Free Story: About Love (A Christmas Tale)
Mapleton, North Carolina, 1955
Joshua walked up the dirt road, his aching feet dragging, his battered work boots kicking up dust. The dust didn’t matter. He was already so dirty and sweaty that it was going to take three baths before he felt anywhere close to being clean again.
His legs and thighs ached, but that ache was nothing compared to the agony in his back and shoulders. He wiped his brow with the back of his arm and gazed toward the heavens. The summer sun was low in the sky, but still the late day heat was stifling.
Lord, give me strength…
This was his first day on the job – twelve hours breaking his back in the tobacco fields under the sweltering sun. Every muscle in his body cried out for him not to go back tomorrow, to find some easier way to earn a living. But there was no other way. And he was thankful just to have the job.
There’d been some news today that there might be trouble coming. Some woman down in Alabama had refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, and she’d been locked up for her trouble. Folks were worried that just to make sure nobody starting getting any such ideas here in Hertford County, the nightriders might make an example out of somebody. So everybody in the fields today was nervous. And nobody slacked off on the job.
He’d been walking for over two hours, and finally his little house came into view up ahead. It wasn’t much – just two rooms and an outhouse – but it was home. Their first home. He’d rented the place from the same man in whose fields he’d spent this day breaking his back.
Even looking at their home from a distance Joshua was reminded that the place needed some work, starting off with patching the hole in the tin roof before the next rain. He figured he’d get to that tonight after supper.
Lord, I’m so tired.
Now that home was in sight his aching body felt as if it wanted to give up. He felt like he could just fall out right here, lay his head in the dirt and sleep his life away.
But he kept walking.
He thought about how hard this day had been, and that all he had to look forward to was more days and weeks and months and years like this one, days in which he worked his body until he had nothing left. He thought about getting up tomorrow and the next morning, six days a week, to do it all over again. That’s how his father had lived his life, and his father before him. And that was what he had to look forward to.
He was a man, but the thought made Joshua blink back tears of despair.
Lord, why have you made my life so hard?
As he limped into his front yard the aroma of skillet fried pork chops, collard greens seasoned with fatback and fresh hot cornbread greeted him. His stomach rumbled a return call.
The front door was open, and as he reached the house she stepped out onto the creaky wooden porch. His heart jumped in his chest, and his despair rinsed away like sand in a rainstorm
Rose – his wife, his love – wore a faded hand-me-down calico dress under a worn apron on which she wiped her hands. Her coal black hair was pulled back from her beautiful brown face, which glistened with perspiration. She’d probably been cooking all afternoon on that wood-burning stove. Joshua figured it had to be hot in that house, as hot in there for her as it had been for him out in the fields. Still, when their eyes met she greeted him with a smile.
In spite of his sore feet and legs his stride lengthened and quickened, and in two steps he was on the porch and sweeping her up into his arms.
As he hugged and kissed his new bride he forgot his exhaustion and the ache in his muscles. He forgot his despair. If he had to toil for the rest of his days in fields of fire in the pit of hell it was worth it.
It was worth it because she was worth it.
ABOUT LOVE II
Long Branch, New Jersey
“Look Rosie, it’s starting to snow!” Mrs. Porter exclaimed. She was so excited that for a moment she took her hands off the steering wheel.
Rose tensed in the passenger seat and mentally prayed that this fool wouldn’t kill them. She didn’t want to die, especially right before Christmas.
It had been five years since Joshua brought them up from North Carolina to New Jersey, and in those five years she’d ridden in more cars than she had in her entire twenty-one years of life previously. But Rose still couldn’t get used to Mrs. Porter’s crazy driving. It was a wonder they gave the woman a driver’s license.
To Rose’s great relief Mrs. Porter grabbed the wheel and stopped the car just before they reached the red light at the corner of Third Avenue and Broadway. Another foot and they would have been in the boot of that big old Chrysler Imperial in front of them.
“It will be so nice to have snow this Christmas,” Mrs. Porter said. “Did you have much snow at Christmas in North Carolina?”
“No, not too much,” Rose said. She was proud that she’d remembered not to stick a “ma’am” at the end of her answer. She’d noticed that up here in New Jersey colored folks didn’t call white folks “sir” and “ma’am” just because they were white.
They turned off Third Avenue onto downtown Broadway. It was evening, and the street was lit up with Christmas lights. Decorations hung on the lamp posts. Shoppers hurried up and down and across the street amidst the gently falling snowflakes, skittering in and out of stores like bees buzzing around their hives.
To Rose the scene looked like something out of one of those nice old holiday movies. The spirit of Christmas swelled within her breast.
She hoped that Joshua would be home in time to celebrate Christmas with her and the children. If he wasn’t back from his trip in time it would be the first Christmas in their eight years of marriage that they’d be apart.
“This is so lovely,” Mrs. Porter sighed. “Lord knows we need something cheerful in our lives after all that’s happened lately. Can you believe it’s been a month since they killed the President in Dallas?”
“It seems like it happened yesterday,” Rose said. She answered her employer but her mind was on her husband, who was on the road for his company, delivering aluminum doors and windows.
They turned off Broadway onto Liberty Street, and two blocks later onto Monmouth Avenue. Rose gathered up her things as they neared her house. As Mrs. Porter pulled to a stop at the curb Rose said, “Thank you for the ride, Mrs. Porter.”
Even though they’d taken this same ride five days a week for the last four years, Rose didn’t think it hurt to show appreciation. She still remembered how Joshua walked for miles to and from the fields every day when they lived in North Carolina. Old Mr. Jenkins would never have thought to give any colored worker a ride home.
“It’s my pleasure Rosie,” Mrs. Porter said. “I really appreciate all you’ve done for me. “In fact, Mr. Porter and I have decided that we really ought to show our appreciation for all your hard work by giving you a Christmas bonus this year.”
From her purse she extracted a crisp fifty dollar bill and handed it to Rose.
Rose stared in shock at the money. This was twice as much as she made in a week cooking and cleaning for the Porter family.
This year for Christmas she and Joshua had bought a new set of cap pistols for Little Josh and a doll for baby Carol. There were still two days to go before Christmas. With this money she could buy them more toys, and get something nice for Joshua, who worked so hard to support them.
Rose fought to contain her emotions. “Mrs. Porter, thank you. We all thank you so much,” she said.
Mrs. Porter patted her hand. “Think nothing of it, dear. As I said, we really do appreciate all you do for us. And that’s something else, Rosie. I do wish you would call me Ruth. After all, I consider us friends.”
Rose went up the walk to the house blinking tears from her eyes. The Lord sure was good to them. After all their struggles in the south He’d seen His way to guide them up north to a better way of life. Now if only He could find a way to bring Joshua home before Christmas.
Nessie Thompson lived in the upstairs half of the house they rented. Nessie watched the children while she and Joshua were at work. Rose decided that she’d go into her own house and take off her coat and rest her feet for a minute before she went up to get the children. But when she opened the door to her living room Joshua was standing right there in front of the Christmas tree, holding Little Josh and Carol in each of his strong arms. He was grinning at her from ear to ear.
“Merry Christmas, Baby,” he beamed.
She didn’t remember running across the room to her family, and didn’t know how Joshua managed to hug her while still holding their babies. But Joshua had always managed to take care of his family, whether it was suffering in the sun in the tobacco and cotton fields, or finding a way to move them north to a better life. So she wasn’t surprised at anything he managed to accomplish for them.
“How did you get home?” she said into his chest.
“By driving that danged truck like I was in the Pony Express,” he said. “The boss was surprised to see me back so soon. I told him don’t get used to it, but ain’t no way I’m gonna be away from my woman and my babies for Christmas.”
Unable to speak through her emotion, Rose just hugged her man tighter.
Joshua said, “And guess what, Baby? The boss appreciated me working so hard and fast, so he gave me a fifty dollar bonus on top of my pay. Now don’t that beat all?”
“Yes Honey, that’s just about beats all,” she said. “Now come on and sit down. I’m gonna make some pork chops and collards and corn bread.”
Joshua smiled even harder. “Just like the old days, huh Baby?”
Rose handed him the fifty dollar bill given to her by Mrs. Porter. “No Husband, nothing is like the old days. I want to thank you for that – for giving us a better life.”
Joshua looked down at his wife. He remembered that hot summer day eight years ago when he’d felt so tired and helpless thinking about the future. He remembered Rose coming out onto the porch, sweating from her day over the stove.
“No, I’m the one who ought to thank you,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for wanting a better life for you, I’d still be working in the fields just like my daddy and granddaddy did. Love is what got us a better way of life. And love will always keep us.”
Rose couldn’t find the words to respond. So she held onto her man and leaked tears onto his shirt. The Lord sure is good to us, she thought again.
Joshua said, “Baby, it’s a little cold out, but do you feel like taking a walk? I don’t want you cooking tonight. Let’s go downtown and have us a nice eat out dinner. You deserve it. Nessie already said she’d watch the kids and feed them.”
They walked up Monmouth Avenue with their arms around each other. Big feathery flakes of snow flurried around them, and they walked with their heads bowed against the chill December night. But they really didn’t feel the cold. Love warmed their hearts and their spirits.
As they turned up Liberty Street and then neared Broadway, they heard the voices of carolers filling the night with holiday cheer. They stopped on the sidewalk and listened to the beautiful lyrics of Silent Night.
“Oh Joshua, do you feel it?” Rose asked her husband as they enjoyed the carolers.
“Feel what Baby?”
“God. God is out here tonight. I feel him all through my bones!”
Joshua smiled down at his wife. “He’s always out here, Baby. It’s just that sometimes, when everything seems like it’s going wrong, we forget that He’s right there, waiting for us to use His strength to get us through. Look at where we’ve been, and where we are now. That ain’t nothing but the Lord moving us with His blessings.”
“Then let’s keep moving,” Rose said. “I can’t wait till we get there!”
“You that hungry, Baby?”
“No husband,” Rose said. “I can’t wait to get to the next wonderful thing God has planned for us.”