It was 1933. The first Sunday of July.
I remember that day as if they were as nearby as yesterday.
Its weight was light but it begged to be held with its handle wrapped around my lonesome hand. Its outer casing protected its inside possessions. Naturally. That was its role.
For a moment I hesitated but willed my hand to reach. I reluctantly picked it up – its facade obtrusive and offensive. Damaged and tattered it gave view into its history but only its physical history. Mysterious inside details it refused to divulge unless its master and owner graced permission.
Portmanteau. With red leather skin.
Bruised. Like me.
It is my faithful companion, my traveling bag. My suitcase. My whole life up until that 16th year. Everything that was me was in that colored, ragged case.
I decided to leave home in pursuit of life. No one would miss me.
The problem was – I didn’t know what my dreams were or what I desired from life. All I knew is that I didn’t want to die – and I was heading more towards death every day that I stayed.
Disturbed, despite the fact that I am probably too young to be truly disturbed, by my lack of dreaming I decided to pursue these unknown dreams and find what I was missing in my soul. And in my heart. Perhaps it was somewhere patiently waiting to be found. I sincerely hoped it was.
My father once told me that I am unique in that I have the rare possession of green eyes. That they were the window to my passionate soul. Green as emerald sea water that traveled the world’s oceans. Green as healthy and growing grass.
I sighed. I havent seen thriving green grass in years. Only dust and dirt.
My hair, the color of hay straw was down and flowed down to the small of my back. It was as wild as my eyes.
Standing in the beginning dawn of this nearly deserted town the desolate aura surrounded me. It pinched at my skin.
I turned full circle to gaze at my surroundings one last time. It was too early for anyone to be up and moving. It was a lazy town, one that dragged your spirits down. Happiness was a rare find here.
I wore my best outfit. A flower-print dress who’s hem just brushed my bony knees. The small pink rosebuds blanketed the ivory cotton with femininity and love.
The dirt roads beckoned travel and movement. They were left alone for far too long.
My scuffed brown boots befriended the dirt that blew with a pressing urgency. It was as if the road and wind conspired to push me and urge me to go already. Get moving! Flee! They spoke to me.
Here I was. A young girl – leaving the only home she’s ever known. It was a disruptive home that held nothing for me and my newly beloved future. I refused to be a slave any longer to depression and poverty.
One foot after another I walked away. Away from this world. Each step resolute and firmly dedicated to its purpose.
I didn’t have a plan but I know what I wanted. I choose life.
The next town over had a train station and I had stolen enough money for a one way trip to somewhere.
Walking for hours I had a lot of time to think.
I didn’t mind the long walk. The morning weather was cool and the breeze lightly brushed my face. The wind was against me but I was grateful for the challenge.
My mother had left when I was very young. The pain had faded from my heart because I barely knew her. But her decision was poor. I was determined to find her and tell her that she was wrong to leave me, defenseless, in the rough custody of only my father and uncle and no female presence.
My father was resident to a home of despair – without my mother he was nothing and to him I was nothing because I looked like her. He was a different man once my mother was gone which hurt me more than anything else. Eventually he befriended suicide by method of alcoholism and I was left to an uncle who continuously accused me of being a burden.
I’m stuck with you girl. You eat all my food girl. Clean this house girl. Stop making noise girl.
It was always “girl, girl, girl” and I had at first stubbornly corrected my Uncle. “It’s Cora. Cora Grace, Uncle Karl.” But he wasn’t having anything to do with learning about me, his only family left there. As far as he was concerned I was left to him to make his life worse than it already was.
I glanced down at my travel bag. The dust had coated with the help of the persistent winds.
By late afternoon I had made it to the train station. No one paid attention to me. I was a simple, plain girl and everyone was bustling around busy with their own lives. Too preoccupied to care about a child alone.
I purchased a one way ticket to the farthest destination from these godforsaken eastern towns. Patience was certainly a virtue I had learned and adapted to. So I waited with fortitude under no fear whatsoever that my Uncle would come after me.
“California.” I whispered to myself. California was a city of hope for the American dream to be revived. People traveled to California to help breathe life into the weak economy. I wanted to be a part of that.
Once I climbed onto the train I felt a wave of emotion grip me. Anxiety. Fear. Excitement. And most importantly - freedom!
I kept telling myself that anywhere was better than home. Home. If that’s what you would have called the shanty house I grew up in.
The train ride eventually lulled me into a deep sleep. I woke with the cease of movement. Disoriented and groggy I stepped off of the train. I had originally planned to … well … plan during my train ride.
In effort to look like I knew where I was going I followed a larger portion of the train passengers towards the shops and restaurants.
America was still struggling to cope from the Great Depression in ’29 so the restaurants were pretty bare. I had stopped at the busiest one. Standing by a frontal window I heard my stomach growl and felt my mouth water.
Passerby’s and the occasional customer started taking notice of me, my solitude, and my portmanteau. I decided the front of the restaurant wouldn’t do me any good unless a sum of money appeared in one of my dress pockets at that exact moment.
Hovering in the back of the restaurant I prayed for scraps of a meal unfinished. The aromas tortured and teased my taste buds and my stomach ached with need.
So much of my mind and energy was focused on morsels of food and I pointlessly wish a plate into existence when a nearby scuffle startled me.
Frozen with fear I stood and sensed the noise maker getting closer to me. Finally the street light revealed my boisterous alley companion. I used my luggage as a shield and braced for attack.
It was a dog. An animal hungrier than me. It crept slowly toward me licking its lips in anticipation that I possessed food – or it thought that I was food.
The dog was scruffy, dirty, and scrawny. I squatted down to the dog’s eye level and waited for him to come to me.
“Dog!” I heard a man’s voice. “Dog! Where are you boy?!” He screamed. The dog cowered behind me. Before I could decide to run the man appeared.
“Dog! Come here!” The faint-hearted dog slinked towards its master, the man who was eyeing me up and down for a long moment. He also noticed the portmanteau, a guiltless bystander.
“Where are your parents, girl?” The man finally spoke.
Girl. I resentfully thought but I simply replied, “Gone.”
Another long pause ensued. “I must be on my way.” I said and was about to turn away when the man grumbled, “Are you hungry?”
My stomach’s incessant growls gave me away before words could betray it.
“You may have dinner with me and my son. Follow me.”
My gut denied the invite but I was too starving to listen. I was so hungry.
The man’s house was past the restaurants and past the shops and into a darker area of the hectic town.
The house was small and bare. The son appeared to be about my age if not a year or two older. He was bruised on his face and his arms. When he caught me staring at his arms he rolled down his shirt sleeves.
The man poured an amber liquid into a tall glass and finished half in one gulp. The boy placed the food on the table and we all ate in silence. I was surprised because I figured they would be curious about their guest. A young girl migrating without parental advisory.
I helped the boy to clear the table and wash the dishes. I even pet the lonely-eyed dog.
“Thank you very much for the meal sir. Thank you.” I said nervously. Everyone was so silent that it made me uneasy. My gut granted the courtesy of a second warning.
“I don’t want to intrude on your evening any longer. I should continue on to my friend’s home. Thank you again.”My hand on the door knob I was so close to gaining my freedom once more.
“Hey, girl. Where are you going.” The drunken man slurred. These weren’t questions – they were statements. “You think that was a free meal?”
I hadn’t realized the man had left the table and was advancing towards me.
The boy watched and the dog ran to a hiding spot. It was probably grateful for the attention to be redirected from him for once.
Grabbing my hand, without the need to squeeze hard for I was a weak child, he pulled me toward a room that held little furniture.
“Please let me go.” I gasped over and over. I struggled against his grip and he backhanded my face.
Disoriented from the hit I felt and tasted the blood on my lips. He groped and grabbed. This had happened to me before with my Uncle. But I damn sure wasn't going to let it happen again … if I could help it.
I knew the boy was aware of what was happening.
I tried to reach my hand calmly toward my right boot. I kept a knife hidden for situations like this. Anguish set in when I pulled the knife from my boot but it fell to the ground with a loud clank.
Panic set in and I started to fight back as violently as I could - this was about to go too far. I was so terrified that I couldn’t find my voice to scream.
I glanced toward the door, seeing the boy peek through the door way, begging him with my eyes for help.
Silent tears rolled down my face and I braced for the pain I knew would soon follow my desperate plea.
Giving up all hope I abandoned my attempts to resist.
And that is when the boy became a man of action. He charged at his inebriated father and slammed a heavy plank over his head
My trembling hands grabbed the knife from the ground and I held it straight in front of me. The boy now stood by me and he was ready and willing to strike again.
“Stay back!” I yelled – my voice shook but the tone was angry and harsh. The man lay on the floor groaning and reeling from the pain.
To God I swore I wouldn’t let this happen to me again if I could help it – even if I had to kill.
I put my knife back in its hiding spot and moved to possess the shot gun that lay previously unnoticed behind the bedroom door. I aimed straight and true at the intoxicated fool.
The boy, who hadn’t uttered a word prior, told me where his father’s stash of money was. I hastily stored it in my other dress pocket and we ran – into the dark cover of the night. Not even the stars had made their gracious appearance this black night.
We ran. And ran. And ran. Our lungs had begged us to slow. Our knees petitioned for rest. Our hearts raced with the exhilaration of escape combined with the fear of potential capture. And worse – our impending fate if caught and imprisoned.
Onward we moved. Side by side we ran down the road not knowing what our next steps would be; not knowing anything about each other except that we were both victims of abuse.
The dog had followed eager for escape and freedom despite the risk of leaving the only home it knew.
Sweat traced our skin in the warm, moist summer evening. The boy carried the shotgun as if he were a soldier at war, waiting for the moment he would have to fire. In my eyes he certainly held the honor of a soldier.
Finally we made it two towns over in the northwest direction to a coastal town and discovered an unoccupied, covered alleyway to sleep in. No words were exchanged between us for exhaustion took control of every motor skill we naturally owned as humans. Together we slept through the night with the dog curled up at our feet.
Dawn soon approached with a red sky that warned and cautioned that our continual movement was necessary. We ran through three towns this time as the boy led the way. I followed without question flanked by my portmanteau and the nameless dog.
Finally we stumbled upon another coastal town that was busier than any we had seen thus far. It was a stormy day, though, so our desires to explore were dampened. We searched for shelter from the lightning and rain. There was a sundry shop open with an extremely low customer count, unlike the other surrounding stores. The less people the better.
As we entered the store the bell rang to announce our arrival. My teeth were chattering and the cold from the rain gripped me. The dog lay outside waiting for our return.
“Can I help you?” A woman appeared by the counter.
“Um…” My teeth chattered so much I could barely speak. “We just needed to hide from the rain ma’am.”
“Well if you’re in my store then you have to buy something.”
The boy, whose name I had just learned to be William but who went by Billy, spoke further. “I plan to purchase a drink for us to share ma’am.”
I fished out the small bit of money we had between us.
The woman’s harsh expression seemed to take a turn in an empathetic light. She grabbed a soda pop for us to share. “It’s on the house.”
We said ‘thank you’ in unison and smiled at the refreshing taste of the soda pop. I had only had soda once before in my life. What a treat!
To be continued...