You, Me, and These Trees: Part Three
“Gussie? Girl, is that you?” Mama’s voice nearly sends me running right back out the door, and I ain’t even hardly come in yet. I can hear her in the kitchen though. Clanging and moving about. I just hope she don’t got no hands around something that can hurt me.
“It’s me, but I ain’t alone. You decent?” I call.
“Alice staying for supper?”
“It ain’t Alice,” I say. With my hand still snug inside Erroll’s, we stand in the doorway to the kitchen. Mama got her back to us, but she whips around when she hears Erroll’s voice.
“Evening, Mrs. Hicks.” He bows his head.
“Augusta, why is this boy in my house?” she asks, chin becoming a part of her neck.
What do I say? I look over at Erroll, and his eyes seem to be coaxing me on. “Where’s Daddy?” I ask instead. “I—we got news to share. You both need to be here.”
Seems like Mama decided she not answering my questions either and asks another instead. “Why is your hand in his?”
Lord knows I don’t want to hurt Erroll none, but something ‘bout the way Mama set down her spoon makes me want to drop his hand. I try, but Erroll holds tighter. “That’s why we here. Daddy around? I didn’t see him in the yard.”
“He in the room. Prayin’. Said he had to speak to the Lord ‘bout somethin’ troublin’ him. You not in here with this boy to upset him, is you Gussie? Don’t think his spirit could handle his pride n joy doin’ nothin’ sinful.”
“No, ma’am, not at all.”
She been talkin’ to me, but her eyes ain’t left Erroll yet. I know me and Erroll not here to hurt my folks, but we is here to hurt my folks.
“You remember Erroll, right, Mama?”
Erroll clears his throat. “You sure got it smellin’ mighty good in here.”
“Hmm, well you know as well as I do, times is hard. They say The Depression’s over, but my house must not have heard. I wish we could feed you, but there just ain’t enough to go around.”
“Mama,” I kind of hiss. Just a few minutes ago she was ready to ask me to set a place for Alice to join us, now all of a sudden there ain’t enough to go around.
“It’s alright, Gussie,” Erroll buts in. “That’s not what we here for.” And then he turns to Mama. “Oh, don’t worry ‘bout that, that ain’t what I meant by it, I–”
“Gussie, go sit out in the front room. I’ll see if your daddy is done prayin’ so Erroll can run along to where he got to be.”
Though I want to, I don’t take Erroll’s hand. Instead I kind of push him along to the front room. I don’t sit and neither does he. It don’t feel right.
“She knows,” I whisper.
“And your heart still thumpin’.”
“That’s why I’m worried.”
“Don’t let them get to you. Keep your head up.” He curls his lip just enough so his dimple shows real good. I nod and almost hug him, but the sound of my daddy makes it clear, I made the right decision.
My daddy’s an old man, but he’s strong. Everything ‘bout him got weight behind it. Especially his voice. It leaves me stuck in place.
“What all this?”
“Mr. Hicks, sir,” Erroll says, his voice sounding like he want to compete with Daddy’s.
“Gussie, why this bastard in my house?”
“You ain’t got to call him that, Daddy.”
“He lucky that’s all I called ‘em.”
True as that is, it still don’t make it right. “His name’s E—”
“Why he in my house and why you look like you ‘bout to regret somethin’.” Daddy’s got on overalls, but in his grip is his belt. And all I can hear is Flora’s cries.
“No regrets here,” Erroll says.
I look at Erroll, then to Daddy, then Mama and back to Daddy again. I can’t tell if it’s the words I need to say piling up inside of me or this baby sickness, but I open my mouth anyway.
“Reckon I better tell y’all I’m expectin’. Well, we is.” I steal a look at Erroll, and when I do—
Mama could probably finish supper on my cheek and a moan slips through my teeth.
“You what?” Mama so close to my face I can barely fit my hand there to nurse my pain.
“I said I’m expectin’.”
“Naw you ain’t. Expectin’ is for married women, not little girls without the sense to keep them legs closed.”
“That’s why I’m here, I want to take Gussie’s hand.”
Daddy grunts. “Take her hand to starve?” He grunts some more. “You best hurry on out of here,” he tells Erroll, pushing the air with his hand.
“There ain’t nobody starvin’ at my house,” Erroll tells him.
Mama crosses her arms over her chest. “Mmmhmm. Maybe not in body, but in spirit. Nothin’ but a bunch of heathens. And your mama sleep with a different devil every night.”
“I done warned you once ‘bout the tone you use with me,” Mama says, eyes wide and her hand coming at me again. Right before she bring it down, Erroll steps in front of me.
I can’t see Mama behind Erroll, but I can hear her and she ain’t makin’ no kind of sense. They ain’t words, just strangled noises.
“Boy,” Daddy starts, waving his belt at Erroll, “ you better find your way out of my house. This family business.”
“No disrespect, sir, that baby Gussie carryin’ be my family,” Erroll tells them. I hear Mama try to speak again, but Erroll cuts her off. “Now, I’m tryin’ to do the right thing and ask for your daughter’s hand, but know we don’t need your say so.”
“Gussie, come from around him!” Daddy yells at me.
“I won’t,” I sort of squeak, pulling at my dress. But then I think ‘bout Flora. How I ain’t stand up for her. Erroll did more for her than I ever did. I was too busy letting Mama and Daddy convince me that she was wrong. That folks would be looking down on us. But not no more. I’ll be my own good. I slide from behind Erroll. “You givin’ us your blessin’ or you ain’t?”
Daddy lunges at me, fastening his hands on my wrist. It might as well be a lock. He got that sort of grip that says, even if he lets me go, I won’t really be free. He yanks me right on over to him and raises the belt.
“You!” Daddy shouts, lowering his belt to the back of my legs. Maybe he don’t finish saying what he started or maybe I just can’t hear it over the sound of my own cries. And I do cry. The way Daddy’s belt comes down on me, makes my legs feel useless. I fall hard at his feet, and curl up best I can into a ball. This is it. Daddy’s gonna beat this baby out of me. I brace for the sting of the leather, but don’t feel nothing. Or hear it. Not even Mama’s groans of protest.
I let my hands fall from my head, half fearing Daddy caught a heart attack trying to make me learn my lesson and half wishing it to be true. And it just might be. Daddy’s face is frozen with an open mouth and bulging eyes, staring straight at Erroll’s hands around his own wrist.
“You not gonna hit her again,” Erroll tells him.
“You must have lost your mind!” Daddy shouts. “My daughter ain’t marryin’ you. Not now, not ever.”
“But I love him!” It ain’t hit me till now that I’d give up everything for Erroll. That all the talk I’ll hear in town, from Alice, from everyone, is just that, talk. Noise. And noise ain’t nothing. Not when I’m with Erroll. The whole world like to fade away, and I wouldn’t notice.
“Oooh, Lord, why do you punish me so?” Mama pleads, looking to the ceiling. She clasps her hands in prayer so hard, we all flinch. Here she goes with that Jesus caterwauling Erroll mentioned earlier. “You aint’ give me but two daughters and now the devil’s tryin’ to take them both away from me. He done already got my eldest, Lord, don’t let him take my baby too. I pray to you!”
“There ain’t nothin’ wrong with Flora!” I scream.
Mama don’t take her eyes off the ceiling. I don’t feel bad at all for wishing it will fall down on her. “She’s sick, with her lust for other girls. Vile.”
“She’s the same she always been.”
“No, she’s mixed up and black on the inside. Perfectly happy being a sinner.”
“She love who she love. Like I love who I love. There ain’t no prayin’ that’s gonna ever fix that.”
Mama walks over to me and puts her hands on my face. Her eyes stare into mine, and she raises me to my feet. “If you ask for forgiveness, He will forgive you. You just have to ask.”
“No, Mama. I won’t. ‘Cause I ain’t sorry.”
“You will be and when you are, Daddy and I will find you a husband to take care of you. Plenty of young girls find themselves in trouble, but you have been blessed with beauty. You gonna have a chance.”
She mean some old man ready for a second wife. It’ll be like I never left here, but that won’t be me. I do have a chance. A chance to be happy. A chance to live how I want. And I don’t got to run to New York like Flora to have it. As sweet as I can, I rest my own hands on top of my mother’s.
“I ain’t in trouble,” I tell her. Then I look over at Erroll. He and Daddy still look like they going to war, though Erroll don’t have Daddy’s wrist no more. Both stand with their chests puffed out and fists clenched tight. “It’s only trouble if there ain’t no man. But I have Erroll, so I ain’t in trouble.”
With the biggest grin on his face, Erroll turns to me. It gives me the last bit of strength I need.
“If I’m gonna pray for anyone, it’s gonna be the both of you,” I say.
“No daughter of mine gonna be loose. You want to be his whore, go be it, just don’t be crawlin’ back here cryin’ when you realize you been a fool…”
Those are the last words I hear from my Mama. Daddy’s mouth unfreezes. I watch it move without sound for a second or two. There’s no need look any longer, since I can’t hear him. It’s just noise.
My hand finds Erroll’s before my eyes do the same. We get a good look at each other, him shiny from sweat, like Mama’s ready to fry him for supper, and me, chest rising and falling so fast, I don’t think my dress buttons can hold up any longer. I laugh. He laughs. Not sure when things got so funny, but I needed it bad. Then we sprint out of there like we stole something. Hand in hand.
So this concludes, You, Me, and These Trees. It’s been a pleasure sharing this with you. I want all your thoughts. The good, the bad, and the meh ones too. Taking a look at this story had made me finish a middle grade short story that I have been working on for months. One about first love. If there are any developments with that, then I will for sure share those.
Thanks for reading and following along!