A short story by Rebecca Sloan
Maudie’s neighborhood isn’t what it used to be. In the old days, the entire area bordered by Clark Street two blocks to the east, Palmer Street two blocks to the south, Russell Street two blocks to the west and Harrison Street which ran up the hill in front of her own house was her playground. She roamed freely up and down the tree-lined, black-topped streets with nothing to fear, usually atop her blue Schwinn riding into the breezes, letting the fresh air caress her face and fill up her lungs. Those were the days when lots of different kinds of folks made up the population–the old and the young, the sick and the healthy, the poor and the not so poor, black folks (in those days they were still colored) and white folks (who are always white), though mostly white folks because black folks had not yet encroached upon the north side of Fort Williams in great numbers. They lived nearby, though, just on the other side of Palmer Street which was beyond Maudie’s limits and she was only vaguely aware of those whose lives were starved for nice houses, indoor toilets and enough money to buy food for the week.
The neighborhood that Maudie knew had back yards full of apple trees of several varieties, cherry trees, grape vines, strawberry and rhubarb patches, all yielding pleasures to the pack of youngsters that lived within the confines of Clark and Palmer and Russell and Harrison and who roamed as free as Maudie and who were all her friends. They went to school together, church together, traded comic books and bubble gum cards amongst each other and ventured to the movies on Saturday afternoon when fifty cents would pay for the ticket, buy popcorn and candy and still leave money for bus fare. They played hide and seek until after dark, hopscotched up and down the cement sidewalk and played softball in the vacant lot across the street from Maudie’s house. In winter, Fort Williams was often socked in by harsh weather and the neighborhood kids mostly stayed inside the warmth of their homes. Summer, however, was another matter and the warm, often hot, and sometimes humid, weather beckoned to Maudie and her friends, actually luring them to the out of doors and accompanying them on their excursions.
The Magee family fell into most of the neighborhood categories. Maudie was the youngest in her household and presumably healthy. Grandma Bertie was very old and not so healthy. The family was not rich, but not as poor as many and Papa was town’s only black doctor which made him something of an enigma to many of the good town folk but also made him something special to others. Doc Magee moved to Fort Williams when things were not so good for black folks anywhere but better there than lots of other places he had lived and he decided to take a chance. The chance being that he could have a better life and provide the same for his family. It was a risk that had more or less paid off and after twenty years of hard work, he was comfortable and respected. Papa, Mama, Grandma Bertie, sisters, Lessie, Margaret, Julia and Camille, brother, Walter Jr. and, of course, the youngest, Maudie, all lived together in a big white house on the corner of Harrison and Merchant. Papa had waited a long time to acquire such property and once acquired, he settled into the notion that he was at last successful. It was not an illusion but it was just a little on the naive side considering the times, but if you measured success in Papa’s understanding of the term, then he had, indeed, achieved success. No one spit on him any longer or called him boy or threatened his life. He could move through space freely, breathe easily and take care of his family. And he loved his work. He didn’t want for much more.
Maudie idolized her papa and when she was very young nothing pleased her more than to go to his office on a Saturday morning and wait for him to finish seeing patients. He would then come out into the waiting room, taking off his white jacket and say to her,
“Well, I’m finally through here, Sweetie. Did you get tired of waiting?” It was a routine so familiar that she knew what he would say before he even opened his mouth.
“No, Papa,” she would lie. She didn’t want him to know that she had a hard time sitting with restless six-year-old legs and only the anticipated pleasure of spending the afternoon with him made it possible to endure.
“You’re an awfully patient young lady, I must say. What do you want to do this afternoon after we make house calls?” He said “we” just as if they were going to do it together, as if she was actually an important part of the team.
“Can we get some ice cream?” That was a pretty standard request, though sometimes it was to the swings in the park, to the lake to feed the ducks or to the drug store to buy a new comic book. These were all wonderful adventures with Papa, small pleasures, small treasures to be tucked away in memory for a lifetime.
“You bet we can. Now let’s get out of here before someone thinks we’re still open for business.”
House calls were often made south of Palmer Street and from the inside of the safety of Papa’s car was virtually the only way Maudie was exposed to the poorer side of Fort Williams. Very rarely did he take her inside a home with him, rather leaving her in the car to wait while he made brief visits to those who were too sick to come to the office. Sitting in the car bored and sometimes a little frightened was often preferable to the houses of strangers and the pleasure of having Papa all to herself for a few hours away from the family made it worthwhile.
In the neighborhood, every adult was a parent to every child, so to misbehave away from home was the same as doing it in front of Mama. One time, when she sassed a grown-up two blocks from home, Mama was at the door waiting for her as she came upon the porch.
“Maude Ellen, come in here,” she said in a stern voice.
“Yes, Mama.” Maudie knew at once that she was caught and the best defense was acquiescence.
“Mizz Jackson just called and said she told you not to eat the apples off her tree because they were too green. Do you know what she says you said?” Her voice raised at the end of the sentence and Maudie knew she was truly angry.
“Yes, Mama, I know.” Mama was a firm believer in respecting elders and to do what Maudie did was tantamount to a mortal sin.
“Did you say it, Child?” Uh-oh. Moving from Maude Ellen to child meant that Mama was furious.
“Yes, Mama.” Fessing up was the path of least resistance because to deny the obvious would only lengthen the sentence about to be imposed.
“Mizz Jackson was only looking out for your welfare and I don’t appreciate you calling her an old biddy. I want you to march right back up there and apologize to her and when you come home, we’ll decide what your punishment will be.”
There was that “we” again, but Mama didn’t mean it like Papa did. Mama meant business and Maudie knew it. She dragged her eight-year-old legs up the hill to the yellow house with a white, picket fence surrounding the yard. In the back of the house were the apple trees that had gotten her in trouble. Ordinarily, she was free to help herself, so she didn’t understand why Mizz Jackson had suddenly turned on her. She could see for herself that they were not too green and when Mizz Jackson had yelled at her, she yelled back, “you old biddy.” She knew as soon as she said it that she was in trouble but it was too late. The words were out and circled in the air freely and inevitably landed on Mizz Jackson’s ears. Now she must say she was sorry and in most ways she was. Especially that Mama would be at home waiting for her.
“If it isn’t Maudie Magee,” Mizz Jackson said when she answered the door. “I didn’t think you’d have the nerve to show your face again.” She wasn’t going to make it easy.
“I..I..I..just came..to..apologize to you.” She stumbled over the words but eventually a whole sentence came from her lips.
“I’ll just bet you did,” Mizz Jackson said sarcastically.
“Yes, Ma’am.” Politeness seemed the best approach.
“Well, you tell your mother that I don’t want to catch you in my yard again, do you hear me?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Under her breath, the words “old biddy” lurked again but this time did not escape.
At home, Maudie’s punishment was light compared to being forced to apologize. Mama said to stay out of Mizz Jackson’s yard from now on and to stay close to home for a few days. It was typical of Mama. She got real angry but the actual punishment was never as severe as her demeanor.
Maudie was in the fifth grade when Papa died. Mama was devastated and went into a kind of shock. The whole family hovered around her and tried to ease her pain. Friends of the family gathered and many of the neighbors brought food to feed the hungry crowd. Even Mizz Jackson brought a plate of fried chicken and stayed long enough to express her condolences.
“Doc Magee was such a good man,” she said to Mama and she meant it. Papa had helped her more than once when she didn’t have enough money to pay for her office visits. Papa helped a lot of people that way and quite often he brought home fresh chickens, sweet potato pies, home-baked breads and garden vegetables which he had accepted in lieu of payment. Now the recipients of his benevolence all came to pay their respects.
“Thank you, Mizz Jackson.” Mama tried to smile but the tears that washed her eyes forced her lips downward.
“Yes, sir, a good man,” she repeated. “I know he’s in heaven and I know he’ll be all right.”
Mama nodded her head in assent. Yes, she knew he’d be all right, too, but she wanted him all right beside her not all right in his grave. At least Papa had prepared for the future and Mama would not have to worry about money; she could save her strength for other things.
Maudie was lost for awhile after Papa was gone. Mama was heart-broken, Grandma Bertie had to be put into a nursing home, Lessie and Margaret went back to college, Julia and Walter, high school, Camille, junior high and Maudie, fifth grade. Life settled into a routine that seemed to carry itself out as if Papa had never lived. Maudie could hardly stand it. No one, she was sure, missed Papa as much as she did. She hurt, she ached and she cried herself to sleep at night. But time takes pain and buries it in the past or hurls it into the future. Either way, it slowly dissipates and allows one to move through the days and nights more easily. Eventually, this happened to Maudie. Eventually, she could think of Papa without feeling his loss so keenly, taking comfort in the closeness they shared. Eventually, she grew up and left the house on Harrison Street, left the boundaries of Clark and Palmer and Russell and Harrison streets, left her childhood friends, left Fort Williams, left everything behind that had sustained her growing up. She took nothing with her and yet she took everything.
In the years that followed, Maudie returned home often to visit Mama. As the neighborhood moved toward the twenty-first century, however, it began to change, subtly at first as time slipped silently through the years with a steady, relentless pace, then over night it was a different place filled with strangers. Strangers to Maudie and strangers to each other. The houses that were once occupied by white families filled up with black families who, as more and more blacks escaped to Fort Williams and finding that they could not all live south of Palmer Street, moved quietly and almost without notice across the invisible border into the north of town. The poor were displaced by sheer and utter poverty and there was a large crop of those who just didn’t give a damn. Drugs and drug dealers moved in and pride moved out. Vacant lots grew weeds where houses once had flourished and many of the structures that survived the bulldozer were ravaged with time, dilapidated and in disrepair. Only the big, white house on the corner of Harrison and Merchant, itself showing signs of age, still stood as a tribute to a time that was no longer possible.
“Mama, why don’t you move,” Maudie asked her over and over again.
“It’s my home, Maudie,” she said as many times. “The house your father bought and loved. Besides, who would buy it and where would I go?”
“I don’t think you’re safe here any more,” Maudie protested on one such visit.
“I’m as safe here as anywhere. Everybody knows me here. Nobody would bother me,” Mama said with conviction.
“I hope you’re right, I hope you’re right.” There was no talking to Mama when she had made up her mind. Maudie knew it and Mama knew it. So they talked of other things and Maudie helped Mama with chores and small repairs. Then they had supper together in the old dining room on the “good dishes” because both Maudie and Mama liked a certain amount of tradition. After dishes were done, they sat on the porch with the screen door locked and enjoyed the breezes of the cool evening and watched the dazzle of a fiery sunset. Nearly forty years had passed since Maudie and her friends wandered freely between Clark and Palmer and Russell and Harrison Streets. It was a lifetime ago and yet as current as the recollections of a fine-tuned memory. For a long time she sat quietly immersed in what had been and what was never to be again.
As the sun began to fade and the orange sky turned to shades of pink and gray, Maudie wasn’t sure but she thought she heard the noise of children laughing and playing hide and seek. There were no youngsters to be seen and it was such a curious sound, strange and distant and faint as if from another time and yet as familiar as just yesterday. She listened carefully trying to determine the source of such incredible chants. And then she knew. It was, of course, the voices of the ghost children who roamed the streets and alleys and backyards of her old neighborhood hoping to protect those who were no longer safe to roam on their own.