“Why don’t you just stay the night then.”
He stayed and we enjoyed more wine and a late fried chicken dinner I had delivered from Percy’s. I made up the couch and around midnight, I went to bed, leaving him up watching TV. I don’t know what time it was, but during the night I woke up and found him standing at the foot of my bed. I don’t know if it was the wine or if this was something that was bound to happen sooner or later. No words were needed. He smiled. I returned the smile, and then I threw back the covers.
What he did to me and what Mr. Boatwright had done to me for years were two different things. And as far as the men from Scary Mary’s were concerned, I couldn’t even remember what sex had been like with them. It seemed so unreal when I recalled any of it, which was every day. The shame of prostitution as part of my work experience was overwhelming. He offered to teach me things, telling me, “We got all night.” I did everything he told me to do.
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KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
Dedicated to Ocie and G. W. Bonner
Thanks to the following:
Robin Givens, whose interest in this story, when it was a screenplay for her called
, kept me from tossing it onto that
pile of rejected manuscripts I now use as a weight-lifting device.
Sheila Cunningham Sims, Heather King, and David Akamine—dinner and drinks are on me!
I greatly appreciate the help and advice I received from my former agents, Charlotte Sheedy and Joseph Vallely.
I am very grateful that this novel fell into the hands of my super agent, Andrew Stuart, whose encouraging telephone calls and letters always came at the right time.
Special thanks to my editor, Karen Thomas, whose expertise and patience finally gave this book the chance it deserves.
To the crew at the New Century Theater in San Francisco, don’t forget Pretty Black.
o this day I don’t know exactly where Mr. Boatwright came from. He slid into my life one dark miserable day in October 1956, when I was six years old. I arrived home from school and there he was, decked out in a fleecy white suit and a lopsided fedora. He was grinning all over the place as he removed his musty things from a large military bag and placed them on our already cluttered living-room floor. His pointed-toed shoes lined up in our hallway looked like a row of little missiles.
“Who are you?” I asked, eyeing him suspiciously.
He looked about a hundred years old. I stayed close to the door and kept my hand on the doorknob, ready to run if I had to. First, he looked me up and down, bobbing his head like a rooster. A lot of people did that the first time they saw me. I was probably the only first grader in Ohio who weighed almost as much as an adult. Suddenly, and for a brief moment, I suspected and hoped that he was the grandfather I had never met. He was a heavyset man with copper-colored skin and sparkling brown eyes that looked out of place on his wide, flat, heavily lined face. His lips were thin for a Black man. I looked around for Mama. She appeared within seconds with a smile on her face that stretched from one side to the other. She stopped in the middle of the floor and started wiping her flour-covered hands on her crisp white apron. Standing close to the man, I could see that he was not much taller than Mama and she was only five-foot-two.
“Annette, this here is Brother Boatwright. He fixin’ to move in with us,” Mama informed me.
Stunned, I looked from her to him then back to her. “Is this my granddaddy?” I asked. My heart was beating about a mile a minute.
“No.” Mama chuckled. “You ain’t got no grandfolks no more. Brother Boatwright is just another brother in need of a place to live.”
“He’s just a strange man?” I gasped, disappointed. I was the only kid I knew who didn’t have grandparents to visit and expect gifts and money from. I tightened my grip on the doorknob.
“No, he ain’t no strange man!” I could tell that Mama was getting frustrated with me by the way she narrowed her eyes and jerked her head from side to side when she talked. “Him and Reverend Snipes go waaaaaay back,” she told me, waving her hand dramatically. I did not want some strange old man, especially one that might start bossing me around, invading the space I shared with Mama.
“Oh,” I mumbled. I let go of the doorknob and moved closer to Mama. “Is he going to sleep with you like a husband, Mama?” I asked anxiously. I had been praying for Mama to get married again and have a baby sister or brother for me to boss around. I rolled my eyes at the man. The mean look I gave him upset him, and I was glad. A puppy-dog expression replaced his annoying grin, but I didn’t care.
“Don’t you never disrespect Brother Boatwright like that again, Bride of Satan,” Mama hissed. There was a look of embarrassment on her face as she pulled me into a corner. “Sleep with me? Brother Boatwright is a man of God.” Mama turned to the old man with another smile, and continued, “Brother Boatwright, you arrived right on time. I know you know your Bible. You see the mess I got on my hands? This young’n is out of control. We don’t keep a eye on her, next time we look up, she’ll be robbin’ banks or tryin’ to shoot President Eisenhower.”
I returned to Mr. Boatwright and apologized. He smiled and tickled all three of my chins. His smile seemed empty and false. There was sweat all over his face, and it wasn’t even hot in our house. He removed a flat box of Anacin pills from his shirt pocket and rapidly gobbled up a handful.
“Ain’t it the truth, Sister Goode. I’m gwine to keep both my eyes on this girl! Praise the Lord!” he shrieked, nodding for emphasis. I jumped almost a foot off the floor. The old man and Mama laughed.
“Mama…” I started.
“He walks with Jesus so he say that sometime when he get excited,” Mama explained. I didn’t care how holy he was. The way he was looking at me, making me feel like I was something good to eat, I should have known he was up to something nasty even then. “Like I said, Brother Boatwright and the Reverend Snipes, they go waaaaaay back. He get a disability check every month from the white folks so he goin’ to he’p us pay our bills. And he just loves to dust and mop and sweep and cook.”
“You got any kids I can play with, Mr. Boatwright?” I had to force myself, but I managed a smile.
“I sure ain’t. But if I did, I declare, I’d want me a little gal just like you. You just as thick and fine as you wanna be. I bet you can pull a plow by yourself. I bet you can tear down a house by yourself!” he exclaimed, squeezing my arm.
His statements frightened me, as they would have any other lazy child. I went out of my way to get out of doing housework and any other chores, let alone something as strenuous as pulling plows and tearing down houses. He’d be the type to boss me around like I was a slave, I thought. He’d have me washing dishes, mopping, dusting—things Mama had always done while I lounged on the couch watching television and nibbling on snacks. I sensed a future filled with doom and despair.
Mama turned to me, and a serious look appeared on her face. When she folded her arms and started tapping her toe, I took a few steps back. “God led Brother Boatwright to us for a reason. In addition to providin’ you some spiritual guidance, you just now heard him agree to keep both his eyes on you while I am at work. You better mind him and do
’ he tell you to do. Do you hear me?” Mama snarled, stabbing me in the chest with her finger.
“Yes, Ma’am.” I sighed with defeat.
Mama then turned to the old man, and continued, “Brother Boatwright, you got my permission rightcheer and now to coldcock this numskull whenever you feel she need it.”
“OK, Sister Goode,” he said eagerly. I could smell his sour breath from a foot away. Looking into his terrible eyes, I was certain he was insane. I knew then that my life would never be the same again.
ther than Mama, I didn’t have any other relatives in Richland, Ohio. According to her, my grandparents on both sides were dead. I had just a few other distant relatives scattered throughout the South that I had never met. The only one Mama still communicated with was her older sister Berneice, who lived in Florida, near Miami, where we had come from. When both of her parents died within weeks of one another when she was sixteen, Mama married my daddy out of desperation. After six miscarriages, she gave birth to me at thirty-four.
Mama and I looked a lot alike, but she was called pretty, I was not. We had the same high cheekbones and heart-shaped face with small nose, bow-shaped lips, lashes so long and black they belonged on a doll, and beauty mark on the right side, just above our lip. People called her beauty mark a mole. They called mine a wart. Not only was Mama light-skinned, she was slim. Just being light was enough by Black standards for her to be considered attractive. Being slim was icing on the cake. No matter how pretty I actually was, people made it clear I was too dark and too fat. My short kinky hair was a crown of thorns. Black people with dark skin were usually looked down upon by light-skinned Black people. I was certainly no exception. When a light-skinned, pretty little girl from our church died, I overheard one of the church ushers say, “too bad it wasn’t that gnome Annette.” A knife in my heart couldn’t have hurt me more.
Because of the things I’d already experienced, I could remember back to when I was three. Daddy was still around then. Like a lot of Black folks in south Florida, we didn’t have much. We lived in shacks, wore secondhand clothes, and moved often enough that we always managed to stay a few steps ahead of our bill collectors and the Klan. We bought a lot of stuff on credit that we couldn’t always pay for, like food, medicine, and every now and then a luxury item like a Christmas gift or something for one of our birthdays.
Daddy was an outspoken man who stood up in church and at political rallies and cursed the way white folks were treating us. “With God’s help, we ain’t goin’ to put up with Jim Crow the rest of our lives!” he used to shout, standing on a podium waving our shabby Bible. News about his arrogance always reached the Klan, and he received veiled threats too often for his comfort. That’s the main reason we roamed around like gypsies. I remember a very close call one night. While we were attending a revival somebody threw a firebomb in the front window of our house. We got home just in time to grab the shopping bags and battered suitcases we kept our belongings in. That same night we hid in a church member’s barn until Daddy arranged for somebody to drive us to a safer part of town, where we stayed in another shack until we had to flee again.
Daddy was a migrant laborer and worked in the nearby fields six days a week. Mama cleaned and cooked for rich white folks in Miami two days a week. The year was 1954, and segregation was a way of life. “I ain’t about to set in the back of nobody’s bus,” Mama often said. Mama didn’t even bother trying to ride in cabs, so we usually walked or hitched a ride on somebody’s mule-wagon to her jobs and everywhere else we went. She would prepare us a few sandwiches, usually sweet potato or baloney, and we would leave the house early in the morning right after Daddy did. Those walks were long and hard, and even though the Florida sand was soft, my feet developed calluses that remained with me for years.
I liked going to work with Mama. It made me feel grown-up and important. Rather than stand around all day waiting for Mama to finish her duties, I earned a few cents for myself doing odd jobs, like walking and bathing a dog or baby-sitting some old person. My favorite responsibility was sitting on the front porch of a large red house with an elderly Italian woman. Her name was Rosa Piaz and she was more than a hundred years old. Her daddy had owned slaves, and her mind was so far gone she thought I was one. “Go get me some goobers, Spooky,” she used to tell me. I’d sneak into the house for goobers and whatever else I could find to nibble on. My job was to fan her and empty her spittoon. She dipped a lot of snuff, so I was forever running around emptying spit. When nobody was looking, the old woman and I threw rocks at moving cars. When I made her mad, like the time I couldn’t find any more rocks for us to throw, she threatened, “You lazy heifer! I ought to sell you to one of them cane jockeys—make a field hand outta you!” When she made me mad I waited until she went to sleep, then I pinched her flabby neck. I knew the woman was senile, so I just hid my face and laughed every time she threatened to have me sold. A minute later, we’d be friends again, chasing some of the kids in the fancy white neighborhood where Miss Rosa lived with switches. One time Mama caught us. She grabbed my arm and shook me so hard my whole body ached. “Girl, Miss Rosa can do whatever she want. She white. But
can’t be messin’ with no
kids!” Mama and Daddy had me believing we were as good as anybody else, so it confused me when I got scolded for sassing or upsetting somebody white.
Every time I got comfortable in a particular situation, we moved and I had to start all over again. Our rootless existence was the only life I had ever known. I was used to it, but I didn’t like it. It made me feel like I was different from other kids in a way I didn’t understand, and it made me feel like I didn’t belong anywhere.
My favorite time during that period was when we lived at the bottom of a hill, off of a dirt road, in a rural section of Miami called Hanley. Our house had a living room, a kitchen, and one bedroom. I liked it because we were so close to the woods that squirrels and other creatures wandered into our backyard to eat out of my hand.
The only furniture we had was a stove with no legs and an icebox that shook so much we kept it unplugged most of the time. We had a table in the kitchen but just one chair. Mama and Daddy took turns sitting on the chair. There were two tree stumps at the table that we used in place of chairs. I always had to sit on the smaller one. In the living room we had a couch with a floral design. It was clean and comfortable, but both arms were about to fall off. Things like coffee tables and lamps were not only luxury items but cumbersome. When we left a place it was usually in such a hurry we only left with what we could carry.
We slept on the bedroom floor in our clothes until a preacher gave us a stained mattress, a ripped sheet, and a blanket that was so old and worn you could see through it. We ate off of cracked plates or out of cans most of the time and drank water from a spring a few yards from the house. We had one forty-watt lightbulb that we carried from room to room and hung naked from an extension cord. When it died, Mama brought home a coal-oil lamp she had found along the side of the road. “God sure is good,” she swooned, shaking the rusty, cracked lamp in my face.
On the days that Mama didn’t work, she was busy sewing, cooking, and washing our clothes by hand with homemade soap. There were no kids my age close enough for me to play with, so I spent most of my time running around with squirrels. One with a white paw got so friendly with me he was bold enough to climb up on our back porch and scratch the door. Mama would chase him away with a whisk broom. Daddy always petted the squirrel, and yelled, “Annette, you got company!”
Mama and all the other Black women I knew made soup and stew out of most of the wild creatures that inhabited the woods, even snakes. When Mama suddenly started getting too friendly with my squirrel, petting and feeding it, commenting on how plump he was, I got scared. The week before at a church dinner, one of the sisters brought a big bowl of some type of mysterious meat floating in fiery red sauce. It was delicious. I had two helpings. “Your girl sure is lap-pin’ up that squirrel soup,” the sister commented. I ducked out of the church, ran behind a tree in the back, and vomited, praying that I had not eaten the squirrel I had become so attached to. When we got home, it was too dark for me to look for my squirrel. But the next morning he came to the back door. Mama and Daddy were still eating breakfast. I took the squirrel deep into the woods and turned him loose. I never saw him again, and when other squirrels ended up in a bowl on our dinner table, I refused to eat any, afraid it might be my former pet.
Daddy returned from the fields around the same time every evening, just before it got dark, no matter where we lived. Every evening I would sit on the front porch and wait for him like a spider. He brought home fruit for me, and sometimes discarded toys he found along the road. My eyes would light up when I spotted him struggling to make it the rest of the way home from the main road. I would jump up from my spot and run and leap into his arms, almost knocking him down. “Girl, can’t you see how tired I am,” he used to scold, all the while helping me climb onto his back. Then he would carry me back to the house. The first thing he would do was check with Mama to see if it was time for us to move again. I was glad every time Mama said, “Not yet, Frank. Not yet.”
We didn’t have a radio or a television. They were two of the many luxuries we didn’t allow ourselves to think about owning. That’s why we didn’t know about the tornado coming one Sunday after we had come home from church. The day had started out like any other summer day in Florida—hot, dusty and humid. We got up, peeped out the windows, and later that evening we walked two miles to a Baptist church across the main highway. It was during the sermon when the wind started whistling, and it didn’t seem as hot as before. “Mama, it’s going to rain,” I whispered, sitting between her and Daddy on a wobbly bench near the back of the crowded little country church. “Shhhhh!” was all she said, then she went back to shouting, “Amen,” like everybody else. I just hoped that we would get home before the rain started. We didn’t have anything to protect us from it and rain—unless you had naturally straight hair—was considered one of a Black females worst enemies. I hated when Mama had to straighten my hair with a hot comb, what little bit I had.
After we arrived home from church, Mama started cooking, and I followed Daddy to a nearby lake, where he fished for part of our supper. The lake contained fish, crawdaddies, crabs, and things I couldn’t identify. Everything in the lake was free, and often it was all we had to eat. We just had to catch it.
“Don’t you get too close to that water, girl,” Daddy advised. “You know I ain’t got the strength to jump in there after you.”
“All right, Daddy.” I smiled. By then, not only was the wind howling, it was darker than usual for early evening. I guess that’s why I was not doing what I usually did when I was at the lake, running up and down the bank beating bushes with a stick and throwing rocks in the water. Instead, I sat down on the ground next to Daddy and placed my head against his chest. I liked being so close to him. I could feel the heat his body generated, and I could even hear and feel his heart beating like a drum.
When he was not looking, I stared at the side of his face. Compared to most of the other men I knew, he was good-looking. He had big black slanted eyes, but there was sadness in them. I had the same eyes. There were noticeable lines on his face and around his mouth. His nose reminded me of the noses I saw on some of the Indians in the area, big and hawklike, but still attractive. He had said something about having Indian blood. One of Daddy’s front teeth was missing. A white policeman had knocked it out with a billy club when Daddy sassed him. You hardly noticed the missing tooth when he talked or smiled because he had a thick mustache. He was tall and powerfully built, and dark brown like me. I didn’t know how old he was, but his hair was thin and starting to turn gray.
The fish were not biting much, so Daddy and I left the lake after he had caught only two catfish. Mama cleaned them, fried them, and we feasted on the fish, some pork, and yams and greens from a garden Mama had around the side of our house. It had started raining, and the wind was stronger. Our little house was shaking and rattling so much our table wouldn’t stay still.
“It’s a good thing I didn’t hang out them clothes like I had planned.” Mama sighed, looking toward the kitchen window. Mama frowned at me and let out her breath. “Annette, stop chewin’ so loud.” She paused for a moment, then turned to Daddy. He seemed to be worried about something. He was eating real slow and staring at the wall. I just figured he was concerned about the storm. When it rained too much, he couldn’t work in the fields. And when he didn’t work, he didn’t get paid. Less money meant less of everything, and we were already on the poverty level. “What’s wrong with you, Mr. Goode?” Mama asked. Daddy’s first name was Frank, but I only heard her use it when she was mad at him or when she was serious. Daddy didn’t answer right away, he just kept staring at that wall.
“Maybe the cat got his tongue,” I suggested. Not only did I get a cold, hard stare from both of them but Mama shoved a pig foot into my mouth. That’s what they usually did when they wanted to silence me. It was no wonder food became my “drug” of choice.
Before Daddy could respond, Mama felt his forehead. “You want a dose of cod liver oil or some homebrew?” she asked.
Daddy just shook his head, and said, “No, I’m all right. We’ll talk after the storm.” He was talking to Mama but looking at me. My first thought was Daddy was going to talk to Mama about another move.
He pushed his plate away, then got up from the table and went to sit on a footstool in the living room and started looking out the window.
“What’s the matter with him?” I wanted to know.
Daddy was a strong man. Not just physically, but he had a strong personality. Unlike some of the Black men I knew, Daddy didn’t back down from white folks. I used to see men bigger than he was cowering nervously and keeping their eyes on the ground when talking to white folks. Daddy looked white folks straight in the eye when he talked to them, and when white folks called him “uncle” or “boy” he corrected them, and said firmly, “My name is Mr. Goode.”
“Hush up,” Mama said to me. Like an afterthought, she grabbed another pig foot and aimed it at my mouth. When she saw I was still gnawing on the first one, she pressed her lips together, shrugged, and put the pig foot back in the bowl in the middle of the table.