“Sweet Harlem”: A historical fiction short story

My father insisted we walk the one gravel road to town. He wanted us to have one more feel of the light brown soil, one more smell of the deep green bushes along both sides of the trail, to feel the crisp winter air on our skin.

Our walk took us past the small red brick building that was our church, where we would spend every Sunday morning. We walked past trails that led into the dense forest. Ones that I’d run through with my friends hundreds of times. We walked past memories of life. For this road was the only one which we had ever actually traveled.

Once we got to town, I went over to the water fountain for a drink. Father taught me to use the one with the label, “colored only.” But even without the label, I knew which one was for me. My water fountain was a small bowl, once white, now covered with spots of brown rust. Rustic, you could say if you wanted to make yourself feel better.

It was a stark contrast to the water fountain for white people. Theirs was much bigger, solid, and rectangular, with a shiny silver casing and the proud label of Westinghouse patched onto the front. The water fountain was a great metaphor for life in the south. Just like white folks, we had access to water. But their experience was separate from ours, easier to use, and more pleasant.

In town, we boarded the bus that would take us to Jackson, the start of our train ride north. We took our seats in the back of the bus and settled in. My mother at the window, my father next to the aisle, the two of them holding hands, and me on my father’s lap.

I looked up at my mother and watched her stare out of the bus window with a solemn yet dreamy gaze. My mother, only twenty-four years old but with wrinkles and grey hairs already beginning to show, standing in height taller than average and always proud, athletic thin, with a reserved smile, and at this moment, wearing her finest and only pearl necklace, just staring out into the vast planes of the Mississippi countryside.

My father, on the other hand, had his standard ear-to-ear wide smile on his face. A large man, 6’7, with broad shoulders, a chiseled clean-shaven face, soft, gentle eyes, long thin fingers that came useful at one point in life in his baseball career, as he was a great baseball player people would always tell me. One of the best pitchers in our parts, maybe the whole country. But when I was born, money became more important. So baseball was put aside.

That day he wore his only suit with his only white dress shirt and his only skinny black tie, with his only pair of shiny black shoes. It didn’t matter to him that the gravel road would make them dirty, and by the time we got into the bus, the shoes looked true to their old, worn-out self. What mattered to him was walking out of the house looking his finest.

I looked outside to a city going through change. Cars were not common in my parts of town. Here though, they were everywhere. And with the rise of cars came the construction of roads. Country dirt was going out of fashion, replaced by concrete. I watched cars drive by and looked at the smiling faces of the people inside. What problems were they dealing with, I wondered. What troubles burdened their lives. These thoughts didn’t last long. As the bus began to move, I dozed off, drooling on my father’s chest.

Note: “Sweet Harlem” is a historical fiction short story. The story, characters, and incidents are fictitious.