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By ALEX HAIRSTON
DAFINA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Alex Hairston
All right reserved.
I wanted to die the day they found Momma's body. It was midsummer, hot and muggy. I was eight years old and my sister, Serena, was only seven years old. We couldn't really understand what was going on. Momma was only missing for a day, and then the next thing I knew, most of our neighbors were standing around outside of our house trying to find out what had happened to that pretty white woman who was married to the big, mean, black policeman. They were talking about my daddy. He was one of the most hated men in Eden, North Carolina. That never bothered him none, but it sure did bother me.
The night before they found Momma's body, I was awakened by the sounds of adult laughter. Somebody was having a good ole time. I could hear Momma tiptoeing around and giggling like she'd had a few drinks. It was late, but my daddy was still at work. He was dedicated to his job and to taking good care of his family. Momma knew she was wrong because she had another man in our house. Brothas in Eden admired her beauty and fondness for black men. Most white men and a lot of black women despised her for that reason. I think that's why Daddy didn't allow her to work. He figured that keeping Momma at home was the best and safest place for her to be.
I couldn'tfigure out who was in our house that night, but I knew it wasn't my daddy. His first rule was that no man was to be in his house around his wife and daughters, especially if he wasn't at home.
Back then, Serena and I shared a bedroom. Disney was the theme of our room, all about innocence and imagery. Our bookshelves were lined with colorful children's books. We couldn't get enough of stories like Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. We played and slept in a bright and cheerful environment. Mickey, Minnie, Donald, and Goofy were on everything from our bedspreads, curtains, and lamps down to our little throw rugs. Momma kept our bedroom neat and our clothes and linen smelling April fresh. One of my favorite things back then was a huge poster of the Magic Kingdom's castle along with all of the Disney characters that hung on our wall.
Serena was sound asleep, but I was wide awake listening to every little sound. That old house had the noisiest loose floorboards. They were like sensors, letting us know who was walking in what area of the house. Our bedroom door was closed, but from my bed I heard footsteps moving toward the kitchen and then out the back door. I heard the wooden screen door slam. Wham! It startled me, made me sit up in my bed, because it was such a disturbing sound to hear at that time of night. I assumed it was Momma's mystery man making a quick exit.
Tires screeched as a car sped off down the road. A few minutes later the phone on our kitchen wall rang twice, but no one was there to answer. Our neighbor's dog started howling. That was the third night in a row that dog made that disturbing sound. Folks 'round here said that a dog howling in the middle of the night was a sure sign of death.
The next thing I remembered was hearing my daddy's car pull into our driveway and his tires rolling over the gravel, making that familiar grinding sound. His car door slammed, his keys jingled, and then he let out his famous smoker's cough. He entered through the front door and within minutes he must have noticed that the back door was open. I could hear his footsteps move toward the back door.
I imagined him gripping the handle of his pistol as he called for Momma. His raspy southern baritone voice called out, "Barbara! Hey, Barbara, you out there?"
No answer. The sound of crickets chirping in three distinctively different tones filled the night air. I could feel the tension thicken. I slowly laid my head back down on my pillow.
Daddy asked himself, "What the hell is going on?"
Next he checked his bedroom and it was obvious that Momma was gone. Then he checked on me and Serena. She was still sound asleep. Although I was wide awake, I pretended to be asleep. I was raised to stay in a child's place, out of grown folks' business, so naturally I did as I was taught. Somebody had to respect my daddy's wishes. I could sense his frustration when he closed our bedroom door. His emotions probably shifted back and forth a million times, trying to figure out what was going on. I'm not sure what happened after that because all that pretending and the darkness of my bedroom put me right to sleep.
The next morning my daddy woke me and Serena and took us for a ride. We drove all over Eden and half of Rockingham County that morning. I guess we were supposed to be looking for Momma. What appeared to be a beautiful day soon took a turn for the worse, becoming the most horrific day of my life. When we came home later that day, the police were there and so were a lot of our friends and family. And I can't forget the nosy neighbors. People come out in droves when something bad happens.
At first no one said a word-I just saw a bunch of tears and angry faces. I sensed that something bad had happened. I started to get sick to my stomach. My white grandparents, the ones who disowned Momma, the ones who refused to claim me and Serena, the ones who I hadn't seen in God only knows how long, were there yelling obscenities at my daddy. I heard one of the officers tell Daddy that they had found Momma's body. Instantly a powerful chill came over me. I was old enough to know that when someone said body, they were referring to a dead person. There was no way a woman that young and beautiful could be dead. I was in a state of shock and disbelief. I wanted to know exactly what happened to her, but no one would tell me. I was a child and had already heard too much. I thought maybe Momma could have been seriously injured and needed to go to the hospital, but not dead. Then I heard the word murdered. At that point I knew that Momma would never come home again, and my little heart was hurt in the worst way imaginable. A feeling of pain and emptiness came over me. The woman who had given birth and loved me all of my life was gone forever. Just thinking about this makes me cry. I was eight years old then and I'm twenty-nine now. Even to this day I've never been able to find the exact words to describe how I felt at that moment. The feeling is indescribable.
All I could do was yell out, "Don't say that! I want my momma! Where is she?"
My aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbors tried to comfort me and Serena. Family members are usually drawn closer together during a tragedy, but not my dysfunctional family. My grandparents were too busy fussing and stirring up confusion to acknowledge the fact that me and my sister were scared to death and hurting. For a moment Serena seemed almost oblivious to what was going on. She cried mostly because I was crying. Slowly she began to realize that Momma was really gone. I turned to my daddy for answers, but he couldn't tell me anything because the police were taking him away. He was a policeman, too, and it was strange seeing him get arrested. I refused to believe that my hero could have committed such a heinous crime, especially against my momma. I overheard one of my neighbors say that two little boys, Michael and Brandon, found Momma's nude body in a ditch stuffed halfway in a storm drain. She had been stabbed to death.
A few people around me including my angry white grandparents started saying that my daddy killed Momma.
My granddaddy said, "He did it. Frank killed her. I know he did. He's crazy enough to do something like that." He squinted his eyes, pointed directly at Daddy, and in a very hateful tone, said, "That's why I never wanted Barbara to marry that nigger, because I knew eventually something like this would happen."
I was the daughter of one of the most hated men in our community. Daddy was partly to blame. He never took the time to get to know the people in our community and vice versa. He always fussed about people staring at him and Momma. Daddy raised hell about simple things like kids being on his property. Seeing him with a gun, a badge, and his infamous mirrored sunglasses was a big turn-off for most people. It's hard to trust a man when you can't even see his eyes. I had seen his eyes and had known about his kind ways, but no matter what I thought, they always saw him as the bad guy. He was a black policeman. To make matters worse, my daddy was the only black policeman in Eden at that time. He was married to a white woman and now he was an accused murderer. He was one of the most hated men in Eden.
Although our neighbors hated my daddy, some of them began to defend him. Not because they believed in his innocence, but mainly because my angry white granddaddy turned Momma's murder into a racial incident. A few minutes later the media arrived, local television and newspaper reporters. This made the scene more dramatic than ever.
As his fellow white policemen took him away, Daddy cried out, "You can't do this to me. I swear, I didn't do anything! I didn't kill my wife! Let me go! I want my daughters!"
I'll never forget the look of desperation in his eyes. I'd never seen my daddy like that. For the first time, he seemed helpless. I jumped up and down and screamed, "Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!" Then I yelled at the white policeman, "Let him go! Pleeease, let my daddy go!"
A riot nearly broke out in front of our house, but somehow my daddy was able to defuse the situation a little by reassuring everyone that he'd be all right. Mostly everyone calmed down, but not me. No matter what I did or said, they still took him to jail. Daddy went peacefully and I think people respected that. Others saw it as an admission of guilt. Serena and I cried our little hearts out. I think we both wanted to curl up and die because we had no one and nowhere to run to. At that moment the world seemed so small. I was suffocating and then reality set in. All of a sudden the world went from being so small to becoming an enormous place, way too large for two little girls without parents. That's when Momma Pearl stepped in. She's our daddy's oldest sister, a real ornery, raging-bull type when she wanted to be. Other times she was a self-proclaimed prophet. This was probably the ugliest and cruelest woman who ever set foot on God's green earth. Sometimes I think Serena and I would have been better off going to a foster home instead of living with my aunt because of the way we were mistreated. But at least Serena and I were together.
Momma Pearl and her sister, Clarissa, raised us. We had a strict upbringing. Serena and I called them King Kong and Mighty Joe Young. They were two devils dressed in white garb, head-wraps and all. Aunt Clarissa never hit or ridiculed me and Serena like Momma Pearl did, but she was just as bad because she was well aware of the cruelty her sister was putting us through and did nothing to stop it.
Aunt Clarissa-or Sister Clarissa, as the church folks called her-moved in after Momma Pearl and her husband Henry separated. Uncle Henry was a good man, always had a smile and a kind word. He was a tall, handsome light-brown-skinned man. Uncle Henry was country, though, the kind of man who would wear a belt and suspenders at the same time. That was always a funny sight. People used to call him a jackleg preacher, a real Jim Jones in the making. I never paid that much attention. He was the preachingest man I've ever known, and most of all he was really kind to me and Serena. He never actually said it, but we knew he loved us. The last I heard Uncle Henry moved up north somewhere and became a storefront preacher. When he left things really went downhill, mostly because Momma Pearl became ordained and took over his church, Eden Light Undenominational Church of Faith. She's still alive and going strong at fifty-four, leading her cult of followers to hell. A woman like that can't teach anything except pure evil.
Serena and I lived in Momma Pearl's big, old, dirty country house in Blue Creek until I got married shortly after graduating from Morehead High School. When I moved I took Serena along with me. There was no way I was leaving my sister in that house with Momma Pearl to suffer alone. It was far from a happy home, but it was home. No home sweet home, more like home bittersweet home. That old house always smelled like stale bacon grease-that smell lingered and lingered forever. I could even smell it in my clothes and linen. I can still see that greasy stove with the big blue Crisco can filled with bacon grease. Momma Pearl fried chicken and fish in that same old nasty bacon grease. The thought of it still nauseates me. She claimed that she loved us and she showed it every day by whipping and calling us poor white trash or little wannabe-niggers. That was her special way of breaking us down. She was like the black version of Cinderella's evil stepmother, except we were family, her own flesh and blood. I wouldn't have treated a dog like she treated us. To this day I don't know why she hated us so much.
In a way I think my sister and I both died the day they found Momma's body. Not in a physical sense, but a major part of us went with her. There is of course a part of her that lives in us. I honestly feel her spirit inside of me, the good and the bad. She wasn't a perfect woman, but she was our momma.
From my childhood experiences, I learned humility, to expect the unexpected, to never take people for granted, and most of all, that adultery is a bad thing. Let's just say that some lessons are easier learned then others.
I was born right here in Eden at Morehead Memorial Hospital. Born in May-the thirtieth, to be exact. That makes me a Gemini. My astrological sign reflects my dual personality. Most of the time I'm strong, but I do have my weak moments. I've lived in Eden all my life, but I sure don't wanna die here. So many sad memories. But no matter what, the happy memories always have a way of overshadowing the sad ones, like my memories of me and Serena dancing and playing with Momma. We used to play under this huge weeping willow in our backyard. It was the strangest-looking tree. The branches and leaves drooped down to the ground and made the perfect hiding place. At one point in the back of the tree the leaves separated like a natural archway. Of course that was where we would enter and exit. The three of us would go under the tree and sip tea from our toy tea set and eat Ritz crackers and cheese or drink milk and eat Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies. Right next to our weeping willow was our make-believe wishing well. Momma was so creative that she actually made us believe that it was a real wishing well. Even happy memories make my eyes water because I wanted times like that to last forever. That was one of my biggest wishes back then.
Momma sure was something special. She used to read to us. She read anything and everything from her original poetry about weeping willows and wishing wells to Uncle Tom's Cabin, Gone With the Wind and Roots. She had a subtle way of mixing our cultures together and teaching about who we were without us ever really realizing what she was doing. She'd occasionally slip a couple of white baby dolls in, here and there. Our daddy's a very dark man and because of his dominant genes, Serena and I look more black then anything. When Daddy was younger, he resembled Wesley Snipes and Momma bore a very close resemblance to Demi Moore. Sometimes it's hard for me to watch Demi Moore in movies because all I see is Momma. Other times it's therapeutic. If people didn't know Momma, then they'd never know that Serena and I were biracial unless we told them. Daddy used to tell us that we could never consider ourselves white. He said that having just one drop of black blood in our systems canceled out our whiteness and made us black in every way. He said it with so much conviction that we believed him. Statements like that confused the heck out of me and Serena. The look on Momma's face told me that she disagreed with him, but she never voiced her opinion. In a way, Daddy stole her voice, her dreams, and possibly her life.
All I know is that I have dreams and desires that can't possibly be met here in Eden because I've always dreamt of being a hairdresser, beautician, cosmetologist, hairstylist, or whatever they call them. That sounds so silly because I'm not even a hairdresser now, but I'm really good at doing hair. To top that off, I can cook my butt off too. I'd love to own a big-time soul food restaurant like Sylvia's up in Harlem or somewhere with a bunch of hungry black folks.
Excerpted from She Creeps by ALEX HAIRSTON Copyright © 2007 by Alex Hairston. Excerpted by permission.
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