The day Billie’s life changed, she was already knee deep in trouble.
She’d been playing with Lucy after her mama had said not to. Lucy’s little brother, Peanut, had something that was catching, but Billie wasn’t the kind of scaredy-cat who would stop seeing her best friend just because grown-ups said so.
To make sure her mama didn’t know, Billie told Peanut if he opened his trap about her being over there, she’d make him sorry he was ever born. He believed her, too. Around Shakerag, the other kids knew that if they messed with Billie she’d beat the snot out of them.
Calling out, “Bye, Lucy,” she set out for home. But the only way there was past dead Alice’s tree.
Billie hadn’t even been born when they found the body of eleven-year-old Alice Watkins up in the woods behind Gum Pond cut into six pieces. Still, she knew the stories. Everybody in Shakerag did. Somebody with a heart black as sin had snatched Alice from Tiny Jim’s juke joint right out from under her daddy’s nose. Then he’d done his dirty deeds and got clean away.
Alice was still hanging around like some avenging angel.She’d warn you when something bad was about to happen. You’d hear the harmonica in Tiny Jim’s Blues and Barbecue all over town, the sound so mournful you’d feel defeated. The smell coming from his barbecue pits got so strong you’d close your curtains and stuff towels under the door to keep the scent from driving you crazy. And if you were caught out in the street like Billie, at the mercy of winds that suddenly shook the trees and rattled the trash cans in the alley, you’d feel as if you were made of glass. One look from a stranger could crack you in two.
Billie started running. Everybody knew the boogie man got bad little girls first.
She ran as hard as she could past Tiny Jim’s juke joint and barbecue place where Alice’s arms had the longest reach. The moaning notes of the harmonica poured so loud out the door she put her hands over her ears. It wasn’t any great surprise that when something awful was afoot, blues swarmed around his place like clouds of angry locusts. Tiny Jim was dead Alice’s daddy.
Billie pumped her long skinny legs into double time. With the blues breathing down her neck, she rounded the street corner so fast she nearly tripped on a crack. She flailed her arms to regain her balance, but something even worse was up ahead—Alice moaning in the cedar tree by A.M. Strange Library. When she took up residence in a tree, the birds hushed singing. They’d leave nests shaded from the sun and safe from predators to perch on power lines where anything in the air could swoop down and carry them off. Even the squirrels gave up their high-wire acts when Alice was near.
It was a wonder Alice would even come to the library, dead or not. Mean old Miz Rupert laid down so many rules, you might as well stick your fingers out so the librarian could slap them as you walked through the door. She even acted like she owned the books. Billie only went when her mama made her.
Billie sped past the library toward the neighborhood park. Struck by a bright idea, she veered through the entrance so fast she fell and tore the right leg of her homemade shorts. Now she’d have genuine evidence she’d been playing in Carver Park like she’d said she would. Her mama would think she’d fallen right through the sliding board. It was rickety as all get out. Everybody fell through if they didn’t mind their p’s and q’s.
Billie stomped around in the sand pile till she got enough sand on her shoes to look convincing, and then she flew out of the park and up the steep hill past the Mt. Zion Baptist church.
When she cut down Maple Street, Billie did a victory jig. Home was safe. A house painted robin’s egg blue. Though she liked the color of Lucy’s house best, yellow like sunshine, she was proud of where she lived. It was the only house on the block that didn’t need painting. A neglected house ain’tnothin’ but a sign of pure dee laziness,her grandmother always said.
Everybody called her grandmother Queen, including Billie. She ruled the roost. If you walked into Queen’s house, you’d answer to her, no matter who you were. She was probably waiting behind the door now to ask Billie a gazillion questions. She’d want to know about every minute Billie hadn’t been under her watchful eye.
Lollygagging, Billie waved at MizQuana Belle Smith watering petunias on her front porch next door.
“How’s yo sweet little mama doing, chile?” the old woman called.
“Fine, thank you, MizQuana Belle.”
Billie couldn’t put off going inside any longer. If she stayed in the yard, MizQuana Belle would keep her the rest of the afternoon asking foolish questions. Waving once more, Billie skipped up the steps and eased open the door.
The house smelled like lye soap and fried chicken. As if Billie needed further evidence that Queen was in the kitchen bent over an iron skillet with a dishpan of soapy water nearby, she heard Ma Perkins on the Philco radio giving her silly advice. Queen never missed an episode.
As far as Billie was concerned, the only good thing about Ma Perkins was that she might cover up the sound of a little girl who didn’t like rules, sneaking down the hall.
“Is that you, Billie?” Queen hollered.
“Yes, ma’am.” Queen would whip you if you didn’t mind your manners. And talking polite topped her manners list.
“Has you been playing with Lucy?”
Billie could hear her grandmother shuffling around in the kitchen. She crossed her fingers behind her back. Everybody knows if you tell a lie that way it won’t count. “No, ma’am.”
House shoes scuffed on worn linoleum, and then Queen herself appeared in the kitchen doorway carrying with her the scent of sugar and grease. She was tall, voluminous and black as a stovepipe. Her eyebrows looked like two gray woolly worms above her dark eyes, and her grizzled hair stuck out every which way. You’d be scared to death of her if you didn’t know how she’d read the Bible to you every night, then sing you to sleep.
Billie tried not to squirm while her grandmother looked her up and down. “How you done tore them shorts?”
“In the park.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Queen mumbled. “That Peanut’s got spinal meningitis. If I catches you over there I’ll whup you good. You hear?”
“Yes, ma’am. I hear.”
“All right, then.” Queen wiped her hands on a big bibbed apron. “Be quiet, now. Yo mama’s sleepin’.”
When Queen went back into the kitchen, she left behind the scent of supper—fried chicken, boiled okra and fried apple pies, Billie’s favorites except for the okra, which tasted like slime. She grabbed the paper off the hall table, then tiptoed to her room. Now was her chance to read the comic strips before Mama and Queen separated the paper into a gazillion sections. Beetle Bailey was her favorite, but she liked Dennis the Menace, too. He wasn’t scared to try any adventure.
She plopped onto the homemade quilt on top of her bed. Queen had let Billie pick her own design, and she’d picked Wedding Ring. Someday she planned on marrying and having four kids. And you could bet your bottom dollar they’d have a daddy in the house, not some long-distance daddy you’d never seen and only heard about when the other kids in the neighborhood yelled things like prison brat and yo daddy ain’tnothin but a jailbird. That was the main reason Billie had earned her quick-fisted reputation. She didn’t know if her daddy was in prison or not, and Queen and Mama wouldn’t tell her. Either way, she wasn’t about to let anybody say dirty rotten things about him.
Billie perched on the bed among her treasures—a shoe box with a blue rhinestone earring she’d found on the ground near Glenwood Cemetery at the south end of Shakerag, half a robin’s egg shell fallen from a tree where Alice had been seen, a red bird’s feather Billie might glue on her summer straw hat, and two smooth white rocks she’d found along Gum Pond—another place her mama had told her not to go.
She thought the rocks had been dropped by angels. They were close to the place where Alice had been murdered. Everybody said angels kept watch over children who wandered up that way. Billie knew it was true. She’d caught glimpses of their golden crowns and heard the flutter of their great white wings.
She put the angel rocks in her lap, and then she opened the paper to the comic section. When she did, the scent of barbecue seeped under the windowsill, drifted along the floor and swirled up her legs. Billie’s stomach lurched. It was one thing to have barbecue and blues in your house when there was a pile of ribs on the table and somebody in the corner with a blues harp in his mouth. But it was something else when Queen was making fried chicken, and there wasn’t a rib or a harmonica in sight.
Lucy had said her mama was cooking chit’lins the night Peanut smelled dead Alice’s barbecue. And look what happened to him.
Billie’s hand shook as she tore a page off the newspaper. She was cramming it under the windowsill when she spotted the date: July 23, 1955. Last week’s paper.
Queen probably had this week’s edition in the kitchen with the recipes whacked out. As Billie hurried in that direction, trying to outrun the bad thing that wanted in, she heard voices from behind her mama’s closed bedroom door.
“Betty Jewel, you can’t keep that newspaper hid forever.” Queen sounded like she was on her high horse.
Billie’s mama said something in reply, but she couldn’t hear what it was.
“When you gone tell Billie?”
Tell her what? she wanted to know. Billie tiptoed to the door and put her ear to the keyhole.
“I can’t, Mama. Not yet. I want to get it all settled first.”
“I been prayin’ for a miracle, baby.”
“Oh, Mama. There are no miracles for this kind of cancer. You might as well accept the truth. I’m dying.”
The words ripped into Billie like bullets. If she had been Lucy she’d have screamed. But what good would it do? Her lips trembling, she kept her ear pressed against the keyhole, but Mama and Queen had quit talking. There was the sound of shuffling and the bedsprings groaning. Queen was probably helping her mama up. Billie slid away from the door, but she wasn’t fast enough.
“Billie?” Her mama was suddenly there, her color drained so low she looked like a white woman. Queen towered behind her. “Honey, what’s wrong?”
Her mama stood there like she expected some kind of answer, but Billie couldn’t get past the news of death long enough to think up an excuse for being outside her door. That didn’t stop the woman who could spot bad intentions a mile away and see a lie even before you told it.
“Oh, Lord. Billie, what are you doing out here in the hall?”
Billie couldn’t see a thing the Lord had to do with it. He didn’t take folks with little kids who wanted to grow up with a mama. He took people who were too old to get in their flower beds in the spring and plant their Canadians. Like Queen.
“I’m on the way to the kitchen to get something to eat.”
“Supper will be ready in a minute. There’s no use ruining your appetite.”
“You’re mean and I hate you!”
Her mama looked at her like Billie had split her heart in two, but she didn’t care. Why would her mama die and leave her? She wanted to smash everything in sight.
“Young lady, if you speaks to yo mama like that again, I’m gone get my switch and wear you out.”
Queen was older than God. She had a peacemaker for her heart and rheumatiz in both hips, but you could bet she’d fight tigers before she’d allow any sass from the likes of little kids like Billie. If she didn’t mind her p’s and q’s, Queen was going to catch on that she’d been listening at keyholes again.
“I’m sorry, Queen.”
“I ain’t the one needs no apologizin’ to. You better tell yo mama you sorry fore I skins you alive.”
“Wait a minute, Mama. Something else is going on here.”
When her mama squatted down, Billie hid inside herself where she buried the knowledge that was still screaming through her like a tornado. Outside she became a smooth, clear lake, not a ripple on the surface.
“I’m sorry, Mama. Can I go outside now?” The dark circles under her mama’s eyes scared her. Up close Billie could see her trembling hands and her hair falling out in patches. Her mama looked like something awful had grabbed a hold and was eating her piece by piece while Billie had been off paying no attention. “Please?”
“Billie, were you listening at the keyhole?”
There was no use denying it. Queen might be the one with the switch, but Mama was the one with the bulldog attitude. She never let anything go.
“You’re not dying!”
“Oh, baby.” Her mama folded her close, and Billie held on. Maybe if she held on long enough, she could transfer her strength to her mama. “I’ve been meaning to tell you. I just didn’t know how.”
“The doctors can give you medicine.” Her voice was muffled against her mama’s shoulder. “They can make you well.”
“They’ve tried, Billie. There’s nothing else the doctors can do.”
“No! It’s not true!” Billie tore herself away and raced past them to the rusty bus parked in a roofless shed under a black jack oak in her backyard. She climbed the ladder attached to the side, then sat in the green plastic lawn chair on top of the bus. She was in her own place now, high up in the sky. The fading rays of sun felt comforting, like God’s eyes peering down through the oak leaves. Alice wouldn’t dare show up in a tree already occupied by God.
Billie gazed upward where she imagined the Holy Face would be. “You gotta make my mama well.” Did God listen to little girls who eavesdropped at keyholes and told lies? “If you make my mama well, I promise to be good.” She made a sign over her chest. “Cross my heart and hope to die.”
Quick as she said it, Billie wished she hadn’t. What if God reached down and snatched her off the bus? She’d never get to see Queen and her mama again.
Billie didn’t want to be an orphan. Orphans didn’t have mamas to plait their hair in cornrows and make sure they wore clean socks and remind them to say their prayers at night. Maybe God was punishing Billie for not minding her mama.
“I promise I won’t go to Lucy’s again when Queen tells me not to. And I won’t tear my shorts and tell lies about hating my mama.”
Tasting the salt from her own tears, Billie swiped at her face with the sleeve of her T-shirt. “I know I’m not a good little girl, God. But please, don’t take my mama.”
If God heard her, He’d send a sign. That’s what He did in the Bible. Maybe it would be a rainbow. Billie looked up through the limbs of the oak tree, waiting.