FICTION December 4, 2020

The Character Profile of Rita-Mae Watkins

2020 Booth Prize for Unexpected Literature Runner-up

Tell me your name? How you find me? And why you need to know my name? You going to write about me? Stop staring at that sheet of paper so hard and think. How you going to write about me and you ain’t but a boy? And why you going to write about me when I only think about my momma? What about Eli and Ray? Don’t you know nothing? That’s why momma did what she did. Name? Stop it, now. You’re making all the birds fly away. You didn’t know you had birds flying around in your head? You got all type of things going on in here. That’s why I need the birds. They keep me peaceful. 

Name? Just because you can think me up don’t mean I have to talk. Name? Stop telling me what to do. Like I said, how you know I was here? Name? You one of those insist ones? Got one thing on your mind and won’t stop till you get it. The whole world could be burning down—people dying, kids starving, nations fighting—all that going on and you still want to know my name. How about you greet me proper? If you’re not going to dream me up proper—why wouldn’t you dream me up young? Didn’t you know I was beautiful?—then you should at least know that old ladies like to be courted. Name? A Einstein you are not. Fine, college boy. But you hear this—before this is done, I’m going to find out why you’re in here bothering me. 

My name is Rita-Mae Watkins. I don’t have no middle name. Why? What you mean why? You think I made a habit of questioning my momma. Who raised you? The one day I tried to make Mae my middle name by putting only Rita Watkins on a homework assignment, my mother stared at me like I wasn’t her blood. Your name is not Rita, she said. Your first name is Rita-Mae. Momma believed you only needed one name for the outside world to call you. Said people in the Bible didn’t have middle names. But then I said, What about all those people changing their names in Genesis? That’s different, she said. That’s God. His world. I don’t agree with him neither—changing people’s names like that, don’t make any kind of sense—but he created this world, so he can do what he wants. Then she pointed her finger at me. I created you. You, you’re Rita-Mae. 

Nickname? We any closer to why you here? My father always called me sunflower. I was his little sunflower all the way up until them boys started taking a liking to me. The moment my father realized his sunflower was this beautiful thing that boys gawked at, that older men sneaked peeks at—I’m talking old men too, all gray and wrinkled, canes even—, he didn’t call me sunflower no more. Instead he ordered my two older brothers, Eli and Ray, to follow me around, to act like soldiers and guard me from all the boys. HAnd then he was real quiet after that. Momma said he was trying to channel her father, but I didn’t know know much about my grandfather and his shotgun then. 

My mother always called me Bear. Bear? Can’t you hear? That’s what I said. B-E-A-R. Let me guess, you gonna ask why. How you going to think me up and be dumb? Why you got to have an answer for everything? You suspect I’d be her little angel or some such? Not my mother. She called me Bear. Not teddy bear. Or bear cub. Or cute bear. Or snuggle bear. Just Bear. Bear, come over here! How many times I heard that! Bear, can you wash the dishes? Bear, did you fold those clothes like I asked you? Bear, Bear, Bear, Bear, Bear. But I grew to like Bear. I liked it best when she said my name with her eyes, when she’d look at me, and though I was young, I knew exactly what her thoughts were, like being a woman was all about having a secret language—Bear, tell your daddy to leave me alone. Why don’t he see I’m tired and don’t want to be bothered about no cooking. He’s got hands, right? You watch! He’ll come to me in bed tonight, all proud he cooked and wanting to be rewarded and some such. Why do I have to ask him, have I slept? Looking all dumb, he’ll mumble, No. Why do I have to tell him—then I’m still tired!

The one time I asked her about my nickname she said, You’ve always been Bear. Since you were inside of me, you were always Bear.

But why Bear? 

Why not Bear?

Didn’t you think of any other names?

Wasn’t a need to if I couldn’t come up with a reason for why not Bear. 

But I think it’s because she was thinking about herself. Bears look all cute, looking for food and picnic baskets and such. But mess with one of them cubs. They’ll rise up in front of you like they ready to swallow up the earth. 

That’s when I decided to make things proper. (That was momma’s favorite word: proper. Dress proper. Act proper. Talk proper. Walk proper.) One night, before going to bed, I thought proper. I went into her bedroom where she was reading the newspaper. I said, Goodnight, Momma Bear. She just smiled. She liked that.

Age? I got to tell you that, too. That so? How about you stop making all the birds fly away? Don’t you know what the birds mean? Ready to hear about my momma and what she did? How she shrunk herself? Age? Did you hear a word I just said? How about you talk proper? Why don’t you talk sweet to me once? Like, Rita-Mae, you looking so young. Age? You must be special. I would say you funny, one of those funny ones, but you got so many women’s faces floating around in here, the place all crowded. I can’t figure out why you holding onto those girls’ voices. Let them voices go. Birds need room to fly. Age? All right, already. I’m young enough that my neck don’t look like tree roots, but old enough that you can see the rivers in my skin. 

Height? Same height as my momma before she decided to do what she did and shrink herself. She wasn’t a centimeter over five feet, but not a man ever looked down at her. Eli and Ray were over six feet, and even they had to look up to her. Her glare made you feel small, her eyes like quicksand in that way. Round, stout, but she walked hard, stood hard. That’s how I was trying to be after my mother shrunk. 

Weight? You trying to upset me? I thought you wanted to know why me and momma needed the birds, about why a person shrinks themselves anyway? But then you had to go ahead and be dumb again. I don’t step on no scale. Why am I going to upset myself like that? Doctor say you supposed to be this weight. I say, What special about that weight? He say things about your heart and blood and such. Hell, I say in my head. Out loud I say, I’ll see about doing a little more walking. Doctor see I’m unhappy and wants to know what questions I have. I ask him how he would like it if every time he saw somebody that somebody always said he was fat. I figure you wouldn’t like them much neither, doctor.

Hair color? I’m just about gray all over. Facial features? Like what? Eyes? So you got a thing for eyes! I can’t say I blame you. These honey-brown eyes have cast a spell or two back in their day. There was this one boy—a real smart boy, don’t know what happened to him, but I always thought he would be the one that would set the world right so we all could live hundreds and hundreds of years again—well, he said my eyes were like parallel universes.

What was your childhood like? All books and learning and cleaning and such—boring until them boys started chasing me. Then it got fun. Eli and Ray, they tried to do what my father asked and guard me. Girls are just smarter than boys. But I wished I would have shown them how bad they were at protecting me, because maybe that would have changed things some. The smart one I was just telling you about—I called him book boy—well, I liked to hear him talk all that scientific stuff, comparing me to planets and such. One time, as we were walking home from school, I told him to follow me into the woods. He was all smiling, thinking maybe I decided on kissing him. I was smiling, too. He didn’t know what I was planning had something to do with what he said about my eyes: Rita-Mae, when I look at you, it’s like each of your eyes is a universe, each distinct and alive on its own. Once I knew we were far enough into the woods, I made him close his eyes. And don’t you know it, I hurried out of my shirt and bra and stood there in front of him and told him to open his eyes. I said, What do these look like? After that day, he would just stare at me, like he was looking for words. Momma said to stay far away from any man looking for words, any man that’s looking like he got something important to say about the world but the immensity of the world got him shook. Bear, that’s a broken man. He’ll get you believing that what he got to say is in you, his voice is in you, and then he’ll be climbing on top of you, sweating, believing what he’s doing is finding his voice, when all he’s doing is breaking you up, taking pieces of you with him.

Ever been in love? So that’s why you’re here. You need help with that book you’re writing. Well, I can’t name a person who hasn’t. How many times? What type of woman do you think I am? Why you asking me about love anyway? Don’t you know nothing about love? The real kind. To love, in this type of world, is to commit an act of war. You going to war against everything that’s trying to tear that love asunder. Didn’t you know that? And no man could love me like the way my father loved my momma, especially after she did what she did. And if I couldn’t have that type of love, then it’s not worth having. Because after my momma shrunk herself, when she and I started watching the birds together, like we was Noah and them on the ark, but we needed the bird to come back and tell us what was happening over there, my father was still there loving her, loving me. Loving us hard. That’s the story—the story of love and war—I’m going to tell you since you’re not smart enough to ask. The only love story I know.

So this is how (love) begins. My parents went to the same school, a little shack of a building in the Deep South. They were in the same grade. But my mother said she didn’t pay my father any mind. My mother was one of the Hawkins girls. There were six of them, all different shades, all pretty and smart. And the boys took to them like bees to flowers. That’s why one night one of the Peterson boys—those boys didn’t have no momma and they daddy was a drunk—snuck through the field behind the Hawkins house. The boy wasn’t sure which window belonged to the room of the eldest girl, but believing in that love in his heart, he picked a window and began tossing up things off the ground—twigs, pebbles, dirt—and calling up under his breath. That love in his heart was telling him that when she opened the window, he would tell her to jump and he would catch her. And they would spend all night together in the field. The love in his heart never explained how he would get her back into the house, as if that answer would come to him after their time in the field. When the light came on in the house, the love in his heart lifted him off the ground. And when the window opened, the Peterson boy started dancing on his feet. The only thing that saved that boy’s life was that he was already on his toes when the girl’s father poked his head out the window with the shotgun in hand. The Peterson boy dashed into the dark. The father shot twice into the darkness where the boy disappeared. In the morning, Mr. Hawkins was waiting on the Petersons’ porch.

When Mr. Peterson stepped out the house, lunch pail in his hand, Mr. Hawkins addressed him. You heard about last night? 

Don’t know what got in that boy’s head. But whether or not I agree, he’s still my son. Mistakes don’t make a person not your son. 

That’s why I didn’t shoot him last night. But you tell him the truth, so he understands. Just because I missed doesn’t mean I missed. 

Two days later was when Henry, my father, shuffled into the yard like a stray dog. He had heard the story about that Peterson boy. Henry thought about that story long and hard. At eleven years of age, his conclusion was to come by daylight to see Coretta. He probably wouldn’t get shot at, and he might not even see the shotgun. But when he entered the yard, he spotted the shotgun leaning up against the porch wall before he saw the big man sitting in the rocking chair next to it. Henry saw that as soon as he got within twenty steps of the porch, the man’s right hand went for the shotgun. But the hand just rested there, like the shotgun was also used as a walking stick. 

Henry shuffled all the way up to the bottom of the porch, his eyes cast toward the ground, his eleven-year-old brain telling him it wouldn’t hurt to be shot if you didn’t see the gun. Is Coretta home? he asked.

She might, Mr. Hawkins said. 

Is it OK if I speak to her?

The man didn’t answer his question. He just hollered for Coretta to come outside. 

When Coretta appeared in the screen door and saw Henry standing at the bottom of the porch, she asked instantly, Why you here?

But Coretta didn’t care for an answer. She stepped out onto the porch and directed all her attention to her father. She said, Daddy, you going to shoot him? 

He said, I’m thinking about it. Depends on why he’s here. 

I’m here to talk to you, Coretta.

Well, I don’t want to talk to you. 

I just wanted to say hi. 

Coretta ignored him. She looked back to her father. You don’t have to think about it no more, Daddy. I won’t be mad. 

Then Coretta spoke to Henry. I’d leave if I were you. He’s going to shoot you.

Then he’s just going to have to shoot me.

See, Daddy. It’s OK. 

You can go inside now, Coretta. 

That day my mother looked at my father, just classmates then, and shook her head, as if she was thinking, I got to tell momma that it’s not only the good ones that die young. The stupid ones do too. 

So you came here to talk to her? How about you talk to me some? You mind talking to Coretta’s father? 

No, sir.

Inside, all the girls besides Coretta were whispering to one another, sneaking glances out the window. He’s still out there, they kept on whispering. Coretta, meanwhile, was in her room busying herself with her homework, waiting to hear the sound of the gun going off. 

The father spoke first. Who’s your daddy?

Looking at the dirt, the boy shrugged his shoulders. 

Your momma tell you his name?

The boy shook his head. She don’t tell me nothing.

What’s your name?

Henry Watkins. 

She probably named you after him. 

He a Henry, too? 


Henry thought about that. He said, If I knew where he was, I would try to cross paths with him. 

You won’t think he’s much. No man is if he don’t stick around. 

The boy nodded his head. He said, I’d still like to know what he look like. Momma won’t tell me. Momma say, Why you trying to remember the face of the person who abandoned us?

Do you look like your momma? 

No, sir. People don’t say I do. 

Then you look like him.

The boy moved his head slowly, in a way that indicated an unknown part of the world had just been revealed to him. 

How many steps does my porch have?

The boy counted. Five, hHe said, Five.

You can sit down on that bottom one. As long as I’m sitting on this porch, you can sit down on that bottom step. Any time you want to stop by and chat with me you can sit down on that bottom step. But you see those other four steps? Your feet are never to touch them. You understand? 

The boy nodded his head.

I hope so, Mr. Hawkins said. I got a house full of beautiful women and people of all ages got ideas. Like that Peterson boy. I’m not much of a thinking man, but I came up with one idea—one good one—about how I’m going to protect them. You understand? 

The boy eyed the shotgun. 

Then go on and take a sit down, the father said. 

At twilight, the boy stood up. 

Your momma know you here? the father asked. 

No, sir, Henry said. I said I was going out to play with some boys from school.

All right, the father said. I want you to tell her you were sitting with Mr. Hawkins. And from now on I don’t want you lying to momma about where you going. You understand?

The boy nodded and left.

But in Coretta’s mind, it was like he never left. Nearly every day Henry was sitting on that bottom step of the porch with her father until dusk. At some point into the conversation with the boy, Mr. Hawkins would put his right hand on his shotgun and move it to the left of him. The boy always flinched. It wasn’t until a year or so of the boy sitting on the bottom step that the father, anticipating the presence of the boy, moved the shotgun to the left side of him before the boy arrived. When the sisters, who were still trying to listen to what was being said outside, noticed that small gesture—their daddy moving the shotgun before the boy shuffled into the yard—, the intrigue about the boy mushroomed in the sisters’ minds. They teased Coretta. One sister would say, Your husband’s out there. Another sister would say, What you cooking your man for dinner? Another would say, I heard him out there calling for his wife, hollering, Where’s my woman? Another would say, He wants to know where his babies? Coretta plugged her ears with her fingers. At night, she’d lament under her breath, Why don’t he leave? Why am I a prisoner in my own house? Why won’t Daddy shoot him? Then her daddy got real sick and couldn’t sit outside for over four weeks, and Henry wasn’t able to sit on that bottom step. Coretta delighted in announcing to the whole house, I ain’t married no more. I’ve divorced him. But when her father recovered, Henry returned to the bottom step of the porch, and she hated him even more. Henry even started bringing his homework and a small snack of an apple or an orange stuffed in his pocket.

The day Mr. Hawkins saw things change was when he heard Henry fussing with himself over his math homework. 

Coretta! Mr. Hawkins roared from his chair on the porch. Get out here!

Yes, Daddy, she said through the screen as she scowled at Henry on the bottom step. 

Help him, he said. 

She trudged back up the stairs, pouting, stomping her feet. 

Henry, listen to me, Coretta said when she came outside and set up her homework next to Henry’s on the bottom step. That’s not how she said to do it. 

I want to do it my way. Show me how to get it right my way. 

Just listen to me, Henry. Just do it how I do it. 

I was listening, Henry said. I was listening in class.

You might have been listening some. But if you stopped looking at me so much, then you might be able to listen to all the teacher says. 

When the father heard the way Coretta said Henry, listen to me, it became clear to him that when this boy grew up he wouldn’t have to shoot him. It became clear to her father who this boy was going to end up being. Before those four words, he wasn’t sure. He didn’t want to grow to like a boy that he was just going to end up shooting down the road. Those words—Just listen to me, Henry—cleared everything up.   

But it didn’t become clear to Coretta that she was going to marry Henry until years down the line, until after her father said the most words to her in one breath that he had said in her entirewhole life. Her father said, “That boy been loving you since you were a tiny thing. Since before he even knew there was a thing called love. All he knew was that he needed to be near you. You told him you were going to have me shoot him and he didn’t run. He was a kid then and he didn’t run. He didn’t know nothing about being a man. He saw me and he saw that shotgun and he heard what you said, ‘Daddy you can shoot him,’ and still—he didn’t run. You’ve seen all the boys that run from here, that have been scared to take out your older sisters. Now here come this boy, not even twelve, knowing I just shot at one of them Peterson boys, here he come strolling into the yard hands stuffed in his pockets looking down at the ground. Scared of the gun but willing to approach it. Stood at the bottom step when the shotgun was nearly as tall as him. Stood there and though he was talking to you when he said your daddy is just going to have to shoot me, he was talking to me. The boy might as well have said, ‘Sir, I know you got the shotgun and all and you can put it up to my head and shoot if that’ll make you feel good, but that won’t change the way I feel about your daughter. No gun, no bullet can change that. If you put a bullet in my brain then all you doing is killing me. The love that I have for your daughter is in my heart and will still be intact. If you choose to shoot me in the heart, that’ll kill me too, and it’ll shatter the love I have for your daughter into pieces, but it won’t eliminate it. It’ll be all over the ground for all to see.’ That’s what he was saying to me when he was just eleven. He’s nearly grown now. You know what he’s saying to me now? His eyes are telling me, ‘Sir, you don’t need that shotgun no more. I got my own. I ain’t as good a shot as you but I’m good enough a shot to protect your daughter. Save your bullets for if something happens to me while I’m trying to protect her.’ So I’m asking you, how much more love do you need, Coretta? How much more love do you think is out there in the world?” 

Where are the birds? I’m telling the story now. If you’re going to write about love, you need to know what it bears. A I’m in control here. And I’m telling you that a love like that—a love that brought forth me, a love that brought forth Eli and Ray—was is like an act of war against the rottenness in this world and it had a. A love like that—a love that brought forth me, a love that brought forth Eli and Ray—got a reckoning coming to it. reckoning coming to it.

And the day of reckoning came. What are you saying? Don’t hear what I’m saying? That’s why they’re birds. That’s why I marched, that’s why momma fell. Don’t you know nothing? If you knew something about them two events, what it meant that I marched and what it meant that momma fell, you wouldn’t be asking me to explain such and such. Wouldn’t be asking me to explain why I was marching in 1965. I was marching to make my momma stand. 

My momma Coretta was in a wheelchair. She could walk. Sure, she could walk just fine. But she wasn’t walking. She refused to. She shrunk herself to protest against the world.

After Eli got drafted into Vietnam and Ray joined the war to be with him, Coretta—the woman who walked hard her entire life—stopped feeling the need to walk. In her mind, she didn’t see how her sons could come back alive. What do my boys know about a jungle? She knew that if she ever heard the news about her sons’ death she’d collapse. So the wheelchair was to make it so if she heard the news, she would already be caught. Most people just thought Coretta was being silly when they saw her in the wheelchair. Even my father thought it was a joke at first, as if Coretta had finally figured out her revenge for him sitting on the bottom step of her father’s porch for all them years. As if Coretta’s payback for Henry forcing himself into her life was to coerce him to push her around in a wheelchair for the rest of hers. But after a few months of her being in the wheelchair, people started thinking something must have really happened to Coretta. mMy father and I knew that my momma had shrunk herself for good., that Tthe only time Coretta planned on standing again was when her boys came home.

So I had a mission. I wanted her to stand before my brothers came home from the war. I didn’t want them to see their momma in a wheelchair. They’d see her and think that they should have just dodged the draft and fled to Canada or gone to jail, and then she wouldn’t have crippled herself. She wouldn’t just stare up at the sky all the time from her wheelchair and watch the birds. I knew that all she cared about during that time was her boys coming home alive. So I told momma. I said, What if when your sons come home and you get up to greet them, your legs don’t work no more? 

Momma looked at me a long time, like she was trying to allow herself to envision that, to envision her sons in front of her. She finally said, But they would be here? 


Well, she said, if you’re saying that they’re going to come through that door right there and be standing in my home, who cares about having legs?

To get her to stand I needed to know what it meant to sit. I needed to know what it meant for my father to plant himself on the bottom step of Coretta’s porch. for all them years. Needed toTo understand what it meant for Coretta to shrink herself into a wheelchair while the rest of the world was walking about. So I participated in those lunchroom sit-ins that made white people faces turn redder than red, enough red in their faces to paint the entire sky red. After one lunchroom closed down and we were forced out, I finally settled on my plan to make momma stand. 

I started marching. I marched to give my mother something to stand about. I marched because if she were my age she would have marched. She walked hard all her life, so I wanted to show her I’d been watching. I marched because my brothers were over in another part of the world fighting. And just like she was protesting in her wheelchair, refusing to stand until her boys came home, I had to protest against a world that wanted our precious blood for wars but when it came to us living and having a voice—having a right to vote—that voice didn’t count.  

So I was there in those marches from Selma to Montgomery. I marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on that Sunday after church service, all of us walking from Brown Chapel AME Church in our Sunday clothes. When we got over the bridge, we saw them state troopers lined across the road at the bottom of the bridge. Lined up like us crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge was us stomping on that Confederate general’s grave, like we were disrespecting their dead. 

My momma said she saw me on television that night. I don’t know how she saw me through all that tear gas, how her eyes could sort through all the faces running away from the state troopers and back over the bridge. Maybe all a mother needs is a fraction of a fraction of a second to know the shape of her child. I lied when she asked if I was hurt. I could feel throbbing from the billy clubs, my eyes were still stinging from the tear gas, and I could hear the ghost sounds of the horses’ hooves in my ears. 

But a few days later, we had Martin Luther King with us. And momma loved King nearly as much as she loved her boys. King led us over that bridge. And we had faces the same complexion of them state troopers that were willing to march right alongside us. Them state troopers were still down there, lined across the road. When King reached that line of unsmiling men in the road, some of us held our breath. I was scared. Just like maybe them state troopers was thinking we weren’t marching to vote and were really there to stomp on that dead Confederate general’s grave, who maybe hadn’t been dead long enough for them—I didn’t like the idea of anybody touching King. But when he came across that line of unsmiling men, he just turned around. I called my daddy after that march. I asked him if momma stood yet. He said that she was smiling—that’s hard enough to do when your sons are at war—but she hadn’t stood yet.

Even when we marched all the way to Montgomery, Alabama, momma didn’t stand. My daddy told me that later. But I didn’t know that then. The whole time I was marching with them thousands of people down Jefferson Davis Highway, I was beaming, thinking this will make momma stand out of her wheelchair. Protected by them soldiers, by that federal order, we marched like the ground was recording our steps, like our feet were keys on a typewriter and we were writing a letter, a letter that at first just said over and over, Too long, too long, but then our feet started writing of a new world, of a place we hadn’t seen but our walking was shaping the dimensions.

But still, none of that made momma stand. Having a son at war is like being out of breath—you’re always out of breath, always searching for air. And I think momma was afraid of standing because she was still trying to preserve the strength in her legs for when her sons came home, for when she’d gather her men who were still boys—her boys—in her arms, squeezing them tight, shouting, Lord I’ll cooperate now! I’ll stand! But when Eli and Ray died over there in Nam, she not only stayed in her wheelchair, she also decided to go on living without breathing. She didn’t say a word at the funeral. She just looked up at the sky and watched the birds flying overhead. That’s when we really started watching the birds together. After that, she kept her face tight everywhere she went, like she was planning on holding her breath forever, like she was refusing to breathe another breath of this rotten world. The way she kept her face tight when she talked, it made it seem like she even managed to talk without breathing. She stayed like that—living but not standing or breathing. My father and I knew it couldn’t stay that way forever, but you can’t make nobody breathe nor stand when they ain’t got it in them. When they still holed up from the world. And momma was. She was all holed up from the world, not letting air in, not letting air out. She was until the day she wasn’t. And on the day she wasn’t it was because she didn’t understand this thing that she was seeing on TV. How King fell. And, still not breathing, she stood up from her wheelchair. She stood and took a step. One step to see if she was dreaming up this thing about him being shot. Then she took another step, thinking her eyes and ears had to be deceiving her. When she took another step to that television set and saw that what she was seeing was true, she fell—and all that air she was holding in rushed out of her and escaped into the streets. Everybody was in the streets. But while everybody else was raging outside, there was my momma, in her home, on the ground, being held by my father, her eyes wet, her eyes blinking, her mind finally accepting: if the world can take him, then it can take my boys, too. What was going to be her hello became her goodbye. She finally sighed, My boys.

Kenneth A. Fleming’s short fiction has been a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters contest, Pleiades’s 2018 G.B. Crump Prize in Experimental Fiction, and Booth’s 2020 Prize for Unexpected Literature. He holds an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University, and he has work that appears in Shenandoah, Joyland, Booth, and storySouth. He is the South Editor at Joyland. He is currently finishing up a collection of short fiction. You can find him on Twitter @kflemingwriter.