Date of Birth: 12/30/66
Location: Nashville, Tennessee
Previous Publications: Twilight Times
WEIRDNESS IN THE KITCHEN, 1843
Standing atop a pile of peelings almost a foot high, Thomasjefferson had a revelation as he skinned yet another potato. This is what it's like to be tall, he realized. For once, he could see the top of Freedom's massive, bald head as the other man hunched over his own small mountain of potatoes, maniacally peeling. He felt an unfamiliar authority that his new height had given him. People give you respect when you're tall, he thought. Thomasjefferson squared his shoulders, threw out his chest and sneaked a quick peek at Missygirl standing at the corner of the extensive oak table. He discovered she wasn't even looking at him, but staring out the window instead.
"Missygirl," Thomasjefferson called. He wanted to see her face, find out how it felt to look down upon her, instead of the other way around. It hurt his neck after a while, looking up at Missygirl's face-seemed like it ached all the time.
Unwilling to remove her eyes from the window, Missygirl gave Thomasjefferson the side of her face. "Goodfer's talkin' to Mister Parsival," she hissed. If she'd noticed that Thomasjefferson was temporarily well over six feet, she hadn't let it show. Thomasjefferson's shoulders dipped, his chest deflated.
"You mean, Mister Parsival's talkin' to Goodfer, not the other way around," he chastised. "Goodfer musta done somethin' stupid again, I guess. Wonder what they talkin' about?"
"Somethin' important, Thomasjefferson, nothin' you'd understand," she retorted and peeled a little faster. Thomasjefferson watched her pretty hands handle the potato, careful not to cut themselves with the knife-or lose a finger, like Strange, nine-fingered Strange. Briefly, Thomasjefferson wondered if losing that finger was what made Strange, well-so strange.
"Now what they doin'?" Thomasjefferson asked, a little hurt from her sharp answer, but her voice sounded so sweet, especially when directed his way.
"It don't matter what they doin', long as they ain't doin' it to us!" Freedom hollered. Words had a way of booming from his mouth like cannonballs and that's what his mouth resembled-a cannon and his tongue, a short fuse. "What matters is what they gonna do if these taters ain't ready for dinner! We got near a hundred people comin' here tonight and they all gonna want taters! So, Missygirl-get your eyes back to peelin'!"
Lord, didn't Freedom hate talkin', thought Thomasjefferson as the conversation slept. He guessed that he couldn't blame him much. Whenever Mister Parsival got upset with any of his people, seemed like he always took it out on poor Freedom for some reason, as if he was a magnet for Mister Parsival's bad moods. Thomasjefferson knew that Freedom feared Mister Parsival and it wasn't a beating that worried the giant man, not a whip-lashing, but one of those tongue-lashings that made Mr. Parsival famous throughout the County. Mr. Parsival's tongue had a way of slicing through skin and into guts easier than a knife. That tongue could tear the heart out of a man, make him cry. It could! When Mr. Parsival had given Freedom his name-he did with all his new people-he'd laughed and laughed, said it was funny. Thomasjefferson didn't know why. But he'd seen that Parsival's laughter had cut Freedom deeply.
"Goodfer's arms are so big." Missygirl heaved a tremendous sigh, a sticky cool breeze that was strong enough to make the journey to the end of Thomasjefferson's pointed nose and tickle it. He could almost smell the honey in her voice. "Muscles," she murmured.
Thomasjefferson groaned. He despised Goodfer. Goodfer was way too popular with women, and not just because he was handsome, or built like a stallion-Goodfer had a way about him. Charm is what they called it in New York. Grace, they called it, too. Thomasjefferson thought he was the stupidest man he'd ever shook hands with (that was a hand he'd never shake again). Sure, he could haul just like an old mule, but with less know-how. Give Goodfer an ax, he'd cut his own head off. Put Goodfer next to some old logs and the wood would say something useful before that boy. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Some folk just were, Thomasjefferson knew, and blew an errant strand of reddish-tinted hair from his eyes.
"Nobody wants to hear about Goodfer!" he snarled. Thomasjefferson had been trying to steal kisses from Missygirl; now it was beginning to occur to him that he hadn't been the only one. He didn't care for that thought at all. "He ain't nothin' . . .he ain't! Why, if you was a giant, and you picked Goodfer up and set him right down smack in the middle of New York City . . . why, he'd be nothin' special at all. Nothin' special!" He capitalized his sentence with a mighty glare, but Missygirl was again staring at Goodfer outside the window.
"He's leavin'," Missygirl sighed sadly, then threw a disgusted look towards Thomasjefferson, as if Goodfer's departure was his fault. "Thomasjefferson, you jus' jealous, that's all. Now shut up about New York! We all know Mr. Parsival done took you there and that you been to a mighty fine place. But how many times can a man tell the same story?"
"You! You the jealous one! Jealous 'cause I went, 'cause who my granddaddy is!" Missygirl clicked her tongue and concentrated harder on her potato while Freedom began to shake his head and mutter. Thomasjefferson pretended not to notice them. "He's Thomas Jefferson, that's who! What? Don't shake your head at me! I got his name, don't I? Names are important, they don't lie! It's the truth; I'll put my hand on the Bible anytime! I swear to it!" And it was true-Thomasjefferson's mother had told him so, a long time ago, back when he knew his mother, when he was small, before the auction.
Upon his death, the great man had freed his children, but he'd forgotten their families. His grandfather owed money, his mother had told him, and so he'd been sold off. His mother, free now, had promised to find him one day, buy him back, but that had been years ago, and he'd never seen her since.
Now he was grown. He stopped peeling and wondered, as he often did, if she was still alive, still chasing chickens around another hen house, with feathers flying. Did she still inhabit her ancient rocking chair that had soothed him to sleep with her gentle lullaby in his ears? After so many years, Thomasjefferson could no longer remember her face, but he could sometimes recall how it felt to be nestled in her soft bosom, rocked back and forth in that chair. At such times, he could still smell the scent of her, which was peaches, feel the soft, butterfly strokes of her long fingers upon his back. The memory always made Thomasjefferson smile, and he did now as he resumed absently peeling. Was she still alive? Did she still sit in that old rocker, perhaps holding another little boy that could almost pass for white? Thomasjefferson hoped so; his mother had been kind and beautiful.
"Mr. Parsival says it's bad manners to swear, 'specially on a Bible," Strange said in her halting, singsong fashion as she plodded into the doorway and plopped her ten-year-old body onto a stool, away from the fire that made the kitchen swelter. She was ignored. Her face still dripped water from the pump used by the slaves-sulfur water, bad tasting, but at least it could cool off a hot face, although it made a person stink a little.
"Your granddaddy ain't no Thomas Jefferson, Thomasjefferson!" Missygirl heckled. "Your granddaddy could be a hundred different men!" She doubled herself over from laughing. Thomasjefferson's face burned.
"Pretend I'm your granddaddy and do what I tell you," Freedom spat. "Get back to peelin'! You too, girl! Watch them fingers, now!" He stopped peeling long enough to zip a potato at Strange, a little harder than he had to; Thomasjefferson knew that Freedom didn't much like her ways. Strange looked at people like they were made of glass, not at them, but through them. It was bad enough when the white folk gave you those looks. Now Freedom had to take it from a little black girl? Thomasjefferson didn't think so, no sir!
"And get a knife, too," Freedom snapped at Strange. When she hesitated, staring at him with empty hands, he hollered, "I don't know where one is! Why do I have to know everything? Hey," he bent towards her and smartly rapped her forehead. "You got brains in that head?"
"Yes," Strange said slowly, her eyes not quite focused, seeming to look through Freedom's chest at his insides. It gave Thomasjefferson the chills, it did. Freedom's knuckles bounced off Strange's forehead again. "I said, you got brains in that head?"
"Yessir," Strange nodded.
"Then why ain't you found a knife? Why ain't you peelin'? Taters, girl, that's all you need to be doin'. Peelin' taters!"
"Come here, Strange," Missygirl soothed. "I got me an extra knife. Jus' you watch your fingers."
Thomasjefferson watched Strange's eyes glaze over; it was like watching someone pour molasses over a window. Spell's coming, he thought. Strange's spells infuriated Freedom. They frustrated him, got him all tied up in knots on the inside. That kind of frustration could lead to beatings, which always embarrassed Thomasjefferson. Girl didn't mean no harm, it was all just nonsense.
Strange slowly shuffled over, stood next to Missygirl and began to peel. "I'm watchin' my fingers, Missygirl," she smiled vacantly.
"Anyway," Thomasjefferson continued, trying not to look at Strange's moony face as his eyes threw furtive glances Missygirl's way to see if she was stealing peeks at him (she wasn't). "Mr. Parsival told everybody when we was in New York that Thomas Jefferson is my granddaddy. And if Mr. Parsival believes it, so should you. And everybody else in the County! Unless you think you know more than Mr. Parsival, Missygirl?" he asked slyly.
"No, no, no, she don't!" Freedom hastily interrupted, his tongue falling over itself as he quickly cast a glance towards the door. "It's a fact, Mr. Parsival knows a lot, a whole lot!" he shouted at the empty doorway. "Mr. Parsival still out there, Missygirl?" he asked in a lower, careful tone.
"No, he took Goodfer in the garden. He seemed mad to me-the way he was walkin'." Her attention had moved away from the window to supervise Strange's handling of her knife. Thomasjefferson thought Missygirl would make a fine momma some day-just look how she took care of Strange, what with makin' her eat, because Strange forgot to sometimes, she wasn't right like that. Missygirl had even had a little funeral for Strange's finger, just to make the girl feel better, although Strange had never seemed to care 'bout choppin' it off in the first place. Mr. Parsival had gone into a right fit, though. He'd done something awful to Freedom-what, nobody knew; Freedom wouldn't tell. And Freedom hadn't even been around when that stupid girl lopped off that finger-he'd been in the fields. Thomasjefferson knew it was a fact, because he'd been there with him. Now why did Mister Parsival have to be that way?
"Mr. Parsival, he's always mad," Thomasjefferson whispered. "That man was born mean, I think. Some folk get turned mean jus' by tryin' to live. But he was born that way." Thomasjefferson forgot about peeling, just for a moment, and pondered how a man could be turned poisonous inside his mama's belly. He finally shrugged and gave up. Taters were his business.
"Mr. Parsival's not mean, he's nice," Strange volunteered as she peeled. She peeked around Missygirl's slim shoulder at the two men, seemed to see their guts coiled up inside them with her sleepy gaze. "He gave me a shiner t'other day, jus' for makin' him laugh." She smiled as she spoke-the gold coin had sure enough shone, just like a little sun. Thomasjefferson had seen her with it. She'd buried it in the yard, under one of the great oaks that stood guard over the mansion. It was her little secret-and his, too.
"I buried it under the oak," she blurted. Thomasjefferson blinked his eyes. Why had she gone and done that? Now somebody was gonna go looking for it.
"Well, I'm glad someone 'round here thinks you're worth somethin'," Freedom grumbled sourly.
"I'm so sick of peelin' taters," Missygirl shook her head, and by saying it, she made the others weary of the chore as well. The room became quiet as the heat grew, wrapping its arms around the kitchen, draping itself over the occupants like a heavy blanket, muffling the sound of the boiling stew on the fire and the sound of their knives scraping the potatoes. Sweat poured off their faces, sometimes splattering down upon the white tubers. It didn't matter because Missygirl would have to wash them all, anyway.
"What's a freedom ride? What is that?" Strange suddenly asked. She'd stopped peeling and seemed to be listening to something far away. The effort to hear made her squint her eyes.
A mammoth silence suddenly engulfed them; Thomasjefferson took the opportunity to clear his throat. "New York sure has a lot of people," he offered. His response was the sound of knives scraping potatoes, the falling of peelings.
"Rosa don't wanna stand in the bus, her feet hurt," Strange continued in her singsong voice after a second. "Who's Rosa? What's a bus?"
"Coloreds, they walk where they want! On their own business," Thomasjefferson stammered, risking a quick glance at Freedom, who was hunched over his work, skinning faster than he'd been doing before. Knives scraped potatoes and peelings fell.
"Hey," Strange told them, her voice sounding like the third or fourth echo a cave gives to a normal tone. "Hey! Martin marched on Washington." Her shoulders twitched while her arms hung loosely by her sides. She stared at something that seemed to be just above Thomasjefferson' right shoulder. The thought that something invisible lurked there made him shiver.
"Uhhh, coloreds can walk that way in New York. 'Cause they're free. Like my momma's free," he lamely offered-anything to snuff out the growing tension. Freedom was really on his potato now, and his peeling wasn't so good; chunks of white flew from his blade. Knives scraped potatoes and peelings fell.
"After thirty years, they opened Medgar's coffin and he looked like he was asleep. He looked younger than his son," Strange cocked her head like a rooster but nobody laughed. Thomasjefferson moaned and started peeling faster himself.
Missygirl stopped her work and gently took Strange by the shoulders. "Hush, girl, you ain't makin' sense," she soothed. Strange didn't notice her touch.
"You won't like Howard Beach," Strange whispered. "You sure ain't gonna like Rosewood." She began to cry.
"People sure dress nice in New York," Thomasjefferson murmured. He watched a vein pulse on Freedom's massive head. The big man's knife was a silver blur.
"That man, they drug him behind a . . .a . . .truck? A truck?" Strange repeated the unfamiliar word. "His head come off," she blubbered. Missygirl was shaking her now, trying to shut her up-sometimes if you handled Strange, that would break up the spell.
"New York should be capital of these United States. It's the biggest city there is." Thomasjefferson halfheartedly hacked at his potato. "You could walk all day and not see the same thing twi-"
"Will you shut up about New York!" Freedom bellowed and flung his scrap of a potato at Thomasjefferson's head. All work ceased; Thomasjefferson and Missygirl cringed. When Freedom lost his temper, he was fierce. "There ain't no such place! You weren't never there, Thomasjefferson! 'Cause there ain't no New York! Understand? There ain't no such place, there's Rutherford County and that's it! Now don't say another word!"
"Martin's on the balcony, Martin's in Memphis, his head's hurtin'! Ow. Ow!" Strange's head lolled upon her neck, as if she had no bones. Missygirl's frantic shaking was the only thing that kept the girl from falling to the floor. "It's gonna hurt," Strange hissed.
"Missygirl, you better shut the child up or I will!" Freedom rang out through the kitchen.
"Hush, Strange, you gonna get in trouble," Missygirl pleaded as she shook her, but Strange didn't answer, she stayed limp, lifeless now, but for her hollow voice.
"Oh, he's gonna have a pain somethin' terrible! Bobby, too! The kitchen, the ambassador's kitchen! Who's Bobby? His head's gonna hurt, he's gonna have a bad headache! Ow! Ow!" Strange grabbed her head as if she'd been struck.
"There ain't no Martin! There ain't no Bobby! There's only Rutherford County! Now shut her up!" Freedom jumped from his stool and made a crazy dash to throttle Strange.
Missygirl was desperate; she was about to clamp her hand over Strange's mouth when, finally, the little girl fell silent. She dropped to the floor despite Missygirl's arms, dropped to the floor and into a jerking and twitching seizure.
"I'll kick her quiet! I will!" Freedom snarled and tried to make good his threat but Missygirl blocked the way, shielding Strange with her own body while simultaneously trying to keep the girl's head from cracking open against the wooden floor. Thomasjefferson ran over to try to still Strange's thrashing feet, tried to stop the awful rapping sound of her boot heels against weathered wood. The sole of her left boot came half-loose, wagging like a tongue, as if trying to repeat all that the girl had said.
"Move out the way, I can't kick her right with you there!" Freedom shouted, but Missygirl continued to shield Strange. "Move, I told you!" He was in the midst of throwing another missed kick when Thomasjefferson's voice stopped him.
"Sir," was all that had come from the nearly white slave's mouth, but the meekness there told the others who had just arrived, made them all shut up and turn around. All, except for Strange, who was, at that moment, beyond authority.
Mr. Parsival stood framed in the doorway, his face a thundercloud. His hot, lightning eyes flashed around the room. No one could meet his gaze.
"What's this?" His voice was calm, quiet, and the opposite of his expression. Yet there was danger in it.
"Oh, nothin', sir, nothin'! Jus' peelin' taters," Freedom gushed as he backed towards his stool. He retrieved a new potato, picked up his knife and began peeling with a silly grin. The others thought work was a good idea as well; Strange was left to thump herself silly against the floor. Mr. Parsival ignored the girl's seizure. "What was that yelling I heard?" he asked icily, remotely, as if he were questioning them from a great height.
"No, you didn't hear no yellin', we was jus' joshin' . . .."
"Freedom. I didn't hear yelling?" Parsival's voice tightened a notch and the slave trembled under his gaze. "Freedom. Who is Martin? And Bobby? Are you hiding someone?" His tone was a hand gathering itself into a fist. Strange's head continued to thump against the wooden floorboards. Her boot heels clicked a jig.
"Oh, no! No, sir!"
"No, sir, it ain't like that," Thomasjefferson tried to help. "It's just that-"
"There ain't so such people!" Freedom glared at Thomasjefferson until he shut his mouth an audible click. Freedom's eyes softened as he turned back to the other white man. "No such people, Mr. Parsival," he crooned. "Child over there made 'em up."
"Is that so?" Parsival seemed to notice Strange for the first time.
"She's having a spell, Mr. Parsival," Missygirl informed him just as Strange started to quiet down.
"I don't think so, not at all," Parsival said with a measured pace, considering. "If she's calling for Martin and Bobby, I'm sure they must be real. We'll just have to make you Martin and Bobby, Freedom. Martinbobby, that's good, it fits you better than Freedom. I like it. I like it a lot." He smiled wolfishly. "Now. See? There's no problem here anymore. Martinbobby's right here, peeling potatoes. Missygirl, get Strange to bed. Her thrashing's given me a headache. You can put her on the sofa in the parlor. Or in the dirt, I don't care." He pivoted on his heel and was gone.
Wordlessly, Missygirl helped Strange's exhausted form up from the floor. The little girl still seemed to be in a half-trance. They trudged out of the kitchen, making their way to the main house.
"Thomasjefferson," the girl mumbled as she stumbled out the door. "Your momma's in the ground."
Also in silence, and with sagging shoulders, Thomasjefferson turned back to his work at the endless mound of potatoes. He did not choose to stand atop his little mountain of peelings again. After a moment of staring at him, Martinbobby joined him in the task. There was going to be a celebration in the main house tonight, Thanksgiving in summer. Knives scraped potatoes; peelings fell like tears.