The Last Empty Seat
by Ron Van Sweringen
Annie Potts took the last empty seat at the rear of the bus near the exit door. Her large straw hat with a sunflower on it flopped down over her brown face when she sat down, knocking her sun glasses off. She heard an instant giggle from the person sitting next to her.
“Was it that funny?” she said with an edge in her voice, turning toward the giggling stranger.
“Sorry, ma’am.” came the quick reply in a soft voice from a young black woman, wearing a red and white polka-dot bandanna tied around her head. Not exactly the height of fashion, for 1947, even in Gator Bayou, Louisiana.
Annie took a long look at the girl. She guessed her to be about eighteen and, though not pretty, her face was interesting. The eyes were very large, refusing to be ignored. Her lips were thick and definitely wearing the wrong color lipstick. The red was too bright and trashy-looking. A soft shade of pink would have suited her better, considering her condition and the size of her belly. A baby might come popping out of her the next time this bus hits a bump, Annie thought with a shudder.
“I’m Miss Annie Potts,” she said, looking the girl straight in the eyes, “and who might you be?”
This time the voice was stronger. “I’m Lothina Jones,” was the reply, along with a respectful nod of the head and an outstretched hand.
“Pleasure to meet you,” Annie replied. The girl’s hand was thin and easily returned Annie’s firm grip.
“You have a good handshake; that’s a sign of character.” Annie smiled at Lothina. Her smile was returned a moment later, along with a question. “What does that mean, that last word you said?”
“Character?” Annie replied, not knowing exactly what to say next and deciding it was better not to say anything and leave well enough alone. A few minutes later the bus driver’s voice called out in sing-song rhythm, “Milford Crossing, everybody off.”
When the bus full of black folks had emptied, Annie stood up and waited to see if Lothina needed any help. The girl’s stomach appeared even larger when she finally was able to stand up.
“Lord have mercy,” Annie exclaimed, “how many you got in there, child?”
“More than one,” she replied, trying to straighten her back. “Could be three.”
It was nearly four o’clock on that hot August afternoon when the dusty yellow bus pulled away from the two women, leaving them alone at the edge of a large cotton field. Annie Potts lived half a mile away on a sloping bank of the Canawata River. The coffee-colored water drifted by less than twenty feet from her cabin.
“I’ll be getting along now,” Annie said, wiping her face in the heat. “Who’s coming to get you?”
“Nobody,” was the slow answer.
“Nobody!” Annie repeated, peering over her sunglasses. “What do you mean, nobody?”
“I ain’t got nobody. My pa put me out. He paid the bus driver a dollar and told him to take me as far as he could.”
“Oh, Lord,” Annie moaned, taking Lothina’s arm.
“Girl, I guess this is where you learn the meaning of that word you asked me about back there.”
* * *
The half-mile walk to Annie’s cabin took an hour because of stops at every shady spot for Lothina to catch her breath. Annie prayed hard that the girl would not drop down in the dusty road and begin labor. “Lord, spare me that,” she said. “My old heart couldn’t take it.”
A stiff breeze had come up by the time Annie caught sight of her cabin in the distance. The cool air was a Godsend and made breathing easier, but it also carried the pungent smell of an approaching storm. Deep rolling thunder in the distance caused the girl’s eyes to open wide with fear.
“Don’t give up now, child,” Annie encouraged, tightening the grip on her arm. “We’re almost there.”
Lightning split the blackening sky a few minutes later when Annie threw the cabin door open. Lothina was breathing heavily and barely able to walk, sinking down on the bed. She began shivering, and Annie quickly pulled an old quilt over her. Rain beat against the window panes of the small cabin, and the oak trees overhead creaked with the force of the wind.
Annie lit two kerosene lamps in the darkening room. The warm glowing light made her feel better and made it easier to keep an eye on Lothina’s condition. Annie was certain the girl’s labor would start soon. Moaning and a sharp scream from Lothina a few minutes later was nerve-wracking, but no surprise.
Two of Annie’s largest cooking pots filled with water were already on the wood stove. She had assisted at two birthings, but most of this was going to be up to the Lord. Life or death, healthy child or sick, were His decisions.
The ferocious storm beating down on them was not a good omen, and Annie feared the worst. The small building shivered, fighting against the wind. If the cabin was blown off of its foundation, the next stop for both women was the river and the alligators that sunned themselves along its banks on hot Louisiana days.
Annie Potts cursed herself for taking the last empty seat on the bus that day and finding herself in this position. A quick glance at a picture of the Lord, cut from a magazine and thumbtacked to the wall, gave her a feeling of remorse over those thoughts. She chastised herself; she knew better. Whatever happened, good or bad, she would deal with it.
* * *
Two hours passed, and Lothina seemed to be in a stupor. Her moaning had stopped, and she did not respond when Annie tried to rouse her. The storm had passed, and a large moon shone through the misty night air. Annie opened the cabin door and took a deep breath. For a moment she thought she was seeing things when a pair of headlights came into view on the muddy road heading toward the cabin.
Annie wasted no time in getting to the middle of the road and waving her arms desperately. She was shocked when she saw the occupants of the dark green sedan that pulled up in front of her. A white woman was sitting next to a black man. White women didn’t ride in automobiles with black men, leastways, not alone and at night.
“Sorry to trouble you,” Annie blurted out, “but I need help. There’s a young girl here about to have some babies, and she ain’t doing well.”
“Would you believe it,” the woman replied, turning off the automobile engine and opening the door. “When it rains, it pours. I’m a doctor, I just delivered twins a few miles down the road. Show me where the girl is.”
The woman was tall and fair-haired with a light complexion. Annie had known she was a Northerner the moment she spoke. “Thank you, Lord,” Annie sighed leading the way.
“I’m Doctor Caroline Meade,” she said quickly, seeing Lothina on the bed. “Have you telephoned anyone for help?”
“No, ma’am,” Annie replied. “Ain’t no one in five miles of here got a telephone.”
“This girl’s burning up. We need an ambulance. Robert, drive back to that filling station and call the hospital. Get an ambulance out here as soon as possible. Use my name and tell them it’s an emergency.”
“Yes, Doctor Meade,” the young black man answered quickly, turning to leave, when a sharp voice stopped him short.
“You ain’t going nowhere, boy, ’less you walk over me and my brothers.” Annie’s heart convulsed when she saw several men in hooded white sheets standing on her porch, two of them holding torches.
Doctor Meade moved quickly to the doorway and faced them.
“Get out of the way and let this man through. We need an ambulance or this girl is going to die,” she shouted, her fists balled into knots.
Annie opened the closet door slowly and reached in for the loaded shotgun she kept there. Annie’s heart beat loud enough that she could hear it as she lifted the gun. She knew what it meant for a black woman to level a gun at Klan members. Her cabin was likely to be burned to the ground. She would certainly lose her job and even be killed.
Doctor Meade’s voice rose to an almost hysterical pitch, “Get out of my way,” as she pushed against the large figure in the white sheet standing in front of her. His hand reached out and caught her wrist, twisting it back until she cried out in pain.
“White women don’t ride in cars with Negro men in Harlow County, Louisiana,” he cursed, twisting her arm further until she fell to her knees. “You, boy,” he shouted at Doctor Meade’s young black assistant, being held by two men, “you need to be taught a lesson, let’s burn him, boys!” Shouts and laughter came from the men filling the front porch of Annie’s cabin.
“Lord help me,” Annie whispered as she stepped into the doorway, the shotgun aimed directly at the large man still twisting Dr. Meade’s arm.
“Let her go and get off my property,” Annie shouted at the large man, “or you’ll be burning in Hell tonight.” Her voice was trembling and beads of sweat were standing out on her forehead.
“You’ll pay for this, Annie Potts,” he sneered, letting the doctor’s arm go. “All the white folk hereabouts will know what you done.”
“Same as I know what you done. Hiding your face behind sheets don’t help, Mr. Meyers. I wait on you at the lunch counter every day, and you, too, Mr. Montgomery and Mr. Clark. I know ’most all of you.”
“She ain’t got the nerve to shoot,” someone called out. “Get the gun away from her.”
Annie tilted the shotgun and fired. The blast aimed just above their heads was deafening and stopped everyone. “That’s one barrel,” Annie shouted at their stunned faces. “The next one gets you between the eyes. Now get off my land!”
Half of the crowd had dispersed at the sound of the gunshot and the rest jumped from the porch, disappearing quickly into the night, all except one man who stood his ground for a moment before hurling his torch into the air.
“Oh, Lord,” Annie cried as the ball of yellow fire landed on the cabin roof, showering dozens of burning embers down around them.
“Get the girl out,” Doctor Meade shouted, charging through the cabin door with her assistant.
By the time the three of them had carried Lothina onto the porch, a haze of white smoke drifted around the cabin. Voices could be heard shouting from the roof.
“It’s all right, Miss Annie, the fire didn’t take hold; the shingles was wet from the rain. We done put out what little bit there was.” It was Malcolm Thomas, her neighbor from across the field. “We heard a gunshot and come runnin’, my two boys and me. We saw some of them wearing sheets, high-tailing it. You all right?”
* * *
The next morning Annie answered a knock on the door with the shotgun in her hands. Sheriff Rogers, sucking on a wad of tobacco in his cheek, said, “Plannin’ on shootin’ someone this mornin’, Annie?”
A half hour later, after giving Annie a ride into town, Sheriff Rogers reminded her, “Be at my office at two o’clock this afternoon. I need a statement from you about what happened last night.”
Main Street in town was quiet, but Annie felt eyes watching her as she entered the Blue Bird Café for work, the same as she had for the last five years.
“No need putting on a uniform,” Mrs. Carter said sharply from behind the cash register. “We don’t need you no more. Get your stuff and go.”
* * *
That afternoon, Annie was surprised to see Dr. Meade waiting outside when she left the sheriff’s office.
“I wanted to thank you for what you did last night,” Dr. Meade smiled, extending her hand. “By the way, Lothina gave birth to three healthy girls the minute we got her to the hospital.”
Annie gave a sigh of relief and shook her head. “I’m glad for some good news. I just got let go from my job, but I can always take in washing.”
“This must be my lucky day,” Doctor Meade laughed, “I’m opening a free clinic and I’ve been looking for someone special to run it.”
“But I don’t—”
“What you don’t know I’ll teach you. It’s only fair, after what you taught me last night.”
“It sure beats taking in laundry.” Annie smiled. “I got a thing about sheets.”
Copyright © 2014 by Ron Van Sweringen