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.