blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1




Because I'm lanky my daddy calls me Goose, which is not a nice name for a girl, but he says I bring a dignity to it, so maybe that's okay. We will have an actual yard goose some day, he says, to go with our poults and foolish peafowl, but I am not holding my mortal breath, as he's mostly gone in the summer, off inspecting other people's cows for the state. We used to have a few cows ourselves, but Mama didn't take to them, on account of all the flies.

You'd never guess she and Meemaw was kin. Tonight, which is Saturday, when something almost happens, the two of them are sitting on the lawn chairs just at dusk and looking like people from different tribes. Meemaw Ro—her true name is Juanita Butterfly Rollins—is in her bluebird housedress cut from a McCall's pattern and having a sip. Her face is red as rhubarb, and a yellow turban covers what's left of her hair. What she drinks is lemonade, and she perches in that clam-back steel lawn chair stiff as in her pew. She is frail, but she won't admit to it. Mama, well, she drinks what she calls Tommy Collins, which I know for a fact is Beefeater gin. Tomorrow is Sunday, and she will have to forego, so she is having a tall one.

We sit out there after supper on Saturdays because the Moonbeam Drive-in across the street has no back fence, so we can see the picture shows for free—Alan Ladd, the Stooges, John Wayne in "The Wake of the Red Witch," sometimes things with glamour women like Maureen O'Sullivan, who was also Tarzan's half-naked Jane. Mama herself looks like one of those silver screen heroines in her flouncy blouse and black sheath skirt. Daddy told her once she was too haughty about her appearance and ought to ease off some. She gave him a look. Her name is Nell. She's a beauty operator. She can't drive the old pulpwood truck I'm climbing on, but Susie's daddy Caesar comes over and drives her to Bitty's Cuts, then brings it back till it's time to collect her. She is the one ladies go to for frosted ends, swirl curls, high style.

Now I am running around the yard catching fireflies to jewel my ear lobes. I like to tease the fice Dandy and listen to the crickets off in the stinky spirea bushes. Mama says I shouldn't sweat so, it's not right on a girl. Meemaw Ro says, "Let her be, Nell. It's summer."

My favorite thing about the outdoor movies is we can't hear the sound unless it's guns or a rock avalanche or Gorgo or something, so I get to be the story. I stand on the chinaberry stump pluffed up like a mockingbird and make the tale, which always begins "Once upon a time in a faraway place," because everything does happen in time, and it only happens once, and every place in the whole world that matters is far from this sleepy old town.

When I circle my running loops close to where they're sitting, I can hear the sounds of arguing, Meemaw Ro whispering and looking at Mama over her specs, Mama getting worked up again about how the coloreds should go back to Africa because they cause all our trouble, including daddy having to travel. If he was here, she wouldn't be saying this, as daddy doesn't hold with her views about race and how wrong the Confederate war was to set the slaves free. Right now she is saying that everybody has a place, and if they don't keep theirs, the whole world will be knocked back to the stony age. She is leaning forward, and her voice has a twist to it like sisal rope.

Daddy always says Mama has seen too much "Gone with the Wind" and calls her a "lost causer," but she is afraid of the Negro men down at Horton's Store and claims their women are always giving her the bad eye and fixing to sass her. "Negro" is not the word she uses. Myself, I like to run wild with Susie Day and watch her mama Harmony pluck chickens and roll out biscuits at the Step In, but now I would just like for the sun to finish falling so they'll hush up and I can tell a movie.

That is when I see a man on the road. We're the only house down here by the new stretch of hard tar edged on both sides with scrub pine and our corn lot, so it seems strange right off, a person we don't know ambling our way this time of evening. I can only see his outline for a spell, but he turns deliberate-like into the speckle-rock drive at our mailbox, and I can judge he is rough looking and outside the circle of what I am used to.

"Rebecca," my mama calls me. "Come here to me." I scamper over, making like I want to, but he is striding so long he almost catches up to my heels. The fice is barking yippy-yap, but when Meemaw Ro slaps her palms together and calls his name sharp, Dandy runs off under the abelia hedge.

He is darkish but still a white man, like somebody in the field a lot, with a straw hat and a rumpled jacket over his coveralls. His face looks like he has given up shaving for a few days, and by the porch light I can see a big scar slanting down his forehead and into one eyebrow. He has a wide nose and drilling brown eyes with big iron-looking hands. Breathing out a sigh, the man pushes his hat further back on his head and sticks one hand into a pocket. He shows what is almost a smile but is not.

"Evening, ladies. Fine place you got here."

I am standing right next to Mama, and I can see she is pulling into herself, getting small as possible and trembling. You can hear the ice rattling in her glass. She is wide-eye looking and breathing hard through her nose. The stranger is staring at her like something from Planet X. Now his lip has a curl to it that tells me he has already taken a disliking to us.

Meemaw Ro stands up then, stern and formal, brushing something invisible from her dress, her jaw tightening like it does, and she asks what she might do for him. The man looks over his shoulder across the yard, toward the car barn and the truck, then at the house, his eyes settling on the screen door under the porch where June bugs are circling the bulb or smacking the mesh.

"You see, I need to catch me a bus." His right shoe scuffs back and then forward again.

Before anybody can answer back to him, we all have to turn and look because the peacock is on the well house again, unfurling and making its ghost noise.

Meemaw Ro is the next one talking: "Then you need Horton's Store back the direction you came from yonder bout a mile. The public bus don't come this far down McIntosh Road unless it's the express to Senoia. You catch that down town at the Greyhound sign. It's next to the Esso."

"Well, ma'am, that's the problem," he says, angling his head just enough to catch her eyes, then back toward the house.

"I'm just a traveling man kindly down on my luck. You see, I got nearbout no cash money, and I thought you might see your way to help me out." I can hear that, while he is asking for a favor and being neighborsome, something else in his voice is not exactly asking.

That's when Mama pipes up, her voice nervous with trying to sound friendly, "Well, we might have some . . ."

"Nell, you know that's not for us to say." Then Meemaw Ro turns to me. I am stiff as a cedar post, my eyes wide and scared. I don't know what my mama's mama could expect me to do, but I can see everybody there on the outskirts of that pool of yellow porch light knows the edges of his words don't match their polite meanings.

"Goose," she says, which she has never called me before. I am staring plumb into her eyes which are dark as blackberries with a look I do not recognize but understand that I am meant to follow like a code.

"Goose, you go in and wake your daddy from his nap."

"But Meemaw—."

"I know child, he's stormy when his nap gets interrupted, has been since he was a boy, but this man is needing to speak to him, and you know Roy Rollins is a man who will want to deal with it himself. You get along now."

Then I understand it is a bluff like in card games or a western. I see that the drive-in screen is just starting its popcorn and soda come-on, and I spin on my heels and dash off toward the house.

The man is suddenly bolting in the other direction just as soon as I take a step, and when I yank the screen open and yell "Daddy" real loud into the dark parlor, I can just see the stranger's coat tails following him into the weeds across the road. His coat's cloth is split down the back like a mockingbird's tail, but he is not bringing a serenade to anybody here, as I switch on the parlor light and holler back, "He's coming. He's coming now."

Mama and Meemaw Ro are moving in my direction pretty brisk, and we spend the next fifteen minutes on the sofa waiting with the doors locked and the bird gun in Meemaw Ro's lap. Mama has made two more Tommy Collinses, and I have lemonade I am not drinking. When Sheriff Forney finally steps onto the porch, I can see the fringe under the pink lampshades shaking with the weight of him.

The picture show for tonight is hopeless now, and with the sheriff gone they are arguing again, so I head off for Meemaw Ro's feather bed. The last thing I hear from my pillow is Mama's voice harsh like a rasp across the cutter bar: "A mulatto, I'm sure of it. He was just pretending to be white." I fall asleep listening for the peacock's shivery scream.  

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