Tag Archives: Americana

Wednesday Writing – ‘Credit Due’

Image: ngccoin.com

Image: ngccoin.com

Credit Due

It was the hottest day so far that summer, and Mama needed sugar.

‘Go on down to the store,’ she told me, squinting out the window. ‘Ask old man Bailey to let you have it on credit. You hear?’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ I said.

‘That’s my baby,’ she said, turning to face me, blinking the dusty path outside from her eyes. ‘Mama’ll make some lemonade, when you get home. Don’t hurry, now. I think I’ll go take me a nap.’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ I said, already running for the door.

‘Walk!’ yelled Mama as I thumped my way out into the day, the sun like the warm hand of God on my skin. ‘Ladies walk, Ella-Marie!’

Ain’t a lady yet, I thought as I skipped away from the house, my toes like bruised earthworms against the yellowish soil. My knees winked out at me from underneath my hem. I put my face to the sky and dipped my nose right into it, my mind already swirling as I thought about the Coca-Cola girl hanging over the register down at Bailey’s General Store, and how her white dress shone like an angel, and her skin looked like it tasted of ice-cream…

‘Well, hey there, Ella-Marie,’ came a voice, and my eyes popped open. I screwed them up against the sunshine, feeling like my air had turned to dirt. ‘How you doin’ today?’

‘Hey, Mister Hadley,’ I said, my pulse rusty in the back of my throat.

‘Your Mama at home?’ Mister Hadley smiled at me, his skin all nasty, looking like sour milk with flyblown strawberry preserve smeared on top. He clutched his hat in his pink-scrubbed hands, his knuckles like rotten teeth and his suit just patched enough to still be respectable. I chewed the inside of my mouth.

‘Yessir,’ I muttered.

‘Well, ain’t that fine,’ he said. His smile, like a dog dead in a gutter, didn’t move a muscle as he reached those pale fingers into his pocket. He took them out and there was a nickel entwined in them like a trapped bird, and he stretched them out to me like I had the key to its freedom.

‘Well, go on,’ he said, laughing. ‘Take it. Get yourself somethin’ nice.’

I reached for the coin, my own dark fingers hot and suddenly sweaty and covered in filth and his cool now, like iron, like ice. My own dirty and shameful and his strong and steady.

I snatched my hand back.

His smile sang a wrong note then, and his face fell apart. He frowned, and threw the nickel in the dirt.

‘Git, then,’ he said. ‘Go on! I got business to discuss with your Mama, so don’t you go disturbin’ us, now. Y’hear me?’

I had long left him behind before I remembered: Mama’s sleepin’. She said she was sleepin’! And my ears started burning with embarrassment not my own, imagining Mama disheveled, surprised, ashamed.

But I did not go back.

Old man Bailey looked at me over his spectacles as he wrote the value of the sugar in his book. The store was empty but for us two, and the air tasted like sweat.

‘You tell your Mama to come in and settle up, Ella-Marie, just as soon as she can. I ain’t got endless reserves of credit. Times are hard for everyone, not jus’ you colored folk.’

‘Yessir,’ I said, my arms already aching.

‘Get on home, now, child,’ he said. ‘And be sure to give your Mama my regards.’

‘Yessir,’ I said, the sack of sugar like a kicking piglet.

I scuffed my feet as I walked, trailing my toes in the dust and shifting the sugar from arm to arm. My fingers slipped around it, like a tongue struggling with an unfamiliar word, and my shoulders wailed like I was being nailed to the cross. Sweat trickled down my back.

I came upon Mister Hadley’s nickel eventually. It glinted in the sunlight like the eye of a buried monster, waiting. I slid the sack of sugar to the ground and propped it against my shaking, sticky leg as I bent to pick the coin up out of the dirt. I turned it over and over, buffalo-face-buffalo-face, wondering what Mama’d say when she saw it.

And eventually I hoisted up the sugar again, and I kept walking.

‘Mama?’ I called, as the screen-door thunked shut. My brown feet slapped on the browner boards as I crossed the neat parlor, Daddy’s rifle still in one corner even though the man himself was just a memory, just a word. ‘Mama?’ The door to her room was thrown wide, and I remembered – again – that she was sleeping, and a rush of sour shame washed all through me. I tiptoed to the kitchen and shouldered the sack up onto the table, and took a breath. My throat felt raw.

And the door to the back was standing open.

I crept to it. Outside, the laundry flapped in the breeze like a preacher mid-sermon, hands raising to heaven in hope and fear, before sinking, disappointed and despairing, to earth once more. The scrubland between our house and the Wesleys’, half a mile away, yawned into the distance. Mama wasn’t anywhere.

I turned, my ears throbbing, and crossed the room until Mama’s bedroom door was staring at me, dark as a crow’s eye. Everything was still. I dropped the nickel and it rolled, sounding like the top being torn off the world, until it fell between two boards and was silent.

Mama was lying on her bed like an unfurled flower, her eyes still full of the dusty path outside. Her mouth was open, nothing coming out of it but slow redness, ink from a broken bottle. Her dress gaped, like it was kissing me goodbye.

And all around her, dollar bills were scattered one after another after another, like confetti at the feet of a bride.

 

Boulevard of Dreams

Even though I don’t drive (yet, at least), and even if I could I certainly wouldn’t drive motorcycles, I’ve always had a fascination with two wheels. Since my earliest childhood, I’ve loved Harley-Davidson motorcycles in particular, and part of me will always thrill to hear the throaty roar of a loud engine, even if the idea of actually riding a hog is too terrifying to countenance. I can’t explain why I love motorbikes so much; they’re beautiful machines, of course, but it’s more than just that, I think. They symbolise freedom and nonconformity and a certain ‘chasing the horizon’ way of life, which has always appealed to my soul, even if my innate carefulness (and constant lack of money!) quails in the face of it.

It could also be tied up with my devotion to classic rock and roll, too. There’s always that aspect.

Photo Credit: jimbrickett via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: jimbrickett via Compfight cc

Part of this fondness for motorcycles encompasses a love of the classic American road trip of ‘Route 66’. As long as I can remember, I’ve known about Route 66, and it’s been a lifelong dream of mine to travel the length of it. When I close my eyes I can see the straight road, bounded by flat countryside to left and right, and the rolling mountains on the horizon; I can step inside the diners and gas stations that dot the route. Of course, I’ve never set foot in the United States, so all of this is purely imaginary – and, I’m sure, largely idealised. It’s no wonder America seems like the land of dreams to people like me, when I’m basing my knowledge of it entirely on movies and music and long-held ambitions.

Then, last night, while flicking idly from channel to channel on the TV, I came across a documentary about travelling Route 66 on a motorcycle. I’d missed the very beginning, but I was immediately drawn in. I watched as the adventurer racked up mile after mile on this, my favourite road in the world, and so much of it was exactly like how I’d imagined. Wide, flat, open sky, totally straight road with nothing in your way, the only sound that of your own engine. It looked like pure heaven. The subject of the documentary met interesting and eccentric people in every little town he stopped in, people who were warm and welcoming and wanted him to feel at home, but he also saw at first hand the decline of some of these small towns, and the reality of what Route 66 has become.

Route 66 was (I learned last night) originally designed and built to connect up the small towns and cities it passed through. It was supposed to be an artery, bringing together the city of Chicago and the west coast of America, and was a lifeline to those emigrating West during the Great Depression and after. However, in recent years an Interstate has been built not far from Route 66, and it has taken away a lot of the traffic that would once have used it. This means that some of the small towns on Route 66 are dying, and the road itself has been left to fall into disrepair in several spots.

I hadn’t realised this, and I found it so upsetting. It’s one of these things you can’t explain, and one of those moments when you’re broadsided by emotion that comes from a very deep place. It was hard to watch the show’s host, a skilled motorcyclist with years of experience, struggle to control his vehicle on the dreadfully pockmarked road as it wound its way through Oklahoma City, and to watch his sadness as he passed through small towns which would once have been vibrant and bustling and which are now shells of their former selves – with the busy Interstate roaring with traffic a couple of miles away. It made me think about dreams, and how different they can look up close, and how working your way towards something you’ve always dreamed of might seem like the hard slog – but it’s not. It’s actually staying on the road once your dream begins to take shape that’s the challenge. It’s only when you’re on the road that the potholes and the re-routes and the detours and the dead ends start to appear. Getting on your motorcycle, starting the engine, looking at your map, and beginning to drive are all necessary parts of following the dream, but when the road begins to crack beneath your wheels, it takes grit not to turn back.

In the end, I’m sure the journey was worth it for the motorcyclist; I’m sure my own personal journey will be worth it for me, too, but I reserve the right to grin ruefully at how, sometimes, you think you’ve finally understood something only for the road to twist beneath you and send you off on another journey completely. It doesn’t mean taking the trip wasn’t a good idea – it just means you may not end up where you thought you wanted to go. All I know is, I’m not going to turn back now, wherever my road is going to lead me.

(And yes, in case you’re curious, I do still want to travel Route 66, even if it’s crumbled into dust by the time I get there. Some dreams will never die!)

Photo Credit: Gouldy99 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Gouldy99 via Compfight cc