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The stories in Free offer a moving, strikingly original perspective on how cultural experiences and social assumptions impact our lives. The characters include young children trying to cope with the mysteries of adult behavior, adults striving to define themselves in a society unwilling to accept who and what they are, and elderly people looking back on the often difficult choices they have made. They all share a yearning to be free of the ties imposed by others, ties that bind their bodies, minds, or spirits.
"Trudy" depicts a battle of wills between a black salesclerk and a white customer, shining a harsh light on the bigotry of the 1950s. In "My Side of the Story," a little boy struggles to understand why his mother has abandoned him despite her claims that she loves him. “All These Years” is a touching vignette about a couple married for fifty-four years who reminisce about the attraction they felt at their very first meeting and realize that the magic still remains. In the aptly titled "Inside Out," a man who has adopted all the trappings of the white world–the hair, the clothes, the speech, the attitudes–finds himself still ostracized in his office and gently mocked at home by a wife who embraces her blackness with pride.
In probing the interior landscapes behind the everyday faces her characters assume, Anika Nailah brilliantly exposes the injustices and struggles African Americans confront, the skills they develop in order to survive, and the psychological and spiritual costs of survival.
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"You cheated me out of fifty cents," the pillbox hat white woman said, sniffing indignantly, anxiously awaiting the scent of a lie.
"No, ma'am," Trudy said, motioning to the next customer. It was a busy Saturday at the store. She'd been on her feet all day.
"Ma'am, if you have a complaint, I suggest you take it up with the manager."
"What's his name? Where is . . . ?"
At that very moment, Mr. Alcott's hefty belly was guiding him down the canned goods aisle, near the front of the store. He was in search of a stock number the boy he'd hired in desperation yesterday could not find. His ears, trained to pick up the grumblings of a dissatisfied customer from any corner of the store, heard bits and pieces of a conversation at Register 3.
". . . ignorant, obstinate . . ."
". . . Don't put your hands . . ."
". . . can't even count . . . got no business . . ."
". . . warning you, ma'am . . ."
Immediately, he realized this was not a dialogue to miss. After all the talk lately surrounding the Negro Question, due to that Supreme Court decision a month ago in Kansas, the last thing he needed was a race riot in his store. He straightened up as best he could. Tightening his belt around his unwieldy monument to good eating, he smoothed back what was left of his auburn hair, and approached Register 3.
He found two women--one tall, cinnamon; one salt-colored, bony. A crowd had formed. The white woman was old, small. She'd wedged herself into the cramped register space where Trudy stood. Alcott knew that Negro and white eyes were watching.
"Trudy," he said.
She turned. Her lips tightly pursed, nostrils wide, eyes wild past any recognition of the quiet Negro woman she usually was.
In the war, Alcott had seen fear turn a man's face inside out. But this look on Trudy Dillard's face was something different, fearless, decided.
"Mr. Alcott," she answered.
"What seems to be the problem here?"
The white woman's sharp blue eyes cut the side of Alcott's face. "I'm the customer. I'm the customer. Why don't you ask me what the problem is?"
"Ma'am . . . ?" Alcott began.
"Thief. Plain and simple. That's what she is."
Trudy looked her in the eye. "I have neither need nor desire to steal anything from the likes of you."
"You impertinent . . . This how you train your colored girls?"
"Excuse me, ladies," Alcott said, squeezing his way in between them. He looked at the dollar figures standing at attention in the glass of the cash register. "How much was your purchase, ma'am?"
"Right here. Says right here"--the woman pressed her fingers against the register, a few inches from his nose--"fifteen dollars and fifty cents."
Alcott looked cautiously over at Trudy. She stood expressionless, arms crossed, eyes focused elsewhere.
"Well," Alcott tried again, "how much did the customer give you?"
"Sixteen dollars!" the woman yelled, dumping the contents of her brown paper bag on the counter. "This is what I bought. This is what I bought. Y'see?" She put her face close to his and leaned in. "The girl . . ." she said. Alcott could smell licorice on her breath. ". . . cheated me out of my money is all there is to it."
Trudy stepped out from behind the register, silent as death. Her arms at her sides, eyes locked on the white woman's. The crowd tensed.
Alcott wanted to touch Trudy's shoulder. Easy. Calm down. Everything will be . . . He knew better. This white woman was a magnet, pulling Trudy to her like a razor. If a Negro hit a white woman, some white man would feel compelled to jump in. Then all hell would surely break loose. And when the dust cleared, Alcott would be left without the store he'd worked so hard to build, not to mention his best Negro worker.
He tried to reason. "Trudy. Think about your daughter."
Trudy didn't care anymore. If she had made a mistake with the change, it was too late. This woman had pushed her past apology. She was a human being. Sick of these damn white people saying and doing whatever they pleased. Sick of 'em all the time treating her like she got as much feeling as a piece of trash in the gutter. Like they did Mama. Like they did Daddy.
That night. One year back from fighting the war. Standing in the hallway. Only crime was walking the street looking for work. She remembered him cleaning off the egg that covered him from head to toe, a thin trickle of his blood mixing with white and yellow slime, running from the corner of his eye, down the side of his face. She remembered hating his patience when he told her, "Daddy's alright, baby. Eggs. That's all. Just eggs."
Sick of these white folks. Sick. Of every last one.
The white woman looked at the colored girl's face. Yeah, go ahead, she thought. Police'll be all over you so fast you won't know what hit you.
There was a short distance between the woman's face and Trudy's hand. It would be quick. Her brown hand, the red mark, that white skin.
Something stopped her.
Maybe it was the hint of a smile on the woman's lips, or the resigned expressions of the Negroes around her. And what would her half-grown daughter do without her? Negroes were being burned, beaten, and killed without a second thought.
The anger encased her, freezing the soles of her shoes to the floor. She could feel everything climbing to the top of her head, then stopping, icing over into one solid block. She concentrated on it. Tried to free it, let it loose, move on. Instead, she felt the ice catch in her throat. She knew this block well. It belonged to her. She would hide it, protect the precious tears it held. Dissolve it, piece by piece, when she was alone. Trudy saw herself, slowly, recrossing her arms, turning away. She heard the cash register ring.
The sweaty palm of Mr. Alcott's hand held two quarters. He offered them to the white woman.
"Um-hmm. Knew I was right." She walked toward Trudy. "I demand an apology."
Trudy walked past her. This woman no longer existed. She had tried to snatch Trudy through the wall that separated them, Negro from white. Wanted to see this colored girl broken, handcuffed on the other side. She had failed.
"Next," Trudy said, stepping inside her register area, smiling at a new customer, "I'm open."
"Hmph. This isn't over." The white woman gathered her bags and moved toward the door. "I promise you that, gal."
The perspiration that had dribbled down the hills of Alcott's body and collected in the valleys, now floated freely down the trails of his face, back, chest, and arms, as he watched the crowd unfurl, returning the old woman to the world outside his store.
The madness followed him out of the house as he walked down Clover Street in Murrayville. The familiar tightening of his back, the pulsing muscles in his legs and feet, signs that the madness was upon him, close enough to jump him, wrestle him to the ground.
He took off. Some guys were on the corner singing.
Oh-oh, yes, I'm the great pretender.
He headed for Matthews Park, eight blocks down. His tennis shoes came down hard against the street, the beige soles of his feet pressing white, deep, searching for the grooves, for the grooves, to propel him, save him from the terror. The madness clawed at him, barely missing the white of his T-shirt. His chest was sore from the hammering of his breath against his rib cage. Sweat cut one path after another from his forehead down his lean, teenage body. His mouth was dry.
When at last he reached the park, Gumbo was bent over. His hands were on his knees. He felt the madness tire and leave him, his breath, in gasps, return to him. He sensed the madness following its trail back to Clover Street. He saw it transform into a spidery mist, then slip quietly under the front door of his house, taking its time, as it settled, back into the corners of every room.
Gumbo had outrun it one more time. As he sat down, he watched the brown spots his tears and sweat made in the dirt. He felt heat come through his wet T-shirt as he leaned against a concrete wall.
Five months ago, the madness had taken his sister, Marion. She'd left Murrayville for New York with two boys from the church choir. They'd decided they could sing that "worldly" music. Get a record pressed. Become famous.
While she was gone, sunlight broke through the blinds in her room. Each night, darkness chased it away. The madness sat on her windowsill, content to wait for her return.
Marion finally came back. She was good, better than she'd imagined. She really had something. All the A&R people at the labels said they could make her a star. She only had to want the dream.
She went from 125 pounds to 260, feeding on all the pieces of herself she loathed and feared. The door knocked. The phone called. Letters jammed themselves in the space beneath her door. Pretty flowers died in brittle bunches on the other side. She answered nothing, snuck out to quickly spend her New York money on whatever she could stuff in shopping bags, washed herself from time to time, and slept. The madness had her on a leash. She never stayed gone too long.
Just last week, the madness had come for Richard Preston, Gumbo's daddy. When he couldn't get out of bed that morning, his wife, Maureen, dragged, half carried him to the doctor's, temporarily outwitting the madness, as it hunted Preston through the smell of his despair. Was it in his navy workpants draped flawlessly across the back of the armchair? Inside the toes of his leather slippers? Or maybe it just lay forgotten beneath the sheets, between him and Maureen, since the children had been born.
Preston was a tall, dark Negro with a deep laugh, and an opinion about everything. Part of The Brotherhood most his life. Honest work, being a porter. The money wasn't nothing to be ashamed of neither, thanks to Mr. A. Philip Randolph.
Always moving. Trains taking him this place and that. At first, he liked it, understood how necessary the motion was to rock the thing inside him that was soft and scared. After a while, all that moving began to bother him. Someone else was doing it and he all the time going in whatever direction they told him. Buying a house was his way of yanking himself back, having somewhere to put his feet besides a sooty depot everytime he got off the train, somewhere that was standing still, somewhere with his name on it.
Then he laid eyes on Maureen. Saw exactly what his house was missing. Knew right away he wanted to make lots of pretty brown babies that looked just like her. Lord, did he love him some Maureen. Not one day went by when he didn't poke fun at her. Couldn't help himself, so crazy about her. He was a little boy on the playground all over again, messing with some cute girl he really wanted to kiss.
She said, "Yes." She moved in. She filled out. The house filled up. Their happiness, a fancy piece of chocolate they swallowed whole.
They never noticed when the melting began. The sweetness lingering to tease the memory. Preston by himself on the road, riding those trains. He'd come around exhausted, two days at a time. Then, he was gone. Maureen would stand in the living room, her back to the door. She would breathe in the scent of him he'd left behind. At night, after the babies were asleep, she'd hug his bathrobe against her nakedness, beneath the covers, her cheek against the skin of his pillow, breathing in the scent of him until he returned.
That morning, years later, when all the babies were grown, and Preston could not make it out of bed, the doctor told Maureen her husband was fine. There was nothing wrong with his legs. Richard Preston never told her he had been hiding from the madness for as long as he could remember.
That particular morning, he was just plain tired. He had run his race. That morning, he had finally decided to quit running.
A long time ago, Preston had told his nine-year-old son, Gumbo, how the madness ate people up in all kinds of ways. How when Preston was four, in the summertime, he'd seen it jump into his own father's hands and nearly strangle the life out of his mama, that day Grandpa got laid off. Gumbo didn't say much. Just looked at him with that little man expression. His silent fight against the fear his daddy was causing in the bottom of his stomach. Preston told Gumbo about that early spring, when he was twelve and saw the madness in the eyes of broken men standing on the corners, sneaking sips from back pockets, thinking no one saw, not caring if someone did. Preston was a young man when he recognized the madness in himself. Something about the way he felt when he woke up, a rhythm he fought to find to take him from the bedroom to the end of his day. Just doing, not feeling.
Gumbo hadn't understood exactly what his father was trying to tell him back then. He knew his daddy laughed an awful lot and tried to make him laugh whenever something hurt. Either way, Gumbo figured sooner or later, the madness would catch him too. He'd smelled its rancid breath, heard it whisper "Fuck it" in his ear while he was in school. Gumbo's plan was to run and keep running as far away from Clover Street as he could get. When he got tired of running, he would sing. It would begin in his head, a memory of an old-time 78 Mama had put on the record player when Pop was at work.
Why not take all of me?
Mama turning, slowly, her toes digging into the shaggy carpet. Her eyes closed. One hand clutching her waist. The other, fingers spread, reaching.
Gumbo could see her, hear the tune, if he kept himself in darkness, shut everything else out. It became a hum, vibrating through his nose and cheeks, unfolding in his throat into notes that hooked one into the other and rose bravely from his full lips, reaching. Reaching for that space, high above him, beyond the blue.
Reading Group Guide
Free Reading Group Companion, Copyright 2001 by The Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.