Clockwise, p.19
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       Clockwise, p.19

           Lee Strauss
 
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A CACOON OF PURE PANIC encased me. I was certain that I had come home with a stranger from the past and left Nate behind. When the dizziness lifted, I stifled a scream. Instead of the clothes I had on in the library, I still wore my dress from 1861. And I wasn’t sitting at the table like I’d expected but standing somewhere outdoors. The biggest mystery though, was what Samuel was wearing. A knitted collared shirt with pencil pants (skinny pant legs, hence the name, but trousers, not jeans) and black loafers on his feet. He looked like Sammy Davis Junior.

  With dark circles under his eyes. The expression on his face mirrored mine. “Oh, no,” he gulped. That’s when I noticed we stood near a street that looked somewhat familiar. The restaurant on the corner with an ‘A’ frame roofline more common to Switzerland than New England looked brand new. I recognized it now as a car shop off Route 28. In my time the yard was overrun with junkers, and the building looked ready to fall down.

  Gawking, I sputtered, “S-s-Samuel?”

  Oh, no—Nate! My worst fears had really happened. I’d left Nate behind in the past!

  Samuel grabbed my sleeve and tugged me behind an advertising billboard, just as I was about to get bowled over by a boat of a car.

  “What was that?” I said.

  Samuel said longingly, “A 1959 Chevy Impala hardtop.”

  That wasn’t exactly what I meant, but his answer made me nervous. These massive heavy looking vehicles were everywhere, snaking along the highway, parked in driveways. I had just traveled, I knew that for sure, but now I wasn’t sure where I was.

  Or rather, when I was?

  Suddenly, it made perfect sense. I didn’t know if I should be elated or scared to death, but I knew Samuel was like me. I wasn’t the only one in the universe.

  “Samuel? You’re a traveler!” His expression moved from shock to surprise. “That explains a lot,” I continued. “Why you showed up and disappeared all the time. Just like me.”

  Samuel finally found his voice. “You’re one, too?”

  “Yes, but I’m not from this time. I must have tagged along on your loop.”

  “My loop?”

  “Do you go to the same time era every time?”

  “Yes.”

  “And you come back to your time at the same moment? No one notices that you left?”

  “Yes, except for these.” He pointed at the darkness under his eyes and then at mine. “It’s the same for you,” he said wonderingly. We hugged each other for joy, though he pulled away quickly. It just felt so good to find someone else who had to live life with the same oddities and extremes.

  “Go home and get dressed!” someone shouted. At me. I looked down at my long dress.

  “He must mean me,” I said. Samuel nodded.

  “Yeah, you look like you’re wearing a nightgown.” I was just glad I hadn’t put a hoop skirt on underneath. I reached up and pulled the bonnet off of my head. I must look like a freak.

  “Come,” he said, motioning for me to follow. “You need different clothes.” I followed, my brain still trying to compute what was going on.

  “What year is it by the way?”

  “Nineteen sixty-one.” Wow. New England had a lot of thick greenness, especially before swaths were cut down for development. This was perfect for dodging out of sight. Samuel led me to a two building apartment complex. The buildings each had three floors and off-white stucco with trim painted aqua blue.

  “You should wait here,” he said, pointing to a spot behind a garbage dumpster. He strolled across the parking lot dotted with “vintage” cars and lots of children playing hopscotch, skipping rope and jacks. Samuel dodged around them, patting the odd one on the head. All the children were black. In fact, all the inhabitants were black. Mothers calling out the window, kids running in and out, dads coming home from work. There was no way I was going to blend in here.

  I peeked around a bit. A red ball rolled by and before I had a chance to duck, a little girl stood almost in front of me. Her face was dark as coffee grounds, with two short black braids sticking out from the sides of her head. Her eyes flicked uncertainly.

  “Hi,” I said.

  “Why are you dressed like that?”

  Interesting. She was more taken with my clothes than she was with the color of my skin. I shrugged. “Just for fun. I’m going to change soon.”

  “Okay.” She reached down for her ball and ran off. Samuel pushed through the brush carrying a paper bag.

  “Miss Cassandra?”

  “You don’t have to call me ‘Miss’ anymore, Samuel.” I didn’t think it important to go into the little fact that my name was actually Casey.

  “Okay. Cassandra.” He thrust the bag at me. “Here, it's my sister's.”

  “Thanks. Uh, where should I change?”

  “Oh.” He paused for a moment. “I know. Follow me.”

  Beside the complex bordering green space, was an outbuilding.

  “It's a janitor shed,” Samuel explained. I stepped inside and shuddered. Obviously the janitor never cleaned this room. I'd disturbed a family of mice, and jumped as they scattered behind mops and pails and sundry items.

  The faster I did this the better. I shimmied out of 1861 and put on 1961. What a terrific dress. The fabric was cotton with a feminine blue floral pattern. The bodice fit snugly with the skirt flaring widely at the waist and a hemline that ended just below my knobby knees. A narrow band of matching fabric stretched across my chest and around my shoulders. I loved it.

  Samuel also had the foresight to include a pair of shoes. My feet were bigger than his sister's, but thankfully they were open-toed sandals. They also had two-inch pointy heels. I pulled the straps over my ankles and took a tentative step.

  He stared at my neck. “Nice cross.”

  My hand automatically went to my necklace. “Thanks. It’s a gift from my dad.”

  My attention went back to the company in the parking lot. “I noticed that, um, well, I might stand out a bit.”

  Samuel grunted. “That's an understatement. We have to cross the parking lot to get to the front entrance of my building. Just follow me.”

  So I did. And I was right. I didn’t blend in. Maybe it was the time of day, but all the little kids were suddenly replaced with big ones. Teens. Some playing basketball at one end of the lot; some leaning against cars, or walls, making out.

  I heard a whistle. Not a come-to-dinner whistle, but a there’s-a-pretty-girl whistle. Or maybe it was a there’s-a-white-girl-in-a-black-neighborhood whistle.

  “Hey, Samuel,” a teen guy shouted. He wore black denim skinny jeans rolled up to his calves just touching the rim of a pair of black boots, and an open bomber jacket with the collar pulled up over a white T-shirt.

  “What’ya got there?” He moved in our direction. Three other guys dressed similarly and with poor postures followed behind. A shiver of fear shimmied through my skull.

  “Just keep walking,” Samuel said stiffly.

  “Sam, come on,” the leader of the gang said. “We just want to look. We promise we won’t touch, right boys?”

  “Back off, Jerome!” Samuel snapped. We were almost at the front door, but one of Jerome’s posse got there first. I caught hold of Samuel’s arm. If stress and tension triggered tripping for him like it did for me, we might be leaving sooner than we thought.

  “Is she your girl, Jerome? You Joneses sure like the white ones, don’t ya?”

  “Just let us get inside. We don’t want any trouble.”

  No, we don’t. And I wasn’t sure what we could do, outnumbered as we were. If you didn’t out-weigh, you had to outwit.

  “Hey, boys,” I said, winging it. I really had no idea what I was going to do.

  “Oooo, she talks,” said one.

  The next one added, “Aren’t you a pretty thing?”

  Number three, “When you’re done with Sammy boy here, wanna come walk with me?”

  If you can’t play dead, play stupid. “Oh, could I? I’d love to hang with you boy
s.” I thrust my chest out a bit and pushed a stray strand of hair behind my ear. I wasn’t used to flirting, so I probably poured it on a bit too thick. “I just need to use the ladies’ room, and then I’ll come right out. I promise.” I flapped my eyelashes and grinned like a silly hussy. I was crazy to think that would work. Jerome stepped forward, stared deep into my eyes and ran his finger along my jawbone. I worked to keep a flirty face, though my knees were shaking.

  Then Jerome said, “Guys, let the doll through.”

  “Thanks,” I said in a husky—and what I hoped was sexy—voice. “See you soon.”

  We walked casually to the staircase, and I followed Samuel to his first floor apartment. My heart was beating a mile a minute; I felt like a scared rabbit that had just narrowly escaped the claws of the hawk. Soon we were safe. Relatively speaking.

  The door to Samuel’s home could use a shot of WD40. We were in a small kitchen. The floor had black and white checkerboard tiles, a white fridge shorter than I was, that had rounded corners and a lever for a handle, a small gas stove and a single sink full of dishes. The table was shiny with black and white speckles, chrome trim and legs. At the table sat two wide-eyed little girls about eight and ten years old.

  “These are my little sisters, Coretta and Yolanda.”

  I recognized Yolanda as the little girl with the red ball.

  “Nice dress,” she said. Coretta waved shyly, but stared at my dress, too.

  Motioning to me, Samuel said, “This is my friend from school. Her name is Cassandra.” Turning to me he added, “So, um, do you want to sit in the living room with me?”

  I nodded and followed him into another really small room filled with a boxy tan sofa and two matching chairs pressed up against brown paneled walls. A braided oval rug lay in the middle of the off-white linoleum floor. I took a seat on the chair closest to me.

  “Would you like some tea?” Samuel offered. I nodded. I was thirsty. And hungry, but I didn't want to be rude and say so. Samuel turned out to be a great host, bringing me tea and cookies. I devoured the cookies in as ladylike a manner as possible. I was wearing this great dress and prim sandals, after all.

  “That was brave of you what you did down there. Stupid but brave,” Samuel said.

  “Thanks?”

  “Those are bad dudes. Bad luck to run into them.”

  Samuel sipped his tea, breathing deeply. We both were coming down from the adrenaline rush of our close encounter. I didn’t want to think of the terrible things that could have happened. I hardly even had time to worry about Nate. I would be missing from the Watson Farm and he would think that I’d gone home without him.

  Samuel leaned forward and spoke softly, “You're in trouble at home and at school and were planning on running away. I convinced you to come home with me so that my mother could help you and talk you out of it.”

  Ah, the story. “You think they'll believe that?”

  “I don't know. But it will buy us some time.”

  “So, you live here with your mother and two little sisters?”

  “And an older sister, Rosa.” His face tensed when he mentioned her. “You'll meet her later. And my brother Jonah, he's fifteen.”

  “You really do have a brother Jonah?” He chuckled.

  “Yeah, not there, though.”

  I felt travel exhaustion coming on, and suspected Samuel did, too. We needed to keep talking. It wouldn’t do for me to fall asleep here, at least not until his mother was home. “What's going on around here? I know this is 1961, the first Civil Rights Act was introduced in 1957, but this is a northern state. Why the obvious segregation?”

  Samuel leaned back and examined me. Uh, oh. I’d said too much. “The first Civil Rights Act? What year are you from?” I glanced nervously toward the kitchen. “Don't worry. They're playing outside.” Right. I'd heard the squeaky door.

  “I come from, well, the future.” That sounded so Sci- Fi! He believed me though.

  “When?” He leaned forward again, deep interest in his eyes.

  “I don't think I should say.” I had to be careful. Samuel didn't have the advantage of having watched the Back to the Future trilogy to learn the hazards of knowing the future before you should.

  “Give me a ball park. The nineteen eighties?”

  “No.” Thank God. I saw a picture of my mom with big puffy eighties hair. On second thought, I probably would’ve fit right in.

  “Later?” I nodded my head. He gasped. “The year 2000?”

  “A little more than that.”

  “Wow.” He let out a low whistle. “Are there flying cars?”

  “No. We still have to drive on the ground. Samuel, I'm not going to tell you about the future. Knowing things before you should would just hurt you.”

  He leaned back again. “I suppose you're right. But you can't blame me for being curious.”

  “Back to my question,” I prodded.

  “Oh, yes, well even though we don't have ‘whites only’ or ‘colored only’ signs here like they do in the south, there is still a lot tension between blacks and whites. We have black neighborhoods, black churches and even though our schools aren't officially segregated, the reality is much different.”

  I guess I knew this.

  “Does it get better, Casey?” he whispered. I think he was afraid of the answer.

  I hesitated. “In some ways, yes,” I said thinking of the first African American president. And in some ways no, because we still had a lot of racial inequality in the world, but I didn't want to get into that. He accepted my silence on the subject.

  The door squeaked and slammed.

  “Rosa's home,” he said. “And the plot thickens.”

  What could he mean by that?

  “A little help here!” Rosa called. Alarm flashed over Samuel's face when he sprinted to her.

  “Groceries?” I heard him say.

  “Oh, sorry, Sam. I didn't mean that.”

  She spotted me peeking into the kitchen. Rosa was older than Samuel and almost the same height. Her hair was wrapped up under a colorful scarf. She had a pretty face, reminded me a bit of Alicia Keys, and a full beach ball-like stomach. That explained Samuel's initial concern. His sister Rosa was very due to have a baby.

  “Who's she?” Rosa said, her eyes questioning and worried.

  “She's a friend.”

  She turned her back and lowered her voice, but the apartment was so small I could still hear her. “Mama's gonna kill you, Sam.”

  “You're still alive.”

  Rosa opened up a cupboard and started emptying the contents of a brown paper bag. “I don't think her heart could take it again.”

  “It's not like that. She's really just a friend.”

  “Well, what are you waiting for? Introduce me.”

  I took that as my cue to enter the kitchen. Rosa's eyes scanned my face and then my dress.

  “Uh, Rosa, this is my friend from school, Cassandra.”

  “Uh-huh.” Rosa muttered. She didn't believe that lie for a minute.

  “Cassandra, this is my older sister Rosa.” I extended my hand, which surprised her, but she took it.

  “Pleased to meet you,” I said.

  “Nice dress. I have one just like it.”

  My face flushed red. “Uh, well, we must like to shop in the same places.”

  She raised her eyebrows. “So, you're a friend from school.”

  I just nodded and realized I didn't even know the name of Samuel's school; I really hoped she didn't ask too many questions. I thought the best tactic was to turn the questioning back.

  “So, you're pregnant. When's the baby due?”

  You'd think I dropped a bomb in the room the way both Samuel and Rosa inhaled sharply. I realized I had just committed a cultural faux pas. I remembered now, having watched I Love Lucy reruns, that it wasn't polite or proper to say pregnant. You said expecting.

  Rosa graciously recovered. “Any day. In fact I'm overdue.”

  “Tha
t's exciting.” Rosa emptied the last bag. “I suppose. Obviously, you're a long way from home.”

  In more ways than one. Again, I just shrugged. Then she saw my eyes, the similar rings that Samuel had. Her head spun back to Samuel.

  “Are you doing drugs, man?”

  “No! Why would you say such a thing?”

  “No offense, but you both look, uh, tired.”

  “Maybe we both are tired.”

  “Okay, okay. I'm just saying, if you’re doing drugs....”

  Rosa bent over with difficulty to get a pot out of a lower cupboard.

  “We’re not doing drugs, so just drop it.” Samuel went to help her with the pot. “And Cassandra is staying for dinner.”

  “What about Mama?”

  “I'll deal with her.”

  “It's your funeral.”

  When Rosa had her back turned, I motioned to Samuel with my finger to follow me back to the living room. I spoke as low as humanly possible.

  “I don't think this is a good idea.”

  “Do you have a better one?”

  “What is your mother going to do? I don't want you to get into trouble.”

  “Don't worry. Rosa has made enough trouble for us all. She makes the rest of us look like saints.”

  “Because of the...” I pointed to my stomach. He nodded.

  “Not married?”

  He shook his head. “No.” Right. In this era it was a great disgrace to be an unwed mother.

  “No father?”

  “Oh, there's a father all right. But he's white.”

  “I guess that's a bad thing?”

  “No kidding.”

  “Why didn’t they get married?”

  “Man, Cassandra, things must be different where you come from. It’s illegal for white and black to marry. That's why my mama's going to have a fit when she sees you. She'll think that....”

  “Oh.” That we were a couple. “But we're not.”

  “She'll believe us eventually.”

  The door creaked open and the chatter of two little girls entered along with the admonishing voice of a woman who must be “Mama.” Rosa had something cooking that smelled really good, and she commanded everyone to wash up for supper. I dreaded the inquisition that was to come. Mama didn't see me at first. She went straight to Samuel and looked into his eyes. The circles had diminished, but were still evident.

  “Baby, you should see a doctor. That's not normal.”

  “I'm fine, Mama.”

  Then she saw me.

  Mama was a big woman, with full breasts and large eyes that squinted into snakelike slits as she examined my presence.

  “Samuel?” she said, not taking her eyes off me. I was scared of Mama.

  “Mama, this is Cassandra. She's a friend from school.”

  She turned back to Samuel. “Are you crazy? Don't we have enough trouble with Rosa, and now, you bring home a white girl?”

  “She's in trouble, she needs our help.”

  “Our help? Our help? Her white folks are going to call their white cops and her white daddy's lawyer is going to have us arrested for kidnapping! Are you out of your mind?”

  Just then the door squealed again. Samuel's younger brother walked in. “What's going on?”

  Rosa answered, “Hey, Jonah. Samuel brought home a white girl.”

  Jonah lowered his head. “Not again.”

  “It's not like that!” I blurted. They all swiveled to look at me. My underarms started sweating. “I'm sorry. I don't want to cause any trouble. Really, we're just friends. I already have a boyfriend.”

  Well, in my dreams, I did. Their combined looks of doubt made me add, “He lives in another town.” I had a stroke of inspiration. “That's why I'm in trouble.”

  Samuel's family inhaled in unison. This was a problem they understood. As much as I'd like to leave Samuel and his family in peace, I needed him to get me back to Nate.

  Poor Nate! He must be freaking. And what if someone tried to make him join the army? I had to get back. Like it or not, I was Samuel's shadow. After dinner, which lasted all of five minutes—you’d think the Jones kids only got to eat every second day—I asked Samuel about Jerome.

  “We just left them waiting.”

  “Oh, they’re probably all drunk in their beds by now. Don’t worry about them.”

  Mama called a family meeting. No one was to mention my presence in the home to anyone, in the complex or at school. Even Yolanda and Coretta seemed to understand the importance of Mama’s command. The black/white divide started young.

  Rosa and her sisters slept together in one room, the little girls in wooden bunk beds and Rosa on a single bed less than two feet on the other side of the room. To accommodate me, Coretta climbed in with Yolanda on the top bunk. Samuel and Jonah shared the only other bedroom across the hall and to my surprise, Mama pulled out bedding from the closet and slept on the living room couch. There weren’t enough bedrooms to go around.

  I curled up under the covers, wearing nightclothes Rosa had lent me. A streetlight shone in through the window and I could see Rosa's face clearly. The breathing of the girls above me had already settled into a heavy rhythm; through the wall the muffled sounds of a married couple fighting.

  “Don't mind them,” Rosa whispered.

  “They fight every night. I just block it out of my mind.”

  I kept my voice low. “It's okay. I'm used to rolling with the punches.”

  Her forehead wrinkled. “Someone beating you, girl?”

  “Oh, no, it's a figure of speech. It means my circumstances change a lot. I'm used to adapting.”

  “You said you got boyfriend troubles?”

  “Sorta.” Here was my chance. “Do you?”

  She laughed softly; edged with bitterness. “You definitely could say that.”

  “What happened, if you don't mind me asking?” After talking to Samuel, I had a clue.

  “Oh, the usual sad story. He said he loved me. I believed him. When it came to proving the words, he was gone like a mad dog.”

  “Samuel said he was white.”

  “As the driven snow. I sure was sweet on him, though.”

  I was curious. “How'd you meet?”

  “My mama and me, we work at the local motel as chambermaids. Patrick, well he was going through a rebellious spot. Only child he is, and smothered half to death by his parents. Patrick thought he could make it on his own, out from under the shadow of his rich daddy. He owns the fish cannery down by the docks.

  “So, Patrick, he thought he would try selling them encyclopedias, door to door. He lived at the motel. Well, we'd pass each other in the hallways, and then he'd start saying hi and looking at me like he was interested, y'know? Then one day he asked if I wanted to go for lunch. The rest is history, as they say.”

  Rosa glanced over to see if I was still awake and listening. I think she enjoyed telling her story to someone she didn't plan on seeing again. “When I found out I was, well, with child, Patrick went crazy. He said he'd find a way for me to get rid of it.”

  “Is that possible?”

  “It's illegal, of course,” Rosa continued, “But it’s possible if you have the right connections. Which I don’t. I've heard stories of girls who died in the hands of would-be doctors in some back alley warehouse.”

  Scary.

  “I admit I thought about it. How nice it would be just to ‘undo’ this. Go on with life like I didn’t fall in love, didn’t make any mistakes at all. Not to have to trouble my family with the shame and gossip and extra expense we can hardly afford.” She paused, pensive.

  “But…” I prodded.

  “My daddy drove a taxi.”

  I was confused by her sudden change of topic. She continued, “One night a white guy decided he didn't have to pay a black man what he'd earned. Stabbed him with a knife.”

  “Rosa! That's terrible. Did he…?”

  “Yes. My daddy’s dead. Yolanda was only two years old. Mama, me and the bo
ys we had to get jobs to make up for Daddy's paycheck. We've been working ever since.”

  “Where does Samuel work?”

  “Oh, he's the janitor of this complex.” He's the janitor. I smiled to myself.

  “So, Patrick, well, he said he was sorry, that he really did love me, but what could he do? He couldn't marry me, could he? And his father would disinherit him if he found out about us. Ending, uh, this,” she pointed to her belly, “was the only way out.

  “Well, I say to him, the only reason my daddy was killed was because of the color of his skin. I wouldn’t kill this baby just because his mama’s and daddy’s skin color don’t match.”

  She sighed heavily. “I told him he was a coward and to get out of my life.”

  I thought of Tyson and Kelly. No one would bother them because their skin wasn't the same color. I was certain that those two would be an official item in no time at all. Rosa rubbed her big tummy.

  “Are you keeping the baby, Rosa?” I heard a sniff. When I looked at her, a tear coursed down her cheek.

  “I want to, Cassandra. I really wish I could, but I don't see how. I'd have to stay home to take care of the child, and we need all the money we can earn to survive. If we don't make the rent, there's another family on the wait list who will grab this apartment in a second. Plus, it ain't no good raising a baby without a father. Just ask my mama.”

  CHAPTER NINETEEN

 
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