In the Spring of 1952, the rural residents of Privilege, Missouri, a small river town, suffered a direct hit from an electrical storm and twister, killing 85 people and destroying the best part of town. During the recovery, the townsfolk expressed their despair with biases. Especially after finding out the predominantly black areas on the outskirts of town known as Third World and New Hayti went unscathed. They only suffered their usual flooding after a lengthy rainfall. Not the loss of life or property.
People of New Hayti often said Guinee knew when nature was up to some kind of chicanery. Guinee Cassandra Freedman, a mother of three, mama of 10 year old twins, possessed a keen nose for bad weather and understood nature better than most. She would sniff, taste, and observe it whenever outside, because it offered up warning signs people often ignored.
Days before the massive electrical storm and tornado hit Privilege, Guinee told her fellow neighbors the significance behind flock after flock of blackbirds arriving in New Hayti. It signaled an impending threat but a bad omen, at least not for them, as most superstitious Haytians suggested. The blackbirds sought sanctuary until the danger blows over. Guinee cited folklore in which nature, on many occasions, sent large numbers of animals elsewhere for safety.
Ever since then, her neighbors accepted her weather advisories. So anytime she pointed out nature behaving unusually, they listened and acted accordingly. Parents often sent their children over for weather reports. Guinee, like many New Haytians, spent a considerable amount of time outdoors. They enjoyed the fresh air. Even so, she bonded with the physical world almost on a spiritual basis.
A month later, a little birdie told her by noon the sunshine and blue skies wouldn’t last. As news spread, people hustled and did as much as they could, taking laundry off the clothes-lines, weeding their gardens, cutting grass, and allowing their children to have as much fun as possible. Because at noon, all found shelter. Sunlight gradually dimmed until all the shadows moving across the landscape disappeared. Thunder soon rumbled. Strong winds followed. Suddenly, the scent of rain. Next came the downpour–hard and fast.
Throughout the storm, the Freedman family settled in the kitchen. They sat around listening to the rapid pitter-patter on the metal rooftop and pouring runoff. Guinee held a strange love affair with the rainy season and would often collect the water. Moreover, she raised the small kitchen window. For it funneled a nice breeze, without the intrusive rainwater splatter, because of the awning and corner placement.
“It’s really coming down,” Kaya said. “Isn’t it, Mama?”
“Yes it is,” Guinee said, popping Kinnion upside the head for squirming. “Stay still.”
“Not so tight,” he pleaded.
Guinee ignored his complaint and continued. The sweet breeze they all enjoyed soon increased. Lightning flashed. Deafening booms shook the house. A half an hour later, she looked up and beyond the kitchen into another room. Her attention focused on another thumping sound. Soon Kinnion and Kaya heard it. Puzzled looks circulated, thinking? No way. In this weather?
“Kaya? Go see if there’s somebody at the door,” Guinee said. “Peek out the window and come right back. Don’t open the door, understand?”
“Yes ma’am,” Kaya said.
She stopped reading the newspaper and did as instructed, parting the living room curtains and looking out, but couldn’t make out his face. A newsboy cap hid it. Yet, there at the door stood one lanky black fellow in blue jeans, white short-sleeve shirt, and rubber flip-flops, with his bicycle prone on the ground. He lifted his fist and knocked again. Kaya ran back noisily. The visitor heard her yelling; so he knew someone would greet him shortly. Rather than knock again, he waited.
“Mama! Mama!” Kaya said, running into the kitchen. “There’s somebody at the front door!”
“Kaya? All that yelling isn’t necessary,” Guinee said.
Guinee stood up fast, comb in hand, and stepped over a sitting Kinnion. He remained there on the linoleum floor with his head left in half-braided cornrows and half blown-out Afro. She reached the door and then opened it narrowly, just wide enough so she could look him up and down through the latched screen doorway. Kaya tried looking around her mother and through the crack in the door, but couldn’t. Kinnion didn’t bother. He went and sat on the sofa to give his numb butt some much needed relief.
“Who is it, Mama?” Kaya asked.
“Go sit down somewhere,” Guinee said.
Instead, she drifted, full of curiosity. The newsboy stood at the door while lightning flashed in the background, making darkness daylight. It seemed so close, Guinee jumped back out of fear, but he held firm, and unflinching. Even after it thundered loudly.
“Mrs. Freedman?” The newsboy said, in his own deep, clear, and concise voice.
“How can I help you?” Guinee asked. “And why are you on my porch?”
“I am Ojise the Messenger,” He said. “I was sent.”
“In weather like this?”
“Mrs. Freedman,” Ojise said.
“The one in the Third World,” Ojise said. “Second to last house on the right.”
“Yes ma’am. It’s about Gwendolyn,” Ojise said. “You need to come get her as soon as possible.”
“Why?” Guinee said, now opening the door a bit more.
“She’s family, yes?” Ojise said, stepping back, giving the screen door room to open.
Guinee said: “And you’re sure she’s there?”
“Yes ma’am,” Ojise said. “Gwendolyn is there. Now I must get back and let her know that you know.” Ojise crouched down, lifted his metal bike, and then mounted it. “Is there anything I should tell her?”
“I’ll do that myself,” Guinee said. “And young man, aren’t you scared of lightning?”
“Not anymore ma’am,” said Ojise.
He rode off, pedaling upright and hard, going back into the sudden storm whence he came. Guinee noticed during his departure the burn scar on the back of his neck and mud spattered on his backside and butt. She then shut the door and stood there, twirling the comb in her hand, and slowly walking back into the kitchen and sitting down.
“Kinnion? Come on,” Guinee said, “so I can finish your head.”
“Is something the matter, Mama?” Kaya asked, walking up to her.
“Just sit and finish reading,” Guinee said.
Kinnion sat back down on the floor, between his mother’s legs, and then cocked his head to one side, so she could comb and part his remaining Afro into neat braided sections. Kaya sat at the kitchen table and started reading again from the newspaper. Every so often, Guinee told Kaya to slow down and enunciate or spell out a word she found difficulty in pronouncing.
After reading a number of articles, Kaya offered up her opinions on them. Kinnion too. Guinee required it, nurtured it, and advocated it. It also made for lively discussions, questioning the ideas people put into print to influence others. Hair braiding soon concluded. Guinee then dipped her two fingers repeatedly into a can of hair dressing and thoroughly oiled Kinnion’s scalp. Now done, she took a pair of scissors to an old single black pantyhose, knotted the cut end, and then fitted the hosiery snugly over his head.
“There.” Guinee said, tapping his shoulder. “I’m done.”
Kinnion stood up, readjusting his stocking cap. Kaya read aloud a quote at the bottom of the newspaper: “Unless prejudice at home is eliminated, it will never be stopped in the streets.”
“I’ll amen that,” Guinee said.
She took a minute to wander over and look out the window and noticed the dark skies moving off fast and faint signs of sunlight breaking through the ceiling of clouds. Birds soon took advantage of the lull and landed in the grass. Bluejays, cardinals, sparrows, and robins happily fought against, captured, and feasted on drowning nightcrawlers, juicy earthworms forced up to the surface.
“I should move too,” Guinee said. “Kinnion? Kaya? Go put on your raincoats and galoshes.”
“Seriously!” Kinnion said.
“Where’re we going mama?” Kaya asked.
“Just do what I asked.” Mama said. “Now go.”
Kaya left the newspaper on the kitchen table and then chased behind her twin. Guinee soon found herself in her bedroom closet, rummaging through boxes and linen stacked shelves. Her search finally yielded what she sought, a small homemade and colorfully-pattern quilt, constructed from tattered fabrics, and decorated with Adinkra symbols. Sewn in black thread, on one of its inside corners, the bearer’s name and date of birth.
“This is it,” Guinee said.
“Hey!” Kinnion said, once he saw her emerge from the closet with it on her arm. “Is that mine?”
“No, it is not. It’s your big sister’s.” Guinee said.
“She’s not a baby,” Kinnion said.
“No she isn’t, but I need it.” Guinee said. “Now come here. You too Kaya. Let me take a look at you.”
Guinee looked them over, satisfied with what they had on underneath their rubber jackets. She then pulled their blue hoodies around their faces and then laid down the dos and don’ts of the road once they left the house. They’d both heard the rules ad nauseam, but nodded politely just the same.
“Now go wait outside while I get ready,” Guinee said. “If anyone asks, just tell them this is simply a break in the weather. It will rain again, but much later.”
The two ran out and played around. When Guinee finally came out, she had on her deceased brother’s double breasted Navy raincoat and a hand knitted shawl tucked around her neck. She covered her head with a large bandana and clear plastic bonnet atop it. Except for the thick soled rubber shoes, the lower parts of her legs faced some exposure, but not much. After checking her coat pocket for a second time, she buttoned up, and locked the house. Guinee slowly faced what lay ahead, turned up her collar, and then tucked under her armpit the plastic bag with the quilt in it.
“Come on you two,” Mama said. “Let’s get going.”
“Guinee!?” Lucille said, calling out from her porch. “Where are you going?”
“I should be back in three hours,” Guinee said. “Before the next downpour. Just look out for me.”
“Okay,” Lucille said.
They waved their goodbyes. Mother and twins crossed the yard and went down the county road until they reached Highway 6. The family kept along the road’s narrow shoulder. A paved road with drainage ditches on both sides which snaked and straightened past cotton, soybean, and cornfields. Occasionally, Kaya and Kinnion fell behind their mother but not far, back only a few paces, because they couldn’t resist leaping into every available puddle. So, every now and then, Guinee reprimanded them – telling them to catch up, especially when cars approached.
Because, in these parts, nobody black could afford one. They relied mostly on horse drawn carts, and apparently a bicycle, as their means of transportation. Otherwise, the vast majority of them got around on foot, walking to town and from place to place. Most of the modern conveniences only serviced those living in town. They remained distant from New Hayti and Third World.
Besides, Guinee never expected a ride from anyone. And if they offered, she wouldn’t accept it. Nothing good could come from it.
Privilege folk exacted their vengeance on them following the natural disaster. Rumors abound of black folks being accosted along this lengthy stretch of highway. As a precaution, Guinee packed a handgun for protection, just in case trouble introduced itself.
So far vehicle after vehicle sped past them, splashing them, heckling them and spouting idle threats from their lowered windows. Guinee hoped these same despicable abuses would occur for the return trip — and nothing more. After an hour-long walk, the trio reached the road which went into the Third World.
As usual, heavy rainfall flooded some sections of the gravel road. So they waded and trudged through ankle deep water. They went past house after house, including one where two barefoot girls played in the muddy water with teacups. Soon they arrived at the second to last house on the right. As they got closer, the aroma of freshly boiled smoked pork and greens grew stronger and whetted their appetites.
“Smells good, huh, Mama?” Kinnion said. “I’m hungry, now.”
“Me too,” Guinee said. “But we’ll eat when we get back.”
“Mama? We’re not taking back a plate?” Kaya asked.
“Hush,” Guinee said, now standing on the porch. “I’ll be in and out shortly. So stay put.” She stomped the mud and sand as best as she could off her shoes and knocked softly on the screen door, the front door already wide open.
“I’m coming.” Thelma Lou Freedman said. “I’m coming.”
Guinee waited. Both children sat in the porch chairs looking out at the expanse and pointing at things. Thelma Lou soon appeared, a squatty and big-all-over kind of woman, with a green head wrap, a matching bib apron tied around her square frame, along with a kitchen towel draped across her broad shoulder.
“Guinee? Lord, am I glad to see you.” Thelma Lou said. “Come in. Come in. Sorry about that, but I almost burnt my cornbread. Can’t have it looking like me. Everything black ain’t sweet.”
They both laughed.
“Sorry about your floor,” Guinee said, leaving behind a trail of wet footprints and water droplets.
“It’s okay. It couldn’t be helped.” Thelma Lou said. “You left the kids at home?”
“Couldn’t.” Guinee said. “They’re outside.”
“What?” Thelma Lou said.
“They’ll be fine.” Guinee said. “Really?”
“Nonsense.” Thelma Lou replied. “After walking all this way and it being wet and all, I know your feet and theirs are hurting, you’re tired, and no doubt hungry. Let me fix you a plate, real quick. For you and the kids. Sit down. Take a load off.”
“Don’t go through all that trouble,” Guinee said, taking a seat. “I’ve come for Gwendolyn.”
“Hold on. Hold that thought.” Thelma Lou said, rushing into the kitchen.
Guinee figured she must’ve left the oven burning or a pot cooking on the stove. Instead, she reappeared carrying two small plates, each one with two forks of greens, a fried chicken wing, pieces of smoked ham hock, and a thick slice of cornbread, and went straight for the porch.
“Thelma Lou don’t—.”
Too late. Kaya and Kinnion put forks to their mouths. Thelma Lou quickly returned. “That should tide them over until you all get back home. Now come on,” beckoning Guinee. “She’s in here, asleep on my bed,” said Thelma Lou. “Got here late last night, poor thing.”
“Where’s her mother?” Guinee said.
“Gladys? She’s gone. New York bound.”
“New York,” said Thelma Lou. “Gladys came banging on my front door, hollering and whatnot, and shouting my name.”
“After I got up and made it to the door,” Thelma Lou said. “There she stood holding a crying baby in her arms and a leather bag on her shoulder. Behind her I saw this shiny blue Buick Roadmaster. I’m thinking, here we go again.”
“A Roadmaster?” Guinee said.
“So I asked: Who’s that in that car?” Thelma Lou said.
“Nobody you know,” Gladys said. “Just a jazz musician. A friend of mine. A trumpet player actually. He came from Pennsylvania so he could take me back with him to 52nd Street and then France.”
“52nd Street? France?” Thelma Lou said.
“That’s right,” Gladys replied. “Across the water, in Europe, French people love jazz and bebop. Black musicians can over there, make more money, get treated better, and know the devil ain’t in every white people. So I am going. I want to know what that feels like.”
“So I said: ‘Gladys? If it’s like that, then take her with you.’ And you know what came out of her mouth next: ‘Happiness ain’t for everybody.'”
“She’s always been selfish,” Guinee said. “The driver: A white man?”
“I couldn’t tell.” Thelma Lou said. “It was dark and he never got out of the car. I then told her why bring the baby here when your mama’s house, your house, is right down the road. ‘Oh no,’ she said. ‘I can’t go there. I’m going in the opposite direction.'”
Gladys resented being put out two years ago. She didn’t think her staying out late, attending night clubs, galavanting with musicians for months on end, in her blind pursuit to become rich and famous warranted abandonment. Maybe not. But Guinee became so fed up with Gladys’ escapades, of doing what she pleased, by coming home late or not at all, drunk, smelling like dope, and other stinky odors, left her little choice. So she set her free. Let God and the Devil spar over her. Maybe then, she’ll come to senses.
Thelma Lou continued: “Next thing I know she laid the baby down, the bag too, right there on the porch, and ran off. Got in that car and left fast.”
“Just left her,” Guinee said.
“What could I do?” Thelma Lou said, beckoning her, as they headed for her bedroom. “She’s back here.”
Guinee unfolded the plastic bag she carried, sending water droplets flying, pulled out the quilt, and followed. Sound asleep lay a fat, bright-skin baby, with a head full of curly hair.
“Just look at her,” Thelma Lou said. “Ain’t she cute?”
“I guess,” Guinee said.
“Stop. Don’t do that,” Thelma Lou said.
“I’m here aren’t I,” Guinee said.
Guinee laid out the quilt flat on the bed beside the baby.
“While you’re doing that,” Thelma Lou said. “I’ll go check on the kids.”
Guinee nodded, peeked at the baby’s cloth diaper, then swaddled Gwendolyn carefully but tightly, leaving a corner of the quilt as a flap for a facial covering. The baby didn’t put up much resistance, except for the occasional limb reflexes before having them wrapped and secured.
She lifted the baby off the bed and then raised her high up, looking into an innocent face. “My, my, my. Trouble already. Yes, you are.” Gwendolyn smiled as if she understood the words spoken. Guinee walked out of the bedroom when Thelma entered.
“I had to put away the dirty dishes.” Thelma Lou said. “You’re not carrying her on your back?”
“No.” Guinee said. “Kaya and Kinnion will take turns carrying her.”
“Is that wise?”
“Somebody must keep a finger on the trigger,” Guinee said.
“Sad but true.”
The Freedman women soon found themselves standing outside on the porch. Kaya and Kinnion jumped up immediately, energized, ready to go home. They both recognized the colorful quilt, it being in a bundle, along with a bag on her shoulder.
“Is that a baby, Mama?” Kinnion said.
“This is your niece, Gwendolyn.” Guinee said. “She’s coming home with us.”
“For how long?” Kaya said.
“I don’t know.” Guinee said. “But for now, what we’re going to do is welcome her into the family. To do that, that means taking turns carrying her home. I will take her up to the highway. After that, you two will tote her the rest of the way. Got it?”
“May I hold her?” Kinnion said, taking her into his arms. “She’s not heavy.”
“Not now, but give it time,” Guinee said.
Guinee took a moment to show them both how to hold her. They should put both arms underneath and pull her close to the chest. That way, they won’t drop her by accident, like a paper sack of groceries.
“Good. Just like that,” Guinee said.
“Mama?” Kaya said, peeking under the flap. “She looks white. Are you sure she’s related to us?”
“Hush.” Guinee said, taking her back. “Now tell Thelma Lou thanks for the food,” and they did. “And Thelma, thanks.”
“No problem,” Thelma Lou said. “We’re family.”
“Say? That fellow, Ojise. Do you know about that burn mark on his neck?”
“Lightning hit him,” Thelma Lou said.
“Lord have mercy,” Guinee said.
The skies dimmed again foretelling the threat of rain. Strangely, Guinee welcomed it, except for the lightning. Rain meant less traffic and close encounters. Guinee and children soon departed. And with that, Thelma said goodbye. She stepped off the front porch and watched them eventually vanish from view.
At the highway, Kinnion carried her next and the farthest. His arms and legs managed more than a mile. He talked to Gwendolyn to keep her calm and when cars sped past he allowed his back to catch splashing water. Guinee admired his strength, but noticed his stride began slowing a bit, and soon Kaya took over.
“She’s so wet and heavy,” Kaya said.
“Then give her back,” Kinnion said.
“I got her,” Kaya said, marching forward. “I can do it.”
Soon the drizzle became a rainstorm. Not unlike the first. The family couldn’t avoid being soaked and surprisingly Gwendolyn didn’t cry despite the thunder claps. The road into New Hayti lay up ahead. Just then, Guinee spun around and noticed an old flatbed pick-up truck creeping up. It drove past them earlier and evidently returned.
It then stopped. An old white man partially exited, placing one foot on the pavement, and offered them a ride. Guinee kindly rejected his offer while thanking him all the same, but she never took her eyes off him. Something about his overall posture produced an uneasy feeling. It prompted her to slip her hand into her coat pocket.
Guinee urged her kids to run home. She would follow them shortly. The man figured differently. He grabbed at something and then got out completely. This giant of a man came at her holding a steel pipe at his side. Another disgruntled person from Privilege. A man still upset about losing his home and loved ones, and since profanity couldn’t hurt God, he looked upon Guinee as a physical thing he could smash and abuse to help ease his pain and even things out. He reared back, and then…
Kinnion ran like a jackrabbit. His sister clutched the back of his rubber jacket and held the baby tightly in the other arm in order to keep up with him. Her feet ran mostly on air, touching the ground sparingly. He went to the first house on the road. The Smiths answered and listened to two scared and winded children with a crying baby. The kids let them know what was taking place up on the highway. Neither adult bothered putting on any shoes. Mr. Smith simply grabbed the rifle from behind the door, and they both raced barefoot toward the highway.
“You all stay here,” Mrs. Smith called back to Kinnion and Kaya.
Suddenly, daylight flickered. The lightning retracted itself and continued dancing across the dark, formidable sky. Once they arrived on the scene, they saw two bodies lying flat in the rain. Mrs. Smith hurried up to and knelt beside Guinee, finding her alive but dazed, and helped her to her feet. Mr. Smith checked on the other body but it didn’t look so good. The toe end of his shoes had exploded, parts of his clothing melted, his hand blistered red, and his arms and neck displayed a network of veins.
“Is he alive?” Mrs Smith asked.
“Nope.” Mr. Smith said, “Lightning hit him.”
Wayne McCray is a Susurrus 2022 Pushcart Prize Nominee. His short stories have appeared in Afro Literary Magazine, Bandit Fiction, The Bookends Review, Chitro Magazine, The Dillydoun Review, Drunk Monkeys, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, Ilinix Magazine, Malarkey Books, The Ocotillo Review, Ogma Magazine, Pigeon Review, Roi Faineant, The Rush Magazine, Sangam Literary Magazine, Swim Press, and Wingless Dreamer. He works diligently at becoming a Minimalist from his book-laden junk room.