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A Chance Meeting MAG
Maribel shuffled her feet as she moseyed down First Street; the cracks bore a strange resemblance to Abraham Lincoln and were wide and deep enough so women who wore sharp, pointed heels would get them wedged between the concrete slabs and have to wobble and pop themselves out with furious jerks. Maribel, and her saddle shoes, smirked when these women got stuck.
“Those shoes look silly anyway. Those white ladies just want to be taller than us. At least we can walk,” she said to herself, her face twisted with a mix of misunderstanding and distrust.
It was that time of year when you wear a sweater around your waist. When you put it on you’re hot; when you take it off you’re cold. Maribel chose cold, so two red and pink arms wrapped themselves around her waist, hugging her hips. Her dress was pale blue and shone brightly against her brown skin. She wore multicolored pieces of yarn in her hair and twisted them as she walked. A green piece was wrapped tightly around her finger when she tripped on Abraham Lincoln and fell to the ground. When she looked at her hand, the green yarn was still wrapped around her forefinger and the hair it had held together lay in her palm in bloody clumps. Her head throbbed as she pulled the string off her finger and shoved it in her pocket. She watched the tufts of black hair float down to the pavement and noticed bright red blood oozing from her knee as she bent it to walk. It burned like fire but the autumn air blew a cool kiss to flush out the dirt and pain from the wound. Her leg was stiff and her stride was slowed.
Maribel had begun to limp down the sloping sidewalk when she felt a purring, metal presence inch up to her left side. Suddenly she turned around and saw, through a windshield cluttered with reflections of oak trees and telephone wires, an aged face. The woman was white haired and white skinned. Maribel stood on the concrete sidewalk and stared at the woman as she got out of the car. She circled around the rear to where Maribel had firmly planted her feet and grabbed her hand. The woman pushed Maribel’s dress away from her legs. She felt the woman’s warm fingers on her cold flesh as they examined her injury.
“Honey, what in the world have you gotten yourself into?” said the woman as she continued to look over Maribel with a discriminating eye.
Maribel said sheepishly, “I tripped on one of the cracks and busted my knee up and yanked a piece of hair from my head,” now crying from the reality of the explanation. Maribel reached in her pocket and dug around for the piece of green yarn. She found it and held it out in her blood-stained palm. The woman looked at the child’s head and winced.
“Poor dear,” said the woman as she gave Maribel a suffocating hug. “You can’t walk home in your condition. Where do you live, child?”
Maribel wasn’t really supposed to tell her address to strangers but figured this was an exception, so she said, “1642 Rigleys Mill Road.”
“Oh, I live just two roads up from there, you must be the Jackson girl … Maribel!” said the woman in surprise. “Nice to meet you, Maribel, I’m Mrs. Johnson, Kate Johnson.” Maribel nodded with a smile, then looked down; she noticed the woman’s shoes. They were the highest high-heeled shoes she had ever seen. She looked at the woman and asked why she wore such tall shoes.
Mrs. Johnson replied, “They make me feel young.”
Maribel smiled but didn’t understand how shoes could make someone feel young; her shoes were just there to look pretty and keep her feet from getting cold or wet. Mrs. Johnson helped Maribel to the car and opened the door for her. Once Maribel was in the car, Mrs. Johnson walked to the driver’s side. Maribel sat alone for a few moments and noticed the car was smoldering. The warm air reached inside her where nothing had ever touched before. The scratchy wool of the red and pink sweater pressed against her legs and made her fidgety and uncomfortable. She adjusted her dress so she could feel the smooth, blue cotton on her skin instead. Mrs. Johnson pulled up the door handle, climbed in her seat and stretched the quilted cushion, which covered it. Although Maribel longed to gaze at the clouds through the clear windshield, she could not force her stare from the shiny upholstery of the tan seats.
She felt the woman look out of her window so Maribel broke her trance and examined her face. It was fuzzy. Her features were blurred and hard to see. She wore a peach complexion and slate blue eyes. Maribel was weary of such a color, for her mama’s eyes were chocolate brown. She wore mauve lipstick and peach matte face powder that gave her skin a surreal, dreamy finish. She smelled of hairspray, perfume and home. The perfume was one Maribel had smelled before at the department store in town. It was lilac or lily, something like that. Oddly enough, Maribel could pick out the smell of her home in a mixture of many in this shiny, new Cadillac. Maribel, once again, noticed the navy blue pumps on Mrs. Johnson’s feet. She asked whether or not she got stuck in the cracks on the sidewalk. The woman looked at Maribel and nodded, then motioned for her to come closer. Mrs. Johnson, with a smile on her lips, whispered, “ Yes, but I still wear them. They let me look men in the eye.” Maribel giggled along with Mrs. Johnson, but didn’t really understand.
“Maribel,” said the woman, “are your mama and daddy home?” Maribel shook her head, then pulled her house key from beneath the yoke of her dress. It dangled from a tattered, tan cord. The woman exclaimed that she wouldn’t let Maribel go home to an empty house without being cleaned up first. She drove past the entrance to Maribel’s road and onto her own house. “Yes, Ma’am,” said Maribel, secretly happy that her parents weren’t home. She wanted to see the inside of a white woman’s house.
When they pulled into Mrs. Johnson’s driveway, an immense white fortress was patiently waiting to greet them. The woman fetched her key from beneath the flowerpot on the brick stoop. It shone as she held it up to the afternoon sun. She gently pushed the bronze key into the reciprocating lock. Her muscles flexed through her skin as she opened the door with a slight nudge. Maribel was bombarded with an intensely familiar smell, a smell that made her warm yet frightened. She was unable to pin it down, as it wafted in the air around her, waiting for her to name it. Maribel walked after Mrs. John-son, trying not to disturb the silk flower arrangements that cluttered her path. She breathed the house’s smell through her nose. All of this woman’s air was thick; she must have never opened a window. The unidentifiable smell that lingered finally came into consciousness. Stale cigars.
Maribel remembered her Uncle Toliver, who always smelled like stale cigars. She thought of him as she followed Mrs. Johnson into the bathroom. He always brought Maribel and her brothers strawberry stick candy. He lived an hour outside of town and visited on Sundays after church. He kept candy and cigars in his jacket pocket so his candy would taste like cigars and his cigars like candy. Uncle Toliver drove down every Sunday in his shiny red car to eat supper with Maribel’s family. After dinner, he’d pile the children into his car and take them to the nickel and dime store to buy them jacks or jump ropes. Maribel hadn’t seen him for years; he ran off with some white lady and got in a wreck with a train. He died; she got burned when the car caught on fire.
Maribel was dragged from her memory when Mrs. Johnson told her to sit on the toilet and close her eyes; she held Maribel’s hand as she blotted the wound with a cotton ball that was saturated with a burning antiseptic. Maribel winced and squeezed the woman’s hand firmly, letting out a pained yelp. Mrs. Johnson quickly tied a bandage around Maribel’s knee, cleaned up her head, then topped the job off with a gentle kiss, which she planted on Maribel’s crown. Maribel opened her eyes as the woman leaned away. She seemed frighteningly close to Maribel. Mrs. Johnson stood up from her stooped position and moaned about the ailments of age. Maribel rose to follow behind her, and as the woman walked, she invited Maribel to watch television while she made them lunch. Mrs. Johnson motioned to the living room and allowed Maribel to walk ahead of her as she searched for a light switch to turn on the soft light of the matching table lamps. A soft glow slowly entered the room and the woman flipped on the television set.
When Mrs. Johnson left the room, Maribel’s eyes began to wander; she was far too interested in exploring to notice the program on the television. Her eyes stopped at a simple photograph in a fancy gold frame. Maribel squeezed her eyes tight as she rose to examine the picture; she couldn't believe her eyes. There on Mrs. Johnson’s wall hung a picture of her Uncle Toliver. Maribel began to cry; she didn't understand why her uncle’s picture hung on the woman’s wall.
Mrs. Johnson announced, “Lunch is ready.” Maribel sat down at the round, mahogany table. The seat was stiff and unyielding to her sore muscles and a perfectly browned grilled cheese sandwich sat like a lump on the daisy-patterned plate, waiting to nourish a hungry stomach. The woman bowed her head to meet Maribel’s watering eyes. She asked, “Honey, why are you crying?” in a deeply concerned voice. Maribel looked at Mrs. Johnson’s face.
In the brighter light of the kitchen her mouth gaped open with the reality of understanding. Mrs. Johnson was the woman in the car when Uncle Toliver died. She was the woman her family had searched for, loved and hated all these years. She was the last one who saw her uncle alive. Maribel realized, with a whiff of thick cigar smoke, that Uncle Toliver lived in Mrs. Johnson’s thick air and the pieces of yarn that tied Maribel’s braids. He still passed out strawberry stick candy and smoked stale cigars. He still looked a woman in the eye, regardless of the height of her heels.