“My cousin Jeannie has a nose like a e-le-phant!”
It’s true — Jeannie the Meanie does have a nose like an e-le-phant.
But no one else seems to think so.
Mama smacks my hand and Jeannie’s face crumples up like a black licorice wrapper. Uncle Harold Rose tells Jeannie her nose has “character,” Mama tells Jeannie her nose is a “special gift from the Almighty Father.” I start to speak, see Mama watching for my lips to move, then see her see me look at her hand fixing to raise again.
“Jeannie, you got a nose like a Disney Princess,” I say.
Jeannie’s face uncrumples, Uncle Harold Rose nods like a puppet doll, and Mama lowers her hand.
In my own private head, I say, “Princess Dumbo.”
It ain’t like I started nothing. Danville’s real hot and sticky today, and the grocery felt even hotter. Figuring I didn’t mind the dust from the roads sticking to my skin outside the grocery more than my overalls sticking to me inside the grocery, I asked Mama if I could wait outside on the steps. That’s where I was sitting when Jeannie sat down next to me and flicked my braid. I wasn’t gonna let Jeannie bother me, though. Mama promised me some black licorice. I figured that was better than a fight with Jeannie, so I paid her no never mind.
Then she flicked it again. So I flicked her nose.
When she raised her hand again, I cupped my hands around my mouth and told everybody in Danville who could hear bout her big ole e-le-phant nose. Shame I ain’t see Mama and Uncle Harold Rose coming out the grocery.
“Bug, you ready to go?” Mama asks, shifting her packages from one arm to another.
I see Uncle Harold Rose ain’t carrying no packages and Mama’s nearly dropping hers. Never mind he twice as wide and tall as Mama.
I see a package slipping from Mama’s arm and catch it before it falls in the dirt. “Yes, Mama.”
“Say goodbye to your Uncle and Jeannie.”
“Bye Uncle Harold Rose, bye Jeannie.”
“Bug, a proper good-bye.”
I sigh and nearly stomp my foot. I give Uncle Harold Rose and even Jeannie a proper hug.
He sort of pats my head like a puppy, like he don’t know where to put his hand between my braids or he just don’t want to touch them at all. “Take care now, Laura. We’ll see you tomorrow for Jeannie’s birthday party, of course.”
He will, but I ain’t gonna say so like I’m happy bout it.
Only thing I like bout my rich cousin Jeannie is her house. Jeannie lives in a big ole house near our church. Last year, Jeannie moved to a brand new house up in Richmond, but Jeannie moved back to Danville last week, I figure just to “try my patience,” like Mama says. Her house in Richmond was prettier, with two floors and a pool and everything. Her house here in Danville is still bigger and prettier than our little house though, even with its peeling white paint and dusty windows. They have a garden and a pond nearby.
Mama and me have to go into town to the public pools, as Jeannie always reminds me. I don’t much like Aunt Ashley or Jeannie’s daddy neither, but I s’pose they just can’t cope with what the stork gave them.
Mama switches my package for her loaves of bread. “There. Now take my free hand, Bug. You know I don’t like you prancing all across the road, them cars come out of nowhere, just kicking up dirt every which way.”
I take Mama’s hand and follow her down the porch steps, planning on throwing dirt right back at them ole cars when she ain’t looking.
I stand on my tippy toes as tall as I can, the plaster cold on my back. I peek out the door.
I sneak around Mama’s sleigh bed and over to Mama’s long table, picking up the white jar, twisting off the top. I stick my nose in and sniff deeply. Yuck. I use my finger to scoop out a little and wipe it on the back of my free hand, figuring it will smell better if I put it on. Before I can smooth the cream in, I feel the cool wetness of a washcloth and the sharp burn of a wooden spatula.
I snatch my hand back. “Ow, Mama!”
“You think it hurt now, wait till I use it on your butt! Go run that hand under some cool water.”
She moves to swat my backside with the spatula, but I turn too quickly for her, so she only catches the tail end of my tail. When I come back, I find Mama sitting at her table, rifling through a drawer with one hand, holding the phone to her ear with the other. Mama closes the drawer and hangs up the phone. Then she turns to me and wags a finger.
I ain’t moving, I think. Then she waves the spatula.
“What I tell you bout coming in here and messing round, Bug?”
“You said ‘Don’t come in here messing round, Bug.’ I just wanted some cream.”
I point to the jar on the table in front of her. “The one you wear that smells like peaches. Jeannie said I smelled like water and wrinkled up her ole ugly nose. I want to smell like peaches too.”
Mama wants to laugh, I swear it. “Chile, water ain’t got no smell, don’t mind Jeannie. And what I tell you bout talking bout Jeannie’s nose? Just cuz folks steal your fruit, don’t mean you lower yourself to their melon patch. And this ain’t lotion, Bug. This is perm.”
“Perm?” I stare at Mama. She has her hair pinned in all these clips. Next to her on the table are the wooden spatula, her big bristly brush, a green jar, and her plastic comb.
“Yeah, perm. The white stuff I used to put in my hair to straighten it.”
My nose scrunches up. “Why?”
“Because your daddy liked —” Mama turns away. Then she changes the subject like she always does when Daddy comes up. “Bug, if you put it on your skin, it can burn you. That’s why I told you bout messing round in my room —”
“Well how come you keep it if you don’t use it no more, Mama?”
Daddy left a long time ago, when I was four.
Must be a mighty old jar, I think.
She pushes the white jar to the side, back where it was. “I guess I just keep forgetting. You ready for me to fix your hair?”
I shake my head. “I gotta get Patty!”
I run back to my room, push the cover off my bed, snatch up my doll, run to the doorway, hear Mama’s voice in my head, run back to my bed, set down my doll, pick up the cover, fold it in a square, place it on the bed, pick up my doll again, run back to Mama’s room. Before my foot crosses the doorway, I really hear Mama.
“Don’t be running on my rugs, Bug. You could hurt yourself.”
I smooth out the rug with my foot, then come round to her front. “Me and Patty ready.”
Two years ago, on my seventh birthday, I told Mama I wanted a Patty doll, and Mama said she couldn’t afford it, ‘cause Patty dolls were seventy dollars. Patty has oodles of hair. Patty has skin like a Snicker bar and eyes like the caramel inside. She has a backpack and a jacket and best friends and a plain black dress and a mole and licorice curls everywhere. When I woke up on my eighth birthday, Mama was still at work, sweeping the floors of the grocery. Under my pillow, I found my Patty doll.
I hold up Patty. “Can we do Patty’s hair?”
Mama stops parting her hair and looks over at me holding Patty. “Not now, Bug. I have to do your hair first. Jeannie turns nine today, remember?”
“Imma bring Patty to Jeannie’s party. Wait till she see how pretty Patty look. Bet she wont go flapping them ole shark lips.” I say the last part in my head, eyeing Mama’s spatula again.
When Jeannie told Aunt Ashley she wanted a Patty doll, they was all sold out in Richmond. So Aunt Ashley drove down to Danville, only they was gone there too. Wasn’t a Patty doll left in Virginia. I just know it tears Jeannie to bits.
I bring Patty with me whenever I have to see Jeannie.
“Soon as I finish our hair, I’ll do Patty’s.” Mama promises.
“I don’t know why I even got to go to Jeannie’s ole party. Birthday parties are for kids, besides.” I mumble.
“And what are you, child?”
“I’m almost ten Mama, that’s like adult years.”
This time, Mama does laugh. “Girl, come round here. And stop complaining, you ain’t even been in her house yet, you might sleep over tonight and never want to come home.”
I think on that.
At Jeannie’s old house in Richmond, there was a big pool and a real record player and a big fancy TV in a wooden box. Jeannie and I would fight over the remote all the time, on account of I wanted to watch Huckleberry Hound and she wanted to watch Leave it to Beaver. I told Jeannie I couldn’t hardly think of nothing sillier then naming your child Beaver and she shouted back, “Your Mama calls you Bug!”
I called Mama that night to take me back to Danville.
“Her house wasn’t that nice, Mama” I huff, but I come round and sit beside her, watching her finish her hair.
When Mama finishes, she sets to making me pretty.
Mama’s always tryna make me pretty. Not like I’m ugly or nothing, but I like my puffy Afro and overalls just fine, thank you. But Mama likes hair barrettes and pink jumper dresses and Mary Janes and “dolls in little girls’ hands.” Mama always wins.
I pull away as Mama’s comb cuts through my Afro. “That hurts!”
Mama sucks her teeth, but puts the comb down, reaching for her grease. “Wouldn’t hurt so if you stop twitching. And if you let me fix your hair more often, it wouldn’t be so nappy.”
Mama greases my hair, separates it into little pieces, and wraps ribbon around each piece, braiding the ends. With little white flower-shaped barrettes, she traps the braids, pinning them to my scalp. Using a jar of Vaseline, Mama greases me until I’m shinier then the pennies I hide in my pillowcase on laundry day. By the time she knots the ribbons on my dress around my waist, locks the door, and we’re walking down the dusty road, I’m cursing Jeannie to H-E-double L hockey sticks.
I hate Jeannie. Well, not really. I hate that Jeannie is always the “Queen” when we play “Princesses.” I hate that Jeannie cuts the line when we double dutching. I hate how Jeannie’s daddy always buys her new jump ropes and candy and dolls.
When Mama drops me off at Aunt Ashley’s and rings the bell, I try to bargain with her. “How bout I give Jeannie her present, then I come home with you, Mama?”
“What’s wrong, Bug? I happen to know Jeannie’s gonna have chocolate cake.”
Well I didn’t know that.
I shake the image of chocolate cake from my head. “Jeannie’s mean. And Aunt Ashley always calls me Laura when she knows I like to be called Bug, like Daddy called me.”
Mama’s lips thin out like they always do when I mention Daddy, but they are full again when she kneels down beside me. “You know I gotta work, Bug. But how bout this: you go and have fun at Jeannie’s for awhile, and if you really don’t like it, you can call me, and I’ll come pick you up.”
“And I can take these stupid clips out my hair?”
Mama sighs as she stands, but she nods. “Deal.”
Mama rings the doorbell. I pick a chip of the peeling white paint from the door. When I look over the porch, I see that Aunt Ashley’s red Cadillac is missing, the one she bought when they left for Richmond. I wonder if they are out.
Then, Aunt Ashley opens the door, dressed in her usual white dress and white shoes. Mama says Aunt Ashley don’t know if she wants to be an angel or an Avon lady.
Aunt Ashley fingers my barrettes with a frown. She’s much lighter than Mama. Her eyes are big like Mama’s, though. Her hair is straight like Mama’s used to be, but much shorter. But with the little bags under her eyes, she and Mama could be twins.
Mama clears her throat and Aunt Ashley lets go of my hair. “Laura, Georgia, come in.”
Mama gives me a small push forward. “I’m already late. But Bug’s real excited to see Jeannie, ain’t you, Bug?”
I don’t answer. Ain’t right, calling your own mama a liar.
Only thing worse than being one.
Aunt Ashley smiles. “Come along, Laura. Jeannie is in the yard, getting ready to eat.”
“You member what I said about melon patches, you hear, Bug?” Mama asks.
I follow Aunt Ashley into the house, linking my pinkie fingers behind my back to remind Mama of our deal.
After I finish two large slices of cake and finish taking pictures, I wait for Jeannie to open her presents. But Jeannie is busy flouncing around in her white party dress. Aunt Ashley tells her to put on a hat so she don’t darken in the sun. I tap Jeannie on the shoulder, ‘cause I see that she forgot the tag on her new dress. Before I can tug it, Aunt Ashley pushes the tag back in, hiding it under the collar, only now the tag on Jeannie’s sweater is poking out too.
I look round the house till Jeannie is ready.
At home, ’cept for a cross and a to-do list, Mama’s walls are bare. Here, there are so many pictures of Jeannie on the wall; I start to wonder if one picture is just moving when I blink. Jeannie’s first birthday, Jeannie’s baptism, Jeannie’s first boo-boo. Then, on the table in the living room, there are so many family pictures, like they wake up every day, take a picture, and frame it. Jeannie, Aunt Ashley, and Jeannie’s daddy, Uncle Harold Rose, everywhere.
When no one is looking, I flip all the pictures downward.
Aunt Ashley and Uncle Harold Rose treat Jeannie’s birthday like the second coming of “our Lord, Jesus Christ,” as Mama says. Aunt Ashley hands each present to Jeannie, who is sitting on Uncle Harold Rose’s lap. Then Aunt Ashley claps like one of them monkeys with cymbals every time Jeannie figures out how to unwrap a gift, and Uncle Harold Rose nods, his big ole nose up in the air, like he just knew Jeannie would love every present he picked. All seventeen of them. I know, ‘cause when she’s done, she leaves them lying all over the floor and I count them.
Even readying for bed is a pageant for Jeannie. Aunt Ashley unfolds and refolds four nightdresses before she is satisfied. Jeannie sits on her lap in Aunt Ashley’s room while Aunt Ashley ties her long hair up in a ribbon. Uncle Harold Rose is in his bathroom, shaving, but he comes out to tell Jeannie how pretty she looks.
I change into my pajamas and wait for Jeannie in her room.
Once dressed, I yank Patty from my backpack, wanting to show Jeannie Patty’s new hairstyle. Following Mama’s hands in the mirror, I braided the very front of Patty’s hair.
Jeannie decides she wanted to play with Patty and I say no. So she tugs at her hair.
I smack her hand like Mama does when she sees me eating grapes at the grocery.
Jeannie smacks my hand back and tugs Patty’s hair again. “I don’t like this Patty.”
I want to say “So,” but it is her birthday, so I just roll my eyes.
Jeannie ain’t finished. “Look at her hair. It’s nappy!”
She says “nappy” like she has Listerine in her mouth.
I fold my arms. “Her hair is really pretty! Nappy is kinda like pretty.”
“Says who?” She asks.
“Says my Mama.”
“When she braided my hair this morning.”
Jeannie been wanting my Patty doll for two years and there ain’t no way she’s showing me otherwise, I think.
But then Jeannie runs out the room and comes back with a doll box. “Look what my daddy got me. It’s the new Patty doll. He says it’s the prettiest one, just like me. She came out just yesterday.”
My Patty doll don’t have light eyes or yellow skin or straight hair or combs.
Jeannie waves her doll. “My Patty doll is pretty. Your Patty is ugly. And you can’t even comb her hair, look!”
She rips the comb from the back of the doll box and drags it through my Patty’s hair. Or she tries to. The comb gets stuck. When she frees the comb, she wipes it on her skirt then uses it to comb through her Patty doll’s hair. The comb never gets stuck.
“See!” Jeannie’s long straight hair swings side to side as she goes on and on.
I shift from foot to foot, feeling my face get all warm. “Yeah, well my Patty doll is still better!”
“Nuh uh!” Jeannie’s standing right nose-to-nose to me now.
I breathe in deep. I try to remember what Mama says bout low down melon patches, but it’s all scrambled in my head now. “Well she ain’t ugly neither!”
“Says my daddy! My daddy ain’t never called your Patty doll pretty!”
My fingers turn to fists. “Yeah, well my Patty doll looks just like me and my mama says I’m pretty all the time, so my Patty is pretty!”
But Jeannie don’t back down and uses her free hand to hold up her fingers. “My mama says my Patty is pretty and so does my daddy! That’s two points for me and one point for you! I bet your daddy never called your Patty doll pretty!”
Then she tosses her ponytail over her shoulder to flounce away.
I don’t remember my fingers unclenching, my eyes squinting up, my arms rising to reach Jeannie’s back.
But then Jeannie’s crying and she’s curled up on the ground and her Patty doll has a crack down the side of her face and I hear Aunt Ashley and Uncle Harold Rose calling and I know I’m in big, big trouble so I run downstairs to the living room.
I want to wait outside for Mama, but Aunt Ashley won’t let me wait alone, so I have to sit in the living room. I realize someone flipped back up all them portraits. I go round the room, flipping them down again.
I’m having so much fun hiding Jeannie’s face that I don’t hear her come up behind me. “You better stop before I tell my mama.”
I spin round on her, Patty still in my hand. Jeannie is holding her Patty too, the long crack separating her eyes.
I go back to flipping pictures. “Why you come in here, messing with me for? Mama coming for me soon.”
“My mama said I had to apologize for yelling and you had to apologize back.”
I know I should and I know Mama’s gonna make me but I really don’t want to. “I ain’t sorry!”
“Then I ain’t sorry neither.”
I am fine with that plan till I remember Mama is coming, and Aunt Ashley might have told her something. “I’m sorry, Jeannie.”
Jeannie goes round, flipping the pictures back up. “I’m sorry too.”
I watch her. “Whatchu gonna do with your Patty now? Your daddy gonna fix it?”
“Yeah. He always fixes my toys.”
I look down. Mama don’t know much bout fixing things.
I point to her doll. “You gonna bring your Patty doll to school, Jeannie?”
She stops flipping pictures near the window and shakes her head. “No, I don’t think so. Is that your mama on my porch?”
I stand next to Jeannie and stare out the window. Sure is.
Aunt Ashley comes in then, carrying an empty shopping bag. “Laura, your mother’s outside. Jeannie, it’s time for bed. Tell Laura good-bye and — what are you doing with that doll?”
“Nothing Mama.” Jeannie turns to me, all huffy. “Bye Bug.”
She takes Jeannie’s Patty doll and puts it in the shopping bag. I know I won’t beat Aunt Ashley to the porch and I can see her out the window, talking to Mama. I can’t see rightly from the window cuz it’s so dark, but I figure Mama’s lips have disappeared.
I finish flipping the pictures right side up, real slowly.
“Pass me the comb, Bug.”
I turn to hand Mama the comb and turn back around. As promised, Mama takes the clips and barrettes out my hair. She washes out the hard gel stuff and lets my hair dry in the air, shrinking to my scalp again.
I been real quiet since we got home and so has Mama. She just frowns real hard. I don’t say nothing, don’t even cry out when she’s combing my hair. I don’t know what Aunt Ashley told her, but Mama ain’t say nothing to me.
When the kettle whistles, Mama lays her comb down on her table and leaves the room. I sit back down at Mama’s table and pick up Mama’s comb, raking it through my hair.
Or I try to.
I hear the comb break before I feel a piece fall down my back. Mama walks in just as I pick up her scissors to try to cut the comb piece out.
“What I tell you bout playing in your hair? And playing with my scissors?”
“You said ‘Don’t play in your hair or play with my scissors, Bug.’” I say.
Mama put her scissors in her table drawer then works the comb piece out my hair. “And I mean it too, Bug. You coulda cut your hand —”
“I know. I’m sorry Mama, I promise. I just wanted my hair to be pretty.”
Mama picks me up over her shoulder like a potato sack, carrying me to my own room. She drops me on the bed and kisses my forehead. “You’re my pretty little Lovebug.”
“Can I sleep with you? Next to the window?”
“Ain’t you a little old for that, Bug? Just this morning, you said —”
“I said ‘I ain’t a baby no more, Mama.’ I know. But don’t you want company? Aunt Ashley got Uncle Harold Rose, but you ain’t got no company. Ain’t that funny, Mama?”
Mama’s face twists a little, like she don’t know quite what to say.
Then she pats my cheek and stands up straight. “World is funny that way, huh, Bug? But no, Mama has work, and you need your sleep for school.”
“Why you gotta work tomorrow, Mama? Aunt Ashley spends all day with Jeannie. Don’t you want to spend the day with me?”
“Not if it means you don’t go to school, Bug.”
“But Mama, Jeannie said —”
Mama cuts me off. “You know, I’m real proud of you for getting along with Jeannie today. ”
Mama is smiling down at me like she does when I finish my homework without her asking me to. The longer she smiles down at me, the more the cake in my tummy feels heavy as rocks.
“Mama, you know, Jeannie said — I mean, I didn’t meant to —” I start, but Mama cuts me off.
“I know sometimes Jeannie can say some hurtful things, Bug. But you know what I tell you bout melon patches.”
Her eyebrow rises when I don’t answer.
“Just ‘cause folks steal your fruit, don’t mean you lower yourself to their melon patch. You always gotta remember to be the higher person, you got that, Bug?”
I open my mouth to tell Mama what happened. How I pushed Jeannie and broke her doll. How I fell into Jeannie’s ole melon patch.
“I understand, Mama,” I say.
She kisses my nose. “Now off to bed, you got school tomorrow.”
“Good night, Bug.” She switches off my lamp and leaves, pulling the door close softly behind her.
When Mama leaves, I flip over on my back and stare up at my ceiling, wondering what Aunt Ashley told Mama, wondering what Jeannie told Aunt Ashley, wondering why I can’t tell Mama the truth. I want to ask Mama bout what Jeannie said, want to ask Mama if Daddy would have called my Patty doll pretty.
“But if I ask her that, I have to tell her what I did to Jeannie,” I whisper to no one in the dark.
And the thought of Mama’s frown if I tell her the truth is the only thing that makes me queasier than pushing Jeannie.
“I ain’t even mean to push her,” I grumble into my pillow. “And I said sorry. Besides, Jeannie got tons of toys. She’ll probably get a new Patty. Uncle Harold Rose always buying her new things, even when she’s being a meanie!”
My stomach feels a little less queasy when I remember that. But only a little.
I turn back over on my stomach and pull my covers tighter. “Besides, why Jeannie have to go and get a Patty doll too?”
I flip over twice more before I kick my covers off to slip out of bed.
I tip toe real quiet like and peek through Mama’s door. She is on the phone again and I realize she’s talking to Aunt Ashley.
“I’m sure Harold will find another job, Ashley. Y’all will just have to cut back some. … I know it may take some time. … I can see what might be available at the grocery. … No, of course he won’t like that.”
I shrink back against the wall when Mama turns a little, but I see she’s just stretching out the phone cord. I cover my mouth with both hands so I don’t blurt out a question bout Uncle Harold’s job.
Mama nods and starts speaking again. “Yes, I’m sorry bout Jeannie’s doll. That’s why I tell Bug all the time bout running around the house, I know at some point she’s gonna hurt herself too, I just hope Jeannie is okay …”
Jeannie lied for me?
Suddenly I feel small as a real bug and my stomach feels real queasy again.
I wish I hadn’t pushed Jeannie.
“Well of course you can’t return the doll now, let the child keep it. You’ll just have to find the money some other way. … Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow when I pick up Bug after school. Good night, Ashley. And listen, tell Harold I hope everything works out, you here? Alright now.” Mama hangs up the phone and turns fully, spotting me in the doorway.
“Bug, whatchu doing awake? What’s wrong?”
“I —” I pushed Jeannie, Mama. She ain’t fall. I broke her Patty doll and I’m real sorry.
But nothing comes out.
“Well, I didn’t mean for you to hear that, Bug, that’s grown folks business.” She picks me up then. “But I guess since you proved how much of an adult you’re becoming today, I’ll explain. Things are gonna be a little rough for Aunt Ashley and Uncle Harold around here.”
“Because he lost his job?”
Like Daddy did, when I was three. But I say that in my own private head.
“I’m telling you this not only because your Mama’s big girl now, but because it’s going to be a rough time for Jeannie, and I want you to remember to stay in your melon patch, you hear?”
I curl tighter around Mama, resting my head on her shoulder. “Yes, Mama.”
“Good girl. Now off to bed you go.”
She carries me back to my room and tucks me under the covers again. She’s bout to shut out my light again when she snaps her fingers and leaves the room.
She comes back with my Patty doll.
“Bug, you forgot Patty. You don’t want Patty to keep you company? I’ll put her in your backpack for you so you won’t forget her. Aunt Ashley says Jeannie has a Patty doll now too. Maybe the two of you can play with them at recess tomorrow, she don’t mind the crack so much.”
I turn over, burrow under my covers, and turn my head away, wrapping my arms around my stomach.
“It’s okay, Mama. I don’t think I’ll bring Patty tomorrow.”