Today's Reading

PART ONE

THE WOMEN

Chapter One

June 18

That night when my man eased through the door, his clothes felt and smelled like the summer rain tapping on the roof. There sure aint nothing like a North Carolina rain. He bout scared the breath out of me, but then he grinned and whispered my name in that way he had. I started missing him on the spot cause I figured he'd be gone by the time the first rays of sunlight tickled the floorboards. I slipped to the kitchen anyway and made him a plate since I never could say no to them eyes. To this day when I fry up pork chops, I can still see him gnawing on that bone.

Know what else I see? Me pushing him out that same door not even two hours later. Only the Lord coulda made me do it. And that man made such a fuss! My heart practically thudded to a stop when I heard the children stir. A part of me ached to pull him inside and wrap my arms round him, but my bones said, Bee, there aint no coming back from this. He probly heard my heart pounding in my chest as he stood there with the rain dripping off his brim and his mouth a straight line. His eyes weren't laughing then. And they weren't asking me for nothing either. He just tipped his hat to me— and he sure never looked back. I know. Cause I waited.

But deep inside I could tell he wouldn't come creeping back in a month or so to melt away my anger with them smiles and empty promises and sliding out the door before sunrise. I just wish I coulda told my fool self—Bee, get away from that window and either stop wishing for your husband to come back or stop fearing it. You can't have both.



Beatrice tucked her pencil into the gutter of her worn leather journal and dragged her eyes from the page. She readjusted the thin watch on her left wrist. 10:42. Holding her book to her chest, she hefted herself from the chair. Her bones creaked as they made themselves comfortable in her new upright position by the window of her Spring Hope, North Carolina, home. She strained her neck, aiming to see where the once-graveled road, now paved, turned the corner. Her fingers fiddled with the long gray braid curled across her right shoulder as she imagined his knee-length black coat and matching black felt fedora worn so low it almost covered one eye.

Then, sighing, Beatrice removed the pencil and closed the book altogether. She pulled the strip of rubber from her wrist and snapped it around her diary to secure the pencil. She'd been spending too much time these days looking backwards, getting lost meandering through those long-ago days. "Keep yo' hand to the plow, Bee."

Peeking around the curtain one last time, Beatrice cast a disparaging eye on the Wilson boys in their daddy's car. "Mm-mm, flying down the road like they ain't had no sense." As the noise from their engine faded, she stepped away from the window, retrieved the box from the bed, and laid the journal atop the papers inside. She'd just stow it all in her closet for now. Too much trouble gettin' out that key to the steamer trunk.

She shut her closet door and glanced around her bedroom. Sunrays streamed through the parted curtains and struck the mirror. The reflected glare revealed not one speck of dust. It had taken her the better part of a week of stops and starts to scrub her room and the rest of the house with orange- scented Murphy oil soap, and the wood floors seemed to smile at her, they were so shiny. Two fluffed pillows adorned her otherwise-plain light-blue bedcover, the hem of which hung exactly one-half inch from the floor. Nothing needed fixing, straightening, dusting, sweeping, or spraying.

In the front room, Beatrice found something to straighten: the black-and- white photograph of her mam and pap, one of the two framed pictures on the eggshell-colored wall. The back bedroom sat empty, undisturbed. She walked the few steps to the kitchen, but there even the stainless steel sink proved true to its name. Everything was cut, canned, wiped, washed, or stored away. Sighing again, she retrieved the empty clothes basket on the washing machine and tramped from the kitchen out to the clothesline.

The heat slapped her. Beatrice reached toward the first wooden pin and unclipped the underwear. She worked her way down the line, folding the stiff laundry and dropping it into the basket at her feet. She grimaced—Too heavy a hand with that bleach—and edged the now-overflowing basket to her right. Panting as much from exertion as from the oppressive heat, Beatrice bent and hoisted the basket to her waist and plodded to the kitchen.
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