February 1991, Chicago
There comes a time you've walked so long on a twisted path you forget what you set out looking for and are content just to find your way home.
I walk the city's streets after winter's dark has fallen--that dark that comes at half past four and is strange to me even now, though it suits my heart. Most nights I wander in the chill air and have no direction, but this night I have a small mission, which pertains to Bertha in the flat across the hall from me, a kindly enough Mississippi woman ten years older than me who is big as a bus and so much blacker than me, we might as well be from two different races God set on the earth. Bertha's been complaining tru the evening that her belly's knotted with pain and cramps.
"You want a doctor, then," I tell her, standing beside her bed, my back to the door that opens to the dim hallway and onto my own front door. "You don' fool with pain in the belly. Might be your appendix want to burst."
"No, girl," she tells me. "Don't need no doctor. Don't be bothering no doctor in the night. I'm certain it's fixing to pass. Might just be the change coming hard now I'm past forty, like it did for Mama."
"You and your mama not the same person, in the same body."
"Those things pass on down," she says.
I think she's just acting brave, because her face is drawn with pain. "You needing to be ox stubborn now?" I ask her. "Maybe we go to the Emergency and that way no bother the doctor at home. That satisfy?" I am ready to pack her up and take her to the clinic in a cab. Truth be told, I'm ready to get out of the house and don't mind the thought of babysitting Bertha at the clinic.
I've known Bertha since first I arrive in this city, settle in this apartment house June of '89. That's close to two years now of being neighbors, so I'm at ease with her company. It's peculiar to me how I feel like Queen for a Day when first I come upon my place, across the hall from hers, clean and spacious and three floors high so I have a view. Now it looks dull as old wax, and the stairs tire my back when I'm a-tote groceries. When I first come, my mood-dem change fast as the sunshine here, in and out of the clouds. I try to stanch the loneliness by thoughts of all the fine stories I have to tell Lou, Mama, my brother Vincent, sister Doreen, and the rest of them back home. The very first day I come, drag in all of my boxes, Bertha come across to say hello and offer me help. Time pass and Bertha come to be level ground to me. She tell me she been in her flat since her two girls go out on their own, first one, then the other follow, eight, maybe ten years past.
"Maybe it's gas," she tells me now. "That can hurt something awful and ain't worth no trip to the hospital."
"I'm a-go out, then, and get you some medicine. You need that. Seen?"
She lays her plump hand on my arm. "I don't need to worry boht you wandering in the night, Indi girl. You just stay put, hear?"
It's a short walk I could make in my sleep to the Redding Road Pharmacy on account of all the times I've walked there for this ting or that. Bertha wants to keep on worrying aloud over my going out and about in the dark, but I tell her I'm comfortable as a cat when I'm abroad in the night and if she wants to worry she can go ahead and do it while I'm a-care for this little business. A scared look overtakes her eyes, and I see her pain is steepening. She clutches her belly and nods her head, finished with words, as if the pain jook her like an arrow.
The night air comforts me, releasing me from myself, but my mind soon fills up with the fear in Bertha's eyes as I hurry south down the road, with its a-sprinkle of storefronts here and there. I'm tinking that big woman needs a doctor, not a bottle of Alka-Seltzer tablets good for a running belly, but I go along to do what I set out to. I make it fine to Redding's, but the place is closed as tight as Heaven shut against a sinner, and a quick stop in each of the stores still open near to there turns up no medicines. The clock in my head ticks away the time and I wish I were back by Bertha to look at her with my own eyes and see is she holding up. Still, I want to keep up my search so I follow a picture I have in my mind of another little orange-fronted place I can check that can't be more than a few blocks down from here and over a little, to the east, I think. Used to be I could find my way over hills and through brush with just a snatch of moonlight, but in the city all the streetlights make my eyes see halos and I can hardly figure my way without stopping to read every street sign.
Before five minutes pass, I'm turned around, lost where the air is scented with motor oil and fried potato so that I've got to set my mind to my directions and forget awhile about Bertha. I feel in my bones I know the right way to walk, but what I feel don't add up to what I see around me, so I got to try to go by my eyes and ears, not my belief. I direct myself by the sights I think I know, like the beacon from the Stone Brewery and the white steam a-rise in two plumes from the Elvis Elevator Plant. The only person I see is a big bald woman slumped against a building who looks to be sleeping off her liquor. Then I'm caught by sounds that say I ought to be walking another way--fire engines screaming out of the north-central station, the laughter of seabirds--so I follow those awhile while I take up cursing Bertha for what her belly's done to my night. Pretty soon I know I'm just wandering, maybe even walking in circles.
Time past, I could bear some bit of danger without my heart a-jump like a spooked pony. But since Lou's death--can it be six months now?--fear's moved in like it's planning to keep me company all my days. When the feathers of steam on the horizon that might be my Elevator Plant landmark start seeming like they could mark some other place, I feel as lost as if I been stolen off the street, blindfolded, and moved through the city in the trunk of a car. And it's odd to me how the fear pounding behind my eyes says I'm afraid for my life, because haven't I wished away my hours these last days, and my days these last months, thinking how I would reach out my hand to Death, dance his dance, if it weren't for Mama, Dorrie, Vincent, and the others. Still the body knows danger like a field mouse knows a hawk, so now I've forgotten my search for the drugstore and I'm looking for my way back home, hoping to find Bertha more restful and preparing in my head to tell her, "Sorry, but Redding's was shut up tight--we got to wait till morning."
I've got no cause for worry after all, because ahead of me just beyond a peeling yellow hydrant and a wood slat bench with pigeon droppings all down its back, there's a strip of bright stores, their "open" signs still lit, and among them is the little hole-in-the-wall drugstore, Shepherd's, with the parrot-orange paint I'd been seeing in my mind. I go in and pull off the wool hat I crocheted to get myself ready for that first northern winter. I shake out my stiff hair and enjoy the warm air that's clouded a minute by my breath. The fluorescent light mimics a high sun that chases every shadow. I take my time in the aisles of boxed, cellophane-wrapped remedies, some past my reach, before I spot the Alka-Seltzer but pass it up for some strong-looking, wine-red syrup that says it's good for stomach upset. Then I pick up a bottle of Midol, too, because Bertha wasn't sure if maybe it's just her time of month coming hard. She told me she's coming up on the change, so her monthly isn't monthly, it's irregular as a lapsed Christian. Her phrase leaves me to wonder is she thinking of me with her word picture, since I haven't been near a church for Lord knows how long.
I give a ten-dollar bill to a girl behind the counter who has a head of black hair the color of shoe polish. She must have colored it from one of the boxes of dye they sell here. She's on the telephone making faces to a friend who can't see them. I've got to look hard at her to get her to notice she's holding my bill in her hands. The girl's got a silver pin stuck through her lip that ought to be outlawed. I squint my eyes at that painful-looking thing, thinking, Lord, no child of mine would ever . . . She puts down the phone and smiles at me.
"You old enough for working here in the night?" I ask her. "You're not much more than a baby."
"Oh, I'm old," she says, and squeals a little. "My parents wouldn't let me pierce before sixteen."
"Umm . . . is that so?" I say, and take my brown bag and pluck the few coins I'm due from off her cool hand. "Your parents, they let you do that damage to your body?"
"Well," she says. "I guess I didn't exactly ask."
"Jah, me no do that for a million dollars."
"Have a nice night," she calls after me still full of cheer. I glance back and see her wave a hand heavy with silver rings.
On the street again, I still don't exactly know which way is home. I ought to be smart enough to go back in and ask for directions, but how I a-go to put my faith in any directions come from that lost pickney, so I stand awhile on the street, just looking and thinking, trying to figure my way by someting my eyes or ears might pick out from the air. I don't see a soul outside, and my fear starts to flow again. This fear annoys me. I beat it back and bend my head down, clutch the package to my breast, and just start walking against the cold night air, knowing I'll recognize a street name soon enough and right away know the spot. Worst ting there is is to stand on a street corner looking lost--that much I know. I walk past the first cross street and it is Traylor and I say it aloud but don't know the sound of that name, so I mutter to myself Just give it one more block before you turn back and search the other direction. Maybe I've got to go back eena that store after all, ask that pierce-lip pickney to sell me a street map. I go on two more blocks past Cadwell and Smolen and South Apple, and though I pass some of those streets on the bus, they sound wrong for my path home, so I'm forced to turn back around and head the other way. Overhead, the moon is three-quarters full, its edge thin as torn paper, but its place in the sky doesn't help me like the sun would. When I turn back, the drugstore's still close enough to where I can see the faint lights in its window, which gives me some relief, but I can also see when those lights blink off. I hear a car start its engine and lay track on the road, leaving behind a burnt-oil smell. Oh, Lord, is it just me out here now with the temperature falling and the dark thickening and no living ting in sight but two winjy trees no higher than a man's head?
I'm back beside the store, looking at the hand-lettered sign set crooked in the window, telling its lie--"Open 24 Hours"--when a man steps out from between two buildings. I take his measure with my eyes, gauging his strength against my own. He's not a fit man. He's youthful, fair like the English, and large all over, but so big and soft in the belly he looks more woman than man. His hair is black, but it's short and curled up tight. I nod and head off the other direction from the one I just took, thinking I'll just go two or three blocks each direction till I find something I know. I see Bertha back home, her belly knotted, and now she's aching with worry, too, unless she's drifted to sleep. A sharp whistle cuts the air behind me, loud as a Betsy kick-up bird, and I don't like the picture I get of that big bafan man calling to some friend he's got hidden somewhere, tucked into one of these alleyways, to let him know they've got a rabbit wandered near to the net. I hear the heavy man's rubber-soled footsteps a-come up behind me. He hums, and the sound of a human voice against the silence is shocking. I get ready to hear him shout, "What's your rush, girlfriend?" How many times I hear that sort of ting. I prepare to tell him, "Don' you be fas' with me."
I think I got to make a turn now, can't keep heading in a straight line, waiting for whoever's going to jump out from back of the next building, making it two against one. Even one so flabby as this one, paired with another, would be trouble for me. Maybe I should turn my face to this slabba-slabba white man and give him the evil eye, pretend I'm old enough to be his mama and stern enough to be his granmada. But I can't bear to stan' steady and give up the little bit of sidewalk between us, so I take the next turn left, figuring that if I can lose him somehow, I may just hole up somewhere and wait till daylight--though I may freeze to death, because my finger-dem already wooden and the back of my neck and tips of my ears are ice. I try to keep my steps just a half pace faster than the steps I hear behind me. If I break into a run, I'll excite him like a squirrel stirs a dog to the chase.
Excerpted from Indigo Rose by Susan Beth Miller. Copyright © 2004 by Susan Miller. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.