Mama use to buy all her meals from Miss Jackson, till Mama figure it be easier and cheapa if Miss Jackson teach me how to cook instead and I start makin’ Mama’s meals. So that’s what I been doin’ for the past two years, eva since I was eight. I help Miss Jackson fix the dinners she sell to folks in the neighborhood mostly, and people outside of the neighborhood who heard ’bout her and how good her food is. She even got some white customers—one’s her landlord. She cook for him in exchange for her rent. He pick up a plate every day, and I’m usually here since I don’t go to school. Mama say it ain’t safe for me to. She say they don’t got Bibles in public school, and with Mama bein’ a Seventh-day Adventist, she say it’s important to be ’round the Bible at all times, but she don’t neva go to church, though. She don’t have no excuse for that. But she say as far as school go, learnin’ in a classroom with otha kids is an unhealthy competition, so she s’posed to teach me; but she don’t do that, eitha. All Mama do is eat and sleep. All the otha stuff, everybody else gotta do for her. That ain’t no mama. That ain’t even no child, ’cause I’m a child and do more for her than she do for me. That’s a baby. That’s what Mama is—a baby I don’t want.
Miss Jackson old. I think she forty-five or -six. Real old, is all I know. Old enough to have two grown sons, but one gone and I guess it’s my fault. He like messin’ with lil girls. He try to stick his thing in me. I was seven. I fought and ran downstairs just as Miss Jackson was comin’ home early from work. He ran afta me.
My mama was there. In her bed, pretendin’ to be ’sleep. This was back when we all lived in the same house. Mama always pretend she ’sleep when a man get to grabbin’ on me. First time I try to tell my mama ’bout what one of her mens did to me, she cova her ears with her hands and start singin’, “La-la-la-la.” That’s when I knew somethin’ was off ’bout her and that I was in big trouble if she was in charge of me. And I was right. She care more ’bout mens than me. Whateva it take to keep a man there, she gonna do. She give ’em whateva they want—even me. Miss Jackson don’t. She more of a mama to me than my own. She walk in and seen me naked and her son naked, and didn’t ask me nothin’. She sent me upstairs to put on some clothes. Aimed a pistol at her son’s head and use the phone. A car of mens came and got him, and I ain’t seen him since, but wheneva she talk ’bout him, it be in the past. He was. He use to be. He had.
Mama say Miss Jackson run the numbers and that’s why people be in and outta her house all the time. Mens be in and outta my mama’s house all the time—I wonder what she runnin’.
Miss Jackson pretty. She not fat. Her teeth not rotten. She wear pretty dresses that look like an open umbrella at the bottom. And she wear heels. High ones. Her hair real pretty. It curly at the front, slick on the sides, and a fake braided ball in the back. She neva change her hairstyle. Eva. I know she got a husband, but she got a boyfriend, too. His name Shorty and he got a wife. But I like him. He give me money, and I ain’t gotta give him nothin’ in return.
“Have you and your mother found a place to stay yet?” Miss Jackson ask me.
“No, not yet,” I say.
“She told me that you all were moving to the suburbs to live with your grandparents. What happened with that?”
I shrug my shoulders high and look down. I’m not sure I should be tellin’ my family business. Well, I’m pretty sure I ain’t s’posed to ’cause Mama always say not to, but it’s Miss Jackson—the mama I wish I had. I wish we still lived with Miss Jackson, but Mama got her own place, down the street, somehow. It don’t matter now, ’cause we all got to move outta Black Bottom.
“Her mama say I look too colored to live with them.”
“Look too colored? You? Mmm. You’re black, not colored. Are they white?”
“They pretendin’ to be.”
“That proves how sad this world is.”
“I like sayin’ I’m colored betta than sayin’ I’m black. I ain’t black. You not even black. This skillet black, but I ain’t neva seen a person this color. Mama say she want a man this black, though.”
“The only thing your mother wants is food. She’s going to mess around and not be able to get out of her bed one day. I bet she weighs over five hundred pounds.”
“She do. She weigh over six hundred. When she went to the docta, they didn’t have a scale for her to use that went up that high. They cut off is six hundred, so they had to guess, and they say she six fifty, but Mama say they lyin’. Mama say she weigh ’round six twenty-seven.”
Miss Jackson’s head shake hard. “Which isn’t any better. Your mother uses men to get her food…she uses you to get her food, too. Did any of those men ever mess with you?” I stop stirrin’ the corn, but then I start again and do it faster than I had been. My eyes stay on the corn mixture. Miss Jackson cook chopped onions and garlic and green pepper in here first; and when those get soft, she put in the creamy corn. She add paprika when it’s all done to make it look as good as it taste. “Do they?”
I shake my head fast and say, “No.” I can’t tell Miss Jackson the truth. She won’t think I’m a child no more—her child. She start to treat me different, I bet. Think I’m loose, and I ain’t. Them mens took. I ain’t give.
“Why don’t I believe you?” Miss Jackson eye me as she seasonin’ the chicken. She put a whole lotta butta all over the skin and a whole lotta garlic powder, too. Miss Jackson love garlic. She say it ward off evil. I need to sleep with it unda my pillow if it do. “Don’t ever let a man do anything to you. Do you hear me? You fight them and then tell me.”
I nod and suck my teeth. Too late, but oh well.
I stir the corn long enough, so I stop and look ’round. Miss Jackson house always neat. Our house neat now. It ain’t use to be when Mama was doin’ the cleanin’. She got a bad back, so I do whateva need to be done ’round the house.
Miss Jackson read a lot. Every time I come ova, I see a new book. Today, she got Invisible Man. I open the hardcova; she pay three dollas and fifty cents for this book. I turn the book ova and see a picture of a man on the back. I open the book again and flip through the pages and go past the introduction, and see a lotta words I ain’t neva seen. I try a few times to say the word to just myself—eco…ecto…ectoplay—’for I ask Miss Jackson, “What’s an ectoplasm?” I think I say the word right.
“A who? Where did you come up with that?”
“This book.” I place my finger on the cova.
“I haven’t started reading that one yet, so I’m not sure. But the dictionary will tell us.” Miss Jackson’s dictionary is green and weigh as much as me. I hate when she make me go get it, but I wanna learn. Stayin’ in the house away from school and books just gonna keep me dumb. “Did you find it yet?” she ask me, snappin’ her fingers. She hate for me to take long findin’ a word. But I’m ten and ain’t had much school, so it take me a minute.
The chicken in the oven. Now, Miss Jackson workin’ on the rolls. Can’t have dinner without rolls, she always say. Next, she’ll do dessert, ’cause she say you can’t have dinner without that, eitha.
“I find it,” I tell her. Finally. I know my alphabet, but sometime I get my lettas mixed up.
“What does it mean?” she ask me.
I roll my eyes, but make sure she don’t see me, and then I focus on the words I can’t pronounce and wish I neva ask her. “I can’t read none of this hardly. Will you read it for me, so I can learn?” I take the dictionary ova to Miss Jackson.
“The outer relatively rigid granule-free layer of the cytoplasm usually held to be a gel reversibly convertible to a solution. A substance held to produce spirit materialization and telekinesis.”
What she say? It don’t make no sense to me, so I move on to somethin’ else. “What’s Final Call to Islam?” I ask, lookin’ down at the newspaper. I flip through the pages and see a lotta mens in suits wearin’ bow ties.
“I need to take you to the Nation’s Temple Number One so you can hear Malcolm X speak. He’s one of our future leaders. My prayer for you is that you grow up in a world different from the one I grew up in.”
Miss Jackson teach me ’bout history. The year afta I was born there was a race riot here, and Miss Jackson always talk ’bout it ’cause she was caught in the middle of it. And she gonna talk ’bout it right now, I bet.
“Understand this about whites, whether you look like them or not, whether you have some of their blood running through you or not, you still have to know who they are because some of them are real good at detecting what isn’t pure…and they’re all about pure. So understand this about them—when they feel threatened they will kill and not think twice and not feel bad about it, either. And that’s how the race riots started. Whites felt threatened. They thought blacks were going to take their jobs. They say it’s calm before the storm. Well, it starts off sprinkling some, too. The year before the riots, Earl and I were going to move into the Sojourner Truth homes. Those Polish people had a fit. They didn’t want colored people in their neighborhood, and I didn’t want to be anywhere I wasn’t wanted, which is how we ended up here.”
I clap my hands togetha real fast. “And I’m glad you here.”
She smile, and when she do, her eyes close for a second. “So Earl was at the bar, as usual. He loved drinking, even though I told him nothing good ever comes to a drunk. And he was that, for sure, but I love him despite it. A man came in and grabbed the microphone and told them that whites had thrown a black woman and her child off the Belle Isle Bridge. They’d been beating on black folks all day, so it was time for some payback.
“First, the police claimed Earl killed someone. Then they changed it to attempted murder. Either way, he still got sentenced to ten years, and they keep denying his parole, but it doesn’t matter now because he’ll be out next year. That’s all that matters. That’s all I care about. My husband finally coming home.”
Why she don’t care ’bout Shorty? He care ’bout her. I ain’t gonna ask her. I don’t want her to get mad. I guess I just gotta be happy her husband comin’ home for Miss Jackson’s sake, but not for mine. Seem like every time I get attached to a grown-up, they leave me for somebody they love more than me—like my dad did. Miss Jackson the best mama I got. I hope she don’t leave me, too.
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