Authors: Nicole Seitz
Tags: #ebook, #book
“Sorry, Al. Not anymore. Ginger ale's fine for me too. My liver will thank you later.”
“Oh, I see.” I think of my nice bottle of tempranillo in the kitchen and wonder about the etiquette of opening a bottle of wine when you're the only one drinking it. I know Vesey won't have a sip. Never has had a taste for alcohol or any other mind-altering substances.
“Ginger ale all around, then. It'll go great with my pot roast.”
“I'm a vegetarian,” says Graison.
“You are? Why, that's wonderful, so much healthier, don't you think? One of these days I'll quit eating meat too. I've got some macaroni for you, dear. You do eat cheese?”
“I'm sort of on a diet.”
“Well . . .”
“Don't go to any trouble, Ally. She barely eats a thing. I promise you. Thinks she's heavy. Which you are not, young lady. Men like curves, and don't forget it.”
“I hope so.”
“I have lots and lots of fresh green beans,” I say. “Okay? Now listen, Margaret. You know who else is coming tonight, right?”
A look comes over her face as if she's far away and here at the same time. “I do. Mr. Vesey Washington. Long, long time since I've seen him. Last I knew he was laying that wife of his to rest. Poor, poor man.”
“I know it. It's awful. Now, he'll be here any minute and I want you to be nice.”
“I'm always nice.”
“What I mean is . . . don't mention anything about . . . well, you know.” For a moment my stomach drops and I'm wondering if this wasn't a grave mistake. Maybe I shouldn't have invited Margaret over after all. Maybe I should have had a nice quiet talk with Vesey alone instead.
“What?” says Graison. “What can't we mention?”
“Never you mind,” says Margaret, wrapping her arm around her granddaughter's shoulders. She pushes her toward the screen door.
“Why don't you all go out and enjoy the fresh air on the dock,” I tell them. “I'll join you in just a minute. Got to stir my gravy.”
I hold the screen door open, the breeze gracing my face like a cool spirit while I watch the two maneuvering arm in arm across the lawn. Margaret is awkward in her high-heeled shoes on grass. She turns back to me. “Speak of the devil. Here he is now, arriving in style on the water,” she says. “Just like a savior might.”
“I said be nice.”
“Relax, Al,” says Margaret. “We're Southern, and we all go way back. Back to another time when all that was expected of us was to be proper and nice. If I know anything, it's how to be proper. And nice. Just ask Graison.”
“She could charm a snake,” says her granddaughter. “She's giving me lessons.”
“That's my girl. Now move on over. I want Mr. Washington to get a nice. Long. Look at me after all these years.”
INKE IN MY HOUSE AFTER ALL
these years. I met her at her ten-year-old birthday party in 1960. Goodness, has it been fifty years already? I remember her hair was pulled up in a white ribbon and she had neat bobby socks and a poodle skirt bigger than Texas. She had just moved to Charleston from Memphis, and not knowing a soul, her mama had invited every girl in the fourth grade, which is why I hadn't actually met her until I got to her house. And what a house it was.
The Finkes had money. It was clear by the servants they had offering us food on little serving trays, by the size of her house that overlooked the ocean on Isle of Palms. The house had five bedrooms and there were only two kids in the family. Her father was a businessman, importing Chinese silks and tapestries, so her house looked like an exotic place somewhere far off. Staring at all those colors, feeling the silks in my fingers, I longed to go to where these things were made. I longed to be exotic myself. But I was only a ten-year-old girl with a ponytail and shabby poodle skirt with the tail that kept coming unglued at the edges.
“How do you do?” I said, curtseying at my mother's request as we stood there at the big front doors. Margaret seemed very popular for being so unknown, girls giggling and running up and down the stairs. I figured having money and being so pretty and blond like she was, was all one needed to make lots of friends. I envied her at that moment.
“Thank you for coming,” Margaret said, smiling genuinely at me. “Neat poodle skirt.” She was a liar, and I knew I liked her that instant. She grabbed my hand and tugged me upstairs to go look at her new room.
I remember accepting food at that party from a black woman holding tea sandwiches on a silver tray. She was wearing a black dress with a white apron and I thought she looked a little familiar. I imagined Vesey's mother working in a home like this. I was embarrassed as I took the food from her, wondering,
What must she think about us white folks? Does she think we're all this rich? Does she think we're all so different from her?
I knew my answer, of course. In that house full of black servants, I decided to guard my friendship with Vesey from Margaret and the other girls in fourth grade. I knew not to speak of it, lest something unpleasant be said. I decided in that very house on that very day that Vesey Washington was going to be my very own secret. He felt more special then, pressing upon my heart. I never wanted him to think of me the way these servants surely thought of me and Margaret.
, I thought. Vesey knew that. There was no distance between us. At least, that's what I told myself.
REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME
SEEN HER LIKE IT WAS
yesterday. I was just a boy.
My father was an oysterman, shrimper. Hardworking man. He used to take that old johnboat down over past the river bend to the waterway, and then on out to the oysters. Me? I pestered him to use that boat whenever he weren't in it, which meant, 'less I was off oystering with Daddy, I was on my own, fishing line in the creek out back. I knew the birds, the same ospreys that kept their nests and had little'uns every year. I knew the fiddler crabs at low tide, how they ran all this way and that. I knew the tides like I knew my own heartbeat. Better, still. So when I seen this girl on the other side of the creekâmy very own riverâI knew I had to know her too. It was only natural. She was running through my veins.
It was a scorcher that day, but it was early yet. I put my line with a live cricket down in the water and watched that house over yonder, how big it seemed from my side of the river, how the dock would stretch out, asking me to hop on over. Begging, even.
I seen her daddy out there many a time, though I was barely eight year old. Knew not to mess with white folk. Knew it well. Had it bred into me by my father, from his father, and on back to Africa from whence we all came. Knew not to mess with white menâespecially not to look them in the eyes. But the girlâshe was my age. She was small and harmless, as I knew myself to be. She was sitting with her feet dangled down in the water, the same water that lapped up on my side. We shared that water between us, like blood, or so I thought.
Early one morning I took Daddy's johnboat out in the creek and dared to get closer. Her skin glowed in the sunlight like a shiny penny. I crept near, letting the water lap me up, and there I was, standing in my boat just feet away from her, and I could almost see the light in her eyes as she grinned.
“Hey!” she said. “I saw you last summer. You waved. Do you remember?”
I did remember, too, but the wind stole my voice. Couldn't speak a word.
“You like to fish?” she asked.
I nodded. Gulped. With her white skin, she looked and even sounded different, strange. Then a noise from behind liked to put the fear of the devil in me. Near 'bout fell out the boat.
“Veees-ssae! Get yo' fool-hide back on over here!”
It was Mama, and she ain't sounded angry, not exactly. I could tell by the pitch of her voiceâshe was something closer to fearing for life. I told myself we weren't doing nothin' wrong, but couple years into knowing Miss Ally, my mama found out about us twoâhow we'd sneak off in the boat, how we'd fish and laugh and pass the time in secret. She found out because I weren't too smart at ten year old and seemed to be getting dumber every day. I actually told myself I was invisible when I'd push off from the bank into the black molasses. That no one could see me. I was like that ghost pirate off the coast of Carolina. What's his name? Blackbeard. I was a ghost and the water was my turf, my place in the world. Where I belonged.
Dad-an-howdy, you ought to seen my hide after Mama got aholt of me. I couldn't sit for a week and I don't think that's stretching it none. See, Miss Ally and me was coming back from one of our trips on the water. We'd gone to sit in the breezes over down by the nice big oysters, when all a sudden my father comes on by in a boat with my uncle Percival. I telled Miss Ally to duck when I seen Daddy's eyes grow big and white, and his mouth drop open. Why'd I tell her to hide? I don't know. It was a mistake though, and Daddy and Uncle Percival beat me home. They told my mama I was out in our boat with a white girl, and let me tell you, I ain' never heard the things I heard, ain' never felt the whoopin' I felt that day. Saddest part was, I weren't so much hurt on the body but in the heart. How could I get in so much trouble just for being with a girl I considered a friend?
A friend. That's what Miss Ally was to me, but nobody could understand that, could they? We'd talk about fishing and the water and such, but we'd also talk about the other things. Like the clouds up in the sky and how the angels get to sit right up on there, nice and fluffy. And we'd tell each other our dreams. I wanted to be a doctor like Ally's father, Doc Green. Wanted it so much I could see it when I closed my eyes. I wanted to help people. I wanted folks to look at me when I come in the door with a thank-God-you-here look like Mama give Doc Green. Miss Ally would say things like she ain't want to marry and settle down, but she ain't known what she did want to do. Maybe go off to Hollywood and be a star. It sounded silly to me but I never told her that. I believed she could do it if she tried. She was pretty enough. Smart enough too.
Miss Ally telled me 'bout this one time her white friends was talking and one of 'em says, “I think it would be the worst thing in the world to be colored. Don't you?” Humph. Imagine that? What did she know about being it anyway? Worst thing in the world.
Miss Ally tells me this while I'm laid back feeling the sun on my face, the boat rocking all this way and that. I sit up right slow and just looked at her. I reckon I'd never thought of it that wayâ that being colored was the worse thing there was in the world. I knew it then, because it all made sense when Miss Ally looked at me, studying me. “I don't agree with them though,” she told me. But I knew she was thinking hard on it like I was. Here she was, a young girl in a boat with the pret' near worse thing in the world.
I still at that age could not understand the differences between us. I don't claim to be the smartest person out there, but dad-howdy, I was a God-loving body just like any white folk. I was.
Least, I thought I was till Mama laid that whooping on me and told me I had no business being with a white girl. Who did I think I was and did I think I was better than everybody else and don't I know she a cracker and we don't mess with crackers lest we want trouble and Mama didn't want no trouble. She done had all the trouble she needed so far. What she left me that day was this: not one more sneaky thing out of me with that white girl or she'd ship me off to go live with my cousins in that one-room house on John's Island with the meanest man I ever seen, my uncle Percival. There'd be no schooling for me, just hard work in the fields day and night.
I tell you, that did it for me for a good long while. It did. It was hard, but I never had any contact with Ally till she started leaving me notes in an old Co-Cola bottle at the end of her dock. I seen it odd-like shining in the noonday sun and come close enough to snatch it and take a better look. By that time I was pushing thirteen and struggling not to get into fights at school. The last thing on my mind was white girls. Until I read those first words I knew were meant for me:
I've missed you. Where have you been? Meet me tonight. I have something important to tell you
Well, with the soul of a thirteen-year-old boy pent up in my body, how in creation could I ever resist an invitation like that?
“Of course I came.”
Silence. Water rippling. “I haven't seen you since . . . It's been a few years.” The moonlight shimmered on the black glassy creek. Marsh grass tickled my legs. I could barely see the lights on at home. My parents were already asleep. “I could hear her whipping you that night,” I told him. “It was all I could do, listening to it. I cried and cried. Put a pillow over my head.”
“Weren't so bad.” His looks had changed. Even in the faint light of the moon, I could see he was almost a man now, and his voice was lower. A lot lower. It sent chills down my spine, and I found myself unable to look him in the eyes.
“You said you got something you wanted to say,” he prompted.
“Yes, I do . . . I'm sorry.”
“Sorry for what?”
“Sorry . . . that we're so different. Sorry that everybody thinks a colored and a white person should go their separate ways. Sorry about what happened to you that night you got caught . . . with me. I think if people just took the time to knowâ”
“I said stop.” His voice was barely a growl. He clenched his fists and looked around toward his house to make sure no one was watching. Then he whispered, “Things have changed, Ally. It ain't the same. We ain't kids no more.”