excerpt from The Mississippi Diaries
Mornings with New Daddy are always painful, primarily because he takes such perverse pleasure in abruptly waking his children early, when the sky is still blue-gray and the rest of the world silent.
"You two big nose girls get outta bed. What I'm a have to do? Buy yawl a husband?"
This is precisely what two black women over thirty and still single want to hear at the crack of dawn. Essence magazine has already published newly released statistics that forty-six percent of single black women in our age group will never marry. My sister Moochie and I just stare at each other and without expressing any words, quietly ponder the notion of exactly how this man managed to get next to either one of our mothers.
But New Daddy can't stand to be alone, and like some abandoned child in desperate need of a playmate he comes sneaking to my door. "You better get up, gal. Weez goin to the country." New Daddy and I leave the house at 8:30 in the morning. Yet, the heat is already unbearable and the sun uninspiring.
"Mississippi," he said. "Gots plenty of trees. But you won't find any shade."
We pull into a gas station, fill the tank, get coffee, light our cigarettes. New Daddy hits the play button on the CD player and we commence to howling, off-key, to James Brown's "It's a Man's World."
By now, I am completely awake and this is something we are particularly good at, the sing-along with our cultural icons. We groove the rhythm, bob our heads, release the pain, and grin at the irony of our own existence. James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Johnny Taylor lift us to a state of absolute harmony. When we pause for local traffic, New Daddy points out the Jim Crow road map, as to where he could and where he couldn't walk as a black man in Jackson, Mississippi forty years ago.
"See there, couldn't walk in that park and neither the golf course. Had to walk all the way round just to get where you wuz goin. Black neighborhood where yo Auntie live be on the other side. But bet not walk cross that park or yous could get killed."
Once on the main highway, we pass an endless barrage of strip malls, used-car sheds, and vegetable stands as we drive sixty miles south of the capital to what New Daddy refers to as "the country." The purpose of our visit is to call on my youngest brother, who I have met only once before. I remember him being a tall, handsome young man who would otherwise resemble Malcolm X, were it not for the sequence of gold caps that harness the top four front teeth of his dazzling mouth. Now if truth be told, my baby brother won't be leading any revolution. But he does have Malcolm's red freckles and broad nose.
Last summer was my second time seeing my father, who I met for the first time that previous May, on a Friday morning at Chicago's Midway Airport. Of course, I knew he existed. In fact, I carried his name at the end of my own for thirty-nine years. Still, everything about him had been reduced to an informal mystery that began to unravel the day Big Mama, my mother's mother, shook her head and frowned. "Now, you actin like yo Daddy's people," she said, just as casual as the evening sun.
The words came out of her mouth like seeds of a watermelon spat upon dry earth. It lacked malice and was simply a way of acknowledging the fruit. This is the stuff of plantation novels, how one's paternal lineage could seep from the burnt cast-iron pot like the yellow liquor of seasoned collard greens. With that one sentence, I was forced to reconcile the truth of my father's existence with that of my own, and with him came his five children, who I now recognize as my siblings, and who call me "sister." The annual return to my ancestral home state of Mississippi has been altered, not by changing landscape or commercial development, but by the blood of my father and the soul of his people, who I was becoming acquainted with so late in life.
I am the astronaut who got lost on the mission and returns shocked at the spectacle of the earth. For the first time, I can look in the face of someone other than my mother and recognize the credibility of my birth. The BLANKS, by which I mean me and them, gape at one another with a feline intensity. When suddenly, my mouth makes perfect sense, not only because of its shape, but the involuntary speech that pierces my tongue at the slightest attempt to withhold a thought.
New Daddy is a hard-drinking, hard-living, hard-loving man of the Mississippi Delta Blues. He is my preferred black male escort to truck stops, honky-tonks, and through long stretches of unpredictable highways that shift across the Bible Belt. He is instinctively sharp and recklessly cool. My New Daddy is a relentless flirt and a shameless Mississippi loud-talker who embarrasses me at civilized restaurants, museums and the occasional Wal-Mart when he chastises, "Now gal, don't you go slingin pussy all over town."
Our relationship is full of love and misunderstandings. It must be difficult for a man to see a four-year-old in the body of a grown-ass woman who looks so much like himself. I, on the other hand, am a complete mess of East Coast self-absorption, desperately attempting to come to terms with the flesh-and-blood reality of how distant though alike we truly are.
"Yo Mama done probably told you all about me," New Daddy said confidently, molding the steering-wheel inside his heavy paws.
"No, you ain't no topic of conversation in our house," I said, turning my face towards a brush of sycamore.
New Daddy makes a quick left turn on a nameless dirt road. A tint of sunlight polishes the crimson clouds of dust that swirl against the windows as the jeep bounces against yawning terrain. On a wood fence sits a trio of black buzzards. The road is thick with dark green trees and a humble scattering of trailer homes and shotgun shacks that sit atop mounds of aged cinderblocks.
I have no idea exactly where we are, though it appears to be an isolated community welded to the past, when the Coloreds were left to fend for themselves once the gin mill closed and folks like New Daddy got the nerve to migrate north to the factories of Chicago or start trouble down at Old Miss. This is where my youngest brother lives and I have never seen anything like it before. Except for maybe in The Gambia or Jamaica and that's what strikes me the most, how parts of Mississippi resemble the developing world. My uptown urban sensibilities are at a loss for words. I really am in the country and it ain't the Sundance Ranch.
Lil' Bro's house is a large trailer home with a living room, kitchen, two bedrooms, and two baths. On the side of the trailer is a cage that houses two spotted pit bulls. The larger dog stands on her hind legs, throwing the might of her sagging breast against the sweltering metal fence, snarling as the pup screeches for deliverance from the ghastly weight of the Southern air. The seductive smell of weed lingers in the heavens, tight as a lover's last kiss. Out comes my baby brother, shirtless in a pair of baggy jeans drooping below his boxer shorts, and carrying a six-pack of Miller Lite. He is just like New Daddy, only his youth makes him more adorable even in his thug sensation of country grammar.
"Damn Daddy, what yawls doin here this early?"
"Boy, get yo ass up and look for a job," New Daddy said.
The trailer is dark and nearly hopeless, besieged by a cluster of empty beer bottles, decaying pizza crusts, and a fleet of ashtrays overflowing with crumbled cigarette butts and deep grimy ash. The large-screen TV is the most prominent fixture in the room, where ESPN, CNN Sports and Classic NBA broadcasts play incessantly.
Lil' Bro is happy to see me and makes a light-hearted effort to converse about Philadelphia sports teams. My knowledge of sports keeps the conversation brief and superficial. I wish he would ask me something about Cornel West instead of Donovan McNabb, since I hardly know what it is that a quarterback does. The novelty of my arrival has already come to an abrupt end. Lil' Bro pulls a barstool up to the kitchen counter and begins dismantling a cigar.
"Yo Joy," Lil' Bro shouted across the room. "Yaws got blunts up in Philly?"
"Yeah, I think so," I said, chewing at the bumpy meat on the inside of my lip and staring at the procession of black male bodies scampering across the television screen.
"Wanna go for a ride?"
"No thanks, I'm cool."
"No, for real. Ain't nuttin to worry bout, we could leave Old Boy here."
"I knows what you two is up to," New Daddy interrupted.
"Come on now, Daddy." Lil' Bro said. "Ain't nobody doin nuttin."
Lil' Bro stops talking and slides his chiseled body from the barstool. He walks over, cracks the back door open less than half a foot, and mumbles. Then he makes change, counting out a few single dollar bills and handing a small bag to a shadow of young man drowning in an Atlanta Hawks football jersey. Lil' Bro completes his transaction and returns to the kitchen counter. "Yo Joy, you think the Eagles are gonna go to the Super Bowl?"
It takes about an hour before I realize Lil' Bro has an alternative source of employment. For a moment, I contemplate what it would it be like if some Bull Connor redneck sheriff walked in and saw my highfalutin black pseudo-intellectual ass sipping beer in place of coffee, as Lil' Bro slips small packages of reefer to the hip-hop country slackers that stand on the other side of the back door. Just as my fear subsides, we take a ride down to the General Store, where the men buy more ponies.
"This here's my sistah," Lil' Bro said to the clerk.
"Oh yeah, she don't look like yo sister," the clerk responded.
"Weez got the same daddy."
"Excuse me," I interrupted. "What's with the small bottles of beers?"
"The ponies," I said. "Why are you buying beer in the small bottles?"
"They stays colder longer," New Daddy explained. "Ain't nobody want no hot beer."
Unable to face to an afternoon of cheap beer and sports, I opt for a six-pack of Heineken and a bag of chips. Then we get back in the jeep and go pick up Lil' Bro's Baby's Mama and his little girl, who live in a plush trailer behind the woods. It's her mother's home and is fully-equipped with a fireplace, an entertainment center and a library of bootlegged DVDs. His Baby's Mama has one of those strange names, which sounds like a derivative of another name that you might have heard once before, yet makes no sense in its current reinvention. Her name is Shuttmika, though folks call her "Shutt," and she works at the sausage factory. Shutt is a dark pecan-skinned girl with about $75 worth of synthetic braids streaming down her haltered back. She and my niece Kalalea return with us back to Lil' Bro's trailer for a festival of cable television, beer, and fried fish. Kalalea carries a pink patent leather purse with her wherever goes. At three years old, she refers to her purse as Gucci and calls her daddy, love.
"Love," she pouted. "Come play."
"Naw, go play wid Tee Tee Joy," Lil' Bro answered, once again aiming towards a shadow lingering at the back door. "Show Tee Tee and Pop Pop yo baby doll."
Shutt has an agonizing toothache swelling the left side of her face and forcing her to retire to Lil' Bro's bedroom. Tomorrow she will have her bad tooth pulled by the local dentist. My recommendation to save the tooth is politely dismissed when Shutt announces she can only afford $50 to pull the tooth and not the $200 it would cost for a porcelain cap, which to some degree explains the disproportionate number of folks I've already seen who are missing more than just a few teeth. Trent Lott won't tell it. But Mississippi is damn near a toothless state.
Later as I play peek-a-boo with my niece Kalalea, New Daddy and Lil' Bro congregate like Baptist deacons over the deep fryer on the front porch. Lil' Bro revives each of the frozen fillets from a thin cardboard box and passes them to New Daddy, who consecrates the long-forgotten fish over the sizzling hum of hot grease as they deliberate over baseball's best power hitter. That's when Pedro arrives. He is the second eldest of New Daddy's boys, older than Lil' Bro, but younger than me. He too is another version of New Daddy, but only on crack or, at best, amphetamines.
Pedro is a fat truck driver with an unmistakable Mississippi drawl. I only recognize every third word that he says. The other words get smacked against the inside of his mouth as if they were an enormous wad of Wrigley's spearmint gum too good to spit out. By all accounts, Pedro is the family hothead or, as our cousin Boomer, a large brown man whose sense of reality revolves around Hollywood depictions of Italian mobsters, said while eating from a king-sized bag of barbeque-flavored fried pork grinds, "Joy, you ever seen that movie The Godfather? You know that character Sonny, right? Well, Pedro's your Sonny. Every family's got one and Pedro is yours."
The afternoon is virtually slow, hot and uneventful. Wasps race against the leaves, mosquitoes hover in the grass, dogs bark and brothers continuously tap at the back door. But keep in mind that human dynamics are unpredictable, and one never knows exactly when or how your family might shame you. As the evening shade draws near, New Daddy and Lil' Bro drive back out for beer. I grab the remote, switch to VH1, kick off my Kenneth Coles and settle down to "Genesis: Behind the Music." I hear the voices of laughing men on the front porch, which I mistakenly assume to be those of New Daddy and Lil' Bro. But such is not the case and when they return from the store, Lil' Bro is pissed to find Pedro on the porch entertaining his weed customers without him.
"Yo dawg, we betta roll."
"Yeah man, sorry bout that. No harm, just chillin wid yo brother."
"For real, you ain't gotta say nuttin. I feel you, dawg and it wudden a minute."
The young brothers quickly disperse at the sight of an angry Lil' Bro honing his gold teeth on the stiff filter of his menthol cigarette. Lil' Bro doesn't speak. Evidently, there is an established form of etiquette even amongst low-level drug dealers and their dime-bag customers. Lil' Bro's clientele has been aptly informed to make the appropriate exit should he not be at home. In other words, under no circumstances are customers allowed to linger around the property lest the sheriff and his boys take notice of Lil' Bro's illegal activities. At first, I just hear a lot of loud talking and the men are barking at each other.
"Man, you know you ain't spose to be havin people hang out here," Lil' Bro said.
"What chew talkin bout mother fucka? These yo friends," Pedro replied.
"Fuck you man, you know the deal."
"Deal my black ass. Ain't no law gainst sittin on the porch waitin for Old Boy."
Lil' Bro starts testifying bout how it's his house and Pedro ought to abide by his rules. The issue of respect has now come into play and I immediately recognize the danger. Any time you have a group of black men on a porch in America arguing about respect, it's a dangerous thing. It has nothing to do with testosterone and everything to do with words we dare not utter. Slavery, genital mutilation, community-sanctioned lynchings, forced segregation, cross-burnings, mandatory prison sentences and hate.
My brothers are tussling on the porch, when New Daddy jumps in. Then something I never saw before, this shiny black object is dangling from his pocket. The boys see it too at the same moment I do, bouncing on a square Welcome Mat of fake green grass. Pedro and Lil' Bro are on the floor scrambling for New Daddy's gun. New Daddy, who is an overweight pot-bellied sixty-two-year-old black male smoker with diabetes and a bad arm, transforms himself into that mythological figure of the crazy niggah. He wrenches Lil' Bro to the floor, stomps a foot against his chest and, with his bad arm, hurls Pedro off the porch like a bag of rotten tomatoes.
"Go on now!" New Daddy shouted, having retrieved his handgun and wielding it in midair. "I bought you two niggahs inna this goddamned world and I can take either one of ya out."
"Daddy," Pedro cried into folds of his plaid flannel shirt. "You always takin this little niggah's side."
"Aw, shet the hell up wid that bullshit," coughed New Daddy.
Shutt rushes out from the bedroom, grabs her baby, and warns, "Bullets ain't got no name on em." She runs barefoot across the dust and grass into the country bush with my niece pinned to her hip. I am screaming hysterically for everyone to stop. Lil' Bro runs into the trailer for his gun. New Daddy has a gun. Pedro runs to the car to get his gun. But that fool has only bullets and no gun. They are all growling curses and posturing like Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa. New Daddy runs to the car trying to talk sense to Pedro and I am squeezing the adrenaline from the yellow flesh of Lil' Bro's arms, screaming, "Please, please Lil' Bro! Please don't do this shit in front of me."
"Joy, I hate to hell for you to have to see this. But Pedro gonna make me go to jail. Cause I swear to God, I'm a kill this niggah tonight."
It's a war zone. Lil' Bro is peering out of the windows with a gun in his hand and the trailer has been transformed into a Palestinian bunker. I tell New Daddy that I am more than ready to go back to Jackson. But he says no, we have to wait. We wait twenty minutes and Pedro returns with his gun.
Rain pours from the purple sky. Pedro rises from the
darkness, a Kurosawa villain draped in death. And now, he's really talking
shit. Bout how he's going to kill Lil' Bro and how Lil' Bro thinks he all that
and he ain't really shit but a drug dealer. I shout for Pedro to go home and he
snaps, "Joy, shut the fuck up. You don't know me." And he's right.
Our bloodlines are suddenly diminished and I am left standing in a circle of
men with guns.
* * *
Joy Bouldin is a writer living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where she is a Bread Upon the Waters Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. Most recently, her work has been honored by the Zora Neal Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation and the Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Foundation. She is currently working on a book titled The Mississippi Diaries, of which this essay is an excerpt.