Washington NC, Underground Railroad, Freedom Trail
A Letter Left on the Table
William’s heavy footsteps echoed as he walked across the cabin’s porch. Iris sat at the table her hands shaking, not knowing how he would react to the news that was written on the paper in her hand. She felt every year of her fifty years at this moment. “Why do you task me with this? God, why?” her eyes raised to the ceiling, a tear escaped.
She could hear the fatigue in his gait, tired from working in the fields all day no doubt. Maybe she shouldn’t give it to him, she argued with herself. She knew he couldn’t read it. It would save him heartache. No, her daughter deserved this. He deserved to know.
There was no knock when the door swung open. He would expect dinner to be on the table, but it was only her sitting there waiting to deliver contraband, a hand-written note. This small piece of paper was worth fifty lashes at least from the overseer if not a week in jail in town. The master preferred to handle things properly on the plantation though so if she were caught, there would be no mercy. Sweat beaded on her upper lip.
“William, I have a message for you.” The paper crinkled in her hand. She couldn’t believe that Selah had been so careless to leave it sitting on the table. She wouldn’t have noticed it if a breeze hadn’t caught it blowing it towards the corner of the cabin where she was working. That girl hadn’t learned much in her 17 years. She would give her what for when… her thoughts paused, and sadness filled her. Selah wouldn’t be coming back.
“what? Do they need me in the barn or something?” His eyes were wrinkled from working outside all day in the sun and the smell of fresh cut tobacco filled the room with its pungent odor. His hand paused on the door handle waiting for the answer.
“No, it’s not the Master. It’s this.” She held up the note so he could see it.
He let the door slam and rushed across the room, “Lord, woman, you want to get whipped. Put that away and just give me the message.”
Iris gripped the paper as if it was her own Freeman papers and hid it in the folds of her cotton dress. William looked over his broad shoulders as if he was expecting someone behind him. “There is only the note. I haven’t read it,” she whispered. “I haven’t opened it yet.” Iris pulled the paper back out and looked at it again.
“who is it from?” he whispered.
Iris looked into his light golden eyes, “You know who it’s from. She has finally left.”
William snatched the paper from the old woman and looked at it. He turned it over and saw the sunflower drawn on the outside fold. “Read it to me.” He handed it back to Iris. “Go ahead.”
Iris nodded and unfolded the paper slowly. “I will read it only once, and then we will burn it. It’s what she would have wanted.”
William watched her closely as she smoothed out the paper her hands had creased haphazardly moments before. “William, you will have to stand behind me, so I have the sun to read by.”
He nodded and stepped around the chairs so that he was standing over her shoulder. “thank you, Ms. Iris.” He set his large callused hands on her shoulder.
She padded his hand and leaned over to focus her eyes.
“My dearest William,
I wish that I could talk to you at this moment, but only the thought of writing this letter has brought me to tears. I was told today that I must leave. The overseer says I am a threat and they will never let me marry you because I am free and you are not. When you get this letter, I will be half way to Wilmington and on my way north. I have left the money we saved to buy your freedom in our secret place and only taken what I need for the journey. I will send word with the remainder so you can meet me. Follow the bird path and watch for sunflowers. “
Iris could feel moisture dripping on her back. She didn’t turn around. She wouldn’t. Let him grieve in peace, she thought to herself.
“One day we will walk together in the fields as man and wife, and they will not be able to stop us. The final order of quilts is stowed under the bed. Make sure that Aunt Clarissa gets them for me. She knows who needs them. The small one is for Lizzy and the new baby. Take care of her for me. She needs a strong man beside her.”
Iris’ tears fell to the paper splashing on the ink creating holes in the lettering. There were other splashes in the writing. The lettering was uncharacteristically uneven. She knew that Selah was upset as she wrote this. How could she not be? William had been her whole world since her daughter was little, always being the tagalong until she was old enough to be considered differently. Now she was running to keep him safe.
“I will love you for the rest of our lives. Stay safe for me. Hold your temper. I know you well.”
William started to laugh loudly, interrupting her reading. He grabbed the back of the chair, “She knows me so well.”
“Do your best and give them no excuse to punish you. I need to know you are there, waiting, waiting for our future together. It will keep me from going mad without you. I will send word when I arrive at my destination.
With all my heart,
Iris refolded the paper and handed it to William, blindly. She didn’t turn and face him, “better burn it now.”
“I will not. It's mine. She left it for me,” his voice filled the small cabin with a force like she had never heard.
“William.” She turned to face him. His face was soaked, and she could tell he was not in his right mind. “William, you know what has to be done.” She grabbed his arm.
There was a knock on the door. Iris stopped. “Ms. Iris, open the door.” The voice on the other side sent a shiver through her body.
Iris whispered, “burn it now.”
William only shook his head.
The door opened, and Iris could only close her eyes as Williams sealed his own fate.
Wrapped in Hope
A Water Street Christmas
For as long as I can remember, quilts have been part of my life. The Christmas of 1860 was no different. This year they will give hope to those on their way to freedom.
A bell rang on the wall signaling the beginning of the workday, but Selah had already been working for hours. The sun beams highlighted the dust angels floating in the air as it shone through the small window of Selah’s attic window. The shelves of neatly arranged colorized fabric created the décor of the room. She rocked in a chair in the corner, sewing her tiny signature stitches working a block of blue and green. The fabric was collected from the servants of other houses in town when the other black ladies were doing laundry. There were always shirts and dresses that were past their prime just waiting for the trash. Selah had slowly made friends here in Washington and they were all willing to give her scraps for her fabric collection. She had been blessed with a full pallet of colors to design with. The bell rang again distracting her and she pricked her finger.
“Ouch.” She stood up smoothing her long full dress. Her mistress insisted on starch petticoats for the staff even though it took longer to do the house laundry. She placed her sewing in the seat of the rocker and then rewrapped the bun at the base of her head. Selah bit her lip. Her hair was not staying in place today. She went to her dresser and retrieved a scarf. The crisp ironed cotton would hide the unruliness, she thought. She carefully wrapped and tucked it so that it covered her head. She looked at the basket beside her rocker. Twenty more blocks and the top would be ready to piece together. It was her signature design but this one was for the mayor’s wife and had to be perfect. It was two weeks till Christmas and she was working around the clock to finish all the town ladies’ orders. The reputation of a Selah quilts had grown quickly and soon the ladies were ordering them for distant relatives in the South. Her quilts were hanging on clothes lines of the largest plantations in the South as well as on walls of the homes as art work. She was honored for the business, but it was the secret that pushed her to finish as many as she could. They were roadmaps for the railroad to freedom and only those who knew the code could decipher the map.
The bell rang for a third time and she knew that she would get a scolding when she arrived in the kitchen from the cook. She hurried down the steep stairs pausing in the well to peer out the window facing the harbor. The sky looked so bright today. Such a beautiful North Carolina December day. She continued to head to the kitchen. As she descended, she prayed the sea would be calm and keep her love, Abram, safe. He was on the water constantly with only biweekly trips into town to sell his catch. Sometimes, she saw him unloading in the harbor, working hard for his master. She knew his dream of owning his own boat one day but his freedom would have to come first. His price was a high one because of his knowledge of the Shoals and experience as a boat Captain. She would have to sell many quilts to raise that much. The extra work was worth it. If she had to work day and night, she would raise the money. Then they could start their family. He wouldn’t jump the brooms with her until he had his freedom. They would be free together.
“Selah, what are you doing? Don’t doddle girl. We don’t have time for that. Today is the ladies Christmas tea and you are to serve,” the cook shouted up the stairwell. Her large frame filled the whole space at the entrance into the kitchen. “Come on. Breakfast is ready to go up. Then, I need you right back.”
“Yes, mam,” Selah quickly responded, grabbing the tray and heading out to the main stair case. The house was not as grand as some of the others in town, but it was a respectable size for a merchant’s residence. Mrs. Willis spent her husband’s income wisely and decorated the house in rich velvets and wallpapers. Selah wondered how many ladies were coming for the tea. This was the big private event of the season. Only the most prominent ladies received an invitation. The mistress loved showing off Selah’s quilts. There was one hanging on the wall in the main room. In front of the quilt was the 7-foot-tall Christmas tree. Selah had no idea why they would have such a large tree. There would be no room for the ladies, she thought as she knocked on the bedroom door.
“Come in,” a voice inside shouted in a thick Southern drawl.
Selah slowly opened the door as she balanced the tray in one hand. She stepped into the dark room. Her mistress laid in bed with her head covered with a bed cap and the covers pulled up to her nose. “Selah light that fire girl. It is cold in here.” She said with her muffled voice not bothering to remove the quilt.
“Yes mam.” Selah moved over to the fire and organized the contents of the fireplace so that it would light faster. Working efficiently with the matches, the fire was soon crackling and Mrs. Willis stuck her chin out from under the covers.
“Do you have your quilts ready? I know there were a lot of orders for Christmas.”
“It was no trouble mam. I got the ones that ordered ahead.”
“Did you make more? The ladies will want more when they see them.” Mrs. Willis asked anxious to make a good impression on her friends.
“Yes mam. Twenty total.” Selah smiled at her accomplishment. She had 40 quilts to sell. Of course, her fingers were black and blue from the needle pricks but she knew that they were the best she had ever made. She laid out her mistress’ clothes, while the older woman ate her breakfast.
“Get Jacob to help you bring them down to the drawing room.”
“Yes, mam.” Selah backed out of the room and slowly closed the door so it wouldn’t make any noise to disturb her. It was going to be a long morning she thought to herself. How much will the Mistress charge for her quilts? She wondered. She better get down to the kitchen to help with the preparation.
Selah headed down the main staircase taking two steps at a time. Cook shook her head as she rounded the corner. “How is the Mistress this morning?”
“She’s cold. I lit the fire for her.”
“Here girl. Start cutting the bread for the sandwiches. The master is not going to like that. Heat in the morning. He will be fussing about the cost of wood for burning. It is not cold in this house especially with all the baking I have been doing this morning.” She stirred some concoction in a bowl carrying it with her as she walked around the kitchen. She poked her head up the back stairwell again. “Jacob I need you to go down in the cellar for me. Jacob, Come down here please.”
“Comin.” A tall slender black man dressed in a suit came rushing into the kitchen. “what do you need?”
“I need you to get me a jar of lemon curd and one of blueberry jam. I don’t know why they don’t build cellars for real cooks.” She shook her head again. “There is nothing more frustrating than not being able to go and get my own ingredients.
“Yes mam.” Selah smiled to herself thinking that if the cook did not taste as much as her own cooking, she would probably be able to fit in the cellar even with the extra petticoats she was so fond of wearing. Usually the three of them did not fit in the kitchen together because of the skirts.
“We will be using the good china today. Make sure we don’t have any accidents.”
“No mam. I’ll be careful.”
“There will be fifteen ladies. It will be a tight fit in the drawing room. We may have to serve in the formal living room as well.”
“Yes mam. I think these are done. Is there anything else you need me to do? Jacob has to bring all the quilts down.”
As if on cue, Jacob popped his head through the floor. “Are these the ones? I have to do what?”
“Yes, those are the ones,” the cook agreed.
“the Mistress wanted you to bring all the quilts down now before the guests arrive.”
“right, how many?”
“Forty,” Jacob exclaimed, “Where am I going to put all those?”
“We will stack them out of the way for right now.” Selah explained meeting Jacob’s doubtful gaze. “they are neatly folded.”
Cook interrupted, “I need you to make the sandwiches then you can see to the quilts. Jacob, you put the china out on the sideboard so it will be ready for the ladies.” Jacob nodded and left. “Selah, I need you to make half lemon and half blueberry. Be generous with the filling. The mistress is making a show of it today. You know this is for your benefit, don’t you?”
“Yes mam.” Selah was thankful for the Mistress’ help with selling her quilts. She probably would not be as helpful if she knew that they were going to pay for Abram’s freedom and their trip North. But she wouldn’t need to know that right now. It was taking longer than Selah thought to raise the money though. Last year when she arrived, she thought six months would be long enough and it had been a year. She bit her lip in frustration. She couldn’t stand another year. Being away from Abram was so hard. She survived on sightings and letters. Letters of Love from the sea as Abram called them. He worked just as hard as she did to save the money they would need. The dream of that future was all she had.
Cook cleared her throat, “Daydreaming again? You have to stop that or you are going to get punished. You are doing way too much of that these days.”
“I was just thinking of my next quilt,” Selah lied. “There is not enough time to do everything and have time to sew. So, I will have to do two things at once.”
“Just don’t slop that jam, girl.” Cook turned back to the petit-fours she was decorating.
Selah had designed quilts for many different areas of North Carolina. But now she had an order from Savannah. How would she get a map of that area for the code? Maybe Abram could help with the waterways. She could not steer someone wrong by using the wrong information. She would complete it but needed it done by Christmas. That would take a miracle. She said a silent prayer and continued her sandwich building. The cook began to hum a Christmas carol and Selah knew today would go well.
Selah watched as the elegant ladies arrived carriage by carriage and the horses were led to the back of the house for water and rest. There were a few more than expected but to Mrs. Willis’ delight a few of the ladies had brought their Christmas guests from down South. All the better for quilt sales, Selah thought to herself. She readied herself and headed to the drawing room to start serving tea. Many of the ladies wore Christmas silk scarves around their necks. Their dresses rustled as they brushed past each other and the Christmas tree. Selah looked envious at the fabric. She would love to have just a piece of that for a quilt. She walked through the group silently moving between the ladies pouring tea and listening to the conversations. Some of the ladies sat and enjoyed the cakes and sandwiches. Small talk and gossip was all that was discussed and Selah bored quickly of the light conversation that was going on. There was much more interesting conversation down at the market on Saturday morning.
She was invisible to these women which was fine with her. She needed to be sewing or drawing her next quilt. After an hour, Mrs. Willis asked Jacob to help her with the quilts and they were given to each of their new owners. Each of the quilts was built around a huge compass with a sunflower center. The borders varied along with the colors. The visiting women snatched up the extra ones that were available. It was a frenzy as they fought over their favorite colors.
Mrs. Willis ignored the unladylike behavior, “Selah can you tell us about your design?”
“I call this design, Alizeti Compass. Each of them are different. I hope you enjoy them, they are made to be used and seen. Thank you all for your interest.” Selah quickly bowed and started to remove the dirty dishes.
“Thank you, Selah, for your hard work. Okay ladies not to mention the distasteful subject of payment but if you could settle your bill before you leave.” The ladies quickly moved toward their purses and handed Mrs. Willis the bills.
Selah continued to clear the room. She took the extra food and headed to the back door. She motioned to some of the men that were waiting with the carriages. Each of them grabbed a handful of the small sandwiches and nodded at her appreciatively. A small boy stepped through the crowd and tugged at Selah’s skirt. She looked down and handed him a sandwich. He shook his head no and handed her a small note. She smiled down at him, handed him some food anyway and took the paper from him. He quickly disappeared around the hydrangea bush at the corner of the house as quickly as he had appeared. The plates of food were emptied quickly and Selah headed inside to finish up. The linen napkins went to the basket to wash later and she busied herself with washing the dishes. When they were all washed, Selah made one more sweep through the drawing and living room to check for any strays that she might have missed. When she returned to the hall, she caught movement in the library out of the corner of her eye. It was Mrs. Willis counting money into two separate stacks. She took the second stack and put it into the small drawer of her secretary and folded the first in her hand. Selah quickly continued down the hall so that she would not get caught.
“Selah,” Mrs. Willis called. “Selah, can you come here please?”
“Coming,” Selah yelled from the kitchen. She turned and recovered her steps that she had made just moments before. She stepped into the library and crossed the room. Mrs. Willis held out her hand and placed the bills into Selah’s hand.
“A very respectable sum. You are quite talented. The ladies were quite pleased. I do appreciate you working here. You have done an admirable job for Mr. Willis and I.”
“Thank you, mam.” Selah turned and returned to the kitchen. There was no time to count the money at the time and she knew that it was not as much as she was supposed to receive. Why would the Mistress take a share? She carefully packed away the dishes and went upstairs to her room.
She laid the money on her bed and stared at them. Slowly, she counted four hundred dollars. She had never seen that much money in her life, but still it was not enough. The women liked the quilts and they were taking the maps made of fabric back to their plantations. She put the money away in the coffee tin under her bed and reached in her pocket for the note that had arrived. Her heart started to pound when she saw her name, Alizeti in his unsure handwriting. Abram was getting better, but his hand was still shaking forming the letters. She quickly unsealed the paper and unfolded it. As she read his words, tears ran down her cheeks.
I am writing to tell you I am headed south. My master is sending me to warmer water to better fishing during the cold months. Do not worry. I have a strong crew and the boat is sure. I have thoughts of you and our love to keep me warm. Our love will survive this. I will return next year as we planned. This voyage will bring higher prices and will bring us closer to our true North. I will miss you my love.
You have my heart forever,
The note had been written quickly on a scrap of paper. Selah held it in her hands as she went numb. The sea would have him again and she had no choice but to share him. It fell to the floor and her eyes no longer saw the room. How would she survive the next year without seeing him at all? He told her not to worry. Their love is strong; it can survive this. It can survive anything. She wiped her face and reached down for his note. Her eyes focused on the outside and could not believe what they saw. He had brought her what she needed. It was a navigation chart of Charleston, South Carolina. The very chart she needed for her next quilt.
Her Christmas miracle.
She slurped on a cherry flavored Icee and a brain freeze blinded her just as the pot hole sent her cup flying in the air. In slow motion, a super-sized red arch of slush flew up, hit the ceiling of the car and covered her lap and new yellow top she had saved a month for. Urma Ray pulled into the Piggly Wiggly parking lot at a quarter till three on the sixth of the month. Circling the lot, she tried to regain her sight, dodging cars and sitting uncomfortably in a pile of cold slush. Maybe she should just turn around and go home. Everyone in the world will be in the store this afternoon and she looks like hell now. The time she spent getting ready to come shopping was completely wasted. She circled around one more time in search of a spot. The heat was rising off the asphalt making the wait for a space seem even longer. She had to get something for dinner. If she didn’t shop now, she wouldn’t have it ready for Bill when he got home from work. There wasn’t time for her to go home, change and come back. Finally she found a spot all the way at the top of the lot. Well, I need the exercise anyway.
As she opened the door and swung her legs out of her old Cutlass, ice fell onto the pavement melting in the summer heat. She stood up and gave herself a shake hoping the slushy stains would magically disappear like the ice on the black top. She checked herself in the car side mirror and laughed at the sticker “Objects are closer than they appear.” Too bad her butt wasn’t that small. It was a nice thought though. No stains on the back side. Front wasn’t too bad. Kind of looked like tie dye. Well here goes nothing. She grabbed her purse and pulled out the list. Hopefully her food money was on the card this week. The lady at the agency had promised there wouldn’t be a mix-up this month. It was so embarrassing last trip. Now there was no food in the house and she needed groceries. She had never been in this situation before. They had always survived but this year the price of shrimp had bottomed out and it had been slim pickin’s.
She made the trek to the front of the store, grabbing one of the old, rusty shopping carts. I should have checked the tires before I came in just in case. That was a huge pot hole. What if it damaged a tire? Oh man it would be just my luck today. All she could picture was her groceries melting as she waited for AAA to arrive and change her tire. She turned around leaving the cart parked by the front door. She walked back up to the car. A car slowly stalked her as she headed to the place where she had parked. She turned and waved “Sorry, I’m not leaving. Just forgot something.” The driver mouthed an expletive that she would never repeat and zoomed passed her. Wow. It’s a jungle out here. She carefully checked each of the tires and breathed a sigh of relief. Bald but no damage from their run in with the pit. She headed back to the entrance dodging the cars circling for their spot to park in, trying not to get hit.
Just as she grabbed her buggy and threw her purse in the top basket, Samantha Rutheridge came out of the market. Urma Ray cringed, this is a nightmare.
“Urma Ray, how are you? My goodness girl, what happened to you?”
“There is a pothole at the entrance and I hit it just right. It’s just been one of those mornings.”
“Oh my. Bless your heart. It looks like you ran into a snow cone salesman. A little seltzer water will fix that right up. We missed you at the Altar Guild meeting on Wednesday. You know those are not optional.”
“I know. I had to work. I have a new part time job and I didn’t want to miss a day in my first month. They don’t like that sort of thing you know.” Urma looked over at Samantha’s basket filled to the brim with stuffed sacks. Can you suffer from basket envy? No doubt the steak section will be empty; not that steaks were on her list.
“Oh, I didn’t realize you were working now. Maybe you can schedule to have the evening off next month for the meeting.”
“Maybe. So how is Howard? I was happy for y’all when he won re-election. It was a close one.”
“It sure was. Thank you so much for supporting us. He is doing really well. Always going to the capital and I only see him on the weekends. I miss him but it’s a lot quieter at home, that’s for sure. Can you believe that Mr. Fitz would try to run while he was sleeping with that girl? Like people wouldn’t find out. We are good Christians around here. We don’t put up with that. But Howard did win on the issues, not mudslinging. No one wants to listen to gossip.”
“We were happy to support him. He said he was going to work on some stuff for the local fishermen and I know he will keep his promise. If he can just do something about the prices, the foreign raised stuff is killing us. Oh, I better let you go. You don’t want your groceries to spoil in this heat.”
“I’ll see you soon. I’ll let Howard know that you guys were thinking of him. He will appreciate that. Altar Guild remember. Oh, a little hint,” she lowered her voice like she had a national secret to share. “They have bags of frozen shrimp on sale today. Two for four. A super deal. I loaded up.” She pointed to two bags.
Urma Ray watched the slim, bottle-blond woman head out to the BMW that was parked in the very first spot. “Thanks for the tip.” As if she could afford to stock up. She pushed the cart through the door and pulled out her shopping list. Just the basics. There was no money for extras. She would start with the meat and work her way from there.
The cool air blowing from the meat cooler was heavenly, such a relief from outside. She had to hurry if she was going to cook. She spotted a big pork shoulder that was reduced. Oh, that will make a couple of meals and a ham will be perfect for dinner and Bill’s lunches. Leg quarters on sale, jackpot! Ok, that will be good for meat. Now to the veggies. She was bent over picking out some super large cans of green beans when all of the sudden:
“Urma Ray! Samantha said she saw you in here. How are you girl?” It was her best friend Beth. Urma Ray threw the cans in the basket and gave Beth a huge hug. The middle-aged lady looked like she was on her way to work dressed in her waitress uniform.
“Hey! Where have you been? How are you?”
“I’m good. Lord have mercy girl, what happened to your shirt?”
Awesome. If one more person saw her in her stained shirt, she will be in tears. She just ignored the comment. “I got a new job and things are going good, but it’s keeping me busy. How are you? Bill doesn’t tell me anything. He spends all day on the boat with Tom and I don’t hear a thing.”
“A job? Tom didn’t tell me. I guess I’m out of the loop too. I’ve missed you at the diner. You guys don’t come and eat anymore. I miss you.”
“Yeah I’m working down at the Quickmart. Just part-time but it’s a help with the bills. We haven’t been able to eat out much. You know how it’s been. I’ve never had to work before.”
“Yeah I had to beg for some more hours at the diner. But I’m getting good tips. That helps. Maybe you should come and work with me.”
“I would love that but Bill likes his dinner on the table when he gets home. I wouldn’t be able to do the dinner rush and that’s when y’all are busiest.”
“You’re right about that. Ok, well I’ll let you finish so you can go cook. I’m gonna go check out this shrimp Samantha told me about.” Beth gave Urma another hug and ran off to the frozen department.
Maybe I should look at the shrimp. It is their local specialty. Maybe the store got a deal. Urma Ray pushed her cart down the aisle gathering the other things on her list. Nope, she was sticking to her list. That’s the first rule of a thrifty shopper. She was almost done and it was a good thing because her running total that she was adding in her head was very close to her limit.
She turned to the front of the store and stood in what felt like an infinite line. Oh, there’s the new People magazine. Let’s see who’s sleeping with who. She grabbed the new issue and started to flip through the pages. I can’t believe Blake and Miranda are divorcing. What could have gone wrong there? She flipped a few more and started at the latest fashion trends. Leopard skin leggings, oh yeah, that would look good on a stick! She sighed, envious of the model’s figure. $5000 sunglasses. Do not judge, do not judge. People are so wasteful. I guess if you have it, spend it. Someone cleared their throat behind her and she looked up. The line moved two people and there was a gap between her and the person in front of her. She moved her cart and turned to the man behind her “Sorry.” She gave him her biggest smile. She tried to be more attentive, moving with the line.
She noticed that the girl in front of her had a bunch of the frozen shrimp. “Is that the shrimp that’s on sale?”
“Yep, did you get some? It’s a super deal.”
“Nah. I stuck to my list like a good girl. Do you mind if I check it out?”
Handing her a bag, the girl smiled, “Good for you. Here you go.”
Urma Ray looked down at the packaging. Nice size shrimp too. That is a bargain and then it caught her eye. Raised in China. Can you believe that? Here in shrimp country. Ahh, she was so tired of it. Today frustrated her to no end. This was why she couldn’t pay her bills. The reason the prices were so low. She handed the bag back to the girl waiting in front of her.
“You sure you don’t want some. You have some time.”
“No thanks. I will get some from the dock when I’m in the mood.” The young girl loaded her groceries quickly on the belt. She threw things out of the cart as quick as the cashier could ring them. The cashier was frustrated as the pile got larger and larger until things started to fall on the floor. She was trying to be pleasant but Urma Ray could tell that the dinner rush was wearing on the older lady’s nerves. The customer pulled her cart through and Urma Ray jumped in helping her pick up the items.
“Thanks for the help.”
“No problem. I know it was a long wait.”
When it was her turn, she loaded her groceries on the belt carefully. Organizing her items so the young man at the end of the lane would bag them correctly. She nervously watched the total rise quickly, too quickly. She handed the cashier her coupons and the grunter behind her let out a huge exasperated groan. She turned, smiled, and apologized again.
“Can you page Mark please?”
The cashier looked worried as she punched in the coupons and Urma Ray watched the total fall below her limit.
“Sure, but can I help you with something?”
“Nope, I need the manager for this one.” She pulled out her EBT card. Her face flushed remembering last month’s embarrassment when the card was rejected. That was an hour ordeal and Mark the manager was a saint letting her use his phone while she straightened it out. Oh God, what if it happened again? The cashier paged Mark overhead and he appeared quickly.
“Ma’am, how are you today? Can I help you with something?”
“Yep, give me one minute and I’ll finish up here. You are very quick.”
Urma Ray ran the card and for one tense moment she thought it would happen again. The register spit out the receipt and the cashier smiled. “Have good night and come and see us again.”
“You too. Thanks.” She gathered the last of her sacks and moved the cart. Mr. Grumpy, as Urma had nick named him, could now buy his suitcase of Bud Light. Mark helped her with the cart and they stepped over to the newspaper stand by the front entrance.
“Mark first I wanted to thank you for being so understanding last month. I was so embarrassed and had no idea what to do. You made me feel like a person and I appreciate that.”
“No problem ma’am, it happens all the time I’m afraid. Computers don’t always act right.”
“I need you to take care of two things for me. One is the pothole as you come into the parking lot.” She did her best Vanna White impression; modeling her new blouse and gracefully waving her arms. “This is the result of that.”
“Oh, I am so sorry. I will let Upper Management know. Is there anything we can do about that, the cleaning bill maybe?”
“I’ll see what I can do at home and get back with you on that. It might come clean. The next thing is the shrimp special. You realize that you are in shrimp country, right?” Mark raised one of his thick bushy eyebrows. “My husband works on a shrimp trawler every morning. How much local shrimp do you sell? Do you advertise it? It’s shameful. People are buying buggy-fulls of Chinese shrimp and don’t even realize it. It’s putting us out of business. I apologize for the exaggeration but it’s upsetting. I know people would buy local if they knew what was what. It would probably boost sales.”
“Excellent suggestion. I’ll work on some signing. Sorry about the special. It’s a corporate thing every store received. I’m sure someone should have considered the regional preferences. I’ll get with someone.”
“Thanks Mark. You’re great. Now go see what Mr. Grumpy wants.” Urma Ray motioned toward the register where the man was standing with his arms crossed, stomping his foot, and yelling at the cashier. Mark smiled at her.
“Have a great day.”
“Good Luck,” Urma Ray chuckled as she rolled her cart out the door into the impossibly busy lot. The steep parking lot made the trek back up to the car with a full cart difficult. She put her back into it, pushing as hard as she could. A young couple passed her on their way into the store. “We have to get some of the shrimp that’s on special. A super good deal I heard.” Urma Ray wished she had not overheard them. She pushed harder to get to the car. She loaded her groceries in the trunk. Glancing up she saw a black BMW that matched Samantha’s. No doubt it’s Howard. She peered into the car as he passed at the younger slimmer blond in the passenger seat. He must be making a wine run for the night. “Bless her heart,” she said when she realized it was Abigail from the dry cleaners.
Her driver’s side seat had a huge red stain where the remainder of her Icee melted and dried. Great, another stain, just what the old car needed. She jumped in, gave the gas a couple of pumps and started the car. Squaring her shoulders and sitting up straight, she knew what her priority was. It was not feeling sorry for herself. At least she had a loving husband waiting at home. She pulled out onto the main road and headed that direction to feed her favorite fisherman chicken for dinner. Content with her life, she felt smug. Wham! Her car fell into a pothole and she watched in her rearview mirror as her hubcap rolls into the bushes on the side of the road.
Sometimes Life is good and sometimes we struggle. In the South, we make the best of what we have. We know what is important and we make it a priority: Friends, Family and our Community.