This Side of Eternity

This Side of Eternity

by Rosalyn McMillan

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780671034368
Publisher: Pocket Books
Publication date: 04/28/2002
Pages: 464
Product dimensions: 4.14(w) x 6.82(h) x 1.07(d)

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Chapter One

"Where's my daddy?" Anne screamed. "What have they done with him? I want to see him! Why can't I see him! No! No! Please. Not like that!"

Clutching the edge of the brown wool blanket against her heart, her body shivered more from emotion than from the cold February night.

As she struggled to shun the horrible images of death, she felt a stiff hand roughly shaking her. The stale odor of hot cigarette breath against her face made her wince, as someone repeated her name over and over again.

Still half asleep, she made an effort to open her eyes.

"Annie Mae, will you please shut up!" her sister Vanilla Mae demanded. "You're going to wake up those damn brats."

The six surviving Russells lived in a modest low-income wood-frame house. It was all that their father had been able to afford.

Since the death of their older brother and his wife last summer, their two nieces and nephew slept in their younger brother's old bedroom, next to them. The walls were so old and dilapidated they could hear

the bedsprings creak when any of the children made the slightest movement.

Anne believed that she heard a slight tremor just now. It sounded like someone was clapping his or her hands together.

"I'm sorry, Mae." Her throat was hoarse and scratchy.

"See," Mae said, after they heard a much more distinct sound in the next room, "she's up." They both knew who it was.

By then Anne's eyes had adjusted to the darkness. She looked across the room to the clock-radio on the dresser. It was nearly three in the morning. "I'll check on her," she said, exiting the bed they shared.

Turning on the hall light, she opened the children's bedroom door. First she spotted Wesley snoring softly in the bed near the closet -- a drooping sage green army blanket, used as a room divider, was nailed to the ceiling. To her left, the two girls, Bentley Camille and Nikkie Anne, slept in a twin bed barely three feet away.

As she moved closer, she noticed that six-year-old Nikkie was sitting up, looking dead in Anne's face.

"Why you always making that noise?" Nikkie asked with eyes as innocent as flower petals.

"Shhh," Anne cautioned. "Aunt Anne has bad dreams sometimes."

"I never dreams. How come? How come I don't get to dreams?"

Nikkie was a special child. Taking care of her had been a huge challenge, especially for Mae, who quit school the year before to become her surrogate mother.

Sitting on the bed beside her, Anne said, "I don't know, baby. Some people never dreams."

But Anne's dreams were not always bad ones. Sometimes she dreamed beautiful dreams about her mother. Anne would tell all of her secrets to the woman she felt was her best friend. She would have liked to share these special moments with Nikkie, but she wouldn't understand.

Even in the semidarkness, she could see Nikki's strong features. Like Anne, she had the wide-set Russell eyes and milk chocolate coloring. In her large, shadowed brown eyes lingered more pain and sufferings than a child her age should know.

"Are you sad your daddy died?"

"Yeah..." Anne reached out and rebraided one of her three thick pigtails that had come loose. "And I'm sad about your daddy and mommy, too."

"Uh-huh. Me too. Heaven must be getting pretty crowded up there."

Anne smiled, "I was thinking the same thing, Nikkie. And you know something? A famous poet named Cummings said it better than I ever could. He said that life wasn't a paragraph, and death, he thought, is no parenthesis."

"I don't know what that means."

Sometimes Anne forgot about Nikkie's handicap. She had a bad habit of talking to herself, as though Nikkie were her personal sounding board.

"I'm sorry, baby. I'm merely trying to say that life goes on, even in death. And one day you and I will get to see our loved ones. And then -- well then, neither one of us will ever have to worry about dreams anymore."

"Hmm," Nikkie said, as if she were trying to grasp what Anne had said.

"Now hush. It's time for you to get back to sleep. You've awakened Aunt Mae. And we both know that isn't a good thing."

Nikkie shuddered.

Anne motioned for her to lie back down.

After Nikkie had turned on her side, she pulled the quilt up over her and Bentley's shoulders and blew Nikkie a kiss good night.

While tiptoeing down the hall to use the bathroom, she could smell the smoke from Mae's Camel cigarette on her way back up.

Though they'd kept it a secret from their father, and brother Kirk, Mae had been a chain-smoker since the age of thirteen. Worse than that addiction was her ever-increasing messiness. Ashes and dirty clothes were the dominant decor in their tiny bedroom.

"Haachew!" she sneezed as she entered their room.

"This nightmare shit has got to stop." Mae flicked the ashes off the sheer sleeve of her blue baby doll gown and glared at Anne. "I haven't had a good night's sleep since..."

"Daddy died," Anne said quietly. She stared at Mae's haggard face. A year ago she was pretty. Four years her senior, Mae and Anne both had thick manes of hair, Anne's dark brown, while Mae's was a shocking reddish brown. Mae's face was a perfect oval; Anne's was heart-shaped. Mae's dark brown eyes were a bit too close to her nose, while Anne's were bright and wide-set like their brother Kirk's. Anne's full lips softened her exotic features, but Mae's tight narrow lips that rarely smiled made her look ten years older.

Maybe that's why she doesn't look pretty anymore.

But giving credit where credit was due, Mae had been a godsend to the Russell family. Kirk, as well as their father, often complimented Miss Mae, as they oftentimes called her, about her unfailing maturity.

At age six, Mae cooked, cleaned, and baby-sat as well as a grown woman did. It was a duty that their father had reluctantly bequeathed on her three years after his wife, her mother, had died during childbirth with Anne.

And today, shouldering all of that responsibility had taken its toll. Mae smoked two packs a day, and had been sexually active since age twelve.

"Do you see Daddy crunched up in that machine?" she said in a high shrill voice as if she'd shared the same dream. "Is that why you're screaming?"

Anne nodded, her face lit by the glow of Mae's cigarette. "Uh-huh. And I see Stuart and Danielle's faces pressed against Daddy's chest with blood all over them. All of them are screaming for help."

Stuart, Anne's brother, and his wife, Danielle, were killed in a car accident eight months earlier.

Anne wondered how one family could endure so much tragedy.

Where was the God their father had always prayed to? The God that her father had said almost made their mother a saint.

And what exactly did a saint mean? Was it the same as a nun -- a homely-looking woman in black clothing who didn't believe in sex?

Since their father's death, the church they belonged to had taken up a love offering so often it was becoming embarrassing to attend service. Mae said the family was cursed, but, in the three years since she first voiced that thought, she would never tell Anne her reasons why she felt that way.

"It's in the cards, child," she would always say. "Every one of us is going to suffer a horrible death. Just like daddy, Danielle, and Stuart did. You mark my words."

If you believe that stupid bullshit, then why are you inhaling cancer sticks as fast as you can light one?

Nothing made sense. Her mother and father were gone. Her brother and sister-in-law, whom she'd come to love as a real big sister, erased. Still, something was off. There were too many pieces missing in their tiny puzzle of life.

"God don't like ugly," Anne said, breaking the thick silence. She went to the dresser and fondled the Austrian crystal beads that belonged to her mother. She wore them to church every Sunday. "I remember the pastor telling us that. You should stop trying to scare me, Mae. Just because I'm younger than you don't make me a fool. And just because I'm a sexually free young woman, don't misinterpret that either."

"Stop it, Anne." She ground out her cigarette in the ashtray and got back in bed, "you're getting on my nerves. I don't want to have to put you on my shit list."

Anne slid into bed and turned on her side. She was tired of hearing about Mae's shit list. Nikkie seemed to always be on it and occasionally Bentley. But as of last year, when the list started, Anne hadn't managed to get on it.

The long silence, as Anne listened to their exaggerated breathing, made her reflect and shiver. Both Anne and especially Vanilla Mae hated their names. Everyone called her sister Mae for as long as Anne could remember. Mae was named after their mother's sister, Vanilla Mae Jemison. Accordingly, Anne was named after her father's sister, Annie Mae. No...Annie Mae didn't quite brown her bread, for Anne. She and Mae both felt that their names sounded like servants' names, not like today's women who could quote the latest fashion trends and knew the instant that the per-pound prices rose or fell on pork futures.

As she closed her eyes and feigned sleep, she remembered her father's last words, while being interviewed by Channel 3 News.

"It was a combination of things that have been going on for years, such as low pay and discrimination," Russell said. "But discrimination was the thing that initiated and precipitated the strike."

Her father was almost correct, Anne thought. But she knew, like most others who read the Hamilton Appeal and the Memphis Press-Scimitar on a daily basis, that the problems really began the year before.

In 1967 three prominent blacks had won district seats on the city council, but when the mayoral elections were held, the city's racial polarization had been reinforced and intensified after Henry Loeb, the landslide mayor of Memphis in 1959, came out of retirement to defeat incumbent mayor Ingram.

During his single term in office, Ingram was popular among blacks. But in Ingram's bid for reelection, Henry Loeb captured 90 percent of the white vote, beating Ingram, who had nearly unanimous support of the city's blacks.

By the time the election was over, Memphis had become a racial powder keg. The summer of 1967 had seen sporadic incidents of race-related violence and destruction. White Memphians had made unprecedented purchases of firearms and ammunition in anticipation of possible race warfare in the streets. All that was lacking was a major incident to ignite the fuse; then all hell would break loose.

It wasn't until now, Anne reflected, that that fuse was once again lit -- only this time by the sanitation strike. Regardless, the Hamilton Appeal, as well as the Memphis Press-Scimitar, reported the news about the unprecedented purchases of arms and ammunition in the Memphis area.

God Almighty! was reverberated throughout the city.

Off balance. Off kilter. Off track. The headlines in the Hamilton Appeal told it all.

The city of Memphis was just off.

Whites and blacks were on edge in the city. Especially Anne's brother Kirk, who'd let slide in a weak moment that he felt that his father's death was no accident. He and Mae continuously exchanged guilty glances. Anne was kept out of the conversation, no matter how many times she questioned them.

Kirk, also a sanitation worker, had quit school in his senior year to help his father out financially. It was also during the time that their father was so distraught when his eldest son, Stuart, along with his wife, Danielle, were killed in an automobile accident, that he had to take a month's leave of absence at work. It cost the Russells three hundred needed dollars. Three small children were left parentless. Only the eldest, Wesley, twelve, understood the gravity of what had happened. Nikkie, five, and Bentley, four, were too young to understand.

In the meantime, Walter Russell's modest two-story wood-frame home was cramped to the studs to make room for his needy grandchildren. Meals were cut down to snack size.

Anne didn't care. She loved her nieces and nephew from years before, when she first volunteered to baby-sit them. Anne wasn't sure how her sister felt about them, although, when the first Social Security check came in, Vanilla Mae quit school and fired the fifty-year-old baby-sitter, who couldn't seem to deal with Nikkie's special situation. On weekdays, a special-education bus would pick Nikkie up in front of the house, but because of her having so many seizures, she missed a lot of school.

Anne remembered trying to talk Mae out of her decision. After all, their father only had a ninth-grade education and he desperately wanted all of his children to get their diplomas, and possibly attend college.

To Anne's dismay, Mae's mind was set on the sinful pitfalls in life, money and fornication -- not her edification. Now, with Mae quitting school, and Kirk quitting a few months later, Anne was the only Russell left to keep their father's dream alive.

The following morning was Saturday. Usually Wesley was the first one awake. Around eight o'clock, he would help his sisters brush their teeth and fix their cereal while they watched their favorite Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. Anne would scurry downstairs about thirty minutes later.

Bentley and Nikkie had finished their breakfast and were already busy coloring at the kitchen table, with paper, crayons, and pencils spread out before them.

At five years old, Bentley showed the signs of becoming a talented artist. Her baby-soft skin was as rich and supple as that of a dusky deer. She wore her ten-inch-thick locks in a single Afro puff on the top of her head. It gave her elongated oval face a look of regality. Her Tootsie Roll brown eyes were alert and serious, but especially while she drew.

Anne asked Bentley if she could draw a teenager reading while preschoolers sat and listened. Her attentive niece winked a yes.

Thirty minutes later, Anne heard quick steps coming down the stairs.

"Anne," Wesley chimed in, pulling on a slicker, "I've got to make a run downtown to see if Max wants me to work today." He looked out of the front window at the rain that was still pouring down, figuring, as Anne did, that business would be slow today. "Can you keep an eye on the girls?"

Anne nodded yes and glanced back at Nikkie, who was scribbling angry black marks on her half-colored picture. After Wesley left, Anne changed the television station to the Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood early-morning show. In no time, Nikkie was smiling at his soft-spoken words and captivating humor.

While they worked, both Bentley and Anne took turns watching Nikkie, who was now asleep in front of the television. She'd had a seizure yesterday that lasted nearly eight minutes. If her seizures lasted more than ten minutes, which happened on rare occasions, they had to take Nikkie to the hospital.

Mae sauntered downstairs around eleven, gulped down her daily fix of Pepsi while she lit a fresh cigarette. Without caring who was watching what, she turned the channel on the set.

Forty-five minutes later, Wesley returned unhappily and handed Anne a used copy of the Memphis Press-Scimitar. He told her that there wasn't any work today and rushed upstairs to change out of his wet clothes.

"Stop. You stop," Nikkie screamed.

With a cigarette propped in the corner of her mouth, Mae proceeded to whip Nikkie with a switch. "You stupid little thang. I told you not to piss on that floor again. Didn't I?"

Just thirteen years old, and nearly as tall as Mae, Anne dropped the paper, and rushed to Nikkie's aid. Anne stepped in between her niece and Mae and yanked the switch from her right hand.

Mae's face was cold but her eyes were as hot as pepper, as Anne grabbed her arm and held it tight.

Wesley was down the steps in seconds. He stepped up until he was looking into Mae's face and said, "If you ever hit my sister again, I'll beat your brains out! You hear me?"

"Nikkie," Bentley yelled. "Help her, somebody!" Just then Nikkie's eyes began to roll back in her head. Her short legs jerked out straight, snapped back, and buckled beneath her like she had the rickets. Anne could feel the floor beneath her feet shake as she hurried to Nikkie, who was turning back and forth on her side. Drool ran from her mouth and fell on the front of her shirt as the spasms continued to engulf her body.

Anne checked the clock in the kitchen.

Just over a minute lapsed and Nikkie was still on the floor, shaking and thrashing her arms and legs. Chairs were shoved out of the way and the table pushed further back toward the corner.

Two minutes. Three. Five. Six, and Bentley began to cry. Anne held her in her arms. "Shhh. She'll be okay in a few minutes, honey."

"No thanks to her," Wesley mumbled beneath his breath.

This wasn't the first time that Mae had beaten Nikkie. They all knew that Nikkie needed medical attention, not a beating. She had at least two seizures a week. But without extra money, they couldn't afford to get the help she needed. The doctor that Social Security insurance paid for wasn't concerned in the least bit about his young patient.

In eight minutes it was over. Wesley helped his sister up from the floor and wiped her foaming mouth with a cloth. Reaching into the cabinet, he gave Nikkie a dose of her medicine, followed by a glass of water.

"You okay, now?" he asked her tenderly. Nikkie nodded and hugged him around the waist.

"Wesley..." Anne began.

Without uttering a word, he took the girls by the hand and led them into the living room. As hurriedly as he could, he began putting on Bentley's and Nikkie's coat and hat. Removing an umbrella from the closet, he spoke to Anne. "I'm taking them to the store and then to the park. We'll be back later."

"Hey, boy, bring me a Pepsi back," Mae demanded. She removed a single dollar bill from beneath the sofa seat, balled it up, and tossed it at his back.

Wesley wheeled back around, fists balled at the end of his short alligator arms. Nikkie picked up the money and innocently handed it to her brother. "You know, at first I started to say, 'Hell no.' " Opening the door, he helped the girls open the tattered umbrella. The girls stood on the steps, cuddling in the slowing rain. "I'll get it, though. 'Cause I was raised to have some respect for folks." He slammed the door behind him.

While Anne and Mae argued about the kids and Wesley's smart mouth, Anne pointed out that Mae wouldn't be able to afford her habit if it weren't for their monthly Social Security checks.

Less than five minutes later, Kirk came home, cussing up a storm. "Damn it. Just damn this shit!" he said, removing his hat. "We're all going to starve. If this strike goes on any longer, we won't be able to pay the mortgage or keep up the utilities."

Kirk was nearly as tall as the doorway. His keen brown eyes were wide-spaced like the pictures Anne remembered seeing of their mother. A wild and wiry mustache completely covered his top lip. His strong nose and angular jawline made him look older than his seventeen and a half years. His jet, naturally wavy, half-inch hair stopped a neat three inches above his crisp shirt collar. Some people said he resembled Jackie Robinson Anne thought he was just sublimely handsome.

"Look," Anne said, running to the kitchen table and showing him the fliers, "I'm going to start a baby-sitting business."

"Hrrmph," Kirk snorted, and began taking off his coat.

Mae sat on the end of the couch with a smirk on her face, puffing on a Camel and sipping on her last Pepsi.

Taking a quick glimpse out the window, Anne noticed that the blue mists of morning made shadows on the tree trunks, leaving the tops free.

Anne worried that even though the rain had let up some, the temperature outside was still chilly. She hoped that Wesley's temper would soon cool so that they all would come back home.

Kirk handed Anne his coat, which she shook outside the door, then hung in the closet. The expression on his face was as cold as a Chicago winter, and nearly as long.

"The kids have got to go. They're way too expensive. And when I get back to work, there are things that I need."

"Not a bad idea," Mae added, tapping her foot on the wooden floor.

Kirk snatched a chair back from the table and took a seat. "I'm not giving up -- "

"How could you say such a thing," Anne said sharply. "Daddy wouldn't rest in peace if he knew you two were thinking such selfish thoughts."

Mae cut in. "I agree. Those kids are more of a burden than they're worth." She cut her eyes at Anne. "Especially that pissy retard."

Kirk tapped his fingertips together. "You ain't said nothing but a word, girl. Like I said, they'd be better off in foster care. Monday morning, I'm going to make that call." He got up, went down the hall to his bedroom, and slammed the door.

Mae turned her attention back to the television with a half-smile on her face. Instantly, tears welled, then slowly slid down Anne's face. What could she do or say to change their minds?

She ran upstairs into her meager bedroom and, removing her father's picture from the dresser, fell on her knees. Kissing her father's celluloid face, she formed her hands in a steeple and closed her eyes.

Afterward, she remembered the words from one of her father's sermons:

If God has taught us all truth in teaching us to love, then he has given us an interpretation of our whole duty to our households -- We are not born as the partridge in the wood, or the ostrich in the desert, to be scattered everywhere; but we are to be grouped together, and brooded by love, and reared day by day in that first of churches, the family.

Anne cried bitter tears. What had happened in a week's time for their family to turn from love to hatred?

Copyright © 2002 by Bold Brass and Class, Inc.

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