Thursday, August 28, 2008
Daddy in a chivalrous moment picked Mama up to carry her over the threshold. Once she entered the house Mama found it appallingly dirty. She’d never visited the house as Daddy always came to her and Cora Mae’s house. In this wasteland that she’d agreed to be her new home, dust blanketed every piece of furniture. The fabric on the sofa and chairs reeked of unidentified odors and stains. The hard wood floors looked as if they had never been mopped and the kitchen smelled of sour milk. Daddy and Buddy had lived there for many years and never really bothered to clean. The place looked fine to them. Mama, now three months pregnant, got to cleaning and scrubbing with her one good knee with the aid of crutches and with no help from Daddy or Buddy. In their eyes cleaning was women’s work. Mama, however, could not live in all of the filth. Cleanliness was next to Godliness. So she cleaned until the house was a home.
It was after they settled into Buddy’s house that Daddy fully understood that Mama would be impossible to control. One evening in a heated discussion about Daddy’s liquor, cards and cigars habit Daddy slapped Mama across her face and mouth. How dare she debate him point-by-point, word-by-word on how he should spend the money he slaved to earn? Down Mama’s torso dipped. Up came the scarlet red coloring that now covered her chocolate face. Up, up came her spirit from depths inside. Mama drunk from the lick swaggered and swayed but remained on her foot. Sheer will kept her from falling over. Only one crutch fell. Once Mama composed her small frame she looked Daddy in his one eye, and held the glare so powerfully that it immobilized Daddy’s entire body. He did not swing again. It is difficult now to tell if Daddy was frightened or simply hypnotized by Mama’s potent stare. The blood drained from Daddy’s brown sugar complexion and left his face pale, a dusty brown. While in this altered state Mama straightened her dress and apron then staggered off to the kitchen to prepare dinner.
That night Daddy wallowed in their bed in what I have imagined a victorious sleep when Mama appeared out of the shadows with a pot of hot grits. The pain must have left an indelible mark on Daddy’s chest as he leapt out of bed and landed on the floor screaming. Buddy heard his cries but stayed in his room. Buddy decided that all newlyweds somehow founded their common ground. The grits served notice to Daddy that he was never to hit Mama again. The use of Daddy’s hand was an ill-fated course of action in his desire to control Mama. So he gave that passion up only to develop a new one.
Daddy began what would be his life long strength, his tour de force even in later life during weakened states. This tool brought instant fear with directed callously to the recipient. Daddy inaugurated a use of sound with his roughly tuned vocal cords. Vocal cords that would one day send complete fear throughout my body, touching the marrow of my bones at a cellular level. A loud booming voice became Daddy’s tool. Daddy discovery that Mama had more tolerance for vociferated behavior freed him. And only in those moments where Daddy’s rants went too long or the volume peaked above her version of civility would Mama stop him from his lion’s roar. The use of Mama’s steel eyes would rekindle the memory of the grits for Daddy and he’d move on to another subject or simply leave the room. Yet, Mama’s tolerance of Daddy’s growl would be an act that she revisited with regret many times over her lifetime.
In the style of Southern black Baptists, only wonderful things were said about Grandaddy Buddy. He was called the salt of the earth, a pillar of the community and so on. Such biblical clichés never seemed like real compliments. He loved his community, his church, his junk, and his Lord. Most importantly, what was not said that day was that he could not love his begotten sons. Daddy sat in a tearless silence at the funeral. Uncle Tup came down from New York City and Uncle Robert came fresh off a train run from St. Louis, both arrived late. They sat in the back of the church with blank, emotionless stares though by all estimation they received the most love from Buddy back in LaGrange, Georgia while their Mama Mildred was still alive.
Buddy was not as beloved as Mama’s mother, Cora Mae, and as such, he received fewer flowers and fewer sympathy cards and the number of attendees did not fill one side of Antioch’s church pews. The parade of cars from Antioch Missionary Baptist Church to Lincoln Cemetery was short. Buddy was deposited on the other side of the cemetery from Cora Mae. Mama and Daddy only thought this was fitting after all they had no love for each other when they were living.
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Vatray’s mother Lilly Hugely collected old magazines, newspaper clippings, photos, anecdotes, and hear says about Dorothy Dandridge. She gathered this memorabilia and dedicated her bedroom walls to Dorothy Dandridge like I’d dedicated mine to the Jackson Five. Lilly Hugely even went so far as to draw a mole over her lip just like Dorothy, careful to draw the dot just above her right lip each day before she went off to work as a private duty nurse. I saw Lilly Hugely on the rare occasion that she was able to come to one of Vatray’s and my school chorus recital. Even dressed in her nurse’s uniform she held her femininity soft, loose like dandelion’s spores moving gentle in a northern breeze.
Though Dorothy Dandridge had died ten years earlier Lilly Hugely saw her self as an incarnation of the starlet. While grown folks rumored that Lilly Hugely had one passion in common with Dorothy Dandridge and that was her alleged preference for white men. Vatray’s Daddy, a white dentist hired Lilly to take care of his elderly Mother. In those years Lilly traveled by bus from the Dixie Hills apartments to Buckhead, everyday except Sunday, to care for Dr. Blackmon’s Mother. The trip gave Lilly a view of expensive brick homes with expansive green lawns anchored with exotic foreign cars. But Lilly Hugely knew it wasn’t fair to compare the wealthy community of Buckhead to her working class community of Dixie Hills.
Over the years Vatray gathered pieces of the larger story about the dentist. He ease dropped on his mother’s conversations, he collected second hand information from his sister, and with a vivid imagination he filled in the gaps to the rest of the story. Vatray told a skewed tale but the thespian inside him told it like the dramatist he would become.
On quiet evenings while the Mother slept and the wife worked in the gardens that lay south of the Tudor House, Lilly and Dr. Blackmon pleased their desire. And over the next seven years their desires produced first Valerie and later Vatray. The dentist’s mother, older than dirt, didn’t hear or see well therefore never got wind of the affair.
The wife, a Radcliff girl met the dentist, a Harvard man, in her hometown of Boston. A fast talker with career plans to become a journalist abandoned those plans to please her southern husband wishes to go back south and make a home. So instead the wife learned to beautify her gardens, attend ladies socials, and sip ice tea and lemonade on the veranda. She used her duties to cloak her eyes, to pretend she didn’t know about her husband’s infidelities.
After some years of marriage the wife took up embroidery and Valium. The months rolled by quickly, like the Valium rolled down her throat smoothly with a swig of ice tea or lemonade. Sometimes chased by a shot of bourbon. This was the wife’s home brewed recipe to forget. And over time she did just that. She drink, popped pilled, did shots all to cemented her unknowing.
Most evenings before Lilly Hugely ventured home to Dixie Hills she prepared and cooked dinner. A good southern cook, Lilly made pot roast, pork chops or fried chicken with collard, green beans or turnips, peas and rice on the side, served with corn bread or buttermilk biscuits. While Lilly cooked the wife stayed clear of the kitchen until dinner was finished. The afternoon hours was the time for the wife to drown her memories, to loose her memories, to lock them deep inside, but this was a different evening.
The wife stood in the shadows of the kitchen door way. She came to confront Lilly Hugely. The day before she over heard her husband and Lilly plan their escape. If they left Eleven Light City they could have a life together. Lilly placed a chicken in the oven, stood up then spotted a figure standing in the archway in the kitchen door. The wife moved quickly. A phantom shadows covered the wife’s face from the nose up. The sun warmed her mouth. The wife spoke in certain and un-medicated sentences.
“You-foolish-nigger woman. Running around playing Ms. Nice Negro. But, I see straight through you. Try to leave with my husband I’ll have you and your bastards killed.”
Lilly backed up. The wife stepped out of the shadows and snatched-up a butcher’s knife. Lilly’s eyes darted about planning an escape. With no knives nearby Lilly’s only weapon of defense were words.
“Now—Mrs. Blackmon, you don’t want to hurt me, now do you? I’m the one that takes care of you, Dr. Blackmon and your Mother-in-law.”
The wife pointed the knife toward Lilly as if a natural extension of her arm and moved it in small circles. “Yesssss—great care to disrespect me.” The wife said still pointing, circling the knife. “Bastard after bastard, year after year while I remained unfertile and watched my husband prefer you over me.”
With cabinets and walls surrounding her, Lilly moved to circle the kitchen table hoping the wife would follow but the wife stayed position in front of the door, the only exit.
The wife continued, “And I hate that old witch as much as I hate you. I can’t wait until she dies, can’t wait until you die.”
Like the flat sounds a piano makes when a musical scale is played out of order or when a winded songstress sings a flat notes on stage, Lilly Hugely’s life deflated that day. The wife held Lilly hostage for several long minutes, which must have felt like several long hours. Ever a creature of habit, the dentist arrived home at 5:30pm. He entered through the doorway behind the wife. The wife stood in a trance with the knife still pointed at Lilly.
“Honey-baby what you doing?” The dentist asked.
“Insuring my life, my home.” The wife said and continued to hold the knife as firm as her eyes were locked on Lilly Hugely.
“Give me the knife Honey-baby. Give it to me slowly. The dentist moved in between the wife and Lilly. He addressed the wife soberly. “Did you take your medicine today? You know you need to take your medicine everyday Honey-baby.
You’ve been doing so well in your garden and with your rest.” He reached for the knife. “There, there Honey-baby. There, there, you can give it to me.”
The wife released the knife for an embrace from her husband.
“You’re not so pretty when you’re scared and your mole sweated off.” The wife said to Lilly from the dentist’s arms.
The dentist walked arm-and-arm with the wife to their bedroom. He gave the wife her medicine and put her to bed. It turns out the Mother napped through the entire event. Though Dr. Blackmon wanted Lilly to stay on, Lilly fired herself by quitting.
I asked. “Vatray have you ever seen the dentist, I mean your Daddy?”
Telling the story seemed to take a lot out of Vatray. His whole face looked sunken in.
“Two times. First when I was seven and the Mother died. The dentist came by to see Mama. When the wife died the dentist came back to tell Mama. They stayed in mama’s bedroom and talked a long time. My sister and me pressed our ears against the door to hear. They talked about getting together, you know be a couple but last I heard the dentist done married another white woman.”