It is peculiarly bright this evening. Will not be dark for another hour or so.The headlights of the ’68 station wagon are on, but their worth cannot be seen until the fog seeps between the slats of wood. The sweet smell of honeysuckle floats through the air on a blanket of steam rising up from the river as the car makes its way across the threshold.
The old bridge aches aloud, for its back has carried many a passenger the last hundred years to and from Ahoskie, North Carolina. Known as “The Only One,” Ahoskie has existed as a settlers’ town and with the Indian name since 1719, but without the Indians’ permission to do either.
For a moment there is a sense of unsteadiness. Got to get across.
Just one more time. Sometimes easy.
Most times hard.
Then sometimes someone never crosses back.
For several hours, I’d done nothing but unpack and eat. I was ready for something to happen.
But I wasn’t ready for anything like this.
I was standing at the front door that 12th of June evening, waiting for Aunt Alice to come home from the grocery store, when I heard the piercing sound of horns and sirens unleashing their fury, synchronized to the flashing red and white lights leading the way south, away from town. The pimples that ran down my spine were tender from the screeching noise. At least five vehicles rushed down the narrow road, leaving great clouds of dirt as though dragged by invisible ropes . Heading for a place where something god-awful was happening.
I could see Auntie’s car trotting at a nervous pace behind them, then veering off to the left, down our street. I focused on her torso behind the wheel, then her head, then her eyes, steadfast with purpose.
“Hi Auntie, what’s going on down there?” I asked, with my hand shielding my eyes from the fading sun as she opened her car door to get out.
“I don’t know really, Lizbeth, ’cept Uncle Frank was called to come in a hurry with his wrench truck to help down by the bridge.”
As the jarring sounds washed out through the tall bushy head of the forest, Aunt Alice stared out toward the road. With her chin tucked in, she spoke.
“Lizbeth, I’m going down there to see what’s going on. It’s going to be dark out soon. You can stay here if you want to, or go over to Mrs. Cooper’s if you get scared.” She placed her hand on my shoulder to reassure me that all would be okay. “Scared? I’m not scared; I just want to go with you! See what’s happening down there!” I exclaimed, shaking her other hand in a tantrum, dividing her fingers between my two hands. “You couldn’t fit in there anyway Lizbeth, I have a car full of groceries, girl. And besides, by the time I finish putting them away, I may as well stay home.” She had me there, but I wasn’t about to give up. My eyes darted around the yard looking for a way out of the problem.
And there it was.
“You’re right, Auntie. I can’t fit in your car, but I can ride my bike!” A prideful smile burned in the flesh of my cheeks.
“I got a light on my bike, Auntie. Besides, I bet I get there before you do!” That was all that needed to be said.
I arrived at the bridge before Auntie, thanks to my cousins showing me a narrow path just that morning. I rode right on up to the bridge and oh-so-quietly kicked my kickstand down. There wasn’t one holler, mostly because the police and other officials were concentrating on the sadness below. Good thing I had enough sense to leave my bike where it stood and walk the rest of the way so as not to call attention to myself. As my excitement grew, I tried to hold my breath, feeling my heart thumping through my chest, hoping that my good fortune in not being shooed away would hold out until I got a closer look. By now the sun was so low the river looked like black ink angrily slapping the shore for letting Uncle Frank’s crane drop into its waters, with men bobbing up and down like red and whites. Flashlights dotting and dashing about like lightning bugs searching for their supper. A few orders jabbed out amongst the men here and there. Other than that, there was silence.
A startling shout came from a man with a white hat, and a tremendous swoosh broke through the dark water. When the crane pulled the car up, with a solemn grinding motion, something burst free from one of the car’s open windows. Shocked me so bad I nearly fell over into the deep, so shaken from the sight.
A man’s hand had set itself free from the car.
At first glance, the hand seemed to be riding the surface of the water, waving happily without care. But then the ashen skin with its grotesque wormy veins made it clear it was not waving. Something glistened in rhythm with the ripples of water flowing over his fingers—a gold band. But before I could focus, the shoulder and the head of the man slipped through the window like an eel. I could have held on a little longer but for the man’s face turning upward; his eyes bulging out of their sockets like strained ping-pong balls. I threw up right then and there on the bridge, and luckily not on my brand new checkered shirt.
“Hey, hey you there girl! Get off the bridge before you drown your fool yourself! We don’t have time to be searching for no more bodies tonight. G’on now!” The man with the white hat again. I wanted to say sorry, but my wobbling legs took the best of me. Luckily I spotted Auntie on the shore, so I got my bike and stumbled to her side. Auntie held me close to her breast for a little while, still keeping her watch over the damage in the Ahoskie River.
I gathered myself and sat on the hood of her car, still hot from the engine, with a sweater between it and my legs. Auntie stood like stone beside me. Even the soft jowls of her face looked hard above her densely clasped hands.
I caught Uncle Frank’s eye across the river, and he waved to me in return. Not the free and happy to see you kind of wave, more like the I am here and so are you kind.
The rumble of a car moving fast toward us made me turn behind myself to see who was in such a hurry to see death. The Spring City emergency squad had already arrived, though late if you ask me, and there was nothing left to do except get that poor soul out of there. As the car’s lights peeked through the woods, I could see a turquoise Ford Country Sedan with a woman behind the wheel. A black woman. She steered wildly, like a cartoon character scripted for disaster, nearly hitting us as she drove up beside us. Punishing the brakes to screeching tears. Barely before the car had stopped, she ran out toward the bridge.
She had on a light blue dress that ruffled at the collar and short-sleeved cuffs. Her black hair, which was once held in a knot, was fast becoming a ponytail with every step she took. And she was beautiful. Only when she reached the water’s edge did I hear her crying. No, not crying. She made a sound like an animal being torn apart from its limbs. She did not get far, thank God.
“My babyyy!” She hollered. Fighting to break free of the man in the white hat who had taken both her firm arms.
“Noooo, not my baby! Emma! No God, no!” I looked over to Auntie’s grim face.
She could have been mistaken for a totem pole. I was afraid to speak; to interrupt the stranger’s pain seemed rude, but Auntie must have read my mind.
“Emma is…was their baby.” Aunt Alice swallowed hard when she said ‘baby.’ “The man you saw down there, her husband, Joseph Samuel.” I’ve known my Aunt Alice all of my life. She obviously had some kind of affection for these folks for her to well up like this. “Joseph and Violet Samuel…and their daughter Emma.”
Lost in misery, we hardly noticed that Uncle Frank had crossed the bridge to meet us. He gave Auntie a long hug, then ushered me in to join them.
“What happened?” She whispered.
“I don’t know, hon’. Sheriff Bigly said the skid marks show Joseph drove that car clear off the bridge.”He stroked her back, gently rubbing the information in, soothing her like oil on a baby’s bottom. She let his powerful strokes sway her back and forth without resistance.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man dashing to the grieving Miss Violet. A man named Benjamin Samuel, I gathered, from the loud and thankful greeting made by Sheriff Bigly. Must be someone close in the family, I thought. He barely grazed her arm, when she suddenly turned to see who it was.
“My baby’s dead!” she cried to him.
His long fingers got a hold of her petite arms. As he pulled her closer in, she fought with the strength of twenty slaves to be free from his grasp. But he wouldn’t let go. She kicked her feet wildly to get free of him, but she failed. I could see her chest heaving hard, until her body became limp in his arms.
That moment was hard with silence.
# # #
After what seemed like forever, Auntie finally broke her trance, got into the car and turned the engine on. I nearly fell off the hood from the suddenness of her intentions. Thank goodness her headlights were already on. I grabbed the handle and swung myself into the seat. As soon as my seatbelt clicked she was heading out. She braked with a jerk, and then yanked the gear hard into forward. As she pulled around to get back on the road, a dust cloud gathered around the wheels. Crackling bits of dirt and gravel pricked the skin of my arm dangling out the window.
“You okay, Auntie?” I asked. I wanted to touch her hand, but both were clinched with a mind to stay on the steering wheel; ten and two o’clock. So I went for the flapping short sleeve of her shirt instead.
She nodded at me with a fleeting smile.
# # #
Try as I may, I couldn’t get that man’s bulging eyes out of my mind. Auntie must have sensed my distance on the ride back.Trying to erase those images, she told me a story; a Miss Melanie Neely had walked around town for most of the day with the back of her skirt tucked into her voluminous panties until Auntie shouted out at her at a red light. We laughed. I smiled at her twinkling eyes, knowing that whatever was behind them would soon find its way out.
In the darkness, we let the crickets’ chirps lull us a while, until she told me about Joseph Samuel. How he didn’t want to insult his father or his siblings, but still refused to work in the family business before, during, and after his time in the army. Not until the bank threatened to take the lumber yard did he finally succumb to their wishes.
Uncle Frank was sorry to see him go. He always said that Samuel was the best man he’d ever had working for him in his shop, smartest one, too, but always whistling a tune for the devil.
Daring him to come.
He’d met his wife, Violet Nightingale, at the Annual Can- died Yam Festival. The first for him since he’d come home from the service. Every eligible woman wanted him, smacking their lips like he’d jumped straight out of the syrupy sweet can himself. Not love at first sight for Violet, but the world and beyond for him. She was grateful for a man who would provide for her without question, so she married him, and begot a wondrous child. Wondrous, for after a year and a half of four miscarriages, this child took its first breath from Violet’s womb. Life’s sweet kiss had planted a seed named Emma. Nothing bound to this Earth would ever matter more than she.
We arrived at home with the story told to its finish, then carried the groceries inside and started to prepare dinner.
# # #
Leave it to Uncle Frank to finally arrive at home, after helping out with the towing of Mr. Samuel’s car and retrieving my bike, just when the rolls came hot out of the oven.
“Hey, hey there family!” He shouted as he slammed the truck door, trying to be his jolly self.
“Hey to you too, Uncle Frank!” Lena and I shouted back at the front door.
We watched him drag himself to the back door, heavy in sadness. He left his boots next to the brick steps along with his spongy socks, and then hosed his feet down on the grass. Auntie opened the screen door and passed him a towel to dry them off. He grunted and groaned a little, as he was a big man sitting on the low stoop, trying to reach his toes. I managed to leave the poor man alone trying to do his business, but Lena couldn’t.
“Come on, Uncle Frank, dinner’s waiting for you!”my baby sister, Helena, exclaimed, trying to light a smile on his face. “Here, you’ll need these.” She scurried over to his favorite chair and retrieved his thick navy-blue velvet slippers that exposed his toes.
After he slipped them on, he stood up and hugged us. Lena giggled since he was hugging the top of her head, leaving a sprout of her braid sticking up through his thick arms. Auntie held his huge hand and led him to his seat in the kitchen.
We all sat around the table waiting; all eyes riveted at him. “Let’s say the blessing,” he said low. We all held hands; my sister and I squeezed particularly hard into Uncle Frank’s to let him know that we were proud of him.
“Amen!” we all said together. Uncle Frank took a deep sigh spewing his hot breath mingled with the smell of a wet cigar. Things started feeling back to normal again. I could tell because my belly relaxed so I could eat.
“It’s your favorite, stuffed pork chops and gravy!” I poked at his belly, and pried a giggle from him.
“Well thank you, ladies. Now pass that plate right on over here, please!”
Once he piled the homemade mashed potatoes and green beans on his plate, he became the lovable Uncle Frank again. “Tell us Uncle Frank. Tell us what you saw!” Lena asked.
He looked to our aunt for her permission. She nodded that it would be fine.
“Well…” he said after taking a gulp of grape Kool-Aid, “once I was able to get the chains underneath the carriage, the hooks got that car up. Hmh, watchin’ that winch haul it up in that darkness just like it was a casket seeping through the black waters of death.” He took another gulp of Kool-Aid to keep him going. I wanted to drink too, but I dared not take a sip and miss hearing something from the swallow.
“The bodies hadn’t been in the water too long. It was cool too, so the skin was wrinkled and kinda’ pimply, same as when you get goose bumps but bigger. Nothing remarkable at first ’cept a few scratches and a missing finger to Mr. Samuel’s right hand.” Uncle Frank held on to his own finger, then snatched it quickly, to demonstrate how it must have happened.
I fought to smother a gasp, remembering again the sight of Mr. Samuel’s face. I saw Lena clasp her little fingers to her chest, then slowly slide them underneath the table.
“Anyway, he, Mr. Samuel, was found floating facedown, sucked to the roof of his car with his eyes wide open. Sheriff Bigly thinks that he had to have watched his baby drown, still strapped in the backseat with one of the two seat buckles undone, the other jammed. He could no more set her free from that one mischievous buckle than fly home on the grace of God’s breath. Can’t imagine how it felt, the water fightin’ to bust into his lungs. Jesus!”
“That’s enough now, Frank.” Aunt Alice spanked his enormous hand.
“Okay, okay, Alice…funny thing though….” “Franklin!” Auntie scolded this time.
“Just let me finish, woman. This ain’t so bad for the kids to hear. Like I said, funny thing though, when we took him out of the water his right hand was knotted up tight in a fist missing a finger, holding on to a coin—a worthless penny. Heck, maybe he had a spasm or something, it just seemed kind of an odd thing a dyin’ man would do. How ’bout that Lizbeth?
You being the expert about pennies and all.” I smiled at his compliment, although I was far from an expert.
There we sat eating our meal, dying to hear more with- out Auntie getting in the way. But Uncle Frank was smart. He timed it just right to tell us something sad but kind of thoughtful.
“As for Emma, she was wearing a sweet lilac dress with ruffles on the bottom, with a white homemade sweater. A pattern knitted with little puffs like popcorn scattered about in rhythm. Just sittin’ there sleepin’ like an angel. Shame is, that was the first time Joseph had picked her up from the babysitter or else she’d be alive now,” he said.
“Shame for Violet, to lose them so soon,” said Auntie, forking up some string beans.
That stripped us speechless. I had to remind myself to breathe after that.
“Stranger still, the tire marks show that Mr. Samuel was breaking hard to the right, but there wasn’t a thing there to make him to go off that bridge, as far as Sheriff Bigly could tell. In fact, a boy along the Spring City bank saw the car plummet right into the river. Can’t imagine what would make Joseph run off that bridge like that.”
“Or who,” I added.
“What do you mean, who?” Uncle Frank demanded. “Makes more sense than a cow or a deer running him off
the road.” I swear Uncle Frank looked at me like I had two heads and twice the horns sprouting out of them. “Come on, Uncle Frank, he’d a’ hit a darn animal before…you know… with his baby girl in the car.”
The table went quiet. “What?” I said softly. They knew, we all knew.
We all stared down at our plates, twirling into the crystal ball of mashed potatoes and gravy for an answer.
Tasted good, though.
# # #
Auntie answered the phone while the rest of us washed down a piece of 7-Up cake with a glass of frosty milk. I tried to eavesdrop, but her deep voice was in a whisper until….
“Shush now, sweetie, I’ll take care of it.”
Auntie hung up the phone and headed out of our sight down the hallway. Moments later she came back across the room with a light sweater on. In one swoop she picked up the car keys, her purse, then she was gone. Uncle Frank started to holler after her, but he nearly choked on his words thinking it might be best not to.
We were asleep by the time she came home.