It all started innocently enough, somewhere in Mississippi in the early eighties.
Angie Young had known Seth Johnson for many years, from way back when they were babysat by Miss Modina, the large, older black woman paid by Angie’s family to take care of her while her father was away on business and her mother was… well…
"Busy," as they said.
"Fucked out of her mind on wine and valium," was what Angie would say years later, but there you have it. Miss Modina would come over at six in the morning, bringing young Seth with her, and cook breakfast for them both. Seth was her adopted son, she said, and everybody left it at that. He’d been born with a variety of maladies which left him in leg braces and on crutches, but he was a smart boy, and she doted on him.
Angie and Seth would play games in the backyard, build little forts among the tall grass of the field behind the old big house, and all was well until Angie’s father fell on hard times.
It was the day after her twelfth birthday, she remembered. He was down the hall, yelling at her mother. Angie crouched behind a plush red couch, clutching her favorite doll to her as her father railed against the idea of his only daughter being babysat by “that kind of people.” Too young to understand at the time why, she cried when he said that Miss Modina and Seth could not come to play ever again, but being just old enough to understand rebelliousness, she snuck out of the house and got on her bike, pink and purple with a white basket on the front, and rode down the hidden trails and the back ways until she came to Old Egypt Road.
It wasn’t fair, she decided, she liked Seth and loved Miss Modina and who was he to decide who could see who? That was stupid, and thus, running away seemed the only logical solution.
Old Egypt was the black neighborhood, Angie knew that. Everybody knew that. There were no black folks living in the city limits of Asheville, they all lived out along Old Egypt. Angie had never been there before, but her anger and her sadness drove her along the dirt road. At night everything was different, darker and quieter, with brightly lit houses in the distance like foreign lands. She knew Seth’s house was the third one after the old bridge, though, because they had talked about it before. Angie pedaled onward, breathing heavily, and after the old bridge, and the third house, turned left down the driveway.
The house was small, ramshackle, a clapboard sort of affair. But when she dismounted and approached the door, the smell of good food cooking comforted her somewhat.
Tentatively, she knocked.
The door was almost immediately answered by Seth, who stared at her wide-eyed.
"Angie?" then he turned and yelled, "Miss Modina, Angie is here."
The room was dimly lit but warm. The furniture was old and worn but comfortable looking. And there was Miss Modina, enormous, “Child, what are you doing here? Oh lord.”
Angie blurted, “Daddy said you and Seth can’t come over any more and I thought that was stupid and it’s not fair and so I ran away…” and then she started crying, because that seemed to be the only thing to do.
She was ushered into the big living room and sat on the couch. The house smelled of pork roasting and incense. The shelves and tables in the corner held old glass bowls and jars of candy, because Miss Modina, as Angie knew, was the Candy Lady.
See in the tiny neighborhood of Old Egypt, the black kids couldn’t go to the local drug store on their own so they went to the Candy Lady. An older lady usually, well-respected by the community at large, who sold hard candy for a penny-a-piece and some chocolate for a bit more. All the children knew Miss Modina, and she was revered.
Maybe a little feared too, because some folks said that after dark Miss Modina offered a different kind of thing. Something to do with her being from New Orleans, they said, something to do with spirits, and maybe advice, and maybe babies. One time Angie heard her mother and her friends talking about “going to see Modina for a solution.” She didn’t understand what they meant until she was a lot older. Every society, it seems, has its old wise healers.
And also people that know how to do what is necessary, sometimes. Like when a pregnancy shows up unexpected, or maybe scandalous, or maybe because of darker reasons. Then it didn’t matter if you were white or black, back then, you needed Miss Modina.
"Now, Angie, look at me." Miss Modina said, kneeling down in front of her, "Your father is a good man, and he made a decision, okay?
"Yeah," Angie said, "but it’s a stupid decision."
Miss Modina laughed, “Well maybe so, but it’s his decision, okay? Something you got to realize, girl, is that black folks and white folks are different. The worlds we live are different, right? Mister Young, he’s got to think about how the other white folks see this, okay? And you are his child, so you have to respect that. I know it don’t make no sense right now, but one day you gonna understand.”
"I don’t wanna understand, Seth is my friend," Angie sobbed.
Miss Modina hugged her close, “I know child, I know. But it is what it is right now, okay? So hush your crying, I’m gonna call your mamma so she can come get you, she must be worried a fright.”
She wandered into the back of the house to get the phone, and Seth sat down on the couch next to Angie.
"I’m sorry your daddy don’t want us to be over there no more, Angie," he said, feeling awkward, "Here, you can have a grape sucker if you want one. I was saving it for later but I figure you might need it right now."
Angie sniffed and took the offered treat, “Thank you.”
They sat there in silence for a while, while Miss Modina talked on the phone in the background.
Angie wiped her eyes and unwrapped her sucker, a look of grim determination slowly coming over her face.
"Seth?" she asked.
"I don’t care what daddy says or Miss Modina or anyone else, we are friends, and I ain’t gonna let that change for no stupid adult decisions, okay?"
She popped the sucker in her mouth and took his hand.
Together they watched Sanford and Son until Angie’s mother drove up outside.
That was probably the start of it, right there, but they didn’t get to the thing until they went to the Library.
The Library, really, that was the beginning.