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The booming music coming from Momma’s radio alarm clock suddenly woke me. I could hear Elton John singing about Philadelphia freedom.
I wonder why Momma didn’t wake me? I thought to myself.
It was January 1976. Wasn’t no school that day. But Momma still had to go to work. So, while Momma was at work, I was goin’ over to Daddy’s house to play with Kelly, the daughter of his lady friend.
I wonder why she didn’t wake me? I thought again to myself as I climbed out of bed.
When I passed the dresser I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Boy, was I ugly.
“Skinny, black, and ugly.” That’s what the kids at school called me. Or they’d yell out, “Vette, Vette, looks just like my pet!”
My name was La’Vette, but my first birth name was Cupcake. At least that’s what my momma told me. Seems Momma craved cupcakes when she was pregnant with me. She had three cupcakes a day, every day, without fail, for nine and a half months (I was two weeks overdue). Momma said that even if she didn’t eat anything else, she’d have her daily dose of cupcakes.
Anyway, seems that while “we” were in labor, the hospital gave Momma some pain drugs. Once Momma popped me out, the nurse said:
“Pat”—that was my momma’s name—“you have a little girl. Do you know what you want to name her?”
Tired and exhausted from eight hours of hard labor, Momma lifted her head, smiled sheepishly, and said, “Cupcake,” before she passed out.
So that’s what they put down on my birth certificate. I mean, that is what she said. (The nurses thought it was due to the excitement of motherhood, Momma said it was the drugs). A few hours later, however, when Daddy came to the hospital he decided he didn’t like “Cupcake.” Momma said Daddy wanted to name me La’Vette. So, just to make Daddy happy, Momma said she had the hospital change my name. I didn’t mind, really. I loved my daddy; so as far as I was concerned, he could change my name to whatever he wanted. But, Momma said that to her I would always be Cupcake. She never called me anything else, ’cept sometimes she called me “Cup” for short.
Anyway, the kids at school always told me that I was ugly. They teased me, saying I looked like “Aunt Esther,” that old lady from Sanford and Son, the one always calling Sanford a “fish-eyed fool.” She was the ugliest woman I’d ever seen. So if the other kids thought I looked like her, I knew I had to be ugly. Besides, everybody knew a black girl wasn’t considered pretty unless she was light-skinned with long straight hair. I was dark-skinned with short kinky hair. I hated my complexion. I hated my hair. I hated my skinny legs and arms.
But, my momma thought I was beautiful. She’d say:
“Cup, you’re only eleven years old. You will appreciate your beauty as you grow up.”
Shoot, I couldn’t wait to grow up!
Momma always said things to make me feel better. I loved my momma. She was my best friend and she was beautiful: she had cocoa-colored skin and her long black hair hung way past her shoulders. And, Momma had the biggest, prettiest smile you ever saw. People always told her that she looked like Diana Ross because of her long hair and wide beautiful smile—all teeth.
I passed the black ugly thing in the mirror and continued toward Momma’s room. The radio alarm continued to blast. I giggled to myself. Momma was like me. She hated getting up in the morning, so she put the clock way across the room and turned it all the way up so it would scare her awake in the morning. That way, she’d have to get out of bed and walk across the room to turn it off.
I wonder why she didn’t turn the alarm off? I thought as I made my way through the kitchen toward the large living room that led into Momma’s room. The floor was cold because wasn’t no carpet in our house. Still, I loved our old house. It was Victorian style, three bedrooms and one bathroom.
We lived in San Diego in the heart of the ghetto, though I never knew it until I got older. We had our share of dilapidated houses, and run-down apartment buildings, but most of the houses and apartments in the neighborhood were in decent order. I mean, we didn’t have any mansions, but most folks made sincere efforts to keep their houses decent-looking: they watered their tired brown lawns, trying to keep them up (as kept up as a lawn could be with kids runnin’ over it all the time), and tried to replace windows that had been broken from runaway fly balls that escaped the imaginary fields of street baseball games.
We had a great neighborhood store, Sawaya Brothers, that had everything you could need or want, including the most delicious pickled pig feet. We had a neighborhood park, Memorial Park, a boys’ club and a girls’ club.
I thought my family was rich because I was the only kid in the neighborhood who had her own bedroom, furnished with a white princess-style bedroom set complete with a canopy bed, matching nightstands, and dresser. There was a pink frilly comforter with matching frills for the canopy overhead. And, I had a closet full of clothes. Unlike other kids in my neighborhood, I never had to share clothes or wear hand-me-downs. Momma loved to sew and made most of my clothes.
The other kids thought we were rich too. Little did we know that we weren’t rich—it’s just that both my mom and dad worked while the other kids only had one parent trying to raise several kids either on one income or, more commonly, on welfare, though being on welfare wasn’t nothing to be ’shamed about. Most everybody was. In fact, I envied my friends on welfare because they got government food that you couldn’t get from the store, like this great government cheese. You ain’t had a grilled cheese sandwich till you’ve had one made with government cheese.
The blasting radio brought me back to my immediate mission: finding out why Momma didn’t wake me.
I wished she’da woke me up, I thought as I followed the sound of the blasting radio. I was excited about going to my daddy’s.
My momma and daddy didn’t live together. Daddy lived around the way with my brother, Larry. I hated Larry. Larry was thin and lanky like me. And he was dark-skinned like me. Although he was two years older than me, he never acted like a big brother. He never protected me. In fact, HE was usually the one I had to be protected FROM. And, usually, it was ME jumping in a fight to protect HIM. I thought he was a wimp.
Larry hated me just as much as I hated him, but for different reasons. He was jealous of me. He’d never admit it, but I knew he was. I was the one who always got good grades and saved my weekly allowance so I could buy something nice and big, while Larry hated school (and was always on the verge of flunking out) and spent his money faster than he got it—and then had the nerve to get mad when he didn’t have anything left.
Our hate for each other resulted in fierce fights: cussin’ each other out (a skill I’d turned into an art from an early age) and throwing knives and hammers (or anything else lethal we could find) at each other. Our fights were no joke. We were trying to kill each other for real, or at least cause loss of body parts. In our house, before Larry went to live with Daddy, I could never slack up and always had to watch my back because we were always trying to sabotage each other.
Once I woke to Larry trying to smother me with a pillow. Bastard. He just woke up one day and decided he’d try to kill me. I had to fight, kick, scratch, punch, and scream to get him off me. I got him back, though: I tried to poi- son him.
Larry was always trying to boss me around. One day, after yet another unsuccessful attempt at killing me, he’d ordered me to get him some Kool-Aid. And I did—with a little rat poison in it. But watching my sudden obedience, he got suspicious. Talkin’ ’bout he smelled “somethin’ funny.” He ordered me to take a drink first. I took a sip, but I didn’t swallow. I just held it in my mouth, hoping he’d now be willing to drink. He was smarter than I thought. He fucked around and fucked around twirling the Kool-Aid in the glass with a sly grin on his face till I couldn’t hold what was in my mouth anymore without swallowing.
Oh shit! I thought, I can’t kill myself! That’d be right up his alley!
I ran for the bathroom, which confirmed Larry’s suspicions that something was up. He ran ahead of me and blocked the bathroom door with his body, laughing hysterically at the irony of the situation. My only other option was out the front door—halfway ’cross the house. I’d never make it.
“Swallow it, bitch!” he ordered, his body still blocking the doorway, hands up in the air like a soccer goalie. Damn, I hated him.
But, I would have the last word on this one. It took me a moment to think of a way out, but then it came to me. As I realized my way out, the look of terror on my face from envisioning what seemed to be my impending death slowly changed into a wide-ass grin: I spit the Kool-Aid in his face. And with that, it was on—we tumbled, kicked, bit, and scratched, until we tired ourselves out and retreated to opposite ends of the house to await the next battle.
So I was really glad when Momma sent Larry to go live with Daddy. Larry had started talking back to Momma, being smart-mouthed and sassin’ her. I remember the day Larry left. Momma told Larry to move a can of paint from off the back porch. Larry angrily stomped toward the paint can, but instead of moving it, he kicked it (as if punting a football), toward Momma. I don’t know if he meant for the can to hit her. But it did. The can flew into the air like a football toward a goalpost. It struck Momma on the shoulder as it made its way back down. The impact from the can hitting Momma’s shoulder caused the lid to topple off and paint flew everywhere.
Momma stood there for what seemed like forever, although it was really only a moment, paint dripping off her clothes and face like icicles off a tree. I swear I thought I saw smoke coming out of her ears. She balled her fist. I thought she was going to knock the shit out of Larry (actually, I was hoping she would; then maybe I could get in a kick or two), but instead she spun suddenly and quickly on her heels (her long black hair flying out behind her reminded me of Batman’s cape), stomped into the house and, over to the phone, and called my daddy.
“Come get this lil nigga fo I kill him!” she screamed.
Needless to say, Daddy quickly came and Larry quickly went. Larry had lived with Daddy ever since. Daddy saved Larry’s life that day.
After Larry left, we really didn’t see much of each other; which was fine with both of us. Daddy and Momma would switch me and Larry on the weekends so each parent could spend time with the child he or she didn’t live with. This meant that Larry and I had to see each other only in passing (and even that was too much for me).
I loved my weekends with my daddy. We’d dress up: Daddy would put on his one suit and I’d put on a nice dress and we’d go out on a date. We’d usually go somewhere for dinner and then to the movies. My daddy was the only person besides my momma who thought I was pretty. He’d hop me up on his knee and ask:
“Who’s the prettiest girl in the whole wide world?”
And, in between giggles, I’d say:
But I never believed it. He HAD to think I was pretty. He was my daddy. When we were out on our dates, he’d ask everyone:
“This is my daughter. Ain’t she pretty?”
What were they going to say?
“Actually sir, she looks like shit”?
No, they smiled and lied and told Daddy I sho was pretty. I didn’t care that they were lyin’. I loved my daddy and I loved our dates.
Didn’t bother me that Momma and Daddy didn’t live together either; they still loved each other. Daddy did have a lady friend, Lori—but to me, she was just that: his friend. Lori was a tall, thin white woman. She reminded me of Popeye’s girlfriend Olive Oyl, but I still liked her because she made the best chocolate cake (my favorite). I really liked her daughter, Kelly, a pudgy Mexican-looking girl with long black hair, only six months younger than me. Neither of us had a sister, so we decided we’d be each other’s sister. We played together and always had fun together. She didn’t mind being silly, and she was always willing to play my favorite game: Africans. I’d be “Unga-Bunga,” and she’d be “Oooga-Wooga.” We’d jump around with fake spears, acting a fool. I had no idea what it was like to be a real African so I imitated what I’d seen on TV. I didn’t know that TV was run by white folks. What do white folks know about being African? Nothing. But at the time I was too young (and really didn’t care) to know.
Anyway, I couldn’t wait to get to Daddy’s house so Kelly and I could play.
Why didn’t Momma wake me? I thought again as I continued walking toward her room, my head down in deep thought while I contemplated which outfit I would wear to daddy’s. I looked up and froze. I’ll never forget what I saw.
The radio was still blasting in the background. Momma was lying facedown on her stomach. She was hanging off the side of the bed from her waist up. Her long black hair was hanging down, covering her face. Her arms hung limp to the floor.
“Momma?” I asked, walking slowly toward her.
The radio continued to blare. As I got closer, it seemed to get louder.
I thought maybe she was kidding. Momma was always playing with me. Just the night before we were playing house and doing each other’s hair, dancing around and acting silly. I thought Momma was just playing another game, so I expected her to jump up like a jack-in-the-box and scream, “Boo!”
But she didn’t move.
I touched her arm. She was cool. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew it wasn’t good.
“Momma?” I repeated as I tried to lift her up by her shoulders so I could see her face. I didn’t know death was so heavy. When I tried to lift her, her body slid off the bed and onto me, and we both hit the floor with a thud. As she landed on top of me I heard a gurgling noise in her throat. She was heavy.
Still I didn’t panic.
It took awhile but I managed to squeeze myself from up under her and turn her over. She was so beautiful—even dead.
I don’t know how I knew she was dead. I’d never seen death before. I just knew.
I got up and slowly walked over to the nightstand where the phone lay and called Lori.
“Hello,” Lori answered.
“Lori, this is Vette. My momma’s dead.”
I said it so casually, Lori thought she’d misunderstood what I’d said.
“What’d you say?” she asked.
“My momma’s dead.” I repeated in the same casual voice.
“Are you sure?”
“Stay right there! I’m gon’ call your father!”
I hung up and almost immediately the phone rang. I nonchalantly picked it up.
“Punkin, this is Daddy.” My daddy always called me Punkin. Never “Pumpkin” always “Punkin.” Once I asked him why, and he said because when I was a baby, I had big chubby cheeks that made my face look like a little roun’ pumpkin, and ever since, he’s called me Punkin. I never had no problem keeping up with all of my different names. Momma called me Cup. Daddy called me Punkin. Everybody else called me Vette.
“Punkin, what’s going on?!”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure!”
We were screaming at each other because the radio was still blasting. I’d never turned it off.
“Call the police, I’ll be right there!” he yelled before slamming down the phone.
I didn’t call the police. Somehow I knew that once they came they’d take Momma away and I’d never see her again. So instead, I went back to her, scooted my little body under hers so I could put her head in my lap, and began singing our favorite song: “Chain of Fools” by Aretha Franklin. We used to play that song as we sang and danced around the house. In fact, we had just been dancing to it and singing it the night before. I hadn’t known then that that would be our good-bye party. It was then I began to cry.
And that’s how Daddy found me a half hour later: sitting on the floor with Momma’s head in my lap, stroking her hair and, through my tears, singing “Chain of Fools.”
From the Hardcover edition.