Read an Excerpt
• Prologue •
Since my name has appeared in the newspaper following our arrest, my entire moral character is being drawn into question. In town, at the Market, I notice people finger-pointing and whispering, and upon quick return to my car on Broad Street, I see one enterprising soul has broken an egg on the windshield. Now I’m reluctant to even go downtown. Over the years I’ve always drawn a bit of attention, the oddball stare or squinting curiosity; there’s speculation, a certain notice of my clothes, whispered gossip. They might even know I’m a nurse.
People who don’t know Dr. Crampton might imagine him as some kind of back-alley butcher in a bad part of town, slicing open unfortunate women lying naked under a bare lightbulb. The truth, however, is that Dr. Crampton has for over half a century been our city’s leading Negro citizen. His widely respected medical practice opened in 1904, and prior to our arrest, no lawman would have dared tamper with him, for he is also a full-fledged member of a political machine as proudly crooked as any in the nation. He is the state’s deputy secretary of health and a vice-chairman of the Republican Party.
Yes, Dr. Crampton has always played his cards right, moving about town in king-sized late-model Lincolns, chauffeured by men who are sometimes as shockingly white as the gloves they wear. I’ve witnessed firsthand how Dr. Crampton throws money around; he greases big wheels, plays Daddy Benefactor, buys flowers, medicine, mortgages, baby carriages, and Negro votes, which for decades have been delivered to his Republican friends.
Not only is Dr. Crampton the undisputed leader of the Seventh Ward, which is colored, but in 1919 he founded the Negro YMCA, and he also sits on the governing boards of any number of banks, churches, medical groups, and charities. For me, it’s been an honor to work for this astonishing man, to attend the many tributes and testimonial dinners held on his behalf, where citations from governors and senators are bestowed. In fact, his commanding presence is such a certainty of life in our city that on the morning of the 14th of November the whole town gasps when we are arrested.
The police ransack his well-furnished yellow townhouse, root out the ground floor’s medical offices, then climb upstairs to his private quarters, where his closets are emptied, his dresser drawers dumped, his fine wardrobe tangled: silk ties, shoes, shirts, suspenders, and spats. In every room hand-knotted Persian rugs are heaved up and piled into mountains, leather-bound books are swept from mahogany shelving, and his collection of French portraits and American landscapes are pulled from the walls and stacked like firewood. Even the furnace in his basement and the meat in his kitchen freezer are examined.
A short time later the police proceed uptown to my own house at 2311 North Third Street. In their report they describe it as a three-story, red-brick dwelling with pillared porch and mansard roof. Recently our city’s ill-conceived Capitol extension project has caused many great houses in Harrisburg to decline, as angry displaced Negroes without the means to make repairs move farther uptown with every passing month. But everyone knows that if you live above MacClay Street, as I do, the neighborhood is unlikely to change. It will remain elegant, wealthy, and white. The police rarely have business here.
Dewey, my husband, answers the knock. The tough voices at the door alert me.
I quickly lie down on one of the beds in the dining room, pull a cover up over my clothes, and pretend to be ill.
The men enter. I can see the cops silently glance at each other as they count the number of beds in the downstairs rooms.
“You Verna Krone?”
“You work for Doctor Crampton?”
“I’m a licensed nurse,” I answer.
“Well, you’re under arrest for illegal surgery.”
I lie back as if too sick to move and let them search the house. Dewey follows them around like a bellhop waiting for a tip.
Left alone for a moment, my wits gather and a guise of tough calm overtakes me. I can’t believe they’ve stated the crime so obliquely, but of course they can’t make an arrest without making some kind of charge. “Relax,” I whisper to myself. “Relax into the conflict.” Isn’t that what Dr. Crampton would do? From the hallway closet upstairs, one of them removes enamel basins—a full dozen—several cartons of sanitary napkins, and some freshly sterilized syringes. It all gets lugged downstairs. “Why all the Kotex?” the fat one asks.
“Is there a law against menstruation?”
They cringe. Female stuff. My belligerence irritates them.
“Why all these syringes?”
“I’m a nurse. I make house calls,” I say, sounding plenty peeved to be answering such questions. Meanwhile I’m relieved to see they’ve found nothing of significance. The joke’s on them. A day earlier and the house would have been full of women.
They want to take me downtown, but I tell them I am too sick to travel. They’re puzzled, demand to know what ails me.
“I’ve got a serious condition with my vertebrae,” I say. “My orthopedist has prescribed total bed rest. Take me downtown and you’ll cause permanent injury to my spine.”
They don’t like it but are afraid to call my bluff.
“We’ve got orders,” the taller one stammers.
“Well, you’ll contend with Harvey Taylor if you try to move me,” I say, making tough, like I could wrestle and hog-tie both of them.
The detectives are dumbfounded. Harvey Taylor runs the state and these boys know it. For the time being my lie works. They exit.
The night drags. I lie awake and speculate, afraid to use the phone, afraid to leave the house, afraid to fear the worst. Early the next morning the detectives are back and, spine or no spine, insist I accompany them to the courthouse, where Dr. Crampton has been sitting up all night waiting to see the judge. My condition requires me to put on quite an act of pain, suffering into my black cashmere coat and fox-fur collar, hobbling out to the car, wincing at every step. It’s all for show, but if I keep it up, maybe it will allow me to return home and not be placed in a holding cell.
When I enter the courthouse, Dr. Crampton lifts his gaze to look at me. His lips press together in the faintest recognition. I nod, almost imperceptibly, pretend to barely know him. Our courthouse isn’t segregated, but on that day it might as well be, for I take a seat on the far side of the waiting room, as far away from Dr. Crampton as possible.
If I had it to live over again, I’d do it differently. I’d find my courage, sit beside him, renounce the detachment, wide as an ocean, that pulls me from the dear man who is losing everything. But on that day—after being arrested—I will not stir. I will not admit to feeling anything for him: no good can come of it.
Our arrest is teaching me the limits of my daring. Even now, it surprises me how before that day I never really accepted that Dr. Crampton was colored. I preferred to view him as the sole member of a separate species, unique, unbound by the conventions and problems of ordinary Negroes. But of course he’s not white either, and now trouble shows his skin growing ever darker and affirms the folly of my self-serving vision. Dr. Crampton is being stripped of his special privilege, and it’s time to recognize that he is a Negro, and I am white.
Till the day I die, I will regret that day, and how the safety of my own race seduces me to disengage from his, to suddenly follow previously ignored codes. The change is subtle, almost unnoticeable; only he can detect it. The notice gets chiseled on his heart: Let your ship of misery pull away, I am staying ashore.
In America we are born knowing a Negro can pull a white woman down simply by association. And a Negro on his way down? Well, perish the thought.
It isn’t done. It isn’t done. It isn’t done by me.
Affections for a Negro man that run as deep as mine are not appropriate. They menace. Imagine what can come of them. Probably a majority of people believe our relationship is or was romantic or sexual. They assume he lusts for me and I for him. They wink at the notion of a professional partnership, a collegial cooperation between a Negro man and a white woman.
By the time we see the judge, it’s late in the day and I’ve been named as codefendant. My brain slows like cold molasses, stuck with one thought: Are we in for a soft rap on the knuckles or a real prison sentence? No one seems to know.
“Not guilty,” I say, following Crampton’s lead, trying to sound confident. Once the bail money has been posted, we are free to go. Latenight phone calls go out to Dr. Crampton’s friends, but now, suddenly, few can afford to take his call. The situation is too dangerous.
Pending the trial’s outcome, and because of the unpleasant attention I drew at the Broad Street Market, I’ve retreated here to the farm, where I’ll stay until all this has been decided. It’s a fruit farm, one hundred acres, less than an hour north of Harrisburg, with a breezeway connecting the main house to a small stone summer kitchen. Inside is a big black range, where in warm weather I cook and do the canning—and at any time of year come to sit when I need to brood on something.
Crampton has always warned me not to keep records and maybe he’s right. Maybe I should’ve just written our business down in the dirt and let the rain settle it. But now, after the arrest, I’m glad a record exists, hidden in the summerhouse under the walnut dry sink, a dishwashing stand no longer used in this day and age. Here two gallon jugs of vinegar rest on a slab of soapstone, and when all that’s taken out, two boards can be lifted to reveal a false bottom.
The ledger stored there measures five by seven inches and sits more than an inch thick. The cover is worn and battered from fifteen years of duty. Moisture and passing years have warped the paper, but each page lists the names of nine patients, complete with addresses and phone numbers—front and back make eighteen—the entire book holding more than five thousand names. Each woman was also required to list a person we could contact in case of an emergency. When you add those names in, ten thousand people are listed. The book is a map not just of Harrisburg but the entire state: Main Line mansions near Philadelphia, shacks in the coal regions up north, missions on skid rows everywhere. Sometimes, in the margins, I note who referred a particular girl, inking in senators, congressmen, and clergy. Harrisburg is only ninety miles from Washington, D.C., and a handful of referrals have even come from White House administrators working under Roosevelt, Truman, and most recently Eisenhower. Can anyone on this list get our case thrown out of court?
Some people live without compasses, and for years I’ve counted myself among them, roaming whatever moral direction I pleased, changing course if and only when it suited me. But the arrest brings uncertainty. On the one hand, I’ve always believed discretion for our patients to be sacred. On the other, I didn’t expect to retire so soon. Why should we take the fall when ten thousand others are complicit? The ledger is a dangerous double-edged weapon. It can be guided to favor our case or turned to give evidence against us.
I leaf through the book and remember the faces, the horrible stories: incest, beatings, rape—and ordinary housewives who just didn’t want another baby. Every case was different: girls under twenty, wide-eyed and frightened, women over forty, tired and drawn, career girls, sensible and sure, tough girls who often cried more than the others, bad girls who were foulmouthed and mean, the sick, the abused, the adulterous, the jilted, the lovelorn, the mentally infirm, and of course the damned. We saw every religion, every educational background, and every size of bank account. Some of the women hemorrhaged, and there was that lone woman from Lewiston, an attractive bookkeeper, the only patient in fifteen years we ever lost. She bled to death.
Some of the women befriended me and over passing time still send me Christmas cards, grateful to have been in the hands of a good doctor and not left to one of the butchers. Other women came and went and are long forgotten. Our practice was the place where women’s terrors intersected women’s dreams. And would I have cared about any of it if I hadn’t also been making piles of money?
I’m forty-four years old, and suddenly I see how I’ve blinded myself to the many small, regrettable qualities I possess—pride and greed foremost among them. Over the years a series of tiny transgressions has led to even greater ones, and now I’m left to weigh the stone I carry around where my heart used to be.
I’ve never been good at keeping a diary. Looking back, the age and experience I’ve acquired seem to heighten my naiveté and ignorance. I read my old words and feel stupid all over again, and like many people who keep records, I’ve grown obsessed with hiding this one, always fearing the secret reader who will stumble across it and snoop on me. Yet now I realize I’ve always written with just that person in mind. Many times I’ve thought of tearing up the book or placing it in the fire, but I’ve held on. I stare at it and somehow its pages lay my life bare. Herein I see myself as others might.
Still, this ledger cannot replace what I remember, for now I see that what one doesn’t write is often more important than what gets written. Perhaps none of this matters to anyone but me, but I am someone, and suddenly it seems important not to forget that lonely, dirt-poor girl I once was—if only to know how I ended up here, to know how I became Verna Krone.
© 2010 Jackson Taylor