If God Is Watching

I killed a man when I was 13. Not on pur­pose or noth­ing. But he still died. Mama went over to see about Mrs. Johnson’s new baby after church, and I stayed home because I had a cold com­ing on. Mama is real par­tic­u­lar about sick peo­ple and babies, so I didn’t even ask if I could go vis­it­ing. Dad­dy went out fish­ing with my broth­ers, and after I got out of my church clothes I stretched out on the porch swing with a book. It was good too, all about pirates and buried trea­sure. It was a hot day, sun­ny, but not too bad if you were sit­ting in the shade. The breeze was blow­ing just right over Mama’s lit­tle flower gar­den, and it felt so good to sit there with the screen keep­ing the bugs out and the cool in, while I nib­bled on a slice of cake.

Our house wasn’t fan­cy exact­ly, but Dad­dy was always good with his hands and my uncles all knew a fair bit about build­ing because that was how they earned their mon­ey instead of farm­ing like Dad­dy. So when Mama want­ed some­thing added onto the house they come over and do it for her. Folks said she was spoiled and I would be too since we were both the only girls in a fam­i­ly full of men. I don’t know about spoiled, but I was almost always hap­py. Dad­dy could grow any­thing he want­ed no mat­ter how bad it might be doing for some­body else, and Mama knew about tak­ing care of sick folks and deliv­er­ing babies. Folks always need­ed some­thing and always had some­thing to trade if they didn’t have cash mon­ey.

I don’t know how long I was out there, but I was just get­ting to the end of my book when I heard somebody’s Mod­el T rat­tling away. The road up to the house was longer than most, but it sound­ed like the car was com­ing on fast so I got up real quick and slipped in the house. Mama says that peo­ple shouldn’t be able to just walk up on us, at least not with­out us look­ing like we came from some­body, and we’re going some­where. So I took off the raggedy over­alls I had on, and put on a dress and a pair of shoes.

Mama made most of my clothes in those days, some­times dye­ing them for me so I wouldn’t be wear­ing the same thing as all the oth­er girls who got their goods at the mer­can­tile in town. My dress that day was dark blue, with a lit­tle black flower pat­tern worked into it. It didn’t fit like it used to. Mama kept threat­en­ing to pass it on to some­one else, but I loved it so that she said I could keep it until she had time to make me a new one.

Some white man knocked on the door a few min­utes lat­er. He was big­ger than my mama’s biggest broth­er, Uncle John, but not as big as my Dad­dy and wear­ing a shiny gray Sun­day suit and a fun­ny look­ing white hat. He even had on shiny shoes, like a woman would wear to church if she want­ed to get talked about for a month of Sun­days. He had a face like a skinned hog, all wet and red look­ing, but meaty. And he had too many teeth in his mouth. Looked like he was one of them bad sales­men that I heard peo­ple com­plain­ing about when­ev­er we stayed late after church and the adults would for­get that us kids were lis­ten­ing. He was grin­ning and yam­mer­ing away before I even got to the door good.

How are you today young lady? You look­ing mighty pros­per­ous on this Sun­day after­noon aren’t you?” Up close he smelled like he bathed in cologne, but not in a good way. More like per­fume over funk.

He had his hand on the door knob like he was about to pull on it, and I stared at his hand until it dropped. I can’t right­ly fight, but my eyes make peo­ple think they don’t want to fight me. My broth­ers are the only excep­tion and even they don’t fight me to hurt me, just to teach me how to defend myself. Dad­dy says my eyes are just a dark­er brown than most peo­ple have ever seen, and Mama says I have eyes like her great-grand­moth­er who was a con­jure doc­tor down in New Orleans. I don’t know which one of them is right, but most peo­ple don’t like my eyes because they’re so black they look like two holes punched in my face. At least that’s how Ms. Vio­la at the church describes them, and she’s been all the way to Lon­don and back so I fig­ure she knows best.

Can I help you?” It’s my best grown up voice, and I can see him look­ing me up and down when I use it. I can’t help but cross my arms across my chest when his eyes linger on it. I can see what Mama meant about my dress being too snug to wear out in the street.

Maybe you can. I want to buy a piece of land and when I asked about it in town they told me it belongs to you folks.”

I shrugged, “I can’t sell you any­thing, but my par­ents will be back lat­er. I can tell them you came by.”

You’re here by your­self?” He looked around like he could real­ly see some­thing, “Place this far out, I don’t feel right leav­ing you here with no adult. How about I come in and wait?”

I shook my head, and then remem­bered to say out loud, “No sir, that wouldn’t be right. Dad­dy don’t allow no strangers in the house.”

He’s a smart man. Well, how about I wait out here on the porch, and you bring me a glass of some­thing cool to drink?” He start­ed grin­ning at me again,“ That way your dad­dy won’t be mad, and I can know you’re okay.”

I didn’t like it, but no one ever said some­one couldn’t sit on the porch so I said, “Yes sir,” and turned to go back into the house. I was in the kitchen get­ting a cup out when I remem­bered that I’d for­got­ten to lock the screen door. I walked back out and sure enough he was slid­ing it open. Still grin­ning, but some­thing wasn’t so friend­ly about it. I backed up toward the kitchen, and he came right on after me, though he stopped at the door­way.

I just thought I’d ask if you had some­thing to eat, and I didn’t want to yell. It’s a long dri­ve out here, and my lunch wasn’t exact­ly tasty.”

I think we got some left­over meat­loaf in ice­box. I can make you a sand­wich and bring it to you on the porch.”

That would be nice, but why go all the way back out­side when we can just sit down right here?” He took a cou­ple more steps into the kitchen, and pulled out a chair. “You go ahead, and make me that plate and I’ll just relax here in the cool air.”

I want­ed to tell him to leave, but I couldn’t so I went ahead and poured some sweet tea and fixed his food. He ate like an ani­mal, as Mama would say when she nagged us for doing it. Great big bites, not quite clos­ing his mouth when he chewed; so fast he bare­ly swal­lowed before he took the next mouth­ful. He even gulped down the sweet tea. It was like he thought the food would get away from him. Maybe it would have run if it could, I cer­tain­ly want­ed to. And I promised myself I would nev­er eat that way again. It’s dis­gust­ing to watch.

When he fin­ished eat­ing he looked at the cake plate on counter, like if he stared at it long enough a piece would cut itself. Final­ly I got up and cut a thin slice and set it in front of him.

He took his time eat­ing it at least; nib­bling away like every sin­gle crumb need­ed time to roll around in his mouth before he could swal­low it. “This is a good cake. Did your Mama bake it?”

No, I did. She doesn’t like bak­ing, says she doesn’t have the right touch for it.”

Well you did a fine job.“ He smacked his lips over the last few crumbs, and grinned again. “Mighty fine. A meal like that is enough to make a man think about a wife. You know what I mean?”

I shook my head, and got up and start­ed clean­ing up the table and putting things away. I kept my back to him the whole time hop­ing he’d get the hint, and final­ly I heard the chair push back from the table. It was a good sound. The sound of him final­ly get­ting out of my house and leav­ing me alone. I put the last dish away, and turned to dry my hands.

A girl like you must have spent some time with a fel­la or two. I know these boys around here ain’t shy.” He got real close to me then, so close I found myself lean­ing back just to keep his breath out of my face.

My mama says I’m too young for boys.”

He start­ed press­ing him­self against me, talk­ing about “You look old enough to me.”

Mis­ter, if you tell me your name and where you’re stay­ing I’ll make sure my Dad­dy knows that you came by, okay?”

I was lean­ing so far back at that point it felt like my back was going to break, so I tried to slide side­ways away from him. He didn’t back off none at all, just kept pace with me no mat­ter which way I went.

My name is Edward Tul­ly.” He reached up to push a piece of hair out of my face, “You are such a pret­ty girl.”

He was grin­ning again, some­thing awful hid­ing behind that smile that made my stom­ach lurch so hard I almost threw up on him. But I made myself say, “Thank you.”

I tried to step back again, even got my hands up to push him away, but that did­n’t stop him. My mama had nev­er real­ly talked to me about men like him, but I’d heard enough from the old­er girls at school and church to guess what he was try­ing to do. And know deep in my bones that I’d rather die than let him do it.

When he grabbed me around the waist, I start­ed scream­ing and hit­ting at him best as I could. But he was big­ger than me, and I couldn’t make him let go. We tus­sled back and forth some, and he slapped me. I tried to grab a knife then, but I couldn’t get away from him long enough to get a good grip on it.

Seemed like there was noth­ing I could do to get myself loose. Least not until I yelled, “Get away from me!” He dropped his arm, just froze stand­ing right there. Stood stock still, look­ing at me like he couldn’t fig­ure out what was hap­pen­ing. I was so upset I just kept hit­ting at him and scream­ing, “Don’t you touch me, don’t you ever touch me again!”

Final­ly it dawned on me that he wasn’t mov­ing, that every time I hit him he flinched, but he didn’t try to stop me. I didn’t know then what I know now, so I told him, “Get out. You get out of our house and don’t you ever come here again.”

He turned and did just as I said, walked straight on out the front door, back toward his car. Like a fool I fol­lowed him scream­ing things. Crazy things that I would have nev­er thought I could say to any­one. “I hope you die. I hope you burn in Hell!”

He looked back at me when I said it, but he didn’t stop walk­ing, just got in his car and drove away. I ran back in the house, locked both doors and went in the back to take a bath. When I took off my clothes I had bruis­es on my arms, around my waist, even a few on my legs. I felt so dirty that I stayed in the tub a long time, by the time I could face get­ting out the sun was set­ting. I could hear Daddy’s voice from the side yard when I opened the door. I peeked out the win­dow while I was dry­ing off. Dad­dy was stand­ing there with my broth­ers; and Rev­erend Mos­by the preach­er from the church. In the dis­tance I could see a red glow against the sky.

I put on a robe over my house dress, and some slip­pers, then stuck my head out the door. “Dad­dy, what’s going on?”

Noth­ing you need to wor­ry about baby girl.”

Rev­erend Mos­by coughed and did a fun­ny lit­tle bob of his head in my direc­tion. Dad­dy gave him such a look, but the Rev­erend did­n’t seem both­ered about it. He just looked back at Dad­dy, like he was wait­ing for him to do some­thing. Dad­dy let out this big sigh, and said “Any­one come by here while we were fish­ing?”

I nev­er could lie to Dad­dy but every­one knows Rev­erend gos­sips more than any three women so I said, “Some man stopped by, said he want­ed to talk to you about buy­ing land. I told him you’d be back lat­er and he left. Why?”

He point­ed at the fire, “Some stranger went and crashed his car down by the creek. He must have been car­ry­ing a load of gaso­line or some­thing, because the car start­ed burn­ing before any­one could get him out.”

I’m not sure what hap­pened next, one minute Dad­dy was talk­ing and the next every­thing went dark. When I woke up I was in my bed and Mama was sit­ting there with me. I start­ed to sit up and she pushed me back down. I tried to tell her that I was okay, but she shushed me. There was a fun­ny med­i­cine smell in the air, but not the one that she usu­al­ly has when she’s tak­ing care of babies.

A minute or so lat­er Rev­erend Mos­by knocked on the door, and Mama got up and went out to talk to him. She was whis­per­ing the way she does when some­one is real sick, and he kept his voice down too so I couldn’t hear every­thing that was said. But it sound­ed like she was telling him I had some­thing worse than a cold. He’s real skit­tish around sick peo­ple so he high­tailed it out the front door. As soon as he was way away from the house Mama slipped back into my room. She looked at me for such a long time, and I could see that she’d been cry­ing.

Mama, am I that sick?” I tried to sit up again, and that time she didn’t stop me. “What’s wrong with me?”

Nothing’s wrong with you baby. It’s just…there are some things I nev­er thought to tell you. And I didn’t want you learn­ing them this way.” Mama’s real pret­ty usu­al­ly and she always holds her head up just so, looks folks right in the eye no mat­ter what col­or they are. This was the first time I ever saw her head hang down like she couldn’t bear to hold it up.

Mama, that man ear­li­er in the fire…he was here longer than I said. He..h-..uh…”

I was try­ing to fig­ure out how to tell her when she leaned for­ward and took my hand. “Don’t wor­ry about him baby. He’s not your con­cern now.”

There was some­thing so hard in her face; I didn’t know what to think of it. She was cry­ing again, and she kissed my hands, ran her fin­gers over my bruis­es just as gen­tle as if she knew where they were under my clothes. That’s when it hit me that my bruis­es didn’t hurt any more. Mama makes this spe­cial cream for bruis­ing, and I smelled like it. I bab­bled out the sto­ry of my day then, and she grabbed me close and hugged me so tight it felt like my chest was going to burst.

Dad­dy came in my room then, sat down next to mama and hugged us both. I hadn’t even real­ized he was by the door lis­ten­ing to us. I thought for a sec­ond that he was mad at me, “I’m so sor­ry, Dad­dy. I didn’t mean to let him in the house. I told him to leave and he wouldn’t go no mat­ter what I said.”

You have noth­ing to be sor­ry for, baby.” Dad­dy is one of those men that Grand­ma says was born with a stone face and a soft heart. He kissed me on the fore­head, and for a sec­ond I could see exact­ly what she meant. His eyes were the soft­est I’ve ever seen them, and I couldn’t help but lean into the two of them like I did when I was real lit­tle.

We sat there for a while hang­ing on each oth­er and cry­ing, then Mama took my face in her hands, “Baby girl you got away from him. That’s all that mat­ters.”

I said some­thing real­ly bad to him.” I mum­bled, “I didn’t real­ly want him to die, I just want­ed him to get away from me. Do you think God knows I didn’t mean him no harm?”

He tried to hurt you baby, you were just defend­ing your­self.” Mama let go of me, and I scoot­ed back so that I could rest against my pil­lows.

But he stopped, and he left.” I looked down, “I told him I hope he would die, and he died. I know what you said about ill wish­ing peo­ple, but I didn’t think it actu­al­ly worked.”

She and Dad­dy gave each oth­er these odd looks, like they knew a secret that I didn’t and final­ly she said, “Some­times words have pow­er. And I think your words might have more pow­er than most.”

What did you fix for him?” Dad­dy asked.

Umm…a meat­loaf sand­wich, sweet tea, and a lit­tle slice of cake.” I thought about the way he ate it all, and a lit­tle shud­der ran through me.

Dad­dy ran his hand over his face a time or two, looked at Mama and said “My aunt Alice could cook a man a meal that would make him do most any­thing she want­ed.”

Mama’s face went almost blank and she looked at him for a long time. When she looked at me, it was like I was one of the peo­ple who came to her for help some­times, the ones so sick or strange that they scared her. She reached out and took Daddy’s hand, cling­ing onto it like he might jump up and run away.

* * *

There were some changes over the next three years. Mama and Dad­dy did­n’t love me any less, but we were more…careful with each oth­er. Mama got real firm about my clothes, mak­ing me new ones as soon as the old ones got the least bit snug. And Dad­dy start­ed talk­ing to me about his peo­ple more often, they weren’t a secret or noth­ing, but he was always qui­eter about fam­i­ly than Mama. He made sure I knew that they weren’t bad, just dif­fer­ent from most, and that maybe being dif­fer­ent was a good thing.

The first few times we talked Mama would sidle up and just stand there behind him lis­ten­ing, but not say­ing any­thing. One day when Dad­dy and I were done talk­ing, she came over, took my hand and led me into her work­room. She taught me what to do for sick peo­ple, for babies, what­ev­er she could. I still went to school, but all my real learn­ing was at home. I don’t know what their plan for me was, but the clos­er I got to fin­ish­ing school the clear­er it was to me that I could­n’t stay at home.

I could make the same med­i­cines that Mama did, even help some­one birth their baby, but peo­ple did­n’t take to me like they did to Mama. Maybe it was my eyes, maybe it was the way Mama kept me from mak­ing so much as a cup of tea for any­one out­side of our fam­i­ly. I don’t think Mama meant to act the way she did, but her being ner­vous prob­a­bly made oth­er peo­ple ner­vous too. But the med­i­cines I made for peo­ple I liked real­ly worked, some­times bet­ter than Mama’s and after a while I start­ed bak­ing again. Folks that ate my cakes would feel real­ly good if I said some­thing nice to them.

Rev­erend Mos­by did­n’t help any. Every once in a while he’d bring up the stranger that died and look at my face real care­ful like. I don’t think he knew any­thing, but he kept such a sharp eye on me that I nev­er felt com­fort­able around him. I don’t know if oth­er peo­ple picked up on what the Rev­erend was doing, or if it was some­thing about me, but when all the oth­er girls had boys get­ting sweet on them, I was just…around. Not ignored exact­ly, boys liked look­ing at me just fine, but no one was try­ing to get me to go on walks or on pic­nics. My broth­er Robert tried to make me feel bet­ter, every night he’d talk about all the boys he scared off, but we both knew he was lying. No one wants a sweet­heart they can’t stand to look in the eye, and I was­n’t sure I want­ed any of them either. I just want­ed the option. It got so I’d get up and walk away when the kids got to plan­ning a pic­nic or a trip to a swim­ming hole, because I knew that even if I was invit­ed, I was­n’t real­ly want­ed.

Robert was the oppo­site, he had plen­ty of options and he want­ed none of them. There were always girls around, if you asked them they would claim to be my friends, but they were there for Robert. He was­n’t as big as Eli­jah or Jacob, my two old­est broth­ers, but he was still a good size. And he looked like Mama. When we were lit­tle, folks would joke that he was going to be a pret­ty boy, and in a way he was. He was­n’t afraid of work, but he did­n’t like doing more of it than he need­ed to, and he was always par­tic­u­lar about his clothes and such. He was only a year old­er than me, but every­one treat­ed him like he was a full grown man before he was even done with school.

I did­n’t know what I want­ed to do, but it was­n’t teacher’s col­lege or work­ing with Mama.  At my 16th birth­day din­ner, Robert up and announced, ”I’m going north to Chica­go. I’ll get a job, maybe be able to send some mon­ey down when you need it.”

He was real slick with it, just put the facts out there and did­n’t ask for per­mis­sion. You could look at Mama’s face and see she did­n’t like it, but Dad­dy just nod­ded. Robert looked across the table at me, and all I could think was that I was­n’t fit to stay at home either. I did­n’t have a bet­ter plan, so I got up, start­ed clear­ing the table and said, “I’m going with him.”

I could see Dad­dy rear­ing back, all set to fuss right along with Mama. I did­n’t give him time to get it out, just said qui­et­ly, “Soon­er or lat­er some­thing is going to hap­pen. You got a good life here. I don’t want no trou­ble for you, or for any­one else.”

I can’t say that made them feel any bet­ter about it, but they did­n’t fight us. They just fussed over where we’d stay, writ­ing let­ters to peo­ple they knew, reach­ing out to peo­ple from the church with rel­a­tives in Chica­go, and try­ing to make sure we’d be safe. Mama helped me pack, load­ing a bag with med­i­cines that we might need and some things I could trade or sell. Robert and I nev­er sat down and dis­cussed me going along, he just told me how much mon­ey he had saved up, and I showed him I had my own sav­ings.

We stayed at home through Christ­mas, plan­ning to leave for Chica­go after the hol­i­days. Most folks would move in the spring, but we did­n’t want to wait that long. Peo­ple were start­ing to talk. Not a lot, but some­thing about us both­ered folks.

Final­ly the day came for us to leave, and every­body turned out to watch us go. Dad­dy drove us to the train sta­tion, and made sure we were on a col­ored car with a porter that he knew. It was a small thing, but it meant we had good seats and weren’t like­ly to be both­ered. I’d heard sto­ries about girls trav­el­ing alone hav­ing to wor­ry, but every­one gave us a wide berth.

Get­ting to Chica­go was the easy part. We ate, and talked and had a fine time being out on our own. We could hear oth­er folks talk­ing about what kind of work they want­ed. All kinds of fan­cy jobs rolled off their lips. I was­n’t that fussed though. Long as I did­n’t have to go in no white wom­an’s kitchen I fig­ured it would be fine. Not that I would. Mama would come north and tan my hide, after her and Dad­dy work­ing so hard to make sure that we could take care of our­selves.

We must have looked so fool­ish when we first got off the train. There were so many peo­ple, and so much noise, all we could do at first was walk and stare. We took a street­car to the Black Belt where all the oth­er col­ored folks lived. Robert wait­ed until we were almost to the address Mama and Dad­dy had giv­en us before say­ing, “I’m not get­ting a reg­u­lar job. I can make more mon­ey my way.”

What does that mean?” I stopped in the mid­dle of the street. “What are you up to?”

He just smiled. “Peo­ple here in the city aren’t like folks down home.”

I was­n’t sure at first what he meant. At home peo­ple did­n’t like it when the boys played cards, or what­ev­er. But we passed three dice games, and no one said a word to the men play­ing. As we walked toward a fourth game, one of the men looked up and beck­oned to Robert. My broth­er walked right over, pulled out some mon­ey, and took the dice. He won the few dol­lars that were in the pot, and then he walked right back to me.

When I looked at him he shrugged and said, “I’ve always been lucky.”

We were sup­posed to be rent­ing rooms in a board­ing house on the edge of the Black Belt. When we got there it was crowd­ed, over­priced, and none too clean. We did­n’t have enough to get two rooms and still have our emer­gency mon­ey. The place did­n’t look all that safe despite being run by a woman who used to go to our church. But we had a room, and I thought we’d have to make do for a few months until we found some work.

Robert went out look­ing around and I set to clean­ing the place up so we would­n’t be liv­ing in squalor. I’d always known Robert was lucky, just not how lucky, not until he came home a few hours lat­er with keys to our own place. He did­n’t tell me where he got them, but I fig­ured it was from gam­bling. It was­n’t fan­cy, but we each had our own room, and there was a lit­tle store­front down­stairs. He had an idea we would rent it out, but I talked him into let­ting me run it myself. I fig­ured I could sell med­i­cine, maybe sell cake or some­such too. Long as I did­n’t ill wish any­one, it could all be fine.

It was­n’t in the best neigh­bor­hood. There were girls who earned their liv­ings on their backs, men run­ning num­bers, and folks doing all kinds of odd jobs. I can’t say that I approved of every­thing I saw, but I fig­ured if they could mind their own busi­ness then so could I. Although we called it the Black Belt, but it was­n’t only col­ored folks liv­ing there, there were Ital­ians and Irish in the neigh­bor­hood too. They weren’t always friend­ly, but we man­aged to get along okay. Like every­body else, they were just try­ing to sur­vive. We were all too busy to fret about who was who, not like at home where every­one kept to their own kind in pub­lic.

I made friends with some of the sport­ing girls that first win­ter we were in Chica­go. They’d come in for med­i­cine to stop a baby, or to cure a cold, and tease me about being so clean on a street so dirty. After a while it got so a cou­ple of them were like the sis­ters I did­n’t have at home. Lucy was a tall, skin­ny red­bone with a cough that nev­er went away, even with my med­i­cine. She said it was the dirty air, and came in every few days to get some­thing to help.

Lucy was how I met Mabel. They were good friends already and Mabel’s stom­ach was always both­er­ing her. She was short and high yel­la, but not light enough to pass. They both said I was the only one that ever gave them some­thing that made them feel bet­ter. They brought busi­ness my way when they could, and I made sure I kept some things on hand for them. But most­ly we just sat around talk­ing and eat­ing and laugh­ing. Just being girls in the city.

It was eas­i­er than I thought it would be, no one both­ered us and we had enough to keep our bel­lies full and our bod­ies warm. Oth­er peo­ple weren’t so for­tu­nate. We’d pass them in the street look­ing worn out and sick. I’d make soup when I could, and bake some loaves of bread. I told every­one I fed to feel bet­ter, to have a good day, what­ev­er nice things I could think of to say just in case it would help. I nev­er for­got what hap­pened when I was 13, and I was care­ful about who I fed just in case. It was­n’t much, but it made me feel bet­ter and Robert said it made the neigh­bors like us.

By that sum­mer, Chica­go was our home.

My biggest fear was that one night while Robert was out he’d meet some girl and bring her home for good. Even though it was our place, I knew I could­n’t stand in the way of him hav­ing a fam­i­ly. I won’t say I wor­ried over it con­stant­ly, but it did weigh on my mind. I fig­ured that no one would want a hus­band and his spin­ster sis­ter.

It took Lucy and Mabel all of five min­utes at din­ner one night with Robert and his friend Daniel to see what I did­n’t. “You did­n’t tell me your broth­er was a sis­sy.” Lucy must have seen some­thing in my face because she said real quick, “Not that there’s any­thing wrong with that, hon­ey. I’m just say­ing, you nev­er told me he liked boys.”

I did­n’t know what to say so I just shrugged, and Mabel looked at Lucy and shook her head, “He did­n’t want her to know. Why did you go and open your big mouth?”

I did­n’t know it was a secret!” Lucy looked at me, “You’re not mad? Some folks just come out that way. He’s still your broth­er.”

No I’m not mad.” And I was­n’t, in some small self­ish ways it made things eas­i­er. After all two men would still need a woman to do for them around the house. We went to the drag balls, and I saw folks cud­dling up with each oth­er when­ev­er they felt an urge. I kept in mind what Mabel said about him not want­i­ng me to know though, and act­ed like noth­ing had changed the next day when I saw him and Daniel at break­fast. I think Daniel knew I was­n’t fooled any more, but he did­n’t say any­thing either.

Nine­teen-nine­teen was one of those years with a real hot sum­mer, and you could­n’t help but hear about the trou­bles col­ored folks were hav­ing. We’d write to Mama and Dad­dy pret­ty reg­u­lar­ly so they’d know we were okay, and Robert took to being home more just in case. It was­n’t a sur­prise exact­ly when the riots start­ed. We heard about the boy drown­ing, and Robert had me close up the shop right then. Trou­ble was com­ing, had been com­ing for a long time, and now it was here. Lucy and Mabel came by, said they weren’t even going to try to work, and so we went upstairs to wait togeth­er.

Daniel was the only one miss­ing, and after a while I looked at Robert and said, “You bet­ter go get him. He might be hav­ing trou­ble get­ting here.”

I can’t leave you here alone.” He tried to smile. “Daniel’s fine. He’ll be here when he can get here.”

I’ll be fine. I’m not alone.” I don’t know why I was push­ing so hard for him to leave, but I had a bad feel­ing. “Daniel is all by him­self out there. Go get him.”

Some­thing in my voice swayed Robert, or maybe it was all the years of eat­ing my cook­ing. He got up and left with­out anoth­er word. An hour or so lat­er, I heard glass break­ing and peo­ple scream­ing. I looked at Lucy and Mabel, “Stay up here okay? I’ll go see what’s hap­pen­ing.”

When I arrived down­stairs, I could see peo­ple in the street fight­ing, just claw­ing at each oth­er like ani­mals. Some of them were peo­ple who I’d fed over the last few months, but a lot were strangers. There was one white man in the mid­dle of it all that I did­n’t know exact­ly, but I knew of him from lis­ten­ing to Robert’s sto­ries. Rich some­thing or oth­er, he ran one of the “clubs” that strad­dled the line between a group of friends and thugs for hire. He was sup­posed to be a mean sumbitch, and peo­ple kept their dis­tance from him though he was short com­pared to my broth­er. Skin­ny lipped even for a white man, and the way he hunched his neck and shoul­ders made me think of a bull­frog walk­ing on hind legs. They had­n’t quite made it to our doorstep yet, but I knew what would hap­pen when they did. Espe­cial­ly when they found three women alone in the house.

I thought for a moment of Lucy and Mabel, of the things they did­n’t say about why they worked where they did. I nev­er talked about what hap­pened to me either, but I could tell that they knew. Sis­ters, even ones that share no blood, can share secrets with­out speak­ing.

I went in the back of the store, grabbed some of the cake I’d put away, and walked out into the street before I could let myself think about what I was doing. I made straight for Rich, trust­ing that dif­fer­ence Dad­dy talked about to pro­tect me. It did. I made it all the way down the street with­out a scratch. I held the pack­et out in front of me when I got close to him. Lock­ing my eyes on his I said, “Please, just take this and go.”

I’d nev­er real­ly thought about why peo­ple don’t like to look me in the eye, but they must have a good rea­son. I’m so used to peo­ple look­ing away, I tend to do it for them, but this time I tried to catch his eyes and hold them on mine. They were mud­dy with rage, and his breath and body smelled ter­ri­ble, but I kept try­ing. It worked after a fash­ion, but he made a face like it hurt him. He took the bun­dle of food from my hand, and I let my eyes drop.

Soon as I did he grabbed me, “What do you think you’re doing?” He shook me hard enough to rat­tle my teeth in their sock­ets, and knock most of the air clean out of me.

Bring­ing you some­thing to eat, and ask­ing you to leave us alone.” I was­n’t in one of Mama’s dress­es, so maybe he thought I was a boy at first. Soon as he heard my voice he dropped me and looked down at the bun­dle in his hand like he did­n’t know where it came from, or why he was hold­ing it.

You nig­gers need to learn your place, need to learn how to stay in it.” He ripped open the waxed paper I’d wrapped the cake in and took a bite. Then anoth­er and anoth­er. It was gone in a few sec­onds.

This is our place. I want you to leave. Take these men, go home, and stop hurt­ing peo­ple.” I ges­tured at the street, “Tell them to stop.”

I…” He broke off, star­ing right past me. I tried to catch his atten­tion again, but it was like he was stuck in place. I did­n’t know what to do, I turned around and saw Robert walk­ing up. Daniel was with him, though he looked like he’d been fight­ing. The way Robert was mov­ing was wrong, like his whole self hurt. I ran toward him. When I got close enough I could feel some­thing pour­ing out of him, a force that pulled at me just like I was a part of it. I took his hand and we walked back toward the fight­ing. I was shak­ing, but we were togeth­er and sud­den­ly I was sure that no one could stand against us.

Make it stop. Take them and go home.” My voice was strange even to my ears, some­thing under it that I had nev­er heard before, but it seemed to work this time. Rich yelled, inco­her­ent, but the men with him stopped. I yelled, “Stop fight­ing!” and our neigh­bors put down the boards and rocks they’d been using. Fists relaxed, and the two sides sep­a­rat­ed, stum­bling away from each oth­er in con­fu­sion.

Rich led his club away, and Daniel and I led Robert back to the house. Once we were inside he col­lapsed. His legs just fold­ed up under him, and I sank down on the ground next to him. Daniel screamed, not real loud, just the way you do when you’re star­tled, and Lucy and Mabel came run­ning down­stairs. They took care of us.

I wish I could say that what we did stopped the trou­ble. It did­n’t. Not real­ly. It just moved it along. But we were safe and our neigh­bors were safe, which was prob­a­bly the most that we could have hoped for in that bloody, red sum­mer. I killed a man when I was 13, and I could have done it again that day. But I let Rich live and I saved some oth­er men from being killed as well. I hope that it all evens out in God’s eyes.

 

MikkiKendallCutout2Mik­ki Kendall has a long his­to­ry of mix­ing facts into her fic­tion, but nev­er fic­tion into her facts. She nour­ish­es under­fed his­to­ry by set­ting sto­ries in the places and times that aren’t as pop­u­lar. She tweets as Karnythia, is co-founder of Hoodfeminism.com, and writes copi­ous amounts on all kind of top­ics when­ev­er she can.