This is the second installment of one of twelve short stories from “Christmas on Pleasant Hill”, available from Amazon. Half of all the profits from this book are donated to 3Cs Nursery School. To read the story from the beginning, click here, then come back to this post to continue….
The last time Charise had seen her cousin, Tanya had been running barefoot through Grandma’s garden into the night, none too steady on her feet. Charise had been in college, Tanya was a junior in high school and Charise had taken her to a party in Clifton.
Charise, in a calculation she would never have made sober, had decided to bring Tanya back to Grandma’s, where she had been living since her parents kicked her out. She wanted to introduce Tanya to cocaine in a safe place, and had figured that Grandma and Grandpa would be asleep on the second floor, too far away to hear anything. They had tiptoed giggling through the house, more loudly than they realized, and gone through the French doors in the dining room onto the back patio. On a glass table under the porch light, Charise made two wobbly lines of powder.
They were poised over it with straws in hand when a shadow fell across them. Grandma stood there in the doorway in a white robe and turban, silent and flint-eyed as the angel of death.
Finally, with no visible movement, she hissed at Charise. “How dare you bring that filth into my house! How dare you drag this girl into the same evil you’ve fallen into!” Her voice rose to a shriek and her trembling became visible – “How dare you!”
Tanya leapt out of her chair, grabbed her stiletto heels and took off barefoot through the yard, apparently preferring to risk the wrath at home rather than stay for Grandma’s. Grandma, still screaming, “How dare you!” swiped the table with her arm and the cocaine disappeared into terrycloth and thin air. She finished the swipe with a shove that nearly knocked Charise over. She was too stunned to react. Grandma had never even given her a mild spanking.
While Charise was still in shock, Grandma grabbed her purse and took off through the dining room. Charise sprang after her like a tiger – there was $200 and more cocaine in the purse.
“No more!” Grandma was crying, as she wove around the dining room table – “No more. This ends tonight.”
She picked up a phone and dialed three numbers. Charise grabbed at the purse. Grandma dropped the phone to hang onto the purse, and the two of them struggled there by the kitchen door. The women picking cotton smiled down on them, until Charise, wrenching the bag away from her grandmother, scraped the purse’s buckle right into the picture, dragging it across the face of one woman and the upper body of another, piercing through a smile and a heart and a bag of fluffy cotton. Grandma sank to the ground, sobbing. Charise ran up to her room, grabbed her stash of weed, a bigger bag, threw in some clothes and shoes and ran out of the house, beating Grandpa, who was now running toward her from the dining room, to the front door. She ran south all the way downtown to the bus station, and took a bus to Nashville just after dawn.
The whole scene played again, as she stared at Tanya’s note, and the guilt washed over her in waves that made her clench her teeth. She had never seen Grandpa again – he had died two months later. She had been so wasted at the funeral she could barely remember it. Damon had driven her up, steered her through it and driven her back to Nashville all in the same day.
How had she let another year go by with no contact with her Grandma? Grandma had written and invited her to Easter and to Thanksgiving and to Christmas, but she had been too ashamed and afraid to go home. Now it was too late.
She wanted a drink. Screw recovery. She looked in every cabinet but there was nothing on the property. She grabbed her keys and headed north toward the Kroger. On her way, just before the intersection where Grandma’s church was, she saw a lit-up old house at the front of a hospital property. She could see people through the window. She remembered hearing it was used for twelve step meetings.
She passed it, but when she got to Grandma’s church she pulled into the parking lot. She sat in the empty lot, breathing heavily. Then she looked at the church entrance and saw Grandma, in a ray of light, walking through one of the doors, wearing a hat, like she used to at Easter. Grandma looked over her shoulder at Charise and lifted her eyebrows. “OK,” said Charise, to no one but the dark night. “I’ll go back to the meeting.”
The meeting had, as they say, restored her to sanity. The next day was Sunday. She went to church. It was the closest she could come to being with her grandma. She was not, however, ready to face up to Grandma’s friends, so she sat in the back row and planned to slip out during the final song.
She was surprised when an older man who had been sitting near her came out after her, and called to her. “Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you but I thought I might have recognized you from a picture and I wondered if you might be a relative of Olivia Anderson.”
That got her attention. She watched him approach, hoping he wasn’t a pastor. He might be. He was an older white man, kind and well spoken, with friendly blue eyes and a smile.
“I’m sorry. My name is Bill Grant, and I’m a friend of Olivia’s.” He offered his hand. “I’m Charise Anderson, her granddaughter.” “Ah! I’m so glad to meet you. I was out of town the day of the funeral so I haven’t had a chance to meet her family. I’m so sorry for your loss. She was such a good person. I would even say a great person.”
“Yes.” She wondered how well he knew Grandma. Well enough to know what a screw up her grandaughter was?
“I don’t want to intrude,” he said, more tentative in her silence. “But here’s the thing – I knew your grandma from the Historical Society as well as church here, and I helped her find out as much as possible about her house. I thought that whoever lived here next – maybe they would like to hear what I know, and I could show you some files I gave her…”
“That’s very kind of you,” she mustered, relaxing a little. “I would like that.”
He smiled. “That house is a treasure. It was built in the 1850s by a Quaker named Zachary Strang. He was an abolitionist. But I’m sure you know the house was a stop on the Underground Railroad?”
Her eyes widened. “I had no idea.”
“Oh yes. I thought your Grandma would have told you. It has quite a heritage. Strang used to pick up runaway slaves in a wagon that had a false bottom. He’d hide them in the wagon and put crops on top and bring them up the road to the house. Then after they’d eaten and rested, he’d smuggle them up to the next safe house. You may be wondering why they were still running in a free state, but the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it legal for owners to pursue people into free states and recapture them, so they couldn’t really be free till they got to Canada…”
He talked on, swept up in his own narrative. Charise already knew about the Fugitive Slave Act. She’d written a paper on it before she’d dropped out of college. But she had no idea the house had been an actual hiding place. Grandma must have only found out recently…
“ …I guess you don’t know about the little room they found, then?”
“Yes – a few months ago. We’re pretty sure it was one of the places people hid when strangers were seen coming up Hamilton Pike. You see, there was a warning system. Homeowners further down the road, and students from the Ladies’ College and the Farmers’ College, would keep a lookout and send messages to the safe houses. Then they’d hide slaves in basements or attics or sheds when the owners came looking. Your Granma was sorting things in the attic and she uncovered a false wall that could be slid sideways in the attic, and there was a little room back there with blankets and books…it was so exciting!” His enthusiasm was hard to resist. Charise asked, “You wouldn’t have time to show me now, would you?
Mr Grant shifted the wall panel, enough for them to squeeze into the dormer space. There was an ancient curtain on the window, its small flowers almost faded out. Covered in plastic, there were old brown wool blankets, a Bible, a book of fairy tales and two history volumes. Grandma, always orderly, had laminated a page of writing and placed it on top of the blankets.
It read, “These things were discovered in September of 2014 by Olivia Anderson, along with Mr Bill Grant, a fellow member of the Pleasant Hill Historical Society. He has heard a second hand account of a letter written during the Civil War. The writer said that Pleasant Hill had become too well known to be a safe stop for runaways, so the little room in the Strang attic had been retired. We have not been able to find the letter. But we have found these blankets, this Bible dated 1846, and these other old books. It is my prayer that this house will always be a refuge for those in need of safety, comfort and beauty.”
Charise read the note over and over, unmoving. Mr. Grant shifted awkwardly.
Finally he said, “She asked me, the last time I saw her, to make sure her grandchildren kept all our files, everything we gathered about the house. Can I ask you on her behalf to keep these things, and all the papers downstairs? They were very important to her.”
“I can promise that much.”
After he left, she sat on the small back stairs of the house, the ones servants used to use. It was where she went to be alone as a child. Now, her mind was pierced with images of those runaways, hurriedly being smuggled up these stairs – ragged, wide-eyed people smelling of sweat and fear. She followed the images up the stairs, back to the little room. She sat on the floor facing the dormer window, which looked down on the garden. She re-read Grandma’s note.
“A refuge,” she whispered. Then louder, to the empty space, to the whole precious house and garden and all the people who had sheltered there, she admitted, “I need a refuge. I’ve been a slave and I need a refuge.”
This story will be continued in the next post…