I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Snow threatens. For weeks now. Twenty winters come and gone. She has a masculine rage. I don’t know who she got it from, but I found it utterly abominable, and I’m ashamed to admit I’ve given birth to such a selfish, such a small-minded little creature. Leaving so soon—not more than a month later—after we’d put her Dad in the ground. Hmmm … distance and time smudge memories, and this dusty old attic don’t help matters none. It was her room once, bless it, but now it’s a curtain between the world and me. Something to do with scholarships, I recall. People needing information about us, information I thought was none of their business. It was our private affair, how much money Joe made and didn’t make, how much property we owned and didn’t own, how much we could afford to put to her education, how much I contributed to the income, if any, had we ever claimed bankruptcy. Commit our lives to the scrutiny and public eyes of some institution. That’s what they wanted us to do.
Look, I said to Joe. If she’s so smart, let them pay. They’ve got all the money. Let them pay with no questions asked. The three of us argued on and off. We tossed words back and forth like they were paper plates. One word led to another. You know how it is. Two weeks later his heart exploded, and the force shoved him face down on a mountain of forms, cigar stumps, adding machine tapes, old tax forms. The man smoked with an obsession. At first I didn’t catch on. I nudged him to wake up, to come upstairs to bed. A wind through the open window. Curlicues of paper fluttering to the floor. For a moment, he seemed to stir ever so slightly. I thought I saw those eyes of his quiver behind closed lids. Come to bed, Joe. It had only been my imagination. But he was still, too still, and then my stomach went empty, worse than the fiercest hunger, and my bowels went loose. His exploding heart had leaked through his mouth and cast ragged circles of blood on the forms. His own daughter killed him with her ambitions, dammit. It was the strain of a proud man like him having to reveal what he wanted to keep secret. Something he never even shared with me. Finances …
He’d do anything for Brazil. Spoiled her rotten as a lap dog. I could smell the weak character he was forming in her. He was rough on the boys, but not with her. The world, he’d tell her, is yours for the taking. That’s not so, I said. The world is out to mow you down. Mow you down like a dirty dog. You have to be as cold as a witch’s tit and as hard as a life sentence. That’s the way he would have said it if he had said it at all.
So I gathered up the soggy forms, made confetti and tossed them out the window. Before he could get cold, before the dirt could settle on the man’s grave, she came with new forms. No. Those things killed your father. You killed your father, but you won’t kill me. I won’t let you. Work for what you want. I won’t do it for you. What do women like me know about assets and liabilities and capital gains? When I snatched the papers from her hand, they ripped. She spit at my feet. My heart stopped. I thought she was going to hit her own mother, but she kept her eyes on mine. She was always a hard child. A daredevil. Won’t back down for the world.
It was a month later. Both of us had calmed down and reached a common ground. We even sat together in the evenings to watch TV. The program didn’t much matter. It was an excuse for us to be in the same room, attention focused on the same thing. A chance for us to get a feel for each other somehow. But I misread. Again.
Brazil stood on the sidewalk at the bottom of the porch steps, luggage at her feet, a damp plane ticket in her hand, a waiting taxi, and shoved her dad’s missing credit card in my face. Ah, I thought so. Suspected as much. A damn thief on top of it all. You make me sick, she said, but I never flinched. She wouldn’t get to me a second time. I’m proud like my Joe. After all I did for her… Go on, let the neighbors see your true color, we both said to each other at the same time. Tell them all our business, I said. When she signaled the driver, he gathered the things that she’d bought with my Joe’s card and put them in the taxi. You’ll never see me again, she hissed. She slammed the door. I will, I yelled, memorizing the license plate, because you’re part homing pigeon, just like me.
I still had my boys, you know, the ones I hardly ever saw or heard from, the ones living in foreign countries, the ones who send holiday cards and Mother’s Day bouquets. And checks. In that box, that Wedgewood one over there on the chest of drawers. I’ve got 20 years of uncashed checks from both of them. I still had my beautiful home, the four walls and roof my man worked so hard to pay for, where we added the room that was my studio where I drowned myself in the creation of mediocre still lifes. It’s a ballet studio, now. Jesus!
The time has come and gone, but I still hear it. Tap-tap, tap-tap. Woodpecker. Tapdancer. Joe’s ghost leaning against the loose window frame. No. The biggest white man I ever saw, an agent, hammering a FOR SALE sign among the rosebushes I’d planted on the front lawn of the home my husband led us to believe was ours, free and clear. An agent of some bank or another. He hardly opened his mouth. Just said, ask your old man. Mister Montgomery, I said, emphasizing “Mister,” has passed on and I am his wife and I demand to know what’s going on. The house is for sale, was all he would say.
People call me The Lady Upstairs. The children call me Rapunzel, but my nails are much longer than my hair now. I live in my own attic. Once the Montgomery household, now the Peaceable household. My own attic …
Joe visited for a while afterwards. When I told him about the man and the hammer, taptap, taptap, he was ashamed, and being the proud man he was, it was his last visitation.
Nineteen hundred and thirty-eight. That was a great year. Joe Louis beat Max Baer. It was something. Like New Year’s Eve. Colored folks fell away from their radios and into the streets, through windows, through doors of houses and tenement apartment buildings. Joe and I were out there with them, too, though I was somewhat under the weather with digestive upsets. He was concerned with the bouts of vomiting I had suffered through, but I said, Joe, let’s just have ourselves a good time. And that’s what we did. It was the first time I really let myself loose in front of him. September twenty-fourth, Nineteen hundred and thirty-eight. We were so worn out from all the celebrating, and our throats so strained from all the singing and screaming, that we could barely say I do the next day. You see, we stood at the altar of Bethel AME Zion church on September twenty-fourth, Nineteen hundred and thirty-eight and made reciprocal pledges of eternal love to one another: For that minute we were one and we promised to continue on in the same way through sickness and health, for better or worse.
I was a colored Victorian beauty in my white and ecru gown. Antique lace. That very lace had been part of my great-grand mother’s wedding gown that she stitched together with her very own hands, fragile like the wings on a dragonfly. That lace had once covered the heavy oak dining room table of an antebellum planter. Joe Montgomery was wearing the black twill suit he’d borrowed from his best buddy and bid whist partner, Roosevelt Buchanan Long. We were so hoarse that Reverend Bentley had to ask both of us twice if we took one another in holy matrimony, because our first answers were barely a croak. Joe Montgomery promised me many-a-thing. Young husbands do that. I’d always wanted to take a vacation to Brazil, though I’m hard-pressed now to remember what it was about the country that intrigued me so, but I had it in my head that I just had to be there. I held on to my hope, and he held on to his promises, through the births of Billy and John. But by the time I was pregnant with her, I knew I was going no further than Pittsburgh Pee-Ay. So I named her Brazil. She was a pretty little thing, but so were my boys. All the Montgomery babies were beauties. But I never counted on them being with me forever. All my children were smart as a whip, but somehow I had it in my heart that Brazil would always be around. Marry, raise her family, whatever she wanted, but always be near us, the way I lived most of my life within walking distance of her grandparents, even through most of my marriage.
She always accused me of holding her back, squeezing her, but it’s not true. I wanted to keep her safe. She had a home that would always be her home. But children these days, those days, outgrow everything you do for them, everything you promise and everything you deliver. This house—my man worked like a dog—was for them, their future. But they wanted their own. They had to have their own. Children now leave their families, go out into that world, disappear in everybody’s shadow, running after misery like it was gold or something. I never worried about the boys. They’re tough, like boys should be. Good boys, but tough. Brazil, she’s tough, too, but she was only female tough, with that kind of brittle surface endurance that cracks under pressure. That woman next door—Faith—that’s her name, is like that. The same way. I’m old and crazy, but I see what I see and I know what I know, and if my girl is still breathing, Faith La Velle is her future, and that one downstairs, too—Edna Mae. Women running from their lives. They go out into that world to get their own and come back empty. Or they come back with something that don’t belong to them. Something they stole. The worst kind of women to know. One is always looking to fill herself up, and the other is so used to having what’s not hers ’til she don’t know limits anymore.
Faith La Velle
Some consider me eccentric, some consider me immoral, some consider me God-fearing, and some don’t ever consider me. If anyone could see through these Venetian blinds I’m behind, there’s not much doubt they would nominate me Grand Snoop of the Highest Order, A Nose To Be Reckoned With. I like to know what’s going on, and I don’t mind admitting it. It’s the day before Christmas. I like to know who’s got the most shopping bags, the biggest tree, you know. Well, the activity out there’s slowing down now. I close the blinds and pop the last of the cinnamon toast in my mouth, trying to shake my head free of the voice of Tyrone Lee Ledbetter, Junior, only son of the Baptist minister, the Reverend Tyrone Lee Ledbetter, Senior. Tyrone Junior is my boarder, my lover, and a graduate archaeology student whose Buddhist chanting is at the moment bouncing back and forth between both of my bejewelled ears.
I’m 62. Tyrone Lee is 27. I’m the color of cream, and Ty is the color we all would have been. Neither me or Ty gives a damn one way or the other for what our neighbors think, particularly those Peaceables, and specifically that Mamie Montgomery, whose chickens are still coming home to roost. Ha!
Tyrone! Tyrone, my sweet!
My voice is like an old phonograph record, the victim of late nights on some town, cheap bourbon without the benefit of rocks or water, and—heart, be still!—vigorous bouts of tears.
If I have to listen to one more of those infernal “nam-myoho-renge-kyo’s,” I’m going to pack up and move myself back to my hometown of New Orleans. The last time I shouted at Tyrone Lee, I threatened to pack up and move back to Atlanta, and the time before that, Sausalito—all hometowns of mine. Ha!
I’m humming it in my sleep, dearest! Besides, it’s Christmas time, for God’s sake.
Tyrone is a laid-back fellow, a no-bullshit chap, a get-to-the-point kind of guy, a completely hyphenated human being, and never one to beat even the most karma-ridden victim over the head with his religious practice. He’s as dark as I am light, as tall as I am short, as polished as I am rough, as educated as I am self-made. We are near perfect a couple, harmonious in our irregularities and happy with our likenesses.
Christmas-schmistmas. I’m just pulling his leg. I have loyalty to neither Almighty or Redeemer, but from time to time I like hitting him over the head with a Christian hammer. My Black Buddha. That’s what I call him. I live by a single philosophy: Fate keeps kicking me in my sumptuous backside, and I just keep on plucking her pretty little footsies out. Tyrone has tried to convince me that I could have more outta life than a mere kick in the ass, and I have tried to tell him that Faith La Velle likes brick-hard challenges, has done just fine for her 62 years, thank you, and don’t have no intention of becoming Buddhist, Baptist, Rosicrucian, or Druid. Ha!
It’s not that I don’t have my complications. A woman without complications is a dull chick. I’m in my sixties and look in my thirties and feel not a day over 21. On my good days, darlin. On my good days. This in itself can make a very complex or natural existence, depending on how you look at it. I’m one of those black women who can and will slip into a Creole, Cherokee, Polynesian, or Spanish facade when and where it pleases her, complete at times in national dress and accent—yes I do—but always in my heart of hearts I know who I am, and if you cross me you will never forget it. Never.
I was reared to be strong in such a way so as not to deny the pain, but to transcend it, and that’s what I counsel those in distress, whether they be at a grave site or a divorce proceeding, hovering over a burnt dinner or an automobile accident. Acknowledge, sweetheart, I say, and then transcend. Transcend, and then you can fly.
I wear my trials and tribulations like precious gems—yes I do—put them on display for the world to admire, and then polish them with Faith’s special cloth of endurance, doncha know.
This is my dressing table. Foundation, mascara, and individual eyelashes are my bed companions, whether Black Buddha is with me or off on one of his weekend digs or all-night chanting marathons. Short and tall bottles. Round and square boxes. Greekly columned and Gothicly arched vials light up this blue Depression glasstop. Unopened boxes of Kotex and Tampax fill my drawers. I buy feminine hygiene things regularly just to keep folks in a suspended state of wonderment. I did that a lot from the first day my smile graced this damn ole Dunseith Street. Few, if any at all, darlin, can make absolute statements about Faith La Velle.
Some thought me a widow, some thought me married to one of the movers—can you imagine?—who pompously escorted me into the aluminum-sided house I live in now. Some think me white with a tinge of black; others think me black with a tinge of white. Some I told I’d been a shimmy dancer on New Orleans’s famous Bourbon Street, that Satchmo had once tried to commission my favors on a snail’s night—believe it, darlin—and when I told him my fee was 1,000 dollars, doncha know he laid the bills at my feet on a silk monogrammed hanky without so much as batting his eyes, and when I still refused his passion, he contracted the services of Miss Marie La Veau, a famous voodoo queen—whose photo I still wear in a locket tucked deep within the cleavage of my busts—the same fee to work the meanest, blackest, most lowdown mojo ever on my soul. Yes he did.
And this is how strong my constitution is, darlin. Even that didn’t work—number one—’cause Faith don’t believe in all that nigger nonsense—and number two—’cause when Faith don’t want a man, his Lord God Almighty can’t make the sun shine on him. No he can’t. That’s how a dignified woman goes about her daily affairs. Anyone would do well to remember that.
I told some I’d been Sausalito’s first and only nun of color, a member of The Order of the White Gardenia, and that one night the Lord God Almighty appeared to me in a powerfully hazy vision and told me I was too fine a woman to stay with the Order, that my real calling was out amongst the sinners, that I must walk trippingly among them, leading them along the paths of righteousness, and so I lived among the silk-suited pimps, the polyestered prostitutes and the enraptured druggies, spoke of truth and beauty in lilting tones of verses and proses, too, tripped one night on the steps leading in to their abandoned abode and bloodied my palms on the jagged bottles that was laying hidden in all the junk. And when I entered the place, my palms raised up and bleeding, my yellow face flushed from the cold and from the fall, and a solitary ceiling light casting an eerie aura around my head, the sinners took the bleeding for stigmata, not noticing the pieces of glass jutting out of my hands, took Faith for a bona fide saint, and turned from the ways of the ungodly. Yes they did.
Told some I was born Mae Louise Browne in Chattanooga, Tennessee, not too far a ways from where the Misses Edna Mae and Jill Althea Peaceable previously resided. My folks are dead now. One generation away from sharecropping, which meant they was still sharecropping. My birth was a multiple one, but my two brothers was stillborn. My daddy swore I was a she-demon, having sucked all the life from the boys, as women—he said—were given to doing.
Told some by the time I was five he was working me like a mule alongside the four-legged one. When it wasn’t cotton it was tobacco. When it wasn’t darning it was weaving. My fingers still hard from pushing stitches through linen and plucking weevils from cotton, but back then I pretended they was the long slender legs of a ballerina, namely me. Un huh. I wanted to be a ballerina. Ha! Sure did. Don’t every little girl want to be something pretty? Oh, how I used to perform.
* * *
One evening I had my swan song. As hard as I try to push it out of my mind, it keeps on coming back. Wings of cicadas screeching like banshees, wind so low you could only know it by the smell of grass and manure, black stretch of fields broken up by anthills like you never seen, on and off flashing of fireflies, lonesome outlines of crows on trees and fence posts. Sun spilling and spreading itself just where the earth and sky meet, across the faces of my folks while they was shelling peanuts and breaking snap beans on the porch that evening.
So I go tipping inside to the kitchen. Think I’m slick, see. Push the table close to the wall near that curtained shelf. Then I put a stool on top of the counter and climb up. On the shelf—I can see it now—where I watched my mother put it is the can, so I slide it to the edge. The clatter is loud. My elbow, see, nearly knocks over a mixing bowl. So I listen for my folks, but they still out there ashellling and asnapping. Gotta make that quota, see. Finally, the can, greasy and dusty, is in my hands, in these short little fingers of mine. I pry the lid loose and dip my hands in. When it gives way to my touch, softens up a bit, I put it on my hair, unraveling the endless sandy braids. I smooth and pat and apply, pulling my hair, straightening the kinks away from my face. I pull ’til my fingers swell. They look just like Vienna sausages by then. My head aches. But I keep on smoothing and straightening my hair like the way I see ballerinas wear theirs. Some of it comes out in my hands, coiled like so many miniature pigs tails. Oh, darlin, it was a sight, a mess, but I didn’t care.
When I pack it down as much as my head and fingers will take, I gather it up—it’s about as long as a minute—and twist it into a small braid at the nape of my neck. Then I roll it into a knot. I put the can back, climb down and put the table back, too.
I’m in the middle of the kitchen floor by now, a sight, raised up on bare toes, resting my hands on my imaginary ballerina skirt, and turning round and round, first on one foot and then on the other. My neck is stretched high. My shoulders is pushed down. My chin is forced forward. I touch my hair to make sure it’s still in place.
Mae Louise Browne is a long-legged, slender ballerina, and her audience adores her. I take my curtsy, forehead brushing my bent knee, my eyes is closed, and when I straighten up, my mother’s cold shadow is covering me. Yes it is.
Well now, says she. That’s what she always said before she busted you. Upside the head. Well now. I’m thinking, well what? But I don’t say a word, see. She’s plucking bits of bacon and pork rind from my slippery hair. And she’s chuckling. One of those chuckles that don’t leave the throat. Not a ain’t-this-so-cute chuckle, or a I’m-tickled-to-death chuckle, but a yeah-fool-I-got-your-black-ass-where-I-want-it-now chuckle. She was too calm. Since you like the smell of hog drippings so much, she finally said, I think me and your daddy—she was always speaking for him—me and your daddy gone put you out to sleep with ’em tonight. And they did, too. Yes they did. With the hogs. With the hogs, darlin. Think of it.
I don’t want to think about it anymore. Let me get up from here. I think I’d like to pay Miss Jill a holiday visit. I could use some cheer, entertainment. Maybe they’ll even let Mamie out of the attic for Christmas, like good Christians. She was being punished last Christmas, so she didn’t make it downstairs. Maybe she been a good girl this year. Ha!
This is my mink. Yes it is. Genuine ranch, thank you. Let’s see, now. My, my. What’s this? A bald spot. And another … I got to sit down. I’m feeling weak. Everything is so old now. Mamie up there in the attic looking like the grandmother of a witch. Jill and Edna Mae have gotten so they have taken to wearing sweaters in the summer. Precious the only one ain’t got no older. They say them kinda folks don’t age. I ain’t seen Jack in I-don’t-know-when. Wonder if he still alive. No, I woulda known. Cancel that thought. Cancel … cancel. There. Yes, I’m superstitious. Time passes by so quickly. Holding on is like trying to catch smoke. Yes it is. But then Black Buddha always says it’s all fleeting and relative. Sure is the truth. I am not crying. I am not crying. Cancel … cancel. I just always have had an allergy to mink. Helluva thing to be allergic to.
I’m not feeling so good. Tyrone Lee give me this to read when I feel low. This sutra, it says, fulfills one’s desires. It is the pond’s cool clear water that quenches thirst. Shit, it’s gonna take more than this to quench Faith’s thirst.
Mister Ledbetter! Mister Ledbetter, my sweet blackberry! Come in here. He is the chanting-est … Tyrone Lee, come to me! Faith is thirsty, darlin. Faith needs some hope.
Amirh Bahati is a fiction writer who publishes poetry and fiction in small magazines and teaches English at Queens College.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee