I remember the first time I ever set eyes on Gracie Adams; she was sitting on her front porch holding on tight to a piece of white paper in her right hand while drying her tears with the other. Her little sparrow legs were sticking out from under her faded blue floral dress and her flaming red hair was tossed and tangled. Ma had sent me on an errand to the grocery store to get some sugar for her morning coffee when I came across Gracie sobbing her heart out. I had a mind to keep on walking but if I had I couldn't think what the rest of my life would have been like. Gracie and her Mother were new to our street that I did know, simple thing being I had overheard my Aunt Cassie and my own Maw gossiping about them one evening after supper.
''You been talking to that lady up at 41?'' my aunt asked her. She didn't answer at first seeing how she was too busy sucking on a newly rolled cigarette that was refusing to stay lit. ''Mmmn, Mmmn'' she nodded blowing out a smoke ring towards the ceiling. ''Met her up at the store yesterday'' Ma stated '' Got a little girl just about the same age as Joshua'' she said pointing in my direction; I believe the father is still overseas fighting somewhere in France or Belgium she happened to say.
''My lord'' Aunt Cassie sighed ''When will we ever see the end of this war''
'' Rumour is the bomb they dropped on Hiroshima a few days ago killed thousands'' Ma said Shaking her head ''Poor people'
Aunt Cassie agreed with a firm ''Amen Sister'' and crossed herself '' Pastor Williams sure spoke well last Sunday don't you think Anne''
''Mmmn, Mmmn'' Ma agreed again looking a bit distracted while giving up on her lost cause regarding her cigarette ''God damn thing'' she scolded putting what remained of her damp smoke under her boot.
''I ain't so sure about this turn the other cheek business he referred to mind you, a lot of people will find it hard to forgive what they done at Pearl harbour''
Aunt Cassie got up from the table and moved towards the back door that lead out onto our porch, ''Aint you hot Anne'' she said running her hand around the nape of her neck. '' This must be the hottest August I can ever remember'' she sighed fanning her face with her open palms. Dust mots swarmed in the balmy air illuminated by the back light that was being over run by agitated grey moths. Cassie stood by the door screen and unbuttoned the top of her white blouse, sweat beads on her face glistened in the incandescent light like little pearl drops. '' I heard they moved from Detroit is that true?''
''She never said, and I never asked'' Ma said '' you know I ain't one for tittle-tattle , all I know is she is the only white woman in our neighbourhood, and she is on her own just like me and you''
Aunt Cassie looked at me briefly hoping this whole time that I was focussed on my homework that Ma had set me to at our kitchen table and not concentrating on the conversation that two grown ups should be having else where. I kept my eyes firmly fixed on my books, purely for her I might add but my ears were engaged on all that was transpiring because I found it far more interesting. She crossed the kitchen away from the screen and stood between me and Maw who had got up to wash dishes at the sink.
''You heard from Joe lately?'' Cassie asked Ma and I suppose the thought of her question was the reason she paused for a moment to lean forward over the dishes and take in a deep breath. I knew she was missing daddy, just like I did. I could hear her crying some nights in her room, muted muffled sobs into her pillow that she tried to hide.
''He wrote me two weeks ago'' she said quietly '' He's serving on the Alabama some where's in the pacific''
''Did he say when he was coming home?'' Cassie asked
Ma looked over her shoulder in my direction and then went about her washing; Cassie's question seemed to hang in the air longer than it should have. I guess maybe she was trying to spare my feeling by not saying that daddy wouldn't make it home for Christmas this year either. But I knew by her silence that's what was in his letter, she never let me read them, instead I would get only the bits she thought I should hear.
''Time you was in bed Josh'' she said without looking ''Finish up your homework now son''
''Did you find out her name?'' Aunt Cassie asked moving again across the kitchen heading back towards the porch screen for some more cool air.
''Who?'' Maw said continuing with her chore and who seemed lost in her thoughts of Daddy brought on by Cassie's poignant question.
''The white lady at the store yesterday, the one with the little girl''
''Bridget Adams'' Ma said turning round to dry her large wet hands on the towel that hung from a small hook on the side of the kitchen sink. '' She's a sacred little woman of that I'm sure, poor thing couldn't keep her eye's on mine the whole time we was talking. They kept drifting around the store as if she was waiting on someone jumping out from behind the canned fruit stand''
''And the girl?''
Ma shook her head ''She never said her name, but she looked just as nervous as her Mother did. My she was so thin, I've seen more meat on a chicken leg and hiding behind her Momma's coat tail'' Trailing off she looked at me side wards and gave one of her 'get moving Joshua' face's, certainly one that I shouldn't ignore. Aunt Cassie must have seen it too cause she was over quicker than a jack rabbit helping me gather up my school books off the table. She winked at me with her dry smile spreading over her face then threw her eyes up and back towards Maw ''Do what your Mother says Joshua Bell, and you be quick about it''
I tried not to smirk back in case Ma saw me and boxed my ear for being disrespectful; Ma is a big woman in every respect. She may not be tall but she is as well built as any man in the neighbourhood and has a temper to match so I learned quickly not to get on her wrong side. Aunt Cassie went over and put my books in my bag ready for school the next morning taking her time to use one as a makeshift fan to cool herself off on route. Ma kissed my forehead tenderly and promised she'd be up shortly to tuck me in while Cassie rustled my hair as I passed by on my way to the stairs.
''Goodnight Aunt Cassie'' I said swinging on the door handle ''Night Ma''
''Goodnight son'' she replied. ''Say your Prayers, and don't forget to god bless your daddy, now git!''
I did as I was told and kneeling on that floor gave me wood wrinkles on my legs because I took so long at them. Ma never made it up even after I had finished, from what I could hear both her and Aunt Cassie were sitting out on the cool porch enjoying a new smoke and some water melon wine.
''What you crying for'' I shouted over to the little white girl with the spindly legs that was clutching the piece of paper, ''What's your name?'' I tried again, but either she didn't hear or she was trying to ignore me, maybe then I should have walked on and just did what I had been set out to do under Maw's instruction and get her sugar. But a feeling came over me that made me think that no matter what this is where I was supposed to be this very moment in time. So I waited, fumbling with the cotton strings inside my trouser pocket and scratching my toe into the dirt. After a while the morning sun began to burn my head and the sound of her wailing began to irritate my ears. I figured I'd try one more time so I walked over and sat down on the stoop beside her. Her crying had slowed to a whimper mixed with hiccups and I believe she tried to use a few words that Pastor Williams warned me about at Sunday school and ones I had only ever heard coming out of the bar room on the corner of Bromley and Main on my way home from school. I paid them no heed and asked god to forgive her silently in my head.
''Go away!'' she finally said in words I could understand ''Leave me alone'.' Once more I choose to ignore her less than civil attitude believing that if I persevered at the very least she would show me what was written on this piece of paper that was so important to her. I think she got that I wasn't going any where soon cause she lifted her head up and brushed her raggedy rustic hair back from her face. Even with the redness of her sorrow I was stunned by the sight of her emerald green eye's that shone like jewels.
''What's your name?'' I asked her smiling
''Gracie'' she sniffed wiping her nose on her cuff sleeve.
''And why are you crying Gracie Adams?'' I whispered softly to her, ''is it something to do with that paper your holding?''
For a moment she just sat and stared at me, a look that seemed to prise into my very soul, then I seen her beautiful green eyes moisten and glaze over again.
''My Paw's dead' she said so quickly I hardly heard it '' two officers just gave my Momma this letter'' she offered it to me and I unfolded it on my lap brushing out the wrinkles that had been made by her damp hand '' They didn't say how or where just that he was killed in action doing his duty for his country''
I read it the best I could even though some of the words I didn't quite understand slowed me up I made it look like I knew what they meant. Gracie just sat there the whole time dabbing the snivel off her nose with the palm of her hand and wiping it clean on her dress.
''Momma has took to her bed since they left'' she said looking over her shoulder in the direction of the top window of the house ''been there all morning with a bottle of Jim Beam for company'' I looked up too half expecting to see some poor demented woman standing at her window with a bottle of liquor, but there was nothing other than closed blinds and dirt caked glass. ''How come I ain't seen you at my school'' she sniffed at me.
I leaned forward and slapped my leg ''You sure don't know nothing about Orange County do you'' I began to laugh '' I ain't allowed in your school seeing as how I'm black''
''Oh!-yes, of course''she said dropping her eyes ''I'm sorry''
''What are you sorry for? It ain't your fault''
''Listen, It don't matter'' I interrupt '' the carnival is in town what do you say we meet up later and check it out''
''I'd like that'' she said to me finally without snuffling.
I handed her back her paper and began to rise thinking Maw would surely scold me for taking so long with her sugar. I didn't relish the thought of continuing my errand in the heat of the midday sun after leaving Gracie's cool porch but my chore was running late and I would like to ask Maw for a dollar to spend at the fair so I needed to keep on her good side. ''The Carnies have set up in McGregor's Field'' I shouted as I began running towards the store ''Just behind the court house, be there at three..Okay?''
Gracie stood up and waved at me until I was out of sight, and the only thing I could think of the rest of the way was Gracie's beautiful smile, her emerald green eyes and flaming red hair.
By the time I got back from the seven eleven with Maws sugar she was sitting outside on her rocking chair reading one of them fancy women's magazines and sucking on a half lit cheroot. ''Where you been?'' she asked me momentarily pausing from her reading while looking over the top of her glasses. ''My coffee pot went cold waiting for you half an hour ago young man''
''I've been talking with that white girl who now lives in forty one'' I admit trying hard to catch my breath after running all the way back from the store. '' Her name is Gracie''
The more I talked the more Ma's eyebrows moved further up her head especially when I disclosed about the letter her Momma had got that morning. And how the two officers had revealed her father was killed in action.
''Poor, Poor woman'' She sighed when I had finished explaining how she had took to her bed and was most likely lying in a drunken stupor. Then I confessed to my arrangement I had made with Gracie to meet up at the Carnival this afternoon. Ma took the time to remind me that unless I did my usual Saturday chores I wouldn't be going anywhere and not with no dollar bill in my pocket. By about two o'clock barring some wood chopping Maw said I could finish my work when I came back from the fair. She ordered me to go wash up and promised to make me my favourite lunch of homemade corn bread and fried chicken wings. Ma had a bit extra for herself so she and I sat out at the table on the porch and just ate quite like in the afternoon heat. But that dollar that she gave me was itching inside my pocket to get spent and all the way through the only thing I could see was Gracie's smiling face and I couldn't wait until we met up again.
McGregor's Field is a good fifteen minutes walk from my house if you take the shortcut through the library's car lot. Long before the town began to expand in a more southern direction just behind the original court house the first claim stake holder ever to reside beside the black water river that runs through town was a guy named Thomas H McGregor. What's left of his old shack still stands in the corner of the pasture that bears his name. Rumour was that in 1886 old 'Tom' pulled a gold nugget out of the water the size of his fist, and being a god fearing man he used some of his money to build the church over on Riverview in thanks for his good fortune. Some say he went and erected a big fancy hotel in New York and lived on its top floor with servants and butlers looking after him until he died, I could never imagine what that would be like, being rich in all.
Ma insisted I wear my straw hat seeing as how this was turning into the hottest August she could ever remember and she was in no mind to look after me if I came back with sunstroke. Neither would she hear of me wanting to wear my best Sunday go to church pants and shoes maintaining that 'Carnie Fairs are no fit place for good Christian folks' and that must mean those that are dressed in their Sunday best I guess. I settled then for my cleanest pair of dungarees and gave myself a lick and a spit with water from the rain barrel and waved to Maw as I set off ''Be back for supper'' she shouted after me '' I will Ma'' I smiled back then took to my heels as soon as I was out of sight.
There were few cars parked at the Library as I crossed the car lot, all the windows were open and the main door was wedged ajar with a lump of tree branch letting the cool air to circulate. A two foot square pale white poster stating ''No Blacks allowed'' was flapping against the glass in what ever breeze was intruding into the hallway. Looking at it I came to think, I was sure that when those wise folk wrote their books they hoped that everyone would read them, but I guess that ain't the way just yet round here. Floating on that same breeze I could hear the sounds of the Barkers touting at their stalls and the rhythmic melodic tones of circus music. The smell of cooking hot dogs and kettle corn filled the humid after noon air, and as I stepped through the turnstile the whoosh of the rides and the lights mixed with the screams and laughter overwhelm me. I have never seen so many people in one place before. Young children run and cry with excitement while anxious parents try to keep up; a stray balloon floats skyward and drifts across the big wheel that turns slowly like a gigantic super moon. Gracie is sitting as we agreed in a pink dress on the tree stump beside McGregor's old shack. She smiles when she sees me and the lights of the fair glimmer and dance in her stunning green eyes. She immediately links my arm and we begin walking, she leans into me and her hair smells of summer flowers.
''How is your Momma?'' I inquired
''I ain't seen her all day'' she says dropping her eyes and it would seem my honest query about her welfare is enough to remove that radiant smile that only moments ago she greeted me with. ''Sleeping it of most likely, I called to her through the door but she never answered'' For a moment she just stared at me and I thought I could see the well of her tears fill up and glaze over her eye's making them reflect the illuminations even more than before. ''I took a dollar from her purse'' she finally choked allowing a half smile to evolve upon her face. Then she holds it up like a trophy ''Lets get some cotton candy Joshua'' she laughs throwing her head back and running off towards the stalls ''you do like cotton candy don't you?'' Like a fleeing farm yard chicken she expertly zig- zags' through the walking crowds with me desperately trying to keep up holding on to my straw hat that refuses to stay on my head. There are a small line people waiting for the candy man and a few turn and look at us as we noisily take our place. When I catch my breath I remove my troublesome hat and take a long hard swallow ''I like your dress'' I hear myself say out loud ''You look nice''
''Why thank kind sir'' Gracie smiles making a mock curtsy pulling up on the corners of her dress '' And you are very handsome''
Some how suddenly I am unsure whether it is the heat of the carnie lights mixed with the humidity of the afternoon sun that's making me feel hot or the fact that I am rapidly beginning to sweat under my canvas white shirt. Slowly the line begins to thin out and I can smell that honey sweet aroma of tinged caramel and hear the buzz of the turning motor. Gracie fidgets with her dollar bill and smiles broadly at the cotton candy man who is pouring another batch of sugar into the machine. '' Now young lady'' he smiles down with his crooked teeth that remind me of tombstones in an abandoned cemetery. From the side of his white apron he pulls out a wooden stick and holds it skyward like he's about to conduct an orchestra. ''Mint, cinnamon or vanilla?'' He asks still grinning widely.
''Two vanilla please'' Gracie asks politely ''Large one's'' she says slapping her buck down hard on his counter. Its then the look on candy mans face changes to one I have seen a hundred times, his tombstone smile is replaced by a turned up sneer and he uses the stick to point between me and Gracie. ''You two are together?'' he snorts and takes the time to spit his tobacco he's been chewing onto the grass at his feet. It leaves a brown stain on the corner of his boot.
''I ain't serving him'' he indicates at me with his cane'' I ain't givin no negra cotton candy''
For a moment Gracie doesn't speak, slowly she looks at me then back to the candy man who has resumed his tobacco chawing. ''didn't you hear what I said Missy?'' he spits narrowing his eyes into slits.
''But he's my friend'' Gracie says leaning backwards ''And you're not a very nice man are you'' then she did something I couldn't believe I was seeing. She kicked that cart so hard with her right foot it toppled over sending Mr Cotton candy and all his sugar bags tumbling down the slight incline he was standing on. I watched rooted to the spot as he scrambles in the dirt and Gracie was shouting at me to run. People dodge sideward as we laugh and scurry through them trying to make our way back to old McGregor's shack.
''I can't believe you did that'' I joke at Gracie when we fall in through the shacks wood wormed riddled door onto the dirt covered floor. ''Keep out of sight'' she shouts at me smiling and pulls me down below the level of the windows glassless frame. Dust covered ancient cobwebs float and dance from its edges with the skeletons of past arachnid dining still clinging to their gray silk. Gracie's head bobs up and down as she keeps watch to make sure we haven't been followed by Mr Cotton Candy man.
''I think he's gone'' she smiles sliding down the wall until she is sitting beside me, her pink dress is covered is sticky cotton candy, bits of grass and grit. And somewhere between the Wurlitzer and the swings I seemed to have lost my straw hat and I begin to wonder just how I will explain this and why the knees in my pants are torn to Maw.
''I really like you Joshua'' Gracie says to me finally catching her breath ''and I'm sorry you seen me cry today''
Gracie moves round onto her knees and leans into to me; I can smell the sweetness of the cotton candy and the scent of summer flowers from her. The music of the fair begins to soften and the lights from the rides blur into an aurora. around us. I feel the tenderness of her lips on mine and I taste the tenderness in her kiss. My eye's open and she is smiling at me, this was my first and the sensation seems to linger after we part. The air is motionless and static until Gracie throw's back her beautiful red hair and we both laugh as loud as we can.
For the rest of the day Gracie and I held hands and watched the rides and the wonderful lights of the Carnival from the window of the old shack. And on the way home we kissed again under the tree beside the river. I never got to spend my dollar and I kept it forever in my wallet to remind me of that wonderful hot August day of 1945.
The following morning I asked Ma could I visit Gracie after church, reluctantly she agreed considering how I had come home in such a state the previous day. Once more she refused to let me wear my Sunday best clothes. I couldn't wait for pastor Williams to finish his sermon and as soon as I got home I rushed up stairs and put on my denims torn and all, the same pair I wore that day at the fair. I shouted to Maw as she stood in the doorway who was rolling her eyes and clicking her tongue at me. '' I'll be back for supper Ma, I promise'' as I pushed by. I ran so fast I thought the wind was carrying me along; my heart was beating so hard my chest hurt. And just like yesterday the hot sun hung high in the cloudless sky, and just like yesterday I expected to see Gracie sitting on her porch in her pink dress, with her tangled red hair flowing down over her pale shoulders with a smile so big it would stop my heart.
But she wasn't there, no one was.
I banged on the door and waited but no one answered, I tried to look into the window covering my eyes with my hand. But I could see nothing, no movement, no sounds.
Then a voice behind me shouted from the sidewalk, it was Mr Walters who ran the store further down the street. ''Is that you young Joshua Bell?'' he said coming towards me swinging his keys around in a circular motion like a planes propeller; they made a whooshing sound like the rides at the carnival.
''What you doin here boy?'' he asked '' Are you lookin for Gracie Adams?''
''Yes sir'' I responded nervously ''But there don't seem to be anyone home''
''Oh My'' he replied shaking his head and refraining his key swinging '' I guess you ain't heard then''
''No Sir, heard what exactly''
''Oh Boy!'' he said placing his hand upon my shoulder while I could see he was searching for words. I felt a coldness come over me even though the sun was hot and high. I just knew something wasn't right.
''Little Gracie came home last night and found her Maw dead, I'm sorry son. Mrs Adams done hung herself from the landing with her bed sheet. Poor little thing was in an awful state when she come runin into my store. The police were here most of the night.
''What about Gracie?'' I asked him.
''Last I seen they took her away in one of their cars, poor girl was a pitiful sight and no mistake''
''do you know where?''
''Most likely the Police Station I should think'' he replied and began spinning his keys again ''You got a long walk ahead of you son if'in that's where you are thinkin of goin''
He was right when I thought about it; the sheriff's office was way over the other side of town, a long walk only made worse with the rising temperature of the afternoon sun. And I remembered I lost my hat the day before. I felt my shoulders drop and a well of nausea loomed in my stomach making my knees weak.
''Are you Okay Joshua?'' Mr Walters asked, ''Why don't you sit down on this here porch son a'fore you be sick''
I didn't need to be told twice and Mr Walters stopped his key spinning again and sat beside me, for a short while we said nothing, both me and him just stared ahead looking out onto the road. A few cars passed and an old stray dog searched inside a battered up trash can on the sidewalk before giving up and cocking his leg then sauntering off. A drift of gray clouds moved across the sky and blanked out the sun bringing with them small spats of rain that peppered the dirt in front of us. Mr Walters looked skywards at them.
''She's gone isn't she Mr Walters''
He nodded and pushed his glasses back up on to his nose ''I expect so son'' was all he said.
''Wind's changing Joshua, I think summers over'' and with that he got up and left.
I sat for a while longer sorta hoping that maybe Gracie would come running along shouting my name and everything would be Okay. I even took out my dollar bill from my pocket thinking if I closed my eye's and held it tight I could make a wish on it and I'd be back in the Carnival with her. None of it worked of course, only the rain got harder and when I returned to McGregor's field later that day my clothes wet from the walk all I found was an empty meadow that befitted my heart , but I never forgot Gracie even now the Carnival is gone for me it will always be here
A short Story by Will Neill.
© 2015 Will Neill