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Authors: Delia Sherman

The Freedom Maze

BOOK: The Freedom Maze
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Sophie Martineau looked out the window of her mother’s 1954 Ford
station wagon and watched her life slide behind her into the past.

It was raining. It rained a lot in May in Louisiana, but Sophie couldn’t help feeling this rain was personal. It was bad enough to be saying good-bye to her friends and her school and the house she’d grown up in to spend the summer stuck out in the bayou with Grandmama and Aunt Enid, knowing she’d be coming back to a different neighborhood and a different school in the fall. Doing it in the rain was just rubbing her nose in it.

They drove past her best friend Diana Roget’s house. In the wet, the big stucco house was grim and uninviting — just like Mrs. Roget after Papa up and moved to New York. Once the divorce was final, she hadn’t even allowed Diana to come over any more, and Sophie wasn’t invited to Galveston as she had been every summer since third grade. It was like Mrs. Roget thought divorce was catching, like cooties. Although she’d denied it, Sophie suspected Diana thought so, too.

They stopped at a red light and Mama glanced over. “You’re very quiet. Are you thinking about your big adventure?”

“Yes, ma’am.” The fib came automatically. Life was easier when Sophie told Mama what she wanted to hear.

“What a sad little voice! You’re not nervous, are you? You used to love Oak Cottage when you were small.”

“I’m afraid I don’t remember very much.”

This was beyond a fib and right on into a lie. Sophie had hated visiting Oak Cottage, even for a weekend. Even though she’d only been six at the time, she had very vivid memories of uncomfortable meals where Grandmama talked about how much better everything had been when she was a girl, Papa made silly jokes, and Mama radiated chill like an open refrigerator. There was no air-conditioning at Oak Cottage, and too many bugs. The idea of spending a whole summer there was hardly bearable. But with Mama working all day and going to Soule College at night so she could be a Certified Public Accountant, and no money for camp, there wasn’t any other choice.

“Don’t tell me you don’t remember Aunt Enid’s garden,” Mama said. “All those beautiful roses! And Grandmama’s snuffbox collection. You’d play with them by the hour, just as I did when I was a little girl. You haven’t forgotten that, have you?

“No, ma’am.” Another lie. “Of course not.”

The light turned green, and they took off again.

Now she thought about it, Sophie did have a vague picture of herself sitting on a very high bed, making patterns with bright little boxes. Her memory of Oak Cottage itself was a lot more vivid. It looked like an ogre in a fairy tale, big and green, with two angry-looking windows sticking out of the roof for eyes and steep red steps up to the gallery that stretched across the front like a toothy mouth. She’d screamed blue murder the first time they visited, and Papa had had to carry her up from the car. He’d laughed when she told him why she was scared, but Mama had been too disgusted to speak to her.

As they reached the Huey P. Long Bridge over the Mississippi, the rain shut off like a faucet, the sun came out, and the Ford turned into a sticky steam bath. Sophie stood it as long as she could, then cranked the window down an inch.

“What on earth are you doing?” Mama asked.

“Letting in some air. My back’s all sweaty.”

“Horses sweat,” Mama reminded her. “Ladies gently glow. I suppose you can open the window a crack. But put something over your hair, or the wind will blow it into a hooraw’s nest.”

Sophie’s reflection in the window told her that her hair had already frizzed up like cotton candy. But she knew that arguing with that particular tone of voice was useless, so she tied a silk scarf around her head before rolling the window down all the way.

Hot air hit her face like a sponge soaked in gas fumes and swamp water. Sophie thought wistfully of Papa’s Cadillac, which had air-conditioning and padded cloth seats that didn’t stick to your back like the Ford’s woven plastic. Papa liked to drive, and flew along the blacktop with his elbow cocked out the window, singing. He had a deep, clear voice and sang show tunes. “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” was his favorite.

Mama, on the other hand, gripped the wheel with her hands at ten-to-two exactly and kept her eyes fixed grimly on the road. She never sang — she wouldn’t even turn on the radio. Back when Sophie was little, Mama used to pass the time on long car trips telling stories about growing up at Oak Cottage and going to school with all the grades together in one room and reciting “The Wreck of the Hesperus” on Prize Day. It was her second-favorite topic, after The Good Old Days before the War of Northern Aggression, when the Fairchilds had raised sugarcane on Oak River Plantation.

Mama was very proud of being a Fairchild of Oak River. Sophie knew exactly how many acres the Fairchilds had owned at the outbreak of the War of Northern Aggression (nine hundred), how many slaves (one hundred and fifty), and when Mr. Charles Fairchild III had built his fancy brick plantation house (1850). She’d heard about Mammys (fat, fussy, and comical) and Beaux (dashing, polite, and handsome) and, most importantly, about Southern Belles, who had twenty-inch waists and huge frothy dresses and nothing to do all day but look pretty and decide who they’d dance with at the next ball.

In Sophie’s mind, those Southern Belles looked just like Mama. Everybody said Mama was a beauty. Her chestnut hair was wavy and shiny like a Breck Shampoo Girl’s, her skin was smooth and creamy, and her waist not much bigger than twenty inches around, even without a girdle. Sophie’s puppy fat, frizzy, dishwater hair, imperfect skin, and thick glasses were a great trial to Mama, but she never gave up hope. She made Sophie brush her hair one hundred strokes and scrub her face with lemons every night. She’d even bought her a garter belt and nylons for her thirteenth birthday last year, along with a completely pointless bra that rode up Sophie’s chest when she played volleyball. Sophie was wearing them all right now, under her blue seersucker suit and her first pair of high-heel pumps.

I bet those Belles were bored silly,
she thought viciously.
I bet they didn’t dare move because they might sweat and had a special slave to measure their waists and see how they were getting along with looking pretty. I can just hear it: “Why, Miss LolaBelle! I declare, child, you plain as puddin’ this mornin’. You best stir yourself if you thinkin’ of lookin’ pretty today!

Past Bridge City, Route 90 plunged straight into swampland. Scrubby woods alternated with wide fields of young sugarcane and ponds of still, dark water spotted with neon-green duckweed. Sophie saw a heron standing stilt-legged in a culvert and a possum lying crushed at the side of the road. Every so often, a town would pop up — a handful of peeling clapboard houses, a general store, a church, a saloon bar, a filling station.

Mile after mile, Sophie watched it all scrolling past the window and wondered what she was going to do all summer out in the bayou. Unless things had changed, Grandmama and Aunt Enid didn’t even have a TV. The nearest movie house was probably all the way up in New Iberia, or even Lafayette. Sophie had packed a suitcase full of her favorite books:
Alice in Wonderland, The Time Garden,
The Witch of Blackbird Pond,
Swiss Family Robinson,
Great Expectations.
But she doubted they’d last the whole summer.

Sophie shifted uncomfortably on the seat, wincing as her garters pinched viciously at the flesh of her thighs. “Mama, can we stop soon?”

Mama considered a moment. “I might could stretch my legs. And a glass of ice tea would be welcome. We’ll see if there’s a nice drugstore in Morgan City.”

Morgan City was a real town, with sidewalks and traffic lights and people and a drugstore with a brand-new neon sign in the window.

Inside, a couple of ceiling fans ruffled the pages of the magazines and comics on the revolving rack. Sophie looked around at the cracked Formica, the faded sign proclaiming Dr. Pepper to be “The Friendly Pepper-Upper!” and the three men in shirtsleeves slouching over the lunch counter, and wished she was back home in Metairie, where everything was nicer.

Mama asked the colored girl behind the counter where the restroom was, and disappeared. Sophie picked up
Little Lulu.
It was from March, 1960, two months old, and she’d read it already at the dentist’s. But she pretended to be interested in Lulu’s adventures until Mama returned, wiping her hands on her handkerchief.

“The restroom’s nothing to write home about,” she said. “But perfectly adequate. Remember to wash your hands with soap and use a paper towel to open the door. I’ll order us some tea.”

“Can I have a Coca-Cola? Please?”

“We’ll see. Don’t dawdle.”

Above the bathroom door, a hand-lettered sign read Whites Only! Sophie locked the door, wincing at the strong smell of disinfectant, peeled off her nylons and garter belt, and stuffed them into her purse. With any luck Mama wouldn’t notice, and if she did, maybe she’d pretend not to. Some battles were too small for even Mama to fight.

When Sophie came out, the men had left and Mama was sitting at the lunch counter, sipping ice tea and chatting with the colored girl like she’d known her all her life. A green bottle of Coca-Cola sat on the counter next to a glass of ice. Guiltily conscious of her stockingless legs, Sophie edged up on a stool and poured herself a glass. It tasted just like it looked, bright with bubbles and the sugar Mama said would rot her teeth.

Sipping and swinging on her stool, she caught sight of a Negro man tapping on the window. The counter girl glanced from him to Mama and shook her head just a little. Sophie was relieved. She didn’t mind Negro women — Lily, the colored woman who did for Mama in Metairie, had practically raised her. But Negro men made her nervous. Mama had explained it to her over and over. Negro men, especially young ones, could be dangerous. They were lazy and dirty, and sometimes they drank. Never, under any circumstances, was Sophie to speak to any Negro man she didn’t already know.

Well, the only Negro men Sophie knew were Lily’s husband, Hector, and Mama’s gardener, Sam. She didn’t know about Hector — she only saw him when she went to church with Lily — but Sam was pretty much always busy and couldn’t help being dirty, working in the garden all day. She sometimes wondered if Mama might be a little unfair — about Hector and Sam, anyway. Still, talking to strangers made Sophie nervous no matter what color they were, so it wasn’t hard to obey.

BOOK: The Freedom Maze
8.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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