Jasmyne K. Rogers

Her mind always seemed to make love to the possibilities of forever. Forever was tempting. Forever tiptoed and slow danced in the darkest and deepest grooves of her brain—the basement of her mind. Sometimes it would kiss her thoughts during the midnight hour when tired bodies found peace from the triumphs of a day’s life. The kiss was so faint and seductive; it always left traces of insatiable desire and a glimmer of hope. She always awaited its slight emergence. Reluctance flooded her being when the slow dance was over. She never wanted to let go. She wanted the permanence of forever. Forever was equally yoked with progression, staying alive. Hell, to Jana Tillman, the possibilities of forever birthed the power of freedom.

A light rap on her window interjected her mind’s slow dance. She opened the window and offered an infectious smile. The tall body beautifully adorned in black and blackness returned a gracious smile and climbed into the 3×3 dorm window with ease—the ease of someone who was well acquainted with the darkness that engulfed Alabama University once the streetlights ended for the night. He draped himself in black garments expeditiously in his respective dorm and treaded lightly down the concreted path that led to the girls’ dormitory. He hummed—the deep rumble of his baritone voice animated the stillness of Alabama nights. Labored breathing and the thrill of being caught visiting the girls’ dormitory after curfew incited Julian Abdul Stallworth. The cause was worth it. Jana Tillman was worth it. His heart began to beat faster and slower at the same time as the concreted path curved deeper into the darkness and aligned with the hackberry trees that swayed in the horizon. Once his feet came in contact with the broken slab of concrete, he knew his destination was near. His light tread turned into a slow-paced jog as he rounded the front of the orange-bricked building with a metal sign plastered on the side that read, “Welcome to Georgia A. Talley Dormitory.” About fifty feet after passing the front of the building, Julian veered off the concrete onto the mildewed grass. His eyes grew wide with heightened anticipation as he readied himself in mind and appearance.

The light rap at her dorm’s window was the beginning of forever.

“Ready?” Julian asked once he made it into her dorm. The warmth of Jana’s smile entranced him. She nodded.

Words were minimal as they stood in the space next to the small window. Julian silently admired Jana’s splendor. Her hair was long and flowing and blessed the small of her back. Her smile was so infectious, so natural. It illuminated the fall night. Julian was certain it had brighten many-a-days, hearts, and worlds of people who were damned lucky to have Jana Tillman in their life.

They stood in silence for mere seconds but their minds engaged and intertwined in dialogue that would have lost all incredibility if verbalization was attempted. They both knew that and nodded simultaneously.

“Well, let’s go, Miss Tillman.”

They climbed out of the small window and trekked to Denver Avenue. The wind began to blow fiercely as they walked past the old shoe shop where Mr. Buddy Bop and Mr. Sonny harmonized ditties while they shined the shoes and hearts of many.

The menfolk from Denver Avenue would simply go there to sing, vent, dance, philosophize, and interact with each other. Their lives were similar. The struggle was similar. The constant gatherings produced hope, rallies, and good times.

“My grandfather used to come and get his shoes shined every Thursday,” Jana reminisced.  “He would leave the factory over in Montgomery County and go straight to the shoe shop. As I think about it now, he never came home with his boots freshly shined. They always looked worn and dusty as ever,” Jana gave a light-hearted chuckle.

“He probably went there for the release and acceptance.”

“Acceptance?” Jana asked quizzically.

“He was able to be himself there—his true self. In this world, black men have to be armed at all times. We have to be armed mentally, emotionally, and physically. It’s like holding your breath and trying to stay alive while doing so. The shoe shop was his oxygen. He could breathe there. He could be there,” Julian explained with the precise clarity of someone who had been in attendance at the old shoe shop in its heyday.

Sons and Brothers Shoe Shop made Denver Avenue come to life, especially on Thursday evenings. The Thursday men would bustle about and gather in pure delight at the compacted, wooden building on the corner that housed the shoe shop. Mr. Buddy Bop and Mr. Sonny Sanders, who were brothers, owned the shoe shop and would harmonize and sing ditties on a regular. The men would cackle heartily and loud, baritone voices filled the small building. Thursday was the day when the menfolk could be themselves. They could kick back in the metal parlor chairs and watch as the Lincoln Black brought their tattered shoes back to life. The conversations brought the men back to life. It was a glimmer of hope. They were all a part of the same struggle, the same goal—staying black and alive in the south. If not any other day of the week, they knew on Thursdays that they would be free. That glimpse, slight emergence of freedom, kept them going.

Jana’s eyes welled with stubborn tears as she looked at the now dilapidated building that had brightened so many lives. The windows were covered with ply boards and a sign hung crookedly on a single, rusted nail: “Closed. Be back soon.”

The brothers never returned to the shoe shop after the war in 1975. Something happened. Something changed. They were different after returning back from the draft. No more harmonizing. Everything was offset. Mr. Buddy Bop pounded the concrete and mumbled to himself. Mr. Sonny was always on edge every time he heard strange noises. Their psychological states paralyzed the revelry that took place at the shoe shop. Everything grew still. The stillness grew into evanescence.

Julian grabbed Jana’s left hand once he saw her bright eyes well up with tears. She welcomed the gesture. They slowed their pace as they admired what Denver Avenue used to be. The scattered cherry oak trees swayed and danced a slow groove as they passed.

“The trees rejoice and dance in the presence of our present,” Jana smiled.

“The ancestors approve,” Julian finished.

An unfamiliar feeling, a brewing emotion, began to stir in Jana. She had never experienced such a thing. She studied Julian in his silence. He carried the subtle confidence of a warrior. He was meticulous, intelligent, and respectful. More importantly, he was sound and unafraid. That thrilled Jana. The sight of his strong fingers interlocked with hers produced a surge of energy that was physically inexpressible. Her mind attempted to decipher it, but her soul knew. It was familiar there.

“What happened here?” Julian pointed at another building that was a mile down from the old shoe shop.

“Sit-ins, rent parties, gatherings, you name it. Everyone loved Cherrytop Café.” Jana closed her eyes and remembered a time when the pungent smell of good soul cookin’ pervaded the streets. She was about seven years old when Cherrytop was in its prime. Her grandmother, Ms. Carol Mae, tipped tapped in her strapped heels down the sidewalk with little Jana in tow.  She would often slow down and speak to the other womenfolk and ask them about their wellbeing, the “goings-on” around Lowndes County, and to make sure they come on down to Cherrytop. She would be frying her famous catfish.

Jana loved going to Cherrytop with her grandmother. Her grandmother would grab her brown apron patterned with sunflowers and walk through the swing doors to the kitchen area. Jana would make herself comfortable at one of the rotating chairs at the counter space. On Fridays, the people would swarm into the café for Ms. Carol Mae’s southern fried catfish and hushpuppies. Jana would read her lesson books and look up at her grandmother ever so often.

She smiled at the sight.

Her grandmother would softly sway left and right as she cleaned the fish that was fresh from Turner’s pond. Soon, she would start singing an old doo-wop, Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me.” After the large quantities of fish were cleaned, Carol Mae lit the gas stove and placed the black caste iron skillet with grease atop the awaiting flames. She would then snap her fingers—rhythmically in tuned with her hips swaying.

Once her grandmother got going, other people would join in. Ms. Betty Lee would give a wide-toothed smile as she took orders from hungry bodies and souls. All the while, she would bob her head rhythmically to the music effortlessly escaping the souls of the folks at Cherrytop. The menfolk there would accompany Ms. Carol Mae’s soft, angelic voice with the deep rumbles of their baritone pitches.

The music filled the room; each note, finger snap, sway, and head bob was important. It was important in that moment, but also for the souls of folk who only experienced music within the four, powder-yellow wallpapered walls of Cherrytop Café.

The music gave light. The music fostered a glimmer of hope. The café fed people, literally and figuratively. It kept them alive until it closed its bright green, roll-down doors forever in the winter of 1976.

Now, thirteen years later, the café rests in shambles. The only physical proof of its existence was a faded menu that laid on the tattered entrance step.

“It should have lasted. It should have stayed forever,” Jana said softly.

“What should have stayed forever?” Julian asked inquisitively as they left the ruined site.

Jana shifted her eyes and drew a long breath.

“The music. The music should have lasted forever. Look at Denver Avenue now; it’s abandoned and rundown. Everything is in shambles.”

Julian looked Jana squarely in the eyes.

“Are you in shambles, Jana?”

The question was direct and simple in language, yet complicated in nature.

“Not in shambles, per se. But I always feel like I’m searching for something that’s unattainable.”

“You’re searching for forever,” Julian said matter-of-factly. Jana’s eyes glistened over with tears. Julian, only twenty-two, a senior at Alabama University, read the depths of her silence like he had known her the full twenty years of her life. They had tap-danced around each other at the university; they attended the same events and even had mutual friends. A year had passed before they physically spoke to each other. Everything happened gradually, but consistently. Julian had lightly tapped and invaded her mind long before he even begun to tap on her dorm’s window five Friday nights ago. They would venture to Denver Avenue every Friday night to sightsee and philosophize.

“I often wonder if the pursuit is in vain,” Jana shrugged as they arrived at what used to be Miller Ferry’s Park.

Julian opened the creaking gate and they walked in.

They found a spot on the wooden bench near an old wood-stained podium. Julian grabbed both of Jana’s hands and looked her directly in the eyes.

“You are the music. You are an extension of Denver Avenue. You were born and raised here. The good times that took place at the old shoe shop is evident in your hearty laugh. The fight for freedom is still alive in your eyes. The music,” Julian offered Jana a warm smile. “The music lives forever in your soul.”

Jana smiled and caressed the side of Julian’s face with her petite hand. He held her hand and kissed her passionately. In that moment, Jana knew that the possibility of forever was embedded in that kiss—the uniting of black souls.

“Let’s dance,” she whispered.

“Right now?”

“Yes, right here. Right now,” Jana grabbed his hand and led him to a small platform near an assorted row of Bradford Pears. Julian happily obliged and wrapped his hands around Jana’s small, yet curvy frame.

They danced a slow groove amongst the trees.

Their bodies spun and swayed as their minds engaged and intertwined in a metaphorical slow dance all its own. This was ascension.

Jana Tillman felt herself getting lighter and rising higher as their bodies meshed into one.

The trees danced and rejoiced in the presence of their present. The memories of a vivacious and thriving Denver Avenue came alive; Mr. Buddy Bop and Mr. Sonny were harmonizing as Ms. Carol Mae’s voice sweetly serenaded the new couple.

They smiled and looked up at the sky in unison. Their music gave light. The ancestors approved. Forever had emerged. Black souls were in flight.