Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

The Last Essay on Southern Identity

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

The Last Essay on Southern Identity

Article excerpt

There was a time I was pushed to the river and didn't intend to jump," Ora says, pressing her hands tight together, then dropping them flat to her lap. "It was that gas man who did it. Came 'round here every week to check our meters, then started showing his privates, trying to get in the house at my girls."

Ora looks beyond me at a wall of pictures, little black girls in pigtails with snaggle-toothed grins, their faces open and trusting, white peter pan collars circling soft, sloping necks.

"He kept trying to get in, but my girls locked him out. They just sat real still and didn't .say a word till 1 got home."

Ora sighs, telling me she was at work at Miz E's, cleaning for the family, doing the kitchen, the laundry, changing all the beds, pushing away all those cats. "When 1 got home they told me the story and next morning I told Miz E, told her I'd been pushed to the river and didn't intend to jump. Miz E went right to the phone, called her husband and the p-lice, and it was taken care of. " Ora straightens in her chair, her starched blue denim skirt crackling as she leans forward. "But 1 bought me a rifle, Pat. 1 wasn't gonna have nobody hurt my girls." She gazes beyond me at the pictures on the wall, shudders, then. closes her eyes. "But he didn't come round no more. Miz E took care of it. I knew she wouldn't stand for that kind of behavior. She always stood up and said what she wanted. But 1 kept the rifle. Used it too. "

I settle back into my seat, staring at Ora, then at Jesus on the cross two feet from my chair. An evangelist is shouting on the radio, then crooning in a soft, Southern voice, `With Goooodddd, everything is possible. Everything, my friend."

I think of the rifle. 1 think of Jesus. 1 think of Ora sitting as prim and proper as any antebellum lady, and I feel a jangling of the nerves, a ripple of excitement. I'm back in the South. Back with the women I love.

It's 1997 and I'm driving down a dusty blacktop, past miles and miles of weedy pasture, blackberries and kudzu growing from ditches wide enough to build a house. A spread of light cuts through my window, warming the length of my thigh. I look from side to side, waiting far something, anything, a bird, a possum, a movement in the trees. Then I see it, a burned out house, its tin roof sliding quietly, effortlessly into the dirt. A gust of fear prickles my shoulders. Abandoned houses. Ditches. Shanties. I'm out in nowhere, in a place I don't belong. I'm going to Ora's house in what we used to call "colored town."

"You come on," Ora said when I called earlier this morning. "I be here all day, so you come on."

Though it's been more than 40 years, I still see Ora sitting in the back seat of our Cadillac in 1956, a sack of greens in her lap, her head turned towards the window, her face moody, distracted as if she's burdened with thoughts so distant from mine there's no way in. Her eyes flicker at the ditches like a horse ready to bolt. I watch her furtively, curiously, her body so rigid I dare not touch it though I sit right beside her, my knee wedged up against one of her sacks. And yet there's something I want from her, something that has to do with the right questions and the complicated answers, not the easy, paint-by-number kind. The questions I know how to ask go something like this: why do they live here, Mama? Why doesn't Ora have a nice housed And why are black people so courteous and respectful to use?

Mother looks away, frowning at the evening sun. "It isn't fair the way it is," she sighs, glancing towards me, singling out the permissible question, "but Ora doesn't make enough money to live in a nice house. You have to go to college and make a good living if you want nice things. That's just the way the world is." I try to put Ora and college in the same thought-Ora strolling across the green lawns of a college campus with books in her arms-but she slips silently, effortlessly out of my grasp. …

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