Annie Liberty carried the Dutch oven by a rag-wrapped wire coat hanger; the wire cut, but against the callouses she didn't have any real grief. She tottered out of the alley, down the jig-saw puzzle walk still hot from the day, the bottoms of her feet burning through her sandals.
The wicked heat had come prematurely, early in April. It baked the earth and melted the highway as clouds built over the ridge to the south each afternoon, bloated with moisture, hugging the radiant heat close to the ground. But the promise of rain never followed through and each morning was as dry as the last.
Annie stopped, set the Dutch oven on the sidewalk; she straightened her arms as she took a deep breath, then mopped off her forehead. "Dreadful heat," she said to herself. "Who the Good Lord punishing with this heat?"
Everyone bitched about the weather. Some reports blamed it on volcanic ash, others on El Nino. Everyone counted on the luxury of river water to keep them cool, green, insulated from the drought many other communities suffered. At the end of June one pumping station went down leaving a single, old one to serve the city, and the old one was not enough.
The city council passed an ordinance trying to out-stubborn summer: No watering outside, none whatsoever. Even with the restrictions water only dribbled from many faucets in the evening, and never ran full force.
In yards with trees, grass lasted the longest; in other yards, green turned yellow and became dust. Every part of the city withered.
But the drought hit hardest in Coffeeville, a neighborhood that squatted on a flattened out hilltop east of the interstate. Most houses wore the patina of neglect, yards sprouted no grass and the ground crumbled away from mesquite roots. The alley where Annie lived dried out, sprigs of parched grass little more than appendages of the earth. Dust sifted under her window sills, hazed the sky and irritated her nostrils until her nose bled. Sometimes she wore her bandanna bandit-style to filter the air.
Annie picked up her burden and walked the two blocks up to Gret's house, her neck and back dripping with perspiration. Her cotton shirt clung to her like a wet second skin. Annie knocked, but only as a courtesy since Gret never answered her door: No one came.
Annie called out to the old lady, "Tell me where you want it, Gret, here or there don't matter to me."
"Here please, Miss Liberty," Gret called to Annie in her tissue paper voice.
Annie smiled. Gret liked the name Liberty, she believed the name made Annie better off than she was. Gret ignored Annie's status, a Coffeeville black just like her; Gret refused to see that Annie worked as she had worked--until her legs and back and eyesight all went out--cleaning at the pool hall or for white ladies on the other side of the valley. Annie didn't mind.
She knew her name and nightly visits meant everything to Gret, and she never let on that often she felt ninety like Gret. She figured if she moved very slowly, step by step, she'd walk through another twenty years. Gret had; she could.
Annie set the Dutch oven on a low table and went back to Gret's sink for a dish and glass of water. She drank the water, filled the glass again for Gret, then she wiped out a deep bowled spoon and stuck a cup towel into her pocket.
Gret worked her mouth like a bottom-feeding fish. She leaned toward the bowl Annie served her, gathering scents from the steam that twisted up from her dinner.
"One enough tonight?" Annie asked.
"One big bowl's fine for me." Gret emphasized big, and being a big woman, she said the word almost reverently.
"Don't have no bread."
"That's fine, Honey," Gret said, her slurps just louder than the little fan rotating on the floor. "You coming back?"
"Certainly," Annie said as she said every evening.
After Annie filled an old peanut butter jar with stew, she set it on the counter and carried the pot with her out the door. She headed up the street, crossed over to Johnson Johnson's house. His eldest, an 18-year-old boy called Timothy, opened the front screen for her.
"How's your papa?" Annie asked.
"How's your brother?"
"How should I know? He don't stay around here much." Annie walked sideways through the door, and set the Dutch oven down on the pocked linoleum floor. "Where's he stay?" Annie asked.
Timothy shrugged. "How should I know. He's just a crazy boy, Miss Annie."
"Watch it, Timothy. You keep calling him that and he be that. Hear? Call him sweet, or sad. Don't go calling him crazy 'specially to his face. See if it help."
"Last time he was sweet he wasn't born yet."
Annie shook her head. "Call him, now. I'll feed your papa." She took a bowl from the table and filled it. Then, standing in front of Johnson she said, "God bless our brother Johnson and nourish his body and soul." She patted Johnson on his shoulder then draped Johnson's front with Gret's tissue soft cup towel. Annie jiggled the vegetable stew in the spoon until it cooled to the tongue and she coaxed Johnson to eat.
Johnson Johnson had forgotten who he was and what he was supposed to do when a scaffolding collapsed on his head. The hospital said they didn't need to keep him since he was in no danger. Elisa, his wife, said she didn't need to keep him since he was no danger, hee hee, and she whisked away in her tight little shorts in someone else's Ford. Annie gave her credit for leaving with only her pride and the clothes on her body and she prayed under her breath that Elisa somehow be punished for taking her two daughters and shrugging off Johnson, Timothy and Raphael.
Timothy kept his papa bathed, moved him around the house, talked to him even though no one knew if Johnson Johnson could understand what anyone said to him or not. Annie helped in the evening with hot meals.
"I read lessons to him, Miss Annie," Timothy said once during the school year.
"Does your papa like that?"
"He just sits there."
Annie said, "It don't do him no harm, Timothy; you either."
"I wish he'd say something."
Annie wished so, too. Johnson had always had kind things to say, kind things to do. Annie longed for a word or a smile from Johnson Johnson. She often stood looking at him, his body strapped into the chair, looking, watching for some recognition from him. She ached in her heart wondering if Johnson knew anything of his losses and she ached for her own loss, too.
Early one morning two springs ago, someone knocked on Annie's front door. Annie slipped her house dress on, flipped the covers up over her rumpled bed, patted down her wild hair as she made her way through the dark to the door.
"Miss Annie, look what we got," Johnson called from the front yard.
"Why you getting me up like this, Johnson? I get one long morning and you come here and pull me up like this." Annie stood inside her screen door, her hands against the wire, trying to see what Johnson was talking about.
"Come out. You have to decide. I got all this paint for your house." Annie pushed open the door, and stepped out onto the porch. "Yellow, Johnson?"
"All kinds of yellow. You have to pick one." He stood in the midst of a couple dozen paint cans.
Annie scurried down the steps, leaned over, shivering as she peered at the cans, unable to see in the purple glow from the street light what the labels looked like. "Bring them cans in my house, Johnson, right now." Annie picked up a can in each hand, and hurried up the steps. They set all the cans around her eating table while she looked at the labels.
"All these pretty blossom yellows, Johnson."
"Which one you want, Miss Annie?"
"This soft, early spring one. Look at this color, Johnson. There ain't a prettier yellow than this one," she pointed to the color sample. "Johnson, where you get yellow paint on Sunday?"
"I traded with my friend who drives and he just got back."
"Much as I want my yellow house I don't want my friend being no thief, I don't want no stolen paint."
"This paint isn't stolen, you got my word."
Annie's house, tucked away in a wide alley, sat square on the back of another lot, the porch solid. Airy cotton curtains rippled over her windows and once Johnson finished painting it yellow, Annie's house stood as proud as any house in Coffeeville.
Thinking about Johnson before his accident made Annie's eyes sting. Tears bubbled out of them. "God bless you, Johnson Johnson," she said as she wiped his hands and face clean and kissed his smooth forehead. She dabbed back the tears, making her mouth into a smile in case Johnson could see her expression.
Evening hung on the grey side of dark when Annie left Timothy and Johnson that night. A police car cruised by and Annie recognized the red-headed, lady cop. Annie adjusted the blackened container, and walked on to Gret's where she washed up dishes and her friend. She hung the damp cup towel through the space where someone had broken out a window in Gret's kitchen door. Someone they all knew, Annie thought.
"We got any left over?" Gret asked.
"In your ice box jar, Gret. It be good cold in this heat. Good for lunch tomorrow."
"Thank you, Miss Liberty," Gret said. "You got time for a hand tonight?"
"Lordy, no. I stayed too late already." Annie lied a little to Gret. Gret's eyesight had gone, she made up her hands and Annie found poker with Gret dissatisfying. Duty didn't mean Gret could take unfair advantage.
Gret raised her chins at Annie and, in her thin voice, whined, "You say that these days. You don't stay, you getting like everyone else."
Annie picked up the cooking pot. "Sunday's best for visiting, Gret. I stay longer on Sunday."
Gret nodded and shifted her bulk in the arm chair, letting the little fan billow up her dress around her knees. A breeze blew against Annie's back and she watched the stars as she walked. She didn't need to watch her way home, her feet knew to the step when to turn at her house, when to step up the two wooden planks to the porch and when to stop so she could open the door. As she did every night, Annie hurried back toward her house, load lightened by the meals she'd served, sidewalk cooled some by the night. Annie stumped her foot against something warm and fat. She recoiled.
The boy on her porch jumped up, and cursed, "Hey, you, what the fuck you kicking me for?"
"Get off there. Get." Annie clinched the stew pot handle.
"Ain't no skin off your ass if I stay here." "You think skin off your ass, you boy." She swung the Dutch oven toward him as if she were waving away a pesky fly. "Get off there."
"Are you gonna give me my supper now?"
"You missed your chance."
"You're gonna be sorry."
"Get. Go help with your papa," she said, wondering how a fine man like Johnson had gotten such a son.
Raphael Johnson faded into the dark and Annie went into her house. She hooked the front screen behind her and locked the solid front door even though the house felt cooler with it open. Her hands shook as she switched on the kitchen light; that boy made her shake all over sometimes. Timothy had judged right, though she didn't want to encourage uncharitable talk: Raphael seemed crazy, green alligator eyes peeking out at her from his swollen black face, accusing her, but she didn't know of what. He acted crazier since the accident, since Elisa left, that Annie knew.
Annie had no doubt Raphael would try to make her sorry. He was only eleven years old, but since the day Elisa left, he'd knocked out the street light by Annie's house and lighted a fire in her grass, when she'd had grass. Annie suspected he'd stolen some things from her, too, important things like her papa's pearl handled pocket knife. Other folks suspected Raphael of mischief, too. No one had caught him at it.
After she pulled off her head scarf, Annie washed her hands, then emptied the vegetables into a pint jar and set it in her refrigerator. She washed the pot, picking off loose chunks of blackened grease from years of cooking, brushing around the ears on each side where she'd twisted the coat hanger. The pot drained like a blackened igloo beside Annie's sink, and water, reflecting a faint rainbow from years of grease, slipped onto the cup towel.
The breeze coming in through the curtained window tickled Annie's bare arms as she sat at her kitchen table dipping tobacco from a discarded candy tin. She pushed it down against her teeth and, as she sucked at it, the flavor pleased her.
Annie let go the worry about Raphael. She looked out into her backyard at her fenced-in garden, the place she felt most happy. Annie drew in a breath: tomatoes, damp soil, the sharp scent of a broken leaf. She inhaled the sweetest perfume on earth and rocked back and forth on her chair. Her skin crackled as she rubbed her root-like hands across her face.
Before the light, Annie got up, dressed in some old slacks and a cut down pair of sneakers she'd salvaged from her Tuesday and Thursday lady's discard bag, and she wrapped a clean print cotton triangle around her head. She went into the back yard, a space no bigger than a living room in a tract house, which she'd closed off with pieces of corrugated fiberglass, cardboard and the shell of a van door hinged to the back of the house to make a side gate. Johnson had helped her and had given her some wire and some stakes to hold up the pieces.
Annie had dug and scraped her garden. She had broken up dirt hard as crockery, turned it with a fork and hoe. She had worked every warm day that first winter, in between rains and a late frost, until the ground lay loose, darkened by rotted leaves she'd kneaded into it, soft enough to cradle her seeds. Annie had strung runners for peas, mounded rows for tomatoes and squashes and a couple rows of corn. She had dug in onions and planted potatoes and carrots. All around the edge, next to three sides of fence, Annie had planted okra, and when it finally bloomed its hibiscus like flowers fringed the top of her fence. Annie planted such a garden every year.
Annie Liberty laid out her hose in a trough she'd made, and water snaked its way along the vegetable rows. She walked through the garden, plucking out shoots of grasses and weed flowers, feeling leaves, smelling leaves, looking under them for pests. She talked as if to a small child, murmuring endearments, "Sweet ears, you doing fine there. You putting out nice tops there." Her pinto beans felt ready to harvest so she filled her Dutch oven with them as well as other vegetables and took them to her kitchen.
She made breakfast of a large tomato, wedged, with black pepper on it, and a slice of American cheese and strong coffee perked with bottled water her Wednesday lady gave her because rust tinted the water from Annie's tap. Then she treated herself to a little pinch to last her the trip across the valley.
When Annie went out, Raphael was sulking on the porch, poking little holes in the wooden step with a knife, the handle of which was wrapped with black tape.
Annie shook her umbrella at him. "Stop that! You get off my porch less you paying me rent, hear? You got no rights to this porch, so get, now." She opened the umbrella against the early sun and started down the alley.
"Woman, you're in trouble." Raphael spun around kicking at Annie's dirt dead front yard which melded into the edge of the alley. "You're in big trouble." He chanted and twirled and kicked dust as he ran ahead of her.
"We'll see who in trouble," Annie said to herself. She wished someone would get hold of Raphael and talk some sense into him. "Oh, Johnson," she mumbled, "oh, poor Johnson. You'd be heart sick if you'd see."
Annie caught the bus that took her across to her job. On the way a police car whizzed past them, red and blue lights flashing like a carnival Annie had been to once. Pretty as they were, Annie knew those lights meant grief for someone and the first person that came to her mind was Raphael.
When she returned from work, Annie saw a police car parked in the alley in front of her house. The red-headed lady cop leaned against the car talking with Raphael while several children kicked up dust in a game intended to disguise their curiosity about the cop car in the alley.
Annie said to herself, "Well, Raphael, you finally done it. Now someone going to straighten you out."
As Annie walked toward her house, the lady cop called to her.
"Are you Annie Liberty?"
"Is this your house?"
"Yes, Ma'am," Annie answered and she kept walking. She folded up her umbrella and stepped up onto her front porch. The cop approached her.
"We've had a report that you've violated the outside watering ordinance. Are you aware of the ordinance?" The lady cop stood at the bottom of Annie's steps.
Annie hedged. She shrugged her shoulders, looked around the cop at Raphael who played in the dust with his toes. He looked up at Annie without expression.
"The young man said he'd seen you watering your back yard. From now on, no watering outside. The fine's $200 for that violation," the cop said.
"Yes, Ma'am," Annie said. Even knowing Raphael had promised trouble, she hadn't expected this.
The cop whose name plate said F. Marsten handed Annie a slip of paper. "This is a warning citation. You don't have to pay anything this time. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Ma'am. I understand perfectly well, my ears and eyes just fine. I understand." Annie watched the police car pull away leaving Raphael in a bloom of dust.
"Hey, I told you you're in big trouble," he said in a loud voice.
Annie turned and went into her house, locking up behind her. She walked into her garden, still moist from her morning's watering. Caressing the leaves on her pea vines Annie gritted her teeth in anger. "He don't know what's good for him," she said out loud to her garden. "That boy ignorant, just plain ignorant. You beans wiser than that boy."
Even after she had fed Gret and Johnson, Annie felt an anger in her belly about Raphael, but as she poured soup into Gret's refrigerator jar, she began to smile, smiled until she couldn't help laughing out loud.
"Who's joking out there?" Gret called to Annie.
"No joke, Gret," Annie said as she walked back into the living room. "You comfortable and cool enough to play a hand, Gret?"
"This ain't Sunday, Miss Liberty."
"I have a mind to play a little hand."
Gret nodded and pulled a scuffed-up pack of cards from the bottom shelf of her end table. She handed the deck to Annie.
"You deal, Gret." Annie lost every hand, but kept smiling, very satisfied with the solution she had for saving her garden.
The next morning, before light, Annie filled her Dutch oven with water from her sink and carried it out to her garden. She dipped water with a ladle into a puddle around each plant, enough to soak deep, careful not to waste any, then fed her plants a meager sauce fermented from compost in an old trash can next to her house. She harvested what had ripened since the day before. When she checked the soil after work, it still held a little moisture and the plants looked bright and strong. For the rest of the week Annie's garden flourished and she couldn't help smile even when she stumbled into Raphael on her porch.
Sunday after church the police car pulled up in front of Annie's house again. Annie watched out her window, then she backed through her house, out into her garden. She walked into the rows of vegetables, breathed their perfume and began to mumble. "That boy. That ignorant, crazy boy." From over the fence she heard someone moving around.
"Hello back there," a voice called.
Annie opened the van door gate to the lady cop.
"I would like to come in," F. Marsten said. Raphael stood behind the cop, staring at Annie. Annie Liberty motioned for the woman to follow her, even though she didn't actually welcome the cop, and she closed the van door behind them.
F. Marsten turned around so she could look over the garden. She took a deep breath, shook her head and said to Annie, "You know that you're not supposed to water outside."
Annie nodded, her throat too tight to speak.
"This is the second complaint."
Annie watched the lady cop bend down and touch one of the softball-sized tomatoes then walk to the awning of pea vines that shaded Annie's kitchen with green leaves and blooms.
"This is my groceries," Annie said, mopping her forehead with her scarf.
"Nevertheless, the rule is quite clear about watering. We don't have the water pressure. There just isn't enough to support this kind of use."
"I don't waste no water," Annie Liberty said pointing to three plastic trash cans sitting in a corner of the yard. "I catch the rain."
"Not now you don't. You have to use a hose."
"No. I don't use my hose."
"Please don't bother lying to me. You must understand. You cannot water outside now." F. Marsten opened the pad to write Annie a ticket.
"I don't lie." Annie pointed toward her house. "I use inside water."
"You carry it out?"
Annie nodded. "With my cooking pot. I water every morning. Okra likes the hot; but you can just eat so much okra. Other things got to be taken care of," Annie said. "Johnson don't like okra and Gret does. Hard to fix for all them at once. Johnson take okra sometime. It take less water when you put these wet leaves on the roots here, keeps the water in." Annie opened the lid on one of the garbage cans where a foot of wet mulch rotted. "Johnson like onion," she said.
"Are these your family?"
Annie Liberty smiled and her brown teeth showed up to her gums. "No, Ma'am. They neighbors. Gret old and Johnson sick in his head from an accident. He just sit there. He got two boys."
The lady cop closed the book. Annie looked away from her and busied herself with inspecting a leaf, picking a sprig of grass out of the soil, perspiration dripped off her face making dark spots on the ground.
"You're not watering now, I see," F. Marsten said.
"No, Ma'am. Not in the heat. Early before the sun gets high."
"Can you keep your garden with water from inside?"
"I s'pose so," Annie said.
"Then keep your garden. No hose, is that a promise?"
"You have a beautiful garden."
F. Marsten started toward the gate and Annie said, "You want that tomato?" She pointed to the big one the cop had examined.
"No thank you."
"You take it. You don't have to wash it. I don't put poison on my garden," Annie Liberty said, pointing at the trash cans, "just them leaves." "Thank you very much."
While the lady cop talked with Raphael, Annie watched. She smiled to herself but hoped Raphael saw her, then she closed the van door and went back into her house. She tasted the beans in the pot, and put the corn meal batter into the oven. She peeled cucumbers, sliced tomatoes, split a couple long carrots wrapping them in waxed paper, ready for her take-out dinners.
That night Raphael came to Annie and woke her with his pounding on the door. She wrapped herself in her house dress as she went through the dark to the front of her house. She could see Raphael on the porch and smell his breath, rank with beer like the floor at the pool hall where Annie used to clean.
"Hey, you, come here," Raphael called and pounded.
Annie answered out her window. "Get off my porch."
"Hey, I'm hungry." Raphael said like he was singing some bluesy song. "Come on, let me in, let me in." Raphael wobbled and bounced against the upright on Annie's porch. He slid down and sat against it. "Don't starve me."
"You won't starve in weeks," Annie said softly, then she raised her voice, "Get away."
"You want that police lady back here? Me and that police lady are friends. We're good buddies. If I ask her, she'll come take you away. Hey, you hear me?"
"Raphael Ernest Johnson, you drunk," Annie said wanting to add, and crazy, but she didn't want her words to give him excuses to act worse than he already did.
"Drunk, drunk. So? I'm good friends with that white lady cop."
"If you such good buddies with that cop lady, why didn't she take me away?" Annie asked a little louder than she'd intended to.
"She told me to watch you," Raphael said, "she told me you're a trouble maker. I should watch you."
"You go back to your papa's house."
"Not that zombie man. No. He looks in my soul. He can take out my soul; he can get in my body."
"Who say that?" Annie pushed against the screen door, looking around it to see Raphael better.
"I know. I know. They told me that and it's true. He sits and looks but he won't answer me. I did the test: I whispered to him in the night and his eyes opened, and he didn't say anything to me. He just looked. They told me about zombie man."
Annie stood on her porch looking down at the drunk fat boy with pale alligator eyes and she shivered.
"Johnson's no zombie, Raphael. Go home to your papa."
Raphael looked up at Annie. "Why didn't she take me away from that zombie man? She took them."
Annie had wished more than once that Elisa had taken Raphael. Since he was the baby, Annie didn't know why Elisa left him, but she believed what she'd heard: Elisa loved her girls; the boys were just reminders of Johnson and she'd had enough of him.
"Go home," Annie said.
"I want my mama," Raphael began to cry, baby wailing and tears. He leaned over the edge of Annie's porch and threw up, crying and throwing up.
Annie hunkered down and patted him on the back until he quit being sick. "They told you a lie, Raphael." "My mama's no liar." Raphael looked at Annie with his pale, sad eyes then rolled off the porch and into the dark. "You're the liar," he hollered back at her. "Liar, liar." Annie sat on her steps and smelled the night, the hot, dry air heavy with dust and Raphael's stench.
When Annie got home from work the next day, she found her garden ripped up at the roots. Okra lay like cord wood against the back fence, the tomatoes had been stomped and the vines, ripped from the eves of her house, rolled up like a tumble weed. In the heat, the leaves had already curled into tubes, the green blanched to a drab gray.
Annie stood at the back door and wept. Her body shook and although she tried to hold back the tears, her palms slid against her wet face. She crawled into her mutilated garden, digging with her fingers, poking withered roots back into the soil. She murmured to her dead plants, "Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus."
She sat back against the fence. There by the stacked okra, she found something on the ground that turned around her grief into an anger so solid as to give Annie direction. She hugged herself, got up and went back inside where she tasted the soup that had cooked all day on her stove, the last harvest of her summer garden.
When Annie got to Johnson's house later than usual Timothy greeted her.
"How's your papa?"
"Your brother here?" she asked, trying not to let her anguish show. Trying to keep her anger at Raphael out of her voice.
Timothy said, "Back there." He pointed toward the kitchen.
Annie draped Johnson and filled the bowl. She motioned to Timothy to take the Dutch oven into the kitchen. "Get your supper, now."
"Oh, Johnson," she said with a heavy sigh. "Sweet Jesus, help me be up to this."
Annie took the bowl and spoon back to the kitchen where the boys sat eating in silence, Timothy watching Raphael over the edge of his spoon.
"Wash up your papa," Annie said to Timothy and when he'd left the room Raphael continued to eat his soup. "We have some talking to do."
Raphael slurped his soup.
"You listening to me?" Annie asked as she walked up so she stood against Raphael's shoulder.
Raphael looked up at her and said, "Good soup."
"Don't be talking about soup. You know what we got to talk about," Annie said in a soft steady voice. "You gone too far."
"I don't know what you're talking about, you--"
She cut him off. "Keep your mouth shut up and listen to me now or you won't be talking to no one who care for a long time. You gone way too far. You not the only one hurting, you not the only one left behind. We all got our troubles, but now you got the worst ones. I see you having two choices, Raphael. The best choice I see is you going to help some of us folks out of our troubles."
He knocked the soup bowl off onto the floor.
"You going to work that meanness out of your body so you don't have to keep breaking things." Annie stopped when Timothy came into the doorway. "We doing fine. Stay with your papa." She waited until Timothy had gone, then continued. "You understand what I'm saying?"
"No one understands what you say, you're too old to make sense. So, why should I help you out of your troubles?"
"You know that answer."
Raphael shrugged. "What's my other choice you said I have?"
"Go to jail."
"For bringing so much trouble on us. Vandalizing, stealing. You know about my trouble, I s'pose."
"I didn't mess up your fucking garden."
"Then you going to help me fix up what some other bad ass did. That'd be good for you. Get your body doing something and pretty soon you feel better. You feel strong not mean. Your body know you need to do good work."
"Don't count on it."
"I count on it. You reaped, now you going to learn how to sow," Annie said, rubbing her hands together.
"You stupid old woman, I saved the cops lots of trouble with you."
"When you gave me trouble, you gave trouble to your papa, to your brother and to poor old Gret. How they going to get their dinner, do you think? You going to bring them dinner? Your lady cop going to bring them dinner?"
"If you don't start caring, you going to jail."
"I don't have to care, you don't have no proof I ripped up your garden."
Annie patted Raphael's arm and said, "Yessir, I do, Raphael." She handed him a small wad of black tape she'd pulled off the handle of her papa's pocket knife that Raphael had dropped in the garden.
He slapped his hand down against the pocket on his pants. Then he sneered at her. "So?"
"So, you going to walk me home tonight and you going to listen to me when I tell you how to plant another garden the proper way. And everyday when I get home, you going to be there and you going to help me and in the mornings, too, since you stays on my porch."
"Who'd believe you?"
"Most folks I know. Folks that got broken windows, or missin' money, or missin' beer."
Raphael tilted back the chair, sticking his jaw out at Annie as he did.
"Other folks that got bad words written on their refrigerator." He righted the chair and made his spoon into a drum stick against the table top. Annie took hold of his wrist.
"See, Raphael, we ready to send you away with the lady cop if you not willin' to make amends here."
"Fixin' the wrongs you did. Not just mine, neither."
They looked at one another and Annie couldn't tell from the green alligator eyes what Raphael was thinking.
"How do you expect me to fix up this stinking place?"
Annie felt like saying 'that's your problem, little boy,' but she tried to be charitable. She said, "Maybe by asking the folks you wronged."
"Stupid ole woman."
"And the truck tires you cut up at the Pool Hall. You might buy the man some others," Annie said. "Man say he'd like to kill who done that."
"I didn't do that!" Raphael clinched his fists.
Annie knew he hadn't; she'd make up the offense as a little test. "Well if you don't fix up like we ask, then we tell the lady cop."
"Don't tell her."
"We don't have no choice, Raphael. Now you got everyone upset. If I don't tell, someone else gonna. Then they gonna take you away to some jail. The lady cop say all we have to do is make a complaint then tell some judge how many things you done. We all tired worrying about you and your meanness." Annie knew Gret wouldn't sign anything even having had her window broken out. Annie knew she exaggerated, but she didn't care. Another year of meanness could get Raphael dead. Annie owed it to Johnson Johnson to try to help his baby grow up.
"No judge's going to do anything to me. I'm a kid."
"Nosir, Raphael. The judge can put you in jail or maybe send you to stay at someone's house. Maybe someone a lot worse than your papa."
Raphael picked at the seams on his jeans. "So how long will this fixing up take?"
"I don't know."
"I bet I can do it quick!"
"Timothy," Annie called. "Raphael's helping me home with this heavy pot."
Timothy said, "I could do that."
"No, thank you. This Raphael's work," Annie said. "After he sop up all that soup on the floor."
As they walked across the street, Raphael said, "This isn't heavy."
"Not half empty," Annie said. "But we water the garden with it all full."
They walked in silence. Raphael waited for Annie on Gret's porch while Annie washed up inside. When they got to Annie's, she opened the door for Raphael and he carried the Dutch oven into the kitchen.
"You sit and listen while I empty this. Tomorrow you find something to fix up Gret's window. For now, you go out in my garden and pull off the beans on that wadded up vine and put them in this." She handed him a dish pan. "Put the okra leaves and whatever other big leaves you find in that can that's got compost in the bottom. Take those two empty garbage cans and put in the broken plants. Put them out for pick up. Then you come back in here 'cause we have seed to clean." Annie opened the cupboard door and pulled out several small paper bags. She shook them and seed rattled inside.
"That's too much."
"I don't think so, Raphael. That's just a little pay so you don't have to sleep in jail."
The next morning, early, Raphael followed Annie through the garden.
"Dig where I tell you, like this." Annie turned the soil with a shovel, then dug deeper and turned it once more. "Cross the back, up the center. Deep down so the roots can grow."
"And what are you going to do? Stand and boss me?"
"No. You boss yourself." Annie went inside and mixed a bowl with corn meal batter, put it in an iron skillet to bake. She sliced some rat cheese, fixed coffee and drank a cup while the cornbread cooked. Then she called to Raphael, "Clean up your hands and come in here."
Raphael stepped inside, looked down at his dirty feet and backed outside again. Annie smiled.
"Pull them shoes off on the porch. You big enough to drink coffee?"
"Sure," Raphael said as he sat down at Annie's table. But he frowned when she put the coffee down without milk and sugar.
"Why don't you get your food from the store?" he asked.
"My garden food's better for you any day and I don't have enough money for bought food," Annie said.
Raphael looked at Annie a moment. "But you buy plants."
Annie nodded. "Some. Most times, one garden makes the next garden. Like the seed we cleaned up. Keep some seed from the best plants and you always have a fine garden."
"I think you're stupid to work your ass off and give your food away."
"You poor if you don't have something to give away," Annie said.
"Don't tell me that. You're poor as anyone."
"Not poor. I just don't have no money."
"You the poor one," Annie said, "you got nothing to give away but grief. You the poorest soul I know."
Raphael shifted in the chair. "What do you want, my clothes?"
Annie shook her head. "You going to figure that out all by yourself some of these days."
They ate with no further conversation.
Annie said, "Go on, now. And be here when I come home." Annie took a pinch and watched as Raphael disappeared into the morning as easily as she'd seen him fade into the night. When she got home that afternoon, Annie saw no sign of Raphael. She lugged her pot of beans up to Gret's. The broken window in the kitchen door was patched with a metal soda water sign, nailed not too neatly to the door. Raphael didn't show up for dinner at Johnson Johnson's house later and Timothy couldn't say where his brother had gone. Two more days passed the same.
The garden lay in clods and Annie's rehabilitation of Raphael seemed a lost effort. Once she'd wished Raphael away; now she wanted to take back the wish.
When Annie got home from work the fourth day after her talk with Raphael, he appeared from behind the house.
"Come look," he said.
Annie went through the house and met Raphael in the garden. He'd turned every inch of the old garden, broken up lumps, and raked the soil smooth. The soil lay ready for seed or plants. Annie smiled. Raphael stood solemn-faced, dripping wet, with the rake in his hands.
"You did fine," she said. "Tomorrow we put in seed in this part here." Annie indicated the back half of the yard. "Then I show you how to water."
The next morning, Raphael fidgeted while Annie poured water where they had poked seed into the ground.
"Why don't you just dump it on?"
"You the boy knows so blessed much about water wasting," Annie said, "you tell me?"
Raphael scuffed his shoes in the dirt.
Annie said, "I don't waste no water, and I don't wash out no seed. You try now." Raphael stuck his finger into the soil then put on more water.
"Too bad you not a farm boy. You got the start of a fine gardener."
Raphael plunked the ladle back into the Dutch oven. "Can I have breakfast?"
Annie nodded. "Where'd you hide yourself?"
"I was fixing up things someplace else," he said, sounding proud of himself.
"Well, that's just fine," Annie said, thinking a little pride was a lot better than meanness.
"The garden's going to take a long time, isn't it?"
"Rest of the summer," Annie said.
"Whew. You'll need a lot of help."
Annie smiled to herself.
They worked every morning, shuffling through the garden, dribbling water on the places where they'd planted. One morning they saw tiny green sprouting where squash seeds had gone in. Raphael squatted down and peeked at it close up. Soon okra and peas and beans came up, too.
"They're so small," Raphael said.
"As long as we give them water and the sun shines, they grow some everyday."
Raphael measured them every morning and before the week was out, Annie had quit going into the garden with him, although she watched through the window.
A week later, Raphael came to Annie early in the morning, not silently waiting on the porch, but banging on the door like the night he had been drunk. In the greyness she could hear his voice louder than a whisper, but not his words. She slipped into her slacks and a shirt and, with stiff body, walked to the screen. "You too early," she said.
"Hurry," he insisted when she opened the door and he ran through her house into the garden.
As Annie stepped outside, she heard the thunder and smelled the fresh wetness of summer storm.
Raphael smiled at Annie, a sweet little boy smile, when the icy drops of rain splattered his out-stretched arms. "Our garden's going to grow like crazy," he said, smiling at Annie. She tilted her face up to the rain.
"Blessed Jesus. Open them cans." She pointed to the empty garbage cans by the side gate. "We got to catch some water."
Raphael dragged the cans into the center of the garden.
"This makes me think you not so poor. Maybe you paid your debt," Annie said.
"Can I still help? Can I still have breakfast with you?"
Annie splashed her face with rain water thinking how much easier this work was with some help. "Might as well, you helped this far." She considered offering him a bit of her snuff in celebration of the rain which would continued to fall all that day and the next.