LaShonda Katrice Barnett
St. Louis, 1942
“Are grits groceries? Are eggs poultry? Now Fritz, how long have I been coming to you? You know better than to ask a question like that. Of course I prefer the piece with all the marbled fat. Since they took my gall bladder last April, after the thing swelled up so big and nearly popped right inside me, you might as well give me the fattest piece you’ve got. The fat’s what seasons the meat better than salt and pepper ever could. You know that.”
“Two you’ll take, Mrs. W. One for you, one for me, eh? Maybe you add a potato and green beans so the plate’s not so lonely. A nice time we’ll have. My brother—for Busch franchise he works. Bier zum trinken mit essen? At seven the shop closes. See you at eight?”
“What’s that, your wartime special? That colored gal leaving the store with two little boys when I came in—did you offer her your special? Now if I tell you a hen dips snuff, you better look under its wing. You don’t get to be this age on account of good looks alone, though I imagine some women have a bigger complaint on that score than I do. At this stage in the game, it’s wisdom more than anything that you’ve got to offer the world. Now, despite me telling you not to go studying on me, you’ve studied long and wrong. Look at that hand, Fritz. You see there? I’m still married. Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking the war’s got him and might not give him back. But it’s not the war that took him. Long distance claimed him. Now, go on and wrap up one piece of London broil.”
“Maybe next time, Mrs. W., eh? Hab eine gutes abend.”
“Bitter shone. Did I say it right this time? Bitter shone? You have a good night too, Fritz.”
Outside the butcher shop, Amanda throws up a wave to one of the DAR ladies, running a hand under the shelf of her bosom to stop the beads of sweat from trickling down her abdomen. Till I make it home, the slip and the dress will be soaked, she thinks. But with the sun shining and the mimosas along Parker Avenue perfuming the air, the day’s almost pretty enough to frame. See what you lost when you left this world? Amanda thinks. Inevitably, these little questions launch an internal discussion. That’s how it is among the walking wounded, those grieving the dead. It’s best not to disturb them no matter how lonely or alone they look; they are often deep in discussion with the missing beloved. Amanda continued her talk with Laura.
If you were here you’d give me a funny look, thinking my dough’s not rightly done, my elevator doesn’t go to the top floor—why not take a second piece of meat in wartime? It’s not the meat I’m worried about. What on God’s green earth would I do with a gentleman caller at my age? Can’t imagine it would thrill him to come sit in an apartment. A man his age, he’s seen apartments. What would we talk about? His intentions on courting me? Would he take me for a stroll across Poplar Bridge? Or to the Fox theater? They say it’s the largest movie palace in the country. Can you imagine that five thousand people would want to see the same picture? I read in the paper that they’re celebrating Miss Theda Bara’s birthday, running a double hitter—Madame Mystery and The Unchastened Woman. Or, maybe he’d take me to the Bevo Mill, where all the Krauts dress up to dine. You know the place, it’s near Dr. Forsythe’s, the one with that giant windmill out front, looks like something out of a child’s picture book. Well, I can’t entertain such foolish thoughts. Women my age with absentee husbands don’t entertain gentleman callers.
* * *
The minister of Amanda’s childhood congregation at New Zion Methodist Church told his flock a thousand times, if he told them once, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Still, Amanda thought one afternoon, it just doesn’t seem right—him taking everything he ever gave me. Thomas, well Thomas, she understood. Too much of his daddy in him. Not a single one of those teachers at Roosevelt High ever had a good word to say about him. Too flighty to make high marks, which was the very reason she didn’t pay him any mind when he started pecking at that typewriter. ‘Cause it wasn’t ever regularized. He only wrote when the spirit moved him. Too flighty all right. Wrong as two left shoes for a man to envy the wind so—to want to outrun it. Long as there’s life in that body that boy’s not about to settle down. Not for love or whiskey. Thomas and Mister W, well those two, she understood why the Lord had to take them away from her in the manner that he did. But her sweet, darling girl—that was an understanding that hurt too much.
Who would even think Laura had the moxy? When did she come by it? That morning, she sat to the table, eating her oatmeal quiet like always, discussing which of the glass animals she’d sparkle-up pretty for the day. Amanda only half listened. As usual, she had a million things preying on her mind, if she had one. She was hosting her first DAR meeting that afternoon. Had to buy coffee, run by Schlüssel’s Bakery and pick up the curtains from the laundry ‘cause the filth of city living never sat right with her. When she’d taken the curtains down from the kitchen window they looked as though they were covered in soot. “Mama, lets leave the windows bare” Laura had said. “I love the way the light floods my menagerie. The animals, they love it, too.”
* * *
“Ahhhhh, Mrs. W,” Fritz said when Amanda stepped through the door, ringing the bell overhead. Hab’ ich schon vergessen? Heute ist Donnerstag. Today is Thursday! And, today, Mrs.W. Today is the day, eh? Two you’ll take, One for you, one for me, eh? Maybe you add a potato and green beans so the plate’s not so lonely. A nice time we’ll have. Bier zum trinken mit essen? At seven the shop closes. See you at eight?”
Amanda didn’t know what possessed her to tell him that he could wrap up two pieces of London Broil.
She exited the shop and was surprised—Fritz was right. To drum up more business Thelma’s Creamery had ice sculpture on display right smack in the middle of the store, where she and Laura’s favorite table used to sit. Thelma had the iceman bring big ole chunks that her son chiseled into whatever his imagination offered. Today’s ice creature was an elephant with the trunk way up in the air. One little boy tried to swing on it until his momma threatened to eat his peach ice cream. “Why’s the trunk up, Thelma?” For good luck, Thelma said with a cheery grin. See what you lost when you left this world?
Amanda gave her living room the once over. The old davenport was spruced up with a summer quilt she’d pieced together from a few of Laura’s dresses, she had repeated the most fabric from the soft pink one she wore the night he came. She couldn’t help but wonder if they had put Laura in the mint green frock if the young man would have run back to Betty all the same? Most women can’t wear green, makes them look sickly. The complexion itself turns green. But the right green showed off how lovely Laura’s eyes were. The mostly pink and blue summer quilt livened up the dark maroon sofa. And, on the rare occasion that Amanda leaned back and put her feet up, it brought Laura near. Most of the girl’s belongings she had taken down to the Good Will. A few days ago, she believed she’d seen a colored girl in Laura’s raincoat.
For Fritz, Amanda swept the floors and dusted nearly every thing in the living room then changed into a navy dress, the one Laura liked best—with the peplum and lace collar inset. Somber colors were not exactly appropriate for hosting but in a dark color she won’t have to wear a slip, and wilt in front of the man.
There just wasn’t time to tend to the figurines, and they are wearing more dust than the flowers have pollen. See what you lost when you left this world?
One thing stayed true about her sweet, darling girl, true to the end. From the very beginning she had the worst timing. There she was at the church picnic, fixing to enjoy a nice piece of watermelon when her water broke. By the time she made it back to the apartment and sent Thomas after the midwife, she wasn’t in pain, she was in torture. That’s what she told the midwife when she showed up, instructing her to chew on the Blue Cohoosh and swallow it down. You in labor! No ma’am, Amanda had corrected her, I’m in torture.
She took one look down there and started praying. Oh Lord. Lordy, Lordyy. Amanda felt fingers prying around inside of her. Lordy, Lordy. The midwife repeated, This one’s trying to come feet first. Laura wanted to step into the world. All the tortuous twisting and turning to bring you here. And for what? Seemed like trouble took to her like white on rice. How many months did they wait for her to crawl? Even her teeth grew in a lot slower than Thomas’s. In elementary school, she caught the mumps a week before the Christmas pageant. The pageant Amanda sacrificed everything for in order to buy the ecru muslin and tulle for the Virgin Mary’s dress because her darling girl was not going to be at that manger scene cloaked in a drab dapple shawl fit for a mare. Even Mister W said that the costume was pretty enough to strut down Barton Street all on its own. Oh, if wishes were only true. The dress never made it to the school auditorium. Bad timing meant Laura missed the school bus and Amanda had to take her on the public bus to Roosevelt because the girl was too frightened to ride it alone. Quite naturally, the bus was slow as molasses. So how did she come by the bravery to do what she did? How much of her father’s old whiskey did she drink? Amanda couldn’t recall how much was left in the bottle. She’d only kept it the first few years because she honestly believed he would come back.
To come home and find her daughter curled up on the sofa so sweet and soft like a kitten and to see that bottle standing on the floor on the very afternoon of her DAR meeting had ended her, truth be told. It took many shakes before it sank in that Laura would never wake up.
A day later, she’d found the aspirin bottle buried deep betwixt the sofa cushions.
Cursed with bad timing to the end, Amanda thought. If she had not stopped to talk to the mailman maybe her arrival home—or if Laura hadn’t stayed so shy for so long—if she didn’t wait so long to open up a bit, maybe James, my sweet girl’s one and only gentleman caller, would’ve done an Irish jig all the way from Mullanphy Street. Mother used to say about me that I could sell shit as shinola on account of how well I tell a story and charm at the same time. In two shakes of a lamb’s tail I would’ve made James see my grandchildren couldn’t grow up in Kerry Patch. Even the police called it the bloody third district. All I needed was an afternoon to convince him that our new home—a nice three-story with a wide lawn, like those pretty houses in Saint Rose of Lima Parish—awaited us on Bartmer Avenue. If her darling, sweet girl’s timing wasn’t so God awful she’d be a grandmother now instead of—well, there were no words for what she was, a mother who outlived her child—just the Honest-to-God hard truth that’s never told in Sunday School: sometimes the Lord giveth and taketh it all away.
* * *
The kraut’s knock landed like an anchor against a china seafloor. Amanda glanced in the looking glass behind Mister W’s picture on the mantel. How it came to be that Frederick “Fritz” Meyer was making a social call this evening was more the avarice of memory than intrigue or desire. But there he was in a crisp white shirt without a speck of blood. “The butcher doesn’t clean up so badly, eh?” He held out a large bottle of beer. And what was that he pulled, quivering from behind his back? He had gone to the best on the south side of St. Louis, probably in the whole city. Jack Johnson was the florist but everybody called him July because he never sold a flower that didn’t look and smell like the height of summer. Nobody else could have sold a bunch of jonquils so stunning they made Amanda gasp.
“Well don’t dally out there in the hallway. Any man with sense enough to bring me July’s jonquils can come in at once.”
It was not exactly a spread fit for a cotillion on a grand plantation in Jacktown. In the heat, the garbage in the alley stank to high heaven and sent an awful aroma through the kitchen window. Down the hall both communal toilets were clogged, so Amanda told Fritz he had better eat in a hurry so Nature wouldn’t call before he was able to get home.
She found an old Joplin record and put it on the victrola. Let me see you do the ragtime dance. Turn left and do the cakewalk prance. Turn the other way and do the slow drag. Now take your lady to the World’s Fair and do the ragtime dance. She sang along, demonstrating exactly how she’d won the dance competition, where she caught Mister W’s eye many strawberry moons ago. Fritz stumbled around the living room floor trying the cakewalk prance—pitiful thing laughed so hard at himself he started to wheeze. “From the news reels, I thought your boys back home knew these exact steps. Mr. Hitler’s studied the cake walk, that’s for sure.” Fritz straightened up and made his eyes sparkle plenty. “No Hitler talk. No Gestapo talk. No talk of Germany. More beer?” He poured a third round.
“Uns—Du und ich. Us—You and I. I told you it would be a very nice time together”
Fritz held her hand and Amanda could not help but think, My darling, sweet girl. See what you lost when you left this world? A man to take your little hand in his big, rough one and make good on his promise.
Thinking there was nobody left to tell her stories to, Amanda turned into a blubbering fool right there on the davenport, so frayed and worn she feared her tears would make the threadbare thing come undone. Fritz entwined his fingers, thick like sausages, with her own. “Du müss dein leben ändern,” he whispered, pulling a jonquil from the vase and placing it behind her ear. She figured whatever he said meant that he wanted to listen to more of her stories. She thought how strange it was that this gentle man had countrymen who made lampshades from the skin of Jews, which she had been told not once but twice by Bertha Stephens at their last DAR meeting.
“You want a story, Fritz? I’ve got stories coming out of my ears. Stories of Jackson jamborees, jonquils just like these—and unicorns with no horns.”
Author’s Statement on Beauty
Plato believed beauty is in the eye of the beholder; and he was right. Nevertheless, the act of beholding confounds many. To behold requires one move beyond taking in the visual presence. To arrive at Beauty necessitates an understanding of what we see, the many facets, the depth of the person, object, place. There comes with proper beholding of beauty an inescapable effect: an exultation of the human spirit. Beauty requires the ability to see, which is to say, to understand; and appreciation born of vulnerability. Above all, beauty is a prerequisite of love–in all its forms–and the acknowledgment and celebration of the human capacity for spiritual need and fulfillment.
LaShonda Katrice Barnett’s debut novel Jam on the Vine (2015), an Editor’s Choice pick at the Chicago Tribune,won ElIe Magazine’s Reader’s Choice Prize, was awarded the Stonewall Honor Award by the American Library Association and is a Lammy finalist. Her short fiction is widely published. Barnett is a visiting professor in Gender & Sexuality Studies at Northwestern University.