فصل 02

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دانلود اپلیکیشن «زیبوک»

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Chapter two

The Store

When I was three and Bailey four, we had arrived in the dusty

little town, wearing notes on our wrists which stated - “To Whom It May Concern” - that we were Marguerite and Bailey Johnson Jr., from Long Beach, California, on our way to Stamps, Arkansas, to Mrs. Annie Henderson.

Our parents had decided to put an end to their disastrous marriage, and Father shipped us home to his mother. The conductor on the train had been asked to take care of us, and our tickets were pinned to my brother’s inside coat pocket.

I don’t remember much of the trip, but after we reached the segregated southern part of the journey, things must have improved. Negro passengers, who always traveled with full lunch boxes, felt sorry for “the poor little motherless darlings” and gave us lots of cold fried chicken and potato salad.

The town reacted to us as its residents had reacted to all things new before our arrival. It regarded us for a while without curiosity but cautiously, and after we were seen to be harmless (and children) it closed in around us, as a real mother welcomes a stranger’s child. Warmly, but not affectionately.

We lived with our grandmother and uncle in the back of the Store (it was always spoken of with a capital S), which she had owned for around twenty-five years.

Early in the century, Momma (we soon stopped calling her Grandmother) sold lunches to laborers in the two factories in Stamps. Her delicious meat pies and cool lemonade made her business a success. At first she went to the factories. Later she set up a stand between them and supplied the workers’ needs for a few years. Then she had the Store built in the heart of the Negro area. There customers could find basic foods, a good variety of colored thread, pig food, corn for chickens, coal oil for lamps, light bulbs for the wealthy, shoestrings, balloons, and flower seeds. Anything not visible could be ordered.

When Bailey was six and I a year younger, we could repeat the multiplication tables extraordinarily quickly. Uncle Willie used to sit, like a huge black Z (he had been crippled as a child), and listen to us. His face pulled down on the left side, and his left hand was only a little bigger than Bailey’s.

Momma related countless times, and without any show of emotion, how Uncle Willie had been dropped when he was three years old by a woman who was taking care of him. She seemed to hold no anger against the baby-sitter, nor for her God who allowed the accident. She felt it necessary to explain over and over again to those who knew the story by heart that he wasn’t “born that way.”

In our society, where two-legged, two-armed strong Black men were able at best to earn enough for only the necessities of life, Uncle Willie was the subject of jokes of the underemployed and underpaid. He was proud and sensitive, so he couldn’t pretend that he wasn’t crippled; nor could he pretend that people were not disgusted by his body.

Only once in all the years of trying not to watch him, I saw him pretend to himself and others that he wasn’t crippled.

Coming home from school one day, I saw a dark car in our front yard. I rushed in and found a strange man and woman drinking Dr. Pepper in the cool of the Store. I sensed a wrongness around me.

I knew it couldn’t be the strangers. When I looked at Uncle Willie, I knew what was happening. He was standing erect behind the counter, not leaning forward or resting on the small shelf that had been built for him. His eyes seemed to hold me with a mixture of threats and appeal.

I dutifully greeted the strangers and my eyes wandered around looking for his walking stick. It was nowhere to be seen. He said,

“This… this… my niece. She’s… just come from school. You know… how… children are… th-th-these days… they play all d-d-day at school and c-c-can’t wait to get home and pl-play some more.”

The people smiled, very friendly.

He added, “Go on out and pl-play, Sister.”

The lady laughed and said, “Well, you know, Mr. Johnson, they say you’re only a child once. Have you any children of your own?”

Before I left, I saw him lean back on the shelves of chewing tobacco. “No, ma’am… no ch-children and no wife.” He tried a laugh. “I have an old m-m-mother and my brother’s t-two children to I-look after.”

I didn’t mind him using us to make himself look good. In fact, I would have pretended to be his daughter if he wanted me to. Not only did I not feel any loyalty to my own father, I figured that if I had been Uncle Willy’s child, I would have received much better treatment.

The couple left after a few minutes, and Uncle Willie made his way between the shelves and the counter-hand over hand. From the back of the house, I watched him move awkwardly from one side, bumping into the other, until he reached the coal-oil tank. He put his hand behind it and took his walking stick in his strong fist and shifted his weight on the wooden support. He thought he had succeeded in his pretense.

I’ll never know why it was important to him that the couple would take a picture of a whole Mr. Johnson home with them. He must have tired of being a cripple, tired of the high-topped shoes and the walking stick, his uncontrollable muscles and thick tongue, and the looks of pity he suffered. For one afternoon, one part of an afternoon, he wanted to be rid of them.

I understood, and felt closer to him in that moment than ever before or since.

During these years in Stamps, I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare. He was my first white love. Although I enjoyed and respected Kipling, Poe, Butler, Thackeray, and Henley, I saved my young and loyal love for Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, and W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Litany at Atlanta.” But it was Shakespeare who said, “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.” It was a state with which I felt myself most familiar. I accepted his whiteness by telling myself that he had been dead for so long it couldn’t matter to anyone anymore.

Bailey and I decided to memorize a scene from The Merchant of Venice, but we realized that Momma would question us about the author and that we’d have to tell her that Shakespeare was white, and it wouldn’t matter to her whether he was dead or not. So we chose “The Creation” by James Weldon Johnson instead.

Weighing the half-pounds of flour and putting them dust-free into the thin paper sacks was a simple kind of adventure for me. I developed an eye for measuring how full a container of flour, sugar, or corn had to be to push the scale indicator over to eight ounces or one pound. When I was absolutely accurate, our appreciative customers used to praise me: “Sister Henderson sure got some smart grandchildren.” If I made a mistake in the Store’s favor, the eagle-eyed women would say, “Put some more in that sack, child. Don’t you try to make your profit off me.”

Then I would quietly punish myself. For every bad judgment, the fine was no silver-wrapped Kisses, the sweet chocolate candy that I loved more than anything in the world, except Bailey. And maybe canned pineapples. My love of them nearly drove me mad. I dreamt of the days when I would be grown and able to buy a whole carton for myself alone.

Although the sweet golden rings sat in their cans on our shelves all year, we only tasted them during Christmas. Momma used the juice to make almost-black fruit cakes. Then she lined heavy iron pans with the pineapple rings for rich upside-down cakes. Bailey and I received one slice each, and I carried mine around for hours, picking off small pieces of the fruit until nothing was left except the perfume on my fingers. I’d like to think that my desire for pineapples was so special that I wouldn’t allow myself to steal a can (which was possible) and eat it alone out in the garden. But I’m certain that I must have considered the possibility that others would notice the smell on my fingers, and didn’t dare to attempt it.

Until I was thirteen and left Arkansas for ever, the Store was my favorite place to be. Alone and empty in the mornings, it looked like an unopened present from a stranger. Opening the front doors was pulling the ribbon off an unexpected gift. The light would come in softly (we faced north), slowly moving over the shelves of canned fish, tobacco, thread. Whenever I walked into the Store in the afternoon, I sensed that it was tired. Only I could hear the slow heartbeat of its job half done. But just before bedtime, after numerous people had walked in and out, had argued over their bills, or joked about their neighbors, or just dropped in to say hello, the promise of magic mornings returned to the Store.

Momma opened boxes of crackers and we sat around the meat block at the back of the Store. I sliced onions, and Bailey opened two or even three cans of fish. That was supper. In the evening, when we were alone like that, Uncle Willie didn’t stutter or shake or give any indication that he had a problem. It seemed that the peace of a day’s ending was an assurance that the understanding God had with children, Negroes, and the crippled was still good.

Throwing handfuls of corn to the chickens and mixing leftover food and oily dish water for the pigs were among our evening chores. Bailey and I walked down the trails to the pig yard, and standing on the fence we poured the unappealing mess down to our grateful pigs.

Late one day, as we were feeding the pigs, I heard a horse in the front yard (it really should have been called a driveway, except that there was nothing to drive into it), and ran to find out who had come riding up on a Thursday evening. The used-to-be sheriff sat on his horse in such a way that his attitude was meant to show his authority and power over even dumb animals. How much more authority he would have over Negroes. Nothing needed to be said.

From the side of the Store, Bailey and I heard him say to Momma, “Annie, tell Willie he’d better stay out of sight tonight. A crazy nigger assaulted a white lady today. Some of the boys’ll be coming over here later.” Even now, I remember the sense of fear which filled my mouth with hot, dry air, and made my body light.

The “boys”? Those cement faces and eyes of hate that burned the clothes off you if they saw you standing around on the main street downtown on Saturday. Boys? It seemed that youth had never happened to them. Boys? No, men filled with the ugliness and rottenness of old hatreds.

The used-to-be sheriff was confident that my uncle and every other Black man who heard of the Klan’s planned ride would quickly go under their houses to hide with the chickens. Without waiting for Momma’s thanks, he rode out of the yard, sure that things were as they should be and that he was a gentle master, saving those deserving servants from the law of the land, which he supported.

Immediately, Momma blew out the coal-oil lamps. She had a quiet talk with Uncle Willie and called Bailey and me into the Store.

We were told to take the potatoes and onions out of their containers and knock out the dividing walls that kept them apart. Then, with a fearful slowness, Uncle bent down to get into the empty space. It took for ever before he lay down flat, and then we covered him with potatoes and onions, layer upon layer. Grandmother knelt praying in the darkened Store.

It was fortunate that the “boys” didn’t ride into our yard that evening and insist that Momma open the Store. They would have surely found Uncle Willie and just as surely killed him. He cried the whole night as if he had, in fact, been guilty of some awful crime.

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