Welcome to Fiction Friday, where I share an excerpt of a fiction story I’m working on. This week is Chapter 14 of Blanche’s saga. If you haven’t read the previous chapters you can find the link HERE on the blog.
“Try some of that hot pepper vinegar on there,” Miss Mazie said, motioning to a clear glass bottle in the center of the table. “That’s how a lot of us eat it down South.”
Miss Mazie had made fried pork chops, sweet potatoes and collard greens for lunch. I’d never had collard greens and I was surprised by how good they were. Peppers of all shapes and colors were squished inside the small bottle Miss Mazie pointed at. I poured a few drops on the greens and coughed as the spice hit my tongue. My eyes watered and even with the pain spreading down my throat, I started to giggle between the coughs. I guzzled water fast and it helped some, but Miss Mazie started to get up and move toward the kitchen.
“Let’s get you some milk, honey. That will help faster.”
When I had swallowed the last drop of milk I started to laugh.
“Oh, my goodness!” I cried. “How do you even stand that Miss Mazie? I must be a real wimp or something!”
Miss Mazie tipped her head back and let out a long, hearty laugh. Her whole plump body shook when she laughed.
“I’ve just built up an immunity to it, I guess,” she said. “I enjoy it.”
I had started visiting Miss Mazie for lunch once or twice a week about a month after I found out I was pregnant. I was finally able to keep food down and Hank was gone most of the day at his new job at the steel factory.
“How’ve you been feeling, lately?” Miss Mazie asked dishing more sweet potatoes onto my plate.
“Oh, no, I couldn’t eat anymore,” I said.
“You’re eating for two, honey, and you’re looking a little skinny to me, for as far along as you are. Now eat on up.”
I smiled at Miss Mazie.
“I’m feeling fine,” I said. “I feel fat and awkward, but at least I can eat without throwing it all up now.”
“Oh, you haven’t felt anything yet,” Miss Mazie laughed. “Wait a couple more months and you’ll be waddling good. I was huge with both my boys. I waddled like a penguin the last month with both of ‘em and thought Earl would have to roll me to the hospital. Their sister came a little early, so I didn’t waddle as much with her.”
I glanced at the photo of Earl and Miss Mazie on the wall behind her. Miss Mazie was so young in the photo, skinny with short, dark hair piled on her head, wearing a small, cute hat, tipped off to one side. She was smiling and her arm was looped through the arm of a handsome, smiling African American man wearing a suit and a warm looking overcoat.
“How long were you and Earl married?” I asked as I scooped more sweet potatoes onto my fork.
“60 wonderful years,” Miss Mazie said with a smile.
Miss Mazie reminded me of Lillian with her dark skin and her sweet personality, but she wasn’t from Jamaica. Miss Mazie grew up in Mississippi and had moved to New York state 50 years ago with her husband when he took a job at a local rail yard. He had died two years ago, and she had been living in his large, two story house, alone, since then.
“Were you happy?” I asked her.
“Almost always,” she said. “but a marriage is made up of good and bad. That’s why the marriage vows say, ‘for better or for worse.’ There is always going to be some worse times. We had our fights, that’s for sure, but the making up was always the most fun part.”
She laughed again and winked.
I laughed, but inside I wished Hank and I made up more. He only seemed to yell and then fall asleep drunk lately.
“Honey, how is marriage going for you? You seem real young to be married already.”
“It’s okay. Not what I expected but – life isn’t always what we expect.”
“Well that’s true, of course,” Miss Mazie said with a small laugh. “You said before your parents live four hours away. How do they feel about you being so young and married?”
I thought about lying but something about how Miss Mazie asked the question, like she really wanted to know, made me decide to be honest.
“I really don’t talk to them much,” I said, emotion suddenly caught in my throat. “My daddy hates Hank. Mama loves me but they’re both disappointed in me. I was the good girl, you know? My sister – she was the one who got into trouble a lot, ran around with boys. I just read books and loved school. I don’t think anyone thought I’d ever do anything like this.”
“So, you ran away then?” Miss Mazie asked.
I nodded and looked down at the table, feeling ashamed.
“I thought – I don’t know – I loved Hank and everyone was always talking about what they thought I’d do and who they thought I’d be,” I said. “They never asked me what I wanted and in the end, I just wanted Hank. He seemed to care about me and liked when I told him about the books I was reading. He’d tell me about his music and take me to his gigs…”
A tear slipped down my cheek and I quickly brushed it away.
“It’s not the same anymore, is it?” Miss Mazie asked.
I shook my head as the tears started to flow.
“He doesn’t talk to me much anymore,” I said “He drinks a lot. He hasn’t been getting as many gigs and he works long hours.”
“How does he feel about the baby?”
I shrugged. “He was mad at first but he’s happy now. He’s sure it’s going to be a boy. He’s already picked out a name – Jackson, after his grandfather.”
Miss Mazie reached across the table and took my hand.
“Blanche, honey, he isn’t hurting you, is he?” she asked softly.
I looked up quickly, shaking my head.
“No, ma’m,” I said. “He yells sometimes but he doesn’t hit me or anything.”
“You make sure you get out if he does, okay?” Miss Mazie said. “My door is always open to you, if need a place to stay.”
“I will,” I said, though I didn’t know if I really would or not. Hank wasn’t perfect but I’d learned a long time ago that no one was.
Miss Mazie started to clear the table, shuffling her feet slowly across the floor.
“I came from an abusive home,” she said. “I don’t want to see anyone else wait as long as I did to get out.”
“Earl?” I asked, surprised.
“Oh no. Not Earl. My daddy,” Miss Mazie said sitting the plates and glasses in the sink. “We never knew what mood he’d been in when he got home from work. Life wasn’t easy back then. He worked long hours for not much pay and over the years I’ve tried to remember that when I think back on those years with bitterness. I just wish I could have got my mama out before – “
My muscles tensed as Miss Mazie paused and shuffled toward a pie sitting on the counter.
“Did he – did your mama –“
I was afraid to ask.
“Oh, he hit her pretty good one night,” Miss Mazie said. “She was pretty bruised but she was alright. She went back home with him when she got out of the hospital. I had already met Earl and gotten married. We were living a couple hours away and our first was on the way. I was so mad at her. I didn’t understand why she stayed, but I guess there must have been something tender in him she could see that we couldn’t. It broke her heart the day he died. He got into a fight with a white man in a bar on the way home from work. The man beat him good and the man’s friends dragged daddy out into a field and hung him from a tree.”
“Why would they do that? How could they?”
“Unfortunately, some people don’t like when black people act like they are the same as white people and they wanted to send the black community a message,” Miss Mazie said placing a plate with apple pie on it in front of me.
“But you are the same as white people,” I said. “What do they mean?”
“It’s a little different in Mississippi.” Miss Mazie’s expression was sad as she sat down across from me. “There is racism up here too but down south it was even more toxic. We live in a broken world, Blanche. Only God can mend us. We just have to pray he mends the broken hearts because that’s the only way to mend this broken world.”
I nodded as I took a bite of the pie. I certainly understood the world was broken, more so now than ever before.
“Do your children live close, Miss Mazie?” I asked.
“My daughter does,” she said. “She’s here almost every day to check in on me. And she brings my grandbabies with her and her husband, James. My boys live out in Detroit with their families and they visit on holidays and as often as they can.”
I pushed the apple pie around my plate.
“I miss my family,” I said finally.
“Have you been back to visit them at all?” Miss Mazie asked.
I shook my head.
“I really don’t know if they’d want to see me,” I told her.
“Have they reached out to you at all?”
“Mama and my sister have, but my daddy . . . he’s too angry. I know he doesn’t want to see me.”
Miss Mazie reached across the table and squeezed my hand again.
“Is he a good man, sweetie?” she asked.
I nodded, tears spilling over.
“He really is and I really – I really took him for granted,” I said, tearful. “I disrespected him because I felt like he wanted to control me, but . . . I think maybe he wanted to protect me. I just didn’t listen and now it’s too late.”
Miss Mazie leaned back and sighed.
“Honey, honey,” she said. “It is never too late to make amends. Don’t you give up. Pray for your daddy and your relationship with him. I believe healing will come one day. For you both.”
The sheets stuck to my skin and sweat dripped down my back and my large stomach. The ceiling fan did nothing more than rotate the humid, sticky air around the room.
I felt Hank’s back against mine and thought about how he’d barely touched me since I’d told him I was pregnant. I missed his kisses, his arms around me. I was fat and miserable, lost inside myself. Miss Mazie was my only friend. The ladies at church continued to invite me to Bible study, but I continued to make excuses. I spent most days in the apartment, washing dishes, mending Hank’s work pants, listening to the radio he’d picked up at a pawn shop when we first arrived.
The neighbors scared me, usually yelling – at their spouses, at their children, at people on the street they thought were too loud at any time of the day or night.
I studied cook books, trying to make the best meals I could for Hank, but he rarely thanked me, simply eating what I cooked, pushing himself back from the table and taking a nap in the bedroom or grabbing his guitar and walking to a local bar.
I threw the sheet off of me and rolled out of the bed, pain searing through my back and down my legs. My breath caught and I waited for the pain to fade and then walked through the darkness to the kitchen, turning on a light and opening the drawer where I’d slid the letters I’d received in the mail that week.
I can’t even believe you are having a baby! First running away with Hank and now a mom? Wow! What a difference a year makes! It was so hard to stand up there at graduation without you. I always thought we’d accept our diplomas together. I won’t lie that I cried a lot after you left. I start secretary school next week in Milton. I never expected you to do something so crazy. So, what’s it like anyhow? Are you happy? What are you going to name the baby? I can’t wait to see you again soon. I hope you’ll come home for a visit.
I folded the letter and slid it back in the envelope and picked up the one from Edith.
I’ve missed you so much. I can’t even believe you’re going to have a baby! I’ve got some big news too. I know you remember Jimmy Sickler and how jealous I used to get when he’d go out with other girls. Well, I started going to that ladies Bible study you went to before you left and reading my Bible more. It made me think about what I wanted for my life and how nice it would be to be someone who would please God more instead of someone people whispered about behind their backs. Jimmy and I met a church picnic a couple of weeks later and started talking. He said he could see the change in me. He came over one day and asked Daddy if he could take me out for lunch in town and we’ve been meeting almost every day since. I don’t know, Blanche, but I think he might be the one. Can you imagine? Dorky ole’ Jimmy Sickler. It’s silly isn’t it? Silly but true. I’ll keep you updated. So, are you huge yet? I wish I could come up and see you one day. I’ll see if I can get a weekend off at the salon and we’ll make a day of it and you can show me all the exciting places in the city.
“Hello, there, I don’t think I’ve introduced myself.”
The woman who stepped in front of me when I tried to leave the church service was wearing a white coat and white pencil skirt that made her look like she’d escaped an insane asylum. Her blond hair was styled with large curls on each side of her head, a style I guessed was popular with city people.
The smile plastered to her face was alarming, plastic like.
“I’m Buffy,” she said, thrusting her hand toward me. “The pastor’s wife. We’re so glad to have you here with us.”
Buffy? What kind of name was that? I truly hoped it was a nickname.
“Thank you,” I said softly, trying to figure out how to escape as I shook her hand. “I’m Blanche.”
“So nice to meet you, Blanche.” The woman was still smiling, still holding my hand and I thought maybe her face was stuck somehow.
We stood there for a moment in awkward silence and then Buffy, if that was her real name, finally released my hand and propped her hand under her chin, smiling that plastic smile.
“Blanche, we would love to have you come to our ladies Bible study,” she said, her words quick and clipped like the sound of the keys on a typewriter. “ It’s every Wednesday at my house. I’d be glad to give you directions if you’re interested.”
I wasn’t interested. I was frightened, but I nodded anyhow.
“Oh, Blanche! So nice to see you!” a voice cooed behind me and I turned to see Hannah Harrison, the woman I had met in front of the church before, walking toward with me a broad smile on her face, her expression less alarming than Buffy’s at least.
“Buffy isn’t overwhelming you with kindness, is she?” Hannah laughed. “It’s so nice to have you here, hon’. I hope Buffy was inviting you to the Bible study this week.”
“I sure was,” Buffy said cheerfully.
“Please, come, we’d love to have some younger faces in the group,” Hannah said in a kind voice that immediately relaxed me. “I hope we don’t seem too eager, but we’ve been feeling awful we hadn’t reached out and officially introduced ourselves before.”
“That’s okay,” I said, wanting to add, ‘trust me, I don’t mind’ but biting my tongue.
“Just think about coming,” Hannah said softly, laying her hand against my shoulder. “I am sure we overwhelmed you just now but we’d love to get to know you better.”
“Thank you,” I said and smiled back at her. “I’ll think about it.”
I had no plans to think about it. I wasn’t interested in meeting with women who’d done everything right – marrying at the right time, having babies at the right time and being like those perfect women I’d read about in Proverbs.
I knew I would be out of place around them and have to face the mistakes I’d made. Facing those mistakes was too much coupled with the exhaustion of pregnancy and wondering why I couldn’t keep Hank happy.
I left the women standing in the lobby, chatting happily about each other’s outfits, their afternoon plans and how big their children were getting. Their world wasn’t my world and I knew I would never fit in there’s.