The doctor’s waiting room, which was very small, was almost full when the Turpins entered and Mrs. Turpin, who was very large, made it look even smaller by her presence. She stood looming at the head of the magazine table set in the center of it, a living demonstration that the room was inadequate and ridiculous. Her little bright black eyes took in all the patients as she sized up the seating situation. There was one vacant chair and a place on the sofa occupied by a blond child in a dirty blue romper who should have been told to move over and make room for the lady. He was five or six, but Mrs. Turpin saw at once that no one was going to tell him to move over. He was slumped down in the seat, his arms idle at his sides and his eyes idle in his head; his nose ran unchecked.
Mrs. Turpin put a firm hand on Claud’s shoulder and said in a voice that included anyone who wanted to listen, “Claud, you sit in that chair there,” and gave him a push down into the vacant one. Claud was florid and bald and sturdy, somewhat shorter than Mrs. Turpin, but he sat down as if he were accustomed to doing what she told him to.
Mrs. Turpin remained standing. The only man in the room besides Claud was a lean stringy old fellow with a rusty hand spread out on each knee, whose eyes were closed as if he were asleep or dead or pretending to be so as not to get up and offer her his seat. Her gaze settled agreeably on a well-dressed grey haired lady whose eyes met hers and whose expression said: if that child belonged to me, he would have some manners and move over there’s plenty of room there for you and him too.
Claud looked up with a sigh and made as if to rise.
“Sit down,” Mrs. Turpin said. “You know you’re not supposed to stand on that leg. He has an ulcer on his leg,” she explained.
Claud lifted his foot onto the magazine table and rolled his trouser leg up to reveal a purple swelling on a plump marble white calf.
“My!” the pleasant lady said. “How did you do that?”
“A cow kicked him,” Mrs. Turpin said.
“Goodness!” said the lady. Claud rolled his trouser leg down.
“Maybe the little boy would move over,” the lady suggested, but the child did not stir.
“Somebody will be leaving in a minute,” Mrs. Turpin said. She could not understand why a doctor with as much money as they made charging five dollars a day to just stick their head in the hospital door and look at you couldn’t afford a decent-sized waiting room. This one was hardly bigger than a garage. The table was cluttered with limp-looking magazines and at one end of it there was a big green glass ash tray full of cigarette butts and cotton wads with little blood spots on them. If she had had any thing to do with the running of the place, that would have been emptied every so often. There were no chairs against the wall at the head of the room. It had a rectangular-shaped panel in it that permitted a view of the office where the nurse came and went and the secretary listened to the radio. A plastic fern in a gold pot sat in the opening and trailed its fronds down almost to the floor. The radio was softly playing gospel music.
Just then the inner door opened and a nurse with the highest stack of yellow hair Mrs. Turpin had ever seen put her face in the crack and called for the next patient. The woman sitting beside Claud grasped the two arms of her chair and hoisted herself up; she pulled her dress free from her legs and lumbered through the door where the nurse had disappeared.
Mrs. Turpin eased into the vacant chair, which held her tight as a corset. “I wish I could reduce,” she said, and rolled her eyes and gave a comic sigh.
“Oh, you aren’t fat,” the stylish lady said.
“Ooooo I am too,” Mrs. Turpin said. “Claud he eats all he wants to and never weighs over one hundred and seventy-five pounds, but me I just look at something good to eat and I gain some weight,” and her stomach and shoulders shook with laughter. “You can eat all you want to, can’t you, Claud?” she asked, turning to him.
Claud only grinned.
“Well, as long as you have such a good disposition,” the stylish lady said, “I don’t think it makes a bit of difference what size you are. You just can’t beat a good disposition.” Next to her was a fat girl of eighteen or nineteen, scowling into a thick blue book which Mrs. Turpin saw was entitled Human Development.
The girl raised her head and directed her scowl at Mrs. Turpin as if she did not like her looks. She appeared annoyed that anyone should speak while she tried to read. The poor girl’s face was blue with acne and Mrs. Turpin thought how pitiful it was to have a face like that at that age. She gave the girl a friendly smile but the girl only scowled the harder. Mrs. Turpin herself was fat but she had always had good skin, and, though she was forty-seven years old, there was not a wrinkle in her face except around her eyes from laughing too much.
Next to the ugly girl was the child, still in exactly the same position, and next to him was a thin leathery old woman in a cotton print dress. She and Claud had three sacks of chicken feed in their pump house that was in the same print. She had seen from the first that the child belonged with the old woman. She could tell by the way they sat kind of vacant and white-trashy, as if they would sit there until Doomsday if nobody called and told them to get up. And at right angles but next to the well-dressed pleasant lady was a lank-faced woman who was certainly the child’s mother. She had on a yellow sweat shirt and wine-colored slacks, both gritty-looking, and the rims of her lips were stained with snuff. Her dirty yellow hair was tied behind with a little piece of red paper ribbon. Worse than niggers any day, Mrs. Turpin thought.
The gospel hymn playing was, “When I looked up and He looked down,” and Mrs. Turpin, who knew it, supplied the last line mentally, “And wona these days I know I’ll we-ear a crown.”
Without appearing to, Mrs. Turpin always noticed people’s feet. The well-dressed lady had on red and grey suede shoes to match her dress. Mrs. Turpin had on her good black patent leather pumps. The ugly girl had on Girl Scout shoes and heavy socks. The old woman had on tennis shoes and the white-trashy mother had on what appeared to be bedroom slippers, black straw with gold braid threaded through them, exactly what you would have expected her to have on.
Sometimes at night when she couldn’t go to sleep, Mrs. Turpin would occupy herself with the question of who she would have chosen to be if she couldn’t have been herself. If Jesus had said to her before he made her, “There’s only two places available for you. You can either be a nigger or white-trash,” what would she have said? “Please, Jesus, please,” she would have said, “just let me wait until there’s another place available,” and he would have said, “No, you have to go right now and I have only those two places so make up your mind.” She would have wiggled and squirmed and begged and pleaded but it would have been no use and finally she would have said, “All right, make me a nigger then but that don’t mean a trashy one.” And he would have made her a neat clean respectable negro woman, herself but black.
Next to the child’s mother was a red-headed youngish woman, reading one of the magazines and working on a piece of chewing gum, hell for leather, as Claud would say. Mrs. Turpin could not see the woman’s feet. She was not white-trash, just common. Sometimes Mrs. Turpin occupied herself at night naming the classes of people. On the bottom of the heap were most colored people, not the kind she would have been if she had been one, but most of them; then next to them not above, just away from? were the white-trash, then above them were the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belonged. Above she and Claud were people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land. But here the complexity of it would begin to bear in on her, for some of the people with a lot of money were common and ought to be below she and Claud and some of the people who had good blood had lost their money and had to rent and then there were colored people who owned their homes and land as well. There was a colored dentist in town who had two red Lincolns and a swimming pool and a farm with registered white-face cattle on it. Usually by the time she had fallen asleep all the classes of people were moiling and roiling around in her head, and she would dream they were all crammed in together in a box car, being ridden off to be put in a gas oven.
“That’s a beautiful clock,” she said and nodded to her right. It was a big wall clock, the face encased in a brass sunburst.
“Yes, it’s very pretty,” the stylish lady said agreeably. “And right on the dot too,” she added, glancing at her watch.
The ugly girl beside her cast an eye upward at the clock, smirked, then looked directly at Mrs. Turpin and smirked again. Then she returned her eyes to her book. She was obviously the lady’s daughter because, although they didn’t look anything alike as to disposition, they both had the same shape of face and the same blue eyes. On the lady they sparkled pleasantly but in the girl’s seared face they appeared alternately to smolder and to blaze.
What if Jesus had said, “All right, you can be white-trash or a nigger or ugly”!
Mrs. Turpin felt an awful pity for the girl, though she thought it was one thing to be ugly and another to act ugly.
The woman with the snuff-stained lips turned around in her chair and looked up at the clock. Then she turned back and appeared to look a little to the side of Mrs. Turpin. There was a cast in one of her eyes. “You want to know wher you can get you one of them ther clocks?” she asked in a loud voice.
“No, I already have a nice clock,” Mrs. Turpin said. Once somebody like her got a leg in the conversation, she would be all over it.
“You can get you one with green stamps,” the woman said. “That’s most likely wher he got hisn. Save you up enough, you can get you most anythang. I got me some joo’ry.”
Ought to have got you a wash rag and some soap, Mrs. Turpin thought.
“I get contour sheets with mine,” the pleasant lady said.
The daughter slammed her book shut. She looked straight in front of her, directly through Mrs. Turpin and on through the yellow curtain and the plate glass window which made the wall behind her. The girl’s eyes seemed lit all of a sudden with a peculiar light, an unnatural light like night road signs give. Mrs. Turpin turned her head to see if there was anything going on outside that she should see, but she could not see anything. Figures passing cast only a pale shadow through the curtain. There was no reason the girl should single her out for her ugly looks.
“Miss Finley,” the nurse said, cracking the door. The gum chewing woman got up and passed in front of her and Claud and went into the office. She had on red high-heeled shoes.
Directly across the table, the ugly girl’s eyes were fixed on Mrs. Turpin as if she had some very special reason for disliking her.
“This is wonderful weather, isn’t it?” the girl’s mother said. “It’s good weather for cotton if you can get the niggers to pick it,” Mrs. Turpin said, “but niggers don’t want to pick cotton any more. You can’t get the white folks to pick it and now you can’t get the niggers because they got to be right up there with the white folks.”
“They gonna try anyways,” the white-trash woman said, leaning forward.
“Do you have one of those cotton-picking machines?” the pleasant lady asked.
“No,” Mrs. Turpin said, “they leave half the cotton in the field. We don’t have much cotton anyway. If you want to make it farming now, you have to have a little of everything. We got a couple of acres of cotton and a few hogs and chickens and just enough white-face that Claud can look after them himself.”
“One thang I don’t want,” the white-trash woman said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “Hogs. Nasty stinking things, a-gruntin and a-rootin all over the place.”
Mrs. Turpin gave her the merest edge of her attention. “Our hogs are not dirty and they don’t stink,” she said. “They’re cleaner than some children I’ve seen. Their feet never touch the ground. We have a pig-parlor that’s where you raise them on concrete,” she explained to the pleasant lady, “and Claud scoots them down with the hose every afternoon and washes off the floor.” Cleaner by far than that child right there, she thought. Poor nasty little thing. He had not moved except to put the thumb of his dirty hand into his mouth.
The woman turned her face away from Mrs. Turpin. “I know I wouldn’t scoot down no hog with no hose,” she said to the wall.
You wouldn’t have no hog to scoot down, Mrs. Turpin said to herself.
“A-gruntin and a-rootin and a-groanin,” the woman muttered.
“We got a little of everything,” Mrs. Turpin said to the pleasant lady. “It’s no use in having more than you can handle yourself with help like it is. We found enough niggers to pick our cotton this year but Claud he has to go after them and take them home again in the evening. They can’t walk that half a mile. No they can’t. I tell you,” she said and laughed merrily, “I sure am tired of buttering up niggers, but you got to love em if you want em to work for you. When they come in the morning, I run out and I say, ‘Hi yawl this morning?’ and when Claud drives them off to the field I just wave to beat the band and they just wave back.” And she waved her hand rapidly to illustrate.
“Like you read out of the same book,” the lady said, showing she understood perfectly.
“Child, yes,” Mrs. Turpin said. “And when they come in from the field, I run out with a bucket of ice water. That’s the way it’s going to be from now on,” she said. “You may as well face it.”
“One thang I know,” the white-trash woman said. “Two thangs I ain’t going to do: love no niggers or scoot down no hog with no hose.” And she let out a bark of contempt.
The look that Mrs. Turpin and the pleasant lady exchanged indicated they both understood that you had to have certain things before you could know certain things. But every time Mrs. Turpin exchanged a look with the lady, she was aware that the ugly girl’s peculiar eyes were still on her, and she had trouble bringing her attention back to the conversation.
“When you got something,” she said, “you got to look after it.” And when you ain’t got a thing but breath and britches, she added to herself, you can afford to come to town every morning and just sit on the Court House coping and spit.
A grotesque revolving shadow passed across the curtain behind her and was thrown palely on the opposite wall. Then a bicycle clattered down against the outside of the building. The door opened and a colored boy glided in with a tray from the drug store. It had two large red and white paper cups on it with tops on them. He was a tall, very black boy in discolored white pants and a green nylon shirt. He was chewing gum slowly, as if to music. He set the tray down in the office opening next to the fern and stuck his head through to look for the secretary. She was not in there. He rested his arms on the ledge and waited, his narrow bottom stuck out, swaying slowly to the left and right. He raised a hand over his head and scratched the base of his skull.
“You see that button there, boy?” Mrs. Turpin said. “You can punch that and she’ll come. She’s probably in the back some where.”
“Is thas right?” the boy said agreeably, as if he had never seen the button before. He leaned to the right and put his finger on it. “She sometime out,” he said and twisted around to face his audience, his elbows behind him on the counter. The nurse appeared and he twisted back again. She handed him a dollar and he rooted in his pocket and made the change and counted it out to her. She gave him fifteen cents for a tip and he went out with the empty tray. The heavy door swung to slowly and closed at length with the sound of suction. For a moment no one spoke.
“They ought to send all them niggers back to Africa,” the white-trash woman said. “That’s wher they come from in the first place.”
“Oh, I couldn’t do without my good colored friends,” the pleasant lady said.
“There’s a heap of things worse than a nigger,” Mrs. Turpin agreed. “It’s all kinds of them just like it’s all kinds of us.” “Yes, and it takes all kinds to make the world go round,” the lady said in her musical voice.
As she said it, the raw-complexioned girl snapped her teeth together. Her lower lip turned downwards and inside out, revealing the pale pink inside of her mouth. After a second it rolled back up. It was the ugliest face Mrs. Turpin had ever seen anyone make and for a moment she was certain that the girl had made it at her. She was looking at her as if she had known and disliked her all her life all of Mrs. Turpin’s life, it seemed too, not just all the girl’s life. Why, girl, I don’t even know you, Mrs. Turpin said silently.
She forced her attention back to the discussion. “It wouldn’t be practical to send them back to Africa,” she said. “They wouldn’t want to go. They got it too good here.”
“Wouldn’t be what they wanted if I had anythang to do with it,” the woman said.
“It wouldn’t be a way in the world you could get all the niggers back over there,” Mrs. Turpin said. “They’d be hiding out and lying down and turning sick on you and wailing and hollering and raring and pitching. It wouldn’t be a way in the world to get them over there.”
“They got over here,” the trashy woman said. “Get back like they got over.”
“It wasn’t so many of them then,” Mrs. Turpin explained.
The woman looked at Mrs. Turpin as if here was an idiot indeed but Mrs. Turpin was not bothered by the look, considering where it came from.
“Nooo,” she said, “they’re going to stay here where they can go to New York and marry white folks and improve their color. That’s what they all want to do, every one of them, improve their color.”
“You know what comes of that, don’t you?” Claud asked.
“No, Claud, what?” Mrs. Turpin said.
Claud’s eyes twinkled. “White-faced niggers,” he said with never a smile.
Everybody in the office laughed except the white-trash and the ugly girl. The girl gripped the book in her lap with white fingers. The trashy woman looked around her from face to face as if she thought they were all idiots. The old woman in the feed sack dress continued to gaze expressionless across the floor at the high-top shoes of the man opposite her, the one who had been pretending to be asleep when the Turpins came in. He was laughing heartily, his hands still spread out on his knees. The child had fallen to the side and was lying now almost face down in the old woman’s lap.
While they recovered from their laughter, the nasal chorus on the radio kept the room from silence.
“You go to blank blank
And I’ll go to mine
But we’ll all blank along
And all along the blank
We’ll hep each other out
Smile-ling in any kind of
Mrs. Turpin didn’t catch every word but she caught enough to agree with the spirit of the song and it turned her thoughts sober. To help anybody out that needed it was her philosophy of life. She never spared herself when she found somebody in need, whether they were white or black, trash or decent. And of all she had to be thankful for, she was most thankful that this was so. If Jesus had said, “You can be high society and have all the money you want and be thin and svelte-like, but you can’t be a good woman with it,” she would have had to say, “Well don’t make me that then. Make me a good woman and it don’t matter what else, how fat or how ugly or how poor!” Her heart rose. He had not made her a nigger or white-trash or ugly! He had made her herself and given her a little of everything. Jesus, thank you! she said. Thank you thank you thank you! Whenever she counted her blessings she felt as buoyant as if she weighed one hundred and twenty-five pounds instead of one hundred and eighty.
“What’s wrong with your little boy?” the pleasant lady asked the white-trashy woman.
“He has a ulcer,” the woman said proudly. “He ain’t give me a minute’s peace since he was born. Him and her are just alike,” she said, nodding at the old woman, who was running her leathery fingers through the child’s pale hair.
“Look like I can’t get nothing down them two but Co’ Cola and candy.”
That’s all you try to get down em, Mrs. Turpin said to herself. Too lazy to light the fire. There was nothing you could tell her about people like them that she didn’t know already. And it was not just that they didn’t have anything. Because if you gave them everything, in two weeks it would all be broken or filthy or they would have chopped it up for lightwood. She knew all this from her own experience. Help them you must, but help them you couldn’t.
All at once the ugly girl turned her lips inside out again. Her eyes were fixed like two drills on Mrs. Turpin. This time there was no mistaking that there was something urgent behind them.
Girl, Mrs. Turpin exclaimed silently, I haven’t done a thing to you! The girl might be confusing her with somebody else. There was no need to sit by and let herself be intimidated. “You must be in college,” she said boldly, looking directly at the girl. “I see you reading a book there.”
The girl continued to stare and pointedly did not answer.
Her mother blushed at this rudeness. “The lady asked you a question, Mary Grace,” she said under her breath.
“I have ears,” Mary Grace said.
The poor mother blushed again. “Mary Grace goes to Wellesley College,” she explained. She twisted one of the buttons on her dress. “In Massachusetts,” she added with a grimace. “And in the summer she just keeps right on studying. Just reads all the time, a real book worm. She’s done real well at Wellesley; she’s taking English and Math and History and Psychology and Social Studies,” she rattled on, “and I think it’s too much. I think she ought to get out and have fun.”
The girl looked as if she would like to hurl them all through the plate glass window.
“Way up north,” Mrs. Turpin murmured and thought, well, it hasn’t done much for her manners.
“I’d almost rather to have him sick,” the white-trash woman said, wrenching the attention back to herself. “He’s so mean when he ain’t. Look like some children just take natural to meanness. It’s some gets bad when they get sick but he was the opposite. Took sick and turned good. He don’t give me no trouble now. It’s me waitin to see the doctor,” she said.
If I was going to send anybody back to Africa, Mrs. Turpin thought, it would be your kind, woman. “Yes, indeed,” she said aloud, but looking up at the ceiling, “it’s a heap of things worse than a nigger.” And dirtier than a hog, she added to herself.
“I think people with bad dispositions are more to be pitied than anyone on earth,” the pleasant lady said in a voice that was decidedly thin.
“I thank the Lord he has blessed me with a good one,” Mrs. Turpin said. “The day has never dawned that I couldn’t find something to laugh at.”
“Not since she married me anyways,” Claud said with a comical straight face. Everybody laughed except the girl and the white-trash.
Mrs. Turpin’s stomach shook. “He’s such a caution,” she said, “that I can’t help but laugh at him.”
The girl made a loud ugly noise through her teeth.
Her mother’s mouth grew thin and tight. “I think the worst thing in the world,” she said, “is an ungrateful person. To have everything and not appreciate it. I know a girl,” she said, “who has parents who would give her anything, a little brother who loves her dearly, who is getting a good education, who wears the best clothes, but who can never say a kind word to anyone, who never smiles, who just criticizes and complains all day long.”
“Is she too old to paddle?” Claud asked.
The girl’s face was almost purple.
“Yes,” the lady said, “I’m afraid there’s nothing to do but leave her to her folly. Some day she’ll wake up and it’ll be too late.”
“It never hurt anyone to smile,” Mrs. Turpin said. “It just makes you feel better all over.”
“Of course,” the lady said sadly, “but there are just some people you can’t tell anything to. They can’t take criticism.”
“If it’s one thing I am,” Mrs. Turpin said with feeling, “it’s grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!’ It could have been different!” For one thing, somebody else could have got Claud. At the thought of this, she was flooded with gratitude and a terrible pang of joy ran through her. “Oh thank you, Jesus, thank you!” she cried aloud.
The book struck her directly over her left eye. It struck almost at the same instant that she realized the girl was about to hurl it. Before she could utter a sound, the raw face came crashing across the table toward her, howling. The girl’s fingers sank like clamps into the soft flesh of her neck. She heard the mother cry out and Claud shout, “Whoa!” There was an instant when she was certain that she was about to be in an earthquake.
All at once her vision narrowed and she saw everything as if it were happening in a small room far away, or as if she were looking at it through the wrong end of a telescope. Claud’s face crumpled and fell out of sight. The nurse ran in, then out, then in again. Then the gangling figure of the doctor rushed out of the inner door. Magazines flew this way and that as the table turned over. The girl fell with a thud and Mrs. Turpin’s vision suddenly reversed itself and she saw everything large instead of small. The eyes of the white-trashy woman were staring hugely at the floor. There the girl, held down on one side by the nurse and on the other by her mother, was wrenching and turning in their grasp. The doctor was kneeling astride her, trying to hold her arm down. He managed after a second to sink a long needle into it.
Mrs. Turpin felt entirely hollow except for her heart which swung from side to side as if it were agitated in a great empty drum of flesh.
“Somebody that’s not busy call for the ambulance,” the doctor said in the off-hand voice young doctors adopt for terrible occasions.
Mrs. Turpin could not have moved a finger.
The old man who had been sitting next to her skipped nimbly into the office and made the call, for the secretary still seemed to be gone.
“Claud!” Mrs. Turpin called.
He was not in his chair. She knew she must jump up and find him but she felt like some one trying to catch a train in a dream, when everything moves in slow motion and the faster you try to run the slower you go.
“Here I am,” a suffocated voice, very unlike Claud’s, said.
He was doubled up in the corner on the floor, pale as paper, holding his leg. She wanted to get up and go to him but she could not move. Instead, her gaze was drawn slowly downward to the churning face on the floor, which she could see over the doctor’s shoulder.
The girl’s eyes stopped rolling and focused on her. They seemed a much lighter blue than before, as if a door that had been tightly closed behind them was now open to admit light and air.
Mrs. Turpin’s head cleared and her power of motion returned. She leaned forward until she was looking directly into the fierce brilliant eyes. There was no doubt in her mind that the girl did know her, knew her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition. “What you got to say to me?” she asked hoarsely and held her breath, waiting, as for a revelation.
The girl raised her head. Her gaze locked with Mrs. Turpin’s. “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” she whispered. Her voice was low but clear. Her eyes burned for a moment as if she saw with pleasure that her message had struck its target.
Mrs. Turpin sank back in her chair.
After a moment the girl’s eyes closed and she turned her head wearily to the side.
The doctor rose and handed the nurse the empty syringe. He leaned over and put both hands for a moment on the mother’s shoulders, which were shaking. She was sitting on the floor, her lips pressed together, holding Mary Grace’s hand in her lap. The girl’s fingers were gripped like a baby’s around her thumb. “Go on to the hospital,” he said. “I’ll call and make the arrangements.
“Now let’s see that neck,” he said in a jovial voice to Mrs. Turpin. He began to inspect her neck with his first two fingers. Two little moon-shaped lines like pink fish bones were indented over her windpipe. There was the beginning of an angry red swelling above her eye. His fingers passed over this also.
“Lea’ me be,” she said thickly and shook him off. “See about Claud. She kicked him.”
“I’ll see about him in a minute,” he said and felt her pulse. He was a thin grey-haired young man, given to pleasantries. “Go home and have yourself a vacation the rest of the day,” he said and patted her on the shoulder.
Quit your pattin me, Mrs. Turpin growled to herself.
“And put an ice pack over that eye,” he said. Then he went and squatted down beside Claud and looked at his leg. After a moment he pulled him up and Claud limped after him into the office.
Until the ambulance came, the only sounds in the room were the tremulous moans of the girl’s mother, who continued to sit on the floor. The white-trash woman did not take her eyes off the girl. Mrs. Turpin looked straight ahead at nothing. Presently the ambulance drew up, a long dark shadow, behind the curtain. The attendants came in and set the stretcher down beside the girl and lifted her expertly onto it and carried her out. The nurse helped the mother gather up her things. The shadow of the ambulance moved silently away and the nurse came back in the office.
“That ther girl is going to be a lunatic, ain’t she?” the white trash woman asked the nurse, but the nurse kept on to the back and never answered her.
“Yes, she’s going to be a lunatic,” the white-trash woman said to the rest of them.
“Po’ critter,” the old woman murmured. The child’s face was still in her lap. His eyes looked idly out over her knees. He had not moved during the disturbance except to draw one leg up under him.
“I thank Gawd,” the white-trash woman said fervently, “I ain’t a lunatic.”
Claud came limping out and the Turpins went home.
As their pick-up truck turned into their own dirt road and made the crest of the hill, Mrs. Turpin gripped the window ledge and looked out suspiciously. The land sloped gracefully down through a field dotted with lavender weeds and at the start of the rise their small yellow frame house, with its little flower beds spread out around it like a fancy apron, sat primly in its accustomed place between two giant hickory trees. She would not have been startled to see a burnt wound between two blackened chimneys.
Neither of them felt like eating so they put on their house clothes and lowered the shade in the bedroom and lay down, Claud with his leg on a pillow and herself with a damp washcloth over her eye. The instant she was flat on her back, the image of a razor-backed hog with warts on its face and horns coming out be hind its ears snorted into her head. She moaned, a low quiet moan.
“I am not,” she said tearfully, “a wart hog. From hell.” But the denial had no force. The girl’s eyes and her words, even the tone of her voice, low but clear, directed only to her, brooked no repudiation. She had been singled out for the message, though there was trash in the room to whom it might justly have been applied. The full force of this fact struck her only now. There was a woman there who was neglecting her own child but she had been overlooked. The message had been given to Ruby Turpin, a respectable, hard-working, church-going woman. The tears dried. Her eyes began to burn instead with wrath.
She rose on her elbow and the washcloth fell into her hand. Claud was lying on his back, snoring. She wanted to tell him what the girl had said. At the same time, she did not wish to put the image of herself as a wart hog from hell into his mind.
“Hey, Claud,” she muttered and pushed his shoulder.
Claud opened one pale baby blue eye.
She looked into it warily. He did not think about anything. He just went his way.
“Wha, whasit?” he said and closed the eye again. “Nothing,” she said. “Does your leg pain you?” “Hurts like hell,” Claud said. “It’ll quit terreckly,” she said and lay back down. In a moment Claud was snoring again. For the rest of the afternoon they lay there. Claud slept. She scowled at the ceiling. Occasionally she raised her fist and made a small stabbing motion over her chest as if she were defending her innocence to invisible guests who were like the comforters of Job, reasonable-seeming but wrong.
About five-thirty Claud stirred. “Got to go after those niggers,” he sighed, not moving.
She was looking straight up as if there were unintelligible hand writing on the ceiling. The protuberance over her eye had turned a greenish-blue.
“Listen here,” she said.
Claud leaned over and kissed her loudly on the mouth. He pinched her side and their hands interlocked. Her expression of ferocious concentration did not change. Claud got up, groaning and growling, and limped off. She continued to study the ceiling.
She did not get up until she heard the pick-up truck coming back with the negroes. Then she rose and thrust her feet in her brown oxfords, which she did not bother to lace, and stumped out onto the back porch and got her red plastic bucket. She emptied a tray of ice cubes into it and filled it half full of water and went out into the back yard. Every afternoon after Claud brought the hands in, one of the boys helped him put out hay and the rest waited in the back of the truck until he was ready to take them home. The truck was parked in the shade under one of the hickory trees.
“Hi yawl this evening?” Mrs. Turpin asked grimly, appearing with the bucket and the dipper. There were three women and a boy in the truck.
“Us doin nicely,” the oldest woman said. “Hi you doin?” and her gaze stuck immediately on the dark lump on Mrs. Turpin’s forehead. “You done fell down, ain’t you?” she asked in a solicitous voice. The old woman was dark and almost toothless. She had on an old felt hat of Claud’s set back on her head. The other two women were younger and lighter and they both had new bright green sun hats. One of them had hers on her head; the other had taken hers off and the boy was grinning beneath it.
Mrs. Turpin set the bucket down on the floor of the truck. “Yawl hep yourselves,” she said. She looked around to make sure Claud had gone. “No. I didn’t fall down,” she said, folding her arms. “It was something worse than that.”
“Ain’t nothing bad happen to you!” the old woman said. She said it as if they all knew that Mrs. Turpin was protected in some special way by Divine Providence. “You just had you a little fall.”
“We were in town at the doctor’s office for where the cow kicked Mr. Turpin,” Mrs. Turpin said in a flat tone that indicated they could leave off their foolishness. “And there was this girl there. A big fat girl with her face all broke out. I could look at that girl and tell she was peculiar but I couldn’t tell how. And me and her mama were just talking and going along and all of a sudden WHAM! She throws this big book she was reading at me and . . .”
“Naw!” the old woman cried out. ”
And then she jumps over the table and commences to choke me.”
“Naw!” they all exclaimed, “naw!”
“Hi come she do that?” the old woman asked. “What ail her?”
Mrs. Turpin only glared in front of her.
“Somethin ail her,” the old woman said.
“They carried her off in an ambulance,” Mrs. Turpin continued, “but before she went she was rolling on the floor and they were trying to hold her down to give her a shot and she said something to me.” She paused. “You know what she said to me?”
“What she say?” they asked.
“She said,” Mrs. Turpin began, and stopped, her face very dark and heavy. The sun was getting whiter and whiter, blanching the sky overhead so that the leaves of the hickory tree were black in the face of it. She could not bring forth the words. “Some thing real ugly,” she muttered.
“She sho shouldn’t said nothin ugly to you,” the old woman said. “You so sweet. You the sweetest lady I know.”
“She pretty too,” the one with the hat on said.
“And stout,” the other one said. “I never knowed no sweeter white lady.”
“That’s the truth befo’ Jesus,” the old woman said. “Amen! You des as sweet and pretty as you can be.”
Mrs. Turpin knew just exactly how much negro flattery was worth and it added to her rage. “She said,” she began again and finished this time with a fierce rush of breath, “that I was an old wart hog from hell.”
There was an astounded silence.
“Where she at!” the youngest woman cried in a piercing voice. “Lemme see her. I’ll kill her!”
“I’ll kill her with you! ” the other one cried.
“She b’long in the sylum,” the old woman said emphatically.
“You the sweetest white lady I know.”
“She pretty too,” the other two said. “Stout as she can be and sweet. Jesus satisfied with her! ”
“Deed he is,” the old woman declared.
Idiots! Mrs. Turpin growled to herself. You could never say anything intelligent to a nigger. You could talk at them but not with them. “Yawl ain’t drunk your water,” she said shortly. “Leave the bucket in the truck when you’re finished with it. I got more to do than just stand around and pass the time of day,” and she moved off and into the house. She stood for a moment in the middle of the kitchen. The dark protuberance over her eye looked like a miniature tornado cloud which might any moment sweep across the horizon of her brow. Her lower lip protruded dangerously. She squared her massive shoulders. Then she marched into the front of the house and out the side door and started down the road to the pig parlor. She had the look of a woman going single-handed, weaponless, into battle.
The sun was a deep yellow now like a harvest moon and was riding westward very fast over the far tree line as if it meant to reach the hogs before she did. The road was rutted and she kicked several good-sized stones out of her path as she strode along. The pig parlor was on a little knoll at the end of a lane that ran off from the side of the barn. It was a square of concrete as large as a small room, with a board fence about four feet high around it. The concrete floor sloped slightly so that the hog wash could drain off into a trench where it was carried to the field for fertilizer. Claud was standing on the outside, on the edge of the concrete, hanging onto the top board, hosing down the floor inside. The hose was connected to the faucet of a water trough nearby.
Mrs. Turpin climbed up beside him and glowered down at the hogs inside. There were seven long-snouted bristly shoats in it—tan with liver-colored spots and an old sow a few weeks off from farrowing. She was lying on her side grunting. The shoats were running about shaking themselves like idiot children, their little slit pig eyes searching the floor for anything left. She had read that pigs were the most intelligent animal. She doubted it. They were supposed to be smarter than dogs. There had even been a pig astronaut. He had performed his assignment perfectly but died of a heart attack afterwards because they left him in his electric suit, sitting upright throughout his examination when naturally a hog should be on all fours.
A-gruntin and a-rootin and a-groanin.
“Gimme that hose,” she said, yanking it away from Claud. “Go on and carry them niggers home and then get off that leg.”
“You look like you might have swallowed a mad dog,” Claud observed, but he got down and limped off. He paid no attention to her humors.
Until he was out of earshot, Mrs. Turpin stood on the side of the pen, holding the hose and pointing the stream of water at the hind quarters of any shoat that looked as if it might try to lie down. When he had had time to get over the hill, she turned her head slightly and her wrathful eyes scanned the path. He was nowhere in sight. She turned back again and seemed to gather herself up. Her shoulders rose and she drew in her breath.
“What do you send me a message like that for?” she said in a low fierce voice, barely above a whisper but with the force of a shout in its concentrated fury. “How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?” Her free fist was knotted and with the other she gripped the hose, blindly pointing the stream of water in and out of the eye of the old sow whose out raged squeal she did not hear.
The pig parlor commanded a view of the back pasture where their twenty beef cows were gathered around the hay-bales Claud and the boy had put out. The freshly cut pasture sloped down to the highway. Across it was their cotton field and beyond that a dark green dusty wood which they owned as well. The sun was behind the wood, very red, looking over the paling of trees like a farmer inspecting his own hogs.
“Why me?” she rumbled. “It’s no trash around here, black or white, that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church.”
She appeared to be the right size woman to command the arena before her. “How am I a hog?” she demanded. “Exactly how am I like them?” and she jabbed the stream of water at the shoats. “There was plenty of trash there. It didn’t have to be me.
“If you like trash better, go get yourself some trash then,” she railed. “You could have made me trash. Or a nigger. If trash is what you wanted why didn’t you make me trash?” She shook her fist with the hose in it and a watery snake appeared momentarily in the air. “I could quit working and take it easy and be filthy,” she growled. “Lounge about the sidewalks all day drinking root beer. Dip snuff and spit in every puddle and have it all over my face. I could be nasty.
“Or you could have made me a nigger. It’s too late for me to be a nigger,” she said with deep sarcasm, “but I could act like one. Lay down in the middle of the road and stop traffic. Roll on the ground.”
In the deepening light everything was taking on a mysterious hue. The pasture was growing a peculiar glassy green and the streak of highway had turned lavender. She braced herself for a final assault and this time her voice rolled out over the pasture. “Go on,” she yelled, “call me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell. Put the bottom rail on top. There’ll still be a top and bottom!”
A garbled echo returned to her.
A final surge of fury shook her and she roared, “Who do you think you are?”
The color of everything, field and crimson sky, burned for a moment with a transparent intensity. The question carried over the pasture and across the highway and the cotton field and re turned to her clearly like an answer from beyond the wood.
She opened her mouth but no sound came out of it.
A tiny truck, Claud’s, appeared on the highway, heading rapidly out of sight. Its gears scraped thinly. It looked like a child’s toy. At any moment a bigger truck might smash into it and scatter Claud’s and the niggers’ brains all over the road.
Mrs. Turpin stood there, her gaze fixed on the highway, all her muscles rigid, until in five or six minutes the truck reappeared, returning. She waited until it had had time to turn into their own road. Then like a monumental statue coming to life, she bent her head slowly and gazed, as if through the very heart of mystery, down into the pig parlor at the hogs. They had settled all in one corner around the old sow who was grunting softly. A red glow suffused them. They appeared to pant with a secret life.
Until the sun slipped finally behind the tree line, Mrs. Turpin remained there with her gaze bent to them as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge. At last she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.
At length she got down and turned off the faucet and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.