Millicent Gardens, 1936 | The New Engagement
Millicent Gardens story art

Millicent Gardens, 1936

By Marie Manilla

Dishwater Johnson draped his washrag over the spigot, untied his apron, and tossed it in the hamper. His back ached from leaning over that sink ten hours a day, scraping leftovers into the trash, pilfering half-eaten pork chops and baked potatoes, more dinner rolls than he could shove in his pockets. The staff wasn’t supposed to take scraps from The Dorinda Hotel, but wasting food was a crime, especially when Dishwater had children to feed, as well as Gramma Homely and his father, Orchard Keeper, whom he both loved and hated. Uncle Tom, Dishwater called him in his mind, since his illiterate father wouldn’t get the reference.

One time, as Keeper set a dinner plate before him, Dishwater had seethed, “You’re just an ignorant house boy, you know that? Opening the Waller’s front door. Yessum. Yessir.”

Keeper scratched his head. “They treat me well, most of them. And I take care of the orchard. Gramma Homely used to open the door.”

Dishwater had pushed away from the table. “You don’t understand anything.” Dishwater didn’t understand either. He and the other three-fourths of the town who did all the menial work while the Wallers went to the theater and held their annual picnic where they played badminton and lawn bowling, peacocks strutting across the lawn.

Every day, Dishwater peeked in The Dorinda dining room at all those fancy dresses and furs, his fingers curling into fists because he couldn’t buy Mary a fur or a beaded dress.

He banged out the back door into the alley where three hobos huddled around a fire barrel, embers floating into the night sky. Hobos had no place to loiter now that the flophouse had been torn down to make way for Millicent Gardens. Two of the four apartment buildings, anyway. Dishwater’s neighborhood was scheduled for demolition next week to make way for the other two buildings and a garden in the middle that was Millicent Waller’s grand idea. “Colored people need things of beauty in their midst too,” she’d said. That’s why she’d chosen the gold brick with pyrite mixed in to add sparkle. Dishwater imagined her laughing over dinner: Surround the darkies with fool’s gold and they’ll never need the real thing.

Tomorrow, she would jab a golden shovel in the dirt where Giddy Belford’s house once stood. Giddy hadn’t lived there since the factory fire when he lost his face and most of the skin on his hands. Wallers didn’t offer him financial relief, so Giddy lost his family too. Dishwater wanted to take that golden shovel and bury it in Millicent’s skull, an idea that had been fermenting for months, or maybe all his life. Last night when he helped Mary pull dishes from the cupboards to pack, he was thinking about the Wallers’ benevolence and snapped a teacup handle off.

Mary snatched the severed handle. “Be gentler!”

Mary was happy about the move. “Every apartment comes with a refrigerator!” She kicked the drip pan under the ice box. “I won’t have to drain that stupid thing every day.”

Dishwater had to set a bowl on the table to keep from hurling it across the room. How could a man celebrate losing his home? A shotgun shack, maybe, but it was his. The thin walls, bowed ceiling, creaky floors. He and a few other families had refused to sell, so the whole neighborhood had been condemned. He remembers the night he came home and found the notice on his picture window. He punched the plate glass, slicing his palm, which stung like hell when he had to dunk it in hot dishwater the next day.

 

In the alley, Dishwater stood by the fire barrel warming his hands, rubbing that scar. He tried not to go home when he was in a mood. You frighten the children, Mary had said. You frighten me. It was a wicked night for Dishwater, for every black man in Wallers Ferry who had built this town. Black women too, who had peeled mountains of Blood Fruit for the Wallers, and now they were being shoved into public housing. He wondered if there were crueler designs. Put bars on the windows, locks on the doors, and set the complex ablaze with whole families inside.

Dishwater shoved his hands in his pockets and rounded the corner to Front Street where The Burlesque’s marquee flashed off and on, off and on. Blacks hadn’t been allowed inside—not even to clean—since The Birth of a Nation. Gramma Homely claimed to remember the time she sat in the third row between two white ladies and watched Mr. Peels, a monkey in a suit and bowler hat, ride a bicycle and pour tea into a thimble.

Dishwater couldn’t fathom an integrated audience. “You must have got it wrong, Gramma.” Gramma got a lot wrong lately.

The thought of Mr. Peels made Dishwater grind his teeth. He started crossing the street and nearly got hit by the trolley, which he hadn’t heard clanging since he was so deep in his mind thinking about his son. Fingers, folks called him, since he was always playing an imaginary piano ever since he’d heard someone pounding a ragtime ditty inside Black Jax. Fingers cried for a piano every Christmas, every birthday, which was out of the question.

Now, Dishwater crossed the street to look in Bucky Pawn’s window for the violin on the highest shelf that he’d been making payments on, not for his son to play like a fiddle, but so he could learn Bach and Paganini. Dishwater loved imagining Fingers performing, not at a juke joint, but Carnegie Hall.

When Fingers was a toddler he began running away from home. Mary usually found him in town heading south, always south. One day she burst into The Dorinda kitchen during supper rush. “I can’t find him this time!” An hour later, Dishwater discovered his son at Belle Fleur’s boarding house. Fingers was dancing in the middle of the parlor dressed up in a velvet suit, a bowler hat on his head, looking like a fool as Old Jeb played his Jew’s harp. Belle was mending sheets in the corner, a boarder even older than her in the chair beside her.

“He looks just like Mr. Peels!” the boarder had said.

Belle looked up from her sewing. “He most certainly does not.”

“My son is not a monkey!” Dishwater impulsively slapped the boy, Mary squealing in fright. The boy cowered, which angered Dishwater even more, but at least he was no longer a minstrel show.

 

My son is not a monkey. Dishwater looked at the violin on the shelf at Bucky’s and dreamed for his son a life so much better than this. A life away from Wallers Ferry where he wouldn’t have to say Yessum, No sir, or wash dishes, and he wouldn’t always be reminded of everything he was not: not white, not rich, not a Waller.

In a different world he could have been a Waller. If the globe was turned upside-down and north was south and south was north; white was black and black was white. I could have been a Waller. I could be a Waller.

 A belch from the factory across the street. Dishwater looked toward the sound. Lights pulsed through the windows. Bottle and wine making twenty-four hours a day. The Wallers sucked the life from the Blood Fruit trees just like they did all the black factory workers in there, and poor whites too, Dishwater had to admit. But most of the white men had moved into management, all living in tidy homes that were not being leveled to make way for public housing. That flourishing upper middle class who could afford lobster at The Dorinda or veal piccata at Joey Vino’s. They were in there right now, Joey uncorking champagne for a table of tuxes and stoles just over from the theater. A black man set a basket of breadsticks on the table, wearing a requisite suit that probably cost a month’s salary. Those poor, poor blacks, Millicent had been quoted in the paper. But even in that picture of her wearing a gigantic hat, Dishwater could see the lie in her eyes. She just wanted them all in one contained area over in Coontown, beholding to the city for the very shelter that could be ignited with one match.

Dishwater felt the box of matches in his pocket. That’s all it would take. One match to the Waller place. That stupid orange house already the color of flames. Let’s see how you like it.

Dishwater marched toward the Waller home as if he were prepared to claim it, but he bumped into Giddy Belford, half drunk, bent over to tie his shoe with fire-maimed fingers no longer nimble enough for the task.

“Don’t stop in the middle of the sidewalk, fool! Here, let me.”

Dishwater tied the man’s shoe and started to leave, but Giddy rested his hand on Dishwater’s wrist. Dishwater recoiled at the knotted slick skin and two fused fingers.

“Spare a dime?”

“Go home, Giddy.” Home to Giddy was now Turtle Cove where the rest of the bums slept.

“I haven’t eaten since this morning.”

Dishwater tried not to look at Giddy’s scarred face that was no longer black, but it wasn’t white either. Half the time Giddy really was begging for food money, and there was a nearly full pint jutting from his coat pocket.

“You want to get arrested for drunkenness again?” Dishwater snatched the bottle, put it in his own pocket, and slid out the ham sandwich he’d tucked there for himself. Giddy needed it more.

Dishwater walked on, Giddy stumbling to keep up. Soon they were standing in front of the Waller home. Electric lights in every window like a brag. The new music room had just been completed and inside someone rudely played the piano. Moonlight Sonata, Dishwater’s favorite, but not tonight. He wondered how it would sound on the violin.

Giddy sat on the stone step-up beneath the oldest Blood Fruit tree to eat.

Dishwater walked toward the house.

“Best not go any closer,” Giddy whispered. “They’re libel to shoot you.”

“Hush, Giddy.”

Dishwater crept across the lawn and looked over the windowsill. Old Dorian Waller sat in a leather chair, feet propped on an ottoman, fat pipe in his maw. On his lap was the dog, Tippy, curled in a ball. In the other chair was his son, Dory, who looked more like his father now that he was bald. The great-granddaughter was at the baby grand pounding out Beethoven, feet not even reaching the pedals. She wore a pink bow in hair.

A black woman came in with a tray of brandy and snifters, which she offered to the men. Cora would be moving to the projects too.

“Serve them right to burn up in hell fire.” Dishwater looked at Giddy for confirmation, but he was slumped over on the step-up passed out. Hadn’t even finished his sandwich.

In walked Millicent with her cane in one hand, a paper scroll in the other. Dishwater wondered how she expected to lift a golden shovel tomorrow. Probably hire someone to do the lifting for her. Her dress was a watery blue, a dragonfly brooch hovering over her breast, its ruby eyes shimmering in the light.

Millicent jabbed her cane first at her husband: “You!” Then at her son: “And you!” The men’s heads snapped to attention. “You forgot to invite the Mayfields. The Mayfields!”

She didn’t wait for a rebuttal, just went to the piano, unrolled the scroll, and weighed down its ends with candelabras. “That’s enough tonight, Rindy. Head on up to bed.”

“But—”

“Do as I say!”

Rindy opened her mouth, but Millicent gripped the child by the elbow and pulled her to her feet. “Off to bed or you can’t come to the groundbreaking.”

“But my new dress!”

“Cora, put this child to bed.”

Old Dorian pulled a nickel from his vest pocket to lure the girl over. He slipped it into Rindy’s hand to buy a kiss goodnight, the little dog watching the transaction. Cora took Rindy’s hand and led her away.

Millicent called the family together, though it took three tries for Dorian to heave out of his chair, the dog jumping to the floor. The old man’s hand probed for surfaces to lean on as he made his way over. Not much of a patriarch.

Millicent went on and on about some project Dishwater imagined would take a wrecking ball to the rest of Coontown. A whites-only golf course perhaps, where Fingers could caddy but never play a round.

Rindy raced back into the room waving a china teacup.

Millicent yanked the cup from the girl: “You know you’re not to touch that. Cora! Come fetch this child and put her to bed!”

Cora returned, shoulders hunched.

Millicent pinched Cora’s arm. “She was in the china cabinet again. I’ve told you a million times to lock it!”

Rindy sneered at Cora.

“Yes, ma’am.” Cora grabbed Rindy’s hand and dragged her out the door, the girl wailing as she tried to peel the woman’s fingers off, the dog nipping at Cora’s heels.

Dishwater stepped to the next window as Cora tugged the child halfway up the staircase until she plopped on a step and grabbed a railing. Cora’s jaw was grinding. Finally she pulled a handful of Rindy’s hair, the bow coming out and tumbling down the stairs. The dog snatched it and ran back to its master. The girl called, “Tippy, no!” She bit Cora’s wrist, broke free, and fled to the music room.

Dishwater went back to the other window as Rindy ran to Millicent. “Cora hit me!”

“What? Cora! Get in here right now!”

Rindy laughed, lunged for the piano, and meanly pounded the keys.

Old Dorian was back in his chair, hands over his ears to dampen the discord, the wailing wife. Millicent hollered, “Cora! Get in here!” Tippy jumped on Dorian’s lap, the bow in its mouth so he could tear it to shreds. For a second, Dishwater felt something like pity for the old man. In another life, if the world was upside-down and black was white, Dishwater’s son could have been the great-grandchild getting nickels pulled from a vest pocket. Playing Moonlight Sonata on that baby grand so beautifully Old Dorian would be reduced to tears. He could be a Waller. But the world was as it was and the weight of that permanence made Dishwater want to shut everything up. All of it: the sniping woman, the snarling dog, the piano, the wailing child. If only Cora would return and shove something down the girl’s throat. But Cora didn’t come.

It was not premeditated, really. “I’ll shut them up.” Dishwater pulled a kerchief from one pocket, the bottle from the other. He uncorked the whiskey and rammed the cloth down its neck, shaking the bottle to wet the fabric.

The first match wouldn’t stay lit, but the second one did, and soon the torch was burning. The flames dancing. Dishwater hurled it through the window nearest the piano. If his son couldn’t have it, nobody could. Millicent screamed and Dishwater imagined her blue dress flaring up like tissue paper. Then there would be no golden shovel and maybe no wrecking ball, either.

He didn’t wait to watch the fire, just ran across the yard, the street, darting between houses, down back alleys, huffing, his sides aching all the way to Coontown where he stood in front of his house. His hands trembled and he couldn’t turn the doorknob. Instead he looked in the front window at Fingers asleep on the couch, his digits twitching.

A clanging from town. The fire truck. Dishwater looked south and tried to find smoke plumes in the sky, a glow of flames, but it was too far and too dark. He hoped the whole wing was engulfed, the house, the orchard. All the Wallers. Then he remembered Cora and his hands flew to his face.

 

The next morning, everyone was talking about the fire, which consumed not the house, but Old Dorian Waller. The bottle cracked his skull, glass shattering, coating him in accelerant that not even three blankets could extinguish. The music room was spared, along with the piano and everyone else, even the dog. Just a burned up chair where the man had been sitting. Dishwater couldn’t even make it to The Dorinda, impeded by clusters of people on sidewalks, in the middle of the street, discussing the crime. Many black folks hailed it: Wish the whole family had burned to a crisp! Some condemned it: He was the only decent Waller left. Whites wanted vengeance. Most of them, anyway.

The only thing Dishwater felt was complete disappointment. Another ineffective man.

Suddenly everyone aimed for the jail, Dishwater tangled in the net of them. They passed the ferry landing, the captain pulling the whistle, and the crowd cheered, though they didn’t know why.

The mob stopped at the jail steps, whites in front, particularly the itinerate day laborers and gutter rats who were one slender rung above the Wallers Ferry blacks.

Fear strangled Dishwater’s innards and he tried to turn around and go back to Coontown, but the throng was too densely packed.

“Turn him loose. Turn him loose!”

Turn who loose?

A man’s face appeared behind the jail door, the sheriff beside him. The front door opened briefly as the sheriff shoved the man out, the sheriff remaining inside, locking the door so that the man couldn’t retreat.

Giddy Belford.

His face even more disfigured from the blows. Eyes swollen shut. “I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it!”

The sheriff turned his back to the door, to Giddy, to the mob, who were now free to do as they pleased, and everyone knew what that was. Every black man and woman in the crowd turned and ran back to Coontown, forget the jobs, the much-needed paychecks. Better to bolt themselves and their children inside their homes on a day like this.

Dishwater darted into the entrance of The Burlesque to watch those white men grab Giddy and haul him down the steps toward the Waller home, the scene of his violence that had killed the Waller patriarch.

Dishwater’s body shuddered. What if Giddy blurts my name? But no one would believe him. A drunken, fire-ravaged fool seeking fiery revenge. Dishwater crumbled to his knees when he understood that he would not flail his arms and yell: I did it! I did it! He slunk back home and barricaded himself in his shotgun shack with Mary and Fingers and his other children who were all crying for reasons they didn’t understand.

 

Little Rindy was at the piano banging out Moonlight Sonata, though she’d been told to stay out of the room with the boarded-up window and the charred spot on the floor. Great-Grandpa’s chair, burned down to springs, lay on its side in the front lawn. She heard them before she saw them, a swarm of angry bees. Rindy slid from the piano bench and ran to the window beside the front door as men rushed toward their house, women and children too. “Grandpa!” Tippy started yapping.

Dory came from the parlor where the rest of the family gathered with the undertaker. “What is it?”

“The picnic is starting!”

“Picnic?”

He looked out the window. “God in Heaven.” Dory pushed Rindy back into the hall. “Stay inside.” He tumbled out onto the porch and down the steps screaming: “Don’t do this thing! Don’t do this!”

Rindy slipped after him, laughing, because soon there would be Blood Fruit punch and pie and horseshoes. Buggy rides and lanterns at dusk. Tippy followed her, barking, as two town kids ran to her, giddy, all of them too newly arrived in this world to understand.

But they understood clowns, even if he was scary with his mangled face smeared with blood-colored paint. Even as Dory pleaded, other townsfolk laughed at the spectacle, which to some was better than any vaudeville. The animal was being hoisted up the lowest Blood Fruit limb, toes scraping the step-up, the way his legs danced like a puppet’s, jangling and dangling until they hung there limp, his head lolling. The cheers. The hoots. They grabbed sticks to poke and prod, so the children grabbed sticks too. The older boy wended them through the crowd so they could poke the clown.

Little Rindy jabbed the clown with a stick until Grandpa Dory yanked her away and dragged her into the house, his hands trembling, tears in his eyes, and because everybody loved the Waller picnics, Rindy understood them to be tears of joy.

So she squeezed his hand. “I’m happy too, Grandpa. I’m happy, too!”

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