Volume 32, Number 3

A Hundred Years Ago

Patricia Temple

“Finished!” I call out to the whitewashed walls of the laundry shed as I turn the last of our father’s work socks inside out and drop them back into the washing machine. Fishing them out of the harsh soapy water makes my arms itch, and turning them is the job I hate most on my Saturday morning list, but it has to be done because that’s how we get out the sand that accumulates inside them as he works the fields.

I sashay to Mother in the kitchen like I’ve just been crowned champion of something to tell her my jobs are done. She takes my list and runs a chapped finger down it. “You cleared the table, took the scraps out to the dog, washed the dishes, swatted 50 flies, turned your father’s socks?” Her voice grows husky when she is suspicious, and her eyes narrow. “Are you sure you turned all the socks?”

I shift my weight from side to side and nod my worried head. I might cheat and swat only forty flies instead of fifty, but I never cheat on the socks. It upsets our father if he finds even the tiniest bit of sand in them. You don’t want to be around him when he’s angry.

“All right. It’s eleven o’clock. You can have free time until the baby wakes up from his morning nap, but stay close by in case I need you.”

I give a little jump and race out of the kitchen before she can decide she needs me to help her shuck ears of corn for our noon-day meal. Also there is a good chance once the socks swish in the machine for a while, if she sees me, she’ll make me run them through the wringer and hang them out on the line, another job I hate.

I sit at the corner of the dining room table out of her sight to string some pearls I found in a beat-up desk in Grandma’s granary across the road from us. I ran top speed with them to her house to see if I could have them.

“Why, those old beads! I remember they belonged to your mother or one of your aunts,” she said while I caught my breath. “You’re welcome to them, though I can’t see why anyone would want them.”

I gave a little jump for joy and would have thrown my arms around her, but Grandma preferred dignity, not hugs, so I stood tall and proud and said thank you with my arms at my sides. Dignity is her main weapon in our battle with poverty, and I like having her approve of me.

She went into the house and came out again in a few minutes. “Here’s a spool of heavy thread and a needle to string them,” she said, and off she went to the hen house with slices of stale bread tucked in her apron for her beloved baby chicks.

The needle she gave me is useless since the eye is too wide to fit through the bead holes. I have to continuously spit on the thread to keep its frayed ends together so I can pass them through the beads.
Actually, stringing beads isn’t what I would like to do with my free time. I would rather play ball with my brother like we used to do. He was steady pitcher, and I was the batter. He’d lob the ball to me easy so I could hit it, and he’d pretend to chase me full speed while I ran the bases. Sometimes I’d get all the way around them for a home run; other times he’d tag me, and we’d collapse with laughter.

When Ralph entered high school it made our father angry. He quit school and ran away from home himself, and I suppose it had something to do with that. “If you can go to ninth grade, you can work like a man,” he declared, as if going to ninth grade were some kind of criminal behavior for which he needed a punishment. Now Ralph has to shovel out the gutter behind the cows, pitch silage and do every other farm chore that keeps him too busy and tired to play with me.

But stringing beads is nice enough. Pop beads are all the fashion, and I’m hoping to impress the town girls whose mothers buy up the ones in the department store window for them. I watch with envy as they show them off at recess. It’ll be their eyes and not their beads that pop when I walk into our fifth-grade classroom wearing my real ones. I’ll say they’re no big deal and wave my hand, dismissive of their compliments, and they’ll say, “No big deal! Those are marvelous!”

It isn’t long before Mother calls me, “It’s time for you to set the table. The baby is due to wake up soon, and you’ll have to take care of him then, so do it now, and take those beads upstairs. If he got one, you know it’d go straight to his mouth.” I pretend I don’t hear her until she comes to the doorway with her half-combed hair and her frayed housedress. Grandma says she was pretty once. “Your mother had a smile that would light up a room,” she says, pausing to remember.

I trudge upstairs where I string a few more beads before I put the box under my bed.
I walk down the steps and into the dining room where my burly father and a small wiry colored man are standing on opposite sides of the table. I have never seen a colored man up close. The only colored I know is Jimmy Bowden who, along with my brother and me, rides school bus number three. The town kids say his father is hiding out here, and if he returns to Chicago, they’ll kill him.

I scurry to the kitchen where Mother is standing with her back to the sink, doing nothing at all which is rare for her.

“What’s he doing in there? I ask her. Neither of us is sure if I mean the colored man or my father.

“She shrugs. “He’s after the check your father owes him.” Her voice is accusatory, as if it’s my fault he isn’t paying. She often speaks to me in that tone, and I think it’s because she would like to argue with our father, but she doesn’t dare, so she makes me her target instead. It never ceases to take me aback.

“What does he owe him money for?”

“He’s been trimming grapes.” She shrugs.

I would not have guessed this. The man isn’t dressed like any of the other itinerants who come around in the fall to trim our grapes. He looks like he’s ready for church in a clean white shirt, dress pants held up with suspenders instead of a belt. By contrast my father is wearing a heavy flannel shirt under a pair of bib overalls.

“I didn’t know colored people knew how to trim grapes,” I say. “Why doesn’t he just pay him?”

She shrugs again and tightens her lips. “Well!” she says, making it clear I’m part of the enemy team.

I hurry back to the dining room to watch the two men without giving her a chance to stop me.

“How you going to run your own country when just a hundred years ago you were bought and sold like cattle?” my father says. I cringe and look at the colored man who remains perfectly calm.

Most men I know would double up their fists at such a remark. I struggle to account for his docile behavior. Maybe because he gets so many insults hurled at him, if he reacted to them all, he’d go to jail in a hurry and never get anything done.

I worry for the stranger. He obviously doesn’t know how tough my father is. Last year Welch’s refused to pay the grape farmers what they considered to be a fair price, and they voted not to sell until Welch’s raised their offer. Our father sold his anyway, and when the other farmers heard Welch’s was sending men to pick up our grapes, a carload of them came to tip their truck over. Though outnumbered, my father and the guard man, with fists flying and much shoving and cursing, held them off until the driver got away.

It occurs to me that the colored man might have a gun. No, I decide, thinking back on what I know about coloreds. They fight with knives. Our dining room has become a dangerous place.

My baby brother calls from his crib in our parent’s bedroom. “Get Butchie and put him in his highchair,” my mother says. I guess she thinks the sight of a hungry baby might get our father to hurry up. She doesn’t dare tell our father to for God’s sake pay the man and be done with it.

The baby is so certain being with us in our miserable dining room is something to aspire to. He coos and grins and waves his little arms as I pick him up. I don’t need to, but I walk in front of the colored man on my way to the highchair, hoping he will notice how cute our baby is, but he takes no interest in the two of us. Butchie pounds on his tray, so I bring out a couple of stacking clowns from the toy box for him. But as young as he is, he seems to sense that things are amiss, and he quickly grows quiet like the rest of us.

I am good at picking up snatches of what the colored man says, “Black Muslims, Chicago, nation of our own.” I hope he won’t take Chicago away from us. I have heard it’s nice there, and I hope to visit it one day.

My father’s face is red, and the veins stand out on his neck. “Your people aren’t smart enough to run a country without us. Why less than a hundred years ago you were bought and sold like cattle.” He has found his perfect insult; no need to bother coming up with another.

“Colored bathrooms”—The stranger pronounces it bafrooms—”taking my boys for training.”

When I hear the word boys, my mind turns to baseball. Are there boys in the car I can play ball with while our fathers argue? I edge my way along the wall to the dining room window where I can see his car. He parked up on the lawn under our big maple tree, a strange place to park unless he planned to be a while and purposely sought the shade. I wonder if all along he planned to try out arguments he learned at his meetings in Chicago on our father.

There are two boys in the car. Forgetting the baby, I run outside. On the way I grab our bat and ball from the shed.

A boy about my age is in the passenger seat and a younger one behind him in the back. They are wearing white shirts like their dad. I knock on the side window and hold up the bat and ball. They stare straight ahead as if they don’t see me.

“Come out and play some ball.” I yell through the window.

Maybe they think I can’t pIay very well because I’m a girl. I walk to the front of the car and toss the ball into the air a couple of times to show them I’m good, but still they ignore me. The one in the front says something to his brother while he continues to stare straight ahead. They laugh, and I know they are making fun of me, but I’m a white version of their father’s kind of colored people. I will gladly stand their insults for a chance to play ball.

They continue to ignore me, and so I give up and return to the dining room where the men argue on, indifferent to the waiting going on around them: Butchie in his highchair, our mother in the kitchen, the two boys in the car.

“Lunch counter won’t serve us. Throw us in jail. bought and sold us like cattle.” He had turned my father’s words against him.

Butchie begins to kick the tray and it gives way. He falls out, landing on his face on the floor.

It’s a pretty serious fall, and I hurry to him. I expect our father to stop arguing while he checks to see if Butchie is all right, but the two men have locked horns. Neither of them looks our way. I study the colored man’s face, searching for some sign that he is secretly glad a little white boy has fallen from his highchair, but he doesn’t seem to even have noticed.

I carry Butchie to the kitchen. “Look, Mother,” I say, holding him so she can see his red forehead. He’s stopped crying. He never cries much.

“Get a piece of ice,” Mother says.

Butchie wants to check out the ice and refuses to let me hold it against his forehead. As we struggle, I notice there is a pearl embedded almost in the center of it. He’s like a woman from India, the ones you see in picture books.

I pluck at the bead with a fingernail, but it’s in too deep for me to get it out. Mother pulls a pointed knife from a drawer, and while I hold Butchie’s head still, she pries it out. She sets it on the counter, and when she turns I slip it into my pocket.

It’s a great relief when our father makes his way to the metal file cabinet in a corner of the dining room where he keeps his check book.

“A hundred years ago you were bought and sold like cattle,” he says as he hands the man his check.

The first colored man I have ever seen walks out of our house.

On some days Jimmy Bowden is tormented from the moment he gets on bus number three until we get to school. Kids sitting alone move to the aisle side of their seats so he can’t sit by them. Sometimes when he walks to the back, a kid will knock his books out of his arms. Then someone else snaps his suspenders.

With great indignation, I told Mother. She said, “Stay away from him. They do it because he’s odd. You know his mother is his sister.

“How would you know that?” I asked.

“Everyone knows it. You can ask anyone,” she said.

Suddenly I hated his sister-mother for making him wear suspenders. No one else in the school wears suspenders.

I stand on the lawn and watch as the car with the boys and their father drives out of sight. “Wait!” I want to call out. “Maybe some of us would be nicer.” But probably we wouldn’t, and anyway, it’s too late. He’s taking his boys to meetings, and they hate us.

“A hundred years ago they were bought and sold like cattle,” our father says when we are finally seated at the table.

My older brother and I glance at each other, Butchie gums a piece of a banana, and Mother looks down at her plate.

“I hear they bought a place with a lot of land near Benton Harbor. They fenced it all in. They put up a sign,” he says.

Mother nods. “My sister Bertha told me. It’s not too far from her house.”

“Pass me some of that sweet corn,” our father says, and we are relieved at the normalcy of his request. Still we eat nervously. When the meal ends we are glad.

It’s my job to clear the dishes. After I do, I get Butchie out of his highchair and put him on a blanket with pillows around him in case he tips over. Then I return to the dining room and get down on my hands and knees where I search the floor for more pearls.

There aren’t any.