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Callaloo 23.1 (2000) 209-211
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Jumping the Fence 1910
Part 1: In the Family
Grace felt Mae's eyes on her back for a long time
before knowing it was not the heat of daylight.
Each thing plucked from the line, folded with care.
The laundry basket at her feet sagged under the weight of
white shirts and black stockings, clothes pins nestled
in the canvas pouch attached to its rim. Mae's look
burned her skin, like sun sliding toward the evening clouds.
When John wasn't home, Grace dropped her shoes
at the bottom step, her naked toes sinking
in the cool dampness of the tufts of green.
The soft feel of grass, clumped beneath her feet
made her smile.
Why doesn't she say something, Grace wondered.
Stubborn and spoiled, she thought.
"You know you can't stay mad forever, Miss Grace."
She turned to see Mae's head bobble above the fence.
Standing on a box in her mother's yard, the girl perched,
her arms draped languid over the knotty planks.
Hiding John's tobacco just to get his goat. Why the fuss?
With a tidy sum of regret she was smiling:
"Bible say forgive and forget, Miss Grace"
"What you know about the bible?" amusement held
outside of her words
"Nothin" Mae's smile wavered.
Grace's anger made the joke seem silly,
and Mae feel young.
Shadows played across her face
Anxiety and hope traded places
like water and oil in a boiling pot. [End Page 209]
Now she's hurt.
"You could be over here helping me,
instead of dangling like a doll on that fence."
Mae's grin burst open. She catapulted
over, dark muscled forearms guiding her flight.
Hopping fences, beating her brothers playing ball,
swimming as if she were a boy--
the agility always grabbed Grace's breath.
"Let me see those hands."
Mae stuck them out, palms down,
dirt imbedded under the nails.
Grace said nothing, intensified her stare
as if she could see where the hands had been
or know their future.
Mae turned them up--the remains of a slide
to third base clung to the creases of her palms.
She threw herself onto the stairs, a familiar sprawl
Quiet wrapped itself around them as Grace
removed each piece of her life from the line.
First row, then the next,
her round hips beneath clothes worn thin, aware.
Continuous motion determined to beat the twilight.
Mae darted out to move the basket for her.
"Mae, girl, you've got to be more . . ." she stopped
uncertain which quality to put forth first:
Ladylike? Contained? Modest?
Adventurous, independent, exuberant--which to squelch?
"You need to develop a better sense of propriety.
You want to know when you should leave things be."
"I'm sorry, Grace, I am, honest." liquid voice wanting to please.
"How do you know to stop yourself before you make a mistake?"
Mae looked back into the house, where shadows
hid the life led there.
"I ask myself: What is Grace gonna think?"
Grace laughed and in relief, Mae joined in
a sweet blend of sounds that cut through their summer clothes. [End Page 210]
She stopped, laughter swallowed.
Grace stared into Mae's eyes this time and wondered
where in the years she'd passed from girl to woman.
Mae so fiery and smart, why push her down
when the world is standing ready to do that job?
Deep inside, her husband and her mother chided,
nagged and chanted what was right and proper
for a colored woman.
Grace stepped forward leaving them grasping behind,
letting herself grin at the smudges left on the laundry.
Mae leaned up hungry for the heat in the air between them.
"I like to see your feet in the grass, Miss Grace."
The sound of the clotheslines, empty in the yard
the night air insistent and warm buzzed in her head.
She touched the ragged nails, admired the dirt and roughness
that did not shame her. And raised Mae's hand
to the clean cotton fabric at her breast.
Jewelle Gomez is...