PHILOSOPHY OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE

PHILOSOPHY OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE

The Doctor’s waiting room, which was very small, was almost full when

the Turpins entered and Mrs. Turpin, who was very large, made it look

even smaller by her presence. She stood looming at the head of the

magazine table set in the center of it, a living demonstration that the

room was inadequate and ridiculous. Her little bright black eyes took

in all the patients as she sized up the seating situation. There was one

vacant chair and a place on the sofa occupied by a blond child in a

dirty blue romper who should have been told to move over and make

room for the lady. He was five or six, but Mrs. Turpin saw at once that

no one was going to tell him to move over. He was slumped down in

the seat, his arms idle at his sides and his eyes idle in his head; his nose

ran unchecked.

Mrs. Turpin put a firm hand on Claud’s shoulder and said in a voice

that included anyone who wanted to listen, “Claud, you sit in that chair

there,” and gave him a push down into the vacant one. Claud was florid

and bald and sturdy, somewhat shorter than Mrs. Turpin, but he sat

down as if he were accustomed to doing what she told him to.

Mrs. Turpin remained standing. The only man in the room besides

Claud was a lean stringy old fellow with a rusty hand spread out on

each knee, whose eyes were closed as if he were asleep or dead or

pretending to be so as not to get up and offer her his seat. Her gaze

 

 

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settled agreeably on a well-dressed grey-haired lady whose eyes met

hers and whose expression said: if that child belonged to me, he would

have some manners and move over-there’s plenty of room there for

you and him too.

Claud looked up with a sigh and made as if to rise.

“Sit down,” Mrs. Turpin said. “You know you’re not supposed to stand

on that leg. He has an ulcer on his leg,” she explained.

Claud lifted his foot onto the magazine table and rolled his trouser leg

up to reveal a purple swelling on a plump marble white calf.

“My!” the pleasant lady said. “How did you do that?”

“A cow kicked him,” Mrs. Turpin said.

“Goodness!” said the lady.

Claud rolled his trouser leg down.

“Maybe the little boy would move over,” the lady suggested, but the

child did not stir.

“Somebody will be leaving in a minute,” Mrs. Turpin said. She could

not understand why a doctor-with as much money as they made

charging five dollars a day to just stick their head in the hospital door

and look at you-couldn’t afford a decent-sized waiting room. This one

 

 

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3

was hardly bigger than a garage. The table was cluttered with limp-

looking magazines and at one end of it there was a big green glass

ashtray full of cigarette butts and cotton wads with little blood spots on

them. If she had had anything to do with the running of the place, that

would have been emptied every so often. There were no chairs against

the wall at the head of the room. It had a rectangular-shaped panel in it

that permitted a view of the office where the nurse came and went and

the secretary listened to the radio. A plastic fern, in a gold pot sat in the

opening and trailed its fronds down almost to the floor. The radio was

softly playing gospel music.

Just then the inner door opened and a nurse with the highest stack of

yellow hair Mrs. Turpin had ever seen put her face in the crack and

called for the next patient. The woman sitting beside Claud grasped the

two arms of her chair and hoisted herself up; she pulled her dress free

from her legs and lumbered through the door where the nurse had

disappeared.

Mrs. Turpin eased into the vacant chair, which held her tight as a

corset. “I wish I could reduce,” she said, and rolled her eyes and gave a

comic sigh.

“Oh, you aren’t fat,” the stylish lady said.

“Ooooo I am too,” Mrs. Turpin said. “Claud he eats all he wants to and

never weighs over one hundred and seventy-five pounds, but me I just

look at something good to eat and I gain some weight,” and her

 

 

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4

stomach and shoulders shook with laughter. “You can eat all you want

to, can’t YOU, Claud?” she asked, turning to him.

Claud only grinned.

“Well, as long as you have such a good disposition,” the stylish lady

said, “I don’t think it makes a bit of difference what size you are. You

just can’t beat a good disposition.”

Next to her was a fat girl of eighteen or nineteen, scowling into a thick

blue book which Mrs. Turpin saw was entitled Human Development.

The girl raised her head and directed her scowl at Mrs. Turpin as if she

did not like her looks. She appeared annoyed that anyone should speak

while she tried to read. The poor girl’s face was blue with acne and Mrs.

Turpin thought how pitiful it was to have a face like that at that age.

She gave the girl a friendly smile but the girl only scowled the harder.

Mrs. Turpin herself was fat but she had always had good skin, and,

though she was forty-seven years old, there was not a wrinkle in her

face except around her eyes from laughing too much.

Next to the ugly girl was the child, still in exactly the same position, and

next to him was a thin leathery old woman in a cotton print dress. She

and Claud had three sacks of chicken feed in their pump house that

was in the same print. She had seen from the first that the child

belonged with the old woman. She could tell by the way they sat- kind

of vacant and white-trashy, as if they would sit there until Doomsday if

nobody called and told them to get up. And at right angles but next to

the well-dressed pleasant lady was a lank-faced woman who was

 

 

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certainly the child’s mother. She had on a yellow sweatshirt and wine-

colored slacks, both gritty-looking, and the rims of her lips were

stained with snuff. Her dirty yellow hair was tied behind with a little

piece of red paper ribbon. Worse than niggers any day, Mrs. Turpin

thought.

The gospel hymn playing was, “When I looked up and He looked

down,” and Mrs. Turpin, who knew it, supplied the last line mentally,

“And wona these days I know I’ll we-eara crown.

Without appearing to, Mrs. Turpin always noticed people’s feet. The

well-dressed lady had on red and grey suede shoes to match her dress.

Mrs. Turpin had on her good black patent -leather pumps. The ugly girl

had on Girl Scout shoes and heavy socks. The old woman had on

tennis shoes and the white-trashy mother had on what appeared to be

bedroom slippers, black straw with gold braid threaded through them-

exactly what you would have expected her to have on.

Sometimes at night when she couldn’t go to sleep, Mrs. Turpin would

occupy herself with the question of who she would have chosen to be if

she couldn’t have been herself. If Jesus had said to her before he made

her, “There’s only two places available for you. You can either be a

nigger or white trash,” what would she have said? “Please, Jesus,

please,” she would have said, “Just let me wait until there’s another

place available,” and he would have said, “No, you have to go right

now”, and I have only those two places so make up your mind.” She

would have wiggled and squirmed and begged and pleaded but it

would have been no use and finally she would have said, “All right,

 

 

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6

make me a nigger then-but that don’t mean a trashy one.” And he

would have made her a near clean respectable Negro woman, herself

but black.

Next to the child’s mother was a redheaded youngish woman, reading

one of the magazines and working a piece of chewing gum, hell for

leather, as Claud would say. Mrs. Turpin could not see the woman’s

feet. She was not white trash, just common. Sometimes Mrs. Turpin

occupied herself at night naming the classes of people. On the bottom

of the heap were most colored people, not the kind she would have

been if she had been one, but most of them; then next to them — not

above, just away from — were the white-trash; then above them were

the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land owners, to

which she and Claud belonged, Above she and Claud were people with

a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land. But here

the complexity of it would begin to bear in on her, for some of the

people with a lot of money were common and ought to be below she

and Claud and some of the people who had good blood had lost their

money and had to rent and then there some colored people who

owned their homes and land as well. There was a colored dentist in

town who had two red Lincoln’s and a swimming pool and a farm with

registered whiteface cattle on it. Usually by the time she had fallen

asleep all the classes of people were moiling and roiling around in her

head, and she would dream they were all crammed in together in a box

car, being ridden off to be put in a gas oven.

“That’s a beautiful clock,” she said and nodded to her right. It was a big

wall clock, the face encased in a brass sunburst.

 

 

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7

“Yes, it’s very pretty,” the stylish lady said agreeably. “And right on the

dot too,” she added, glancing at her watch.

The ugly girl beside her cast an eye upward at the clock, smirked, then

looked directly at Mrs. Turpin and smirked again. Then she returned

her eyes to her book. She was obviously the lady’s daughter because,

although they didn’t look anything alike as to disposition, they both

had the same shape of face and the same blue eyes. On the lady they

sparkled pleasantly but in the girl’s scared face they appeared

alternately to smolder and to blaze.

What if Jesus had said, “All right, you can be white-trash or a nigger or

ugly”!

Mrs. Turpin felt an awful pity for the girl, though she thought it was one

thing to be ugly and another to act ugly.

The woman with the snuff-stained lips turned around in her chair and

looked up at the clock. Then she turned back and appeared to look a

little to the side of Mrs. Turpin. There was a cast in one of her eyes.

“You want to know where you can get you one of them there clocks?”

she asked in a loud voice.

No , I already have a nice clock,” Mrs. Turpin said. Once somebody like

her got a leg in the conversation, she would be all over it.

 

 

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8

“You can get you one with green stamps,” the woman said. “That’s

most likely where he got hisn. Save you up enough, you can get you

most anythang. I got me some joo’ry.”

Ought to have got you a wash rag and some soap, Mrs. Turpin thought.

“I get contour sheets with mine,” the pleasant lady said.

The daughter slammed her book shut. She looked straight in front of

her, directly through Mrs. Turpin and on through the yellow curtain

and the plate glass window which made the wall behind her. The girl’s

eyes seemed lit all of a sudden with a peculiar light, an unnatural light

like night road signs give. Mrs. Turpin turned her head to see if there

was anything going on outside that she should see, but she could not

see anything. Figures passing cast only a pate shadow through the

curtain. There was no reason the girl should single her out for her ugly

looks.

“Miss Finley,” the nurse said, cracking the door. The gum-chewing

woman got up and passed in front of her and Claud and went into the

office. She had on red high-heeled shoes.

Directly across the table, the ugly girl’s eyes were fixed on Mrs. Turpin

as if she had some very special reason for disliking her.

“This is wonderful weather, isn’t it?” the girl’s mother said.

 

 

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9

“It’s good weather for cotton if you can get the niggers to pick it,” Mrs.

Turpin said, “but niggers don’t want to pick cotton any more. You can’t

get the white folks to pick it and now you can’t get the niggers because

they got to be right up there with the white folks.”

“They gonna try anyways,” the white-trash woman said, leaning

forward.

“Do you have one of those cotton-picking machines?” the pleasant

lady asked.

“No,” Mrs. Turpin said, “they leave half the cotton in the field. We

don’t have much cotton anyway. If you want to make it farming now,

you have to have a little of everything. We got a couple of acres of

cotton and a few hogs and chickens and just enough white-face that

Claud can look after them himself

“One thang I don’t want,” the white-trash woman said, wiping her

mouth with the back of her hand. “Hogs. Nasty stinking things, a-

gruntin and a-rootin all over the place.”

Mrs. Turpin gave her the merest edge of her attention. “Our hogs are

not dirty and they don’t stink,” she said. “They’re cleaner than some

children I’ve seen. Their feet never touch the ground. We have a pig-

parlor- that’s where you raise them on concrete,” she explained to the

pleasant lady, “and Claud scoots them down with the hose every

afternoon and washes off the floor.” Cleaner by far than that child right

 

 

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10

there, she thought. Poor nasty little thing. He had not moved except to

put the thumb of his dirty hand into his mouth.

The woman turned her face away from Mrs. Turpin. “I know I wouldn’t

scoot down no hog with no hose,” she said to the wall.

You wouldn’t have no hog to scoot down, Mrs. Turpin said to herself.

“A-gruntin and a-rootin and a-groanin,” the woman muttered.

“We got a little of everything,” Mrs. Turpin said to the pleasant lady.

“It’s no use in having more than you can handle yourself with help like

it is. We found enough niggers to pick our cotton this year but Claud he

has to go after them and take them home’again in the evening. They

can’t walk that half a mile. No they can’t. I tell you,” she said and

laughed merrily, “I sure am tired of butter’ing up niggers, but you got

to love em if you want em to work for you. When they come in the

morning, I run out and I say, “How yal this morning?’ and when Claud

drives them off to the field I just wave to beat the band and they just

wave back.” And she waved her hand rapidly to illustrate.

“Like you read out of the same book,” the lady said, showing she

understood perfectly.

“Child, yes,” Mrs. Turpin said. “And when they come in from the field, I

run out with a bucket of ice water. That’s the way it’s going to be from

now on,” she said. “You may as well face it.”

 

 

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11

“One thang I know,” the white-trash woman said. “Two thangs I ain’t

going to do: love no niggers or scoot down no hog with no hose.” And

she let out a bark of contempt.

The look that Mrs. Turpin and the pleasant lady exchanged indicated

they both understood that you had to have certain things before you

could know certain things. But every time Mrs. Turpin exchanged a

look with the lady, she was aware that the ugly girl’s peculiar eyes were

still on her, and she had trouble bringing her attention back to the

conversation.

“When you got something,” she said, “you got to look after it.” And

when you ain’t got a thing but breath and britches, she added to

herself, you can afford to come to town every morning and just sit on

the Court House coping and spit.

A grotesque revolving shadow passed across the curtain behind her

and was thrown palely on the opposite wall. Then a bicycle clattered

down against the outside of the building. The door opened and a

colored boy glided in with a tray from the drug store. It had two large

red and white paper cups on it with tops on them. He was a tall, very

black boy in discolored white pants and a green nylon shirt. He was

chewing gum slowly, as if to music. He set the tray down in the office

opening next to the fern and stuck his head through to look for the

secretary. She was not in there. He rested his arms on the ledge and

waited, his narrow bottom stuck out, swaying slowly to the left and

right. He raised a hand over his head and scratched the base of his

skull.

 

 

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12

“You see that button there, boy?” Mrs. Turpin said. “You can punch

that and she’ll come. She’s probably in the back somewhere.”

“Is thas right?” the boy said agreeably, as if he had never seen the

button before. He leaned to the right and put his finger on it. “She

sometime out,” he said and twisted around to face his audience, his

elbows behind him on the counter. The nurse appeared and he twisted

back again. She handed him a dollar and he rooted in his pocket and

made the change and counted it out to her. She gave him fifteen cents

for a tip and he went out with the empty tray. The heavy door swung to

slowly and closed at length with the sound of suction. For a moment

no one spoke.

“They ought to send all them niggers back to Africa,” the white trash

woman said. “That’s wher they come from in first place.”

“Oh, I couldn’t do without my good colored friends,” the pleasant lady

said.

“There’s a heap of things worse than a nigger,” Mrs. Turpin agreed.

“It’s all kinds of them just like it’s all kinds of us.”

“Yes, and it takes all kinds to make the world go round,” the lady said in

her musical voice.

As she said it, the raw-complexioned girl snapped her teeth together.

Her lower lip turned downwards and inside out, revealing the pale pink

 

 

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13

inside of her mouth. After a second it rolled back up. It was the ugliest

face Mrs. Turpin had ever seen anyone make and for a moment she

was certain that the girl had made it at her. She was looking at her as if

she had known and disliked her all her life-all of Mrs. Turpin’s life, it

seemed too, not just all the girl’s life. Why, girl, I don’t even know you,

Mrs. Turpin said silently.

She forced her attention back to the discussion. “It wouldn’t be

practical to send them back to Africa,” she said. “They wouldn’t want

to go. They got it too good here.”

“Wouldn’t be what they wanted-if I had anythang to do with it,” the

woman said.

“It wouldn’t be a way in the world you could get all the niggers back

over there,” Mrs. Turpin said. “They’d be hiding out and lying down

and turning sick on you and wailing and hollering and raring and

pitching. It wouldn’t be a way in the world to get them over there.”

“They got over here,” the trashy woman said. “Get back like they got

over.”

“It wasn’t so many of them then,” Mrs. Turpin explained.

The woman looked at Mrs. Turpin as if here was an idiot indeed but

Mrs. Turpin was not bothered by the look, considering where it came

from.

 

 

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14

“Nooo,” she said, “they’re going to stay here where they can go to New

York and marry white folks and improve their color. That’s what they

all want to do, every one of them, improve their color.”

“You know what comes of that, don’t you?” Claud asked.

“No, Claud, what?” Mrs. Turpin said.

Claud’s eyes twinkled. “White-faced niggers,” he said with never a

smile.

Everybody in the office laughed except the white-trash and the ugly

girl. The girl gripped the book in her lap with white fingers. The trashy

woman looked around her from face to face as if she thought they were

all idiots. The old woman in the feed sack dress continued to gaze

expressionless across the floor at the high-top shoes of the man

opposite her, the one who had been pretending to be asleep when the

Turpins came in. He was laughing heartily, his hands still spread out

on his knees. The child had fallen to the side and was lying now almost

face down in the old woman’s lap.

While they recovered from their laughter, the nasal chorus on the radio

kept the room from silence.

“You go to blank blank

And I’ll go to mine

But we’ll all blank along

To-geth-ther,

 

 

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15

And all along the blank

We’ll help each-other out

Smile-ling in any kind of Weath-ther!”

Mrs. Turpin didn’t catch every word but she caught enough to agree

with the spirit of the song and it turned her thoughts sober. To help

anybody out that needed it was her philosophy of life. She never spared

herself when she found somebody in need, whether they were white or

black, trash or decent. And of all she had to be thankful for, she was

most thankful that this was so. If Jesus had said, “You call be high

society and have all the money you want and be thin and svelte-like,

but you can’t be a good woman with it,” she would have had to say,

“Well don’t make me that then. Make me a good woman and it don’t

matter what else, how fat or how ugly or how poor!” Her heart rose. He

had not made her a nigger or white-trash or ugly! He had made her

herself and given her a little of everything. Jesus, thank you! she said.

Thank you thank you! Whenever she counted her blessings she felt as

buoyant as if she weighed one hundred and twenty five pounds

instead of one hundred and eighty.

“What’s wrong with your little boy?” the pleasant lady asked the white-

trashy woman.

“He has a ulcer,” the woman said proudly. “He ain’t give me a minute’s

peace since he was born. Him and her are just alike,” she said, nodding

at the old woman, who was running her leathery fingers through the

 

 

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16

child’s pale hair. “Look like I can’t get nothing down them two but Co’

Cola and candy.”

That’s all you try to get down em Mrs. Turpin said to herself. Too lazy

to light the fire. There was nothing you could tell her about people like

them that she didn’t know already. And it was not just that they didn’t

have anything. Because if you gave them everything, in two weeks it

would all be broken or filthy or they would have chopped it up for

lightwood. She knew all this from her own experience. Help them you

must, but help them you couldn’t.

All at once the ugly girl turned her lips inside out again. Her eyes were

fixed like two drills on Mrs. Turpin. This time there was no mistaking

that there was something urgent behind them.

Girl, Mrs. Turpin exclaimed silently, I haven’t done a thing to you! The

girl might be confusing her with somebody else. There was no need to

sit by and let herself be intimidated.

“You must be in college,” she said boldly, looking directly at the girl. “I

see you reading a book there.”

The girl continued to state and pointedly did not answer.

Her mother blushed at this rudeness. “The lady asked you a question,

Mary Grace,” she said under her breath.

“I have ears,” Mary Grace said.

 

 

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17

The poor mother blushed again. “Mary Grace goes to Wellesley

College,” she explained. She twisted one of the buttons on her dress.

“In Massachusetts, she added with a grimace. “And in the summer she

just keeps right on studying. Just reads all the time, a real book worm.

She’s done real well at Wellesley; she’s taking English and Math and

History and Psychology and Social Studies,” she rattled on “and I think

it’s too much. I think she ought to get out and have fun.”

The girl looked as if she would like to hurl them all through the plate

glass window.

“Way up north,” Mrs. Turpin murmured and thought, well, it hasn’t

done much for her manners.

“I’d almost rather to have him sick,” the white-trash woman said,

wrenching the attention back to herself. “He’s so mean when he ain’t.

Look like some children just take natural to meanness. It’s some gets

bad when they get sick but, he was the opposite. Took sick and turned

good. He don’t give me no trouble now. It’s me waitin to see the

doctor,” she said.

If I was going to send anybody back to Africa, Mrs. Turpin thought, it

would be your kind, woman. “Yes, indeed,” she said aloud, but looking

up at the ceiling, “It’s a heap of things worse than a nigger.” And dirtier

than a hog, she added to herself

 

 

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“I think people with bad dispositions are more to be pitied than

anyone on earth,” the pleasant lady said in a voice that was decidedly

thin.

“I thank the Lord he has blessed me with a good one,” Mrs. Turpin

said. “The day has never dawned that I couldn’t find something to

laugh at.”

“Not since she married me anyways,” Claud said with a comical

straight face.

Everybody laughed except the girl and the white trash.

Mrs. Turpin’s stomach shook. “He’s such a caution,” she said, “that I

can’t help but laugh at him.”

The girl made a loud ugly noise through her teeth.

Her mother’s mouth grew thin and tight. “I think the worst thing in the

world,” she said, “is an ungrateful person. To have everything and not

appreciate it. I know a girl,” she said, “who has parents who would give

her anything, a little brother who loves her clearly, who is getting a

good education, who wears the best clothes, but who can never say a

kind word to anyone, who never smiles, who just criticizes and

complains all day long.”

“Is she too old to paddle?” Claud asked.

 

 

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19

The girl’s face was almost purple.

“Yes,” the lady said, “I’m afraid there’s nothing to do but leave her to

her folly. Some day she’ll wake up and it’ll be too late.”

“It never hurt anyone to smile,” Mrs. Turpin said. “It just makes you

feel better all own”

“Of course,” the lady said sadly, “but there are just some people you

can’t tell anything to. They can’t take criticism.”

“If it’s one thing I am,” Mrs. Turpin said with feeling, “It’s grateful.

When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I

got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like

shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!’ It

could have been different!” For one thing, somebody else could have

got Claud. At the thought of this, she was flooded with gratitude and a

terrible pang of joy ran through her. “Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank

you!” she cried aloud.

The book struck her directly, over her left eye. It struck almost at the

same instant that she realized the girl was about to hurl it. Before she

could utter a sound, the raw face came crashing across the table

toward her, howling. The girl’s fingers sank like clamps the soft flesh of

her neck. She heard the mother cry out and Claud shout, “Whoa!”

There was an instant when she was certain that she was about to be in

an earthquake.

 

 

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All at once her vision narrowed and she saw everything as if it were

happening in a small room far away, or as if she were looking at it

through the wrong end of a telescope.

Claud’s face crumpled and fell out of sight. The nurse ran in, then out,

then again. Then the gangling figure of the doctor rushed out of the

inner door. Magazines flew this way and that as the table turned over.

The girl fell with a thud and Mrs. Turpin’s vision suddenly reversed

itself and she saw everything large instead of small. The eyes of the

white-trashy woman were staring hugely at the floor. There the girl,

held down on one side by the nurse and on the other by her mother,

was wrenching and turning in their grasp. The doctor was kneeling

astride her, trying to hold her arm down. He managed after a second to

sink a long needle into it.

Mrs. Turpin felt entirely hollow except for her heart which swung from

side to side as if it were agitated in a great empty drum of flesh.

“Somebody that’s not busy call for the ambulance,” the doctor said in

the off-hand voice young doctors adopt for terrible occasions.

Mrs. Turpin could not have moved a finger. The old man who had been

sitting next to her skipped nimbly into the office and made the call, for

the secretary still seemed to be gone.

“Claud!” Mrs. Turpin called.

 

 

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21

He was not in his chair. She knew she must jump up and find him but

she felt like someone trying to catch a train in a dream, when

everything moves in slow, motion and the faster you try to run the

slower you go.

“Here I am,” a suffocated voice, very unlike Claud’s said.

He was doubled up in the corner on the floor, pale as paper, holding

his leg. She wanted to get up and go to him but she could not move.

Instead, her gaze was drawn slowly downward to the churning face on

the floor, which she could see over the doctor’s shoulder.

The girl’s eyes stopped rolling and focused on her. They seemed a

much lighter blue than before, as if a door that had been tightly closed

behind them was now open to admit light and air.

Mrs. Turpin’s head cleared and her power of motion returned. She

leaned forward until she was looking directly into the fierce brilliant

eyes. There was no doubt in her mind that the girl did know her, know

her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and

condition. “What you got to say to me?” she asked hoarsely and held

her breath, waiting, as for a revelation.

The girl raised her head. Her gaze locked with Mrs. Turpin’s. “Go back

to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” she whispered. Her

voice was low but clear. Her eyes burned for a moment as if she saw

with pleasure that her message had struck its target.

 

 

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22

Mrs. Turpin sank back in her chair.

After a moment the girl’s eyes closed and she turned her head wearily

to the side.

The doctor rose and handed the nurse the empty syringe. He leaned

over and put both hands for a moment on the mother’s shoulders,

which were shaking. She was sitting on the floor, her lips pressed

together, holding Mary Grace’s hand in her lap. The girl’s fingers were

gripped like a baby ‘s around her thumb. “Go on to the hospital,” he

said. “I’ll call and make the arrangements.”

“Now let’s see that neck,” he said in a jovial voice to Mrs.

Turpin. He began to inspect her neck with his first two fingers. Two

little moon-shaped lines like pink fish bones were

indented over her windpipe. There was the beginning of an

angry red swelling above her eye. His fingers passed over this

also.

‘Lea’ me be,” she said thickly and shook him off. “See about Claud. She

kicked him.”

“I’ll see about him in a minute,” he said and felt her pulse. He was a

thin grey-haired man, given to pleasantries. “Go home and have

yourself a vacation the rest of the day,” he said and patted her on the

shoulder.

Quit your pattin me, Mrs. Turpin growled to herself.

 

 

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23

“And put an ice pack over that eye,” he said. Then he went and

squatted down beside Claud and looked at his leg. After a moment he

pulled him up and Claud limped after him into the office.

Until the ambulance came, the only sounds in the room were the

tremulous moans of the girl’s mother, who continued to sit on the

floor. The white-trash woman did not take her eyes off the girl. Mrs.

Turpin looked straight ahead at nothing. Presently the ambulance

drew up, a long dark shadow, behind the curtain. The attendants came

in and set the stretcher down beside the girl and lifted her expertly

onto it and carried her out. The nurse helped the mother gather up her

things. The shadow of the ambulance moved silently -away and the

nurse came back in the office.

“That there girl is going to be a lunatic, ain’t she?” the white-trash

woman asked the nurse, but the nurse kept on to the back and never

answered her.

“Yes, she’s going to be a lunatic,” the white-trash woman said to the

rest of them.

“Po’ critter,” the old woman murmured. The child’s face was still in her

lap. His eyes looked idly out over her knees. He had not moved during

the disturbance except to draw one leg up under him.

“I thank Gawd,” the white-trash woman said fervently, “I ain’t a

lunatic.”

 

 

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24

Claud came limping out and the Turpins went home.

As their pick-up truck turned into their own dirt road and made the

crest of the hill, Mrs. Turpin gripped the window ledge and looked out

suspiciously. The land sloped gracefully down through a field dotted

with lavender weeds and at the start of the rise their small yellow frame

house, with its little flower beds spread out around it like a fancy

apron, sat primly in its accustomed place between two giant hickory

trees. She would not have been startled to see a burnt wound between

two blackened chimneys.

Neither of them felt like eating so they put on their house clothes and

lowered the shade in the bedroom and lay down, Claud with his leg on

a pillow and herself with a damp washcloth over her eye. The instant

she was flat on her back, the image of a razor-backed hog with warts on

its face and horns coming out behind its ears snorted into her head.

She moaned, a low quiet moan.

“I am not,” she said tearfully, “a wart hog. From hell.” But the denial

had no force. The girl’s eyes and her words, even the tone of her voice,

low but clear, directed only to her, brooked no repudiation. She had

been singled out for the message, though there was trash in the room

to whom it might justly have been applied. The full force of this fact

struck her only now. There was a woman there who was neglecting her

own child but she had been overlooked. The message had been given

to Ruby Turpin, a respectable, hardworking, church-going woman. The

tears dried. Her eyes began to burn instead with wrath.

 

 

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25

She rose on her elbow and the washcloth fell into her hand. Claud was

lying on his back, snoring. She wanted to tell him what the girl had

said. At the same time, she did not wish to put the image of herself as a

wart hog from hell into his mind.

“Hey, Claud,” she muttered and pushed his shoulder.

Claud opened one pale baby blue eye.

She looked into it warily. He did not think about anything.

“Wha, whasit?” he said and closed the eye again.

“Nothing,” she said. “Does your leg pain you?”

“Hurts like hell,” Claud said

“It’ll quit terreckly,” she said and lay back down. In a moment Claud

was snoring again. For the rest of the afternoon they lay there. Claud

slept. She scowled at the ceiling. Occasionally she raised her fist and

made a small stabbing motion over her chest as if she was defending

her innocence to invisible guests who were like the comforters of Job,

reasonable-seeming but wrong.

About five-thirty Claud stirred. “Got to go after those niggers,” he

sighed, not moving.

 

 

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26

She was looking straight up as if there were unintelligible hand writing

on the ceiling. The protuberance over her eye had turned a greenish-

blue. “Listen here,” she said.

“What?”

“Kiss me.”

Claud leaned over and kissed her loudly on the mouth. He pinched her

side and their hands interlocked. Her expression of ferocious

concentration did not change. Claud got up, groaning and growling,

and limped off. She continued to study the ceiling.

She did not get up until she heard the pick-up truck coming back with

the Negroes. Then she rose and thrust her feet in her brown oxfords,

which she did not bother to lace, and stumped out onto the back porch

and got her red plastic bucket. She emptied a tray of ice cubes into it

and filled it half full of water and went out into the back yard.

Every afternoon after Claud brought the hands in, one of the boys

helped him put out hay and the rest waited in the back of the truck

until he was ready to take them home. The truck was parked in the

shade under one of the hickory trees.

“Hi yawl this evening,” Mrs. Turpin asked grimly, appearing with the

bucket and the dipper. There were three woman and a boy in the truck.

 

 

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27

“Us doin nicely,” the oldest woman said. “Hi you doin?” and her gaze

stuck immediately on the dark lump on Mrs. Turpin’s forehead. “You

done fell down, ain’t you?” she asked in a solicitous voice. The old

woman was dark and almost toothless. She had on an old felt hat of

Claud’s set back on her head. The other two women were younger and

lighter and they both had new bright green sun hats. One of them had

hers on her head; the other had taken hers off and the boy was grinning

beneath it.

Mrs. Turpin set the bucket down on the floor of the truck. “Yawl hep

yourselves,” she said. She looked around to make sure Claud had gone.

“No. I didn’t fall down,” she said, folding her arms. “It was something

worse than that.”

“Ain’t nothing bad happen to YOU!” the old ,woman said. She said it as

if they, all knew that Mrs. Turpin was protected in some special way by

Divine Providence. “You just had you a little fall.”

“We were ‘in town at the doctor’s office for where the cow kicked Mr.

Turpin,” Mrs. Turpin said in a flat tone that indicated they could leave

off their foolishness. “And there was this girl there. A big fat girl with

her face all broke out. I could look at that girl and tell she was peculiar

but I couldn’t tell how. And me and her mama were just talking and

going along and all of a sudden WHAM! She throws this big book she

was reading at me and …”

“Naw!” the old woman cried out.

 

 

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28

“And then she jumps over the table and commences to choke me.”

“Naw!” they all exclaimed, “naw!”

“Hi come she do that?” the old woman asked. “What ail her?”

Mrs. Turpin only glared in front of her.

“Somethin ail her,” the old woman said.

“They carried her off in an ambulance,” Mrs. Turpin continued, “but

before she went she was rolling on the floor and they were trying to

hold her down to give her a shot and she said something to me.” She

paused. ” You know what she said to me?”

“What she say,” they asked.

“She said,” Mrs. Turpin began, and stopped, her face very dark and

heavy. The sun was getting whiter and whiter, blanching the sky

overhead so that the leaves of the hickory tree were black in the face of

it. She could not bring forth the words. “Something real ugly,” she

muttered.

“She sho shouldn’t said nothin ugly, to you,” the old woman said. “You

so sweet. You the sweetest lady I know.”

“She pretty too,” the one with the hat on said.

 

 

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29

“And stout,” the other one said. “I never knowed no sweeter white

lady.”

“That’s the truth befo’ Jesus,” the old woman said. “Amen! You des as

sweet and pretty as you can be.”

Mrs. Turpin knew just exactly how much Negro flattery was worth and

it added to her rage. “She said,” she began again and finished this time

with a fierce rush of breath, “that I was an old wart hog from hell.”

There was an astounded silence.

“Where she at?” the youngest woman cried in a piercing voice.

“Lemme see her. I’ll kill her!”

“I’ll kill her with you!” the other one cried.

“She b’long in the sylum” the old woman said emphatically. “YOU the

sweetest white lady I know.”

“She pretty too,” the other two said. “Stout as she can be and sweet.

Jesus satisfied with her!”

“Deed he is,” the old woman declared.

Idiots! Mrs. Turpin growled to herself. YOU could never say anything

intelligent to a nigger. YOU could talk at them but not with them. “Yawl

 

 

PHILOSOPHY OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE 2004–05

30

ain’t drunk your water,” she said shortly. “Leave the bucket in the

truck when you’re finished with it. I got more to do than just stand

around and pass the time of day,” and she moved off and into the

house.

She stood for a moment in the middle of the kitchen. The dark

protuberance over her eye looked like a miniature tornado cloud which

might any moment sweep across the horizon of her brow. Her lower lip

protruded dangerously. She squared her massive shoulders. Then she

marched into the front of the house and out the side door and started

down the road to the pig parlor. She had the look of a woman going

single-handed, weaponless, into battle.

The sun was a deep yellow now like a harvest moon and was riding

westward very fast over the far tree line as if it meant to catch the hogs

before she did. The road was rutted and she kicked several good-sized

stones out of her path as she strode along. The pig parlor was on a little

knoll at the end of a lane that ran off from the side of the barn. It was a

square of concrete as large as a small room, with a board fence about

four feet high around it. The concrete floor sloped slightly so that the

hog wash could drain off into a trench where it was carried to the field

for fertilizer. Claud was standing on the outside, on the edge of the

concrete, hanging onto the top board, hosing down the floor inside.

The hose was connected to the faucet of a water trough nearby.

Mrs. Turpin climbed up beside him and glowered down at the hogs

inside. There were seven long-snouted bristly shoats in it-tan with

liver-colored spots-and an old sow a few weeks off from farrowing. She

 

 

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31

was lying on her side grunting. The shoats were running about shaking

themselves like idiot children, their little slit pig eyes searching the

floor for anything left. She had read that pigs were the most intelligent

animal. She doubted it. They were supposed to be smarter than dogs.

There had even been a pig astronaut. He had performed his

assignment perfectly but died of a heart attack afterwards because they

left him in his electric suit, sitting upright throughout his examination

when naturally, a hog should be on all fours.

A-gruntin and a-rootin and a-groanin.

“Gimme that hose,” she said, yanking it away from Claud. “Go on and

carry, them niggers home and then get off that leg.”

“You look like you might have swallowed a mad dog,” Claud observed,

but he got down and limped off. He paid no attention to her humors.

Until he was out of earshot, Mrs. Turpin stood on the side of the pen,

holding the hose and pointing the stream of water at the hind quarters

of any shoat that looked as if it might try to lie down. When he had had

time to get over the hill, she turned her head slightly and her wrathful

eyes scanned the path. He was nowhere in sight. She turned back again

and seemed to gather herself up. Her shoulders rose and she drew in

her breath.

“What do you send me a message like that for?” she said in

a low fierce voice, barely above a whisper but with the force

of a shout in its concentrated fury. “How am I a hog and me

 

 

PHILOSOPHY OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE 2004–05

32

both? How am I saved and from hell too?” Her free fist was

knotted and with the other she gripped the hose, blindly

pointing the stream of water in and out of the eye of the old

sow whose outraged squeal she did not hear.

The pig parlor commanded a view of the back pasture

where their twenty beef cows were gathered around the hay-

bales Claud and the boy had put out. The freshly cut pasture

sloped down to the highway. Across it was their cotton field

and beyond that a dark green dusty wood which they owned

as well. The sun was behind the wood, very red, looking

over the paling of trees like a farmer inspecting his own

hogs.

“Why me?” she rumbled. “It’s no trash around here, black or white,

that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone every day

working. And do for the church.”

She appeared to be the right size woman to command the arena before

her. “How am I a hog? she demanded. “Exactly how am I like them?”

and she jabbed the stream of water at the shoats. “There was plenty of

trash there. It didn’t have to be me.

“If you like trash better, go get yourself some trash then,” she railed.

“You could have made me trash. Or a nigger. If trash is what you

wanted, why didn’t you make me trash?” She shook her fist with the

hose in it’ and a watery snake appeared momentarily in the air. “I

could quit working and take it easy and be filthy,” she growled.

 

 

PHILOSOPHY OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE 2004–05

33

“Lounge about the sidewalks all day drinking root beer. Dip snuff and

spit in every puddle and have it all over my face. I could be nasty.

“Or you could have made me a nigger. It’s too late for me to be a

nigger,” she said with deep sarcasm, “but I could act like one. Lay

down in the middle of the road and stop traffic. Roll on the ground.’

In the deepening light everything was taking on a mysterious hue. The

pasture was growing a particular glassy green and the streak of the

highway had turned lavender. She braced herself for a final assault and

this time her voice rolled out over the pasture. “Go on,” she yelled, “call

me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell.

Put that bottom rail on top. There’ll still be a top and bottom!”

A garbled echo returned to her.

A final surge of fury shook her and she roared, “Who do you think you

are?”

The color of everything, field and crimson sky, burned for a moment

with a transparent intensity. The question carried over the pasture and

across the highway and the cotton field and returned to her clearly, like

an answer from beyond the wood.

She opened her mouth but no sound came out of it.

A tiny truck, Claud’s, appeared on the highway, heading rapidly out of

sight. Its gears scraped thinly. It looked like a child’s toy. At any

 

 

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34

moment a bigger truck might smash into it and scatter Claud’s and the

niggers’ brains all over the road.

Mrs. Turpin stood there, her gaze fixed on the highway, all

her muscles rigid, until in five or six minutes the truck reappeared,

returning. She waited until it had had time to turn

into their own road. Then like a monumental statue coming

to life, she bent her head slowly and gazed, as if through the

very heart of mystery, down into the pig parlor at the hogs.

They had settled all in one corner around the old sow who

was grunting softly. A red glow suffused them. They appeared to pant

with a secret life.

Until the sun slipped finally behind the tree line, Mrs. Turpin

remained there with her gaze bent to them as if she were absorbing

some abysmal life-giving knowledge. At last she lifted her head. There

was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson

and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending

dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic

and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak

as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a

field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls

were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white

trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in

white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and

clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the

procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those

who , like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and

 

 

PHILOSOPHY OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE 2004–05

35

the given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer.

They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable

as they had always been for good order and common sense and

respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by

their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned

away. She lowered hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes

small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision

faded but she remained where she was.

At length she got down and turned off the faucet and in her slow way

on the darkening path to the house. In woods around her the invisible

cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of

the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.

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