Traveling Light


On the front porch my little sister is giving a performance for the children who have come with their parents to our yard sale. She catches a fly, snatching it from mid-air. For a long minute she shakes the fly inside her closed hand. As if she’s shooting dice she throws the bug onto the steps of the porch. The dizzy fly stumbles around like a drunk. Just when the insect regains its balance and flexes its wings to escape, my sister’s brown hand comes down hard.

This is the pace of life in Prairie View, Texas, home of the “largest public black university in America,” and our home until tomorrow. The majority of the white people left years ago when blacks started voting, or that’s what everybody says. Without white people we, the black majority, have to provide our own oppression. Mostly it takes the form of boredom.

The sun penetrates the cracks in the roof of the porch above my sister’s head. The light falls on her with alternating dark shafts, like prison bars. As usual the air is hot and clear. The only movement on the street is an ancient Cadillac slithering past, snake-low to the ground.

My family arrived on this tree-lined semi-southern street a year and a half ago accompanied by a moving van larger than Noah’s ark. If we have any luck selling our last pieces of furniture, tomorrow morning we’ll climb into our Volvo station wagon and return to California, taking only suitcases. My mother has made sacrifices to travel light. In addition to furniture she will leave behind her husband.

We’ve been living in a rich merchant’s house built at the turn of the century, the kind of place that can make you think you’re more important than you really are. It’s red brick, two stories, with a half-acre and a pond. Nostalgia takes me on a last tour inside this afternoon. The polished pine floors are still impressive, one room sliding into the next.

In the main hallway the master bathroom is open wide. My bare feet stop in the doorway, toes magnetized to the cool white tile. To my surprise, an old woman is standing next to the toilet. Her gloved hand is on the brass handle. Suddenly she pulls the handle and watches, dreamily, as the water spins away.

She reaches into her skirt pocket and takes out a small fat coin purse. Her shaky fingers pull out a roll of money. They’re all five-dollar bills, President Lincoln on each, looking wise and ugly. There’s more than a hundred dollars in her hand.

“How much?” she asks.

Apparently this old lady has found in our “yard” sale what she’s been looking for all her life. She’s admiring our blue ceramic toilet bowl as if it’s divine salvation.

The old woman has coal-black skin and wide blue-black eyes. Her neck remains bent uncomfortably forward, even as she looks up at my face. Her devout expression is there and then – blink – disappears. Her eyes narrow. She’s ready for business now.

“How much, you say?”

“Wait a minute, ma’am. Let me get my mother.”

It’s a good idea to check the rest of the house to see if anybody else has come in from the front yard. In the kitchen there’s no one hiding in the pantry, and there’s no “intruder” in the den. The study is locked, just as it has been since the day we arrived. Upstairs, the bedrooms are all empty except for blankets spread on the floor. The floor will be our bed tonight.

On the blankets lie the personal possessions that each of us considers absolutely crucial for our return to California. For my mother it’s clothes and her jewelry box. For my sister, only her cassettes and CDs. For me, my weights – both barbells and dumbbells. My mother objects to carrying a hundred pounds of iron back to San Francisco but my belief is that a woman needs to stay strong wherever she is.

On my brother’s blanket lies the rifle that is his constant companion. The gun has become a kind of blue-steel girlfriend. Mother only allowed him to have a firearm here in Texas because we’ve been living close to woods. My brother is down the street now saying goodbye to friends, and he doesn’t know that when we leave tomorrow his rifle accidentally will be forgotten. Mom has instructed me to forget it at the bottom of the pond behind the house.

Women have to protect themselves from men, even from little brothers. Men have to be protected from themselves. All this protection requires eternal vigilance and no mercy, but we – the three women of this house – have not been diligent enough at our duty. Witness what my father did. As the oldest child my ears have been privileged to hear the truth: contrary to what she tells my brother and sister, Mom wasn’t the one who asked for the divorce.

She’s pretending all the time now, trying so hard to be civilized about the whole thing. There’s been no name-calling, no quarrels, no sweat, nor tears. It’s not natural. Mom’s sister Cleopatra called last night from St. Louis to tell her that the only way to separate from a man is by bloodshed. Aunt Cleopatra shot her husband and then divorced him. But my mother isn’t like that.

Not yet.

On the grass in front of the house now our remaining furniture is arranged in neat rows at prices that people can pay from small cash in their pockets. My mother is standing next to the loveseat, a zippered bankbag and a small notebook under her arm. She’s wearing one of my father’s dress shirts with the sleeves rolled up, shirt ends tied together around her waist. A San Francisco Giants baseball cap protects her face from the hellish Texas sun.

She sells her Billie Holiday records for one dollar each. Those records are older than my mother is, and include all her favorite songs. Even without blues playing, tears may fall in this empty house tonight.

She follows me inside.

“I’m sorry,” she explains when she reaches the bathroom door. “The toilet is not for sale. It’s part of the house. It’s attached.”

The customer is not listening. If you close your eyes you can see the farm where the old lady lives, without bothering to drive into the countryside to look: twenty acres, pigs and chickens, beets and yams, satellite antenna and outhouse. She’s one of those country ladies who has only two sets of clothes, one for work and the other for church. These are her Sunday clothes, all black except for a red turtle-shaped hat that looks like it wants to crawl away.

“I gots the money,” Granny says, without hearing a word that Mom has told her. “I gots the money!”

“I know, and I’m sorry. But the toilet won’t work by itself, Miss Franklin. You have to have, um, indoor plumbing.”

Gently my mother tries to remove Granny’s hand from the toilet handle. The old lady is stronger than she looks. Even as she struggles her shining dark skin still looks so cool. At her age her skin is probably getting cooler everyday. One day soon she’ll be cold.

My mother squeezes the old woman’s wrist until the fingers pop open with a noise like a branch breaking. Mom leads her away, explaining about pipes and sewer connections, using a soft “life isn’t fair” voice to make the disappointment easier to accept. My mother used the same voice three summers ago to explain my period to me. Life is not fair. For the first time Mom sounds as if she herself really understands that.

“But I gots the money.”

“I know you do. I-know-you-do.”

They cross the dining room, where only a broom remains – Mother believes in leaving a house spotless. There’s nothing else anywhere: what is not for sale outside on the lawn is already sold and gone. In the living room the sole survivor is Daddy, in a photograph on the wall above the fireplace. Mom says she only left him there for us, the children.

When she passes the mantel, my mother focuses on Dad’s face as if she’s seeing him for the first time. Really it’s more likely to be the last.

A car horn sounds outside. The sudden noise brings me back to reality. Better go. Instinct tells me to leave Mom alone in this confrontation with her husband’s ghost.

The screen door closes behind me. At the far end of the lawn an ancient pick-up truck has entered our driveway. The cargo area at the back of the truck is closed in by heavy strands of chicken wire. Inside the wire are a half dozen big slobbering hunting dogs. Out on the street the Cadillac returns. The driver is another one of my would-be boyfriends, hoping to get now what he never got before.

Behind me the screen door of the house is opened and closes again. When the dogs see the old woman they start to howl. An angry word comes from the pick-up truck window and the dogs shut up.

On the grass my mother and Granny walk arm in arm toward the driveway. At the speed they’re moving they won’t reach the truck until Christmas. My feet stumble back inside the house, where the air is dark and cool.

It’s almost cold in the living room – until the ceiling fan stops. The electric company must think we’ve already left. The air is no longer circulating, which is bad enough in this climate, but there’s something else that doesn’t feel right to me here. “Look around,” an inner voice whispers. There’s been a change in this room, the voice says.

In the absence of furniture it’s not difficult to discover what the difference is. Father’s picture is no longer on the wall. My first thought is to dredge the pond where my brother’s rifle will lie tomorrow. No – my mother didn’t have time. But the photo’s not in the dining room, or kitchen either; not in the pantry, nor upstairs with the personal things to be taken back to California. And the door to the study is still locked.

The shattered picture frame is on the sink in the main bathroom. The porcelain of the sink is streaked with red where my mother cut her hand breaking the glass. The photograph is in the water of the toilet bowl. As the water washes against the inside of the bowl, the cardboard back is already separating from my father’s glossy face.

Michele Leslie Schamol is currently serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa.