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This is a work of fiction. Many of the characters are composites of people whom I first heard about in the many stories my parents told me about growing up in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Blacks have lived in and been an integral part of Georgetown from its beginnings in the 1700s. They established several local churches, most notably the Mount Zion United Methodist Church in 1816 and the Epiphany Catholic Church in 1923, which was founded by black Catholics who no longer wished to attend the segregated Holy Trinity Church. Black Georgetowners owned and operated businesses, formed civic and social organizations, owned property, and were served by black doctors, dentists, morticians, and other professionals. Many of the District of Columbia public school system's most outstanding black educators were residents of Georgetown. After the passage of the Old Georgetown Act in 1950, an ordinance that sought to preserve the community's historic architecture, a great many black Georgetowners moved away from the neighborhood. The spirit of the community lives on, however, in several annual events sponsored by the Black Georgetown Reunion Committee.
I am grateful to the following individuals who have shared their recollections of Georgetown with me: Mr. Carter Bowman, archivist of the Mount Zion United Methodist Church; Mr. James S. Clarke; Mrs. Edna Higgins Payne Clarke; Mr. Maurice Clarke; Mrs. Eva Calloway; and Mrs. Luise Jeter. Special thanks to my husband, Helmar Augustus Cooper, for loving support and to my agent, Cynthia Cannell, for much encouragement.
Dangerous ideas come to life and spread like sparks on dry twigs. It could have been Lula who thought of it first. Or it could have been Tiny or possibly Johnnie Mae. Somebody said, "Let's walk on down past there. It's cooler there." The small troupe—Mabel, Lula, Hannah, Tiny, Sarey, and the sisters Johnnie Mae and Clara—never actually decided to walk to the Three Sisters. It began as an idea that one or the other had and became accomplished fact without planning. The afternoon was hot and the advancing dusk brought no relief. Heat clung to the low-hanging branches of trees and permitted no breeze to stir them. The girls' raucous laughter was not muted by the shrubbery that lined the C&O canal towpath, and the seven pairs of bare feet simply walked westward toward the Three Sisters.
Higgins Hole is a spot on the C&O canal where colored children used to gather daily in summer and clamber over debris in order to swim. Water still sluices southward through the abandoned locks of the old canal, no longer used for mule-drawn barge transportation from Cumberland, Maryland, through Great Falls and Little Falls, under Chain Bridge, and down through Georgetown below M Street alongside the Potomac River.
Gnats and wildflowers are thick on the towpath beside the canal. Some fishers after carp and catfish drop lines from footbridges over the canal or from spots nestled in the shadow of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. Water-loving trees lock boughs far above the heads of strollers on the path.
In the late afternoon on hot days, Johnnie Mae, her baby sister, Clara, and their playmates collected at Higgins Hole with their swimming suits on under cotton shifts. Other groups of boys and girls, older and younger, gathered there too. Some of the girls came just to stand around, but Johnnie Mae always stripped off her shift immediately, pulled on her swimming cap, and plunged into the water, stroking, cavorting, and sponging up coolness.
Since they opened the public swimming pool for white folks only on Volta Place, right across the street from her aunt Ina's house, the pleasures of Higgins Hole were diminished for Johnnie Mae. In that public pool the water was so clear! Clara said it must be ice water. Clara said they must get big blocks of ice from the ice man on Potomac Street and put them in there. She was certain of this because the white boys and girls they saw through the fence and bushes surrounding the pool were always shivering.
The water at Higgins Hole, though not brackish, was not transparent like the water in the swimming pool on Volta Place. The canal carried the husky bouquet of decaying organic matter rather than the scent of chlorine. There were things growing in the canal that clouded the surface and entangled the ankles of swimmers. There were fish, and sometimes dead fish floated on the water's surface. Higgins Hole had begun to feel like a secondhand pair of shoes to Johnnie Mae. It was useful as a place to swim, but it was no longer special.
Below M Street, below Higgins Hole on the canal, the Potomac River looks calm and quiet on its surface but roils behind its hand. The Potomac River, brood sow for spots, rock, carp, and herring, is also a foam-bedecked doxy lounging against verdant banks, carving out sitting places and lying places and sleeping places all the way from Sharpsburg, Maryland, to the Chesapeake Bay. The Potomac River jumps massive rocks and roars downstream at Great Falls. Its spray shoots toward the clouds before falling quiet and running headlong toward Georgetown and Washington and then proceeding past them.
This river is not one thing or another. It is both. The Potomac River has a face no one should trust. It is as duplicitous as a two-dollar whore. It welcomes company but abuses its guests by pitching them silly on small boats.
Legends abound that the Potomac River is a widowmaker, a childtaker, and a woman-swallower. According to the most famous tale, the river has already swallowed three sisters—three Catholic nuns. Yet it did not swallow them, only drowned them and belched them back up in the form of three small rock islands. They lie halfway between one shore and the other, each with a wimple made of seabirds' wings.
The Three Sisters is a landmark. When you say "the Three Sisters," people know you're going to tell about something that happened on the river to cause grief. And it isn't really clear whether it's the boulders or the river at that spot that causes the grief. Nobody in his right mind goes swimming near the Three Sisters. The river has hands for sure at this spot. Maybe even the three nuns themselves, beneath the water's surface, are grabbing ankles to pull down some company.
The girls were not supposed to go in the river. Parents regularly warned their children not to swim there. Alice and Willie Bynum, knowing Johnnie Mae's fondness for swimming, had warned her off the banks of the Potomac. Nobody trusts the Potomac River. It's not benign like the aqua-glass swimming pool for the white children up on Volta Place. It is not plodding and dirty like the canal. It is treacherous. It is beguiling. Just walking along the riverbank can be dangerous if you've got a worry spot or a grief stone or an anger or resentment that you can't quite name.
At first the girls stood there. Then they sat among the tall weedy grasses of the littered bank. Much of what gets discarded in Georgetown ends up here, twisted and tangled among black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne's lace. Splintered planks with nails sticking out hide in the shin-high grasses. "Watch where you steppin'! Look out there!" Lula suddenly adopted a big-mama voice and broke the hypnotic silence that had brought them wordlessly to this spot. "Clara, look where you walkin', girl! You hear me?" Johnnie Mae's voice was an echo of Lula's—a reflex exhortation—a pit-of-the-stomach reminder that they had no business here and were tempting fate just by stepping, just by breathing. The earth closest to the river edge was mud. In twos and threes—Hannah and Tiny, Mabel and Lula and Clara, Johnnie Mae and Sarey—the girls sat at the river's edge and dangled their feet in the muddy, gunmetal green water. A rotting, downed tree branch covered with terraces of toadstools jutted out from the bank diagonally into the water and provided a place to sit. Rows of ants marched back and forth along its length. Clara sat cautiously on the low end while Mabel and Lula scooted along the log until they were several feet from the bank, swinging their legs out over the water. Hannah and Tiny climbed aboard the log between Clara and the girls on the outer end. Johnnie Mae and Sarey leaned against the log with their ankles mired in cool mud. Johnnie Mae thought about the glistening girls in the swimming pool on Volta Place. Those girls sat on the sides of their pool and only dangled their ankles in the water. The slimy, cool earth banked her anger.
Mabel's sudden shrieking as she belly flopped into the river jerked Johnnie Mae back from her thoughts. Lula followed Mabel into the river and the log shifted and bucked as she springboarded into the water. Johnnie Mae bounded onto the log and ran its length, maintaining her balance as perfectly as an aerialist. She swooped past Hannah and Tiny, nearly knocking them off as she launched herself as far out into the river as possible. The water was of uncertain depth here, but Johnnie Mae was not at all concerned with depth, just breadth. It was her foolish thought that the far bank of the Potomac was within reach of her strokes. And the water was cool, blessedly cool.
Clara sat quietly, watching Johnnie Mae and the other girls. Her quiet allowed them to ignore her. She was a constant appendage to her sister and seemed content to be so. None of the other girls noticed Clara moving along the log to the high end that jutted out over the water. Hannah and Tiny slid off the log into the water, causing it to shift.
Clara maneuvered herself along the log to get a better view of the other girls. They swam together in groups, weaving in and out of each other's arms. They dunked each other's heads and cannonaded each other by slapping the water's surface. Mabel, the oldest, pulled her wet swimming suit away from her chest to show the others her nipples, tight and wrinkled with excitement and cold. The girls giggled, they laughed uproariously, they didn't notice Clara.
Johnnie Mae was obliged to remember Clara. It had been her responsibility to watch Clara ever since Clara was a baby. But Johnnie Mae's mind was elsewhere. She was, right then, considering swimming straight across the river to Roslyn on the opposite bank. It didn't look too far. It looked like something she might be able to do.
Johnnie Mae did not hear Clara splash into the river when the rotted log collapsed. Johnnie Mae ducked her head under the surface of the river, her shoulders following, then her back and hips. Her flapping ankles churned the water's surface. She arched her back and pulled up to the surface with long, graceful arms. The splashing sound, she thought, was her own body slicing the water.
But it was Clara's body that slid beneath the water. The fingers of the undertow swooped her. The others did not see her go down. They looked at the place on the bank where Clara and the log had been, and now Clara and the log were gone. It was as though the log were a hobbyhorse and Clara was riding it. The canopy of leaves draping the bank seemed unmoved by Clara's sudden absence. The effect was of viewing a scene through a stereopticon: The first image contained Clara and the log, and the second did not.
Johnnie Mae dove twenty times before the others realized what had happened. Johnnie Mae rose to the surface, tread water, and screamed wildly. She filled her lungs with air and she dove again. The other girls grabbed her after it became clear that she would continue to plunge. The girls grasped arms around the struggling, screaming, exhausted Johnnie Mae and drew in close around her, like petals on a daisy. Johnnie Mae thrashed against them at first, then collapsed. They swam in tandem to the bank. A white ribbon off Clara's plait floated on the surface of the river.
That morning it was hot as soon as the sun got up. Johnnie Mae rose just after. Heat entered the house uninvited—in fact, had never left from the night before. July in Washington is simply hot.
Alice Bynum's crisp, precise movements were creating the only breeze. Johnnie Mae slid out of bed and hurried downstairs to the kitchen to gather up under the tall, graceful woman whose mobile hips fanned the kitchen between sink and stove. Her mama heard her footsteps on the stairs and called out, "You're up, Johnnie Mae? Good morning. Empty the slop jar and then see about the milk." Her voice was busy but affectionate.
"Yes, ma'am," Johnnie Mae answered. She went back upstairs to the room she shared with her younger sister and scooted under the bed with the still-sleeping Clara in it. She retrieved the slop jar and walked with it gingerly down the stairs, through the kitchen, and out the back screen door to the outdoor toilet. "That Clara can't hold her bladder ten minutes, much less through the night! And then again she sleeps late. Turning over after everybody else is up and stirring!" Johnnie Mae muttered under her breath, mindful that Mama Alice did not approve of carping and complaining.
"Just go on about your business and hoe the row that God has given you," Alice Bynum would say briskly on her way from one task to another. "If looking after your sister is your obligation in life, then be thankful you have a sister."
Johnnie Mae perched a moment on the toilet seat, let her early morning urine patter down into the abyss, and thought about her mother's endless string of obligations. Obliged to rise up out of bed before husband and daughters to straighten up the neat but rickety little frame house; obliged to stay up long past dark to knit socks, sweaters, and scarves; obliged to think up excuses for the landlord and grocer when accounts were past due; obliged to wear a whalebone corset under a fussy dress on Sunday and sit there all day fanning and singing; obliged to make the biggest and sweetest three-layer chocolate cake ever known for the church bake sale and for anybody's and everybody's birthday. And obliged to clean from top to bottom and over again the house of the woman she worked for. "Doesn't she ever do something she wants to do?" Instinctively Johnnie Mae knew that if the answer to this question was no, then it didn't bode well for a life of ease for her. For everybody always said, "She's the spitting image of her mama. That girl is just like Alice!" The toilet gave a satisfactory whoosh as Johnnie Mae rose from the seat.
"Morning, Daddy," Johnnie Mae called to her father, who was bent over his tomato plants, as she expressed water from the hydrant to wash out the chamber pot.
"Morning, Maezie," Willie answered without turning toward her, continuing to stake his beefsteaks. His attention was riveted on the backyard crops, especially in the nervous growing season of Washington. "It's hard to know what kind of weather we're bound to have in this town" was his favorite lament. That explained the great many vegetable failures. "Too damn hot when it ought to be cool, too damn cool when it ought to be hot! This a backwards town, I tell you! Not like Carolina. No, sir, not like Carolina!"
For Willie Bynum and others of the migrating Carolinians rumbling into Washington, D.C., the city was best described as "not like Carolina." But ever since the family moved to the lopsided two-story house on O Street, with the big yard out back, Willie had, in spring and summer, spent his spare hours tending tomatoes, pole beans, cucumbers, lettuce, squash, corn, and greens. Willie's garden provided a modest boost to family finances and reminded him of Carolina. "Looks like we'll have a bumper crop this year, Maezie," he said now, straightening up over the last staked plant and spitting a ball of mucus and tobacco juice between his feet.
"Johnnie Mae, what about the milk, girl?" Mama called out. Her sharp, authoritative voice pulled Johnnie Mae's eyes away from the pale yellow maggots crawling over and under one another in the uncovered garbage pail.
"Yes, ma'am," she answered respectfully and blew a tiny black ant from the back of her hand.
The screen door banged as Johnnie Mae reentered the house. "Don't slam that door, girl! What'd I tell you about that!" her mother scolded.
Johnnie Mae hadn't meant to slam the door; nonetheless she hoped the noise had awakened Clara. "Old lazybones, crybaby, silly little rat," Johnnie Mae grumbled to herself. Mama always said that Clara was delicate and needed her sleep and couldn't be ripping and running around. But Johnnie Mae didn't believe there was really anything wrong with Clara. It was all just an act that Clara put on for the folks. She liked being thought of as shy and sickly so she could get out of doing her share of the work.
Johnnie Mae was the red-brown one, with hair that was half straight, half nappy and that would stay plaited all day if it was brushed and oiled. Mama said it was good hair. Clara was the pecan-colored one with nappy hair worn in two small braids that crept loose all day. Mama never said that Clara had bad hair, but she said that Clara's hair wasn't "good."
From the time Clara was born, she had seemed like a doll baby to Johnnie Mae, who loved to comb and brush and plait and replait her sister's hair. Johnnie Mae liked to stand behind Clara's chair in the kitchen and section the hair, rubbing in a fragrant pomade, looping and twisting the sections over and under with deft fingers. Johnnie Mae was tall for twelve years old. She stood straight. Her athletic body was always primed for movement. Clara was six, slightly plump, and easily winded.
"Come get your coffee, Willie! Come and get a bite. It's 'bout time you were gittin' down there, isn't it?" Mama called out. She skimmed cream off the bottle of milk, then poured a glass of milk for Johnnie Mae and one for Clara, who just then sidled into the kitchen rubbing her eyes. Mama poured a few drops of cream and two big spoons of sugar into her coffee. Sugar was the only real extravagance Alice Bynum allowed herself. Papa, Johnnie Mae, and Clara helped themselves to biscuits and bacon, and Mama slid fried eggs onto the sides of their plates.
"You picking up clothes for Miss Ann-Martha today? Watch out you don't get heatstroke running up and down. It's going to be a hot one today." Mama slurped down the dregs of her coffee. She put her work shoes in a paper bag and patted her hair down. "Go by Aunt Ina's and set awhile."
Johnnie Mae fought to keep her face respectfully immobile. It took effort not to indicate how tired she was of hearing the same instructions each morning as her mother got ready to leave for work. She knew full well all the watching out for heatstroke was her responsibility. In wintertime it was watching out for chills and uncovered ears, feet, and head. In Mama's lexicon, every season had its dangers, and Johnnie Mae was her mother's lieutenant in charge of "watching out." At the door Mama turned, as usual, to issue a final directive. "Clean up the kitchen before you leave this house, hear me?"
Papa added nothing to Mama's list of orders. He put bacon inside the last two biscuits and stuffed them in his pocket for later. He followed her out the front door.
Clara sat at the kitchen table, twirling a slice of bacon. With both parents out of earshot, Johnnie Mae turned her displeasure toward her "obligation." "Finish up that milk and help me wipe this place up!"
Ann-Martha Pendel was the freckled, laughing, meriny woman who did washing for white people. In summer, her laundry room was the overgrown, weed-choked yard behind her house at 32nd and P streets. Drying sheets hung on rope lines that extended from the porch roof to several tall but measly trees at the rear boundary of the yard. As they fanned out over the yard, the sheets created a labyrinth. Ann-Martha was to be found somewhere in their midst, arms pumping up and down on a wooden scrub board.
Miss Ann-Martha, with no husband or children, was considered a colored woman of independent means and uncertain morals. Alice Bynum, resigned to the expediency of her daughters' work as Ann-Martha's runners, had warned them—especially the maturing Johnnie Mae—against engaging in idle talk with the woman. "No need to sit about jawin' with Ann-Martha Pendel. Just make the runs and collect the money, hear me?" Of course, Johnnie Mae knew you didn't have to sit around jawing to catch the tenor of Miss Ann-Martha's moral behavior. The careless way her breasts flopped underneath her shift and the slackness of her lips when she spoke out of the side of her mouth were unmistakably the signs of low moral character. Even a child could see that.
Johnnie Mae didn't particularly like the musky smell of the woman and usually tried to stand as far from her as was practical. Yet Ann-Martha managed to whisper conspiratorially, out of Clara's earshot. "A yella gal can rule the mens if she's smart, especially colored mens. A brown gal got to work a bit harder. A blue-black gal is got no chance. You remember that!"
The full import of this foolishness would be lost on Johnnie Mae even if she could understand all the broken-up shards of words Ann-Martha used in her chuckling conversation. What'd she mean by that? Best to ignore her talk and tend to the laundry only.
Johnnie Mae and Clara loaded the clean bundles for delivery to Miss Ann-Martha's customers and pulled the wagon back through the maze of hanging clothes. As usual, Clara couldn't resist hurling herself face first and giggling into the ballooning sheets at the back of the yard, beyond Miss Ann-Martha's line of vision. Johnnie Mae fussed at Clara. "Come on, girl, we got no time for foolishness!"
Grown folks often noticed Johnnie Mae Bynum's industriousness and commented on it. "That girl is just like her mama—always busy," they said. White folks, too, took note of the brusquely respectful little colored girl who collected and delivered laundry. Her back was always arrow straight as she approached the back doors of Miss Ann-Martha's customers. Mama's advice rang in her ears. "Don't have too much to say to them. Just yes-ma'am 'em and no-ma'am 'em and go about your business. And don't be grinning like a Cheshire cat if they offer you a cookie." Waiting solemnly while they inspected the clean clothes and handed over the dirty bundles, Johnnie Mae gravely counted the nickels and accepted a cookie or a bun with glancing but polite acknowledgment and a slip of a smile.
A scowling, down-on-her-luck white woman on Dumbarton Avenue was the first customer on the route. She resented a proud demeanor in a nigger. It just didn't suit her to see a colored child presenting herself so uppity, so businesslike.
"They say a Chinaman's opened up a laundry shop down on Water Street." Her nasal twang was razorlike. "He'll run Ann-Martha out of business for sure."
Standing straight, Johnnie Mae made no reply. Mama's words reverberated in her head: "Keep your mind on what you want, not on what they say." Clara, beside the wagon at the bottom of the steps, shifted from one foot to the other. Her bottom lip quivered. She was ready to run.
The woman went back into the house for the fifteen cents due, placed the coins on the porch rail, and held open the screen door for Johnnie Mae to carry in the three clean bundles and put them on the kitchen table. The woman bent down, whisked up the dirty bundle, and pushed it into Johnnie Mae's arms.
At the porch rail, Johnnie Mae heaved the bundle down the stairs into the wagon. Snatching up the money, she took the steps two and three at a time as she descended. At the bottom, grateful for a signal to move, Clara punched the laundry down into the wagon.
"You be careful of my laundry. Tell Ann-Martha I don't want no cat's paws on those shirts. If I see any, I'll take my business to the Chinaman," the small, raw woman hollered after Johnnie Mae, who jumped off the last step, picked up the wagon handle, and left the woman's yard as quickly as the rickety conveyance could be pulled over uneven ground.
Hanging on to the tail of the wagon and breathing out of her mouth as she struggled to keep up with her sister, Clara asked, "What's a Chinaman, Johnnie?"
Without turning around, Johnnie Mae answered in a flat, authoritative voice, "A yellow man with a pigtail."
"Oh. Yellow like Miss Ann-Martha?"
"No. Yellow with a long pigtail and funny eyes."
It was noon when Johnnie Mae and Clara turned down 30th Street toward Miss Ann-Martha's to drop off the dirty loads and collect their twenty cents. Mr. Pud Allen's street-cleaning wagon, drawn by a swaybacked horse, moseyed along ahead of them. When the horse deposited a stinking pile at the corner of 30th and N streets, Clara giggled and pinched her nose. Johnnie Mae laughed too and wondered what was the use of Mr. Pud Allen washing the street if his old nasty horse was letting loose every other block. At this rate, Mr. Pud Allen and his horse would always have a job of work.
Johnnie Mae handed Clara three pennies and pocketed seven cents. The rest, one dime, was for Mama's housekeeping. Alice Bynum allowed her girls to keep some of the money they earned hauling clothes for Miss Ann-Martha. In this, the Bynums were different from many of the other colored families in Georgetown. Most of the recent southern migrants kept all the money earned by their sons and daughters and pooled it with the rest of the household's earnings. There were no idle children among the colored families of Georgetown, except those too feeble or too young. And every child old enough to stand was old enough to work. If they worked for pay, they turned it over to their folks. The bigger girls had younger siblings to tend while their mamas cleaned, cooked, did laundry, or took care of the white people's children. Many of these girls also cooked and kept the house if their mama "lived in" and came home only one day of the week.
The clay brick sidewalk was as hot as a griddle when Johnnie Mae and Clara returned home to put away the wagon and then head up to Aunt Ina's. On the morning laundry rounds, Johnnie Mae had been thinking about the fragrant coolness of Volta Place and the quiet dark of Aunt Ina's parlor. The spreading, rounded crowns of ailanthus, white mulberry, eastern cottonwood, and red oak canopied Volta Place as it wandered west from the Wisconsin Avenue throughfare. The trees blocked sunlight and protected the large, rich folks' houses, the narrow carriage houses, and the alley dwellings of poor folks. Rosebushes—every variety—stood beside doorways and trailed along trellises. The smell of Volta Place was sweet—rose, lavender, lilac, sweet grass, and onion grass.
The smells wafting out of 3304 Volta Place were of chicken and cornbread fried in the early morning. Johnnie Mae and Clara were expected to eat at Aunt Ina's on summer afternoons. Clara especially was supposed to eat and "set awhile" out of the heat of high noon. Aunt Ina, once she had finished her early morning cooking, would position herself at the small window in her parlor. From there she would peep through the branches of the box elder as she sewed collars, buttonholes, buttons, and socks, looking to catch sight of Johnnie Mae and Clara rounding the corner from the avenue. Ina Carson was one of the few colored women in Georgetown with a sit-down job.
- "A compelling novel...Clarke brings to life a whole neighborhood of vivid personalities."—USA Today
- "A sweet read...sweet like homemade ice cream from a hand-cranked machine, and just as rich."—Holly Bass, Washington Post Book World
- "A genuine masterpiece...full of grace and beauty and profound insights...It bears traces of Eudora Welty's charm and Toni Morrison's passion."—Michael Shelden, Baltimore Sun
- "A warm, graceful first novel...with a host of well-drawn and appealing characters...Clarke brings an affectionate eye and beautifully restrained prose to her fictional archaeology."—John Perry, San Francisco Chronicle
- "Seldom do I find a novel that I can recommend to everyone...I'm delighted to say that River, Cross My Heart fills the bill."—Sandra Scofield, Chicago Tribune
- On Sale
- Aug 1, 2017
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Little, Brown and Company