Oretha

Crystal Wilkinson, with illustrations by Natalie K. Nelson

This story first appeared in our 21c Fiction Issue (vol. 22, no. 3).

Black shank nearly took the tobacco crops that summer, and then a plague of grasshoppers swooped down to take the garden. I was spraying vinegar on the tomato plants to stave off the bugs while Gloria was out by the side of the house pulling weeds. We had the CD player lugged out onto the porch so John Lee Hooker could cool our insides, and we guessed later that the music was up so high that we didn’t hear no kind of warning about Oretha’s return.

I heard her belt out, “Hello!” and I knew it was Oretha even before I stood up and turned around to take a look. She was real close up on me with her hands on her hips. Ten years done passed and she still wore her clothes too tight for her own good, and her hair, straight as a board now, hung down past her neck. She wore bright yellow and orange against her dark shoulders. I couldn’t lie. She was still fine.

“Girl, how you been?” I said and hugged her with one arm—all open and half-hearted for good measure, even after all these years.

“Look at y’all living out here in the boonies. Dana told me y’all was out here.” Oretha was the only woman who’d ever called my mother by her first name. Dana. She said it like Mama was just one of her friends. All the rest of my friends, and especially girlfriends, called her Mrs. Green or Ms. Dana.

That morning ten years back, I thought I was in love with Oretha. We woke up in my bed at my mama’s house to a flock of starlings roaring in the tree in the backyard. Mama was hollering from the bottom of the steps that breakfast was ready. It was a Sunday morning and I was holding Oretha in my arms, circling my fingers on her bare shoulder, and Prince was playing on the stereo. The early light was shining in the window, and I wanted to scream down to the entire world that Oretha belonged to me. Her hair was a big mess of an Afro then and she laid there looking up at me like she loved me too. And it didn’t matter that we hadn’t even dated and that the night before had been the first time she had lain underneath me moaning so loud that I had to hold my hand over her mouth so my mother wouldn’t hear. The birds, the way the light hit the window, even Mama calling me down to breakfast—and Oretha there in my arms like the truth—I saw it all as some kind of sign. I went down for breakfast but snuck Oretha up cold eggs, two biscuits, and a glass of orange juice. She was still naked in my bed but had her back turned to me and was sitting up watching Mama head out to church. Out the window the birds were still rustling in the trees, making them look like one black swarm. From my room we could see clean on past Mama’s property line up the hill and the top of Silas Smith’s barn. I slipped behind Oretha and pulled her back on the bed just when a magical breeze eased through the window and mixed with the sounds of the birds and Prince singing about Sexy Dancer. I would have sworn then that honeysuckle rode on the wind into the room that morning, but I’m not sure now. I do remember that when the second round of lovemaking was done and we were lying in each other’s arms that I asked her to be my girlfriend. Oretha looked me dead in the eye and laughed, apologizing with every giggle when she could see that my feelings were hurt, and though I didn’t know it until later that next week, by that very Sunday afternoon she had hitched a ride to God- only- knows- where and become a city woman. Just like that. Gone. I wasn’t a virgin or a silly man, but I had actually thought Oretha would be my wife one day.

And now here she was at me and Gloria’s house, standing right in front of me like that night never happened, with her hands on her hips, telling me what my mama had said. Ten thin years between us, and a memory still thick as mud.

I cleared my throat and coughed a little bit.

Gloria rose up slowly from the ground she was working and walked toward us with her garden shears in one hand and her gloves in the other. What little wind there was took up with her for a minute. Her dress caught the breeze and John Lee Hooker was singing, “Boom, boom, boom, boom . . .” like it was theme music just for her to walk to. When Gloria got beside me, so close our elbows touched, she took my hand into hers and I could feel the grit on our fingers melding. She looked from Oretha to me, nodded hello, then said, “Oretha, you visiting or moving back home?”

“Girl, just visiting,” Oretha said and moved closer and squeezed Gloria’s hands in hers. “Moving back home? Girl, ain’t nothing for me down here.” Oretha swung Gloria’s hand for a few moments like they were girls together. I thought they were going to hug—after all, they went to school together just like we all did—but they didn’t. Gloria cut her eyes at me, but I just shrugged. Oretha laughed and acted like she wasn’t paying us no mind, then she winked at me before she motioned for somebody to get out of the car.

The tall brother she’d come with stepped out and I rubbed the dirt off onto my pants before I shook the brother’s hand. He wore dark sunglasses though the sun was almost gone and was dressed in baggy jeans and a red sweatshirt with an expensive logo on it. His head was shaved clean and he sported a long goatee that nearly touched his chest and his neck was draped with jewelry. We exchanged dap.

“Name’s Darrius,” he said and nodded.

“Eddie, Eddie Green. This here is Gloria.”

A bird flew low over the house and lit in the apple tree. Oretha and her man stood cupping their eyes at the bird like it was the Statue of Liberty up there in the sky and Oretha’s man swiped at a gnat from around his ear.

“Ken-tucky,” he said looking around at me and Gloria’s place and shaking his head. “So you really are from here.” He looked at Oretha and patted her on the arm.

Oretha’s shoulders shrugged and she and her man traded grins like they had their own language. Gloria invited them up on the porch and then slipped into the house for something for us all to drink.

“Old Eddie Green,” Oretha said and punched me in the shoulder. “How you been?”

“Same,” I said. “Same as ever.” And looked her straight in the eye just one long time before I dropped my head and tapped dirt off the bottom of my boot. Even age looked good on her. My stomach flipped over.

I couldn’t tell anyone the true story of how me and Oretha ended up in that bed if I tried. First thing I remember that night we were just standing around talking after the graduation party. I wasn’t even thinking about no Oretha and had my eye on that Morgan girl, but next thing I knew I was slow dragging with Oretha on the dance floor, and that was it. After that, next thing I knew, we were in the back seat of my car, clothes burning, but I will say to my grave that it was more to it than sex. And there wasn’t an ounce of drinking that night. It was just like I hadn’t noticed Oretha before, but suddenly she was all I could see and not because we had our hands all over each other. Oretha made my head spin with possibility that night. She was one of the ones we knew would go as far away from home as she could. She always had that wandering gene. Of course me and Oretha never talked about any of this, but I had already pictured us moving away from here together.

“So we just stopped by,” Oretha said. “I’m showing him where I grew up. My old stomping grounds.” Her voice changed up for a minute and she almost sounded like one of us, as if she was still from here.

“Watch yourself now, country girl,” Darrius said, and his voice echoed off the garage and bounced back and made my ears hurt.

Gloria came back out on the porch with a two liter of cola, a pint of Maker’s Mark, and four cups of ice. She had washed her face and put on lipstick and when she bent over to place a cup in front of me on the little table we had out there, I could smell something sweet behind her ears. Her long plaits bumped against her clavicle and when she saw me looking she kissed me on the lips.

Oretha placed her hand on her man’s leg and Darrius leaned in closer to her and kissed her bare shoulder.

The grasshoppers were cutting up that evening and they were right there with us crawling on the porch, up in the windowsill, on the steps and bushes. It sounded like they were coming to sweep us all up with them into the sky.

A slice of moon was laid across the hills in the distance.

“What the hell?” Oretha’s man said every time he heard something out in the night or a grasshopper got close enough for him to swipe it away. But Oretha was quiet for a while. She sat on the steps looking out into the dark woods, her face gleaming under the porch light. That look on her face as if she was remembering who she used to be.

The night glimmered with stars, and the yard and field were just massive dimly lit shadows against the black sky. The Johnsons’ house lights twinkled in the distance, and the trees now and again reached up like fingers grabbing for something. The river was too far to be seen but I was reminded of it when I looked off toward the woods and saw the heat rising. The song of the grasshoppers was graceful, beautiful as a church choir, and at the time I wasn’t even thinking about what those sons of bitches were doing to my crops.

We didn’t talk about anything important. The pop and the Maker’s, some pretzels and a few hands of potato chips, kept going around and around and the grasshoppers kept singing right on until Oretha’s man said, “So quiet but all this noise at the same damn time.”

“They just rubbing their legs together,” Oretha said to him and they laughed like they were sharing a dirty joke.

Me and Gloria just stared at them.

Gloria was beautiful. Ten years. Us too. A week after I’d found out that Oretha had left town, Gloria had called the house looking for her brother Possum. I knew Gloria liked me but she wasn’t one of the girls that I had ever went after. That night she called looking for her brother, me and Gloria stayed up all night on the phone talking. It had blossomed on from there into this love we had now. I couldn’t say that it was a rebound love or a changing- continents kind of love either, but it was a good love. Simple. Lasting. Reliable.

“So do y’all play cards?” Darrius finally asked as if he was bored to death.

And we went inside the house to play a hand of spades.

Gloria put on some Cassandra Wilson and I cleared off the kitchen table.

“Nice,” Oretha said, picking up one of Gloria’s sculptures and running her hand across the books on the coffee table. “Y’all doing all right for yourself out here.”

“Gloria made that,” I said, a proud sound in my voice.

Oretha turned the ceramic statue of a large-bellied woman, her naked stomach painted a shiny red, over and over in her hands.

“Not bad,” she said and handed it to Darrius.

“They’d pay damn good money for something like this in the city,” he said. “Actually, it’s very West Coast.” When he said “West Coast” his accent changed, and he went from sounding like any regular brother from up north to sounding like one of those antique dealers that I’d seen on tv.

Gloria sucked her teeth like an older woman from church and rolled her eyes.

“Serious. You could make some good money,” Oretha said. “You should call it ‘Spirit Woman.’”

Darrius held it up to the light and turned it around and around as if it was laid out with diamonds.

“How much?” he said. “How much does the spirit woman cost?”

“Oh, I think I’ll keep it,” Gloria said, and walked over and took it out of his hands. “She is not for sale.”

Then she rubbed the statue with her dress tail as if Darrius had left smudges on it and put it back in its rightful place on the center of the coffee table. She stood looking at it for a moment until a satisfied look came across her face and then went into the kitchen for ice and sandwiches.

“I got cash,” Darrius yelled in to her and patted his wallet before he asked me for directions, then excused himself to the bathroom.

“Well,” Oretha said when we were alone, “You’ve got yourself an artist,” and ran her hand down the center of my back. I moved away from her. Made me feel funny to have her touching on me like that.

“You like your life, Oretha?”

“What you mean?”

“Down there. In the city. Doing whatever you do.”

“Oh, it’s alright. I live good. Ain’t never been homesick a day in my life.”

“You don’t even miss your momma, your daddy, and them?”

“Shoot. Not after all this time.”

I moved close enough to her to kiss her. I don’t know what my plan was but I wanted to look her dead in her eyes to see if I believed her or not. But just when we were so close that it wouldn’t have looked right if anyone saw us, Darrius came back in from the bathroom. He just shook his head at us like he couldn’t believe it and shrugged his shoulders. Then Gloria hollered, “Eddie! A minute of your time, please,” from the kitchen, and I went in to help her.

We drank and played cards till up in the night. The more Oretha and Darrius won, the louder they got. Darrius kept on drinking and kept on talking.

“Don’t make no sense,” he said after three hands and just as many rounds of Maker’s. “Shit. All artists want to make money. You could make hundreds of them things and sell them for two hundred dollars a piece, easy. Women eat that shit up. All them hipster white folks. Them things would be in every living room.” He eased up from the table and walked across the living room, held the statue up again and then palmed it in his hand like he was testing its weight.

Gloria went over to him and tried to grab it out of his hand, but he held it up high out of her reach. Oretha eyed me and shrugged her shoulders.

“Here now. Come on now, brother,” I said. I stood up from the table but I didn’t want no trouble.

The little green army of grasshoppers rubbing against the screens were daring us to let them in. The noise grew so loud that we all turned toward the window, and Darrius was startled enough to put the fat clay woman back in her rightful place and sit back down.

“So what do y’all do for fun out here?” Oretha said.

“This is it,” Gloria said still out of breath from tussling with Darrius. “’Bout as fun as it gets round here, Oretha.” Gloria spread her arms out like she was demonstrating something, turned up her glass, and finished off her drink. Then she took a few bites of the little sandwiches she had set out on a little tray, cut her eyes at me, and slipped back into the kitchen.

The Maker’s was getting to Darrius, and he was now slumped down in the chair, his eyes half-closed. “My bad,” he slurred and held his hands up with his palms facing out. He slumped lower in his chair and nodded off. The game wasn’t officially over, but Oretha patted the stack of cards they’d won on her side of the table and grinned.

“Guess we’re done here, my man,” she said.

“Guess so,” I said and cleared my throat.

I could hear Gloria banging pans around in the kitchen fixing more food.

“Baby, you need any help?”

She waited a long time before she said, “No. I’m fine.”

But I knew Gloria was mad.

Oretha slid closer to me and rested her head on my shoulder. “Y’all cute as hell,” she said. I don’t know what made me do it but I grabbed her and kissed her hard. I can’t say it was a passionate kiss, and it wasn’t a mean kiss, but it was a kiss that was meant to prove a point. What exactly the point was I can’t say, even now, but it felt wrong immediately and all them grasshoppers started going to town with their noise. I felt ashamed of my damn self.

“What in the world is in this bourbon?” Oretha said and danced her way over to the record player and turned up the music. “Baby!” she hollered over at Darrius, but he just grunted and curled sideways in the chair with his arms around him like he was cold.

I stayed quiet and Oretha started asking about everyone she remembered.

“Your mama? How’s Dana?”

I held up my hand and made the so- so motion like a teeter totter but I hadn’t quite got my breath back in me yet.

Oretha lived most all her life here like the rest of us but the only time she listened in school was when the teacher was talking about moving way off from here. She thought going to college somewhere else would solve all her problems. And even if she didn’t go to college, she had always been determined to get out.

“What about Shonda?” she asked.

“She married Possum.”

Oretha smiled and shook her head in disbelief.

All the rest of us had our hearts set on the community college if we were headed in that direction. And for even more of us the factory or lumberyard would do if the drugs didn’t get a hold of us first. Wasn’t many directions a body could go in up here, but home was home.

Possum, that’s what we called Gloria’s brother Greg Jr., was one of the few who’d taken all the options and survived. That’s who Oretha asked about next.

“He’s doing good,” I told her. “Him and Shonda are doing real good. Three snotty-nosed kids. They’re beautiful.”

Oretha just nodded and looked at her man Darrius, who was still sleeping it off in the chair, then she looked up at the ceiling like her thoughts were up through the roof and if she stared hard enough she’d be able to find them up there.

Gloria brought in chili dogs on an orange ceramic platter that we use only for Thanksgiving so I knew she was trying to prove a point too. She set the platter on the table and landed it a little too hard, and it made a thud that was loud enough to get a rise out of Darrius. She set out the horseradish mustard and the yellow mustard and then brought in weenie rolls stacked high on another plate, followed by the crystal punch bowl we’d received as a wedding present full of more potato chips. She placed two bowls of peaches floating in heavy cream on the table for dessert.

Oretha pulled Darrius up and made him eat. Gloria was quieter than she’d ever been. Oretha chatted on about nothing in particular, and I decided that the occasion called for a cigarette even though I had quit three months ago.

We put on Billie Holiday—me and Gloria always ate to Billie. The house was so quiet I could hear our forks tink across the plates, the tiny scratching sounds the grasshoppers made on the screens of the kitchen windows had softened but still they were singing.

“We need to get on down the road,” Oretha suddenly announced to no one in particular. “We got a flight to catch in the morning and got to do all that driving first.”

I had never been on a plane in my life but I nodded like I knew what she was talking about.

We all stood up.

Darrius hugged Gloria like they had always known one another and said in her ear, “You call me when you want to talk about getting them spirit women on the market.”

Gloria pushed him away from her and thanked him for coming.

Oretha hugged me tight and buried her face into my shoulder. I squirmed a little uncomfortably but gave her the friend pat.

“Eddie Green and sweet Gloria,” Oretha said in her city voice and then took Gloria’s hands in hers again and swung them around for a few moments. She squeezed the tips of Gloria’s fingers and smiled.

After they left, Gloria and I stood at the window watching until the taillights of Oretha’s rental car disappeared in the darkness. We sat back down at the table and ate some of the peaches and cream Gloria had prepared. Oretha and Darrius hadn’t eaten a bite of it, but we dug in and gorged ourselves until our bellies were full.

Gloria kept her eyes on the cream pooled at the bottom of her bowl and avoided eye contact with me.

“What’s the news?” I said to Gloria. At this stage in our lives we knew each other’s secret codes. And that was always my way to get her to start talking when she sulked like this.

She smiled a little, which made me know everything would be straight in a day or two but that I was pressing her before she was ready.

The next morning it was eerily quiet and we didn’t even notice what had made the difference until we pulled on our work clothes and started out the front door to start our garden work. The front porch was filled with grasshopper carcasses. Some of them crunched under our feet as we gathered the brooms and dustpans for cleanup. Some still clung to the screens dead, green juice oozing out of their mouths. Some of them were slow to move, sick but not quite gone, but we scooped them into the dustpans anyway.

“Shit,” I said. “This is crazy.”

Gloria shrugged her shoulders and kept to her work.

Even further away from our house, the sight of it all gave me the chills. From a distance we could see that hundreds of dead grasshoppers covered the yard, hung in the trees, and laid on the road. The phone had been ringing when we were in the bed and I knew now that it must have been Mama or somebody else calling to tell us about all of this.

After working as long as we could, we came back into the house and showered. We had already decided that round two would start after we got some of the remnants of the plague off of us.

When I came out of the bathroom in my shorts running a towel through my hair, Gloria was sitting on the couch.

“She’s gone,” she said.

“Who’s gone?”

“My spirit woman.”

Gloria pointed to the center of the coffee table that was now empty and in bad need of dusting.

“Can’t trust no damn body,” I said.

Gloria didn’t say nothing but the whole thing made me nervous.

That same summer Silas Smith had said he was sticking tomato plants when he spotted a heavyset woman way off down the road just a walking around in a yellow dress. He said she wasn’t from around here and he wasn’t even sure that she was a real woman because he coulda sworn that the woman disappeared when he called for his wife LaTosha to come and look. It was sometime after that story that the black shank disease took nearly all the tobacco crops and every farmer in Opulence was worry- faced and surly. None of us talked much about Oretha’s visit or the dead grasshoppers or the missing spirit woman. But we all did know that it was four days after Oretha stepped foot back on the ridge that Mr. Horace’s last horse got foundered on a bucket of apples and died. And on the fifth day a tall white woman from Chicago had visited with Gloria and wanted to buy her sculptures for some gallery. “Oh, yes,” she had said, her eyes bright, twinkling up like Christmas lights. “You are perfect.”


This story first appeared in our 21c Fiction Issue (vol. 22, no. 3).
Crystal Wilkinson is the author of The Birds of Opulence, Water Street, and Blackberries, Blackberries. Nominated for the Orange Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, she serves as Appalachian Writer in Residence at Berea College and teaches in Spalding University’s MFA program. She owns Wild Fig Books & Coffee in Lexington.

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