Chaney appeared one morning as Brighteye waited with other cooks and maids for the streetcar. Brighteye laughed when she saw him a block away, headed in their direction. Red-faced under a stained brown fedora, he wore white shoes with run-over heels and a seersucker suit that flapped around his skinny frame. His walk seemed studied, as though he was picking up pennies with his toes, and he carried a thick black book by its handles, like a purse. It was 1937, and Chaney was selling debit or burial life insurance in poor black neighborhoods because he had failed at everything else. He walked up to the women, called them “gals,” and pitched about having enough money to bury their loved ones with dignity … and maybe buy a red dress. “Colored gals love red dresses. Now ain’t that right?” he said. The women shook their heads, all except Brighteye. Chaney picked up on that and moved closer to where she stood in front of a diner. Smells of coffee and bacon drifted out of the diner while a sign on the door warned Brighteye and other coloreds not to come in.
“How old are you, gal?” Chaney asked.
“Fifteen, almost sixteen,” Brighteye said, wondering what he wanted.
“You look older, like you might be married. You got a policy on your husband?”
“We ain’t together.” It was her stock answer because it sounded better than the truth. She had left her sick husband in his house in the woods.
“That don’t matter. You still got insurable interest on him. See what I mean?”
Brighteye thought he was mocking her, like the smell of that coffee from the diner. “I don’t have nothing on him, mister. I ain’t seen him in two whole months.”
Chaney talked fast because he saw the streetcar coming. “Where you live at, gal? Let me learn you about this insurance.”
Thinking about what she could do with the money and hating herself for such thoughts, Brighteye boarded the front of the streetcar and paid a nickel. When she stepped down to go in the back door, to the colored section, Chaney was still there, so she gave him a paper with her address at a rooming house. He might be crazy, she thought, but she could at least hear what he had to say.
As the streetcar picked up speed on Auburn Avenue, Brighteye searched for a small boarded up store between a barbershop and a candy store. She saw the store, boards still in place, and followed it with her eyes as the bus rolled away. Auburn, the hub of black business in the city, was alive with teenagers walking to school, day workers waiting on the streetcar, and men in suits heading for an office building on the corner, a perfect location for her diner. She imagined the smell of rich coffee and thick bacon on a grill. By then, Chaney was somewhere in the back of her mind, almost forgotten.
He showed up at her rooming house the following Saturday.
* * *
“From what you say,” he said. “Sounds like your husband’s got TB. Ain’t no cure for it. Now insurable interest says you gonna lose something when he dies—don’t care what it is but something—and this here insurance policy protects your loss. See what I mean?”
Brighteye did not answer. She was remembering Jessie coughing and sheets she changed after he sweated through them. His arms like sticks. She would never go back to that house in the woods. No more emptying his slop jars of phlegm and blood and death. No more days of feeling like she was the one dying from suffocating smells of old man.
“How old is your husband?” asked Cheney, filling out the application.
“I don’t know, exactly. He grew up around the same time as my daddy. I think forty-five or fifty.”
“Farmer. He owns forty acres … and his own house. He’s the only colored man in the whole county with his own land.”
Cheney frowned. “Uh-huh … sounds nice. What about income?”
“Income? I don’t know,” she said, feeling foolish. Jessie said his income was none of her business since she hadn’t earned any of it. He gave her two dollars a week for coffee, sugar and flour, and she learned to make it last. Chaney’s questions reminded her of why she left. Chaney was looking at her like she was dumb, so she said, “Put down thirty a week.”
“Thirty a week? Either that’s a lie or he’s the smartest colored boy in Monroe County. How’d you get a hold of him?”
She flinched. Chaney was looking at her big hands and feet, coarse hair, and dark skin dotted with acne. No one had ever said she was pretty, not even Jessie.
When he came to court her right after planting season, Brighteye’s family gathered in the front room. He had been their neighbor for as long as she could remember, traveling around in a truck fancier than any of the other farmers had, owning his land when everybody else was sharecropping. He kept to himself. She had seen him in old Mr. Thompson’s store a couple of times and his wife, a pretty high-yellow woman too frail to stand alone, had her arm stuck in the crook of his. This was his first time in Brighteye’s house since his wife died.
“Put you in the mind of a poplar tree,” her mama said, studying Jessie’s tall black boots, thick limbs and knotty hair parted straight down the middle.
Her father declared, for her benefit and that of her nine brothers and sisters sitting in a huddle on the floor, “Brighteye, you better marry this man. I can’t feed all y’all, let alone send you to school.”
At thirteen, she wasn’t sure what being married meant, but she did what her daddy said because there wasn’t anything else she could do.
When she ran away after a year, she left the front door wide open and a winter wind blowing on Jessie’s bed. Hurrying out with a brown paper bag of clothes, she glanced back and caught a glimpse of his sister, Florence, framed in the doorway with a broom in one hand and dishrag in the other, looking like she might fly away. The sight of her made Brighteye run faster.
“He wanted a young wife, somebody strong enough to give him babies,” she said to Chaney, feeling ashamed of her own ugliness. That had been Jessie’s goal before he fell sick. He didn’t ask her what she wanted.
Chaney looked up from checking off things on the application. “Well, that brings me to the next question. You’ll be the primary beneficiary, of course, but did y’all ever have any children? They’ll be the contingents.”
Brighteye didn’t know what he meant by contingents and she didn’t ask because Chaney made her feel like a dumb old mule nobody wanted. She had a total of three years in school but she wasn’t dumb. “Jessie had a baby son by his first wife. They died, and he buried them in the cemetery back at our church. I don’t have children,” she said.
“I have to put somebody down … in case you’re not here to collect.”
She thought it was slick, the way he avoided saying if she died before Jessie. “My mama. Put her name down. Fanny Morris.” At that moment she realized she had forgiven her mama for not taking her side against her daddy. Forgiveness felt good. “How many more questions you got?” she asked and stood up from the glider on the porch. “This might be a waste of time. Ain’t nobody dead yet.”
“Your man’s got TB, gal. Ain’t no cure for it. You better take this insurance before something happens.”
“Mister, I don’t even think I want insurance. It don’t seem right.”
“I just told you he ain’t gonna get no better. I just said you’re entitled to it.”
“It’s just … I don’t mean him no harm. I ain’t that kind of a woman.”
Chaney stopped writing and looked at her. For a few seconds, his blue eyes seemed gray and she thought she saw pity in them. “You still got feelings for him?” he asked.
She didn’t want to pile lies on top of everything else. “No, sir. Not really,” she said.
“That’s what I thought. Address?” The look in his eyes faded as he went back to the application.
“Where does your husband live?” Chaney asked impatiently.
She gave the address of the little house in the woods. When Jessie’s hacking cough began, he told her, “I’m going to leave every stick of my property to my sister. If I don’t, you’ll be in here living it up with some man.” Remembering that, Brighteye leaned against the porch railing, untied her handkerchief and lifted two quarters out. “Here’s my … whachacallit … premium,” she said.
“I’ll fill in the stuff about his health later,” Chaney said, closing his black book. “A six-hundred-dollar-policy. Now, that’s a lot of money for a colored gal in these days and times. How you fixing to spend it?”
“I can’t rightly say.” Brighteye bit down nervously on the skin around one of her nails and salty blood leaked on her tongue. Her diner wasn’t any of Chaney’s business. Tell a white man something like that and no telling what might happen. Jessie had broadcast that he was going to buy land on the other side of the creek, and Mr. Denson at the courthouse put a stop to it.
“Look at it this way,” Chaney said. “You get burial money and a little something left over to buy yourself something. And listen here, gal. No sense in being ashamed. Most people go around doing what they have to and then spend too much time regretting it. Sorry won’t pay no bills. It won’t get you a red dress either.”
Brighteye nodded and shoved her bleeding hand into the pocket of her skirt. She wondered who told Chaney she wanted a red dress. After he left, she spent the afternoon in her room thinking about what she would do with the insurance money and about her boyfriend, Bert. He would run her coffee shop while she cooked, and if things worked out, he might ask her to marry him. She threw the sheet back and rolled over to his empty pillow, heavy with the scent of his cigar. Tall like Jessie, but twenty-five years younger, Bert was driving her crazy with a sweetness that began high in her thighs and spread to her breasts.
He said he was from Birmingham. At first, she thought he worked in the steel mills, and then she got the impression from the way he was so careful about everything he said that he had run away from something. She didn’t ask questions. She told him she had a sick husband in the country but no more than that.
He was full of ideas about going up north. “I could make it up there. They say a colored man don’t have to bow and scrape in New York. The only thing is, I don’t have me no folding green and without that, I got sense enough to know I might as well stay down here.” He lifted her chin with his fingers. “What you thinking about?”
“I got dreams too.”
“What sort of dreams?” he asked, moving his lips down to her belly button.
“Nothing special, just dreams like anybody else,” she said. If she talked about the diner, he might say it was a foolish idea for a poor girl, and she would have to tell him about the policy, which she was too ashamed to do. He might think she wanted Jessie to die and she didn’t. She only wanted to prepare for it. Death would come for Jessie the same as it did for everybody—when it was ready. She wouldn’t hurry it along.
* * *
For fifteen months, she paid premiums, sometimes going without warm clothes to have fifty-cent.
Early one spring morning, somebody knocked on her door. A stout young woman had her fist cocked to knock again when Brighteye cracked the door open. The woman, Katie, lived in the room below hers. Brighteye knew her smells: fried mullet on Fridays and peas or cabbage the rest of the week, cooked on a hot plate. Their rooms were too small for proper kitchens.
“I’m sorry, Brighteye,” Katie said, blowing through her full lips because she had run up the stairs. “But a man come by here looking for you last night. I told him I usually don’t hear you come in until one, sometimes two in the morning. He goes by the name of Mr. Morris. He said you knowed him.”
Brighteye’s body stiffened and her slender fingers tightened on the door chain. “That’s my daddy,” she said and took the envelope Katie offered.
“Your daddy? Well, he told me to give you this important message.”
Brighteye dropped the chain and motioned for her to come inside.
Katie’s eyes moved around the room, taking in the white toes of Bert’s sporting shoes pointing from under the bed. “I see your man ain’t here,” she said, smiling.
Brighteye caught the “your man” and let it go. How did she know about Bert? He was her business. She folded her arms across her chest. “What else did my daddy say?”
“Uh, he said you better be ready when he gets back, if you know what’s good for you.”
“Oh, God” said Brighteye. Jessie was dead. Nothing else would make her daddy take her back.
She leaned against the door after Katie left and read the note. It was sparse, like her daddy, and said he would be back directly to fetch her for Jessie’s funeral.
Sadly, she caught her breath. Jessie had been her husband, and that meant something, whether she loved him or not. The feeling soon passed, and she became excited about the money. She tried to calm down. No sense in rushing things until she saw Chaney. Halfway through dressing, she remembered that Chaney came by to collect premiums but never said where his office was. Maybe the insurance had been a trick to get her money. She hurried downstairs and asked on the street. A man resting on a stool in front of a candy store said Chaney had an office upstairs. The wooden stairs were worn smooth and squeaked as Brighteye climbed up to his office.
Chaney was sitting behind a desk in an office no bigger than a walk-in closet. “My husband’s dead. I come for the insurance money” she said.
“Dead? How do you know he’s dead?”
Brighteye thrust out her hand with the note.
Chaney read it and turned it over before he said anything. “You sure he’s dead? Because if you’re lying to me, gal, I’ll get the law on you.”
“No, sir. He died yesterday, like my daddy’s note said. My daddy wouldn’t lie, not about something like that.”
“And you came running straight over here. Couldn’t wait to get your hands on the money.”
“It’s not like that. I need to bury my husband. I swear that’s why I came.”
“Well. I don’t have all of it. I can give you half and the rest when you give me the death certificate. I need that or the insurance company won’t pay me back. And if you’re lying to me, I’ll get the law—“
“Law? You won’t need no law,” Brighteye said. “Jessie’s dead. I’ll bring the certificate when I get back.”
“You better,” Chaney said, opening his desk drawer with a key. He had done it before, trusted coloreds with burial money. They always brought the certificates, even recommended him to their friends. He took out a metal box and unlocked it with another key. Brighteye watched his hands, as thin as chicken feet, count the money into a stack of tens. “You ever seen that much money, little gal?” he asked with one hand on the stack.
Brighteye looked at the money, her eyes shining. “No, sir. I make two dollars and carfare. Day work don’t pay that much.”
“What will you do after you bury your man…buy that red dress?”
“I don’t know. I hadn’t thought much about it.” She looked at the floor, afraid he might see the truth in her eyes.
Cheney laughed, slipped three tens off the pile and pushed the rest toward her. He stood up as she stuffed the money in her purse. “I guess you’ll be marrying again one day. You gals go from one boy to another, just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “If your new husband looks like he’s a goner, I’ll be here. I’ve been doing this for twenty years, and I ain’t going nowhere. I did right by you, didn’t I? You got your money, like I said?”
“I guess so, Mr. Chaney,” she said. Jessie might not be her last husband but this would be her last dealing with Cheney. She’d give him the death certificate, and if he paid her the rest of the money, then fine. If not, she’d deal with that later.
That night she went to Bert’s and told him she was going home for the funeral. Curled against him, she asked for a drink to calm her nerves. He didn’t have any whiskey in his room, so they went out. They were weaving out of their favorite club, a box with wobbly chairs and a guitarist, when her daddy, dressed in dirty overalls like he had just come out of the cotton fields, ran up and yanked her away from Bert.
Brighteye tried to pull free and didn’t see Bert disappear in the crowd leaving the club.
Her daddy held on. “Looks like I done raised a slut. I named you Brighteye, thinking you would have some sense. And just look at you. Your husband ain’t even in his grave yet.”
“What did you want me to do? Nurse that sick old man until I died too? Turn me loose.”
“You might as well hold still because this time I gotcha.”
She stopped trying to pull away. Her eyes searched for Bert in the empty street.
Her daddy said. “Your good-time boy took off. He don’t mean hisself no good, let alone you.”
“That’s not true. He loves me,” she said with more conviction than she felt.
The next day she rode on a wagon with her daddy back to Jessie’s house.
Jessie’s sister and people who had known her since she was born crowded the little house in the woods and sucked their teeth as she passed through the front room to view Jessie’s body in the bedroom. Let them talk until the cows come home, she thought. After this, I’ll never see any of them again.
The body looked like Jessie at ten years old, too small to create much of a hill under the funeral blanket.
At the gravesite, her daddy said, “We need something to help out.”
She gave him twenty dollars. She bought horehound candy for her brothers and sisters and a piece of blue cotton cloth for her mama. “I don’t feel right taking it, not after all you been through,” her mama said, slowly running fingers like brown twigs over the cloth.
“Take it,” Brighteye said. “I’ll feel better.”
* * *
She was through with the burial and back in the city in a week. As she cleaned a woman’s house, she hummed and thought about Bert. She would see him that night and tell him about the insurance money. It was time for them to make plans. He could be bossy, especially when he thought she was “trying to run things,” so she had to pick her words, tell him the right way, make him understand.
With the streetcar clanging outside and sunset pushing orangey fingers under the curtain in her room, she told him about the diner.
He studied on it for a minute. “So you decided everything by yourself.” His voice sounded harsh. “That’s too much money for you to handle, ain’t it?”
“It’s enough to open a diner.” She didn’t like the way he moved away from her in bed. “That’s what I’m fixing to do.”
“They got diners in that country town you from? What you know about running something? That money can take us to New York for a new start.” Bert bit down on his cigar and turned away.
“I thought coming to here was a new start. How many starts do you need?”
He turned around, propped up on one elbow and looked down at her. His handsome features were twisted into an ugly knot. “Now I see why your husband put you out. You’re one of those women who like to control men. But not me, baby.”
“He didn’t put me out. I left.”
“It’s the same thing in my book.”
“Bert, please. Try to understand. I’ve wanted that diner for a long time, and I’m going have it. God willing,” she said. He didn’t respond. She stared at him lying in a rigid line on the edge of the bed, and saw the plain truth. He was no better than Jessie, only a few years younger. The red bulb in the ceiling spread a rosy light over them as she bit her lip to keep from crying.
Bert sat up and put on his pants and shoes, keeping his back to her. Before she could put her feet on the floor, he stomped out.
When he slammed the front door, Katie ran upstairs to her room, rushing through the open door. “Why you carrying on like this?” she asked Brighteye, who was doubled up in bed, moaning.
Brighteye told her what happened.
“Humph. You’ll live. Men … they’re like trains. You miss one and another will come along directly, a better one, going where you want to go. I’ve been there and I know.” Katies’s voice softened. “It won’t hurt so much if you think about it like that.”
“My pain ain’t like yours,” Brighteye said and closed her eyes.
For the rest of the week, she stayed in bed and listened for Bert’s whistle, their signal for her to open the front door. She heard nothing but mice in the walls and the streetcar clanging. She took small sips of water but couldn’t eat. On Friday the smell of Katie’s fried mullet nauseated her.
Her energy returned as she slowly realized Bert wasn’t coming back, no matter how much she wanted him to, and she could stay in bed and grieve or she could move on. Hail struck the tall, sunny window of her room as she dressed and left the house. She walked to the avenue and stopped at the boarded-up store she had seen from the streetcar. From a wide crack in a board, she saw a room large enough for a kitchen and a few tables.
A barber came out of his shop. “Hey,” he said.
“Hey yourself,” said Brighteye. “Is this place for rent?”
“It is if you’ve got the money, young lady. I ain’t got no time to be playing.”
“Fifty a month, plus twenty-five for deposit.” He turned around went back in his shop.
“Wait a minute,” said Brighteye, running after him.
When she stepped outside the barbershop with a lease was in her purse, she saw Cheney shuffling along. He walked directly in front of her, blocking her path. “Did you get that red dress?” he asked.
“Naw. I’m too busy waiting for the rest of my insurance money. I mailed you the death certificate as soon as I got back.”
“Your money’s coming,” Chaney said and stepped aside for her to pass.
She took a few steps and turned around. “I don’t like the color red, Mr. Chaney, so you can quit asking me about that dress.” She heard Chaney laughing as she headed back to her boarding house.