Chapter One I
Jesus Loves You (But not that much)
“Today, let’s give thanks for life. For life itself. For simply being born!”
My mother had been reading Random Acts of Kindness and the author’s name, Daphne Kingma, popped up in her head when the nurse asked.
“Daphne Sylk,” repeated the nurse, “lovely name, she’ll be a very lucky young lady if she looks like her mom.”
“Thank you,” mom replied, then, after the nurse left, speaking to the beautiful infant, that would be me, “Now all I have to do is figure out where we’ll live, what we’ll live on and how I finish school with no money, no job and you to care for. You are such a lucky little girl aren’t you?”
Susan Sylk, my mother, was 15. I squished into the world as the consequence of a young girl struggling with her sexuality, trying to force herself straight to please her parents. The only sex she’d had for real happened to be with the sixteen year old daughter of the associate pastor of their fundamentalist church. She and my mother had been having regular intimate encounters for nearly a year. They got busted by the girl’s mother, who came home unexpectedly early. The sight of her allegedly virgin daughter’s blond hair between mom’s long legs didn’t…how shall we phrase it?... ‘go down’ well with her mother, who stupidly told her husband…then the crap hit the crucifix.
Mom and the girl made the appropriate moves, prayers, sitting on far opposite sides of the church, endless questions and re-confessions to parents, followed by more prayer.
He was slim, tall and a star athlete, All That. He’d been after Susan for months, my mom was hot, but straight she was not. He didn’t know she liked girls, nor that she hated kissing him. They had intercourse once, and Susan was showing in three months. As she explained all this to me, several years later of course, it would be her first and last time for boys and their toys. It wasn’t me, she wanted me, it was the way she got spermed that failed to rock her world. She wasn’t mad at the dad, he went off to college and my mom never said who it was that got her pregnant. She didn’t want him to know, he was serially girlfriended, and, after he left, mom was just another chalk mark on his wall, number something or other.
Susan’s family, good Christians that they were, couldn’t deal with the paradox, gay and pregnant. Believers of any stripe don’t seem to handle paradox, or even mild uncertainty, very well. Susan thought it strange, because they didn’t seem to mind their God being paradoxical. One minute God was urging his minions to annihilate nonbelievers and the next issuing commandments about not killing. Susan wondered why she would have faith in a God who couldn’t even make up its mind.
Her mom helpfully suggested she pray for the Lord’s forgiveness. Her father called her a whore of Babylon and called on his God to raise her from her unnatural depravity. Like many Christians, they avoided doing anything themselves, instead shoving it off on their God. From all the evidence Susan had seen, their deity delighted in ignoring them, perversely dishing out more of the same misery they sought to avoid by sniveling to its holiness. Based on their book, the Holy Trinity is, at best, dissonant and neurotic. The father, sadistic, the son, masochistic. Nobody has a clue about the ghost.…passive aggressive maybe?
It didn’t help when Susan asked her father, “What’s the point of Christ dying for our sins if we never commit any?”
My less than grand grandfather raised his hand to slap her. Susan was no longer in the mood for supplication or placation, “Touch me and you will see your Jesus before the sun sets.”
Her black eyes cut clean through his anger, his chest suddenly burned with a stinging deep cold. He rubbed it slowly, it wouldn’t warm up.
He trembled, croaked, “Get…out.”
Facing the prospect of caring for an infant at fifteen, and entirely alone, could have degenerated into dead eyed catatonia or skin crawling terror. Her options were to end up in the morass of an antisocial social system designed to provide a teaspoon of help with a heaping measure of frustration and humiliation, or, she could deal with it. Mom decided to deal with it.
After a few days in a shelter, social service drones started sniffing around, looking to stifle Susan’s energy with their incompetence. She got a notice of hearings to decide the ‘best interests’ of the infant. She disappeared into the night. She decided I would be better off cold in the ground than be subjected to the Christian caring she’d had to endure for fifteen years. She slept in the park, then found a job waitressing, what else?
Walking through Brooklyn carrying me and a satchel with a change of clothes, mom tried to figure out how to work with me stuffed under her shirt. She sat on a stoop, just staring, exhausted and thirsty. She nursed me right there, decided to steal some food and a bottle of water.
Before she could launch her life of crime, there was a voice behind her. No burning bush, just an open screen door.
“What the damn in hell you doin’ out here, child?”
Susan turned to see a lanky black woman in a plain print dress and tennis shoes looking over her shoulder.
“Look at you. Feedin’ that baby out here on the street. Got-amn girl, theys every kind of slimy little snot in the world crawlin’ up and down this street. Come on in here. Let’s see about getting this baby some privacy to have her lunch,” the old woman pouted down at her.
Mom couldn’t decide whether to run, walk or just cry. She was too tired to cry, which pretty much eliminated the other two.
“Git on up now. Here give me this child. You too damn young to be carrying around this baby on the streets. Come on in now, come on, ain’t nobody gonna hurt you or this precious baby. Nobody inside but old Alva. Git inside honey, before some nosy ass po-lice come along wonderin’ about a young girl and an infant out on the street alone.”
Susan stood and followed the old woman inside.
Ms. Alva was seventy-eight, or eighty-two, the number varied by whatever story she told, livelier than people half her age, nothing if not direct, “Got-amn, you the same age as me when I had my first baby. That was a ways back, she grew up good and decent. Then had some kids of her own, moved out to California. Don’t see ‘em now, don’t know where the good went bad. Calls me on the phone every who knows when. Husband gone, kids all messed up, gettin’ busted, doin’ dope. Spends all her time down at the got-amn precinct bailing out one or another dumb ass. I told her to leave their sorry butts in jail and come on back here. Tells me she want to stay out in the good weather. Weather got nothing to do with it, anybody stay tied up in that much trouble must like trouble. Well, you got to raise ‘em then let ‘em go. I was reminiscing about babies and you show up with one, right on my stoop. You a baby yourself ain’t you? Beautiful young girl like you, this precious baby gonna be a fine young thing like her momma, just wait and see.”
My mother is tall, slim, amazing legs, long thick black hair and dark eyes, leaning to oriental. Her elegantly long neck graced by a face at once youthful and sophisticated. It never occurred to her to become a model, it would have been child’s play, even in New York.
“What’s your name, what’s this precious baby’s name? What happened so’s a girl hardly grown nursing a baby out on Alva’s stoop?”
Susan told her story. More energetic after a cool drink of water and a cup of Ms. Alva’s hundred mile coffee….one cup and you could walk a hundred miles.
Ms. Alva didn’t say a word while Susan told her how she came to be there, then, “Child, child, you done come up against a wave of holy rollin’ self righteousness, ain’t you? Okay, you say you got a job starts tomorrow. That’s tomorrow. Today, let’s get you set up in the back. There’s room, a bed, it’s clean, quiet. Get you some rest, we’ll talk it through later.”
At first, Susan was nervous about leaving me with Ms. Alva. Then she thought, exactly how is it worse than leaving Daphne with me? I can’t boil water. She also concluded that old women don’t get to be old women by being either stupid or incapable. She decided to get busy. This feisty old woman was a gift to both her and her baby. Susan got a clean room and loving child care for one low price, free.
Ms. Alva knew about hard times, when black people didn’t get so much as even grudging tolerance. She knew about the Jesus crowd and their stupid predictability.
The behavior of mom’s family didn’t surprise her, her verdict, “Got-amn dumb shits, you best shuck of them people honey.”
Alva knew all about vanished men, useless family and the faceless indifference of so called social services. Twice misnamed, neither social nor services.
Over the next hash slinging weeks, Ms. Alva helped my mom understand the rules.
“Rule one: every fool think they know what’s best. Rule two: since they know what’s best, you supposed to do what they say. Rule three: they full of it. People don’t even know what’s best for them, look at all the got-amn trouble they create just walking around. How they know what’s best for you? You start listening to fools, all you gonna be is another fool. Don’t pay no never mind to bullshit advice. Even mine. You gonna dig yourself into a hole, leastways do it with your own shovel.”
She explained to Susan that what she would get from the system wouldn’t even include good intentions. It would definitely include a truckload of wasted time and effort, not to mention attempts to wrestle me away at the slightest provocation.
“Better to spend your time working than spend it listening to bullshit from antisocial services. The only thing they going to do is tell you all about the shit they can’t do. Then all the shit you got to do to get the slightest thing from them; then whine how this been cut and that been cut and how their case load is so big. They all sittin’ around drinkin’ coffee, talkin’ about how much work they got…bull-shit and bull-shit.”
She also explained that getting a good job was, first, harder than it seemed and, second, even harder to keep, “Bosses full of it too. They intend to get outta you as much as they can for as little as they can. On top of that, pretty young girl like you going to have to listen to all manner of nasty assholes laying their shit on you. One of ‘em bound to be the boss. You catch my meanin’?”
Susan caught Ms. Alva’s meaning. She’d already been harassed by the owner of the restaurant, nothing physical, heading there, “So what do you think I can do?”
“Do your own work for you. Job you just walk away from if the cage starts to stink. Don’t get caught up in no wage job where they gonna swipe most of your pay for this and that. If you got to clean houses, clean houses. Woman give you shit, tell her to kiss your tight white ass and walk. Go to school. Learn how to do somethin’ where you can have your own business.”
Susan, “I never got out of high school. That could take a long time.”
“Might, can’t say. You young, you got a long time. Just gonna take longer the longer you fiddle around. I know this, you get caught up in the hourly wage world, you stuck being the mule of the man. I cleaned houses, I sat for other people’s kids. People gave me grief, I hit the road. I raised my baby, then raised her babies until they left town, I paid my own way, bought this little house, paid for it. It ain’t much, I don’t need much. I give you another rule, never seen it fail. Rule 4: you got to fill out a form to get a job, you ain’t got no job, job got you.”
The old woman made sense, old women often do. Susan was cleaning houses the next week. She took a short bus ride to a nearby, more upscale neighborhood. She passed out a hand printed sheet with her name, phone number and an e-mail address she could check at the library. She got calls right away and working the same area made getting around simpler. Unlike the waitress job, she set the price and it was all daytime work. Nobody wants you to clean their house at night, unless they have more than housework on their mind.
Chapter Two I
Susan went to computer training classes two nights a week and Saturday. She discovered she had a knack for the organized logic of computers. Working relentlessly, in two years she had a solid knowledge of web design, programming, could speak fluent spreadsheet. You couldn’t follow the screen as quickly as she could fill it up. Gamers can, with constant practice, learn to wind their way through a game with virtually flawless precision. They are good at knowing what the game wanted. Susan could make the machine deliver what she wanted. It’s the difference between a skilled hacker and a mere gamer
One afternoon, she was wiping down the blinds in the office of one of her cleaning customers.
The woman banged her hand on the desk, “Shit! What does this thing want? I followed the flipping instructions.”
Mom looked over at the screen, there was an Excel spreadsheet open, some rows of numbers, the columns looked misaligned.
She said, “I can fix that if you’d like.”
The next thing Susan knew she was sitting in an air conditioned home office organizing and entering data into a spreadsheet for $50 an hour. Her employer was an insurance consultant who wanted to consult, not create spreadsheets and enter data. She introduced Susan to one of her clients, the owner of a plumbing supply business. His son said he should have a website for his business, did Susan know anything about that kind of ‘computer stuff?’ Susan created a site for him, put all the current customers in a database, collected their e-mail addresses, and got the owner to write up a newsletter to send out every couple of weeks.
At first he balked, said he couldn’t be giving away this information. Why would anyone do business with him if he gave away his knowledge? Susan explained that it would show his expertise, he would become the Einstein of Plumbing. He moaned and groaned, she coaxed and prodded him into making his newsletter useful and interactive.
He thought it was a miracle, he started getting what he called “free business.” People called him from around town, even other states, e-mailing him questions. He or his son answered, he got orders. Lots of them. He told everyone he knew in the local Chamber of Commerce about this girl genius he found. Susan was off and running. She was just shy of 18.
Six months later mom moved to her own apartment. Since she worked out if it, she didn’t need to deal with child care for me. When she did need to go to the customer, she often took me, or dropped me at Ms. Alva’s.
She offered to move Ms. Alva in with us. The old woman wouldn’t hear of it. She loved her neighborhood and her small house. She appreciated the money and was more appreciative that Susan took time to bring lanky me for long visits. My youth didn’t stop Ms. Alva’s lessons.
“Never too young to be warned against the world’s assholes,” she would say, getting a roll going. “They all slick with bullshit until you get pregnant, then they invisible. Slimy little snots.”
By the time I could talk, I called the bad guys on TV ‘slimy little snots.’ We watched Law and Order reruns, which I recall being endless, NYPD Blue, Buffy and Oz. Oz was wild, not the Wizard of, the prison show, bad guys being very bad.
Ms. Alva explained that, while it was TV, the programs at least resembled real life enough to learn that the world is full of very good people, most in-between, and lots of users and abusers. She hammered into me that smarmy emotions unchecked were like deep water drilling with faulty blowout preventers. In the end, there would be greasy muck all over everything. She taught me that punk-ass bullies were like roaches in the city and while the worst of them were in first class, the ones in coach held their own dangers.
“Ms. Alva,” I asked, “What do I do about them? I don’t want mom, or you, or me to get hurt.”
She told me, “Punks assume you gonna be afraid. Rich punks, street punks, all the same shit. Let ‘em have it quick and hard. I recollect being down south, just starting high school, jive ass nigger put his hands on me. I turned, balled up my fist and rearranged that boy’s fat nose into a fat, flat one,” she laughed, “back then, us colored people went to different schools than whites. Afraid of us and hating us for it. Afraid their daughters would get raped by a black man. Even then, their cracker wives were doing black men on the sly. Getting even for having to shuck for their husbands and listen to his bullshit like it was God’s word.”
“Why are men like that, bossy, aggressive?”
“Honey, the world’s like that. They learned what their daddy taught them, been that way since dirt. The monkeys we all came from have the same behavior, bit less primitive. They fight, but it usually ends in one of the monkeys backing down. Today, the little monkey shoots the big one.”
I took in that lesson, between the made up violence on TV and what I saw in the world, the river wasn’t very wide. I sat with it, thought it over, I found out that I wasn’t afraid, more curious.
One trip to Gristedes, in the checkout, a fat kid started pushing me from behind. Mom started to intervene, then decided to wait and see what I would do.
I didn’t say anything to Susan, instead, I turned to the boy’s mother, “If you don’t get your slimy little snot under control, I will.”
The woman made the mistake of looking down at me with a smirk, otherwise ignoring me. Junior, about 6 or 7, tried to push me again. I grabbed his arm and smashed him in the nose, hard, just like Ms. Alva talked about.
The woman paid more attention, “What is the matter with that kid? Look at my baby, he’s bleeding! I ought to sue you. She needs to be put in a detention center.”
Mom, “She’s five, lady. You thought it was funny when your fat little toad was pushing on her. You were warned.”
The woman mumbled about “some people,” Susan didn’t catch it. The kid was slobbering, his mumbling mom wiping snotty blood off his blubbery face. I was doing a fist up fist down with the girl who bagged the groceries.
“Girl POW-er baby.”
Chapter Three I
I was usually rambunctious, but would sit quietly in Ms. Alva’s lap and listen raptly to the stories of her life, told just how they happened. Ms. Alva’s descriptions were direct and unvarnished. Her nephew was “that little prison prick.” Her sister’s husband’s brother the “fat pervert” as he had a fondness for girls on the south side of legal age and clocked in at four hundred pounds. She laced her stories with lessons for both Susan and me about not being some man’s fool.
“Can’t count on much, but you can count on some smooth talkin jive ass coming around, running his head ‘bout love. Gonna tell you how he needs you, wants to take care of you. What that shit means is he wants your body and needs you to take care of him. You give him something alright, you give him a look at your ass as you walk away.”
Ms. Alva prepared food, just like when we lived there. She gave us freezer bags full of southern delight. Nothing for mom to do but heat and eat. The old woman wouldn’t take money as a gift, she would take it for cooking and packing up food for Susan and me. Susan considered money for Ms. Alva educational expenses; better than Harvard Business School. Ms. Alva always said it was too much and mom always said it was too little.
I grew up on turnips, kale, butterbeans, fried chicken and pork chops. White or red beans, with pork sausage and ham, were a freezable staple. Susan and I ate fresh apple pie, huge biscuits with butter and cane syrup, fried eggs and bacon or salt pork. Ms. Alva served up grits, with butter and sugar. Despite Ms. Alva’s best efforts, she couldn’t get an extra pound on either of us.
Ms. Alva, watching us eat, often told us, “Damn, I don’t know what you do with it. You eat good, both of you, and you still built like sticks.”
“Ms. Alva, where did you learn to cook like this?”
“My grandmother and my mother, baby. I grew up down south. We cooked damn near everything we ate in these three iron skillets. Everything else in that black pot. When it’s my time, I’m giving them to you. They's been cured and aged for nigh on 60 years, these pots. They’ll be cooking just as good when you show your babies how to do it.”
Susan managed to convince her that the time she saved by not having to do it herself was worth paying for, not to mention what might happen to me if I had nothing to eat but mom’s cooking. Susan, for all her computer skill, couldn’t heat up take out without burning it. I handled kitchen duty at home, and I loved watching Ms. Alva cook. By age seven, I knew all of Ms. Alva’s recipes and tricks by heart, and had them saved in mom’s laptop.
“That girl the most organized, step by step thing I ever did see. She tells me if I left out something. I never did write down a recipe, she got ‘em all in that little computer. Says it’s a laptop. I asked her when she gonna get a lap to put it on, skinny little thing. Showed me how it works. It says, ‘Ms. Alva’s Kitchen,’ right on the screen. Ain’t that the sweetest got-amn thing you ever seen? All my soups, my pie crust, how to make cornbread, beans, fry chicken, how I make my batter, how I batter the pieces and how long I fry ‘em. She knows how long I cook a pork chop in the skillet, and what temperature I cook it at. All these years, I just slap ‘em in the skillet and cook ‘em til’ they's done. Now that little rascal got that timer dingin’ for everything. Sound like a got-amn game show in here. I told her, just look at it girl. When it’s nice and brown, it’s done.”
Alva laughed her throaty laugh, smiling the whole time she told the story, “Sassy little thing don’t pay me no mind, God bless her. She got her way, I got mine. That’s how the got-amn hell it ought to be. I told her, she could cook everything I do right at her house.”
Ms. Alva sighed, “Bless that child, you know what she said? But then I wouldn’t have time to see you Ms. Alva. Ain’t that the most precious got-amn thing you ever heard? I do love that sassy skinny girl. All legs and elbows.”
Chapter Four I
Susan smiled at Ms. Alva’s observations. What luck had come her way. First, plopping down tired and discouraged on Alva’s stoop seven years earlier. Over a year ago, she joined a martial arts class in Manhattan. Just as she was recalling how I'd clocked the fat kid at the grocery, she passed the studio and walked in. We had moved from Brooklyn and the class was in our new Greenwich Village neighborhood. The instructor she talked to was Chris Fischer, a 5th degree black belt. Chris had been training casually since she was a little girl. She got serious when she met Master Kim years ago. Now Chris is twenty-six, Susan twenty.
It would be difficult to imagine two people more strangely suited to one another. Chris had come from money, not a fortune, but enough to have a good condo on Perry St. Her dad bought it as an investment in the late eighties, when a million dollars was still money. He’d paid up, not nearly as up as prices skyrocketed in the go-go nineties. He rented it for a few years, then remodeled it for Chris. She moved in when she was twenty one. She made a decent income from the school as the lead instructor for Master Kim. With a paid for condo, no car or debt, she didn’t need to make a fortune.
Chris was largely responsible for increasing the school’s female participation. Not because she was gay, because she was a very good instructor. She was pleasant, did not ingratiate herself, she was as direct in her way as Ms. Alva, with an edge.
I learned she had always been a tomboy, her father’s son. Her dad made his money in construction. He did it in the less than genteel New Jersey suburbs, where every punk thug thought he was supposed to get a piece of your hard earned profit for nothing but insuring you didn’t have labor problems. Or that your building didn’t burn down. Chris learned the art of physical persuasion from her dad. She’d busted more than a few sets of testosterone laden balls, some ribs, a few legs and noses.
He knew she wasn’t straight, he knew she wasn’t going to find a man and settle down. He loved his hard edged daughter, and he didn’t want her to wind up in the construction business, doing what he had to do to make it work. Along with the condo, he gave her a decently funded investment account. He had a stroke a year later. A month after that, he died. Chris’ mother was a drunk, long gone, she had not been close to her brothers. Her dad left her comfortable, not filthy rich, but free to pursue her interests. Her interest was martial arts.
When they met, Chris didn’t know Susan was gay, mom did have me after all. Chris wasn’t femme, but she didn’t do the butch thing, and there isn’t an identification tattoo. Chris sure as heck wasn’t going to wear rainbow crap.
She told mom one day, “Rainbow junk is for gays. I’m not gay, I’m a lesbian. Gay is such a…gay….word. I’m queer, a dyke, a homosexual, if you have to get fancy, Sapphic, fuck gay.”
Mom liked direct, and she like someone with strength of character, to be who she was. Chris was less complicated. She liked the fact that mom is hotter than a nuclear meltdown. The attraction was strong enough that reasons didn’t matter, most people’s reasons are excuses anyway. They were a couple in less than a month.
Susan and I still made the weekly trip to Ms. Alva’s, sometimes with Chris. Ms. Alva her usual straight talking self.
“Damn, that’s a powerful woman. She tighter than an outside linebacker. All that muscle, she could be black. Got you a black belt kick ass girlfriend, don’t you girl?”
Ms. Alva said Susan and I could be sisters so often, I began calling her ‘Sis.’ Sis had to agree with Alva’s observation, Chris is muscular, and she could most certainly kick some butt if need be. Still, it was funny to hear Ms. Alva talk about “your momma’s kick ass girlfriend.”
After two years of dating, which started as staying weekends, then most nights, Chris asked, “Would you be comfortable moving into the condo?”
Susan, “Are you ready to have a family? I mean all the time?”
Chris, “I would be thrilled if you said yes.”
Chris squeezed her shoulder, “That's my girl....I respect your independence, I was a little worried about asking. I won’t tie you down.”
Susan, “As long as you tie me up, we won’t have a problem.”
I looked shocked, “There are children present. Kindly control yourself.”
Susan, “Children? Where?”
“I’m eight, practically an infant, Sis.”
I continued, “And very delicate. With the potential trauma of this move on my tender psyche, I think a number of presents would be in order.”
Chris, “What would work, to ease your, uh, trauma?”
“A new laptop. I’m writing my memoirs and I can type faster than the machine can think.”
Susan, “Sounds like extortion. How long can an eight year old’s memoirs be?”
“Deal or no deal?”
Susan, “You are such a sucker for her.”
Chris pulled me onto her lap and smothered me with kisses, “Yes, yes, I am.”
My glow glowed, I winked at Sis, she half smiled, “Extortionist.”