Authors: Denise Nicholas
Tags: #20th Century, #Fiction, #United States, #Historical, #General, #History
Otto Nicholas, Sr.
and Michele Burgen
"History claims everybody,
whether they know it or not,
and whether they like it or not. "
New York Times, September 2004
Out of Memphis with night drawing up thick to the windows, Celeste felt
the air pressing down. She'd dressed in a gabardine jumper and a longsleeved blouse against the lingering cool of a June Ann Arbor morning.
Now, her clothes weighed on her like a damp blanket. She closed her eyes.
Before sunset, the trees had segued to a double-dyed richness of color and
the loamy soil had turned blood-rust. Soft-talking voices of the train passengers mutated from the flat singsong of the midwest to the sloping drawls
of the deep south. She shuddered, remembering a life she'd never lived, then
laughed at the irony. Every Negro in America had a nightmare of Mississippi, of dying in the clutches of a hatred so deep it spoke in tongues.
The conductor, a tall square jawed dark-skinned man, his upper body
leaning into the car as if primed to run in the other direction, called out,
"Senatobia." He clanged the metal door closed. Earlier, he'd walked the
aisle swaying with the train, announcing the names of towns, his resonant
voice a clarion call to freedom. He nodded to her quiet self, scrunched in
her corner, a map of the southern states spread on the seat next to her. The
mimeographed sheets from One Man, One Vote blared out in bold type,
"How to Stay Alive in Mississippi." He knew why she was on this train.
She peered through the dirty window when he poked his head into
the car and called out, "Sardis." Not a soul on the platform. They barely
stopped. The train lurched forward, slow-waddling south.
Sardis. Senatobia. Idyllic names. She checked her map.
"Grenada." What's he saying? An island paradise in the Caribbean
with long, sun-drenched beaches and fountains splashing cool water on
lush flowers? A quick glance to her. Why does he duck his head in and out
like he's hiding in a closet? His eyes are like black marbles in the murky
Saliva had pooled in the corner of her mouth by the time he called out,
"Vaughan." At the soft edge of sleep, Celeste dreamed of Negroes darting
their ghostly selves like wild children playing hide and go seek. The conductor peeked from behind a tree. She forgot completely where she was going
and why. When he called out "Canton," her stomach growled in yearning
for Chinese food at one of Shuck's stops in Detroit. Egg foo yung, shrimp
in oyster sauce, sweet and sour pork. Shuck's diamond pinkie ring sparkled
against his brown skin in the neon light as he held the white carryout bags
away from his camel hair coat.
In the foggy back hollow of her surface doze, a new voice calls out,
"Jack-son, Miss'sippi." Miss Sippi lives down the street. She longs to sleep past
her ticketed stop, but can't escape the appalling pictures of hunted people
scattering behind her eyes. "Jack-son." When the train braked with a low
howl and a long screech, she woke fully, gagging on the oily aftertaste of a
Memphis ham sandwich, remembering Momma Bessie's warning that pork
dreams were always nightmares.
By the time The City of New Orleans Limited rolled into the Jackson
station, Celeste had been slouching upright on a worn-down seat for more
than twelve hours. Counting the night trip from Ann Arbor to Chicago
and the hard wait at the station there, it was closer to twenty-four. No sign
of that conductor. Maybe he'd never been there at all. She hoisted her green
canvas book-bag onto her shoulder by the strap, wrestled her suitcase from
behind the last row of seats, and stepped down to the platform. She took
off toward the lobby, her suitcase banging her side, her book-bag bouncing
against her back.
When a rich low voice called out, "Suh, lemme git dat fa ya, suh." Then,
"Ma'am, I got dat, ma'am," Celeste turned to see a Negro porter bowing, grinning, and grabbing suitcases in one fluid intonation of the past.
The porter caught her gape-mouthed stare, rolled his eyes, then flashed
his pearly whites at the white passengers and continued his work. Ah, she
thought, this was the real deal. Mississippi had to be the birthplace of the grovel, handmaiden to the blues, the crown jewel in the system of slavery,
the kick-down place.
Celeste walked faster, her thighs chafing in the swollen heat, blessing
her gym shoes with every step she took. She whizzed by lacquer-haired
women wearing outdated sundresses and cigar chomping men. Out of the
corners of their eyes came slices of stares, sharp as razor blades, which
seemed to say, "I know why you're here, and you better go on home where
you belong." The cigar smoke irritated her nose. At the end of her train,
the dark well of soot-covered tracks disappeared into a pitch-black tunnel.
She hurried on.
Under the yellowish glare of bare fluorescent tubes, just off the central
waiting lobby of the station, Celeste came face to face with the first Whites
Only sign she had ever seen in her life. She stared at the sign tacked to the
ladies' room door, its letters hand printed and uneven. She needed to go to
the bathroom. A blush warmed her ears and acids grumbled her stomach.
She surveyed the nearly deserted lobby, the stragglers from her train passing
through to the street and a few bag-toting travelers loitering about, smoking. No signs pointing the way to the Negro restrooms. Anger tightened
her jaws. The pressure in her bladder grew. It had been a long time since the
rest stop in Memphis. Just then, another Negro woman, colorful scarf over
a head of rollers, suitcase and bags beating her body, pushed herself, back
first, into the ladies' room as if that sign was not there. Celeste followed her
in, afraid to turn around to see if anyone noticed.