The Weight of Them
Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz
You need to get up off your tail and go get them clothes off the line!
Ada was lying on the floor, a textbook open before her. She ignored her mother’s words and continued reading. Those days her father had kept her from school had put her behind the rest of the class.
Y’hear me? Lord, if you don’t get up from there, you heifer, and move like you’ve got some life in you!
To make some extra money, her mother had taken in some white folk’s laundry. She was upset about her daughter’s unwillingness to help her get it done.
Especially since it was Ada’s fault, her parents believed, that their lives were suddenly harder. Until recently they had lived and worked on John Preston’s land; her mama was a maid in the house, with Ada sometimes helping.
John Preston’s sons interest in their daughter had developed as quickly as her breasts. One day, Haywood had asked Ada to wait for him after school, near the tree that housed his brother’s hideaway, but a flat tire on his mother’s car had kept the meeting from occurring.
The determined boy had gone to the house Ada’s parents rented, like the other sharecroppers, to give Ada a note. Her father intercepted it.
Unable to tell Haywood to get away from the house—it was, after all, Haywood Preston’s daddy’s house on Haywood Preston’s daddy’s land—Ray Davis took his daughter out of school and put her to work in the fields, next to him. Sunrise, sundown.
He began a search for work elsewhere. He found out Mr. Johnson—who had six children and not one a boy—needed someone.
Ada was sure she’d never see Haywood Preston again, but she didn’t care; she was just happy to be back in school.
Now, Ada slammed the book cover shut. Standing, she said, I am not a cow.
Her mother glared at her.
I’m your daughter, Ada said. How can you call me names like that?
If you ain’t a crazy heifer. You go get them clothes.
I am not a cow! I am not a cow! I am not a cow!
Her mother slammed the iron down on the makeshift ironing board and walked swiftly toward her daughter. Her hand whipped through the air, landed across Ada's cheek. Those white folks may let you go sassin them, but you ain't sassin’ me. Now, go get them clothes. As her mother returned to her work, she mumbled, Them white boys sniffin’ around you, and you think you're somthin’. You ain’t nuthin’ and thats all you'll ever be, damn heifer.
Ada lifted the empty basket from the floor, and headed toward the door. I may be nothin’, but I am not a cow, she said, again, and defiantly slammed the door
There was a moment when Ada believed that nothing would come of the afternoon. Neither of her parents had spoken of it during dinner. Following, her mother and father retreated to the bedroom. Ada pulled the pallet from behind the couch and laid it out across the floor. She sat down on it, her back against the couch, and waited.
The bedroom door opened. Her father stood in the doorway, his arms at his side, the leather belt dangling in one hand.
Get up, he said, stepping into the room.
All I did was tell her I wasn’t a cow. I’m not an animal; I’m a person, Ada said in an even voice.
Get on up from there!
Ada pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around her legs. She closed her eyes as she leaned forward, balancing her chin in the space between her knees.
He loomed over her.
The belt near her head, moved through the air like a pendulum. She rocked back and forth, pressing her eyes shut so the tears would not fall.
He stepped back. The first lash was coming, but still the sharp flog across her body caught her by surprise.
Get up! he commanded, but she would not. And so with one hand, he caught her upper arm in a tight grip, his fingers eating into her flesh, and he yanked her up. With his other hand, her father flailed the belt through the air, catching her body wherever he could as she dangled in the air, twisting this way, and that.
It was what Ada intended; her father couldn’t hit nearly as hard if he had to hold her up as well.
She had to pay for this afternoon, but she knew this was really payment for Haywood Preston. Her father had been looking for an opportunity to punish her for disrupting their lives. The sudden move off the Preston land had cost her mother the comfort of a job inside a home. Settling up with John Preston had cost her father more than what was owed.
If it hadn’t been for her, for those breasts—
Later as she lay in the darkness of the living room, the tears silently falling (if she cried out loud, her parents always promised to give her something to cry about), she thought of how proud she’d been when her body had begun to change, how it becoming rounder, fuller, had been such an interesting mystery. She recalled how she balanced the globes of her breasts in her hands, fascinated at their development. Now, suddenly, the weight of them seemed too much to bear.
This is an excerpt from my novel The Teacher. A woman returns to her hometown and ends up facing the memories she ran away from in the first place.
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