At Jitney Jungle, you filled our cart with cream of mushroom soup, tuna, name-brand wheat bread, and a big bottle of off-brand cranberry juice. I asked you if I could get the latest issue of Right On! magazine because Salt-N-Pepa were on the cover. You told me you’d get me a subscription to the magazine in a few months when I turned 13, so I just read it while we waited in line. When we walked up to the checkout, I put all the food on the conveyor belt and watched it glide away from us. Behind the cashier, pinned to a board, were a number of checks and Xeroxes of licenses, with the words DO NOT ACCEPT NAN CHECK FROM THESE CUSTOMERS in all caps. A Xerox of your license and one of your checks from Trustmark was in the middle of the board. Your check looked like the undisputed champion of bounced checks at Jitney Jungle.
I wondered what it felt like to have a face like yours plastered on the wall at the biggest grocery store in North Jackson.
“Let’s go,” I said as I watched you go in your purse and pull out your checkbook. “I ain’t even hungry.”
“Kie, do not say ‘ain’t.’”
“Okay. I won’t say ‘ain’t’ again,” I told you. “Can we just go?”
You looked in the direction of the older black woman cashier. She looked like a black version of Vera from the TV show Alice, but she had thicker lips and smaller teeth. “These folk don’t even know when to use ‘nan’ or when to use ‘any,’” you said. I wasn’t sure if you saw your picture or not, but I watched your shoulders dip as air left your chest. “You’re right, Kie,” you said. “Let’s just go. There’s tuna and crackers at home.”
I told you I thought the person who wrote the sign, just like Grandmama, used “nan” to mean “not any” or “not one.”
“Don’t excuse mediocrity,” you told me.
“So Grandmama is mediocre?”
“Grandmama had to work for white folk instead of going to high school, and she finished high school through correspondence classes. She has an excuse to use the language she uses. What are these people’s excuse?”
“I don’t know. We don’t even know them.”
“Don’t excuse mediocrity, Kie,” you told me again as we walked out of the store hand in hand. You looked toward the sky. “I hope Grandmama is out on her porch looking at the stars tonight. The sky is so clear.”
Every now and then, Grandmama sent these mason jars of pickles and pear preserves. Or she gave us pounds of government cheese, peanut butter, and crackers near the middle of the month. Grandmama laughed and laughed until she didn’t when I called the cheese Gourmet African American cheese. You tried to act too good to eat Gourmet African American cheese, but sometimes I caught you making these buttery grilled Gourmet African American cheese sandwiches with something ultrabougie like pumpernickel bread. I couldn’t understand why you were so ashamed of eating like we didn’t have much money, so ashamed of demanding my father pay his child support.
On the walk to the car, I wondered what it felt like to have a face like yours, one of the most beautiful recognizable faces in our world, plastered on the wall at the biggest grocery store in North Jackson because you claimed you had money in the bank you didn’t really have. You were the only local black political scientist on TV during election season talking about politics. The way you overpronounced your words, defended poor black communities in the face of white resentment, and insisted on correcting everyone whose subjects and verbs didn’t agree made black folk in Jackson think we had plenty of lunch money, gas money, rent money, and light-bill money.
“Why’d they put a picture of your license up there, like you robbed a bank?” I asked you in the parking lot. “Can you tell me?”
“I’m just tired, Kie,” you said. “You know how hard Grandmama had to fight to get line work in that chicken plant?”
“I think I do,” I told you. “Want me to drive?”
We were two miles from the house, and you weren’t making a drop of sense. You talked like this a few years earlier before collapsing.
“I’m just so tired,” you kept saying, now from the passenger seat. “I work hard, Kie. I really do. I work so hard. They never pay us what we’re worth. I try to tell Mama the same thing. Drive slowly, Kie.” I reached over and held the warm fold underneath the curve of your knee. That’s what you did for me when I was sad.
By the time we made it home, you were snoring. I didn’t want to wake you, so I turned off the Nova in the driveway and pushed the driver’s seat back. I sat there watching you breathe with your chin tucked into your left shoulder.
I watched you sleep and thought about how a few weeks earlier, you had this party for your students at the house. You played a mix of Anita Baker, Sade, Patrice Rushen, and Phil Collins all night long. Malachi Hunter, a dude you were dating at the time, was there, but he didn’t do much other than drink bourbon and watch you. The house was filled with students who’d fallen in love with you. Shareece wanted to watch you laugh. Cornell wanted to watch you dance. Carlton wanted to watch you talk. Judy wanted to watch you listen.
Near the end of the night, you sat at a table with Beulah Beauford. You said something about how “infinitely finer” Denzel was than Bryant Gumbel or Dr. J, and everyone around the table burst out laughing. I watched you look up at Malachi Hunter, who was grinning ear to ear in the kitchen. Malachi Hunter knew, whether he deserved it or not, he’d been chosen by the freshest woman in our world.
Sitting in the Nova, I took out my wallet, got your old license, and placed it on the dashboard. That summer day, you and I held onto each other like we were the first people in the world to float over, under, and around all the orange-red stars in the galaxy.
I might have liked the raggedy psychologist you got Hunter Malachi to pay for me to see two days later if she hadn’t tried so hard to talk proper and asked me all these questions about parents, food, and church, or if you didn’t sit in the same room with us the whole time. The first question the psychologist asked was how I felt about my parents getting divorced.
“I don’t think about it much,” I told her.
She asked me to tell her everything I remembered about my parents being together. I told her how y’all met as sophomores and juniors at Jackson State University in 1973. I told her that 10 months after y’all met, you were pregnant with me. My father was in Zaire during the entire pregnancy. You weren’t alone during the 32-hour labor and C-section, though. Grandmama was there. My father sent the name Kiese to you in a letter a few weeks before my birth. You told him you wanted my first name to be Citoyen and my middle name to be Makeba, after Miriam Makeba, the South African singer and freedom fighter.
The psychologist thought I was lying when I told her I had no Mississippi memories of my father. I told her pictures showed me my father was in Mississippi with us. Pictures said he loved tight short-shorts and red, black, and green knit hats, and he appreciated pondering tough questions and getting high under the gritting teeth and pointed finger of Malcolm X. I told her my first memories of my father came after y’all stopped seeing each other in Madison. When you dropped me off one Saturday, you gave me some money Grandmama sent us. I was supposed to give my father the money so he could afford groceries. I didn’t remember how much it was, but I took a dollar of it and put it in my pocket before I handed it to him. It just didn’t make sense to me that we had no food in our fridge, yet here we were giving my father money Grandmama had given us.
Life at my father’s Wisconsin apartment was different from our life. I remember both places having lots of music and incense, but there were so many rules at my father’s apartment. People had to take their shoes off when they came in. I couldn’t ever put my hands on the walls. One time I went to do laundry with him at the laundromat, and he saw some skid marks in my underwear. He swore it was because you weren’t teaching me how to wipe my ass correctly. When I wiped my ass in his apartment, I couldn’t use more than four pieces of toilet paper. And the toilet paper had to be folded perfectly, not balled up. When we ate, my father had every bit of food planned out. And there was always lots of space between whatever he put on my plate.
“Presentation matters,” I remember him saying. “So do patience and discipline. Take your time eating, son.”
That day, my father brought out these snowballs he’d frozen from the winter so we could have a snowball fight in the summer. After the snowball fight, we walked down to the dumpster near our apartment complex, where we saw this baby raccoon. I’d never seen the baby of a raccoon, or possum, up close. I was so afraid, not just to touch it but to even witness it trying to live. My father picked me up and let me peek down deeper in the dumpster. The baby raccoon messed around in some trash with its crazy-short arms, then it looked up at us, and I jerked my body back as fast as I could.
I remember folding up my arms, sticking out my lips, and just looking at my father while he was dying laughing. It was the first time I’d ever seen him just be a normal goofy person. After a while, I followed my father behind the dumpster to Lake Mendota, where I watched him throw rocks at the sun that never came down.
That’s what I told the psychologist about my memories of my father. For some reason, it made you cry.
“Might you talk to me a bit more about violence?” the psychologist asked me after my story.
I looked over at you. You were cross-legged, looking at me misty-eyed. “What do you mean?” I asked her.
“What I mean is this: If you’re having problems with violence at school, I wonder how you’re experiencing violence at home.”
“I ain’t having problems with violence at school,” I said. “I ain’t having problems with violence at home, either.”
The psychologist told me you said I had a violence problem. I wondered when you met with her and why I couldn’t have been there to just watch you talk like you were watching me. “Your mother contends you eat and drink things you shouldn’t be eating or drinking when you’re angry. She said you have turned to alcohol. I want you to tell me about your experiences with alcohol and violence at home or at school.”
I looked over at you again. “I drank mason jars of box wine three times when there wasn’t nothing else to eat or drink, because it’s sweeter than water.”
“Count to 10,” the psychologist abruptly told me.
“What you mean?”
“It’s clear you’re harboring anger over your parents’ separating, and I think counting might help. Use this technique when you feel yourself getting angry about the divorce, no matter where you are, or when you feel yourself wanting to drink wine or eat sugary foods, go to the bathroom and count to 10.”
“Is a technique like a style?”
“But I don’t feel nan amount of anger at all about them not being together,” I told her. “I mean, I got my grandmama, too. I don’t feel nan amount of anger at all over them being divorced. I be wishing my father paid child support more, but I’m good.”
“Don’t say ‘be,’” you said from across the room. “Don’t say ‘nan,’ either. He’s just showing out right now.”
“I wish my father paid his child support on time,” I said. “But I’m good.”
“Do me a favor,” the psychologist said as she walked us to the door. “Remember, in case of an emergency, I’d like for both of you to find a quiet space away from each other and just count to 10. If it’s dark, go outside and count at least 10 stars. Everything that seems wrong might seem right if you just do this exercise. I think it might also help if you both limit your sugar and carbs and get more physical exercise.”
At some point, we had to decide if I would win. I don’t know why, but beating you felt harmful. I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.
When we got home, you and I played our last game of one-on-one in the driveway. Your student Carlton Reeves put a goal in our front yard a year earlier, and we’d played 21 a few times a month since then. When we first played, I was scared of how physical you were on offense and defense. I was taller than you, heavier than you, more skilled than you, stronger than you, but it didn’t matter. On offense, when you didn’t shoot your high, arching one-handed jump shot from your right hip, you backed me down by lunging your butt into my thighs. When you were close enough to the goal, you either shot a strange hook shot or pump-faked.
That day, though, I was too tall to go for pump-fakes and my calves were too strong to let you back me down. I blocked your first three shots into the azaleas of the family next door. On offense, I just shot over you or blew by you with a jab-step left. That day, though, I realized I could have beaten you a year earlier. And you realized I could have beaten you a year earlier. And neither of us felt happy about that fact. I kept getting to 20 and missing the free throw on purpose so you could get closer.
At some point, we had to decide if I would win. Your neck was glowing with sweat. I don’t know why, but beating you felt harmful. I didn’t want to hurt your feelings. Knowing or accepting I could beat you was enough for me. We both knew that game would be the last game we ever played, no matter the score, because we both knew, without saying it, you needed to not lose much more than I needed to win. When you made the last shot of the game, you celebrated, hugged my neck, told me good game, and held my hand.
“Thank you for letting me win, Kie,” you said. “I needed that. And thank you for what you did today at the counselor’s office.”
I remember looking at you and believing we’d turned a page in our relationship. We were about to limit our sugar and carbs. We were about to exercise more. And no matter what happened next, we would both go outside and count at least 10 stars until everything wrong in our world felt right.