An Excerpt from
In West Mills
by De'Shawn Charles Winslow
In West Mills. (Bloombury). Release date: June 4, 2019.
Knot would be lying if she told anyone that Pratt wasn’t a good man. He didn’t mind hard work, he picked up after himself, he kept his body nice and clean, and he knew how to give her joy in bed. But the truth was Pratt wasn’t much fun to her otherwise. He didn’t have much to talk about. And he couldn’t hold his liquor to save his life. After two drinks Pratt was laid out, spilling over, or both. Knot liked men who could match her shot for shot, keep her mind busy when they weren’t drunk, and still do all the other things Pratt could do. Aside from all that, her father— she called him Pa— wouldn’t like Pratt. If she were ever going to be married, it would have to be a man her pa loved just as much as she did.
Pratt’s threat to leave West Mills could not have come with better timing, because Knot’s twenty- seventh birthday was a week around the corner. When the weekend came, she walked down the lane— two houses to the left of her house— to tell her good friend Otis Lee Loving all about her newfound freedom. And since Knot visited him most Saturday mornings, and knew he would be in the kitchen, she didn’t bother knocking.
“You need to go on over there and fix things up with Pratt,” Otis Lee said. “Otherwise, he gon’ be on the next thing headed west.” Otis Lee set a cup of black coffee on the table in front of Knot; his face was angry-looking and peach. He didn’t sit down. Just then, his wife, Pep, showed up at the table with a boiled egg and a biscuit, all inside the cracked, sand- colored bowl Knot wished they would throw away.
“Pratt can catch the next thing to hell,” Knot replied.
Pep pushed the bowl in front of Knot, next to the coffee. She didn’t sit down, either. Knot looked up at them and wondered what the day’s lecture would be about.
“Eat,” Pep commanded. Even at seven o’clock in the morning, her round face looked full and healthy, as though she had slept on a pillow made of air. Not the rough, feather- stuffed pillows Knot used.
“I thought I left my mama in Ahoskie,” Knot scoffed. “Y’all got anything I can pour in this coffee? Something ’sides milk, I mean.”
“Why you so set on bein’ lonely, Knot?” Otis Lee asked.
Pep looked down at Otis Lee as though he had gone off script. And he looked up at Pep as if to say, I couldn’t help myself. The way he and Pep stood there, side by side, made them look more like a boy and his mother than a husband and his wife. Why the two of them behaved so much like old people, Knot never understood. They were only five years older than she was. For Knot, it was Otis Lee’s being happily married, being too short, and old- man ways that ruined the handsomeness she’d seen on him when they’d first met. And that handsomeness, as striking as it was, had never caused the feeling Knot got deep in her stomach when she met a man she wanted to touch, or be touched by, in the dim light of her oil lamp.
“Y’all know he tried to beat me, don’t ya?”
Otis Lee and Pep both sighed, at the same time. Knot wondered if they had rehearsed it.
“You sit to my table and tell that tale?” Otis Lee reproached. Then he began with his You know good’n well this and You know good’n well that. At times like these Knot had to work hard to keep her cool. Because if she didn’t, she might tell Otis Lee that if he spent more time worrying about his own life, and his own family, he might know that the woman he knew as his mother, wasn’t; she was kin but not his mother. If his real mama is anything like mine, better for him if he don’t know. Ain’t none of my business anyhow.
“Tell me one thing,” Knot said. “Why y’all always take his side?”
“It ain’t just about Pratt’s side, Knot,” Otis Lee insisted.
“You need to be nicer to everybody ’round here.” Knot heard bits and pieces of what Otis Lee recounted about how her drinking had gotten out of hand; how she seemed to want to be by herself more than anything nowadays— unless she was at Miss Goldie’s Place, of course. Knot started nibbling on the biscuit and then on the egg, trying not to hear all the things she already knew about herself.
Otis Lee turned to Pep and mused, “You remember when she used to go see the children and they mamas, Pep? Used to visit people just ’cause she had time. People used to talk so nice about that, Knot. Thought the world of it. Didn’t they, Pep?”
“Yes, they did,” Pep replied.
Knot dropped the egg back in the bowl and asked, “Ain’t I sittin’ here, visitin’ with ya’ll right now?” Knot was certain they’d both heard her question, although neither of them responded.
“Now folk say you show up to that schoolhouse smellin’ like you bathe in corn liquor,” Otis Lee went on. “That’s ’bout all they sayin’ ’bout you now.”
“What people you talkin’ ’bout, anyhow, Otis Lee?” Knot said. She took a sip of the coffee. It was weak.
“What you mean, ‘what people’?”
“Y’all ain’t got but three or four hundred folk ’round here,” Knot pointed out. “And most of ’em is white folk who don’t know me from a can of bacon grease.”
“Some days you talk like you don’t live right here in this town,” Pep remarked. Knot couldn’t think of anything to say back.
She knew that some if not all of what Otis Lee was saying was true— about people whispering. Many times Knot had noticed how some of the women stopped talking when she came near them at the general store. And at the schoolhouse, she’d been a bit hurt by how some of the people had seemed as if they didn’t want to be seen speaking with her too long when they came to pick up their children. They’d ask how their little ones were doing with their lessons and then hurry off as though Knot had a sickness they didn’t want to catch. Knot did her job. As much as she hated it, she did it well. No one had complained about her teaching. They couldn’t. So many of the ma’s and pa’s had themselves thanked Knot for the little rhymes and games she’d taught their children to help them divide a number quickly— without using paper and pencil. Or the funny ways she’d taught them odd facts. She remembered asking one of the boys one day, “Sammy Spence, what’s the capital of Iowa?” And once he’d answered correctly, she’d asked, “How you remember to keep the s’s silent?” and Sammy had responded, “My name got s’s, and they both make the s sound. But not for Des Moines, Miss Centre!” And Knot had said, “So you were listening, weren’t you?” And she had rubbed his head. When Knot had first arrived in West Mills, there were some eight- year-olds who couldn’t write their names. Her pa would have been just beside himself about that if she ever told him.
Otis Lee was still lecturing.
“You ain’t gettin’ no younger,” he cautioned. “Pratt love you to death, gal.”
“He left,” Knot said. “I ain’t throw him out.” “This time,” Pep remarked, and she walked to the basin.
“You got somethin’ to say, Penelope?” Knot shot back before realizing that her question would only bring on the second part of the Loving lecture.
Just three months earlier, Pep reminded Knot, she had thrown Pratt out for trying to do something nice.
“All he wanted you to do was stay home from that ol’ juke joint for one Friday night,” Pep recalled.
“But I felt like going,” Knot grumbled.
“He cooked a chicken for ya, child,” Pep said. “This one”— she pointed at Otis Lee— “can’t even boil eggs.”
“I can too boil eggs, Pep,” Otis Lee said. “You know good’n well I— ”
“If I come home to a cooked hen,” Pep continued, “I’m gon’ sit with my man and eat.”
“He ask her to read to him, too,” Otis Lee informed his wife. “She tell him, ‘No.’ ” Pep looked at Knot with shame.
Knot couldn’t deny any of it. It had been his request that she stay home and read to him that irritated her most.
“I read to folks all goddamn week long,” Knot had said to Pratt. “You crazy if you think I’m stayin’ home to read to yo’ big ass.”
“Selfish and stubborn,” he’d called her, shaking his head. And Knot had said, “I’m twenty- six years old. I can be selfish if I feel like it.” And Pratt had said, “Naw, you can’t, neither.” And Knot had yelled back, “Well, get the hell on out my house! Right now! And don’t you come back to my door.” He was back at her door, in her house, and in her bed in less than a day. Otis Lee’s four- year-old son, Breezy, came scooting down the stairs on his butt. His little face was mashed flat on one side and his hair was full of white lint. He looked as though he’d been working in the cotton fields Miss Noni had told Knot all about. Breezy went and stood between his parents. Pep rubbed his head and pulled him against her thigh. “Say good morning to Miss Knot,” Otis Lee nudged. And the boy did. Knot was glad Breezy was there to draw some of the attention away from her. She was done picking at the egg and biscuit, and done being picked on.