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The Legend of Buddy Bush
If you are reading this letter, you have found all my letters, all of my secrets. The secrets of Rehobeth Road and the secrets of Rich Square, North Carolina. Most of all, you know the truth about what happen to my uncle Goodwin "Buddy" Bush. Uncle Buddy wasn't really my uncle. He was what Grandpa called kinfolks on nobody's side. Just plain old kinfolks. Grandpa told me that Uncle Buddy had his own family a long time ago; a real ma and daddy. Blood kin! He was just staying with them while his folks Rosa Lee and Hersey worked in tobacco over in Rocky Mount. Rocky Mount ain't far, just north of the riverbank, about thirty-five miles from here. Grandpa said that Uncle Buddy's folks went to work one day and never made it back across that river. They were in some kind of accident in the tobacco barn and they both died on the same day. So my grandpa and grandma just kept Uncle Buddy and raised him like he was their own. He went North when he was sixteen. When he came back in 1942, he came home to us. I was seven years old. Blood kin or not there are few things about May 1, 1942, that I will ever forget. It was a Sunday when my uncle Buddy arrived. Ma let me stay home from church. My big sister and brother had to usher at church, so off they went. Me, I stayed home to lay eyes on him for the first time.
His car was blue.
A new Cadillac.
His suit was blue too.
Pinstripes like Grandpa's Sunday go to meeting suit.
I remember standing there holding my breath.
And my pee.
I couldn't leave that front porch.
The outhouse would just have to wait.
Lord, I wouldn't have missed that first sight at my uncle for nothing on Rehobeth Road.
A city man.
He pulled that Cadillac right up to Grandpa's front door.
I looked at his shiny shoes first. I could see my face in them.
My eyes went slowly up his legs.
They looked so long.
His jacket had
His shirt was white.
His tie was a pinstripe like his suit.
Then I saw the hat.
I will never forget that hat.
Yes, blue with a feather to the right.
Only a city man could own a hat like that.
Grandpa stood beside me.
He never moved.
I stepped to the right.
Grandpa waited for Uncle Buddy to walk up to him.
"Welcome home, son."
"It's good to be home, Daddy Braxton."
Grandpa looked over his shoulder at the Cadillac.
"Nice car, boy."
"Oh, it ain't much."
Ma runs onto the front porch.
"Ain't much! Bro, I ain't never seen a car this fancy, never."
"Hey, sister." He smiled a big smile at Ma as she ran around his car.
She rubbed it like it was a genie bottle. Then she ran over to Uncle Buddy and jumped in his arms like she was a rag doll.
That only left Grandma to welcome Uncle Buddy home.
"Come on in this house, boy. I been keeping your breakfast warm all mornin'."
We all followed Uncle Buddy inside.
I saw Grandma cry for the first time when she hugged her only boy. The one that ain't blood kin.
We had a time.
We were a family.
I wonder if Uncle Buddy was thinking about his real folks that day. I hope he wasn't sad. They must have loved him so, but Lord knows we love him too. I can't imagine anybody loving him more than Grandpa did. More than me! I am glad he is my uncle and I wish he would come back to us. But he can't because there still ain't no telling what white folks might try to do to him. I don't think Uncle Buddy will ever be able to come home again, so I just wrote about him in my letters to BarJean and on paper sacks around the house. When I was done writing the letters I mailed some of them to my big sister. Some of them, I hid in the old smokehouse in the backyard. Yes, I hid the truth. A lot of truth is hidden around here. If only the trees could talk or the dirt could sing.
I remember like it was yesterday when this whole mess that forced Uncle Buddy to leave us started. Sometimes when I think about what happened, I feel twelve again. That's how old I was in June of 1947. I'm telling you I can just relive it like it's happening now. Right now.
This June morning is no different than any other hot summer day on Rehobeth Road. The moon was full last week and I'm sure it is about to change all our lives, just as my grandma said full moons do. Last year when the full moon came my grandma said she saw death in that moon. Surely enough my cousin June Bug, my aunt Rosie's boy, who was only ten, went ice-skating with no skates over on Jackson Creek. Well the ice was too thin and both June Bug and his cousin Willie on his daddy side fell in and drowned. They held a double funeral for them and everybody was crying.
Now every time a full moon comes, I just get scared, scared, scared. When the full moon came last week, I thought old man death would surely be back for another one of us.
To my knowledge every one of us with Jones blood are up this June morning clothed in our right mind. So I pray the full moon won't bring no sorrow this time. I'm up early to pick cucumbers. It's Friday and the heavens opened last night and let out enough rain for Ma to announce that we wouldn't be going in the cotton field to chop today. We chop for Ole Man Taylor, who owns this land, this house, and most of Rehobeth Road. His great-great-granddaddy owned all of this land during slavery. He lets Ma plant whatever she wants on the land that he don't use. Working our crops, not his, suits me just fine as I happily roll out of the bed. Softly, my feet touch the old sack that we use as a rug. Soft enough for me to not wake up Ma, who is sleeping across the kitchen in what we call Ma's room. My room is the girls' room, because that's where my sister BarJean and me slept together when she lived at home. Her real name is Barbara Jean, but no one is called by their real name on Rehobeth Road. That includes me, who would prefer Patricia to Pattie Mae any day. There's a boys' room upstairs next to Uncle Buddy's room. That's where my big brother Coy, whose real name is McCoy, slept until he moved up North at sixteen back in 1945. So I guess it ain't nobody's room right now.
BarJean moved up North last year and she said she ain't never living in these sticks again, never. So I guess this ain't the girls' room no more, it's my room.
When I was really little, we all slept upstairs in this big old brown house. Not one drop of paint on it. By looking at it no one would ever know that rich white folks lived here first. When it was white, this house was the main house of the plantation. After the white folks left, the slaves moved in. That's why we call it the slave house. But it was surely a plantation main house first. Taylor's Plantation. It's still carved on a silver bell that's hanging from a tree in the backyard. Big letters — taylor's plantation. Ma said during slavery that bell was used for ringing at feeding time. Not the animals, the slaves. I think that old bell is worth some money because Mr. Spivey, who owns the antique store over in Scotland Neck, has been trying to get Ma to sell him that bell for years. Ma told him, "You know I don't own this house, so I shoo don't own that bell. You need to ask Ole Man Taylor." Mr. Spivey ain't going to ask that mean man nothing, so that bell just hanging there reminding us of slavery.
Maybe revenge is sweet because my grandpa, Braxton Jones, who lives right down the road on his own land, said that the Yankees ran all them white folks away after the Civil War. He said the Taylors didn't come back for years to claim this land. My grandma, Babe Jones, said, "Braxton don't know what he's talking about because he wasn't even born then." Grandpa said, "No, I wasn't born, but I knows what my pappy Ben Jones told me." I don't know who's right and who's wrong, but Uncle Buddy said, "It don't matter because don't nobody but poor-ass niggers want this raggedy damn house now."
He better not let Ma hear him say that after she let him move in with us when I was seven. Yep, right after breakfast the day Uncle Buddy arrived, he came home with us and never left. When he moved in, Ma packed all our stuff and moved us downstairs on top of each other like sardines in a can. Everybody except Coy. Just because he is a boy, he got to stay upstairs. There was plenty room upstairs for all of us. Ma says every day that God sends, that it don't look right to folks here on Rehobeth Road for her to be sleeping upstairs with a man that ain't blood kin. Raised in the same house and she talking about he ain't blood kin. But she said Uncle Buddy is more than welcome here, because he gives her $35.00 a month for rent and food. That money goes a long way because he doesn't eat here much. As a matter of fact, Uncle Buddy ain't hardly here at all. He's up at 4:00 and out the door by 5:00. Off to the sawmill in town where he been working since he arrived. He is the only colored at Quick's Sawmill. I don't think the white folks there like him very much, because he said they think all coloreds belong in the cotton field.
He told me the only cotton he picking is his T-shirt up off the floor. Uncle Buddy works half a day on Saturday, but he always hangs around in town to wait for me so we can have meat skins biscuits together while Grandma gets her grocery. That's the only day a week I get to go into town other than school days. I am Grandma's official grocery helper. She doesn't know it, but Grandpa gives me a quarter every week for going with her. Grandpa doesn't know it, but I would go for free just to be with Grandma and to go into town.
I best stop thinking about town and my quarter and get myself in that cucumber patch. I get myself past Ma. Past the old breakfast table with chairs that don't match and out the door. I close it with ease and Ma never move. It don't seem like nobody up on Rehobeth Road but me and my dog Hobo. Uncle Buddy gave him to me four years ago. He found him wandering around at the sawmill. Nobody claimed him for a month and he became my dog.
I don't want to explain to Ma why I am trying to get these cucumbers off the vines so early. Ma thinks it ain't never too hot to work. I prefer not to get too black, myself. But that ain't my only reason for trying to beat the sun today. I want to finish my cucumbers and help Grandma with her strawberries all before 4 o'clock. That way I can rest before going into town with Uncle Buddy for my first picture show tonight. That's right. We are going to the movie house for the first time in my life. My clothes are all laid out on the bed down the road at Grandma and Grandpa's. I took them yesterday so I will be ready tonight. I'm wearing my blue and yellow checked skirt and my blue top. I hope Ma don't say nothing about me wearing my Sunday go to meeting shoes on a Friday night. She definitely will, so I better get ready to hear her fuss. Uncle Buddy and me will be leaving right after supper. First things first. I got to get these cucumbers picked.
As I lean over to pick my first one, I remember the stick that Uncle Buddy made for me to use to push the vines back. I keep it hidden on the third row. That's my row to pick, so I know Ma won't find it. Nothing fancy, just a stick with a hoop on the end. Uncle Buddy said I was going to ruin my hands if I don't stop working like a 1947 slave on this farm. If that happens, according to Uncle Buddy my chances of becoming a city girl are over. We talk about the North all the time. No matter if he was born here, my uncle Buddy is a New York man and you can tell it when he talks. He ain't all-countrified like me and the rest of the folks on Rehobeth Road. He's dress different even when he's going to work. You could never know Uncle Buddy ain't blood kin. He is tall like Grandpa and Coy; and as black as midnight. I've never seen teeth as white as his. And don't nobody in Rich Square shine their shoes like he does. "You can tell a real man by the shoes he wears," Uncle Buddy declares at least once a week. And he don't believe in the country stuff we believe in, like getting off the sidewalk to let white folks pass by. Uncle Buddy don't even believe in hanks. Folks on Rehobeth Road call ghost hanks. Uncle Buddy call ghost ghost and he don't believe in them either. Yep, he's a city man all right. For the life of me I will never understand why he came back five years ago. Nobody knows for sure. He just showed up that Sunday morning after writing a letter and didn't say why he was coming or why he won't be going back. BarJean claims she know, but I don't think she know nothing. She claims some folks in Harlem said Uncle Buddy left because he could not have the woman he loved. A woman that belonged to somebody else. A light-skin woman! She claim Uncle Buddy heart was broken. I can't imagine going North for twenty-two years, then moving back here. I definitely would not leave because I could not have some man. I would just find me a new one. That's what Uncle Buddy should have done. Found him a new woman to love. A dark-skin woman! Anything except come back here. I live and dream of the day when I leave this place and go to New York. Not just New York, but to Harlem. Not even Ma can get into my dreams.
Guess I spoke too soon.
That would be Ma. Trying her best to get into my dreams; yelling like I'm halfway cross the field somewhere.
"Mornin' my foot, what you doing in that field so early?"
I want to yell back, "Trying on my new diamond earrings."
Ma ain't much on people joking with her so I better not say that.
"Just trying to beat the sun."
"Trying to beat the sun. Child, you can't outrun God. You better stop listening to Buddy about that light-skin, dark-skin mess. Now come on this porch and wash your hands while I finish breakfast. I already put water in the face tub."
Lord, when I get to Harlem I'll be done with using face tubs. BarJean told me she got running water and yes, a bathroom. I put my stick down and Hobo and me slowly walk back to the slave house. I don't know who use to live in it, but I know I feel like a slave this morning. Just look at this place, all run down. But Ma keeps it so nice and clean. Cleaner than them white folks' yards in town. Probably cleaner on the inside too. They just got paint on the inside and the outside. This place ain't seen no paint since the Civil War. The closer I get to the slave house I want to scream, "I hate these fields. Please, BarJean, take me North!" By the time I make it to the porch Ma has turned around and gone inside. But not before I notice she is wearing a dress. I hope that I will be as tall as she is when I'm a woman. I saw on some of her important papers that she is six feet tall. Tall and beautiful with skin the color of a brown paper sack and hair that has as many waves in it as a newborn baby. When Ma walks, all the men look at her hips that are round and shake like Jell-O. Mr. Walter Garris likes Ma's hips so much that he screams, "Lord have mercy!" when she walks by. That makes Ma really mad. Uncle Buddy says I am going to be a pretty woman like Ma when I get older. He says probably not as pretty as Ma, because it's a "Sinfore God to look as good as Mer Sheals." Her name is Mary. Somebody replaced the "a" with an "e" and dropped the "y" years ago, just like they took "tricia" off of Patricia and added "tie Mae" to my name. That's just how it is on Rehobeth Road.
So why is Ma wearing a dress? Surely she is going to pick cucumbers today. She always picks cucumbers when it rains. If she ain't chopping, she picks cucumber every day from late May until they are all gone, from sunrise to sunset. Ma stops chopping in August in time to work in tobacco, because tobacco workers make $4.00 a day and we only make $2.00 a day chopping. But August nor tobacco are on my mind this year, because I will be on that train going to the unknown by then. This will be the first year that I am old enough to work in the tobacco field, like it is honor or something stupid like that to turn twelve and prime tobacco. That's the rule on Rehobeth Road. You have to be twelve to work in the tobacco field. Myself, Pattie Mae Sheals, has other plans. Besides, Uncle Buddy says people who chop and prime tobacco ain't nothing but $2.00 a day slaves.
I stop on the back porch and wash my hands in the white face tub that Ma left there for me. Old like everything else around here. Clean like everything else around here. The smell of her biscuits reaches my nose before I reach the back door that is falling off the way it does at least ten times a week. I'm sure Grandpa is coming up here with his toolbox and fix it as soon as he gets around to it. He has been a bit under the weather, so I don't want to mention the door to him again. No need to tell Uncle Buddy because it's dark when he leaves home and dark when he comes back. Ma never complains about what Uncle Buddy don't do around here. I guess that $35.00 a month includes Ma fixing things too. Ma swears that money keeps us out of the poorhouse. If this ain't the poorhouse, I don't know what is.
Inside the slave house, in the kitchen, on the table I notice Ma's black leather bag. The one that her oldest sister, my aunt Louise, brought her all the way from Harlem. I also notice that Ma doesn't have on just any dress; she has on her Sunday go to meeting dress. She would never dress like this during the week, unless she was going to a funeral or the relief office over in Jackson. Lord have mercy, I just want to ask her why she is all dressed up, but Ma says that children ain't suppose to ask grown folks questions.
That's another rule on Rehobeth Road. "Don't ask grown folks no questions."
I know I really don't have to. All I have to say is "Ma, you look so pretty." And she does. Even if she don't, Uncle Buddy says never beg a woman. "If you tell her she looks good, she will tell you anything you want to know." Stuff like "Honey, honey you fine as you want to be" and "Baby, you the sugar in my coffee." Now that's the kind of mess Uncle Buddy says he used to tell them gals up in Harlem. I don't know about them city women that Uncle Buddy knows, but Ma loves a compliment. So I just take my seat at the end of the table, next to the stove, where I have been sitting since Ma took me out of the high chair. The high chair we sold back to the thrift shop in Jackson when I got too big for it. Ma has prepared the usual two eggs, two pieces of bacon, and one biscuit. No milk, just water from the rusty well in the backyard.
"My, you look pretty today, Ma."
"Well, thank you, child. I thought I would get dressed early. Mr. Charlie will be here soon."
Ma would not be dressed like this just because Mr. Charlie is coming by. He comes by all the time. Mr. Charlie and his wife, Miss Doleebuck, are Grandpa and Grandma's neighbors and best friends. At seventy-five, the same age as Grandpa, Mr. Charlie has a car. A 1935 Chevy. That's it. The car! Mr. Charlie and Ma are going somewhere, but I have to find out where.
"I told you to eat your food. Mr. Charlie will be here in a minute. Now hurry."
"He will?" I say, trying not to ask a grown folks question.
"Yes he will. I'm going into town with him and your grandpa. He's taking Poppa to see Dr. Franklin."
No time to follow some silly rule about not asking grown folks questions. I want to know why Grandpa is going to the doctor.
"Why?" I ask as tears run into the eggs that I don't want no more.
I know Ma is getting ready to say, "Don't ask grown folks questions," until she sees the tears in my eggs.
"Now why are you crying, child? You know Poppa hasn't been feeling well for a while. And what did Buddy tell you about crying all the time?" If I tell her what he really said she would give him a tongue-lashing as soon as he steps foot in this house. But what he really said was "Crying makes you piss less." I can't repeat that, so I say, "He said big girls don't cry."
Ma smiles and say, "He's right. Now, hurry."
Ma's mighty out of herself this morning. She just rushing and fussing. She must be some kind of worried about Grandpa. He is definitely a little under the weather, but he must be really sick to go to a doctor. I figure that he has drunk enough of Grandma's leaves from the woods to feel better by now. Grandma claims she has a cure for everything. Puttin' tobacco on your chest for a sore throat. A penny around your neck to stop a nosebleed. A broom at the door so the hanks won't ride your back at night and roots from the grass of the unknown for colds. And she has birthed as many babies in Rich Square as Dr. Franklin, the white doctor. She brought BarJean, Coy and me into this world and most of the children here on Reheboth Road. She nurses most of the grown folks on Rehobeth Road too, except Uncle Buddy. He says, "Never in this world." As a matter of fact, Uncle Buddy don't trust no doctors around here. He drives all the way to Harlem twice a year to see his city doctor. There have been a lot of talk on Rehobeth Road about a new colored doctor coming to town. Not Rich Square, but Potecasi and that ain't too far. I guess that place is about ten miles away. Can't worry about a colored doctor that might come later. I want Ma to tell me about the white doctor that's here now and why Grandpa is really going to see him.
Ma still in deep thought, she doesn't say a word for a minute.
"Ma, I guess Grandma's medicine ain't working." I'm trying my best to get her to talk. She looks like she wants to laugh at my belief in Grandma's homemade medicine. Like the time I couldn't stop pissing in the bed and she boiled me some green stuff to drink for a month. Ma said that it wasn't that stuff that worked. She is probably right and it was her threats of beating my skin off if I didn't stop messing up her sheets that did. I just didn't understand why Ma went through all the pain of having me and then she planned to beat my skin off. Anyway, I want to know what is happening with Grandpa. My grandpa!
"Don't you worry about Grandpa. He just has a slight cold."
I can't believe she just said that.
A churchwoman lying. Lord have mercy!
"Slight cold? It's June."
Ma ignores me as she takes her old blue apron off and hangs it on a nail behind the kitchen door that don't have paint on it either. Then she sits down and takes off her bedroom slippers and puts on her black Sunday go to meeting shoes.
"Can I go with you to town? I want to see Grandpa."
"No you cannot. You have to go and help your grandma pick strawberries. She is waiting for you."
Grandma's strawberry patch is as big as our cucumber patch and she sales them at the market every other Saturday as fast as we pick them. Sometimes folks, even white folks, come by the house to buy them by the basket. She only charges a dollar a basket. I overheard Uncle Buddy telling Grandma she should charge more for her big, pretty strawberries. She quickly told him he should mind his business. "Folks round here don't have that city money like you made in Harlem, boy."
End of that!
Ma reaches in her bag and pulls out my letter from BarJean that probably arrived yesterday, but she forgot to give it to me. She forgets sometimes and I have to ask for my Thursday's mail. Rain, sleet, or snow, my letters come from BarJean every Thursday that the Lord sends. Always on blue stationery in a blue envelope and always on Thursday. As she gives me the letter, I hear Mr. Charlie's car horn blowing like he is running from a fire.
Before Ma can say, "Sit back down and eat," I grab my letter, stuff it in my pocket, and run out of the door. Surely, she is not going to forget that I grabbed that letter out her hand. That will get me one lick or no TV at Grandma's house for a week. Don't have to worry about the TV around here. We don't have one. Uncle Buddy says he don't care what Ma says, he's giving me a TV for Christmas.
Mr. Charlie is waving as I run down the long path trying to get to the car before Ma can even get her purse off the table. I want a minute alone with two of my three favorite men. Uncle Buddy is the third, of course. Actually they are the only men in my life. Uncle Buddy said my daddy, Silas Sheals, ran off with Mr. Charlie's gal Mattie when I was a baby. He also said that my daddy and Mattie got themselves a new baby girl named O'Hara. Named after that white woman Scarlett O'Hara from Gone with the Wind. Ma don't ever say nothing about my daddy and Mr. Charlie and Grandpa somehow managed to stay friends. Now Miss Doleebuck dares my daddy to dot in her door and the same goes for Mattie if she wants to bring him with her. So Mattie only comes on holidays and Silas Sheals don't show his face at all. Miss Doleebuck said they both are a disgrace. Grandma said, "Disgrace my foot, Mattie is a slut." I'm almost sure that Grandma is going to tell me what a slut is as soon as I am older.
I tell you one thing, if she don't tell me, Uncle Buddy will. All I got to do is ask him.
I pull the car door open and jump in Grandpa's lap.
"Hey, gal," he and Mr. Charlie say at the same time.
"Hey, Mr. Charlie. Hey, Grandpa."
Grandpa don't look the way he did yesterday. He is dark compared to his light skin that usually look like a cake of butter from their old cow that I named Sue. The poor cow was nine years old and didn't even have a name until last year. Rooms on Rehobeth Road got names, why can't the cows?
"Are you okay, Grandpa?"
"I'm all right, child. How you this mornin'?"
"I'm fine. I got up really early today."
"Is that so? And why did you do that?"
"Well the ground too wet to chop, but I picked a basket of cucumbers. I'm trying to sell a lot so that I will have extra money when I go North. Uncle Buddy said there's lots of stuff to buy in Harlem."
"He did, did he? And just where is Buddy this morning?"
"Working as usual. But he is taking me to the movie house tonight."
Grandpa said he was never going to that theater as long as colored folks have to go in the back door. But he is glad that I am going.
"Well, that will be nice."
"You aren't going anywhere if you don't get your tail off of Poppa so that we can leave."
The voice of trouble have caught up with me.
Ma has made it down our long path and she looks so pretty as she give me the look.
"Leave her alone, Mer. She just saying good mornin'."
Thank God, Grandpa is coming to my defense. Not that Ma is listening. She says Grandpa can't raise her children. Now she says that to me, not to Grandpa. She don't do no talking back to Grandma or Grandpa even if she is forty-eight.
"Fine, but we have to go." Now she's giving me the "I'm going to tear your tail up later" look.
I ease out of the car and stand on the wet grass hoping Ma will let me go.
Instead she starts giving me orders for the rest of the day.
"Now you know you can't stay home by yourself. Go on up to Ma Babe's and I will come there when we leave Dr. Franklin's."
That's what Ma call my grandma, "Ma Babe."
"But I haven't taken my bath yet."
"You don't need a bath. You are going straight to the strawberry patch."
"Bye," I say as I wave.
They wave back as Ma points her finger, saying something. Who knows what. I will have to talk to Ma later when Grandpa and Mr. Charlie ain't around. I know she knows I'm becoming a woman and I'm getting too old not to wash up before leaving home. I don't know when, but soon I know I'm going to get my period just like Denise and Sylvia at school did. Denise told me she was sick as a dog when Mother Nature came to visit her the first time. Sylvia said she didn't hurt at all. Accordingly to the conversation I overheard between BarJean and her best friend Boogie, Miss Doleebuck's granddaughter, the only reason Sylvia didn't hurt when she got her first period is because she had been messing with boys already. What a horrible thought. I think Sylvia might be a slut, too, like Mattie. Denise, Sylvia and me suppose to be best friends at school. But I like Caroline much better than both of them. We call her Chick-A-Boo. She lives right down the road. She is my real best friend. Those other girls are not like us. They are town people. They got more than two pairs of shoes and they have daddies. Beside, they spend all their time talking about boys. Uncle Buddy has already warned me to stay away from boys. He said they will give me worms. God forbid what that means.
I just pray we move into a house with a bathroom before my period comes. I don't want to use the outhouse for such personal matters. But I'll worry about my period when it comes.
Right now I just want Grandpa to get well. I feel like crying just thinking about Grandpa going to the doctor. Specially Dr. Franklin. Now Grandpa don't know that I know this, but one day when I was fishing with Uncle Buddy over in Jackson Creek, he told me that Dr. Franklin and his brother Eddie, who is the sheriff, had mistreated Grandpa about thirty-five years ago. See, before the Holy Ghost came and saved Grandpa one Sunday morning at Chapel Hill Baptist Church where he has been attending for fifty years, he would go into town and drink in what colored folks called "the bottom" on Saturday nights. It was really an alley where the colored men would get together every Friday and Saturday night to play cards and enjoy their moonshine. Grandpa said he had a mason jar of moonshine too many when he decided to go home before Grandma came looking for him.
Just as he tried to climb into his old pickup truck, the sheriff stopped him.
"Where you going, boy?"
"Home, Sheriff Franklin. Just heading home."
"Not tonight, you ain't!"
Grandpa was more than willing to sleep the moonshine off in jail. But that old mean sheriff took it upon himself to hit Grandpa over the head with his billy club before arresting him. Knocked Grandpa cold and threw him in jail. Uncle Buddy said Grandpa was convinced that Dr. Franklin, whose office was upstairs from the jail, knew he was hurt and didn't come to see about him until morning. Both them Franklin boys are mean. Now if Grandpa even mentions their names, he'll say, "Yes, evil and evil sleep in the same bed."
When Dr. Franklin finally checked on Grandpa just before day, he wrapped his head in some bandages and let him drive himself home. Well it turned out Grandpa had a brain concussion (whatever that is) and he drove his old red Ford right into a tree down on Brown Hill Road. Grandpa passed out and slept for hours. By seven in the morning, Grandma and Miss Doleebuck headed out on foot searching for their husbands. Yes, Mr. Charlie was in the cell next to Grandpa the night before for no reason at all. They just arrested him for coming to the jail to look for Grandpa.
They released Mr. Charlie later on that day when Boogie's mama, Fannie Mae, went down to that jail and cussed them out like they weren't even white folks. Around 8:30 that morning, Grandma and Miss Doleebuck made it to Grandpa's truck where he was still passed out. It took them a while to wake him up, and when they did they had to walk all the way home. Poor Grandpa started having blackouts after that and he never took another sip of moonshine. Been saved and sober ever since.
The other thing Grandpa don't know is Uncle Buddy told me that although he was little he remember the whole thing. He also don't know that Uncle Buddy and some of his friends, Lennie, Hosea, and Earl, went out to town that next weekend and put holes in every Franklin car tire that they would find. They sure did. That's what Uncle Buddy said and I believe him. Mercy to the highest, it's nice to have all this grown folks business at twelve.
I better stop thinking about all of this before I reach Jones Property because Grandma can read your mind. Now she is a piece of work. I swear that woman knows what I am thinking before I do. Smoke coming from the chimney in the kitchen at Grandma's house and I know she has not put out the breakfast fire yet. Thank God, she'll cook me some breakfast, I'm thinking, as I walk faster. I can't make it till noon without food.
That pleasant thought ends quickly when I find myself face to face with the bulls from Mr. Bay's dairy. He is Grandpa and Grandma's neighbor and compared to us, Mr. Bay is a rich man. Rich and mean. I don't think he like colored folks very much and he laughs every time one of us forget and wear red while passing his terrifying bulls. Today that would be me. There is a big fence between me and the bulls, but I am still afraid to run, because I know they will run all the way down the fence with me. That alone scares me to death. Uncle Buddy walks by here whenever he wants to, wearing blue, red, whatever colors he please. He says, "I ain't scared of no damn bull. I'm going to eat them for dinner one day. They ain't going to eat me."
I can't run if I want to since my dear sweet ma locked me out of the house in my bare feet. I want to stick my tongue out, but that's red too.
I walk in slow motion as the mama cows join the bulls at the edge of the dairy farm field. There must be fifty all together.
I finally reach the path that divide Mr. Bay's dairy from Jones Property. I am still nervous when I reach in my pockets and feel my new letter from BarJean. The bulls have scared me so bad that I almost forgot I had it. I stop at the pecan tree to catch my breath and to read my letter. Grandpa planted this tree forty-eight years ago for Ma. The day she was born. He calls it Mer's tree. In the back there are trees for her sisters, the Louise tree and the Rosie tree. Yes, Uncle Buddy has a tree too, right over there at the pond. Since he ain't blood kin, Grandpa just took Uncle Buddy for a walk when he was ten and let him pick out his own tree on Jones Property. The day I was born Ma said Grandpa went right outside and planted my tree. But the Pattie Mae tree ain't big enough to sit under yet. So I'll just set under Mer's tree to read my letter.
The paper is blue like always and it smells like BarJean's favorite perfume. I can hardly wait to sit down as Hobo, who has followed me all the way, lies down beside me. The words make me feel closer to the North that I will soon see.
Dear Pattie Mae:
Coy is going to get married! More importantly, BarJean trust me enough to tell me a secret.
I put my letter back in my pocket and tuck my secret in the back of my mind. At least until I see Grandpa. I'll tell him and he will tell no one. Difference from me.
I stick my tongue out at the bulls that are far away now and start walking as fast as my legs can carry me to get me some breakfast.
Copyright © 2004 by Shelia P. Moses
I can smell Grandma's biscuits as I get closer to the steps that Grandpa built with his bare hands. Their house is painted white with green trimming around the windows. Yes, my grandpa painted the house. He tried to get Old Man Taylor to let him paint our house, too. Ole Man Taylor said no and Grandpa ain't spoke to that white man since then. Grandpa's cat, Hudson, meets me at the door. He and Hobo sure ain't friends. They fight like...Well, they fight like cats and dogs. I open the back door that's painted green too, and there she is. My grandma. The woman of the house. And everybody that walks in this door knows that. She ain't no taller than I am. Black, as Grandpa is yellow. Her hair the same color as the silver quarters that Uncle Buddy gave me to save. He said that Grandma is what men folks call "black gal pretty."
"Good mornin', Grandma. How are you feeling today?"
I know the answer before she even answers. All my life I have asked her the same question and get the same answer.
"Child, Grandma don't feel so good today."
She just loves saying it, like it was a hymn she and Ma sang in the choir on Sunday morning. No matter how many times you ask, she gives you the same answer. When BarJean and Coy were at home with me, each of us asked the same question and got the same answer. Ma would skin us alive if one of us run in and just said "Hey." We had to line up like soldiers ready to salute our commander and ask her how she was doing. Then we stood there and waited for her to answer. I still have to do the ritual. Sometimes it takes Grandma five minutes to answer. Sometimes ten, if she really ain't feeling so good. Whatever the time, you just stand there and wait.
Grandpa said that was Grandma's way of controlling us. He and Mr. Charlie use that word "control" a lot when they are talking about their wives. They said them two live to tell other folks what to do. I guess they are controlling Grandpa and Mr. Charlie too, because they don't ever say that mess about the women loud enough for the women to hear them.
I wish I were grown so I could do like Uncle Buddy does when he comes in Grandma's house. He don't ask her nothing. He just says, "Ma Babe, you shoo looking good today." He said he ain't asking her nothing, because he might die waiting for an answer. "Besides," he said, "ain't nothing wrong with a woman who can pick two bushels of strawberries a day. Nothing."
I wait as Grandma wipes her hands in the end of her apron and start thinking about when she might tell me how she's feeling. First, she takes out her breakfast dishes and puts them on the table. One by one, she pulls out the white plates with the dancing white ladies on them. I want her to hurry up because I can't tell her I cried in my eggs and didn't finish eating my breakfast until after she finish her ritual.
Finally the words come. "Child, Grandma don't feel so good today."
There, she said it.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Grandma. What's wrong?"
"Nothing special, just old age I guess. How are you this mornin'?"
"I'm okay. Just hungry."
"What you doing hungry, child? Didn't Mer fix you breakfast?"
"Well, she did, but I didn't get to finish because Mr. Charlie came to get her."
I start praying immediately that Grandma will forget the lie that I just told and don't tell Ma. The last time Ma caught me in a lie she wore my behind out with a plastic cake-mixing spoon. Grandma don't look like she believe me. But she never could stand the sight of a hungry man, woman, or child. "Never mind, just sit down and let Grandma fix you someteat."
That's her word for something to eat. I don't dare correct her or any of the old folks on Rehobeth Road. We all understand what they mean. Besides Uncle Buddy swears that them old folks are a lot smarter than us schoolchildren. They have their own words, like "dor" for "door," "yes-ciddie" for "yesterday," "yonder" for "over there," and "boot" for "car trunk."
Right now all I need is someteat and some information about Grandpa.
"Grandma, can I ask you a grown folks question?"
"Depends on what it is."
"Well, what's wrong with Grandpa and why didn't you go with him to the doctor?"
Grandma sits down and pours herself another cup of coffee from the white and blue teakettle that's almost black from fire that comes out of the potbelly stove that she loves so dearly. She doesn't even use milk and that means she needs something strong to help her through the day. Before I know it, Grandma is standing up and getting an extra saucer with white ladies dancing on it out of the cupboard. I'm so happy because I know that I am going to get a saucerful of coffee. "Our little secret, of course," Grandma says. She's the only person on Rehobeth Road that thinks that I am old enough to have at least a taste of coffee. Grandpa and Ma said that coffee makes children crazy. When I told Uncle Buddy what they said, he said, "That's the craziest damn mess I ever heard." Now I ain't old enough to curse, but I know he is right about that being the craziest mess we ever heard.
I was getting ready to sit down when I notice that Grandma got herself a new kitchen set.
"Why, Grandma, you have a new table and chairs."
"Yes, I do. Ain't it nice?"
"Yes, it's real nice, but when did it come? I didn't see the Sears truck pass our house."
"That's because it didn't come from Sears. Now don't get me wrong, ain't nothing the matter with their furniture. But I have always wanted to order me something out of that Helig Myers catalog that Doleebuck gets in the mail."
I can't believe it. Furniture from Helig Myers. New furniture.
I rub my hand along the table and think about how many Helig Myers stores they must have in New York.
"This is really nice, Grandma."
"Thank you, child. Your grandpa bought it for me. He finally sold the lumber off of them ten acres of land back of the field and this is what we got with some of the money. Not only that, we have some left to hide under the house for hard times." That's one thing about my grandfolks I learned at an earlier age. They know how to save money. I also learned that Grandpa don't never stay away from home at night because under his house is a hole. In that hole is a jar. In that jar is money. I have seen Ma crawl under there on her hands and knees many nights while Grandpa hold the night-light. Don't nobody go in that jar but Ma. Nobody! She writes down how much goes in and how much goes out. She is Grandpa's right hand when it comes to business. That's just fine with Grandma. She keeps what she needs right in her bra. Every now and then she will get extra for things she wants or needs.
Like this new table and chairs.
Grandpa told me to get myself a jar. He said, "The money you save today will save you tomorrow." When I save enough money I can buy me something nice like Grandma bought herself.
I don't know if she is prouder of the table or the property they own. Grandpa is one of the few colored men in Rich Square that own his own land. Most of the people rent their houses and land from some of the white folks, who will let you stay as long as you don't get uppity and try to do something sensible like speak up for yourself. Ma rents from Old Man Taylor and she don't care what he say. She says whatever she wants when she wants to. I don't have to tell you that Uncle Buddy does too. Since he only give Ma $35.00 a month, he said he is saving enough money to build his own house. He says he has waited all his life to buy a place, just to tell white folks to "get off my damn land." When he does get him a house he says he's going to let us live with him. "Good-bye, slave house," he'll say. I hope he builds it nearby. I have to be able to sit on the porch with Grandpa half the evening and with Uncle Buddy the other half.
Grandpa says every man should own a porch to sit on to watch the sun set in the evening. He truly believe that. So much that he worked for the white folks who use to own Jones Property for four years for free until they gave him the deed. The only money Grandma and Grandpa had while they worked off the deed money was the extra money Grandma made for cleaning for the white folks who lived on Rehobeth Road back then. Them white folks long gone now, except Mr. Bay. Uncle Buddy said, "The only reason Mr. Bay is still sitting around with his nose in the air on Rehobeth Road is because he got one foot on a banana peeling and the other one in the graveyard. And he ain't got nowhere else to go. Period!" Uncle Buddy insists when he's raising hell about white folks.
I'm sitting here thinking about Grandpa and his land; just dreaming about the day I will own land up North.
"Child, what in the world are you daydreaming about now?"
Grandma's always interrupting my dreams just like that daughter of hers.
"I was just thinking about a lot of grown-up stuff."
"Grown-up stuff. Child, you only twelve."
"Twelve-year-olds worry too."
She still asking me questions, when she ain't told me what's really wrong with Grandpa and why she didn't go with him to town.
I guess I'm looking at her cross-eyed or something, because I believe she getting ready to tell me.
"I know you're worried about your granddaddy, but he is fine. He just under the weather, and I thought it would be good for Mer to go with him to Dr. Franklin's so that she can read the medicine bottle he will give your grandpa."
Grandma nor Grandpa can neither read nor write. They both sign their names with an "X" when they have to sign important papers or go into town to buy something on credit. Credit they rarely use. They don't need no credit when my grandpa got money hidden where God can't find it. Now Grandma can count her money. When I go with her to Mr. Wilson's grocery store on Saturday, she always let me count her money after she finishes. Just to make sure he don't cheat her. Grandma don't trust no white folks. Now that's something she and Uncle Buddy do agree on.
I sit there and listen to Grandma as she gives me every reason in the world that she didn't want to go with Grandpa to the doctor.
"I need to be here picking my strawberries."
"It's just too hot."
"I'm tired this morning."
"Mer can read the medicine bottle."
I just listen as my grandma goes on and on. But Uncle Buddy says Grandpa is never taking her to Dr. Franklin's again, because she cursed that white man like nobody's business when he didn't help him thirty-five years ago. Grandma is still madder at them white folks than Grandpa. Grandpa said she even swore she would kill him and Sheriff Franklin if they ever stepped on Jones Property again. Uncle Buddy said she didn't tell them over the phone because Grandma and Grandpa don't have one. Yes sir, she walked all the way into town and got in their white faces. "Step one foot on Jones Property and I'll kill you both and go to jail for the next of my life." They never did.
Uncle Buddy says Grandma has cursed out more white folks in Rich Square than any colored person alive has and lived to tell it. But I'm not going to tell Grandma I know about her swearing, because I know that that's grown folks business too. If I mention it, she's going to give me one saucerful of coffee instead of two. With my mouth shut, she fills my saucer so full I can no longer see the white ladies dancing in the bottom of it.
We sit there like two grown-ups, not one, until we are finished our breakfast. Grandma gets up and heads for the strawberry patch and leaves me in the kitchen to do the dishes, of course. Sometimes I feel like the only reason I was born into this world is to wash dishes, pick cucumbers, and chop. Uncle Buddy said that it is all post slaves stuff that I am doing around home and on Jones Property. He's right. If I didn't think I would get caught I would put my gloves on that Uncle Buddy gave me to protect my hands from this water.
I have two pairs of dish water gloves. One pair I keep hidden here and the other pair I keep under my bed mattress at the slave house. He said, "Don't let your hands get old before you do. Men look at your hands first, child." One by one, I dip the dancing white ladies into the washtub on the oven. I don't know where Grandma got these plates. Ma said she believe some of them rich folks that use to live on Rehobeth Road gave them to Grandma when she worked for them. They are mighty nice. I am not about to drop one like I did the last time I was here. If I break something I don't get a special treat from Grandma when I finish the dishes. Even at twelve, I still enjoy Grandma giving me a slice of her orange candy after I finish my chores. Ma said I'm too old for special treats. Under my breath, I say that's my special treat from my grandma. Besides, Grandma ain't too good with expressing herself and I know that is her way of saying, "I love you." A person ain't never too old for love.
Copyright © 2004 by Shelia P. Moses
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