Handa Wanda

Once upon a time when the goose drank wine and the monkey chewed tobacco on the streetcar line, a young mother dwelling in an unassuming Galvez St. courtyard in the Lafitte Project was dying of an anonymous ailment. As her end was drawing near, the parish priest administered Extreme Unction to her and (abiding with her last wish) summoned her daughter to her bedside in the humble, brick-encased surroundings that was their Sixth Ward home. A Sacred Heart of Jesus picture hung above the tarnished, imitation brass bed. The priest left them to their solitude and the child leaned over the bed, caressing her mother while hearing her last words. “Baby,” she said to the tearful child, “I’ma die. I know you prob’ly been knowin’ that for a long time, but my time done finally come….But you gotta go on ‘haid on wit yo’ life. So I done made arrangements for what you gon’ do now. I wanted you to go by yo’ daddy, but he still out there runnin’ the streets after the lil’ wimmins. That wouldn’t be good for you, bein’ a girl and all, so I been arrangin’ with the guv’mint people for you to go live over in the Seventh Ward on Old Prieur Street with yo’ daddy sister -- yo’ Aunt Belle. She got two chirren -- and they both girls -- and she can use that check -- so we done filled out the custody papers and she gon’ take care o’ you and put you in a good school. She wunna them ‘bright people’, but I’ma trust her with you.”  

“Momma-- ” the girl wept, her tears falling to the bland, blue blanket enclosing her mother’s soon-to-be stilled flesh.

“Baby, I done done the best I could. I didn’t ask to be bornded po’. I didn’t ask for you to be. I just want you to git a better life than what we both done had. Git yo’ education…Be sumthin’.”

“Momma--” the girl sobbed, embracing her mother in an effort to keep her from death’s disjointing divide.

“ --And don’t depend on no man for what you wan’ do in life. You see what runnin’ with the mens done done for me….or maybe I done did it to myself for bein’ out there with ‘em,” she reflected somberly from her deathbed, whispering despite the sores and lesions that shrouded her tongue while clutching a set of worn, wooden rosary beads under the covers they had purchased on Canal Street in more contented times. But in the here and now, the unparalleled pain in her swollen lymph glands, her coughing, shortness of breath, the diarrhea and rashes, the constant fatigue, the skin spotting -- finally made her admit to her child that she would be (in her words) “a gone pecawn”.  “Be yo’ own woman,” she said. “Just be yo’ own woman,” she beseeched. One of her feeble, gnarled, contorted hands unclasped the rosary beads and gently, lovingly caressed a cluster of her daughter’s wiry, plaited hair.

Then she died.

She was placed in a cheap, bottom-of-the-line, imitation oak box and laid to rest underneath a chineyball tree in Holt Cemetery, the potter’s field (where the architect of jazz, Buddy Bolden is said to be interred) that is adjacent to Delgado Community College and in close proximity to City Park. Some Mardi Gras Indians from the project’s Galvez Street court sang and danced deliriously at the graveside ceremony. Holt, a hushed museum to the departed loved ones of those citizens of less than nominal economic means, was one of the city’s more intriguing final resting place sites.  Inside its rickety iron fence were personalized acknowledgments left by the living in remembrance of the dead. Adorning the informal topography of the burial plots that were free (as long as they were maintained by family or friends) were graves garnished with gaily-colored, favorite chairs; dog fur, favorite cigars, hand-painted wooden crosses with misspelled names, threadbare clothing, long-since fashionable shoes, frayed walking canes, dog-eared bibles, strategically-placed whiskey bottles, elaborately-beaded steering wheels, and rusted bicycles. The creativity and resourcefulness of the surviving poor were on perpetual display as evidenced by the white picket fences and multicolored bricks used as gravesite borders, the Mardi Gras-themed memorials, the array of plastic flowers in long ago-faded vases, and the handdrawn pleas to Sweet Jesus to keep longsuffering loved ones in an eternal life of peace and blessings of the Light of the Lord and His faithful care.

Where her love for her mother once was, there was pain. There were tears instead of smiles, weeping instead of laughter, detachment rather than inextricable linkage, and shivers and shakes within and on her dark, youthful outer rather than the thrill and ecstasy of their rapport.

*                         *                         *

After the polite conversation and delectable culinary intake at the repast, the traditional post-burial feast where her Aunt Isabelle proudly and publicly proclaimed the prospects she had for the girl’s future, they went to the project (her aunt called them “housing developments” when certain folks were around), gathered the child’s few possessions in a large, black garbage bag, and drove (her aunt would say “motored”) over to the 7th Ward double-galleried variation of the gable-sided, center-hall residence with the lathed and plastered facade and yellow baseboards that was intended to be her new home.  Her aunt had the child tote the massive bag, dragging it up the front steps as her daughters, Florabelle and Corabelle, pranced to their room to get out of their dress-up clothes and play with their paper doll cutouts.  Once inside, Wanda plopped down on the plastic-covered, faux French Provincial sofa near the French doors to the right of a lace-draped window in the living room.

“What is yo’ project-dwellin’ behind doin’ sittin’ on my Hurwitz Mintz furniture? You triflin’ -- just like yo’ drunk, ign’ant paw!” she fumed as her features turned Creole tomato-red.

“I just wanted to sit down for a minute. I was tired, Auntee,” mouthed the child, taken aback at her acidic manner of speech.

“Don’t be callin’ me ‘Auntee’ -- you nappy-haid, ashy-legged wench. I don’t want nobody to know I’m related to yo’ black, pickaninny behind -- not even by marriage. My sister-in-law shoulda aborted yo’ stinky, useless tail,” she raged as a frown fixed itself on the child’s face and tears bubbled slightly from her eyes. “ -- You best fix yo’ face ‘fore I fix it for you -- and shut up with them crocodile tears ‘fore I give you sumthin’ to cry for. And don’t you dare call me ‘Auntee’ again. Don’t be embarrassin’ me in front nobody. You ain’t no relation. You ain’t nuthin’ but a check to me!” she spat. “Git that bag o’ gobbidge up and put it where it belong -- and call me ‘Miss Isabelle’!”

“Where to put it, Miss Isabelle? In my room?”

“Room?”

“In Florabelle’ and Corabelle’ room?”

“You must be done lost yo’ ugly black mind -- ” Isabelle started.     

“Where I’ma sleep?”

“ -- In the damn washroom, heifer!” she retorted. “I made a pallet back there by the screen door for you. Git back there and git yo’ kinky, empty haid some sleep. You gon’ need it!” she shrieked. “And be sure to wash yo’ fonky face ‘fore you lay yo’ stinky, black tail down!”

“Yes ma’am,” the child said sheepishly as she carted the bag and its meager contents to her assigned space. “You best be glad I don’t chain yo’ sorry, project-dwellin’ ass up….You just like yo’ ign’ant, dead-ass maw!” her aunt-by-marriage barked.

That night she slept an uneasy sleep, frightened and terrified over what fate had destined for her sorrowed, saddened soul.

    *                         *                         *

She was awakened the next morning with a stinging slap in the face. “Git yo’ lazy, black ass up!” Isabelle screeched. “You gotta make breakfast and git them chirren’ uniforms ironed for school. The sun done just come up! Git yo’ triflin’, worthless ass to work! If I could buy you for what you worth and sell you for what you think you worth -- I’d be big-time rich. I’d be Miss Rockyfella!” She instructed the child on the specificity of her chores and the expectation that they would be completed in a timely, proficient manner. She showed her how she wanted the girls’ uniforms -- white blouses and blue/grey skirts -- to be pressed so that they would appear the epitome of proper Catholic girldom when they entered the grounds of the nearby Corpus Christi Elementary School, a short distance up St. Bernard Avenue to Galvez Street across from McKenzie’s Bakery. She showed her how the children’s eggs should be prepared and the expected texture of their bacon and toast, as the sisters tumbled down the Italianate-style stairs for their morning fare.  She handed her a box of Quaker Oats for her breakfast and told her, “You know where the water is,” made certain that her snickering children were learning-ready, and drove them the few blocks to the parochial school.  “You best have yo’ skank ass outa here -- on yo’ way to school -- by the time I git back, or I’ma knock you into next week,” she forewarned. “And wash them damn dishes!” she added. A frown almost made its presence across the child’s face, but she thought better and quietly went about her assigned tasks. “--And if you ain’t out here by the time I git back, I’ma slap you into next week! I’ma put so much o’ you on the flo’ -- they gon’ think it’s the blood bank up in here!” she heard as the front door shut and she drove her children to the archdiocesan educational enclave for a stimulating day of learning and social interaction at the historic Catholic institution for colored children.

Later, Wanda began the long trek through the Seventh Ward to the Sixth Ward for her day of instruction at the school in the same historic area around the projects as Dooky Chase Restaurant and Willie Mae’s Scotch House. She went to St. Bernard Avenue then out Johnson Street and saw the uniformed Corpus Christi children going about pre-class play within the school’s freshly-installed picket fence. After walking for what seemed like an eternity, she felt at ease when she finally, breathlessly arrived at Phyllis Wheatley Elementary School, the1954-designed, two-story, “public institution for colored children” that was touted by smooth-tongued segregationists as one of New Orleans’ “pioneering testaments to contemporary structural enterprise” and “a priceless design of provincial modernity”.  Its location was in the 2300 block of Dumaine up the street from Marionneaux Maison de Maitre, a portion of the old Leper Colony. The school was named after the African poet who was then widely acknowledged as the first, black, captive female bard in the United States. The architect originally had the intimidating mission of designing a building that could house some 800 students on two acres – an area one-sixth the recommendation for that amount of students. When it was finished area residents thought it was something out of a sci-fi movie due to its multi-colored outer and huge windows. Teachers were less enthused about the structure when they discovered the blackboard glare and empty stares of young scholars who would pay more attention to goings-on outside those outsized glass outlets -- focusing on realworld perils and menace from which the school was an island of impermanent refuge. At each opportunity she had throughout the day she crept into a corner of the girls bathroom and wept.

*                         *                         *

On her walk back through the Seventh Ward that afternoon she stopped at Nora Navra Library, the branch of the New Orleans Public Library system that was a few blocks from her present residence. Nora Navra opened on a temporary basis in 1946 across from London Avenue at the intersection of St. Bernard and Prieur and was one of the first library branches to admit people of color. It became a permanent branch in 1956 when the city’s iconic civil rights attorney, A.P. Tureaud, gave a rousing speech in which he said:

“…Public facilities, which are provided on a racially segregated basis, are not only a drain on our economic resources, but are an outmoded relic of a slave psychology. Libraries tend to free the mind of bigotry and prejudice; they are supposed to be a civilizing influence on the community. We need more of them….”

The tasteful, bricked site was eventually converted to a children’s library serving the youth of the city’s colored community.  She delved into the stacks of children’s books maintained by the repository’s librarians who once were little girls in pigtails, uniforms and two-tone saddle oxfords. She felt at ease with their calming, helpful manner, spic-and-span appearance and welcoming encouragement as they referred her to books about mothers and daughters and flowers and the happinesses of heaven. She gathered their suggested tomes and read voraciously at one of the expansive wooden tables near the window overlooking an isolated green space outside the one-story, glassy brick structure’s front-facing windows.  She fancied herself in another time and place as she read of ladies and their knights and the people who were black before they were colored and her school’s namesake and where babies came from and the stars and the sun and – “Oh, Lawd!” she mouthed, sucking in air -- “I gotta git home!” She shut her worlds closed, returned the books to the lady at the front desk for reshelving, and scurried back to the torment that she knew lie ahead.

  *                         *                         *

Waiting for her (after a day of soap operas, smoking in bed and slumber), at the top of the front steps in a muted moo-moo (belt in hand) was her aunt-by-matrimony. “Bring yo’ disgustin’ rear end here! I’ma beat you like you stole sumthin’! Lazy cow!”

“I just stopped at the library -- ”she began to explain.

“Shut Up! I’ma knock fire from yo’ ass!” she threatened as she menacingly raised THE BELT skyward. 

“But I-- ” she protested.

“ -- I said shut up! Don’t let yo’ mouth overload yo’ ass!” she yelped as THE BELT found its mark across the child’s neck, then her legs, then her arms, then her back, then everywhere one could imagine as she ducked and covered while her aunt-by-nuptials went nuclear. She could hear the two sisters giggling in the background as she endured the stinging licks and bruising blows. Her aunt-by-legal-proclamation then dragged her by her bristly hair to the kitchen where she tore open a one-pound bag of rice and poured its contents on the floor. “Kneel, you lil’ witch!” she ordered as she indicated that Wanda should position herself bare-kneed on the grains, hands behind her back with her nose touching the wall. “--And you bet’-not move!” warned the torturer’s rabid voice. “If you move one inch I’ma slap the taste out yo’ mouth!” she added, then left her to her misery.

She knelt silently, almost whimpering, but afraid to allow the slightest sound spring from her voicebox, for the wrath of the evil one would surely rear its ugly head and obliterate whatever part of her flesh and spirit that hadn’t already been razed.  As she knelt, pouting and sniveling hour upon hour, she thought about her mother and the last warm and tender grasp they shared before she passed across that mystical divide between the living and the dead. She thought about her former life in the project, dangling her ashy legs in the wading pool behind the brick-encased housing units at Lemann Park, playing on the monkey bars and stepping in the red ant piles by the fence, making necklaces from used spools of thread with her friends, running home just before the street lights came on, building cigar box altars with her mother, playing “sting butt” and making bra-zeers with her friends’ daddies’ hainkachiffs, going to her neighbors’ waistline parties, giving mosquito hogs tobacco to make them drunk, smacking flies with rolled-up newspaper for her pet turtle (the secret was to stun and not smash them), skating ‘round and ‘round -- “poppin’ the whip” on the second floor of Phyllis Wheatley in her new bluejeans and Union skates her mother somehow managed to get her every Christmas, scurrying under a slowly moving train on the tracks in back of the project as a rite of passage, leaning over the bannister and naming the cars as they went by, buying penny candy from the sweet shop down the street from the Carver Theater, playing the medley of sidewalk games her mother and her mother and her mother before her took pleasure in, and -- …  “You best git yo’ tail up and git you sumthin to eat --” stung Miss Isabelle’s voice, interrupting her dreamlike trance. “I don’t want you starvin’ to death! Sweep up that rice and throw it in a pot with some water! That’s gon’ be yo’ dinner for the next coupla days! -- And I don’t mean all of it -- You know yo’ eyes bigger than yo’ stummick -- and wash yo’ stinky ass! You smell like a pot o’ chitlins! Then go by the door to my room and git that slopjar and empty it! Lawd, if you was a boy I’d put yo’ simple-minded ass in a dress and make you sit outside on the front steps -- all day! I know what to do for yo’ ass!”

Over the next stretch of weeks she went about her chores diligently, her knees aching and her shoulders drooping. She washed and dried the dishes, emptied the garbage, washed and hung the clothes on the line, ironed everything, staggered to the Circle Food Store on St. Bernard and Claiborne and made groceries, cleaned everyone’s bathtub rings, and swept the front steps. “Didn’t I tell you it’s bad luck to sweep the front steps after dark!?!?!?”  Miss Isabelle reminded her one evening, smacking a piece of hosepipe against her skull.  “I don’t need no bad luck. I’m ‘bout to go over to church to the BINGO then I’m goin’ over on Er-leens Street to the gamblin’ house -- and I need all the luck I can git -- so git yo’ black ass away from me! Don’t touch me!” she said to the forced laborer. “-- And stay yo’ greasy ass in the back --‘cause I might bring some company home with me.”

She found that the only solace and comfort she had was her frequent-as-possible visits across town to her mother’s grave under the solitary chineyball tree where she would entreat her departed soul for its intercession in the unpleasant present that plagued and persecuted her. She told her mother (when she was finally allowed to play with Florabelle and Corabelle) how she was the one who had to chalk the hopscotch outline on the banket, how she was hit the hardest when playing dodge-the-ball, how she had to plait their fine strands of hair before attending to her own, how she had to wash the walls when they marked them up, how she was accused of being the one who instigated the use of the brand new clothesline for a jump rope, how she was blamed when someone used the last Dixie cup from the dispenser, how the other children went to visit relatives in California and went to Disneyland and saw Nat King Cole’s house and she stayed home and painted their rooms, how the other children were decked out in little-girl bows and tutus and she sported their worn and weary hand-me-downs, how she was faulted for leaving discarded penny candy wrappers on the floor, how she couldn’t go to the other girls’ birthday parties (but had to clean up after), how she was taken to Sunday mass at Corpus Christi Church and made to sit in the last pew, how the daughters gave their mother manicures -- but she was assigned the pedicures, how she would be given the most embarrassing, awkward directives when playing “Simon Says”, how the children would chuckle, cackling through earsplitting readings of The Story of Little Black Sambo so she could hear them; how she was always the one who was sent to the corner store to get a pound of sugar or rice in brown paper bags, and how she wore yellow rain slicks in the winter while the other girls wore new P-coats. 

The children were just as brutal and pitiless as their mother. They would taunt and tease Wanda to tears at playtime (if her chores were completed in a timely manner) with the malice of a primal potentate. At times they would engage in a call and response song that cruelly commented on her late mother, chanting rhythmically as they clapped hands:

“I’m so glad her maw is daid
​Handa Wanda, yo mom-ma
Layin’ in the ground with her legs all spread
​Handa Wanda, yo mom-ma

Her big, black ass done gone to hell
Handa Wanda, yo mom-ma
She makin’ the devil’ weenie swell
​Handa Wanda, yo mom-ma

Christmas she changed her dirty draws
Handa Wanda, yo mom-ma
-gave that ass to Santy Clause
​Handa Wanda, yo mom-ma…

She went on down to Claiborne Street
Handa Wanda, yo mom-ma
-knelt right down and beat her meat
​Handa Wanda, yo mom-ma…”

One day Florabelle demanded, “Lemme see yo’ hand.”

“Why?” Wanda asked.

“That’s for me to know and you to find out,” came Florabelle’s caustic reply.

Wanda extended a hand, palms down, then Florabelle remarked, “See, Cora -- momma said to watch her -- ‘cause she might have light hands, but they black as her big nose. Looka them lips. They so big they look like a suitcase. Look like she goin’ on a trip.”  

On another day they were skipping rope to a newly-discovered rhyme:

“Two-four-six-eight, we don’t wanta in-te-grate
Eight-six-four-two, we don’t want no jig-a-boo…”

“I’m Florabelle, my sister’ name’ Corabelle, and she ‘Dumbelle’,” they would alternately say when introducing her to other children, remaining ever faithful to the canon of New Orleans blackfolks’ rigid color-caste system.  “We ain’t like her,” they’d tell their playmates. “We go to Corpus Christi. She go to Phyllis Weekly. We got good hair. We don’t need no hot comb like her,” they’d say, stroking the colorful barrettes her dexterous, dark hands had fastened to their ponytailed tresses.  Sometime they would just mess with her just to be messy. “Wanda -- look! ” they’d say.

“Huh?”

“I made you look, you dirty crook. You stole yo’ momma pocketbook.”

One day there was some change missing from the chiffarobe in Miss Isabelle’s room. “I know you did it -- where is it? You went and spent it over at the sweet shop on Lapeyrouse? You done gave it to some nappy-haid boy?” Miss Isabelle interrogated.

“I promise to Gawd I didn’t do it,” the child said, bracing herself for what was to come. That evening she got a beating so ruthless and relentless that its severity would not be repeated until decades later in the Rodney King incident.

The cruelty in the Gulag continued throughout her grade school years.

*                         *                         *

She attended Andrew J. Bell Jr. High down the street towards the river from her grade school, then went to high school at the home of the mighty, mighty red and grey Joseph S. Clark Bulldogs over on Derbigny and Bayou Road, another colored institution from whence a wide ranging array of black professionals had graduated and gone on to the glory of distinguished careers in politics, the arts, the military, medicine, education and athletics.  The other girls went to St. Mary’s Academy, a private, Catholic school (with a focus on training for entry into higher education) that was located in East New Orleans, a seeming infinity away from the Sixth Ward.  Bell and Clark both proved to be welcome respites from her pained subsistence in the Seventh Ward where she pursued her studies in the dim light of the washroom after her chores were completed.  At Clark she discovered a sensitive staff of caring instructors and mentors, many of whom came from similar circumstances as her own.  She was growing into the ripeness of young womanhood and bore her pained existence with increasing facility.  But one day the sustained agony became a bit too much and she bent her head over her desk at the end of her afternoon homeroom session class and sobbed into her folded hands. Her teacher saw her still sitting there after the last bell had rung and approached her asking what was wrong. Was there something at school? At home? What would make her break down in such a manner? They sat that afternoon and discussed the predicament she had found herself in after her mother’s death. It was in times when parents and guardians had full rein on such matters and teachers seldom committed the faux pas of the then social taboo of involving oneself in someone’s child-rearing practices and procedures no matter how dreadful their implementation. The age of litigation and in loco parentis had not yet come to full fruition. But her homeroom teacher reassured her, telling her of her own unprivileged roots and how she sought her liberation through education.  She told her of the legions of the poor throughout history who had made their own bootstraps and achieved lives of fulfillment and great magnitude despite being born with wooden spoons in their mouths. They talked of such things until the hour came for her to leave in order to be on time to go about her evening duties.   “You make me so full,” she told her homeroom teacher. “It hurt me to my heart to hafta leave you this evenin’. You make me happy to be nappy,” she laughed.  “Nappiness is happiness,” her homeroom teacher smiled.  It was the first time that someone had showed her affection and understanding since her mother grasped her closely on her deathbed.  Then it was Carnival time.

  *                         *                         *

Carnival season was in full swing and the city was abuzz with anticipation of the gay parades and colorful, costumed balls at which the crème de la crème cotillion balls where the daughters of New Orleans upper middle class society would be introduced to the public in a series of formal black tie, ankle-length gown events. This year would be extra-special because Florabelle and Corabelle were graduating and this would be their last opportunity to connect with promising, properly-blooded young men in a forum that was undisconcerting to their families’ pedigree. The mayor’s son, an Army Captain, was back from Vietnam and would be the guest of honor at the festivity, an opportunity which afforded some lucky lady to meet one of the city’s most eligible bachelors -- even if she were merely on the cusp of marryin’ age. Miss Isabelle spared no expense on preparing her daughters for the Dynamic Gentleman’s Annual Cotillion Ball at the I.L.A. Hall uptown for which she had invitations for herself and her two daughters.   She had her girls sized and fitted by the most expert modistes she could afford. She purchased their shoes at the most upscale Canal Street stores she could meet the expense of and invested in the most aromatic, man-catching perfumes imaginable. She nervously fretted about, training her girls in the same arts of sitting, standing, walking, and being lovingly ladylike that her mother had instructed her in and her mother had done before her. It was to be a faultless evening of precision and perfection. “You kinky-haid devil! Don’t let yo’ black ass rub off on that dress!” she shouted to Wanda on the appointed night as her daughters primped and primed themselves for their introduction to polite society while Wanda stroked the smooth mane of their hair with a footlong, silverplated comb.  “In fact -- git yo’ black ass from out here,” she ordered as the girls prepared for the outing. “Move -- or I’ma give you one second to draw a crowd at Canal and Rampart -- then I’ma beat the black off yo’ ass!…Go!”

They left for the ball leaving Wanda behind, sorrowful and saddened that she wasn’t involved in any aspects of such a momentous occasion. She watched a little TV, read for a time and decided to set out for the seclusion and solitude of the grave underneath the chineyball tree.  She took the St. Bernard bus to the Broad then walked up Orleans to Delgado Community College, hit a left and came to the rickety, rusty iron gates of the graveyard under a full, yellow moon that lit her way through the hodge-podge of graves and homemade markers to the solemnity of her mother’s burial place. She knelt under the shifting shadow of the chineyball tree, her hands clasped in homage to her mother’s memory, pleading for relief from the fiendish deeds that caused her so much despondency and discontent. She heard a sound that gave the impression of someone sharply snapping their fingers, turned towards the direction of the sound and saw a tall figure in a purple velvet tuxedo (with red accents) and the largest pair of pink high heels she had ever seen. She stood back a bit, startled at the sudden spectacle her eyes perceived just a few feet away, astonished that anyone else would be out and about on such a night that loomed with preternatural mystery and the dark magic of adoration’s embrace.

“Who…what…who are you?’ she asked the lofty figure leaning cooly on a red, brass-handled, beaded walking cane.

“Me?” asked the figure in an affected baritone.

“Yes…you.  Who…Wh…Wh…what are you?’

“Who? Who? Well, I’m certainly not an owl,” the figure said flippantly.

“But where did you…how did…?!?!?!!!”

“I’m the Fairy Godbrother, honey.”

“Fairy Godbrother?”

 “Didn’t you read the book?” (he?) asked. “Oh, I get it…you must’ve gone to one of those schools,” he said arrogantly.

 “I know about fairy tales -- and mo’. My life ain’t been no crystal stair.”

 “I know. That’s why I’ve been summoned.”

“Summoned? From where? By who?”

“That’s for me to know…and you to find out,” he said with a flourishing fingersnap.     

“But in the book it was a lady who -- “ she started.

“ -- Gender equity, honey…”

“Don’t be gittin’ salty with me,” the former project-dwellin’ girl warned.

“‘Salty’ isn’t the word for it,” he said licking his forefinger playfully.

“Then what are you here for?

“Well, baby…in my world the bottom rail always comes to the top.”

“What does that mean?” she asked, shifting her head back and forth, surprised that she was even entertaining a conversation with whatever this was standing before her.

“I have no idea, honey. It’s just something I picked up on my last expedition.”

“But why are you here? In the middle of the graveyard? What are you doing here?”

“Well,” he said, leaning slickly against the chineyball tree, “I’m here to grant you…I’m hear to…give you…I’m here to get you up off your little tushy and hook you up to go to the ball.”

“The ball? I can’t go there. I wasn’t invited. I don’t have an invitation.”

“Honey, the way I’m about to lay you out, you’ll be the only invitation you’ll need. Watch this!” he said fingersnapping once in the air. Immediately a nearby milk crate transformed into the latest model convertible pink Excalibur with every bell, button and whistle imaginable.   Another fingersnap produced a splendidly-tailored red evening gown, tiara, highly wrought hairdo, and properly-prescribed, formal shoes where her thong sandals, hand-me-downs and nappy, barrette-clasped links once were. Two fingersnaps and a twist literally lifted her off her feet and gently sat her in the Excalibur’s passenger seat. Then they were off to the big, bad bash with a double fingersnap and wrist twist.

They arrived at the hall, pulling up to the entrance where he got out, opened her door, and gallantly assisted her in ascending from the convertible’s fine leather interior. “Just one thing, honey -- ” he told her as he drove off. “I’ll be here to get you at 3AM sharp. If you stay out any longer than that then the magic will fade off into the sunset…like me…” said the Great Pretender as he disappeared into and around the nearest dark street corner’s moonlit merriment.

Just outside the hall’s entry two uniformed NOPD officers (on paid detail) were checking invitations and IDs, for there were a number of civic officials and persons of means inside including the mayor and his war hero son who had single-handedly been responsible for saving the lives of several of his comrades by holding off dozens of Viet Cong and NVA regulars while his men made a successful retreat.  She showed them her invite, stepped through a chorus of oohs and ahs towards the ballroom floor that was flanked on either side by ranks of gown-wearing ladies and tuxedo-clad gents.  She blended into the grand elegance of the dance, intermingling with those entranced by the entertainment hall’s trappings of splendor. The sisters and their mother saw her, but didn’t recognize the refined, chic lady in red as the target of their malevolence. She entered a receiving line that wound its way to the young, uniformed war hero Captain, curtsying and smiling broadly when he slyly asked her for a dance.  They waltzed and boogied to the beat as the time rolled on towards the wee-est of hours, their eyes drawn to each other like liquefied magnets, oblivious to the delightful peasantry and seasonal royalty encircling and surrounding. As they swayed and swung and laughed, hitting it off big time, she noticed that the hour was approaching about which she was forewarned. She blah-zayed a bit more with the handsome warrior, informed him that she had to fix her face and powder her nose, but left the animated gathering through a side door leading to a noiseless side street where the Fairy Godbrother was laid back in the ‘calibur’s driver’s seat awaiting her. Just as the car’s clock showed it was quarter-to-three she gave him directions for the Seventh Ward address and they raced off in the moonlight away from the night’s fun and frolic. They screeched to a halt in front of the house as she peeked around to see if her aunt-by-nuptials’ car was there. He let her off with a wave of his hand as the clock struck three and her tiara turned back into the cheap, plastic barrettes, her shoes became well-worn rubber flip-flops, and her dress shifted back into the drab, colorless hand-me-downs as she saw the Fairy Godbrother clinging to a flying milk crate while flying out of sight into the cloudless, starry night sky.

At the dance, the young, former combatant was disheartened by her not returning from her alleged nose-powdering and only found a tuft of brown, kinky hair clinging to his uniform. He inquired to the policemen on the door as to whom she might be then asked some of the after-partiers if they knew who she was. The next day Miss Isabelle, ever the opportunist, got wind of his inquiries and suggested to a friend that she contact him and have him meet her daughters who might know who the lady in red was.  In reality she saw such a proposed meeting as an opening to have her offspring meet him on a more controlled basis. The following weekend he arrived at their home and was greeted by Miss Isabelle and her daughters as Wanda prepared the front dining room table for brunch. After a brief introduction and elucidation for the basis of his visit he removed the ball of hair from a small white envelope and approached Florabelle, but even Ray Charles could see that it was no match for her wavy, cream-colored mane. He then compared the ball of fuzz to Corabelle’s silky tresses, but could plainly see that her auburn skin was not the same as the midnight-black, velvety outer of the fancy dancer in the crimson garb.   Then he noticed Wanda as she bent over place settings and finger food she had prepared on the table’s white, lacy cloth. Something about her seemed familiar despite the black and white, aproned, servant’s attire her aunt had her wear for the gentleman’s visit. “Let’s try to see if the hair matches her,” he recommended as he stepped nearer.

“Her?!??” her aunt-by-wedding-ceremony exclaimed at the suggestion.

“Of course. We might as well…since we’re all in this together,” he proposed as he held the tiny chunk of hair to her head and VOILA!!! It was a perfect match.   The three Seventh Ward witches were shocked that this object of their disaffection could possibly be the damsel desired by the strikingly handsome gentleman and expressed their displeasure at being so insulted by his obviously repugnant choice.  He, however, insisted that he and Wanda be allowed to speak unchaperoned, and they were led to a side gallerie overlooking an ivy-covered garden. He told her of his intentions towards her, but she informed him that she should speak on the subject in everyone’s presence, so they went back into the house, almost catching the sisters as they hopped from a window where they had been eavesdropping. Then she said some things that had been on her mind for a quite protracted length of time.

“I’m really, truly feelin’ good ‘bout myself that a man so handsome -- and rich -- and from all them connected people in his family is all after me and everything -- pursuin’ my affections and all,” she said, using some of the vocabulary words that she got from a book given her by her homeroom teacher. “But even though a man’ smooth talkin’ mean a lot, they’s sumthin’ in my life that’s mo’ important to me right now. I got what they call a ‘mentor’ at school who I been talkin’ to…about the way I been treated over the years since I been here…how y’all all made what shoulda been the most bestest years o’ my childhood a livin’ hell…. The point is-- I don’t need you, Miss Isabelle, or you, or you,” she said, indicating her daughters.  “And I definitely don’t need no man comin’ in my life right now and makin’ it worse than what it is….What I need is my education. And what y’all don’t even know is I been accepted into the Upward Bound summer program at Loyola -- the program I’m gon’ finish and git a full scholarship to college….I done found over the years that I don’t need nobody but me.I’m the only one done took the whippins. I’m the only one done did the cleanin’ and cookin’. I’m the only one was ever cussed at and I’m the only one who know I don’t need nuthin’ but that piece o’ paper that’s gon’ help me help girls like me who ain’t never had no help. That said, I ain’t gon’ allow nobody to beat me or tease me or starve me into a skeleton…not no mo’…. Things gon’ change ‘round here… over the next couple of months… ‘til I graduate…’fore I move into the dorms. If anybody put a hand on me again --I’m gon’ go by my legal rights and have ‘em dealt with. I been readin’ up on that…. If anybody use they mouth to beat me down…they just might end up bein’ beat down. As a young girl…as a woman…as somebody who’s gon’ be somebody…That’s all I have to say,” she affirmed, casting off the apron as they stood in awe of her words and demeanor.

She successfully completed the six-week Upward Bound summer experience, attended undergraduate school, got accepted to Southern University’s School of Social Work where she earned an MSW, received a doctoral degree from Columbia University, lectured widely on child abuse and bullying, founded a nationwide mentoring program for “at-risk” female juveniles, never wedded,

and lived hiply ever after.              

Professor Arturo, a poet and fiction writer from New Orleans, is a Spoken Word artist, educator, performer, editor and speechwriter. ARTURO, one of the original Broadside poets of the 1960s, has collaborated on a medley of projects with a mélange of artists including painters, musicians, photographers, dancers, singers, fire eaters, waiters, cab drivers, and other members of the Great Miscellaneous. He is presently teaching at Norwalk Community College in Conneticut. His work has appeared in a diverse range of publications, and is the author of My Name Is New Orleans: 40 Years of Poetry & Other Jazz (w/ jazzoetry CD), Jazz Stories (Margaretmedia, 2015), and A Love Supreme (New York Quarterly Foundation, 2016).

 

 

Edited for Unlikely by Rosalyn Spencer, #BlackArtMatters Guest Editor