It was too hot to do anything except wait for the heat to end, wait for rain. Wait on the red brick porch, down at the end of our street where the road made a wide, looping turn, disappearing into a tangled mess of kudzu vines. Wait for the Kitchen Lady, who was emerging from the open door of a dilapidated Chevrolet, out of a sea of black faces, each of them nodding, staring. They were looking at the intricate fan of windows above our door, which was painted mustard yellow against the wood siding’s battleship gray. It was a small and purposeful house, with no artistic features save the brilliant yellow door and the tiara of windowpanes. A solitary oak near the end of the front yard threw a meager shadow across the edge of the house, but its shade didn’t reach the porch.
In the Chevy, they were still staring, their faces immobile. They were far away, but I knew they were looking at me now. Me and my pallid, freckled skin, bruised shins, and short hair that mother refused to let grow because it was too thick. (“Ooh, come feel this girl’s hair,” the ladies at the beauty parlor would croon. “Let me get my thinnin’ razor.”) I slid my knobby elbows from my knees and told myself it was of no consequence that I was not attractive.
In an orchestrated wave of sound, of sighs, murmurs, and whispers, the Kitchen Lady’s people bid her goodbye. She slammed the Chevy’s door and ambled up the brick walk, not looking back as the car sped away. The dust from the road wafted up to the kudzu vines in great clouds. The air smelled of nectar.
My sister Kelly leaned out over the wrought-iron railing, knees bent, chin pointed to the ground. “It’s too hot,” she complained. Her faded, pink-striped sun dress was rumpled where she leaned and rocked on the railing. She’d put a matching pink barrette in her hair to hold back her bangs on account of the heat. I didn’t respond, and she went around back of the house, toward the rope swing.
The Kitchen Lady trudged up the walk with a rolling gait. At the railing, she shifted the paper bags she always brought, full of mysterious items, and turned her head to look at me, her face full and shiny with perspiration. I felt as if I were caught in a lie and looked away. Her big, wide feet landed heavily on the red cement steps. She was breathing hard, running her hand along the hot railing, lifting her head to the sky. I could see her shoes, split like melons, black against the stockings that ended below her knees. The pale stockings glared against her dark skin. She had no color, she had told me once, when I asked her why her skin was black.
“Child, you best be gettin’ inside now. Too hot to be alive.”
I stood up and fanned my face with my hand. I tried to make my voice sound genteel, like my mother’s. “I hope this is about as hot as it gets.”
I was trying hard to entertain the Kitchen Lady, but she would have none of it. She was already at the door, reaching for the knob, trying to escape the sun.
“Miss June,” I mimicked, putting on my best Kitchen Lady accent, the one my mother told me never to do around black people. I pressed my hands together and shook my head. “It ain’t got hot yet.”
“Child, did you hear what I said?” She held the front door open.
“Yes ma’am. Can we have collard greens for supper?”
“Oh Lord, I don’t know what we can have till I sees what we can have.” She closed the door after me and wiped the sweat from her neck with the hem of her dress. I looked away for fear of seeing her underthings. “Now you leave me be. Had enough trouble in my own family today. Marie ’bout to git herself kilt.”
She wandered toward the kitchen. I could hear her setting down her paper bags, rummaging through her things. Just off the kitchen, the bright sun streamed onto the high-backed cabinet seats of the nook. Many breakfasts I ate in that tiny room, wishing for some commercial cereal with a prize in the box I had seen on television, but invariably I was given fried eggs swimming in grease, cornmeal grits, usually with bacon or sausage, and thick, doughy biscuits or potatoes. I grew to love that instead.
Yet I wondered at the hardened black hands that brought food to my table. On Sunday afternoons we sat in sunny downtown diners. Amid the clanging of dishes and the shuffling of silverware, the obsequious black shadows would pass among us. Seated at the tables, the elders muttered, “South’ll rise again,” gesturing with frail, bony hands.
Still standing in the hall, I was awakened from my reverie by the roaring of the cicadas. I went back to the front porch, hot as it was, and looked out at the streamers and ropes of kudzu. A smell of hot clay rose from the thick, red soil. I listened hard: a long, escalating buzz, then brief quiet. Waves of hot air rippled over the lawn’s burnt grass. Near the edges of the drive, blue clusters of rabbit tobacco hung limp. When would it end? Every day there was the same dreadful heat and oppressive humidity. Every morning, as my bedroom brightened at dawn and the heat crept between the wooden slats along the floor, I lay on my damp mattress listening for a breeze, for any rustle against my sheets that might portend the coming of rain.
Now, listening to the static rhythm of the cicadas, a slight, gentle surge of air lifted the tiny hairs along my arms. The droning died and in the blessed silence I knew.
“Storm’s coming!” I shrieked, tearing through the hall and kitchen and out the back door. The low, whining creak and slam of the screen door echoed the first tremors of thunder.
“It’ll probably just pass on by,” Kelly said, swinging around me as she straddled the knotted rope swing.
“Where’s Gaffney? We gotta tell Gaffney!”
Kelly was on the upswing and had to turn her head. “Down sneakin’ up on the Cole boys. She’s gonna try and shoot them with her bow and arrow.” We both looked down the hill that sloped away from the grassy back yard and ended abruptly in woods. The wind teased the edge of the forest, parting the thick pine branches.
Kelly skidded to a stop, dragging her toes in the dirt. She pushed away the swing and pointed to the dark clouds on the horizon. “I hope it gets scary.” The swing continued to sway in the rising breeze, and the pecan tree dropped a few empty shells. “Then we can go inside and look at the picture!”
Beyond the screen door the Kitchen Lady said, “Jus’ a scratch. You jus’ hold that tissue up to your head till it quits bleeding. The way you bother them boys ever day, be glad they don’t poke your eye out.”
Kelly and I rushed inside. Gaffney was holding a tissue against her forehead, wincing, and she clutched her rubber-tipped arrow in her other hand.
“Did you get ’em?” I asked her.
“Yeah. Sort of.”
Kelly smiled, looked out the screen door at the dark row of gathering clouds, and suddenly leaned down, beating the sound of thunder on the kitchen table. Then she stood on her toes, reaching for the sky, her fingers splayed in homage to streaks of lightning. Gaffney’s eyes went wide. She threw her arrow in the air, and, yelping and leaping, she and Kelly circled the table. I joined them and together we pounded, leapt, and danced around and around the table. Nature was taking over our bodies. We were mirrors for the sky and clouds, earthly conduits for the energy contained in the merest promise of a storm. My head rang with anticipation.
“It’s gonna have a storm!” we chanted. “It’s gonna have a storm!”
“Good Lord Jesus,” the Kitchen Lady howled. “Don’t you ack like that in my kitchen! Now get out and let me be!”
“We want to look at Momma’s picture,” I said. “See how dark it’s getting?”
“Well, do it and be done with it. I ain’t got time to be foolin’ with you chilrens today.”
We pushed open the swinging door to the darkened dining room and stood stiffly, awed by the portrait. The wind fluttered through the house. Lightning flashed. The upswept hair of the woman in the picture trembled, blown by the storm. We gasped. She was sliding through the canvas, through the brush strokes, pushing back the swirling pattern of paint. Her eyes wide, she stared at us, moving underneath the layers of oil as if she were emerging from a great depth. She surfaced and was born into the storm. Her mouth pulled to a slow, malicious smile.
“I’m on my way,” we heard our real mother say, coming down the stairs.
The painting became two-dimensional again, and, guilty in our fascination and dread, we ran into the hallway, giggling and breathless.
Mother stopped on the staircase and adjusted the girth of her stomach against the tight waistband of her silk skirt. She was wearing the pin-striped suit she always wore whenever she wanted to make an impression. She came down, checking herself in the hall mirror. “I wish this were an audition,” she sighed. Leaning against the hall archway, she brought her arms up theatrically.
“Did the director really paint your portrait for you, Mama?” Kelly asked.
“Oh, you all know that old story.” She was on her way to the kitchen.
“How old were you then?” I asked.
Our mother, who was the best at telling stories, was nearly coaxed into a tale, but the rattle of leaves against the back porch caught her attention, and she exited out into the yard as if it were a motion-picture set. “Oh, it’s comin’ up a storm,” she said, and laughed as the wind lifted her hair. She squinted into the gathering breeze.
Lightning flashed, dimly at first, then brightly across the rolling purple-black clouds. I stared, fascinated. Then I heard the car start. Mother had disappeared. I watched the car turn down the road and I waved, forgetting to be disappointed that she didn’t say goodbye.
It didn’t matter. At last we had our storm. The Kitchen Lady peered at us disapprovingly from behind the screen door and made us promise to stay away from anything metallic. She cracked open the door and leaned out. “ ’Specially that ole tire swing strung up on a cable down yonder.” The door slammed with a vengeance. “Can’t handle you chilrens today. I oughta quit!”
I didn’t turn to look at her, even though I could feel her eyes on me, her anger and disgust on my back. I strained to listen to the wind. Instead I heard her whistling breath. “You gonna catch pneumonia,” she rasped, but I did not look back, merely opened my palms against the malevolent air.
All I wanted was the wind. Pine needles fell from the trees into my hair. At the tips of branches, the undersides of oak and spruce leaves rolled into softer greens against the menacing sky. The invisible force that often spoke to me in dreams pushed my racing heart out through my fingertips each time the wind rushed into my face. This was my Sunday, my religion, my Christmas morning.
My bare feet on powdered clay dirt and my hands in the air, I prayed to the wind: Take me. I hate it here. I hate all of it. My body stayed, though I willed my spirit to fly where the wind did. Suddenly I was forced to the ground by the wind, frightened by the flailing swallows hurled over the eaves of the house.
The Kitchen Lady’s giant arm sent the screen door flying open; one flimsy sheet of newspaper was wrapped over her head. “Y’all get inside a here now, ’fore you gets struck by lightning.” I trudged up the stairs last, dodging the large, spattering drops of rain.
A streak of lightning lit up the sky. The Kitchen Lady raced through the rooms, bending down, snatching at electrical cords. “You chilrens help me take the rest of the cords out a them pluglets. I already done the kitchen while you was ackin’ like a bunch a fools.”
The house was dim. We gathered in the kitchen to make chocolate Quik and watch the downpour.
“Hurry up and make your drinks, so’s we can set someplace safe,” the Kitchen Lady said, heaping a tablespoon of sugar into her glass.
“That has sugar in it already. Isn’t it sweet enough for you?” Kelly asked.
“Honey,” the Kitchen Lady intoned, “nothin’ ever be sweet enough for me.”
There was a brief silence. A tremendous flash washed the room in white light. Gaffney’s hand went to the nape of her neck. “I’m feelin’ electrocuted,” she cried. A bolt of lightning and a crack of thunder ripped through the house simultaneously. The wind blasted against the windows. Then the phone rang.
The Kitchen Lady screamed as she loped toward the hall, “Don’t pick it up! Don’t pick it up!”
“It might be Mother! Wondering how we are.” Kelly’s voice faded beneath the pounding of the Kitchen Lady’s shoes.
“Don’t care.” Her breath came wildly. “No sense in gettin’ electrocuted. Get to the livin’ room. Now!”
The clouds pulsated with a copper glow. Tree branches shivered and shook, snapping in the wind. At the end of the hall, the Kitchen Lady beckoned impatiently.
I ran toward her. Outside, a shaft of light sliced straight through the pecan tree. The whole tree shook and cracked in an exploding whirlwind of leaves, molten light uncoiling from the trunk. I bolted in terror, passing through the open end of the dining room. Pine needles from a torn tree limb scraped against the panes. The tree rolled and crashed through the yard. There was another intense flash. The wind screamed.
At the end of the hallway, I saw their faces, as if for the last time, bright with terror in the strobe of the lightning. The Kitchen Lady held out her arms and I leapt into them. She enveloped me, and death did not come. Booming thunder faded. We sat huddled against the corner of the living room, our backs pressed against the wall, far from the windows.
“And you like bein’ in the wind,” she said to me.
I eased away from her, embarrassed by my fear, but a brilliant flash caused us all to scramble toward her again. She threw her heavy arms around us hard. I clutched her and breathed into her perspiring cheek. Thunder cracked and the house shook. Through the jumbled arms and legs of my sisters, I looked for the Kitchen Lady’s face. I saw her easily in the dark. Her black eyes were staring through me.
“Don’t seem like the same wind, do it?”