"Everyday Use" by Alice Walker (1944- )
I will wait for her in the yard that Maggie and I made so clean and wavy
yesterday afternoon. A yard like this is more comfortable than most people know.
It is not just a yard. It is like an extended living room. When the hard clay is swept
clean as a floor and the fine sand around the edges lined with tiny, irregular
grooves, anyone can come and sit and look up into the elm tree and wait for the
breezes that never come inside the house.
Maggie will be nervous until after her sister goes: she will stand hopelessly in
corners, homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms and legs, eying her
sister with a mixture of envy and awe. She thinks her sister has held life always in
the palm of one hand, that "no" is a word the world never learned to say to her.
You've no doubt seen those TV shows where the child who has "made it" is
confronted, as a surprise, by her own mother and father, tottering in weakly from
backstage. (A pleasant surprise, of course: What would they do if parent and child
came on the show only to curse out and insult each other?) On TV mother and
child embrace and smile into each other's faces. Sometimes the mother and
father weep, the child wraps them in her arms and leans across the table to tell
how she would not have made it without their help. I have seen these programs.
Sometimes I dream a dream in which Dee and I are suddenly brought together
on a TV program of this sort. Out of a dark and soft-seated limousine I
am ushered into a bright room filled with many people. There I meet a smiling,
gray, sporty man like Johnny Carson who shakes my hand and tells me what a fine
girl I have. Then we are on the stage and Dee is embracing me with tears in her
eyes. She pins on my dress a large orchid, even though she has told me once that
she thinks orchids are tacky flowers.
In real life I am a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands. In
the winter I wear flannel nightgowns to bed and overalls during the day. I can kill
and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man. My fat keeps me hot in zero weather. I
can work outside all day, breaking ice to get water for washing; I can eat pork liver
cooked over the open fire minutes after it comes steaming from the hog. One
winter I knocked a bull calf straight in the brain between the eyes with a sledge
hammer and had the meat hung up to chill before nightfall. But of course all this
does not show on television. I am the way my daughter would want me to be: a
hundred pounds lighter, my skin like an uncooked barley pancake. My hair glistens
in the hot bright lights. Johnny Carson has much to do to keep up with my quick
and witty tongue.
But that is a mistake. I know even before I wake up. Who ever knew a Johnson
with a quick tongue? Who can even imagine me looking a strange white man in
the eye? It seems to me I have talked to them always with one foot raised in flight,
with my head turned in whichever way is farthest from them. Dee, though. She
would always look anyone in the eye. Hesitation was no part of her nature.
"How do I look, Mama?" Maggie says, showing just enough of her thin body
enveloped in pink skirt and red blouse for me to know she's there, almost hidden
by the door.
"Come out into the yard," I say.
Have you ever seen a lame animal, perhaps a dog run over by some careless
person rich enough to own a car, sidle up to someone who is ignorant enough to
be kind to him? That is the way my Maggie walks. She has been like this, chin on
chest, eyes on ground, feet in shuffle, ever since the fire that burned the other
house to the ground.
Dee is lighter than Maggie, with nicer hair and a fuller figure. She's a woman
now, though sometimes I forget. How long ago was it that the other house
burned? Ten, twelve years? Sometimes I can still hear the flames and feel Maggie's
arms sticking to me, her hair smoking and her dress falling off her in little black
papery flakes. Her eyes seemed stretched open, blazed open by the flames
reflected in them. And Dee. I see her standing off under the sweet gum tree she
used to dig gum out of; a look of concentration on her face as she watched the last
dingy gray board of the house fall in toward the red-hot brick chimney. Why don't
you do a dance around the ashes? I'd wanted to ask her. She had hated the house
Walker, Alice. "Everyday Use." Perrine's Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. 10th ed. Eds. Thomas R. Arp and Greg Johnson. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009. 166-168. Print.
What is the relevance of the difference between the narrator’s actual character and the way Dee would want her to be?