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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Aunt Lula argued for years afterwards that it all started when Claudia passed away that warm fall afternoon- the last hot day we’d have for a long, long time, but of course we didn’t know it then. That lousy old prune- just fell over and died, and good riddance too.
Of course, I could never say that out loud, or Aunt Lula would surely have spanked my sorry little behind all the way to California like she’d been threatening to do ever since she found out I’d lied to her. I lied to just about everyone back then- my teachers, friends, family members- everyone, that is, except for Dalton.
I told him absolutely everything...and complained quite a bit, too. I’ll never forget the way he walked- left hand tucked into the pocket of his worn blue jeans, right arm swinging down by his side, pleasant smile on his face, strolling slowly down the winding lane like he hadn’t a care in the world.
And whenever he strolled by Aunt Lula’s, he’d give a holler- his voice would fill the air with its warmth, and I would nearly kill myself leaping over all the books and beds and piles of clothes strewn messily throughout the house, run barefoot down the creaking wooden steps, and fling myself into his waiting arms. And he’d let out a large booming laugh, then bend his head down and touch my nose gently with his, burying his hands in the long, auburn tresses flowing down to my waist.
“How’s my Annie?” he’d ask as we’d walk down the street heading towards downtown, where we’d buy an ice-cream from Flannigan's and share it, licking the drips off of our fingers as as we walked past the barber’s and the dentist’s and the new theater, stopping at what was commonly referred to as the “The Edge” in our small, dusty southern town. Dalton was the only one who acknowledged it for what it really was- the line, invisible yet solid, that separated us white folks from the colored section of town. The pavement just ended, fading gradually into nothingness. The paved road, worn from being travelled on by horses and carts and cars, melted into a dark strip of dirt and disappeared around a corner.
Of course, it was forbidden to step foot on that road when we were children- but that never stopped us. Old Grandma Claudia personally took the trouble to hobble up the creaky wooden steps of Aunt Lula’s house and nearly beat me bloody after she found out that Dalton and I had gone exploring a little ways past The Edge.
That lousy old hag with her stick-thin arms whipped me raw with my granddaddy’s old leather belt. I was only a child then- 6 or 7 years old. I recall that I clung to the table leg and, with the tips of my fingers, traced the pattern carved onto the wood, trying not to let my hand shake as I felt one lash and then another on my back. Who would have thought that Old Claudia had it in her? She was unable to get out of her rickety chair without assistance, yet when it came to beating her only grandchild half to death, the achiness in her arms mysteriously “disappeared”.
I took that punishment to heart and never dared to venture past The Edge again, even after Grandma Claudia’s heart stopped that sunny autumn day when I was 15 years old. Aunt Lula still says that it was then that everything changed- and, for once, I cannot say I disagree with her.
For it was the very next day that the fog came- and stayed. Old Mr. Johnson would come out onto his brown wooden porch and peer into the mist with his brown, sightless eyes and hold out his wrinkled hands, testing for the familiar feel of tiny water droplets landing gently on the warm, leathery skin. We all got used to it after a month or two- stepping outside in the early morning, expecting the usual southern sun that had been beating down on us since the beginning of time.
And yet the fog floated on the morning air and touched us gently with its silvery tentacles, and we would blink in confusion, then rush inside for a robe or coat, remarking how strange it was to have such weather.
All the oldies would gather in the middle of the dusty road, a mob of curlers, walkers, and fuzzy bedroom slippers, and complain about how the fog was undoubtedly caused by us youngsters, who were foolish and had no manners. I would crouch under the window-sill, picking at the peeling white paint, and listen to their angry chatter. Occasionally, my name would pop up like a kernel of corn, then was lost again in the sea of wrinkled faces, and tufts of white wispy hair. “That Annabel,” they would call out, waving those canes in the air excitedly, then cast guilty glances at Aunt Lula’s house, where I sat on the cold, hard floor, straining my ears to catch the words that flew out of lips like bullets.
Yes, the fog was strange enough, spooky even, in the way it seemed to spread a blanket of gloom and suspicion over town, which had once been bustling what with all the men heading off to work and womenfolk beginning the household chores. No, what really frightened me was not the fog itself, but what the fog carried into town- men.
And don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t one of those pussies who sat around at home all day, sewing by the window and and hiding from the mailman, waiting for a cute boy to walk past the window so I could giggle and blush like a ninny. No, sir. I could make pleasant conversation with the Sheriff and look him squarely in the eyes without backing down for a second.
But these men were different. I had never seen white men like them before. “Activists,” they called themselves, and flipped the peaceful society of our town upside down by venturing past “The Edge,” almost every day, until rumors flew around like crows, and nobody trusted each other anymore.
But worst of all, when the fog finally receded and the men in their crisp suits went back up North where they had come from, they took my Dalton away with them.
I wish I could say that he arrived at my house in the evening, just as the glowing red sun was sinking below the dry horizon, and took my small, trembling hands in his warm ones, explaining why he had to go in that soft, gentle voice I loved so much. I wish I could say that we talked and talked until even the moon got tired of listening to our hushed whispers and the sky lightened slowly, giving way to dawn. I wish I could say that, as the sun rose swiftly into the sky, creating streaks of orange and purple and gray, we stood hand in hand beneath the shade of the dogwood tree, and he kissed me goodbye. I wish…
But no. I was not lucky enough to receive a goodbye of any kind. “Not worthy enough,” I thought bitterly afterwards. For, it was on the day he left that my suspicions were confirmed. I was with child. His child- Dalton’s. I recalled those discussions we’d had, those whispered discussions under the light of the stars as we at on the porch swing, his head in my lap. We were no fools. We had discussed the consequences.
There, while I stroked his silky brown hair and the moon shone bright over town, Dalton promised that, no matter what happened, we would be married come December. And so, young and naive as I was, I trusted him. I was willing to do anything for Dalton- anything to make him stay. To make sure he would never leave me. I loved him fiercely , with a love that was deep and unbreakable. I loved him with the desperate love of a child who thinks she’s a woman, simply because he made me feel special. At the time, I was certain that one day, he and I would be married and settle down in our own little house, living together peacefully for the rest of our lives.
How wrong I was, how silly and blinded by my own pride. I sat on the porch all morning, glowing with happiness, imagining the beaming smile I would give him as he walked down the dusty lane. Then I would place his gentle hands on my belly, and he would know . He would twirl me around, laughing, and we would go straight to the courthouse.
I waited...and waited...and waited. The sun climbed higher and higher into the brightening sky, and as it rose, my heart sank low. He never came. He never would come. The sympathetic mailman told me that he’d left and gone up north, talking about “acting against segregation” or some such nonsense.
That’s when I knew. He’d left me...forever. He was never coming back. Yet, still I waited, and the months passed. I lied to Aunt Lula, joking that I was just gaining weight. She believed me...at first. As time passed, it became apparent that she knew the truth. How could she not know? But she remained silent, and said nothing- for that, I was very grateful.
Dalton’s son was born. I named him after his father. I received several offers of courtship, and then of marriage; I rejected them all. Little Dalton grew into a fine boy. Still, I waited. My whole life, I waited for him. Aunt Lula died, and still I waited. My baby Dalton became a young man with a household of his own, and still I waited. My grandchildren- they played on my lap and tugged at my long, gray braids streaked with brown, and still, I waited.
Someone knocked at my door one summer evening. I was making a pot full of pea soup for supper. Untying my apron and giving the pot a final stir, I shuffled towards the door of the house I had been living in since I was a child. Aunt Lula had left it to me in her will. I turned the doorknob, and the rusty hinges squeaked as I cracked the door open. Squinting to see who it was in the dying light, my eyes suddenly widened. I let out a sharp gasp, and the ladle I was still carrying in my hand fell to the floor with a clang.
I knew, without a doubt, that it was him. His face was… grayer, somehow. Wrinkles lined his smiling eyes. Hair sprinkled with salt and pepper. But his hands remained the same. Just as warm and comforting, they reached out and enveloped my own trembling hands, small and cold.
As delicate tears rolled down my stricken face and splattered onto the rough wood of the porch, he spoke- I did not hear him. I merely stared over his head at the smoke curling up from the red brick chimneys all over town, disappearing into the darkening sky. I do not know how long we stood there, hand in hand, as dusk approached and the sun began to melt. All I can remember is that, long after the sky lost its light and day faded into night, we stood there- both of us, together, just like before.
And somewhere among the chaos of my muffled sobs and his desperate apologies, a sharp slap was heard echoing across the porch, and the blood red outline of my fingers stood out clearly across his pale cheek . “Never come back,” I whispered and the old rickety house moaned in protest as I slammed the door in his pained face before collapsing in a heap on the cold, cold floor.