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Her Own People


ISSUE:  Spring 1935

Fishily, he stared at the high ceiling, where grey plaster, delicately ringed by marks of old damp, was still shadowy, although bright sunshine struck into the room between cracks in the drawn blue curtains. Between the cracks in the curtain small waxy leaves were visible, brushing against the window pane.

“Get up,” the voice beside him said without much friendliness.

“I’ve got a slight head,” he complained, still looking at the ceiling. A single fly, torpid, clung to the grey plaster directly above him, and he watched it.

“Last night you said it was the best corn we’d had.”

“Did I say that?” He threw back the covers and let his feet drop to the floor, while he lay on his back, looking up. “I made a mistake then. And it’s Sunday.”

“If I’m doing the cooking from now on,” the voice said, “you’ve got to help some.”

“I’ll help,” he said, and got up. He stood in the middle of the big room, surveyed the room once helplessly, and pulled off his pajama jacket. He was not very tall, but thick in the body. A purplish scar ran diagonally down the relaxed stomach, which pressed against the pajama string, and lost itself in the crisp black hairs. Meditatively he slipped his short forefinger along the scar. “My appendix is getting better. It doesn’t look so much like bad blue carbon on yellow back-sheet any more.”

“It’s better”—there was a stir from the bed—‘ “but you’re getting a stomach. If you get a stomach you’ve got to move out. There will be no stomachs in my house.”

“It’s because the muscles haven’t knitted up yet,” he said, and fingered the scar. “You haven’t got any sympathy.” He crossed to the dresser and studied himself in the mirror. “I can take it off right away,” he said, patting it.

“Spading up the rest of the garden will take it off.”

“I can’t spade today. I’m paid to dish political dirt for the Advocate, not spade gardens. Spading is a luxury.”

“You can spade an hour,” she said.

“Look at my eyes,” and he squinted closer to the mirror, “you can tell I’ve got a head.”

“Spading will help your head.”

He got a pair of corduroy trousers and a sweat shirt from the big walnut wardrobe in the corner, and put them on. For a minute he regarded the hump of bedclothes from which a few strands of blond hair strayed out on the pillow. “Aren’t you getting up?” he said. “I want some breakfast.”

“You start the fire in the stove.”

Without haste he hunted for something about the room, standing in the middle of the floor to look all around, then on hands and knees peering under the bed. One hand touched the blue dress that lay on the floor by the bed, and he picked it up. Under it the bedroom slippers lay. “You hid my slippers with your dress,” he said, holding out the sky-blue dress, which dangled from his large hairy hand. “You ride me about not hanging my things up, and you go and throw your dress on the floor. On my slippers.”

“Well,” the voice said, “whose fault was it I threw it down last night?”

“Well,” he said, and put on the slippers, and went out the door.

When he came back from the garden, grasping the new wet lettuce in his hands, she was ready to put slices of ham into a skillet on the stove. She wore a green gingham dress, her hair, yellowish in the sun from the kitchen windows, falling loose and uncombed over the crisp green cloth. Her bare feet were stuck into dirty buckskin oxfords, from which the untied laces trailed out. He leaned over the sink, washing the lettuce, leaf by leaf, then laying it on a towel. She stood beside him for an instant, too slender, almost skinny, and as tall as he was; then she turned to the stove with the bowl of eggs.

When it was ready they carried the food on platters into the dining room, where bright sun pouring from the open windows showed the full disorder. The split-bottom chairs were scattered about, one on its side. Dishes on the table held remnants of anchovy sandwiches, about which, without much interest, a large fly buzzed. All sorts of glasses cluttered the sideboard, the mantelpiece, and the uneven stone hearth before the dead fireplace. “My God,” she breathed, balancing the platter of ham, “my God, why do people have parties?” Then, with nervous angular gestures she set the platter down, swept off one end of the table, and laid two plates.

She ate hungrily, he slowly in dull, dutiful distaste. While she ate, she kept looking about her at the objects of the room, examining them with a resentful curious glance. “We just can’t have any more parties,” she finally said.

“Suits me fine,” he said.

“Not with all this mess next morning.”

He looked about him with an air of discovery. “We might get some new friends. Some nice refined lady and gentlemen drinkers who wouldn’t make a mess. I might run an ad in the Advocate.”

“The friend I want this morning,” she said, and glared at the old anchovy sandwiches, “is Viola. My God, why did she have to up and leave right now?”

“Once a nigger goes sour, it’s all up. I told you that.”

“I suppose you’re right. And I’m worn out with all my lovers’ quarrels with her.”

“She’ll want to come back in a week,” he said. Then, critically surveying the room: “And you’ll take her back, all right.”

“I told her if she went it was the last time.”

“We ought never brought her up here from Alabama,” he said in gloom. “I told you at the time, too.” He got up from the table and crossed to the fireplace. From the mantel, among the clutter of glasses, he picked up a pipe, and lighted the half-burned tobacco in its bowl. Smoke from his short thick nostrils spun out in the sunlight.

Mournfully, she looked at him. “She was the cleanest nigger I ever saw,” she said in some reproach. “She was so clean that when she was a little girl, she says she wouldn’t sit on the ground with the other little niggers, she sat on a plate.”

“She was fine in Alabama, but she’s not worth a damn in Tennessee. She ought to go back to Alabama and sit on a plate.”

“She is going home. She can’t stay here with that old hussy of Jake’s wife charging her nine dollars for a week while we went off, and it’s the only place she can stay. Nine dollars, when we only pay her six! God, it makes me furious. I told the milk boy I was furious just so he’d tell Jake’s wife.”

“You needn’t take it out on me,” he said, regarding her out-thrust nervous hands and her flushed cheeks. “You look like you were mad at me.”

“I’m mad at that bitch,” she said, suddenly more composed. “She’s just trying to drive Viola off because she’s jealous of that beautiful Jake of hers. She just doesn’t like Viola. And she doesn’t like me. You ought to hear the things Viola says she says about me.”

Not answering, he turned to the open window. Beyond the rail fence of the yard, where strands of buckberry bushes exhibited the faintest tracery of green, the little valley fell sharply away. The lane went down the valley, bordered on one side by trees; the new flat leaves hung very still and bright. “The trouble is,” he finally said, “that Viola is a white-folks nigger.”

“She’s ashamed of her nigger blood, all right.”

“She hasn’t got too much nigger blood in her to be ashamed of. I bet she’s cousin to a long line of drunken Alabama statesmen.”

“She says niggers are dirty.”

“Well,” he said amiably, “aren’t they?”

She rose abruptly from the table, glanced in despair at the articles on it and at his broad stubby back, then straightened herself. “I wish I had a dirty nigger here right now.” She seized a plate in each hand, and started for the kitchen. “Come on,” she ordered, “you too.”

He picked up two plates, and followed her. Returning, he got two more, but paused as he passed the window. “Hey, Annabelle,” he called, “here comes Jake! He’s got on his Sunday clothes, too.”

“Let him come.”

There was the sound of water running in the kitchen. He stood by the window, holding the plates, and looked down the valley. Below him, the tall black-coated figure moved slowly up the lane, moving with unhurried dignity beside the new-leafed trees. He watched until the figure had passed out of vision from the window, then he went through the kitchen, where she bent over the steaming sink, and out the back.

Standing on the top of the back steps, he said: “Hello, Jake.”

“Good morning, Mr. Allen,” the Negro said, and approached the steps in his slow dignified pace. He stopped at the bottom of the steps, took off his black felt hat, and smiled gravely. “Kin I speak to Miz Allen?” he said.

“I’ll see.” He went inside.

“What does he want?” she demanded.

“He says he wants to talk to you.”

“Bring him in the dining room.”

He put his head out the kitchen door and called: “Jake, you come on in here.”

The Negro man came in through the kitchen, bending his head at the door frame, treading very softly on the faded blue carpet on the dining room floor.

“Good morning, Jake,” she said to him, and sank down in a chair at the table, laying her damp bony hands out on the cloth before her.

“Good morning, Miz Allen,” he said.

She waited, looking at him. He stood carefully in the exact center of the open space between the table and sideboard, holding his hat decorously in his hand. He wore jean pants, pale blue from washings, and a black Prince Albert coat drooping from his high shoulders. A big gold watch chain hung across the black vest, which was too loose for him and not long enough. “Miz Allen,” he said oratorically. Then he smiled, again gravely, but with no apology. “Miz Allen, I ain’t accustomed to mess in no woman’s affairs, but they’s something I oughter tell you.”

“All right, Jake,” she said.

“Hit’s this girl, Viola. She done said a lie about my wife and me. She done said to you we charged her nine dollars that week you and Mr. Allen went off and she ate down there with us.”

“That’s what she said,” she agreed in some weariness. “And I gave her three dollars extra, I felt so sorry for her.”

“That girl Viola, she ain’t said the truth. My wife never charged her no nine dollars,” he said sadly. “We’se charged her seventy-five cents a week for that room, Miz Allen, that’s ev’y God’s penny. And when she eat there my wife done said thirty cents a day, that oughter be enough.” He stood patiently in the open space, his brown face, with the silky drooping mustache, decorous and unexpectant.

“So she lied to me,” the girl at the table said after a little.

“Yassum,” he said, “she lied. I dunno what else you might call hit.”

“She wanted me to give her that three dollars, and I gave it to her.”

“Yassum, she wanted that three dollars, I reckin.” He hesitated, and cleared his throat. “Miz Allen.” He shifted his hat to the other hand, and continued, “I reckin I know what she wanted hit for.”

“Yes?”

“She got herself a new coat. The other day she brought hit to the house and showed my wife hit. A grey coat what’s got fur on hit too.”

“A new coat!” She got up from the table, jarring the dishes that remained there. “My Lord, a new coat. She didn’t need a new coat. And she lied to me to get three dollars. After all the clothes I’ve given her this year. Jake, you’ve seen those clothes, haven’t you?”

“I seed ‘em,” he said. “She brought ‘em to the house.”

“I gave her a coat too.”

“Yassum, she didn’ need no more clothes. She doan never go nowhere I knows of no way. She just comes in er-nights and gits herself all dressed up in them clothes you give her and combs her hair. She doan go nowhere, she just sets there in that room a time, then she gits in the bed.”

“She hasn’t got any friends, I know,” she said.

“She doan ack like she wants no friends,” Jake said.

The young white man, who leaned against the kitchen door, took the pipe from his mouth and wagged it at them. “The trouble,” he said morosely, “is that we ought never brought her from Alabama away from her people.”

The Negro pondered a moment, stroking his silky long mustache with a forefinger. “Maybe so,” he admitted, “maybe she might do right well with her people. But she ain’t my wife’s and my kind of people. You ast anybody round here. We tries to do the fair and God-fearing thing towards ev’ybody, be he white or black. You ast anybody.”

“I’m glad to know you all didn’t charge her that nine dollars,” she said.

“No ma’m. And we never wanted her no how. We owns our house and lot and I gits plenty work carpentering and bricklaying to git along. We ain’t never wanted her. But I says to my wife, she’s a girl a long way from home amongst strangers in a strange country. But we never wanted her.” He intoned the words like a speech memorized, holding his black felt hat in his hands, looking straight out from his height over the head of the woman who stood before him. “She cain’t stay no longer, lying like she done.”

“She quit me last night, Jake. When some people were coming to a party too,” she said bitterly. “And I won’t take her back this time either like I did before.”

“She cain’t stay at my house no more. I reckin she better go.”

“I reckon so,” she said.

He backed toward the kitchen door, sliding his flat heels soundlessly over the carpet, saying as he did so, “She better git back to her own people, wherever she come from.” In the kitchen he paused and fumbled with his hat as if trying to remember just one more thing to say.

“Jake,” the woman said, her face suddenly hard and pointed, “you tell Viola to come up here. Right away this morning.”

“Yassum.”

“Don’t tell her what for, just send her up here.”

“Yassum.”

“All right, Jake.”

He lingered in the kitchen a moment, still deliberating. Then he said, “Good morning, Miz Allen,” and walked out the back way, shutting the porch door very gently behind him.

At the almost inaudible sound of the door closing she seemed to relax a little, sinking again into the chair by the table. “My God,” she said, “the fool goes and spends all her money for a coat. When she’s got a coat, and when I’ve been trying all winter to make her save.”

“Niggers,” he remarked with some unction, and stood straddle-legged in the space by the sideboard. “Niggers”— he paused to give the pipe a precautionary suck—”know how to live. Just like the good book says, Man does not live by bread alone. Now Viola works all winter and you teach her to save money and when she gets it saved she knows what to do with it.”

“Oh hush up, Bill.” Distraught and unhappy, she sat at the table, working her bony fingers back and forth on the rough cloth.

“She got herself a new coat. Now that nigger’s got a sense of values.”

“She’s got a sense of values all right. She got three dollars out of me.”

“My little philanthropist,” he said, and seized a dish of mangled crumby sandwiches and stamped toward the kitchen.

“Your little sucker,” she said, and followed him.

 

He was sitting on the side porch off the dining room, leaning an elbow by the typewriter on the big unpainted table, when she came up the lane. When she passed just a little distance below him, her beanpole-thin crooked legs working methodically over the rough ground, her body bent forward and her hands at her breast as if poked into an invisible muff, he pretended not to see, putting his face down toward the typewriter. His wife came out on the porch, a cigarette in her hand.

“There she is,” she said.

“I saw her all right,” he said. “She’s got her new coat on.”

“What’ll I say to her?”

“Hell fire, you got her up here. I didn’t.”

“What’ll I say?”

“Tell her she’s a thief and a liar, and that you love her like a sister and want her to wash the dishes.”

The old plowshares hanging as weights for the gate chinked as the gate fell to. The Negro woman stood just inside the gate and regarded the porch with a gaze of meek question. “Come here, Viola,” the woman on the porch said; and she came, slowly.

She stopped at the foot of the steps, still mute and questioning, her hands still at her breast.

“Come up here, Viola.”

She came up the steps, “Good morning, Miz Allen,” she said, and her fingers absently brushed the grey fur on the open coat collar.

“You’ve got a new coat, Viola.”

“Yassum,” the Negro said, letting her hands drop with a delayed empty gesture.

“It’s a pretty coat, Viola.”

“I fancied hit,” the Negro woman said, “I seed a girl one time outer my winder and she had on a grey dress and grey shoes and a grey coat and hat … all grey… .” She lifted her pale copperish face, and gazed at the woman from out yellowish eyes which, though depthless like an animal’s, expressed a certain solicitude, a resignation. The woman met the gaze, put her cigarette to her lips, then puffed the smoke straight out into the air, with no pleasure. Suddenly she turned aside to the porch rail, leaning against it. “Viola,” she said decisively, and hesitated. In a stiff-armed abrupt motion she flung the burning stub down to the yard, where it sent up a faint trail of smoke from the midst of new grass and the tattered winter-old spikes of sage. She swung round to face the Negro. “Viola, you said Jake’s wife charged you nine dollars that week we went off.”

“Yassum.”

“That’s what you said.”

“Yassum, I did.”

“Jake,” the woman said, confronting the mild yellow eyes, “he’s been up here and he said they didn’t charge you nine dollars.”

The face, the gazing yellow eyes, were unchanged and impassive.

“He said he charged you seventy-five cents a week for that room and thirty cents a day when you ate there. Is that right?”

“Yassum.”

“You say yassum!” A spasm of irritation swept over the woman’s features, leaving them hurt and hard. “You lied to me. What made you lie?”

“That warn’t no lie, Miz Allen.”

“I don’t know what else you’d call it. A lie’s when you don’t tell the truth.” She fell into the patience of explanation, then pulled up sharply: “You lied.”

“That warn’t no lie, Miz Allen.”

“Don’t contradict me, Viola!”

The man at the table scraped the chair back, got up, bumping himself on the table, and went into the house.

“You lied,” she continued, still hard, “because you wanted money out of me. Three dollars. You wanted to buy a coat. You stole three dollars.”

The Negro woman began to move her head from side to side, not seekingly, but with an almost imperceptible motion like a sick animal annoyed by flies. “I ain’t never stole nothing,” she said.

“You stole from me,” the woman said, weakening a little, leaning against the porch rail. “After all I’ve done for you. After all the clothes I’ve given you. I gave you that dress you’ve got on, and it’s a good dress.”

“Yassum.” She looked down at the green silk that hung in folds too big for her over the flat chest. “I kin give ‘em back,” she said.

“I don’t want them back. I just want you to know I’ve been good to you and that you lied and stole, that’s all the thankfulness you’ve got.”

“I’se got thankfulness,” she said.

The woman took the cigarette from the pocket of the green gingham and tried to light it, plunging its end into the shaking flame of the match, putting the match out. She removed the blackened cigarette from her lips and held it in her hand, which trembled a little. “I can’t find my blue cook book, Viola,” she said. “Now I want you to go in there and find it.” Her voice was certain now.

The Negro moved across the porch and into the house, her bowed legs setting the feet down on the boards with a sort of painful accuracy, so that the heels twisted over at each step. The woman watched her go in, then lighted the cigarette and spewed the smoke out greyly before her face.

The Negro came back, holding the blue cook book out dangling as if her wrist were too weak to support it. “Here ‘tis,” she said. “Hit war just where I done left hit. Where hit belong,” she added, and her small features twitched into something near a tentative, deprecatory smile. Then the smile dissipated, and the features sank into their meekness.

The woman took the book. “Now Viola, I want you to go away. You haven’t treated me right. And you haven’t treated right these Negroes round here who’ve tried to be nice to you, taking you in and inviting you to their parties and things.” She looked off down the valley, speaking quickly and harshly. “You go away. You better go back to Alabama to your own people.”

“Wellum,” she said without any tone, and turned down the steps.

The woman came to the edge of the porch, “Go away,” she said. “I don’t ever want to see you again.”

Slowly the Negro went down the uneven brick part toward the gate. At the gate she stopped, fingering the weather-grey palings. Then she looked round. “I wouldn’ never say that bout you, Miz Allen,” she said. “I wants to see you.” She went out the gate and methodically down the hill.

The woman sat on the top step sucking her cigarette. Her husband came out the door. “Fire her,” he said unsympathetically.

“I sent her away. But you”—she looked accusingly— “you would go off and leave me to do the dirty work. You always do.”

“I couldn’t bear to watch you in action,” he said amicably. “I’ve got a very sensitive nature.” He tapped the typewriter several times aimlessly. “What did you say?” he said.

“It was awful,” she said. “I acted awful.” She got up and moved to the open door. “I just behaved like some old self-righteous Methodist slut.”

“You went to Sunday School, didn’t you?”

She smoked her cigarette down to the dead end, jerked the paper loose from the flesh of her lip, and crushed the ash out against the door frame. “And I ended up,” she said, “saying I never wanted to see her again.”

He spaced the sheet in the typewriter for another paragraph, then leaned back. He said: “Well, you don’t have to, you know.”

 

Going down the hill, the heavy old car groaned and slithered in the gravel ruts, where water ran down from level to level, yellow and flecked by whitish foam. It was still raining, hard and straight down, for there was no wind in the valley. The new leaves on the trees by the lane hung limp and beaten under the steady impact.

“I come home,” he said bitterly, “and you drag me out in this again.”

“I suppose you think I love it.”

When he had steered the car, clattering, over the loose planks of the bridge, beneath which the creek boiled hollowly against the stone supports, he said: “I’m fed up with those niggers.”

“Well, Jake sent a boy up there through all this rain to say to come down, it was important.”

“All right, all right,” he said, “we’re going, aren’t we?”

They drew into the highway, where the asphalt was slick and black, glittering dully. The rain had let up a little. Down the highway two hundred yards, the house stood, bare and boxlike on its tall stone foundations, the roof sodden black beneath two oak trees that were not yet leafing. The man and the woman picked their way across the yard, which showed no grass, only flat packed earth where the water stood in little pools giving forth no reflection.

He knocked on the door, and stepped aside so that his wife occupied the space before it. The tall Negro, wearing overalls now and in sock feet, opened it. “Good evening, Miz Allen,” he said. “I’se much obliged to you for coming, and hit raining like this.”

“What is it, Jake?”

“Hit’s that girl Viola,” he said. He moved back, and they followed him inside. A Negro woman, black and angular in the face, rose from beside the stove in the center of the room, nodded stiffly and pushed a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles up on her forehead. “Hit’s that girl,” she said.

“What is it?” the woman said.

“She’s done got in the bed and she won’t git up. I done tole her she’s gotta go, but she won’t say nothing. She just lays there. Going on three days.” She paused a moment, breathless and truculent, then spoke more moderately. “You kin see how it is.”

“I’ll talk to her.”

The Negro woman stood with her hand on the knob of the door to another room. “You tell her, Miz Allen, she’s gotta go.”

The curtains at the window were almost drawn, only a little light coming in to mark the rocking chair where clothes and the grey coat were piled, the table by the wall, and the bed. She lay in the bed, on her back, with the sheet pulled up to her chin. When they entered, her eyes rolled to fix on them for a second, then slowly again looked at the ceiling.

“Viola,” the woman said.

The woman on the bed said nothing, her face with no expression.

“Viola, you talk to me now.” She went closer, putting her hand on the straight chair by the bed. On the chair a bucket of water stood, beside it a piece of cheese and an open box of crackers. “Do you hear me? Answer me!”

“I hears you.”

“Now Viola, you get up. You’re making yourself sick.” She shook the chair impatiently. “Cheese and crackers for three days.”

The old Negro woman came closer, sticking her knotty black face out oracularly in the dim light. “You tell her she’s gotta go,” she said.

“You hear that, Viola? You’re not treating these people right. You’ve got to go.”

“I hears,” the woman on the bed said, still looking at the ceiling.

“I’ll buy you a ticket home. On the bus. But you’ve got to go.”

“I’se got money,” she said.

The white woman looked down at her for a minute, at the body under the tightly pulled sheet. “You can’t stay here,” she added.

“Yassum,” the voice said from the bed.

“Now you get up from there and go right away. You hear me!”

“Yassum.”

“Goodbye, Viola,” she said; but there was no answer. She went into the other room, where the two men waited.

“Is she gonna go, Miz Allen?” the Negro man asked.

“I think so. She said she would, Jake.”

“She ain’t going neither,” the Negro woman interrupted savagely. “She just says yassum. You tell her she’s gotta go. I ain’t having nobody laying up in the bed in my house like that. You gotta tell . . .”

“You be quiet, Josie,” the Negro man ordered.

“I’ve done what I can,” the woman said. She took a bill from her purse and laid it on the table. “That’s for her bus,” she said, and went out on the porch where her husband already was. She laid her hand on his arm. The Negro man followed them, carefully shutting the door after him. “Miz Allen,” he said, hesitantly but not in embarrassment, “my wife didn’ mean nothin’, talking like that. She’s just worrit, and all. That girl layin’ up there.”

“It’s all right, Jake.”

They went down the steps and got into the car. It had stopped raining altogether now, and to the right of the highway the rays of the sun, now almost at setting, lay over the field of young wheat. They turned up the lane and over the plank bridge, beside the trees whose topmost leaves glistened in the level light. “It’s right pitiful,” she finally said, “thinking of her lying up there.”

He slammed the gears into second for the grade.

“I’m fed up,” he said.

“Then what the hell you think I am?” she said.

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