|listen to a Penguin Audio excerpt|
Unabridged, 12 CDs, 13 1/2 hours
Read by the author
Fifteen years after the publication of Push, one year after the Academy Award-winning film adaptation, Sapphire gives voice to Precious's son, Abdul.
Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.
“Wake up, little man.” Rita’s voice is coming under the covers at me. It’s warm under the covers, smell good like Rita and clean like sheets. I curl up tighter, squeeze my eyes shut, and go back to sleep. In the dream it’s Mommy’s birthday party and she’s holding me in her arms kissing me and dancing with me. Our house is smelling like lasagna, wine, and people, mostly girls sweating and perfume. One girl is smoking weed. Everyone is laughing. Mommy puts me down and goes to open her presents. She’s sitting in the blue armchair under the light. All the people have presents in their hands and are holding them out to her. A lady, who looks nice but when she smiles all her teeth is black, is holding out a pretty present tied with a gold ribbon. No! No! NOOOO! I want to say, but no words come out my mouth, and Mommy takes the box. And I want to stay asleep, even though I know it’s a bomb and I’m not dreaming anymore, and if I was dreaming, the bomb would be exploding now. And now that it’s too late, my voice would be loud. “Abdul.” Someone is shaking my shoulder. Rita. I squeeze my eyes shut, ’cause when I open them, when I stick my head out from under the covers, my mother will be dead and today will be her funeral. “Abdul.” Rita shake my shoulder again. I try to go back to the music, people dancing, and our house smelling like lasagna again, but I can’t. “Nuh uh,” I tell Rita. “Five more minutes,” she say. The music is all gone now. There’s clear plastic tubes stuck in my mommy’s nose, they come out her nose and is taped to the side of her face, go up to a clear plastic bag hanging up above her head. Another tube is stuck in her throat, it has tape around it. Her hands got tubes stuck in ’em too and is all swole up. A machine is going whoosh-rump whoosh-rump whoosh-rump. The doctor is from Africa. He talks to me in French sometimes and looks at my homework. He tells jokes. But today he is not joking. “She’s doing her very best to stay here, little man.” He grabs me up in his arms. “But God may have other plans.” He hand me to Rita, but Rita’s skinny, can’t hold me, puts me down. He leaves, comes back with a stool. “Here, stand on this. Come on, little man, your mommy’s traveling. I want you to hold her hand.” In the hall the nurse say, “I’m very sorry her condition is critical, absolutely no visitors except—” “Let them in!” Doctor say. White lady and lady with long dreadlocks come in and stand behind Rita at the foot of the bed. I’m scared to touch Mommy’s hands with the tubes sticking in ’em. I look up at the doctor, frog eyes of his red, but he ain’t cry. I ain’t crying either. He walk over put my hand on Mommy’s shoulder. “Wake up, Mommy.” But her eyes don’t open, she don’t move. Then it’s like when you turn down the TV set and can see the pictures moving around but ain’t no sound. It’s quiet. Mommy cough then go like ahh-ahh. Her head raises up a little but her eyes don’t open then her head falls down. “Oh my god!” Rita say. Then the room is all noisy again, nurse in the hall talking, machine going whoosh-rump whoosh-rump, somebody drop something. The doctor pick me up like I’m a baby and carry me out the room. I look back as the door swing shut, the nurse is pulling the tubes out Mommy’s hand.
I feel Rita sit down on the side of the bed. She trying to pull the covers down. I got ’em pulled over my head. “Come on, little man, it’s time to get up! We gonna have eggs and bacon, and I let you have some coffee.” I don’t want to get up. “Come on, I got the space heater on for you and everything. Come on, git up, go pee, and then come back and wash your face and brush your teeth. Come on, Abdul!” I let her pull the covers off me, she’s lucky I do ’cause I’m very strong. I hop out the bed, run to the door, Rita swing it open. “Hurry ’fore someone else gets in there. Put on your slippers! The floor might be nasty.” I put on my slippers and run down the hall to the toilet. Psssss, feels good to pee. “Close the door if you gotta number two.” “I ain’ gotta.” “You sure?” “No,” I say, and close the door, pushing the little bolt through the loops to lock the door. I doo-doo, flush it down, open the door, and run back up the hallway. Rita hand me a washcloth and point to the sink.
That’s all that’s in the room, really, a bed and a sink in the corner. Rita ain’t got no refrigerator, TV, or nothing, but I rather stay with her than Rhonda or any of my mother’s other friends. I like Rita, she’s nice to little kids. I’m not really a little kid anymore, though. I’m nine. I run the washcloth over my face. Rita come in, wet it, squeeze it out, hand it back to me. “Get your eyes, all that sleepy stuff, then behind your ears! Take off your pajamas and wash your booty and under your arms. Hear!” I nod, she heads down the hall to the toilet. The man in the room next door turn his music on. Tupac. The woman across from us is cussing in Spanish. She ain’t got no kids. The lady next door got three. I only been here for a week. Since my mother died.
Behind me on the bed, Rita gots my underwear and socks laid out. I like Tupac, but not that much. Man next door play him every morning. Rita say maybe that’s all he got, but I looked inside his door once, he got CDs lined up along the walls up to the ceiling almost. My white shirt and black suit my mother bought me is hanging on the nail on the door. I know everybody on my block miss me, my friends probably wondering where I am. I wonder where I am. I know my mother ain’t dead like they be saying ’cause I be talking to her all the time just like I always did. But I know we probably ain’t going to Callie, to Disneyland, like she said we was. Two more years—When I get outta school, we’re goin’ to California, to Disneyland! Where’s California? Don’t be silly, look at the map! But I mean where is it really? Whatchu mean, honey? On the map it’s long and orange, near water. Right, it’s on the coast, like New York, but the West Coast. We gotta get on an airplane to fly across all this land, she wave her hand, and then wham, Callie! Look just enter: www.google.com, then Disneyland, California. I do, it’s 1,560,000 listings.
“What? Who you talking to? Don’t ‘what’ me! Put those clothes on.”
“Yes, Aunt Rita.”
Outside the window a train is passing by.
“What train is that?”
“Boy, you be asking some questions 24/7, don’tchu!”
“I only want to know, my mother say if you want to know something, ask.”
“Of course, Aunt Rita’s sorry.” All I gotta do is mention my mother and I can get anything I want. “That’s Metro-North going upstate to Scarsdale, White Plains, and Bedford Hills. We’ll get a schedule and see all the places it goes and go on a trip one day if you want. OK?”
“OK,” I say.
“Now, get your suit on and put some lotion on your face and hands. We wanna look nice.” Rita is getting out her perfume and stuff, putting it on her head, under her arms, then out the bottle behind her knees and neck. “C’mere, we wanna smell nice.” I walk over to the side of the bed where she’s sitting down. She got all her stuff on the windowsill and chair near the window. “Raise up your arms.” She laugh and spray under my arms. “Your mom do that?” I shake my head no. “Well, just for today,” she say, then she puts stuff from one of the bottles behind my ears. I don’t mind, it smell nice. I go put my clothes on while Rita is making her eyes black. I look over my shoulder at her when she get up from the bed and take off her robe. It’s not like girls in the magazines. Rita just look like a lady in her underwears, lumpy like. But when she puts on her black dress, what’s all shiny and got a ruffle around the bottom, she look beautiful. Now she making her lips red. I like that, my mother do that too sometime.
“Ready?” She finish zipping up her dress.
I get my leather jacket.
“That’s nice, your mommy got that for you?” Rita ask about my jacket.
“So let’s go get some breakfast and say good-bye.”
Rita put her Bible in her purse, she holding some pretty black beads. She look at me, nod at the beads. “It’s all good—rosary, Bible. Precious ever take you to church?”
You ever gonna leave me, Mommy? Well, I can’t really say, baby. What I can say is, I never wanna leave you.
Rita close the door, lock it. Guy next door peep his head out. “Y’all outta here?”
“Yeah, we gonna get some breakfast then hit it.”
“Try Bennie’s. You know my brother-in-law into delivery.”
“Uh, no I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah, all up and down here; say he deliver more often to Bennie’s than any other place, so that mean his shit is the freshest, right?”
“Hey, sound right to me.”
“And you, little man, be strong!” He give me handshake on the black side.
Lady across the hall open her door. “Ay, Dios! Poor baby!”
“They going to breakfast, then to el funeral.”
“You shoulda tell me, I gots coffee here,” she say.
“That’s OK,” Rita say, and we tell ’em bye and walk down the stairs.
It’s warm outside even though it’s November. I look up at the sign over the hotel, park avenue hotel. We walks down 125th Street past Bennie’s to Mofongo’s. I order bacon for breakfast, my mother usually don’t let me eat bacon. But the waitress ask me what do I want. Rita done already ordered sausage and scrambled eggs please. I say bacon and eggs over easy please, then say no, scrambled. Restaurants ain’t like my mother, I don’t want no runny eggs. Waitress ask, You said bacon, right? Right, I say, and nothing happens like my mother saying, Bacon ain’t good for you. I put strawberry jam on my toast. Taste good. My mother is dead. Rita say one espresso and one café con leche. Here put some sugar in it. Why milk? ’Cause kids need milk, makes bones grow. Why? Why what, Abdul? I don’t know why milk makes your bones grow. I just know it does! So would you please shut up and drink the damn milk. You gonna be the death of me yet! The coffee taste good, sweet, like a kinda chocolate or something.
“Finished, little man?”
“What ‘unh huh’ means?”
“Means yeah, what you think it means?”
She laughs, I smile. “Oh, we gots a smart one here,” she say, rubbing my head.
“Yeah.” I know I’m smart.
“It’s only a couple of blocks we can walk or take the bus then walk up Lenox, OK?”
Mommy, who’s that man? A friend of Mommy’s. Why, don’t you like him? No. Why not, he’s a nice guy. Mommy likes your friends unless they get you in trouble like you know who! Don’t you want Mommy to be happy? Yeah, with me!
“You thinking about your mami?”
Where was that train going? Beyond the subway, I been on all the subways almost. Metro-North, what’s upstate? I look down Park Avenue, tracks overhead as far as you can see. It’s busy underneath the tracks, people is getting they dope, ladies is standing around doing the wrong thing, and it ain’t even night yet. Across the street from the bus stop is a vacant lot surrounded by a high chain fence with dogs running around in it. The people at the bus stop with us is probably TGIF’ing, as Rhonda would say.
Monday my favorite day, Abdul. I think I’m the only sistuh I know like Monday. Why, Mom? Jus’ do, maybe ’cause the weekends is so lonely. I’m not lonely, Mommy. Well, that’s good, honey.
“You thinking about your mami?” Rita ask.
I don’t say nothing. The crosstown bus is coming, so we get on instead of walk and then get off at Lenox Avenue. The Black Israelite brothers is standing on the corner, one of ’em is screaming in a microphone. All of ’em got on headbands. They got big Bible pictures set up on the sidewalk. They can stand up there and holler all day long, but the African merchants had to go. Go where, Mom? I don’t know where they went. I just know they went. Why? Cutting into the white and Korean merchants’ profits I guess. They complained to Giuliani, so he iced the Africans, Abdul. He can do that? He can put the Africans out of Harlem and let them stay? They vote, sweetie. We live here, but they own the property. Ever gonna change? Yeah, baby, that’s you and your little friends’ jobs. Do something beside throw water balloons and— I did not! I know, Ms Jackson just lyin’ on you. Rita squeeze my hand. “I loved your mami, Abdul! She was a good woman. Come on now, it’s almost ten o’clock. Oops! Here, let’s get this uptown 102. We can walk home later if you want to walk.”
We get off the bus in front of Lenox Terrace. I was raised up on this block. Right there, see that building, I used to live there. She’s pointing across the street from Lenox Terrace at a raggedy brick building with a black door. I ever been there when I was a little boy? No, thank God. Leaves falling from the trees in front of Lenox Terrace, ain’t no trees on the side of the street my mother say she was raised up on.
Where is she? Rhonda say gone to glory, heaven, sitting at the feet of a king. Her crown is bought and paid for! All she gotta do is put it on! Mommy, a crown? I ask her one time why we ain’t had a princess like Diana? We spozed to be a democracy, Abdul! What’s that? What’s that! You ain’t studied democracy and why we vote and all in school? Nuh uh, I shake my head.
“‘Nuh uh’ what?” Rita ask.
“Nuh uh nothin,’” I say.
We cross Lenox Avenue at 134th Street. There’s a tall guy standing in front the laundrymat on the corner of 134th.
“That’s Hamid from Somalia, own the laundrymat. He knew your mami.”
“Sorry to hear she pass.” He nod at a bunch of people standing a couple of doors down on Lenox between 133rd and 132nd.
Rita squeeze my hand. “This her little son, Abdul.”
“You don’t say! How old is he?”
“Abdul?” Rita say, squeezing my hand. I don’t say nothing. “He’s nine,” she say. Somali guy reach in his pocket give me five dollars.
“What do you say, Abdul?”
Africans is where we come from, Abdul, remember that. How come they don’t like us? Whatchu mean? The ones in the restaurant and stores and stuff. Well, I didn’t say they liked us. I said it’s where we come from. The funeral home gots a cover over the door out onto the sidewalk, like what McDonald’s got across the street. “Whatchu call that?” “Huh? Oh, the awning. Is that what you’re talking about?” “Yeah, the awning.” My mother’s friend Rhonda is standing by us now. “Honey,” she say, “that’s one thing his mother did teach him, to ask questions!” I don’t like Rhonda all that much even if she is my mother’s friend. God, God, God, that’s all she talk about. Bible this, Bible that! Rhonda go in her handbag and hand me something warm wrapped in foil paper. “Eat this before you go in.” Ummm, beef pattie! “Whatchu say?” “Thank you.” Rhonda not so bad. When I go to put the foil in the trash can, it falls onto the sidewalk ’cause the can is so full. Oh well, I tried. You gotta do more than try! You gotta do it! I pick the foil up and put it on top of the heap of trash in the can.
“I gotta go,” I whisper to Rita.
We walk up to the door of the funeral place. Rita tells the guy at the front door, “He gotta use the bathroom.” The guy opens the front door for me and says, “Go straight down the center aisle, at the pulpit go right until you see the green doors, that’s the bathrooms.” I run down the red carpet, then stop. Mommy! There she is! In that black box. Grown-ups lie and lie. Why? My mother is not in heaven. My mother is right here in a box like dead people on TV. She look different. I never seen that dress before, shiny white, silver. I see the moon and the moon sees me. I gotta pee bad! Well, for heaven’s sake go pee! But that’s me. Say it to me, Mommy, talk inside my head. Talk! I turn down the aisle and run to the bathroom. Pee and pee, feels good, shake. Put my penis back in my pants. Your private parts have names. Well, dick is one of ’em, but penis is another. Balls is testicles. I laugh, that’s the funniest thing I ever heard, except for buttocks. Ha, ha! Don’t worry about rememberin’ all those words, just remember your private parts are yours an’ no one is supposed to touch ’em ’less you say so, hear? Hear? I stare up at the ceiling light, squeeze my eyes shut. The light is red-orange through my closed eyelids. I breathe try to smell something, maybe like the smell after Mommy comes out the bathroom sometimes or how her underwears smell. Also that stuff Aunt Rita gots. What’s that, Ma? Oh, cologne, you like it?
“Abdul! Come out of there! Whatchu doin’?” That’s Rita outside the door. I smile. Ha, ha! Don’t move. “Abdul, are you finished? Don’t make me have to come in there.” I laugh. “Stop playing, silly rabbit!” Together we go, “Trix are for kids!” And I run out laughing. Rita’s standing there smiling, her black dress and red lips is pretty. Marks? Oh, that’s acne, probably from when Rita was a teenager. It’s actually the scars, she don’t have it no more, but she must have had it pretty bad once. But Aunt Rita’s still pretty, ain’t she, ’Dule? Rita hold out her hand. I take it, look up at her. “You’re pretty,” I say. She bend over kiss me. “And you’re just a sweet sweet little boy!” Tears from her eyes splash on my cheek. I smell her cologne, smell different from Mommy’s.
“You said something about your mommy.”
“I can’t smell her no more.”
Rita look over at Mommy in the box. “Did you try?”
“Well, don’t. You’re right, Papi, you can’t smell her ’cause it’s over. And if you touch her, it’s going to be different too. Precious is dead, Abdul, you understand what that means?”
Rita takes my hand and we walk from the bathrooms back to where Mommy is. People coming in the church, down the aisles, sitting down.
“We gonna sit close to the stage?”
“Honey, that’s like a pulpit or altar.”
“And where Mommy’s box—”
“Don’t say ‘box.’ It’s called a casket, or some people say coffin.”
“I don’t understand what a funeral home is. This looks like a church to me.”
“This ain’t no church, it’s the chapel part of the funeral home. And we’re gonna sit right here.” A big old white lady in a green dress moves down so we can sit in the second row. The first row is empty. Who gonna sit there? No one. Rhonda is sitting behind us. I’m glad no one is in front of us, I can see Mommy better. The black box is long and shiny, curlicues on it, inside is a shiny white quilt. A little lamp is over her head. Everybody think she is dead. I mean dead dead. They don’t know she is talking to me all the time even though she is in the casket box not talking, not moving. Behind Mommy is a picture of Jesus. Black with curly hair. What’s lamb’s wool? She go get the comb out the bathroom, try to stick it in my hair. That’s lamb’s wool, silly! she says, pulling the comb through my nappy head. Jesus had hair like us? I don’t know, I’m just showing you what the Bible say. Is the Bible true? I don’t know. It’s kinda cold in the funeral home even if it ain’t cold outside. Flowers is all around Mommy, roses, lilies, flowers I don’t know the name of, maybe a thousand. I wonder what earrings she got on. I always like her earrings. I want earrings. When you’re twelve. I can get earrings? A earring. Huh? One. I want both! Stop screaming like you crazy! I tell you what, you can have one when you twelve, then if you still want two when you sixteen you can have two. How’s that? OK, I guess. Ha! You guess! Listen to you! Mommy, you gonna stay like that? Like what? Like in a box? Abdul, you know what Mommy being here means? No, I don’t know. NO!
“Shhh!” Rita rocks my shoulder.
I look behind Mommy at Jesus hanging on the cross. Thorns is sticking in his head, drops of blood is coming down his face. He was that color? What color? Black like they got him up there? I don’t know, Abdul! Behind Mommy is the stage kinda, podium, like in school, where the preacher gonna stand, I guess, then to one side of the podium is a piano and a bench. I want to hear some music but not church music. My mother don’t like no church music either! A lady in a long black preacher robe get up on the stage.
“That’s Reverend Bellwether who gonna do the service.” A man follows behind Reverend Bellwether and sits down at the piano. Mommy’s casket is in front the stage on wheels like.
“Good morning, friends and family of Precious Jones. We’re gathered here together in sorrow for one who is no longer in sorrow, one whose pain has ended, one who has passed over to the other side.” The guy start playing the piano and singing: The storm is passing ovah, the storm is, the storm is, the storm is passing ovah.
I don’t know that song, I don’t like it. It’s sad and stupid; ain’t no storm.
“Would the family and friends of the family, starting with the last row, one row at a time, please rise and come forward to view the deceased.” Reverend Bellwether wave her hand for people to get up, then she frown. I turn around to see what she’s looking at.
“Sit down!” Rita whisper, but she’s staring too.
“Is that the mother?” Rhonda ask.
“No, you’d know it if it was the mother. I seen her once, she take up the whole aisle.”
A old lady in a dirty orange dress is coming down the aisle moaning, “Oh Lawd, oh Lawd!” She got on a funny hat and her clothes is like from the olden days. She come up to where me and Rita are and reach over Rita and grab me. “Oh Lawdy Lawd, my baby.” Ugh! She smell terrible.
“Please!” Rita say.
“What the do-diddly!” Rhonda say, and take the lady’s arms from around me. A guy come up behind the old lady, take her elbow, tell her, “Let’s have a seat, ma’am.” She starts crying more crazy and tries to walk up to the casket. I look up at the Reverend look like her eyes gonna fall out her head. Rita looks back. “Speak of the devil!”
“Is that her?” Rhonda ask.
“Uh huh.” Rita nod.
A big big lady is coming down the aisle waving her hands screaming, “My BAABEE, My BAAABEEEE!” She so big she can almost touch both sides of the aisle. She got on a big black raincoat. Her hair is sticking straight up like on the cartoons when they put their fingers in the electric socket. Why is she screaming like that? I start crying. Crying and crying. Snot coming out, my teeth is chattering. She remind me of Channel Thirteen, elephants in Africa. A elephant gets killed, all its friends come out and shake the earth with they screaming.
“You know who that lady is?” Rita ask me.
“You should tell him, Rita.”
“Enough already!” Rita tell Rhonda.
The lady stops screaming. She’s wringing her hands like she’s washing ’em. Then she turn around mumbling. Her hair is smashed flat in the back, and there’s a bald spot. From the back you can see a big tear in her raincoat, look like she ain’t got nothing on under it, ugh! Her bedroom slippers going schlup-schlup down the aisle.
I look down at my shoes, my “good” shoes. Special occasions. When I was in the play at school, my mother bought ’em. I wore ’em when she took me to see Aretha Franklin at Lincoln Center. Remember what you seeing, Abdul. She’s the greatest. I wore ’em when we went to see Haitian people’s paintings at the Schomburg. At the Schomburg on the first floor there’s a circle made of gold stand for the world with blue lines through it for rivers. I read the poem written on the floor, “I’ve Known Rivers.” Underneath is Langston Hughes’s ashes. I look at Mommy, my shoes. I got these on today ’cause she’s dead. Not because I’m going anyplace. Who gonna buy me shoes now? I lean against Rita, I’m tired, I want to go to sleep.
“Sit up!” Rhonda hiss.
“He’s tired, he’s just a little boy.”
PING! go Rhonda upside my head with her forefinger and thumb like a slingshot. “Dis your mother’s funeral. Sit yourself up!”
“Would you let him be!” Rita’s mad.
“No, Rita, you wrong. He don’t need to sleep through this.”
“Sit up, baby.”
More people is coming down the aisle now. Ladies is crying. One lady is crying so hard she can hardly walk, two guys is helping her. “No, no,” she sobbing, “I don’t believe it.” I stop crying to watch her. Ha, ha.
“Lots of these people is from your mother’s job and from where she went to school. Some of them didn’t know she was sick.”
I knew she was sick, but not sick enough to die. What you do in college, Mommy? She laugh. Work, work real hard. I’m going there when I grow up? Of course. The old lady in the dirty orange dress who was hugging on me is creeping down the aisle now. Weird. Everybody sits back down.
Reverend Bellwether looks at us. “The family may come forward to view the deceased.”
“Deceased?” I whisper.
“Dead,” Rita say.
Reverend Bellwether is still looking at us. “Come on, baby, that’s what we came here for, to say good-bye to Precious. They gonna close the casket after this.” We walk down the aisle to Mommy. I like her dress, white, shiny. Her face looks funny, the way her lips is pressed together make her look like somebody else. Rhonda lean over and kiss Mommy. Then she come behind me. “You want to kiss your mudder good-bye?” Before I can say anything, she pick me up and lean me over the casket. I feel like my lips done bumped up against the water fountain at school, hard, cold. I start crying. Loud. Rita pull me from Rhonda.
“You shouldn’t have done that!”
Rhonda go sit back down without saying nothing.
Reverend Bellwether says, “Good morning.” I wipe my nose on my sleeve. Rita gives me some tissue. I wipe my sleeve with the tissue. She shake her head. “We’re gathered here this morning to say good-bye to someone who has finished with this world,” Reverend Bellwether say.
“Yes we are!” someone shout.
“Umm hm!” someone say.
“‘For now we see through a glass darkly!’ the Bible says.”
“Umm hm, yes it does! Yes it does!”
“In this life we don’t know God! God is revealed to us but still not known. We think we know God, got him labeled, unh huh! done named that file and saved it under Sunday! Sunday morning ten a.m. to one p.m. to be exact. Or, or”—Reverend Bellwether wheels around and points at Jesus hanging on the cross—“God is a statue dripping with blood. Or a book somebody told us was holy. Same somebody put us in chains and brought us here.”
“Uh oh! Tell the truth!”
“Where she going with dis? We ain’t paying her for dis nonsense,” Rhonda grumble. “Dis spozed to be a funeral.”
“Let me tell you, you don’t know God and you ain’t seen God! The glass is dark on this side. The only time you see God, the only time the light shine bright enough to see is when you doing God’s work! We may not know God, but we know what God wants us to do. He has been clear about that. Don’t kill. Don’t steal. Love thy neighbor as thyself. As thyself. Love thyself? Yeah, how you gonna love anybody as you love yourself if you don’t love yourself? Jesus was a loving child of God. ‘Forgive them, Daddy,’ he said, ‘for they know not what they do.’ That’s what he said, not an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. But love! And she—unh huh, who we’re gathered here together to wish her well on her journey from this life—she tried to do that, didn’t she?”
Journey? Heaven? How is she gonna be in heaven if she’s here? How can she go someplace if she’s dead?
“You know she did! You wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t, wouldn’t be people standing here in the aisle for one little ol’ single mother as they call us nowadays, nothing spectacular about that. No, you wouldn’t be standing in the aisle if she hadn’t been filled with love. I know you loved her and I know she loved you. It’s love, then. Then we see, know, and are known. Death takes everything, and into it you can take nothing but the part of you that is like God—spirit! The part that stands face-to-face with your Creator, who don’t care about Gucci, Halston, or Hilfiger! Hair or degrees, color or pedigree—he knows you by the work—not your work, his work that you have done. He knows you by the love in your heart. So she’s at rest here, now. Finally. And we can rest too, even in our sorrow, knowing God will know Precious Jones and she knew him.”
“Yes he will!”
“We’re saying good-bye to someone who loved and who we loved. Faith! Hope! Charity! Charity meaning love. Jesus said, ‘I give you these three, faith, hope, and love. And of these three love is the greatest’! Without it everything else is as tinkling brass, paper tigers, and three-card monte. Don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got love. Hollow, empty, keep your toys, prizes, hold on to ’em, ’cause without love they all you got! No one ever tell me when I’m up there at Harlem Hospital, ‘Reverend Bellwether, could you contact my BMW, could you see if my Jaguar could come see me before I go, could you tell my IBM ThinkPad I love her!’ You’re able to laugh even now in this hard hour at the absurdity of that. You know what they tell me? ‘I broke up my brother’s marriage in ’86, tell him I’m sorry.’ ‘I haven’t seen my mother in three years, tell her everything is OK and what’s past is past. She’ll know what I mean.’ ‘My daddy threw me out when he found out I had the HIV, tell Junebug to go by and tell him I love him and ask him would he come see me.’ ‘I had a son I gave up for adoption when I was sixteen, can you write it down somewhere if he ever come looking I loved him and thought about him every day. I couldn’t do nothing for him on heroin. It was the best thing.’ Now, that’s what they tell me, Reverend Bellwether. I don’t know what they tell you. But I ain’t heard ’em mention they Jaguar Apple laptop BlackBerry BlueBerry yet!
“Twenty-seven years is not much time. But it’s all the time God gave our sister, I don’t know why any more than you do. It was all the time she had, and she used it well.” Reverend Bellwether stop talking for a minute and sigh. “Her friends, teachers, clients, and son can all testify that she used her time well. Some of the people here are going to say a few words about our sister who is no longer with us.”
That’s stupid, Mommy’s right here. I’m thinking sometimes all this is just a game we’re playing, ha, ha! Or a story with a surprise ending like at school, they give you a story with no end and you get to write the end, or this is a joke, not that Mommy played a lot of jokes, but she could! She could just jump up laughing and climb out the casket hollering, Psyched you out! Psyched you out! Then grab me by the hand and say, The fun is over. I don’t have time for all this foolishness! What do you think I be doing all day, sitting on my butt? If that bathroom is not clean when we get home—I don’t want to hear no excuses! The bathroom and taking out the trash are your jobs. You hear me, it ain’t no goddamn joke out here. You think it’s a joke? Huh? HUH? No, I don’t think it’s a joke, I say. We’ll go home and I’ll run go turn on the TV and she’ll come turn off the TV and say, Do your homework. I’ll stomp my feet and throw my book bag on the floor when she leaves the room, and she’ll come back in the room and say, If you know what’s good for you, you’ll pick those books up like you got some goddamned sense and do your homework. She’ll go in the kitchen mumbling about I don’t know how lucky I am, and I’ll be in the living room mumbling about I wish I could go live with my father or by myself! But I’ll do my homework, then she’ll come and see me doing it, smile, and say the Asian Student Union showing Return of the Dragon for free at her school Friday night, we can go and go to McDonald’s afterwards if she don’t hear no nonsense from me till Friday. I’ll smile. And she’ll say, So could we have drama-free homework until Friday?
“Abdul.” Rita’s shaking my shoulder. “Let the lady pass.” I stand up and a big white lady who had been sitting down the aisle from us squeeze past.
“Hello,” she say when she gets up front. “My name is Sondra Lichenstein. I met Precious almost eleven years ago when I was working for the Board of Ed. I won’t even try to describe the circumstances that we met under, that’s like a book or something, really. But I will tell you I stayed in touch with her, sometimes whether she wanted it or not.” She laughs. “Eventually we became friends. Before she died, in addition to being a student in the SEEK Program at City College, she worked as a peer counselor at Positive Images in Harlem, and was a full-time mom of a beautiful little boy, Abdul, who is a wonderful student; and it was Abdul who made the computer graphic design you see next to the Langston Hughes poem in the middle of the program. I’m going to sit down now and let Blue Rain, one of Precious’s teachers, speak.” She comes to sit back down. Good, I’m glad; it makes me sick to hear people talking about Mommy like she’s dead.
Oh, I know her, lady with dreadlocks. I seen her before, she’s one of my mother’s friends.
“Hi, I’m Blue Rain, I was Precious’s teacher and later became her friend.” Blue Rain looks down at a little card and says, “I didn’t want to forget anything I had to say or go on too long, so I wrote down what I had to say. I remember once Precious telling me, ‘What difference does it make whether the glass is half full or half empty? You just drink as much as you can while you can.’ Abuse truncated her life and led to the AIDS”—AIDS! What she talking about?—“which finally took it. But she showed me, all of us, what a good game you can still play when the deck is stacked against you.”
“Ashé!” someone yell.
“Tell the truth!” someone else yell.
“She learned to read and write at the age of sixteen.” Who she talking about? “At twenty she received a GED and began the slow walk toward a college degree. Her achievements were remarkable because of what she was able to overcome and perhaps even more remarkable because of what she wasn’t able to overcome. We who knew her watched a child become a woman, a half-full glass spill over, something broken become whole. And in the act of witnessing became more whole ourselves.”
If I had been good and done what she said, she wouldn’t have gotten sicker and sicker. Do you have to make so much noise! My job is to clean the bathroom. When I open the medicine chest over the sink—Don’t bother with that, I’ll do that—I count thirteen bottles of medicine. In the morning in the afternoon at night. Why, if nothing’s wrong with you? I know you don’t have what they’re saying because you’re good we’re good I’m good we don’t have that, we’re, I’m a boy who’s going somewhere, gonna be something. I didn’t mean to be making noise I miss my father I wish he would come and get me and make it alright I want to go horseback riding if I had a father I could go horseback riding all the time. But I don’t and I won’t I wish my mother would get up out of that box and holler (even though it’s November) APRIL FOOLS! APRIL FOOLS! I PSYCHED YOU OUT! I PSYCHED YOU OUT! and we could go home again like before I feel so tired and I don’t like listening to all these stupid people talking. This is the fourth, no fifth one. Tall skinny woman in blue jeans and a jacket and tie.
“We are all here today—oh, my name is Jermaine Hicks—as we were saying, we are all sad to see our friend and sister lose her valiant—I mean that in every sense of the word—val-lee-ant, fight for life. She was a star, a diamond among rhinestones, a warrior. That’s not rhetoric, that’s real. I guess there were bad things you could say about her, there’s bad things you could say about anybody. But to me this moment is about celebrating the life she did have, as well as pouring out our grief for the one she didn’t have and now will never have. Her shit was not easy— Oh, I’m not supposed to talk like that here?” She look over at Rhonda. When I look at Rhonda, Rhonda is staring the girl down so hard her eyes look like traffic lights. “I’m not supposed to mention Medicaid didn’t want to pay for her drugs or that the ’fare was threatening her again to leave school or lose her benefits, that there’s a padlock on her door and that she died broke and depressed, deeply depressed.”
Rhonda mumble behind us, “I done had enough of dis bungee-brain crack addict.”
Rhonda get up. The girl is still talking.
“And now we’re looking at her laid out in a white dress talking about her like she was an angel. Yeah, well, maybe that’s irony or something, ’cause her life sure the fuck was hell!” My mother’s life wasn’t no hell!
“Excuse me,” Rhonda say. Jermaine don’t pay Rhonda no mind. “She died broke, depressed but with a heart too mutherfucking big to be bitter.” She looks at Rhonda, who’s standing next to her now. Rhonda say something to her.
“Yeah, I’ll sit down when I’m finished, but I ain’t finished yet.”
“Hey, let’s go!” Rhonda stare at her until she go sit down.
“I think Rita have a few words she want to say before we close out dis part of the service,” Rhonda say.
Rita lean over kiss me, then get up in front Mommy’s casket. Rhonda come sit next to me.
“This girl was my friend, my sister, and sometimes my daughter. I loved her.” She unfolds a piece of paper. “This poem is called ‘Mother to Son’ by Langston Hughes. The first time I heard it was when Precious memorized and recited it to the class, serious back in the day!” She laughs. “I’m going to read it now.” She looks at me. “This is for you, Papi.”
mother to son
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
She turns around to Mommy. “I love you, Precious.” Then comes and sits back down. I like her poem, I feel good.
“What’s next?” I ask. PING! go Rhonda upside my head again. I hate her!
“Dis ain’t no show, boy! ‘What’s next?’ I never hear the like!”
“Would you jus’ stop!” Rita says to Rhonda, Rhonda jus’ roll her eyes at Rita. Rita lean over and whisper, “They’re going to close the casket now.”
“The pallbearers, they’re the ones who actually carry the casket out the funeral parlor to the car, and then when it’s at the graveyard they take the casket out the car and to the grave site.”
“So—” I don’t understand but I stop talking, one of the guys done turned out the little lamp over Mommy’s head. Another guy is moving a hinge on one end of the casket, another guy at the other end is doing the same thing. They lowering the lid over Mommy’s face. “She won’t be able to breathe!” I tell Rita.
“She’s not breathing, Abdul. She’s dead. They’re closing the casket so we can take it to the graveyard and put her body in the ground.”
“No!” I throw my arms around Rita, push my face in her dress, crying. The material of her dress gets all stiff when it’s wet.
“It’s OK, it’s OK,” Rita say over and over. Someone picks me up from the bench, I don’t know who, I’m still crying. I bury my face in his clothes squeeze my eyes shut. I open them again as a big guy is setting me down on the sidewalk on Lenox Avenue next to Rita. It’s gotten colder outside than it was, but the sun is still shining bright.
“Come on, boobie,” Rita says, “get in the car.” I scoot in next to her. I like riding in cars. We pull out from the other cars and get in back of the black Lincoln with Mommy in it. I don’t know where we’re going. I’m just reading the signs on the highway. The world is zipping by like when you on the computer playing a game in your car. I feel a little sleepy. I like cars. Mommy, why we don’t have a car? Mommy, I’m talking to you, why we don’t have a car? Well, is what she would say, because we can’t afford one right now, Abdul. But she don’t say nothing now. We turn off the freeway, houses out here got grass and swing sets. I’m gonna live out here when I’m grown.
Coffins? Graveyard? Spooky place from Halloween movies on television. Dracula climbing out the casket with spiderwebs and stuff. Dark, scary stuff. But when the car stops, it’s like a pretty park, green grass, sky blue with fluffy white clouds. I lean back on the seat close my eyes, hear car doors open people talking, hear this car door open, open my eyes, get out. Me and Rita walk behind the pallbearers and Reverend Bellwether up the white gravel path sparkling in the sunshine. Then we turn off the path onto grass. I like walking on grass. It’s like a city out here! Green grass, the gravestones are little houses; a person is under each one? First a person then they turn to bones? We go up a hill, there’s some chairs, a big pile of dirt; get up closer see the big hole. I look up at an airplane disappear across the sky.
On one side of the big hole is a big pile of dirt. The casket is on the other side. Reverend Bellwether is holding the Bible but she don’t open it. She look at everybody then up at the sky then at everybody again.
“Heavenly Father—” she say.
“Amen!” Rhonda shout. Why? All she said was Heavenly Father.
“Heavenly Father,” she say again, “Great Spirit, what we know you taught us, where we are you brought us. And from our mother’s body we are brought forth and to the body of the Great Mother we shall return.”
Guy in dirty overalls wave his hand and the pallbearers move the casket over the hole on top some ropes and like strips of canvas. Then he go to the end of the grave and turn a handle. When he turn the handle, the coffin go down.
“Ashes to ashes!” Down, down, handle go round and round. “Dust to dust!” Lurch, bump. I look up at the sky. Blue. The sun shining bright. I look for another airplane. None. The man in the overalls picks up a shovel, shove it down hard in the dirt.
“Come on.” Rita pulls my hand. “It’s over.”
Rita ask the man driving to drop us off on 125th Street at the Harlem State Office Building instead of the funeral home.
“Some friends of your mother’s have cooked some food. People gonna eat some, talk, and then go home.”
“I’m not hungry!”
“Yes you are, stop acting silly!”
“I wanna go to McDonald’s!”
She laughs. “I thought you wasn’t hungry!” She points across the street. “See that.”
“The Hotel Theresa, that’s where I met your mom. We learned to read and write together.”
“Whatchu mean, what I mean?”
“About you and my mom learning to write, or whatever, at the Hotel Theresa.”
“She never told you about that? No? Well, remind me to one day. We ain’t got no time now.”
I got time now. Plus I don’t want to go in there, whatever it is in the Harlem State Office Building. Rita hold out her hand, I shake my head.
“Come on, stop acting silly and bring your booty over here. People are waiting on us.” We go up in the elevator to a room with people walking around smiling and sitting in chairs against the wall eating food and drinking coffee. Rita take me over to a woman in a black and white stripe dress.
“Abdul, I want you to meet Mrs McKnight. She used to be head of Each One Teach One before it closed down.” So what was it? Lady leans over to kiss me. I’m tired of people kissing me, I don’t want her to kiss me, but she does.
“You eat quiche?” Rita asks.
“I like the mushroom kind.”
“Well, try this, it’s spinach and cheese.” We move down the table of food. I get some ham and potato salad, I stop in front of a whole bunch of cakes, a lot of them. “Go ahead, get what you want.” I get carrot cake with frosting and chocolate cake.
“Let’s sit over here.” She points to some chairs against the wall. I never seen these people before. What this got to do with my mother? My mother said I was the most important person in her life. The quiche taste good, ham too. I don’t like this potato salad; I like the way my mother make it.
“After you finish your cake, we go talk to Ms Rain.”
Rita closes the door to the little office. I hear the people outside talking and laughing with their food. Ms Rain is sitting behind a desk.
“Have a seat, Abdul,” Ms Rain say. I don’t want to sit down. I think I know what they’re going to say. I wanna run out the room, go home. But home is with my mother, without my mom ain’t no home. How I’m feeling? What she think? I don’t talk smart. My mother don’t allow that. I look at Rita. My stomach feel funny. I wish they would just go on and talk.
“Well, your mother is gone. And your father too, evidently he’s been dead for quite a while. I guess you already knew that?”
I didn’t. I look out the window. I don’t usually be this high up, what, we on the twentieth floor or something? I look outside see a computer screen instead of the sky for a second. Plane tumbling down first slow then over and over again then whoosh screen bust into flames! Then I see myself tumbling through the air. Headlines nine-year-old boy jumps to his death. They’ll be sorry then they lied about my father and saying stuff about AIDS.
“Abdul. I know you’re wondering what’s next, where you’re going to stay and school—”
“I catch the bus to school,” I tell her. Rita looks at Ms Rain, then at me.
“I never told you, boobie, I’m a little sick myself.” I feel hot, the room, Rita look like a dream, red lips powder face. I run to the wastebasket, almost make it before ugh! Quiche, chocolate cake, grape soda ugh! AHHH!
“It’s OK,” Rita say. Ms Rain hands me some tissue.
“Are you alright?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I say, and sit back down. I know what’s coming. Kids at school ain’t got no parents live at fosters homes and group homes and stuff. I look out the window see myself tumbling over and over again like the plane. BLAM!!
“Where’s all my stuff?” I ask.
“Huh?” Ms Rain seems surprised.
“My computer, my toys, my books, my posters, my bike.”
“Your mother sent someone over to the apartment before she died to get her notebooks, papers, legal documents, and stuff. I don’t think she believed she was going to to pass away. I think she thought she was going to get better one more time. Rita and I went over there the day before yesterday, and there was a padlock on the door and a sheriff’s notice of eviction. I don’t know if she had been behind in the rent or if the landlord just is pulling a fast one. He’d been wanting that apartment back for a long time. But we just have the stuff of your mother’s that her friend got—papers, books, notebooks, some jewelry. Rita has records with your shots and old report cards, birth certificate, things you’ll need at your new school.” She turn to Rita. “Did she ever get him a Social Security card?”
“She would have had to because of social services.”
“Of course. I’ll try to get as much together before I leave today and give it to you to take back to the hotel. I’m going to London at the end of the week. Abdul, you’re going to spend tonight with Rita. She’s been putting off going into the hospital—”
“Don’t say that, La Lluvia.”
I start crying. “We was gonna get a dog.”
“What did he say?”
“I don’t know. What, boobie?”
“We was gonna get a dog!” I scream.
“I know it’s hard, Abdul. If I could change it, I would. I think this is the hardest part. Once you’re settled in, it’ll be better. Rita can come and visit you,” Ms Rain say. She’s looking at Rita, Rita’s looking out the window.
“I’m going to a foster home.”
“In the morning.”
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