The JRB presents a new short story by Sebastian Murdoch.
‘Doesn’t that get boring?’ I ask Boone one morning from my spot on the porch. The sun is a ball of melted wax, and the heat drips down on to every tree and rock and cow. Boone is sweating in the flower bed, dragging up weeds and clumps of earth, and I am leaning against the porch railing, a glass of sweet iced tea at my elbow. The glass sweats just about as much as Boone. I run the tip of my finger along the side of the glass, drawing a line in the condensation.
‘No, Miss Shaw,’ he says, not looking at me.
I want him to look at me. ‘Boone,’ I say, ‘who do you work for?’
He pauses, head still down. I can see his dark, curly hair through a hole in his hat. ‘Mr Shaw, ma’am.’
‘And who is he?’
‘Your father, Miss Shaw.’
‘And would you lie to my daddy, Boone?’
‘No, ma’am, never.’
‘Good. Then you don’t lie to me, either.’ I like watching him try to figure out what exactly that is, watch his simple mind work in the split second between question and answer, watch the relief wash over his broad, dark face when he sees he’s chosen correctly. My sex pulsates, and I know I’ll be picturing that look on his face tonight when I go to bed.
Boone is quiet for a moment, still watching the earth and his motionless hands. ‘The tedium is the part I enjoy, miss,’ he says at last. ‘The more boring the task, the easier it is to let my mind wander where it will.’
‘And where does your mind go, Boone?’ I ask, and though I make my tone mocking like Daddy’s, the truth is I am actually curious.
He is quieter for longer this time, so long that I start to think he didn’t hear me until he speaks. ‘Nowhere specific,’ he says. ‘Somewhere cool and peaceful. A shady path through the trees during fall. I’m not going anywhere particular, just walking, looking up at the leaves.’
I huff out a sigh, my chin resting in my palm. ‘That’s all? Sounds just as boring as pulling weeds to me,’ I say. Perhaps Mama and Daddy were right; maybe there really isn’t anything worth half a nickel in their heads. ‘I’m going into town, Boone,’ I say. ‘If Daddy asks, just tell him I went round to Cynthia Cline’s house.’
He nods and says nothing.
There aren’t many people wandering through town today, on account of the damn heat and humidity after all the rain, but there are enough that I get stopped a time or two to say hello. My family is well known in town, not least because of the kind of money Daddy makes from his slaughterhouses. Our parties, especially the Fourth of July barbecue Mama heads every year, are all anyone talks about when I see them.
‘I was just telling your mother,’ says Mrs Etta Holt, ‘that I’ve done nothing but fuss over what dress I’ll wear for a whole month. I can’t decide between blue or yellow.’ Mrs Etta is an old woman, older than Mama, so I’m to be extra nice to her whenever we meet on the street. She’s got the ear of the whole town, and if I smart off to her then Daddy will surely hear of it, and he’ll have his belt off before I reach the driveway. Still, today isn’t the first time I’ve wanted to ask her just how many birds have mistaken her stiff, blue hair for their nests.
‘I think Mama’s planning to wear her blue dress with the chiffon,’ I say. My smile feels like I’ve got a slice of lemon stuck between my teeth.
Mrs Etta lets out a little shout of revelation. ‘It’s settled then,’ she says. ‘The yellow one it is.’
I nod, even though I know that Mama would never wear the blue chiffon to a barbecue and had her butter-yellow dress dry-cleaned weeks ago in preparation. Poor Mrs Etta. Who bases their decisions on the words of a child?
Mrs Etta scuttles off down the street, and now I can see a tall, whip-thin Negro walking my way. He’s unassuming enough, except for his hat, which is what I’ve heard Daddy call a ‘porkpie’ hat. It’s brown as molasses, and there’s a scarlet feather in the band. I remember Boone’s ratty old straw hat and smile.
‘Excuse me,’ I say just as the man comes within earshot. I’m all smiles, despite what I’ve heard Mama’s friends say about how I look when I smile. They never say it where they think I can hear them, but I’ve gotten good at moving silently at the edge of things. I hear them all the time now, chattering like birds about how there’s just something off about me—something about the eyes and that mouth.
‘Something the matter, miss?’ the man asks, taking a fearful step back. His voice is high and warbling. Just a boy, not much older than me.
‘Where’d you get that hat?’ I ask.
‘Aw,’ he says, a smile blooming over his lips, ‘my sister bought it for me while she was off at college. Said I won’t look right in it till I get myself a zoot suit too, but there’s time.’ He laughs, full and unafraid, and the anger that has slept between the layers of my skin for as long as I can remember wakes with a groan.
‘She’s right though,’ I say. ‘Looks out of place as it is.’
He shrugs, the smile dropping inch by inch as his eyes settle on my face properly now. I’ve seen that look before, on people who’ve come to visit Mama and Daddy and been introduced to me for the first time. Whatever they see that’s ‘off’ about me doesn’t strike them at first. Only after they’ve tallied the flaws in my face do they forget about keeping up their sugar-glazed smiles. But this boy, this Negro not much older than me, what right’s he got to look at me like I’m anything less than perfect?
‘You be safe now, miss,’ he says, and even has the gall to tip his stupid hat to me as he tries to pass.
I slide in front of him. ‘Give it to me.’
‘Give me your hat. Go on.’ I hold my hand out, palm up just the way Mama does when she notices me chewing gum at the dinner table. I want to twist his ear too, but he’s too tall, and besides, Daddy says their kind is filthy on the surface. That’s how come the skin is brown, but the meat is red.
‘No, ma’am,’ he says, clutching his hat to his head. He ducks around me, shooting me a look so bald and openly despising that I am struck dumb just long enough for him to round the corner and disappear down a side street, but when the shock wears off, I know exactly what I’m going to do.
There’s a hardware store on this block, and inside are three men and the store owner. They’re leaning against the front counter, talking and laughing, and don’t notice me until I grab one of the men’s sleeves.
‘Sir,’ I say, working up some tears, ‘sir, help.’
‘Nathaniel Wilkins’s girl?’ he asks. ‘What’s the matter, Miss?’
‘Some Negro boy just grabbed me,’ I say. ‘Said he was going to make me his wife.’
It doesn’t take more than pointing in the boy’s direction for all four men to take off down the street. I walk after them; I’m not in any hurry. Besides, I can hear the commotion the whole way.
When I finally catch up with them, they’ve chased the boy into a patch of trees and scrub. They’ve got him stuck in the middle of their little group, like a rabbit stuck in a pricker bush. I pluck the hat, which he’s managed to hang onto, off his head and go on my way.
Boone is still fussing with the garden when I return, the hat hidden behind my back. He’s moved on to the other side of the lawn, and his back is to me as I approach.
‘Boone,’ I say. ‘Got something for you.’
‘What’s that, Miss Wilkins?’ he asks, pausing to wipe his face with the rag in his shirt pocket. He turns to me and takes this moment to sit in the dirt, arms loose from his labour.
I hold out the hat, smiling. ‘Thought you’d like a new one. Yours has got some holes in it.’
Boone smiles, and I can see in his face that generosity was the last thing he expected from me. ‘Thank you, Miss Wilkins,’ he says as he takes the hat in his hands and turns it over with childlike joy. ‘This is mighty generous of you.’
‘No trouble at all,’ I say. I come to stand between his spread legs, and my hands go to his face, his high cheekbones. I lean forward to kiss him.
He drops the hat, then grabs my upper arms and pushes me back. His grip. It hurts. Boone is on his feet, stumbling backward through the garden and over Mama’s daffodils.
‘Miss Wilkins,’ he says, ‘you ought not to do that.’
‘I wanted to,’ I say. A calm settles over my brain like a sheet of ice over a dark road.
‘Even so,’ he says, ‘you’re just a girl. It’s not right. What would your daddy say?’
‘Daddy’s not here.’ The hat is just sitting there in the dirt now.
‘Besides, I work for your daddy. It wouldn’t be respectful of me to … entertain you like that.’ He’s scrambling away from me, groping for the porch railing without looking away from my face. The stink of his fear fills my throat until I am nearly gagging on it. ‘I’m sorry, Miss Shaw,’ he says, ‘I don’t want to hurt your feelings. I’m just looking out for you.’ Then he’s gone, staggering up the porch steps and into the house, even though he’s got dirt on his shoes and Mama will be furious if he tracks any of it in.
Hurt my feelings? Who is Boone to think he has any effect on how I feel? He’s nothing but a dirty Negro who pulls the weeds and empties my bathwater.
Mama and Daddy are shocked when I tell them how Boone tried to mount me right there in the garden, in front of God and everyone. Daddy doesn’t even ask why I was out there with him in the first place, after he told me to stay away from him. He’s furious on my behalf, and Mama is in tears, yelling for Daddy to get that bastard out of this house before he comes after her too. Daddy says for us not to worry. He’ll take care of it.
The next day, a new man is out front. He’s on his hands and knees, planting some new flowers. I watch him.
‘Doesn’t that get boring?’
- Sebastian Murdoch is a recent graduate of the Lesley University MFA in Creative Writing Program. She currently lives in Jackson, Mississippi and plans to teach and write full-time, focusing on Southern Gothic Fiction. This is her first publication. Follow her on Twitter.