July 4th, 1922
Although Julia knew meeting Clarence’s family was probably a prelude to marriage, she had been with them since Tuesday. She loved his darling mother, but his sister Pearlie was another story. She had the charisma of a barbed wire fence with the subtlety of a sledge hammer and Julia’s tolerance was wearing thin.
She had yet to spend a full day with Clarence who was busy seeing old friends both day and night. Julia was looking forward to this barbeque and to meeting some of these people he was so fond of.
After slogging through the woods on a rain battered logging trail, Clarence reined in the horse at a clearing. He removed his jacket and tossed it onto the seat, exposing red suspenders that matched the band on his new straw boater hat. Then, he took Julia’s arm and guided her over the freshly turned dirt and around the pine stumps.
She looked down at her aqua and beige net dress with the stylish dropped waistline and realized that all the other women were dressed casually in skirts and blouses.
Several men attended a twenty-five foot trench with wooden planks laid along either side. Skewers made of long stripped branches impaled racks of pork ribs. Men were paired up across the pit turning the skewers at regular intervals over hardwood charcoal. A few stumps were left knee high to allow seating not only for the cooks, but also for an old man who picked at a homemade banjo.
Long benches lined the lengths of tables laden with potato salad, beans, corn fritters, fried green tomatoes, okra, sweet potato and pecan pies and sundry breads and cakes. All of these were the feminine contribution to the gathering.
Julia came empty-handed.
Clarence walked Julia over to one of the tables where a small group of young women were chatting.
“Ladies. This is Julia. Julia, you already know my lovely sister, Pearlie.” Clarence flashed a dazzling smile in his sister’s direction.
Pearlie glowered back at him.
Then, he motioned to the lady standing. “That’s Ethel.”
Ethel, a striking young woman with a waspish waistline winked at Clarence, and then turned to Julia. The smile remained on her baby doll face, but her eyes were cold as a stone.
Julia glanced at Clarence, who showed no sign of reciprocation.
“And let’s see…” He pointed to an enormous woman who looked to be in her mid to late twenties. Her shiny black eyes stood out in stark contrast to her skin, smooth and fair as a sand dollar. She seemed friendly. “This is Mattie Lee.”
“How do you do, Julia?” greeted Mattie Lee. “This is Josephine and Hazel,” said Mattie Lee, indicating the ladies seated to her left and concluding the introductions. “Please, join us.” Josephine and Hazel scooted down to make room for her.
Clarence said, “I’ll just leave you girls to your visit and see if they need any help with those ribs. Ladies…” He lifted his hat, bowed and moved toward the pit.
“So,” asked Mattie Lee. “Where are you from Julia?”
“Pensacola, Florida. Cuba, actually, but we immigrated when I was very small.”
“Where you living now,” injected Pearlie.
Pearlie rolled her eyes and pursed her lips. “Well, we know that. Where in Mobile?”
“Oh,” said Julia, unable to control the drop of her tone. “I’m employed in the Springhill Community, a live-in. I go home to Pensacola every chance I get though.” For a short second she wondered where home would be now that her mother was gone.
“How’d you meet Clarence,” Mattie Lee asked.
“We met in Church.”
“I know St. Mary’s. I have family over that way.”
“Lucious?” Mattie Lee’s voice rose in question.
“I know a Callie Lucious.”
Mattie Lee’s eyes widened as she blew out, “No.”
“You’re related to Callie?”
“I sure am!” Mattie Lee cried out. “Callie’s mama and my mama’s are first cousins!”
“Well, I’ll be!”
“Hmph,” grunted Pearlie.
As Julia and Mattie Lee carried on about their mutual acquaintance, Ethel looked toward the pit. “I’m starving,” she said.
“Ethel, I don’t think anyone would say a word if you took a little bite,” said Pearlie.
“Well, maybe I will then. I’m wanting some of that meat, though.” Again, Ethel’s gaze went back to the pit as she sauntered over to the next table.
Julia tried to listen as Mattie Lee babbled on. With her back to the barbeque pit, it was impossible to keep her eye on Ethel without looking obvious.
She waited for a lull in the conversation, and then asked, “Where do you girls go when you need to uh…, you know?”
“You’re in the woods now, girl. Ain’t no backhouse here,” shot Pearlie.
Julia smiled, but wasn’t a bit amused.
“C’mon honey. I’ll go with you,” offered Mattie Lee.
As Julia rose, she peered over her left shoulder toward the pit, and then glanced to her right. She relaxed a little when she spied Ethel standing near another table lifting a spoon to her lips.
Relieving herself in the wild was a new experience, but not a comfortable one. Some things seemed so crude and uncivilized out here in the country.
She was enjoying Mattie Lee’s company, though. The two ladies laughed as they emerged from the heavy brush, when all at once Julia halted.
Her gaze was held by the sight of Clarence standing near the far end of the trench. In front of him was the back view of a female figure, her tiny middle accentuating the smooth outward curve of her hips. Julia knew instantly it was Ethel. She saw Clarence lean forward and whisper in her ear.
When Julia began to walk toward them, Clarence spotted her and signaled Ethel with a look.
Ethel looked over her shoulder, smirked, and then turned and sashayed back toward the tables. As Julia glared at him, Clarence’s eyes rolled upward and pursed his lips in a silent whistle.
By the time Julia and Clarence left the party, the torches were lit and some of the men had begun to gather behind a tree to pass a jug of whiskey.
As the carriage jolted over the potholes in the road made by the recent rains, Julia remained quiet. Then, just before they arrived at his mother’s house, “Who is that woman, Ethel?”
“Just an old family friend. We came up together.”
“Does she know she’s just an old family friend?”
He laughed, “She is a little flirty. It’s nothing for you to worry about.”
“Well, it looked like something when you whispered in her ear.”
“I didn’t whisper in her ear.”
“What?” Did he really think she didn’t see him? “You were. I saw you.”
“I don’t know what you think you saw, but I wasn’t whispering in anyone’s ear,” he chuckled.”
“I cannot believe you are implying that I am imagining all of this? I came out of the woods and saw you whisper in her ear!”
“This conversation is getting tiresome. If you’re gonna go crazy every time I speak to somebody well, I don’t reckon this is gonna work out. She’s an old family friend and that’s all. I’m not going to be rude to people because the jealous female I’m with thinks I’m having a love affair with everyone I talk to.”
“Jealous female?” The adrenalin rush gave Julia a sudden case of vertigo.
“You heard me.”
She bit her lip to keep from screaming at him. She waited a minute to make sure her voice was under control and said, “Maybe you’re right. Maybe this isn’t going to work,” stopping just short of asking him to take her home.
As they drove toward his mother’s place, she debated on whether or not to make her point and convince him that she wasn’t crazy, that she was sure of what she had witnessed.
As the drive wore on, she calmed a bit. Did he whisper to Ethel or was it the look on Ethel’s face that made it appear as if it were something else? It was plain that Ethel was the pursuer. Could she have been mistaken about Clarence?
Late that night, Julia lay curled up tightly. Each spring under the lumpy mattress screeched and groaned as she turned over. She blamed herself for the argument she had with Clarence on the way home. Was it possible that Ethel’s actions incited Julia’s own jealous outburst?
She heard a tap against the glass and knew it was Clarence. Not bothering to look through the window, she pulled open the door. He reached in and drew her to him. As he wrapped his arms around her small frame, a surge of relief passed through her. She felt a tear roll down her face as she melted into the warmth of his body.
After they’d finished dressing, Clarence pulled her close and said, “I don’t want to be away from you anymore. How do you feel about it?”
Without any hesitation, Julia said, “I love you. Isn’t that obvious?”
He kissed her temple, and then rolled onto his back and rested his head on his folded arms. “You know, I’m getting tired of living alone. I’d like to have someone to come home to after a long day. What do you think?”
“What do you mean?” she asked, holding her breath.
“Marriage. What do you think about us getting married?” he said.
“Sure. Why not?”
“I can’t believe it.” Julia felt a swell of relief and excitement so intense she thought she’d faint. She didn’t move afraid that any motion might break the spell of the moment and change his mind.
He moved back over her, his face poised close over hers. He flashed a grin, displaying white teeth that came together as perfectly as the torn edges of a halved sheet of paper, and said, “Well, believe it. We’re getting hitched.”
“As soon as possible,” he drawled.
Julia was awakened by a knock at the door.
“Yes,” she called.
She could almost see Pearlie’s eyes roll through the closed door. She cringed and thought, isn’t that what Pearlie had just said? There was something about Pearlie that brought out the birdbrain in Julia.
“Ye-es!” Pearlie said, much too sweetly.
Julia opened the door.
“So, I hear you and Clarence are getting’ hitched.”
Julia blushed. “He’s already told you?”
“Hmph,” Pearlie said shaking her head. “What in the world do you want with that tomcat? You have a good job, you’re nice looking. Clarence ain’t gonna be no good to no woman.”
Julia was shocked to hear Pearlie speaking to her, let alone offering advice.
When Julia didn’t answer, Pearlie shook her head and continued to stare at her.
Then finally, “Here,” she said and shoved an envelope at Julia.
Just as Julia reached for it, Pearlie jerked it away. “You can’t open it until you get home.” She handed it back and again pulled it away. “And, don’t let Clarence know I gave it to you.”
Julia kept her face passive, but she was tiring of the game. “I promise.”
“By the way,” Pearlie said, “Mama’s got breakfast ready. If you want some, you better come on.” Her carpet slippers swished against the bare floor as she walked away, leaving Julia to wonder what makes a person like Pearlie so miserable.
Julia felt like a girl. She had no cares at the moment. Not a negative thought crossed her mind as she and her betrothed discussed their wedding plans. Of course, she would have to give her employer plenty of notice. She would tell Miss Florence as soon as she returned.
Clarence pulled up to the back of the house, kissed her and told her he’d see her Saturday.
She’d forgotten about the mysterious envelope until she set the bag down on her bed. Suddenly curious, she reached in and pulled it out.
In her haste to open the envelope, she tore the single sheet of paper. She didn’t have to put it together to see what it said.
Clarence had a wife and two children in Mount Vernon.
Author: Aimee Dearmon