In 1961 Charlotte, North Carolina, the predominantly black neighborhood of Brooklyn is a bustling city within a city. Self-contained and vibrant, it has its own restaurants, schools, theaters, churches, and night clubs. There are shotgun shacks and poverty, along with well-maintained houses like the one Loraylee Hawkins shares with her young son, Hawk, her Uncle Ray, and her grandmother, Bibi. Loraylee’s love for Archibald Griffin, Hawk’s white father and manager of the cafeteria where she works, must be kept secret in the segregated South.
Loraylee has heard rumors that the city plans to bulldoze her neighborhood, claiming it’s dilapidated and dangerous. The government promises to provide new housing and relocate businesses. But locals like Pastor Ebenezer Polk, who’s facing the demolition of his church, know the value of Brooklyn does not lie in bricks and mortar. Generations have lived, loved, and died here, supporting and strengthening each other. Yet street by street, longtime residents are being forced out. And Loraylee, searching for a way to keep her family together, will form new alliances—and find an unexpected path that may yet lead her home.
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Down in the gully Little Sugar whispers, sliding through the night like a ghost. On a pretty day it calls my boy to it. If I don't catch Hawk first, he'll be halfway to Pearl Street, a bucket in one hand, a net made from a stocking in the other, bent on frogs or crawdads or whatever pulls him down to where that creek lives. He's breathing steady in his bed across the room, not knowing how slippery the mudbank gets in early March, how quick the water could drag him under.
Uncle Ray's chickens clucking in their coop. Day coming on. Got to rouse Hawk soon, get him fed and dressed. Bibi, my grand, say when he was born, "Enjoy him being a baby, Raylee. It won't last." He's six now, long legs, knobby knees, in first grade.
I walked to Myers Street School with him for a week last September to be sure he knows the way. I tell him about traffic lights, got to look up and down the street before he crosses, use the tunnel under the boulevard. We leave the house and he takes my hand — his small in mine — tugging on me to stop so he can holler, "Hey!" to Dooby Franklin next door or Jonny No Age, waving to us from his delivery van, or Mayrese Hemphill, heading downtown in a new coat and hat.
At the corner of South Myers, Hawk tilts back his head to stare at the school building, two stories, chimneys on top. We go inside, down a rackety hall to a room that's different day to day because Miss Madison keeps changing the maps and pictures she hangs on the walls, sets the desks in rows one day, a circle the next. She is short and full built, in dresses that hug her waist and stretch tight across her backside. Hawk say she smells good. She calls me Mrs. Hawkins, thinking a mother must be married.
The day I drop in to take Hawk his lunch he forgot, I see him leaning against Miss Madison, her hand on his back, like he's special to her.
Now he gets to school on his own, with Desmond, his friend that lives behind us. I stand out front and watch him going away from me. Slim, like his daddy, his round head bobbing while he talks to himself the way he does, then around the corner and out of sight.
* * *
I'm with a bunch of people under the awning on the Square, trying to stay out of the rain. Most days I walk home from my job at the S&W, saving the bus fare. Unless it's a drencher like today. I got a paper bag tucked under my arm for when I have to get off the other side of the boulevard.
A white man in the crowd say, "No justice in that," in a loud voice. He wants people to hear him, making me glad I don't know what he means so I won't get riled. I board behind him and speak to Gus, been driving for the city most of his life, always say, "Hey, Loraylee," when I drop my dime in the box, his blue eyes shining beneath the bill of his cap.
The noisy man is on the bench seat next to the door, with a bunch of men going home from work. I walk on by. The mat that runs down the middle of the bus use to have a line on it and coloreds had to stay behind that line, like we wouldn't still be breathing the same air as the whites up front. All that changed when the lines disappeared four-five years ago. But I like the back of the bus, the long seat under the big window, even if I am allowed to ride up front now with those stiff-necked men in their hats and suits.
My stop is four blocks from home in the chilly rain. I hold the bag over my head, running from alley to alley through backyards, getting mud on my shoes, my legs, my uniform. I step over the magnolia branches that cover our front walk. Uncle Ray planted that tree when I was born and he say it's the prettiest one in Second Ward. I go up the sagging steps, drip on the mat, toss the wet bag on the rocker.
In the living room I call out, "Hey, y'all." Nobody home, not even Bibi. No telling where she is. Uncle Ray must of taken the umbrella and gone to meet Hawk, the kind sort of thing he does. Nice being alone in the house so I can shuck my uniform to the kitchen floor. Even my slip is soaked, my cold nipples showing through.
I get the percolator going for a cup of hot coffee, head for the room I share with Hawk, and there is Bibi, in Hawk's bed, under his plaid spread, snoring. If she sleeps all day, she'll be up all night, a problem for me or Uncle Ray, but I leave her be, put on dry clothes, empty the hamper to start a load before I fix supper. I toss the dirty clothes in the washer on the back porch, get it going. I like smelling soap powder instead of mildew or ashes, or the coal bucket by the door.
At the sink, popping leaves off a cabbage, I'm glad I have a clean uniform for tomorrow; that load of wash not gon dry in this damp house overnight. All us who work at the S&W wear uniforms, except Mr. Griffin. Retta Lawrence, my friend girl there, say uniforms save wear and tear. They sure save time, and S&W pays for them.
Bibi complains she always had to buy her own uniforms. Last lady she worked for docked her pay four dollars if she needed a new one. Bibi talks about that like it's yesterday, not two-three years ago. "Miz Easterling misplace something and she fire me, say, 'Girl, you stealing.' Then she kep those uniforms I paid for, like she gon get another maid same size."
Bibi's the one misplacing stuff, same as she does here. Without a reference from the Easterlings she couldn't find another job, but I come to like having her here with Hawk when he's not at school. Before she got so bad off I was afraid what she might forget next. Don't know what I'd do without Uncle Ray, Bibi's younger brother, keeping an eye on things when I'm at work.
The screen door scrapes the front porch. "Raylee!" Bibi shouts. How'd she get through the living room without me hearing her?
"Raylee!" She never say Loraylee, won't put the Lo in my name, which is for my Auntie Lorena. The way Bibi's mind is bent, a little bit sticking and a little bit not, maybe someday she'll forget she's mad at her sister.
I find her standing in the yard in the drizzling rain, stupid from not remembering why she's there. "Bibi, c'mon back inside. You getting soaked."
She grins like I've promised her ice cream. "Okay." I hate seeing her lose her sense, makes me want to take her shoulders and shake her and tell her try, you're not trying. But that would do no good.
I bring her up from the yard, onto the porch, and before I can get her through the door she settles into the rocking chair. "I loves to rock on a summer afternoon." I don't bother saying it's March and almost sundown, leave her rocking so I can get supper ready before Hawk gets home. He is fierce about food, like he'll never get another meal. Fast as he puts it down, he works it off running in the yard or making a fort under the magnolia or feeding Uncle Ray's chickens. Gon be tall like his daddy, judging by his feet. But except for his gray eyes and rusty hair, that boy is me, my high cheeks, my wide flat nose, my mouth.
I hear Uncle Ray and Hawk talking to Bibi, glad they're home, out of the rain.
We having hot dogs, which Uncle Ray favors. I make slaw and baked beans, chop onions, heat a can of Bunker Hill chili. The trick is opening the bottom of the can; all the fat rises to the top while it's been sitting on the shelf, and that grease tastes bad. Last thing is steaming the buns. Bibi likes a soft bun for her hot dogs, and Hawk wants everything exactly the way she does. I watch him next to her at the table, leaning on her arm, looking up at her to ask a question. She has got a temper since she started forgetting, but she's always gentle with Hawk.
* * *
I sit on the porch with Uncle Ray while Hawk helps Bibi do the dishes. The air is clean, cool, when the rain stops. Even the muddy street looks washed. Uncle Ray sets his glass of tea on the rail. His seventy-two years show in the wrinkles on his face, the skin hanging under his chin like a rooster. Bibi pushes food at him, trying to put some fat on his bones. But he's fit, can clear the yard after a storm if his lumbago isn't acting up.
The setting sun flows through the magnolia branches, making the ice in his glass sparkle. "Would you look at that?" He runs a hand over the top of his head where his scalp shows through, shiny walnut under a light snow. "Reminds me of when I saw the light." I know what's coming. I sit back in the rocker, stare down toward the creek.
"After I took that bad fall, I left this world, saw something like that sunbeam."
His tobacco sack, a box of wooden matches, and his pipe sit on a barrel between us. He tamps his pipe, puts it in his mouth, fires it up. "Dr. Wilkins brought me back and the light faded." He flicks the match over the rail to see how far it'll fly before it lands in the wet grass. "I was dead, don't you doubt it, but St. Peter wasn't calling yet." Puff, puff, smoke rising. "The light is what a baby sees when it squeals out from its mama. Souls get to start all over in a newborn child, don't you see?" He looks at me. "Death. Is. Birth." He gets up, goes down the steps toward the street, stopping to pick up the match.
"Mm-hmm," I say. "Maybe you're right."
Uncle Ray folds his long legs into a squat beside the walk, poking at the ground, smoke drifting from his pipe.
I look past him toward Watts Street, pulling the letter from my pocket.
Uncle Ray stands, stretches. "What you got there?"
"A notice from the City of Charlotte. We knew it was coming and here it is." I hold out the envelope.
He reaches for it, reads the front. "Mrs. Livinia Hawkins. Did you show it to Livvie?" Uncle Ray always calls Bibi by the nickname he's used since they were children.
"She wouldn't understand it."
"Dated February 28, 1961. Why have you been carrying it around for close to a month?"
I don't answer, just stare into the dusk. Out in the road a pole lamp comes on, glistening in puddles.
He sits careful on the steps, touches my foot. "We can't know how a thing's gon turn out."CHAPTER 2
The Reverend Ebenezer Gabriel Polk sat by his dining room window, staring at motes of dust in a sunbeam that fell across his Bible. He preferred the Revised Standard Version for his personal worship, felt it was the clearest word of God, though he had not convinced his flock of that.
The church's worn King James stayed at the pulpit, so he could read from it during sermons, as the congregation expected. The opening pages of the old Bible recorded the history of the church. St. Timothy's Second Presbyterian was Second Presbyterian Church Colored when it was founded in 1842. After the Civil War the elders elected to drop "Colored" and add St. Timothy. Why, he often wondered, with that pale saint's Catholic connections?
As he had done most of his life, he closed his eyes, wandered through the Bible, flipping pages. In his previous reading, he'd opened to Isaiah, where he was reminded to exalt the Lord and praise His name throughout all the earth. Such commands bothered him. Why would a deity need blatant worship that approached flattery? He varied his readings as much as possible, hoping for spiritual guidance. With his finger sliding down the inside column of the left page toward the end of the Bible, he opened his eyes enough to be sure he wasn't in Revelation, which he didn't like or trust or understand. At I Peter 4:7, he focused and began to read, "The end of all things is at hand; therefore keep sane and sober for your prayers."
The end of all things. Those graves. The sacred resting places that would now be uprooted, with him unable to stop the looming desecration. The oldest plots in the cemetery distressed him the most. Unmarked or poorly so, often only by a rock at head and foot, where several bodies might be in one site, given the way folks disposed of slave remains. But every one of them had souls that went on to heaven, according to what he'd been taught.
He flexed his right leg before standing, bracing himself on the mahogany table Nettie had brought to their marriage, waiting for the fiery throbbing in his knee to ease enough for him to fix lunch. "Arthritis has got me, dear girl," he said to the framed photo on the buffet. He loved that image of Nettie. They'd gone to the state fair, where a roving photographer caught her laughing at something he couldn't remember. Her mouth slightly open, sunlight on her curls.
Her death three years earlier still bewildered him. One day she didn't feel well and the next she was moaning in pain. Then she passed. That's how the progression of her illness felt to him. Dead at diagnosis, he'd overheard someone say at the hospital, and felt again that mix of grief and powerlessness. "Palliative care," her doctor had told him, adding, as if there were no way he could have understood, "she won't suffer." How could they know, those doctors with their needles and pills, whether his Nettie suffered? He'd sat by her bed for a month, held her, talked to her as if she could hear him, while she slipped away into ... what? His concept of heaven shifted during her final days and he could never again say with certainty that there was anything after this life.
Through the window he saw the backhoe sitting out on McDowell. Reason told him that even the greediest of developers wouldn't take such a machine into the graveyard to eat away at it, but the metal hulk sat there in an attitude of threat. At the last appointment with the city they'd said he had to decide on the options for moving the church. No, not options. The church had to move and there was no choice in that, but he could decide how it would be accomplished. They'd given him that much. He took their recommendations to the elders and the women's circle, which so far hadn't agreed on anything.
The phone rang. He limped around the dining table to answer it. His brother's voice rang out, "Hey, Neezer, whus up?"
Neezer, the childhood nickname that had once been his brand — back when a boy from his gang challenged, "Hey, man, whus yo brand?" and he proudly sang out, "Neezer!" His brother never called him anything else.
"I'm well, Oscar. You?"
"I found a man gon help you."
He was used to his older brother's sudden shifts. "What man, help me how?"
"He gon look at the graveyard for you."
"A white man."
"Who is this fellow?"
"He do annapology, some such, digging around where folks has lived a long time, seeing what's left."
"Sound about right."
"And where did you come on an anthropologist?"
"He hanging around Stone's, axing whus coming down in Brooklyn. Benjy and Hildie told him about the church, that the city gon move them graves. The man lit up like he know about such stuff. I tell him my brother's the preacher." He sniffed loudly. "Can't hurt to talk to him, even if he white."
"No, can't hurt."
"Catch you later, Neezer." And as suddenly as the conversation had begun, it ended.
Neezer. The nickname made him feel like a boy again, the same as when certain smells brought back memories. Wet pine boards after a long rain. Smoke from a coal fire. Oatmeal boiled with cinnamon, a frequent supper when he was a child. The iron tang of blood and a whiff of Clorox from the Dutch Cleanser his mother used, trying to scrub away the stains. But the faint brown splotches were still there, the last time he'd seen the floor of the front hall in their shotgun house on East Second Street.
"Oscar? Ebenezer? Supper!" He crawled out of the culvert, his head cocked, listening. "C'mon, Oscar, she mean it!" His brother's skin was the color of midnight, making him invisible in the depths of the concrete runoff drain for Little Sugar. Their favorite hiding place during games of hoods and pigs, even if the other boys knew it and would find them there eventually. He ran up East Second toward home, calling back to his brother, "I ain't gon catch no whupping like you is."
At the house, he crouched and jumped over the three front steps, landing flat on both feet on the stoop, which shook under his tennis shoes. "I'm home, Mama!" He opened the screen door wide, let it slam against the unpainted siding. "I'm home!"
His mother called from the kitchen, "Any fool could hear that. Get on in here."
In the kitchen, Mama stirred something on the hotplate. He said, "Oscar ain't with me, he in the —" He stopped short. His brother sat at the kitchen table, grinning.
"Hey, Neezer. You seed a ghost?"
"How you do that, get home before me? You was still in the pipe."
Mama cuffed his head. "Y'all don't mess around in that creek. I tole you."
Behind her back, his brother stuck out his tongue.
"We didn't go much in the pipe, Mama, only the mouth of it."
She took a steaming pot off the two-burner hotplate. "Y'all remember the Cookley boys, last year? Both of 'em lost in that creek."
"Shouldna gone in it with rain coming," said Oscar. "We not stupid like no drownded Cookley boys."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Tomorrow's Bread"
Copyright © 2019 Anna Jean Mayhew.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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