Authors: Jayne Pupek
A NOVEL BY
of Chapel Hill
I'd like to dedicate the bookâ
To Dora, who would be proud.
Jars line my cellar shelves. Some are filled with fists of yellow-veined tomatoes. Others hold small onions and chopped leeks, white pearls floating in an opaque sea. Sometimes the light falls on a jar of boiled quail or the slick, dark meat of a rabbit. There are unexpected moments when I see the slit of an infant's mouth, or the curl of a tiny fist behind the glass, and I run up the steps, back into the open light of sky. I gasp for air and tell myself the past is a distant thing, no longer able to reach me or hurt me. And yet, at times, it seems the past will always send its long thin fingers toward me, reminding me of all I want to forget.
Today I carry my notebook and pen down the cellar steps. I stand on a chair and screw in a lightbulb to wash away shadows. Then I sit. The notebook on my lap waits like an expectant child.
Long ago, a woman stood by a river and taught me the power of release. She would say I have held things and now I need to let go.
I pick up the pen. I need to tell what I remember. I need to tell the story of a girl whose world unraveled like a torn scarf â¦
ODAY IS MARKET DAY
. Not because it's Tuesday. Not because fresh tomatoes were loaded into the wooden bins this morning. Today is market day because Daddy sent money.
The blue envelope came in yesterday's mail. Inside, there was no letter like there had been for awhile, only three twenty-dollar bills folded into neat halves. I sat on the step and traced the paper spine with my fingers. I imagined Daddy's thumb making the perfect crease, the oil and dirt pressed under his nail like a dark line. Now that he was hauling pulp wood, his hands would be splintered and red from rubbing against bark. Maybe another worker would let him borrow gloves. He'd left his one good pair in the shed.
Waiting for the mail is my job. Mama doesn't want to see the letters from Daddy or even the envelopes. When the first one came, she stood in the middle of the sidewalk and ripped the paper into pieces. The day had been windy and sharp and the blue and green shreds floated on the air like insect wings. I chased each piece, then shoved them deep into my pocket and ran to Clara's house.
Clara is a colored woman. And a clairvoyant. Some even say she's a witch. Clara laughs at what people call her. She says if you get to be as old as she is without learning a trick or two, you haven't been paying attention. For sure she knows magic. Not the rabbit-in-the-hat magic, but real magic. The kind that raises dead spirits and makes handsome men swoon over plain women. The magic that causes plums to ripen despite a hard frost. Magic that lets her see your future spelled out in brown tea leaves or in the lines crisscrossing your palm.
Even though Clara doesn't live far, I'm not supposed to walk there alone, through the colored part of Granby. It's not just a rule at my house, but one that everybody knows. We go to school with black children, and sometimes shop at the same stores, but most things are done as they always were, separately, with doctors and churches for whites and a different set for coloreds. No black man in his right mind would walk into a church full of whites. No white woman would dare let a colored doctor see her naked, or even let one give shots to her children to keep them safe from measles and smallpox.
“A white girl isn't safe in a neighborhood full of colored boys,” Mary Roberts told me on the playground. I didn't ask what black boys might do that white boys wouldn't. I didn't want to hear any stories to scare me away from Gratton Street. Mary doesn't understand that when you need somebody the way I need Clara, you don't care two sticks what color skin they live in.
Before I go to Clara's in the afternoons, I sit on the front porch steps until the postman comes. While I wait, I rest my satchel across my lap and practice fractions in my notebook or recite my spelling list:
SORROW: S-O-R-R-O-W; TOMORROW: T-O-M-O-R-R-O-W
. I go over my words until I can spell them by heart. Sometimes I read my lessons, sounding out the words I don't know because I'm afraid to ask Mama. Her nerves are wound tight as a watch. I don't want to upset her. She might cry or take off her clothes. I'm always afraid she'll drop the baby.
Sometimes Mama does things to hurt herself. She gets carried away. Once while sitting at the kitchen table to write a grocery list, she scratched her wrist with the pencil until it bled. The more it bled, the deeper she pressed the lead point into her skin. Daddy had to wrestle the pencil from her, then bandage her wrist and give her a shot to calm her. I'm not strong like Daddy, and might not be able to stop her. Besides, now all the needles and medicines are gone. The sheriff took them when he came looking for Daddy.
Where Mama is concerned, preventing her bad moods is the key. “If we keep everything around Mama even and safe, she won't sink too deep,” Daddy had said. A lily caught in a hurricane was how Daddy described Mama. If we calmed the winds around her, she would be fine.
Remembering what he taught me, I walk on tiptoes and speak in a low, soft voice. When washing dishes, I make sure not to let the pots and pans bang together. No running through the house or slamming doors. When the phone rings, I answer it before the third ring. I don't ask for lunch money or help with homework. Because Mama is prone to headaches and the light makes them worse, it's important to keep the lamps burning low and the curtains drawn shut. If someone comes to the door selling
papers or vacuum cleaners, I send them away in a hurry.
Most of all, I try not to mention Daddy, not even when his letters come. I put the money in her purse or in the cookie jar on top of the fridge, and keep his letters in a box under my bed. She never asks where the extra money comes from. Maybe she doesn't even notice how we run so low only a few dollars are left, then there is suddenly money for the market. It is hard for her to know real from make-believe, so Mama makes sense of things in her own way.
On Saturdays when there's no homework to keep me busy, I sit on the porch steps and wait. No matter how bored I get, I don't go inside before the postman comes.
People walk by. Sometimes they wave, speak, or nod at me. Granby is a small town where everybody recognizes you. It's common to stop and ask about the little details that make up a life: How is your garden? What do you think of the rain we've been having? Are you keeping up your grades in school? How is your mama getting on?
I don't want them to ask about Mama or about Daddy. When they do, I just wave real small and look away. I can't let them know about Mama's moods, or how she keeps Baby Tom in a jar. I can't tell them about the bad night with the spoon, or how Daddy ran off with Tess. Mary Roberts says people already know more than they say.
I keep to myself now more than ever.
To pass time, I gather the acorns that fell from the oak tree in our front yard. I count how many black ants cross the deep crack in the sidewalk. I say my ABC's backwards or recite the names of flowers I know:
aster, buttercup, daisy, pansy, tulip, snapdragon, rose
â¦ Sometimes I make up stories about girls with magic powers, girls who can fly over mountain peaks and bring lost fathers home.
Most days the mail brings bills, advertisements, and couponsâeven free samples of soapâbut no word from Daddy. On the days no blue envelope comes, I pretend Daddy is on his way back home, driving in his yellow Pontiac with the windows down and the radio playing loud.
When another day comes and I see the blue envelope, I go hide in the shed to cry because I know Daddy is not coming home that day.
Nearly all the mail still comes addressed to my father. Somebody sits at a desk and types “Mr. Rupert Sanders,” not knowing that he left. Even the newspaper carries his name. I'm saving the papers for him, stacking them in his toolshed where he'll want to read them when he comes home. I've saved forty-one papers so far.
Sometimes it's as if Daddy died, but there wasn't a funeral. There's no grave to visit.
Mary Roberts said mail came for her grandfather long after he died. “Papa even got Christmas cards,” she said, “and that was three months after we buried him.”
Mary gives me advice because that is what she does best. In the cafeteria this week she said I should tell people Daddy died because that would stop the rumors. People might even feel sorry for Mama and me. “You wouldn't have to go over to that colored woman's house anymore or eat her colored food. The church would take up an offering, and white ladies would bring cakes and casseroles,” she said.
“But I like going to Clara's house. Besides, if I say Daddy died, how will I explain when he comes home?”
“My mother says your Daddy's not coming home,” Mary whispered.
“He is, too!” I moved to another table and slammed my tray down so hard the red Jell-O spilled into the buttered corn.
Mary Roberts isn't my friend anymore.
N THE MARKET
, Mama buys stale bread and brown eggs. She buys cabbages as twisted as a man's fist. Red radishes the size of a doll's heart.
I follow Mama as she weaves her way between the vegetable stands. If I stay close enough, and keep my arms to my sides, maybe I can disappear behind the dark curtains of her coat. Like a girl on a stage, I pretend my life belongs to someone else.
This is not my life,
But of course, I can't even convince myself. This is the only life I know, this one that started when Daddy left. My old one is as far away as the stars. Maybe this new life is the real one and the life before only make believe.