I am seven years old, holding the magician’s
wand, cool and silver in my hands. My breath is hot against the canvas
bust of Mama’s dressmaker’s dummy. I’m inside of
There is green gingham wrapped around me,
around the dummy. My brother, Ash, and I play here sometimes, hide
and seek. I can feel the metal skirt hoop and smell the musty canvas.
I can hear her screaming, begging him to leave us be. There is a thump
and a cry at the same time.
Then silence, nothing but the sound of
my own breathing.
I don’t know who’s still standing,
but I can feel trouble—it fills the room. Someone’s looking
my way. Can he hear me breathing? Can he see my feet? Does he
know I’m here? I pull my toes in and try hard not to exhale.
I close my eyes. Go away, go away.
Footsteps move across the room, and I hear shuffling around. They
come closer, painfully slow. I’m about to lose my breath. I’m
seeing stars. My knees are shaking.
It’s dark. I’m afraid in the
I hear a sound, a short, quick, scratch.
Then another, and another.
Finally, there’s a whoosh and the
footsteps are running away. I wait to be sure they’re gone.
I wait, I wait, but I’m getting hot. I might pass out. I open
my eyes and look down at my bare feet. Orange fire is on the hem of
the green gingham dress. There’s fire, and all I can think is
I’ve got to get out of here. I stand up straight and hit my
head on the metal. The dummy falls over with me in it.
I wake up, looking into my brother’s
eyes with the blue sky and white smoke above us. He’s saying
to me, whimpering, “Please, Maggie, talk to me!”
I try but the words won’t come.
The fire dances, a great orange jack-o-lantern
high above the trees, well into the night. Every man in town is here,
buckets of water in hand, sweat on their brows. The heat is nothing
I’ve ever felt and nothing I ever hope to feel again.
The watering hole must be empty by now.
I think of the fish. I think if they’re frying on the burning
embers of the house. I think there might not be any more fish to catch
and worry how to restock Togoodoo Creek. Funny what the mind goes
to at a time like this. I should be thinking about more serious matters.
About the stranger and if he’s dead in that fire. About her,
and if she’ll survive. I should be thinking these things, but
my mind is not able to work it out. Instead, I will think about fish.
There are enough worms to catch a whole heap of them, but now they’re
burning in a heap that was once a home. A happy home.
The fish swim up to the night sky in swirls
of orange-white smoke, and I wish I could climb the swirls like Jack
up the beanstalk, up and away from here. I have never seen a fire
this big. Fires should not get this big. Maybe it’ll swallow
I wish I could go back to before. Please
God, let me go back to before I ever met him. Before the train came
to town. Let the fire burn up all the time and seconds and let’s
just go back to before I ever heard her cry. I pray it. . .I pray
it. . .I pray it. . .Amen.
I open my eyes but the fire rages. Will
she forgive me? Will she ever forget?
Eighty years later. . .
It started when Miss Magnolia got this
great big package in the mail on the very same day Mister Joe moved
in, just a few doors down from her. At the time, I didn’t put
two and two together, but I know better now. Something was different
about that very morning—the air was cool and crisp on an August
day, the birds were quiet, and the cat was prowling some other corner
of the house, not the first floor like it usually did. . .waiting
for some old folk to die.
Nobody died in Harmony House that day the
man come high-tailing in the front door, carrying that package all
in a hurry. None of us aides had ever seen anything that big, so we
was all eyes, you know, wondering who it could be for. I seen it said
Mrs. Magnolia Black Jacobs, and I remember feeling pride ‘cause
she was one of my own and being so surprised ‘cause I never
known she was a Black. In the two years I’d known her, she’d
just been Mrs. Jacobs, Miss Magnolia, George’s wife, to me.
That package hinted she had a life before—before Harmony House,
before age came and stole her away, before she ever married George
Jacobs and had family with him.
I walked with the package man back to room
101 and asked what was in it. “Don’t know,” he said.
“Maybe some kind of painting?” It was a large, rectangular
thing. The address was from New York City, but there weren’t
a sender’s name.
I opened the door and found Mister George
and Miss Magnolia still sleeping sound in their bed. It had been a
rough go for them, ‘specially the last six months, for Miss
Magnolia losing her mind with each pin stoke, losing her independence,
her ability to communicate. But for Mister George, I declare, it was
even worse. For a while, his wife seemed to be forgetting everything
and everybody. Even him, her husband of seventy-some years.
After the man helped me heft that package
into the room, I leaned it up against the wall. I tiptoed on over
to the bed, and Mister George stirred. “Goo-ood mornin’,
Mister George,” I sang in my brightest, happiest voice, wanting
to wake him with a Southern smile. He deserved some sweetness.
I open my eyes and see Miss Annie
hovering over Maggie, her large frame blocking the sunlight, her face
hard to wake up to. I’ve been spoiled by my lovely wife. “Good
mornin’? Sheesh, maybe for you—you got all your teeth.”
I reach over and fumble, trying to find my glass.
“Over to the right a little,”
says Annie. As I reach into the water, I realize what a stupid thing
I just said. Miss Annie, the colored woman who takes care of my wife
has terrible teeth, all crooked and small and yellow, like little
bits of corn left out in the field too long. And a face like a beat
up frying pan, but sweet like an angel. Think, George, before you
speak. That part’s never come easy for me, thinking. I pop my
“Ah gee, I didn’t mean.
. .I’m sorry, Annie.”
“For what? I ain’t understood
a thin’ you said, what with your no-tooth self.” She winks
at me. “You sleep good?”
“Yeah, reckon. Fair to middlin’.”
“Mornin’, Miss Magnolia,”
Annie sings. “How we doin’ today? Rise and shine. The
Lawd done give us a new day together.”
I turn over because I don’t
really know how my wife is going to react to being woken up. She doesn’t
know me anymore, and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t know
Annie either, and I just don’t want to see a whole production
right now. It’s something that’s hard to prepare for,
and you never know when it might happen. Not too long ago when Maggie
could still speak, Miss Annie was putting her to bed one night, and
she turned and looked at me and said, “Where’s he sleeping?”
“Right here, in the bed.”
“With me?” said Maggie.
“Of course,” said Annie.
“The hell he is.”
My wife had never used a profane
word in all her years, but it’s not what bothered me. I was
a stranger now, just like everybody else.
Miss Annie knows enough to leave
me alone every now and again. Occasionally she finds me lying on a
bed of white towels in the bathtub, crusty tracks on my face from
crying half the night. It’s been hard. I won’t lie.
I sit up slow and hang my legs off
the bed, struggle to find my slippers. I rub the back of my head and
my whiskers, my unshaven face. And I tell her about my dream, hoping
to smooth over any unpleasantness on the other side of the bed.
“Miss Annie, last night I was
young again. How ‘bout that.”
“Yes ma’am. Old George.
Dreamt I was sitting at this watering hole we used to have near the
farm. I’d sit there as a boy, eight, nine, ten. . .with crickets
or worms on my hook. I’d get brim on a good day, catfish any
other. Sometimes we’d sell ‘em at the store, Jacobs Mercantile.
In this dream I had, there was somethin’ on the line. It was
a big somethin’. I was pullin’, haulin’ it in. The
water was dark and I couldn’t see, but I was pullin’ and
pullin’ and pullin’ and—”
“Well, what it was?”
I realize my hands are stretched
out like I’m fishing, so I stop. I turn and watch Annie helping
my wife sit up, the powder white of her hair like snow on her sweet
little head. I miss touching that softness. I miss those shoulders,
that body. I miss the woman who knew me. I miss my wife. But I’m
not complaining. She’s still here, see. That’s more than
some people can say.
“No, Annie, I never did see
what it was. I woke up before I could reel it in. I tell you this
though, it was somethin’ mighty big. And in that dream I felt
like if I could just pull that thing up from out of the water, it’d
be like winnin’ the lottery, like finding a pot of gold, you
“Magic fishes, imagine. You
find one, bring it to me, hear? Miss Annie gonna fry it up and get
rich. There you go, Miss Magnolia. Give me this leg. All right. Careful
I could help Annie get my wife into
her wheelchair. She’s thirty-something years old and strong
as an ox, but still, I could help her. I might be in my nineties,
but I’m not useless. This morning, I just don’t feel like
it. I can’t get my mind off of that dream. I can’t stop
thinking what could have been under that water. Maybe tonight I can
go back to sleep and figure it out, what I was supposed to pull up.
Maybe there’s treasure waiting for this old man, after all.
. .though at this age, what in the world would I do with it?
“I brung you somethin’,
Miss Magnolia,” says Annie as she goes to the windows and throws
open the blue curtains. Yellow morning spills over everything, and
I rub my eyes. I slide my feet into my slippers and hold myself propped
on the edge of the bed.
“Good-looking white man drivin’
a FedEx truck brung you this great big package here. All the way from
New York City.”
New York? I pick up my glasses and
stick them on my nose. Hey diddle, she’s right. The biggest
box I’ve ever seen, long and skinny, is propped up on the wall
behind the card table. It’s almost too big for our little room.
“What is it?”
“Don’t know. You want
me to open it?”
I tell her yes and look over at Maggie
who’s studying the big brown box as if Miss Annie’s let
a perfect stranger into the room. “There’s a letter opener
in that drawer there.”
Annie grabs the box and attacks the edges, sliding down one seam,
across another, and my heart stirs. What in the world has come for
my wife? Who does she know who would ever send her anything, except
for Alex or Gracie, and they could deliver it themselves if they needed
“Alrighty then,” she
says, pulling the side open and reaching in. “Wrapped it good.”
She pulls it out, huffing. Finally she cuts the bubble wrap off and
there we are, Annie standing back, and me on the bed, Maggie in her
wheelchair, staring at the biggest, most beautiful portrait of a young
girl I’ve ever seen. She’s lying on her stomach at a swimming
pool, pushed up on her elbows, with wavy hair and full bosoms and
all sorts of curves.
“You okay?” Annie asks,
as I must have gasped out loud.
“I don’t believe it.
It. . .it’s Maggie.”
“Naw. Wait. Lawd have mercy,
sure ‘nough! I never seen a body so lovely. . .Miss Magnolia?”
she crosses over to her and pushes her wheelchair to within two feet
of the photograph. “You see this? This is you, ain’t it?
Weren’t you were the prettiest thang? I swanny. Look at you!”
I watch Maggie, sitting there with
her hair still uncombed and white and pink pajamas on. She studies
the life-sized portrait of herself in a bathing suit. It must have
been taken around the time we were married—she’s only,
what, seventeen or eighteen? Maggie lifts a trembling hand and puts
it in her mouth. “Annie, grab her a washcloth.”
She does so, and Maggie chomps down in it instead of her raw knuckles.
“How come you never told me
she was such a beauty? Where’s this picture from? Some magazine?”
“This is new to me. . .unless
I’ve forgotten,” I say now, low and inadequate. “Which
is entirely possible. I—my goodness. No. I’ve never seen
this photo in my life.”
It dawns on me then: There are things
I still don’t know about my wife. After all these years, how
can it be? But then again, there are things she still doesn’t
know about me either.
The thought of it all makes me want
to tell Miss Annie to leave us alone a while. I’ve got to study
the young face of my wife. It’s the pretty face that used to
smile only for me. Apparently she smiled for some other creep too,
somebody living in New York City now.