a novel by Donna B. Comeaux
“Hi. You look nice,” Melba said.
“Would you take a look at that?” Soapy tilted her head toward a man who extended her a weak smile. To Melba, he placed his right hand on his heart and bowed his head.
“You haven’t made your move yet?” Melba adjusted herself in the booth, curling her mohair scarf and laying it on the seat, placing the documents on top. Melba understood all too well Soapy wanted to have a ring on her finger before her thirty-fifth birthday. Looking for a husband had become a four-year obsession, ending in emotional disappointment six times in a row.
“If that darn waitress would just take his order and leave, maybe I would.” Soapy leaned forward. “Tell me somet’ing, Miss Lena Horne. Why you never did any modeling?”
“Here we go,” Melba snapped.
“You’re not going to tell me you didn’t see how everyone looked at you? Please,” Soapy said, disgusted. “You got skin lighter than Susan Kohner, and a better figure. If I wore that green turtleneck, I’d look like somebody dying from gangrene.”
“How many times must we go through this? I’m wearing an old turtleneck and faded jeans.
What you want me to do? Dress in a croaker sack?”
“Not a bad idea. Then a man might stare at me once in a while.” Soapy folded her arms.
“You don’t get it, do you?”
“Neither do you. Money’s not everything.”
“Who said a t’ing ‘bout money? Do you have any idea how gorgeous you are? Even if you wore a croaker sack, you’d still take a man’s breath away. Speaking of money,” Soapy said as she pointed at Melba, “next time you go to the bank, put some of your green in my account? Better yet, just leave me the house when you die.”
Melba shook her head. “Sometimes I forget how you like a good fight.”
Soapy winked. They ordered soup and coffee then Soapy pressed Melba to explain the ‘circumstances’ as she had referred to them on the telephone. “Somet’ing’s wrong, and whatever you do, don’t sit there and tell me it’s no’ting. You got this worried look ‘round your eyes.” Soapy made circular motions with her hand.
A waitress placed their coffee on the table. Melba cradled her cup and gazed at their reflection in the window. She wanted to trade places with her friend by swapping her flowing locks for Soapy’s thick, coarse ones; her light skin for Soapy’s swarthy one. In private, she even tried to mimic Soapy’s Jamaican accent. Melba loved her friend’s sense of pride and belonging. She’d jump at the chance to trade places with her any day of the week.
Melba didn’t know why the car came to mind, it seemed the least of her concerns, but she heard herself say, “Someone is watching the house, or me, or both,” her voice trailed off in disbelief.
“In this weather? Be serious.”
“Doesn’t matter,” she muttered, half disappointed with Soapy’s reaction. “I’m not that concerned with the watchman.”
“I don’t know what else to call him. He appeared right after Daniel died.”
“First of all, Missy, it’s too cold to be watching somebody’s house. And second, your blasted driveway is—what?—a half mile long. How can you tell if someone is watching you, or waiting on someone else? How do you know it’s the same car?”
Mortified by Soapy’s condescending stare, Melba knew Soapy thought she had lost her mind. “The first time I saw it, I thought the same as you. I know how this sounds,” she countered, “but believe me, I’m not looking for attention. Deyanira saw it, too. When I checked the security camera, I couldn’t see if a male or female was inside.”
“Have you called the police?”
“But I’m afraid there are other things to worry about.”
“Melba! What on earth could be more important than your safety, woomon?”
“I don’t know if I can deal with Daniel’s mess, the stalker outside my home, and my mother’s determination to get me back to Louisiana,” she blurted out.
“What are you rambling about?” Soapy had a disgruntled look on her face. “I’m not following any of this. How did we get from the watchmon to your dead mother and Louisiana? You don’t look right. You need a vacation, Melba. And I don’t mean that unkindly. Really, you need to get away from here and clear your head. Daniel’s death has taken a toll on you. Look at you. You’ve even lost weight.”
Melba picked up one envelope, examined it then slid it across the table.
“What is it?”
Melba watched Soapy’s earnest attempt to defuse her expectation to read one of Daniel’s love letters. It didn’t take a genius to know Soapy’s eyes lingered on Daniel too long at times. She longed for a husband of her own. When it didn’t happen, Soapy’s emotions preyed on Daniel, sometimes seeking, almost begging to read the love letters he had written to Melba. Melba had always refused.
Melba pinpointed Soapy’s exact moment of disappointment—her clamped lips and watery eyes. Soapy shuffled through the pages, getting them out of order, reorganizing them then relaxing in defeat and reading the documents with what Melba perceived as a different expectation.
The legal document read: …resident of the Iberville Parish State of Louisiana…does by these presents, GRANT, BARGAIN,…AND DELIVER unto Lucille Jeffries and her child or children a superficial area of Three Hundred Fifty (350) acres….
Soapy rubbed the seal. “Melba, this is wonderful.”“Now read this.”
Soapy read the letter then glared at Melba. “I’m speechless.”
“Lately, I haven’t been able to sleep. Four days ago, at four a.m., I decided to sort through Daniel’s things in the attic. I was up there for hours before I found these.”
“This is unprecedented. I’m sure it’s possible, but I’ve never heard of a black person in this country owning a plantation. How long have you known about this?”
“Mother gave me these after my honeymoon, but I put them away. I was young, in a hurry to leave White Castle. They weren’t important to me. And to be honest, I thought momma had lost her mind.”
“She was crazy alright. Crazy in love with Mr. Hammond.”
“You see, that puzzles me.” Melba pointed her finger at Soapy. “Why would she want anything to do with the likes of George Hammond? She could have had any black man in Iberville Parish. It sure would have saved me a lot of grief.”
“You talk as if he’s a stranger, an object, not like your father.”
“Humph,” Melba sounded. “I never knew the man. He died when I was young.”
“Your mother sure knew him. She probably took a fancy to him because he could take care of her. There’s nothing wrong with that. Don’t let these modern-day women fool you. Women want security. The story and the reasons haven’t changed since the beginning of time. Your mother probably fell in love later. Read the letter again. She says it right here.” To prove her point, Soapy read aloud:
‘I loved the white man of White Castle named George Hammond. I was just a companion at first. He was lonely for his wife, who died in childbirth many years before, and I was lonely for someone decent who could give me more than I had….’
Soapy set the letter aside and turned her attention to the deed. “Melba, you have 37 acres, a maid, a driver, a twelve thousand square foot house, and four cars. Goodness! What on earth will you do with 350 acres?” Soapy slapped her palms on the table. “I say let’s pack and leave in the morning. I’ll help you manage that land.”
“Ooh, no. I’m not going anywhere,” Melba said. She thought about the suitcases sitting in her bedroom. Had she intended to go to Louisiana? Melba frowned at the thought.
“Why not? What’s holding you here?”
“For all I know, this was probably wishful thinking on my mother’s part, Soapy. For crying out loud, the deed was signed in nineteen forty-nine.”
“Let me get this right. Are you sitting there assuming that the year dictates the validity of this deed? And I thought you were smarter than me,” Soapy smarted off. “First of all, last I checked this is THE United States of America. Second, we’re in the twenty-first century and no one is going to come and burn your house down or send the dogs after you for trying to claim this property. You think this document is a fake? Is that your problem?”
“I’ve got a funny feeling all is not quite right with this. That’s what I think. There’s something very wrong with the way mother handled this.”
White Castle troubled Melba. Conversations about the plantation heightened her senses and agitated memories she didn’t understand. No matter how much she fought it, she swore she heard people crying in her dreams. She wiggled her nose then looked around the restaurant, thinking she smelled smoke. With her index finger, she circled a spot on her right temple where rocks grazed her head. She remembered tauntings, bullying, stolen lunches, and other abuses she endured in grade school.
“Tell me, what could possibly be wrong with the way your mother handled this.”
“Let’s consider the fact she remained in our two-bedroom shack until her death,” Melba snapped. “She never moved to the plantation. Don’t you find that odd? If she didn’t want to claim the property back then, why should I claim it now? There seems to be too much secrecy surrounding this land.”
“I don’t see a problem. All you need to do is hop on a plane and investigate this.”
“Soapy, you don’t—”
“Look, you have a right to that land, Melba,” Soapy insisted. “How often have we drove through Glenwood, Hunting Park and Yorktown and seen homes and businesses our people once owned now controlled by the bank? That’s where this is headed if you don’t claim that land. Is that what you want? Is it? You see, that’s what’s wrong with us. We sit on our behinds and do absolutely nothing. Some of our people don’t have the money to pay taxes on their land so they walk away from it. Melba, you don’t have that problem. You can pay the taxes for a thousand of us. It’s disgusting to think you would just sit back and do nothing. I expected more from an educated woman like you.”
Soapy leaned forward and stared in Melba’s eyes. “You want the banks to profit from that property? To keep on doing what they always do, step on the backs of poor people? Is that what you’re telling me? Look, you can argue all you want and lose this opportunity, Melba, but to me it’s all pretty clear. You have inherited property you really don’t need. You’re going to walk into a town you haven’t seen for— How many years?”
“Twenty-nine— But I went back for my mother’s funeral and—”
“…twenty-nine years,” Soapy continued. “You don’t know much ‘bout that place anymore. But why not go? Scared? Sure you are. I’m scared for you. But what if…” Soapy fell silent.
Melba’s insides raced like galloping horses as additional questions flooded her mind. What if they remembered she belonged to George? What if they still hated her mother? Melba felt as if someone had stuffed a sock in her throat.
“What if the property really isn’t yours? Who’s gonna be hurt by that? Either way you go, you will know the ins and outs of all this and come away with options you don’t have by sitting here.”
“Soapy, it’s probably barren and not worth much.”
“Stop being so stubborn. Go anyway! The way I see it, it will get you the hell…excuse me…the heck out of here. You can put your mind on somet’ing else and not be bothered by a watchmon, Daniel’s death or anything else. This is your vacation, Melba. Don’t pass this up. Please.”
Melba sat up half the night flipping channels, finding it hard to discredit Soapy. She had no family ties to Philadelphia anymore. She formulated a plan to leave, but dismissed it. Life outside her comfort zone seemed downright scary.
Unmoved by images on her television screen, she pushed the off button and stared at the soft automatic nightlights along her baseboards. Being alone frightened her. What would she do if she wanted to make love? Caress cold sheets? Dare she consider going solo on their summer vacation in June? Should she watch Frasier in isolation, one hand reaching inside a popcorn bowl, a pair of warm feet missing from beneath the afghan? She wanted to forget how much she hated Daniel. She’d even make peace with her mother. She’d forgive her mother for bringing her into the world under the pretense that an affair with a white man for the sake of financial security outweighed traditional family values. And for the life of her, she didn’t get it. Why couldn’t she at least have a child of her own to sustain her without settling for a half-breed born out of wedlock?
She struggled to get comfortable between the cool sheets. She got up and made tea, English style. With light streaming from the vent hood, she strolled around the kitchen, peeped inside the dining room, then wandered onto the patio. There she looked out at her pool covered with snow, faint glimmers of spotlights showing through. The bright night revealed white caps on undulated hills serving as a beautiful backdrop for her property.
Melba sipped her tea, grateful the small Ditter’s Hill community of New Hope, Pennsylvania, had provided her a wonderful quiet life. She and Daniel had done a fine job making a prosperous living and she wondered if she could leave it behind.
After heating her tea in the microwave, she returned to her bedroom and opened the curtains. Everything looked brand new, fondled only by cold night air. Melba didn’t believe in going against the rules. She never gambled. Yet, to know what lay ahead, beyond those houses, beyond Pennsylvania’s state line, beyond her once perfect life would mean she’d have to do just that, gamble. She looked at the suitcases lined along the wall. She glared at Daniel’s side of the bed, seething at the devoted life she had maintained in a wasted marriage. To appease her anger, she offered a toast. “To Daniel and his bastard son.”
Already packed, she decided to leave first thing in the morning.
Donna B. Comeaux
Freelance Writer, Author, Poet