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Chapter One: My Say
I own it. Like I own me. Don’t belong to nobody but me. My say. It was always right there, right where it was, where I can’t see it. My say. Watchin’ and waitin’ for me to come get it. Claim what was mine all along. My arms, my legs, my heart, mind, and soul. Me. Couldn’t nobody do it for me. No regular man. No prince charmin’. He bind me up, he did. My regular ole man. Tellin’ me it was his. That he owned it ‘cause I gave it up like I ain’t know. Girls never know they say ‘til they women and sometimes not even then. Well, I’s a woman now! And I’m gone have my say. Right here and now where can’t nobody stop me. Hemmin’ me up in they properness.
A woman can’t be a woman without bein’ somebody’s wife, somebody’s mama, and once she is … then she ain’t a woman no more. And she lose her say. Lose it even though it’s right there in fronta her. Between her legs. Her say. She go on, actin’ like she don’t see it, don’t need it.
Folks done come in and outta my say. Folks I loved and some I didn’t. Stretchin’ and pullin’ at it, makin’ it into somethin’ they could love. But my say too big to be swallowed up by some regular ole man. Too hard and true to be twisted into lies to pad his ego. He can’t own my say! ‘Cause it’s mine. As free as free can be. It’s mine.
The wind came and blew through town like never before on the day I was born. It was May 17, 1952, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. When the nurse came round to tell my daddy I was here he whooped and hollered so loud everybody thought he was crazy. Hell, it took five nurses to convince him that it was okay to touch me. I wasn’t real tiny like some babies, but he was a big man with great big ole hands. That’s what I remember most ‘bout my daddy, his hands. Workin’ man’s hands. Big and ashy with blisters and dead skin. He was always apologizin’ for ‘em, but me, I loved ‘em.
Now from what I remember of the hospital, it was cold. Seemed like folks was screamin’ but they’d probably say it was me. My daddy said the doctor ain’t even have to hit me, that I came out screamin’ just like him. Only difference was he stopped after a while. He said that when they took me home I was still screamin’ and folks’d come by and say, “Ooo what y’all doin’ to that chile make her scream like that?” He’d smile and say I was just gearin’ up to start sangin’, that I was practicin’. Then he’d laugh in that big bear sorta way. Kinda laugh that made folks least wanna smile. That was my daddy. He had a voice like nails on sandpaper—scratchy and real deep. And he loved pecan pie almost as much as he loved me. That’s how I got my name. My mama leaned toward Belinda so that’s what’s on the papers but most folks call me Pecan. ‘Cause they say it was real obvious how much he loved me and I loved him.
Hattiesburg was way down south, right near New Orleans and Mobile. I know ‘cause every so often I’d ask my daddy where my mama was and a few days later I’d get a letter from either New Orleans or Mobile. And she’d say how much fun she was havin’ and how much she loved me. She ain’t never see no need to explain why she wasn’t around and I never asked. By the time I was seven I’d figured some of it out. My mama’s handwritin’ and my daddy’s handwritin’ looked an awful lot alike. But it was real important to him so I’d just nod and act real surprised every time a new letter came through the mail.
I don’t even remember what she looked like, but folks say I look like her. Mostly on account of my shade of brown. Not too dark and not too light. Right in the middle. And my figure was like that too. Not too big and not too small. Not too tall and not short neither. I figured that’s what they meant sayin’ I looked like her. But my daddy used to say it was my eyes. He said they was the most beautiful eyes he ever saw. My mama’s eyes … Was really the only thing he ever said about her. That she had real pretty eyes. The kind that bat at a man and make him do crazy things. Folks used to say that I had that power over him too. That I could just bat my eyes and make him do what I wanted. Course I never saw it like that. Never saw fit to even test it out.
Anyway, folks meant it as a good thing—sayin’ I looked like my mama but it used to make me mad. What I wanna look like her for? She ain’t do nothin’. My daddy was the one did everythin’ for me. Braided my hair. Taught me things.
He worked for a lumber company, knockin’ down trees, but what he really did was fix things. Folks came from far and wide to have my daddy fix somethin’ of theirs. He never charged nothin’ for it, just did it ‘cause he said it needed doin’. When I was eight, we was sittin’ on the porch, watchin’ folks go by and he explained it to me. He said, “Folks gotta get to work, they gotta eat, they gotta have ‘em some clean clothes. That’s why I do what I do. You gone see. When you get to be a lady you gone find a way to be useful too.”
I nodded like I understood ‘cause I ain’t wanna disappoint him, but I ain’t have one clue what he was talkin’ ‘bout. Me, useful? I couldn’t see past bein’ a kid. Then when I got to be a girl, a teenager, talk turned from useful to proper. Not from my daddy, but from other folks in the neighborhood, folks at church. They was all worried ‘bout me ‘cause I was raised by a man. Worried I wouldn’t make a proper wife to somebody. One of the deacons’ wives took me aside one day and explained that ladies wear stockin’s. She said I was pretty enough, but if I wanted to find somebody to love me, I’d have to make myself look like a lady. Stockin’s and hairpins and pressin’ combs … my daddy just watched all nervous like from the hallway while I burned each one a my ears time and time again. But in the end everybody wanted to put they hands in my hair.
“Well look at you, girl!” they said. “Got some nice hair now, huh? Just gotta make sure you know how to cook and you gone snatch up a man real quick!”
They wasn’t never satisfied. My daddy had to finally tell ‘em, “Stop pickin’ on her. She gone be just fine.”
I wasn’t much in the kitchen but I ain’t have to be since my daddy’s stew and barbecue broke records. Him and his apron that said so. He called it his truth-tellin’ apron ‘cause it said that he was workin’ up some magic right there on the fabric. I’d watch him throw stuff together that ain’t have no business bein’ near each other and folks would suck it all down, and then look around for some more.
I was pretty good in school, though. Got good marks, was liked by most everybody. I was a good girl, folks said. All the way up ‘til my last year …
A couple us girls was standin’ round drinkin’ soda pops when the bus from Biloxi pulled into town and sent dust flyin’ every which way. A gritty storm cloud, swirlin’ round me in my plaid dress that wasn’t nothin’ really special. The driver screeched to a stop and folks started to unload. This big guy strolled down the steps, pausin’ once his feet hit the dirt so he could look round at what was waitin’ for him. He was full of muscles, with a face like Smokey Robinson’s, wearin’ a clean white shirt that was only buttoned up halfway so we could see what God had blessed him with. He tilted his hat down over his face to block out the sun. He’d gotten off the bus with a bunch of other folks but I don’t remember ‘em.
“Mornin’,” he said, tippin’ his hat toward us.
“It ain’t mornin’. It’s almost two o’clock.” LeAnn pointed to the clock over the general store and hurried after him. “Where you from?”
“Biloxi.” He looked back over his shoulder, watchin’ us gigglin’ behind ‘em. “What’s so funny?”
“Ignore ‘em.” LeAnn dismissed us with a wave. She was real friendly, like a welcome wagon for all the guys come through our town. We was her friends so that’s what we called it. Friendly. Other folks called it somethin’ else. “So … how long you in town for?”
“Don’t know.” He looked her up and down, a grin just dyin’ to get out. Men folk was always grinnin’ at LeAnn. But then he did somethin’ that shocked all of us. He looked away from LeAnn and right at me. My heart just plain ole stopped right there in the street. I couldn’t stop smilin’ even though I knew I looked a fool. That was the beginnin’ of me and Ricky.
Ricky had been outta school a few years but I still had to go so we had to wait ‘til the end of the day to see each other. Sometimes he couldn’t wait and he’d show up in the halls, just watchin’ me. Made me feel special that he just wanted to look at me. My house was about a ten-minute walk ‘cross town from my school. Ricky walked me home every day and we’d talk about all the things he wanted to do. See, Ricky felt like he had a destiny. He was ‘posed to do somethin’ couldn’t nobody else do. He was gone beat Muhammad Ali. Of course I ain’t have no idea who this Ali person was ‘til he explained it to me. Ricky had a plan and I believed him when he said it was gone happen.
“The only difference between us is he Muslim. I got a pretty face just like him. I’m fast … see, quick … just like him.” He swung at the air in front of us, runnin’ this way and that, kickin’ up dust from the road while my bag of books swung up ‘gainst his backside. “See. You see?”
“Yeah, I see.”
“I met this man once. A boxin’ legend. And he say I got natural talent. That’s why I’m gone be the greatest. They just don’t know it yet. You believe me, right, Pecan?”
“Yeah I believe you.”
“You believe I’m gone be somethin’?”
“Yeah.” I nodded and couldn’t help but blush every time he looked at me.
He stopped fightin’ the air long enough to pull me off to the side of the road. Nature made way for us. Smellin’ green way up in the trees and down low round the grass that whisked round my knees. Spring was just a few days away.
“R-Ricky, where we goin’?”
He ain’t answer me just held tighter to my hand. We dodged a few branches and hopped over a fallen log then stopped. He dropped my bag on top of a anthill, not payin’ it no mind. Couldn’t hear the road no more, just birds chirpin’ and the wind. Most of my clothes was homemade and I did my own washin’ so I was lookin’ round, thinkin’ about all the stains I was gone get on the bottom of my dress and in my stockin’s. But couldn’t stay on that too long, the way Ricky was lookin’ at me. Never stopped lookin’ at me that way, not really. But back then just seein’ him smilin’ dirty thoughts at me made me blush hard. Here was this pretty Southern boy that was goin’ someplace and he ain’t make no secret ‘bout that fact he wanted me with him. Then he looked at me like he wanted to crawl up inside me and tear me apart. Scared me so that I started to back away. I backed up ‘til my back was up ‘gainst a tree. And Ricky ain’t waste no time gettin’ pressed up ‘gainst my front. Wasn’t nowhere for me to go. He was hard all over, his muscles and all. I could see ‘em through his clothes ‘cause they was just that thin. But still I ain’t expect to feel so much hardness.
“Umm … Ricky?”
He sorta moaned and rubbed up ‘gainst me. I hadn’t been that close to a boy ever. The tangy sweetness of his sweat beat off his chest ‘til it got all up in me. His legs between mine, his hot breath all over my neck. I knew what was comin’ next.
“Ricky, I-I … I can’t.”
“You can’t what?” His lips parted into a smile and then he kissed me in a serious tone and all I could do was blush. “You a good girl, ain’t you, Pecan? Hmm? You know what I mean?”
I did. And I was. Not that I could say it. I just sorta nodded. And he kissed me again. His tongue big and wet, slid on top of mine then disappeared, leavin’ me breathless. He was movin’ down my body … to my neck, my chest. Takin’ the buttons one at a time ‘til my brassiere was showin’ to all of outside.
“Ricky, stop!” I covered myself best I could.
“I just wanna look. I ain’t gone do nothin’.” He looked at me all innocent like. “Come on, Pecan. I swear.”
“Yeah, I said I swear.” Ricky coaxed my arms down to my sides so he could see what I was hidin’. It wasn’t nothin’ special in my eyes. I’d known girls that had more to hide but Ricky got real hard and swollen pretty fast. Next thing I knew he was right back to squeezin’ up ‘gainst meand growlin’ up in my ear.
“Ricky, come on stop now.”
With all his strength, he ain’t have to try too hard to lift me up. And he ain’t care none that the tree bark was scratchin’ through the back of my dress. Just wanted to get me so my legs was wrapped round him. And before I knew it he was fumblin’ up under my dress.
“You feel that? Huh? Feel that? I know you do.”
“Umm … Ricky … You swore!”
This groan came from somewhere down deep inside him and he pushed up off the tree so there was space between us. He did it even though he ain’t want to, and watched me fix myself up. Put the buttons back in the right slots. Watched so hard I thought maybe he was gone come back after me. But then he said, “Wanna be my girl?”
“Yeah. Unless you lyin’ to me about being a good girl … you do this with every boy in town? Let ‘em get all up on you?”
“No … ”
“Aight, then. You gone be my girl. My mama always said I should find me a good girl.” He took my hand, grinnin’ at me so I could see his pearly white teeth. “And you pretty too. Betcha know how to cook real good, don’t you?”
“But you’d learn.” He nudged me on. “You’d learn for me, wouldn’t you, Pecan?”
I nodded and we walked the rest of the way to my house holdin’ hands. We looked a hot mess—dusty and wrinkled and I was missin’ a barrette. Folks was starin’ but I ain’t care. Not ‘til I saw the look on my daddy’s face.
“Where you been, Pecan?” His voice boomed down the dusty road and folks cut they eyes in my direction.
“At school.” I couldn’t even look at him, not ‘cause it was a lie or nothin’, just ‘cause I was afraid he’d think it was.
“Go on in the house and clean yo’self up.”
I did as I was told and by the time I came back out Ricky was gone. My daddy was sittin’ on the porch, chewin’ tobacco and noddin’ to folks as they came past. I never knew what he said to Ricky, but I knew he ain’t like him too much.
My daddy was a talker, could out-talk anybody, but never with Ricky. And that night over supper, he ain’t even wanna talk to me much. All you could hear was the clink of forks and the crickets outside our front door. I wanted to say somethin’. I hated the thought of him thinkin’ I was a different girl than I was. I was a good girl. Most girls I knew had already had they first kiss and was workin’ on other things. Not me. But I couldn’t get the words to come out my mouth. So we ate in silence for a while.
“From now on you come straight home from school. You gone walk with that girlfriend of yours that live down the street. You hear me?”
“Yes s-sir.” I nodded, damn close to cryin’.
“If that boy wanna see you, he gotta ask me about it first. You hear me, Pecan?”
Course it wasn’t really up to me. I passed on the message to Ricky and he just kinda smirked. Ain’t stop him from showin’ up at the high school or followin’ me and my girlfriends round town, whistlin’ at our behinds. Wasn’t no secret around town. Everybody knew Ricky had his eye on me. Some folks thought he had more than that. I could tell by the way they looked at me. But I was my daddy’s girl. Wasn’t about to do nothin’ that make him think bad a me. So, I kept my distance from Ricky. He had to settle for smilin’ at me and makin’ faces from ‘cross the street.
We wasn’t never alone after that lil’ thing in the woods. Musta got on his nerves real bad ‘cause one day he showed up at my house, flowers in hand. They was so fresh the roots was still on ‘em.
My daddy met him out on the porch like Ricky wasn’t good enough to come up in the house. Told him if he wanted to see me he could do it when everybody else did. Said Ricky wasn’t gone be runnin’ off with me. He made it sound like a bad thing, but to me runnin’ off sounded like a adventure.
Folks said it was just ‘cause I was his only chile, only girl. They said he wasn’t gone like nobody for me. But I’d never know if they was right or if it was more than that ‘cause the very next day my daddy died. They said he just fell over in the field when he was workin’. Heart attack. Just like that. One day he was there with me, the next he was gone. I thought maybe it was me. That I’d killed him by doin’ what I almost did with Ricky.
The Mississippi heat had its run of Hattiesburg the day we put my daddy in the ground. It was so hot steam was risin’ off the grass round his grave. Muggy and damn near stiflin’ the heat was. I got all pitted before we even got to the graveyard. Ricky was good. He held my hand through it all. Sayin’ how he knew what I was feelin’ ‘cause he lost his mama that year too.
“Hold on, Pecan.” He said. “Just hold on, baby. It’s almost over.”
The sun beamed down on top of that tiny lil’ hill. Me and Ricky, the preacher, and half the town. The preacher read from his book and some of the pages flew out, headin’ toward the Mississippi. He ran after the missin’ pages, his lil’ bitty legs leapin’ up in the air to catch ‘em like they was really worth somethin’. Ricky had to fight back a smile. He tried to hide it but I saw. I just ain’t care. They lowered my daddy down that dark rectangle of a hole and I thought I was dyin’. Ricky said I was talkin’ and swearin’ but I don’t remember all that. I remember washin’ the dirt and grass stains outta my stockin’s and skirt and from under my nails. I remember cryin’ to him, “I’m all alone now.”
“N’all you ain’t.” He said in a husky whisper. “I’m a take care of you. You hear me, Pecan? You gone be just fine.”
We was married a week later.
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