Great Afro-Americans in HistoryFaith Adiele
THE WOMAN BREATHES two sharp syllables at my offer of free spaying. “For real?” Her head snaps up to stare at me.
The kids, each clutching a fistful of her shirt, duck out from behind her legs to flash me the same look. The girl, a bony ten-year-old, now hefts the giant toddler, nearly doubled over backwards beneath his weight. A milky river of mucus runs from his nose to the tip of his chin, forming a glistening goatee that shakes as he whines at being displaced from his mother’s hip. He waves both hands in the air, trying to reach the woman with the kitten pressed to her breast.
The woman begins to talk about how growing up, she always had cats. She has never been without one. This is the first time. We are stumbling towards the front of the house, past the flowerbeds, trailed by the kids who dart silent, furtive glances at the regulation-size jungle gym Old Pappa welded for me after I became obsessed with the crossing bars at school, at the cherry print curtains at the garage windows hiding Mom’s private Native American cabaret, at the redwood Adirondack chairs on the lawn. I can hear the bittersweets strains of “Sweet America” through the garage door as Mom and Buffy really lean into it.
As we near the front porch I see their car—long, beige, low-slung, scarred with a design of rust and dents. A hulking man with ratted hair slouches in the driver’s seat wearing a grey undershirt and Confederate soldier’s cap. Dark hair and tattoos swirl over his beefy arms and shoulders. One arm tensed out the window, he smokes impatiently—hard, raspy drags.
Instinctively, I step back and flatten myself alongside the house, fighting the urge to duck under the honeysuckle vine. I’m not at all like Ida B. Wells standing before a lynch mob, prepared to die if necessary. I’m terrified of what will happen if those red eyes catch me.
Now I remember why the family looks familiar. Last Fall I’d gone with Old Pappa to an auction at the stockyard near the train tracks. I’d been amazed at how many people showed up to bid on broken-down household items. “That stuff was real crap!” I’d marveled afterwards to Mom, as we worked on our makeshift sukkah, arranging maple branches and spruce fronds according to the picture in the Time-Life article on Jewish festivals.
The real merchandise were the farm implements and machinery parts, so while the men assessed rectangular balers and disk harrows, women and children pawed overstretched-out sweaters, warped phonograph albums and green stamp dishes. Many were clearly regulars, and they all looked strangely similar. The kids, tow-headed and undersized, clung possessively to the rare junky toy.
When we got home I demanded to know who these people were and why I’d never seen them around town. Why did they look sick and act wild? Why didn’t anyone help them?
Mom had peered up from Religions of the World, blue eyes blinking. “Oh,” she said with a quick grimace, cheeks pink. “Well, just so you know, the rude name for them is ‘white trash,’ which you under no circumstances are ever to say.”
From the tightness of her jaw, I knew that this fell under the category of Things She Didn’t Want To Have To Tell Me But Felt That She Should For My Moral Edification. But there was something in her tone slightly less charitable than when she spoke about hungry kids in Ethiopia and Vietnam. It was almost like the way some of the teachers at school tried to be nicer about the Chicano students, referring to them as “Spanish”, which though not the shouted (or whispered) slur, “Mexican”, still sounded like the verbal equivalent of handing someone a bag of used kitty litter.
As we built our Sukkoth bower in the dining room, Mom explained that they probably came from Appalachia or Down South — the latter a frightening, amorphous place that among its many crimes claimed the birthplace of the Klan and the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Oddly enough, my father had gone Down South and lived to tell the tale. Mom shook her head, cowlicks askew, and marveled. “Your poppie spent a year at Tuskegee in Alabama and loved it!” This was clearly a stroke of amazing good luck.
Their yellowish skin and feverish eyes were the result of being impoverished for along time and having poor nutrition. “Remember how Rita’s mother used to fry the entire meal?” Mom asked, snapping her fingers for more twine as the fronds started to slide. “The meat and the vegetables and the starch?” We exchanged looks of mild horror, guiltily.
But the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. had waged a war on poverty too, and so after the lesson on Sukkoth I emptied out my toy box and bureau and Mom cleaned out the garage and wrote a check and the next time Old Pappa was over, I had him load up the boxes and the money and drive me to Saint Vincent de Paul.
I REGARD THE three kids rooted unblinking, noses running, to our porch. I imagine their confusion at coming to ask for something free from a black person. I wonder if they’re fighting the urge to nudge each other, to whisper nigger softly, almost a question, as one boy at the auction had before I ran to find Old Pappa.
The woman maintains her tight hold on the cat. Her fingers must be cramping with the effort. Akhmatova wriggles to find a comfortable position and gives a faint mew, still optimistic. I lock my fingers behind my back and try to imagine what Sojourner Truth, abolitionist, preacher and women’s rights advocate, would do.
“I’ve always had cats,” the woman says in a rush. She stands fixed to the front step, repeating it. “Always.” She seems desperate to reassure.
“C’mon!” the man bellows from car, his roar like a punch to the back. “Ya got it, didn’t ya? Let’s get outta here!” He stares straight ahead, choking the cigarette in his fist.
The woman shivers a bit but does not turn towards him. “Always,” she says in an earnest voice. I nod weakly.
“C’mon!” His anger rattles the screen door. The kids turn their heads slowly, watching him through slit eyes, as if from a great distance.
Finally the woman smiles awkwardly and turns and walks down the steps with Akhmatova. As she and the kids approach the trembling car, the man, never once looking our way, guns the engine, and before they can even shut their doors, tears off in a cloud of exhaust, tires squealing, laying down a track of burnt rubber back to their side of town. For a full five minutes after their departure, I can smell the acrid fumes.
IN A FEW years Mom will deem me old enough to know the truth of my birth, our own little civil rights battle. We will sit in the living room with its stark African masks and textiles and she will explain everything—how Old Pappa, when he found out she was pregnant by a black man, tried to force her to get a back-street abortion and how he settled on throwing her out when she wouldn’t, how she fled to the Salvation Army (“weird-os that they are”) and had me in a home for unwed girls, how my father was in another country and she had to fight the social workers and the Salvation Army and her parents all by herself to keep me, how we lived in the projects on government cheese but eventually came home because she wanted me to have grandparents, despite what Old Pappa had done.
But for now I am young and throw open the door to her garage sanctuary, the stench of burning tire mingling with Buffy’s powerful wail to “Free the Lady” (which is almost too perfect except for the fact that Mom always plays “Free the Lady” and “Starwalker,” the one with the Cree chant chorus, over and over). From her rocking chair, she winces at my descriptions of the woman and kids, of the man in the car, but when I begin to cry because I’ve done a bad thing, she shakes her head.
“I know how you feel, punkin, but other things can be more important than food. ”She puts her arms around me. “Just think how much Akhmatova will be loved.”
And eventually I find myself leaning back into her, the two of us rocking in time to Buffy and butchering the hell out of Ay hey way hey way heya. She’s as calm as Shirley Chisholm announcing her candidacy for president and calling for racial and gender equality. She whispers with a conviction I don’t yet recognize as earned: “Akhmatova might be the only thing that’s hers.”
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