The Waynes and the Johnsons:
Albemarle County, Virginia, Circa 1862 and Beyond
Tyrese L. Coleman
In 1840, Claude Wayne exerted his God-given right to his property when he relieved himself inside a slave wench named Norma. The resulting child was his, hazel eyes glinting green in the sun, a mongrel if Wayne had ever seen one. Couldn’t stand to look at him. Sold the mutt to Johnson first chance he got. He sired an heir with his wife the very next night. Twenty-odd years later, those boys stood to shoot one another dead. One black, one white—each a rifle-musket aimed at the other, not knowing they share a daddy. Moist, mudded red clay ran burgundy around their feet, mixing one dead soldier’s blood with the next like that through the veins of brothers. Each man stared into the hazel eyes of the other as if looking inside their own.
It is that hazel shade that will confirm the relation of two women over a century later in 2016, a Wayne and a Johnson, stuffed like creamed French toast inside an IHOP booth. The distant cousins will avoid eye contact, not knowing what to say, if words could even be sufficient. Surprised at the way God’s sense of humor manifests, that they were matched via DNA from an ancestry website—of all things—they agree to meet, for what reason, neither will know. Will this encounter change their lives? There will be no weddings, no funerals, no cookouts, no showers. No more family than any Wayne or Johnson in this part of the world. But, they will shake hands and sit, exchange stories of growing up in the country, even realize they went to the same high school, their churches only a mile apart. They will watch one another, disguise their curiosity, their mutual examination of shared features, under lowered eyelids and genteel sips of sweetened ice tea with lemon.
But in 1862, Mitchel Johnson and Claude Wayne Jr. did not share the knowledge of their kin. A mist rose between the brothers, leveling the battlefield so that neither knew just where the other man stood in relation to the gun extending from his arm. All Mitchel wanted was to kill a white man, legal, no hanging afterward, no whippings. And he had killed many in the name of his mama, whose back burned with lashes, marks snaking in lick-like loops flaming her shoulders and upper chest. Not his real real mama, you see, but the only family he knew. And who’s to say who’s real, who your family is and who ain’t. More real than Claude Wayne being his daddy, that’s for sure, despite nasty quarter rumors. More real, indeed, than the thoughts of killing white men and living to see another day.
Mitchel Johnson bore a son, whose son bore a son, whose son bore a son, and they live in Albemarle Co. Virginia, and in January 2017, one of those sons of sons of sons will be shot by a Wayne on Highway 20. Marlon Johnson, unarmed, will speed ten miles over the limit. The interior of his 2008 Lexus, beige with gold trim, reeks of strawberry car freshener when Officer Dan Wayne loads a clip into his chest. Wayne almost vomits in a metal trashcan thinking of how the synthetic strawberries commingled with the iron-scented blood, an odor he can only describe as a rusty nail dipped in Kool-aid. Wayne does not tell his boss why he shot the boy, saying only he saw something black, Johnson reached for it, he protected himself. The shame sickens him. That’s a lie. It is the memory of incredulity, bordering betrayal, in Johnson’s eyes as he fingered his wounds that turns Wayne’s belly. He will always remember Johnson’s eyes, how the sun turned them green, describe them to his boss, “like mine exactly.” And Wayne will think, he might as well have gone and killed himself.
Claude Wayne Jr. served in the Great War only for himself. His daddy said once that niggers were not human beings. Claude Wayne Jr. knew that wasn’t really what his father thought, but rather just his joining in on the talk of the day, the rabble of men when they got together to boast about what they have and what others have not. Whether Wayne Jr. knew of his nigger brothers and sisters all over Virginia and North Carolina, no one can say, but it certainly did not matter to him. Claude Wayne Jr. saw himself as enlightened, held himself to a higher moral standard that did not include lying with slave wenches, as he would never sully the pure silky womb of his white wife by placing a tarnished member inside her. He never thought himself cruel to his slaves like his daddy could be. He tended and cared them, just like all his property, and on that battlefield, he fought for his legacy.
Across from his body reared that of his brother’s, shaking fiercely. Neither man knew just why they hadn't shot the other yet. The sounds of war began to die: screams of pain to whimpers; a grown man calling mama, it hurts, mama; another cursing between wet, ragged gasps. Yet, the canons were done, the rifles all shot out. The brothers at a lonely altar before God, were all alone in their own frozen war, close enough for a kiss and embrace, close enough to see the specks of green glistening in their eyes right after the sun rose, the battle over, an immediate winner unknown. Mutually, they lowered their weapons as if their bodies moved without permission, as if each body knew the other body was meant to go on, and it let the other go on.
On June 18, 2018, Marco Johnson will marry Gwendolyn Wayne at a church ceremony in Charlottesville. Both families attend. His soft hand will grab her’s—tightly, surely—before they take a leap and jump the broom.
Tyrese L. Coleman is a writer, wife, mother, and attorney. She is also the fiction editor for District Lit, and an associate editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. A 2016 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow her writing has appeared in several publications, including PANK, Brevity, The Rumpus, Hobart, The Tahoma Literary Review, and listed in Wigleaf's Top 50 (very) short fictions. She lives in the Washington D.C. metro area, and can be reached at tyresecoleman.com.