Bessie Coleman was the first woman Eloise Delaney loved—before she knew love meant anything. There is a rectangular photograph cropped from the Buckner County Register, a local Negro paper, of Coleman standing atop the left tire of her Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane. Her gloved right hand hugs the cockpit. She is decked out in tailored aviation gear and stares directly into the camera. The photograph is at least thirty years old and dates back to 1926, the year of the brown aviatrix’s untimely death, but for Eloise’s parents the crash might have happened yesterday. They were the town drunks and time played on them murky.
“Man wasn’t meant to have wings,” Herbert Delaney said.
“Wasn’t that a play or something?” Delores Delaney snapped her fingers. “All God’s Chillun Got Wings”?
Herbert shrugged. “She getting ahead of herself. Wanting to take flight.”
“What you saying, Herbert?” Delores Delaney kissed her husband’s long thin hands. “You saying God wanted her plane to crash? God wanted Bessie to die?”
“Well, He sure as hell didn’t want her to live. Otherwise, that damn plane wouldn’t have malfunctioned.”
Bessie Coleman’s plane had crashed during a barnstorming exhibition in Orlando, Florida. Delores Delaney liked to brag that she stood right smack-dab in the middle of the crowd the morning “Brave Bessie” was catapulted two thousand feet to the ground, but Eloise knew better than to place stock in anything a drunk said, especially when that drunk was her mother.
Nevertheless, Eloise would remember these rare evenings from her childhood when she sat at the kitchen table on a broken stool between her mother and father and the three of them peered down together at the newspaper clipping and she did not have to vie for their attention with beer, bourbon, scotch, or gin.
Eloise’s parents worked at the seafood-processing factory two miles out of town. They had grown up shucking oysters and picking crabs and gutting fish. Getting paid for doing something that was second nature to them was like being given money to go on vacation. They could pick crabs with their eyes shut and lose nothing in speed. Sometimes their anxious fingers moved in their sleep, discarding the dead man and the pregnant she-crab belly and flicking out the tender white meat. Every so often, the manager of the seafood factory was forced to make an example of Herbert and Delores for coming to work inebriated or late or not at all. He would let them sweat their imbibing out and Eloise would go hungry until they managed to sidle back through the factory door.
The seafood factory was situated in a warehouse overlooking a salt marsh. When the picking season was high, Herbert and Delores would take their daughter to work with them. She would peer out the tall windows at the herons and seagulls and pelicans and ospreys and charcoal-black cormorants scouring the marsh for feed.
My parents kept me more than they left me. This was the half-truth Eloise would recollect to female friends. If she recited these words loud enough, she could almost believe they were true. But as a child of nine, ten, eleven, skinny and long with elbows that jutted out hard, she would jab someone deep in the groin if he said any- thing mean about her parents or her hand-me-down clothes.
That’s one hand-me-down child, remarked the neighborhood chorus.
Hello. Good-bye. Kindly kiss my black ass, Eloise Delaney said.
You hear that? Poor thing. That’s ’cause her folks don’t teach her nothing. And so went the neighborhood refrain.
Monday through Friday: Eloise walked to school five days a week. Rain or shine. When it rained she took a piece of plastic and fashioned it into a raincoat. Later, when she was older and went shopping with her girlfriends, Eloise would look at the brightly colored raincoats priced at forty dollars or more and shake her head. No wonder young people don’t have anything. What kind of flimsy fabric is this? She would mutter and complain and buy the raincoat for her girlfriend anyway, because Eloise Delaney took care of her women.
Eloise did not travel a country mile to school when she was little. She did not see cows or pigs grazing on her journey. The school she walked to every day was not a one-room schoolhouse in the middle of nowhere. St. Paul’s of the Redemption was an all-black Catholic school, grades K–12, run by nuns with faces the color of unpasteurized milk. They required parasols in the afternoon to shield them from the sun’s harsh glare.
In 1958, on Eloise’s first day in sixth grade, she lived three blocks from St. Paul’s of the Redemption, but those three blocks might as well have been three miles because she walked to school with a hungry stomach and a high head. A hungry stomach tells a high head, You act uppity if you want to, but I am going to growl. A hungry stomach tells a high head, You arch those skinny shoulders like they propping up the world if you want to, but I’m serving out a stomach cramp. A hungry stomach tells a high head, I am deeply offended that you did not feed me this morning, now you look what just happened? You have given me gas. A hungry stomach tells a high head, Bend down and clutch me before I send the emptiness pouring out on the first day of school. I will throw up on your thrift store dress.
She did not cry, Eloise. Though her lap was wet. She put a napkin over the wetness and followed the lesson as best she could, but it was only a matter of time before she became undone, distracted. Do I smell like puke? Eloise wiggled in her seat. She could not keep still. Her teacher, Sister Mary Laranski, a young nun who had only recently taken her vows, could have reached for a ruler to raw Eloise’s hands. Instead she surveyed her class: colored, some uniformed, some not, mostly poor. Her voice trembled as she ad- dressed her new students.
“Do you boys and girls know Shakespeare?”
Reuben Applewood raised his hand. “We heard of him.”
“Well,” said Sister Mary Laranski, “what did you hear?”
Reuben kept his eyes glued to the desk. “He was English. And wrote plays. ‘To be or not to be: that is the question.’”
Sister Mary Laranski smiled. Reuben Applewood was the smartest boy in his class. By the end of the year, she would recommend that he skip a grade.
“I’m of the opinion,” she said, “that a life without Shakespeare is no life at all. Abraham Lincoln received a perfectly fine education reading Shakespeare and the Bible. Some of you will not make it to school every day or, for that matter, every week but if you can hold on to just a little Shakespeare, all will not be lost.”
She spoke with a hint of an accent. The accent came out more when she was nervous. The children caught this, and they were curious.
“Where are you from, Sister Mary?” asked one of the students.
“Some place you probably don’t know.” There wasn’t a map on the wall and Sister Mary Laranski made a mental note to buy one. She picked up a piece of chalk and sketched a map on the blackboard. The sketching calmed her nerves.
“I am originally from Budapest. A city in Hungary.”
“Do you miss where you come from?” a second student inquired. “I would if I could remember. Grow up and you will remember everything backward.”
Sister Mary, they would soon discover, was always weeping in the bathroom stalls of St. Paul’s of the Redemption for the family who had sent her off to the nunnery. The students nicknamed her Sister Mary Weeping because she taught them Shakespeare and wept like Ophelia. But Eloise did not give a damn about anything Sister Mary Weeping said the first day of class. She now understood the thing called love. It seized Eloise—took firm hold when Agnes Miller sat at the desk across from her and opened a pencil case.
Agnes Miller’s hair was styled in two moist ponytails, with perfect bangs. To look at her you would have thought that she had plundered young Natalie Cole’s closet. Yes, it seemed to Eloise that the daughter of Nat King Cole had strolled into St. Paul’s of the Redemption Catholic School like the place was hers. Now wasn’t this some shit? Eloise listened to her heart go boom boom bang bang boom like the engine in her parents’ sometimey Buick that would run just fine for a while and suddenly stop, so they all had to climb out and
push it down a hill until the engine caught again or, worse, stand along the lip of the road and wait for some stranger to give them a ride. This Agnes Miller didn’t look at Eloise even once. She didn’t cut her eyes or wrinkle her nose or laugh or smile sadly at her secondhand clothes the way the other kids did. The worst insult Agnes Miller paid her was to sit there with her hands folded nonchalantly in her lap, like Eloise didn’t exist. Eloise wondered if Agnes caught the whiff of vomit coming off her dress. During lunch break, which they took in the classroom, she watched as Agnes nibbled on what seemed like half a dozen miniature lavender cookies. Agnes licked the pale purple frosting off all the cookies but one before pausing to offer Eloise a cookie she had just licked. Eloise shook her head: No thank you. She resolved that this particular bit of haughtiness could not be tolerated. On the walk home, when Reuben Applewood and all the other do-gooders were gone, Eloise told some of her classmates: Listen up; watch this. She snapped a branch from a mulberry tree and cleared it of leaves. She followed Agnes Miller down the sidewalk and set to whipping Agnes on her glistening black legs, but Agnes surprised Eloise by adjusting her book bag on her shoulders and clawing at Eloise’s face like an alley cat, so that Eloise went home in her smelly thrift store dress with scratch marks all over her face.
Excerpted from The Travelers. Used with permission of Hogarth. Copyright © 2019 by Regina Porter.