A few weeks into the summer, one month before the start of eighth grade, two days after that psychologist’s directive to “count to ten in case of emergencies and limit your intake of simple carbohydrates,” you dropped me off with Grandmama in Forest, Mississippi. Before speeding off, you wiped away your tears. You said you were sorry. You kissed the roundest parts of my cheeks. You said you were sorry. You claimed Grandmama would make everything okay.
You said you were sorry.
I loved Grandmama but I didn’t really love going to her house any day other than Friday. Every Friday, Grandmama let me watch The Dukes of Hazzard, a show you said “operates in a world even more racist than the one we live in, where two white drug dealers, who keep violating probation and making fools of the police, in a red Dodge Charger with the Confederate flag on top called the General Lee, never go to prison.”
The Friday night I was sent to stay with Grandmama, I asked her if black folk like us could ever get away from the police like Bo and Luke Duke could.
“No,” Grandmama said before I could get the whole question out. “Nope. Not at all. Never. You better never try that mess either, Kie.”
The one or two times we saw black characters on The Dukes of Hazzard, I remember Grandmama and her boyfriend, Ofa D, getting closer to the screen and cheering for them the same way they cheered if the Georgetown Hoyas were playing, if Jackson State won, or if there was a black contestant on Wheel of Fortune.
Like most black women in Forest, Grandmama had a number of side hustles in addition to working the line at the chicken plant. One of her side hustles was selling vegetables from her garden. Another side hustle was selling fried fish, pound cakes, and sweet potato pies every Saturday evening to anyone who would buy them. The most important of Grandmama’s side hustles was washing clothes, ironing, cooking, and doing dishes for this white family called the Mumfords.
After church that Sunday, on the way to the Mumfords, I complained to Grandmama that my slacks were so tight I had to unzip them to breathe. Grandmama laughed and laughed and laughed until she didn’t. She said she wouldn’t be at the Mumfords for long. I always saw the Mumfords’ nasty clothes next to Grandmama’s washer, and their clean clothes out on the clothesline behind her house.
I hated those clothes.
The Mumfords lived right off Highway 35. I was amazed at how the houses off Highway 35 were the only houses in Forest that looked like the houses on Leave It to Beaver, Who’s the Boss?, and Mr. Belvedere. When I imagined the insides of rich-white-folk houses, I imagined stealing all their food while they were asleep. I wanted to gobble up palmfuls of Crunch ’n Munch and fill up their thirty-two-ounce glasses with name-brand ginger ale and crushed ice tumbling out of their silver refrigerators. I wanted to leave the empty glasses and Crunch ’n Munch crumbs on the counter so the white folk would know I’d been there and they’d have something to clean up when I left.
Grandmama left the key in the ignition and told me she’d be back in about twenty minutes. “Don’t say nothing to that badass Mumford boy if he come out here, Kie,” she said. “He ain’t got a lick of home training. You hear me? Don’t get out of this car unless it’s an emergency.”
I nodded yes and sprawled out across the front seat of the Impala. Damn near as soon as Grandmama went in the house, out came this boy who looked like a nine-year-old Mike D from the Beastie Boys. The Mumford boy was bone-white and skinny in a way Grandmama called “po’.” Grandmama didn’t have much money, and her 600-square-foot shotgun house was clean as Clorox on the inside, but raggedy as a roach on the outside. I always wondered why Grandmama never called people with less stuff than us “po’.” She called them “folk who ain’t got a pot to piss in” or “folk whose money ain’t all the way right” or “folk with nan dime to they name,” but she never used “poor” or “po’” to talk about anything other than people’s bodies.
Without knocking, the po’ white boy opened the door of the driver’s side of Grandmama’s Impala. “You Reno’s grandson?” he asked me.
“Who is Reno?”
“You know Reno. The old black lady who clean my house.” I’d never seen this po’ white boy before but I’d seen the shiny gray Jams swim trunks, the long two-striped socks, and the gray Luke Skywalker shirt he had on in our dirty clothes basket and hanging on our clothesline. I didn’t like how knowing a po’ white boy’s clothes before knowing a po’ white boy made me feel. And I hated how this po’ white boy called Grandmama “Reno, the old black lady who clean my house.”
I got out of the Impala and kept my hands in my pockets. “So you Reno’s grandson?” the boy asked. “You the one from Jackson?”
Before I could say yes, the Mumford boy told me we couldn’t come in his house but we could play in the backyard. The phrase “I’m good” was something I always said in Jackson, but I didn’t know I had ever meant it as much as I meant it that day.
That’s what I felt before I looked at the size of the Mumfords’ garage and saw a closet door open in the left corner. I walked toward the room and saw a washer, a dryer, and a scale on the ground.
“What y’all call this room?” I asked him.
“That’s our washroom,” he said. “Why y’all stay shooting folk in Jackson? Can I ask you that?”
I ignored the po’ white boy’s question. At Grandmama’s house, our washer was in the dining room and we didn’t have a dryer, so we hung everything up on the clothesline. “Wait. What’s a scale doing in there?”
“My pawpaw like to weigh himself out here.”
“That washer, do it work?”
“It work fine,” he said. “Good as new.”
“And the dryer, too?” I looked at the two irons on this shelf hanging above a new ironing board. I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say. I stepped on the scale in the corner. “This scale, it’s right?”
“Don’t ask me,” he said. “I never used it. I told you it’s my pawpaw scale.”
I walked back to Grandmama’s Impala, got in the driver’s seat, and locked the doors. I remember gripping the steering wheel with one hand and digging my fingernails into my knee with the other hand. I wondered how fat 218 pounds really was for twelve years old.
Less than a minute after I was in the car, the Mumford boy came back out. Without knocking, he tried to open the Impala’s driver’s side door again.
“Come on in and play, Jackson,” he said again from outside the car.
“Naw. I’m good,” I told him, and rolled the window down.
“You wanna shoot squirrels in the head with my pellet gun in the backyard?”
“Naw,” I told him. “My mama don’t let me shoot squirrels in the head. I’m not allowed to shoot guns. I’m good.”
“But all y’all do is shoot guns in Jackson.”
I sat in Grandmama’s Impala with a rot spreading in my belly for a few seconds before Grandmama walked out of the house carrying a basket of dirty clothes. An envelope sat on top of the clothes.
When I told Grandmama what the Mumford boy said to me, she told me to leave these folk alone. “Do you know who you messing with?” she asked me. “These white folk, they liable to have us locked up under the jail, Kie.”
I kept looking at Grandmama as we drove home. I was trying to decide if I should ask her why she had to wash, dry, iron, and fold the Mumfords’ nasty clothes if the Mumfords had a better washer than ours, a working dryer, a newer iron, and an ironing board. I wanted to ask her if there were better side hustles than washing nasty white-folk clothes on the weekend. But I didn’t say anything on the first half of the way home. I just looked at Grandmama’s face and saw deeper frown lines around her mouth than I’d ever seen before. I wanted to shrink and slide down those frown lines.
I understood that day why you and Grandmama were so hungry for black wins, regardless of how tiny those wins were. For Grandmama, those wins were always personal. For you, the wins were always political. Both of y’all knew, and showed me, how we didn’t even have to win for white folk to punish us. All we had to do was not lose the way they wanted us to.
I kept wishing I would have gone in the Mumfords’ house and stolen all their food. Stealing their food felt like the only way to make the rotten feeling in my belly go away.
Before going home, Grandmama took the envelope she’d gotten from the Mumfords, wrote your name and address on it, and put it in the mailbox downtown.
“Grandmama,” I said as we turned down Old Morton Road, “do those white folk know your name is Catherine or do they think your name is Reno?”
“I know my name,” Grandmama said, “and I know how much these white folk pay me every week.”
“Do you tell the Mumfords the truth when you’re in their house?”
“Naw,” she said. “I shole don’t.”
“Then what you be telling them?”
“I be telling them whatever it takes to get they little money and take care of my family.”
“But do you ever wanna steal they food?”
“Naw, Kie,” she said. “They test me like that all the time. If I ever stole from them folk, we wouldn’t have nothing. You hear me? Nothing. I’m telling you what I know now. Do not steal nothing from no white folk. Ever. Or you likely to be off in hell with them folk one day.”
In Grandmama’s world, most white folk were destined for hell, not because they were white, but because they were fake Christians who hadn’t really heeded their Bibles. Grandmama really believed only two things could halt white folks’ inevitable trek into hell: appropriate doses of Jesus and immediate immersion in Concord Missionary Baptist Church. I didn’t understand hell, or the devil, but I understood Concord Missionary Baptist Church. And I hated most of it.
My slacks were too tight in Sunday school, so they were always flooding. My shirt choked my esophagus. My clip-on tie looked like a clip-on tie. No matter the temperature, Grandmama made me wear a polyester vest. My feet grew so fast that my penny loafers never fit. Plus, she stopped me from putting dimes or nickels in my penny loafers because that was something only mannish boys did.
Inside Concord Missionary Baptist Church, I loved the attention I got from the older black women for being a fat black boy: They were the only women on Earth who called my fatness fineness. I felt flirted with, and like most fat black boys, when flirted with, I fell in love. I loved the organ’s blended notes, the aftertaste
of the grape juice, the fans steadily moving through the humidity, the anticipation of somebody catching the Holy Ghost, the lawd-have-mercy claps after the little big-head boy who couldn’t read so well was forced to read a greeting to the congregation.
But as much as I loved parts of church, and as hard as I tried, I couldn’t love the holy word coming from the pulpit. The voices carrying the word were slick and sure of themselves in ways I didn’t believe. The word at Concord was always carried by the mouths of the reverend, deacons, or other visiting preachers who acted like they knew my grandmama and her friends better than they did.
Older black women in the church made up the majority of the audience. But their voices and words were only heard during songs, in ad-libbed responses to the preacher’s word and during church announcements. While Grandmama and everyone else amen’d and well’d their way through shiny hollow sermons, I just sat there, usually at the end of the pew, sucking my teeth, feeling super hot, super bored, and really resentful because Grandmama and her friends never told the sorry-ass preachers to shut up and sit down somewhere.
My problem with church was I knew what could have been. Every other Wednesday, the older women of the church had something called Home Mission: They would meet at alternate houses and bring their best food, their Bibles, notebooks, and their testimonies. There was no instrumental music at Home Mission, but those women, Grandmama’s friends, used their lives, their mo(u)rning songs, and their Bibles as primary texts to boast, confess, and critique their way into tearful silence every single time.
I didn’t understand hell, partially because I didn’t believe any place could be hotter than Mississippi in August. But I understood feeling good. I did not feel good at Concord Missionary Baptist church. I felt good watching Grandmama and her friends love one another during Home Mission.
When we pulled into our yard, Grandmama told me to grab the basket of nasty clothes and put it next to the washer. I picked the clothes up and instead of stopping at the washer, I walked into the kitchen, placed the dirty-clothes basket on the floor in between the fridge and the oven.
I looked around to see if Grandmama was coming before stepping both of my penny loafers deep into the Mumfords’ basket and doing “quick feet” like we did at the beginning of basketball and football practice. “I got your gun right here, white nigga,” I said, stomping my feet all up in the white folks’ clothes as hard and fast as I could. “Y’all don’t even know. I got your gun right here, white nigga.”
I was doing quick feet in the Mumfords’ clothes for a good thirty seconds when Grandmama came out of nowhere, whupping my legs with a pleather blue belt. The little pleather blue licks didn’t stop me. I was still doing quick feet like it was going out of style.
“Kie,” Grandmama said, “get out my kitchen acting like a starnated fool.”
I stopped and took my whupping. Afterward, I asked Grandmama whether she meant “star-nated” or “stark naked.” I told her I’d rather be a “star-nated” fool because I loved stars even though I didn’t think “star-nated” was a word. Grandmama and I loved talking about words. She was better than anyone I’d ever known at bending, breaking, and building words that weren’t in the dictionary. I asked her what word I could use to make that Mumford boy feel what we felt.
“Ain’t no need to make up words for words that already exist, Kie,” she said. “That ain’t nothing but the white you saw in that po’ child today. And you don’t want to feel no kinds of white. I feel sorry for them folk.”
I looked at Grandmama and told her I felt like a nigger, and feeling like a nigger made my heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain feel like they were melting and dripping out the ends of
“It ain’t about making white folk feel what you feel,” she said. “It’s about not feeling what they want you to feel. Do you hear me? You better know from whence you came and forget about those folk.” Grandmama started laughing. “Kie, what you call yourself doing to those folks’ clothes?”
“Oh,” I said, and start doing it again. “At practice, we be calling this quick feet.”
“You gave them white-folk clothes them quick feets?”
“Not feets,” I said, laughing. “It’s already plural, Grandmama. Quick feet.”
“Quick feets?” she said again, and kept laughing until she almost fell out of her chair. “Quick foots?”
“Grandmama,” I told her, and sat next to her legs. “I hate white-folk clothes. I’m serious.”
“I know you do.” Grandmama stopped laughing. “I don’t much appreciate them or they clothes either, but cleaning them nasty clothes is how we eat, and how I got your mama and them through school. You know I been washing them folks’ clothes for years and I ain’t never seen one washcloth?”
“What you mean, Grandmama?”
“I mean what I said. Them folk don’t use no washcloths.” I waited for a blink, a smirk, a slow roll of her eyes. I got nothing. “And the one time the little po’ one who was messing with you asked me how to use a washrag, I told that baby, ‘If you bring that washrag from your ass to your face, that’s between you and your God.’ And this baby just stood there laughing like I’m telling jokes. You know I was serious as a heart attack, Kie.”
While I was dying laughing, Grandmama told me she whupped me for acting up in her kitchen, not for messing up them folks’ clothes. She said she spent so many hours in white-folk kitchens and just wanted her children to respect her kitchen when she got home.
I asked Grandmama why she whupped me on my legs when I was doing quick feet, and not my head or my neck or my back like you would. “Because I don’t want to hurt you,” she said. “I want you to act like you got good sense but I don’t ever want to hurt you.”
Grandmama stood up and told me to follow her out to her garden. We went outside and picked butter beans, purple hull peas, collard greens, green tomatoes, and yellow squash.
“You know why I love my garden, Kie?”
“Because you don’t want to have to rely on white folk to eat?”
“Chile, please,” Grandmama said, walking back to the porch. “I ain’t studdin’ nan one of those folk when I’m at my own house. I love knowing directly what the food that be going in us has been through. You know what I mean?”
“I think I do,” I told Grandmama as we sat on the porch, hulling peas and talking more about quick feet. My bucket of peas was between my legs when Grandmama stood up and straddled my tub.
“Kie, try hulling like this here,” Grandmama said. I looked up at her hands and how they handled the purple hull peas. When she reached for my face, I jumped back. “I ain’t trying to hurt you,” she said. “What you jumping back for?”
I didn’t know what to say.
Grandmama took the bucket from between my legs into the kitchen. I sat there looking at my hands. They wouldn’t stop shaking. I felt sweat pooling up between my thighs.
At supper, Grandmama apologized again for whupping my legs and told me when I wrote my report on the Book of Psalms later that night, I could write the way we talk. Like you, Grandmama made me do written assignments every night. Unlike your assignments, all of Grandmama’s assignments had to be about the Bible.
Later that evening, I wrote, “I know you want me to write about the Book of Psalms. If it is okay I just want to tell you about some secrets that be making my head hurt. I be eating too much and staying awake at night and fighting people in Jackson. Mama does not like how my eyes are red. I wake her up in the morning and she be making me use Visine before school. I try but I can’t tell her what’s wrong. Can I tell you? Can you help me with my words? The words Mama make me use don’t work like they supposed to work.”
I wrote the words “be kissing me in the morning” “be choking me” “be beating my back” “be hearing her heartbeat” “be wet dreaming about stuff that scare me” “be listening to trains” “be kissing me in the morning” “be kissing him at night” “be hitting hard” “be saying white folk hit the hardest” “be laughing so it won’t hurt” “be eating when I’m full” “be kissing me” “be choking me” “be confusing me.”
At the end, I wrote, “Grandmama, can you please help me with my words?” I gave Grandmama my notebook when I was done like I had to every Sunday night we spent together. Unlike on other nights, she didn’t say anything about what I’d written. When she walked by me, I didn’t even hear her breathing.
Later that night, before bed, Grandmama got on her knees, turned the light off, and told me she loved me. She told me tomorrow would be a better day. Grandmama looked at that old raggedy gold and silver contraption she called her phone book before she got in bed with me like she always did. She looked up your name and number, Aunt Sue’s name and number, Uncle Jimmy’s name and number, and Aunt Linda’s name and number.
Before both of us went to sleep, I asked Grandmama if 218 pounds was too fat for twelve years old. “What you weighing yourself for anyway?” she asked me. “Two hundred eighteen pounds is just right, Kie. It’s just heavy enough.”
“Heavy enough for what?”
“Heavy enough for everything you need to be heavy enough for.”
I loved sleeping with Grandmama because that was the only place in the world I slept all the way through the night. But tonight was different. “Can I ask you one more question before we go to bed?”
“Yes, baby,” Grandmama said, and faced me for the first time since I gave her the notebook.
“What do you think about counting to ten in case of emergencies?”
“Ain’t no emergency God can’t help you forget,” Grandmama told me. “Evil is real, Kie.”
“But what about the emergencies made by folk who say they love you?”
“You forget it all,” she said. “Especially that kind of emergency. Or you go stone crazy. My whole life, it seem like something crazy always happens on Sunday nights in the summer.”
Grandmama made me pray again that night. I prayed for you to never close the door to your room if your boyfriend was there. I prayed for Layla and Dougie to never feel like they had to go back in Daryl’s room. I prayed for Grandmama to have more money so she wouldn’t have to stand in that big room ripping the bloody guts out of chickens before standing in that smaller room smelling bleach and white folks’ shitty underwear. I prayed nothing would ever happen again in any room in the world that made us feel like we were dying.
When I got off my knees, I watched the back of Grandmama’s body heave in and heave out as she fell asleep on the bed. Grandmama was trying, hard as she could, to forget one more Sunday night in the summer. For a second, though, she stopped heaving. I couldn’t hear her breathing. When I finally climbed into bed, I placed my left thumb lightly on the small of Grandmama’s back. She jerked forward and clenched the covers tighter around her body.
“My bad, Grandmama. I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“Be still, Kie,” Grandmama mumbled with her back to me. “Just be still. Close your eyes. Some things, they ain’t meant to be remembered. Be still with the good things we got, like all them quick foots.”
“Quick feet,” I told her. “It’s already plural. I know you know that, Grandmama. Quick feet.”