Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center
Ninety Days Inside The Empire: A Novel by William Appleman Williams

Maggie and Mr. Hank

Page 1

A shadow shy of midnight on a Friday in May a woman walked alone on a narrow ribbon of asphalt. Now and again she passed a sign which reminded her that she was on Texas County Trunk B and also West 47th Boulevard.

The road had no lights, no center line and no edge markers. Even the cowhands and the gas field roustabouts stomped hard on their brakes when they met head-on. It dumped off into drainage ditches about five feet wide and four feet deep. The smell was unusual, combining the sweet stinking odor of rainwater, dirty dishes, messy diapers, petrochemicals and other industrial juices mixed with the bouquet of piss and turds taking communion with each and every other on the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Map of Galveston
Map of Galveston
Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin

Some months earlier the woman had kept several miles of company with an arm torn off at the shoulder until it got weary and went to sleep on the bottom. It had been a black arm with a white bone. She had shivered, stopped, crossed herself and said aloud: "I suppose that's why they call this place the Body of Christ."

As always, when she came up to that graveyard, she halted and crossed herself again. This night there was not enough light to see what else or who else might be drifting home to the sea. The half moon was too often flirted with by puffy clouds.

Moving on, stretching out her stride, the woman began to hum the melody of "Come on Home, Bill Bailey." In her mind she was singing her own words: "I'm comin' home, Mr. Hank." She laughed. "Oh, I's comin' home, Mr. Hank. We got two days together and I'm goin' to feed you good and take your hand and roll you silly. Mr. Hank, you goin' to be one happy tired man come Monday mornin'." She smiled, and her soul gave more light than the moon.

The woman's name was Marjorie Harriet Blake. Harriet to her dead mother. Miss Marjorie to her employers. Marge to her friends. And Maggie to Mr. Hank. Nobody knew how tall she was. "You big enough, stop growing," her father had said when he hugged her after she graduated from high school in the back country of Carolina.

Probably five-ten. High cheek bones and a fine narrow nose. Shapely. Depending on your fantasy, perfect right or just a tad heavy. All firm flesh that moved easy. One former employer could testify to that: he had put a hand up under a breast to be rewarded with a knee in the balls.

She laughed at the memory. "Oh, Mr. Hank, you got yourself some woman comin' home." She was happy, dipping in and out of the back of her mind to catch the good and bad things that made her who she was. That name Harriet she could never get out of her head. She would sing "Harriet, Harriet, Harriet" up and down the scale when she was down on her knees, one cheek on the floor, dusting under the beds of the rich white folks. Oh, the things she found down there.

Kind of floating along the strip of asphalt, she was not unmindful of where she was, yet she was not afraid. She liked such moments. Drifting the road was like washing dishes-give her time to think. She shuffled the name Harriet around in her head one more time.

-- I like bein' some kind of Harriet.

She remembered her mother telling her about when they got the chance the old slaves took names different from their plantation master. Her back-then fold chose to call themselves Harriet to help 'em get straight in their minds. Harriet after Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who risked her life so many times to help others to get a chance at freedom.

"Some chance."

-- Better than no chance, and now it might be a real chance.

She sensed a tremor in the road: stopped, looked back, saw nothing and walked on.

-- I think I mostly like my way back granddaddy who walked out of Alabama through Texas to be a cowboy. That's my Mr. Hank. Doin' honest work and got respect.

On down that dark stretch of road, a couple of corners along the way, Mr. Hank was preparing a midnight snack. He had remembered to get the fixins for pink gins for Maggie: in the fridge, coolin' down just right. He hated the stuff. He had his sour mash mellowin' at room temperature.