The Darkest Hour
Yi Nuo Cheng
October 12, 1929
Layers of intricate beadwork flashed as flapper skirts twirled. Dozens of feet stomped on the linoleum floor, a heady rhythm of euphoria and merriment, and a shower of golden glitter rained down on the swaying bodies on the dance floor. Margie had only a moment to ponder how that had been managed, before a glass of champagne was offered to her on a gleaming silver tray. Though she was already tipsy, she accepted the drink, savouring the sensation of bubbles lingering on her tongue.
The prohibition act was in full effect, but Margie’s bootlegger never let her down. This was New York City, after all, a quiltwork of extreme wealth and poverty, glamour and ghettos, parties and gunfights. As she caught a glimpse of herself in the polished-bronze ceiling- wearing a fanciful canary-coloured dress, a feather boa, and a bejewelled headband- Margie felt a wide beam stretch from ear to ear. New York was an oyster and Margaret Whitlock, an up-and-coming lady of high society, was the glistening pearl.
When she finally left the speakeasy, the clock had struck midnight. A howling wave of October air stole Margie’s feather boa from her shoulders, and she cried out as it was spirited away into the night.
It’s alright, Father will buy me hundreds more when the market comes to cash, she reassured herself. The stock market had been rising for a while, and Mr. Whitlock, a successful investor, had bought thousands of shares, just like every other sensible man in the country. Once the market reached its peak, everyone would be filthy rich. These times weren’t called the Roaring Twenties for nothing.
Margie wondered idly if Father would build a swimming pool in the backyard and fill it with cash- now that would be fun. She thought she could smell good luck in the air, scented like effervescent champagne. Or maybe she’d imagined it, having had too much to drink.
September 20, 1930
Juilliard was everything Ruth had ever dreamed of, from when she was a little girl learning how to play the first notes on her cello. Life had been so hard back then. It was only by a miracle of God that she had managed to find a music teacher; almost none of the highly skilled (white) musicians had wanted to teach a little black girl. Oh, how Ruth had bested them.
Now, she could artfully tease the most difficult glissandos, strike the strings in most passionate song, revel at the light skipping of staccatos. Her bow was a stallion, flying free over the lush plain of the cello. And what a magnificent cello it was, reverberating with a range of emotions, evoking excitement, joy, melancholy under Ruth’s nimble fingers.
Her mother had always said that she had a gift. Ruth could play with soul.
That was why a little piece of her crumbled and died inside when she received the earth-shattering letter. To my daughter, Ruth Gardner…
Though her mother was practically illiterate, the message came through clear as day. Ruth’s parents, industrial labourers, had been laid off. Since Black Tuesday on October 29, 1929, thousands of people all across America had become unemployed, and Ruth knew that her parents were lucky to have stayed in work for this long. Still, the news hit her like a sucker punch in the gut. Although she was good enough to have earned a partial scholarship, her parents’ income had been crucial to supplying the little bit of tuition that she did have to pay. Now it was gone.
Racial and gender discrimination had been tough hurdles in the way of Ruth’s path to Juilliard, but she’d overcome them. There were few women at this university, and even fewer coloured women. At Juilliard, she wore her dark skin and natural hair as a badge of honour, to show the world that, despite the difficulties, she’d made it. If she returned to Harlem, she would melt into the background, becoming one of the so-called rabble that racism deemed her to be.
More and more people these days were leaving university- their families forced to move to seek opportunity elsewhere- and Ruth was about to become one of them, a nameless face in a sea of despair and disappointment.
July 4, 1931
One of these days, Mr. Whitlock was going to drink himself to death.
Peeking in through the crack in her father’s bedroom door, Margie spotted him sprawled in his armchair, facing the open window. A bottle of whiskey dangled from his hand, while three empty ones littered the floor. It had been like this ever since that fateful autumn.
By October 24, 1929, the stock levels had reached the point where the losses were worse than what could possibly be gained. On Black Thursday, five days before The Great Crash, investors had begun to frantically sell their stocks. Since many stocks had been bought on margin, the low stock values had forced many investors had to liquidate their holdings. That is to say, investors like Margie’s father lost everything.
Margie hated everything to do with finances and the stock market and the economy. The only reason she knew anything about it at all was because her father would never stop ranting about it. More than anything, she wished she could get married to a rich man who would pull her out of destitution- she’d never have to worry about money again. For now, however, the slovenly state of the economy was the most present thing bearing on her mind.
“Father?” She timidly knocked on the door.
Clearly inebriated, he turned around in his chair and glared at her.
The putrid, sharp stench of alcohol stung Margie’s nose. My father is not a drunkard. He is a businessman and investor. The lies tasted like ash in her mouth. “It’s time to go to Herman Anderson’s Fourth of July Party.” She tried to smile, in honour of the occasion.
Independence day used to be a delightful celebration, before she and her widowed father had been forced to move from their opulent mansion into this tiny shack that was ashamed to be called a house. Even worse, the shack had been unreasonable pricey! It was all the Federal Reserve’s fault. When the stock prices had ballooned so dramatically back in 1929, the Federal Reserve had raised interest rates to try to slow the rise. Due to the high interest rates, large costly things like cars and houses were not bought as often. This led to a lull in production, which meant unemployment and a weaker economy. And the interest mean expensive houses.
Mr. Whitlock’s whisky-induced crankiness intensified, and he pinned Margie to the wall with his glare as if she were a gnat under his shoe. “Herman Anderson? Isn’t he the one you’re married to?”
“No, Father.” Not yet.
“Well, hurry up!” Amber liquid sloshed beneath the glass as Mr. Whitlock thumped the whiskey bottle onto the arm of his chair. “Time is money, and Margie, you aren’t getting any younger.”
She winced, as if her twenty-six years of age were digging into her flesh like razors. “He says he needs to be able to support himself before he gets into a serious relationship. Lots of young men are doing that these days, Father.”
Burping, Mr. Whitlock responded nastily, “Not all young men live off of old money like Herman Anderson does.” The Anderson family, once British nobility, had been prosperous for generations. “I guess you’re not pretty enough for him,” Mr. Whitlock sneered.
Margie knew that her father was trying to get under her skin. It was all he seemed to these days, when he wasn’t drinking, complaining, or trying to marry her off. She nodded demurely and slipped out of his room. Having her father drive would’ve been preferable, but Herman Anderson’s house was within walking distance, and that would just have to do.
December 24, 1932
Banking Panics Across America! Banks are Forced to Liquidate Loans When Clients Demand to Cash in Accounts! One-Fifth of All American Banks Will Be Bankrupt By 1933!
Consumer and Business Investment Spending Lower Than Ever! Fear of Future Deflation Discourages Spending and Borrowing!
42.9% unemployment rate for black women living in the Northern US! Are ‘Slave Markets’ the Only Option?
Gritting her teeth, Ruth slammed the pages of the newspaper together. They were playing a risky game, claiming that ‘slave markets’ were the solution. ‘Slave markets’ were street corners when women of colour congregated, waiting for white women to pick them to work as maids. The atmosphere was always uneasy, the white woman gawking at the black women as if they were produce at a grocery store. As for those who couldn’t find work even at a ‘slave market’, well, there were far worse occupations than cleaning houses…
Desperate as times were, Ruth would not allow herself or her family to seek work in that way. Instead, the Gardner women opened a beauty parlor. White barbers, beauticians, and hairstylists were unwilling to receive black customers, so such occupations were quite beneficial within the coloured communities. In their little house on the brink of Harlem, the Gardners opened Gardner’s Beauty & Hair Salon. Every morning, Ruth plastered a blinding grin on her face to greet customers.
The salon was even open on Christmas Eve. Anything for money. Even during these bleak times, you never knew who might need an emergency makeover for a holiday party.
Today’s first customer was a young white woman. Ruth’s younger siblings stared at the woman with ravenous curiosity, for white folk rarely came into this part of the city.
“Alice, Annie, Betty, Ida, Mae! You close your mouths before you catch flies!” Ruth hissed, throwing aside her newspaper and gliding towards the door. The five younger girls immediately slammed their jaws shut and scampered back into the salon. Regaining her composure, Ruth opened the door and faced the customer, her thousand-watt smile at full brightness. “Please, come in.”
The woman obliged. Ruth took note of the shabbiness of her pale pink coat and the outdated fashion of the woman’s scuffed shoes. Yet, her gait and posture spoke of propriety and elegance. So she had once been high society, but had fallen from grace. Most likely a victim of the 1929 stock market crash.
“How can I help you, miss?” Ruth asked.
“I need to look beautiful, and perfect, and stunning. You see, there’s a Christmas party I’m going to tonight, and I might just find a husband there.” The woman’s voice was breathy, lilting melodiously. That, combined with her dark doe-eyes, rosy cheeks, and short golden hair, enhanced the woman’s naive appearance.
“Of course, miss. We have a selection of makeup looks and hairstyles to choose from. I’m Ruth, and I’ll be helping you today.” Ruth led the woman into the salon and sat her down in front of a mirrored vanity.
“Ruth- what a pretty name,” the woman marvelled. “I’m Margaret Whitlock. But please, call me Margie.”
As the two went through different makeup looks and hairstyles, an easy dialogue ensued. The state of the economy was a taboo subject with Ruth’s regular customers- they didn’t like to be reminded of their poverty- but it was all Margie seemed to want to talk about. Ruth spoke of the deflation that other countries of the world were experiencing, the unemployment rates, the depressingly low GDP of the past two years. Contrary to the first impression, she’d given, Margie was quite sharp, contributing an impressive amount of knowledge and speculation. She said that people needed to cling on to hope, that pessimism was what had brought the economic decline and optimism was what would get America through it.
Before long, Margie’s honey-blonde hair was fetchingly arranged in curls framing her face, and makeup outlined her delicate features, but she and Ruth did not stop talking. There was something about Ruth’s tough, frank personality that clicked with Margie’s gentle demeanor. Words gushed out of them like geysers; Margie’s struggles in finding a husband, her father’s deteriorating state; Ruth’s determination to beat discrimination, her bitterness at having to leave university. The two women had been lonely for so long that they’d nearly forgotten what it felt like to let it all out- but that only made the conversation more gratifying.
Before Margie left the salon, she booked another hair appointment for next week. Her father would not approve of this frivolous spending of money, but what was monetary wealth compared to the value of friendship?
June 30, 1934
“Your father did what?” Ruth burst into Margie’s house. Although the salon on the edge of Harlem was where the two women usually met (to talk for hours on end and consume Ruth’s mother’s coffee cake), Margie had called an emergency rendezvous at the Whitlock residence. Since Margie’s father didn’t like for her to be consorting with people of colour, Ruth had never been here before. She was astounded by the strange mish-mash of luxury and paltriness that the house embodied. Fine paintings and a lavish silverware cabinet graced the walls, but the house was tiny and reeked of alcohol and stale cigarettes. It was like the ghost of the Roaring Twenties was haunting this place.
Margie stared dejectedly at the floor. “I don’t know. I mean, I do know, he left a note.”
“Let me see that!” Ruth pried the letter out of Margie’s hand and scoured it. Words popped out at her: California, new opportunities, sorry, will write… “He abandoned you?”
The other woman nodded forlornly. “Have you heard of ‘the poor man’s divorce’? It’s when a man leaves his family because he has no money to support them- without getting a proper divorce, because he can’t afford one. I suppose my father’s leaving is like that sort of thing.”
“How dare he! How dare he leave you! It wasn’t your fault that he so foolishly bought those shares, or that the Federal Reserve raised the interest rates. Or that the market crashed, or that the banks failed because everybody wanted to withdraw their funds. This is nonsense!” Ruth thought she felt blood vessel burst.
“What will I do now? I can’t go to a homeless shelter. Will they even accept a woman who doesn’t have children?” Margie wrung her hands.
“You’re Protestant and white. The homeless shelters have no qualms about you.” It must’ve come out more aggressively than Ruth had meant, because Margie’s face fell even further. “No, no, Margie, I didn’t mean it like that. You know what, don’t bother going to the shelter. Come to our place. Come on, we’ll pack your things right now.”
Many white women would’ve been humiliated by the prospect of going to stay with a black family- in Harlem of all place- but the Gardners’ was already a second home to Margie. She grabbed Ruth’s arm hopefully. “You really mean it?”
“Do I look like I’m joking, miss?” As always, Ruth’s face was dead serious. She clapped her hands briskly and started towards Margie’s bedroom. “Let’s get started. The day is not young!”
“I constantly thank God for you, Ruth.” Surveying her jam-packed suitcase and empty room, Margie reached for her friend’s hand and squeezed it.
“You’re welcome.” Distractedly, Ruth glanced at the sun, which was setting rapidly. The sky was awash with rosy colours, but inky darkness lurked in the corners. Night was fast approaching, and so were the salon’s busiest hours; Friday was a popular day for a night out. “Margie, I’m sorry, but I’ve really gotta go. Work calls. Do you want to come right now?”
“Oh, no, I won’t trouble you tonight. Go home and tell your family that I’m coming- oh, and that I’m very grateful. We haven’t packed any of my bed things, so I’ll be grand for the night.”
Ruth nodded absentmindedly, calculating how long it would take to walk back to Harlem, kissed Margie on the cheek, and left.
In the process of packing, Mr. Whitlock’s old armchair had been shifted into the hallway. As soon as she was alone, Margie sat down on with a sigh. She barely had time to collect the drifting wisps of her thoughts before the front door opened.
A wall obscured the door from Margie’s view, so she assumed it was Ruth, having accidentally left something behind. She left the armchair and stepped towards the front door, a greeting on the tip of her tongue-
That’s when she saw the robber.
Stories of petty thieves had been circulating all throughout the city. With unemployment rates higher than ever, suicide, malnutrition, prostitution, and crime levels had increased too.
It had been a grave mistake to leave the door unlocked.
Margie stifled a shriek as the masked man swung a gun at her. “Quiet!” He growled, keeping the gun trained on her as he marched toward the silverware cabinet. Margie wondered if there was even ammunition in the firearm, for bullets were not free, and every spare penny usually went towards buying food. Still, she didn’t take any chances.
“Where’s your silver?” He demanded, shutting the empty cabinet in disgust.
Slowly, she pointed towards her bulging suitcase. The robber’s eyes narrowed, and he closed in on the case, all while keeping the gun pointed towards Margie’s head. Closing her eyes, she listened to the sound of the suitcase being rolled away, and the unsteady lurching of her own heartbeat. Finally, the last of the man’s footsteps faded away and Margie let out a gasp. The suitcase was gone, and so were most of the paintings on the walls. She knew she was beyond lucky to still be alive, but a vast hollowness yawned and gaped inside of her.
Margie had well and truly lost everything.
September 1, 1944
Braiding little Mae’s hair, Ruth tried to explain the situation to her five sisters. “In 1933, the Supreme Court had ruled that the government could regulate the economy whenever needed to ensure the protection of society, and that this regulation would not be an infringement on liberty. To assist the economy, President Roosevelt started the Works Administration program.”
“Mr. President wanted to help people find jobs, and in 1933, he was allowed to. So he started a program for Americans who needed help,” Margie simplified, handing Ruth a hair elastic.
“But it ended?” Ida pulled on Margie’s sleeve. Ever since Margie moved in five years ago, the Gardners had treated her as one of their own. She had long since given up hopes of finding a husband- she was already thirty-four, and had recently made other plans…
“In 1939. The Federal Theatre Project was disbanded. But it’s ok, I’ve got the salon.” Mournfulness engulfed Ruth as she imagined her cello strings and bow dancing beneath her hands. It had been nine years since she’d left Juilliard, but Ruth had practiced diligently every day, the burning the midnight oil after the salon closed. She really had to thank the government for giving her an opportunity to make music for a living, but now that was over. Wartime American had no time for such things as music.
“I still think that the government should cut taxes and shrink their control over the economy. The free market has been suspended for too long. Sure, the war’s provided momentary economic relief, but it won’t last. People need to be free to decide what they buy and invest in, in order for there to be beneficial economic growth,” said Alice, Ruth’s oldest younger sister. She was newly seventeen and enjoyed employing an extensive vocabulary.
“You’re right, Alice, but the free market will have to wait for the war to be over. All of our tax dollars are funding the battle right now,” Ruth replied.
“Ruth,” Margie uttered hesitantly.
“Yeah?” Ruth was busy thinking about how she could made the most amount of food with the least amount of materials. Rations and high taxes imposed by the government for WWII funding were tricky to work around. She turned to her younger siblings. “How many more bowls of oatmeal porridge can you eat before you get sick?”
“None,” groaned the Gardner girls.
“Ruth,” Margie began again.
“Unless there’s sugar to go with it!” Betty added as an afterthought.
“Sorry, Betty, sugar’s a uniform coupon ration, and we’re all out for this week.” Tying the last elastic into place, Ruth patted Mae’s head.
“Ruth!” Margie yelled over the clamour. The Gardner girls grew hushed at once; Margie rarely raised her voice.
Concerned, Ruth directed her full attention towards her friend. “What is it?”
“I’ve enlisted into the army. The air force.” Margie’s face was a mask.
Shocked, Ruth spluttered, “But- but- do you know what you’re getting into? When did they even say they were allowing women in on the war effort? Air force- Margie, you’ve never even been on a plane! There’s rumours that the government is going to bomb Japan soon, as payback for Pearl Harbour. Millions of people are dead, and millions more are dying as we speak.”
Margie’s face remained passive, motionless as if it was carved from stone.
Frustrated, Ruth cried, “Death’s not like marriage, Margie, you can’t just up and ‘poor man’s divorce’ or anything like that. Once you’re gone, it’s for good. You could die if you join the force. For the love of everything good and holy, it’s war!”
A grim expression on her face, Margie nodded. She’d revisited these arguments hundreds of times in her head, and yet her conviction remained steel-solid. “There’s nothing left for me here. No husband, children, family. Except for you girls. I shall miss you most dearly,” Margie spoke softly, “But you don’t need me here. You don’t need help like the poor souls fighting overseas do.”
Suddenly, Ruth was struck by how much her friend had changed. Long gone was the Margie who danced and drank at speakeasies, throwing herself at wealthy men and relying on her father for everything. The Great Depression had sharpened Margaret Whitlock into a whole new creature, one who could endure hardship without so much as batting an eyelash, someone who was willing to sacrifice herself for the liberation of peace. As for Ruth herself, she no longer believed herself to be destined for greatness, or dreamt of fancy cello concerts and Juilliard. The odds were far too stacked for her to be anything better than a hairstylist at the salon. It was just her lot in life, and she was slowly coming to terms with it.
A heavy somberness hung in the atmosphere, but there was an inkling of triumph beneath the bleakness, a stubbornly flickering candle-flame veiled within miles of darkness. With the war had come economic reform, and no matter whether it was good or bad, it was a change. A chance for a fresh start. They had braved the Great Depression standing side by side. Whatever came next, rain or shine, they would survive by supporting each other.
Thousands of leagues away, cannons boomed, guns spat out teeth of steel, and shrapnel plummeted down from cloudy skies like a fatal hail. Corpses lay strewn across the ground, staining the earth scarlet in a gruesome display. The dying moaned their misery as their brethren trampled and splintered their bones in attempts to escape their fate. There was no beauty or grace in the face of death.
Here was a battle yet to be won,
The war of the world leaves mercy for none.
Man against man, gun against gun,
The darkest hour was far from done.
I wrote this short story as a project for Humanities class in grade 9 (that’s why it’s a bit heavy on the informational side), and recently rediscovered it while cleaning out my Google Docs. I hope you liked it!
If you’re interested in seeing more short stories and other creative writing from me, there’s a folder, called Stories & Poems, in the main menu bar up above for your viewing pleasure. Telling stories is and forever will be one of my greatest loves, and I hope that I get more time to do a lot more story writing soon!! Finally, I’d super duper appreciate any comments or constructive criticism, so don’t hesitate to shoot me a comment below!
As always, thank you so much for reading!