The story you’re about to read is written unusually. This is a first draft with varying narratives. It’s written this way because I wanted some elements to be seen from perspectives respective to who it’s about. Thank you for taking the time to read. All your feedback is appreciated.
– Paula G.
The day Gregory knocked on my front door, forty-seven years after I had last seen him, all the regret of the things I had done flooded in. I knew it would though someday. Montgomery had told me that if I choose to live right now with no regrets, then one day it would flood into me like an ocean and if I weren’t careful, I might drown.
With Gregory standing on my porch and spiced apples on the stove, all them regrets welled up in me. I stood breathless, trying to hold back the waters that was now all the way up to my throat. He just looked at me. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking or if he was thinking. He looked tired. As if forty seven years of looking for me had done a boxing match with his soul.
“Hi Fritz,” he said to me calmly. He revealed a slight smile as the nickname I hadn’t heard since my 20’s spilled from his lips and tickled my ears. That name felt good to hear; so good that I jumped right into his arms screaming my greeting back..
“Hiiiiiiii Gregory!” He returned my embrace and we stood there, just hugging for what felt like twenty mins. I couldn’t tell if he was crying too but my oceans were making waves along his neck. When we pulled away, his face had returned to normal. No smile. It was then that I recognized what the blank expression he was showing me meant. Here I was, alive and well forty-seven years later with regrets about what I had done. He was the same but instead of regrets, he had questions and confusion.
I offered Gregory a seat and some coffee and some spiced apples. He accepted it all. We sat in silence for a few moments before the silliest question I could muster came from my lips. “What’s it been, forty-seven years?”
“And you were right around the corner the whole time.” Gregory responded with a bit of cold in his voice.
I knew what that cold was for. It was a cold he had probably been holding onto since June all them years ago. It was a cold I deserved but had ignored in fear of losing myself. It was the same temperature of my ocean.
I didn’t know what to say to him. I knew I had made a mess of his life with my decisions. He even spent a year in jail because of me. I prepared myself for this day when I’d have to answer all his questions but when it never came, I started to forget all my lines and even some of the more interesting parts. But now he was sitting on my couch and looking at all the pictures on my walls. I didn’t know if he was gonna ask or was I just supposed to start. So I just started
The summer of 1963, I was the cutest I probably ever was. I was 23 years old and too skinny if you asked my momma but my hair was full and curly, my hips moved naturally and I was smart. Those were all the things my momma asked of me anyway; to stay pretty and be smart. One of them gone get you somewhere she used to always say. I had just graduated nursing school back in Richmond, VA and had accepted a job at John Hopkins in Baltimore Maryland. My boyfriend Gregory was a doctor at that same hospital. Well, my fiancee Gregory. The day before, my momma threw me a big ol’ going away party since I was moving to Baltimore for the new job. At the party, Gregory got down on his knee and said he didn’t want me in Baltimore as his girlfriend, he wanted me as his wife. I accepted.
Let me explain some things right now cause later on in this story, you might suspect that I never loved Gregory. However, I really did. All the girls did. He came from good money and wasn’t no country bumpkin like me. Gregory was light skin with green eyes and curly hair. He was tall and slender with a smile that broke hearts. In highschool, none of the girls liked me because Gregory would come home from college and walk right into the school with flowers for me. I’d run out of class and spend whatever time he was here with him. I never really understood why he chose me over other girls. I mean, I’m pretty for a brown skin girl but he had his pick of yellow women with long hair. One time, he said to me, “Them girls are all on the fritz. You wanna be on the fritz so bad, that’s what I’ma call you.” And he did. Even the day he proposed, he slipped up and said “Will you marry me Fritz?” to which my momma cleared her throat to correct him. “I meant… will you marry me Anna?”
The day after the party, we were all packed up in Gregory’s truck. He had a blue Chevy Camaro back home but for this trip, we were in a regular white pickup truck with all my stuff in the back. I said goodbye to my momma. I was her only child and she cried big tears as we drove away. My momma sent me to school working as a secretary and a seamstress. My plan was to send her money every month, every two weeks if I could. Now that I was going to marry a doctor and become a nurse myself, my momma knew she wouldn’t have to worry about nothing else. I laughed as we pulled off cause I knew those were tears of joy and new money.
Baltimore is only two and half hours from Richmond. We left about 8am but headed towards Newport News, Virginia first, about an hour in the opposite direction, where Gregory’s parents lived. He wanted to share our engagement with them. When we pulled up to his parents house, I immediately felt nervous. One, because I had never met them and two, because I had heard enough about them to not want to.
Gregory and I started dating in the eleventh grade but in the tenth grade, he dated Lisa Mason for four weeks. That fourth week, he took her to meet his parents and the next day, he broke up with her. She told me it was because his momma didn’t like anything darker than a brown paper bag. I had tested myself. I was darker.
When we arrived, his parents were outside on the lawn. His daddy was mowing the grass and his momma was in the garden. They didn’t look like the “pompous house negroes” Lisa had described them as. However, it didn’t take long for me to realize the brown paper bag thing may have been true. As soon as I got out of the car, Gregory’s mom rushed us into the house. “Get her out of the sun son. Such a pretty thing. She can’t afford to burn out here.” Gregory’s mom, who he introduced as Trudy but she corrected to “Mrs. Willer.” offered me lemonade as the four of us sat in the living room.
“So am I allowed to host a wedding or have you two decided to get hitched?” Mrs. Willer asked while holding my hand and approving the ring her son selected. “I figured since this is the first time we’re all meeting, you’ve been keeping secrets for a reason.”
“No secrets ma’am, we just hadn’t discussed that,” Gregory responded to his mother as if speaking to a lawyer.
“I know you two want to live together sooner rather than later…. since a nurses’ budget can get tight… especially sending money home to your mother, right dear?” Mrs. Willer continued without allowing me to answer. “So we can have the wedding here in about six months.”
I looked over at Gregory who wasn’t making much eye contact with his mother.
“With respect Mrs. Willer, we are moving in together now. I was thinking we’d get married sometime next Spring.”
Mrs. Willer stood and walked out of the room taking her lemonade and mine with her.
“Son,” Mr. Willer addressed Gregory who easily returned his father’s gaze, “Try to give your mother what she wants on this one. Having a son who is a doctor makes us both proud but that doesn’t give you permission to live in sin. He can always buy you your own apartment for a few months… to a year.” Mr. Willer was now addressing me to which I just shook my head yes mimicking Gregory’s nod.
We left the house about an hour later. Mrs. Willer never came back down the stairs. We rode the next 30 mins in silence.
“I’m sorry about them,” Gregory finally puffed up his chest. “We will do whatever we want. You can move in with me or get your own place. We can get married now or next year. It doesn’t matter to me as long as we get married and start a family. Two boys and a girl right?”
Gregory smiled to himself imagining the family he wanted to build. He had always been on track for the life he wanted to have. At 26 years old, he was getting anxious to start a family. He knew that would put him on track to become head surgeon. Gregory was the country club type who golfed on Saturday mornings and watched sports at the bar on Sunday nights. The few times I had been to see his home, I found myself struggling to fit into his space. It was all new and shiny and nothing felt quite lived in. Everything seemed like it was for entertainment purposes from the art on the walls that he knew every detail of it’s purchase to the ply of the toilet paper. But Gregory himself was warm and as long as I leaned into him, I was comfortable in any space we were in.
We had been driving on a long stretch of back road for about 45 mins when a loud popping sound rattled the whole truck and Gregory slammed on brakes. The tire had bursted and the rim bent due to slamming. I watched as Gregory checked the back and rear of the truck he had borrowed from a friend. There was no spare tire.
“I think we’ll have to walk to that station we saw a while back. Or flag someone down. It should only be about an hour walk that way.” Gregory pointed down the road we had just travelled. “You should put on your flat shoes.”
I looked down the road Gregory had pointed and got exhausted just thinking about it.
“It’s still daylight. How about you walk to the station and I stay here and nap. That way, if someone comes by, I can flag em’ down to help.”
Gregory looked concerned at that idea. He usually kept me close and I was always pulling away doing my own thing.
“Plus, I don’t got no flat shoes,” I continued hoping that he’d realize there was no way I was walking that hour back.
“Okay Fritz,” Gregory smiled. “I’ll walk back and you stay here. If someone comes up, you tell them I’m right up the road,” He reached over my leg and opened the glove compartment revealing a gun and bullets. “You use this if you need to.” He gripped my knee and kissed my cheek before starting off down the road. Within minutes, he was out of sight and I fell asleep.
I woke up an hour and a half later. The sun was shining brightly on my skin and my throat was dry from the heat. Gregory hadn’t been back and it seemed no one had come down the road either. There were only a few more hours of daylight left and if something had happened to hold Gregory up, I was better off heading toward him now than letting the night fall on me. I grabbed a bottle of water, the gun, took off my shoes and began to walk.
The earth was quiet out on that road. The only sounds were birds chirping and the occasional rustle of something in the woods. I walked right down the middle of the road where nothing on either side could scare me and if anyone was driving through, they would definitely see me. The sky began to get brighter it seemed as the clouds moved out of the way and the sun baked my skin so hot that even my own mama wouldn’t have recognized me. I moved to the side of the road hoping the tree’s shade would help but as soon as I did, I felt myself get dizzy..
“She waking up.” The sound of a young girl squealing met my ears as I felt a cold rag on my face. “Y’all come on. She not dead I don’t think.”
“I told you she won’t dead.” said a young man’s voice.
“Well she looked dead to me,” a third voice of an older girl.
The youngest kept rubbing the cold rag back and forth across my face. “What happened?” I asked them, realizing I was still on the side of the road and laying on my back.
“I think you had a heat stroke ma’am.” the teenage girl answered. “My sister found you laying here while we was looking for smooth rocks. What you doing out here? You from the city?”
“Don’t ask her so many questions,” the boy cut her off. “She probably got amnesia.”
The children waited as I sat up. My head had a small knot and was throbbing from where I fell. I pulled on my clothes to make sure nothing inappropriate was showing.
“I was walking and think I fainted from the heat. Our car tire went flat a ways up.” I spoke answering the kids questions. “We coming from Richmond on the way to Baltimo’. I’m a nurse.”
“Well good,” the older girl said, “You can fix yo own head up. Let’s go,” she said grabbing her sister’s arm and the rag from my hand.
“You could have some manners Willadeene!” the boy said while snatching the rag out of his sister’s hand and giving it back to me.
“Willadeene. That’s a pretty name.” I told the girl while standing to my feet.
“And my name is Dixie.” The youngest was about 4 years old but tall. She had big red curly hair that clearly wasn’t being taken care of and barely wore more than a shirt as clothing.
“You’re pretty Dixie. I ain’t never seen a brown girl with red hair.” I said while kissing her on the cheek.
“It’s red like mama,” Dixie said with pride. “She was a mermaid.”
All three of these kids were attractive. They had sunny red hair with deep orange skin. I learned that Lawson was the oldest at 13 years old. He wore jean overalls with no shirt and had freckles all over his face. His knees were scraped up like you’d expect from a young boy.
Willadeene was only 11 but clearly the leader of this group. Unlike her siblings dressed to play, Willadeene wore her Sunday best, a yellow dress with a ribbon around her waist and hair.
“Mama ain’t no mermaid,” Willadeene said to her sister while putting her hands on her hips.
“Well that’s what Daddy said,” Dixie returned the gesture by putting her hand on her hips and mocking Willadeene’s sass.
“Do ya’ll know what time it is?” I asked the children unhopeful that they knew but still willing to try.
“It’s almost 5,” Lawson answered by looking at the sun.
“Did yall see a man come this way? He yellow with green eyes.” I asked.
“Nope. Just you.” Dixie said still with her hands on her hips.
“But we did see yo gun,” Willadeene said without hesitation.
I looked around and noticed the gun was gone. So were my shoes,
“What yall do with it?” I asked. “That ain’t my gun to be playing with.”
“We hid it!” Dixie laughed and then ran off into the woods. Her brother and sister ran off behind her laughing while waving their arms in the air. I took a quick look down the road and then ran into the woods after the children.
They kids ran a path that they obviously knew and I tried to keep up with them, my feet being scraped along the way.
“Yall hold up,” I screamed after the kids but they just laughed and ran faster. Eventually, the woods cleared and I found herself staring at the bluest lake I had ever seen. I was out of breath from running but still awed at the beautiful scenery. Tree’s to wing from and a small waterfall. It looked a little like paradise. The kids were already splashing around in the water. Without a thought, I ran right into the water with them. We played in that lake until the sun was just a sliver above the ground.
“Daddy gone be calling soon,” Dixie said. As if like clock work, the deep low tones of an animal horn being blown into carried over the trees and vibrated over the water. I watched as the kids jumped out of the water and pulled their outer clothes back on. I hadn’t even noticed the children had taken off the clothes and was swimming in underwear. I had gotten in the water completely dressed and now, was soaked.
“Yo Daddy got a car?” I asked Lawson as we walked the direction t’wards the sound of the horn.
“He do but it don’t work,” Lawon responded, crashing my hopes.
“But you can borrow a dress from mama,” Dixie said. It was so dark now that I could barely see who was walking in front of me. I just listened as the children chattered.
“We almost there,” Willadeene reassured me. The kids were holding hands. I held Dixie’s. We walked in unison until the warm light of a cabin could be seen in a clearing ahead. The front door was open. The cabin was made of logs and was large enough for a family to live in comfortably. There was even an upstairs. The flower garden in the front of the house was blooming beautifully and a small food garden on the side had tomatoes, cabbages, and carrots. The house was electric and was lit up all over. I remember thinking that this house looked like something from a dream. Immediately, my stomach started to growl. It had been hours since I’d eaten. Or maybe, it was the small of whatever was cooking in that house. Either way, whatever hesitation I followed the children to the door as soon as I heard Lawson say “Daddy’s made corn bread!”
I waited at the door as Dixie told me too while the kids ran into the house. They went in different directions, seemingly forgetting to tell their parents that I was there. I couldn’t help but stare into the house. There were potted plants all along the floor, wooden carved furniture and beautiful ornate pillows on the coaches. There was no tv. Just a fireplace and a few board games.
“Daddy, this Anna,” Dixie said while pushing a man from the kitchen into the doorway.
Until that moment, Anna had butterflies in her stomach. The house she was staring at was warm. The children she had played with were fun. But nothing quite prepared her for the moment Dixie pushed Montgomery by the back of his legs, a fork still in his hands, to the front door where a still partially drenched Anna stood waiting.
The light behind Montgomery shone on Anna as she stood there. He looked at her with a knowing that comes only from waiting. She returned his gaze. His skin was the exact opposite of the light behind him. Anna had never seen skin so dark, so glassy. He reminded her of the black licorice her grandma would give her doing church services. Anna always loved how dark the candy was but how it had texture you could only see up close. Anna felt like she could see all of Montgoemery’s texture. His bald head blended right into his strong neck and jawline. Anna hadn’t even noticed that he didn’t have a shirt on as he reached for it hanging on the chair arm.
“I’m Montgomery,” he said, still pulling his shirt on but reaching his hand out to Anna. She didn’t reach back out. She just stood there staring at a man she later described as the most beautiful eclipse of the sun.
Eventually, Anna came in and had dinner with the family. Montgomery told her that in the morning, they’d go to the station and figure out what happened to Gregory.
“Did you go Fritz?” Gregory asked her, having sipped the last of his drink and now staring Anna in her eyes. “Did you ever go to the station because I was there. I fixed the car and drove to the station and waited for you. I waited there for three days and every day in between, I combed those streets and woods looking for you or your body.”
Anna saw tears well up in Gregory’s eyes knowing that every part of her story but this part was what she didn’t want to tell. She knew he had looked for her. She also knew she made sure not to be found.
“No Gregory, I didn’t go back to the station. I didn’t leave the woods or Montgomery for at least a month. It was like they were waiting for me. When I did leave, it wasn’t to let nobody know where I was. I only learned about what happened to you when I went to call my momma.”
“Anna, is that you?” Anna’s mother answered the phone as quickly as she had done every day for the last year.
“Yes momma. It’s me.”
Anna’s mother let out a sigh of relief as her daughter’s voice, just as rich and healthy as she remembered, filled her ears with both disappointment and fear.
“Where have you been, child? We all thought you was dead. Your job called and said you and Gregory never made it up there. Then Gregory called me saying you was missing and he couldn’t find you nowhere. You know, they locked him up? He been in jail for eight months”
“What momma?” Anna said, trying to grasp everything her mother was saying.
“They locked Gregory up. Said that he must’ve done something to you cause you were level headed and wouldn’t have just disappeared.”
“Momma,” Anna began with tears in her voice. “I ain’t that level headed. I ain’t hurt or in no trouble. I just… well I found some things. A few actually. I have a husband now and three children. We live off of the land. When I found this life, the thought of going back about killed me”
“You a foolish girl,” Anna’s mother sighed once more. “You go figure out how to get that man out of jail. It’s your life to do what you want but it’s wrong to make someone else pay for your sin.”
The next day, Anna made a call to the Richmond police department. She told them who she was and that she was alive. She agreed to meet with a deputy to prove it but that she wasn’t going to Richmond to face Gregory herself. About a week later, they let him go. But they had no information on Anna’s whereabouts to give him. Only that she was alive. That’s when the realization set in. This whole year, Gregory had thought something terrible must have happened to Anna. Only to learn that the terrible thing had happened to him instead.
“I’m so sorry Gregory,” Anna said, attempting to take his hand.
“I don’t want your sorry Fritz.” Gregory looked into the eyes of the woman he had never gotten over. Gregory wanted to tell Anna what happened. That after he got out of jail, he didn’t have a job at John Hopkins to go back to. That he started a private practice back in Richmond and took care of Anna’s mother until she died. That he married Lisa and had two children. That Lisa had died last year but he had a happy life with her. That his children were successful and his life was filled with simple joys. He wanted to tell her that he would be dead soon too but needed to revisit the chapter of his life that had changed his story completely. But mostly, he wanted her to know that he looked for her and had always hoped that one day, he’d walk out to that old truck and she’d still be asleep in the passenger seat.
“I just needed to know you were alright.” Gregory looked around again at the pictures on Anna’s wall. A picture of she and Montgomery married by the lake, the three children dressed up and watching. A picture of Lawson graduating from Law school, Willadeene at the White house and Dixie, a nurse at John Hopkins. Gregory could see the life Anna had walked into when she walked away from his. He supposed she never quite wanted what he was offering. She wasn’t ever impressed by his stuff instead, she found beauty in things nobody had made. A chance incident on the side of the road led her into the type of happiness she didn’t even know she had needed. He had stopped being angry about that years ago.
“Montgomery will be here soon if you wanna meet him,” Anna hesitatitedly asked Gregory. He shook his head no. He stood up to leave. Anna walked him to the door, staring at the old man who was the representation of another version of her life. Kids she may have had and a job she’d retired from, a love that would have been easy.
“Gregory, I just have one question that had sorta bothered me all these years,” Anna asked as Gregory stood at the bottom of the stairs of her log cabin. “You said you would be back in an hour. What took you so long to come back?”
Gregory grinned at Anna. He had always wondered if she ever even noticed the tire was back on when she woke from her nap. She had walked away without even noticing.
By Paula Michelle Gillison
Art by Stephen Rooks