Rendezvous With Destiny
Nola Faye Denny 1948, Rudell, Mississippi,
The heat woke me or maybe it was that thing that wakes you from sleep that you can’t quite understand. Maybe it was a sound, or the lack of it that drew me across the plank floor of the tiny house to the kitchen.
Mama should have been standing at the sink with daddy’s thick brown arms wrapped around her waist like he always did when she broke eggs for breakfast. She should be giggling like she always did, and pretend to swat his hands away while he whispered in her ear, and she would wiggle in delight like my baby brother Vern.
Mama wasn’t in the kitchen and daddy wasn’t either, but the screen door was still settling on its hinges as if someone had just stepped out into the morning. So I followed the swinging door and walked onto the hard-packed earth that was warm beneath my bare feet.
Beyond the wide arms of trees a keening, animal wail rose along with the heat snakes that floated above the earth. The hot air didn’t exactly carry the sound but rather held it in its suffocating grip and wrung the life out of it. It came from right beyond Mr. Paul’s shack down the road just across that little stream where us kids wet our feet and sometimes scooped out silver fish.
I followed the sound until it began to vibrate inside of me, flood me.
Mama. She was on her knees like Sister Rose did in the church when the spirit hit her, still in her pink nightgown—the one that daddy saved up all year to give her for last Christmas. Wide wet patches made it cling to her back. Mama never came this far from the house in her nightgown. That’s what I remember thinking at the time. Mama always said that when a lady stepped out of the house she must be presentable.
I could hear myself calling her but maybe I wasn’t because my eyes were transfixed on what she was staring at, swinging above her head from the bow of the cedar tree.
Uncle Jude, my daddy’s brother, rode up in a wagon with two other men. Uncle Jude jumped out and ran to my mother who rocked back and forth on her knees. He tried to pull her to her feet but she was strong in her grief and pulled him down instead. They tumbled to the dew stained grass. He let mama wail against his chest while the two men got a ladder and an axe from the truck.
One of the men held my daddy’s bound legs while the other one climbed the ladder and cut the robe that was knotted around my daddy’s neck. His head lolled back and forth up and down. His eyes were large and bulged. His tongue protruded from his mouth.
The womp, womp, womp of the axe cutting through the rope exploded in my chest, bending me in half, expelling my dinner of beans and salt pork at my feet.
I was ten. It was August, the summer of 1948. Rudell, Mississippi. Mama never took off that nightgown ever again.
Baldwin Allen Carter, Gulfport, Mississippi 1954
My father always blamed me. I didn’t realize it in the beginning, not until I was about twelve or thirteen. I’d grown up believing that I wasn’t as smart as, good looking as, athletic as my older brother Isiah. I settled into being less than. Got comfortable. My father’s dislike of me that bordered on an unspoken hatred became part of my DNA, the way I moved and saw the world. When I wasn’t standing in the shadows to avoid my father’s unpredictable anger, I was on the street doing unto others what was done unto me.
My life, or simply who I was in general may have been a completely different story if I hadn’t killed my mother. She gave her life so I could have mine. That’s what I fantasized about at night after a whipping or a scolding or some other punishment for anything that rubbed my father the wrong way.
I fantasized about what it felt like to be my brother Isiah, to be like my one friend Davie—to be anybody other than me. But all the dreams in the universe couldn’t erase the reality of my world. When its your fault that the lives and loves of others are changed for good and you are constantly reminded of your sin, time and repetition have a way of making you believe in false truths.
So, I took it, absorbed and believed it, held it and nurtured it until I was sixteen and as tall and big as my father, and when he went to strike me I grabbed his arm in mid swing.
His eyes, my eyes, looked at me in stunned disbelief. His mouth curled to open but I beat him to it. ‘Don’t you never lay yo’ hand on me again,’ I remember saying—the words coming from some deep, tortured place. I let him go, walked out the squeaking door with no more than the clothes on my back and never returned.
It was the summer of 1954. Eisenhower was the president, Muddy Waters was a star and I was going to find my way out of the Delta.
I stayed until I couldn’t stay no more. With mama gone on to join daddy, wasn’t nothing left for me here in Rudell. The past eight years have been so hard. Hard watching mama sit in that chair by the window or standing out on the porch looking out to where the tree used to be—to where they hung my daddy—before uncle Jude cut it down. Mama kept staring at that stump on the horizon. I don’t want to know what it was she saw day after day. I have my own nightmares.
I supposed with mama’s passing, I could have moved in with my uncle Jude, but at eighteen it wasn’t right to move in with no man that wasn’t your husband even if he was family. With no man asking for my hand, there was nothing to hold me.
I thought I would feel sad or lost or something the day I left Rudell. But I didn’t. What I felt was relief. I think living after daddy sucked the life out of my mama and mama drained me so that she could survive. I think she understood that in the end and finally let me go, knowing that it was time for me to live my own life.
Funny, after all those years in that two- room shack, all my possessions fit neatly into one suitcase. My whole life.
I’d saved for more than a year every bit of money I got from washing clothes, babysitting, running errands, and cleaning houses to buy my train ticket to New York City. Scariest thing I’d ever done was step up on the stairs of the Crescent when the conductor announced, “All aboard!” That day my life changed in more ways than I would have ever imagined.
I settled myself in the ‘colored section,’ got a seat by a muddy window and watched everything I’d ever known turn in to no more that puffs of dust behind me. I dug in my purse for the address and phone number of aunt Mae, uncle Jude’s half- sister. She lived in a place called Harlem and said I could stay on her couch until I got on my feet. I squeezed that paper so hard I barely heard the voice coming from above my head.
His voice was thick and sweet like molasses, slow and easy like Rudell’s Left Hand River, reminded me of home. When he asked me where I was headed. I think I said New York or maybe I thought I did. He smiled. Tipped his cap with Pullman Porter etched into the silver plate of it, and said his name was Baldwin Carter. He lowered his voice and whispered that he was assigned to ‘first class’ meaning the white folk, but if there was anything I needed I should just ask him.
Nola and Baldwin—1996—and Now
When I left Mississippi in 1954 the only thing on my mind was getting as far away as I could from the pain and loneliness and the feeling of never having nobody care nothing about me. I worked odd jobs: washing dishes, hauling trash, slept in doorways, and houses of ill repute, and finally worked my way to New Orleans. One day while I was in Biloxi I read an ad about railroad jobs for colored men.
The hours were long, hard and demanding. Taking care of white folks’ every need on those long rides could test a man’s religion. Sometimes I only got three, four hours of sleep in a week. White folk is real needy, but I saved every dime. When I walked through the streets, city after city in my pressed uniform and cap, I got looks of respect, and for the first time in my life I felt like somebody. But the look that changed my life was Nola’s.
Who knew that leaving Rudell would take me on a journey that has endured nearly forty years with a man that started as a stranger and became my life partner?
There’s so much to tell, the trials and tribulations that Baldwin and I shared. We done wept when the four little girls were killed in Birmingham, Medgar in ’63, Malcolm in ’65 and Martin in ’68. Rejoiced at the signing of the Civil Rights Act. Watched in sadness and solidarity during the riots in New York in ’64 and Los Angeles in ’92.
But through it all we had each other, that thing we were seeking when we left home in search of a better something.
Much has changed since we settled in our brownstone in Harlem. The rich blackness has been sucked out of it, replaced with organic coffee shops, high end boutiques and overpriced real estate. Women rising up saying words like metoo, words growing up I coulda never said. White men, victims of their own making. Black men made to be victims. As much as things change, they remain the same.
But what can never be changed or taken away are the memories, good and bad, the history that runs through our veins, the stories we can tell.
And we will. We must.
Donna Hill:: "l began my career in 1987 writing short stories for the confession magazines. Since that time I have more than 70 published titles to my credit since my first novel was released in 1990, and I have been considered one of the early pioneers of the African American romance genre. Three of my novels have been adapted for television. I have been featured in Essence, the New York Daily News, USA Today, Today’s Black Woman, and Black Enterprise among many others. i have received numerous awards for my body of work—which crosses several genres—including The Career Achievement Award, the first recipient of The Trailblazer Award, The Zora Neale Hurston Literary Award, The Gold Pen Award among others, as well as commendations for my community service. As an editor I have packaged several highly successful novels, and anthologies, two of which were nominated for awards. I have been a writing instructor with the Elders Writing Program sponsored by Medgar Evers College through Poets & Writers. I am a graduate of Goddard College with an MFA in Creative Writing and currently in pursuit of my DA in English Pedagogy and Technology. I am an Assistant Professor of Professional Writing at Medgar Evers College. I live the the best borough in the land --Brooklyn, NY!"