APRIL NINTH 1928
‘Sure enough, that Jason don’t know nothing. I tell you, he don’t know what hit him,’ I says to Harry. As Harry turned toward me on the bed, shards of placid light filtered through the deep blue taffeta curtains surrounding a frosted window, a window that looked like all the other windows in the small motel just outside Mottstown, the light giving the bed the look of sand laying just under the water at the edge of a pond. When Harry spoke, his words seemed to stir the minute flecks of dust swirling above our heads, bringing life to the very air we breath, the same air we inhaled last night, or was it early this morning? I don’t rightly know when we arrived. If I had a watch on a chain I would know, but I learned years ago, time is only important to busy people. Folks too worried about time, that’s what Dilsey say anyway. She say that about Jason, she say he too tied to the clock, chained to it, she say. He be a slave to ol’ Father Time, she say. Then she laugh.
But Jason don’t laugh. He just get mad, mad at Dilsey, mad at me, mad at grandma, even mad at Big Dummy Benjy—he get mad at him most of all. Boy, I bet he be madder than at us all together when he find out what me and Harry did night before last. Has it been two days? I forget—it all be a blur to me now. I bet Jason be so mad, I bet he still mad even now, so mad I bet he crazy, crazy like Big Dummy Benjy.
Harry stretched and made wrinkles in some parts of the soft sheets and removed other wrinkles on parts closer to me. He sighed and the smell whiskey and two-day old toilet water rose to the ceiling, mixing with the already congested space overhead where smells and words spoken throughout the night, and to be honest, there weren’t many words spoken between the two of us, swirled with the infinitesimal bits of dust and the sound of nightingales as they squawked and cackled outside the morning window, a window already streaked in melting tracks of condensation. ‘Em birds just sayin hello to da new day,’ Dilsey say, but I say ‘I hates those damned birds, with all that screeching.’ This morning they don’t sound so bad.
‘Little girl,’ Harry says, ‘you done right good, yessir. The way you took that money, well, I aint seen nothing like that before in my whole life.’ I smiled so big I almost saw my own teeth reflect in those beautiful pools of white and indigo that shimmered as they looked at me in the morning light. ‘Sugar, I’ve seen a lot of scams in my day, but you,’ he looked at me again and I could almost feel the sun drop from the eastern horizon and rush right in to our little room, firing it up a thousand degrees. ‘The way you slipped out with that old man’s stash, well, it was the cat’s pajamas. I still don’t know how you did it though’ he says.
‘Do what?’ I says, even though I knew what me meant.
‘How in all that’s holy did you get that money out of the house?’ he says. ‘Didn’t you say he kept it in a strongbox? What, you got magic in those pretty little fingers?’
Now it was my turn to laugh. As I did Harry kissed me gently on my forehead and rose, the sun shown from his skin like a gleam shinning off the armor of one of King Arthur’s knights. It left a crimson hue across the beige sheets and pale walls. I noticed a thin, darkened haze under his nose and chin, growth that did not exist yesterday. I wanted him to reach for me again so I could feel his beard in its infancy. It gave his boyish face a manly quality, which conflicted with his somewhat high-pitched voice.
‘Harry, there’s a lot you don’t know about me. I got lots of secrets,’ I says.
‘Like what? You tell me some of those secrets. I promise I wont tell a soul,’ he says.
‘I dare anybody to know everything I do’ I says.
Jason says something about how he’s so important in the town and all.
‘I don’t care,’ I says. ‘I’m bad and I’m going to hell. I’d rather be in hell than anywhere where you are.’ I was so mad at Jason. Who’s he to tell me what’s what? Says if I skip school again I wish I be in hell, like he going to send me there. I know I don’t know everything, but one thing I do I know, and that is I don’t want to be where Jason is. That man already living in a hell, self-made, too. Well, I showed him and when he yelling at me and causing a fuss, I didn’t even look back! Who’s in hell now you old man? Is this hell, skipping school, sharing a bed with a man who’s seen more of this big world than Uncle Jason ever hope to see in this life, a man who knows things and can do things and sure enough knows how to treat a Southern lady, better than Jason treat any woman he knows? I showed him, I skipped school that very day. I went in one door and left through the other—didn’t even slow down. Might be I would have gone to class had he not told me to go. And when I get to the street, who should I happen to see once I get there, but Harry. He pull up in his big ford motorcar, and ask me what’s the Jake. I says, it aint nothing that I couldn’t show you myself. And he says, ‘get in and sit yourself down,’ he talks like a gentleman, says I look real pretty. He be a damn sight better than Jason and his lot. It was warm inside the car. And he fired up that ford. And we shot off like a bullet out of a gun. Like I says, I dare anybody to know everything I do, dare Uncle Jason anyway.
‘Yeah Harry, I knows things. Like I knows where a girl can get a whisky, or which Negro house has the best music for dancing on a schoolnight,’ I says.
‘Hell,’ Harry says. ‘Aint many who don’t know that, even in your small town.’ He stood, a man, not like those other boys who called themselves such and thought themselves more. Then he didn’t move, as if he was waiting for me to move first, speak first. He finally grabbed for his shirt, the wrinkled dress shirt thrown haphazardly in the corner of the room hours before. It looked unkempt in the morning light. He authoritatively placed his brawnfilled arm through the arm of the shirt, the fabric adhering to his contours as if by memory. The hours and hours of driving and drinking and spending as much of Uncle Jason’s horded money to patronize any business risking possible Christian damnation and choose to assist willing customers on Easter Sunday took the shine out of his clothes, though anything would look good on Harry, even garments long due for a cleaning.
He waited and I thought he might want me to join him, but I didn’t feel like joining him. I wanted to stay in bed, stay under those soft sheets. It was still too cold and too early and besides, we had paid for the room up full for several days—thank you Uncle.
‘Sweetie,’ he says. ‘I believe you have not answered my original question to my satisfaction,’ he says and he flashes me a smile that turned me inside-out.
‘What question,’ I says trying to match his charm, charm shown to me by my prince, my hero, the man who saved me from that hell I was bound to enter if left to my own devices.
‘Not many people can crack a box like that, and there’s a future for anyone who can.’ he says. ‘Tell me honey, how did you open that strongbox?’
It must have been the drink or the hours in the car that made me think his tone changed, if only a little. Was he colder, harder, more like Uncle Jason? Or Uncle Maury, maybe, when his plans didn’t work out? To be honest, I can’t rightly remember.
‘Oh, that,’ I says. ‘That dumb-idiot, sometimes I think Big Dummy Benjy got more sense, Jason thinks he’s so smart. He thinks no one in that house has any brains, not brains like him, anyway. He thinks no one knows where he hides that cash box but him. Hell, I knew about that secret hiding place last year. And it wasn’t two months ago, I was climbing down that pear tree one night and I seen him myself, seen where he hid that box in the closet, and I seen him stowing money into that metal box like it’s a ticket box at the picture show. He thinks he’s so smart,’ I says.’
‘But how did you get the box open?’ Was it one of those five-and-dime tin boxes that cant keep out a child?’ he says.
‘Oh no,’ I says. ‘Uncle Jason order it from the Montgomery Ward catalogue, cost him a pretty penny. I know cuz he done complained about the price for three weeks until it showed up, It was top of the line.’ I says.
‘But I showed him, I was smarter than that fool. I found the key and didn’t tell no one, not even Luther. Jason thought he lost it when he dropped it outside church last year. He looked for hours in the dirt, got his trousers all dirtied up. He finally gave up, saying ruining a damn pair of nice dress pants wasn’t worth it, and after all, he said he had another key. But I was watching him and after he left I looked at a place where he never looked. I went straight to that honeysuckle bush, and I saw it, and I picked it up, and I never told anyone, not even Luther, that I found the key. And when you asked if I knew where any money was and you’d take me away if I did, I knew all I had to do was sneak into Jason’s room and get that money, so I broke his window, found the box, used Uncle Jason’s key to get the money, then the last thing I did was take that paperweight he kept on his dresser, a big cast-iron one he likes shaped like a bull he got from the bank, and smashed that lock to pieces just to show him, then I threw the paperweight out the window. Like I said he think he so smart. Dumb old man; he never knew nothing,’ I says.
Harry stopped getting dressed. In fact, he didn’t move a muscle. He was almost fully dressed now, except for his red tie, a tie that had landed almost at a place of honor on the footboard of the bed. Then he did move, quickly as if with purpose, the dust hovering in the chilled air seemed electrified by his body.
‘Listen Baby,’ he says. ‘How would you like a top-notch breakfast? I know it would sure do me good. I spotted a fine eating establishment a piece down the road when we drove up last night,’ he says.
‘Mmmm. That sounds great. I’ll get ready,’ I says and I begin to get up.
‘No, don’t move a wink. I have an idea,’ he says. ‘I’ll go get something extra fine and bring it back here. You look so good lying there all bundled warm in those sheets, so good, in fact, that I’d hate to disturb this wonderful scene that meets my unworthy eyes. I’ll be back directly.’ he says.
And before I could answer, he was halfway out the room. ‘Wait! What about your tie?’ I says. ‘Know what,’ he says. ‘You keep it, Yeah, keep it here and it can keep you company.’
And he was gone, the door closed with a finality leaving me alone, the familiar smell of man lingering, wafting into every corner and every cranny of the musty room where I remained, tucked in the motel’s finest linens. Soon after, I heard the engine of the ford roar to life, tires spinning, sending gravel hurling through space as the car motored down the road, the sound of my mythical carriage fading into the breaking dawn.
‘Sure enough, that Jason don’t know nothing, I tell you. And I’ll tell Harry again just as soon as he gets back. I’ll tell him as soon as he comes through that door. I’ll tell him again and again until we stop talking all together. I miss him already.’