This multifaceted and riveting historical novel gives greater insight into the complexity of African American lives. With New York State's major road and bridge construction in the background, rural enclaves become casualties of suburbanization.
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By Brenda Ross
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2015 Brenda Ross
All rights reserved.
Langston County is tucked into the southern tip of New York State, wedged between the Hudson River and the New Jersey state line. And it was home to Jake Tucker. Fishing, hunting, drinking and being independent were what he cared most about in life, and Jake always said he could do none of those things living in the city. Except drinking. When he did go to New York, he'd raise enough hell in that town to make the thirty-mile trip more than worth it. He'd drive down in his rickety Ford pickup with about fifty dollars burning the insides of his back pocket and try his best to overthrow Harlem single-handedly. When Jake drank, his light-skinned complexion took on a deep red overcast and he became loud and boisterous. His larger than average size made bartenders think twice about trying to throw him out, and besides, he was free enough with his money that they just let him drink himself into a stupor and sleep it off in a back room somewhere. That was how he met Bibsy. She was in the upstairs room of the Big Top Club on One hundred forty-first Street and Lenox Avenue when he came to one spring morning.
"'Bout time you woke up," she said when his eyes first opened.
He was flat on his back and staring at the ceiling. He turned his head to focus on the female figure whose voice he'd just heard. As his blurred vision began to clear, he saw a dark-skinned woman seated at a small table against the wall, her legs crossed. She was wearing just a slip and one of the prettiest smiles he'd seen in a real long time. The smile jolted his memory, and he not only recalled the previous night but the exact moment a certain woman walked into the Big Top and caught his attention. His facial expression relaxed with the memory of them closing down the bar in a corner booth. He had a weakness for pretty dark-skinned women, and the fond remembrance of the night before prompted him to make an effort to pull himself together. She had a tooth missing on the side, and he liked that too. Although he wasn't a religious man, Jake believed that God didn't make nothing or nobody perfect. To him, that missing tooth made her more like real folk. She had a paper coffee cup in one hand and a lit cigarette dangling from the other. Instinctively, Jake's eyes scanned the room for his pants where he had his money.
"Your pants are right here on the floor where you left em," she said pointing with her toe.
Her sassy style combined a rare self-confidence and courage, qualities he took an instant liking to. He hated playing guessing games with people. Especially women. Bibsy reached for her garter belt and stockings and slipped them on while she talked. "Your money's still there. What's left of it. I took out five dollars to give to the barkeep for the fifth of whiskey you asked for and this room." She picked up the half-empty bottle from the floor and placed it on the table, then wiggled her petite frame into her dress and sat down again.
Jake leaned over and snatched his pants from the floor beside the bed and thrust his hand in each pocket. Finding he still had fifteen dollars surprised him; usually these slick New York women left him high and dry the next morning. Sometimes he'd have to borrow two quarters for the toll back across the George Washington Bridge. He got out of bed, pulled on his pants, grabbed the fifth of Jack Daniels and brought it to his lips.
"Gotta take a hair from the dog that bit ya." Jake wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Come on. Let's find someplace ta eat. You know of any good places to eat around here?"
Bibsy was about to tell him as she stood, when Jake suddenly lifted her into the air grinning at her. Then just as unexpectedly, yet tenderly, brought her down close to him and hugged her. Though initially puzzled by his impulsive embrace, she returned the gesture. Squeezing harder, he swayed from side to side saying, "Why, you're jus a lil bit of a thing. What's your name?"
"I got a lotta different names, you can take your pick. My mother named me Elizabeth, but most people call me Tiny. My family calls me Bibsy though."
Jake put her down and the top of her head reached no further than the middle of his upper arm, yet she had the kind of figure that would provoke a man's comment.
"Bibsy! What kind of a name is that?" He laughed.
"Look," she said, "Don't you go makin fun of my name or we won't never get along. That name was given to me by my sister's kids and I'm proud as hell of it."
"Well, if that's the name you're proud of that's what I'm gonna call you if you don't mind ... even though I'm not family. It's different, and I like it ... Bibsy, hmm ... I like that."
Jake asked the waitress behind the counter for three orders of sausage, home fries, eggs, biscuits and coffee; one order for Bibsy and two for himself. Neither of them talked much while they were eating. After their meal Jake belched loudly. A few patrons turned to look but that didn't faze him. Bibsy just smiled. She thought he was a real character and found herself falling for this man. His rough ways seemed to endear him to her. She thought it took a lot of courage not to care what people think about you. She felt really big that morning; being around Jake made her feel as though her small size swelled to as big as his. She felt important too. Folks took notice of them when they walked down the street and she liked that a lot. They took a stroll through the neighborhood, laughing and talking like old friends. He told her about his two boys, Jake Jr. and Robert, and how he'd been raising them by himself since their mother died seven years ago. He went on about life on The Beach in upstate Haverton, an inlet on the Hudson. "I guess to some it jus looks like a buncha rundown shacks. No 'lectricity. No inside plumbing. But I'll take it over this," Jake's gaze swept the brownstones on either side of the avenue, "any day. People up there, Cousin Gus, Aunt Carrie and all the rest, are jus plain hard-workin honest folk. I got my own chickens, a coupla pigs and vegetable garden. The garden's doin kinda poor cause the boys don't take care of it like they should. We live off the land too, eatin wild turkey, coon, rabbit, squirrel and sometimes even pheasant and deer if we're lucky."
He had a shepherd named Rain who went with him everywhere, except when he came to New York because all the noise and people made her too jittery.
"There's lots of hard work but we all chip in and help one another and make a nice life for ourselves."
"It's hard work walkin around in these high heels too." Bibsy pulled off her shoes and continued in her stocking feet. "My feet been killin me."
"What you wear em for if they hurt your feet?"
"That's the style."
"Goin round with hurtin feet is the latest New York style! Lawd, what they gonna come up with next?"
Bibsy playfully hit Jake on the arm and started laughing.
"You live around here?" Jake asked. "You don't act or talk like you from round here."
"I been up here four months now. Got a job in a dress factory downtown. Folks around here call it the Garment District. I was born in Maryland. Ellicott City. That's right outside Baltimore."
"Guess you like it better back home, huh?"
"No indeed. Me and two of my sisters were brought up by nuns in a Catholic home. My mother visited us regular but she was too busy workin to raise us. My sister Martha, she's the oldest and the one I'm livin with now, was brought up by my father and his family. Seemed like nobody wanted us three after Mom and Pop split up," she continued, "Pop took the oldest cause they was old enough to help out doing chores. Guess we was too small to be of any use to him." Bibsy took a deep breath, stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and stared at Jake. "Look at me goin on and on about all the sores in my past. People who've known me for years don't know as much of my life as what I've already told you. You sure are easy to talk to, Jake. If I'm borin you jus say so. Won't hurt my feelings one bit."
"Unh, unh. You ain't borin me none. If you was, I'da changed the subject a long ways back. To tell you the truth, it's kinda interestin. Never met nobody who grew up wit nuns like that. I see em in town every once in a while. Dressed in all that black and lookin real spooky. But I don't believe I ever seen no colored tend they church. Seen them Puerto Ricans that's new in town go there, but not colored."
"Oh, there's a good amount here in New York. Seems a lot more in Baltimore though. My older sister Ruth even joined the convent to be a nun herself."
"Yep. Right after school was finished she stayed with em and joined the all-colored order, the Oblate Sisters of Providence. It's right there in Baltimore."
Jake smiled. "Now that must be a sight. A colored nun."
"She swears things is changin in the church, but I'd had enough when I was growin up with em. Boy, I wouldn't care if I never did no housework again in life. We kept that place so clean you could eat off the floor. They didn't have no janitors or handymen at St. Cecelia's. Didn't need none with the way they worked us." She took a deep last drag from her cigarette before flicking it into a puddle in the gutter. "Never did understand how Mom could belong to a church that didn't even allow colored folks to sit past the last three pews. Never will understand that."
"Hey," Jake said spotting an ice cream parlor across the street, "Let's stop for some ice cream, then head over to the truck." Afterwards, they walked down the street licking double scoops of cherry vanilla ice cream, in silence. When they finally got to the pickup, before he let her in Jake stopped and looked down into Bibsy's face, his expression suddenly very serious. "You comin home with me."
"Oh, I don't have nothin to say about it one way or another, huh?" Bibsy retorted in her usual sassy tone. She climbed into the pickup and he slammed the door.
Jake went around and got in on the driver's side. "Damn, damn, damn," he shook his head slowly, still gripping the steering wheel until the knuckles on his huge hands whitened.
"I don't like bein told what to do. I can make up my own mind about things."
"Never said you couldn't," Jake snapped back. "I wasn't tryin to tell you what to do. Look, I ain't gonna ask you no better'n that. That's me. What'd you think I was gonna do, tie you up and shove you in the back of the truck?" His nostrils flared when he talked. For a long while, only quiet and warm sun filled the cab of the truck.
"You know I can't cook a lick. Never could. They tried to teach me at school but I just couldn't get the hang of it. Really wanted to learn too, cause I like to eat. But I burnt up food so bad they kept me outta the kitchen and gave me other chores to do, like sewing and stuff."
Bibsy could see Jake's chest heave as he stared through his side window. But it was hard to tell whether he was listening at all, he appeared so distant at that moment. When he did speak his voice didn't sound the same, the mindful way he picked his words.
"That's why you think I want you ta come live with me ... so you can cook and clean and look after my boys? That's what you think?"
"Well, I don't know. It's just that I guess most men expect for a woman to know how to cook at least a little." She hesitated before adding, "And I ain't much on housekeeping neither. I told you that already."
"Look," he said, with his voice becoming more serious, "You don't wanna go? Say so right out. Don't try ta be all slick about it."
"No, Jake. I wanna go, I really do. I jus don't want you thinkin you're getting somebody you're not."
"Huh!" A slight trace of a smile played at his right cheek. "I can cook. Cook damn good if I do say so myself. And I'll teach you, cause I ain't gonna have you burnin up food I spent half the day huntin for." He grabbed Bibsy closer. "And as for that house, it ain't useta bein kept up no how, and that's fine wit me. I want you. Not what you can do. Don't forget that."
Bibsy's whole body broke out in a grin.
"You ready now?" Jake put the key into the ignition.
"Yeah, Jake. I been ready."CHAPTER 2
Bibsy directed Jake the several blocks to her sister Martha's apartment. She and her husband, Kalvin introduced Bibsy to the classier cliques within New York's colored society. Champagne and supper clubs were their signature style. The two were regulars at the Savoy and Renaissance ballrooms where they often drew crowds as they took the fox trot and waltz to ever greater heights each weekend.
Although the glitz and glamour was nice in the beginning, Bibsy found most of their crowd too stuck on themselves to enjoy her company, or she theirs. But that didn't stop Kalvin and Martha from steadily trying to fix her up with their friends from the minute she hit town.
Bibsy left Baltimore after she broke up with her last boyfriend who she discovered was married and had a family after going out with him a few months. Coming on the heels of several failed relationships, she thought it was time for new scenery altogether, then called her sister in New York.
Because Martha hadn't grown up at St. Cecelia's, Bibsy and her eldest sister had only now gotten to know each other. A friendly outgoing type, Martha easily made Bibsy feel comfortable in her home where laughter was natural and easy. At the orphanage, or "The Home" as their mother preferred to call it, just waking up in a good mood was reason enough to attract unwanted attention from the nuns. Being around Martha's feisty children though, made her long for her own. Cheryl, the only girl and the oldest, tried saying, "Aunt Elizabeth," when she was a toddler, but it came out as "Bibbat" and pretty quickly shortened to "Bibsy", where it eventually stuck for everybody.
It only now dawned on her that leaving to go off with Jake meant she wouldn't be seeing Martha and her family every day; and she knew she'd miss them something awful, especially since it was the first real family life she'd been a part of. In the numerous times retelling the story of how they arrived at St. Cecelia's, her sister Mary always blamed their father, because she remembered him bringing them there without their mother present. Bibsy and Cora followed her lead, knowing her recollection was more reliable since she was the only one old enough to have any memory of it. Mary said she and Cora were laughing and giggling all the way because they'd never been on a trolley before. Their father carried six-month-old Bibsy in his arms. Once he dropped them off, she said he left right away without so much as a glance back, in spite of Mary screaming her head off for him to not leave them there alone.
As Bibsy got older, at each of those strictly enforced third-Sunday family visits at St. Cecelia's, she regularly asked their mother, Letty, why they had to be there and her answer was always the same – she had to work as a live-in cook because it paid more money. But Bibsy never understood the connection between money and being with your children and resented the answer just as much as their circumstance. Bibsy often wondered if their mother even missed them at all and felt she should have done whatever it took for them to be together.
Their father died when Bibsy was in high school and she remembered only a few people attended his service. With his children lined up like wooden soldiers in front of his casket, Bibsy was disoriented by the emotional battle she experienced seeing her father for the first time while he lay in a casket.
They got out of Jake's truck and he said, "I forgot to ask you ... I ain't steppin on nobody's toes, am I? Let me know if I gotta go into my Joe Louis act to get you outta here."
"Humph! Ain't nobody got no claim on me."
"Uh, huh. I heard that before too."
"Will you stop that! Ain't nobody gonna. ..." as they reached the median dividing Lenox Avenue, Bibsy's gaze casually traveled from the cobble-stoned street upwards and she came to a dead halt. "Oh no."
Excerpted from Bibsy by Brenda Ross. Copyright © 2015 Brenda Ross. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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