In the Midwest, October comes in when the pale coverlet of sky lifts away, exposing an eternity of deep and certain blue. The sun no longer stares, merely glances and makes long shadows much like the uneven fading of green from trees just before the lesser pigments fire-light the whole outdoors. The air cools to crisp, carries sound farther. Last pears ripen and fall, ferment on the ground; the aroma of their wine mixes with the pungency of leaf smoke from nowhere and everywhere. At nightfall, the wing-song shrill of crickets announces that this season has a natural pathos to it, the brief and flaming brilliance of everything at the climax of life moving toward death.
October Brown had named herself for all of that. Unwittingly at first. When she began occasionally calling herself October, she was only ten years old. Others said it was ridiculous, said she was nobody trying to be somebody. But she made convincing noises about given names, how you could give one to yourself, how it could be more like you than your real name. She never dared say she hated the name that her father had saddled on her, never said the new name had anything to do with the memory of her mother, who had lost her life. Instead she had mentioned all the strange names of people they knew, like Daybreak Honor, and a classmate's aunt, Fourteen. The pastor of their church had named his daughter Dainty. Usually that fact had made people stop and consider.
Then when she was girl-turned-grown-seventeen, struck by her own strangeness and by the whole idea of seasons, she had put it on like a coat and fastened it around her. October was her name.
Midmorning, on a flaming day in that season---a Saturday---October sat in the upstairs kitchenette at Pemberton House, sewing on her black iron Singer. It was 1950. She was twenty-three, and thanking her lucky stars for a room in the best house for Negro women teachers in Wyandotte County. Situated in the middle of the block on Oceola Avenue, the two-story white clapboard set the standard for decent, with its deep front yard and arborlike pear trees, its clipped hedges and the painted wicker chairs on the porch.
From her window she could look down on the backyard and see Mrs. Pemberton's precious marigolds bunched along the back fence, and in front of them, a few wilting tomato plants and short rows of collards that waited to be tenderized by the first frost in Mr. Pemberton's garden.
A few months before, on the very same June day that Cora had pushed her to take advantage of the vacancy coming up at Pemberton House, October Brown had knocked on the door, hoping. Word was that you had to know somebody. For her cadet-teacher year at Stowe School, she had lived with the Reverend Jackson and his wife. Not so bad, but farther away and further down the scale of nice. Mr. Pemberton, in undershirt and suspenders, had opened the door, but his wife, Lydia Pemberton---gold hoops sparkling, crown of silvery braids---had invited her in.
"We don't take nothin but schoolteachers," Mrs. Pemberton had said. When October explained that indeed, she was a teacher, Mrs. Pemberton had looked her up and down.
And October had told her about her cadet year at Stowe, her room at the Jacksons' place, mentioned Chillicothe, Ohio, where she had grown up, and---because Mrs. Pemberton had seemed unmoved and uninterested so far---spoken of her two aunts who had raised her and her sister Vergie with good home training.
"Y'all are getting younger every year. You know any of the other girls here?" Mrs. Pemberton had asked.
October explained that Cora Joycelyn Jones had been her lead teacher at Stowe, that they had become good friends. The mention of an established connection to a recognized good citizen had finally satisfied Mrs. Pemberton.
"Follow me," she said, and led October on a two-story tour of hardwood floors and high ceilings, French Provincial sitting room (smoke blue), damask drapes and lace sheers, mahogany dining table that could comfortably seat twelve, at least, two buffets, china closets, curio cabinets full of whatnots. Upstairs, all the women's rooms---Mrs. Pemberton did tap lightly before she charged in---had highly polished mahogany or oak beds, tables, desks, quilts or chenille bedspreads, no-nails-allowed papered walls. Photographs, though, on desks, and floor lamps and wing chairs, stuffed chairs, venetian blinds and valances. Then she showed her the kitchenette, a larger bedroom with a two-burner and a tiny icebox and "you see the sun goes down right outside that window right there."
Excerpted from October Suite by Maxine Clair Copyright 2001 by Maxine Clair. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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