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By Karen English
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 1999 Karen English
All rights reserved.
I did something to that cat, I admit it. But that cat did something to me first.
All year we've been washing clothes every weekend at Miss Beach's Boarding House for Colored — Mama and I. All year that cat's had something against me.
Saturday morning, we went there to wash the linens. I could see Miss Beach sitting on her porch glider as we came up the hill toward her large white three-story house. She had that cat on her lap. Treasure. He'd scratched me four times already
There he sat with his fat orange caterpillar tail swishing slowly back and forth as if he was fanning flies, his mouth stretching in a wide yawn so that I could see all the way down his pink little throat, past that pink spade tongue and mouth full of tiny razor teeth. Miss Beach nodded at us, then rose and let him spill from her lap.
"Hurry and round up the linens, Francie," she said, squinting at the sky. "I feel a storm coming up."
Mama and I headed out back, Mama to get the tubs ready and me to take the back stairs up to the rooms. I started with Mr. Ivory's room, gathered his sheets, sniffed some of his colognes and hair ointments, and then made my way to my teacher Miss Lafayette's room. I liked her. Sometimes she left books on her bed for me to borrow and then discuss with her later. Sometimes she left a cologne packet from her beauty order. She'd had to go down to Louisiana Friday night for two weeks to take care of some mysterious business, so I knew I wouldn't be seeing her that day — or Monday neither. I frowned, thinking of having Miss Lattimore, the principal, who always substituted for Miss Lafayette.
I studied myself in the bureau mirror. I was waiting to look like I was of some age, but I still seemed nearly as young as my brother, Prez, and he was ten. Prez's real name was Franklin, after our last President. Mama always said I had nice eyes. Now I looked at them closely. She said God had blessed me with my daddy's thick eyebrows and long lashes. I supposed that she was right.
I checked Miss Lafayette's gallery of porcelain-framed photos on the bureau — all of them light-skinned folks like her — and ran her silver-handled brush through my hair. Then I carefully plucked out my wiry strands from her silky ones.
As I was turning to go, having had my fill of fiddling with other people's belongings, I heard a noise. There was Treasure coming out from under the bed, doing that little wiggle cats do when they're getting ready to pounce. I wondered how he'd gotten to the room without me seeing him.
"Fool," I said, liking the feel of the forbidden word in my mouth. But before I could get it out good, before I could sashay on out of there, that cat ran at me and swiped my leg, drawing a line of blood. It was just through pure reflex that I was able to grab hold of him before he could get away. He twisted and turned in my clutch and tried to reach back and nip at my hand. He pawed at the air with his bared claws, making me even madder.
I marched him into Miss Beach's room at the end of the hall, shoved him into the bottom of the wardrobe, and slammed the door shut. I stood there a moment, breathing hard but feeling triumphant. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to shout.
Then I pushed my deed to the back of my mind and finished gathering the linens from the other rooms. I made my way down the back stairs and said nothing about my stinging leg, though I wanted to show it to Mama — just for any sympathy I might wring out of her. But I bit my tongue on my pain and just dumped my load near where Miss Beach stood in the middle of the kitchen sorting the piles with the tip of her shoe and telling Mama which laundry needed bleach and bluing, which collars and cuffs needed extra attention, and on and on and on and on, like the drone of a pesky fly. She paused long enough to glance over at me and say, "I hope you weren't up there meddling."
"No, ma'am," I mumbled. She stepped away from the piles of laundry and nodded at me to take over. I squatted down to finish the sorting, kind of puffed-up and satisfied and smiling to myself.
Miss Beach was of a suspicious nature. She didn't even believe we were moving to Chicago in a few months when Daddy sent for us. He'd gone up there a little over a year ago to work on a passenger train as a Pullman porter. It was hard work, he'd told us on a visit, serving white folks, even polishing their shoes and ironing their clothes, but if that's what it took to get his family up to Chicago, it was worth it.
Once I heard Miss Beach warning Mama not to get her hopes up. Maybe we wouldn't be going to Chicago, after all. She'd heard of menfolk all the time promising their families they were going to send for them and never doing it. And Pullman porters had some of the worst reputations. Some even kept two families, one down South and one up North. Her words made me have a bad dream about Daddy getting another family up in Chicago and giving them the life he was supposed to give us.
Miss Beach had told Mama that Beulah Tally never left to go nowhere, and after her husband had promised. "Don't count on going to Chicago, Lil. It might not happen." Mama didn't say a word.
Now, when Miss Beach turned her back to reach for the bowl of sugar on the sideboard to sweeten her tea, I stuck my tongue out at her.
By noon Mama and I had gotten the first load of laundry ready to be wrung out and hung on the lines. The sky was clear and blue. Miss Beach's "feeling" about a storm had only meant to hurry us up. We sat down on Miss Beach's back steps to eat the lunch we'd brought: cold yams and lemonade. Miss Beach crossed in front of us, her hand shielding her eyes against the bright sun, and I knew the consequences of my deed were soon to be met. She went back and forth across the lawn, then disappeared around the corner of the house. I raked my front teeth along the inside of the yam skin to get every last bit.
We worked the rest of the afternoon getting everything washed, rinsed, and wrung out for the line. In the late afternoon Mama sent me home to get dinner ready for Prez. I passed Miss Beach stepping out onto the veranda, fanning a face full of woe. "You seen Treasure?" she called out.
"No'm," I called back. It was true. I hadn't seen him — lately.
Mama came home fuming. I was sitting on the porch with a letter from Daddy balanced on my knees, the afternoon's events neatly tucked away in a far-off, hazy place in my mind, when I saw her shadowy form moving down Three Notch Road toward our house almost in a trot.
I stopped petting Juniper, our dog, and he raised his head, his ears perking up as if he sensed danger barreling toward him as well.
"Mama looks mad," Prez said from behind me. I hadn't noticed him come out to the porch. "Why you think, Francie?"
"How'm I to know?" I said, my mouth suddenly dry.
Mama marched up to the porch steps, and stood with her feet splayed in the dirt. Her nostrils flared in the dying light as she said breathlessly, "Go get me a switch."
My eyes welled up. Prez sucked in air loud enough for me to hear. I could picture his eyes wide with fear that he was the one who was going to get it.
"Move it!" she growled.
I moved it to the sweet-gum tree on the side of the house, and barely able to see through my tears, I searched the lower branches for a switch that would please Mama. I didn't dare bring her one that wouldn't.
She was in the house, pouring water in the basin, when I came in with a knotty branch dangling from my hand. It felt like a whip. I set it on the table. Mama splashed some water on her face. "Go on in the other room," she said over her shoulder after patting her face dry with a towel.
My lower lip began to tremble at the calmness she'd taken on. I walked toward the bedroom as if I was walking to my death. I had barely crossed the threshold when I felt the first burning lash cut across the back of my calves. My fresh cat scratch caught fire. I jumped and yelped at the same time.
"Mama ..." I cried, bending to grab my leg. Whop! That next blow caught my hand. The pain shot up my arm to the shoulder.
"Have you lost your ever-lovin' mind?" she said, her voice tight through clenched teeth. Whop! "You trying to make me lose one of my jobs?" Whop! Whop! "I'll beat you till you can't sit down!" Wham! The switch came across my behind to help her make her point.
She hit me until I guess her arms got tired. Then she said, "Francie Weaver, why you want to hide that woman's cat?"
It was hard to speak around my fit of hiccups. "I don't know." It was true. I didn't know why'd I do something that was bound to get me in trouble.
"She might not let you come around no more," Mama said. "You sit on that bed and think about what you did." She went out of the room.
I hobbled over to the bed I shared with Mama, the letter now balled in my hand. I hadn't had a chance to give it to Mama. I slipped it in my dress pocket, bitterly deciding to keep it to myself.
I sat and sat, inhaling the scent of the greens and corn bread I'd cooked for me and Prez. I would have to sit there until Mama felt I'd seen the error of my ways.
At one point, she passed the door and said, "You better pray to God for your soul." I knew she was right. Every once in a while I did some hateful things and I just didn't know why.CHAPTER 2
Our Side of Town, Their Side of Town
The next morning when I woke up, the unread letter was still in the pocket of my dress I'd draped over the chair. My eyes were swollen from crying all night. Mama had left without me, still angry, I guessed, because she didn't even say goodbye. She left word with Prez that I was to come to Mrs. Montgomery's by noon to help set up for her monthly tea. Aunt Lydia, Mama's sister, usually helped at these teas, but her time was close and she'd been troubled with swollen ankles. I thought about the new baby coming soon and hoped for a girl. I was tired of Prez having our cousin Perry to play with and me having no one. Though I knew it'd be a long time before a baby would be a friend.
I fed the chickens and swept the yard. Prez left to go to the Early farm to help plant cotton with Perry. I started off toward Mrs. Montgomery's. Up ahead Mr. Grandy, in his battered old pickup truck, was heading in the same direction. I could've run ahead to catch a ride with him, but I decided to take my time.
It was Miss Mabel, Three Notch Road's moocher, up on her porch, beckoning me over to her.
I pretended not to hear and kept on walking.
"Hey," she called.
I gave up and headed over to her sagging porch steps, glancing around her unswept yard at the parched weeds. My feet felt hot in the shoes Mama made me wear when I had to go into town. I longed to take them off.
"You goin' by Green's anytime tomorrow?" Miss Mabel asked quickly, grinning and showing off her missing teeth. Half her hair was braided and half hung loose.
"Maybe." I could feel her thinking how she was going to con me as she sat there with her lap full of snap beans, a pot at her feet, and right next to her, her snuff can. She rearranged the wad of tobacco in her lower lip.
"Can you pick me up some snuff? I'm 'bout to run out." She leaned over and aimed a stream of brown juice at her can.
"Green don't let kids buy snuff."
"He will if'n you tell him it's for me."
I dug the tip of my shoe into the dry dirt. I looked out toward the Grandy pasture, at the black and brown cows in a cluster, some grazing, some stupidly staring off. I'd be so glad to leave this road — and Miss Mabel and her cunning ways. I was sick of cows, sick of Miss Mabel, sick of work, work, work. I counted the days I had left in Noble.
A while ago she'd got me to pick up a pound of coffee and put it on Mama's tab. I nearly got a beating for that one. "You watch," Mama said. "That old woman's gonna have more excuses than the law allows. We ain't never gonna get the money for that coffee."
Three days in a row I'd come by to get the money and she come up with three different excuses.
"You never paid for that coffee I bought for you," I said now.
Miss Mabel let her mouth droop in a brooding way. "Go on, then, if you don't think I'll pay you." She made a shooing motion with the back of her hand. She didn't have to tell me twice. I backed out of the yard and was on my way.
I sang a little tune, then dug in my dress pocket to get Daddy's letter. Ha, ha, ha, I thought as I opened it. I might not ever read it to Mama.
It began the usual way — no news after the "I hope this letter finds you well" stuff and the part about sending for us before summer's over. I did like the last paragraph:
When you all get up this way, Francie and Prez, all you going to have to do is go to school. And Francie, I'm going to find you a piano teacher and Prez, I'm going to find you a baseball team to play on. It gets real cold in Chicago. There's plenty of opportunity. This is the place where you just have to work hard and you can do anything!
Love, Your Daddy
Piano lessons. I loved just looking at a piano. The thought of learning to play ...
I folded the letter and put it back in my pocket and continued on to Mrs. Montgomery's tea in Ambrose Park, the white section of town. When I reached the house, I followed the footpath around to the back porch, pausing to pet Portia, Mrs. Montgomery's cocker spaniel. I could hear Mama's busy sounds in the kitchen through the open window.
I stood there a moment, not wanting to go in. Clarissa, Mrs. Montgomery's niece from Baltimore who'd come to live with her because her parents were going through a divorce, was sitting cross-legged on a blanket under the Chinese elm, her nose stuck in a book. She glanced at me, pushed up her glasses, and then went back to her reading. I didn't like her, because she was all the time sneaking a peek at me. I stepped into the kitchen.
"What took you so long?" Mama said, looking over at me from the sink. Last night's beating came back to me and my mouth drooped. "Come here and let me look at you." She squinted. "You wash your face?"
"Mmm." She pulled a handkerchief from her dress pocket. "Here. Wet this on your tongue and go around your mouth. Looks like you left some breakfast on your face."
I sighed and did as I was told.
"Now." She nodded at the sink full of dirty dishes. "Get those washed, dry those punch cups." She indicated a bunch of cups upended on a towel on the counter. "And iron that basket of linens over there."
With dread I followed her pointing finger. There must have been fifty napkins, damp and balled up. I sighed again and went over to the sink. At least the kitchen had indoor plumbing and a double sink. At least there was an ironing board and an electric iron with five heat settings.
I went over to the radio, turned on Homemaker's Exchange, and started in on the dishes while I listened to the recipe for coffee sponge jelly. The last time I'd listened, it had been mayonnaise cake, and the time before, green-tomato pie. We didn't eat like white folks, that was for sure.
Mama caught that faraway look in my eye, and said, "Pay attention to your work, Francie." Clarissa came in then, licking the icing off of one of Mama's petit fours. She snuck a look at me and went over to the refrigerator to get herself a tall refill of lemonade. I felt her eyes on the back of my legs and turned to catch her studying them with interest. I went to work on a stain on the stove top with the Dutch Boy. When I finally stopped and checked behind me, she was gone. Mama caught me and pointed at the basket of linens.
As we walked home in the late afternoon, I slipped my hand in my pocket and ran my finger along the folded edge of Daddy's letter. Just a few more months, I thought.CHAPTER 3
I still carried my school shoes, at least to the school yard, before putting them on. Daddy had sent them from Chicago in December and to me they were still new and special and too good to be getting dust or mud on them. I didn't care about the snickers I got from the Butler boys every morning as they joined me and Prez and Perry on the road.
"Why you carryin' your shoes, Francie?" Bertrum Butler asked me.
"Cause I don't want no dust on them."
"Cause they from Chicago ..."
Excerpted from Francie by Karen English. Copyright © 1999 Karen English. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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