In the Midwest, October comes in when the pale coverlet of sky lifts away, exposing an eternity of deep and certain blue. The sun no longer stares, merely glances and makes long shadows much like the uneven fading of green from trees just before the lesser pigments fire-light the whole outdoors. The air cools to crisp, carries sound farther. Last pears ripen and fall, ferment on the ground; the aroma of their wine mixes with the pungency of leaf smoke from nowhere and everywhere. At nightfall, the wing-song shrill of crickets announces that this season has a natural pathos to it, the brief and flaming brilliance of everything at the climax of life moving toward death.
October Brown had named herself for all of that. Unwittingly at first. When she began occasionally calling herself October, she was only ten years old. Others said it was ridiculous, said she was nobody trying to be somebody. But she made convincing noises about given names, how you could give one to yourself, how it could be more like you than your real name. She never dared say she hated the name that her father had saddled on her, never said the new name had anything to do with the memory of her mother, who had lost her life. Instead she had mentioned all the strange names of people they knew, like Daybreak Honor, and a classmate’s aunt, Fourteen. The pastor of their church had named his daughter Dainty. Usually that fact had made people stop and consider.
Then when she was girl-turned-grown-seventeen, struck by her own strangeness and by the whole idea of seasons, she had put it on like a coat and fastened it around her. October was her name.
Midmorning, on a flaming day in that season—a Saturday—October sat in the upstairs kitchenette at Pemberton House, sewing on her black iron Singer. It was 1950. She was twenty-three, and thanking her lucky stars for a room in the best house for Negro women teachers in Wyandotte County. Situated in the middle of the block on Oceola Avenue, the two-story white clapboard set the standard for decent, with its deep front yard and arborlike pear trees, its clipped hedges and the painted wicker chairs on the porch.
From her window she could look down on the backyard and see Mrs. Pemberton’s precious marigolds bunched along the back fence, and in front of them, a few wilting tomato plants and short rows of collards that waited to be tenderized by the first frost in Mr. Pemberton’s garden.
A few months before, on the very same June day that Cora had pushed her to take advantage of the vacancy coming up at Pemberton House, October Brown had knocked on the door, hoping. Word was that you had to know somebody. For her cadet-teacher year at Stowe School, she had lived with the Reverend Jackson and his wife. Not so bad, but farther away and further down the scale of nice. Mr. Pemberton, in undershirt and suspenders, had opened the door, but his wife, Lydia Pemberton—gold hoops sparkling, crown of silvery braids—had invited her in.
“We don’t take nothin but schoolteachers,” Mrs. Pemberton had said. When October explained that indeed, she was a teacher, Mrs. Pemberton had looked her up and down.
And October had told her about her cadet year at Stowe, her room at the Jacksons’ place, mentioned Chillicothe, Ohio, where she had grown up, and—because Mrs. Pemberton had seemed unmoved and uninterested so far—spoken of her two aunts who had raised her and her sister Vergie with good home training.
“Y’all are getting younger every year. You know any of the other girls here?” Mrs. Pemberton had asked.
October explained that Cora Joycelyn Jones had been her lead teacher at Stowe, that they had become good friends. The mention of an es- tablished connection to a recognized good citizen had finally satisfied Mrs. Pemberton.
“Follow me,” she said, and led October on a two-story tour of hardwood floors and high ceilings, French Provincial sitting room (smoke blue), damask drapes and lace sheers, mahogany dining table that could comfortably seat twelve, at least, two buffets, china closets, curio cabinets full of whatnots. Upstairs, all the women’s rooms—Mrs. Pemberton did tap lightly before she charged in—had highly polished mahogany or oak beds, tables, desks, quilts or chenille bedspreads, no-nails-allowed papered walls. Photographs, though, on desks, and floor lamps and wing chairs, stuffed chairs, venetian blinds and valances. Then she showed her the kitchenette, a larger bedroom with a two-burner and a tiny icebox and “you see the sun goes down right outside that window right there.”
And as they went back down the stairs, Mrs. Pemberton told her in no uncertain terms that she and Mr. Pemberton operated a decent house, that nobody under their roof smoked or drank, and that no men were allowed upstairs, but that the women could “have company” in the sitting room downstairs. Yes, October understood.
Yes, she was lucky to have her kitchenette.
Since daybreak of that October Saturday, she had been up sewing, fiddling with the buttons on the lightweight wool suit that she planned to wear to the first Du Bois Club meeting that afternoon. She had nearly finished reinforcing the zipper when she felt the loud thump of something entirely too heavy against the back of the house.
She wrapped herself more tightly in her housecoat and went to the window. Without raising the shade higher, she could see a man—muscular, youngish—in the yard below, struggling to shift a ladder closer to her window.
She had seen him before. One morning, weeks earlier, she had been waiting on the porch for her ride to school with Cora, and she had been nervous about the ride. Cora was her friend, had been her mentor. Still, these were October’s first days on her own in the classroom, and Cora was sure to ask about the supplies that October had forgotten to order. In the presence of Cora’s boyfriend—he was driving them to school that day—she would feel even dumber. Too bad she had already said yes to the ride, or she would have skipped it.
And too, at the dinner table the night before, Albertine Scott—one of the other teachers—had offered to turn October’s hair under with a straightening comb, a sure putdown, since it was obvious that October had taken pride in what a little Hair Rep and water could do. Seasoned teachers were like that, though—ready to tap cadets on the shoulder and point out the least little misstep in or out of the classroom. In the name of caution, they could brew terror with stories of cadets who dared dream that they would swim through their first stand-alone year but couldn’t even float, and went on to become elevator operators. Seasoned teachers would do that. Except for Cora. October had suffered nothing like that from Cora. Woman-after-my-own-heart. Sisterfriend.
And so, thus preoccupied on the porch that morning as she waited for her ride, October had let her eyes wander in the shadows of the arborly front yard. And saw, suddenly, a man out there, dappled by sunplay through the leaves, a hidden picture in a trees-and-grass puzzle, dark arms in a pale undershirt, bib overalls faded blue, his thumbs hooked into the straps. A man turning to go, a mystery vanishing, just somebody taking a break from his work on the Pembertons’ half-finished retaining wall out near the street.
She wondered if he’d been there in the yard all along, watching her. She didn’t look directly at him, but observed that he had perched himself on top of a mound of fieldstones and begun eating something that the wind carried as hickory smoke. He had flung his hand as if to say hi, being friendly, she thought, and she flung her hand, too. But then she saw the swarm of gnats and realized her mistake. He was swatting flies.
Later, when she walked with Cora and Ed to Ed’s car, Ed had stopped to admire the man’s handiwork, but the man’s faded-blue back was turned, busy, and he didn’t even look up. He had a fresh haircut. Neat around the edges. His undershirt had seen a lot of washings.
This was the same man. Looking down from her window, she saw that at the moment he was focused on the bottom rungs. Impulsively, just as his head tilted up, she stepped back out of sight and pulled her window shade all the way down.
A few minutes went by, and she could hear the ladder scraping the house, approaching her window. Then a knock on the window. She got up from the sewing machine again and let up the shade. Head and shoulders right there on the other side of the glass and screen, there he was. Edges of very white teeth showed in a round face the color of pecans and just as shiny. A face not particularly piqued, either. And so it was a little surprising when he did a quick twirl with a screwdriver and yelled through the glass, “You didn’t have to pull down the shade—I don’t go around peeping in windows.”
Though she understood and felt a little guilty, she palmed the air and hunched her shoulders as if to say, I don’t know what you’re talking about. He did a little up-up motion with his thumb, she hurried to raise the window.
His mouth looked like it wanted to smile. “You don’t have to worry, I’m just putting up storm windows,” he said. “Can you give me a hand and unhook your screen?”
“Sure,” she said, and undid the four metal hook-and-eyes that held in the screen.
He pulled the screen out, tossed it like a saucer to the ground. “Stay right there for a minute, do you mind?”
Back down the ladder he went, then climbed slowly up again, lugging a heavy storm window in one hand. This time he stood higher on the ladder so that they were nearly face to face.
“Mr. Pemberton’s got too many windows,” he said and chuckled a little, held on to the wood-frame window, looked right at her too long. She didn’t know whether to smile or frown. What was he looking at? But anyway there was his easy, fleshy mouth to focus on, maybe.
Automatically her hands went to smooth her hair and at the same time cover the white splash of vitiligo on her cheek. But then her thoughts caught up. This was her room. He really had no business up here, and she didn’t have to look like she was dressed for school.
He wore a rag of a shirt with rolled sleeves and no buttons, no collar, so that he might as well have been bare from the waist up. Repositioning the large storm window, he was—for two seconds—a three-dimensional man in a window. Focused on his task now, he bit his bottom lip with those white teeth and hoisted the window into position. Her eyes caught on the patch of fine hairs that parted just below his navel where his dark pants rode loosely on his hips. He was short, muscular in a smooth, curvy way.
“When I slide this into the frame, you hook the top and bottom, okay?” he said.
He slid in the storm window and tapped it solidly with his hands. She hooked all four of the hooks.
“Thanks,” he said through the glass. “You’re handy to have around.” And he disappeared down the ladder, whistling something he probably made up.
October finished the zipper, pressed the suit, took a bath in the hall bathroom, dripped her way back, fighting the impulse to whistle. Whistling woman, cackling hen, always come to no good end. She laid the suit on the bed and congratulated herself. The Vogue Pattern Company wouldn’t know hers from the one in the picture: nutmeg with a straight skirt, kick pleats, a cropped jacket; double-breasted, with covered buttons and self-belt with the special pewter buckle she had retrieved from one of her aunt Maude’s throwaways.
Noon came and she put it on, set off the collar with a white rayon blouse. She saw herself on her way to the Du Bois Club meeting, com- ing down to the front room and encountering tall skinny Albertine. Or, better yet, walking across the lawn of the YWCA, right past proper Mary Esther and the others dressed in their serious-and-dedicated blouses and reasonable-navy or practical-beige skirts, their correct nylons and low pumps. And she smiled at the mirror, glad not to see a schoolmarm standing there.
Excerpted from OCTOBER SUITE © Copyright 2001 by Maxine Clair. Reprinted with permission by Random House. All rights reserved.
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Random House
- ISBN-10: 0375506306
- ISBN-13: 9780375506307