Read an Excerpt
Tee Wee stood on her front porch, arms folded over her huge breasts, black, bare feet wide apart. She weighed more than two hundred pounds, and in her Sunday navy blue dress with red stripes, over which she wore a small white apron, she resembled a large mail- box. On her head she wore a straw boater with black streamers. As she reached to straighten the hat, adjusting the streamers so that they curled around her neck, she thought how unfair it was that the Parsons had chosen Luther to be the one to go get this Summit woman who called herself Icey. And on a Sunday, too! Tee Wee’s day had begun at five when she had stumbled to the kitchen to make pies for dinner at Mount Zion. Then at meeting four sinners had been called to Jesus, which meant an extra hour of testifying and singing, and when she had finally got- ten home after three o’clock, she barely had time to make her fa- mous chicken pie and put her Sunday clothes back on before Luther was due back.
When Tee Wee saw an orange ball of dust swirling up the hill, she crossed her arms and took a deep breath. Now she could see the black car slowly moving toward her. The 1940 Ford was ten years old and didn’t run half the time, but its chrome bumpers were still shiny, and it was the only car owned by a colored on Enterprise Road.
Now another woman was sitting in the passenger’s seat of that Ford. “Here she comes,” Tee Wee said. “Here comes misery up my drive.” Last week Mrs. Parsons had broken the news that Tee Wee’s daughter Ernestine wasn’t going to get the housekeeping job after that no-good Pansy had quit. No, she was giving the job, the tenant house next door, and half of Tee Wee’s vegetable garden to this Icey. And all because Icey’s man had run off and she was kin to Idella, who cleaned up the white Methodist church. “So she got young’ns to feed. We all got them,” she mumbled to herself. And the worst insult of all was Luther having to drive up to Summit to fetch her and her children. Didn’t the woman have no friends to help her? Like as not, she thought. Woman can’t hold her man can’t hold no friends.
Luther pulled into the small circle of shade offered by the only oak in their yard. Tee Wee began counting heads in the car. Luther’s. Hers. Three young’ns. Tee Wee smiled. Four of her six were in the house behind her. The back doors of the car opened and the passengers began falling out of the Ford. None of them had on shoes. She kept smiling. Then she saw a pair of black patent leather pumps dangling from beneath the door of the passenger’s side. Her smile vanished. She wished she hadn’t taken off her shoes, but they were two sizes too small, and her feet had been killing her after wearing them to meeting this morning. When Icey finally got out of the Ford, Tee Wee saw that she was nearly as large as herself and also in her early thirties. The woman’s skin was walnut-colored, and she was wearing a white lace dress with a blue aster blossom stuck in one of the holes over her left breast. Her head was, Tee Wee saw with relief, hatless. Luther, who normally limped from an injury caused by a mule falling on his left leg, swung around the car like he’d never seen a jackass, much less had one fall on him.
Tee Wee didn’t move. Let them come up to her. “Bout time. Supper’s on and gettin scorched.”
Luther laughed like she’d said something funny. “This here’s our new neighbor, Tee. Name of Icey.”
Icey nodded, dipping her head to show a big silver barrette holding up her black curls. “Tee Wee,” she said. “Look like we gonna be neighbors a spell.”
Tee Wee turned her back and opened the screen door. “Look like that,” she said, pulling the door open and stepping over all the children who had been leaning against it. “Ernestine, Crow, you girls come for these young’ns,” she called to her daughters. Let this Icey know she had help in her house; let her know she didn’t raise no trash. And she grinned, hurrying back to the kitchen. Let her smell my chicken pie and greens cookin and see them four pies on my windowsill when she look out hers.
Icey didn’t notice the pies because she was too busy inspecting her wonderful new home. After Luther followed Tee Wee into their house, Icey had led her children inside the adjacent, identical one, where they would now be living. Four rooms—more than she’d ever had before—a roof that looked like it wouldn’t leak, and most wondrous of all, electricity! Every bare bulb hanging from the ceiling in each room came magically alive with a small orange glow when she flipped the little lever on the wall.
Looking to her left, she saw the small kitchen, which had a wood-burning stove, a washstand, and even some shelves to put dishes on. The other door from the front room led to a back bedroom, and from there she could see into another small bedroom. No windows, but there was one in the kitchen and one in the front room, and only two panes were broken. “Thank You, Lord Jesus,” Icey said, lifting her head to the wooden ceiling. Preacher Smith had said the Lord would provide and He had.
The house was furnished with only a few sticks of furniture: a couch with broken springs and stuffing protruding out both cushions, a small wooden table in the kitchen, two straight ladder-backed chairs, and one mattress on the floor. Icey kicked off the shoes she’d stuffed paper in to make them fit and threw herself down on the couch. She sagged to the floor. “Okay, young’ns,” she called to the children who were wander- ing through the house like scattered ants. “Bring all them boxes in; we home.”
When Tee Wee turned out the lights at nine, she noticed Icey’s house was aglow with pumpkin light. Hidden in the darkness of her own window, she stood looking through Icey’s kitchen into the front room. Two naked children were sprawled out on the floor on sheets and blankets, and what Tee Wee declared to herself were “nothin but rags.” Craning her head sideways, she could see Icey sitting on the couch, still wearing the lace dress and shriveled blue aster; she held something in her hand that looked like a book. Raising the window, Tee Wee stuck her head out into the cool night air. It was a book, and the woman’s head was down like she was reading it. Tee Wee felt enormously jealous. Her secret dream was to learn to read and write. Her Ernestine could read, Crow, Rufus, and Paul, too, but Tee Wee herself could barely make out her name. “I said this woman was trouble, and here it is sittin right there next door to me.” She slammed the window down and made her way in the darkness to her bed, where Luther lay sleeping with his mouth wide open. Crawling in beside her man, Tee Wee curled her big body around his bony form. Readin ain’t everythin, she told herself. Let her sleep with that book; I got a man.
Icey and Tee Wee came out of their houses the next morning at the same moment and stood planted on their porches staring over at each other like gladiators about to enter an arena. This Monday morning was an overcast, gray fall day, and the obscured sun gave off little warmth. Tee Wee pulled her sweater arms down over her square hands. She knew it would be hot in just a few hours, but for now the wool felt comforting to her. Icey, she saw out of the corner of her eye, had no sweater, but she looked perfectly warm in her sleeveless print housedress. Tee Wee yawned and stretched, stalling for time to decide how to handle this situation she’d have every morning now that Trouble had moved in. Well, she decided finally, weren’t no help for it. They’d be going to the same place at the same time every day. “Mornin, Icey,” she called across the few feet between them.
Icey nodded. “Look like a beautiful day.”
Tee Wee took another look up at the gray sky. “Might rain, though,” she said.
“Might at that,” Icey said, sauntering down the three wooden steps to wait for Tee Wee. “I hopes not. Children will get wet walkin to school.” She wanted Tee Wee to know that all of her children went to school.
Tee Wee was smiling as she came down her three steps. “Yes, mine’s got a umbrella, though.” With three broken ribs, she wasn’t going to mention.
“Oh,” Icey said. “Well, maybe it won’t rain anyway.”
“Maybe not,” Tee Wee said, walking on toward the Parsons’, “but I believes I just felt a drop on my head.”
Icey caught up with her. “I didn’t feel nothin. You sure a bird ain’t found you?”
Tee Wee walked faster. These morning walks to work were gonna be nothing but misery from now on. “I knows the difference between droppins and water,” she said.
Icey smiled. She thought to herself that these walks with Tee Wee might turn out to be the best part of her day.
At the Parsons’ house the two women gave each other wide berth. Tee Wee hardly ever left the kitchen, and although Icey’s cleaning chores included that area, Tee Wee made it clear that she trusted no one to clean her domain. Icey, who was allowed to take her noonday meal at her employer’s, never complimented Tee Wee on her fried chicken, blueberry cobbler, tea cakes, or even her chicken pie, which all the Parsons declared to be the best in Mississippi, and so the two continued as they had the first morning, sparring with words. They wore dresses normally reserved for Sunday meeting; they waved starred schoolwork their children brought home in each other’s faces; they mentioned nearly every possession they had acquired of any worth at all. When Icey set her iron wash pot on her front porch, Tee Wee produced her own with red plastic flowers peeking out of it. On Wednesday Tee Wee set a china milk pitcher on her kitchen windowsill, and by Thursday Icey had placed a china sugar bowl on hers. And every evening when Tee Wee pushed a protesting Luther out onto her front porch, Icey would respond by going inside and opening her Bible, which she read aloud in a voice that sounded like the preacher’s when he was ordering devils out of the hearts of his congregation.
Icey’s and Tee Wee’s children were, however, fast friends by the weekend. They shared the few homemade toys they possessed between them: corn husk and clothespin dolls, slingshots, balls made of twine, pine straw and chinaberry jewelry, and whittled wooden swords and guns. At Sunday meeting the children sat together while Icey and Tee Wee chose separate pews. Icey wore her white lace again, and Tee Wee had sewn a bit of red ribbon on the sleeves of her navy blue Sunday dress. If Icey noticed the addition, she showed no sign. Thus, Icey’s first week in her tenant house ended as it had begun: Icey went to bed with her Bible, Tee Wee with her man. And both warriors, already battle-weary, dreamed of victories in skirmishes yet to come.
Icey’s second week as Tee Wee’s neighbor brought only more stalemates, and on Thursday Icey grudgingly complimented Tee Wee on her lemon meringue pie. At first Tee Wee thought Icey was only baiting her again and watched her face carefully before answering. When she saw genuine pleasure in Icey’s eyes after forking another bite into her mouth, Tee Wee straightened her back, lifted her head, and said, “It’s in how long you beat the whites makes meringue right. I beats four minutes longer than most.”
“Well, it sure taste good.”
They were sitting on the back steps of the Parsons’ house resting between the noontime and evening meals. Icey continued to look at Tee Wee without the ice in her eyes Tee Wee thought she was named for. “Well,” Tee Wee said, scraping her plate with her fork, trying to think of something nice to say back. “You done a good job on that old mirror in the hall. Seem like the woman Parsons had before you just smeared it up every time she touched it.”
“I use newspaper and vinegar. That do the job right on mirrors. Windows, too.”
“Parsons is pretty picky bout their help.” Then, in the habit she’d fallen into, she couldn’t resist adding, “I guess you ain’t used to workin for such fine folk.”
Icey stood up and held out her saucer and fork to Tee Wee. “I don’t reckon the Parsons is any more picky than them Manchesters I work for in Summit. They used to entertain the governor of this here whole state, and he came to visit one day and said, ‘Icey, you does keep things nice round here.’ That what he said.”
Tee Wee stood up, ignoring the saucer and fork Icey was holding out. She couldn’t think of anybody who’d visited the Parsons worth mentioning. Silently, she turned and entered her kitchen. A governor, she thought to herself. Imagine that.
Icey, following her in, set her dish on the table. “Well, that pie was good, Tee. I best get back to dustin the furniture. See you later.”
“Yeah, I’ll see you whether I wants to or not,” Tee Wee mumbled, slinging the saucer into the sink with such force it shattered into tiny pieces.
The next day on their walk to work Tee Wee brought up the subject she’d been burning to know about ever since she’d met Icey. “What happened to your man?”