It’s 1972 and fourteen-year-old New Yorker Elizabeth Landers is sent to the sleepy town of Ahoskie, North Carolina to spend the summer with relatives. Her expectation of boredom is quickly dispelled when police sirens and flashing lights draw her to a horrible scene at the Danbury Bridge. Mr. Samuel, owner of Samuel’s Lumber Yard, has driven his car off the bridge and into the river, drowning himself and his daughter. The medical examiner thinks it’s an accident, but the Sheriff finds fresh bullet holes on the bridge right where the skid marks are. Curiously, Mr. Samuel died clutching a unique 1909 wheat penny—a penny that is then stolen from the Sheriff’s office. Lizbeth witnesses Miss Violet’s grief upon learning that her husband and child are dead, and decides she will help by finding the penny.
Her search involves Lizbeth in the lives of many Ahoskie residents. Like the owner of the grocery store, mean old Mr. Jake, who—as all the kids in Ahoskie know—hates black folks. Plenty of pennies in his till. Then there is Ms. Melanie Neely, otherwise known as “Ms. McMeanie,” who thinks the lumber yard should belong to her. And Mr. Samuel’s handsome brother Ben, who struggles to keep the business afloat after his more clever brother’s death. Lizbeth searches through the collection plates at church and in the coin jars of crazy old Aunt Ode, a strange old woman missing one eye and most of her teeth, who keeps a flask in her apron pocket and a secret in her soul.
It is peculiarly bright this evening. Will not be dark for another hour or so. The headlights of the ’68 station wagon are on, but their worth cannot be seen until the fog seeps between the slats of wood. The sweet smell of honeysuckle floats through the air on a blanket of steam rising up from the river as the car makes its way across the threshold.
The old bridge aches aloud, for its back has carried many a passenger the last hundred years to and from Ahoskie, North Carolina. Known as “The Only One,” Ahoskie has existed as a settlers’ town and with the Indian name since 1719, but without the Indian’s permission to do For a moment there is a sense of unsteadiness.
Got to get across.
Just one more time.
Most times hard.
Then sometimes someone never crosses back.
For seven hours, I’d done nothing but unpack and eat. I was ready for something to happen.
But I wasn’t ready for anything like this.
I was standing at the front door that mid-June evening, waiting for Aunt Alice to come home from the grocery store, when I heard the piercing sound of horns and sirens unleashing their fury, synchronized to the flashing red and white lights leading the way south, away from town. The pimples that ran down my spine hurt from the screeching noise. At least five vehicles rushed down the narrow road, leaving great clouds of dirt as though dragged by invisible ropes behind them. Heading for a place where something God awful was happening.
I could see Auntie’s car trotting at a nervous pace behind them, then veering off to the left, down our street. I focused on her torso behind the wheel, then her head, then her eyes, steadfast with purpose.
“Hi Auntie, what’s going on down there?” I asked, with my hand shielding my eyes from the fading sun as she opened her car door to get out.
“I don’t know really, Lizbeth, ‘cept Uncle Frank was called to come in a hurry to help with his wrench truck down by the bridge.”
As the jarring sounds washed out through the tall bushy heads of the trees, Aunt Alice stared out towards the road. With her chin tucked in she spoke:
“Lizbeth, I’m going down there to see what’s going on. It’s going to be dark out soon. You can stay here if you want to, or go over to Mrs. Cooper’s if you get scared.” She placed her hand on my shoulder to reassure me that all would be okay.
“Scared? I’m not scared; I just want to go with you! See what’s happening down there!” I exclaimed, shaking her other hand in a tantrum, dividing her fingers between my two hands.
“You couldn’t fit in there anyway Lizbeth, I have a car full of groceries, girl. And besides, by the time I finish putting them away I may as well stay home.” She had me there, but I wasn’t about to give up. My eyes darted around the yard looking for a way out of the problem.
And there it was.
“You’re right Auntie, I can’t fit in your car, but I can ride my bike!” A prideful smile burned in the flesh of my cheeks.
“I got a light on my bike Auntie. Besides, I bet I get there before you do!” That was all that needed to be said.
I arrived at the bridge before Auntie, thanks to my cousins showing me a narrow path just a couple of days earlier. I rode right on up to the bridge and oh so quietly kicked my kick-stand down. There wasn’t one holler, mostly because the police and other officials were concentrating on the sadness below. Good thing I had enough sense to leave my bike where it lay and walk the rest of the way so as not to call attention to myself. As my excitement grew, I tried to hold my breath, feeling my heart thumping through my chest, hoping that my good fortune in not being shooed away would hold out until I got a closer look.
By now the sun was so low the river looked like black ink slapping the shore angrily for letting Uncle Frank’s crane drop into its waters, and men bobbing up and down like red and whites. Flashlights dotting and dashing about like lightening bugs searching for their supper. A few orders jabbed out amongst the men here and there. Other than that, there was silence.
A startling shout came from a man with a white hat, and a tremendous swoosh broke through the dark water. When the crane pulled the car up, with a solemn grinding motion, something burst free from one of the car’s open windows. Shocked me so bad I nearly fell over into the deep, so shaken from the sight.
A man’s hand had set itself free from the car.
At first glance, the hand seemed to be riding the surface of the water, waving happily without care. But then the ashen skin with its grotesque wormy veins made it clear it was not.
Something glistened in rhythm with the ripples of water flowing over his fingers—a gold band.
But before I could focus, the shoulder and the head of the man slipped through the window like an eel. I could have held on a little longer but for the man’s face turning upward; his eyes bulging out of their sockets like strained ping pong balls. I threw up right then and there on the bridge, and luckily not on my brand new checkered shirt.
“Hey, hey you there girl! Get off the bridge before you drown your fool yourself! We don’t have time to be searching for no more bodies tonight. G’on now!” The man with the white hat again. I wanted to say sorry, but my wobbling legs took the best of me. Luckily I spotted Auntie on the shore, so I got my bike and stumbled to her side. Auntie held me close to her breast for a little while, still keeping her watch over the damage in the Ahoskie River.
I gathered myself and sat on the hood of her car, still hot from the engine, with a sweater between it and my legs. Auntie stood like stone beside me. Even the soft jowls of her face looked hard above her densely clasped hands.
I caught Uncle Frank’s eye across the river, and he waved to me in return. Not the free and happy to see you kind of wave, more like the I am here and so are you kind.
The rumble of a car moving fast towards us made me turn behind myself to see who was in such a hurry to see death. The Spring City emergency squad had already arrived, though late if you ask me, and there was nothing left to do except get that poor soul out of there. As the car’s lights peeked through the woods, I could see a turquoise Ford Country Sedan with a woman behind the wheel. A black woman. She steered wildly, like a cartoon character scripted for disaster, nearly hitting us as she drove up beside us. Punishing the brakes to screeching tears.
Barely before the car had stopped, she ran out towards the bridge.
She had on a light blue dress that ruffled at the collar and short sleeved cuffs. Her black hair, which was once held in a knot, was fast becoming a ponytail with every step she took. And she was beautiful. Only when she reached the water’s edge did I hear her crying. No, not crying.
She made a sound like an animal being torn apart from its limbs. She did not get far, thank God.
“My babyyy!” She hollered. Fighting to break free of the man in the white hat who had taken both her firm arms.
“Noooo, not my baby! Emma! No God, no!”
I looked over to Auntie’s grim face.
She could have been mistaken for a totem pole. I was afraid to speak; to interrupt the stranger’s pain seemed rude, but Auntie must have read my mind.
“Emma is…was their baby.” Aunt Alice swallowed hard when she said ‘baby.’ “The man you saw down there, her husband, Joseph Samuel.” I’ve known my Aunt Alice all of my life.
She obviously had some kind of affection for these folks for her to well up like this. “Joseph and Violet Samuel…and their daughter Emma.”
Lost in misery, we hardly noticed that Uncle Frank had crossed the bridge to meet us. He gave Auntie a long hug, then ushered me in to join them.
“What happened?” She whispered.
“I don’t know, hun’. Sheriff Bigly said the skid marks show Joseph drove that car clear off the bridge.” He stroked her back, gently rubbing the information in, soothing her like oil on a baby’s bottom. She let his powerful strokes sway her back and forth without resistance.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man dashing to the grieving Miss Violet. A man named Benjamin Samuel, I gathered, from the loud and thankful greeting made by Sheriff Bigly.
Must be someone close in the family, I thought. He barely grazed her arm, when she suddenly turned to see who it was.
“My baby’s dead!” she cried to him.
His long fingers got a hold of her petite arms. As he pulled her closer in, she fought with the strength of twenty slaves to be free from his grasp. But he wouldn’t let go. She kicked her feet wildly to get him off of her, but she failed. I could hear her lungs heaving hard, until her body became limp in his arms.
That moment was hard with silence.
After what seemed like forever, Auntie finally broke her trance, got into the car and turned the engine on. I nearly fell off the hood from the suddenness of her intentions. Thank goodness her headlights were already on. I grabbed the handle and swung myself into the seat.
As soon as my seatbelt ‘clicked’ she was heading out. She braked with a jerk, and then yanked the gear hard into forward. As she pulled around to get back on the road, a dust cloud gathered around the wheels. Crackling bits of dirt and gravel pricked the skin of my arm dangling out the window.
“You okay Auntie?” I asked. I wanted to touch her hand, but both were clinched with a mind to stay on the steering wheel; ten and two o’clock. So I went for the flapping short sleeve of her shirt instead.
She nodded at me with a fleeting smile.