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Gumbo: A Celebration of African American Writingby Marita Golden
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 dont 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 isnt just a curse. He asked me what I meant by that, and I said, Hey, thats 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 shes there whispering and rocking me. But I didnt 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 youre something you dont 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 wont be here long. I know that already. I was in six different schools last year. Its always the same; one day I walk into wherever were staying and she looks up at me through her cigarette smoke and says, “Throw your things in a bag.” That must mean the rent hasnt been paid, or somebody got on her nerves, or maybe shes just plain sick of being wherever we are. I dont say anything, because I know if she stays unhappy too long, shell 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 wouldnt see how mad I was at Mama, but I hate it when she acts like shes the kid instead of me. I didnt 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 shes in a smoking mood, and I know were moving again. I guess she feels like shell be all right if she just runs away from it, as if you could run away from your own head.
I wish Mama wouldnt smoke dope. It freaks her out. She goes up and down the stairs and walks through the halls wailing and sobbing, pounding on peoples 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. Its all right, Mama, I say.
“Nicky,” she says to me in a little girls voice, “I aint only telling. I make it happen. When they ask me, I say, okay, youre October fifteenth, you're February eighth. Im doin the deciding, Nicky. Its me. Aint it? Aint it?”
She gets like that on dope, thinking shes God or something. I have to keep telling her, “Mama, it aint you. Knowing aint the same as deciding. TV Guide dont decide whats on TV.”
Then, if Im lucky, shell get a smile on her face and go to sleep. If Im unlucky, shell keep crying and go back running through the halls and one of the neighbors will call the police. Thats 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 didnt 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 doesnt 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 didnt 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 Rosas ear. “You know that lady?” Mama asked her.
Rosa nodded. “Si. My aunt,” she said. “Está enferma.”
“Shes 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 thats supposed to burn fourteen hours. And there were teas labeled Te de Corazón and Te de Castilla. I always pay attention when Im 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 Mamas two fingers, then dead into Mamas eyes. From her face, it was like Rosa couldnt 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 thats my favorite. Rosa was standing there in our doorway, dressed up in black lace. I almost didnt 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 aunts funeral.
“Mamas 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, theres 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 Id better enjoy Mamas 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 theyre afraid to stand too close to her.
At Rosas botanica, Mama didnt 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 wasnt helping at the cash register, most of the day shed sit back there watching TV or playing cards with me. Sometimes, when there werent any customers, Rosa would come back with us and watch Spanish-language soap operas. I liked to watch them, too, because you dont need to know Spanish to understand those. Someones cheating on somebody. Somebodys 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 didnt need to do that, because most things dont 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 Ive 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 wont. Not today.” Mamas grin was so big, Rosa looked at her real close. I could see Rosas face change, the corners of her lips lying flat.
“Aint 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 didnt sound like Mamas friend anymore; she sounded like her boss-lady. She waved her hand in Mamas face. “No. No.”
Mama shrugged, trying to pretend she wasnt hurt. She was just trying to be nice. But thats 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 Id 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 wasnt 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 didnt run away, and she didnt look scared. She just made her eyes narrow and stared at my mother like she couldnt quite see her. “Are you telling the truth?”
“I aint 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 doesnt. She asked this woman for twenty, exact change. You always have to pay first. Thats 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 doesnt have to close her eyes or hold your hand or whisper to Jesus. Its nothing like that at all.
“Now,” Mama said, holding the card up so the woman couldnt see what shed written, “Ima tell you from experience, this aint the best time to look at this, not right now. Some folks like to go where theres lots of light, or nice music, or where you got somebody you love. This aint nothin to share with strangers. That means me, too. Save it for when youre 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 shed 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 doesnt make people afraid.
“Shes 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 hadnt been in a long time.
I didnt 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.
Its weird. Ive 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 Mamas 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 its Christmas. Those people are my favorite kind.
Mama says she wasnt 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 Years, in January, and her mother treated Mama like it was her fault. Same when the phone call came about Mamas 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 theyre just weird, or theyre less scared than other people—think knowing is power. Just like my teacher said. But Mama doesnt feel that way, not at all. A curse, she calls it. She has all this knowing, but theres nothing she can do to stop it once she knows. Even if she prays and fasts, it doesnt 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 itll happen faster if you make it happen on purpose, but it never happens later. The day is the day, and thats all there is to it. Thats 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 Daddys 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 wasnt supposed to be, sticking her nose in grown folks business, and the knowing came as her punishment. God dont like ugly, she always tells me. She says that to scare me into acting right so I wont get punished the way she did, but that doesnt scare me. I wouldnt mind knowing the way she knows. Id 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 wont return Mamas 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 wouldnt 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 wont talk to Mama except by accident. The way I see it, Grandmamas husband is dead and two of her children are gone, too, so I think shes only mad because Mama told her she still has so long to wait.
The day we had to move from Miami Beach, Id 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.
“Were 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. Shed been crying all day while I was in school again. “You aint working today?” I asked her, hoping it wasnt what I thought. I like new places, but I didnt want to leave that time. Not already.
“I been fired. So were moving.”
“Rosa fired you, Mama? How come?”
Mamas 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 didnt 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 cant give you things like you need. You aint 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. Its not the same as a daddy, but its better than nothing. But its too bad for Rosa that she said that, because Mama gets pissed when people say she cant take care of me, especially after Atlanta. And she always has the last word in a fight. Once she gets mad, theres no keeping her quiet.
“So you told her?”
“Just go throw your things in a bag, Nicky.”
“I dont want to leave here, Mama. Dang,” I whined. I sounded like a baby, but I didn't care. “Tell her you lied, youre 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 shes about to drop it. New tears were running down her face.
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