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Authors: Eleanora E. Tate

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BOOK: Celeste's Harlem Renaissance
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“Don’t worry about that. You heard us talking and that got you upset. Don’t pay Hodges any mind. He’s a worrywart.”

“But he said you’d have to leave. Can’t you be treated at home? I’ll take care of you. What’ll happen to me if you have to go? I won’t have my family anymore!”

“My sweet little girlio, just like your momma. I know how important family is to you. It is to me, too. You and me, we’re a team, huh.” When he coughed and wiped his mouth, red spots stained his handkerchief. I’d never seen him cough blood before. Suddenly the day felt colder. He leaned against me and we staggered home. I made him sit down on the porch so he could rest, and rushed into the kitchen. Aunt Society glanced up, frowning, from her sewing machine. “Girl, don’t I keep telling you not —”

“Poppa’s sicker! Mr. Hodges thinks he’s got galloping consumption and needs to leave!”

She jumped to her feet, her fingers pressed to her mouth. “Oh, precious Jesus, I knew he had it. Where is — Taylor! Oh, you’re gonna die!”

Poppa had entered the kitchen behind me. “What’d you tell her, Cece?” he snapped.

“Enough for me to know you need help now.” She dropped the sheets on the table and went past me to Poppa, and made him sit down at the table. “Cece, from now on wash his clothes separate from ours, and no more kissing him, you hear?”

“Listen here, Society, I haven’t even been diagnosed yet. I haven’t left, and I’m gonna keep on kissing my child.” His thin face had gotten so tight with anger that his dimples disappeared. I could see his cheekbones sharper.

“And what about this girl?” she went on. “I can’t raise her by myself. She’s so headstrong and sneaky I won’t be able to do a thing with her if you’re not here.”

Me? Headstrong and sneaky? How could she say that when she controlled every move I made? I poured hot water into Poppa’s cup and tried to keep my mouth shut. I wished I had kept quiet about Poppa’s attack, too.

“I got to lay down.” Poppa rose from the table. “No, Society, leave me alone. I can get there myself.” He moved slowly to the couch in the parlor.

Aunt Society looked at me with a squinty half smile, half frown. “If he has to be in a sanitarium, I’ll move back to my own home,” she said. “We’ll close up this house till Taylor gets back. And you, we can hire you out to stay with two ladies I know near Roxboro. You can cook and clean for them. One’s portly and only has one leg, so she won’t move around much. It’ll be quite nice and bring us money.”

My hand shook and made Poppa’s teacup clatter. “No, ma’am, I don’t want to do that,” I whispered. “I want to stay here with you and Poppa.” Well, not necessarily her. She could move back into her house around the corner.

She crossed her skinny arms. “Taylor won’t be here, Cece! You can’t stay in here alone. They could teach you to make beds correctly, empty the chamber pot, wash and iron clothes quicker, since it’s just them two. Do a little hoeing, pick a little tobacco, feed the chickens, slop a hog or two, and such, for the one when she’s too sick. The other sister’s a missionary who comes and goes, so she could keep you on the straight and narrow. Don’t you see? Accept the fact that you’re not smart enough to be a doctor or even a nurse, Celeste. I’m just trying to help you get a trade. So you’ll be useful to Taylor when he returns.”

“You just don’t want to be around me,” I said quietly. “You never liked me anyway, because I’m a girl, and you can’t raise girls, like Poppa said.”

Aunt Society’s mouth fell open, then she snapped, “Nonsense! That’s what I mean about your sassy mouth. Now you” — she waved her bony fingers toward the parlor — “you go take his tea to him and hush up.”

Slop hogs? I bit my lip to steady my hands, and took Poppa’s tea to him. I set the cup on the lamp stand and eased down on the couch where he lay, his eyes closed. “She wants to send me away to wait on some ole one-legged tobacco farmwife and a missionary who’s apt to ship me off to Russia! Poppa? Poppa?”

Poppa snored. Ole bat wants me to be like that girl Topsy in that book
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
we read in school: slave away day and night, no home, no family. How could I save myself? Shivering, I stayed by Poppa until my aunt called me in to peel potatoes for supper.

The next day at school I couldn’t talk to anybody about my terrible situation, not even Angel Mae. Being my best friend, she knew when something was wrong, but she didn’t pester me about it. Angel Mae was what folks called “stout,” because she was heavyset. When she hugged me, it was like I was being folded into a pillow.

She studied me with her big gray eyes. “Have you got any word yet from the
Brownies’ Book
folks about our stuff?” she asked. I told her no.

After school I stopped by the Stackhouse to check on Poppa, but Mr. Hodges said he’d gone to see Dr. Pope — one of our best Colored doctors, and one of Poppa’s good friends. I had a million questions to ask him, but I kept them in my head. I wished I could have gone with him. I didn’t know what kind of tests he had to take, but I knew Poppa hated needles. I could have held his hand, maybe, to help him relax.

The second I dragged inside our house, Aunt Society rose from her sewing machine and cornered me. “That Miz Hugelburger and her sister out past Roxboro been needing a live-in girl for the longest,” she began. “You should —”

“Please don’t do this!” I dropped my schoolbag and twisted my skirt in my hands. “I promise I’ll do whatever you say. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, but I won’t do it anymore!”

“How you know what you’re gonna do and not do? You can’t think straight from one hour to the next.” She returned to her sewing machine and talked over its whirring thump. “You’re thirteen years old and yet to get your womanhood. You’re all stopped up. Girls like you got torment going on inside stopped up like that. And then when you do get your womanhood, you’ll go hog wild over every boy you see and bring shame on the family.”

My face burned with embarrassment. I blew out my breath.
Old thing’s gone completely batty.
Where did she get such outrageous ideas? “Oh no, ma’am, I’ve never whistled or snapped my fingers or ever done anything flirtatious toward a boy! And boys hardly ever come around me anyway, ’cause I smell like lard and lamp oil.”

“Hardly ever? So some do, eh?” She nodded her head vigorously, like she’d heard me confess some secret.

Stopped up! Ole crazy bat! I stamped across the kitchen to begin washing dishes while she kept on spouting off. I didn’t want to get my womanhood, anyway, and have to wash out messy rags and feel bloated and cramped for days on end. Angel Mae got hers when she was eleven and had terrible cramps. My friend Swan, who lived back of us, got hers when she was nine.

“Cece, you need to be someplace where you can’t get into mischief, or be with someone quicker than me to keep an eye on you. What would
you
do? Go live with your fancy Aunt Valentina in New York?” Aunt Society sneered out her name like she was flinging slime from her mouth.

I hadn’t thought about Aunt Valentina. “Maybe she could come stay with me here,” I said. Was hope on the horizon? “I could be home here, and you could come around but live in your own home. That way I’d still be with my family.”

“That woman’s no good for doing anything but causing trouble. Now set the table.”

As I reached into the cupboard for the plates, an idea began to form. Aunt Valentina might be my only hope. But could I get word to her in time?

Chapter
Three

T
hough I tried to stay awake in bed so I could talk to Poppa after Aunt Society turned in, I fell asleep. When I woke up the next morning, he had already left the house. Out the kitchen window I saw Aunt Society in the backyard hanging up clothes and fussing at the duck poop she had just stepped in. I quickly packed a sardine sandwich and apple into my schoolbag. I wasn’t a breakfast eater, so after washing up and throwing on my clothes, I hurried out the front door.

“Bye, Aunt Society,” I said low so I knew she wouldn’t hear me. She’d label me as being headstrong for leaving like this, but I had to write a letter to Aunt Valentina, and I didn’t dare do it at home. I ran to the Stackhouse Hotel and settled myself on a bench. Pulling my coat tighter against the March chill, I balanced my tablet carefully on my knees and began to write.

“Dear Aunt Valentina, I hope this letter reaches you in good health and in a pleasant disposition.” Mrs. Bracy had taught us to be more courteous in our letters, but I was in a hurry. “Can you please come down? Poppa has TB and might have to go away.” I told her about Aunt Society wanting to send me out to the country to slave under the one-legged tobacco farmer/missionary Hugelburger sisters. “I would be so very indebted to you if you would kindly reply in a rapid manner. I end this letter with much affection for you, my dearest aunt. Yours truly, your devoted niece Celeste.” I folded the sheet, slid it into an envelope, addressed it, and went inside to Mr. Toodlums, the desk clerk.

Mr. Toodlums chewed on the ends of his handlebar mustache while he wrote in his ledgers. He was so busy chewing that I had to clear my throat twice to get his attention. “Poppa wants you to please put a stamp on this and mail it out,” I said. I crossed my fingers behind my back and prayed the Lord wouldn’t strike me down for telling a falsehood.

Mr. Toodlums nodded at the mail basket on the counter. I thanked him, dropped the letter into the basket, and ran on to school. Angel Mae, our school’s back-door monitor, waved me in with only two minutes to reach my room and my seat before the tardy bell rang. I could barely keep my mind on what Mrs. Bracy was saying about our new governor.

At lunch with Evalina, Swan, and Angel Mae, I was so quiet and wiggly that even Evalina noticed. “You got chigger bugs on you already?” I shook my head. “Well, what’s wrong with you not even said a word? We Butterflies supposed to know how to use words.”

“Pipe down, Evalina! How could she use any words with you chattering all the time?” Swan told Evalina. A short, wiry girl, Swan wasn’t afraid to talk back to Evalina.

“Poppa’s sicker.” What else did I dare say? I nibbled on my sandwich, but I wasn’t much hungry.

The rest of the day crept along like half-frozen snails. When school finally ended, I burst out the door with Angel Mae, Evalina, and Swan. As we walked together, with them talking about clothes and homework and boys, I said nothing. What would happen if I had to go live with those Hugelburger women? I’d never get to see my friends, or Poppa, either! Tears popped out of my eyes, and of course everybody saw them. “Your pa’s gonna be all right,” Angel Mae clucked, rubbing my shoulder. I let them think I was crying about my father. Well, I was, but I was crying about them, too.

When we neared the Stackhouse, I saw Poppa standing outside with Mr. Stackhouse. He smiled a little when he saw me, but he didn’t look very happy. Ignoring Aunt Society’s commandment that running was unfeminine, I hiked up my dress and coat and hurried to him. “You all right, Poppa?”

“Speak to Mr. Stackhouse, too,” he said. “Remember your manners.”

“Good afternoon, Mr. Stackhouse.” Angel Mae, Swan, and Evalina caught up to us and greeted Poppa and Mr. Stackhouse, too. “Poppa, what did the —”

“We’ll talk about me later.” He pulled my letter from his jacket pocket. My heart slid down to my knees. “And talk about this, too. You get on home. I’ll be there directly.”

“Yes, sir. Bye, Mr. Stackhouse.” I left but I was in no hurry to go home. If Aunt Society knew about the letter, she’d pick and poke and pester me to pieces the minute I set my big toe onto the porch.

“Well, I’m gonna ask you again, what’s the matter with you?” Evalina demanded as soon as we’d got onto the next block. “Fess up to something now, girl!”

“You in trouble over that letter?” Swan raised her eyebrows at me. “Did you write it?”

“You order from the Sears Roebuck catalogue again without sending money?” Angel Mae asked calmly.

“No, it’s — it’s calamitous!” I told them the whole horrible story, especially the part about the Hugelburger sisters. We came to the corner by the cemetery where we usually went our separate ways. “But Aunt Valentina can’t get the letter ’cause Poppa didn’t send it.”

“You can stay with us,” Swan offered kindly. Swan lived with her momma; her feebleminded great-grandmomma; her Uncle Jeff, who liked moonshine; his mangy hound dog, Alvin, who always had slobber dripping from his mouth; and Swan’s own three cats who hated everybody, especially me. I thanked her, but I’d be better off with the hogs and chickens out in the country.

We said good-bye and I hauled myself on home. I entered through the kitchen door with my insides balled up. Where was she? I peered into the front room, and then I heard her talking with someone in the parlor about a blouse. So that’s where she was. I tiptoed into my room and stayed there until I heard Poppa’s footsteps on the porch. Then, I hurried into the kitchen to fix his tea just as Aunt Society’s customer was leaving. I heard them exchange pleasantries, and then Poppa came into the kitchen, followed by Aunt Society, with the blouse still in her hands.

“What did the —” Aunt Society and I began at the same time.

Poppa sat down at the kitchen table. “I want you both to keep my house absolutely quiet till after supper, and that’s what I mean,” he said in such a sharp voice that Aunt Society silently retreated to her room. I went to my room and tried to concentrate on my homework.

At supper Poppa scooted his navy beans and turnip greens around on his plate but hardly ate a thing. I stuffed scorched beans into my mouth, about to burst from the taste and the tension.

“Well.” Poppa finally spoke. “They say I got consumption and they want me to go to Coopers for a spell.”

The beans stuck in my throat. I couldn’t have said anything anyway.

“I knew it wasn’t war gas,” Aunt Society declared. “Get your medical and military papers together, Taylor. And ask Mr. Stackhouse to drive you to Coopers. Cece, you boil his plates and silverware tonight. And, Taylor —”

“Didn’t I tell you to be quiet?” Poppa said.

“I was just going to say that I’ll move back to my own home while you’re gone,” Aunt Society said.

BOOK: Celeste's Harlem Renaissance
2.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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