Miss Cora by Ferdinand Hunter

Miss Cora Lee Walker is a good Christian woman. She sells beer and liquor in the long and wide basement of her house on Putnam Street. She keeps a large oak bar, a jukebox, and three pool tables down there. And every night except Sunday night young black men and a few black women meet at Miss Cora’s house to drink, talk, and shoot pool. There are few other places for them to go in Choctaw County, Georgia. It is a dry county. They could always do their drinking in Atlanta. It’s only ten or twelve miles to the northeast, but most of her customers are loyal. They either love, respect, or fear her. She’ll even let you have a few beers on credit, but she has to be paid by the end of the month. She’ll ask her friends in the Sheriff’s Department to make sure she receives what is due her. Miss Cora’s pride and sense of self-preservation are much stronger than her sense of generosity. She has never once denied the truth of this.

On the second Tuesday of every month a different Sheriff’s deputy stops by the house to collect for what is known by all of the local bootleggers as the Sheriff John D. Connor retirement fund. The collector is usually young and white. He stands tall and straight by the door in his starched brown uniform. His pants are always a little too short, and his head is always bent a few degrees back with his nose up and his chin out. He is always nervous, but he tries hard to keep it at bay. His hands shake, so he holds them clasped behind his back. “Boy, take off your hat in my house and relax,” Miss Cora tells him. Then she gives him a few bills for his own pocket. Whoever he may be, he always takes the cash. Then Miss Cora gives him the Sheriff’s envelope with the five hundred dollars and says, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.”

Miss Cora lives in a large four-bedroom house that was built with cheap bricks that are the color of white sand. And all around the house, the bricks have been stained red-orange from year after year of the heavy spring rains breaking up the Georgia clay and thrashing it against the walls of the house. Every summer Miss Cora hires someone to scrub the stain off, but it never completely vanishes. It only rains again, splashing more mud against the walls and deepening the stain.

A dogwood tree grows in Miss Cora’s front yard. White blossoms with green and black hearts cover its branches, and gnats with transparent white wings and dot black bodies float and cling to the air like a haze. The air is always sweet around Miss Cora’s place.

On hot, rainy nights, Miss Cora swears she can hear and smell the dark, rich earth leeching through the walls and into the house itself. On such nights, she turns off all of the lights and sits in the den in the large, comfortable chair that faces the picture window. It offers the best view of the world outside. When the lightning flashes she can for a moment see the small frame house across the street or a car skid down the road. Sometimes she sees lone bodies, bathed in the gray and white light, move slowly down the street. When Miss Cora sees this, she folds her arms and brings her legs into the chair. She tries to feel warm and safe, but she never does. She closes her black eyes and wonders about the son that was taken from her. Or did she give him away. She doesn’t remember. She doesn’t want to remember. So she closes her eyes and hums, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” Then under her breath she curses thunder and lightning, time and space.

Ferdinand Hunter lives in Chandler, AZ with his wife, Bethany, and his daughter, Katie. He presently teaches English and Humanities at GateWay Community College. He has a BA in African American Studies from Emory University and an MFA from Brown University.