Tag Archives: race relations

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.

 

Wednesday Write-In #34

This week’s prompts were as follows:

Sinister :: minty-fresh :: Seoul :: Add to Cart :: Gold

And here’s what I made of them.

Power Play

‘Good morning!’ Kyung-Soon said as she strode past his cubicle, already halfway out of her coat. ‘My goodness, you’re in early today. You must be vying for my job, Gary!’ As always, as soon as she was finished speaking she let out a loud giggle. He never knew, exactly, what she was so amused by. This morning, her laughter was like water bubbling over out of a saucepan on a too-hot stove – uncontrollable, slightly frightening, and noisy. He quickly minimised his internet browser, switching instead to his Amazon homepage. Last search: ‘Gold: The Best of Spandau Ballet’. For something to do, he clicked ‘Add to Cart’. He tried to look busy.

‘Yeah!’ he chuckled back. ‘Just – you know. A good start is half the battle, and all that.’ She muttered something inaudible, but which sounded friendly, over her shoulder as she thumped her way across the thick carpet which led to her office. For such a small woman, she sure made a lot of noise. When she wanted to.

He licked his top lip, and found it tasted like salt. Was he sweating? Could she tell? I don’t even have a Kleenex in my drawer to wipe my stupid face with, he thought. He hopped up from his chair, intending to go to the toilet and see what colour his face had turned, and if there was anything visible in his eyes. As soon as he got to his feet, though, there she was, striding out of her office again, all raw silk blouse and pencil skirt, minty-fresh breath and stiletto heel. A daughter of Seoul, golden-skinned, hair so dark it sucked at your eyes. He felt his throat close over as he watched her approach.

‘Gary, would you mind running these documents down to the filing room, please? I know it’s not your job, strictly, and I am sorry, but…’

‘Sure, Kyung-Soon,’ he said, cutting her off. She blinked, drawing her head back like he’d spat in her face. After a second, she grinned, but only a little. ‘Sure, it’s no problem to do that for you. I’d be happy to,’ he continued, trying to speak slowly and softly. Remembering to smile.

‘Thanks, Gary,’ she replied, carefully, handing him a bundle of paperwork. ‘That’d be wonderful.’ She nodded, frowning slightly, and started to turn back to her office. He watched her go, and his decision was made in a split second. Run for it now, do the stupid job she wants, hurry back to the desk, she’ll never know. If he hesitated at his computer now, she’d twig something was up, and the next thing he knew he’d have IT Services on his back. He clutched the stack of papers like a policeman’s baton, and made a sprint for the elevator doors.

As the gentle ping sounded to tell him the doors were about to open, something caught his eye; instinctively, he turned, looking back at his cubicle. Even though on some level he knew the game was up, he almost vomited when he saw her, perched in front of his computer screen, sitting side-saddle on his swivel chair. Her long legs curved out in front of his desk drawers. Even from twenty feet away, he heard the sharp intake of her breath.

She’d found the site. He couldn’t read it from here, but he knew, from memory, what she’d be looking at right now. The homepage, with its rolling banner headline, and the eyecatching images – once seen, never forgotten. The Sinister Scourge of Immigration! Foreigners Out! And there was worse, too. All she had to do was click through a few pages to find out what they wanted to do with foreign women. Asian women, like her.

She turned to face him, already half on her feet. Behind him, the doors popped open, sliding apart with a silky hiss. Her mouth was open, and the scream starting, as she rounded his desk, bumping her hip against it as she went. She almost turned her heel, but she kept going.

Gary threw the papers into the elevator and was already running as Kyung-Soon started to sprint for her office, where her desk was, with her direct-dial telephone to the security booth. The thick carpet snagged at her spindly heels, almost like millions of tiny pale hands trying their hardest to drag her down. She didn’t stop.