Run Aways - James Michael Starr

Run Aways

 

ALABAMA MONTGOMERY ALASKA JUNEAU Arizona Phoenix Arkansas Little Rock–” Marie muttered to herself.

The school building gradually grew smaller behind her as she walked the snow-covered sidewalk downhill toward home.

Her eyes, scanning the horizon in front of her from east to west, danced overtop the smokestacks, across the tree-blanketed hills just the other side of the Ohio, ignoring as much as she could the steel mill that sprawled on the bottomland, and pretending for the moment that Crucible Steel Company didn’t completely obliterate the river from view.

“– California Sacramento Colorado Denver Connecticut Hartford–”

A pale green sedan approached down the cross street, but she never heard it, only the flat squeak of her galoshes, until a yelp, the whine of brakes, then the hiss and crunch of tires sliding across the thick snow jerked her attention toward the street. A small dust mop of fur flipped and rolled across the rutted lane, coming to rest in a puddle of slush.

Marie stood stunned, breathless, terrified. She took one step toward it when it began to move.

A small dog, it staggered to its feet and began running on three legs uphill, up 5th Street, in the direction of the tree line. Its fourth dragged behind, dangling from a twisted hip.

She dropped her schoolbooks in the snow and chased after, bounding over deep drifts that banked against the curb, ignoring the driver who stood yelling behind her.

“Ahm so sorry!” a man called out. “That yer dawg?”

“Poochie!” she yelled as she ran.

On the other side of Virginia Avenue she stopped. There the ground rose sharply toward the woods, and arrayed between her and the trees were the tar-paper shacks, black boxes inhabited by black millworkers, stovepipes puffing black smoke across the snow-covered slope.

She remembered the first time she’d seen the shanties, one hot summer Sunday when her father drove her and her brother about aimlessly, surveying the unexplored edges of town.

“Daddy. Are those all stores?” she’d asked as their car approached the ramshackle neighborhood.

“Stores?” he laughed. “Why’d they be stores, li’l girl?”

“Don’t know. All those people hangin’ around outside. And all those signs.”

On that particular sunny day the rusted metal advertising signs, nailed over cracks and holes to keep out the weather, had glinted like festive decoration. Today, against the background of stark white snow, with bare trees up the hill behind, they only seemed to proclaim more loudly the sad state of those inside.

These black men, or their fathers, had descended on the valley in the decades following Reconstruction, when towns like Lindera sprung up all over Pennsylvania, and for no other reason than to feed the furnaces of another steel mill, or, east on 68, just across the border in Ohio, to fire the kilns of another pottery. So many had escaped the South on the promise of plentiful work, only to find that was the problem. Plentiful work also drew men from Italy, Yugoslavia, Romania, and Poland. White men.

Still, as they shuddered, their little black shacks perched expectantly, looked longingly toward the warm glow of Crucible a few thousand feet below.

Now Marie’s eyes were drawn to movement near one of the houses. The dog, dragging lifeless legs behind it, was creeping toward one shack. She tried to catch up, but before she could it slithered under the side of the house.

She stepped closer, lifted a loose flap of fabric hanging over the crawl space, and called out in a whisper.

“Poochie,” she said, peering underneath. She heard rustling, but everything was dark.

She stood for a moment, then went back around to a set of rickety wooden stairs–three loosely nailed boards and a handrail leaning to one side–that seemed to mark the front of the house.

Daring not to step on them for fear they would not hold her weight, she stood in the snow at the bottom of the steps and knocked gently on the railing.

“Hello?” she called out softly.

The cracked and weathered door creaked open a few inches, just enough for the face of a young girl to appear.

“What you want?”

“Is that your dog?” Marie asked. “Is that your little dog under the house?”

“Who you?” the girl responded, pushing her head out a little further and looking around on the snow-covered ground around Marie. “What dog?”

“I’m Marie,” she answered. “There’s a little dog. He just got hit by a car. I saw it happen, over by the school. I think he has a broken leg. He’s under your house. Can you come look?”

The door closed, leaving Marie standing at the bottom of the steps, bewildered.

In a moment the door opened again, and the girl came out wearing a threadbare cloth coat and a man’s rubber boots. She pulled the door shut behind her, and holding onto the railing, climbed carefully down the steps. She followed Marie around to the side of the house where the dog had disappeared. There she knelt down in the snow.

“Jesse!” the girl called through the cloth flap. “Jesse! Come on outta there!”

Whimpering, the dog dragged itself up to the opening on two front legs to poke its head partway through the flap. The girl grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and lifted it the rest of the way out.

Now both hind legs swung limply.

“Aw, you be fine,” the girl whispered. “We fix you right up.”

She cradled the dog gently in her arms. Passing Marie, she motioned toward the steps and the door, her head bowed to hide her tears.

“I’m Louise. You come on in,” she sniffed.

Marie hesitated again at the steps, but then climbed slowly up and stepped through the threshold into the darkness.

Inside, the girl stood holding the dog tightly, and once Marie was through, pushed the door shut behind her.

The only light came through glaring white slits in the walls. Marie sensed others in the room, but snow-blind, hesitated to look around. She could only stare at where she knew the injured dog lay cradled in the girl’s arms.

Louise cleared her throat.

“This white girl jus’ saw Jesse get rund over,” she announced to the room.

“Jesse! Aw, Jesse,” came young voices from the darkness, and suddenly the two were surrounded by several small children, tenderly touching the dog and cooing.

“Aw, hell. Why’d you bring dat damn dog back up here?” a deep, gravelly voice asked from one corner. “If it got rund over, you shoulda jes let it die. Insteada bringin’ it back up here to eat our food.”

“I…I didn’t,” Marie stammered. “I didn’t bring him. He ran up here. I just followed him.”

“She,” Louise corrected her.

“Oh, sorry,” Marie said. “She.”

“Don’ make no damn differnce,” the voice grumbled. “Dat dog got to go.”

Marie’s eyes were now able to take in the darkened interior, and she scanned the room.

In the middle of one short wall stood a coal stove, surrounded by small scraps of lumber in piles. Beside the stove an old woman with glazed eyes rocked in a chair, running a thumb forward and back along the arm. Marie saw the small children standing beside Louise, and behind them, a water pump where it came up through a hole in the floor, all around it spread damp newspapers. Finally her eyes came to the man, sprawled on a tattered mattress, nothing between his grimy work clothes and the bare ticking. His black skin showed through holes in grayed socks,

“No, she be a’right, Daddy,” Louise said. “We fix her up. She not so bad.”

“She’s very strong,” Marie whispered to the girl.

“Now looky here. We got to kill dat dog,” he said. “You c’n see it from here dat hip’s broke. We got to kill it. Dat or we goin’ put it ou’side for da yoties ta eat. One or d’utha.”

“Aw, no, daddy, please don’t,” the girl pleaded.

“It’s jes another mout’ to feed, Louise. We don’ need dat,” he growled. “I told you a hunnert times a’ready.”

“I’d take her home,” Marie said, looking at the man.

He shook his head.

“Naw,” he said, sitting up. “Den she be crawlin’ right back up here da nes’ day,” he said. “She a runner. Dat why we name her Jesse. You don’ un’erstan’, girl, is in her nature. Dat one there, she be feedin’ and lovin’ on dat dog constant, and she still run. Don’ matter how good you be to it, she jus’ a dumb houn’. Be wanderin’ all over town. Screwin’ an’ eatin,’ da’s all she know.”

He reached under the bed, pulled out a work boot and threw it. Louise swung the dog clear, and it landed with a thump.

“Ow, daddy,” a voice said softly.

“Please let me take her home,” Marie begged. “ I promise I won’t let her come back. I can keep her in the cellar. She won’t get out.”

Her eyes locked with Louise, and their heads began to nod together in an instant pact to save the little animal.

“You bes’ git on outta here, girl,” the man growled, sitting up and fishing around beneath his bed to pull out the other boot. “Dis ain’t nunna yo’ b’iness. Jes git on home now.”

He put on the one boot and stood up, and Marie backed toward the door but reached out for the dog.

“I say git on outta here now,” he roared, and stepped between the two girls. “Gimme my shoe,” he said to one of the other children, “And gimme my shovel.”

“Please, sir. You don’t have to bother yourself at all,” Marie pleaded again, as he leaned on the shovel to pull on his other boot. “Just let me take her home with me.”

He inhaled deeply, stood to his full height, and motioned toward the door with the flat blade of the shovel.

“Now git on home,” he said, in a deep and solemn tone.

Then he turned quickly and grabbed the dog from his daughter’s hands.

“I know you ain’t wantin’ ta see dis,” he said.

The two girls shrieked as he stepped toward the door with the shovel, the dog hanging from his other hand by the ears. They followed him through the door, Marie crying, one hand over her mouth.

At the bottom of the steps he tossed the dog onto the snow and turned back toward the door.

“Git on, now,” he said to Marie. “Git.”

The dog whimpered and raised itself on front legs, trying to crawl away. As the man lifted the blade of the shovel straight overhead like a guillotine, Marie leapt from the top step to land on her hands and knees in the snow. She leaned in and snatched the dog out from under him.

“Shit!” he yelled as she ran away with the dog cradled in her arms. “Gimme back dat dog! Girl!”

Marie ran back down the slope to the middle of the street and kept running until she was on Fifth once more. Panting and looking back toward the shanties, she slowed to a walk and returned to where she’d dropped her books.

There she knelt in the snow, and unfolding her arms, gently spread the dog out atop her books. It lay motionless.

She sat back on her heels, and looking to the other side of the valley once again, saw that the shadows had crept up from the river to nearly cover the hills. Only a sliver across the topmost trees remained a glowing amber.

Marie looked down at the dog and laid one hand on it, flat and cold. She felt one raspy breath escape the body, then turned back to look up into the woods above the tar-paper shacks behind her, to the sound of a coyote baying from the shadows.

(Photo:)
Possibly related to typical frame house on hilly shore of Ohio River, Hamilton, Ohio
December, 1935
Carl Mydans, photographer
Library of Congress, Farm Security Administration, Office of War Information

 

 

  

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3 Replies to “Run Aways”

    1. Thanks, Rodg. Be sure to let me know of any glaring inaccuracies you see. It’s fiction, so I can’t afford to stick TOO close to the truth, but there are certain details I want to get right, and you might be one who would recognize such things.

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