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Short stories, many set during the struggle for civil rights in America's South, praised by The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and other major media.
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No Marble Angels
By Joanne Leedom-Ackerman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 Joanne Leedom-Ackerman
All rights reserved.
NO MARBLE ANGELS
The night offered no sign of an emergency. Shannon Douglas lay sleeping under a white cotton canopy in front of an open window. Light broke apart on the carpet in her room, shifting as the moon shifted. Outside wisteria vines stirred in the shadows, and the room smelled of the sweet dense flower. She slept with the covers pulled back in a blue-flowered gown. One arm stretched above her head as though she were reaching in her sleep, but her body lay motionless. As the moon crossed the arc of the sky and began its descent, the phone beside her bed rang. Next door a dog barked. Between the sounds Shannon began and awakened from a dream.
Downstairs Wes Douglas answered the phone from the couch in his study where he had fallen asleep. The television still murmured in the corner, and a reading light burned into his eyes.
Shannon and her father met on the landing after the call. It had been her aunt on the phone. Rheba, her maid, had been stabbed. Her uncle had gone to the hospital; her cousin was still out on a date, and her aunt was alone and afraid. Shannon grabbed the car keys from the hall table and a Middlebury College sweatshirt from a brass hook. "Let's go."
Her father hesitated as if he wanted to say something to her, but she was already at the door. Her thin mouth was set in a defensive line; the look bid him away. She opened the door. She didn't want him to speak for she knew he didn't know what to say. As if realizing this himself, he picked up his wallet and without a word followed her outside. Honeysuckle and gardenias perfumed the night air. In the mimosa trees whippoorwills trilled; the crickets chirped. The moonlight settled in a filigree across the lawn.
Shannon and her father sped in the blue Lincoln Continental the few blocks to her aunt's house in silence. At the door Josie Simpson Douglas met them in a bathrobe with the shiny remains of night cream over her face. She led them to the kitchen where she'd set out coffee and cookies as though she'd invited them to a party. She brought in napkins, put down plates, poured cream. Her hands searched for activity as she chatted in an excited drawl. Yet behind her liveliness, a startled, betrayed look flickered in her eyes.
"I've never heard anything like it," she said filling cups with coffee. "Screams like a cat fornicating or dying. It frightened Joe and me so that we sat straight up in bed. Joe turned on the light till we realized it was coming from out back and whoever it was might see us. We turned off the light then and went to the window where we saw Rheba in the doorway of her quarters holding a knife. Joe thought she was hurt, but we were afraid to go down. Then Rheba started towards the house still carrying the knife. She began hitting at the kitchen door. I hurried to see if the noise had wakened Georginna, and that's when I saw she wasn't even home. I thought of her still out there and of what might happen."
"What happened to Rheba?" Shannon urged. Her green eyes pressed upon her aunt. Her small nose flared as it did when she grew excited.
Josie took a swallow of coffee. "Rheba was pounding on the glass. In the back porch light she looked like a crazy woman. I was almost afraid to let her in, but Joe saw she was all covered with blood. He called an ambulance while I tried to clean her up the best I could, but she was hurt pretty bad. I can't imagine who would have done such a thing. I wonder what she did."
"Why do you think she did anything?" Shannon asked.
Josie reached for a macaroon. She was a tall, husky woman, and her uncorseted body slouched in the chair. "Shannon, honey, someone doesn't come in and practically kill you for no reason. To rob you maybe, but if they were going to rob, why wouldn't they have broken into our house? Rheba doesn't have anything."
Shannon lifted the china cup to her lips. She didn't answer. She stared into her aunt's face; it was a kind face, grown complacent over the years. She tried to remember her talk with Rheba just this afternoon. Today had been her first Sunday home in almost a year, her first since she'd graduated from college. They'd had a family dinner, and afterwards she'd lingered at the table stacking plates to take into the kitchen. As always the table had been set with a pink linen cloth, bone china, heavy Georgian silver: a fork for salad, one for the main course, one for dessert, two spoons and two or three knives. At the end of dinner half the silver was left because everyone except Aunt Josie used the same fork for salad as for roast beef and the same knife to cut the meat as they used to butter the rolls. Shannon had gathered the clutter of silverware and gold-rimmed dessert plates and backed through the kitchen door.
"I was thinking you better come out and say whats for," Rheba said from the sink where she was rinsing the plates.
"Hey, Rheba ..." Shannon went over and hugged her. Rheba was a wiry woman who moved furniture and hefted baskets of wet laundry, but today she'd felt frail in Shannon's arms. Rheba had helped raise her, along with Aunt Josie, ever since her mother died ten years ago, before that even. She'd spent as much time in Rheba's kitchen and Aunt Josie's screened porch as she had in her own home for as long as she could remember.
"Been home over a week and hadn't even come by to say hello," Rheba complained. "That's not like you, Shannon. You got a reason or you just been plain neglectful?" Shannon stacked the plates Rheba had rinsed into the dishwasher. She avoided Rheba's eyes. "Even yor friends starting to complain ... that old boyfriend Brandt whats-his-name, he called here, say he tried you at your house time and again, but you never will call him back."
"I've been busy," Shannon said.
"We all busy." Rheba's pinched brown face peered at her. "Georginna say you coming home just to leave again; no sense getting too attached to you. But I say it's time you stayed for a while. Yor daddy for one needs you about." Rheba handed her a plate.
"What's wrong with Daddy?"
"Nothin wrong with him. He just needs his chile around; that's all."
"He's never even home."
"You two still strangers to each other, aren't you?"
Shannon didn't answer. She shut the dishwasher, turned the knob, then listened to the hot water rush across the dishes.
Rheba had always gotten to the heart of what troubled her. When she was a child she used to sit at the kitchen table and help Rheba shell peas or fold laundry and wait for Rheba to unravel what bothered her. Sometimes she didn't even know herself what it was, but Rheba could circle it, untangling the knots until she finally drew it out ... whether it was a friend who had slighted her or her father who had ignored her or her mother who had suddenly died on her ... Rheba would find the loneliness and soothe it until it receded.
"It is unusual for someone to attack a maid for no reason in this neighborhood," her father was saying. He folded his hands behind his head. His peppered grey hair was stylishly cut. His eyes were cautious as he spoke.
Josie began telling him all they could have stolen, had they broken into the main house, when the front door opened. "Georginna?" she called.
But Joe Douglas stepped into the doorway. A stocky, muscular man with a flushed face and thinning hair, he wore soiled pants, a Banlon shirt and a cap. He lacked the polished appearance of his younger brother, but his eyes were sharp.
"You mean Georginna's still not home? I can't understand what came over you, Josie, letting a young girl like that go out with a twenty-two year old man." He dragged into the room. "Wes ... Shannon."
"I called them," Josie said. "I got afraid after you left. How's Rheba?"
Joe shook his head. "We better start looking for a new maid."
"Whoever did it, hurt her pretty bad. She may be in the hospital a long time."
Josie glanced at Shannon, who stared intently at her uncle. "We'll do whatever we can of course," Josie offered, "whatever she's done."
Joe sat down at the table. "I don't see what we can do. She could be in the hospital for months, the doctor said. She didn't carry any insurance. It's beyond me why she never bought any. I must have talked with her a dozen times about it. We just can't swing thousands of dollars in hospital bills right now. I told her not to worry in the ambulance; she was all upset at how much it was going to cost, but frankly I told the doctor as soon as she was stable to transfer her to the county hospital. The best thing we can do is get her whatever she's entitled to from the government — unemployment, disability — and get her in with the county; then I guess we could pick up any cost left over."
Joe reached to the pantry and poured brandy into the coffee Josie passed him. "I thought about it all the way home. Rheba would understand. We'll store her things in the garage, and when she gets out, she can come back, but until then, you better start looking for a maid."
"But Rheba is family," Shannon declared.
Josie's thick-lidded eyes turned slowly to her. "Rheba is not our family," she said. "She is like family, but she is not family."
Shannon stood. She went to the sink where she looked out the window. The back porch lights were on, and she stared at the clapboard quarters beside the garage. Wisteria hung in heavy purple clusters over the porch by Rheba's room. Rheba had lived in that room five days a week for the last twenty-five years. She had a son Shannon's age, who lived with her mother across town where Rheba lived the other two days of the week. She had been almost forty when she had Washington. Josie agreed to let her stay on, but there wasn't room for a baby in the servant's quarters so Rheba had her son and came back to work two weeks later without the child. No one but Rheba knew who the father was.
"Do you and Washington still talk?" Shannon had asked Rheba this afternoon.
Rheba paused from rinsing the knives and forks. She pushed her grey hair off her face with the back of her hand. "We don't see so much of each other anymore, but I know when something troubling his mind. It used to be I could get him to tell me what it was." Her shoulders sagged in her white uniform, and her top lip tucked under the way Shannon remembered it did when something was worrying her. "But Washington calling himself Malik these days."
"Does that bother you?"
Rheba spread out a dish towel and began laying the silverware on it. "The name don't bother me so much. I don't much like the name Malik, but then I never like the name Washington either. That was my mamma's idea, and since she the one raising him most of the time, I let her name him." She spread another towel on the counter and began washing the long-stem crystal goblets which she handed one by one to Shannon.
"But Washington in with friends I don't think much of; they too sure of theirselves. I always trusted Washington long as he follow his heart, but he listens to other people now. Looks at me living in one room all my life serving white folks and wonders what I got to teach him. I guess I wonder sometimes too." Rheba set the last two goblets on the towel.
"It's odd," Shannon said.
"You taught me my whole life, but it doesn't count. Washington holds it against you; Uncle Joe and Aunt Josie don't even know it. And I'll go off somewhere because I don't fit here. I wanted to come back and find this was my home, but it's not."
Rheba's dark eyes narrowed. Her lips closed over teeth which were too big for her mouth. She began folding the towel with quick fingers, pressing the creases to the corner. "Well, Shannon Marie Douglas, you have got yourself educated beyond me at last if this ain't your home."
"Have you called her son?" Shannon asked.
"Washington?" I wouldn't have the first idea how to get hold of Washington," Josie answered.
"I'm sure he'd like to know."
"If I knew how to phone him, I would, but I don't think he even has a phone. The last number I had for them was disconnected a while ago."
Shannon grew silent. She turned and stared back out the window. Her eyes focused on the morning glory vines twisting up the side of Rheba's room. Their blue and purple trumpets were closed for the night. They would open in the gentle light of dawn but would fold again in the heat of midday. She moved to the stove and poured herself another cup of coffee. She stared at the pale red coil of the electric range then looked down at the clean tiles of her aunt's kitchen. She drank the coffee with her back to her family, holding the cup so tightly in her hand that she was afraid it might break. Yet she was even more afraid to set it down and turn to face her family for she was afraid then she would cry.
The front door opened, and a soft, lilting voice whispered, "Sh-h-h ... it's upstairs." The family in the kitchen grew quiet. Joe and Josie looked at each other; then Joe stood, and Josie followed. The hall light flashed on. "Just where the hell do you think you're going, young man?" Joe demanded.
Shannon and her father moved to the edge of the doorway where they saw Georginna and Brandt Phillips halfway up the stairs, hand in hand.
"Daddy! Mama! What are you doing up? Are you spying on me?"
"We're not the ones answering questions," Joe retorted. "You come down right now, and you too, sir." Joe looked at his watch. "I want to hear where you've been, and what you're doing getting home at a quarter till two in the morning. And why were you taking a young man upstairs with you?"
"I'm not a child, Daddy. You have no right to interrogate me." Georginna drew up her small shoulders. She was wearing a sun dress, and both straps had fallen off her shoulders. Her hair was tangled; her eyes, puffy, and her lips, smeared.
"I'm your father, and I have every right. But first I want to question this young man."
"Mamma!" Georginna pleaded. "Daddy, you will not. You don't have to answer, Brandt." Her words slurred, and she was leaning on the staircase for support. Then she saw Shannon and her uncle in the doorway. "Uncle Wes! Shannon! My god, did you call the police too? I can't believe you came, Shannon."
Brandt glanced over at Shannon and smiled. He and Shannon had dated in high school, and he seemed pleased to have her here as a witness, but Shannon's eyes were focused on her cousin.
"For your information, Georginna, the reason Uncle Wes and Shannon are here has nothing to do with you," Josie said. "Rheba's been stabbed tonight, and they came over to give us comfort which is more than we can say for you."
"Rheba?" Georginna looked at Shannon. "Where? When?"
Josie told Georginna what had happened, and Georginna sank down onto the stairs. She stared at the floor in front of her; then all of a sudden her tiny shoulders heaved forward, and she vomited all over the peach carpet and over Brandt Phillips' shiny leather loafers. Brandt looked stunned as his eyes moved from his shoes to Georginna. Shannon saw in them the urge to bolt. She doubted her uncle saw the same urge, but he had the same idea for he opened the front door. "Perhaps it's time you left," he said. And Brandt, without further prompting, without glancing back at Georginna or Shannon or anyone, took the invitation and disappeared into the night as fast as his soiled shoes could take him.
On the way home that morning, in the twelve blocks between Williamson Drive and St. Mary's Street, in the first lighting of the sky, Shannon decided to tell her father she was moving to New York at the end of the summer. She had been postponing the decision for months. When she entered her father's study that evening, he was sitting with his feet up on his desk contemplating a map of the northside. He was dressed in a three-piece grey suit; his face was tanned by a sun lamp, and he was, even in his daughter's eyes, a handsome man.
"Did you call the hospital today?" he asked.
"They say she can have visitors in a day or so after she's moved." Shannon leaned her pale arms onto the desk. "Daddy, I've been doing a lot of thinking," she began without transition, "and I think I'm going to take the fellowship in New York. First of all, Columbia offers me more money than Duke ..."
Her father fixed a pin into the map then looked up. "The money isn't important."
"And Charlotte, you remember Charlotte ..."
"The one you spent last Christmas with." His voice still registered disapproval.
"That's right. She's gotten a job in New York and an apartment, and she's looking for a roommate."
"You're going to Columbia because Charlotte needs a roommate?"
"Columbia happens to be an excellent university."
"Isn't Duke an excellent university?" He set the map down and lowered his feet to the floor.
Excerpted from No Marble Angels by Joanne Leedom-Ackerman. Copyright © 2013 Joanne Leedom-Ackerman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Joanne Leedom-Ackerman won praise in The New York Times and other major media for No Marble Angels and her novel, The Dark Path to the River. An award-winning journalist, she has taught writing at New York University, City University of New York, Occidental College and UCLA Extension. She has served as International Secretary of International PEN.
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