Read an Excerpt
Pariah and Other Stories
By Joan Williams
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Joan Williams
All rights reserved.
Arvenia stood for a moment looking beyond where the garden ended at the back of the house. Squinting her eyes at the distant muddy gullies, she moved her hands, without thinking, to pull open the screen door in front of her. Its sagging heaviness had scraped a white pattern into the worn darkness of the wooden floor and it screeched over this now and stuck halfway at a swollen notch. Arvenia gave the door a kick and flung it backward against the screened side of the porch, snapping the door's coiled hinge.
She looked down then and hooked the hinge back into place, balancing in her other hand two great hunks of warm yellowish corn bread. These she threw out into the mud, to the two hound dogs who had slunk from beneath the house. The dogs gulped them down and then stood watching her, their sad brown eyes rolling up into their red sockets, but Arvenia pushed the door to and said, "Git, dawg." Then, leaning her head against the dirty screen, she said softly, "I'm tired, I'm tired, I'm tired, dear God, I'm tired." And above the gullies the sky was darkening as if there would be more rain.
A skinny chicken pecked angrily at a tomato peeling washed into the deep mud around the steps, and one of the dogs lunged at the bird, growling to himself. The chicken flew crookedly, squawking, over the fence, into the garden, and Arvenia banged against the screen and yelled, "Dawg, dawg, aren't they skinny enough now?"
She turned to go back into the house and ran into a big tin oil drum almost overflowing with a floating mixture of peelings and scraps. It was the mealy smell of this that had been mingling with the rainy chicken-spattered smell of the backyard. "Mag, I thought Albert was coming to feed those pigs," she called.
"That good-for-nuthin' nigger ain't gonna do nuthin', Miz Arvy. I tol' him and tol' him come take that stuff." The voice from the kitchen rose unhurriedly over the movings of pans. Arvenia glanced over her shoulder again and then moved from the outdoor light into the warm partial darkness of the kitchen. "I'm fixin' to leave him, he don't do somethin' soon. Ain't done a lick of work since they stopped pickin' cotton down to Mista Johnson's. Not narrin a lick." The black face was shiny over the hulk of iron stove into which Mag was sticking wads of paper and dried corncobs.
"You'd be better off," Arvenia said.
"Sho' is the truth." Mag answered. "What I'm to fix for dinner?"
"Fix the chicken," Arvenia told her. "Emily and Jeanie are comin' down from Memphis, and you know Emily always says to have chicken when she comes because she can't ever fix it at home as good as we have it."
A big slow grin covered Mag's face. "Lawd," she mused, "I still can't believe Miss Emily's grown and married and got a baby. It seems only a while she was a baby herself and me carryin' her around." Arvenia got up from the table where she had been tightening the caps on the jars of canned tomatoes and beans lined up there. Yes, she thought, only a while. She dried her hands, and for a moment the plain gold band on her finger almost shone. She glanced at it as though seeing it for the first time in a long time, noticing all the scratches. I used to be so careful of it, she remembered. But it didn't really matter anymore. Jim Acree had been dead for so long.
"They don't come back so often, do they, Miz Arvy?" the Negro asked. Suddenly it didn't seem like only a while, and she felt very tired and leaned against the sink.
"No, they don't come back so often, Mag," Arvenia answered. "They forget, and their children forget, or just don't care." Much to Arvenia's surprise, her voice caught.
"Yes'm, seems like it," the Negro answered quickly and turned her back, dipping her heavy arms into a pan of dishwater. The water splashed up and left slow suds running from her elbows down to her whitish wrists and into the water again. She looked down into the pan hard, for she was afraid the white woman was going to cry. Maybe. Arvenia straightened the jars into precise rows and then into precise rows again, moving them smoothly over the oilcloth.
Finally she said, "It's ten o'clock, Mag, and I'm going to take a nap. Ever think you'd see the day I went to bed in the middle of the morning?"
"No'm," Mag answered her, "but you go take one. Ain't nothin' wrong with that. Lots of folks don't even get up till ten o'clock." The dishes rattled more slowly and the suds were not so frequent up and down her arms. They stopped finally.
The bed creaked with Arvenia's weight, and she lay back slowly, feeling its yielding to the places of her body and the pillow soft and cold to her cheek. Things came to her mind, and she thought about them or pushed them away. She heard the sounds of the day go on without her, and it was pleasant not to be a part of them for a while. The iceman came to the porch. Mag went out, talking to him in low soft tones, and he answered her in the same ones, their words so quick together as to be almost unintelligible.
Down the road, after the iceman's truck had made the usual car noises pulling away, came a passing whistle. Jimmy on his way home from town, she thought. He might stop in, but he won't. I'd have to get up if he came in. One grandchild right down the road and passes by every day. Of course he comes in sometimes, and then wouldn't it be silly if he dropped in every time he passed by? What would we say to each other so many times?
Two car doors slammed, and steps ran and steps walked on the front porch. She raised herself slightly and knew it was her daughter and granddaughter. I will get up. I am glad they are here, but I am very tired. It is almost an imposition that I have to get up. I think they will leave to go home about four, and then I can go back to bed again.
Then the child was there and threw her arms around her neck. "Granmuther," she said. And Arvenia felt the littleness of her, the tiny-boned arms for a moment soft around her, and slight pressure for a moment between the two. "Baby," she answered softly. Her daughter bent and touched her slightly on the cheek, and the old woman felt for a minute something like yearning, like desire to own her, to have the chance again to mold her. "Hello, Emily," she said. "I was beginning to worry you weren't coming."
"It's that awful road that slowed us down," her daughter said. "It's nothing but mud ruts from here to the highway. Can't Uncle Bob or someone do something about it?" Arvenia smoothed out the wrinkles in the comfort where she had been lying down. "I don't know," she answered. "I haven't been anywhere and I haven't heard anyone else talking about it or complaining."
"I guess everybody is used to it." Emily seemed to be trying to excuse the road now. "But I think it's going to rain on it some more, so we'd better start back early or we'll never make it home."
Arvenia went to the south porch and looked at the sky. It was full of wisps of black clouds running through clear ones as though it couldn't make up its mind whether to rain or not. But it made the day darker than usual at this time; it was almost like dusk, and at dusk she could go to sleep again. She turned at the child's laughter. Jeanie ran in calling, "Momma, here's Mag," pulling the delighted Negro by the hand. Mag grinned all over.
"Mighty good to see you again, Miz Emily."
"It's good to see you — heavens, haven't you gotten your teeth yet?"
"Yes'm, I got 'em, but I just don't wear 'em. They bothers me too much." The colored woman laughed.
"You mean you spent all that money to get them and then you never wear them?"
Arvenia wondered why this should bother Emily so much. What difference should it make to her whether or not Mag wore her teeth? To Mag it evidently made not the slightest bit of difference. The child suddenly threw herself into the Negro's skirts, hugging her gleefully and crooning into the soft fatness. "Maggie, waggy, baggy, taggy," she laughed. "Will you show me the chickens," she asked, and Mag looked down and hugged her with happiness. "I sho' will, baby, soon as dinner is over."
Emily said, "Jeanie, let Mag alone. She has too much to do to be fooling with you."
"Oh, Mag had rather fool with Jeanie than fix dinner. You know that," Arvenia couldn't help saying. Why don't you let them alone? she wanted to scream.
Emily got up from the hard rocker in which she'd been sitting and went over to the mirror. She straightened her hair and ran a finger over her lipstick. Arvenia looked at her profile, at the line of her cheekbone, the eyebrow, nose. Exactly like Jim's, she thought. How can anyone forget when they have children to remind them? she wondered. And does one love the children perhaps because of something like that? She stood up and straightened her apron as though unconsciously letting fall a lapful of thoughts that she didn't want. "Mag, you better start dinner now," she called, and immediately the rich deep laughter and the thin tinkle of laughter that had been going on in the kitchen stopped.
Mag answered, "Yes'm." There was a flatness in her voice, just as there was a flatness in her lap, Arvenia knew, when she set the child down.
"I'll help you," she heard Jeanie say. Immediately Emily called out to her to stop bothering Mag. Arvenia wanted to say something again but she felt there was no use. She sat down again, and her mind settled a moment and wandered off onto the thoughts it had been shoving away ever since Emily had come. Let us please find some mutual ground, she wanted to say. I'm your mother and you shouldn't have to put on a mask with me. I want to love you and laugh and make up silly rhymes as we used to do. But she said none of this and sat in silent meditation wondering why she didn't say what she was thinking. With a start she realized that Emily had been staring at her and she felt afraid because Emily had seen her sitting like this, thinking so hard.
"Mother, what is it?" Emily asked softly, and it was as if for a moment there could be something there. Arvenia thought. I will say it. "Nothing," she answered, "but Emily —"
"Well then, for goodness' sake don't sit there looking like Whistler's Mother."
Arvenia leaned back and rested her head on the pillowed back of the chair, feeling against her neck the rough work of the crocheted doily. "I'm just tired today," she sighed.
"And no wonder, working the way you do — and for no reason. You've got Mag and Albert to do half the work you do yourself. It's ridiculous."
"What would I do, just sit?"
"You could find things to do that weren't actually farm work."
This could go on, Arvenia thought. There's no use going through it again. I just can't make her understand that I'd die if I didn't have work to do. From the time her father and I got married it was work. And now I can't change my ways. We worked so she wouldn't have to, and it's the thing that has drawn us apart. She can't understand my way, and I've never known hers. Arvenia watched her daughter again, unnaturally aware of her simple movements, sitting in the chair, rocking slowly. Had she and Jim done right? But it was too late now. Jeanie running in and climbing into her mother's lap interrupted the quietness. The two sat there talking while Arvenia went into the kitchen to see about the meal. It is funny, she thought — a mother can never really stop loving her child, or the child the mother, I don't believe. Even though something completely alien comes between.
Mag had sliced the tomatoes already, and there was really nothing for Arvenia to do. She carried the last dish in to the table and moved some of the silverware and straightened the napkins. All at once she felt tired again, and it was an effort to go to the door and call, "Dinner, Emily."
They sat in silence until Jeanie aroused a scolding for putting too much sugar in her tea. There was a silence again, and Arvenia said abruptly, "I haven't seen so much rain in years. Everybody's been talking about it."
Emily looked down into her plate. "Yes," she said, "and it still looks like it's going to rain again. We are really going to have to start back early."
Mag brought in chocolate cake and set the plate down before Arvenia. She took a small piece, but she didn't really want any. For some reason she thought for a moment of how chocolate cake would look in the rain. She watched Jeanie hold her cake tenderly in her hand, nibbling at the edges. Mag was still standing there. "Some folks are worried about whether the water's goin' to wash up over the levee," Mag said, her eyes thoughtful.
Arvenia spoke to her. "That's really going to be the ruination of the cotton, then. Albert won't do a lick of work."
Mag laughed outright. "That nigger don't do nothin' nohow, Miz Arvy." She went into the kitchen still chuckling to herself. The rush of water for the dishes almost drowned out her slow beginning to sing "Jesus, Jesus, I'm comin'."
They got up from the table and went back to the other room. Arvenia usually took a nap after lunch and she felt sleepy now even though she had rested in the morning. She wanted to take her nap now but she wouldn't since Emily had to leave so early.
Jeanie was pulling out the drawers in her sewing machine, building houses and things with the spools. I hope she puts them back, Arvenia thought. I'm her grandmother, after all; I could tell her to. But I probably won't. Emily sat in the hard rocker again, and Arvenia thought of asking her why she didn't sit in the soft one, but she changed her mind because somehow it seemed right for Emily to sit in the hard straight rocker. Emily stopped rocking and turned to Arvenia.
"Momma, doesn't Albert ever do anything? Why don't you —"
"He does everything he's suppose' to do," Arvenia cut in quickly. For heaven's sake, for heaven's sake, is that what you've been sitting there thinking? Why do you worry about all these things? Emily began to rock back and forth in quick, short, hard rocks, which were the only kind you could rock in that chair. Her hands moved in little knottings together, and Arvenia felt she should have been knitting furiously. Mag came in, her apron wet-splashed, to take Jeanie out to see the chickens. The child jumped up hurriedly, scattering the spools under the bed, the chairs, table, everywhere.
Emily said, "Jeanie, come right back here and pick up those things before you go anywhere."
The child stopped, her face full of quick indecision.
"That's all right," Arvenia said, "you can pick them up later."
After the two went out the room was suddenly very quiet. That same quiet that Arvenia noticed other times. Just certain times the house was suddenly so quiet. Arvenia looked at Emily, who was still rocking and who looked back with something like a question on her face. It's as if she were saying, "Well, here we are, now what?" Arvenia thought.
"I went out and pulled you some tomatoes yesterday for you to take back with you. I'll get some beans this afternoon if it doesn't rain. It was so muddy yesterday I could hardly get in the garden."
"You shouldn't have gone out in so much wet, Mother."
"I've got a few shucks of corn, too."
"I'd like to have them, but I don't want you to go out in all that wet."
"I don't mind."
It seems it's after lunch and after dinner it gets so quiet, she thought, after she and Emily hadn't said any more for a while and just the rocking was the only sound. Footsteps sounded on the porch outside, and Arvenia got up quickly. She was glad someone was coming. It was a woman from down the road whom Arvenia knew only slightly because she had just moved there.
"Come in, come in," she called. And the woman unconsciously hurried her step a little, as though she felt a necessity for her presence quickly. So she came in with a feeling of having something important to do, and it bothered her because she couldn't quite think what it was.
"This is my daughter Emily. Down from Memphis. Miz Cooper who's just moved into the old Watkins place, Emily. You know where that is, don't you?"
"Yes, I used to play there when I was little. How're you, Miz Cooper? Do you like it here?"
"Fine, ma'am. I like it fairly much. Soon's we get straightened, that is. That's what I came down about, Miz Acree, to see if your nigger could split me some stove wood. My husband went off without doing it, and I don't feel like I should in my condition."
Both of the women noticed for the first time that she was slightly showing. "When's the baby coming?" Arvenia asked.
"Long about December. Is your nigger here?" the woman answered.
"December is a nice month. Jeanie came in August, didn't she, Emily? August is the worst month."
"Yes, it was August and I —"
"Is your nigger here?" the woman repeated.
"Oh, no, no he isn't here. But when he comes back I'll send him up to your place."
"Thank you. I'd appreciate that." The woman started for the door, and Arvenia followed her all the way out onto the porch. "Looks like more rain," she said.
The woman stopped and scanned the sky. "And pretty soon," she said. "I've never seen —"
"Well, I'll send the nigger up to you as soon as he comes back." Arvenia wanted her to go as much as she had been glad to see her. The woman realized now in half-thoughts why she had felt what she did when she came. She didn't understand what was expected of her. She felt uncertain and fumbled finding the door handle. Arvenia seemed to be staring at her. She wished she'd worn her other housedress. She didn't know the woman from Memphis was here.
"Come back when you can stay for a time, Miz Cooper." Arvenia felt maybe she had been rude. She hoped Mrs. Cooper hadn't noticed.
"Thank you, I will," the woman answered. She went down the steps carefully, picking her way among the mud ruts. Arvenia stood looking after her, watching her slow progress down the road, watching her step here and then here and then there. She didn't realize how long she had stood there until Emily called to ask what she was doing. Arvenia went back inside and said, "Nothing." Emily was still sitting in the hard rocker, only she had stopped rocking and had turned the chair around so she was sitting facing the gullies. She looked out at them.
Excerpted from Pariah and Other Stories by Joan Williams. Copyright © 1983 Joan Williams. 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.