Chapter 9

 

On the first Friday of June 1967, a month after we had moved to the old Lowder Farm, Roper appeared on the sidewalk in front of the bank. A tall, handsome young black man, he appeared dignified in spite of his clothes, overworn and limp from the day’s humidity. He had arrived by bus early that morning from Gadsden, Alabama, and had already combed the crumbly streets of Eastside, inquiring about work and about housing for his family. He learned that Eastside was the only black housing community, the Keeping family owned all the houses there, and in some cases, Mr. Keeping negotiated lower rent for construction labor. The best way to reach Mr. Keeping was through the bank.

Roper wouldn’t enter the bank. His shirt, the only dress shirt he owned, showed years of wear by its missing front pocket and a collar fraying loose in the back; his pants, newer, had suffered a tear from a loose strip of metal on the armrest on the bus. But mostly, he wanted to respect any racial norms in Stony Gap having to do with blacks entering particular places of business, especially any norms that were understood by the community but not expressed verbally with signage. He waited by the entrance for someone who might be kind enough to direct him to Mr. Keeping.

That person was Dotty Furr, vivacious and talkative, the director of the Uwharrie County Department of Social Services, who approached the bank and smiled at Roper cordially, the first person outside of Eastside to do so.

Roper returned the smile.

“Excuse me, miss,” he said, politely. “I don’t mean to bother you, but I was wondering if you might be able to tell me how I could speak with a Mr. Keeping.”

Dotty noticed right away Roper’s consideration and kind nature, and responded in her own friendly and forthright way.

“You come right this way, mister.” She opened the door to the bank and held it for Roper to enter. “I know him well and I can take you right to him.”

Roper politely resisted.

“Miss, with all respect, I think I should wait out here,” he said.

“Don’t be silly. They let coloreds in here all the time.”

“It’s just that I don’t have proper banking business in there. And I’m certainly not dressed for a bank.”

“What kind of business brings you to Mr. Keeping?”

“I’m new in these parts and looking for a place to stay.”

“Then your business is as proper as anyone’s, and you look just fine.” She stepped around the door to lead the way. “You ought to see some of the white people who come in here,” she said under her breath. “They look like they’ve come straight from their sties!”

She cast a convincing smile. Roper smiled back at her. He nodded gratefully, then stepped toward the door, reaching over Dotty to hold it for her as she finished walking through ahead of him. He followed her into the bank.

Dad was in his office on the second floor, and he rose from behind his desk when Dotty bounded in.

“Dotty!” he said, greeting her.

“Ray, you got a minute?”

“Of course,” he said as he came out from behind his desk.

“This young man needs to speak with you.” She turned to Roper. “This is Mr. Ray Keeping. And I’m sorry, but I didn’t get your name.”

“Roper. I’m Roper Watkins.”

“He’s new in town, Ray, and he needs a place to stay,” she said matter-of-factly. “And he asked for you by name.”

“Delighted to help,” said Dad in the manner customary to his role at the bank.

“Mind if I leave him in your fine care?” said Dotty. And then, without an answer, she turned to Roper and said under her breath, “I’m leaving you in fine care.” Then she excused herself. “If you gentlemen will pardon me, I’ll just go back downstairs and make my deposit.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Roper said as Dotty turned to leave. “I surely do thank you.”

“Well, it’s my pleasure. And welcome to Stony Gap, Mr. Watkins.”

There was an awkward moment when Roper declined Dad’s invitation to sit down. But Dad insisted politely, and Roper obligingly sat upright on the edge of one of the two guest chairs facing his desk.

“So, what can I do for you today, Mr. Watkins?”

“Well, Mr. Keeping,” Roper began, cautiously but enthusiastically, “I was over in the colored section earlier, and I was told that a good tenant and a good worker should come see you about a place to stay.”

“I see,” said Dad. “Well, I hate to disappoint you, but I’m the wrong Mr. Keeping. You need to see my father, Pop Keeping.”

“Oh, my goodness.” Roper rose quickly from his chair. “I’m so sorry …”

“No, no, sit. Please sit down. We’re all one family, and I’d be happy to see what I can do for you.”

 Roper sat back down on the edge of his chair and quickly continued so as not to take up too much of the wrong Mr. Keeping’s time.

“I understand that Mr. Keeping might have a place for me and my family to stay,” he said. “I’m in a steam plant down in Gadsden, Alabama, and we’re looking to get a different start. I’ve been told the mills around here have started taking on some colored workers.”

Dad liked that Roper was direct and to the point, wasting no time overcoming any personal discomfort with small talk, and he was impressed that Roper was resolutely well-mannered without being obsequious.

“Do you have any family around here?”

“No sir, none at all. My family is in Alabama.”

“And you want to work in a mill?”

“Well, I thought so, but I just heard today that Mr. Keeping might be able to put me to work for him. And I can do most anything. I’ve got a wife and a boy, and they can do most anything too. Anything, that is, that’s fitting for a wife and a boy, of course.”

Roper appeared to be in his late twenties.

“How old is your boy?” said Dad.

“Four, going on five.”

“Well now, he’s mighty young to be doing too much work, isn’t he?”

“Oh, he helps me. He always likes to help me. He’ll hold things for me and whatnot. He’s a good little boy.”

Dad liked Roper instantly. The last thing he wanted to do was send him to Pop, who would take great pleasure in ruining him with his brand of emotional punishment and bonded labor. Dad had an idea. The old Lowder Farm had been poorly tended to in the two years since Lowder’s widow had passed on; the barn and sheds needed repair, fences needed mending, and the house required small repairs to its roof and windows. My parents understood from the start the place would require ongoing maintenance, and Dad had a hunch he had just found someone who could help.

“Oh, my. Mr. Keeping, I would be honored,” said Roper, sliding so close to the edge of his chair that it tilted forward. “Honored and delighted, indeed. A real farm?”

“Well, as real a farm as a banker would have, I suppose,” Dad laughed.

The only issue was the matter of housing. Roper and his family would live in Eastside, which meant Pop would be his landlord. But Dad surmised he could intervene as needed to keep the relationship with Pop from becoming an uncomfortable one for Roper and his family.

Dad discussed the situation with Pop, who told him of a house in disrepair on the outer edge of Eastside. It had been unoccupied for several years and was hardly habitable without serious attention. A large tree branch had fallen on the roof, leaving a gaping hole, and while the branch had been removed, water damage had caused the rafters and wood flooring in that part of the house to rot. Also, the house had been pilfered; some of the metal kitchen cabinets had been removed, interior doors were missing, pieces of wallboard had been cut away, and most of the electrical wiring had been ripped out. Pop was willing to provide any materials from his various construction sites, but Roper would have to perform the repairs — structural, electrical, mechanical. Pop didn’t care what Roper did to the place; he could move in as is, for all he cared, but he had to pay his rent on time.

Dad would ensure the rent, and he was careful to arrange with Pop that Roper’s labor repairing the house would serve as his deposit.

Roper worked vigorously in the two weeks before his family arrived from Gadsden. He repaired the roof, then fixed up the kitchen and the small room next to it at the back of the house, the two rooms least affected by the damaged roof. The family would live in these rooms until he had time to finish the rest of the house; Roper and his wife, Dahlia, would sleep in the small room while his young son, Nehemiah, would sleep in the kitchen. To make this temporary arrangement acceptable to his wife, Roper created a private cubby under the kitchen counter, inside a space left by a pair of missing cabinets. He knew how much it would thrill his son.

Dad brought over a few pieces of furniture and a couple of mattresses that he and Mom had stored in the barn. Roper scoured the streets of Eastside for other discarded pieces, meeting neighbors along the way as he asked politely before taking anything.

On the day Dahlia and Nehemiah arrived, Roper walked to the bus station downtown and stood near the train tracks outside the tiny depot, a relic from Stony Gap’s passenger rail days. He waited close to the street, frequently looking in both directions, unsure from which the bus would come.

The bus arrived on a different street altogether and parked behind the depot in an empty lot visible through a small strip of trees. Dahlia, weary from the long bus ride, held Nehemiah’s hand firmly as they stepped off the bus. She stood by the bus’s side, her short, stout figure unmoved by the tugging child, and beheld her new hometown as the driver unloaded the luggage. Nehemiah, who had slept most of the way and was full of energy, could not contain his excitement, showing a fascination with everything from the size of the bus’s wheels to the oddity of the towering grain silos just down the tracks. Then he saw his father coming through the trees.

“Daddy!”

Roper ran up and pulled them both tightly into his arms. Emotional to the point of tears, Roper bent down and buried his face into the crook of Dahlia’s neck, and as he did so, she reached up and cradled the back of his head in her palm, familiar with the effects of hard work on her husband. Together they found their familiar embrace in a sequence that drew Nehemiah to hug his father’s leg, fitting them together like puzzle pieces.

After a brief moment, Roper reached down and lifted his son high into the air.

“I made a special something for you!” he said as Nehemiah giggled above him.

“What, Daddy? Whadya make me?” Nehemiah wrapped his tiny arms around his father’s head.

“I can’t wait to show you, my boy,” said Roper, lowering him down into a big hug. “I’m so happy you’re here. Gosh, I’m so happy to see you!”

He put Nehemiah down and grabbed the single large suitcase they brought with them from Gadsden.

“Ready?”

He started them on the long walk to their new home in Eastside a mile and three-quarters away.

They headed up Main Street from the depot into the heart of town, where they walked past the dime store and Oliver’s Book Shop. They slowed in front of Halpert’s Drugstore on the corner as Nehemiah gazed through its large plate glass window at people sitting at the counter on short stools drinking sodas and eating ice cream sundaes. When they came to Stevens Jewelry & Gift Shop, Roper pulled Dahlia to the display window and pointed out the diamonds he would one day buy her, eliciting her grin and playful retreat as she told him to stop being ridiculous. They stopped once for lemonade, once for Dahlia to change her shoes, and once more for Roper to stand the large suitcase on its end and sit on it while he wiped the sweat from his neck with a stained cotton handkerchief.

Once in Eastside, the small house finally came into view.  It sat at the end of a long uneven street at the edge of the community. Though appealing from a distance, as they walked closer, Dahlia began to see the worse-for-wear condition Roper had described.

When they arrived at the house, Roper’s sweat dripped into the powdered dirt as he set the suitcase down on the dusty front yard, a narrow strip of earth pocked with clumps of grass. He looked at Dahlia as she eyed the structure.

All of the exterior features, from the siding to the porch ceiling to the trim around the windows, needed repair. Dirty and thirsty for paint, the house slumped with age.

Roper circled the damp handkerchief around his face, then stuffed it into his back pocket as he jumped onto the porch. He reached down to Dahlia, who placed her plump hand in his and hefted herself up to join him.

“Welcome to our home, baby,” he said as she stood beside him.

Dahlia summoned a smile as her eyes tightened with doubtful curiosity.

“Come on up here, my man,” Roper said to Nehemiah. “I’ve got something special for you.”

Nehemiah, exhilarated by the grandness of their new home, climbed eagerly onto the porch and ran over to one of the windows. He pressed his face against it, cupping his hands around his eyes as he peaked in.

“Now, I’ve got to tell you,” Roper said to Dahlia, taking both of her hands in his, “it’s not perfect. I’ve only had time to fix up just the kitchen and one other room for right now — they’re in the back. And we’ve got a lot of work to do. But trust me, it’s going to be a fine home.”

“I trust you, honey,” she said with a tentativeness Roper understood well.

He opened the front door, and Dahlia and Nehemiah followed him into the house.

“Don’t look too close at this part,” Roper said, making his way quickly. “We’re going to walk to the back.”

No one would have been able to help themselves. As Dahlia passed through the front room, she brought her hand to her mouth and nearly broke into tears. The walls were gashed with stripes where electrical wiring had been ripped out; an empty light socket hung on a cracked wire from a low, flaking ceiling; and casing was missing around the doorway that led into the next room.

Roper moved closer and stood with one arm around her, cupping her shoulders gently to offer the tender grip that comforted her in moments like these — when he had presented her with a hardship and a promise.

“It’s alright, baby,” he said in a low voice. “We’re going to fix up this whole place and make it a fine, fine home.”

How? thought Dahlia. This hasn’t been anyone’s home in a very long time. She wondered if she could even bring herself to spend the night.

As they walked to the back of the house, they passed one of two tiny bedrooms, untouched by Roper and littered with discarded belongings from the home’s previous inhabitants. The skeleton of an old bed — a metal frame with a set of rusted springs — made the small, neat stack of building materials at the back of the room less promising than Roper had intended. A decaying rug Roper had dragged into the middle of the room sank down into what he would later tell her was a section of flooring rotted by the hole in the roof. Dahlia paused there and tried to close the door to the room, just as Roper had done on his first day in the house, but found, as Roper had, that it caught on the buckled floorboards.

Dahlia felt a slight sense of relief when Roper led them into the small kitchen. He showed her where he had hung new wallboard and how he had readied both the kitchen and the small room next to it for cold weather by tightening them against drafts from the outside. He had installed narrow pieces of base and crown molding to cover large gaps and stuffed insulation into the cracks around the windows. A propane gas stove in the kitchen would heat part of the house, and another, standing against the back wall of the small room, would heat the rest.

The small room, he explained, would serve as their bedroom for now. It was separated from the kitchen by a doorway that held not a normal interior door but a heavier exterior one with glass panes in its upper portion — a makeshift addition by a previous inhabitant. Dahlia walked through the doorway to enter the small room where she saw a mattress covered by a blanket on the floor in the corner. To her left, another door led from this room to the backyard. It contained a diamond-shaped window too high for Dahlia to see through, so she walked to the window next to it to look out. Like the front yard, the backyard was mostly barren except for a stand of weeds farther out that had grown up around an old metal propane gas tank.

“Come here, my man,” Roper said to Nehemiah. “I got something for you.”

In the kitchen, Roper went to the end of the counter, from which a towel hung draped as a curtain. He crouched down and pulled the towel back, revealing the cubby he had made for Nehemiah.

“This is your very own special place,” he said.

At first, Nehemiah didn’t understand.

“This is where you’ll sleep at night, and you can come play in here anytime you like.”

Suddenly, Nehemiah could hardly contain his joy. He flung himself into the dark cubby, landing on the mattress Roper had modified for the small area, twisting quickly to lay stiffly on his back with his arms by his side pretending he was sleep.

“Oh, boy! Close that, Daddy! Close it!”

When Roper dropped the towel, Nehemiah squealed with excitement. He swatted at the towel from inside, then his head popped out underneath it.

“Can G.I. Joe come, too?”

“Of course, he can. If you want him to!”

“Oh boy, Daddy!”

Roper stood when Dahlia came back into the kitchen. She eyed the trails of rust steaking across the white metal surfaces of the cabinets, and placed her hand against the refrigerator, whose compressor struggled loudly. Roper did his best to console her. He pointed out the house was larger than the one they’d left in Gadsden, and insisted, acquiescing to her dismay, that it was all only temporary, that he would make the house better than any they’d ever lived in. Finally, he extolled my father and the opportunity he had created for them by asking Roper to work out on the old Lowder Farm.

Roper and Dahlia accepted nothing ungratefully. The house would do for now, Dahlia conceded, and she knew Roper would do everything in his power to ensure their move to Stony Gap would bring about the meaningful and positive change they sought in their lives. They had come here for opportunity, and Dahlia admitted she was elated her husband would not have to spend his days suffocating in a mill. She would make do for the blessing he would spend his days out on the old Lowder Farm.

 

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