It was the winter of 1856, the winter wind whipped down the city’s main business street as though its mission were to cause chaos and reek havoc. As with most main streets of a burgeoning working class city, less than one generation removed from farm work, the streets of Covington, Kentucky came alive with the rising of the sun. Thanksgiving was less than a week away and many were beginning to prepare for the coming holiday season which did not end until well into the new year. The conversations that took place during this early morning race were as brisk as the wind that cut through the air; the earnest determination muffled by the hooves of the horses clopping atop cobble-stoned pavement. The bell affixed to the top of the entryway announced the arrival of a smartly dressed woman after she scurried across the street, entering Paul Lee Duke’s Dry Food/Supply Store on the corner of Pike and Madison Avenue.
“A fine morning to you, Ms. Siders.” Paul Lee Duke greeted his first customer of the morning. Relocating his father’s business to a city on the southern side of the Ohio River, directly across from Cincinnati shortly after his death a few years ago, was starting to take its toll. His voice cracked with that burden, with a hint of residual adolescence. He ran his fingers through his red hair, tussled from the morning preparations. Despite the coldness outside, a few strands of sweat raced down his temple and his stiff white collared shirt was already beginning to wilt from the heat of the store’s fireplace.
Ms. Siders squawked, “No time to dilly dally now, my boy.” Rushing down the aisle and hastily placing items into her woven bag, her clipped tone surged through the silent store, like a hot axe chopping Cherry wood. “I have things to see and people to do.” Her stout stature was not apparent with the speed in which she wobbled through the store. Dizzyingly, she stopped, looked at Paul Lee’s confused face as if she was about to recant her last statement, but thought better of it. Holding one hand in the air, she pointed to the ceiling and changed the subject as she continued to rush down the aisles of the small store. “My cousins are in town from their farm in Richwood for the Holidays.” The frantic woman’s hands were a blur as she talked over her shoulder. “You didn’t hear this from me, but they had a slave run off not too long ago and they ‘spect that she is making her way across The Ohio and -” Just as if she had forgotten a boiling pot of chili on the stove, she threw her hands up causing her shopping satchel to fly over her shoulder and drop to the floor. She ran to the door and sticking her head out, she shouted, “Girl! Get your lazy hinny in here this very minute!”
It was then that Paul Lee looked through the store’s large bay window to see a teenaged Black girl meandering across the street. The tips of her hair were braided close to her head and barely visible under her unwashed bonnet fashioned from a blue handkerchief; her face showing trepidation and fear. This, coupled with the dress which hung from the girl’s small frame and toffee colored skin impressed upon Paul Lee that she was training to become Ms. Sider’s new house maid.
Eyes glued to the floor and hands folded in front of her tattered garb, once in the store Ms. Siders immediately began to reprimand the girl. The girl’s hands flew up to her face as if they were well trained to do so. Her yelps of apology were forced out of her mouth with every slap from the back of Ms. Siders’ hand. Feeling uncomfortable about watching the woman strike her slave, Paul Lee busied himself by straightening a stack of bagged flour in the far corner of the store. “Make yourself useful.” Ms. Siders shoved a tattered piece of paper in the girl’s hand, along with her shopping bag.
Turning to Paul Lee, she smiled and said in her most gentile southern accent “Sally Mae here will finish up while I run down the street to Good Fellows Hall for a few more things. You have a nice mornin’ Paul Lee.” The store was once again silent, as the storm that was Ms. Siders exited. Sally Mae pulled the tattered sheet of paper close to her face. Trembling, she studied the scribbled words on the list and jutted her eyes to the items on the shelf. Now with no need to busy himself; Paul Lee looked over at the girl. He walked over and took the crumpled piece of paper from the girl’s hand. “You can’t read can you?”
“Naw su’.” her eyes left the piece of paper and began examining the floor while her fingers played with the frayed ends of her dress. The bell over the front door came to life once again and Paul Lee looked up. A stout mocha skinned man entered. Contradicting the cold morning, the man was bald and hatless. His burlap overcoat falling just below his waist and his pants fashioned from similar material were a few sizes too large.
“I’s sorry sir. Didn’ mean ta be late. It’s sho’ is cold out there. Ita freeze ya jus’ a soon as the air hitcha.” Taking off his overcoat and laying it on top of a crate he paused to take in the unfamiliar eyes that had left the spot on the floor in front of her and connected with his own. The man asked, “Is there somthin’ the matta boss?” Paul Lee shoved the crumpled paper into the man’s large rough hand just before he returned to his perch behind the store’s front counter.
Paul Lee commanded, “Help this girl, L.D.,”
“Oh come on now, boss.” The bald man stared at the paper, “You know I ain’t got no learnin’.”
“Don’t sass me, boy! You have been a free man for nearly four years now. Don’t you lie and tell me that you have not yet learned to read.” Attempting to hide his smirk, Paul Lee picked up the Times Star and stuck his nose into the open newspaper. “And the next time that you are late, I’m going to have to dock you a week’s pay.” L.D. knew that it was an empty threat, but that was the way that white men spoke to their black employees.
The morning rush now subsiding, Paul Lee was glad when Mr. Jenkins bowed out of the store, a struggling artist, after he spent close to half an hour attempting to barter one of his paintings of the Ohio River for a few loafs of bread and a sack of grain. Paul Lee began to organize the rest of the day’s deliveries as he thought about the rest of his morning customers. There was Mr. and Mrs. Donaldson, the free black couple from Michigan who only shopped at white owned establishments. Then there was Henry Sales who came in to pick up his order for the Craden Estate in southern Kenton County. There were a few more customers that morning, but those were the only ones that stuck in Paul Lee’s mind as he finished loading a 70-pound bag of rice and twice as much corn-feed near the back loading area. This way, it would be easier for L.D. to pack them onto the carriage for the day’s journey on the ferry across the Ohio to deliver to the Gamble Estate. Just as he did this, a handsomely bodied figure entered the store. The customer’s skin was as dark as a moonless night; his face accentuated with high cheekbones and Paul Lee felt a bit guilty for eyeing the man’s broad chest, thinking that this specimen would get high dollar on the auction block. Standing up to greet the stranger, he being a good six inches taller.
“Good day to you, sir.” His voice melted Paul Lee’s soul as it hit his ears. “I am looking for a Mr. Lawrence Dale Johnson. Is he present this morning?” Paul Lee did not immediately answer the stranger’s question, surprised by the forcefulness of the Black man’s un-reproached command. He was also intrigued. Waiting for an answer, the stranger removed his pristinely clean bowler cap and unbuttoned his matching black over coat, showing his vest and crisply pressed white shirt buttoned to the neck. Paul Lee was hypnotized by the gentleman’s mahogany eyes and could not help but to pay close attention to the contrast in color between his gleaming white teeth and his gorgeous darkened skin.
“Well it’s ’bout time you got here!” L.D. shuffled in from the back room, breaking the awkward silence. A broad smile appeared on the stranger’s face as his eyes disconnected from Paul Lee’s and focused in on L.D. Paul Lee came around the counter to the two men, who were now in a brotherly hug.
“What is the meaning of all of this?” he asked, attempting to intimidate, but his intrigue with this stallion’s fondness for his employee kept it from escaping.
“This heya is why I was late tis mornin’ Boss. Tis here is my family,” he gestured to the stranger. At the same moment, the stranger did something that neither Paul Lee nor L.D. was expecting. The stranger stretched out his right hand, reaching for Paul Lee’s.
When the gesture wasn’t returned, the stranger continued. “I am his cousin, actually.” The stranger clarified. The man spoke with a sweet voice, a rich chocolate sound as deep as his skin. “My name is Elliott Jenkins.”
“He goin’ a be in town for a few weeks for da’ Christmas holiday, and is looking for some work while he is here.”
“On the bequest of the humorist, Mr. Mark Twain, I am here as well.” Elliot strode further into the store. “He asked me to pay his regards to one of his old friends in Cincinnati; an old Scottish man by the name of McPhee. I thought I would kill two birds with one stone and visit some of my relations over here in Kentucky at the same time. If it is not too much to ask sir, I would greatly appreciate some short term employment while I am in town.” Paul Lee’s eyes became as large as green acorns and his heart was about to leap out of his throat at the prospect of seeing Elliot once again.
“I’m sure that we can find a few things for him to get into around here,” Paul Lee said. “There are a few deliveries that need to get over to the Gamble’s and to the Shaw’s across the river. You two should leave now if you are spectin’ on catching the last ferry back across this evening.”
Not wanting to convey his admiration for Elliot’s famed connection with the great American satirist, Paul Lee turned his back to them as the bell over the door signified their departure. It was then that he turned to look through the bay window in order to get another glance of Elliott. He again felt fire burn in his soul and wanted to reach out to him and touch his dark skin. “You’ve done gone plum crazy, Paul Lee.” he whispered to the empty store. However, somewhere in the depths of his heart he knew that his mind was as clear as it had ever been before.
-Want to read the rest? Get your copy of “Chronicles of a Boy Misunderstood” by K.A. Simpson at www.bkmkpublishing.com