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by Mistinguette Smith

Ten minutes have ticked by while I carefully press catface wrinkles from the navy shirtdress Luella wants to wear to the funeral. I’ve spent my whole life working in other people’s laundries, so this is the one thing I know how to do faultlessly, the one way I know how to make a thing right. After a dip in a bowl of water, my thick brown fingers flick tiny, dark dots across the cotton. Nudging the heavy iron with precision, I flatten the collar and command each dart and pleat to stand stiffly as armor, provision and devotion made visible. When my ironing is finished, the dress is as warm as my Luella’s body. I slip one arm under it tenderly and lay it across her side of the bed, next to the soft coils of her underwear: drawers, slip, brassiere, panty girdle, rolled stockings. If only time could stop unwinding here, before anything more happens that cannot be undone.

In the otherwise silent house, Luella’s sorrowful humming is replaced by a sudden slosh. “Sis, could you come help me up?” she calls out.

Racing into the bathroom, I pull a flowered bath towel from its hook on the wall and throw it over my shoulder. Bathwater swirls down the drain, lukewarm and milky with soap. I half-lift Luella as she steps out of the tub. My left hip protests the effort, but I don’t wince. After sixty damp Tennessee winters, every joint has some complaint.

Luella plops onto the closed toilet seat. I tuck the towel around her, careful to avoid her swollen shoulder, and gently rub her moist skin with Vaseline and Watkins liniment until she shines like mahogany. On the edge of the sink is a dented red can of hair pomade beside a comb and brush.

“I’m afraid I shall need your help with that, too.” Luella sighs without looking at me.

My hands part and oil her fine silver-streaked hair, deftly plaiting two long French braids. Pulling bobby pins from my own hair, I fix those braids into a whorl low on the back of her head, the way she usually does every morning. I kiss her good left shoulder to signal that I am done, pausing to breathe in the balm of Ivory soap, olive oil and cloves that clings to her.

Luella winces as she eases herself upright from the toilet lid. She leans on my arm while hobbling from the steamy bathroom into the back bedroom. As she perches on the edge of the bed to step into her underwear, I see the purple shadow that runs from her hip down her dimpled thigh.

“Lu, look at you. You ain’t even healed up from Thursday.” If only this inarguable statement was sufficient to convey the truths and cruelties I really mean: Our bodies are too old for this. They beat. We break. Nothing changes.

“I am going to the service for the Payne boy, Sis. My students are waiting for me.”

I massage the remaining traces of hair oil into my swollen knuckles, then help Luella’s injured arm into her bra. But am I not waiting here for you, Luella? She turns her back for me to fasten the rows of metal hooks. Why isn’t our small, tender freedom enough?

* * *

This whole situation was Ezell Harris’ fault. He is the only colored science teacher at Melrose High School where Luella clerks in the Principal’s office, taking attendance and enforcing the dress code. At the beginning of the school year, Luella started to invite Ezell and his special friend Chester over for Sunday dinner nearly every week. They never had the decency to say no.

Of the two, I decidedly preferred Chester, a portly man with snow white hair who smelled of cherry tobacco. Chester didn’t talk much, but he was a kind man with an honest appetite. Ezell, by contrast, was tall and skinny but he filled up our whole front room with the scent of fancy aftershave lotion and questions that were none of his business. The first time he shook my hand, I felt the smooth, long fingers of a man who had never used them to make a living.

“So, you’re called Sis? Perhaps after Sissierretta Jones, the soprano?” Ezell squinted down at me over the top of his horn-rimmed glasses. “You do favor her. Doesn’t she, Chester?”

Chester coughed and fumbled with a soggy cone of newspaper. Our eyes met for a moment. Chester knew damned well that I was not named after some opera singer.

Luella smiled hard in my direction with her eyebrows hoisted, her plea for me to be nice. What I really wanted to say to Ezell was: Where I come from, ain’t nobody thinking about no opera. But for Luella’s sake, I bit my tongue. I didn’t want her to be ashamed of me in front of her friends. Ezell need not know that my Mam was just a tired woman who saw no more need to give a particular name to me and my little sister than she did to name the speckled chickens out in the yard. She only called me anything when she needed help with a chore: “Sister, come fetch me some tobacco twine” or “Go out and sweep the front yard, Sis, and take Baby with you.” No. Luella’s high-tone friend didn’t need to be in my business like that.

“Naw, I’m just called Sis” I said evenly, watching Luella’s eyebrows descend to their proper place.

Chester cleared his throat. “Well, Miss Sis. I am pleased to finally meet you.” He thrust his damp bundle into my hand. “Miss Luella say you like flowers and things, so I brung you a little something from our yard.”

And over a diplomatic cough and a bunch of pink snapdragons, me and Chester became something like friends.

* * *

Six months of Sunday dinners together passed. On the last Sunday in March, Ezell and Chester brought a snowstorm with them. After circling the overflowing metal trash cans and collapsing crates of garbage on the curb, the two men scraped their shoes on the doormat before coming inside. Luella unwound them from layers of scarves and coats.

“Oh, wait — it’s still in my pocket” Ezell exclaimed, dramatically reclaiming his grey chesterfield and pulling from its pocket something wrapped in tissue paper. “I know you said we shouldn’t act like we’re company anymore, but…” He offered the package to Luella with a little bow. “The smallest of hostess gifts.”

Luella unfolded the crinkled paper to reveal a brown and white seashell.

“It’s from a nautilus.” Leaning over Luella’s shoulder, Ezell turned the shell over in her hand. “It’s cut in half so you can see how the spiral is made. See, how the little chambers increase logarithmically in size? The brilliant little nautilus simply builds a little more room onto its shell whenever it outgrows its current circumstance.”

“It’s just plain brown on the surface but look at all the colors inside.” Luella tilted the shell in her palm.

“Inside, it’s mother-of-pearl.”

“Why would Mother Nature put all its beauty on the inside?” Luella said.

Chester looked at me. “Is she talking about that seashell, or somebody else we know?”

“Now, don’t get yourself into trouble before supper,” I said, and pushed him toward the dinette table.

In spite of the snow, our front room was oven-warm, the air sweet with pear-and-apple pie. Bones from a roasted chicken quickly piled up on the plates in front of us like something a person could read to tell fortunes, if they knew how. Chester and I hollered at Luella and Ezell’s impersonations of the principal and his lovestruck secretary.

Chester scraped his chair back from the table. “It was good to see Reverend take up an offering today for the families of those men what got kilt last month. City needs to take care of them trucks. That’s no way for a man to die, crushed up in the garbage like they trash.”

“Cole and Walker were not the first to suffer that fate.” Ezell patted his skinny mustache with a paper napkin, winding up for one of his lectures. “People are tired of this. Tired of dying like dogs.”

I rubbed the spot between my eyebrows. This kind of conversation made my head hurt. It was a sour end to a pleasant supper.

“Our people have been tired for a long time, Ezell.” I pushed back my chair and began to gather plates from the table and carry them to the sink. “Ain’t nothing stopping because some colored people got tired.” I called out through the open kitchen door. “Those men have been walking through the downtown every day since the end of February. Not one thing has changed.”

Chester slowly tamped fresh tobacco into the round bowl of his pipe. “Well, it looks like something done stopped.” He struck a match with his thumbnail, and sucked noisily on the pipestem while staring pointedly out the front window. “Or didn’t you all notice that garbage piled up out there on your curb?”

There hadn’t been a refuse pick up anywhere in Memphis since the strike started four weeks ago. The girls at work said the city had white men replacing the striking garbage collectors in some parts of Memphis, but they didn’t send them out to the colored neighborhoods like here in Orange Mound. Rats had begun to climb into the wet grocery bags of refuse, spilling their contents across the snow. As I scraped the dinner plates into the trash, I decided to wait until morning to carry that brown paper bag outside.

“More people are starting to march downtown with the sanitation workers.” Luella added. “I read about it in the Chicago Defender. Surely, if everybody is out on the picket line, Mayor Loeb will have to give in. This can’t go on much longer.”

I snorted as I sliced pie with the end of a spatula. Luella, you have no idea what those men are up against. For the last week, the three girls who work beside me in the laundry of the Peabody Hotel have been watching the strikers. Every day, one of them asks me to mind her station for “just a sec” while she runs downtown to look for her husband or father in the picket line. The strikers all look alike: men dressed in work clothes and a sandwich signboard that says i am a man. I nod that it’s okay to go because I have no husband, brother, father to worry about. I have only Luella and endless tables piled high with damp, starched linen napkins and tablecloths to run through an ironing mangle. “Just a sec” always took twenty minutes. The girl would return walking stiffly and spend the rest of the afternoon hissing stories of thin-lipped young white men with rifles and faces as blank as paper.

Ezell tried to drop his voice low so I couldn’t hear him from the kitchen, but nothing about Ezell was subtle.

“Luella, I want to talk to you about the students. The teachers are walking on Thursday, and the boys want to come walk with us.”

His fingertips pounded on the table as his voice got bolder.

“These young men need to see their fathers and their older brothers stand up. Pastors from all over are coming to stand up beside them. And … well, Luella, it would help for them not be marked tardy that day. It won’t help anyone for the truant officer to intervene.”

“Now wait just one minute, Ezell.” He whipped around, surprised to see me standing right behind him with a plate in each hand. “Luella’s got a good job, with a pension from the city. We are not in any strike.” I banged two warm plates of pie onto the dinette table. “That’s a terrible thing that is happening to those men, but this here is Luella’s livelihood you are talking about.”

All three of them got quiet when I turned on my heel and went to fetch the other two plates of dessert. But as soon as I got into the kitchen, Ezell started to preach.

“Luella, those ruffians you see smoking outside the corner store over on Deadrick Avenue when they ought to be in school? They need to see what it means to be a man. A man with dignity.” I heard his soft palm slap the table. “A man knows how to protect his family, his community.”

Ears burning, I furiously sliced more pie, banging the edge of the spatula on the saucer to dislodge a sticky wedge. If Ezell is so big on family, why isn’t he having Sunday supper with his own damn family? The next slab of pie was big and uneven, mostly crust. What “community” has ever done right by him and Chester? Suddenly, the spatula and saucer bashed against the porcelain sink. The flowered china plate broke in two. Conversation in the next room fell silent. Scraping up the waste of pie and pieces of plate with the spatula, I hurled the whole mess into the garbage bag.

“You okay in there, Sis?” Luella was rising from her seat when I returned to the front room, wiping my hands on a dish towel.

Chester reached across the table and curled his stubby, dark fingers over Ezell’s. “Zell, that’s enough now” he said, quietly. “These ladies need to get ready for work early tomorrow morning.”

Luella made polite noises while retrieving Ezell and Chester’s scarves and hats. She stood on the tiny porch to wave goodbye alone. A misty rain had begun to fall. The car pulled away from mountain of melting snow-covered boxes and bags of garbage each leaning perilously against each other. She watched as the car’s round, red taillight blinked and turned onto Park Avenue.

“That was quite rude of you, Sis” Luella snapped as she locked the door and began to sweep crumbs from the formica table with the side of her hand. Nobody had touched their pie. Luella picked up the two saucers. “I’m going to put these in the icebox. No sense in wasting them. We can eat them cold for breakfast.”

Trailing her into the kitchen, I began to wash and rinse the plates and silverware. Calming myself by scrubbing at a crusty edge of the roasting pan, I ventured, “Maybe you ought not to get involved with this strike thing, Lu. It could mean a mess of trouble.”

“It is already a mighty trouble.” Luella picked up a towel and furiously dried each of the forks. “But that’s my decision to make, Sis.”

When Luella yanked open the flatware drawer, a skinny brown cockroach crawled onto the edge of it. The insect paused and waved its antennae with surprise. Luella’s crisp anger faded into a retching sound. She hated those things. We’d never had them before the garbagemen’s strike.

I lifted the roasting pan from the dishwater and smashed the roach quickly, before it saw me coming. Pushing down the bile in my own throat, I wiped up the smeared remains with a used paper napkin and took the wad into the bathroom and flushed it.

“You ain’t the only one’s who’s got protecting to do,” was all I could manage to say as I washed my hands and face before bed. I wasn’t sure if Luella had heard me, but I walked straight into the bedroom, leaving her alone to finish re-washing the roasting pan and turning out the lights.

Luella slept in the front room on the davenport that night.

* * *

She hardly spoke to me Monday. Dinner was silent on Tuesday, but by Wednesday night she was back in our big bed, warming her feet against my legs. This old shotgun house was made to let a cool breeze blow through in summer, but it was barely shelter when winter bit hard in March. Luella curled under me like a kitten beneath the heavy stack of quilts.

Ice pinged against the windowpane. Just as I began to drowse, Luella’s soft voice pulled me back to wakefulness.

“I’m going to do it, Sis” she whispered. “That thing Ezell asked about.”

Now wide awake, my heartbeat roared in my ears.

“Why you want to put yourself in this, Luella? This strike is men’s business.” Luella takes to heart all this talk about uplifting the community. Maybe she hasn’t noticed how the church folk and the people over to the school don’t uplift her and Ezell, they point at them and cut their eyes.

Luella turned onto her back and raised herself up on her elbows, letting a cold gust of air beneath our nest of blankets. “A thousand men have been out there every day, walking all the way from Clayborne Temple to downtown Memphis. We can’t let them march all by themselves.”

“They aren’t all by they selves, Lu. Chester says they got the union, and now all the church people are walking with them. White folks, too.”

“My students are going to be there. Don’t we have to set a good example for them?”

“Exactly what are we supposed to be an example of?” I said, pulling the blanket back under my chin.

Luella let out a long sigh. “You are coming with me, aren’t you Sis?”

I answered by pulling her so close there was no space for any more questions to come between us. Hushing the bow of her lips with my index finger, I curved my body between hers and the weight of the cold, short night.

* * *

The sun wasn’t even awake when I slid from beneath the covers, already late. I washed up and dressed in hurry, barely making the bus that chuffed up Lamar Avenue. I took the last spot near the back of the bus. Each seat in the last three rows was occupied by a blank-faced brown-skinned woman balancing a paper sack across her knees. Inside were the uniforms of hotel maids and housekeepers. The woman sitting to my right rolled her eyes at me, then pulled her coat closed so it covered her knees. Oh, so you think its undignified for me to wear my housekeeping uniform in public, instead of hiding it in a bag? As if dignity was looking at any of us, all servants of one kind or another. Nobody sees us, bumping and jostling together on a public bus an hour before the sun gets up.

When I arrived at the hotel laundry room at six o’clock, the other girls already had on their uniforms, too. Heads down, they filled industrial washers with steaming water and bleach. Raw hands scrub-brushed lipstick and grease stains from the hotel’s monogrammed linens. When somebody shouted out “Ten o’clock, lunch break,” I guided one last hot tablecloth from the ironing mangle onto the wooden folding table, then reached underneath it to grab my coat and pocketbook.

For the first time, I had a reason to follow the laundry girls down to Main Street. Moving slowly to favor my bad hip, I caught up with them at the back of a thin crowd along the sidelines. We stood behind the line of grim, thin soldiers who held their rifles pointed upward like bayonets.

A procession of dark faced men solemnly walked past the fence of rifles. Some of them wore suits, shiny in the seat and worn at the elbow. Others sported well-pressed Army service uniforms; one wore a sailor’s Dixie Cup hat. They filed by, looking straight ahead. Each wore a crisp signboard printed with letters so big, you could read their four-word declarations from half a block away: i am a man. jim crow must go. Some were written by hand: mace won’t stop truth.

Downtown merchants in shirtsleeves hooted and called: “You boys better get back on the job, if you know what’s good for you.” The men kept coming. Some strode, some limped, but they came single file, disciplined as soldiers, feet keeping time. The sound of their steps reminded me of the knock on a blues guitar. The men did not wipe at the sweat that ran down their necks and soaked their hatbands on this chilly day. They walked resolutely forward.

Never had I seen a thing like this before, a Negro parade. More marchers came, spread out five in a row. Men in overcoats walked alongside pastel-hatted wives. A pack of long-limbed teenaged boys looked nervously at a trio of beefy-faced white men in union windbreakers. At some silent signal, the boys joined the line, slender and straight as a picket fence. For some reason, this made me wipe at my eyes. When I looked back up, a familiar head of white hair was passing by.

One of the laundry girls pointed to the other side of the street. Policemen in goggles and leather jackets were gathered in front of the State Theater, the stripe on their uniform trousers the same color as their neckties. A crowd of colored boys ran past them, exhilarated and loud.

That was when I saw her head moving away from me. A breeze lifted her yellow headscarf, revealing braids wound into a black and silver shell. She couldn’t hear me, but I called her name anyway. A small army stood between us, rifles at the ready. I buttoned my car coat and sidled along the street. An invisible old washer woman, no one noticed me moving toward the crowd.

When I turned the corner, the breath caught in my throat. Hundreds of dark brown and bronze and tawny faces with arms linked in sweeping rows were heading toward Beale Street. Something swelled up in my chest at the sight of it. Just then, my foot caught the curb. I cussed as balanced on my sore right hip. And suddenly, I was marching, swept into the movement on the street.

The wind off the Mississippi smelled raw and new. Beneath serious faces and Sunday clothes, I sensed the thumping inside of every marcher’s chest, a praise service of joy. Luella had once read to me about people singing church songs during marches down in Birmingham. I’d thought that was foolishness, but now I understood how the spirit might rise up and need release. Maybe there will be singing when we get to the end. I looked again for a yellow scarf, then realized Luella must be somewhere far ahead of me. Maybe she is keeping watch over the children, and they are singing. The procession widened and filled the street.

Plate glass doesn’t tinkle when it shatters, it cracks and shouts. I heard it. Then the crowd began to swirl around me, people running this way and that, screams rising up in waves. A man in a pork pie hat put his arm up under my right armpit and hurried me back in the other direction so fast I almost lost one shoe. When I tried to shake him off, he bared his teeth and mouthed “po-lice.”

Some woman was screaming “Have mercy, Jesus. Lord, have mercy.” The air was making my eyes and chest burn, and my mouth filled with snot. I let pork pie hat man pull me until I couldn’t keep up anymore for coughing. He set me down on the front steps of a building and kept on running. I fished in my coat pockets for a hankie to wipe my streaming eyes and cover my mouth. I pulled out a coffee-stained hotel napkin embroidered with the letter “P.”

The square tower of Clayborne Temple was within my blurry view. A church is a safe place, that must be to where all the people are running. My heart was beating in my ears and hands, anywhere but inside my chest. Luella must already be there at Clayborne. Somehow, I have to get myself there, too.

Then a deep, familiar voice moved toward me, saying “We got her, Sis. Come on.”

Chester’s solid, round body stood over me. Some nervous looking boy in a blood-stained white shirt was at his side. Holding a handkerchief over his face with one hand, Chester gave me his forearm to help me up. We hobbled to a side street where the air was clearer.

“Ezell got the car running,” Chester pointed “up this road a little ways.”

Me and the boy followed Chester to the blue sedan. At his sharp tug, the back door screeched open, revealing Luella curled up across the bench seat.

Luella’s sneakers, the ones she kept like new with white polish and talcum powder, were torn at the heel and scuffed black along one side. The ripped-out hem of her skirt had been pulled down to cover her legs, which were drawn against her chest like a baby’s. A dark, rusty streak seeped into the sleeve of her cardigan. Luella’s eyes were squeezed shut but her mouth was wide open, as if she wanted to scream but no sound would come.

“Come on, now.” Chester pushed the small of my spine. I folded myself onto the edge of the back seat, gingerly lifting Luella’s legs onto my thigh. Chester slammed the back door, then he and the boy walked around the car, squeezing into the front passenger seat. “We got to get you all back home to Orange Mound before the State Police get down there.”

Ezell glanced at the boy, seated between him and Chester. His ear was swollen and deformed like a fighter’s.

“It looks like one of those billy clubs caught you, Michael. Have your aunt put some ice on that as soon as we get you get home.”

“I’ll tell her you said so, Mr. Harris.” the boy replied to Ezell. He corkscrewed his narrow body around and stared at my palm gently cradling Luella’s head. “You gonna be okay Miss Moore?” he said, his voice and hand shaking as he tried to pass something to her.

I reached out to accept the balled-up yellow scarf. Then, Ezell let up off the clutch fast and the car shuddered forward into motion.

* * *

For the next three days, my only company was the news channel on the kitchen radio. Luella’s face relaxed but her voice remained silent. No buses were running. They called it a strike, but there was no way to get downtown to go to work.

A broadcaster with a nasal Northern voice announced “A group of Negro youth smashed windows and looted stores Thursday, as the Reverend Martin Luther King led six thousand demonstrators through downtown Memphis in support of the city’s sanitation workers. One sixteen-year-old youth was killed.” Before I could turn up the volume, he had already moved on to another story: “In other labor news, New York dockworkers returned to work, ending their eleven-day strike.”

For three days, Luella slept or woke moaning. She swallowed the tea and aspirin I offered, then fell into fitful rest. I marked the hours by refilling a hot-water bottle and nestling it against her swollen shoulder, or pressing a cloth soaked in vinegar against the bruises on her face. I spooned broth and soft-boiled eggs into her mouth until she took the spoon to feed herself. Whenever the bedsprings creaked, my feet hit the floor, speeding to help her from the bed to the commode. During one of those bathroom trips, the radio announced that the boy who got shot was Larry Payne, from a neighborhood called West Junction. Luella whimpered like she knew him, even though West Junction is on the other side of town.

While Luella slept, I lay fully dressed under an itchy Army blanket on the lumpy davenport. Her silence left me useless and weary. Even with all the doors and windows closed, the smell of smoke from burning garbage piles sneaked into our house. When the streetlights finally flickered on, the contents of the sofa table showed up in shades of grey: an empty box of gauze bandages, a seashell split open to catch whatever light it can. I dreamed about a faceless man in a pork pie hat, and neat rows of folded napkins spiraling into disarray.

Ezell’s sharp rap on the windowpane broke the silence on Monday afternoon. I wrapped a sweater over my housedress and opened the front door. Without a word, he followed me to the bedroom, where Luella was propped up as if she had been expecting him. She looked at me for a long moment before she turned her head to her friend and smiled.

“How are you feeling, my dear Luella?”

“I’m coming along, Ezell.” Her unused voice was a rusty hinge.

Luella’s return to speech made my hands quiver. I carried a dinette chair to her bedside for Ezell, then backed into the kitchen to fill the speckled coffee pot from the tap. Ground coffee spilled onto the counter. It took three tries to turn and push the knob until the gas ring tick-tick-hissed and blossomed into blue flame.

Ezell murmured about how he’d stood in the hours-long receiving line at the wake for Larry Payne. “The boy’s funeral is tomorrow at Clayborn Temple.”

“They may have split open my shoulder, Ezell, but they didn’t break my will. Can I ride with you and Chester?”

Leaving the coffee to percolate, I closed myself in the bathroom. Peering in the mirror at the deep folds in my plain brown face, I took off my head tie and bobby-pinned my hair into a frizzy roll. Everything that looked back at me seemed serviceable, yet something was missing.

Ezell’s presence made it clear that Luella was not the only one who had been split open.

In the three days since I’d found her trapped in a frozen scream on the back seat of a car, I’d never once thought to ask: How are you feeling, my dear?

Pork Pie Hat Man, Ezell and Chester, even the boy in the car, had all set out to be part of something big and beautiful. I finally arrived too late, and by accident.

Now, Luella is asking Can I ride, not Can we ride. Now, when she looks at the slowly collapsing face reflected in this mirror, she sees right through it. Luella knows that I am not only plain on the outside, I am ordinary on the inside, too.

I washed my hands and went into the kitchen to pour coffee, wondering whether my home-made love was something Luella has outgrown.

* * *

“I said, I am going to the service for the Payne boy, Sis.” Luella shouts from the bedroom the next morning at dawn. “Are you going to help me get dressed, or am I going to have to do this all by myself?”

I wash myself up for work in the sink while drawing Luella a bath in the tub. I ease her into, and out of, warm water. My hands unfold the wooden ironing board in the early morning cold and turn a crumple of blue fabric into a starched shirtwaist dress. My fingers brush and braid her hair.

I massage Luella’s hair oil into my knuckles, then ease a bra strap over her injured arm. When she wrestles into the second strap and turns her back for me to do the hooks, I slide a thin pad of gauze under the band to cushion her wounded shoulder. She stares at the girdle and stockings curled at the foot of our bed, visibly reconsidering what is ladylike or essential. Without asking, I gather up the slip and ease it over her head. Her eyebrows raise in alarm as I thread each arm through the straps, then into the sleeves of the crisp navy dress. Bowed before her on the edge of bed, I fasten its fourteen pearl-white buttons, including one on each cuff.

“I’m not completely helpless, you know.” Luella tries to force one unstockinged foot into a dress pump, but it skitters away under the bed. She looks surprised when I hand her the Keds, scrubbed and whitened, the ripped blue heel tab carefully glued back into place. She opens her mouth to say something just as a car honks outside. “That’ll be Ezell and Chester. Let me hurry up and put on these shoes.”

My lips fold themselves tightly to keep a swirl of feelings inside, knowing any words I say will come out wrong. Don’t go will sound like I mean she should not go to the funeral, instead of Luella, don’t go and leave me behind.

It is my turn to say nothing as I listen to Luella clop through the kitchen toward the front room, walking on the folded-over over backs of her sneakers. Keys tinkle, then a brisk April wind sweeps through the house as she opens the front door.

“Get this door behind me, will you?” Luella shouts over her shoulder.

But I am bent over, lacing my shoes, so I do not answer. Pulling my green hotel uniform over my head, I limp toward the front door as fast as I can. Nickels for car fare and my housekey jingle in the pocket of my corduroy jacket as I grab it from the peg. Stuffing a fist into one sleeve, I slam the front door behind me.

At the bang of the door, Luella, Ezell and Chester turn their heads all at once. Ezell’s mouth is an astonished O. Luella’s eyebrows furrow and unfurl. Only Chester, in the driver’s seat, smiles.

“Slide over, Lu.” I say, as I pull on my other jacket sleeve and climb into the back seat of the car. “Chester, I know it’s out of the way, but could I trouble you for a ride over to the Peabody Hotel after the service?”

Writing about race, land and kinship are Mistinguette Smith’s purpose and joy. Her poems and essays have appeared in Beloit Poetry JournalPluck! A Journal of Affrilachian Arts and Culture, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Black LGBTQ anthology Other Countries: Voices Rising. She does narrative research as The Black/Land Project. She and her wife live in Oberlin, OH.