*Winner, FICTION PRIZE
By ANGELA JACKSON-BROWN
I knowed that was Preacher’s boy soon as I laid eyes on him. He looked just like Preacher round the eyes and the mouth. He had them same sleepy eyes Preacher got and the same droopy mouth that make Preacher look like somebody done took his bottom lip and give it a good tug. Preacher was near ’bout 70 and I was a few years older than him, but you’d thank he was a young man the way he carried on over the women.
The dew was still wet on the ground when she and that boy showed up. Preacher hadn’t long finished eatin his breakfast and had left for the cotton fields when I heard the dogs barkin outside.
“Ya’ll mutts hush up,” I yelled out to ’em. But they kept on barkin, so finally I couldn’t take the commotion no more, and I went to the door and there that young girl and her little boy stood at my door.
Me and Preacher is sharecroppers. Livin on the land we use to be slaves on. We’d run up North and lived there ’til Freedom come. Seem like the land called us on back home, so we took what little bit of money we had and came back to Parsons, Georgia. We didn’t have no hope that Preacher’s mama, Ma Punk, and my mama, Patience, were still alive, but it still hurt to come back and have to see them both buried out there in the niggra cemetery. We talked ’bout goin back North, but we was old and figured we might as well just stay on here in Parsons and work the land.
Preacher was like a lost spirit when us first run off when we was youngins. He’d seen too much. We all had, but slavery seemed to wear him down more than most. That’s why we took off. But time didn’t do much to make Preacher any better. I looked at the girl and boy standin in front of me. I wanted to close my door to them, but course me bein a righteous woman, I didn’t do no such thing.
“Yes,” I said, eyein her and the boy. I had the door open just wide enough for me to peer out at them. I ain’t one to open my door to strangers, even if they is a woman and boy that look just like Preacher.
She was standin there holdin a little red suitcase in one hand and the boy’s hand in the other. He looked to be ’bout 6 or 7. She was wearin Sunday clothes on a Monday. She had on a bright yellow dress that swept the ground, white gloves and a little yellow hat that was perched on her head all cockeyed.
She was that high-yaller type—thin lips, long, strangy black hair and skin so light she could pass for white if’n she wanted to. The boy was more dark, but not by much. He was the same complexion as Preacher and he was wearin his Sunday best too. She had him all dandied up in some blue knee britches and a starched white shirt. He had a little straw hat sittin on top of his head. You’d thank it was Easter Sunday the way they was dressed.
I reached up and tried to smooth down my hair. I’d taken off my headscarf ’cause I’d been drippin sweat in the head, and had planned to put on another one. I looked down at my housedress; it was all splotched. I’d never really paid it too much mind ’til just then.
“Hello, ma’am. My name is Pearl, and this here is my boy Lewis. Say hello, Lewis,” she said puttin her arm around his shoulder, pushin him toward the door so close that his little nose was pressed against the screen.
“Hello, ma’am,” he mumbled.
I nodded my head, still not openin the door. I couldn’t speak. Seem like my tongue was all tied up in knots. I just kept lookin at them. Waitin, really. Kinda hopin she wasn’t gone say what I already knowed she was gone say. She kinda shifted her weight from one foot to another. She looked like a scared child ’bout the face. She didn’t hardly look like she outta be nobody’s mama.
“Ma’am, you mind if me and this boy sit on your porch for a spell? We pretty much walked all the way here from my Pappy’s place from up near Macon and we shore is tired,” she said, takin a dainty little handkerchief from her pocket and dabbin at her face.
I wondered where Preacher had met her. He had taken to preachin again, so I’m thankin he probably met her at some revival meetin. My rheumatism kept me from goin with him most times. Didn’t speck, from the looks of it, he woulda been wantin me to tag along anyhow.
Somehow I found my voice. “Course you can sit. Is y’all hungry?”
I could tell they were, but neither one of them said so. They just plopped down on the steps, the boy inchin as close to her as he could without climbin on her lap. I didn’t press them about eatin ’cause to be honest, I shore weren’t in no mood to be cookin for my husband’s woman and child.
“Miss Apple …”
“What you call me?”
“Miss Apple. That’s what they call you ain’t it?” she asked, lookin up at me all confused.
When she said my name, I wanted to swang open that door and push her off my porch with what little strength I had left in my body. When she let my name flow off her lips like she knew me and all, well, I coulda balled up my fist and walloped her ‘cross her mouth. I knew her knowin my name meant she and Preacher must have been closer than just a one time thang.
Somewhere between him layin down with her and gettin up, the two of them had talked. That somehow made all this worse. My spirit suddenly felt like it do when the preachin and singin at church is just right. I wanted to throw my arms in the air and shout at the top of my lungs, but I stayed quiet. I opened up the door and went out and sat in my rocker. It was mid-October and a bit cool, but I didn’t feel no chill at all.
“Ma’am, can he go out there and play? You know—so we can talk,” she said, lowerin her voice.
“That be alright,” I said, and she whispered something in his ear. He nodded and then run out to the tree wheel swang Preacher put out in the yard for when some of the children from church would come over. Me and Preacher didn’t have no children of our own. Back when I was younger, I’d carry a baby for a month or two and then it would slide right out as if there weren’t nothin inside of me for it to latch hold to. Nothin grieved me more than not bein able to have some babies. I think if I’d had a baby or two then maybe Preacher and me woulda been a tad bit closer.
“He shore is a mannerable boy,” I said to her. Not bein able to thank of anything else to say.
“Thank you. Ma’am, I didn’t mean to come here and disrespect your house. But he and I don’t have anywhere else to go. Miss Apple, he Mr. Preacher’s boy. I was just 16 when—Miss Apple?—Miss Apple?”
I slumped down in my chair. Hearin her say the words stole my breath. She hopped up and was fannin me with her handkerchief.
“Ma’am, do you need some water?” she asked. “I don’t know where things are, but I could go look.”
I shook my head. What I needed was a good dip of snuff to pack between my bottom lip and gums, but I had promised the Lord I wouldn’t use no more snuff—not even to calm my nerves. I just commenced to rockin. She kept lookin at me like I had all of a sudden took sick.
“Ma’am, we don’t have to talk about this if’n you don’t want to. I reckon you can figure out the story. But right now, Lewis and I don’t have nowhere to go and no money to get there,” she said, her light brown eyes stretchin wide, battin real fast to keep the tears away. “Ma’am, I’m trying to get to Chicago. I hear niggras can do good for themselves up there. I was praying you and Mr. Preacher might see fit to spare us any little bit you can to help us on our journey.”
I looked at that little gal like she was crazy. Where’d she get the notion me and Preacher had some money? There she come marchin up to my house dressed better than lots of whites around Parsons, and she thought we were supposed to give her money that weren’t even ours to give. We was lucky to break even after everything was said and done. Seed for next year’s crop, a little muslin so I could make us some warm clothes for the winter, and some food staples we couldn’t grow ourselves—once we paid for them things, the money was gone. Preacher would get a nickel here and there when he’d go out and do them revival meetins, but that wasn’t often since he had to be home to work the land. I clicked my teeth together and just looked at her.
She kept on talkin like I wasn’t lookin at her like she was outta her fool mind. “I know it’s awful bold of me to be marchin up here in your face like this beggin for money, but I didn’t know where else to go. Me and my folks had a fallin out. I promise, if’n ya’ll help me and Lewis this one time, you won’t never be bothered with us again.”
Then, she burst into tears. Now you cryin, I thought to myself. Weren’t cryin when you was beddin down another woman’s husband, now was you? But the little thing looked so pitiful. I didn’t know what to do except what any Christian woman would do and that was to get out of my seat and put my arms around her shoulders and pat.
“Maybe your folks take you back,” I said, and she boo hooed even worse. I patted harder. “Never mind that, honey. Never mind. Why don’t you tell me ’bout this pretty dress you wearin. You make this?”
Pearl dabbed at her eyes again. “No, ma’am. This dress used to belong to the white woman I did housework for back home. It was dingy as all get out when she gave it to me, but I washed it real good. And that suit Lewis got on. I made it with some leftover scraps from the Easter suit of the little white boy I kept,” she said, smilin through her tears.
I smiled back at her. One thang is for sure. No matter how upset a woman might be, you get her to talkin about her cookin, sewin or cleanin, and she cheer right up.
“Ain’t no need of y’all rushin so. Chicago ain’t goin nowhere. Come on in.”
“You sure, ma’am?” she asked.
I nodded. She weren’t gone get no money outta us, but I could at least make sure she and that boy had some food to eat ‘fore they got on they way.
“Thank you, ma’am,” she said, smilin, but not quite meetin my eye. “Lewis. Lewis, come here, son.”
“Where you say you from?”
“Near Macon. You ever been there?”
“No,” I said, but then I started rememberin. I remembered the revival meetin Preacher did near Macon around the time the boy would have been got. I was down in the bed sick and a lady from our church had come and stayed with me. I even remember him sayin it was the best meetin he’d preached in years.
“Better than when you use to preach under that Chinaberry tree?” I’d teased. When we was young, Preacher used to preach to all us slaves underneath this Chinaberry tree that sat off near the fields where we picked cotton. After Freedom come, I heard some niggras went out there and cut down that tree.
“Don’t talk about them days. Them days is gone,” he’d said and had gone off in a huff. He didn’t like talkin about slavery times none. Not even about his mama, Ma Punk—God bless her soul. I’d bring up them days or his mama, and he’d jump hot and be gone for hours.
“Your folk’s house was where he stayed?” I asked. She looked at me and nodded. I reached over and patted her shoulders. Weren’t no use in me bein mad at her. She was just a chile. Could be me and Preacher’s grandchild or great-grandchild even. I looked at her and wondered how Preacher could have come to that—layin with a child. “Get that Lewis and let’s go inside and get you two fed. I know y’all hungry. Tell me ‘gain how y’all get this far?”
“Walked some. Rode in the back of wagons the rest of the time. Couple nights we slept in a few barns. We cleaned up this morning at a creek down the road from here.”
I nodded. “Well, come on in.”
She called that boy Lewis again and he came runnin. They both followed me inside. Mine and Preacher’s cabin wasn’t much, but we’d done a lot to make it feel like home. We had the main room where I had my stove for cookin and keepin us warm at nights durin the winter months. We had a well outside that I would go to for water for cookin and washin dishes after we ate. I still had some biscuits, sausage and gravy leftover from the breakfast I had made for Preacher. I fixed them both a plate and they ate like they hadn’t ate in days.
I just watched them for a spell. I was wonderin why I wasn’t more angry. Oh, I was plenty angry at Preacher, but this little chile and her son were growin on me. She and I talked and talked. Not ’bout nothin serious. Just woman stuff. We talked ’bout clothes we had sewed lately and foods we liked to cook. And then we talked about washin.
Before I left the plantation Ma Punk taught me how to make lye soap, and since then, that is all I ever let touch our clothes. I mix up some lye, some hog grease and water, and then I heat it all up in my cast-iron pot. I wash all my clothes by hand with water from the creek.
People all over Parsons know how good I do with washin clothes. I take in wash for Miss Dorothy Parsons. She married to Mr. Jackson Parsons whose daddy, Little Jack Parson, weren’t nothin but a little boy when me and Preacher run off ‘fore slavery ended. But with my rheumatism, it be gettin harder and harder to take in wash.
I asked Pearl how she liked to wash.
“I like to wash with lye soap like you, but I also like to put a little rose water in my wash. I make it myself. It make the clothes smell so good.”
“It don’t stain your wash?”
“Oh no, ma’am,” she said, shakin her head, causin her hair to float ‘cross her shoulders. “Only way you know it’s in your clothes is by the smell. I make another kind of smell-good water with eucalyptus. I sometimes sprinkle a little of that on my sheets and pillowcases. It help to make you sleep better.”
She reached into her purse and handed me two little bottles that looked like plain water. I opened one of ’em and could smell the scent of roses. It smelled better than the smell good stuff you could buy to dab on your neck.
“That be for you, Miss Apple,” she said, smilin and duckin her head.
“Thank you, honey,” I said. I put the little bottles of smell good stuff in my apron pocket. I knew I should be hurryin her and the boy off on their way. I should be tellin them to get out my house and leave me to some peace. But if the truth be told, I was enjoyin her company, and the boy weren’t no trouble at all. He just sat out the way and played quite to himself.
She smiled. “You’re welcome, Miss Apple. Thank you for your kindness. I wasn’t expecting you to be so nice.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Ain’t no use me bein mean to you and that boy. Preacher the one who shoulda known better. You was just a chile. Still is next to him and me.”
A look went ‘cross her face like she’d just seen a haint or somethin. “He’s going to be mad about Lewis and me being here.”
I reached over ‘cross the table and patted her hand, shockin myself at what I said next. “Don’t you worry none. I’ll take care of Preacher.” Then I thought: how was I gone take care of Preacher? He and me was more like two strangers livin together. Too much had happened in Preacher’s life that had him bitter and hard, ‘specially towards me. He still preached on God’s love, but you could tell by lookin at him that he didn’t let that love inside himself. I knew little Pearl was just one of many. Half the niggra gals in Parsons had laid up with Preacher. I knew this. I tried not to let it pain me, ’cause I knew I didn’t have nothin to make him want to come to my bed no more. I looked out the window, payin attention to where the sun was. “Time I get a pot of stew goin, and this wash ain’t gonna take care of itself.”
“May I help?” she asked.
I looked at her real hard. “You talk with good manners. You shoulda been a teacher. I’m sorry you got mixed up with Preacher. He always has been able to charm the birds out the trees.”
I got up and started collectin the dishes so I could wash ’em. I had a pot of water boilin on the stove.
“They must be hurt—your mama and daddy, I mean. What with you and this boy takin off and all. Why did y’all up and leave like that?”
She bowed her head and wiped away the tears. “They were real hurt when I—when this happened. I never would tell them who the daddy was. That caused tension. But then it got worse because they weren’t kind to Lewis. My pappy would beat Lewis for no reason at all. Just beat on Lewis because he was got in the wrong way. I didn’t want Lewis getting hurt anymore so we left.”
I shook my head. “Seem like they coulda took one look at that boy’s face and knowed he was Preacher’s boy, but I guess folks see what they want to see. And I can’t see nobody bein unkind to that boy, but never mind all that,” I said real fast ’cause she was lookin like she was ’bout to have a full-on cryin fit. “If’n you want to help me, you better slip on that apron I keep hanging on that coat hook over in the corner.”
“Yes ma’am,” she said and quickly got up.
We cleaned up the breakfast dishes, and while I got the stew cookin, Pearl started in on the wash. After a while, I got tired and sat a spell, but she kept workin. We both got quiet. She was all into what she was doin, and I was watchin her like a mama bird watchin her chicks. I was makin sure she didn’t do nothin wrong. But she didn’t.
She tended to my wash like she was washin a newborn baby. I saw her reach into the water and gently wash the delicate clothes —my slip, my one good Sunday dress and some of my underwear. I almost sighed. I ain’t never seen nobody enjoy washin like that nor take such good care of what she was washin, except for me. If it weren’t for Preacher and his doins, I could almost see me and Pearl growin close. I don’t have what you’d call friends. I pretty much stay to myself. I have speakin friends, but no close friends.
After Pearl finished washin my things, she turned her attention to Preacher’s good white shirt. Yesterday before church, he cut himself shavin and dribbled some blood on it. I probably could have gotten it out if I had tended to it right then, but I wasn’t ’bout to work on the Lord’s day, shirt or no shirt.
“This stain won’t come out, Miss Apple,” Pearl said after several minutes of scrubbin.
I got up slowly from my chair and walked over to the sink where she was workin. Sweat was pourin down her face and even though she was wearin an apron over her dress, I could tell she had splotched it up a bit. I took the shirt from her tiny little hands. It was hard for me to believe hands that small had the power to wash. Hands that small ought to be playin a piano or writin words on a chalkboard.
Her hands weren’t nothin like mine. My hands were rough from years of field work. I wondered if Preacher had stroked her hands and said soft words to her when they lay together. I couldn’t remember the last time he’d touched my hands. I tried to soften them a bit by puttin salve on them, but they never got soft.
“Let it be for a spell,” I said, pushin the shirt deeper into the soapy water. “If it’s gone come out, it’ll come out in the wash. Why don’t you and the boy go and rest in me and Preacher’s room. I know y’all tired. I’m gone wait on Preacher out on the porch. He be home for lunch soon.”
She looked at me for a moment and then gave me a tight hug. We stood there for a minute, just huggin, the smell of rose water and sweat fillin the air. She looked tired but not so scared. She left the room and soon I heard her and Lewis headin towards the back of the house.
I looked into the water at Preacher’s shirt. The water had become slightly pink, but the stain was still there.
I pulled the shirt out of the water and walked out to the porch with it drippin water the whole way. The dogs started barkin again, and this time, I knew they were lettin me know they had heard Preacher comin. I didn’t look their way. I just sat down hard in my rocker with that shirt on my lap and waited for Preacher to come home.
Born and raised in south Alabama, Angela Jackson-Brown is a writer and poet who lives in Indianapolis. She earned a master of fine arts in writing from Spalding University. This is her first fiction publication.