By Grace Washington
Reverend Samuels’ car was quiet but for Pearl’s weak moans and the tread of the tires against the road. It started raining as soon as we left Milledgeville. The rhythm of the raindrops on the windshield would have been soothing another time, but right now all I could think about was getting Pearl to the hospital.
In the dark quiet, I thought about Momma. She would surely be pacing the floor until she heard some news. I went over in my mind how I could have made this situation better, but I couldn’t.
I looked at the back of the reverend’s head and thought about his words to Momma before we left. I needed to accept that we were all doing the best we could. Still, I shivered thinking about Momma. I wasn’t sure she would be able to get past any of this.
“Miss Grace,” Reverend Samuels cleared his throat and looked back at me from the rearview mirror. “I know your Momma was upset about all this, but she a good woman and she been through a lot.”
I nodded, curious about why the pastor chose now to say that. Could he read my thoughts? Could he see the worry on my face for both my sister and my mother?
He stumbled over the next words, his eyes flickering from the road to the mirror where he could see me.
“Some the other ladies…” he said. “…In, in the congregation….” He paused like he was holding his breath, nervous about something. “Well…we’ve been worried about her. She just ain’t able to stand much since Ernest died.”
I looked out the window and gave thanks for the darkness. From the heat I felt in my neck and ears, I knew my face had to ten shades of red. Here I’d been working all these weeks to help Momma get a break, to keep other people’s noses out of our business, and here the reverend says the one thing Momma feared the most – that she was being talked about by the pastor and the church women.
Reverend Samuels cleared his throat again and I met his eyes in the mirror.
He spoke more softly now, as if he knew he had embarrassed me. “She got those young’uns to raise, you know. And now…this. “ He whispered the last part and glanced quickly over his shoulder at my sister who had stopped moaning and started shivering.
The heat from my embarrassment flipped over in my stomach and turned to resentment. I know the pastor meant well, but it felt more like judgment and, with everything else I had dealt with recently, I didn’t need nobody looking down their nose at my family.
“Reverend, I thank you for your concern and I thank you for helping us out tonight.” I bit my tongue and tried to remember my manners. “We’re…Momma’s doing alright.”
The rain came down heavy then, so much so that even if I had wanted to continue our conversation, neither would have been able to hear the other. I took comfort in the back and forth of the windshield wipers and tried to reign in my shame.
We were just a few miles out of Tilton when the rain let up.
“I didn’t mean to offend you, Miss Grace,” Reverend Samuels said. “All I meant to say was…your Momma is in a mighty fragile mental state and….” He glanced back over his shoulder at Pearl. “She got plenty of reason.”
I looked down at my sister who seemed so small just then and I felt so weak all the sudden.
“What’re you sayin’, Reverend?” My voice was barely above a whisper. It was all I could manage. “I take good care of Momma. Don’t I? I look after her and the little ones.” I squeezed Pearl’s hand. “We ain’t got money for anything more.”
The car slowed as we neared the hospital. Reverend Samuels pulled up as close as he could to the door and got out of the car. I wasn’t exactly sure how old he was, but until that day he had always just been old. Watching how fast he moved and how easily he lifted Pearl into his arms, I wondered just how old he really was.
We hadn’t gotten halfway down the sidewalk before two orderlies came running out with a gurney. While Pearl was loaded onto it, I tried to avoid the blood staining her entire lower half. I shut my eyes and tried to tell myself that my sister was so young, so healthy, and oh so stubborn. Surely she would be okay.
“Surely, God,” I said out loud.
When I opened my eyes, Pearl was already inside the building. Reverend Samuels had his head down. When he saw I was ready, without a word, he bowed and held the door open.
I’m not sure how much time had passed by the time the doctor came out to see us. When I saw him coming, I stood up and walked toward him.
“I’ve got good news and bad news about your sister,” the doctor said.
I hated it when people said this. Why couldn’t they just get to the point?
The doctor must have sensed my lack of patience. He just dove headlong into the bad news first.
“We couldn’t save the baby,” he said.
This hit me harder than I thought it would. My knees went weak and I had to reach for the nearest chair so they wouldn’t buckle completely.
“And the good news?” I asked, tears choking my voice.
“We can save Pearl,” he said.
“Oh, thank God!” I wanted to stand up and shake the doctor’s hand, but he took a step back from me and crossed his arms over his white coat.
“There’s a cost you all need to understand,” he said.
I thought immediately of how many houses I would have to clean and realized that none of that mattered.
“What is it? I can pay. I can get the money,” I said.
The doctor held up his hands and shook his head. “No, no. No, you need to understand what’s happened here. Pearl’s lost a lot of blood and it looks like the pregnancy did some damage to her reproductive organs. She can’t ever have kids now. We need to remove those organs so she can’t ever get hurt like this again.”
The blood rushed to my feet and I felt like I might be sick.
The doctor shook his head again. “I’m sorry, Miss Washington.”
I couldn’t say anything back. Tears ran down my face. I was thankful to know Pearl would be okay, but to think of her losing her chance at being a mother made me ache inside.
Reverend Samuels handed me a handkerchief and I wiped my eyes.
“Thank you, doctor,” I finally managed to say. “Please do whatever needs done to save my sister.”
“We’ll take care of her from here,” he said. “If you want to go home and get some rest, you can see her tomorrow.”
The rain had almost stopped as we got back into Reverend Samuels’s car. It had turned cold while we were in the hospital, and my teeth began to chatter. My body started shaking.
Reverend Samuels pulled a blanket from out of the trunk and offered it to me. I draped it over my shoulders and covered myself with it all the way to my toes.
We drove for a while in the darkness without a word. I thought over the whole awful night. For the first time in hours, I thought of Momma and remembered she was probably still up pacing the floor.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said out loud. “I was planning on going back to college next fall, but Momma and Pearl…. Who’s going to look after them?”
I wasn’t sure what I expected the reverend to say, but when he finally spoke he said, “There’s something you need to know.”
“Oh, Reverend,” I said, my voice sad and sleepy. “Nothing good ever comes from those words.”
“It pertains to your momma,” he said. “And it’s something you need to know while you figure out your future.”
This made me sit up a little bit. I didn’t realize it then, but it was the first time in a long time that somebody besides me had mentioned my future.
“I was a young man when I came to minister to the people in Milledgeville. Not long after I arrived, a young woman came to talk to me. She was in a similar way that Pearl was. Even though the father of the child was still around, they weren’t married and she was afraid if she told him, he’d run out on her. She was so scared. I’d never seen anything like it and I worried she might do something desperate.”
“What’d you do?” I asked.
“I asked her to bring in the baby’s father and we would tell him together. I thought maybe some prayer and Bible study might help.”
“What happened? Did he come?”
The reverend nodded. “He was such an angry young man. They were both miserable, truth be told. He said he had to leave to get some air. Said he couldn’t breathe inside a church. As he walked away, I knew he wouldn’t be back. I never felt sorrier for anyone more than I did that girl. She was all alone.”
“What happened to her?” In my mind’s eye I saw Pearl’s face as the woman in the story and I wanted to know that she ended up okay.
“As it turns out, I had some friends over in Willoughby where I did some preaching now and then before I came to Milledgeville. I took the woman with me to a revival and she met Ernest Washington, Jr.”
He was silent for a moment after that. It took his words that long to sink in.
“But Ernest Washington, Jr. was my father.”
Reverend Samuels grimaced. Your momma and Ernest fell in love by Christmas. They got married in January and, if I remember right, you were born in February.”
“The girl was my momma and Daddy wasn’t my real father?” Big tears fell from my eyes and I didn’t even try to wipe them away. “Whatever happened to my real dad?”
“I have no idea who he was or where he went,” Reverend Samuels said. “I’m sorry to tell you all this now. You’ve been carrying a heavy burden and I just thought you ought to know.”
After everything I done to be a good daughter and sister, none of it really mattered. None of it had been really real. I was the reason for Momma’s shame. I was the reason that Momma didn’t expect anything to ever work out for her. Just as I had always suspected, I was the reason for all the misery.
Grace Washington is a contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. Like many of our writers, she is from Texas with roots all around the South. Her stories often uncover the realities and courage of those who fight for justice.