© Copyright 2019 by Nancy Massand
I recognized Mama’s Place as soon as we got inside. It was that den of vipers daddy had warned us about from the pulpit so many times: dark and steamy, with men of questionable character lurking in the shadows to lead the innocents astray. There was a strong, woodsy smell, stronger than Birdie’s place, and the smoke made my eyes sting. I must have been holding onto Harris’ hand pretty tight, because he leaned down close to me so I could hear him over all the noise. “You nervous, Mavis? Because we don’t have to stay if you don’t want to.” He said it like he meant it, but I knew he’d be really let down if I wanted to leave. And besides, it wasn’t like I was just walking in there by myself asking for trouble. Harris had pretty much told Jacob he’d die before he’d let anything happen to me, and I believed him.
“No, I want to stay,” I told him. “I want to meet your daddy.”
He turned to me and put his hands on my shoulders. “I wish I could have met yours,” he said. He kissed me then, not a real kiss, just his lips on my forehead, but my heart stopped all the same. I told him if my daddy could see us right now he’d have him arrested. I was getting a lot better at the snappy replies.
Harris threw his hands up in the air. “OK, baby girl, that’s the way you want it.” He was smiling, though. “Come on, Pop’s at the corner table in the front, but I don’t think he sees us yet. He said he’d save a couple of seats for us. Not that he’ll remember if he’s had a few, but he’ll make room.” The place was really crowded, and as my eyes got used to the darkness the smoky shadows moving all around us became real people. A lot of them knew Harris, and it took us a long time to get over to his daddy’s table. He introduced me to all of them, but there were so many all at once that only one stands out in my mind now. That was Sable. She was almost as tall as Harris; maybe that’s why she didn’t notice me. She pushed her way through the crowd and wrapped her arms around him, then kept them there even when he put his hands in his pockets. I wondered whether she was one of those girls Birdie told me didn’t come around anymore. Well, she was sure here now, and while I was standing there watching them she kissed him right on the mouth. Like I wasn’t even there. I felt a red-hot heat starting at my neck and blazing up to my cheeks, and my eyes stung even more. I remember clenching my teeth and thinking, “I won’t cry, I won’t cry,” over and over again until the tears dried up like hot little rocks under my eyelids. Well, Aunt Caroline had warned me, and I had pretty much asked for this when I had yes-ma’amed her and didn’t pay her any mind. I fingered the five-dollar bill Jacob had given me just in case and wondered if it would be enough for a taxi home. I hadn’t paid attention to the subway stops, being all caught up with the man I’d been in love with up to ten seconds ago.
Then Harris caught my eye. He looked down at me with red lipstick smudged all over his mouth and desperate eyes like he wanted me to rescue him or something. If I hadn’t been so mad, I would have laughed myself silly. I’ll never know what got into me then; maybe it was the crowd and the smoke, or maybe it was just plain jealousy. I tugged on Sable’s dress, what there was of it, and said, “’Scuse me, ma’am, but he’s with me.” I could have kicked myself for the “ma’am,” but there it was, and I couldn’t much take it back.
“Who’s the kid, Sugar?” Her arms were still around his neck.
Harris finally pried her hands off him and put his arm around me. “Sable, this is my girl, Mavis.”
“Cute,” Sable said. She looked me up and down for about a second, then turned her eyes back on Harris. “When you get tired of babysitting, you know where to find me.” I’ve seen some junk yard dogs with a meaner smile than hers, but not many.
Harris wiped the lipstick off his mouth with the back of his hand and turned away from Sable without saying anything to her. “Mavis, I’m so sorry you had to see that,” he told me. An hour ago I would have thought he was being sincere, but now I leaned more toward Aunt Caroline’s point of view. Then he lifted my chin up to face him and really looked at me. “No, on second thought, I’m not sorry at all. Wait ‘til I tell Jacob how you handled that one! ‘Scuse me, ma’am, but he’s with me.’ You kill me, baby girl, I didn’t think you had it in you! And just so you know, I never really went out with her or nothing. We were just fooling around, and it was way before I met you. She talks like that to everybody.”
“She kiss everybody like that, too?” I was still mad. I had so wanted that kiss to be with me. Harris turned me back around to look at Sable, and I got my answer. She was already wrapped around someone else. Daddy had told me about women like her, but I thought he was making it up at the time. Now my eyes were telling me different. I wondered how my daddy even knew about such things, since I very much doubted he’d ever been to a place like this. He must have got it from the Bible, where he said he got most of his wisdom. That was it! Sable was the whore of Babylon, alive and well in New York City.
I was marveling on this while we made our way through the rest of the crowd to the front table. Harris introduced me to a few more people, but I noticed he steered clear of the women, just in case. Then we were at his daddy’s table, and Harris tapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, Pop. We didn’t miss you, did we?”
His daddy poured a drink for himself from one of the bottles on the table. “Nah, I’m going on in a little bit. You’re just in time, son. This the young lady you wanted to bring ‘round?” Then he stood up and smiled at me, that killer smile I was getting to know so well, and I saw that Birdie was right. Even though he had crinkles around the eyes, he was a beautiful man. It was like looking at Harris forty years older.
“Yeah, Pop, this is Mavis. Mavis, meet my pop, Alvin Brown. A legend in his own time.”
His father bowed just the slightest bit when he shook my hand. I hadn’t seen a man bow like that since I’d left Mississippi. “Pleased to meet you, little miss,” he said. “Welcome to Mama’s Place. Harris treating you right?” I told him oh yes sir, that he was, and he didn’t laugh at the sir or tell me to call him Alvin. He pulled out his own chair for me like a southern gentleman and got another one for himself from the next table. Then he introduced me to the rest of the people with him, musicians mostly, and some of their friends. They all knew Harris, and as soon as he sat down they got into a big discussion about jazz. Harris had told me that crossing the borders between our families meant switching languages, and he was right. If the baseball talk around Uncle Cal’s table had sounded foreign to me that first day, this was like being on another planet. I’d never even heard some of the words they used, and when I asked Harris what scat was he just nodded at his daddy and told me to wait a bit and I’d see.
The lights dimmed, and a round little man in a wrinkled suit walked into the spotlight. “Having a good time tonight?” he yelled. The audience raised a big ruckus that I took to mean they were. “Well it’s about to get better!” He pumped his hands in the air to signal them to be quiet, and they did, after a while. Harris’ father got up from his seat and ambled up to the stage, picked up his guitar and a stool from the side wall and walked into the spotlight. Then he set down the stool and began to play while the man was still talking. “Please welcome Mr. Alvin Brown!” The crowd exploded, and he nodded and smiled at the rumpled little man, who saluted him before he ran off backstage.
I could hardly hear the guitar for all the noise in the audience, but Harris’ daddy just kept on playing like he was all by himself. Then he leaned in to the mike and started humming real soft, just “hmm bum-diddy bom,” from way down in his belly, and folks settled into their seats and nodded with the beat, sipped on their drinks and dragged on their cigarettes ’til all you could hear was that voice. If it wasn’t for the smoke I could have closed my eyes and sworn I was at church listening to Harris, except I didn’t know the song and the words didn’t make any sense. When the audience was all quiet, Mr. Brown closed his eyes with his lips to the mike and said, “Hush, children. Alvin gonna sing you a lullaby.”
When I heard the first line of the song, tears spilled over and ran down my cheeks. “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,” he sang, and with each repetition my tears flowed stronger until my shoulders shook and I had to cover my face. Harris pulled me close to him. I was indeed a motherless child, a long way from home. Uncle Cal had first unleashed my pent-up tears when he told me about my family’s funeral, and I thought I’d been able to let go of them then. But with one line of the old song all my sorrows were resurrected. Harris’ daddy took me down to the pit of despair with him when he sang, and then just when I thought I was ready to die he lifted me back up again. “Sometimes I feel like an eagle in the sky,” he sang, and I did. I felt like that eagle, leaving all my troubles below.
I lifted my face from where I’d buried it in Harris’ shirt and watched his daddy, who was looking straight at me while he sang the same way Harris looked at me in church when he wasn’t allowed to talk to me. And I understood then that when there are things you just can’t say to people, you can sing. Harris had been talking to me the whole month in a language that went deeper than words, and his daddy had probably taught him how. So whatever his daddy was, and no matter how much Aunt Caroline insisted he was the head of a clan of heathen, I decided I was going to like him anyway.
The song was done. My face was still wet with tears, but I was smiling. “Dry your tears, children.” He spoke into the mike, but I knew he was talking just to me. “Remember the sun’s always shining on the other side of the clouds.”
An impulsive choice, an untimely death, a shattered family. Can love survive even this?
New York City. 1964.
My daddy made me go. I didn’t want to. He sent me to his brother’s family in New York City for the summer, because things were getting hot in Mississippi. And he wasn’t talking about the weather.
Nancy Massand’s debut novel, The Circle Unbroken, follows sheltered, sixteen-year-old Mavis Powell from Mississippi on a transformational journey. Mavis is completely undone when she moves in with her cousins up north and meets smooth-talking Harris Brown. But there’s a chasm between Mavis’ religious family and Harris’ roots in the Harlem clubs.
Their new love quickly escalates to recklessness as they head back to Mississippi during Freedom Summer. Although their motives are pure, the result is tragic. Slammed with rejection by her new family as well as the church, Mavis’ first year with Harris threatens to be her last. What does it take to heal a broken family? How do you save a love that’s pulled so tight it’s ready to snap? The Circle Unbroken is a redeeming testimony to the power of love.The Kindle edition of The Circle Unbroken was released 9/17/19 by Soul Mate Publishing. The paperback edition is available for pre-order from Amazon or Barnes & Noble, to be released 2/29/20 - Go to:Learn more at Nancy's web site.
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