Averyell A. Kessler
JUNE 14, 1938, Jackson, Mississippi
Ranse Garner had been watching the woman all morning. As he would for the rest of his life. Her arms flew like hummingbird wings as she bent low over a tin tub overflowing with froth. She did not raise her eyes but stared intently at the contents of the tub as if she could see her future in the grimy bubbles of chalk grey water. She paused, licked her lips then wiped a stray curl away from her cheek. The air was tight, as sticky as paste, the sun a blazing furnace. Her porch welcomed no breeze and only a scant sliver of shade. A fine sheen of sweat formed behind her ears and on the back of her neck as she scrubbed a denim work shirt on a Zinc King washboard. After a moment, Ranse could not turn away.
She was young, almost childlike, with luminous, mirror lit skin. Her fingers were long and delicate, her forehead high and well formed. Two tiny children of unknown sex scampered around the tub, their chubby hands fluttering as they struggled to catch the rising soap bubbles. Out in her dusty yard, an older boy rolled a barrel hoop back and forth along the edge of Larson Street. Ranse had never noticed her before. He not expected to see such subtle beauty in a woman of color.
Her shotgun house, worn out from an unending series of tenants, was directly across the street from his office, one of a few leftover rental houses that had escaped being torn down to make room for the burgeoning R.C. Garner Body Plant. This house, like every other of its kind, stood on brick piers above fetid, untended soil, like a fat goose settling on its nest. In front, there was a narrow door and a single window, then three small rooms following one after the other. In back, a plywood privy hovered at the edge of a small, burned out garden and a row of drooping clotheslines. Behind that, a pile of wood as well as a struggling pecan tree. Her house, along with a hundred others painted the same peculiar shade of urine yellow, was in a drab, mosquito infested area of Jackson known as “Under the Hill”.
The windows in Ranse’s office faced her sagging porch and overlooked three narrow plank steps rising from her dirt yard. Although a narrow gravel road and two wide ditches separated her house from his plant, she still heard the roar and clank of Ranse’s rumbling punch presses and the high whine of his table saws. She had no electricity; the holes in her window screens were patched with cotton bolls. There was no driveway because there was no car. She worked on, oblivious of his interest, adding another shower of soap flakes to the tub. Her children laughed and tugged at her sleeves. She pulled them against her breasts and kissed each one. Her arms were strong and well-shaped, but she moved with the refinement of a prima ballerina. Ranse continued to watch, amazed that such slender a woman had given birth to three children.
She stood, wringing a torrent of suds out of a bed sheet, and he saw her more clearly. She was tall and thin; possibly of Creole blood; her mesmerizing skin was the color of a young palomino, her large eyes as dark as her hair. Her bosom was fresh and abundant, her hips rounded and full. He saw the glint of a gold earring on her left ear. She called the older boy to the porch and together they emptied the contents of the tub, sending a river of dingy water onto the ground. Her children squealed with joy, prancing in the mud as it oozed between their toes. She waited while the boy pumped a bucket of fresh water and filled her tub again. She began to rinse.
After a thunder of footsteps, Ranse’s office door squeaked open. “Mr. Garner?” It was John Fulcher, his plant foreman.
He turned from the window. “What the hell you want?” Ranse asked.
“No. 6 router is down.” Ranse paid no attention to his announcement. “Fuse box is burnt out.”
“Look over there,” he said, pointing across the street. “I thought that house was gonna be torn down.”
“Somebody moved in last week, sir,” Fulcher muttered. “I seen’em unloading some chairs and a bedstead last Thursday. Pulled up in a truck with a Louisiana license plate. It’s gone now.”
“Yes sir. Man came over here the next day looking for work.”
“You hire him on? I need more men.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Never seen him before. Don’t know anything about him.”
“What’s his name?”
“I got no idea,” Fulcher answered.
“That woman his wife?”
“I wouldn’t know that either, sir. I’ll walk over there if you want.”
“Go see to the router. I’ll do it.”
He remained in his chair for another five minutes, knowing he could be making a mistake. His interest in women was not unusual; his interest in this woman was extraordinary. He drew an El Trellis Triangle from his shirt pocket and lit it. “What the hell,” he said. “I’m giving the man a job. That’s all. “
Ranse banged out of his office and walked across the street. Except for the older boy, the yard was deserted. His eyes expanded in terror.
”Come here, boy,” Ranse called out. He jumped across the ditch and entered the dusty yard. “What’s your name?”
The boy was tall, like his mother, and looked as if his spine would burst out of his body. He had the same creamy skin and dark eyes. His eye lashes were lush and curly. His mouth, plentiful. “Louis, sir,” he answered.
“Your Daddy home?” Ranse asked.
“He ain’t my Daddy.”
“Your Mama then?”
“Yes sir. She out back hanging up wash.”
“Go call her.”
Within seconds, the woman appeared. Her eyes were velvet, deep set above her cheeks. Her blouse was wet, clinging to her bosom. Her hands dripped and she had no shoes. She waited for him to speak.
“I’m Ranse Garner,” he said. “From across the street.”
“Yes sir, I know,” she replied. Indeed, she did know. He employed hundreds of men; hired and fired according to his wishes. He was God.
“My foreman said your man came over to my place looking for work.”
“He say you ain’t hiring.”
“My foreman was wrong. I need more men by the end of this week.” Her teeth were pearls; he governed his eyes, allowing them to fall no lower than her chin. He took a deep puff of his cigar. “Your man here?” he asked.
“He inside sir,” the woman said, nodding her head toward the door. “Fixing the back door.” She averted her eyes, staring at the sky instead of his face.
“Is he honest?”
“No sir.” Behind her, a small boy and his tiny sister peeped fearfully around the doorjamb. Unlike their mother, they were pure ebony. “Curtis, Liza,’ she whispered, “Your Daddy in the kitchen, go call him. Quick.”
“What’s your name gal?”
‘Macie— Macie Parkins.” She answered, finally summoning the courage to raise his eyes. “My husband is Booker.”
“Ya’ll ain’t from around here are you?” he asked, placing one foot on her bottom step.
“Booker and I come up from New Orleans.”
“New Orleans, huh? That’s a long way from here.”
“What brings you to Jackson, Macie?”
“Time to make a move, I reckon.”
Booker appeared at the door with a hammer in his hand. He wore loose overalls and no shirt; the chiseled muscles in his broad shoulders were full blown; he was the same color as his children.
“This here Mr. Garner,” Macie said. “From across the street.”
“You call for me sir?” Booker asked.
“My foreman says you’re looking for work.”
“Anything you got.”
“Where you work in New Orleans?”
“I worked the docks, loadin’, unloadin’. But I learn fast.”
“You paint? I need a man in the paint room.”
“Yes sir. I done roofin’ too.”
“You’re not in trouble with the law, are you?” Ranse asked.
“Why’d you come up here?”
“Hard times in Louisiana. Macie and me’s trying to make a new start.”
“You and Macie married.”
“Yes sir.” His eyes shifted as he looked at Louis. “He Macie’s. The young ones is mine.”
“You ain’t sick or nothing?”
“How old are you?”
“Thirty-one. Macie, she twenty-seven.”
“OK Booker. You’re hired. Job starts tomorrow at 7:30 and ends at 4. I pay four dollars a day, same a Detroit wages. Ask for Mr. Fulcher – he’s the Foreman. You punch in late; we dock your pay. Understand?”
“Yes sir, I be there early.”
Ranse turned and crossed the street again. The conversation ended because there was nothing more to say. This was the only time he had himself hired a man for his paint room. “It’s nothing,” he thought. “I gave him a job. That’s all.” He tossed his cigar on the ground and crushed it under his heel.