Chapter One

The wind came and blew through town like never before on the day I was born.

It was May 17, 1952, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. When the nurse came around to tell my daddy I was here he whooped and hollered so loud everybody thought he was crazy. Hell, it took five nurses to convince him that it was okay to touch me. I wasn’t real tiny like some babies, but he was a big man with big old hands. That’s what I remember most about my daddy, his hands. Working man’s hands. Big and ashy with blisters and dead skin. He was always apologizing for them, but me, I loved them. 

Now from what I was told about the hospital, it was cold and it seemed like folks were screaming but they’d probably say it was me. My daddy said the doctor ain’t even have to hit me, that I came out screaming just like he was. Only difference was he stopped after a while. He said that when they took me home I was still screaming and folks would come by and say, “Ooo what y’all doing to that child to make her scream like that?” He’d smile and say I was just gearing up to start singing, that I was practicing. Then he’d laugh in that way that put folks in the mind of a big friendly grizzly bear. Kind of laugh that made them at least wanna smile. That was my daddy. He had a voice like nails on sandpaper—scratchy and real deep. And he loved pecan pie almost as much as he loved me. That’s how I got my name. My mama leaned toward Belinda so that’s what’s on the papers but growing up most folks called me Pecan. Because they say it was real obvious how much he loved me and I loved him. 

I don’t remember what my mama looked like, but folks say I look like her. Mostly on account of my shade of brown. Not too dark and not too light. Right in the middle. And my figure was like that too. Not too big and not too small. Not too tall and not short neither. I figured that’s what they meant saying I looked like her. But my daddy used to say it was my eyes. He said they were the most beautiful eyes he ever saw. My mama’s eyes...Was really the only thing he ever said about her. That she had real pretty eyes. The kind that bat at a man and make him do crazy things. Folks used to say that I had that power over him too. That I could just bat my eyes and make him do what I wanted. Course I never saw it like that. Never saw fit to even test it out.

Anyway, folks meant it as a good thing—saying I looked like my mama but it used to make me mad. What I wanna look like her for? She ain’t do nothing. My daddy was the one did everything for me. Braided my hair. Taught me things. 

When I was seven I’d figured some of it out by just listening when the grown folks talked. Most women were naturally giving people but my mama was only good at giving the men folks a good time. Being a wife and mother just wasn’t her cup of tea. Broke my daddy’s heart so bad he couldn’t even say her name. So, I tried real hard not to bring it up but every so often I’d ask my daddy where my mama was and a few days later I’d get a letter from either New Orleans or Mobile. That’s how I learned that Hattiesburg was right between New Orleans and Mobile. And she’d say how much fun she was having and how much she loved me. Never that she was coming home or that she missed me. Only that I shouldn’t worry and that I was loved. Eventually I started to wonder why my mama’s handwriting and my daddy’s handwriting looked so much alike. 

He worked for a lumber company, knocking down trees, but what he really did was fix things. Folks came from far and wide to have my daddy fix something of theirs. He never charged for it, just did it because he said it needed doing. When I was eight, we were sitting on the porch, watching folks go by and he explained it to me. He said, “Folks gotta get to work, they gotta eat, they gotta have them some clean clothes; that’s why I do what I do. You gonna see. When you get to be a lady you gonna find a way to be useful too.”

I nodded like I understood because I ain’t wanna disappoint him, but I ain’t have one clue what he was talking about. Me, useful? I couldn’t see past being a kid. 

Then when I got to be a teenager, talk turned from useful to proper. Not from my daddy, but from other folks in the neighborhood, folks at church. They were all worried about me because I was raised by a man. Worried I wouldn’t make a proper wife to somebody. One of the deacons’ wives took me aside one day and explained that ladies wore stockings. She said I was pretty enough, but if I wanted to find somebody to love me, I’d have to make myself look like a lady. Stockings and hairpins and pressing combs...my daddy just watched all nervous like from the hallway while I burned each one of my ears time and time again. But in the end everybody wanted to put they hands in my hair.

“Well look at you, girl!” They said. “Got some nice hair now, huh? Just gotta make sure you know how to cook and you gonna snatch up a man real quick!”

They were never satisfied. My daddy finally had to tell them, “Stop picking on her. She gonna be just fine.” 

I wasn’t much in the kitchen. I could bake pretty good but real food was a different story. Didn’t worry me too much because my daddy’s stew and barbecue broke records. Him and his apron that said so. He called it his truth-telling apron because it said that he was working up some magic right there on the fabric. I’d watch him throw stuff together that ain’t have no business being near each other and folks would suck it all down, and then look around for some more. 

I was pretty good in school, though. Got good marks, was liked by most everybody. I was a good girl, folks said. All the way up until my last year...

A couple of us girls were standing around drinking soda pops when the bus from Biloxi pulled into town and sent dust flying every which way. A gritty storm cloud, swirling around me in my plaid dress that wasn’t anything really special. The driver screeched to a stop and folks started to unload. This big guy strolled down the steps, pausing once his feet hit the dirt so he could look around at what was waiting for him. He was full of muscles, with a face like Smokey Robinson’s, wearing a clean white shirt that was only buttoned up halfway so we could see what God had blessed him with. He tilted his hat down over his face to block out the sun. He’d gotten off the bus with a bunch of other folks but I don’t remember them. 

“Morning,” he said, tipping his hat toward us.

“It ain’t morning. It’s almost two o’clock.” LeAnn pointed to the clock over the general store and hurried after him. “Where you from?”

“Biloxi.” He looked back over his shoulder, watching us giggling behind them. “What’s so funny?”

“Ignore them.” LeAnn dismissed us with a wave. She was real friendly, like a welcome wagon for all the guys come through our town. We were her friends so that’s what we called it. Friendly. Other folks called it something else. “So...how long you in town for?”

“Don’t know.” He looked her up and down, a grin just dying to get out. Men folk was always grinning at LeAnn. But then he did something that shocked all of us. He looked away from LeAnn and right at me. My heart just plain old stopped right there in the street. I couldn’t stop smiling even though I knew I looked a fool. That was the beginning of me and Ricky.

 

Ricky had been outta school a few years but I still had to go so we had to wait until the end of the day to see each other. Sometimes he couldn’t wait and he’d show up in the halls, just watching me. Made me feel special that he just wanted to look at me. My house was about a ten-minute walk across town from my school. Ricky walked me home every day and we’d talk about all the things he wanted to do. Mostly, how he was gonna do something nobody else could do. He was gonna beat Muhammad Ali. Of course I ain’t have no idea who this Ali person was until he explained it to me. Ricky had a destiny and I believed him when he said it was gonna happen.

“The only difference between us is he Muslim. I got a pretty face just like him. I’m fast...see, quick...just like him.” He swung at the air in front of us, running this way and that, kicking up dust from the road while my bag of books slapped up against his backside. “See. You see?”

“Yeah, I see.”

“I met this man once. A boxing legend. And he say I got natural talent. That’s why I’m gonna be the greatest. They just don’t know it yet. You believe me, right, Pecan?” 

“Yeah I believe you.”

“You believe I’m gonna be something?”

“Yeah.” I nodded and couldn’t help but blush every time he looked at me.

He stopped fighting the air long enough to pull me off to the side of the road. Nature made way for us. Smelling green way up in the trees and down low around the grass that whisked around my knees. Spring was just a few days away.

“R-Ricky, where we going?”

He ain’t answer me just held tighter to my hand. We dodged a few branches and hopped over a fallen log then stopped. He dropped my bag on top of an anthill, not paying it no mind. Couldn’t hear the road no more, just birds chirping and the wind. Most of my clothes were homemade and I did my own washing so I was looking around, thinking about all the stains I was gonna get on the bottom of my dress and in my stockings. But couldn’t stay on that too long, the way Ricky was looking at me. Never stopped looking at me that way, not really. But back then just seeing him smiling dirty thoughts at me made me blush real hard. Here was this pretty Southern boy that was going someplace and he ain’t make no secret about the fact he wanted me with him. He looked at me like he wanted to crawl up inside me and tear me apart. Scared me so that I started to back away. I backed up until my back was up against a tree. And Ricky ain’t waste no time getting pressed up against my front. Wasn’t nowhere for me to go. He was hard all over, his muscles and all. I could see them through his clothes because they were just that thin. But still I ain’t expect to feel so much hardness. 

“Um...Ricky?”

He sorta moaned and rubbed up against me. I hadn’t been that close to a boy ever. The tangy sweetness of his sweat beat off his chest until it got all up in me. His legs between mine, his hot breath all over my neck. I knew what was coming next.

“Ricky, I-I...I can’t.”

“You can’t what?” His lips parted into a smile and then he kissed me like I was all grown up and all I could do was blush. “You a good girl, ain’t you, Pecan? Hmm? You know what I mean?”

I did. And I was. Not that I could say it. I just sorta nodded. And he kissed me again. His tongue big and wet, slid on top of mine then disappeared, leaving me breathless. He was moving down my body...to my neck, my chest. Taking the buttons one at a time until my brassiere was showing to all of outside.

“Ricky, stop!” I covered myself best I could.

“I just wanna look. I ain’t gonna do nothing.” He looked at me all innocent like. “Come on, Pecan. I swear.”

“You swear?”

“Yeah, I said I swear.” Ricky coaxed my arms down to my sides so he could see what I was hiding. Nothing special in my eyes. I’d known girls that had more to hide but Ricky got real hard and swollen pretty fast. Next thing I knew he was right back to squeezing up against me and growling up in my ear.  

“Ricky, come on stop now.”

With all his strength, he ain’t have to try too hard to lift me up. And he ain’t care none that the tree bark was scratching through the back of my dress. Just wanted to get me so my legs were wrapped around him. And before I knew it he was fumbling up under my dress.

“You feel that? Huh? Feel that? I know you do.”

“Um...Ricky...You swore!”

This groan came from somewhere down deep inside him and he pushed up off the tree so there was space between us. He did it even though he ain’t want to, and watched me fix myself up. Put the buttons back in the right slots. Watched so hard I thought maybe he was gonna come back after me. But then he said, “Wanna be my girl?”

“Your girl?”

“Yeah. Unless you lying to me about being a good girl. You do this with every boy in town? Let them get all up on you?”

“No...”

“Aight, then. You gonna be my girl. My mama always said I should find me a good girl.” He took my hand, grinning at me so I could see his pearly white teeth. “And you pretty too. Betcha know how to cook real good, don’t you?”

“Not really.”

“But you’d learn.” He nudged me on. “You’d learn for me, wouldn’t you, Pecan?”

I nodded and we walked the rest of the way to my house holding hands. We looked a hot mess—dusty and wrinkled and I was missing a barrette. Folks were staring but I ain’t care. Not until I saw the look on my daddy’s face.

“Where you been, Pecan?” His voice boomed down the dusty road and folks cut they eyes in my direction.

“At school.” I couldn’t even look at him, not because it was a lie or anything, just because I was afraid he’d think it was.

“Go on in the house and clean yourself up.”

I did as I was told and by the time I came back out Ricky was gone. My daddy was sitting on the porch, chewing tobacco and nodding to folks as they came past. I never knew what he said to Ricky, but I knew he ain’t like him too much. 

My daddy was a talker, could out-talk anybody, but never with Ricky. And that night over supper, he ain’t even wanna talk to me much. All you could hear was the clink of forks and the crickets outside our front door. I wanted to say something. I hated the thought of him thinking I was a different girl than I was. I was a good girl. Most girls I knew had already had they first kiss and was working on other things. Not me. But I couldn’t get the words to come out of my mouth. So we ate in silence for a while.

“From now on you come straight home from school. You walk with that girlfriend of yours that live down the street. You hear me?”

“Yes s-sir.” I nodded, damn close to crying.

“If that boy wanna see you, he gotta ask me about it first. You hear me, Pecan?”

“Y-Y-Yes daddy.”

Course it wasn’t really up to me. I passed on the message to Ricky and he just kinda smirked. Ain’t stop him from showing up at the high school or following me and my girlfriends around town, whistling at our behinds. Wasn’t no secret around town. Everybody knew Ricky had his eye on me. Some folks thought he had more than that. I could tell by the way they looked at me. But I was my daddy’s girl. Wasn’t about to do nothing that make him think bad of me. So, I kept my distance from Ricky. He had to settle for smiling at me and making faces from across the street. 

We were never alone after that little thing in the woods. Must’ve gotten on his nerves real bad because one day he showed up at my house, flowers in hand. They were so fresh the roots were still on them. 

My daddy met him out on the porch like Ricky wasn’t good enough to come up in the house. Told him if he wanted to see me he could do it when everybody else did. Said Ricky wasn’t gonna be running off with me. 

Folks said it was just because I was his only chile, only girl. They said because of how my mama did him he wasn’t gonna like nobody for me. But I’d never know if they were right or if it was more than that because the very next day my daddy died. They said he just fell over in the field when he was working. Heart attack. Just like that. One day he was there with me, the next he was gone. I thought maybe it was me. That I’d killed him by doing what I almost did with Ricky. 

 

The Mississippi heat had its run of Hattiesburg the day we put my daddy in the ground. It was so hot steam was rising off the grass around his grave. Muggy and damn near stifling the heat was. I got all pitted before we even got to the graveyard. Ricky was good. He held my hand through it all. Saying how he knew what I was feeling because he lost his mama that year too.

“Hold on, Pecan.” He said. “Just hold on, baby. It’s almost over.” 

The sun beamed down on top of that tiny little hill. Me and Ricky, the preacher, and half the town. The preacher read from his book and some of the pages flew out, heading toward the Mississippi. He ran after the missing pages, his little bitty legs leaping up in the air to catch them like they were really worth something. Ricky had to fight back a smile. He tried to hide it but I saw. I just ain’t care. They lowered my daddy down that dark rectangle of a hole and I thought I was dying. Ricky said I was talking and swearing but I don’t remember all that. I remember washing the dirt and grass stains outta my stockings and skirt and from under my nails. I remember crying to him, “I’m all alone now.” 

“N’all you ain’t.” He said in a husky whisper. “I’m a take care of you. You hear me, Pecan? You gone be just fine.”

We were married before the end of the week.

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2015 AWARD-WINNER

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2014 AWARD-WINNER

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"There was only one thing I wanted after my freedom. My girls."

— Belinda "Pecan" Morrow
How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch

 

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