Hello… What?… No!… I’ll be right there.”
I was out of the bed, face washed, clothes on, almost before I put down the phone. “Jess, Jess.” I pushed on her curled form. “Honey, Mama has to go out. Go and get in my bed so you can hear the phone. Don’t let anybody in and don’t try to use the stove.” I guided her by the shoulders and repeated my instructions as, her plaits sticking up at odd angles from the night’s sleep, the pink bunny feet stumbled down the long hall to my bedroom. When I placed the white bedspread over her, she huddled into the same question mark she’d been in when I’d gotten her up.
I didn’t want to wake her up completely, there would be too many questions I couldn’t answer just then, but I had to get behind her wall of sleep enough to make sure she got me; “What did Mama say, honey?”
“Don’t let anybody in, don’t use the stove. Mama, where you going?” Her doe eyes opened as if she were fully awake.
“I’ll be back. I have to go out for a little while, honey, don’t worry.” Why did I say that? She didn’t know there was anything to worry about. She closed her eyes and started back to sleep. She’d be all right. She was seven this year and a little lady. I kissed her flat forehead and grabbed my purse from the dining room doorknob.
Once out on the street, walking to Bannah’s feeling that bright, early September sun, I was thinking that it couldn’t be true–not on a day like this. It couldn’t be true. I reached down in myself for that calm I could always find when I needed it. I had to be steady when I got there, not tearful or hysterical. Like soap in the bathtub, first it eluded me completely; I almost had it; then, it was mine. I would be all right. I would make it there in one piece. It was too early for the churchgoers. Night people were still holding court on Seventh Avenue. They were wearing Saturday night’s loud clothes and gazing out of Sunday morning’s hung-over eyes.
Looking around at the wide sidewalks asplash with the early morning sun, I remembered another September more honest about winter coming. I remembered when I’d first come to New York, when I’d first met Savannah.
“Hello, Frankie.” A stout cinnamon woman with one gold tooth in the middle of white, gold-hammered triangles hanging from her ears, had greeted me. Her face: a carefully applied mask of powder and lipstick. Her hair: in a pompadour. It was a combination of black and Indian hair: an improvement on the stubborn kinks of the African and the boring strings of the Indian, a wavy black slickness unaided by hot comb or hair grease.
“Come in, child, you look just like your Mama. I’d know you anywhere, those same beautiful eyes. Let me help you with that. You so thin, turn sideways, think you was a broom.”
She took my bag as I followed her up a flight of stairs to the bedrooms. I hadn’t thought an apartment would have stairs inside it like a house and told her so. It was a duplex: one apartment, two floors. On the lower floor: two bedrooms and the living room. On the upper floor: two bedrooms, kitchen, dining room and the smokehouse. A smokehouse! In New York City! Cu’dn Savannah showed me two fine Virginia hams hanging from the beams before she took me to my room, which was the bedroom next to it. My room was right off the head of the stairs.
She left me alone to take off my traveling clothes and get comfortable while she finished supper. As I took off my black gabardine suit and white blouse and hung them in the oak closet, the sweet-hot smell of biscuits came under the door. I changed into a blue cotton long-sleeve shirtwaist. All my clothes had long sleeves. My arms were too thin and reedy to go bare; “What did your Pa say about you leavin’ home?”
“He didn’t say much, Ma’am. I was at the creek down near the bottom fields when I turned to him and said, ‘Pa, don’t make a way for me next year cause I ain’t hoein’ no more cotton nor ironin’ no more white folks clothes.’”
“’Frankie gal, what you mean to do?’” I mocked Pa’s low growl; “’I’m going to New York City,’” I said throwing my sack in the creek.
“After a while he said,’ That’s a long ways off. Buy you a round-trip ticket so no matter what happens, you can always come home.’”
“I didn’t know he’d take it so easy, but he did ask me to write to you and see if I could live with you. He said you and Mama bein’ kin and so close growing up it’d be just like Mama had come down from heaven to watch over me.”
“Well, I’m glad to have you. Sometimes it gets lonesome here with just me and Vernon. Now, Frankie this is your home. Eat as much as you want, that’s what it’s for,” she said, putting a plate piled high with pot roast and brown gravy, greens, biscuits, mashed potatoes, and a large pitcher of iced tea in front of me.
Savannah’s kitchen was long and narrow. As you entered, on the left was the door. It was permanently open with a wedge under its foot. Hanging on the door was an assortment of sword-like knives and sharpeners complete with hilts. On the left was a Kelvinator only a little stouter than Cu’dn Savannah herself. Continuing down this wall was a sink on its heavy white legs. It was a combination sink with a deep basin for washing clothes and a shallow one for dishes. At the end of the room, right next to the sink was a low window. Cu’dn Savannah stood about five four. When she was at the low sink cleaning the greens, the bottom of the window hit her at the knee.
Coming back up the right side of the kitchen was a black-and-white four-burner stove with dainty legs and a little hood. The brown-gold chairs gathered around the brown-gold kitchen table were made of shiny-backed stuff that was washable like porcelain, but not breakable. The deep chocolate of the table was a fine background for the golden-brown fruit-basket design with its curlicue frame. The table was clothed only on Sundays.
Only Cu’dn Savannah and I ate. Vernon was “working” late that night. Both of them had been retired for years, but Vernon took what Cu’dn Savannah had explained to me was single action for a friend of his. It seemed up north here, they bet on the last three numbers in the horse race. Single action was just one number. You didn’t bet as much as you would on the whole number, and what they call the banker didn’t have to pay as much when you won. Vernon picked up these “numbers” and got 10% of the winnings plus tips from grateful customers.
Cu’dn Savannah sat down and we talked about when she and Ma were growing up first cousins in Cross Hill and what had happened to her since: the move north for a better-paying job, meeting Vernon at church, the marriage, setting up housekeeping, and how she and Vernon had started a restaurant because people always talked about how well she cooked.
“People came to our place from all over. Some of the best Negro entertainers, the Ink Spots, Ruby and the Romantics–Brook Benton even came in one time.”
“Ma’am, where was this restaurant?”
“On this road, Ma’am?”
“No, Frankie, not on this ‘road,’ as you say, right downstairs.” She caught my puzzled look and shook her head. “Chile, do you see that hole in the wall, I can’t call it a restaurant, on your left as you came in the house, before you came up the stairs?”
“Yes, Ma’am, yes, I did and there’s a dress store on the other side.”
“Well, that used to be our restaurant. After six months, Vernon put in the billiard parlor. It used to say right there on that plate-glass window with a curve and dip on the top and a curve and a dip on the bottom coming together like two sides of an egg: Savannah’s Home Cooking in gold with white edging and Vernon’s Billiard Parlor in black with white edging. I used to clean that window every day till it shone like the sun.”
“Sounds real nice. What happened?”
“Somebody reported Vernon for operating a billiard parlor and letting in people under age. How was he supposed to know? He couldn’t ask everybody come in there for their birth certificate. Found out it was Rita up the street. Her place had had all the business until ours opened up, so she sicked the cops on us. After they took away our license, she just moved right in. I look in there sometimes. No quality folks eat there like they did when we had the place… Well, that was yesterday,” she said, as she hoisted herself out of the chair and over to the Kelvinator.
She took out a bread pudding that looked like it had a dozen eggs in it from the yellow floating in the little dish she gave me. She had forced seconds of pot roast and gravy on me to get some “meat on my bones,” she said, and now there wasn’t a crack or crevice in my 90-pound frame to pour that bread pudding in, but I was tired of arguing with her so I talked to her some more about the restaurant, hoping she wouldn’t notice I was just rearranging the pudding in the bowl, not eating it.
Vernon, a lanky high yaller with a mustached smile and a gold tooth to match his debonair air, always wore a suit and hat. He carried a black cane, gold-tipped like his tooth. I wondered if he got the cane and the tooth at the same time. I also wondered if he and Savannah had gotten their gold teeth at the same time, but I never asked so I never found out. When he wasn’t working late he was right there at the table: thin as his cane and I didn’t see how he did it. But I noticed Savannah didn’t press him for second helpings. It was just, “Vernon, you want something else?”
“No, honey. That was right good. I think it will do me for now, but I might get a piece of cake after a while.”
There was always dessert at Savannah‘s.
Vernon and Savannah together were hard to place; they didn’t seem to love each other or hate each other. And could they fight! Cussin’ and fussin’, my Lord, about everything and nothing! I can hear Savannah now: “I wouldn’t marry you if you was the last man on earth.” I always said to myself, but you did marry him. Why? I never had the nerve to come straight out and ask her, and I never figured it out. They couldn’t sit down for two minutes and talk without getting into an argument about something. Whether Ching Chow had his hand up or down, whether that meant the first figure was going to be a two or the second figure was going to be a one, what insult Vernon’s sister had hurled at Savannah in 1934 at camp meeting in Beaufort.
How they got on it I don’t know, but one night, they started talking about dying: “And don’t think you gon get another woman and bring her back here to live in this house after I die.”
“You bein’ dead, what could you do about it?”
“If I die first, I’m coming back to get your ass; that’s what, and don’t you forget it.”
There wasn’t a thing they couldn’t find to argue about.
One day I came in to find Savannah watching the sunset from the dining room window. There were no tall buildings in Harlem then except for the Theresa Hotel, and it was too far away to make a difference. You could see a whole stretch of sky, the tops of the trees of Central Park, and the roofs of six-story buildings, their clotheslines draped with clean clothes. The purple, pink, red and gold of the sky, the green of the trees, and the white dish towels and underclothes flapping like flags: it was beautiful, but Savannah wasn’t looking at it. She was resting her eyes on it and looking inside herself.
“I went to see Marly-Ann today.” She spoke without turning around.
“How was she?” I pulled up a high-backed dining room chair and sat down beside her. She was quiet so long, I didn’t think she’d heard me.
She finally shook her head in answer. “The doctors say she’s just given up. Somebody has to feed her, too. It’s so hard now. Before she could write down what she wanted to say; now all she can do is point out the alphabet on the pad.” She started to cry.
Patting her shoulders as she cried, I held her. Me holding Savannah, trying to comfort her. Kinda strange, but kind of nice, too.
“My poor baby sister!” She leaned away from me, drying her eyes with the white handkerchief she kept in her dress pocket. “She can’t talk; she can’t feel. She can’t feed herself. She can’t even walk. That’s not living; It’s dying slow. I couldn’t take it; I know I couldn’t.”
I had never seen her so sad. Even though I didn’t understand till later all she meant, her words scared me. I couldn’t take it; I know I couldn’t.
I settled into the rhythm of life in New York City. I still said it in my mind the way I had said to Pa at the Creek, with an eternity of space between each word, enough space for wealth and dreams and romance of infinite amount. But when I said it out loud, I said it normal. I didn’t want people to think I was a hick from the sticks. I was a city girl now.
My first job was way downtown on Hudson Street in a book factory. I never thought I’d find a job in New York City that was so much worse than picking cotton. After two weeks of going deaf from the binders and wheezing from the cardboard dust from the trimmers, I left without picking up my check. They could have it. I was never going back there again.
I sat at the kitchen table reading the job listings. I had been ordered there by Savannah when I offered to help her with dinner. That was one thing I missed: cooking. I’d never weighed much over ninety since I’d been grown. I still weighed that despite a month and a half of Savannah’s good but heavy cooking. Down-home food, fine for working in the fields, but not for what little I was doing, especially those last five days when I was looking for work.
“You got to eat, to help you keep up your strength when you out there looking for a job. You got to do a lot of walking in this man’s town to find a job.”
“Yes, Savannah,” I said, smiling to myself, but I’d have to walk from here to Greenville, South Carolina, and back to need all that food, and that’s two thousand miles all told.
The second-helping ritual had by now been well rehearsed, “Frankie, don’t you want some more?”
“No, thank you, ma’am. That was real good, but I’ve had enough.”
“I don’t want your Pa to think I ain’t feeding you. You better have some more to eat, put some meat on your bones.”
“Ma’am, I can’t eat another drop. I eat anymore, I’ll bust.”
“You’ll just have to bust then,” she said, dolloping two snowballs of mashed potatoes on my plate. The best way with Savannah was just to let her put the food on the plate and not eat it. Arguing didn’t do any good.
I was sitting there missing cooking for Pa, cooking what I wanted to eat when I wanted to eat it, when it jumped out at me: FINE AND DANDY. This was a concern that hired maids, butlers, bartenders, and cooks to work for different people on a free-lance basis. They got a certain percentage of what you made. Sounded good to me. I didn’t want to work for a family because they always wanted you to sleep in.
Once you slept in, all your time was theirs. Lazy as some white folks were, you’d end up being cook, maid, and governess all for a cook’s pay. This sounded good. You were in and out.
I went down to see the man and he hired me on two weeks probation since I didn’t have work experience in cooking. He was short on good cooks and he said he’d try me out. I did fine. I went into most of the places and nobody was there, just a note about where things were and what was to be made for the party. That was all right with me. I never did like to work with people breathing down my back.
After those two weeks, things went smooth as glass. It got so certain people would plan their parties around my time. If I wasn’t available, they postponed the party until I was.
Then I met Leroy. I’d been working at Fine and Dandy for six months when I was called to do a party in Connecticut. It was one of my regulars, the Holsteins. I’d been to their house on 72nd Street but I’d never been to the one in Connecticut, though I’d heard about it.
Me and the bartender were leaving from 125th Street on the 8:10, and we‘d be met at the station. Leroy was a dark, thin man with his Indian coming out in that wavy slick hair and cheekbones so sharp they could cut. We talked all the way up on the train, me doing most of the talking out of nervousness. Telling him all about the Holsteins and Mama dying when I was four and me and Papa living alone, talking so much that by the time we got off to meet the Holsteins he knew all about me and I knew nothing about him.
I learnt in time, though. He was a fine dancer. When we went out it embarrassed me that I was such a bad partner, but I felt good that he would dance with me at all. Secretly, I started taking dancing lessons from one of those books with the footprints in it, humming to myself in place of the phonograph I didn’t have.
Savannah and I fell out about LeRoy. From the first time I asked him over for dinner, she seemed to hate him. I was hurt. I was sure she’d like him as much as I did. After that night, I couldn’t mention his name without us exchanging sharp words. Nothing he had said or done that one time she had seen him could have made her hate them so.
When we danced, he always wore white gloves that set off the mahogany of his face. He was cool, dark, and elegant. I liked the way he looked. I liked the way he acted. There was nothing about him I didn’t like. I don’t know whether she’d forgotten how it was to be young or what, but she should have known that opposition is the worst weapon you can use against a young girl in love. Maybe I would have thought more about it if I’d given myself time to let my feet touch earth again. Between my young fierce love and her doom sayings, when he asked me to marry him within three months of meeting him, I said yes.
When I told Savannah, she went through the smokehouse roof, “Listen, Frankie, you grown, you do what you want, but that black man don’t mean you a bit of good.”
Was that it? Was she color-struck? Even though I’d dropped the “Ma’ams” from my speech, and the Cu’dn from Savannah’s name, I couldn’t argue with her like I could if she’d been my own age. I’d learnt that old down-home respect for older people from Pa; “I know how you feel, Savannah, and I’m sorry for it, but I wanted you to know that you and Vernon are invited to the wedding if you change your mind.”
Except for Jess, I wish I had changed my mind. LeRoy, I found out, had many talents: bartender, auto mechanic, baker, construction worker. He worked at all those things in the year we were married, but of all the talents he had, he didn’t have the most important one of being able to keep a job.
I’d gotten pregnant with Jess almost immediately. I worked for Fine and Dandy until the uniform two sizes too big didn’t fit anymore, then I went to work for the Holsteins until my time came. They had taken a liking to me and agreed to let me work as long as I could , I didn’t want to keep working so late in my time, but I never knew when Leroy would have a job and when he wouldn’t, so I thought I’d better depend on myself.
Leroy stayed long enough to take me to the hospital for the delivery and cause a scene the next day when he insisted on wanting to name the baby Marietta after the town he came from. All along we’d said that if it was a boy, he’d name him. If it was a girl, I’d name her. Finally, I put down Girl Williams so we could leave the hospital in peace. A month later, he had danced out of my life for good. Savannah forged his signature so girl Williams could become Jessica Anne Williams.
Savannah was a big help to me during that time. I’d had to go back to work when Jess was only three months old. Savannah kept her until I came home. She was good with children, I guess because she was one of the oldest in a big family and had had to help take care of the little ones. Although she could have, she never said, “I told you so,” and I was glad for that.
Jess had her father’s deep, dark skin and my eyes. Even though I hated her father for using me and then leaving me, I loved Jess with all I had. I was glad she was a girl. I don’t think I could have raised a boy who might have grown up to look and act exactly like the father he had never known.
Savannah got me through my hatred. Savannah told me LeRoy was yesterday and Jess was today. I had to live for today, not for yesterday.
Sundays after church, Jess and I would walk down Seventh Avenue, my long thin legs trying to slow the pace to Jess’s short toddle. She looked so sweet in her pink organdy dress starched and pressed, her little black patent leather Mary Janes with buttons on the side, the pink anklet socks with the frilly lace at the top, and the little white hat with the pink bow tied in the back, just like the bow tied at what would someday be her waist. I felt her tiny hand curled around my index and middle fingers, damp in the late May warmth.
“We going to Aunt Bannah’s, Mama? “
“Yes, honey, but don’t say ‘we going,’ say ‘are we going?’”
“Are we going? Are we going? Are we going?”
She was making my correction into a song, putting the beat on a different word each time. I’d given up trying to get her to say Aunt Savannah. It always came out Sabannah, which she later shortened to Bannah, so I let it stand. Bannah and Jess got on like white on rice.
Peas porridge hot
Peas porridge cold
Peas porridge in the pot
Nine days old
Some like it hot
Some like it cold
Some like it in the pot
Nine days old
Without missing a beat, Bannah and Jess clapping into the next rhyme. Bannah’s ham hands stopping just before patting Jess’s miniature ones so the force wouldn’t push her tininess across the dining room.
Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack
With silver buttons, buttons, buttons
All down her back, back, back
All dressed in black, black, black
Went to the store, store, store
To buy a sack, sack, sack
And never came back, back, back
All dressed in black, black, black
Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack
Jess dissolved into giggles in Bannah’s lap. Giggling because she’d one-handed the last Mack” instead of two-handing it. She’d made me clap it out every evening this week so she’d do it right, “Well, Miss Jessie, you almost did it that time. Al-most,” said Bannah, as her gold rings rubbed the back of Jess’s dress.
“Next time.” Jess took her giggles out of Bannah’s lap and floated them toward her face. The sunlight from the dining room window sparking the hoops at Bannah’s ears with golden fire. “Next time I’ll get it right!”
“I bet you will Miss Jessie, I bet you will.” Bannah picked Jess up and sat her on her lap. Jess put her head on Bannah’s cushioned bosom and smiled. When she was no more than two she embarrassed me by saying that when she grew up she wanted “bumps” just like Aunt Bannah. Bannah had nearly fallen off her chair laughing.
“Careful with your shoes, honey, you’ll dirty up Aunt Bannah’s pretty white dress.” Bannah always wore white on special occasions. Sunday was a special occasion.
“She’s all right, Frankie. Yes, Miss Jessie’s all right with me.”
We always stayed for dinner. Bannah would congratulate Jess if she succeeded in finishing her meal without spilling anything on her white tablecloth and tell her to try to do better next time if she did spill. Jess always had to have a bag to take home with her. A piece of fruit, the second piece of cake or pie that she couldn’t eat and Bannah insisted she have: always something in a little paper bag. Sunday after Sunday, year after year. That’s what Sunday meant to me and Jess.
Right after Jess was born I went to work in the cafeteria at Woolworth’s, which meant less money than Fine and Dandy, but better hours and benefits. The Holsteins had told their friends about me. So I still did parties on the side, which helped me with the tuition for Jess’s school. Jess was going to have a good education, which she’d never get in the public school up the street from where we lived.
Like Pa always said: “Get an education; can’t nobody take that away from you.” He died the year I got married. Most of the time I worked parties, Jess went with me. She did her homework in the maid’s room in back of the kitchen. When Jess didn’t go with me, she stayed with Bannah. I changed jobs, Jess started going to school, but we still went to Bannah’s every Sunday after church.
It was the beginning of this year that Bannah started losing so much weight. Her sister Marley-Ann had died the summer before. She hadn’t grieved much then. Maybe this was her way of grieving now. From January to March, she lost nearly fifty pounds. I was in her bedroom in July, about a week before she and Vernon went down to Beaufort for camp meeting. She was getting the clothes together that she was taking with her, “I had to buy all new clothes. Nothing fits me anymore.”
”Bannah, I know you needed to lose some weight, but you’re going to have to take it a little slower. You have to keep some meat on those bones.” She laughed at my feeble joke. I joked because I knew something was wrong. Nobody lost weight that fast unless something was wrong. Bannah had to be sick. “Have you been to see Dr. Anderson?”
Bannah stopped on one of her trips from the cedar wardrobe to the big canopied bed where she was spreading out the clothes and sat down on the bed. One of her old big dresses swallowed up her body, hanging off her like unneeded skin. “Frankie, sit down” She patted the blue embroidered spread. I sat down in the middle of the peacock’s tail along side her “I don’t need no doctor. I’m telling you all this Frankie, because I know you’ll do what I want done.”
She stopped and looked off past the dressing table and through the wall of the apartment. I didn’t know where she was, but it was too far for me to reach her. Then slowly, like climbing up a flight of stairs, she came back. Patting her hand on the bed we were sitting on, she said, “They have coffins that have springs in them just like the mattress on this bed. That’s the kind of coffin and I want to be buried in.”
Bannah, what are you talking about dyin’ for? You’ve got many more years ahead of you. Who would Vernon have to fight with?” Again that look that was too far away for me to reach; then she came back.
“Everybody has to die sometime.”
“Yes. Yes, I know , but why –”
“Frankie, just listen. No matter when I die, I want you to be in charge of everything, so just listen. I’ve got 15,000 dollars altogether. That’s cash and policies both. I want it all in the ground with me. Vernon has his pension. I don’t want him spending my money on some other woman.”
So I stopped protesting and listened. Bannah had it planned down to the underwear she wanted. In fact, some of the new clothes were clothes she had selected for her funeral. She wanted to be buried in a white dress with a white-collar, which she showed me. She wanted to wear hoop earrings and all her rings. She wanted a steel, deep-rose casket with springs like she said.
While I was walking home that night. I thought that Marley-Ann’s death had made Bannah worry about dying. She had no close kin left, just me and Vernon. But something kept nagging at me. This was more than grief. Bannah was sick and seemed to know when she was going to die.
When I got there, Mr. Brown, the neighbor who had seen Bannah go out the window, was there with the police and Vernon. He told me he’d been watering his plants in the back room and had seen a person fall out the window. He called the police, who came immediately. He’d directed them through Sylvia’s restaurant to get “the unfortunate lady,” as he kept calling Bannah, out of the courtyard, but all he could give me was the facts. Nothing but the facts. I wanted more.
After Vernon came back from the morgue, back from identifying the person who used to be Bannah but was now “the body,” he told me more about how Bannah went to her death. I could see it just as clear as if I’d been there myself.
“Vernon , if you don’t get off that phone. I’m going to make you eat breakfast alone!” Bannah yelled to Vernon that morning from the kitchen.
Vernon had been on the phone talking to his sister for the last half hour. For the last half hour the salt fish had been sitting in their grease, the grits had been growing a cold skin, the toast had been ready to be pushed down in the toaster and the buttermilk sitting on the table had been heating to the temperature of the sun hitting it from the kitchen window.
After the first ten minutes, Bannah had gone to the door of the bedroom next to the kitchen and stood in the doorway hands on hips, elbows sticking daggers in the air. She stared at Vernon for a full two minutes while he motioned with his hands that he was getting off soon and laughed at something his sister said. Or maybe he was laughing at Bannah. He acted like he wouldn’t get off the phone until he was good and ready.
Going back into the kitchen, she decided to make some biscuits. She had to move, had to keep busy to keep from going in there and jerking the phone out of his hand. While she was making the biscuits, she stopped every once in awhile to take a drink from the mayonnaise jar or to refill it from the corn liquor jug under the sink, liquor she and Vernon had brought back from Beaufort.
Suitcases so full of liquor, they had to buy more suitcases to put their clothes in. A cousin of Vernon’s ran a ‘splo house and made some good stuff. Liquor had always been reserved for special occasions with Bannah. In the past month there had been many special occasions a day requiring that she have just one drink or two; then she stopped counting.
She and Vernon were fighting now even more than ever. Stopping halfway through the dough, the rolling pin pulled halfway down, she looked out the window at the girdle hanging on the line, the girdle she had hung there last night.
Why not now? She had to do it sometime. She wasn’t going to let this eating cancer kill her bit by bit; she’d do it herself all at once. She looked around the kitchen. She had swept the floor after she’d finished making breakfast. But she swept it again. She looked at the table with its white tablecloth, shining silver, and sparkling dishes. Butter, salt, pepper, sugar, hot sauce, homemade apple jelly, all in order on the table. Soldiers lined up for inspection, and the commander approved.
And Vernon. She decided she’d give him one more chance. She was a betting woman. If he came by the time she finished this last drink, she wouldn’t do it now; she’d wait and do it some other time. But if he didn’t come by the time this drink was gone, she’d be gone too.
Then she yelled to him from the kitchen, “Vernon, if you don’t get off that phone, I’m going to make you eat breakfast alone!”
Maybe she didn’t believe him, or maybe she was just ready to go. She finished the drink, drinking slow and he still hadn’t come. She opened the window, smoothed her dress down, held her hands next to her so her dress wouldn’t fly up, then jumped out the window. Vernon was still on the phone talking to his sister when the police rang the bell to say they’d come to investigate. A neighbor had reported that someone had fallen out of the window in this apartment. The official report said she had “fallen out of the window while hanging out a girdle while under the influence of an inordinate amount of liquor.”
I knew better. Bannah was too particular a woman to take her hands out of biscuit dough to wash a girdle and hang it out. Besides, she never washed anything on Sunday. I got there no more than an hour after she was supposed to have hung out that girdle, and it was as dry as dirt. The only time I’ve ever thought about it was when they were going to garnishee my salary to pay for my delivery after LeRoy left. I was paying them ten dollars a week. They didn’t want that; they wanted it all at once.
I had just got the job at Woolworth’s and thought they’d fire me if they had to garnishee my salary. I didn’t want them in my personal business anyway, but I was going to take Jess with me. We were going to go just like Bannah did: right out the window. But before I had to think about it twice, a lawyer in the neighborhood wrote a letter for me saying I was doing the best I could. If they garnisheed my salary I might lose my job and they’d never get their money. I thought about it and laid it aside; Bannah had thought about it and done it.
I did what Bannah asked. I put all but two hundred of the fifteen thousand dollars in the ground with her. Vernon shook off his grief enough to start worrying about the money I was spending on Bannah’s funeral. He kept trying to suggest cheaper coffins, “more reasonable,” he called it. But I told him no. Bannah had told me what to do and I was going to do it. Hell, I spent three hundred dollars on flowers alone. There were two funerals; one at Unity in New York and another at Springfield Baptist in South Carolina.
Since that morning I had gone to Bannah’s leaving Jess in bed, I’d kept her with me almost the whole time. I had to watch her. I didn’t know how this would affect her, but I decided she’d known Bannah too long and too well for me to try to shield her completely from what had happened. She was learning the facts of death at an early age. I had to make sure it didn’t hurt her more than she could bear. When I returned from Bannah’s that morning I told her that Bannah had died from falling out the window. Jess went with me to Bannah’s house after the funeral in New York and went down south with us to the funeral there.
As we walked back from the grave, the South Carolina red dirt baked hard by a beautiful September’s sun, she asked me, “Why wasn’t she more careful Mama? She was always telling me to be careful around that window.”
“I don’t know Baby, I don’t know,” I let my tears come freely. I hadn’t cried this much since Jess’s father left.
The crying was both a comfort and a knife in my soul. I’d been too busy with the funeral arrangements and helping Bannah’s other friends bear up and worrying about Jess to sit down and have my own cry. And here I was stumbling through red dirt in high heels, grabbing at Jess’s hand because my tears wouldn’t let me see. Bannah, Bannah, why did you leave me?
“Mama, don’t cry” Jess patted my hand between her two. “Don’t worry, Aunt Bannah’s just sleeping. She’ll wake up and we’ll play Mary Mack and I’ll get it right this time.”
Wendy Jones is grateful to have been born into a family of storytellers. As a result, she is the author of “An Extraordinary Life: Josephine E. Jones” and “The Culinary Art Portfolio of Josephine E. Jones.”