Then one time Miz Herdie saw Myraleen race her nails down my bare arm. We were in the yard, and Miz Herdie was stepping fast behind a dirty-feathered chicken wise enough to run. As she grabbed it, she saw the mischief out of the corner of her eye. Suddenly, her coal-colored free hand came down to snatch up Myraleen's arm like a great hook from heaven, and she dragged her and the chicken to the porch steps. Dangling them both in front of her, she sat down.
Her big black face butted up against the little white one. "Don't you ever let me catch you doing dat again, or I'm gon take dat belt and tear your li'l sun-kissed tail up." Myraleen turned a deep shade of pink. Then Miz Herdie looked behind her toward me, and seemed to get even madder. "Why didn't you say somepum? You old nuf to talk for yourself. Don't let people mistreat you like dat. Next time..." She tightened her grip on the chicken's head, twirled it around, flicked her wrist to give his body a twisted flip through the air, and he flopped dead on the porch. "Next time, I'm gon whip de two of you." Myraleen stopped scratching me and started playing with me.
Miz Herdie had us weekdays and Saturdays until we were six and went off to school. Each morning, I'd wait for Myraleen at her gate. Within a minute, she'd come out of the splintery oak door that groaned when she opened it. She'd always wear outfits that featured pleats or a sailor collar or suspenders or a combination. They'd be erected in rock starch, transformed from weak-willed cotton to the militancy of timber.
At lunchtime we pulled apart our sandwiches or chicken wings or whatever we had. Then we'd trade half for half to double the variety of our meals. Her oil-splotched bag always hosted butterscotch-colored planks of peanut brittle too, which she split with me though I had no sweets to offer her in return.
We both were only children, the sole brotherless, sisterless youngsters in the colored part of town. "Play cousins" is what we told people we were. But we never said this in front of our mothers.
"I don't know why you want to put yourself on people who don't like you," Mudear said. "You know that woman don't like you being up under her precious piss-colored child." It was true. Whenever I'd play in Myraleen's yard, her mother peered at me with a hard sideways glance, as if she'd just as soon stomp me as look at me.
Mercy Chadham was a big haunted house of a woman. Her mouth didn't seem like other people's. A scar cut across the right side of her lips like a nowhere road on a map. Two gold teeth stabbed my eyes with an unexpected flash whenever she opened her mouth. When she smiled, it looked like two long pink worms lay curled and dead upon her face. Much of the time, though, her lips bore into each other in anger. Even her size was intimidating; she seemed as big and wide as bed linen and she was so light she had freckles. The way her mother saw the world didn't seem to have a big impact on Myraleen-at least not at first. Then, when we were thirteen, everything changed.
One morning, I waited through the first promising minutes at the gate without seeing her. After fifteen minutes, the door still hadn't groaned. Maybe she was sick. From where I stood, I couldn't see inside the windows. And I certainly wasn't going to get caught peeping through Mrs. Chadham's curtains.
I finally left. I ran, my thick underbraids spanking my shoulders as if to spur me, and made it to the schoolhouse only a half second before Mrs. Marsh's hand-slapping ruler was out for latecomers. Chairs and desks stood in straight rows she had realigned from the previous day's shifting. October 22, 1930, was written on the blackboard in fresh white chalk. Long after class had begun, my eyes kept drifting toward the door. "Better stop worrying about that door, and start worrying about your lesson, little Miss Lily Mayfield," Mrs. Marsh said. Playground talk solemnly swore that hidden in a secret closet, she had a "whipping machine," a contraption with a strap to batten down wrongdoers so an electric paddle could beat them for hours. A pupil blurted this out once, and it was the only time I ever saw Mrs. Marsh laugh. We were going into a whipping machine of a world, she'd taught us. If we learned to do everything correctly, that would lessen our licks. About every other day, she'd say to us, "As a rule, always be the exception." And once, she'd pulled me aside at the door as the rest of the children ran to catch the waning after-school part of the day. "You're a dark one," she said. "So at least you better be a smart one."
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