Sam Cooke was dead.
Over the weekend some hoochie-coochie woman had shot him down. That was all anybody had talked about at school.
Dinner dishes had been washed and put away. Mama, Chantelle, and I sat around the table talking. But Chantelle could hardly choke out a word. Sam Cooke was dead and she was grieving. Her grief seemed to increase when Mama dumped a pile of laundry on the table and told us to get to folding.
Chantelle started boo-hooing, getting snot all over everything. She sounded like she was gargling spit and trying to yodel at the same time.
I shot a glance her way. I was trying to warn her that the barometric pressure had changed and lightning was about to strike. I glanced over at the couch where Daddy sat working on one of his crossword puzzles. Do something, Daddy! He was crazy about Sam Cooke, too, and I thought he was blinking a lot, like something was in his eye. He was also oblivious to the storm clouds gathering above us. Just as I was about to give up all hope, Daddy looked me dead in the eye and said, “Somnambulist. You have ten seconds.”
“Daddy, not now,” I whispered. “Chantelle—”
“Nine . . .”
“Eight . . .”
“Uh, uh . . . an abnormal condition of sleep in which motor acts such as walking are performed”
With a wink at me, Daddy returned to his crossword.
“Daddy, help!” I whispered as loud as I dared. But he didn’t hear me.
Mama looked at Chantelle, shook her head, and said, “Sam Cooke had a wife.” She said it like a wife was all anybody needed in this life. “He had a wife,” Mama repeated, “and he shouldn’t been out messing around in the first place.”
That only made Chantelle worse. Sam Cooke was dead, her heart was breaking, and Mama didn’t even care.
Mama shook a towel, making it crack like a whip. I jumped. Mama folded the towel in three quick motions. She eyed my pile of laundry and then Chantelle’s. My pile was getting smaller, Chantelle’s wasn’t.
Mama picked up another towel and snapped it. She said, “You better stop all that mess, or I’ll give you something to cry for.”
It was obvious that Chantelle was cruisin’ for a bruisin’, but I couldn’t understand why. She should have gone ahead and got the folding over with, instead of baiting Mama. Maybe, I thought, it was just her destiny. That child got more whuppins than any self-respecting, thirteen-year-old I ever knew. I, on the other hand, was so scared of whuppins that I would do just about anything to avoid one. I learned early on to mind, to do what Mama and Daddy told me. I even thought up ways to be good and to get noticed at it. Some people—I won’t mention names—used to call me a kiss ass. Oh well, I yam what I yam. Toot, toot.
I knew what I was doing. I had to mind. I didn’t have that much going for me. I wasn’t cute or a cripple or anything, and I wasn’t light skinned. I did have what the old ladies called a “head full of hair.” It wasn’t good hair, but it was long, falling down my back when Mama took a hot comb to it. My nickname was Punkin. That should tell you something. Chantelle, on the other hand, was cute. She had good hair and she was light skinned. Her nickname was Peaches. Get the picture? But poor “Peaches” wasn’t too good at arithmetic. She thought cute bought her way more than it actually did. That usually ended up costing her. Those light-colored eyes didn’t cut anything with Mama. Besides, Chantelle’s hair was only kind’a good—Mama still had to press it with a warm comb.
Outside somebody was trying to sing Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me.”
Yoo-o-o-o send me.
He was off key and sounded like he was yodeling, too.
Yoo-o-o-o send me.
That really set Chantelle off, and she yodeled even louder. Mama snapped another towel, raised a brow, and looked at Chantelle from the corner of her eye.
With that gesture, she sucked all the air out of the room. It seemed to be shrinking, getting tighter, warmer. I knew what was coming. I didn’t know if I could stand seeing the child get skinned again.
I got up and grabbed my pile of unfolded laundry, including in it as much of Chantelle’s pile as I could without Mama noticing.
“Where you going?” Mama demanded.
“The bedroom. I’ll finish folding in there. Chantelle’s bumptiousness is getting on my nerves.”
Daddy looked up and winked at me. Mama sighed the way you do when you’re surrounded by fools. “Have you set the beans to soaking for tomorrow?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
Mama went down her list of chores until she got to Chantelle’s.
“Chantelle, you mop the kitchen?”
Chantelle hadn’t touched a mop and Mama knew it, Daddy knew it, the people down the block and round the corner knew it. Chantelle was really yodeling now. I edged my foot over under the table and nudged her, trying to remind her that I’d mopped it for her. She looked up into my blank face and just sat there like a dummy staring at me. I was really getting worried, until she finally said, “Uh . . . yes?” like she was guessing on a test, which maybe she was. Mama looked at me. I willed my face to stay blank. I wasn’t going to take a whuppin for Chantelle under any circumstances.
The extension cord was Mama’s symbol of authority, her mace, and her sword. She always kept it within reach. That evening she had been sitting with it in her lap. Daddy got up to change the television channel. He was messing with the rabbit ears.
Get out‘a here while you got the chance.
I was almost out of the room when I made the mistake of turning around to see what was happening, and got turned into a pillar of salt. Just then Mama decided she’d had enough of Chantelle. She had wrapped the cord around her hand a couple of times, and popped Chantelle good, before the stupid thing knew what was happening. The end of the cord cut into Chantelle’s shoulder, close to her neck, and I flinched like Mama had hit me. I knew from experience that type of lick would leave a U-shape welt that would swell into a water-filled sack, then dry up and scab over, eventually leaving a scar that would look like somebody had branded her with a little lucky horseshoe.
Chantelle screamed and threw up her arms like she was in church getting happy. The second lick caught her wrist, the cord coiling around it like a snake.
I started to hum. I couldn’t help it; that’s what I do when I’m scared. I crossed my legs and danced in place, trying not to do that other thing I do when I’m scared.
Mama usually measured out her whuppins the way she measured out a dose of Pepto-Bismol. She was cool, calm, and collected about it. But something was wrong. Mama was beating Chantelle like she was a run-away slave.
Chantelle knew better, but she tried to run. The rules of getting a whuppin are not written down anywhere; still, everybody knows them. One of them is once you try to run all bets are off. Mama grabbed Chantelle by the hair without missing a lick.
It was forty days and forty nights before Daddy said anything.
“You don’t have to beat the child like that,” he finally said.
Mama got in another lick before Daddy grabbed her arm.
“You hear me, Vondra; don’t be beating that child like she’s a dog or something.”
Mama jerked away. She was breathing hard and just itching to hit Chantelle one more lick. Chantelle stomped off to the kitchen. I could hear her throwing up in the sink. Mama yelled after her, “You bring your li’l fast ass back here and get these clothes up off the floor!” I stood there, arms full of laundry, trying to figure out what was going on, why Mama was so worked up. And Chantelle, she knew better.
Why was she pushing Mama way past the butt whuppin limit?
Mama turned on Daddy. “You don’t have a clue, Alex. Just stay out of this. Don’t be interfering between me and my girls.”
Daddy said, “They’re my children too, Vonnie. I work and support them. They carry my name.”
But Mama stomped off to the bedroom before he even finished.
Daddy avoided looking at me. He turned his face away like he was ashamed. I wanted to tell him it was okay; I didn’t care one bit. It was okay if he wasn’t the daddy I came from; he was still my real daddy, my only daddy. Anyway, Chantelle had already told me the secret—Mama had Chantelle with a man called Big Josh, and I came along a couple of years later. But that was past history. I could care less about Big Josh, whoever he was. He was a stranger to me and certainly not my daddy. I didn’t say anything out loud, though; instead, I went to me and Chantelle’s room, closed the door, and wedged the back of a chair under the knob. Then I took off my panties, rolled them up in some newspaper, and hid the package under my bed. I would wait until everybody was asleep, then sneak out to the back landing, and drop it down the garbage chute. At least it wasn’t as bad as it used to be. My panties were just a little soggy. Nothing had run down my leg. My shoes weren’t full of pee. That was progress.
It was cold outside, but I opened the window a crack, anyway, to keep the room from stinking up. I stood there looking down at Chest-nut Street. The Counts Boys were working on the ol’ bread truck they were trying to fix up and turn into a hippie van. They had a long way to go as far as I could see. Some little kids playing a war game darted be-tween parked cars, making pow-pow noises.
I stayed there looking down. I thought about checking to see if my titties had grown any, but I didn’t want to jinx them by checking right after something bad had happened.
After a while I saw the Sheik and Lee Ann come around the corner from West Grand Avenue where they must have gotten off the Number 88 bus. Jessie Mae trudged behind them, struggling with a couple of heavy shopping bags. They both hauled bags, Jessie Mae and her mother that is, not the Sheik. He sauntered along in front, clutching a long stick like he could part water or something, his robes and multicolored scarves writhing in the wind.
Jessie Mae wore a pair of saddle oxfords with no socks. They must have been too tight because somebody had cut holes in them to give her baby toes some room. All she had on to protect her body from the winter wind was a cotton dress and a thin sweater. From where I stood, she looked sad and confused like she sure could have used a grandmother, a sister, or a friend.
The Sheik’s little caravan crossed the street making its way to our shared entrance. Viola Jackson and her bad-ass little grandkids lived on the ground floor in 1B, we were in the middle in apartment 2B, and the Sheik and them were on the top floor in 3B. Miss Viola was whuppin somebody and they all were running around down there screaming and cussing—Miss Viola included. I took off my shoe and bammed on the floor, so they would know somebody in this world needed some peace and quiet.
I returned to the window and watched as Jessie dragged to a stop and let the heavy bags drop at her feet. Her hands crept to the small of her back, and she arched it, craning her neck the way old women do. She was all reared back like that when our eyes met. I held up my hand, palm outward. Jessie Mae shot a quick glance at the Sheik before returning my salute.
The Sheik whirled around in a flash of sashes and rags, catching Jessie with her hand still in the air. Never in my life have I seen anything as pitiful as the look on her face when she realized she’d gotten caught. In two steps the Sheik was on her, had drawn back his hand, and slapped her across her thin face. Her mama’s hand shot to her own mouth like she could taste the blow, but the Sheik had her so cowed she didn’t say anything, and she didn’t do anything either.
Mama whupped us, but she sure didn’t let anybody else lay a hand on us. She would have been all over the Sheik. She would have whupped his ass until it roped like okra and prayed on it afterwards. Daddy would have shot him, plain and simple. At that very moment I could have killed the Sheik myself. I could have ripped off his arm and beat him silly with it; I could have dashed gasoline in his face and thrown a match after it; I could have gouged his eyes out and stomped them to jelly. But Lee Ann and Jessie Mae just stood there like they were playing freeze tag. The Sheik strode back to the front of their little procession and marched off.
Jessie Mae didn’t so much bend down to pick up her bags as she sagged until her hands made contact with the string handles. Then she drew herself up and started off behind her mother and the Sheik, taking care not to get caught looking up again. Just before the Sheik disappeared into our entrance, he lifted his head, enough for me to see that he was smiling. I flipped him the finger, and I didn’t care if he saw it, either. God, did I hate him. It was a feeling so strong it changed the color of my pee for an entire week.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
This piece was excerpted with permission from Smelling Herself: A Novel by Terris Grimes
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