I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou (1993)

Chapter 21

Bailey stuck branches in the ground behind the house and covered them with a worn-through blanket, making a tent. It was to be his Captain Marvel hideaway. There he initiated girls into the mysteries of sex. One by one, he took the impressed, the curious, the adventurous into the gray shadows, after explaining that they were going to play Momma and Poppa. I was assigned the role of Baby and lookout. The girls were commanded to pull up their dresses and then he lay on top and wiggled his hips.

I sometimes had to lift the flap (our signal that an adult was approaching) and so I saw their pathetic struggles even as they talked about school and the movies.

He had been playing the game for about six months before he met Joyce. She was a country girl about four years older than Bailey (he wasn’t quite eleven when they met) whose parents had died and she along with her brothers and sisters had been parceled out to relatives. Joyce had come to Stamps to live with a widowed aunt who was even poorer than the poorest person in town. Joyce was quite advanced physically for her age. Her breasts were not the hard little knots of other girls her age; they filled out the tops of her skimpy little dresses. She walked stiffly, as if she were carrying a load of wood between her legs. I thought of her as being coarse, but Bailey said she was cute and that he wanted to play house with her.

In the special way of women, Joyce knew she had made a conquest, and managed to hang around the Store in the late afternoons and all day Saturdays. She ran errands for Momma when we were busy in the Store and sweated profusely. Often when she came in after running down the hill, her cotton dress would cling to her thin body and Bailey would glue his eyes on her until her clothes dried.

Momma gave her small gifts of food to take to her aunt, and on Saturdays Uncle Willie would sometimes give her a dime for “show fare.”

During Passover week we weren’t allowed to go to the movies (Momma said we all must sacrifice to purify our souls), and Bailey and Joyce decided that the three of us would play house. As usual, I was to be Baby.

He strung the tent and Joyce crawled in first. Bailey told me to sit outside and play with my doll baby, and he went in and the flap closed.

“Well, ain’t you going to open your trousers?” Joyce’s voice was muffled.

“No. You just pull up your dress.”

There were rustling sounds from the tent and the sides pooched out as if they were trying to stand up.

Bailey asked, “What are you doing?”

“Pulling off my drawers.”

“What for?”

“We can’t do it with my drawers on.”

“Why not?”

“How are you going to get to it?”

Silence. My poor brother didn’t know what she meant. I knew. I lifted the flap and said, “Joyce, don’t you do that to my brother.” She nearly screamed, but she kept her voice low, “Margaret, you close that door.” Bailey added, “Yes. Close it. You’re supposed to be playing with our doll baby.” I thought he would go to the hospital if he let her do that to him, so I warned him, “Bailey, if you let her do that to you, you’ll be sorry.” But he threatened that if I didn’t close the door he wouldn’t speak to me for a month, so I let the end of the blanket fall and sat down on the grass in front of the tent.

Joyce poked her head out and said in a sugary, white-woman-in-the-movies voice, “Baby, you go get some wood. Daddy and I going to light a fire, then I’m going to make you some cake.” Then her voice changed as if she was going to hit me. “Go. Git.”

Bailey told me after that Joyce had hairs on her thing and that she had gotten them from “doing it” with so many boys. She even had hair under her arms. Both of them. He was very proud of her accomplishments.

As their love affair progressed, his stealing from the Store increased. We had always taken candy and a few nickels and of course the sour pickles, but Bailey, now called upon to feed Joyce’s ravening hunger, took cans of sardines and greasy Polish sausage and cheese and even the expensive cans of pink salmon that our family could seldom afford to eat.

Joyce’s willingness to do odd jobs slackened about this time. She complained that she wasn’t feeling all that well. But since she now had a few coins, she still hung around the Store eating Planter’s peanuts and drinking Dr. Pepper.

Momma ran her off a few times. “Ain’t you said you wasn’t feeling well, Joyce? Hadn’t you better get home and let your aunty do something for you?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Then reluctantly she was off the porch, her stiff-legged walk carrying her up the hill and out of sight.

I think she was Bailey’s first love outside the family. For him, she was the mother who let him get as close as he dreamed, the sister who wasn’t moody and withdrawing, and teary and tender-hearted. All he had to do was keep the food coming in and she kept the affection flowing out. It made no difference to him that she was almost a woman, or possibly it was just that difference which made her so appealing.

She was around for a few months, and as she had appeared, out of limbo, so she disappeared into nothingness. There was no gossip about her, no clues to her leaving or her whereabouts. I noticed the change in Bailey before I discovered that she was gone. He lost his interest in everything. He mulled around and it would be safe to say “he paled.” Momma noticed and said that he was feeling poorly because of the change in seasons (we were nearing fall), so she went to the woods for certain leaves, made him a tea and forced him to drink it after a heaping spoonful of sulfur and molasses. The fact that he didn’t fight it, didn’t try to talk his way out of taking the medicine, showed without a glimmer of doubt he was very sick.

If I had disliked Joyce while she had Bailey in her grasp, I hated her for leaving. I missed the tolerance she had brought to him (he had nearly given up sarcasm and playing jokes on the country people) and he had taken to telling me his secrets again. But now that she was gone he rivaled me in being uncommunicative. He closed in upon himself like a pond swallowing a stone. There was no evidence that he had ever opened up, and when I mentioned her he responded with “Joyce who?”

Months later, when Momma was waiting on Joyce’s aunt, she said, “Yes ma’am, Mrs. Goodman, life’s just one thing right after the other.”

Mrs. Goodman was leaning on the red Coca-Cola box. “That’s the blessed truth, Sister Henderson.” She sipped the expensive drink.

“Things change so fast, it make your head swim.” That was Momma’s way of opening up a conversation. I stayed mouse-quiet so that I’d be able to hear the gossip and take it to Bailey.

“Now, you take little Joyce. She used to be around the Store all the time. Then she went up just like smoke. We ain’t seed hide nor hair of her in months.”

“No’m. I shamed to tell you … what took her off.” She settled in on a kitchen chair. Momma spied me in the shadows. “Sister, the Lord don’t like little jugs with big ears. You ain’t got something to do, I’ll find something for you.”

The truth had to float to me through the kitchen door.

“I ain’t got much, Sister Henderson, but I give that child all I had.”

Momma said she bound that was true. She wouldn’t say “bet.”

“And after all I did, she run off with one of those railroad porters. She was loose just like her mammy before her. You know how they say ‘blood will tell’?”

Momma asked, “How did the snake catch her?”

“Well, now, understand me, Sister Henderson, I don’t hold this against you, I knows you a God-fearing woman. But it seems like she met him here.”

Momma was flustered. Such goings on at the Store? She asked, “At the Store?”

“Yes, ma’am. ’Member when that bunch of Elks come over for their baseball game?” (Momma must have remembered. I did.) “Well, as it turned out, he was one of them. She left me a teenincy note. Said people in Stamps thought they were better than she was, and that she hadn’t only made one friend, and that was your grandson. Said she was moving to Dallas, Texas, and gone marry that railroad porter.”

Momma said, “Do, Lord.”

Mrs. Goodman said, “You know, Sister Henderson, she wasn’t with me long enough for me to get the real habit of her, but still I miss her. She was sweet when she wanted to be.” Momma consoled her with, “Well, we got to keep our mind on the words of the Book. It say, ‘The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.’”

Mrs. Goodman chimed in and they finished the phrase together, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

I don’t know how long Bailey had known about Joyce, but later in the evening when I tried to bring her name into our conversation, he said, “Joyce? She’s got somebody to do it to her all the time now.” And that was the last time her name was mentioned.