“The Reclamation” by Ashley C. Ford
Big Ma’am swung her hip into me so hard my jaw popped. I liked when she got that excited. Her eyes closed, palms high, and smile so wide it looked to be spreading her cheeks from one temple to the other. Her hair piled high on her head, and her skin shining like a black pearl in the moonlight, even in the day. She already took up half of any room she walked into, and when she danced, she claimed every other part that hadn’t been nailed down before she arrived. She grabbed my collar and shook her body at me, eyes still closed. She wasn’t trying to see me. She felt me there. This was good. A good sign.
Too many women in town claimed the name Big Mama, so Big Ma’am would have nothing to do with being called something so common. Not when she was who she was and could do what she could do, no Sir. She lived with her mama, moved her twenty-five years ago. Everyone seemed to know her immediately, though not where she came from or why she ended up here. Her mama was mean and didn’t like too many men around her. But Ma’am had a lot callers. None who stood the test of time.
You never knew a woman could feel a rhythm so good. That’s why we asked her to come see about us. That’s why anybody ever called her into the studio. “I’m not about to come see about any man, but I’ll walk six miles if you’re making good sound. Ten if you’ve got cool water when I get there.” Big Ma’am got real close to your face when she spoke to you cause her voice wasn’t too loud. She left loudness to the way she moved. You maybe had to take a few precautions when she was around (no liquor, no smoke, and nobody who’d ever been fool enough to break her heart), but it was all worth it. She knew good music, and for the right price, she’d let you know real quick whether or not you were making any.
We’d already had her in twice without so much as a toe-tap or a shuffling heel. Almost had to drag her here this time. Today was different. We had all the same musicians, but the singer was our seller, our gutter boy, though he was older than all of us. His voice was in his belly and his eyes were rimmed red from the strain of carrying it to the top of his throat, over his lips. He was a stranger to us all, had accidentally walked into the studio about a week ago. He didn’t talk too much but sang the way you got up to work in the morning after doing what you wanted to do all night: Mad.
We called him Jones, because he didn’t ever give us anything else to call him, and the way he made you feel when he was singing was like longing. It was like reaching for something on the other side of the world, and not being able to use your feet to go get it. Still, you kept on reaching because you knew it would be that good. You knew you had to have it.
Jones showed up about three weeks ago, right out of nowhere. He walked in right as all of us were ready to get gone from the studio, each other, the music. It just wasn’t poppin’ like it used to. Benny said his bass was too heavy to carry down the dirt road anymore. Jerry had a baby on the way and didn’t know how he was gonna keep beating his drum in a house with a newborn and a wife who wanted him home more anyhow. Frank only showed up to every other practice, and it got real tiresome tearing him away from drink at whatever bar we found him. We were losing the heart in our rhythm. Then, ol’ Jones showed up with a beating heart down his gullet, full of what we were missing, and aching to let it go.
“What would make a man sing like that?” For some reason, I felt like I had to know, even if I knew he wouldn’t answer me. He stared out the one window in the room, as he tended to do when we took breaks. We weren’t sure where he stayed when he wasn’t here, and somehow we really forgot to care. He always showed up right after we tuned every instrument, and left while we were breaking everything down. You couldn’t even catch him on the road. He wanted to keep to himself and we let him for fear of him walking out on us and taking his voice along. I wasn’t sure if the questions would bother him, but I had them. I went on,
“There has to be something that happens to a man, something that would keep all his words locked up inside him, the only way they can come out is in a song. A woman? Gotta be. It just damn gotta be a woman. Cause they the only thing in the whole damn world would leave a man this way. Not that there’s anything wrong with you. It just ain’t normal, see? Oh, we don’t mind. We like you just the same. Ain’t like you cause no trouble. But I’ve been wondering what it is. Why you don’t want to talk, but you sing like you’re trying to save somebody.”
Jones took his hat off and sat it in his lap. He sat his elbow on the window seal and tucked a fist beneath his chin. It was then I noticed a kinda glow about him. Looked like it could have been coming from the sun, through the window, but no. It was coming from him. Some soft light, I probably should have been scared of. But the more I looked at it, the less scared I got. It made me feel loose, relaxed. Almost like I could fall asleep right there. When he spoke I almost jumped out my seat. His speaking voice was even deeper than his singer one. It wasn’t as raw, but just as desperate. I leaned back in my chair to keep from reaching for it. I was so caught up in, I almost missed his words.
“Ain’t no woman alive can be saved by a song.”
I nodded like I understood. He kept staring out the window.
After a while, I noticed Big Ma’am had stopped throwing herself into me. I looked at her to make sure she was still feeling the music, maybe just a little tired. Her eyes were open, and the lids were low. No one would ever say her round face was strong, but it was as soft as I’d ever seen it. She was staring right at Jones, and he was staring right back. They were dancing together somehow, never moving an inch toward one another. Looking at them started to feel wrong. Felt like I’d walked in on something not exactly indecent, but not for my eyes either. I looked toward the boys, but they didn’t seem to be noticing what I was noticing. I kept shuffling my feet, but couldn’t stand to look forward anymore. My eyes found the window.
When the song ended, Big Ma’am fell back into the chair behind her, her hand fluttering at her throat. Her eyes were big as her palms.
“Can’t be him. Can’t be him.”
I was the only one close enough to hear her. I knelt and looked into her eyes, asked what was wrong. Then Jones was beside me. He reached down in front of me, grabbed her hand, kissed her palm and set it against his face. I thought she might fall out. He sat her hand back into her lap. He walked over to the chair by the window, put on his hat, and went to stand next to the door. He looked into her, touched his brim, and bowed.
Then he walked out. Big Ma’am’s shoulders started to roll. She fell into my chest and I rocked her. The rest of the band packed up and shipped out quick. Still didn’t want to know nothing. Still didn’t have any questions. Frank tapped me on his way out, Big Ma’am’s face still against me, “She liked it,” he threw his coat over his arm, “You know like I know, that’s all that matters. She liked it.”
Once they’d gone, I pulled her away from me.
“How do you know Jones? What’s all the tears for?” Her cheeks were ruddy now from all the saltwater. She sat back into the chair. Wiped her eyes with a handkerchief that didn’t do much but swirl all the make-up around into circles.
“His name ain’t no Jones. His name is George. He’s my husband. Or was. Or is.”
“Woman, you ain’t got not husband.”
“I do so. Or I did. A husband who sang down every corner of a room. I danced at every show he ever had, and stood under him. My mama said he couldn’t provide for me, would never be able to. Just like my daddy did her. But I loved my husband. He called me Ma’am until the day he left. He said, ‘Ma’am, you gonna have to make a choice. Your mama is your mama, but I love you and won’t be disrespected in my own house.’ I chose her. And he left. Went to work the railroad. I spent a long time thinking he’d come back. Then I didn’t. Couldn’t bear the thought he’d just leave me, so I told myself he died on that railroad. Then I got a letter saying he did. It’s been twenty-five years…”
The tears started again, and I held her. We fell asleep against the wall, just like that. I had a dream I woke up in the middle of the night and a man was standing over me. Bout scared half to death, I went to jump up, but he put his hand on my head and I got tired again. Too tired to move. Too tired to do any more dreaming. It was a familiar fog and in it, I rolled right back up against the wall. Didn’t even have time to warn Big Ma’am. Right before I dozed all the way off, through the cloud, I felt her bod shudder against mine. Went to grab her hand, then stopped. She moved away from me into the vanishing light. Was she calling for me? No, that wasn’t my name. Who was George?
By the time I got up the next day, Big Ma’am was gone. The sun was coming in through the one window. I stumbled over, stiff from sleeping against a wall. I wanted to see how high it was in the sky to get a better grasp on the time of day, and who’d be looking for me. There was Jones’ hat on the chair, with a note inside. It was in Big Ma’am’s handwriting.
“Tell my mama, I went to see about my man.”
About the Author
Ashley C. Ford is a writer living in Brooklyn by way of Indianapolis. She’s written for The Rumpus, PANK, and BuzzFeed. She occasionally blogs at AshleyCFord.Net.