By Grace Washington
My legs bounced with impatience while I sat on the couch in the middle of the night waiting for Pearl to come home. I was the only one awake in the house, but then, I was the only one who knew Pearl wasn’t there. While my life was trudging slowly by, people I had known at college seemed to be on fast tracks to all kinds of success. And Pearl was on the fast track to trouble.
I didn’t want to be up waiting for my little sister, but it seemed like somebody ought to be looking out for her, worrying about her.
I stood up and peered out the front window. I closed my eyes tightly and wished for Pearl to appear. When I opened my eyes, she was nowhere to be seen.
It was cold outside. The moon was so bright I could see frost glistening on car windows and stubborn clumps of grass that had grown up through the concrete over the summer.
I guessed that Pearl was probably somewhere out in the middle of that freeze – always one to only think of herself, not even caring about the baby that she carried inside her. What if she caught cold and it became something worse?
I looked up at the radium clock that sat on a wall shelf in the living room. It was three in the morning. The bar was about four blocks from where we lived. Before I could talk myself out of it, I had my coat on and I was out walking in the cold.
I resented every step I took. The winter wind blew in my face and I blamed my little sister. By the time I reached the parking lot of the bar, I was angry and winded. I was caught up short, though, when I realized I’d have to walk through a half-dozen couples kissing in that cold parking lot to reach the door of the bar. It made me feel sick.
From outside the bar window, I saw Pearl. Even at that distance I could see her pregnancy glowing on her face. And then she tipped up another drink from some kind of dark bottle and she laughed at something the young man across the table said to her.
Pearl turned the bottle up to drink the last few drops from it and I shivered. I’m still not certain if I felt the chill from being outside in the cold or from watching my baby sister down the last drops of whiskey like someone with nothing to lose.
But she did have something to lose. She had that baby growing inside her and she wasn’t doing a thing to take care of herself and make sure it was healthy when it arrived. I hadn’t wanted that baby any more than anyone else, but in the last few weeks, I had begun to think of him or her as a part of our family.
With courage I didn’t know I had, I pulled my coat tighter and marched through the thicket of kissing couples in through the door of the bar. Before Pearl could even register who I was, I was standing in front of her table. I pulled the bottle from her hands and grabbed her arm, forcing her to stand up.
She squealed and the man with her stood up as if to defend her.
“You know she’s pregnant, don’t you?” I asked him.
His face changed in an instant and he looked slowly from me to my sister.
“She just wants to trap you so you’ll marry her and give her baby a name.”
Pearl’s eyes on me were murderous but I continued.
I raised my voice and turned to the entire bar and said, “That goes for all you. My baby sister is pregnant!”
You would have thought I had said she had the plague. Every single man in that room simultaneously leaned away. Some of them even slumped off to the darker regions of the bar, as if they might be accused of getting Pearl pregnant.
I pulled my sister by the arm and shoved her out into the night. She was drunk. She could barely walk, but I refused to give her any help. She’d brought this on herself.
“Why’d you go and do that?” she asked. Her tone was angry and bitter, but her words were so slurred I could barely understand her.
She looked at me for an answer, but I was too fed up to say anything now. I had done what I set out to do – get Pearl out of that bar. Even so, I was guarded. I kept one eye on her and felt my heart twist with disappointment and suspicion.
“That guy was nice,” she continued. Then she stumbled a couple of paces and giggled.
“I have half a mind to put you on a bus to nowhere just to get you out from under Mama’s worry.”
Pearl stopped in the middle of the road and stared at me. Her mouth opened to an ugly sob and tears sprung out of her eyes.
“I would be alone,” she cried through her drunken stupor. “I don’t know how to be alone!”
I shook my head and sighed.
“What am I supposed to do with you?” I asked. “You don’t care about anyone but yourself. Look at you! You’re pregnant! Don’t you want to be a good mother?”
She nodded and wiped her nose on the sleeve of her sweater.
“Then get it together – or you’re getting on a bus to anywhere but here.”
A few hours later, I rose from a muddied sleep and looked over at Pearl. She was sleeping peacefully. I shook my head and pulled back the covers to get out of bed. As I shuffled off to the bathroom, I kept telling myself that all this stuff I did for my little sister was really for my mother. Her peace of mind meant so much to me that I was willing to stay home from college for a year just to help her out.
Without meaning to, I wished Pearl had never been born. Without her there would be fewer worries, even with all the other kids Mama had to contend with. Then I chided myself. Pastor would look harshly upon me for the things that were in my heart when I thought of that selfish girl.
Looking into the mirror in the bathroom, I asked Jesus for forgiveness for my mean thoughts. I asked him to take away my mean thoughts toward Pearl and help me to be a better person. And then I leaned my forehead on the mirror and prayed I would get through the day without falling asleep. I had a cleaning job to get through.
I knew it was going to be a hard day when I saw Mr. Butler’s car in the driveway. I wondered why he was home on a Tuesday morning. His wife’s car was gone, though. With her there, at least I’d have a buffer, but now I’d have to keep my eyes down and pretend to be deaf, dumb, and mute. He was one of the meanest men in town and everybody knew it.
I was loading the laundry into the washing machine when Mr. Butler came into the kitchen wearing his yellow striped pajamas. I felt myself blush from embarrassment and uneasiness, but I simply kept my eyes down and kept working.
“How ‘bout I help you do that laundry,” he said sidling up next to me. He placed a hand on my back like we were old, intimate friends and leaned over as if to grab one of the pieces of laundry.
I was terrified. Without thinking, I jumped away from him. That was the worst thing I could have done.
I tried to soothe everything by laughing and saying, “Oh my! You gave me quite a surprise. I didn’t realize you had come in the room! I’m so sorry.” But it came out high pitched and completely unbelievable.
Mr. Butcher’s eyes were two dark stones and his face burned red with fury.
“You little bitch!” he spat through clenched teeth. Then he paused and listened. There was a car door that slammed and heels clacked on the pavement outside.
Mrs. Butler walked in seconds later. Even before she got through the door, she was chirping on about a good buy on porterhouse steaks. She and Mr. Butler were hosting a cookout for all their friends and she went on and on about what it was going to be like.
She didn’t seem to notice her husband standing there in his pajamas. Very casually, he picked up one of the clean towels I had just folded and draped it over his arm.
“Honey?” Mrs. Butler said, “Why are you still in your p-j’s?” Her voice sounded worried and she stepped forward with a hand raised, like she might try to feel his forehead for a fever.
He ducked away, though, and held up the towel.
“The maid here didn’t supply me with a towel for my shower,” he said nodding his head toward me. “And she still hasn’t made me breakfast.”
Mrs. Butler looked over at me and smiled, but it was one of those two-faced smiles that Southern white women are so good at pulling off. It was civilized betrayal when it boiled down to it.
“Why don’t you run along and make Mr. Butler some breakfast?” She flicked her fingers toward the kitchen.
I was relieved to get out of there and continue my work. I just had to get through four more hours of cooking and cleaning before I could go home. By the end of it all, I was exhausted and I felt like I might just break down right there on the sidewalk, but I kept thinking about why I was doing this kind of work – for Mama – and I kept going.
It was worth it, too. When I walked through the back door of our house, I took a deep breath. Mama had made hot beans and rice with bacon and cornbread. It smelled so good after such a long day.
And how wonderful it was to sit down and eat and enjoy the family. I listened to all my little siblings tell about their days at school and I secretly whispered a prayer of thanks that there was only one Pearl in our family.
“Where is Pearl?” I asked, realizing just then that she had not joined us.
“She’s not feeling so good,” Mama said. “Think she may have that stomach bug going around.”
It took a miracle that I didn’t roll my eyes imagining Pearl’s troubles to be due to a stomach bug. I didn’t want to disrespect Mama but I also knew that girl had brought her illness – whatever it was – on herself.
Mama seemed keen to change the subject. Even though I tried to keep my disappointment in my little sister a secret from my mother, she knew how I really felt.
“Did I ever tell you about my first Christmas with your daddy?” she asked. Her face lit up and she leaned back in her chair.
I shook my head. “I don’t think so, Mama.”
“I was 17. Your father was so happy I had married him!” Her eyes were distant, as if she was being transported to that time when she and Daddy were so young. “He was so happy I had married him!” She giggled and slapped the table with her fingertips. “You know, he was so eager to make us official that he went down to the bank and added my name to his checking account? It wasn’t just Ernest Washington, Jr. anymore. It was Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Washington, Jr.!”
The thought of this warmed my heart and, although it was often weighted with worries for our family, in that moment I forgot them and enjoyed being with my family.
“We had a little Christmas tree by the window,” Mama continued. “His mother had given us one string of lights to wrap around it. They blinked off and on, and we would lie in the dark and watch those blinky lights for hours at a time. Ernest had already put a present under the tree for me. It was a long sort of flat box that he had wrapped himself. He made me promise not to peek, not to ruin the Christmas surprise. I spent lots of time wondering what that box held. Then on Christmas Eve, when both of our families were at our apartment, we each opened one present. Ernest got up and handed me the long-awaited present. I was almost afraid to open it, but when I did I couldn’t believe my eyes. I didn’t want to believe it.”
“What was it?” I asked.
“An ironing board!” she said, laughing until tears came into her eyes. “Oh, I was so mad, I pushed it away from me and threw it on the floor!”
“Wow, Mama – I can’t imagine you doing that, even if the present was an ironing board.”
“The worst part,” she said, wiping her eyes on her napkin, “was that he tried to make it better with a smaller package. It was an ironing board cover to go with it!”
Mama laughed like I hadn’t heard her laugh in years. This made me laugh too. I stood up to grab a handkerchief from a drawer just outside the kitchen and that’s when I saw Pearl. Her face was ashen and her eyes were hollow.
“Help!” she said clutching her belly. “I think I’m losing the baby!”
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.