Bittersweet Fruit

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Arlette closed her eyes, allowing her mind to slip back in time again. She was in the gum woods with Nettie Mae and Martel. They cut their palms with a knife, to become blood brother and sisters, like the Alabamee Indians, Martel said, and swore friendship forever. Arlette and Nettie Mae would become blues queens and Martel their manager. They would both be his wives, just like it was back in Africa, Martel said.

Submitted: July 30, 2013

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Submitted: July 30, 2013

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Arlette was thirteen years old again, back at the country club with Nettie Mae, it seemed like they had always been destined to become friends, each of them having only brothers as siblings. They were sneaking under the canvas skirt to see Bessie Smith sing the blues. Bessie dominated the tent with her majestic presence and charisma, effortlessly putting down male hecklers with her sharp wit, in between singing about all those things not mentioned in church: sex, romance, heartache and broken dreams.

When they finally got home, they were caught trying to sneak back up to the bedroom by Aunt Aleneda, earning themselves a few belts from her leather strap, but it had been worth it. For days afterwards, they had walked around singing ‘St. Louis Blues.’ Aleneda accused them of having been touched by the devil and made them sing fifteen ‘Lord’s Prayers.’ They swore they would be blues singers, one day, like Ma Rainey and Bessie.

Only a few days had passed since she’d heard the news on the radio – Bessie Smith was dead as a result of her car accident – and now this. Arlette’s childhood seemed like something that had happened a hundred years ago.

‘Arlette – you hear?’ said Eason.

She looked up at her brother and stopped rocking the chair. ‘You sure it her?’

Eason looked uncomfortable. ‘Now… I ain’t been in no whorehouse myself, mind. But Jimmy Dee swears it Nettie Mae, though he reckon you’d not know less’n you look real close. They got them gals doped up on opium an’ pills – keep ’em like slaves.’

‘Suppos’n it her, ain’t none o’ my business,’ said Arlette. ‘What you spectin’ me to do?’

Eason shrugged, replaced his cap and strutted off the porch. He walked towards the gate, scattering bantams and ducks, before climbing on his bicycle. Arlette went back to rocking the chair gently. She squinted through the heat haze, watching the children: young Aleneda, Bes and Teona weeding the polk salad patch, Judge climbing the pecan tree, Emmet pushing Shonelle and Letreece on the swings. Emmet would be a young man soon; he looked more like his father everyday.

Arlette closed her eyes, allowing her mind to slip back in time again. She was in the gum woods with Nettie Mae and Martel. They cut their palms with a knife, to become blood brother and sisters, like the Alabamee Indians, Martel said, and swore friendship forever. Arlette and Nettie Mae would become blues queens and Martel their manager. They would both be his wives, just like it was back in Africa, Martel said.

But time passes and childish whims fade. Arlette left the rocker and pulled back the screen door to enter the house. She passed through the kitchen, into the living room, and stood staring at Martel’s framed photograph on the wall, above the fireplace.

She sat down in an armchair, listening to the clock’s relentless rhythm ticking away her life. What was it to her? Burned bridges can’t be mended. She was bringing up Nettie Mae’s children, surely that was enough. Nobody really cares about anybody else, why should she care?  She cried a few tears, chastising herself for being weak.

Arlette stood up and paced the room, before standing in front of the photograph again. She returned to the porch. ‘Emmet!’ she shouted. ‘Git here.’

He strolled up with a lazy gait, thumbs in the pockets of his denims, his posture displaying the adolescent male resentment at being told what to do. ‘What you wan’, Arlette?’

‘Go git Eason for me, an’ be snappy ’bout it. An’ never mind givin’ me sideways snake eyes, boy! Less’n you wan’ feel Aunt Aleneda’s strap. ’

Emmet walked off, as slowly as humanly possible. Arlette returned to the rocker and began see-sawing aggressively. She closed her eyes again, indulging in reminiscence.

Arlette and Nettie Mae had anticipated becoming Martel’s wives, but he was older and he soon moved on, finding himself a mulatto widow who owned a car. But still, they saved themselves for him. When the rich bitch threw him out, six months later, he came back, with an old car. Martel coached them in singing a duet of ‘After You’ve Gone’, to impress someone at Okeh Records, he said, and promised to take them on the road, to Mississippi, but he soon ran off with a jaundiced-looking octoroon from Leeds, who had an ass like a boy and sang like a crow. He’d left them both pregnant – Arlette with twins.

Aleneda had taken Nettie Mae in when her folks threw her out; they began to bring up Martel Junior, young Aleneda and Bes together. When the time came for Aunt Aleneda to meet her maker, she left Arlette the house and victuals kiosk, along with the money from Miss Trevain, the white spinster Aleneda had nursed for years. One thing out of Aleneda’s constant preaching had sunk in with Arlette: ‘You never git successful on account o’ other folk, only in spite o’ them.’ Arlette eventually turned the kiosk into a small store, through hard work.

Martel came back again, when the police in Mississippi were looking for him. Arlette refused to compete over Martel, wanting him to choose her naturally. Martel had seemed disappointed by that. He got them both pregnant again and took Nettie Mae on the road, to make her famous. Ten months later, they came back to give her a record Nettie Mae had made of a song called ‘Magic City Man’, and to dump Emmet on her, so that Teona would have someone her own age to play with, Martel said. They went back on the circuit of gin houses and sugar shacks.

Arlette tried to numb her mind; she didn’t want to drag it all up again. Why did Nettie Mae have to be in Birmingham? Why couldn’t she be in New Orleans or Timbuktu? Part of her wished Nettie Mae had died – it made her feel guilty.

‘Mama!’ she heard Letreece’s voice.

Arlette opened her eyes to see Letreece picking an orange berry from the vine growing up the side of the porch.

‘Don’t eat them bittersweet berries, honey; you wan’ be on a potty all night.’

Letreece climbed the steps and crawled on to her lap – Arlette opened up the front of her dress to let her suckle. She never ceased to be fascinated by the beauty of her adopted daughter, how she looked equally like both Nettie and Martel, and a little like herself, she liked to think..

Several years had passed after Emmet had been left with her and Arlette gave up on Martel. Then she met a twelve-string guitar player called Treven. He was charming and sensitive to her needs, even though he came and went like the rain. Treven gave her Shonelle, but there had been two sides to him – one dark, just like the moon. He beat her to within an inch of her life because she wouldn’t marry him and risk losing her property. It had been a relief when he died in a train wreck, shortly after putting her in hospital.

Martel and Nettie Mae did visit her in Birmingham, bringing flowers and candy. They fussed over her for a couple of days, reminiscing about their childhood and recalling the blood oath they had sworn to look out for each other. Then they left Judge with her. But, at least, she would have plenty of kin to take care of her in old age, Martel had said.

The last time they came back had been two and a half years ago, Arlette hadn’t even see them; she just got home to find Letreece left behind with the other children. It was now a year since she’d received the news – Martel had been killed in a Jackson alley, a knife fight over gambling debts. His loss affected Nettie Mae immensely, so the gossips said, disturbing her mind.

Eason arrived and removed his cap; he looked irritated. ‘What you wan’, Arlette?’

‘Can you git enough boys together to make them city pimps fear God?’

‘Knew it,’ he shook his head and grinned. ‘Reckon some o’ her kin might join a posse. Not much paid work goin’ today an’ I got some favours owed. How we gon’ git ’em there?’

Arlette got up, carried Letreece into the kitchen and put her down. She collected a knife, before kneeling to prize loose and remove a floorboard. Arlette took a roll of dollars from the stash, handing some notes to Eason.

‘Don’t git ideas,’ she told him. ‘Won’t be here again; I got other places.’

‘I’s hurt,’ replied Eason.

She pointed the knife at his face. ‘You will be, if you git hooch with that there money, boy.’

Eason retreated with the money, leaving Arlette to ponder if she was doing the right thing. She took Letreece into the parlour and sat in the armchair, cuddling her and singing a lullaby.

‘Go to sleep, baby, don’t say a word.

Mama gonna catch you a mockingbird.

If that mockingbird won’t sing,

Mama gonna give its neck a wring.

Hush then, little one, don’t you cry,

Mama gonna bake you a mockingbird pie.’

 

Arlette dozed a little with Letreece, but it was a fitful nap haunted with dreams of Martel dying in an alley.

Emmet snapped her out of it, moaning about being hungry. Arlette fried the greens the girls had picked, in bacon fat, along with some eggs, and sliced the corn bread for them.

By the time Arlette had washed and put on her best dress and headscarf, Eason was back, with half a dozen farm boys clinging to a battered old flat-backed Schmidt truck.

She stood in front of the mirror. ‘You still is a good-lookin’ woman, Arlette,’ she said, imagining Martel saying it.

‘Teona!’ she bellowed. Teona came quickly, wringing the hem of her skirt with both hands. ‘Don’t you be leavin’ the youngsters till I git back. You hear, li’l mama?’

‘Yes’m,’ said Teona.

Arlette got in the cabin alongside Eason. The driver set off down the dirt road, crunching through the gears. Arlette looked back out of the glassless window.

‘Lordy me,’ she whispered to Eason. ‘You sure picked every rascal in this part o’ Jefferson county.’

‘Ain’t no bible meeting we goin’ to, Arlette.’

‘Granted, but why you bring Jerrick? You know he crazy, an’ ’bout as welcome as boll weevil to most folk.’

Eason just shrugged. The scattered homesteads and encroaching thickets of purple-flowered kudzu vines were left behind as they passed through the pine and hickory woods, out into open country. On either side stretched fields of cotton, tobacco and sugarcane. Further along the road, workers were busy bringing in the maize crop. In response to the hollers coming from the fields, the rascals replied as one:

 

Oh, black woman, oh, Lord, I got somethin’ to tell you fore I go.

Oh, make me down a pallet, black woman, down on your floor.

 

Arlette rested her eyes, relaxing her body so that it swayed in rhythm with the bumps in the road. She listened to Eason and the driver talk about the pros and cons of President Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, for a while.

Arlette thought about Martel: how much he loved himself, how selfish he was, but also, how he never intentionally treated women badly, except for not being able to stick to just one. Martel Junior had been her very own version of him that no one could take away – except the Lord. She recalled that fateful day, finding Martel Junior dead in his cot, for no apparent reason. She’d lost another baby, stillborn, but it hadn’t hurt the same. Arlette started to well up, but forced the lump back down her throat, not wanting to look like a weak woman in front of the men folk. If she was to help Nettie Mae, she had to be strong.

‘Moan for us, Arlette.’ The voice in her ear startled Arlette. It was Jerrick’s head poking through the window of the door. She acted shy and reluctant, until everyone had insisted, before doing her best impression of Sippie Wallace singing ‘Up the Country Blues.’

Within half an hour they had passed through Irondale. They approached the outskirts of Birmingham, driving past coal mines and steel mills. It being a Saturday, the roads into the city were busy with traffic, trucks and horse-drawn carts carrying devalued maize to the markets. They had to idle in a traffic jam for a while, watching raggedy-dressed street urchins steal peanuts from the back of the truck in front.

They eventually arrived in downtown Birmingham, weaving around yellow tram cars and Gothic style buildings. Unemployed industrial workers could be seen loitering everywhere, both black and white. The driver turned into an alley and parked behind a dilapidated four-storey Romanesque building. It was decided that Jimmy Dee would go in first, so that they would know if Nettie was still in the same room.

Five minutes later, Jimmy Dee was hanging out of a third floor window to whistle at them. Two rascals stayed with the truck, watching the window, while the rest walked around to the front of the building. A couple of white men in cheap suits were just leaving. Arlette and Eason entered, the others waited by the door. An old woman was sitting in the lobby, knitting in a rocking chair. She looked surprised at seeing Arlette enter.

‘She with me,’ said Eason, ‘lookin’ for work.’

Eason led Arlette up the first flight of stairs. Once they were out of sight of the woman, she punched his upper arm.

‘Lookin’ for work,’ Arlette hissed.

Eason skipped on up the next flight, chuckling. They climbed the next flight to find Jimmy Dee waiting in a doorway with a finger to his lips. Arlette entered the large, sparsely-furnished room to stare in horror at the woman on the bed. Nettie Mae wore nothing but a nightdress and looked much older than her thirty-one years. She was evidently in some sort of delirium, barely aware of their presence. Arlette put a hand to her forehead.

‘She sick,’ she said. ‘She got fever.’

‘You ain’t paid for no gang bang,’ said a voice behind them.

Arlette turned to face a balding man, his stomach bulging from a string vest, his light-brown skin dappled with dark patches.

‘Do I know you?’ he asked Eason.

‘Must have me confused with someone else,’ he replied.

‘She our sister,’ said Arlette. ‘She goin’ home with us.’

The pimp grinned, shaking his head. ‘She ain’t goin’ nowhere, owing me too much money for that. An’ the police ain’t gon’ help you here, sister; they’s good customers.’

‘We ain’t goin’ no police station, mistah,’ said Eason in a threatening tone. ‘We gon’ burn yo’ house down, jus’ like the Klan.’

The pimp turned and shouted into the corridor. ‘Eli, Dorsey, git in here.’

Jimmy Dee stuck his head out of the window and whistled.

Two men entered the room, one tall and lean with a flattened nose, the other average-sized and wiry.

‘Show these here country folk the way back home,’ said the pimp.

‘Sure thing, Lamont,’ said the wiry one. They moved forward, but then paused, listening to the sound of numerous feet pounding up the stairs. Both men moved aside as the rascals entered the room to stand behind Arlette.

‘Yo’ mama sure been busy,’ said Lamont with a smile. He turned serious.  ‘Let’s talk ’bout it in my office.’

 ‘You stay with Nettie Mae,’ Arlette told Eason. She followed Lamont, accompanied by the other boys. Girl’s heads appeared in doorways, along with some of the customers.

‘Git back to work!” shouted Lamont.

They crowded into another room and Lamont walked to his desk. As he reached to open a drawer, Jerrick stepped forward, pulling a pipe gun from his overalls to point at him. The homemade contraption looked like it would explode if used, but it did the trick.

‘All right,’ said Lamont, putting his hands up. ‘Take the whore; she ain’t no good, anyhow – smokes more than she earn. He addressed his cronies. ‘Tol’ you it was time to git rid o’ her’ Turning back to Arlette, he said, ‘Hope you growin’ plenty o’ poppies out there, she gon’ need ’em.’

Jerrick kept the pimps covered while they left, Eason carrying Nettie Mae down the stairs. Eason put Nettie in the cabin and climbed on the back of the truck. As they pulled away, Jerrick ran to climb aboard. Arlette held Nettie Mae and rocked her gently, singing ‘Amazing Grace,’ the rascals providing backing harmony. The return journey seemed to pass much more quickly.

Back at Arlette’s house, Eason took Nettie Mae and carried her down the path. Arlette thanked the young men. As the truck pulled away Jerrick tipped his cap at her, smiling. ‘Any time, Arlette,’ he said.

The rascals drove off, singing ‘Shake ’em Down.’

 

‘I ain’t been to heaven, but I been told.

Kill somebody ’bout my jelly roll.

Must I holler, or must I shake ’em down?’

 

Arlette led Eason up to a back bedroom, the children tagging along behind.

‘Who’ that?’ said Emmet.

‘This yo’ Auntie Nettie Mae,’ Arlette replied.

‘That’ her?’ he pulled a face.

‘Aleneda, Bes; you’ movin’ back in with the others – an’ no backtalk – git yo’ things.’

Eason put Nettie Mae on the bed, turned and started to leave.

‘Where you goin’?’ Arlette asked him. He paused and shrugged. ‘Put me a bolt on the outside o’ this door, ’fore you go.’

Arlette went to the kitchen and set a large pan of water to boil, on the wood-burning stove. When Eason entered to put the toolbox away, she stroked the side of his face.

Eason brushed the hand away. ‘Don’t be motherin’ me, Arlette. I’s goin’ now, an’ don’t bother me for another week.’

Arlette carried the pan upstairs, shouting, ‘Aleneda, Bes; fetch me a bucket, pan, soap and flannel – an’ no dawdlin’.’ When everything had been brought, she said, ‘Now, out – an’ no comin’ in here less’n I say so.’

She waited for the door to close, before stripping the nightdress from Nettie Mae, who just moaned and groaned. While soaping her down, Arlette hummed and sang Bessie’s version of ‘After You’ve Gone.’

Once Nettie Mae was cleaned up, Arlette wrestled with getting a dressing gown on her. She tucked her in and returned to the kitchen, preparing ochra, and some herb broth.

Arlette heard the screen door open and turned around. ‘Hullo, Levi; Nettie Mae’s back,’ she said matter-of-factly.

Levi remained in the doorway, scatter gun in one hand, a bunch of squirrels in the other, held by the tails. A black and tan hound poked its head between his knees. He leaned the gun against the wall and scratched his grey beard, nodding slowly. ‘You know what they say ’bout bad pennies.’

Arlette gave him a disapproving look as she went to take the squirrels. Levi wiped his hands on his dungarees, picked up the gun and retired into the yard.

‘Bes, Aleneda,’ she shouted. ‘Come help me skin these critters.’

While they worked, Arlette coached the children in singing ‘Wade in the Water.’

When the meal had been prepared, Arlette took two plates of stew and corn-bread down the yard. She stopped at the door of a shack, shouting, ‘Uncle Levi!’

Levi opened the door, put a clay pipe in a corner of his mouth and took the plates.

‘She ain’t a bad woman,’ said Arlette.

‘Won’t matter when we all dead, Arlette,’ said Levi. He stepped back and pushed the door shut with his foot.

With the children fed, Arlette took some broth to Nettie Mae, patiently persevering until she’d managed to get some down her throat.

Arlette spent the next few days cleaning the sweat from Nettie Mae and feeding her. She slept with her at night, holding down her legs when they kicked so much she would have fallen off the bed in spasms. Nettie Mae eventually emerged from the fever but was withdrawn, reticent and resentful of the patronisation. Arlette returned to her own room.

One morning Arlette was woken by loud noises. She went out to the landing to find the children standing outside Nettie Mae’s door.

‘She goin’ crazy,’ said Aleneda.

‘Go on, skedaddle,’ Arlette told them, ‘Leave it to me.’ She slid back the bolt, entered, and closed the door behind her.

Nettie Mae was pacing the room, carrying a vase – she stopped to eyeball her. ‘Arlette, you thinkin’ you can keep me prisoner here?’ She turned and threw the vase through a window pane.

‘I’s tryin’ to help you, woman!’ said Arlette, with hands on hips.

Nettie Mae stopped bristling. ‘Arlette,’ she whined, ‘if you wan’ help me, git me some black tar or blue heavens.’

‘No way! You ain’t takin’ any o’ that junk here, gal.’

‘Fine, then I’s leavin’.’

Nettie Mae tried to push past Arlette to the door. Arlette grabbed her and they wrestled with their arms, but Nettie Mae was still weak, Arlette easily managed to push her on to the bed.

‘This kidnappin’!’ Nettie Mae screamed.

‘When you well again; you go where you wan’, do what you wan’, Nettie Mae. I ain’t yo’ keeper. Till then, you stayin’ put – hear?’

Nettie Mae wept fitfully. ‘They took my baby. Took him an’ sold him to white folks. I need somethin’ to forgit.’

Arlette left the room and bolted the door. She rushed down the stairs, hollering ‘Emmet! ‘Git here, boy.’

Emmet appeared screwing his face up. ‘What?’

‘Go git Eason, quick.’

‘He don’t wan’ disturbing none, Arlette.’

‘That so? Well, you remind him who bails his ass out o’ jail every time. Now move, boy. Less’n you wan’ me go all Aunt Aleneda on yo’ scrawny behind.’

Emmet gave her one of his cheeky grins. ‘You even know where that ol’ strap’s at, Arlette?’

‘There’s allus a first time for everythin’, boy. Now git!’

‘Arlette!’ Nettie Mae screamed repeatedly.

Arlette returned to the bedroom. ‘What you hollerin’ ’bout, woman?’

‘I’s goin’ crazy in here. Let me out an’ git me a dress.’

Arlette went to her own room and took a lightweight, blue dress with white polka dots from the wardrobe.

Nettie Mae followed her. ‘Ain’t you got nuthin’ decent?’

Arlette threw the dress; it landed so that it covered Nettie Mae’s head. Tutting her disapproval, Arlette stormed downstairs. She was sitting in the parlour when she heard Nettie Mae come down and open the front door. Arlette rushed out to follow her down the path.

‘Where you think yo’ goin’, Nettie Mae?’

‘Back to town,’ she replied. ‘An’ mind yo’ own.’

When they reached the gate, Nettie Mae halted. Arlette scrutinised her face, seeing the doubt and fear in her expression and eyes, revealing the internal conflict she was struggling with. Nettie Mae suddenly seemed like the little girl Arlette had grown up with, she even looked beautiful again.

‘Go on, then,’ Arlette challenged. ‘Go be a whore an’ junky. See if I care.’

Nettie Mae began to cry again. Arlette moved to comfort her but Nettie Mae backed off.

‘Don’t touch me, Arlette. You allus thought you were better‘n me; Martel’s li’l butterfly.’

Nettie Mae walked back to the house, sobbing. Arlette followed, shaking her head. In the parlour, Nettie Mae stood staring at the photo of Martel, tears streaming down her face. Arlette wept with her for a while, before taking her out to the porch. They sat in the rocking chairs, avoiding looking at each other. Arlette tutted occasionally, as she watched the blue-grey gnatcatcher birds take insects on the wing.

When Emmet came back with Eason, Arlette took her brother aside to confide in him. ‘Nettie had a baby an’ them pimps sold it to white folk. I wan’ you find out who they is.’

‘I’ll ask Jimmy Dee,’ Eason said with evident reluctance. ‘He know’ everyone in town.’

Arlette went to the kitchen, took some scraps of ham from the pantry and began preparing muddy gravy. The children wanted to help by making the biscuits – they seemed to be avoiding Nettie Mae.

Nettie Mae entered the kitchen and approached them. ‘You Emmet?’ she put a hand on his shoulder. He didn’t respond.

‘Give Nettie Mae a kiss,’ said Arlette.

‘No!’ he said. ‘She a whore, everyone say…’

Arlette grabbed him by the shoulder, spun him round and slapped his face. ‘Don’t you talk to yo’ mama like that, boy!’

‘She ain’t my ma!’ he shouted, eyes welling with tears. ‘I hate you, Arlette! an’ I ain’t ever comin’ back.’ He ran out.

Arlette ran after him, chasing him down the path. She grabbed him and they fell, rolling across the dirt. Emmet fought her but she clung on, embracing him from behind, waiting for the adrenalin to subside.

‘So, Emmet,’ she gasped, ‘you never loved me, did you?’

‘Sure do,’ he sobbed through the tears. ‘Love you… more than anyone, Arlette.’

‘If you love me, you’ll love her too. Love her for me, an’ for yo’ daddy; you hear?’

‘I’ll try, Arlette, for you.’

They stood and she hugged him, stroking the back of his head. ‘I know it hurts,’ she told him. ‘The Lord never intended for us to be happy, most o’ the time. We have to bear our crosses, jus’ like he did, an’ take what li’l happiness comes our way.’

Arlette found Nettie Mae on the porch, rocking in one of the chairs. All the spirit seemed to have deserted her; she just rocked constantly, staring into space.

Nettie Mae didn’t speak after that day. Arlette tried to use Shonelle and Letreece to woo her out of it, but they were ignored. She knew that Emmet wanted to reach out to his mother, at least, for her sake, but he didn’t know how to. Arlette left Aleneda and Bes to run the store, because she was afraid Nettie Mae might harm herself. Sometimes she would catch Nettie Mae staring at the photo of Martel, but all her tears seemed to have dried up.

It took Eason a few days to find out what Arlette wanted to know. He turned up all knowing smiles. ‘The child’s with folk in Mountain Brook – a lawyer.’

‘I wan’ you bring me the baby,’ Arlette told him.

‘Arlette!’ Eason pleaded, with a frown. ‘He got a good life there, better than you can give him.’

‘I wan’ you bring me the baby – she need it.’

Eason started pacing in front of her. ‘But, Arlette, them’s white folks you messin’ with… you wan’ see me on a chain gang?’

‘You owe me, Eason. Bring me the baby. You hear?’

Arlette could only wait and see if Eason would deliver. She had to watch Nettie Mae withdraw deeper into her shell, her own children avoiding her more and more.

When Sunday morning came around, Arlette and the children dressed for church. Nettie Mae couldn’t be cajoled into joining them.

Even without Nettie Mae’s attendance, Arlette noticed how the more judgemental members of the congregation huddled and whispered, while glancing at Emmet. Reverend Rawls responded with characteristic magnanimity, sternly eyeballing the gossips as he welcomed Nettie Mae back to the fold in her absence, and wishing her a swift recovery from ‘the affliction.’ He then gave an inspired sermon on how Jesus had saved a woman from stoning, by reminding her persecutors of their own human frailty.

As they walked home afterwards, Emmet had gone missing. Arlette and the girls set about preparing a young cockerel for dinner, joking about how the reverend had withered the backbiters with his scary eyes. Emmet returned shortly, with a bloody nose.

‘You all right, boy?’ Arlette asked him.

‘Better’n he is,’ he replied. 

It finally happened the next evening. The porch was lit with oil lamps, the children around them, enjoying fried cucumber and ginger beer, Levi sat on the steps, reciting the legend of John Henry, in between short bursts on the harmonica, Emmet beside him fondling the dog’s ears. A chorus of cricket and cicada song carried on the cooling air, along with the occasional call of a nightjar. Eason arrived holding a bundle and passed it to Arlette.

‘I got you some beer, jus’ in case,’ she told him. ‘It in the cooler.’

The baby was crying to be fed, so Arlette let him suckle at her breast. Eason collected a bottle and joined Levi and Emmet.

Nettie Mae took no notice, remaining lost in whatever world her broken mind had created. Letreece walked up to her, offering a berry from the vine. Nettie Mae took the berry and ate it without even grimacing.

Arlette began to sing ‘After You’ve Gone’, Levi joining in on harmonica, Nettie Mae humming along quietly.

Arlette paused. It pained her to say it, but she did. ‘We could call him Martel Junior, Nettie Mae?’

Nettie Mae turned her head, seeming to notice the child for the first time. She held out her arms. Arlette took the baby to her and handed him over, before returning to her own chair. Nettie Mae cradled and rocked the baby, while Arlette sang:

 

After you’ve gone, and left me crying,

After you’ve gone, there’s no denying,

You’ll feel blue, you’ll feel sad,

You’ll miss the dearest pal you ever had.’

 

Nettie Mae spoke without looking at Arlette, ‘That why I hated you, Arlette, he allus thought you a better singer than me.’

It stuck in Arlette’s throat; she had to force it out. ‘But he allus loved you more, Nettie Mae.’

Nettie Mae stopped rocking Martel Junior and looked at her, smiling weakly with watery eyes. They continued singing together.

 

 

 

 

‘Go to Sleep Baby’, ‘Black Woman’ field holler, and ‘Shake ’em Down,’ are traditional folk song compositions in the public domain.

‘After You’ve Gone,’ (Layton\\Creamer) published in the US 1918. Copyright expired after 75 years.


© Copyright 2017 lailoken. All rights reserved.

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