The sudden rat-a-tat-tat at the door startles and pleases her. She turns the heat down on the burner, leaving the spoon to cook along with the beans, and in quick steps, is at the door, opening it.
"Hey, Mama," Ramsey says, entering and depositing a kiss on her damp, dark cheek.
Ella throws her arms about him, not knowing how long she holds onto him, but it doesn't seem long enough, even as Ramsey disengages himself, laughing lightly, saying, "I guess you're glad to see me."
"Mighty," Ella replies, pulling a chair from under the small metal table with a chipped and stained Formica top. She can't help but feel a bit giddy as he sits.
"You hungry?" she asks, but doesn't wait for a reply, as she places a paper placemat on the table before him.
"I can't stay long."
At the dishwasher, Ella pulls a plate out of the draining board. Turning, she asks, "And why cain't you?" Her voice, harsh, speaks nothing of her fear.
"I told you I had something to do tonight. I only came by cause you told me I'd better."
Ella's anger is momentarily calmed by his admission. It's a good sign, she thinks: Even as a young man, he did what his mama told him. She continues on. The plate, inspected and verified clean, is set before him. Ella steps to the counter near the stove and retrieves utensils from the plastic, holed containers against the wall. With her back to Ramsey, she instructs him to go on and take his coat off.
"You ain't got to eat and run off," although she worries that that is what he's intending to do.
She doesn't expect him to comply, but as he, still sitting, shrugs the black wool coat off, Ella finds herself smiling again. She sets the utensils on either side of the plate, adds some napkins and the salt and pepper shakers.
"I'll be back," Ella tells Ramsey as she disappears into the area between the kitchen and the dining room where beverages are prepared. She returns, contemplating his presence still, her eyes glistening bright as the cubes of ice spinning around in the plastic cup of tea. She sets it down on the table by his hand and asks how he's been.
"Aw right," her son replies, reaching for the cup.
Not much of an answer, Ella thinks but says nothing. She goes to the stove, gives the beans a stir and less than a prayer and then proceeds to bring pots of food over to the table, one at a time, dishing the fare onto Ramsey's plate.
"Aw, Mama, that's too much," her son complains. "I ain't got time to eat all this."
"You'll clean your plate," she says, using her elbow to nudge him up side his head.
Some orders come in and Ella busies herself with them, nervously glancing over at Ramsey case he make any motions at getting up and going.
"This place is gonna run me to death," she declares, when finally she gets the chance to sit down at the table with her son. She picks up a napkin and begins pulling it into streams. "It's been along time since we spent some time together."
"I call you, Mama. I let you know I'm thinking bout you. I told you, I've just been awful busy lately."
She nods as her fingers tear the streams of paper into tinier pieces. "Why don't you come over tonight, Ramsey?" she suggests. "There's a good old movie on, one of those Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby did together. We'll watch that and eat some peanut brittle and pork rinds, like we used to."
I can't. I can't. No. No. No. His answer reverberates inside her head.
Under different circumstances, she'd be proud of him. The way he deflects her every argument. The way he sticks to the plans he's already made. If it was someone else, and not herself, Ella would say, "You just go on, cause cain't nobody tell you what's right for you." She'd be proud of herself as well cause that's how she raised her boy: to decide for himself, to challenge what others proposed. She wanted to instill tenacity. A damned, unshakeable sense of doggedness. Ella has never intended for Ramsey to be just plain stubborn, telling her no especially when she is so close to begging.
"Since when cain't you spend a few minutes with your kin?" she snaps
Ramsey stubbornly avoids her eyes. Intent on eating, his jaws move slowly in a circular motion, reminding her of the wheels of a train gearing up to go. Ella is about to say something else when her son drops his hands, looks her in the face and retorts, "Why you gotta keep asking if I already said no?"
The tone of his voice startles her.
Cupping one hand at the edge of the table, she uses the other to wipe the ragged paper scraps off.
"I've been getting this feeling," she explains meekly, embarrassed when he rolls his eyes. She gets up from the table, tosses the napkin scraps into the trash. The waitress has brought in two plastic tubs of dishes and Ella goes to the sink to rinse them. Using a steak knife, she noisily scrapes remnants of food into the trashcan. "If you'd just try to understand," she pleads, keeping her back to him.
"Aw, Mama, Please. Not tonight."
"I cain't shake the feeling," she continues feebly. She pretends not to hear his groan, knowing anything she says will dissipate into the greasy air before it reaches his eardrums.
Still Ella tells him that over a month ago, she woke up several days in a row, all fuzzy-headed and confused by her dream of shoes.
"Uh-huh." One pair, she tells him. With dread itching at her back, Ella glances at her son's shoes, "Just like the ones you got on," she says, her voice low.
A man's wing tips, black, immaculately polished, standing at attention under a streetlight.
"And the dream meant what, Mama?"
Ella is stilled. "Well, I didn't know at first. 'Fore I could figure it out, the dream changed."
Ramsey has a look of incredulity on his face, so Ella does not tell him what happened in the next dream. Her body shivers as her mind recalls the pair of hands reaching down and unlacing the ties, removing the shoes. The feet, however, were not the feet of a man, but of an infant. Brown and dimpled. Ten perfect toes with pink toenails. She had no idea what that meant either.
But that didn't stop the dream from coming. Not every night, just enough to keep her disturbed, until one night when she realized that she knew those feet; she'd kissed them, memorized the lines charting across the soles.
Then the dream changed again. In the early morning hours of this day, she was dreaming of the wing-tipped shoes once more, but this time, on the feet of a man lying solemnly against a lining of cream-colored satin.
Ella woke knowing that Ramsey was going to die that night.
She'd scrambled from the bed, sheet and blanket trailing, making her way to the telephone in the living room. The dial did not return full circle before she was spinning another number.
"Yeah?" The sleepy voice on the other end answered.
"Yeah. What's wrong, Mama?"
"I need you to come over."
"Right now? Mama, it's barely five o'clock."
"Not now," she told him. She thought on the dream. The streetlight. "Tonight."
"I already got something planned."
Ella told Ramsey it was an emergency.
He asked if she was hurt.
When she told him no, he said, "Then, there's no emergency."
"It ain't about me— it's about you."
Ramsey laughed. "Mama, how can there be some emergency about me and I don't even know about it?"
Ella sighed in frustration. "It ain't nothing I can explain right now. I need to talk to you in person."
When they see other it is often at her workplace, the evening shift, and sometimes her son drops in to say hello, to borrow a couple of dollars or to have dinner with his mama when she takes a break from her work.
"Can't do it, Mama. I told you I already got plans for this evening." He said a visit with her, no matter how short, might interfere.
But Ella kept on until she had a promise that he would try.
Throughout the day, Ella worried herself with whether or not Ramsey would indeed show. He was not one to break promises, but she'd heard "something came up" as excuse to explain his absences all too often.
But he is here and Ella is determined to stop those three bitches — Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos — tangle them up in their own yarn.
"Why you got to do things so late at night?" she asks. "Most folks work in the day — what you doing that it's got to be done in the dark?"
"It ain't nuthin' important," he tells her. "You wouldn't understand."
Ella grunts. "I understand you've been courting trouble an awfully long time." The unspoken knowledge of his misdeeds lay before them.
Ramsey doesn't reply.
"If your daddy was here —"
His look cut her short. "Well, he ain't here. He went and got himself killed, remember?"
Ella can't think of the last time they spoke about his father and the conversation felt good. She takes another approach.
"It ain't good to be out all hours of the night," she says as she loads the rinsed dishes into the dishwasher, starting it. Back at the table, she rubs a soapy dishrag across the table. Even strokes. Again and again, before she begins attacking a chip on the table as if it were a dried piece of food unwilling to budge.
"What is it, Mama?" her son asks.
Her eyes still on the spot, she says, "I got a feeling something's gonna happen to you."
They are both quiet, the voices in conversation from the other room filling the space between them. The ice colliding in the glasses, the silverware scratching across the plates.
Ramsey grins widely, a look she's familiar with. The look of a son raised on bravado and fearlessness. It doesn't dispel the dread gnawing at her heart.
Ella reminds him that he has been witness to incidents throughout their life together. How at a traffic light, when the signal turned green, she said "wait" out loud, then hesitated and avoided being slammed by the semi-truck rushing through a red. How she stopped in the middle of her price comparisons in the soup aisle in the grocery store, pulled him abruptly to her, just before heavy cans toppled off the top shelf, into the space where he'd been standing. She reminds him of those "feelings" she sometimes got, how those uncertainties manifested themselves into something real —
"You always said it was just coincidence."
"I shouldn't of passed it off like that." She nods and says, "I know I did" when Ramsey reminds her that she instructed him to dismiss the incidents.
"Seeing the future?" he says, just a hint of amusement on his lips. "How come you never get those feelings when I'm buying lottery tickets?"
In frustration, she stops her wiping and slams the dishrag onto the table. "Boy, this ain't no joke."
She is further insulted when he says, like gas, "Maybe this too shall pass."
"That ain't funny," Ella tells him, as she stands and walks to the doorway leading to the dining area. For a long while, she stares out at the customers. Ramsey says something, but she doesn't turn around.
Ella was at the window, her eyes closed, her forehead pressed against the pane. Sighing deeply, she turned, about to drop her arms in frustration, then she remembered the child she was holding. She laid the boy down on the sofa, reached for the rainbow afghan on the arm of the easy chair, and spread it over her son. She sat down at the child's feet and worried.
Where was her husband?
Her mind turned to the dream that had jolted her awake hours earlier. She had been dreaming of snakes. No, ropes, actually. But they danced like snakes, like in the movies, summoned forth by music.
It was not the first time she had dreamt about the ropes; for over a month this dream interrupted her slumber. Its meaning she couldn't decipher, though she tried. Her husband noted her nervousness and bewilderment, yet when he questioned her, she excused her behavior with trite explanation.
She did not tell him about the dream.
She did not tell him that when she was six, her mama took her to a conjure woman. She had stood paralyzed on the front step while her mother explained about Horace and the mule ("She told him it was gonna kick him in the head 'fore it even happened."); the rat in the cracker barrel ("I was just about to get some soda crackers when she yelled, 'Mama, don't put your hand in there!'") There were other incidents of foretelling her mama recited, but Ella didn't listen. She simply stood in the doorway, on the step, the sunlight behind her cutting sharply into the darkness of the room.
Her mama finished talking and then she turned to Ella, advising her daughter, "Let her tell you what you got to do." With that, she turned and walked away.
"Close the door," the conjure woman said. "But first, come inside."
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