The Reason for All the Misery

By Grace Washington

Reverend Samuels’ car was quiet but for Pearl’s weak moans and the tread of the tires against the road. It started raining as soon as we left Milledgeville. The rhythm of the raindrops on the windshield would have been soothing another time, but right now all I could think about was getting Pearl to the hospital.

In the dark quiet, I thought about Momma. She would surely be pacing the floor until she heard some news. I went over in my mind how I could have made this situation better, but I couldn’t.

I looked at the back of the reverend’s head and thought about his words to Momma before we left. I needed to accept that we were all doing the best we could. Still, I shivered thinking about Momma. I wasn’t sure she would be able to get past any of this.

“Miss Grace,” Reverend Samuels cleared his throat and looked back at me from the rearview mirror. “I know your Momma was upset about all this, but she a good woman and she been through a lot.”

I nodded, curious about why the pastor chose now to say that. Could he read my thoughts? Could he see the worry on my face for both my sister and my mother?

He stumbled over the next words, his eyes flickering from the road to the mirror where he could see me.

“Some the other ladies…” he said. “…In, in the congregation….” He paused like he was holding his breath, nervous about something. “Well…we’ve been worried about her. She just ain’t able to stand much since Ernest died.”

I looked out the window and gave thanks for the darkness. From the heat I felt in my neck and ears, I knew my face had to ten shades of red. Here I’d been working all these weeks to help Momma get a break, to keep other people’s noses out of our business, and here the reverend says the one thing Momma feared the most – that she was being talked about by the pastor and the church women.

Reverend Samuels cleared his throat again and I met his eyes in the mirror.

He spoke more softly now, as if he knew he had embarrassed me. “She got those young’uns to raise, you know. And now…this. “ He whispered the last part and glanced quickly over his shoulder at my sister who had stopped moaning and started shivering.

The heat from my embarrassment flipped over in my stomach and turned to resentment. I know the pastor meant well, but it felt more like judgment and, with everything else I had dealt with recently, I didn’t need nobody looking down their nose at my family.

“Reverend, I thank you for your concern and I thank you for helping us out tonight.” I bit my tongue and tried to remember my manners. “We’re…Momma’s doing alright.”

The rain came down heavy then, so much so that even if I had wanted to continue our conversation, neither would have been able to hear the other. I took comfort in the back and forth of the windshield wipers and tried to reign in my shame.

We were just a few miles out of Tilton when the rain let up.

“I didn’t mean to offend you, Miss Grace,” Reverend Samuels said. “All I meant to say was…your Momma is in a mighty fragile mental state and….” He glanced back over his shoulder at Pearl. “She got plenty of reason.”

I looked down at my sister who seemed so small just then and I felt so weak all the sudden.

“What’re you sayin’, Reverend?” My voice was barely above a whisper. It was all I could manage. “I take good care of Momma. Don’t I? I look after her and the little ones.” I squeezed Pearl’s hand. “We ain’t got money for anything more.”

The car slowed as we neared the hospital. Reverend Samuels pulled up as close as he could to the door and got out of the car. I wasn’t exactly sure how old he was, but until that day he had always just been old. Watching how fast he moved and how easily he lifted Pearl into his arms, I wondered just how old he really was.

We hadn’t gotten halfway down the sidewalk before two orderlies came running out with a gurney. While Pearl was loaded onto it, I tried to avoid the blood staining her entire lower half. I shut my eyes and tried to tell myself that my sister was so young, so healthy, and oh so stubborn. Surely she would be okay.

“Surely, God,” I said out loud.

When I opened my eyes, Pearl was already inside the building. Reverend Samuels had his head down. When he saw I was ready, without a word, he bowed and held the door open.

I’m not sure how much time had passed by the time the doctor came out to see us. When I saw him coming, I stood up and walked toward him.

“I’ve got good news and bad news about your sister,” the doctor said.

I hated it when people said this. Why couldn’t they just get to the point?

The doctor must have sensed my lack of patience. He just dove headlong into the bad news first.

“We couldn’t save the baby,” he said.

This hit me harder than I thought it would. My knees went weak and I had to reach for the nearest chair so they wouldn’t buckle completely.

“And the good news?” I asked, tears choking my voice.

“We can save Pearl,” he said.

“Oh, thank God!” I wanted to stand up and shake the doctor’s hand, but he took a step back from me and crossed his arms over his white coat.

“There’s a cost you all need to understand,” he said.

I thought immediately of how many houses I would have to clean and realized that none of that mattered.

“What is it? I can pay. I can get the money,” I said.

The doctor held up his hands and shook his head. “No, no. No, you need to understand what’s happened here. Pearl’s lost a lot of blood and it looks like the pregnancy did some damage to her reproductive organs. She can’t ever have kids now. We need to remove those organs so she can’t ever get hurt like this again.”

The blood rushed to my feet and I felt like I might be sick.

“No children?”

The doctor shook his head again. “I’m sorry, Miss Washington.”

I couldn’t say anything back. Tears ran down my face. I was thankful to know Pearl would be okay, but to think of her losing her chance at being a mother made me ache inside.

Reverend Samuels handed me a handkerchief and I wiped my eyes.

“Thank you, doctor,” I finally managed to say. “Please do whatever needs done to save my sister.”

“We’ll take care of her from here,” he said. “If you want to go home and get some rest, you can see her tomorrow.”

The rain had almost stopped as we got back into Reverend Samuels’s car. It had turned cold while we were in the hospital, and my teeth began to chatter. My body started shaking.

Reverend Samuels pulled a blanket from out of the trunk and offered it to me. I draped it over my shoulders and covered myself with it all the way to my toes.

We drove for a while in the darkness without a word. I thought over the whole awful night. For the first time in hours, I thought of Momma and remembered she was probably still up pacing the floor.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said out loud. “I was planning on going back to college next fall, but Momma and Pearl…. Who’s going to look after them?”

I wasn’t sure what I expected the reverend to say, but when he finally spoke he said, “There’s something you need to know.”

“Oh, Reverend,” I said, my voice sad and sleepy. “Nothing good ever comes from those words.”

“It pertains to your momma,” he said. “And it’s something you need to know while you figure out your future.”

This made me sit up a little bit. I didn’t realize it then, but it was the first time in a long time that somebody besides me had mentioned my future.

“I was a young man when I came to minister to the people in Milledgeville. Not long after I arrived, a young woman came to talk to me. She was in a similar way that Pearl was. Even though the father of the child was still around, they weren’t married and she was afraid if she told him, he’d run out on her. She was so scared. I’d never seen anything like it and I worried she might do something desperate.”

“What’d you do?” I asked.

“I asked her to bring in the baby’s father and we would tell him together. I thought maybe some prayer and Bible study might help.”

“What happened? Did he come?”

The reverend nodded. “He was such an angry young man. They were both miserable, truth be told. He said he had to leave to get some air. Said he couldn’t breathe inside a church. As he walked away, I knew he wouldn’t be back. I never felt sorrier for anyone more than I did that girl. She was all alone.”

“What happened to her?” In my mind’s eye I saw Pearl’s face as the woman in the story and I wanted to know that she ended up okay.

“As it turns out, I had some friends over in Willoughby where I did some preaching now and then before I came to Milledgeville. I took the woman with me to a revival and she met Ernest Washington, Jr.”

He was silent for a moment after that. It took his words that long to sink in.

“But Ernest Washington, Jr. was my father.”

Reverend Samuels grimaced. Your momma and Ernest fell in love by Christmas. They got married in January and, if I remember right, you were born in February.”

“The girl was my momma and Daddy wasn’t my real father?” Big tears fell from my eyes and I didn’t even try to wipe them away. “Whatever happened to my real dad?”

“I have no idea who he was or where he went,” Reverend Samuels said. “I’m sorry to tell you all this now. You’ve been carrying a heavy burden and I just thought you ought to know.”

After everything I done to be a good daughter and sister, none of it really mattered. None of it had been really real. I was the reason for Momma’s shame. I was the reason that Momma didn’t expect anything to ever work out for her. Just as I had always suspected, I was the reason for all the misery.

Grace Washington is a 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.

A Side to Momma I’d Never Known

By Grace Washington

I didn’t have time to worry about Momma’s shock and her sudden discovery of Pearl’s condition. Momma looked so odd sitting at the table with her mouth open trying to absorb what all had just happened. The three younger children had put their forks down completely ignoring the meal Momma had made, even though it was everyone’s favorite.

I put my arm around Pearl and walked her back to the bedroom. Pearl was barely in bed when Momma came charging into the room. She was hysterical.

“Grace,” she cried. “We got to call the amblance people! Run across the field to Lillibelle’s and see if she can call them!”

“Momma, ain’t no ambulance comin’ to this part of town after dark,” I reminded her while trying to get more towels to cover the blood that seemed to be everywhere on my sister. “They might not even come during the day!”

Momma screamed and fell to her knees.

“Oh Lordy, help us now in our hour of need,” she said. Tears were streaming down her face. The hands she lifted into the air were shaking. “I call upon the Great God of heaven to come and save this…my errant child.”

I ran to the bathroom and wrung out a wash cloth with some water. When I got back, Pearl was moaning. Her face was so pale.

“Only one person might help us,” I said to Momma. “But you’re not gonna like it.”

Momma looked up. “Who would help us now?” Her face was covered in tears like nothing I had ever seen before.

“Go to Lillibelle’s,” I said. “Call Reverend Samuels. He’s the only one with a car that might take mercy on us and drive us to the colored hospital over in Tilton.”

Mother stared at me as if I had grown horns. “What you mean, girl? I ain’t gonna call my reverend for something like this! You think I want the church people knowing what’s happened here?”

It took a couple of seconds for the impact of Momma’s words to sink in. When they did, I had to sit down next to Pearl on the bed. I felt gutted. Was my own sweet mother more concerned about what church folks thought than her own daughter’s life?

“You know Zinnia and Millie get ahold of this, and we’ll never be able to hold our heads up anywhere in this town again. ”

I turned back to Pearl. She was still moaning, but the sounds grew quieter.

“Momma, forget the church people,” I heard myself hissing at my own mother. “This is your daughter! We need Reverend Samuels’ car. If he has any soul at all he’ll see us as we are. We’re all sinners–he knows that! He’s our only hope, Momma.”

Mother slid to the floor and started rocking back and forth.

I ran to the kitchen.

“Tom, John, you all need to get to Miss Lillibelle’s house and use her telephone to call Reverend Samuels.”

They just stared at me, their eyes wider than the saucers sitting on the table in front of them.

“Is Pearl dyin’?” John asked.

Their innocent, frightened faces made me ache inside. They were getting an education and fast.

“Yes, Pearl is very sick. I need you to help her. Go on, now! And tell Reverend Samuels hurry!”

It seemed like an eternity before I heard Reverend Samuels car in the front yard. Pearl had somehow rallied long enough to scream through a shock of pain and then the fell limp on the bed.

To my shock, Mother left us only to reappear just before the reverend arrived. Her hair had been combed out and she had lipstick on. But no amount of makeup would hide her hysteria. She shook like a leaf and, before Pearl passed out, she wailed with Pearl’s every sound.

The boys led the reverend to our bedroom. He had taken off his coat and hat before he got there as if he was there for a prayer meeting. His face told me he hadn’t expected what he got.

“Reverend Samuels,” I said. “My sister’s got herself in the family way. Something is terribly wrong.”

The reverend nodded. His face was solemn and sad.

“We’re so sorry to take you out of your house tonight,” my mother said shuffling quickly to our pastor. Her words seemed meant for more civil times but her voice was screechy and wild.

To my great relief, Reverend Samuels took my mother’s hand and patted it.

“We got to help little Pearl over there,” he said. “We’re gonna do the best we can and the rest in in God’s hands.”

Momma nodded. Her face and body relaxed and, for the first time since all this happened, she went to Pearl’s side and took her hand.

“You hear that, young lady?” Momma said, her voice a little shaky but not hysterical. “We got to do the best we can. That means you too.”

“Do you know how far along she was?” Reverend Samuel’s asked while he put his coat back on.

“I think she’s about four months along,” I said. Now I understood the shame Mother had felt moments before. Speaking it out loud like that to someone of Reverend Samuel’s stature made me feel so ashamed.

“Alright then,” he said. “I already took the liberty of calling Mercy hospital to let them know we’re coming. I didn’t know how bad it was–just thought it might be pneumonia or some such.”

Without blinking an eye, he gently wedged his way between me and my sister. He scooped her up in his arms like a baby and started walking to the car.

“It’ll take us half an hour to get there,” he continued, as if he wasn’t carrying my unconscious sister in his arms. “Miss Grace, will you be so kind as to ride along with us?”

I grabbed the blankets off the other bed and hurried out with the reverend. Before I got in the car, though, Momma grabbed my arm and pulled me back.

“When all this is over,” she said, her voice filled with anger, “You got a lot of explaining to do, young lady.”

I wanted to tell her how I hadn’t tried to hide anything, that I just didn’t want her to worry, but there wasn’t time. If we wanted Pearl to live, we had to go now.

“I gotta go, Momma.”

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.

The Weight of Worry

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. 

Confronting Pearl

By Grace Washington

I tried not to think of how things were going to turn out. Many nights I sat in the dark in my mother’s rocking chair in the front room praying, crying, asking for divine intervention. My sister, Pearl, was a mindless creature lurking about in the night – trying to find some hapless man to marry her. I didn’t say anything to her when I heard her crawling out the back window. What could I have said? Truth was, I was half-hoping she would find someone to marry her so she could be someone else’s problem.

That might sound harsh, but Pearl would always find some way to go on, someone to cheat, someone to pay her bills. I was fine with all of this as long as that someone wasn’t our poor mother.

It was the beginning of August, and I was supposed to go back to Fisk University in Nashville at the end of the month. It was the one thing I could do that made sense, but when I thought of Mother having to deal with Pearl and the other children, all sense went out the window.

Sometime around dawn I woke to the sound of Pearl trying to get back in the house through the bedroom window we shared with our siblings. Most nights I ended up sleeping on the couch. It just wasn’t ideal for me to sleep in the same room with so many people. On this night, though, I stayed put because I had heard my sister slip out around two in the morning and I wanted to be there when she got back.

She looked shocked when she saw my face in the window. I glared so hard I knew she’d be able to see my anger glowing in the dark. Before she could say a word, I pointed out toward the front of the house.

“Front porch! Now!” I whisper-yelled.

Her eyes grew two sizes larger and, without protest, she made a beeline in the direction I had pointed. I don’t think I had ever scared her as much as I did right then. It was a heady experience. She was so strong-headed; not much upset her.

Under the yellow light of the porch, my younger sister looked like something you might find in the gutter. Her dress had dirt on one side of it as if she had been rolling around in the mud. In one hand were her high heels, in the other, a cheap bottle of wine.

She stared at me in silence and I saw the old Pearl I was used to — all obstinance and entitlement.

I shook my head. “Don’t you go acting like you don’t deserve a good switch against your backside. I know about everything.”

Her eyes widened for just the glimpse of a moment and then her face became a mask of secrets.

“You can go on pretending you don’t know what I’m talking about but I heard you. I heard you whining and crying the other night, begging that boy to marry you!”

Pearl’s mouth dropped open but no words came out. She didn’t even seem to be breathing.

“Yeah, I know your secret.” I shook my head and sighed. “It’s unbelievable, even for you.”

I looked out into the night that was starting to pale into dawn and crossed my arms over my chest. “How far along you think that baby is? ”

All the spunk she was building up to moments before washed right out of her. She slouched and then stumbled to the steps of the porch. She plopped down and sat quiet for awhile.

“I already have a name picked out.” She finally said. She was looking down at her bare toes and she wiggled them.

“What?” Now it was my turn to be gut-punched. I shuffled to the steps and stood behind her. “That baby doesn’t need a name! It needs a family!”

Pearl blinked up at me, tears in her eyes. “You know I love him. He’s part of me!”

If it had been anybody else, I would have crumbled and cried beside them. But this was my sister, a girl who had never shown love for anyone but herself. She had never once offered to help Momma with the children or taken on odd jobs to help pay the bills. Times were tough with our father dead and our mother struggling to make ends meet.

I squinted at my little sister and said, “You will not bring that baby under this roof. You understand me? It would finish Momma off if she knew this had happened.”

My ears burned with anger and it took a lot for me not to kick her off the porch and send her out into the night. But I also knew that would kill Momma as much as the news that Pearl was pregnant, so I refrained.

“Look, you can give birth to that baby, but we’re going to talk to Reverend Busby next week and get you set up with a family that can adopt the one you’re carrying.”

Pearl shook her head and sobbed. “No! I can take care of him! We can take care of him!”

Pearl stared at the inky sky and then her shoulders slumped and she began to cry. I watched her and I tried not to feel sorry for her.

I thought of our mother sleeping peacefully in her bed. I had helped her all summer with her cleaning jobs, and for the first time since Daddy died, she was beginning to look rested. I tried to take stress off her, but Pearl only added to it. She was so different from me. She didn’t think through things. She certainly didn’t give much thought to all the pain she had caused Momma.

But there she was sitting on the step crying hysterically now. She lived so completely in the moment, so absorbed in her own wants. All she ever thought about was the next drink, the next cigarette, the next man. I looked at her sobbing and knew she had not a clue what having a baby meant – not only to her, but to her momma and all the rest of us.

In the end, it broke my heart. I knew what was going to happen next. I hurt for Momma, I hurt for what this would mean for me and, to be honest, I hurt for Pearl too. She was only 15. From all outward appearances, she was a woman, but on the inside, she was just a kid.

After watching her for another minute, I did the only thing left to do. I scrunched down and sat next to her on the step. I put my arm around her and rocked her back and forth until she calmed down.

When she was quiet, I wiped the tears from her eyes and said, “Alright now. You are my sister and I love you. I don’t like you, but I love you. I will be here for you.”

She put her head in my lap and sobbed again while I rubbed her back. I looked out at the road in front of our house and saw all of my dreams collapsing. My place would be here to help Momma and Pearl and the rest of them.

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. 

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. 

First Summer Home

By Grace Washington

Sunday mornings were always busy in Momma’s house. All five of us kids knew church attendance was mandatory. Even I, who had been off at college over the last year, knew not to question that.

Being the oldest, it was my job to help the younger ones get ready. I had just stood up from buckling my baby sister’s shoes when I caught my mother looking in the mirror in her bedroom. Outside that room I felt the chaos of five young people getting their hair pinned back or worrying about where they put their gloves. Inside Momma’s bedroom, it was completely still.

“What you looking at, child?” my mother asked, her eyes still turned toward the mirror while she adjusted her hat.

“It’s just so quiet in there,” I said. I walked forward to the doorway and leaned against the frame.

It had been months since my father had passed away. The last time I had been home, he had been confined to the bed that was now perfectly made, without the hint of a wrinkle. He had shriveled up to nothing by then, but his presence was anything but quiet. He was in such pain and misery and so very helpless. I was at college when he died, but Momma told me to stay put. She didn’t want me to miss a day of schooling.

“I’ve got church folks who can help out,” she had said over the phone. Her voice had sounded so tired, so worn.

So I had stayed at school and finished my semester there, telling myself that it was only a couple of weeks, trying to believe that she would need my help more once the reality of things set in.

Momma turned from the mirror and smiled. That weariness I had heard in her voice on the phone showed up in the wrinkles that tugged at her eyes. She was forty-five, but she looked sixty. She had the same expression on her face that I had seen on other black people as they aged. It was the look of resignation.

“We all ready for church?” she asked. She walked past me and patted me on the shoulder.

“Yes ma’am,” I said. I walked to the table and put my own hat on. “We’re ready.

All of us moved toward the door and I noticed as Momma walked through, her shoulders relaxed and her posture grew more confident. We were going to church as we had done every Sunday since before I was born, but it was the first time I realized what it gave my mother. It was a way for her to feel more hopeful and secure about her life and the world in which she lived.

The walk to the church was not far and we met up with others along the way. I had grown up around all of them. We were like extended family, really.

I watched Momma greeting the other families. She was so graceful, so much more alive than any other time. Her smiles were effortless with her lady friends at church. I thought about the many times I had seen them gather at one another’s homes after worship and how everyone raved about my momma’s bread pudding

No wonder she loved it so. It gave her so much and helped her keep going. As happy as it made me to know she was well loved and respected, my year at college had opened my eyes to a life different than this. It was a hoped-for life, but it was a life without the weary ways of hard labor and racial injustice. I felt sad when I realized that there were borders in every part of my Momma’s life, lines not to be crossed. She had accepted her lot in life a long time ago, but I couldn’t let go of the possibilities of something different.

Walking with those families to church for the first time since returning from school, I couldn’t help but feel a world apart. I think they felt similarly. Sure, they smiled and were kind, but they looked at me differently, as if I had crossed one of those borders, as if I had betrayed them somehow.

My sister Pearl seemed to believe I had and she told me so.

“What you think you’re doing?” she had said before I left for college. “You just going to make life harder for all of us!”

I remember then struggling to keep my mouth shut. What did she know? She was 15, beautiful, and boy crazy. With all the boys who flocked around her, she was headed toward babies and marriage before she was 17. I didn’t think she had a lick of sense. But since returning from school, I was starting to think maybe others felt the same way.

Still, I did my best that summer to fit back in and to help out Momma. I put on a uniform, just like Momma’s, and I accompanied her to her cleaning jobs. When she wasn’t at the nursing home taking care of old white folks, she was cleaning their families’ houses. She worked so hard. I wanted to take some of the burden off her if I could.

No matter what I did, though, I couldn’t shut out the year of college under my belt. It had opened my mind, raised my consciousness. Momma never questioned her existence. She didn’t have the luxury to think about it, I guessed. And she didn’t understand why I did. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to help. I especially wanted to make Momma’s life better, but as the weeks passed, I didn’t think change would come in time to save her.

That first morning of work together, she and I left before the sun was over the rooftops. The early summer air was fresh, not yet sticky like it would be later in the day.

A few minutes passed before either of us said anything. It was enough to be together, to listen to the birds busy in the trees and bushes.

It was Momma who broke the silence. When she spoke, I realized that she had been holding whatever it was in. Her words came out awkward and hurried.

“Gracey, there’s something you need to know.”

I stopped walking and turned to look at her. She stopped too, but she looked off in the direction we were headed. I had the sensation that she was afraid to go on but also afraid not to.

“We’ve got a job to do today,” she said. Her fingers dug into the pockets on the front of her apron, which was part of her uniform.

“Yes, ma’am.” I held my breath and dared not rush her. She seemed skittish as an old hen.

“It’s just,” she said and then paused for too long. She was searching for something. “Maybe you oughtn’t to come with me.”

I felt my shoulders stiffen. Was Pearl right? Had I made things harder for our family by going to college? Is that what this was about?

Before I could protest, Momma raised a hand to my arm. “There’s a man at this first job,” she said. “He’s…he’s not a good man.”

My cheeks burned hot with anger at the thought that someone had hurt my mother. I wanted to scream, but I knew it would do no good to anyone.

Instead, I took a deep breath. My lips trembled as I said, “Momma, has he hurt you?”

She looked down and then off again toward the place where we had been heading. “His wife is usually there,” she said.

She didn’t answer my question directly, but she didn’t have to. I tried not to hate anyone. Being vindictive and resentful never did anyone any good. But sometimes, I just wanted to take matters into my own hands and hurt those who hurt the ones I loved, especially Momma.

“You can’t go there, Momma,” I said. I heard the pleading in my voice and I couldn’t control it. “Please. Let’s find something else.”

She shook her head. “If I don’t go, there won’t be anything else. Word gets out that I’ve up and quit for no good reason I won’t get another job anywhere. Gracey, I need the money.”

I looked into her dark eyes and I felt all her weariness weighing into my shoulders. Survival was why she put up with this life. She just needed to get through another day, get her kids fed and grown. I wanted to take all that from her and give her a good life. I wanted her to have respect and ease and comfort. And then I felt the resignation I had seen in her. It crept up into my shoulders and neck. She had no other choice. There were hungry mouths to fill and no other way of making do.

“I’ll go with you, Momma,” I said. I tried to speak evenly so she wouldn’t hear the heartbreak in my voice. “Maybe with two of us there….”

I didn’t finish the sentence. I wouldn’t have been able to without being honest. The truth was that I hoped with us both there he wouldn’t try anything and I wouldn’t have to kill him.

Momma nodded. She held out her hand and I took it. She wrapped my arm in with hers and we walked the rest of the way in silence.


Grace Washington is a new 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. 

No More

By Grace Washington

“Momma, don’t look so worried,” I said. I patted her arm and walked past her to the room I shared with my sisters.

“I ain’t worried!” she said in a huff. “You just ain’t got no sense is all.”

It took restraint for me not to roll my eyes. It would do no good to be disrespectful. It didn’t matter that I was a grown woman now, a college graduate. Momma could still remind me of her place in our house.

“As long as I lived under her roof,” she’d said time and again.

But now I was moving out from her roof and she was scared. With every piece of clothing I packed, her hands plunged deeper into the pockets of her uniform. I knew her heart was breaking, but it was time for me to go, even if where I was headed was scary and dangerous, even to me.

It had been two years since the Freedom March in 1962 when I had heard Doctor King speak. My heart swelled with pride when I listened to his speech. He gave such an impassioned plea for help with the civil rights movement. It had stirred something deep within my soul.

I knew then I wouldn’t be able to stay in my little town of Milledgeville, Georgia. If I did, I had only one choice, and that was to become a service worker like my momma.

I looked over at her, her hair graying at her temples already. My going to college was hard enough on her, but she was proud I had graduated, and magna cum laude, no less. The whole neighborhood got an earful about that. But the people Momma worked for didn’t even know she had a daughter that had gone to school. In fact, she hid that fact from most white folks. If they knew, it might make life very difficult for all of us.

No, if I stayed in Milledgeville, I’d end up walking with Momma every morning to Rosehill Lane where all the society matrons lived. I’d spend my days minding their children and doing someone else’s dirty laundry. They would give me those measuring looks when they wondered if I had taken some of their silver after I spent the afternoon polishing it. They would choose to treat me as if I were a pet, and pretend we were friends. Or they might scream and yelI if I didn’t stay in my place.

Staying in my place meant different things to different people. In Milledgeville, it would always be my job to know what my place was in any social setting.

I saw the writing on the wall. I could see how it would always be. I wouldn’t survive in Momma’s world. I needed things to change.

In Momma’s world, she was “Girl” and she had to jump whenever anybody told her to. The only place she could be just herself was at the Immanuel Baptist Church around the corner. They called her Mrs. Washington there. I’m not sure how she did it, but somehow, every Sunday, she managed to get all five of us kids washed up and down to the church. We went during the summer’s heat or winter’s ice. It didn’t matter.

My momma had made a name for herself at church. Even after working long hours at the nursing home, she was there for any family who needed her. She was known for always showing up on the doorstep of bereaved families with a baked ham or a caramel cake. Some days, her oven didn’t get turned off until late at night. In addition to looking after the white folks at the nursing home and the heartsick people at church, she tended to her houseful of kids and a sick husband, too.

Was it wrong that I wanted something different than that? It was 1964, and change was in the air. I wanted to be a part of that.

“Now don’t forget to bathe everyday,” Momma said, as if I might forget. “And don’t draw any attention to yourself. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

Her eyes glazed over then. I could tell she didn’t hear me when I told her I would be okay and would do all that she told me. I watched her face for a minute. She seemed lost in another time.

When she looked back at me, her eyes were clouded with tears.

It’s just…so much can go wrong. And some things never change,” she said. Her voice trembled.

There was something different about what she said, a tone I had never heard before. It surprised me, so I just stood there and listened.

“There’s always going to be white people and you ain’t ever gonna change their ways no matter what you do.”

She reached in the pocket of her uniform and pulled out a worn out photograph.

“That was my brother,” she said. “Ben. I don’t even know how he got that picture made. He was always a charmer. He had his ways. And it’s what got him in trouble.”

“What happened to him?” I asked, even though I had my suspicions. Even these days it happened often enough that I didn’t really have to guess.

“I was just a girl,” she said. “It was after midnight. We lived in a two-room shack out in the woods.” She pointed somewhere in the distance, a place I had never heard of or been to.

“The hooded white men in sheets came up on our front steps. They banged on the door and hollered for Ben to come out. The whole family was terrified.” Even so many years later, her eyes were wide with fear.

“Daddy asked what business the man had with his son. Ben was only fourteen. But the man just fired a pistol in the air and said, ‘Bring us Ben or you’ll all get some of this. You got ‘til Three.’ And he started counting.”

“It didn’t take but one word for my brother to walk out onto that porch with the rest of us. We didn’t even blink twice before those men had him off the porch and strapped up in an oak tree right next to our house. They had the noose made already and they tied his hands behind his back.”

Momma shook as she told this story. I realized I was shaking too. I guided her to the bed and we sat down, both crying hard tears.

“Every one of those men grabbed some part of the rope and hoisted Ben into the air. He put up such a struggle. And then one of them yelled up to him. ‘You gonna whistle at another white woman, you nigga?’ But Ben couldn’t answer.”

Momma gasped at the memory. “His head lolled onto his chest and the only sound left was the creaking of the branch he was swinging on.”

She grabbed my hands tight and said through gritted teeth, “And now you’re going off as if you can change anything. Why in heaven’s name you got to put yourself in harm’s way? Where did you get this from? Ain’t nobody in our family got the gumption you got. Why’d you have to grow up and be like this?”

Tears blurred my vision. “Momma,” I said. “I got to do this for Ben. I got to do this so we don’t have to grieve like this anymore.”

She grabbed me and pulled me to her, sobbing into my neck. “But why you?” she asked.

Not an hour later, I had a moment asking myself the same question.

I boarded the bus and the driver simply looked past me like I didn’t exist.

All around me were empty seats, but my place was in the back. I felt angry all the sudden, sad and angry. I hesitated for only a moment at an empty aisle seat and the white woman sitting next to the window put her purse down, daring me with her eyes to just try to sit there. If I had, she would’ve caused some sort of ruckus. I might be kicked off the bus before I left my own town!

I moved on toward the back and tried not to show my anger. An old black woman on the next to last seat in the bus patted the seat next to her. She seemed upset about something and I assumed she was angry about the same thing I was. Her dark eyes flashed and her lips were pursed together tightly. She was dressed much like my momma, in a service uniform, but I couldn’t tell where she might have worked or why she was on the bus.

Once I got settled in, she leaned in close to my ear and whispered, “Did you really think you could sit next to that white woman? Who do you think you are?”

It didn’t much surprise me to hear her say those things. Momma probably would have said the same thing. But I said what I would have said to Momma, “Nothing will change until someone makes it.”

She stared at me as if I had slapped her and it nearly made me smile. She did remind me of Momma. And something about that gave me comfort.

“Now, you listen here!” The woman said. “You don’t know what you’re playing at.”

I looked down at the worn picture of Ben my momma had given me. It was true that my heart beat with fear for what lay ahead, but I couldn’t just sit still anymore.

The woman looked over at the picture and nodded.

“Somebody you know?” she asked.

I shook my head. “He died before I was born.”

“Oh yeah,” she said, her voice cracking. “We’ve all got one of those.”

The bus driver announced the next town ahead on my journey to Mississippi and any fear I’d had before disappeared. It was happening. It was really happening.

I reached out and took both of the woman’s hard, work-roughened hands. “Don’t you understand? Everything I do from now on is so we don’t have anymore of those.”


Grace Washington is a new contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. Like many of our writers, she is from Texas with roots all around the South. We look forward to hearing more from her!