Sitting in his porch swing, Tom Way turned his head a little to one side to listen.
And he thought his wife Diola, who only a few short weeks ago had had ears to hear such sounds. During her long and fatal illness she must have heard many times, just as he was hearing now, faintly, yet not so faintly when he consciously listened, the sounds of the traffic down behind him on the curve of Lane Avenue, the cars and trucks and busses pouring around the base of Quarry Hill. Whish-whish, the tires went, whish-whish, whish-whish, the sound suddenly amplified as they whirled past the stucco length of Bill's One-Stop Truck Service and past the garish glass-block front of the Owl's Roost Tavern on the Cameron Street corner. Endlessly on they hurried, around and away from Quarry Hill.
"Sometimes they stop," thought Tom, "but you can't hardly tell it from here 'cept for the busses."
Generally he could hear the brakes on the busses, and he know of course about the cars and trucks. Enough of them certainly stopped to keep the filling stations and taverns in business. But though the drivers who halted were few compared to those who drove on by, far fewer still were those who ever strayed from Lane Avenue to climb either Quarry Hill Street or Wayne, the two rocky dirt-and-cinders streets of Quarry Hill.
"Don't even know we're up here. Hill's just a thing to git on around quick an' git on about their business. Good place to come to an' git lost what Diola an' me done, in a way of speaking.
Just then, as if to belie his thought, a car honked loudly down the hill behind him, and Tom squirmed around in his swing to look. In front of the little A.M.E. church with its imitation-yellow-brick asphalt siding a group of little colored boys were leisurely moving out of the way of an almost equally slow-moving shiny black coupé. The car ground up, jouncing in and out of the ruts in a way that could only mean that the driver was more diligently scanning the fronts of the dilapidated frame dwellings than watching his driving. The car pulled over as if to stop beside Quincy Thompson's little store, but, seeming to reconsider, the driver started on again, still staying in low gear as before. A few more houses and he was in front of the dark green two-story home of Jim and Mary Ewing, by which he seemed to hurry a little as if he knew that the person he sought would not live in the best house on the Hill, or perhaps it was merely that the number on the front was clear and easy to read. But Tom had another guess.
"Sees me," he said. "Sees my white face, or maybe it's just that the road's about to end. Anyway, he's nothing' but another big-shot bill collector off his beat. Wait an' see."
The car stopped and the driver, fat and red-faced, leaned across to the window on Tom's side and yelled, "Where's 502 Cameron Street anyway? Lookin' for a woman they call Rose Dushazer. Where's she live at, ya happen to know?"
"Never heard of her," Tom yelled back, "but this up here ain't Cameron. This's Quarry Hill Street. You come the wrong way." He twisted a little farther around in his seat, lifted his crutch, and pointed with it back down the hill. "Other side o' Lane Avenue."
The fat man stared at him resentfully. "That sign down there says this's Cameron Street."
"Don't make no differ'nce 'bout the sign. WPA put that up long time ago. Cameron goes east. This's west."
The driver glowered, and Tom decided to add for his comfort: "Old quarry's big enough to hold you if you want to keep on drivin' the way you're headed, but if I was you, I'd just go 'round the corner an' down the other road. Easier'n turnin' around."
"You ought to put up a sign. Oughta get that sign down there changed."
Tom grinned. "I don't paint no signs. Go see the man."
The driver straightened behind his wheel and started up suddenly, too fast for so rough a road. A big rock clunked heavily against a fender as he swerved around the corner.
"Sign down there sure sucks 'em in," thought Tom. "With guys like him mad at it, don't see how it lasts so long. Things was gittin' a mite dull around here till he come along specially with the old lady sorta runnin' outa meanness for today."
The old lady was Mrs. Bradford, who lived in the uppermost of two ramshackle little houses directly across the street, but Tom was quite wrong about her, as he soon saw. She wasn't through acting up yet. Only a few minutes later, for the third time in one day, he was laughing heartily at old Mrs. Bradford, very much as if he had always done it, when he hadn't at all. Certainly he had not laughed at her three weeks ago when she had had the last big scene with Junior before this one. Of course not then he was but newly a widower, and he had been an uxorious man. Nor had he ever laughed at her much during the years when about everyone else had.
"That 'ol lady's afflicted," Diola had said. "I don't know what we can do to help her, but least we ain't gonna laugh at her."
Tom had agreed so wholeheartedly with his wife then that his laughing now almost surprised him, and he said aloud, as it to excuse himself to Diola:
"It don't hurt the old lady none. She don't even know I'm doin' it."
But he knew well enough that no such excuse would have served if Diola had been there to hear it. He felt just a little bit indignant with Diola. Sometimes she simply wasn't reasonable at all. She bossed and overrode him, and he could never think of anything to say that she would listen to. He pulled his crutch closer against him and took hold of the grip.
"I did let her boss me too much. An' me a white man, too. But I ain't sorry I married her. I ain't ever gonia be sorry for that. She wouldn't let me come at her 'less I married her, an' I ain't sorry. I had to marry her."
Another thought crossed his mind, and he added, a little defiantly: "I can't live on memories. I can't live by grievin'."
He was repeating himself in more ways than by laughing at Mrs. Bradford. He remembered when, earlier in the day, he had said the same thing and how he had happened to say it.
He remembered how Mrs. Graybill had looked, leaning back against the wooden post close to his porch swing, one brown hand on her hip and the other gesturing indignantly. She had not liked what Mrs. Bradford had said to her, and Tom did not tell her that he had laughed.
He said, "It don't mean nothin'. Time you live awhile on the Hill, you'll know. Look what she said to Miss Harkner."
"Yes, an' that's anothuh thing," said Mrs. Graybill. "Miss Hahknuh, she my casewukka. She come to see me. Miz Bradfo'd ain' got no casewukka cause she ain' even on this release. Miss Hahknuh wa'n't callin' on Miz Bradfo'd, an' Miz Bradfo'd ain' got no call to say nothin' to her no kinda way."
"Mrs. Bradford's crazy as a bedbug."
"Tha's what I know. Wha'd Miss Hahknuh say when she come ovuh he-uh?"
"She asked me 'bout the old lady, an' I told her she was crazy all right, but she don't really harm nobody."
"How come you say that? What's the reason she ain' hawm nobody? Anybody call me wha' she call me is hawmin' me."
"She don't know what she's sayin'. She calls everybody that."
"Maybe she do , but Isets a high stan'ard fo' myself an' my kinds, an' I wan's Miss Hahknuh to know it. I don' wan' her gittin' no ideas 'bout me f'om no ol' crazy woman."
"She won't. Your kids behave good compared to most o' these kids around here. Miss Harkner'll know you're a good mother all right. Won't you set down, Mrs. Graybill?
She sat down on the porch swing beside him.
"I can' stay long. I has to go fix some'm to eat fo' Faynetta an' Theron an' Lillian Ann."
"Faynetta's a'most fo'teen an' Theron's 'leven an' the little one's six. They keeps me humpin', I tell you. I don' know what I'd do it if wun't fo' this depending' child'en's aid I gits."
"I do," said Tom.
"I know how it is. I ain' had no husband' pass out on me yet, but two of 'em's lef' me. I didn't care 'bout the fus' one. I was jus' wishin' he'd go 'head on when he done it.
"He didn' love me. I really love' that man, but he didn' love me."
Mrs. Graybill's smooth brown knee came lightly for a moment against Tom's good leg. She drew it away.
"I done my bes' to please him, but he lef' me anyway. He could' say I wa'n't true to him. Maybe th'ee was too many kids."
"Oh, I got a divo'ce f'om him now. I wouldn' take him back. Ain' no man wuth that.
Once they leaves you, you's bes' th'ough with 'em fo' good an' all, even if it do half kill you."
"Who, me?" Her eyes rolled at him and she laughed. "I don' have to be lonesome fo' nobody 'less I wan's to."
She jumped to her feet. "I jus' got to go. You astes a lots o' questions, but I likes to talk to you. G'by now."
That was when Tom said it, as he watched the woman swing across the road, jump the ditch, and climb the path up the bank where the steps used to be. Her firm tread sounded on the rickety porch, and she disappeared into the unpainted, unscreened old house she rented from Mrs. Bradford, next door.
"I can't live by grievin'," he said.
Mrs. Graybill was still slim and vigorous. She was light brown and freckled. Even her eyes were light brown. She couldn't be much over thirty, thirty-two at the most, maybe not even thirty.
"Catch 'em young in the South," thought Tom, "Texas or Arkansas, maybe she ain't many years away. Them her age talk better when they been raised up here. Can't say she's any colored movie queen for looks, not exactly. Still, just take 'em as they come, she sure ain't bad. What's a few freckles? Besides there's lots more'n face to looks."
He thought awhile about what else there was.
"Wonder what she wants out o' me?" he asked himself. "If she's got nature an' needs somebody to help her git rid of it, like they say, why but it ain't likely that. I guess women think if a man's got a leg or something lopped off where it shows, he must have something else lopped off where it don't show."
"Glad I thought to keep these in my pocket while Miss Harkner was here. These social workers see you smokin' a tailor-made they right away want to know where you got the fortune to go buy a pack o' Camels with."
He struck a match on his crutch and lit the cigarette.
"Wish I had an artificial leg an' could walk on it good. It's this crutch that makes 'em call me Old Tom. I been made old long before my time. Why' I've been Old Tom to all the kids for ten years, an' I'm only just fifty now. Haven't got a gray hair to my head."
Well, he could go price artificial limbs if he wanted to. Wouldn't have to buy, though he could if he chose. Lose his relief, of course, and he couldn't live too long then without a job. He'd know people cut off relief for chiseling who hadn't found it easy to get back on, even when they really needed it. And could he, Old Tom Way, when he no longer needed a crutch, could he even then get a job? The possibility that he couldn't was what scared him. He hadn't worked much since he'd lost the leg, and the depression had discouraged him early. And what would the gamble be for, really? Just to make an impression on a neat little Negro hussy, whose price he didn't even know yet? A hussy she was, he was pretty sure.
He began picturing an evening with Mrs. Graybill visiting him in his house, her kids left conveniently at home. Just when everything was going as he wished, the bedroom door brought him up short. That was Diola's bed in there.
"We better use the couch," he said.
Mrs. Graybill began to pout. "I likes to have mo' room. I wan's plenty room to play in. You don' need pay yo' wife no min'. She ain' got a bit o' use fo' you whe' she is, an' I has."
Tom resented that. Diola's bed was still her bed. He just couldn't bring any little baggage in where she had so lately lain. It was going to have to be the couch.
"You come across to my house," said Mrs. Graybill.
"Nevuh min' 'bout them. They in they own bed."
In the same room, obviously.
"Nothin' doing," said Tom. "It's got to be the couch."
"No, it don't got to be no couch," said Mrs. Graybill. "You come with me, or you say stay he-uh. I don' ca-uh."
And she went home.
"Hell," said Tom, "you'd think just a daydream would turn out better than that. I got to go git me some dinner."
And now, in the afternoon, he was back sitting on his porch as he had been in the morning, laughing again at Mrs. Bradford, quarreling this time with her stepson Junior. Tom didn't laugh long. He suddenly wanted nothing so much as to hobble over to the screen door and call softly to Diola to come and listen, too.
"Tom," he could hear her say, "you know that ol' lady ain't got good sense an' Junior ain't either. Now you just go right over there an' tell them"
He had known her so well! Yet strangely now, when something needed doing and doing quickly, he could get no further with what she would have told him to do. Now, too, he remembered the reputation he knew he had on the Hill, gripped his crutch helplessly, and sat where he was he, the man who had butted into dangerous quarrels, once almost certainly preventing a killing and another time nearly getting his own throat cut. People hadn't known about Diola's part in his doings, how she had argued, ordered, and driven' how what courage he had seemed to have was nothing but some solid bit of faith he had had in Diola's judgment of what was right and fitting and necessary, so that now, without her, he could only sit here, empty and foolish, pushing the floor with his foot and holding the swing back taut and still. He could feel the eyes of his neighbors, invisible within their houses, the eyes of Mrs. Ewing in the house next below his and of Mrs. Graybill and Mrs. Johnson in the houses just below and above Mrs. Bradford's the eyes watching all the white people on Quarry Hill, watching Mrs. Bradford and Junior to see what they would do this time. His leg began to tremble from the strain and he let the swing come to rest. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and looked down at the toe of his shoe.
"Ya can't bring no more bitches in here. I won't have 'em. Ya hear? Don't want no Rosie bitch. Ya here? Ain't I bitch enough? Ain't I? Don't want none 'o your bitches, white bitches an' black bitches..."
The words were the usual ones, but the action was different. Mrs. Bradford wasn't screaming at her stepson from the front porch. Instead, she had come down the steps and down the yard almost to the edge of the bank, to the spot where Junior usually stood. She quavered on her swollen bare ankles above her misshapen shoes, and her old smutched dress jerked up and down along her flabby gray calves with each lift of her arms as she screeched. Junior, a stooped, weathered little man in a dirty torn hat, teetered on a rock in the road and almost turned his ankle when he tipped off into the rut. In spite of the heat he wore his cracked and peeling old leather jacket, and he clutched a stuffed flour sack in one hand a faded shirt and overall jacket in the other. He kept his head tucked down listening except when he jerked it up briefly to shrill something back. He wasn't as loud as the old woman, and Tom never knew what he said.
Suddenly the frantic old woman lost her balance and pitched to her knees, her elbows striking on the edge of the ditch. She remained there, silent and helpless, her head with its wild gray hair hanging and her hands dangling.
Tom was up on his crutch in an instant. As he swung off the porch and down the road, Junior Bradford turned and hurried up the hill and around the corner.
"Hey!" Tom yelled after him. "Hey, Junior! Wait a minute here."
Keeping his head down and never looking back, Junior went on out of sight. Although Tom had a wild impulse to cut back through his yard and Levi Anderson's back of his, on Wayne Street, to try to intercept Junior on his way down the hill, he knew he would be too late. Besides, the old woman had to be seen to.
Mrs. Graybill and her children came running, and Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Ewing. Mrs. Graybill reached the old woman first. She and Faynetta each grabbed an arm and lifted her up on her knees.
"Here, girl," said Mrs. Johnson, "lemme have ahold."
And the two colored women set Mrs. Bradford up on her feet again. Seeing how filthy the old creature was, Tom was glad he had not had to touch her. Her scalp showed black and crusty under the scant wild hair, and her tears made sharp, clean tracings down her slack, dull-eyed face. Tom wondered at the colored women, careless of their clean dresses, at Mrs. Graybill, forgetful of having been the "black bitch" of the morning, each of them seeming so anxious and concerned to help. Mrs. Ewing pinned the old woman's dress, which had torn in the back so badly that it was in danger of falling off. They got her turned around and slowly helped her to the house, up the steps, and into her front room. The Graybill children and a dozen others who had arrived by this time trooped after, then very promptly came out again, pursued by Mrs. Ewing.
"You children get on away now. Go somewhere and play. Get off this porch and stay off."
Other women came and went in. Tom stayed in the yard to talk to two or three curious men. They had little sympathy. Junior had been pretty good to the old woman extra good, considering he wasn't even her own flesh and blood. It wasn't human to take her cussedness forever.
"She was yelling about a Rosie," said Tom. "I never heard o' her before."
"Don' know no Rosie," said Cleofus Johnson. "Jus' crazy talk."
"There was a guy along here a while ago asked about a Rose somebody can't think of that last name funny one."
The men shook their heads.
"Ol' Granny Bell's on'y Rose I know," said Cleofus Johnson. "Sure ain't her. She on Wayne."
None of them could guess what Mrs. Bradford would do without Junior's little junk-yard money, if she had chased him away for good. There was the rent money from Mrs. Graybill, but that was only five dollars a month, if she got that.
"If this new woman keeps payin' it all, she'll be the first one," another man said. "Way Junior was tellin' it at the store one day, anyhow."
She could get her old-age pension, of course.
"Huh-uh," the same man commented, "Miss Harkner ain't gonna give it to her. Old Lady Bradford has got to prove her age 'fore she gets anything. That ol' lady don't know her age. I bet you on that."
"I ain' studyin' her," said Cleofus Johnson. "She jus' evil, tha's all's wrong with her. My ol' lady, course, she do what she like she in there now but me one, I ain' have nothin' to do with that ol' woman. She mess you up sure."
All of the women except the original three soon came out and went home. Cleofus Johnson walked on down the hill toward the store, and the other men started away. Tom was about to leave, too, but just then Mrs. Graybill came out.
"Mm, mm!" she said. "Ol' lady is really a stinkuh. Dirties' place I evuh did see. Can' hahdly breathe. We's goin' clean it up some, 'less she kick up to much sand, an' Miz Johnson goin' wash her he-ud."
"Can I do anything?" Tom said.
Mrs. Graybill tittered. "Maybe we means to give her a bath. You go on home an' don' you let nobody come runnin' less it's us you he-uhs holle'in'."
Tom grinned and hobbled back across to his front porch again. He saw Mrs. Graybill returning from her home with broom, bucket, and mop. Later, he saw her sweeping great clouds of dust out upon and off the front porch. She and Mrs. Ewing appeared several times to throw out mop water and get more from the hydrant between the two houses. For a long time he heard nothing from Mrs. Bradford except a few brief outcries during one quarter-hour period.
Late in the afternoon the old woman began a peevish plaint, increasing in loudness until, now and then, Tom could make out a word or two:
"No...won't...No, I tell you...No...No!...You thief!...No!...I'll die...No, no!..."
Soon the three colored women came out and started home. Tome intercepted Mary
Ewing as she came across the dir road to the rough brick sidewalk.
"How is she?" he asked.
"She's just good and mad now," said Mrs. Ewing, "and ornery oh, there's just no word in the dictionary for her, I'm sure there isn't. She's a case."
"Cleaner isn't clean. We washed her head and face, but do you think she'd let us bathe her? Don't you believe it! Tunesie was for giving her a bath anyway, but you can't do that. I'd be afraid to."
"Is that Mrs. Graybill Tunesie?"
Mrs. Ewing nodded. "Funny name, isn't it? She's mischievous as a schoolgirl. Likes to tease. She was bound and determined to clean that horrible kitchen, and Mrs. Bradford was dead set we wouldn't. We didn't, of course. She wore us all out. I'll die if I don't get home soon and get myself cleaned up, and I mean cleaned up, top to toe."
"It's too bad. I feel sorry for her."
"I do and I don't. I try to be a Christian, but I guess there's a limit."
She held up the old woman's dirty, torn dress, wadded in her hand.
"I'm taking this home to wash and fix for her, and cursing's the most thanks I'll get for it. She just now called me a `dirty, stealing nigger.' Think of it she calls someone else dirty!"
Tom shook his head. "It's bad. I guess she can't help it."
"Well, I'll tell you, Mr. Way, I don't know what she can help. I know some white people. I've been to white schools, high school and college. I've worked for white people, in their homes and teaching school. But I've just never got acquainted with her kind of white real low-white and dirty-white, let alone crazy-white. I'm willing to do what I can, but anyone can see that isn't going to be much. You're her color. Maybe you can do something."
"Well," said Tom doubtfully, "I s'pose I could talk to her, but seems to me well, if she just wants to be dirty, why, what"
"But you know it isn't right just to let her die of her filth if there's some way to prevent it. She ought to be in a home or something where they'd make her keep clean. You talk to her anyway."
"Well, I'll see," said Tom.
Mrs. Ewing went on and Tom started back up the sidewalk.
"I already see," he muttered. "I see that old woman's more bother'n she' worth. Dirt won't kill her, or it'd done it 'fore now. Can't afford to waste my time on her. Got cleanin' of my own to do an' can't hardly do it. If them women want to help somebody so bad, they'd ought to help me. I'd appreciate it."
He stooped to pick up the newspaper which the boy had just thrown, and swung up on his porch and over to his swing.
"Try to poison me, will ya?" It was Mrs. Bradford again, standing at the side of her porch and facing Mrs. Graybill's house. "Take that, you nigger bitch you! Lick it up like a dog."
A small white paper sack made a clumsy arch through the air, spilling flour on its way, and plopped down in a cloud on the edge of Mrs. Graybill's porch. The old woman cackled and went back indoors. Out came the Graybills to stare and talk. Then Faynetta and Theron ran into the house and brought their mother a broom, a dustpan, and a paper sack. As much flour as could be swept up went into the sack, plus a handful of dirt which Mrs. Graybill had Theron jump down and get from beside the porch. Then, a little reluctantly but urged on by her mother, Faynetta carried the sack over to Mrs. Bradford's and knocked. Mrs. Graybill and the smaller children waited. Faynetta looked back, and her mother motioned for her to knock again. This time the old woman must have come. Faynetta said something, handed the sack in, then quickly ran down the steps and back to stand by her mother. When Mrs. Bradford did not show herself, the colored family went back into the house. Tom looked at his newspaper and waited. Since nothing more happened, he went in to light the kerosene stove and cook himself some supper.
Some time later, while Tom was starting to eat the bacon, fried potatoes, and cornbread he had prepared, he heard the front door open and shut. Since Diola had never encouraged the neighbors or their children to walk in without knocking, he called out in surprise:
No one answered, but he heard footsteps. By the time he could get his crutch under his arm, push his chair back, and get up, he saw his visitor coming through the next room. He could not reach the door in time to block her entrance and herd her back into the front room, and she came on into the kitchen. It was old Mrs. Bradford.
He stood staring at her recently washed face, already streaked with dirt. A swipe of black skillet grease ran up through her white hair. The sour stink of her body and clothing reached his nostrils, and he took a step back. The old woman was crying.
"Won't you have a chair?" Tom asked automatically. "Is something wrong?"
In her hand she had a paper sack which she held out to him. He took it and looked in, though he had already guessed its contents. The old woman sat down.
Flour," said Tom, leaning on his crutch.
He tried to hand it back to her, but the old woman shook her head and would not take it.
"It's poison," she whispered. "The nigger woman sent it to me."
"It's poisoned. She poisoned all my grub. I can't eat none of it. I ain't got nothin' to eat. Junior's left me an' I ain't got no money an' nothin' to eat."
"Oh, your food ain't poisoned, Mrs. Bradford. Them women was only tryin' to help you. Don't you remember you fell down an' they come an' helped you?"
"Oh, I'm sure she didn't, Mrs. Bradford. I know she didn't mean you no harm. You're old an' can' keep things clean like you used to. They was just gonna clean things up for you, that's all."
Mrs. Bradford quit crying, but shook her head stubbornly. "She just wanted to git in my kitchen an' poison me. She poisoned all my grub, an' I can't eat none of it."
"But how could she poison it? She hasn't got any poison. I'm sure she hasn't."
"She done it. Ain't nothin' I got now 'at's fittin' to swallow. She's just been wantin' to come in my house an' git in my kitchen. I wouldn't let her."
The old woman cackled, waggling her head. "I wouldn' let her. She had to leave."
"Why, then, she couldn't touch your food. It's all right. There's nothing wrong with it."
"No, it ain't all right neither. It's poisoned an' she done it."
"But she couldn't. How could she?"
"I'll tell you." She looked around, leaned forward, and whispered, "There's ways. They got ways." And she shut her mouth primly and nodded her head.
Tom looked down at her with his mouth open. He did not know what to say.
"I'm hungry," said the old woman, eying his plate.
Tom watched her uneasily. He pulled his chair around from the table and sat down so that his body, he hoped, would block her view of his supper.
"But why would Mrs. Graybill want to poison you?"
"It's Junior. She's mad at me 'cause Junior's went."
"She wants my house. She thinks she could have my house an' coax Junior back."
"But why do you rent it to her, then? Rent it to a man. You keep rentin' it to women."
"I had to rent it to her. She gimme some money."
"Ain't you got some'm to eat? I wouldn' ast you, but I can see you're a white man even if you do live over here with a nigger woman an' don't neighbor with me none I fergit your name Tom, is it? You wouldn' refuse a old woman just a few vittles when she's hungry?"
"I ain't got nothin' an' I'm old an' Junior's went an' left me." The tears started again.
"I'll get a sack an' put 'em in," said Tom, getting up and setting the sack of dirty flour down upon his chair.
"You got some already fixed. I could eat them." She was looking at his plate again.
"Well, that's my supper. I was just eatin' on it when you come in."
"I'd ruther have some'm 'at's fixed. I could set down there at your table an' eat."
"I tell you," said Tom, "you can't eat here." He picked up the plate. "You come to the door an' I'll give you this since you want it so bad. You take it on home an' do your eatin' there."
Holding the plate and hoping the woman would follow him, he swung himself carefully through the door and on toward the front screen. She came after him. He went out on the porch and propped the screen door open with his crutch. Mrs. Bradford came out and took the plate.
She didn't say anything but started for home with her slow, heavy walk.
"Just keep the plate," Tom called. "Don't bring it back."
He shut and locked the screen and went back into the kitchen.
"My God," he said aloud, "why didn't I just tell her my food was poisoned, too? What'll I do?"
He took the sack of dirty flour out to the back of his lot and emptied it.
"Come on, ants," he said. "Here's poison for your picnic."
Returning to the house and locking the back door, he went around to the front and down the treacherous brick sidewalk to the home of his neighbors, the Ewings, to ask if he might use the telephone.
Jim Ewing answered Tom's knock. He was a gangling, lantern-jawed, sallow-complexioned man, in considerable contrast to his wife, who was rather dumpy and dark and wore spectacles.
"Sure thing," he said. "Come in and help yourself. You know where it is?" He waved toward a blue overstuffed chair with the telephone beside it on a walnut-veneered end table.
"Leave you to yourself," said Jim, going on toward the kitchen. "Just finishing supper."
Tom looked up the number of the county welfare office and dialed. At first there was no answer. Between the intervals of ringing he could hear the murmur of the Ewings' voices in the kitchen and sounds of cutlery lightly striking upon plates. The smell of fresh light break and beef gravy renewed his hunger, and he tried to think of something else. Beside the telephone was a two-year-old snapshot of the Ewing daughter in her college graduation cap and gown.
"Wish I'd gone on in school," he mused. "Half a year in high school is just exactly nothin', an' that's the whole size of it. Used to blame my old man 'cause I quit, but it wasn't him so much. I was me."
"No, they all gone long ago. Office closes at five."
"Yes, I know. I just thought well, can you tell me what her number is or where she lives?"
"Don't know where none of 'em lives at. She be here at eight in the mo'nin'."
"I'm just the janitor here. You call again in the mo'nin'."
Tom hung up. He looked in the directory but could find no one in it named Harkner. Mary Ewing, wearing a starched yellow house dress, came into the room, and Tom put the directory back on the table.
"I give up," he said.
Mrs. Ewing smiled and sat down on the sofa opposite him. "Jim's still eating, but I told him he'd have to excuse me. I just couldn't let you get away without asking. We saw you had a visitor."
Tom nodded gloomily. "Begging for food. Give her some o' mine to git rid of her."
He told about the old woman's notion that her food was poisoned.
"My goodness, what is she going to say when I bring her dress back to her? Far as I could see it's her only one except what she has on."
"Oh, she might act all right with you. Maybe she'll want to take all her spite out on Mrs. Graybill. She's the stranger 'round here."
"We're all strangers to her in a way. I never in my life was in her house before today, and I'm very certain she's never been in mine."
"Same here," said Tom, "only the other way around. I ain't been in her house yet, but she sure barged into mine."
"Well," Mrs. Ewing said, rising too when Tom did, "be sure to let us know how she acts when you talk to her, won't you, Mr. Way?"
She wasn't going to let him forget, it seemed, and he thought: "Trouble with people. Never want to figger same way you do. Guy gives a half promise, he don't mean it to be equal to no whole."
"Don't need to hurry off, Tom," said Jim Ewing, coming in to stand by his wife.
"Oh, got some things to do, Jim, thanks. An' thanks for the use o' the phone."
Back in his kitchen once more, Tom locked the screen behind him and ended his hunger by eating crackers and milk. When twilight came and he was full at last, he went out to sit on his front porch again where it was cooler.
"If I see the old lady startin' this way," he told himself, "I'll git inside quick and lock the door."
He had hardly sat down before Mrs. Bradford came out on her porch. Tom went inside and watched from behind the screen.
"Oh, Junior!" the old woman called. "Oh, Junior! Come home now, Junior. Jun-ior! I want you, Junior. Come home now. Oh, Jun-ior! Come home, please."
She went back in.
"Next time," Tom decided as he returned to the porch swing, "I'll wait till she really gits down in the yard pointin' herself this way."
Again Mrs. Bradford appeared. This time Tom watched as she carefully worked herself down the steps in the dusk.
But he was wrong. Her slow-moving shape crossed the few feet over to Mrs. Graybill's porch and climbed up. The deep shadows about the doorway received her, and only an occasional motion assured him that she was still there and had not entered. Presently the old woman loomed again at the front of the Graybill porch, and she retraced her steps.
"Black nigger bitch!" she yelled before disappearing within the dark of her house.
Tom sat smoking as the stars sharpened and the lightning bugs drifted in brief brightness.
"Old lady really must be worse," he thought, "or she wouldn't be so free with that word as she's been today. Some folks in this neighborhood I wouldn't care to go round niggerin' no matter how old an' crazy I was. Called Diola a nigger right to my face like I wasn't even s'posed to mind. Nobody ever done that before."
He thought of the time when, just after his marriage to Diola, he had lost his job, clerk in a grocery store. Since most of the trade had been colored, he hadn't expected to be fired, but Diola had been too pretty. She had had other suitors, or would-be suitors, they had had sympathizers, and the store proprietor had aimed to please. Mr. and Mrs. Tom Way had moved to another Negro neighborhood across town. They had moved to Quarry Hill.
"I sure wouldn't do it over again," Tom mused. "That is, I wouldn't with anybody but Diola. You marry outside your race, an' the whites won't let you be white no more, an' the colored won't quite let you be colored. You're just left kinda high an' dry, off special to yourself, an' that ain't so good. It was hard on Diola, too. Course, they give us some respect in time, but still"
He drew in the last of his smoke and threw the glowing stub out into the yard.
"I'm gonna tell Miss Harkner she's gotta have me changed down at the welfare office. Tom Way ain't a colored case no more. Makes you feel different, like gittin' out from under something, all free an' equal again all white!
"One thing I can see plain enough an' for sure I ain't marryin' again. Now I'm white again I'm gonna stay white an' git whiter, if you can do that. Comes to marryin', you take white women I don't hardly know none now anyway, but if I did, ain't none of 'em that I'd have that'd have me, seein' me crippled an' with no job an' hearin' about Diola."
At the moment his picture of an undesirable white woman, one who would no doubt be most eager to have him, resembled old Mrs. Bradford very closely indeed.
"So there you are," Tom concluded half aloud. "That's just the way it is."
Tom jumped and turned to see, instantly recognizable, dark though it was, the easy carriage and quick, firm walk of Mrs. Tunesie Graybill. She came past him on the grass and without hesitation stepped up on the porch and sat down by him on the swing.
"Miz Ewing jus' tol' me how you try callin' Miss Hahknuh jus' what I was goin' do. I'm pretty soon goin' be full cle-uh up to the neck with that ol' lady, an' I wan's Miss Hahknuh to see can she do some'm."
"I been settin' here all the time," said Tom, "and I sure never saw you leave home."
"I slip' out the back way. It suit me jus' fine if that ol' crazy don' know when I ain' the-uh, leas' till I sees no' bettuh jus' how she goin' act."
Mrs. Graybill laughed. "I seen her."
"I shuly do. I does it with my evil eye. I knows you wan's me to come in yo' house sometime an' look at all what you got."
"I'll chance it. But you leave that old lady alone, hear?"
"She wan' Junyuh. She say jus' as sweet, `Miz Gray, can Junyuh come home now? Is it all right with you if he come on home?"
"An' I say, `Ain' no Junyuh he-uh. You's bahkin' enti'ly up the wrong tree. I don' wan' yo' Junyuh. I ain' got Junyuh. He ain' he-uh. You wan's to git such ideas outa yo' he-ud.'
"She say, `I knows he like you, Miz Gray. Maybe he hidin' an' you jus' ain' seen him yet. Can' I come in an' look fo' him awhiles?'
"An' I say to her back, `You knows you ain' got no screens on this house I rents f'om you, an' fo' that reason I don' much ca-uh to light the lamp an' draw the bugs in this time o' ye-uh. If he was he-uh, I expec's he could he-uh you call him an' he'd a come home a'ready. No, you can' come in.'
"Then she staht that ol' line 'bout me poisonin' her food, an' leas' I can do to make up fo' it, she say, is to git her Junyuh to come home. An' I say if I jus' knew whe' Junyuh taken hisself off to, I'd go try an' fetch him home jus' to please her. Co'se, I ain' no idea whe' that is, an' if she can' tell me, I jus' don' see how I can do her no good. I thought then it 'bout time she staht cussin', but all she say then is, `Thank you, Miz Gray. I didn' mean no hawm bothe'n you this-a-way' jus' like maybe she did have raisin' once. Then she go home, an' then she cuss, like you he-uh."
"I ain' sca'ed then fo' myself 'cause I sleeps light when I wan's to. Ol' heavy foot ain' goin' slip up on me. What can she do? The ol' stinkuh maybe make the air onhealthy so we catch some'm an' git down sick in the bed an' she kill us all that way. Or maybe she try to bu'n us out. I'm mos'sca'ed she bu'n up my kids some night an' all my little plunduh."
"Oh, I don't think so. Never done nothin' so crazy as that."
"She bettuh behave. I don' sca-uh on'y so much, an' then I stahts sca'in' back. I sca-uh that ol' lady so scary she go in a fit she ain' nevuh goin' come out of."
"Houses ain' all that easy to fin'. My rent ain' up fo' two weeks. I ain' got no cause to move."
"Not that I want you to move. I like good neighbors, specially good-lookin' ones."
Mrs. Graybill said nothing.
She took a cigarette, and he held the match for her and lit his own.
Tom laughed. "You know who I mean."
"I wonduh who then. You got to say."
His arm came up from back of the seat, and his hand barely touched her shoulder as she jumped up laughing.
"Hol' on now, Mistuh Tom. You's a nice man, but you's up to some'm. You's foxier'n a lots o' these young mens, but you ain' catch me so quick an' easylike. Ain' you 'shamed? Now whe' am I goin' sit?"
"I could an' maybe I will, but it jus' depen's. Now s'pose you puts yo' han' back down in yo' lap. Tha's right. Now you jus' keep it the-uh whiles I sits down an' he-uhs you discuss in wuhds jus' what you is up to."
She sat and Tom suddenly felt very foolish. He thought a moment and said lamely:
"You smell so clean an' good like you never even seen a mop an' broom on a hot day like I know you done today."
"I washes. Ain' ev'rybody live jus' perfec' an' I guess maybe I don' always eithuh, but I washes. When you sees me an' my kids out on the street, you sees us clean. We's po' as a rat in a trap an' what we got is no great lots no kind o' way, but it's clean."
"I know," said Tom.
"Maybe you wonduhs why I don' fin' me a steady wukkin' man fo' a husban'. I don't know. You fin' me that steady wukkin' man an' ask him why he don' see me. I ain' stoppin' him f'om seein me. But if he do see me, I has to see he don' ovuhlook my kids whiles he looin' ovuh me. If he don' really like my kids, all he fixin' to do is git me with two or th'ee mo' o' hisn, an' then whush, I don' see him no mo', or his money neithuh. Then they's anothuh kind o' mens. He had kids jus' like me. I has took at his kids an' see if I likes 'em whiles he havin' his look at mine, an' the kids they do they lookin' too, an' then, if the sco' add up, we both goin' win. If it don', why, we goin' lose, so I sees to it we quits befo' we stahts."
"He brung me up he-uh th'ee ye-uhs ago. He didn' fin' no job right away, so he pretty soon light out."
"Nature ain't in your head. The kind I got sure ain't in mine."
"Then you bettuh put some he-ud in it. I ain' been to school but th'ee ye-uhs, an' I knows that much."
"When you got nature you got to do somethin'. You know that."
"You got to do some'm maybe, but it ain' necessa'ily lettin' some no-good man with no money an' no sense walluh you aroun' an' mess you up right."
"Well, you got me crazy with nature right now, Tunesie. I wouldn't a believed it, but you have. Another thing, I ain't exactly a no-good man with no money an' no sense, neither."
"Well, you don' talk much sense to me, an' I knows very well you ain' got no money, or you wouldn' be on this release beggin' Miss Hahknuh fo' a groc'y ah-duh ev'y week."
"Look, Tunesie, I got money. S'pose I prove it to you, would you let me then? I'm a man yet, Tunesie. I know I could really do you some good."
"I don' have to ansuh that. I knows you ain' got nothin'. I heard that kind o' talk f'om mens befo'. You got two bits to jingle in yo' pocket."
"I thought awhiles ago you was maybe fixin' to p'opose to me nice. Now I see how it is, I ain' even int'ested."
"God damn it, you're interested. I'm gonna show you, an' then we'll see what you have to say. You just wait."
Tom hobbled into his dark front room and turned on the light.
She came in and stood just inside the screen while he pulled out the drawer of the library table and looked under some papers for his bankbook.
"Don't act so scared. Nothin's gonna hurt you. You just got me riled an' all excited is all. Nature ain't in my head, like I told you, but I hope I'm a gentleman. You come an' look."
She came a couple of steps closer.
"Nine hundred an' fifty dollars," said Tom. "We had two hundred all along, savin' for an emergency. There you see we had to take a hundred while Diola was sick. An' there's eight hundred an' fifty I put in from the insurance after the burial."
"Yes. Now what do you say?"
She looked at him steadily and gravely while Tom looked away and back and away again.
"You got a nice house," she said.
"It ain't a great thing, ain't modern like the Ewings', but it ain't exactly a no-good's house either, is it?"
"Furniture's old, but it's been took care of, an' Diola put that paper on just two years ago."
"It needs cleanin'. I got to git to work on it and see what I can do."
"Well," he swung into the next room and lit the light, "this is the dining room."
She looked, still keeping her distance.
"An' this here's the kitchen. We I got a range for winter an' an oil stove for this kind o' weather, an' that door's to the pantry."
He led the way back into the dining room, reached inside the bedroom, and turned on the light. His heart began thumping. Brushing aside a memory from his daydream of the morning, he stood back for her to go in.
"Go on," she said.
He went in and she stopped in the doorway.
"See? I made the bed this morning. Clean sheets."
"I wasn't thinking ahead. Bed just needed changing. But, please, Tunesie"
She turned back to the living room again. He switched off the light and followed. She was standing at the door.
"How long was you married?" she asked.
"Not a lone. I was true to her long as she lived, so help me. You ask anybody."
"So now you wan's to take her insu'ance money an' whore me with it. You listens to what that ol' crazy woman call me."
"I do not, and I don't want to whore you. That ain't a good word. I swore to be true to Diola long as she lived. That's all I swore to, an' done it. If you walked out o'here an' another woman walked in, I wouldn't have nothin' to say to her. It's you I want.
"You's crazy with the heat. What you needs is a wife."
"It's too soon to git married. People would say things."
"They'd say a lots mo' if I was to pile up in bed with you, on'y they'd be sayin' 'em mos'ly 'bout me. An' they'd know soon enough. 'Cause why?" "Cause you'd bus' yo' ol' fool neck gittin' roun' to brag 'bout you doin' such a big thing."
"That's one thing for sure I wouldn't do. You don't know me, Tunesie."
"I knows you. I knows you wa'n't cut out fo' no widow man, an' the bes' thing fo' you is to git you the bes' wife you can an' bothuh the talk. It'll soon be ovuh. You's had a good rep'tation up till now, an' I ain' fixin' to help you spoil it."
She laughed. "So you still wan's to know my whorin' price, does you? You jus' mus' have it? Well, if you was to gimme a deed to yo' house an' lan', an' if you was to put into my han' nine hund'ed an' fifty dollahs cash money, I'd let you talk to me 'bout it some mo'. I ain't go no hahd feelin's. You mens is the way you is. But, aftuh this, I ain't listenin' to no mo' such talk f'om you, Mistuh Way. Tomorrow you talks to me, youtalks to me nice talk. Unnastan'?"
Tom nodded glumly. "All right, but I don't think it's fair, after"
"Hush, now. You promised. You call Miss Hahknuh in the mo'nin' an' I will, too. Maybe she come quickuh if both calls."
Standing in his light door, Tom watched her go.
Return to Top
Before he was up in the morning, he heard plodding heavy steps on his porch and a muffled shaking at his tightly latched screen, followed by a light knocking and low, grumbled words. His visitor stood a long time, trying the screen door again every little while. There were curious little pluckings and scratchings on the door, then similar sounds on the screen of his bedroom window which opened onto the porch.
"Tryin' to see in," thought Tom, glad that the shade was pulled low.
Once the old woman cried out crossly, "Tom!" She moved about slowly. Tom heard a grunt and a long sigh. The porch swing began to creak.
The creaking went on and on. Tom wanted to smoke. He wanted some breakfast. He thought of his call to Miss Harkner. He thought of Diola, who had never led him on and then called him a fool and laughed at him, and of Tunesie Graybill, who had. He hated Tunesie thoroughly and cursed himself for not getting her promise to keep still about what he had been at her to do as if he could have depended upon such a promise after he had got it. The story was just too good to keep. How could he ever face Diola's friend, Mary Ewing, again? And Miss Harkner would hear about his money in the bank, accuse him of chiseling, and stop his grocery order. Lord, but he was in trouble for sure. How the men would laugh!
"You got any o' that there stuff yet, Tom? She puttin' it out. You so close an' it so easy, you shu' oughta be gittin' you some."
"Say, Tom, who you gittin' to sleep with you these hot nights? How you like that ol' Miz Bradfor'd, huh?"
And Johnnie May Mayberry would be up to see him, hinting and teasing, getting nasty when he put her off. Alberta Jones would come, greasy and stinking, and black, dirty Louise McIntosh all the known good-time women on the Hill, all trying their luck, and others not yet known would put themselves in his way. Tom felt sick.
The old woman cleared her throat loudly and spat. She mumbled. She sucked and smacked with her loose lips. She groaned. Someone passed along the sidewalk, not speaking or being spoken to. Two hungry flied attacked, and Tom pulled the sheet over his head. It was hot and his skin prickled. And out on the porch the creaking went on and on, marking the time like a handless clock.
He could not stand it. He would try to get up and dress ever so quietly. He edged toward the side of the bed. The springs creaked and he lay breathless. Unable to tell that he had been heard, he tried again.
"Tom!" the old woman called.
She was on her feet, moving to the door again, to the window, pressing against them with her hands, listening. Then, to his surprise, he heard her grunt sharply in a way which must mean that she had taken the heavy step down off the porch. He heard the shuffle of her shoes along the sidewalk, not going around the house but toward the street, toward home. When he could hear no more, he lay a minute longer, still listening, before he sat up, swung his leg down, and reached for his trousers.
Before he could quite finish dressing, he heard a quick scamper of bare feet on the sidewalk and porch, followed by a rapid, light knocking.
"Who is it?" he called.
"It's me Theron."
"Yes. Mr. Way, Mamma say"
"Wait a minute, Theron. I'll be ther."
Since the "Mr. Way" instead of "Tom" must have taken coaching, it could only mean that Tunesie wanted to please him. Maybe she wasn't telling anybody on him yet. As long as Mrs. Bradford was bothering them both, they were bound in a way to be partners. Tom laced his shoe, hitched his suspenders over his shoulders, and got up on his crutch. Going out into the living room, he saw that it was nine by the alarm clock on the library table.
"Mr. Way, Mamma say will you please call up Miss Harkner right away 'cause she won't come out an' she wants you to do some'm for Ol' Lady Bradford, an' Mamma say maybe you didn't see where Ol' Lady Bradford went an' I'm to tell you 'cause maybe you don't want to meet her comin' back."
Tom unlatched the screen. "Come in, son." He latched the door again after the boy. "Now, you come on back to the kitchen with me, an' tell me about Mrs. Bradford. Where'd she go?"
"She went to the store, an' Mamma say if you hurry maybe you can git to Miz Ewing's before Ol' Lady Bradford comes back."
"I see. Have a cookie, Theron." Tom took one himself. "Take three more. You need another one, an' you take the other two home to your sisters. Now let's go out the back door."
As they came around the house, Tom asked, "What am I supposed to do for the old lady?"
"I don't know. Mamma just say to tell you Miss Harkner can't come an' she want you to do some'm."
"Well, thanks, Theron, and you thank your mamma for me. You tell her I said you was a good messenger and a pretty smart boy."
Mrs. Bradford did not come into sight as Tom swung down the sidewalk at his fastest clip and up onto Mary Ewing's porch. He watched Mrs. Ewing for any change of manner toward him, but he could see none. He went into the phone and dialed his number. Getting Miss Harkner, he explained Mrs. Bradford's case as well as he could.
"That's about what your neighbor, Mrs. Graybill, told me," said Miss Harkner, "but it isn't an emergency case. She's not down bedfast. Tell her she'll have to come down to the office and put in her application in the usual way if she needs assistance."
"That's gonna be pretty hard to explain to her, Miss Harkner. She's crazy. Can't she be put in the state hospital?"
"I don't doubt that she's hopelessly senile, but no more so than a lot of other old people. The state hospital's full. They simply haven't room for all the thousands of cases of senility over the state."
"But what am I gonna do? I can't afford to feed her, an' you know the colored people ain't, not after what she calls them."
"Can her stepson be found?"
"He works at some junk yard, I don't know where."
"Well, you tell her what I told you. Let's not assume she can't understand how to apply for help before you've even tried to explain it to her. And in the meantime, about her begging, here's something you might try. It seems she's probably still got food except that she imagines it's poisoned. All right, see what she's got and trade with her."
"Uh, I don't know. Her stuff's all so dirty. I don't know as I'd care to"
"Probably you wouldn't. It was just something that occurred to me."
"Miss Harkner, if she makes her application all right, what'll do if she keeps beggin' me while she's waitin' for you to git our an' see her? I know if I give her what I got you won't give me no extra groc'ry order."
"No, I can't do that, Mr. Way. I guess what you give her is entirely up to you. Don't you imagine if you turn her down she'll soon forget that notion of hers and eat what she's got, or even find some way to get in touch with her stepson?"
"Maybe so. Seems to me like she's one that ought to go to the county home. Can't you put her there?"
"I can if she'll say she wants to go."
"But can't you make her go anyway? I mean if it's the best place for her an' she can't take care of herself an' ev'rybody knows it?"
"Oh, I don't think so, Mr. Way. I don't know of any such cases. They have to agree."
"I sure wish they didn't in her case, anyway. An' I sure wish you could do this explainin' to her instead o' me. When'll you be out this way close again, Miss Harkner?"
"This is Tuesday, isn't it? Not before next week unless I just have to."
"Well, I'm in for it, I guess. I'll try."
"While you're at it, Mr. Way, you might advise her about her language. She'll get along better and things will be pleasanter all around."
"All right, Miss Harkner, but don't pin no faith on results."
After he hung up, Mrs. Ewing told him: "Mrs. Bradford went by a bit ago with some groceries in a sack.
"Wonder if she had money to pay for 'em," said Tom. "I think I'll go see."
"By the time you come back," said Mrs. Ewing, "I'll have that dress of Mrs. Bradford's ready to go back. Do you suppose you could take it to her? Maybe she'd take it better from you than from me."
"Well," said Tom, "maybe. Got to see her anyway. Might as well."
"I'd appreciate it if you would."
He went on to the store.
"I don't want nothin' this mornin'," he told Quincy Thompson, the Negro storekeeper,
"but I see Mrs. Bradford got some groc'ries, an' she's been beggin' from me. I just wondered if she had some money, or what."
"Why, she had a quarter an' she give us that, and she owes us for the rest. Sheclaimed her renter owed her an' was goin' to pay an' she said Junior gets paid Saturday. I know everybody says Junior's gone, but I couldn't hardly turn her down this once, anyway."
"Well, I just wondered. I was goin' to talk to her an' try an' git her to go down after her old-age pension."
"You do that. She sure ought to have it."
Tom went back up the hill. Mrs. Ewing came out and gave him the neatly ironed and folded dress in a big paper sack. When he was even with his house, he thought of going in to plan what he would say to the old woman.
"No," he suddenly decided, "I don't know enough to do any planning with. I hate this like castor oil, but here goes."
He crossed the road and swung over the ditch. The muscles of his crutch arm bunched as he pushed and hopped powerfully to climb the bank and reach the more gently sloping yard. He went up the path, waving to Theron and Lillian Ann playing under a tree at the other side of Graybill yard, and mounted Mrs. Bradford's steps. As he came before the open front-room door and knocked, he could hear the clatter of a pan or stove lid from the kitchen.
A foot inside the room a weathered rocker with large pieces of veneer cracked off the back and seat faced the door. Dusty tracks went and came from it upon the wide, unpainted boards with mop strings from yesterday's scrubbing still caught here and there in splinters. The tracks left the chair, circling. They paused and stood still before dirty, tatter-curtained windows. They passed carefully and politely behind the single dusty straight-backed chair, showing through a split in its sagging imitation-leather seat a last bit of dirty gray cotton stuffing. The steps swerved, passing under the arch of the wide opening into the next room. Then they turned back, making straight for the rocker from which they had started. Other steps circled a shorter way around the rusty, round-topped trunk in the center of the room. Yet others, going and coming, went several ways into the next room. From a large corner of the ceiling and down both walls to the floor, a yard or more out from the corner, the plastering had long been gone. The exposed laths, some hanging loose from the joists, and the paper on the walls seemed equally black and sooty. The buzz of flies was in the air and flies were thick upon the floor. The smell which was the smell of the old woman reached him faintly, and suggestions of other odors also: smells of vegetable and animal decay, the smell of stale urine, an outhouse smell. . . .
The old woman was coming. Her smeared face with its filthy tangle of gray hair peered around from the next room a moment. Then she came to stand beside the rocking chair.
"Can't you come back some other time?" she asked. "I'm busy now."
"I just want to talk to you," said Tom. "It's important. You know who I am, don't you?"
She nodded. "You wasn't home."
"No, I wasn't home, so I come to see you."
She saw the sack.
"You brung me some groc'ries? I need 'em."
"No, not this time. You got some groceries. You're eatin' breakfast now, ain't you?"
"What do you want?" she asked suspiciously.
"Not a thing, Mrs. Bradford. I don't want none o' your breakfast at all. You just go right on an' eat it. I did bring you somethin' here, though. Look. It's a nice dress. Lady give it to me to give to you. Want it?"
"That's my dress."
"I thought maybe it was. The lady said I could give it to you, so if you want it, it's yours. If you don't, I'll give it somewhere else."
"You gimme my dress."
"All right. I wanted you to have it."
Tom winced as her greasy black hands made spots upon the clean dress, but he kept on smiling. When the old woman turned away, Tom followed without invitation. She looked back almost fearfully as she went into the bedroom, where Tom could see an iron double bed with dirty comforts on top and an old dresser without a mirror. Mrs. Bradford slammed the door, and Tom waited and wondered. Would she treat him as he had treated her and just stay in the room until he got tired and went home? Was there another bed somewhere or had she and Junior slept together?
The room he was in had a neat pile of boxes in one corner. Some straight-back chairs like the one in the front room lined one wall and had a roll of thin and filthy carpet lying across them. Pushed into the corner against the chairs, a round dining-room table with a tilted top was piled with scraps of old cloth, broken fruit jars, empty tin cans, two red bricks, and some sticks, gathered perhaps for kindling. A coal stove with no stove mat under it occupied a space a few feet from the wall next to the kitchen. Numerous small charred pits in the scrubbed floor around the stove told where hot coals, escaping from the dangerously cracked bowl, had fallen to burn and smoke and finally cool.
Mrs. Bradford opened the bedroom door and stood staring at him doubtfully. She had put away her clean dress and still wore the dirty one.
Tom smiled his best. "You just come on and eat your breakfast, Mrs. Bradford. I won't bother a bit. I just want to tell you about your old-age pension. They give you money to live on, you know. Gover'ment does it. You need money, don't you?"
She still stared.
Tom said, "Since Junior left, you ain't got no money, have you?"
"No, I ain't. Junior's left me, an' I ain't got no money or nothin' to eat."
"Well, then, you want some money, don't you?"
"All right, you're gonna git some. I'm gonna tell you how you go about gittin' it. You just go on to the kitchen now an' eat your grub, an' I'll tell you."
He stood by the stove out of her way, then followed after her to the kitchen. He stopped in the doorway.
He saw the range first. A feeble coal fire was burning in it sending soot flying in the air because a lid had been left off. Replacing the lid but showing no concern over the soot balls coming down upon her potato and onion stew, Mrs. Bradford leaned over a once-white dishpan resting on a chair by the stove and seemed to select with much care from among the utensils and plates partly covered by sour, dirty water a rusty iron tablespoon, which she swished a few times in the stinking dishwater. She wiped the spoon on a towel even blacker than her hands or the chair back on which it hung, as black almost as the stove or the floor or the coal in the coal bucket. Plucking out a plate which Tom easily recognized, she swiped the towel over it a few times.
Unhesitatingly she spooned stew upon the sweared plate, then shuffled across the room through a muddy puddle of water to put the plate down on the one vacant corner on the little kitchen table. A few unstacked pots and pans, unwashed jars, either empty or partly full of molded and spoiled fruit, and several ten- and five-pound sacks of flour and meal, none entirely used but spilling their contents through holes in the corners and sides, took up the rest of the table space. Another such sack shared the chair which the old woman pulled up to the table. She sat and fell to eating greedily, cramming her mouth with big, dripping spoonfuls. The files, which were everywhere, on the floor, about the puddle, and in the air, swarmed thick about her plate, disturbed and flying up at each passage of her spoon, but settling quickly, some few even, Tom was sure, being trapped in the stew and eaten with it. For the moment the old woman had entirely forgotten Tom, and he, really horrified, was glad that she had.
He looked down upon two more sooty, fly-specked, and cobwebbed sacks of flour on a chair just inside the door, at gnawed holes and gray spilled flour and the rat and mouse droppings on the chair around the sacks and even within them. Looking around, he began counting sacks of flour and corn meal, five on the table, five more upon chairs, seven that he could see on the floor, most of them still from a third to a half full. There were other sacks of plain brown paper, some thick with dirt and dust, others less so. From one of the latter near him on the floor the smell of rotting potatoes was strong. The liquid from the rot had broken the sack and spread out on the floor, and the old woman had tracked through it. Farther on, in the corner, lay a slab of must, gnawed bacon, the black floor glistening around it.
Tom was sure that there was a dead rat somewhere in the room.
"Prosperity just too much for him," thought Tom. "Sure can't lay that one onto Tunesie's poison too ripe."
The old woman came back for more stew, shuffling through the muddy puddle and sending a splatter almost as far as Tom. The smell of urine was unmistakable.
"Why don't you say some'um?" she asked. "You said you was gonna give me some money."
"No, not me, Mrs. Bradford. The gover'ment. They give it to you. But you got to apply first."
"What's that?" She slopped back through the puddle to the table.
"Why, you go to the relief office and do it make an application. That's what they call it. You tell 'em you ain't got no money an' nothin' to eat an' Junior's left you all that. An' then they'll ask how old you are, an' you tell 'em. You're older'n sixty-five, ain't you?"
"Yes, I'm way older'n that."
"How old are you?"
"Fifty! Don't say that! When was you born?"
"In eighteen an' seventy-five."
"There you are! I knew it. What month?"
The old woman looked troubled. "I can't remember. Was it June?"
"I don't know. Where was it?"
"We went around a lot. Maybe it was Missouri."
"You got anything to prove how old you are? Make 'em know you're really that old an' ain't lying?"
"I ain't lyin'. I was born in the state of Indiany in eighteen an' sixty-five."
Tom was speechless for a little again. Mrs. Bradford ate.
"Well," said Tom at last, "I guess they'll know what to ask you better'n I do. You know where to go now?"
"The relief office, down across town at Fifteenth an' Stone. Catch the bus goin' south down here on Lane Avenue, an' only have to change once, when you git downtown."
"Yes, you can. The driver'll tell you where to git off. You just stand there till a Stone Avenue bus comes along."
Mrs. Bradford shook her head. "I can't."
"Why can't you?"
The old woman ate, stubbornly silent.
"If you ain't got no money, I'll give you the bus fare. You've rode on busses."
"Ain't never done it."
"Well, ain't much different 'an streetcars. You've rode on them."
She shook her head. "Ain't never done it."
"Don't matter," said Tom. "It's easy. You just go down to the bottom of the hill to Lane Avenue you know Lane Avenue?"
Again she shook her head.
"The paved street, right down there, where the cars go by so fast."
This time she made no negative sign.
"Well," Tom continued," you go down there an' you see a steel post with a sign on top the says Bus Stop on it what now? Can't you read?"
"Can't read much. Can't read that."
"Well, it's just a round thing on top a post, painted yellow, with black letters on it. So big. Nothin' else like it. Be other people standin' there waitin' too, prob'ly. You wait with 'em, an' when the bus comes they git on an' so do you. Tell the driver where you're headed for. He'll help you. Tell him you ain't never rode a bus before. Now that ain't so hard, is it?"
She shook her head emphatically. "It's too hard. I can't. You can't make me."
"Make you! What're you talkin' about? You got to make your application, or you won't git your money. You want to go if that's the only way for you to git your money, don't you?"
"But, Mrs. Bradford, you can. If you want to, you can. It ain't hard. I'll go with you to the bus stop an' help you on the bus."
"I can't. You lemme 'lone."
Tom bit his lip and gripped his crutch, but waited his anger out.
"Look here," he said, "I'll do this for you. I'll git you a taxi. A taxi's a car, see? It'll come here for you. All you got to do is git in it. It'll take you there, an' it'll bring you back. Now, you can't turn that down."
She shook her head as stubbornly as ever.
"Well," said Tom, "I guess I was wrong. You don't need no money. Don't ever ask me for nothin' more, because I know you don't need it. I'm goin' home."
He took a step back and half turned.
"You go with me," said Mrs. Bradford.
Tom froze, quite motionless and dumb.
"I'll go if you go with me."
"Me?" he said weakly. "You don't need me."
"It's too hard. I can't go 'cept you go with me."
"You can go by yourself. I've made it as easy as I can for you. How soon'll you be ready? Half an hour? An hour? I'll call the taxi."
"I ain't go nobody else. Junior ud go."
"Junior'd ought to. Where is Junior? Where's this place he works at?"
Hearing no answer, he looked over his shoulder. The old woman was standing up, shaking her head again.
"And who's this girl friend of Junior's this Rosie? Who's Rosie?"
"Ain't she Rosie?" She was pointing toward Mrs. Graybill's.
"No, she ain't. You know she ain't. . . . Now look, how soon'll you be ready? Make up your mind."
She came across the kitchen, beginning to cry.
"Nothin' to bawl about," he said, moving away from her. "Taxi'll take you right there.
You git out an' tell 'em what you come for. Taxi'll fetch you back. That's all there is to it."
She followed him, her eyes flowing and her lips twitching.
"I'll write you a note you can give 'em."
She shook her head, flipping the tears. "I can't go 'cept you go with me. I'll starve."
"Starve, hell. You got stuff to eat here for six months. Won't hurt you. May kill rats, but it won't hurt you."
He got past the rocker and out upon the porch. She followed still, never wiping her face or eyes, snuffling and waggling her head. Tom went slowly down the steps and down the yard, the old woman after him. At the end of the yard he turned, glimpsing as he did so Tunesia Graybill and Faynetta, watching from their doorway. He stared at the foolish, puckered old face, seeing not only her but her house and kitchen also, and smelling everything, the rot, the sourness, the must, the urine on the floor soaking into the wood, into the old woman's shoes. He had seen and he knew. He could not any more escape or hide from her or forget her. She could choose what she would do, it seemed; but he could not. God damn it, get the thing over with! Get Miss Harkner out here, get her into that kitchen, let her see with her own eyes and smell with her own nose. . . . Then, maybe
"You win," he said hoarsely. "Go on an' git ready. Wash that face or something. Put on that clean dress."
He was surprised at how quickly the tears stopped. She grinned and gurgled as she turned toward the house.
He called after her, "When you're ready, you come an' set on my porch."
Grimly he watcher her go, and thought of Diola, who would, he felt, have approved of what he was going to do. He thought of Diola, but it was to Tunesie Graybill that he looked. She came down into the yard as soon as the old woman had disappeared, and Tom hobbled over to meet her.
"I wan's you to take me to chu'ch with you sometime, Mistuh Tom, an' lemme set in the shine f'om yo' mahtuh's crown."
"It ain' fo' fun, but you's doin' the bes'."
"I promised her a taxi, but that was when it was just her goin'."
"An' now you's 'fraid it look too rich an' spo'ty?"
"That's it. Can I say Mrs. Graybill give me the money?"
"Miz Graybill give you a dime. She couldn' spa-uh no mo'."
"Then I'm gonna try takin' her on the bus. You ain't much help."
"No, an' maybe you bettuh run along an' fo'tify yo' stomach. You won' be back in such a little whiles."
"Don't talk about food. I just got a big bellyful o' lookin'."
"You's toughuh'n that. Run along now. Yo' new lady frien' won' like you hobnobbin' with me."
"You got something there."
He hoped Mrs. Bradford hadn't been looking this time. As he picked his way across the rough road, however, he thought the idea might be worth remembering. Just let her see him talking to Tunesie a few times and maybe she'd scratch him right off her list.
"List of one," he thought ruefully.
As soon as he was home, he shaved and then considered the question of a clean shirt. He would have liked his appearance to say for him that, not blood or liking for her company, but only accident and the goodness of his heart had made him the old woman's companion; but after a little thinking he understood that the best he owned would explain nothing to anyone.
He could already hear people saying: "Ain't that a pretty lookin' pair for you, that perfectly frightful filthy old woman an' her cripple son!"
He really ought to wear old, dirty clothes himself. Then when his companion rubbed up against him a thing that was sure to happen she wouldn't damage much except his nerves and nostrils. Probably the idea was sensible, but he could not quite persuade himself to follow it, either. He ended by deciding to stay dressed as he was, in his everyday trousers and his three-days-old shirt.
He looked out for the old woman, and, not seeing her, buttered some bread and ate it with canned pears. He was much hungrier than he had expected, but before he could eat nearly as much as he might have wished to, he heard the old woman on his porch, and his appetite left him at once. Forcing the last bit down, he put his food away in the pantry. Then he lit a cigarette, threw the burned-out match hard into the trash box, drew the smoke in deep, and went through the house to meet Mrs. Bradford.
If not exactly pleased at what he saw, he was at least astonished. He had know that the blue cotton dress he had delivered to her would have its conspicuous dirty spots and finger marks, and of course he had seen before her cracked and run-over shoes.
He vaguely supposed, even, that years ago he had seen the stockings which she had put on, the shiny gray rayon framing through big holes and long runners a sufficient view of dirty legs. Only one thing really surprised him. She wore a hat, perhaps a treasure brought up out of the depths of the old truck, a thing of gray straw with a medium-wide brim and a black veil which might serve partially to conceal the smeared condition of her face. Above the brim was a wreath of multicolored flowers and a yellow velvet bow with a green glass jewel set in its center and, rising from behind the bow, the naked moth-eaten ribs, the standing skeleton, of a once-proud ostrich feather. About the upper crown was a quarter-inch band of green velvet, and the top itself was torn a third around so that it stood up a little, allowing one greasy strand of uncombed hair to stick out and vie with the ostrich feather.
"Well," said Tom, "I see you're all ready. Let's go."
He had been afraid that she would remember about the taxi, but seemingly she didn't, or perhaps she had never understood in the first place. She shambled off the porch after him and along beside him, swaying, her arms held back and away from her and crooked at the elbows. Keeping her head down, intent on the difficulties of walking on the rough and grass-grown bricks, she came on steadily but never quite kept up, for it was hard for Tom to hold himself to her pace.
Her manner pleased him since he had expected nothing but some new kind of wrongheadedness. For the present she followed like a whipped puppy. In spite of his giving in to her, maybe his manner had cowed her a little; he did not see how, but there was no understanding the old woman. If only they could go faster! They were past Mary Ewing's and coming to the houses he dreaded passing, where he could feel the eyes peering out and the talk and laughter. From some of them came the smells of boiling cabbage or beans to remind him that it was past eleven o'clock. The mothers were getting dinner, and that was why most of the people he saw were children, who stared and quite forgot to call, "Hi, Tom," as they usually did.
Tom and his companion passed Quincy Thompson's store and came to the Mayberry residence, where the loudness of the radio was always exceeded by the loudness of laughter and talk. Tom heard that laughter now and saw three or four men on the porch with Johnnie May and Alberta Jones. The screen door slammed several times as other people, whether adults or children, came crowding out to enjoy the spectacle.
One of the men whistled several times, and an especially loud burst of laughter struck from behind when Tom and the old woman were a hundred feet past.
Presently they came to the steepest part of their descent. There was no sidewalk, and they took to the road, as everyone else did here. When a car came up, Tom, whose crutch side had been next to Mrs. Bradford, had to hop around her quickly and help with his free right arm to keep her from falling as she tried to move out of the way. Soon after that they reached the bottom of the hill.
A bus was coming and drew up at the stop. Four persons who were waiting detained the bus just long enough for Tom and the old woman to make it.
"Climb on," said Tom. "Grab ahold."
Slowly she pulled herself up and Tom followed.
"Just let me help his old lady to a seat, driver," said Tom, afraid that the starting of the bus would tumble her to the floor.
A man got up hastily. "Both of you sit," he said.
"Thank you, sir," said Tom.
To himself he added, "That's usin' your smeller, brother. Don't blame you none."
He killed some time buying tokens, putting them in the fare box, and getting transfers, but the entrance of more people forced him to his seat by Mrs. Bradford, where he sat a bit out into the aisle, on the edge of his seat, with his head turned somewhat away from her, stolidly acting as if he didn't know people were staring.
It wasn't a new act.
Not that he had ever sat that way with Diola, but twenty years ago he had seen the shocked and wondering eyes, the eyes full of horror and hatred. After that he had not needed to see them; he had needed not to.
"Things'd been different," he told himself, "if them east-side niggers had let me be one of 'em when we was first married. I'd a said, `My own race won't own me no more. Then I won't own them no more either. I've changed my race. I ain't white. I'm nothin' but a colored man now myself, one that could pass but's too proud to.' I coulda spit in the whites' eyes after that. Way it was, I never could, an' I'm still white. I just married Diola. I never married her race."
Only during the last year, when he had been out with Diola so much, going vainly from doctor to doctor, clinic to clinic, had he begun to feel used to the eyes. But used to them or not, the act was the same, and it was the same now. Nothing else was.
"Instead o' Diola with me," he thought, "what've I got? The worst sort o' trash you could scare up anywhere. I'd a billion times rather be ridin' with Diola, an' yet, it's funny, but I'm glad o' one thing I'm glad this stuffed old scarecrow ain't colored. Guess that's what shows me I'm still white.
"Color don't really make no differ'nce in people. It's only what people thinks that does it. Take these folks here in this bus now. They'd look at Diola an' me an' never could understand why we'd do it, or why she was better'n anybody else for me. They couldn't understand nothing. But when they look at me an' the old lady, maybe they do grab onto their noses an' breathe mighty scant an' set back there an' laugh their sleeves full, but here's the thing of it. There's some of 'em can put theirselves in our places just 'cause they think we ain't all ways differ'nt. The color o' the package tells 'em the contents's the same. They think they could git old an' silly like her an' not git half looked after right. Or they could git a leg off like me an' then git saddled with an old crazy woman on top o' that. So they sorta see how it is. That's what bein' white is. It's bein' understood."
He glanced wonderingly at his silent companion. Had she really never ridden on a bus before? He watched the old eyes behind the veil going here and there about the bus while her head hardly turned at all and she held herself very tight and still. Then with singing tires the bus swept up a long, curving viaduct and over the intricate patterns of tracks, and the pale eyes looked down at the clangorous switch engines rushing about and the long streamliner groping for the still distant station, at the smoke rising from the funnels to be suddenly scattered past them, broken by the hot south wind. Then there was the muddy river below them, the concrete dikes, and a few tin shacks among the horseweeds and the willows.
They were among houses again and corner groceries, drugstores, and fruit stands. Passengers climbed on and got off, but more climbed on. The aisle jammed, and Tom was forced over against Mrs. Bradford. He saw her eyes turn toward him, but he read no question in them. She just looked.
There were no houses any more but only the brick and glass store fronts close beside them, rising taller than they could see. The bus stopped for a light, then turned a corner and stopped again. People in the aisle began turning themselves and taking little steps.
"We git off here," Tom said, "but wait. Let a few of 'em pile off an' then we can manage better."
"This woulda been hard for her," he admitted to himself. "She wasn't so far off at that when she made me come along."
When the aisle cleared, Tom got up and swung himself to the back of the bus and down the step to the pavement. He held his arm up to Mrs. Bradford and helped her down. She kept hold of him even after they stood waiting by the bus stop until Tom said:
"Turn me loose now. I ain't gonna run off."
She loosed her hold slowly, but his efforts to keep a step away from her were in vain. She watched him and moved with him until Tom gave up. Before long she was holding his shirt again.
When their bus came, they got on and again found a seat. Mrs. Bradford held on to him.
In less than ten minutes they got off at Fifteenth and Stone and entered the old brick building used for the welfare office. Since it was during the noon hour, no one was at the desk in the intake room. A few people, some colored, some white, sat here and there on the backless benches provided for them.
"Now we set down here an' wait till one o'clock, Mrs. Bradford," Tom told her.She had lost her hold upon him in getting through the screen door as they entered the building, and Tom had kept out of reach since. He waited until she was seated, then carefully sat down himself about two feet from her and hoped she would keep her distance.
"You want a magazine to look at?" he asked, picking up an old Collier's from off the bench. "We got about forty-five minutes to kill."
She shook her head. As it had in the bus, her gaze kept ranging about, never resting upon any one thing, but returning perhaps many times. Tom marveled at her continuing silence.
"Too much for me," he thought, "but let her keep her trap shut as long as she will."
After reading part of a story, he was disturbed by a pluck on his sleeve.
"Tom," said the old woman, "when do they gimme some money?"
"Well," he said, "there's a woman comes an' sets at that desk after while, see, an' we'll have to ask her all about it. But don't you worry. We've come to the right place."
He read another page. The old woman plucked again.
"Tom," she whispered urgently, "I got to piddle."
It was one of the things he had been afraid of.
"Come along," he ordered. He was up on his crutch and swinging across the room and through the door into the hall.
He asked the telephone girl: "Say, you got a washroom for this old lady? She can't control herself."
He looked back anxiously. Mrs. Bradford was just waddling through the door.
"Well, just a minute," said the girl, plugging in a line.
"Miss, it's a hurry-up proposition, I'm tellin' you. She's li'ble to cut loo__ __ahuh."
Tom got out his handkerchief and wiped his brow. He looked fixedly over the girl's head along the empty hall.
"I'll call the janitor," said the girl calmly, plugging and unplugging. "Ward County Board of Social Welfare. . . .I'm sorry, Miss Voran is out. . . .Probably about four o'clock. . . .John, can you come up right away, please?. . . .Sir, I think you can take her back now."
"Thanks," Tom murmured.
He motioned Mrs. Bradford back into the intake room, detoured, and, following her in, sat stiffly down about as before. The only sound in the room was that of turning pages as someone rapidly went through one of the old magazines. He glanced at Mrs. Bradford to see whether she was in any way embarrassed by what had happened, but he could not tell.
"At least," he thought, "she knew enough to try to git to a place. That's more'n I'd a give her credit for."
John, the big Negro janitor, began mopping in the hall.
At one o'clock a neatly dressed, gray-haired woman cam in and sat down at the typewriter.
"Mr. and Mrs. Wilson," she called.
An elderly Negro couple went up and took chairs by the desk. They answered questions, and now and then the gray-haired woman wrote on the typewriter. Finally the two signed forms and went out.
In an hour the list of those who had been waiting when the intake clerk had gone to lunch was exhausted. Then Tom took Mrs. Bradford up to the desk. The clerk remembered Tom, who briefly explained why he had brought Mrs. Bradford.
The clerk typed on a form, shifted it in her machine, and turned to the old woman. Her first name was Elizabeth, and her husband's name was Bennett Bradford.
"Where is he? Is he still living?"
"Why, he's dead, I guess. I ain't seen him."
"You mean he left you?"
"I run him off."
"Why did you do that?"
"He kep' drinkin' an' battin' me an' Junior."
"Are you divorced?"
"I ain't. I don't know 'bout him."
"How long have you been separated?"
The old woman did not answer.
"How long ago was it you ran him off?"
"Long time ago.:
"Ten years? Twenty years? Thirty?"
Mrs. Bradford could not answer. Tom guessed it was more than twenty, because he had never seen Mr. Bradford. The clerk wrote something.
"What's your address, Mrs. Bradford? Where do you live?"
"It's in my house."
"Yes, of course. Do you know her street number, Mr. Way?"
"Oughta be about 338 Quarry Hill Street," said Tom.
The clerk put it down.
"And you want Old-Age Assistance? How old are you?"
Mrs. Bradford looked troubled. She pointed at Tom. "He knows."
Tom denied that he knew. "She don't tell it always the same, but anybody can see she's plenty old."
The clerk agreed that she at least looked old. One form came out of the typewriter and another went in.
After filling in a few lines, the clerk said, "So you own your own house."
Mrs. Bradford nodded.
"Do you own any other houses or land?"
"The nigger woman's got it now."
Tom explained. The clerk wrote it down and asked about the income.
"I don't git nothin'. Don't none of 'em ever pay me. She ain't never paid me, has she, Tom?"
"Well," said Tom, "all I know is what you said the other day."
"What's she supposed to pay?" the clerk continued.
"Five dollars, but she ain't."
"Five dollars a month?"
The clerk asked about personal property and then finished her typing.
"Now," she said, "you sign your name on this line. Here's a pen."
Mrs. Bradford signed a quavering incomplete scrawl on the application and on another form authorizing financial investigation.
"That completes your application, Mrs. Bradford," the clerk told her. "You go home now, and the visitor will be out to see you in your home to investigate your case as soon as possible."
"Ain't you gonna gimme some money? Tom said you was."
"Oh, no, I don't give you any money. The visitor must come out and see whether you are eligible or not according to law. If you are eligible, you will be notified by mail, and a check will come to you through the mail. The home visitor will explain everything to you when she calls. Do you understand now?"
The old woman nodded vaguely but did not move. Tom got up.
"You just don't know how soon Miss Harkner can make it?"
"No, I can't tell that. It just depends. Sometimes a home visitor gets a lot of applications at once; sometimes she doesn't. Then she has her regular work with the cases already receiving assistance. That goes on all the time, as you know."
Tom nodded. "She has a lot to do, all right. Just tell her I said if she'd seen what I seen this morning she'd put this case at the top o' her list an' come right out. I can't talk to her a little while I'm here, can I?"
The clerk called Miss Harkner's room, but she was not in.
"I'll tell her what you said, though."
"Please do," said Tom, "and thanks. Let's go now, Mrs. Bradford. We have to go."
She got up and followed him into the hall past the telephone operator, who smiled at them. Tom stopped at the front door.
"You all right, Mrs. Bradford? Can you make it clear home all right?"
"Ain't you goin' with me?"
"Of course. I mean there ain't nothin' you need to tend to 'fore we go?"
"Do I have to git my money?"
"No, no, I don't mean nothin' about money. They're like you here. They ain't got no money. I mean have you got to go out 'fore we start? Have you got to do anything 'fore we go home?"
"We're goin' home now?"
"Yes," said Tom, "I guess we are. Let's hurry an' don't miss no busses."
Return to Top of Page
Forty-five minutes later a tired one-legged man on a crutch helped a tired old woman up the path into her yard and up the steps of her house. She sat down panting in her rocking chair, her ostrich feather and protruding lock of hair bobbing with each breath.
“Well, I hope Miss Harkner gits out to see you right away. You know who Miss Harkner is, don’t you?”
Mrs. Bradford didn’t.
“She’s the caseworker - the home visitor. She comes out to ask you things and find out if you can have some money. You got to be nice to her. Tell her what she asks if you can. And don’t you git mad at her.”
“Don’t call her no bad names like you did yesterday. That was her, that tall, sorta middle-aged white lady that was over at Mrs. Graybill’s yesterday morning. Remember?”
The old woman shook her head emphatically, “Didn’t call nobody nothin’.”
“Well, maybe not, but don’t you do it no more. Hear?”
She put her head down, probably pouting.
“In fact, if I was you, Mrs. Bradford, I wouldn’t call nobody names, least of all these colored people around here. Don’t call ‘em nigger an’ bitch the way you do. They don’t like it. They might hurt you. Don’t you know that?”
The ostrich feather made a few suspicious bobs, and Tom took fright at once.
“Well,” he said hastily, “remember what I said and everything’ll be all right. Now I got to go. Good-by.”
“Tom, you ain’t goin’? I don’t want you to go.”
“Oh, yes, I got to go now, Mrs. Bradford.”
“No, Tom, please. Junior’s left me. You stay.”
“Not this time, Mrs. Bradford. I have to go home. Good-by.”
But he was going down the steps now and did not mean to be stopped.
“I got to wean that old baby,” he muttered, “an’ damn quick.”
A sound, a bit subdued, followed him. It sounded suspiciously like, “God damn you, Tom!” He hoped for the best.
Unlocking his front door, Tom went in and latched the screen after him. He felt as if something was over with, something worth doing done and done by him, something never to do again.
“I deserve a good meal,” he told himself, “but I’ll settle for a can o’ beans now, an’ some more bread an’ pears, an’, if that ain’t enough, there’s that can o’ sardines. An’ then I got to wash up my back dishes, an’ tomorrow I’ll clean house – sure.”
He washed his hands and face thoroughly at the sink, then got out his bread and jar of pears, his last clean spoon, the can opener, and the beans. Deciding against coffee, he brought milk from the icebox and a glass from the cupboard. He opened the beans sitting down and began eating them, unwarmed, out of the can.
Footsteps on the back porch made his heart skip a beat, and his heaped spoon stopped before a mouth slowly shutting. Tunesie Graybill appeared at the door. Tom dropped his spoon back into the can and went to let her in. She strode to the table and set a pie down beside the can of beans.
“Don’t’ you say nothin’ now,” she said, “’less you jus’ don’ like peaches. You desuhves some’m an’ you’s getting’ it.”
“This ain’t the only pie you baked?”
“The kids is gittin’ theirs, don’ you worry. An’ don’ stan’ aroun’ fo’ me. Set back down an’ eat. I see yo’ dishes. Whe’ you keep yo’ knives an’ fo’ks?”
“All dirty,” said Tom, “but I’m gonna wash ‘em.”
“If you lets me,” said Tunesie, “I’ll wash ‘em whiles you eats. I wan’s to he-uh you tell me how you’n Ol’ Lady Bradfo’d make out. Can I?”
“I been exposed to craziness all day, but it ain’t took yet. The pans is there under the sink, an’ the washrag, an’ I guess you see the soap.”
“How you light yo’ kind o’ stove? You shuly don’ wash in cold watuh, do you?”
“Just takes more soap is all. But I’ll light it for you.”
“An’ whiles you’s up, I needs a clean dishcloth. This’n stinks.”
Tom lit the stove and then hunted for a clean cloth.
“Women’re pa’ticular people,” he thought, “but I won’t look no gift horse in the mouth. She can have what she wants.”
“Wouldn’ you like yo’ beans bettuh wahm?”
“Naw, not much. Pans’re all dirty, too.”
He gave her the clean cloth.
“Okay,” she said, “I’ll set an’ watch yo’ mannuhs whiles the watuh git wahm.”
He ate and began telling her about the trip. As soon as the water was hot enough, she began washing dishes. First she washed and dried an knife and fork, and brought them to him along with a plate.
“So you can eat you some pie soon as you wan’s too.”
He told her the rest of his story while he finished his beans, ate pears from the jar, drank milk, and ate a little bread. It was hard to imagine just what Miss Harkner would do with Mrs. Bradford.
“We ain’ outa the woods yet,” said Tunesie.
“No, there ain’t but one right thing to do with her, an’ that ain’t leavin’ her in that mess over there. But if she’s got to be talked into goin’ away, has Miss Harkner got tongue enough to do it? I ain’t.”
Tom cut the pie into quarters and lifted a piece onto his plate.
“You ought to stop that a little while,” he told Tunesie, “an’ set down an’ eat a piece with me.”
“I’m doin’ all right. Enjoy yo’self.”
He began eating. “You make ‘em like this often?”
“Jus’ often enough so I don’ clean fo’git how.”
“How often is that?”
“It ain’ often.”
He took another piece. “You don’t care if I make a pig of myself.”
“It’s yo’ pie.”
“I’m gonna save half of it.”
Tunesie brought him another plate. “Put yo’ pie remainduhs out on this, so I can wash mine an’ take it home with me.”
He moved the pie and gave her the pie tin.
“This drainboa’d o’ yo’s is nice.”
“I made it back ‘fore I lost my leg. I was handy once.”
Tom sat back smoking and watching Tunesie while she dried the dishes.
“You’d be handy again,” said Tunesie, “if you’d git you a good wooden leg an’ th’ow that ol’ crutch away.”
Tom started, remembering his own thought of the day before and its connection with Tunesie.
“Yeah, I would – if it’d pay.”
“Don’ you wan’ a job?”
“Sure, if I could find one.”
“You wukked befo’, when you had yo’ leg, didn’ you?”
“Most of the time.”
“An’ times is lettin’ up a lots.”
“What they claim.”
“An’ you’s a white man.”
“I guess I am.”
It was Diola’s kind of logic, and it usually bowled him over completely. But this wasn’t Diola telling him. This was Tunesie Graybill, and who was she, exactly, after last night, to be coming in telling him what he ought to do?
“I’m ten years older now, an’ I ain’t worked steady nowhere since. Makes a big differ’nce when they start askin’ you, an’ don’t you think it don’t.”
“All you needs is a toehold again, an’ you gits that by scrabblin’.”
“Ever been as old as me an’ tried it yourself to see how it feels? They just laughs at you. It does something to you. Seems like if you’re past forty now you might as well stay home an’ spare your feelings.”
“I’m afraid I ain’t gittin’ no younger.”
“You be younguh soon’s you tu’ns loose o’ hangin’ onto that ol’ crutch an’ walks aroun’ again like a man.”
“Maybe I ain’t man enough to suit you, Mrs. Graybill, but that’s all right.”
“You’s boun’ to spen’ yo’ money one way or anothuh why don’ you spen’ it fo’ the right kinds o’ things?”
“I don’t see how last night gives you the right to nag an’ pick at me this way.”
She hung up the dishcloth and towel and put away the pans.
“I thinks I bes’ go home,” she said, picking up her pie pan. “Thanks you fo’ lettin’ me do yo’ nice dishes fo’ you, Mistuh Way.”
“Oh, don’t mention it. Thank you.”
This time he did not watch her go. He sat glowering, hurt and miserable and mean. He wanted to give pain and to receive it. If he could only, just once, plant a firm and improving kick on Mrs. Tinesie Graybill’s all-too-fetching backside! Let her pay him back then all she liked. Let her snatch his cherished crutch and splinter it, for good and all, upon his useless old skull. It would help.
Nothing of her remained except the pie. It was her gift and it had pleased him, as she had. He leaped up, thinking to carry it to the garbage pail and hurl it savagely in, but his chair caught somehow and tipped over. Grabbing for it, he lost balance, fumbled his hold on his crutch, and sprawled headlong over the chair and down upon the fallen crutch and the floor.
He was hurt and bruised, but now the realness of his pain seemed to cool his temper rather than make it worse. While he felt of his bruises and said the words that soothe, he was collecting his wits, and even as he hopped up on his foot again, retrieved his crutch, and righted the chair, he thought of something.
Why had Tunesie baked him a pie and washed his dishes? Because she was husband-hunting. Because he needed a wife. She had said that he did, and she had just been showing him her wifely accomplishments. Even in her effort to get him to spend his money on an artificial leg he could see her promoting him into that “steady wukkin’ man” whom she coveted and who didn’t always see her. If she married him, old cripple though he was, and, upon trial, he didn’t satisfy, he imagined that the white man could, like the two Negroes before him, become an ex-husband of Mrs. Tunesie. What could she lose? And if she worked things right, she might gain a lot, maybe his property for herself, at least the spending of his money while it lasted.
Of course, to do her justice, it wasn’t as if she didn’t have any wifely accomplishments to show. Looking at the pie, which his fall had so fortunately preserved, he could view its maker a little more charitable. He couldn’t blame her for looking for a husband. She had had a hard time, and she really wasn’t a bad sort. She was clean and attractive, certainly, and, as far as he could tell, a good mother. If he were looking for a wife, as he wasn’t, and if he had no objections either to her color or to her children, as he told himself he had to both – imagine him, fifty, childless, and crippled, suddenly filling his little house up with three kids! – maybe, just maybe, he might step into such a marriage with his eyes wide open. He wouldn’t be the first to marry a woman who wasn’t in love with him, and among such men, he suspected, some must have managed all right, got what they wanted, and still not let themselves be outfoxed. And she couldn’t make him marry her!
So, quite safely, now that he knew what she had been up to, he fell to thinking about her charms again, and comparing her with other women that he knew, generally all to the advantage of Tunesie. Even Diola, however attractive she had been to begin with, by the time she was thirty had put on too much fat to compare with the shapely Tunesie. And Tunesie was just as clean as Diola, and more vigorous and full of fun – that is, when she wanted to be. But Diola, of course, had loved him, for himself, quite unselfishly. With Tunesie it wasn’t a question of love but of “he-ud.” If she imagined that she could better herself by marrying an old cripple, she would do it. Of course, their little quarrel might have changed everything. Maybe he had been too rude and he ought to apologize. He guessed he would apologize, but she might not listen to him, might have no more use for him at all – women were like that sometimes. Well and good then! He’d have no more bother from her.
Or would he? For spite, she could still tell people on him, and she could tell Miss Harkner about his bank account. The first idea didn’t scare him as much now as it had when he had first thought of it that morning, but the second scared him more.
“People ‘round here don’t care how you live,” he thought. “’Bout half of ‘em’s livin’ common-law themselves. All I got to do is act like I don’t think Mary and Jim Ewing is gonna believe a newcomer’s say-so on a thing like that unless they see something for themselves – like if they see me havin’ truck with Johnnie May, for instance, which they ain’t goin’ to.
“But if Miss Harkner ever hears about that bank account, Lord help poor me! Why, I chiseled from the first an’ Tunesie knows it.”
Not that he and Diola had done anything really wrong in holding on to that two hundred dollars. Diola’s health was already failing when they went on relief, and their fear of the sort of medical care often given to county patients had been, he thought, all to justified. They had also concealed the amount of their life insurance because they had heard that the Relief made people cash most of it in, and that seemed much poor business under the circumstances.
“Guess Diola’d think now‘t I got all the money an’ ain’t sick I’d ought to git off,” Tom reflected, “but it ain’t wrong for me to be on relief – not really. Way I figure, the gover’ment ought to pay compensation to a guy hurt the way I was an’ no questions asked except how bad’s he hurt. Nothin’ to be got out o’ that damn don’t-care, drunk no-good that hit me. The state give him the license to drive. State ought to pay me. I’m one guy the gover’ment really owes a livin’ to.”
He couldn’t expect Miss Harkner to see the sense of that, though. She wasn’t paid to see the sense of anything that wasn’t properly legal, or if she did see it, it wouldn’t help him much. In fact, if the welfare people wanted to sue him for getting public assistance when he had concealed resources, he was afraid that they could just about grab his whole bank account and leave him to sell pencils on the street. Even if he rushed to tell Miss Harkner that he didn’t need assistance any more, he guessed that he could still be sued if they learned the facts.
Well, if his fate was in Tunesie’s hands, he still couldn’t rush over in fear and trembling to beg her pardon. He didn’t want her to see he was afraid. He didn’t want to suggest anything to her.
“I just got to step along mighty careful an’ wait my chance to do it natural,” he concluded. “After all, I can’t do any more’n hope for the best. If she’s really the tellin’ kind, which maybe she ain’t at all, I’m sunk already, an’ I might just as well keep cheerful because there ain’t nothin’ else I can do anyway.”
Tom got up and put away his food. Considering what he should do next, he decided that, since his dishes were done, he should now try to do part of the cleaning he had planned for the morrow. He got the dust mop from a hook in the corner behind the door and clamped it between his arm and his crutch. Then he went into the pantry after the carpet sweeper and pushed it clumsily before him into the bedroom.
He heard Mrs. Bradford yelling. Propping his cleaning tools against the bed, he hastened to the door to hear better.
“... You leave Tom alone. You took Junior, you black nigger bitch you an’ that’s enough. Don’t you talk back to me. You move! Git out my house an’ stay out. Ya hear? Git clear away from us. You ain’t never paid an’ you ain’t a-goin’ to. Git out! Right now! An’ you leave Tom alone, or I’ll make trouble.”
The old woman left the porch and went back into her house. Tom heard a crash as if she had knocked her chair over. Then she slammed her door shut.
She pulled it open again immediately and put her head out to yell, “An’ don’t you forgit it!”
Then she slammed the door again.
None of the Graybills showed themselves. Tom went back to the bedroom to begin his cleaning. He debated whether to shake his dust mop from the front or the back porch. He wanted Mrs. Bradford to see as little of him as possible, but on the other hand he wanted Tunesie to observe how industrious he was. He went out of the front door.
It was a slow job. He worked until dark and still was not done. If Tunesie by some chance should ever come into his place again, he wanted her to see just how good a job he could do all by himself.
He saw her only once, when she came out briefly after sundown to call Faynetta home. The girl came running across the vacant lot between Tom’s and the Ewings’. As she came into the Graybill yard, Mrs. Bradford appeared on the porch.
“Little girl!” she called. “Come here, please. Give this to your mamma.”
Faynetta stopped, then approached the old woman slowly, and reached up to get a piece of paper. As the girl came back to her own porch, she turned the paper over and looked back doubtfully toward Mrs. Bradford, who was already going back in. Fayetta disappeared into the house with her paper.
Tom sat on his porch smoking awhile after dark, but nothing happened and no one came to see him. He finally went to bed.
Return to Top of Page
He slept badly and awoke early. Getting up, he prepared and ate a breakfast of coffee, bacon, and eggs, plus a piece of Tunesie's pie. He stacked his dishes, then got his hat from its hook back of the door. Even as he put the hat on, he heard an expected step on the front porch and the old woman's cry of "Tom!"
He slipped out carefully. Only the squeak of the screen door and the clicking bolt as the key turned made noticeable noise. He swung rapidly down his back sidewalk past the outhouse and the coal shed and on through Levi Anderson's half-bare, half-weedy yard to Wayne Street. There was no sidewalk on Wayne, and Tom made his way down, following sometimes paths and sometimes the road itself, past houses which were generally even more run-down and ramshackle than those on Quarry Hill Street. Several dwellings were mere tar-paper shanties, especially on the north side, where close behind them the edge of the hill pitched down sharply in a rugged boulder-strewn and wooded slope.
Reaching the bottom and the curve of Lane Avenue around the hill, Tom waited for sufficient break in the traffic, then hurried across. Cutting through Bill's One-Stop Truck Service, he made his way over a parking lot to the bench in front of the Owl's Roost Tavern. Just beyond the tavern, to his left as he sat, was Cameron Street, running east from Lane, and almost opposite him across the avenue, apparently the same street as Cameron except for a little jog, was Quarry Hill Street with its misplaced Cameron Street sign.
"Old lady," Tom sighed as he settled himself, "I thought I wasn't gonna hide from you no more, but this turnin' me into a sort o' Junior the Second is just a mite too rich for my blood."
For nearly two hours he watched the traffic streaming by, the people who got on and off the busses, and the cars and trucks that stopped at Bill's or across the street at the Standard station. Once he was idly aware of an old car driving in at Bill's and of a woman with shoulder-length blonde curls who got out of the car and went to the rest room.
When he saw the blonde with the long curls again she was ambling toward him, a tall, wide woman in a rumpled pink house dress and with a childlike pink ribbon tied in her childlike hair. Her face was round and red, her eyes blue but small, the set of her mouth pleased and amiable. Her head was waggling jerkily and the purse in her left hand rather wildly swinging in time to a tune she was humming, which as she drew near Tom recognized as a sort of ragtime "Jesus Loves Me." But the rest of her, legs, hips, and torso, stepped and swayed in their own natural fashion, ponderous and slow, yet somehow graceful, in the only way they could perhaps, their leisurely motion in no way accelerated by either the catchiness of the tune or the thought that Jesus loved her.
She did not look at Tom as she passed close in front of him but stepped over his crutch, which had slipped from where he had originally propped it down to rest on the edge of the seat, and stopped at the door of the tavern. Finding it locked, she shook and rattled the knob a few times and tapped upon the glass pane. "Jesus Loves Me" abruptly stopped, and her look passed from surprise to hurt and petulance. Bending close to the glass and shading her eyes, she peered intently in while her short dress pulled up over her hips to reveal the dirty hem of a pink rayon slip and the backs of thick white thighs above equally impressive calves. Tom looked back at the filling station. The car in which the woman had come was gone.
Childishly persistent, the woman with the curls put down her purse and gave the door a good two-handed shaking, then thumped and banged on the pane with the heel of her hand in a way to put the glass in danger. Her dress remained caught on her hips. The dimples in the backs of her legs gave Tom a queasy feeling, but his eyes would stray there though he had no wish to look. Now, straightening a little, the blonde appeared suddenly to discover her reflection in the glass. Forgetting her disappointment, she laughed and shook her curls. She combed them with her spread fingers, busily arranged and sorted, and retied her ribbon. Then, after a final toss of her head, she leaned down and picked up her purse. As she straightened up, she seemed to become aware, for the first time, of the way her dress had ridden up and of Tom watching. So she pulled the dress down, gave Tom an unabashed smile, and plumped down beside him on the bench. Tom guessed her age at thirty-five, though it might be less or more.
"My boy friend," she announced in a high and birdlike voice, "said I could have a bottle of Sweet Lucy, but they ain't open."
"Not open till eleven," said Tom. "Didn't you see what it says there on the door?"
"Oh, is that what it says? Mamma never did send me to school."
"You're joking," said Tom.
"No, she never. She wanted me home with her, an' they didn't come an' make her, but I don't care."
"Why? Don't you want to know how to read?"
"I don't care."
"Why don't you?"
"Oh - 'cause."
She let her legs spread and stretched her feet out wide in the chat. In her sandals she wiggled her dusty but brightly enameled toes.
"'Cause people always read to me what it says anyway. 'Cept my boy friend, he don't. I don't think he can read no better way'n what I can. He says he can, but I don't hink he can. Wish he could."
"That your boy friend in the car while ago?"
"Him? Naw, I don't know who he was. He wasn't nothin' but a guy that lemme ride with him. Bet you wouldn't hink I been to town already this mornin', would you? Didn't do nothin'. Just went an' come right back. J'ever do that - just like to git up an' go?"
"Well - not exactly."
"I do, all a time. When I want to go, I just go. I don't ever pay out no carfare."
"No, I just ask some guy if I can ride, an' sometimes they let me an' sometimes they don't, but I don't care, I just ask somebody else. Somebody always lets me. You got a car?"
Tom grinned and shook his head.
"Wish you did. My boy friend ain't got one either. Wish he did."
"You sure got big muscles on you. I bet you're sure strong."
Tom looked where she was looking, down at his left arm below his rolled-up sleeve. "I don't know," he said, rather feebly, and thought to himself,"You're just a mite strong yourself, sister, when you git close. Another bath sure wouldn't hurt none."
"I bet you are." She touched his biceps with her fingers. "I like to feel men's muscles. My boy friend's ain't as big as yours. An' you know what? I'm bigger'n he is." When Tom said nothing, she insisted in her musical little voice, as if he had contradicted, "Yes, I am too," and she laughed. "Sure makes him mad when I say so, but I don't care. I just say, 'I'm bigger'n you,' an' he don't know what to say!"
She touched his arm again, giving his biceps a little pinch. "Make it hard!"
Tom reddened and suddenly got up. "Tell you the truth," he said, adjusting his crutch, "I got to git goin'. Been settin' here too long. You live 'round here? Never seen you before."
She motioned toward the Owl's Roost behind her. "Up that-a-way a ways. It's next a brick house, on the corner."
She got up and turned around to point, but Tom was already starting for the street.
"You comin' over?"
"Come any time."
Tom stopped at the curb to await his chance to cross.
"My boy friend ain't home much 'cept at night," she called after him.
"That's spellin' things out loud. What I figgered," muttered Tom, not answering and deciding to dare the street.
Halfway across he heard the blonde again: "G'by, Tom!"
So she knew his name. She must have come to the curb, he thought, or her voice would not have carried.
Seeing an attendant at the Standard station grinning at him, Tom stopped long enough to ask, "Who's the big baby of a broad?"
The attendant shook his head. "Saw her first time 'bout a week ago hangin' around over at Bill's. She hasn't seen fit to bother over here yet. Shoo her away damn quick if she does."
"What you have to do, I guess," said Tom.
He turned away, still thinking about the blonde. "What a birdbrain! Her an' her boy friend! Must be a pretty pair of 'em. But how did she know my name?"
But people were always turning out to know his name.
As he went back up Quarry Hill Street, the ice truck passed him, coming down, and he was annoyed because he had not been at home when it passed.
"If I hadn't had to stay an' put Birdbrain through her paces, maybe I'd a got goin' sooner," he muttered.
Coming to the store, he stopped to get bread and some neckbones to cook with beans. He decided against milk because of his lack of ice.
No one was on his front porch, and he went on around to the back and let himself in. He lit the stove and put beans on to parboil in a kettle. As soon as the water boiled, he poured it off into the sink, put more water on, added the neckbones and salt, and put the kettle back on the stove. Then he resumed his cleaning.
A few times during the morning he heard screeches from across the street, but he did not see Mrs. Bradford. Two little girls came and played with the Graybill children in the yard on the side of the house away from Mrs. Bradford. Tom went around through the front rooms with a cloth on a broom getting down the cobwebs. If the spiders stayed on the cloth, he killed them, but most of them dropped to the floor and got away. As he had about the dust mop, he debated about shaking the cloth in front of the house or out back. Again Tunesie won over Mrs. Bradford, a result he presently had reason to regret.
"Tom!" the old woman called. "Tom! I want you, Tom. Tom!"
She came down the steps and into the yard. Reluctantly he laid his cloth on the porch and hobbled over to meet her.
"What is it?"
"She won't move. I told her to move and she ain't done it. She's still there. I want you to git the law an' make her move. You tell her to move."
"You got to give her time. The law won't make her move till you do that."
"But it's my house. Don't want no nigger bitch in my house."
"Don't call her that, Mrs. Bradford. What you got to do is give her legal notice, an' she'll move all right when the time's up."
"I give her notice an' she ain't done nothin'. You tell her. She don't like me."
"She don't? I'm su'prised. Well, I'll talk to her. You go on back inside. Go on, or I won't do it."
Tom went up to Mrs. Graybill's door and knocked while Mrs. Bradford did as he had told her. Within, he could see old furniture, some of it slip-covered with plain white cloth; a clean floor; and the flies to be expected in an unscreened house. Faynetta came around the corner of the house.
"Mamma isn't home," she said.
"She isn't? When'll she be back?"
"I don't know. I'm goin' to get dinner."
"Why, where'd she go?"
"Ol' Lady Bradford has been makin' so much noise, Mamma said she was goin' to look for a house."
"Well, thanks, Faynetta - if you're big enough to git dinner, though, you're 'bout big enough to be Miss Graybill, ain't you?"
"I guess I am, but I'm not Miss Graybill. I'm Miss Reeves. Theron an' Lillian Ann, they're Graybills."
"Oh. Well, tell your mamma I was here, an' I'll watch for when she comes back."
"Thank you, Mr. Way."
Tom did not go up on Mrs. Bradford's steps, but stood at the bottom and called her.
When she came out, he said, "She's not there now, but I'll tell her later. Now you just keep still an' don't bother people because I'm gonna see her."
"Won't you come in now, Tom?"
"No, Mrs. Bradford, you know I live over there across the street, an' I'm busy cleanin' house."
He hurried off, his head turned slightly, listening back but hearing nothing. When he was home again, he picked up his dust cloth and looked back. Mrs. Bradford was still standing where he had left her.
He went on with his dusting, but shifted his cloth-shaking to the rear. Now and then he peeked out front. Mrs. Bradford had gone back in and he saw her no more. Sometimes he saw Theron or Lillian Ann. Faynetta, he supposed, must have gone to work on the dinner.
He had an empty, lonely feeling, which he guessed must come from the news that Tunesie Graybill was already looking for a home somewhere else. Somehow it also made him think about Diola again. He thought about her until his throat ached. Even the forlorn picture of Mrs. Bradford dumbly watching him from her porch stuck in his mind and bothered him.
"I don't want to be mean to her," he told himself. "Even when she's bein' pretty damn mean herself, like now with Tunesie, I'm sorry for the poor old stinkpot. But there's just no way to be good to her. She don't have to tell me she thinks I oughta move right in with her an' go crawlin' in bed with her nights like Junior. Well, there's enough things crawlin' in her bed without me. Miss Harkner better git out here."
Mrs. Bradford's application ought to be through the office red tape and on Miss Harkner's desk by this time. He wouldn't look for her to call today, but surely she ought to tomorrow on Friday. If she didn't come then, he knew she wouldn't before next week, because she didn't work on Saturday afternoon and always spent Saturday morning in the office.
As to Tunesie's leaving, he told himself it was bound to happen sometime and it was all right.
"'Course I'll miss seein' her. I'm human. But she ain't for me. Why, I ain't hardly knowed her to talk to more'n two days."
If Tunesie got away without telling on him and the Welfare somehow took Mrs. Bradford off his hands, he could settle down and have a bit of piece. He thought he needed some.
For dinner he ate bread and beans, drank the last of his milk even though it had begun to turn sour, and finished the pie. Then he went out to rest on his porch swing for a little and read the paper which he had only glanced at the night before. Faynetta was sitting on the porch reading a book, but now and then going into the house to give loud orders to Theron, who, Tom guessed, had drawn the job of dish washing, perhaps getting help, of a sort, from his little sister. Later, he saw the two younger children out playing again. Faynetta read until midafternoon and then disappeared.
About a quarter of five he saw Tunesie cutting across the lot below her house to enter it by the back door. Tom got up and crossed over to her house. She must have seen him coming, for she met him at the door. Her expression was neither friendly nor unfriendly, but slightly questioning.
"Mrs. Graybill, I'm sorry for acting the way I did to you last night. I know you was only tellin' me what you thought was best for me to do. I shouldn't a got mad, an' I do appreciate what you done for me."
"All right. I knows I pushes too hahd sometimes an' I don' quit easy."
"Did you find a house?"
She shook her head. "They's sca'ce as pig's fur. I'm goin' look again tomorrow."
"The old lady was after me to tell you to move, wanted me to git the law on you an' ev'rything. Did she ever give you a receipt?"
"Come in an' I'll show you."
She got out of a drawer a torn piece of paper on which Mrs. Bradford had scrawled her signature, nothing else.
"I knows it oughta tell anyway what I paid her an' when, but it wouldn' be no diff'uhnce, 'cause she'd ac' jus' the same. I was awful tired when I foun' this place. I sees it ain' much mo'n a roof, but it's cheap, an' now I has to staht all ovuh again f'om scratch. But I ain' goin' till my mouth's up, don' you fe-uh 'bout that."
"What did her paper last night say?"
Tunesie laughed. "I'll show you."
It was another piece of lined tablet paper, folded. Except for dirt and finger marks there was nothing on it at all.
"Well," said Tom, "I expect I better go tell your landlady you're house-hunting."
"Yes, you -"
"Tom!" The old woman was on her porch again. "Tom!" You come away from there right now. Ya hear? Tom!"
Tunesie laughed. "She's jealous. Tha's why we got to move. Run along now, Junyuh."
"God damn," said Tom, "I'll Junior her."
"How you do that? I was goin' sca' her, but I guess I jus' ain' got the haht."
"Tom! You hear me? Tom!"
"Looks like I better go shut that noise up."
He showed himself on the porch.
"You want something, Mrs. Bradford?"
"Tom, dear, you come over here. Don't you stay with Rosie no longer. You come home here with me."
Someone was giggling and strangling. He looked back to see Faynetta beside her mother. They were both having a hard time. Tunesie had her hand over her mouth.
Tom hated to obey the old woman, but he couldn't stand it where he was. He would surely either blow up entirely or double up with laughter, and he didn't want to do either. He got off the Graybill porch and swung over by Mrs. Bradford's steps.
"I thought you wanted me to see her and tell her to move. She's goin' to."
Mrs. Bradford laughed. "She's gonna move?" She laughed again.
He had heard her cackle before, but something made his spine prickle.
"Yes," he said, "but she doesn't have to move for a while yet. The law says she don't have to because she paid you. She's goin' soon as she can, but you can't put her out."
"She never either paid me! That's a black nigger lie. I ain't seen a cent o' hers. You know yourself I ain't."
"You told me you rented it to her because she gave you some money."
"You did. Night before last in my house, right over there, you told me. Besides, you give her a receipt, an' I just now seen it. You know she paid you."
"It was Junior then. He stoled it. I ain't seen no money."
"Don't lie, Mrs. Bradford. I know what you told me, an' you wrote that receipt."
The old woman's eyes opened wide and her arms lifted. Tom even had a curious impression that she jumped.
"God damn you, Tom! God damn you! God damn you! Always takin' up for 'em. Sleep with 'em, eat with 'em, black nigger bitches. Had one of 'em over there with you all the time. I seen her. An' now you taken up with this'n. God damn you!"
Only the consciousness of two amused gigglers listening and watching in the other house kept him from shouting back insanely.
He said in a husky voice: "Good evening, Mrs. Bradford. I'll come back sometime when you ain't - crazy."
He half expected her to follow him down into the yard and take a tumble as she had done when Junior left, but her screeching subsided, and by the time he reached home she had gone back in. He saw Theron pushing Lillian Ann out onto the Graybill porch.
She ran back in laughing. When Theron did it again, she ran around the house, but not on Mrs. Bradford's side.
Tom picked up his newspaper and sat in his swing waiting for his nerves to settle. The stupid old woman angered him, and he did not like being laughed at, but as far as Mrs. Bradford was concerned, he told himself, things were just as he wanted them. As for Tunesie - well, maybe it had all been a little funny, but not that funny. He wasn't going to be mad at her, but he was going to show her that if she wanted to marry a man it didn't pay to laugh at him.
Suddenly he thought of Birdbrain again, the big blonde with the lilt in her voice.
"Bad as Johnnie May or Louise McIntosh," he thought, seeing her. "I could git that kind o' white woman. God!"
But he couldn't help hearing her, too, the fine little music of her voice, without the silly words that for a little wouldn't quite come back to him.
"I could get a white woman - not that one, God, no! I couldn't go to one like her for two minutes. Oh, God, no!"
He had some of the things she had said back now and he saw her more plainly. The pleasant sound of her voice receded. His repulsion was genuine. But he saw something else he had not seen before.
"If I want to be white, really white, what I got to do is git out where I can be white - leave Quarry Hill. Just sell out an' go, whether I want to or not. Live with white people talk with 'em, do things together, go to white churches, git acquainted - everything. Start all over."
It was astonishing and appalling, too, but it was the thing to do. He seemed to see it clearly now. Leave the Hill! Leave his home. Leave Diola's home. Since she was dead, it was the thing to do. Leave the Ewings, the Johnsons, the Thompsons, all his old neighbors, everybody. Get away from Mrs. Bradford. Leave Tunesie. Then she would see.
There was music in Tunesie's voice too, a better music, even in her laugh, even when she laughed at him. He could hear Tunesie now.
"But it is the thing to do," he told himself emphatically. "I can see it plain enough. I got to think this all out someway or other."
But right now it was time to take his paper inside and put his beans on to warm.
Return to Top of Page
Tom slept so late the next morning that he almost, but not quite, missed the iceman again. As soon as the ice was in the box, he went to the store for milk and then had breakfast. Afterwards, he washed his dishes.
When he went out to sit in the swing, Faynetta was reading on the Graybill porch again and Lillian Ann was playing with some other girls east of the house. Tunesie must long since have set out on her house hunt. Mrs. Bradford came out.
"Little girl," she called, "come here a minute."
"What do you want?" Faynetta asked loudly.
The rest Tom could not hear, but Faynetta soon got up and went in out of sight and the old woman went back inside. When after a little she reappeared, she was wearing the same astonishing headgear she had worn to the welfare office. As she started down the steps, Tom retreated within. From there he watched her plod down the road until she passed out of sight beyond the Ewings' house. Later Tom saw her returning with groceries.
"Prob'ly told Quincy about the big money I said she was gonna git," thought Tom.
After his lunch Tom went out to sit in his swing and vainly watch for Miss Harkner. Between intervals of listening for her car, he read away halfheartedly at a Western adventure magazine or daydreamed about living in a white community, vaguely somewhere else, while his old neighbors wondered at his going and variously regretted it or were indifferent. It wasn't much fun, really. He could breathe no life into his creations, the new neighbors and acquaintances of his dreams, and he had no grudges to settle with his old ones. Everything he dreamed he had to keep revising, especially when he dreamed about Tunesie. It was annoying never to be able to get it right. If she wasn't very sorry, he had to make her so, and as soon as he had done that, he was sorry himself. Besides, he realized well enough the idleness of engaging in such reveries.
"Either I ought to be serious," he told himself, "an' investigate this thing right, or else forgit about it entirely. Sellin' my place is another way to git myself boosted off of this relief 'fore I'm exactly ready if I don't work it just right. I got to feel Miss Harkner out on the subject first, an' do plenty o' lookin' around. This is serious business. Just because I can't imagine livin' among my own color again don't mean nothin' one way or the other. I got to reason things out, an' then do whatever's sensible."
Tom was glad when Cleofus Johnson came to sit on the edge of the porch and complain awhile about the irregularity of his packing house employment.
"Course, I do already got three mo' days this month 'an I got last, but what I hates is this thing o' not knowin' no time ahead. It's jus' a bugger, tha's what. Almost jus' as leave be on the list like you an' Ol' Lady Bradford. Jus' git along by the hardest, whichever way."
"Got yourself hitched a little ahead o' the cart, ain't you?" Tom asked. "Old lady ain't on no list - not yet."
"She be there. Junior ain't a-comin' back."
"S-pose not. Not right away."
"I knows he ain't."
"How do you know? You ain't seen him to hear him say so, have you?"
"I seen him an' I seen that woman o' his, too - that Rosie. Seein's believin'. He got one."
Tom's mouth fell open. His brain seemed suddenly to work for him, and he was astonished at his tardiness.
"Is she -" he asked eagerly, "is she a big old yellow-head with little-kid curls - so long?" And he made gestures over his shoulders.
"Tha's her. Tha's Rosie."
Tom nodded. "That's the one. I've seen her. Did you talk to 'em? What'd they say?"
"Nothin' much. All Junior say is he ain't comin' back on the Hill no way."
"Where are they?"
"Comin' outa the Owl's Roost las' night. She was yellin' back at some man inside, an' Junior was pullin' at her."
"Did he call her Rosie?"
"Yeah. When they come where I was standin' talkin' to a fellow, I jus' ask him when he comin' back up on the Hill, an' all he do is grunt like he don't want to know me. But Junior ain' nothin'. He ain' like the old lady. He a man. I don' mean to take nothin' offa no Junior. He goin' answer me. Course, I knows Junior ain' ever had no sense worth to mention, an' he an' her both pretty well tanked, an' what it do is taken away 'bout all the little brains what they is got. Yet an' still, it ain' no matter. He goin' answer me.
"I jus' sorta moves-like in his way an' I looks down at him an' I says, 'Junior, you hear? When you comin' back?'
"He fin' his tongue right quick then. 'Tell that ol' woman she can kiss it,' he say. 'I ain' a-comin'.'
"Then he drag on Rosie some mo' an' say, 'Come on, Rosie.' She don' drag fast, but she do drag. He pull her right on aroun' me. All the time she kep' a-smilin' an' lookin' at me with her scroochy eyes.
"She look back over her shoulder an' say, 'Hello.' Jus' like that - 'Hello.'
"I didn' answer, an' Junior say, 'Rosie, shut up. Rosie, you come with me.'
"An' they went pokin' off down Cameron Street."
"Guess she got her Sweet Lucy all right," said Tom, and told Cleofus about his own encounter with Rosie.
After Cleofus had gone, Tom read some more in his magazine and dozed a little. The paper boy woke him with a shot that glanced off his crutch and fell to the floor by his foot. Gathering the paper up, he went in then to look at the comics and read the news while he ate the last of his beans. Afterwards he returned to the porch.
Well after dark a small figure came across the grass toward him.
"Mr. Way, you ain't seen nothin' of Mamma, have you?"
Tom recognized Theron's voice, sounding small and timid.
"No, I haven't, son. Did she say when she'd be back?"
"No, she just say it might be late, an' we wasn't to worry."
"Well, she'll come then after while, so you do what she waid an' don't worry. You ain't scared?"
The boy hesitated. "Lillian Ann's scared."
"How about you? Are you scared, too?"
"I ain't as scared as she is."
"You shouldn't be. You're older. Is Faynetta scared?"
"Well, you go home an' help keep Lillian Ann from gittin' too much scared, because you know you're the boy in the family. An', remember, I'm over here if you need me. You come right over or yell, an', Theron -"
"You, or somebody, come tell me when your Mamma gits home, will you?"
Another hour passed. Suddenly Tom saw the flare of a struck match beside the Graybill house. It went out in the stirring of the breeze. Tom gathered his crutch against him tensely. He heard a voice call out something, too low to understand, and again he saw that spurt of match flame splash its light upon weatherboarding and window frame and define a sharp profile a while face and swaying, unshapely figure with a sudden big shadow stretching back. He saw the flame move closer to the window and go inward.
He jumped up in consternation and hopped far off the porch, bringing his crutch down with a shoulder-tearing jar, but vaulting and leaping on across the yard. In the road he paused, seeing no flame now, but, as turned his head a little to catch any sound, the burst of a great moon among leaves and a glimpse of city lights, the lights that every night were there, the lights still and moving, remote, unglaring, and reaching far out and up to meet the horizon stars. He listened and heard nothing.
Then it was there again, the struck match, and the call, still not loud, but distinct to him now:
"Oh, Jun-ior! Are you there? It's me - Lizzie. It's your mamma, Junior."
Two swung on across the road, but a rush of three figures past him, a few rods down the road, made him swing hastily around.
"Kids - Faynetta!" he called as he started back to intercept them.
They were deaf, it seemed. On they ran across the terrace and up toward his house. Suddenly they stopped, seeing his empty porch.
"Faynetta!" Tom called from the terrace.
"Mr. Way!" They ran to him.
"You little kids, go set on the porch an' wait there. Faynetta, you come with me."
He swung back across the road, followed by the silent girl. Tom could hear Mrs. Bradford on the downhill side of the house now. He struggled up into the yard and hurried after her. On that side windows were too high from the ground for her to see in. Nevertheless, she held her match up to shine within the room.
To Tom's utter horror she dropped the match inside. In one great hop he was there, pushing the old woman aside roughly, so that she fell against the side of the house with a cry. He dropped his crutch, seized the window ledge, and leaped up, falling across it on his stomach, almost toppling into the room. The match was going out harmlessly on the bare floor, but he snatched it up, blew on it, and waited for the glow to die.
"Git my crutch, Faynetta, so I won't come down on it," he directed.
"I got it."
Lifting himself on his elbows, he pushed himself out. He could hear the old woman sobbing. Faynetta handed him his crutch.
"Run in an' look in every room by every window. See that there's no fire. Quick."
The girl ran. Tom turned savagely upon the old woman.
"What's the idea, you crazy old fool? What do you mean? You want to burn people up?"
Mrs. Bradford only sobbed.
"Answer me, woman, what do you mean? You got any more matches? Give 'em here."
He seized her hand and half tore them from her grasp. She cried out.
"Don't you know they put people in jail for stunts like this? By God, the police are after you now. The law is coming! Git home, quick as you can. Git in bed an' stay there. Don't you ever, ever come out this way at night again."
She was moving off, almost fast, as fast as she could in the dark, whimpering. Tom really believed that he had frightened her. He hoped so.
Faynetta dodged around the old woman.
"There isn't any fire," she whispered. "I can't see any."
They followed Mrs. Bradford around the house and watched her climb up the porch steps, still crying, and disappear within her house.
"Let me take one look around," said Tom. "You stay here and watch."
He circled the house and returned.
"Let's go," he said.
Though he still felt uneasy, his reason told him that the old woman would give no more trouble for that night.
"God," he thought, "what a soaking her mattress must be in for tonight! But what else could I do?"
The younger children, full of questions, ran out to meet them, and Faynetta tried to answer them. Tom turned on the front-room light. It was a few minutes after ten. He was thoroughly alarmed but did not want to show it. Theron and Lillian Ann were shy about coming in.
"They've got their pajamas on," Faynetta explained. "They just got in bed when she scared us."
"Well, let 'em set in the swing a minute. I think I know what I'm gonna do."
He opened the old folding couch, which made a rather narrow and sagging bed, but wide enough for Theron and Lillian Ann, or in a pinch, for all three. Getting a pair of sheets out of the bedroom, he started putting the first one on.
"I can help," said Faynetta.
When the bed was made, he said, "Now let's get them into it. They'll be safe here."
"But their feet are all dirty, Mr. Way."
"An' Mamma always makes 'em wash their feet, don't she?"
"Sheets can git dirty this time. I'll wash 'em. So pop 'em in an' they can git some sleep."
He went out on the porch. "Bed's ready, kids. I don't mind pajamas. Got some myself. Come on in."
"You mean me an' Lillian's gonna sleep here?" Theron asked with a doubt as real as if he had not been watching and listening through the window by the swing.
"You sure are. Ain't that all right? Now hurry an' jump in quick."
They scurried in, so that, coming after them, he caught only a glimpse of much patched and repaired garments, breaking again in places to expose the children's brown little bodies. They pulled the sheet over them, and he came and smiled down at the two anxious, bright-eyed faces.
"Now, I want you, Theron, an' you, Lillian Ann, to do me a favor. Will you? Please?"
"All Right. Faynetta an' me is gonna be right here close, out on the porch prob'ly, an' nothin' or nobody is gonna bother you at all. If you don't hear us talkin', don't you worry because we're still gonna be here anyway. We just ain't gonna talk all the time, see? I'm gonna turn out the light, an' this is what I want you to do. Just close your eyes - not tight now, just easy-like - an' don't talk an', if you want to, go to sleep. If you do, your mamma'll be here when you wake up. Now, is that fair enough? Will you do that? Theron?"
"Yes, Mr. Way."
He got a comforter out of the bedroom, and then turned out the light.
"Now we're ready to go out on the porch. Are your eyes closed?"
"Mine are, too."
Outside, he said in a low voice to Faynetta, "You got any idea what's keepin' your mother? Seems like it is pretty late."
"No, she used to be late last summer every night awhile when she was workin', an' she's been late once in a while when she had a date, but that's - all."
Tom noticed the catch in her voice.
"Look," he said, "I feel like I ought to go use the telephone a little. You don't mind, do you? I know nothin'll happen. You won't be scared?"
"I'll be all right."
"I brought this comforter so you could spread it out an' lie down if you git tired. Or take it inside if you'd feel safer and latch the screen. The back door's locked already. You want to do that?"
"I can if you don't come back soon."
"Good enough. You'll be all right."
Quietly he let himself down off the porch and cut across the yard to the rough moonlit sidewalk. Looking down the street, he could see no one coming. The Ewings' house was dark, but they might be sitting on their front porch. IF they were in bed, he meant to wake them up. Tom thought Jim Ewing, who was a railway mail clerk, might know better than he what ought to be done.
Faynetta's "when she had a date" stayed in his mind, and the picture of a Tunesie forgetful of her home and children while she yielded herself to some carefree and sound-limbed young man who happened to catch her just right kept slipping in and crowding out the other pictures of an unconscious body at a funeral parlor. At any rate, he could not see how just house-hunting could keep her away from home until past ten at night.
The Ewings were not on the porch. He rang and rang the doorbell and finally cupped his hands against the screen and shouted Jim Ewing's name into the darkness within. Soon he gave up and stood on the steps trying to think what to do next. Possibly there were a few other phones on the Hill, but his nearer neighbors had none and who did have he didn't know. He came out upon the sidewalk, still thinking.
He lifted his head, and just then with the corner of his eye he thought he saw a movement on the vacant lot near the Graybill home. Though he saw no more it seemed possible to him at once that Tunesie could have come hurrying along the opposite side of the road, cutting across lots, or even yards, and he, on the Ewings' porch, might not have heard or seen her. He had better find out.
He angled across the terrace and the road, and, finding the shadowy bank too steep where he was, laid his crutch on top and crawled. Quickly getting up and retrieving his crutch, he swung across the yard toward the Graybill steps.
He had been right! He heard a call within.
Quick steps sounded upon the porch just as he came past the corner. She stopped, almost on top of him, drawing in her breath.
"Tunesie? It's me - Tom Way."
She suddenly sat down, her feet on the steps.
"What - do you - my kids?"
"They're all right. They're at my house."
"Oh, I nevuh been so sca'ed."
He told her all that had happened.
"Why, that ol' crazy! I'm goin' - I'm goin' to jus' - I ain' goin' do nothin', 'less I does it to you fo' bein' so good."
He could barely see her in the deep shadow of the porch. He heard one distinct sniffle, and then she jumped up.
"He-uh comes Faynetta."
The girl and her mother hugged and kissed each other.
"The-uh, the-uh, don' cry, honey. I'm home."
"What happened, Mamma?"
"Jus' a bus accident, an' I'm ti'ed silly."
"Tell about the accident, Mamma."
"I will. How's Lillian an' Theron?"
"They went to sleep. Mr. Way put 'em to bed on the couch, Mamma, an' he made 'em shut their eyes an' keep still an' they went right to sleep."
"Bless they hahts. I mus' go see 'em."
They started down the yard.
"Tell about the accident now, Mamma."
"Well, the bus try to go off the viaduc'. A ol' mud daubuh or some'm crawl up the drivuh's pants an' sting him, so he staht hoppin' in his seat an' slappin' hisself, an' he let the bus swing ovuh an' hit a cah a side lick. Then he juk it 'way back the othuh way - I guess he tromp on the gas, too - an' we climbs right up ovuh the sidewalk an' bustes right th'ough the railin' an' hangs the-uh. Our hin' end is hist' way up like we go on ovuh 'less we sca'ces our breaths, but peoples is spillin' outa they seats an' fallin' an' crackin' they he-uds an' yellin' -"
"Was you hurt any?" Tom asked.
"Jus' bruise' a little," said Tunesie, lowering her voice as they started across Tom's terrace, "an' aftuh whiles they gits us all out an' in anothuh bus, 'cep' a lady with a busted leg an' a coupla holluh-uhs they cahts off to the hospital, an' then we jus' sets the-uh whiles they astes how come us to have this accident an' is we hu't, an' has us to write on cahds. Finely, aftuh so long, they brings us on, so he-uh I am."
They reached the porch.
"I wan's to slip in an' see 'em asleep," Tunesie whispered, "if I ain' wake' 'em a'ready."
Tom held the door open and Tunesie and Faynetta tiptoed in. He maneuvered through himself, placed his crutch carefully, and swung to a place beside Tunesie.
She had been bending down to look at them closely. Now she straightened up and whispered:
"They sleepin' so nice now, I really hates to wake 'em up."
"Don't," Tom whispered back. "Let them sleep here till morning."
"You really mus' have a way with child'ens. They trustes you, an' I loves you fo' it." She found his hand and gave it a quick little squeeze. "All right. I'll wake up early an' come set on yo' po'ch till you wakes up or they does."
Mother and daughter slipped out, and Tom watched them cross the road in the moonlight, his head in a great whirl. He watched them until they disappeared within the dark house. Presently a little light came out from a kitchen window, and he turned away. He worked himself very quietly into the bedroom and undressed in the dark. Before he got into bed, he peeked out to see the lamp still on in the Graybill kitchen.
"Eatin', I bet," he speculated. "Never had no supper. Wonder if she found a house."
As he stretched out on the bed, he heard one of the children sigh and turn over, and he held himself still, anxiously listening, wondering which one it was, until he was sure that the child had not wakened.
The situation was so strange to him that he wondered whether he hadn't been terribly rash in offering to keep the children. He had no confidence now in his "way with child'ens," which surely was no more than a bit of uncommon good luck. Would they sleep till morning and not wake up? Would they want drinks of water or have to go out? Would they cry for their mother? Did he dare to go to sleep? He did if he could, he decided. It wasn't as if the children were still babies. Even Lillian Ann must have gone to school a year or two.
Since he had moved to this house from the east side, at first to rent but soon to buy, no children had ever slept or eaten in it before. He had never wanted children, had been glad when his and Diola's marriage had proved sterile. He had not wanted to consult doctors or adopt a baby, and Diola had not overridden him this time, but had merely been hurt. He was sorry for the hurt. For an instant he could almost see the child they might have had, a funny and lovable girl who had something of Diola's look when she was young, but who was only a little colored because she was half his, and then, as the picture of the light brown, bright-eyed child, a little freckled, became more vivid, he suddenly realized that he was mostly seeing Lillian Ann.
He doubted himself profoundly. When had he ever known his own mind and what he really wanted? Why had he thought he wanted no children? He thought vaguely that it might have been part of his reaction to the "east-side niggers" who had rejected him. Certainly he had never disliked kids in general. He couldn't deny that he liked Tunesie's kids, Theron and the two girls who resembled their mother. And that mother herself - what did he think of her now? He would not even try to answer. He dared not, and he would not. She squeezed his hand and she loved him because her kids trusted him. What did she mean by that? She was virtuous, but she flirted with him. She was virtuous, but she looked over his whole house before she turned him down. She was virtuous, but she kept on being friendly with him. She wanted to marry him, but she tired herself out looking for a house. She was good-looking and a good worker, but she had lost two husbands.
"I can't make her out," he told himself. "Why don't I quit tryin? I ain't gonna marry her or anybody else. Git her out o' my head."
But she was there again a hundred times. She looked at him, laughed at him, said funny things, and baked him a pie. She slept with him rather than disturb the kids or go away and leave them. She did something for him "fo' bein' so good" to the kids. She drove him beside himself until he asked her to marry him - and she turned him down! He saw her crossing the road toward home, going away from him when he wanted her to stay, saw her hugging and kissing Faynetta and looking down at the little sleepers, saw her sending the flour, with interest, back to Mrs. Bradford, and saw her helping the old woman back into the house after her fall. He watched her washing his dishes again. He heard her cry out in the deep shadow of her porch and sniffle when she heard her kids were safe. He listened to her tell of Mrs. Bradford's first visit in search of Junior and of the bus accident. All over again she argued about going to bed with him and about his need for an artificial leg. He had the leg and she was in his arms.
"I got to quit all this," he fiercely whispered. "I just got to."
Return to Top of Page
He did not know what had waked him. It was daylight but still early. The children were so quiet that he could not help wondering whether they had not slipped away and left him sometime after he had finally gone to sleep. He sat up. Since he had not pulled the shade, he could see his porch swing, quite empty. Getting on his crutch, he made hurriedly for the front room.
They were still there. Theron's eyes were wide open, staring at him, but Lillian Ann was still asleep. The screen door, which he had quite forgotten to latch, opened and Tom turned with surprise to see Tunesie entering with a little stack of clothes in her hands.
"I knows you didn' see me," she said. "I was settin' on the edge o' yo' po'ch so the swing wouldn' squeak an' wake you."
"Excuse me," he said, starting back toward the bedroom. "Lemme git some clothes on."
Her glance was amused. "I'll git my kids into theirn."
Tom could hear Theron waking his sister up and then the little girl's delighted squeals of "Mamma, Mamma!" Tom shut the bedroom door and hurried to change from his pajamas. When he came out, the children were just going out onto the porch.
"Good-by, Mr. Way," they both said and ran, giving him no time to reply.
"They's eatin' oatmeal an' raisins this mo'nin' an' it's all waitin' fo' 'em. As soon's it git eight o'clock, I'm goin' call up Miss Hahknuh an' tell her about all las' night's goin's-ons. If she can' hurry out he-uh today, I jus' got to call up the law an' see if they can' lock that ol' lady outa hawm's way."
Tom nodded approval. "Did you find a house?"
She shook her head. "On'y some rooms in a basement 'way down on Secon' Street. Wun't too high, but I wouldn' considuh it."
"No. Loud-mouth boys loafin' upstai's an' nex' do. They'd be aftuh Faynetta, alla time tryin' to put her outa the way. I ain' goin' put up with that. Faynetta's a good girl."
"I know she is."
"She goin' to high school nex' fall. They tells me at junyuh high she got a high I.Q. My kids all dooze well in school, an' I don' want to live too close to trash. This hill ain' high-class, but you ain' crowded. You got room to pick an' choose."
"Yes, you can say that."
"So I got to look some mo'."
"Let the kids play over here if you want to," said Tom, "after dark, anyway. Not that I think the old lady'll do anything again so soon."
"I ain' goin' stay out so late no mo'."
"If we git rid o' the old lady, maybe you won't have to move."
"I wan's to anyway if I can. Aftuh her, It'd prob'ly jus' be that Junyuh, an' he look like a mess. I don' like his motions, what I seen of 'im."
"He wouldn't bother you. Gone an' got him a woman, first I ever knew him to have."
"I bes' to keep lookin."
"Well, I'll sure hate to see you leave the Hill altogether."
Tunesie made no comment except to say, "Well, I shuly appreciates all you done las' night. I guess Faynetta think you's about the fines' man in the worl' right now."
"I like your kids. I wouldn't let nothin' happen to 'em if I could help it."
Tunesie looked at him. "It make up fo' a lots. Some ways you is an awful good man - Tom."
Tom looked at the floor and could think of nothing at all to say.
Tunesie turned to the couch and took the sheets off.
"I'm goin' wash 'em."
"You don't need to."
"Don't I? Well, I got to go eat an' then go call Miss Hahknuh. I'll tell you what she say."
She departed with the sheets and her children's night clothes. When she reached her porch, she suddenly looked around at him in the door and waved her hand. Tom waved back, felt foolish, but chuckled as he started for the kitchen.
"What I call a fair catch," he said.
He was slow getting his breakfast and slow eating it, so that he was barely through when he heard her knock on the front door. It was bound to be hers. It had the right firmness and vigor.
She was wearing a neatly ironed pink cotton blouse, a gray skirt, and white bobby sox. She looked very young. She shook her head when Tom invited her in.
"I got to git goin'. Miss Hahknuh say she be out sometimes today to see Miz Bradfo'd an' talk to you, so you be shu' an' give her a big eauhful. I tol' my kids to run ovuh he-uh if the ol' lady even look at 'em cross-eyed, an' if she git in my house, I wan's the law. Miz Ewing know what to do if Theron or Faynetta come a-runnin'."
"Sounds like you got ev'rything covered, an' I'll sure tell Miss Harkner whatever she can't see for herself."
"I'm goin' staht home anyway when it git six o'clock. Good-by."
Faynetta came over about the middle of the morning to tell him what she was doing and what she was going to cook for dinner. Theron and another boy and Lillian Ann soon joined them.
"Have you seen Mrs. Bradford this morning?" Tom asked.
None of them had. The girls soon went home. The boys stayed and talked for half an hour longer.
Early in the afternoon Miss Harkner came. She parked her car in front of Tom's house where there was no bank, waved at him, and went up to Mrs. Bradford's. She knocked several times, the last time so loudly that her knuckles must have hurt.
"Surely I couldn'ta scared her that much?" Tom asked himself uncertainly. "I couldn'ta really hurt her."
Miss Harkner went across to the Graybill porch. After talking to the children, she came down into the yard, seemed to hesitate about going up on Mrs. Bradford's porch again or going around to the back, then did neither but came on across the street to see Tom. With growing apprehension he came out to meet her at the sidewalk.
"Won't she answer?" he asked. "She can't hardly be gone anywhere."
"That's what the Graybill children say. They say they saw her out in the weeds back of the house with a basket an hour or two ago. You don't suppose she could take it into her head not to answer the door, do you?"
"Wouldn't put it past her," said Tom. "You want me to see if I can raise her?"
As they crossed the street and went up to the front door, Tom explained why Mrs. Bradford might not come to the door for him either. He pounded repeatedly on the old weatherboarding, but the old woman did not come.
"Listen," said Miss Harkner.
Tom heard it then, a sound of utensils being used in the kitchen.
"We better go 'round," said Tom. "Her kitchen's what you really ought to see anyway, an' here's your chance."
"She's not deaf?"
"Not a bit. Just sulking, I guess."
Tom was afraid that the old woman would see them pass the window or hear them coming and get out of sight, but she did not do so. There was no back porch for their steps to clatter on. Rounding the corner of the house, with Tom beside and a little behind her, Miss Harkner suddenly stood in the unscreened doorway. Mrs. Bradford was just inside, in front of her cluttered table, on which she had somehow made room for some dusty and cobwebbed fruit jars and a warm kettle of something which Tom guessed might be some kind of small pickles. With complete absorption she was ladling with a spoon from the kettle into the jars. Miss Harkner, who was closer to the old woman, gave Tom a guarded yet startled look which he was unable to interpret; there were so many things in the room which might well shock anyone that he could not guess just what she had seen.
Mrs. Bradford suddenly looked up fearfully, spilling some of the contents of her spoon upon the table where Tom, looking past Miss Harkner, at last could see. Now he knew what had startled the case worker and what the old woman was canning. Cockleburs! Mrs. Bradford was canning cockleburs!
"How do you do, Mrs. Bradford," said Miss Harkner.
The old woman stepped back, still staring at them and half lifting the spoon as if to defend herself with it.
"I'm Miss Harkner of the County Board of Social Welfare, Mrs. Bradford. I've come out to talk to you, you know, about your application for Old-Age Assistance."
Mrs. Bradford's expression did not change, but her fearful looked seemed more for Tom than for the home visitor, who now turned to him.
"Thank you, Mr. Way, for showing me over here. Shall I see you at your place later on?"
"I'll be there," said Tom, turning away.
As he passed the Graybill porch, Lillian Ann ran out.
"Hello, Mr. Way, see what I'm doin?"
She had a dish towel in one hand and a glass in the other.
"You're dryin' dishes. Why, that's wonderful! Who's washin' 'em?"
"Well, that sure is fine. Who taught you to do that?"
"Lillian!" Theron yelled. "You come back in here. I'm gittin' ahead again."
"Good-by, Mr. Way."
"Good-by, Lillian Ann. You're a mighty fine big girl, an' tell Theron I bet he washes 'em good just like your mamma."
He returned to his porch swing. Perhaps an hour passed before the noes and I-won'ts and can't-make-mes of disagreement became audible. Before long Miss Harkner came out of the front door with the screeching old woman in something like pursuit. She brought her fist down a half-foot behind Miss Harkner's right shoulder, almost lost balance, and grasped the porch post for support. Her yelling resumed as Miss Harkner started down the yard.
"Don't you tell me what to do. I won't do it! Ya hear? I won't go. I'll die. I'll die an' stink 'em out! Ya hear? I'll stink 'em out."
The idea pleased her and she cackled briefly, then lapsed into mumbling with only an occasional outcry.
Miss Harkner's face was a little flushed. "I better not stop to talk now, Mr. Way," she said. "I must get right back to the office and see the county director about her. Something needs to be done."
"It sure does," said Tom. "Did you see her try to hit you?"
"I thought she did. Would you and the neighbors be willing to testify if there has to be a hearing?"
"I would an' Mrs. Graybill, I know, an' Mrs. Ewing, an' prob'ly Mrs. Johnson. They'd all ought to."
"Well, I'll probably see you sometime soon, Mr. Way."
She drove on up the hill and around the corner toward Wayne Street. Mrs. Bradford had already gone back inside.
Tom went in and caught up on his dishwashing, then went to the store and got supper. Afterwards, until it grew dark, he read his paper out in the porch swing. Reading about the bus accident which Tunesie had been in made him recall all that had happened the evening before. He was pleased with himself. He guessed he had showed Tunesie that a man on a crutch could still amount to a little something. Of course, though he didn't have to tell her this, he could see what a pickle he might have been in when he had to drop his crutch in the dark if Faynetta hadn't been there to pick it up for him.
"If I had that wooden leg," he thought, "the thing'd at least be tied on so I wouldn't be droppin' it. I'd have my two hands free."
He looked at an advertisement of artificial limbs in the paper. He looked at the want ads.
"I'll find out where Tunesie goes to when she moves. I wonder what she'd say if I come walkin' in to see her some evenin' all dressed up an' walkin' good on two legs, an' said, 'I guess you thought I was just another stubborn old fool too dumb to catch on, but here I am, an' I got that job, too. Now what you gonna say?"
The imaginary Tunesie was so pleased that Tom said aloud," By God, I got a good notion to do it - just for the hell of it."
The thought made him wish greatly to see and talk to her - it would be so much fun when he was planning such a surprise. Not knowing whether she had got home or not, he kept looking up from his paper with increasing frequency until the dusk had advanced so far that he could no longer read. Suddenly he made up his mind to go over and ask about her.
As he started across the road, Faynetta came out and ran down to meet him.
"Mr. Way, Mamma just told me to come over an' tell you she got home all right, an' she's awful sorry but she's so tired an' headachy she's goin' to bed. She wants to hear all about Miss Harkner, but she has to put it off this time."
"Oh, all right," said Tom, adding belatedly as he turned away, "hope she feels better."
"Thank you. She will."
Would she even have sent Faynetta if she hadn't seen him coming and wanted to head him off? Yet she might have known he'd worry if she didn't get home, after what he'd gone through last night. Such a healthy person as Tunesie just too sick to see him even a minute? It just didn't seem likely. He guessed she had found a house and was all full of new plans in which an old crippled white man had no part. She didn't want to see him at all, except just to hear what the kids couldn't tell her about Miss Harkner's visit. When all was said, Tunesie was probably like most of the rest of womankind, a person with never a real thought in her head for anyone but herself and her kids.
"Guess this ought to cure you," he told himself. "Put some sense in your head."
And for the first time since the previous afternoon, he thought of his idea of moving away to become altogether white again.
"Guess I know now. It's the thing to do."
He did not go back to his porch but moped slowly down the sidewalk, going nowhere in particular. He didn't see the Ewings sitting on their porch until Jim spoke.
"Come up and sit awhile, Tom."
"Yes, Mr. Way, come and tell us all about Mrs. Bradford," Mary, too, invited. "You haven't been keeping up posted at all."
So he went in to amaze them with an account of the caseworker's visit and Mrs. Bradford's canning.
"Do you suppose she would ever try to eat them?" Mary asked. "I wonder what cockleburs taste like."
"Poisonous," said Jim.
"But are they, or is it just the spines? Maybe cooking woul soften them up. What do you think, Mr. Way?"
"Well, they kill cattle, or that's what they said when I was a boy. I don't know."
"Maybe it's the spines sticking in their throats. Can't they feed cactus to cattle after they take the needles off? Seems to me I read that."
"Let the old lady try 'em if she wants to," said Jim, "but don't you."
"Jim doesn't know how lazy I am," said Mary. "I don't think I'll ever make a scientist."
"Well, Tom," said Jim, "how you like baby-sitting? Hear you sorta had it last night."
"Now don't go embarrassing him, Jim. You can't expect a man to appreciate what you did last night, Mr. Way. It takes us mothers to do that, and we do. Have you heard if Mrs. Graybill found a house today?"
"I don't know."
"It's too bad she's having all this trouble now. Tunesie's a brave little woman. The more I get to know her the more I see how level-headed she really is. I didn't expect it. I don't know what Him and I'd ever do if we had to move even the first time, we're so rooted here."
"Didn't you ever think of moving? Diola an' me used to wonder - if, since you - sometimes, that is - when -"
Embarrassed, Tom stopped, but Mrs. Ewing understood.
"Why we wanted to stay on the Hill when we both have had more schooling than anyone else?"
"'Way more," said Tom.
"Not so much," said Jim. "I didn't graduate."
"You did from high school."
Jim couldn't deny that.
"Certainly I wanted to move," said Mary. "You can learn to be a snob in school. Maybe you aren't supposed to. People do. Jim didn't, but this was home to him. He was born in this house.
"Well, it was a case of being too poor to live where I wanted to, and then of being too busy to move when we could. You know we both worked for years after Dorothy was born. First thing I knew, I just didn't want to move any more."
Tom and Jim both remained silent, and presently Mary said, "I suppose you want to know why?"
"Yes," said Tom. "I know you still had friends that don't live on the Hill, teachers and all. Didn't you want to live close to them? 'Course you got a car now an' your house is all fixed, but still - well, back then, back before you fixed it?"
"It was having Dorothy and having to teach her. We said we would teach her what was true, and when you do that you have to look and see. I tried to teach her the things that Jesus said. I told her it isn't the high and mighty or the honored or the people who take the credit or the people of one color or another who amount to something in the eyes of God. It's the learners that count. It's the learners who really live. Just the learners. 'Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.' That seems a hard saying, Mr. Way, one way you can take it, and I don't know all that it means, but I do know one thing. You can't be proud in your mind or proud of your mind and have understanding. And there isn't any life without understanding. You have to keep learning. I tried to teach Dorothy that.
"Then I started to learn to know my neighbors and I found I could life here and raise a good daughter. It always was economical to stay here, and so we stayed. I'm not very much of a snob any more, I don't think."
"No," said Tom, "no, you're not."
But he always called her Mrs. Ewing and she called him Mr. Way, and he didn't know why they were so formal.
Once Diola had said, "She's our friend. Why don't you call her Mary the way I do? You call Jim, Jim. If you call her Mary, she'll call you Tom."
But he was afraid to call her Mary. "Well," he thought, "at least it ain't because she's a snob. I could call her Mary if I could just make up my mind to. She's right. She's a good woman, an' she ain't no snob."
Return to Top of Page
The old woman became noisy again soon after breakfast the next morning. While Faynetta was getting a bucket of water from the hydrant which both Mrs. Bradford and her renters used, the old woman came out on the porch and ordered the girl away. Faynetta shut off the water and carried her bucket, which seemed nearly full, into the house. Mrs. Bradford talked on for a while but not so loudly that Tom could understand. As soon as she had gone back in, all three of the children came running over to see Tom. Faynetta was carrying the emptied bucket.
"Mr. Way, may we get some water? Old Lady Bradford says we can't have no water till Mamma pays her, an' I know Mamma did pay her."
"Sure she did. What are you doin' with so much water?"
"We're washing our clothes for Mamma 'cause she had to go again."
"No house yet?"
Faynetta shook her head.
"How do you wash your clothes? Rub 'em on the washboard?"
"You fixin' to do a whole big wash on the board?"
"No, Mamma said to just do half of it this time."
"I tell you," said Tom. "It's too far to carry water from here 'way over there. Ever wash with a washing machine?"
"We ain't never had none," said Theron.
"Haven't," said Faynetta.
"Well, you kids all run an' git your clothes – all of 'em, not just half – an' your soap – don't think I got enough on hand – an' I'll help you wash in my old washer. We'll fool the old lady good."
The children ran, Faynetta still clumsily carrying the flopping bucket, and soon came back with their arms full of clothes – including Tom's sheets – some yellow soap, and the bucket again. Tom and Faynetta pushed his machine in from the back porch, and they put a boiler on top of his stove to fill with water. Tom let Lillian stand on a stool to turn the water on and off and had the other two carry water in kettles, which he lifted and poured into the boiler.
"Efficiency pretty low here," thought Tom while he waited, "but we all got to have fun."
While the water heated, Tom took the children to the front porch.
"We'll have enough o' that hot kitchen 'fore we're through," he told them.
"They were just in time to see two cars come slowly up the hill and stop in front of his house. The one in front was a Buick sedan driven by John, the big welfare-office custodian and man-of-all-work. The one behind was a police car containing two officers. John got out, and, seeing Tom, walked toward him.
"Which house do Mrs. Bradford live in?" he asked, straightening his black bow tie.
Tom pointed. "The one over there on the right. What you gonna do, if I may ask?"
"The county director gimme a signed order to take her to the county home."
"I'm strong for you," said Tom, "but I thought she had to agree to go first."
"I expec's she will agree to go first."
"Okay, but I can't help thinkin' one o' them good-lookin' car seats ain't gonna be the same no more."
"Back un's got a rubber sheet on it," said John without a smile. "Well, I ain't got much time. I'll go git her."
"Ain't got much time an' he'll go git her, huh?" said Tom, to himself more than to the children. "I can't just see her pickin' right up an' waltzin' off pretty as you please with no strange colored man."
Tom went out to the police car.
"You lookin' for her to make trouble?" he asked.
"Naw, we're just here for show. John's the doctor. Ain't never lost a case yet, what they tell me."
"I'd kinda look for her to kick up myself."
"Naw, she'll get a load of us out here, an' come peaceful like a lamb."
Tom smiled doubtfully and shook his head.
The officer said, "Now listen, Mister, I see you know the old party in there that pretty soon John's gonna come out with, so maybe you'll tell me something. Is she the real tough McCoy, or is she a bluffer? Which is it? Is she a real bad actor every time, or did you ever know her to go soft an' scare?"
"Why – ye-es. Once, anyway."
"Crazy or not, then, she's a bluffer. Now, you tell me – when a bluffer runs up agin a no-bluffer, who's gonna give? Huh?"
"Bluffer," said Tom, feeling cornered and a bit foolish.
"Now you're rootin' an' tootin'. There ain't no bluff in John, see? An' he's got an awful official-lookin' order there, an' it's same as gospel to 'im, an' a sacred trust. She's in the bag, Mister, an', God, how John knows it! It's the way he knows they gotta go that fetches 'em. Just you stick around."
Tom grinned. "Oh, sure, I'll stick around."
He went back to the porch to sit with the children. John, he noticed, had disappeared within Mrs. Bradford's house. All he could hear was the excited chatter of the children, the murmur of desultory conservation on the part of the policemen, and presently the sound of the water in the boiler getting hot. When he heard it beginning to boil over, he hastened in to turn it off.
Upon his return, he found his front porch invaded by several additional children, mostly boys. Others had gathered on the bank in front of the Graybill house and a couple of very bold ones had gone up on the Graybill porch.
"They better not go in our house," said Faynetta. "They better not."
In the yard of the house across the street from Mrs. Ewing a group of women stood staring. Mrs. Johnson was walking down across the vacant lot below the Graybills' to join them.
"They gonna take her this time!" a tall, grinning boy with broken buck teeth exclaimed. "I betcha they gonna drag her right outa there feets first."
"Head first! Not no feet first neither."
"Pull her head right off if she don't come!"
"Aw, Elroy, shut up! That ain't the way. Them laws'll go git her when she starts hollerin'. Git their guns out!"
"Stick 'em up, you! Stick 'em up!"
At the touch of a finger in the ribs, a boy flopped down beside a post, to which he clung while half his body, his head, a leg, and an arm, limply dangled over the edge of the porch. He lifted up his head.
"Hey, look, I'm the old lady. Hey, Theron! Help! Help! They're after me. Eeeeeee!"
"Aw," said Elroy, "you don't know nothin'! I'm the old lady. Listen to me. God damn you black ole nigger sonuvabitch! God –"
"Here, here!" said Tom sharply. "None o' that. Quiet down, all of you, or you'll have to go. Hear? Elroy?"
"Aw, how can I be the old lady if I don't –"
Faynetta jumped off the porch.
"Neacer!" she yelled. "Neacer! You stay outa there! I'm comin' after you."
"Aw, kiss my –" a ten-year-old on the Graybill porch yelled back, his voice trailing off into inaudibility.
He moved a few feet away from the door.
Just then John came out on the porch carrying an old telescope suitcase. Mrs. Bradford followed and pulled her door shut. John trudged slowly down the steps, and the old woman came after him. At the bottom of the bank John turned around but did not offer to help. Mrs. Bradford took careful little steps, turning near the bottom of the path to put her hand on the grass at the top of the bank and taken the last two steps backing. They crossed the rutted road to the car. John opened the back door of the Buick and put the suitcase on the floor. Mrs. Bradford climbed slowly in and sat back, looking ahead of her, neither crying nor smiling. John shut the door on her, climbed into the front, started the car, and drove up and out of sight around the corner. The patrol car followed. Over on Wayne Street, briefly, the police turned on their siren, and that was all. The whole occurrence was so matter-of-fact that Tom could hardly believe that it had really happened.
"Wish I really did know that guy's system," he thought, shaking his head. Aloud, he said, "Well, Faynetta?"
"Come on, kids," she said. "Come on, Theron."
They left the visiting boys on the porch to leave when they would and went in to start their washing.
"Mr. Way," asked Faynetta, "haven't you got some dirty clothes to put in, too, so you wouldn't have to wash so soon?"
"Why, I never thought o' that," said Tom. "I'll git 'em."
They got the washing under way with Tom exercising all his ingenuity to keep even Lillian Ann occupied in ways that she would feel to be useful. After a time, when Tom began to foresee a washing over and four hungry workers with nothing much to eat, he consulted with Faynetta on the subject and set her to work. When the clothes were washed, rinsed, and starched, Theron and Lillian Ann helped him carry the laundry out. He and Theron hung it and Lillian Ann handed up pins and clothes. Then they set the table and ate.
After dinner Theron and Lillian went out to play, and Tom showed Faynetta how he balanced himself to wash dishes in much the same way as he did when he hung clothes. Faynetta dried them for him. Going through to the front of the house, the girl his books, no great number, in the bookcase and asked to looked at them. Before long, she was sitting on his front-room couch, absorbed in Ben Hur. Tom took a book he hadn't looked at for years, Peck's Bad Boy, out to the porch swing with him and was soon chuckling with renewed amusement.
About four-thirty he saw Lillian Ann dancing and skipping as she led her mother across the road by the hand. She tugged with eager impatience as Tunesie stopped by the porch.
"Mamma, come – on! You got to see!"
Tom put down his book and joined them.
"Lillian Ann ac' like she really got some'm big out back o' yo' house. You min' if I has a look?"
"He don't care, Mamma. Come on now!"
Lillian Ann dropped her mother's hand and dashed around the house for a preliminary survey of the scene and came skipping back.
"Hurry, Mamma, please!"
"You'll just have to humor her," said Tom. "Run her a race."
Tunesie took a few running steps which sent the girl scampering and laughing around the corner of the house and then waited for Tom.
"Whe' you got my Faynetta at? I ain' seen her."
"She found a book," said Tom. "She didn't git no further'n the couch with it."
"That soun' like Faynetta."
"There, Mamma! See! Mr. Way an' us done it."
In full view the washing stretched along the clothesline in the bright sunshine.
"My, my, I ain' nevuh seen nothin' quite so fine! Wha' did you do to help?"
Lillian Ann told all about the washing. Her mother listened and praised and finally sent her around the house to get Faynetta.
Tunesie felt of the clothes.
"They's mos'ly dry, but it won' hu't a few of 'em to stay up a little whiles yet. I'll take Faynetta home an' git suppuh stahted 'fo' I takes 'em down. Now, tell me, so I git it straight, how Miz Bradfo'd cause' all this."
Tom told her as they went back around the house. Faynetta and Lillian Ann met them. Tunesie gave them directions about supper, and they started away.
"Faynetta," Tom called, "you can borrow that book if you want to."
"Oh, may I?"
She turned around happily, but Tunesie said, "Go on, Faynetta. I'll bring it with me soon's I he's some mo' 'bout Miz Bradfo'd."
"Well, she's gone. Lillian Ann told you that, didn't she?"
When she had heard and exclaimed over all that Tom could tell her about her departed landlady, she collected Ben Hur for Faynetta and went home after a clothesbasket. In the kitchen Tom started peeling potatoes, but when he heard Tunesie come around the house singing in a low voice, he went out.
"I never heard you sing before, Tunesie. It sounds nice."
I ought to. I feels good."
"Not like last night, huh?"
"No, I felt terr'ble las' night."
"No, they don' wan' to rent to you if you's on this release, an' I don' lie good. They always fin's me out. I'm awful discourage', but I feels good."
"All because you lost your neighbor?"
"Well, not all because o' that. It help."
"What else, then?"
Tunesie started taking down the clothes.
"Pahtly 'cause my clo'es is washed so nice, an' if I gits busy an' i'ons in the mo'nin' uhly the kids'll be ready fo' they Sunday school. Does you go to chu'ch, Tom?"
"Why, I – don't go much."
"I bet you let yo' wife go by herself, didn' you?"
"I guess I did."
"Ain' that a shame now! You needs to go mo', don' you think so?"
She came to an assortment of her own and Tom's clothes – shirt, pants, apron – and began laughing.
"Now ain' that chummy! Did you hang these clo'es, Tom?"
"My, my, my! Wha' you reckon the neighbuhs sayin' 'bout this, Tom? Don' you think they thinkin' some'm? Don' that look funny? Jus' look the-uh. My, my."
Tom blushed. "I never thought," he said.
"They li'ble to tease you 'bout me. You don' min', do you? You wouldn' be 'shamed fo' peoples to think you was a frien' o' mine, would you, Tom?"
"'Course not. I –"
"You's been so good to my kids, I shuly hates to have anything make you feel like you wish you hadn'. You don' desuhve to feel that-a-way. You ain' goin' feel bad if they teases you 'bout me? It'd make me feel bad right with you."
"No, Tunesie, I –"
"'Cause if anybody tease you too much an' you wan's me to go say some'm to set 'em straight, I'll do it. Do you wan' me to?"
"No, I – you don't need to say nothin'. Let 'em talk."
"All right, but you jus' tell me if you wan's me to say some'm. Me an' my kids all likes you too much to have you goin' 'roun' bein' 'shamed accounta us."
"I ain't gonna be goin' 'round bein' 'shamed on accounta you. I like the kids an' you, too. I don't like anybody no better."
"Thank you, Tom. I likes to know that."
After a little Tom asked, "What church you go to?"
"Why, I'm a Baptis'. I sings in the choiuh at King Solomon 'fo' I move', but it got mos' too fah fo' me now."
"Diola went to the African Methodist down the Hill here."
"I been the-uh. You' preachuh ain' bad – on'y," Tunesie laughed, "they needs me to he'p 'em sing."
"You gonna look for a house again Monday?"
"No, I don't feel quite so press' now. I thinks I'll wait a few days maybe till I gits my nex' check. This chasin' 'roun' ev'y day jus' eat me right up."
She finished taking down the clothes and, smiling, thanked him again for his help. Then she departed, singing again. Tom took his own clothes into the house and into the bedroom, where he did not fail to peek out and be disappointed because Tunesie was no longer in sight.
Return to Top of Page
An area of the kitchen floor was spread over with old newspaper, now splashed and spotted with wet. They served as a carpet surrounding a washtub and a towel-draped chair, drawn close against each other. On the edge of the chair perched a naked Tom Way, his foot immersed in a third of a tubful of now soapy water. His somewhat dampened crutch lay on the floor beside the tub.
Now he grasped the rim of the tub and lowered himself to rest on his knee, foot and knee wedged tightly against opposite sides. Letting loose with one hand, he lifted up a pan of clean water from beside the tub and began carefully pouring so that the water would fall in turn upon shoulders, back, breast, sides, and arms to rinse him off and yet run down, so far as possible, into the tub instead of onto the floor. In balancing, his stump kicked and thrashed the surface of the water.
Just as he had finished and was standing up to turn the chair around for a prop while he started drying, someone knocked on his back screen. Tom froze, waiting for the second knock. It came. Bang, bang, bang - three raps.
"Who's there?" he called, starting frantically to dry himself.
No answer, while Tom worked down to his legs, buttocks, thighs, stump, and knee. He turned the chair around again and sat to saw the towel across his back.
"Who's there?" he called again, more loudly.
Bang, bang, bang! Bang!
Tom dried his foot.
"Who are you?" he yelled. "What's up?"
And still no answer. Tom reached down for his crutch and hopped to a chair by the table next to the wall, where he had left his clothes, out of range of his splashing. His pajamas were there, too, for he had meant to go to bed.
"I don't git it," Tom mumbled. "This time o' night. Won't answer an' say who it is. Must be deaf an' dumb - all kinds o' dumb."
He must be deaf indeed. Behind its drawn blind the back porch window, close to the shut door, was still open, so that any sound Tom made would be easy to hear. And it was strange that no sound but the knocking had come from his visitor. It must be a barefooted child, noiseless in walking, timid and afraid to speak, not sure it was right to speak out loud to a door and a drawn window shade.
Bang, bang, bang, bang! Bang, bang! Tom felt a tiny chill run along his spine. What did it mean? Who could it be? Whoever it was could walk right in if he was bold enough. The screen wasn't latched. That was why it banged so loud. Tom bawled out in his biggest voice:
"Just hold your horses there! Can't you tell I'm comin'?"
His trousers were on now and his shirt almost buttoned. He wouldn't put on his shoe.
Tom swung over to the door and got the handle in his hand. Just for a second, he hesitated, his shadow dark upon the blind.
Tom jerked the door open. It was a man, standing half in the shadow, his face obscured beneath his hat. The hand and forearm looked white.
"Well?" said Tom. "What do you want?"
"Wanta talk to ya."
There was something about the tone, something strange, something wrong.
"Okay - shoot. Who are you anyway?"
"You know me."
"Not with you out there an' me in here, I don't. Why don't you come in? Lemme see who you are."
Something didn't feel right. Something seemed to warn: "It's a mistake. You shouldn't have asked him in." But he had.
The man opened the screen and Tom pushed himself back to give him room. It was a little man who came in fast, whisking in like a dog afraid of the door being shut, and, standing on the wet paper by the wash tub, turned and lifted his head up high. He did that because he didn't take off his hat, or even push it up, a dirty and well-worn felt with a little tear in the crease of the crown and the brim beginning to tear away in front. Since the brim flopped down, he had to put his head back in order to see. The face was that of Junior Bradford, showing his bad teeth and smelling of whiskey.
"It's the old woman," Tom thought. "He's mad and blames me 'cause she's gone. Must be that. Who's ever a supposed he cared?"
To swung his bath chair around behind Junior.
"Just takin' my bath," he said. "You can sit here, an' I'll git another for me."
Junior didn't sit or seem to notice. When Tom had got a chair from near the table, Junior still stood, fixing him with that strange head-back glare. So Tom didn't sit either. The two men looked at each other. Tom heard the alarm clock ticking away in the front room. He leaned a little upon his crutch.
"You had your woman, Old Tom," Junior suddenly blurted out. "Why can'cha lemme have mine?"
"What? What?" Tom couldn't understand at first. Then he did. "You mean Rosie - whatever her name is? Course you can have her. Have her all you want to. I don't care."
"Oh, yes, you do. You do so care. Don' gimme that. You're a goddam sona'bitchin' dirty, filthy goddam liar, Old Tom. There, I guess I tol' ya that time. How ya like it, huh? Tol' ya what you are, didn't I? How ya like it, huh?"
"Am I s'posed to like it? You're awful drunk, Junior, seems to me like. What's this all about?"
"Goddamn ya, you know what's about."
"I sure don't."
"Hell you don't. You know all 'bout it. Hell you say. You jus' let her alone. That's what I want. Tha's what I come to tell ya. Keep your hands offa her, an' you keep her hands offa you. Hell you say. Tha's what I come to tell ya. Don' know wha' it's all about! Come to tell ya."
"Sure, Junior, I git you. But I don't want Rosie. Someone tell you I did?"
"Nobody have to tell me. You keep offa her, I tell ya. Come to tell ya."
"Okay," Tom said, "you told me, an' now you listen to me tell you. I ain't comin' down on Cameron Street lookin' for you, an' I ain't ever comin' down on Cameron Street lookin' for your Rosie. So help me. Cross my heart. That satisfy you?"
Junior's expression seemed to relent and become less angry. His head lowered a little and his eyes peeped from under the brim. The look was crafty.
"How 'bout comin' 'cross the street? That any differ'nt? Don' think ya can fool me, Ol' Tom. What you say 'bout comin' 'cross the street?"
"So that's it!"
"I heard they come an' got Mom. She's gone. We go' a right to move in."
"Wha's it to ya? Go' a right to move in when we damn please. Right to move in right away."
"So you're gonna move in, are you? An' you want me to leave Rosie alone when you're right over there, huh? Rosie been talkin' about me? Is that it?"
"Don' make no matter wha' Rosie's been talkin' about. You jus' better leave her alone. What I come to tell ya. She's too friendly, but you damn well better leave her alone. You had your woman, an' you damn well better keep offa mine."
"What if I don't?" Tom asked softly, shifting his crutch a little closer, leaning forward.
Junior's head went back again and his face contorted. His fists clenched and he seemed to try to shout. The result was no shout, but high and breathy, a shout in falsetto.
"I'm gonna kill somebody yet. You hear me tell ya leave her alone? I tell ya I'm gonna kill somebody over that woman yet. Goddam ya, Tom Way, you cross that road or let her come over here, an' I'll git my gun an' I'll kill ya! I'll kill ya!"
"Listen, Junior! Listen! I tell you what. You kill me, an' I'll kill you back. You kill me, an' I'll kill you worse'n you kill me."
And suddenly Tom planted the point of his crutch hard on Junior's right instep and with his free right hand gave the fierce little man a strong, quick shove. Flinging out his arms and crying out from pain and fear of falling, Junior tumbled back upon Tom's chair. Only the pinning of the foot by the crutch saved the chair from tipping on over backwards.
"Now sit there, damn you!" Tom released Junior's foot and stood over him with knotted right fist, light and ready on the ball of his foot, his knee bent for quick action. "When you come in my house an' I offer you a chair, show your manners. An' take that hat off." Tom snatched it off and slapped it down on Junior's lap. "Listen to me now, an' then you can go - an' when you go, don't come back! Listen now, an' you better listen good."
"Long as you stay offa this hill, you'n your Rosie, you're all right. I don't want her. If I meet her, I won't speak. I won't even know her."
"But you bring her across the road over there, an' it'll be differ'nt. Your Rosie's a whore, man, an' she wants more'n you got to give her. When you're gone, I'll cross that road, I'll cross it plenty, an' you won't know it - then. I'm tellin' you now - ahead o' time. So you just take your choice, Junior. I leave it up to you."
Deliberately Tom turned and started for the door, which he had forgotten was already open. He stood by it anyway.
"Now git the hell outa here. Like Rosie says, I got muscles. I could mighty near tear you apart."
Junior slunk by, head down and hat in hand. As he went out, Tom caught the screen door so that it wouldn't slam. It seemed essential to him to prevent that, as if the sound might spoil the effect.
"I got a gun, too," he called, "an' I keep it loaded."
For minutes afterwards he remained there, holding the screen open and listening thoughtfully. Finally he turned the kitchen light off, went outside, and, still barefooted, made a slow and alert tour around the house. All was dark across the road at Tunesie's and at the Bradford house.
"Could be in there in spite of me," he thought. "Prob'ly carry all they got on their backs or in their hands. Coulda moved in late tonight, an' then come to see me. Don't think so, though. Sure didn't say so."
He lit a cigarette and sat on the edge of his front porch to smoke it. "Junior don't know how right he was when he called me all kinds of a liar. Least he don't know how he was right. Turned me into a real one 'fore he was through.
"Scared me a time or two there - for a while. Didn't know what he was crazy enough to do. But, damn him, tellin' me I couldn't cross the road! Tunesie ain't moved yet. An' if I done what I hope I done tonight - well, she ain't gonna have that new mess on top o' the old comin' right in to bother. Maybe -"
Return to Top of Page
Next morning Tom watched Tunesie and her children start off for Sunday school. Before long an idea which he had begun to entertain the previous evening became a resolution. He had bathed. He had shaved. He had shined his shoe. Now he hurried to put on his best shirt and favorite tie and get into his best trousers. At a quarter till eleven he started out. It was pleasant to be able just to go off and leave things as he had always done before Mrs. Bradford's visit, without locking doors or latching screens. He thought of Junior, but there was nothing to fear from Junior. He wouldn't show himself on the Hill for a while yet. On this bright Sunday morning it was so easy for Tom to believe that he had disposed for good and all of Junior and Rosie as prospective neighbors of Tunesie or himself that he felt a little sorry for Junior.
"Payin' rent an' payin' for Rosie is a lot more expense 'n he can stand. She'll be wantin' to git up an' go soon. Then Junior can sober up an' git back to bein' harmless again. Hard to tell a man he can't move in where the rent's free when, like he says, he's got a right – right about that an' wrong about everything else. Didn't tell him he couldn't. Just told him I'd cross the road.
"Wouldn't ever a got Rosie in here in the first place. One night'd be doin' well. She's dirty, but not that dirty, an' I just can't see her goin' to all the bother to clean it up. Junior never showed her the house, I bet. Just his idea. Prob'ly didn't have to do what I done after all."
But he had to chuckle, thinking about it. "Diola'd be kinda su'prised if she knew the way I acted. Wonder what she'd say. Don't think I could begin to explain it to Tunesie. Keep thinkin' she ought to know an' wantin' to tell her, but some things – tryin' to tell her why –"
He quit thinking about it. It was more pleasant to imagine Lillian Ann or Theron spying him in church and whispering to their mother to make her look and see him, too. As he passed the A.M.E. Church, he saw Jim Ewing and Quincy Thompson outside talking on the little wooden porch. He waved to them and went on. He was going to church, but not here. Tunesie was a Baptist. In this neighborhood that could only mean the Zion Baptist, a half block east of Lane on Cameron Street. So Tom swung on down the hill, crossed Lane Avenue, passed the Sunday-closed Owl's Roost, and soon reached the church, a weathered structure of soft red brick with many a boy's initials conspicuously adorning the lower bricks, the edges of most of the bold deep carvings, some of them decades old, now rounded, worn, and softened by the action of hundreds of rain, sleet, and snow storms.
Some other worshipers who, like Tom, had not been to Sunday school were also just arriving. All were known to him, at least by sight, though none came from the Hill. Raydo Smith, from several blocks farther along Cameron Street (he lived in a section which was about half white and half colored, and he must be, Tom reflected, a fairly close neighbor of Junior Bradford and his Rosie), stopped on the steps to shake hands.
"Glad to have you with us this morning, Brother Way. Brother Gatewood, you know Brother Way?"
"Sure, I knows Brother Way." Nobel Gatewood shook hands with Tom, and said, "You knows my wife, don't you? This is Mrs. Gatewood. Mrs. Gatewood, this is Brother Way."
"Very glad to know you."
"I knowed your wife, Brother Way. I never met you before but I seen you at the funeral."
"Thank you," said Tom.
In the vestibule he was greeted by Sam Davis, one of the deacons, who called to a man in the door of the auditorium:
"Brother Jones, won't you seat Brother Way, please?"
Brother Jones was one of several men and women wearing wide black arm bands, each bearing the word Usher in bright yellow letters.
"Just lemme set in the back, Eph, if you don't mind," Tom said.
"You don' have to set back here, Brother Tom. Lemme show you to a good seat down front."
"Thanks just the same," murmured Tom. "I'll just slip in here, Brother Jones. No bother to you."
He was a sore disappointment, he knew, to Usher Eph Jones, but he had not seen Tunesie yet and above everything else he wanted to be where he could observe her. On the other side of the church he saw Effie Totten and her mother, old Rose Bell, from Wayne Street, and now, just coming in, was his neighbor, Mrs. Johnson, without Cleofus, who was no churchgoer. She saw him and nodded her head, concealing the surprise she no doubt felt. Just in front of him the Raydo Smiths took seats and several pews farther down the Gatewoods sat. This one and that one he saw, but look as he would he could not see Tunesie.
Until now he had been confident. How could he suppose that she would go elsewhere? Hadn't she said that she was getting short of money for carfare? And surely she couldn't have visited the Methodists again. He hadn't, to be sure, watched her all the way down past the Methodist church, but she and the children had crossed to the sidewalk on his side of the street. The church was on the other side.
"Don't make sense," thought Tom with sinking heart. "That sidewalk ain't all that much of a treat. Nobody'd cross the road just to walk on it – an' cross right back again. Wet weather, now, it'd be differ'nt, but it ain't wet weather."
Just then he heard children coming up from the basement and hoped again. Of course, she'd collect Faynetta, Theron, and Lillian Ann to sit with her in church. He waited expectantly. Some of the children, none of them Tunesie's, marched into church together; others he could hear going out the front door. Two or three more adults came in. The deacons seated themselves in front, facing the congregation.
Somewhere in the audience a woman began singing: "Jesus, have mercy on me." Another sang it. Another. One sang and another sang. One was silent, then another. Deacon Sam Davis, sitting just below the pulpit, was leading and encouraging the singing. It stopped and Sam began praying, half singing his prayer, the congregation helping as they could, agreeing, encouraging. And all the while Tom sat disconsolate, almost without hope. The choir had not come into the choir loft yet, nor the minister come up to his pulpit. But if Tunesie were in the choir, where would the children be? Gone home without her? No, Tom felt, not Tunesie's kids; they'd stay.
Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty,
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty!
God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity.
The choir in their robes filed in from a side room and mounted, while Tom in complete gloom made sure that Tunesie was not among them. The Reverend Lonnie Elmore now stood behind the pulpit. Tom had not seen when he came or where he had come from.
A prayer. Another song:
Guide me feet . . .
Guide my tongue . . .
Guide my hands . . .
More songs. The choir sang and the congregation helped. The congregation stood and sang, stood and prayed, and Tom stood also, leaning a little upon the pew in front of him, not using his crutch. Sam Davis led in a half-sung version of the Lord's Prayer, garbling it once: "Thou art the kingdom and the power and the glory."
The ushers took up the collection. Tom had not been to church for so long that he had planned ahead of time to be generous and give a quarter. Now he gave a dime, thinking cynically in his disappointment:
"This show here can't be so hot, or Tunesie wouldn'ta stopped off with the Methodists. That's where she is, I bet you."
He could just hear some busybody of a Methodist persuading her across the street:
"Bettuh come visit us again today, Sistuh Graybill. Jus' love to have you an' yo' child'en in ou-uh Sunday school this mawnin'."
Edner Brooks sang a solo while the deacons counted the money. After he had sat down, Sam Davis announced the take, $8.82. Then the minister read a chapter from the Bible, gave a vague account of the condition of the sick whom he had visited during the past week, and prayed again at great length.
"Won't he ever preach? Won't he ever get this thing over with?" Tom asked himself, moving restlessly in his seat.
He wished that he dared get up and go. Would it be so bad, really? Couldn't a man feel sick? Maybe people would never ask him what the matter was – but they would. He knew better than that. He could see himself staggering out, giddy and ready to faint, really sick, barely able to make his way up the hill to get himself to bed. He could imagine it, but he couldn't make himself feel sick. What would Mrs. Johnson think and tell about him if he pretended to be sick? As it was, he had an uncomfortable feeling that she might guess why he had come to church, or that she would tell Mary Ewing about it and that Mary would be able to hit upon the answer if Mrs. Johnson couldn't. People would wonder less if he stuck it out. He'd have to stick it out, but when, oh when, would that sermon even begin?
At last the preacher did give his text and begin to preach, and Tom set himself to endure to the end – only that – decidedly not to make the best of it.
"No room at the inn for Jesus . . ." Tom did not follow closely. He was off with Tunesie in the church up on the Hill. "Jesus right where you left Him." How'd the Reverend make that jump? "You left Him at the card game. Jesus right there where you left Him. You left Him at the beer parlor. Jesus right there where you left Him. You left Him at the saloon. Jesus right there where you left Him." Was he going to say to go back to the card game and the saloon to find Him again?
Tom never found out. "She'll catch on," he was thinking. "She's too sharp not to catch on when she sees me come home all dressed up this way. She'll know where I been an' how come. I ain't gonna let her see me."
The woman of Samaria was being offered a drink of living water, of Jesus' water. All men were offered a drink of Jesus's water. Let them drink; they would never thirst again. Tom thought, "Who's he foolin'? Ain't nobody here don't want somethin', an' that goes for him, too. Don't know what it means himself." Tom was indeed in a bad mood.
At last the minister finished. "Give us a song, Reverend," he said, addressing Deacon Sam Davis and wiping his brow.
Sam stood up and led off. It was a new song to Tom.
Remember in His words
How He feed the little birds.
Take your burdens to the Lord
And leave it there!
But Tom wasn't going to take his burden of bitter disappointment anywhere except right with him. So, impatient and unedified, he waited for the end of the service, an end, he found, which was not yet. The congregation had to have a business meeting at this time to make plans for a supper. Then Mrs. Gatewood made a plea for a special free-will offering the purpose of which Tom did not find out, since he had no interest and did not listen. Mrs. Gatewood and Effie Totten sat at a table in front while members of the congregation filed forward and gave. Tom stayed in his seat.
At last came the benediction and Tom stood up with the others, holding on to the pew in front and reaching for his crutch, to be ready to get out fast. A fumble! The crutch went crashing to the floor, clattering on the seat and almost getting away under the next pew. Red-faced, Tom reached down and pulled it back. The people started moving into the aisles. As he got his crutch adjusted under his arm and turned himself, Mrs. Gatewood confronted him.
"Won't you give to our fund, Brother Way? We couldn't expect you to come down front."
So his quarter was required of him after all, and he had to take his time getting out, forcing a smile and a "Thank you" when he was asked to come again.
"All I need now," he muttered as he moved away from the last of his well-wishers outside the church, "is to meet up with Junior an' have him start cussin' at me again."
When he came to the Owl's Roost, he sat down on the bench to smoke and kill a little time before going on home.
"She'd laugh at me sure," he muttered, "but if I'm just a little later – 'bout twelve-forty now – even if she sees me, she won't know for sure."
Beginning to relax then and think about his mishap with the crutch, Tom would probably have been laughing in another second except that a bus was rolling up to the curb, startling him, breaking into his thoughts. It was actually stopping before he had the premonition that sent him hopping around the corner of the tavern, dragging his crutch after him. It was pure impulse and entirely the wrong thing to do. How ridiculous, how cowardly! As he peeked around the corner of the building and saw the Graybills already across the street and just starting up the hill, he felt so small and foolish that he could not believe there would ever be a way to redeem himself.
He must have been seen. It was impossible that not one out of four pairs of sharp eyes would have seen a figure so conspicuous as his. After all that had happened, now to make himself small in their eyes, to make himself strange! How he wanted to be going up the Hill now beside Tunesie, glancing into her face, listening to her, sharing her children with her, and he could not do it! He was grateful for only one thing – there seemed to be no one else to observe him. No one was outside at the filling stations, so that if anyone had seen him besides people on the bus he could not tell it. A big signboard, slanting away from the tavern, now concealed his absurd hiding from anyone happening to stop at Bill's. Thick clumps of regrowth elm and box elders behind him shut off the view from that direction.
Many minutes after he was sure that the Graybills must be out of sight, he was about to come out when the sight of Rosie Dushazer – strangely, the name the strayed bill collector had used came back to him now – going by in the direction of Bill's, sent him cowering back.
He never did see where she went. Every once in a while he peeked out but could not see her. Only when, perhaps twenty minutes later, both attendants at Bill's were visible outside of the station at the same time did he conclude that Rosie was nowhere about and that he dared to emerge. Crossing the avenue, he made his way along that side of Lane to Wayne Street and ascended the hill.
Going through Levi Anderson's yard and entering his house by the back door, he poked through the kitchen and dining room to the bedroom and there took off his tie and shirt. He would change his trousers, too, but he suddenly realized that he was exceeding thirsty after his wearisome hiding and his climbing of the hill. He started for the kitchen to get a drink of water.
As he came out of the bedroom, he glanced into the sitting room and stopped short. The drawer of the library table was pulled out so far that it seemed almost ready to fall to the floor. He had had a thief in his house!
Junior Bradford, he thought, looking for that loaded gun he'd told him about! Junior wasn't so easily frightened after all!
As quickly as possible he reached the table, staring into the drawer. What he saw immediately, and no doubt was meant to see, was a small folded piece of paper, not much larger than his bankbook, on the outside of which someone had printed, inexpertly: The Merchant's National Bank. He looked hastily through the drawer, then again with utmost care. His bankbook was indeed missing and this mocking piece of paper had been left to replace it. Nothing else was gone.
He picked the paper up and opened it. There was a written message with a pair of initials at the end. He knew his thief! Now he tried to calm himself in order to read her letter:
It look like you
hides from us
Mr. tom. and I needs
to no why bad you
you needs a lesson
You dident Look
like no grate looks
But I made up my mine
and now I wants to
no and this will
fetch you it time
We both of us
of this Releas.
and we can to
You gits that Leg.
if it Aint 2 yet
Come to dinner,and we
fights after if we
fights. T G
Tom stared and stared. Sheepishly he began to grin.
"Played like I was gonna be leavin' this hill," he said to himself. "Was gonna keep my nice new white skin, but it looks – like I kinda got out in the sun."
The clock told him that it was twenty till two. Still clutching his letter, he hobbled back into the bedroom, sat down with the message beside him where he could keep glancing at it, and slowly pulled on his shirt. His grin gradually widened. He began to button his shirt with rapidity. By the time he propped himself on his crutch in front of the mirror to tie his tie he was fumbling. He retied it twice and dropped his comb once.
Coming out of the bedroom, he put his bankbook letter back in the drawer, closed it, and went out.
"Tunesie," he said softly as he swung himself off the porch, "I don't see nothin' for us to fight about. Let's don't fight."
Return to Top of Page
Electronic edition © 2010 by the Washburn University Center for Kansas Studies.
Electronic edition typed by Sally Dyke and formatted by Rachael Metzger.
Print edition, Copyright 1953.
Print edition, Published by Little Brown and Company.
This electronic book is published by the Washburn University Center for Kansas Studies, as part of its mission to print and reprint important literary test either by Kansans, or about Kansas, for educational purposes.
For information about this book, or about the Washburn Center for Kansas Studies, write Center for Kansas Studies, Washburn University of Topeka, Topeka, Kansas 66621.
Return to Top of Page
Return to Electronic Books