MAMIE CHANGES HER LUCK
As he turned off of Old Bust Head Road and onto the dirt road leading to Mamie Washington’s house, Winston Brown slightly swerved his cab to avoid hitting a rabbit that had suddenly jumped out of the bushes. “Good eatin’,” he said to himself, as the rabbit ran parallel to the cab for a few feet and then leapt back into the bushes.
Winston, a lifelong resident of the northern Virginia town of Creston, operated a taxicab service out of a laundromat where his sister, Carrie, worked. He paid the laundromat's owner a monthly fee for being allowed to use the laundromat's pay telephone number for his livery business.
He and several other similar taxicab drivers, some of whom operated their businesses from their homes, primarily served the residents of Creston and smaller nearby towns. In most instances the trips were local, within a three to ten-mile radius, to the town's shopping center, the laundromat, utility companies and assorted doctors' appointments.
Mamie shared a house with her mother, Bernice Meadows-Carter-Washington, in Freemon, a small, subsection of Creston. The first non-Native American occupants of Freemon were former slaves of Caribbean decent, who called themselves “free men.” Their heavy accents made it sound as if they were saying, “Free mon,” and that’s how the area received its name.
When Winston pulled into the house’s driveway, two dogs came out from underneath the front porch, where they'd been sleeping in the shade. They began barking furiously at him, as they slowly and menacingly advanced toward the cab.
“Hush up ya ole good fo’ nuffin’ mangy mutts, ‘fore I take kis hair stick an’ tair yo’ hine parts up,” Miss Bernice shouted angrily from where she sat on the house's front porch. “Ain’t nobody but Winston. Git on back up hair.”
She smacked one of the porch's thick columns with her cane; her blows sounded like gunshots. The startled dogs flinched, and then ran back underneath the porch. They were still emitting low growls and occasional barks.
Miss Bernice, sitting in a rocking chair, was wearing a yellow, cotton housecoat that enveloped her small, fragile, boney frame like a circus tent over a tricycle. Her cane was strategically positioned between her arthritis-riddled knees so she’d have quick access to use it on the dogs, a wayward chicken who wandered too close to the porch, and, quite often, Mamie.
Like many other black people who were born at home and whose births were not recorded at the time of their emergence into the world, Miss Bernice was of an indeterminate age; most people assumed she was about ninety-two years old.
As Miss Bernice, who only had two teeth, both of which were yellowed, and in the front of her mouth - - one on the bottom and one on the top, was very light-skinned, she was often mistaken for being white. It was thought that her father was her mother’s white, married employer on the farm where she worked. She had outlived two husbands (some people often joked that they died to get away from her) had five children, ten grandchildren and four great grandchildren. Miss Bernice and Mamie had spent their entire lives in the large, beige house.
Winston stretched his tall, angular frame out the cab. A group of chickens scattered between his feet, as he walked up the short, narrow, paved walkway towards the porch.
“’Mornin’, Miss Bernice,” Winston said, as he removed his brown, straw fedora. He took a handkerchief from the back pocket of his grey khakis and wiped sweat from inside the hat.
“How you, Winnie? How’s Carrie?" She peered through eyeglass lenses that were almost thick enough to dig a grave. A filterless Chesterfield, with a 1/4 inch ash, dangled from the corner of mouth.
“She’s fine. Workin’ hard as ever.”
“Shoot. Too durn hot ta be workin’ so hard. She betta slow down. Dis hair’s stroke wever. You tell huh Ah said so.”
“Is Mamie ‘bout ready?”
“Mamie! Winnie’s out hair. Say he ain’t got time ta wait on yo' foolishness,” Miss Bernice yelled through the porch’s screendoor.
Cigarette ashes floated onto her lap and around the chair. A large, white, enamel ashtray, overflowing with cigarette butts, was on a small, foldable, dinner tray table next to Miss Bernice's chair. Winston marveled at how she was able to keep the cigarette in her mouth whenever she was talking or yelling - - both of which she did quite often.
Mamie came to the screendoor wiping her hands on a paper napkin which she then used to wipe sweat from her forehead and face.
“Mama, Ah madeju a samwich an’ put it on top o’ de deep freeze. Try ta eat it ‘fore de bread gits too hard.”
“Hush up, gal. Ah knowt when it’s time ta eat. Ack like Ah ain’t got a bit a sense. You should tryta do less eatin', ya' big fat cow,” said Miss Bernice.
Winston caught a glimpse of the hurt, pain and humiliation in Mamie's eyes, so he said, "Ready ta go whenever you are, Mamie."
Mamie came through door and reached for the overflowing ashtray.
“Now just leave dat damn thing be, ya big, yella heffa,” scolded Miss Bernice, grabbing her cane.
Mamie, blushing with embarrassment, withdrew her hand just as her mother’s cane began to rise.
“Always touchin’ stuff dat don’t belong ta ya.”
“Winnie, lemme jus’ put dis apron back on de hook an’ get ma bag. Ah’ll be right wif you,” said Mamie, as she opened the screendoor and reentered the house.
Winston walked back to the cab and got in.
“Mamie!” Miss Bernice yelled through the screendoor.
“Brang me back some uvvat peach ice cream. Kine in de black box.”
“Deys all de same Mama,” said Mamie from inside of the house.
“No dey ain’t. Always tryin' ta tell somebody sumfin like you know ev'rathang. Some of dem ice creams tastes like sweet, soapy water.”
Mamie came back onto the porch and slowly walked down the steps toward the cab. “Ah’ll be back aftawhile. Don’t fo'git ta eat, Mama.”
“Nevermine ‘bout all dat. Jus’ don’t let dat ice cream melt ‘fore you gits back hair, wif ya ol' nasty fartin' ass self. De one in de black box!”
When Mamie got into the cab, Winston asked, “Wair we goin’ firs’?"
“Firs’ Ah gotta go to the ‘lecta light comp’ny ta pay dis beel. Den Ah need ta go out ta de shoppin' centa. Sure will be glad when Ah git ma car back. Jack said it’ll be ready on Tuesday."
“He's a man of his word an' he does good work out dere,” replied Winston.
Winston put the cab in gear and began to drive away from the house. He could hear the dogs barking again and Miss Bernice yelling at them and the loud twack, twack, twack of her cane banging against the porch.
“Miss Bernice sure is a hoot,” said Winston.
Mamie didn’t respond until she saw Winston looking at her in the cab’s rearview mirror.
“Yes, mama’s cert’nly a han’ful," replied Mamie, who then rested her head on the back of her seat
As they moved along, Mamie closed her eyes and listened to the rhythmic sound of the gravel flipped up into in the cab's wheel wells - -pinkita . . . pinkita . . . pinkita . . . pinkita. . . pinkita . . . pinkita . . . pinkita . . . That almost hypnotic sound, combined with the warm, mid-morning, summer breeze coming through the cab’s windows, lulled her into a light sleep. Her mind began to drift.
Mamie had been born and raised in Creston, and now, at fifty, she had become an inextricable part of the town. She worked the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift Sunday through Thursday at a local 7-Eleven store on the main highway.
Sadly, Mamie had resolved herself to the fact that she would probably never leave Creston. In the mid-1950s, she had thought about possibly moving to Washington, D.C. or New York City. But, when her mother had a heart attack, as her mother's only single child, the responsibility of taking care of her had fallen on Mamie. She still couldn't help thinking about the "what ifs" of her life.
The passing years, as well as having to deal with an almost always angry, unappreciative, antagonistic, and miserable mother, had negatively affected her personality and physical appearance. In her youth, Mamie had a freckled, radiant pretty face. Now, it had become fat and hardened. Meanwhile, her once gorgeous and enviable figure had grown fatter, so that she now had a thick, fleshy bell shape.
As a sophomore at Lennix County High School, Mamie began dating Langdon Tapscott, a tall, handsome, extremely dark-skinned junior. Langdon was so dark-skinned that his friends used to tease him good naturedly about being “three shades darker than train smoke.”
Mamie and Langdon were dating for several weeks and all was going well with their relationship. When Miss Bernice, found out about it, however, she told Mamie to keep away from that “black summabitch.” Although she’d never admit it, Miss Bernice felt that Langdon's complexion was too dark to be involved with Mamie. When Mamie refused to stop dating Langdon, Miss Bernice removed her from school, and said that she had already “got all the edjacation she needed ta git.”
Several days later, Langdon, in love and relentless, tried to visit Mamie by cutting through the overgrown bushes near her house behind Lennix County Hospital. But, when Miss Bernice saw him through a kitchen window, she stepped out onto the porch with a shotgun. After firing one shot into the air, she quickly reloaded and told Langdon, “if you ever come ‘round Mamie or dis property agin, Ah’ll blow ya a new asshole.”
A few months after the incident with Miss Bernice, Langdon started dating Suzy Franey. When his high school education was completed, he joined the Navy. He returned to Creston after his military service, and was hired by the Creston Sheriff’s Department, where he was currently a Deputy Sheriff. Langdon and Suzy, who was a cashier at the local Safeway supermarket, married a few months after his hiring.
“Mamie. Mamie. We hair.” Somewhere in the distance, Mamie could hear a voice calling her name. “Mamie,” the voice called again. When she awoke, Mamie realized that she’d fallen asleep in the back of Winston’s cab, and they were now in the parking lot of the Virginia Electric and Power Company.
“Oh. Ah’m sorry, Winnie. Musta dozed off fo’ a minute.”
Winston chuckled and said, “Dat’s okay. Issa good thang Ah wasn’t de one dat did.”
They both laughed.
As she prepared to exit the cab, Mamie said, “Ah won’t be but a minute, Winnie.”
“No problem. Take yo’ time. Ah know how dem folks cain be innair,” he replied.
She opened the door, climbed out and began walking towards the entrance to the building.
Winston watched her as she walked to and entered the building.
"She's a sad, sad soul," he thought to himself. He then unfolded a newspaper, perched it on the steering wheel and began reading.
Approximately fifteen minutes later, Winston watched as Mamie exited the electric company’s building. He saw her look down, step on somethIng, bend over to pick it up, and put it in a pocket of her blue jeans.
When she reached the cab, Winston asked, "Evrathang go alright innair?"
"Yep," came Mamie's reply, as she opened the rear passenger door and got in.
"Whatju fine onna groun' ova dere? Some gold?" Winston laughed, as he put the cab in reverse and began backing out of the parking lot.
Mamie smiled and replied, "Naw. Was a penny wif de head facing up. S'posed ta be good luck. But you gotta step on it and count ta ten firs'."
Winston looked at her in the cab's rearview mirror, smiled and said, "Ah heard dat before. But, de onliest thing a penny ever brought me was mo' pennies. Ah sho wish he'd brang a few of his foldin' up buddies wif him now an’ den."
"'Member when was kids and we useta put pennies on the track?" asked Winston.
“The track,” as most of Creston’s residents referred to it, was a commercial railroad track that was used three times per week, and ran approximately ninety-three miles from Richmond north to Creston. Its starting/ending point in Creston was just below Main Street. Residents walked on it when they went back and forth to the commercial area referred to as “town,” as well as other points along the way.
Years ago, children had discovered that if pennies were placed on the track's rails, the heaviness of the train, as the wheels rolled over them, caused them to become flat and wide. Of course, the pennies also became unspendable, but it didn't matter, as it was seeing the power of the train to change them was the purpose anyway.
Mamie smiled, as she recalled this doing this. "Dat was truly a silly thang to do. But, we loved it. Wonda what happened ta dem pennies?"
"We was too damn idle back den. Dose pennies prob'ly still out dere on dat track somewheres. De train still comes up twice a day. Once in de early mornin' jus' afta daybreak and once in de evenin' time. But kids don't do what we useta do no mo'. Prob'ly jus' as dangerous now as it was back den. So maybe it's a good thang dey don't," said Winston.
"Dey nevva put up a fence 'long dat track, did dey?" asked Mamie.
"Nope. But if you look at de area where dat track runs wif mos'ly black folks' houses, you don't haveta wonda why," he answered.
When there was no response from Mamie, Winston looked in the rearview mirror and saw her staring off into space. He shrugged shoulders slightly, then drove out of the parking lot and towards the shopping center.
After returning home, Mamie checked in on her mother who was napping in the livingroom, put the groceries away - - her mother's peach ice cream placed in the large deep freezer - - and then went upstairs to her room. Entering the room, Mamie bent to remove a Mason jar from under her bed; it was half-filled pennies. She removed her new-found penny from her left pants pocket, where she'd kept it separated from her other coins, and dropped it into the jar.
Over the years, she had made a practice of picking up pennies with their "heads" facing up - - the bearded profile of Abraham Lincoln staring off into the distance. She’d gathered some of the pennies from the floor of the 7-Eleven. They'd been left by customers who thought a penny or two wasn't worth retrieving when they were accidentally dropped.
Mamie wasn't certain how many pennies were in the jar, as she felt it might be bad luck to count them. So, she would take a new found penny and just add it to her collection. In her mind, she considered it building up her luck. She went into the bathroom to wash her hands. Emerging from the bathroom, Mamie took off her shoes and socks, changed into her flowered housecoat, and decided to take a nap.
Mamie was soon awakened from her nap by the slamming of the freezer door; she heard her mother moving about downstairs.
"Durn it gal!" her mother yelled. "Ah'll be damned if yo' haid ain't hard as a brick!" Didn't Ah tell ya ta git de ice cream in da black box? You jus' 'bout as simple minded as dey come."
Mamie walked slowly to the top of the stairs.
"Mama, dey didn't have de kine you wanted. So Ah axed de man if dat one was any good an' he said, 'Yes'"
Mamie cautiously began walking down the steps. When she reached the bottom, her mother was standing near the deep freezer leaning on her cane, holding the box of ice cream and reading its ingredients.
"Hair's ma han’ ta God," Miss Bernice said. "Dis ain't nuffin but some ole chem'cals an' whatnot. Be betta off drainkin' some dang flo' cleana."
She walked over to the screen door and threw the container of ice cream out into the yard. It burst when it hit the ground, spraying the grass and hedges. Ice cream also splashed on a few chickens that had been slow in reacting to and scattering away from Miss Bernice's sweet, sticky, partially frozen bomb.
The dogs ran out from under the porch and began sniffing at the ice cream, following the trail to the container. They began licking the grass and box.
"Ah hope dat nastiness don't kill 'em damn dogs," said Miss Bernice, as she watched them licking ice cream off of the grass and from the torn, broken box.
Mamie, visibly shaken and close to tears, rushed past her mother, down the porch steps, onto the grass, pushed the dogs away, and picked up the ice cream container; some of the ice cream dripped onto her housecoat. Very carefully, holding the box away from her body, and with her left hand under it to catch drops of melting ice cream, Mamie walked up the porch steps. Mamie used the heel of her foot to open the screendoor, then walked hurriedly into the kitchen and put the box in the sink.
Mamie then walked up the stairs, entered her bedroom, closed the door and began crying.
Later that night, she dreamed that she was a child again. She and her friends were playing outside on the railroad track, when it suddenly began to rain. Only it wasn't water that was falling, but drops of ice cream. As the sticky, cold drops of ice cream fell, she could hear a train's whistle somewhere in the background.
Mamie woke. She was shaking with nervousness. She reached for her watch on the nightstand. It was almost 4:00 a.m. The sun would be coming up in another hour or so. Mamie got out of bed and quietly began getting dressed. After she'd dressed, Mamie took a pen and a small piece of paper from the nightstand drawer, wrote something, and put the note on one of her pillows. She then placed her penny-filled Mason jar into a canvas bag, and holding it by its handles she lifted it, walked out her bedroom and descended the staircase.
She quietly opened the front door and exited the house, closing the door behind her. She hoisted the large bag over her right shoulder and slowly descended the steps. The dogs softly barked and came towards her. She rubbed their ears and heads, and made a shushing sound, saying, "It's jus' me." They wagged their tails, sniffed her hands and pants, then returned to where they'd been sleeping.
Mamie decided the quickest route to the railroad track was to take the same path that Langdon had taken when he tried to visit her the day her mother had scared him off with the shotgun. She adjusted the bag, a jingling sound emerged from inside it, so she stayed completely still for a few seconds, then very slowly made her way towards the path. The moon had provided enough light to reach the path, but once she was far enough away from her house, she turned on a flashlight.
As the bag was fairly large and cumbersome - - its contents continually shifting back and forth - - and the grass still wet and slippery with dew, walking was difficult. Mamie wasn't certain whether she'd be able to make it in time. But, as she came over a small hill, she could see the top of Barnes Animal Feed store, she knew her destination wasn’t far.
The sun was rising just as Mamie reached the railroad track embankment. Placing her bag on the ground, she sat down on the ten-foot-tall embankment below the track to rest. Mamie grabbed the bag by its handles, put it on her lap, unzipped it and carefully removed the penny-filled Mason jar. She returned the jar to the bag, re-zipped it, and put the straps over her shoulder. Hearing the sound of a train whistle in the distance, Mamie stood, turned and began to crawl-climb up the embankment toward the railroad track.
Two days later, Winston sitting in a corner booth of the Ross Diner, saw Langdon Tapscott enter; he waved him over. They shook hands and Langdon sat down.
"Damn shame 'bout Mamie, ain't it?" said Winston. He sipped his coffee.
"Sure is. Wonda what would make huh do sumfin like 'at."
"Ah was jus' wif huh de day befo'. Huh an' Miss Bernice doin' dere usual dance."
"She didn't seem outta sorts to you? Maybe said sumfin outta de ord'nary?"
"Naw. No mo’ den usual afta Miss Bernice got through givin' huh a hard time 'bout dis an' dat."
"Ah know 'bout Miss Bernice givin’ somebody a hard time," said Langdon.
Both men laughed softly.
"Ya nevva know what's goin' on in people’s haids," said Langdon. "Nevva know."
"Didju get any mo’ details, yet?"
"Only dat de train engineer didn't see huh til it was too late ta stop de train. Said she 'peared almos' outta nowhere."
"Shit! Ah wonda what was goin' on inside huh brain. Always was a bit touched in de haid partly ta do wif her crazy muvva, but . . ." Winston shook his head sadly and slowly.
"Engineer also said she was doin' sumfin strange when he finally did see huh."
"Strange? Like what?"
"Said it looked like she was puttin' sumfin down on de rails."
Winston thought back to the conversation he'd had with Mamie in the cab.
"Did j'all fine anythang?"
"Jus' a bunch of pennies scattered all ova de place."
"Didju say, ‘pennies’?"
"When Ah took huh on huh errands, me and Mamie was laughin' 'bout how when was kids we useta put pennies on the track."
"Ah 'member doin' nat silliness. You don't thank she was doin' nat, do you?"
"Ah 'on't know. Hell, we may nevva know. De funeral's gonna be on Sunday at Fairmont Baptist. Fletcher's got de body." Fletcher & Sons was the local funeral home.
Langdon continued, "Most of de family's already in."
"What 'bout Miss Bernice?"
"Dey gon put huh in dat new nursing home, Pine Springs, down in Rixeyville."
Langdon rose. "Ah'd betta get ma black ass back ta work. Ain't many of dem white deputies too keen on havin' black men in de department, so dey look fo' excuses ta give me an' Roland a hard time." Roland Curtis was the only other black man on the Sheriff's Department.
Winston stood and shook hands with Langdon, and sat back down. He watched Langdon get a container of coffee at the counter. He seemed to think of something and walked back towards Winston.
"Was anuvver strange thing," Langdon said. "Dey fount a note in huh room said she wanted ta be buried in a black box."
"She musta meant black casket," said Winston.
"Yeah, prob'ly. But was weird de way she wrote 'black box'." Langdon shook his head. "See ya 'round, Win."
He walked to the door and exited the diner.
Winston stared out of the diner window and watched Langdon drive away. Then he stood, walked over to the cash register, paid his tab, tipped the waitress, and left the diner.
As he reached for the cab's door handle, he looked down and saw a shiny penny with its head facing up. Thinking of Mamie, he smiled, stepped on it, counted to ten, then picked it up and put it in his pants pocket. As he drove out of the diner's parking lot, tears began to form in his eyes.
# # #