Love in Plain View
It was 1979 and escape was heavy in the air. Assata Shakur made a daring bust out of a maximum-security prison. And although my father and I did not yet know it, Mother had also been tunneling her way to freedom. Assata broke out of the Clinton Correctional Facility, guns blazing and motors running, Jesse James-style. No Cleopatra Jones, mine wasn't a gun-toting mama, though she was the baddest one-chick hit squad to ever break my heart. My mother's getaway was as subtle and silent as a magic trick. She simply walked out the door one wintery evening and never came home. My father was a magician, but my mother was the real Houdini.
It was not the way I understood grief, the way my father and I responded to the shock of it all. Time moved quickly that year and the day she disappeared began to fade from me. A few months after she was gone, I struggled to remember the details of the last day I saw her. What was I wearing? What did I have for lunch that day? What was the last thing she said? Was it "Good-bye, sweetheart, be good." Or was it "Gotta run, baby. Be good." I remembered the "be good," although by the time she was gone for a year, I hadn't been good at all.
In my mind, my mother's face fills every empty frame. Have you seen her? Melanie Aisha Brown. She is five feet ten inches tall. I do not know what she weighs. She wears a size 6 dress and a size 7 shoe. She has dark skin, and straight hair, which she wears in a flip. She is beautiful, look-twice-on-the-street gorgeous. She is thirty-four years old, but can pass for much younger. She likes burgundy lipstick and bright nail polish and anything made from potatoes: potato chips, mashed potatoes, french fries. She smokes when my father isn't around and keeps a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, covered by tampons, in a brown-and-white plastic cosmetics case in her purse. She is a woman with secrets.
* * *
When I was six, my grandmother died. I woke that morning to Mommy's screams punctuating the air. All I heard was holler, holler, holler, holler, holler, holler--precise and almost musical, like a church bell, pealing off the hour. I ran into the room and she was in a long pink cotton nightgown that was washed so many times it lost its pattern. Sponge rollers, half undone, hung around her head like a Halloween hat. She nearly wrenched my arm off when she spotted me by the door, pulled me to her so fiercely, as if she feared we were both headed for our doom. Of all the things I have forgotten in the years since Mommy left, this stays with me: her loss, shiny and heavy with heartbreak.
"I have no mother," she mewled in my ear, "I have no mother." I can hear her say it even now, and her voice, as it was then, is low, eerie, haunting, as if the loss was far from singular, but multiple and perpetual. A curse that will haunt woman upon woman in our family line until kingdom come. Which, of course, it will. Eventually.
The day Mommy disappeared, I did not scream as I should have. The day was too much like any other. I came home from school and Mommy wasn't there. My father sat at the kitchen table, eating an omelet and reading the Amsterdam News. I remember a riddle my father used to ask. "What's black and white and read all over?" And the answer, not a newspaper, not any old newspaper, but this special one: the Amsterdam News.
I asked for my mom and my father told me she was working the night shift at the bank. She cleaned office buildings and sometimes she worked days, 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., but she preferred nights. Fewer people in her way, she said, and I knew that was her pride talking. She dressed to the nines to go to work. Her hair pressed and curled, a gold cross nestled in the bosom of her purple-and-black-striped wraparound dress, high-heeled boots that grazed her knees. She was the proud owner of three of those wrap dresses, each paid for on layaway, and she wore them with the kind of love that only comes when you buy something, as she called it, "on time."
Mommy's eyes were heavy-lidded and almond-shaped; it gave her a sleepy look that men seemed to like. Her half of the medicine cabinet was filled with makeup from Revlon's Polished Amber line. The packages resonated with their slogan: "Now, you don't have to borrow anyone's beauty." Mommy ripped out the ads from Essence magazine, pictures of thin, beautiful, brown-skinned women, like Barbies dipped in chocolate. She read the fine print, buying each product to re-create the model's image and practicing a look before wearing it out for the evening. During the day, she wore amaretto nail polish that matched her amaretto lipstick and in the evenings spiced it up with a deep burgundy color called cognac. When she went out with my father, she tucked a fake tortoiseshell compact of pressed powder, with a label that read "Love Pat," in her purse.
Mommy was beautiful and worked hard to radiate beauty, studying the very psychology of the thing. But she only primped in the privacy of our home. "It's not true that beautiful women spend all day at the mirror," Mommy once told me. "It's the exact opposite. It's insecure women who can't pass a mirror without sneaking a peek." She said that even women who had it going on--banging hair, slamming body, the finest clothes--still crept around like Cinderella with one eye on the clock. She said that women who are born into their glory know that the mirror's not a newspaper, it can only tell them what they already know.
When I was with Mommy, people often asked if she was a model or an actress. She did not tell them what she really did for a living. Instead, she smiled broadly, sometimes reaching out to touch the compliment giver on the shoulder, saying "I often hear that." I never went to Mommy's job, but she told me enough about it for me to know what she liked and didn't like. The employee entrance of the bank had a solid door. Mommy liked the bank's front door. "It's all glass," she explained. "And it goes round and round like a carousel." She hated hanging her clothes in a small, dim locker room and exchanging them for the awful pink smock with the embroidered logo of the cleaning company. The itchy pants that she said "Aunt Jemima'ed" her hips, instead of showing them off. And the real punishment--having to pull back her hair.
"Did she leave a note?" I asked, when my father told me Mommy was at work. She usually left me a note on the kitchen table when she worked nights. Her notes told me what to have for a snack, what to warm up for dinner, with the unnecessary reminder to do my homework and not to turn on the TV until I was finished. Each note ended with the same declaration, "I love you, Angela Davis Brown."
"She was running late," my father said, not glancing over his newspaper. "No note."
"Well, I'm hungry. What should I eat?" I asked.
"Whatever you want," he said. This should have been my first clue that something was wrong. My father was always happy to offer an opinion on anything, from politics to popcorn. But I didn't catch it, then. I simply took a couple of chocolate chip cookies from the pantry and went off to do my homework.
* * *
That night, when I went to sleep, I found Mommy's wedding picture underneath my pillow. That should have been my second clue, but I didn't know that I was looking for clues. All I thought was, "This is what she left me. She was running late. But this is my note."
The next morning when Mommy didn't wake me up for school, I knew something was wrong.
I panicked, shaking my father who slept alone in his bed. "I'm late for school!"
"So don't go," was all my father said, rolling to face the wall.
"Where's Mommy?" I wailed.
"Something's come up. Your aunt Mona in Chicago is sick. Your mother went to see her."
I was looking for clues then and my father gave me my first one. Mommy hated my Aunt Mona. She spoke to her once a year at Christmas, the annual call prefaced by the exact same comment, without fail: "Family is family. No matter how much of a bitch Mona is."
I shook my father's shoulder until he finally sat up in bed. "Where's my note? Mommy didn't go all the way to Chicago without leaving me a note."
My father started lying in earnest then; his easy manner and flawless delivery told me they were lies. "She left straight from work, Angie," he said, using the nickname we all hated. "Your Aunt Mona has to have an operation. Apparently, there's something wrong with her liver . . ."
I left him, mid-lie, and walked back to my room. I closed the door and began to tear the place apart. There must be a note. There must be an explanation. I looked underneath the bed and under the mattress. I pulled out every pocket of my pants as well as my spring and winter coats. I rifled through my underwear drawer and was about to begin with socks when I saw it: Mommy's straightening comb, wrapped in a brown silk scarf. Mommy was gone. She had left me her comb. I put the wedding photo underneath the straightening comb, then I closed the drawer carefully, so my father did not see my discovered treasures. Then I lay across my bed and began to cry without shame.
* * *
Two months before my mother left, I entered the sixth grade. My classroom was decorated with faded pictures of rosy-cheeked white kids with blond hair. These children did not look like any of the cocoa-faced kids I sat in class with. Every conceivable surface--the bulletin boards, the wall above the chalkboard, the wood closet doors--was covered with the illustrated adventures of Dick and Jane. The pictures didn't even resemble the only white girl in our class, Brenda. Her hair was red, just like the comic book character Brenda Starr. She swore up and down that she wasn't named after a stupid comic strip, but that's what all the kids called her, Brenda Starr.
Our teacher was a middle-aged white woman from Long Island. She told us that the very first day of school. "My name is Mrs. Newhouse and I'm from Long Island." She pronounced "Long Island" in a really funny way, as if the word were chopped up into five or six squeaky syllables. I thought it strange that she mentioned where she was from. It wasn't as if Long Island was as interesting a place as France or India.
My fifth-grade teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary had been Mrs. Chong. She was Cuban Chinese. We only found out about the Cuban part when some of the Puerto Rican kids in class were making fun of her eyes and she went off on them in Spanish. We thought of her clipped, staccato tone as the way all Chinese people spoke. But when she started speaking Spanish, she was like Nydia Velasquez's grandmother, hanging out of the family's second-floor window, cursing people out, neck wobbling. In class, Mrs. Chong put her hand on her hip and one finger in the air and let loose a string of Spanish words that swiveled in her mouth. She was like a comic book hero throwing off her civilian guise to reveal her super powers. We knew then that she was the coolest teacher we'd ever have.
Mrs. Chong explained that her parents were Chinese, but she'd grown up in Cuba. "You better watch out," the boys called out, as they roughhoused in the playground. "Mrs. Chong will do a Bruce Lee on your ass. Then she'll turn around and pow pow like Roberto Duran." Me and my girlfriends were more concerned with what Mrs. Chong had cooking in her pot. "Her kids must be so lucky," Coco Garcia said, biting into her peanut butter sandwich. "They can have sweet and sour pork one night and ropa vieja the next." Kenya Moore added, "They could have wonton soup and black bean soup." Brenda Starr waved away all comparisons with an impressive air of cool. "Face it," she said, crossing her legs and swinging the top one lazily, "her kids have got it made."
What was so special about a teacher from Long Island compared to a Cuban Chinese? Mrs. Newhouse went around the room and asked every kid what their father did for a living. When she got to me, I said, "Magician." Everyone in the class giggled. Hard of hearing or just not paying attention, she said, "Does your father play an instrument, dear?" I just shook my head. "No, Mrs. Newhouse," I said, "he's a magician." I made the word long and squeaky like her "Long Island" so maybe she'd understand me better.
She smiled at me, a fake smile without teeth, then came over to my desk. She smelled of coffee and, on closer inspection, her red pantsuit was peppered with balls of lint along the thighs. She patted me on the head. "Here's an example of a very vivid imagination at work," she said. "I bet every little boy or girl wishes their father were a magician or a circus ringmaster or a flame eater." She chuckled, as if she'd told a very funny joke.
I didn't say another word the whole day. I just sat there, silent and furious. Because, the thing is, I'd already come to school that day feeling bad. The night before, my mother and father had a huge fight because there was no money to buy me a new outfit for school, much less a pencil case or a small pair of plastic scissors or any of the school supplies on the list the counselor provided us with when Mommy registered me for that new school. This, the issue of no money, I was led to believe, was my father's fault.
Just the night before, Mommy began yelling about how my father was "no better than a child." She stood in the living room wearing a blue-and-green tie-dyed T-shirt and a pair of white jeans. Mad as she was, she was beautiful. I thought she looked like a black Charlie's Angel. Her shoulder-length hair was pressed to bone-straightness, and she wore it flipped back like Jayne Kennedy.
Excerpted from Miss Black America by Veronica Chambers Copyright © 2005 by Veronica Chambers. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.