Following is an excerpt from Anna Jean Mayhew’s novel Tomorrow’s Bread. In her own words, “My first novel, The Dry Grass of August, takes place in the summer of 1954—three months after the Supreme Court unanimous decision in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, KS, which mandated integration in public schools. There was great resistance to the change that followed, especially in the South, where there were negative consequences, even death, to those who supported integration. My novel-in-progress, Tomorrow’s Bread, takes place in 1961, when urban renewal ultimately destroys the historically black inner-city neighborhood of Brooklyn, in the Second Ward district of Charlotte, NC. There was no organized resistance to the changes that came with urban renewal in the 1960s and ’70s across the nation. Tomorrow’s Bread is narrated by multiple characters affected by that huge change in Charlotte.”
by Anna Jean Mayhew
Chapter 1: Loraylee
I wake in the late spring night, the train crossing Second Street singing to me—whoo-whoo. I want to grab Hawk, jump on. Ride out of Charlotte. The clack-clack of the train speed up. The throbbing of the engine fill my head, my bed, the room. The whistle hoot again at the West Boulevard junction. The four-thirty, heading south. If I’m gone go, I’d go north. Chicago. Find my mama.
Down in its gully, Little Sugar make whispery music, sliding through the dark like a ghost, calling my boy to it. Unless I catch him, he go running across the yard, a bucket in one hand, a net made from one of my old stockings in the other, bent on frogs or fish or whatever lure him down to where that creek live. He don’t know how quick the water can pull him under, him all safe in bed, sleeping sound.
In the dull light coming out Bibi’s room, I see the chain from the attic door in the hallway, swinging. She always touch it when she pass by. Why she up this time of night?
I’m gone get a clock that plug in, so I don’t have to remember to wind it, one that glow in the dark. Uncle Ray’s chickens cluck in they coop, which mean closer to dawn than midnight. I got rouse Hawk soon, get him fed and dressed. Bibi told me to enjoy him being a baby ’cause it wouldn’t last. She right, and now he six, long legs, big feet. He in first grade with a teacher name Mrs. Hirschold—a white woman, must be sixty—come to Myers Street School all the way from Dilworth. Why she teaching in such a wore-out place, chain link fence around the dirt playground, hand-me-down books? Seven years since that Brown Board thing and nothing change.
When Hawk start school last September, I went with him ever day for a week to be sure he know how to get there. I tell him about traffic lights, to look both ways before he cross. We the house and he grab my hand, his so skinny in mine. That first day he tug on me to stop. He holler, “Hey!” to Mr. Stern, sweeping the sidewalk in front of the grocery store. Waving to folks was a way to cover up being scared.
At the corner of South Myers, he tilt his head back and stare at the big building, three stories tall, chimneys on top. He point to the metal stairs going up, then level, then back to the scraggly yard. “Why the stairs outside, Mama?”
“Jacob’s Ladder, what the kids call it, get them out if a fire starts.”
His gray eyes are round, big. “Ever been a fire?”
“Not that I know.” We go on into the school, down those rackety halls to the room that’s already different from the others because Mrs. Hirschold keep bringing in something new. Hanging things on the walls, setting the desks in rows one day, a circle the next. Hawk say Mrs. Hirschold smell good, and she do, like flowers. Another thing, she look straight at me through her smudged glasses, calling me Mrs. Hawkins, thinking a mother must be married.
She squatty, Bibi would say. Short and wide. Her baggy dresses hang way past her knees. Black lace-ups with thick stockings sagging at her ankles.
That evening I tell Uncle Ray, “She got a grandmother look.”
He smile. “That good.”
One day I drop in to take Hawk lunch he forgot. I open the door to his room and see him leaning against Mrs. Hirschold, her fat pale hand patting his back. I like her just fine after that.
Now he walk himself over to Third Street, join up with half a dozen other kids going from Brooklyn to Myers Street School. I stand on the porch and watch him going away from me. Skinny, like his daddy, his round head bobbing while he talk to himself the way he do, then around the corner and out of sight. On they way to school, the kids pass the grocery store, the church, the flower shop. On by Daddy Grace house, past the club that has music on Saturday nights. Fourteen blocks there, fourteen blocks home, a long way for short legs. We been asking for a school bus. Uncle Ray say we might as well ask for a limousine.
* * *
I’m standing with a bunch of people under a awning at Trade and College, heading home a little after three, trying to stay out of the rain. Most days I walk to and from work, eleven blocks, to save the bus fare. Unless it’s a drencher like today. Or too hot, too cold. I got a paper bag tucked under my arm for when I get off at Elizabeth and Morrow.
A man in the crowd say, “No justice in that,” in a loud white voice. He want people to hear him, making me glad I don’t know what he mean so I won’t get riled. I board behind him, drop my dime in the box, nod to the driver, Gus, one of the nice ones, been driving a bus all his life. He got some comment ever time he see me. “Any news about Brooklyn?” he say, his blue eyes big behind his glasses.
“They’s talk it going down.” I shrug. The noisy white man is on the bench seat behind Gus, and I walk on by. I like the back of the bus, even if I am allowed to ride up front now, where I’d have to sit next to those stiff-necked men in they hats and suits who don’t want me there anyway
I get off at my stop, hold the bag over my head, running. Morrow Street is a muddy mess. They’s muck on my legs, my uniform by the time I get home, glad to be there, ducking around the magnolia in the front yard. Its branches almost cover he sidewalk. Uncle Ray respect that tree, like he say the last time he trim it, “Only one magnolia in Second Ward, and that’s it.” I run up the sagging porch steps, drip onto the mat, the bag coming apart in my hands. I toss it on the rocker, open the door. “Hey, y’all,” I call out. Nobody home, not even Bibi. No telling where she is. I reckon Uncle Ray has taken our one umbrella and gone to meet Hawk. Just the sort of thing he do. I’m glad to be in the house alone so I can shuck my uniform to the kitchen floor. Even my slip is soaked, my cold nipples showing through.
I get water going in the pot for a cup of hot coffee and head for the room I share with Hawk. There is Bibi, in his bed, under the plaid spread, snoring. If she sleep all day, she be up all night, a problem for me or Uncle Ray. I leave her be, grabbing some dry clothes, emptying out the hamper so I can run a load before I start supper. Bibi not gone do it laying in Hawk’s bed. I toss ever thing in the washer on the back porch, propping open the kitchen door. I like smelling soap powder instead of the sour air the house has after a rain. Mildew, ashes in the woodstove, the coal bucket by the back door.
At the sink, stringing beans, I’m glad I have a clean uniform in the closet for tomorrow; no way that load of wash gone get dry in this damp house overnight. All us who work at the S&W wear uniforms, except Mr. Griffith. Retta Lawrence, who work next to me on the line, say uniforms save wear and tear on her wardrobe. They sure save time. Grab me a clean one, off I go. Last lady Bibi worked for docked her pay three dollars ever time Bibi needed a new uniform, but the lady kept them when she fired her.
Ever so often, Bibi say something about it like it was yesterday, not three-four years ago. “Miz Easterling, she misplace some little thing and she fire me, saying, ‘Girl, you stealing.’ Then she kep those uniforms I paid for, like she gone get another maid same size.”
Bibi most likely the one misplacing stuff, the way she do at home. She couldn’t get another job, no reference from Miz Easterling. After while, I come to like having her home to cook and clean, be with Hawk. Back then. Before she got so bad off I was afraid of what she might forget next. Before Uncle Ray moved in to take care his sister.
* * *
After supper Uncle Ray and I sit on the porch. He scratch the top of his head where his scalp shows through, shiny walnut under a light snow. The air is clean, cool, when the rain stop. Even the muddy street look like it been washed. Little Sugar move along in the gully, mostly brown, except in the spring when it deep and shiny. The breeze bring a whiff of sewer. No sugar in that creek. Our magnolia catch the setting sun that sparkle in the leaves, bleach the flowers. Uncle Ray say, “Now would you look at that? Remind me of when I saw the light.” I listen careful. Something different ever time he tell that story.
He ramble up to the start. “Most time, we can’t tell when a good thing gone come of a bad thing.” He crack his knuckles, settle himself. “I left this world after I took a bad fall, and while I was gone I saw a light.” He tilt on the back legs of the straight chair he favor; cough to clear his throat the way he do. Bibi push food at him ever chance she get, trying to put some fat on his skinny body. His seventy-four years show in the wrinkles around his face, the wattle under his chin like a rooster. He a fit old man, can still chop wood and clear the yard after a storm, if his lumbago don’t act up. He take his pipe from his shirt pocket, tamp it with his forefinger, light it. “Dr. Wilkins brought me back and the light faded. From then on I know the truth.” Flick the match into the yard just to see how far it fly before it land in the wet grass. “I were dead, don’t you doubt it, just weren’t my time to go.” Puff, puff, smoke rising. “The light is what a baby see when it squeal out from its mama.” He look hard at me. “Souls grow again in a new baby.” He pat his leg three times, once for each word. “Death. Is. Birth.” He get up, go down the steps toward the street, stopping to pick up the match.
“Mm-mm,” I say. “Maybe you right. Make as much sense to me as what I hear in church.”
Uncle Ray see me looking off past him to Morrow Street like someone might come along to tell us why things happen the way they do. He look at the letter I pull from my pocket. Had it for a couple days. Been thinking on it.
“What you got there?” His skinny legs fold into a squat beside the walk, him poking at the ground, smoke rising from the pipe.
“Notice from the city.”
“What it say?”
“A man gone come see about our house.”
“Hm,” he say. “Dooby Franklin sometime right.” He stand, stretch, his rough hands behind his hips. I can tell the lumbago hurting him by the way he move slow up the front walk onto the porch, sit on the steps with a grunt.
“You back bothering you?”
“Um-hmm.” He put his bony hand on my foot, pat it. “Set that letter aside. We can’t know how a thing gone turn out.” He talk like that ever since he seen the light.
I fold the paper over and over ʼtil it not much bigger than a match book.
Anna Jean (A. J.) Mayhew’s first novel, The Dry Grass of August, won the 2011 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction, was a finalist for the 2012 Book Award from the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, and is in its tenth printing. A Blackstone Audio recording of the novel is available, as are French, Italian, Turkish, and Polish translations. The Dry Grass of August was selected to be read in the libraries of Richland County, South Carolina, in “One Book, One Columbia” in February, 2013. North Carolina Literary Review, in the June 2013 issue, published an interview with A.J., and she was a featured speaker at the NCLR Homecoming in Greenville, NC, in September. In the fall of 2014, A.J. will be in residency for a month at VCCA’s Moulin à Nef Studio Center in Auvillar, France, where she hopes to complete her next novel, Tomorrow’s Bread.
Homepage photo courtesy Special Collections, J. Murrey Atkins Library, UNC Charlotte
Rain photo credit: final gather via photopin cc
Bench photo credit: …-Wink-… via photopin cc