I thought I’d share a section from my current novel, 5th&Hope.
I’ll not tell where in the novel this scene happens, but I suspect some of my childhood friends will know exactly where Cheapside was, and its historical significance.
If you read this section, I welcome feedback – and feel free to share.
Cheapside was an innocent looking grassy spot in Lexington next to the old domed Romanesque styled courthouse made from native Greystone topped with an aged slate roof. It was surrounded by green Kentucky State government historical signs that I had grown up walking and driving past as if they were as common as tan grains of sand on a beach. But if you had been an outsider from the southern culture, and born in Southern California and you had never been exposed to the Old South, and you looked up at a pale greenish bronze of a proud Civil War general atop a horse, like Amy had that cold morning, it might have been the moment you understood the Civil War had been a reality.
Amy read the historical markers out loud, and she read them several times more as if she had not been able to fully understand the concepts from a finance text book about derivative mathematics.
“Lexington was the center of slave trading in Ky, by the late 1840’s and served as a market for selling slaves farther south. Thousands of slaves were sold at Cheapside, including children who were separated from their parents.”
“I don’t believe this,” Amy said. She walked back to inspect the first historical marker, as if she was in total disbelief.
“No,” I said. “It was quite real.”
Amy inspected the bronze statue, again, and with her mobile phone took photos and researched the Confederate General’s losing story.
“On the N.E. corner on the Fayette County Courthouse lawn stood the whipping post established in 1847 to punish slaves for such offenses as being on the streets after 7 p.m.”
“I don’t get it, maybe I’m just hormonal,” Amy said. Her mouth gapped open as she held bag her hair with hands. “He lost, but got a statue, they whipped people, to death, right here.”
“We don’t talk about it much,” I said. I looked up at the weathered bronze monument. “But when I said you’re in the south, this was what I was thinking about.”
“Why the statue to him?” Amy said. She looked at me. “Where’s the memorial to the slaves?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “A lot of senseless killing-”
It was not a romantic Civil War reenactment party where no one would die; Robert E Lee was not a soft grandpa character from a novel, and like Ulysses S. Grant, they were hard, well-trained military men. Each had done their duty. I thought their armies had done all the talking. The issue had been settled. It was about looking at you from outside of yourself to seek the truth about life. The truth about our heritage was not pleasant. For what I had been numb to though, I thought as common place from growing up here had triggered Amy’s emotions. It was not a myth.
“I have a child inside me, it would have been a slave,” Amy said. She covered her face with her hands. “I don’t understand.”
“I was emotional, first was worst,” Ruth said. She looked over at Rebecca. “The first time, my second boy was totally different.”
“I’d like to see them,” Rebecca said. She tried to smile. “It’s been a very long time.”
I acknowledged a passerby as I stood staring at the sign. And it had been a real nightmare for real sentient human beings who happened to have dark skin, and who had prayed to the same God that my grandparents prayed to. And they wondered at night sleeping on dirt floors where their Moses was. I suspected Amy had felt like I had felt, a sick feeling. It reminded me the first time I had toured the Ann Frank house. I was neither Dutch, nor European, but if I had been standing in Amsterdam in front of that house in 1943, I would have been shot dead on sight by the Nazi’s. I was not Jewish, but I was a Jewish loving American, and they had to protect the fatherland from the Jewish infestation, it was their final solution for biological purity.
If the four of us had been standing at the same street corner in Lexington, Kentucky in 1843 before the Civil War, we would have safely witnessed the unthinkable. Like a large naked man with dark skin shackled to the ground so he could not run away. Whipped with a leather belt like a dog if he had disobeyed. I had experienced that feeling from my own father until I was big enough to fight back. But I was not a captive slave would have been paraded in front of an auction crowd in all weathers, full of families holding their babies, enjoying Court Day within the Lexington town square beneath the oak and sycamore trees. Paraded like a prized bull at a stock yard. His teeth checked to prove his good health, his body examined, gawked at to determine his worth. And then the auctioneer would have asked for bids for the estates chattel. The same process had been repeated thousands, and thousands of times as the sign had read at the same quiet spot I had stood near drinking my morning coffee, with an active farmer’s market behind me, and in front of a building based on the concept that justice was blind. But those auctions had also included innocent women, infants and their terrified children, or whole families, either purchased together or separated at the same spot ten feet from where we had stood on a sandstone sidewalk near a line of oak trees.
“Are you okay?” I said. I had put my arm around Amy’s shoulders.
“I feel sick,” Amy said.
“It’ll pass,” Ruth said. “Just part of it.”
“I’m not sure,” Amy said. “I want it.”
“You can’t be serious?” Ruth said. She touched Amy on the shoulder. “That’s a life inside you.”
“Let it go, her choice,” I said. The downtown traffic whizzed past us as random souls walked across the street from the six story modern pre-cast concrete parking structure to investigate the market with full baskets of heirloom tomatoes, yellow corn and jars of local produced golden bee honey. “My hometown is full of these historical markers I forgot they even existed.”
“It reminds me of those cobblestones in Amsterdam,” Rebecca said. She walked closer. She gripped my hand. “Holocaust victims, chilling…”
“Oh yeah,” I said. I nodded. “We walked over them until finally someone told us to look down, there they were.”
“It makes me sad, this place should be sacred,” Amy said. She had re-read the historical marker for Cheapside, again and again. “This was ground zero for slavery, it’s like there are ghosts here, ghosts searching for their families.”
“You can feel them?” Ruth asked. She shook her head. She walked close to Rebecca. “As if they are with us?”
“Totally,” Amy said. She kneeled down to touch the Kentucky bluegrass.
Rebecca and Ruth stood together sharing a black coffee from the ubiquitous double-tailed mermaid that had a happy location near each and every street corner.
“Lexington was a cross roads, still is,” I said. I pointed into the cold breeze. “Down this street is Henry Clay’s estate.” I turned Amy around. “Down there, is Mary Todd Lincoln’s home, behind me, Transy where Jefferson Davis went to school. Everything intersected here, it’s just our history. I guess you take the good with the bad.”
“No, history comes alive here, take yourself there, when,” Amy said. She wiped tears from her eyes. “I can feel it, them, I can hear the whip. Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” Rebecca said. She handed the coffee cup to Ruth. “Never apologize for how you feel.”
I had grunted, and nodded in agreement. I sipped the warm coffee from a white paper cup with a plastic lid. Amy seemed more agitated, more emotional than her normal well below boil temperament, but beneath her surface I had known there boiled her passion for history. I had admired that passion when we had first met her at the LA County Library. It was in her eyes, a similar passion my grandparents had had for Christian missions.
“We forget Lincoln and Davis were born in Kentucky,” Ruth said. “They likely passed each other in the streets.”
“That would be weird,” Rebecca said.
I stared the wrong way down Main Street as I felt the whoosh as several cars passed by me. I noted a street corner from where I had taken my driver’s license test; I stared up at the grey stone and mortar courthouse that looked like it was straight out of something Ellis Bell would have described in her novel, Wuthering Heights. I wondered if Heathcliff would appear behind the dark windows set below a series of triangle arches.
“When I was a young man, not far from here,” I said. “I used to drive down the same road, Old Frankfort Pike that Abraham Lincoln used to take a horse and buggy out to visit with his father-in-law who owned a hemp factory, for rope, not dope.”
“You don’t understand,” Amy said. She pulled one of my grandfather’s leather diaries out from her bag. “I didn’t understand. I feel stupid.” She sat down on a black painted rolled steel park bench set between oak trees surrounded by blooming chrysanthemums. She adjusted her reading glasses; she pushed them back up against her eyes. “He wrote about this, again, and again, I just missed it. I didn’t’ understand what he was saying.” She had marked numerous sections from his diaries. She began to read as she pressed the pages down with her fingers to keep them from blowing over.
“Went to Lexington, saw Negros, sad day. Don’t understand.”
Amy turned the page to another section within his diary that she had marked it with a paper receipt for chewing gum.
“They shot a black man, dead. I don’t understand. Violence. They do the same thing in California. Read from the monthly news we get from LA. Why? Where is God?”
Amy pushed the diary back into her bag. She pulled out another old diary. She had marked several pages with a variety of papers slips, sticky tags, or even a Kleenex tissue.
“Killed ML, why? The violence, why? I don’t understand. How can I protect my children? I prayed. Where is God? Are we in end times? Hazel agrees. We must trust God.”
“He wrote, he and your grandmother would talk about it,” Amy said. She paused as she took in an exaggerated breath. “He wrote about his time, I just didn’t understand what he was saying. I’m a historian, and I missed what he was saying. I am so stupid.”
My sister clutched the white coffee cup within her hands. She glanced at me as she walked over and then she handed the warm cup back to Rebecca who had followed her. She sat down next to Amy as a car full of children in the back seat parked behind them. The cars brakes squeaked loud enough I would have sent Wylie over to administer emergency repairs.
“You’re not stupid,” Ruth said. She hugged Amy. She shook her head. “We allow stupid. My grandfather, my grandparents, they were kind people. I miss them every day. But they had made their choices, they lived the life they chose.”
“It didn’t occur to me,” Amy said. She stared at her cowboy boots. She sniffled. “He was angry, but helpless.”
“No,” Ruth said. She closed her eyes as she hugged Amy. “He, they, were not helpless. They told the truth, but nobody wanted to listen to them. Nothing has changed.”