Almost every day, Mom sighs, huffs, and constantly murmurs to herself, “Woe is me! Lord, have mercy on my soul.” She calls on God to help with the trials and tribulations of scrimping and saving. She cleans houses during the week, takes in ironing on the weekend and rents out our bedrooms.
Mom, Ralph and I sacrifice our bedrooms when we have roomers. Our tenants take the front and middle bedrooms while the three of us crowd into one room at the top of the staircase.
My mother, Alice Hodgen, offers a spotless room. If new arrivals want to eat with us, use our hot water for bathing and have my mother wash their clothes, the cost increases. It’s so embarrassing when strangers move into our house. I try to avoid contact with them, choose not to have conversations and slip by without a greeting. Vanish, that’s what I want them to do.
The stench of something that smells almost as bad as the town paper mill leaps from the refrigerator. Mr. Gatliff, one of our boarders, brought home some hog headcheese wrapped in butcher paper and laid it on the shelf right in front of the milk and orange juice.
“Alice, you got any crackers? Got us some hog headcheese. Want some?”
Never do I eat that disgusting stuff. Even though you can slice it, it’s not like the cheese from cow’s milk. It’s a kind of meat gel made from swine parts—the head of a hog, pig’s feet and pig ears. Mom eats pickled pig feet, brains, tongue, chicken feet, possum, coon, rabbit, carp, chitlins, hog maws and wild greens. She says she ate all of those things down in Kentucky so she’s used to it. Her mantra is, you eat what you can get. Mom says I have snooty ways because I don’t like that wild meat and won’t eat any of it.
A couple stands on our porch one night inquiring about a place to stay. A petite woman, clad in a short, checkered coat, politely asks, “Uh, ma’am, you Miss Alice?”
“Yes.” Mom waits at the door to hear what they want.
“Well,” the man clears his throat, takes off his hat as a sign of respect, and continues in his southern accent, “We was wondering if you’d have a room where we can sleep for the night. We was told to come up here ‘cause you sometimes rent out rooms. We been visiting a relative in the penitentiary out on Route 104.”
There’s no hotel in Chillicothe where Negroes can stay.
“You need a room tonight?” Mom says from the other side of the screen door.
“Yes ma’am, just for one night. We goin’ home tomorrow.”
“You can pay in advance and it’s extra if you want breakfast.”
The next morning, the man and woman thank Mom for taking them in, and after a cup of coffee, they hurry to catch a bus back to Alabama.
The Prestons, two elderly white-skinned Negro brothers, arrive with suitcases crammed with what’s left of their long lives: Books, shoes, sweaters, shirts, underwear and two small black cases full of shaving accoutrements. Both brothers have gnarled fingers, translucent skin wrapped around arthritic bones, and thin, wispy gray hair. Mr. Ernie has cancer that’s eaten a hole in his throat. A nurse comes once a week to drain it. My brother Ralph peeks in the bathroom, watching as the tubing sucks out poison that zaps Mr. Preston’s energy, making him lethargic and weak.
Mom keeps the house boiling-water-clean while they stay here. She believes cancer is a virus and she doesn’t want us contaminated. Boiling water is her remedy. Sheets, towels, their clothing—all boiled. She pours hot water full of tiny gaseous bubbles on the dishes and scrubs the bathroom with cleanser and pails full of scalding water.
Preston speaks Spanish and calls me Margarita. He’s traveled to exotic places far from Chillicothe. Mom says he’s a learned man.
“I’m going to call you Margarita. Did you know your name in Spanish is Margarita?” I shake my head and sit at the kitchen table looking at a shoebox full of tattered postcards. Each postcard is a picture story about his travels.
After a year, the Preston brothers leave. An ambulance takes Mr. Ernie away to a long-term care hospital and a distant relative sends for Mr. Bill.
One afternoon, as I run up the concrete stairs to the porch, I hear voices inside the house. Jimmy Hansberry and his mother are sitting in our front room. It can’t be! Not Jimmy Hansberry. Why are they sitting on my couch talking to my mother? Ugh. He stinks. I don’t know one person in sixth grade who likes him. At school, no one in our class ever chooses him to be on his baseball team. He’s short, medium brown, has curly black hair, fat lips and his nose spreads across his face. When he smiles, he has a gap between his front teeth. Jimmy rolls up his wide baggy jeans so he won’t trip over them. He’s a loner, always skulking and creeping around. Craziness plummets from his brain to the soles of his feet.
They’re homeless. Not a place in town for them to live in their strangeness. Folks say his mother is not right in the head either. Please God, no, not them. They can’t live here. But they move in. I can’t bear it. It’s humiliating. I want to stay home from school. How could Mom do this? Of all people, Jimmy, who smells like the toilet before you have to flush it, Jimmy who’s not sane. At this very moment, I despise my mother more than ever, more than when she drinks and has her poker parties.
The kids in my 6th grade class find out the next day. They tease me and say I like him and that he’s my boyfriend and that’s why he moved in with us.
“Hey Margaret Ann. Better tell your new boyfriend to take a bath. Did he put his arm around you?”
Every day, every night, I pray to God for them to leave. This is the worst thing my mother could have done. Rent a room to the Hansberrys. How can I survive this humiliation?
Ralph tells me one day on the way home from school that he heard Anna Mae telling Mom it wasn’t a good thing for her to have that boy and his mama living in our house. She tells her to think about her own kids. “You trying to be nice but it just ain’t right for them to be here. I done heard bad things about that there boy.”
By the end of the month, the two stand on the porch with bulging suitcases and a couple of worn out boxes wrapped in string. They’re waiting for a Yellow Cab to come and pick them up.
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