The day she walked the streets of Silk, a chafing wind kept the temperature low and the sun was helpless to move outdoor thermometers more than a few degrees above freezing. Tiles of ice had formed at the shoreline and, inland, the thrown-together houses on Monarch Street whined like puppies. Ice slick gleamed, then disappeared in the early evening shadow, causing the sidewalks she marched along to undermine even an agile tread, let alone one with a faint limp. She should have bent her head and closed her eyes to slits in that weather, but being a stranger, she stared wide-eyed at each house, searching for the address that matched the one in the advertisement: One Monarch Street. Finally she turned into a driveway where Sandler Gibbons stood in his garage door ripping the seam from a sack of Ice-Off. He remembers the crack of her heels on concrete as she approached; the angle of her hip as she stood there, the melon sun behind her, the garage light in her face. He remembers the pleasure of her voice when she asked for directions to the house of women he has known all his life.
"You sure?" he asked when she told him the address.
She took a square of paper from a jacket pocket, held it with ungloved fingers while she checked, then nodded.
Sandler Gibbons scanned her legs and reckoned her knees and thighs were stinging from the cold her tiny skirt exposed them to. Then he marveled at the height of her bootheels, the cut of her short leather jacket. At first he'd thought she wore a hat, something big and fluffy to keep her ears and neck warm. Then he realized that it was hair-blown forward by the wind, distracting him from her face. She looked to him like a sweet child, fine-boned, gently raised but lost.
"Cosey women," he said. "That's their place you looking for. It ain't been number one for a long time now, but you can't tell them that. Can't tell them nothing. It 1410 or 1401, probably."
Now it was her turn to question his certainty.
"I'm telling you," he said, suddenly irritable-the wind, he thought, tearing his eyes. "Go on up thataway. You can't miss it 'less you try to. Big as a church."
She thanked him but did not turn around when he hollered at her back, "Or a jailhouse."
Sandler Gibbons didn't know what made him say that. He believed his wife was on his mind. She would be off the bus by now, stepping carefully on slippery pavement until she got to their driveway. There she would be safe from falling because, with the forethought and common sense he was known for, he was prepared for freezing weather in a neighborhood that had no history of it. But the "jailhouse" comment meant he was really thinking of Romen, his grandson, who should have been home from school an hour and a half ago. Fourteen, way too tall, and getting muscled, there was a skulk about him, something furtive that made Sandler Gibbons stroke his thumb every time the boy came into view. He and Vida Gibbons had been pleased to have him, raise him, when their daughter and son-in-law enlisted. Mother in the army; father in the merchant marines. The best choice out of none when only pickup work (housecleaning in Harbor for the women, hauling road trash for the men) was left after the cannery closed. "Parents idle, children sidle," his own mother used to say. Getting regular yard work helped, but not enough to keep Romen on the dime and out of the sight line of ambitious, under-occupied police. His own boyhood had been shaped by fear of vigilantes, but dark blue uniforms had taken over posse work now. What thirty years ago was a one-sheriff, one-secretary department was now four patrol cars and eight officers with walkie-talkies to keep the peace.
He was wiping salt dust from his hands when the two people under his care arrived at the same time, one hollering, "Hoo! Am I glad you did this! Thought I'd break my neck." The other saying, "What you mean, Gran? I had your arm all the way from the bus."
"Course you did, baby." Vida Gibbons smiled, hoping to derail any criticism her husband might be gathering against her grandson.
At dinner, the scalloped potatoes having warmed his mood, Sandler picked up the gossip he'd begun while the three of them were setting the table.
"What did you say she wanted?" Vida asked, frowning. The ham slices had toughened with reheating.
"Looking for those Cosey women, I reckon. That was the address she had. The old address, I mean. When wasn't nobody out here but them."
"That was written on her paper?" She poured a little raisin sauce over her meat.
"I didn't look at it, woman. I just saw her check it. Little scrap of something looked like it came from a newspaper."
"You were concentrating on her legs, I guess. Lot of information there."
Romen covered his mouth and closed his eyes.
"Vida, don't belittle me in front of the boy."
"Well, the first thing you told me was about her skirt. I'm just following your list of priorities."
"I said it was short, that's all."
"How short?" Vida winked at Romen.
"They wear them up to here, Gran." Romen's hand disappeared under the table.
"Up to where?" Vida leaned sideways.
"Will you two quit? I'm trying to tell you something."
"You think she's a niece, maybe?" asked Vida.
"Could be. Didn't look like one, though. Except for size, looked more like Christine's people." Sandler motioned for the jar of jalapeños,
"Christine don't have any people left."
"Maybe she had a daughter you don't know about." Romen just wanted to be in the conversation, but as usual, they looked at him as if his fly was open.
"Watch your mouth," said his grandfather.
"I'm just talking, Gramp. How would I know?"
"You wouldn't, so don't butt in."
"You sucking your teeth at me?"
"Sandler, lighten up. Can't you leave him alone for a minute?" Vida asked.
Sandler opened his mouth to defend his position, but decided to bite the tip off the pepper instead.
"Anyway, the less I hear about those Cosey girls, the better I like it," said Vida.
"Girls?" Romen made a face.
"Well, that's how I think of them. Hincty, snotty girls with as much cause to look down on people as a pot looks down on a skillet."
"They're cool with me," said Romen. "The skinny one, anyway."
Vida glared at him. "Don't you believe it. She pays you; that's all you need from either one."
Romen swallowed. Now she was on his back. "Why you all make me work there if they that bad?"
"Make you?" Sandler scratched a thumb.
"Well, you know, send me over there."
"Drown this boy, Vida. He don't know a favor from a fart."
"We sent you because you need some kind of job, Romen. You've been here four months and it's time you took on some of the weight."
Romen tried to get the conversation back to his employers' weaknesses and away from his own. "Miss Christine always gives me something good to eat."
"I don't want you eating off her stove."
"That's just rumor."
"A rumor with mighty big feet. And I don't trust that other one either. I know what she's capable of."
"You forgot?" Vida's eyebrows lifted in surprise.
"Nobody knows for sure."
"Knows what?" asked Romen.
"Some old mess," said his grandfather.
Vida stood and moved to the refrigerator. "Somebody killed him as sure as I'm sitting here. Wasn't a thing wrong with that man." Dessert was canned pineapple in sherbet glasses. Vida set one at each place. Sandler, unimpressed, leaned back. Vida caught his look but decided to let it lie. She worked; he was on a security guard's hilarious pension. And although he kept the house just fine, she was expected to come home and cook a perfect meal every day.
"What man?" Romen asked.
"Bill Cosey," replied Sandler. "Used to own a hotel and a lot of other property, including the ground under this house."
Vida shook her head. "I saw him the day he died. Hale at breakfast; dead at lunch."
"He had a lot to answer for, Vida."
"Somebody answered for him: 'No lunch.' "
"You forgive that old reprobate anything."
"He paid us good money, Sandler, and taught us, too. Things I never would have known about if I'd kept on living over a swamp in a stilt house. You know what my mother's hands looked like. Because of Bill Cosey, none of us had to keep doing that kind of work."
"It wasn't that bad. I miss it sometimes."
"Miss what? Slop jars? Snakes?"
"Oh, shoot." Vida tossed her spoon into the sherbet glass hard enough to get the clink she wanted.
"Remember the summer storms?" Sandler ignored her. "The air just before-"
"Get up, Romen." Vida tapped the boy's shoulder. "Help me with the dishes."
"I ain't finished, Gran."
"Yes you are. Up."
Romen, forcing air through his lips, pushed back his chair and unfolded himself. He tried to exchange looks with his grandfather, but the old man's eyes were inward.
"Never seen moonlight like that anywhere else." Sandler's voice was low. "Make you want to-" He collected himself. "I'm not saying I would move back."
"I sure hope not." Vida scraped the plates loudly. "You'd need gills."
"Mrs. Cosey said it was a paradise." Romen reached for a cube of pineapple with his fingers.
Vida slapped his hand. "It was a plantation. And Bill Cosey took us off of it."
"The ones he wanted." Sandler spoke to his shoulder.
"I heard that. What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing, Vida. Like you said, the man was a saint."
"There's no arguing with you."
Romen dribbled liquid soap into hot water. His hands felt good sloshing in it, though it stung the bruises on his knuckles. His side hurt more while he stood at the sink, but he felt better listening to his grandparents fussing about the olden days. Less afraid.
Copyright © 2003 by Toni Morrison. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.