"Come over here, girl, and sit down." He patted a spot on the couch right beside him. I sat three or four feet left of where he patted. "You still in school?"
"Yes sir. I'm in the eighth grade." At this point I expected him to say I was smart, as most grown folks did when you told them you were in your right grade. He said nothing, though, so I went on. "I'm good at mathematics, history and geography, but I'm not that good at English." This is when adults would give advice on how to do better, even if they'd never gone to school themselves. "After you finish studying, sleep wit yo' books under yo' pillow at night," they'd say.
Mr. Cheevers said a funny-sounding thing, though. "You don't have to worry about that no mo'," he said.
Then my mother was bending over him, draping a starched cloth napkin over his lap, giving him a plate with a sandwich on it. "Here, William. Hope this'll hold you till supper time. We'll be eating as soon as Luther gets home."
Talk around the dinner table that evening had a Sunday ring to it. Voices clanged against each other. Laughing rang through it all. Something special was going on. But I didn't know what, and if I asked, Mama might have told me not to mess in grown folks' business. "Yeah," she said to Mr. Cheevers, "I think she gonna be a pretty good old helpmate."
She! She! Who was this "she" they were talking about? Most of the time I had no problem understanding adult conversations. It was pretty simple once you figured out the signal words they had for secret things like man-and-woman stuff, dying and sickness. I could understand the gist of it: Mr. Cheevers was getting married. But who in the hell would want him? Mama kept saying how well he'd be able to take care of the lady because his painting business was "in demand and up and coming."
On the way out the door, Mr. Cheevers shook Daddy's hand. "I think we done made a square deal here, and thank you kindly, Mercy, for the nice dinner.
"And you," he said to me. "I'll see you on Sunday."
You old ugly-mouthed son-of-a-bitch, I thought. Who'd want to see your tail on the Lord's Day? What was in my mind must have shown on my face.
Mr. Cheevers's head flew back in a laugh. "Don't you be frowning up at me, gal," he said and laughed again, closing the door.
Mama hit me hard on my left shoulder. "Did you roll your eyes at him?" she said.
"No, Mama. I just didn't know what he was talking about, that's all."
"Ain't you got a nickel's worth of sense?"
I knew there were two kinds of knowledge a child could have: too much and not enough. If you knew too much, you were a fast ass; not enough, and you were a stupid ass.
Daddy drifted into the back room, as he always did when Mama was about to light into me. He was a "house-is-hers" man. Children came under the category of the house business, like cooking or deciding what kind of curtains to make, which came under the category of nothing he wanted to be bothered with.
"Damn," Mama said, her face moving closer to mine. "You lucky we got somebody willing to marry your stupid ass."
"Marry?" I looked at her harder than it was safe to do, searching for some sign she was just playing, messing with me.
Her face said she wasn't kidding. Maybe I had known all along, and hoped that if I didn't think it, it wouldn't be true.
"Mama, Mama. I'll be good. I'll do more work around here, and stop lollygagging on the way home from school. I promise. I promise. Please, Mama, I don't want to get married."
"You don't want...," she said slowly. "You don't want." Then that line came across her face that was the opposite of what a smile should be, hatred happy with itself.
Every time she said those words, her chest got bigger with strength to beat my ass. "You don't want? Who gives a damn what you want. You don't rule nobody here!" Then her hand sailed to my temple where she grabbed a handful of hair. She used it as a handle to yank me around the living room. "I try to make a way for you, and you got the nerve to come talking about what you want." She stressed each syllable with a short hard jerk of my head. "I know what you want, all right. You want to lie around here till one of these tail-sniffers notices you. So you'll end up with a bellyful of niggah and a cupboardful of nothing. FOO-OOL! IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT?"
from This Side of the Sky: A Novel by Elyse Singleton, Copyright © 2002 Blue Hen Books, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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