The Leftovers of Gumbo.
That's what Donnie Carter's momma told him at the bus depot in Lafayette, Louisiana, in the Spring of 1980, as she walked him to the diesel-huffing Greyhound. Because he was nine years old, his momma had a quick conversation with the bus driver before he climbed on board. This was his first trip alone, and many black parents across the country worried about their kids, as missing reports and bodies started turning up around Atlanta. But Donnie hadn't given the abductions the least bit of thought, as his concerns waited for him in Houston on Clearway Street--a group of wily older boys led by a particularly pugnacious rascal called "Joe Boy."
Per his mother's instructions, Donnie sat behind the driver, which made it impossible to see who was on the bus without constantly turning around. He wondered if Joe Boy was hiding in the back row, waiting for that moment to kill him and throw his body in the murky marshes of Bayou des Cannes they were passing over at the time. Donnie looked at the marsh water, wondering if that guy in Atlanta had discarded any bodies in the olive-colored marsh that looked like ... Momma D's gumbo. That's what he remembered about the rivers and tributaries along the way to Houston--the water looked like gumbo. And this thought, for the moment, allayed his fears of a surprise attack by Joe Boy with the welcoming promise of a steamy bowl of Momma D's gumbo filled with shrimp, chicken and Andouille sausage
From the time he could walk unassisted Donnie Carter spent every summer with his grandmother, Daisy Ballard. Despite the tumultuous relationship between his parents, each summer promised joy, excitement and Daisy's love. He never thought for one minute that his joyous summer refuge would be threatened, until the bus came to a stop, and he spotted his "auntie" with Momma D, both dressed in colorful caftans with matching sandals and head wraps, leaning against a burgundy DeVille. Daisy was always a snazzy dresser--kept in fashion--coupled with "auntie", the two looked like the Pointer Sisters. Donnie noticed this immediately as he got off the bus--they were kindred, confederates in some adventure, dressed for the same team. They belonged.
He took unusually tepid steps to Momma D's waiting arms.
"Boy, come here and give your grandmomma some sugar, walkin' all slow."
Normally, Donnie would run off the bus or out of his mother's car gleefully into Momma D's arms but not this time. Not when Momma D wasn't alone. She embraced her grandson all the same with a deep smile, eyes closed like a prayer answered. Then she pulled back and examined him.
"Umm hmm. Your momma wasn't lying, you shootin' up like a bean pole. Donnie, this is Momma's friend, Shirley, she gonna be staying with us for a little while."
"She ain't got her own house?" Donnie asked.
The women chuckled to each other.
"I told you he was smart."
Shirley leaned over and hugged an unwilling Donnie.
"So nice to finally meet you, Donnie. Momma D just goes on and on about you," said Shirley.
The ride to Momma D's house was awkward, no longer the routine back and forth she normally offered, where she played "catch-up" in her grandsons life. How were your grades? Did you make any new friends? Who will be your teacher this fall? Instead, Momma D's inquiries were sporadically side-barred by comments directed to Shirley. Strange new conversations with familiarity. Donnie realized that Momma D had other things on her mind and reserved his answers to low, quick responses, uncertain about their weight or importance. And it seemed as though Shirley knew everything about Donnie. She took lead on the questioning but wrapped all of her inquiries into anecdotes about Donnie's life, either for confirmation or an affirmed laugh. And these were mostly embarrassing tidbits shared only between Donnie and Momma D. Momma D's smiling eyes would occasionally catch Donnie's bewilderment in the rear view mirror. He didn't hide it. How did she come to know such things? Donnie believed Shirley was showing off, flaunting her apparent status in Momma D's life.
When they finally got home, Donnie's building paranoia shifted to examination, carefully looking for any differences in Momma D's house like new carpet or furniture. But everything was exactly as Donnie had left it from his last visit. Yet walking to the guest bedroom, he did notice something. A shimmering gold, taffeta and lace scoop neck dress in clear plastic from the dry cleaner hung on Momma D's door, waiting. A few rays of sunlight hit the dress setting off a magical glow. He'd never seen Momma D hang clothes on that door, considering she had a huge walk-in closet that he often hid in, when he and Momma D played hide and seek. This was the only difference that he could see and after a family box of Frenchy's Chicken, Donnie was too tired to reckon his Auntie Shirley. Maybe she would be gone in the morning. Maybe she was an apparition conjured up by his mother to mind his manners. Maybe, just maybe, she had a home to go to and was merely part of the welcoming party like Tattoo on Fantasy Island.
But by the next morning, he began to realize that Shirley was no apparition. He didn't remember her leaving the night before nor arriving that morning. He slept in the guest bedroom, and there weren't any blankets on the couch. Did she spend the night? Didn't she have her own house? He watched closely as Momma D and Shirley made biscuits from scratch. But hold on, Momma D never needed help making biscuits, and if she did, why hadn't she asked Donnie to help her.
Shirley took a minute to look at Donnie waiting at the dining room table. She offered a deep smile and a nod. Donnie didn't trust that smile, certain that some deception hid behind her clever visage. Her intentions hid deep in the bushes; he was peeking, searching for the truth. Why was she here? Didn't she have grandkids of her own to take to AstroWorld or Baskin & Robbins? He studied the women as they expertly maneuvered the dough. Bacon sizzled in the cast iron skillet.
Donnie practically inhaled breakfast and excused himself from the table to play in the front yard. It was Palm Sunday, and although Momma D was a devout, southern Baptist, she hadn't been going to church for the past few months. Donnie recalled overhearing his mother talking on the phone about it; something happened at church.
He found a small section of dirt in the front yard, an ample dirt track for his Hot Wheels. Sitting in the dirt, he guided a car in each hand from races to demolition derbies. Then the gospel music started, blaring from the screen door guarding Momma D and Shirley. Reverend A.S. Paterson's Missionary Baptist Church Choir Ensemble featuring Ruthie Mae Duncan. Donnie knew that album well. And then he noticed a strange smell coming from inside. He never smelled it before, but it managed to creep passed the aroma of bacon and biscuits. Something was burning but it wasn't wood.
"Momma D in there smokin' weed again?"
A collection of hard-nosed boys gathered near Donnie. He vaguely remembered any of them but one: Joe Boy. He was the fourteen year old bully of Clearway Street. Stolen sneakers, cut-off shorts, high-top fade, abusive parents, scabbed knuckles, malt liquor breath and smart ass comments.
"Say, 'ole punk ass nigga, that's your grandmomma?" asked Joe Boy as the boys encircled Donnie.
He remained on the ground, tense and frightened. He didn't understand the questions. These boys were much older in age and experience. He'd seen them before, just last summer when they were fighting Curtis and them at the park. Joe Boy was tough and he knew it. They started asking Donnie a barrage of questions. Hurtful questions about his mother. "Your momma gonna let me get her booty?" Questions about his estranged father. "You ain't got no daddy?" Questions about something called "weed." "Why yo' grandmomma be up in there smokin' weed?" But Donnie neither understood nor had the answers for any of the questions, which only encouraged further jibes. The guys decided that Donnie was a momma's boy, soft and tender. But in reality, he was just young and sheltered in a big city that wasn't home.
Joe Boy snatched Donnie's Hot Wheels, as the guys started walking away.
"Gimme back my cars!" yelled Donnie, but they laughed and continued. Donnie started crying and repeating his plea to deaf ears.
"Man, give that lil' nigga his shit back!" And there, in the middle of the street, stood Donnie's saviors: Booger John and the legendary Raymond Earl. But for Ruthie Mae's rendition of "Peace Is Flowing Like A River," the streets were still and quiet. Everyone was either going to or returning from church, The only kids outside on a Sunday morning were the Bad and the Profane. No one in either Booger John or Raymond Earl's family was interested in asking God for anything, so they were the Profane and Joe Boy, well, he was the Bad. Although Booger John and Raymond Earl were outnumbered, Joe Boy acknowledged their prowess and slung the toy cars at Donnie, one finding a landing pad on his forehead. Donnie screamed then dashed for the screen door, as Joe Boy and his guys ran away laughing. He opened the screen door quickly, then froze. Momma D and Shirley were on the couch, locked in each other's arms--kissing. The air sucked out of his lungs, quieting his cries to gentle weeps. He couldn't move, petrified to witness Daisy's secret. She never kissed him like that. With tear-stained cheeks and a lump on his head, he went back quietly to his dirt track in the front yard, crestfallen.
Daisy always had these yearnings, since before she married Buster Ballard over forty years ago. She was not so fascinated with her own body but found attraction in the female form. Often times, she would stare through the women's underwear section of the Sears catalog but never checked an item or made a purchase. Buster never noticed when they were dating. He didn't notice much about her.
As a matter of fact, the only time he looked at her was when he was yelling or lying. Even during sex he preferred doggie style or spoon, never to look into his wife's eyes, when they were getting biblical. But she adored the physical gratification. One day he caught her alone with her Sears catalog and demanded that she cancel her subscription; he wasn't going to compete with a paperback. After Buster died, she re-subscribed, destined to pleasure herself until death. But one extra special day at choir rehearsal, a new organ player arrived. Her name was Shirley. Shirley immediately became fond of Daisy and they became fast friends. They tested the waters of their friendship by becoming cooking companions, reliving their personal histories with the pot and the pan. A family recipe for stew. A secret recipe for bisque. Their knowledge of each other became intimate. And one day, while cooking in the kitchen, Shirley held Daisy's hand for no reason. Daisy didn't even notice until the oven alarm sounded. She looked at Shirley, and Shirley didn't look away, as Buster did many times. So they kissed. And they made love. And Shirley stared deep into Daisy's love-forgotten eyes, not turning away but being pulled in closer and closer. The next day, Daisy cancelled her subscription to the Sears catalog, for good.
No one really knew how much time Daisy and Shirley spent together outside of choir rehearsal. But the two widows accompanied each other everywhere with youthful zeal; this was the first lesbian affair for both of them. Suddenly, the elderly women were young again, resubmitting to the habits and routines of involved women: hair, make-up and clothes. In each other they found a reason to get gussied up, and they figured that nobody would have to know. But Mrs. Shawna Turner from the church saw them one afternoon at T.J. Maxx. She didn't rush over and speak as all good church ladies do when they spot a congregation member, rather she watched closely from afar. And she saw it. A quick moment of affection in the irregular linens section; Shirley kissed Daisy on the lips. Needless to say, the whole church knew about it, before Daisy and Shirley reached the check-out counter with a discounted set of king size 500 count for $29.99. They were expelled from the church choir the following morning.
"How old you is?" asked Raymond Earl, as he and Booger John waited by the curb.
"Nine," responded a bewildered Donnie, trudging the broken car toy in the dirt.
"Why you let Joe Boy do that?" asked Raymond Earl.
Donnie shrugged, eyes averted to his toy.
"What's your name?" asked Booger John. "Donnie."
The ice cream truck sang around the corner. Raymond Earl and Booger John were alerted and started walking away.
"Don't be lettin' Joe Boy beat on you, Donnie. You gotta hit him back," Raymond Earl advised, as he and Booger John started jogging towards the ice truck's melody.
Normally, Donnie would be right behind them with fifty cents and a hankering for a Bomb Pop. But not today. Some days weren't built for ice cream and candy. Some days weren't built for the familiar but rather built for something different, maybe better, maybe worse.
Donnie sat in the front yard until sunset, when Shirley emerged from the screen door with, "Gumbo's ready!" Donnie waited for her to go back inside before he got up and headed in.
Shirley spent the whole day making gumbo, and she didn't miss a step. Homemade roux, blue crabs, shrimp, sausage from Breaux Bridge, the works. The smell of the dark brown concoction competed with marijuana, giving the house an exotic Indian restaurant aroma.
As he reached the door, Momma D saw the huge lump on his forehead and became hysterical. When did this happen? Why did this happen? By now, Donnie had gotten over it. Shirley took a knee to examine the bruise, but he quickly back-stepped behind Momma D.
"Why didn't you come get me when this happened?"
"I did but you was ... you was on the couch."
You've could've heard an ant shit, from the silence. She was caught. Momma D gave a guilty glance to Shirley, who moved quickly to the kitchen.
"Come here, baby, let Grandmomma talk to you."
He followed Momma D to the couch. Shirley brought a bag of ice, which Momma D held on Donnie s shiner, then returned to the kitchen.
"Donnie, I don't want you to ever feel you can't talk to Grandmomma. I don't care what I'm doing; you come talk to me. 'Cause Grandmomma love you big-big and ain't nothin' or nobody ever gonna change that. Now Shirley is my special friend, we do all kinda things together like go to the movies and the park, and just last week, we went to the aquarium, the one I took you to. Shirley makes sure I don't get too lonely, when you're not here 'cause Grandmomma miss you so much when you're gone. Do you understand?"
"Kinda. Does she play with my toys when I'm not here?"
"No. She leaves your toys be, but I play with your toys sometimes. Is that ok?"
"Good. 'Cause I love you more than anything in the world."
"More than Shirley?"
"Of course, baby. You're my little man. And I tell you something else. Shirley loves you too."
"No, she don't."
"Now why you say that?"
"I don't know."
"She's been cooking that gumbo all day just for you. And I know she put just as much love in that pot as I do."
But Momma D could see that something was still troubling Donnie.
"What's the matter, Donnie?"
"What was yawl doin' on the couch? Was she hurtin' you?"
Momma D smiled with a light chuckle, "Oh, no, Donnie, she wasn't hurtin' Grandmomma. She was being kind."
Momma D conveniently avoided any discussion of her paramour activities on the couch by showering Donnie with attention, as they sat alone at the small dining room table with the vinyl place mats. Given the balance of recent activities, one might question her genuineness, but Donnie was too young to understand his grandmother's keen navigation that she aptly effected while waiting on a bowl of gumbo. And Shirley, glorious Shirley, prepared generous bowls of the dark brown concoction with rice in the kitchen, while humming "Nearer My God to Thee," waiting on the "all clear" sign from Momma D. Yet Donnie was fixated with Shirley, practically ignoring his beloved grandmother for the first time. He felt slightly abandoned, yet was cautious of Auntie Shirley. Maybe Momma D might forget to pick him up from the Greyhound station next summer, leaving him to wait anonymously in the crowded station of the Forgotten. That's what his father had done, resulting in brief moments of panic at the end of each summer, as his bus would return to Lafayette. He just knew one day his mother would not be waiting for him. And although at every summer's end she was there on time, the thought persisted with habit, an annoying, self-destructive habit that ate away at the emotional umbilical cord bit by bit. And now, he sensed that this was the beginning of the end for Momma D and him. And somehow Shirley was to blame. It was at that point the conspiracy revealed itself in his nine year old head: Shirley was going to kill him. He didn't know how or why but he honestly believed that he might not make it back to Lafayette.
"Donnie, I'm gonna make you an extra big bowl, ok?" asked Shirley, as she prepared his supper.
He was unresponsive.
Momma D watched her precious grandson trembling at the table with the vinyl place mats, befuddled and worried. She asked him again and again, if he was all right only to be met with small gestures. His attention was elsewhere. His life was dependent upon all of the focus he could muster on the ladle. He meticulously watched every dip into the gumbo pot and the steamy ladle resurfacing to pour its hot contents over the rice in his bowl; the bowl that Shirley chose. Dip by dip, he waited for her to sneak in the poison like in the cartoons. And Shirley just smiled and hummed and dipped and poured until steam hovered over his bowl. She grabbed a tablespoon and napkin, then proudly presented the meal to Donnie.
"Here ya go, Donnie; got you a big boy's bowl. Now watch out, 'cause it's hot," said Shirley with a warm, reassuring smile.
But he wouldn't touch it, determined to live and make it back to Lafayette. Of course, Momma D protested and Shirley cried, but that bowl didn't have a snowball's chance in hell with Donnie. Relentlessly refusing to eat anything, he went to bed on an empty stomach, a knot on his head and dreamed of jumping on one of those sheep that leaped the fence separating Lafayette from Houston. But he kept missing the sheep, leap after leap, betraying his slumber for the conscious meditation of his death by Shirley, even though she left promptly after supper. He was mortified--his imagination getting the best of him. He almost forgot the real threat--Joe Boy. But Shirley and Momma D hadn't.
"How come you ain't come get me?"
"Daisy, the lil boy had already ran off."
"I know where his lil raggedy ass live-I'ma go talk to his daddy tomorrow."
"And what that's gonna do? That ain't gonna do nothin' but keep them boys on Donnie's ass, and I know you don't want that."
"I can't have them beating up on my baby."
"But you can't have him running every time things get funky."
"What you trying to say, Shirl?"
"You know what I'm saying. Same thing with the Reverend. You just wanna run away and act like we ain't spent all that time in service to that church."
"His church, Shirley."
"Unh unh. That ain't his church. That's God's church."
"We supposed to be talking about Donnie."
"Well, ain't we?"
The next morning, Momma D woke up Donnie for breakfast. At the dining room table, Momma D and Shirley traded knowing glances, while watching Donnie eat cereal. Donnie really didn't notice that something was afoot. After breakfast, Momma D announced, "Ok, Donnie. Let's go to the backyard."
Donnie and the two women headed in the backyard. Shirley was wearing pants, sneakers and a t-shirt. Momma D took a seat on a lawn chair, as Shirley walked into the yard and turned to Donnie.
"All right, Donnie. Put your fists up," said Shirley.
"Cause we gonna teach you how to fight."
He looked at Momma D, who said, "Go on, baby. Put your fists up."
And he did ... for the next five afternoons in the backyard. Until the mistrust and fear of Auntie Shirley had shed its skin to reveal the love and caring that Momma D had told him about. Day by day, Shirley sparred with Donnie, as Momma D watched--his reluctant courage emboldened with love and nurture and, of course, the leftovers of gumbo, which seemed to be endless and only dependent on a fresh pot of rice.
On Easter Sunday, Donnie busied himself in the front yard with his toys until ...
A small rock hit Donnie on the back. He looked over his shoulder to find Joe Boy across the street with a hand full of rocks and a smile.
Joe Boy continued pelting Donnie, but Donnie returned to his toys.
Plunk! Plunk! Plunk! Plunk!
Tears followed winces, as the rocks birthed bruises on Donnie's back, but Donnie continued playing with his Hot Wheels. Sensing Donnie's defiance, Joe Boy hurled the rocks harder. Then finally Donnie stood up and turned to Joe Boy, who was standing in the middle of the street.
Momma D and Shirley watched at the screen door, as the other boys joined Joe Boy in the street, including Raymond Earl and Booger John. This was Donnie's fight.
"Oh, you done grown some balls, lil ole sissy ass nigga?" Joe Boy teased.
But Donnie was all business, as he took steady steps towards Joe Boy, no chatter, no emotion just ... WHAMI A right cross that connected squarely on Joe Boy's jaw.
"Ooooh," the crowd responded.
Joe Boy was caught off guard, and before he could react, Donnie kicked him in the balls as hard as he could, sending Joe Boy to the ground.
Raymond Earl and Booger John congratulated him. The other boys helped a debilitated Joe Boy up and off to his house.
Donnie wasn't scared anymore, as he headed back to the house where he ran into Momma D's arms, and she hugged him with all the love any grandmother could give.
"Grandmomma so proud of you, Donnie. Proud as punch," said Momma D.
When Donnie let her go, he looked at Shirley with newfound pride and gave her a big hug.
"How 'bout some gumbo? 'Cause you know there's a whole nother container in the freezer, and it don't really taste as good till it been in the freezer," said Shirley.
Donnie nodded, but Momma D interrupted.
"Unh unh, hold on. Gonna have to let that gumbo defrost, and we got some where to go anyhow. Donnie, go get that JC Penny's bag out the car," Momma D ordered.
"What you get me?" Donnie asked.
"A suit. It's Easter--we going to church," Momma D said proudly, as she walked off to her bedroom, grabbing the shimmering gold, taffeta and lace, scoop neck dress hanging on her bedroom doorway.
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|Author:||Guillory, Marcus J.|
|Publication:||Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire|
|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2018|
|Next Article:||A House Divided.|