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Authors: Toni Morrison

Tar Baby (9 page)

BOOK: Tar Baby
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She stood in the doorway screaming, first at Valerian and then at Jadine, who rushed to her side.

“What? What? What is it?”

But she would not stop. She just balled her beautiful hands into fists and pummeled her own temples, screaming louder. Valerian stared through port-softened eyes at his wife as though he, not she, were in pain.

“What is it, Margaret?” Jadine put her arm around her shoulders. Sydney and Ondine both burst through the other door.

“What’s the matter?”

“I don’t know.”

“She hurt herself?”

“I don’t
know.

“Hold her hands or she will.”

“What is it? What happened?”

Then Ondine, fed up, shouted, “Speak, woman!” and Margaret sank to her knees gasping for the breath with which to whisper the words: “In my closet. In my closet.”

“Her what?”

“Her closet. Something’s in her closet.”

“What’s in your closet?”

“Black,” she whispered, her eyes shut tight.

Jadine dropped to her knees and leaned close to Margaret’s face. “You mean it’s dark in your closet?”

Margaret shook her head and put the back of her fist in her mouth.

Then Valerian spoke for the first time since she had come screaming into the room. “Margaret, this is not the Met. It’s a simple house on a simple island. Michael’s not even here yet…”

But she was screaming again and Jadine had to shout, “Tell me! Tell me!”

“In my things!” said Margaret. “In all my things!”

“What’s she saying?”

“Go look in her closet.”

“Take the gun, Sydney.” Ondine was the ranking officer, barking instructions.

“Right!” he answered, and ran back through the door to the kitchen.

“And be careful!” Ondine shouted after him.

“Hadn’t I better call the harbor, Valerian?” asked Jadine.

“Don’t leave me!” shrieked Margaret.

“All right. All right. Nanadine, give her some of that wine.”

“Maybe she’s had enough of that.”

“No. She drank hardly anything.”

“I heard her slam up the stairs in the middle of my dinner,” said Ondine. “Between then and now she could have killed a quart.” Ondine spoke without moving her lips hoping it was enough to keep Valerian from hearing.

“He’s in my things, Jade.” Margaret was crying softly.

“Okay, okay.”

“You have to believe me.”

“I don’t smell anything on her breath; maybe she just flipped.” Ondine was mumbling again.

“Can’t you get her to a chair?” asked Valerian. He hated seeing her bent over like that on the floor.

“Come on, honey. Let’s sit here,” said Jadine.

“What are you doing?” Margaret was screaming again and trying to stand. “Why are you acting like this? He’s there. I saw him. Valerian, please. Somebody better…go, call the harbor!”

“Let’s wait for Sydney before we call the police,” said Ondine.

“She’s drunk,” said Valerian with the wisdom of the drunk, “and nobody’s paid her any attention for a whole hour.”

“Why don’t you believe me?” She looked around at them all. They looked back at her, each thinking why, indeed, he didn’t; and then they heard the footsteps of Sydney plus one. Into the light of the sixty-four-bulb chandelier came Sydney pointing a .32 caliber pistol at the shoulder blades of a black man with dreadlock hair.

“It’s him!” Margaret screamed.

“Have mercy,” said Ondine.

“You can call the harbor now, Mr. Street,” said Sydney.

“I’ll do it,” said Ondine.

Jadine said nothing. She did not dare.

Valerian’s mouth was open and he closed it before saying, in a voice made stentorian by port, “Good evening, sir. Would you care for a drink?”

The black man looked at Valerian and it seemed to Jadine that there was a lot of space around his eyes.

4

B
EES
have no sting on Isle des Chevaliers, nor honey. They are fat and lazy, curious about nothing. Especially at noon. At noon parrots sleep and diamondbacks work down the trees toward the cooler undergrowth. At noon the water in the mouths of orchids left there by the breakfast rain is warm. Children stick their fingers in them and scream as though scalded. People in town go inside because the sky weighs too much at noon. They wait for hot food with lots of pepper so the day will feel cooler by comparison. They drink sweet drinks and swallow bitter coffee to distract their insides from the heat and weight of the sky. But the eaves of the house on Isle des Chevaliers were deep—the curtains light and light-filtering. So the sky did not require the occupants to distract themselves. They were free to concentrate on whichever of their personal problems they wished: the wrapped and shelved ones—the ones they always meant to take down and open one day—or the ones they caressed every hour. Just as on beaches, in summer homes, in watering places, tourists the world over lay under the breeze behind their anti-sunglasses wondering and mulling. So mulled the occupants of L’Arbe de la Croix that noon the day after a man with living hair stayed for dinner. Outwardly everything looked the same. Only the emperor butterflies appeared excited about something. Such vigorous flapping in blazing heat was uncommon for them. They hovered near the bedroom windows but the shutters had remained closed all morning and none of them could see a thing. They knew, however, that the woman was in there. Her blue-if-it’s-a-boy blue eyes red-rimmed with longing for a trailer softened by columbine and for her Ma. Leonora, the daily communicant; Leonora, whose head was covered at mass with lace older than Maine itself, who at sixty folded away her stockings and from then on wore white socks with her black Cuban-heeled oxfords. Sweet, darling socks out of which grew strong, wide legs that had never been crossed at the knees.

I have come full circle, Ma, thought Margaret. Now that the breakfast rain was over and cleaned light filtered through the shutters she was amazed to discover how much like the trailer it was. Full circle, she thought, I have come full circle. The trailer had been like this room. All economy and parallel lines. All secret storage and uncluttered surfaces. South Suzanne’s idea of luxury back then had been the antique-stuffed houses of old Bangor families: blue bottles and white moldings, soft yellow wallpaper and re-covered Federal chairs. But Margaret loved the trailer best and when she married the non-Catholic over the objections of her parents and moved to Philadelphia, it took years to get rid of the afterboom and now that she had, he’d left it and put her in this room that was “sculpted” he said, not decorated, that for all its Mies van der Rohe and Max whatever reminded her of the trailer in South Suzanne where she had been the envy of her girlfriends for the first dozen years of her life and was fourteen before she discovered that everybody in South Suzanne had not shared that envy. Did not think the little toilet was cute, or the way the tables folded down and beds became sofas was really neat like having your own dollhouse to live in. And when she did discover that most people thought living in a trailer was tacky, it might have crushed the life out of her except that she discovered at the same time that all of South Suzanne was overwhelmed by her astonishing good looks. She agreed, finally, with their evaluation, but it didn’t help much because it meant she had to be extra nice to other girls to keep them from getting mad at her. It meant having teachers go fuzzy in her presence (the men with glee, the women with distrust), fighting off cousins in cars, dentists in chairs and feeling apologetic to every woman over thirty. Privately she neither valued it nor enjoyed it and before she could learn to use it properly, she met an older man who was never fuzzy in her presence. She knew that because almost the first thing he said to her was “You really
are
beautiful,” as if it could have been fake like the float but wasn’t. And she smiled because he seemed surprised. “Is that enough?” she asked, and it was the first honest response she had ever made to a male compliment. “Beauty is never enough,” he said. “But you are.” The safety she heard in his voice was in his nice square fingernails too. And it was that, not his money, that comforted her and made her feel of consequence under the beauty, back down beneath it where her Margaret-hood lay in the same cup it had always lain in—faceless, silent and trying like hell to please. And now she longed for her mother’s trailer so far from Philadelphia and L’Arbe de la Croix but maybe not so far after all since the bedroom she had locked herself into was a high-class duplication, minus the coziness, of the first.

Margaret Lenore stared into the spaces and thought desperately of coffee, but she did not want to ring up Sydney or Ondine, for that would begin the day she was not sure she wanted to participate in. She had had no sleep to speak of, and now, drained of panic, wavering between anger and sorrow, she lay in bed. Things were not getting better. She was not getting better. She could feel it and right smack in the middle of it, with Michael on his way,
this
had to happen: literally, literally a nigger in the woodpile. And of course Valerian had to think up something to shock everybody and actually ask him to dinner. A stranger who was found hiding in his own wife’s closet, a bum that even Sydney wanted to shoot, he invited to dinner while she was shaking like a leaf on the floor. In her closet. The end, the living end, but as disgusting as that was, it wasn’t as bad as Valerian’s insult that it was okay for him to be there. And if it wasn’t for the fact that Michael was coming, she would pack up that very day and really leave him this time. Valerian knew it too, knew he could get away with it, because Michael’s Christmas visit was so important to her and would keep her from leaving. Now he was playing that boring music in the greenhouse as though nothing had happened. She was so hungry and coffee-starved but she couldn’t start things off just yet. And Jade hadn’t knocked at all.

Usually when Margaret overslept Jade woke her with a smile, some funny piece of mail or an exciting advertisement. She would sink her cup of chocolate into Margaret’s carpet (there were no end tables in the chic sparse sculpture) and they would begin the day with some high-spirited girlish nonsense.

“Look. Chloë has four new parfumes. Four.”

“I think Mr. Broughton’s lover has gone; you have been invited to dinner. You’d better go, ’cause I think
her
mistress is due to visit them soon. Have you seen the three of them eating together? Ondine says the cook over there said it makes her sick.” Long ago when Jade used to come for holiday visits, Margaret found her awkward and pouty, but now that she was grown up, she was pretty and a lot of fun. All those colleges hadn’t made her uppity and she was not at all the Mother Superior Ondine had become.

She didn’t know how the dinner went. Did Jade stay? When did the man leave? She lifted her hand to press a button. Then changed her mind. Maybe the man killed everybody, and she alone escaped because she had run up to her room and locked herself in. No. If he had, the boring music would not be going. God. Maybe he will come back and do it later. And what could they do to stop him? All the neighbors would have to be told that a black man had been roaming around, and it could happen again. They would have to share security and keep in touch with each other. Each house could post one of the help so that around the clock someone was on guard. She wouldn’t mention Valerian’s feeding him dinner first and trying to make her stay there and watch him eat it. The neighbors would think he was crazy and blame him for whatever the burglar did. Maybe he was already in jail. He couldn’t have gotten off the island last night but, early in the morning, she’d heard the jeep take off and return. Sydney probably drove him to the launch where harbor police shackled him. In any case, she wasn’t going to pretend what Valerian did was okay by her. He hadn’t even bothered to come in and explain, let alone apologize to her. Just as he never bothered to explain why he wouldn’t go back to the States. He really expected her to steam in that jungle, knowing as he did what heat and sun and wind did to her skin. Knowing that after Maine, Philadelphia was the torrid zone for her. That her arms went pimiento with even a little sun and her back burst into pebbles. Still he stayed in this place she had never enjoyed except when Michael was younger and they all vacationed there. Now it was a boiling graveyard made bearable—just bearable—by Jade’s company, shopping in Queen of France and lunches with the neighbors. She would never get through Christmas here without Michael. Never. Already the confusion was coming back. The salad things last night, for instance, and earlier at breakfast. But with Michael around she never forgot the names and uses of things.

Margaret Street closed her eyes and turned over on her stomach although she knew she would not sleep again. All night she’d been conscious of the closet door where she had gone to find the poem just to make sure Valerian was making fun of her and that there really was the line “and he glittered when he walked” in the poem Bridges had dedicated to Michael. It was a walk-in closet with dressing room separate from the wardrobe and a tiny storage niche at the very back where she kept things and in there right among all her most private stuff she saw him sitting on the floor as calm as you please and as filthy as could be. He looked at her but never moved and it seemed like hours before she could back out and hours more before she could make sound come from her open mouth and how she got down the stairs she would never in this world know but when she did it was like a dream with them looking at her but not looking as though they believed her and Valerian was worst of all sitting there like some lord or priest who doubted her confession, the completeness of it, and let her know with his eyes that she’d left something important out like the salad things. She had lain there all night with the lights on thinking of her closet as a toilet now where something rotten had been and still was. Only at dawn did she slip into a light and un-refreshing sleep not dreaming something she was supposed to be dreaming. She was exhausted when she woke but, as night disappeared, so did her fear. Among the many things she felt, anger was the most consistent but even that kept sliding away as her thoughts, unharnessed, turned sorrowful and galloped back to Leonora and a trailer sunk in columbine.

It was getting unbearably hot but she would not toss aside the sheet. Her door was locked. Jade would come soon to see about her. Valerian could do what he wished. She herself would not budge. In her things. Actually in her things. Probably jerking off. Black sperm was sticking in clots to her French jeans or down in the toe of her Anne Klein shoes. Didn’t men sometimes jerk off in women’s shoes? She’d have the whole closetful cleaned. Or better still, she’d throw them all out and buy everything new—from scratch. What a louse Valerian was. What a first-class louse. Wait till Michael hears about it. Just wait. And then she was crying about the night she won the beauty contest in a strapless gown that her mother had to borrow money from Uncle Adolph for and a gold cross that she always wore until her sister-in-law told her only whores wore crosses. The bitch.

She lay there wiping teary cheeks with the top hem of a Vera sheet. There was nothing the cool sculptured spaces could do to keep her from forgetting the fact that she was almost fifty sitting on a hill in the middle of a jungle in the middle of the ocean where the temperature was on broil and not even a TV with anything on it she could understand and where her husband was punishing her for forgetting to put the salad things back and there was no one to talk to except Jade and where her sex life had become such a wreck it was downright interesting. And if that wasn’t enough now this nigger he lets in this real live dope addict ape just to get back at her wanting to live near Michael. “We’ll see about that,” she said. “Just wait till Michael comes.” She whispered so nobody would hear and nobody did, not even the emperor butterflies. They were clinging to the windows of another bedroom trying to see for themselves what the angel trumpets had described to them: the hides of ninety baby seals stitched together so nicely you could not tell what part had sheltered their cute little hearts and which had cushioned their skulls. They had not seen the coat at all but a few days ago a bunch of them had heard the woman called Jade telling the woman called Margaret all about it. The butterflies didn’t believe it and went to see for themselves. Sure enough, there it was, swirling around the naked body of the woman called Jade, who opened the French windows and greeted the emperor butterflies with a smile, but the heavy one called Ondine said, “Shoo! Shoo!”

“Leave them alone, Nanadine. They don’t bother anything.”

“They die and have to be swept up. You should put some clothes on and cover yourself up. I thought you asked me to come up and see your coat, not your privates.”

“This is the best way to feel it. Here. Feel.”

“Well, it’s nice enough, no question about that. Mr. Street see it yet?”

“No, just you and Margaret.”

“What’d she say?”

“She loved it. Said it was prettier than hers.”

“Does this mean you’re going to marry him?”

Jadine dug her hands deep into the pockets and spun around. Her hair was as black and shiny as the coat. “Who knows?”

“He must mean business if he fly that out to you all the way from Paris. And he must expect you back there. Lord knows you don’t need a sealskin coat down here.”

“It’s just a Christmas present, Nanadine.”

“It’s not
just
anything, honey. I could buy a house with what that cost.”

“No, you couldn’t.”

“I’d lock it up somewhere if I were you.”

“I have to find a cool place for it. Maybe Valerian will let me use the air-conditioned part of his greenhouse.”

“You crazy? Don’t you dare leave that coat out there.”

“There you go again. Nothing’s going to happen, I told you. He’ll be out of here by tonight.”

“He better be. I’m not going to spend another night underneath the same roof with him.”

BOOK: Tar Baby
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