Thursday, November 13, 2008

Guess Who Came to Dinner?

The following story, set in the late 90s, is an excerpt from Soul Weaving, my current novel-in-progress (which may never be completed) that explores the relationships between black gay men and black women. In light of the gay marriage vote in California and the hot topic of homophobia in the black community, I've decided to repost Dessa Rose Flowers' story today.

THESE TIGHTDRESSED HEIFERS is always lookin for a full meal ticket, while these homosexuals don’t want nothin but appetizers and will try anythang and everythang on the menu, many times over. That’s the majority of folks I see: these little heifers ain’t got nothin on their minds but trying to get them some man and don’t know no other way except to throw him the goods, and these damn homosexuals who ain’t seemed to learn nothin from all these diseases goin round.

My own boy Richie and that boy he’s been hangin around with: Lord have mercy, in all my years I ain’t felt the need to worry and now this. Well, it makes me wanna scream. But I’m too damn old, too damn tired. And besides, I done screamed enough to last this lifetime and a few more down the road.

I suppose I should consider myself lucky though. When Richie’s mama, my sweet baby sister Sadie, passed on some time ago, God rest her soul, I took in her cute little bundle of joy and raised him as my very own. He ain’t never really caused me no trouble, but everybody from old Hattie Mae Holierthanthou over at Mt. Zion Baptist, to all the ladies I’ve played Bid Whist with over the years, told me that Richie was different somehow. Hattie Mae went so far as to say, “That child sure is strange that way. You better watch out for him Dessa Rose.”

Different. Strange that way.

Well, what child wouldn’t be different or strange that way if his mama was taken to the Lord before he could barely walk, and he never even saw his daddy. Which was no fault of his. No fault of his daddy’s, I mean. That’s right: Sadie never even told the man she was pregnant. Now, back in the day, you didn’t see womens actin like that: not even tellin the daddy about the bun in they oven. But Sadie, God rest her soul, was always doin things her way. Some might even say she was ahead of her time on some matters. Like most babies of the family, she was the independent one. Now, I know, these days, girls havin babies, babies havin babies, and ain’t nobody tellin the daddies till it’s way past any time appropriate. Well, I, for one, ain’t into all them politics and such, but if this is what women’s lib was all about, then we messed up somewheres. Any daddy’s better than no daddy, and it’s about time we got that through our liberated heads.

Well, I was gone make sure that little boy got it all from me, no matter what my friends were trying to warn me about. Like Mildred. Now, Mildred is good people and all that, and I don’t like to talk about folk like they do me sometimes, but Mildred would spit the stupidest mess out her mouth with nary a thought for nobody. She comes round the house to drop off her famous coconut cake for Richie’s tenth birthday party. She finally got some real respect from the folk down at Mt. Zion after the first time she brought that cake to a bake sale down on the church lot. After she tasted a piece, I thought Sugar Waters was gone start speaking in tongues right out on that parking lot. She fell over. Umh-humh. Yes she did. A small woman she was not; it took three or four Deacons to scrape her off the concrete and hoist her back up on her feet. Most of the congregation out there flocked round the table to partake in Mildred’s special taste of the Holy Ghost.

The first time Richie laid his lips on that sucker, I could hardly get him to eat regular food. I had to wean him offa that mess for a while. But for his birthday party, I decided to have Mildred make a big one—special too.

She comes in the house with her prize-winning recipe, gives Richie the once over, as if she’d never seen him before, and Lord knows he’s been up in church with me more times than a heathen, flashes her diamondstudded gold teeth, nearly blinding me back, and declares, “Dessa Rose, baby, is you sure that nephew of yours is all right? He so timid and mosta the times he act too sissified for a boy his age. He needs a man around this house. But if that ain’t possible, girl, you better find him some boys to play with.”

If she only knew.

And it wasn’t like Richie was far enough away to even act like he didn’t hear Mildred’s blasphemin. Old Mildred, or Miss Muffet, like I calls her, to this day, might be able to bake her silly little ass off, but she sure can’t see. There was a house full of boys from Richie’s school at the party. Well, a couple at least. All right, it was mostly girls, I guess. It was so long ago I can’t remember all the details. My memory has been known to play tricks on me. Well, you know, the boy just always seemed to be more comfortable playing with little girls; boys could be so mean at times. I know Richie was a quiet child and all. And Lord knows, my father didn’t raise no fool. Do I seem like a fool to you? I knew exactly what little Miss Muffet was trying to say, but I tried not to pay her no mind. I’m sure she thought she meant well.

Doesnt everybody who meddles in other folks’ affairs?

It was kinda embarrassing, though. Not that I was ever really ashamed of Richie. Disappointed would be more like it. But I would look at him trying to cope without his mama and daddy, and know he was already going through a lot. I don’t usually take no mess—don’t like to let folks know they gettin to me. You can’t let’m see you sweat. I’m sure I’ve been too kind to most of my friends, and mosta the times folk wanna confuse kindness with weakness, but they don’t know how strong I knew I was. Strong enough to protect my boy from ridicule:

I told that bitch to shut up and get the fuck out of my house.

That was only after I got that delicious cake.

AS RICHIE GREW OLDER, I got closer and closer to wantin to find out if he was the way I felt he was. But I had to keep back. Not wantin to push too hard. Try to figure out how Sadie woulda handled it and do the same. And sweet Sadie was one of the most patient womens I ever knew, God rest her soul. So I just figured her little bundle of joy wouldn’t want me breathin down his neck tryin to figure out if he was, what he was doin, with whom, and for how long.

Well, when he enrolled in that beauty school, suffice it to say, I didn’t have to ask any questions. And it’s not like he didn’t useda sit down in fronta that TV and watch all them silly beauty pageants when he was growing up. I couldn’t see what that child saw in all that fake mess. Of course, this was before anybody thought Black was beautiful, so there was nothing but a bunch of skinny white girls prancin around, showin off too much cleavage, wearin way too much makeup. I guess the winners were supposed to do something for the human race and become somebody later on in life.


I knew you didn’t need to be no white Miss America to do somethin good for folk. That’s why I became a nurse. I got the calling to help people at a really young age. Everybody look at me knew I was gonna be a nurse or doctor, one. Not too many women doctors back in the day, so I always felt like I’d have a better chance at becoming a nurse. Especially since so many folk expected Black womens to take care of’m. Daddy always told me and Sadie we could be whatever we wanted to be, something to make Mama proud and respect her memory. Mama died givin birth to Sadie, so whenever Sadie got sick, I took care of her. I was tenyearsold going on thirtyfive. Daddy did the best he could, but it was hard raising two girls all by himself.

All the kids in school useda call me the First Aid Girl cause I was always the first one who wanted to and knew how to clean up the little cuts and scrapes a bunch of high energy kids was liable to get during a fifteen-minute recess. I was set up to put the school nurse out of business at the ripe old age of twelve. Once, this white girl called me Florence Nightingale. I didn’t know who the hell she was, but I figured she musta been somebody special with a name like that.

I started nursing down at Deaconess Hospital in the emergency room. A lot of trauma. After seventeen years, that wore me out. As much as I felt alive and important, this woman knew when to stop. In the early eighties, I left all that behind and ended up working at Boston City Hospital in the STD Clinic. I thought there would be less trauma.

That was about the time when all these folks, mostly young boys, started comin in with all kinda diseases. Diseases I hadn’t seen the need to treat since I started nursing. Usually, a shot in the butt or a week or two of drugs would cure’m up, but the same ones be back in a matter of weeks or months with something else. I don’t wanna bore yall with the clinical names of these things, but I hadn’t seen the likes of this in all my years nursin. Later, I’d see some of the boys I treated walkin around the hospitals with splotches all over their bodies, looking old and skinny. Some were admitted one day, dead the next.

Folks in the business started callin it gay cancer. Gay cancer. I didn’t know much at the time, but I knew it was more than some gay cancer. Nobody wanted to say anythang about the street folks, a lot of’m with tracks running all up they arms. I tell you a fool knows what that’s all about, and it’s a damned shame, I tell you, a damned shame. Nobody wanted to say anythang about the young girls and their babies who was comin in with the same symptoms. Nobody wanted to say anythang about that woman who got the blood transfusion. She was a young, white, married woman with three children who turned up in the emergency room with the same kinda pneumonia they found in one of them pregnant prostitutes. I tried to find out all I could, but there wasn’t too many places I could read about it that I could really understand.

Then the church started burying all these young Black boys. Mt. Zion Baptist Church was having more funerals than revivals and prayer meetings. There was Ronelle from choir. And I’m telling you that boy sang like a bluebird, yes he did. We lost something really special when he passed. And there was Charmain, the organist before Paulie. He could raise the roof off the church the ways he made them organ pipes testify. And then there was Dwayne Mcghee, Arthur and Wanda’s only son who had just won a scholarship to Yale that he never got a chance to use. And these boys wasn’t being shot up in the head on the streets neither.

Before you knew it, folks started burying sons you never even knew they had.

Right now, there’s this frail child that sits in the front pew most Sundays who nobody talks to. If he takes communion, nobody drinks after him. Now it’s been said that he Hattie Mae’s boy, but you’d think the two of them didn’t even know each other. Like I said, I don’t like to talk about folk like they do me sometimes, but if that there downright uptight righteous woman can’t even deal with her own flesh and blood...

Don’t get me started.

Being down at that clinic and treatin all those young boys, I got to worryin bout Richie. Like I said, my Daddy didn’t raise no fool. Do I seem like a fool to you? I put twoandtwo together real fast. That’s when I really wanted to ask Richie some questions. But I kept tellin myself to be patient. I wanted to find out how others was dealin with all of this, but nobody—and I mean nobody—was really talking. Not about the weekly funerals, not about the young girls, not about the babies, not about nothing. Even now, we know what’s causin AIDS and how folks can keep from getting it, but only a handful of folk in our community wanna talk about it. And for all the information and scoldin I’ve given out to a bunch of strangers over the past seventeen years, I still can’t bring myself to raise it with my own hard-headed boy.

And it’s not as if Richie hadn’t given me the opportunity to say somethin. He moved outta here not too long ago so he could have some privacy—that’s what he says anyway. He used to bring me by flowers every weekend, but lately, he ain’t been comin by as much. He calls to tell me he’s been busy.

But I know better. So I pushes him on it a little bit. He finally admitted that he been seein somebody. “This is the Real Thing Rosie,” he says. That’s what he likes to call me. He wants me to meet him.

Humph. Real Thang, my ass. I still can’t see how homosexuals can have the Real Thang. I try not to let it matter. But Richie won’t let up. Here he is tryin to get me to cook dinner and have’m over.

Now, I ain’t no fool. This must be something serious. I don’t get how they do things, old fashioned as I can be sometimes, but I know this must be making him happy, because when I do see him, he’s walkin round glowin like a pregnant woman.

I do worry, though.

Did I tell you that in the midst of all of this confusion and loss, I became famous? No, not because I was one of a handful of Blackfolk tryin to do anything about AIDS. That woulda been too much like right. This was different. I walked into the Talented Tenth, that Black bookstore we had some years back, and staring back at me from the shelf was a book with my name on it in large print.

I like to fell out. I don’t who I was named after, if anybody, and I never known nobody with my name. But then here I was on the cover of a book written by some Black girl named Sherley Anne Williams. Well, Alice Walker had nothing but good things to say about it, and since I liked that The Color Purple so much, I decided to pick up my namesake off the shelf.

Fifteen minutes of fame for a book I didn’t even write.

It don’t get no better than that.

I FINALLY GAVE IN. I decided to go on and cook dinner for Richie and this Real Thang he was talkin about. I don’t know what got into me, whether it was God or the Devil himself. Whatever it was, I couldn’t beat it. So I used it.

On that Friday, I had a most interesting day at the clinic. My last patient was this young, pale white boy who came in for a gonorrhea treatment. He had it in rectum. Yes, this may be more than you want to know, but even in the age of AIDS, folks are still gettin gonorrhea in the back side cause they ain’t using precautions. Most boys seem to be immune to the shame that goes along with this, especially when I wrinkles my brow. But I could see this boy was different: he was wracked with guilt: so I unwrinkled my brow. I didn’t want to get all in his business, but I have to do a brief interview about his recent history of sexual partners anyway so they can come in for treatment. I try to be as understanding as a woman like me can, but I didn’t hesitate to have a serious discussion with him about his choices in this day and age.

He didn’t really wanna focus in on what all his guilt was about, but I got the feeling it went much further than just not using precautions. But I didn’t push. He probably wouldn’t tell me any more than I needed to know. Not really my business no how. So I scheduled his test-of-cure appointment, sent him on his way, wrapped things up at the clinic, and went on my way. I had enough of my own goin on anyhow. I had to pick up my groceries.

Everything seemed like it wanted to take forever that Friday night. I waited on that bus stop for what seemed an eternity. I swear that bus didn’t wanna come, no matter how many cigarettes I lit up. When I finally got to the store, the clerk behind the register, this new girl I’d never seen before, had to check on the prices for nearly everythang I bought. She was slow as molasses in January. I knew I shouldna got in her line. It gave me much more time than I needed to get nervous about dinner. Hell, I went on and splurged a little bit and got me a cab home from the grocery store.

Now, no matter what the situation, I wasn’t gonna let no friend of my boy get secondary treatment, so I decided to cook up a nice downhome meal for us: collard greens with smoked turkey—I don’t use ham hocks no more, not since my cholesterol has gotten kinda high—country fried chicken, hotwater cornbread, candied yams, smothered corn, fried green tomatoes, macaroni and cheese, some hot peppers, a little leftover ham, and sweet potato pie for dessert.

Since everything was takin forever that Friday night, I got a late start: I’m sure you must know that the doorbell rings much earlier than I want it to. I turn down the stove, pull in a good breath, and go to open the door. Richie comes on in, and here comes a skinny little white boy after him. I do a doubletake and wouldn’t you know, it’s the same boy I saw not three hours earlier at the clinic. I like to fell out.

You shoulda seen the look on his face.

“Rosie—Rosie—Rosie!” is all I hear Richie say at first. Once he gets my attention, he says, all proudlike, “Auntie Rosie, this is my lover, Timothy.”

Lover? Humph. And white at that. Umph, umph, umph. You gonna try and tell me...? Now you can call me old fashioned, but I still ain’t understandin nothin bout men, or womens for all that matter, truly lovin each other in that way. Mavis Mannery told me Agnes Head’s boy went off to Washington D.C. some years back and got married, or somethin like that, in some mass ceremony they had during some political march or rally or some such. And I’m lookin at the two of them wonderin if they gonna go off and...

Let me not even think about that.

Well, you could imagine dinner is much more difficult than I already expected it to be. I forget all about what’s on the stove and get to wonderin where Timothy picked up that gonorrhea. I can’t let myself even believe it coulda been from Richie. But since Timothy didn’t tell me nothin at the clinic, my mind starts to wandering. I know I really shouldn’t be gettin in to all his business, but my Richie’s involved and I have to talk to somebody. So when Richie comes back up in here, don’t you dare let on that I told any of this to you, all right. I don’t know what I would do if he ever found...Well, he won’t. You got that, sweetie?

We go on ahead with dinner as planned, with me and Timothy swallowin much more than the food, while Richie just sits there, still a glowin, oblivious to everything. Honey, they don’t write’m like this on them trashy TV shows. Fortunately, I didn’t burn any food, and it turns out to be the kind of meal any boy would wanna wrap his lips around. But Timothy looks at his plate like something’s growin on it. Richie shoots him a look as if to say, “Don’t ask. Just eat.” I know my boy can cook, but I’m wondering what, if at all, he’s cookin for Timothy, among other things, cause Timothy sure don’t look like he had any downhome cooking before.

By now, the pauses is pregnant enough for triplets. My mind is a spinnin out of control, and halfway through my chicken I just blurt out: “You know STDs amongst homosexuals are on the rise these days.”

Timothy drops his fork and spits out his cornbread. Richie tries to clean up the cornbread but his elbow knocks his wine all over the tablecloth and in his plate. I reach over to try and save his food and get corn gravy all over the front of my new blouse.

It’s a mess all right.

“Rosie this is not the appropriate dinner table conversation,” Richie says, pretty calm for the situation, which, I must say, surprises me. But I’m even more surprised when I look closely at the two of them: I reckon from how they each react that Richie don’t know nothin bout Timothy’s little visit to the clinic and I look at Timothy in a completely different way. He excuses himself to go to the bathroom. That’s when Richie goes off: “Whada think you’re doing? You ain’t never brought any of that safe sex preachin at me—ever—much less to the dinner table and in front of my new—have you lost—? I know you care, Rosie. I do. But you need to save that partyline for the faggots who really need it and leave me and mine out of it!”

“Now baby, I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s come over me. I told you this wasn’t gone be easy. But I just—Look. Are you bein safe? Ain’t no tellin what you might pick up from this here boy,” I say. I’m trying my best to watch my mouth. I don’t know whether to blurt it all out or not. After so many years of nursing, of course, patient confidentiality keeps my mouth closed about some things easier than others. But my own flesh and blood could already have some infection or might get something from this boy this very night, seein as it takes a couple days for that treatment to get rid of everything, and I feel as if I oughtta be able to say something.

Timothy comes back from the bathroom and puts a momentary end to my confusion. He tells Richie he thought it best that he get going. He comes over to me, looks all sheepish in my eyes, and thanks me for the meal. Now, under the circumstances, this is quite gracious, so at least I know he was raised right. He and Richie exchange something over by the door. Richie comes back and tells me that he’s leavin too. And I’m left sitting there, alone, with a big old mess on the table.

How many places a day can go.

Richie ain’t been back by to see me since. I don’t know what to think about any of it. Maybe Richie’s the reason why Timothy seemed so guilty. Or maybe even Richie is the one—Oh no, no, no: I can’t think that about my boy.

Please don’t tell him I told you all of this. But when he comes in tomorrow, please tell him that I miss—well...

No. Don’t say nothing.

I just hope my boy’s gonna be… all right.

©2006 by Craig Hickman. All rights reserved.


muriel may campbell said...

Hey Craig,
We just read "Guess Who Came to Dinner?"
Thoughtful story, good balance of heart and humor. I absolutely love Rosie's character.You have a very clear voice in her. Did you channel her?
We hope you continue to write.
We want to hear the end, how Aunt Rosie and Richie work it out! But not too soon.
I hope it has some more unorthodox twists.

Thank you for the treat

muriel may campbell said...

you probably already know this...

Lawsuits have been filed to challenge the validity of the opponents (of same sex marriage) initiative banning the practice.

Specifically, opponents of Proposition 8 argue that this kind of change is a "revision," not an "amendment."
The distinction is important, legal experts say, because revisions require two-thirds approval in the legislature and then a popular vote.
Amendments can be approved by popular vote only.

If, as opponents say, the court finds that Proposition 8 qualifies as a revision, then the proposition would be found unconstitutional because its proponents would have, in effect, skipped the required legislative step.
If the court strikes down the initiative on these grounds, it is not certain the lawmakers would take up the issue again.

If the court sides with Proposition 8 proponents and allows the amendment, the recourse for gay rights activists would be to put the matter to voters again through their own initiative or take the matter to federal court -- something most activists are not ready to do, given the current composition of the Supreme Court.

We are so sorry this happened

Craig Hickman said...

I channeled her.