AMONG THE POPLARS

My name is Nanette and this is my story.

When I was eight years old, my parents bought a small house on a tiny crescent-shaped street called Magnolia Terrace, one of the many cul-de-sacs in the area. At the end of the street was a turnabout and beyond the turnabout was a footpath that led into a wooded area dense with poplar trees.

Magnolia Terrace was the tiniest street around with only 8 houses; they were all very similar, modest and affordable. Each house was painted a subtle shade and the street was lined with magnolia trees; from March through April, the graceful trees bloomed in an array of pastel colors, from luscious whites to pale yellows to deep pink and purple hues.

The residents of Magnolia Terrace were hard-working people with a great love of family, God and country. We were far from rich but we were content.

There were children in every house and our street rang with the sounds of fun and laughter. When the streetlights came on, we knew it was time to run home for dinner; there would always be tomorrow for more childhood games. For me and my friends, Magnolia Terrace was the happiest place on earth.

Our fathers all worked for the same factory about fifteen miles from home and they would take turns driving every day – two cars, four men per car. They’d leave for work at 7:00 AM and be home by 5:00 PM in time for dinner. Two or three nights each week our dads would go bowling, get together at one of the houses to play cards and attend a meeting at the “lodge”. We kids thought our dads were really spies for the FBI and the factory was just a cover because they all used a secret handshake and wore the same ring like Dick Tracy.

Sometimes when our fathers went out, our mothers would get together for sewing bees or book clubs. About once each month all our parents would get dressed up and go to the lodge for a fancy dinner and an important meeting. As usual, they never told us anything about their time at the lodge. It was grown ups only.

There was one very important rule our parents made sure we clearly understood: under no circumstances were we allowed to go beyond the turnabout and into the poplar woods. When we asked why, our parents told us the woods were private property and we would be trespassing; there would be a hefty fine to pay. This sounded very official to us and we were raised to obey the law so we never entered the woods.

Time passed very quickly for us; I was now 18 years old and a senior in high school. I had a boyfriend named Ryan; his house was diagonally across from mine and was the closest to the woods. Our parents knew we liked each other but we were never allowed to be alone. The only time we were even allowed to hold hands was at the weekend barbecues where there were lots of people around.

When our fathers went out at night and all was quiet, Ryan and I would sneak down to the footpath near the woods. We never did anything bad – just talked and made out – but it was our special time together. One night we were making out when Ryan suddenly stopped and motioned for me to be quiet. He tapped his ear and pointed into the woods; we sat very close together as silent as could be and that’s when we heard it – distant sounds we could only describe as guttural chanting.

Ryan took my hand and as quietly as possible we left the area and ran back to our houses. My mother was engrossed in her sewing, the TV on in the background, and she never heard me come in and head up to my room. Whatever Ryan and I heard in the woods frightened us both but I knew we had to find out more.

As I was drifting off to sleep, I had a weird thought: my mother was always busy at her sewing machine but I never saw any of her creations. What was she making? The next day she had a large box delivered; it had obviously been damaged during shipment and was taped up but some of the contents were visible. All I saw was what looked like white cloth and I didn’t think it was a big deal but my mother became irate and screamed at me to go back into the house. She could be very strange at times and I never knew when she would fly off the handle.

Ryan and I decided the best night to go back to the woods would be bowling night; that was Monday, four days away. We were determined to go deeper into the woods; we wanted to see and hear more but knew we had to stay out of sight. Neither one of us had any idea what to expect; it could have been a group of hippies camping in the woods. Whatever is was we hoped our questions would be answered on Monday.

The weekend dragged on. If my mother was still upset about her delivery, she didn’t say anything. On Sunday we had our usual barbecue and just as everyone was beginning to head home, my father started handing out brown packages tied with red string to all the men. My mother always used red string to secure her packages so whatever was wrapped in that brown paper had been made by my mother. I wondered how many times the same packages were handed out over the years and I never noticed. None of the men opened the packages but they seemed very happy to have gotten them.

Finally Monday evening arrived and at 8:00 PM all the men of Magnolia Terrace headed out to go bowling. When it was safe, I snuck out of my house and met Ryan at the turnabout. The crescent moon did little to light our way. We held tightly onto each other’s hands as we hesitantly entered the woods. Every few feet we would stop and listen but all was silent. About 15 feet in, we were startled by a distant glow that lit up the night sky like a rocket; the low chanting we heard the other night began and intensified to an angry rumble. Believing the revelers were blinded by the glow of what must have been a bonfire and deaf to all sounds but their own, Ryan and I felt emboldened and crept further into the woods. We now had an unobscured view and what we saw shook us to our core.

Was this a spacecraft surrounded by aliens? The luminosity of the fire was so intense, it was impossible to clearly make out shapes and sizes. Then gradually the flames diminished just enough for us to clearly see this was no spaceship but something far more horrifying in its significance: it was a blazing cross! And the creatures were no extraterrestrials: they were men, maybe as many as 25, dressed in white robes with attached capes, rope belts and pointed hoods with eye holes covering their faces.

We were transfixed. Ryan spoke to me in a barely audible voice “Nanette, I can’t believe what we’re seeing! It’s a Ku Klux Klan gathering.”

I nodded and whispered softly “I know. I saw them on the news. I’m frightened, Ryan! Why are they here so close to where we live?”

But before Ryan could answer, the chanting stopped and one man began to address the group. I gasped and buried my face in Ryan’s chest, my body quivering, and he held me tightly. When I looked up, I was crying and barely able to utter the words “That’s my father!”

“I recognize his voice, too” Ryan replied. In hushed tones he continued. “Nanette, we can’t stay here. Let’s go back to my house, slowly and as quietly as possible. Here, take my hand.”  Terrified, I held Ryan’s hand tightly as we cautiously made our way back to the clearing, never letting go of each other. Once free of the woods, we ran back to Ryan’s house and collapsed under a tree in his backyard.

For a long time we sat huddled together, saying nothing. Finally, Ryan spoke softly: “Nanette, we have to talk about this, but not now. Let’s get our thoughts together and we’ll talk during the week. I think you need to go home now and try to get some sleep.” I started to get up but Ryan held onto my arm. “Nanette, be careful. I love you.”

That was the first time Ryan said those words and I told him I loved him, too. We hugged, then I quickly walked back to my house across the street. As usual, I snuck in through the kitchen; my mother and a few other women were playing bridge and no one saw me scramble up the stairs to my room. I threw myself onto my bed and cried into my pillow. This felt like a nightmare.

From the next day on, nothing was the same but I had to act normally. I could barely look at my father let alone talk to him without feelings of anger and disgust. I was also deeply saddened. It was difficult to believe that all the fathers living on our perfect little street were members of the KKK and all the mothers supported them. The many nights they were supposedly bowling or playing cards they were really in the woods plotting and scheming and doing God knows what. And all the time my mother spent hunched over her sewing machine she was making the men’s robes and hoods! The fact that our parents were living duplicitous lives all these years made me sick to my stomach.

There was nothing Ryan and I could do and no one we could trust; the Klan hid in plain sight. Confronting our parents with what we knew about them would do no good. Ryan told me to hang on a little longer until he figured out what to do. A couple of weeks later he told me he came up with a plan. He said during Sunday’s barbecue we would tell our parents that we were in love and wanted to get married after graduation. Ryan said he would ask my father for his blessing and tell him that he wanted to work in the factory with the other men to provide a good life for me. We were sure our parents would see we were mature enough to make such a big decision and would give their blessing. Ryan told me once we were married we could leave town and never return to Magnolia Terrace.

As happy as I was with Ryan’s plan, I was filled with mixed emotions. It wouldn’t be easy leaving my parents and the only home I ever knew but I couldn’t go on turning a blind eye to the evil lives they were living. I cried for the younger kids who would be left behind but I saw no other answer; this was our only way out.

On Sunday the barbecue was in full swing when Ryan said he had an announcement to make. Everyone quieted down as he told my father about our wishes to get married and asked for his blessing. To my surprise my parents were very happy for us and my father enthusiastically patted Ryan on the back. My mother began to cry and embraced me. I was revolted by her hug but told myself I’d only have to play this charade for a little while longer.

Everyone was very happy for us and my father droned on and on about how we could build a house of our own on the plot of land right next to their house. Ryan laughed and nodded at my father’s enthusiasm and we smiled at each other across the yard knowing our plan was successful. Relief washed over me as I watched my father and Ryan walk over to the area where our future house was to be built and laughed thinking how flawlessly Ryan had pulled off his plan.

Just then my mother came out of the house carrying a bag and placed it on the ground next to my father. I looked on in disbelief as my father reached into the bag and drew out a familiar-looking brown paper package wrapped in red string and proudly handed it to Ryan. They both looked over at me with serpentine eyes as they smiled and shared a secret handshake. At that moment I knew I’d been betrayed.

NAR © 2023

DANCING ON THE BLACK KEYS

DANCING ON THE BLACK KEYS

Orlando Hightower – or “Keys” as he was known by everyone – was probably the hottest black jazz pianist since the legendary Scott Joplin. He was the real deal, on top of his game at the tender age of 17. The world was his oyster.

Times were dangerous in Harlem, New York. The year was 1923 – the United States’ era of Prohibition and racial segregation.

Orlando was born with fingers wiggling and toes tapping. He had an innate talent to play whatever popped into his head and danced out of his hands. Once he heard a tune it was carved into his memory. He created songs on his grandmother’s rickety upright as easily as someone writing a shopping list.

When Orlando was 12 his mother got a job as chief housekeeper for the Gale Family. Orlando would tag along with her, making himself useful and staying out of trouble. Mrs. Hightower kept him on a short leash knowing how easy it was for young boys to get caught up in the allure of unsavory activities. She always said Orlando was destined to be a man of noble position. A life of crime only led to the destruction of morals; once that happened you had nothing in your future except misery and a jail cell.

Moe Gale was co-owner of the world-famous Savoy Club and an extremely wealthy man. Orlando would entertain himself for hours at the Gale’s baby grand by penning original songs. One of his favorite things to do was write pieces in the pentatonic scale using only the black keys of the piano. Orlando’s talent did not go unnoticed by Moe and he was determined to have him play at The Savoy. Unlike many clubs, The Savoy had a no-discrimination policy. Moe implored Mrs. Hightower several times a week to allow Orlando to play at the club and her answer never changed: “When he’s old enough. Let him be a boy.” Moe would always ask when that would be but Orlando’s mother just shrugged saying “When I know, you’ll know.”

After almost five years of pleading with Mrs. Hightower, she finally relented and gave permission for Orlando to play at the club – on a trial basis. Moe was ecstatic; he knew a sure thing when he saw one. Moe became Orlando’s manager and kept him on the straight and narrow.

Orlando started at The Savoy as pianist with the large house band and his skills were quickly noticed by the clientele. Soon he became a member of the jazz quartet and shortly was featured as accompanist for some of the biggest singers of the day.

Finally the night arrived for the premier of Orlando’s solo performance and his career took off like a starship. Mrs. Hightower sat at the best table in the house, her face beaming with pride as she watched her son play. But the thing that brought her enormous joy was the marquee out front –

Appearing Nightly At The Savoy:
The Incomparable ‘Keys’ Hightower!”

Mrs. Hightower could now rest east knowing her job was done. Orlando had turned into an accomplished, successful and noble gentleman of high character. He made his mother proud.

NAR © 2021