Note to Our Readers: The Imaginary Family Project short story collection may occasionally contain adult themes or situations due to the framework of the project and the various paths our authors take. However, the content will not contain lewd or explicit material. We suggest that this particular entry is better suited for adult readers. Thank you ~ The Editor
External Photo Clues:
“Hey Boo, look this a way. Come on. Look at your Maw Maw. Smile big. This is for your Momma. Smile.”
Mrs. Gracie felt sure she got it, the perfect shot to send off to Eugenia so her daughter could see just how big her little boy was getting to be.
There were 18 pictures left on the roll. Well, she would just have to use up the rest of the role so she could get the photographs back from the drug store to go out in the Monday mail.
Mrs. Gracie looked over at Boo, the garden hoe long forgotten, squatting with his heels firmly planted in the ground, examining some grub he had unearthed.
“You stay just where your are, Boo. Maw Maw is just going in to fix us some lunch.”
Mrs. Gracie turned and headed to the back door. A robin was perched on the pump handle. Click. “Eugenia sure will like that one.” Boo had placed Teddy on the rocking chair so the bear could watch him working in the yard. Click. “And that one, too.”
The ground was hard and dry and bleached grey. The Oklahoma sun had baked a pale crust over the layered river silt below. Cornell lifted the garden hoe high overhead and brought it down, smack, breaking the surface and slicing into softer soil beneath. He raked the hoe toward him to loosen the dirt.
“Yeah, Mrs. Gracie sure was lucky,” thought Cornell, “No red clay in her yard like on our side of town.” He lifted the hoe, struck down again, and again, and again. His mind moved, flew out of Shawnee, and slowed to a drift once it crossed the state line out of Oklahoma, ambling through the gentle Arkansas hills and Mississippi’s piney woods, speeding to get the hell out of Alabama, and settling in to his cousin’s house in Georgia.
He’d be moving there in the fall. Yes siree. It would be Atlanta and Morehouse College for him. He’d live at his Auntie’s. With his scholarship and the money he’d earn doing yard work, he could make through the first year.
Cornell lifted the hoe again. “Each and every time, I make me a dime.” Smack. “Each time I hoe, I make a little mo’.”Thwack. “When I make some mo’, then I’m going to go.” Smack. “The time goes by, then I’m gonna fly.”Shwack. The sun, the soil, and sing songing made the time pass right over, past sweat and blisters, past thirst and hunger.
Cornell stopped singing and looked up to see a young lady holding out a large tumbler. It was beaded with sweat that was beginning to drip down its sides promising that what it contained was as cool as he was hot.
“Momma figured you could use some sweet tea.”
“Thank you. Mrs. Gracie sure is thoughtful,” he said reaching out as he leaned on the hoe.
“I’m Eugenia. Nice song.” The girl’s eyes were laughing, but her smile was kind.
Cornell flushed. “It helps the time pass. I didn’t know anyone was around, Miss Eugenia.”
“I know. I’ve been here a while. Honestly, it was pretty funny. Her smile broke past the corners of her mouth into a giggle.
Cornell flew up atop the clothes pole and looked down on this pretty, young White lady giggling at a silly, sing songing Negro standing in a naked garden plot and began to laugh himself. He came back down and offered a little soft shoe flourish to his act, kicking up a little dirt just to finish the scene.
Eugenia’s giggle broke into a laugh.
“The name is Cornell, but you can call me ‘Corny’.”
“Momma cut some sandwiches. They’re on the back porch when you get hungry.”
“Well, you give Mrs. Gracie one big thank you from me. No time like the present. Cornell laid down the hoe and raised his glass. “Cheers.” He put the glass to his lips. Cool sweet tea washed down his throat.
Eugenia took a long, deep draw on her cigarette and settled back into the couch. The green marbled naugahyde was stiff. It did not embrace her body the way the overstuffed sofa at home would or the way Corny’s arms would when she lay back in them. She watched smoke billow out of her mouth and imagined fire inside her, right in the pit of her belly. She tried to think about what could be fueling the fire. What could be left inside her to burn?
Another drag, not so deep this time. She did not want to actually catch on fire. It was enough just to breathe in and out, stir the ashes a bit, but no, do not disturb all that stuff inside, burnt long ago, trying to turn back into earth, into something fertile like the garden Corny had planted for her Momma or the life he had planted in her.
Of course, Momma had been beyond furious when she found out, but she knew what had happened could not be undone.
“You’ll have to marry. We can cross the boarder to Kansas where Negroes can marry with Whites. Cornell can meet us there. You just have to keep it a secret until we can move north to Wichita.”
Eugenia took the cigarette from her lips and used it to poke at the ashes in the black plastic ashtray. Then she crushed the butt down in the pool of grey ash, extinguishing every last cinder. The nurse, who had been shuffling through papers at the station by the door, looked up.
“Eugenia, ten minutes until OT.”
Eugenia stood and walked to the plate window. She looked down over the grounds of State Central Sanitorium and off to the patients working the rows of pleached trees in the orchard. It was under the mulberry tree that Corny had first kissed her. Eugenia was gathering mulberries for a cobbler she was baking for the church social. The low branches were bare and she could reach no higher. She called over to Cornell for a hand. He lay down the swing blade he was using to whack at the grass and gave a salute in Eugenia’s direction. He started toward the tree at a gallop, hand slapping his thigh, “Giddyap!” pulling up close in front of her.
“At your service, Miss.”
Cornell began to reach at the higher branches. Eugenia rounded to the shady side of the tree, sat, and dipped into the mulberries. She listened to Cornell’s sing songing nonsense, “A mulberry for you, a mulberry for me. Here we are underneath the mulberry tree.” Silly boy. She would show him. She took a plump mulberry and dragged it across her mouth, purple-red staining her lips.
She sprang out from behind the tree, “BOO!”
Cornell jumped back, spilling the mulberries from the jar.
“You know what? I’m calling you ‘Genie’ from now on, because that’s what you are. Always popping in out of nowhere and making mischief. Yes siree. My little Genie.”
They both knelt down to gather the spilled berries. And that was when it happened. Face to face, they caught each other’s eye, and it just happened.
“My, those are the sweetest lips I ever did kiss,” Cornell breathed.
“Well, thank goodness I put on my mulberry lipstick before going out this morning.”
They both laughed and finished refilling the jar.
Eugenia never knew how anyone in town found out she and Corny were married. Cornell was off at college in Georgia when Boo was born. Little Boo did not look like a Negro baby at all with his straight, shiny black hair and button nose. Of course, she and Momma had suffered from the sideways looks and hissed whispers that whipped around the town. But they kept their secret, planning and preparing for their move to Kansas. And Boo, he was beautiful and innocent. They would be long out of Oklahoma before society could make its mark on him.
Corny came home from school that first summer changed and grown but still Corny. He worked for Mrs. Gracie in the garden and helped with odd jobs about the yard. Eugenia kept Boo out in the back yard as much as possible for the fresh air and so his Daddy could see him, even if he couldn’t hold him. Yet.
When it happened, when they took him, Cornell was finishing the last bit of weeding out back in the vegetable garden. Mrs. Gracie, Eugenia, and Boo were cooling off on the porch swing up front. They saw a police car go speeding up the side street, lights circling, the sirens silent.
“No! No! Leave your hands off me. Mrs. Gracie, come quick,” they heard Cornell call out, panic in his voice. They ran around to the back of the house in time to see two policemen pulling a handcuffed Cornell toward the police car.
“See here,” Mrs. Gracie said rushing up to the car, “What are you doing? Where are you taking this young man? He works for me.”
“You’ll have to take that up with the judge, Ma’am. Someone has made a complaint against this boy.” The officer was firm in his voice and firmer still as he shoved Cornell into the back of the car. “He’ll be up at the county jail.”
“Cornell, don’t you worry. I will get my lawyer. We shall find out just what kind of mistake has been made,” Mrs. Gracie assured him. Eugenia watched with scared eyes as the policemen closed the door on Corny. She could see fear in his eyes too, but he managed a wobble of his head and one of his silly grins. Genie shot him a smile as he was driven away.
Mrs. Gracie arrived at the county jail the next morning to meet her lawyer there and get to the bottom of this. At the counter, she asked to see Cornell Barrens. The clerk looked a little surprised.
“He’s not here, Ma’am. They took him last night.
“What! Her head lowered. Who? Where?”
“I don’t know exactly, some State Troopers, not ones I’d seen before. They said they had orders to transfer him to Cleveland County.”
“That cannot be right. When Mr. Tuttle arrives, he will straighten this out,” she retorted, trying to quell the unease she felt over the whole situation.
Mr. Tuttle never did figure it out. The Shawnee News-Star reported the next morning that a young Negro man was found hanging from a tree on rural road east of town.
The nurse handed Eugenia a thick manila envelope. She turned it over to see the return address. Momma. Genie slowly slipped her finger under the back flap, carefully rocking back and forth coaxing the seal apart. She pulled the stack of photographs out. There was Boo, in overalls, sweet dark eyes looking straight at her, his small hands wrapped around the handle of a hoe, breaking ground on their new garden in Kansas. By summer’s end, Eugenia and Boo would be picking tomatoes, Mrs. Gracie canning, and Corny looking down on them all.
Maw Maw. Come. Smile Maw Maw. Up. Want up. Smile. I your Boo Boy. Smile. Momma? Apple, Momma Apple. Momma? Up apple.
About The Author:
Odette Horton currently works as an academic advisor at a state university. She has taught 7th grade language arts at a public middle school in New Orleans. In her own words: “I would like to try my hand at creative writing and feel there is something in the concept of this project that gives an interesting perspective: You are invited to write as if you know the people in the photos, providing a kind of intimacy, yet you really don’t know them, providing creative freedom.”
Authoring For The Imaginary Family Project:
Are you interested in “finding” one of our lost vintage photos by authoring a story?
Please visit this link:
Imaginary Family Project Author Request Form
About The Imaginary Family Project:
The 2011 Imaginary Family Project is a year-long collective art endeavor coordinated by occasional amateur artist Quentin Bomgardner and co-sponsored by The Red Dirt Chronicles. This project is based around “lost” vintage photographs, which have been acquired at flea markets, garage sales, estate sales, and eBay – heirloom collections, with no heir. Every week a different author will “find” one photograph by creating an imagined history around one of its subjects. At the end of the year, the collection will be compiled and presented as a group.