The Only Man on Liberty Street
She was squatting in the front yard, digging with an old brass spoon in the dirt which was an ocean to the islands of short yellow grass. She wore a red and white checkered dress, which hung loosely from her shoulders, and obscured her legs. It was early spring and she was barefoot. Her toes stuck from under the skirt. She could not see the man yet, riding down Liberty Street, his shoulders square, the duster he wore spread back over the horse’s rump, a carpetbag tied with a leather strap to his saddle horn and knocking against his leg. She could not see him until he had dismounted and tied his horse to a small, black, iron Negro jockey and unstrapped the bag. She watched now as he opened the wooden gate, came into the yard, and stood, looking down at her, his face stern, almost gray beneath the brim of his wide hat.
She knew him. Her mother called him Mister Herder and had told Jennie that he was Jennie’s father. He was one of the men who came riding down Liberty Street in their fine black suits and starched shirts and large, dark ties. Each of these men had a house to go to, into which, in the evening usually, he would disappear. Only women and children lived on Liberty Street. All of them were Negroes. Some of the women were quite dark, but most were coffee-color. They were all very beautiful. Her mother was light. She was tall, had black eyes, and black hair so long she could sit on it.
The man standing over her was the one who came to her house once or twice a week. He was never there in the morning when Jennie got up. He was tall, and thin, and blond. He had a short beard that looked as coarse as the grass beneath her feet. His eyes were blue, like Jennie’s. He did not speak English very well. Jennie’s mother had told her he came from across the sea and Jennie often wondered if he went there between visits to their house.
“Jennie? Your mother tells me that you ask why I do not stay at night. Is so?”
She looked up at him. “Yes, Mister Herder.” The hair under his jaw was darker than the hair on his cheeks.
He nodded. “I stay now. Go bring your mother.”
She left the spoon in the dirt, and ran into the house, down the long hall, dark now because she had been sitting in the sun. She found her mother standing over the stove, a great black lid in her left hand, a wooden spoon in her right. There were beads of sweat on her forehead. She wore a full black skirt and a white blouse. Her one waistlength braid hung straight between her shoulder blades. She turned to Jennie’s running steps.
“Mama? That man? My father? He in the yard. He brung a carpetbag.”
First her mother smiled, then frowned, then looked puzzled. “A carpetbag, darling?”
She followed her mother through the house, pausing with her at the hall mirror where the woman ran her hand up the back of her neck to smooth stray black hair. Then they went onto the porch, where the man was now seated, surveying the tiny yard and the dark green hedge that enclosed it. The carpetbag rested beside his chair.
Her mother stood with her hands beneath her apron, staring at the bag. “Mister Herder?”
He turned to them. “I will not go back this time. No matter what. Why should I live in that house when I must come here to know what home is?” He nodded sharply as if in answer to a question. “So! I stay. I give her that house. I will send her money, but I stay here.”
Her mother stood silently for an instant, then turned to the door. “Dinner’ll be on the table in a half hour.” She opened the screen door. The spring whined and cracked. “Oh.” She let go the door, and picked up the carpetbag. “I’ll take this on up.” She went inside. As she passed, Jennie could see she was smiling again.
After that, Jennie’s mother became a celebrity on Liberty Street. The other women would stop her to ask about the man. “And he staying for good, Josie?”
“You have any trouble yet?”
“Well, child, you make him put that there house in your name. You don’t want to be no Sissie Markham. That white woman come down the same day he died and moved Sissie and her children right into the gutter. You get that house put in your name. You hear?”
“How is it? It different?”
Her mother would look dazed. “Yes, it different. He told me to call him Maynard.”
The other women were always very surprised.
At first, Jennie too was surprised. The man was always there in the morning and sometimes even woke her up. Her mother no longer called him Mister Herder, and at odd times, though still quite seldom, said, No. She had never before heard her mother say No to anything the man ever said. It was not long before Jennie was convinced that he actually was her father. She began to call him Papa.
Daily now a white woman had been driving by their house. Jennie did not know who she was or what she wanted, but playing in the yard, would see the white woman’s gray buggy turn the corner and come slowly down the block, pulled by a speckled horse that trudged in the dry dust. A Negro driver sat erect in his black uniform, a whip in his fist. The white woman would peer at the house as if looking for an address or something special. She would look at the curtained windows, looking for someone, and sometimes even at Jennie. The look was not kind or tender, but hard and angry as if she knew something bad about the child.
Then one day the buggy stopped, the Negro pulling gently on the reins. The white woman leaned forward, spoke to the driver, and handed him a small pink envelope. He jumped down, opened the gate, and without looking at Jennie, his face dark and shining, advanced on the porch, up the three steps, which knocked hollow beneath his boots, opened the screen door and twisted the polished brass bell key in the center of the open, winter door.
Her mother came drying her hands. The Negro reached out the envelope and her mother took it, looking beyond him for an instant at the buggy and the white woman who returned her look coldly. As the Negro turned, her mother opened the letter, and read it, moving her lips slightly. Then Jennie could see the twinkling at the corners of her eyes. Her mother stood framed in the black square of doorway, tall, fair, the black hair swept to hide her ears, her eyes glistening.
Jennie turned back to the white woman now and saw her lean deeper into her seat. Then she pulled forward. “Do you understand what I will have them do?” She was shouting shrilly and spoke like Jennie’s father. “You tell him he has got one wife! You are something different!” She leaned back again, waved her gloved hand and the buggy lurched down the street, gained speed, and jangled out of sight around the corner.
Jennie was on her feet and pounding up the stairs. “Mama?”
“Go play, Jennie. Go on now, play!” Still her mother stared straight ahead, as if the buggy and the white woman remained in front of the house. She still held the letter as if to read it. The corners of her eyes were wet. Then she turned and went into the house. The screen door clacked behind her.
At nights now Jennie waited by the gate in the yard for her father to turn the corner, walking. In the beginning she had been waiting too for the one day he would not turn the corner. But each night he came, that day seemed less likely to come. Even so, she was always surprised to see him. When she did, she would wave, timidly, raising her hand only to her shoulder, wiggling only her fingers, as if to wave too wildly would somehow cause the entire picture of his advancing to collapse as only a slight wind would be enough to disarrange a design of feathers.
That night too she waved and saw him raise his hand high over his head, greeting her. She backed away when he reached the gate so he might open it, her head thrown way back, looking up at him.
“Well, my Jennie, what kind of day did you have?”
She only smiled, then remembered the white woman. “A woman come to visit Mama. She come in a buggy and give her a letter too. She made Mama cry.”
His smile fled. He sucked his tongue, angry now. “We go see what is wrong. Come.” He reached for her hand.
Her mother was in the kitchen. She looked as if she did not really care what she was doing or how, walking from pump to stove, stove to cupboard in a deep trance. The pink envelope was on the table.
She turned to them. Her eyes were red. Several strands of hair stuck to her temples. She cleared her nose and pointed to the letter. “She come today.”
Her father let go Jennie’s hand, picked up the letter and read it. When he was finished he took it to the stove and dropped it into the flame. There was a puff of smoke before he replaced the lid. He shook his head. “She cannot make me go back, Josephine.”
Her mother fell heavily into a wooden chair, beginning to cry again. “But she’s white, Maynard.”
He raised his eyebrows like a priest or a displeased school teacher. “Your skin is whiter.”
“My mother was a slave.”
He threw up his hands, making fists. “Your mother did not ask to be a slave!” Then he went to her, crouched on his haunches before her, speaking quietly. “No one can make me go back.”
“But she can get them to do what she say.” She turned her gaze on Jennie, but looked away quickly. “You wasn’t here after the war. But I seen things. I seen things happen to field niggers that . . . I was up in the house; they didn’t bother me. My own father, General Dewey Willson, he stood on a platform in the center of town and promised to keep the niggers down. I was close by.” She took his face in her hands. “Maynard, maybe you better go back, leastways—”
“I go back—dead! You hear? Dead. These children, these cowardly children in their masks will not move me! I go back dead. That is all. We do not discuss it.” And he was gone. Jennie heard him thundering down the hall, knocking against the table near the stairs, going up to the second floor.
Her mother was looking at her now, her eyes even more red than before, her lips trembling, her hands active in her lap. “Jennie?”
“Yes, Mama.” She took a step toward her, staring into the woman’s eyes.
“Jennie, I want you to promise me something and not forget it.”
“Yes, Mama.” She was between her mother’s knees, felt the woman’s hands clutching her shoulders.
“Jennie, you’ll be right pretty when you get grown. Did you know that? Promise me you’ll go up North. Promise me if I’m not here when you get eighteen, you’ll go north and get married. You understand?”
Jennie was not sure she did. She could not picture the North, except that she had heard once it was cold and white things fell from the sky. She could not picture being eighteen and her mother not being there. But she knew her mother wanted her to understand and she lied. “Yes, Mama.”
“Repeat what I just said.”
She did. Her mother kissed her mouth, the first time ever.
From the kitchen below came their voices. Her father’s voice sounded hard, cut short; Jennie knew he had made a decision and was sticking to it. Her mother was pleading, trying to change his mind. It was July the Fourth, the day of the shooting match.
She dressed in her Sunday clothes and coming downstairs, heard her mother: “Maynard, please don’t take her.” She was frantic now. “I’m begging you. Don’t take that child with you today.”
“I take her. We do not discuss it. I take her. Those sneaking cowards in their masks . . .” Jennie knew now what they were talking about. Her father had promised to take her to the shooting match. For some reason, her mother feared there would be trouble if Jennie went downtown. She did not know why her mother felt that way, except that it might have something to do with the white woman, who continued to ride by their house each morning, after her father had left for the day. Perhaps her mother did not want to be alone in the house when the white woman drove by in her gray buggy, even though she had not stopped the buggy since the day two months ago, when the Negro had given her mother the pink envelope.
But other strange things had happened after that. In the beginning she and her mother, as always before, had gone downtown to the market, to shop amid the bright stalls brimming with green and yellow vegetables and brick-red meats, tended by dark, country Negroes in shabby clothes and large straw hats. It would get very quiet when they passed, and Jennie would see the Negroes look away, fear in their eyes, and knots of white men watching, sometimes giggling. But the white women in fine clothes were the most frightening; sitting on the verandas or passing in carriages, some even coming to their windows, they would stare angrily as if her mother had done something terrible to each one personally, as if all these white women could be the one who drove by each morning. Her mother would walk through it all, her back straight, very like her father’s, the bun into which she wove her waist-length braid on market days, gleaming dark.
In the beginning they had gone to the suddenly quiet market. But now her mother hardly set foot from the house, and the food was brought to them in a carton by a crippled Negro boy, who was coming just as Jennie and her father left the house that morning.
Balancing the carton on his left arm, he removed his ragged hat and smiled. “Morning, Mister Herder. Good luck at the shooting match, sir.” His left leg was short and he seemed to tilt.
Her father nodded. “Thank you, Felix. I do my best.”
“Then you a sure thing, Mister Herder.” He replaced his hat and went on around the house.
Walking, her hand in her father’s, Jennie could see some of the women of Liberty Street peering out at them through their curtains.
Copyright © 2020 by William Melvin Kelley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.