“My Grand-Daddy was a gambling man,” my friend said to me yesterday as we were packing her fresh eggs into boxes. We had been talking about drunks. The weekend kind who had a drink and went to sleep. My friend does not drink. But it was a natural jump to gambling.
“He had gambled all he had that one day so he bet his hat.” She says.
I laugh.. I love her old family stories.
“… bet his hat.” I say. “Mercy!”
“They kilt him for that hat. He lost the hand but he would not give up the hat. Would’nt hand it over. Would’nt do it. So they kilt him.”
“They shot him?” I say. Laughter swallowed in horror.
“I reckon so.” She says.
We both sit quiet trying to make sense of such an action in our heads. Shooting a black man for his hat. Our laughter still in the air above us. Watching.
A breeze wafts the scent of rain through the window, then is gone.
She shifts in her seat at my long table, the chair creaks, a gambling chair, she turns one of the eggs we had been packing. She absently measures it and wipes it, inspects it as she thinks. Our breaths in the same timing. Our hands cleaning eggs in the same rhythm as we sit. She moves forward in the chair and looks at me. Her hands still. Her eyes black and shiny with decision.
“I came here, to Chicago when I was 14 years old.” she says. “From Mississippi. Me and my family. They say folks is racist down there in the South, maybe so but I tell you they will always nod and say howdy. Everyone does. Black or white. They will always say g’mornin’. How are ya. Whether they knows you or not. Every time”.
“Up here”, she nods North towards the big city. “The white folks, they see you on the street and pull themselves to the side”. Unconsciously she pulls her skirts closer to her knees, her shoulders tucking in, imitating those white folks, her voice softening from the hurt. “They won’t look at you. Like you are not even there. Their eyes go to the side. Or they look at the ground”. She pauses. Looking at the floor. Not for effect, just to find the next words. I can see the words running in behind her eyes, whole stories of them. Her racing brain choosing and discarding. Sorting. How much to tell me. Her eyes chasing dust across my floor. Then she lets them go – those words. She shrugs. Relaxing her body into my kitchen chair again. Looking back at me again. “Took me a long time to get used to that. I cut you and then cut me, our blood will be just red, just the same. Bleed the same.”
We sit for a moment. Our eyes seeing our blood and each other. Just the same. From different cultures, different looks, different accents. But bleed the same. Hurt the same. Love the same.
I reach across and touch her arm. After a moment she nods, answering her own invisible question, then reaches up and touches my hand. My strong farm-worn white hand on her black arm covered in that strong black hand of hers seemed as natural as breath to us – she is my oldest friend out here. She hugged me the first time we saw each other. She moves about me like a mother about a child. She tells me if my face is dirty or my hair is a mess or if I need to get those cobwebs. And where are your shoes girl. She tells me to Set a Spell when I visit her front porch with the rocking chairs. And not often enough either, she says. She worries about me being alone out here – a foreigner who does not understand how this country is.
“There’s trouble coming, Cecilia. Things that were kept under..” She pauses again. Then, I can see her folding it all back away again. All her thoughts. These important words. This dreadful history. Cutting the words off. We never talk like this, she and I. Our friendship too young. Feeling our way. Usually we happily talk of gardens and food and changing the beds and getting the clothes in off the line if it looks like rain or the house in the country they are renovating for their retirement.
Be careful she is thinking to me. Be careful I am thinking to her. My friend.
” Well, I’ll be glad when we are out of the city for good”. She says.
“Down here with me.” I say.
“I’ll teach you how to cook.” she says.
We both laugh.
She pats my hand. Pat, pat. And leans forward to pack the last egg, allowing my hand to fall naturally back to help her close the lid of the egg box.
“Well.” she says gathering herself up. She is the only woman I know who can gather herself up with such grace and consideration. She is almost old fashioned in the way she moves her body in its proper order. Reassembling in seconds. Ankles, knees, elbows, fingers. She stands. She picks up the box of eggs and her bag and turns to the door. The conversation is over.
“Time to be getting on. You got chores. Them hogs ain’t going to feed themselves, Cecilia. And it looks to me like you are late getting John’s dinner on the cooker.”
The door clicks behind us as we leave the kitchen. Our drifting voices parting with the usual called goodbyes. Dogs, cats and pigs joining in the chorus as we descend the steps and fade and part.
Be careful my friend – up there in the big city.