Photo by David W. Burns
Her porch broom, with its frayed straw bottom and worn handle, swept up the street rubble the young men of the neighborhood carried in their shoes up to her front stoop every single day. Bits of glass and ash from charred buildings sat in her dustpan and every morning she’d empty into her garbage bag before sending it out to the street again. Hattie gripped her broom tight with her kitchen hands after mixing butter with sugar and flour then baking into love, for the boys of the neighborhood. In the corner of her front porch was a tiny iron table proudly holding dessert plates, blue glass with tuliped edges matching a hand painted sign.
“Love one another, as I have loved you.” John 13:35
Hattie had lived on Mace street on the east side of Detroit since 1951 when she became a wife, then a mother, then a grandmother and then a widow. Everyday she would wait for Charles to lean against the tree across from her house. The tree had stood for nearly four decades now, heaving its sidewalk into cracked puzzle pieces jutting towards the heavens. Behind it stood the skeletal remains of her old friend Lavita’s house. Left empty and abandoned, stripped of its copper by boys, then its metal by by men and burned through to its foundation by boredom.
Charles had been a gangly child, like his father, tall and thin with a long face that rarely smiled. His father, a hustler too, working odd jobs around the neighborhood fixing cars or fences until one day, Charles Sr. was gone. He left Jr. behind with a neighbor from the church who did her best to raise him up ‘til all the praying didn’t matter anymore.’
From the south, a frosted ivory four door boomed its way down towards Charles. A man named Shea Wilson with a spotted face sat in the driver’s seat with one hand hanging heavy on the steering wheel. Hattie remembered Shea had grown up over on Aspen street, just across the way. She’d known of Shea’s Mama who had sang at the Doers of the Word Christmas pageant every year. Her voice, like an angel, but it brought her no peace during her hard life until too early, she was brought back to His Kingdom.
Hattie knew today would be like all the other days and Charles would get in the car with Shea, doing things God had not intended for his flock. She saw him step out from behind the tree with clothes hanging loose on his body, a dark hoodie pulled up over his head. He sat down in the passenger seat next to Shea while the words they called music shook her porch windows.
“Love one another, as I have loved you.”
Her mind drifted back to when she would proudly push her babies around this neighborhood in a white pram, a gift from her father’s congregation. The wheels would spin over smooth sidewalks, under trees that reached for a bluer sky. The neighbors would come out and coo at her baby girl with the long eyelashes and ask after her father.
“How’s Reverend Otis doing over there in Africa?”
“He’s busy spreading the good Lord’s word.”
The sun seemed to shine brighter when the houses had roofs and paint and windows. People took care. They bought pansies and mums for their porches. They baked cakes for neighbors and cleaned their churches every Saturday. They had jobs. They remembered their Savior Jesus Christ and took care of one another.
Shea and Charles would circle the block, then, as if Charles lived in the beaten old house behind the tree, Shea dropping him off in front of the old elm across from Hattie’s house.
“Charles, hey Charles,” she yelled as soon as he stepped out of Shea’s car.
His shoulders dropped while he stuffed his hands in his deep pockets.
“Charles, come on over here, I got something for ya.”
He pulled up his sagging pants and walked over with fixed eyes on his feet, one after the other. White sneakers against heaving dark asphalt.
“Charles,” she yelled, hands on the broom to help support her aging weight. “I just baked a pie and I know cherry is your favorite. How about you come on up here on this porch and have a slice with me.”
“Thank you Miss Hattie but I got things to do.”
“Charles, don’t you dare, you got nothing good to do right now and a boy your age needs some food. Now you come on up here and eat a slice of Miss Hattie’s pie.”
“I don’t have time Miss Hattie. I don’t have time.”
“You got all the time son. It’s me that don’t.”
His lids were heavy from not knowing nothing of the good Lord’s love. He took her porch steps two at a time and sat stiff in one of her red plastic chairs.
“Now you set those plates out right there on that table Charles and stay put.”
Hattie shuffled across her worn shag carpet, threadbare by the door until her feet padded onto linoleum in her sky blue kitchen the congregation painted for her just last year. There cooling on the table, sat her cherry pie with a basket top crust. Still warm to the touch. She picked it up, feeling the heat spread across her stiff fingers as she made her way back to the outside world.
“Now you slice that up Charles. Big pieces too. You’re still growing if I’m not mistaken. What are you, about nineteen now?”
“Yes ma’am.” He cut the pie into fourths and paused, needing something more.
“That looks about right son, let’s dish this up before she cools too much.”
“Yes ma’am,” he said again before he picked up the large piece of pie, folding and breaking on the edges until finally tamed onto one of her dainty blue glass plates.
“Now Charles, thank the good Lord for providing for us today. Just something so he knows you’re still down here, needing his love.”
With his fork in his hand, he mumbled under his breath a quick, “thank you Jesus,” before digging in. The two of them sat on her tidy porch, listening to the chicadees while they ate up a buttery crust around sweet tart cherries.
When he finished, he stood to leave. She heard a mumbled, “thank you” before he turned to head off to whatever God did not intend of his flock. He paused at the edge of the porch, just for a quick moment, then reached down and took the trash bag. He tossed it in her garbage can on his way to the sidewalk, and the rubble, and the dark asphalt.
“Love one another as I have loved you.”