Gracie was light-skinned, which meant she got to wear the bright-colored dresses with the flowers. Granny always told me, “Ain’t no tar baby need to be wearing bright colors, Dot.” But I never minded much; I favored dark green. Mrs. Gwendolyn, the mayor’s wife, bought me my first dark-green dress for my third-grade graduation. It was forest green with chocolate-colored lace carefully sewn along the sleeves, like summer branches on a willow. When I first saw the canary-yellow box it came in, my eyes widened with fear. I thought, “Please say it’s not a dress with bright colors.” Granny would beat me if I wore it…and rightfully so. What did I need to be walking round with bright colors for?
The bright box was cradled in twinkling lace, just like the white baby dolls with blonde pigtails in the doll shop’s window on West Bay Street. As I slowly opened the box, Mrs. Gwendolyn’s hazel eyes comforted me like Tybee’s summer waters. “Vite, vite, Dottie Weathers, hurry! What are zhu doing? Open it, already!” She giggled, as if she were the one going into fourth grade.
I took a deep breath and slid the silver lace off the box. I placed it on the kitchen table, gently, like it was a precious crystal. The lid popped open on its own, and I caught my first peek of that shimmering avocado-shell fabric, wrapped in creme tissue paper. My breath came out hard. I started to sweat a little too. Mrs. Gwendolyn had to help me take the dress out of the box.
She held it up with both hands in front of the kitchen window, so that the sun beamed on it, making the garment sparkle with emeralds, gold, and diamonds. “La robe is from Paris. It’s chiffon. I originally bought you a yellow one; that’s why dis box is yellow. But your Grandmère told me you only like green.”
It sounded as if she were asking me a question. “Yes, ma’am,” I replied.
I remembered she had told me in first grade that “la robe” meant “dress” in French. Mrs. Gwendolyn talked funny because she was from the same place where she’d gotten my new dress. Most of the Black women in our town thought she was uppity for marrying a white man. Her caramel skin was always draped with silk pastel prints, the colors of peaches, lemons, and bluejays, and she wore them whenever she felt like it. Many white women secretly hated her ’cause she spoke a language spoken by the movie stars they all tried to copy. I’m glad I knew better…I loved her.
Me and Mrs. Gwendolyn were standing in the middle of the kitchen the day she gave me that special dress. It was morning when she came over; the sun rose up quick that day, and it was already time to place the fans in the corners. Granny didn’t like to come home to a hot house, so tending to the temperature was one of my chores. Granny and Gracie were at the market, looking for a Sunday ham; they were planning to come home and drop it off in the fridge before church.
When those ladies went shopping, they always matched their clothes. This Sunday it was the ivory hats and satin daffodil dresses that made their skin look like it was beaming when they walked into a room. They were a little like human ice-cream cones with those white frilly hats on. Folks always said the Preebus ladies were two of the prettiest in town. And Granny didn’t look like nobody’s grandma, either. The butcher, Mr. Jackson, always said so. “Ooo wee, Miss Preebus, you’re looking mighty fresh this Sunday. You sure you’re somebody’s granny?” he would say, tipping up his stiff hat while licking his teeth. Granny would twirl and sometimes take a bow, like he was some kinda king or something.
And Gracie would ease up beside Granny to cash in on those sweet words too, as if the butcher’s compliments were winning bingo cards. “Oh, Gracie, don’t you look like a precious orchid! Oh, oh, do I see new freckles popping up on your nose?” Gracie would crinkle her nose every time Butcher Jackson said that, as if he’d sprinkled her nose with magic glitter. They were all high yellow light-skinned folks, who spoke the same tune as the other folks in town who looked like them. Not like me. I was Black as night before the stars start popping. I was Black as Savannah’s river at midnight…and just as quiet and calm.
I was only able to go to Granny’s church once a month, on “bless a friend day.” It was the only time when dark-skinned Black folks got invited to Granny’s church, the Ezra Baptist Church of Brunswick. Everybody knew I was no relation to Granny. They knew my story. Granny had taken me in because my Daddy had gone to jail for stealing from the market, after my Mama died of a stomach ache called cancer. Daddy was going to the store for some eggs, bacon, milk, cheese, bread, oatmeal, and honey. I know this because I’ve got the note—he left it behind at our old house on the day he got locked up. The note rested on the dresser for a long time. I took it after I learned to read it and kept it under my mattress, safe with the rest of my treasures. And I’d sneak into the window of our old house whenever I could. When Mrs. Gwendolyn found that out, she started leaving a key under the front mat for me…but that was our secret. She was the one who found Granny to raise me, because the mayor didn’t want any more kids. She was the one who heard my Daddy shout, “Somebody needs to look after my princess!” as the police carried him away.
After Mrs. Gwendolyn’s visit with the dress, she had to rush out to fix a meal for the mayor and get ready for church. She attended the Canterbury Existentialist Church. I never knew what kind of God they believed in, but she told me they didn’t start their services till 1 p.m. It was a good church for folks who liked to sleep late, read the paper, and still get in a decent Sunday breakfast.
“I’m glad you liked zee dress, Dottie, you will be zee prettiest graduate Wren Field Elementary has ever seen. Très jolie! Oh, and you have another surprise coming later, so keep your eyes open for it.” She winked, twisted her hips, and played a fake game of jump rope with my two long plaits before resting them neatly on my shoulders. “Your hair is getting so long, Dottie. Pretty soon, we will have to give you a trim so you won’t be tripping on your hair going down zee fourth-grade hallway.” She spoke jokingly, and we both laughed hard. I could always count on Mrs. Gwendolyn to make me laugh so hard that I snorted through my nose. I think she’d say funny things on purpose, just to wait for the snort.
We hugged each other good-bye, and I watched her drive down the dusty red road in her fancy car, heading toward her house in the neighborhood where most of the rich white folks lived, near the boardwalk.
I hung my new graduation dress in my closet and began my chores. Granny didn’t like me to look idle in the house. “Dot, girl, you ain’t paying no mortgage. You will clean dis here house from top to bottom,” she’d say, looking at me like I was a rusty nail stuck in the back of her foot.
Granny and Gracie would be back any minute with the ham. It seemed only right to start with the kitchen, so it would be ready when me and Gracie helped Granny make dinner after their Sunday service. Since this particular Sunday was not “bless a friend day,” I would be in the house all day long, till Granny had me make her whiskey peach drink in the early evening. I loved that time of day because as soon as she sucked the drink down Granny would fall right to sleep, becoming a corpse till morning. Even though she was only fifteen, Gracie got herself a whiskey peach too, and drank it every night just like her Granny did. Then they would both be knocked out, unless Gracie snuck out to visit Jamie Jackson. He was the butcher’s son. Sometimes they would creep into the red barn near the market and kiss each other until their clothes got wrinkled. I watched them once, when I followed her one night. It was awful. I never followed her again after that.
After I’d finished cleaning the kitchen, I went into the living room to check the time on the monkey clock. This was an old wooden clock placed on the highest shelf, its pointed head almost touching the ceiling. Granny had bought it at a yard sale at some dead old woman’s house. Folks on her street told us that the old woman had never had a kind word to say to anyone. Gracie and I wouldn’t go near the monkey clock at midnight because that was the time when a toy monkey came out of its mouth. The monkey would smile wide and try to lock you into its stare like a hungry snake.
The monkey clock read 10:30. That meant Granny was running late, had left the market, and gone straight to church to put the ham in the pastor’s fridge until after the 10:15 service. It also meant I had extra time before they got home. I decided to bathe, so that I could try on my new graduation dress.
When I’d dried myself off in the bathroom, I held the towel to my naked body and looked at my face in the mirror. Staring, not moving, I gazed at my face, remembering the first compliment I’d ever gotten: “You have the face of Josephine Baker…and when you come to Paris with me, the French people will see you and want to take your picture, just to have some of your beauty.” Mrs. Gwendolyn had said that on my first day of kindergarten. That same day, she gave me a picture of Josephine Baker. My heart always skipped a beat when I studied that photo. Josephine’s face was like mine: forehead wide, face long, a button nose with a little lift at the tip. Although the black-and-white photo made her skin look darker than mine, she was wearing the shine of the light with a flower in her ear, and it loved her Blackness. I kept Josephine’s picture under my mattress, next to the photo of Daddy and Mama.
I hurried into my room and slipped my freshly washed body into my new dress. Then I walked back into the bathroom to see myself, and smiled at the reflection. I posed like Josephine, swinging the dress to the side, twisting, imagining getting my picture taken on the streets of Paris. I grabbed a wide stool from the closet, brought it into the bathroom, and hopped up on it so that I could see myself better in the mirror. One plait in each hand, I twirled them around like flaming batons. Each move, each dance, each look that I gave myself in the mirror was for Josephine Baker, the Black lady born next door to Kansas.
I started to speak and sing in a language that I thought sounded like French, though it was really closer to baby babble. I didn’t care. This was my time. The forest-green dress hugged my body. It rocked me like an infant as I glided from side to side. The dress even spoke to me. I heard it say, “Be free to love me, and you will be free forever. Be free to love you, and can’t nobody steal your joy.” My eyes closed, and I spun in circles to feel the bottom of the dress lift into the air. My eyes opened to glimpse the emerald carousel I had created before it fell back into place. I twisted my hips, swaying them to the secret music playing for me alone, in my juke joint for Josephine. Then I jumped high, to watch the magic fabric sparkle against the bathroom light. I jumped. I twisted. I jumped…and then…BAM!
I missed the stool coming down and banged my head against the wicked white wall.
I felt the pain begin to grow. Red blood ran down my head into my mouth, soaking into the chiffon and making a sloppy puddle on the bathroom floor. I started to cry and lifted myself up carefully, then ducked from the mirror so I wouldn’t see how bad my injury was.
I walked slowly to the front room and dropped to my knees. My bare chestnut feet were covered with slippery, ruby-red blood. I felt myself getting weak, my eyes growing sleepy.
Somebody started knocking on the door.
Knock, knock, knock.
They knocked three times, but my mouth wouldn’t let me scream.
Knock, knock, knock.
All I could do was knock too, with my left fist on the floor.
Knock, knock, knock.
My eyes closed hard with the last knock. I heard the front door swing open and a voice call out to me. The person was yelling my real name. They were scared too. I felt something cover my head. Someone lifted me off the ground.
My eyes opened up just a bit, to see a familiar Black face, like mine, like midnight’s river, so quiet, so calm…
He whispered in my ear, “I got you, Dorothy. I’m taking you home, princess.”
Candy grams not coming to the house on time makes my cutting quicker. I cut to release. One scrap here, one scrap there. Not too much. Just enough to scab nicely. I learned to cut small. Sometimes blood trickles onto my feet. My blood creeps quick. I’m in love with keeping up. Lovingly I gaze as it trips down toward my knee. One scrap here, two scraps there. Warmly I stare as it eases on down the grooves of my red speckled leg. Sometimes it’s sponged up by my Sunday white knee-highs, which I slide off while sitting in the rear wooden pew. No one ever looks back at me to see my actions during early-morning mass. Children are rarely noticed in my church, unless they’re being unruly or are just disruptively beautiful. I never was either…which was always fine by me.
When I was thirteen, altar boys were such a prize. I would watch them from the second pew to the left in the cathedral. Silently I waited, eager for these soldiers to line up and do their duty for our clever little priest, who smelled of hard butterscotch sweets and heavy layers of tiger balm.
I was cutting back then too. It started with Marsha. She was the leader of our crew, the truest of Southern belles. She told us she was being groomed to be a debutante and that she would go to her first ball on her fifteenth birthday. Marsha was the dream. She was allowed to wear red lipstick in the daytime. She sent candy grams to our houses every week. All our favorite candies. She loved us. The mothers hated her, and the fathers wanted her. We needed to be her.
Marsha taught me:
Girls with scars were the girls who got boys with cars,
and boys with cars had money to take girls to bars,
and bars served booze that took pretty girls to Mars…
We were the daughters of the Buckhead Betties, high-society Georgian city-women with old money. However, my mother rented our house from a rich property-owner, Mr. Roland. We dared not to speak about being renters in civilized Southern company in those days.
Mother and Mr. Roland had been having a love affair for years. No one knew, not even his wife. Mother and I came from Ohio, but my father’s family were wealthy kaolin miners and businessmen from Sandersville, Georgia. Mother always said that our name would be stronger in Georgia. She said it was in Georgia that we would find our white gold.
Marsha said she had a sweet spot for redheads. She called me pretty. That’s why she allowed me to join her crew. I was the fourth, the one who didn’t have much input on our topics of conversation. Marsha said I was to be the quiet one…which was always fine by me. I was the fourth, the step-child with red hair. The others were blond like Marsha: Marsha, Marsha, Marsha.
Marsha and our crew would smoke cigarettes under the old Peachtree Hills Creek bridge. It was there where we would watch her cut the inside of her thighs with such artistry. We would all sit on the cold, slippery rocks and stare at her, waiting for the blood to slide down her olive flesh and make its way to the rapid creek. Her blood mixed into the brownish waters, and the droplets were carried downstream, brushing past the invasion of emerald watercress, tiny bits of random debris, and the fortunate bottom feeders who I’m certain opened their mouths greedily for a quick taste.
Marsha would only cut for us for a couple of minutes. Afterward we would go to her house to dry off and play dress-up in her dead grandmother’s closet. It was in that very closet that Marsha told us where she had first gotten the idea of water cutting. She said it was the monkey’s idea, the monkey that lived in the clock in her grandmother’s closet. We never saw this clock or the monkey, but we knew it was real because Marsha said so.
Although other people’s blood churned my stomach a bit, I would brood on Marsha’s cutting for weeks. Her technique was just that good—so precise, so uniform. The water made it sacred. It was what was missing from my own private practice.
When I first tried to copy her art, it was in the bath. Unexpectedly, my usually calm right hand had a spasm of sorts, just as Mother knocked on the door to check up on me. A lightning bolt was left on the inside of my thigh—a cavernous mark, one that would have made The Boy Who Lived blush. This deep lightning bolt erupted fiercely, changing my hot bubble bath into a cradle of foaming lava. I whimpered from the pain before responding to my mother: “I’m okay, Mom. I just need a little while longer.”
Sensing no distress in my voice, she responded, “No worries, my darling. Just wanted to let you know that your candy gram from Marsha was just delivered.”
I thanked her, unplugged the pink stopper in the tub, and watched, beaming, as my magma circled its way down the lucky open-mouthed drain.
My literary journey began years before college, when I was a performance poet and stage actor. My creative venues included the University of Iowa, Alliance Theatre, PushPush Theatre, Green Mill in Chicago, Java Monkey Cafe, and several other places in the U.S. and abroad. After this extraordinary journey, my creative work transitioned primarily to experimental poetry and fiction.
Over the past decade, I have been drawn to developing stories that explore the Southern gothic tradition, magical realism, and African-American folklore. Like many writers, I have the privilege of a wide range of influences: writers such as Alice Walker, Tennessee Williams, Toni Morrison, Raymond Carver, Zora Neale Hurston, and many others.
My latest composite novel project is called Keeping House. This work follows five protagonists living in different areas of rural Georgia. All of them are connected in some way to an antique clock, subtly responsible for a series of unspeakable accidents. This novel was inspired by my desire to experiment with complex rural Southern narrators and magical realism. My goal is to push the limits of what is expected from Southern writers, while also honoring forgotten country towns, creepy artifacts placed on literal pedestals, and obscure family bonds.
Melodie J. Rodgers is a Black and Southern writer who lives with her hubby and warrior child beneath the sleepy magnolia trees of Stone Mountain, Georgia. Her creative writing has appeared in the Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review; G.R.I.T.S. – Girls Raised In The South: An Anthology of Southern Queer Womyns’ Voices and Their Allies; The Tower; Underground; the CIEE Brazil Poetry On Film project; and many others. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte.
Embark, Issue 14, April 2021