Mayra Martine had lived in Lower Roxbury for a short time.
Since her father, with his teeth shining and brow glistening, gambled all the money away.
Before, she had pranced the main streets of Boston, head high, looking like a polished dime.
Now, she could barely lift her head to look out across the blue-green bay.
She was ashamed of her appearance. Her lack of profession. But most of all, of her family name.
It wasn’t losing the money that pained her, it was losing the feeling that she was on Broadway.
Always the star of her own play, Mayra couldn’t face the shame
of falling from the top down to the bottom. All the way down into Lower Roxbury.
In the 1970s, it was the place where all of the Blacks in Boston came.
The Black men and women were not able to escape the confederacy
that seemed to seep into the hearts and minds of the northern whites, who couldn’t resist
making it so that Blacks couldn’t afford any place. Until Lower Roxbury, a newfound sanctuary.
It was the place where the light was dim, but hope could always be seen through the mist.
Where birds would sing on high to the Heavens every morning and night. Always faithful.
And the people would hum along, hoping that their prayers wouldn’t be missed.
They all looked straight ahead, worked hard with dark, tired hands, and were poor but thankful.
But Mayra, whom had an actress as a mother with skin that shone brighter than sun on water,
did not look straight ahead, but up at her mother, who always called her an angel.
She did not know life in Lower Roxbury until her mother slipped through the hands of her father,
just as the money had. Money he obtained through a scheme that made people whisper “Judas…”
Money that made Mayra feel like she owned the world. Money that made her visible to others.
Now, the only thing that she felt was the weight of humiliation, which burned her back.
It forced her to look down as it ate at her soul, taking all of her like a selfish lover.
On June 17th, 1972, Mayra arrived in Lower Roxbury. That was the day the sky turned Black.
And the fire burned bright, illuminating every dark sin in Lower Roxbury that was undercover
so everyone could be lit anew with hope. Hope they have all been waiting to rediscover.
Della Howells woke up one quiet June afternoon with crust on her eyes from sleep.
She tiptoed gingerly through the shadowy room, careful not to wake her brothers on the floor.
She then walked into the small kitchen and turned on the old TV, which made her heart beat.
The beat was not one of happiness, or what you feel when you see someone that you adore.
But one of panicked, desperate longing.
A beat of discontent that quickened as she looked upon the face on the TV who had more.
Her preoccupation was an actress who had dark, silky curls that God only made for taunting.
Skin that could be mistaken for honey and a voice that was somehow sweeter.
The actress on TV, Jade Martine, left every man, woman, and child wanting.
When Della wasn’t at the TV, she was at the mirror for hours trying to make her hair look neater.
Putting lemon juice on her temple. Wishing her skin into honey. Praying away the darkness.
All that was on her mind was Jade Martine. Della wanted to be her, not just meet her…
Years ago, Della saw the actress on a busy Boston street. She was heavenly despite her shortness.
Being only 13 yet tall for her age, Della went home and knelt in front of her own reflection,
praying she would not grow another inch, but knowing there was already too much progress.
That was how the obsession started. And it always came up in confession.
Every Black in Lower Roxbury, including Della, was a devout, God-fearing Catholic.
They all used to attend Saint Richards until it closed, which filled their eyes with depression.
The first Catholic church in the city of Boston to be organized by Blacks caused much panic
among the whites, but they were not to blame for the closure of this hopeless place.
It was a Black man who failed to stop the smoke from coming. Instead, he lit the matchstick.
Della turned off the TV and glanced out the window. The light from the sun made her feel secure
despite the iron bars that caused long shadows to fall across her face. In her reflection,
she saw a hint of beauty for a brief moment. But then the moment passed, leaving her insecure
as a figure that looked like a young Jade Martine appeared in the street. Unachievable perfection.
The smoke was rising behind Della’s reflection. All it seemed to do was darken her complexion.
Cain Dunn woke next to his wife, Evette, with the same annoyance as the day before.
He had hoped to get restful sleep, but she stripped the covers from him during the night,
like everything else he had. Tired and irritated, every yawn sounded more like a roar.
It was the morning of June 17th, and Cain had to get ready for work. Get ready to fight.
He knew that there would be a fight today. Like all days. He was a firefighter after all.
But there was something that told him this would be more than a fight. Maybe the insight
was from church on Sunday. He went alone that day as Evette was at home trying not to bawl.
Her left eye more blue now than brown. Cain felt bad about the morning ordeal,
so he went to confession. The words from the priest, Father Long, made him want to hit a wall.
Fists clenched tight, Cain saw a candle flicker, gasping for air. He had the strong urge to kneel,
which he resisted with cracked knuckles that dripped with hot, sticky sweat.
Looking back, he should have fallen to his knees. But that was not his battle. That he could feel.
He thought his fight would be with the neighbor, Della, as she often came looking for a bonnet
or something else to borrow from his wife that she deemed necessary for her own pleasure.
Cain was wrong. The flames would make him fall to his knees if that’s what the Lord wanted.
And that is what He wanted. Cain saw the smoke before anyone else. Better
than anyone else. He saw smoke clouding the light in his wife’s eyes before his fist put it out.
Saw smoke choking candlelight while he begged for forgiveness. It was too late for any effort.
Too late to unclench fists and pray. On June 17th, there were flames fed by sins and drought.
Hope did not rain down strongly enough in Lower Roxbury at that time, and everyone who
saw the smoke knew it. When Cain arrived at the Hotel Vendome, he did not know which route
through the burning halls would take him to Lovely’s heavily perfumed room,
which he dreamed of. The flames screamed acrid smoke that filled lungs and blinded eyes.
It was the worst fire in the history of Boston, lit by the hopelessness and gloom
of everyone in Lower Roxbury. Cain felt his anger melt away. It left like everything that dies
in the heat. He came out with more hope than he had going in. He even hoped among the cries.
Milton Batrol liked to observe. He watched everything and everyone in Lower Roxbury. It was
in his nature to sit and watch. Only the people kept him running around. He was too busy
trying to watch everyone to converse at length. Some say he saw smoke before Cain because
he sees everything. Those same people say he didn’t tell anyone because he was too dizzy
from all his running about, or from breathing in the smoke itself. Only the Lord knows the truth.
And only Milton knows what he saw with his own eyes. Often, what he saw was pity.
He saw James Martine betray his business partner for 30 thousand dollars like an evil sleuth
staging the last clue. He then saw the same man lose everything with a wide, drunken grin.
He saw the man’s wife, Jade Martine, crying in a telephone booth.
Replaced by playing cards and empty bottles, she was talking with tears rolling down her chin.
Nobody has seen her since that phone call, unless it was on TV. Rumor has it that she was seen
at the Hotel Vendome with the slut they call Lovely, letting rich white men take them for a spin.
The day the smoke appeared was the day their daughter, Mayra, appeared. But between
the running and the smoke, Milton did not see her. Only Della saw Mayra out of her window,
which doesn’t matter, because Milton saw much more in Lower Roxbury. He saw the holy sheen
of Saint Richards, the only Black Catholic church as far as anyone knew, come and go.
It was the going that was more interesting than the coming, for it was part of his own doing.
It was his idea. He watched Howard Long, the priest, begin to borrow.
At first, he just borrowed small things from the house of the Lord. A bottle of wine for using
at his house. A chair to seat his guests. Then, Howard saw Milton with the collection basket.
Milton tried to put in a few coins, but they dropped to the floor quietly, barely moving
past Milton’s feet. Too lazy to pick them up, he kicked them under the pew without any racket.
Milton didn’t mean it. Didn’t think anything would come from it. Howard had other thoughts.
The priest hid money under pews and collected it for himself. Even took money for a casket.
He did this for years. Saint Richards closed its doors. To save his conscience, Howard bought
his way into another church. All Milton did was watch, and Howard was never caught.
Howard Long blamed the smoke on himself, but the Lord was giving him a second chance.
Giving them all a second chance. He had tried many times to repent for his sins.
Spent more time reading the Bible, less time stealing a glance
at the wine bottles that sat, casting unholy shadows across the tabernacle. It was his third
day at St. Augustine, after the closure of Saint Richards, when he heard the words:
“My soul cleaveth unto the dust: quicken thou me according to thy word.”
It was then that he realized his hands would permanently be stained. Towards
temptation he had fallen, taking all that his hands could grasp.
They had trusted him, the Black congregation of Saint Richards. There were no guards
to watch over him. He was watched only by the Lord, who gave him something to clasp:
a crook which Howard used to lead the Black lambs of God into paradise.
Where Howard led them was not paradise. Nor did he know how to get there. Not looking past
desires of the mortal world. He could not see up the mountain, the place above that enticed
all of the pure souls truly seeking to see the light of the Lord. Instead, Howard was lying face-
down on the ground somewhere between Heaven and Hell. They all were. Christ
became flesh to save his people. He showed them signs that he was the true Son of God. Praying
that they would believe and follow. With His glory, Moses saw the burning bush. It
was that same glory that Howard saw in the flames that were hinting within the smoke. Swaying
between the walls of the Hotel Vendome, into Lovely’s room. Having not been bitten
by greed again, Howard took nothing from St. Augustine. Despite it being from his own demise,
he mourned the loss of Saint Richards. He sat in a room of incense reading the Holy Writ.
Still, it was not enough to forgive all of his sins. Waiting for the Holy Ghost to rise,
he remained trapped. Waiting. Waiting for a sign to show him that there was hope
for the ones who forgave their sins. The people of Lower Roxbury who listened to his advice,
washing their sins away while he washed his own. After the smoke, a burning bright sign: Hope.
Everyone in Lower Roxbury wanted what they had been losing: Hope.
Evette Dunn laid in bed as her husband, Cain, rose for work. Thank God.
They had gotten into it again the night before, and she knew they would fight again
if she even turned to offer the covers that had been lost from him during the odd
tangle they always found themselves in. He saw Evette as meek. Weak. That was before the gain.
When he started beating, she started eating. The habit started to make her plump.
And so, she ate and started to fight back. She does not have to fight as much now. The constrain
the church puts on Cain keeps his anger under control, especially since the lump
above her left eye that everyone saw on Easter Sunday a few years ago. But
last night he just lost it. Went off about smoke coming from the oven, calling the place a dump.
Evette had been surprised. Had she? With him, it was never really a surprise because her gut
always told her he could do it again. Would do it again. And he did it again time after time.
It was true, she took everything from him. Every coin spent on extra dishware, a more robust
dining room table, grander chains. Oh, and the food. Boxes of fresh oranges, lemons, and limes.
Mounds of cheese. Heaps of potatoes perfect for frying. Exotic spices in tins. She loved all of it.
But now it haunted her. She could only look, but not touch the food that was now a crime.
Cain had been hanging around the Hotel Vendome, probably after that Lovely girl who stunned
the people of Lower Roxbury when she was first seen walking the streets at such a young age.
Now, she locked herself in that damned hotel room day and night. Probably having fun
with someone’s husband. It wasn’t that Evette hated the girl. There was no rage
against her. But something about Lovely stirred a desire in Evette to fight harder than ever
against the man. The life that she found herself in. Father Long said that there would be change.
It was trusting in Him, without her husband sitting next to her in the pew, where she got pleasure
from knowing that one day she would be saved. But only if she hoped.
A knock on the door from Della, the neighbor, brought Evette out of bed feeling better
then she had moments ago when Cain walked out of the door. The smoke… It poked
into the kitchen. The oven was cold, just like last time. Wherever it came from, it choked.
Lovely sat at the end of the bed painting her nails a bright, burning red.
The polish would be picked off within a week. She had a bad habit of doing that.
But she had a worse habit of picking men who only wanted her to spread her legs.
It started when she was young, a bright cherry blossom barely ready to be picked. It happened at
her own home. And when she told her mother, she looked at her and whispered the word slut
all because she lost her purity to the boy next door. After the fact,
he never called her from across the street, never even glanced in her direction. But
the deed didn’t disgust her. Instead, it brought many questions to her mind.
How could her mother look upon her with such venomous eyes? For what?
For doing something that felt so good? So natural? Like all troubled teens, she ran. Hid behind
dumpsters and walked the streets until a man came with open arms, offering Lovely a deal.
She took that deal and became his muse, living in a dark world of lust. Until her mind
had an idea and she ran again, taking the money she had. Looking for a place that made her feel
welcomed for the first time. St. Augustine and Father Long. She saw in him something
that cried for help, maybe he saw that in her too. Every person in Lower Roxbury had to steal
a glance at the streetwalking girl. They did not know those days were over. She was becoming
a woman who was not ruled by the unholy thoughts that clouded her mind like thick smoke.
Lovely got a job waiting on tables, and with the help of Father Long, started coming
to the Hotel Vendome every night until she called the damp room with a broken
lock on the door: Home. Still, she felt safer here than anywhere else. She would often lay on the
balcony and gaze at the sky. Feeling close enough to hear the whispers of God. She awoke,
after many years in the dark. She tried to avoid the men of Lower Roxbury, who wanted to
persuade her to join them at a later hour. Maybe it was the confidence in herself, or her trust in
Him that told her not to fear the smoke. On the balcony, peering through the smoke, she saw He who
is the Savior. Lovely knew. It was the wall of flames that everyone must pass. While dim
next to the brilliance of the Holy Ghost, it still burned bright as she sang a sweet hymn.
Tiera Moore is a student from Kent State University studying English and Political Science. Serving as the President of the Undergraduate Student Government during the 2020 – 2021 academic year she uses writing to escape the often harsh political landscape. Tiera found her passion for literature during long, lazy summers in her hometown of Salem, Ohio. She finds inspiration in the works of authors like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Gloria Naylor. Her poetry collection Lower Roxbury is her debut piece. Tiera can always be found with a pencil in hand, and hopes to continue writing when the words strike her.