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Authors: Toni Morrison

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BOOK: Tar Baby
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“What’s the matter with them?” asked the uncles.

“Faggoty,” said the sales reps.

“Faggoty?”

“Yeah. Like Valentines. Can you see a kid sitting on a curb tossing those fairy candies in his mouth? Seasonal is all we can do. Valentine’s Day. Give us something with nuts, why don’t you?”

Nobody in the East or Midwest touched them. They sat in movie house display cases and on candy store shelves until they were hard as marbles and stuck together like grapes.

“But somebody ’s buying them,” the uncles said.

“Jigs,” said the salesmen. “Jigs buy ’em. Maryland, Florida, Mississippi. Close the line. Nobody can make a dollar selling faggot candy to jigs.”

“But when they move north, don’t they ask for what they got in Mississippi?”

“Hell, no. They’re
leaving
the South. When they move out they want to leave that stuff behind. They don’t want to be reminded. Alaga syrup is dead in New York. So is Gold Dust Soap and so are Valerians. Close it out.”

But they didn’t close it out. Not right away, at least. The uncles let the item sell itself in the South until the sugar shortage of the early forties and even then they fought endlessly to keep it on: they went to the bathroom, to lunch, read food industry literature and held caucuses among themselves about whether to manufacture a nickel box of Valerians in Mississippi where beet sugar was almost free and the labor too. “Ooooh. Valerian!!” said the box. And that was all. Not even a picture of the candy or a happy face eating it. Valerian appreciated their efforts but recognized them as sentimental and not professional and swore again he would retire exactly at sixty-five if not before and would not let his ownership position keep him there making an ass of himself. After all he was the first partner with a college education and a love of other things. And it was because of these other things—music, books—that all the way through a nine-year childless marriage to a woman who disliked him; all the way through a hateful, shoddy, interminable divorce; all the way into and out of the military service, he could be firm. After the war he went to a convention of industrial food appliance sales in Maine and stepped out for a breath of winter air. There on a float with a polar bear he saw Miss Maine. She was so young and so unexpectedly pretty he swallowed air and had a coughing fit. She was all red and white, like the Valerians. So already at thirty-nine he was showing signs of the same sentimentality his uncles had. It made his resolve even firmer; out of respect for the company, the industry, he would do what they required the Swedes and Germans who worked for them to do—retire at sixty-five. After all, it was a family shop. They had taken a little bit of sugar and a little bit of cocoa and made a good living—for themselves and ninety others, and the people who lived in the factory’s neighborhood stayed there and loved it there largely because of the marvelous candy odor that greeted them in the morning and bid them goodnight. Smelling it was almost like having it and they could have it too, way back then, because damaged lots of Teddy Boys were regularly given to children and homeless men. And when the homeless men found themselves on a train in Oregon or a camp in Boulder, Colorado, they remembered the delicious smell of Philadelphia with far more pleasure than they remembered its women. The childhood of the children growing up in that candy air never quite left, and may have been why they never quite grew up. They moved to Dallas and Altoona and listened to other people’s stories of childhood politely but without envy. They seldom tried to describe their own, because how could you make another person know what it was like? All you could say was “there was a candy factory in our neighborhood and it smelled so good.” So they kept it to themselves and kept their childhood longer than they should have in Dallas and Altoona and Newport News.

And the Street Brothers Candy Company never left the neighborhood or forgot the workers. It expanded, but right on the block and behind the original building; they hired more salesmen and even when they bought machines to do what the Swedish and German women had done they kept them on in other capacities although it was clear they had no need for them—out of respect for Grandmother Stadt and out of respect for the industry. They had six good items by the time Valerian took over and all the women were dead but not the uncles and it was because of this same respect for the industry and its legendary place in the neighborhood and the hearts of those who lived there that he was determined to retire at sixty-five—before he got foolish.

He married Miss Maine and when she had a baby boy he was as relieved as the uncles, but resisted the temptation to introduce a new confection named after his son. By that time they had reduced the size of the Teddy Boys’ hats which nobody connected anymore to Theodore Roosevelt. (An error the uncles encouraged since the candy had been made first by their workaholic mother as a treat for Theodore, her youngest son, and later on to sell for pin money. Hers were big, chocolatey things, like gingerbread boys, but when they went into business they were much smaller.) Now you couldn’t even see the Teddy Boys’ buttons. Through it all Valerian never swerved from his sixty-five timetable. He prepared for it. Bought an island in the Caribbean for almost nothing; built a house on a hill away from the mosquitoes and vacationed there when he could and when his wife did not throw a fit to go elsewhere. Over the years he sold off parts of it, provided the parcels were large and the buyers discreet, but he kept his distance and his dream of getting out of the way at sixty-five, and letting his son take over. But the son was not charmed by Teddy Boys or island retreats. Valerian’s disappointment was real, so he agreed to the company’s sale to one of the candy giants who could and did triple the volume in two years. Valerian turned his attention to refining the house, its grounds, mail service to the island, measuring French colonial taxes against American residential ones, killing off rats, snakes and other destructive animal life, adjusting the terrain for comfortable living. When he knew for certain that Michael would always be a stranger to him, he built the greenhouse as a place of controlled ever-flowering life to greet death in. It seemed a simple, modest enough wish to him. Normal, decent—like his life. Fair, generous—like his life. Nobody except Sydney and Ondine seemed to understand that. He had never abused himself, but he thought keeping fit inelegant somehow, and vain. His claims to decency were human: he had never cheated anybody. Had done the better thing whenever he had a choice and sometimes when he did not. He had never been miserly or a spendthrift, and his politics were always rational and often humane. He had played his share of tennis and golf but it was more for business reasons than pleasure. And he’d had countless discussions with friends and clients about the house he was building in the Caribbean, about land value, tax credit, architects, designers, space, line, color, breeze, tamarind trees, hurricanes, cocoa, banana and
fleur de fuego.
There had been two or three girls who had helped him enter the fifties (lovely, lovely). Nothing to worry Margaret had she known. Merely life preservers in the post-fifty ocean, helping him make it to shore. There was a moment during the war when he thought some great event was in store for him, but it never happened. He was never sent with the message the world was waiting for. He knew the message was not his, that he had not thought it up, but he believed he was worthy of delivering it. Nothing of the sort befell him, so he returned to civilian life a bachelor, intact. Until he saw Miss Maine (whom a newspaper, published by the envious grandfather of a runner-up, called “a principal beauty of Maine”), looking like the candy that had his name. His youth lay in her red whiteness, a snowy Valentine Valerian. And Bride of Polar Bear became his bride. The disgust of the aunts at his marriage to a teenager from a family of nobodies dissolved with the almost immediate birth of his son. Valerian didn’t need a youth then, the boy was that. Now the boy was a grown man, but perpetually childlike so Valerian wanted his own youth again and a place to spend it. His was taken from him when his father died and his mother and aunts all changed from hearty fun-loving big sisters to grave,
serioso mammas
who began their duties by trying to keep him from grieving over his father’s death. Luckily a drunken woman did their laundry. And although he stayed on one year past sixty-five to make some changes and another year past that to make sure the changes held, he did manage to retire at sixty-eight to L’Arbe de la Croix and sleep the deep brandy sleep he deserved.

         

M
ARGARET
was not dreaming nor was she quite asleep, although the moon looking at her face believed she was. She was experiencing the thing insomniacs dread—not being awake but the ticky-tacky thoughts that fill in the space where sleep ought to be. Rags and swatches; draincloths and crumpled paper napkins. Old griefs and embarrassments; jealousies and offense. Just common ignoble scraps not deep enough for dreaming and not light enough to dismiss. Yet she was hopeful that sleep would come, that she would have the dream she ought to for maybe that would dispel the occasional forgetfulness that plagued her when she forgot the names and uses of things. It happened mostly at meals, and once, years ago, with the Princess telephone which she picked up with her car keys and address book and tried to stuff in her purse. They were rare moments, but dark and windy enough to last. After lunch with friends you could go to the powder room, twist the lipstick out of its tube and wonder suddenly if it was for licking or writing your name. And because you never knew when it would come back, a thin terror accompanied you always—except in sleep. So there was peace and hope on the face of this beautiful woman born to two ordinary-looking people, Joseph and Leonora Lordi, who had looked at their beautiful redheaded child with shock and amazement. Of course there was no thought of adultery (Leonora was sixty before she showed the world her two bare legs), but the hair bothered Joe—caught his eye at the dinner table and ruined his meals. He looked at little Margarette’s skin as delicate as the shell of a robin’s egg and almost as blue and stroked his thumb. Leonora shrugged and covered her head with lace older than Maine itself. She was as puzzled as her husband but not as alarmed, although it did look funny at the nine-thirty mass: Margarette’s head glowing like an ember among the coal-dark heads of her other children. She couldn’t explain it and didn’t try, but Joe never left off stroking his thumb and staring at his little girl’s blue-if-it’s-a-boy blue eyes. He stroked his thumb and stroked his thumb until he smashed his temple with his fist having just remembered Buffalo. The Buffalo great-aunts Celestina and Alicia—twins with hair the color of saffron and the white skin of the north. He roared and began to tell people about his Buffalo aunts whom he had not seen since he was six. And, although his brothers shouted yeah, yeah, when he reminded them, he thought he saw doubt in the eyes of his friends. Thus began a series of letters to Buffalo inviting the twins to South Suzanne. They were flattered by his letters, but could not understand the sudden affection from a great-nephew they did not remember. For a year they declined to pay a visit on account of advanced age, until Joe offered to pay their bus fare. “Where?” asked Leonora, “where will they sleep?” and Joe touched his fingers: Adolphe, Campi, Estella, Cesare, Nick, Nuzio, Mickelena or any of the other Lordis scattered around the county. Leonora looked at the ceiling, covered her head with lace older than Maine itself and went to mass to beg for sanity, Madre de Dio, if not peace in her house.

The aunts came and when Joe picked them up at the bus station and saw that the saffron had turned to garlic he smashed his temple again. It turned out better than nothing however for he was able to regale them in the presence of company about losing their flaming hair, and they smiled and acknowledged that it had certainly been lost—which was proof enough for everyone that such hair and such skin had existed at one time and therefore could legitimately reappear four generations later on the tiny head of Margarette Lenore. Still it left its mark on her—being
that
pretty with
that
coloring. Joe and Leonora left her alone after the Buffalo aunts went home. Maybe her beauty scared them a little; maybe they just felt, well, at least she has that. She won’t have to worry. And they stepped back and let her be. They gave her care, but they withdrew attention. Their strength they gave to the others who were not beautiful; their knowledge, what information they had they did not give to this single beautiful one. They saved it, distributed it instead to those whose characters had to be built. The rest of their energies they used on the problems of surviving in a county that did not want them there. During the months when the earth permitted it, Joe and his brothers dug a hole in the ground. They cinder-blocked it, topped it and put in a toilet and a gas line. Little by little the Lordis moved out of their trailer across the yard into the cinder-block basement. They lived huddled and quite warm there, considering what Maine winters were like. Then Joe started the first floor walls and by 1935 all six of them were in a seven-room house the Lordi brothers had built with their own hands. Leonora rented the trailer, but kept its back yard for peppers, corn, fat squash and the columbine she loved beyond reason. But Margarette always loved the trailer best for there the separateness she felt had less room to grow in. In the hand-built house, and later in the big brick house on Chester Street, after her father and uncles bought two trucks and began Lordi Brothers, the loneliness was only partially the look in the eyes of the uncles and the nuns. Much of it was the inaccessibility of the minds (not the hearts) of Leonora and Joseph Lordi. So when she got married eight months out of high school, she did not have to leave home, she was already gone; she did not have to leave them; they had already left her. And other than money gifts to them and brief telephone calls, she was still gone. It was always like that: she was gone and other people were where they belonged. She was going up or down stairs; other people seemed to be settled somewhere. She was on the two concrete steps of the trailer; the six wooden steps of the hand-built house; the thirty-seven steps at the stadium when she was crowned; and a million wide steps in the house of Valerian Street. It was just her luck to fall in love with and marry a man who had a house bigger than her elementary school. A house of three stories with pearl-gray S’s everywhere—on cups, saucers, glasses, silverware, and even in their bed. When she and Valerian lay snug in bed, facing each other and touching toes, the pearl-gray S on the sheet hems and pillow slips coiled at her and she stiffened like Joan Fontaine in
Rebecca
until she learned from her husband that his ex-wife had nothing to do with it. His grandmother had had some of the monograms done and his mother the rest. Margaret’s relief was solid but it did nothing to keep her from feeling drowned when he was not there in the spaciousness of that house with only a colored couple with unfriendly faces to save her. Alone in the house, peeping into a room, it looked all right, but the minute she turned her back she heard the afterboom, and who could she tell that to? Not the coloreds. She was seventeen and couldn’t even give them orders the way she was supposed to. It must be like room service, she thought, and she asked them to bring her things and they did but when she said thank you and sipped the Coca-Cola, they smiled a private smile she hated. The woman Ondine cooked and did the cleaning; the man too, and he also had morning chats with Valerian, brushed his clothes, sent some to the laundry, some to the cleaners, some disappeared altogether. There was nothing in that line for her to do but amuse herself in solitude and, awful as that was, the dinners with Valerian’s friends were worse. There men talked about music and money and the Marshall Plan. She knew nothing about any of it, but she was never stupid enough to pretend she did or try to enter the conversation. The wives talked around the edge of such matters or dropped amusing bits into the conversations like the green specks in cannoli filling. Once a wife whom she showed to the downstairs powder room asked her where she had gone to school and she said South Suzanne. What’s there? asked the woman. South Suzanne High School, said Margaret. The woman gave her a wide generous grin for a long time, then patted Margaret’s stomach. “Get to work, fast, sweetheart.”

BOOK: Tar Baby
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