In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Although three Audreys were present at the breakfast table, only Audrey Jr. — the middle Audrey, a tall woman with hair the color of kumquats — responded by handing her husband the bowl when he mumbled, “Pass me the grits, Audrey.” Cal reserved the solitary name “Audrey” for his wife, calling his daughter “Lil’ Audrey,” or “Lil’ A.” for short. Miss Audrey, the blue-veined woman who sat at the other end of the table smoking a cigarette, was his mother-in-law.
“It’s nice to eat breakfast in the Bamboo Lounge, isn’t it, Cal?” Audrey Jr. was trying to keep the peace. Cal was annoyed that his colored maid had commandeered the TV in the breakfast nook. Everybody knew Cal did not like to sit in the Bamboo Lounge before 5:30 p.m., when he had his first cocktail of the day. It was the only time he could sit undisturbed and read the Times-Picayune. Being a self-employed man, he forsook the morning paper to get an early start.
Cal was having seconds this morning since he couldn’t open his sandwich shop on Poydras Street downtown. His sandwich shop in the heart of the central business district was famous for the breakfast po-boy sandwiches he’d invented as a young boy with an appetite too big for a mere egg, bacon, and grits-style breakfast. But this morning, City Councilman Bennett had called to advise Cal to stay home. “They’re sayin’ they’ll close down anybody who tries to open up today,” Benny had said.
“I got no colored customers,” Cal replied.
Benny reminded Cal he was a family man. “You don’t want no trouble, Cal.”
Cal looked around the room at the porcelain menagerie that was his wife’s most recent collecting passion. What with the jungle-motif furniture and the bamboo bar in the corner, Cal’s brother, Hughes, had christened the room (which used to be the den) “the Bamboo Lounge,” and Cal declared it unfit for daytime use. Consequently, he had never seen the morning sunlight come through the big bay window. Now, it cast mirage-like shadows through the plastic leaves which provided a habitat for Audrey Jr.’s animals. He admitted to himself that he liked it; it reminded him of the times he went duck-hunting and woke up in the middle of the swamp. For Lil’ A.’s sake, he faked a terrified look.
“Ain’t right, honey. The animals look like they’re stalking our food.”
Lil’ Audrey laughed at her father’s joke. “Feed ’em, Daddy!”
Cal held his bowl of grits up to the beak of the parrot, whose wooden perch (which cost Audrey Jr. a secretly spent twenty dollars) sat above his right shoulder. Then he offered a strip of well-done bacon to the lion at his feet.
“Yum yum!” Lil’ Audrey smacked deliciously.
“Not so loud!” Audrey Jr. snapped at their antics. “Poor Octavia is in mourning.” Cal rolled his eyes as he slid the bacon into his bowl of grits.
Lil’ Audrey reveled in her Daddy’s company this morning. He was a handsome man; Lil’ Audrey had his navy blue eyes, which were set off nicely by the dark brown hair she got from Audrey Jr. (who had recently decided to “go red”). Lil’ A. was proud that her Daddy made more money than Uncle Hughes, a doctor. “More money selling sandwiches than saving lives,” as Hughes put it. The only problem this morning was that Octavia was left alone to cry with her ironing in the breakfast room. Most mornings, all the women of the family (and they included Octavia in this) sat in there and watched TV before Lil’ Audrey was hustled off to the school bus.
“We better check on her. I don’t want her doing anything rash.” Audrey Jr. reached a long arm behind her to open one of the louvered doors which led to the breakfast room. All three Audreys and Cal watched the diminutive black woman hunched over the ironing board. She let the iron rest on a white sheet as she wiped her tears on a sleeve of her starched uniform. It was the first time Lil’ Audrey noticed that Octavia was as old as her grandmother.
“ ’Tavia,” called out Miss Audrey, offering her first words of the morning. “You gonna burn up that sheet.”
“Cal, do something.” Audrey Jr. looked at her husband. “We can’t just let her stand there and weep all day.”
Cal squinched up his eyes, leaning across the table so as not to be heard by Octavia. “She’s gonna iron them tears into my good shirts. Tears for that nigger King.”
“That’s how they all act today. ’Tavia used to be a good girl.” Miss Audrey took a long drag of her filter-tipped cigarette. Unlike her mother and father, who blew their smoke right out, her grandmother ate it. Lil’ Audrey imagined it went down clean to her stomach, and probably came out when she went to the bathroom.
“Hey, listen to this.” Cal waved a filmy, grits-smeared spoon at Miss Audrey. “Last night when I got back to the sandwich shop, old Billy was listening to the radio. And he said, ‘Mister Cal, Mister Cal, that nigger King is dead.’ And I said, ‘Whatchoo talkin’ about, Billy, there ain’t no nigger kings!’ ”
Lil’ Audrey had heard that joke weeks before at school, but she didn’t think people, even her Daddy, should be telling jokes about the dead. Besides, she knew Octavia’s grandson, Skeeter, was one of Dr. King’s followers.
“Calvin!” Audrey Jr. shushed her husband. “Don’t let Octavia hear you talking like that.”
Lil’ Audrey watched Calvin stir a new scoop of butter into the grits the animal statues had rejected. “Well, that’s how I found out anyway.”
Miss Audrey put out her cigarette. “I, for one, am not going to tiptoe around my colored woman all day.” Snippets of smoke finally escaped through her nose as she put one hand on each arm of her chair. Lil’ Audrey always likened her grandmother’s hands to the tributaries of the Mississippi River, though the river ran muddy and Miss Audrey’s blood looked to be a bright indigo. She leaned forward as if the gesture would magnify her tinny voice. “ ’Tavia, honey, stop that snifflin’ over some man you don’t even know and come in here.”
Octavia straightened up to her usual erect stance and marched into the Bamboo Lounge. The two smiling monkeys Audrey Jr. had mounted to frame the doorway looked down at her.
Miss Audrey stood for the occasion, touching Octavia on the arm affectionately as she had done many times in their forty-year relationship. “Honey, please don’t cry. Mr. Cal says some white man just got fed up and took him out.”
Octavia’s eyes returned to the black-and-white console in the other room. She looked over Miss Audrey’s shoulder. “They killed him, Miss Audrey, just like they did Jesus.”
“Now don’t you go comparing a nigger rabble-rouser to Jesus in my house, Octavia. If Martin Luther King rises from the dead in three days, then you can compare him to Jesus in front of me.”
Octavia did not move. “He was a good man, Miss Audrey. He wasn’t no nigger.”
“Octavia, honey, would you like a cup of coffee?” Audrey Jr. put the pitcher in front of the only empty chair. “Go fetch your cup,” she prodded.
Octavia returned from the kitchen with a yellow coffee mug. It was from the old set of china. Now, only Octavia was allowed to use it. She had her own forks and knives and spoons, too. Miss Audrey said Negroes carried disease.
“I’m telling you, I know how you feel.” Audrey Jr. said. “I cried my eyes out when President Kennedy was shot.”
“Well, none of this would have happened if you and your friends hadn’t voted for him in the first place.” Cal raised his eyebrows at his wife, and then turned to Octavia.
“Now I don’t say the man should have been shot. I don’t say that at all. But the man was a troublemaker. He said he didn’t want no violence. Bullshit!” Cal nodded his head once for each syllable. “He just didn’t want the police to pin the violence on him. You know yourself he came down South incitin’ good colored people. Like your own grandson. Skeeter was a good boy with a future before he started listening to that crap. Boy don’t know he’s being used.”
Octavia picked up her coffee cup and held it to her chest like it was protection. “Skeeter say Dr. King want the lion to lay down with the lamb. Jesus say the same thing. But Skeeter say there’s gonna be trouble now.”
“Ain’t nobody gonna make trouble in New Orleans, Octavia. But if they do, you tell Skeeter to watch out. The Negroes will get the worst of it.”
Octavia looked at the Audreys’ empty plates (Mr. Cal was still working on his grits), but did not remove them. She turned on one foot like she was going to begin a dance. Then she passed under the monkeys and closed the louvered doors behind her.
Miss Audrey lit another cigarette. “You asking for trouble with that girl, Audrey Jr.”
Lil’ Audrey did not want any trouble with Octavia. Octavia kept her company on long summer days when it was too hot to go outside and play. Summer was just around the corner, and Lil’ A. did not want to spend it alone inside with her grandmother, who wanted to watch only certain shows on TV, and whose only card game was Canasta.
Lil’ Audrey eyed the laughing monkeys that presided over the door. Octavia used to talk to them when she and Lil’ A. were alone. She said Audrey Jr. had unknowingly brought the “signifyin’ one” into her own home. “They stay up high like that so nobody can touch ’em. They tricksters, Babydoll, and they tell skeery, skeery lies.”
“They just old monkeys,” said Lil’ Audrey, but she moved back from them a little bit anyway.
“You don’t know, Babydoll. They start some trouble. And they way up high like that ’cause they like to pee on us down below.”
“Momma sure don’t know that,” Lil’ A. said, wrinkling up her nose. She would be more cautious when she passed them.
“Lemme tell you about the monkey, just like I been tellin’ to Skeeter.” Octavia moved herself and Lil’ A. out of the Bamboo Lounge, and out of earshot of the ceramic beasts. “Seems the monkey was thinkin’ he should be takin’ the lion’s place as king of the jungle. So he goes to the lion, see, and he tells the lion that the elephant been talkin’ dirty on him. See, he knew the lion would get uppity, and start thinkin’ he could take out the elephant. Shoot!” Octavia rolled her lips back in a laugh. “So the lion goes to beat up the elephant, but ’course, that elephant too big. He takes out his big old ivories and he kicks that lion’s butt across the jungle.”
“Like this?” asked Lil’ Audrey, and she mimicked a drop kick for Octavia.
“Just like that, Babydoll. But that ain’t all, now. That lion flyin’ through the jungle when, what do you think he sees? That fool monkey just gigglin’ away up in a tree. So the lion lands himself up in that tree, and he beat that monkey silly, ’cause he knows he been set up.”
Then Octavia picked up her mop and went back to work, ignoring Lil’ Audrey and the truly stumped look she had on her face. “How come the monkey got beat up, ’Tavia?”
Octavia’s skin never had wrinkles, except when she squished up her forehead. She put down her mop and rubbed her face like she was trying to wipe off the worry. “I told my Skeeter, I said, ‘Boy, you like that fool monkey. You messin’ with the lion. You better remember, the lion still the king of this jungle.’ ”
Cal snapped his fingers under Lil’ Audrey’s nose, making her jump back into the Bamboo Lounge. “You traveling to Mars again?” Her parents joked about her being an astronaut because of the way she daydreamed. “Where you been this time?”
“Daddy, Mrs. Stone says that Dr. King only wants peace between the races.” Lil’ Audrey was very fond of her third-grade teacher.
“You forget that goddamned teacher. What does she know about us down here?”
“She’s from Shreveport.”
“Well, Shreveport oughta be in Texas. Not part of Louisiana at all.”
Cal pulled his head back in a skeptical look, jutting out his forehead and giving himself a double chin. Lil’ Audrey knew he was in an explaining mood because he held a pointed index finger in the air as he took a sip of water.
“We don’t need nobody to tell us how to conduct ourselves. We don’t have any trouble around here with the coloreds like they do in Alabama and Mississippi and it’s because we’re pretty good to our niggers. You can go ask Octavia if you don’t believe me. Not like the rest of the South. They use niggers for target practice.” Cal drained his coffee cup, slurping to get the slushy bit of sugar that settled at the bottom.
Lil’ Audrey was always silenced by her Daddy’s speeches. She stabbed the individual grains of grits left on her plate.
“It’s a good thing somebody got to that King before he got to the majority of our coloreds. Jesus Christ, look at Skeeter, rantin’ and ravin’ about gettin’ niggers into all these public places where they don’t even want to go.”
Cal folded his napkin and placed it on the table. He set his jaw like he always did when he was about to lay down the law to Lil’ A. “You say this Mrs. Stone is a teacher, but she don’t seem to tell the whole story.” He straightened up and folded his arms. “Did you know that we had free niggers here in New Orleans during slavery times?”
Lil’ Audrey knew she and her mother would be red-faced and quiet by the time he finished what he was going to say.
“Yeah, Creoles. Walked the streets galavantin’ like white people. Owned houses in the French Quarter and everything. Spoke only French ’cause they was so much better than the regular niggers who were pickin’ cotton in the parishes.”
“Really?” asked Lil’ Audrey. She had never heard a colored person speak French.
“Yeah. We put up with it. We made sure nobody captured ’em and sold ’em off. That’s the truth. That’s how we treated ’em down here, and we still treatin’ ’em more than fair today.”
Cal picked up the front page of the Times-Picayune and waved it at his wife. “Listen to all these goddamned Northern hypocrites. Senator Edmund Muskie says he is ‘deeply disturbed by this violence.’ I wonder how many niggers have dinner at his house?” Cal combed the page for the other quote he needed. When he found it, he cleared his throat to make sure nobody stepped on his words. “Senator Robert P. Griffin of Michigan says, ‘All Americans are shocked by this act of madness.’ Well, not us down here. We been expectin’ this for a long time.”
“Jesse Jackson said the shot came from where the police were standing,” said Audrey Jr.
“Wouldn’t be surprised,” said Cal. “Some ole boy just had enough.”
Lil’ Audrey thought her Daddy looked genuinely sorry that Martin Luther King, Jr. had gone and provoked someone to shoot him.
“Momma?” Lil’ Audrey’s temples started to throb. “May I be excused?”
Audrey Jr. looked over Lil’ A.’s plate. “As long as you take your plate into the kitchen. Octavia won’t want to be cleanin’ up after you today.”
She walked through the breakfast nook, watching Octavia iron in slow motion. Most Saturday mornings, when her mother and grandmother went to get their hair done at Miss Bobbie’s Beauty Salon, Octavia would put aside her chores. She would turn on WYLD radio station and dance with Lil’ Audrey. They would sing along to Ernie-K.-Doe and Aaron Neville and Wilson Pickett. Lil’ A. would shimmy down to the ground and back up again while Octavia clapped her hands and shook her hips double-time to the music. “You don’t dance like no lil’ white girl I ever seen. . . . You got some coffee in that cream!” Octavia and Lil’ Audrey maintained that they had a secret: Lil’ A. was a colored girl in a little white girl’s body. “Don’t let your grandma hear you sayin’ that!” cautioned Octavia.
Once, Miss Bobbie’s electricity was turned off. The ladies came home early and caught them having their dance party. Miss Audrey said, “You an old woman, ’Tavia. How come you listen to that stuff?”
“Don’t my Skeeter play WYLD radio all night long? It’s dancin’ music. You oughta try it, Miss Audrey.”
And Miss Audrey did. She did a fair version of the shimmy. Her bony shoulders shook and cracked like castanets until her smoker’s cough overtook her body and turned into a dance of its own.
“I see where you got your rhythm, Lil’ Audrey,” said Octavia, rubbing Miss Audrey on the back so she would quit coughing.
“Can I watch TV with you, ’Tavia?” Lil’ A. asked now. She did not know if white people were supposed to watch the special tribute.
“Yeah, Babydoll, if it don’t make your grandma mad.”
Lil’ A. sat so close to Octavia that she could feel the heat of the iron. Sometimes, when Octavia was ironing, she would lift the iron and put her face in the steam, saying it felt real good. Sometimes she let Lil’ Audrey do it too. “Keeps them wrinkles away, Babydoll. Better than that expensive Elizabeth Arden cream your grandma uses.”
“I’m gonna go on downtown anyway,” she heard her Daddy say above the announcer’s voice. “Not to open up, just to check on the supplies for Monday.”
Lil’ A. felt her blood rise up red until her face burned. She squirmed in her seat and her breakfast jumped around in her stomach. Octavia must have heard everything. Lil’ Audrey remembered what Daddy had said, and what Grandma had said. She didn’t know if colored people knew what white people really thought of them. She didn’t want Octavia to think that Miss Audrey and her Daddy were lumping her in with the rest of the Negroes.
When the phone rang, Audrey Jr. let the person on the other line do all the talking. She turned her back to Lil’ Audrey and Octavia. She wrote something down, and hung up. She went back into the Bamboo Lounge without raising her head. She made a point of closing the louvered doors, but her whisper came through loud and clear.
“Skeeter’s been beat up downtown.”
Octavia put down her iron. She listened, as if she hadn’t heard right the first time.
“What?” asked Cal.
“That was Octavia’s sister on the phone. He’s at Charity Hospital. There’s trouble, Cal. He was marching with his group for Dr. King, and somebody beat him to a pulp. “
Octavia ran into the Bamboo Lounge. Lil’ Audrey was too scared to move, like it somehow affected Skeeter if she did or not.
“Is my boy dead, Audrey?”
“No,” replied Audrey Jr., speaking very slowly, “but he sounds hurt.”
“I gotta go to him, Audrey. I gotta call me a cab.”
Through the door, Lil’ Audrey watched Octavia’s hands wringing behind her back. She ran into the room and stood behind her. She concentrated on Octavia’s hands, how the dark backs were rolling over the creamy palms, like two-tone dough for a marble cake. She was afraid to look up at anybody.
Lil’ Audrey saw her mother’s arm slide around Octavia. “Your sister said everybody oughta stay out of town ’cause people are going crazy. Lootin’ and riotin’. Skeeter was caught in the middle.”
“Like always,” inserted Cal. He pointed a long finger at Octavia. “I told you that crap Martin Luther King has been preachin’ would come to no good.”
Cal started past Octavia and the three Audreys when his wife caught him on the sleeve.
“Where you going?”
“I’m gettin’ my goddamned gun and goin’ downtown. Crazy people might get some ideas about breakin’ into my shop.”
“What about Skeeter?”
Cal looked at his wife in disbelief. “What I’m gonna do about Skeeter they can’t do in a hospital?”
Octavia looked up at Cal. Lil’ Audrey saw she was crying again. “Can I get a ride with you into town, Mr. Cal? If not, I better call me a cab now.”
Lil’ Audrey had never seen Octavia cry before this morning. Mostly, Octavia would be the one to put arms around her when she cried. Octavia hugged tight for a small woman. Lil’ Audrey thought about Skeeter, and about all the times Octavia probably stopped his crying, too. She grabbed her Daddy’s shirt sleeve. “I’m scared. I don’t want nobody to go.”
“Calvin!” Miss Audrey rapped her fist on the table like a judge. “What the hell chance does that boy have in Charity Hospital? You know yourself they let wounded niggers lie like dogs waitin’ to be put down.”
Octavia’s hand went to the back of her neck. “Sweet Jesus! Won’t you take me down there, Mr. Cal?”
Now, Cal had Octavia and Lil’ A. hanging on him. Audrey Jr. tightened her grip on Octavia. “Lil’ A., fetch your Daddy’s car keys.”
Lil’ Audrey was crying harder than Octavia. “I don’t wanna let him go, Momma.”
“What the hell I’m gonna do, Jr.? Tell the doctors how to treat him?”
“Just get goin’, honey.” Audrey Jr. waved a hand at Cal as if to shoo him out of the room. “I’ll get Hughes on the phone and have him meet you. Hughes’ll get somebody down there to take care of Skeeter.”
Cal stood firm, and so did Lil’ Audrey.
Octavia was fidgeting. “I’m gonna get me a cab. Mr. Cal, if them niggers from the projects is riled up, you ain’t gonna last down there.”
Miss Audrey’s cough rattled. She had to spit into her handkerchief before she could talk. “Ain’t no cab driver gonna go to Charity if there’s been trouble.” Miss Audrey looked at Cal hard. “You want that boy on your conscience? Don’t he work for you every summer, cleanin’ that sandwich shop till it shines? Don’t you know him and Octavia is family?”
“I got my own family to worry about.” Cal was not moving.
Miss Audrey and Audrey Jr. formed a triangle with Octavia. Six arms were folded, waiting for his decision. Two pairs of blue eyes and one pair of brown held his gaze and impaled him with their strength.
Cal leaned down, tearing Lil’ A. from his sleeve. He kissed her forehead. “Come on, Octavia.”
Octavia gathered up her old brown purse and her street clothes, which she did not bother to put on. She walked out the door in her uniform, but not before she unplugged the iron and put it on the stove to cool.
When they were gone, Lil’ Audrey sat back down in the chair next to the ironing board. The scorch smell filled the small room. Miss Audrey turned off the TV. “You don’t want to watch that nigger business.”
The three Audreys retired to the Bamboo Lounge, where the breakfast dishes still sat on the table. Miss Audrey and Lil’ Audrey picked up the dirty dishes. Audrey Jr. began her morning ritual of polishing the animals, and tending to their environments. She climbed on top of a step ladder so she could featherdust the monkeys.
Lil’ Audrey watched her mother take a piece of cheesecloth out of her pocket, drape it over a painted fingernail, and scrape in-between the crevices on the monkey’s head. He smiled at Lil’ Audrey, who watched from below. He looked at Octavia’s yellow coffee cup as it sat glaring on top of a pile of jungle green dishes Miss Audrey was carrying to the kitchen. The monkey broadened his grin.