MARSHA HUNT Joy
‘Three black sisters achieve fleeting fame but become embroiled in a sex and drug filled world which leads to their destruction. Fast mover, as exciting as a thriller.’
‘Eschewing the cliché-ridden morbidity of the pop world, Joy lives up to its title, adding its author’s name to those of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.’
Scotland on Sunday
‘An exceptional first novel, worth reading simply for the narrative voice of Baby Palatine, whose Bay Area ghetto-speak and commonsense philosophizing turn Joy’s death into a dectective story of betrayed emotions.’
‘The extraordinary strength and naivety of Bible-toting, gospel-quoting Baptists underlines this tale, as small acts of kindness are suddenly revealed as monstrously selfish … full of delightful speeches and simple but loaded homilies … A rich engaging read with plenty of subtle wisdom and humour.’
For Eric and Bassam But most of all for Karis
All families got secrets, but Joy’s had more than their fair share. Like a fool, I went around thinking that she let me in on all of them, since I can’t keep everything to myself and figured Joy was the same. But I found out she hoarded so many secrets, she kept them important ones from herself. So while I’m able to tell you what she did, ain’t no use me pretending that I know why. I blame myself for some of it, although my husband Freddie B says it’s wrong that I should shoulder all the blame for what done happened to Joy and her family, ’cause they was just born under bad moons. But I refuse to believe that God put some of his children on this earth to destroy theyselves.
What’s troubling is no matter what Freddie B says, looking back I can see I had more to do with the mess Joy and them made of their lives than I realized. But it’s way too late for ‘I’m sorry’.
was laying in the bed next to Freddie B, staring at the ceiling and listening to him snore while I waited for his 6:45 alarm to go off. I always wake ’fore it buzzes, and sometimes it’s worrying to hear that old noisy clock of his tickety-tick by seconds that won’t never get another chance. But I’ve resigned myself to listening to it, ’cause he can’t rest good at night till he sees it set, even though he knows that for all them forty-some years we been married, I wake at least half an hour ’fore that alarm, don’t matter what time it’s set for. I rue the day I bought him that ugly square faced clock and wish I could throw it out sometimes.
What really don’t make no sense is that he likes to set it on the little built in shelf by my side of the bed.
‘What’s the good of that,’ I ask him, ‘when I ain’t the one needs waking.’ But he don’t bother to answer. That’s his way. When he can’t think up a good answer, he don’t say nothing. Playing like he don’t hear and he hears good as me and anybody else when he wants to.
I knew he wouldn’t budge when our bedside phone started going, so the minute it did I reached over him quick to pick it up, though I was half tempted to leave it ringing, as I suspected it might of been that wicked wench in apartment 207 on the fourth floor calling for the umpteenth time to complain about the water pressure being too weak in her shower.
Not but the week before, I had to put her straight. I didn’t mince my words neither ’cause tenants will sure take liberties if you do. ‘Just ’cause we managing the building, Miss Gonzales, don’t mean folks can ring us all hours of the day and night,’ I said.
She tried to claim that with Freddie B usually holding down a day job she thought she best try to catch him ’fore work. But like I told her, ‘My husband ain’t no plumber and plumbing ain’t what we’re paid to do. Maintenance is all. And if you want a plumber, Miss Gonzales, call you one.’
We ain’t nothing but glorified cleaners, and I don’t mind saying it, ’cause though we took on a building this size, the man that interviewed Freddie B down at the real estate agency promised that my husband could keep his construction work as long as he could find time to put out the garbage and see to the halls, stairs and elevators for the sixteen apartments. And I’m the one to do most of that. If we had to mess with all else in this half baked building, there wouldn’t be time to scrub your teeth in the morning. But the hussy in 207 seems determined to want to get my husband down in her place, ’cause she keeps calling ’fore daybreak about that shower of her’n.
So when I hauled the phone over to my side of the bed, I was right ready to give Miss Gonzales a mouthful, but luckily I didn’t start straight in, ’cause it wasn’t her. It was Tammy. Joy’s mama.
I peered at the clock thinking that if it was 6:20 in San Francisco where we was, it wasn’t but 9:20 for her over in Richmond, Virginia, and knowing how much she likes to sleep late, I figured she wasn’t calling just to jaw. For a start, she wasn’t pronounciating every word like usual. Though Tammy tries to give off like she’s educated, she didn’t get no further than high school like the rest of us. Don’t make me no difference if she likes to take airs. That’s always been her way, and since Joy told her years ago to stop correcting me all the time, I don’t feel I got to watch every word with Tammy and just say out what I have a mind to.
‘Tammy? What ch’you doing ringing my phone at this hour, girl? You ain’t got nothing better to do than to be calling folks at the crack o’dawn,’ I teased her.
There was a time when she was still living ’cross the bay in East Oakland that she used to try and phone me at least once a day, but ever since she got hitched up with that cop from Chicago after he retired and moved back to his home town in Virginia, she don’t hardly bother to call no more. It’s Joy who keeps me posted on what Tammy’s doing, not that Joy stays in touch with her mama all that much.
‘Baby Palatine, are you sitting down?’ Tammy asked me.
‘Girl, who are you kidding,’ I laughed, ‘my black behind is still in the bed and I’m proud of it.’
But me funning and bad talking didn’t put her in no joky mood. ‘Well, I’ve got bad news,’ she said.
Tammy thrived on bad news and given half a chance could really spin a sad story out, especially if it was about somebody else. Listening to her could be more entertainment than them afternoon soap operas. But that early in the morning I wasn’t ready to hear no long drawn out tale, so I asked her to make it quick ’cause I needed the toilet, which wasn’t altogether a lie.
‘I didn’t know if you still turn on Good Morning America as soon as you get up, because I would hate to think you heard it first on the news,’ Tammy said, ‘because that would be terrible.’
I sat bolt upright and reached for my glasses but they wasn’t where I thought I left them on the sidetable. I can’t think good till I got ’em on. And from her sorry-sounding voice I suspected I needed to be in a clear mind.
‘I got an unfortunate phone call a couple hours ago.’
‘Tammy, what’s up?’ I interrupted, but what I really wanted to add was that I didn’t need none of her suspense and it was way too early to put up with one of her melodramas. She can turn a cankersore into lip cancer or a pot burning into a four alarm fire and she’s good at getting me going. Freddie B says that she should of been a politician or something, ’cause she’s that sharp at getting folks riled up about nothing. Like the time she had me on the warpath hotfooting it to Alameda with her to complain about the county raising Bay Area land tax, when I didn’t even own no land. When my husband seen me afterwards pacing up and down like a tiger in a cage he had to remind me that it was only Tammy that was gonna have to pay something extra anyway.
He says the only reason she bothers with me is that she can get me on a rampage so quick, but true as that may be, she’s as much like family to me as her three girls. And I wouldn’t of changed that for nothing even though I wasn’t in the mood to have her calling at no 6:20 in the a.m.
‘Tammy, my poor husband is trying to sleep next to me and it ain’t fair me hanging on the phone with the cord stretched so tight across his neck, he’s near to strangling while you don’t say nothing.’ Freddie B sleeps heavy as somebody in a coma, and I could of probably tied the telephone cord around his neck and been choking the breath out of him, and I bet he wouldn’t of stirred. But Tammy wasn’t to know that.
‘It’s Joy,’ she said and waited just long enough for the tremor in her voice to give me goose flesh.
Joy was more like my daughter than she was hers, and for years it was usually me calling Tammy with news of Joy, ’cause Joy came to me ’fore she went to anybody, especially when she got into trouble which wasn’t all that often. But it was often enough to keep me on my toes.
If I’d of had a child, I reckon it would have made me mad if she had always been rushing with her agitations and whispers to some other woman first. But then Tammy brought that on herself, ’cause there was a time when I was ready to listen to her children and she wasn’t. And from back then, Joy took the habit of coming to me to share both the good and bad.
I prepared myself to hear Tammy say what I had long predicted which was that Joy’d got herself arrested, ’cause with all that gadding about she did down South with Rex Hightower, that rednecked, toothpick of a so-called boyfriend of hers, I warned Joy that it wouldn’t be long before some of them Okies found reason to lock her up in a backwater jailhouse and throw away the key. She ran around like she thought she was some kinda blue-eyed blonde. ‘Nigger,’ I used to say to Joy and point my finger in her face so she knew I meant business, ‘don’t forget what you are and where you are.’ But she let that good advice slide off her quicker than grease off a hot comb, ’cause she was always slow to listen to what she didn’t want to hear. Miami, Atlanta, Memphis, Alabama … She wasn’t scared to go none of them places, though she wouldn’t always let on that’s where she was calling from ’cause she knew I didn’t hold with it.
That’s why I figured Joy was in the South when she had phoned me at the weekend and wouldn’t tell me where she was nor where she was headed. Though I’d got used to her being secretive about things like that when it suited her, it didn’t make me feel no easier when she’d call me regular and refuse to say where she was. Being from down South myself, I don’t have no illusions about what goes on. Don’t matter what the newspapers say about how things is changing. They ain’t changed all that much for no colored girl to be flaunting herself with no white man. ’Specially no hillbilly singer that’s rich and famous as Rex and got girls throwing themselves at him. Like that great big fat woman I seen at the Mayfair supermarket wearing one of them ‘Rex Is Better Than Sex’ buttons that they give away with his last record. I was itching to tell her that I knew from reliable sources that he couldn’t get it up, but my better self told me not to ’cause it wasn’t Christian.
Soon as I knew it was Joy that Tammy’d telephoned about, I didn’t want Freddie B’s clock to tick another second till I knew exactly what was going on. And through my nightclothes, I could hear my heart thudding like a jack rabbit’s waiting on Tammy to get to the point while she coughed a couple of times and cleared her throat. It’s a nervous habit she claims, but I know it’s her ruining her lungs with them cigarettes. Water filters or no water filters.
It wasn’t but two words she finally eked out to end my Tuesday before it had a good chance to start.
I had to laugh. ‘Say what?’ I hadn’t never heard of no such foolishness.
‘Don’t make me repeat it, Baby Palatine, because it was hard enough to say it. You’re the first person I’ve had to utter those words to, because Jesse’s not home and I haven’t been able to contact either Anndora or Brenda. It so infuriates me to have daughters that I can never reach when I need them.’
I’d stopped listening to what she said. What was the point? Joy dead? It wasn’t possible. She was light and life and sun and stars and everything glorious save God hisself, and to think that she wasn’t somewhere on the planet was more than I could take in. So I didn’t. With my free hand, I smoothed the covers over Freddie B and shifted him a bit to where he didn’t snore so loud. He’s better on his back. And while I didn’t say nothing, neither did Tammy. We was both holding receivers that didn’t seem to have anybody on the other end.
There was hardly light coming into my bedroom with the drapes closed, but I squinted to look from corner to corner. Wasn’t much to take in but two easy chairs and a old dresser with the portable TV set on it. It was the same room where Joy’d slept last time she come to stay. Me and Freddie B hadn’t been long moved into the apartment and hadn’t nobody lived in it ’fore us. Even though it was a poky size and painted avocado green, she said she was real happy to see we’d settled in a brand new building with a nice view of the Bay Bridge. She was due for another visit in four days, and her and me were gonna take off for Reno. Freddie B said he didn’t mind me tagging along with her. He was always generous about letting me go off with Joy and loved her near as much as I did. She was the child we could never have, my baby sister Helen used to say.
But odd as it sounds with me being practically old enough to be her granny, Joy was my best friend, right from the get-go. From back thirty-odd years ago when she wasn’t but eight years old, I could have a better time with Joy than anybody. For a start she was always like somebody grown and had more common sense than most. And with my husband out working all the time and having to take on-site jobs that was fifty or sixty miles away from home, I didn’t see him awake much except on weekends. So I spent a lot of time on my own till Tammy and her three little girls moved across the hall from us in Oakland that February of 57, right after my brother Caesar’s birthday. Or maybe it was 56. Whenever it was, it was too long ago to think about.
Hearing Tammy’s voice down the phone suddenly jarred me out my thoughts. ‘Baby Palatine, are you still there?’
‘Well, why don’t you say something?’ Tammy asked. I could hear her sucking away at a cigarette.
‘Ain’t nothing to say.’ How could I tell her that I was mad ’cause Joy was supposed to be coming and I was really looking forward to the trip to Reno. It was way too soon for me to take in more than that. Pitiful as it sounds, I wasn’t able to think beyond that one disappointment.
Tammy must of thought I’d lost my mind, and she wouldn’t have been far wrong when I come to think that I wasn’t crying or nothing and my voice didn’t even crack like it do when I hold back tears.
I said, ‘Listen, Sugar, you caught me ’fore I had chance to set on the toilet. Why don’t you let me call you back.’
‘Baby Palatine,’ she asked disbelieving. ‘Are you all right?’
‘Yeah. Right as I can be under the circumstances. How ’bout you?’
She was the one had birthed Joy into the world and she wasn’t crying neither, whereas most mothers would have been hysterical. But then Tammy wasn’t like most mothers. By her accounts feelings was things to keep to yourself, although she was known to let herself get well and truly revved up if anything happened to Anndora. But it seemed like a bus could run over Joy and Brenda, and Tammy wasn’t fazed. She liked to claim it was ’cause Anndora was her youngest, but I wasn’t never convinced. My baby sister Helen said from the first that she laid eyes on Tammy with them three girls that Anndora was favored ’cause she was the lightest skinned and the prettiest. But I didn’t want to believe that, although as I got to know Tammy better, I grew to thinking Helen may not have been far off the mark. Crazy as she talks when she got that alcohol in her, ol’ Helen can put her finger on the button about some things. A alcoholic can zoom in on the truth quick as a child ’cause they can’t take in but the bare facts, and like Helen said, there’s a whole lot of mothers that would have got to ignoring Brenda, homely as she was. So Tammy couldn’t be chastised all that much for it.
Brenda was the eldest, and it was hard to believe looking at her big bulgy lips, eyes and forehead that she slipped out the same womb as Joy and Anndora. There was Anndora looking so beautiful – green eyed and olive skinned with that wavy auburn hair. So fine that it was easy for anybody to catch theyselves gaping at her even after they got to know her ugly ways. And Joy who wasn’t just special to look at with her black almond eyes and perfect features, she had a wonderful way about her, always ready with a smile and something nice to say to somebody. That dark honey brown skin of hers just glowed, she was that bright in spirit, and when she walked in a room, frisky as a prancing puppy, strangers and everybody would want to talk to her. If Joy’d had of been born with a tail, it would have been wagging all the time, and it was more than once when she did them newspaper interviews while her and her sisters had that hit record of theirs that them writers described her as captivating. That was a perfect word for her, and I couldn’t have said it better myself ’cause Joy could charm blue birds out of the cherry trees. And to see her in one of them slinky evening gowns they used to perform in … well couldn’t nobody wear a gown like Joy Bang with her long legged self. She was queen.
‘Baby! Baby Palatine! Hello! Are you still on the phone or am I just giving away money to A T & T?’ Tammy’s voice in my ear jolted me out of a vision of Joy in her red sequined gown. Glimmering. It was my favorite, out of all their stage outfits. ‘Dammit, Baby Palatine, I know you’re still there, because I can hear you wheezing.’ Tammy was always making a to do about my touch of asthma. ‘Now, I’ll hold on while you go to the bathroom, because we have a lot to discuss.’
‘Well I plan to be a few minutes,’ I said, ‘so I’ll call you back.’
If I could of had things my way, I’d of turned back Freddie B’s clock and tried to sleep off what I was wanting to believe was some kinda nightmare. ‘Maybe I’m just dreaming this,’ I tried to pretend, but something else kept saying, ‘This is for real’.
Tammy’s voice jumped in my ear again. ‘My line’s bound to be busy, because I have to call Brenda and Anndora somehow. So keep trying, if it is … Don’t you want me to tell you how Joy died?’
No I didn’t. So I just put the receiver back like I hadn’t heard the question. That’s a trick I learned off Freddie B who was still sound asleep next to me. I switched off his alarm ’cause if he didn’t wake, I didn’t need to tell him nothing.
Joy dead didn’t make no more sense to me than if somebody’d said the sun fell out of the sky. It’s no wonder I was pretending like it wasn’t true.
I grabbed my upper plate from by the phone and put both feet firmly on the floor. My legs didn’t feel like they was mine and I held on to the bedpost for a minute before I shuffled off to the bathroom like I do every morning first thing.
Thinking back on it, I guess I was in shock ’cause I acted like folks who been in a bad accident and ain’t unconscious but might as well be, ’cause they try to keep going like didn’t nothing happen. Once I seen a man act just that way after a motorcycle had hit him … the blood was gushing off his ear and he was laying on the ground wanting to talk about the weather.
I should of been boo-hooing hearing Joy was dead, but instead, I sat on the toilet cool as a cucumber and did my business. It wasn’t till I reached for the toilet paper that I noticed my hand was shaking like somebody with St Vitus Dance.
‘Joy’s dead,’ I heard myself say.
‘Don’t talk ridiculous, fool,’ I answered back. ‘She can’t be dead. Y’all’ll still be driving to Reno this Sunday night, you watch.’
I was really looking forward to spending a couple nights with her in a hotel, like in the old days when her and Brenda and Anndora was out on the road promoting the hit record they had out in 77. Bang Bang Bang they called theyselves.
I heard myself say to Joy like she was standing by me in the toilet, ‘It was gonna be like better days. You and me in a nice hotel with room service and crispy, snow white sheets that I didn’t iron myself. And me running you a hot bubble bath…Did you mess up, Joy? Your Uncle Freddie B’s been laid off work two months, and we can’t afford to have you go messing up on us now. So pull your socks up, child, and stop fooling ’round. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, come on out.’ I was hoping Joy was playing one of them hide and seek games that she was so good at when she was a bitty thing.
‘Come on out, so we can head off to Reno,’ I pleaded, while in my mind, I had a picture of her and her sisters, clear as if I was looking at a television set. They was waiting by the side of a stage in them red sequined dresses with the halter neck, and I was standing by with four face cloths. ’Cause Brenda sweated more than the others, I used to keep two on hand for her and one for Joy and Anndora who was there more for show. They sang the odd do-wops, but Brenda, singing the lead, got the sweatiest, so soon as they finished their stint, I’d hand ’em each a face cloth and rush on stage to collect up any of the big sequins that fell off while they was finger popping and dancing about. Them sequins was too hard to come by and way too expensive to just leave at every venue. So after I’d collected them up, I’d sew ’em back on ’fore the girls had to wear the dresses again. That was part of my job as their wardrobe mistress. But that was more the title their record company give me, so’s the accountants knew what to put by my salary on the girls’ weekly tour accounts. I did a whole lot else, including making sure Anndora and her sex-mad self turned up to the shows at all and seeing that Brenda had enough to eat when and if she wanted, though a diet wouldn’t have hurt her one bit. She always was too big. Not roly-poly fat, but big like a mountain across the girth. Backside as well come to think of it.
Remembering how happy we all was back then is what got my eyes to tearing, and I was grateful when a few measly tears dribbled down my cheeks, ’cause as much as I don’t hold with women crying, especially us colored ’cause we supposed to have more sense, it seemed right to show some emotions, though I wasn’t making no sounds.
Sitting there on the toilet, my throat grew that tight, it nearly gagged me just to swallow. I knew a cream soda would of eased it straight away, but me and Freddie’d drunk the last of them six cans watching tag team wrestling on TV the night before.
But I dragged myself into the kitchen anyway, realizing full well as I headed down the hallway that I wasn’t going to get no cream soda to drink. That was my pretend, but what my mind was actually set on was a kingsize box of Sugar Pops that I kept in a cupboard for Joy. They was left over from her last visit and even though the date on them had expired I didn’t sling ’em in the trash, ’cause as long as I saw them everytime I opened the cupboard, I got the feeling Joy was coming any minute.
She didn’t visit us but twice a year since she moved to New York from LA a few years back, ’cause she said Rex didn’t like California. That was her excuse, but I reckoned that she used to sneak to LA and just not make it up to Frisco to see us. Not that I told her as much. She had her own life to lead and I never did want her to feel like she was obliged to come ’cause she owed me and Freddie B a visit. But still, I knew when she did turn up, she’d be expecting to find Sugar Pops like I always kept in store from when she was little and used to sit up at my table munching on ’em and reading the funny papers.
Even after she got grown and wanted to show off that she’d give up the funnies and didn’t like to read nothing but the New York Times, she still couldn’t pass up Sugar Pops with chocolate milk poured over ’em. She’d say, ‘What you eat is one thing, but what you read is something else,’ and I’d take that as my cue to slip the National Enquirer off the table ’fore she sat down, so I wouldn’t have to sit through her lecturing me about reading rubbish. When the girls was touring, I didn’t never get to read what I liked, ’cause if Joy caught me buying Jet or Drum in them airport lounges, she’d shoot me a look out the corner of her eye like she was the only one grown and I was a child, and I’d put them back.
While I stood there in my kitchen with my bare feet on the cold linoleum floor and tried to believe that Joy was coming like we’d planned, nothing would stop my mind from trailing back and forth over memories, and I caught myself hugging that box of Sugar Pops so tight that I’d crushed it. Both my cheeks was wet with tears, though I still wasn’t crying out loud. Just sniffling like a big baby.
‘Tears ain’t never solved nothing,’ I listened to my better self chastise ’fore I set it straight. ‘Aw, shut up. You think you know everything. I can cry if I want. That child was as good as mine.’
And it was true. So much so that after Joy came along, thirty odd year back, it didn’t never trouble me no more that I couldn’t spawn none of my own.
But my better self was in a ornery mood and said, ‘Don’t shed no crocodile tears in here, and furthermore, you can throw out that old tired box of Sugar Pops ’cause neither you nor Freddie B eats that mess no way.’
I stuffed the box in the trash and headed for the living room with the sound of Tammy’s voice on the phone singing in my head. Joy’s dead…Joy’s dead…Joy’s dead…
With our living room drapes at the cleaners and with nothing but flimsy white nets up to the big picture window, it was shocking bright being that the window’s south facing. The sun had the nerve to shine like it was gonna be a good day and it bounced off the brass planter that Joy’d sent me from Puerto Rico last Mother’s Day and hit the mirror over the mantel. Usually San Francisco mornings is still dull and misty in late March, so I should of been glad it wasn’t miserable and drizzling like it had been for the past week. But I was ready to be mad about anything.
All that buoyed my spirit for half a second was spotting my glasses on the teak dining table that Freddie B will insist on keeping pushed under the window that looks across to the Bay Bridge. I grabbed my ugly bifocals and shoved them on, and soon as I could see good, my head cleared up enough for me to say, ‘Have you lost your mind throwing away that box of cereal when that may be all y’all got to eat ’fore you know what’s hit you. You better fetch that mess out of the trash before God strikes you for being wasteful. And what if it’s a mix-up and Joy ain’t dead?’
That’s how come I still couldn’t bring myself to wake Freddie B with the news. What was the point telling him something that I didn’t believe myself? And anyway, repeating tales can make them real.
I knew what not to think but not what to think, and turning to head back into the kitchen to retrieve them Sugar Pops my eyes fell on the one thing that I realized soon as I looked at it, they should of avoided. It was Joy’s first grade picture taken a couple years ’fore her and her family moved to our building in Oakland from Wilmington, Delaware. It’s such a cute picture. She got her hair in two braids and is smiling to beat the band with both front teeth missing, which she tried to pencil back in ’fore she gave it to me and which completely ruined the photo, but I still put it in a nice gold painted picture frame. At the time, though she wasn’t but eight, it made me furious that she was childish enough to draw in her teeth, and I asked her why she did it. She could see I was in a temper and said she’d erase it, but like I said, ‘Child, you can’t be erasing on no picture. That’s ridiculous.’
‘Don’t tell Mama. Please please don’t tell my mama,’ she all ’a sudden cried out with her eyes bucked like she was scared to death.
I hadn’t never seen Joy crying, not that I’d known her more than a couple months, but she was happy natured and didn’t never get into stews like children usually do. But she was sure scared that day that I’d tell Tammy.
It made me wonder whether Tammy beat on her or something, but I didn’t never hear no whipping noises and didn’t never see Tammy raise her hand to none of her children. Not even Anndora, who needed it ’cause she could get set on doing something and bring the house down till she got her own way. But Joy didn’t never put a foot wrong at that age that I could see, so there wouldn’t of been no reason to hit on her.
Anyway, that day Joy gave me her picture I made her a promise that I wouldn’t never tell her mother. She made me say, ‘Cross my heart to God or hope to die’, ’cause she wouldn’t believe me. Over the years I had to promise not to tell Tammy quite a few things. ‘Don’t Tell Mama ought to be your middle name,’ I used to say to Joy.
Standing there in my living room looking down at that first grade picture, I said out loud, ‘Miss Joy ‘‘Don’t Tell Mama’’ Bang.’
The sound of it made me chuckle, though thinking back, I had many a sleepless night ’cause I was worried that Tammy should have been told something that Joy made me promise to keep back. Though most of the time, when she was little, them secrets was about kids’ stuff. Like when her and Brenda’d been jumping up and down on their mama’s bed and broke the springs.
But there was a few times I promised Joy that I wouldn’t tell Tammy something that I knew I had to keep from Freddie too, ’cause although he’s ready to turn a blind eye to most of what folks get up to, being a good Christian, he ain’t ready to tolerate things that is well and truly wrong. Like the time Joy was s’posed to go to her eighth grade picnic, and I discovered she was hiding down the hall in Artie What’s-his-name’s apartment.
He was a ex-sailor that Freddie B didn’t want to rent to no way, ’cause he was white. But like I told Freddie, Mr Houseman who owned the building was white, and it didn’t make no sense that we’d work for white but not let ’em rent. But Freddie B is from New Orleans, same as me, and it took him a long time to trust white folk, and at that time we hadn’t long been out the South.
Anyway, that morning of Joy’s eighth grade picnic, I’d seen the girls off to school like usual, ’cause their mama was off to work before them, and I was setting in my place watching The Heartline on the TV when I smelled something burning. I got a real good nose, and no apartment house I’m managing will ever burn to the ground, ’cause when I get a whiff of something I don’t wait a minute to check things. Soon as I opened my door, I knew the smell was coming from down Artie’s ’cause his apartment was the onliest one down that end of the ‘L’ shaped hall. And like I thought, it was coming from his place, but when I knocked loud on his door, didn’t nobody answer. And being as me and Freddie B was in charge of the building, I didn’t have no choice but to open it with my spare key, ’cause I couldn’t let the place burn down to the ground. But to my open-mouthed surprise I found Artie, bold as day, sprawled across his put-you-up in a nanky looking undershirt and puffing on a cigarette as nonchalant as if he couldn’t smell nothing.
I could tell once I was inside the room that it wasn’t nothing but some toast that had burned, but at least, like I said to him, he should have opened the window to let the smell out. Warm as it was that morning, he needed to let some air in anyways, which is what I was fixing to do when I marched over the other side of the room to his window.
That’s how I spotted Joy’s feet in her old red tennis sneakers peeking out from behind a brocade curtain in the corner of Artie’s room where he kept his clothes hanging on a rail.
The shock of discovering that Joy was in there nearly give me a heart attack, and I felt a hot flush come over me so fast that I didn’t know where I was and was rendered speechless with my mouth hanging wide open. But something told me to go and lay in wait outside the door instead of causing a ruckus right then and there in that white boy’s room.
I couldn’t hear nothing but myself breathing once I got outside his door, and I was standing there for what seemed like an hour ’fore Joy came creeping out on her tippy-toes shutting Artie’s door real quiet behind her.
She had her hair in a chignon on top of her head with a red ribbon tied round it, and from the back she looked grown though she wasn’t but thirteen.
I let her get ten paces away before I called out in a harsh whisper, ‘Tipping ain’t gon’ help you none, Madam.’
Dim as it was in the hall with no window and no light on, I could still see she was so scared that she jumped a pace and looked ready to pee herself. The whites of her eyes was practically glowing, ’cause they had popped out so from fear of what I was gonna do to her, I reckon.
‘What on God’s name was you doing in that white boy’s room?’ I hissed at her like a alley cat. ‘It wasn’t but two hours ago I waved you off with your packed lunch and them cupcakes I baked for your picnic. So what on earth is you doing back here? And in there with Artie of all people!’
That day is the closest I ever came to hitting Joy, ’cause I was so mad she’d done something to leave me feeling like I didn’t know her. Far as I knew, she hadn’t taken no notice of Artie except to mention that she didn’t understand why he never came to my place for the cups of coffee I offered him from time to time when we bumped into him. But standing there fussing at her in the hallway, it seemed I may just as well have been talking to a stranger though I’d known her ’bout five years by then.
She said, ‘Don’t get in a temper. I was just trying to help Artie.’
‘Help him do what, pray tell!’ I almost shouted though I was trying hard not to raise my voice.
She didn’t answer right away which made me suspect she didn’t have nothing reasonable to say and then she broke out crying by the time I’d escorted her ’round to our end of the passage.
‘Don’t tell Mama, will you?’ she begged, falling down on her knees with her hands clasped together like somebody praying.
‘That’s supposed to mean something?’ I asked her. ‘Any ol’ body can do that. I ain’t fooled.’
‘Please don’t tell Mama,’ she said like a four year old expecting a whipping.
‘Joy, I can’t keep something like this back from Tammy,’ I said. But no sooner than I said it, I knew that there wasn’t no way I could tell Tammy that I’d found Joy in Artie’s room, ’cause Tammy had grown short of temper back in those days, and there wasn’t no telling what she would of done.
‘You know that Mama won’t let me go to church with you anymore if you tell. And that’ll be the end of choir practice and Sunday school and everything!’ Joy cried.
I knew she was right, ’cause whenever Brenda did anything wrong, which was regular, the first thing Tammy would threaten was, ‘That’s it! Now I put my foot down. It’s all that shit you’re being taught in that damn backward ass church of Baby’s that has you so you don’t want to listen to me anymore. Well, damn the church! I’ll keep you home, if you can’t behave like a human being!’
I was the one that got the three girls inside a church for the first time, ’cause Tammy didn’t believe in nothing and would have been happy if they didn’t. My baby sister said Tammy wouldn’t of let them girls of her’n go to Sunday meeting with me and Freddie at all, except Tammy was so happy to get some quiet and the apartment to herself on Sundays.
That morning of the Artie episode, I looked down at poor Joy, still pleading on her knees. ‘Don’t tell Mama, Baby Palatine? Please? Please? Pretty please!’ She oozed them pleases out, spreading them on thick as molasses.
But I wasn’t in the mood to sympathize when I asked, ‘I want to know first off what you was doing up in Artie’s. Don’t you know it’s dangerous to be in a man’s apartment like that?’
Artie wasn’t really a man. Wasn’t but nineteen, but he was way too old for Joy to be keeping company with, no matter if it was only eleven o’clock in the morning.
‘I wasn’t doing anything bad,’ Joy said before I made her get off her knees and go into my apartment. ‘Artie’s dying from cancer, so I said I’d make his breakfast this morning.’ I thought I caught her crack a smile for a split second while she was wringing her hands and looking down at her feet, though I couldn’t see her face ail that good until I got her inside my apartment, ’cause there wasn’t but one small window around our end of the hall and a couple of the light bulbs in the ceiling fixture was out that give off a decent light. She looked a mess with her red and white checked shirt half out her cotton skirt which was creased. Not nowheres near neat as I was used to seeing her.
‘Stop all that crying, anyway,’ I said to her pushing her away when she went to try to hug on me. ‘That ain’t gonna save you.’
I didn’t know what to think. Joy didn’t never step out of line that I knew of, and being kind hearted like she was and always ready to help folks, it didn’t seem all that strange that if Artie was dying from cancer that she wouldn’t have wanted to do something for him.
But the onliest problem I had believing her was that he looked strong as a ox. Artie was a big strapping blond thing from Idaho who had been a year in the navy ’fore he got discharged. ’Cause of having something wrong with his knee, he’d told Freddie B.
‘Is it knee cancer?’ I asked Joy. She had tears smeared across her face and with her nose running, she was a right sight.
‘Maybe,’ she said, and looked like she was ready to start crying again. ‘He didn’t say.’
I didn’t know what to believe. Cancer seemed awful far fetched. It ain’t like no cold you just catch in the night and I didn’t know whether it was Joy lying to me or Artie lying to her. But I always thought the best of Joy, so I hated to believe she might not be telling the truth as she thought it to be.
‘Now don’t upset yourself. Calm down, and let me give you one of them nice chocolate cupcakes I got left over from that batch I baked for you to take to the picnic’ After she nibbled at it, slow and mournful, I gave her twenty-five cents to ride the bus back over to her junior high school. Wasn’t no need of her missing the whole fun day where I was hoping she’d have a chance to make a girlfriend as she didn’t seem to have one in particular like most girls her age.
‘And stop worrying,’ I said as she stepped out the door, after I made her wash her face. ‘I won’t tell.’
But no sooner than she was gone I headed straight down that hall to tell that Artie to get his duds and get out. Cancer or no cancer, I wasn’t in the least bit interested and I didn’t want no part of him if he was talking to them girls on the sly.
That was one of them times that I knew I had to keep the story back from my husband, ’cause he would have asked me questions that I didn’t have no answers to neither then nor now. Him and me didn’t have no secrets from each other till Joy come along. And it didn’t feel right.
still in my nightdress that hot March ’Frisco sun was beating on me, and I looked down at Joy’s snag-a-tooth picture that I was still holding in my hand, and then I wiped the glass in its frame to a high shine with the hem of my nightdress. Not that it was so needing it, ’cause I don’t have no dust setting on things in my place. Never did. Never will.
Looking at Joy grinning in that picture made me so sad. She had a smile as big as a Dixie watermelon and could flash them perfect teeth of hers faster than any Marilyn Monroe. And like Freddie B who’d said it from the first he saw her, I believed Joy Bang was born to be a star. With her looks and personality, she could of had her own television show if she’d of had Brenda’s voice. But then, everybody ain’t born to have everything.
I thought about my poor husband laying peaceful in our bedroom and worried about how he would take hearing that something had happened to that girl that he so loved to spoil when she was a kid.
Freddie B would of give Joy the last dollar in his pocket if she’d of asked him for it, and she had in January which is exactly why we didn’t have no savings to stretch over this last spell of his being laid off. Joy needed that $2700 more than we did at the time and I was glad Freddie B was quick to lend it to her with no questions asked, though it would have been nice if she’d been able to pay him back last month like she expected. But we both understood that she was still pinched herself ’cause some back-up singing she was booked for got cancelled.
I didn’t like to say that it didn’t make sense her borrowing from my husband when that bony faced Rex Hightower should have been seeing her over them tight periods. ‘What’s a boyfriend for,’ I used to ask Joy, ‘if he’ll let you run around scrambling for your next meal and he’s rich enough to buy the Golden Gate Bridge.’ With her following him all ’round the globe and singing for free on his recording sessions, then claiming she couldn’t charge her own boyfriend, I wasn’t surprised he treated her any-which-a-way. ‘Act like a dishrag and Rex will treat you like one,’ I told her, but still she jumped everytime he called and that wasn’t often enough from what I knew.
Smart and good looking as Joy was, who knows what she could have made of her life had she given herself half a chance to settle with one of her own kind. But she loved them white ones and I could see it right from when I had my very first talk with her. I remember that Saturday afternoon good. It was my day for cleaning the hallway and stairs of our building on Grange Street. Her and her mama and sisters hadn’t long been living there, and Joy come out on the landing to watch me.
‘Stand back, child,’ I said to her. ‘’Cause you don’t want to get none of this here dust on your dress.’ As soon as I said it I was shamed of myself for sounding gruff. I didn’t mean her no harm, but I didn’t know her mama at all at that point, and I didn’t want Mrs Tamasina Bang out fussing with me about getting her child’s fancy dress dirty.
With the front door open downstairs there was enough light coming in on the landing where Joy was standing for me to see some of the fine detail on her pale yellow organdy dress which had a lacy starched smock with bits of deep yellow satin ribbon tied to it. It was that kind of party dress that all little girls wish they had at one time or another.
Joy was about eight and seemed shy, lolling there by the door of her mama’s apartment, and though I’d bumped into her and her mother and sisters on the street, during their first month on Grange I hadn’t had no time to take a good look at each of the children except to notice how different they was from one another. It was the youngest in her stroller that caught my eye, ’cause with them big green-grey eyes and mass of auburn curls, Anndora was a real heartbreaker. Not that Joy wasn’t cute. It was just that as a toddler Anndora was perfect looking.
Anyway, seeing Joy that Saturday afternoon standing by herself on the landing, while I did the stairs, I was quick to see what a nice looking child she was. I don’t have much time for children that’s too forward, but she didn’t even have to open her mouth for me to sense right off that she had a mild nature.
What was strange was how ’round about that time in my life I had been praying to the good Lord to send me a sweet little girl. True, I’d been praying for one of my own, but beggars can’t be choosers, and I was prepared to get a child however I could. Even if it had to be one borrowed. Not that I knew right off that Joy was the one God sent.
While I peeked up at Joy on our hall landing that Saturday, Freddie B opened our apartment door to come out and saw Joy sparkling in that organdy dress. He whistled at her like them builders he worked with did at grown women passing ’em by and said, ‘Hubba, hubba, ding-ding-dong!’ When she hung her head blushing, I waved at Freddie to cut out making the child feel awkward. But once he gets going with the kids, it ain’t no stopping him. He got a way with them anyhow, always has done which is why I felt bad back in them days that I couldn’t bear him none.
Freddie B, all six foot four inches, looked like a beanpole giant towering next to little Joy.
‘Wisht I had me a camera,’ he said to her.
‘Hi Mr Ross,’ she said in a nice clear voice, as nectar sweet as some of them children I’d seen Art Linklater interviewing on his afternoon kiddie show.
‘Baby Palatine,’ Freddie B called down to me ’cause I was still sweeping, ‘this girl looks good as Dorothy Dandridge, don’t she?’
‘She don’t know nothing ’bout no Dorothy Dandridge, fool,’ I told him.
‘Yes I do,’ Joy said to set me straight. ‘She’s a Negro movie star.’
‘And quick as a whip she is too,’ hooted Freddie B. ‘You tell Baby just where to get off. You ain’t been living in no cardboard box, tell her,’ he laughed and his bottom lip drooped like the piece of snuff he had tucked in it was gonna fall out.
‘Don’t you let no snuff dribble on my clean floor, man,’ I said to him.
But he was too busy monkey-shining for her to take any notice of what I said. Like a big kid he was back then ’fore old age got a hold of him. And me.
‘You want to take a ride with me downtown so I can show you off at Capwell’s Department Store?’ he asked Joy. ‘I bet you’d be the prettiest gal in there shopping today.’
I answered for her. ‘Freddie B you know better than to be offering to take her someplace without offering them sisters of her’n. That’s playing favorites, and what’s her mother gonna say anyway.’ He was always putting his size twelve foot in it. Right from that day forward he would forget and offer Joy what he didn’t never give Brenda or Anndora.
Joy said, so polite-like, ‘Thanks, Mr Ross, but I’m waiting to go to a party.’
‘A party!’ Freddie B yelled like he was invited. ‘Is there gonna be some cake and ice cream?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Joy bashful and hardly able to look up from her hands that she was wringing slow just to have something to do with ’em. ‘It’s a birthday party, so I guess …’
‘You better not come back here without some cake for me,’ he said, grinning to show off his big gold tooth before he run down the steps two at a time to get into his new Lincoln. It sat parked in our space in the lot by the side of the building.
I swatted him on his pea head as he passed me and chided, ‘Stop worrying that poor child, ’cause she don’t know what a fool you are. And stop by the barber shop ’fore you bring yourself home, ’cause you’re needing a haircut.’
Just as he got out the door, that’s when a little towhead white boy come up and got ready to put his finger on the bell like he couldn’t see the door flung wide open and me bent over the bottom step with the pail and brush.
‘Don’t ring that,’ I told him. ‘What you wanting?’ I was fed up with neighborhood children laying on the bell every afternoon while I watched the TV and begging money for everything from them same old tasteless brownie cookies year after year to school raffles. And not none of it did I ever need nor want.
Joy’s little voice was practically singing when she piped up loud to say, ‘That’s Bernie and he’s my best friend from class.’ She was all ’a sudden rocking on both feet, she was so happy to see that knock kneeded boy. ‘I’ll be right down Bernie, but I have to get my present and tell my mama I’m leaving.’
She disappeared in the doorway and I gave him the once over like I would an untold number of straw headed boys that would come to that door looking for Joy over the next ten years.
Bernie’s hair was near enough the color of Joy’s organdy dress and though he was freckled and plain as any Tom Sawyer, you could tell by the way she got kinda giggly and giddy that she thought he was the cat’s pajamas. And her not but eight.
That day, I watched her march off proud, swinging Bernie’s arm to and fro as high as it would go. And I heard their small feet in their best party shoes crunching across gravel stones of the building’s parking lot before they climbed into his daddy’s blue De Soto. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that them children made a pretty picture with him in a fresh pressed white long-sleeved shirt and bow tie. She had a white satin ribbon tied in a big bow and streaming down around her fat ponytail and both ponytail and ribbon swung back and forth with her and Bernie.
I got on with my Saturday chores and didn’t think no more about little Joy that afternoon, so it surprised me when evening fell and she was ringing our apartment bell.
‘You come visiting?’ I asked her when I opened the door a crack to see but not be seen. Me and Freddie B was already in our bedclothes though it wasn’t but six thirty, ’cause back in them days our treat on a Saturday night was to tuck up on the living room sofa and watch whatever was on the TV soon as we cleared away our supper dishes.
Joy didn’t answer and looked sheepish when she handed me a wad of something wrapped in a children’s party napkin. I could tell right away from the squidgy feel and sweet smell that it was fresh layered icing cake. ‘What’s this?’ I asked her anyway, ’cause I was embarrassed that she’d brought us something. I wasn’t use to getting no gifts, especially from no children.
‘It’s some cake from the party I’ve been to,’ she told me. She was scared to look me in the eye when she said it.
‘Lord, child, Mister Freddie B didn’t mean for you to bring him back no cake. Not for real. He was just kidding you on!’
‘I saved my piece for him and asked the lady to cut it in half, so there’s a piece for you too. It has jellybeans on it too.’
It wasn’t till Joy was grown that she owned up that she’d snitched that piece of cake, but at the time I thought she’d deprived herself for our sake and receiving it made my eyes tear up. Joy waited like she wanted to come in, standing at my door by herself like a little brown angel on a mission from heaven and what with the strong smell of sugar and vanilla coming off the paper napkin parcel in my hand and the sight of her in that yellow organdy dress in the dingy passage that I was forever sweeping, my mind drifted to Freddie B’s favorite passage from the Bible that says ‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’.
I didn’t ask her in that night ’cause we sure wasn’t really dressed to take in company with me in pincurls readying for our service first thing Sunday, but I went down to the gadget store below us that following Monday and picked her up a little doll baby. It wasn’t but a $2.98 one, but I decided that I would keep it in my place, so’s in case I could coax her over for a visit, there’d be something to give her to play with.
I’d bought her a bat and ball as well but I’d broke it trying it out by the time she finally come to visit me proper, and I even had a twin cherry popsicle on hand in my freezer compartment, which I couldn’t get her to take ’cause she said her mama didn’t like her taking food from folks.
‘But I ain’t folks,’ I said to her. ‘I’m your buddy, and what’s mine is yours.’
It didn’t never matter to me that Joy wasn’t my own flesh and blood. From the beginning, it brightened my spirits to have her to think about, and as Freddie B took to bringing little trinkets home for her like I did without me telling him to, I believed she was the little girl I’d prayed for and used to get him to call her our God-sent child.
It happened that about a month before Joy’d brought me and Freddie that birthday cake, I’d been to buy some new shoes in a flood warehouse sale at Hodgeson’s which was the cheapest place in Oakland to get quality shoes. I ain’t never been one for wasting my husband’s money on clothes, but I’m partial to fancy shoes and have been since my school days in New Orleans when I had to walk a mile shoeless to the schoolhouse everyday, summer and winter. I swore then that when I got grown I’d have more shoes than the law should allow, and even though I usually like to wear a old pair of slip-slides around the house, I always got me at least half dozen nice dress shoes tucked in shoe lasts in the closet. I don’t see it as waste, ’cause I can feel low spirited and put on a pair of pretty shoes that can get me smiling in no time like somebody that’s got something to celebrate.
So, at Hodgeson’s flood sale, when I laid eyes on a real unusual pair of royal blue lace-up high heels, I was determined that I was gonna have them, the only trouble being that they had just that one pair, size 3 1/2. They wasn’t but $5.95 which was even cheap for back then, and they had a beautiful 2 1/2 inch splayed heel and was laced up with leather up the front from about a inch in from the toe. There wasn’t no way I could get my big brogans in ’em, ’cause I been a size 8 since I was sixteen, but I bought them anyway. Luckily, it’s snatch ‘n’ grab at them flood sales, so nobody from the sales department was around to ask me what I was doing buying them 3 1/2 shoes for my big flat feet.
I knew Freddie B wouldn’t of been proud of me spending his hard earned money on high heels too small for me or anybody I knew to wear, but I took a hankering for them that much that I bought them anyhow, and decided on the way home not to show him ’cause he’d of only had to see them come out their paisley box to be asking what I’d bought such weeny shoes for. Not that he complains about spending on clothes if he reckons I’ll wear them. In fact it was me that fussed when he spent all that money on my real expensive red fox stole for our tenth wedding anniversary in ’53.
Anyway, I didn’t let him see them shoes and tucked the box they was in that said ‘P-a-p-a-g-a-l-l-o, Made in Italy’ all the way in the back of our deep clothes closet where he didn’t never look. And some days, when I got fed up staring out the window at folks passing and there wasn’t nothing good on the TV, I’d dig that shoebox out the closet. I felt like Grace Kelly or somebody just knowing the high heels was mine, and it didn’t worry me one bit that I could only get my toes in them.
Anyway, one afternoon, about a week after Joy’d brought me and Freddie B that piece of birthday cake, I had ’em out when there was a knock at my apartment door. As wasn’t nobody living in the building at the time but us and the Bangs directly across the hall, I figured it was one of them and opened the door more than a crack. I was real glad to discover it was Joy and got that excited at seeing her that I invited her in before I remembered that I had them shoes sitting out in the middle of my living room floor.
She’d come carrying the rent money for her mother and wanting a receipt, so I told her to have a seat on my sofa. Of course, being a girl after my own heart, the first thing her eyes fell on was them royal blue shoes.
‘Golly, Mrs Ross, aren’t they the swishiest high heels! Golly! Golly!’ Joy cried out and plopped herself straight down by them on the floor, so she could oogle them up close.
I could tell from the fuss she made of the soft leather that she had a natural eye for a first class item, and it tickled me to see a little girl’s eyes dance more excited that afternoon about them shoes than I was when I bought them.
‘Papagallo,’ she read out loud holding up the box lid. She was sure a good reader and didn’t falter at that strange looking word like I did, and when I told Freddie B how good she could read it wasn’t long before he was paying her twenty-five cents every Friday night to read him Psalms out the Bible. Joy’s face beamed proud as she read the rest of what was on the shoebox lid. ‘Made in Italy.’ She looked at me. ‘Made all the way in Italy where Mama says all the best shoemakes come from and they’re my second favorite color after red.’
Boy, oh boy, my heart was doing a rumba to have that pretty child sitting on my living room floor grinning at them blue shoes like they was made of gold. The color of them heels actually clashed with the basic blue running through her plaid skirt and the baby blue blouse she was wearing, but I didn’t mention that. Instead I said, ‘They’d look good with that outfit of your’n. You want to try them on?’
‘Mama says we mustn’t put our feet in her new high heels, because we might break the bridge,’ Joy said sounding woeful while she pulled her long, thick ponytail around to stick the end of it in her mouth.
‘Don’t go sticking dirty hair in your mouth,’ I chastised her like I would of my own.
‘Sorry,’ she said right quick and her expression dipped from sunny to sad like she thought she’d done something real bad, all ’cause of what I’d said. Me. Miss Ham-Fisted.
‘You don’t have to say ‘‘sorry’’ ’cause there ain’t nothing to be sorry about. I didn’t mean to sound rough on you. Who am I to be telling you off. Stick that ol’ hair in your mouth if’n it makes you feel better.’
But she didn’t do it and shifted herself like she was fixing to get up and go.
‘Well,’ I said, dragging the word out and trying to think how I could stop her. ‘It might be the rule over in your mama’s place that you can’t wear her high heels ’cause it breaks the bridge, but here in Baby Palatine’s you can try on any of my shoes that you like and even clump about in ’em.’ With that I bent down to hand Joy the left Papagallo and curtsyed like I was a page giving Cinderella that glass slipper, and her face lit up like a Christmas tree.
‘You’ll really let me try them on, Mrs Ross?’ She giggled all the while unbuckling her brown school shoes that somebody had given a good polish.
‘Not only that,’ I said heading for the bathroom and unhooking the big oblong mirror from off the wall ’cause we didn’t have no full length one in the apartment, ‘but Baby Palatine is gonna get you a mirror so’s you can see yourself in ’em.’ I set it at a angle against the living room wall, ’cause that’s what I had to do anytime I wanted to see myself from the knees down.
Neither of us could believe how near them shoes came to fitting Joy’s feet and she looked like a zillion dollars teetering around in them with her white cotton ankle socks still on. She only wobbled a bit though, she said ’cause the shoes was about a size too big.
‘They belong to you now,’ I told her and meant it. Though they was my newest and favoritest thing in the world, I wanted to give them to her way more than I ever wanted them myself. ‘But,’ I added, ‘… and this is a big ‘‘but’’ … since your mama don’t want you walking in high heels, I reckon you better leave these over here in their box at the back of my closet, and you can come over in the afternoons and wear them. But they gotta be our secret from everybody, ’cause I don’t want your sisters getting jealous and Mr Freddie B don’t know I got them.’
‘I’m good at keeping secrets,’ said Joy running her forefinger across her lips like she was sealing them up. ‘I like secrets better than butter pecan ice cream.’ Then she shared a couple with me no sooner than she said that. She whispered in my ear so not even the walls would hear that she was in love with Bernie Finkelstein and that she wanted to marry Alan Ladd, the movie star, she thought Bernie looked just like. I swore on the Bible that I wouldn’t tell nobody.
Them secret Papagallo shoes was the first big bond me and Joy had between us, and the fact that nobody knew about ’em but us made Joy’s afterschool visits seem all the more exciting to her when she would slip over and double lock my front door leaving Brenda by herself to watch the cartoons as Tammy didn’t get in from work till six thirty by the time she’d also stopped off to pick Anndora up from the minder’s.
Joy loved to hang over in my place playing with that $2.98 doll I’d got her and tipping around like she was grown in them royal blue high heels, licking a popsicle or sucking a toffee I’d got in for her.
After her first few visits, I went to the dime store and bought some more for her to play with, ’cause I didn’t want her to get bored and that little cheap doll neither walked or talked and wasn’t that much fun. Remembering how I liked jacks when I was her age, I got her some and the woman in the dime store sold me a board game she said was popular with her own daughter called Chinese checkers that had pretty colored marbles. Lots of ’em in six different colors.
But Joy’s favorite turned out to be the ball and jacks. She’d sit cross-legged on my polished parquet floor and want to play game after game with me. I pretended not to notice if she cheated, and as my hand was way bigger than hers for scooping up the jacks, I had a advantage over her anyway. So I figured it was fair enough if’n she needed to cheat to win.
When I’d slip a saucer full of homemade lemon drop cookies over to Brenda, she’d hardly look up from the noisy TV set and didn’t seem to mind that my God-sent child played over with me. Though Tammy’d told the kids not to take food off folks, I told Brenda, like I’d told Joy, I wasn’t just folks, and if we didn’t tell Tammy about the cookies, she wouldn’t have nothing to get mad at no way. Both the girls seemed scared of her, but Joy more than Brenda, and it worried me.
Whereas I did a lot of mooning out the window at other women in the streets with their kids ’fore Joy and me got to be pals, I suddenly had her afterschool visits to look forward to, and like I told Freddie B who noticed how I’d perked up and kept my hair combed, I hadn’t never met no child as well behaved as Joy before. ‘You can be bad in here if you want,’ I’d say ’cause she was almost too good and could get so quiet I’d tell her, ‘Go on and bang some pots and pans if you want.’ She was so like a grown woman sometimes though, telling me how good my cakes and cookies was and how much nicer I kept my place than her mother did theirs as she didn’t bother to collect up Anndora’s toys. And Joy had perfect manners and didn’t never forget her pleases and thank yous neither.
My baby sister Helen was kind of jealous that Joy came into my life, ’cause ’fore Joy, I used to put up with Helen laying in a stupor around my apartment when it suited her. Her and my brother Caesar used to come and drink each other under the table, but I lost tolerance for their street corner shenanigans when I thought Joy was likely to pop by, ’cause I don’t hold with getting drunk in front of kids. And neither Helen nor Caesar was content unless they had a bottle of whiskey or wine at their lips.
Helen tried at first to poison my mind about Joy and claimed that the child was too good to be true, and that she wouldn’t trust no eight year old that was so full of compliments for everybody and didn’t never put a foot wrong. She said she had a second sense that Joy wasn’t all she seemed, but with drink in her, Helen’s got a mean streak and it ain’t wise to listen to what she says. ‘There’s Joy telling you how much she likes the gold tooth you got in the front, and there’s you mouthing bad about the child. Now I’ll tell you straight Miss Helen D’Orleans you’re just jealous ’cause I got me a little girl.’
She’d stick out her tongue at me like she was five years old whenever I said something mean to her and had been doing it since she was a kid, but at twenty-seven it didn’t suit her no more.
‘You don’t know where that woman and them kids don’ come from,’ slurred Helen, ‘nor where they’re going to. ’S’pose it’s hell and back,’ she said, and laughed that drunken laugh of her’n. Ever since she was little Helen knew just what to say to vexate me. She could be like a mosquito buzzing ’round my ear, driving me to distraction, and what she said got my thoughts going.
Not knowing nothing of Joy and her family before they moved to Oakland left me brimming over with questions that little Joy acted like she wasn’t supposed to answer. So I figured her mother’d had warned her not to go spreading their business, though I did find out that her daddy had had nice dark brown wavy hair like Joy’s and a thin mustache and was young when he died unexpected not long before they’d up and moved West from Wilmington, Delaware. But Joy would go quiet and find an excuse to slip home if I asked about her when she was little, so I stopped prying, till curiosity got the better of me during one of her afternoon visits a couple of months after she’d started coming over.
She was setting in the middle of my living room floor on her fivesies in our third straight game of jacks, when I told her to pop over to her place and bring me some of her baby pictures so I could see what she looked like growing up. I figured that wasn’t nosying in with questions, but was just about looking at photos. That’s when she came back with her snag-a-tooth picture and we had that to-do, ’cause she drew in her two front missing teeth with a pencil and then got terrified that I’d tell her mama.
But like I explained to Joy, it was real baby, baby pictures that I was interested in, and when she claimed her mama didn’t have none, I refused to believe it. ‘Can’t you let me have a see, please, please pretty please,’ I begged like a agitating child. ‘I don’t know no mother in the world that don’t keep her hands on a few baby pictures.’ And I didn’t. Every woman I knew that had a child had some pictures to brag on when they was babies.
So the next day Joy come visiting, I asked her again for a see of some pictures while she was playing herself a game of Chinese checkers and I was ironing Freddie B’s shirts.
‘Don’t you got just one?’ I asked. ‘Not just one bitty, bitty one even?’ I longed to know what my God-sent looked like when she was one or two or three even. ‘Who you was as a baby is important to me, Joy. And the less you tell me the more I itch to want to know ’cause pals is supposed to know everything about each other. Your mama hasn’t got just one?’ I said, showing her that a picture the size of my thumbnail would do me fine.
‘Honest Injun,’ Joy answered like I’d taught her to say instead of ‘Swear to God’ which is what she made me say before she’d tell me something that I wasn’t suppose to know, like how much her mother paid for that pair of beige high heels she bought at Hodgeson’s that I really liked.
‘Honest, Baby Palatine, honest, honest, honest, honest!’ she hollered banging her balled up fist on the floor. It was as close as she got to showing spunk, ’cause up to then she was as polite with me as kids are with strangers, though I’d got her to stop calling me Mrs Ross like I was some old fogy. ‘I only have that first grade picture and I already gave you one,’ she said emphatic and pointing to where I’d tucked it in Corinthians in Freddie B’s big black Bible on the sideboard.
‘It ain’t like you was born during the war when didn’t nobody have the time to think about taking no pictures. I bet it’s that you don’t want me to see ’em.’ Then I took to teasing her. ‘What’s the matter, you was a ugly baby and you’re scared I’ll make fun of you?’
The minute I said that her eyes watered up like she was going to cry, and she rushed to put all the marbles and the Chinese checkers board in their box and put them back careful in the broom cupboard where I kept all her play things.
I was annoyed with myself for upsetting Joy and did my best to make it up by saying, ‘I was just joshing. Any fool can see that …’ Then I stepped away from the ironing board to do a shuffle and swing Freddie B’s work shirt in front of me while I broke out singing, ‘You Must have been a Beautiful Baby’ that I’d heard many a time on the radio. But as toneless as my deep voice is, it’s no wonder that it didn’t make her smile. I wasn’t good with kids in them days. Not like Freddie, ’cause I was too quick to talk to them like they was grown and say things in too harsh a way. Hadn’t nobody taught me better, and funny enough, it was Joy, little as she was, who used to tell me that it was best not to say exactly what was on your mind, ’cause people like to hear compliments and not what you was really thinking. Not but eight and she already knew grown folks’ tricks that I didn’t know. That’s what living in the city can do for kids.
Though she had beat me at jacks for the third time that afternoon before she started playing Chinese checkers, I said, ‘Come on Joy, let’s have another game of jacks. I don’t care about no ol’ baby pictures.’
But they stayed on my mind, so later that evening when her mother had give her and Brenda and Anndora their supper and let ’em go downstairs to play out in our parking lot, I settled down with Tammy for a cup of coffee and asked if she had any old family albums I could see. By then, I’d got up a regular habit of popping over to her place to keep her company after the kids’ supper, ’cause she didn’t know nobody else in the neighborhood and hadn’t made no friends at work.
‘Both my husband and I were orphans,’ she said, ‘so we had no families. I’m sure I told you that we’d met in the orphanage in upstate New York when we were sixteen.’
True enough she’d mentioned it when I asked her for references for renting the apartment, but at the time I didn’t take no notice, ’cause when she said she had three kids I didn’t figure we would end up taking her no way, ’cause the last thing I wanted was somebody’s brood of bad-assed, nappy-headed children to have to scrub up behind. She had also said at the time that her husband didn’t leave her nothing and got hisself killed when a crate fell on him in the shipyard warehouse where they was both working for which her and them kids didn’t get but $5500 compensation from the company.
But setting there cosy in Tammy’s place with a steaming cup of milky coffee in my hand, when I asked to see family photos, she walked straight over to a bureau and unlocked the top drawer and brought out a whole stack of pictures which she seemed quite happy at first to show off. And I got so excited I didn’t know where to put my face.
I don’t know how many umpteen baby pictures of Brenda and Anndora I skimmed over, though I ooohed and aaaahed loud at every single one thinking I’d best be polite. But nice as they were, I was really only wanting to see the ones of Joy, ’cause them other two children didn’t mean so much to me like she did, ’cause Brenda was often broody and Anndora was so spoiled that it was impossible to like her, cute though she was.
When me and Tammy had sifted through nearly the whole pile, about thirty-five pictures in all, and I hadn’t seen one of Joy, I lost patience and asked Tammy in a backhanded way why Joy got missed out. ‘How come you got so many beautiful pictures of your eldest and your youngest?’
‘Sherman. That was my late husband … Sherman.’ Her expression clouded over and she sounded scornful when she seeped out his name that second time, like he didn’t bear her no happy memories. ‘He liked to think of himself as an amateur photographer and loved to use the children as his subjects. He could even do his own developing,’ she added brightening up a bit. ‘I would definitely have encouraged him to start up a photography business but with his depressions, I wasn’t sure that he’d be able to deal with the public.’
I could see her bite her tongue for letting go of that much in front of me. It was easy to tell that Tammy didn’t like to talk about him, and whereas I first thought it was ’cause she was still mourning, I began to wonder. His body hadn’t long been in the ground ’fore she picked up and decided to give herself and them girls a fresh start by moving West on the advice, so she claimed, of a girl in her typing pool in Wilmington, who had an aunt in Oakland.
As Tammy handed me a shiny black and white photo, about eight by ten inches of her holding Brenda as a toddler, she said, ‘Sherman was really good, wasn’t he? I think so many of them look professional.’
She was right. The way he used the lights made a soft halo around both mother and child in the picture I was holding and he’d got them to sit semi-profile but still look straight at the camera. It looked like he took ’em in a studio, but Tammy said they was actually setting on the toilet seat with a gray wool blanket tacked on the wall behind them.
It was abvious the picture had been taken after the war, ’cause Tammy had her hair swept up in a smooth fat pompadour roll at the side that was fashionable in them days. And she was wearing a dark box shoulder dress that had big white cloth buttons down the front and a square scooped neckline with heavy white broderie lace trim around it that made me notice for the first time that she had a swan’s neck. There wasn’t a blemish to be seen on her young, wide-eyed face, and if they’d had colored calendar girls back in the forties, Tammy would for sure have been eligible.
Looking at that picture, it was easy to see where Joy and Anndora got their best features from.
Their mother had Anndora’s delicate bone structure and perfectly shaped Kewpie doll lips, Joy’s big slanted almond eyes and pointy nose and Brenda’s only redeeming feature, skin as smooth as a baby’s butt. Although Tammy wasn’t ebony like Brenda and had a unusual skin tone halfway between Anndora’s pale complexion and Joy’s rich dark chestnut color.
In fact, anybody looking at that picture Tammy’d handed me of her and Brenda would have assumed that the sorry looking baby on Tammy’s lap was somebody else’s, except that Brenda did get her mother’s high forehead and widow’s peak. It was two shames though that on Brenda they were so oversized, they didn’t flatter, so whereas Tammy’s high forehead and widow’s peak was a beauty feature with the way she wore her hair swept back, on Brenda the forehead was so broad and her hair was so thin and scraggly like chicken fluff, that Brenda’s widow’s peak looked more like a receding hairline. Which ain’t too helpful on a girl.
Poor Brenda didn’t never grow enough hair to sweep it back off her face so it looked neat nor could she comb it down on her forehead in a bang to make her forehead look smaller, and I would have said that it was cruel of God to birth any girl child so plain that had such a pretty mama. But to his credit, he did make up the difference with them diamond vocal cords he lavished on Brenda. Not that any of us knew it at that time or they showed in that baby picture of her with Tammy that I was meant to be admiring that evening sitting over at Tammy’s.
All that my naked eye and anybody else’s could of seen was a super pretty young girl half smiling and a verging on ugly baby grinning with not but four teeth in her whole mouth.
‘This is sure a pretty picture of you and Brenda,’ I lied a little like Joy had taught me, and handed it back to Tammy. ‘And don’t kid yourself,’ I added to sprinkle some truth on what I’d said, ‘Sherman wasn’t all that clever with the camera. You got God to thank some too, ’cause you was fine as you wanted to be.’ That made her happy, and while it was true of the young Tammy in the photograph, the actual one sitting by me, though good looking, had aged quite a bit, though it couldn’t have been more than nine years since that picture was taken, ’cause Brenda wasn’t but ten. Tammy’s sweet innocent look that she had in the picture was gone and it wasn’t just because of the sophisticated blond streak at the side of her temple. Pretty features ain’t all that makes a woman beautiful. How she holds them counts for something too, and from the first that I met Tammy when she came to look at the furnished apartment we had advertised in the Tribune she always looked worried and under strain, even when from time to time she’d belt out that barroom laugh of hers if something on the television’d give her something to laugh at.
But that evening setting in her place in Oakland, I’d finished my coffee, it was getting dark and I still didn’t have what I’d come for which was a baby picture of Joy.
‘I can’t wait for you to show me the ones Sherman took of Joy,’ I said, but no sooner than them words petered out of my big mouth, Tammy’s friendly air iced over and she gave me a chilly look which unnerved me about as much as I expect she wanted it to.
‘Sherman never took any of Joy,’ she said in that tight-lipped way folks’ll try on whenever they mean not to be questioned no further. But I was ready to bite the bullet, because why would a father take all them wonderful pictures of two of his children and not take none of the third? Seeing as Joy was born between Brenda and Anndora, it took some explaining for Joy’s sake if nobody else’s.
‘That’s a doggone disgrace,’ I said daring to push the point further. I say dared ’cause not but a week before we was setting there going through them pictures, Tammy had been over my place and showed herself to have a sharp, ugly tongue when she cussed out my baby sister Helen twice in a night. I got to admit that Helen was blind falling down drunk and deserved a tongue lashing. So setting there in Tammy’s living room while the sweet sounds of her three children playing below drifted through the kitchen window, I tried to laugh a bit to make out that what I was about to say to her was a joke. But I figure she could tell that I meant it.
‘Didn’t Sherman favor Joy?’ I asked.
She didn’t let me finish her daughter’s name before her lip curled back like a dog about ready to bite. ‘You have one big damn big hell of a nerve to say something as nasty as that,’ she said. Then she yanked back the few pictures I was still holding in my hand. I’d been kneeling down on her wine rug in front of the coffee table which was piled with the photos that we’d been through and she was perched on the edge of the naughahyde grey-green sofa bed that had a tear in it, so I leapt up quick thinking that I best go home ’fore she said something that would make me do something that wasn’t Christian. Like hit her. ’Cause if I want to, I can have as much temper as the next one. So forcing myself to sound friendly and polite I said, ‘Freddie B will be expecting his Friday night fry-up to be on the table when he gets home from work, so I best do my duty and get to cleaning that mackerel I bought him this morning.’
Tammy didn’t try to fake no pleasantries like I did that evening. Without saying so much as ‘goodbye’ or ‘dog kiss my foot’ she stalked off into her bedroom through the double doors and slammed them so hard it’s a wonder the full length mirrors screwed on them didn’t crack. I was stunned ’cause it wasn’t like I’d said nothing all that bad about her husband, so it didn’t make no sense that she got as mad as she did, but I put it down to her caring more about Sherman than I’d realized, ’cause I wouldn’t of put up with no woman making no remark about Freddie B if he was dead neither. But still, ’fore I let myself out, I went to the kitchen window and called the children in ’cause I feared their mama was in such a temper she’d forgot she’d left them out playing in the night air.
After that ding dong with Tammy, for the whole month of April, she wouldn’t say nothing but a begrudging ‘morning’ and ‘evening’ to either me or Freddie B if she happened on us in the hall, and I got tired of him asking me what she could have been in such a huff about. But something told me not to tell him how I’d been trying to get a picture of Joy and had said something to Tammy about her husband not favoring Joy like he did Brenda and Anndora that got Tammy so mad.
It perplexed my poor husband to see me mope around when he’d come in from work, but what I couldn’t explain was that once Tammy stopped speaking, Joy stopped slipping in to see me in the afternoons, and she wouldn’t even take none of the cookies I’d baked for her if I offered it to her and Brenda in the hall after school. She’d give a meek smile and say, ‘We can’t take food from strangers,’ like she did when we first got to be pals.
Brenda acted like she was scared to look at me when she’d say, ‘Hello Mrs Ross,’ hardly loud enough for me to hear and all formal after I’d got so used to all of ’em calling me Baby Palatine. Even Anndora, who I suspect was born with her nose stuck up in the air, and didn’t never take notice of me anyhow, so when she didn’t give me a smile, I was used to it. She didn’t take to nobody outside her immediate family and her mama didn’t teach her that it was rude to look through people like she didn’t see them.
My baby sister Helen said not to pay it no mind at first. Then she got mad when Tammy wouldn’t bother to speak to her neither. ‘Evict her black ass!’ Helen said one day loud enough for the entire neighborhood to hear. ‘Throw ’em all in the street! You don’t have to put up with that uppity mess.’
As the Bangs’ apartment door was directly opposite ours, it made me feel real uncomfortable with them not being neighborly, ’cause wasn’t nobody else living in the fourplex but them and us, since Mr Houseman wouldn’t get the plumbing fixed in them two studio apartments up at the front. But I just prayed night and day that things would get to rights, so that I could have Joy back.
All that April, at about half past three on weekdays, I would hear Joy and Brenda let themselves into the main door downstairs, and then leave it to slam shut as they raced each other to our landing to unlock the door to their place. With my ear cupped to my front door, I could hear that they was whispering and trying to be real quiet while they got their door open, and I knew they was scared that I’d come out and either embarrass them by saying ‘hi’ or offering them something. Once, I got the idea to leave the Papagallos in the box outside my door to remind Joy of the good times we’d had, but common sense got the better of me and I baked my baby sister her favorite lemon meringue pie instead.
But that month and a bit of us not speaking must have been way harder on Tammy than it was on me, ’cause I’m sure she’d got used to me doing things for her children. Not just Joy neither. ’Cause me and Freddie did try to remember them other two everytime we handed out quarters and bought double decker ice cream cones downstairs at the soda fountain in the drugstore that Mr Houseman’s son-in-law ran below us. And while Tammy didn’t have neither the time, inclination nor know-how to bake cakes and cookies like I did every week, her children must have been missing them goodies I’d always had for after dinner and weekend surprises.
Me and Freddie B was always buying the girls expensive treats on his pay day like eskimo pies, ’cause we knew that Tammy couldn’t really afford them extras on her stenographer’s salary. She couldn’t earn half as much doing office work as Freddie B did for bricklaying back in them fifties. So we had way more money to sling around than she did, and to top it off, we wasn’t hardly paying no rent to old man Houseman in exchange for managing his building.
Anyway, one Sunday in May, about five weeks after the photo mess with Tammy, when me and Freddie B’d been back from our church meeting for a couple of hours, long enough for him to fall asleep as usual in front of the television, Tammy come banging on our door. Hysterical she was with Anndora sniveling in her arms ’cause Anndora had cut her hand pretty bad playing restaurant and trying to open a can of Spam with a sharp can opener.
Tammy needed for Freddie B to rush her and the children over to Oakland General which was way on the other side of town, but I offered to let her leave Joy and Brenda with me which she did gladly. I was sure glad that I had on my Sunday best when they came and didn’t have my hair nappy. And I could see that Joy was glad to be setting back in my place even though she wasn’t saying nothing to me.
Since the emergency ward was as crowded as I warned Freddie B it would be on a Sunday afternoon with it starting to get real hot in our part of the world, they had to wait around for hours at the hospital ’fore Anndora got them three catgut stitches that the doctor said she had to have.
Expecting they would take as long, while Joy played Brenda a game of Chinese checkers that I told her to take out the broom closet, I made the two big ones their favorite snack of a thick wad of grape jelly, between slices of nice fresh soft white bread and left two covered plates full of pork roast, crackling and greens in the warm oven for Tammy and Freddie B coming in, ’cause him and me was due back to the church at five as usual. And I was determined to be there as the whole congregation was planning to turn out ’cause Sister Hall’s brother Tommy was in town from New York City and was gonna sit in with the choir. He was a jazz trumpeter that showed up from time to time, to play for our church when he was working some clubs in San Fran. Them little bips and bops he added to sweeten Miss Scott’s piano playing always transformed the music and inspired our choir times before when he’d come, and I didn’t want to miss it.
Naturally I was also excited that I had a excuse to have to take Joy and Brenda along with me not knowing how late their mama would be held up at the hospital. I was shocked when they admitted while I was getting them into their best dresses that they hadn’t never been inside no church.
‘Not neither for wedding nor funeral!’ I didn’t bother to ask how they missed getting to church when their daddy died, ’cause it wasn’t my business, but I thought that Mrs Tamasina Bang needed her backside slapped for not attending to them children’s souls. And with all the hoo-ha she sometimes made about colored people being backward, there she was acting backwards herself.
Like I explained to Brenda and Joy ’fore we climbed the bus heading for the meeting, at the First Tabernacle of Saint Barnabus where me and Freddie was members and he was a deacon, the actual building wasn’t nothing but a ol’ grocery store that we was renting till the congregation could collect up enough to do better. But I didn’t tell them that by no way of apology, ’cause I was proud of our church. And with that choir of twelve, including Sister Hall who’d done some gospel recordings, First Tabernacle didn’t need my apologies nor nobody else’s.
Once we was on the bus, Joy was acting back to her usual and it was nice to hear her say I looked real pretty, although pretty is one thing I ain’t never really been. Not bad looking, but not much better than ordinary ’cause of my teeth being too long and my cheeks being pudgy even when I ain’t carrying no extra weight which I wasn’t back in them days. I was wearing my white felt had with the black and white mesh veil and had pressed, waved and curled my hair, ’cause it didn’t matter how I used to go around looking on weekdays, I didn’t mess on Sundays. And still don’t. I had a good figure all through them fifties and in that chartreuse suit with the short waisted bolero jacket I had on that Sunday I showed it off, I think, though the skirt kept riding up ’cause any skirt that fitted me snug around the waist like that chartreuse one did was always too tight for me round the backside and didn’t want to stay down. And I knew I had to warn Joy and Brenda ’fore we got to church that a few ladies might get to fainting if the spirit hit them, but the girls wasn’t to worry ’cause that was a powerful sign that the Lord was with us.
From the minute we arrived outside First Tabernacle, the girls had themselves a high time. The church was located on the corner of 7th and Front in a part of town where nobody bothered to sweep the streets and it was tucked between a tailor shop and a bakery, but since neither was open on a Sunday, if it was too hot to wait inside the church before Reverend Earl and his wife Naomi turned up, folks with little children used to congregate outside and some of us could sit on the big wooden ledge of the bakery window which had a big awning that cut out the sun that set in our direction.
Joy and Brenda was my pride wearing their organdy party frocks and out there playing tag with the other children when the pastor drove up. When I introduced her and her sister to him and his wife Joy said, like she’d rehearsed it, ‘Good evening, Reverend and Mrs Earl, I’m very pleased to meet you.’ All that was missing was a curtsy.
He sure worked up a lively sermon that evening and I was thankful that it brought a couple Sisters to their feet. ‘Vengeance must be the Lord’s’ was the theme, and Joy asked me what vengeance meant while the choir was getting situated. I did the best I could to explain. ‘I think it means don’t try to get back at folks if they do something bad to you.’ She smiled and nodded but I could tell she didn’t take it in. Remembering that Joy and Brenda wouldn’t know none of the songs that we’d be asked to join in on with the choir, I whispered to Joy to tell Brenda just to clap her hands.
After the choir got to singing the fourth verse of ‘My Father’s House has Many Rooms’, and Sister what’s-her-name with the dyed red hair started to sing her solo with some trumpet accompaniment by Tommy Hall, Brenda got to waving her arms and hopping from foot to foot like she got a little spirit, but soon as I saw Joy swat her with her Bible study manual, I figured Brenda wasn’t doing nothing but mocking some of my congregation and I chewed her out about it soon as we got outside. Though she swore blind that the spirit had actually hit her. I got to admit she was the one that begged me to take her again and tried to tell her mama all about the choir, and Sister Hall’s brother playing the trumpet and Reverend Earl’s message about vengeance and how Sister Slater broke and run up to him in the middle of his sermon and tried to pull him off the pulpit ’cause the spirit got to her so.
But Tammy was too caught up telling her own story to me about what had happened in the hospital to take any notice of what Brenda had to say. And whereas I would of expected Tammy to be het up with worry about Anndora who was passed out ’sleep in her mama’s lap from the day’s excitement, Tammy had her mouth full to overflowing with the name of John Dagwood who she’d met in the emergency ward.
‘I felt so sorry for the poor guy,’ she said. ‘His first day in town after driving all the way from Detroit and he had the bad luck to have a truck back into him at a stop light. He said he thought he only had a little whiplash, but being in the insurance business he thought he’d get a hospital x-ray on his back because John Dagwood said if you don’t handle things in the right way you never get any compensation. And after the trouble I had getting compensation for Sherman, I know what he means. Of course, Mr Dagwood said had Sherman been white things might have been different.’ I listened with one ear, ’cause I was too busy noticing how strange and quiet Joy got sitting next to her mama and stroking her baby sister’s little fair arm that was tucked under Tammy’s while Anndora was laying ’sleep with her perfect lips parted looking every bit like one of them baby beauties that was on the Ivory soap commercial. Joy was slowly running one finger up and down Anndora’s forearm and hedging as close as she seemed to dare to sit by her mama who tensed up when Joy got near to her. Tammy acted like somebody who don’t want to be touched and she was not trying to give Joy none of the hug that her Anndora was hogging all to herself.
‘You want to come over here and sit on Baby Palatine’s lap?’ I asked Joy in the middle of Tammy saying that John Dagwood had asked for her phone number, because he didn’t know many people in Oakland and thought it might be a good place to settle while he waited for a job with some national insurance firm in San Francisco.
Couldn’t nobody blame Brenda when she gave up trying to tell her mother about our First Tabernacle choir and slumped over to sprawl herself in front of the TV which was blaring all the while her and Tammy had talked at cross purposes. I was glad that Joy’d sidled over to sit on my lap, but at eight she was already a bit too long limbed for cuddling which is why I figured that her mother didn’t like to bother.
‘Did Mr Ross like John Dagwood?’ Joy asked her mama like a grown person trying hard to make conversation with somebody they ain’t got nothing in common with. Nothing like when Joy and me was together and could have us a laugh about Dennis the Menace in the funny papers or what Bernie had told her in the playground at school or her pencil drawings of girls in evening gowns. She was always drawing the same looking white girls with a flip-up hair-do wearing fancy evening gowns designed different, though they had the same heart shaped bodice.
Tammy answered Joy with, ‘Freddie fell asleep after the first hour’s wait and I was very happy to have someone to talk to that looked decent and spoke like he had some education.’ I hoped she wasn’t referring to my husband being one of them who didn’t look nor talk right and she could see I was taking it wrong, ’cause she was careful to add, ‘Of course that emergency ward was as full of riffraff and alcoholics as you predicted it would be, Baby, and I’m glad we won’t have to go back there again, because that young doctor said that any qualified MD can take out Anndora’s stitches as the cut was not serious.’ She lit up a cigarette and without drawing a breath she said, smiling down at Anndora, ‘Can you believe that when John Dagwood asked Anndora her name, she told him and even took the chicklets he offered her. I’ve never seen her take to anyone like that, and I had to mention it to John Dagwood in as much as Anndora wouldn’t even allow Freddie B to touch her. ‘‘You must really have a way with children, because my daughter refuses to talk to just any ol’ body. She obviously likes you. You must have kids of your own,’’ I said to him, and was surprised to hear he’s not even married.’
As soon as Tammy said that, I could see the writing on the wall, ’cause while she was quick to claim that she wasn’t interested in meeting none of them nice young Christian men from First Tabernacle when I offered to set up some introductions, the glisten in her eyes every time she said John Dagwood’s name told the tale of a woman ripe and ready for romance.
‘Sounds like you already sweet on Mr John Dagwood,’ I said. No sooner than I heard myself say it, I knew I was spilling too much of what was in my mind. But Tammy was feeling gay and looking girlish, and didn’t take offense, ’cause she was so relaxed setting there in a pair of black toreador pants with a grey and black striped short sleeved blouse to match. She looked like the kind of girl any stranger new to a big city like Oakland would have been happy to be bumping into his first night in town, and I told her, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if that fella thought he was pretty lucky to meet the likes of you.’
She blushed and soon as she did Joy turned to me and whispered ‘Mama’s got a boyfriend, Mama’s got a boyfriend,’ in a sing songy voice but not loud enough for Tammy to hear who was off in a daydream anyway, till I reminded her that them little girls of her’n was gonna be needing something to eat ’fore they went to bed, ’cause I hadn’t give ’em nothing but grape jelly sandwiches.
‘Oh gosh,’ Tammy yawned and sighed, ‘I guess I’d better get up and take Anndora to bed.’
‘I’ll do it,’ Joy said like she couldn’t offer fast enough. ‘Do you want me to put on her pajamas like she likes me to, Mama?’ Ain’t many children as willing to help as Joy was, but Tammy took her for granted.
‘Thank you, Joy,’ she said like she was talking to hired help. And Joy straight away slid off my lap to collect Anndora off her mother’s.
Didn’t nobody think that Anndora had been listening to what we was talking about, but soon as Joy rustled her up in her arms Anndora said she wanted to go hear the choir at my church next time Joy and Brenda went.
I didn’t have a minute to be pleased, ’cause Tammy harped up, ‘We won’t be having anymore church visits in here. And Brenda,’ she called loud enough to be heard over the Lassie episode that Brenda was watching like it was her life in danger up there on the screen instead of Lassie’s master, Tommy, ‘Brenda! Turn that doggone TV off and go take that good dress off before you ruin it. I don’t know what on earth possessed you to put on something like that anyway.’ Neither Joy nor Brenda was tattle-tale enough to say I was the one that picked them dresses out the closet for going to church in.
At ten years old Brenda could sulk better than any child in the world and she kicked the leg of the coffee table on purpose just to let us all know that while she was about to take off her dress like she’d been told, she wasn’t happy about having to do it in the middle of Lassie and if a commercial hadn’t come on when her mama told her to get up, I don’t reckon she’d of done it no way.
Tammy still didn’t get up herself to make a effort to fix nothing for them girls, so I offered to let them come over to my place for a snack. ‘I’m willing to rustle up some roast pork sandwiches, if anybody’s interested,’ I said, and quite honestly would have emptied my fridge I was so happy just to be setting with Tammy and the children and talking like normal neighbors.
Tammy stretched. ‘Oh would you, Baby? You’ve done so much already today, but it would be wonderful if you’d fix something for Joy and Brenda.’ They was likely only to get a can of Heinz hot dogs and baked beans off her anyway, ’cause Tammy wasn’t much for fooling around in the kitchen. On the one hand I could understand it, ’cause she worked all day. But on the other, there was a lot of women holding down jobs way harder than Tammy’s in a office and had more kids to feed when they got in than she did, and they still managed to put a proper cooked meal on their table every night. What surprised me was that she would make the effort too, once she had that John Dagwood to fool with. But I wasn’t to know that then. At the time, I lifted myself up from the hard wooden upright chair I’d been sitting on for that hour and called into the bedroom for Brenda and Joy to follow me over to my place for a bit of something to eat.
‘Y’all ready to tuck into some of my chocolate cake with butter cream icing?’ I called.
They come tumbling out of that bedroom lickety-split and as we walked out the front door, Tammy’s phone rung.
I hadn’t never heard Tammy talking on the telephone in the three months that she’d been renting that apartment and I figured that what Joy had whispered to me about ‘Mama having a boyfriend’ was exactly right.
‘I bet that’s that John Dagwood,’ Joy told me as her, me and Brenda took the three steps across the hall into my place.
I was singing that night in my kitchen while I dished up two plates of supper for the girls, and was about as happy as I recalled being the morning in ’45 when Freddie come back to me in New Orleans from overseas after the war. Both times my feet wasn’t touching the ground, and both times Freddie B noticed.
‘Happy as a sandboy, ain’t ch’you, wife?’ he said slapping me on my behind, and Joy blushed as she caught him doing it, ’cause she had just walked in the kitchen. ‘You wasn’t s’posed to see that,’ he said swooping her off her feet and lifting her on his shoulders. ‘Baby Palatine –’ Freddie talked like Joy, who had taken off her party dress when Brenda did and was in her flannelet pajamas, wasn’t there.
He practically had her head touching the ceiling ’cause she was so high up perched on my husband’s shoulders – ‘you reckon Dorothy Dandridge looked like Joy Bang when she was little? I bet Dorothy wasn’t as pretty,’ he said and reached his long arm up to tickle Joy under her armpits ’cause that’s where he knew she was the most ticklish.
She got to giggling and struggling so, I feared she was gonna fall, and said, ‘Y’all get out of my kitchen with that foolishness, ’cause next thing you know there’ll be a accident and Tammy’ll want to tan my hide.’
And the whole truth was that I didn’t want to never do nothing again that could upset Tammy, ’cause I saw how easy it was for her to turn her children against me.
After that breakup we’d had, I vowed to watch my mouth, hold my tongue and never ask too many questions or say nothing that would make Tammy force Joy to stop being friends with me again. So I didn’t dare breathe another word about Joy not having baby pictures, though it was still puzzling why her daddy didn’t take none, and I wasn’t goofy enough to mention Sherman’s name, even if Tammy brought him up, ’cause she made it plain she didn’t want him talked about unless she was doing the talking. And as I noticed that the kids never mentioned him, nor Wilmington, I sure wasn’t gonna stick both feet in my mouth neither.
With that call that Sunday evening being from John Dagwood, just like Miss Joy suspected, Sherman didn’t get mentioned much therein after no way.
Tammy was spellbound with ‘John Dagwood this’ and ‘John Dagwood that’. If she’d of been a Catholic, I reckon she should of bowed her head everytime she said Dagwood’s name, like them Catholics is suppose to when they mention Jesus Christ.
I didn’t meet Dagwood right away, but Freddie’d give me a good enough description of him ’fore he ever set foot through Tammy’s door, ’cause soon as Joy and Brenda’d had themselves something to eat and went home, I couldn’t wait to hear Freddie B tell me all about this man that they’d met in the emergency ward.
‘He seemed a nice enough fella,’ Freddie said dragging every word out like he’d said something worth spending a minute over. ‘I think he was from Chicago.’
‘Tammy said Detroit,’ I corrected him. ‘And if you ain’t gonna get it right, don’t tell it,’ I scolded Freddie B. ‘Was he nice looking?’
‘How’m I ’sposed to know that,’ Freddie said, like a blind man.
‘’Cause you saw him, didn’t you?’
‘Yeah, I saw him, but then I saw a whole lot of people setting round that emergency room, and I’d be a’ lyin’ if I told you I knew what any of them looked like.’
I think Freddie B can be ridiculous when he’s so busy minding what he claims is his own business that he don’t know what’s going on around him. He was that way back then when Tammy met Dagwood, and he’s still that way.
But I wasn’t gonna let him get away with not describing the man that Tammy had been talking to, ’cause inasmuch as she kept saying she wasn’t interested in no men, it was kind of juicy to think that she’d stumbled on something at that hospital.
‘Was he brown skinned,’ I asked my husband who had his head stuck in the paper.
‘’Bout my color,’ said Freddie B without looking up.
‘I don’t believe that Tammy’d have no eyes for a nigger black as you,’ I said. And I didn’t. She struck me as the sort that was color conscious and would have shied away from any man as deep chocolate as my husband.
‘Okay then,’ said Freddie just to aggravate. ‘He was white. White as this here tablecloth.’ Which was on the dining table where Freddie B had the funnies spread out beside the sports page.
‘Freddie B! Stop fooling around, now, and pay attention,’ I fussed.
‘Okay.’ He didn’t never have the nerve to tease me too long ’cause he knew I’d get in a huff and wouldn’t say nothing to him for a whole hour and he couldn’t stand it. ‘Okay. He was about my color. Honest, Baby, and he had him a thick mustache that looked like he’d been combing some Brylcreem on it cause it was shining.’
‘Yeah. What you women would call nice looking, but his hands felt like he ain’t never done a day’s work. Soft as Tammy’s they was when he stood up and shook mine as we was leaving the hospital. I heard him tell Tammy that he was looking for work and I told him to come down on the site I’m working in Palo Alto, but he said he hadn’t never done no building work. I believe it too with hands like a woman’s. I told him all he had to know how to do was use a shovel if he didn’t have no bricking trade like me, but he still wasn’t interested.’
‘Tall?’ I didn’t care as much about John Dagwood’s employment details as I did about if he was good looking. Some women, and I took Tammy rightly to be one of them, only want them a handsome man, but I listened to my mama who told me never to get hooked up with no pretty niggers ’cause they wasn’t nothing but trouble, and thought their asses weighed a ton. That’s how come I was glad to end up with Freddie B, ’cause even when he was young, he looked like the Sad Sack with his slow lanky self. Not that he was dim-witted. Just snail slow. But give him some arithmetic and he could add sums faster than all us, including my brother Caesar who used to get As in math’matics all the time.
‘That Dagwood fella wasn’t tall as me,’ said Freddie B, still with his head in the paper.
‘Well that don’t mean nothing, ’cause who is tall as you but them basketball players?’
‘Wasn’t tall, wasn’t short,’ Freddie B added.
‘Thank God she ain’t taking up with no short ass,’ I said, ’cause that was something else my mama warned me off. ‘Short ass men got a chip on they shoulder,’ she used to tell me and Helen.
‘If you sit patient,’ said Freddie B, ‘you’re likely to see him for yourself, ’cause Tammy told him to come on by whenever he wanted, and with as much jawing as they did in them three hours we was hanging ’round that hospital, I don’t guess he’ll keep her waiting long.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me that! You knew that all along, and was gonna keep it back!’
Remembering back on that evening when I was setting with my husband who didn’t have his bald patch on the crown and wasn’t wearing spectacles yet ’cause he was still young, reminded me that I wasn’t in Oakland in our old place on Grange but was standing in our apartment in San Francisco in such a trance thinking ’bout the past, I hadn’t told Freddie nothing yet and was forgetting to deal with Tammy.
Joy, it wasn’t Christian of me to be feeling sorry for myself when I should have been on the phone giving her mama some comfort and telling my husband that our Godsent child was dead. It didn’t matter what I thought about Tammy’s brand of mothering, wasn’t a woman living that wanted to bury her own child.
So I stood Joy’s snag-a-tooth picture that I was still holding back on the mantelpiece and let the morning sun hit it, and picked up my pale green dogeared telephone file card that was laying by it. That card’s usually in my wallet, ’cause I won’t use no handbag except on Sundays which is why I never use the nice leatherbound address book that Joy give me last Christmas. I peered down at the card as I carried it to the kitchen phone, and after I took that box of Sugar Pops out the trash, I dialed the code for Richmond. Then all ’a sudden something told me to try ringing Joy’s instead which is what I did.
We got one of them fancy-ass phones that chimes out a different music tone for every digit you tap. It aggravates me every time I ring out on it, but it come with the apartment, and we ain’t suppose to change nothing. I tapped out 1-2-1-2 for New York City and traced my finger down my file card to Joy’s number which I don’t know off by heart, ’cause she changed it quite regular, and I didn’t know the new one. But I lost my confidence after it rang once and put the receiver back. ’S‘pose Rex picks up the phone?’ the devil in me said, though I hadn’t ever known it to happen during all the years Joy’d been knowing him. Spoiled as he was with secretaries and assistants and God-knows-who-all he employed to wipe his nose and his behind, he probably ain’t picked up his own phone in them twenty years. All that fame and money can affect a man like two worms boring their way through a apple and leaving it rotten to the core, so ain’t no place for it but the garbage heap. Which is what must of happened to Rex.
When he was young, I understood what Joy saw in him ’cause he was a nice looking boy, being half Comanche. That rudey color he had in his cheeks all the year round made them strange turquoise blue eyes of his stand out even though they was set way back in his deep eye sockets and seemed even more so cause of his high cheekbones. But as he got older, he got gaunt looking and the big dark circles ’round his eyes made him look sickly to me, though it seems that half the white women in the South would shout me down disagreeing.
There’s been times when I’ve seen him singing on the television wearing a cowboy hat and it’s been hard to tell that he’s past forty. But when his gray hair is showing his age is a dead giveaway, though like Joy says, he’s had some gray strands since she met him when he was twenty-five or so. But nowadays when I take a close up look with my magnifying glasses at pictures of him in the Enquirer, it shows that his skin is starting to sag around the jawline, and all the cowboy hats in Texas can’t hide that.
In the beginning I was relieved that Joy took to somebody that was as nice to her as Rex was, ’cause he was always buying her things though not expensive and had that limo of his pick her up and drop her off anytime she was with him. But like I reminded Joy at the time, don’t go falling in love with no limousine, ’cause it won’t never propose to you. But when Tammy told me not to discourage Joy from going around with Rex, I knew all Tammy was seeing was them dollar signs hanging over Rex’s head. ’Cause I agreed with my baby sister Helen who said wasn’t no white guy with that much money gonna do nothing for Joy but fill her full of baby and run off. And to tell the truth, she’d of been lucky if he’d of done that much.
Joy should have found herself a nice colored fella and been married and driving a stationwagon full of her own children. But she was always trying to appease her mama somehow, though as far as I could see Tammy didn’t try to do nothing to please Joy. Tammy didn’t want daughters, she wanted stars: somebody to make her feel important, so she could act like she was a big shot herself. I could see that soon as the girls had their hit ‘Chocolate Chip’, and all ’a sudden she was bragging about ‘my three daughters this, and my three daughters that’.
I stood looking out my kitchen window with the phone at my ear, and I was feeling both mad and numb. Looking but not seeing and listening but not hearing, and whereas the sight of folks seven stories down heading for their work usually got me raring to get into gear and start my chores, I didn’t feel up to doing nothing. It seemed like there wasn’t enough strength in me to tap out Tammy’s phone number and I was staring blank not wanting to talk or be talked to. So when I did finally ring Tammy’s, I was praying her line would be busy. But it wasn’t and I got agitated to hear a man’s voice saying, ‘Hello. O’Mara residence.’
‘Is that you Jesse?’ I asked.
‘Baby Palatine?’ I normally liked to hear Jesse’s furry Southern voice, because something about the tone reminded me of my brother Caesar’s voice. Though Caesar’s been dead sixteen years, I can still remember what he sounded like everytime I talk to Jesse.
‘Baby Palatine?’ Is that you?’ Jesse asked again, ’cause I still hadn’t answered.
I didn’t want to talk to him and had to try to think of what to say. I can’t stand for somebody I don’t know good to be giving me sympathy, and I was nervous he would say something mushy about me losing Joy.
Meaning to sound spry, like wasn’t nothing upsetting me, I said, ‘I thought Tammy said you wasn’t home?’
‘A few of us retired dudes that used to go to school together have a regular rummy game on Monday nights, and if we have a few beers, I sometimes feel like I shouldn’t get behind the wheel to drive home.’
Joy once told me that the only thing that irritated her about her mama’s husband was that he wanted to do everything by the book and never stopped being a cop. Not even at the breakfast table, ’cause the things he wanted to talk about that he spotted in the morning papers was all cop stuff. And she said he was always going on about being law-abiding and wanting his family to be. And while Joy wasn’t one to rush around breaking rules for the sake of it, she didn’t pay taxes, nor parking tickets and would speed anytime she thought she could get away with it. ’Cause she didn’t never do nothing that she wasn’t sure she could get away with.
Jesse’s voice wouldn’t quit in my ear. ‘I’d knocked back a few scotches and thought I should bed down on my buddy Edgar’s sofa which is where I was sleeping when Tammy tracked me down, so I don’t know why she made such a big deal of my not coming home like some great mystery was involved. I often don’t come home or call after the rummy game, and leave the number of whoever’s house I’m playing at on the kitchen table. Just like I did last night before I drove the car out of the garage.’
He could have rambled on talking about nothing for a hour, as long as I didn’t have to answer. For one thing, I was relieved not to have to talk to Tammy … until he explained that I couldn’t even if I wanted to.
‘I gave Tammy a sedative and put her to bed,’ he said. ‘She laid there watching the news before she finally dozed off. I think she’s expecting to hear a report about Joy dying, and I didn’t want to tell her that I think that with the girls not having a hit in ten years, it’s unlikely that anybody even remembers them. Let alone will report it on the television.’ For somebody who, according to Joy, was supposed to be quiet, I was surprised Jesse didn’t draw breath. ‘Tammy told me that you’d be phoning and that she’d managed to tell you the shocking news. Sad. So sad, when young people die.’
Tammy’s husband or not, I hadn’t never set eyes on Jesse and though I didn’t want to be mean and think on him as no stranger since him and Tammy’d been married over two years, I wasn’t ready to think on him as family neither, and definitely didn’t want him telling me the details about Joy.
So when he said, ‘I can only tell you what I know myself which is not a hell of a lot,’ I wanted to stop him, ’cause he didn’t know Joy good enough to have real feeling for her. Though Richmond ain’t far from New York City, she didn’t bother to visit him and her mama but three times in as many years. What I was wanting to say didn’t come out though, ’cause another lump was welling up in my throat so I couldn’t speak, and while I pretended to listen to Jesse mouth on, what I was actually thinking about was that he was the only man I knew of that Tammy let into her life or her bed after John Dagwood up and left her in the middle of the first year when her and the kids lived opposite me and Freddie B in Oakland. She never said as much, but a blind man could of seen that she pined and nursed her broken heart like somebody normal would nurse a coronary thrombosis. I thought it was selfish and a waste with them children needing them a nice stepdaddy … somebody decent to help her give them the extras that they had to do without unless they got ’em off me and Freddie.
All these thirty years, I haven’t breathed a word to nobody about the reason Dagwood disappeared or what I’d said to him to make him leave. As it was me, who didn’t have no choice but to send him packing, I felt positive all along that he wasn’t never coming back. But had I told Tammy as much she would of known that I had something to do with him leaving, and much as she was wishing him back, I was praying for him to stay away. And praying is stronger than wishing.
Like my mama warned me and Helen, ‘A pretty nigger will run you into the ground and you won’t never know what he’s up to nor who he’s up to it with.’ That was John Dagwood. Wasn’t no question that he was a real looker and wasn’t only me and Tammy that had thought it neither. Even Freddie B had to own up that he was nice looking after Freddie’d seen John Dagwood in that emergency ward the time Anndora’d cut her hand. And I had me a girlfriend back then, Tondalayah Hayes her name was, who acted like she couldn’t believe what a heavenly vision loomed before her eyes the first time she spotted Dagwood. And considering her line of work, Toni, as I nicknamed her for short, wasn’t one for falling over backwards over no man. But I recall that’s exactly what she almost did trying to sneak a peek at him from my bathroom window in Oakland after I’d told her that Tammy had taken up with somebody that even Freddie B, not one for noticing things, had said was nice looking.
While Jesse’s voice was still chatting in my ear, I was remembering that conversation I’d had with Toni that took place two weeks after Anndora’s Sunday visit to the emergency ward. Tondalayah had come for a Friday afternoon visit and I told her if she stood in my bathtub she could just about see Dagwood. So Tondalayah was bent over, peering out of the two inches I had opened for her to be able to see him out my bathroom window while he was shirtless down in the parking lot, busy scrubbing down the white walls of his tyres of that little two seater convertible he had that I hadn’t never heard of. She said ‘Nice looking, shit! That’s the understatement of the year! That nigger’s a black prince.’
‘Doggone it, Toni,’ I whispered standing behind her. ‘Keep your voice down, girl.’
‘Oh, you’re so nervous about everything, Palatine. You give yourself the jim-jam-jimmies. The man can’t hear me, and so what if he can? I haven’t said anything bad.’ As Tondalayah stepped out of the bathtub, I could see that she’d left black scuff marks from the rubber soles of her ankle boots, so I reached behind the tub to get a rag and the Dutch cleanser. It wasn’t likely that she’d think to do it herself, ’cause she claimed she had better things on her mind, miles away from housework. What with her being a stripper, I could excuse her for it.
‘He’s got black pearls for eyes and white pearls for teeth.’ She laughed high notes and threw her head back like she was about to go into one of them belly dances I used to see her do when we first met while I was cleaning a strip joint where she worked for a spell down Bakersfield way. Though some of them Sisters at my church used to turn their nose up at her when I’d drag her to First Tabernacle from time to time, me and Toni was real good friends.
‘And who said he was dark?’ She was still rampaging on about John Dagwood. ‘Black as that Turkish coffee they serve me down at the Souk’s Cafe,’ she said and sipped at her beer glass full of red wine. What I liked about her was she could hold her liquor and knew when to stop. Not like my baby sister.
‘He looks hard and supple in all the right places too,’ she said moving over to check her fake chignon bun in the mirror. ‘Body like a welterweight … Shit, Palatine, tell your husband when you see him that Miss Tondalayah Hayes said John Dagwood ain’t just nice looking. No-sirreee-Bob. That nigger is fine as a motherfucking Georgia pine, and I better not get a chance to run my fingers through that good hair, ’cause I could get dangerous.’
‘Aw shut up, Toni, he ain’t even got no hair to speak of.’ He kept it close cut so that you could practically see his scalp and it showed that his head had a perfect shape. ‘And long as them red fingernails of yours is, you’d probably draw blood if you run your fingers ’cross his head anyway.’
‘Dan-ang-ger-ooze,’ laughed Toni and popped her fingers with each syllable, before she let out a squeal and shook like somebody had walked over her grave, and got ready to stand in the bathtub again so she could take another look out the window.
‘You don’t know when to stop, do you?’ I said and closed it shut in case the sound of her voice carried and John Dagwood and everybody else in the neighborhood could hear her.
Tondalayah was so loud she reminded me of country folk which is one of the things I liked the most about her. Good looking as she was, she was down home. No airs. And the other thing I liked was that she was the most generous person I’d ever met in my life. Way more than Freddie B even, ’cause whereas he would give the shirt off his back to kin, Toni would give what she had to any ol’ body that needed it. And not just her money neither. Like the first time she come up from Bakersfield to spend the night in my apartment and my baby sister Helen was setting on the toilet so drunk that she thought she was setting on a chair. So when Toni went in there to have a pee and couldn’t get Helen to move, she run a lukewarm bath and took the trouble to get my baby sister in it. With my help, of course, but the idea was Toni’s and so was the underwear and navy blue pedal pushers that she loaned Helen to put on when we finally got her out the tub. Her and Helen was both five foot three inches and narrow hipped though Helen done put on a bunch of weight since then. Tondalayah had Helen looking like somebody else by the time she got the blue eye shadow and pale orange lipstick on her. And I couldn’t believe Helen was quiet as a lamb while it was going on till Toni went to put a comb through Helen’s hair.
‘I don’t want you combing on my hair,’ Helen told her, trying to pull away.
‘You better shut the hell up, before I beat you to death with this comb,’ said Toni which made me laugh, and made my baby sister take a swing at Toni who didn’t pay Helen no mind and kept combing ’cause no sooner Helen tried to take that swipe she passed out ’sleep.
But big hearted as Toni was, she took that thing of ‘what’s mines is yours and what’s yours is mines’ to the extreme, meaning that as far as she was concerned, it included men. Not that I was scared she wanted mine, ’cause apart from a couple spinster Sisters at the church wasn’t nobody rushing to get their hands on my husband back in them days. But from the ruckus Tondalayah was making about John Dagwood while she was standing there in my bathroom, I could tell that it wouldn’t of taken no more than a wink of his eye to have her up in his face. And Lord knows I didn’t want no argument with Tammy over Tondalayah fooling with Dagwood ’cause hardly two weeks had passed since Tammy and me’d made up after the mess over Joy’s pictures.
The Tammy-Dagwood courtship started way too fast for me, and Tammy was quick to think that the sun rose out of his behind, ’cause he had some college education and wore a clean shirt and tie every day. But I was itching to tell her that some pimps did too.
Partly what bothered me about Dagwood was that he didn’t have no job and wasn’t out looking for none, though he claimed he was waiting on a position at a insurance company or other. And though I heard Freddie B offer a couple times to take John Dagwood over to the building site where he was working, so Dagwood could pick up some cash for working as casual labor, the guy had the nerve to say flat out that he wasn’t interested.
‘Here is a list of don’t dos,’ little Joy told me she overheard him telling her mother. ‘Don’t porter, don’t garbage collect, don’t work in a hotel, and don’t get your hands dirty.’ And Joy showed me how Tammy doubled up laughing when he said it.
Dagwood … that was what Tammy’d called him for short instead of John. She said it sounded cute ’cause it was like Blondie’s husband in the Sunday funny papers. Dagwood always carried him a dark brown pigskin briefcase, but I told Freddie B that I didn’t believe that nothing was in it but a bottle of VAT 69 whiskey. That’s all he would drink which seemed way too select for a man with no job, but Tammy said that he’d told her that his grand-daddy’d left him a fourplex in Detroit and he collected enough rent off that to pay for the studio apartment he was in over by the Lake District and keep that foreign sports car of his and have extra left over for living off.
I didn’t take Dagwood to be the sort that would steal or ponce or be hanging out on street corners in the middle of the day, but I figured him to be that sort of drifter that’s easy to come, ’specially between some woman’s legs, and easier to go. But I didn’t never say as much to Tammy, ’cause I could see she was crazy about him from the first time I run up on ’em setting together two evenings after Anndora’d got her hand sewed up. I know it was a Tuesday ’cause it was the night for putting garbage out. I’d peeped my head in the Bangs’ front door ’cause it was left ajar like Tammy said she would leave it ’case I wanted to pop in for a chat after the kids was in bed. But I got a big shock when I stepped quiet into her living room from her entrance hall, careful not to wake the kids, and found her with John Dagwood. He was setting with his stocking feet parked on the coffee table and Tammy was there on his lap smooching him with a couple of her sweater buttons undone so her white brassiere was showing. There was a fifth of whiskey, half finished, tucked between them and the arm of the sofa, and seemed like there wasn’t no place safe for me to rest my eyes.
Tammy’s little two bedroom furnished apartment didn’t have nothing in it but second hand furniture that Mr Houseman had picked up at St Vincent de Paul’s, and there wasn’t much of it, thank goodness, ’Cause with the rooms being medium size and Tammy’s brood of three with their toys and whatnot, wouldn’t of been standing room in there had Mr Houseman put more furniture in the lounge in particular. Apart from the naughahyde sofabed, there was just three hardback chairs and two lamp tables that I thought should of matched the coffee table, but Tammy said she didn’t mind they was different. But me and Freddie B’d slapped a couple fresh coats of cream paint on the walls not but a month ’fore Tammy’d rented it and with the overhead light off and the two wine bottle lamps on either side of the sofa that Tammy’d bought switched on, the living room didn’t look bad. And that evening, with the half dozen red roses stuffed in the cutglass vase Tammy’d borrowed from me soon as she got in from work, the place looked homey, even though she’d taken down the framed pictures of Jesus that I had hanging between the two lounge windows that overlooked the side street. Feeling uncomfortable, I was ready to examine every inch of every wall as I stood there and shifted from foot to foot.
‘Come on Baby Palatine. Sit and let me introduce you to Dagwood,’ Tammy said, patting at the free space on her sofa like it was either the time for me to sit or her to be introducing him.
He didn’t even make the effort to stand up when I reached to shake his hand, so right away I knew what kind of hometraining he had. ’cause any man raised right knew to stand up to greet a woman, ’specially as I was obviously older than him, though I reckoned it couldn’t of been more than ten years.
He flashed me a smile and I tried to smile back and said, ‘How d’you do,’ and got my rusty dusty out of there quick as I could, ’cause no sooner than we’d exchanged hellos, Tammy had the nerve to lay a big kiss on his cheek like I wasn’t still there. If he didn’t know no better, she did, and what with them kids right there in that apartment ’sleep, I thought it was a disgrace that they was carrying on so that anybody could walk in on ’em.
‘I’ll latch the door behind me,’ I said, hinting that they should of done as I walked out. But I don’t reckon that they heard me or knew that the door was open or cared, ’cause Tammy was a goner once Dagwood came on the scene.
It was two weeks after that that Tondalayah come visiting and spotted Dagwood down washing his car, and I’ll give her credit that she didn’t never bat her eyes at Dagwood once I’d made her swear she’d keep to herself and respect that he was Tammy property. When Tondalayah died fifteen years later from liver cancer, it nearly broke my heart, and I’ll give Tammy her due, she cried near as much as me and her girls did. Including Anndora. ’cause Toni did a lot more for them girls than Tammy ever knew about over the years, and it was Tondalayah Hayes they had to thank when time came for them to take to the stage and do things right from knowing what to wear to hip shaking.
I hated that she died with no family to mourn her. But we did the best we could, and I kept a black armband on for a whole month after she passed, I loved that woman so. Near as much as I loved Joy, but different. ’cause Toni was like my sister and Joy was like my child which is exactly why I didn’t want nobody as distant as Tammy’s husband Jesse talking to me about Joy and relating either that she was dead or how it come to pass.
But how I want things to be and how they often is, are two different kettles of fish so there I was still holding onto my telephone with Jesse’s husky voice dripping down the line. Richmond to San Francisco.
‘Tammy told me that you’d be calling, but I must admit when the phone rang I thought it was the Sante Fe police department calling me back, because I had just left a message with a fellow I know that moved to that precinct from Chicago.’
‘Why were you calling him?’ I sure do hate it when my curiosity gets the best of me and I start asking questions when I want to be quiet.
‘Because that’s where Joy fell dead from a massive heart attack on that tennis court, and I figured he might help out with dealing with all the paper work so that we can get her body back to New York without a lot of extra cost. Actually, it wasn’t in Santa Fe she died. It was Taos.’
‘Where’s that supposed to be,’ I said, asking a question I didn’t much need a answer to ’cause the ‘where’ wasn’t half as important as the ‘how’ of Joy dying.
‘In the mountains above Sante Fe, that’s why I got on to the Santa Fe police department.’
‘Now I realize that you didn’t know nothing much about Joy, but I can set you straight on one thing. She had enough energy to bury Hitler’s army, and I find it completely impossible to believe that she died from playing no tennis. She took good care of her body. Ate right … used to drive me half crazy reading them food packages before she’d eat something that wasn’t fresh. Exercised. Jogged most every day since she turned thirty, so it don’t make a blind bit of sense that she’d of dropped dead playing no tennis. I refuse to believe it, and if I had the money I’d be right on the plane to see what done happened for real.’
‘I’ve spoken to the coroner himself, and I didn’ get the impression that anything happened other than what he told me which is that Joy was having a tennis lesson, and in the middle of a serve she fell to the ground, in a way that made the tennis instructor first think she’d had a bad cramp. But when Joy didn’ get up and seemed to have a convulsion, this girl that was teaching her called for an ambulance. But Joy was dead before it got to her. Massive coronary is the verdict, and while I can understand that both you and her mother find it unbelievable, it sounded like the truth to me. Why would the coroner have a reason to lie? Joy was nothing to him.’
Just like my mind had told me from the first I heard Jesse’s voice, he wasn’t the person that should of been telling me none of this, ’cause he didn’t have no special feeling for Joy. I could hear that in his voice. It was Tammy I wanted to be speaking to and I asked him to get her.
‘I told you Baby Palatine that she’s asleep, and with that sedative that I gave her, there’s no way in the world that I could get her to come to the phone now. She couldn’t make any sense if she did anyway,’ Jesse added.
The idea that Joy was laying somewhere dead with nobody with her made me feel sick, and I wanted to talk to Tammy to find out how Rex Hightower figured in it.
‘What the hell is Tammy doing in the bed if her child is dead,’ I asked Jesse. That second I got over feeling sad ’cause the thought of Tammy laying in the bed while Joy was laying in a morgue made me so mad.
All the time I knew her, Tammy’d been so concerned with how she was feeling that she didn’t never let them girls of hers come first. Not even Anndora for all the fuss Tammy made about her. Tammy’s girls didn’t get raised. They just drug themselves up once she got to feeling sorry for herself after Dagwood left in ’56 … maybe it was ’57 … I ain’t never been good on dates, but Freddie B probably can remember exactly, ’cause it was the same year the Yankees lost the world series and he’d bet on ’em. Whatever year it was, I did what any Christian would and didn’t let them girls run wild. As Freddie B and me couldn’t have none of our own, it suited me. But like my baby sister said at the time, that wasn’t the point. True enough, it’s the mama who’s s’posed to take time to mother, but if’n it hadn’t of been for me and Freddie B ain’t no telling what would have happened to them. ’cause from the time Dagwood walked out, Tammy stopped caring about everything, and her kids was the first on the list to go.
But it was real obvious me and this new husband of Tammy’s didn’t see eye to eye about what her duties was supposed to be, ’cause Jesse said, in answer to my question about why she was in bed, ‘There’s not a lot Tammy can do from here, Baby Palatine. Her sitting when she’s exhausted won’t bring Joy back and since Santa Fe will be shut down until nine a.m., she can’t even go ahead organizing the funeral.’
Tammy was probably the last person Joy would have wanted doing that, but how could I tell him as much.
‘You got Brenda’s number?’ I asked him, ’cause I would of rather talked to her than him, since he sounded like Tammy probably had him hoodwinked into thinking that she was suffering. She was good at that. Even I fell for it for a time after Dagwood left and Tammy took to her bed surrounded by any kind of bottle that was made – from hot water bottle to pill bottle to whiskey bottle, though I’d be lying if I said she ever became a alcoholic. But she might as well have been since she stayed in the bed for months with me waiting her hand and foot till I got fed up and stopped bringing her in food, although I kept up fixing meals for them children. Though I have to say Brenda and Joy did a lot for theyselves. And for Anndora.
‘Brenda’s phone’s been disconnected,’ Jesse said.
‘Yes again,’ he sighed. ‘Her girlfriend Latrice moved to Phoenix for six months for some job training scheme with the Federal Government and Brenda’d run up a big seven hundred dollar phone bill calling her every night.’
‘Seven hundred dollars!’
Joy had told me that Brenda had taken up with a new woman but I was only half listening to her when she said it, because Brenda’d been through so many women it didn’t seem worth taking in the details about her latest at the time, since I’d had enough about Brenda and women from the first she let it out. In fact, if Brenda hadn’t started that ruckus in the papers about being a lesbian, things might have worked out real different for Bang Bang Bang. Although I reckon it was Anndora’s fault as much as Brenda’s that the group split up ’cause Anndora had a tantrum and stopped speaking to Brenda when the story about Brenda hit all the papers. ’cause they had a number one record and wasn’t nobody admitting back then that they was gay, it caused a big stir. Not like these days. Everybody in San Francisco is gay seems to me when they turn out in the thousands for them gay parades. I didn’t blame Brenda, when the fuss started, to take it upon herself to quit. Not that I hold with her laying up with women, ’cause as far as I’m concerned that’s uncalled for. But since she was the one doing all the singing and getting none of the glory, ’cause Joy and Anndora had all of it, she said she didn’t have to put up with Anndora giving her attitude.
Anndora being the youngest was used to having her way. Children born pretty as Anndora got people smiling up in their faces before they’ve earned it, so they start out thinking that life’s a pushover.
Which brought to mind that as much as I didn’t have time for Anndora, I would of rather been talking to her even than to Jesse.
‘How ’bout giving me Anndora’s number,’ I asked him.
‘Hang on, sweetheart,’ he said. ‘I’ll see if I could put my hands on it. Tammy’s probably got it in her book somewhere, though I know Anndora’s like quicksilver the way she rushes from place to place. On planes and off planes more than Joy she was.’
I didn’t like to hear him mention Joy in the past tense. It was like he’d buried her already.
Last I’d heard, Anndora had been living in Milan, Italy, and it wouldn’t of surprised me to hear she’d shacked up with some gangster, ’cause all that ever interested her was brassy clothes and flashy cars and she didn’t care how she came by them. Joy said I didn’t give Anndora a chance, but then Joy was the main one who ruined her. When they was little, Joy used to dress Anndora up like a china doll and pull her up and down the streets in a red wagon so that folks would stop ’em to ooh and aaah. Joy wasn’t but four years older than Anndora, but once Tammy went off the rails over John Dagwood, Joy played mother. She had sense but she was too soft, so little as Anndora was, she walked all over Joy and that didn’t never change that I could see even after they got big. Kindness is one thing but you ain’t ’sposed to let people treat you like a door mat.
Helen used to say that she thought part of Anndora’s problem was that she looked too white and thought she was too good to be with coloreds, and it’s true enough that she didn’t never have no colored friends at school, not that there was many of them there to choose from, ’cause Tammy’d got her into a school out of our district and whereas Anndora should have been going to Grange Elementary two blocks away which was almost all colored, Tammy’d put her into a school over by the library, six blocks from the house where wasn’t nothing but white folks and Mexicans living then, though I hear it’s all colored now.
But when I’d go to collect Anndora out the school yard and she’d be standing with them little Mexican children that she was always making friends with, I couldn’t hardly see no difference between her and them.
I hated to think it, but Joy seemed proud that her baby sister didn’t have no color to her. Even Anndora’s fingernails and toenails was thin and brittle like white folks’.
When Bang Bang Bang was touring in Europe, all heads turned when that girl sashayed down the street with them green speckly eyes of hers and that dark reddy brown hair hanging down her back in big waves and ringlets. Them folks in Europe couldn’t believe it was hers and was always asking if she had on a wig and what country she come from. Anndora lapped it up, but over the years, she got to look way older than Joy. I expected as much, and was always telling Joy to be thankful she was brown, ’cause that light skin wrinkles up quick.
Jesse had come back to the phone. ‘Baby Palatine, either I’m not concentrating well enough or it’s actually not in Tammy’s book, because I can’t see Anndora’s number or her address. But I know she’s living in Milan, if you want me to see if I can get her telephone number from the international operator.’
‘Ain’t no need going to all that trouble,’ I told Jesse. ‘When d’you think I should phone back to speak to Tammy?’
‘Give it a few hours.’
‘A few! I’m setting in San Francisco at my wits’ end and I got to wait around a few hours to find out what’s going on?’
‘I understand how you feel, but we’re all helpless. Life takes an unexpected turn like this, and as much as we want and expect the world to stop, everything goes on. That’s something I learned working in the police department. Life goes on.’
I didn’t want no policeman’s lecture, I wanted to know what had happened and why, and I wasn’t gonna get no satisfaction out of Jesse, but I figured Rex might have some answers.
Jesse hadn’t finished talking. ‘Baby Palatine, we plan to drive to New York as soon as Tammy wakes up, because she thinks that’s the best place for us to all be. She asked me to ask you to meet us there if you phoned, and I assume you have Joy’s address.’
With Freddie B out of work two months I didn’t hardly have the money to get across the Bay Bridge on a bus, so getting to New York was gonna take some doing, but I didn’t let on to Jesse.
‘Okay, I’ll meet y’all there. I don’t know nothing about the planes and that, but I’ll get myself there.’
‘I’m sure that’s where the funeral’s going to be held,’ Jesse said, and as I was worried that he would start in talking about Joy again I hurried to get rid of him.
‘You’ve been a big help, Jesse. Thanks. And I’m looking forward to meeting you proper. Bye, now,’ I said and hung up.
Petty things can set me off, but when I got to deal with the big ones, I even surprise myself.
Dry-eyed, I opened my kitchen cupboard and took out that box of Sugar Pops and kissed it before I slung it in the trash.
I ain’t claiming I was thinking completely straight though, ’cause if I had of been, the thing I always say when anybody passes would have come to my mind which is that ‘the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away’, ’cause don’t nobody know as good as him when your train’s come to the end of the line.
But my pea brain didn’t settle on no thoughts as clear as that, ’cause it do often let me down when I’m trying to think sensible, and I needed a clear head to figure out how I was gonna get to New York when the money jar I kept for rainy days was lower than I’d seen it for donkeys’ years partly ’cause Freddie’d been putting his big hand in it to dole out money every Sunday for the organ fund at the church.
That’s the onliest bad habit Freddie B’s got which is trying to act like we can do more than he can afford to when it come to the church collection. I tell him, ‘There ain’t no shame to you being broke and out of work, and all you got to say to Deacon Penrose when they ask for our organ donation is, ‘‘I ain’t got it. Pure and simple,’’ ’cause he probably been out of work hisself and knows that if you could be out earning a wage packet, you would be.’
But Freddie B thinks it ain’t Christian not to give when we get asked.
‘Shoot,’ I tell him. ‘What kind of a mean so-and-so do you think God is, if he held it against a man that worked hard all his life for being a bit short on the church collection from time to time. Anyway, the organ ain’t for God, it’s for Deacon Penrose who claims that organ music is so important for lifting up our souls. A guitar and a tambourine would do just as well, and he knows it good as I do! Like when Brenda and Joy was singing up at First Tabernacle and all we had was that jangly ol’ upright that Sister Fletcher’s sister bequeathed to the church. Brenda still sang good and won them gospel contests, and wasn’t nobody jumping up to the pulpit in the middle of her solos to say, ‘‘She ain’t got the spirit ’cause we ain’t got no organ’’.’
But I can talk to Freddie B sometimes till I’m blue in the face and he don’t listen. So his hands been in my money jar so many Sundays that there was nothing left in it but sixty dollars. Which ain’t nothing, so I tried to think on who I could call and borrow some money off and not leave them short, and the onliest person who came to mind was Sebastian Egerton.
Much as I harped on that Joy would of been better off to stay with her own kind and leave them white boys alone, I would have been more than happy if she’d of settled with Sebastian, ’cause if a man loves a woman crazy, like Sebastian did Joy, that’s who you put down roots with. Don’t matter what color he is. Like me turning up with Freddie B. I didn’t take a mind to marry him ’cause he was either smart nor cute nor light with his lanky self. I married him ’cause he was plum loco about me and with him heading out for the war, I figured I wasn’t gonna find nobody living or dead that loved me as much as Freddie B did. And thank God I did the right thing. Which is more than I can say for how wrong Joy did by shining Sebastian on. She said he was too tall and thin to be sexy.
‘What’s that got to do with anything,’ I tried to say, but even my countrified eyes could see Sebastian didn’t have nothing but a young boy’s body though he must of been twenty-two at least. And though that was six years younger than what Joy was, I reminded her that Freddie’s younger than me by two years but that didn’t stop us from getting hitched up.
‘Here comes Mister Too-Lean-to-be-Seen,’ Brenda used to holler at Sebastian when he climbed on stage with them other three musicians that played back-up for Bang Bang Bang. And Sebastian would just laugh with that shy way he had and pop a toffee in his mouth and walk on over to his keyboards. I hadn’t never seen nobody but my brother Caesar eat as much candy as Sebastian and have a full set of healthy looking teeth and still be the size of a rail. It gave the impression that he was way taller than six foot one inch and what with him being long limbed as well, in body he reminded me of Freddie B when we was young. But that’s where the similarities stopped.
Sebastian was always pushing that flop of blond heavy hair of his back, ’cause it was always falling in his eyes, and from where his hair separated into a natural parting, I could see it was his natural color though Joy was always teasing him that he got that perfect straw color out a peroxide bottle. There’s no denying Joy sure knew her blonds, and when we was all working down in LA for the first promotion tour, Joy said she preferred them tan, blond surfer boys to Sebastian ’cause they had some meat on their bones. It was a shame that she said that in front of Sebastian, ’cause even though he would laugh like he saw the joke in it, I know it probably hurt his feelings with him being so gone on Joy.
Brenda said there was two things that put Joy off him. The first being that he was too crazy about her and the second being that he didn’t have nothing but the wages he made off playing for the Bang sisters. But with that said, I could see he didn’t love nothing living better than a black Bechstein he got to play when we was recording in the LA studio and a silver and brass trumpet he carted everywhere like it was his only child. He’d named it Sunshine and kept the silver and brass on it gleaming better than I could.
Seeing him around them Southern California boys, Joy said you could tell right off that Sebastian was foreign. And it was true. He didn’t even have to open his mouth for you to hear that English accent of his that I liked so much. Though Freddie B thought he talked like a fairy. But like I said to Freddie B to put him straight, them English soldiers that Freddie said he met when he was fighting overseas during the war must of sounded just like Sebastian, and Freddie had told me when he come home how brave he thought they was for white boys. They wasn’t no sissies. And neither was David Niven that Sebastian sounded just like to me.
Sebastian had him a college education. In fact he explained to me one night when he was setting in my room waiting on Joy that he had him two college educations, ’cause he’d been picked out special from all the people at his music college to get him a degree from a university at the same time he was taking a special musician’s course. I didn’t get all the gist of it, and I had a hard time trying to picture him being at two different schools at the same time, but I believed him, ’cause even though he was a atheist, I could tell he wasn’t no liar, and in spite of him throwing cuss words around all the time, even when he wasn’t mad, you could kinda tell he was real smart and from good people. He would just cuss for the sake of it, and like other folks would say good morning, with Sebastian it was always ‘F’ this and ‘F’ that.
It put me off him at first, but Joy told me not to take no notice ’cause he didn’t mean nothing by it, no more than them other musicians did. But I didn’t never cotton to it. But seeing as he wasn’t no child of mine, wasn’t nothing much I could say to him. He was nice enough otherwise and had a gentle way about him that I liked.
Seeing Joy standing with him reminded me of the first time I saw her walk out swinging Bernie Finkelstein’s arm when we was living on Grange. Her and Sebastian looked made for each other, and the few times I saw her let him put his arms ’round her, I could see that he didn’t want nobody else in the world but Joy. He’d kiss her on the cheek with his lips just about grazing that rouge she wore to go with her fire engine red lipstick that was all the rage then. His lips would just barely touch her like he thought she was too delicate to kiss harder which used to make me want to laugh, ’cause delicate was one of them things Joy wasn’t. And sometimes when we’d be waiting, the whole crowd of us, the girls, the musicians and the roadies, waiting to check into some hotel where we was staying on tour, I’d see Sebastian stand just close enough to Joy for their shoulders to touch, but he wasn’t never bold enough to put his arms ’round her unless she put her arms ’round him first which she didn’t do unless she wanted something off him.
Joy charmed Sebastian into loving her when he first started working with the girls. But I think it was ’cause she was antsy, with Rex off touring in Europe. She said she was bored and needed a diversion.
‘A diversion! Sebastian Egerton ain’t no road re-route. He’s a man, Joy, and you can’t get him all excited about you if you don’t mean to do right by him, ’cause that stuff comes back on you.’ And sure enough she got the same treatment from Rex Hightower.
I know Joy had Sebastian in her room all night for two nights once. But I didn’t hear no sounds like they was having no sex. ’Cause with me always in the room by hers and thin as some of them walls was in them hotels and motels we stayed in while we was traveling, I could hear if she had somebody in there and was actually doing something with all that noise she liked to make. Whooping it up like a mule on the run or a hog getting murdered. A few times I got up out the bed and took a shoe to the wall. Not that I was bothered to hear her having sex since she was grown and what she did with her body was her business, but she was s’posed to be a star. Folks got to recognizing the girls in them hotels and I didn’t think all that noise was dignified and didn’t want nobody putting it out that Joy was fast, ’cause Anndora had that reputation and deserved it.
It was Anndora said Sebastian’s dick was too small for him to be any use to her or Joy and I wanted so bad to slap her face not only for talking dirty, but for knowing in the first place what he had between his legs. I reckon she only got in the bed with him to spite Joy, and whereas Joy said after she caught ’em together that it didn’t bother her one way or t’other, I felt Sebastian had a chance with Joy before that. Anndora didn’t care where she put herself and I never thought I’d see the day when I met a woman that I felt took advantage of men when it come to sex. But there came Anndora to prove that it was possible.
I was there the night she dragged Sebastian to her room. They’d both been sitting with me in the bar of a hotel we was staying at one night on East Pleasant Street in Baltimore, and Anndora handed him one of her sleeping pills to pop in his mouth, ’cause he said he couldn’t rest after them shows. Next thing I knew the boy was slurring his words and spilling his Wild Turkey that he always ordered wherever he went but never drank. Them pills didn’t affect Anndora like they did other folks. They was supposed to be sleeping pills, but no sooner than she had one, she was wanting to lay on her back and throw her legs up in the air. It was Brenda that saw Anndora lead Sebastian off and told Joy when she come to set with us that Anndora’d took Sebastian up to her room. I know she just told it to stir things up. And that’s the exact results she got, ’cause Joy went and got a key from the porter claiming she was Anndora and walked straight into Anndora’s room at that ritzy hotel and caught Sebastian sleeping there in her sister’s bed. Joy said she just walked in on ’em for a joke, but I knew that in her heart she was hurt, ’cause much as she said Sebastian didn’t mean nothing to her, he had that thing about him that made you trust him and I don’t think she ever thought that he’d be one to do no dirt like mess with her sister when he claimed he had eyes for Joy.
Sebastian tried to explain what happened and him and Joy finally had a little set to about it, ’cause I heard him say to her the next night ’fore they went out on stage, ‘You’re hot and cold. Interested but not interested. I don’t know what the fuck you want and I don’t think that you do.’ She turned her back on him and he whirled her ’round to face him. ‘If I wait for you after the gigs to make sure you don’t get hassled,’ Sebastian said, ‘you’re annoyed because you say I’m hovering around too much, and now just because I passed out in your sister’s room, you’re not speaking and moody and want to give me a hard time.’ But Joy didn’t never like to be disturbed before she went out on that stage, and always wanted to go on there smiling like the world was hers, so I wasn’t surprised that I didn’t hear her answer. She was checking herself in the mirror ’cause that’s what she did last thing and she acted like he wasn’t talking to her.
Sebastian and the other musicians always went on before the girls and did a couple songs to warm theyselves up and gee the audience up, and then Sebastian would yell to them other three players ‘Jump for Joy’, which was the title of the song he wrote that they played to bring the girls out. I used to stand by and watch ’cause didn’t matter how hot it was, I enjoyed seeing them fans get excited when Bang Bang Bang hit the stage. Sebastian always had a Camel cigarette lit, perched on the edge of the electric keyboards he played, and I never knew why he bothered to light it. Maybe just to give him some honky tonk atmosphere, so he could see the smoke drift up in front of his eyes ’cause with all that dancing his fingers did ’cross them keys, there wasn’t no time for him to smoke, he had that piano burning up so. When his fingers hopped around them keys like they was hot to the touch, Brenda used to laugh and come off and say, ‘You had that piano smoking again white boy.’
It always surprised me that Sebastian’s hands wasn’t nothing special to look at. Long as the rest of his body was, his hands was smallish for a man’s, and fingers maybe even on the short side.
I agreed with Joy that I didn’t know what all them little white girls was screaming at everytime Sebastian stepped out on the stage, ’cause wasn’t nothing manly about him but his manners and them fans wasn’t to know that. He had a girl’s face and looked too soft. Except for that square chin of his that had a dimple in it, wasn’t much sign of man, and from off stage there was no way they could of seen them long black eyelashes he had that I always teased him I wanted to borrow when he finished with them.
There was two numbers that Sebastian got to play trumpet on and when he stepped from behind his keyboards and synthesizer that was always lined up in a ‘L’ shape at the far side of the band left of the drummer to walk over and take over and take centre stage with Brenda, them girls used to get theyselves in a frenzy like somebody sanctified that had caught the spirit, screaming ‘Seb! Seb! Seb-astian’ like they was calling God. I used to get to giggling till I couldn’t catch my breath at them simpleton girls acting so crazy.
Brenda said it near broke her heart to hear a white boy playing trumpet as good as Sebastian could and especially with him being so English at that. She used to say she had a good ear for trumpet solos and I believed it, since she had stayed partial to the trumpet from that time I took her and Joy to First Tabernacle and she heard Sister Hall’s brother Tommy playing. Anyway, she used to grab the mike in the middle of that second trumpet solo Sebastian played and yell, ‘The white boy’s got soul,’ and Brenda could really howl it like some preacher and get the crowd to chanting it too. And Sebastian, shy as he was, used to always flush pink and slip back behind his piano like he didn’t have them wild young white girls screaming to yank his drawers off him.
Then as part of their stage routine, he would give a loud count into the next number. ‘TWO – THREE – FOUR – JOY, JOY, JOY!’ he’d call across to them other musicians and Brenda would start in on a real pretty slow tune, sounded like a spiritual that Sebastian said he wrote special for Brenda, but any fool knew he wrote it for Miss Joy as well. And I thought he liked to play that one after his trumpet solo to show that however many of them girls in the audience that was hollering out his name, Joy was all that was on his mind. And I believe she was all that was in his heart. Yes indeedy. Sebastian Egerton was in love with the whole of Miss Joyce Clarissa Bang. Every fart. Every bruise. Every hangnail. Every period pain. Every dark mood. And I noticed she had more than a few when we was on the road … he loved her for all of what she was. Not like them boys she met down them places where the girls played who was only interested in the glamorous, smiling Joy; the one they figured had some money in the bank, which wasn’t nothing but a illusion ’cause that music business is a pot of gold with a hole in the bottom of it for most of them people struggling to get by in it. Though Sebastian, unbeknownst to Joy at the time, was one of them with better luck.
Joy said the love flowed so from Sebastian Egerton’s eyes when he looked at her, it was like staring into full beam headlights and she had to look away to keep him from blinding her. And at them rehearsals, I’d catch him sometimes staring so hard at Joy it’s wonder he didn’t bore a hole into her while her and Anndora’d be practicing their back-up steps.
One time when we was setting in a hotel bar by ourselves and there was a piano, he played me a instrumental he wrote for Joy called ‘Without You’. Way before it ever got recorded. Then later he showed me all the music that he wrote out for it. I couldn’t believe it.
‘You did this by yourself,’ I asked him. It looked as much Greek to me as them pages of Hebrew I see written in the front of Freddie B’s big Bible.
‘Yeah,’ said Sebastian holding them thirty or so music sheets like they wasn’t nothing. But every line was filled in so neat with music notes and dots and dashes and I don’t know what all. ‘It’s a concerto,’ he told me, and showed how all the parts was for different instruments, violins, violas, flutes and a harp, that he believed he would one day get to play it.
‘Child, you a genius! Did you let Joy see this here that you done?’ I asked ’cause I thought that seeing how smart he was might warm her to him a bit more.
‘No. It’s no big deal. I learned to do it at college. It passes the time,’ he said and sifted them all back in the big brown envelope they come out of. He wasn’t one to brag about nothing and the onliest time I heard him brass his buttons was the night that he come to sit in my room and told me about his two younger sisters that he raved about and who was still living in some place in England near Birmingham. He didn’t talk all that much about his folks and I didn’t get the feeling he had a lot of time for his daddy who was a retired physics professor.
I loved that boy like a son by the time we’d been out on the road a few months, ’cause I noticed he always made sure I wasn’t stuck nowhere by myself and got me anything that was handed out free. Course I realized part of it was to do with him knowing that I was closer to Joy than even Brenda and Anndora, and he probably figured that getting to me was a way of getting through to Joy. But for all that, the boy was special and I even respected him for leaving us when he did ’cause it showed he had heart.
It happened after our big show at the Buzz Club in Chicago. The next day we was driving fast out of south-side headed for a club we was playing in Rockford and our limo hit a dog. Joy told the driver to keep going which wasn’t like her ’cause she liked animals. But she liked being on time more. Then Sebastian chimed in and said he rather be late for a gig than to hit a dog and leave it in the middle of the road.
That poor limo driver that come with the car we was renting for that day didn’t know what to do when Sebastian pulled back the window separating driver from passengers and told the man to stop after Joy’d just told the man to keep going.
Only Sebastian, me and Joy was in the car, ’cause the rest of ’em had gone in another car with Danny Lagerfield who was managing the girls.
‘Stop the fucking car,’ Sebastian said like he wasn’t in no temper but was about to be. ‘I’ll get out and take care of the fucking dog and you can stuff your fucking gigs, Joy. See how well they’ll play tonight without me, you cold-hearted bitch, because I couldn’t play anyway if I had to think about that poor fucking animal we left in the road.’
Joy was used to having her way with him, and I was kinda glad to see him putting his foot down, ’cause I thought he was right and it was the Christian thing to do, although his cussing and name calling wasn’t necessary.
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Joy said in that sweet way that had him wrapped ’round her finger. ‘We haven’t got time to stop, Seb, and as hard as we hit it, he’s probably dead anyway.’ Sometimes she could be as good as Tammy at making sense out of nonsense.
Sebastian wasn’t listening to her. ‘Stop the car,’ he said again to the driver. ‘I’m out of here!’
I didn’t think he had it in him, ’cause he was always so easy going which I forget and mistake for weakness.
Wasn’t no way in the world that we could of got through a show that night without that boy, and Joy knew it good as he did, ’cause he was band leader and apart from that, he had made a name for hisself working for Bang Bang Bang, and a lot of them girls come just to see him.
Joy didn’t never let herself get mad if she didn’t figure being mad was the best way ’round a situation. Otherwise, I guess she would of told him where to go then and there, ’cause I saw the thought flash through her eyes. Her lips was pursed tight like they always was when she was thinking hard, though she let common sense guide her, and I let out a sigh of relief.
‘Please turn around and pick up the dog,’ she said to the driver like the idea’d been hers all along. But I knew she was already steaming and scheming which is how she did if she thought somebody got the best of her. She was setting quiet in that limo planning vengeance, and I think she knew I knew it. ’Cause I knew her good.
I used to always try and tell her when she was growing up not to forget that vengeance was the Lord’s. It was in Joy’s right ear and out her left.
That poor cocker spaniel was still laying out there in a pool of his blood and whining though it didn’t look like there was much left of it to be conscious, and Sebastian lifted it careful up in his arms like it was his sick child and he couldn’t see the blood. Then when he climbed back in the car with it, he insisted on sitting up in the front with the driver so we didn’t have to look at it, and made the driver circle slow round that slum till we found a kid on a bike who knew where there was a vet. Sebastian paid the boy five dollars to have the kid lead us there on his two wheeler, but all that boy was interested in was getting Joy’s autograph and since we had a few records of ‘Chocolate Chip’ we gave the child that as well as the money.
Though Joy got to smiling and acting friendly, she was still in a heat, I could tell from her pursed lips, which meant that even if it didn’t look like nothing was eating her, she was actually setting there figuring out a way to get back at Sebastian. It was pitiful to see her wanting vengeance, ’cause her mind would get set on that one track and she couldn’t hardly think of nothing else. That was her only big weakness and I couldn’t train her out of it from when she was a kid.
Even though Sebastian was in the right that afternoon, I could tell that Joy wasn’t gonna let him get away with backing her in a corner and wasn’t but a week later that she convinced Danny, the girls’ manager, that Sebastian had too much to say in things and made sure she’d found a replacement before Danny fired Sebastian.
I was sure sorry to see Sebastian have to leave and he took the guitar player, little Jimmy Fraser, with him which Brenda said was to be expected as him and Jimmy was best friends and it was Sebastian that had introduced little Jimmy to Bang Bang Bang in the first place. I didn’t let Joy know that I got ’em both a going away present and when I give Sebastian the ashtray I got for him, I told him that I knew good as he did why he was really getting fired. He squeezed my hand, but didn’t say nothing.
No sooner they was gone, they put their own group together … I think it was called Margarine. No. Maybe it was called Butter, I can’t remember but it was something that you could spread on bread, and whatever the name of it was they had a great big ol’ hit with the song Sebastian wrote called ‘Too Old to Boogey, Too Young to Die’. Couldn’t hear nothing else on the radio. They put it out after Bang Bang Bang broke up over that mess about Brenda being a lesbian. And since Joy knew I liked Sebastian a whole lot she made me a tape with that song on it and the one that was on the flip side which had that instrumental on it Sebastian’d wrote for Joy, ‘Without You’. It was beautiful, and I didn’t dare tell her that I knew he’d wrote it for her. ’Cause whereas on the one hand she was thoughtful enough to tape it for me, Sebastian didn’t never get mentioned again after he got fired. She’d erased him which wasn’t easy to do seeing how big that band of his and Jimmy’s got. Hit after hit they had and got way bigger than Rex Hightower ever thought to be.
Sebastian rang me a few years later when he was getting ready to go on a solo tour of Japan and asked if I would tag along with him to look after the back-up singers that he was taking. I was wanting to ’cause he was offering me a lot of money and Freddie B was out of work, but I felt that Joy would have been upset with me if I had of gone, ’cause she was used to me siding with her over everything. Including her firing Sebastian Egerton like she did. When he asked on the phone about Joy, I reckoned he wasn’t over her ’cause he was so salty when I said that she was on the road with Rex. Sebastian said, ‘What’s she still doing wasting her time with that fucking no-talent coke head?’ I took coke to mean Coca-Cola, naive as I was, and thought that Sebastian was smarting over Joy choosing Rex over him. But I should of listened. Sebastian give me different numbers I could ring if I wanted to change my mind and go out touring with him, and though I scratched them down in pencil in the back of Freddie’s Bible, I didn’t reckon I’d ever put them to use.
But Sebastian Egerton was the onliest person I knew of in the record business that would of cared as much as I did about how Joy got buried and I toyed with the idea of calling him to see if he could help me get to New York. Out of all them rich folk that Joy claimed she knew including ‘Lord this’ and the ‘Earl of that’ she met over in England, if any of them would mourn her passing, it was him.
And Freddie B of course who was still laying sleep and none the wiser …
I peered out my kitchen window again down to the San Francisco streets and wondered why everything hadn’t stopped, but like Jesse had said, life goes on. And though I wanted to stick my head out that window and let out a long roar over San Francisco to raise the spirits of my mama, and brother Caesar, and Tondalayah Hayes that I had lost to death, and beg them to stand together and wait on my Joy who was coming, I didn’t. I just cried.
Fifteen minutes later I had wiped so many tears away on the hem of my nightgown that it was near to sopping wet. I decided to get dressed and to pull myself together for my husband’s sake.
I thought I should put on something cheerful, so I would look bright even if I didn’t feel it. ’Least it would make me feel better when I caught myself passing the hall mirror. So I went and stared into the hall cupboard where I kept my good clothes and wondered what was gonna be right for me to wear to tell Freddie B that Joy was dead.
Pink ain’t what I call my color, but Joy once surprised me when she said I looked my best in baby pink ’cause dark as I was, it lifted my complexion, and Freddie B sat there with a lump of snuff in his mouth agreeing with her. At the time, I didn’t know they was conniving me and that what was really about to happen was that Joy was planning to buy me a pink silk trouser suit as a Easter present. It was made in France, ’cause she didn’t bother with nothing made in America if she could help it, and Freddie B loved that it had a floppy long buttoned down shirt that hung over the baggy pants to hide my backside.
I pulled that suit off the hanger and took it in the bathroom to put it on, trying all the while not to let myself get to crying again ’cause it seemed like I’d lost control of them tears and they was starting and stopping when they felt like it. Like I myself didn’t have a bit of say in it.
While I washed and slipped on my things, I was practicing the best way to tell Freddie B about Joy but however I put them words together they didn’t come out no easier and said the same pitiful thing. Our God-sent child was dead.
First off I thought I’d say, ‘Listen, Freddie B, why don’t you have you something to eat ’fore I tell you something bad that’s happened.’ But he didn’t like me beating about the bush over nothing important so I thought he’d better have the direct approach. ‘Listen Freddie,’ I said out loud, ‘ain’t no use me mincing words, ’cause Joy is dead and I might as well let you have it straight.’ But that seemed too mean, so I was thinking I’d say something soothing with it, so I said, ‘I can stay home and keep you company watching the wrestling on Sunday night like you like, ’cause Joy’s dead and I won’t be going to Reno.’ But that didn’t sound like I was telling him no more than that he had pork chops for dinner. Then I figured that the nicest way to tell him was by taking him a mug of coffee and setting at the end of the bed to say ‘I got sorriful news Freddie B from Tammy that you ain’t gonna want to hear no more than I did …’
But all the while I was practicing and dressing, them tears flowed so I couldn’t believe I had fluid in my body for no more, and I was wiping them and blowing my nose when Freddie B popped his head ’round the bathroom door to say, ‘Wife, I done told you about talking to yourself all the time. Next thing you know them men in white’ll be knocking on our door to take you out of here.’ He’s always in a good mood from the minute he gets up and it took me off my guard him sounding so perky, which got me to boo-hooing out loud.
‘Hey now, girl, I was only joshing. You keep talking to yourself if’n it makes you happy. Ain’t nobody gonna come in pass me and drag you out of here,’ he said trying to be nice.
He ain’t one for cuddling but he come and stood by me and took my left hand in his ’fore he slipped off my spectacles and pulled some toilet paper off the roll to wipe my face.
For all that practicing I did, wouldn’t nothing come out my mouth but a croaky whisper.
‘Our God-sent child is on her way to heaven, Freddie B.’
‘Well, if that was what was meant to be, Palatine, it’s wrong for you to be crying like you mad about what God done willed. Joy’ll be all right. Least off she ain’t gonna get no rheumatism like I’m getting and no lumbago like you got. So calm yourself and let’s give thanks that you had her for as long as you did.’
‘You mean ‘‘we’’ ’cause she was yours too,’ I said reminding him.
‘Joy was everybody’s,’ he said steering me by my shoulders into the kitchen. ‘Let me heat you some coffee.’
Freddie B believes you got to live and let live, die and let die, and whereas I was worried that he would take Joy’s dying as hard as I did, seemed like as if he was expecting it. Which is just what he was like when his mama passed though it was unexpected ’fore we moved West from Louisiana. At the time, I was scared I had married somebody who didn’t have no natural feelings, ’cause he didn’t show none, but he told me standing by him at his mother’s grave, ‘’Cause you don’t see no tears on the outside, don’t mean I ain’t got none flowing in.’
He ain’t easy to figure, as easy as he is by nature.
‘Who’s taking charge of Joy’s funeral?’ Freddie B asked after I watched him fix two mugs of coffee and head back to the kitchen doorway where he stopped and beckoned me to follow with a jerk of his head. I trailed behind him to the living room like his old mutt.
‘Tammy’s s’posed to be,’ I said as I set myself down opposite him at the table, ‘but from the sounds of it, she done gone to bed … again!’
I added that again ’cause when Dagwood left her she took to her bed with nothing but a bitty temperature which she used as her excuse not to get up afterwards for months. And while I didn’t expect for a minute that losing Joy would affect her near as much as losing Dagwood, I didn’t know what to expect from her and was worried about what I could do with no money, if Tammy took a mind to play at being sick ’fore she got Joy buried proper.
Freddie B asked, ‘You spoke to Tammy?’
Of course the half truth was yes. But all a’ sudden I didn’t want to tell my husband nothing but the whole truth about that and a lot of other things that I’d kept from him for years ’cause of Joy. They had piled up. And setting there at the table with him, I felt guilty about all that I had kept back. So I tried to answer his question honest as I could though I knew he wasn’t gonna be happy about what I said.
‘When Tammy phoned I didn’t want to believe something bad could’a happened to Joy. But then, by the time I was up to hearing about it and phoned her back, Jesse picked up and I didn’t want to get the story off him.’
Freddie B looked over at me blank. Like I knew he would. Not able to understand why I didn’t cotton to Jesse telling me about how Joy died. And he give me a man’s answer. Like I knew he would. ‘Jesse ain’t no stranger. He married to Tammy and treats her fair too from what we done heard off Joy.’
‘Heard from Joy, Freddie B.’ I try to correct him, but it don’t do no good, and sometimes I just have to throw my hands up in the air and give up on him.
‘Heard off her or heard from her … it amounts to the same thing which is that the man is married to Joy’s mama and he got just as much right to talk about Joy dead or alive as anybody, I reckon. I betcha it’ll be him that’ll have to pay for the funeral come to that, ’cause Tammy ain’t worked in years and don’t have no money of her own.’
‘If she’s working or not, or if Jesse is or not ain’t the point. Rex Hightower ought to be paying for Joy’s funeral. And giving her eulogy as well. That’s exactly why I wanted to have words with Tammy and tell her to make sure that the man does something for Joy now, ’cause she been doing for him all these years. Running after him. And waiting for him to marry her when she could of done something with her life.’
‘He wasn’t holding no gun at her head, now wife.’
‘But Freddie B it ain’t fair that that Rex with his ooh-boo-coos of money don’t do nothing for Joy.’
‘Well he ain’t never been doing for her that I can see, so it’s late to expect him to start up now. Zebras don’t change stripes. A man born stingy’ll die stingy.’
Sometimes there wasn’t no getting sense out of Freddie B. He saw things like a man, so I decided not to say nothing else to him ’fore he made me mad about Rex. My nerves was too worn out to be disagreeing with anybody about anything. And what really had me on edge was the worry as to how I was gonna get the fare to New York which is why I was ready to fuss with my husband. He’s always nearest at hand for me to pick on when I get niggly, poor man.
So I tried to think of something nice to say, something that would shift some of the money worry off of him, ’cause no doubt it come to Freddie’s mind quick as it come to mine that a funeral meant money. ‘’Member that English kid I told you about? Sebastian Egerton? I’m thinking on calling him to see if he’ll lend us the fare to get us to New York where Tammy told Jesse she wants us all to meet up at Joy’s.’
Freddie B is funny about borrowing and though he’s quick to lend, I ain’t never known him borrow off nobody but his eldest brother Harold who had a chicken farm in Louisiana and did not bad and loaned us the money in ’49 to get to California. So it didn’t surprise me all that much when Freddie give me a funny look over the top of his spectacles like he do when he’s fixing to lay into me about something. But first he stuck a pinch of snuff in his bottom lip and hawked a big spit in that aluminum can I keep for him down by the table leg, since he always takes him a wad of snuff in the morning. My baby sister’s the same.
‘After all these years of paying my dues on time,’ Freddie B said, ‘I figure I can borrow some off the union. Maybe not enough to get us both back East, but sure enough they’ll lend me fare for one, ’cause this is a emergency.’ That was his way of telling me that I wasn’t calling no Sebastian Egerton, and slow as Freddie B is to getting things said most times, the words spill out his mouth quick when he ain’t in the mood to be disagreed with.
With my husband creeping through his whole life like a snail, I used to ponder how he managed to keep up at work. But my brother Caesar once told me that Freddie B had him a fine reputation on a industrial site Freddie’d got Caesar some work at one time. Caesar said Freddie was known not for fast bricklaying but for bricking sure, so’s when he did something, that foreman didn’t never need somebody to follow behind to rebrick a second time.
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