“Set down in my office until I can get back here, B,” the school principal told me. “I’ll deal with you in a while.”
“Yessir,” I said.
My mama loves to hear me say, “Yessir.” But she hates it when I say “We’re poor.”
“B,” she tells me, “We are rich in family.”
Rich in family means I have a lot of brothers and sisters, too many, matter of fact, for anyone to remember our names. They call my big brothers Cletus and Levi, Baronne. My older sisters, Bernadette and Anne-Elise, are both called Bernalise. The next three children in my family are all called, Little Baronne. I’m the baby and most folks, they call me B, that’s short for baby, or boy, but mostly it’s short for Baronne. I don’t blame them. Even my daddy gets us confused, especially when he’s been drinking liquor.
I think about the labeled ties Mama twists around the legs of the parsley and greens she sells at the co-op. I need one of those around my neck that says “Little Baronne; poor and polite.” Rich in family sure don’t fill a boy’s belly. Maybe Mama will understand that when I get home today. But Mama is most times tired or too busy to listen to me. I have to follow her through the garden as she works the dirt, chopping her words each time the hoe meets the earth.
“Some people…have more…some…have less. That’s how God made-mankind,” she’d said when I asked her about adding a little meat to our sandwiches. “We…are…”
“I know I know,” I’d interrupted her, “We are rich in family.”
She leaned against the hoe and said, “That’s right B, and don’t you forget it, God don’t appreciate no ungrateful heart.” She hinged herself forward and went on working. I knew we were done. I’d keep eating mayonnaise sandwiches until I was old enough to buy my own ham.
Like all the Baronne children, I’d grab a brown paper bag from Mama’s wrinkled up hands, give her a kiss, and head down the road to school. Most mornings it weighed nothing. Sometimes I wondered if she’d remembered to put anything in there. In the fall, we’d pick kumquats or satsumas and that’d add a little heft to the sack, but the frost had been around for weeks now. There was no more fruit, only two slices of bread with just enough mayonnaise in between to keep them from drying up in your throat. God I hated being rich in family!
Mr. Blanchfield’s office is filled with shelves of books. His desk has papers piled up all over it. You can’t even see the top of it ‘cept right around the big black phone with lighted buttons across its bottom. He’s probably gonna try and call my daddy at work. I can see his paunchy fingers dialing the number to the hardware store. I bet Mr. Blanchfield don’t know Daddy got laid off. I bet he don’t know Mama’s growing vegetables to sell at the co-op, in addition to the laundry she takes in, and the nights she works tending to old people whose too sick to take care of theirselves. No, I bet Mr. Blanchfield don’t know much about the Baronne family ‘cept that we’s rich in family.
I hear the playground outside his window. I could be out there with a belly half full of mayonnaise and bread if I weren’t a thief.
I knew Mama was tired this morning. She worked all night at the Johnson’s house tending to Ms. Alzian. Ms. Alzian’s coming up on a hunnerd years-old. Her people told Mama they’d only need her to work there a few weeks, but Mama’s been going there so long–Ms. Alzian thinks Mama is her mama.
Ms. Alzian’s daughter usually drops mama home around 6 in the morning. Mama walks through the yard to the chicken coop. I can hear her cooing to the hens from my bedroom window. After she harvests their eggs, she comes inside and starts working in the kitchen. She uses the eggs to make our breakfast and puts a few aside for making mayonnaise or adding boiled eggs to daddy’s dinner. I never knew if it was the cooing or the cooking that woke me up, but this morning there was neither.
“All of our chickens?” she hollered. “You gambled away all of our chickens? That’s the only protein these children get, Cletus Baronne!” I heard her scream. I looked outside and saw daddy on the ground. Looked like mama woke him up. The door to the empty chicken coop was wide open. Feathers were everywhere. Mama stomped towards the house, stooping under the clothesline where she’d spend most of her day.
I dressed for school and set at the table with the rest of my family. Mama gave us a sheet pan of hot toast and a jar of kumquat jelly. No one asked her why we weren’t having eggs. She laid out the bread for our lunches and smoothed mayonnaise across the soft white bread like she was ironing. When every piece was perfect she’d place them on top of one another, wrap them in wax paper, and slip them into their bags. You’d think she was putting a wedding cake in there the way she handled them so careful. I kissed mama, took my bag and decided today, someone else could have my mayonnaise wedding cake. Today was going to be differnt.
At school, I placed my lunch sack in the cloak room with all the other bags knowing I wouldn’t be back for it. Just before lunch I asked Mrs. Brookings if I could go to the restroom. On the way down the hall, I slipped into the cloak room and lifted each and every brown bag, weighing them in my hungry hand. Some had more, some less, kinda how Mama described mankind. And then I lifted a bag so heavy I thought the paper would split. My mouth watered. There had to be a whole chicken in there. I crammed the bag into my jacket and hurried down the hall to the boys room. Holding the bag like a football tucked into my belly I slammed through the bathroom door and knocked over the metal trash can. Before the clamoring stopped I was already in a stall with the latch locked behind me. All in one motion, I unzipped my jacket, sat down on the commode, opened the bag and looked inside.
A hammer and some pecans!!
Mr. Blanchfield came in to see about all the noise, “Everything alright in here?” he hollered.
I came out of the stall and handed the bag to Mr. Blanchfield. “I stoled this, Sir. I don’t know who it’s for, but surely they are hungrier than me.”
Mr. Blanchfield took the bag, promised he’d find its owner, and sent me here.
I could hear him on the other side of his office door. I heard him say my name and saw the window blinds shake as he entered the room. He nodded at me. I nodded back. He sat at his desk and cleared a small spot in front of me. Again, the door opened and the blinds shook, this time the school secretary walked in with a brown bag. I was pretty sure it was my mayonnaise sandwich and I was grateful I’d have something to eat.