Her name was Maude and she Georgied me around 1921. I was only three years old. Mama told me about it, years later. The memory of it made her almost tremble as she told me, all high-strung and bothered, as emotional perhaps as at the time when she surprised us : her panting and moaning at the point of orgasm, with her massive black thighs viselike around my head, my tiny little baby head wedged in there. Mama worked long hours in a hand laundry like they had back then, and Maude was the maude, at fifty cents a day. She was a young widow. I don't remember how her husband died. Maybe they never told me, or maybe they never told anyone. She had a reputation in Indianapolis, Indiana as a devout Holy Roller. You'd think this is strange, considering she told Mama she's done the same to all the babies, because it's what you're to do, because it's good for them, so they learn and get used to it and live happy in life. She said it's the holy blessing and anointment and never in this life will one be happy but through it. It's not strange even a little bit, though. It's obvious. All the church people are in the same way, just like salesmen : they don't mean what you'd expect by the words they say.
Mama asked her if she'd done to her babies too, but Maude said she ain't got any. That's right, said Mama, and kicked her out of the house. But then she came back the next week, because ain't nobody take the job at fifty cents a day, and Mama couldn't stay home from the laundry no more, and she said I cried and cried like at the second weaning while Maude was gone. Mama said I was really bad when she took the tit from my mouth, some kids are better than others but everyone she showed it to said I'm the worst they've ever seen, even old crones who saw the slave days and knew Lincoln. But this was worse ; so I asked her if she took a discount because of me ? And she told me she said "I guess I did, son" and I asked her then isn't that like pimping ? And she told me "Bobby, ain't nobody living in this world but they be pimpin' or whorin' and don't you forget it now boy!"
Many things through the years I've forgot, but look that not that. I must've been maybe nine or ten when she told me about it, I don't remember but her words. I have tried through the years to remember Maude's face, but all I can remember clearly is the funky ritual. I vaguely remember, not her words exactly, but her panting excitement whenever we were alone. I remember more vividly the moist, odorous darkness and the bristle-like hairs tickling my face and most vividly I can remember my panic, when in the wild moment of her climax, she would savagely jerk my head even tighter into the hairy maw. I couldn't get a breath of air until later, when like a huge black balloon she would exhale with a whistling whoosh and relax, limply freeing my head. I remember her sweat, pouring down her thighs, dripping off the back of my neck, and the ache and the strain, especially at the root of my baby tongue. I remember other things, too. I remember running away from home, the first time, that day. I ran out, there was a bike somebody left propped against a pole. I jumped on it and pedalled away, madly, like a blind frog. I was pedalling like I were running away, and in fact I was running away. From her, from those emotions, from the dreams, from the memories. From everything. I thought I must forget ; for many years I thought I had done it and forgot. But today, that I am old, today, as all my life's used up, although I've known so many women that begged to be remembered and yet I've forgotten them all, today still there's her. The one I can't truly forget. Maude!
A man from Columbia told me last week writing was invented by young women because old men forget. Speech, he said, was invented by young men, to better hide their thoughts ; then writing came around, to work differently than memory, and all the better make a mess of it. I thought as we were talking, you know what ? I'll write it all down! and then we'll see. Maybe you read it and tell me ; though by then I won't be here to hear it any longer.
Mama and I had come to Indianapolis from Chicago. To hear her tell the story, ever since the time when she was six months pregnant my father began showing his true colors : a black bum in white spats. It's sad when it comes out true colors aren't even true colors in the first place. Mama's story went in the usual way : a no-good bum in disguise stalked a beautiful and innocent virgin in some small town in Tennessee that happened to be their home town. He conned her into marriage. That she was getting married and knocked up no matter what, that bum or any other bum... such was never mentioned. Instead, as her own story went by her own mouth, he had conned her. It just so happened to be what she had already set herself to, as hard and stubbornly as an old sourdough miner. Do you suppose the very mountains con those sad, strange old men into digging at them their lives away ? Maybe they do, the mountains just sit there, quietly, conning poor old men all the while. She was as dumb as a doorstop, but that's not what she saw, looking back. Instead, she turned around and called it innocence, like molding shit in gold brick shapes and pretending like you carved serials on them, too. A shitbrick of stupid, which she called an innocent virgin, who was beautiful it so happens. She didn't know anything, not anything useful anyways, she couldn't do anything, besides of course getting married and detecting the bum in whoever had conned her to do the only thing she knew how to do, the only thing she was going to do anyways. And she was beautiful, of course, whatever that means. She was beautiful, and call it good.
That they're all beautiful in the same way at just about the age they're getting ready to get themselves conned in the cunt... that, she didn't notice. That the bum, whichever one, will be detected and discovered a bum, whatever he might've been, for being married to her, and that she'd be the very one to make that discovery, somehow... none of that found a place in her story. Instead it was her parents, you see, who with a big great sigh of relief gave their blessing and wished them the best in the promised land up North in Chicago. Mama had ten brothers and sisters, and her marriage meant one less mouth to feed, so maybe not nearly as much conning as Mama always said was truly at any point involved. Maybe it was more of an act of mercy on his part, or maybe it wasn't her that was being conned. Who wants a beautiful innocent mouth to feed, and what do they ever want it for ? She didn't come right out and say it, but she meant it, oh how she very much meant it : it was their fault. Her Mother and Father, I know nothing of them besides of course it must've been their fault that Mama was poor growing up. Not hers. What can a child ever do ? But then, it wasn't her fault later, that we were poor. God knows she did all she could, and that should be good enough. It was that bum she married, it was his fault. He was no good, as she discovered herself. Not her fault. His. She always did just fine by her own lights, there was always ample supply of credit right on hand, readily extended to herself as her own story went ; yet somehow everyone else around always turned out to be some kind of bum. That's how all her stories always went, and everyone else's stories that I ever heard, it's like they're all in court. But this... this won't go anything like that.
I know what I am, and who. I don't need to try and find it out, discreetly, hiding out, watching everyone carefully, like a gambler trying to divine his own standing by the way all the others hold their eyes. I've known as many gamblers as I've known whores in my life, and each to the last one were the same way : every whore with a story just like Mama's, that unlike Mama she had seen through ; and every gambler a little boy, trying to do the same everyone else does, only do it cheaper. Ole Bama told me one time, he said, "Iceberg, everyone's always gambling. My old man used to gamble when he worked the field and hoped for rain. I figure, if a man's gonna gamble, he might as well do it without ploughing." Bama was more straightforward than most, though that didn't make him any more honest. Everyone's soft, though you gotta be tough, and so everyone gets banged up and crumples up inside and soon enough everyone's crooked like corkscrews and nobody knows what to say anymore, or how to say it, for no straight words fit any curled ears anymore. But I know it, I know it all, I've lived my life out and in that trade that's what I get : I know it all now. Six men sit down around an upturned crate, and they're all the same now. That's the big deal, the true reason why they gamble : equality. They're now and finally the same, nobody's as equal as the man sat down before a hand of poker. Unequality there's a real crime, which they call cheating, and will shoot each other for it, just as good as in any war anyone's ever had. Nothing Phoney about it. They're equal, for a moment ; and then the first card hits. Well... they ain't equal no mo'. Not now, not no mo'. Who's who, though ? The card's a queen or a three, of diamonds or clubs. It hits their eyes. They don't look around, though of course they do. Who's who ? They stab each other in the eyes with little colored bits of prick, to find out who's who. Not for me, though lots of little boys stuck going around as if they were grown men do it their whole lives. But then again, they've never had their maude growing up. Or maybe they did and she was no good.
My father's father was a skilled cook, Mama said, and he passed his know how to my father, Mama said. I don't know about that, I can't cook to save my life, and I never could ; but my Dad, he scored a chef's job at a huge middle-class hotel shortly after getting to Chicago, so there must be something to the story. They put Mama on as a waitress, too. Mama told me that even with both of them working twelve hours a day, six days a week they couldn't save a nickel or buy furniture or anything. She said my idiot father had come to the big city and gone sucker wild. He couldn't stay away from the high-yellow whores with their big asses and bitch-dog sexual anticsi. I didn't ask her then, what did she mean by that ; or what they got she ain't got, or why does she think any of that. I didn't know how ; but I don't think she believed much of it herself, because she added that whatever they didn't con him out of he lost in the cheat crap joints. Why'd any man go to cheat crap joints ? Take it from old Iceberg : whenever there's a backup in the story, the teller's tellin' it. Say you're... I don't know what you might be, a school marm, maybe ? Yeah, alright, I'm going with that. You're a tighly wound up tomato, unreasonably affraid of seen and therefore unreasonably attracted by it. I'm not the first one to have tried this approach, right ? Fine then, buckle down and listen : on comes a kiddy up to your desk one day, and it turns out he didn't do his homework. If he says he did it, but it fell down a well he might even be telling true ; if she says she did it, but the dog ate it and then she was also out of pencils, you know she's lying. They're all lying, of course ; the little boy just doesn't know how, that's all. And neither does the little girl.
One night at the hotel he vanished from the kitchen, and Mama finally found him thrusting mightily into a half-white waitress lying on a sack of potatoes in a storage room, her legs locked around his back. Mama said she threw everything she could lift at them. This story too, I'm sure. They were unemployed when they walked away from the shambles. I didn't know to ask her if she locked her legs around his back too, or why didn't she kiss the whore. Who can afford to throw things at people who love them ? There's never that many, and if you love them back what sort of mind you need to throw things at the people who love them ? There's not that many of those, either, so if you ever find the man you love thrusting mightily into a woman that's got her legs locked around his back, you walk right up to her and kiss her. And don't you forget that! The way she told it instead, my father tearfully vowed to straighten himself out and be a man, but... after my birth he got worse and had the stupid gall to suggest to Mama that I be put on a Catholic Church doorstep. Mama wouldn't have it, so he hurled me against the wall in disgust. I survived, and miraculously uninjured, but he left us, his white spats flashing and his derby hat at a rakish angle. I don't believe a word of it, of course, but that makes us even : you don't believe a word of mine, do you now. Yet in time you'll find out belief isn't nearly as necessary in this life as you at first make out to think.
For us it was the beginning of a bitter Winter that year. Mama packed pressing irons and waving combs into a small bag and wrapped me warmly in blankets and set out into the bleak, friendless city to ring door bells, the bag in one arm and I in the other. Her pitch was something like this, "Ma'am, I can make your hair curly and beautiful. Please give me a chance. For fifty cents, that's all, I will make your hair shine like new money." At this point in the pitch Mama told me she would slip the blanket aside to bare my wee big-eyed face. The sight of me in her arm on a subzero day was like a charm. She managed to make a living for us.
Then in the Spring, with new friends of Mama's we left Chicago for Indianapolis. We stayed there until nineteen twenty-four, when a fire gutted the hand laundry where Mama worked. I don't remember anything about these friends, nor do they figure in her tales, so I'll venture a guess and say they conned an innocent but still beautiful black woman with a child in tow and no father anywhere, and then turned out to be bums. Because that's what they were, and had been all along. By coincidence there also were no jobs in Indianapolis. Not for Mama, not for anyone else. For six months we barely made it on herii meager savings. We were penniless and the pantry well bare by the time a tall ugly angel visiting relatives in Indianapolis came into our lives. He fell instantly in love with my lissome beautiful mother. His name was Henry Upshaw, and I guess I fell as hard for him as he fell for Mama.
He took us back to Rockford, Illinois with him. He owned a cleaning and pressing shop there, the only Nigger business in downtown Rockford. In those tough depression times a Nigger in his position was the envy of most Nigger men. Still Henry was religious, ambitious, good and kind. I often wonder what would have happened to my life if I had not been torn away from him. Sometimes it seems like your life's all you, and it'll play the same regardless what anyone throws your way, like the organ wails the same no matter who grinds it. But then some other times and especially late at night it seems more like there's no you, nothing of yours in there at all. Just a half nutshell floating a little while on the open sea, akin to any other and soonly sunk like all the others. Or maybe it's not like that at all. Maybe it's not like anything at all. Maybe it's just a thought, just like a dream, maybe there's nothing there at all until you bend to look, and then you see whatever you feel like, just like Ma. Maybe my life didn't turn out at all, it was someone else's all along and I just didn't know about it. Maybe a woman I do not know asked a man I do not know whether he often rewrites auto-biographies, and that's what it was all along, an autobiography without an author, waiting to be written out so it could then have existed though at its time it had not. Everyone's life's his own except yours, because that's the only time you'd know. The others you just assume, like little niggers trying to swim over. Nothing of yours, no boat, no hovel, no tool of any kind nor even the mental sophistication that could divine what a tool'd look like. Bare arms and legs, such as they are, and the great sea to be crossed on just that. The little nigglets still left on the shore readily assume the grown niggers long left swam, and did not sink. Once it's their time to be that nigger and swim they soon discover the realities of the situation ; but somehow as if by magic they still believe all the others swam, and did not sink. It's more objective that way. It's more naive, more empowering in that manner of naivite, to think your life's your own even though plainly enough nobody else's life ever was their own that you can point to. And yet...
Henry treated Mama like she was a princess. Anything she wanted he got for her. She was a fashion plate now all right. Every Sunday when we all three went to church in the gleaming black Dodge we were an outstanding sight as we walked down the aisle in our fresh neat clothing. Only the few Nigger lawyers and physicians lived as well, looked as well. Mama was president of several civic clubs. For the first time we were living the good life.
Mama had a dream. She told it to Henry. Like the genie of the lamp he made it a reality. The dream was a four stall, opulent beauty shop. Its chrome gleamed in the black-and-gold motif, just the very thing an out of work Nigger whore would get for herself ; but Mama was no whore, just a lousy Princess, so Henry had to get it for her instead. It stood in the heart of the Negro business section, and it flourished from the moment its doors opened. Her clientele was for the most part whores, pimps, and hustlers from the sprawling red light district in Rockford, the only ones who always had the money to spend on their appearance and the sense to see why they should. The first time I saw Washington he was sitting down, getting his nails manicured in the shop. Mama was smiling into his handsome olive-tinted face as she buffed his nails. I didn't know when I first saw him that he was the pin-striped snake who would poison the core of our lives. To be honest, I didn't know much of anything when I first saw him. I certainly had no inkling that was to be the last day at the shop as live billows of steam hissed from the old pressing machine each time Henry slammed its lid down on a garment.
Jesus! It was hot in that little shop. Steamy and crowded, yet how I loved every minute of it! That's what young bitches mean when they say they'd rather starve with the man they love. It was school-vacation time for me but I worked in the shop all day, every day. I'd jump up in bed every morning like never before, like never since then, brimming with excitement. Today's the day I'll be helping my stepfather! I was in love with him like any puppy ever was in love. People like to think it matters if you're a boy or a girl, but that's because the truth scares them. Up until sixteen or so everyone's a little girl, inside, deep down inside. The little boys and the little girls too, all the same. They might as well all wear skirts, because that's the kind of same they are : the kind that goes best in a skirt.
That one day, just like every other day, I was the happiest black boy in Rockford. As I saw my reflection in the banker's expensive black shoes, as I applied the sole dressing, as I hummed my favorite tune "Spring Time in the Rockies" I was, without a doubt, without possibility of parole, without hint of a hope of revisitation or ever encountering it thence or ever again, the happiest boy that ever lived. The banker stepped down from the shine stand, stood for a moment as I flicked lint from his soft, rich suit, then with a warm smile he pressed an extravagantiii fifty-cent piece into my hand and stepped out into the broiling street. Back then they still had the Coolidge dollar, shines went for a dime. What a tip! I've dished out many tips since then, hundreds of thousands for sure, maybe a million different tips. For small things, for big things, for nothing at all, I must've doled out a million dollars in tips. A million dollar, easy. Tips in paper dollars, in these days' dollars, nothing dollars. I'm a man who's pushed out a million dollars of confederate money in tips, bribes, gratuities. Maybe it adds up to that half dollar all in all, or maybe it does not. Some days I think it does. Some days I think it must, it's just too much time, too many tips to not sum up to one single tip, one single moment in a life. Some other days though...
I didn't know back then that the banker'll never press another coin into my hand. That for the next fifty and more years this last day'll be there, to be remembered, vividly remembered as the final day of real happiness for me. I'd live to press five-dollar bills into the palms of shine boys, for shining my handmade shoes that in name only cost at least the thrice whatever the banker paid for his. But my shoes'd be Roosevelt shoes, New Deal shoes. Pressed shit shoes, nothing shoes, I doled out paper pretending to be money to some kid pretending to be shining my bare feet pretending to be shoed and all the while everyone pretending to be happy though nobody ever was. We didn't know anything back then, neither did I nor anyone else. As far as all could see there was really nothing out of the ordinary about that day. Nothing during that day that I heard or saw preparing me for the swift, for the pile-up of confusing events that over the weekend slammed my life away from all that was good to all that's forever bad. Now, looking back, remembering that last day in the shop as clearly as if it were yesterday, my stepfather, Henry, was unusually quiet. My young virgin mind couldn't grasp his worry, his heartbreak. Even as a ten year old I knew that this huge, ugly black man who had rescued Mama and me from actual starvation back in Indianapolis loved us with all of his great, sensitive heart. I loved Henry with all my heart. He was the only father I had ever really known. For his sake he could have saved himself an early death from a broken heart if instead of falling so madly in love with Mama he had run as fast as he could away from us. For him she was little more than brown-skin poison in a, by then, size-twelve dress.
That last night at eight o'clock Dad and I flicked the shop's lights out as always at closing. In an emotion muffled voice he spoke my name. "Bobby." I turned toward him and looked up into his face tense and strained in the pale light reaching us from the street lamp. I was confused and shaken when he put his massive hands on my shoulders and drew me to him very tightly just holding me in this strange desperate way. My head was pressed against his belt buckle. I could barely make out the rapid flow of words in his low, plaintive tone. He said, "Bobby, you know I love you and Mama, don't you?"
His stomach muscles were cording, jerking against my cheek. That's how he said it, too. "You, and Mama", it's what he said. I knew he was going to burst into tears. I said as I squeezed my arms around his waist, "Yes, Daddy, yes, Daddy. We love you too, Daddy. We always will, Daddy." I'm so glad I said that. Of all the things I ever did or said, sometimes in their own time, sometimes out of place, that's the one I'm glad to have gotten right. He was trembling as he said, "You and Mama wouldn't ever leave me? You know Bobby, I ain't got nobody in the world but you two. I just couldn't go on if you left me alone." I clung tightly to him and said, "Don't worry Daddy, we'll never leave you, I promise, honest, Daddy." What a sight we could've been, the six-foot-six black giant and the frail little boy holding on to each other for dear life, crying there in the darkness.———
- I sat and thought upon this matter ; and we discussed it in the harem. 'Tis muddy at best ; but do you suppose a black woman who spent 1918 pregnant and throwing things at sacks of potatoes actually said those words, those exact words, to her son at some point during or maybe just after the Great Depression ? Why would she think that ? What do you suppose she sees, admitting she did say it, in her mind's eye ? The accuplation described's plainly vaginal, the girl on the sack of potatoes isn't taking it in the ass nor is she sucking cock, they're there doing intromissive missionary like since the dawn of time, the position upon which the Americas were built. What, is this guy's momma some kinda Boston Protestant from a small town in Tennessee ? Does she take offense at the other, normal girls being too straightforward, too directly earnest about the cunt between their legs for her elaborate tastes ? I don't know how you say farafasticuri in your language, but is that the problem, is it that she's not an animal, she's a human being, as proven by the fact she can't touch it, let alone spread it in her hand for a man's visual inspection like normal people ?
Or is it rather that the book, the original book, being written in the 60s, about events from the late twenties up until the early fifities but written in the mid-60s, falsifies liberally, disrespectfully butchers the stories such that the minced meat remaining's entirely a byproduct of the "American" notion, as reconstructed televisionally (and out of disparate, and mostly very diverging reality), nothing authentic (or for that matter true) remaining ? It'd be just like the tv age, of course, but then... [↩]
- At first I was tempted to change this asyntactic barbarism towards a more aetolian possessive pronoun or something ; but then it occurs to me it's actually quite flavourfully descriptive as it stands. It's not her savings, it's the savings, little Obama's fully grown inside and if you build a business...
Come to think of it now I have to change it, my Iceberg's not their liceberg. [↩]
- He sounds just like fucking Elliot, what the fuck can I do, opulent lissome etcetera. Hot damn... [↩]