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Hiding My Candyby Lady Chablis
From Chapter Sunday services were a major part of our lives. It was an all day affair, and that was just fine with me. It was my time to perform, see: I was an usher and, impressively, an Assistant Superintendent of the sunday school. I was the kid selected to make all the speeches and social announcements in front of the crowd. The congregation loved that as much as I did, 'cause they knew I was gonna give 'em gestures with it. My emphasis was on performance, honey — standing tall and stabbing away at elocution — regardless of whether the message was 'bout Bingo Night or the monthly church picnic. So, was this where The Doll first learned to perfect her stage presence? Well, it was certainly where she learned to monopolize an audience!
I was the first openly and flamboyantly "gay" person I knew of in my hometown. That being the way, I guess I was protected by my family, much the way a retarded child is looked after. I mean, Gran'mama knew I was a sissy, and while I don't think she liked it, her boundless love for me would never have allowed her to harp on the fact that I needed to make drastic changes. Besides, she didn't believe in tampering with what was purely the Lord's business. And she made sure I knew that a higher power ultimately called the shots.
From very early on I guess, it was my strong, abiding faith in Jesus Christ above that helped me understand myself most, at least according to the ways that I felt I was "different" from the other li'l boys. As far as I could reckon, and no matter what anybody else thought, I was really a li'l girl — with candy — just like the Lord had instructed. At times, of course, this would all seem a li'l confusing when society was expecting me to behave in a way that conflicted with my heart. But even back then, I didn't pay society any more mind than I do now.
'Round my sixth birthday we moved uptown — actually eight blocks away — to our new house, which wasn't any bigger, just more modern, 'cause it had an indoor toilet and it sat on a concrete foundation. We had a screened-in porch that y'walked up three steps to, and these led to the front door. The first thing that caught my eye was the curved design of those stairs — and how good I'd look posing on them. I think you'd call this place a "raised ranch." I called it clean and white. Gleaming white. And it made me think we was going places, though we almost never left the territory that marked our black neighborhood. In fact, my childhood world was so tiny that not till junior high did I ever have a reason to cross Highway 90. Our new house was destiny enough for The Doll.
At home, Gran'mama preferred her entertainment from a radio whose tuner was perm'nently glued to the gospel station. Her evening domain was an overstuffed chair in a marigold plaid that belonged to her alone. She sat there quietly with her companion cup of coffee and other faithful forms of recreation: the daily newspaper and her Bible. My bedtime was nine o'clock on most nights, maybe later on a weekend, but only if we had a house full of folks over to play pinochle. Besides, I usually needed my beauty rest if I was gonna rise with the sun and be out the door exploring the wild grasses round Gran'mama's house.
Nature was my best friend, see, and my sense of amusement and curiosity — well before I ever knew what candy was — mostly came from the li'l creek behind our house that transported me to other worlds within my 'magination. I relished the ritual that became my daily communication with what I perceived was the rest of the planet. Every day I'd take all the nearby leaves that several ancient oaks had showered from their branches and write my name on them or maybe my initials and our address, then, one by one, I'd stagger this scribbled parade as I sent 'em off downstream.
"I wonder if they made it," I'd always sweetly wonder. Then I'd sit back and dream they were en route to Paris or Africa or whatever country we was studying that week at Stevens Elementary SchooI. I just knew they had to have gone farther than 717 Seventh Street, but where exactly was anybody's guess. I even waited in vain for the courtesy of a reply, though I s'ppose I got some satisfaction thinking that folks all over the world knew just where to find me in Quincy.
Sometimes I'd take to varying my li'l routine with an empty matchbox that I'd inscribe with an anonymous "I love you." While nowadays The Doll can still be found practicing this li'l gesture with gorgeous strangers in nightclubs coast-to-coast, back then she was pressing to find something more than just an amusement. But as much as I loved Gran'mama, I also needed a male role model in my life, and I became more conscious of this when we moved to that new house. Where are the men? I musta thought, knowing that something was always different about the Ponder household, which was only filled with women.
In the company of a man, I'd be jumping up and down, swishing about, and flirting up a storm. Well, girl, I can tell y'nothing's changed, but maybe back then I was just hoping any one of those men might stay for good. There was something different 'bout the way a man smelled and the way he canvassed a room with the strength of his body, waving Good evenin", y'all and muscling his way onto our corduroy sofa while any one of my three maiden aunts might be taking her sweet-ass time getting fixed up to party.
"Ever since y'was three years old, you be wantin' to sit up in men's laps!" Aunt Katie Bell still kids me. I useta think it mighta been just an early sexual attraction, but I only vaguely felt my sexual yearnings at that time. Though I do remember asking this one li'l neighborhood boy, who was prob'ly my same age of seven, to come out back with me one day so I could show him the li'l creek that was my stream of dreams. I told him the best way to look downriver was to lay on his stomach and rock back 'n' forth. Only in order to get a real view of the way the stream did its twist and turn, he needed to prop himself on something else to get a steadier motion. Yes, child, y'mama provided that rhythm!
"Edward? Y'come in here and help me get this bird plucked!" cried Gran'mama, who always called me by my middle name. She musta been peering through the kitchen window right then to check on us, just in case we'd drowned or something. But I knew it was really 'cause she meant to put a stop to the only sex I was ever gonna get as a child.
"Y'know, Edward, you'll have a family of y'own someday," she'd often impart, just before it led to a gentle request that I find something boyish to occupy my time with — that, say, chopping the head off a chicken was fine enough, but cooking it was something else entirely; that it was okay to help her moisturize her dry scalp, just so long as I didn't get fixed on styling her hair, too. These were the sweet and subtle reminders that it was all right to be helpful, just not too domestic, that I'd one day have to assume the responsibilities of manhood. And, well, boyhood, in Gran'mama's eyes, seemed a fine enough place to start.
I can't tell y'very much about my daddy at all, 'cept that he was handsome and tall and that his name was Benjamin Franklin Knox. It occurs to me that I might be descended from one of them slaves of the real Benjamin Franklin, 'cause we all know The Doll's sure got a way with electricity. They called my daddy Frank, which is the name I used as my own in John Berendt's book. I fibbed a li'l, but now I'm coming clean.
My daddy came into my life on a visit once to Quincy when I was almost twelve. The first time I saw him was brief and awkward: I didn't know who he was outside of the fact that we were related, so I musta resented having to call him Daddy. Instead, I called him sir. The first thing I noticed 'bout him was his thick salt-'n'-pepper mustache and the smell of Old Spice all over his clothing. I never had any affection for him. Didn't want no hugs or kisses, no kinda promises of love or starting over. Too li'l, too late as far as his daughter with candy was concerned. He'd been missing for too damn long.
After that initial visit, the next thing I knew I was being sent to live with him in New York for the summer. F'sure he didn't like my girlie ways none — not that we ever talked about it directly, but y'could tell he hated it about me.
"Whatcha mean y'don't like baseball?" My daddy demanded to know after I frowned at going to a Yankee game my second night there. "That ain't normal for a li'l boy y'age!"!"
"I don't know nothin' 'bout baseball, sir. Don't care to, neither, I pouted, my hips leading an aboutface in a sway of disgust.
He lived in New York City at Broadway and 125th Street, which was Harlem. Yeah, I may've been a sissy-hick from Florida, but I could tell from the get-go that this area was nothing but a shithole.
That summer of 1969, it was just the two of us and his girlfriend, a Latin bombshell named Lila, in his cramped one-bedroom apartment that was filled with worn-out and mismatched furniture. The place was clean thanks to her, but it reeked of smoke from his big ol' cigars, and there were lotsa empty bourbon bottles cluttering up the counter next to the kitchen sink. Lila'd taken a couple of the empty ones, washed off the labels, and stuck flowers in 'em. Hell, bitch musta thought she was the Puerto Rican Martha Stewart.
Since the decorator hadn't finished the guest room, I had to sleep on a sofa that smelled like a brewery and farted its stuffing every time I moved. Most nights, I'd lie real still while I studied the migrating patterns of the cockroaches that darted up the walls and into the shadows from a flickering neon sign just outside the living room window. Lemuel's Liquors was the ground-floor merchant in my daddy's apartment building, the source for all that bourbon. They'd stay open till midnight, way long enough for me to lose count of them roaches that kept me distracted from the sounds that came from my daddy's bedroom.
On the entertainment front, my daddy's patience was wearing thin, so he decided — on Lila's insistence — to enroll me in a sewing course at the Harlem Institute of Fashion. A friend of hers was an instructor there, so she suggested it to my daddy as something constructive for me to do during the day — prob'ly so I wouldn't be bouncing up and down Broadway like a big sissy, getting raped and killed.
The Harlem Institute of Fashion? Just like the name suggests: a big ol' room with a lotta black folks in there sewing stuff, and that was about it. My summer project turned out to be a li'l pair of trousers — maybe they were capri pants — and I did learn how to use a sewing machine, which would later come in handy. At least till the day I'd meet up with Miss Dawn DuPree, my seamstress.
Of all the folks I met at the Harlem Institute, I remember this one gay guy there the most. I thought he was just about the coolest thing I'd ever seen. Very fem'nine and all of that — y'know, pink ruffled shirts underneath her tight-fitting suits, lotsa rings and bracelets. Honey, the Age of Aquarius had surely bypassed Quincy, so up till now, jewelry for guys was only something I dreamed about. Girlfriend was my first up-close-and-personal look at what sissies grow up to be. And, child, if her wardrobe was any kinda indication, the future was looking brighter by the minute.
What I remember most about New York that summer was riding the buses and subways, listening to my daddy and Lila going at it, and eating lotsa them long, skinny hot dogs that y'couldn't get in Florida. I think I liked it there, but I was only a kid and, since I didn't know my daddy none, I felt uncomfortable living under his roof and ready to go home on a moment's notice. What also gnawed at me was never knowing if he'd invited me 'cause he wanted me in his life or whether Mama'd forced him to take me for a li'l while. Maybe they thought he could straighten me out. But y'know something, I still don't know why I was ever there that summer.
Today I don't have any lingering emotions 'bout my daddy, 'cause there really aren't any. The bottom line is, we never got to know each other. I resent this state of affairs some, but I choose not to dwell on what I can't change. When he died of cancer in 1984, his funeral was the next and last time I'd ever see him again. And I only went to the service 'cause I was his only child and that's what I was taught was proper.
"How dare y'show up in that getup when y'papa's lyin' dead?" yelled my daddy's sister Bessie, a woman I never knew at all. "Y'tryin'to shame us one and all?" she persisted, making a stink over a most demure li'l black dress that tastefully complemented the woman I'd become.
"That sonofabitch showed up twice in my life. Y'think he gives a shit what I'm wearin'?" I read that ol' bitch up one side and down the other. It wasn't my intention to make a scene, but I realized then that I'd no business going to the funeral of a man I barely ever saw just outta respect. Too many unseen years had passed, years that masked a change in my identity from somebody who that side of the family'd never really known in the first place.
I started crying and left the church. Following me from behind was my other aunt, Susie, who tried to comfort me some.
"Y'know Bessie's got a tongue on her, so never y'mind her big mouth this day. She's just grievin', baby," she offered, caressing a portion of the black silk shawl that covered my shoulders.
I stopped my weeping and looked up at her.
"I just don't get it.... Didn't my daddy ever mention he had a li'l girl?"
Copyright © 1996 by The Lady Chablis
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