We are old now, Becky and me. I am forty-five and Becky is forty-seven. Neither of us is married. Well, Becky is, but not really, cause Lymon sleeps on a divan in the basement with Malcolm, his golden retriever mutt. That's what Becky call him, anyway; "his golden retriever mutt," and she pronounces the "g" real disgusted, cause he messes through the house leaving his signature—the dog that is—not Lymon. So, the neighbors don't come cause of the smell. I been sensitive to smell all my life.
But, that ain't it. As I was saying, Lymon sleeps in the basement and Becky two flights up in a room that Lymon never visits, at least not in that way. Lymon been saying for years that he's impotent, but he always manage to spend nights out at his pleasure, smoking reefer, snorting coke, and making no apology to Becky when he shows up two nights later. Becky, she just be at church or hanging with her church buddies, saying she go where she want and do what she want and she don't want no nigga around messin’ with her freedom noways. So you see, they ain't married - really.
Now me and Charles, who I hate worse than menstrual blood, was married real close right to the end. I mean sweatin' and huffin' and he saying real sweet stuff; till I find he was saying the same old stuff to lots of whores, and my best friend Cass and even Becky, and exposing his manhood to Mama and the Librarian at Ft. Dupont. But, that ain't it, either.
Becky and me, we didn't speak for a long time behind Charles, but the truth is we wasn't real close noways. Not like real sisters—sharing stuff—low talkin’ stuff, dreamin’ stuff. We just never seemed to have much to say to each other after school or chores or church. And, that's mostly what we did. Nothin’ more than that. Mama would pack us off to church on Sundays and after school hoping church would teach us to stay away from boys if she couldn't. And, she couldn't cause there was always some old joe laying around our place eating and controlling food he didn't pay for, making grunting sounds on the front room couch at midnight, when, I suppose, Mama thought I was sleep and couldn't hear. But, I always did. And, smelled too—that smell like burnt rubber with the cigarette butts and Jack Daniels' and Mr. Joe's barbecue chicken. Like I say, I been sensitive to smell all my life.
But, its more than that. I been asking Becky lately about stuff I needs to know—stuff I needs to remember cause it lay heavy on me like funeral music, and no matter whatever other note I try to play, it alway be blue. Becky say she don't know no stuff, not from way back where I need her to go; nothin important noways. "Paula", she say just recently, "why you always trying to pull up the past - ain't it enough that the Lord Jesus done bless your soul, done got you this far". And I just keep thinking about her always using Jesus to keep me from really asking things I needs to know—stuff that don't go away—like Jesus was a wall instead of the door I needs him to be. So, I think, I won't get that much from Jesus neither.
But, I just keep pulling at Becky, asking things I know she know cause she the oldest; and that's when she does it—blink her eyes back in her head and just stop talking and seeing and hearing too, I think—for about a whole minute. And then she come back and ask me, "what you say, Paula." And, I ask her "where you been, Becky," playful like, but really scared too. Becky been doing that since we was young, goin’ away like that, and I keep wondering where she goes, and why she goes, and why she goes more and more, and stay longer and longer, and I think that one of these times, maybe one time she won't come back from somewhere I can't reach her.
* * *
We was no more than three and five, me and Becky when the old porch on Hobart Place creaked and swayed and heaved with the weight of us jumping off and running to chase the witch-lady down the block, the witch-lady that we never saw, except for her broom in the coal-oven in her back yard. And I was scared then, but not than much. And sometimes the old blind-man stood on the corner and rocked to the tune of "Sentimental Journey" on his harmonica. And, the folk, old and tired from government jobs sweeping floors, placed pennies in his foot-kettle, and I was always scared of him too—but, not that much. Not the way I was of the dark under the porch, where they put me and sometimes Becky. There in that box, through the cracks in the board I could see daylight and glimpse Becky standing by the porch watching, trying to scream for me. Nobody ever came. The earth around me was hard and damp and smelled of musk and moss, and I cry from the weight of some stranger bearing down, pushing the light and air away, and Becky from view. Whoever, they are, they are huge. They move and breathe and when they are around I hide in a corner in myself. I suffocate. I suffocate and I lose all light. But, when I awake, though I am free, it is Becky who lies beneath the rafter in the box, and I open my screamless mouth. There is no voice. There are no tears. Whoever is around me, I know they participate in this ritual. I know they do not wipe tears. I have stopped crying. There is only the smell of moss and cold and earth and damp. Like I say, I been sensitive to smell all of my life. But, Becky say, it was just a dream, and I tell her "it don't feel like no dream, Becky, I was there." But, she jus say, Jesus and him only in her dreams. So Jesus still a wall to me.
* * *
I was nine when I started going away, but not like Becky, blinkin' and fadin' and being epileptic - which she ain't. I just had me a real nice family tucked way inside me and I'd go there to be safe—away. Away from Bishop preaching judgment and damnation and being perfect, which I knowed I wasn't, though I struggle to be good. And, away from Grand-daddy's house on Park Place.
When I tell Becky that Grand-daddy tied uncle Buddy up slave-naked and took a strap and beat him and I saw it all - saw him lay there black and naked with sweat pourin' off him like somebody greased his flesh for auction—and it was like he wanted me to see it, Grand-daddy did, leaving the door open like he did. Becky just say, "Buddy was bad a needed whoopin." But, I tell her Buddy was old then—almost sixteen and more man than Grand-daddy was then, and that don't nobody do that to no grown big person; it ain't natural. But Becky just say, "Paula, ain't nobody perfect, you say that yourself." I tell her "I ain't looking for perfect, Becky, just sanity. Just sanity."
* * *
I was glad when we moved from Grand-daddy's, I tell Becky, cause then I thought, I didn't have to be scared no more. Cause, it wasn't never just about Grand-daddy and Buddy. But, Buddy's friend JT, too.
On the ride to Hot Shoppes on Georgia Avenue, all the way we riding JT stick his finger in my vagina and all the way I didn't say nothin’. Couldn't say nothin’, cause, well just cause. Cause Judy's father and the other peoples was in that car and I knowed they'd blame me even though I was twelve and JT was eighteen. I knowed they'd blame me. The way they did when Grandma sent me next door to Bishop's house to get mother Crawley moving for noon-day prayer meeting; and, Bernard - you know, Becky, I say, "Bishop's son” - pulled me to his mama's bed and pushed me down and how his hardness felt to me suffocating and anxious. I didn't much know then what hardness was, being nine. (Like I know now). But when I got away and run home I run right into Grandma and before I could say nothin’, she slapped me hard across my mouth and drew blood. Then she asked me what I go in that house for. "What you go in that house for, girl," - when she sent me. Like she already know what Bernard do. Not, “did he hurt you baby or are you alright, or I'll make him leave you alone, baby,” or even, “I’m gonna tell that Bishop to tell his son to keep his mannish self to his-self.” But, just, what I go in there for. "Don't you remember, Becky," I say. But, Becky say Grandma didn't know no betta, didn't mean no harm, just wanted to teach you. Becky say Bernard was always trying to mess wid her, but you don't see her making no big fuss about it. "It didn't do me no harm, she say." But, then she just blink away again. And I think, "yea Becky - you don't make no fuss about it," but I don't say that to her.
* * *
But, like I told Becky, I was real glad to move from Grand-daddy's house. Me and Becky was eleven and thirteen then, and mama was anxious cause Grand-daddy had a way of calling her dummy and making her feel bad about bringing us to live there. And I'd find her sitting on the side of the tub crying, saying, "my father never hit me.” And I remember thinking, even then, "he don't have to, Mama, he don’t have to." So mama was glad to go. And I say to Becky I suppose it would’a been okay, just me and her and Mama. But, there was always the men. Her men. Mama's men.
* * *
I am twelve, and Sunday night service at Rehoboth Church of God Apostolic is over, and me and Becky scram from Elder Dickerson's old Buick and run into our apartment in Parklands in S. E. Washington. But, I am first, as always, cause I am faster than Becky, and I can be first to the left-overs mama would leave out from Sunday dinner. That day, I take my key and turn the lock and I see her laying there— spread eagle with Mr. Joe on top of her—ass to the wind. And I scream. I scream and I run from the horror that is my mother and her lover. I scream and run because back then, twelve was dumb, real dumb. So I run back to Becky at Elder Dickerson's old Buick and walk close beside her kinda slow not spittin' a word like I usually do, right in the house behind her. Mr. Joe is pulling close his pants and the woman who is my mother is pulling close her robe and she looks me dead in my face and ask me why I screamed, "why you scream, Paula, what's wrong." All clean and concerned like, daring me all the time to say what I saw. Like she telling me I didn't see nothing noways. So I say "no reason." But, then I'm sick, real sick. Cause Mr. Joe done made his famous Barbecue and it mingle with the smells coming from they bodies and all I see all night, is him, fat and naked and grunting, and her laying there like limp rag and telling me it ain't okay to say what's real. So all I do is go to my room and puke and cry. But, Becky just say, "Paula, I ain't never seen my mama do nothin’ like that with no man”. And I can't help but wonder if me and Becky even lived in the same house.
It wasn't just Mr. Joe.
Mr. Horace was touching me on the living room floor. I swear to this day, "I swear," I say to Becky, but I can't remember how I got there. I just felt those hands. But, funny things is, Becky, I say, "I remember you being on that floor too and somebody touching you.” But, Becky say, "that just you Paula, making up stuff to get attention; but, all it do is make folk think you strange. You was always the strange one, mama said," say Becky. "You was always sad and depressed, like some demon was ridin’ shotgun." And, I want to say to Becky, did anybody ever care to ask why. But, I don't say nothing then.
* * *
When I am seventeen, Lonny Britt raped me. I am seventeen, and the woman who is my mother picks him up somewhere one night and brings him to our home in Parklands. She thinks that I am asleep. I never am. She marches him into the bath and he takes off his clothes and hands them to her. Clad in stripped boxers, old and faded, and nothing more, he walks unsteadily pass my room thinking he is sly - "don't wake the girls," he says. But, all through the night there is the sound of them. There is not the tick of the Frigidaire, or Ella blowing bluesy tunes on the Magnovox that use to hold me to silent sleep. She don't even care that I am there. She don't even care that I can hear; that I should not hear. Like it don't matter. "It's just Paula. It's just Paula."
After that night, he is there always. He is there when she is at work and I am home from school. He is drunk. He is stupid, an "oaf," my friend Joy use to say. He eats food he does not buy. She buys him liquor. She rations it. She drinks with him because he drinks and he is a drunk. She cannot tolerate him sober.
One day when she is working late, and I am in bed, I awake from half-sleep and he is there—penis in hand—over me. I do not scream. What do it matter. It just Paula, anyway. I do not wake Becky in the next bed. I do not fight or call out, I do not do anything. I just lay there numb and scared and more lonely than death—and he climbs on me and says, "don't tell mama", "don't tell mama", he says to me. "Don't tell mama". And he punctures me, and I bleed, and tell her nothing.
The woman who is my mother, she come in minutes later from work, and he scurries from that betrayal like Judas and the thirty pieces. But I tell her nothing. I just goes in the bath and wipe the blood from myself and climb back into bed and shut up. Something is severed then. Something is forever silenced. I do what he say real good. I tell her nothing. I don't tell nobody else, either. I stay shut up. I stay shut up for a long time—until she is old and sick and about to die and the words spew forth like volcanic fire and I say, "Your boyfriend raped me, “you bitch.”. And she say, "I'm sorry, baby." And I say, "ha", like sorry an end to the pain I carried. I don't give her back her peace. She go to her grave and I don't cry—like she just some lump I give to the earth, instead of the woman who is my mother.
When I tell Becky this about Lonny, she say, "yea, she knew, mama knew - Mama knew Lonny was like that, and so did I." But, Becky say, Jesus was there for her and been there all along cause Lonny didn't get away with nothing with her, "no suh." Then, I think this Jesus all along been protectin' Becky more than me, and I don't like him so much. Not the way I should. When I tell Becky this, how I don't feel safe nowhere, like it always been men and pain, and Jesus been off somewhere on a lunch break, being male, just like they. She just say, "You got to give the Lord his do, and he don't put no more on you than you can bare." So I ask Becky, is that what Charles was suppose to be, just one more thing that I could bare. And she just look kinda lost. She look kinda lost for something to say about Jesus takin' care of everything— cause she know—she know.
* * *
When I am eighteen and Charles is twenty and tall and handsome but awkward and he needs to prove he ain't gay because the men on his job kid him—he uses me for a way to prove his manhood—a receptacle for his doubt. He leaves work one night and show up at my door and he shoo Becky from the living room and watching Johnny Carson and he lays me down and we have sex. And I like Charles, that ain't it. But there ain't no conversation about what happening with us—there ain't even no askin—it just sex and me feeling grateful that somebody like me.
Except Charles ain't right. He angry. Angrier than me, and he can't control his-self. He see women on the street when I am with him and he rub his hands between his legs and his face loses righteous expression—changes into something, someone I don't care to know. Sometimes I am sad because I think he like these women more than me—after all, he tell me, he courted me when I was fat and nappy-headed. But we get married anyway—cause Bishop say it better married than burning.
But, then, Charles get arrested for exposin' his-self to the librarian at Ft. Dupont and he calls me from the D.C. jail cell block, and he say he sorry, "we got any money, baby." And, I'm so sick of sorry. Cause sorry ain't never meant nothin’ more than people done caused you pain they didn't have to cause you, and they did it anyway. "I'm sorry," he say. And he do this repentin' thing they say about confession fault— and Mother Brown say to him "go and sin no more." And she tell me all about what a woman go to put up with for they men. So I stay married, not understanding nothing about Charles’problems except he made me feel unsure of myself—like it was my doing. See, Charles be pullin’ out his penis like a pickle out of a jar. But, I go on, like the woman that is his wife, and I have children with this man. I have children with this man.
I think he an okay father until one day he gets our daughter to lay lengthwise on his naked chest and massage her body in oil and get her to massage him—and I cringe. When family day comes, he stay in the basement playing with the children while the rest of the grown folk talk politics and God, like we got sense. Later, the children be playing these games with they-self and don't no one seem to know where they come from, except Charles. He, just say "children will play like that, ain't no harm.” And though I am fearful and there is a sickness growing in me, I still keep trying.
I still keep trying. Still try to be a wife, fixin’ myself up kinda pretty like, leaving little notes around when he be sad—until he lose his-self one day and say to me, "bend over and be a little boy for me," like he forget where he is, and who he be with, and who he be doing, and what he been doing. Charles always use to say that I was his sanity, but right then I knowed he'd crossed over the line. And he knew it and knew I knew it—and things were never the same no more.
When finally he leaves me for Toni, I am doing this "I'm gonna have a breakdown if you leave me" thing, I suppose cause I thought you just got to breakdown when they go. But, honestly, I don't know why - cause sometimes, you just be relieved, really (You just be free). But, then mama, she tell me about Charles and his penis in her room, and Becky she tell me about Charles and his hands in her behind, and Cass, my best buddy from school, she just turn her head and won't look me in the eye, and she say, “I am not surprised.” And Charles IS angry. But, I straighten my clothes, and wipe my tears I conjured from God knows glory, anyway, and I take his pathetic arms from about me, and understand everything. Everything! And I take my children to myself...and live.
* * *
"I am tired," I tell Becky. Tired of seeing Charles strutting about and going about stuff like nothing never mattered. And, though Mama and Lonny be long dead, I am tired of holding consort with the ghosts of folk who never cared I was a child. Tired cause it seem like there ain't never no retribution for the things people do to you. Tired of holdin' all the rage with no place to turn it but in—when all I wants to do is turn it loose—"turn it loose, Paula,” I think, "turn it loose." Tired of how it is sometimes, when the lonely come, and I can feel it like all the rivers of time, like all the coal of the earth on fire, but I know no one can fill the pit that I am, and if they try, they open wounds I've tenaciously covered, less I die. Tired of carrying guilt that ain't mine to carry. Tired of crying tears it ain't mine to cry. Tired of waking every morning with pain blessing memory.
So, this is my benediction. This is where I close the book of the past and begin my life. If there be more hellish imagery floating through time and space for cognizance, this is where I lay it down...and rest.
For those of you who know the word of prayer—pray for me chil’ren!