Women’s fiction, Historical Fiction
Date Published: August 11, 2020
Gripping and moving, She Wears the Mask is a novel about two women from two very different worlds, both burdened with secrets from their pasts, who form an unexpected bond…
1950s Chicago: Angelique Bixby could be one of many fresh-faced sales girls working along the Magnificent Mile, but she’s unique. She’s a white woman married to a black man in 1950s Chicago, making her stand out among the tenements on the South Side where she lives. Despite the challenges the couple faces, they find comfort and strength in their love for one another. Angelique is content, as long as she has her Daniel by her side and their baby in her arms, until she loses them both—one to death and the other to dire circumstances.
1990s Washington, D.C.: Angelique Crofton is a woman of privilege. A rich, aging beauty and mother of a rising political star, she has learned to forget her tragic past. But now that she is facing her own mortality, she is finally ready to find the daughter she left behind, remember the young woman she once was, and unearth the bittersweet memories she had long ago buried.
Jasmine Stanley is an ambitious lawyer—the only black woman at her firm. She is too busy climbing the corporate ladder to deal with her troublesome family or their unresolved issues. Tasked with Angelique’s case, Jasmine doesn’t know what to make of her new client—an old debutante with seemingly too much time and money on her hands. Jasmine eagerly accepts the challenge though, hoping if she finds Angelique’s long-lost daughter, it will impress the firm’s partners. But she doesn’t count on the search challenging her mentally and emotionally. Nor does she expect to form a friendship with Angelique, who is much more like her than she realizes—because Jasmine is harboring secrets, too.
November 9, 1950
She will never get used to the sound of the “L” Train.
Angelique realizes this for the umpteenth time as the train thunders above her and she ducks her head and clutches the collar of her wool coat in a white-knuckled grip with one hand. While crossing the street under the train tracks, she doesn’t look up—too frightened to witness its passage. She focuses her runny eyes instead on the puddles of melting snow where the halogen lights from bars and the late-night delicatessen glow. Her eyes then drift to the bundle in the basket she holds.
Hearing the steady click-clack of the train wheels, the seismic rattle of metal beams, and the whoosh of air as it passes will never become background noise to her, no matter how long she lives in the “Windy City” to some or “Chi-Town” to others—but it did for Daniel. He laughed at her the first time she cringed when the train passed their bedroom window.
“Look at you,” he drawled that first night they slept in their apartment. “It’s just a train, sugar. It can’t hurt you none.”
But what did Daniel know? Even though he’d grown up on the alfalfa fields of North Carolina with dirt under his nails and the sweet stench of manure in his nostrils, he’d been a city boy at heart. The “L” train was practically a Mama’s lullaby, lulling him to sleep at night, while it became her torturer, yanking her awake every time her eyelids would drift closed.
When she did sleep, the train would haunt her dreams—those hungry steel wheels gnashing at the tracks, sending up sparks into the dark night. Her mind’s eye would see the train barreling at high speeds over Logan Square, Hyde Park, and Chinatown, like it was searching for her, leaving quaking windows in its wake.
She dreamed of standing with other commuters waiting to head Uptown, only to have someone accidentally shove her. She’d go tumbling off the platform, onto to the train track, and get hit by the “L,” yelling for help as she watched it approach. She dreamed of Daniel riding on his way to work at the stockyards, and one of the train cars would derail and go careening to the busy street twenty feet below. She would wake up screaming, and Daniel would wrap her in his strong arms, pull her close, and let her tremble in his embrace.
After a while, she started to sleep with a pillow over her head to finally get some rest, hoping to drown out the sound of the train at night. Unfortunately, it also drowned out their baby’s cries. Daniel had to shake her awake and tug the pillow from her head a few times.
“She’s hungry, sugar,” he would say, bringing their baby girl to her.
She would turn onto her back, prop the pillow behind her, tiredly undo the ribbons of her night gown, and lower the infant to her tender breast, yawning and staring out the window at the passing of the “L” Train as she nursed.
Ultimately, Daniel would be proven right. It wasn’t the train she should’ve feared, but the street car. That’s what took her man away in the end. The sound of the trolley bell would be the harbinger of death for him, not the screech of train wheels.
She gives a bleak, dark chuckle at the irony as the “L” finally . . . mercifully passes overhead, leaving behind the distant sound of rattling metal and fluttering newspapers. She can hear her baby girl, Emma Jean, crying now and see her squirming in the basket at her side, making it hard not to drop the basket and the baby from her sore fingers. She holds fast though, and continues to walk in the cold and through the melting snow. Her leather shoes—one of her few remaining pairs—are covered in rubber booties, but the booties have holes in them. The shoes are now damp and she suspects her feet are starting to freeze. Her toes are stinging like they’re being poked by tiny needles. She wonders if she will develop gangrene, but she doesn’t stop to check her feet. She’s already walked this far. May as well keep going.
“Hey, lady! What you doin’ out here with that baby?” a voice slurs, startling her and making her pause for the first time.
Angelique turns to her right to find a figure lurking in a doorway. An old Negro man with weathered skin stumbles out of the shadows like someone has given him a hard shove. He clutches a half pint of Old Forrester in his dirty hand. He’s wearing several layers of clothing, all of which are either shredded, riddled with holes, or covered with stains. The rank smell of alcohol, body odor, and urine drifts from him like an atomic cloud. He narrows his bloodshot eyes at her.
She stares back at him, tugging the basket close to her side, but she doesn’t respond. She turns back around and starts walking again.
“Cain’t you hear that baby cryin’?” he shouts drunkenly after her and she starts to walk faster. “Shouldn’t be out here in the cold with no baby no way! Take it inside!”
When she nears the end of the block, she is almost at a run, jostling the infant in the basket and making her cry louder.
“Crazy cracker wench!” his voice howls against the growing wind.
Angelique is finally a block away. She stops at an empty wooden bench to regain her breath. She sets the wicker basket on the bench, sits beside it, and takes out Emma Jean. She holds her against her chest, cooing to her and rocking her softly. Emma Jean is no more than a little round face engulfed in blankets under the street light. Big brown, watery eyes gaze up at her. After a few minutes, the wails quail to whimpers and the whimpers die down to hiccups. Emma Jean’s eyes close. Long dark lashes like her daddy’s sweep her cheeks. Eventually, Emma Jean quiets, asleep again.
This is when Angelique begins to lose her nerve, feeling the familiar warmth of her baby girl against her body, seeing Emma Jean slumber so blissfully in her arms.
Her vision begins to blur as the tears well. She sniffs and a nose that was already chapped red from the chill and the wind, becomes even redder.
“I can’t do this. I can’t do this,” she whimpers, shakily rising to her feet, leaving the basket on the bench. She lurches back toward the corner with Emma Jean, and sees the outline of the drunken bum leaning against a brick wall, watching her from a distance like a specter in the dark.
Seeing him again, she suddenly remembers the empty shelves in the kitchenette cabinets back at her apartment and the icebox filled with one block of cheese and a bottle of milk that is about to go bad. She remembers the “Rent Due” notice tacked to her front door. And she remembers that she can’t return to her plush sales girl job thanks to Mr. Mullan. She probably will never be able to show her face, let alone work anywhere at the posh stores on State Street again. Odd jobs at night clubs and seedy bars won’t keep her and Emma Jean from starving. She could very well find herself on the street like that bum. She must move on and start all over again, but her baby girl will not be able to move on with her. Emma Jean does not fit into her life anymore. Not after the mess she’s made of it. That is why she is here to procure her daughter a new life—a better one.
She lowers the infant back into the basket, nestling her in the soft blankets, careful not to wake her again. She adjusts the envelope beside the baby, the one containing a note, a picture of Daniel, looking dapper in his Army uniform, and a lock of her own hair.
Angelique blinks through her tears and starts walking again, continuing to her destination.
It is almost 2 o’clock in the morning when she arrives. The block is quiet and the houses are palatial with their blend of Romanesque and Queen Anne architecture. They are much nicer than the dingy, rickety tenements where she lives. Their spires along the exteriors stand out like little stone castles against the clear night sky.
She stares at the numbers along the doors, looking for the right address. Her feet are no longer stinging now; they are almost numb—two icy blocks that clomp beneath her. Her arm is tired, too. She has to use both hands to carry the basket.
She finally spots the right number in bronze along one of the doors, and when she does, she stays rooted in place. It takes a few seconds to find the will to climb the stone steps. When she reaches the top, she searches for a doorbell, but finds none. Instead, she sits down the basket and bangs the brass knocker: a lion’s head that roars silently at her. Nothing happens. She bangs again and waits for a light to flicker on in the window beside the front door, but she sees none. She hesitates and glances down at the basket.
What if no one’s home?
Angelique had not considered this scenario. She had imagined this moment a hundred times, envisioning knocking on the front door or ringing a doorbell. Someone would answer—perhaps a young maid or an elderly housekeeper—and she would be down the stairs before they could even see her, before they could figure out who had left the baby behind. But she had not imagined that no one would answer at all.
She cannot leave her baby here and hope that someone will open the door and spot the basket in the morning. The baby could die in this cold. She glances at the basket again, accepting the possibility that she may very well have to carry it and Emma Jean back to her apartment.
“Then what will I do?” she whispers.
But suddenly, a light does flicker on behind the lace curtains. She blinks and rushes to the stone steps, her heart thumping like a snare drum in her chest. She jogs down the stairs, almost slipping on a patch of black ice along the way, but she makes it to the sidewalk and behind the stairs of a neighboring house by the time the door swings open.
A young maid does not answer the door or an elderly housekeeper, but a tall Negro man in a navy blue robe. He squints at the silent street, adjusting a pair of spectacles on his nose.
Angelique recognizes him instantly. He is the man in the newspapers, the reverend who spoke out against the covenants barring Negroes from living anywhere outside of the Black Belt on the South Side. He’d received death threats for his frankness.
“Now that is a fella with some metal, I’ll tell ya’,” Daniel said with a nod, jabbing at a page in The Chicago Defender as he read her the news story while she cooked dinner months ago.
And that was a man she knew she could entrust with the welfare of her baby girl.
She watches as a bright-skinned Negro woman who looks to be in her late 30s pushes past the reverend and points frantically to the ground. The woman’s head is hallowed by a nest of pinned rollers. She is also wearing a robe—pink and satin with lace around the high collar. The woman stoops and scoops the baby into her arms, making her wail again.
She tries to soothe Emma Jean, bouncing her up and down, while saying something to the reverend.
Viewing them from a distance, Angelique wants to shout to the woman not to bounce the baby quite so hard.
“Rock her! Don’t bounce her up and down like that! She likes to be rocked!” she wants to yell, cupping her hands around her mouth. But she fights the urge.
The reverend reaches down and grabs the basket. He tugs out the envelope and rips it open, and she hopes that he hasn’t ripped the note, too—the last thing she will ever say to her baby girl. The note is still intact. He is reading it as the couple takes the baby and the basket inside.
They shut the door behind them, and a deep, dark hole opens up beneath her. Angelique falls into it. She doesn’t bother to claw at the edges; she knows she will never get out.
Angelique stares at the closed door for a long time until the interior light goes out. She finally turns around to make her way back to the “L” Train, back toward home to get the sleep she suspects will never come.
“What have I done? What have I done? What have I done?” she whispers to herself as she walks, choking back sobs, sending puffs of breath into the frigid night air. The wind dries her tears.
In the morning she will head to Union Station and board another train to a destination she has not yet determined, praying that she has done the right thing tonight, that she has done right by her Emma Jean.
About the Author
Shelly Stratton is the penname of an award-nominated women’s fiction author who has published more than a dozen novels in her career.
She is married and lives in Maryland with her husband and their daughter. She loves to paint, read, and watch movies. Visit her at her web site www.shellystrattonbooks.com.
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