Toni Morrison - Tar Baby
THE MULATTO didn’t talk; he hummed a Creole hit and drummed a little on the steering wheel. As they passed Sein de Veilles, Jadine’s legs burned with the memory of tar. She could hardly see L’Arbe de la Croix when they got to it, the trees leaned so close to the house. She dashed into Ondine’s kitchen, kissed her and said, “Let me get my stuff together first. I’ll be right back down and we can talk. Is Margaret here?”
“Upstairs,” said Ondine.
No one answered her knock at Margaret’s door, but she saw a brighter-than-hallway light falling from Valerian’s door and went toward it. Inside, heaped on the twin beds, on the dresser, the chairs and even on the bed table were clothes. Suits, ties, shirts, socks, sweaters and pair after pair of men’s shoes.
“Valerian?” she called out.
Margaret stepped from the closet-dressing room, her hands full of empty hangers.
“Well,” she said, genuinely surprised. “The prodigal daughter. What did you do to your hair?” Margaret looked flushed and sparkly, her movements directed and sure.
“It’s wonderful looking,” said Margaret coming toward her, hand outstretched to touch Jadine’s hair. Then she stopped and snapped her fingers twice. “We used to call it…oh dear…” She closed her eyes. “Poodle-cut! That’s it. Poodle-cut,” and she laughed with such pleasure that Jadine had to smile.
“I’m sorry about leaving you with so little notice. I don’t want you to think I didn’t appreciate your helping me out last winter.”
Margaret waved her hand. “Don’t mention it. It was a lousy time for everybody.” She sat down on a cluttered bed and began to unbunch the hangers.
“Are you all leaving?” asked Jadine.
“Leaving? No. Why?”
Jadine looked at the clothes.
“Oh, no. I’m just straightening out this unbelievable mess. You wouldn’t believe the things that man has accumulated. Eight shoe trees in his closet and only two of them actually in shoes. And look. Linen slacks. Linen. Never worn and so yellow now they can’t be. I never knew what a clotheshorse the man was. See here?” Margaret fingered the garment label. “Silk, and here, virgin wool. Look here, one hundred percent cotton. All his undershirts too. He won’t wear nylon or tricot. None of the man-made fibers. Everything he owns has to be made by Mother Nature. But what a mess. It’ll take me days to get it all sorted. I can’t expect Sydney to do this. It’s not his job really. Ondine’s either. I really could use you now, Jade, but I don’t suppose you’re staying.”
“No. I’m going back tomorrow.”
“Will you marry that fellow? Mr. Sealskin?”
Jadine sighed. “No.”
“Oh? Why not?” Margaret folded the slacks over padded hangers and laid them carefully on the bed. Now she was sorting shirts, smelling them for mildew, examining them for tears, missing buttons, frayed collars. She didn’t seem interested in an answer to her question so Jadine didn’t give her one, didn’t tell her that she hardly knew what the word meant. Instead she asked how Valerian was.
“Better,” said Margaret.
“He’s not sick, is he?” asked Jadine.
“He says he isn’t, but he trembles sometimes and won’t go in to town to see a doctor.”
“This is no place to be sick in, Margaret. Maybe you should get him back to Philadelphia.”
“Of course I will, if it gets really bad.” She looked at Jadine as though hurt that her judgment about what was best for her husband was doubted.
“And Michael, how is he?”
“Oh, you don’t know, do you? He got in. Berkeley, I mean. The semester begins next week.”
“Then you’re not going out there?”
“Oh, no. Michael’s an adult, Jade. Thirty. I can’t go traipsing around the world looking after him when there’s so much to do here. You see the mess these clothes are in.” She had finished separating the shirts into three piles and had begun on the sweaters. “Jade,” she said; she held a blue V-necked sweater to her chest. It was nothing like the blue of her eyes. “Sometimes in the morning he can’t do everything he used to. You know: buttons, zippers. I have to tie his shoes even. Yesterday I washed his hair”—she smiled—“with Kirk’s Original Castile Soap. He doesn’t like Breck.”
“Sydney’s going to teach me how to shave him and maybe together we can get him to let us cut his hair. God, is he stubborn. Worse than a child.” She laughed lightly, indulgently, and went on sorting, piling, like a confident curator who knew the names of everything in his museum, while Jadine watched saying to herself, And he thinks Valerian made me.
ONDINE picked up a screaming lobster and threw him into a pot of boiling water. She held it down with a wooden ladle to make it die faster for she was in the mood for death. It had been an hour since Jadine had come in and kissed her, all smiles and speed. Ondine didn’t like her new hairdo: fluffy, frothy as though it was important to look like a schoolgirl. Now she was back in the kitchen, looking subdued.
“What’s come over Margaret?” asked Jadine. “She’s working her butt off.”
“Do her good. Him too.”
“But she talks about Valerian like he was a patient, or a baby.”
“People do what they have to, I guess, and take payment where they can.”
“What’s she mad at him for? She’s the one who stuck pins in her baby.”
Ondine wiped sweat from her forehead with her free hand. “She didn’t stick pins in her baby. She stuck em in his baby. Her baby she loved.”
“That’s a description, maybe, but not a reason. He gave her everything she ever wanted. Remember that little Triumph? And what about—”
“He kept her stupid; kept her idle. That always spells danger.”
“Now she’s the master, not him?”
“Master, patient, baby—it don’t matter. He’s still the center of everything.” Ondine withdrew the lobster and got right down to it. “You ran off with him, didn’t you?”
“It’s over, Nanadine. I don’t know what got into me.”
“You could have told us.”
“Maybe. But everything was so messed up here. I mean that was some Christmas.”
“You still could have told us.”
“Well, if it will make you any happier, it was a mistake. A mistake of the first order, believe me. You know I never worked so hard in my life to keep something going. I’d never done that before. I never cared whether a relationship worked or not, you know. I mean if it worked, it worked; if it didn’t—later. But this time I worked my butt off and all I got for it was a black eye and the rent. So—” Jadine slapped the table with her palm marking the end of the affair. “That’s that.”
“He hit you?”
“Yes, among other things.”
“He actually hit you?”
“It’s over, Nanadine, besides, I hit him too.”
“I should hope so. I should damn well hope so. Oh, baby, baby, how could you run off with a…”
“Let’s don’t talk about it. I left and that’s that. One thing though. If he calls here, you don’t know where I am, and if he comes here…”
“Well, I don’t know, he might. Anyhow, don’t tell him where I am.”
“Where are you?” asked Ondine.
“I’m going to get my stuff and go back to Paris.”
Stuff, thought Ondine, meant mainly the fur coat. She wondered if her niece would even have come to say goodbye had it not been that the sealskin coat was there. “Then what?” she asked.
Jadine shrugged and changed the subject. “How’s Valerian?”
“Did she really do all of that to her baby?”
“She really did.”
“Wow. And she’s not bugging you anymore?”
“Not at all.”
“So what’s your situation here?” Jadine’s voice was serious, but there was pleading in it too. (Please don’t need me now, not now. I can’t parent now. I cannot be needed now. Another time, please. I have spent it all. Please don’t need me now.)
“Same. They want us to stay. Mrs. Street does anyway, and he don’t say much one way or the other. Sits in that greenhouse all day listening to music.”
“Do you want to stay?”
“Do we have a choice?” asked Ondine, looking carefully at the ringlets on Jadine’s head.
“Sure you have a choice. You can work other places or not at all. You want to come with me to Paris?” Jadine’s shoulder ached for a second as she remembered hanging out of a second-story window on Ninety-third Street.
“Girl, don’t play with me.”
“Jadine, we done what we could for you because—well, what I mean to say is you don’t owe us nothing. But, well, I never told you nothing. I never told you nothing at all and I take full responsibility for that. But I have to tell you something now.”
Jadine lifted her head and looked in her aunt’s eyes.
“Jadine, a girl has got to be a daughter first. She have to learn that. And if she never learns how to be a daughter, she can’t never learn how to be a woman. I mean a real woman: a woman good enough for a child; good enough for a man—good enough even for the respect of other women. Now you didn’t have a mother long enough to learn much about it and I thought I was doing right by sending you to all them schools and so I never told you it and I should have. You don’t need your own natural mother to be a daughter. All you need is to feel a certain way, a certain careful way about people older than you are. Don’t mistake me now. I don’t mean you have to love all kinds of mean old people, and if it’s in your mind that I’m begging you for something, get it out. I ain’t.”
“Yes, you are, Ondine.” Jadine’s voice was steady. “You are asking me to parent you. Please don’t. I can’t do that now.”
“I am not asking you that. I’m just saying what a daughter is. A daughter is a woman that cares about where she come from and takes care of them that took care of her. No, I don’t want you to be what you call a parent. Not me, and not Sydney either. What I want from you is what I want for you. I don’t want you to care about me for my sake. I want you to care about me for yours.” She reached out to touch her niece’s hand, but something made her stop short of it.
When Ondine said, “You didn’t have a mother long enough,” blood rushed to Jadine’s skin the way it always did when her motherlessness was mentioned. But she spoke gently and steadily to Ondine. “No, you don’t, Nanadine. You want me to pay you back. You worked for me and put up with me. Now it’s my turn to do it for you, that’s all you’re saying.”
“Turn? Turn? This ain’t no game a bid whist…”
“There are other ways to be a woman, Nanadine,” Jadine went on. “Your way is one, I guess it is, but it’s not my way. I don’t want to be…like you. Wait. Don’t look at me like that. I’m being honest with you now and you have to listen! I don’t want to learn how to be the kind of woman you’re talking about because I don’t want to be that kind of woman.”
“There ain’t but one kind. Just one, and if you say another hateful word to me, I’ll…” She stopped.
“What? Hit me? Would you, Nanadine? You’d hit me too?”
The older woman was quiet. Her niece, her baby, her crown had put her in the same category as that thing she ran off with. And now she was going on talking, explaining, saying, but Ondine never heard anymore. The volume of her heart was up too loud.
When Jadine went off to finish packing, Ondine sat patting the table with her right hand, her chin resting on the fist of her left. She didn’t know what she expected. What she was expecting her niece to do or think or feel. But something more than she had seen. Maybe she’s right. Maybe I just wanted her to feel sorry for us, she thought, maybe that’s what I expected and that’s a lowdown wish if ever I had one.
Sydney came in and stopped her thoughts. “That her?” he asked.
“She dumped him.”
“I could have told him that.”
“So could I. Go up and say goodbye to her. She’s making tracks tomorrow if she can.”
Sydney sat down and unclasped his bow tie. “She ask you for any money?”
“Nothing dangerous. Just a few francs for the shuttle. She had a thing full of those what you call traveling checks. Go on up and see her. I’ll take him his tray.”
“She wants to say goodbye, she knows where I am.”
“Sydney, don’t be like that.”
“But I am like that. She didn’t do well by us, Ondine.”
“She’s young. She’ll settle.”
“Age ain’t got nothing to do with it.”
“She’s not a savings account, Sydney. You don’t get interest back.”
“It’s more different for them than it was for us. There’s a whole bunch of stuff they can do that we never knew nothing about.”
“And a whole bunch they don’t know nothing about,” he answered.
“Well, maybe you right. Maybe it don’t pay to love nothing. I loved that little boy like he was mine, so he wouldn’t grow up and kill somebody. And instead of thanks, I get meanness. Disrespect.”
“Let’s not go into that no more.”
“He’s okay now. Doin fine. But I’m not responsible for that, no. I’m responsible for not telling nobody. She accused me of not liking her enough to stop her. You go figure that out. Then I take another one in my heart, your brother’s baby girl. Another one not from my womb, and I stand on my feet thirty years so she wouldn’t have to. And did without so she wouldn’t have to. And she couldn’t think of nothing better to do than buy me some shoes I can’t wear, a dress I shouldn’t, and run off with the first pair of pants that steps in the door. Now explain me that.”
“I can’t explain nothing no more. It didn’t used to be this way. Seem like folks used to take care of folks once upon a time. Old black people must be a worrisome thing to the young ones these days.”
Ondine went to the oven and removed a baked potato. She put it on a plate and the plate on a tray. Then she went to the refrigerator and removed a wineglass that had been chilling there. Sydney watched her movements.
Ondine got out a napkin. “She said she didn’t think he would, but if he did call or come looking for her we shouldn’t let him know where she is.”
“He better not set foot on this place.”
“From what she says he beat her up some.”
“Then I hope he does come,” said Sydney. “I’ll put that bullet in him for sure.”
“No, you won’t.”
“You mistake me if you don’t think so. I’ll shoot him the same minute I see him and explain later.”
“This is not your property, Sydney.”
“No, but it’s my home. If this ain’t my home, then nothing is but the grave.”
“Well, we’ll be there soon enough.”
Sydney thought about that. “You think she’ll bury us, Ondine?”
“I think we’re going to have to bury ourselves, Sydney.”