Preview of Never Cry Again
First Five Chapters:
CHAPTER 1, The Cap. 1933
They had stolen his favorite cap. It was also his only cap, but Drew called it his favorite. He had run after them for a short distance, but they were older and he could not keep up. He didn’t even know their names. They simply snatched away his cap and ran off laughing into the woods behind the oil refinery. He knew they did it just to tease him; the cap meant nothing. He also knew that they would throw it away somewhere in the woods where they went almost every day after school to smoke cigarettes made from Bull Durham caged from Wilkinson’s Drugstore.
These same boys always shouted at him during recess and called him names. Drew often gritted his teeth at the insults and bullying and sometimes swore he would get even but admitted truthfully to himself that he did not know how he would do this. He was nearly seven but skinny with short legs and thin arms. He remembered that Reverend Thomas had once said, “’Vengeance is mine,’ sayeth the Lord.” But he did not think either the Lord or Reverend Thomas was going to get his cap back or help him get even.
Drew ran his hand across his sandy hair and was suddenly unsure if the heat he felt was from the sun or the anger in his head. It only served to remind him of the missing cap, like rubbing salt on a wound, as he opened the wire gate in front of the small house he shared with his mother. Several of the older kids at school had teased him about it being a shotgun house. Once it had been painted a bright barn red but now looked like a faded rusty train car, covered in peeling paint and splotches of dirt.
The yard was a collection of weeds, piles of junk, and dirt paths. One of his uncles had brought the junk of various types to the house in order to have a place to store it. Drew was never told the purpose of this and, as time passed, simply ignored the various bits and pieces of wrecked automobiles, old tires, an icebox with a missing door, and a dilapidated chifforobe, the veneer peeling off in strips. The dirt path to the porch wound through the weeds and rusting geography in the front of the house.
As he crossed the yard, he wondered if his uncle Henry had come by today. He always left more money than his other uncles. The obvious signs of this uncle were usually a restocked supply of liquor and, on rare occasion, a whole carton of cigarettes. Sometimes, after Henry’s visit, his mother would go out and buy food.
He crossed the porch quietly. If his mother was sleeping, it probably would not make a difference, but there was no sense in making extra noise. The inside consisted of three rooms in a row; he slept in the front room, the kitchen was in the center, and his mother’s room was at the rear. A lean-to that had gotten added to the kitchen served as their washroom. He put his school things down in his room and crossed into the kitchen. He saw the new bottle of Four Roses right away, already only three quarters full. A green-and-red carton of Lucky Strike cigarettes sat on the table. It too had been opened.
He looked into the icebox and saw that today must have been a banner day because his mother had bought milk, bread, and bacon. There was even a small brown sack with six eggs inside. She must have gone all the way to Mr. Martinez’s store up the hill from their house. A fresh block of ice told him that she even had enough money for the iceman, who he sometimes thought might be an uncle even if his mother kept denying it.
Much of the time he thought the iceman was not an uncle. He was a colored man and his mother always said she hated colored people, although she used a word he thought of as a bad word. Still, he had seen the iceman coming from her room several times with that look that other men had after spending some time with her; heads sort of ducked down and hurrying away without trying to make conversation.
She had left her purse on the table, and he carefully removed a $1 bill and a handful of coins. She would notice the missing dollar long before she ever noticed the coins, but he thought if the day had been as good as it seemed, perhaps she would forget about it quickly. When he got into his room, he counted it and then pulled a once-gaily colored tin box labeled Mrs. Goldstone’s Excellent Bath Crystals from under his bed. He added the dollar and 87¢ to the other coins and few dollar bills in the box and slid it back under his bed. The money would be useful next week in case Uncle Henry did not return.
He sneaked a look into his mother’s bedroom. She was asleep, snoring softly, her table radio playing quietly. He went back into the kitchen and moved aside some of the dirty dishes and knives and forks on the kitchen table, then got his school things from the front room, and sat down with his arithmetic book for his lessons. An insolent cockroach crawled across the table, and he swatted at it. The cockroach moved away, stopping just under a dirty plate; but he could still see its legs as it waited, expectant, for him to leave.
His lessons needed to be finished by Monday, three days away, but he thought he might as well get started. A girl who sat next to him at school had given him some paper, and his books belonged to the school. They were free as long as they were returned in good condition. He had used old paper sacks to carefully make book covers.
This lesson was about adding compound numbers, which to him seemed unnecessary to know. Still, he carefully wrote his answers to the arithmetic problems from the end of the chapter. He wrote as small as he could to conserve paper. When he finished, he had used only half of the sheet, which he folded back and forth, and then carefully tore in a straight line. Miss Ryan would let him turn his work in on less than whole sheets, even though when he did, some of the other kids would laugh in that nasty way they had.
It was nearly dark when he finished; and he was beginning to think of frying some of the bacon, slicing bread off the loaf, and frying it in the bacon grease for supper. He wasn’t good at slicing. Sometimes bacon he sliced was thick in the middle; other times the ends were thick and the middle too thin. It was the same way with bread, but he thought that if he kept trying, he would eventually get better.
He suddenly looked up, feeling another presence in the room. Eugene, one of his many uncles, was leaning against the doorjamb, an opened bottle of beer in his hand. He had not heard him come in or heard Eugene’s old truck as he usually did when it labored and clattered along the sandy rutted road. He felt a little irritated at not noticing Eugene’s entrance, especially since he seemed to be coming by more often than most of the others. Usually, when Eugene came, Drew made sure to go to his blanket out in the shed under the old chinaberry tree.
“Hey, Drew,” Eugene said in his nasally whine of a voice. The way he drawled out his name sent shivers under his skin.
“Hello,” Drew answered quietly, looking at Eugene. He was dressed in dirty overalls that were too large. Eugene rarely wore a shirt, and the hair sticking out from under his arms, Drew knew from experience, smelled bad. Eugene’s teeth were yellow stained, and one in front was missing.
“Your ma’s passed out again,” Eugene said with a hint of an accusation. Drew wished Eugene would not call her ma. He called her mother and expected others to call her that too or at least call her by her name, Edith.
Eugene continued, “I come all the way over here, ready to party with your ma and everything. I got paid today too. Now, she’s out like a light.”
Drew couldn’t think of a safe response. He knew Eugene had hit his mother some weeks ago, and with a little start of fear, he wondered if the man now wanted to hit him. He wished he would just leave. He got up and took his school things back into his room.
As he left, he heard Eugene walk over to the kitchen table and he heard the scrape of glass on wood. He did not turn around but knew that Eugene had picked up the whiskey bottle. The sound of the cork as it protested being pulled out proved him right, followed by the sound of a belch. Eugene must have gulped whiskey directly from the bottle and then followed with a large swallow of beer. The scrape of the chair as Eugene sat down at the table made Drew turn around.
He walked back to the kitchen and stood in his doorway, looking at Eugene.
“I don’t know when Mother will wake up,” he said, emphasizing his title for her. “She was probably pretty tired. I think she walked all the way to Mr. Martinez’s store today.”
Eugene looked at him for a while and then got those funny crinkly lines around his mouth, like he was trying to smile and frown at the same time. He had looked this way the time when he had hit his mother. There had been other times when Eugene had looked this way.
“Come over here,” Eugene said with his funny crinkly lines somehow making his voice funny and crinkly. “I want you to sit on my lap. You’re such a big boy now. You ’member you used to sit on my lap when you was just a little feller?”
Drew started to move away, but Eugene had long skinny arms that easily reached out and grabbed him and pulled him onto his lap. He brought Drew close to his face, and the smell of his breath, laden with the odor of rotten teeth along with cigarette smoke and whiskey, almost overwhelmed Drew. He squirmed and tried to move away.
Eugene laughed and held him tighter. And his hands! Unlike his arms, they were big and seemed to be everywhere! He struggled some more to get off Eugene, and then those big hands moved again, and he felt that he could not get his breath.
He knew without looking when his mother entered the room. Her scent of cigarette smoke, whiskey, and the latest free sample of the Avon lady’s perfume always came into the room before she did.
Edith pulled her son off Eugene’s lap, hugged him, and said, “How’s my big boy today.” This wasn’t a question, and she didn’t look at Drew. She was looking at Eugene. He saw that his mother was wearing only her green rayon robe, which she had not tied well, and he saw that Eugene was now staring at his mother’s open robe. Drew was embarrassed to look at her.
Edith let him go and leaned over and kissed Eugene on the mouth. Eugene’s hands moved again, this time to her open robe. She giggled a little, picked up the whiskey bottle, and took Eugene by the hand. Drew watched as she pulled him across the kitchen and into her bedroom, where she closed the door. Drew felt that he had not breathed for several minutes and took deep breaths.
His mother’s bedroom door burst open, and she came back into the kitchen. Drew looked at the floor as he realized she had not retied the sash. She turned away from him, opened the top of the icebox, chipped ice into two glasses with a pick, smiled at Drew, winked when she caught his eye, and returned to her room. She shut the door again.
He heard the music on the radio get louder and knew it was time for him to go out into the shed where he was to stay when his mother had a party. Soon there would be noises that he did not want to hear coming from his mother’s bedroom.
The uncle who had stored junk in the front yard had taken an old tire and made it into a swing and hung it from the old chinaberry tree next to the shed that held Drew’s blanket. He sat in the swing as the afternoon deepened into a still, quiet evening twilight. Drew could faintly hear the sounds of singing from the colored church up the hill from his house, past Mr. Martinez’s store. It was choir practice time at the Paradise Valley Missionary Baptist Church. The music from the hymns, indistinct but somehow soothing, washed softly over him.
He watched the early summer lightning bugs as they bobbed about. Sometimes, while waiting like this, he had caught one or two and squeezed off the glowing part of their body and made a fairy ring for his third finger. But it would not feel right tonight. His chest still felt tight, and he was shaking.
He cried a little. He was hungry and wondered how long Eugene and his mother would have their party. He hoped it would not be too long.
He found a wad of chewing gum in his pocket, wrapped in waxed paper. The girl who had given him paper for his homework had also handed him the gum. Her name was Kowanda. She had chewed it, and most had stuck to the waxed paper, but what little of the gum he got still had a little flavor. He chewed it while tears ran down his cheeks, and he waited for Eugene to leave so he and his mother could have a late supper together.
Maybe tonight she would stay awake and listen to him talk about school and what Miss Ryan had said. She sometimes did that, so he sat and wished and hoped and maybe believed just a little that tonight his mother would sit and talk with him. He continued crying and did not know why as the twilight turned into a clear, starry night. The soft and indistinct sounds of Negro voices singing their Christian hymns drifted about him.
CHAPTER 2, Lubbock County, Texas, 1920—1925
Edith pulled the covers tight about her. Maybe, she said to herself as she did every night, maybe tonight he will not come.
Maybe, maybe, maybe, oh, not tonight, please, please, please.
And some nights he did not come.
But most nights he did, and tonight would be such a night. Swaying, shuffling, and believing in his drunkenness that he was being quiet and that the child never heard, felt, or knew. But, of course, she knew. Of course, she heard him as he fumbled into the room and knew that the pain would come again. She felt him climbing into bed, felt him touching her, and when he spread her legs and entered her, she felt that too.
“Edith Ann, Edith Ann, oh, sweet little Edith,” he sang softly to himself as he began to move back and forth, and the pain increased. She closed her eyes tighter.
Their small house had not been painted in many years, and it seemed to Edith that their house was as gray as the prairie it sat on, windswept and bleak. The grayness stretched unbroken to the horizon, with no trees or hills to disrupt the monotony. Edith thought that her life was gray—as gray as the land and the house.
Her father sharecropped and was permitted to keep one-third of whatever the land produced. But the land was poor, and the incessant North Texas winds were so severe that usually the land produced nothing except massive storms of swirling dust.
But each year Edith’s mother produced a new baby, and each year her father went deeper into debt at the country store that was owned by the landlord of the property he farmed.
There was always work to do. Besides the babies and the younger children, there were clothes to wash, lamps to fill and trim, and the kerosene stove in the kitchen had to be kept clean of soot and greasy grime. Edith, as the oldest, had been permitted to attend only four years of school and then had to help at home. There was never enough for everyone to eat. It seemed to Edith that either her mother or one of the children was always sick.
It was a cold, gray winter day when her mother died giving birth. Edith heard her mother’s dying screams for months afterward and blamed her father, believing the death was her father’s fault. The baby was stillborn. Edith’s primary emotion upon seeing the dead infant was a feeling of relief that there would not be another infant to feed, diaper, and care for.
It was about six months after her mother’s death that her father took her to his bed. At first, it had been a simple sharing; his presence was a comfort to the grieving girl, and she began to forgive him for her mother’s death.
Soon, though, the blame would return, along with resentment, eventually anger, and then hatred.
She never knew where he got his liquor, but each night he drank after supper. Her thirteenth birthday was the first time. She pretended to sleep through the pain, through the grunts and thrusting, through the soft under-his-breath singing until he shuddered and moved off her and began snoring.
Occasionally, he drank himself into a stupor, falling to sleep at the kitchen table. On those nights she was blissfully alone. She began to look forward to those nights, and she began bringing him his liquor earlier each evening after super. She even started trying to choke down a little of the fiery liquid herself to encourage him to drink more. In time, it became easier to drink, and she learned that it could help her get to sleep. If she drank enough, she could even get through her father’s fumbling with minimal discomfort, physically at least. So while still in her early teens, Edith learned to tolerate and enjoy alcohol.
There was shock and shame when she found that she was pregnant with her father’s child, but the friendly alcohol helped her bear this too. When the pregnancy was three months along, Edith wept and screamed at the hideous pain of miscarriage. The oldest of her younger sisters tried to help and indeed was of some assistance, but mostly the help hurt more than eased her pain. All the sisters wept at the sight of the poor bloody lump of stillborn tissue that had issued from Edith’s body.
Spring came early to the North Texas plains the year Edith turned fifteen. One day, when the air was soft and balmy and puffs of cloud dotted the light blue of the Texas sky, it seemed to Edith that her housework was finished for a little while. She sat on the front steps of the house in a rare moment of rest while the other children played in the backyard. There was washing on a line in the side yard that flapped in the breeze. It would be hours before her father returned from the fields, and she already had fresh cornbread in two cast-iron skillets on the warming board, covered with cup towels.
She decided that it would be a good time to wash her hair. Afterward, it felt refreshing to let her hair dry in the light breeze. Her sisters always talked about how her hair was a shiny golden blonde. Today, its curls billowed about her shoulders, and the sensation gave her a new sense of freedom.
She noticed the wildflowers that sprang up in profusion beside the ditch at the side of the dirt road. Edith felt as if she’d never seen them before. She moved toward them, at first intending merely to look at them more closely.
As she stood, admiring the flowers, a strange feeling came over her. In some way, she could not analyze the road seemed to be calling. Edith turned and went back into the house to the bureau where her things were kept. She pulled out a faded sepia photograph mounted on heavy paper. It had once shown two young people, standing stiffly for the camera. Edith had long ago cut the picture in half so that now it only showed a heartbreakingly young woman with a strong resemblance to Edith. She put the photograph of her mother in her pocket, went back to the road, and simply walked away.
She walked away from the other children, from her father, and from the gray house that had been her life. She took nothing with her other than the photograph and clothes that she wore. She hadn’t completely realized that she was actually going to leave. It was just that the day was so pretty and the road called so strongly that at first all she wanted to do was just walk. After a while, she wanted to see how far her feet could take her.
She slept on the ground by the side of the road when night came, her only thought being that on this night she was free from her father’s approach. She did not think about the younger children who would be anxious and wanting their supper or about the wildflowers that she had so admired earlier and which now made a bed for her. She thought she would return home the next morning.
But she did not. As the sun crept over the horizon, Edith shook off the morning chill and kept on walking. She stopped at the first house in town that she came to and knocked at the back door.
A woman with a dirty head cloth and greasy apron opened the door.
“What do you want?” she asked in a whiny voice.
“Something to eat,” Edith begged. “I’ll work.”
“I got nothing for you. You’re some damn gypsy or something. Get out of here before I call the law!” The door slammed. Edith walked down the back steps and turned, looking up at the closed door. Then a window curtain parted. Edith could see the woman watching.
The door opened again, and the woman came out with a broom. She shook it at Edith.
“Go on, git! There’s nothing for you here! Go home to your folks. I got all I can handle with my own kids.”
So Edith walked on. Women at two other houses chased her away too.
She eventually found several large garbage cans in an alley behind the restaurant in the middle of town. Edith thought the largest might have some scraps she could get. A man came from inside the restaurant and into the alley and chased her away before she was able to scavenge anything. She decided to keep on walking.
On the other side of town, an oil derrick by the side of the new concrete highway was ringing with sounds of men and machinery. The smells of dirt, steam, grease, and sweat were heavy in the air. One of the men saw her watching and recognized the look of hunger. Something about the skinny blonde girl called him. He climbed down from the drilling floor and crossed the muddy machinery-strewn area between the rig and the road. The girl warily watched the approach of this man in his greasy trousers and aluminum roughneck’s hat. The way she tensed up, and her eyes widened as he got closer, made him think of a frightened rabbit.
He called out, “Hey, don’t run away. You hungry? I got a sandwich here.”
So Edith Simmons met George Andrew Watson, a minor partner in the wildcat well. It was highly unusual for an investor to also work on the drilling floor, but George had worked for the principal partners on other wildcat rigs. When his wife inherited several thousand dollars, George took the money and invested in this well.
He asked Edith to sit down on an overturned barrel and handed her his sandwich. As she ate, George told her his name and asked for hers. He chatted easily with her; and she became calm and began to feel safe with this friendly, kind, handsome man. He was tall and slender, his straight white teeth flashed when he smiled, his dark wavy hair shone in the sunlight, and his intense dark eyes fascinated her.
“Would you wait for me to get off work?” George asked. “I could take you back into town, maybe give you a ride home. Are you from around here?”
Edith shook her head, wondering how much she should tell him. “I lived on a farm,” she blurted. “I don’t want to live there anymore.”
George shook his head. What was he getting himself into? “Do you have someplace to stay tonight?”
Edith again shook her head. “No.”
“Well,” George said kindly, “maybe I can help.”
Edith agreed to wait until his work was over. He left her his coffee thermos and returned to the rig. She remained, sitting on the barrel and whiling away the afternoon, not really thinking of anything, simply watching the men work.
As the afternoon shadows lengthened, George climbed down off the rig and led her to the largest newest automobile she had ever seen. He opened the door for her and invited her to ride with him. No man had ever opened a door for her. He took her to the Stetson Hotel in downtown Lubbock where he had a large room with a connecting bath. Edith’s head swam at the luxuries this man enjoyed.
Edith, without really making the decision to do so, stayed with George for a number of weeks. He was ten years her senior and at first was solicitous and helpful. He told the hotel staff that Edith was his niece and had them bring a cot into his room for her to sleep on. He borrowed fresh clothes for her that first night when he took her to supper. Later, he bought her clothes and paid for her first trip to a beauty parlor. Afterward, they sat in a small park and talked while he ran his hand softly through her newly shining blonde curls. The beauty parlor operator had shown Edith a few cosmetic products and instructed her how to apply them.
When she tried the cosmetics at the hotel, George supervising, she began to realize that she might be more than simply a plain country girl. The cosmetics, along with her new hairstyle and new clothes, made her very attractive and appear older than fifteen.
George took her to restaurants. The luxury of eating food someone else had prepared shocked Edith into fits of giggles and blushes.
Edith had never known a man as kind, as handsome, and as rich as George Andrew Watson. He cared for her, he said, adding that she was so pretty she deserved to be treated like royalty. Edith wondered why her father had never treated her this way, cared for her like this. She deserved to be treated as George treated her. George said so. She was pretty. George said this too over and again. Pretty people deserved to be treated the way George was treating her.
As the days passed, it was inevitable that she would begin to fantasize about George, and it was inevitable that he would seduce her. At first, Edith was afraid to let him touch her, but George was not too selfish; and he took his time, teaching her that sex could be a more pleasant activity than she had known. Gradually, Edith relaxed.
George learned early that Edith had an acquaintance with alcohol, and he began giving her little drinks to help the process along. It was easier to learn how to enjoy George’s attentions that way. In time, sex with George became tolerable; and she discovered that if she made moaning sounds and thrusting motions in response to his, he would become even more excited. She began to imagine that this was love and that eventually he would marry her. After all, George kept saying, she deserved to be treated well; and after all her hard work on the farm, it seemed only natural to have a man love her and take care of her.
However, as time went by, the thrill of it all began to fade for George.
Edith often spent her days in his hotel room, sitting before a mirror, trying new applications of cosmetics, admiring herself. Sometimes she wandered about the hotel, chatting with maids and other hotel employees. Other times she ventured about the town, stopping at restaurants or department stores, talking with clerks or waitresses. George always arose early and left for the well site. He often returned to the hotel late, was ravenous for food, and fell asleep shortly after eating.
But there were rare nights that he took her to the movies, reading the silent-film dialogue cards to her, and later they stopped at a speakeasy where George taught her to dance. When other men asked to dance with her, Edith found their attentions enjoyable as well.
On many nights during those later weeks, even if they didn’t go out, Edith found herself having several drinks after dinner to help her sleep soundly beside the snoring George.
It was on one of Edith’s walks about town that her fantasy of life was shattered. She had gone alone to a movie matinee and was walking along, eating the last of her popcorn. An arm reached out from the corner of a building, grabbed her, and pulled her into the alley. She was stunned to see that it was her father.
“I caught you, you little bitch!” He had been quick to hit her across the mouth. “Now you’re gonna come home and help me with the kids!”
Edith twisted and turned with the hit, a cry wrenched from her throat at the impact. The remaining popcorn scattered. The bag blew down the deserted alleyway.
“I asked around, bitch!” her father spat at her. His breath stank of liquor. “I know you been shackin’ up with that wildcatter.” He hit her again. She tasted blood. This time she fell to her knees against the wall of the alley, ruining her stockings. He still held her arm tightly. She knew bruises would later show on both her face and arm.
“I’m gonna get the law on that feller! You’re underage!” He hit her again.
“Don’t!” Edith sobbed.
“Don’t what? Don’t get the law? I’ll goddamn sure enough get the law. They’ll put that bastard in jail!!” He raised his arm again.
“Oh!” Edith shrank away from the impending blow. “Don’t hit me again, please!” As she begged, her mind screamed at the injustice of this beast, taking away a life she’d only just discovered, a life that she deserved. Now her silk stockings were ruined! Anger stirred within her.
How dare her father hit her like this? How dare he demand that she return to the farm? She was done with that life. Let him find someone else to be his slave!
She remembered the few dollars she had in her purse. She strained in his grip to get away from his hand and, sobbing, pulled money from her purse. Among the few bills and silver coins was a $5 gold piece George had given her after the first night they’d had sex. She held all of it out to her father.
“Gold!” her father breathed. His eyes narrowed. “That bastard’s got gold?” He grabbed the money out of her hand and let go of her.
Edith snuffled and rubbed the back of her hand across the blood and mucus on her face. “He’s got lots of money. He’s in love with me.” An idea came into her head. “He’ll pay you lots to let me go with him.”
Her father’s eyes gleamed. Edith could see the wheels spinning in his head and could guess what sort of plans might be forming there. He was thinking that he could get money from this wildcatter. He could still call the law afterward.
Her father grabbed her hand again and dragged her farther into the alleyway behind some trash barrels. He sat her against a building wall, took a dirty handkerchief from his overall pocket, leaned over, and roughly wiped her face.
“We need to clean you up a little,” he said as he wiped her. “You’ve been staying at that hotel, right? Let’s go there. We’ll wait for that prick. He’ll be sorry. Get up!” He pulled at her.
A loose brick lay in the alley next to the trash barrel. Edith picked it up as she was lifted from her position against the wall, her father pulling at her while still wiping her face. She hadn’t known what she was going to do, but the anger had continued to build. She gritted her teeth. Suddenly, with all her strength, she swung the brick. It hit her father in the temple. He squalled something, fell backward, and sprawled into the middle of the alley.
She stood over him as he writhed. Something deep within her had snapped open, and the hatred that had been building for several years flowed through her veins. Hatred of this pathetic man that sought to ruin all she had earned. Even her new silk stockings were ruined! She was still holding the brick. She raised it with both hands; and as her hatred soared to a peak, gagging her, she crashed the brick down as hard as possible into her father’s face.
She stood over him, still sobbing, breathing heavily. It occurred to her that he might be dead. She wondered if this could be murder. Then she felt a surge of victory. She had won! He would never hurt her again!
As she calmed a little, still standing over the man at her feet, she wondered if someone might have seen it happen. She looked about, back where the alley turned, then where it opened to the street. There were no cars passing and no one walking by that she could see. She bent over, grabbed her father’s hand, and pulled him behind the trash barrels.
She knelt next to him and looked for signs of life. He wasn’t breathing. His eyes were open. The expression on his face was one of astonishment. She nodded to herself; yes, he was dead.
She continued kneeling next to her father’s body, now wondering how she felt. She stopped her almost-reflexive sobbing and knelt there for a few more minutes.
A grim but pleased expression crossed her face. I won’t have to go back to the farm now, she told herself. George will take care of me. He’ll buy me another pair of silk stockings!
The dirty handkerchief her father had used lay nearby. She picked it up. If only she had a little water, she could clean herself up. She left her father’s body, crumpled against the trash barrel, and walked deeper into the alley, where it turned. She saw a Texas Company gasoline station across the street at the far end of the alley.
She quickly crossed to the station and around to the back to the restroom. She washed her face and rinsed out the handkerchief, wiping her face and arms. The bruises would show, but she thought she could cover most of them with cosmetics. She pulled her ruined stockings off and thrust them into a trash container. That was when she remembered her purse. It was in the alley next to her father’s body. Had someone found it already? If they had, the police would surely be heading this way. There would be questions. She quickly left the station and went back across the street into the alley. She hoped no one had noticed her.
Her father’s body lay where she left it, with the purse nearby. She picked up the purse and looked at her father’s body one last time. She felt no remorse and was somehow detached from the corpse at her feet. This was no longer her father. It was simply a disgusting thing. A fly crawled across her father’s opened eye.
Later, having done what she could to clean up her appearance, Edith walked back to the hotel. She needed get to her things and find George.
Walking down the hotel hallway, she felt in her purse before realizing the key was not necessary. The door was open. George was inside, filling suitcases with his clothes.
“Ah,” he said, looking up, “the well’s finished. I’m leaving town.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“No, honey, we talked about this,” he said in the calm tone of an elder talking to a child. “I’m married. I got two kids. I gotta go back to my wife and kids in Oklahoma City.”
“My pa’s in town,” she said hurriedly. “He’s looking for me. I barely got away. He said he’s looking for you.” A thought occurred to her. George needed to understand he might be in trouble. “He said he’d been to the police,” she added, barely able to breathe. “He said he told them about you and that I’m underage. I gotta get away from him. Please!”
“Is that where you got those bruises?” His eye had caught the detail while she rushed to explain.
“Yeah. He hit me. But I got away,” she repeated. She sobbed a little.
A frown crossed George’s face. He began to worry.
His wallet was bulging with more than $5,000. Tool pushers didn’t normally merit a bonus for completing a successful well, but as a minor partner, George had been given an advance share in the profits. There would be more—much more—where that had come from. Now, however, the likelihood existed that all the money in his wallet, and money yet to come, might now be taken by courts and lawyers. He suddenly realized there was a strong probability that he could go to jail. He realized that had to leave Lubbock quickly, and there was no doubt in his mind that he had to get this underage girl out of town to cover his bases.
“Look,” he said, resigned, “I can take you as far as Wichita Falls. I can give you some money. You can buy a bus or train ticket. You can go anywhere, get away from your pa.”
“But, George, I want to be with you.”
“Can’t happen, babe. I told you about my wife and kids. Look, get your stuff together. We gotta get out of here.”
Edith began moving quickly about the room, gathering her things and stuffing them into a suitcase George had bought her earlier. George picked up the bags and nodded to Edith. The two of them went into the hall and down the back stairway of the hotel where he had parked his car.
They drove through the night, stopping at dawn at White’s Hotel near the railroad depot in Wichita Falls. They ate breakfast at the café down the block from the hotel and then slept until noon.
George woke Edith with a large cup of coffee.
“Honey,” he began without preamble, “I gotta leave and go home to Oklahoma City.”
“No, no,” Edith replied groggily, “I told you I wanna be with you.”
“I’ve told you that you can’t go with me. I’m married. I gotta go back to my wife and my kids, and I gotta leave now.” His voice had a harsh tone she had never heard before, and his face had a stern look. “See here, baby, I got you away from your old man. Here’s $200. You need to find your own way. There’ll be a train coming through later today,” he offered. “You can go anywhere you want. I gotta go now. It’s a long drive to OK city.”
“George!” she said in a half whimper, half cry. Edith was still trying to rub sleep from her eyes. He was already backing away toward the door.
“No, I gotta go, baby. Look, it’s been fun. Like I said, you’re swell.”
He paused and looked at her. George was not insensitive, but he had responsibilities; he had to leave. He pulled another $50 from his wallet, tossed it onto the bed, and said, “Good-bye, babe!” He turned and went out of the room, closing the door behind him.
Edith turned into the pillow and wept.
George had paid the hotel for a week’s rent, so Edith stayed, daydreaming that he would return for her. But he did not, and seven days later, she was told to either pay for another week or leave.
Edith used $37 of the money George had given her to buy a train ticket to Oklahoma City. She had no idea how she was going to find him, but she was sure he loved her and that true love would guide the way. She would show up and convince George to marry her. She knew she could take care of his kids. That other woman would just have to go and find herself another man.
It turned out that George was not hard to find at all.
As she exited the train, her eye caught headlines on the Daily Oklahoman lying on a seat in the waiting room. George’s photograph was on the front page.
There had been an oilfield explosion. Seven men had been killed. One of them was her George.
In the back pages of the paper were photographs of several of the funerals. The paper identified George’s grieving widow and two young daughters.
Edith’s reading skills were severely limited. It took her several hours to fully decipher the story. She had to stop to weep and then go into the restroom to wash her face several times. She was trying to understand that George would never again be in her world. She did not notice the man who had watched her intently throughout the afternoon.
She thought that he was being kind when he approached her and inquired solicitously after her obvious sorrow. After she related the story, somewhat edited, he offered to buy her a meal. As the two of them ate in the station café, Edith looked more closely at this friendly stranger. He had a pencil-thin mustache, his hair was slicked straight back with pomade, and he smelled of the Bay Rum aftershave George had used. His suit was shabby and somewhat out of style, and his tie had grease spots. To her unpracticed eyes, though, he appeared prosperous.
She thought he had a strong resemblance to a movie hero she had seen recently. She began to like this kindly soul, and she thought about a possible future. Here was someone who could take care of her, treat her like royalty as she deserved. It would be what George would have wanted.
But later, in the backseat of his car, there was forcible, brutal, and painful sex. She was unconscious and bleeding between her legs when he pushed her out onto the pavement of the alleyway where they’d parked.
He kept her purse and the suitcase George had given her.
At the hospital where she was taken, Edith learned she was three months pregnant.
CHAPTER 3, Oklahoma City, 1926
Only Edith was seeking business on a night like this. She was clearly in an advanced stage of pregnancy. Her clothing, designed for neither the weather nor her current condition, was a pathetic compilation of skimpy skirt, tattered sweater, cloche hat, and lightweight scarf. She held the scarf about her face with one hand while the other was placed on an outthrust hip in a posture of intended sexuality but which, in fact, added to the pathos of the scene
An elderly Negro woman—thin, frail, toothless, and wrinkled like a well-aged prune—was the sole passenger on the city bus passing the corner of Fourteenth and Lincoln that night.
She gazed at the girl standing in the cold from her seat in the rear of the bus. At first, she looked without interest, but then something about the girl caused Maude to look again. It was in that second glance that she saw the wisp of blonde hair, the too-young face, and the defiant yet gamine looks about her.
This girl, Maude considered, might have what it takes—once the pregnancy is done, of course. She’d have to be properly shown how to get cleaned up and work for a better clientele.
Maude Millar worked at Mrs. Lytle’s Gentlemen’s Club in Little Rock. She had never married, and now her only living relative, her sister, was dreadfully sick with advanced lung cancer. Maude had both high cheekbones and a broad flat nose that attested to her heritage: Native American blended with genes from the continent of Africa. Her skin, while black, had a touch of red. Her hair was gray and grizzled, held tightly under her woolen scarf by numerous pins.
Maude earned $12 a week at Mrs. Lytle’s, carrying out slops, laundry, general cleaning, and kitchen duty for the establishment. Mrs. Lytle allowed her to stay in the ramshackle cabin behind the main house, provided she paid $10 a month rent. Few of Mrs. Lytle’s customers sought out Maude except for the occasional drunk who asked for special treatment. The performance of oral sex by a toothless woman sometimes became too good to pass up. She liked to joke to herself that since this was done underneath a sheet it was as if she were a phantom providing the service. Mrs. Lytle charged her customer $20 extra and gave Maude $5 of this, provided that the client didn’t complain later. Few did.
She nodded silently again as she thought about the girl standing in the light freezing rain. There were possibilities. Maude knew that Mrs. Lytle needed to replace Louise, who’d come down with tuberculosis and was to be sent away to a sanitarium. This little young thing might earn her employer substantial additional revenue. Only coincidentally, her acceptance at Mrs. Lytle’s might earn Maude a small bonus, which she desperately needed if she was to help pay for a proper doctor for her sick sister.
The unborn child would be a problem, but perhaps an orphanage could be arranged. Maude knew Mrs. Lytle had a relationship of some sort—a platonic relationship to be sure—with Monsignor Father Richards of St. Michael’s Cathedral in Little Rock. Perhaps the good Father could be of help in placing the child.
The bus was six blocks past the blonde pregnant girl when Maude made her decision. If her initial impression was correct, and the girl indeed looked as if she could be fitted in at Mrs. Lytle’s, she would go from there.
Maude rang the bell. As she exited, there was immediate regret upon leaving the lighted warmth. The street was dark, the cold wind seemed stronger, and the bus to Little Rock would leave in three hours. There would hardly be enough time to evaluate the girl, convince her to come along, wait for another city bus that Maude knew would be the last of the night, and then make it to the bus station on time. Nevertheless, she was on the sidewalk and committed. She pulled her headscarf more tightly about and walked hurriedly up Fourteenth Street toward the corner where she’d seen the girl.
The windswept dark corner by the shuttered grocery store was empty. The girl was not where Maude had seen her only minutes earlier. Maude turned and walked to the alley at the rear of the store. There was nothing to be seen. The soft rain turned to sleet.
She walked back to the front of the store and saw, for the first time, the large closed saloon car parked across Fourteenth Street. The engine was running, and steam issued from the tailpipe. Maude stepped into the shadows away from the streetlights, out of the wind. She waited. It took less than five minutes.
The rear door of the saloon car opened, and the pregnant girl climbed out. She put her head back in; there was conversation, shouting could be heard, and then two loud pops. The girl closed the car door, turned, and walked across the street toward Maude. The engine in the car continued running.
“Prick!” the girl was mumbling to herself as she approached the lee of the store that was Maude’s hiding place. “I told him five, he agreed to five, then said no money for me! The bastard! I showed him.” Maude stepped into the light and used the instant of fright on the girl’s face to study her. Yes, Maude thought, she will do just fine.
“Who the shits are you?” Edith shrieked in surprise as she backed away, stuffing something bulky in her purse. She was only seconds away from turning and running.
“Honey, Ah means no harm,” Maude said quickly. “Please listen t’me. Ah is he’ar to offer y’food an’ a place to have that young’un.” She could see that Edith was starting to back away. “Don’t run away!”
Edith did not seem convinced and kept sliding away from Maude, looking about in all directions as she did, seemingly worried about something other than the presence of the elderly Negro. She had begun to turn but hadn’t yet started to run. She looked back, moving sideways, backing toward the street curb. “Who are you? I don’t do women. Especially I don’t do old nigger women! Stay away from me!” She reached the curb and stood there as if she could take flight from that vantage point, that height.
Just then, another car came down Fourteenth Street and slowed as it passed the idling saloon car. Edith was near panic. She turned toward the Negro woman, suddenly thoughtful and replaying her words in her head.
“Listen t’me!” Maude insisted again. “Ah kin hep. Lemme tell y’how!”
Edith Simmons listened. Partly she listened because she was tired, cold, and hungry. Mostly she listened because there was a dead man in the parked saloon car with his bulging wallet and small pistol now in her purse, and she needed to leave this part of town quickly. Edith wondered if she was feverish. She wondered if, in her hunger, cold, tiredness, and now fright over her recent actions, perhaps Maude was not real but some ghost or maybe an angel. Then she wondered if Negroes could be angels. She decided that they could not.
Edith accepted Maude’s proposal. She saw it as a means of escape. Moreover, she saw it as a means of avoiding the nuisance of having to dispose of a baby somewhere. Five minutes later, when the last bus to run down Fourteenth Street loomed through the dark and sleety night, Edith boarded it and sat two seats behind the driver. Maude entered afterward and moved to the rear of the bus past the sign that read White Only on one side and Colored on the other. Edith relaxed. If the bus driver were ever to be questioned, he likely would remember the black woman, not the white; Edith would be quickly forgotten.
Just as they boarded the bus, a pedestrian hurrying along on the opposite side of Lincoln in the sleety night paused at the saloon car, noticing the engine still running. Edith saw the pedestrian look around and then bend down to look into the car. She slumped farther down in her seat, turning her face so it would not appear in the driver’s rearview mirror.
She was sure that soon police cars and ambulances would be racing to the intersection of Fourteenth and Lincoln.
Maude heard sirens as the bus rumbled toward the Greyhound station but paid no attention, focused as she was on the argument she would have to make to Margaret Lytle.
Maude could not eat in the bus station restaurant or wait in the same waiting room as white people, so she gave Edith enough money for hot food and a bus ticket to Little Rock. Maude wondered if the girl would wait or simply take the money and return to the streets. But when Maude and the other Negroes were allowed to board the bus, she saw the girl sitting next to a window as she made her way to the rear section. Many of the traveling Negroes, including Maude, had to stand behind the sign separating the races since all seats in that section were filled. The bus lurched its way through the night on poorly paved, and some not paved at all, highways to Little Rock.
The bus arrived in Little Rock shortly after noon the next day. At one of the infrequent rest stops during the night, Maude had used some of her dwindling cash supply to send a brief telegram to Mrs. Lytle saying she’d be late.
Margaret Lytle was completely dismissive of the pregnant girl, telling Maude to remove her from the house at once. But Maude argued, pointing out how the young girl could be an interesting business prospect. Ultimately, Margaret relented and visited with the Monsignor. Tentative arrangements were made.
Six weeks after Edith arrived at Margaret Lytle’s Gentlemen’s Club, a squalling red-faced blond baby boy arrived. When he did, Maude did something she had never before in her life done: she fell in love. She begged Margaret Lytle. Maude would keep the baby in her little cabin. Later, she would see if someone from her church, perhaps Reverend Thomas, could raise the child. It all sounded like foolishness to the hard-bitten madam of the house, but then Margaret Lytle held the child. Uncharacteristically, she relented to Maude’s pleas.
As Edith healed from a birth that had not been easy, two of Mrs. Lytle’s ladies were assigned the task of instructing her. Maxine, the sillier of the two, concocted a scheme where Edith would pose as a newly arrived immigrant from Holland who was a virgin. That way, Maxine explained, Edith could wince from penetration so soon after giving birth without covering up her discomfort. The more practical Violet instructed Edith on the finer points of technique and came up with the idea of a vial of red fluid, which Edith would adroitly spill as a way to convince the client of her “virginity.”
Maude reported all this to Mrs. Lytle who quickly saw the profit potential in the fantasy. She also realized that her liquor sales were going to have to increase if she was going to be able to convince several of her clients that a virgin could be deflowered more than once.
Four weeks following childbirth, a newly coifed, dressed, and instructed Edith began servicing Mrs. Lytle’s clients. Margaret told them her new girl, a virgin, had just arrived in the United States from Holland; her name was Gretchen, and she could not speak English. It was a testament to the strength of Mrs. Lytle’s liquor, as well as her skills of salesmanship, that several men each night believed that the blonde, pigtailed, and pinafore-dressed Gretchen was, in fact, a virgin who had been reserved especially for them.
It required little acting on Edith’s part to wince in pain and sometimes cry as she spilled the tiny vial of red liquid. It was the rare client indeed who did not succumb to this act and urge the weeping Gretchen to stop crying. Most of the time, they gave her additional money. Sometimes it was $10 or more. Once, a man named Henry gave Edith a $5 gold piece. He returned again and again to see her and deflower her once more.
After several months, Edith’s hairstyle was redone, and she was instructed to drop the phony Dutch, which she wasn’t very good at anyway. Her clients were now told that she was an heiress, hiding from an evil stepfather. Henry was among the first to accept this story as strongly as he had accepted the Gretchen fabrication.
CHAPTER 4 Mrs. Lytle’s, 926–1931
The first months of the baby boy’s life were spent with Sister Beth Bailey, who attended Maude’s church and had just weaned her own child. Sister Beth was happy for the $2 a week Maude paid her but would have nursed and cared for the boy as one of her own, regardless.
Each Sunday, Maude made the trip to the rural Ebenezer Church of God in Jesus Christ and held the baby boy throughout Reverend Thomas’s endless sermons. She was always reluctant to leave for the coming week’s work at Mrs. Lytle’s and was jealous of the time she could not be with the baby.
Edith could not help but be reminded of George when she looked into the boy’s eyes even though his were blue while George’s had been dark. There was a look about him, nevertheless, so it seemed appropriate to use George’s name. However, Edith reversed the order of the names. He was given his mother’s last name and so became Andrew George Simmons. In time, no one remembered his full name, and most never knew why he had been so named. To almost everyone, he was called Drew.
Maude and Eddie Mackenzie, the piano player at Mrs. Lytle’s, along with the entire congregation of the Ebenezer Church of God in Jesus Christ, raised him.
Maude truly did not remember a time in her life when she had been in love. She was in love now, though, with a blue-eyed pink little baby that was her joy and her life. The tall slender George Andrew Watson had dark-brown eyes and black hair. When his genes mixed with those of Edith Ann Simmons, they produced a boy with reddish-blond hair and eyes of a deep and dark blue. As a child, the boy’s hair would be a sunny blond; but as he grew, it would become darker, turning into a rich auburn as he matured. One of Mrs. Lytle’s clients, upon seeing the startling blue of the boy’s eyes, said they were the blue of the deepest ocean.
Drew’s earliest memory was of Maude. Her gnarled hands, worn by work and racked by arthritis, had the power to soothe him. They often did as she held him through the night while a fever ransacked the little body or his stomach rebelled against some unknown viral invader. As he grew and became more aware of life, it never seemed strange to him that her skin was black while his was white. It was just the way things were supposed to be.
When he began to form words, he tried to call her mama, but Maude shook her head. “Call me Maudie, little love. I am your Maudie.”
But the little baby mind converted this into Mardie, and Mardie she became.
The other ladies at Mrs. Lytle’s Gentlemen’s Club began taking peeks at the pink little boy when Maude first brought him back to Little Rock from Sister Bailey’s. He quickly won the hearts of those who lived and worked at the brothel. Even the hard-bitten Mrs. Lytle herself had been seen holding the baby while she cooed baby talk. When discovered, she had quickly put the boy back into Maude’s hands, for Margaret Lytle believed that any evidence of softness on her part would diminish her control. She vowed after that first time that she would stay away from the boy.
But as the boy grew, she was not able to hold on to her vow. The child was winsome. Margaret Lytle, like everyone at the Gentlemen’s Club except the boy’s mother, came under his spell.
The club was a Little Rock institution. The physical structure had originally been a single-family residence with five rooms and a washroom/bathroom built as a lean-to to the original structure. The lot, on Quincy Street behind the railroad switchyard near the cotton mill, was quite large, and Margaret Lytle had overseen the construction of additions to her little house as her business grew. In time, twelve tiny bedrooms and two more bathrooms, along with an enlarged parlor and a bar with a piano, had been added to the original structure. It sprawled over the lot in an array that from the inside was confusing enough to a sober person and incomprehensible to most of Margaret’s clients who, by the time they were led into its recesses, were often in an advanced stage of inebriation.
The existence of the house of prostitution was well-known throughout Arkansas. Police had been lulled into complacency by generous contributions to the Policeman’s Benevolent Association, as well as by the caliber of the clientele, which comprised most of the legislators and many of the officials of the Arkansas state government. Lobbyists gave elaborate parties at Mrs. Lytle’s that sometimes lasted for several days. After these exhausting events, Margaret Lytle would always close for a day of rest for her ladies.
Prohibition was the law of the land, but it had no impact on the flow of liquor at Mrs. Lytle’s. She proclaimed that, as a private club devoted to the relaxation and comfort of gentlemen, she was exempt from the Volstead Act of 1920. The lobbyists, legislators, and officials of the Arkansas state government agreed with her. The police could hardly have done anything different. In any case, both the chief of police and the sheriff, while not among Mrs. Lytle’s regulars, had been known to visit, on occasion, so that they might personally check that no rowdiness was being promulgated. It was rumored that both worthy gentlemen had also visited with one or another of Mrs. Lytle’s ladies, though if confronted both would have issued hot denials.
It was also common knowledge throughout Little Rock that a baby boy with startling dark-blue eyes lived at the brothel. When the information had first surfaced, initially as rumors, some of the preachers in the town had railed about the boy’s presence, given as it was a new focus on their rantings. They had long since lost the interest of their male parishioners who, if not actual clients of Mrs. Lytle’s, were for the most part tolerant of their fellow sinners and were tired of hearing further assaults on the house from the pulpit. Margaret Lytle had visited each of the town’s churches following these tirades, arriving ostentatiously in her large town car driven by her light-skinned Negro chauffeur. She always arrived just after the Sunday service but while the ladies of the altar guild were still cleaning the communion ware.
No one ever knew what was said in her brief private meetings with the pastors in their church offices. However, following these meetings, there were fewer mentions from that pulpit about Mrs. Lytle’s establishment. The church’s general fund seemed to suddenly have a surplus.
Drew was the darling of Mrs. Lytle’s Gentlemen’s Club. The ladies of the house vied for his attention and approval, and as he grew and learned to walk, the labyrinthine hallways became as familiar to him as the fixtures and furniture in Maude’s little shack. During their rest periods, in the late mornings and afternoons, the ladies would coo over the baby, hold and pet him. Hands that were more experienced in other ministrations to the male body changed his diapers, powdered his bottom, and dabbed drool from his lips.
On some level, Drew became aware as he grew that the woman they told him was his mother did not care for him. Where everyone else he met became an instant friend, his mother seemed to always want to sleep, or she would tell him she was too busy, to go away. When he cried and was somewhere she could hear, she would shout for Maude to take the “squalling brat” away.
Drew turned for love and nurture to Maude, and he got it. Time after time, Maude would say to him, “Honey, whun you popped outta dat blonde woman, so red and squallin’, yore Mardie knowed you wuz to be mine. An’ yore Mardie is raisin’ you, best Ah can.”
So black, skinny, wrinkled, toothless old Maude was the boy’s mother during these formative stages of his life. As he learned to talk, Maude determined that his speech was not to mimic hers. She enlisted the aid of the ladies of the club, and they quickly moved to correct his pronunciation and accent when he began aping Maude’s dialect.
Drew trailed around with her in the mornings as she cleaned and emptied the slops, and on Sundays, she took him to church when she’d finished cleaning from the Saturday night parties.
In the same way that Maude was Drew’s mother and the ladies of the brothel his friends, his family was the congregation of the Ebenezer Church of God in Jesus Christ.
The rural Negro church, located five miles from the city limits of Little Rock on the banks of the White River, was precious to Maude. After her early Sunday morning duties at Mrs. Lytle’s, she and Drew rode the city bus to the end of its route and simply walked the remainder of the way. Many members of the congregation walked to church along that stretch of gravelly country road, for few had the means to acquire an automobile. Reverend Aloysius P. Thomas had long ago begun driving along the road in his open Essex Phaeton, whose aged top had deteriorated into nothingness, picking up not only Maude and Drew but other parishioners as they walked to his service. Drew always shouted a welcome to his friends as they climbed into the overcrowded car.
Services at the Ebenezer Church of God in Jesus Christ often began late on Sunday mornings. Even when they started on time, they always lasted until late afternoon and included a lunch, which was called dinner, prepared by the parishioners. Choir practice usually was held early while the good reverend made trip after trip gathering his flock.
When services finally started, they lasted. Reverend Thomas could and did preach for hours.
The one-room clapboard building, set in a bend in the road, had once been white; but now paint was peeling, and the overall impression was of a gray building. The ceiling was low, and there was no electricity. In winter the place was heated by an ancient cast-iron wood stove, which overheated those nearest while parishioners farther away shivered from the cold winds that slithered through cracks in the exterior siding. The church had only a few wooden pews. Most worshipers stood or sat on the floor or on the few folding chairs kept stacked by the door.
In summer, and indeed on most fall or spring days, the interior of the old church became a sweltering oven. Sunday services were therefore held outdoors whenever possible. The outdoor services, under the huge old cypress trees that shaded the church grounds, were unquestionably preferable to services inside.
Every Sunday there was a huge meal of simple but nourishing food following the service. The food—fried chicken; ham; catfish when they were biting; watermelon in season; vegetables of all sorts, home canned or fresh; along with heaps of fresh cornbread—was laid out on several old rough-hewn picnic tables placed down the slope to the White River from the church. People simply filled their plates and sat on the ground, enjoying fellowship and the soothing sounds of the river. In summer, besides watermelon, there were often fresh peach or berry cobblers for dessert or pecan pies, buttermilk custards, and sweet potato pies. Once, for a particularly festive occasion, ice cream was hand cranked from a coterie of ancient freezers.
On Sundays when there was a baptism, the noon meal became an even larger event, with games, singing, and worship on the riverbank. Reverend Thomas would preach again, sometimes the same sermon he’d preached that morning. No one cared. His voice rolled and thundered: soft when he described God’s love, rattling the rooftops and scattered startled birds from the cypress when he spoke of the misdeeds of the devil or those of his parishioners. When he thundered so, babies sleeping in their mother’s laps would startle awake, only to be lulled back to sleep to the chorus of “Yes, brother,” “Amen,” and “Thank you, Lord Jesus” that came from the congregation and were sprinkled throughout the sermon. These were among the first words that Drew learned, and the two-year old boy loved to shout “Thank you, Lord Jesus” when the responses came during Reverend Thomas’s sermons.
The people of the congregation accepted Drew, loved him, cared for him, and he grew up caring deeply for them in return. His extended family encouraged, without really realizing they were doing so, the natural open friendliness of the young boy; and his personality expanded in their wealth of love and caring.
The baptism Sundays were his favorite. He shivered as Reverend Thomas shouted for the angels to come and oversee the baptisms, and he wept at the often-emotional singing, songs that he later learned were called spirituals.
The baptism itself often seemed a game to Drew when grown-ups and sometimes older children would wade into the river with clothing or white robes to be dunked under the water by one of the deacons. Then, afterward, there would be more singing and clapping. Drew would race along the riverbank during the singing, shouting, “Thank you, Lord Jesus!”
The church services always continued late, whether or not there was a baptism. Often Drew and Maude would spend the night at one house or another since Mrs. Lytle did not open on Sunday nights. Sometimes they got a ride back to the bus stop early Monday mornings. They walked when they did not.
When Drew was three, Mrs. Lytle’s piano player Eddie Mackenzie acquired an old closed Studebaker sedan. The top leaked badly when it rained. Two of the windows were broken, replaced by old isinglass taken from a wrecked touring car and taped into place. Eddie kept the engine running smoothly.
On those Sundays, when he didn’t visit his sweetheart in Dardanelle, he was pleased to ferry Drew and Maude to church. Eddie joined the church after several months and was one of those adults whom Drew watched in fascination as they played that strange game with Reverend Thomas and one of the deacons, and all waded into the river.
It would have been appropriate for Eddie to be fat in counterpoint to Maude’s lean, skinny frame, but he was not. Eddie Mackenzie was barely more than seventeen when he joined the cast at Mrs. Lytle’s. He was tall, slender, and light skinned; and his eyes held a dreamy half-lidded look that belied his quick intelligence and sharp mind. He could play any musical instrument that was placed in front of him and could play any tune that he’d ever heard despite not being able to read a note of music. When he sang, his voice was mellow and soft. Love ballads sung by Eddie were the favorite of the ladies at Mrs. Lytle’s.
Margaret Lytle had been concerned about Eddie’s youth when he first asked for a job at her establishment. He was young, and she wondered, frankly, if he would be tempted by any of the ladies in her house. Then he played a popular love ballad for her, and she found herself plunged into memories of an earlier life that she’d once told herself to forget. She was almost won over as she listened to him play. She gave him the job when he told her, “Miz Lytle, ah unnerstans when you says you is concerned about mah depot’m’t, so to speak, ’cuz you got some awful pretty young ladies here, and ah is a young buck. But you needn’t concern yourself. Ah knows ah is black, ah knows the Ku Kluxers will be watchin’, and ah don’t have no wishes to stretch mah neck in a rope. Besides, ah is Christian and ah got a good lil’ nigger gal waitin’ for me over in Dardanelle.”
So Margaret Lytle hired him. He had Sunday nights off, of course, since she was closed; but she also gave him every other Monday night off so he could visit the girl she learned was named Maybelle.
Drew had been born with perfect pitch and an excellent sense of rhythm. At church gatherings, he sang with the rest of the congregation; and the loud clear voice of the toddler, always on key, often could be heard over others. Frequently, he was invited to sing with the choir and many times as he grew older was a solo singer during some special point of the sermon. Eddie Mackenzie, whom Drew called Uncle Max, had bought Drew shoes with taps and taught him some elementary tap-dancing steps. In the evenings at Mrs. Lytle’s, while Eddie played the old piano in the parlor, four-year-old Drew, dressed in a sailor suit, tapped his feet to the music and sang. The drunken patrons threw money at the blond child they called that poor little bastard. Eddie had thoughtfully placed his bowler hat on the floor next to the piano.
Mrs. Lytle kept quite a bit of the money thrown into Max’s hat as Drew danced, and Max kept most of the rest, but Maude got an extra dollar a week, and an extra dollar went to Edith.
Sometimes Maude would leave Drew with Reverend Thomas after the Sunday services, and he would stay for a week or longer. He grew to love these times with the good preacher and his wife. There were often long walks in the woods or maybe excursions into town in the reverend’s old car. Drew loved riding in the open car, especially when the bald reverend would declare that the wind had made both his and Drew’s hair into a fright and then roll his eyes comically. Drew felt carefree and would laugh as though it was the first time he’d heard the joke and seen the face Reverend Thomas made.
Between Maude, Eddie, Reverend Thomas, and the people of the congregation, Drew learned many things. He learned Bible stories and how they applied to everyday life. He learned to sing, and he learned to love the hymns and spirituals. Eddie had taught him to tap dance, and the choir members used this talent in their Sunday performances. Drew also learned by watching the behavior of those in the church; and they taught him by example to be quiet, listen, and speak when spoken to. He learned to keep his own thoughts to himself and to wait until another time to take any action that would better his cause, whatever the cause might be. With the exception of Reverend Thomas, Drew learned, Maude, Eddie, and all the other Negroes that he knew, when they were around white people had an air about them that was subservient. They cast their eyes down and spoke in a drawl, mouthing words like yassah, and ah knows, and ah will, suh. It was as though they were waiting for something, and in the meanwhile, they would watch and learn.
But when the guides in his early life were not in the presence of white people, their true personalities came to the fore. Many could and did speak clear and direct English though often grammatically incorrect. They retained the blur and twang of other native Arkansans.
Many of Drew’s Negro friends could not read, but they prized education that others had acquired and wanted to learn from them. Reverend Thomas’s Sunday afternoon services often included educational topics, and all were eager to listen. The people who were Drew’s initial life influencers lived for the most part in grinding poverty. Yet they were wealthy in the currency of family, faith, and friends. Drew adopted many of the mannerisms of these wealthy personalities.
Reverend Aloysius P. Thomas had acquired knowledge beyond the Holy Bible. While he could and did quote not only verses but whole chapters from the King James Bible, he could also quote at length poems by Keats, Shakespeare, Shelly, and Whitman, as well as poems and essays by Thoreau. He sometimes confused his parishioners with his quotes, and some came to believe that William Shakespeare was also a biblical character.
Reverend Thomas also knew and could quote almost every recorded word that Abraham Lincoln had ever uttered. And he had an unshakable belief that the time would someday come when black people would have better schools than those currently available and that these schools would lead his people to a better life.
As he taught others of his congregation to read and write, he also taught the little white boy. By the time he was five, Drew could read almost anything that Reverend Thomas held out for him. Drew didn’t know many of the words and their meanings, but he developed the ability to sound the words out and would later puzzle about their meanings.
Drew’s life at both Mrs. Lytle’s, and at the Ebenezer Church of God in Jesus Christ, was rich and full of meaning. It was far from being the life of deprivation that the bawdyhouse patrons, in their drunkenness, assumed. He was gaining a solid education in basic evangelical Christianity, some of the classics, a reverence for Mr. Lincoln, for reading, music appreciation, and how one handles himself around adults.
Drew, early in his life, had found the softness in Margaret Lytle that she worked so hard to hide. As the years passed, she found herself spending hours with the child, telling stories, teaching him games. Once, long ago, she had worked onstage as a magician’s helper; and from him, she had learned various card tricks, which she often put to use in her weekly poker games. She taught the young boy several of these card maneuvers, and while his hands were too small to effectively hide cards, she felt he had ability and instructed him to practice. A number of times, she had him demonstrate his skills during her weekly poker games, and she complimented him on his progress.
But Drew’s life was soon to change. In May of 1931, he turned five; and in the summer of that year, his mother and his new Uncle Henry took him away to Union City, in southern Arkansas, far from Little Rock, and far from his family and the life he had always known.
CHAPTER 5, Leaving Little Rock
Henry Deschaes was a wealthy businessman from a small southern Arkansas town near the Louisiana order. He had been a regular visitor to Mrs. Lytle’s whenever business took him to the state capitol and had been one of Edith’s first clients when she was still called Gretchen.
He had become enamored with Edith, then in her late teens, and had continued to visit her at every opportunity even after Mrs. Lytle changed her story and name.
Henry was no fool, and while he’d enjoyed the fantasies, he had never fallen under the spell of either of the stories Mrs. Lytle had put forth. Edith’s speech alone would have dispelled the illusion that she was any sort of heiress, for she never lost the flat accents of west Texas or mastered more than the minimum of polite language skills. But Henry was blind to Edith’s coarseness. He was also blind to her intake of alcohol.
Margaret Lytle was nothing if not a businesswoman, and when Henry’s feelings for Edith became more apparent, she saw a way out of a growing problem that her business was facing.
Drew would need to start school by the following year. Margaret worried that women across Little Rock might become concerned that a boy who had been raised in a house of prostitution—and, therefore, was undoubtedly corrupted—would soon enter public school along with more innocent children. Politicians and lobbyists who frequented Margaret’s establishment had begun to mention that maintaining the privacy and anonymity of their visits was becoming more difficult largely due to the issue of the boy and his perceived future unhealthy influence on the city’s children.
Margaret had foreseen the problem for some time but had ignored its ramifications because of her strong feelings for the boy. There was now a degree of urgency to resolve the issue.
Thus, Margaret Lytle had begun, some months prior to Drew’s fifth birthday, a not-quite-subtle campaign to influence Henry Deschaes to relocate Edith—and her son—to another town, perhaps one closer to the town in which he lived with his wife. It would avoid his frequent trips to Little Rock. Margaret admitted that relocating Drew away from his friends with a man who hardly knew him and a mother who couldn’t care less about his well-being was certainly not in the boy’s best interests. She could see no other alternative.
As a separate, but no less significant, factor, Arkansas’s so-called Jim Crow laws not only forbade whites and Negroes from attending school together but also forbade the races to worship together. There were rumblings in and around Little Rock about the “uppity” Negro preacher, who so obviously cared for a white boy. He was that boy’s teacher and mentor, and both allowed and encouraged the white boy to attend church with his Negro congregation. Comments around town were heard that Reverend Thomas was so uppity that he was even trying to talk like a white man, though everyone knew ‘niggers’ couldn’t talk that way because “their lips were too thick.”
Margaret cut the best deal she could with Henry, insisting that he provide a house for Edith and Drew and that he promise to pay all bills and put the house in Edith’s name. Henry paid Margaret $500 for Edith, who was more than dismayed to learn that the deal included Drew and that he was to accompany her to the new home in Union City, near Newell, where Henry lived with his wife.
Edith considered that the reddish-blond blue-eyed boy was a great nuisance. When she learned that the house Henry had provided was not the grand palace she had imagined, she blamed Drew for what she considered her misfortune and wrung her hands at the injustice of having a crying brat on her hands. Her complaints fell on deaf ears as she wailed about her misfortunes. Her coworkers upbraided her and pointed out how grateful she should be for her good fortune. Even the silly Maxine angrily pointed out that Drew deserved better than he was getting, and she went so far as to say if she ever heard that Edith was mistreating the boy that she, Maxine, would personally travel to Union City and set her straight.
Edith retreated to her room, sobbing over the lack of sympathy she knew she deserved.
To Drew, it seemed that life was to start all over again. He was sad to be leaving Maude, Eddie, Reverend Thomas, and all his friends at the Ebenezer Church. He liked Henry, and even though he had never heard of Union City and had no idea where it was, he looked forward to his new life with some enthusiasm and a little twinge of fear.
Maude was devastated but was more a realist than Margaret Lytle and fully understood the impact of prejudice against the innocent. She, Eddie, and Reverend Thomas did their best to point out positive aspects of the move to Drew; and the youngster accepted that they also believed the move was for the best.
There was a going-away party of sorts late one sunny Sunday afternoon, with Mrs. Lytle and all her ladies dressed in their finest gowns. Edith was clothed in a new flowery frock. Henry had on his best suit, and the ladies had taken up a collection and had bought Drew a new white-and-blue sailor suit. Drew thought the sailor suit was a little scratchy and uncomfortable, but everyone bragged about how sweet he looked, so he didn’t complain.
Maxine announced loudly that the leave-taking was “almost a wedding,” and all the participants were in a gay mood. Maude had made lemonade, and Mrs. Lytle had broken out a bottle of her cheapest sparkling wine as a going away gift. The bottle was grandly and inaccurately labeled “Chapaign”.
They all gathered at the front gate of the gentlemen’s club at the end of the afternoon, where Henry had his car parked at the curb, engine idling.
Good-byes and hugs and kisses on the cheek that missed were passed around among the small crowd gathered at the idling car. Maude and Eddie took Drew aside and led him around the corner of the house.
They both knelt and hugged him. Drew realized they were on the verge of tears. He looked at them with his serious dark-blue eyes. “Don’t cry, Mardie. Don’t cry, Uncle Max. I’ll come back, and we can visit!” Maude and Eddie exchanged glances as their tears started. They gave Drew the only thing they had to give.
“Drew, baby,” Maude said as Eddie looked on, “y’gots t’kno you is betta than y’mama, betta than Henry, and betta than me an’ Uncle Max.” Tears streamed down her sunken cheeks. “They gonna be good things in sto’ for you. You’re gonna have a good life.”
Eddie nodded and said in his best interpretation to date of Reverend Thomas’s diction lessons, “We won’t forget you, not ever. You don’ forget us. You grow up strong an’ true and honest. Now, in school, y’study hard. Y’ gonna be a good man.” Tears were streaming down his cheeks, and he wiped them away with the back of his hand. Drew did not cry but wondered fearfully at the tears of these two that he loved.
“We’ll see each other again,” Drew said plaintively. Eddie nodded as more tears came down his cheeks.
“Mebbe so,” Maude said. “But even so, you just ’member. Me and Uncle Max here, we love you and we wil’ always love you. And Reverend Thomas, he do too. And eva’ one at church, they all love you. All of us have done the mos’ for you we could. You go now, and you go with your head high, and you don’ eva foget: you’re a good boy, and you’re gonna rise above all this, and you’re gonna make a good man. And tha’s what life is all about, honey. You be the best man you can be, and Uncle Max and me, we’ll go to our graves proud we got to be with you and love you as long as we did.”
Eddie added, “Drew, Reverend Thomas has been teaching me to read and write.” He continued, his diction somewhat better than Maude’s, “I knows he has taught you too. You write us letters, and you tell us how you’re doing.”
“I don’t know how to write a letter,” Drew said, now blinking back incipient tears of his own.
“We fixed up envelopes for you,” Eddie said, still wiping away tears, “w’stamps and everything. Here, in this box.” He handed Drew a small metal box with a tightly fitting lid. The writing on the brightly colored box read Mrs. Goldstone’s Excellent Bath Crystals. “We put in paper,” Max continued. “Also, we put in pencils and stamped envelopes. You take a piece of the paper, write what you are doing, and put it in an envelope and give it to the mailman.”
Drew looked at the envelopes. They were all addressed to the Ebenezer Church of God in Jesus Christ.
“Write to us, Drew,” Max repeated. “When those run out, we’ll send more. We love you. We want to hear from you.”
And then, Uncle Henry had blown the horn on his Chevrolet coupe; and Edith was laughing and calling, “Drew baby, come on honey. Your new Uncle Henry is gonna take us to our new home.” Maude hugged Drew one last time and then turned him in the direction of the car. “Go” was all she said as she gently pushed him from behind. Drew ran around the corner of the house, was hugged briefly by Margaret Lytle, and then Henry lifted him into the rumble seat of the little brown car with yellow wheels, placing him next to his mother’s new large suitcase.
There was a chorus of good-byes and handkerchief waving from all the ladies as Henry tipped his hat, climbed in behind the wheel, put the car in gear, and let in the clutch. The tires slipped on the graveled road, sprayed gravel, and the car clattered away, leaving boiling red dust behind.
Drew turned in the open seat and looked back as the crowd grew smaller in the distance. He kept looking back as Henry turned the corner by the cotton mill, and he could see the side of Mrs. Lytle’s Gentlemen’s Club. Two figures raced down the hill from the side of the house, one in a flowing maid’s dress and the other in a tight-fitting suit, losing his bowler hat as he raced to the fence line. Drew waved again, and the two figures also waved in the gathering dusk. Drew’s eyes remained focused on the two figures; and he continued to clutch the small metal box with its paper, pencils, and packet of envelopes.
His sailor cap blew off and tumbled out of the car. It soon became a small white dot in the graveled roadway and then vanished from view as the car sped down the road.