A Matter of Life
(An emotional truth, details changed to protect someone whose life matters.)
“Spell it, first and last.” The slender black woman held a sheet of paper against the door frame. Impressions of previous visitors slanted across the grain. I looked at Samantha. Her lips didn’t move to offer any comfort. She leaned forward ever so slightly, then back. It wasn’t really a nod, more of a slow dance with feet firmly planted on the bottom porch step.
“Dancing,” she had once told me, “God doesn’t like us doing that. Brings on too many lustful feelings. That’s why we shouldn’t be holding hands either.” She turned away, “Or anything else.” The shadow of a sun hat fell across her freckled brown cheeks.
I spelled out my name.
“Address?” I glanced back but she seemed to notice some movement up in the oak leaves. A squirrel leapt from a branch to the gabled roof of the civil-war era house and clattered down the gutter. I gave my home address, the names of my parents, our phone number and told her my dad taught science up in Milwaukee. Years later an employer ran an FBI background check on me and I don’t think they were as thorough.
“That yours?” She eyed my car parked in the shade across the street. A boy was cutting the grass with a push mower.
“It’s dad’s ’67 American Motors Rebel. Made right here in Kenosha. It’s almost a classic now!”
“Hmm.” She held the pen in her left hand and wrote:
1967 AMC Rebel. License Wisconsin NCC-1701. Maroon hardtop. Rusty fenders, door and bumper.
I pointed, “The left side has even less rust because of the way snow plows…”
“Your dad should do something about that rust before it eats the whole car.” Samantha almost cracked a smile. Her tears of suppressed joy failed to put me at ease. Dad paid $200 for that car and took us out west along Route 66. I was in the back seat reading the part of the Grapes of Wrath where Tom Joad’s truck threw a bearing when that car did the same thing.
“Step into the hallway a minute. It’s nice to finally meet you Michael, I’m Iris,” her handshake was firm and brief. “Where are you gonna take our daughter tonight?” I glanced into the living room and saw her husband sitting in a green plaid recliner reading the Kenosha News. He appeared as I imagined an art history professor would, balding with a tan suit and thick eyeglasses. He taught at Carthage, the kind of private Lutheran college that would reuse the same two or three foreign exchange students in their brochure to give the illusion of cultural diversity. I once asked Samantha what she was doing in a community college psychology class if she could go to Carthage for free. She said she never felt that she belonged there.
At the time I had believed religion was the only barrier between us. Her church was an intense Baptist sect without the jazz organ or any other musical instruments. “Only human voices,” she had said, “Like in biblical times.” I started to ask about psalms and psaltries, trumpets and Jericho but she held her finger to her lips and reminded me about faith. Pastor DeShawn projected a diagram of faith during one of his sermons. It showed faith as a river that flowed from the Holy Spirit through each of us. I didn’t ask whether there were overhead projectors in biblical times.
She only visited my church once and winked back at the stares of an elderly white congregation who had never ventured south of the river. She whispered, “Exactly how many syllables are there in Haaaal-lee-e-luuuu-jah?” Ms. Klemp pounded out the notes on a vacuum tube organ that occasionally spoke in the voice of my friend Ralph, swearing on his C.B. radio. God I wish I’d never told him that.
Professor Reeves lowered his newspaper enough to give me a curt nod. “You two gonna miss the game tonight?” He turned the page, comfortable with his wife’s role as keeper of his daughter’s virginity. And mine.
“We’re going to a movie.”
“Uh huh. What movie?” A mantle clock on top of the television clanged to remind me that we would miss the opening credits.
“Star Trek. It’s playing at the drive-in out on Sheridan road.”
“What is that rated?”
I tried to hide a smirk by laughing at a used car commercial on the TV. I was seventeen before my parents let me see my first R rated movie. But this was two years later and Samantha was at least a year older than me. “Well?” Her mother crossed her arms and looked at me like I was some kind of a…
“It’s rated G.” I said.
“Alright. And if the fog rolls into that drive-in theater I’ll know it because we’re closer to the lake here. You all come home then.” She was speaking to Samantha but looking at me.
The movie went on after the moon rose over Lake Michigan but Samantha wasn’t a Trekkie. I suppose that was another religious difference between us and this was not the movie to convert anyone. The smell of leaked transmission oil and burned popcorn added nothing to its plot of a human-machine romance. I shooed a mosquito out the window and put the tin speaker back on the post so we could talk.
She unclipped her seatbelt and turned towards me. “What are you thinking?”
I never did know how to answer that so I said, “I started painting my aunt’s fence today. It’s kind of fun. You wanna come help?”
“OK Tom Sawyer. What color?”
“White.” Samantha’s hands were folded on her lap. “You’d like Aunt Edna. Her dad was a Southern Baptist missionary on the Kiowa reservation past the end of the trail of tears. Family rumor is that she’s part Cherokee so she might be kin to your African-Irish-Cherokee ancestors!”
“Hmm, so you’re sayin’ we’re cousins? Dang it.” She gave me a pouty frown that lasted about two seconds before her eyes shone and we both burst into laughter so loud the car behind us honked its horn.
Aunt Edna would have liked Samantha but her father baptized her as white and she became a segregationist. When I told her I met a girl from Kenosha, she stopped pulling weeds for a moment and said, “You know Michael, there’s plenty of good Christian girls up here on the North side.”
I asked Samantha, “Where in the bible does it say that different races shouldn’t be together?” She didn’t know but thought maybe people had read it into the tower of Babel story.
When the movie ended I drove her home and parked where a street light cast the shadow of a dying Elm tree. We talked about our different faiths and our hopes. She reminded me that the two of us were the only developmental psychology students who weren’t pregnant. We talked about forever. The fog began to roll in and there was almost enough light to see her face soften when I told her I planned to go away for my last two years of college. She whispered something into the darkness and said, “I’d better go.”
Just before I walked you to your front steps we stopped and you reached out and held my hand. It was only a moment to touch and listen to the slow purr of crickets before the porch light came on and you let go.
We parted with a letter neither of us wanted to read or write. I understand now why you couldn’t follow me to that college town or on to the Florida village where I spent a seven year long summer and rarely saw anyone with skin darker than the pale beach sand.
I thought of you when I saw the news. It happened two blocks from your quiet street. It was on the corner of a road named after General Sheridan, a man known for scorched earth and for remarking that the only good Indians he had ever seen were dead.
On this night people screamed hate at one another. To some “Black lives matter” was a slogan and a human rights movement. But these armed vigilantes had been told that it was a threat to their way of life. They had believed that the guns they held would protect them.
Anyone who lives in your old neighborhood would have heard the gunshots. Two men were killed, a third tried to shoot back and nearly lost his arm. A youth will spend much of his life in prison. The survivor will have life-changing disabilities.
What if “Black Lives Matter” is a blessing? What if it’s a prayer I can ask of God when our homeland has strayed so terribly far from its promise and this memory disappears as the last warm breath at summer’s end.
I’m no longer part of your life but I understand now why your mother tried so hard to protect you.
Your life matters.