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Sunday Report

Crossing Over

After 180 years of separation from their white neighbors, a stoic clan of slave descendants views a ferry as a vessel of hope--and doom.

August 22, 1999|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Surely Master Pettway attended the funerals. And if he did, he went the long way, taking the same road his caravan took into Gee's Bend, the same road Martin Luther King's caravan took, because it would be another 20 years before his son would build the first ferry ever at Gee's Bend.

Pettway knows. Better than anyone, he could tell Mary Lee the history she longs to hear. She passes him every day too, but unlike most of the dead, he keeps silent, as mute as Raymond and Aola. He just lies there, in a snake-infested copse of trees not far from Raymond's front door.

CHAPTER NINE / No Rest for the Weary

Mary Lee lifts her blouse and lets the doctor probe her stomach. He asks how she's been feeling since the surgery.

Can't laugh like I used to, she says. Also, 'I ain't been sleeping.'

In the middle of the night, her mind goes roaming like one of her cows after busting through a fence. Some nights, she gets out of bed and kneels down and begs God to bring it back. 'My mind be sometime just a-wandering,' she says. 'Sometime it don't let me finish thinking about this; it'll catch me before I finish and put me over to something else.'

Mostly, her mind explores the realm of possibility. Choices she might have made, places she might have gone. 'I just be thinking what I could did,' she says, 'instead of what I did when I did it.'

Did she do right marrying Rubin? Did she do right leaving him? Did she meet her fate, or did fate have trouble finding her here in this cobwebbed corner of creation? 'I'm thinking,' she says, 'about the friend I never had.'

Along with the past, the present weighs on her mind. Can her Chevy survive the summer? Can she survive her grandsons? Can she pay off her $15,900 surgery bill by sending the hospital $20 a month?

When she nods off, dreams are more exhausting than a full day's chores. Not long ago, she found herself on the banks of the Jordan River.

'It was a whole bunch of trash going down the river,' she says. 'And Willie Quill, he was standing down beside me, and there was some more people on the other side, and a man told Quill to tell me to go back.'

Willie Quill Pettway, first cousin to Mary Lee's mother, is a 71-year-old living landmark in Gee's Bend. His house sits near the old ferry launch, and when folks come around asking questions, Benders point in that direction and say, 'Go ask Quill.'

Dark as a waterlogged cedar tree, named after a 19th century riverboat, Quill is the best storyteller around. Seated beneath his prized portrait of King, he puts visitors in a trance by piecing together scraps of memory and facts and folklore into one tight narrative quilt.

It made sense to Mary Lee that Quill was directing traffic on the Jordan.

In her dream, she told Quill that she'd already crossed the Jordan once before, in an earlier dream, and the river was full of obstacles then too.

'It was so tungled up,' she says, 'and I was crawling, I was swimming, trying to get across. When I got midway, the water got calm, and it was just clear, you could see all the way to the bottom.'

I been across this river, she told Quill, and I know it gets calm in the middle, so I ain't afraid to cross now.

Just the same, Quill said, it ain't your time yet, T-nanny, you go on back.

With that, Mary Lee woke up, thanking God for sparing her. But wondering, who were all those people on the other side?

Something else strange about her dream: The Jordan looked a lot like the Alabama.

Is that why there was no ferry?

She smiles. Such a foolish question.

On the Jordan, she says, 'Jesus is the ferry.'

She works at her Jordan River dream, trying to 'interpretate.' Like the shore, the meaning lies just beyond her reach. She's about to make a crossing, yes. But what kind? And when? And who will cross with her? Aola? Quill? Martha Jane Pettway, the oldest Bender of all?

Born in 1898 just after white Pettways left Gee's Bend, Martha Jane was a little girl when Theodore Roosevelt became president, a grandmother by the time that other Roosevelt saved Gee's Bend. She was older than Mary Lee when the ferry disappeared, and each time she turns another year older, word goes out to Benders across the nation:

Come home, family, come home.

They hear, and they come. Hundreds gather in Martha Jane's yard to wish her well and kiss her cheek, rough and cool like the bark of an oak. Mary Lee goes next-door too, with a sweet potato pie and a heavy heart, because she wishes they would stay.

Especially the men. She hates that a drift as sure as the river's current has carried away every potential Pa-Petty, rendering Gee's Bend a matriarchy, with Martha Jane and Lucy and Betty and Mary Lee its queens. Being queen of Gee's Bend is a lonely business.

'You look like you have something you want to ask me,' the doctor says, snapping shut Mary Lee's chart.

'I want to know,' she asks, blinking, 'will I be all right?'

'You keep asking me that,' he says, annoyed.

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