The mother told the boys that she was much unappreciated in this house. She was just like a slave. She pushed the vacuum cleaner back and forth on the ﬂoor at their feet where they sat on the sofa. They had been trying to watch a western show on the black-and-white television before she had turned on the vacuum and begun to shout her words over its howling motor. I am the only person who does anything around here, she shouted, yanking the vacuum cleaner back and forth. I cook, I clean, I wash, I go to work and bring home what little money we have and nobody helps. I am just like a slave but I’ll tell you one thing—and she turned off the vacuum cleaner over whose howl the boys had heard nothing but had sat there watching her bewildering expressions, her wide eyes and wide-open mouth--ONE OF THESE DAYS I AM GOING TO WALK OUT OF THIS HOUSE AND NEVER COME BACK.
The mother let the vacuum cleaner handle fall to the ﬂoor with a bang and she stomped into the kitchen where she had been frying a chicken. The boys really wanted to see what was going to happen in the western show, but now they had missed it because they had been watching their mother make faces and then yell that one day she would walk out of the house and never come back. And then they stopped watching the commercial that was coming on because they heard a banging and a clatter and a loud hissing sound in the kitchen, and saw a large cloud of steam and smoke, because the mother had burned her chicken and tumped her pan into the sink and now she came stomping past them toward the back of the house saying that they could Eat What They Wanted, She Didn’t Care.
The boys went outside in the gloaming while mosquitoes whined around their bare shoulders and talked about how they could keep their mother from walking out of there one day and never coming back. The youngest boy said they could trap her in her room, because that’s what the older brothers did to him whenever they didn’t want him to follow them or get in their way. The oldest brother called him a moron and said they couldn’t trap their mother in her room because she was a grown-up and grown-ups couldn’t be trapped in their rooms by their own boys. The middle brother said the point was that they wanted to keep, their mother, not lock her away from them because she was a pest, which was why they would sometimes lock up the youngest brother. I mean, yeah, she wouldn’t be able to get away, he said, but it’s just not the point. The oldest brother said, All right, you’re both morons. Then the middle brother suggested they get one of the other families’ maids to come down and help with some of the household chores in their house and make it easier on their mother. The older brother thought about this for a second, then said, What are we going to pay them with?
If it was Rosie, the middle brother said, we could pay her in dirt.
All the brothers knew that the Harbours’ maid, Rosie, was a dirt eater, and so they considered this solution for long enough to decide that they would sleep on it. They went back into the house, which had chicken-oil smoke hanging up around the ceiling, and made themselves bologna sandwiches on white bread with lots of salad dressing mayonnaise and ate them in front of the television and went to bed at a reasonable hour, as that seemed the honorable thing to do. From the crack between their mother’s bedroom door and the ﬂooring there came a steady drifting wisp of cigarette smoke and the sounds of muttering and weeping as they ﬁ led by to their own room in the rear of the house and went to bed.
It was summertime and the next morning after the mother went to work, the boys pulled on pairs of shorts and crossed the street to the vacant lot there and dug some premium blue-veined, hard clay out of it and put about a dozen good waxy chunks into a paper sack. Then they walked up the hill to the Harbours’ house to see the maid, Rosie, about their proposition. One of the Harbour twins, Derrick, was in the side yard in the sandbox digging a hole. He was far too old to be playing in a sandbox but they knew better than to ask him about it. Besides, he wasn’t playing, he was digging a hole, as if to excavate the sandbox. What do you want? he said to the boys.
We want to talk to Miss Rosie about some chores, the youngest brother said. Talk to her about whatever you want, the Harbour twin said, but don’t call her Miss Rosie. Why not? Because she’s a nigger, the Harbour twin said. You don’t call a nigger woman Miss, you idiot.
He’s right, the oldest brother said.
If you had a maid, you’d know that, the Harbour twin said.
We had a maid, the middle brother said.
Shut up, the oldest brother said.
That’s right, the Harbour twin said. And then your old man knocked her up, and got sued, and almost got the nigger maid hung by the Ku Klux Klan, and got cut in the gizzard by the nigger maid’s nigger lover, who had to run off or get hung by the Ku Klux Klan, and lost his job, and ran off.
He didn’t run off, the middle brother said.
Shut up, the oldest brother said.
He didn’t run off, the middle brother said, he’s a traveling salesman.
He sure is, the Harbour twin said.
The boys knocked on the carport entrance to the Harbours’ house, the door that went straight into the kitchen, which was where they knew Rosie was most likely to be, unless she was off in the house somewhere vacuuming.
She was not. She was at the kitchen window doing something, and saw them before she even heard them knock, and they saw her face brighten like it always did when she saw them. Rosie had been their maid before their father had ﬁred her in order to hire the younger, prettier maid whom he had then knocked up and all the trouble started, but Rosie didn’t hold it against the boys.
My babies! she said, swinging wide the kitchen door. Come on in this house. What you doing, coming to see me? She said this as if she were getting on to them, like, Did she get on to you about it? But they could tell she was still very happy to see them.
Rosie was stout but not round except in her face. She was tall, and kept her hair back in a tight little bun, and wore a clean blue maid’s uniform with a white collar. She had ﬂat feet you could see because when she worked around the house she liked to go barefoot and the pink ﬂat soles of her long feet slapped against the cool linoleum and hardwood ﬂoors. The middle brother remembered once, when he had asked her about it, she’d said, I like cool feets.
We brought you some dirt, the middle brother said, handing her the sack.
Mm-hmm, I see, Rosie said, looking into the sack. It’s some of that good dirt from the bank across the street from your house, by them blackberry bushes.
Yes, ma’am, said the middle brother.
The older brother popped him hard between his shoulder blades, and he shut up.
We were wondering if you wouldn’t come down to our house and help out a little bit, the oldest brother said then.
Rosie, who had been peering again into the sack of dirt, looked up and raised an eyebrow.
I don’t know if I know what you mean, since your daddy ﬁred me two years back and hired that trash to come in and take my place.
They had to be careful now as it was clear she was getting her dander up.
Mama’s been having a hard time with having to work her job at the clinic and clean the house and cook supper and all that, the middle brother said. We were just hoping we could get her a little help at it.
Rosie frowned and looked into the sack full of dirt again. She was maybe thinking that if she had to go to work and then go home and do those things, then why couldn’t that white woman go to work and then go home and do those things? If her children had to help out with the chores around the house while she was at work, then why couldn’t that white woman’s children help out with the chores while she was at work? She might would have said those things right out if she thought anybody would’ve listened, and if she didn’t have a soft spot for these boys because she practically raised them. She was about to say something when the little brother said something.
He said, Rosie, are you a nigger?
Rosie’s face changed, and pulled into itself, and her eyes ﬂashed.
What? she said. What did you say?
She was looking at the youngest brother, and then at all three of them, like she had never seen them before and was mystiﬁed, and if they hadn’t been so mystiﬁed themselves by the expression on her face, they might have been smart enough to leave right away, but they weren’t--or they were. Mystiﬁed.
I said, the youngest brother said before the other two brothers, still mystiﬁed and too stunned to act quickly, could stop him, are you a nigger?
I’m not a nigger, Rosie said. Niggers is dogs. Don’t you come in here calling me a nigger.
She began to straighten up her kitchen by throwing some things into the kitchen sink and some things from the drainer back into the cabinet, making a loud clatter and banging.
I tell you what, she went on. You can get your lazy good-fornothing selves out of this house and back down there where you want me to come and you do them chores yourself. My chirren would never sit around while they mama did all the work. Did, they wouldn’t be sittin for a long time I’d wear them out so good, you git on.
The boys had not moved while she spoke to them and banged around but when she stopped for a moment, they began to sidle out of the Harbours’ kitchen door. As they were going out Rosie said to the middle brother, I can see them other two being like that but not you. I thought you had better sense than that. The middle brother, who wished she wouldn’t do that because he hated being the goody-goody and she was making him look like the goody-goody again, said, Well, I don’t.
You can all get on out of here, then, she said. We will, they said. And you can take this dirt, she said, I don’t want it, I don’t need your dirt. She stood there shaking the paper bag at them but the boys ignored her and kept walking.
Shut up, Rosie, said the Harbour twin who had been standing with his shovel in the sandbox, watching all this.
Don’t you tell me to shut up, young’un, Rosie said.
I will if I want to, the Harbour twin said.
You just wait till your daddy gets home, Rosie said, and after that the boys paid no more attention and were soon out of earshot back down the street.
Way to go, igmo, the oldest brother said to the youngest brother.
That night when the boys’ mother came home from work again she was not mad like the night before but she still looked swollen-faced and didn’t say much while she cooked a pound of bacon and made them bacon-and-tomato sandwiches on white bread with salad dressing mayonnaise and she still cut them all into triangle halves and stacked them on a plate which she set down in the middle of the table. Then she asked the middle brother to say the blessing and after that they played the game where they all sat there waiting for her to say go before they started grabbing sandwich halves and eating them as fast as they could. The mother didn’t eat any of the sandwiches herself, though, and went to her bedroom again as soon as she’d done the dishes and shut the door.
The next day the boys decided to try something else. The only other person they thought they could go to for advice was old Dr. Hornegay up the street who was retired from the charity hospital. Every other grown-up who lived on the street was either at work, or a colored maid, or a white woman friend of their mother’s. They couldn’t ask help of their mother’s white woman friends because it might make their mother ashamed. And Dr. Hornegay might have some old medicine lying around that would make their mother feel better. So they waited until Dr. Hornegay had time to get up and about, then went up there and knocked on the door to the den from the carport. In a minute the door cracked open and Dr. Hornegay’s white-bearded face appeared in the crack wearing a pair of one-armed spectacles on his red and blue nose that was the shape of a deformed, dried-out potato. His white hair was ﬂattened in some places and pointed straight out at others. What can I do for you boys? he ﬁnally said.
We know you’re not a doctor anymore, the oldest brother said, but we thought you might have some old medicine left laying around.
Once a doctor, always a doctor, Dr. Hornegay said, and coughed. He opened the door on up and stood there in it, wearing an old cracked pair of leather slippers on his white feet, a stinking-looking pair of pajama bottoms, and a tartan robe that had no belt. He ﬁshed a nonﬁlter Camel from a package in the breast pocket of the robe and lit it with a match from a book of matches and blew a cloud of smoke out over their heads where they stood in the carport looking up at him. The boys were astonished at the amount of gray-and-white-speckled hair on his stomach and chest. It was like he was wearing squirrel pelts there or something. It was hard not to stare. The middle brother looked past Dr. Hornegay into the den. He was hoping for a sight of Dr. Hornegay’s wife, whom no one had seen in years because, word was, Dr. Hornegay’s wife was ridden down by sadness and an extra one hundred and ﬁfty pounds and no longer came up out of their basement. The only thing the middle brother could see in the den was a stretched-out La-Z-Boy on the headrest of which lay a scrawny yellow cat, looking right back at him. It gave him the creeps.
What would you need medicine for? Dr. Hornegay said then, scratching at the squirrel pelts.
The brothers told him they needed it for their mother, who was afﬂicted with sadness and rage and who was threatening to walk out of their house and never come back. Is there a medicine for that? the youngest brother said.
Plenty, Dr. Hornegay said. He laughed as if to himself. Oh, ho, yeah, lots of tinctures and remedies for that malady. What time does your mama get off from work?
About ﬁve, the middle brother said.
I’ll be down at six, Dr. Hornegay said, and closed the door gently in their faces.
I don’t know, the middle brother said as they walked back down to their house. If he can’t do anything to help his own wife, how’s he going to help her? Meaning their mother.
The only thing wrong with Doc Hornegay’s old fat wife is she’s a drunk, the oldest brother said. Who told you that? the middle brother said. Everybody knows that, the oldest brother said, you igmo. Yeah, the youngest brother said. You did not know that, the middle brother said to him. I did, too, the youngest brother said, you igmo.
That afternoon when the mother came home the boys were all three sitting in a row on the sofa in the den with their hair combed, their shirttails tucked in, their shoes on and their shoelaces tied. My goodness, their mother said, to what do I owe the honor? The boys smiled at her and kept their mouths shut. She stopped where she was, standing beside the kitchen table, holding the sack of groceries she’d picked up on the way home from work, and looked at them. What are y’all up to?