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That was the last night we’d spend with our baby girl.
Mercy was a slight, bitty thing with lanky legs and arms. The brownness of her skin reminded me of my mother’s. It was soft and smooth and I kept it that way by bathing her in milk once’t a week on the night before church. That way, she’d look her best in that white little dress. I made three of them for her. She had five regular ones for school, one for each day of the week, and three white ones for Sunday church.
She come in from playing Jacks and hopscotch and double-dutch outside all day with her friends and I helped her clothes off and poured her milk bath. She was some kind of dirty and made a mess. Still splashing about at her age.
I asked her why she gone and done that fer, making her mama have to clean up more when she knows I still have to do our hair curls for the morning.
We had a fine supper that evening. We wasn’t able to eat like that usually, but looking back now, I’m proud we was able to give it her. Oh, and they laughed during that supper! I recall Papa talking ‘bout some old man that come into the garage earlier that day and asked something funny. I didn’t think it was particular funny, but Mercy sure got a tickle out of it. He was always telling her stories. They had a sort of a bond. Not like me and her did. They had a special bond. Yes indeed.
We cleaned up the plates and I hung the dishtowel and Mercy always made me throw it over the handle like I do because it makes a slap sound and she was wondering when the day would be when she could do it, too. That made me proud. Least something come out of all them houses I cleaned to put clothes on her back. But no daughter of mine was ought to be a maid.
Her papa worked hard, too jes’ like me. He had so much grease on his hands at night when he come home. Mercy’d watch him scrub with the pumice stone I got him from the hardware store. The water would run black as coal and then lighter black and then just like that, the water’d turn clear. Like it washed the whole day away. And they’d look to each other and smile like it was magic. Plumb crazy, I tell ya.
After Papa tucked her in and she said her prayers to the Lord above, we closed the door and went off to bed. ‘Bout a quarter after ten, I hears something coming from the kitchen. And then I smells it. So, I walk out into that kitchen and stands there at the door. Took them near ten minutes to realize I was even there they was giggling and ‘shshing’ each other and carrying on so. Papa had Mercy sprung up jes’ a sitting there on that blessed countertop in her nightclothes. He was standing in the dim light of the overhead stove lamp frying up some okra. Isn’t that something else? If they wanted to be making something that I wasn’t going to smell, how come they frying up okra? Everybody knows that smell, sweet Lord.
I like to have scared the living daylights out of the both of them when I ‘nnounced I was there by turning on the hall light behind me. Their heads snatched round fast as lightning and they squinted, trying to get their eyes fixed to me.
“What are you doing up at this hour frying okra?” I asked.
“Well, Ma, I think you just answered your own question,” Papa replied. Mercy stopped a giggle by covering her mouth. I stood with my hand on my hip to show I was not amused.
“And what you think you’re doing with that girl setting up there like she’s the queen of Sheba?” I asked. “Get down from there this instant, Mercy. Ain’t you got no sense, Fred?” He knows I’s mad when I call him Fred. “What kind of a zample is this to set for a young lady if she ever want to move up in this world. You gone be proud to have a grown daughter with no manners?” I said it real firm-like. In my heart I knowed it was nice to see my family in that moment. Those the kinds of things you remember one day when you old. But in the real world, people like us can’t play ‘round like that. Ain’t no room for it. Nuh-uh. No way. I had to be the straight and narrow for her so ain’t nobody would think she was a heathen and that I got no sense when it come to raising my chirren.
Fred was just an old, soft fool. He ain’t never been nothing but that when it come to Mercy. He can’t help it. He jes’ stood there like a scolded little boy. She swung her legs with their little white socks back and forth. He grabbed her and put her down from the counter. She give him a pout and he said, “Your Ma’s right. You getting too old for me to be letting you up here anymore, Mercy.”
They ate they okra at the table with dinner napkins like I made them to, while I cleaned up the mess in the kitchen. They was still stifling giggles the whole while. Then we finally went off to bed.
Fred never understood this thing that I did. You couldn’t love like that. You ‘specially couldn’t let them see you love. The minute they do, they take that thing you love from your chest, they rip it out and tear it up and you ain’t never going to see that thing again.
And that’s what they did to our Mercy. That church blew up with her in it the next day.
That Sunday, three other girls had parents who must not have knowed this thing, neither.
Erica walked up the sidewalk of her apartment complex with a bag of groceries in one arm and school books in the other. Two braided heads stood at the gate to the courtyard pool. They watched her unlock her door. “Are you looking for someone?” Erica asked. The children looked down at their bare feet. The little girl pointed to a woman in the pool. “Is that your…relative?” The boy shook his head. “Are you guys twins?”
“No. But he’s my brother.”
“I see the resemblance,” said Erica. “What are your names? I know you’re not supposed to talk to strangers, but if we introduce ourselves, we’re not strangers anymore, right?”
The little girl spoke again. “She won’t let us in.”
“Who won’t let you in?” Erica asked. “Where?”
“The pool,” said the girl. “That lady.”
Erica peered through the gate at the old woman in her flowered bathing cap. “One sec.” She set her groceries inside her apartment and came back out. “Sure is a hot one today. What do you think? You guys want some Kool-aid?” They nodded. “I’ll bring some out. You can sit right here.” Two small chairs and a wrought iron table sat by the door, overrun with houseplants.
“Thank you,” said the girl. “Say ‘thank you’, Rose.”
The little boy bent his head down and whispered, “Thank you.”
“Rose? That’s a cool name,” Erica said. She set two icy glasses in front of them. “This is my favorite color.” Erica took a long pull from her glass. The children sipped from theirs and smiled.
“Know what Rose is short for? Roosevelt. My name’s Tiffany. Our mama live over there, but we live with my grannie. She look after us because mama was incarcerated and the state said we had to go live with her, but we gets to visit all the time now.”
“Do they know where you are?” asked Erica.
“Yes. We used to have a friend who live here and she let us come to the pool, but she moved. I don’t know where she gone, but we like to come over here and swim when it gets hot.” Roosevelt nodded in agreement, but kept his eyes squarely on the glass. His finger made swirls on the outside of the sweaty cup. “Stop that, Rose! He never minds me.”
“Do you know how to swim, Rose?” Erica asked. Roosevelt nodded.
“He learnt it at the Y, like me. We got ribbons and everything,” Tiffany said. “I think that lady think we don’t know how to, but we do. We ain’t gone cause no trouble. Ain’t that right, Rose?” Roosevelt nodded again.
Erica walked over to the pool gate trying to read the signs. The old woman glared at her.
“I hope you’re not thinking of letting those two in here.” The rubber flowers quivered on her cap as she shook her head back and forth.
“With all due respect, you don’t own this pool,” Erica said. “I live here, too. And it says that guests of residents are permitted.”
“They’re not your guests. Who do you think you’re kidding,” the woman said.
Erica turned and walked back to the children.
“See? She don’t want us coming in for some reason,” said Tiffany.
“It’s okay,” said Erica. “It says guests, and you’re my guests, aren’t you?”
“Yes ma’am!“ Roosevelt finally spoke. The children put their hands over their mouths and giggled with excitement.
“Okay, where are your bathing suits?” asked Erica.
“We ain’t got none,” said Tiffany. “Just the shorts we wearing. That’s okay, right? We been in before without no bathing suit.”
“Totally fine.” Erica unlatched the gate.
“They’re not coming in here. I already told you that.” This time the woman was shouting.
Erica put her things on the chaise. “Is it warm?” she asked the children.
Tiffany dipped her toe in the water. “Oh yes, ma’am!”
The woman continued to scowl at the children. “It’s okay. Go ahead on in guys.”
“I’ll report you to the manager. I’m not playing with you, missy,” the old woman told Erica.
Erica looked up at the sun, shielding her eyes. She rubbed some tanning oil onto her pale skin. “Sure is a bright day today,” she said.
“They don’t even have bathing suits on. The sign says you must have proper bathing attire,” said the woman.
“Know how to do cannonballs?” Erica asked. They nodded. “Show me. But only down there.” She pointed to the deep end where the woman was sitting on her raft. Tiffany splashed into the water. “That was awesome. Your turn, Rose.” His was even bigger. The woman paddled herself to the stairs with disgust.
“You’re going to be sorry.” She toweled off her leathery skin and kept her eyes on the kids. “The manager already had to have this pool cleaned last month,” she said, lowering her voice, “because of the grease that was clogging the filter.
The children came to swim every week after that on Wednesdays through the end of summer. Erica wanted their last week together to be special. She had gone to the grocery store to get some snacks and more watermelon flavored Kool-aid.
The children were already waiting when she got back. “Give me a second, guys and we’ll go in, okay?” She twisted the key in the lock. The children helped bring the bags into her apartment. “Looks like the old lady isn’t around today, huh?”
“Yes, ma’am she is,” Tiffany said in a low voice. Roosevelt chewed his lower lip.
“You sure? I didn’t see her.” Roosevelt ran out to the pool gate and held the rungs. Tiffany followed and pointed to the deep end of the pool, waiting for Erica’s face to change.
Erica struggled with the woman’s slippery body for some time. She finally got her up the stairs and gave her mouth-to-mouth until the ambulance came. One of the paramedics pointed to the suntan oil by the chaise lounge.
“She must’ve slipped,” he said.
“Hello Mother,” said Jack. He pecked her on the forehead. The scent of window cleaner lingered in the air as Mildred methodically sliced open a stack of mail on her desk.
“Hello, son.” She shook her head. “All these bills of your Daddy’s.”
“Anything new?” Jack asked.
“Same old stuff. Hospital bills, funeral expenses.”
“Sorry,” said Jack. “Can I help with something?”
“As a matter of fact,” said Mildred, “you can. Old Doc is laid up with bronchial pneumonia again and it doesn’t look good this time. Pearl is just beside herself.”
“I’ll bet,” said Jack. “Where’s the jelly?”
“In the cupboard, should be a new jar. Anyway. That means I don’t have a gardener. Claudia’s offered up her cousin who doesn’t speak a lick of English. She said he was a gardener there, wherever they come from.”
“Well, why don’t you give him a trial run, Mother? See how it goes.”
“Because, Jackson, I don’t want to be outnumbered here by foreigners. If your Daddy were still around, it’d be a different story. As it is, I’m missing things here and there. I’ll be pecked to death by two of them. All your Daddy’s tools out there in the shed.” She shook her head. “No, sir.”
“Where are the crackers, Mother?” asked Jack. Mildred pointed to a tin with the word crackers on it. “Besides, Mother, why would Claudia recommend…”
Mildred shushed him. “She’s around here somewhere. Never know where she’s lurking.”
Jack lowered his voice and started again. “All I’m saying is why would she recommend him knowing her job would be in jeopardy?”
“Because the foreigners like to get you outnumbered and start pecking away at everything you’ve worked so hard for. Take Louise from Bridge Club. Her son hired someone to clean and cook for her and next thing you know, her emerald ring, which she planned to give to her niece after her college graduation, was gone.”
“Mama, she had all kinds of people rifling through that house at the end. Could’ve been anyone. Could’ve been her own family for all you know.”
“Well, I don’t want to be picked over until I’m good and dead.”
“I’ll try to find someone for you. Old Doc’s not going to pull through, huh?”
“Doesn’t look that way.”
“Well, I’ll ask around. Going to work now.” He pecked her on the forehead again.
“Goodbye, son. Have a wonderful day. Claudia! Where are you?”
“Make sure you get the glasses on the top shelf today.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Claudia set her dust rag down and walked into the dining room. She pulled out a small stepladder and began polishing blue glasses in the hutch.
“What is it, Mother?”
“He’s ruining the garden! Damn foreigners. Doc would never have done this to me.”
“Okay what is it. Let’s go talk to him.”
“He doesn’t understand a lick of English. I told you. And Claudia has to interpret everything for him, which takes her away from her work. I told you it wouldn’t work,” said Mildred.
“Okay, just calm down. Let’s go talk to him.”
They walked through the beautiful garden lined with shrubberies thrusting orange and blue flowers from their insides. Butterflies and bees tended to every stylus, humming around droplets of sugar. Avocados hung limply like heavy moons hang in summer skies. Mangoes dripped sap down their sunset colored flesh and the Carambola tree held a multitude of stars, enough to rival the heavens.
Mildred pointed. “There he is, over yonder.”
“Hello,” said Jack. “Hola, there.” Jack spoke enough Spanish to get by on his trips to Mexico. He could ask for a cab and where to find toilets.
“Hola, señor,” said the man.
“Tell him I want all of those weeds gone. That’s what the problem is. He won’t clean out the weeds,” said Mildred.
Jack told him. “Ah!” said the man. “No malas hierbas. Son flores.”
“Ah!” said Jack. “Mother, these aren’t weeds. They’re flowers he says.”
“They most certainly are not flowers! I know flowers. These may have small flowers on them tell him, but they are most certainly weeds,” said Mildred.
Jack explained. “He insists they’re flowers, Mama. Maybe you should just listen to him. They are kind of pretty.”
“If they were flowers, they’d have a different root system, Jackson. These are weeds. The way you can tell is how transient the roots are. They move willy-nilly all over the garden and take over everything. Don’t be fooled by a pretty flower.”
Jack tried to explain to the man. The man looked at him, confusion on his face. All he said was, “Esta tierra no cria malas hierbas.” This soil does not produce any weeds.
“Foreigners. What does he know,” said Mildred.
As they walked away, the man said, “No somos malas hierbas.”
Jack turned and said, “Despues de mil anos, estaremos muertos.” His mother asked him what that meant. “Oh it’s just something I read a long time ago. Seems to have stuck with me.”
In a hundred years we will all be dead.
I hope you enjoyed my book. If so, please take a minute to review it at your favorite retailer.
Tiffany L. Fussell
About the Author
Tiffany L. Fussell is earning her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida. She loves reading and writing poetry and short stories and is currently working on a feature length film script. She has had short stories and poems published in 101 Words and The Florida Weekly and continues submitting more works. In her spare time, Tiffany enjoys catching up on all of her dog’s news. He has quite the social life.
Connect With Me
You can find Tiffany on Twitter or catch one of her latest blog posts on these sites: , .
In 16th STREET the story takes you to the night before the notorious bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s in which six little black girls were killed. This is a fictitious exploration of one family's memory of their child who was killed. THE SUMMER POOL is a chilling piece, which explores the dynamics between older and newer generations in the south and their approach to the issue of race. A young woman is faced with an older woman's racism and has to find a way around it so that her newly acquainted friends can take a dip. In MALAS HIERBAS, an old, gentile woman of the south deals with her husband's death and the ever-changing world around her. She is confronted by the changing times when her gardener takes ill and she has no one else to hire, but a friend of her housemaid's who is also Latino.