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Oak Bluffs, 1925

By CJ MillerPublished 2 years ago Updated 7 months ago 10 min read

Come the spring of 1907, I entered this world as Eugene Douglas, cheerfully disposed and possessed of enthusiasm for living. Much to society's chagrin, I did not wait for permission to hold my head high; dignity is a right, a lesson I learned early and apply liberally.

My parents, Vera and James Douglas, were two of the finest people ever to walk the streets of Harlem. If character were currency, they could've built a gilded palace swathed in silk. Alas, such math is embraced only by the poets; our brood of seven occupied a modest tenement.

Spiritually, we were fat and happy. The 1920s writhed to the beat of Negro art, music, and literature. My father worked construction by day and the ivories by night. After bustling around in a humid kitchen, my mother slapped down prose that could make an angel weep.

It was not so much a Renaissance as a coming-out gala, a bald reveal of the genius already in evidence.

Despite our cultural wealth, my family struggled to eat. It was under this weight that I took on the role of chauffeur for one momentous season. When eighteen and vital, I doubt if there is another kind.

My employer was bound for Edgartown, a seaside enclave prime for peacocking. Arthur Westbrook, Manhattan tycoon, was the uncommon sort who agreed to compensate me fairly: I would be able to cover the rent through Christmas.

Mama sobbed with relief at the news. I sobbed in witness of her relief.


I arrived on Martha's Vineyard, a pebble off the shore of Massachusetts, in June of '25. Westbrook had inherited a real peach near the waterfront, one of several houses built by the whaling captains of yore. To my surprise, there were no separate quarters for the help. We bunked as equals, and stylishly at that. Accustomed to sleeping four in a bed, the Egyptian linens felt indecent against my skin.

That month came and went with the tides, each evening fading languidly into its predecessor. Though homesick, my job was an earnest pleasure. I drove a gleaming Rolls-Royce; I delivered the rich to their soirées, stretching my legs on velvety beaches whilst they imbibed; I studied the stars. The air was rarefied and my heart full.

By July, I was in deep with the coastal landscape, relishing the way it thrashed my senses in concert. Salt on my pink tongue, nectar in my nostrils, gulls selling a story on the breeze, to say nothing of the visual feasts. For a boy who yearned to write, marine blues of this calibre were soul food, the wildflowers my dessert.

In August, one day before our planned departure, my life's course would be forever altered. Alma, the local cook, invited me to Sunday services in Oak Bluffs, an Island hub I had yet to conquer.

As if in cahoots with fate, Westbrook tipped us each twenty dollars with instruction to knock off until morning. The benevolence of men pickled by illicit drink should not be underestimated.

That Sabbath remains a treasure in the vault we call memory. The sky was an unblemished cerulean. The trees popped as though splattered by Seurat's expert brush. The Tabernacle, a sprawling gazebo of a kind, was situated in the town center, its open sides uniting His house with Nature's bounty.

Folks congregated under a mellow noon sun, the ladies outfitted like hard candies, each more vibrant than her cellophaned neighbor. Countless complexions, I observed with pleasure, were as brown or better than my own. Known for its Afrocentric heritage, the town drew Black visitors from across the nation—many owned property in the Campground, an array of gingerbread done up in every conceivable palette.

Indeed, Oak Bluffs may have captured the zeitgeist better than my native borough. We released hymns to Heaven on the briny wind. We clapped in gratitude and pressed palms in prayer. The experience was so elevating that I did not dwell on my frayed suit or pause to curse my worn shoes.

I simply belonged.

It was during Lift Every Voice and Sing that I turned and saw a girl, alike in maturity, who would come to permeate my existence.

Her ensemble paid homage to the ripened raspberry. The coils of her hair were loosely pinned so as not to deny their majesty, while the brim of her hat swooped downward, shading cacao features.

Thinking it a crime to obscure the Lord's best effort, I recall wanting to set that hat ablaze. Later, slick with brandy and nerves, I would confess as much, earning a laugh that told of clinking glass.

Feeling the heat of my interest, she glanced over, her smile competing with the horizon. After the sermon, I introduced myself, Icarus to her Helios but too enchanted to resist.

Her name, Rose, was as frank and lovely as she; I never inquired of her surname, a mistake I would come to regret.

In hindsight, we spoke of aspiration above circumstance.

Strolling through the picturesque, we talked for hours. She was eloquence in motion. Self-assured but humble, empathetic while no one's fool; in her sweet mouth, life sounded more infinite than it had any business being.

"If you could do anything, Eugene, anything at all in this gorgeous wide world"—she threw her arms open like a bird of prey—"what would it be?"

"I'd like to get published," I offered. It was a test of my composure not to add and marry a girl like you.

"You'll do it, too. You have the intensity of someone who sees a thing for what it is, plus what it could be. People delight in that."

"Mighty generous. And what would you like to do, Miss Rose?"

She reached up and picked a leaf more shapely than any I had encountered.

"Keep happy."

"Just keep happy?"

That chiming laugh again.

"You say 'just' like it's easy street, mister."

"So do you," I said.

She placed a gloved hand on my shoulder. "Then we make a fine pair."

My face hurt from grinning. "Right as rain."

This conversation would go on to nourish me through countless bouts of emotional famine.

Around dinnertime, Rose told me goodbye. Turning on a heel, she added, "Would you care to join me for a party tonight? It's during Grand Illumination."

"Illumination?" I echoed, eager as a child.

"You'll see. Meet me at the gray house on the corner. Nine o'clock. Think you can find it?"

I couldn't miss. By sundown, the village was aglow with the flames of a thousand paper lanterns. Crowds drifted from cottage to cottage, their energy crackling and jumping enough to power the state.

Rose was leaning against a balcony, the tassels of her ruby dress aflutter, her mane as freewheeling as our potential. This impression would prove eternal, the only flapper I care to acknowledge.

"You made it, handsome."

Prior to that evening, the Roaring Twenties merely purred. We put West Egg to shame. We danced to dirty jazz and drank of sumptuous spirits. We stood under the moon and uttered things one should not express to an acquaintance of a day.

I believe we meant them just the same. Young love sets its own standard.

Mind bobbing in liquor, I escorted her to the house where she was staying. A green light dangled from the filigree-trimmed roof. With a kiss, I left her beneath its warmth and stumbled towards Alma's stoop, vowing to return once sober for a proper farewell.

At dawn's behest, I tried to retrace my steps, the hues and lanes blurring like spilled ink. Realizing I didn't know enough to post Rose a letter, I became frantic.

When at last I located the cottage, it was vacant. Along with my hopes, its emerald embers had been snuffed.


As maples turned to rust, the Vineyard came to feel like a febrile dream. For a spell, only Rose's smile was etched in concrete. It made me ache. While I worshipped at Hughes's altar and swam in Hurston's lyricism, it was always the mention of Gatsby that opened wounds.

Fortunately, there was seldom time for melancholy. Life is not a picture show. Those who cease to hustle will be dragged along in its wake.

I went to work hauling steel. I put myself through college on a stop-and-go basis, more stop than go.

My wordplay took flight, earning a byline in The New Yorker. Eventually, I became an English professor at an esteemed university.

In 1945, my books started selling, allowing me to support my parents in their twilight. After an eon of serving others, Mama was able to hire a chef.

Seated at my typewriter, I thought of that summer often. Once the sting dissipated, I was left with a well of luminous language from which to draw. Authors are conmen, parlaying the mundane into the epic, but I have never embellished Martha's splendor. No need.

Amid my professional ascent, I courted and married a wonderful woman named Dorothy. We raised three sons and a daughter, my crowning achievement. I cried the day we purchased our Brooklyn brownstone: my children were the first Douglases to have their own bedrooms.

When Zora asked to paint hers periwinkle, I didn't require a landlord's say-so.


Throughout my long marriage, I was fulfilled and devoted. Spanish Harlem a possible exception, I dismissed reminders of Rose with ease. There are those, Gatsby included, who anchor themselves to a figment.

I wish to imply no such sacrifice. I loved Dorothy with my whole person.

Preferring to leave my recollections unspoiled, I never returned to the Island, a decision that stuck even after my wife's passing, a loss that shattered me.

It was only when I retired from teaching at seventy-eight that the Vineyard's siren song beckoned.

I felt it rude not to answer a lady.


Awash in the familiar, I stepped off the ferry near Ocean Park. Looking around, my relief was akin to hanging up one's cap after an exhausting day. While the automobiles were sleeker and the eateries more numerous, the Island's flavor had not changed in six decades.

That delicious sense of belonging inflated my lungs. I moseyed up Circuit Avenue and wound my way through the kaleidoscope of cottages. From every rail and beam, lanterns flickered like zaftig fireflies.

Illumination Night had returned to usher in a new crop of romantics.

Once my legs grew tired, I turned back towards the hotel. Directly ahead, as if placed for my benefit, was a Gothic jewel of a place. The green light of my youth hung from its doorway.

Beneath it stood a woman, her smile eclipsing the entire affair.

I'd know it anywhere.


Some change is inevitable. Rap has replaced jazz. Computers threaten the printed word. No longer colored or Negro, I am labeled African American. So be it. One's identity must be bedrock in a world made of silt.

I stayed on at the Campground after our joyful reunion. In defiance of the odds, the magic held up beautifully. Parker was her maiden name. Destiny completed its circle when she became Rose Douglas beneath the Tabernacle's arches. Today is our tenth anniversary.

Her relatives have owned this cottage, now our year-round Shangri-la, for over a century. I never knew as much. Each summer we spent apart, she was right here, wading into the Inkwell at midnight.

Everything in due course.

In 1968, a widow stumbled across an author's photograph, recognizing the boy within the man. The cover made note of Dorothy and our city of residence. Out of respect, she never sought to contact me. Learning this has only strengthened my affection.

Under New England's scenic tutelage, my career as a novelist has flourished. Our families vacation here often. We garden. We sway to Billie and Etta while the crickets look on. There are moments of passion yet, but we are just as content to sip tea on the porch swing, luxuriating in the quiet. Idle chatter reveals a lack of intimacy.

Some never find a partner who embodies their idea of peace. I have been blessed twice over. Healthy and spry at eighty-eight, I sense there are many miles to go. And should I shuffle off this plane tomorrow? It will be without regret.

By the grace of God, kin, and good ol' Arthur Westbrook, I hit a straight lick.

"Eugene, sugar! Get inside. Supper's hot and on the table."


About the Creator

CJ Miller

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