Marching to zion, p.1

Marching to Zion, page 1


Marching to Zion

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Marching to Zion


  Mary Glickman

  For the lovers,

  their arms around the grief of the ages




  St. Louis, Missouri, East St. Louis, Illinois, 1916–1918






  The Road to Memphis, 1918–1924






  Along the Mississippi, Before and After the Flood,






  The Road to Ruin, 1931–1933











  About the Author

  Marching to Zion

  Come, we that love the Lord,

  And let our joys be known;

  Join in a song with sweet accord,

  And thus surround the throne.

  Chorus: We’re marching to Zion,

  Beautiful, beautiful Zion;

  We’re marching upward to Zion,

  The beautiful city of God.

  Let those refuse to sing

  Who never knew our God;

  But children of the heavenly King

  May speak their joys abroad.

  Chorus: We’re marching to Zion,

  Beautiful, beautiful Zion;

  We’re marching upward to Zion,

  The beautiful city of God.

  The hill of Zion yields

  A thousand sacred sweets

  Before we reach the heav’nly fields,

  Or walk the golden streets.

  Chorus: We’re marching to Zion,

  Beautiful, beautiful Zion;

  We’re marching upward to Zion,

  The beautiful city of God.

  Then let our songs abound,

  And ev’ry tear be dry;

  We’re marching thru Emanuel’s ground

  To fairer worlds on high.

  Chorus: We’re marching to Zion,

  Beautiful, beautiful Zion;

  We’re marching upward to Zion,

  The beautiful city of God.

  Isaac Watts, 1707


  St. Louis, Missouri, East St. Louis, Illinois,



  Mags stepped back into the street to see the building before her in its entirety, all five stories of it. Mags had never been inside a building that tall. She marveled that the fifth floor kept from crashing down into the first. The sight and wonder of it dropped her jaw and dried her mouth. Behind her, carriages, carts, horsemen, and motorcars raced by on urgent business, raising dust in great yellow clouds, and the dust entered her lungs through her open, dried-up mouth so that she staggered backward and set to in a coughing fit. Mags was a country gal, ignorant of city folk, their hustle and bustle, their common lack of caring about anything but their own affairs. Though not a single beating heart that passed gave two hoots she’d lost both her dignity and her respiration, she was deeply embarrassed to be seen doubled over trying to catch her breath at the side of the street, equines and vehicles swerving around her. Her lean cheeks burned hotter than if she were in a choir about to sing a new hymn without a songbook. Suddenly a strong arm went around her waist. A deep, silken voice murmured directly into her ear just loud enough for her to hear: Are you alright, darlin’? Let’s get you out of the street. Would you care to set down and have a little water or somethin’?

  Mags pulled away as hard as she could, startled out of her cough and into a ragged wheeze. She stood heaving, her bony back at a right angle to her knees, her head cocked to stare up with eyes wide as a bug’s at the man who would expedite her fate for the next number of years, and so saw him that first time sideways, an omen for what passed between them if a sign unrecognized can be called such. What she saw was everything folk back home told her to avoid like wildfire in St. Louis—a handsome man, dandified in silks and bright cottons, a gardenia his boutonniere, a gold tooth illuminating his wide, welcoming smile. His skin and hair were as shiny black as the ebony knob of his walking stick, and his eyes were a startling, sparkling green. She heard the voice of her cousin Aurora Mae warning her. Watch yourself, Mags, with those trussed-up city men. There’s ones specialize in hypnotizin’ little brown rabbits like you. Exchange but a word with one of those and all your hopes and dreams will be forever gone.

  Mags did nearly everything Aurora Mae told her to do. The woman was a goddess to her, despite the fact that Mags was five years older and should have been the senior cousin, dispensing advice and commands by birthright. Determined and intelligent, Mags had taught herself to read and write. Whatever humble letters Aurora Mae possessed, Mags had given her. Still, there was the matter of blood. Aurora Mae’s blood was near pure African on her granddaddy’s side. She was proper owner of all the land on which he’d invited the family to settle after Emancipation. Even if Aurora Mae hadn’t looked the way she did—impossibly tall and lean with skin as black as a moonless, starless night with firelit eyes and a full purple mouth, all of it surrounded by a mass of rich, thick hair that had never seen scissors—Mags would have followed her into the jaws of death. She was a queen among women and men, too, a queen who knew everything the old ones did about plants and herbs, which would heal and which would kill, which bring pleasure and which bring pain. If it hadn’t been for her cousin’s encouragement, Mags never would have had the nerve to go to the big city by herself. Yet here she was on a Monday morning facing opportunity and danger at every crossroads.

  The man smiling at her was from boots to stickpin exactly the demon she’d imagined when Aurora Mae cautioned her. Mags straightened up. She tried to speak. Her voice, which she intended to be cold and haughty, came out in a croak. I am just fine on my own, sir, she said, and then fell to coughing worse than before. Back went his arm around her, and this time there was no strength left in her to disengage. Out of necessity, she leaned into him and let him guide her out of the gutter and up the front stoop of the five-story building she’d sought since daybreak when she’d arrived on the wrong side of town after traveling half the night knocking between canisters in the back of a milk wagon.

  He ushered her into the vestibule and deposited her on a wooden bench set against a wall between two fluted posts. Now, you just set here, he said. He whipped out a keychain from his left pocket and stuck a key in the door opposite her seat. He disappeared for half a minute. Came back with a glass of water, which she took and sipped slowly as it burned going down.

  There, isn’t that better? the fancy man said.

  She raised her eyes above the rim of the glass and nodded. Thank you, she managed in a raspy whisper.

  He chuckled. It was a low, rolling sound he made, reminding Mags of a daddy cooing over his newborn child, and she thought, How could a man who laughs in such a manner be a bother to a girl? It made her feel familiar to him, protected. Besides all that, he’d gone and helped her when she was suffering in a roadway, in danger of being trampled by man, beast, and machine. Mags considered then thought to extend a little trust. She straightened up, holding the water glass primly in her lap, and addressed him using the most formal con
structions of language she knew to be on the safe side.

  Mister, you’ve been very kind but might I ask you for a bit more help? I am new to this place and require confirmation of important facts before I affect the business I came here to find.

  He chuckled again in another warm wave of paternal amusement, which gave her gooseflesh for no reason poor Mags could establish. The man sidled onto the bench next to her. Well, first I think introductions are in order, he said. I am Magnus Bailey, at your service.

  Mags nearly lost her breath again, this time from shock. Magnus Bailey? she asked. In truth? She shoved a hand into the little bundle she carried and pulled out a worn handbill folded over four times even. She quickly unfolded it and waved it around a bit for emphasis. This Magnus Bailey?

  The handbill was headed up by a drawing of twenty-two ten-dollar bills fanned out, beneath which was printed:





  My oh my, Bailey said. Where’d you find that old thing?

  Mags opened her mouth to speak, then froze. She wasn’t sure she should tell him she’d found the paper in an outhouse where it awaited standard use. She stretched things a bit.

  In back of a store where I had some day work, she said. But you’re him? This moneyman what don’t-turn-nobody-down-no-how-no-way?

  Without knowing she was doing it, Mags gave Magnus Bailey a most fetching look. Her well-lashed black eyes went wide, the delicate nostrils of her straight, prim nose flared, and her lips, thin on the top, full on the bottom, remained parted when she was done speaking. Her lower lip trembled a little and her tongue ran over it, then disappeared.

  Magnus Bailey appeared to take a breath before speech, but what he really did was succumb to a tiny gasp, a pure failure in his attempt to cover the pang of desire she planted at the root of him. Luckily for him, Mags did not have the experience to recognize his predicament.

  Well, yes, that man used to be me, he said in a voice softer and deeper yet. It might be again.

  She took a gulp of water for courage and put on her business voice.

  Might we go into your office there, then? To discuss a matter of great importance to me?

  He was on his feet steering her through his door before she had time to tuck the handbill back in her bundle. The paper fluttered to the floor and floated on the sweep of their movements to a spot under the bench on which they’d sat making acquaintance. Mags turned her head and looked down. Water sloshed over the rim of her glass to puddle on the floor.

  As if they were lovers of some standing, Magnus anticipated her gesture. Don’t go after that now, darlin’, he said. Someone will get it later.

  They were in his office alone with the door shut. As far as Mags knew, there was no one else on their floor or the whole building for that matter. He brushed behind her so that their bodies grazed. He put a hot hand on her elbow to guide her to one of two upholstered chairs across from his desk. She sunk into it. It was softer than her bed back home. Once he had her seated, he sat himself, put his feet up on his desk, and asked her polite questions about her origins and trip to town, so that she began to relax, chatting amiably, running off at the mouth a little the way country gals will do when they try to avoid sounding sullen or stupid. He listened and nodded then got up from the great oak desk, a grand affair scrolled at every corner and slick as ice on the top. He walked around, plunked himself down in the unoccupied chair, put his long heavy arm against the back of hers, and leaned in to speak.

  Now, what was it you wanted that brought you from your people’s piney woods and pleasant fields to this dusty metropolis in search of my money? he asked her.

  She twisted in her seat and pointed her bony knees toward him. Lifting her chin to give him what she fancied was her most sophisticated, most solemn expression, Mags said, I wish to start a business, a beauty salon for colored women. Do you realize there simply are none in the colored parts of most towns? I know this because I live in the middle of nowhere, and people come to my home from far, far off just for waves and plaits. Now, I’m thinkin’ I could offer ’em skin and nail treatments, eyebrow pluckin’ and the like, if only I had the know-how. Because I believe with all my heart that our women deserve to look just as finished-up as the white women in the magazines. And it don’t matter how hard times are, a single woman will pay for nice hair and hands on every holiday you can name if she can git ’em for not too much. She’ll find the money somewhere.

  She didn’t tell him the single woman she was talking about was herself or that she had no knowledge of how other single women of her class and race felt. She was still young enough to think that if she felt a thing strongly, everyone else must too. She went on telling him about the extraordinary lengths she would go to if it meant achieving her goal. At last, she got to the meat of it.

  I’m lookin’ for you to make me a loan of one hundred dollars for my purpose, Mr. Bailey. With part of that hundred dollars, I will contrive to stay in the city and apprentice myself and with the other part, I’ll buy all the supplies I need to start a salon up and git ’em on back home when I’m learned enough.

  Magnus smiled and leaned in a little closer, which meant very close indeed, close enough for her to smell what his shirt was laundered in, a thing of violets and sunshine, entirely agreeable. She fought the urge to let her mind drift away on that scent by calling up Cousin Aurora Mae’s warning voice. You’re a good gal, Aurora Mae said inside her head, but you let yourself get distracted all the time. Keep your head on straight and you’ll be alright. Mags used the voice to stick a metal rod up her spine. Her neck stiffened, which kept her mind alert.

  And what are you going to give me in return, darlin’? Magnus asked.

  She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. All the ride into town she’d practiced her proposal. This was the glory part she’d figured would drive the deal home. She answered with enthusiasm.

  Why, ten percent of my profits until it is paid back and then six month more at ten percent of my profits for gratitude!

  Bailey rubbed his chin with the hand that formerly balanced itself on the back of her chair. This was an easy thing for him to do, not requiring so much as a good stretch. He’d moved in that close.

  I hardly think that would be enough when there is such risk involved, he said.

  He tilted his head and with a professional, critical air, touched her hair, then took up her hands to study their nails.

  These are nice, he said slowly. If that’s the kind of work you do, I’m feelin’ better.

  He had both her hands in the firm grip of one of his own and moved the one that rested on the back of her chair to a position that just grazed her far shoulder. If he wanted to, he could push her against him in a heartbeat.

  She hesitated just a second or two. Her mouth screwed up as she wondered what he might do next. Maybe he was having a joke at her expense. His lips were curled in a tiny smile, but his eyes were serious, his gaze deep and steady. Danger, she thought, I am in terrible danger. She yelped, jerked her hands back, and jumped up from her chair, banging a knee on the scrolled corner of his enormous desk. She bent down quickly to retrieve the bundle she’d laid at her feet just as Bailey stooped to get it for her, and their heads knocked together. Mags yelped again, and this time banged her ankle on a leg of the desk as she scurried to the door.

  Oh, dear, dear, dear, Bailey said, rubbing his forehead. We’re getting off on the wrong foot, aren’t we?

  Laughing softly at his own wit, he went back behind his desk and sat. He gestured for her to return to a chair opposing him.

  Don’t mind me, child. A man has to try, doesn’t he? And now I’ve done so. You’ll have no more foolishness from me.

  She stood,
straight-backed, in front of the office door, with one hand on the doorknob behind her while the other clutched her bundle against her chest like a shield.

  I came here to talk business, she said. We can either talk it with me here and you there or I’ll be gone.

  Magnus Bailey’s game stopped short. She was mighty brave, he saw, an innocent ready to face the perils of masculine strength and casual corruption. He had no shortage of women friends. There was no need in him to toy with this one. He felt a touch of shame that he’d teased her and reconsidered her proposition.

  When she emerged from the office an hour later, Mags was flushed but her honor remained intact. In one hand, she clutched a scrap of paper on which was written the address of a rooming house for ladies run by a close friend of Magnus Bailey himself. Deep in her skirt pocket, stuffed in as safe a place as she had to store it, was a ten-dollar bill Magnus gave her on loan to help her settle into life in the city. He would not give her the hundred dollars she wanted, but he was prepared to help her stay and find a city job. That way, she could earn the money on her own.

  She hit the streets of St. Louis elated, energized, poised for battle against all the evils of which she had been forewarned as well as those she had already witnessed. She felt supremely confident that she had survived—no, conquered—the first challenge of life as a free woman, as a woman alone in the world, a woman away from home. She had resisted the seductions of Magnus Bailey and got a ten-dollar loan besides. Her senses felt sharp, her sensibility refined by experience. She assessed the streets and people around her, making mental notes for the letter she would write to Aurora Mae when she had the chance. St. Louis is jam-packed with rich Negroes, she’d write, and I will soon be one of them. Her judgment, of course, was framed by the poverty in which she’d been raised and against which the meanest circumstances seemed luxurious. Men in threadbare jackets and tattered shirts raised worn caps to her as she passed and she thought, Yes, I surely will be rich one day and marry a gent like one of them. Her spirits were boundless.

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