Excerpt from What You Owe Me by Bebe Moore Campbell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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What You Owe Me

by Bebe Moore Campbell

What You Owe Me by Bebe Moore Campbell X
What You Owe Me by Bebe Moore Campbell
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    Aug 2001, 496 pages

    Sep 2002, 528 pages


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That was 1943. My brother came back from Europe in ’45. He had memories of dancing with French women--a taste of freedom at a dangerous age. By that time my folks were sharecropping. Days after he got back, I heard my brother’s voice coming from the back porch. "You think I’m going to stay around here and not kill those sons of bitches?"

I took Tuney’s side, but Daddy wouldn’t listen. He hustled all of us off the place that night. Had to raise his fist to my brother, although he didn’t hit him. The rest of the family moved to Houston, but he put Tuney and me on the bus to L.A. Before we boarded, he showed my brother and me the deed to his "property". "Maybe one day one of y’all can get the land back," he said quietly. "At least we got proof that it used to be ours."

My daddy’s face was too sad to look at, so I just turned away.

It took us a week to get there. Tuney and I stayed awake almost the entire time, two crazy spiders spinning webs of vengeance.

We calmed down somewhere in Nevada, which is to say we changed the subject. "I’m going to save my money and open up a candy store," I said.

"Don’t know what I’m gonna do, but I tell you one thing: people are going to sit up and take notice. They’re going to know my name," he said.

He was big and handsome, my brother, a strong man, with crinkly black hair, a neat mustache, and a mouth filled with big white teeth. He laughed a little at his own daring, and so did I. His laugh came from his belly, and he was generous with it. His dream made him happy for a little while. But then his eyes would go dark and I’d know that he was thinking about the land, and maybe about killing somebody.

Hattie had that same killing look in her eyes. I stared at her hard, and thought about my candy store. Bad times or good times, people always want something sweet to chew on. I wasn’t about to let Hattie and her mess come between my goal and me. Fern, who was little and dark and liked a good scrap, at least to watch one, glanced from Hattie back to me, trying to figure out if something was going to go down. Being raised in a family of six, I learned to fight for what I wanted. I was the oldest girl, the thumb on my mama’s hand. That Louisiana gal backed up because, even though I was barely twenty-one, well, I’ve got expressive eyes. "Jew bitch," I heard her mutter.

Gilda heard it, too. And I could tell by the way her eyes clouded over that it wasn’t the first time. Maybe she didn’t understand English all that well, but Hattie’s tone and the looks we were exchanging weren’t hard to figure out. After Hattie stomped off, Gilda came over to me and said, "What I do?"

I told her, "You have to speak to people. Say ‘good morning’ when you come in. Say ‘good night’ when you leave. In between, ask people how they’re doing. Understand?" My words were propelled by anger, and as I spoke I realized that the tug-of-war was wearing me out.

Gilda backed up a little, although I have to say this, she didn’t look one bit afraid. She sat in the chair and didn’t say a word for a good two or three minutes. Billie Holiday was singing in the background, and I could tell that Gilda was listening real hard to the words. I was heading out the door when I heard her say, "Hosanna, very hard for me to speak."

I turned around to look at her; Gilda’s eyes were the emptiest ones I’d ever seen. There didn’t seem to be a life behind them. I walked over to her and said, "Well, honey, you have to try."

I’m usually one to mind my own business, but before I left that day I went to Mr. Weinstock’s office. He had on thick rimless glasses, and he was sitting at his desk smoking, drinking coffee, and reading. He always seemed to be sweating; there was a shiny glaze over his face. There weren’t any windows, and it felt closed up and hot. Mr. Weinstock passed a lot of gas in there.

Reprinted from What You Owe Me by Bebe Moore Campbell by permission of G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Copyright © 2001 by Bebe Moore Campbell. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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