Mrs. Turbefill noticed first thing that her babies weren't there in bed with her. They were across the room. She waited on her hip, and tried talking to them.
"Ya'll scared of your mama?" she laughed. "Act like you never seen your mama."
Mrs. Turbefill got her smokes off her dresser and carried them in the kitchen. She still couldn't believe that nigger at Reynold's. They knew down there that she goddamn smoked Benson & Hedges in a box. Ever since they started working niggers it got to where you can't tell what you might get.
There for a while she'd quit going to Reynold's but it got to the point where everywhere you go they were on one side of the counter or the other. She poured cat food, cut herself a piece of cake, and sat down in her chair.
She was going to call the neighbor and see what she thought when she remembered the neighbor was coming over to help with the ambrosia salad. She hated ambrosia but it was cheap and easy to make.
In fact the ladies expected her to make her ambrosia salad and were more than glad to bring other things. And they'd always say how she made the finest ambrosia.
The phone rang and the devil if it wasn't the neighbor wanting to know walnuts or pecans and Mrs. Turbefill told her she might as well let the niggers decide like they do down at Reynold's. Rang again and it was her niece.
"Aunt Hady, we're selling chocolate this year for the band and, like, if you buy one you get two dollars off at Pizza Hut."
"What's it like going to school wit the nigras, child?" Mrs. Turbefill was busy stacking plates, her cigarette resting on one and then rolling down into the middle of it.
"I told you they're not much different, Aunt Hady, and not only that but,"
"Oh, but they are different child, you just remember that, you don't have no choice but to go to school, you can't help that, but you don't go getting involved with any of them, talking to them.
"Now you know your Aunt ain't predjudice, it's just that I'm worried about you, about how you're growing up, that's all. You come on by and I'll buy a candy from you but I won't need the coupon."
She wasn't eating down there around a bunch of niggers and hairy college kids. No telling who cooked your food, touched it.
When she hung up the phone she noticed that her babies had finally come and ate their food but they were gone again and they hadn't come out for their usual loving. They were all back in the hall.
"Why ya'll acting like that?" she asked them as they walked big circles around her or ran straight lines away, a couple jumping to the mantle and behind picture frames.
"Ya'll hurting your mama's feelings," she sang out in a high voice that usually brought them straight to her.
She loved her cats. They were all shapes and sizes. And colors. They'd come around.
Mrs. Turbefill lit another smoke and remembered the good old days when she and her brother grew up on this hill. In them days didn't no nigger come around. She remembered fondly how some of them had tried to move in and had got rocked right off the hill.
Those were the days she felt like somebody. Things were so different now. She was scared to leave her yard any more unless she drove and she didn't like to drive.
Every evening, though, at 5:00 her and the neighbor would walk to Reynold's and back. They'd always see a couple of them coming and going, as if they didn't have anything else to do besides go to the store. Spending somebody else's money.
Then she remembered that boy at the store that always thinks he's so smart and don't know how to talk to a paying customer. Yesterday he had pulled something out of her hair before she had had the chance to tell him how she don't believe in inter races playing in one another's heads, and if he ever touched her again, she'd have him arrested.
"But you had the most awful bug in your head, ma'am," he'd told her, smiling with them big eyes like they do. "You want me to put it back?"
She hadn't seen no bug and neither had the neighbor.
"They act real uppity when Mr. Reynolds ain't around, don't they," she had asked the neighbor while staring at the boy.
Then she asked for her cigarettes and that was when he told her they didn't have no box of 120's and he said it, and looked at her, like he could give a care whether she was a regular customer or not.
"Got soft pack, that's it," and he threw them there on the counter with his attitude.
"Doesn't surprise me one bit," Mrs. Turbefill said plenty loud on the way out, "if I was colored I'd expect to be unliked."
She'd been going out to get her morning paper when she first noticed the brown paper bag. Right off she figured it was something the niggers had left.
At night she was sure black men wandered around looking to stumble across a white woman to rape or a chance to steal. They didn't break in her house because they were too lazy.
She opened the bag to see if she ought to turn it in and at first she thought it to be somebody's old lunch. The chicken bones made her think that, but they were tied together with a piece of hair and there was all this dusty powder getting stirred up and it smelled terrible, and at the bottom were cigarettes, Benson & Hedges 120's, in a box.
Whoever's they were, they weren't opened and since they were her brand, she brought them on in and wiped them off. Just then the neighbor called and said how she had forgotten earlier but that her husband had seen a little colored man around her porch early this morning.
"I was just out there, and didn't see hide nor hair of them, but if you see them again call the police first, and if you hear some shooting come running, you might be able to save one of them."
The neighbor'd thought that pretty funny and Mrs. Turbefill could hear her telling it to her husband as she hung up the phone.
She was going to the bathroom to wash up when the phone rang again. You would have thought someone had died, but this wasn't a voice she recognized, though it did seem somewhat familiar.
"You done yet?" they asked her funny like, kind of scary funny .
"What you mean am I done yet? Who is this?"
"We just wondering if you got your cigarettes."
Mrs. Turbefill felt her stomach and looked back in the bag at them bones tied with somebody's hair.
"You done lady?" the voice on the other end of her phone was asking. "Ain't you done?"
And she remembered the boy going in her head and she knew this was him on the phone. Knew it good as you can know anything.
"What ya'll mean leaving this on my porch?" She was shaking the bag like it was on fire. "What do you mean?"
She felt like she had drank milk too early in the morning.
"We just want to make sure you got the box instead of old soft pack."
"What you mean?" The boy had hung up but she stared at the phone, same phone she'd ever had, as if it had somehow let this person, this nigger, at her.
With her hand still on her stomach, she went to wash herself of all this foolishness.
When she first saw the nigger woman in her bathroom she thought she was going to be killed. The woman looked so familiar that there was some kind of trust for her and she reached for the woman who reached back.
And then it came to her soft and hard. It was real. She knew it was no mud, no sun. It was black. Black on her.
"I'm nigger." She told that to the lady who hated her much as love will let. She said it again and felt it move out of her.
Her babies had the bones, tied with her hair, in the hall, and they moved around them.
She had heard stories of roots. She looked back at the woman in her mirror. In her face, in her eyes. Folks would see past this black skin. It don't make somebody nigger. Course it don't. She just had black skin.
She needed her babies. Come see about Mama. Come see about your mama.
The tub was a reassuring cold on the back of her legs. She watched her bathroom move. Her fingernails took it on themselves to dig deep in her arm and hold on, seeing just how deep the black went. Newspaper filled her chest and come up into her throat. Her water had been running, but it must have been that other woman turned it on. It was too hot.
She went, like she was sent, to her room, and undressed the woman, keeping her eyes on something miles away.
When she got back all, her babies were there staring into the water like folks'll stare at a fire. Wouldn't want it on them, but will put themselve's right in it through the looking. The black tightened up and then released and left her there. She felt betrayed. Naked. White.
Mrs. Turbefill lowered herself into the sound of the water, her head pulling, bouncing softly along the tub's bottom and then resting. She could see warping cats looking down at her, spinning, and she wondered who went to heaven.
Craig Wright, a Columbia native, teaches writing at Oregon State.
© Copyright by POINT, 1995
Last modified 7/9/95