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Sanctified Bluesby Mable John
"He made known to us
the mystery of His will...
Say a Little Prayer
I start out every morning in prayer, setting my life out in a motion that moves toward the Lord. Then I get quiet and simply listen. Sometimes I don't hear Him, though, because Justine, my next-door neighbor, is already knocking at the door. Knocking hard. Justine is something else.
"Hold on, baby," I say. "Getting there fast as I can."
"You look tired, Albertina," says Justine. "Didn't sleep well?"
"Haven't had my morning coffee."
"I'll make us a pot. It'll be ready by the time Maggie goes on."
Maggie, of course, is Maggie Clay. Every day of the week Justine comes over to watch Maggie's World. Couldn't stop her if I wanted to. Truth be told, I like watching the show with Justine. Justine puts on more of a show than Maggie.
"When you watch Maggie," says Justine, who has marched into my kitchen and is busy making coffee, "you learn everything you need to know about how a Black woman can get rich in white America."
"I don't see it that way, sweetheart. I was reading in the book of Joshua the other day--"
"Here we go again with the Bible--"
"I don't know any other book so packed full of wisdom."
"Alright," Justine says with resignation. "Go on. Tell me about Joshua."
"It's a passage--Joshua 1:8--that's basically saying that God is the source of wealth and success. There's no true prosperity without Him."
"Well, it looks to me like Maggie is sure enough prosperous. Whether God is behind it or whether it's her own genius brain, I just don't know. All I know is that Maggie's the richest Black woman in the history of blackness."
"It isn't about Blackness or whiteness, baby. It's from one blood that God created all nations, all men, all women."
"You get that little nugget from the Bible as well?"
"Acts 17:26. Someday you really oughta take a look at that book."
"Why do that, Albertina, when I have you around quoting all the good parts to me?"
"You'll see yourself in so many of the stories."
"Right now I just want to see what color her hair's gonna be today. First of the month comes around and Maggie has a new shade. It's April first and I'm guessing red highlights. Heavy red highlights."
"April first will fool you, Justine."
"Maggie don't fool me none. She's going for red, I know she is. She has to. She's tried everything. What's left?"
"Before you start tearing up Maggie, I think we better pray."
"You usually get your praying out of the way before I get here."
"I'm having a slow morning, baby. Just give me your hand."
Justine raises her eyebrow skeptically, as if to say, Here she goes again, but gives me her hand. We're standing by the stove where the fragrance of fresh coffee floats in the air.
"Father God," I say, "we thank You for this day. We thank You for the breath we breathe. You are the breath we breathe. You are the breath of life. We thank You for our friendship and our families and the food we eat. You say in Isaiah 53:4 and 5 that You bore our grief and by your scourging we are healed, right here, right now. So we thank You. We thank You for Your suffering, we thank You for our salvation, we thank You for life eternal. We magnify You, we glorify You, we praise You. We thank You for the gift of Your life because You are our life. And we say all this in the precious name of Jesus. Amen."
"Amen," Justine repeats. "That was sweet. Does that get me off the hook for what I did last night?"
"I'm not sure I want to know what you did last night, baby."
"Lord, have mercy," I say.
"He's back," says Justine.
"Now is all I know."
"You know more than you like to let on. Sugar, you know all about Herman," I tell her.
"You say accept folk the way they are. You say, we can't change people, only God can."
"That's what I believe," I say.
"Well, I believe it too. Herman is Herman."
"And self-respect is self-respect."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"The coffee's ready. Want some toast?"
"I'll make it for you, Albertina."
"You act like I can't make toast."
"You're seventy. I'm fifty. I'll make the toast."
"Think I can butter it myself?" I ask.
We sit at the kitchen table. Outside my window the sun is peeking through the clouds and warming the ferns sitting on the ledge behind the sink. I'm not good with plants--not the way my mother was, bless her heart--but the ferns are growing in spite of me. Looks like another nice day in South Central Los Angeles.
"The thing about Herman," says Justine, "is that he's sweet. Deep-down sweet. And, unlike many men, he's not prejudiced against large women."
"You don't have to explain, Justine."
"I feel like I have to. I feel like you're judging me."
"The Lord said in John 12:47 that He did not come to condemn the world but to save it. I'm no judge, sugar."
"But you're a minister, Albertina."
"A minister without a sanctuary and without judgments."
"Judging is what ministers do for a living."
"Fortunately I don't make my living from ministering."
"You got your song royalties. Thank God for your song royalties. Don't you miss singing?"
"I still sing on Sunday mornings."
"I know, but you're singing with nine or ten people sitting in your living room."
"Home-church singing is some good singing, baby."
"But how 'bout those days when you were singing in front of thirty thousand people in football stadiums?"
"Those folks were listening to James Brown or Elton John, not me. I was just singing background."
"But how 'bout those days when you were singing on your own?"
"Chitlin circuit singing. Singing the blues."
"Didn't you love it?"
"I loved it, sure I loved it. But I found I loved something more."
"You aren't going to make me pray again, are you?"
I laugh. Justine is buttering my toast and spreading on blackberry jelly. "Justine," I say, "you don't have to do that, honey."
"It pleases me to please you. Don't you say we're here to serve each other?"
"In serving each other we're serving Him."
"We're not talking about Herman, are we?" Justine asks.
"No, we are not talking about Herman."
"I want to talk about Herman. I think it's different this time."
"Based on what?"
"He's doing stuff to me he's never done before. Can I tell you about it?"
"That's hardly necessary, baby."
"Well, you can imagine."
"I could, but I don't want to. . . ."
"And that tells me he's changing. He's willing to take the time to please me. Isn't that a good sign?"
"I'm not sure how good I am at reading signs," I say.
"You read everything right. You solve everyone's problems. That's your gift."
"That's not me. That's God."
"Well, God willing, Herman's picking me up again after work tonight and we're going clubbing."
"You mean to say that after dealing with all those Target customers till ten at night you can still go clubbing?"
"Herman recharges my batteries."
"Alright, Miss Energizer Bunny, Maggie's about to come on. Let's move to the living room."
I sit in the big blue easy chair that's older than me. It needs reupholstering, but I can't stand the idea of being without it, even for a day. It belonged to my daddy's daddy, a man I never knew.
Maggie's theme song is playing, her announcer is calling her name, and there she is, making her way down the central aisle through her adoring audience.
"Told you!" Justine is screaming. Justine has jumped off my couch and is pointing at the screen with her four-inch-long star-encrusted glitter-gold fingernails. "Her hair ain't red, it's orange! It's hideous! My God, what is that woman thinking?"
Justine loves to diss Maggie's hairdos, but this time she's right. A former woman's basketball star for UCLA in the late seventies and a high-fashion model in the early eighties, Maggie is six foot three and a stunning beauty. Wire thin with high cheekbones, flashing green eyes, and a honey cream complexion, she is famous for her bold style and dramatic flair, but this is off the charts. This is plainly wrong. At fifty, Maggie usually looks thirty-five. Today she looks fifty-five.
"Girlfriend looks like Clarabelle the Clown with Shirley Temple curls," says Justine. "What is that child thinking? She's gone off the deep end. She's done lost her mind."
"Today's show," Maggie starts to say, her eyes darting away from the camera, "will be focused on many things, but right now I can't think of any of them."
There's a deadly silence. The camera turns from Maggie and pans the audience. The audience looks as confused as Maggie. The camera swings back to Maggie.
"I'm kidding, of course," she says. "Today's show will focus on . . ." Another awkward pause. "Let me ask my producer. Cindy, what are we focusing on today?"
"Hey, Albertina," says Justine as the camera pans to a thirty-year-old woman standing in the wings, "isn't that Cindy, your niece?"
"Sure is, honey."
"I thought they never show the producer on camera."
"Well, they're showing her today," I say as I watch the camera catch a glimpse of Cindy, who looks absolutely adorable in a simple pair of jeans and a Maggie's World sweatshirt. She's standing in the wings and mouthing the words "mental health."
"Mental health," repeats Maggie. "Nothing is more important than mental health. And today we have a number of experts and a number of people who have recovered. Or maybe they haven't recovered. Who knows if anyone ever really recovers?"
"What in God's name is wrong with this woman?" asks Justine, now planted a few inches in front of my television set with both hands on her hips.
"Please move, Justine," I say. "Can't see through you."
"Maggie's out of it," says Justine. "Maggie's falling apart."
Just as Justine says the words, the screen goes blank. Maggie's World always broadcasts live from Dallas--a point of pride with Maggie who built her reputation on bucking the tradition of pretaped shows--so all this is happening in real time: 9:05 a.m. on the West Coast, 11:05 a.m. in Texas, 12:05 p.m. back East.
"Due to technical difficulties," an announcer says, "Maggie's World will not be aired today."
The theme song to I Love Lucy starts up.
"Call Dallas," urges Justine. "Call your niece. See what's happening."
"Cindy's in the middle of it right now. I don't want to bother her."
"This is amazing. The great Maggie Clay is sure enough breaking down on national TV."
"Don't go jumping to conclusions, Justine. She might just be dizzy with the flu."
"Pah-leeeze, Albertina. Did you see her eyes? She's lost it. I'm telling you, she's gone. This story's gonna be all over Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight and Extra. Those blood-hungry tabloids will eat her alive."
"Calm down, baby. You sound almost happy about it."
"Well, she's supposed to be the happiest human in the world. Besides, she's had every happiness guru from Bombay to Brooklyn preaching on her show. She has written best sellers telling us how to be happy. The woman's gotten rich on happy. So how can she not be happy? Ain't it funny how things turn around?"
"If she's hurting she needs our prayers."
"You really think Maggie wants our prayers? Us little people?"
"I don't know what she wants, Justine, but I can't be happy that she's hurting."
"Sorry, Albertina, but I ain't no perfect saint."
"None of us are, baby."
A Little Dream
The telephone wakes me out of a dream.
I usually don't nap, but after lunch today my heart felt heavy and my head cloudy with worrisome thoughts. I fixed myself a little tuna sandwich, made myself a cup of green tea, took my Bible over to the couch and started to read the Word when my eyes closed and I drifted back to Dallas. In my dream I'm in the Dallas of my childhood. The Dallas of the forties. The Dallas of prejudice and pain. The Dallas of my innocence, when my loving parents are still alive. It's my favorite time of day, almost dinnertime in the little bungalow where we live just off Lemon Avenue. Mama is cooking. I'm peeling potatoes. Daddy's smoking his pipe. My brothers, Calvin and Fred, are playing in the yard. Suddenly it's dark and raining with thunder and lightning and just as suddenly it's clear but here comes the roar of wind and I look outside and see a funnel cloud rushing toward us. Our house is shaking and Mama is screaming and through our window I see the tornado is only a block away. I run out to grab my brothers but the terrible wind has sucked up their bodies and is about to smash our house and me, Mama, and Daddy when a ringing telephone startles me awake.
"Tina, it's Calvin."
My brother is calling. I'm amazed at the coincidence.
"I was just dreaming of us all," I say, "you and Fred and Mama and Daddy."
"I needed to call you," Calvin replies, ignoring what I just said, "because I figure that you're the only one who can make sense out of this."
"Out of what?" I ask him.
"What happened today."
"What did happen, baby?"
"Did you watch Maggie's World?"
"I saw that the show was cut off."
"Maggie's cut herself off from everyone. Even Cindy. Now Cindy doesn't know what to do. No one does."
"I don't understand."
"It's like Maggie's fallen into some kind of trance. Cindy says they're calling it clinical depression. But Maggie won't do nothing about it. No doctor, no hospital. She just gets worse. Cindy's afraid of losing her job. And, well, to tell you the truth, Albertina, Cindy's been supporting me. Without Cindy, I'd lose everything. The business. The house. Everything."
My heart starts beating fast. From the second I heard my brother's voice, I knew he needed something for himself. Poor Calvin doesn't operate any other way. I feel a lifetime of pain welling up inside me. I can't help but remember how he wormed money out of our brother, out of me, even out of our mother and father when they were at the assisted-living home. I remember a dozen scenarios from the past when Calvin lied and cheated his way from one hustle to another. I thought the stroke he suffered a few years back might bring him to the Lord. But once he regained his strength he was back on the streets with another get-rich-quick scheme. I want to ask him, What happened to your latest brainstorm to franchise fast-food chicken-and-waffle shacks? but don't have the heart to do so.
"Not sure what I can do about any of this, honey," I tell my brother.
"Cindy feels like you can talk to Maggie Clay. Cindy says you're the kind of woman Maggie Clay would respect."
"Maggie Clay has no idea who I am."
"Cindy's told her. Cindy brags on you, Sis. You know that you're her hero."
"I'm not so sure about that. Anyway, it's been a while since I've heard from Cindy."
"She's been crazy busy," says Calvin. "Doing this show. Making her career. She's a brilliant young woman, Albertina. She takes after you."
Calvin's flattery rubs me the wrong way. The more he wants, the more he flatters. But I hold my tongue.
"So you'll be here by the end of the week?" he asks.
"Calvin, I can't just pick up like that and jump on a plane."
"Well, I have a life here."
"You're needed here."
All my life my brothers have tried making decisions for me, starting when I was a girl. Nothing has changed.
"Make your reservation," Calvin insists. "I'll pick you up at the airport."
"It's not that easy, baby."
"You're making it hard, Tina, not me."
I stop and take a couple of deep breaths. The last thing in the world I need to do is argue with my brother. He's my blood. He's under stress. Doesn't matter whether he lacks consideration for me or not, I don't need to hurt him. I think of Ephesians 4:26 where it talks about being angry without sinning and warns us to lose the anger before the sun sets. Holding on to anger, the Good Book says, gives the devil a foothold.
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