Pearletta

by Kalisha Buckhanon

The Weathers’ woodpaned, wall-length mural to Pearletta—their “challenging” one—performed its function and made its case: she hasn’t always been this way. The wall testified she selected light pink Mother’s Day cards with flower vases on the front. She went to prom … boy cross the avenue. Content in braces. Wondrous on stage. Gentle with a violin. At home in velvet. Enamoring even in chunky heels. She was pretty, but not photogenic, a miscommunication which may have twisted if not sealed her fate. Her face on news bits or 5000 flyers printed on bank paper, driven throughout 39090 and surrounding bayous, provoked people to glance once. Just once, because she was dark.

Viola Weathers used to pride herself on toughing with no AC and now she kept it cold. Too cold. But no one had heart to say. She preferred to serve only green dinner mints with mint green tea, as much for everyone’s nerves as to match the color of her housepaint newly refreshed. “He did it just for me,” she smiled, after church, on Saturday she believed was best. She said she read somewhere that green communicated “life.” Without base and lashes and rouge, she looked sane. Upon a second Easter past the last one anybody could say they saw Pearletta, Viola ascended herself from rumor slayer and battle axe to the one who would have rolled the stone to find Jesus’ tomb empty. Apropos. Seamless comparison. A good dream at night.

The Magnolia State and its timber-hushed lands were nowhere near as fussy as their mystique led on. The terrain was friendly, amidst cypress swamps with no tides and packets of thicket in black holes on any map, and exceptional woods. It made up for the haunting antebellum homes and quite courageous Confederate flagposters. Short of randomly digging holes in the ground through it or tracing every single hole in the wall where no one blanketed anonymity for too long, Justin Bolden was at a loss of answers to truly condole himself, let alone the Weathers. As with very few before. And all, no matter their age, were children. Pearletta’s mother called him. So he answered. It went this way sometimes, he was learning: blasts from the past, unlikely friendships, a constellation of names, sedimentation to knights in closed position for life. Thank God he had stayed near his parents, his daughter. How many more could there have been, here and there, further away, and up or down, to the cities? Even now, as he knocked on forty’s door, the brain picking and names and all of it clicked his clock into worry about dementia, enough to speed it up. Now, he stood in a stranger’s living room in a circle of prayer before talk.

When she had called him this time it was really for the company and no news. For, two years later of little sleep and strident crying spells and emergency room doctors coming up with little but heartbreak, Viola Weathers sat down. They were going to move. Like most victims would, if only they could. Mr. Bolden must come to say goodbye.

“Pearly played the violin in school for me. I started viola when I was five. I was named to go to conservatory but, well, I met Father. No regrets. Pearly liked to read on the porch. It’s why Father put in that swing. She brought the baby up here a few times. Oh, the baby just loved that swing. Thank God she left that Negro home. Heathen, he was. And, you know, kids won’t come round you when they’re on the crooked and broad. But, anyway. That sofa chair you sitting in there? I caught her playing with herself in it one night, watching this late mess on cable. TV’s gonna be the death of us. I keep it off. Now, that picture there we took on break to the North, Kansas City. Father’s people there. Say they got miles of new white houses on long drives. Black folks in ‘em too. And, still warm. Snow even, but warm. Oh, Pearly liked that cup. She liked the little blue lattice on the edges, gold on the rim. Pearly loved anything at all complicated. The handle ain’t as round as it seems though. Nope. Little more creative. Little ridges on the inside if you wanna scratch your finger or readjust without setting down the cup. Nice shape. Like Pearly’s … So, Mister Bolden, you want some fried green tomatoes and pot liquor?”

“Well, um. Sure.”

“Come with me.”

She walked Bolden to the kitchen in back through two halls of what she called her “manor,” sliding her fingers along the lid of an upright piano and straightening shoulder-brushed wooden picture frames. Pearletta would show again one day, like a cat shot off in heat rushed back to have the litter. Itinerant—so all the more capable of exhaustion, hunger and destitution. They’d take her back any way she came. They would leave a forwarding address with the neighbors and one of the new young tellers still at the bank Mr. Weathers left. He couldn’t add or subtract well since Pearletta’s disappearance. Viola never mentioned her other boy and girl, just holes in a doughnut they were now. The stricken siblings had first escorted Bolden through Pearletta’s third floor back bedroom, since Viola couldn’t make it up the stairs in her non-public conditions. A shame, the bedroom was. Department store perfume and makeup hoarded in such telling piles as to adjourn the concept of brand. A has-been’s overstuffed and tantrum-battered closet. School projects and notebooks and college textbooks crying for help from sunken shelves. The dresser top was greasy, the mirror was smudged and flecked with nail polish. Shame. He could tell it cost good money. Like any girl, the off-tune music boxes and tangles of common jewelry remained, stuffed animals in astonished poses in the corners. Magazine covers taped to the walls. Posters; Pearletta once adored Britney Spears and U2. Condoms and a league of the one shoe missing spread under her bulky queen bed. Yet the sheets stayed stretched, undefamable and white. Pearletta had always known it was there, perhaps, for little to nothing to do, to just climb on in it at time to use her key again there.

Viola had allowed him and him alone—“the black fella”—trust to pinpoint defamations. Him and only him. Just tell her, first, what fault he found. Now, Viola said, room was cleaned cause she had a little grandson who grew to like it, for the view of the backyard swing set and sound of the birdfeeders, woodpeckers and mourning doves drawn. Bolden could see the room’s windows, heavy white drapes starch and panes down, when he stood in the former root vegetable garden now entombed by disdain.

“All things change, as you know,” Viola explained. She was thinner. Her lessened dreadlocks swung back inside, for her to cook and serve her husband first, drowsy in his Lazy Boy. Then, she would get the good policeman’s plate ready. Out back in the gazebo, Bolden slipped back the mosquito net and made himself comfortable in a wrought iron chair at a matching table teetered out of balance. A monarch let itself in.

Out the sun, away from the station and his precinct grounds and with perspective to go along with the Buick, Bolden noticed different things from time to time. There is a breeze. Shade is the noblest mercy. The sky ain’t always blue. Leaves ain’t all the same. Ants are quite the characters. Day or night, the wildlife camouflage amongst it all, to guard the living from the reproach of dead silence. He saw a squirrel roundoff for what may, even lower critters cut through grass and silt loam. The swing set and slide were scratched and scraped from good use. Pearletta had to be dead. So long as a door to a home like the Weathers’ was open and a four-poster bed overlooked a swing set stayed set, even the most committed junkie would have sulked home by now. Mr. Weathers’ fishing poles drooped and his bait pails tipped against a wood chalet shed, the door cracked with the ins-and-outs of inventorying life, prepping to relocate a lifetime. Its witty, sand-dusted mementos stacked atop shelves and tables and racks Bolden wanted to get to know. With Viola scatterbrained inside, and Bolden too polite to rush her, he went alone.

A crow face-up and wings spread lay at the edge of it. Probably warm. Bolden nudged it with side of his Doc Martens behind sprouts of maidenhair at side of the shed. Besides tougher signs of the industry a banker was not known for but relished nonetheless—a leaf blower, push lawn mower, axes and saws—the shed stored the runoff of a family clearly once intact and going places. An ivory crib and rocking horse, practice basketball hoops, three matching ten speeds, a ruffled and collapsed on-ground pool, old Easy Oven bake set, golf clubs and marked boxes of clothes meant for donation. A construction of antique hard drives, computer screens, scanners, typewriters and even a floor-model Xerox machine sat covered by painter’s plastic. Atop a carpenter’s table were paint pans and cans. The mint green color Viola pointed out seemed to be the only color used from the many there, all mild. If only he had met Pearletta here and not there. If only there had been no Singer’s Trailer Park awaiting her … or, if Pearletta had waited here, longer, in colors of life and with sound of birdfeeders, on porch swings.

Viola tapped Bolden on his neck and he shivered.

“Didn’t mean to scare you,” Viola said. “I gotta start on this shed soon.”

“No,” Bolden told her. “A nice one. I’m curious ‘bout the size. It hold so much.”

“We had it custom-built,” Viola told him. “Expected more grandkids … Pearly wanted to hog this on up too.”

“Oh?”

“That girl wanted it all. Before we could crack champagne on the side or cut a ribbon to it she already thought it was hers. It was gonna be her little art studio.”

“I ain’t know Pearletta was an artist.”

“She wasn’t. Could’ve been though. It was just excuse to run on off from us and do things in secret and keep folks guessing, like now. I guess.”

“Oh, well okay.”

“She was impatient with painting. So we bought her the stuff to start that pottery bit, ‘fore she went off to Oakwood. Actually used it all too. Still, when she showed up from time to time these last few years. ‘Bout a year after all the mess in that there park.”

“Yes, Singer’s,” Bolden said. “There’s good people there, despite …”

“Keep dreaming,” Viola said. “The pottery appealed to her nature a bit more than the painting, you know. It was dirtier. Tough to handle. Business, we told her. We was paying. Black child in Mississippi ain’t got no business thinking ‘bout majoring in no art. Or black child in all America for that matter. But you’ve done mighty well for yourself, Mr. Bolden. You wanna see some of the stuff she made? It really is pretty.”

Bolden followed Viola to a spacious dugout behind the toys. He saw an electric potters wheel and stone slab table, unopened bins of clay and sealed tins of glaze.

“This little pug mill last thing we bought Pearly,” Viola said. “Cost a fortune nearly. When she lost the baby. Divorced that dopehead we told her not to marry. Cost us another fortune to untangle that braid. But the pug mill was my gift. To cheer her up.”

Bolden looked at the stacks and stacks of clay circles and glazed vases belonged to Pearletta. He moved near them. But, Viola skipped past him to resituate the dozens of sturdy works, as she really had only been doing in the shed at times she intended to start purging it. There was music behind the labor; depending on the shape and the glaze, a different sound came when any of it touched. Some pieces had broken, in clumsiness and poor judgment more so than incoherence or rage. However, since she had an audience, Viola was much more careful and systematic about her fiddling. This-away and that-away some needed to be, looked better as, matched colors better, sized up closer … the touching of it all and the sounds. Even the dirt it uncovered added to the melody.

“Looka here,” Viola said. From a bowl of knicknacks, she pulled a small work: a long thin tube with a hole at one of the ends, a round bowl at the other. The inside of the bowl was fragrant, charred. “Pearletta loved her incense, Too much smoke for me.”

“It’s a nice color,” Bolden told her. “May I see it?”

Viola passed the bowl to him and went on back to her task upon a stack of Pearletta’s intaglios devoted to nature, rivers and suns and hilltops with trees. She would keep them, for Pearletta’s traveling mural. Had never thought of these, though Father would have to drill in hooks in addition to all else had to be done to get ready. Bolden sniffed the bowl. He smelled the remains of more than a few sessions of weed smoking. That part of what it was used for, probably more, was still apparent in the odor. Bolden noticed the pipe’s bowl was not perfectly round. It was indented in the middle, into a heart. And, his fingertips sank into imperfections at the side. Or no. Marked, a teeny engraving added after the fact, given how little depth the etching held. With his back to the door where the sun shot through to give Viola even more light, to see she had mixed in a magenta ashtray with the intended purple plate set and this wasn’t the way, Bolden made out the message on the side: Redvine … xo, xo …

It would take him just a few days to recall, out the names and faces creaking up what he used to think was a pretty sharp mind, where he knew the name from. And why.

He wondered just how much more Pearletta sprinkled around for them all, unforgotten, unloaded consciousness, snuck in and quickly tucked out of view. Always running. And, as he watched a woman move about her modest shed in back of what she called her “manor” and walked through as the lord of, he resisted the bite of judgment at the before which could have dismayed this after. There had to have been money to get Pearletta Weathers some help before it came down to Pearletta Hassle. It could have been done quietly. Faraway. Maybe they had tried. For the victims, he always had to suspend judgment. He put the weed bowl in his pants pocket, a defamation but at least one with a name on it. Maybe a clue or help down the road, if Pearletta was still walking them.

“We was supposed to eat something, right?” Viola asked him, rearranging still.

Bolden let her know she was right, and so they ate.

Kalisha Buckhanon’s novels are Conception and Upstate, published by John Murray in London and Rouergue in Paris. Her writing awards include an American Library Association Alex Award, Friends of American Writers Award and Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Prose. She and her work have been featured in Essence, Guardian/ London Observer, Michigan Quarterly Review, Mosaic, Colorlines, xoJane.com and more. She has three degrees in English, literature and writing from University of Chicago and The New School in New York. “Pearletta” is a chapter is her upcoming novel Women And Girls, inspired by her Southern family roots and heritage in Mississippi. It details a heartbroken mother’s polite parting with the law officer who worked on her daughter’s missing person’s case. 

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