In a rambunctious river town unsettled by the Great War and up-ended by change unlikely lovers are brought together—but dogged by inescapable bigotry. Despite the dangers, the heroine defies her southern upbringing; the hero fends off his inner demons. For family and friends, race becomes a litmus test, each revealed by his responses to the chasm which separates black from white.
Can that divide—widened by distance, a disastrous marriage, the devastation of the ’27 Flood—be overcome?
From his window on the top floor of the boarding house Curtis saw the two women step out of the cab, Aurelia turning her head this way and that, warily. Across Ramparts Street an old man sat on a stoop polishing a trumpet; further down two pig-tailed girls played at hopscotch. Otherwise no one was about. Curtis surveyed the neat if unassuming room he had inhabited for the last week. He pulled down the oilcloth shade against the low winter sun and walked out to the landing. As arranged, Rufus had awaited the two at the front door. Soft voices. The stairs creaked as first he led Claudette to his own room on the first floor and then escorted Aurelia up to the third.
Anxious, she did not unpin her hat. Rather, she stood in the middle of the room, uncertain, until Curtis scrambled to pull up the lone armchair.
“Thank you,” she murmured, “though I shouldn’t have come. It’s too—”
“It’s all right, Aurelia. We don’t have to…”
“No, you deserve to know why.” The echo of Hiram’s insult to her body bounced off the walls, though only Aurelia could hear it. She glanced around at the tiny bed, the desk piled with charts and maps, the lone window. Curtis took her hand. The sound grew fainter.
However many other women he had lain with—pleasantly enough, though more than one partner saw the look of elsewhere in his eyes—only this one made his heart leap up. Despite.
“They are tied up with string, in a box. Back in Vicksburg. I couldn’t bear—” He looked confused. “The letters you sent me. Unopened still.”
“You were unwell.”
“Not so. Someday I will be able to tell you, that is, though, as of today, it no longer—” (Matters. At that moment Aurelia knew only love, their love, mattered, however impossible, however imperiling.)
A tap at the door disrupted her jagged thoughts.
“For the years to come,” Curtis murmured in her ear as his fingers released her hand. “Now go, and embrace your life.”
Plaintive notes of Amazing Grace rose from the sidewalk below.