EXCERPT FROM ROADHOUSE by Marley Anderson
This is a story about a house, and not just any house, but a roadhouse. A more, or less, respectable establishment that gives a hot meal and a bed to travellers passing through. Set in Alabama in the 1940s, Tatie Smith is descended from a long line of white women who never quite got around to marrying, but spent their lives looking after this house and the folks in it. And if they tumbled into bed with their guests, that’s fine too. It’s a time and a place for fuzzy boundaries, and sideways glances, and things aren’t always what they seem.
Booze and big band music fill most nights, with a heavy dose of blues and sweet smoke hanging in the air; but this sure ain’t a honkytonk – just a place for folks passing through. All kinds of folks are welcome here.
In this excerpt we start to see a breakdown between Tatie and Ned. Ned’s an African American blues musician who spends long weeks on the road playing clubs in all around, but mostly up north in places like Chicago. Ned is what you might call a common law husband, and the father of Tatie’s son Petie, but around here nobody’s quite that official.
That night I was wiping off plates in the kitchen, moonlight filled the tall windows, spilling across the linoleum floor; turning black and white designs into shades of grey.
I had most the overhead lights off, just the soft swish of the ceiling fan and late night blues on the radio keeping me company. I just needed a few moments of quiet to collect my thoughts.
A heavy footstep creaked on the floor behind me, and I turned around. Ned’s tall frame filled the doorway, ebony skin and a slow smile buried in the shadows. “How you doing, Miss Tatie?”
“I’m doing fine.”
He crept up behind me, and his fingers brushed my shoulder. That man could sure move quiet when he wanted to. I turned around and smiled at him, busy wiping my hands with my dishcloth.
Reaching out, he plucked the towel from my fingers and dropped it on the countertop, and then nodded at the radio. “Can I have this dance?”
“You sure can,” sliding my arms around his shoulders, I leaned against his warmth. Heavy muscle and softness wrapped around me, one song faded to the other and we danced together a long while, lost in the blues on my kitchen floor.
Finally, the announcer’s voice came on, and Ned reached over and twisted the knob, shutting the radio off with a soft click. He smiled at me, “So did you miss me?”
I thought through the past couple months, all of us being flat broke and struggling to solve so much of it on my own. I looked up at him, “It’s been pretty busy.”
“That didn’t answer the question.”
I smiled, “Of course I did, you fool. It’s just been too busy to think about anything, never mind miss you too much.”
He glanced out the window, white moonlight shone across the gardens, spotlighting the cucumber frame where I hide with Henry all those years ago. “Guess I was away a bit too long,” he said softly.
Reaching out, I picked up his hand and patted it. “But you’re here now, that’s all that matters, right?”
“I guess so.”
That night I was pulling up the coverlet on my bed when there came a soft knock at the door, and I smiled as it eased open and a face appeared in the darkness. “You want some company, Miss Tatie?”
I shifted in the bed and patted the mattress beside me, “Can’t say no now, can I?”
I lay watching Ned ease out of his shirt, heavy muscle gleaming in the moonlight, and smiled at him as he lay down beside me.
Reaching toward me, I felt myself stiffen, accepting his kisses meekly as soft lips trailed over my face, and gliding down my collarbone. Shaking my head, I twisted away from him.
“What’s wrong, Tatie?”
“I don’t know, not in the mood for so much company, I guess.”
“But I can stay?”
Rolling away from him, I nodded. “Yeah, I guess you can stay.”
Behind me I felt the mattress sag down as he shifted his weight, now lying flat on his back with hands folded across his chest. He sighed, a low rumble; a noise between us, more heard than felt, that meant he knew things were going to change. Or maybe they already did.
“Birds seem to be pretty busy right now,” Ned nodded at the sky, late August sunset lighting the fields up like fire. Blackbirds darted across, moving from cornfield to cornfield, eating their fill and then moving onto the next.
I stood beside him, watching the birds pop out of the fields in ones and twos, and then rise together like a black wave moving through the sky. For some reason it gave me the chills.
“You worried about something Miss Tatie,” Ned smiled at me, knowing damned well I was. Lord that man could be frustrating sometimes.
I shrugged and picked up the basket of green beans I was in the middle of picking, and turned back to the rows.
“What you thinking, now?” Ned moved closer, his voice dropping to a whisper, low tones still rolling over me.
I turned and smiled at him, “Just that it’s time to get the beans in.” I glanced at the sky, “Got to get ready for supper.”
“Uh huh,” Ned nodded at me. “You want a hand in there?”
I smiled again, knowing where that’d end up. The quiet house stretched out behind us, both boys out fishing and Mina at home, we had no guests that night. But somehow, I didn’t want it. I hadn’t seen Ned for nearly two months, but when he came home last night, I found myself turning away. Not in the mood for company, I guess.
I stood up and headed toward the kitchen door, the wooden steps were almost buried in Black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s Lace; heavy flowers of daylilies nodded alongside. “You might want to tidy that up for me.”
“I thought you liked wildflowers.”
“Getting a bit overgrown now, I guess.” I turned away from him. “I’m kind of done with them.”
“But you still have a few weeks more of bloom.”
“It’s getting messy, that’s all.” I put my foot on the step, the board wobbled under my weight. “And maybe nail these steps down again, they’re pretty loose.”
“Look, Tatie, I know I’ve been gone a while, but…” trailing off, Ned stared at me, like he was trying to figure something out.
I shrugged, my hand on the kitchen door. The doorknob rattled loosely in my hand, “Now look at this, the whole place’s falling apart around us – can you get this too?”
“Sure thing, Tatie, whatever you want.” Slowly he turned away, heading back to the tool shed.
I was a bit worried about what was coming next, and when Ned came back inside, he found me staring out the window, peeking through the white muslin curtains and looking on down the road. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was a change in the air.
“You alright, Tatie?” he dropped a basket of blackberries on the countertop.
“I’m fine,” I turned toward him and forced a smile.
“Brought you some berries,” he nodded at the basket.
“Thanks, I’ll do up some preserves, we can have them with biscuits tonight.” Turning back away from him, I dumped the basket of berries into the kitchen sink.
“Look, Tatie,” he put his hand on my shoulder.
I turned and smiled at him, “You know what, Ned, let me get this stuff on. Dinner’s not gonna cook itself.”
As I ran cold water over the berries, Ned’s footsteps slowly faded away, I heard the front door sigh as it opened and closed. Heavy weight moving across the front porch, all the squeaks and sounds of a big old house when there’s only two of us in it, and neither of us talking much to each other.
I watched the berries float in a pool of water, bumping and bobbing together, blackness shining like a miniature lake. Shaking my head, I scooped up the berries into a colander and yanked out the plug, and stood there watching cold water spiral down the drain.
Feelings of unease pulled at me, something to do with some kind of change. I tried to reason with myself. Tatie Smith, where’s your head at, look at you, staring an empty sink. This old house’s stood for a lot longer than you, and its not going anywhere. And neither are you.
Outside the window, a crow called out, warning alarm call; and as I peeked through the curtains, the black bird tracked at straight line across the sky, heading toward the bush at the edge of the fields.
For a moment, I just wished I could follow him.
“Ma, we got company,” Jaspar called out, racing up the driveway, Petie following behind. Both of them laden with fishing poles, and from the looks of the basket bouncing against Petie’s chest, they’d caught something. I’d just stepped out on the porch to see where the boys were at, dinner was almost ready, and I didn’t want it to sit.
“You gonna talk to me now, Tatie?” Ned looked up at me, still sitting on the porch, ebony skin buried in the shadows.
I shrugged, “Don’t really have much to say.”
I swatted at him with my dishtowel. “C’mon, you better take care of that fish for me, wrap it up for later, I’m not cooking it tonight.”
“Boys’ll be disappointed,” standing up, he smiled.
“Oh well, I’m not putting up with fish-stink right now.”
Ned stood, staring down the drive, watching the boys race toward us. Slowly, another figure came into view, a young white man with what looked to be a guitar strapped to his back came out from behind the cedars.
He waved up at us and called out, “Pardon me, ma’am, but the boys said you took in guests.”
“We sure do,” wiping my hands on my apron I smiled at him. Dark hair and olive skin, with a classic square jaw; a nice looking man. Stepping down off the porch I started to walk toward him.
Ned’s voice drifted toward me, “So much for a quiet night with just you and me.”
“What – Ned?” I spun around.
He turned away, “Gotta see about the fish, get it cleaned for you.” The boys raced around the back, they knew better than to drag fish through the front door. As I walked across the lawn, I heard the screen door slam shut, old wooden frame rattling, then finally falling quiet.
The man smiled at me as I approached, and he held out his hand, “Hi, I’m Billy Johnston, you must be Tatie Smith.”
“I am,” I smiled. “Did somebody send you here?”
“I just heard about y’all, you know how word gets around.”
“I sure do.” Smiling, I stared at him, he was an attractive man, his dark eyes smiled right back at me.
“So uh –” he nodded at the house.
“Let me show you inside,” I blushed, momentarily swept up in attraction. Turning back toward the house, I nodded at him, “So where you coming from?
“Right now, I’m going through Jackson on my way down to Mobile.”
“You’re working out there?”
He tapped the guitar case still slung across his back, “Got a few gigs lines up.”
“That’s pretty good, I heard things were tight out on the road, hard to get paying jobs.”
He laughed, “What, you’re a musician?”
“No, my uh –” I broke off, suddenly confused, unsure of anything between Ned and myself. I swallowed, “No sir, you just hear about how it is as folks pass on through.”
“You must hear a lot of things, folks coming through say you keep an open door.” He smiled at me, and I felt a little jolt of electricity hit my belly.
I blushed, and stammered, “I guess I do.”
I stood up to clear the dinner plates.
“So you play guitar,” I smiled at him. “Do you think you could play something for us tonight?” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ned sit up, his face tightened.
Smiling at me, Billy reached for the plate of biscuits. “Yes, ma’am, I’d be glad to play for y’all.”
“Here, let me get that for you,” I held the plate out, and somehow or other our fingers bumped together. A wave of heat shot through my body, and I felt all tingly, like I’d stumbled into an electrical outlet.
“These look pretty good,” he smiled at me.
I glanced down at the table, “Thanks – old family recipe.”
I knew Ned saw this, and I sat down, sort of confused, not to sure which way I was going. I picked up a fork and fumbled with it, staring down at my dirty plate.
“Weren’t you clearing the table, Tatie?” Ned’s voice was near my ear. “You need a hand?”
My legs shot up on their own, “Uh, no thanks, don’t worry about it.” I started to pile plates on top of each other in a jumble of leftover food and fine china. Heading toward the kitchen, I turned around, and smiled, “I hope you boys are ready for desert.”
Billy’s eyes met mine, and a little smile crossed his lips. “I know I am.”
Blushing deep down the roots of my hair, I turned and bent over the plates and scurried inside the kitchen.
Standing at the sink, I took a deep breath and tried to talk to myself. Sure there was some kind of connection, something I couldn’t begin to explain – but Tatie Smith, you’re acting the fool – so, he’s a nice looking man, but with Ned here –
“Miss Tatie – you want some help?” his soft drawl broke through my thoughts; Billy leaned against the kitchen counter and smiled at me.
“You might wanna watch it,” I reached behind him, sliding a pan away, “It’s still hot.”
“Quite a place you got here,” he smiled, and nodded his head at the ceiling fan. “Lotta history in this old house.”
“You haven’t been out our way before, have you?”
“Not myself so much, but I’d heard about it for sometime.” He smiled again, “Word travels pretty far.”
“So folks talk about us?”
“Just that it’s a nice place to stay, real friendly.” Billy picked up a biscuit off of the place and held it up to me, “Folks say you’re a pretty good cook, doing something special here.”
“Am I?” I smiled at him.
Dropping the biscuit on the countertop, he moved toward me; standing so close I could smell his cologne and hair gel. His cotton shirt whispered against my arm. I stared down, still caught in a feeling I couldn’t place; like a million volts of electricity was running right through me. I couldn’t think, never mind move.
He leaned in, just a little closer, my back was pressed against the countertop, and I just stared at the floor, wishing against hope that he would just take me in his arms and –
“Hey Ma, are we gonna have desert?” Petie called from the doorway.
I looked up, Billy’s face just inches from mine; and he smiled.
I burst out laughing. “In a minute, sugar, I’m not quite done in the kitchen yet.”
My hand shook as I lifted the pie plates from the table, crumbs scattered across the empty plates. Only Ned’s sat full. He looked up at me, “I suppose we’re gonna have some music now?”
My eyes were still on Billy and I twisted toward him, “Uh, sure, Ned, do you mind setting up in the front parlour? I want to clear these plates away first.”
Billy stood up and smiled at me, “Do you need a hand in there?”
I blushed and stared down at the plates, “Uh, no thank you, but if you follow Ned, he’ll show you where you can set up.”
When I went out to the front room with a tray of drinks in my hands, I just stood and leaned against the door frame, watching the two men play guitar. Both of them easing through slow blues, they’d switch it up, one after another, one on rhythm, the other on lead, and pure sound dissolving into the night.
Ned took charge, leading into pure heartache. I closed my eyes, letting his voice wash over me, lost in the blues. Suddenly the song changed around again, tugging toward Billy, notes bent and stretched in ways I’d never heard of before, twisting into something else entirely.
Leaning against the doorway, I felt my knees grow weak and hands started to tremble, the glasses on the tray shook together and whisky and ice cubes slopped across the tray. Ned looked up at me, worried, and then the tray just fell out of my hands, falling with a splash on the wooden floor.
The music stopped and Billy stood up, staring at me, “Tatie, are you alright?”
Feeling dazed, like I was coming back from another place, I forced a smile at them. “I’ll be fine, guess I forgot I was holding onto the damned thing.”
Ned was already bent, helping pick up spilled glasses, nothing broken, thank goodness, and as I swiped at the mess with my dishtowel, his eyes met mine. It was like he knew, something big was going on.
END OF EXCERPT
Marley Anderson is an up-and-coming novelist who spends far too much time with all kinds of musicians and not enough time on novels.