Margarite sits alone in the living room. Rain falls outside, and she may be watching it, but she may also be simply thinking, absently plucking at threads on the arm of a worn plaid chair. That armchair was her grandmother's and Margarite has never been able to throw it out, despite Stan's fervent distaste of it. But her husband isn't here right now. It's Tuesday, and he has his weekly late meeting at the office.
So Margarite sits in the chair, rubs the worn patches beneath her hands, and feels close to her grandmother, which is altogether appropriate tonight. She paints a picture in her mind as easily as if the old woman had died yesterday. She was a large woman, veteran of half a dozen childbirths. She carried her weight like a swagger stick, and brandished it like a cudgel. Even strangers' children knew to bite their lips and say "Yes'm" when Mama Emmy was in the room. She was dark, like night, and proud of that, too. She wore plain dresses and often went barefoot. Her house always smelled like cooking; her hands always smelled like soap.
Margarite shifts uncomfortably in her grandmother's chair. A low rumble of thunder rattles the window, shakes a vase on the end table. There are so many memories of Mama Emmy, but one stands out tonight. In fact, she's been thinking about it a lot lately.
Margarite was twenty-one at the time. Emmy was sitting in this very chair, a great shallow bowl balanced on her knees, shelling peas for dinner.
"How's school?" Emmy asked. She always asked, so proud that one of her grandchildren was in college. "You studying hard?"
"Yes'm. It's all I do between shifts at work."
"You were always such a bright little girl," Emmy said.
Margarite was silent for a long moment, uncertain how to broach the topic. "Grandma, you know I'm not a little girl anymore."
Emmy laughed. "Don't be so touchy, child, I didn't mean anything by it. Of course I know you're a woman. It is fairly noticeable. But you'll always be a little girl to me, you know that."
"That's not what I meant," Margarite said, leaning forward. "What I mean is, I really am a woman now. I'm going to be married soon."
Mama Emmy kept shelling peas, but her attention was on her granddaughter. "I don't think I understand your point, dear."
Margarite sighed and shook her head. "I shouldn't . . . I mean, I can't believe I'm talking to you about this."
"Oh," said Mama Emmy. "Then it must be about sex."
"Mama!" Margarite felt her face grow hot.
Emmy laughed again. "There's nothing wrong with it, child. I was a young woman once myself."
"Mama Emmy, that's different!"
"Don't be foolish. Nothing has been new about that since Adam met Eve. I don't believe there's anything you could say that would surprise me, dear."
Margarite was silent, mortified that she'd even brought it up. Finally she cleared her throat and said, in no more than a whisper, "Stan and I have . . . you know."
Mama Emmy raised her eyebrows.
Margarite hurried on. "I mean, I know we're not married yet, but we're going to be soon. I haven't been with anybody else, Mama, I'm not like that. But Stan wanted to . . . and I love him so much."
The peas fell one by one into the bowl. Mama Emmy took her time about answering. Margarite felt like shrinking and dying right there.
"Let me tell you a secret," Emmy finally said. "Your grandfather and me, we didn't wait either. Nor did your mother and your father . . . don't blush like that, child. You brought it up."
"Hush. You think you're doing something wrong? Maybe, if you believe everything they say at church on Sunday. But if so, then the whole human race will be going to hell with you. Honey, it's human nature, and it's nothing to be ashamed of."
Margarite stood up and looked out the window. "I know that, I guess. But that's not why I brought it up."
"Then whatever is it, dear?"
"Mama Emmy, I know the neighborhood women come to you for things. Special things. Charms, potions, powders. Things you learned from your own mother. . . ."
Emmy put the bowl down. "That's nonsense."
"No, it's not nonsense. I've seen the odd things you have in the back room. I know the things you buy, herbs and roots and stuff. I've heard the women talk. . . ."
"Hush," said Emmy sternly.
Margarite fell silent.
Mama Emmy tapped her fingers on the chair arm for a long moment. "My Mama was known around the neighborhood for that sort of thing, yes," she admitted. Margarite wasn't sure what emotion she heard in her grandmother's voice. Disappointment? Disgust?
"Everybody thought . . . well, they figured that an old black woman, just off the boat from Haiti, must know something about the hoodoo, right? Do you know what Mama did in Haiti before she came here? She was a seamstress and a teacher. She knew how to sew and she knew how to teach children. She did not believe in nonsense and she did not mix potions and powders.
"But there were a lot of people here who knew how to sew, and teaching here took more education than Mama had. One day, a woman asked my Mama for a love potion. Things were tight, money-wise, and my Mama made one up out of whatever was in the cupboard. She put it in a soda bottle and gave it to the woman, and that fool woman thought it worked.
"Mama hated doing it. It was ridiculous superstition, probably even sacrilegious. It was against everything she held dear to her heart and her mind. She was a bright woman, my Mama. She hated ignorance. But she did it. Because it kept food on the table and shoes on our feet."
"And she taught you to do it too," Margarite said.
"My mother didn't teach me anything about that," Mama Emmy said. "Don't you see? It was shameful, what she did. In her eyes, it was. She didn't want me to follow the same path, just because she had, just because she was black and recently Haitian, just because ignorant women gossiped that it was true."
"But you do it."
Emmy stared hard at Margarite. Margarite stared back. Finally Emmy looked away and nodded. "Of course I do. You're no fool, child. People around here remember my Mama for doing that, and when your grandfather died, it was very hard for me. Financially, I mean. When they asked . . ."
Margarite fell next to Mama Emmy's chair and embraced her tightly. "Mama Emmy, it's okay! It's not wrong. It's wonderful!"
"Don't upset the peas, child. What are you blathering about?"
Margarite rocked back on her heels. "Mama Emmy, I need your help."
"I can't imagine what for." Her voice was guarded and tight, but Margarite rushed ahead anyway.
"I don't think I can please Stan. In bed, I mean. I know the women come to you all the time for this sort of thing."
Mama Emmy heaved herself out of the worn plaid chair and took the bowl of peas into the kitchen. "You're being ridiculous. What happens between a man and a woman, these things take time to become comfortable."
Margarite jumped to her feet and followed her grandmother. "No! It's more than that. I can see it in his eyes. I don't want him to get bored with me."
"That's just . . ."
"Mama, Stan's been with other women!" she blurted out.
Mama Emmy turned to look at her granddaughter. "While you've been together?"
"Well, most men have. But so what? He loves you, doesn't he? What does it matter if there have been others?"
"It matters, Mama!" Margarite was near tears. "He's so experienced. He must think I'm so clumsy. I want . . . just . . . I want our marriage to be perfect, Mama."
Emmy took her granddaughter in her arms, unable to stand her being so upset, and over something so foolish. "Oh, it will be perfect, Margarite."
"You don't know that," Margarite whispered against her grandmother's shoulder. "I don't know that. When he looks at me . . ." Her lips brushed the faded flower print of her grandmother's dress. "I never want him to look at me and see what everyone else sees, what his friends see. What his family sees."
It's raining harder outside now and Margarite fingers the charm around her neck. It's a simple set of interlocking rings on a fine gold chain. Stan doesn't know what it is, has never thought to ask.
Margarite feels ashamed for asking her grandmother for it, now. She knows it caused Emmy great pain to see her college-educated granddaughter acting like an ignorant housewife, asking, begging for that same mumbo-jumbo that Emmy's mother had found so distasteful, as did Emmy herself. Margarite also knows that Mama Emmy never meant for it to work. It was just a palliative, a trinket to humor her distraught girl.
If Emmy had made a great show of it, with chanting and potions and chicken blood, maybe Margarite would have caught on that it was just a placebo. But Emmy simply dug around in a drawer in the back room and handed the necklace to her granddaughter.
"Wear this between the two of you the next time you lie together," Emmy told her granddaughter. "And just like your sweat mingles on your bodies in passion, and your hearts have become one in love, this will make his pleasure yours, and your pleasure his, as long as you wear this. Do you understand?"
"I understand, Mama Emmy. Oh, thank you!"
Mama Emmy didn't say anything, just went back to the kitchen to fix dinner.
Margarite thinks about taking off the charm tonight, but she doesn't. She never has, not since the first night they made love with it on, with the interlocking rings pressed against her breasts, pressed against Stan's chest. It had been phenomenal that night. Margarite had cried with pleasure and joy when it was over. Even Stan looked stunned, maybe even surprised. And since then, it had always been wonderful, a constant feedback loop of pleasure between them. They always came together. Always.
Margarite closes her eyes and wonders if she's strong enough tonight. God forgive her, but she's glad that Mama Emmy is gone now. It would have crushed her grandmother to know what she brought to pass in that simple act of humoring her granddaughter one Saturday afternoon.
Stan is a smart man. Margarite doesn't know if she ever would have guessed, ever found out. Stan really does have a late meeting every Tuesday. But it only lasts until seven, and Stan usually doesn't get home until eleven, when Margarite is already asleep.
Margarite stares at the rain-soaked window, rubs the threadbare arms of the chair. She can feel it starting. Like clockwork, she thinks. A short drive from work, some dinner, some foreplay. She wonders who the woman is, what attracted Stan to her, what she looks like.
When it comes, it's exquisite, and against her will Margarite succumbs to it. She grips the arms of her grandmother's plaid chair, gasps, and lets tears roll down her face, unheeded.
Copyright © 2002 Chris Garrett
Chris Garrett lives in Phoenix, Arizona where he works as a hydrologist and environmental consultant, writing short fiction on the side.