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Her body twitched at the tender touch of his fingers. "I'm sorry, honey," she whispered, "I didn't mean to wake you."
"You didn't, sweetheart. Lady's barking woke me."
"It's been a busy day, and I know you're tired," she said, turning toward him and running her slender fingers down his naked arm. "Your momma and I finally got the house back in order."
John felt a warm sensation well up from deep inside as he lay breathing softly, watching Eunice and thinking of all the joy she had brought into his life. These were sweet and pleasant days. Life was better than in those early years. While still in high school, he had worked part-time in the coal mines of West Virginia, those same damp and dirty mines that had turned his father's lungs black and shortened his life. John still didn't like to think about those days. It had been too late for his father, but it wasn't going to be too late for him. It had been difficult for John to leave his family and friends, but he knew what could happen if he stayed. He might end up like his father, spending his last days gasping for air. Following his father's admonition to 'quit the mines,' John packed his bags and moved to Burlington, North Carolina, to live with his Aunt Clara and Uncle Henry. Uncle Henry worked for the East Coast and Southern Railroad for many years and was able to get John hired on with one of the railroad's track maintenance crews. John moved to Unionville, which was closer to his work, and it was there that he met Eunice.
It had been a sunny Sunday afternoon at a church picnic. He had seen her before from a distance, during services, but he had never seen her up close, and never like she looked that day.
He heard laughter coming from a small group of children gathered together, sitting on the grass under a large oak tree. Standing before them was a young lady, reading to them as if they were all her own. Her eyes darting back and forth over the crowd of children, she read to them with the gentleness of an angel. It was when she turned and smiled at John that he knew she was the woman he would share the rest of his life with. He stood there, transfixed, enjoying the peacefulness of the moment. Occasionally, their eyes met and she would smile, flooding him with feelings he had never experienced.
When she finished her reading, she gathered the children together. With the little ones tugging at her skirt, they slowly made their way back to the tables where the parents were assembled. As she passed John, she offered a sweet "hello." He was seldom at a loss for words, but he had been in that moment.
John could hardly wait until the following Sunday. All week he had practiced how and what he would say to that pretty lady who had stolen his heart. That morning finally arrived. It was a beautiful autumn day with an early morning frost which made the countryside glisten. A perfect day, John thought as he waited outside the church. And then she appeared. His heart almost stopped as he watched her-an angel he was sure-slowly descend the steep and worn wooden steps.
"Good morning Miss Eunice. Isn't this a pretty Sunday?" he offered, his voice trembling. Immediately he felt the blood rush to his face as he searched her brown eyes for any reaction to his greeting. And then, as a smile slowly eased across her freshly scrubbed face, she offered a response.
"And a good Sunday morning to you too, sir," she replied. "Yes, it is a pretty day." It didn't matter how he had presented himself, she was delighted that he had spoken to her.
Neither of them remembered much about that first conversation. All they knew was they both felt that strange sensation new lovers feel. And after a few moments, it was as if they had known one another for years.
And now they had. Years had passed since their courtship first started. Even now, after fourteen years of marriage, their romance was still fresh.
Like John, Eunice was an only child. But unlike John, she was patient, shy and unassuming. Her parents had separated when she was eight years old and she had been sent to live with her paternal grandmother who resided in Butler, a small community just east of Unionville. Her father died shortly after the divorce, which she suspected was from a broken heart. Eunice soon lost track of her mother, and she had not heard from her since. After graduating from high school, Eunice continued to live with and take care of her grandmother. When her grandmother died, Eunice left Butler and moved to a small apartment in Unionville, taking a sales clerk job at the local Ben Franklin Five and Dime Store.
Eunice was blessed with gentleness and great patience. John was truly thankful for that, as on occasion he would surely test her spirit.
"Thanks for taking all the tables and chairs back to the church," Eunice said, interrupting John's reminiscing.
"Luther helped me, so it didn't take very long."
"Wasn't it a grand party?" she sighed. "I'm so glad your boss was able to come again this year. Mr. McCormick's been to my birthday celebration every year but one since we adopted Tommy John." Eunice paused, smiling, as she slipped her cotton nightgown over her head. "And didn't it look like he and our son were having a grand visit?"
John nodded, smiling as he watched the lady he loved.
She sat there for a moment, enjoying her own memories. "I think he truly cares for the boy, don't you? And the roses." Eunice smiled as she turned to face John. "He never forgets, does he? He always brings me two dozen roses."
"What's got into Lady tonight?" John interrupted. "She's barkin' again." He sat up and slid his feet into his slippers. "Maybe our possum friend is back. I hope you put the garbage can lid on tight when you took out the trash after the party."
Without waiting for an answer, John pushed himself up from the bed to investigate Lady's barking. As he did, he noticed a flickering light from the front window reflecting off of the mirror of the oak dresser. He walked to the open window and pulled back the blue and white lace curtains, bending down to get a better view.
"Oh my dear Lord, it's begun! Quick Eunice, get Tommy John and hurry downstairs to Momma's bedroom and lock yourselves in. Hurry!"
"John, what's wrong?" she asked, standing up at the side of the bed, trying to look out the window. "What's going-"
"Go, Eunice, now!" John ordered, grabbing his pants and shirt off the cedar chest at the foot of the bed. Sliding one leg into his pants, he hopped into the hallway. "Please do as I say," he said as he stretched out his other leg and pulled the jeans up to his waist. "Wake Tommy John and go downstairs to Mom's bedroom." At the top of the stairs he paused and added, "And lock her door, and don't open it unless I say it's okay. Go, now!"
Hurrying down the stairs two at a time, John stumbled as he reached the lower landing. He could hear Eunice coming down the steps behind him as he regained his balance and hurried to the hallway closet. Standing on his tip-toes, he reached for the 12-gauge Remington that he kept at the back of the top shelf. Grabbing a handful of shells, he quickly placed three rounds into the open chamber.
"John, what are you doing?" Eunice asked as she and a yawning Tommy John hurried to Mom Miller's bedroom. "John, you're frightening me, what-"
"Please hurry, I'll explain later," John answered as he reached in to get his flashlight at the back of the closet. "Stay with Momma, and keep the door locked until I say it's okay to open it."
John heard his mother's bedroom door close as he reached the front door. He hesitated, waiting to hear the sound of the metal hook placed into its ring, locking the bedroom door. Hearing the familiar click, he reached up and slid the deadbolt out of its locked position and slowly opened the front door. He felt a surging tingle travel down his spine as he viewed the scene before him. The hair rose along the back of his neck as he opened the screen door. Quietly stepping onto the porch, John watched the burning cross that had been planted in their front yard.
Damn, he thought, unable to keep the curse word out of his mind. John was angry-angrier than he had ever been. He was also frightened, not for himself, but for his family.
Using his flashlight, he searched the shadows for the perpetrators. He carefully walked around the house, making sure no one was hiding in the darkness. Lady had stopped barking, so he assumed nobody was lurking in the backyard. His neighbors on both sides, each about twenty yards away, had dogs as well. Since they were not barking, he felt confident that whoever was responsible for this outrage had fled.
Fearing that the family would be frightened and anxious, he returned to the house.
"Okay, sweetheart, you can come out, everything's fine now," he hollered out as he walked down the hallway.
John could see the fright in their eyes as they exited the bedroom. "It's okay now," he repeated. "We're all safe. There's nothing to worry about." He knew this wasn't true, but he didn't want to upset them any further.
But he knew there were reasons to worry. And tonight was just the beginning. He knew racial tensions were building as Negroes all across the South were attempting, with sit-ins and voter registrations, to secure their civil rights. John and his family supported that movement. That alone would make it difficult for them to live among some of their neighbors. But being a white family with an adopted Negro child would make it even more complicated and dangerous.
"What was that all about?" Eunice asked as she wrapped her arms around John.
"Yeah, what's goin'on, Son?" John's mother asked, eyeing the shotgun that he held in his hand. "Was somebody trying to break in?"
"Are you all right, Son?" John asked bending down, ignoring their questions for the moment.
"Sure, Pop, I'm fine," Tommy John answered, yawning as he looked up at the man who had become his adopted father and his best friend. "What's going on?"
"What I've been fearing for some time started tonight," John said. "I think we've all been expecting it, but praying that it would never happen. Tonight we had a visit from the Klan."
"Really? Did you shoot 'em, Pop?" the boy excitedly asked.
"Tommy John!" Eunice exclaimed, startled by the child's comment.
"No, Son, I didn't shoot 'em," John replied, trying to keep the grin from his face. "I would've scared the dickens out of 'em though, except I wouldn't have used my shotgun on 'em. I want you to understand that right now," he said as he opened the hall closet and returned the shotgun to the top shelf. "We ... you and me, will never use that gun in anger. Are you listening, Son?"
"The only time I'll ever use my shotgun on another human is if I am convinced that person is going to harm my family and they can't be stopped in any other way. Do you understand what I'm sayin', do ya'?"
"That's my rule, and I expect you to honor it. Do you agree?"
"Yes, sir, on my honor."
"Good, now I want you all to come outside with me. I want to show you what these silly men dressed in sheets have done, trying to frighten us."
John held the screen door open as they walked out onto the front porch. "I want you to see how they've desecrated the tree that our Lord died on to save all men, of all colors."
The fire had almost burned itself out. Light wisps of oily smoke from the smoldering rags drifted into the night sky. Eunice stood silently, tears beginning to stream down her face.
Mom Miller put her arms around her daughter-in-law and hugged her close.
"There, there, sweet child, it's gonna' be all right," she said trying to comfort her.
"So we all agree," John said, "we aren't gonna' let this frighten us into changing what we believe is right." John paused and then added, "Right? Can I get an amen to that?"
"No one can ever change the love I have for this child," Eunice said as she hugged the boy close. "So even though I'm afraid, you have my amen."
"And you've got an amen from me too, Son," Mom Miller added as she put her arms around John and Eunice.
"Hey, what about me?" Tommy John added with a nervous giggle. "I need an amen hug, too."
"Okay then," John said as he took the boy's hand, "we're all in this together. You know what? This has made me hungry," he said, winking at Eunice, knowing the thought of food would help ease the boy's fright. "Sweetheart, how about a midnight snack?"
"Sounds good to me. C'mon Momma, let's go see what we can fix for the boys."
"You girls go ahead. Tommy John and I have a job to do first."
"What's that Pop?"
"Son, let's show those people they can't scare us one bit. How about you and I takin' this vile thing down and burying it out back?"
It was early afternoon and Mom's Café, the only restaurant serving the Negro clientele of Unionville, was empty. The smell of smoked pork and hot grease penetrated the tiny dining room and always made John feel hungry.
"How's you been, Mister John?" the middle-aged Negro man asked as John shuffled through the daily newspapers that had been left on the table. "And how is dat fine boy of yours doin'?"
"We couldn't be better, Eugene," John answered, moving the salt and pepper shakers aside to make room to spread out the Greensboro Daily News. "And how has the world been treating you and that nice lady in the kitchen?"
"We're just fine, Mr. Miller, just fine," Eugene smiled. "And what do you mean, nice lady in the kitchen? Dat lady you calls nice ... shoot, she's just as crotchety as ever," Eugene chuckled as he walked from behind the counter and set the ice-filled glass of sweet tea down on the table. "But don't you tell Elsie May I said dat."
John smiled, thinking about how much he enjoyed his visits to Mom's Café. "Now, Eugene," he said, laughing as he took a sip of tea, "you know that woman's never grouchy. Why, she doesn't have an unpleasant bone in her body."
"Yes, but you don't have to live with her," Eugene said, a beautiful smile spreading across his face, showing off his two gold-filled front teeth.
"I'd be careful what I said about that dear lady, if I was you," John replied, keeping up the banter that he and Eugene enjoyed whenever he stopped to have lunch with his good friend Ralph Dunning.
John thought back on his first encounter with Ralph Dunning.
Excerpted from Thorns Of The Roses by Alfred James Phillips Copyright © 2010 by Alfred James Phillips. Excerpted by permission.
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