Hot, angry, and impatient, I had wandered half-way down the tree-lined block, waiting for my co-worker to finish up. She had a few more photographs to take, and the open road beckoned. We had covered the Memorial Day groundbreaking ceremony for a much-anticipated seventy-million-dollar opera house and performing arts theatre in one of the poorest states in the country. My state of jadedness was at an all-time high.
I have no gripe with opera, or the arts in general, but more than three hundred thousand children were living in poverty in this southern state. Nothing in the legislature’s proposals even hinted at a willingness to address the narrow moral standards that ignored the realities of the poor and disenfranchised. In fact, just the opposite.
My job was a feature story that stroked the egos of the bejeweled patrons of the arts, interviewing them as they sipped champagne and embraced one another in mock affection. Were they culpable? Maybe not, but these folks were receiving credit for what was touted as the revitalization of the city. I kept a running mental tally of how that money might better be used. With my mood, I was probably about as fun as a funeral, and that’s what I found—quite by accident.
A shiny, black hearse sat at the curb in front of the First Baptist Church. Perfumed, chilled air wafted out of the wide-open doors, along with muted organ music, and it beckoned me inside. I waited until my eyes adjusted to the dark, and when they did, I could see that the church was empty but for a small gathering in the front pews and an open casket at the altar. Not wanting to intrude on a family’s grief, I stopped just inside the doorway and saw that I was wrong: there was one other occupant—a young woman seated alone in the last pew. When our eyes met, she scooted over to make room and patted the space beside her. I sat down.
“How come you’re way back here?” I asked. “Did you not know the deceased?”
“Oh, I knew her, I guess,” she said, “but not real good.”
She was petite, probably in her late teens, with her hair straightened and held back with a tortoiseshell clip. Not dressed for a funeral, her summer dress looked to be maybe a size too small, and I could see that her shoes were scuffed and dusty. She leaned forward with her arms wrapped around her middle.
“Is the service for someone’s grandmother? Or grandfather?” I asked. It seemed logical.
She smiled, indulging my ignorance. Her face was unlined by age but it revealed a wisdom borne of travails that I, in my whiteness, would never know. “No ma’am,” she said, “she nobody’s grandma. Not old enough for that.”
I saw that we had identified the deceased’s gender. “Well, how old was she?”
“Not old ‘nuff,” she replied. “Tha’s her baby brother and sister foolin’ around up there, see the ones nobody payin’ any attention to? And her mama the one doin’ all the wailin’—a little late, I’m thinkin’.”
I could see some younger children playing—a boy maybe seven or eight and an even younger girl—and there were several adults, both men and women, all dressed in black, embracing the woman that had been identified by my pew mate as “mama.” The woman looked more like grandmother to me.
“So you know her family,” I said. It wasn’t quite a question, but I was growing more curious. It was an occupational hazard.
“Yes ma’am, I do know ‘em, for sure,” she said. “I know all a them. They all real sorry now that Cheryl gone, but none a them rose up when she needed help.”
“What kind of help?”
“Well, Cheryl, she got herself knocked up—‘scuse me, ma’am—I’m sorry for my language.”
“Not at all.”
“Well, and nothing to be done about it, even though she tried awful hard. Her real mama been dead nearly four years now; her mama’s mama been raisin‘ Cheryl and the babies up. Mama and the aunties, they all good Christians, and all claiming nobody can know God’s will.”
“Cheryl told you this?”
“Yes, ma’am,” she continued, “but Cheryl, she was determined to have a different future from her people. She was always a reader, you see, and her counselor at Andrew Jackson High School, Miss Tennyson, she said Cheryl had an ‘innate intelligence that needed to be nurtured’.” She made air quotes with gnawed-off nails. “So Miss T she ‘went to bat’ for Cheryl and got her an interview with some official college person to ‘talk about her future’.”
I could almost see the well-meaning Miss Tennyson grieving yet another hope dashed by systemic injustice. I started to say I was sorry, but my new friend pressed on.
“A course, Miss T didn’t know nothin ... anything ... about Cheryl’s miseries. See Cheryl, she so smart, so sure she could fix it before graduation on June sixth.”
“You don’t have to call me ma’am, you know.”
She nodded, folded her hands in her lap, and grew quiet. Maybe she knew Cheryl better than she was letting on.
“What happened?” I asked. Why I thought this young person would continue to confide in me, I’m not sure.
“Well,” she continued, “since her family wasn’t goin’ to help, she asked her boyfriend. Marcus might a had some money stashed. He was lookin’ to get out a here as soon as he could, too. They talked about it together. But no help there. Then one girl Cheryl knew told her about a pregnancy test center she could get to by bus in a half day where she could verify for sure that she was pregnant and then maybe they would refer her.”
I guessed this youngster might be “the girl Cheryl knew.” It made sense. But I knew about these pregnancy test centers with their flashy billboards. They promoted themselves as a “safe haven and a non-judgmental environment,” but I was skeptical about their intent. My conversations with staff and sources had confirmed that the centers’ not-so-secret agenda was to discourage termination, and guilt was their weapon—a very effective one.
“Did they offer to refer her?” I asked.
“No, ma’am. They put her up on a table in a room that had a machine on a rollin’ cart and a screen pointed in her direction—like a small TV. There were posters of floatin’ babies all up and down the halls with little sayings on them talking about how now they have fingernails or now they can turn their head. She said she even saw a rubber doll on a shelf she figured they were ‘bout to show her what was growing inside her belly. She jumped down off that table and left there right quick and went on back home.”
The family had begun to disperse, and I turned my head to watch. Four of the males were carrying the casket. Two women were propping up the matriarch identified as Mama. No one looked in our direction as they grew near, even though I figured some of them must know the friend of Cheryl’s I was seated with.
“What happened to her?” I asked softly as the procession approached.
Beside me, the youngster leaned close and whispered in my ear, “You can’t hardly find wire coat hangers anymore, you know, but her mama’s wedding dress, it was hangin’ on one. It might-a worked, might-n’ it?” She paused. “If she’d lived.”
I turned, but the pew was empty. I was alone at the back of the First Baptist Church.