Perhaps it was the subtle shift in light falling through the curtains, or maybe the smell of baked cornbread and boiled greens from the kitchen, that prompted Ellie to leave her toys, run to the window to see him her grandpa. He walked past the big church, where the women in brown robes lived.
Then he disappeared from her sight. Minutes later she heard him walking up the stairs. Wait-ing for him to open the door, she stood with a big smile, silently watching him place his lunch box on the dining room table. To Ellie, to Pearl in the kitchen, or maybe to the walls and doors of the apartment, he mumbled, “I’m home.”
Standing in the bathroom doorway, Ellie watched him scoop water from the sink with cupped hands, then roll his face side to side, splashing water, wallowing without care, playfully like a puppy. Reaching for his towel, he gave the her a quick wink.
She followed him to the kitchen.
“Let your grandpa eat in peace. Go play now,” her Pearl said.
His large dinner plate was filled with collard greens sprinkled with ham pieces, corn on the cob, two slices of buttered cornbread, a glass of buttermilk, a small bowl of canned peaches. Sitting beside him, Pearl ate her greens and cornbread from a tea cup saucer. She sat with a straight back, smiled as he ate and made smacking sounds of enjoyment.
She spoke softly, “Joe-Joe is getting real sweet on that girl Susie.”
Grandpa shook his paper, and did not respond.
“Mr. Jones says he gonna fix the hot water heater. “
“He didn’t say. He wants to talk to you.”
“I need money to pay the Insurance man, we a month behind, and I need to pay the....”
He glared over the newspaper. “I give you money every week to take care things like this. Why you asking for more.”
In her most servant girl voice, she said, “That’s just enough for food and rent, not for every thing.”
Sometimes he gave her few dollars and spare change, sometimes he’d ignore her.
More, always more, what I give is never enough. He thought of himself as the provider, working every day, and when payday came, giving her enough money to pay rent, to buy food, and to care for the family needs. He was better than--if not superior to--his fellow factory work-er. Those men always boasting that they kept all their pay and over the weekend they enjoyed every cent--drinking, whoring, and or gambling. When Monday came they were broke.
Why didn’t she understand?
After dinner, he finished reading the newspaper, as Pearl sat quietly accepting his silence.
“Good night,” he said at 5pm rising from the kitchen chair to yawn and stretch before he walked to the bathroom to wash and go to bed. This working man’s day began at 4am.
“Goodnight Baby,” she said.
He was a silent man. When he spoke, his voice was low and muffled, occasionally he stut-tered. Words! They made sense to him as a tool. He used them to issue commands or make de-mands. There were occasions when he tried to tell Pearl about his day at work, but he felt frus-trated in the effort. What words could he use to share his experience with her?
In his bedroom he was invisible to the family, but they heard him. Grandpa snored. His snoring came in waves quiet choking breaths to burst through every room in the apartment, inter-rupting, his family’s quiet conversations. They wondered if he was really asleep, if his snoring a pretense, a way of avoiding conversation or sneaky eavesdropping on their conversation.
His first job at the factory was one of the dirty jobs reserved for black men. The blasting heat of the foundry’s oven, tending the flames, furious tongues, licking up the fuel the men shovel into it. The flames singeing skin, soot coating face. Only him the flames did not touch him. He was a strange devil, the other men laughed. He laughed too, it was like he felt flaming rhythm, like a dance. He moved with it lifting the heavy shovel feeding the fire with ease. Was this spe-cial luck that kept him from harm? Later, he was sent to the paint shop’s sanding pit. The second dirtiest job for black men. He did what he was told and did not complain. Like down on the farm, he kept his head down and did what the man said. Nothing had changed except now he had a family to feed and rent to pay.
Dust, grit, water, weary hands, contorted body twisting and stretching against the hard-hard metal body frame. And always the jarring noise--banging, clashing, beeping, droning--surrounding him.
Overhead the steady passage of motor engines, hollow car bodies moved. Unlike Chicken Little, the men working below held to a faith that the conveyor belts would hold, and nothing would fall. Hard and steady he worked with the certainty that he was favored. It wasn’t faith, more like luck he thought.
Luck, yes. Against the boredom, he sometimes joined his work crew to bet on the usual: sports, horses, numbers, and the incidental like when the tool supply barrels would empty or an inspector’s slipping on new oil slicks on the floor. He never lost money and often won.
Waking, he dressed in the dark, and left the apartment. He turned left on the Catholic church side of Hastings Street. It was midnight, but the street was not empty. He moved with the lone-ly, restless people, he shying away from the nighttime couples, not wanting to explore their se-crets.
Everybody on the street knew him: He was Mr. Taylor who came up from the South before most people, during the first war. Got himself a steady job, a big apartment. Mr. Taylor, the man with his ugly black lunch bucket in his left hand as he climbed on board the trolley for work.
He passed bars, the movie theater, boarding houses headed to Miss Edna’s buffet flat. “A place for every kind of joy,” Edna claimed: Lots of girls, a player piano. Sometimes there was a band, a singer, and always games to test your luck.
Boss Lady Edna liked his quiet, unexcitable attitude, and skills keeping everyone calm knowing there was no underhanded tricks when he dealt.
This night he felt lucky, he was on his own. He took a seat at the table.
He bet with two pairs, beaming like he had a Royal Flush. The other players looked sour, and folded.
Jackson stopped everything.
“Ha! Ha! I call and raise you.”
Taylor was short by the dollars he had given his wife. The money he could use to call this asshole.
“I’m out,” Taylor folded.
Pot too high for you, Taylor?
“Aw! Shit man you had the hand. That jackal just had a pair, man he bluffed you”
“He aint the man we knowed, used to have bills falling out your pocket.
Now, just an empty wallet. Go on home man, and get your woman’s cookie jar.”
Luck was there on the table now.
He headed home to get the money he had given her. He felt certain that his luck was still alive, all he asked was for the money he had given her that week. With his winnings she could get whatever she thought the family needed.
But she did not listen, she rattled on spitting out her long memory, screaming about how his hot streaks always turned cold faster.
When she was like this he became mute, he responded with his fist, marking her eyes, nose, lips with violence.
There were times when he came for the money, she slapped him before he hit her. In their young days, he remembered her, slapping, heaving and crying falling on the bed. Him losing bal-ance and falling on top of her. It was dizzying, the anger slipping away as he fondled her breast and raised her skirt.
He headed home, but with each step the idea of returning to the table seemed pointless, it was too late, his luck had gone cold.
In the morning, Pearl fixes him a breakfast of coffee, fried eggs, bacon and toast. She fills his lunch bucket with a thermos of coffee, sandwiches made with potted meat, slice of cake, and small jar of apple sauce.
The women stand on the corner waiting for fancy white women to hire them for the day to do house work. They smile as Taylor, walks past them, headed for the trolley stand. The women bend their heads together. They admire him. Seeing his familiar black lunch bucket, one says “I guess Pearl packs something good, cause he don’t waste money buying them bad sandwiches from those money-eating food places near work, like my husband.
“Ever think about fixing your man a sandwich?”
“ Naw he should fix me one, I out here everyday. He ain’t steady about his work. Says his back hurts, its always hurting.”
“Yep! gin or poker.”
Taylor steps on the trolley. slow; believing if he had faith and played it right he could still follow his luck.
Leslie Brown: "My work has appeared in Ragazine, Great Lakes Review, and Dead Housekeeping. I have a MFA in Creative Writing from American University and a Master of Library Science degree from Wayne State University."