by Janelle M. Williams
Story inspired by Beatrice Elizabeth Barclay / Photos courtesy of Janelle Williams
I. Trip and Gigi
Trip met his son’s girlfriend’s mother Gigi at a fish fry in the courtyard of the Cleveland projects “picking cherries.” It wasn’t nothing but a dance, but Gigi looked like she was picking something stole from heaven, a catholic woman. Imagine that. Had to have been 1944. He can remember the song, too.
Billie Holiday. Don’t you know each cloud contains pennies from heaven. Jazz, not far from blues, just left of riffing, something you wouldn’t know nothing about unless you were a part of it. It was the year before the war ended, and he can’t remember nothing more than her, nothing more than thinking, that’s a fine woman. A queen. Moving those hands and those hips like today was the last day to hear Billie and Basie beg, like her life could hold Dizzy Gillespie’s cheeks and Cab Calloway’s wide open mouth.
Her wig was in place so that you’d never guess she had a pound of plaits underneath it, and her cup was nearby, Grand MacNish and milk, a working woman’s choice. Trip’s son Abel said his girlfriend’s mother was a woman holding something, and doggone, the kid wasn’t lying. So thought the man who had never worked a day in his life about the woman who had been a housekeeper all of hers.
“I’ve never worked a day in my life. Look at my hands,” Trip told her. “Aren’t they pretty?” Gigi thought about it, looked him over but didn’t say anything. He was a handsome man, but there weren’t no use in telling a man like that anything, a man that
passed, white as Ralph Cooper or Fredi Washington. And she’d heard about him and his three-card monte, going into those white clubs and shaking them for all they got. Paying off the police with bags full of country food. Her daughter Barbara said he had a house downtown, too. With a porch and a patio.
“I never stole from a black man.” Against her silence, Trip Williams felt the need to defend himself. He heard Gigi liked to read the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and he knew a woman like that had to have her thoughts on something.
“That mean you’re not a thief?” she asked.
“I take what’s fair.”
“Three floors, that’s fair? Sitting high in that shining Cadillac, that’s fair? A porch and
a patio?” Barbara told Gigi that Trip liked to throw parties in his basement, said kids could play hide and seek upstairs and never find each other.
Trip took a seat on one of the benches, run down housing on either side of him, smack dab in the middle of the old projects, before sides, before gangs, when all black was the same. “Got a daughter in college,” he told Gigi. “Abel’s older sister. My first born.” Trip straightened his back. “Gonna have me a lawyer one day.”
“And you’ll probably need one, too.” Gigi put her hands on her hips, thought about the pennies she was earning from Miss Anne, a white woman, sassing rich as they come. Maybe Trip weren’t too different, was he? Weren’t they all putting on face? Anything to keep on pushing. “Now, go on and tell that Abel to make an honest woman out of my girl.”
“Doesn’t matter what I say much. That thick head Abel surely didn’t get from me, maybe his mama.” The patch of grass in the middle of the courtyard was mighty green, and he kept his eyes there for a while, thinking about love and marriage, thinking about honest and dishonest. “Heard you put your foot in them neck bones,” he changed the subject, smiled wide, that was how he got his first wife, licked his lips like they weren’t already stained cherry red.
“Neck bones. Collards. Mac.” Gigi made it all. Put a ham hock and fatback in her collards, something more than cheddar in her mac-n-cheese. She made it all that day, too. He hadn’t made it to the courtyard in time. Pickaninny he were, couldn’t never make it to Longwood Plaza on time. Folks were licking their fingers when he walked in. Gigi swayed, took a sip of that drank.
“You’ll make me some, won’t you?” he asked, head tilted, hazel eyes gleaming under a fully baked sun.
She kept quiet, silent, still.
“Won’t you?” he pleaded, twirling the band on his ring finger like a cruel joke.
“I’m going to church, and I’m going to put a prayer on you. Maybe then you’ll stop thievin’.”
Prayers. Hallelujah, hallelujah. Gigi picking cherries, the best way to hear Billie Holliday, just like it was yesterday. Of course that was forty years before he got cancer and before she began hiding in closets. Years before she turned him catholic and taught him how to make a real hot toddy, with warm wine, lemon and a little honey. In all those years, it wasn’t marriage, maybe it wasn’t even romance, but only a fool would say it wasn’t nothing.
II. Barbara and Abel
In 1954 the big house was on Grand Avenue, East Cleveland, right before the bridge, right before the white side of things, and everyone in it called Trip Williams “Daddy”. Trip pulled up early, and Barbara could hear Anna May, her mother-in-law’s pounding feet, like a freight train, running upstairs to start Trip’s bath water. That big boned red mammy shook the whole house, all three floors and the basement trying to get Daddy’s bath water ready by the time he walked in from the club. Then his dinner had to be on the table, not too hot, not too cold or he’d shout his hot breath right down Anna May’s throat. Trip was a charm and a gem, but Barbara hated watching that subservient, bitter woman cater to him.
Trip came in, set his shoes at the door, and the money was everywhere, in his socks, in the band of his hat, crumpled bills tucked in between his belt buckle and brown pants. Barbara could hear Daddy taking the steps, and if he wasn’t light as a feather! She didn’t know what he saw in that heavy-footed woman upstairs. Everyone knew he was sweet on her mama.
Abel came inside the house fanning himself, walked into the kitchen blowing smoke like he was tired or something.
“You haven’t worked for a whole week now. We can’t get our own place without a paycheck,” Barbara said, snapping string beans. Abel was an usher at the Haltnorth Theater, but she hadn’t seen him sharp in his red and blue dress pants and top hat since last Friday. Today was Saturday.
“I had a seizure at the theater.” He’d been an epileptic since their last year at East Tech High School. Abel was on the track team with Harrison Dilliard when he ran head first into a brick wall. Abel must’ve been the unlucky one, because Harrison ended up at the Olympics and all Abel got was a bad case of epilepsy. And back then, they didn’t know what to do with a sickness like that. Nine years later and Abel was treading the thin line between a disabled and a no-good.
“Well, I think there’s something you should know,” Barbara said.
Abel moved behind her, wrapped his thin arms around her tight waist. Now it was just a few years before that Little Richard song, and hell if it weren’t wrote for her. If she’s got a figure made to squeeze, she can’t help it. It was those thick legs with pop out calves that made him turn his head twice the summer of ‘43. Her lady parts damn near screamed at him when she walked by, so he answered with his eyes first and his mouth later. And what had she said? Don’t break your neck. For the love of that woman. But pregnant? “Again? Stevie’s not even one yet.”
“You know that’s what happens when a woman and a man go to bed, right?” Barbara heard people around town whispering that their wedding was a shotgun wedding, but really, it was love and it was in due time. Weren’t all her friends married to men they’d known for less time? And way before the age of twenty-seven.
He moved in closer, threw his pelvis against her. “You think that woman your mama works for could get you a job cleaning houses or something?”
“And keep my job as a nurse’s assistant at the funeral hospital? No, but maybe you could go to college like your sister. She may not be a lawyer like Daddy wanted, but she’s making all that money now.”
He stepped back. “I can’t do that. Not having seizures and all. When’s the last time you seen an epileptic in college?”
“Never. But the only epileptic I know is you.”
Anna May came downstairs in a huff and a rush. “Barbara, what’s taking you so long with them string beans? I’ve seen blind turtles move faster.”
Surely, Barbara thought, Anna May wasn’t fool enough to mistake her for Daisy, the other daughter-in-law, little seventeen-year-old girl who always said yes ma’am. No, she wasn’t Daisy. Barbara was ready to snap her last bean.
“Ma,” Abel said. “Be nice to Barb.”
“She doesn’t like it here, she can move out,” Anna May said without looking up, Trip’s plate now full of smothered chicken, sweet potatoes and cornbread.
Trip came downstairs and took a look around the kitchen, Anna May, Barbara, Abel, and now timid Daisy was in the corner.
“All my favorite family,” he said. “Under one roof.”
That was a decade before Barbara left Abel for the projects. Not even Trip could blame her, because although Abel was his favorite son, Abel was a poor shit of a father, couldn’t keep his mind or his responsibilities straight. Some said those seizures were shaking the devil out of Abel, and well, he had too many but he couldn’t’ve had enough.
One cold day in 1964 Fred’s mama Barbara got mad at his father Abel, and she and Stevie and Fred went out that big door and into the projects to live with his Grandma Gigi. Fred was ten and just going into the fifth grade. It wasn’t all that bad at first, but he soon realized that there were two different ways to be called the rich kid.
At the big house, if anyone asked, Fred was supposed to tell them that Daddy (his daddy’s daddy) was a butcher. But because Daddy always left in the morning in the back seat of a Cadillac with two white men, Fred can remember thinking Daddy was an undercover cop. Either way, Daddy was rich and because of that, a driver rode them to school everyday. In the big house, being rich was just a fact. But here at Longwood Plaza, it was said with malice. Little rich kid comes to the projects. A taunt. Came home from school one day with a busted lip.
“What happened, Freddy?” Gigi asked.
“Nothing.” He knew better than to tell his grandmother Gigi anything. She’d run those boys down and stab them with a fork like she did that possum screaming, Lord knows a possum ain’t got nothing to do in the projects.
“I’m only gonna ask you one more time now. What happened?”
Fred looked down and thought about how he could make it sound nicer than it was. Maybe he could say he’d started it, but then Gigi might knock the mess out of him. Maybe he could say that it was just one boy, one real mean boy who didn’t even know his alphabet, but then Gigi might call him a fool for getting beat up by one. “They don’t like that I’m rich,” he decided to say.
Gigi laughed. “Boy, you not rich. Not that it should matter if you were. You living in the projects just like them, right?” She grabbed Fred by the arm and brought him in close, rubbed his back like she did when he was just a baby.
“But Daddy. . .” Fred started.
“Hush,” Gigi said. “His money don’t mean nothing. It’s not even worth nothing. If someone tries to hurt you again, you stand tall. Don’t let them tell you what you are and aren’t. Don’t give them that. Don’t give them nothing but an ass whooping.” She held up a tight fist, her head down, eyes up, looking into Fred, searching. “You got it?”
“Be kind first.”
“And say your prayers.”
Fred’s mama Barbara came home from work, and she turned the radio up real high, kicked off her shoes and wiggled her pantyhose covered feet deep into the carpet. “Come dance with me, Fred.”
“How Sweet it is to be Loved by You,” the Marvin Gaye song had just come out, and Mama said that it was just for the two of them, that everyone else could hear it, but it was theirs.
They were in the living room doing the hitchhike and the mashed potato, moving around like that was what space was made for when Daddy walked in with two big bags of soul food. Daddy’s food was nothing like Gigi’s neck bones, but it was still good. His own father never came with Daddy, and it was right around that time that Fred stopped looking for him. He held his breath when dialing the big house because if anyone but Daddy answered he’d be too nervous to talk.
“Come on over here, Fred,” Daddy said. “You’re a bigger man every time I see you. Look just like Abel, too.”
Fred’s smile faded.
“What did you bring, Daddy?” Fred asked, solemn but curious.
“Go on, take a look.”
Collards and yams and cornbread and fried chicken and chicken feet and green beans and pork chops and sweet potato pie and apple pie and pound cake.
“Maybe we are rich,” Gigi said, and Fred didn’t get it, but he laughed anyway. All that food, and there wasn’t nothing to do but laugh and eat and dance the mashed potato.
It was one of those days Grandma Gigi took off her wig, shook out her plaits and let her hair stand high, shooting everywhere, a curled, kinked, tangled, beautiful mess.
It was a good life.
That was how Fred remembered it.
That was before Daddy died, and Abel and his brothers lost all of his money. What remained were the recipes, the soul food, the music, the memory of a man who never worked a day in his life.
They were still in the projects in 1970 when Cotton Comes to Harlem, the movie came out, and it was Gigi’s idea to pile everyone into Fred’s new stepfather Joe’s beat up Chrysler and go to the black drive-in.
Gigi sat up front, right in between Mama and Joe. Stevie and Fred, almost grownups now, sat in the back. They were late, because the McDonald’s down the street had just opened, and Joe let them get a bag full of fries, and there weren’t nothing better than those piping hot McDonald’s potatoes. By the time they made it to the drive in, a police car half- blocked the entrance, and the white cop outside in blue said they weren’t letting in anymore.
“What’s that, Cap?” Joe asked.
“It’s full. You gotta go on now. See it next time.”
“Hey,” Gigi leaned her head out of the door, her wrinkled body squashing Mama’s pregnant belly. “I know the mayor, and the mayor will be on my side.”
Now Fred knew Gigi knew a lot of people, but he’d never heard her mention the mayor. Doubt streamed up his thighs, and he realized how tight he had to hold his piss. He knew what whites did to blacks, even in Cleveland, he knew. They found James Ferguson, Jr. not even a year ago face down in a parking lot on the East Side, because that’s what black and proud got you, a bullet to the back.
“Ma’am, I don’t think...” the cop began to say, but Mama turning up the radio cut him off. They were playing “How Sweet it is to be Loved by You,” and Mama turned around in her seat, looking at Fred.
“It’s our song, baby.”
Fred leaned forward, reached for his mama’s hand, her soft and familiar hold.
“Turn that mess down,” Gigi said. “I’m trying to give this man a prayer.”
Mama didn’t mind her, but Gigi went on talking, louder.
“I know the mayor, and I know Jesus, and those are two men you don’t want to mess with.”
The cop began to laugh, and it was an uncomfortable thing, to see someone laugh instead of cower in the face of one of Gigi’s threats. Plus she had already taken off her spectacles.
But Fred’s grandma broke out in a loud encroaching, gargled laugh. Like she was laughing at the moon, laughing to stay alive, laughing because that was what she had to do well. And if that cop didn’t do anything but let them into the drive-in to watch Cotton Comes to Harlem, the movie!
Like it was yesterday. A movie directed by Ossie Davis. Fred’s mama playing their song, and Grandma Gigi knowing the mayor just like she knew Jesus. Strong and praying and laughing at the same time. The only way it could be.
That was before Gigi slowly withered away, just like Daddy’s money, gone by 1994, twenty years after The Spinners started singing about Sadie, sweeter than cotton candy, stronger than papa’s old brandy. There are a lot of things that death can kill, a project with a green grass courtyard, a city loaded with black ambition, a Cadillac glinting in summertime shine and a house with a porch and a patio. Yeah there are a lot of things that death can kill, but a praying mama, young or old, ain’t one of them.
Janelle M Williams is an African American writer from Decatur, Georgia. She received her BA from Howard University, her MFA in Creative Writing from Manhattanville College, and a 2017 fellowship from Kimbilio Fiction. Her work has appeared in The Feminist Wire and Writopia Speaks. She is currently at work on a novel set in Harlem.