The Weakness

- 1941-
That time my grandmother dragged me
through the perfume aisles at Saks, she held me up
by my arm, hissing, "Stand up,"
through clenched teeth, her eyes
bright as a dog's
cornered in the light.
She said it over and over,
as if she were Jesus,
and I were dead.  She had been
solid as a tree,
a fur around her neck, a
light-skinned matron whose car was parked, who walked
  on swirling
marble and passed through
brass openings—in 1945.
There was not even a black
elevator operator at Saks.
The saleswoman had brought velvet
leggings to lace me in, and cooed,
as if in service of all grandmothers.
My grandmother had smiled, but not
hungrily, not like my mother
who hated them, but wanted to please,
and they had smiled back, as if
they were wearing wooden collars.
When my legs gave out, my grandmother 
dragged me up and held me like God
holds saints by the
roots of the hair.  I begged her
to believe I couldn't help it.  Stumbling,
her face white
with sweat, she pushed me through the crowd, rushing
away from those eyes
that saw through
her clothes, under
her  skin, all the way down
to the transparent 
genes confessing.

More by Toi Derricotte

In Knowledge of Young Boys

i knew you before you had a mother,
when you were newtlike, swimming,
a horrible brain in water.
i knew you when your connections
belonged only to yourself,
when you had no history
to hook on to,
barnacle,
when you had no sustenance of metal
when you had no boat to travel
when you stayed in the same
place, treading the question;
i knew you when you were all
eyes and a cocktail,
blank as the sky of a mind,
a root, neither ground nor placental;
not yet
red with the cut nor astonished
by pain, one terrible eye
open in the center of your head
to night, turning, and the stars
blinked like a cat. we swam
in the last trickle of champagne
before we knew breastmilk—we
shared the night of the closet,
the parasitic
closing on our thumbprint,
we were smudged in a yellow book.

son, we were oak without
mouth, uncut, we were
brave before memory.

Blackbottom

When relatives came from out of town,
we would drive down to Blackbottom,
drive slowly down the congested main streets
     -- Beubian and Hastings --
trapped in the mesh of Saturday night.
Freshly escaped, black middle class,
we snickered, and were proud;
the louder the streets, the prouder.
We laughed at the bright clothes of a prostitute,
a man sitting on a curb with a bottle in his hand.
We smelled barbecue cooking in dented washtubs,
     and our mouths watered.
As much as we wanted it we couldn't take the chance.

Rhythm and blues came from the windows, the throaty voice of
     a woman lost in the bass, in the drums, in the dirty down
     and out, the grind.
"I love to see a funeral, then I know it ain't mine."
We rolled our windows down so that the waves rolled over us
     like blood.
We hoped to pass invisibly, knowing on Monday we would
     return safely to our jobs, the post office and classroom.
We wanted our sufferings to be offered up as tender meat,
and our triumphs to be belted out in raucous song.
We had lost our voice in the suburbs, in Conant Gardens,
     where each brick house delineated a fence of silence;
we had lost the right to sing in the street and damn creation.

We returned to wash our hands of them,
to smell them
whose very existence
tore us down to the human.

 

Weekend Guests from Chicago, 1945

In their brand new caramel Cadillac,
Julia and Walter arrived at 4,
Trunk stuffed with leather suitcases,
Steaks, champagne and oysters in a cooler,
And Walter’s only drink—Johnnie Walker Blue.
Julia, hands flaring, in the clunky music
Of a pound of real gold charms,
Walter in a tan linen jacket
And shoes soft as old money.

Sweet-tempered, sweet-tongued,
He’d tease the women to blushing,
And let his wife reign queen
In a diamond ring to knock your eyes out.

She was known from New York to LA
For her fried chicken and greens,
And didn’t hesitate, after hours of driving,
To throw an apron over a French cotton dress
And slap the flour on thirty or more pieces.

Oh the chicken breasts and thighs
Spattering, juicy, in just the right degree of heat,
As she told stories, hilarious and true
To a kitchen full of steamy women
That made them double over and pee themselves.

Saturday morning, men to golf,
And women in floral robes
With cups of a New Orleans blend
So strong they said
It stained the rim and turned you black;
Me, in a high chair, straining
For language, my bottle
Stirred with a spoon of coffee
And half a pint of cream.

At 15,
My first trip cross-country on a train,
I stopped to spend the night.
We took the “L” to Marshall Fields
Where Julia bought my first expensive cold creams
And hose the shades of which—for the first time—
Dared the colors of our colored skin. 

She told me she had lovers,
One a handsome Pullman porter.
My last nights onboard,
I, myself, enjoyed a notable service:
A café au lait gentleman
Woke me for breakfast
By slipping his hand through the sealed drapes
And gently shaking my rump.
I waited all night,
damp with wonder.

She had a wart on her chin or nose—
I can’t remember which—
She wore it 
Like exquisite jewelry,
Like Marilyn Monroe wore her beauty mark,
With unforgettable style.