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Authors: Toni Morrison

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BOOK: Tar Baby
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“Valerian. Please shut up.”

“But this is exciting. We’ve been coming here for only thirty years and already you’ve discovered the dining room. That’s three whole rooms. One every decade. First you found the bedroom. That is I assume you did. It’s hard to tell when a wife sleeps separately from her mate. Then in nineteen sixty-five I think it was, you located the living room. Remember that? Those cocktail parties? Those were good times. Heights, I’d say. You not only knew the airport and the dock and the bedroom, but the living room as well.”

“Yes. I am having guests for Christmas.”

“Then the dining room. Speak of a find! Dinner for ten, twenty, thirty. Think what’s before you in one kitchen, let alone two. We could entertain hundreds, thousands.”

“Michael’s coming.”

“I wouldn’t put it off any longer if I were you. If we hurry by the time I’m eighty we can invite Philadelphia.”

“And a friend of his. That’s all.”

“He won’t come.”

“I’ve never had more than twelve people in this house at any one time.”

“His friend will show and he won’t. Again.”

“And I am not a cook and I never have been. I don’t want to see the kitchen. I don’t like kitchens.”

“Why work yourself up this way every year? You know he’ll disappoint you.”

“I was a child bride, remember? I hadn’t time to learn to cook before you put me in a house that already had one plus a kitchen fifty miles from the front door.”

“Seems to me you did once. You and Ondine giggling away in the kitchen is one of my clearest and fondest memories.”

“Why do you say that? You always say that.”

“It’s true. I’d come home and you’d be—”

“Not that! About Michael, I mean. That he won’t show up.”

“Because he never has.”

“He never has
. Down here in this jungle with nothing to do. No young people. No fun. No music…”


“I mean his kind of music.”

“You surprise me.”

“And so he won’t be bored to death, I’ve invited a friend of his—” She stopped and pressed a finger to the frownie between her eyes. “I haven’t invited anybody down here in years because of you. You hate everybody.”

“I don’t hate anybody.”

“Three years it’s been. What’s the matter with you? Don’t you want to see your son anymore? I know you don’t want to see anybody else—but your own son. You pay more attention to that fat dentist than you do Michael. What are you trying to prove down here? Why do you cut yourself off from everybody, everything?”

“It’s just that I’m undergoing this very big change in my life called dying.”

“Retirement isn’t death.”

“A distinction without a difference.”

“Well, I am not dying. I am living.”

“A difference without distinction.”

“And I’m going back with him.”

“Sounds terminal.”

“It might be.”

“Christmas isn’t the best time to make decisions like that, Margaret. It’s a sentimental holiday full of foolish—”

“Look. I’m going.”

“I don’t advise it.”

“I don’t care.”

“He’s not a little boy anymore. The knapsack, I know, is confusing, but Margaret, he’ll soon be thirty.”

“So what?”

“So what makes you think he’ll want you to live with him?”

“He will.”

“You’re going to travel with him? Go to snake dances?”

“I’m going to live near him. Not with him, near him.”

“It won’t work.”

“Why not?”

Valerian put his palms down on either side of his plate. “He doesn’t care all that much for us, Margaret.”

“You,” she said, “he doesn’t care all that much for you.”

“Whatever you say.”

“Then I can go?”

“We’ll see. When he gets here, ask him. Ask him if he wants his mother next door to the reservation in a condominium.”

“He’s through with that. The school closed. He’s not with them anymore.”

“Oh? He’s done the Hopis? Gone on to the Choctaws, I suppose. No, wait a minute.
comes before
Let me see, Navajos, right?”

“He’s not with any tribe. He’s studying.”

“What, pray?”

“Environmental something. He wants to be an environmental lawyer.”

“Does he now?”


“Well, why not? A band manager, shepherd, poet-in-residence, film producer, lifeguard ought to study law, the more environmental the better. An advantage really, since he’s certainly had enough environments to choose from. And what will you do? Design no-nuke stickers?”

“You can’t make me change my mind.”

“It’s not a matter of changing it. It’s a matter of using it. Let him alone, Margaret. Let him be. You can’t do it over. What you want is crazy.”

is crazy. I live in airplanes now. Nowhere. Not in Philadelphia where I at least have friends. Not here boiling under a palm tree with nobody to talk to. You keep saying next month, next month, next month. But you never do it. You never leave.”

“But you do—whenever you like. Lots of people live in two places.”

“I want to live in one—just one. In October you said after New Year’s, you’ll come back. Then when New Year’s comes you’ll say after carnival. If I want to live with you I have to do it your way—here. I can’t keep flying back and forth across the ocean wondering where I left the Kotex. Anyway. I’m going back with Michael. For a while. Make a home for him.”

“You’ll have to eat corncakes. Three hundred and twenty-five per serving.”

“I told you he’s not there anymore. He’s applied at U.C. Berkeley, I think.”

“Marijuana cookies then. Two hundred—”

“You will not listen.”

“Margaret, promise me something.”


“That you won’t go unless he agrees to it.”



She studied him for a moment for she never knew if he was teasing her, patronizing her or simply lying. But now he looked deadly earnest so she nodded saying, “All right. All right. That’s no risk.

“What about Jade, then?” asked Valerian.

“What about her? She can stay as long as she likes.”

“She thinks she’s working for you.”

“Let her work for you while I’m gone.”

“Oh dear.”

“Or just relax. She wanted to spend the winter here is all. Why, I can’t think.”

“Getting over an affair, I thought.”

“At her age it takes three days, not three months.”

“You don’t like her anymore?”

“I love her. But I’m not going to give up going back with Michael just to help her cool off for another month or two. Besides, look what she has to go back to.”


“Everything. Europe. The future. The world. Why are you frowning? Does she need money?”

“No. No. Not that I know of. She signed on with some agency or something in New York, or is about to.”

“There. She doesn’t need the pretense of working for me.”

Valerian swallowed the last bit of egg and ham and tapped the toast basket with his fork. “Clever. Very clever.”


“No, Ondine. This is really good. I think she served something like this in the States.”

“Talk about calories. You’re eating like a horse already and the day has just started.”


“Pique. Why?”

“The nursery, Stateside, sent a defective order. Completely ruined.”

“Shame.” Margaret reached toward a croissant, changed her mind and withdrew her hand.

“Have it,” said her husband. “It wasn’t four twenty-five, that mango. Not even a hundred.”

“You liar. I should have known. I was going to ask Jade about that.”

“She wants to open up a little shop of some sort,” he said.

“You’re mumbling.”

“Shop. She wants to be a model a little longer, then open up a shop.”

“Wonderful. She has a head. You’ll help her, won’t you? Won’t you?”

“Of course.”

“Well, why the long face?”

“I was thinking of Sydney and Ondine.”

“As usual. What about them?”

“They like her here.”

“We all do.”

“She’s their family. All they have of a family left.”

“And you. You’re as much family to them as she is. They’ve known you longer than they have her.”

“It’s not the same.”

“What is it? What are you thinking?”



“Sydney’s very excited about that shop idea,” Valerian said. “Ondine too.”


“Nothing definite. At the dreaming stage still.”

“Now who’s worked up?”

“It’s a possibility, that’s all. An attractive one for them, I suppose.”

“That’s selfish, Valerian.”

“Perhaps, but I don’t think so. I don’t think so.”

“You’re worrying about nothing. They won’t leave you and the situation they have here to go into the retail business. At this time of life, never.”


“Of course yes. Look at you.” She laughed. “You’re scared. Scared Kingfish and Beulah won’t take care of you.”

“I have always taken care of them.”

“And they will do the same for you. God knows they will. You couldn’t pry them out of here. With or without Jade. They are yours for life.”

“Don’t snarl. Your frownie is coming loose.”

“I’m not snarling. They’re loyal people and they should be.”

“I’ve never understood your jealousy.”

“That’s just like you to call it jealousy.”

“When we were first married I used to have to pull you away from Ondine. Guests in the house and you’d prefer gossiping in the kitchen with her.”

“Well, you sure put a stop to that, didn’t you?”

“I put a stop to a hostess neglecting guests. I didn’t put a stop to—”

“I was shy.”

“But I didn’t want you to turn around and be outright hateful to her. She would have quit even then if I hadn’t—”

“I know. I know, and then Sydney the Precious would have left too. Don’t dwell on it. They’re here and they always will be. I can guarantee it.”

“But you won’t be.”

“I said for a while.”

Michael comes.”

“He will.”

“We’ll see.”

“Then it’s all set? I can go?”

“Don’t push me into my last and final hour, Margaret. Let me saunter toward it.”

“You are sweet.”

“Not sweet, helpless.”

“You? Valerian Street, the Candy King? You’ve never been stronger, or more beautiful.”

“Stop. You got your way.”

beautiful. Slim. Trim. Distingue.”

“Forgive her, Larousse.”



“Joueaux Noël.”

“Dear God.”

“Joyoux Noël, Sydney.”


“Did you tell the boy about the trunk?”

“He hasn’t come yet, ma’am. As soon as he does…”

“And turkey. Ondine will do a turkey. Sydney?”

“Ah, yes, ma’am, if you like.”

“I like. I really like.”

“I’ve ordered geese, Margaret.”

“Geese?” She stared at Valerian for suddenly she could not imagine it. Like a blank frame in a roll of film, she lost the picture that should have accompanied the word. Turkey she saw, but geese…“We have to have turkey for Christmas. This is a family Christmas, an old-fashioned family Christmas, and Michael has to have turkey.”

“If Tiny Tim could eat goose, Margaret, Michael can eat goose.”

“Turkey!” she said. “Roast turkey with the legs sticking up and a shiny brown top.” She was moving her hands to show them how it looked. “Little white socks on the feet.”

“I’ll mention it to Ondine, ma’am.”

“You will not mention it! You will tell her!”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And apple pies.”

“Apple, ma’am?”

“Apple. And pumpkin.”

“We are in the Caribbean, Margaret.”

“No! I said no! If we can’t have turkey and apple pie for Christmas then maybe we shouldn’t be here at all!”

“Hand me some of my medicine, Sydney.”

“Yes, sir.”



“Will we have turkey and apple pies for Christmas dinner?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll see to it.”

“Thank you. Is Jade down yet?”

“Not yet, ma’am.”

“When she is, tell her I’ll be ready at ten.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Margaret Lenore stood up so suddenly her chair careened for a brief moment before righting itself. Quickly she was gone.

“Everything all right, Mr. Street?”

“I am going to kill you, Sydney.”

“Yes, sir.”


the doors through which Sydney had been gliding all morning was the first kitchen. A large sunny room with two refrigerators, two steel sinks, one stove, rows of open cabinets and a solid oak table that seated six. Sydney sat down and immediately the place he took at the perfectly round table was its head. He looked out the windows and then at his wife’s arm. The flesh trembled as she wire-whisked a bowl of eggs.

“Mango all right?” she asked without turning her head.

“She ate a mouthful,” said Sydney.

“Contrary,” murmured his wife. She poured the eggs into a shallow buttered pan, and stirred them slowly with a wooden spoon.

“It’s all right, Ondine. Lucky you had one.”

“I’ll say. Even the colored people down here don’t eat mangoes.”

“Sure they do.” Sydney slipped a napkin from its ring. The pale blue linen complemented his mahogany hands.

“Yardmen,” said Ondine. “And beggars.” She poured the eggs into a frying pan of chicken livers. She was seventeen years her husband’s junior, but her hair, braided across the crown of her head, was completely white. Sydney’s hair was not as black as it appeared, but certainly not snow white like Ondine’s. She bent to check on the biscuits in the oven.

“What’s the Principal Beauty hollering about?”


Ondine looked at her husband over her shoulder. “Don’t fool with me this morning.”

“And apple pie.”

“You better get me a plane ticket out of here.” She straightened.

“Calm down, girl.”

“She want it, she can come in here and cook it. After she swim on back up to New York and get the ingredients. Where she think she is?”

“It’s for the boy.”

BOOK: Tar Baby
3.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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