The deacons who built the Mt. Zion AME Sunday School annex didn’t waste space and money on large soundproof restrooms. Dovey rested her palms on the walls as if each was one of her horizons. Disjointed chatter from her classroom filtered through.
“…not the A&P, cheaper at the Piggley Wiggley.”
“It’s stuck. You try and open it Cora, hits scaldin in heah.”
“No he ain’t . He ain’t been with her for three Sundays I know of…”
“More’n three, I been watchin the both of em. Theys something goin on she ain’t talkin about.”
Dovey smoothed out her blue serge dress and entered the class room.
“They done painted it shut. We gotta get a deacon to prise it open….” Cora realized she was the only one talking. “Oh, hey there Dovey, good of you to come. You by yourself?”
Every eye shifted from Dovey to Cora.
# # #
“If it’s this hot now, how hot’s it gonna get by Decoration Day?” Mamma Washington said, fanning warm air down her ample bosom.
The sanctuary was uncomfortable with the early season change. Dovey plucked at the skirt of her dress. “I need to make a new dress, something cooler and lighter.”
“Looser too, let that air get to your skin. They got some on sale at Mason’s.” Mrs. Washington said.
‘I’m too little for Mason’s dresses, ones that fit make me look like a child. I’ll make my own, a woman dress.”
‘It’s them big eyes and skinny legs make you look childish. Where’s Clarence?”
Dovey dreaded the question her classmates hadn’t had gall enough to ask. “Oh, Mr. Falgout been workin Clarence awful hard here lately, but he…”
“Hush girl, you in church, quit fixin yore mouth to lie. Tom Falgout is a mean, stingy, old bastard, but he ain’t never worked a man on Sunday long as I’ve knowed. Be still, preacher’s coming in. You gone ride home with me today, lie then.”
When the service was over Dovey watched her shoes creep over the foot polished heart pine floor as she tried to make herself invisible by denying eye contact. Mamma Washington locked arms with her and insulated the unlikely pair with a barrage of chatter about dress patterns.
Securely wedged behind the wheel of her old Buick Roadmaster, Mamma Washington started in on Dovey. “Yore Momma was like a sister to me, oh, if she could hear the tales you tellin’ …I declare, she’d whip yore boney ass till her arm got tired. Tell ole Mamma Washington the truth. You doan know where Clarence is do you?”
“I know he been workin when he supposed to, but he just comes in when he feels like it, to eat and sleep some before he goes out again.”
“Dovey, tell me true. Has Clarence hit you yet?” Mamma Washington’s eyes never left the road, but her full lips stretched into a thin line.
Dovey studied her feet, “No ma’am, he ain’t. He drawed back at me when I asked him to stay in Friday night, but he never hit me. Clarence won’t never… “ Dovey looked up. “Miz Washington we got talkin and drove past my house.”
“Be still. We ain’t goin directly home. You the only soul in Marengo doan know Clarence been stayin down to Big Toby’s shot house and payin court to Toby’s whores.”
“Miz Washington, you ain’t takin me to no whore house!”
Nowheres near. We gonna see a old fixer woman I knows. Just set still.”
# # #
“Dovey can you see is there a big ugly dog on that porch? No? Good, she ain’t got no company. You got two dollars in your pocketbook?”
“Whose house is that?”
“Thas Auntie Dootump’s house Dovey.”
“Dootump! We ain’t goin in no Hoo Doo woman’s house.”
“No Dovey, we aint, you is. Take these two dollars and get up on that porch.”
A thin yellow dog nosed the screen open and tail switched past Dovey’s legs. A contralto voice came from inside the house. “Close the screen, flies bad already. Back here in the kitchen, it’s cooler.”
Dovey followed an arthritic old woman to the table. The woman patted her “client’s chair.”
“I’m Felice DuTemps, call me Auntie, everybody does.” With a dipper Auntie spooned a ration of brown liquid from a jar holding liver colored filaments that floated like flayed skin. She put this in a china cup and diluted it with boiling water. “That’s blood tea. Do you take sugar?
Dovey recoiled from the cup as if snake bit.
“Just my way of talking girl. It’s elderberry and cherry bark tea, builds up strong blood. A woman needs strong blood. No, not that jar that’s wart powder the sugar’s in the sugar bowl.”
“That powder cures warts?”
“Cures? Oh. No, not cures, but never you mind. You have not come to me about warts. But first drink your tea.
A rainbow of light cast itself over Dovey. She looked toward the window where daylight filtered through jars of colored liquid. Most of the jars held a root or wickedly twisted stems and leaves.
Dovey finished her tea, it tasted like hot, flat Dr. Pepper cola. “Auntie, Ms. Washington said you fixes things.”
“ Bessie Washington would put it that way.” Auntie placed the tea things into the sink. “We might as well start in the way everyone expects. Your hands please.”
Auntie spread Dovey’s hands palm up on the cool enamel surface of the table. She flattened them and like a doctor replacing a soiled bandage took the two crumpled dollar bills from Dovey’s left hand. “Man trouble, your man hasn’t been in your bed in two, no three weeks. Whiskey and whores have him charmed.”
“I guess everybody in Delta County knows my business, not just my Sunday School class.”
“So you don’t believe I saw all this in your palm?” Auntie asked.
“Did you? Did you read words there I can’t see?
“Missy, palm reading is stage business. I know what I know because I’ve seen it before. I knew when you got out of that car you had man trouble. I see, and not in your hands, people gossiping. I see what everybody knew, but you didn’t. I also see what only you know. The secret thing.” Auntie looked closely at Dovey over the rims of her glasses.
“Auntie, I don’t know what to do. I’m all by myself. Mamma Washington loves me, but she can’t help. I can’t tell her what I’m thinking.”
“I know girl, I know. Women from all over come to me. My window shelves are full of what they want, or think they want. Tansy, black cohosh, cotton root, they all take away, some early, and some late, almost to the point of too late. You’re little, but grown enough to decide. Is it the taking away you want? What do you want?”
Dovey rubbed her hands together as if they were suddenly cold. “Auntie, I want Clarence back. Can you conjure him back?”
Auntie hid her smile behind a big knuckled hand. “Men, gambling men, come to me for luck. I sell them a Mojo hand and they start winning again. It isn’t the charm. It’s believing the charm. They think they buy luck. They buy confidence. Dovey, there are no love potions. Love potions are a lie, but if you have courage I can give you an even better fix. Do you?”
“I’ll do whatever you say Auntie exactly as you tell me.”
Auntie got up and began to ramble around in her cupboard. “I’ll give you what you need, although you have everything already, but use what I give you exactly as I tell you to. Now where did I put those, ah, here they are.”
# # #
It was 4AM and Clarence was asleep. His clothes were strewn around the room. Dovey held her palm to the cheek; the slap still stung. In the kitchen she filled a large broiler with water to within three inches of the top added a half box of salt, and set it on a blazing stove eye. “The reminder.” Dovey recited from Auntie’s recipe. While she waited she carried the broom to the front door, and laid the handle across the threshold.
The screen was pulled to, but not latched.
To the water she added two cups of grits and a half jar of sorghum molasses. “The binder” she mouthed.
Dovey cut off the gas under the boiling pot and let the grits steep, a little. With thick pot holders she lugged the boiler into the parlor. “Clarence, she said loudly. “Clarence!” she screamed. “Wake up, you hateful son of a bitch!”
Clarence woke in time to see the graceful arc of steaming grits splash down on his bare chest. Instinct took over. He was out the door at a run. Dovey followed with the broom. But she didn’t come close. Clarence was an inspired runner.
“Let them whores you love feed you and wash for you. I doan need you, and my baby doan need no daddy like you.” Dovey stood heaving for breath. “Auntie said kill or cure. Leastways my Sunday School class will know I aint no damn fool.”
# # #
Ray Busler lives in Trussville, Alabama with his long suffering artist wife of 40 years.
Photo credit: Larry D. Thacker www.larrydthacker.com