cup that was mostly milk with a little coffee and table sugar.
They ate together and Lil' Jim sat close to Ol' Sis and leaned his head on her bosom while she sipped her coffee and talked with Luther. When they were finished and Luther helped her clear the table and wipe the dishes, they went to survey the now famous swing.
"Luther, when you gonna give this child another mamma? You 'aint got to love her like Maureen, just do right by her, that's all. If the Lord saw fit to give Thomas and me children, I'd have married again. You need a help-mate, it's only right."
Luther sighed, "Now what do I have to do that for when I've got you? I go and bring another woman around here and she'd be jealous of you, you know that.", He gave her a kiss on the cheek.
She frowned, "Now don't try to butter up this old hen, I've been buttered, basted, and I'm done baby! Eunice is a fine looking woman, she's right smart, she can sing, she can cook, and she loves your boy. "
Luther replied,"Yeah? Well why didn't she come on his birthday?"
Ol' Sis looked surprised,"Didn't she tell you? She's went to help her sister with the baby. She's about due any day now. Surprised she didn't say she was leaving.Oh by the way, that man who rooms in her sister's boarding house came to escort her there, just so you know. He was mighty happy to do it too. Stunk up the whole depot with his toilet water."
Luther wasn't surprised she left without notice. He had given her the cold shoulder from day one when Maureen died. Eunice was only trying to help. Truth is he was attracted to her and felt guilty about it. He couldn't bear the thought of loving another woman when his Maureen's shell lay in the soil. If it wasn't for the grace of God and fearing for Lil' Jim, he'd have shot himself with the rifle and been in the ground now with her. He had the best as far as he was concerned and he was alright with being alone. So why did his heart just skip a beat when Ol' Sis made mention Eunice left without telling him?
Ol' Sis wore out Lil' Jim with games and stories. She took a walk with him to gather tiger lillies and corn flowers for a bouquet. Even in all the drought they were flourishing nicely. The creek had dried to a mud bed with only a few puddles and a handful of pitiful water lilies. Lil' Jim made mud pies of all shapes and sizes. On the way home he spotted a large toad and caught it. He placed it in his sackcloth bag and let it loose under the house when he arrived home. The underside of the house was an oasis for bugs seeking respite from the dry sun. The toad was sure to find a meal there and stay if he had any sense. Ol' Sis and Lil' Jim were a comical and dear sight. Mud up to their ankles, toad in a sack, fist of posies. What a sight. Ol' Sis would humble herself to no avail to keep his boy happy and he loved her for it. He could not have gotten through without her.
After they all had taken their baths and the house was quiet, Luther's thoughts drifted to Eunice again. Her grey eyes and long, dark brown hair, pretty hands and soft voice. What good would it do to get all hot and bothered about her? The KKK had bullied the farmers to give all the jobs to the whites and not let the blacks have any positions. Seems even the white collar boys were willing to roll up their sleeves now that jobs were scarce. With no income he didn't feel right wooing her now. He was offered a job as a woodcraftsman and was to meet with the owner tomorrow. Luther made the coffins for the townsfolk and an out-of-towner saw one and was impressed. He owned a millworks and business was booming. The man was half French and half Native American and had no qualms over Luther being black. Mr. Pasqual De'LaCroix was his name. Dark tan skin, pale blue eyes, and hair down to his backside that he braided and kept under a top hat. Luther wondered, Maybe after he made some money, then he could perhaps court Miss Eunice.
Miss Eunice had been away for 7 weeks now. Her sister had a baby girl. Tired of being burned by Luther, she gave up the idea of nabbing him. She had spent most of the summer indoors and had grown a little paler. The dainty freckles under her eyes were more noticeable. She had lost her quick smile and was quiet these days. Seeing her younger sister settled down with a child made her think. She was getting old, no two ways about it. Without realising it, her quiet and reflective nature was like honey to a bee, and Luther was the one to get stung. She no longer looked out for him, so he no longer had the opportunity to give her gruff, quick answers to sincere questions. Each time she didn't see him, it was like a mule kick in the gut. After watching her drift by him for the hundredth time, he'd had enough. How was he going to get her to notice him again?
Luther woke to the sound of loud plinking on his roof. He looked out the window and saw hail the size of walnuts coming down. It sounded like candy being poured into a glass dish. He thought of the ruined fruit at the orchard he was let go from and couldn't help but feel justified. He hoped the KKK clan members were getting the piss knocked out of 'em in the fruit fields by the hail. The hail turned to a heavy rainstorm that went on for three days. Flash floods popped up all over and wise folks stayed clear of riverbanks. The stormfront cleared leaving a telltale rainbow and humidity as a remembrance. Birds skittered through puddles and feasted on retreating worms. The crops had suffered great loss. Flattened corn, bruised fruit, and fallen branches left a mess to contend with. Luther's little cabin held it's own and didn't lose so much as a roof shingle. The large victorian hotel Ol' Sis worked at lost it's roof on account of the oak tree that was now occupying the bridal suite on the top floor. The owners, Sarah and Gabe Mueller, a Jewish couple, asked Luther to help repair the damage. He took the job as it would pay for new shoes and clothes for Lil' Jim and give him something to do until he began working at Mr. De'LaCroix's Millworks.
In a month's time Luther repaired the damage to the hotel. He improved the fireplace mantle as well and built a chiffrobe. As part of his pay, he was given his meals in the hotel kitchen. Since Ol' Sis did a majority of the cooking, that suited him. Ol' Sis kept Lil' Jim with her in the hotel kitchen. He was kept busy with little chores. She helped him with his studies and read to him from her Bible. After Luther came in for lunch, Ol' Sis put Lil' Jim down for a nap on a cot. It was a good sized room and had more space than Luther's cabin. It was a nice little life, and the boy grew accustomed to his routine. So, it pricked his heart a bit when Luther announced he'd finished his work there. Even though Ol' Sis came everyday, it would not be the same.
Summer left and placed its yellow and red Dear John letters on the tree branches. A gust of wind was blowing, stirring the leaves like water in a grist mill. Luther had a ways to go each day for his new job. He took the old truck out from behind the cabin. He had no use for it until now. He removed the burlap cover and washed down the truck. With lunch in hand, he set out. The millworks operated like a fine timepiece. The timbers were shaved, ripped, and planked in rapid procession. Luther fast became part of that timepiece.
Just as Luther anticipated, the KKK began snooping around De'LaCroix's mill. For the obvious reasons that De'LaCroix was an immigrant. It rankled the nerves of the KKK members that the mill was doing so well while their businesses were going belly-up. Economic difficulty made the nation susceptible to the Klan's hate messages against all non-white, non-protestant citizens. Their prime target lately was the Jews and the Catholics. Poor De'LaCroix was a Catholic, immigrant,French-Jew. So the KKK wanted him dead and buried yesterday, But DeLaCroix had his own cut-throat men with him at all times. Then along came D. C. Stephenson, the leader (Grand Dragon) of the Klan in the state since 1923, who was a charming personality and powerful orator; he was also arrogant, cunning, evil, and hedonistic. Luther had come across him on more than one occasion and it made his skin crawl. Stephenson was rumored to be guilty of murder but no one dared go up against him. He had the police and most of the town wrapped around his finger.
by Kimarie Manhart-Freeman