Issue 3:2 | Fiction | Charles Shea LeMone
A Told Story
Charles Shea LeMone
(Dedicated to Christine Webb-LeMone)
Christine Jackson often recalled the winter of 1952 when she was seven years old. Her father had taken her to pick up his mother at the North Philadelphia train station. A strong wind whipped flurries of snow as it fell covering the soot-blackened snow piles left from a previous storm. The icy streets and the extra traffic of late holiday shoppers agitated her father, and the last leg of the ride was agonizingly slow and filled with anxiety.
Christine squirmed in her seat and tried to adjust to the painful fact that she’d be spending Christmas without her mother, who was recovering from a second bout with tuberculosis. It would be at least two weeks before she would be released from the sanitarium.
As the anemic daylight surrendered to encroaching darkness, Mr. Jackson parked his old Ford truck a half block away rather than deal with the glut of cars pulling into and out of the train station parking lot.
Inside the enclosed portion on the train platform, while she stood near the doorway attentively, her father chose a spot to sit away from the white folks on the hardwood benches that ran the length of the room. Soon he gave up sitting and paced in a tight circle, his big fists jammed into the pockets of his baggy, threadbare overcoat. After a while Christine slipped out into the cold open air of the loading dock. Curiosity found her wandering toward the end of the platform. The tracks cut through the freshly fallen snow, twisting out of sight. As she neared the far end, she heard the angry sound of her father shouting her name.
"Chrissie!" He huffed toward her, his jowls swollen.
Before Christine could react, Mr. Jackson grabbed the back of her coat collar and turned her to face him.
"Don't you ever go off scaring me like that!” he snarled. “Don’t you know I got enough to worry about as it is?"
"I'm sorry, Daddy," the girl said softly. “I really am!”
At last, the train from New York pulled into the station. Her grandmother was one of the first passengers to get off. Mr. Jackson helped her with an old, strapped, leather suitcase. But she insisted on carrying a large department store shopping bag decorated with the likes of angels, Christmas trees, candy canes, snowflakes, and toy soldiers. In a shy manner, she smiled down at her granddaughter then squatted down and gave her a big hug.
"Can this really be my little Christine?" She clutched the girl’s shoulders at arms length with gloved hands and smiled through gold-rimmed bifocals. “You certainly are growing up fast and pretty as a daisy in a field full of bright sunshine."
Christine hadn't seen her silver-haired grandmother in more time than she could guess at. To her, she appeared frail, almost brittle. Yet, she seemed to possess a wealth of energy. There was no stoop to her walk, and the steps she took in her snap-on red, rubber boots were sure and confident as they made their way out of the station and back to the truck.
"So how's the little woman doing, son?" she asked, as Mr. Jackson made a right turn, steering the truck into the intermittent flow of Broad Street traffic.
"She's fine as can be expected,” he answered with a deep sigh, eyebrows knitted, “considering how bad off she was last week."
"I know it's a trying situation, Curtis. That’s why I’m here."
"Almost more than I can handle,” he spoke as he raced through a yellow light. A blast from the truck’s cracked muffler ruptured the silence. Then he went on, "Up in the morning before the crack of dawn, truck-loading whole sides of beef all the day long. Got to pack my own lunch, too, if I hope to eat anything. Then I got to pay that crabby, old, fat woman down the block to look after Chrissie until I get home." He pointed his hair-stubbed chin toward his daughter who sat between them. "Almost more than I can handle," he let out another mighty sigh. "Yeah! It's sure enough trying, all right!"
"Oh, I understand how rough things can be sometimes, son.” The grandmother rocked her head to the rhythm of her speech and crossed her hands over the purse she held in her lap. "Believe me, I know what it's like. Raising four of you all by myself wasn't no easy task, either. But God willing…"
"Mother, please," Mr. Jackson interrupted her. "Not right now! No church going stuff. Okay?"
The clicking sound of the truck's engine, the tires rolling through the developing slush of newly fallen snow, the cacophony of city sounds and passing traffic filled the silence.
"Maybe," the man added, gently, “with tomorrow being Sunday and me off from work, we can talk more about your beliefs. But just know this much, I really do appreciate you taking off from work and coming down here to help out."
"I'd have come even further, Curtis," she said, "if I'd had to."
There wasn't much food in the refrigerator or in the cupboards, but Mrs. Jackson threw what she did rustle up into a large cast-iron pot. Into the hot water she sifted brown rice through her bony fingers. Then she added sliced carrots, diced onions, chunks of collard greens and potatoes. When the meal was ready they sopped their plates dry with fresh baked, buttered biscuits and filled their bellies with second and third helpings.
Later, when Mr. Jackson had gone off to bed, the grandmother sat down in Christine’s mother's favorite chair.
"Chrissie, dear," she called out to the girl, "go get that Christmas shopping bag of mine and bring it here."
Christine did as she was told, but as she was handing it to her grandmother the old woman said, "Don’t give it to me. Everything in there is for you. We’ll just make believe Christmas has come a little early this year."
Inside the bag Christine spied many second-hand goodies. She thanked her grandmother and flopped down on the floor to go through the contents of the bag.
"Just a few things I got from the church.”
One item at a time, the girl eagerly emptied the bag. She discovered a Chinese checker set and a stuffed Teddy bear that she cuddled as she cooed. There were also a few paint-by-number sets and four picture storybooks.
While she was engrossed in one of the books, her grandmother said, "I remember even as a tiny tot you always loved books and being read to. Just like me."
With her grandmother staying at the house, Christine spent less time outside jumping rope and playing other games with her friends. The congested neighborhood streets were lined tightly with rundown redbrick row houses. Mrs. Jackson also got her interested in listening to the radio. She introduced her to The Lone Ranger and the old woman’s favorite, The Shadow. And every night, just before bedtime she'd read the girl a story from one of the books she'd given her.
When she had read all the books, she took Christine to the local library and helped her fill out a form to get her very first library card. Then they filled a Christmas shopping bag with books for both of them. Christine was elated beyond words because she had not known there was a library so close to her house.
Christmas Eve, they went shopping for a tree to set up in the living room. Christine dragged it through the snow, five long blocks. That evening the two of them decorated the tree with strings of colored popcorn and fresh, shiny red cranberries.
"This is better than store bought stuff,” Mrs. Jackson said, “and more creative, too.”
They made cardboard cutouts of stars and angels with their wings spread wide. They used paints and crayon to color them. Then they strung them to the tree with yarn and crowned their work with a large gold, six-pointed star.
"Well," Grandma said, glancing at the hands on her wristwatch, "we better have story time before we get you off to bed."
Christine was ready to pop up and get one of the library books, but her grandma stilled her with a hand.
"Tonight," she said, "rather than read a book, I'm going to tell you a special story. It’s a told story.”
"Will it be as good as a book story?"
"I suspect it might be even better than a book story," Mrs. Jackson answered with an impish smile. "But come sit beside me and I'll start. When I'm done, then you tell me how you liked it."
Expectantly, the girl drew up close to her grandmother on the couch. "Ever hear of the Civil War?"
"Sure," Christine answered, "that's when the slaves got freed."
"Glad to see you know your history." Behind her spectacles, Mrs. Jackson’s glossy eyes beamed and sparkled. "Well… I’ll start by telling you that my mother was born right after the Civil War. It was Emancipation as they called it, and all the slaves from all over the South were given their freedom. It was as happy and joyous a time as there ever was for our people. And my mother, being born right about that time, was given the name Freedom.”
"That's sure enough a pretty name,” Christine said. "Freedom. I like the way that sounds."
"Her daddy, Thadius, was not a book learned man, but he was plenty smart. Right after the war the government promised to give each ex-slave forty acres of land and a mule. But that was a promise that was never kept.
"However, Thadius approached his former master, who was not too bad a man. In fact, compared to most slave owners, he was a saint. Thadius convinced the old man that a sharecropping arrangement would be good for both families, because there was still a whole lot of cotton, tobacco and beans that needed to be planted, grown and harvested. So they worked out an arrangement they could both live with.
"Before too long, Thadius had more than sixty acres to oversee. In the years to come, he worked hard farming a good part of that land. He paid others as he needed them--who were all happy to find work. He was a big man and accustomed to working from sunup to sundown. But now that he was working-- not just for the white man--but for the betterment of himself and his family, he worked even harder. But…" her voice grew faint and foreboding, “one day when Freedom was about your age, her mom just up and died."
"Up and died!” Chrissie exclaimed.
"Just like that!" Mrs. Jackson snapped her fingers with a sharp pop. “The local doctor said it was probably a stroke.”
Christine fought back tears brimming in her eyes and buried her head deep into the folds of her grandmother's lap. Her thoughts soon turned to her own sick mother, and tears ran down her trembling cheeks.
"They gave her a good Christian burial," her grandmother went on. "Freedom, her father, and his half-brother, Uncle Calvin, were real sad, of course. And they grieved and mourned a lot for days and weeks to come before they finally reconciled that Freedom’s mother had moved on to a better place to live in the House of the Lord, forever, doing his work from up there."
Christine sniffled in the woolen warmth of her grandmother’s dress and wiped her eyes dry with the back of one tightly clenched fist.
"Some years later at a church service, Freedom met a pretty young black woman named Naomi. As it turned out, Naomi's former mistress--as an experiment--had taught her to read.” Mrs. Jackson nudged her granddaughter gently with a wide spread hand. “And guess what?"
"Pretty soon that woman taught freedom how to read, too. And just like us, that girl loved books!"
Mrs. Jackson laughed deep from within and her whole body shook with delight. Christine sat up and tried her best to shake of the sadness she felt.
"Yeah, Freedom caught on real fast, too." The woman wiped the girl's damp eyes with an embroidered handkerchief. "And wouldn't you know it, before long Freedom started to pretend this here Naomi was her mother. And sure enough, before too much longer she was starting to put together matchmaking plan in her head. Yes, she was figuring out just how she could get her dad and this little woman hooked up proper."
They both smiled then dropped their eyes shyly.
Outside, in the narrow streets, a siren blasting fire engine fractured the night with an ear-splitting wail. When the interrupting sound faded, the grandmother continued.
"Trying to get her dad and Naomi together was proving to be the hardest thing that little Freedom had ever set out to do."
She puckered her lips and shook her head wearily, saying, "Because her dad, Thadius, like I said, spent sunup to way past sundown working the land. And every time Naomi was supposed to stop by to fix dinner, some emergency would spoil Freedom’s plans. Once the plow-horse had a hard time giving birth and took Thadius’ attention away from the house. Another time a rainstorm came down so hard the whole town turned out to sandbag the levee so it wouldn’t break. But fate has its own funny way of seeing that things work out when the time is right. You see, as it turned out Freedom came down with a bad cold. Around the same year whopping cough was killing a lot of neighboring folks. So when she didn't get better right away and her cough persisted, Thadius, who was worried half to death, called Naomi in."
The old woman hummed a little melody, stroking her granddaughter lovingly on the side of her head, brushing her curly locks to the side.
"And for days and nights on end, Naomi was the perfect nursemaid, hand bathing sweet little Freedom and feeding her every morsel of food she ate, singing every gospel song she knew and praying for her to get better. And…"
"What happened?" Christine asked, when her grandmother paused too long.
"Then the magic moment Freedom had been waiting to happen finally came. Looking out her window one morning she saw her dad and Naomi hugging, squeezing, and kissing under the cool morning shade of a big old willow tree."
With a smile, Christine laid her head in her grandmother’s lap again and closed her eyes to better picture each detail of the story.
"You can bet that was all Freedom needed to help her get back up on her feet, real quick. Yessiree! To everyone’s amazement she was at the dinner table that very night, feeding herself and looking fit and spunky as a pound of two-penny nails. So, I suspect you can guess what happened next, huh?"
"They got married."
"Bingo!” Mrs. Jackson hugged the girl close to her. “That's exactly what they did. They jumped the broom as they called it back in those days. And believe me, it was some hoe-down, too. Being that it was harvest time, all the tables were set outside in the Indian summer sunshine. They roasted a goat and a hog and cooked up every kind of vegetable that grows from the earth that you can name. There was corn whiskey, grape and plum wine, peach, blueberry and apple pies. And all the good black folks from miles around came. They were just a celebrating, dancing and kicking up their heels with excitement and having loads of fun.
“And from the way my mother told it, they had banjo's strumming, fiddlers bending their bows, drummers pounding on the goat-skin heads of their drums and singers sweetly serenading the coming night."
Mrs. Jackson paused briefly. Then she let out a baleful sigh that seemed to bounce of the walls and echo back with an atavistic force of its own. Christine held her breath and waited for Mrs. Jackson to continue as she sensed an omen of bad things to come.
"Just having the time of their lives, they were. But wouldn't you know it," Mrs. Jackson sighed again heavily, "off in the distance against the sun sinking down came her scared butt Uncle Calvin. And… he's a running against the rising dust in the evening sky, no more than a couple of steps in front of an angry pack of white men on horseback."
Christine wasn't prepared for the story's sudden shift. Her grandmother sensing that, averted her eyes and continued.
"You see, Calvin found the dry-goods man in his store dead of a heart attack and his cash register wide-open and empty. Being a frail mute and easily frightened, he ran. But someone spotted him and told the sheriff."
Mrs. Jackson paused, rocked and patted Christine' tense-ridden spine.
"Well, that posse, frothing at the mouth wasn't thinking about arresting Calvin. No! Not in those terrible times, that didn’t even cross their minds. Instead they were dead-set on lynching him without question.”
Christine gasped and her heart began to pound against her ribs as though it was trying to break free from her chest, which suddenly felt small and constricted. She put her head back in her grandmother’s lap, digging her tiny fingers into the woman’s thighs.
"Thadius pleaded for the life of his half-brother, saying there had to be some kind of mistake. He even promised to pay double the cost of whatever had been stolen. But the white men were more set on hanging than reason. Quickly, Thadius slipped off to the house and got his hunting rifle. When he came back the posse had moved off down by the creek. When Thadius caught up with them the noose was already around Calvin's neck and the mob was stretching him up from an old oak tree, asking where he’d hid the money they claimed he’d stolen.
"'Let him go and there won't be no trouble,'" Thadius warned.
“But they just laughed at him. Then he raised up the rifle and aimed.
"'The only way you'll stop us is to use that rifle,'" the sheriff said. "'And I know you're far too smart to do that.'
“Thadius fired a shot in the air and pandemonium broke out. The sheriff went for his gun and Thadius hit him with the butt of his rifle. An misplaced shot came from the sheriff’s gun and one of his deputies fell from his horse to the ground, dead!”
Christine forced herself to lie still. She didn't want to do anything that might cause her grandmother to stop telling the story. So she held her breath and waited anxiously.
"Thadius ordered the posse to drop their guns and ride off his land empty handed. Then he helped Calvin pack a bag, stuffing it with food from the wedding and a change of clothes. He also gave him his rifle, his best mule and wished him God’s-speed, pointing to the nearby hills.
"'Better rush off now,'" he said. "'Cause you know they’ll be coming back. But that mule will get you a good start up them hills where their horses will have a hard time following'"
Mrs. Jackson let out one of those long mournful sighs, which are usually reserved for funerals or wakes and the she was silent for a moment.
"When the posse returned for Thadius, he was right there waiting. He told them, 'Do what you want with me.'
"For some reason, rather than hang Thadius on the spot they took him off to the jailhouse while Calvin got away up a narrow, rocky pass too difficult to follow on horseback.”
Christine squirmed deeper into the warmth of her grandmother’s lap. Mrs. Jackson made a deep-throated sigh and caressed one of the girl’s shoulders tenderly.
"Maybe," she said, "we better get you off to bed. I can finish this story any old time."
"No!” Christine protested. "I want to hear the whole story.”
She sat up, wide-eyed and alert, her jaw-line set tight in a fierce show of determination.
“Calvin was lucky enough to get away from the posse. And it also turned out that two drifters got arrested in the next town and admitted to robbing the dry-goods store that the sheriff tried to blame on him.”
"But your great grandfather wasn’t so lucky.” She shook her head and groaned.
“Even though Thadius’ former owner hired a famous lawyer to defend him, it was all for naught when the sheriff and all his deputies took the stand. They lied and said it was Thadius who gunned the poor deputy down in cold-blood. Except for Calvin, there was no one else at the creek to tell the truth about what really happened. Therefore, the jury didn’t deliberate too long before declaring Thadius guilty. The judge then set a date to hang him at sunrise, a couple of days away.”
She shook her silver hair and was momentarily silent. Her blank gaze penetrated the Christmas tree and beyond.
"Can you imagine how Naomi, Freedom, and Calvin must have felt? Through all that pure hell they were alone with only each other for comfort, because all the other Negroes stayed away like hanging was contagious. And on top of all that, they had that big farm to work with no help at all. And pretty young, Naomi, poor thing, was separated from her husband on the very first day of their marriage. And poor little Freedom, she had already lost her dear mother not long before. And soon -- from the looks of things -- her father would be following her mother to an early grave, too.
"But," Mrs. Jackson’s eyes sparkled, "the one thing they never lost was faith. And fortunately for them, God had his own plan. Because one of the deputies couldn’t live with the fact that he was letting an innocent man die because of the lies he told under oath.” Mrs. Jackson let out a hoarse, deep throated laugh.
Faintly, Christine smiled, liking the direction the story was taking.
“So guess what happened next?” Mrs. Jackson asked.
“Thadius didn’t get hung?” Christine speculated.
“That’s right. The deputy woke the judge up in the middle of the night. And the very next morning, with the whole town there cheering him, Thadius was set free. Of course, Naomi and Freedom were there to hug and kiss him the minute he stepped out of that old musty jailhouse. And together they walked off hand-in-hand toward home. And… they lived happily ever after," Mrs. Jackson whispered reverently. "The end."
When she tucked Christine into bed with a kiss, the girl gave her a big smile that radiated affection and trust.
"Grandma,” she said, “that was better than any book I ever heard or read."
Mrs. Jackson smiled self-satisfied as she took a crucifix and the gold chain it hung on from around her neck and gave it to Christine.
“Since you enjoyed it so much, I want you to take this cross and wear it to remember the essence of what the story was all about.” She attached the chain’s clasp behind Christine’s neck, and said, “It once belonged to Freedom.”
In time, Christine’s mother was healthy enough to come home. About two weeks after she was back, halfway through reading a picture storybook to Christine she stopped, complaining that her eyes were too tired to go on. Longingly, Christine thought of her grandmother. She knew Mrs. Jackson would have finished the story. After all, the book wasn’t that big.
"Did Grandma ever tell you about her mother, Freedom?” she asked impulsively.
"What Freedom!" Couched in a torrent of emotions, the words burst from Christine’s mother's mouth. "I'm not going to let that crazy old woman fill you up with a pack of lies. Because she's sure enough full of them."
Christine lowered her eyes as her mother went on.
"And besides, your father told me that she was raised in orphan homes all her life. So she wouldn't know her real momma and poppa from them ugly old, drunken fools next door."
As the years passed, not knowing whom to believe, Christine was often tempted to ask her father to clear up the confusion. But she couldn’t bring herself to risk asking. She was afraid he would confirm what her mother had already claimed.
Grandmother Jackson, at the age of 104, after a long battle with a brain tumor passed away. At the time, Christine had been married for almost thirty years. Both of her children had heard the story of Freedom, and both of them had made Christine and her husband grandparents. One day she planned to tell her grandchildren the story, too.
However, before Mrs. Jackson closed her eyes for the last time, Christine went to visit her often. On the last occasion, standing beside the hospital bed in Albert Einstein Medical Center she held one of the old woman’s wrinkled hands.
Surprisingly, Mrs. Jackson was lucid enough that particular night to recognize her granddaughter.
"You always loved books," she said, wistfully. "Just like me."
As she spoke, the old woman’s eyes captivated Christine. In the dim light her protruding bony brow darkly shrouded them. Yet they expressed a wealth of intrigue and passion and contrasted sharply with her shrunken, bald skull and her toothless smile.
"I still love books, grandma," Christine said. "I've even written a few, nine of them to be exact. But the best story I ever heard or read was the one you told me about your mother, Freedom."
As she was about to mention that a film producer had paid her to develop the story into a screenplay, Mrs. Jackson began to laugh. It was a nerve grating, rasping sound that soon turned to violent retching coughs. Patiently, Christine wiped spittle from her grandmother’s mouth with a Kleenex. Before long the old woman cleared her throat and spoke haltingly.
"Yeah, that was one whale of a tale.” Mrs. Jackson closed her eyes, puckered her toothless mouth, and added, "Too bad it wasn't true."
The words jolted Christine rigid.
"What!” She dropped the aged hand she held and it slid away from her.
"You see," Mrs. Jackson’s voice was so faint that Christine had to lean forward and strain to fully comprehend what her grandmother was saying, "sometimes what we believe can be worth, much more than what we know."
"Was it true or not?” Christine demanded angrily.
“I can't remember when I first started to play with that story. After all, that was so long ago. But please, Chrissie, remember this… I didn’t mean you no harm. I just wanted to give you something to help you stay strong and walk proud.”
Christine felt as though she had been punched in the gut. Breathing became difficult. But soon she was able to gather herself as she fought to control her emotions. By this time Grandma appeared to be asleep, her head turned away from Christine. In silence she sat there for several minutes until a nurse stepped into the room to inform her that visiting hours were over.
Outside of the hospital, deep in thought, Christine walked away from the entrance as a light snow began to fall. Standing on the sidewalk as streams of traffic flowed by, she turned and looked up at the dim light shinning from the corner room on the seventh floor, the room she had just left. A myriad of emotions flooded her mind: anger, disappointment, and frustration were at the top of the list. Then she began to intellectually wrestle with the decision of whether or not she should tell her daughter and her son that the story about Freedom was not true, merely a tale her grandmother had made up on that long ago Christmas Eve night -- when her mother was suffering from her second bout of tuberculosis. Unconsciously, she began to toy with the crucifix that she had worn every day of her life, since that very night.
Miraculously, Christine’s anger slowly ebbed and she soon began to chuckle. Then unrestrained laughter poured from her to the extent that her body doubled over. Finally, she was able to stand upright. Looking up at the window of her Grandmother’s hospital room, she stifled the sentimentally inspired tears that came to her eyes as she raised a clenched fist above her head, and said, “Thank you, Grandma. Thank you!”