First published here
Olivia Clark couldn’t find it. The punch for her Braille writer had rolled off the counter and apparently into oblivion. She was on her knees, feeling the floor, foot by foot, grumbling. Woofy, her ever-happy dog, thought it was a game. He danced around, nuzzled her neck and generally got in the way.
“God, Woofy. Go away someplace. You’re not helping.”
The screen door admitted plentiful sunshine, but it would never be enough. What it did admit this afternoon was the sound of a man’s voice calling her name, probably from the back gate that opened to the alley.
“Mrs. Clark. Mrs. Clark, you there?”
She brushed off her knees and hands and went to the door. Woofy went, too.
“I’m here. Who is it?”
“Levi Jackson. May I talk to you about furniture?”
“Well, I suppose. Come on in.”
Who would come to her back gate on a Saturday afternoon to talk business instead of going to her furniture store on a weekday? Woofy sat next to her. He wasn’t concerned, so it was probably fine. The dog was a good judge of character. The man crossed the deep yard and stood on her back porch, a few feet from the screen door so as not to crowd it.
“Thank you. Nice dog you have there.”
Olivia felt Woofy wiggle. He knew he was being complimented.
“How may I help you, Mr. Jackson? I usually do business at my store.”
“Yes, ma’am. I understand, but I’m new to the area and I didn’t know the proper way to approach you. I’ve been by your store a few times. You carry beautiful furniture, and I make beautiful furniture – least, I’ve been told so. I wondered if our interests might be mutually beneficial.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“I’d like to show you a piece of my work. If you like it, maybe you’d just put it in your showroom to see if it will sell. If it does, we split the money and maybe you’d want more of my work. If we get that far, we’d figure out the money part.”
“Interesting. Bring something to the shop on Monday and my associate and I will check it out.”
“If you don’t mind, I have a piece in my truck, back in the alley. Could I just bring it up here to the porch for your inspection?”
“Well, I guess so. Okay, bring it up.”
He was a bit pushy, all right, but there was more politeness than push, so she accommodated him. She heard him walk to the gate, then re-enter the yard. When she knew he’d reached the porch, she stepped out. Woofy gleefully joined her and greeted the man. She heard Mr. Jackson set down a medium-weight item. She stepped in that direction with her hands outstretched. She was uncomfortable under a new person’s scrutiny.
“I’m pretty much blind, but I know furniture,” she said defensively.
“I see,” he said. “No, I didn’t mean I can see, I mean . . .” He lost his composure.
“It’s all right. I use that word. I even watch TV. Don’t be uncomfortable. I’m not. Now let me look at this piece.”
He wasn’t sure if she was teasing or taunting him, but her eyes twinkled. There was no sign of blindness there.
She felt that it was only three feet tall, so she went down on one knee. It was an occasional table. The finish of the round tabletop felt like satin. The border around the top was an intricately carved vine with leaves. Three carved legs curved down until they met and diverged into four claw feet.
“This is exquisite. You made this? And you want me to sell it for you, right?”
“Yes, Mrs. Clark. That would make me very happy. I’m proud that you like it.”
“I love it. I’m tempted to just buy it for myself, but let’s see what we can get for it at the store. If the rest of your work is this good, we’re going to make some money together. Will you take this by the shop on Monday?”
“If it’s not an imposition, could your man pick it up from here? I don’t mean to be mysterious, but I’m working in Vicksburg and I can’t exactly get to your shop during regular hours. I’m sorry. If he could pick it up, I would come back to your back gate next Saturday and find out if anyone was interested in it. I’ll park out back again.”
“Sure. We can make that work. Next time just come up to the back door. I can get this in the house by myself for now. Jackson, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, Levi Jackson.”
She knew he didn’t offer to take the table inside because he was a stranger at the home of a widow who lived alone. There were strict social rules in the mid-1950s. She appreciated that he knew them. Levi walked toward the back gate and the Golden Retriever trotted along beside him. The stranger had obviously made a hit with the four-footed member of the family.
Monday morning came and Olivia had her associate, Monroe, pick up the new table. He was an expert craftsman himself and made some of the furniture they sold. He also had the responsibility of scouting for new work and refinishing items that had been loved too much.
“Where the dickens did you find this guy?” he asked after looking over the table. “This might just be better than my work, even. Might be, I said. Anyway, let’s price it and get it on the floor. When do I get to go look at his other work?”
“Monroe, he just showed up at my back gate. Said he’d seen the furniture in our store and thought we might be interested in his work. Have you seen anyone come in and look around like a craftsman might?”
“Nope. Sure haven’t, but I’m out a lot. Ask Norma.”
“Well, anyway, he works in Vicksburg so he’ll just come to my house next Saturday to see what’s happened with the table.”
“You want me to be there with you? We don’t know this guy.”
“Thanks, Monroe. He’s just fine, and Woofy has given his approval so there won’t be a problem.”
Norma, the office assistant/bookkeeper, logged in Levi Jackson’s table, and the three of them put a pretty price on it. Monroe placed it in a prominent position at the front of the store. Lookie-loo customers cooed over the piece. It was only Wednesday when a society lady from Vicksburg spotted it and just had to have it. They could have jacked up the price, and she still would have bought it. She wanted to know when the store would have more work from that craftsman. Olivia smiled confidently and said, “Soon.” Olivia gave the customer’s check to Norma for bookkeeping entry and deposit.
Olivia told Norma she’d need sixty percent of that amount rather than fifty percent as payment to the carpenter. On a hunch, she asked Norma for the amount in cash and in an envelope.
The week dragged on in boring cadence. Olivia was anxious for Saturday afternoon when she could give Levi Jackson his money and talk about future collaboration. They locked up at the shop’s usual half-day closing on Saturday, and Olivia tapped her white cane along sidewalks as she walked home in the increasing summer heat. Once at home, she let Woofy into the house from the fenced-in back yard, opened windows for a draft, and changed into slacks and a shirt. She was again in the kitchen when Levi knocked at the back door. Woofy chuffed happily and got to the screen door before she did.
“Mrs. Clark, it’s me, Levi Jackson.”
“Hello.” She pushed open the door. “Please come in.”
“You sure? I can stay on the porch.”
Olivia laughed at him. “I promise I’m not a closet psycho. You’re perfectly safe. Come on in.”
She could see his outline against the sun coming through the door. He was tall and broad-shouldered.
“Pull up a chair at the table. We’ll talk some business. I have sweet tea in the fridge. Would you like some?”
He laughed. “It’s always called sweet tea down here, isn’t it? Yes, ma’am. Please.”
She got out glasses, ice and poured tea. She stepped to the table and put down the glass in his direction.
“That confirms what I’d thought. You sure don’t sound like Mississippi and you’re not used to sweet tea. So, where are you from?” She sat down across from him. Woofy dropped to the floor next to her.
“St. Louis. I had an uncle down here who passed and I was his closest relative. I barely knew him, but there was no one else, so I inherited his little house and a piece of land out in the county. I thought I could use the peace and the opportunity to focus on making furniture, my first love. I got a job in Vicksburg to pay the bills, and here I am.”
“Speaking of furniture, I’ll be right back.” Olivia went into the front hall and retrieved the envelope from the hall tree’s drawer.
Back in the kitchen, she ceremoniously presented it. “Your first paycheck from Clark’s Finest Furniture. We put a worthy price on it, and this is your sixty percent. It wasn’t right for us to keep half.”
She heard him open the envelope and ruffle through the bills.
“That’s very generous. Thank you, ma’am.”
“The woman who bought the table asked when we’d have more of your work. I want to keep your furniture in our shop – as frequently as you can get it to us. In the future I propose a sixty-five/thirty-five split. You should get a larger portion. It’s fair. What do you think?”
“I think it’s a generous offer, very generous, and having my work in your shop is a great opportunity. I actually didn’t expect it to go this well. Yes, ma’am. Let’s do it. Thank you. I’m nearly finished with a three-shelf bookcase. Would you want that?”
“You bet I would.”
The pause that followed was awkward.
“May I say something not about business?” asked Levi.
“I don’t know how long it’s been hard for you to see, but you get around so well. You move so easy, graceful. I didn’t think that’s how it worked with blind people. I hope I’m not out of line.”
Olivia smiled and her cheeks flushed. She found herself telling the story of the diagnosis of incurable Retinitis Pigmentosa, the steps she and her late husband took to arrange the shop and their home for her ease, and then Hank’s cancer and death. As the story unfolded, Levi refilled their tea glasses and didn’t interrupt.
“I can’t believe I’ve talked so much about myself. I don’t usually do that.”
“I thank you for letting me know those things. You’re very brave. I never met anyone as brave as you.”
Olivia was flustered and surprised with herself.
“I’ve taken too much of your afternoon, Mr. Jackson. When do you think you’ll have the bookcase?”
“I can bring it here next Saturday if that’s acceptable. And I’ve enjoyed the visit – and the sweet tea.”
“Now, you’re teasing me,” said Olivia.
He rose and patted Woofy before exiting the back door.
“I’ll be back next Saturday.” His voice was deep and musical.
As the week wore on, Olivia told herself that she was anxious to see the bookcase. She’d been a widow for years now, but couldn’t quite admit that she was looking forward to Levi. She liked him. Olivia made herself stay in the living room on the following Saturday afternoon so she wouldn’t appear too anxious, though she’d put on what she thought was her prettiest shirt and tried to style her hair. They had sweet tea, pie and conversation. The next Saturday, it was a coffee table more lovely than any that had been in her shop. As she examined the table, he described the features and ran his hand over the inlaid design on the surface, her fingers touched his, paused and pulled away. Levi carried it into the living room for Monroe to pick up. They sat at the kitchen table for coffee.
“Olivia, I think there’s something I need to be clear about. I hadn’t thought I’d have to talk about it, but, in this case, I guess I do. This is awkward. I enjoy our visits a lot, look forward to Saturday afternoons here – maybe too much — but I don’t think you know . . . Okay, I’ll just say it . . . I don’t think you know I’m colored.”
“Oh . . . well . . . my goodness. I hardly know what to say. Levi, it just never crossed my mind.”
“Does that mean you don’t want my furniture? Or maybe you want me to deliver it some other way? Just tell me what you want me to do.”
“Of course I want your beautiful furniture, and it’s selling as fast as we get it in. That’s business.”
“Then does it mean you don’t want my friendship?”
Olivia struggled, thought, and struggled some more.
“This is not a situation I’ve encountered, Levi. I guess a lot of people wouldn’t want us to be friends like this, but I think I do. If you do, that is.”
“Of course I do. Very much.”
“Then why don’t you stay for dinner?”
With the hurdle behind them, Olivia and Levi both relaxed and their Saturday routine began. Levi would drive away after delivering the new piece of furniture. He’d go about a mile – changing up directions each time – park his truck, and then walk back through neighborhood alleys and tree lines. Olivia would extinguish the back porch light and other illumination at the rear of the house so no one would see him return. Once inside, with doors and drapes closed, they prepared dinners together, shared their lives and thoughts, played with the always -present Woofy, and held each other.
Late in the night, Levi would similarly slip away. They candidly discussed the danger in what they were doing, but their only choice was caution, not conclusion. They considered their uncertain future.
Monroe grew restless with the odd arrangement of picking up new furniture from Olivia’s house.
“Why doesn’t this guy come to the shop? I’d like to show him my workroom. He could even do his work there. What’s wrong with him? Some sort of alien spaceman?”
“Yeah, that’s it, Monroe. He’s from Mars. Get real. It’s just a work schedule issue. I guess this is the only way he can get pieces to us. I think his work – and the money he’s making us — is worth any inconvenience you feel, don’t you think?”
Olivia’s across-the-street neighbor, Ed, had been Hank’s best friend and had done his best to look after Olivia since Hank’s death. He stopped her one Saturday afternoon as she started up the sidewalk to her house.
“Hey, Livvy, You okay?”
“Of course, Ed. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I just think you need to be careful right now about keeping your doors and windows locked at night.”
“It’s cooling off, Ed, but what’s got you fretting about my windows being open or closed? You afraid of the boogey-man?”
“Maybe. I’ve seen a colored man creeping around the alleys around here. He couldn’t be up to any good. You need to be careful. You know how they are.”
“Oh, Ed, he’s probably just some poor soul trying to get home or to a job.”
“Whatever he’s doing, he shouldn’t be doing it here. He needs to get back where he belongs.”
That night, Olivia met Levi at the darkened back door of her home. They embraced and sat at the kitchen table. Olivia told him about the questions being raised by Monroe and Ed.
“People are getting suspicious. I’m scared – mostly for you. Maybe we shouldn’t see each other for a while. You know how bad this could be.”
“No, they’re not going to drive us apart. I’ll be fine and I’ll think of something. I promise. I’ll come back tomorrow night. I’ll figure out what to do to keep us safe and together. We’ll talk about it tomorrow night. I promise. We’ll be all right. I love you, Olivia.”
Olivia knew he would know what to do. She trusted him unquestionably and would follow whatever plan he devised.
Late that night, the first frost decorated Beederville with faerie dust. One might have thought that nothing could go wrong among such delicate beauty. Somewhere in her sleep, Olivia was aware that Woofy was whining, then barking. The front door crashed open and Woofy yelped painfully. She couldn’t count the number of heavy boots running to her bedroom. Levi bolted out of bed and yelled at her to be still. Voices, fighting, dragging. She knew that men had attacked Levi, beat him and dragged him outside. She jumped up, grabbed her housecoat, started out the room, stopped, remembered, and frantically rummaged through a nearby drawer. In her haste to get outside, Olivia painfully bumped into walls and furniture. She picked her way through the broken door and could see a towering, bright light coming from her lawn. Jesus, God. A burning cross. She could make out the shapes of figures in front of the light. She knew what they were. She knew they had Levi. And she knew what would be next. She was more frightened than she’d ever been. Olivia cautiously got down the steps to her sidewalk without falling.
She heard Levi’s voice. “Get back inside, Olivia. Get away from here.” She heard men hitting him again and again.
When she took two steps forward into her yard, she raised Hank’s nearly forgotten pistol and fired it into the sky.
“Stop. You just God dammit stop right now,” she screamed. “You’re all cowards, hate-filled, sniveling cowards. Leave him alone.”
She didn’t know that porch lights popped on at a few neighbors’ homes.
“You’re afraid of anything that’s different, aren’t you? And so you choose to hate it and then destroy it. Is he different? Maybe. Look at me. I’m for sure different. I know some of you stare at me when I walk downtown. Must be something wrong with a blind lady. So string me up, too. C’mon. I bet old Tom Bowden’s in my yard. Tell us about your wife, Tom. How long has it been since Bitsy’s been outside your house? I hear she has fearful, nervous shakes if she so much as looks out the open door. I call that different. Let’s hang her, too. Mr. Bailey, your son can’t talk for stuttering. No one can understand a thing he says. That’s terribly different. We should hang him, too. And then there’s your seventeen-year-old daughter, Mr. Willems. She may never get out of high school since I hear she can’t even read. What’s wrong with that? It’s just awfully different, don’t you think? And my favorite – Mr. Haskins. How many times have you found your lovely wife out at the Lotus Motel with some other man? That’s shameful different. If you’re going to start killing everyone who’s different, who you’re afraid of, then you’d better kill all of us and, if you do, who’s going to be left in Beederville? Now, get the hell off my yard and don’t you ever come back.”
Through his quickly swelling eye, Levi could see neighbors in their nightclothes standing silently on their porches.
Olivia dropped to the ground, finally sobbing. No one said anything, but she heard men’s footsteps walking away, one and two at a time. She was only sure they were gone when Levi came to her and lifted Olivia to her feet. He held her tightly, disentangled the rope from his neck and threw it at the base of the fire.
“I’m all right, baby. Let’s get in the house.”
He blocked the front door as best he could and she gave him the first aid kit to tend to his wounds.
When Norma opened the shop on Monday, she found an envelope addressed to Monroe and herself that had been slipped under the front door. Inside were instructions from Olivia in unfamiliar handwriting. The pages detailed what should be done if the two wanted to keep the store open and another list concerned the possible sale of the shop. There were also directions about her house and furnishings. Her younger sister, Gail, should be contacted in Vicksburg regarding the house’s sale. Monroe and Norma were to contact Gail at any time they needed to ask questions or forward information or funds to Olivia. Gail would know where to reach her – some place safe where she and Levi could be together without fear.
Levi, Olivia and Woofy were gone.