Though she understood and felt a little guilty, she palmed the air and hunched her shoulders as if to say, I don't know what you're talking about. He did a little up-up motion with his thumb, she hurried to raise the window.
His mouth looked like it wanted to smile. "You don't have to worry, I'm just putting up storm windows," he said. "Can you give me a hand and unhook your screen?"
"Sure," she said, and undid the four metal hook-and-eyes that held in the screen.
He pulled the screen out, tossed it like a saucer to the ground. "Stay right there for a minute, do you mind?"
Back down the ladder he went, then climbed slowly up again, lugging a heavy storm window in one hand. This time he stood higher on the ladder so that they were nearly face to face.
"Mr. Pemberton's got too many windows," he said and chuckled a little, held on to the wood-frame window, looked right at her too long. She didn't know whether to smile or frown. What was he looking at? But anyway there was his easy, fleshy mouth to focus on, maybe.
Automatically her hands went to smooth her hair and at the same time cover the white splash of vitiligo on her cheek. But then her thoughts caught up. This was her room. He really had no business up here, and she didn't have to look like she was dressed for school.
He wore a rag of a shirt with rolled sleeves and no buttons, no collar, so that he might as well have been bare from the waist up. Repositioning the large storm window, he was---for two seconds---a three-dimensional man in a window. Focused on his task now, he bit his bottom lip with those white teeth and hoisted the window into position. Her eyes caught on the patch of fine hairs that parted just below his navel where his dark pants rode loosely on his hips. He was short, muscular in a smooth, curvy way.
"When I slide this into the frame, you hook the top and bottom, okay?" he said.
He slid in the storm window and tapped it solidly with his hands. She hooked all four of the hooks.
"Thanks," he said through the glass. "You're handy to have around." And he disappeared down the ladder, whistling something he probably made up.
October finished the zipper, pressed the suit, took a bath in the hall bathroom, dripped her way back, fighting the impulse to whistle. Whistling woman, cackling hen, always come to no good end. She laid the suit on the bed and congratulated herself. The Vogue Pattern Company wouldn't know hers from the one in the picture: nutmeg with a straight skirt, kick pleats, a cropped jacket; double-breasted, with covered buttons and self-belt with the special pewter buckle she had retrieved from one of her aunt Maude's throwaways.
Noon came and she put it on, set off the collar with a white rayon blouse. She saw herself on her way to the Du Bois Club meeting, coming down to the front room and encountering tall skinny Albertine. Or, better yet, walking across the lawn of the YWCA, right past proper Mary Esther and the others dressed in their serious-and-dedicated blouses and reasonable-navy or practical-beige skirts, their correct nylons and low pumps. And she smiled at the mirror, glad not to see a schoolmarm standing 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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