During the annual summer fish fry, women show off their baking and men fish in the nearby pond. Music and the noises of children’s games fill the air. Maya wanders into a secluded clearing to sit on a tree and stare at the sky. Louise Kendricks, a pretty girl of the same age, comes upon her. At first shy toward each other, they soon hold hands and spin around while looking at the sky. They become best friends and spend hours trying to learn the complicated “Tut” language because it is even more esoteric than pig latin.
While in the seventh grade, Maya receives a note from an eighth-grader, Tommy Valdon, asking her to be his valentine. She shows it to Louise, and Louise explains that valentines mean love. Maya says aloud, “Not ever again.” She does not explain what she means to Louise. They tear the note into tiny pieces and throw it into the wind. The day before Valentine’s Day, Maya’s teacher calls the children by name and reads aloud cards sent to them from the eighth-grade class. Tommy sends another letter to Maya, stating that he saw Maya and her friend tear up his note, but he does not think she meant to hurt his feelings. He still considers her his valentine even if she does not answer his letter. He signs the note with his initials. When Maya decides to throw caution to the wind and flirt with him, Tommy’s crush has already begun to wane.
Bailey constructs a tent in the yard and begins playing sexual games with girls. Bailey plays the father, the girl plays the mother, and Maya plays the baby, sitting outside to stand guard. After six months, Bailey loses his virginity to Joyce, an older, well-developed girl. Bailey begins stealing things from the Store for her. After a few months, she disappears. Her aunt later tells Momma that Joyce ran away with a railroad porter whom she met at the Store. Momma becomes flustered thinking that something upsetting like that occurred under her nose. Bailey is heartbroken. Maya never liked Joyce, but she hates her for leaving and hurting Bailey. When Joyce was around, Maya notes, Bailey did not use sarcasm.
One stormy night, a fellow townsman named George Taylor comes to the Store and stays the night, still heartbroken over the death of his wife, Florida. Momma urges Mr. Taylor to be thankful for the forty years he spent with Florida, although, Momma says, it was a pity they never had children. At the mention of children, Mr. Taylor replies that Florida appeared before him the night before and told him that she wanted children. Momma and Willie ask if he had been dreaming of Florida, but Mr. Taylor insists that he was awake. Maya has always hated the custom of telling ghost stories, but Mr. Taylor’s account scares her even more because he insists it is real.
To occupy herself otherwise, Maya remembers that she went to Florida’s funeral. She did not want to go, but Florida had left her yellow brooch to Maya, and Momma insisted that she attend the services. The experience turned out to be Maya’s first confrontation with mortality. At the funeral, Florida seemed to her like the short-lived mud sculptures so often made by children playing in the summer.
Returning from her memory, Maya cannot help but hear Mr. Taylor narrating his experience. The night before, he saw a fat, blond, blue-eyed baby angel laughing at him. He heard his wife’s moaning voice, and the angel laughed harder. Eventually, Mrs. Taylor’s voice moaned that she wanted children.
Momma suggests that if it was not a dream, maybe Mrs. Taylor wants him to work with the children in the church. The atmosphere of eerie gloom passes when the conversation returns to mundane, everyday things. Maya climbs into bed with Momma, secure in the knowledge that she could drive away scary spirits.
Louise’s friendship provides Maya with her first opportunity to enjoy her youth and, to a certain extent, her independence. Maya’s experiences prior to their friendship have matured her beyond her years, and Louise is her first childhood friend. Before, Maya moved and interacted largely in a world of adults, with the exception of Bailey. With Louise, Maya begins to experience being a young girl for the first time, playing games, inventing languages, discussing boys and young love. It is also Maya’s first relationship that occurs outside her family and apart from her family’s influence. Whereas Momma may have arranged for Mrs. Flowers to show Maya attention, here Maya meets her friend while trying to find a private place to relieve herself in the forest. As they spin each other around and look up at the sky, their meeting takes on a magical quality, suggesting its importance in Maya’s development as an individual.
Although Tommy Valdon and the valentine’s crush never leads to romance, it restores some of the innocence in Maya that Mr. Freeman stole from her. In part, Maya feels threatened by the valentine because she has no experience with adolescent crushes. Mainly, however, the rape and its aftermath have led her to distrust anything having to do with both sexual and romantic love. Maya clearly announces that she will not let another man or boy treat her as Mr. Freeman did. Tommy’s second letter, however, states that his affection will not change even if Maya chooses not to respond. Hearing this, Maya feels more secure because Tommy obviously feels genuine affection for Maya and her personality. Unlike Mr. Freeman, the valentine does not represent any physical expectation from Maya, and, sensing his good intentions, she begins to flirt shyly and innocently with him.
Although less malicious, Joyce’s power over Bailey parallels Mr. Freeman’s power over Maya. Joyce takes advantage of Bailey’s frustrated love for his mother in the same way that Mr. Freeman’s advances prey on Maya’s frustrated need for physical affection. Looking back on the relationship, Maya remarks that Joyce—who is four years older than Bailey—represents for Bailey the mother who let him get close to her and the sister who was never withdrawn. To a certain extent, moreover, Joyce takes advantage of Bailey as well. As long as Bailey provides her with stolen spoils from the Store, Joyce gives him the affection he craves. She turns Bailey’s innocent, curious games into sexual intercourse, taking his virginity, and then leaves him in the dust. Maya notes that Joyce has a positive effect on Bailey while she is around, but when Joyce skips town, Bailey reveals not just his displeasure at the fact that she has left but also his sense that the situation was not ideal in the first place. When Maya asks him about Joyce, Bailey feigns disinterest at first, but then he says that Joyce has chosen someone who will give her sex all the time, perhaps indicating his understanding that he and Joyce used their relationship for different purposes.
In light of Mr. Taylor’s ghost story, it is important to note that storytelling and imagination, accounts of spirits, the conjuring of images and beings from the past, and even superstition all played vital roles in the African-American tradition. Just as the Christian church provided slaves, former slaves, and their descendants with a sense of salvation and hope, storytelling and folklore provided them with a form of not just entertainment but empowerment. Because white colonists and Americans drastically altered the lives of slaves and essentially erased their connection with their homeland and their past, slaves began writing their own history through storytelling. (For more information, see Suggestions for Further Reading.) In this case, Mr. Taylor’s ghost story reveals the pervasive nature of tense race relations and conjures up the frightening baby angel as being blond-haired and blue-eyed. Momma’s dialogue with Mr. Taylor steers the conversation to everyday things and dispels the eerie gloom that the ghost story cast over the room. Momma has, in her way, cast out the specters of malevolent spirits with her quiet determined attention to the details of everyday living.