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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.


The doctor didn't understand. With Mary Lee in the hospital, how would her lovely people survive? Her mother and grandsons, her daughter and brother? Her cows? She couldn't leave them to fend for themselves.

Then, days after the diagnosis, God visited her in a dream and told her to do what the doctor said. She obeyed. She endured the surgery. Dreams are law with Mary Lee. Dreams never lie.

And yet, dreams don't keep her from worrying. She fears the operation was a failure because her stomach feels tender, especially when she giggles. She tries not to giggle, but she might as well try not to breathe. Next time everyone gathers in Pleasant Grove, it will be Mary Lee who crossed over, she feels sure.

Betty doesn't help.

'T-nanny,' Betty says, using a nickname Mary Lee has had her whole life, 'I'm afraid to love you how much I love you because everyone I love ups and dies.'

'Then get on away from me, girl,' Mary Lee says, giggling, wincing. 'I ain't ready to die.'

As the funeral ends, people drift outside to the graveyard, set on a hill circled by scrub pines that sway in the wind like Mary Lee when she sings. Here lies her husband, Rubin, who died seven years ago, though being dead didn't stop him from visiting Mary Lee when she was in the hospital having her kidney out. He stood over her bed and they had a sweet visit, because he couldn't beat her anymore.

Mary Lee misses Rubin but not those beatings. Once, during a lull in the violence, Mary Lee dreamed that Rubin would apologize for every time he slapped her, every time he punched her, even the time he chased her with a shotgun, a scene that brought Sheriff Lummie to the house. He would even apologize for the time he hurled a butcher knife at her. 'If I hadn't got behind the tree, I'd got it,' she says. 'The knife stuck right in that tree.'

In the morning, when Rubin refused to apologize as he did in the dream, Mary Lee took $35 of Pleasant Grove money ('I placed it back later') and bought a bus ticket to New York City, the farthest she ever got from Gee's Bend.

Standing outside the Manhattan bus depot--threadbare coat, innocent smile--she was easy prey. Men fluttered around her like moths. At last, a cabdriver spotted her and pulled over. She gave him the address of a brother in the Bronx, then leaned forward, her face in the front seat.

'Sit back,' the driver said, angry. 'Relax!'

'I don't know how to relax,' she said.

New York was magic. She got a job, made friends, went to a Harlem dance club and pretended to be drunk, so as not to stand out. But the Hudson wasn't Alabama, and after a month she missed Gee's Bend in her bones. When Wisdom wrote that it was time to come home, she agreed.

And when she did, Rubin apologized.

Just as she dreamed he would.

Right after he died, Rubin visited Mary Lee, and he was mighty sore. He came to her in the middle of the night and ordered her not to sleep in their bed anymore, out of respect. Then he lay down beside her, draped a heavy arm over her hip, and they slept together one last time in the bed they'd shared for 36 years.

When the sun rose, he stood and walked out the door, dissolving into the white light. 'And I ain't never had no more trouble from him again,' Mary Lee says.

Every night since, she's slept in her spare bedroom, honoring a difficult husband's last request. Rubin was a hard man to love, but she 'loved him harder than anybody.' Besides, he wasn't the only man who beat Mary Lee. Every man in her life raised a hand to her in anger. Wisdom didn't hesitate when she disobeyed. Wisdom's uncle, Isom, whipped her soundly when she was young, for being willful. A blind former slave, Isom didn't understand that a girl born beside a willful river can't help but be willful now and then.

People always ask Mary Lee about the U-shaped scar on her hairline, which bears a striking resemblance to a map of the river bend. 'When Rubin did this to me,' she says, fingering her forehead, 'that was the worst day of my life, because my face stayed swollen, and I ain't had no money to go to the doctor. I just put some home remedy thing on my face. Used to keep my hair combed to that side.'

As she got braver about showing the scar, people got bolder about staring. Every time they'd ask, she'd give them the faraway look and mumble, 'Long story.'

It's been Mary Lee's experience that, even more than death, people are terrified at the prospect of a long story.

CHAPTER SEVEN / Sometimes You Can't Cross Back

The headstones tilt this way and that, like the Earth's rotted teeth. Mary Lee eyes them as she did the photographs in the doctor's office. The cousins beneath these stones are the same ones in the photographs, born in the 1800s and early 1900s, when Benders went from slaves to sharecroppers, and barely noticed a difference.

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