The Walking on Water Cafe
by Ron Van Sweringen
Eighteen hours on a Greyhound bus is a testament to a person’s constitution, Mattie Williams said to herself, making her way down the narrow aisle, suitcase in hand. Her backside had gone to sleep six hours out of New Jersey, around midnight while rolling through Virginia. She shared the large back seat of the bus with another black woman who slept most of the time.
Mattie couldn’t sleep; too many questions about what lay ahead ran through her mind. Every time she closed her eyes she pictured the letter that had arrived two weeks ago from an attorney named Herbert Dunton, Esq. Mattie had memorized every word. “I am writing to inform you that you are the sole beneficiary of one Doesy Jones, recently deceased and last residing in Tuttleville, Georgia.” The letter went on to state that Mattie was her only living relative.
Dosey Jones was Mattie’s mother’s half-sister, a woman Mattie had never met, and for good reason. Dosey Jones was her grandfather’s love child and was never recognized by Mattie’s mother until the day she died. Mattie considered the attorney’s letter a Godsend. She had spent years caring for her bedridden mother and considered it no coincidence that the letter arrived on the day of her funeral. It was a chance to start living her own life, and about time at forty-three.
Mattie settled back in the seat, covered by the red, white and blue afghan she’d stuck in a shopping bag at the last minute. Her hand rested on the seat beside her, protecting a black straw hat adorned with a purple velvet bow and a cluster of peacock feathers, her Sunday-best hat. If nothing else, Mattie Williams was going to make a lasting impression on the residents of Tuttleville, Georgia when she stepped off the bus.
Mattie hadn’t expected much when the bus driver announced Tuttleville the next day before noon, and she wasn’t disappointed. Her first sight of the town was an old Shell sign with peeling paint. It stood next to a one-pump filling station shaded by towering live oaks draped in Spanish moss. Next to the filling station at the end of the street was the Magnolia Diner, a one-storey, weather-worn building with a sagging screen door and windows that needed washing.
Mattie made her grand entrance onto the dusty main street of Tuttleville behind an old man carrying a sack of sweet potatoes. Mattie hadn’t expected the heat and humidity that took her breath away under the blazing sun. A few passers-by on the shady side of the street stopped to look at the tall black woman with peacock feathers on her hat. One thing was certain: she wasn’t in New Jersey anymore.
The screen door of the Magnolia Diner slammed shut behind Mattie and it took her eyes a few moments to adjust from the bright sunlight. A lunch counter covered with worn linoleum ran along one wall and half a dozen small tables filled the rest of the room. A thin black girl, about sixteen years old, stood behind the counter. Her nappy hair was braided in two pigtails, one sticking out from behind each ear.
“How you-all?” she asked.
“Tired and dirty,” Mattie replied sitting her suitcase down. “Been on that bus for eighteen hours and I need a bath, but I’ll settle for a cold glass of ice tea right now.”
“Ain’t got none,” was the girl’s slow reply. Mattie took a seat on one of the counter stools. “Well then, I guess a glass of ice water will have to do.”
“Ain’t got no ice,” the girl replied slowly.
“No, and you won’t have no water tomorrow either, ’less somebody pays the bill.” A man’s voice boomed from a table behind Mattie.
In the gloom of the place, Mattie had overlooked him. He wore a rumpled brown suit, a shirt and tie, and a Panama hat. When he nodded his head and smiled at Mattie, two gold front teeth shone against his coal black skin.
“You must be Dosey’s relative,” he continued, moving his heavy frame toward the counter. “Been expecting you.”
Mattie disliked him instantly, and the closer he got with streams of sweat running down his neck onto the yellow-stained collar of his shirt, the more uncomfortable she got. If there was one rule Mattie lived by, it was ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness.’
“I’m Rufus Goodhue,” he nodded again, tipping his Panama hat, “an angel in disguise, sent to rescue you, ma’am, from this sad burden you have inherited.”
Mattie tilted her head back, the Peacock feathers on her black hat dancing. “What exactly are you getting at, Mr. Goodhue?” she asked, annoyance in her voice.
“At one thousand good old American dollars,” he replied, opening his hand to a thick roll of ten-dollar bills held together by a wide rubber band. “That’s how much I’m willing to give you, out of the goodness of my heart, for this sad burden you have inherited.”
“One thousand dollars for the Magnolia Diner,” Mattie answered. “If I had any sense I’d take it, but the fact is Mr. Goodhue, I don’t have any where else to go, so no, thank you.”
“What’s the matter with you, woman? Ain’t you got good sense?” Rufus Goodhue’s voice ranted loudly, causing even more sweat to run down his face. “What makes you think you can make something out of this place?”
“Because I can cook the best fried chicken in Tuttleville, Georgia,” Mattie replied, “and my apple pie’s not bad either. Good day, Mr. Goodhue.”
“I’ll be waiting,” he snapped on the way out, his gold teeth flashing. “But now I’ll only give you five hundred.”
“What’s your name, girl?” Mattie asked, suddenly feeling exhausted from her encounter with Mr. Goodhue.
“Pearl is my name, but folks just call me Pee.” Mattie wanted to laugh, but managed to hold it in.
“Alright, Pee, show me where I sleep,” she said, picking up her suitcase.
There were two rooms and a small bath behind the kitchen of the Magnolia Diner. One of the rooms was large, with a double bed and a dresser. The second room was small, with only a single bed, but it had an open window that let in a slight breeze.
“How much did Miss Dosey pay you?” Mattie asked, putting her suitcase on the double bed.
“Miss Dosey gave me two dollars a week and whatever I wanted to eat,” Pee replied.
“Well, I can do a little better than that,” Mattie said. “I can pay you five dollars a week, if you’re not afraid of hard work.”
“Yes Ma’am.” Pee smiled. “I can work hard for five dollars a week.”
“Do you know how to cook?” Mattie asked, putting her hat down carefully.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Pee answered. “I boiled a possum once.”
The next morning at sun-up, a crowing rooster woke Mattie. She picked up the worn bible placed on the pillow beside her the night before and began reading from a randomly opened page: “And the Lord performed a wondrous miracle for all the people to see by walking on water.”
The day went quickly for Mattie and Pee as they cleaned the Magnolia Diner, inside and out. People passing by took notice of the newly washed windows and a hand-written sign displayed there.
The Walking On Water Cafe - OPENING SOON - Southern Fried Chicken A Specialty
“Pardon me, ma’am.” The voice of a slight gray-haired man standing in the kitchen doorway startled Mattie. He was of light color and slightly stooped at the shoulder. His most unusual feature was his hazel eyes. Mattie noted that his overalls were clean, along with his work shirt and a bright red bandanna tied around his neck.
“My name is Baxter and I come to tend Miss Dosey’s tomatoes.”
Mattie had noticed the garden behind the Magnolia Diner the afternoon she arrived. She especially remembered the rows of large tomato plants filling a whole patch.
“Miss Dosey has the best tomatoes in Harlow County. I been tending them for ten years now,” he continued. Mattie relished this opportunity to learn more about her mother’s half-sister.
“I’m Mattie Williams.” She smiled. “Come in and sit a while, I need a rest.” Soon many of Mattie’s questions were being answered.
“Miss Dosey come here ten years ago,” Baxter said, “just showed up one day and opened the Magnolia Diner. Folks all flocked here to eat her cooking, that is till she took sick a year ago. Never did say where she come from.”
“Do you know Rufus Goodhue?” Mattie asked.
“Yes ma’am,” Baxter replied, with a slight frown. “Everybody in town knows Mr. Goodhue. He owns the Catfish Castle, his restaurant up by the movie theatre. Food’s not good but they have a piano-man and dancing.”
“He tried to buy the Magnolia Diner yesterday,” Mattie said.
“Mr. Goodhue tried to run Miss Dosey out of business for a long time. He don’t cotton to another eating place in Tuttleville,” Baxter replied, leaning across the table. “Watch him close, Ma’am. He ain’t to be trusted.”
Mattie didn’t sleep well that night. There was a heavy thunderstorm and she woke up twice to the nearby sound of a dog barking. She also had Mr. Goodhue on her mind. Baxter’s warning only confirmed what she had ready decided. Mr. Goodhue needed watching.
The Walking On Water Cafe was now busy at lunchtime and Pee was serving new faces at the counter each day. Mattie hired Baxter to wash dishes and a young man who came looking for a job was hired to bus the tables and scrub the floor after closing. Mattie was tired at night, but she had a feeling of pride when counting the money saved in an old cigar box she kept hidden.
Mattie’s only problem as she saw it, was Mr. Rufus Goodhue. With his gold front teeth and baggy brown suit, he continued to be a thorn in her side. Since he couldn’t buy the Walking On Water Cafe with his thousand dollars, he resorted to other methods of achieving his goal. He cut the prices in half at his Catfish Castle restaurant and some even said he started a rumor around Tuttleville that you got ptomaine poisoning from eating Mattie’s fried chicken.
Mattie pushed the last rack of pork ribs into the large simmering pot along with onions, garlic and three bay leaves. A generous handful of salt and black pepper followed as Baxter knocked at the open kitchen door.
“Morning, ma’am,” he said. “Seems somebody done helped themselves to the garden last night. Some tomatoes missing and some squash, too.” Mattie followed him into the garden where he pointed out several large shoe prints in the soil. “This ain’t the first time either. It’s been going on since Miss Dosey died.”
A week later Baxter again pointed out footprints of an intruder in the garden. After considerable thought, Mattie decided enough was enough. She took Miss Dosey’s loaded shotgun out of the closet and leaned it against the bedroom wall next to a window overlooking the garden.
The white clapboard tower of the Ebenezer First Baptist Church was viewable from most of Tuttleville and its bell rang clear on Sunday mornings. Mattie looked at herself in the dresser mirror. Her hair was nicely in place and her Sunday-best hat with its peacock feathers went on easily. Her dress was royal blue and she wore a string of pearls belonging to her mother.
Although Mattie did not consider herself beautiful by any standard, she had class. Tall and standing ramrod straight, she created a regal appearance as she entered the church.
“Brothers and sisters,” the short, heavy-set minister in white robes raised his voice, “I have two announcements to make before service begins. First, we badly need your prayers and support to repair our leaking roof. The estimate for the work is nine hundred dollars. If you can, put something extra in the basket this morning to help us reach that figure. Second, Sister Rosetta Parker is not well today so I’m afraid we have no piano player this morning, unless the good Lord will provide us with a volunteer.”
After a long minute of searching faces looking at one another, Mattie stood up. “I believe with the Lord’s help I can make do.”
“Hallelujah!” The minister smiled with relief. “What is your name, sister?”
“Mattie Williams,” she replied, taking a seat at the piano. The Old Rugged Cross, Mattie thought. Let’s start it off easy.
After a few familiar bars, the small choir joined in and Mattie began to relax. She closed her eyes and was taken back to the Holy Mount Baptist Church in Trenton, New Jersey. She remembered her mother saying, “The Good Lord gave you two gifts, Mattie: cooking and playing His music.”
Suddenly the piano shook as the power took over Mattie’s hands. The choir burst out with clapping and even the Minister rocked back and forth in circles to the pulsating rhythm.
“Praise The Lord,” Mattie shouted as the music poured out of her. People began dancing and clapping, their faces toward heaven. For the first time in a long time Mattie Williams felt whole again and she kept repeating to herself “thank you, Lord Jesus.”
The following Monday morning as Mattie was hanging out the wash, she noticed a brown dog lying in the shade of an oak tree at the end of the garden. It was obvious from the animal’s swollen belly that she was about to have pups. Mattie approached her slowly, talking softly.
“Here girl, come and see me.” At first the dog moved away and then slowly turned to face Mattie, her head lowered in a sign of submission. “You know I won’t hurt you, girl,” Mattie said, stroking her back.
Baxter made a place for the dog in the wood box near the tomato patch. A tar-paper roof would protect her from the rain and there was enough room inside for her pups. Mattie fed her some chicken and put a water dish near the back door.
“Let’s call her Big Birtha,” Mattie laughed, “in honor of her condition.”
Big Birtha delivered six pups the next day in the wood box, and Mattie brought her extra food daily. “You got a lot of mouths to feed now.” She smiled, patting the dog’s head. Big Birtha spent the lazy afternoons stretched out in front of the wood box, going in occasionally to feed and clean her pups. She soon regained her strength, and in protecting her family was alert to any intruder in the garden, chasing off rabbits and an occasional deer.
At nine o’clock Mattie locked the cafe door and switched off the lights with a sigh of relief. She raised her bedroom window as far as she could, looking into the moonlit garden. She could see Big Birtha stretched out near the wood box. The hum of crickets filled the warm night air and Mattie thanked the Lord for her blessings, before crawling into bed.
The scream was loud and full of pain. It brought Mattie out of bed and to the window instantly. She could see Big Birtha in the moonlight pulling on the leg of a large man who was trying to climb on top of the wood box. Mattie reached for the loaded shotgun and shouted, “I’m gonna fill you full of buckshot, mister.”
By the time Mattie opened the back door the intruder was climbing the fence in his underwear. Mattie let go with a load of buck-shot as he disappeared in the night with a howl. Big Birtha was standing guard on a torn pair of brown pants and several tomatoes scattered on the ground.
“Good girl,” Mattie praised her. “I don’t think he’ll be coming back.”
The brown pants under Big Birtha’s paws looked familiar to Mattie. When she picked them up she realized what it was. A thick roll of ten dollar bills in a wide rubber band fell out of the pocket.
“Praise the Lord!” Mattie smiled. “Looks like Mr. Rufus Goodhue got religion tonight and the Ebenezer First Baptist Church got a new roof in the bargain.”
Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen