She had a wooden cockroach, inch and a half long, hanging from each
ear, and I told her, “Man, Neena, I can get you the real thing twice
that size. We raise them bigger than Rottweilers in here. Nastier,
too. You want a breeding pair?”
She laughed, showing them big cow teeth of hers. “I done had my fill
of breeding.” She was big-boned, like my father, but short. When she
sat down across from me in the interview room, her legs hidden under
the shelf on her side of the partition, she looked like a little girl
about to slide under the supper table.
I didn’t want to talk about her kids. Even though this was a regular
visit, I thought of it as different. We had a “topic.” Neena had just
gone to that celebration them people put on to honor our mother. I
wanted to hear about it, but I didn’t want to come at it straight on.
So I pointed my finger at Neena’s earrings and asked her if she wore
them to the Big Show.
“You know I did,” she said, all sass.
“Ain’t you the rebel.” I smirked. I knew maybe I shouldn’t have pulled
that attitude on her, but what the hell. I ain’t getting no time off
for good behavior.
Neena’s got skin the color of pine wood, but her eyes are as dark as
mine and when she gets mad this sudden smokiness comes across them;
they turn hard and scary, like rocks with lightning trapped inside. I
didn’t want them to catch too close a look at what I was thinking; so
I dropped my eyes down to her mouth.
Her lips were painted a deep red, like pig’s blood. They curled tight
as drum skins and barely moved when she said, “No, I ain’t no rebel,
but I am me.”
Maybe I should’ve kept my mouth shut at that, too, but man, I started
telling her we’re all just ourselves, even when we’re making excuses
for who we are, pretending to be someone else, and when someone tries
to really be themselves, all shit breaks loose because the powers that
“I don’t have time for that bullshit,” she said. “Save it for the guys
inside. You want to talk to me or what?”
I leaned onto the back legs of the plastic scoop chair and closed my
eyes halfway. I caught a look from Jimmy, sitting at the next seat
down, taking a visit from his own sister. Holding his look, I told
Neena, “You got a captive audience.” Jimmy laughed.
“You did send my regrets,” I said as I moved forward to stare Neena in
the face, “that I wasn’t able to attend due to a previous commitment?”
Jimmy laughed harder. Neena flashed me a look, and I raised my hands
Her head ticked back and forth, but she decided to let it pass. She
folded her hands on the counter and said, “Mama’s award was for
community service. For all the good things she done for so many people
in our county.”
I pretended not to listen as she told me about this North Carolina
foundation that gives away like $20 million to people who help
“empower” the poor. Once a year this foundation has a big party to
celebrate themselves for giving out money and to celebrate these
people they call community leaders, I guess for taking the money. Like
some fool’s going to say, No, I don’t want it. My mother was one of
the special people they gave an award to this year.
“Let me tell you,” Neena said. “Woo! Me and the kids could live for
two years on what it must’ve cost to put this thing on. They had it at
this college in some building that was the size of ten hotels. The
dining room was three times as big as the food court at the mall.
There were all these chandeliers and shit hanging from the ceiling,
which was way up there, you know? We walk in and everyone’s acting
like hillbillies.” Neena dropped her mouth wide, like she was gawking.
“But I just put my nose up and acted like, excuse us, make way for us,
we are here.
“So we get to our table. The front table. Right up by the stage. It’s
all china plates and crystal glasses. And get this–the plates already
got food on them, thick slices of rare prime rib and salmon steaks.
Only thing was, you couldn’t eat it yet. They had speeches and stuff
planned first. Course, do I know that?”
She tapped her chest with her hand, then made gobbling motions. “I
mean, it took us six hours to drive there and you know Mama, she
didn’t want us to eat on the way, mess up our church clothes.”
I nodded, giving her the eye, to let her know I was with her. But I
wanted her to know that I knew what was up, too. So I asked her what
color the waiters were.
“What color you think?” She shook her fingers in front of the thick
plastic window that separated us. Her nail polish was the same color
as her lipstick, but she’d painted gold stars on each nail. “They were
wearing these tuxedo shirts with little bow ties, hurrying around,
steppin’ and fetchin’, doing everything but wiping your mouth. Letting
you know how special you were for being there. Not saying a word,
knowing their places. None of them would let me catch their eye.”
“Come a long way baby.” I laughed, but it felt thick in my throat.
“All them people thinking they’re so liberal because they let niggers
touch their food and they still eat it.” I tried to get Neena to laugh
with me. All she said was, “I don’t like the N word.”
“Well, what you think those folks at the foundation were thinking?” I
tried to talk about how no black man could trust any white man and how
those who acted like they wanted to be our friends were worse than
Jesse Helms–at least Jesse didn’t play no games with you. He let you
know he was the enemy.
Neena’s attention started to drift around the room, so I said, “What
about The Saint? She eat up that scene? I mean, waiters, chandeliers.
Me, I’d be racing home, but her–she say anything?”
“You know Mama.”
I put a soft tone in my voice to imitate my mother speaking. “I hope
you children appreciate this. Your grandmother would never have been
allowed at anything like this.”
Neena smiled. Then she got quiet, put her hands down, and stared at
the counter like she was watching something on TV. The fact that I
couldn’t see her hands–the plastic screen between us was only two
feet by two feet and was set in a solid wood frame–made me nervous. I
shifted in my seat.
“It wasn’t all like that, either,” she said. “There were some black
people in the crowd. Maybe 75 out of 600. But still. It was good to
see them. We never saw nothing like that in our county.”
“What you expect, girl?” I said, surprised at how loud my voice
sounded. I could feel my forehead getting tight for no reason. “We
only had 12 blacks in the whole county, and six of them our family.
The good little spit-shine Johnsons. The Amos and Andys of the North
Carolina mountains. Yes Sir, no Ma’am, keep you mouths shut and
“Mama did try, in her own way,” Neena said.
“Mama had that ass-kissing smile on her face even when someone
splattered her with mud,” I said. “She never looked no one in the eye
or touched anyone on the arm. She–”
“She wasn’t that bad.”
I could tell Neena wasn’t really paying attention to me or she’d know
I was right. She poked through her black vinyl bag and pulled out a
booklet. “They gave this out,” she said and showed me a page with my
mother’s picture on it. I motioned for her to put it up against the
plastic. The picture was at the bottom of the page. At the top was a
story about my mother, using words like “dignified” and “humility” and
I leaned back in my scoop chair and shook my head. I didn’t say
nothing. I knew what the rest of them didn’t. I was the knee baby. I
was the one at home when my sisters were all off to school, when them
same men praising her now would come around during the day looking to
be accommodated. My mother was always accommodating. She might have
her own excuses for it, but I don’t want to hear them. I already got
everything figured out for myself. She didn’t do it ’cause of the
money or ’cause she was afraid. She did it because she thought it was
what they expected of her, and she was never one to cause a problem.
She wasn’t like my Daddy at all.
Those men, shit–they treated me like I was as dumb as a biscuit. They
didn’t think I could see or hear or understand nothing or that it
mattered if I did. I remember one guy, went on to be the city council
president, raising his hand at me like I was some dog he could slap,
telling me, “Sonny, you keep your mouth shut and your puss out of
sight and you and me, we’ll be okay.”
I looked back at my mother’s picture and that story that was supposed
to be about her life. Right at the bottom, the last couple lines said,
“Her main concern is education and children. She believes, ‘You should
never, ever, give up on any child.'”
I sat back and looked at the concrete floor.
Time was ticking away and neither me nor Neena was saying nothing.
Finally she asked, “You want to hear the rest of it or talk about
I nodded. “I want to hear the whole damn thing.”
Neena slapped her hands down on the counter and shook her head. “Well,
after we finished the regular food, the servants brought around these
fancy pastries. White people food. Tiny chocolate triangles and little
bitty cream puffs the size of rat balls. I inhaled four of them
suckers before Mama could stir her coffee. Shell and Keisha were
giving me looks, like to say I was embarrassing the family, and I told
them, ‘Move to another table you don’t like it.'”
We both laughed. Then Neena told me they showed a video about my
“They made a video about her life?”
“It was about somebody’s life,” Neena said, “and Mama was in it. The
point of it was how important she was to the community.”
“What community?” I asked. Neena shrugged.
She told me that in the video they showed our house and our street and
talked about Mama’s childhood, being raised by her grandmother. Then
they showed that photo–Neena was the one gave it to the men making
the movie—of the four of us kids and my mother. It was the picture
my Daddy took, just before he decided he’d had enough. We’re standing
there, the four of us kids and The Saint. Everybody knew something was
going on, but nobody knew what, so we were all half-smiling, half with
these looks like, What the hell is happening to our family?
“They showed that?” I said, and she nodded. I leaned back in my chair,
stared at Neena’s mouth, her lips curving slowly up until we both had
“They for real showed it?” I asked again.
She said, “The narrator on the video says there was a–a divorce he
called it. Then they had this interview part with Mama, looked like
she was on one of them TV magazine shows. She was crying, not looking
at the camera, talking about how after the divorce her life was all
messed up and she needed to do something for herself. So that’s why
she started getting involved in the community.”
Neena pressed close to the divider and tapped it with her nails, the
stars glittering even in that dull light. “So while some guy is
talking about how wonderful it was that she worked full time and spent
six and seven nights a week volunteering for this and that, serving on
the board of directors of the electric company and the fire squad and
the school committee–while they were talking about that, they’re
showing this picture Daddy took of us, and you hear Mama saying
community this and community that–she must’ve used the word about a
“Then they show Mama standing in front of the electric company, then
Mama driving–get this–driving a rescue truck. And I’m like, unh-huh,
lady when did you ever get behind any wheel? The last thing they show
is Mama sitting on a desk in a classroom full of little white kids and
she’s talking about don’t never give up on no one. That’s when all
them white folks in their suits and dresses put down their forks and
stood up to give her a standing ovation. Like she was Michael Jordan
or something. And Keisha and Shell got up and I–”
Neena waited for me to look at her. I was having a hard time. My neck
felt all tense and knotted. When I did glance at her, she tipped her
head up and sat straight in her chair and told me, “I sat on my black
ass and ate three more of their motherfucking little cream puffs.”
I nodded and smiled because I knew that’s what she wanted from me, but
my heart wasn’t in it. She went on, “You think they mentioned one
goddamned word about any of her six grandbabies?”
I know Neena wanted to get into talking about her kids, but that
wasn’t the point to me. I said, “You know why they gave her that
award? They like that shit. Putting her name down so the county can
apply for government money and say, ‘See, we got us a Tom with a
“Maybe,” Neena said. “But that’s not what I’m saying.”
I didn’t care to hear what she was saying. I had my own thoughts to
deal with. “That’s what I’m saying,” I told her. I leaned close to the
hard plastic, like I could whisper. Neena moved back and looked at me
kind of uncertain. I asked, “What did she say about me? I mean, she
must’ve given a speech or something, right? She use me to make
everybody feel sorry for her? She tell them I was her cross to bear,
like she told the judge? Huh?”
Neena looked down the row of other women, talking to their brothers,
sons, lovers. The women were smiling, trying to hide their agitation.
I looked at the men on this side. They were all sitting with these
bored attitudes, like they were tired or didn’t give a damn about
nothing. Like they didn’t even care whether or not they had visitors.
But you could still see, if you caught their eyes, they were dying for
even a little taste of what they were missing out there.
I kept my eyes on the line of men in their scoop chairs. “I know they
must’ve got her up to say some words. And I know The Saint good enough
to know she’s going to say the right things, thank the right people,
her family and all. I’m real curious to know how she went about
Neena wouldn’t look my way.
I told her, “Girl, look, look where I am.” I had to raise my voice to
get her attention. I saw the guard over by the door straighten up, so
I made myself talk softer. But my words felt like they had bristles in
them. “Look at me. You think anything you say can hurt me more? You
think I don’t know? I just want to hear it from your mouth.”
“For the truth.”
“So you can feel sorry for yourself, too? Just like Mama?”
“Fuck you. I ain’t nothing like Mama. I have a right to know. I have a
right to be justified.”
“That’s your problem,” she said, leaning forward like she was going to
come up in my face. “You don’t want to be understood. All you ever
want is to be justified. But you don’t want the rest of us to have our
“Did you come here to tell me what’s wrong with me? You here to
straighten my ass out? Make me confess all the ways I fucked up so I
can go on to salvation? Man, you’re just like everybody else.”
“Don’t you pull that shit on me,” she said, banging her nail on the
divider. “I ain’t the one put you in here.”
We neither of us looked at each other for a full minute, then I leaned
forward and tapped on the plastic. My breath was short, like I’d been
running, and I could feel a pounding headache coming up the back of my
skull, twisting up my neck like someone winding tight the strands of a
rope. “Look, I need to know this. This is like a rock in my path, and
I need you to tell me it’s there so I can step over it.”
She’d been sitting sideways, looking at me over her shoulder, and she
turned frontward again. But she looked down at her hands. I stared
off, pretending not to be that interested, like I used to at home when
she’d be telling me to wash the clothes or do some work when I was
busy watching TV.
Neena told about my mother getting up behind a microphone on this
stage in front of all these people–with TV cameras and photographers
and everything. She had this little speech she’d written in a
notebook. She thanked the mayor, the school commissioners, the rescue
squad, the electric company officials, all these local movers and
shakers, the hundreds of children she’d worked with, and then her
three daughters, calling them by their Christian names.
“She get them right?” I asked, and Neena said, “Ha, ha.”
I kept on looking at her, smiling. Waiting for her to go on. Trying to
prepare myself. Finally, Neena looked down and spread her fingers like
she was checking her nails, then she glanced over her shoulder at the
clock on the wall by the exit door. She turned back and tried to smile
at me, but she couldn’t hold it. I knew then she had nothing more to
tell me, and I felt that panic, just like I had the first time I’d
been handcuffed, when I was eleven, and they threw me into the back of
a cruiser. Only this time it was worse. There are things that hurt
even more than being beat in the belly with a night stick, or having a
gun held to your head and being told you’re gonna get your brains
blown out and then hearing the trigger click.
“She named you girls?” I asked. She nodded, looking down at her hands
twisting around each other like snakes wrapping into a ball. I said,
“But she must’ve–even if she didn’t use my name–she must’ve said–I
mean, it says right there in that damn book they printed, Mama says
don’t give up on any boy.”
Neena stared at me. Her face was still. “She didn’t say a word about
any of her grandbabies, either.”
“But they showed that picture, right?” I said. “Didn’t you say they
showed the picture of all us kids?” Neena nodded.
“And didn’t they say she had to raise four kids on her own?” Neena
blinked her eyes to say, Yes.
“Well couldn’t none of them motherfuckers in that audience count?”
The anger came on me so fast I didn’t even know I had raised up out of
my chair and was banging on the plastic screen until the guard smacked
me across the shoulders with his stick. Neena was up on the other
side, yelling, “No! No!” trying to scratch through the plastic
divider. But by then, there wasn’t nobody could help me.
I spun around and hauled off and smacked that guard right in the face.
It was like watching a slow-motion movie, the way I saw his lip split
and blood spurt out. I knew I had crossed a bad line; so I figured,
since it was too late now, there was nothing for it but to keep going.
I smacked him again–Pop, Pop, Pop–three quick ones in the
face, and as he fell, I dove down with him. I actually got on top of
him and was wailing away at his bloody face when the next thing I
knew, there was pain coming into me like lightning bolts from all
directions. I fell over onto the cold cement, curled and covered up as
best I could, and bit through my bottom lip so I wouldn’t cry out as
the guards pounded me with their nightsticks and steel-toed boots.
I must’ve passed out for a few seconds. When I came around, I could
hear the guards grunting, my own hard breath. There were no other
sounds, and I knew the other inmates had all been shuttled back to
where they’d come from, their visitors sent home early. I knew the
guys on the cellblock would make me pay for that, too.
“My Mama’s a hero,” I told them as they yanked me up, cuffed my hands
behind my back. They bent my arms up in their sockets and shoved me
forward. There were four of them, and they stationed themselves one on
each side, two behind. “She’s gonna be on TV,” I said. “You’re gonna
see her picture in the paper. She’s a famous do-gooder. You better be
nice to me or else.”
“Tell us another story,” one of the guards said as he shoved me hard
enough to make me stumble into the cinder blocks of the corridor.
I stood straight, set my feet apart, and said, “Nobody wants to hear
that other story.”
One of the guards grabbed my head from behind, pushed me sideways, and
slammed my face into the wall. “Maybe they want to hear this one, you
piece of shit,” the guard said. He slammed my face into the wall
again. There was an explosion of splintered light behind my eyeballs.
A hard, throbbing pain radiated from my nose. Blood poured from my
lips into my mouth. I swallowed it down. I wasn’t going to give them
the satisfaction of seeing me spit it out.
“Yeah, that’s the story,” I told them. “That’s the one everybody wants
to hear. Tell it again.”
“Happy to accommodate you,” a voice said, and I closed my eyes to