A faux crystal bottle, empty, but corked, with a lavender ribbon round the neck.
Jeannie uncorked the bottle, sniffed. The gardenia smell was puny, but still something.
She dropped it back into the box.
“Don’t think we should throw this one here out just yet,” she shouted over her shoulder, to Natalie, the eldest.
Jeannie had known her eighty-fourth year was it. But clearing out her house was not. Junky junk junk for days.
Saturday April 5th 1934
Friday Angel Nealey — Fan — didn’t know if the twinge in her womb woke her or if it was Juniper Lynn. Her ten-year-old sister always flailed, tossed and moaned. Many times Fan would shake her, crying, “June? June?! You beating me girl, watch out.” This morning June was in a delightful dream: door jamb had morphed into a wedge of chocolate cake.
Fan trotted back inside and the mosquitoes stirred.
Today Mama Dawn puts on her dress resembling Muffin’s marbles — mostly clear with swirls; aqua, citrus yellow and orange. His real name is Earnest Paul, the five year old brother’s, but he’s been nicknamed Muffin because he’s so plump, light-brown and sweet. Black girls are to have prettier skin if they eat burnt toast. Good thing she’s had a bath the night before and washed. Rubbed the lye between her hands at the water pump. Fully submerging in the water, menstruating.
And Mama was up, too. Strong coffee in a tin mug was in front of her. Freedom Nealey, everyone called Frieda. An average-height, wiry-built woman with a complexion the color of a weak tea. She was sitting in her kitchen in her day dress, color of corn, a blue paisley handkerchief on her head. She was what the folks called, a handsome woman. Her features weren’t symmetrical enough to be beautiful.
Fan was a carbon copy in her face but taller. At twelve just, she already was towering over Frieda. The other difference was Fan’s right shin was marred at three by an accident with a pan of hot cooking grease.
Fridays, aromatic junipers, and gems. She was thirty-five and had carried on her tradition of naming her daughters after her three favorite things.
Fan got out of bed, slipped on her overalls and lit the lantern; Fan gritted her teeth and stuffed her rags in her pocket, took the lantern and trudged; Fan hummed nothing in particular, no songs or notes in particular, to the outhouse.
To her even further annoyance, she’d discovered her rags sack kept under her mattress at the foot of her bed was running low.
“Thank you, Mama. Mmm-hmm.”
Fan stood the lantern like an employee awaiting instructions from an employer.
“I’ll cook and call out when your breakfast’s ready. Happy Birthday,” Frieda replied, and took her sips of coffee.
Frieda had flawless skin, even teeth, and clear eyes: she’d missed the pretty mark by one degree! — why? Making her yell, Rube, don’t leave that yard! June, clean that up! Muffin! — put that down! Always running round when she needed them still and then always into slugs when she needed their help.
She looked at her daughter. This was a small luxury to permit, wasn’t it?
Fan went back into the bedroom, blew out the lantern and sat down. The back of Juniper Lynn’s head. Matted braids in her hair. Fan rose again, looking at the only two cotton dresses she owned. The Mondays through Saturdays dress was a faded cyan, with a decapitated orange for flowering. Sunday’s dress was ivory, pink polka dots the size of pinheads.
“You like your presents?” Muffin asked.
Muffin presented a slightly wilted but robust bouquet of wildflowers, bound through in twine.
“Yes,” said Fan, hoping her smile matched theirs; “Everything is nice.”
She went to each sister and her brother and hugged them.
Her mother came to her, put her hands on each of her shoulders.
“Fan, your father asked you to come see him today.”
“Can we go, too?” Rube piped up beside her, “Can we go, too?”
“Yeah, I wanna go see Daddy!” Muffin chimed in.
“No,” said Frieda. “Just Fan today.”
“It ain’t your birthday.”
First page showcased his Big Sister with diamonds all over, even on her fingernails. Page Two, Fan was a dancer, sparkles and featherings in her hair. On page three Fan’s standing in front of this house so big it had had to have thirty five windows! Ruby Nell gave her a short “book”. Each page, leaves of butcher paper, folded together, was sketches of Fan in states of greatness.
Had braided her hair in two plaits she pinned across the head like a crown; head rag had the day off, too. Her mother had shook her head but had conceded her with her words: “Okay … ” but: “Yes’m.” Having Tobias all to herself, wearing her best dress; Fan thought she was hearing things. Fan felt that she and Tobias alone, her father and her, alone, would own any road between them.
Fan followed her father as he padded into the kitchen. He stopped in front of a small cardboard box in the corner. He turned and grinned at her.
“Go on,” he said, jerking his head towards the box, “Go on look in there.”
Fan stepped ahead of her father, peered in.
“Go ahead. She ain’t bite you.”
Oh, how Fan’s love came down! The kitten unfurled enough in Fan’s arms for her to see that Tobias had tied a pink ribbon around her neck. She also opened her eyes a slit for Fan to see that they were green eyes: green eyes as green as stagnant pond water. The soft slickness of the fur … She wanted to hold her! Fan did and she whined almost like a human baby.
One step up from a cabin — was about seven hundred square feet in all. One wall dividing the kitchen and the living room from the bedroom. Meager, but clean. The floor never needed sweeping, table never needed wiping. Only had had a fourth grade education so he’d encouraged the children to get as much out of school as they could. Book collection included every classic he could find — the Great Gatsby, Robinson Crusoe, Great Expectations. Made the girls read aloud each time they visited. Always made Muffin practice his letters.
Fan took a road that led to her best friend and only friend’s house: Nickel Eye Cartwright. Nickel Eye was one year older than her and was afflicted with albinism; his christened name was Andrew. He’d earned his nickname because even though he had had vision problems, Nickel Eye had an uncanny ability to spot change on the ground. Fan and he had befriended each other because they had shared physical oddities: she was an unnaturally tall girl with a blemished leg and he was a black boy with a tow head and light eyes. Nickel Eye and his mother had settled in Swole when he was four. Her son often made his own meals and took care of the house because his mother couldn’t rise from her bed.
“Mama?” Nickel Eye said now.
Ida was curled into her ball. There were some days she couldn’t tread, couldn’t hardly float.
There was a light.
“Can I go into town with Fan?”
“Ye-ah,” Ida answered. Her voice was thick and lumpy as unsifted flour.
Nickel Eye bent down and pecked his mother on the temple.
She listened to Nickel Eye feel his way out of her bedroom and then stretched her limbs.
“Ham, potatoes, peas,” she whispered over the demons’ jeers.
The pair sat on the stoop of the general store. Fan, with her big dill pickle and root beer, Nickel Eye, with his bag of chips and an orange soda. They munched and drank in silence, watching the endless parade of colored people. All represented some hue of the black rainbow: the lightest being yellow, the median ginger, and the darkest blue-black.
A petite girl, the color of polished oak, wore a blue gingham dress and a white straw hat, approached them from across the street.
“Hi,” said the girl. “What y’all doing?”
“Nothing,” answered Fan.
“Okay. I’m Meridian. People call me Meri for short. I’m waiting on my folks’ car to get fixed over there,” she pointed down the street, towards the auto repair place.
The girl’s long, pressed hair came to just below her shoulders. The few years she had had on Fan … gave her a plum-size bosom, and a bit of hip.
“This here is Andrew,” said Fan, “but we call him Nickel Eye. I’m Friday, but everyone calls me Fan. I’m twelve today and he’s thirteen,” (Fan was use to speaking for Nickel Eye; his condition made him shy.) “Where you and your folks from?”
“Dallas. I’ll be fifteen next month. You all want to walk with me or something until they fix our car?” she asked.
The girl was staring at Nickel Eye with the overt manner of a small child. He had had his verdigris eyes on the chip bag the whole conversation.
“You want to, Nick? How long you staying?”
“No telling,” Meri said.
“Okay,” said Fan, nodded over to Nickel Eye, who nodded back.
The two of them stood up and threw their chip-pickle-soda bottle trash in the nearest trash bin. Then the three of them together walked away from the general store.
“Where does the end of this street lead to?” Meri asked as they walked.
Nickel Eye found his tongue. “Out of town.”
Meri grunted in approval.
For the entire walk now Fan had been suppressing the urge to tear Meri’s hat off her head, stomp on it, pull out that silky hair. She had been imagining Meri going to church the following Sunday, telling what good Christian duty she had done the previous week by being nice to a freakish, milk-skinned black boy and a girl with an ugly leg she met in the country. Fan slowly tucked her scarred leg under her, like a flamingo. She also had taken note of Meri’s skin, so flawless that she appeared to not have pores. She was beginning to lose her balance standing on one leg so she put the other one down and spoke.
“What about your folks?” she said.
“What do you say … we keep walking out of town?” said Meri, her eyes twinkling. “It is such a nice day. And we won’t be long. Come on. I’ll race you both to that tree over there.”
Now, in what was only the very next moment, Fan wanted to hold Meri’s hand and run anywhere with her. Nickel Eye was quiet again; all his bad eyes showed him was a green blur.
“Come on,” said Meri. “If I lose, then we have to walk right back to town and I’ll just buy you another soda or something. If you lose, then we just play until it’s time for my folks to leave.”
The smile truly was in Meri’s eyes. Fan looked for traces of pity or cynicism in it and couldn’t detect it.
Meri smiled again.
“Okay,” said Fan.
Meri pulled the hat off her head and got into a lunging position. Fan and Nickel Eye did the same. Fan started out in the lead because her legs were the longest. She and Nickel Eye were nearly neck and neck. But at the last minute, Meri caught up to them, sprinting like a jack rabbit. She scampered past them both to the tree.
“I win,” said Meri. “What do you want to do next?”
The trio laughed, panting.
Fan knocked on Tobias’ door and Meri and Nickel Eye waited in the yard. He did have a shirt on this time but he still needed to comb his hair and shave.
“What you doing back here all so soon, girl?” he grunted.
“Can I show Domino to my friends?” Fan asked.
“Wait here just a minute.”
He would let the three children in, but only after he had got to run a comb through his hair and splash some water over his face.
They took their turns holding the cat.
Everyone laughed when Meri put it on top of her head and then gently put her hat on it.
“Say, Meri. Can I ask you something?” “Sure.”
“Are you rich?”
“Heck no. Things are tight for us like they are all over. Daddy is the only colored dentist in town and we were doing better until the Depression.”
“Well, can I ask you something? What’s wrong with Nickel Eye?”
“It’s some kind of thing people are born with where their body has no color. Even if they’re colored. White folk can have it too.”
The parents ate sparingly so there would be more for the children. They ate on the porch.
“You know that girl Meri that I brought by here?” Fan said.
“Yeah,” said Muffin. “She was really nice and pretty.”
“She was. She gave me some bubbling bath oil for a present.”
“Yeah,” said Fan. “So now I can take a bath just like the women in the movie pictures.”
“You are, too, Muffin! I’ll let you and Rube use some.”
“Sure,” said Fan. “Just remind me next time you take your bath.”
Fan smirked. What an incongruous image: glistening, iridescent bubbles in the old and dented number ten wash tub they bathed in.
“Fan, I can’t sleep,” Muffin said. “You got me all excited now, thinking about the bubbling oil.”
“Muffin,” said Fan, “Me neither. We can play the Imagination Game till we fall asleep.”
“Okay. You get to go first, since it’s your birthday.”
“I’m going to marry a man … who owns a store … You, Ruby Nell, and Muffin can get whatever you want … I’ll have twin girls, named after some of my favorite things … just like Mama did, with us … Tangerine … and … Magazine …”