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The darkest child
By DELORES PHILLIPS
SOHO Copyright © 2004 Delores Phillips
All right reserved.
Chapter One PAKERSFIELD, GEORGIA 1958
Mama washed the last dish she ever intended to wash. I alone witnessed the event, in silence. It was on a Friday-a school day-but instead of sitting in a classroom, I was standing in unfamiliar surroundings, the home of my mother's employers, stunned by the wealth around me. As I regarded my mother through unwavering peripheral vision, something in her glances at me seemed to say, "Tangy Mae, this will be your life. Grab an apron and enjoy it."
Domestic servitude was not what I desired for myself, but she had only to speak and I would do anything she asked. It was my obligation to obey her though I did not want to be like my older brothers, Harvey and Sam, who seemed to breathe at our mother's command. They were men, and their lack of initiative disturbed me, although I knew they could not just leave our mother's house. Departure required consideration of consequences and a carefully planned escape.
At the age of thirty-five, our mother was tall and slender with a head of thick reddish-brown hair. Her face, with its cream-colored skin and high cheekbones beneath dark gray eyes, was set off by a gleaming white smile accented by dimples. I thought she was beautiful, despite my acquaintance with the demon that hibernated beneath her elegant surface.
She had worked seven years cleaning house for the Munford family. Now she stood at their kitchen sink holding a dish under running water longer than necessary before handing it to me to wipe. She finally dried her hands on her apron, took a seat at the table, and waited for her pain to subside. She had spent most of the day complaining of her misery while instructing me on the proper way to make a bed, scrub a floor, polish silverware, use a washing machine, and on and on.
According to Mama, her pain-something like gas-had begun during the wee hours of the morning. It balled up in her chest, rolled through her stomach, between her thighs, and into her knees. It did a slow dribble in her swollen ankles, then just like that-her finger snapped-it bounced back to her chest and started all over again, taking her breath away.
On the table, beneath a crystal saltshaker, was an envelope. She picked it up and fanned it before her face. "Fifteen dollars" she said indignantly. "I don't care what I do 'round here, it's always the same fifteen dollars. Never mind that I stayed late on Tuesday evening when Mister Frederick's mother came for dinner. Never mind that I walked to the Colonial for flour that Miss Arlisa forgot to pick up. Week in, week out, always the same fifteen dollars."
She removed the bills and tucked them inside the pocket of her dress, then slid the envelope and a pencil across the table. "Sit down" she said, "I want you to write me a note to Miss Arlisa."
My obedience, as always, was swift.
"Dear Miss Arlisa," Mama started as soon as I was seated across from her. "Tangy Mae can do just as good a job as I can. She is my child and I learned her good. She can start work for you on Monday. I will be dead"'
My hand trembled slightly, but I wrote the note exactly as she dictated. She snatched the envelope from the table, scanned the words, then passed it back to me. "Sign it, Rozelle Quinn," she said. "Miss Arlisa probably won't even know who that is. All they know 'round here is Rosie. Rosie do this and Rosie do that."
I sat there dumbfounded. Loss traveled through my body, pulsed at my temples, and numbed my fingertips. I wanted to wail, to one-up her moans, believing my pain to be more severe than anything she could be feeling.
"You got something you wanna say?" she asked.
"No, ma'am," I answered, forcing myself to look at her. There was plenty I wanted to say. Words were choking me. I covered my mouth with my hand so that Mama could not hear the words that might seep out. Mama, you promised Mr. Pace that you would let me go to school one more year. You promised me the ninth grade. You promised! Mr. Pace thinks I'm smart. Please, Mama, let me go to school!
But I had nothing with which to bargain and I knew it. Already I had attended school longer than any of my siblings. I was in ninth grade, which in itself was miraculous, considering I had never set foot in an eighth-grade classroom. Academically, I surpassed my peers, but at home I was a complete failure. At the age of twelve, my mother's children were expected to drop out of school, get a job, and help support the family. I fell short of expectations.
"We gotta get on home" Mama said. "Put me a bit of coffee and sugar in some wax paper. And, Tangy Mae, don't make it noticeable."
"Yes, ma'am," I said, and thought how calm my mother appeared for a woman who planned to be dead come Monday morning.
Holding onto the table with one hand and supporting her back with the other, she heaved herself to her feet, then removed her apron and hung it in the broom closet. She checked the house one last time to make sure everything was in order, retrieved yesterday's newspaper from a basket beside the trash bin, then ushered me out by way of the back door.
The bitter cold January afternoon seemed to freeze my mother's face into a mask of disdain. "They done seen the last of me," she grumbled. "They don't give a damn if I freeze to death. They don't care nothing 'bout me, and I don't care nothing 'bout them."
I knew she was talking to herself, so I walked along beside her, keeping my mouth and my coat tightly closed. Sometimes Mama would come home from work and talk about the Munfords for hours. Miss Arlisa, she opined, was a fat, lazy white woman who had no idea how to keep house or satisfy a man. Mr. Frederick was a show-off, who drove his automobile around town, honking the horn, and bragging about everything he possessed, including his ugly wife.
I had seen them only once, the time they brought Mama home with a load of old clothes they had given her. The only things I knew about the Munfords were that they owned the hardware store in town and that Mrs. Munford was not nearly as ugly as Mama had described her. She was not nearly as pretty as Mama, either.
"I been watching you," Mama said, as we walked along the paved street that led out of East Grove and toward the Cherokee Creek Bridge that would take us into Stump Town. "You think them Munfords is rich white folk, don't you? Well, they ain't rich. If you wanna see rich, you gotta go up there on Meadow Hill. That's where the really classy white folks live. They got mansions up there that take from morning to night to clean, and that's wit' five and six people working. These East Grove whites bow down to them on Meadow Hill, and you better believe it."
I had long been familiar with the Pakersfield hierarchy which ranked Meadow Hill supreme. Everybody bowed to somebody, but, all in all, Pakersfield was a decent place to live. The Negroes had Stump Town, the flats, and Plymouth, while the whites had Meadow Hill, East Grove, and North Ridge. There was never any trouble as long as everybody stayed where they belonged. We usually did.
Miss Janie Jay's house was the first house on the Stump Town side of Cherokee Creek. Mama didn't care much for Miss Janie, claimed she was highfalutin and put on airs, so it surprised me when she strolled through the gate and up to Miss Janie's porch. I hesitated for only a second before following.
"Knock on that door and tell Janie I'm dying out here and I'd be much obliged for a drank of water," Mama said.
Miss Janie taught Sunday school and sang in the choir at the Solid Rock Baptist Church. She was old, probably about sixty or so. She wore her hair parted down the center with a thick gray plait on each side. On Sundays she covered the plaits with one of her many fancy hats, and when the spirit moved her, she would wave one hand in the air and hold tight to the hat with her other hand.
"Tangy Quinn," she said, opening the door and staring out at me. "Shouldn't you be at school?"
"Mama's real sick, Miss Janie," I said. "She's out here on your porch and wants to know if you can spare her a drink of water"
"I'm dying, Janie," Mama groaned. She had positioned herself on Miss Janie's porch swing, slumped over, with her head resting between the chains, looking as if she might die at any second.
"Rosie, what is it?" Miss Janie showed alarm at the sight of Mama. "Just hold on, honey. I'll get you some water."
While Miss Janie went for water, I kept a close watch on my mother. Her eyes were closed and her arms rested against her abdomen with one hand clutching the newspaper. She moaned, shook her head as if disapproving of the sound, then moaned again. She did that several times, changing the pitch and depth of each moan, before it dawned on me that she was rehearsing her suffering, exaggerating her misery.
By the time Miss Janie returned, Mama was trembling all over, tears streaked her cheeks, and her hair was loose and tangled about her head. She was in such a state that it took me and Miss Janie both to get her into an upright position. Miss Janie held the glass and Mama took a few sips of water before slumping over again.
"Rosie, maybe you need something hot," Miss Janie suggested. "I can get you some tea."
"No, Janie. I'm going home to my children," Mama whispered. "This is a terrible way to die, but I need to be wit' my children. There's things I need to tell 'em before it's too late."
Miss Janie's eyes brimmed with tears. "Oh, Rosie, I'm so sorry," she said. "Just remember, Jesus saves. Put your trust in Jesus"
Miss Janie tried to get Mama to come inside to warm herself, and offered to call the doctor, but Mama refused. Miss Janie helped her to her feet and walked us out to the gate, saying we should pray, that God answers prayer.
Mama held tightly to my arm and used my shoulder to support her weight as we made our way slowly up Oglesbee Street. My knees were so cold that I knew if one touched the other I was going to fall to the ground, taking my dying mother with me. As we turned the corner onto Chestnut Street, Mama loosened her grip on my arm. She straightened her back, smoothed and pinned her hair in place, then smiled and winked at me.
Painfully, I parted my frost-chapped lips and returned a smile. I loved her with all my heart, but if she did not die by Monday morning, I was determined to discover from the pages of my schoolbooks, how to break the chains that bound me to my mother.
Chapter Two Our house stood alone on a hill off Penyon Road, about half a mile outside the city limits. It was old, crippled, and diseased-an emblem of poverty and neglect. Nature had tried to cure it by embracing the rear frame with herbs, roots, and a jumble of foliage which spilled over from the surrounding woodland. Nature had failed, and in frustration she sought to destroy the house by eroding the very foundation on which it stood.
Erosion had left the house slanted at an odd angle, held up on the east side by thick, round poles lodged into tilted, unstable earth. Occasionally, huge chunks of brown earth shook loose, skirted around the poles, and rolled down the slope into a waiting gully.
All of my life home had been these three drafty rooms under the same rusted tin roof. The house swayed in the wind but stood. It absorbed its fall of rainwater and stood. It groaned under the weight of celebrations and sorrows and did not crumble. But for how much longer? I thought we might wake up one morning-or not wake up-in the rocky, muddy gully below. Or maybe we would simply blow across the dirt road and get lost in the overgrown field of weeds. I could not predict what would happen, but I feared we were destined for disaster.
Mama stood at the foot of thirteen sagging, rickety steps that led up to a wide, shaky porch. All pretense was over. She was gasping for breath as she placed one foot on the first step and began, gingerly, to climb. She had almost reached the top when her knees buckled. My arms shot out instinctively, ready to break her fall.
"Tara! Tarabelle!" I screamed.
"Be quiet!" Mama snapped, regaining her balance and resuming her climb. "Ain't no need to wake the dead."
The front door, which was as much cardboard as plywood, swung open and my sister, Tarabelle, appeared on the porch. "What is it?" she asked irritably. "Why you calling me like that?"
"Mama's sick," I answered breathlessly, my heart pounding in my chest.
Tarabelle was sixteen and almost as tall as Mama. She had long, jet black hair, a copper-colored complexion, and the cold, black eyes of a dead poker player. I had never seen the eyes of a dead person-in fact, I had never seen a poker game but-I had heard that poker faces were expressionless, and I knew that dead people showed no emotion. That was Tarabelle. She stepped back, regarded our mother with those cold black eyes. Her mouth twitched as if she might smile, but I knew better.
"She ain't sick," Tarabelle said, still staring at Mama. "She 'bout ready to have that baby. That's all."
I had been ignorant in my innocence but I was wiser than my sister because I had learned to study Mama as diligently as I studied my books. I watched our mother as she squeezed the collar of her coat. I heard her sharp intake of breath. I saw frustration and pain leap from the core of her soul and surge the length of her arm, down to the delicate hand that struck my sister's face.
The blow sent Tarabelle reeling back. She bounced off the porch wall and landed less than an inch from the drop that would have taken her down into the gully. She lay there, those cold, black eyes boring into the equally cold, gray eyes of our mother.
"I'm dying" Mama said with calm finality.
Tarabelle gripped the splintered boards at the edge of the porch and nodded her head. "Yes, ma'am."
Edna Pearl and Laura Gail, who were only four and five, stood in the doorway, staring in fascinated fright. I watched as Edna stole back into the shadowy gloom pierced intermittently by daylight filtering in through cracks in the walls. It was our only source of illumination until dusk, when we were allowed to light the kerosene lamps. I knew Edna had gone to alert Martha Jean to our mother's presence.
My next eldest sibling, Martha Jean, was a defective replica of our mother. She could not hear and had never spoken one coherent sentence in her life. There but by the grace of God went I, for only eleven months separated her silent beauty from my articulate homeliness. My imagination ran rampant when I thought of our births. I would fantasize Martha Jean stubbornly refusing to leave our mother's womb until I was conceived. We would blend together, and my thick nose would become thin; my coarse, tangled hair would become silky and straight, and I would have deep dimples in my cheeks. And, in turn, Martha Jean would be able to hear and speak.
Excerpted from The darkest child by DELORES PHILLIPS Copyright © 2004 by Delores Phillips. Excerpted by permission.
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