You’ve seen the woman in the photo. The woman screaming.
She is kneeling off the side of a rural road and staring directly at the camera, though this position is by accident and not by design. Even in her nondescript flannel shirt and blue jeans, she is beautiful or, at least, would be considered beautiful if society, in its infinite unwisdom, didn’t deem her too old to be. Those middle-aged lines and creases, exacerbated by her distress—wide eyes, open mouth, wild hair plastered to a sweat-damp forehead—nonetheless belong to a face whose primary characteristics are beauty and courage. You can tell this is a singularly brave woman. But there are limits to the courage of even the bravest souls, and you sense that, at this moment, her courage is crushed along with everything else that she holds dear in life.
Whether the photo contains that everything, though, you don’t know. You can’t dwell on that question for you’re too distracted by the rest of the photo. The other elements are too discordant, too illogical, too ugly.
The Greyhound bus behind her on the road, its shattered windows coughing out black smoke and yellow and red flames—the horrid colors of your imagination since the photo is in black and white. The dozen or so terrified blurs fleeing from the bus. The unconscious man lying on his stomach beside the woman. The circa 1960s police cruiser parked in the distance, two cops leaning complacently against it, neither helping the firebombed passengers but instead crossing their arms in an infuriating, what-can-we-do manner.
Ring any bells? No?
Trust me, you must’ve seen this photo before, maybe while flipping through the last quarter of an American history textbook. Flip fifty pages to the left and you’ll see a picture of a grinning president holding up a newspaper with the wrong headline. Flip fifty pages to the right and you’ll find another president, also grinning, but this grin is forced and pained, making an overhead V with his arms before he boards the presidential helicopter for the last time.
Still fuzzy? Maybe thinking I’m making this up? That’s understandable. You’ve forgotten, that’s all. And I would’ve too except for one little thing.
You see, I’ve met the woman in the photo.
Twice in my life, and each time she told me a story. The first was how she helped change the world for the better, though, in her modesty, she would never think this. And the second story saved my life. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Picture me now. Not as I am—a man nearing his forty-fifth birthday, with a receding hairline and a spare tire that has turned from an occasional unwelcome guest to a permanent resident around his middle. No, picture me as I was, nearly three decades ago, when a former B-movie actor was president … when I was fifteen.
Swoop down like a sparrow and see me pedaling my BMX bike from school under the great blue dome of southern California sky. I was five-six and 120 soaking-wet pounds, a nerd’s nerd except I wore no glasses or braces. I was burdened by an overlarge backpack, a paralyzing shyness, and a fast-approaching deadline to an assignment.
I reached what I thought was the apartment complex, though it was hard to tell since all Laguna Hills developments looked and sounded alike: pretentious “Mediterranean” names—Venetian Villa, Tuscan Arbor, whatever—and the dull stucco walls. Still, I parked my bike outside Apartment 12D and rang the doorbell, my heart thumping in my chest. Like I’ve said, I was shy then—still am, really—and I was meeting my first famous person.
The woman in the photo opened the door—except she wasn’t. No longer anyway. Gone was the denim-clad, middle-aged lady with the rich, dark hair. Instead, in front of me was an old woman with silver-streaked hair, and she was wearing a kitchen apron. Most different of all, she was smiling at me, an expression far removed from the horror of the picture.
My eyes processed this apparition, but my nose detected something else, emanating from the apartment. A smell like bread left in the toaster too long.
“Hi, are you, uh, Molly Valle?” I asked. “Sure. You’re Susan’s student, right?”
It took me a moment to wonder who Susan was, then I guessed it must’ve been the first name of Ms. Jankowski, my history teacher. The one who’d told me about an old teaching colleague, a civil rights hero who would gladly talk about her experiences for my final history assignment, a biographical sketch of a real-life hero.
“Yes, Ms. Jankowski told me I could, uh, interview you and—”
“Sure, come on in. Make yourself at home. I’ll be right back.” With that, she spun on her heels and disappeared into the apartment with a speed surprising in such an old body. But, then again, to a teenager, anyone over forty seemed capable of reading hieroglyphics. I stepped inside.
The apartment was small and cluttered, but it also had a comfortable, lived-in feel to it. Hanging from the walls was artwork and even my fifteen-year-old eyes could tell she hadn’t picked up the pieces from the local swap meet.
There were African masks, European oils, Asian watercolors, and various figurines whose origins I could no more work out than how to win over the cute cheerleader in Geometry 1B. Then there were the books. They weren’t so much stacked on the mismatched bookshelves as overrunning them like Mongols over enemy fortifications, with more than a few lying on the carpet like poleaxed soldiers. And incongruously, on one bookshelf amidst the chaos, was a wood-framed picture of a smiling, large-featured man who resembled an actor in those French movies my mom was always watching. Her son?
“So, what’s your name again?” Ms. Valle called from the kitchen, of which I could only glimpse a section from where I stood in the living room. She appeared like a frantic shadow moving here and there, backlit by an orange glow. Flames?
“RC, ma’am,” I called out as I sat down on a couch. “Like the cola.”
“RC? That’s certainly unique. Why are you called that?”
“Those are the initials of my first and middle names.”
“Makes a lot of sense to me. Would you like something to drink? I’m almost done here.”
“No thanks, ma’am,” I said, though I doubted she was almost done. And I was right. It would be five more minutes before she left the kitchen, her apron smeared and her hair spiked up, looking like a Warner Bros cartoon villain after the ACME bomb had blown up in her face. She set a tray of cookies and a glass of milk in front of me then collapsed in her own seat.
After I’d thanked her, she smiled and said, “You know, when I retired from teaching, I thought my stress levels would go down. But next to cooking, I’d take a classroom of freshmen any day of the week.”
I nodded like I knew what she was talking about. “What were you making?”
“Something French. I don’t want to butcher the name any more than I did the recipe.”
It was Molly Valle sitting across from me. This I could see now. On closer inspection, there was enough resemblance—the high cheekbones, the shape of her eyes—to convince me that this old lady and the middle-aged woman in the photo were the same person.
The expression “don’t judge a book by its cover” was apt, but the distance between the civil rights hero and this woman defeated by a cooking recipe was far too wide. Later, much later, I would learn Molly’s philosophy of finding the extraordinary behind the everyday, which was itself, on the surface, a hoary cliché. But it was also a truth I never fully grasped, especially not as a foolishly gaping fifteen-year-old.
“So, RC,” Ms. Valle said, “what do you want to know?”
“Everything, I guess.”
“Everything’s a tall order, kiddo.”
“Then maybe enough for me to get an A in Ms. Jankowski’s history class.”
The old lady smiled. “Now, you’re talking.”
And she did tell her story, the CliffsNotes version anyway. Being born in Mississippi in 1912 and growing up there. Being an English teacher during the early 1960s when the civil rights workers arrived in her small town. Being fired from her job due to her involvement with the so-called outside agitators. Her involvement with the Freedom Riders and being on the bus that was firebombed in Alabama in 1961, which resulted in the famous photo. Her sense of triumph after civil rights were finally given to African Americans in the South, and her subsequent move to southern California to start a new life and a new teaching job, which she kept until her retirement five years earlier at the age of sixty-eight.
“I figured I’d given enough of my life to education,” Ms. Valle said, “so I’ve been tooling around the world these last couple of years.” Her eyes swept across the apartment filled with curios. “Would that be enough for your paper?”
“More than enough,” I said and looked up from my scribbling. “Thank you.”
“Well, then, I’m glad to have helped,” she said and stood up. “I guess you can find the rest at the library, but if you need any more help, just give me a ring. Okay, RC?”
I nodded, but I didn’t need to call her back. Even before the age of the internet, it was a cakewalk finding information on the civil rights era from microfiche. I wrote my paper, titled, during a burst of unimaginable creativity, “Molly Valle: Civil Rights Hero,” and received an A. Ms. Jankowski was so pleased, she even nominated me for Student of the Month, the first and last time my slacker self ever received that honor. My parents took me on that grand tour of nerd celebration—pizza followed by miniature golf—and later, after Ms. Jankowski suggested I show Ms. Valle my paper, I returned to Apartment 12D right before summer break.
“Most excellent, RC,” Ms. Valle said, taking off her reading glasses after looking over my paper. She looked less flustered today, which was probably explained by her ordering Chinese takeout instead of cooking. “So, you ever thought of writing for a future?”
I hesitated then nodded. “I thought of majoring in English then becoming a novelist.”
“You definitely should, kiddo. You have talent.”
I nodded, but I wasn’t looking at her. For some reason, I found myself staring at the portrait of the man on the bookshelf.
“Who’s that?” I blurted out.
Ms. Valle didn’t seem surprised I’d asked the question. She didn’t even turn around to see whom I meant.
“A very talented man I knew a long time ago,” she told me. “Someone who gave me a recipe once.”
“To that, uh, French dish?”
“Yes, and he made it a lot better than I could.” A brief pause. “And he gave me a recipe to something else too.”
“Life,” she said and smiled. But the smile seemed sad. “God, that came off so pretentiously, didn’t it? It’s true, though. But that’s one story I won’t be telling today.”
I nodded, but I didn’t know what she was talking about. And it wasn’t the only strange statement she made that afternoon. As she escorted me to the door, she asked me, “Did any of your teachers tell you that your high school years will be the best of your life?”
I nodded again. In fact, three had: Mr. Spaulding, the assistant principal; Mr. Lowell, my English teacher; and Mr. Chang, my PE teacher. Many years later, I wondered why it’d only been male teachers who’d told me this.
“Don’t believe them,” she said, and there was an insistence in her voice. “Whatever excitement you feel right now in life, at fifteen, don’t ever let it escape. Grab onto it and hold tight, even if it’s bucking and biting and tearing at you to get away. Promise me that.”
“I promise,” I said, though I hadn’t the slightest inkling what she meant. Then and later, when I no longer called her Ms. Valle but Molly, she often said things I didn’t fully understand, to my detriment.
However, I did understand her parting words to me that afternoon three decades ago because they filled me with a giddy warmth:
“Keep in touch, RC. You’re meant for great things.”
I didn’t keep in touch. I meant to, but life—school, girls then women, jobs, taxes—got in the way. And I didn’t keep my promise.
I lost the “excitement” Ms. Valle had talked about, but, in my defense, her analogy wasn’t exactly apt. For excitement wasn’t a wild animal you held on to but a quality that languidly leaked from your life like air from a balloon. Not abruptly but gradually with each passing year as my twenties shifted to my thirties and then dissolved into my forties. By the time I was nearing forty-five, life had all the unpredictability and adventure of a microwavable TV dinner, which I actually often ate in my small apartment in Los Angeles.
My only consolation was that my friends’ lives weren’t any different. I looked at them—single, married, divorced, it made no difference—and I observed the same incipient gray hairs and the same long-established gray lives. Over twenty years earlier, my college roommate had boasted that he was going to rent a yacht with fifty hookers and sail the Caribbean, but now he, like so many others, was a cubicle dweller, and the extent of his dream’s realization was emailing me the occasional sailing video he liked on YouTube.
What happened to us? To all of us?
Needless to say, I never became a writer. At least, not one of any consequence. Just a few published short stories. No published novels, no produced screenplays. I had planned to be married to a brilliant, beautiful woman by thirty-five, but I was still single and childless nearly a decade later, with an impressive number of collapsed relationships behind me. And I had become a high school English teacher just like Ms. Valle. But, unlike her, I knew it wasn’t my calling and always approached summer vacations like an overboard Titanic passenger flailing for a lifeboat.
I was just beginning one of those blessed summers, sweating over a story on my laptop because my apartment’s air-con had given up the ghost again, when my iPhone rang. I didn’t recognize the number.
“Hello, RC, how are you?” came the female voice, weak and raspy. RC. I hadn’t been called that since I left for college over a quarter-century ago. And for some miraculous reason, I knew who it was in an instant.
“Ms. Valle!” I said, glad to hear her—and the surprise in my own voice since my life had long been drained of surprises. “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” she said, then there was a pause. “Actually, life lately hasn’t exactly been a bowl of cherries.”
She talked, and I listened. The fact that I was speaking to her finally hit me. I remembered her, as the saying went, like it was just yesterday, but “yesterday” was really thirty years ago. She was now 103 years old, a detail that momentarily short-circuited my synapses. When they recovered, I heard her telling me she was still living at home and, outside of traveling, was still enjoying the same hobbies she had always enjoyed.
“Like reading. I read your stories, RC. I always knew you would be a writer.”
“Thank you,” I said, wondering how she’d found them. My short stories had all been published in literary magazines with room-temperature circulations.
“But I wouldn’t call myself a writer,” I went on, “more of a wannabe writer.”
“Oh, no, you’re a writer. Don’t doubt yourself.” There was a pause. “In fact, how would you like to hear another story from me? Maybe one you might be interested in writing.”
I was thrown for moment. “Sure, okay. What is it about?”
“The man in the photo.”
Don’t know how I remembered, but I did. The photo on the cluttered bookshelf. The guy who resembled a French actor, except I now knew the performer’s name since my mom had dragged me to see Green Card in 1990, four years after first meeting Ms. Valle. The man in the photo looked like a middle-aged Gerard Depardieu.
Ms. Valle was speaking again: “I was being disingenuous when I said he only gave me a French recipe.”
“You said he gave you a recipe to life too.”
“Did I? Guess my memory’s really going, huh? But I’m sure whatever mistakes I make in telling my story, you can always check up on Google later, right? The dates, at least, if nothing else.”
That was the truth. Months later, after she’d told me what she could of her tale, I double-checked everything. Through Google, the library, interviews, and even trips to her hometown in Mississippi. By then, the research had become an obsession—a life-affirming and life-altering one—for I knew I had to bring the story before the world, even if that was the last thing I did with my life.
At that moment on the phone, however, these events were all ahead of me.
“Okay, I could come by to hear it,” I said, thinking I’d indulge an old lady’s request. She did help me get an A in history class, after all. “When are you free?”
“How about tomorrow morning?”
Which was abrupt, but I said yes anyway. That was Sunday, June 5th, 2016—two years, ten months, and seventeen days ago. The next morning, Monday, June 6th, 2016, she began telling me the second story, the one that you have in front of you now.
The story that changed my life and, if I were to wager a gentleman’s bet, maybe change yours too.