Evelyn Ann Casey
6 min readOct 27, 2020

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Vote Like an Inchworm

On my way from Madison to visit the cousins in suburban Milwaukee’s sprawl, I drove by the 2020 scene being replicated all across the country. An early voting line wriggled around the block inching its way to the library on Good Hope Road. I had not yet cast my ballot. Urged to “plan my vote” by pop-up ads every time I turned on the TV or clicked into YouTube, I clung to the time-honored “real” day of election nostalgia. Just because this year was “different” according to the news, everybody’s blog, Fox and NPR both — I told myself it shouldn’t be different. Couldn’t something be normal in this corona-infested year?

I turned east on 76th Street just past the library to pick up some fried chicken and biscuits at Popeyes. And an order of tenders and wings for the kids. How my white Wauwatosa cousins acquired a taste for soul food mystified me. Though I liked it too.

But I had a reason.

Elda introduced me to Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen in 2015, a few days after nine African Americans were killed during a Bible study at Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Five years ago, I worked at the nursing school where Elda was one of two black nurses on the faculty. She wore her hair in a short-cropped Afro and the dark brown freckles on her light brown cheeks reminded me of chocolate sprinkles on chocolate ice cream. Her office sat in the matrix between copier machine and staff snack bar where convenience generated impromptu conversations. I met her shortly after I started working there on a grant-funded outreach project. She was changing the water in her vase full of blue delphiniums. We began months of trading tips on summer gardening, fall cleanup, and how to force bulbs in winter.

By the time the delphiniums bloomed again, nine people were shot dead.

Elda’s door, usually ajar, stayed closed all day Thursday, June 18th, the day after the shooting. Her desk light beat down on student’s papers making up for broken clouds and little sun. She didn’t look up when I tapped the glass panel in her door. I walked away, relieved. I hadn’t known what to say. “Sorry?” Pathetic.

The next day, brighter and with twenty-four more hours distance from the initial shock of the news, I clipped an early Annabelle hydrangea and put it in a small vase, tying a purple ribbon around the rim. It looked pretty sitting on my desk. I stayed at my desk until near noon when I ventured over to the mini-fridge in the staff snack bar for the other half of yesterday’s lunch.

Elda stood in her office doorway. “Good to see you, Gail. Nice day.”

My eyes teared up. “I’m so sorry.”

“You? What are you sorry about?”

“Those nine people. That should never have happened,” I said.

She leaned on the doorjamb. “He was just a boy.”

“That boy shot nine people dead. In a church. Elda, this is America.” My hands shook.

Elda leveled her gaze at me. “Those nine praying people — they’re not dead, my friend. They are with the Lord. Free.”

I gasped at her lack of anguish, and her faith. She seemed so calm in the storm. “But — ”

She came closer and picked a Mountain Dew out of the fridge. “We make it hard for our young men to grow up,” she said. “They don’t grow up anymore. That shooter? Just a boy.”

“He was white,” I said. “The system wasn’t stacked against him. He could grow up.”

Elda cooled the side of her cheek with the soda can, put it down, and folded her arms. “You’re wrong,” she said. “Black boy, white boy, all the same. Got no job, didn’t finish high school, no girl wanted him. Nothing. Had to blame somebody. Always easy to blame blacks. Even blacks shoot blacks.”

I stared at Elda. She knew about a lot more than delphiniums, I thought to myself. I asked, “Why didn’t he shoot some white guy?”

Elda laughed. “Gail, honey, all that boy has is his ‘white supremacy’ flag.”

I hung my head and stretched my lily-white hands out in front of me as if they could stop a truck. “But he mowed them down in a church. Where’s God, Elda? How did we get here?”

She reached out her hands and grabbed mine making a bridge between us. “God doesn’t like it any better than you, Gail. He got killed too, you know.”

“Why, Elda, why does this happen over and over again?” My voice choked.

She cast her eyes up to heaven, down to hell, then straight at me. “I’ve got a nephew, Joey,” she said. “He’s trying hard to make something of himself. But he’s not getting anywhere. He’s working ten hours here, fifteen hours there, an under-the-counter gig if he can get it. Paying down a loan — on a loan — for his beat-up car. Lives in a buggy place with a friend. I ask him over for greens and rice, but he says they let him eat a Big Mac sometimes where he works.”

“Sounds like my nephew.” I roll my eyes.

“I rest my case,” she said. “Our boys are nothing but hours to Mr. McD and Walmart and the factory store. They hire hours, not people. Not even worth a living wage. Joey knows it. He flashed a $20 last Sunday — all I saw was a couple of joints to burn and forget. He’s a bag of hours, no pride in that. How’s he supposed to grow up, be a husband, a father — a man?”

Our grasped hands released each other.

“London Bridge is falling down,” I said.

“The only difference between your nephew and mine is that if the black boy looks like he might shoot somebody, they kill him first and ask questions later. If a white boy shoots a dozen people in a church, they arrest him nice and take him for a sandwich. But he’s no man.”

“I don’t know what to do,” I said.

“I’m getting tired of watching the news,” said Elda.

We stood silently, two middle-aged women who made their living by healing others, but coming up empty on medicines, therapies, stitches to heal the wound that kept on opening between black and white. We lived in two different worlds.

“You see that last election?” asked Elda. “We were starting to figure things out. White people voting for Obama — mercy me. Black people voting for one of their own like it was a miracle. Nobody pointing fingers at each other. Coming together. To fix things.”

“I never expected to be talking with you about race and stuff.” I squirmed my toe into the carpet. “I thought it was good we didn’t talk about these things. Maybe I was wrong.”

Elda popped her can of soda. “Guess the only way things change is when we chatter up our neighbors. Worked in the ’60s. Everybody put their heads together, and a few hearts.”

“Yeah, I lived through that. We ended Viet Nam, started a war on poverty, got some civil rights.” I suddenly felt like twenty again.

“Some people want us all pointy-fingered at each other. They make it hard to vote,” she said. “They know what we’d vote for. But, my gardening friend, we are like the inchworm. They try cutting us in half to stop us — but we make ourselves into two and four and a dozen-fifty more. We’re hungry for justice. Gotta be.”

My stomach growled We both laughed.

“Gail, you ever taste real fried chicken?” Elda mocked seriousness. “I’m taking you to Popeyes.”

When I went to grab my purse, I glanced at my Annabelle hydrangea on the desk — white, with a purple ribbon. I handed it to Elda before we left for the promised Popeyes.

When my grant-funded program ended, I moved on.

My takeout order of fried chicken for the cousins wafted from the well of my front passenger seat.

“Okay, Elda, I hear you.”

When I got home on Sunday, I stood in a wriggly line of early voters inching our way to the ballot box. This year is different — no time to wait. We’ve waited too long already. If America is supposed to be great again, why are there more killings, less jobs, and why are we all devasted by disease? And black lives? They do matter.

I cast my vote for a bunch of tall blue delphiniums. And donned an “I voted” sticker on my jacket. Time to go chat up a few folks, like Elda said.

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Evelyn Ann Casey

Evelyn lives in Madison, Wisconsin where she loves sharing herbs and flowers from her garden. And good conversation with friends.