Toni Morrison - Tar Baby
No one was in the pink house. The door was latched although the windows were open; a print skirt ripped down the back seam hung from one of the front windows and served it as both curtain and shade. He poked his head through and tossed a piece of hand luggage into the room. Then he walked back down the hill, nodding to a few passersby, and stopped at the house that sold meat pies and rum and sometimes lent hair clippers. He didn’t even try the little tin-can French he’d learned in Vietnam, he simply said Gideon? Thérèse? The owner and another man told him something he could not understand about Thérése, and mentioned Gideon’s name in connection with “taxi.” He nodded and smiled as though it was all brilliantly clear and continued down the hill. The morning he spent walking the streets, looking at the elegant houses turned into restaurants or offices, and the colonial administration buildings built like castles to last. Away from the town to the north and east were the frightened houses of the whites, hiding on sloped roads behind hedges of tropical flora. South was the business district collected mainly on Rue Madelaine and the tributaries running from it. The Blacks lived in the western hills in shacks and cement-block houses or along narrow streets on the west side of town where the sea spit up what it could not digest. It was unusually cool and his weather eye saw that a rainstorm might be due announcing the hurricane season. He walked the streets of Queen of France, glancing at the drivers of the taxis in case Gideon might be one. Three hours of walking and he was not tired. Had not been tired for days now. Being still was the problem. In the apartment in New York he could not sit for long—except to look again and again at the photographs she had taken in Eloe. A fat yellow envelope of pictures had lain unopened on the coffee table along with the keys. Having nothing quiet to do with his huge hands except finger his original dime, he opened the envelope and looked at the pictures of all the places and people he had loved. Then he could be still. Gazing at the photos one by one trying to find in them what it was that used to comfort him so, used to reside with him, in him like royalty in his veins. Used to people his dreams, and anchor his floating days. When danger was most imminent and he fell asleep in spite of himself they were there—the yellow houses with white doors, the ladies at the pie table at Good Shepherd—Aunt Rosa; Soldier’s mother May Downing whom they called Mama May; Drake’s grandmother Winnie Boon who switched them every spring; Miss Tyler who had taught him how to play piano, and the younger women: Beatrice, Ellen, and the children who had been born while he was away. The men: Old Man, Rascal, Turner and Soldier and Drake and Ernie Paul who left the service a first lieutenant and now had his own mortuary in Montgomery, Alabama, and doin fine. There were no photos of them, but they were there in the pictures of trees behind their houses, the fields where they worked, the river they fished, the church where they testified, the joints where they drank. It all looked miserable in the photographs, sad, poor and even poor-spirited.
When he was not looking at the pictures, he had telephoned her friends and acquaintances. Her women friends knew nothing but suggested he come over and talk about it; the men he would not call. So he paced, walked the streets, listened to the telephone that did not ring, waited for the mail and finally made up his mind to go back to Isle des Chevaliers. Start there in order to find her. He left the keys with the super and the photos on the table, and it was hard to sit still on the airplane; hard to sit still on the sea wall, so he stood up and walked toward the market. Maybe Thérèse was there.
The afternoon sun had knocked away the earlier chill and the air was damp and much too warm. A smallish crowd of local buyers and tourists milled about the stalls and stands. There were more people selling than buying. He stopped before a tray of meat tarts thinking to buy one, but the smell turned his stomach and he moved away. Farther down he could see crates of bright red bottles of soda. Something cold to drink, he thought, might be better. As he turned in that direction, he bumped into two young Germans with cameras. Automatically he looked toward where their cameras were focused. There she was, hat intact, mouth moving a mile a minute, her broken eyes cheerfully evil. He stepped in front of the cameras and said No to the Germans. No, and shook his head. The young men looked angry for a second and then, glancing at each other, shrugged and moved on. He stood close to Thérèse for a full minute before she recognized him and shrieked, “Chocolate eater! Chocolate eater!” almost knocking her tray of smoked eels to the ground.
“This place is closed,” she said to a would-be customer, “fermé, madame, fermé,” and packed up her eels, her folding camp stool and her wooden crate—none of which she would let him carry as they made their way up to the powder pink house. Thérèse laughed and chattered about the weather and her girlhood all the way but once in the house she became shy and formal, making him uncomfortable and unable to sit. To break the awkward atmosphere he initiated a pointed conversation.
“Have you been back over there?” he asked her.
She spit on the floor for an answer and added nothing to it.
He smiled. “What work does Gideon do now?”
“Hires out,” she said. “To taxi men.”
Drumming up business, he guessed, at airports and hotels for the men who owned their taxis. They would tip him for the fares he got them. Thérèse grew silent and formal again. Like a duenna she avoided his eyes but watched him nonetheless. Quietly (all she needed was lace in her hands) guarding some virtue that was only in her mind. The atmosphere of starch returned until he remembered something. He’d put his plastic-wrapped airplane snack in his hand luggage: a pastrami on a roll, a tiny packet of pasteurized cheese, one of mustard and an apple. He opened the bag and presented it to Thérèse, whose happiness, instead of being cheerful, was so deep it was solemn.
“Eat,” he told her, but she wouldn’t. She left everything just as it was, patting the Saran Wrap fondly. Then she turned to him and said, “I was a pretty girl.” He looked at her and thought perhaps it was so. Perhaps. He couldn’t tell, and didn’t care. “Pretty” was inapplicable to what he liked about her. She repeated it. “I was a pretty girl.”
“I’m sure you were,” he said smiling.
“No one remembers now how I was. I was a pretty girl. A pretty girl.” She patted the snack package and he could see that there was some relationship between the present he had given her and her recollections of her youth and beauty. He thought she was going to go on about it, but she stopped and lingered with that thought, patting the plastic wrap tenderly. He had decided to excuse himself from the awkwardness and walk around outside when Gideon came in. The day’s disappointment ran from his face as soon as he saw Son. He put the paper bag he was carrying on the table and encircled Son in his arms.
“What you doing back here?” he wanted to know.
“I got a little business to attend to.”
“Isle des Chevaliers?”
“Murder, I hope.” Gideon took off his shirt and walked to the sink.
Son shook his head. “I need some information.”
Gideon leaned over the sink washing his hands and face. When he had rinsed, Thérèse took a cloth from a nail and handed it to him.
“What you want to know?” Gideon asked, drying his ears.
“If she’s there. If she’s not, I need an address.”
“Christ,” said Gideon, and snapped his cloth in disgust. “I knew it. The yalla. What did I tell you? Huh?”
“I have to find her.” Son’s voice was flat, stale.
Thérèse sitting by the record player was rocking her head as though she were at a wake. When Son said “I have to find her” in that emotionless voice, she began to accompany the rocking with soft grunts, “Unh, unh, unh, unh.”
“Stop that!” said Gideon. “Fix some food, for Christ’s sake!”
Thérèse stood up slowly, caressing her airplane food and, after placing it on top of the dead record player, put a pot of water on to boil. She busied herself picking stones out of the rice while Gideon told Son that the yalla was gone.
“She was here? How do you know?” asked Son.
“What black girl can take a plane here I don’t know about? Besides Alma Estée saw her go. She cleans up at the airport. She saw her and spoke to her in the toilet there. Thérèse, go call Alma Estée.”
“I don’t know where she is.” Thérèse was reluctant to leave.
“At her mama’s. Go on now.” Then he said to Son, “A week ago, maybe less, Alma saw her leave. Let her leave, man. Let her go.”
Son looked at Thérèse as if to question why she tarried. She saw his impatience and, leaving her rice half-picked, left the house. Son was deeply depressed at that news. He had waited in New York too long before coming here. But he had been convinced that she was not really gone as in “never coming back.” He thought before long she’d come banging in as she had done before. So he couldn’t leave the apartment except for short spells. She’d call and he would not be there. She’d ring the bell and he would not be there. It took a week of silent pacing—of sleeplessness for him—to decide to go looking, and from what Gideon said it was a week ago that she was here; she must have left almost immediately.
Gideon opened his paper bag and took out a bottle of beer. He sat down next to Son and offered it to him.
“You can get used to it,” he said. “After all those years in the States I thought that was the only way, cold. Ice-cold. I still prefer it that way. But now I can drink it warm again. Like before.”
Son looked at it. The very notion of warm beer in his empty stomach sickened him. He refused.
“You sick, man. Not just your head either. Why can’t you let her go?”
“Let her go?” asked Son, and he smiled a crooked smile. Let go the woman you had been looking for everywhere just because she was difficult? Because she had a temper, energy, ideas of her own and fought back? Let go a woman whose eyebrows were a study, whose face was enough to engage your attention all your life? Let go a woman who was not only a woman but a sound, all the music he had ever wanted to play, a world and a way of being in it? Let that go? “I can’t,” he said. “I can’t.”
Gideon swallowed his beer and they were both quiet until Thérèse returned and the girl stepped in the door. Son grew dizzy as soon as he saw her. He looked at the red-brown wig on her head and the blood ran away from his own. It was all mixed up. He had it straight before: the pie ladies and the six-string banjo and then he was seduced, corrupted by cloisonné and raw silk the color of honey and he was willing to change, to love the cloisonné, to abandon the pie ladies and the nickel nickelodeon and Eloe itself and Frisco too because she had given him back his original dime, the pretty one, the shiny one, the romantic ten-cent piece, and made him see it the way it was, the way it really was, not just a dazzling coin, but a piece of currency with a history rooted in gold and cloisonné and humiliation and death, so what was he doing loving Frisco and his dime when it had no value and didn’t belong to Frisco anyway? And what was he doing thinking that Drake and Soldier and Ernie Paul were more precious than Catherine the Great’s earrings or that the pie ladies were in danger unless he alone protected them and kept them alive. So he had changed, given up fraternity, or believed he had, until he saw Alma Estée in a wig the color of dried blood. Her sweet face, her midnight skin mocked and destroyed by the pile of synthetic dried blood on her head. It was all mixed up. But he could have sorted it out if she had just stood there like a bougainvillea in a girdle, like a baby jaguar with lipstick on, like an avocado with earrings, and let him remove it.
“Oh, baby baby baby baby,” he said, and went to her to take off the wig, to lift it, tear it, throw it far from her midnight skin and antelope eyes. But she jumped back, howled and resecured it on her head with clenched fingers. It was all mixed up. He did not know what to think or feel. The dizziness increased and played a middle ear drone in his head.
Gideon tapped him on the shoulder and he sat down.
“Leave her be,” he said. “She want to look the fool, let her. Ask her about the American girl. Alma, tell him.”
Alma told him, but from a distance so he could not get his hands on her head again, so he could not deprive her of the red wig which she had to buy herself because he had not sent her one as he promised to do, and had not brought her one either when he came back, but had come, in fact, looking for the American girl whom he loved and remembered, but not her. He had forgotten all about her and forgotten to bring her the one thing she had asked for. Oh, she was good enough to run to the store for him, and good enough to clean the toilet for American black girls to pee in, and to be tipped by them but not have her name remembered by them and not good enough to be remembered at all by the chocolate eater who did go to the trouble of knowing her name. She told him then that she worked in the airport cleaning, and that she had seen the American girl getting on a plane bound for Paris with a huge bag on her shoulder and a black fur coat and that she had been met by a young man with yellow hair and blue eyes and white skin and they had laughed and kissed and laughed in the corridor outside the ladies’ room and had held hands and walked to the plane and she had her head on his shoulder the whole time they walked to the plane. She had seen it, and Son saw it too: the mink-dark eyes staring greedily into blue ones, another hand on the inside of her raw silk knee the color of honey. Not being able to go further with those pictures, he diverted his mind to the irrelevant. Who was it? Was it Michael who met her, Valerian’s son, the one that didn’t show up for Christmas, but who came later? Was that the Ryk who sent her the coat? Or was it someone in New York who had come to the island with her? Or was it someone she met in the airport? It was all mixed up, like when he ran out of laughter ammunition and kicked an M.P. in the groin, but the thing that was clear was the thing he knew when he stood wrapped in a towel gazing out of the window at this same man’s back: he had not wanted to love her because he could not survive losing her. But it was done. Already done and he was in it; stuck in it and revolted by the possibility of being freed.
Gideon interrupted his questions. “What will you do?”
“Find her. Go to Paris and find her.” He pressed his temples with his fingers to stop the drone.
“But if she’s with another?”
“I’ll take her away from him.”
“A woman, man. Just a woman,” said Gideon patiently.
“I have to find her.”
“How? Paris is a big place.”
“I’ll get her address.”
“From over there.”
“They won’t give it to you.”
“They will. I’ll make them. Make them tell me who the man is. Where she went.” He was standing now. Nervous. Eager to get going.