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.
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.
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.
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.