Read Magic City Online

Authors: Jewell Parker Rhodes

Magic City (4 page)

BOOK: Magic City

Left foot, right. He couldn't stop. Out of the house.

“Joe,” Hildy called.

His pace quickened. He was running full out.


The sun seemed to be growing brighter, flooding the porch. Off in the distance, he swore he heard the rush of water. He ran, but he didn't think he could outrun his dread.

ary wondered if she was going crazy. Her head flickered with pictures. She needed to keep moving—stirring grits, setting the table, mixing meal. She didn't have time to wash or cry.

“Ma,” she whispered. Ma—buried; good and gone.

She had to make it through her morning chores. Then she'd escape to town and her elevator where with her fingertips, she'd make the steel-rimmed cage soar. For now, it was best not to feel anything. Best to still the scream bubbling inside. Best to keep moving.

“Ma,” she murmured. She was a fool to be remembering her mother's lavender-scented hands stroking her back. A fool to be thinking she could still hear lilting lullabies and murmurs of “Love you.” She was too old to be crying for her Ma. Too old to be needing a woman to talk to about her shame.


Laying strips of bacon in the pan, she remembered well what she tried hard to forget:

Her ma standing in the kitchen, her abdomen contracting in visible
waves. Slow and easy, at first; then, erratic and punishing. Ma reassured her: “It took days to birth you.” Newly seven, she stood at her mother's side, braids down her back, making preserves, snipping off stems, pressing mounds of blackberries into boiling syrup. The big-bellied pot cackled over the fire

Mary cracked two eggs deftly into the batter, tossing the shells into the sink.

Ma's hands, stained with black juice, guided hers. Strong, lean-fingered hands stroked her hair, tickled her sides. Her mother hummed softly through her belly's unproductive heaves, through the rising scent of berry juice. Mary's terror grew as sun flooded the kitchen, glinting like flames. The curtains fluttered like bird's wings

Mary paused; the curtains hung limp. She tossed more wood into the stove.

Ma tilted her head, as if hearing a sound from far off. Blood drained down Ma's legs, catching them both by surprise. Ma collapsed on the linoleum, her legs hitched, thrusting the baby out of her. Newborn Jody slipped out of her body, skittering in a pool of blood; Ma's yellow skirt turned red. Mary began screaming. The boiling juice caked in the pan. Ma gripped her hand, insisting, “Hush.” She made Mary promise to mother Jody

Mary wiped down the counter.

Ma lay flat on the kitchen floor, hair fanning, arms grasping her flattened belly, whispering to Mary. Whispering, “Hush. Don't scream. Don't blame Pa or the baby. It's God's will.” Jody slept, wrapped in kitchen towels. “Hush. Don't scream.”

Pressing her legs together, Mary flipped another meal cake. “
Hush. Don't scream
.” The grease cackled and gurgled. Dell's semen leaked through her underwear, sticking between her thighs. Mary stopped moving and stared at the linoleum.
She could see her mother lying dead beside the sleeping child

“Hurry up, Mary. Man's got to eat.”

She was startled by Pa's grating voice. He and Jody washed their hands—dirt clogging the sink—talking about the harvest, the tilling that needed finishing in the north field.

The curtains ruffled. She smelled an acrid burning, heard the wail of a baby being born

Spooning another cake into the pan, Mary turned the fire high. She felt weighted before the stove.

Jody stole behind her, squeezing her shoulders, “You all right?”

Hands trembling, her wrists bruised, Mary smoothed her apron.

“I'm all right.”

“You sure?”

“I'm hungry, Mary.” Pa tapped his fingers on the table ledge.

“Sorry, Pa.” She scooted past Jody and slid two yellow cakes onto Pa's plate.

“Syrup,” he said.

She pulled the molasses down from the cabinet.


She poured a small glass. Most of the morning's milk had spilled in the barn.

Mary moved away from the table, whispering fiercely, “Nothing's wrong, Jody. Sit down and eat. Nothing's wrong.” She smacked more meal into the pan and a spray of oil licked her fingers. She stared at the rising blisters; then lowered the flame, scooping more batter into the sizzling pan.

Mary listened to the scrape, the shuffle of wood as Jody maneuvered his body into a chair. Damn him. Why was Jody so woebegone? He was the one who'd left her to go to war.

Don't blame Pa or Jody
.” But she did.

She slapped the spoon. So eager to get off the farm, Jody had enlisted and been gone after a quick good-bye. For two years she'd heard nothing. She'd listened to Pa whine, watched the fields lay fallow, and when there was nothing to eat, she'd gone to work to replace Jody's lost labor. Two years. Not a letter from Jody. Nothing to ease her worry that he'd be shipped home in a box. Until, one day, an uneven scrawl on thin paper arrived: “I'm coming home.”

Carrying cigarettes and meringue pie, she'd met him at the train station.

He'd moved slowly—one pant leg pinned up, his crutch tap-tapping the platform.

Now Jody looked like somebody had cut off his other leg, all because she hadn't told him: “I'm
all right.” Yet he was the one who had left her.

Mary was sorry for everything. Sorry Pa couldn't love a one-legged son any more than he could love a wife who couldn't bear a dozen sons. She was sorrier still for wanting Dell, for wanting someone, just once, to ease her loneliness. She squinted as sunlight rimmed the window.

“Dell's late. Must've had problems with the fencing. Did you see him, Mary?”

“No, Pa.”

Mary pressed a quick kiss on Jody's cheek. She slid two cakes onto his plate, turned back to her small stove to fry bacon as Dell stepped inside the door.

“You're late,” said Pa.

Dell shrugged. “Got some griddle cakes for me, Mary?”

Her knees buckled. Dell was handsome again; his hair newly wet; his silver-buckle casting rainbows.

Dell sat across from Jody, to the left of Pa like a second son. Mary wanted to smack him. Poor Jody. A good harvest outweighed a brave veteran any day.

Keep moving. A scream constricted in her throat. Mary's hands fluttered nervously. She wanted to be buried with her mother's bones. All the men she'd ever known had taken from her: Dell by plowing into her, Jody by skipping off to war without a care for her, and Pa, his hand out on Fridays, collecting the dollars she'd earned working the elevator.

“Father, we are thankful for Your bounty.” Pa nodded, then the three of them, sitting on the lilac cushions she'd embroidered, began chawing like desperate bulls. Nobody said, “Thank you.” No, “Fine breakfast, Mary.” Just hands moving toward mouths; jaws chomping food; throats gulping milk. Between bites, Dell had a wide, fat smile.

She heard Ma whispering, “Hush

Mary looked out the window at the settling dust, the lopsided barn, the crow sitting atop Pa's scarecrow. Life would've been different if there'd been oil. Every farmer but Pa seemed to have a small derrick, a black stream buying bits of comfort. Sometimes she dreamed of living in the city; her life transformed by a colored girl bringing tea, serving her sandwiches without crusts. On Main Street, she'd purchase gloves
with tiny pearl buttons and a golden-edged mirror. She'd stroll Courthouse Square wearing a blue dress, felt shoes, and a straw hat. When she got restless, she'd ride in a shiny motor car across the plains to Chicago, New York, Boston.

If there'd been oil, Pa wouldn't need to swap his daughter for two good legs. Wouldn't need her to betray his own son. If there'd been oil, a man might've decided she was worth loving.

Suds crept up her arms. Mary tightened her legs, dreaming of someone touching her with grace.

“I'll take real good care of her. Provide and the like.”

Behind her, she heard Pa's jubilant, “Yes,” as Dell spoke confidently about leaving the barn for her bedroom and fixing the attic for children. “Nothing much will change. I can keep plowing. Mary can fix meals, be with kin when children come.”

Mary stopped cleaning. Children, she thought. Water drained from her hands, pooling at her feet. Bubbles floated out the window. Her mouth puckered. A fly swept by her ear and she stared out the window, studying the mound near the shed where she'd buried countless years of bloodied rags. Each month, tossing in the week's rags, shoveling dirt, she'd mourned—not just the lost babies—but all the touching, kissing she dreamed flowered between a man and woman before making life.

Dell was right. Nothing would change. There wasn't any magic in the world. His touch would sharpen another kind of loneliness. She'd cook, clean, launder, sew; when the sky filled with stars, he'd take her without asking and make her crazed, mourning for an honest loving he couldn't give.


Mary pressed her damp hands against her mouth, quelling a gurgling scream. The only comfort she'd ever found was in her own hands. Doing work that needed doing. Holding herself when loneliness haunted. Dell was a poor excuse to betray Jody.

She could see herself pressing linens between Ma's thighs trying to stop the bleeding. Red saliva drooled from Ma's mouth

She was alone now. Had always been and would always be—alone. Marriage wouldn't change anything.

She stumbled, upsetting the bacon grease. She hit her hip against
the stove. “Hush. Don't scream.” A howl swirled in her belly. The men were still eating, swallowing milk, mouthing words she couldn't hear.

Her tongue nearly severed, Ma hadn't screamed

Mary clamped shut her ears. But the howl inside her, foreign and insistent, kept spiraling. Choking her air. As the scream swept into her throat, she pressed her fingers to her lips, thinking, hearing, “
,” willing herself to silence.

Calmed, she stared at her hands. Strong, yet not strong enough to stop Dell. She stared at him. “I won't do it. I won't marry you.”

“You promised,” said Dell, his voice hardening.

“He's all right with me,” said Pa, lifting a hand to stop her.

“He's not all right with me.” Mary headed for the stairs.

“Maybe she wants to be asked,” said Jody, sarcastically. “Asking would be more graceful.”

“I did ask,” said Dell.

“I changed my mind.” Her hand on the rail, Mary began climbing the stairs. Dell grabbed her waist.

Mary flailed. “Leave me be.”

“Mary,” Dell whispered, turning her, his arms encircling, stroking her back. “I'd treat you good. Real good.” His hair curled like an angel's.

Mary felt sorry for them both. Dell wanted the farm; she wanted some one to love. Her body was betraying her, yielding, tipping her off-balance.

“I know you care for me, Mary.”

“Take him, girl,” said Pa. “You want to spend your life alone?”

Pa's blue-veined hand clutched hers. Mary leaned over the railing, searching Pa's weathered face, trying to glimpse the man her mother had loved.

“Take him, Mary.”

She was trembling.

“I'll do right by you,” said Pa. “Fair dowry. Unless Jody marries, and looks like he won't, your sons would own the farm.”

“Pa,” she murmured.

“Take him, girl.”

“Marriage ain't like mating animals,” said Jody, angrily. “Mary should be the one to decide. She'll be the one sleeping with Dell.”

“That's right,” said Dell. “It'll be me she's pleasing.”

“Shut up,” said Mary.

“Just being blunt, Mary.” Dell spread his palms, grinning slyly. “Aren't we old enough to be blunt?”

Mary stepped backward, her foot scraping against the stairs. She wanted to run. Moon-faced, the men pressed forward, expecting her to make things right. She was being trapped as surely as Dell had trapped her in the barn.

“Take him, Mary,” said Pa.

“You don't know anything about him.”

“A man's got to care about his line.”

“You're mine, Mary,” said Dell. “You were meant to be mine.”

“Don't do it, Mary,” said Jody. “You don't have to marry him.”

“Mary, Mary,” Dell crooned, reaching, tugging her apron's hem.

She covered her ears. “Stop it, stop it. All of you, stop it.”

She stumbled farther up the stairs. Dell caught her, his lips burying against her neck. She fought down her screams.

Dell bent before her, his hands touching her knees. “Mary. I want a family. I want you. That's something, isn't it, Mary?”

“Mary.” Dell's face was a sweet roundness, hale and pink-toned from the sun. Not gray-faced like Jody. Dell had never been to war. Where'd he hide himself? What other farm girl kept him warm and protected until Armistice? Maybe she'd been older, plainer than her. Or maybe she'd had full-limbed brothers and a father who couldn't be seduced by taut muscles lifting bales of hay.

“Take him, Mary. It's the best way.”

Mary looked up. Hovering, strained, his eyes sharp, she realized Pa was afraid. He wasn't young anymore, wasn't rich. He wanted grandsons to carry on his line, hearty like Dell, not crippled like Jody.

“Mary.” His voice low, Dell's hands cupped her face, “I could do you good. You know that, don't you, Mary?” He lightly brushed her breast; her face wet, she buried her head in the crook of Dell's chest and arm. If he said, “I love you,” maybe she could do it.

His buckle glittered like diamonds. She drew back, remembering how Dell had trapped her hands, held her helpless as he rammed into her. She slapped him. Dell slapped her back.

“Idiot girl. Nobody else wants you,” said Pa.

Cane upraised, Jody cautioned, “That's enough, Pa. Dell, leave her be. Mary knows her own mind.”

Dell rested his head against the wall, his eyes closed. Pa hit the rail with his fist. Jody almost smiled; he was still the heir, someone to be reckoned with.

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