Authors: Shana Burg
July 17, 1963, Night
Tonight at dinner, after we worry ourselves sick talking about Elias, we dish all about the Garden Club. Ever since Old Man Adams went and died last month, the Garden Club has held a bunch of meetings to figure out what to plant on his land. But Mama, Uncle Bump, and me agree: their meetings are nothing but a bunch of hooey.
“This garden belongs to all Kuckachookians, Negro and white,” I say, and swallow my last bite of beans.
“No matter how much they quibble ’bout what to plant, you can bet they agree on one thing,” Mama says.
“What’s that?” Uncle Bump asks. He wipes his face with an old piece of towel.
“Us Negroes won’t never share the land,” she says, and sips her water.
Uncle Bump laughs, not because what Mama says is funny, but because it’s true.
“Why don’t they know Old Man Adams left the land for
of us?” I ask. I walk over to the stove and scrape one last spoonful of beans off the bottom of the pot.
“’Cause the mayor and the sheriff lied, Addie Ann. They told folks Old Man Adams wrote in his will the land is just for whites,” Uncle Bump says.
“Course, there’s a couple rumors starting to spread, but you know white folk,” Mama says. “They believe whatever’s most easy.”
“Well, we should tell ’em…,” I say, and sit back down.
And that’s when Mama gives me one of her ain’t-you-got-no-manners, suck-in-her-breath expressions. I reckon it’s because I’m talking with my mouth full of beans. I can’t say I see what the big deal is. If you’ve got to chew and talk, why not do both at the same time? But I don’t feel like picking a crow with Mama, so I swallow.
“That’s better,” she says. “Anyway, the reverend says the truth is gonna make itself known.”
“Well, when?” I ask Mama. “When’s it gonna make itself known?”
“Whenever it’s supposed to,” she tells me, as if that clears everything right up.
Uncle Bump pulls his harmonica out of his pocket, says good night, and leaves out the side door. Of course, while Mama and me clean up from supper, we go straight back to fretting about my brother.
Five days gone since Elias ran off, and we can’t go three minutes without thinking about him.
The next morning, soon as Mama and me get to the Tates’ house, she goes on upstairs, while I pour some milk into the tin bowl to set out back for Flapjack. I’m trying to teach my cat to wait for me till I’m ready to go home. A couple days ago, I showed Mrs. Tate the bowl I’d brought and asked her if she’d mind. “Training a cat!” she said, and laughed. “Now there’s a good idea! Most folks think you can only do that with dogs! Sure, I’ll donate milk to the cause.”
This morning, after I place the bowl outside, I step back into the Tates’ kitchen.
Mama shuffles down the stairs and plops Ralphie into my arms. “I’ve gotta dust this house floorboards to ceiling before the Garden Club meeting. You’ve gotta take him on your own,” she says.
At once I feel a rush of excitement, because I’m going to prove I’m more than capable.
Mama tells me after I give Ralphie walking lessons, lunch, stories, and a nap, I’d better give him a bath. “Don’t forget to check his bottom,” she says.
Later, while the bathwater runs, I take a good look at myself in the Tates’ washroom mirror. The last time I saw myself in a big mirror was more than a month ago in Old Man Adams’s place. I gather the cloth of my dress tight behind me and see what Mama’s been telling me, it’s true! My hip bones decided to spread apart from each other like butter. Mama says it means I’m starting to get a figure. And I figure a figure is a good thing, because Delilah’s already got one even though she’s only going into sixth grade, and all the boys think she’s the cat’s meow.
I’m still noticing my new figure, and I forget all about Ralphie till I feel his little hands press against my legs. Wouldn’t you know it, when I look down, I see that boy took three rolls of toilet paper out of the washroom cabinet. Now he’s got himself wrapped up like an Egyptian mummy. And he’s trying to wrap me too. “Stop that!” I say, and try not to laugh. But Ralphie just looks at me with a goofy grin.
I turn off the bathwater and gather up the toilet paper. It’s so soft! Truth be told, I’m tempted to fold it up and take it home, because ever since Uncle Bump stopped working, all we’ve got to use in the outhouse are the free department store catalogs that come in the mail. But I’ve got no bag to save the toilet paper in, so I stuff it into the trash can seconds before Mrs. Tate wanders into the washroom looking for her lipstick.
“I can’t imagine what you and your poor mother are going through with your brother gone,” she says as she rummages through the washroom drawer. “Well, I suppose working hard is the only way to get by.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I say. And she’s right about it too. After Mrs. Tate finds her lipstick, she leaves. But the whole time I’m bathing Ralphie, pinning on his diaper, and dressing him in the sailor outfit, I can’t stop thinking about my brother.
Not till I inhale.
Usually after a bath that boy smells sweet as a lace cookie. But today Ralphie doesn’t smell anything but rotten, so I carry him back to the changing table and clean him up.
Then I take him down to the kitchen and set him in the high chair. “Woof! Woof!” I say, and hold up the new stuffed dog that Mrs. Tate bought him. A few days ago, I heard Mr. Tate yell at his wife for spending too much money all the time, but if you ask me, buying this dog was worth it. Ralphie loves it!
Now he grabs it out of my hands and hugs it tight, just as Mrs. Tate comes into the kitchen. She’s all dressed up. Special for the Garden Club meeting, she wears a straw hat with a giant white bow. Her black hair shines flat down her back like the highway after a rain.
When the doorbell rings, I turn my kitchen chair and peek into the Tates’ living room. And there’s Honey and Jimmy’s mama, Mrs. Worth, strolling through the front door. Laying eyes on Mrs. Worth, I feel a scratch in my throat. A scratch that burns. She’s got on a yellow hat that matches her hair. Today there’s nothing funny about her hat, but even if she had plastic frogs tied to the brim, you could bet I wouldn’t smirk.
Next Miss Springer arrives. She’s got a newspaper rolled up under her arm, and instead of a hat, she wears a yellow pencil tucked behind her ear. Mama says Mrs. Tate would never be friends with a single lady like Miss Springer if Miss Springer didn’t do so much good. But each year Miss Springer decorates the float for the Thanksgiving Day parade. What’s more, she’s raising money to build a library here in Kuckachoo.
Mama tiptoes into the living room, sets down a plate of gingersnaps for the prim and proper members of the Garden Club, who act like they’re planning a charitable event—not a cold-blooded crime. Then she hurries back into the kitchen.
Soon Mr. Mudge comes through the front door. Mama and me, we’re surprised to see him here. He’s a very busy man. When it comes to doing business in Kuckachoo, everyone knows he wears the britches. He not only owns a farm the size of two football fields but also the Corner Store. With Old Man Adams dead and buried, Mr. Mudge is now the richest man alive. At least in Kuckachoo he is. What with the Corner Store being the only grocery shop in town, he’s got what you might call a regular monopoly. And if that’s not enough to put pennies in his pockets, he’s preparing for the grand opening of another shop in Muscadine County.
Now Mrs. Worth sits on the sofa and asks him all about it.
“Ain’t Muscadine County an awful far drive?”
“Ninety miles straight down the highway,” Mr. Mudge says. “But I’d drive a hundred ninety to open my shop there.”
“Why’s that?” Mrs. Worth asks, and reaches for a gingersnap.
“All kinds of show business folks are moving to Muscadine County. In a couple years that place will be the new Hollywood. Now’s the time to invest.”
I reckon that given all his business experience, Mr. Mudge is going to tell folks exactly what to plant on Old Man Adams’s land. But get this: when at long last the meeting starts, he tells the seven ladies and the mayor something else entirely. “Gardens? Who needs gardens?” he says. “Why, if you need a garden, plant one in your own yard.”
Well, that’s easy for Mr. Mudge to say. The dirt round his house isn’t dry and crumbly like the dirt round ours. Plus, his front yard takes up half the town. He’s got plenty of room to plant a whole variety. And he’s got enough vegetables to eat
to sell. Now the rest of the Kuckachookians want the chance to do the same. Folks don’t just want to eat the vegetables they grow. They want to sell them at the farmers’ market in Franklindale. But I reckon Mr. Mudge doesn’t care a hoot about that.
“Picture this,” he tells the Garden Club members. “That land could be the perfect spot for our new
high school. You know the Supreme Court is coming down rather hard in the area of integration,” he says. “I don’t have to tell you it’s a dog-eat-dog kind of world.” Then Mr. Mudge starts talking about how folks on my side of town are getting uppity.
All of a sudden, my breath turns light and stiff like an egg white beat too long. And I can’t imagine how Mama’s going to fill their glasses, because her hands tremble while she takes the pitcher of iced tea out of the refrigerator. But Mama takes a deep breath and walks back into the living room.
I mix up some dough for Ralphie to play with while I listen to the rest.
“They’re gaining rights at our expense,” Mrs. Worth says, as if Mama and me aren’t in the house. “If we give them a mixed education, next they’ll want to swim in the same pool as our kids.”
Well, of course I want to jump in that pool behind the white high school. One time, Delilah dragged me all the way over there to peek at it through the wire fence. The water looked so cool and blue.
But soon as Mr. Mudge talks, I know I’ve got as much chance of ever splashing in that pool as I do of kissing Cool Breeze Huddleston—just about none.
“If we use the land to build a new high school, a
sort of school, it’ll protect our children if and when the white high school lets the coloreds in,” Mr. Mudge says. “By then it’ll be too late to tell the coloreds, ‘Scram!’”
I have to say, I’m shocked to hear Mr. Mudge talk this way. And I reckon the mayor doesn’t like what Mr. Mudge says either.
“With the greatest respect, sir,” the mayor says, “but the Supreme Court passed a law that violates our state’s right to educate the children of Mississippi as we see fit.” The mayor takes a gingersnap off the serving plate. “Fortunately, I’m in charge of the schools in Kuckachoo, so I’m just not gonna follow that law. Integration here?” The mayor takes a bite. “That ain’t nothin’ but a thousand never evers!”
All of a sudden, Mrs. Worth shouts, “The tea! Watch it!”
My breath gets shorter and shorter till it’s barely there.
I see Mama in the living room, crunched up small as a cricket, hands shaking while she tries to scrub the spilled tea out of the white carpet with her rag.
“Sorry, ma’am,” Mama says.
Mrs. Tate looks at Mama but doesn’t say a word.
But Mrs. Worth turns to Mrs. Tate and says, “That maid’s too old. Just look at her. Time for a new one.”
My eyes narrow to slits.
When Mrs. Worth turns away to grab another gingersnap, Mrs. Tate’s other friend, Miss Springer, stares at Mama till Mama lifts her eyes from the carpet. Then Miss Springer waves her hand in front of her face. With that one gesture, she tells Mama the spill, it’s fuss and feathers. No big deal.
While Mama runs past me in the kitchen to wet her rag, I see she’s got a tear in her eye like she’s wondering if she’s too old for this work. But she’s also got a smile on her lips, like she can’t stop thinking about the wave from Miss Springer.
July 18, 1963, Afternoon
At long last the world’s most precious carpet is clean, so Mama runs upstairs to iron the linens.
I give Ralphie a ball of dough to play with. Then I sit down beside him and peek into the living room. I’ve got to pay real close attention so I can fill Mama in later.
The mayor picks up where he left off. “What we need is a garden—a garden that will provide free food for the community and extra cash for those who need it. Nobody can beat that!”
“Well, we can’t plant a dang thing till next May anyhow,” Mr. Mudge says.
That’s when Miss Springer chimes in. Miss Springer has the
crossword puzzle open on her lap. She looks plainer than a wheat roll, but I can tell you one thing: there’s nothing dull about what she has to say. “Wait till next year? Hogwash! Just ’cause most folks in the Delta are afraid of a cool-season garden doesn’t mean we have to be. My grandpa always planted a fall garden. He always told me, ‘Violet, thank your lucky stars we live up here in the northern part of the state. We’re spared the worst of the Mississippi sun.’ Why, we can go ahead and plant our garden next week.”
“Next week!” Mrs. Tate gasps. She throws her hands over her mouth like she just won the Fourth of July cake-decorating contest.
The mayor stands. “Why, a fall-season garden is an excellent idea! We’re Kuckachoo, after all, not Bramble or Weaver. We’re not afraid to be on the leading edge.”
But Mr. Mudge wants his advice followed and I can see why. That man has what you call farming experience. “If you’re going to insist on a garden, then might I propose an altogether different sort,” he says. “It’s impossible to be an expert in everything now. Better to pick one crop and do it right, like Henry Ford did with the Model T. In my personal opinion, due to their nutrition value and all-around robust flavor, turnip greens is the only wise choice.”
“Or garlic,” Mrs. Worth says. “We could plant all garlic.”
“Or butter beans!” Mrs. Tate says.
I can see by the way Mrs. Tate opens her blue eyes real wide, she’s proud of her idea. “I read in the magazines that movie stars like Audrey Hepburn and all the ladies in New York City eat a steady diet of butter beans,” she says. “They make butter bean soup, butter bean sauce, and even butter bean pie!”
Mr. Mudge chuckles. “With all due respect, Mrs. Tate, you can’t believe everything you read,” he says. “Besides, Mr. Adams didn’t leave any butter bean seeds in his shed. None at all.”
That’s when Miss Springer pushes her horn-rimmed glasses up farther on her nose. “Well, Mr. Mudge, since you’ve already taken stock of what seeds Mr. Adams left in his garden cabin, perhaps you might be so kind as to make a quick list of the inventory.” With that, Miss Springer tears out the crossword-puzzle page from the
and hands it to Mr. Mudge, along with the pencil that was resting behind her ear.
Mr. Mudge leans over the coffee table and scrawls the list of seeds onto the torn sheet of newspaper. When he’s finished, he slams Miss Springer’s pencil on top of it, folds his arms across his chest, and stares out the window.
Miss Springer examines the list written on the crossword-puzzle page. Then she says, “Mr. Mudge, Mr. Mayor, we ladies have a plan. According to this list, Mr. Adams left a wide variety of seed in his garden cabin. We can’t plant tomatoes, though. Too tender in the August heat. And no watermelon. Wouldn’t be ready before the frost.” Miss Springer turns to Mrs. Worth and Mrs. Tate. “Sorry to say, girls, there aren’t any garlic or butter bean seeds in his garden cabin either,” she says.
And I reckon this is the start of a real hullabaloo.
“Regarding the rows,” Miss Springer says, “there’s only one way to figure it. We’ll plant sixty-eight purple hull peas, nineteen string beans, twenty-three cabbage, forty-five crowder peas, fifty-three mustard greens, thirty-two crooked-neck squash, forty-nine collards, thirty-six kale, forty-seven black-eyed peas, forty-one button squash, and well, I reckon four turnip greens wouldn’t hurt.”
“And there you have it,” Mrs. Worth says, as if she knew it all along.
Mrs. Tate nods.
One thing’s clear: both Mrs. Worth and Mrs. Tate will gladly give up rows of garlic and butter beans to have a garden planned by a lady. And it seems Mr. Mudge and the mayor don’t have the nerve to disagree.
I want to stand and cheer for Miss Springer, she’s got so much grit. But now Ralphie throws his stuffed doggie onto the floor, and it’s near supper time, so I set the water to boil and drop some noodles in the pot.
“Well, of course I’d be more than happy to donate the labor to plant the garden,” Mr. Mudge says, “but surely that’s not enough to keep a garden growing. Who’s going to pick the weeds? Who’s going to fertilize? Water? Take it from me, you can’t grow a garden without hiring field hands to tend it for months after the planting.”
“Can’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t! That’s all we hear from you, Mr. Mudge!” Miss Springer shakes her head. “We are Kuckachookians. We can do anything we set our minds to.”
“Well, of course,” Mr. Mudge says. “I don’t mean to imply we can’t, but…”
Ralphie squirms. I know I should read him a story but I can’t stand to miss a word. So I pick up his doggie, wet its nose in the tap, and stick it in the sugar bowl. Then I hand it back. Just as I hoped, Ralphie stuffs his sweet doggie’s nose into his mouth and chews on it like a pacifier, while I wait to hear what Miss Springer will say next.
But the minutes pass and Miss Springer doesn’t say “boo.” It’s so quiet I can hear the bubbles burst in the pot.
At long last the mayor asks, “Just what do you propose, Miss Springer?”
“Just this,” she says. “We, the Garden Club, accept Mr. Mudge’s most kind offer of hiring field hands to plant our garden.”
Mr. Mudge snarls.
“After that,” Miss Springer says, “we’ll call on the bored, potbellied men this side of town. They’ll meet up at the garden a couple evenings a week to pull weeds and water. They’ll shed pounds and revitalize themselves by reuniting with the land. They’ll form a weeding-and-watering committee.”
Miss Springer stops and stares at Mrs. Tate and Mrs. Worth. “Your husbands will be the committee leaders,” she says.
“Well, how on earth am I gonna get my husband to work our garden?” Mrs. Tate asks.
“You just tell him you see his waistline growing faster than his hothouse bulbs, and I guarantee you one hundred percent, he’ll be weeding the acres by hand every night of the week.
“And as for your husband,” Miss Springer says to Mrs. Worth, “ever since he switched from firefighting to lumber, he’s lost that gleam in his eye. You get him to show up at the garden just once, and I promise, you’ll find a changed man!”
Mrs. Tate and Mrs. Worth nod like Miss Springer could be on to something.
Then Miss Springer takes her pencil off the table and slides it back behind her ear. “So you see,” she says to Mr. Mudge, “that’s the way it’s fixin’ to be.”
“You sure make a lot of noise for a librarian!” Mr. Mudge says.
Miss Springer huffs out such a strong breath it knocks the curl dangling in front of her forehead off to the side of her face.
“Oh, I’m just joking,” he says. “But there is one problem you’ve overlooked.”
Miss Springer raises her eyebrows.
“Weedin’ and waterin’ is Negro work!” he says.
Now Miss Springer’s fuming! “I’ll have you know,” she says, “my daddy and his daddy before him did that work. So did your daddy. If he hadn’t, you wouldn’t be where you are today.”
And that’s when I hear the sizzling sound. I run to the stove. Each noodle’s the size of a live oak trunk. I’ve got just enough time to feed Ralphie supper before the Garden Club meeting finishes and it’s time for Mama and me to head back home.
Later, when me and Mama get outside, I see the milk in Flapjack’s dish is almost finished. Mama waits while I clean out the bowl with the Tates’ hose. Then I
tweet, click, click,
and wouldn’t you know it, Flapjack leaps over the neighbor’s fence into the Tates’ yard. The milk worked! I kiss his furry head and together, we all walk home.