Rhythms: A Novel

Rhythms: A Novel

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by Donna Hill

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It all began in 1927, in the small town of Rudell, Mississippi, after the sudden and tragic death of Cora Harvey's parents. She has nothing left except her burning desire to become a singer. But her dream will never come true in Rudell, especially if she marries the man she adores, Dr. David Mackey. So when she sets out for Chicago, everyone in the close knit

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It all began in 1927, in the small town of Rudell, Mississippi, after the sudden and tragic death of Cora Harvey's parents. She has nothing left except her burning desire to become a singer. But her dream will never come true in Rudell, especially if she marries the man she adores, Dr. David Mackey. So when she sets out for Chicago, everyone in the close knit community, including David believes that the next time they see Cora, her name will be in lights. However, it's not long before Cora finds herself back in Rudell and back in David's arms harboring a secret she dare not reveal. . .A secret that will cause her daughter, Emma to flee Rudell with no intention of ever looking back. And even when Emma finds the perfect man and happiness at last, she is determined to do whatever it takes to keep her family's shameful past at bay. Then the dream that began with Cora comes full circle with her beloved granddaughter Parris whose melodic voice fills the dimly lit nightclubs of New York City. Yet, when tragedy strikes, opening a door to the past, Parris discovers the hidden truths that have ripped the family apart—-but which may ultimately bind them together at last.

From the dusty roads of the Delta to the pulsing metropolis of New York City, Rhythms is a rich, unforgettable tale about loss and healing, redemption and love.

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Down in the Delta, somewhere just beyond Alligator, Mississippi, rests the colored section of Rudell, a community of less than five hundred, divided unequally by race, wealth, and religion by the Left Hand River. It was named such because from the top of the highest tree in Rudell the rippling river looks like a man’s left hand. Yes, it sure does.Well, today all the folks, black and white alike, moved heat-snake slow along the dusty, unpaved roads, pressed down by the heavy hand of the July sun.Towering yellow pines raised their angry fists toward the blinding white sky demanding a long, cool drink. Mosquitoes buzzed and bit, zealous in their hunt for sweet, moist flesh, especially the plump legs of little brown baby boys and girls. Good chewing grass, razor thin, glistened like emerald fire, fanning out as far as the eye could see.Funny how nature plays its tricks. Earlier that same year, the spring of 1927, the mighty Mississippi River rose higher than ever before in its history. Before its floods were over, the river had turned the Delta valley into lakes of despair. Dikes and levees crumbled, while the river swallowed whole towns and farms with an insatiable appetite that could not be stopped by man.The war between man and nature rode the ever-increasing tide. Still, months after the devastation, lost land and lost lives, recovery was a slow and painful process. The Father of Waters had spared no one, colored or white. But times being what they were, the colored who already had so little now had even less. Yet even the oppressive, relentless heat and untold tragedy couldn’t stop the parishioners of First Baptist Church from stomping and shouting on this Sunday morning just as on any other.The white clapboard building, put together plank by plank by the men of Rudell, offered them little refuge as the steam ascended from the momentum of the congregation bunched together along the crowded, wooden pews.The sun streamed in through the handblown windows casting rays of shimmering color across the wooly heads of the congregation to explode in a ball of brilliant light that gleamed off the ten-foot cross of Christ. The strongest members of First Baptist, male and female, had carried that cross in through the narrow door five years ago, piece by piece, nailing it together in silent reverence. It stood in proud testament of all they had endured. And they were grateful.Today, more than ever, they had much to be thankful for. They’d been spared.“We done seen the wrath of the Lord,” Reverend Joshua Harvey ebbed and flowed, his voice an instrument of persuasion. “His mighty hand swept the Mississippi from Arkansas to the Gulf of Mexico. Wiped out sinners and nonbelievers with a puff of his breath.”“Amen! Yes, Lord,” shouted the pulsing throng.“‘The great flood of ‘27’ we hear tell it called. I say it be the great cleanser. The Lord’s way of riddin’ this earth of those who continya ta do us harm.” He stretched out his arm and passed it over the packed room. “And y’all know who I’m talkin’’bout.”“Praise the Lord!”“But many of our innocent sistahs and brothas have suffered, too. They been left with even less than the nothin’ they had.”“That’s why we’s here t’day, Reverend,” shouted Deacon Earl, looking round to see the nods of assent.“Amen,” again came the response.“I knows y’all don’t have much,” the Reverend continued. “You works hard to feed yo’ families from sunrise till set. But it’s up to us who have little to share with those who have less.”Government relief had come to those stricken by the devastation of the flood. But it was slow coming, if at all, to some of the colored sections along the Delta.Joshua gazed out at his congregation, the beaten, the downtrodden. His dark, all-seeing eyes peered into their souls; his heart heard their prayers. He witnessed the unflinching pride in the bent backs, the clawed hands, and leatherlike faces. Sorrow shadowed their eyes, but hope hung on their lids. In each one he saw strength from a people who had seen much for any one lifetime. Still, he knew he could ask for more.“I knows what I’m askin’ is gon’ be hard for the lot of ya. But I needs ya to dig deeper than yo’ pockets. I needs ya to dig inta yo’ hearts to help those who cain’t help themselves. We here in Rudell gotta come together once again as a community and as a people.” He paused to let his words rest a spell. “The doors ta the church gon’ be open all day. Brang what chu kin. Deacon Earl gon’ be in charge of collectin’ whatever y’all kin brang.”Cora sat in the front line of the choir. The flick of her slender wrist moved the circular cardboard fan in a steady flow in front of her face. She gazed out at the rows of black bodies, a melody of color, size, and shape. They were hypnotized by the power of her daddy. Pride puffed her chest. Papa Daddy could do anything. He could make you believe the impossible, give you strength when you had none. He made it so easy for her to lift her voice in praise, as much for him as she did for the Lord. She wanted to do them both proud.Like so many colored communities, the heart and soul of Rudell could be found in the church. Reverend Joshua Harvey was the bedrock upon which Rudell was built. Their lightning rod. The calm during the storm. It was to him the white folks came when they had trouble with their coloreds, Cora thought. Daddy always found ways to make the peace. But, of course, he made them think it was their own doing. He knew white folks in a way few coloreds did in those parts. He spoke their language, knew the power of their words as well as those of his flock. Daddy carried the weight for all of Rudell on his back.While he was not seen as the equal of the whites, something in Daddy’s bearing made them tolerate his uppity ways. He was like the esteemed Booker T. Washington with the powerful white folks up north. Daddy was just like that. White folks feared as much as respected him and the quiet power he held over the town. His church was the visual symbol of that power.“I want y’all to stand now and join our choir in song.” Joshua turned briefly toward his daughter, a smile of pride on his thick lips. “Lift yo’ voices to the Almighty in thanks.”The choir stood in unison and Cora stepped forward.

David Mackey stood out on the dusty road, his starched white, high-button shirt clinging to his moist back. Even his sweat tried to find a place to hide from the beating sun, securing sanctuary beneath his stiff shirt collar.He whipped out a spotless white handkerchief from the pocket of his blue serge pants and mopped his brow, then set his straw hat squarely atop his close-cropped head.He’d fretted for hours about what to wear, wanting to make the best impression. His customary work pants and clean but frayed shirts were fine for visiting his sick and laid-low patients, but not today. Today was special.David drew up a deep breath and checked his scarred, gold pocket watch, a gift from his father.Service would be over directly, he calculated, and then he’d see her again. As a matter-o’-fact, if he shut his eyes he could see her face plain as the day is long, as he was sure it would appear while she led the choir through the strains of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” Her powerful contralto voice poured out of her tiny body, entered the soul, grabbed and shook it.The age-old cry of the weary souls seeped through the walls of the one-room building. But it was Cora Harvey’s rapturous voice that soared above them all.Cora Harvey. She was something else. A right pretty thing. He’d spotted her months ago, and upon discrete inquiries he’d found out who she was. That discovery compelled him to keep his distance as much as he wanted to do otherwise. Since then, they’d passed each other on several occasions when she made her monthly shopping trips into town. However, up until the other afternoon, she’d never paid him no never mind other than a passing wave or flashing that smile of hers. Then they’d run into each other at Sam’s market earlier that week, and she’d given him his first look of encouragement. Of course her daddy wasn’t looking. But he dared not approach her, not with the good reverend close at hand.David sighed. They came from different sides of town. Cora Harvey was a sharecropper’s daughter turned preacherman who worshipped in the Baptist Church. He, on the other hand, was the one and only colored doctor in Rudell, the surviving son of the now prosperous Mackey family, who paid his homage—at least some of the time—at the Episcopal Church on the other side of the dividing line.It shouldn’t matter none, he mused, but it did. The Baptists were considered common, while the Episcopals were made up of the few educated coloreds, those with a bit of money. As much as colored folk had endured since they were brought in chains from Africa and stuffed like garbage into the bowels of death ships, one would think that now they would band together. That was not to be. It wasn’t enough that the white folks made no secret of their disdain for the coloreds; the coloreds did it to themselves.David snapped out of his woolgathering at the sound of voices surging through the now opened church doors. He took a quick look at his shoes—which still held their shine—wiped his face one last time and walked forward.

Cora stood on the plank wood steps of the church, flanked on either side by her parents, Pearl and Joshua. She looked so soft and beautiful in her pale peach cotton dress, David thought, just like one of those dolls he’d once seen in the Sears Roebuck catalog. Her smooth, pecan-colored skin, with undertones of red, glowed as if lit by an inner sunbeam. Her thick, neatly plated hair was pulled back in one braid that fell to the center of her back, protected by a sun bonnet that matched her dress. She sure did look pretty.She shook hands with each of the churchgoers, accepting their praises of her singing with grace and the right amount of humility.“Sister Cora, that voice of yours gon’ take you straight to heaven, chile. Lordhammercy! Mark my words,” professed Lucinda Carver, as the sweat rolled in waves down her plump face.“Thank you, Sister Carver. I sure hope so.”“You just make sho’ you hold them pearly gates open for this old sister,” Lucinda chuckled, patting Cora heartily on the arm.“See you tomorrow, Cora,” Maybelle said, giving her friend a kiss on the cheek. “Is goin’ to meet Little Jake at the river,” she whispered in Cora’s ear, before running down the steps.Sassy, Cora’s friend since they were both in diapers, stepped up beside her. “That girl gon’ get herself in a heap of trouble if her mama ever finds out.” Then Sassy giggled. “Harold Jr. say he gon’ come by and sit on the porch later when it cool down some. I’ll see you later.” Sassy, it wasn’t her real name, but that’s what she was always called, skipped down the stairs.Cora watched her two friends leave and wished she had someone waiting on her, eager to see her under the stars.When the last of the parishioners filed out, Joshua slipped into his role as father, husband, and protector. “Come along, ladies. We best be gettin’ on outta this here heat,” he instructed them.Pearl eased up alongside her towering husband and slipped her arm through his.“Comin’, Daddy.” Cora took a step down when movement across the road captured her attention. She felt the muscles in her heart expand and contract, creating a moment of light-headedness. It was him, that handsome, quiet doctor who made her stomach feel funny inside.Pearl’s eyes followed the trail of her daughter’s. “Oh, Joshua, here come that nice young doctor.” She gave his arm a “come on” squeeze and a quick wink to Cora.“How nice kin he be ifn he thinks he’s too good to worship in a Baptist Church? Humph.”“Joshua,” Pearl hissed in warning as David crossed the first step.“Afternoon, Mrs. Harvey, Reverend.” David tipped his hat and looked at Cora. “Miss Cora.”“Dr. Mackey,” Cora gave him her sweetest smile and wished her mother and father would leave her be.Silence hung over the quartet as heavy as the heat. The poor boy looked so nervous from the glare Joshua was hurling his way that Pearl’s maternal instincts leaped to his rescue. “What brings you to First Baptist this hot day, Doctor?” Pearl asked, finally breaking the silence.“Well, ma‘am,” he paused and looked from one parent to the other, wishing that his heart would stop hammering long enough for him to take a breath, “I was hoping you’d allow me to take Miss Cora here over to Joe’s for a soft drink, maybe some ice cream.” He swallowed down the last of his fear and plunged on. “That’s if Miss Cora is willing.” He snatched a quick look at Cora. “I have my auto-mo-bile right’cross the road. I’d have her back in plenty of time for supper. I—”“What’chu know’bout what time we has supper?” Joshua pulled his black, wide-brimmed hat a little farther down on his brow, with the intention of giving his dark features an even more ominous look.Cora’s face was afire, and it had nothing to do with the heat. She was mortified. Here she was seventeen years old—eighteen in six months—and her daddy was treating her like a knee-high. When would she ever be able to court like the other girls she knew? Daddy was always preaching about how she needed to settle down. How was she ever supposed to do that if he wouldn’t let no respectable man near her? Not that marriage was her goal no how. It was just the whole notion of having someone interested in her, especially a doctor. All the girls would be green with envy.She wanted to know what it felt like; wanted to know what she’d heard some of the girls of the church whisper about. She had yet to be kissed. How could her daddy embarrass her this way? Maybe the earth would just open up, like she’d read about in the picture books, and swallow her whole.“Joshua, for heaven’s sake, let the young man speak his piece,” Pearl cajoled, seeing the possibilities in the union. “That sounds right nice that he wants to take Cora for a soft drink. Matter-o’-fact, I could use a long, cool glass of lemonade myself.” She looked at Cora, who flashed her a smile of thankful relief. “You ought to take the good doctor up on his offer, Cora. Don’t you think so?”“Sounds invitin’, Dr. Mackey. Is it all right, Daddy?”Joshua heard the soft plea in his daughter’s voice and saw the eagerness shining in her eyes. In that instant he remembered all too clearly what it felt like to be young. What it felt like when he’d met his Pearl. He weren’t nothin’ more than a paid slave workin’ the cotton fields. When he’d drag his weary body home after a day under the Mississippi sun, Pearl would run down the road from her beaverboard shack and bring him a tin of water and a piece of dried beef or a biscuit.“I figured you’d be thirsty,” she’d always say.“Right kind of you,” he’d answer.She’d walk with him part way down the road till he finished his water.“Thank you much, Miss Pearl.”She’d duck her head all shy. “Tomorrow,” she’d whisper and run off.That musta gone on for months. That and things they didn’t talk about no more, till Joshua said the two of them would do much better as one.“Whatchu sayin’?” Pearl had asked, taking a seat on the top of a flat rock.Joshua squeezed his hat in his hands, trying to find the right words. He shifted from one foot to the next. “You what I look for at the end of the day, Pearl,” he finally said. “Thinkin’’bout you out in dem fields makes me remember I’s still a man, not some pack mule like Mistah Jackson make me out to be. I kin be somethin’, Pearl. Somebody. You believe that?”“I knowed it from the first time I saw you hitchin’ down that road yonder.”“I got dreams, Pearl. I want to have my own church one day, preach the word. I—I want you to be a part of that.”“That yo’ fancy way of askin’ me to jump the broom wit you?”Joshua grinned like a young boy, seeing the challenge in her eyes. “I’spose.”“Then I’spose I will.”And she’d been by his side ever since, sunup to down. Never complaining, no matter how bad times had gotten. Pearl was his strength, his reason for everything. Her faith in him, her unwavering love, was his joy. And Cora was just like her.Truth be known, he’d like nothing better than to see his strong-willed Cora married off and secure. It would sho’ nuff make Pearl happy. A good, solid husband may just be the thing Cora needed to tame her willful ways. But that didn’t mean he had to make it easy for any man who thought he was good enough to come a courtin’ his baby girl. Especially an Episcopal doctor—and one from the other side of Rudell at that.“I’spose,” he finally grumbled. “We have Sunday supper at four o’clock sharp.”Pearl briefly lowered her bonneted head to hide her smile. “You might think’bout joining us, Doctor. I fix a fine table.”Joshua threw her a cutting glance, but kept his own counsel.“I just might, ma’am. Thank you.” He looked at Joshua, who gave an imperceptible nod of approval. The day is beginning to look better every minute, David thought.Cora gave her mother and father each a peck on the cheek and stepped down.“I’ll be sure to have her back in plenty of time for supper, Reverend.”“Be sho’ you do,” Joshua added for good measure.Cora couldn’t believe her luck as she walked side-by-side with David down the church steps out onto the road. The saints must surely be with her today, she mused, tossing up a silent prayer of thanks. Her father had never so much as entertained the notion of her courting, even though all the other girls her age had a steady beau. “You’re not other girls,” Joshua Harvey would boom in his preacher voice. “You the daughter of the reverend of this town, and you ain’t gon’ be seen with just anybody.”Well, Dr. David Mackey must sure be somebody, she thought, delighted.“I’m right happy your folks let me take you out for a spell, Miss Cora,” David said in a hushed voice as they crossed the road to his Model T.She looked up into his dark face, eyes like polished black opals, and her young heart panged in her chest. “So am I, Dr. Mackey.” She batted her eyes demurely as she’d seen some of her churchgoing sisters do, and she would have sworn David blushed beneath his roasted chestnut complexion.Strong, large hands caught her waist as David helped her step up into the seat, and Cora was no longer sure if it was the force of the blazing sun or a fire that had been lit inside of her that caused the surge of heat to run amok through her body. Settling herself against the soft, cushioned seat, she adjusted her hat while David rounded the hood and hopped up beside her.“All set?”Cora nodded, suddenly unsure of herself.The Model T bucked, chugged, coughed up some smoke, and finally pulled off down the rutty road, bouncing and bumping all the way. As they drove by the rows of makeshift shacks, half nude children playing in the river and old wrinkled women smoking corn pipes all stopped and stared at the handsome couple in the automobile. To see colored folks driving was rarer than having meat for dinner once a month.But instead of feeling like a specimen under glass, Cora felt like royalty. She smiled and waved to everyone who came out on the road, wide-eyed, to greet them. Little children ran alongside the car until they grew weary, and the old Model T chugged out of sight.“Did you go to Sunday service today, Dr. Mackey?” Cora asked, needing to break the silence that hung between them like clothes drying on a line.David cleared his throat. “No. Not today.” He shrugged, then chuckled lightly. “Truth be told, it’s awhile since I been to church.”Cora angled her head in his direction, surprise widening her sparkling, brown eyes. “Why? Don’t you have anything to be thankful for?”“Sure I do. Except I don’t think you need to set up in a building to give thanks. I believe that God can hear my prayers and my thanks from wherever I am.”Cora frowned, tossing around this new idea. What David was saying may well have been Greek for all the sense it made to her. It never occurred to her not to attend Sunday service. She’d been brought up and reared in the church. All of her friends attended. They had social functions, did things for the community, helped each other out in crises. Why just the other week, the sisters got together and took turns sitting with old Miss Riley, who’d been feeling poorly for months. She didn’t know what she’d do if she didn’t have her church and her church family. Besides, on Sunday mornings, she could do what she loved more than anything, raise her voice in song.“But—it’s more than that,” she protested, convinced that she was right. “It’s about belonging to something that has meaning, being a part of something.”“That may be, Miss Cora, and I don’t fault no one for going. I don’t want you to get me wrong. I do set foot in from time to time, just not right regular.” He turned briefly to her, hoping that his revelation hadn’t put her off, especially with her being the preacher’s daughter and all. But the reality was, he wanted to be honest with her.“If Christians are supposed to love all men, then what’s the difference between your church and mine? What makes one better than the other—the amount of money you put in the collection basket, how large the congregation, what side of town you worship on?” he asked with honest sincerity.Cora crossed her arms beneath her small breasts. She listened to what he said. Secretly she’d wondered the same things, but she’d never dared to voice her concerns, ask her questions.“You’re a very interesting man, Dr. Mackey,” she said, still unwilling to give in. “You done put something on my head to ponder.”“That’s a start,” he said, turning to her with a grin.It was then she noticed the deep dimple in his right cheek and knew, that barring everything else, whatever differences might separate them, she wanted to see more of him, hear his strange thoughts, and maybe become exposed to a side of life she’d never known existed.Shortly, they arrived in the center of town and pulled to a stop in front of Joe’s. David quickly hurried around and helped Cora from her seat. She immediately felt the curious gazes from the townspeople as they went about their Sunday business, the surprised look from friends of her father and mother as she took David’s arm and walked toward the shop.Voice by voice, conversation ceased as heads turned toward the open door. The heat stood like a man between them, separating them from the brown, tan, and black bodies, then was buffeted about by the slow, swirling ceiling fan—the only one in town.The interior was dim and it took Cora a moment to adjust her eyes from the glare of the outside.David glanced down the narrow aisle and cleared his throat. “There’s a table in the back,” he said, indicating the vacancy with a stretch of his arm.They proceeded through the gauntlet of probing eyes.Cora’s gaze faltered for a moment, then darted briefly about, a taut smile drawing her mouth into a thin line.“Afternoon, Miss Wheeler,” Cora, said, remembering her manners as she recognized her nosey neighbor from down the road.“Cora Harvey,” Sarah Wheeler droned, long as the quitting whistle at the cotton mill. “I didn’t know the good Reverend let you keep comp’ny” Her tiny eyes skipped across David’s face. “Dr. Mackey, ain’t you lookin’ fine this bright day.”“Comp’ny in general, or me in particular, Mrs. Wheeler?” David asked, with a tip of his hat and an extra drawl, his smile as fixed and direct as his stare.An ungloved hand fluttered to her chest. “I … I just meant … she, Miss Cora seems so young still. Well I recall when she was just a bitty thing.” Sarah’s forced laugh flapped like the wings of a feeble bird.“She seems all grown up to me,” David replied smoothly, tipping his hat in dismissal. “You take care of that foot now,” he added. “Let me know if it gives you anymore trouble. Have a nice day now.”“Why …I …”David ushered Cora down the aisle, not interested in what the old bird had to say or what she thought. What he wanted to do was ask them all to tend to their own business. But proper manners dictated that he act accordingly, especially in the company of the Reverend Harvey’s only daughter. Even he’d been taught that much on his side of town.Cora felt her chest swell with pride. He’d come to her defense, just like the gentleman she knew he’d be, even if he did have some strange notions. She raised her head a bit higher as she moved now with a slight sway to her hips, the strut of a confident woman. After all, she wore her best Sunday dress. That alone made her feel womanly, made her feel pretty and special.David pulled out the shaky, wooden chair and helped Cora get settled. He took off his hat and placed it on the comer of the table. “What can I get for you, Miss Cora?” he asked, still standing.Cora looked up and her stomach did a little dance. “A banana split with nuts would suit me just right.”“Extra syrup?”“Absolutely,” she said, her eyes sparkling with mischief.“Be right back.”Cora folded her white-gloved hands atop the table, threading her fingers neatly between each other, being certain to sit with her back straight and away from the chair and her feet planted on the floor. “That’s the sign of a true lady,” her mama would always say. “A lady is proud. Holds her head up and covers it with a hat, and she wears gloves in public. Don’t matter that you colored. You’s a lady first. Don’t you forget that, Cora, chile,” Pearl had warned on too many occasions.Cora tucked in a smile. That was one of the things she always admired about her mama, her sense of womanly pride and her strength. Her daddy, too. Especially, Daddy. Daddy didn’t back down from no man, colored or white. He didn’t duck his head or lower his eyes when he passed white folks on the street. She’d heard “uppity nigger” so often when she was coming up, if she didn’t know better she’d swear that was her daddy’s name.Joshua Harvey may have been a man of the cloth, but he didn’t turn the other cheek, and he preached that to his parishioners as often as they would hear it. His outspoken ways had made for many a tense moment with the white folks. He and Mama had even come to shouting about it.“You cain’t just go ‘round sayin’ and doin’ what you want, Joshua,” Pearl said one night, sounding on the verge of tears. “They lynch us for just’bout nothin’ as it is. If you not gon’ think’bout yo’self, at least think’bout me and Cora.”“It’s a man’s right to speak up for hisself and his family. I may be a preacher, but I’m a man first. I gots to stand up, not just for myself and my family, but for all of us. We gots to have a voice. I’m that voice.”“Here’s your split … Miss Cora,” David said, liking the sound of her name on his lips, while scattering her wandering thoughts like chickens on the run. He placed the glass tub on the rickety table.Cora’s eyes widened in delight as she ran her tongue hungrily across her lips. Chocolate syrup slithered down the side of the split, forming a rich, dark pool. “Thank you.”“I don’t see how a tiny thing like you gon’ eat all that.”“One mouthful at a time,” she said, dipping the spoon into the concoction and bringing it daintily to her mouth.David shook his head in amusement and took a seat, wrapping his long piano-like fingers around the glass of root beer.For several moments they were silent, the only sounds between them were Cora’s spoon tapping against the glass and the cubes of ice cracking as they melted in the soda.The fan swirled in a lazy, buzzing circle.David watched her lift the spoon to her mouth and slip the creamy sweetness inside. He swallowed and took a sip of his drink.Her dress clung to her young, damp body, the moisture binding it to the soft curves.A trickle of sweat ran along the line of David’s hair. He turned his gaze away from temptation and buried it in the bubbles that bumped and bounced inside his glass.“You sure know how to lick that ice cream,” he said into the glass.Cora’s face heated. She waved her hand back and forth in front of her then flapped the top of her dress in and out to circulate the hot air. “There’s an art to it,” she said. She slipped the spoon into her mouth.David pulled out his handkerchief and mopped his face. “Fan don’t do much good on a day like today.”“Don’t seem so, Dr. Mackey.” She smiled and licked her lips, feeling her womanly powers. “Doctors have to get real personal … intimate with folks, figure out what ails’em,” she said thoughtfully. “You like being close, Doctor?”David’s eyes rose from the depths of the brown brew and landed on a dot of ice cream, no bigger than a pinhead, hugging the comer of her mouth. The tip of her tongue slowly peeked out and dabbed it away.His heart pumped faster.“I mean … did you always want to be a doctor?”David cleared his throat. “I suppose,” he finally answered, twirling the thick glass in his hands. “When I was about six or so, my older brother, Cleve, got real sick. He’d got caught in a terrible lightning storm out in the fields. Fever about made him crazy. His chest rattled like rusty chains every time he took a breath. My mama tried everything to break the fever; cold baths, roots, prayer, nothing helped.”He sat back in his seat and looked off to a place Cora couldn’t see. “I remember it being so hot, the grass had curled and turned brown … .”The house smelled of sickness, sweat, homegrown medicines, and fear. He didn’t know until his brother came down low sick that fear had a smell. Smelled like something gone bad, but you couldn’t find the source. Unnatural moans came from beneath the thin, white sheet.“Why cain’t a doctor fix Cleve, Mama?” he’d asked, watching her dip a rag into a pan of cool, well water. She rung it out and placed it on Cleve’s fevered head.Betty Jean turned to her son, and the dead, empty look chilled David even in the heat. “Ain’t no colored doctors, son. And ain’t no white doctors gon’ treat him.”David felt a sinking sensation in his belly like falling from a high place. “So what’s gon’ happen to Cleve, Mama? You gon’ make him better?”Betty Jean didn’t answer her son; she couldn’t. There was things he couldn’t understand, things he wouldn’t understand until he was growed, things about white folks and colored. About the stone-cold colored line and how a life could hang in the balance and wasn’t nothin’ nobody could do about it. There was nothin’ she could tell him but the truth, and the truth terrified her. “We got ta pray,” was all she said, before lifting the pan and shuffling to the makeshift kitchen.Cleve grew worse during the night. Low sick. Fever so high you could almost see the steam rise from his burning flesh. Frantic, Betty Jean did all she could to break it: bathed him in alcohol, put cool rags on his head, fanned him until her wrist got sore. All night. All night she never left his side.When sunup came, Betty Jean, eyes red from no sleep, body bruised from the pain of watching her son suffer, wrapped her child in a hand-washed sheet and toted him the long, five miles into town.David went along, helping to hold up her thin arms as best he could when she grew weak. Finally they reached the white part of town. Folks walked by them like they were invisible.“Don’t y’all nigras knows you’spose t’ step aside and let white folks pass?” one white man with a heavy, black beard demanded.David’s body trembled, but he didn’t budge. To tell the truth, he paid the white man no mind, for his thoughts stayed on Cleve.The man pointed at Betty Jean. “Don’t make me have t’ teach you a lesson, make an example outta ya and yo’ boy.”Betty Jean’s arms shook from exhaustion, but she wouldn’t lay her burden down.“I needs a doctor for my boy, suh,” she said, eyes fastened to the ground. “He powerful sick, suh.”“You done come t’ the wrong place. I’s the doctor and I don’t take care of no coloreds. Now get on.” He waved his hand the way you shoo a fly. “Use some of dem roots y’all nigras have.” He guffawed as if it was the biggest joke, turned and walked away.Tears of heart-pain hopelessness streamed down Betty Jean’s face. She was wore out, drained. Still she clutched her near lifeless child to her thin chest, spinning ‘round and’round in a circle, raising her face to the sky. Her mouth opened. The muscles of her throat pulsed as a howled cry tore from her throat.Where was her Lawd? Where was He when she needed Him most?Meanwhile, David ran down the street, his legs windmilling underneath him in desperation. He moved from one white person to another to stop whoever would listen. The words tumbled from his lips in a stream, beseeching their kindness, their compassion, to do something, anything. “Please help my mama,” he begged of everyone who passed. One white woman tossed him a coin and told him he was cute as a little puppy before patting him on the head and moving away.David turned toward his mama, her face partially buried in the sheeted bundle. Agony ran in a ragged crisscross on her face. It was then that he fully understood that he could never risk loving anything as much as he loved his mama and his brother ever again. To do that would leave him with this feeling that was too dark and ugly to express.David absently lifted the glass to his lips and held it there, still trapped in the memory.“What … happened then?” Cora asked, almost afraid of the answer.David blinked, brought Cora’s face into focus. He saw the tears there, glimmering like diamonds on her lashes.He took a sip of his root beer. He didn’t answer.“David?” She wiped at her eyes, forgetting formalities.“He died.”Cora reached across the table and placed her hand on his, not caring what anyone thought.Trouble had never touched her life. Not really. She’d felt trouble when the mister was paid in chits for a crop rather than cash money, heard about trouble in the whispered tales of the hooded night riders who did the devil’s handiwork. Yes, Lawd, she’d seen way too many folks put under the earth much too early. But trouble, not that kind of trouble, had ever touched her life. Her parents protected her from the ugliness of it all as much as they could.She remembered standing outside of their bedroom door right after they’d heard about another lynching on the outskirts of town.“Don’t never wanna see my baby girl suffer like how other coloreds done suffered,” Joshua said. “It’s up to us to make a better place.”“But she needs to understand what’s real, Joshua,” Pearl protested. “What life is like for colored folk in the South. You got that chile thinkin’ she can do what she please down here, and she cain’t.”“Cora gon’ be just fine. She’s strong, like I taught her. Cora got dreams bigger than a husband and a houseful of younguns, Pearl.”Cora covered her mouth to keep from shouting out loud with pleasure at her papa taking her side. She pressed her ear a bit closer to the door.“That’s ‘cause you got her thinkin’ that singin’ of hers gon’ get her somewhere. Church singin’ is jes fine; it’s the Lord’s way. But that’s it. Cora needs to get behind a man, help him make his way in the world. Be his support, raise the family. Womens is what keeps mens strong, able to deal with the trickery, backbreakin’ work, and no pay. Cora gon’ make a good wife one day. You’ll see. She’ll settle down.”“But children need to have dreams of their own, Pearl. Make their own way. We can only guide’em, give’em strength to stand on they own two feet.”“That’s what I intend to do,” her mama stated. “Guide her. The right way. The Lawd’s way.”“His way ain’t always so plain,” Joshua said, his heavy voice weighed down by the simple truth. “We just wait and see what He has planned.”Cora tiptoed away, confused. She couldn’t spend the rest of her life in Rudell, with no hopes, no dreams of being any more than an old, brokedown woman with children and a husband to look after. She had hopes. Hopes of going someplace like New York or Chicago, where coloreds were making names for themselves, like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Duke Ellington, and Zora Neale Hurston. All the folks she’d read about in the magazines she hid away in her room. If her mama ever found out …But what of her mama? Was she right and papa wrong? A sadness settled over her. She didn’t want to be the root of what grew between her mama and daddy. Yet even as much as she quietly fretted about her fate, she couldn’t imagine life without either of them.She clasped David’s hand a bit tighter, sniffed back the last of her tears. “So … that’s how you reckoned with … it, huh? By becoming a doctor and all?”“I think I have. Looking after folks keeps my mind busy. Don’t make me feel so … helpless. Make me feel like I’m not … invisible.” He forced a half-hearted smile. “Stay so busy I don’t have time to think about much else. Too tired at the end of the day.”“Prayer helps when you have a heavy heart and a tired body,” Cora offered, in the only language she knew.David flinched at Cora’s last statement, looked off, then his voice grew distant. “I was the first one in my family to finish schooling. The only one who can read and write.”“My mama is a teacher in the colored school. Papa taught me to read straight out the Bible.”“I worked my way through doing odd jobs, field work, dishwashing, cook, whatever would feed me and pay for my books. Saved up my money after I finished school and bought a piece of land for my folks.”“I help out at the church every Wednesday and Saturday,” Cora said. “We collect clothes and such for some of the poorer families. Then there’s always choir rehearsal.”“My pa works the land and does real good with crops and his chickens. Ma is a dressmaker. Makes fancy dresses for Ms. Harriette’s shop in town.” Cora’s face brightened. Now that was something she could understand, a reality in her life. “That’s where I buy my church clothes,” she said. “I probably have some of yo’ Mama’s dresses in my closet.”“All the fine ladies in town wear something from Mama’s hand,” David proudly stated. “Don’t seem to matter much what side of town you live on or who your folks are when it comes to clothes.”Cora felt the bee-sting of his bitterness as if he was trying to say somethin’, but couldn’t fix his mouth to say it, so it just hung there on the tip and dripped over them both like molasses. What had she done? she wondered and realized she still held his hand. Slowly she pulled away, wrapping her fingers around the spoon instead.“Seems you have ideas’bout everything, Dr. Mackey,” she said, with an edge to her voice.“Only about the things that matter, Miss Cora,” his tone easing back to the one she could understand.“What things?” she questioned.David looked at her a moment, seeing the youth, the naive view of the world, the eagerness and daring that sparked her eyes, the sensuality that begged to be released. Cora Harvey would be a handful.“Doing what’s right. What’s inside my heart,” he said simply.Cora peered into David’s eyes, studied the angles of his face, saw the truth of his convictions on his lips. “How do you know when it’s the right thing?” she asked, needing this answer more than any other.David pressed forward. “It’s not the knowing if it’s right, Miss Cora,” he said, his voice propelled by a deep urgency. “It’s knowing when to do the right thing. You’ve got to believe in something, have something that matters, want it more than anything; and when the opportunity comes, you got to know when it’s right to take it,” he said, snatching his hand into a fist.Cora was transfixed, held there for that moment when sleep eases toward awakening. She knew what she wanted, what she wanted more than anything. When would her time come?“That’s how I feel ‘bout my singin’. When I sing I feel … like I can do anything’.” Her eyes glowed. “It’s a gift and I want to share it with the world.” She lowered her eyes. “But I’ll never get out of Rudell if my mama has anything to say’bout it.”“Ain’t nothing wrong with sharing what you got right here. These folks enjoy your gift much as anyone. Maybe even more.” His eyes trailed across her face. “I know I do.” He swallowed, suddenly shamed for having exposed himself. “I could have gone away after I finished with school,” he went on, regaining his footing. “Could have gone North. But then I figured, who needs me more, folks who can walk right into a clinic, doctor’s office, or a hospital, or the folks no one will touch’cause they’s colored?” David slowly shook his head, a gentle smile on his mouth. “The choice wasn’t hard.”“We’s’bout ready to close up, Dr. Mackey, Miss Cora,” Joe the owner interrupted, lifting the anchor that held them in place. He picked up the remnants of their fare and wiped down the table with a steamy, white rag, making the old table shine for as long as it could stay wet.Cora glanced up, hiding her disappointment behind a forced smile. She wasn’t ready to give up the time between them. She wanted to hear more, learn more.David pulled out his pocket watch. “Didn’t realize it turned late so quick.” He returned the watch to its nesting place. “Don’t want you to be late for supper.” He stood and Cora reluctantly got up as well.“Have a nice evenin’, now,” Joe said. “And tell the good reverend I’ll be sure I’m at the next meetin’.”“I will,” Cora mumbled, and followed David outside.The air had cooled considerably in the time since they’d left church. Long, fingerlike shadows crept across the road. One by one the few open shops on the short, ramshackle street began to pull down their shades, like tired lids drifting over weary eyes, their owners heading home for Sunday supper. Soon the small community would be no more than a whisper, a rush of dust and hot air, until life bloomed again tomorrow.Everything would be closed long before dark. No colored folk in their right mind would be out after dark in Rudell. It wasn’t safe.“Didn’t mean to keep you so long, Miss Cora,” David apologized, helping her into her seat. “Time got away from me.” He came around to the other side and hopped up next to her.“I didn’t mind,” she said softly, looking up at him from beneath her lashes. “I never met no one like you before, with big ideas and new thoughts.”He turned toward her for a moment. “I didn’t mind either. Your company sure is pleasant. I, uh, hope it won’t be the last time.” David started up the car, and they chugged down the road.Cora knew he could hear the pounding of her heart. It sounded like angry thunder in her ears. “Neither do I.”They were silent for a part of the ride, the sounds of evening turning’round every corner—creek water running over rocks, hoot owls preparing to settle down, unseen critters pressing the grass beneath their four feet—kept them in familiar company.From the comer of her eye, Cora snatched glimpses of David’s side view. He was handsome for sure. Tall and lanky, a right pretty brown, like tree bark. Even, white teeth and serious, dark eyes, rimmed with thick, long lashes. Hardworking. Had ideas about things, made her think. But he was reserved, cool almost. Even when she cried at his horrid story and held his hand, it was like she weren’t there. Mama and Daddy was always huggin’ and kissin’, showing affection. She was accustomed to being wrapped up in their love, embraced by the church folk. But she wanted to know what it felt like for herself, just once. Thought David would be the one, but he didn’t seem to have much more interest in her than in a housefly.She folded her arms and pouted. Weren’t she pretty enough? Maybe he figured he was too good for her, he being a doctor and all and educated at college and such, and her just being a preacher’s daughter. Or maybe he was just taking her out to be nice, felt sorry for her or something. She didn’t need nobody feelin’ sorry for her.The car came to a stop. Cora looked around. They were in front of her house.“Safe and sound and on time.” He turned to her, surprised by the hard set to her mouth that had only a short time ago seemed petal soft. “You all right, Miss Cora?”She turned, her dark brows crocheted in knots. “Fine. Thanks.” She quickly opened the door and got out before he had a chance to help her and slammed the car door, the noise ricocheting through the woods.David hurried’round to the front of the car, seconds before Cora was ready to stomp off to the house.“Miss Cora.” He touched her arm, careful not to grab her. He looked toward the house and saw the curtain lift in the window. Cora saw it, too.“Have I done somethin’ to offend you, Miss Cora?”His voice sounded strained, confused, as if he really didn’t know what he’d done.“You ain’t done nothin’,” she answered, suddenly ashamed of her unladylike behavior.“So what’s wrong? Did you have a nice time?”Cora looked up at him, to the sadness that hung in his eyes. “Yes. I had a fine time.”David bobbed his head, relief easing the skin on his face. He glanced toward the window again and knew if he didn’t speak soon it might well be too late. “I, uh, was wondering if you might like to go inta Jackson with me next Saturday to the picture show. If it’s all right with your folks,” he added quickly.Her stomach started feeling funny again. “Yes,” she blurted out, a smile like sunrise moving across her mouth.David ducked his head a moment. “I’ll come for you’round noon.”“I’ll be ready.” She smiled coyly like a young schoolgirl.They stood there, uncertain of what to do next. David stepped closer, almost reached for her. Cora felt her heart beat out of time. She tilted her face upward, anticipating.The sound of her house door opening halted any further discussion, any further hope. Cora knew her mother was watching, but still she didn’t want to leave, not just yet. But she had to.“I better go,” she said, breathless and disappointed.David waved to Cora’s mother, who returned the acknowledgement but didn’t move off the porch.“Maybe I should ask your folks now if it’s all right.”Cora pressed her hand to his chest. “No, I’ll talk to’em. It’ll be fine. I’ll see you Saturday. At noon.”She turned, quick as a butterfly, and ran toward her house.RHYTHMS. Copyright © 2001 by Donna Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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