فصل 09

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Chapter nine

Friends

Weekdays were the same. Saturdays, however, always dared to be different. After our return from St. Louis, Momma gave us a little cash weekly. I usually gave my money to Bailey, who went to the movies almost every Saturday. He brought back cowboy books for me.

One Saturday Bailey was late returning. Momma had begun heating water for the Saturday-night baths, and all the evening chores were done. It was quite late.

Uncle Willie said, “Sister, turn on the light.” On Saturdays we used the electric lights so that last-minute shoppers could look down the hill and see if the Store was open. Momma hadn’t told me to turn them on because she didn’t want to believe that it was night and Bailey was still out in the dark. Her anxiety was obvious in her hurried movements around the kitchen and in her lonely fearful eyes. Any break from routine may result in terrible news.

I had very little pity for my relatives’ anxiety. If something had happened to Bailey, Uncle Willie would always have Momma, and Momma had the Store. We weren’t their children. But I would be the major loser if Bailey was dead-he was the only family I claimed, if not all I had.

“Momma,” Uncle Willie called and she jumped. “Momma, why don’t you and Sister walk down to meet him?”

Bailey’s name hadn’t been mentioned for hours, but we all knew whom he meant.

Of course. Why didn’t that occur to me? I wanted to be gone. Momma said, “Wait a minute, little lady. Go get your sweater, and bring me mine.”

It was darker in the road than I’d thought it would be. Momma told me to carry the flashlight and she reached for my hand. Her voice came from high above me and in the dark her hand was wrapped around mine. I loved her suddenly. She said nothing. Just the gentle pressure of her rough hand showed me her own concern and assurance.

We passed houses which I knew well by daylight but couldn’t remember in the dark. Then Momma’s hand tightened and let go, and I saw the small figure walking along, tired and old-mannish, his hands in his pockets and his head bent.

“Bailey,” I said as Momma said, “Junior.” I started to run, but her hand caught mine again and held it tight. “We’ll walk, just like we’ve been walking, young lady.” There was no chance to warn Bailey that he was dangerously late, that everybody had been worried, and that he should create a good lie, or, better, a great one.

Momma said, “Bailey, Junior,” and he looked up without surprise. “You know it’s night and you’re just getting home?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He was empty. Where was his excuse?

“What have you been doing?”

“Nothing.”

“That’s all you’ve got to say?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“All right, young man. We’ll see when you get home.”

She had let me go. I grabbed for Bailey’s hand, but he pulled it away. I said, “Hey, Bailey,” hoping to remind him that I was his sister and his only friend, but he said something like “Leave me alone.”

Momma didn’t turn on the flashlight on the way back, nor did she answer the “Good evenings” that greeted us as we passed the darkened houses.

I was confused and frightened. He was going to get a whipping and maybe he had done something terrible. If he couldn’t talk to me it must have been serious. He seemed sad. I didn’t know what to think.

Uncle Willie said, “Think you’re getting too old, do you? You can’t come home. You want to worry your grandmother to death?” Bailey was beyond fear. Uncle Willie had a leather belt in his good hand but Bailey didn’t notice or didn’t care. “I’m going to whip you this time.” Our uncle had only whipped us once before and then only with a stick, so maybe now he was going to kill my brother. I screamed and grabbed for the belt, but Momma caught me. “He has a lesson coming to him. You come on and get your bath.”

From the kitchen I heard the belt hit bare skin. Bailey made no sound. I was too afraid to splash water or even to cry and take a chance of not hearing Bailey’s cries for help. But the cries never came and the whipping was finally over.

I lay awake for a long time, waiting for a sign-a cry or a whisper-from the next room telling me that he was still alive. Just before I fell exhausted into sleep, I heard Bailey saying his prayers: “Now I lay me down to sleep…”

My last memory of that night was the question, Why is he saying the baby prayer? We had been saying the grown-up prayer for years.

For days the Store was a strange place. Bailey didn’t talk, smile, or apologize. His eyes were expressionless. At meals I tried to give him the best pieces of meat and the largest portion of dessert, but he wouldn’t accept them.

Then one evening when we were feeding the pigs he said without warning, “I saw Mother Dear.”

If he said it, it was the truth. He wouldn’t lie to me. I don’t think I asked him where or when.

“In the movies.” He laid his head on the fence. “It wasn’t really her. It was a woman named Kay Francis. She’s a white movie star who looks just like Mother Dear.”

There was no difficulty believing that a white movie star looked like our mother and that Bailey had seen her. He told me that the movies changed each week, but when another picture came starring Kay Francis, we’d go together. He even promised to sit with me.

We had to wait almost two months before Kay Francis returned to Stamps. Bailey’s mood had improved a lot, but the expectation made him more nervous than he was usually. When he told me that the movie would be shown, we used our best behavior and were the perfect children that Grandmother deserved and wished to think we were.

It was a comedy. The whitefolks downstairs laughed every few minutes. The sound would remain in the air for a second before the people in the balcony accepted it and sent their own laughter to join with it.

I laughed, too, but not at the hateful jokes made about my people. I laughed because, except that she was white, the big movie star looked just like my mother. Except that she lived in a big house with a thousand servants, she lived just like my mother. And it was funny to think the whitefolks didn’t know that the woman they were admiring could be my mother’s twin, except that she was white and my mother was prettier. Much prettier.

The movie star made me happy. It was extraordinary good fortune to be able to save one’s money and go to see one’s mother whenever one wanted to. I left the theater feeling as if I’d been given an unexpected present. But Bailey was depressed again. (I had to beg him not to stay for the next show.) On the way home he stopped at the railroad track and waited for the night train. Just before it reached the crossing, he jumped out and ran across the tracks.

I was left on the other side going crazy. Maybe the huge wheels had killed him. Or even worse, maybe he caught the train and was gone for ever.

When the train passed he pushed himself away from the pole where he had been leaning, laughed at me for making all that noise, and said, “Let’s go home.”

One year later he did catch a train, but he didn’t find his Mother Dear-he got stuck in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for two weeks.

The summer picnic fish fry by the lake was the biggest outdoor event of the year. Everyone was there. All churches were represented, as well as the social groups, professional people (Negro teachers from Lafayette County), and all the excited children.

I had wanted to bring something to read, but Momma said if I didn’t want to play with the other children I could make myself useful by cleaning fish or bringing water from the nearest well. I wandered into a hidden quiet spot by accident. Signs with arrows pointed MEN, WOMEN, CHILDREN toward lanes that were hard to find, grown over since last year. Feeling old and very wise at ten, I couldn’t allow myself to be found by the small children peeing behind a tree. Nor did I dare to follow the arrow pointing the way for WOMEN. So when I needed to pee, I headed in another direction. When I got through the wall of trees I found myself in an open space much smaller than the picnic area, and cool and quiet. After my business was taken care of, I found a seat and leaned back on a tree trunk. This is what Heaven would be like. Maybe California, too. Looking straight up at the sky, I felt far away.

There was a sound of footsteps on the grass and I jumped at being found. I didn’t know that she too was escaping the noise of the picnic. We were the same age, and she and her mother lived in a neat little house behind the school. Her cousins, who were our age, were wealthier and lighter-skinned, but I had secretly believed that Louise was the prettiest female in Stamps, after Mrs. Flowers.

“What are you doing here by yourself, Marguerite?” She didn’t accuse, she asked for information. I said that I was watching the sky. She asked, “What for?” There was obviously no answer to a question like that, so I didn’t make up one.

Louise was a lonely girl, although she had plenty of playmates and was always ready to be a partner for any game in the schoolyard. Her face, which was long and dark chocolate brown, was sad. And her eyes, which I thought were her best feature, - shifted quickly as if what they sought had just a second before escaped her.

She had come near and the light through the trees shined on her face and hair. I had never noticed before, but she looked exactly like Bailey. Her hair was “good”-more straight than kinky-and her features were perfect.

She looked up-“Well, you can’t see much sky from here.” Then she sat down, an arm’s length away from me. Slowly she leaned against the tree. I closed my eyes and thought about finding another place, but I realized that there probably wasn’t another as good as this one. There was a little scream and before I could open my eyes, Louise had grabbed my hand. “I was falling”-she shook her long hair-“I was falling in the sky.”

I liked her for being able to fall in the sky and admit it. I suggested, “Let’s try it together. But we have to sit up straight

after counting to five.” Louise asked, “Want to hold hands? Just in case?” I did. If one of us did fall, the other could pull her out.

After a few near-falls, we laughed at having played with death and escaped.

Louise said, “Let’s look at the sky while we’re spinning.” We took each other’s hands in the center of the open space and began turning around. Very slowly at first. We raised our chins and looked straight up at the patch of blue. Faster, just a little faster, then faster, and even faster. Yes, help, we were falling. We couldn’t stop spinning or falling until I fell out of her grasp and was thrown down. I found myself safe at the foot of the tree. Louise had landed on her knees at the other side of the open space.

This was surely the time to laugh. First we were giggling and crawling toward each other and then we were laughing out loud crazily. We hit each other on the back and shoulders and laughed some more.

By daring to challenge the unknown with me, she became my first friend. We spent many hours teaching ourselves a secret language. This made us superior to other children. At last I began to understand what girls giggled about. Louise would say a few sentences to me in our secret language and would laugh. Of course, I laughed too. After all, girls have to giggle. After being a woman for three years, I became a girl.

In school one day, a girl I hardly knew and had scarcely spoken to brought me a note. The way it was folded indicated that it was a love note. I was sure she had the wrong person, but she insisted. I confessed to myself that I was frightened. Suppose it was somebody being funny? Fortunately I had got permission to go to the toilet-outside-and in the darkness I read: Dear Friend, M.J.

Times are hard and friends are few I take great pleasure in writing you Will you be my valentine?

Tommy Valdon

I struggled to remember. Who? Who was Tommy Valdon? Finally a face dragged itself from my memory. He was the nice- looking brown-skinned boy who lived across the lake. As soon as I realized that, I began to wonder: Why? Why me? Was it a joke? But if Tommy was the boy I remembered he was a serious person and a good student. Well, then it wasn’t a joke. All right, what evil, dirty things did he have in mind? What did a valentine do, anyway?

I thought of Louise. I could show it to her. I folded the paper and went back to class. After classes I waited for her. She was talking to a group of girls, laughing. But when I gave her our special signal (two waves of the left hand) she said goodbye to them and joined me in the road. I didn’t give her the chance to ask what was on my mind (her favorite question); I just gave her the note. Recognizing the way it was folded she stopped smiling. She opened the letter and read it aloud twice. “Well, looks like he wants you to be his valentine.”

“Louise, I can read. But what does it mean?”

“Oh, you know. His valentine. His love.”

There was that hateful word again.

“Well, I won’t. I certainly won’t. Not ever again.”

“Have you been his valentine before? What do you mean never again?”

I couldn’t lie to my friend and I wasn’t going to bring back bad memories.

“Well, don’t answer him then, and that’s the end of it.” I was glad that she thought it could be gotten rid of so quickly. I tore the note in half and gave her a part. Walking down the hill we tore the paper into a thousand pieces and gave it to the wind.

Two days later an eighth grader came into my classroom. She spoke quietly to Miss Williams, our teacher. Miss Williams said, “Class, I believe you remember that tomorrow is Valentines Day. The day is observed by exchanging cards. The eighth grade children have completed theirs and this girl is acting as mailman. Now, stand when your name is called.”

We who were being called to receive valentines were only slightly more embarrassed than those who sat and watched as Miss Williams opened each envelope and read the message aloud. I was filled with shame and anticipation but had time to be offended at the silly poetry.

“Marguerite Anne Johnson. This looks more like a letter than a valentine. ‘Dear Friend, I wrote you a letter and saw you tear it up with your friend Miss L. I don’t believe you meant to hurt my feelings, so whether you answer or not you will always be my valentine. T. V.’”

“Class”-Miss Williams grinned and continued-“although you are only in seventh grade, I’m sure you wouldn’t be so impudent as to sign a letter with your initials. But here is a boy in the eighth grade, who will soon graduate… You may collect your valentines and these letters on your way out.”

It was a nice letter and Tommy had beautiful handwriting. I was sorry I tore up the first. I felt good about his statement that his feelings would not be influenced by whether I answered him or not. He couldn’t be wanting you-know-what if he talked like that. I told Louise that the next time he came to the Store I was going to say something extra nice to him. Unfortunately the situation was so wonderful to me that each time I saw Tommy I giggled uncontrollably and was unable to form a complete sentence. After a while he stopped including me in his general glances.

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