With all my measuring, exercising, and secret application of specially-formulated, 100 percent guaranteed creams that I ordered with my own money, using one of those coupons on the back of Mama’s Jive magazine, I had a lot on my mind. So, it took me a while to figure out what was going on with Jessie Mae.
And once I did, I wished to God I didn’t know.
We weren’t Ozzie and Harriet or anything like that, but none of the families living in Chestnut Court projects in 1964 were. We were just a plain ol’ family with a daddy who went to work early in the morning carrying a lunch pail, and who came home after dark all covered in creosote, a mama who worked for a white family up in the Oakland hills, and two girls, me and my sister Chantelle. She was thirteen. I was eleven.
A plain ol’ family. At least we were until Jessie Mae moved into the apartment over ours and everything happened. You may be wondering what “everything” was. I’ll get to that. First, let me explain a few things so you can understand what I did, what I didn’t do, and why.
I had gotten tired of waiting for my titties to show up on their own, so I decided to grow me some. I didn’t need great, big, hoochie-coochie mamas like Chantelle’s. Some little ones would have been just fine. I needed to show Chantelle that she wasn’t the only one who could grow them. She and I used to be best friends, ever. It didn’t matter that we were sisters, or even that she was two years older than me. We were tight. We did everything together. We kept one another’s secrets. But, when Chantelle began to fill out, she got all fast, and started thinking she was too grown for me. She started hanging out with people like Charlesetta, and suddenly, boys became so—necessary. The worst part was, she started talking about me behind my back, calling me a baby, saying I peed the bed—mess like that. So, titties weighed heavily on my mind. If there had been the remotest chance that I could have gotten some for Christmas, they would have been on the top of my list.
I’m not trying to make excuses, or anything, for all the stuff that happened. I know I messed up. I know things probably wouldn’t have turned out the way they did if I had done something sooner. But, like I said, I had a lot on my mind.
Jessie Mae was dark skinned and as skinny as Bony Maronie. Her short hair didn’t take to the hot comb, and every time I saw her, it was standing up on her head like a hedge. She was the quietest li’l thing I ever saw, and it was some time before I even got to talk to her. The only thing I knew about Jessie Mae was she was around the same age as Chantelle, and she was as country as smoked ham.
She didn’t show her face unless she was with her mama, Lee Ann, when they went to the washhouse across the parking lot from our building, or when the Sheik, Lee Ann’s boyfriend, took them out evangelizing. Jessie Mae scurried about like a little mouse. Getting off the bus with her mama and the Sheik—scurry, scurry inside the apartment. Going from their apartment to the washhouse—scurry there, scurry back again. One day Mama sent me to the washhouse, and Jessie Mae and her mama were there. Jessie Mae held her head down the entire time. She never looked up once.
On weekends Mama ran a little side business doing people’s hair in the kitchen. Eventually I was able to pick up a little information about Jessie Mae and her jacked up family from people’s loose talk as they sat in front of the kitchen stove getting their press and curls. According to the gossip, Jessie Mae’s mother, Lee Ann, had been bumping around West Oakland for years, from one housecleaning job to another, from one man to another. Because the poor child wasn’t too bright, she was always going for the okey doke. They said if you asked Lee Ann to choose between a pile of gold bars and the same size pile of pancakes, she would choose the pancakes because they were easier to carry.
She met the Sheik when he used to be a penny-ante pimp. He tried to teach Lee Ann to be a ho, but she kept losing the money or forgetting to ask for it at all, and that didn’t work out too well. The Sheik looked around for another line of work and decided to open a church. Lee Ann became one of his apostles or something. The Sheik kept after Lee Ann to send for Jessie Mae from someplace down south where she had been happily living her life with her grandmother since the day she was born. Finally Lee Ann did.
Jessie Mae had never lived with Lee Ann and didn’t know anything about her. She knew even less about the Sheik. And, let me tell you, if she had known what she was in for, I am certain she would have hidden in the corn crib or the cotton gin or whatever places they have down South to hide in, before she would have let them put her on a train and send her to him.
The neighborhood kids gave the Sheik his name because of the long robes and turbans he always wore. He called himself a bishop. Bishop Willie Nathan of the New Nubian Church of Enlightenment. Funniest church anybody ever saw. His congregation was Lee Ann and Jessie Mae. His pulpit, when he wasn’t going door to door, was down on Tenth Street in front of Housewives’ Market, where he preached to the taxi drivers waiting to take people places, the wino or two who staggered by, and people at the bus stop.
I saw him down there, with my own two eyes, one Friday when me and Chantelle went with Mama to pick up some buffalo fish at Marino Brothers.
Mama pinched us for giggling. “Don’t you all laugh,” she warned. “You never know how the Lord’s gonna come back.”
On the off chance that the Lord might choose to come back as the most ludicrous, most ridiculous fool imaginable, I dropped a quarter in the basket at the Sheik’s feet. Chantelle deposited seventeen cents.
The time came when I sure wished I had that money back.
One evening before Jessie Mae got there, the Sheik came to our apartment on one of his door-to-door evangelical sweeps. Daddy refused to let him in. “Just another Negro from Mississippi trying to get paid,” he said. But sometimes Mama was kindhearted. She
stood at the door and listened to the Sheik’s cockeyed sermon, nodding, voicing a random “Amen” now and then as the Sheik preached and quoted the Bible, getting everything all mixed up. Lee Ann just stood there, a tambourine dangling from her hand. I kept my head down as the Sheik eyed me and Chantelle.
Sometimes I would hear Jessie Mae upstairs getting whuppins. I didn’t pay that much attention, then. As I told you, I had a lot on my mind. Besides, everybody got their behinds beat once in a while—especially my sister Chantelle. Even me. That’s what it cost being a kid. Whuppins were like kid taxes we paid with our behinds. We didn’t get “spankings” either. Spankings were what weak, little white kids up in the hills got. We were rough and tough flatland kids who walked the couple of miles from overcrowded project apartments to Jack London Square just to throw rocks in the water. Our mamas wrapped extension cords around their hands or made us strip switches from the trees outside our bedroom windows, and they used them to leave welts on our bare arms and legs, make us do holy dances, shout out the Lord’s name, and make promises we knew we couldn’t keep.
Our people came from places like Mississippi, Arkansas, and Alabama. I used to think those were the states where it was legal to kill off your bad kids because our mamas were always saying they’d rather kill us than have somebody else do it. It seemed that if they didn’t whup us, and nobody killed us, then we had no choice but to grow up to be no good. We’d end up walking San Pablo Avenue all glassy eyed, in some big ol’ lopsided wig, with our skirts hiked up over our behinds. And the shortest, most direct path to San Pablo Avenue was by way of eye-rolling, back-talking, correcting, and disrespecting grown people, stealing money out of our mamas’ purses that they’d put right there on the table next to their beds, taking their boyfriends, and—the unholiest of unholies—talking their business.
I couldn’t imagine Jessie Mae doing any of those things. Like I said, she was the quietest li’l somethin’ I ever saw—except when she was getting a whuppin.
This piece was excerpted with permission from Smelling Herself: A Novel by Terris Grimes
You can purchase Smelling Herself for Kindle or paperback here