And as they went back down the stairs, Mrs. Pemberton told her in no uncertain terms that she and Mr. Pemberton operated a decent house, that nobody under their roof smoked or drank, and that no men were allowed upstairs, but that the women could "have company" in the sitting room downstairs. Yes, October understood.
Yes, she was lucky to have her kitchenette.
Since daybreak of that October Saturday, she had been up sewing, fiddling with the buttons on the lightweight wool suit that she planned to wear to the first Du Bois Club meeting that afternoon. She had nearly finished reinforcing the zipper when she felt the loud thump of something entirely too heavy against the back of the house.
She wrapped herself more tightly in her housecoat and went to the window. Without raising the shade higher, she could see a man---muscular, youngish---in the yard below, struggling to shift a ladder closer to her window.
She had seen him before. One morning, weeks earlier, she had been waiting on the porch for her ride to school with Cora, and she had been nervous about the ride. Cora was her friend, had been her mentor. Still, these were October's first days on her own in the classroom, and Cora was sure to ask about the supplies that October had forgotten to order. In the presence of Cora's boyfriend---he was driving them to school that day---she would feel even dumber. Too bad she had already said yes to the ride, or she would have skipped it.
And too, at the dinner table the night before, Albertine Scott---one of the other teachers---had offered to turn October's hair under with a straightening comb, a sure putdown, since it was obvious that October had taken pride in what a little Hair Rep and water could do. Seasoned teachers were like that, though---ready to tap cadets on the shoulder and point out the least little misstep in or out of the classroom. In the name of caution, they could brew terror with stories of cadets who dared dream that they would swim through their first stand-alone year but couldn't even float, and went on to become elevator operators. Seasoned teachers would do that. Except for Cora. October had suffered nothing like that from Cora. Woman-after-my-own-heart. Sisterfriend.
And so, thus preoccupied on the porch that morning as she waited for her ride, October had let her eyes wander in the shadows of the arborly front yard. And saw, suddenly, a man out there, dappled by sunplay through the leaves, a hidden picture in a trees-and-grass puzzle, dark arms in a pale undershirt, bib overalls faded blue, his thumbs hooked into the straps. A man turning to go, a mystery vanishing, just somebody taking a break from his work on the Pembertons' half-finished retaining wall out near the street.
She wondered if he'd been there in the yard all along, watching her. She didn't look directly at him, but observed that he had perched himself on top of a mound of fieldstones and begun eating something that the wind carried as hickory smoke. He had flung his hand as if to say hi, being friendly, she thought, and she flung her hand, too. But then she saw the swarm of gnats and realized her mistake. He was swatting flies.
Later, when she walked with Cora and Ed to Ed's car, Ed had stopped to admire the man's handiwork, but the man's faded-blue back was turned, busy, and he didn't even look up. He had a fresh haircut. Neat around the edges. His undershirt had seen a lot of washings.
This was the same man. Looking down from her window, she saw that at the moment he was focused on the bottom rungs. Impulsively, just as his head tilted up, she stepped back out of sight and pulled her window shade all the way down.
A few minutes went by, and she could hear the ladder scraping the house, approaching her window. Then a knock on the window. She got up from the sewing machine again and let up the shade. Head and shoulders right there on the other side of the glass and screen, there he was. Edges of very white teeth showed in a round face the color of pecans and just as shiny. A face not particularly piqued, either. And so it was a little surprising when he did a quick twirl with a screwdriver and yelled through the glass, "You didn't have to pull down the shade---I don't go around peeping in windows."
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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