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Mrs. Watson.

Ma had just cracked the first nit between her thumbnails when there was a soft knock on the front door. She quit fingering through my hair and we both listened to make sure if we heard right.

Another rap rap rap.

"Will somebody answer the door!" Dad called to us from the kitchen. He and my older brother Robbie were in there sitting at the table reading the Sunday paper that Robbie had copped from someone's front doorstep.

Ma pushed at the back of my head to get me up off of the parlor floor. "You answer it, Buddy."

I was glad to, because I really hated sitting on the floor in front of Ma while she took forever getting me unbugged. Funny phrase, "answer the door." Excuse me, door, what exactly was your question? I opened the door.... Holy Shift a black woman! I stood stunned. She must have thought I was looking at a zombie or something.

She smiled, "Good afternoon. Does Mrs. Jeanette Hanley live here?"

She wasn't a bum, nothing like that. She looked like a real lady, wearing a big warm coat and a big fancy hat that matched.

"Who is it, Buddy?" Ma called out.

"'Scuse me a sec," I said to the woman, and hurried back into the parlor. I whispered into Ma's ear, "It's a black woman, and she asked for you."

"A black woman? What does she want?"

"She didn't say."

Ma went to the door. I followed.

"Hi, Jeanette."

"Maxine ... what on earth...." Man, this is interesting. They hugged, but gently, because Ma had had a breast removed a couple of weeks ago.

"Please forgive me, Jeanette, for showing up unannounced. I tried calling you a number of times, but apparently you're having phone trouble."

"Yes. It's always something. The serviceman should be here sometime tomorrow." Not exactly true. Poor Ma, I hate to see her have to tell a fib.

"Anyway, I just had to see you before I return to Providence."

"How soon?"

"Tomorrow morning, right after my treatment at the clinic."

"Come in, come in," said Ma, real happy-like, "we've got a bit of catching up to do. Oops!"

Ma's foot landed on my toe when she stepped back to let the woman in. She grabbed me by my shirt collar and pulled me forward. "This busybody is my youngest son, Buddy."

"I'm happy to meet you, Buddy. I'm Maxine Watson." She shook my hand. It was real soft, and warm ... and dark.

"Buddy, honey, go put the tea kettle on ... and bring in the nice cups."

Ma guided Maxine into the parlor; I headed for the kitchen.

I got the kettle down from the shelf above the stove and filled it from the tap.

"Who's at the door?" Dad asked.

"Maxine. A woman named Maxine." I put the kettle on the hottest plate on the stove.

"I don't know any Maxine," said Dad popping up from the comic section. He looked across the table at Robbie. "What about you?"

"Search me," said Robbie, chewing on the eraser end of a pencil and staring down on the Wonderword puzzle.

"What does she want?" asked Dad.

"I guess she just came to visit Ma. Ma greeted her like an old friend."

I purposely didn't let on that Mrs. Watson is a black woman. Dad hates half the world, blacks especially ... and Jews ... and Arabs ... Haitians, and some others I can't recall at the moment.

Oh yeah, he really hates the Kellys downstairs. Robbie, most always, goes along with Dad in his hates. Ma doesn't hate anyone ... except maybe the Kellys downstairs. Best Dad and Robbie didn't know Ma invited a black woman into the house, even if the woman behaves like a saint.

I got down from the cupboard the two delicate Japanese teacups and saucers that me and Ma found at a garage sale for a dollar. Pretty flowers were painted on them. One saucer was chipped, but you could hardly notice it. I took them into the parlor along with two spoons and the sugar bowl and set them on the coffee table, giving Ma the chipped saucer. Ma and Mrs. Watson were sitting together on the couch acting silly, like teenage girls. It was nice to see Ma having a good time. Mrs. Watson had taken off her coat but kept her big hat on. Ma still had on her nightgown and bathrobe, and she'd have them on for the rest of the day, like she did every day since she came back from the hospital.

I hung behind the parlor door to listen, not to be nosy--honest--but to hear the way Mrs. Watson talked. Her voice was almost music-like. She seemed to hum her words. She talked slowly and pronounced each word as if it was more important than the one she just said. And she had a laugh that came from deep in her belly. Yeah, that's it, a belly-laugh.

They were talking about a woman who was a patient in the hospital with them--Rhoda Insalaca. They got a kick out of repeating her whole name--"Rhoda Insalaca did this ... Rhoda Insalaca said that ... Rhoda Insalaca has a new boyfriend." I wanted to stick around to hear what made them laugh so hard over Rhoda Insalaca's new boyfriend, but the kettle began to whistle.

I was already on my way to the kitchen when Robbie yelled: "Buddy! Kettle's boiling!"

I set the steaming kettle off to the side of the stove, then got the pack of tea bags out of the canister. I carried the kettle and tea into the parlor. Ma took the pack and placed a tea bag in each cup. I poured in the hot water. Didn't spill a drop.

"Very nice. Thank, you, Buddy," said Mrs. Watson, with a big smile.

"You're welcome ... ma'am," I said and smiled back. She was really nice. Ma smiled, too.

I returned to the kitchen and set the kettle back on the stove. Robbie was tapping his foot while he searched for a word in the puzzle to circle.

Dad spoke. "What are they talking about in there?"

"Rhoda Insalaca."

"What?"

"Rhoda Insalaca."

"What in hell is that?"

"It's a woman's name."

"Say it again."

"Rho--da In--sa--la--ca."

"Rhymes with ca-ca," said Robbie. Kind of remark you'd expect from my brother.

"Who's she?" asked Dad.

"Someone Ma and Mrs. Watson met in the hospital."

"Rhoda Insalaca," said Robbie. "What a weird name. If I was her I'd change it."

"To what?" Dad asked.

"How about ... Rhoda Bicycle."

It was a good one; we all laughed.

I sat with them and picked up the comic section. They talked football. I liked watching football on television, but didn't know enough about the teams or the players to join in on the conversation. The Patriots-Jets game would be on soon, and they seemed excited about that at the moment. I might watch it with them, or me and Ma will play a few hands of cribbage and listen to music on the radio.

Dad got up and made bologna and cheese sandwiches for him and Robbie to eat, along with potato chips, while watching the game. Dad then shuffled through the stack of newspapers.

"Where's the TV section?"

"Ma has it in the parlor," said Robbie.

"Do either of you remember what time that Bruce Willis movie is on?"

"Which one?" Robbie asked.

"Shit, I don't know." He got up from the table and headed for the parlor. I could hear introductions being made. Dad came back, he look pissed.

"God dammit, Buddy, why'nt you tell me we got some black woman in there with your mother?"

"Didn't I?"

"No, you did not."

"She seems like a nice person."

"How the hell would you know, you just met her."

Robbie shook his head, "A black woman with Ma ... in the parlor ... on Sunday ... in November. A red letter day."

Dad looked at Robbie. "Will you shut up?" Dad shook his head, "Christ, as if we don't have enough trouble around here. What will the neighbors think?"

I spoke real low hoping to keep all our voices down, "They seem to be good friends, Dad."

"Bullshit. That woman's up to no good."

"Yeah," said Robhie, "you can't trust any of them."

I felt I had to defend Ma, even if what I say pisses the old man off. "You like the Red Sox, Dad, and David Ortiz is a ..."

"Yeah," jumped in Robbie, "you're a Big Papi fan."

He stared at Robbie, "Shut the fuck up." He pointed his finger at him, "I haven't invited him into my house, have I?"

"Whatever," Robbie shrugged, and returned to his puzzle.

There was silence in the kitchen for a real long time. Dad made himself another cup of instant coffee. My brother finished his puzzle, and I was nearly done reading the comics when Ma came into the kitchen and set the tea things in the sink. She spoke to Dad.

"Gavin, do you think it'd be okay to ask the Kellys if we could use their phone to call a cab for Maxine?"

"Are you out of your mind? After what happened with Robbie? Screw the Kellys."

We could have used the Kellys' phone if Robbie hadn't been caught in the cellar siphoning range oil out of their drum. Ours ran out and it was cold in the house. We were short of money at the time--so, what else is new. I feel bad for Robbie. I think he did it because he wanted Ma to be comfortable, so she wouldn't get a cold right after she had her breast removed.

"I'll need a volunteer then," said Ma. "Maxine took a cab from her hotel near Copley Square to get here. She's not well, poor dear. Maybe one of you could show her to the bus stop. I told her she can get off at Kenmore Square and grab a cab, or get a transfer and take the subway from there."

"We're about to have lunch," said Dad pointing to the bologna and cheese sandwiches on the table.

"The Patriots game is on in a minute," said Robbie. "Tell Buddy to take her."

"Yeah, Ma, I'll take Mrs. Watson."

Ma gave me a hug. She left us and went back in the parlor to be with her friend. Dad went to the sink and examined the two tea cups. He dropped the one with lipstick on it into the wastebasket under the sink.

Damn. What a jerk. That made me mad. He looked at me, daring me to say something. I didn't, of course. Life is too short. Ma really likes those teacups, and wanted to show them off to company. Like today, with Mrs. Watson. What a jerk my old man can be sometimes. If it didn't break, I'll sneak it out later, clean it up, and put it away. He'll probably never know. He doesn't drink tea. He drinks everything out of his favorite mug with a picture of Old Ironsides on it.

"Buddy!" Ma called.

On my way to the parlor I grabbed my jacket from a peg in the hallway. Mrs. Watson was standing with Ma, and she already had her coat on.

"Maxine would like it very much if you would show her to the downtown bus stop."

"Sure."

"Thank you. Buddy, I'd really appreciate it."

Ma held her hand and led her to the front door.

"I'm so glad I got the chance to drop by, Jeanette--and then to fred you looking so good, girl. You continue to take good care of yourself."

"You too, Maxine." They hugged.

Ma watched us go downstairs; she was teary eyed, like she didn't expect to see her friend for a long, long time. Mrs. Watson acted extra-careful while going downstairs.

Ma called down, "Buddy, you be sure to stay with Maxine until she boards the bus."

"I will." I held open the front door for her.

"Thank you, Buddy, you are a fine young gentleman."

It was colder than I expected. I zipped up my jacket. Leaves were pretty much gone from the trees. The bus stop was three blocks away. I was kind of hoping some of my friends would see me with Mrs. Watson. No one I know knew a black person up close. They could see for themselves what a nice lady she is. Then I'd tell them that she is one of my mother's best friends. I wonder if Rhoda Insalaca is also black.

"How old are you, Buddy?"

"I'll be twelve next month."

"A December child, same as Jesus."

"I was born the day after Christmas."

"Oh, my, that makes you extra precious. You must be your mama's favorite Christmas present."

I had no answer for that, so I said nothing. We had walked about a block and I could see that she was tiring.

"Where do you live?" I asked.

"Providence ... Providence, Rhode Island."

"Wow, that's a long way off."

"Only a little over forty miles."

"Do you work there?"

"I used to. I used to help my husband. We own ..." she gasped for breath, "we own three hardware stores ... in the ... Providence area." She was having a little trouble breathing. I wasn't sure what I should do. She stopped walking. "Mind if we stop here for a bit, Buddy? I have to catch my breath." She rested her arm lightly on my shoulder. Her coat smelled like summer flowers. "I'll be fine in a minute."

I was really worried for her. "We can sit on these steps if you like." I pointed to the three-decker where the Hanrahans, Larkins, and Amendolas lived.

She patted my cheek and said, "I'm fine now, just fine."

Nadine Cronin's parents were coming up the sidewalk towards us. I said, "Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Cronin." They walked past looking straight ahead, pretending they didn't recognize me. Why'd they do that? Very strange. It didn't seem to bother Mrs. Watson; she smiled at me and shook her head a little. I wanted to give some excuse for the Cronins, but couldn't come up with one.

"Buddy, you and your mama must come to visit us, soon ... spend the weekend. I would see that you had a good time. I'm a very good cook. Oh, yes, I'm a very good pie maker. My daughter tells everybody that I make a peach pie to die for. You like peach pie?"

"Don't know. Never had it."

"Well, believe me, child, you'd love it."

"Sounds good."

She pulled up, took a deep breath, then continued walking. I was glad we were nearing the intersection where we'd cross to the bus stop.

"I'm so pleased to have met your mother. I wish I had met her a long time ago. There is so much we could have learned from each other. She's a free woman, your mother."

"I know that."

"Of course you do." She rubbed my cheek. "I met her in the hospital. I was happy to see that your mama's mending very well. We shared a room with another woman. We all three supported each other in our trials, like we were sisters. If we weren't so sick I do believe we'd have gone out dancing together."

We reached the intersection. "We cross here, Mrs. Watson." While we waited for the light to change, the occupants of every car and truck that passed by checked us out. I never noticed that before. We crossed. There was no place to sit, so Mrs. Watson leaned against the post of the bus stop. An old man with a cane was already there waiting for the bus. He turned away from us. His doing that was something I might not have noticed before or cared about. It bothered me for some reason. People looking at us, people not looking at us. Mrs. Watson took a couple of deep breaths, I guess to relax or calm herself after our walk. She opened her purse and took a pill out of a medicine bottle and swallowed it. She sighed.

"You know Rhoda Insalaca, child?"

"No, ma'am."

"Well, you most likely will. She likes your mama, too. We think Rhoda Insalaca is one of God's happiness angels. Ha ha, you'll die laughing when she comes to visit your mama. Um-um, funny, funny woman."

I wanted to ask if Rhoda Insalaca was also a black woman. But I didn't. I glanced at the man standing apart from us. He kept looking up the street for the bus.

"How's school?"

"Good."

"What interests you most at school, Buddy?"

"Hmmm ... sports, mostly, I guess." The first thing that came to my mind was Margaret Taylor. She interests me a lot.

"Have you computers at your school?"

"yes."

"Do you use them?"

"Yes, we all do. We have to."

"Learn all you can about computers, Buddy, that's where all the good jobs will be from here on out. Trust me."

Two girls from my class at school came out of Joe Green's Market, kitty-corner from us. They were sharing a bag of chips. One of them noticed me and waved. I waved back.

"Those girls friends of yours?"

"No, not really. They're in my school though."

One of the girls pointed our way. They put their heads together like they were gossiping. I felt myself moving away from Mrs. Watson, pretending I was alone.

Mrs. Watson stared straight at the girls, but she was talking to me. "The bus should be along any minute now, Buddy. Why don't you run along home, where it's warm. I'll be just free."

When the girls turned the corner and were out of sight, I left. Halfway down the block I turned around and looked back. The old man with the cane was still looking up the street for the bus, and Mrs. Watson was still leaning on the post.
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Author:Gould, Charles
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Short story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2012
Words:3732
Previous Article:I Ararat (First Ararat).
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