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Lies In Ruins

A Woman's Reckoning

By Lynn JordanPublished 3 years ago Updated 6 months ago 32 min read
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Lies In Ruins
Photo by Cosmic Timetraveler on Unsplash

The dark Christ statue was judging her. So were the dark people in this church.

Norma had walked in during the middle of Sunday service, not caring how they stared at her. She was on a mission for forgiveness and redemption. However, if it hinged on this judgy Jesus, she may be out of luck.

When the service ended, the Pastor, a tall, portly Black man, walked over to her.

“How may I help you, child?” He asked, placing his hand on her shoulder. She came in hardened and tense, but she immediately burst into tears with his touch.

Either God would forgive her, or the Devil would walk her into Hell for what she had done.

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She was born and raised in a small Southern town. As a teenager, she thought she was the prettiest and smartest girl around with her blonde hair and big blue eyes, but she was an average-looking girl of average intelligence. Despite her desire to go to college in a larger city, the time she should have spent studying she spent primping and flirting, and her final grades reflected this. Since nothing more was expected of her than to marry young, start a family, and settle into small-town Southern life, she decided that if she were going to die in this town, she would be its Queen.

That is until Janie came.

Janie was a tall redhead with striking green eyes and legs that were longer than should be allowed. Her breasts were large, and her teeth were perfect. Rumor was that she had come to stay with relatives in town because she had a baby out of wedlock. “If havin’ a bastard chile gives a girl a body like that, maybe it wasn’t the worst thing,” Norma thought to herself, biting her lip until it bled, jealously watching the boys drool over Janie. Including her beloved Seth Cowan.

Seth was the boy all the girls wanted. The son of the local banker, he was handsome and the only heir. Norma had sashayed, kicked, and body-checked her way to the top of his list, willing to go a little further than the other girls to be his favorite. She was secure in her pole position until Seth laid his eyes on Janie.

As soon as Norma saw Seth and Janie’s eyes meet, she knew it was over.

After an ice-cream social, Seth and Janie disappeared behind the bleachers, and the next day when Norma went up to Seth, he looked right through her. He strode past her as if she did not exist, walked up to Janie, and offered his arm. Norma felt her entire world collapse, but she would not let it show. She strolled down the street, head held high, trying to ignore the stares, the giggles, the outright laughter. She was utterly humiliated, and when she got home, she was inconsolable.

After high school, Norma got a job at the local general store on the Black side of town. She hated it, but when it came to jobs, pickings were slim. By this time, the boys she had baited but pushed aside in favor of Seth became men that were no longer interested in her. The only man interested in her was Jake. Jake was a handyman, and although he was handsome, always had some money and a small plot of land, he could not seem to keep a girlfriend. Feeling she was running out of options, Norma acquiesced and married him. It did not take long for her to realize she had made a terrible mistake.

During this same period, Seth and Janie married, and she became pregnant with twin boys. His father had died, leaving his fortune to Seth, and Seth purchased additional land to build a stately new home for his growing family. On the way to her dilapidated shack, Norma would drive by the work in progress, seething with a red hot rage that would threaten spontaneous combustion.

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John Bender walked toward the general store, not knowing what he hated more, the walk in the oppressive summer heat or dealing with the nasty woman who worked there.

“What you want?” She barked at him like the dog she was, looking down her beaky nose with those beady blue eyes. “A pound of sugar and a pound of flour, please,” John responded, more politely than she deserved. She would practically throw the items at him, snatch the money out of his fingers, and dismiss him with a flip of her hand and a toss of her mousy blonde hair. “Hurry up, go, before you stink up my store. Goddamn, I hate you people.”

While a part of him wanted to dally in defiance, he would slink out, happy to get away from her. Her husband clearly abused her, and while she was always a bitch, the beatings were getting worse. The White customers would see her bruises and her occasional black eye, but none of them would ask if she was okay, and she would act as if nothing was wrong. She was sweet as pie to them, but she would take her anger and frustration out on Black customers like him, who she could bully without repercussion. John’s wife offered to go so this woman could not humiliate him anymore, but he could not bear the thought of that woman berating his beautiful wife. She took enough guff while cleaning for the White families in town. At least John could make himself small on the farm and work without unwanted attention. John could handle a once-a-week trip to the store.

He went home and embraced his wife, Betty, both of them exhausted from the physical and mental gyrations of their daily life. She took some of the flour and sugar, made John his favorite chocolate cake, and shared a modest meal. Heavily pregnant with their first child, she would have to stop working soon, but John was ready to take up the slack. They had hoped to save enough money to move North and leave the hostilities of the South behind, but the pregnancy delayed that plan. He wanted better for his wife and his child and believed he could make some extra money on the side so they could leave for Chicago as soon as the baby was okay to travel. That night, he smiled as he held his wife close and stroked her belly.

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Norma laid in the hospital bed, wailing uncontrollably. The doctor had just let her know that this last beating caused her to lose her baby. He usually did not acknowledge the abuse, but he could not ignore the boot print on Norma’s stomach. Worse, he advised that the damage may have made her unable to bear children in the future. Norma was devastated, and Jake didn’t care. She pleaded with the doctors to help her get out of her situation, but they would walk away.

When cleared to return to work, she drove by Seth’s house and saw Janie playing with her toddler boys, who had his sandy hair and her green eyes. Norma’s battered body trembled with envy. That was supposed to be HER life. SHE was supposed to be Seth’s wife and bear his children, and now she cannot bear any. She pulled over to cry but had pulled herself together enough to stroll into the store with her usual arrogant strut. A few customers were waiting for the store to open, and one of them was Betty Bender. She had decided to come to the store since her husband was putting in extra hours on the farm. The anger that boiled in Norma’s blood when she saw Betty’s distended belly was palpable.

“Even a worthless nigger like her can have a baby, but I can’t,” Norma mumbled to herself, purposely helping all of the other customers, although Betty was first in line. When no one left but Betty, Norma sneered at her, “what you want?”

“A box of salt and one honey jar, please,” Betty replied, doing an excellent job of not letting Norma’s actions and attitude faze her. Norma stood up straight, folding her arms. “That’s my last box of salt, and I’m not selling it to you.”

“Ma’am, I see four boxes of salt there and jars of honey, too,“ Betty said sweetly. “Apologies if I did something wrong, but my money as good as everyone else’s, and I’m sure Mr. Thompson would like to have it.”

Mr. Thompson was the store’s owner, and while he was kind to everyone regardless of race, he knew that the town’s White citizens were nowhere near as gracious. He only came by the store occasionally, and a group of Black townspeople watched him tell Norma that she was not to refuse a sale. He wanted every dollar offered regardless of the color of the hand that gave it to her. Norma did not believe this lowly Negress would have the nerve to tell on her, but Norma also didn’t want to risk her job. She yanked the items off the shelf and threw them at Betty’s stomach, but Betty caught them both before they could hit her. Without missing a beat, she placed the money on the counter, not wanting to risk that evil woman touching her hand.

“Have a good night,” Betty said as she walked out the door without looking back.

“GO TO HELL!” Norma yelled, throwing the money after her. Once the door closed behind Betty, Norma collapsed on the floor, bawling.

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A few weeks later, Norma left church and was walking towards the park. She was in no rush to return home to Jake, who no longer worked, but still had enough money to buy booze and enough strength to rough her up when she dared ask about his job prospects. This Sunday was different, however. When she reached the park, a crowd had gathered under the Confederate sculpture that was its centerpiece. She recognized that nearly all of them were from church, but they were not happily congregating, discussing Scripture, or waiting for the children to be done with Sunday school. Their faces were contorted in a dark glee. Norma was hoping for some gossip to distract her from the reality of her miserable life.

“They hung that nigger from the biggest tree they could find!” Joe Leonard bellowed, wanting to make sure everyone heard. “Then they took the body down and fed it to the hogs!” The crowd began to whoop and holler. “That is one great town, I tellya! He shouted, “they don’ let a nigger get away with touching a White woman like that!”

Now, that kind of news turned Norma’s frown upside down, and she wanted all of the lurid details. She crept up to Ms. Denton, who was standing at the edge of the crowd. Ms. Denton said a White woman from a nearby town said a Black man raped her. Before the police could do anything, an angry mob located the man, beat, castrated, and hung him. They made it known that the body was to hang there until they decided to take it down, and no one from the man’s family better not touch it. “Sounds like justice to me,” Norma huffed. Ms. Denton’s brows furrowed. “I guess,” she replied, but we’ll never know if she was tellin’ the truth. I don’t care nothin’ ‘bout a nigger, but God would never want anyone to die over a lie.”

“I’m going to pretend that you said that because you just came from church,” Norma said while elbowing her gently. But Ms. Denton knew that Norma was only half-joking. Showing sympathy for someone with the wrong skin could ruin your life. “I guess so,” Ms. Denton sighed. “If it were Tuesday, I would have said they should have burned him first.” She then gave an uneasy chuckle. Norma gave her a faint nod of approval and went to her car to go home, happy to have something that she and her poor excuse of a husband could discuss.

But when she came home, the house was silent.

“Jake? You home?”

Stepping through a maze of bugs, clothing, and beer cans, she walked towards the back of the house to the bedroom. Before she reached the door, a barely dressed young girl bolted out of the bedroom, almost knocking Norma over. She turned to chase the girl, only to be grabbed by Jake. He swung her around and grabbed her by her arms. He was naked.

“YOU. WILL. DO. NOTHING!” He screamed at her.

“YOU’RE CHEATIN’ ON ME! HOW COULD YOU!” Norma screamed back at him. “WHY?” She began to cry. “Well, shit, just look at you!” Jake yelled. “You were used up when I married you, and now you look like my goddamn grandma. Why in the HELL would I want to touch YOU?”

“Maybe I wouldn’t look so bad if you didn’t beat me, you piece of shit!”

“Your dumbass stayed, huh? What? You couldn’t do no better, right? RIGHT? Ever since Seth ditched you, you were nothin’ but a joke. I married you for the maid service, not because I loved you. Ain’t nothin’ lovable ‘bout you. You were always a snotty bitch. I was happy to knock you down since you always thought you were too good for everyone,” he said, swishing his hips and fake tossing his greasy hair, mocking her. “Look at meeeee! Ahm too beautiful for you!” He sneered in a high-pitched voice. “Yeah! Look atcha now. LOOK AT YOU!”

Then he laughed. Norma ran to the pond, dropping to her knees, stunned at the face looking back at her. It was not what she expected. The skin was not smooth porcelain, the hair not vibrant gold, the eyes not so blue. The reflection in the still water was who she had become. She wiped her swollen eyes, nearly shut by rage and tears. He was right. A small part of her wondered if this was what she looked like all along, but pride and family rhetoric would not allow her to see anything less than perfection.

She slowly stood up and walked back to the house, where Jake was sitting on the worn sofa in a pair of boxers, with a beer in his hand and a cruel smirk on his face.

“So, what’s for dinner, honey?” He asked.

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Betty Bender’s childbirth was easy, and Charles Anthony Bender came into the world healthy and among beaming midwives. John Bender held his wife’s hand during the delivery, proud of his wife and beautiful baby boy. As they lay in bed staring at their bundle of joy, John was more resolved than ever to get to Chicago. His cousin had found work there and sent word that a job was waiting for him. The thought of a new life for his family nearly brought him to tears, and he had almost enough money saved. “Betty,” he gently whispered to his wife, “Is next month too soon for the baby to make the trip North?”

“I guess that should be fine,“ she said, still gazing at her child. “Everything went pretty smooth, so I guess we’ll be okay. Gary still takin’ us?” “Yes,” John replied, smiling. “We lucky to get a car ride.”

“We not lucky,” Betty softly corrected, “we blessed.”

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Across town, Norma was wringing her hands and pacing. Mr. Thompson had shown up unannounced, and through the window, watched her put some unpaid items in her bag. He immediately fired her, and now she had to go home and tell Jake. Things were deteriorating, and now she was just a paycheck and a punching bag for him. That girl he was sleeping with was getting bolder, showing up whenever she pleased, and Norma better not say a word. This humiliation made her pathetic situation worse, just when she thought she could take all she could bear.

She stopped through town and saw Ms. Denton, who relayed that Janie Cowan was pregnant again. Usually, the fury that Norma had for Janie would have consumed her. Now it had been beaten down to sad resignation. “Her nanny is moving West,” Ms. Denton added, and Norma tried to contain her emotion. Instead of feeling dejected, she now saw a way out.

The next day, Norma, now relegated to the couch, got dressed in her Sunday best and snuck out of the house while Jake and his mistress slept it off. She went straight to the Cowan estate, and her legs trembled as she walked up the steps to the beautiful double doors. The nanny position was a live-in one. Norma realized that while she would have to swallow her pride and practically beg for this job, her desperation to get away from Jake was more important than her pride or any resentment she had towards Seth, his wife, and their charmed life.

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Janie answered the door. “Norma! She exclaimed.” This is a surprise! How nice to see you!”

“Hi,” Norma replied, doing her best to hold her head up and smile as modestly as possible. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I heard that you might have a position open for some help, and since I was in town…”

“Oh my, yes!” Janie said, happily clapping her hands together. “ My nanny is leaving at the end of the week, and I am in desperate need of someone to help with the kids. Plus, I’m pregnant, and my doctor needs me to take it easy.”

“I can certainly help with that if you’ll have me,” Janie said, hoping she didn’t sound too eager.

“I absolutely would, but aren’t you married? Wouldn’t your husband object to you living here?”

“No, he’s gone a lot for his work, so he’s okay with it,” Norma lied. “Would...Seth…”

“Oh, no no no, girl, all of that was a long time ago! This is perfect! You can bring some things on Friday, and we’ll get you settled. What timing!”

“Thank you,” Norma smiled, containing her relief as much as she could. “I’ll be here Friday.”

Norma practically floated down the stairs. The money was good, she would barely see Seth since he was consumed with his business, and the children appeared to be easy and well-behaved. Jake would not be happy, but then again, maybe he would be. Either way, she didn’t care. He wouldn’t dare show up at the estate causing trouble. While it was not how she thought she would end up in a mansion, at least she was in one. Her determination to turn her life around mattered more than the past and current disappointments in her life.

Norma put on an act that would have won her an Oscar. She succeeded in hiding her excitement and reverted to the simpering, cowering woman she had been for years, managing to dodge Jake’s instigative tactics and fists for the remainder of the week. He came home Friday evening to a note advising she would not be coming back. While Jake raged through the house, destroying whatever he could get his hands on, Norma was putting her clothes away in a beautiful bureau in a gorgeous room that overlooked the garden. For the first time in a long time, she felt safe.

Two weeks in, Norma was not only loving her job, but doing it so well, Janie did nothing but gush about her, and they became friends. Norma realized just how lonely Janie was, and now she had someone to have lunch and gossip with daily. With her new salary and Janie’s help, Norma began to dress better, put on makeup and start to get her shine back. She began to dream about making enough to leave and start fresh in a new town, a new city.

Seth barely spoke to Norma, which was okay with her. Her obsession with him had faded, and she much preferred to spend time with his wife, the woman she had envied for so long. But while Norma was no longer interested in Seth, who was getting moody and paunchy, Seth began to pay more attention to her. Norma did her best to avoid him, as she did not want to jeopardize her job or her friendship with Janie. Janie, however, did not seem to be bothered by Seth's interactions with his old flame, never thinking for a minute that he would backslide to Norma. Norma may have been getting herself together, but she still looked old and tired for her age. Janie became more radiant and voluptuous after the birth of her children and had an angelic glow with her current pregnancy.

But Janie was wrong.

Janie was visiting her parents, and Norma had put the twins down for their nap. When she turned to leave the room, she was startled by Seth standing in the doorway. She had no idea he had come home. “We need to talk, “ he said. “Sure. Is anything wrong?” she asked, trying to keep her distance. But he reached in and grabbed her arm without answering, and he began to pull her forcibly toward his bedroom. “Do not fight me, and do not scream.” Norma pleaded with him, but it was no use.

She woke up to Janie screaming in her face and slapping her. Norma, still numb from the rape, managed to escape Janie and run down the stairs, dodging Seth and running out the front door and down the street. By the time they caught up with her, she was seen by a small group of men outside the local bar. Seth snarled in her ear, “if you open your mouth, they will never find your body.”

Norma began to cry uncontrollably. The men ran up to her, showing genuine concern and wanting to help. Once again battered and under the control of someone else, her mind reeled. “What happened? One of the men asked. Seth blurted out, “she got raped by a nigger.”

“We need to go find him NOW!” The largest of the men yelled, and the others hollered in agreement. “Would you know who it was if you saw him?”

Norma, still in shock, realized that if she told the truth, her best-case scenario would be ostracism and poverty; the worst-case scenario - especially with Seth’s money and connections - could be death.

“Yes,” she sobbed, looking at the ground.

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John Bender was headed to the general store for his last trip, relieved that the mean woman was no longer working there. He had an extra bounce in his step as he was picturing his family’s future life up North, and they were leaving in three days. He could hardly wait.

He was near the store when he saw a posse of White men heading his way. Immediately, he knew something terrible was about to happen. He did not have the chance to figure out an escape plan when that evil, horrible woman stepped through the middle of men, pointed at him, and screamed, “THAT’S HIM!!”

It didn’t matter that he was coming from the opposite direction. It didn’t matter that after committing a crime - especially a rape against a White woman - a Black man would be hiding or running, not casually walking to the store. She needed a victim, and she chose him.

The men descended upon him, beating on him, spitting on him, screaming at him. It was a painful blur that seemed to occur in slow motion, and John did everything he could to try and protect his head. All he could think about was his wife and baby. He had to survive this and make it back to them alive. But when he heard one of the men scream, “HANG HIM!” He knew he would never see his family again. He prayed that the mob would be satisfied with his death and not harm them. Then he lost consciousness.

Mike Lovell, who was also on his way to the store, saw the scene and ran to John’s house. Betty was nursing the baby when he banged on the door, screaming for her to open it. When she did, Mike said, “You have got to get some things, and come to our house! John is getting beat by a mob, an’ we don’ know what gon’ happen next!”

“NO!” She screamed, clutching the baby, wanting to run to her husband. But Mike held her back. “Betty! NO! You have GOT to come with me NOW!”

Mike took the baby, and Betty grabbed what she could. Mike burned with rage and pain; he was powerless to help his friend. The best he could do was to try and save John’s wife and son. Other neighbors ran to spread the word: Stay where you are, keep low, and be quiet.

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As the sun began to set and the mob was done with their deed and their pictures, the town went eerily quiet. As Mike feared, the mob set the Bender house afire. They formed a circle around the burning home, daring anyone Black to do so much as watch. Betty Bender was hiding in their church’s cellar with their baby, their cries and screams disguised by the blaze as it filled the air and their house, once filled with love and promise, with flames, ash, and heartbreak.

When it was clear that the house and nothing in it could be salvaged, the men left. Slowly, the Black residents came out of hiding and walked up to the charred ruins. They all had tears in their eyes. They parted to let Betty through. She looked upon the remains of their small home and began walking toward town. Her neighbors walked silently behind her, all of them knowing where to go. As they did, the sound of a rope creaking from the weight of a body became louder until they reached him.

They stared at John Bender’s body. The men removed their hats; the women held Betty in a giant group hug as she mouthed the words “I love you” to her husband’s corpse over and over again. Gary, the man who was going to drive them away from this ugly place and into their future, held their baby, whose crying finally tired him out enough to sleep. Three White men with shotguns stood near the body. “You can’t have it.” one of the men said. Betty begged them, but they stood silently, grinning, chewing their tobacco and toothpicks. Finally, one said, “Y’all need to go home now.” Betty and her neighbors realized the men were not going to let them lay John Bender to rest. And they reluctantly left, the men furious, the women crying.

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Janie drove Norma to the nearest hospital, which was a few miles outside of town. They spoke not a word. Norma tried to plead with Janie once, and Janie backhanded her. “I don’t want to talk about it. I’m just dropping you off. When you get back to town, your things will be in the shed by the garden. DO NOT set foot in my house. In public, we’ll be nice, but I swear, if you mutter one word to ANYONE about what happened, believe me, you WILL regret it.”

Norma was barely out of the car when Janie sped off. Norma used her last bit of strength to stagger into the hospital.

It was a brutal rape; she fought, and it showed. Seth was not kind or gentle, and she had the wounds to prove it from top to tail. A police officer came to ask questions, but Norma said that she did not see her attacker as he surprised her, and she blacked out during most of the attack. The police officer did not believe her and tried to get more information, but Norma would offer nothing more; she just asked for a ride back to her town.

He dropped her off at the Cowan estate. She got her things out of the shed and walked the short distance to the center of town. When she got to the diner, all she wanted was some water and a chance to rest. But it was full of townspeople, who rallied around her, asking how she was, offering her a place to stay, money, and clothing. Even people that did not like her - women who hated her, the men she spurned - were there to offer their support. For a moment, she forgot why she was getting this attention, and for the first time in a long time, felt important again. While she was enjoying a meal paid for by a well-wisher, Wes Langton sat next to her. “Don’t worry, he won’t be hurting you or anyone else ever again,” he said with a smirk. Norma asked, “was he buried where I can see his grave?” The man drew closer. “No, ma’am. The swamp has him. I have a couple of souvenirs if you want them.”

“I appreciate the offer, but seeing them may make me relive it all over again,” Norma replied politely, wondering when she could safely stop lying.

“...God would never want anyone to die over a lie.”

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Betty put the few things she grabbed from the house into Gary’s car. While she watched him place the baby carrier with a sleeping Charles Bender in the back seat, she opened a coffee can filled with paper money. Her eyes watered for a moment, knowing how hard John worked and saved so they could make this trip into a better future. But she knew she had to be strong for her son and in memory of her murdered husband. Gary’s sister Millie gave her a large basket containing food, water, and milk for the trip. Jim Crow laws and “sundown towns” made it hard to find a rest stop, but they wanted to make as few stops as possible anyway. They had to go through the White part of town to get the main road out of this hell, and they drove by Norma. Betty recognized her as the woman from the General store, but Norma never even glanced at the car. She was consumed with guilt, picturing that Black body at the bottom of the swamp, put there by her lie.

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That was 67 years ago. And now Norma Williams was in this church, seeking redemption and forgiveness, crying in the arms of this gentle bear of a Black man who held her like a lost sister. Waves of guilt and pain coursed through her, making her a snotting mess, but he did not let her go. He let her cry, rocking her gently, and when her tears subsided, she felt loved and safe. She did not deserve this moment.

“You would choke me instead once I tell you what I’ve done.”

“We have all sinned, ma’am,“ he replied in that dulcet-toned voice, “and church is not the place for choking.” He smiled. Norma knew he was not ready for her story.

“I need your forgiveness, “ she said, looking directly in his eyes for the first time. “Well," he said, holding her small hands in his, “how ‘bout we work on you forgiving yourself?”

When she finished telling her story, Pastor Joe Wilkins was indeed stunned. He knew the town she was from, and he was well aware of White women who lied and got Black men imprisoned or killed due to false accusations of rape. Now, in front of him was one of these women. One of these awful, lying, supposedly God-fearing women, who, decades later, wants forgiveness after she had a chance to live her life? What is making her want to do this now? And why him? Why not a White church? Why not her own church? As if she could read his mind, she answered.

“What I did was so wrong, I know. I felt I didn’t have a choice! Of course, I DID have a choice, but it was all about saving myself. I was a washed-up woman with no options, no power, and I am so sorry that I felt sacrificing an innocent man was the answer! I don’t know why I felt that God would be okay with me being so cruel my entire life and not seeing how hate cannot exist in a truly loving heart! I would dream about that poor man a few times a week. I knew him! I knew him and his wife, an’ I treated them both no better than animals. I took that woman’s husband away from her in the worst way, an’ their little boy had no father because of me. I never went to the police because they knew and did nothing; they didn’t care. I never left that town, and I couldn’t go to my church because everyone still knows what happened. I could have left, but I had to stay an’ be reminded of what I had done until I could figure out a way to ask God for His mercy. I don’t know if I deserve it, but I wanted to try. I didn’t want to die without telling the truth. If I suffer for it, I will suffer it gladly.”

Pastor Wilkins listened patiently and nodded. “Why don’t you ask his son for forgiveness?”

“Who, Jesus? But I did that...” Norma said, looking up, hoping for some kind of answer onto which she could grasp. “No, no. The man’s son. You said he had a son.”

“Yes, he did,’ Norma replied, shaking her head, “but he was a newborn. He could be anywhere, and I wouldn’t know where to start...”

“That’s true. Do you know the son’s name? If you do, start from there. If you want absolution, who better to ask it from than the man’s son?"

Norma’s eyes lit up. He was right, and that is what she was going to do.

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Norma traveled to the nearest city and hired a private investigator as she did not want to risk hiring someone closer to home. She located Charles Anthony Bender, who lived outside of Chicago. Now she needed to get up the courage to call him. To say it would be an awkward conversation was an understatement.

“Hello. Mr. Bender?”

“Yes...who is this?”

“My name is Norma Williams.”

Silence.

After a few moments, he asked, “where are you calling from?”

Norma hesitated, then she finally replied, “your family’s past.”

Silence.

“So...are you THAT Norma Williams?”

“Yes, sir. I am. I am so so sorry.”

Silence.

Charles cleared his throat. This woman supposedly had his father lynched for something he did not do back when he was a baby. His mother and family friend Gary made it to Chicago, and he grew up to be a lawyer. His father’s story fostered a desire to ensure no one would falsely accuse an innocent person if at all possible.

“I realize this is out of the blue. But I wanted to reach out because…”

From somewhere deep in his heart, the rage exploded. “NOW YOU WANT TO REACH OUT? WHY DIDN’T YOU REACH OUT TO MY MOTHER BEFORE SHE DIED? WHY DIDN’T YOU REACH OUT WHEN SHE WORKED TWO JOBS SO WE COULD EAT? WHY DIDN’T YOU REACH OUT TO THE POLICE WITH THE TRUTH? ARE YOU ABOUT TO DIE, SO NOW YOU WANT FORGIVENESS FROM ME? FUCK YOU! GO DIE, YOU BITCH!”

Norma steeled herself and took the abuse because this she deserved. Every bit of it. Her hand shook as it held the phone’s receiver. But she did not hang up; she did not take it away from her ear. She caused this pain, and now she had to accept the consequences even though it would never come close to the verbal abuse she spat at his father and the death sentence she later imposed on him. So she bore the weight of his son's pain, personally touched by the worst kind of injustice that directly resulted from the truth she refused to tell.

Charles took a breath, and Norma spoke. “I fully expect you to hate me. If you would like to talk to me in person, I am willing to listen to you curse me out all over again. No, I am not dying, but I have lived with the shame of what I did, and I needed to do this because God would never want anyone to die over a lie. I cannot erase what happened, but you deserve to hear it all from me, and I will do whatever I can for your family to make a difference somehow since I will never be able to make it right.”

After a few moments, Charles exhaled and said, “I will meet you.”

By Leyre Labarga on Unsplash

Norma arrived at the restaurant, not sure what to expect. She was comfortable with meeting Charles, but suddenly she felt unsure. Norma knew the questions that he would ask, such as was she raped, who was her rapist and what happened to him. She would tell him Seth died from a stroke two years later, and Janie lost the child she was carrying due to the stress. After Seth’s death, Janie took her two children and moved away. Since just about every man in town was involved - including Jake - and the women would protect their men, she could trust no one. She got a menial job on the outskirts of town but never left, choosing to stay, treated with a combination of pity and disgust. There were other questions, too; the ones she had for herself, stuck in her head for years that she still could not answer. And she would be honest about it.

When she reached the door, she peered through the glass, and sitting across the restaurant was a Black man who was just starting to gray at the temples. She knew it was him; he was the spitting image of his father. Their eyes met, and his dark eyes were flat, his face expressionless.

Norma caught her reflection in the glass. Her old face had every wrinkle imaginable, but there was resolve there. Her hair was now a steel gray, but for a moment, her eyes matched the color of the clear autumn sky.

She said quietly to herself, “Norma, it’s now or never,” as she placed her hands on the push bar and let herself in.

By Cristian Newman on Unsplash

humanity
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About the Creator

Lynn Jordan

Gen X writer of published music reviews now putting my fiction, non-fiction & the occasional poem out there. Every piece I write, regardless of genre, is a challenge accepted, and crafted with care and love. Sit a spell & enjoy!

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