Sunday, December 12, 2010

SAVED (Chapter 1) Mama Finds Religion

Copyright © 2010
All rights reserved to Miamac

Even before the pianist broke into a holy mix people had begun screaming, jumping, and running up and down the aisles of the somewhat crowded sanctuary, forcing my young eyes and ears to compete. I’d only seen something like this on T.V., in some movie called the Cotton Club that showed black people jumping around wildly like their feet were on fire. Mama had explained they were doing a dance called the jitterbug. Amid heavy baseline grooves men would toss their female partners high in the air, then swing them between their legs, bounce into a quick split and get right back up dancing, never missing a beat. As a kid watching it had been explosive, but that was T.V. and this was real, up close and personal.

Our new church, Mt. Caramel Baptist, had become the place to be on Sundays. It had a young and hip vibe like its minister, Reverend William Thomas Valentine, who I swear on the Bible looked like he could be Smokey Robinson’s twin, green eyes and all. Many believed it was his good looks and boyish charm that had attracted so many. A few others thought it was the A-list of secular and gospel stars that frequented the services, or the show stopping performances of the choir or even the guaranteed, melodramatic sideshows the gays put on. Shamefully nobody once mentioned the word of God.

My cousin, Bryan, and brother, Junior, were crouched underneath the pew across from me drowning in laughter, only coming up for air when they needed a recharge. The feather tickling their fancy was an emotionally spent gay man, who hopping down the aisle was playing a makeshift guitar. His tensed facial expression resembled that of Jimi Hendrix’s when he gave his memorable performance at Woodstock. Using his left arm as the guitar’s neck and his belly as the body and strings, the man fanned his hand in sync with the hypnotic beats coming from the organ, shouting out an occasional hallelujah every now and then.

Wendall, the church pianist and musical director, always knew just the right chords to hit to ignite the congregation’s spirits. But it wasn’t his pianistic artistry alone that had gotten them all riled up.  Reverend Valentine also had played his part in the ongoing praise frenzy. Unlike the traditional preachers of his time, he liked to move about the floor, giving them more spins and turns than James Brown. He also could belt out his sermon with the best of them and on cue his sidekick, Wendall, would hit just the right mix of keys to help bring his message to a climatic finish. Together the two of them would create a roller coaster ride that gained momentum on each turn and just when you thought the car was going to take off flying, Wendall would slow the melody, releasing the hold on its riders and easing them back down to earth. This was usually about the time the good ole Reverend would open up the church doors to draw new members close to thee.

A lady sitting next to me looked like she was about to blow. Her hands were outstretched and her face practically in her lap while she progressively screamed over and over, "Thank you, Jesus."  A telltale sign of a person getting ready to lose it. I wanted to get away but there was no where to go. From where I was sitting it looked like just about everybody was getting in on the action. I was glad Mama was up in the choir stand. The last time she got ‘happy’ sitting next to me she almost squashed me to death.

Everybody was saying that she’d gained a lot of weight since coming to St. Louis. She’d moved here to be near her sisters after making the brave decision to leave my daddy, whose cheating and gambling ways had gotten the best of her. One late night while he was out doing God knows what, she packed up her bags and dragged seven of her eight children to the train station. For a while everything seemed fine, that is, until she got saved…..then all HELL broke loose.

I was too young to have gotten attached to the old her, the woman mama was before the change, before she’d gotten saved. But I can remember when she and my Aunts were thick as thieves and all of our cousins and us were just one big happy family. There would be a card party every Friday night that usually ran through Sunday. Talk about living for the weekend! We kids would run around rowdily acting like it was nobody’s tomorrow, while Mama and her sisters cooked up everything southern. I’m talking about some deep fried catfish, home made spaghetti, baby collard greens, golden fried chicken, sweet corn bread, steamed okra and everythang juicy in between. The sweet tunes of Marvin Gaye or Aretha Franklin would blast in the background, amidst the loud, rambunctious laughter of black folks having a good ole time.

But like all Lewis family gatherings the night would end in chaos. Just as soon as the booze would run low, the card game would heat up and somebody would start cursing and fighting, busting up the party and leaving a few members hot under the collar. But come Thursday all would be forgiven right in time for the upcoming weekend. You see in our family blood was thicker than water. And if anybody messed with one of us, they knew they had to deal with all of us and baby, our numbers ran deep. Yeah, we were tight like that…..back then, before Mama got saved.


The nurse stopped by to give mama her daily dosage. She’d been in the mental ward for almost two weeks. Still groggy from the drugs, she reached for the nurse’s hand.

“Miss, can you tell me where my children are?” The nurse could tell she was really concern and felt sorry for her. She couldn’t imagine raising two children by her lonesome let alone eight.

She gently patted my mama’s hand. “Sweetie, don’t worry about that right now. You just get some rest so you can get better.” Although she'd meant well it didn’t keep mama from worrying. The nurse released the medicinal cocktail into mama’s IV and walked away.

Unwelcome memories too washed in.  Angie Lewis-Carter was back in Atlanta in a heated argument with her husband. Like always he was drunk and had gambled away his paycheck, and the rent was already two months behind. And to pour salt inside an open wound, she’d caught him cheating again. The drugs had disarmed her defenses, forcing her to watch the unedited slideshow playing forever in her head. 

Her final words to him had been venomous.  Deeply wounded he’d stormed out, giving her no choice but to make good on her threat of packing up the kids and leaving. 

The empty platform at the train station made it all feel so binding. She’d made sure she’d had a window seat just in case, but he never came to stop her, them from leaving, opening her scars even wider and deeper.  Did he even care?

She could feel herself slipping further into the darkness.  Scared of what was waiting she again tried to fight but her screams were muted, rendering her helpless and breaching her floodgates. 

The tears flowing felt as real as that day, the day she’d faced the towering, dismal buildings of the Parkside projects for the first time and had to enter inside the disgusting elevator cage transporting all of them up to their new apartment. She’d remembered holding her breath, not wanting to inhale the strong stench of urine marinating in waste on its floor. She again looked into the whites of her children’s eyes as they too sensed the violence trapped inside the cold brick walls of the place they would be forced to call home.

Not wanting to see more mama squeezed her eyes shut but still they came. Too vivid was the wild card parties with relatives and friends that had always become overheated, making those who’d had too much to drink curse and spill words that cut deeper than any two-edged sword.

She quickly slipped out and back into consciousness, awakening to the pain-stricken face of her eldest son, Darnell, who lay bleeding on the hospital’s bed after being shot by a robber while he’d waited for the elevator. A part of her too had bled on the inside. No! She cried within. “Stop! I don’t wanna see any more. Please,” she pleaded to nobody in particular. But the memories just kept coming.

She’d heard the horrid tales but had not wanted to believe them. But now it was her son and they were planning revenge, but she didn’t want any part of it. But she’d not said anything to stop them and now a man was dead, stripped naked and killed in cold blood. Did his kids find him? What about his poor mother? The guilt flowed freely deep from within her soul.  She wondered how long she would be tormented … and then she heard Him, "All is forgiven." And just like that, she remembered how she’d gotten to this awful place. She exhaled and willingly surrendered to the darkness … and peace … awaiting her.


“Boy, get your retarded black ass down off that electrical line!” I heard the white lady scream at my little brother, Gary. She really didn’t give a rat’s behind if he got hurt. She just didn’t want him messing up the T.V. signal, interrupting her beloved soaps, something she watched all day, every day, while we kids cleaned her house like we were slaves.

Gary, who was only four at the time, was weird like that, climbing up live wires and such. And Junior thought it was funnier than hell. “Stupid, yo’ butt gon’ get electrocuted,” he’d joked.

But that silly boy didn’t care one way or the other, and with sparks flying and all, Gary jumped down like he was some wild monkey on a tight rope.  Not only was he not hurt but he was totally unaffected by the harrowing experience.

There were just five of us staying at the home. Sandra, my eldest sister, had convinced mama to let her stay in Atlanta to keep an eye on daddy.  My two older brothers, Darnell and Steven, weren’t home when it all went down.

Neither of us understood what had really happened, like why and where they’d taken our mama and why we had to stay at some strange white lady’s house. The day it went down was hazy:  mama and some church ladies were screaming and jumping up and down in our apartment; mama was walking around on the porch with her hands behind her back like a chicken speaking jibberish; and the next thing we knew, some men in white coats came and took her away. A social worker had gathered us kids up and told us that our mama was very sick and that we would have to go stay in a home for a couple of days until she got better.

Like any kid in a strange place we kicked and screamed the first few days, but after nobody came to save us we shut our mouths and did whatever Massa told us to. And just in case we got any ideas about calling somebody for help, she’d hidden all the phones. You always hear that weird stuff be going on in foster homes.  Well, it’s true. Our caretaker enjoyed throwing her nasty, dirty panties in the dish water. She’d stand in the kitchen, pull them off and throw them in same sink where my sister was washing the dishes we had to eat on. It wasn’t like we could call anybody and report her, so of course we kept it to ourselves. I used to pray every night we were there, “Lord, please save us.” But days turned into weeks and weeks into months. I couldn’t tell you how long we were trapped in that place, but I know it sure felt like a lifetime.

Mama did eventually get released and we all got to go back home, to our Parkside projects’ apartment…..and that’s when everything really began to change.

“Demons, get ya’ll behinds in here, right now!” she screamed at the top of her lungs, cutting off our oxygen.

Since she’d given up cursing, when she got angry we’d be reduced to the bile of hell, demonic spirits with little hands and feet. We knew she’d just hung up the phone with Miss Johnson, her religious sidekick, church guru and new best friend, which meant we were in big trouble.

We raced into the living room and lined up like dominoes, something we were getting use to doing. Daddy had kept mama pregnant and barefoot for half of her young 34 years, making us just a year or two apart. And standing next to each other we looked like a winding staircase, each a step higher than the next.

“Which one of you demons answered the phone earlier and left Emma on hold?” She folded her arms across her massive chest while awaiting the guilty party’s confession.

Just hearing that woman’s name weakened our young bladders. And even though we’d all heard Junior knock on the bathroom door and tell mama that she was on the phone, we were too scared to speak up. Who was she going to believe, us or the woman that saved her? It didn’t help any that mama, acting on her new faith, had gone cold turkey giving up both cigarettes and liquor, leaving her edgier than a crack head in detox.

“So ya’ll demons ain’t going to say nothing, hunh,” she snorted. “Then I guess I’m going to have to whip all ya’ll behinds. Go get me your black belt!” she ordered Steven.

For a small kid Gary was pretty tough and took his whipping like a little man. Us girls, Lynette, Darcy and me cried way before and after.  We particularly felt sorry for our brothers, Junior and Steven, who always seemed to get it much worse. For every lash you could feel the pain pouring out of her. It would be like she was beating our daddy for all those times he’d hurt her. And poor Junior….he was a spitting image of daddy so he got it raw. When she would grow tired, she’d send us to our rooms. I remember hearing my sister, Lynette, sobbing, “She was never like this before.”

By the time Darnell came home mama was sitting alone at the kitchen table in the dark by herself with just a blank look on her face. He knew it meant trouble and tried to walk lightly back to his room.

“And where the hell have you been?” she fired.

He knew she was looking for a fight and not wanting to be her spark, said the first thing that came to mind. “Ugh…I was ugh…shooting ball with Ed.”

Eddie was my mama’s nephew, her sister Shirley’s oldest boy, who 17 was about the same age as Darnell. The both of them, my mama and Aunt Shirley, had gotten pregnant real young and within months of each other so our Big Mama, their mama and our grandma, stepped in and practically raised both boys by herself. It made them as close as any two brothers could be.

Mama eyes burned with anger. “You mean to tell me that after what that woman and your Aunt Esther did to me, you’re still messing with those folks?!”

She was talking about when she was hauled off to the crazy house. Miss Johnson had supposedly overheard my Aunts plotting against mama on the porch that day, the day she’d gotten saved and filled with the Holy Ghost and was speaking in tongues.

“You don’t know if it was really them,” Darnell argued. “Shoo, I heard it was a lot of people on the porch who thought you’d gone crazy, including your neighbors. Anyone of them could have called those people. Anyways, I can’t believe you going to take the word of some woman you just met over your own sisters, when they’ve had your back from day one.”

It was true, blood had always been thicker than water in the Lewis family, but this was before it had left a bloody trail to mama’s own door. She wasn’t about to let him drag her back into her past, a past filled with painful memories. No, she was done with that life and had now become a new creature like it said in the Bible with a clean slate. She badly needed him to see the truth…her truth.

“And why would I take the word of some cold blooded murderers?” The blood slowly drained out of his face. “Now baby,” she coaxed, “I know your Aunt Shirley and Esther may not have pulled the trigger, but we both know they were behind it. Shoo, Eddie and the others were only doing as they were told.”

He’d heard the rumors after he’d gotten out of the hospital but had never tried to get at the truth. After being shot in an attempted robbery, he’d accepted his own truth; he lived in a war zone and that with war came casualties. A reality every tenant in the Parkside projects understood and accepted. But more important were these soldiers had been his family and they’d put their lives on the line for him.

His eyes became ice cold. “So what!” he finally mustered up enough nerve to say. “That nigga didn’t give a damn about me. Why should I give a damn about him?”

His callous reply chilled her soul. She’d never imagined this kind of life for herself or her children and never in her wildest dreams thought any member of her family would approve let alone be involved in such a gruesome murder. Yes, they’d all been raised on the ‘I got yo’ back, you got mine’ mentality and back then like her family, believed it was an eye for an eye. But now things were different and she was a born again Christian turning the other cheek.

She looked at him long and hard. “Now boy, I know I told you there ain’t going to be no more cursing in this house. And whether you like it or not, I don’t want you hanging ‘round those heathens any more!”

“So you just expect me to cut off my own people just like that, like they’re some street hoodlums….some criminals? Is your life so perfect mama that you ain’t ever made no mistakes or done something wrong for all the right reasons?”

Guilt struck a nerve and she lost it. “Boy, who do you think you talking to?! I’m the one who birthed you!” she screamed. “I carried your nasty behind nine months….”

“So what!” he fired back. “You may have birthed me but you sure as hell didn’t raise me!”

He was sorry he’d said it even before he’d finished the last word. It was a low blow and from the glazed look on her face, he knew he’d hurt her.

After a cool minute she stood to her feet and locked her hands on her hip. “Well, I’ll be. So I guess now you think you grown, hunh? Boy, the devil sho' got you tricked.” She slowly shook her head and borrowed a few words from Miss Johnson. “Well, son, the devil is a liar and the truth ain’t in him! So Mr. Man, if your stupid butt wanna keep hanging with those devils, then I suggest they take care of your ungrateful black behind.”

She knew she’d said the words but was shocked they’d come out of her mouth. Darnell was her first born and had been more like a brother than a son to her, and at times, her best friend. Before she would have never thought of putting her own out in the streets, but she had to let him know she meant business and it was either going to be her or them.

The burning sensation in his nostrils was like a spray releasing water into his eyes. She was making him choose and threatening to put him out if he didn’t make the right choice -- her choice. This person was not his mama. The mama he knew would never turn her back on her family or put any of her children out in the cold. It was simple, he was right and she was wrong. He just couldn’t back down now, even if it meant leaving the only family he’d ever known.

He stared her down. “If that’s the way you want it, then fine, mama.”

She could hear him bagging up his things. She wanted to run into his room and tell him she didn’t mean it but then that would make her a weak willed woman, like the ones Miss Johnson dutifully warned her about in the Bible. No, this new her was a strong Christian who was not afraid to stand on the word of God, even if it meant losing loved ones. Shaking and fighting off tears she whispered, "Angie girl, stand firm." The same words she knew her new best friend and spiritual advisor, Emma Jeanine Johnson, would have said to her.

Carrying two paper bags full of his things he walked over to the kitchen table and laid down his key to their apartment. He turned and looked at her one more time hoping she’d stop him. But she didn’t, so he kept his head erect and walked out the door a man. The striking sound of the heavy steel door slamming behind him made him think of a wrongly convicted prisoner having his life as he once knew it forever stripped away. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

SAVED (Chapter 2) A Taste of Sorrow

Copyright © 2010
All rights reserved to Miamac

The light paper bags felt heavy with sorrow.

What the hell is wrong with her? I’m her own damn flesh and blood. How is she going to just throw me out, just like that?

He made his way down the dark, dank hallway leading to Aunt Shirley’s apartment. They lived in the same building as we did but in a separate wing.

The Parkside projects was a public housing community for the poorest of the poor and consisted of four massive brick buildings, ten stories high, having each three columns. On each floor there were a total of six apartments encircling a large, cemented and iron fenced porch. Aunt Shirley and we both lived on the top level.

No matter how much he blinked, his vision remained blurred as he wallowed in pity. But he dare not risk stopping and instead quickened his pace, anxious to reach safety. Once at her door he did a quick eye wipe before knocking.

Aunt Shirley peeked out the tiny peep-hole drilled into the enforced steel door and with a big smile immediately opened it. “Boy, whatcha got in those bags? I bet yo' mama cooked, hunh?  She sniffed the cool air breeze hoping to catch a whiff of the delectable aromas.  All three sisters were great cooks and usually sent each other plates of food in exchange for a phone call of praise.

He just stood quietly with his head hung low. She caught a tear drop.

“Baby, what’s wrong? Are you hurt? Did somebody mess with you?

He shook his head, no, confusing her even more. “What?” She examined the bags closely and seeing there was clothing inside began putting two and two together. “Did yo' mama---,” she shook her head, “Child, get in here!”  She slammed the door behind him.

“Now Angie has really lost her muther fuckin’ mind, putting out her own flesh and blood!” Aunt Shirley wasn’t stingy on curse words, especially when she was mad or drunk....or both. Family had always been front and center of her childhood and adult life, so it angered her to see any one of us children hurt.

“I betcha that voodoo, man lookin’ bitch Miss Johnson had something to do with it!” She snatched up the telephone receiver only to hear it was already being used. “Hang up the phone, I need to use it,” she ordered before slamming it back down. She waited about a minute or two before picking it up again and hearing the sweet laughter of teenager's in love.

“Didn’t I tell your black ass I need to use the goddamn phone!” she screamed into the receiver. “You don’t want me to have to come back there and beat the hell out of yo' ignorant, dumb ass!”

She heard a double click and quickly began pounding on the key pad. He knew she was either calling mama to give her a colorful piece of her mind or Aunt Esther, since strength came in numbers. Either way he didn’t care to hear it and tried to hurry down the hallway towards Eddie’s room. But he hadn't moved fast enough.

“Girl, can you believe this shit! Angie n’ put Darnell out!” he heard her complaining.

Although he was mad and hurt that mama had thrown him out, it hurt more to hear the sisters speaking speak ill of her. No matter their differences, she was still his mama and he loved her very much.

The anger in Aunt Shirley’s voice had become as shrill as an injured banshee, blanketing every livable space in the tiny apartment. He hurried and shut Eddie’s door in hopes of drowning her out.


Mama slumped down on the couch. Things had gotten out of hand and had not gone the way she’d wanted. Little by little she was losing all those who had been closest to her, who’d been there in good and bad times. But Miss Johnson had forewarned her that this would happen, that those closest to her including her very own seeds would turn their backs on her. Her exact words were, “Angie, child, don’t be surprised when they start turning against you. The enemy is angry that you’ve given your life to the Lord and will do anything to make you turn back around, including using your loved ones against you. That ole serpent the devil is like a roaring lion seeking whom he can devour. But girl, now you stead fast in your faith and trust that God will bring you through. Remember, weeping may endure for a night, but joy, cometh in the morning!”

Emma, girl, I sure hope you’re right, she thought sadly to herself as she let the tears flow freely.

Did we hear right? Did mama just kick our big brother Darnell out? And did she say we can’t be with our cousins or Aunts anymore?

Our world was crumbling with us balled up inside. Our new, saved mama was ripping our family apart like cheap toilet paper. Like prisoners hole up in a cage we limited our movement hoping the still and silence could help us escape the madness.

Steven sat stone-faced staring at the bedroom’s picture-less brick wall.

“Stop crying and acting like a punk!” Junior whispered to Gary, whose tears were mingled in snot. Scared to go to the bathroom for tissue he threw him a dirty shirt. “And niggah, wipe your face!”

Junior wanted to be as old as Steven, who age 15 was three years older than him. He emulated everything Steven did to prove him the bigger man, including masking his pain, even though he was screaming on the inside.

The Parkside projects were turning us all into empty shells; it seemed the only way to survive.

"What the hell just happened?" Steven questioned nobody in particular. “Man, why she doing this? Acting like she hate Aunt Shirley and Esther when they didn’t even do nothing. Shoo, she the one acting crazy and stuff, hanging with that church lady and beating us for no reason. She can’t keep us from seeing our brother or Aunt Shirley ‘nem! Damn, I wish we’d stayed in Atlanta with daddy.”

We had all heard him say it, a curse word, but nobody said a word.  Somehow it didn’t matter.  Nothing did.

Each telephone ring perfected its clarity but none of us dared go answer it.

“Hello?” we’d heard her say. “I already told you not to call here no more!” Mama bit hard down on her lip not sure if she was yet strong enough to go toe-to-toe with Aunt Shirley, who she knew wasn't going to bite her tongue.

“Angie, you mean to tell me you are going to throw away yo’ family just like that?! You’s a crazy muther fucker to let some dike ass bitch tell you what to do!” Aunt Shirley continued ranting and raving but it didn’t matter. Before she could say another word, mama slammed down the phone. She then took a deep breath. “The Blood of Jesus, the Blood of Jesus,” she chanted over and over to muffle the piercing monotone of the ringing phone. Not able to drown it out, she just took it off its cradle and let the line go dead.

It was all I heard before I drifted off to sleep. I prayed it was all a dream.


The nightmare continued as she screamed for us to get up and get dressed for school. We girls quietly obeyed but were moving in slow motion, the way most people do when preparing for a funeral. Still sore from yesterday's beating and from a rough night's sleep my body ached all over as if strong field hands hand wrung it dry like a wet towel.

The birds should have been chirping, the sun smiling and the wind easy. Afterall, it was Friday. But Darnell was gone, stripped away just like our father. For us he’d been the next best thing, helping us to adjust to the hell hole we’d been dropped into. Worse, she’d cut us off from the rest of the family, the only people who we could trust to love and protect us.

Mama’s extra weight was beginning to slow her down and had caused her to shuffle instead of picking up her feet when she walked. The friction sounded like two pieces of paper rubbing together and was just loud enough to give us fair warning of her approach.

She peeked inside our room and was surprised to find we were nearly dressed. “It’s almost 7:00,” she said dryly before shuffling down the hallway towards the boy’s room.

Because our family was quite large the apartment complex assigned us one of the two 700 square feet, 4-bedroom units on our floor. We three girls shared a room; the boys, Steven, Junior and Gary, shared a room; Mama, of course, had her own room and so had Darnell.  But now that he was gone Lynette and Steven were each hoping to lay claim.

I could hear mama fussing in the wind.  “I know one thing, if ya'll expect to eat some breakfast than ya'll better hurry ya'll little greedy behinds to school.  Lord knows I ain't got nothing here left to feed ya'll.  Little demons are eating me out of house and home."

Like the other tenants receiving public assistance we were coming down the stretch -- the last week of the month when food and money was real tight. So the free breakfast and lunch they gave us at the public school was our only real meal until the 1st, when mama got her welfare check. Until then dinner might be toast or sugar sandwiches and some Kool-Aid, and when that was gone we would fill our acidic bellies with warm water to help us sleep at night. 

Lynette steered us girls into the living room to wait for our brothers. Mama believed there was safety in numbers so she’d make us walk to school together. Still dazed we sat quietly staring at the blank T.V. screen. The deafening silence had created an eerie ringing in my ear.

She carefully weighed our zombie-like composures. “So what the hell is the matter with ya’ll?!”

The muscles tightened our jaws.  “Oh, so ya’ll are giving me the silent treatment, hunh?”  Little demons, she muttered loud enough for us to hear.

I could see the intensity in her eyes. The horsemen in my heart took off, galloping too fast and too hard. One by one the boys stumbled in, saving us girls from Mama’s short fuse. Lynette bolted up and headed towards the door with me and Darcy right on her heels.

Head hung low, Gary walked with both hands stuffed in his pockets; Steven was kicking everything in sight: rocks, bottles, cans -- whatever wasn’t affixed; Lynette was squeezing my hand tight so that I wouldn’t fall behind like Darcy, whom she’d had to scold once or twice to keep up.

Junior was marching to his own beat, taking short, deliberate steps. He kept glancing over at Steven, anxiously awaiting him to open his mouth so he could then speak ahead of him. Denied, he first thought to kick at a plastic grocery bag chasing the wind but then finally blurted out, “Man, I can’t stand that lady!”

“Who, Mama? Or are you talking about Miss Johnson?” Lynette asked. A strong head nod affirmed the latter. “Me neither,” she sighed.

“It was her who told mama to kick Darnell out," Junior determined. “At least that’s what Darnell and Aunt Shirley said, didn’t they Steven?”

Steven just rolled his eyes, exhaled and continued kicking.

Junior shrugged his shoulders. “Shoo, I didn’t know. I thought he just meant mama.” Darnell had made them both swear to keep it a secret that they’d sneaked and called him. “Anyways, she ain’t gon’ tell.  Are you, Lynette?”

She shook her head, no, and then curiously asked, “Is he okay? Is he back home?” The door to his room had been closed when she’d awaken so she hadn’t been sure if maybe he’d been in there the whole time.

“Nawl, but we did talk to him and Aunt Shirley last night after mama went to bed. He’s okay, but he’s still mad.” Steven went right back to kicking trash, but asserted more energy like he was angry that he’d been made to speak.

He saw one of our cousins in the distance. “Hold up,” he yelled. He turned to Lynette, a mischievous grin plastered on his face. “I’ma catch up with ya’ll, okay,” he said before running off to join them.

“Man, I wanna go,” pouted Junior who hated that he was only eleven.

“No,” she said sternly. “Yo’ behind need to stop kissing up behind him. Shoo, Steven know daggone well that Ray-Ray and them ain’t up to no good.”

Junior brushed her off.  She turned to face him and shook her finger.  “Boy, I better not hear you skipped school to hang with them either.  If you do, I’m gonna tell mama everything. You hear me?”

Pouting, he begrudgingly nodded, yes.

There were only two elementary schools within an eight mile radius for tenants of the Parkside projects and Parkside Village, a neighboring community of town homes. The one we attended was less than a mile from our apartment building and had an abandoned lot located right next to it. We usually cut through to save time and sometimes treated it like it was our very own ghetto treasury hunt, since people running through it sometimes dropped trinkets and loose coins.

Lynette turned back around and almost tripped over a dead body of a nude girl partially clothe in leaves. She covered Gary’s eyes, spun him around and then placed his hands over his ears. Just as quick she told me and Darcy to do the same thing. But it was too late, I’d already seen her. A young black girl no more than ten or eleven years old lay naked from the waist down with her eyes wide open. Someone had raped and killed her and had tried to cover it by pitting her body amongst the weeds, trash and tall grass.

It was weird. Here lay a dead body and yet none of us children uttered a sound. We’d seen so much so fast in the death trap we now lived in that it left little room for empathy. I’d begun noticing that my ability to show emotion was evaporating just as fast as my tears.

“Ain’t that---? Lynette shushed Junior, not wanting him to say the girl’s name aloud. Her little sister was in Darcy's class.

“You think she...” Lynette quickly nodded, yes, wanting to keep him from saying the word 'dead' out loud for the rest of us to hear.

“Damn,” Junior said staring at her partially nude body.

Lynette pinched him for cursing and then realizing he was examining her private body parts, too made him turn away. He staggered into obedience. She then found a large piece of cardboard lying nearby and used it to cover up the dead girl's nakedness.

Junior turned back around and curiously asked, “Lynette, whatcha gonna do? You think we should tell somebody?”

“I don’t know,” she shrugged, “I guess we should.”

Fear escaped Junior's lips. “You ain't gonna tell mama are you?”

“Boy, no!” Lynette was scared but not enough to do anything that stupid. These days telling mama anything was like confessing to murder. After Miss Johnson got wind of it, who knew what she’d convince mama to do to us, especially once she learned we’d taken a detour.

“Maybe I’ll tell my teacher,” she lied. She wasn’t quite sure who to trust but she did want the girl’s mama to know where she was. She just couldn’t figure out a way to do it and still protect us from the woman we called mama. The first school bell rang. She quickly led us out of the lot back onto the sidewalk and then told us to make a run for it.

As we approached the school’s doors she threatened all of us to keep our mouths shut, telling no one what we’d seen or heard them say in the lot.

Gary looked like he was going to cry. Not sure how much he'd seen or heard, she prepared herself just in case she needed to comfort him. Only five and a mere baby she couldn’t expect him to act like an adult, like the rest of us were made to do.

She knelt down to where he stood. “What’s the matter, Bucket Head,” she said affectionately.

“I’m hungee,” Gary whimpered to her surprise. She got a weird feeling in the very pit of her stomach.

“I know, me too,” she told him. Sugar bread was more a snack than a meal and always left you floating on empty air, like you’d not eaten anything at all.

“But if you wait, I promise to bring you an apple from the cafeteria. Okay?”

“Okay,” he grinned acceptingly. She rubbed his head and walked him to his kindergarten class. His easygoing mannerism could fool the naked eye, but not hers. Something just wasn’t connecting inside Gary. She hoped he would grow out of it but worried our new environment might darken his heart even more.

By the time she made it to her own classroom, her teacher and a few others were out in the hallway huddled together in a deep discussion. It allowed her to slip in unnoticed.

The Parkside projects were the nucleus of drama and like a drug, its poverty-stricken tenants couldn't get enough. Not even death could make them overdose in restraint.

One student stood engrossed in a very graphical description of the girl’s body. Another was dramatically portraying the little sister’s reaction to learning her big sister was dead. Lynette thought about Darcy and pushed a few tears down her cheeks. She watched the faces of her fellow students as they listened to the gossip spilling onto the classroom's floor. Some were just intrigued, others appeared sad but a few had too begun to cry.

It was then that Lynette broke down into loud sobs. She cried for her daddy who she missed dearly. She cried for her big sister, Sandra, who she’d once been very close to and had not seen or talked to in over a year. She cried for her brother, Darnell, who she wished was back at home. She cried for the mama she once knew and loved, and for the one she now hated. She cried for herself and for her siblings, lambs made to sleep in a wolves’ den. And she cried for the dead girl who would never see her loving family again. 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

SAVED (Chapter 3) Is Blood Thicker Than Water?

Copyright © 2010
All rights reserved to Miamac

Ray-Ray brazenly invaded Steven's space with an aggressive hand grip that pulled him into a shoulder bump.  “Lil nigga, what choo been up to?" came the deep, raspy voice.

The contact slightly lifted his jacket, revealing a pager and revolver tucked away inside the waistband of his jeans.  While it made Steven uneasy, he knew he’d nothing to fear.  “Nothing, man,” he replied.

Our cousin Ray-Ray was Aunt Shirley’s second oldest boy and although only a year older than Steven, he’d fast become one of the most feared tenants in the Parkside projects.  His fame could be traced back to the killing of Darnell’s robber since it was what helped elevate his street game.  The act itself was common warfare but the cold blooded manner in which it was carried out was said to be something out of a gangster movie.  One story had them hunting down their victim, stripping him naked and giving him a false hope of escape.  But once he took off running, the way his victim, Darnell, had done when he’d been robbed, they went in for the kill.  Supposedly it was Ray-Ray who pulled the trigger.  Each version grew more grotesque, some even painting Ray-Ray a stone-cold killer who emptied his magazine at close range.  In the projects, gossip laced in truth could easily turn rumors into legend, which is how Ray-Ray’s rep was fortified time and time again every time somebody new spun their version.

Like a mob hit, many say the gruesome murder was intentinally done in public to inflict fear in those considering retaliation.  It was important to let everyone know that the Lewis clan was off limits and if anybody dare challenge it, lead soldier Ray-Ray was ready to prove the threat real.  Nobody cared about the police or the victim's family.  Tenants had little trust of the suits for hire and the victim's family knew the game; you either came harder than your enemy or you cut your losses and walked away quietly.  The Lewis family numbers ran deep, too deep to count.

Ray-Ray reveled in the power the fear surrendered and used it to form his own little army.  It didn't take long for him to secure top dog position in the broken community and deeply carve his own rock from the flourishing drug business permeating inside the Parkside’s walls.

“How Aunt Angie doing?” choked Ray-Ray.  The coarse texture of his young voice aged him to that of someone who’d spent most of their adult life abusing booze and cigarettes.

Steven lowered his head and whispered, “She good.” 

Ray-Ray flicked a nod. “Good, good.” No matter how dirty some of our cousins got their hands, they remained respectful to the matriarchs in the family, even after the rift mama caused.

He swung his arm around Steven’s neck. “Cuz, why don’t choo hang with me for a bit?  I got’s some biz I might need choo to handle.”

Steven wrung his hands in anticipation of finally getting it wet with some real cash.  He’d long wanted to be a part of Ray-Ray’s crew and he hoped that maybe today would be the big day.

Ray-Ray usually let his soldiers do his bidding but he’d gotten word there was a snacker amongst them. A snacker was a drug dealer who dipped into and smoked up the product rather than selling it for profit.  No solider of Ray-Ray's was allowed such a sweet bite. 

“Choo know dat nigga Boogie?” he asked Steven, who immediately nodded, yes, since everybody in or near the Parkside projects knew Ray-Ray and his crew very well. Boogie and Ray-Ray had been friends since third grade and had entered the game about the same time.

“Mane, dat punk azz nigga been fuckin’ up. Goat ‘nem say he dippin’ in my shit, costin’ me money.” He squinted his eyes and tightened his jaw. “Cuz, choo knows I don’t play dat shit!”

They’d reached his door but stayed off to the side so that Boogie wouldn’t see them if he looked out the peephole.  Each apartment’s main entry door was made of heavy reinforced steel, the same material used in prisons, which all but guaranteed no force entries, making invitations a must.

“Knock on dat nigga doe, cuz,” he whispered. “If he see just choo, dat nigga won’t thank anythangs up.   

Steven took very short breaths as he knocked on the door. Boogie immediately swung it open.

“Whaddup nigga?” Ray-Ray chimed in before he could react. “What…choo ain’t gon’ invite us in mutha fucker?”

Boogie tried to play it off, but he’d just smoked two blunts and was somewhere between heaven and hell. He could barely open his eyes and slurred all his words. “Aw, mane, you knows I ain’t trippin’ like dat. Shit, ya’ll mutha fuckers know ya’ll welcome up in dis joint.”

Ray-Ray, who was practically breathing down on him, sniffed and then walked past him inside the apartment. Boogie knew something was wrong and wanted to run right out the door but was too wasted to make his legs behave they way they should, so he just closed himself inside with the other cubs and one very angry lion, Ray-Ray.

The apartment reeked of freshly smoked marijuana. Ray-Ray spotted two roaches inside an ashtray on the kitchen table. “Nigga, I know yo’ azz ain’t gettin’ fucked up on my time…..and with my shit!”

“Shit nawl, mane,” Boogie laughed.

Ray-Ray got up in his face. “So choo thank dat shit funny, hunh?” he said, the words barely escaping his clenched teeth.

Boogie was visibly shaken and struggled for words. “Ugh…nawl, mane,” he said, eyes darting. “I…ugh…used my own shit.”

“So why yo’ azz hidin’ in dis bitch instead of out dere makin’ cheddar?”

Steven could tell where the conversation was going. He felt bad for poor Boogie.

“Ugh….I, ugh….mane, I sold dat shit. Yup, got rid of all of it. Shoo, I was just gettin’ ready to call yo’ azz to see if I could get another brick. Dat dere shit was so good, mane, ‘dem niggazz been blowin’ up my goddamn pager all fuckin’ day!”

Ray-Ray grinned. “Now dat shit’s funny. ‘Cause nigga yo’ azz sho' did’nt’ hit me back.”

Boogie snatched his pager off his waist and looked at it. “Mane, da damn battery must be low or somethin’.”

“Whatever nigga, just go get me my shit.”

Boggie looked dazed, like maybe he was trying to think of an excuse but just couldn't
sort out the words disintegrating in the juices of his numbed brain cells. “Ah’ight,” he finally said before willing himself towards the bedroom located in the back of the apartment.

“Go with dat nigga,” Ray-Ray ordered Goat. Boogie lived on the third floor so he’d assumed he might try and escape by jumping out the window, something that wasn’t unheard of in the projects.

Clothes and trash were strewn about the small, cramped bedroom’s floor. Realizing he was being watched Boogie went through the motions, searching inside the closet, dresser drawers and even under the bed.

“Fuck!” he finally gasped. “Dat bitch don’ took all my shit!” Boogie got up off the floor and stumbled back into the living room. He was talking about his babies’ Mama, Felicia, the woman in whose apartment he lived with their three kids.

“Mane, dat bitch Felicia stole my shit again,” Boogie complained to Ray-Ray. “She probably downtown somewhere shoppin’ like she some damn fool. Mane, I told dat bitch dat shit whatz’nt mine, but you know bitches, dey be spendin’ it faster den we can we make it,” he chuckled. “Ugh…dog, why don’t you let me get at another brick and I’ll have dat for you by tomorrow, for sho’? Dese fuckers want it so bad, dey’ll pay damn near anythang.”

Ray-Ray got up off the couch. “Is dat right,” he slowly nodded. For a split second Boogie thought he was off the hook until he saw that nobody else was moving.

“Mutha fucker, choo thank I’m stupid?!  Thank I don’t know what da fuck is really going on!?”

Boogie could see the bulging veins in Ray-Ray’s neck that too matched the anger bulging out his eyes.  In a bad attempt to escape down the hall, he lost balance, bumping alongside the wall.

“Look at yo’ azz, all fucked up and shit! Nigga, sit yo’ silly azz down fo’ you break yo’ mutha fuckin’ neck!” Relieved, Boggie stumbled over to the couch and gladly plopped down next to the others.

“Choo know what?” Ray-Ray chuckled into the back of his hand, “Niggah, I’ma give yo’ azz a break, since choo my boy ‘n all.”

Boogie heavily exhaled. “Ah’ight, dog. Dat’s cool. Mane, I promise I’ma fix dis shit. And I’m gon’ have yo’ money tomorrow like I said, ah’ight?”

“Choo sho’ in da fuck will,” Ray-Ray told him before pulling out his gun and shooting him in the leg.

The others were caught off guard and had to move quickly to get away from the target.

“Damn, mane,” Boogie cried grabbing his bloodied leg, “I thought you said we was cool?”

“We is now,” Ray-Ray half-laughed before cocking his head and again tightening his jaw. “Nigga, da next time yo’ azz dip in my shit, dere ain’t gon’ be no mo’ breaks. You heard?” Boogie almost choked on Ray-Ray's hot breath. Whimpering, he gave him a shaky nod.

“And quit actin' like some lil bitch!” Ray-Ray bellowed. “Carry his azz next doe ovah to Sherita’s house fo’ she can get his azz to da hospital.”  Waiting on 911 was suicidal for Parkside tenants unless your goal was to let the victim die, which sometimes was the case.

Steven was shell shocked and tried to conceal his growing fear. I mean, this was Boogie. He was as close as being family so he'd never expected Ray-Ray to shoot him….and right in front of them? Damn, this nigga is tougher than nails, is all he could think.

“Cuz, do me a solid.  When dat nigga get outta the hospital, I won’t choo to run with his punk azz to make sho’ dat nigga ain’t fuckin’ me,” Ray-Ray ordered.  “Ah’ight?”

Steven wouldn't dare refuse his request and just gave him a stiff nod, yes. And just like that, he was in much deeper than he cared to be.

Mama had set our curfew to when the street lights came on, which was around sunset. They’d been on for almost fifteen minutes before Steven strutted in.

Her arms were locked in place across her heaving chest.  “Boy, you better have a good reason for why your black behind is just getting home.”

Steven’s pupils grew larger as he nervously wrung his hands, something he did whenever he was nervous.  “Ugh, yes, ma’am.  I was over at the lot where they found that dead girl’s body trying to get one of those jobs.”  On his way home, he’d overheard people talking about the dead girl and how the city was hiring people to clean up the trashy lot.

“Right!” Mama-Jeckle smirked. “Boy, now who’s gonna hire your little behind "

"And what’s this about some dead girl?” Mama-Hyde questioned."

“They say she was laying dead over in the lot.”

“You mean the lot by the kids’ school?”  Mama couldn’t believe what she was hearing.  Worse was that she couldn’t believe not one of her kids, especially her little chatter box, had said one word about it.

“Yes ma’am.”  Steven was happy he was no longer the target although he did worry where the conversation could end up.

“Lord, Jesus!  And when did you say this happened?!”

“This morning.” The same unsettling fear that overtook him when Ray-Ray shot Boogie reappeared. His eyes darted to the others, who were sprawled out in front of the television.  Lynette was trying to act like she’d not been listening but he could tell she too was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Mama grew quiet, the kind of quiet that silences grown men.  Her chin was resting on her chest, her eyelids shut tight and her lips pursed, as she strained to keep the curse words from erupting.

“Boy, so did they say who she was, how old she was or if she was from around here?”  The steam coming off her tongue could singe eyebrows.

Steven’s wall of excuses collapsed as her questions came too fast and too hard, making it impossible for him to formulate a good lie.  “Mama, I don’t know,” he shrugged and then pointed. “Why don’t you ask Lynette and ‘nem.”

Lynette gave him the evil eye just as mama called my name.

“Ma’am,” I quickly answered knowing that even a second of delay could force a guilty verdict and immediate punishment.

“Did you know about them finding a girl’s body near your school?”  The intensity in her eyes said, “Don’t you dare lie!”

I gulped a few times before answering.  “Ugh, yes ma’am.”  I knew better than to tell too much but every fiber in my body was begging me to spill my guts, not because I was scared but because I knew it could win her affection. 

“Come here, girl,” she demanded.  Lynette eyes felt like hot coals line up and down my back.  You would think I’d have learned my lesson about snitching after getting beat up time after time whenever mama wasn’t home. 

Mama’s probing eyes made me feel like a lamb going to slaughter.  The control she yielded over me was unfair and merciless.  She preyed on my innocence and desperate need to feel loved, even secretly ordering me to watch my siblings whenever she was away just so I could later report to her.  It was no secret she’d made me her spy.  Shamefully it had made me feel special. 

“So what happened at school today?” 

“Oh, ugh,” I first looked at Lynette and then at mama.  “We was at school and ….ugh,” I swallowed, heart beating faster and faster.  A few of my fingers somehow found their way into my mouth.  “Den the teacher told us, ugh, a girl … ugh…” 

Whenever I got nervous my fingers always found their way into my mouth.  Mama saw right through me and without saying another word, dragged my little behind down the hall into her room and closed the door.

She centered my chin and leveled her face with mine.  “Okay, quit heein’ and hawin’ and tell mama what really happened.”  She’d made it seem as though she was depending on me, me, her secret spy. The pressure was too much for a little kid like me to take and like diarrhea the words oozed out along with my pressure-bent tears. 

“We was, ugh, walking to school and den Lynette, she fell on dat girl, and den ‘cause she was naked Lynette made all of us turn our heads.”

 “Oh, she did, did she?”  Mama coaxed.  “So what else did Miss Lynette do?”  I was too young and naïve to realize that she was setting the trap and like bait, I walked right in.

“Ugh, she told us we better not tell anybody and den she, ugh, made us go to class.  Mama”, I let out a snot blown whimper, “she didn’t even let us eat our breakfast either.” 

Mama’s face quickly twisted into something grim and my stomach did a belly flop when she screamed Lynette’s full name.  We all knew what it meant … especially me.  I’d felt betrayed and that was the first night I began plotting to beat mama at her own game.
After our whipping Darcy cried herself to sleep.  I’d finished crying and still awake, felt forced to play sleep.  Lynette eye’s had looked scarier than mama’s so I hoped by burying my face in the pillow she’d think I was asleep.  I knew she'd been sitting stewing and planning her revenge, but I prayed nonetheless that it would wait another day.

Junior had crept down to our room and I could hear him and Lynette whispering.  I couldn’t make out all the words but I did hear him referring to me.  “Yeah, I see that black-eyed snitch asleep!”

I held my breath and wished I was a mannequin, something inhuman with no feelings or emotion.  Would they do something stupid like smother me and silence me forever?  Let’s just hope they think I’m either asleep or dead already. 

Mama was holed up in her room on the phone with none other than the instigator herself.

“Emma, girl, did you hear about them finding some little girl’s body near the school?”

“What school?”  She knew very well mama was speaking about Pruitt, the only neighborhood grade school closest the Parkside projects.  It was a one-sided game that Miss Johnson loved to play.  Why mama always played along we would never know?

“Pruitt,” she blurted.  “You know the one most of the kids in the neighborhood all go to?”

“Oh, that’s right.  They did say there was a school around here somewhere.  Well, Angie, I’m so sorry to hear such tragedy.  Did they say who the little girl was?”

“Nawl, but Darcy told me the girl’s sister was in her class.  Ain’t it a shame?  Lord, that poor, poor baby had to learn such heartbreaking news at school.  And I hear she was stripped naked.”

“Girl, what you say?!  Ain’t no telling who touched that baby.”

“I know. Sometimes it makes me wonder if I made a mistake coming here.” 

“Girl, what do you mean?  Angie, that sounds like the devil is trying to play the guilt trick on you.  You and I both know if you would have stayed in Atlanta you’d still be living in a world of sin and on your way to hell.”

“You do have a point.”  Mama still wasn’t convinced and let her mind wander back to better times, when we lived in modest but stable conditions in Atlanta. Daddy didn’t have much but he’d always kept a good paying job and since most of his family lived there, we’d had a great support system that landed us in a single-family home versus some drug and crime infested projects.

“Did the kids say anything else?”  Not only was Miss Johnson nosey but she was just like all the other Parkside tenants – church going or not – gossipy. 

It made mama remember why she’d called in the first place.  “Girl, let me tell you what my hellions did.  Emma, can you believe those stupid kids were the ones that stumbled onto that girl’s dead body?”

“No, Angie girl!” She didn’t say ‘tell me more’ but her silence said it for her.  Gossip always got her undivided attention especially when it was as honest and sweet as mama’s blues.

“Unh, hunh.  Emma, girl, I actually had to beat the truth out of ’em, too.  Up in here sneakin’ and then lyin’ right to my face!” 

“Jesus!” cried the polished instigator. 

“After I know I told those rascals not to be in that lot, those disobedient seeds of hell did it anyways.  They are lucky the devil didn’t snatch up their behinds, too!”  Miss Johnson fueled mama’s fire by throwing a few ‘hmmph, hmmph, hmmph” and a few “my Lawd” on her  burning coals.

“Yes, suh.  Emma, girl, you better believe I tried to beat the evil right out of them, especially that beast Junior.  Girl that boy is getting more and more rebellious as the days go by and here I thought he was going to be different than his older brothers. And that Lynette!  Child, I just don’t know what I’m going to do with these ungrateful children.”

“The devil is tricky.  See, he’ll use whatever he can to turn you away from God and back into a world of sin!  Angie girl, what you need to do is fill those babies up with the word of God so them demons can flee, praise God!”

“Yes, Lord!” Mama screamed into the receiver as if Jesus himself was on the other end.  “Emma, I know God told you to tell me that.  And girl, that’s exactly what I’m going to do!  Hmmph, that ole serpent, the devil, sho’ thought he won, but he’s a lie!”

For once Lynette didn’t have to wake me up to get dressed for school.  Trying hard not to wake her up I jumped into the pants she’d laid out for me and snatched my shirt over my head. I could see some movement out of the corner of my eye so I quickly grabbed my shoes and softly tip-toed down the hall into the living room, far away from her growing morning tension. 

Surprisingly, mama was already up and sitting at the kitchen table … smiling.  Since gaining weight she’d been sleeping in more and more.  Lynette always made sure we kids didn’t wake her for fear of an early morning storm.

“Good morning, baby.  Are the others awake, too?” 

“Yes, ma’am,” I dutifully responded before slipping into my shoes.

She waited a few more minutes before yelling and speeding everybody up.  “Now ya’ll hurry up and get dressed.  I want to talk to all of ya’ll before ya’ll leave for school.”

Those words shook everything in us that wasn’t grafted to our insides.  Ever since mama had gotten ‘saved’, each day had been like walking on eggshells. 

One by one the others filed into the living room, anxious to learn their new fate. 

Mama grabbed her Bible off the table.  “Demons, since ya’ll want to be so disobedient, then I got something else for ya’ll behinds.  From now on before ya’ll leave for school, I want each one of you to read a Bible verse out of this book.”  She held the book out for us to see. 

Junior exhaled, and when mama wasn’t looking both Steven and Lynette rolled their eyes.  Gary and Darcy were still half asleep and me, I just smiled.  Everything had become one big contest to see if I could gain her trust again and win her undivided attention.

One by one mama made us read a verse aloud from the tattered looking book.  She warned us that after today we’d have to memorize a verse to say aloud each morning before we left for school … or else.  She made sure to let us know that the devil was scared of scripture and that by having God’s word in us that the devil would have to flee.  We thought she sounded crazy but of course we wouldn’t dare challenge her or say this aloud.  We suspected Miss Johnson had told her to do it and it made us hate the voodoo-church-lady even more.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

SAVED (Chapter 4) Send a Miracle

Copyright © 2010
All rights reserved to Miamac

Sunday had become Mama’s new Friday and was the one day of the week she got to dress up and play the game of holier than thou with her new best friend, Miss Johnson. The two of them had initially met at the community church and were now joined at the hip, referring to each other as blood sisters in Christ.

Our first church, Mt. Zion, was your typical storefront Baptist church and had only about twenty members or so, many of whom literally were a cane away from walking with Jesus. Each Sunday good ole Pastor Jesse, at the ripe age of 89, would wheeze through his hell, fire and brimstone message, dropping in a few ‘and duh-rahs’ every now and then. And for those poor souls who’d fallen asleep, he’d jolt them awake screaming his predictable repent or burn in hell warning. Tired of the same gloom and doom messages, mama and her sister-in-Christ, Miss Johnson, had resorted to having their own Bible study.
I’d overheard mama discussing some new church Miss Johnson had visited. The pastor was supposedly on fire for Jesus, an appropriate description for his radical preaching style. They also had an amazing church choir, something Mt. Zion lacked. But more important was the preacher was young and single and looked like Smokey Robinson.

The two of them were giggling like school girls on a first date.

“Emma, really? Even those gorgeous green eyes? Lord, Jesus!” she'd squealed. Mama was what you’d call ‘man hungry.'  She'd gone without a man for so long that most of her thoughts were consumed by their being.  And although her new religion restricted her vessel from indulging in such fantasies, her mind still ran free. 

She was radiant when she smiled. Her eyes would squint with laughter and her mouth curl up with happiness, exuding global warmth, the same expression she had when singing. Before the change it had been her every day pleasure. Now she only sung once in a while and instead of singing rhythm and blues, she only sung gospel. But every now and then when she'd thought no one was awake, I would hear her humming her Motown favorites, the classic tunes that made even the devout of Christians sway to its hypnotic, soulful beats. 

Everybody had said she’d sounded like Aretha Franklin. One time Aunts Shirley and Esther had convinced her to enter into one of Parkside's community talent shows. She’d won, too. But this was when she used to laugh for no reason at all, before religion had gutted her insides.

Surprisingly when mama hung up the phone she was still in a good mood.  Indeed a rarity.

“Hey ya’ll, tomorrow we're going to a new church. So Lynette, make sure the girls take their baths early so I can do ya’lls hair. And Junior,” she said looking around, “where is yo’ brother?” Steven had begun disappearing more and more but because he dutifully gave her money, she hadn't really made that big of a fuss.

Junior just shrugged his shoulders and kept on watching cartoons like the rest of us. We only owned one TV and it was a Zenith 25 inch floor model, color and not black and white like most tenants had. It had taken mama almost a year to pay it off using Kmart’s lay-a-way plan and was one of few luxuries we owned so she was very territorial. 
Mama took a deep breath, exhaled and then shuffled towards her room. I could hear her humming Aretha’s version of “Amazing Grace” while she searched through her closet and dresser drawers in an early attempt to find something to wear to the new church.

Mama usually prepared Sunday dinner the night before and depending on what she was cooking, sometimes it ran over into Sunday morning.  A feast of Biblical proportions, it often yielded two of everything, including desert.  After sitting listening to the good word for three hours long, she looked forward to coming home to a good southern cooked meal that she could just reheat and dig in.

All week we’d been limited to eating the welfare special -- bologna and Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, which was mainly a cup of broth.

The stench of collards stewing in fat pork and cornbread browning in the oven was making my little belly do flip flops. The many different aromas were like a sweet alarm clock that gently caressed our senses alert.

The aroma always tickled Gary awake, which gave him an edge in tasting whatever dish was already done. “Mama, whatcha cookin?”

“Did mama’s cooking wake that baby?” Mama had always been a good cook and like singing, it usually put her in a good mood.

Gary happily bobbled his head, so ready to hear those magical words.  “Wanna taste?”

The kitchen was right off the living room and one by one we’d all drag in hoping to get lucky, well, everybody except Junior. That boy could sleep through an earthquake.
After everybody had tasted one or two dishes mama announced it was time to get ready.

“Where’s Junior?” she said frantically. “I know that boy ain’t still sleep. Lord, Jesus. Lynette, go wake that child up and make sure the little ones wash their faces and brush their teeth. I don’t won’t ya’ll embarrassing me.

“Yes ma’am.” Lynette was nearing fourteen and had begun taking on more and more responsibility each day. She first stopped at the boy's room and called to Junior to awake.  She'd thought she'd heard him mumbling and headed into the bathroom to complete mama's command.

“Lynette,” mama yelled from her bedroom. “You seen my girdle?”

"No ma'am," Lynette quickly answered.  Knowing the drill all so well she gritted her teeth and rolled her eyes as she braced for mama’s next words.

"Well, would you come help me look for it ‘cause I know I put it on my bed yesterday and now I can't find it no where? Devil sho' is busy this morning of all mornings."

Lynette stammered down the hallway towards mama’s bedroom, angrily muttering as she went. "First it was grandma's fault, then daddy's, then since she don' found the Lord, she's blaming the devil himself. I wish somebody puh-leez give her a mirror."

Having an idea where it might be she knelt down near the bed and blindly reached underneath it, scattering her hand about the dusty floor. Touching something soft, without looking, she pulled it out. Covered in a thick layer of dust and still rolled together entangled in a pair of stockings exactly the way she’d pulled them off after church last week, was the girdle. She handed it to her.

"It was right there under yo' bed."

"Unh-unh-unh. Now I wonder how it got under there? That ole devil!" Mama mused.

In a mad rush she took the girdle, shook the dust off and then bent over and quickly pulled it on stockings in tow just like a one-piece, oblivious to the fact it no longer provided her any support. Grossly overweight she‘d quickly outgrown the largest size sold, over wearing the only one she had, stretching it well beyond its limit, ruining the elastic hold. Now fully dressed she headed into the living room so that she could give us a final inspection. All but Junior was present.

“Junior!” she yelled impatiently. We were trying hard not to look at each other or at mama since we worried our anxious eyes could fuel new anger.  But the TV was off, making it almost impossible.

Just eight more seconds and the game would be over. "Baby, I'm hot," he boasted to himself as he quickly dribbled the ball down center court. With the final playoff game on his home turf he knew family and friends were watching and for the few of them lucky enough to get tickets to the jam packed, sold-out game, they, along with the other crazed fans, were probably all up on their feet anxiously awaiting him to make the final shot. He could hear them wildly chanting his team name.

"Tank! Tank! Tank!"

Six seconds.

Tied at three games each, it all came down to this, the final shot. Fully hyped, he felt cocky.

This be my house. Nobody gonna stop the Tank!

Yet he still debated whether he should risk it and go for the three when he heard it.


It was clearly his mama’s voice. Pride swelled within him, giving him the extra assurance he needed.

Three seconds.

He went for it, effortlessly releasing the ball with the buzzard going off as it floated in the air. Pleased with his form and with his hands still hanging limp up in the air, he confidently muttered, "All net baby!" Then as if someone hit the slow-motion button, the ball came down slowly, bounced once off the rim and went right back up again. Coming down a second time its position was now centered, practically guaranteed to fall straight through the net. But before he could know for sure her brash scream jolted him awake.

"Demon!" she screamed standing right outside his door, "You better have yo’ behind out here ready and dressed in five minutes!”

Half conscious with a thick trail of slob seeping down from his wet, moist lips, he attempted to open his crusted-shut eyelids, pulling him back to the reality of the dim, pint sized four-bedroom apartment he'd come to know as home. Wanting to escape a confrontation, sermon-style, he quickly answered.

"Ugh, yes ma’am,” he said barely audible, his mind still half court.

He jumped out of bed, wiped away the slob using the back of his hand and threw on the same black jeans and plaid shirt he'd worn the day before, secretly hoping she wouldn't noticed. Dressed, he hurriedly walked into the living room and quickly sat down on the couch next to Gary.

Gary scrunched up his nose. "Unnnh. Junior smell like pee!"

He saw that mama wasn’t looking and gave Gary a swift kick.

"Ouch!" Gary whimpered.

"Boy, did you wash your nasty behind?" Mama fussed.

"Yes, ma'am," he lied.

Lord, Jesus, mama sniffed. This demon knows he’s lying. Up in here stinking like some filthy alley cat. Just as she was about to open her mouth to chastise him she heard a loud horn.

"Lynette go out on the porch and see if that's a blue bus." Mama got up in Junior's face and shook her finger. "'re lucky. I’m gonna deal with yo’ behind when we get back home."

A few seconds later Lynette appeared and breathed an answer.  "Yes ma'am."

“Grab my Bible off the table,” she instructed before heading out the door, so assured that we'd be tailing close behind like good baby ducklings.


"Here we go again!" grumbled Brother Sam, the church’s bus driver, as he sounded the horn. He hated when passengers made him wait. In the distance he could see a shape beginning to form. “Lord, that woman's big!” he grimaced.

With each step mama’s weight caused her hips to sway, shifting her body enough so that Brother Sam could catch a glimpse every now and then of us children, who well hidden behind her large frame appeared to be playing hide and seek. Once she'd gotten close he swung the lever, opening the door for her to board.

"Praise the Lord, Sister,” he articulated with a plastic smile, “You are sure looking good this morning."

"Thank you, Brother,” mama graciously grinned.

She stepped onto the bus and as if hoisted on a spring, it gave into the pressure, bowing down as she boarded. Mama quickly peered over her shoulder. "Ya'll make sure ya'll speak."

"Yes, ma'am," we answered in unison before mouthing a forced greeting upon entering the bus.

Intent on making his schedule Brother Sam closed the doors and hit the gas pedal two seconds after the last child boarded, not caring if we had to scramble just to make it to our seats.

Fatigued from the short walk to the bus mama gasped for air until her breathing stabilized. "Whew!" She exhaled, “That fool barely gave me a chance to sit down!”


Miss Johnson was pulling her station wagon onto the lot about the same time as the church bus. I counted five children in all coming out of the tightly packed boxed vehicle.  Head-to-toe they all appeared very well groomed; fresh haircuts for the boys, new perm and presses for the girls with coordinating hair ribbons and barrettes to match their pink, yellow and blue Easter-looking church outfits.

Mama Johnson didn’t look too shabby, either. A tall woman in statue, she wore a classic but stylish navy blue outfit that she topped off with a wide brim hat of the same color, a pair of low-heeled white pumps and a single strand of egg-white pearls around her neck. The look perfectly suited her strong, earthly features: beautiful caramel-butter skin that even without makeup was flawless; chiseled jaw lines and high cheek bones that made her lips appear strained; thick, bushy eyebrows and vitamin-rich, shoulder length mane that untamed bounced with each step she took.  But very peculiar were her eyes; the dark black pupils seemed to peer straight into the depths of your soul.

Everything about her appearance radiated power, strength and class, including the way she held her head, high, like she was Queen Sheeba, or the way she walked, bold yet graceful like a Gazelle in full stride. It made many wonder how such a regal creature ended up in the ghetto, amongst the poorest of the world’s poor.

I thought mama was going to bow down but she just smiled admiringly and exhaled a wimpy, “Praise the Lord.” The secret greeting of the saints that when not returned exposed imposters, sinners in sheep's clothing.

“Praise the Lord,” Miss Johnson retorted while scanning each and every one of us.  “So where’s Steven?”    

It caught mama off guard.  “I, ugh..think he had to work.” 

”Oh,” she raised an eyebrow, “I see.”  She then gallantly strode into the church. This would only be her second visit and already people were going out of their way to greet her.

Service was thirty minutes away and yet the sanctuary was already half full, quickly filling up with gossipy church folks.

Mama could feel the increasing wattage of the excited crowd and couldn’t wait to lay eyes on their shepherd, Reverend Valentine.

On schedule the ushers closed shut the vestibule doors as an old man wearing an off the rack Sears' special, a black two-piece polyester suit, and a pair of hush puppy low-riders, walked through a side entrance and took his place at the podium. The boisterous audience quickly quieted as they surrendered the floor.

“I was glad when dey said let us go in da house of da Lawd.” Holding tight his Bible he continued. “Let us prepare our minds fo’ what Gawd has fo’ his chill-ren by makin’ our way to da altar fo' community prayer.”

People willingly came forth in droves. As he began praying, mama along with those remaining seated just bowed her head. She let her thoughts run free.

Emma must be blind ‘cause this man don’t look nothing like no Smokey Robinson. Smokey the ugly bear maybe but definitely not Smokey ‘Green Eyes’ Robinson.

Frustrated she'd considered coming up with an excuse to leave early but then decided since Miss Johnson had gone as far as to lie about the way the Reverend looked, she might as well stay the duration. But she would not be tricked again. Unh-unh.  The next time I’m gonna….

The stirring in her spirit abruptly and irrevocably shutdown her thought engine as the old man fervently began praying. He pulled each syllable out from the depths of his belly and like a well-seasoned blues singer, belted each word.

“Our Fad-da, Our Lawd,” he began, “We come befo’ you, cal-lin’ on yo’ mighty name. Dat name is Je-sus, da Lamb who was slain and who died fo’ our sins dat we might have da right to live a-nother day. Oh, Law-day, yeah, Law-day….send yo’ an-gels of mer-cee, down right now…”

Caught up, several people around the altar began weeping loudly like they’d just seen the coming of the Lord, and a like a wine press, the weight of His Majesty and Glory had crushed their spirits, causing water to pour out of their earthly vessels.

Visibly shaken mama could no longer contain herself and openly began wailing, embarrassing us to no end. “Yes, Lord, Je-sus! Bless yo’ Holy name.”

Too choked up with emotion the old man could no longer mouth the words and just began moaning, “Yeah, Law-day,” over and over again amid piercing screams and shouts of joy.

Some minutes later Wendall, the music director, began softly playing the piano. And without ever interrupting the flow, the old man brought his prayer to an end, releasing those who’d gathered around the altar back to their seats.

The ushers open the doors wide to a continuing double row of choir members beautifully dressed in sparkly blue and white robes. Wendall nodded and they abruptly began marching in place. It sounded like horses anxious to break free of the gates having them bound. Their eyes remained locked onto his. He nodded again and they began singing.

“I just can’t stop, praising His name. I just can’t stop, praising His name. I just can’t stop, praising His name – JESUS!”

The music stopped for a nanosecond, giving the bassist just enough time to sing their short but emphatic chorus solo, which although only four words, was delivered with such depth, power and clarity. “Praise His holy name.” And then just as fast, it picked right back up again with them collaboratively repeating the main chorus. “Can’t stop…”

The harmonies sounded angelic making the church audience go wild with praise. Every sound and word was crystal clear and mouthed in unison, like they’d sung together since birth, and having practiced every waking moment of their lives, perfected their sound. Like well-trained children their focus remained on the music director, who nodding again, signaled for them to begin clapping. They did, practically uniform, encouraging the audience to join in.

Mama grinned as she tingled with pride. “Lord, they bad!”

And again Wendall nodded and like horses they charged out of the vestibule, full steam, with their faces fully animated and set. And as if performing in front of judges, they dramatically swung and clapped their hands, forcibly filling the balloon designed sleeves of their robes with air and yet deflating them just as quickly with the same velocity.

They landed each step with an extra bounce, turning their march into more of a stomp. The people so taken up with their performance became wild and noisy as they loudly exchanged praises amongst each other, reminiscent to that of a soul concert. By the time they’d reached the choir stand which was located directly behind the pulpit, just about everyone was up on their feet, singing and clapping to the beat. Mama was fascinated by their performance and so was I.

As the song finally came to an end the people whose spirits were stirred up began crying out to the Lord in celebration. It lasted for a few minutes more before Wendall broke in with another slower paced tune that provided a calming effect. Mama recognized the hymn and began softly humming along, making Miss Johnson, who was seated in front of us, whip around to gain a closer listen. Realizing she’d been exposed, mama grew quiet.

When the hymn ended the ushers placed iron rod folding chairs at the end of each and every pew, all the way down the aisle to accommodate the overflow. After most everyone was seated the old man again stood at the podium and gave instructions for the usher board to prepare the offering.

Mama reached down for her purse and hearing whispers, quickly raised up. There he stood in the pulpit, a much younger man in a bright, white robe with two large blue crosses stitched diagonally down each side, shaking hands and hugging those already there. His body was turned slightly making it difficult for mama to get a full view, but what she could see peaked her curiosity, making her eyes hungrily grope for more.

Miss Johnson turned around and gloating like a proud wife said, “Girl, didn’t I tell you.”

“You mean---,”Mama’s mouth was gaped open as she examined his every fiber. Miss Johnson just grinned and bobbled her head.

He took his seat in the big chair centered directly behind the podium, a seat customarily reserved for the pastor of the church. He was a far cry from your traditional, age appropriate clergyman and was as close a Smokey Robinson look alike as you could get. Mama just couldn’t seem to digest what her eyes were witnessing and after dropping her $2.00 in the circulating basket, just thought, “Lord, I’d known I was in for a treat – but I surely didn’t know you’d be sending a Miracle!”