The Knowing by Tananarive Due
An original story from Gumbo
Our teacher said one day that knowledge is power, and I had to raise my hand even though I don’t like to; I like to sit and be quiet and watch people and wait for lunchtime. But I had to ask him if he was sure about that, or if maybe knowledge isn’t just a curse. He asked me what I meant by that, and I said, Hey, that’s what my mama always says. Knowing is her curse, she whispers, touching my forehead at night softly with her long fingers, like spiders’ legs. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and she’s there whispering and rocking me. But I didn’t tell my teacher that part. I could tell from the way my teacher looked at me sideways and went on with his lesson that he thought I was trying to be a smart-ass. People always think you’re something you don’t want to be. Mama says that, too.
I like this school in Chicago all right because my math teacher is real pretty, with long legs and a smile that means what it says. But me and Mama won’t be here long. I know that already. I was in six different schools last year. It’s always the same; one day I walk into wherever we’re staying and she looks up at me through her cigarette smoke and says, “Throw your things in a bag.” That must mean the rent hasn’t been paid, or somebody got on her nerves, or maybe she’s just plain sick of being wherever we are. I don’t say anything, because I know if she stays unhappy too long, she’ll start throwing things and screaming at the walls and the police might come and put me in foster care like that time in Atlanta. I was gone six months, staying with these white people who were taking care of six other boys. Mama almost lost me that time. When the judge said she could take me back, I smiled in the courtroom so he wouldn’t see how mad I was at Mama, but I hate it when she acts like she’s the kid instead of me. I didn’t speak to her for a whole week, and when I did, I said to her, “Damn, Mama, you gotta’ do better than that.” I meant it, too.
And she promised she would. She really tries. Things will be really cool for a while, better than cool, and then I walk through the door and see that look on her face and those Marlboro Lights or whatever she smokes when she’s in a smoking mood, and I know we’re moving again. I guess she feels like she’ll be all right if she just runs away from it, as if you could run away from your own head.
I wish Mama wouldn’t smoke dope. It freaks her out. She goes up and down the stairs and walks through the halls wailing and sobbing, pounding on people’s doors and shouting out dates. March 12, 2003. September 6, 2006. December 13, 2020. I have to find her and bring her back to the apartment to listen to Bob Marley or Bunny Wailer, something that calms her down. I hug her tight and, when she sobs, I can feel her shaking against me. Those are the times I have to be the grown-up. It’s all right, Mama, I say.
“Nicky,” she says to me in a little girl’s voice, “I ain’t only telling. I make it happen. When they ask me, I say, okay, you’re October fifteenth, you're February eighth. I’m doin’ the deciding, Nicky. It’s me. Ain’t it? Ain’t it?”
She gets like that on dope, thinking she’s God or something. I have to keep telling her, “Mama, it ain’t you. Knowing ain’t the same as deciding. TV Guide don’t decide what’s on TV.”
Then, if I’m lucky, she’ll get a smile on her face and go to sleep. If I’m unlucky, she’ll keep crying and go back running through the halls and one of the neighbors will call the police. That’s what happened in Atlanta. They thought she was crazy, so they locked her up and took me away. Lucky for her, the doctor said nothing was wrong with her.
But he didn’t know what she knows.
In Miami Beach, the last place we lived, our apartment was upstairs from a botanica, which is where the Cubans go to find statues of saints and stuff like that, trying to make magic. Mama took one look at that place and almost busted out laughing. She doesn’t believe in statues, she says. But she was real nice to the owner, Rosa, who mostly spoke Spanish. Mama told Rosa what she does, what she knows. It took the lady three or four times to understand Mama, and then she didn’t want to believe her. “El día que la gente van a morir?” Rosa asked, frowning. You could tell she thought Mama was trying to scam her.
Mama sucked on her teeth, getting impa tient. She looked back toward an old lady in the back of the shop who was checking out some oils in small glass bottles on a shelf. The lady was breathing hard, walking real slow. Mama can smell sick people, no lie. Mama leaned close to Rosa’s ear. “You know that lady?” Mama asked her.
Rosa nodded. “Si. My aunt,” she said. “Está enferma.”
“She’s gonna’ die soon. Real soon.”
Rosa looked offended, her face glowing red like a dark cherry. She turned away from Mama, straightening up some of the things on her shelves. You should have seen all that stuff; she had clay pots and plates and cauldrons and beads and tall candles inside glasses with holy people painted on them, even a candle that’s supposed to burn fourteen hours. And there were teas labeled Te de Corazón and Te de Castilla. I always pay attention when I’m in a new place. I like to see everything.
“Listen,” Mama said to Rosa, trying to get her attention. “You know your days of the week in English? Remember Friday. That lady back there gonna’ die on Friday.” Mama held up two fingers. “Friday in two weeks. Viernes. Nicky, how you say two weeks in Spanish?”
“Dos . . .” I had to think a few seconds “semanas.”
Rosa stared at me, then at Mama’s two fingers, then dead into Mama’s eyes. From her face, it was like Rosa couldn’t tell if she wanted to me mad, scared, or sad. People always look like at Mama that way.
“Then you come upstairs and get me,” Mama said. “I want to work here.”
I had forgotten all about Rosa and her botanica when someone knocked on our door on a Sunday morning. Mama was out getting groceries and I was watching cartoons on the black-and-white TV Mama had bought from a thrift shop for twenty dollars. It only got two channels, but one of the channels showed the Road Runner on Sundays, and that’s my favorite. Rosa was standing there in our doorway, dressed up in black lace. I almost didn’t recognize her because she was wearing lipstick and had her face made up to look nice even though her eyes were sad. It took me a second to remember she must be on her way to her aunt’s funeral.
“Mama’s not here,” I said.
“When she come, you tell her for me, no?” Rosa said. “Tell her she say truth. She say truth.”
I wanted to close the door. I was missing the best part, where Wile E. Coyote straps the rocket to his back so he can fly. He always crashes in the end, but at least he flies for a little while. “So, does she have a job or what?” I asked her.
Cool, I thought. Whenever Mama has a job, there’s always a little extra money for candy bars and T-shirts and movies and stuff. Mama only works because of me, because she likes to buy me things like other kids. I felt a little guilty, though. In Miami Beach, I knew I’d better enjoy Mama’s new job while it lasted. She could never work long before she had to run away.
At the botanica, Rosa put a sign up in the window saying she had a psychic inside, and she told people they could go back into the storeroom, past the colorful curtain, to talk to Mama. The thing is, Rosa got it all wrong at first. She was saying Mama could tell people if their husbands were cheating or if they would get a raise at work, the kind of lame stuff they see on TV commercials. Mama just shakes her head and tells people she knows one thing, one thing only—and when she says what it is, some of them really do turn pale, like ghost-pale. Then they stand up as if she smells bad and they’re afraid to stand too close to her.
At Rosa’s botanica, Mama didn’t get too many customers at first. But it was still kind of nice because she and Rosa started becoming friends, even though they could barely talk to each other. I like Mama to have friends. When Mama wasn’t helping at the cash register, most of the day she’d sit back there watching TV or playing cards with me. Sometimes, when there weren’t any customers, Rosa would come back with us and watch Spanish-language soap operas. I liked to watch them, too, because you don’t need to know Spanish to understand those. Someone’s cheating on somebody. Somebody’s pissed about something. Mama and Rosa would laugh together, and Rosa would explain some parts to Mama: “He very bad man,” she would say in her sandpapery voice, or “That woman no married to him.” But Rosa didn’t need to do that, because most things don’t need words. Most things you can see for yourself.
So one day there was a thunderstorm, and Rosa was shaking her head as stood in front of her store window staring out at the dark clouds. Lightning turned on the whole sky with a flash, then it was black again, and the thunder sounded like a giant boulder being rolled across the clouds. Miami Beach has the best storms I’ve ever seen, but Rosa was only letting herself see the scary parts.
“I get killed to drive in that,” Rosa said.
Mama grinned. “No you won’t. Not today.” Mama’s grin was so big, Rosa looked at her real close. I could see Rosa’s face change, the corners of her lips lying flat.
“Ain’t nothin’ to worry about. You got a long ways. You want to know?” Mama said.
“No,” Rosa said through tight lips. All of a sudden, she didn’t sound like Mama’s friend anymore; she sounded like her boss-lady. She waved her hand in Mama’s face. “No. No.”
Mama shrugged, trying to pretend she wasn’t hurt. She was just trying to be nice. But that’s how it is, because nobody wants the only thing Mama knows how to giveaway.
It took a week at the botanica before even one customer decided to hear what Mama had to say. I liked that lady. She was brown-skinned and young, and she touched me on my shoulder when she passed me in the doorway instead of looking right past me like most people do. Maybe if I’d been older, I would have wanted to ask her out on a date. Or she could have been my sister, maybe.
“Are you the psychic?” she asked Mama. She had some kind of island accent, who knows what. Everyone in Miami was like us, from somewhere else.
Mama wasn’t in a how-can-I-help-you-today kind of mood. “You want a psychic? Then you need to call one of them stupid-ass telephone services and waste your money to hear what you want. I only got one thing to tell.” Then Mama told her what her specialty was.
But the woman didn’t run away, and she didn’t look scared. She just made her eyes narrow and stared at my mother like she couldn’t quite see her. “Are you telling the truth?”
“I ain’t got time for lies,” Mama said.
“Then I want to know. How much?”
The price is usually twenty dollars for people Mama likes, a hundred for people she doesn’t. She asked this woman for twenty, exact change. You always have to pay first. That’s the rule. Then Mama makes you sit across from her at the card table, she takes an index card from her pile, and she scribbles a date in pencil, just like that. She doesn’t have to close her eyes or hold your hand or whisper to Jesus. It’s nothing like that at all.
“Now,” Mama said, holding the card up so the woman couldn’t see what she’d written, “I’ma’ tell you from experience, this ain’t the best time to look at this, not right now. Some folks like to go where there’s lots of light, or nice music, or where you got somebody you love. This ain’t nothin’ to share with strangers. That means me, too. Save it for when you’re ready.”
But when Mama gave her the card, the woman held it in her palms like a shiny seashell and stared down, not even blinking. I saw her shoulders rise up, and she let out a breath that sounded like a whimper. I wished she’d listened to Mama, because it makes me feel bad when people cry.
But this woman, when she stood up to leave, she was smiling. A smile as long as a mile. This time, when she walked past me, she pressed her palm against my cheek. She made me smile, too.
When she was gone, Mama clapped her hands twice and laughed. “Look at that! That girl is something else.” Mama is always so happy when she doesn’t make people afraid.
“She’s gonna’ be an old-timer, huh?” I said.
Mama shook her head. “No, child. Ten years almost to the day. May fourth,” she said, her face bright like it hadn’t been in a long time.
I didn’t get it at first. The woman was so young, like in her twenties. How could she be happy to have ten years left? But then I thought, maybe she was sick with something really bad, and she thought she was a goner already. To her, maybe ten years was like a whole new life.
It’s weird. I’ve seen grown men with gray hair and deep lines in their faces drop to their knees and cry after Mama told them they had twenty-five years. No lie. Maybe they thought they had forever, and Mama’s telling them the day, month, and year just made it real. And then there are people like this lady, so young and pretty, with no time left at all, and they walk out smiling like it’s Christmas. Those people are my favorite kind.
Mama says she wasn’t born knowing. She says she just woke up one morning when she was sixteen, looked at her family at the breakfast table, and knew. She knew her father was going to drop dead of a heart attack in January, in three years, after giving a Sunday sermon. She knew her mother was going to live to be ninety just like her great-aunt. She knew her brother, Joe, was going to get killed in an Army accident in 1987, and her sister was going to get shot to death by her boyfriend in 1999. She says she just ran to her room and cried, because all that knowing hurt her heart.
Then, it started coming true. Mama says her father dropped dead of a heart attack after giving the sermon the first Sunday after New Year’s, in January, and her mother treated Mama like it was her fault. Same when the phone call came about Mama’s brother, my dead uncle Joe.
Mama wanted to hide her knowing, but right after her father died like she said he would, people started coming to the house to see her. Because some people—maybe they’re just weird, or they’re less scared than other people—think knowing is power. Just like my teacher said. But Mama doesn’t feel that way, not at all. A curse, she calls it. She has all this knowing, but there’s nothing she can do to stop it once she knows. Even if she prays and fasts, it doesn’t change anything. My dead uncle Joe never even joined the Army because Mama begged him not to, but he got run over by a car on the exact day she said in 1987 anyway, the same year I was born.
Nobody can cheat it, except maybe the other way. Mama knew a boy in high school who got her to tell him how old he would be on the day it would happen, and she said he would be seventy-two. Then, he decided to act stupid and jump off the top bleacher at the football stadium like he was Superman, and he broke his neck. Mama saw it happen, and he was dead on the spot when he was only eighteen. That was the only time Mama was wrong.
Mama told me she had to think about that a long, long time. That was when she left home for good, and she spent more than a year thinking about how she got the date wrong for that one boy. Then, she decided on an answer: Maybe it’ll happen faster if you make it happen on purpose, but it never happens later. The day is the day, and that’s all there is to it. That’s what Mama says.
Mama never had a boyfriend or anything, not the kind of boyfriend who gives you flowers on your birthday or takes you to the movies. She never even knew my Daddy’s name. Some people might not tell their children something like that, but Mama will say all kinds of things. She tells me she was an ugly child coming up, always sassing back and running around where she wasn’t supposed to be, sticking her nose in grown folks’ business, and the knowing came as her punishment. God don’t like ugly, she always tells me. She says that to scare me into acting right so I won’t get punished the way she did, but that doesn’t scare me. I wouldn’t mind knowing the way she knows. I’d find a way to get rich from it instead of letting it drive me crazy like Mama does.
Grandmama is sixty-eight now. She still lives in the same house in Macon, all alone, and most of the time she won’t return Mama’s calls, not since Auntie Ree got shot by her boyfriend. Everyone tried to warn Auntie Ree because her boyfriend used to beat her up, but then again, it wouldn’t have made a difference anyway, just like with my dead uncle Joe. Mama saw how it would all happen.
I always call Grandmama collect once a month, no matter where we are. She picks up the phone if she hears my voice on her answering machine, but she won’t talk to Mama except by accident. The way I see it, Grandmama’s husband is dead and two of her children are gone, too, so I think she’s only mad because Mama told her she still has so long to wait.
The day we had to move from Miami Beach, I’d just aced a math test, no lie. I had the second-highest score in the class—answers come to me easy if I think hard enough—and on the way home from school, I was looking at the palm trees through the school bus window, thinking it would be snowing if we were still living in Detroit like we did last winter. And when I walked through the door, Mama was sitting there on the sofa with a Marlboro Light. Damn.
“We’re moving on,” she said. “Pack a bag.”
Her face was damp, and there were little wads of toilet paper all over the floor, like if there had been a parade. She’d been crying all day while I was in school again. “You ain’t working today?” I asked her, hoping it wasn’t what I thought. I like new places, but I didn’t want to leave that time. Not already.
“I been fired. So we’re moving.”
“Rosa fired you, Mama? How come?”
Mama’s face turned hard, and she dragged on her cigarette, sucking it like reefer smoke. “We had a fight,” Mama said. She blew the smoke out while she talked. “She didn’t have no right to say what she said. ‘Bout how I need help to take care of you right, I need to call Big Brothers or some mess, how I can’t give you things like you need. You ain’t none of her goddamn business.”
The funny thing is, I always wondered what it would be like to be in Big Brothers, to have some dude who wears a suit to his job every day come play ball with me on weekends. It’s not the same as a daddy, but it’s better than nothing. But it’s too bad for Rosa that she said that, because Mama gets pissed when people say she can’t take care of me, especially after Atlanta. And she always has the last word in a fight. Once she gets mad, there’s no keeping her quiet.
“So you told her?”
“Just go throw your things in a bag, Nicky.”
“I don’t want to leave here, Mama. Dang,” I whined. I sounded like a baby, but I didn't care. “Tell her you lied, you’re sorry. Tell her you just made it up.”
I could see her hand holding the cigarette was shaking. Whenever Mama smokes a cigarette, she always seems like she’s about to drop it. New tears were running down her face.
Excerpted from Gumbo by Edited by E. Lynn Harris and Marita Golden. Copyright © 2002 by Edited by Mrita Golden and E. Lynn Harris. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.