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African American Fiction Historical Fiction

I was ten years old when I ran away to join the circus.  The lady who worked from the state came and explained to me what was going to happen to me after my mother died giving birth to my brother Abel. My father had gone north to Alaska to find work, but we hadn’t heard from him in almost a year. 

“Martin Landover.” She addressed me with a smile, “You will be placed at Harper’s Home for Boys. I have a flier for you to look at.” 

She placed the glossy brochure in front of me.  I glanced at it.  It had pictures of boys and girls having a good time, but I had a feeling it was a scam.  One afternoon on the playground at school, Brody told me that state placements were like a prison, because his cousin Willard had been sent to one of them. He told me that some of the whitecoats would chase him around and if they caught him, they would beat him with leather straps. 

“Doesn’t that look like a lot of fun.” She sang as I sat there silently staring at her. “Someone will come and pick you up in the morning.” 

“Alright.” I nodded as she took the brochure and put it in her bag.

“We will see you in the morning, Martin.” He tussled my hair before leaving. Once she was out the door, I ran to my room and packed all my worldly possessions into a suitcase I stored under my bed.  Clicking the latches on the beat-up old traveling bag, I shut off the lights and walked out the front door into the dark.

When I walked out the door, I became what was known back then as the King of the Rail.  It was what I would later call the Great Depression and I was just one of an army of folks who were forced to become travelers of the rail.  I must be honest, leaving was not the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life.  I was sad when Aunt Precellia took me to my mother’s funeral. 

“Marty, I wish I could take you in as a favor to my baby sister, Marie.” She went to one knee so she could look me in the eye.  She looked a lot like my mother when she smiled, “But Burt and I barely have enough to scrape by.  We can’t afford to feed another mouth. We have contacted the state.  Somebody should be stopping by soon. I am sorry about your ma and baby brother.  They are at peace with the Lord.”

She put her gloved hand on my cheek as tears flowed down my cheek.

“Come on Prissy, we gotta move along.” Uncle Jed tugged at Pricillia’s arm.

“Just a minute, Jed.” She shook her head, “You do what they tell ya, Marty.” 

“I will.” I promised.

But I would not keep my promise.  I did not want to go to a place where I was not wanted.  There was nobody there who wanted me.  Uncle Jed had always treated me as if I was some pickpocket from some alleyway, but the truth is, his pockets were empty except for his hip flask.  By the end of the day that too would be empty.  

My father had left our home in Jerome, Arizona when the mine he had bought failed to produce any substantial amount of copper.  Before he went north, my ma was pregnant with my brother, Abel, whom I would never get to know in this world.

The train ran out of Flagstaff.  Using my thumb, I hitched until I arrived there a day later.  One of the drivers along Highway 66 talked about the socialist in the white house as he put his hand on my knee working his fingers due north on my leg.  I brushed his hand away, but like a pesky bug, it landed on my knee once again. He tipped his hat when I got out of his Ford pickup near the rail station in Flagstaff. I shuddered and took my suitcase.  

“Hey kid, you wanna head east.” A dark skinned Coleman Porter greeted me at the bench in front of the depot.

“Yessir.” I looked up at him.  Dressed in his whitecoat and cap, he seemed like a giant with his wide shoulders and gigantic head placed on his portly frame.

“Whacha gonna do when ya gets there?” He laughed.

“I’m gonna join the circus.” I squinted with the unrelenting sun in my eyes.

“I was gonna do that too.” His laugh came from a place deep inside his belly. “Instead I came to work for the rail.  Y’all gonna be a tightrope walker?” He gave a casual shrug.

“Clown.” I answered.

“Oh, I see.” He leaned back and shook his head, “This country is wide and a chile like you could easily get lost. You gocha a ticket?”

“No sir.” I shook my head.

“How ya ‘s’pect to get there?” He took a deep breath.

“I get in a box car and ride for a while.” 

“Dat so?  Hmpt, seems to me a dangerous thing to do.” He glanced at me.

“My ma’s dead and so is my baby brother.” I told him.

“So sorry to hear that.” He sounded genuinely sympathetic, more than anyone I had contact with since my mother died. “If’n I sees ya get on a train, I has a duty to call the police.” 

“Don’t do that, please.” I pleaded.

“Why not he’p me out here.” He shrugged.

“I could.” I nodded.

“Otis, time to get a move on.” Someone called out from inside the depot.

“Dat be me.” He winked. “Wanna be my shada?”

“Yessir.” I stood up and followed him inside the depot.

“Gotta load Engine Number 17.” A skinny man with an unbuttoned blue jacket pointed to a pile of suitcases. 

“Got me a helper.” He pointed at me.

“Otis, this is no place for a child.” The man shook his head.  His glasses set at the end of his long skinny nose nearly fell off.

“It be okay, Randy.” He smiled and put his arm around me.  Unlike the man who drove me here, he did not seem to have any malicious intent.  His hand upon my shoulder was warm and welcoming. “Whacha name, boy?”

“Marty.” I answered.

“Marty?  I’m Otis Kendall.  I’ve worked here for almost twenty years.” He threw the bags on the wheeled cart.

“Be careful with my bags.” A red faced man warned Otis, “My bags had better make it to Chicago this time.” 

“Yessir, I will make sure.” Otis nodded. 

“He seemed mean.” I whispered as soon as the man stormed off.

“Folks sometimes don’t know how to talk to folks, Marty.” He seemed sad as he said this. “I wish they would on account it would make things a whole lot easier.” 

I helped him pile the bags on the cart and once all the bags were in place, he put his back into pushing the cart whose wheels dug into the wooden floor making it difficult to move it.  I helped by adding my small effort and the cart began to move.

“Thank ya, Marty.” He chuckled as the cart clunked across the uneven floor.

“Hey dere, Otis, I sees ya got some help.” A man wearing a Coleman's jacket reading a newspaper on the bench near the tracks waved.

“Indeed I do, Albie.” He said proudly as he stopped the cart near an open door on the baggage cart, “Dis be the place.  You gets inside and I toss up the bags.” 

I did what he instructed me to do and within a few minutes all the bags were on board the train. 

“She be leavin’ in about twenty minutes.” He grabbed the handle and closed the door to the train car. “Headed for Chicago.” 

“Maybe I will go there.” I said.

“What for?” An expression of sadness overcame his face. “You gots no home.”

“State lady was supposed to take me to Harper’s Home.” I announced as I stared down at my shoes with a big hole near the toe.

“Ain’ no place for no young’un.” He put his hand on his chin and slowly shook his head. “I stays in a boarding house up on that hill there.” He pointed. “Maybe I can talk Louisa into lettin’ ya stay.”

“What’s it like in Chicago?” I asked.

“Ain’ no place for no young’un neither.” He shook his head again. “Place is full of crime and no good folks.” 

“I can’t stay here.” I dug my hands into the pockets of my trousers. 

“Kid, y’all can stay with me.” He put his arm around my shoulder.

I worked for the rest of the afternoon, loading and unloading luggage from the trains, but he told me about his life in Alabama as a boy where having dark skin was not considered a good thing.  He talked about some guy named Jim Crow and I thought it was strange that a black crow would have something against people with dark skin.  Aunt Precillia always talked about the darkies and how shifty and lazy they were.  Uncle Jed talked about Klan meetings.  It wasn’t until much later I understood what he was talking about. 

Louisa Rawlings was a large lady and if I didn’t know better, I would have swore she was his kin.  The house was a two story Victorian painted baby blue on the outside, but inside it was warm and smelled of good home cooking.  When I first met her, Louisa came into the foyer wiping her hands on a soiled apron with a big smile pasted on her face, “Otis, glad ya made it in time for dinner.  And who is this handsome young man?” She squatted down to look me in the eye.

“Marty.” I said in a tiny voice.

“Marty?” She put her finger to the corner of her mouth.

“He be my helper all af-ernoon.” Otis hung up his jacket on a coat rack near a staircase with a heavy oak rail.  

“I reckon he be in need of a good dinner.” She stood up running her large hands through my hair.

“Yessum.” I nodded.

“I pay extra for him.” Otis tilted his head.

“No such thing.” Louisa shook her head. “I has an extra cot. I put it in yar room, big man.” 

“You an angel.” He kissed her on the cheek.  I had never seen a man kiss any woman on the cheek that wasn’t his wife. 

“Go on in.  Dinner’s on the table.” She jerked her head toward the kitchen. “And make sure this strong man gets his fair share.” 

She was talking about me.  I was the strong man.  I wish I could have been with my ma when she went to meet Jesus.  Maybe if I was so strong, I could have kept her from going away.

There were three men sitting at a large table in a nicely decorated room.  One of the men had dark skin with white hair atop his head.  He gave me a sour look as he asked, “And who might you be?” 

“Marty Landover.” I answered, reaching for a warm biscuit.

“Manners, boy.” He scowled.

“I see ya met Mr. Swanson.” Otis sat in the empty chair next to me. “We don’t get food until we say a blessing.” 

“A blessing?” 

“Sure, sure, to give thanks to God for this meal before us.” Mr. Swanson said as a smile slowly came to his face.

“Bud Swanson isn’t such a bad fella.” One of the men sitting at the table shrugged. “My name is Clyde Manning half Negro half Apache.”

“Careful boy, he’ll take your scalp when you’re not looking.” The third man chuckled.

“Keep it to ya-self, Noah.” Clyde pointed at Noah.

“Son, I’m Noah Beecher.  Happy to meecha.” He held out his hand and despite my father’s warnings about shaking a Negro’s hand, I felt the warmth when he wrapped my hand in his. 

After the blessing, we passed around platters of steaming fried chicken, biscuits and gravy with a helping of “greens” which I ate along with the rest of the meal.  Ma used to get on me about not eating my vegetables, but here I was eating every morsel on my plate.

“Dija enjoy that, Marty?” Louisa asked as she began to clear the plates from the table.

“Yes’um.” I immediately answered.  My enthusiastic response was met by her smile.

“Glad y’all enjoyed it.” She walked into the kitchen with her arms full of dishes.

“That Louisa is a great cook.” Bud Swanson winked as he moved the well-chewed toothpick in his mouth.

“I’ll say.” Noah agreed.

“Finest cook in Arizona.” Clyde patted his stomach.

I felt as if I had come home. Otis winked at me too as he lit a cigar.

“Mr. Kendall, what is my rule about smoking cee-gars in my dining room?” Louisa called out from the kitchen.

Otis rolled his eyes before answering, “Do not smoke it unlessen I gots one for you.” 

“Do ya?” 

“Right here, ma’am.” He answered as the others around the table snickered. 

Louisa emerged from the kitchen, took the unlit cigar Otis held in his hand and lit it using his lighter.  She sat down in her place and took a big puff..

“Got this lighter when I served in the Great War.” Otis held the silver lighter in his hands. “Weren’t no Negroes allowed to billet with us, but we got killed just like the white soljers.”

“I lost my brother in that dern war.” Bud said sadly, folding his hands in front of him on the table. It was quiet for a time before anyone spoke.  It was as if our silence was in the memory of those who had left us.

“Ready, aim, FIRE!” The sound of seven rifle cracking followed.

“Daaaddd, why are we here?” Zack, my youngest son moaned.

“He was a friend of mine.” I answered remembering how Otis Kendall had saved me from a life changing mistake I was about to make. “He was a decorated soldier.” 

“Just like you.” Jennifer added as she squeezed my arm.

“I did what I was ordered to do.” I shook my head trying to ignore the silver star hanging from the left pocket of my dress uniform. I was presented with the medal just before my discharge in 1945 from the United States Marines.   

It was a simple story of someone who reached out and saved a boy from making a mistake and thus changing his life for the better when it would have been easier to just turn your head and let fate take charge. There were so many reasons for Otis to turn his head, but he chose not to even though I was an orphan, my skin color didn’t match his, and I had been raised to believe the traditional mythology that is intertwined between the races. 

When I showed up for Otis’ funeral, I got a lot of strange looks from his family and friends gathered to pay him homage, but there was one person who greeted me with the warmth and joy that crossed the color line.

“Marty!” She ran to me with her arms wide.

“Louisa.” I buried my head in her shoulder.

“I’m so happy to see you.” Tears were in her eyes.

“I came for him.” My voice caught in my throat. 

“I know ya did, he knows it too.” She kissed me on the cheek.

“Dad.” Zack tugged on my jacket. “Who is she?” 

“A friend from a long time ago.” I told him.

“I’m Louisa.  I knew your dad when he was your age.” She squatted down to look my son in his eye.

“My age?” He was surprised that I was ever his age, but when she smiled, so did he.

It was clear to me at that moment.  If Otis had turned his head, this precious moment would not have been possible.  Just as Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once dreamed, there is a way to make that dream a reality, but first we must learn to put aside our beliefs in our American mythology.   

January 15, 2024 21:23

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6 comments

Mary Bendickson
22:14 Jan 16, 2024

Bless MLK day.

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23:05 Jan 17, 2024

Always. Thanks Mary

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Julie Grenness
22:27 Jan 24, 2024

Great story, well written. Guess we can all examine our stereotypes, wherever we are in the world of the future of society. This story presents a realistic word picture, with credible characters. The language chosen was apt and vivid. I anticipate reading more such tales.

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00:18 Jan 28, 2024

I usually have a story a week, Julie, Thank you for your comments.

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J. D. Lair
01:54 Jan 22, 2024

Very heartwarming story George. Thanks for sharing. :)

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00:18 Jan 28, 2024

You are most welcome, J.D.

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