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African American Fiction Friendship


          Leaving the market, Mabel constantly adjusted her heavy grocery bags to maintain a hold. It was a struggle, but she managed to find them a resting place against the soft protrusion of her ample belly. She also held an ear-to-ear grin anyone would see if it weren’t for those overflowing bags largely hiding her face.  

She was going to have a feast; crab cakes, a lobster roll, a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, chosen because of its pretty label, coleslaw, fried-up sweet potatoes, and, why not, an ear or two of fresh corn with sweet butter. She could already see herself licking her fingers. It had been years since she had feasted on such a meal, on that meal. And Mabel had many years on her. 

The cinder block steps leading up to her trailer home were getting even looser forcing Mabel to hold the groceries that much more tightly. She’d complain, again, as if complaining might get them fixed. It wasn’t quite her trailer; she rented it from Simon Legree. Simon Legree was not his real name. However, she felt it appropriate having read about the sadistic slave overseer in a Classic Comics version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin she picked up at the local dump’s put-and-take.

           “Woman, are you soft in the head? You know my name. Why do you keep calling me Mister Legree? If you’re trying to stall on that rent again….”

           “No, sir, nuh-uh. I know your name. It’s just that you remind me of somebody, and when I see you he just pops into mind. It’s not soft sir, that’s for sure. If anything, this old head of mine is hard as a rock. Been told that enough times.”

           The comic would have been worth something if it had had a cover. She made some under-the-table income picking up things at the dump and selling them. She used to do that off the sidewalk but now had graduated to local flea markets, which were long on the fleas but short on the cash. She kept this comic and read it again and again until the pages had grown fuzzy, and the images faded from the constant fingering.

           She had lots of throwaway things in that trailer. Not things she threw away; she rarely threw anything out if it still had some use. What she had was the flotsam and jetsam of other people. She wasn’t a bag lady or a hoarder. She simply had an extremely frugal temperament. You never knew when something might come in handy.

           It suited her even when it didn’t need to. When it didn’t was a long time ago when she was with Lucius, or Luscious, as she called him. He called her Maybelline because she hated the name Mabel and had once tried her hand at selling Lucky Heart Cosmetics door-to-door. The job hadn’t worked out; Lucius didn’t want her knocking on strangers’ doors at night. So, she went back to what came naturally to her, which was cleaning houses.

           Mable and Lucius were what educated folk would call the working poor. They wouldn’t have agreed. Proud, perhaps, yes. Content for sure. Content even without the children they so wanted but couldn’t have. Content together.

           Lucius died way too young and for no good reason. He had a temp job over the Christmas rush at the Post Office. Coming off the very late shift he missed the bus and went to walk home. Crossing an unlit intersection, he looked left, a driver turned right. The driver was drunk, uninsured, and lost his license. Mabel lost the only love of her life.

           That was 25 years ago. After Lucius died, Mabel picked up some more work from her clients to help make ends meet. Dog walking, cleaning up after them, was demeaning, and she never cared much for dogs having been bitten by a nasty old cuss of a bloodhound when she was a little girl. That was one reason Uncle Tom’s Cabin meant so much. The image of bloodhounds chasing down runaway slaves resonated.

           As time went on, most of her clients died or moved to some old-age home, and the new folks wanted highfalutin maid services. “Are you bonded?” one fancy lady asked, holding an iPhone in one hand and sipping from a latte held in the other. She stared at Mabel over the granite kitchen top waiting for an answer, a vague smile on her lips but a face that shined discouragement. Mabel didn’t even know what bonded meant. Those jobs mostly went to younger women, much younger, whom Mabel suspected weren’t even born here.

           “They all speak that Spanish,” she’d say, conceding without a hint of jealousy that they looked more energetic than she did anyway. “Must be that spicy food,” she’d say with a happy laugh to her girlfriends at church. “Oh, Lord, and do those girls have figures!” And she’d laugh even more.

           In short, Mabel scrambled to get any job she could find. And a scramble it was. She tried babysitting, but families preferred teenagers. She did a week at a coffee shop as a waitress and was grateful when the owner fired her, the stress on her feet was too much. “Carrying a bit too much of myself,” she joked to him. He slipped her $40 from the cash register, calling it severance. She wasn’t too worried. She wasn’t depressed. “Child, things work out the way they do for a purpose I can’t even try to figure on,” she’d say. She just wanted to keep busy and earn a little.

           She’d gone to the final day of her town’s library book sale when they gave away the books that didn’t sell, usually for good reason. She’d picked up a few that were not in the best of shape, but thought maybe she could sell them on eBay using an account she’d opened on the library’s public computer. Mabel talked with one of the librarians, asking about Classic Comics Illustrated and one thing led to another. The librarian lived with a social worker, volunteered at a local shelter, and sensing Mabel was a heavy woman on thin ice, suggested that maybe she could help with some “things.”

           “Mabel, at your age you might be able to get some assistance, perhaps food stamps, at least until you get back on your feet.”

           Mabel laughed it off at first, joking that no one would want to get back on her feet. Her mind went back to the jobs she’d once had and lost, to efforts she’d made that didn’t pan out, realized the money she had in that old cigar box—she always was paid in cash and never trusted banks—wouldn’t last forever.

           She got public assistance and food stamps. It wasn’t much, but it wasn’t much less than she earned on her own in the best years and rather more than she’d been making recently. At social services, they talked to her about job searches and employment assistance. They asked about her experience and skills. Mabel listed her profession as “housemaid.” The aide at the social services raised her eyebrow at the term but said nothing. Mable left out dog walker and waitress.

           She was able to pay rent on the trailer more or less on time and buy groceries. With that cushion she could still find some work now and then under the table. Over the table was rather rare. Stops at Goodwill and the Faith Farm Thrift Store were her treats when she was in an indulgent mood. That, too, was rare.

           This day would be an exception.

           The clerk at the grocery store had tallied up her purchases and looked down on the array of food stamps Mabel had given to her. “Ma’am, you can’t buy lobster with food stamps.” Mabel said, “Oh, yes I can,” and handed over a printout she’d made at the library from a USDA website that showed allowable foods. “If it doesn’t say no child, it surely means yes.” She said that in a cheerful voice. “I checked twice!”

           The clerk shook her head, looking around to see if anyone else had seen the exchange. “Welfare queen,” she said to the next person in line.

           Then Mabel picked up the wine. “I’d like a white wine, please. No, I don’t know a Chardonnay from a pussy fussy, you can imagine. I once had a glass of wine, oh, maybe it was two glasses; it tasted a bit like a pineapple. Oh, my that was wonderful.”

           The man at the liquor store put Mabel’s bags on the counter and walked her over to the New Zealand aisle. She liked the picture on a $10.99 bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. Wine is not paid for under the SNAP program, he advised when she handed over more food stamps. “Oh my, ten dollars and ninety-nine cents? I could fly over to New Zealand for that sort of money. It must be dee-licious!” The man smiled, leaned in, and whispered that it was on sale for just $3.99.

           Her eyes sparkled. “It must be my lucky day!”

           As the man watched Mabel slowly waddle off, holding her bags for dear life, he took $7 out of his pocket and slipped it into the register.

           She walked the distance to her home, resting every time she encountered a bench. She always walked to save money, even though as a senior she could get a discount on the town buses and even taxis. Such luxuries were just not her nature.

           Except today. Today she indulged as she had done only once before. That was what the lobster, the wine and crab cakes, coleslaw, and Jersey corn were all about.

           It was their 50th wedding anniversary and, as best as she recalled, that was pretty much what they had, just the two of them, to celebrate their marriage on an out-of-season weekend on the coast of Maine. It was the last time Mabel had had lobster. It was the only time she had had lobster. They laughed at the idea that they were eating at a lobster pound.

           “You’d think they’d keep dogs in a pound,” she told Lucius. “Maybelline, I just as soon keep on eating lobster!” he said. And they loved it, licking the butter from each other’s fingers as they shared one, then another, and then a third. They’d had sworn an oath they would save up and do it again to celebrate their 50th.

           That month she was two weeks late with the rent and didn’t feel the least bit bad about it.



July 01, 2023 00:13

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12 comments

Helen A Smith
16:14 Jul 04, 2023

Lovely story with a great character that shine through in spite of her hard life. Also illustrated well the unexpected kindness of the man at the liquor counter who put the money in so she could have a little luxury for once. Mabel comes across as relatively content even through her hardships. I really enjoyed reading this.

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David Ader
01:43 Jul 12, 2023

Thank you Helen. I, too, enjoyed writing about the man at the liquor counter. It was just a touch, a hint, of kindness shown in an anonymous, unselfish, way. I'm glad, so very happy, that you enjoyed it. David

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Mary Bendickson
23:45 Jul 02, 2023

A joy to read this one. Would have celebrated 53 years with first husband this week if he hadn't left. And he left, didn't die yet that I know of. Fifty years used to sound like so-o long. How come not so much anymore?

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10:50 Jul 01, 2023

Hi David, This is great. It's a really interesting take on the prompt and I love the idea that 50 years later that lobster is going to taste sooooooo good. The story has some really good sounding dialogue - I love Mabel's voice - to my (admittedly uneducated) ear in this genre it sounds genuine. I have some line notes in case they are useful: Simon Legree was not his real name. However, she felt it appropriate having read about the sadistic slave overseer in a Classic Comics version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin she picked up at the local dum...

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David Ader
18:24 Jul 01, 2023

As always, thank you for helping. The only thing is the math on the wine does work -- 10.99 minus 3.99 is seven dollars. I checked on my calculator!

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19:27 Jul 01, 2023

Oh, well I'm VERY glad you didn't listen to me 🤣 apparently my English is marginally better than my maths!

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David Ader
01:03 Jul 02, 2023

Spoiler alert? In my OMG 30+ year career I was what they call an economic strategist fixating on the bond market; you know, interest rates, economic policies, that sort of thing. Math(s) is one of my things or was.

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John-Paul Cote
11:36 Jul 14, 2023

Hi David, great writing. Excellent descriptions like the old cuss of a bloodhound. Mabel is a great character, very much alive. The little points make such a difference. It is a great peek into her life at such a special point. I’m glad she’s strong enough to laugh so much of it off.

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S Fevre
08:45 Jul 14, 2023

I'm new to Reedsy and just discovering all the lovely stories... this one is powerful. Beautiful and the emotion at the end is huge. Thank you for sharing Mabel's story, she feels real.

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Nina H
12:19 Jul 10, 2023

You develop Mabel so well from beginning to end. I have to admit, the more I came to like Mabel, the more I worried about what her special meal was for. I was relieved and happy at the end that it was to celebrate, remember, and enjoy a part of her life so important to her. Well done, and what a great read! 😄

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Kevin Logue
19:09 Jul 09, 2023

This is such a wholesome story. Mabel leaps off the page as someone who doesn't wallow and gets on with life, appreciates what she does have. Very well written, I was just carried away with it. Great job David, best of luck.

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Frostie Whinery
04:48 Jul 09, 2023

Lovely story. I adore how Mabel keeps going even though life is grinding down. It’s inspirational. Thank you for sharing. And good luck on the contest!

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