An excerpt from ‘THE RED STROKES’
The first time Heddie Mae and Thomas Fahning met…
“Why don’t I start at the beginning? Let me tell you how we met.” She takes in a deep breath and looks beyond us, back in time. “The year was nineteen an sixty-three…”
“…Day twenty-eight of August to be sure. I remember because it was my thirty-year birthday. It was also the very day Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial an told the world about his dream. Martin Luther had been traveling the country an making great strides in his movement. Unfortunately, the south had yet to feel the benefit of his efforts.
“My husband, Artis, an his oldest brother, Louis, worked for Caleb Hollingsworth, the largest cotton producer in the entire state a Mississippi. Louis operated the picker while Artis would fix it when it would break. Although Mr. Hollingsworth paid his hired help fairly, he treated them just as poorly as his great-granddaddy might a treated his slaves some hundred years before. Artis would say that staying out a Mr. Hollingsworth’s way was the hardest part a his job, but he was good at it.
“Ms. Hollingsworth was another story. She was right friendly with the help, talked to them like she was colorblind, but never in front a her husband. She made it real hard for Artis to stay out a her way. Louis used to tell him that he better watch himself cause Ms. Hollingsworth was looking to have herself a Negro an her eye was on his baby brother. But Artis never paid him no mind.
“An then one day it happened.”
I’m not sure if Heddie Mae pauses for effect or to catch her breath. “What happened? Your husband and his boss’s wife?”
She continues as if she doesn’t hear my question. “Every year on my birthday, Artis would come home with a handful a roadside Yellowbells he picked himself an a handmade card. He couldn’t spell, but it didn’t matter none. Back then, I couldn’t a read it anyway. But on day twenty-eight of August in nineteen an sixty-three at just about dark, Artis came home trembling like a beaten dog. My Artis was a broad-backed man an there wasn’t much that scared him, but he came home afraid a his own shadow that night. For most of an hour all he could say was ‘I’s in trouble, Heddie. He gonna come after me’. He’d pace a straight line between two rooms, peek out a the window, an then sit himself down and tell me again how someone was coming after him.”
She hesitates, seemingly lost in a memory somewhere on the other side of the room. We wait. Then, as if she had only stopped to pause between sentences, she begins to speak.
“It wasn’t til some time later that I learned what happened that day, but I’ll never forget what happened next.
“We was sitting in the parlor. I was waiting on Artis to tell me what had him so out a sorts when something sounding like thunder broke open the back door. Seven a them came rushing in, knocking over everything in their way. Arnetta came in from the front porch when she heard the ruckus an one a the Klansmen backhanded her into the next room. She lay sprawled on the floor as still as dirty laundry. My mind was telling me to run but I was too scared to twitch a muscle. Artis wrapped his arm around me an pulled me into a corner, but a Klansman yanked me from him an threw me to the side like a wormy apple. I bounced off a the couch an fell to the floor so hard the room started to spin. By the time I could pick myself up they was leading Artis out a the front door. I screamed for Artis over and over until my own voice echoed in my head, but it didn’t do no good. He never did answer me. When I turned to help my girl one of the Klansmen wrapped his arm around my shoulders from behind an covered most a my face with his hand. He had such a hold a me that I thought my head would burst like an overripe melon. I clawed at his arm until I had his skin under my nails. I kicked at his legs. I tore at the sheet he wore over his clothes. I fought the holy fight an when I jerked the hood off a his head, I thought he’d beat me to my death. But he looked me in the eye an that’s when I saw it. Fear. He was as scared a me as I was a him. I wasn’t sure what to make a him being such a young thing an scared in his skin, but before I could figure it out, he bent down an pulled Arnetta up with his free arm. He drug us out the same door they had just broke down, out past the Magnolia tree an through the iron gate. I was sure he was kidnapping us an I wasn’t gonna make it easy for him. I drug my feet hard, red clay balling up on the soles a my shoes, but it didn’t slow him down none. I could hear the others whooping an hollering, getting louder with every crack a the whip. But I never heard Artis scream or beg for his life.” She lowers her head and her voice. “Looking back I’m glad about that.
“As much as I tried to fight an as far as he dragged us, that Klansman never loosened his grip even though he was sweating like he was going to the electric chair. When he finally let go a me, my knees was so weak I fell straight to the ground. Before that very minute I hadn’t realized his hand was cutting off my air so I lay there trying to catch my breath. Arnetta was in a clumsy pile next to me watching the man pull the sheet over his head before he threw it in the trunk a the car I had just that minute noticed. He kept looking back to where he’d taken us from, even when he lifted each of us by our arms an pushed us into the back seat of the car his eyes never left the house.
“He crossed two county lines an then drove us straight out a Mississippi. Before that night, I hadn’t never been out a Mississippi so I couldn’t a guessed where we was when he finally pulled over. He got out a the car an walked around back. First he opened the trunk an then he came back an opened the door where I was sitting. Until that very minute, he hadn’t spoken a word since he forced us into the car. He grabbed hold a my arm an told me that we was gonna have to get in the trunk. We did what he asked. I suppose I should a been more scared, but neither his words or his eyes was harsh an when I lifted my leg getting in the trunk he turned his head away when my dress creeped up past my knee, even though it was so dark a coon would a had trouble seeing. I pulled Arnetta in after me. She trembled as I tucked her into the crook a my legs. Once we was all settled he told us not to make a sound no matter what an then he shut us in.
“It was darker than night in that trunk an as hot as July. I felt Arnetta swallow her tears when the car started to move so I hummed my hymns barely loud enough for her to hear. Only after her breathing calmed did I let myself think about Artis. I prayed to God he didn’t suffer none an then I prayed for the strength to hold back my tears so Arnetta couldn’t hear them. I think he answered my last prayer but I couldn’t be sure. My eyelashes was stuck fast together, but it could a been sweat.”
I wipe at the tears that roll down my cheeks and hang on my jawline for a split-second before dropping to my chest. Val sits with most of her face buried between her hands. Avery stares at the table, no emotion showing in her eyes and I sense that she’s heard her grandmother’s story before.
Heddie Mae continues, her words coming more slowly. “When the car came to a stop again a short time later we did exactly what the Klansman said an kept ourselves quiet. He got out a the car and came to the trunk, but he didn’t open it. There was sounds before I heard gasoline filling the tank below us. When he was done, I heard him talking to someone but I couldn’t make out what they was saying. Then the engine started up an we was moving again. I wondered how long he was gonna keep us in there, but before I got too worried the car stopped. I heard the key working the lock an the trunk lid popped open. He didn’t say a word. He picked Arnetta up an stood her next to him an then he held out the same hand that covered my mouth earlier an helped me out a the trunk. Once we was back in the car, he got in and drove away.
“He drove all night without hardly passing another car. I rubbed Arnetta’s back cause that always helped her to sleep, but that night there was no sleeping for neither a us. I thought about Artis some more. I thought about where the Klansman was taking us an how we might escape. I thought about my throbbing backside an Arnetta’s swollen cheek. Then, just before the light a day, he made us get back into the trunk. This time we was in there longer than the first time, but just like the first time his words was kind an he helped us getting in and out. He filled the tank an made us get in and out a the trunk three more times before we got to where we was going. I figure he made us do that cause he didn’t want no one to see his white-self driving two Negro females around. I suppose he wouldn’t a had no answer for that.
“The last time we got in the car he didn’t start up right away like the other times. He just sat there an stared an stared straight ahead like he was looking into tomorrow. I saw him sneaking a look at me in the mirror a time or two an wondered what he was gonna do next. Maybe cause we hadn’t eaten or maybe cause he was watching us I don’t know, but I was feeling sick in the stomach. Arnetta’s hand tightened around mine when he turned around in his seat. He looked me in the eye an said, ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t save your husband’. An then, as fast as a jack-a-rabbit, he turned back around an put gas to the car. We was headed down the road like he was running away from his words. I didn’t know what he was planning on doing with us, but right then I knew he wasn’t going to bring us no harm.”
“Where did he take you?” I hear the shaky voice that comes from inside of me and am reminded of a scared little girl.
Heddie Mae answers. “Pennsylvania.”
Val and I look at each other and somehow I know we’re sharing the same thought yet neither of us can bring ourselves to say it. It’s ludicrous, but I know Heddie Mae wouldn’t make up something that would have such a profound effect on us. Finally, in a voice as small as my own, Val says, “Dad was the Klansman, wasn’t he?”
“Your father didn’t talk about it much, but he was born an raised southern. Although he had already moved north, he was visiting for a wedding an fell in with some a the bad sorts that ran wild every time they’d get liquored up. It wasn’t like him to do such things, but a little drinking an a little coaxing,” she clears her throat, “an he ended up at my door.”
“How were you able to forgive him?” I ask.
“Forgive him? Child, every day I thank God for sending your father to me. Had he not, I wouldn’t a been here to tell you about it.”
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Kathy Reinhart is the author of THE RED STROKES, MISSOURI IN A SUITCASE, and the award-winning LILY WHITE LIES. For more information on appearing on Ink Drop Interviews, visit her WEBSITE