Emily Mae Jones was an old woman. Her skin was like paper, thin and creased. The powder she routinely smoothed on gave her the look of a well-loved book, one whose pages were slowly disintegrating. Her body was failing her, but her mind was still sharp. And when she began telling her story to Sarah, one of the hospice aides, her unseeing cloudy eyes, now a watery blue, shimmered.
“The summer of 1956 was a hot one in Arkansas,” she began, her arthritic fingers working the thin cotton blanket. “The air hung heavy over White Oak. Folks rocked in creaky chairs on their porches, lazily cooled themselves with paper fans. That was the summer I began to feel like a wilting flower, growing weaker and weaker, my back bowing until my face grazed the ground. And that was the summer I met George.”
On a damp afternoon in June, Emily Mae sat in her bedroom, her fingers trailing over the pages of a book. When the knock sounded at the back door, she startled. No one was expected, and no one had been invited. Especially not when she was home alone without her mother, unguarded and unsupervised. Vulnerable.
With her heart tripping in her chest, she shifted in her chair and reached around to the side of the smooth desk to grasp her white cane. Sliding it along the floor, she felt her way to the stairs, then gripped the railing as she descended. There were 19 steps, she knew. Another 31 to the back door in the kitchen. The knob turned to the right, and when it clicked open, she would pull it to herself, careful to step wide.
“Yes,” she asked, peering out onto the porch.
“‘Scuse me, ma’am, I’m delivering some groceries that Miz Frannie bought this afternoon. She didn’t have room for them in her car, and I told her I could swing on by after my shift to drop them off. I’ll just put them on your counter there?”
“Yes, that would be fine,” Emily Mae said, her ears absorbing and cataloging the deep, rumbling voice. “Who did you say you were?”
“Sorry, ma’am, my name is George. George Jackson. I work at Kitter’s Grocery Mart. I’m a bag boy,” he explained, stepping into the kitchen to set the crinkling paper bags on the narrow countertop.
“Oh, I see. Well, it’s nice to meet you, George. I’m Emily Mae.”
Emily Mae offered a pale white hand and waited. She sensed his hesitation but his large callused hand took her own. She couldn’t say why, but his touch was different. It was his texture, she decided, that was strong and smooth, his scent rich.
“Nice to meet you, too, Emily Mae. I should be getting along.”
“Alright. Bye now.”
George glanced back at the pale girl with the unruly blond hair, the cornflower blue eyes that looked to the floor.
“Bye,” he said, slowly closing the door.
Emily Mae had hardly turned to scout through the groceries when the door slammed open again, banging against the wall.
“Did that boy come by here,” her mother gasped.
“George? Yes, he did. Why are you breathing so hard, Mama?”
“I ran straight from the car to the house when I got here,” Frannie said as she pressed a hand to her heaving chest. “I thought I’d be home before he came, but I got a flat tire out on Waverly Road. Had to call your granddaddy to come help me. Thought I’d never get home in time.”
Frannie pushed a loose pin back in her short, curled hair. She’d been frantic thinking of Emily Mae alone with that boy. Who knows what could’ve happened? Her baby was blind and helpless, and he could have taken advantage of her. Frannie shook her head at the thought.
“Why would you be so concerned,” Emily Mae asked. “He was nice boy. Very polite. He gave me the groceries then left.”
“Well, honey, I know you aren’t aware of some things, but George is…not like us. Do you understand? I don’t want you talking to his kind. Do you hear me, Emily Mae? I’m serious, now.”
“Alright, Mama, I hear you,” she replied, a brief sigh escaping her lips.
It was easier, she thought, to let her mother think she was oblivious to the world, to life outside of the yellow house at the end of the road. But in the evenings, when her mother was preparing dinner and the scent of simmering sauces wafted out of the kitchen, Emily Mae would tap her way to the television. She twisted its dials, kept the volume on low, and listened. Static-filled voices related the news – riots and boycotts and protests – and Robin Hood’s adventures, and a young man, a singer, crooned about a hound dog. And Emily Mae, a bird caged, longed to experience the world. To have friendships. To love.
Over the next few days, Emily Mae lingered around the kitchen, hoping for George’s return. Her ears pricked with every fallen footstep on the porch, her heart pounded with anticipation that he might have returned. But after a week of pressing her fingers to the warm glass windows, of standing guard at the back door, it seemed as though George was a passing acquaintance, a fleeting memory of touch and smell.
With disappointment dulling her eyes, fading her smile, Emily Mae tied a silk handkerchief around her head and set off to the far end of the spreading yard. She had a special place there, under an oak tree whose arms were thick and comforting.
After counting her steps, Emily Mae braced a hand on the coarse, warped bark of the tree, then smoothed down her skirts to sit on a low-hanging branch. And when the hand reached out to touch her shoulder, Emily Mae let out a breathy scream.
“It’s just me, Miss Emily Mae. It’s George. Remember? From the other day? I delivered the groceries.”
Emily Mae gulped air, swallowed hard.
“What are you doing here? How do you know about this place?”
“I came back to see you. I thought there might be a chance you’d come out here. I’ve been waiting.”
“You’ve been waiting? For how long?”
“I’ve been coming here the last couple of days, ma’am.”
“You don’t have to call me ma’am, George. I’m 22 years old.”
Emily Mae sputtered out a laugh. Her heart was still thumping under her cotton sundress, and she ordered herself to calm.
“Who are you, George? Why do you want to see me?”
“I wanted to get to you know, Miss. There’s something special about you.”
“You mean because I can’t see.”
Emily Mae turned away, her stomach dropping to her knees. He saw only her blindness, her handicap.
“Yes,” George said as he placed a gentle hand on Emily Mae’s arm. He gave a light tug, enough to turn her around to face him.
“But maybe you can see deeper than other folks.”
He stroked a dark finger down Emily Mae’s fair cheek, leaving a wake of sparks. She shivered under his touch.
“What makes you think I can do that?”
“Because you’re someone I can believe in.”
Emily Mae took his hand between both of hers, pressed it to her warm cheek.
“Tell me about your family, George.”
“It’s just me and my mama. She works hard, and she comes home at night with her back aching, her knees aching, her feet aching. But she only smiles, tells me to warm up the kettle and that she’ll be just fine. We go to church together every Sunday and eat dinner together every night. I got the job at Kitter’s so I could help her out and take care of her. She’s getting old, my mama.”
“She sounds wonderful,” Emily Mae said wistfully. “Not that I don’t love my mother, but I think she’s worried for me. What people will think, what they’ll say. What they’ll do. So she keeps me locked away. I know she wants to shield me from the world. But I want to see it. I want to see everything.”
“Can you see me?” he asked quietly.
She let go of his hand and reached forward, fingers searching, trembling, until they found purchase. The soft pads of her fingers tickled over George’s high forehead, trailed down the length of his wide nose. She lightly traced the round shape of his eyes, and his stubby eyelashes brushed her unpainted nails. And as she listened to the wind fluttering the pleats of her skirt, felt the sun warm her back, heard George’s low breathing, in and out and in and out, she rubbed the tip of a finger over his plump lips.
George grabbed her hand, turned it over to press his lips to the inside of her wrist.
“Meet me again?”
Emily Mae drew her hand back, her wrist still tingling from his lingering kiss.
“Yes. Yes, I’ll meet you again. Tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow,” he said, the smile sounding in his voice.
So Emily Mae returned to her tree, day after day, week after week. She and George sat shoulder to shoulder and hand in hand, backs resting against the tree’s sturdy trunk, and talked. Just talked. He spoke of his absent father, his residual anger at being abandoned; she spoke of suffocating under her mother’s care. He squeezed her hand when she confided her loneliness; she soothed, stroking his bristly cheek as he raged about the racism in town. She learned his smell, that unique mixture of sweat and cotton and skin and man.
Emily Mae couldn’t know, but her face had begun to glow, her eyes shine. She could often be found sitting in a chair, chin propped in hand, and gazing off, a smile stretching across her face. Her grandfather, on his Sunday visits, only took notice of her pleasant disposition, but Frannie, being a woman who could sense her daughter’s moods like a shift in the air, became suspicious.
She knew that Emily Mae had begun sneaking off in the late afternoons. Emily Mae’s excuses were flimsy at best, and to Frannie, they were painfully transparent. So she bided her time, waiting until she could uncover Emily Mae’s secret. That day came on one sweltering afternoon, deep in August.
“Emily Mae? I’m heading off to play bridge with the girls. You’ll be fine here alone, won’t you?”
“Of course, Mama. You have a good time.”
Frannie took off toward her car, slid in the seat and prepared to back out of the driveway. The minute she’d turned the corner, she shut off the engine, then quietly rounded her way back to the house, only to see Emily Mae heading across the field.
She kept a few lengths behind, aware that her daughter’s hearing was exceptional. The crunching of grass beneath her heeled soles could quickly alert Emily Mae, so she walked tenderly.
And then she knew. The large black boy waiting at the base of the tree, Emily Mae’s excited cry. Gripping fingers. A chaste kiss to the cheek.
Frannie’s vision went dim and her pulse thundered in her ears. She stumbled, her heel catching on a knotted clump of grass. She landed hard, her hose ripping and her palms stinging with a green tattoo. She picked herself up and flew towards her baby girl.
“Emily Mae! What in God’s name do you think you are doing? Get away from that boy right now. Right. Now.”
Emily Mae, a shocked look freezing her features, could only stare in her mother’s direction as her fingers tightened on George’s.
“I said now, Emily Mae,” Frannie screeched, her voice pitching high with panic. “Don’t you dare touch that boy. Do you have any idea what you’re doing?”
“I know what I’m doing, Mama,” Emily Mae said firmly. “This is George. He’s my friend. And I love him.”
“You don’t know what love is,” Frannie insisted, stepping forward to tear Emily Mae away.
“Stop it, Mama.” Emily Mae pushed Frannie’s hands aside and wrapped her arms around George.
Shaken and hurt, Frannie stepped back.
“You would choose to be with that boy? You would choose him over your own mother? Over me?”
“I’m sorry, Mama, but this is how I feel. I need him, I need my freedom. You can’t keep me in that house forever. It’s not right.”
Frannie’s chest felt hollow, empty of emotion, void of love. She could only stare at her daughter – and the boy who had ruined her.
With a surge of rage, she pointed a sharply manicured finger at George.
“This is your fault.”
Then, in a move so unladylike she surprised herself, Frannie spat at his feet.
George put a burly arm around Emily Mae’s shoulders, pulled her close.
“I’m sorry, Miz Frannie. I am. I don’t want to take Emily Mae from her mother.”
“You’ve done more than that,” Frannie said through gritted teeth. “You’ve spoiled her. You stay away from my daughter. If I ever see you on my property again, I’ll get my shotgun and shoot you like the animal you are.”
With a fierce pull, Frannie yanked Emily Mae out of George’s arms and dragged her weeping daughter back to the house, up the stairs, and into her room. Then she locked the door on her way out.
That night, when Emily Mae had cried herself out, and her face was red and puffy, George returned. He shimmied up the drain pipe to tap lightly on her window. When she opened it, he climbed through and enveloped her in a tight embrace.
Burying his face in her sweet-smelling hair, he whispered, “I love you, too. Come away with me. Let’s go. Please.”
She stepped back, ran her hands over his shoulders, down his well-muscled back.
“Ok,” she said, letting out a long breath. “Ok.”
His heart light, his feet light, George hurried around the room, gathering up dresses, scarves, mismatched pairs of shoes. He tied them in a towel, then tossed it, along with the white walking stick, out of the window. Emily Mae sat perched on the corner of the bed, amused by his speed, by the rush of air that caressed her face.
“Ok, you’re ready. Let’s get out of here.”
He crouched and scooped her into his arms. She clasped her hands around him, laid a gentle kiss on his neck. He glanced down at her, tears pricking his eyes, and left a kiss on her forehead. He headed toward the window and tilted her over one shoulder before climbing backwards out of it. She laughed at his hold and gripped his waistband.
The climb down was dicey, George thought, and with sweaty, scraped hands, he came close to falling a number of times. But he tightened his grip on Emily Mae and dropped the last few feet. He grabbed the towel and the stick with his free hand and jogged to the car he’d parked a quarter of a mile away. When he settled Emily Mae in the front seat, he impulsively grabbed her face and kissed her, his lips sliding over hers. She pulled him closer, pressing her pink lips to his.
And then he was in the driver’s seat, his hand on her leg, her hand over his. He rolled the windows down and the fresh, crisp night air flowed into the car and through her wild and curly hair. She turned to him, cheeks flushed, eyes dazzling, swollen lips grinning. He took her hand, brought it to his lips.
With the night sky stretching before them, with stars winking above them, they were free.
“What happened next,” Sarah asked. “Did you live happily ever after?”
With a small, sad smile, Emily Mae shook her head.
“We made at as far as the town border before my mama came, the police in tow. They arrested George for kidnapping,” Emily Mae lifted a shaking hand to wipe the tear quivering on her lashes. “I never saw him again. But I love him still, a sweet, unwavering love that will end only when I end.”
Sarah reached over, patted her bony shoulder.
“My mother put me in an institution later that year. I spent 10 years of my life there, until Mama died and I inherited the house. That’s where I stayed, day after day, week after week, year after year. And our tree – and my memories – are still there.”