Two Bridges and the Black Jesus
by Tamra Wilson
For sixty years, Aunt Lydia had saved everything that ever darkened the door or filled the mailbox, and in ten days, Bea had pried it all free, sorting everything from African violets to canning jars. Going through the old lady’s things was a heart-wrenching chore, especially since she’d left her niece the house and its contents.
Ray usually did most of the driving, but after the funeral, he’d flown home to Spartanburg, leaving Bea to prepare for the auction. She understood. He hadn’t been promoted to supervisor of his assembly line for being lazy. No sir. Since moving South, life was sweet. Her father had remarried after Bea’s mother died. “Leave your baggage at the door,” the new woman had said. No telling what a fourteen-year-old could have done to a new marriage, so in a way, Bea had lost her father along with her mother.
Aunt Lydia had taken Bea in until she married Ray right after high school. Her aunt had sanctioned the match, saying a young person has to follow her heart. Lydia must have known Ray would be a good husband. When he heard about a new BMW plant in South Carolina, he jumped at the chance to make good money and drive a luxury car.
Thankfully, Ray took a day to help clear out Lydia’s attic before he’d left for the airport. Bea got shaky just climbing a chair to pull old suit boxes from upper shelves. Fortunately, only dust hit the floor.
She was in Lydia’s bedroom, securing masking tape around a box of pilled blankets as she thought about seeing her father at the funeral. Vernon Gibbs looked old, his face the texture of beef jerky. That second family and two packs of cigarettes a day had taken their toll. He talked on about the weather, and how nice Lydia looked in her burying clothes (which she did) and how much he missed his big girl (which he really didn’t).
Bea knew all too well that she’d been good riddance ever since the night she slipped out of Lydia’s and showed up on his doorstep with a tow sack.
“Please, Daddy,” she pleaded.
“Ain’t no use you come up here carrying on. Lydia be your Mama now.”
“Mama’s dead and you’re all I got. If you loved me, you’d keep me.”
“Go on, child. Lydia take good care of you. I gots me a new family now.”
He drove her back to Lydia’s, but as soon as he sped off, she turned and chased his car as far as the bridge. She would have sat there all night if that pickup truck of boys hadn’t showed up and had their way. She made it back to Lydia’s, crawling part of the distance, and all her aunt could do was hold her and say, “Child, child.” She knew. After tending to her niece’s wounds, Lydia sat with her until she cried herself to sleep there under the picture of Black Jesus.
Bea was hard at work sorting and packing when she heard a knock. If she’d known who it was, she’d probably not answered it. Inviting himself in, Vernon Gibbs made small talk as he poked through Lydia’s things.
“I figure a girl your age would have a house full of chirrins by now,” he said. “Ever think ’bout having chirrins?”
“No,” she lied. She and Ray had tried to have a baby for three years now. If she even looked at her father, she’d either start crying or cursing, and she didn’t want to waste time doing either.
“Ever think about carrying yourself back up here permanent?” he said.
“Law girl, you ain’t sayin’ much.”
The framed print of Black Jesus lay on the bed. Vernon stared at it a moment,
then picked it up. “Your Mama say she pray to it and good things happen. And she be right.” He looked misty. “We gots ourselves up here in the Land of Opportunity.”
“Opportunity’s headed south,” Bea offered.
“Girl, where you get ideas like that?”
She gave him a sullen look. “Ray and I took our opportunity and the Lord’s seen us through.”
Her father turned the picture toward her, the Jesus figure there with his heart on his chest, glowing and raw. “I done prayed like Lydia. When your Mama got sick in the old days, her sister say, ‘Vernon, you prays to Black Jesus here.’ So I prays hard but where do it get me? Your Mama up and dies and then I lose my little girl.”
“You let your woman push me out.”
He laid the picture back on the bed. “Why you was pretty near all growed up by then. Eileen’s chirrens was just babies. They needs their mama full-time then.”
Bea slapped a pair of old shoes into a box. “You could’ve kept me with you.”
“Law, girl. Lydia done right by you, and now you be doing all right driving that fancy car. Folks think you be uppity niggers. But I can’t say it be so fine down there. No indeed.”
“People in South Carolina treat us as good or better than up here.”
He moved closer as his lower lip protruded under sour breath. “They’s bad memories. You be too young to know, but I burned my bridges up. I ain’t sorry about it neither, not one bit.” He grabbed the back of her neck.
“Stop it!” Bea wriggled free and left her father in the room to smolder in his own haunts. She’d see to it that they weren’t ever going to be hers.
Vernon Gibbs stayed away for the next nine days she boxed up Lydia’s life. Bea wanted to keep only the most precious things and Black Jesus was one of them. Of course, Ray and his Foursquare upbringing wouldn’t appreciate its voodoo aura, but she couldn’t bear to part with it. She’d put the picture under the bed, and with luck, it might get her a baby.
The day before she was to leave, she had spent two hours packing and re-packing for the long trek home, trying to stuff as much as possible into the car. Pictures slid under the seats including the one of Black Jesus. Her cedar jewelry box of costume jewelry fit onto a floor well along with her prized African violets—fragile periwinkle blooms hovering like tiny butterflies out of season. She hoped she could care for them as well as Lydia had.
Leaving the keys and last-minute instructions with Lydia’s attorney, she headed for home. She hadn’t driven more than a couple of hours when a tandem semi-trailer cut her off and pushed up alongside a second truck. A shiver raced through her, alone on an interstate with two truckers acting like they were in the Devil’s drag race. She eased up the accelerator and slipped behind the second truck, but the game continued for another mile. Bea strained to read their tags, and she almost had both plates memorized when they crested a hill. Suddenly before her was the span of an unfamiliar double-arched bridge and a sign that read, "Welcome to Missouri."
In her preoccupation, Bea had missed the fork toward Paducah and now she was at least an hour down the wrong road. She signaled, then stopped on the shoulder and as the engine idled, she hurried around to the passenger door and felt under the seat. She then removed Black Jesus with a golden sunburst over his head before she located the atlas.
The sound of a slowing engine grew closer behind her. She looked up to see an SUV pull over. Panicked, she threw the last box marked “fragile” into the passenger side to hear glass shatter. Her heart would have sank had it not been stuck in her throat. She raced to the driver door and slammed her body under the steering wheel. A shadow appeared at the window. Her eyes met those of a white male with a handgun attached to his belt.
The deputy motioned for her to roll down her window. “Having trouble, Ma’am?”
“I’m trying to find the quickest way to Paducah.”
He chuckled. “I’m afraid you’re headed in the wrong direction. Best thing for you to do is to go up to the next exit and take 60 east to the river.”
She looked at the atlas. The two-lane highway spanned both the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. “Can you tell me about the bridges?”
“They’ve been there a good long while. You could go back to I-24, but you’ll lose lots of time. I’d take Route 60 if I were you.”
As the officer returned to his SUV, Bea mentally kicked her own behind. Now she would have to drive over not one, but two old bridges.
The next exit led her over the lowlands of southeast Missouri, branching into a levee a full twenty feet above the cornfields. She passed a run-down roadhouse, an abandoned gas station and then caught a glimpse of iron fretwork towering ahead.
It was the First Bridge.
Her breathing hastened as she settled in behind an empty flatbed. The levee grew steeper as she glimpsed of the apex: two iron-arches leapt over the Mississippi confluence where North bled to South. She took measured breaths and thought of Black Jesus. If she could just concentrate on his peaceful face, she’d be all right. As the BMW ascended, she dared not remove her grip on the steering wheel. One false move and the car could careen into inky green water, the same dark water she remembered that night the pickup stopped. They had all laughed, calling her “scared little nigger.” She’d backed up to the railing and looked away as one boy had grabbed her crotch. She could still feel his groping fingers.
Eyes fixed ahead, she could do nothing more than focus on the mud flap. She counted: One thousand one, one thousand two. She was a safe distance behind the flatbed that chain-smoked diesel exhaust. She thought of Black Jesus and his naked heart.
A half mile later, she felt her car descend onto a spit of land. “The People of Illinois Welcome You.” Truck brakes hissed as the line of vehicles came to a stop. She leaned toward her side mirror. Bridge Number Two loomed ahead with not two, but three old iron humps. The Ohio, the Great Divider of the Nation. But once she crossed it, she’d be truly South. She wiped her palms, one at a time, on her slacks and leaned her forehead against the wheel. Half way, just one more river between her and Kentucky. Another bridge, another white-knuckle ordeal.
She thought of the old days, when railroad conductors would have flipped a sign around to separate colored to the rear and whites in front. What her people must have endured to cross that mile-wide body of water! What they’d given up for a taste of freedom with nothing more to guide them along than moonlight whispers. She felt ashamed of her own weakness here in a white man’s luxury car with pavement carrying her over the cold river, water she didn’t even have to touch. In a few seconds, she could laugh about it; laugh that she’d been so scared about crossing this old bridge.
Her car crept past an abandoned tollhouse and made a sharp right to begin the next climb. The bridge braces escalated like ladder rungs, soaring exponentially high enough to allow a ten-decker steamboat to pass, if such a thing existed. Her eyes fixed on the mud flap as the guardrails thickened. Soon she’d see the flying blue horse on the state sign and know she’d made it to Kentucky.
A few more seconds passed. She tightened her grip on the steering wheel and eased up on the gas pedal. Oddly, no oncoming traffic had yet passed. Then, suddenly she saw a flash of red. The truck was slowing down. She hit her own brakes. A jolt, like water splashing over Moses’ feet at the parting of the Red Sea. Cold water like what was in the canyon below. Just beyond that wispy string of guardrail.
And then she saw it: half of a doublewide trailer was inching its way toward her. She held the steering wheel in a death grip. Who in heaven would try to move a house trailer over this bridge, and why did they have to do it today of all days?
Her eyes darted to the right side. There couldn’t be a foot of clearance between her and the iron railings. She could feel the structure sway slightly as the heavy load creaked closer. Her breaths grew shallow, but she dared not hyperventilate. She could see the point of the roof narrowly miss the overhead railings. Not six inches of clearance. If it hit the overhead support, the whole bridge might collapse.
This was worse than that time they got stuck on top of the Ferris wheel, and Ray rocked their seat. She thought she’d die of fright before the ride re-engaged and whooshed them down through the treetops and back up again. His chest had shook in his deep-hearted laugh, not at her but at the improbability of dying in mid-air. To truly die, she’d have to hit the surface, slam into what was below, hit bottom.
Facing the oversized load, she began to tremble. She thought of the Black Jesus picture and wanted to poke under the seat and pull the frame out of its hiding place and look the icon in the eyes and get his attention. She could hear the roar of the diesel engine tugging the half-house over the ancient floor of the bridge, thumping slowly over the seams. De-bump, de-bump. As the rig crept nearer, something drew her eyes away from the mud
flap to look up at the driver. He was a burly black man with a red rag knotted around his neck, like a bleeding heart—a determined Black Jesus in an eighteen-wheeler. In total control, he advanced slowly, easing along the narrow passage. Doublewide siding slipped inches from her window as an old Bible verse came to mind: “But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
The flatbed ahead of her started up slowly, shifting gears. She felt the slow descent onto the wide Kentucky levee. Only then did Bea pull over and look out across the mighty river’s bottomland. She poked her hand under the passenger seat and wrangled the picture free, careful to avoid the shards of broken glass. She looked into the tender eyes of Black Jesus and wept.
Copyright © 2012 by Tamra Wilson.