Novels: The color purple: Alice Walker: Chapter 6

They put Sofia to work in the prison laundry. All-day long from five to eight she washing clothes. Dirty convict uniforms, nasty sheets, and blankets piled way over her head. We see her twice a month for half an hour. Her face is yellow and sickly, her fingers look like a fatty sausage.

Everything nasty here, she says, even the air. Food bad enough to kill you with it. Roaches here, mice, flies, lice, and even a snake or two. If you say anything they strip you, make you sleep on a cement floor without a light.

How do you manage? us ask.

Every time they ask me to do something, Miss Celie, I act like I’m you. I jump right up and do just what they say. She looks wild when she said that, and her bad eye wanders around the room.

Mr. suck in his breath. Harpo groan. Miss Shug cuss. She comes from Memphis special to see Sofia. I can’t fix my mouth to say how I feel.

I’m a good prisoner, she says. Best convict they ever see. They can’t believe I’m the one sass the mayor’s wife, knock the mayor down. She laughs. It sounds like something from a song. The part where everybody has done gone home but you.

Twelve years a long time to be good though, she says. Maybe you get out on good behavior, say Harpo.

Good behavior ain’t good enough for them, say Sofia. Nothing less than sliding on your belly with your tongue on the boots can even get their attention. I dream of murder, she said, I dream of murder sleep or wake.

We don’t say anything.

How are the children? she asked.

They are all fine, say Harpo. Tween Odessa and Squeak, they git by. Say thank you to Squeak, she says. Tell Odessa I think about her.

 

We all sit around the table after supper. Me, Shug, Mr., Squeak, the prizefighter, Odessa, and two more of Sofia's sisters. Sofia not gon last, says Mr.

Yeah, say Harpo, she looks a little crazy to me. And what she had to say, say Shug. My God.

We got to do something, say Mr. and be right quick about it.

What can we do? ask Squeak. She looks a little haggard with all Sofia and Harpo children sprung on her at once, but she carries on. Hair a little stringy, slip show, but she carries on.

Bust her out, say Harpo. Git some dynamite off the gang that’s building that big bridge down the road, blow the whole prison to kingdom come.

Shut up, Harpo, say Mr., us trying to think.

I got it, say the prizefighter, smuggle in a gun. Well, he rubs his chin, maybe smuggles in a file. Naw, say Odessa. They just come after her if she leaves that way.

I and Squeak don’t say anything. I don’t know what she thinks, but I think bout angels, God coming down by chariot, swinging down real low and carrying ole Sofia home. I see ’em all as clear as day. Angels all in white, white hair, and white eyes, look like albinos. God all white too, looking like some stout white man work at the bank. Angels strike their cymbals, one of them blows his horn, God blows out a big breath of fire, and suddenly Sofia is free.

Who are the warden’s black kinfolks? say Mr.                                    . Nobody says anything.

Finally, the prizefighter speaks. What his name? he asked. Hodges, say Harpo. Bubber Hodges.

Old man Henry Hodges’ boy, say Mr.        . Used to live out on the old Hodges’ place. Got a brother name Jimmy? ask Squeak.

Yeah, say Mr.          . Brother's name, Jimmy. Married to that Quitman girl. Daddy owns the hardware. Do you know them? Squeak duck her head. Mumble something.

Say what? ask Mr.

Squeak's cheek turns red. She mumbles again. He you are what? Mr. ask.

Cousin, she says.

Mr. look at her.

Daddy, she says. She cut her eye at Harpo. Look at the floor. Does he know anything bout it? ask Mr.

Yeah, she says. He got three children by my mama. Two younger than me. Does his brother know anything bout it? ask Mr.

One time he comes by the house with Mr. Jimmy, he gives us all quarters, says we sure do look like Hodges.

Mr. rear back in his chair, give Squeak a good look from head to foot. Squeak push her greasy brown hair back from her face.

Yeah, say Mr.          . I see the resemblance. He brings his chair down on the floor. Well, look like you are the one to go.

Go whereas Squeak.

Go see the warden. He's your uncle.

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Novels: The color purple: Alice Walker: Chapter 1

 

We dress Squeak like she a white woman, only her clothes patch. She got on a starch and iron dress, high heel shoes with scuffs, and an old hat somebody give Shug. We give her an old pocketbook that looks like a quilt and a little black bible. We wash her hair and git all the grease out, then I put it up in two plaits that cross over her head. We bathe her so clean she smells like a good clean floor.

What I’m gon say? she asked.

Say you living with Sofia's husband and her husband say Sofia is not punishing enough. Say she laugh at the fool she makes of the guards. Say she getting along just fine where she at. Happy even, long as she doesn’t have to be any white woman maid.

Gracious God, say Squeak, how I’m gonna tune-up my mouth to say all that?

He asked you who you are, make him remember. Tell him how much that quarter he gives you meant to you. That was fifteen years ago, say Squeak, he ain’t gonna remember that.

Make him see the Hodges in you, say Odessa. He’ll remember.

Tell him you just think justice ought to be done, yourself. But make sure he knows you living with Sofia's husband, say Shug. Make sure you get in the part bout being happy where she is at, the worse thing that could happen to her is to be some white lady maid.

I don’t know, say the prizefighter. This sounds mighty much like some ole uncle Tomming to me. Shug snort, Well, she said, Uncle Tom didn’t call Uncle for anything.

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 Novels: The color purple: Alice Walker: Chapter 2


Poor little Squeak comes home with a limp. Her dress rip. Her hat missing and one of the heels comes off her shoe. What happens? us ask.

He saw the Hodges in me, she says. And he didn’t like it one bit.

Harpo comes up the steps from the car. My wife beat up, my woman rape, he says. I ought to go back out there with guns, maybe set fire to the place, burn the crackers up.

Shut up, Harpo, say Squeak. I’m telling it. And she does.

Say, the minute I walk through the door, he remembered me. What does he say? us ask.

Say, What do you want? I say I come out of the interest I have in seeing justice is done. What do you say you want? he asked again.

I say what yall told me to say. Bout Sofia is not being punished enough. Say she is happy in prison, a strong girl like her. Her main worry is just the thought of ever being some white woman maid. That what started the fight, you know, I say. Mayor’s wife asks Sofia to be her maid. Sofia says she never going to be a white woman’s nothing, let alone a maid.

That so? he asked, all the time looking me over real good.

Yessir, I say. Say, prison suits her just fine. Shoot, washing, and ironing all day is all she does at home. She got six children, you know.

That a fact? he says.

He comes from behind his desk, leans over my chair. Who your folks? he asked.

I tell him my mama’s name, grandmama’s name. Grandpa’s name. Who's your daddy? he asked. Where do you get their eyes?

Ain’t got no daddy, I say.

Come on now, he says. Ain’t I seen you before?

I say, Yessir. And one-time bout ten years ago, when I was a little girl, you give me a quarter. I sure did preshape it, I say. I don’t remember that, he says.

You come by the house with my mama friend, Mr. Jimmy, I say. Squeak looks around at all of us. Then take a deep breath. Mumble. Say what? ask Odessa.

Yeah, say Shug, if you can’t tell us, who you gon tell, God?

He took my hat off, say Squeak. Told me to undo my dress. She drops her head, puts her face in her hands. My God, say Odessa, and he your uncle.

He says if he was my uncle he wouldn’t do it to me. That be a sin. But this is just little fornication. Everybody is guilty of that. She turns her face up to Harpo. Harpo, she says, do you love me, or just my color?

Harpo says I love you, Squeak. He kneels and tries to put his arms around her waist. She stands up. My name is Mary Agnes, she says.

 

 

6 months after Mary Agnes went to get Sofia out of prison, she begins to sing. First, she sings Shug’s songs, then she begins to make up songs herself.

She got the kind of voice you never think of trying to sing a song. It little, it high, it sort of meowing. But Mary Agnes doesn’t care.

Pretty soon, we git used to it. Then we like it a whole lot. Harpo doesn’t know what to make of it.

It seems funny to me, he says to me and Mr.         . So sudden. It put me in the mind of a gramophone. Sit in the corner a year silent as the grave. Then you put a record on, it comes to life.

Wonder if she is still mad Sofia knock her teeth out? I asked.

Yeah, she was mad. But what is good being mad gon do? She is not evil, she knows Sofia's life is hard to bear right now. How did she git along with the children? ask Mr.

They love her, say Harpo. She let ’em do anything they want. Oh-oh, I say.

Besides, he says, Odessa and Sofia's other sisters are always on hand to take up the slack. They bring up children like the military. Squeak sing, 

They call me yellow like yellow be my name 

They call me yellow like yellow be my name 

But if yellow is a name Why ain’t black the same 

Well, if I say Hey black girl Lord, she tries to ruin my game

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Novels: The color purple: Alice Walker: Chapter 3

 

Sofia says to me today, I just can’t understand it. What that? I asked.

Why we ain’t already kill them off.

Three years after she beat her out of the wash house, got her color and her weight back, look like her old self, just all-time think bout killing somebody.

Too many to kill off, I say. We outnumbered from the start. I speck we knock over one or two, though, here and there, through the years, I say.

We sit on a piece of old crate out near the edge of Miss Millie’s yard. Rusty nails stick out along the bottom and when we move they creak against the wood.

Sofia's job is to watch the children play ball. The little boy throws the ball to the little girl, she tries to catch it with her eyes shut. It rolls up under Sofia's foot.

Throw me the ball, says the little boy, with his hands on his hip. Throw me the ball.

Sofia mutter to herself, half to me. I’m here to watch, not to throw, she says. She doesn’t make a move toward the ball. Don’t you hear me talking to you, he shouts. He may be six years old, brown hair, ice-blue eyes. He comes steaming up to where we sit, haul off and kick Sofia's leg. She swings her foot to one side and he screams.

What the trouble? I asked.

Done stab his foot with a rusty nail, Sofia says.

Sure enough, blood comes leaking through his shoe.

His little sister comes to watch him cry. He turn redder and redder. Call his mama.

Miss Millie come running. She was scared of Sofia. Every time she talks to her it is like she expects the worst. She doesn’t stand close to her either. When she got a few yards from where we sit, she motion for Billy to come there.

My foot, he says to her.

Sofia do it? she asked.

Little girl pipe up. Billy does it his self, she says. Trying to kick Sofia's leg. The little girl dote on Sofia always sticks up for her. Sofia never notices, she is as deaf to the little girl as she is to her brother.

Miss Millie cut her eyes at her, put one arm around Billy's shoulder and they limp into the back of the house. A little girl follows, wave bye-bye to us.

She seems like a right sweet little thing, I say to Sofia. Who is? She frowns.

The little girl, I say. What do they call her, Eleanor Jane?

Yeah, say Sofia, with a real puzzled look on her face, I wonder why she was ever born. Well, I say, we don’t have to wonder that bout darky.

She giggles. Miss Celie, she say, you just as crazy as you can be. This was the first giggle I heard in three years.

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Novels: The color purple: Alice Walker: Chapter 4

 

Sofia would make a dog laugh, talking about those people she works for. They have the nerve to try to make us think slavery fell through because of us, say Sofia. Like us didn’t have sense enough to handle it. All the time breaking hoe handles and letting the mules loose in the wheat. But how anything they build can last a day is a wonder to me. They are backward, she says. Clumsy, and unlucky.

Mayor 

bought Miz Millie a new car, cause she said if colored could have cars then one for her was past due. So he bought her a car, only he refuses to show her how to drive it. Every day he comes home from the town he looks at her, looks out the window at her car, says, How you enjoying ’er Miz Millie. She flies off the sofa in a huff, slamming the door going into the bathroom.

She ain’t got no friends.

So one day she says to me, car been sitting out in the yard for two months, Sofia, do you know how to drive? I guess she remembered first seeing me up against Buster Broadnax's car.

Yes, ma’am, I say. I’m slaving away cleaning that big post they got down at the bottom of the stair. They act real funny bout that post. No fingerprints are supposed to be on it, ever.

Do you think you could teach me? she says.

One of Sofia's children break-in, the oldest boy. He is tall and handsome, all the time serious. And mad a lot. He says, Doesn’t say slaving, Mama.

Sofia says, Why not? They got me in a little storeroom up under the house, hardly bigger than Odessa’s porch, and just about as warm in the wintertime. I’m at the beck and call all night and all day. They won’t let me see my children. They won’t let me see any men. Well, after five years they let me see you once a year. I’m a slave, she says. What would you call it?

A captive, he says.

Sofia goes on with her story, only look at him like she is glad he is hers.

So I say, Yes ma’am. I can teach you if it is the same kind of car I learned about.

Next thing you know there go me and Miz Millie all up and down the road. First I drive and she watches, then she started to try to drive and I watch her. Up and down the road. Soon as I finish cooking breakfast, putting it on the table, washing dishes, and sweeping the floor—and just before I go get the mail out of the box down by the road—we go give Miz Millie her driving lesson.

Well, after a while she got the hang of it, more or less. Then she git it. Then one day when we come home from riding, she said to me, I’m gonna drive you home. Just like that.

Home? I asked.

Yes, she says. Home. You ain’t been home or seen your children in a while, she says. Ain’t that, right? I say, Yes ma’am. It's been five years.

She says That’s a shame. You just go get your things right now. Here it is, Christmas. Go get your things. You can stay all day.

For all day I don’t need anything but what I got on, I say. Fine, she says. Fine. Well, git in.

Well, say Sofia, I so used to sitting up there next to her teaching her how to drive, that I just naturally clammed into the front seat.

She stood outside on her side of the car clearing her throat. Finally, she says, Sofia, with a little laugh, This is the South. Yes, ma’am, I say.

She clear her throat, laugh some more. Look where you sitting, she says. I’m sitting where I always sit, I say.

That’s the problem, she says. Have you ever seen a white person and a colored sitting side by side in a car, when one of ’em wasn’t showing the other one how to drive it or clean it?

I got out of the car, opened the back door, and clammed in. She sat down upfront. Off us traveled down the road, Miz Millie's hair blowing all out the window.

It’s a really pretty country out this way, she says, when we hit the Marshall county road, coming toward Odessa’s house. Yes, ma’am, I say.

Then we pull into the yard and all the children come crowding around the car. Nobody told them I was coming, so they don’t know who I am. Except the oldest two. They fall on me and hug me. And then all the little ones start to hug me too. I don’t think they even notice I was sitting in the back of the car. Odessa and Jack come out after I was out, so they didn’t see it.

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 Novels: The color purple: Alice Walker: Chapter 5


We all stand around kissing and hugging each other, Miz Millie just watching. Finally, she leans out the window and says, Sofia, you only got the rest of the day. I’ll be back to pick you up at five o’clock The children were all pulling me into the house, so sort of over my shoulder I say, Yes ma’am, and I thought I heard her drive off.

 

But fifteen minutes later, Marion says, That white lady still out there. Maybe she going to wait to take you back, say Jack.

Maybe she is sick, say Odessa. You always say how sickly they are.

I go out to the car, say Sofia, and guess what the matter is? The matter is, she doesn’t know how to do anything but go forward, and Jack and Odessa’s yard is too full of trees for that.

Sofia, say, How do you back this thing up?

I lean over the car window and try to show her which way to move the gears. But she flustered and all the children and Odessa and Jack all standing around the porch watching her.

I go round on the other side. Try to explain with my head poked through that window. She stripping gears aplenty by now. Plus her nose is red and she looks mad and frustrates both.

I clam in the back seat, lean over the back of the front, steady trying to show her how to operate the gears. Nothing happens. Finally, the car stops making any sound. Engine dead.

Don’t worry, I say, Odessa’s husband Jack will drive you home. That’s his pick-up right there. Oh, she said, I couldn’t ride in a pick-up with a strange colored man.

I’ll ask Odessa to squeeze in too, I say. That would give me a chance to spend a little time with the children, I thought. But she says, No, I don’t know her either.

So it ends up with me and Jack driving her back home in the pick-up, then Jack driving me to town to get a mechanic, and at five o’clock I was driving Miz Millie’s car back to her house.

I spent fifteen minutes with my children.

And she has been going on for months bout how ungrateful I am. White folk is a miracle of affliction, says Sofia. 

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