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Authors: Toni Morrison

Tar Baby (3 page)

BOOK: Tar Baby
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Now he sat in the December sunlight watching his servant pour coffee into his cup.

“Has it come?”

“Sir?”

“The salve.”

“Not yet.” Sydney removed the lid from a tiny box of saccharin tablets and edged it toward his employer.

“They take their sweet time.”

“Mail’s cut back to twice a week I told you.”

“It’s been a month.”

“Two weeks. Still botherin you?”

“Not right this minute, but they’ll start up again.” Valerian reached for the sugar cubes.

“You could be a little less hardheaded about those shoes. Sandals or a nice pair of huaraches all day would clear up every one of them bunions.”

“They’re not bunions. They’re corns.” Valerian plopped the cubes into his cup.

“Corns too.”

“When you get your medical degree call me. Ondine bake these?”

“No. Mrs. Street brought them back yesterday.”

“She uses that boat like it’s a bicycle. Back and forth; back and forth.”

“Why don’t you get one of your own? That thing’s too big for her. Can’t water-ski with it. Can’t even dock it in the town. They have to leave it in one place and get in another little boat just to land.”

“Why should I buy her a boat and let it sit ten months out of a year? If those nitwits don’t mind her using theirs, it’s fine with me.”

“Maybe she’d stay the whole year if she had one.”

“Not likely. And I prefer she should stay because her husband’s here, not because a boat is. Anyway, tell Ondine not to serve them anymore.”

“No good?”

“One of the worst things about being old is eating. First you have to find something you can eat and second you have to try not to drop it all over yourself.”

“I wouldn’t know about that.”

“Of course not. You’re fifteen minutes younger than I am. Nevertheless, tell Ondine no more of these. Too flaky. They fly all over no matter what you do.”

“Croissant supposed to be flaky. That’s as short a dough as you can make.”

“Just tell her, Sydney.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And find out if the boy can straighten those bricks. They are popping up all over the place.”

“He needs cement he said.”

“No. No cement. He’s to pack them down properly. The soil will hold them if he does it right.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Mrs. Street awake?”

“I believe so. Anything else special you going to want for the holidays?”

“No. Just the geese. I won’t be able to eat a bit of it, but I want to see it on the table anyway. And some more thalomide.”

“You want Yardman to bring you thalomide? He can’t even pronounce it.”

“Write a note. Tell him to give it to Dr. Michelin.”

“All right.”

“And tell Ondine that half Postum and half coffee is revolting. Worse than Postum alone.”

“Okay. Okay. She thought it would help.”

“I know what she thought, but the help is worse than the problem.”

“That might not be what the trouble is, you know.”

“You are determined to make me have an ulcer. I don’t have an ulcer. You have an ulcer. I have occasional irregularity.”

“I
had
an ulcer. It’s gone now and Postum helped it go.”

“I’m delighted. Did you say she was awake?”

“She was. Could have gone back to sleep, though.”

“What did she want?”

“Want?”

“Yes. Want. The only way you could know she was awake is if she rang you up there. What did she want?”

“Towels, fresh towels.”

“Sydney.”

“She did. Ondine forgot to—”

“What were the towels wrapped around?”

“Why you keep thinking that? Everything she drinks you see her drink. A little dinner wine, that’s all and hardly more than a glass of that. She never was a drinker. You the one. Why you always trying to make her into one?”

“I’ll speak to Jade.”

“What could Jade know that I don’t?”

“Nothing, but she’s as honest as they come.”

“Come on, now, Mr. Street. It’s the truth.”

Valerian held a pineapple quarter with his fork and began cutting small regular pieces from it.

“All right,” said Sydney, “I’ll tell you. She wanted Yardman to stop by the airport before he comes Thursday.”

“What for, pray?”

“A trunk. She’s expecting a trunk. It’s been shipped already, she said, and ought to be here by then.”

“What an idiot.”

“Sir?”

“Idiot. Idiot.”

“Mrs. Street, sir?”

“Mrs. Street, Mr. Street, you, Ondine. Everybody. This is the first time in thirty years I’ve been able to enjoy this house. Really live in it. Not for a month or a weekend but for a while, and everybody is conspiring to ruin it for me. Coming and going, going and coming. It’s beginning to feel like Thirtieth Street Station. Why can’t everybody settle down, relax, have a nice simple Christmas. Not a throng, just a nice simple Christmas dinner.”

“She gets a little bored, I guess. Got more time than she can use.”

“Insane. Jade’s here. They get on like schoolgirls, it seems to me. Am I wrong?”

“No, you’re right. They get along fine, like each other’s company, both of them.”

“They don’t like it enough to let it go at that. Apparently we are expecting
more
company, and since I am merely the owner and operator of this hotel, there is no reason to let me know about it.”

“Can I get you some toast?”

“And you. You have finally surprised me. What else have you been keeping from me?”

“Eat your pineapple.”

“I am eating it.”

“I can’t stand here all morning. You got corns—I got bunions.”

“If you won’t take my advice, bunions are the consequence.”

“I know my work. I’m a first-rate butler and I can’t be first-rate in slippers.”

“You know your work, but I know your feet. Thom McAn will be the death of you.”

“I never wore Thom McAns in my life. Never. In nineteen twenty-nine I didn’t wear them.”

“I distinctly recall at least four pairs of decent shoes I’ve given you.”

“I prefer my bunions to your corns.”

“Ballys don’t cause corns. If anything they prevent them. It’s the perspiration that causes them. When—”

“See? Gotcha. That’s exactly what I been tellin you. Philadelphia shoes don’t work in the tropics. Make your feet sweat. You need some nice huaraches. Make your feet feel good. Free em up, so they can breathe.”

“The day I spend in huaraches is the day I spend in a straitjacket.”

“You keep on hacking away at your toes with a razor and you’ll beg for a straitjacket.”

“Well, you won’t know about it because your Thom McAn bunions are going to put you in a rocker for the rest of your life.”

“Suit me fine.”

“And me. Maybe then I could hire somebody who wouldn’t keep things from me. Sneak Postum into a good pot of coffee, saccharin in the lime pie. And don’t think I don’t know about the phony salt.”

“Health is the most important thing at our age, Mr. Street.”

“Not at all. It’s the least important. I have no intention of staying alive just so I can wake up and skip down the stairs to a cup of Postum in the morning. Look in the cabinet and get me a drop of medicine for this stuff.”

“Cognac’s not medicine.” Sydney moved toward the sideboard and bent to open one of its doors.

“At seventy everything’s medicine. Tell Ondine to quit it. It’s not doing a thing for me.”

“Sure don’t help your disposition none.”

“Exactly. Now. Very quietly and very quickly, tell me who this company is.”

“No company, Mr. Street.”

“Don’t antagonize an old man reduced to Postum.”

“It’s your son. Michael’s not company.”

Valerian put his cup carefully onto the saucer. “She told you that? That Michael was coming?”

“No. Not exactly. But so Yardman would know what to look for she told me where the trunk was coming from and what color it was.”

“Then it’s coming from California.”

“It’s coming from California.”

“And it’s red.”

“And it’s red. Fire red.”

“With ‘Dick Gregory for President’ stickers pasted on the sides.”

“And a bull’s-eye painted on the lid.”

“And a lock that only closes if you kick it, but opens with a hairpin and the key is…” Valerian stopped and looked up at Sydney. Sydney looked at Valerian. They said it together. “…at the top of Kilimanjaro.”

“Some joke,” said Valerian.

“Pretty good for a seven-year-old.”

They were quiet for a while, Valerian chewing pineapple, Sydney leaning against the sideboard. Then Valerian said, “Why do you suppose he hangs on to it? A boy’s camp footlocker.”

“Keep his clothes in.”

“Foolish. All of it. The trunk, him and this visit. Besides, he won’t show.”

“She thinks so this time.”

“She’s not thinking. She’s dreaming, poor baby. Are you sure there was nothing between those towels?”

“Here comes the lady. Ask her yourself.”

A light clicking of heels on Mexican tile was getting louder.

“When the boy goes to the airport,” whispered Valerian, “tell him to pick up some Maalox on the way back.” “Well,” he said to his wife, “what have we here? Wonder Woman?”

“Please,” she said, “it’s too hot. Good morning, Sydney.”

“Morning, Mrs. Street.”

“Then what is that between your eyebrows?”

“Frownies.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Frownies.”

Sydney walked around the table, tilted the pot and poured coffee soundlessly into her cup.

“You have trouble frowning?” asked her husband.

“Yes.”

“And that helps?”

“Supposed to.” She held the cup in front of her lips and closed her eyes. The steam floated into her face while she inhaled.

“I am confused. Not senile, mind you. Just confused. Why would you want to frown?”

Margaret took another breath of coffee steam and opened her eyes very slowly. She looked at her husband with the complete dislike of a natural late-sleeper for a cheerful early-riser.

“I don’t want to frown. Frownies don’t make you frown. They erase the consequences of frowning.”

Valerian opened his mouth but said nothing for a moment. Then: “But why don’t you just stop frowning? Then you won’t need to paste your face with little pieces of tape.”

Margaret sipped more coffee and returned the cup to its saucer. Lifting the neckline of her dress away from her she blew gently into her bosom and looked at the pale wedges Sydney placed before her. Ondine had left the spiky skin on the underside deliberately—just to hurt and confuse her. “I thought we’d have…mangoes.” Sydney removed the fruit and hurried to the swinging doors. “What gets into everybody? The same thing every morning?”

“I wanted pineapple. If you don’t, tell Sydney at night what you’d like for breakfast the next morning. That way he can—”

“She knows I hate fresh pineapple. The threads get in my teeth. I like canned. Is that so terrible?”

“Yes. Terrible.”

“They tell
us
what to eat. Who’s working for who?”

“Whom. If you give Ondine menus for the whole week—that is exactly what she will prepare.”

“Really? You’ve been doing that for thirty years and you can’t even get her to fix you a cup of coffee. She makes you drink Postum.”

“That’s different.”

“Sure.”

Sydney returned with a bowl of crushed ice in which a mango stood. The peeling had been pulled back from the shiny fruit in perfect curls. The slits along the pulp were barely visible. Valerian yawned behind his fist, then said, “Sydney, can I or can I not order a cup of coffee and get it?”

“Yes, sir. ’Course you can.” He put down the mango and filled Valerian’s cup.

“See, Margaret. And there’s your mango. Four hundred and twenty-five calories.”

“What about your croissant?”

“One twenty-seven.”

“God.” Margaret closed her eyes, her blue-if-it’s-a-boy blue eyes and put down her fork.

“Have a grapefruit.”

“I don’t want grapefruit. I want mango.”

Valerian shrugged. “Slurp away. But you had three helpings of mousse last night.”

“Two, I had two. Jade had three.”

“Oh, well, only two…”

“Well, what do we have a cook for? Even I can slice grapefruit.”

“To wash the dishes.”

“Who needs dishes? According to you, all I need is a teaspoon.”

“Well, someone has to wash your teaspoon.”

“And your shovel.”

“Funny. Very funny.”

“It’s true.” Margaret held her breath and stuck her fork into the mango. She exhaled slowly as the section came away on the tines. She glanced at Valerian before putting the slice in her mouth. “I’ve never seen anyone eat as much as you and not gain an ounce—ever. I think she adds things to my food. Wheat germs or something. At night she sneaks in with one of those intravenous things and pumps me full of malts.”

“Nobody pumps you full of anything.”

“Or whipped cream maybe.”

Sydney had left them discussing calories and now he was back with a silver tray on which wafer-thin slices of ham tucked into toast baskets held a poached egg. He went to the sideboard and lifted them onto plates. He laid stems of parsley on the right rim and two tomato slices to the left of each plate. He whisked away the fruit bowls, careful not to spill the water from the ice, and then leaned forward with the hot dish. Margaret frowned at the dish and waved it away. Sydney returned to the sideboard, put the rejected dish down and picked up the other. Valerian accepted it enthusiastically and Sydney edged the salt and pepper mill an inch or two out of his reach.

“I suppose you are decorating the house with guests for Christmas. Push that salt over here, will you?”

“Why would you suppose that?” Margaret stretched out a hand, a beautifully manicured hand, and passed him the salt and pepper. Her little victory with the mango strengthened her enough to concentrate on what her husband was saying.

“Because I asked you not to. It follows therefore that you would defy me.”

“Have it your way. Let’s just spend the holidays all alone in the cellar.”

“We haven’t got a cellar, Margaret. You should take a look around this place. You might like it. Come to think of it, I don’t believe you’ve seen the kitchen yet, have you? We’ve got two, two kitchens. One is—”

BOOK: Tar Baby
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