Issue 109, Winter 1988
She walked her house by day, discovering it. She sat on the rough wooden staircase to the basement in order to look at the singing orange light of the gas water heater. She used a letter opener and stripped up a cattail of wallpaper in order to know how the front parlor was once when white folks occupied the room without speaking and sent their hard eyes down the newspaper and percolated their nasty opinions. She sashayed along the upstairs hallway, from the yellow sewing room past the second bedroom with the pretty girl things in it, the hidden clothes hamper that sent your dirty laundry down a tin drop to the washer and dryer, the pink, wallpapered bedroom that was hers and Claude’s, and into the ugly turquoise bathroom with the iron eagle-claw tub and the bleary green view of the yard. She would peer into the spotted mirror over the sink but could only see herself. She would trail her own fingers along the fingerprinted walls but get no history from them. Her family had been moving into the old house for four days before she knew about the wickedness in it, but that was like hearsay or a butterfly of gossip that she overheard in the yellow room. She could make out seventy years of ordinariness downstairs, but it was like the upstairs had been soaped clean, like the evil memories had been painted over, the conversation interrupted.
Avis predicted a girl for a pregnant woman in Gretna, and that there would be no complications. She guessed, but didn’t say, that the woman was twenty-eight or so; a Cancer; husband worked with his hands. Avis got a pledge of five dollars from her but knew she could forget about ever seeing it. Husband would say,“You what?” And that would be that. One of her weekly people complained that Avis had moved without giving him her new telephone number. She apologized but said she would have recommended his standing pat in the options market anyway. She wasn’t getting great signals. Avis told a white woman in Papillion to get a second opinion before going ahead with the hip surgery. She’d come up with twenty for Avis, probably mail it in a card with pink begonias on the cover; say, “Your prophecies have helped so many!”
Claude phoned to get the numbers at noon but Avis could only come up with a zero and nine and her husband said maybe he’d skip the play. She got a crank call from the Nebraska chapter of the White Supremacists. A pregnant girl at Mercy High School wouldn’t say why she was calling, only that she had a big problem and needed Mrs. Walker’s advice. Avis suggested the girl say nothing to her parents just yet, that the problem was going to be ironed out in a week or two. The girl promised her a hundred dollars but Avis said, “You keep it, honey.”
Her four-year-old scuttled in from the green screened porch, singing out that they’d got their first mail, and Avis opened the striped film processor’s envelope in order to see the color prints she’d had made to promote herself: a jolly, overweight, sorta-pretty woman with cocoa-brown skin and lavender eyes and maybe an excess of jewelry. “You like me in these, Lorna?”
The little girl said yes.
Avis wasn’t sure. She leaned on the pantry countertop and pored over each snapshot, but could only exclude the garden one with the jagged light along her neck. Her ten-year-old came in from the pantry room with a box of cups and saucers that were wrapped in tissue paper. Avis turned a slightly over-glamorous photograph toward her older daughter and asked, “How you like this one, Priscilla?”
Priscilla cut through the box’s strapping tape with a paring knife as she scowled at her mother’s picture. “Give you the likeness of a fish.”
Avis saw what she meant. “You sure are plainspoken.”