Tarnished Pearl

By Grace Washington

My sister Pearl was the biggest waste of humanity I had ever seen.  Most everything she did bothered me and I knew I couldn’t make her do better. Momma was too tired to make her do better and Daddy had gone to his reward last year.

Pearl was the type of girl most people would point out to their children and say, “Don’t you ever be like that!”

She didn’t seem to notice that the shack we lived in on the edge of town was falling down around us. She just sat at her mirror and tried on different lipsticks and pomanders. She had slicked her hair back. I wanted to tell her it looked awful but my opinion mattered not at all to Pearl.

I often wondered how it was that she and I could even be related, much less sisters. I had never had even the possibility of luxuries that Pearl took for granted.

Momma looked so tired lately. She seemed to age a whole year in 24 hours. So I made her stay in bed until she got some good rest.

I tried to reassure her, let her know I would keep up her cleaning jobs for her. If it got around our little town of Milledgeville, Georgia she couldn’t keep up her work, there’d be no work to have. This was small-town Georgia in the sixties. If it weren’t for her cleaning jobs, I wouldn’t have a job either. It’s not for lack of trying, though.

I saw a “cook wanted” sign on the window of a diner recently, but when I asked around, nobody seemed to know about it. I waited out back for somebody to go empty the trash or something. Finally, a woman came out and tried to shoo me away like I was a dog or something.

“Go on, now,” she said. “We don’t need you all hanging around here .”

“I…just.” I couldn’t find the words fast enough. I was angry and scared at the same time.

“Go on and git,” she said, flapping a kitchen towel at me.

“The cook’s position,” I finally blurted out. “I want to cook.”

Here I was heading toward my third year in college and I sounded like I couldn’t talk my way out of a paper bag.

“I don’t care what you want to do,” the woman said, finally looking me in the eyes. “You can’t do it here.”

“But my momma cooks for lots of folks,” I said. “And I cook when she’s sick or something.”

The woman shook her head.

“Mm-mm. Not gonna happen. Not here. My husband would have my head on the silver platter his daddy passed on to him from Stonewall Jackson. Now, go on.”

All the way home, I fought back tears. All I wanted to do was give Momma a good life. She gave me everything she had and she was getting old. I would leave school and work my fingers to the bone if she needed me to. But if I couldn’t get my own work, I didn’t know how I was going to make it happen.

This was the way of life that I knew. I knew how to abide by the rules. But sometimes the rules just didn’t make sense. Before I stopped at that diner, I had cooked two meals for two different white families and made cookies for their children.

Whenever I caught myself daydreaming of running off to New York or something, I thought of Momma. I would do anything if it would help her.

Toward the end of June, Momma seemed more rested. There were times she’d even sit on the front porch when I walked up to the house after cooking and cleaning all day. This made me so happy.

And then there was Pearl.

Some nights I needed to just sit in the dark by myself when everyone else had gone off to bed. It was quiet and peaceful. I’d sit in the kitchen where it still smelled of dinner and family. It was in these moments I felt my soul resting after it had tossed and turned all day in a hateful world.

On this night, my peace was interrupted when I heard the floorboards creaking from the room I shared with my siblings. At first I thought she was just going to go to the bathroom. I heard the shuffle of her feet and then the squeak of the door closing.

I don’t know what made me look out the kitchen window. It was on the same side of the house as the bathroom. When I did I saw a man—or what looked like a man—standing at the edge of the yard. Moments later, I heard the bathroom window slide open and a thump against the ground outside.

There went Pearl, tiptoeing in bare feet toward the man. She was wearing a dress and had a pair of heels dangling from one hand.

I just froze. All the work Momma did—all the work I was doing—and this is how Pearl behaves? I was livid.

And yet, watching her walk off hand-in-hand with this man who, in the dark, seemed twice her age, I knew I couldn’t tell Momma. It would break her heart. Momma had all those other children coming up to take care of.

I whispered a prayer. “Please don’t let any of them be like Pearl.” I spoke each of their names. “Take care of the twins, Tom and John. They’re only nine. And Maribelle she’s just a little girl. Keep her sweet and good.”

By four in the morning, Pearl was back. She smelled of cigarettes and whiskey and something else I couldn’t quite place, but I could guess what it was.

I sat up and whispered so the other kids couldn’t hear me. “Where have you been?”

Pearl had just about gotten into bed next to me when she stopped. Even in the dark I could hear her back tense.

“I was just in the bathroom,” she lied.

“I saw you leave at midnight.”

“Shush!” she said, lifting the covers and slipping into bed. “Now’s not the time!”

Her tone sounded more grown up than she was. She was only fifteen. “I guess you think if you can go do adult things now you can talk to me like you’re an adult, huh?”

“You’re just jealous,” she said. She put her head down and pulled the covers up to her chin.

Maybe she was right.

Except, a few months later, I saw her sneak out again, only this time, she grabbed the man by the hand and led him to the front of the house. As quietly as I could, I walked to the front window and listened.

“Oh no, honey,” said the man. “You got to do something about that. I can’t be giving up the rest of my life to go work in the coal mines. You’re a fine woman, but even you aren’t worth that.”

I heard Pearl start crying. It was hard to know what she was saying, but the truth sunk in quickly. She was pregnant.

“You think about it, baby,” said the man. “Let me know what you want to do. I can get some money together somehow. I’m willing to help you…do something.”

I heard the sound of a hand slapping skin. It must have been Pearl slapping the man because he seemed to get angry then.

“I am not going to have a baby at 17,” he said. “You got to get over it, Pearl.”

So he wasn’t quite a man. And, from the sounds of it, he wasn’t going to step up like one either.

“I gave everything to you,” she said. “Now, you need to get a job. We need to get married.”

“That ain’t happening,” he said. Then he laughed a mean sort of laugh that only men seem to know how to do when they’re trying to put blame on somebody. “I know lots of boys you been with. That baby could be anybody’s baby.”

I closed my eyes. It was all I could do not to run outside and throw them both on the street for good. Pearl only thought of herself in everything she did and the rest of us paid for it, especially Momma.

Oh, Momma! I thought. I leaned against the wall next to the window. I knew how this was going to end.

Outside, things were quiet except for the muffled sobs coming from Pearl. I pulled the curtain back. The moon was bright. There was my young sister standing by herself. Her head was in her hands and her shoulders were curled over in grief. The young man was nowhere to be seen.


Grace Washington is a part-time contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. Like many of our writers, she is from Texas with roots all around the South. Her stories often uncover the realities and courage of those who fight for justice. 

2 thoughts on “Tarnished Pearl

  1. I loved this story! I hope Grace Washington will let us know what happens next. When I read this story, I felt as if I was right there with her.

    • I loved this story too, Karen! Like you, I hope Grace will let us know what happens with Pearl and Momma and the narrator. Lots of good, juicy conflict in this one! 🙂

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