Editor’s note: Welcome to The Root’s Sunday series highlighting the best in black fiction writers: It’s Lit! Each week we’ll feature a new story across all genres—from Afrofuturism to those stories that will bring a tear to your eye.
I was tiptoeing past my mama’s bedroom—hoping not to disturb her afternoon nap, a crime I’m accused of committing most every other Saturday—when I caught a glimpse of something that made me take a couple of giant steps back. A dress hanging outside her closet door. A black dress with a short jacket, burgundy accents, low-cut front and tapered waist—the same cute little number me and my brother had given Mama as a gift last year on Mother’s Day.
“I do look good in this,” she’d said after trying it on.
“You gonna wear it to church next Sunday?” I’d asked.
“I guess I could,” she’d said, admiring herself in the full-length mirror at the end of the hall. “But I’d rather save it for a special occasion. Say, for instance, the next time I’m invited to a nice restaurant or a show at the Orpheum.”
“You mean a date!” I’d said.
Watching my mama get all dolled up to go out with a guy or even with her girlfriends is one of my favorite things to do. I guess because it’s not something that happens all that often, but when it does, something magical takes place and my serious, grown-up-acting mama turns into somebody just as silly and goofy as me—her 12 1/2-year-old daughter.
“Ellis, Ellis, guess what?!” I busted up in my brother’s room shouting, only to find him on the phone, as usual, running game to some girl.
My brother Ellis is 17, not too bad in the looks department and on his way to Morehouse College on a full academic scholarship, all of which only gives him even more reason to think he’s all that. I flopped on his bed, sighing and making faces, until he finally got off the phone and said, “What up, Miss Precocious?”
I hate that nickname. My Grandma Ernestine stuck me with it after hearing one of my teachers call me that during one of the meetings she’d gone to with Mama when I got into trouble at school about a year ago. My real name is Angel, which, according to my granddaddy, was the No. 1 name to come to his mind when he first laid eyes on me.
I grinned at Ellis anyway before saying, “You see the dress hanging outside Mama’s closet? The one we bought her for Mother’s Day? The one she said she was saving for a special occasion?”
Ellis rolled his eyes and said, “It’s not what you think. So before you start doing a Holy Ghost dance up in here, it might behoove you to know that it’s a doggone funeral Mama’s going to.”
“Oh yeah?” I said. “So who died?”
Scratching his three strands of a goatee, Ellis looked at me real funny like, then said, “Your daddy.”
My daddy? About all I’ve ever really known about the Right Reverend Arealious Samuel Dodge the III is what I’ve overheard from folks in my family, which hasn’t been a whole lot.
Take my granddaddy, who believes if you can’t say something good about a person, you ought not say anything at all. Any questions I might have asked him about the Rev. were either met with a verse of Scripture or else something so complicated and deep, it may as well have come from somebody’s Bible.
About the only info my mama has ever offered about the man happened that time I’d gone to her crying and wanting to know why my father never came to get me and take me places, like my brother’s daddy did.
At first she’d only mumbled, “I don’t know.” But after a moment she’d added, “I imagine had you been a boy, he woulda come ’round more.”
My granddaddy had been quick to say, “Uh-uh, Deloris. Don’t tell the girl things like that.”
“Why not?” she’d asked. “It’s true. Arealious didn’t have any problem claiming that child he had by that woman in Orange Mound. If I’m not mistaken, that child and Angel were born within a couple months of one another. You tell me why else he seen fit to claim one, but not the other?”
As with most things, the only person I’ve ever been able to count on for clarity with regards to my deadbeat dad is my brother Ellis. From him I learned that besides being a jackleg preacher and a so-called community activist, dude owned himself a car dealership.
“I hear him and his family got money,” my brother told me. “But the most important thing for you to keep in mind is, one, the jackass was already married and the father of three little girls when he hooked up with Mama; and two, doing right by either of y’all ain’t never been too high on his list of priorities.”
It wasn’t Ellis’ intent to be mean; that’s just how he is. When I was 6 or 7, I remember running to him all excited after hearing Grandma Ernestine mention that my daddy was a “saint.”
“Ellis! Ellis!” I’d said. “Did you know my daddy was a saint?”
Ellis, with his crazy self, had laughed and said, “Yeah? And did you know the devil was an angel—an angel with a bent halo and a busted pair of wings?”
That was the day I learned, one, that me, the devil and my daddy all had a lot in common; and two, saints are what the folks who belong to my father’s church call themselves.
Yeah, my daddy the saint—the one reverend saint this here Angel never did get a chance to meet—leastways, not while he was alive.
“Mama,” I said, as soon as she woke up and stumbled into the hall. “I wanna go.”
“Go where?” she asked, rubbing sleep from her eyes.
“You know, the funeral.”
Shock blinked across her face, and for a second I thought she was gonna say, “Girl, you’d best get on away from me with that mess.” Instead she said, “We’ll see,” and left it at that.
Mama is what you call a woman of few words. Not only does she not say a lot, but she’s not the type to sit up and listen to a whole lot, either. She and my granddaddy have that in common. They’re both soft-spoken people with little interest in or appetite for those things in life they consider insignificant, simple-minded or none of their durn business.
Me, I’m just the opposite. I run my mouth every chance I get, whether it concerns me or not. Because of that and my rep for being strong-willed, folks like to say I take after my Grandma Ernestine. They say when I grow up, I’m gonna be just like her. I, for one, certainly hope not. Don’t get me wrong—I love my grandma—but she and I are like a couple of neighborhood cats. Whenever we cross one another’s paths, the first thing we want to do is flatten our ears against our heads, swish tails, arch our spines and tiptoe around each other in a semiattack mode.
That’s how I knew to expect some kind of fight that following Sunday morning as me, Mama and Ellis headed over to my grandparents’ for breakfast.
My grandparents’ home is only three houses up the street from ours, a situation we have my granddaddy to thank for. Had it not been for him, we’d probably still be moving from one raggedy, roach-infested apartment to the next in search of some place that didn’t require nearly all of Mama’s income and an hour’s commute to and from her two jobs. Granddaddy’s the one who encouraged Mama to make an offer on the house when it went up for sale a couple years ago. He was also the main somebody to help her with the financing and the fixing up when she did.
Along with the benefits, living so close to the old folks also has its share of drawbacks. Our Sunday breakfast ritual is a good example. As much as I enjoy the eating part, having to deal with my grumpy grandma so early in the morning can be a pain and a half.
That particular Sunday morning was no exception. With my stomach growling, “Feed me!” and a tall stack of buttermilk pancakes calling my name, I’d barely finished my “Hey Granny” greeting when the old heifer jumped her butt dead in my path. Might not have been so bad had she not been looking right crazy, dressed like she was in one of Granddaddy’s old beat-up robes and with a durn church hat propped atop a dozen or more little pink sponge rollers.
Before I could politely inquire as to what her problem with me just might be, she’d cocked her head to one side, smiled real evil like and said, “Well, now, Miz Precocious, I’d say it’s a mighty fine day to be getting right with the Lord, don’t you think?”
Apparently, ’round about the first of the year, Grandma Ernestine had made seeing my sinful behind fully immersed in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost her top resolution. Unfortunately, my full cooperation on the matter wasn’t something I’d been trying to give—the main reason being that I’d simply known too many young girls like myself, who called themselves getting saved on one Sunday, only to be all up in the bushes with some knuckle-headed boy by the next. And if what Grandma Ernestine says is true, and the Lord hates an unrepentant sinner, then I know he must really can’t stand somebody who done stood up before La-Dee, Da-Dee and everybody and promised to do right, but ain’t bit more fixing to change than the man in the moon.
But before the devil could loose my tongue and send my mouth running in the wrong direction, Ellis grabbed our granny, gave her a kiss and said, “I like that hat, Grandma. It’s most definitely you.” Then he laughed, patted his own kufi-covered noggin and said, “So, whatcha think about mine?”
Ellis’ kufi—the little black knit skull cap he had on that, with his sunglasses, made him look like some radical from the ’70s—was something he’d bought recently at an outdoor festival. And the only reason he’d worn the cap-and-shades combo to breakfast was because he knew seeing him in them would get Grandma’s goat.
Rather than bite the bait, my grandma settled on a grunt and a glare before going on about her business. “Thank you, Lord, for favors, both big and small,” I whispered on sliding into my assigned seat at the dining room table, which just so happens to be on the right side of my granddad.
I was sitting there, chomping on my third sausage link and staring across the table at all the feathers bobbing and weaving over my grandma’s brow, when my mama said, “I’m thinking ’bout taking Angel to the funeral with me.”
“Hot diggity!” is what I might have shouted had my mouth not been so full of food.
Granddaddy sipped some of his coffee before he said, “Bad enough you going. Whatcha wanna go and drag Angel up in there for?”
Talk about unexpected. My granddad’s opposition raised such a huge lump in my throat, I had to stop chewing because I knew I wouldn’t be able to swallow without choking and gagging.
Even more shocking was when Grandma Ernestine, with that hat of hers looking like at any moment it might take flight, jumped in the mix with, “Well, I, for one, don’t see why it’s a big deal. Ain’t like she or the child are going to try and start some mess. The man is dead. What harm is it in them or anybody else wanting to go and pay their respects?”
“Respect is something a man ought to set his sights on earning while he’s still got plenty of breath left in his body,” Granddaddy said with his gaze circling the table. “Besides, the presence of either Deloris or Angel and most certainly both is sure to bring more grief than comfort to the family.”
By the time the old man’s eyes came to rest on Grandma Ernestine, her lips and brows had gotten good and twisted. “Comfort, shum-fort!” she said. “If you ask me, ain’t a one of those fools couldn’t use a right healthy dose of upset in they lives. And as for you, Mr. Will Anderson, what you need to be worrying about is these two, and the right shaky state of their salvation.”
Knowing what was coming next, I sank a couple of inches in my seat, and sure enough, Grandma Ernestine pointed at me and said, “You’ve got Miz Precocious, who’s sitting here acting like she ain’t even studyin’ ’bout being saved. And brother Abdullah over there, who, any day now, is likely to be standing up on a street corner in some hot-ass suit, wearing a durn bow tie while trying his hand at hawking papers, bean pies and bananas.”
While not too far off the mark about me, my grandma wasn’t anywhere near being right about Ellis, who’d just as soon be sitting there in one of those caps you see Jewish men wearing than to be seriously thinking about hooking up with the brothers in the Nation.
My silly brother looked at me, lifted his shades and said, “That’s right, Ms. Precocious. You’d best get yourself a piece of that rock before it’s too late.” Then he bust out laughing and said, “You see how much good it’s done me, don’t you?”
Her peacock feathers just a-quivering, my grandma slapped the table and said, “I swear ’fore God I ain’t never heard such blasphemy in all my days. Will Anderson, you’d best check this boy before we all end up sweating in hell somewhere.”
My brother composed himself enough to say, “Y’all know, just ’cause folk go and sit up in a church every Sunday don’t mean they’re trying to do right. Pssst, I’d dare say half of ’em wouldn’t know Jesus if he walked up and hit ’em in the head. Can I get an amen on that, somebody? Huh? Can I?”
The room went dead silent. I mean, not a fork scraped a plate, not a hand scratched a head, not a single behind squirmed in his or her seat. And with every eye at the table trained on poor Ellis, a small part of me wanted to help him out with a hearty round of, “That’s right. Tell it, brother.” But even stronger was my desire to share with Ellis that I hardly thought Jesus the type to just walk up and bust a fool upside the head.
I didn’t know my granddaddy was accompanying us until that Monday morning when he showed up at our house all decked out in his best black double-breasted suit and a brand-new silk tie.
I hugged him and was telling him how good he looked when Mama popped into the room. Instead of her face lighting up at the sight of the dapper, 60-something-year-old, it clouded over and she said, “I’m quite capable of doing this alone, you know.”
Granddaddy said, “Yes, but you don’t have to.” He took my hand, then reached for Mama’s and said, “Now, if everybody’s ready, we’d best give the Good Lord his due so we can be on our way.”
We probably stood there a good five minutes, holding hands and listening to the old guy’s always sincere appeal on our behalves. Prayer is the one area where my generally closed-mouth granddaddy seldom spares any words. No lie, there have actually been times when he has been on a roll and I’ve nodded off, only to wake up as much as 10 minutes later and find him still going strong.
While I stood with my eyes shut tight, shifting my weight from one leg to another and trying to guess at what point he’d tack an “amen” to it all, I recall thinking, Dog, a man died and we’re going to his funeral. It wasn’t like we helped kill dude or had gotten all dressed up to go and be witnesses at his execution.
Had I not been so hyped, I might have asked my granddad about the bogeyman he thought we were so at risk for being bitten by. Not that I would have really listened to his response. Too much anticipation had already set in. I looked at my going to the funeral sort of like I did my first roller coaster ride. The element of the unknown, the lack of control and the potential for disaster all added to the excitement. Why dwell on the possibility of getting sick and puking all over the place? Or my car suddenly jumping off track? Or my head going splat against the pavement? Precocious or not, even I know that to sit up and rationalize fears, rather than to just let them be, is to take most of the fun out of being a kid.
That’s why, soon as we arrived, I jumped out from the car’s back seat, acting for all the world like the queen of England. I’m saying, nobody could have told me nothing, even if they’d tried as I strutted across the parking lot and up the church steps, my pretty mama on one side of me and my good-looking granddaddy on the other. What I felt can only be described as a sick sense of pride in my genetic connection to a man who, judging by the number of folks who’d turned out for his homegoing, had touched a lot of lives.
But I had only to stroll past the sanctuary’s huge wooden double doors before the sight of my daddy’s open casket pimp-slapped me back into reality. My right foot got all tangled up in the carpet, and in that brief moment, I clearly saw myself rolling down the aisle like some sort of human bowling ball, picking up speed as I spun, and at a total loss as to how to keep from either making a flower-flying strike against my father’s coffin or finding myself lodged snug as a bug beneath the fancy casket stand.
Fortunately, my granddad was there to catch me by the arm. “It’s OK,” he said after steadying me. “You all right.”
I glanced at my mama, only to be greeted by a look that I knew meant, “Girl, you’d better not embarrass me in front of all these folks.”
It wasn’t like I couldn’t appreciate where she was coming from because even though we’d called ourselves getting there early, the place was packed. The only section noticeably empty was the first nine to 10 pews on my right, which I knew from being at other funerals had been set aside for specific family members and friends of the deceased. But even that section held a couple of bodies, one being a head-bobbing little boy who looked to be about my age, and the other a stiff-looking woman who I took to be the kid’s mama, both of them wedged together in the left-hand corner of the very first pew.
The boy, who had been wiggling and jiggling, as if jamming to a song only he could hear, got still on spotting me and my folks making our way down the long center aisle. He stared dead at me, looking for all the world like he was dying to stick out his tongue and spray a stream of “Nah-nana, nah-nah’s” in my direction.
He looked an awful lot like somebody I knew. But it wasn’t until I rolled right up on him and experienced that jolt of recognition that generally comes about from running face-to-face into your own reflection in a place you’re hardly expecting it that I realized that the somebody the kid looked was me. Seriously, had I been fat, bald-headed and a boy, we could have passed for twins.
Before I could move past him, he had the nerve to squeeze his nose, as if he’d gotten hit with a good whiff of something that stank. Hoping to return the favor, I curled my upper lip and treated him to my best Elvis-like sneer.
But the boy, his mama and everybody else fell from my consciousness the moment I stepped up to my dead daddy’s casket and caught sight of what lay inside. Startled doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. Truth is, I might have busted out laughing had Mama not been there to slap a hand against my shoulder and start digging her beet-colored nails deep into my flesh.
The glasses are what got me. Dude was laying up there in these glittery, diamond-studded spectacles, like at some point he might raise up to see who all was there.
When my poor granddaddy looked down and did a double take before saying, “Lord, help him,” I know had it not been for the pinch of my mama’s meat-slicing nails, I’da probably given up a whole gutful of giggles.
I’m fairly certain I would have straight-up blacked out beneath my mama’s version of the Vulcan death grip had Granddaddy not motioned for her and me to turn around and fall in step behind him. After one last look, I clicked my heels and swiveled an about-face, fully expecting to do battle again with my nose-tweaking nemesis, only to discover that the pew where he and his mannequinlike mama had been was completely vacant.
My puzzlement over their disappearance gave way to a general sense of piss-osity in the few seconds it took for my granddad to escort us past all those empty pews and pardon our way into some middle-section seats. Legitimate or not, I was still one of the dead Rev.’s daughters, with a blood tie and physical family resemblance that couldn’t be denied. Had the decision been mine, I would have used my entitlement to cop us some of those front-row seats.
Ellis claims that it wouldn’t have made a difference, but it might have, if to nobody but me. Now I’ll always wonder, had I been rightfully situated, would I have felt as deeply stabbed in the back as I did when I saw my fat rat of a twin marching in with the rest of the folk claiming to be next of kin.
He was leading the pack, along with an older gentleman I recognized as one of my granddad’s longtime associates, a man who until that day I’d only known as Reverend D. The sight of them strutting down the aisle, side by side, and dressed in suits of the exact same color and cut, made my bad-girl blood boil. Had I been in an aisle seat, I wouldn’t have been able to let them pass without sticking out a foot in hopes of sending them all falling and tripping up over one another, like dominoes that had been deliberately set up for such.
What made the situation worse was that ever since I could remember, I’d held a warm spot for Reverend D. and had come to mark my encounters with him as a sure sign that everything wrong was about to get right in my world. I’d accepted him as he’d presented himself—as a nice, generous, jolly old guy, who always took the time to laugh and kid around with me during his periodic meetings with my granddad over coffee.
His habit of ordering this huge dessert that he’d only take a bite of before sliding it to my side of the table had helped seal our friendship. The kind act typically drew a frown from Granddaddy, who never failed to say something along the lines of, “You know, her mama don’t like her to have a whole lot of sweets.”
The Reverend would smile and go into his wink-filled, hushed-voice routine. “That’s why it’s just gonna be our little secret. “Isn’t that right, Miz Angel? You’re not gonna tell your mama about having dessert or that you even sat down and ate with the likes of me, are you, sugar?”
“No, sir,” I’d answer with my mouth already full of food.
I’d kept our secrets and adored the Rev. all the more for them, but only because I hadn’t known his true identity as the elder Dodge—my daddy’s daddy. While my father’s betrayal was a heartache I’d learned to live with over the course of my 12 1/2 years, the sudden realization that he’d been joined in the act by both Reverend D. and my granddad opened up a whole fresh set of wounds.
I tried making sense of it all as I sat listening to choked-up folk talk about my daddy’s love of family, his charitable work in the community and what a wonderful example of a Christian he’d been. To hear them tell it, they knew without a doubt the Good Lord had carved out a special place in heaven for saints like my reverend dad.
If all of that was true, then why, I wondered, had the punkin’-head kid, who was obviously an outside child as well, been extended the honor of carrying on the full family name (Arealious Samuel Dodge the IV), while my precocious butt hadn’t even gotten so much as a mention in the program’s listing of the dead Rev.’s children.
From where I sat, all those pretty words put forth on my father’s behalf weren’t anything but lies—lies in pretty packages, as if shoving a dead dog in a gift bag and topping it off with a bow could really hide the fact that there was a rotting carcass full of maggots on the inside.
Still, I found myself wishing my name had been included on the funeral program, if only under the list of speakers, so I could get up and share my version of the truth. I would have given them a testimony, all right, starting with all those nights I’d laid up crying because, unlike my brother Ellis, I didn’t have a daddy who cared enough to come see about me, much less buy me things, take me places or offer me any part of his name.
I would have testified as to how hard my poor mama had worked over the years trying to make up for the support my prosperous papa never sent. I would have summed it up telling about the time I’d cracked my skull falling off the jungle gym, suffered a concussion and durn near died, but didn’t get so much as single visit, a phone call or even a crappy-ass card from my dear old deadbeat of a dad.
The end of the service couldn’t come quick enough. Afterward, we’d been maneuvering through the foyer when I’d broken away for a sip from a nearby fountain. I reached my destination, only to find myself bumping shoulders with my bald-headed brat of a half brother. We exchanged looks of mutual disgust before banging bodies again in our quests to quench our thirsts.
I called myself cutting homeboy some slack when I said, “I beg your pardon. Haven’t you ever heard of the saying, ‘Ladies first’?”
He smirked and said, “Yeah, I have. And the first lady you see wanting a drink, you let me know.”
Dude had the nerve to elbow me aside before wrapping his flab around the fountain and straight-up getting his slurp on. While he drank and wiggled his fat butt up, down, and round and round in a silly attempt to further insult me, I balled up my fist and was about to add a big ole raised knot to the field of heat bumps on the back of his head when I heard a familiar voice say, “Lord, if it ain’t brother Anderson.”
I turned just in time to catch the tail end of the two grinning old men’s hand-pumping, chest-bumping, back-slap-filled greeting. I studied the suddenly larger-than-life view I had of Reverend D. and smiled on realizing that there were two things about him that never changed: the big, extended belly and the snow-white beard, both of which had helped build my image of him as a black Santa Claus of sorts, an image that had only blossomed since that first meeting—or at least the first I could remember. The one thing I haven’t forgotten is the question he’d knelt down and asked me: “So, little girl, what’s the one thing you’re really hoping to see under your Christmas tree this year?”
I remember pausing and thinking how a miniature dollhouse like my friend Marquita’s had been high on my wish list for months. But right up there with it was my mama’s need for transportation. Ever since her wreck of a car had played out, she’d been bumming rides, catching the bus, forking over cab fare and doing the one thing she hated most—calling on my grandparents to get her where she needed to go.
After carefully weighing my girlish want against my mama’s grown-up need, I’d told the Reverend, “The one thing I really hope Santa brings this year is a new car for my mama.”
I remember him laughing and saying, “My, my, if that ain’t an awfully tall order. But I don’t rightly suppose there’s anything too big for God. I suspect if you keep praying on it, and it’s within the Good Lord’s will, it’s bound to happen some kind of way.”
And when it did, I didn’t know who to thank—God, Santa, Reverend D. or my granddaddy, who I’d seen come up outta his own pockets to help Mama buy it on the cheap from some friend of a friend who lived around the way.
On stepping from my granddad’s embrace, Rev. D. winked at me, a move that prompted yet another muddle of coffee shop, whipped cream and meringue-topped memories to rise up and stir around in my mouth and mind.
Torn between wanting to keep my trap shut and feeling like I was supposed to say something, I slid a few paces toward the Rev. But before I could formulate a plan, my mama stepped between us and said, “Reverend Dodge, I’m ... I’m so sorry about your loss.”
The Rev. kissed Mama on the cheek and said, “That’s quite all right, sister. Our loss is God’s gain.”
Mama nodded, but I could tell by the quivering arch in her eyebrows that she was thinking, “Yeah, well, I don’t know about all that.”
While the grown-ups gabbed, I homed in on homeboy, who, with his mouth still dripping water, had drug his ill-mannered butt over to stand next to Reverend D. I searched dude’s eyes for signs of intelligent life, only to discover that the terrain went beyond barren, without so much as a handful of dust or even a pinch of green cheese there for the taking.
“I ’spose you remember our Angel,” I heard my granddaddy say.
“Of course,” Reverend D. said. “Who could ever forget little Miz Angel. And still just as pretty as ever.”
I peeked over at Mama, but to my surprise she wasn’t even studying us. On following her focus, I found it way across the room where my numbskull of a twin’s own mother was standing alone, with her back pressed against a wall and her arms folded.
Instead of staring back at my mama, homegirl’s gaze appeared all caught up in the grieving group of women I immediately recognized as the one containing my dead daddy’s widow and his three legit daughters. With so many parallel universes spinning around, I felt like I’d slipped into some long-lost episode of The Twilight Zone.
“Pretty and smart,” my granddad said. “Matter of fact, we’re planning on taking her out of public school this fall and enrolling her in a private one.”
“Private school, huh?” Reverend D. said. I shared his surprise, being it was the first time I’d heard tell of such.
“That’s right,” my granddad said, nodding toward the fat, stupid kid, who was standing there with his lips parted, looking like at any moment he just might poot. “And who might this fine young fella be?”
Reverend D. pushed the dimwit forward and said, “Oh, this is none other than Arealious Samuel Dodge the IV, though Lil Real is what everybody’s taken to calling him. And I’d dare say he’s ... ”
About as dumb as a doorknob and well on his way to being kicked off the short bus, is what I sort of half hoped, half expected to come out the Rev.’s mouth. While the old man struggled through a straight-faced boast and brag on behalf of his grandson, the kid, with his idle-brained self, had the nerve to start styling and profiling as if one of us might have really wanted to snap his picture rather than wring his nonexistent neck.
Like some sad sack of a runaway model, Lil Real went as far as to peel back one side of his suit coat and then the other, a stunt that only let the whole world in on the fact that in addition to being a nut, dude was a straight-up sugar fiend, who looked like he’d just robbed somebody’s candy counter. I’m talking pockets—shirts, pants and jacket lining—crammed full of lollipops, chocolate bars, mint sticks and licorice ... the sight of which only made the Reverend’s actual statement with regards to his dumb cluck of a grandkid, “And I’d dare say he’s destined to be the biggest and the best minister of us all,” seem all the more insane.
My granddad nodded and said, “Yes, well, as our brother Solomon so wisely points out in Proverbs 13:22, ‘A good man leaveth an inheritance to his children’s children.’”
“Ah, yes, a good man,” Reverend D. said before he chuckled and added, “And you, brother Anderson, just happen to be one of the finest.” He hugged my granddaddy again and told him, “We’ll get together soon. I’ll call you.”
My folks and I resumed our journey through the crowd and had almost reached the exit when I heard somebody yelling, “Angel! Hey, Angel!”
I turned and to my horror saw that it was none other than Lil Real. Huffing and wheezing, he pushed and scooted his way over to where I stood. On reaching me, he whipped out his hanky and like some hard-preaching pastor dabbed at the sweat on his puffed cheeks and double row of chins before digging inside his jacket and pulling out a big red sucker.
“Here,” he said, grabbing my hand and slapping the candy into it. Then he grinned and said, “Now you can’t say I never gave you nothing.”
I was in my room, changing out of my clothes, when I thought about the sucker Lil Real had given me. What a joke. A sucker from a sucker. I dug it out of my purse with every intention of slam-dunking it into the nearest trash can. Instead, my eyes got all blurry and my stomach started bubbling the way it does when one of Grandma Ernestine’s chili dogs comes back to bite.
I rolled the oversized sucker’s wax-coated stick between my palms until the rhythmic rattling of the wrapper and the steady twirling motion sent my mind back to those times at the coffee shop when I’d always cop the window seat next to my granddad and directly across from Reverend D. In thinking back on those visits, I realized there’d been this sort of weird predictability about them. For one, the two old guys always met in the same coffee shop, a place called Eula’s, and at the same designated time: a Saturday, somewhere in the hours after lunch and before dinner. And I’m fairly certain the 45 minutes to an hour they’d spent talking on that last visit was pretty typical, given my granddad’s sensitivity to my inability to sit still and be quiet for any extended period of time.
What’s more, I can’t ever remember their encounters not ending the same way: first with me lapping up the last of my dessert, then with one or the other quoting that Proverbs verse about a good man’s inheritance, promptly followed by a brotherly hug, a hearty handshake and a final goodbye.
And as I gazed into the blood-coated blur of the spinning lolly, I suddenly remembered something else. Something that sent me running out of the house and up the street in search of my granddad.
Rather than enter through the front door and take a chance on Grandma Ernestine pouncing on me, I went around to the backside of my grandparents’ house, where 9 times out of 10 I knew to find my granddaddy.
Unlike a lot of our neighbors who enjoy the people-watching and endless opportunities for butting into other folks’ business that sitting out on the front porch provides, my granddad prefers the view from his screened-in back porch. To hear him tell it, there’s nothing he likes better than studying his garden and all the birds, bugs, butterflies and squirrels it draws. Sometimes he uses the spot to enjoy a cup of coffee or a cool drink while he flips through the newspaper or a magazine. But mostly what he does when he’s out there is talk to God—or at least that’s what I’ve always figured him to be doing all those times I’ve found him in his rocking chair, eyes half-closed, his parted lips mouthing words and the Good Book open in his lap.
And that’s exactly how I found him that afternoon when I made my screen-door-slamming entry. But in spite of the noise, my granddad chose not to stir, a clever move that forced me into having a seat until he was ready to address me.
While I squirmed and fiddled with the plastic-covered sucker, I stared at my granddad and reflected on how, back in the day when I’d thought the old man incapable of doing any wrong, I’d once made the mistake of singing his praises a bit too loudly in the presence of Grandma Ernestine.
She’d been in the painful process of combing and braiding my hair when I’d gone as far as to compare my great guy of a granddad to Enoch, the man the Bible says God plucked from this world rather than let him experience a natural death, and all because dude was said to have been so exceptionally good.
Somewhere in midtribute, my grandma had stopped raking the skin off my scalp and said, “Excuse me, Missy, but before you go making out like your granddaddy was up there on the cross with our Lord and Savior, let me remind you that just like every sinner’s got a future, every saint’s got a past—Will Anderson included—who, I’ll have you know, didn’t make it his business to show up in your mama’s life on a regular basis until she was durn near 12 years old.”
To rid my mouth of the terrible taste the memory left on my tongue, I ripped the wrapper off the sucker, shoved it between my lips and launched into a vigorous lick, suck and swirl number.
I was three or four slurps into it when my granddaddy stopped rocking, cleared his throat and said, “Ain’t it near ’bout dinner time?”
Without removing the candy, I told him, “Mama said another hour or so.”
He opened his eyes and looked at me a good 30 seconds before asking, “You all right?”
I shrugged and let another minute of silence pass before I said, “Granddaddy ... how come you never mentioned Reverend D. was some kin to me?”
He closed the book in his lap and said, “Study your Bible a little closer, chile, and maybe one day you’ll come to understand that some answers in this world are only yours for the proper asking.”
Ordinarily I wouldn’t have touched that, but on that particular afternoon I wasn’t about to leave it alone. I yanked out the sucker and said, “You think I ain’t been asking? For years, I’ve been begging and pleading with God to send me my daddy. And what kind of answer did I ever receive? None. Jack. Nada.”
Granddaddy smiled and looked toward his garden. “Oh, you got an answer all right,” he said. “Might not have been the one you wanted. But yeah, you got one.”
Feeling like I had more to gain than lose, I said, “So what was in all those white envelopes Reverend Dodge used to give you?”
Without a blink or a breath in my direction, my granddaddy said, “Atonement.”
I don’t think he thought I knew what the word meant. But I did and I started to ask him, “For whose sins?” Instead I got up, walked toward the porch’s screen door, then turned and told him, “Granddaddy, I think I’m about ready to be baptized. I want to go ahead and get saved, so when my time comes I can go to heaven.”
He closed his eyes, nodded and said, “I ’spect your Grandma will be right pleased to hear that.”
And as usual, he was right. Grandma Ernestine near ’bout shouted herself hoarse and durn near everybody else deaf when I let her in on the good news. But what I didn’t bother to share with her, my granddad or even my brother Ellis is that the main reason I’d suddenly set my sights on getting through those pearly gates was so I could finally meet up face-to-face with my diamond-spectacle-wearing daddy, and tell him, once and for all, to go straight to hell.
Lori D. Johnson has an M.A. in urban anthropology from the University of Memphis. She is the author of two novels: A Natural Woman and After the Dance. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Mississippi Folklife, Upscale Magazine, Memphis magazine, the Commercial Appeal, the Tri-State Defender and Obsidian II: Black Literature in Review. She lives in Charlotte, N.C., but still considers Memphis, Tenn., home.