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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Religion and Spirituality  |  House: Booksie Classic

Appearances can be deceiving when it comes to love and religion.

Submitted: March 30, 2018

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Submitted: March 30, 2018






Charles V. Walker, Jr.


The locust tree had been uprooted thirty years ago to make room for the new courthouse, but as she made her way along Creston, Virginia’s Main Street, ninety-three-year old Bessie Hall continually glanced back as if it were still there.  She was bent over and using a cane as she walked slowly up Main Street pass the mixture of stores lining it. 

The face of the five-foot tall woman was covered extensively with a thick, brown foundation.  This was supplemented by heavy, bright red lipstick that saturated her lips; smears of it rested on the top and bottom of her lips.  The mascara used on her eyelids and her false eyelashes were applied in such a fashion as to almost completely obscure her eyes, which were behind thick-lenned eyeglasses.  Perched on her head was a large yellow and blue flowered hat with a small, butterfly-shaped, purple ribbon on the front of it. A flower-print, ankle length dress was worn under a mid-waist wool coat.

On this particular early spring Saturday afternoon, Miss Bessie, the name by which most people referred to her, was returning home from buying a few groceries at the MBD Mini-Mart.  She was talking to herself and the few people on Main Street gave her empathetic smiles and nods, as she walked by them. But, they kept a safe distance from her, as they weren’t sure what might trigger a physical reaction from this strange looking, obviously mentally ill woman.  Eventually, Miss Bessie turned down a side street which connected to a narrow dirt and gravel road that went by several houses. 

As she walked, Miss Bessie came upon a group of girls who were jumping Double Dutch in the front yard of one of the houses.

“Hi, Miss Bessie,” the children shouted, almost in unison.

“Hello, little darlin’s,” Miss Bessie responded. 

A weary Miss Bessie sat down upon a three-foot high wall, rested her chin on her hands that now cupped the cane’s handle. and began watching the girls. As she watched the girls, Miss Bessie marveled at how they nimbly jumped in and out of the twirling ropes, while the other girls skillfully rotated it with their hands and wrists.  The rhythmic puttputt of the rope striking the ground put Miss Bessie into a trance-like state, as it made her mind wander to a time when these girls didn’t even exist as thoughts. 

In the spring of 1890, Miss Bessie, a widow who had her only one child, a son, Mark, was hired as a cook and housekeeper by Nathan Brewer. Nathan was a widower with a twenty-year old daughter, Kathleen. At the time, Miss Bessie and twenty-two-year old Mark lived in a house left to her by her late father, Martin Shiflett.  Martin was a former slave who had received the two-story house and seven acres of land from the family of his last owner.

For the most part, Mark’s days were filled with doing an assortment of odd jobs in and around Creston, such as mucking stables at horse farms, and doing yard work and small repair jobs for homeowners.  His nights were usually spent playing dice or cards, and drinking with his friends.  Therefore, when Mr. Brewer mentioned to Miss Bessie that he was looking for a young man to assist Kenner Knickles, another black man who worked for him, she recommended Mark for the job. He was subsequently hired by Mr. Brewer and proved himself to be a hard worker who showed up early and, if the need arose, stayed late. Miss Bessie told Mark she was proud of him and urged him to continue to impress Mr. Brewer with his work habits.

Approximately seven months into Mark’s employment, however, Miss Bessie noticed subtle things happening between Mark and Kathleen.  One day, while gathering eggs, she saw them kissing behind the Brewers’ pony shed.  She warned each of them individually and together about the risks in what they were doing.  She was especially harsh on Mark, because as someone born into slavery and who grew up in the early years after it had ended, she’d witnessed firsthand what happened to black men who disobeyed the written and unwritten rules regarding interracial romantic relationships in America.  Despite her warnings, however, Mark and Kathleen continued their liaison.  Therefore, she wasn’t surprised, but angry and distraught, when just after the New Year, she learned that they had run away together. 

During the four days of their absence, Miss Bessie hardly slept, and prayed that they would make it safely to wherever they were going.  On the other hand, she hoped that perhaps Kathleen would come home alone, while allowing Mark to continue on his journey away from Creston.  She soon learned, however, that both had been found in Maryland and were being returned to Creston. After they arrived in Creston, Kathleen was taken home, while Mark, who in addition to being charged with miscegenation, was also charged with theft, was placed in the town jail.

When Miss Bessie visited Mark the following day, she saw that his face was battered and bruised, and his bottom lip was swollen. He explained to her that after stealing and driving a horse carriage to Bakersville, he and Kathleen had stowed away in one of the baggage cars of a train heading to New York City.  He hoped to get there and apply to be a Pullman porter. He also said he felt that it would be easier for him and Kathleen if they were above the Mason Dixon line.

He further explained that when he and Kathleen arrived in Maryland, they stayed with his cousin, Linwood, in Farmersville, a small town just outside of Baltimore for two nights.  Linwood’s wife, Margaret, was friends with a local pastor, who lived next door to them.  The pastor married Kathleen and Mark in his livingroom, with his wife, and Margaret and Linwood the only people in attendance.  Mark intended to use Linwood’s horse and carriage to take backroads as far as we could on their journey north.  Unfortunately, the day before they were going to leave, he and Kathleen saw Mr. Brewer, Kenner Knickles and two other men approaching the house.  The four men put them in separate horse drawn carriages and brought them back to Creston.

When his mother began to cry, Mark told her not worry. “Mama de worse dat cain happen is dat deese white folks will run me outta Creston, an’ tell me nevva ta come back agin,” said a smiling Mark.  Despite his smile, his mother could detect a bit of nervousness and uncertainty in his voice.

Miss Bessie told him she’d be back in the morning with some more food and another change of clothes.  She hugged him and kissed his cheek goodbye. She collected Mark’s personal possessions from the jailer and went home; she prayed for Mark’s safety, as she walked.

Later that night, Miss Bessie was awakened by the sound of loud knocking at her front door. When she opened the door, she saw Mark’s best friend, Floyd Walcott, standing at the door crying.  The visibly upset Floyd’s face was pale and there were tears in his eyes. He hugged Miss Bessie and with his arms around her shoulders, guided her back inside the house. Soon Miss Bessie heard the sound of other people coming onto her front porch.

“What’s de matta, boy?” Miss Bessie asked Floyd.

“It’s bad Miss Bessie,” he replied. “Real bad.”

Miss Bessie’s longtime friend June Sharp came into the house. “You’d better sit Bessie.”

Miss Bessie did as she was instructed.

June began to explain. “Bessie, summa dem white folks broke into the jail tanight an’ hurt Mark.”

“Whachu mean ‘hurt Mark’?” asked Miss Bessie, her voice quivering.


“Name a God,” said Miss Bessie, as she covered her mouth with her hand.  “Please tell me you lyin’.”

“Ah wish I was, Bessie,” said June. “But it’s de trufe.”

Miss Bessie lowered her head onto to her table and began to cry, as other people walked into her house.

A few days after Mark’s death, Kathleen was sent to live with relatives in Richmond; she and Miss Bessie never spoke to or saw each other again.

In the weeks that followed, Miss Bessie’s two sisters, and several friends, as well as some of Mark’s friends, came by to check on her and bring food and other necessities.  One day, Floyd came by for a visit. As they were sitting and reminiscing about Mark and his wild, off-beat sense of humor, Floyd told her he’d learned that Kenner Knickles had told Mr. Brewer where Mark and Kathleen had gone. Unlike Nickles, her son was more affable in relating to Brewer's other workers, and hence, more likeable. Nickles arrogance contrasted starkly with Mark's easygoing, approachable disposition. Nickles was jealous of Mark, who had grown closer to Mr. Brewer than he ever could. Thinking that helping to find Mark and Kathleen would be his ticket into Mr. Brewer’s permanent good graces.  But, ultimately, Mr. Brewer treated him with even more disdain than before.  Apparently, he too, recognized Kenner for the moron that he was.

After Floyd finished, Miss Bessie said she’d often overheard Kenner telling things to Mr. Brewer about other employees.

“Why you thank me an’ de uvvers always calt ‘im, ‘Kiss Ass Kenner’?” said a laughing Floyd.

Less than a year after Mark’s murder, Kenner Nickles was found drowned in Lake Duncan. Nickles, an experienced and avid swimmer, had broken knuckles on both hands, as if he’d been in a fight. Therefore, the possibility that he was the victim of foul play was considered. But, ultimately, the drowning was concluded to be accidental. Furthermore, for the most part, in those days, investigating the death of a black man, suspicious or otherwise, wasn’t a high priority for Creston’s all-white Sheriff’s Department. When Floyd came to visit Miss Bessie a few days after Nickles’ death, one of the first things he told her was, “Shame ‘bout Kenner, huh? Ah bet he put up one helluva fight.” Floyd touched his bruised jawbone as he made the latter statement.

Miss Bessie eventually took a job with another white family, the Barretts.  The Barretts included Mr. and Mrs. Barrett, and five children, ranging in age from seven to sixteen.  The adult and teenaged Barretts were well aware of the events involving Miss Bessie and, out of respect, took great pains never to mention anything related to it in Miss Bessie’s presence. On two separate occasions, Mr. and Mrs. Barrett had walked into the kitchen to find Miss Bessie crying.  Out of respect for her, however, the two had hastily and quietly retreated from the kitchen, giving Miss Bessie sufficient time to compose herself. Additionally, both stood just outside of the kitchen to prevent anyone else from entering.

One day, Fannie Logan, another Barrett employee and a friend of Miss Bessie’s, came to work and told her that Mr. Brewer had died of a heart attack; his funeral had been that previous Tuesday. Moreover, Kathleen didn’t return to Creston for her father’s funeral.  To break the solemnity of the moment and to elicit a smile from Miss Bessie, Fannie said, “Ah wonda if de undertaka fount enny uh Kenner Knickles’ lip prints on Mr. Brewer’s wrinkled, ole hind parts.” They both laughed.

A few years later, Miss Bessie learned that Kathleen had been killed in a house fire.  There were some who thought she had started the fire herself. Later that night, Miss Bessie cried herself to sleep with both Mark and Kathleen on her mind.

Miss Bessie was shaken from her thoughts of theses tragic events by the sound of one of the girls falling to the ground. “Are you alright, baby?” shouted Miss Bessie in the loudest voice she could muster.

“Yes, mam,” replied the girl as she patted the palms of her hands together and bent to brush dirt and grass from her knees and shorts.

“Alright now,” said Miss Bessie. “Y’all be careful wif dat rope.”

“Yes, mam,” the girls replied almost in unison, all of whom stopped what they were doing to stare up at this bizarre looking old woman.

With the help of her cane, she stood and continued her journey home. After reaching her house, Miss Bessie put the groceries away and then went upstairs to remove her make-up and change into one of her housecoats and a pair of slippers. She came back downstairs, grabbed her broom and went outside to the porch and began sweeping away some of the leaves, dust and dirt that had accumulated during her absence.

As she swept, she began thinking about Pastor Knighton at the local Baptist church she attended asking her if he might be able to assist her in finding another place to worship.  He said that some of his congregants had confided to him that they found Miss Bessie’s appearance, primarily her clothing and make-up, as well as her sometimes talking to herself, a bit disconcerting. “Yes that was the word Pastor Knighton had used,” she said to herself, as she swept - - disconcerting. “Is that so, Pastor Knighton?” Miss Bessie said aloud to herself. “Well, den Ah ‘ont need ta hear no mo’ of de Word in yo’ church. Ah’ma go ta de new church my fren, Jenny, tole me ‘bout. Said dey don’t make no fuss ‘bout how a person looks. An’ ‘sides dat, dey don’t pass ‘round de collection plate two or three times eever. ‘Til den, Ah’ll talkta God whenever an’ wherever Ah feel like it.”

Miss Bessie knew that when folks thought she was talking to herself, it was sometimes God with whom she was speaking.  Sometimes He responded and sometimes He didn’t. She knew He was busy.

She finished sweeping the porch, went back into the house, washed her hands, put on an apron and began preparing dinner. After eating, Miss Bessie went into the livingroom to watch the evening news on her small black and white television.  When the news ended, she turned on the radio and sat in her favorite chair with the side of her head resting against her fist.  On a visit to Miss Bessie several months ago, one of her recently deceased friends had tuned in a radio station broadcasting from Washington, D.C. - - the nation’s capital was only fifty miles from Creston - - that continuously broadcasted orchestral music. In order not to forget the station’s number, Miss Bessie had permanently left the radio tuned to it.  As she sat, she began moving her slippered feet to the tempo of the music.

Miss Bessie soon found herself nodding off. Once again, her mind, as it had while she was watching the girls jump rope, drifted back to Mark and Kathleen. She awoke to the sound of footsteps on her front porch, and in her groggy state, thought to herself, “Maybe dat’s Mark.”

She heard someone knocking on the porch’s screendoor. “Jus’ a minute,” she said, as with the help of her cane, Miss Bessie slowly and unsteadily rose to her feet and went to the door. “Ah’m comin’,” she said as loud as she could. When she finally reached and opened the front door, she saw the shapes of two people through the screendoor.

“It’s us, Miss Bessie,” said a voice. “Beatrice Payne and Marietta Logan.”

“Ohhh!” said Miss Bessie, unlatching and opening the screendoor. “Whatchall doin’ out dis time-a-night?”

“Marietta was givin’ me a ride home from playin’ Bingo an’ saw dat yo’ gate was open and yo’ front porch light was still on,” said Beatrice . “So we stopped inta check on you ta make sho’ everythang was okay.”

The women, who were both in their early sixties, attended the same church as Miss Bessie.  She didn’t recall them ever being very friendly towards her, so she was more than a bit surprised that they would stop to check on her.

“No, Ah’m alright, thank you” replied Miss Bessie. “Ah musta fo’got ta close dat gate when Ah came home earlier. An’ nodded off lis’nin ta de radio befo’ Ah had chance ta turn off dis porch light.”

“Yeah,” said Marietta, “Jessie gets on me all-de-time ‘bout doin’ nat.” Jessie was Marietta’s husband.

Despite her apprehension about Marietta and Beatrice, like many people her age, most of whose family and friends were deceased or had relocated, Miss Bessie almost always welcomed company. This was in addition to the fact that by her very nature, she was exceptionally affable. “Well, c’mon in y’all, Ah’ll make some tea o’ sumfin. Still a little cool outdoors, even doe it’s s’posed ta be spring.”

“Well, jus’ fo’ a minute,” said Beatrice, as she and Marietta entered, following behind Miss Bessie.

Meanwhile, twenty-three -year old Keith Perkins and twenty-one year old Kenneth “Kenny Boy” Wright had been hiding in the bushes outside of Miss Bessie’s house. They’d heard a rumor that she had money stashed away in her basement.  As such, they had been waiting for her to go to bed in order to steal it. Moreover, in the conversations they’d overheard her having with herself, they were well aware that she had a bad heart. Therefore, if she awoke and caught them, the shock would probably kill her.  But, this didn’t bother them, as their only concern was the possibility of getting the money she allegedly had hidden in the house.

“Man, Ah’m gittin’ tired of waitin’ fo’ dem two bitches ta leave,” said Kenny Boy. “Why’d dey haveta show up jus’ now?”

“Ah know, jus’ when we was ready ta make our move,” replied Keith. “’S’posed ta be spring, but damn if it ain’t gittin’ cold  as shit out dis muvvafucker, too.”

“So whatchu wanna do?” asked Kenny Boy.

“Ah ain’t stayin’ out hair dat’s fo’ sho,” said Keith. “Fuck dat. Might be nuffin in dat house anyways, ‘cept some old lady shit.”

“Ah think we should follow through onnat plan ta steal dem fuckin’ horses from Wallace Logan and Preston Lewis like we was talkin’ about befo’,” said Kenny Boy.

The Pegasus Carriage Horse Company was doing quite well financially. Keith and Kenny Boy had concocted a plan to steal two carriage horses and sell them.

“Now dat sounds like a plan, brother man,” answered Keith. “Maybe we cain git all-de shit we need by nex’ weekend.”

“Den let’s do it, Pruitt,” said a laughing Kenny Boy.

The two men began walking away from Miss Bessie’s house. “Old, crazy bitch prob’ly ain’t gotta nickel innat place anyway,” said Keith.

Approximately forty-five minutes later, Miss Bessie, Beatrice and Marietta emerged from the house. They stood on the porch for a moment, and as the two woman turned to leave, Miss Bessie said, “Y’all cain come back anytime.”

“Okay, Miss Bessie,” answered Beatrice. “We jus’ might take you up on dat offa.”

“Good night ch’all,” said Miss Bessie,

“Good night, Miss Bessie,” each woman responded,

They walked down the porch steps, closed the gate behind them, got into their car and drove away.  They looked back to make sure Miss Bessie turned off the front porch light. After they’d left, Miss Bessie thought there was something odd about the two women’s behavior. Most especially the way Marietta kept touching her hand while they talked and laughed. And then there was the way Beatrice continuously looked into her eyes and smiled.  Miss Bessie put these thoughts out of her mind, attributing it to old age.

As they were driving, the true identities of Miss Bessie’s two visitors were revealed.  Mark was driving the car and sitting next to him in the passenger seat was Kathleen, “Now, Mark, why does He want us ta keep checkin’ in on yo’ muvver?”

“Ah already toldju, Kathleen,” replied Mark. “He said it ain’t time fo’ huh ta go yet an’ fo’ some reason she needed protectin’ tanite. But, He wouldn’t tell me why. Ah decided we should leave when Ah heard Him tell me evrathang was okay.”

“Cain Ah ask you why He has her dress an’ put on her make-up like she does?”

Mark smiled and said, “Ah think it’s cause it makes her stan’ out from uvver people. Kinda like a birfmark He puts on some peoples’ faces. ’Memba when He tole us ‘bout dat Madison man who lives down in Marble City?”

Kathleen nodded her head in understanding. “Yeah, dat’s de one who’s workin’ wif Him on some uvva stuff. Ah guess it’s true dat He does work in mysterious ways.”

“Ah think Ah heard dat somewair befo’” said a smiling Mark.

“Shut up,” said Kathleen, as he smiled and laughed. “You know what Ah mean. But, why cain’t we jus’ show huh who we are?”

 “Ah thank if we showed huh who we really are, it might kill her, cause she’s got dat weak heart an’ evrathang,” said Mark. “An’ He said she ain’t finished yet. There’s mo’ fo huh ta do down hair.”

“Ah love yo’ mother,” responded Kathleen. “She was always so sweet an’ nice ta me, especially since Ah didn’t have a mama of ma own.”

Mark blushed and smiled. “Ah know. Ah think she loved huh daughter-in-law, too.” He turned to wink at Kathleen. “In any event, ma mama will be joinin’ us soon enough. When she’s finished doin’ whatever He has in sto’ fo huh.” The car disappeared into the darkness and the sound of crickets chirping.

Earlier that evening, as the real Beatrice Payne and Marietta Logan were driving towards New Baltimore to play Bingo, Beatrice asked Marietta, “Do ya think Pastor Knighton spoke ta Miss Bessie?”

“Said he did,” replied Marietta.

“Ah sho’ hope so, cause Ah cain’t stan’ ta see huh keep comin’ inta church lookin’ like ‘at. Like some kinda clown o’ sumfin.”

“Ah know,” replied a laughing Marietta. “Some people jus’ don’t respec’ an’ know de Lord like us.”

“Ain’t dat de trufe,” said Beatrice.






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