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Authors: Brad Watson

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BOOK: The Heaven of Mercury
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Negro Electric

W
HEN EARL BUILT
the new house across the road he let stand an old cabin out back, hired a maid for Birdie, and let the maid live out there during the week so she could stay later and help with supper, and be there earlier to help with breakfast, too. Said he could afford it now and wanted life to be easy for her, Birdie. Well just guilt, that. The maid, a girl named Creasie, got on her nerves, shuffling around the house in her bare feet like an old woman though she was only twelve years old. Because of his interest in herbs, Birdie's Pappy knew the old medicine woman who lived down in the ravine at the north end of Mercury, and knew she had raised this girl and wanted to put her to work. So Earl had gone and picked her up. But from the beginning Birdie had doubts about her fitness.

In those days around Mercury, when you wanted one of them you just drove your car to the front edge of the old ravine, up where it was still woodsy and there was a little dirt turnaround in the lot next to the old Case mansion, and honked your horn. Directly one of them would poke his head out of the trail leading down in there, a boy or a young man usually, and you'd say, I need somebody to dig me a ditch, or whatever, and the boy or young man would say, How big? Oh not big just about ten foot long, yea deep, and the head would go away and in about fifteen minutes or half an hour up out of there would climb one, two, three of them, male or female depending on the job (you could ask for a washwoman or even a midwife in a pinch). But unless there was a specific job to do you rarely saw them outside the ravine. They did their trading in town on Saturday afternoons. This girl Creasie was some kind of perfect example of a ravine nigra, seemed not only to be in her own strange little world but hardly communicated outside of it, either, just a lazy Ye'm, or No'm, or a noncommittal Mmm-hmm, or just a vague and inscrutable heh heh heh. Never really making eye contact. Kind of insolent, but nothing you could really nail down. Everybody said the ravine nigras were half wild animal, anyway, and half something else like wood spirit.

They hadn't been in the new house a year before the day Junius brought the dummy home from the trip to Little Rock, had sat him up in the backseat of his car for the drive like he was a real nigra and so everybody that saw him driving back into town thought he'd brought a strange nigra home with him. He let everybody think he'd brought home a real nigra man from Little Rock, Arkansas, and put him into a shed behind their house, Earl and Birdie's house, and kept him there like a prisoner. One of his practical jokes. Mercury was small enough even then so that everybody knew what everybody else was up to, and people would say Well he was not just a strange nigra he was a strange-
looking
nigra. Mr. Urquhart would drive through downtown at a good clip so they couldn't get a hard look at him, just see this black head poking up in the backseat with seemed like a funny expression, but who would ever think it was a wooden man, a dummy? If white people couldn't tell strange black people apart then how were they to distinguish between the wooden and the flesh? Being driven around town like with a chauffeur, which even she thought it was odd the way black people got driven around by white people, the reason being there was no sitting on the same seat together no matter what, but wasn't it funny. People knew this nigra was not from the shanties down in the ravine unless they'd been hiding him down there for some reason, and so for a brief period people were speculating that Creasie's people had been hoarding this strange nigra down in the ravine, maybe because he was dangerous, maybe because he was crazy, or both.

But all of it died down when Junius got tired of the game and took the nigra out of hiding and showed him around before bringing him back over to their house, sat him up in one of her cane-bottom chairs out on the back sunporch, till he could figure out what to do with him. Mrs. Urquhart wouldn't let it in her house. Birdie had to walk past this grinning abomination whenever she was coming from the back of the house, and got to where she couldn't stand it and started going through the living room instead. When Junius got tired of her pestering him about it, he finally just took Earl aside one day and said Earl could just keep the nigra. Birdie said, -Well what in the world are you going to do with such a thing?

Earl said, -I don't know, maybe some kind of advertising.

-But you sell women's shoes. How is a colored dummy going to help you sell women's shoes?

-I said I don't know, Earl said. -Maybe stand him up in the display window, waving people on inside.

-Waving?

-He's an electric nigra, Birdie.

-A what?

-He's supposed to operate an electric saw, kind that you pull the saw blade across the board. So his arm moves like that.

-Like how?

He showed her.

-That doesn't look like waving to me.

He just looked at her.

-It almost looks nasty to me, without the saw or whatever's supposed to be in his hand.

Earl looked at her and didn't say anything, she thought he might blow up, then he walked off. And not two days later put the electric nigra back out in the shed and there he stayed.

Creasie was spooked by it, she could tell. If she was heading to the back of the house via the sunporch she'd pull up shy of the French doors from the dining room and veer off into the living room instead, take the long way around. Birdie'd thought she'd be glad too when Earl put it up, but when she said something Creasie mumbled, -No'm, Mr. Junius likes to take us out to the shed and talk to it.

-Say what, now? You and who?

-Me and the children.

Meaning her grandchildren, Ruthie's two and Edsel's little boy, Robert.

-What do you mean, talk to it?

-Yes'm. He talk to that dummy like it's real, then make like it talking back.

She told Earl about it and he said, -So what? He's just playing a game with the children.

-Well don't you think it's strange to keep a wooden dummy locked up in a shed behind the house and to take little children back there and pretend it's real and can talk to them? And then to leave and lock it up in there again, them all the time thinking he's got a nigra man locked up in a shed behind the house, sitting up on a shelf like some boogie man?

Earl just laughed to himself. -You tell him to quit it, if you want to. I don't see anything wrong with it.

She tried to let it go. Then Earl brings home the new vacuum cleaner that day, odd contraption like some kind of metal basketball on wheels with a hose and wire coming out of it, and Creasie doesn't like it, of course, says, -Ye'm I'd just rather sweep, me, but Birdie says -Now they say these things will clean the rugs so you don't have to haul them out and beat them every week, so I want you to try it. And they plug it in and Birdie pushes it around to show her how, and pretty soon Creasie, who's standing there with this scowl on her face, big pout, takes the handle from her like to snatch it away and starts pushing it around. Then just to get her back, won't stop vacuuming. Every day before Birdie's even finished her coffee good, Creasie in there firing that loud, whining thing up, giving her a headache, till she hears a pop and a little scream and runs into the living room to see the wall smoking and the vacuum hose flung aside and Creasie laid out on the rug with her eyes wide open and quivering like a freezing person, can't breathe.

Birdie jumped on her and started pushing her chest, be dog if she was going to put her mouth on a nigra to revive her. But she came to, blinked and smacked her lips a while, sat up. Birdie helped her to stand up, and got her a cup of coffee. And about halfway through the cup of coffee Creasie started cutting her evil looks. -Well I didn't make it shock you, Birdie said, and Creasie stalked off back to the cabin and wouldn't come back to work for two days. She told Earl, called him where he was in St. Louis on a buying trip, -I'm putting that thing out in the garage and when you get back you just don't even stop, take it straight to the junk pile if it's going to shock the nigra maid and make her even stranger than she already is.

-You can take that durned old nigra dummy too, while you're at it, she says.

Which she repeated when he got home.

-It's not out there anymore, he says, starting to eat his dinner and not looking up. -Papa took it and sold it to somebody.

-Well thank goodness for that.

-Thank goodness my foot, it wasn't his to sell.

-I'm glad to be rid of it.

-That's not the point. Point is he gave it to me, then turns around and sells it. He takes another bite of chicken and mashed potatoes. -I'm going to get it back. He won't tell me where it is, said the man was just passing through. I'll find out.

-You do no such thing. Why in the world would you bother to do that? I hate it! Why can't you just let it go, if you know I hate it around here.

-It's the principle of the thing, he says. -That son of a bitch never gave me anything when I was growing up, and now after all these years miracle of miracles he's given me an electric wooden nigger and I don't give a good goddamn if it's a worthless piece of junk or not, he gave it to me and I'll be goddamned if he's going to just reach into my shed and take it back and sell it, because it's mine.

-Well now you got a real nigra man living here, so you ought to be satisfied, she said.

The real nigra was that Frank, who'd just appeared the week before—a black ragged ghost, there in the yard raking leaves in the scant dark gray light of a late afternoon. -You there, she shouted out to him, what do you want? -Yes'm, he said, I's just raking the leaves, something like that. She told him to talk to Earl, they couldn't hire another nigra around the place. But Earl says, -Well I'm sure as hell not going to rake the leaves, and it's hard enough to get someone over here to do that. Besides, he's staying with Creasie out there, looks like, maybe she can use the company, better to help keep her around.

She'd have liked to be done with the both of them, with the lot of them, there were plenty of white people, even old people, could be got to do that work. She didn't like them skulking around. If she hadn't gotten to where she liked for Creasie to fetch her sassafras for tea from old Vish—it was good for her stomach trouble and other ailments, too—she might have just let her go, but then too firing one of them could be harder than hiring, so she didn't.

Earl got to where he'd take Frank off fishing with him, down to the coast, where she knew he was seeing the woman he'd hired at the store that year and sent off to manage the new store in Tallahassee, so Frank knew that about him, about her, which was humiliating. She knew Earl was seeing her down there, but said nothing, it was out of her sight. But it made her feel all the more lost in her life, what she had become, and she would find herself sometimes on weekends when he was down there thinking she had slipped into another life where he wasn't even alive anymore, had disappeared almost as if he'd been gone for a long time, and she wandered the grounds around the house picking leaves from the trees and bushes and memorizing their vein patterns, their shapes, and digging earthworms from the black earth at the base of the magnolia tree out by the road to take fishing by herself out at the lake. At the lake sometimes she would stay into the dark, and lie on the cot in the living room of the cabin smelling the rank smell of the bedding bream and would want to touch herself but when she did felt nothing, no desire, as if she were physically numbed as well, just made her think of her sisters and being girls together and she'd feel sad, and she would get up and drive in the darkness down the dirt road back to the highway.

She wanted to escape it all, go back to the past. To be a girl again. When she turned into the long winding driveway to the house and saw the bleak light spilling weakly from the curtains in the kitchen and den where Creasie sat there like a black shadow in the dim electric lamp's penumbra with little Ruthie's children in irregular orbits around her, she felt she was a stranger reentering a world she would have to remember all over again when she stepped in the door, by sight and touch and by things the others said that might bring her back to who she supposedly was, like someone lost her memory and struggling always against her own will to know something of this place, these people, these lives.

Discussion with the Dummy

C
REASIE HAD HATED
the dummy from the start. Mr. Junius would round up all the little grandchildren, Ruthie's two and Edsel's Robert, bring them out there and walk them out to the shed to see the dummy. Come on, let's go see Oscar! he'd say. Come on, Creasie, you come along. And out they'd troop back to the shed, Miss Birdie fussing at him from the kitchen door the whole way, she didn't like that dummy. Mr. Junius would rattle his keys and open an old hasp lock on the shed door, call out, Look alive, now, Oscar! Company coming! and he'd cre-e-e-eak open the big wide door that was nothing but another sheet of roofing tin on a frame made into a shed door. Blade of light would slice slowly into the shed's darkness. And up on the highest shelf, feet dangling, eyes looking off to his left like a happy blind man, sat Oscar. He wore a dingy white shirt with no collar, shabby work britches with faded red suspenders, white socks, and a pair of knobby-toed work shoes that came over his ankles, if indeed he had ankles, she couldn't say.

All of them looked up at Oscar in dread and a kind of wonder, though hers of a slightly different kind than theirs, wondering just what it was made this white man want to keep a colored dummy locked up in a black-dark shed like that, up on a shelf. Something about it very odd.

-Well hello there Oscar how you doin' today! Mr. Urquhart's most jolly voice would boom in the tiny stuffiness of the shed.

And there in a second would come Oscar's voice, strange and muffled as if strained through cheesecloth: -Oh I's fine Mr. Junius, how you?

-Well we doin' all right here Oscar what you been up to?

-Oh nothin' much Mr. Junie I guess I been busy with this'n'that, here'n'there.

-Well I just thought I'd bring the chulluns out to say hello to you, Oscar, it's Sunday.

-Well they looking mighty fine Mr. Junie, mighty fine!

-Y'all say hello to Oscar now.

Hello hello hey they peeped, barely audible.

-Y'all want to touch old Oscar? You want to feel of his leg?

Silent, little heads barely waggling no, big eyes stuck on the dummy, hands clutching one another's hands, and little Robert holding tight to Creasie's.

-Well I reckon we better get on back to the house Oscar, is there anything I can get you, anything you need?

-No sah Mr. Junie I don't need a thing!

-All right now.

And gently he would shoo them out and cre-e-e-eak the door would gently shut and rattle the lock back onto the hasp and she, Creasie, would be staring at the door and directly one of the children would always ask, GranPapa, don't he mind being shut up in that shed all the time?

-Oh, no, Mr. Urquhart would say, old Oscar is a happy nigger. And she thinking how horrible it would be to be locked up in the dark like that all the time, dummy or no, it gave her nightmares, she'd be locked in there with him and he'd turn his old head at her and his awful red lips and white teeth would make her cry out in her sleep. He was going to bite her head off.

And then he'd taken her out there one Sunday afternoon Miss Birdie and Mr. Earl and the children gone into town, and she was going to head down to the ravine and see her mama but then he come driving up in his old automobile without honking the horn, had been to town but come back, said he'd thought she might be wanting a ride in. She said, -Thank you, sir, I'll get my things from the cabin, and he followed her halfway there, stopping at the shed. She comes back and the shed door's open, he's in there, calls out, -Hey, Creasie, come here and help me with something. And when she steps in there he closes the door, nothing but dark and a cleaver blade of light through the black, across the dummy, and old Mr. Urquhart begins to run his hands all over that dummy, showing her this and that, though you could hardly see in there, just that blade of light from the door ajar. Then saying, -See this here plug in his heel here, this here's an electric nigra, and then saying, -Why look here, I do believe this's a horny old nigger here, too, my my I believe just the sight of you has put a spark in him, got him all worked up! -No, sir, she said, I don't think he all worked up. -Oh, I believe he is, Mr. Urquhart said, and then he'd started doing something else—to her. He pushed her up against the wall and began to run his hands over her, and grabbing her, she was too frightened to breathe. When he pushed her down onto the floor of the shed she shouted and struggled, but he held her down and yanked at her clothing, and then he was lying heavy on her and pushing himself into her, the pain first sharp and hard down there and then cutting into her brain behind her eyes, and all the time looking up at that wide-eyed dummy up on the shelf, his amazed eyes wide open and dull in the blade of light from the door, and after what seemed a long time, a loud roaring in her head receded slowly into a distant noise and she heard a sound, a tic tic tic, and she could see a little gold chain disappearing into the little pocket in his vest which had ridden up on him and was close to her eye, a tic tic tic of the hidden watch in there, though this moment seemed outside of time, so that when he was at some point up and off of her and she was lying on the floor of the shed, she couldn't have said how long she'd been lying there just staring at the dummy, not in her right mind. She said,

-You didn't see nothing.

Dummy didn't even blink.

-Son of a goddamn bitch! she heard old Mr. Urquhart say outside the shed door, his pocket change and belt buckle tinkling. And then in a softer voice, -Little nigger bitch, just talking to himself. -Bled on me like a stuck pig.

-I been stuck, she would say to herself later, when the capacity for reason had slipped back into her like waking up from a dream, but you the pig.

She heard him jingle off with his coins and keys. Heard the car start up. Heard him call out in a minute, -Come on, now, I'll take you to town! Heard nothing but the car motor for a while. Heard the car door shut and heard him drive away. The dummy sat there.

She said, her voice strange to her own ears, -Why don't they plug you into the electric? I know what you'd do. Go kill them all. Cut they throat.

She lay there a long time no longer in pain, as if drugged or drunk, and then pain came back dull at first and then sharp and an ache all over. She gathered herself best she could and hobbled back to the little cabin and washed up, changed clothes, and put a bunch of rags in down there, found a powder and took it and lay down awhile, and since it was too late by then to go to the ravine she figured she'd better go on back over to the house and fix supper, since Miss Birdie and Mr. Earl and the children would be back soon. And that day, wasn't too cold for a day in December, but nearly dark at five o'clock, she finally gets back to the house, walking slow, hurting, a wad of rags stuffed into her drawers, and Miss Birdie is in there rushing about with supper.

-Creasie! she says. -Where have you been? Hurry up and help me here with supper before Mr. Earl throws a fit. And so she pitched in, feeling like the whole world was dark dark outside the kitchen in which they labored, feeling like she might faint anytime, and when she heard a car crunch up in the drive and heard old Mr. Junius hail from the driveway she slipped out the kitchen door and ran back to her cabin and wouldn't come out at all that evening though Miss Birdie called her from over there, called out two or three times, but she lay in the dark that was the whole world outside that little bit of light in the kitchen across the yard that even itself was fading now into nothing.

BOOK: The Heaven of Mercury
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