Published in Hair Trigger 32, 2010
SOME WOMEN SPEND THEIR WHOLE LIVES TRYING TO FIGURE OUT HOW MEN operate. I was sixteen when I figured it all out. I sat in a folding chair against a concrete wall in the church basement. I was eating a slice of Mama's pound cake and sipping sherbet frappe. Every third Sunday after the morning service, the church would have an ice-cream social before the baptismal service. The ice cream and cake were supposed to calm the kids down before they were dunked into a big pool of water while some man held his hand over their tiny little faces. All it really did was coax the grown folks to come downstairs into the dank basement. No one in Maywood could resist Mama's cakes, pies, and cookies, which she catered for the church services. Being the smart man Pastor Jackson was, the afternoon service would then proceed to the baptismal. So on the third Sunday, you'd attend morning service at 9:00 AM, be conned into having a nice, sweet treat at noon, hear some hollerin' kids get saved for all eternity by 12:30 PM, then listen to your stomach growl during the afternoon service 'til 4:00 PM; evening service began at 6:00 PM. I watched Mama and Jeremy's daddy talk with the other deacons and deaconesses, who were trying to fill up on pound cake and slices of lemon meringue pie. Franklin is officially my stepdaddy, but he ain't never been like no real daddy to me- he's barely a husband to my mama. The only sure thing is that he's Jeremy's daddy, so that's just what I calls him. Mama's eyes were sending daggers across the room. Her lips tightened over her teeth, and while she pretended to replace a fallen strand from her perfectly placed bun so that her mouth was partly covered by her elbow, she silently mouthed, "Go-get-his-little-ass." My little brother Jeremy was running through the crowd of people. The crowd was mostly made up of older women who were holding their purses and Bibles under their arms, trying to manage small saucers of cake and teacups filled with punch. Jeremy was swinging from the back of one woman's thigh to the front of another woman's thigh. He was looking like a little wild monkey in heat swinging from tree to tree. I snatched him up by the back of his jacket collar right after he'd grabbed hold of the back of Mother Foster's thigh. Her face lit up like a Christmas tree. I supposed she hadn't been touched 'round them parts for some time now.
"Looks like you found a little boyfriend to take home with you, Mother," another woman dressed all in white from the Mother's Board commented.
I never understood what made the Mother's Board so special. They always dressed in all white, as if they were so pure, so clean. I figured if anybody were to have any dirt on them it would be those old heffahs, since they've lived longer. Her comment was punishment enough for Jeremy. His face scrunched together like it does when he's afraid. I took him into the bathroom to get him into his baptismal robe and swim-cap. The bathroom was filled with mothers around my Mama's age. They were all tending to their children while standing in groups chattering and cackling about whatever and nothing at all. They were mostly trying to disassociate themselves from Faith, the youngest mother of them all. Faith stood with two of her four children in a corner. I plopped my bag down beside hers on the dewy floor tiles.
"You mind?" I asked her, trying to be courteous. She didn't look at me, and I didn't look at her. We both stared at the other women who stared at us. We could see our own tough expressions in the mirror that hung over the basins behind the other women. My cherry-glossed lips were pressed together tight as if to say, "I doubt y'all could take either one of us." They sucked their teeth and rolled their eyes at us on account of me coming in and breaking their code of silence against Faith. The women finally returned to their own business after a long second or two. Faith winked at Jeremy, although you could hardly tell because her thin,slanted eyes were hidden so deeply under her thick, navy blue eyeliner.
"This your little man? How old is he?" Faith asked me. I did a double take between her and Jeremy. No one had ever confused me for a mother.
"He's five, and he's my brother. I'm only sixteen."
She laughed, "Girl, what that mean? I had my first at sixteen." I could understand why the church women hated Faith. I'm sure they couldn't understand why she'd even come to church at all. She was wearing sheer red stockings that had velvet cheetahs with rhinestones for eyes printed on the ankles, white pumps, and way above was a denim skirt and a white leather jacket. "Well, anyway, I say we best get these little bastards in here now while they're young, 'cause you know they don't come back 'til they're lying in front looking up." She stiffened her body like a corpse standing up, while laughing at her own joke. With her head tilted and her mouth stretched open, she revealed signs of last night's drinking, absent teeth, and years of bad upkeep. The other women took their exits at this point.
We made it out of the bathroom just in the nick of time. The Mother's Board had already begun humming "Take Me to the Water." Faith and I stood against the cool concrete wall. All of the cushioned chairs up front near the baptismal pool were taken, and the folding chairs had already been lined up near the kitchen with serving tables. We would have made too much noise if we'd tried grabbing one. Down in front the kids were all waiting patiently in their white robes, too cute and too nervous to act up. Pastor Jackson was standing inside the baptismal pool, which really was just a Jacuzzi with the bubbles going for effect. One by one, he dunked them into eternal grace. "In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost," Pastor said. His voice was loud and raspy enough to bounce off the rough gray walls without even using a microphone. I remembered when I was about Jeremy's age and Mama told me I was going to be baptized. I stood there thinking, ghost? When she was talking me into this mess, Mama ain't say nothin' about no ghost. What kid wouldn't be scared standing there fourth in line, then third, then next, with all these grown, wide women standing close in the aisle, screaming and crying, while the few men the church has are standing guard just in case you try to run?
"When I went to get baptized, the little boy in front of me told me he was gon' pee in the water." Faith leaned her head toward me and spoke in a low tone, "I cut outta there, robe and all. Ain't been baptized to this day."
I snickered and a few of the Church Folk, as I calls 'em, turned and stared at us, giving us dirty looks.
Looking at them, and looking at it all, I could see how the whole thang ain't about nothing but a show. You come all dressed up to the nines, drop a dollar in the plate, and sit back and watch the show. Everybody in there is a phony and bound for hell. Except for Pastor and his wife, First Lady. I say that because everybody else comes to the church trying to be like them instead of being like Christ. All the women come with hats that look like some variation of a flowerpot, trying to outshow one another, but primarily they want to show up First Lady, yet they never do. First Lady is classy and well-to-do. She don't spend all her time cooking pork and eatin' it, and it shows. Meanwhile, the church folk gon' bust hell wide open. I've seen 'em battin' they eyes at Pastor. But Pastor isn't like the few deacons we have that'll wink at you while you're taking your communion. If that's what you call a man, then Pastor is more than that. I guess that's why we call him Pastor. He is always smiling like a piano was spread across his face, his brows scrunched together and his eyes so sympathetic, like he doesn't understand why the Church Folk don't know already how good God is. When the kids were all dunked and saved, the choir began wailing, "I Know It Was the Blood" Faith nudged me with her elbow.
"You sit kids?" She asked me under the screams and hollers.
"Nah, I just look after Jeremy for my mama, but not for money." I looked down at myself in my flat, white patent-leather shoes, matching purse, and pink lace dress I wore on Easter; I looked like a damn kid myself.
"Well, I don't care who you sittin', you need to be gettin' paid for your work, girl. Here take my number," she said while scribbling her number on the back of a Big Red wrapper after sticking the piece of gum into her mouth. "I need somebody, hmmm," she paused, poppin' her gum and thinking to herself for a gum-popping moment. "Hell, I need somebody all day, every day, but 3:30 will work." I met her the next day at her house. Surprisingly, Faith's apartment was well kept. She had the black, red, and white theme going on. By the looks of things I wouldn't have guessed she lived here with four kids. I had a seat on her black-leather couch. The kids were all outside playing except for the baby, who was napping on the other end of the couch facedown, her little tush poked up in the air. Faith was casually dressed in stirrup pants, flats, and an oversized shirt with a shirt clip pulling the bottom to one side.
"So, are you going someplace special?" I asked, trying not to be too nosy or too much of a smartass.
"Naw, but I'm expecting company. The kids'll be outside until dark, and the baby'll wake up in about an hour."
Just then there was a knock on the door. A tall, attractive man in an ash gray suit with a Jheri curl walked in, all smiles. She pointed him in the direction of the master's bedroom-that's what she called it, the "Master's Bedroom."
"All right, girl, I'll see you later." She smiled and waved like she was actually leaving the apartment for a date. I shuffled through the mounds of Ebony magazines and turned up the record player to cover the sound of Faith rocking his world. Their gettin'it-on sounded nothin' like Mama and Jeremy's daddy. Faith was screamin' and so was he. With Mama all you'd hear was the headboard slam up against the wall for about ten minutes, and then Jeremy's daddy would say, "Thank you." I used to think he was saying, "I love you," you know, something that would've made sense, but I guess he was just grateful for what he got. I was pretty relaxed about the whole thing until the sunlight had completely faded. Several dates of hers had come during that time. I wasn't a total lame; I knew what Faith did to get by. I just figured she did what she had to do. Some people ain't got the husband to bring home the good life. We was barely making it with our household husband. When the kids walked through the door screaming that they were hungry, I sat them in front of the television so they could watch Gimme a Break! in the living room. That was as far away as I could get them from their childhood as they knew it. I made fried bologna sandwiches and french fries. It was two hours before the baby woke up and Faith didn't even take a break when she heard the little tyke crying. A-Team had gone off, and although it was eight o'clock I thought it'd be OK to walk the kids across the street to the park until the last Mr. Fine Jheri Curl took his leave. Faith's kids were all well mannered. They sort of took care of one another. No leaders, no followers: Brian, seven, Kelly, six, Tyler, five, and nine-month-old Keisha. I sat at the end of the slide with Keisha on my lap, watching as the now-slick-with-sweat Mr. Jheri Curl walked to his maroon Buick Riviera.
Faith was sitting at the kitchen table smoking a cigarette in a black satin robe waiting for me to place Keisha in her arms. "I thought you ran off with my kids, girl," she semi-joked, but I felt the sting for having the kids out at 9:30 at night. "So you think you can handle it?"
"Oh, your kids are great. They pretty much watch themselves."
"Well, you think you can keep 'em from watching me while I handle business from time to time?"
What she was really asking was for me to shelter her kids from her skankiness, and I agreed for the kids' sake. I gave the kids baths and put them to bed. Before I left I sat across from Faith at her kitchen table trying not to stare at her, and not wanting to straight-out ask for the money. The money situation hadn't quite been discussed.
"There ain't nothing you wanna ask me?" Faith asked.
I had the Who, me? expression going on, but finally I broke, "How old are you?"
She smiled like I had actually embarrassed her, "Twenty-two, and word to the wise, don't marry the first fool that gives you a good nut in high school." She slid me three twenties across the table. "We cool?"
I figured the sixty-spot was to cover confidentiality, and I was all the way signed on for that. I had been watching Faith's kids for about a month, and I could tell that Mama was not pleased the moment I walked through the back door at 10:30 at night for the third time that week. She was standing at the island in the middle of the kitchen with just an overhead lamp above her, holding one of her gently crafted miniature cakes for someone's Saturday-afternoon wedding shower. She would never say outright that she didn't like Faith; that would make her like everyone else at church who suspected she was a prostitute. "Backbiters" is what Mama calls those types who smile in your face while they talk bad about you behind your back. I gathered that Faith knew by now what they said about her at the church even on the day she joined Second Baptist in a red-leather miniskirt. A couple of old women sitting behind us whispered to one another: "I know the Lord says to come as you are, but heaven have mercy on us for having to look at her."
"Good evening," I said to Mama.
She didn't speak with words, her eyes said everything she intended for me to know. I slipped one of the petit fours from the silver tray. It was delicious.
"Mama, do all men cheat?"
She peeked up from her miniature design to pierce me again with her glare. "Why you askin'? Seen something over at Faith's that you weren't supposed to?"
"No, I dunno. It's just that those men look like ordinary dudes. People's husband's, boyfriends. A lot of 'em are so cute I couldn't imagine why they'd even wanna go that route."
"Gabbi, I done told you: a man is a man is a man." She emphasized her words by putting her hand on top of mine. "But what does that mean?"
"It means whatever you make it to mean in your own mind. You've gotta ask yourself what your expectations are, and honey, don't be surprised if they're different from everyone else's."
I was too tired to dig any deeper into this to find a real answer.
"I tol' you, baby, the only place you gonna find a good man is at church."
"Jeremy's asleep?" I asked, as if I were checking in on my very own child. I hadn't seen him when I walked in.
"Yep, he's right down here. Get him up for me. He's got my feet all swole and round. My feet gonna look like a loaf of bread in my shoes tomorrow."
I pulled Jeremy's tiny arm from his teddy-bear clutch around Mama's ankles. I was hoping that he'd wake up from me readjusting his body; that way I wouldn't have to lug his forty-pound behind up the stairs. I lifted him from the floor, peeling his body away from the linoleum tile. First his cheek came up, then his chubby little arm, then his thigh. He looked so cute in his little Superman tidy whities. I cradled him over my shoulder and with a carefully measured pivot backward I motioned for Mama to hand me my pocketbook that was hanging from the back of the chair. It was at that moment that I could see how folks could confuse me for a mama. I had done a lot of growing up since Jeremy came along.
"Shoot, sometimes I feel like I'm his mama, too," I said, really to myself, while heading for the stairs.
"All right now, Gabbi. Don't get to acting before your time. You hear me?" Mama warned.
"No worries, Ma. I'm in no rush for any of this."
We stood in a long line at Zayre's with our basket full of back-to-school supplies. Crayolas and construction paper for Jeremy, a Trapper Keeper and Jordache jeans for me. I had definitely taken the summer to switch up my style. There weren't going to be any more oversized jeans or sweaters for me unless I was wearing some leggings and a huge New Edition or Bobby Brown buttons on my sleeve. The store was packed, and I had seen more than a few kids get beaten between the aisles after their mamas told them no to this or that. By the time we'd made it to the register, I was twisting my feet around in the gray film that gathered at the bottom of my jellies.
"Declined?" Mama yelled. "That card is practically brand new!"
"Sorry, ma'am," the twenty-something, gum-smacking cashier said, with her bright pink lipstick outlined with black liner.
"I'ma have to cut this card." She rolled her eyes under her thick glasses.
That's when Mama commenced to snap on the cashier, who seemed to enjoy whipping the large metal scissors out from her gray, grease-stained smock. I stuck my hand down into my Sassoon purse and pulled out my wad of babysitting money.
"Here, lady." I handed the woman five twenties and held my palm out in her face while I waited for my change. The bag boy put our bags into our cart and we walked toward the door slowly, trying not to bump into the back of some other aggravated shopping mama's ankles. Mama began to make perfectly clear that she fully intended to give me back every red cent of my ninety-eight dollars and thirty-one cents. I stared off to avoid her seeing me roll my eyes. The real question was, when would I be getting that and the other sixty I'd loaned her for the light bill last month? I don't know what Jeremy's daddy calls himself doin', but what I do know is, around the first and the fifteenth that brotha tends to act funny-like. Not coming home 'til everybody's asleep, or startin' arguments about nothing so he won't be expected to come home at all. This is exactly how my father started acting before he left for the streets. With Jeremy's daddy it's gambling, with my daddy it was drugs. I can't tell you which is worse. Mama is always talking about how the only good men left in this world are at the church, and I believed her. My daddy wasn't into the church thing at all, and oddly enough Mama met Jeremy's daddy outside of the church, standing on Thirteenth and Washington waiting on the bus. So it ain't no tellin' if he was ever actually inside of the church that day. A yellow and pink Janet Jackson T-shirt held up by a girl at the register caught my eye. Our cart hit the carpeting in front of the automatic door and it slid open, but we both stopped abruptly instead of walking out. Mama's theory had just crumbled at our feet, and so did my faith in men.
"Hi, Pastor," I said. It was just a reflex. I didn't know what else to say or do. Mama nudged me and frowned. Pastor dropped his arm from around the woman's shoulder; she was not First Lady. He kissed the back of her hand and let go of it while walking through the automatic doors, smiling strangely. "Sista Grace and precious Gabbi, what a sight for sore eyes." He hugged my mama as if she was a church member once removed. "Y'all out shopping for the new school year, too, I see?" His voice was high pitched like a scared little girl's. "Mmmmmhmmm," I smacked my lips and hummed in an effort to mask my disappointment.
"Yeah, I brought my n-n-niece out to do the same. Rita, these are members from the church," he said to the girl without looking at her. The olive-skinned college-aged girl in tight, ripped jeans and neon pink T-shirt looked up at Pastor doubtfully, smacking her lips like she deserved a better introduction than that. But she flipped her long, curly black hair over one bare shoulder, batted her feather-like eyelashes, and waved at us. She was no First Lady.
"Nice to meet you," Mama said, regaining a firm grip on our cart. "We ought to be heading out."
"Well, all right now. I'll be looking forward to seeing y'all on Sunday," he said, all smiles. The moment we made it outside and the glass doors closed behind us, I let go and called him every name in the book to Mama. I was angry for every girl in the world who had been disappointed by a daddy, a boyfriend, a husband, or a man of God.
"Mama! Can you believe that? His niece? School supplies? He can't be right in the mind to think we was just gon' believe that!" I was exasperated. I swung my pocketbook around my back, ready to head back inside to confront the ass-wipe. People coming in and out of Winston's Plaza could see that I was getting pumped up about something. Mama ordered me to quit acting a fool and get in the car. I slammed the heavy station-wagon door shut, and watched Mama standing outside the car, smiling and waving at some people she knew. When she slumped her ample behind into the driver's seat, she cranked the ignition and immediately began searching for a suitable radio station, finally landing herself on the Tom Joyner show on V103. I was confused and wondered why she was acting like we hadn't seen what we had both seen. I figured we'd spend this time figuring out what position we were going to play in the takedown of Pimp Daddy Pastor Jackson.
"So when we gon' tell First Lady that we saw Pastor all hugged up with his Mexican niece? Know he ain't got no Mexican runnin' in his family. As nappy-headed as he is, who is he kiddin'?" Mama had begun pulling the fifteen feet of vehicle out of the parking spot when she stomped on her brakes. She turned toward me and pointed a demanding finger in my face.
"Gabbi, I suggest you remove from your mind whatever it is you think you saw today. I'm not planning on picking up this conversation again with you or anyone else, and you, my dear, will follow suit on this one. That's not any of our business."
With that, she reached over my head and gripped the back of the headrest. I thought she was aiming to hit me, but she was just looking out the back window to avoid hitting anyone while she finished ejecting the car from our space. On the drive home Mama gave me her spiel on expectations, and how did we know what First Lady expected from her husband? I was almost damn sure she wasn't expecting him to be all up Zayre's with his girlfriend.