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Chapter OneSATURDAY, JULY 23
Papa used to say I had a memory like an elephant’s. According to him, an elephant never forgets. I’m not sure how my self-educated, tenant-farming grandfather knew what an elephant’s memory was like, but he sure was right about mine. Most folks didn’t believe me, but I could remember all the way back from when I was only a year and a half old, when my brother Fred Lee was born. That was June 1943. I remember Mama stretched out on the bed, flat on her back, her body stiff like a board. A blue and white patchwork quilt covered the bed. Sweat covered Mama. What I thought was a watermelon tucked beneath her faded yellow dress looked as if it had sucked all the fat from her spindly arms and legs and placed it in her stomach. Since her lips were so dry and crusty, I thought the watermelon had sucked all the life from her face, too. With her head swaying from side to side, Mama moaned and whispered, “Y’all, hurr’up and fetch Miss Addie.” My grandmother, Ma Pearl, standing as tall as a mountain, her thick arms crossed over her heavy bosom, shushed Mama from the doorway. “Hush, chile,” she said. “Save yo’ strength for pushing.” Other than the tiny room reeking of mothballs and rubbing alcohol, that’s all I remember, because Ma Pearl shooed me to the front porch to watch for the toothless, bent-to-the-ground Miss Addie. After Miss Addie came hobbling along on that crooked stick she called a cane, I wasn’t allowed back into the house. But even from the porch I could hear Mama screaming. I thought the watermelon was eating her. That night, I cried when I couldn’t sleep with Mama. She had the watermelon wrapped in a blanket and wedged against her bosom. From that day on, whenever I wanted her to hold me, she held that watermelon instead. I was convinced she loved the watermelon more than she loved me. Twelve years and one month after listening to Mama give birth to what I thought was a watermelon, I was halfway through my six-mile trek to Miss Addie’snot to fetch her for Mama, but to deliver eggs to her from Ma Pearlwhen I heard a pickup rattling up the road, crunching rocks behind me. Without looking, I knew the pickup belonged to Ricky Turner. And without a doubt, I knew Ricky was looking for trouble. He had a reputation for trying to run over colored folks just because he had a notion. He’d chased a nine-year-old boy named Obadiah Malone straight into the woods and all the way to Stillwater Lake with that rusted-out piece of junk only a few days before. So when the rock crunching grew louder and the engine clanking more intense, I flew one way and the egg crate another as I dove toward the grass. Not a second later, the pickup rumbled by, pelting me with rocks as I crouched near a tree. The eggs I was to deliver to Miss Addie lay scattered on the road, cracked, ready to sizzle in the midday heat. As the truck rattled up the road, Ricky and his buddies leaned out the windows. They guffawed and hollered obscenities at me. Without thinking, I ran to the middle of the road, picked up the biggest rock I could find, and slung it at the disappearing truck. That was a mistake. I don’t know how they saw me. But when the truck stopped, I froze. Ricky shifted in reverse. In a cloud of dust, the truck roared back my way. I scrambled toward the grass. When the truck stopped right in front of me, my heart sputtered worse than the pickup’s engine. Ricky poked his angry red face out the window and yelled, “Gal, don’t you know better’n to chuck a rock at a gentleman’s truck?” His face tightened like a fist as he released a stream of tobacco juice from his twisted mouth. I wiped the brown spit from my legs and tried to stare at the ground like I knew I should. But I couldn’t take my eyes off Ricky’s scowling face. He snorted and spat again. This time at the ground. “You could’ve broke my back winder,” he said. “Now, how you ’spect to pay for that?” For the record, the back window of his dented-up Chevy was already cracked six ways. But my stomach was twisted in so many knots that I couldn’t have uttered that response even if I’d wanted to. Besides, three other boys sat crammed in the cab of that pickup. I recognized only one by name. Jimmy Robinson. The youngest son of the man whose place we lived on. And even I had sense enough to know that his fourteen-year-old self had no business riding around with the likes of twenty-year-old Ricky. A freckled boy with a thin mustache and sweated-out orange hair leaned across Ricky. A grin revealed his tobacco-yellowed teeth. “What’s the matter, darkie?” he asked. “Cat got your tongue?” Ma Pearl always said that one day my foolish tongue would get me into trouble. Without my permission, it poked itself right out of my mouth to assure the freckled boy that the cat didn’t have it. I bit it. But not before the freckled boy noticed. He frowned, then leaned over and felt around on the floor of the pickup. When his hand came up, it held a beer bottle filled with black liquid. “Uppity nigra!” he yelled, and hurled the bottle toward my head. I ducked as it whistled past me and crashed against a tree. Tobacco juice spewed in every direction. The quartet in the pickup hooted, and Ricky gunned the engine. “Next time it’ll be a bullet, you coon!” he shouted over the clanking. Shaking like a beanstalk in a windstorm, I huddled near that tree until the sound of the pickup disappeared. When I was sure they wouldn’t return, I grabbed my egg crate from the side of the road and scampered home. Miss Addie would have to make do without eggs this month, as I wasn’t about to make a second trip and take a chance on Ricky returning for more of his devilment. Folks said that Ricky wouldn’t actually run over anybody. He just liked to give colored folks a good scare so we’d remember our place. Well, he’d given me, Rose Lee Carter, a pretty good scare. I vowed to never walk alone again, especially on a Saturday, when fools like him had just bloated their bellies with beer. I’d been surprised to see Jimmy Robinson riding around with the likes of Ricky. His folks were what Ma Pearl labeled “good white peoples.” And he always seemed friendly when I went to the Robinsons’ house with Ma Pearl while she worked. He had once even been friends with Fred Lee, back when we were real little. He used to come over and play all the time. But at around age nine or so, Jimmy cut Fred Lee off like a bad ear of corn, barely even speaking to him anymore. As I passed their house, standing stately and white among the brown and green of their vast pecan grove, I couldn’t help but wonder what his mama thought of him running around with a peckerwood like Ricky Turner. Unlike the Robinsons’ grand house, our unpainted housewith the two front doors and the rusted tin roofpaled gray against the lush green of the long rows of cotton in the surrounding fields. But as I kicked up dust along the path to the weatherworn front porch, I was happy to see Mr. Pete’s shiny black car parked in the yard, adding a bit of sunshine to the scene. Mr. Pete was my mama’s husband, and he had only recently bought himself a shiny new car. A DeSoto is what he called it. That car seemed as long as a train and was niftier than any fifty-dollar suit. No one in Stillwater had ever seen anything like it. And seeing that none of the white folks in Stillwaterother than Mr. Robinsoneven owned a car that fancy, Papa, my grandfather, said that Mr. Pete could get himself killed just by driving the darn thing. Whether it was a danger for him to drive or not, my heart leaped with joy every time I heard Mr. Pete’s car pull into the yard. That Saturday, I was surprised to see his car waiting when I got back. We didn’t see Mama often, and we weren’t expecting to see her for another two weeks. As soon as I reached the ancient oak in the front yard, Mr. Pete’s children, Sugar and Li’ Man, bolted out of the screen door from the parlor. They moved so fast that their little feet barely touched the porch before they bounced down the front steps. Sugar, her two braids flying high behind her, crashed right into me. It was the second time my egg crate went flying out of my hand that day. Li’ Man came right behind her. His crash sent us all to the ground. Both of them sat on top of me, grinning. “Aunt Rose! Guess what!” Sugar said, her eyes shining brighter than a noonday sun. “First, y’all get up off of me,” I said. “Then I’ll guess.” They both scrambled up, but not before Sugar hugged my neck and kissed me on the cheek. Sugar was seven and Li’ Man six. They were Mr. Pete’s children with his wife who died before he married Mama. Their real names were Callie Jean and Christopher Joe. It was Mama who started calling them Sugar and Li’ Man. It was also Mama who insisted that they refer to me and Fred Lee as Aunt Rose and Uncle Fred. I thought the idea was stupid. But Mama and Mr. Pete thought it was cute. I pushed myself off the ground and dusted my dress. Sugar picked up my egg crate and hugged it to her chest. I was so happy to see them that I almost stopped worrying about that trouble with Ricky. Besides, nothing was bruised but my pride, and I was already used to folks beating away at that. “Okay, now y’all tell me what’s going on,” I said as we headed toward the steps. Sugar shook her head. “Nuh-uh. You gotta guess.” Because she was grinning so, I squinted at her and asked, “You lose another tooth?” She giggled and said, “Nah, that ain’t it.” Before I could guess again, Li’ Man blurted out, “We finn’a go to Chi-caaaa-go.” Sugar’s bright smile dimmed quicker than a candle with a short wick. She slammed the egg crate to the ground and stalked off, yelling, “Li’ Man, you jest spoiled the surprise!” She stomped back up the steps and stormed across the porch. When she snatched open the screen door and yelled, “Papaaa! Li’ Man jest spoiled my surprise to Aunt Rose,” Li’ Man’s eyes bucked bigger than the moon. When the screen door slammed shut, he charged up the steps and raced into the house, ready to defend himself. He knew better than anyone that Sugar was as rotten as a bushel of bad apples, and it wouldn’t take much of her whining for Mr. Pete, or even Mama, to take a switch to him. But I stood at the front steps, too stunned to move. Chicago. Colored folks didn’t go to Chicago to visit. Colored folks went to Chicago to live. In the last few years it seemed everybody had been leaving. Folks were fleeing Mississippi so fast it was like birds flying south for the winter, except they were going north, or out west to California. “Migrating” is what my seventh-grade teacher, Miss Johnson, called it. “A great colored migration,” she’d said. “Like a flock of black birds.” Except, unlike birds who returned in the spring, these folks rarely came back. I picked up my egg crate and tossed it across the porch. Plunking myself down on the top step, I glowered at Mr. Pete’s big black carthe car that would take my mama to Chicago. Li’ Man had said “we,” and of course that had to include Mama. She was Mr. Pete’s wife. But I already knew it didn’t include me and Fred Lee, because it never did. We were Mama’s children, but we had never been invited to be a part of her new family. Nor had we ever set foot in their house. It was bad enough we never saw our daddy, Johnny Lee Banks, even though he lived right there in Stillwater. Now we would never know when we’d see our mama’s face, either. Some folks who’d migrated up north made the South an annual visit. Others, it seemed, never came back. Seeing how they rarely came to see us anyhow, I wasn’t so sure in which category Mama and Mr. Pete would fit. I was seven when Mama left us the first time. Six years had passed, but they felt as fresh as six months. At the time, Sugar was a year old and Li’ Man was still a lap baby. Their mama’s heart simply gave out, folks said, and Mr. Pete found a replacement so quickly that it seemed as if he held the funeral for his first wife and the courthouse wedding to his second wife on the same day. And it didn’t seem to bother him one bit that Mama already had me and Fred Lee but had never married our daddy. Folks said that Mr. Pete was interested in only one thinga pretty face. And that, Mama certainly had. I remember how she stood before Ma Pearl’s dresser mirror that chilly March morning and smeared red lipstick on her pouting lips. Among the dullness of Ma Pearl’s bedroom, she looked out of place wearing a silky beige dress trimmed in lace. So I asked her, “Where you goin’, Mama?” She grinned and said, “Rose Lee, honey, yo’ mama ’bout to marry a fine man. And I’m go’n take care o’ his babies for him.” “What about me and Fred Lee? Ain’t we yo’ babies?” Mama giggled like a silly schoolgirl. “You and Fret’Lee big now,” she said, waving her hand at me. “Callie and Christopher is the babies. Besides, y’all got Papa and Ma Pearl. Callie and Christopher don’t have a soul but Pete. And Pete ain’t got time to raise no babies,” she said, smiling. “He got all that land to farm.” “Can me and Fred Lee come too?” “Nuh-uh,” Mama said, frowning, as she leaned toward her reflection. “Two babies is more’n enough for me to care for.” After making sure that she was as lovely as a spring morning, she bent down and placed her soft hands on my shoulders. Kissing my forehead, she said, “You be a good girl for Ma Pearl and Papa. Don’t make Ma Pearl have to whup you.” That was the last thing she said to me before she became a mama to Sugar and Li’ Man and a memory to me and Fred Lee.
When the screen door to the parlor creaked open that Saturday, I jumped. But I didn’t turn around. “Sister?” Mama called softly. Reluctantly, I turned and faced her. Mama was tall, shapely, caramel complexioned, and movie-star beautiful. Except for the height, I looked nothing like her. I was string-bean skinny and as black as the ace of spades, as Ma Pearl liked to say. In her crisp green dress, Mama looked fancier than some of the ladies in Mrs. Robinson’s fashion magazines. As pretty as an angel, some folks said. Even the afternoon sun seemed to form a halo around her freshly pressed and curled hair. But according to Ma Pearl, her daughter was definitely no angel. Having had me at fifteen and Fred Lee at sixteen, Mama was what the old folks labeled “ruint”. And Ma Pearl never let me forget it. She was so strict on me that I was allowed around only two boysFred Lee and Hallelujah Jenkins, the preacher’s boy. Mama smoothed a curl from her pretty face and said, “Sister, why you ack’n shameface?” She’d begun calling me Sister when I was ten, and calling Fred Lee Brother when he was nine. We hated those pet names more than we hated the old-folksy names, Aunt Rose and Uncle Fred. I shielded my face from the sun with my hand. “I ain’t acting shameface,” I said, squinting at Mama. “I just don’t wanna come in right now.” With a wide grin plastered on her face, Mama gestured toward the door. “Well, you better git on in here and say bye to us ’fore we leave.” I cringed. Those were the exact words she’d used the day she pranced off to the courthouse in Greenwood and married Mr. Pete. I had stayed awake all that night, lying in the bed we shared, worried. Waiting for her to come home. Of course, she never did. Now she was heading to Chicago, and she’d probably never come back from there, either. Instead of following her through that squeaking screen door, I wanted badly to make a run out back to the toilet to settle my gurgling stomach. Plus, with Ma Pearl’s cheerful chatter flowing from the parlor, I knew I didn’t want to go in there and watch her awe over Mama’s new family as if they were a collection of Mrs. Robinson’s fine china. Yet somehow I managed to stand and stumble toward the screen door. Then I stopped, my stomach flipping, my heart pounding, as I hesitated before Mama. She smiled. Her brown eyes, warm, glowing like a welcome fire on a cold night, beckoned me, as always, to do what I didn’t want to do. But before I took two steps inside the parlor, Ma Pearl, with her ample frame crammed in the chair right next to the door, took one look at me and frowned. “Gal, what the heck jest happened to you?”