Inspired by the photo above, I wrote the following piece of narrative fiction.
It’s 1948 and I can barely believe my eyes, let alone my heart, as my driver navigates through a neighborhood on the south side of Chicago I’ve never been through before. This isn’t our usual route to the newspaper but I trust he knows where he’s going and why. I assume there must be some sort of public protest happening and is the likely disruption to our normal routine. The housing situation is, I fear, a much bigger underlying issue, and one that we as a community are uncomfortable, at best, in addressing, let alone acknowledging. While I’ve never spoken this out loud to my father, I have relished numerous, and rather clandestine, discussions with Albert on race and its probable impact on the lives of so many in the Black Belt.
My stomach lurches into my throat and I think I might be ill as my eyes are drawn to four small children seated as neatly and cleanly as they can be on a wooden stoop not ten feet from my car’s side door. Planted in the patch of dirt directly in front of their sidewalk is a 3.5’ tall wooden post with a signboard stapled to it and the words “4 CHILDREN FOR SALE/INQUIRE WITHIN” painted in bold black letters.
Dear God, what is the meaning of this? I simply cannot believe my eyes have given me correct information and I insist we circle the block once again so I can confirm — or better deny — what I believe I have seen. Those four sets of eyes looking back at me looking at them as my shiny black car and clean window easily moved past their planted position of inquiry.
My heart pounds and my palms perspire in this misleading heat of a late September summer day, knowing the weather will turn on us in a moment and the harsh winds of winter will whip through these dirty narrow streets, knocking down signposts and exposing the poverty that seeps through the very brick and mortar making up the neighborhood.
My eyes widen and I catch my breath before it escapes my gaping mouth. They didn’t lie to me, my eyes. Here they are again, or still, for I am the one who has come round again, to bear witness to that which is unbearable to imagine: four beautiful babes ranging in age from two to six, the oldest a beautiful shoulder-length brunette girl with her arm around her little sister, a deep golden blonde head of hair spilling across her shoulders, but bangs clearly cut by her own unpracticed hand. She can’t be more than five and she is looking down and over at her just-younger brother, perhaps three, in his dungarees and no shirt; I’m guessing he doesn’t have one or he would be wearing it, his brown hair tousled to the best of a mother’s ability to tame the wild sweetness I see in his left arm wrapped around and pulling close to him their youngest sibling: another boy, whose two-year old heart looks endearingly at his big brother’s face with a trust I have never personally experienced.
I insist on stopping the car and climb myself out of the back seat, my gloved fingers clutching my patent leather purse, hat pin securely in place. I approach the woman in the floral print dress standing above her children, I imagine holding their hearts for as long as she possibly can, and ask if we may speak privately for a moment regarding her sign. I see her scanning me top to bottom, the way her eyebrows lift at the sight of my ensemble, taking in all it might mean and also the dissociation from all of me and what I represent. I am foreign currency on this street.
She nods her head slightly in agreement and we step inside the walk-up. I am not prepared for the dirt to accompany us in the way that it does, is just present on and over every item in her sparse and tidy apartment. I catch my breath for the third time this morning before it exits my mouth and transmute it into words that tumble out of me faster than my YES I said to the new shoes that are holding me up, supporting what feels insupportable.
“I will pay you to keep your own children. Please. Name your price.”
And it is done. Her mama heart bursts open and cleanses the dusty air with love overflowing, mingling with my own happy tears, uncertain what this all means and will mean, but knowing my heart has led me here and shown me the most important purchase I didn’t know I needed.