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My mama's name is Grace, but she's called Candi because of her candied sweet potato complexion.
My parents are originally from Otis, South Carolina. They got married right out of high school and my father joined the Air Force. After a career of thirty years and the birth of my two brothers (Rodney and Will) and me, Captain James Covington retired and he and Mama moved back home to Otis, a town of five thousand people.
* * *
"Okay," I told Mama, "but I want you to cook roast pork, fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, string beans and new potatoes, rice and okra. And, for dessert, I want carrot cake and sweet potato pie."
* * *
On Saturday morning, we were in Winn Dixie shopping for groceries when the baby's wail rang through the aisles. It sounded like somebody had stuck a hand down the infant's throat and squeezed its intestines.
I flinched. Mama held her shopping list in one hand, a can of mushroom soup in the other. She was saying something about sodium when the child's second scream broke her concentration. She glanced in the direction of the cry. "Something is wrong with that child!" she said softly, putting the can of soup back on the shelf.
A voice over the loudspeaker suggested that shoppers visit the produce section. . . watermelon, grapes, and peaches were on sale. Then one of my favorite songs by the Manhattans began to be piped through the store.
Mama eased her shopping cart toward the juices; I hummed along with the music.
The baby screamed again, the sound as sharp as a police siren. Mama looked at me; I threw her a look of reluctance, but it didn't do any good. She was going to see what the matter was with that child and that was all there was to it. I shrugged, then followed her toward the noise.
On the next aisle, near the canned vegetables, we spotted a woman who looked all of thirty-five years old, who smelled powerfully like the camphor used for canker sores. She was holding a baby and shaking it. The woman's skin was dark. She had small eyes, and a very large nose. As we walked toward her, she looked scared, almost terrified.
I glanced at the baby . . . it was beautiful, although its tiny face was as red as the labels on the cans of tomatoes that were on the shelf. It wailed again.
"Birdie Smiley, what's wrong with that baby?" Mama demanded.
Birdie stammered but she didn't stop shaking the baby in her arms. "I-I had no business--"
Mama interrupted impatiently, "That's Cricket's baby, Morgan. What have you done to that child?"
Birdie didn't look up. Instead, she began shaking the baby harder. The baby screamed.
"Stop that!" Mama shouted, then she snatched the crying baby from Birdie's arms. "If you keep that up you'll knock the wind out of her--she'll stop breathing!"
Birdie's body was trembling. Beads of sweat were on her forehead. "I-I ain't got no business keeping her . . . ain't got no business letting her come with me . . . I just remembered, I ain't got no business keeping nobody's baby!" The words poured from her mouth like a hot flood.
Mama was cradling the sobbing baby in her arms, looking down into its wide-open eyes. "Now, Morgan," she whispered. "Everything is going to be all right!"
"I ain't got no business keeping a baby," Birdie stammered. "Doctor told me I ain't got the nerves for it . . . ain't got no business . . . can't take care of no baby . . . won't do it again!"
The baby hiccuped and stopped crying. "I was at the hospital the day this baby was born," Mama said, as if talking to herself. "She had the brightest eyes, and when you talked to her, she paid attention like she understood exactly what you were saying."
I looked closer at Morgan. She was indeed enchanting. For a moment, I felt a strange inkling, like the prickle of an unfamiliar emotion. Morgan's eyes charmed me, too.
"Is Birdie some kin to Morgan?" I asked, thinking that such a nervous woman had no business taking care of this delightful baby.
"I don't think she is," Mama answered. "Cricket Childs, Morgan's mother, is one of my clients." Mama works for the Social Services Department.
"Then this beautiful child is the other side of the coin of a single-parent home," I said.
"I suppose," Mama replied, in a tone that told me that she didn't think my statement relevant.
As long as Morgan held on to my eyes, I had to agree with Mama. This captivating baby girl looked almost a year old. She had thick black hair and a flawless milk-chocolate complexion. Her eyes were dark and bright, her mouth small and round. She smelled of Johnson's baby powder. But cuteness wasn't all there was to this little girl. There was something bewitching about that child's gaze.
Mama smiled down at Morgan, clearly having fallen in love. This baby's bright beckoning eyes had that kind of power. "I can't imagine Cricket leaving you, sweet child," Mama whispered.
Birdie Smiley stood anxiously rubbing her arm and staring at Mama and little Morgan when Sarah Jenkins, Annie Mae Gregory, and Carrie Smalls eased up quietly beside Mama. In Otis, these three women are jokingly called the "town historians" because they go out of their way to know everything about everybody in Otis. Mama actually finds them helpful. She calls them her "source."
I was surprised to see the ladies, but Mama glanced at them as if she'd known all along that they were in the store. "Ladies," she said, without taking her attention from the smiling baby, "it's good to see you."
"I told you," Sarah Jenkins said, her voice strong despite her pasty complexion and constant preoccupation with her health, "that was Cricket's baby hollering."
Annie Mae Gregory is an obese woman, whose body is the shape of a perfect oval and who has dark circles around her stonelike eyes; Annie Mae always reminds me of a big fat raccoon. When she looks at you a certain way, she appears cross-eyed. She asked Mama, her jaws shaking like Jell-O, "Candi, what are you doing with Cricket Childs's baby?"
"I ain't got no business--" Birdie Smiley muttered, as if talking to herself again.
Mama glanced up. "Now, Birdie, Morgan is just fine now."
Carrie Smalls is a tall woman with a small mouth and a sharp nose. She holds her body straight, like she's practiced so that her shoulders wouldn't slump--I've told Mama more than once that it's Carrie Smalls who gives strength to the three women's presence, who gives a measure of credibility to what these three say. Carrie Smalls looks the youngest; she dyes her hair jet black and lets it hang to her shoulders. Now she looked down into Mama's arms at the baby girl. "Where's Cricket?" she asked, in an authoritarian tone.
Just about that time, Koot Rawlins, a large woman known for being full of gas, swung into the aisle and belched. Koot's shopping cart was full of lima beans, rice, fatback bacon, and Pepsi. She nodded a greeting but kept walking.
I went back to staring down into little Morgan's face. "My friend Yasmine, the beautician, she had a party a few weeks ago--a young woman named Cricket was there who told me she lived in Otis. Could she be this baby's mother?" I asked.
Mama's attention shifted back between me and the baby as if she was surprised. "There's only one Cricket Childs that lives in this town, and she's Morgan's mother, yes."
Annie Mae Gregory shook her head impatiently. "Where in the world is Cricket now?" she snapped.
Sarah Jenkins looked around. "I declare, Cricket's got her share of faults--"
"Whatever Cricket's faults," Mama interrupted, "she's a good mother. I can personally vouch for her devotion to this child."
Carrie Smalls shrugged. "I reckon you think 'cause your job throw you to be with her that you know her better than anybody else. My question now is where is Cricket, and why is she letting her baby cause so much confusion in this grocery store?"
"Cricket isn't far," Mama said, convincingly. "She must have left Morgan with Birdie for just a few minutes."
Carrie Smalls motioned to her two companions that it was time for them to leave. "You work for the welfare, Candi," she told my mother. "You know better than anybody else that if Cricket doesn't take better care of her child, it'll be your place to take her away from Cricket and put her in a home where she'd be properly taken care of. A grocery store ain't no place to drop off a child--"
"I don't think it's fair to say that Cricket dropped Morgan off in the store," Mama pointed out. "Birdie is taking care of the baby."
Carrie Smalls responded sharply, "There are times when Birdie can't take care of her own self, much less take care of a hollering baby!"
I watched the three women shuffle down the aisle toward the fruit and vegetables. But Mama ignored them. She was still staring at the baby in her arms. "We'll find your mama, sweetheart," she whispered. Her words seemed to hold the child's attention.
Suddenly, I decided I shouldn't be a part of this scene. Let me explain. I-I . . . well, I just don't have a very strong maternal instinct. Don't get me wrong, that doesn't mean I don't like babies--it's just that they don't turn me on like I'm told they are supposed to do!
My girlfriend Yasmine, the one I told you about who fixes hair, is a voluptuous young woman who had her nose job long before plastic surgery became a part of black folks' thing. Yasmine is about my age, unmarried, no children. And like me, she's in a monogamous relationship. Her friend's name is Ernest and while Yasmine won't admit it, I know she wants Ernest to ask her to marry him so that she could have a house full of babies. Yasmine and I could be walking inside the Mall, she'll see a baby and her eyes will light up. She starts with "ain't she cute," or "she's so precious," going on and on until I feel like I am going to gag. If the mother of the baby allows, Yasmine even starts talking gibberish that she swears the baby understands . . . The whole thing drives me crazy!
I've told Yasmine over and over again that the strong feeling for motherhood that she claims is normal just ain't there for me. "Girlfriend," she says, "something is seriously wrong with any black woman that ain't turned on by a baby!"
I have to admit there are times when I find myself wondering whether Yasmine is right. For instance, as Morgan's eyes drew me to her like a bee to honey, I found myself wondering what it would be like to have a daughter, and perhaps to have the kind of relationship with her the same as Mama has with me. That thought scared me. After all, I wasn't Candi Covington. How could I be sure that I could pull off the maternal thing as successfully as she had? Anyway, I didn't want to dwell on that thought, so I decided that seeing Mama hold tiny Morgan to her breast, hearing her speak soft, kind words, and seeing Morgan respond with a bubble of spit and cooing sounds wasn't what I needed to be watching right now.
Birdie Smiley, whose bottom lip trembled and who hadn't spoken since Sarah Jenkins, Annie Mae Gregory, and Carrie Smalls had moved on, now stepped backward, knocking down a few cans from the shelf.
Mama didn't look at Birdie. "Morgan," she was saying, "you are a pretty little thing, now aren't you?"
I remembered I wanted some Famous Amos so I turned and walked toward the cookie row. I stopped for a moment to taste the sample of vanilla pudding a demonstrator was handing out. I nodded, thinking of how the pudding would go well with the cookies that I'd already decided I was going to buy and stash in the trunk of my car.
A few minutes later, I was standing in the ten-items-or-less checkout line when I saw Sheriff Abe, his deputy Rick Martin, and Cricket Childs run into the store like they were going to put out a fire. Something was wrong. I decided to forget about paying for the cookies.
In the back of the store, a crowd had formed around Birdie, Mama, Morgan, Sheriff Abe, Deputy Rick Martin, and Cricket. I had to push past Sarah Jenkins, Annie Mae Gregory, and Carrie Smalls just to get next to Mama, who still held Morgan. Snatching the baby from Mama's arms, Cricket was glaring at Birdie Smiley as if she knew it wasn't Mama who meant her baby harm. "You've got a serious problem, crazy woman!" Cricket yelled.
Birdie's slightly crossed eyes had a pitiful look in them.
Cricket tapped her forehead. "You stole my baby from my car in broad daylight!"
Mama's eyes widened. "You didn't ask Birdie to keep your baby?" she asked Cricket.
Cricket's nostrils flared; she held her baby close to her breast. "She stole Morgan from my car when I went into the Shell station to pay for gas! Thank goodness the lady in the store recognized Birdie's station wagon. And thank goodness Miss Blanche drove up and told us that she'd just seen Birdie walk into this store with Morgan in her arms!"
Spasms twisted Birdie's plain face, like she had inner pain.
Sheriff Abe motioned to his deputy to disperse the gathering crowd. "Okay, folks," Rick Martin said, his voice rising above the loudspeaker music, an old Beatles song. "Things are under control now. So go about your business, go on with your shopping."
"Nobody is going to leave this store until Cricket and Birdie go!" Carrie Smalls declared loudly.
Deputy Martin walked over and gently took Birdie's arm. "I'm sorry, but you're going to have to come with me," he told her.
"If you touch my baby again, I'll kill you, you hear me?" Cricket shrilled, and in her arms little Morgan whimpered. "You're messing with the wrong black woman."
Birdie bit her bottom lip. Her eyes blinked uncontrollably. But she didn't say a word. Mama studied Birdie's face.
Sheriff Abe, who had known Birdie all her life, spoke. "You come on with me and Rick now," he told Birdie. "We'll get this thing settled properly."
"I'll kill you stiff dead," Cricket said, clutching Morgan so hard the baby started to cry again.
Mama's eyebrows shot up. "Take it easy," she said to Cricket.
"I'll kill her if she lays another hand on my baby!"
"No harm has come to Morgan," Mama pointed out. But she looked worried.
"If she so much as look at my Morgan again, I'll kill her. I swear!"
Sheriff Abe eased between Cricket and Birdie.
"Now that you've got that beautiful child back, why don't you take her home?" Mama suggested gently.
Cricket looked down at Morgan and her face lit up. "Don't you ever put your hands on my baby again," she warned Birdie Smiley. "If you touch my Morgan again, your behind is mine and nobody is going to keep me from it!"
We watched Cricket sashay away, swearing loud enough for everybody inside and outside of the store to hear her. Abe and Rick waited until she was driving out of the parking lot before they led Birdie toward their patrol car.
"Cricket isn't the most modest girl," Mama said to me, her eyes following Abe and Rick. "Actually, the girl is a bit on the wild side. I've spent more than a few hours trying to get her to tone down, think about her reputation in this town. I can't say she's paid much attention to what I've told her, though. Still, I know that she loves her baby. I'm convinced that she'd die for Morgan, if it ever came to that. No, it doesn't surprise me, the way Cricket acted. But, Birdie-- It just ain't her nature to do something like stealing a baby from an automobile."
"Maybe Birdie's crazy," I said, looking down at my Famous Amos cookies and wondering how many calories were in the whole package. "She certainly acted like she was unbalanced."
Mama shook her head sadly. "I admit there must be something seriously wrong with Birdie. There's no other reason I can think of for her to steal that baby in broad daylight and then bring her inside this store where a crowd of people would see them."
By now even the nosiest shoppers were moving on. Mama sighed. "You know, Simone, I've worked with both Birdie and her husband, Isaiah, doing volunteer work at the community center with our young people. I've never seen her so confused."
I shrugged. My mind wandered on to Cliff and the way he smiles like Richard Roundtree; the man drives me crazy. "We need to get home. I'm expecting Cliff to call," I said, changing the subject from Birdie and children.
Mama nodded as if she knew that my interest in the events that had just taken place had already waned.
I looked down into our shopping cart. We still hadn't picked up the pork roast or the chickens. "Let's get this over with," I told Mama, thinking of the wonderful meals she had promised me.
From the Paperback edition.