With Your Bad Self
Editor’s Note: This week we’re doing something a little differently and running a bit of fiction. The following excerpt is from TueNighter and former TueNight Community Manager Kerika Fields! Please enjoy the first chapter of With Your Bad Self.
‘This girl better be ready when I get there cause I ain’t waitin’,’ Marie thought as she hurried up Fulton Street. She refused to be late for work this morning. Refused. This job was important to her. It allowed her to help her mother pay the rent on their fourthfloor Bedford Avenue walk-up. It also made it possible, finally, to help feed her eight siblings. Yes, sirree! This job ensured there was always something in the Frigidaire to eat. No more beggin’ their stingy aunt who lived downstairs, who was also actually their landlord, for another goddamn thing. Marie could never forget the time, only a few years back, when they were all up there hungry as hell, and the smell from her aunt’s place below of roasting chicken came wafting up into their apartment. But when her aunt, who knew they were hungry like everybody else was hungry during the damn Depression, came up to offer them some supper, the only thing in her pan was neck bones. Neck bones. The nerve. Just thinking about it made Marie’s blood boil.
This job made it so she would never have to take a morsel of food from that woman or anyone else for that matter ever again. It also allowed her to buy herself some new shoes sometimes, which was a good thing because not only did she need shoes—this was New York City after all, and the weather changes, crumbling concrete, and constant walking tended to take its toll—but she loved herself some shoes, too. The shoes she had on this morning were black Mary Jane’s with a low heel (but not too low!). She had just purchased them when she got paid that previous Friday from Abraham & Strauss. It was the following Friday now, she had been wearing them around the apartment all week after work while doing chores and cooking in order to ‘break them in’, and she was finally actually wearing them to work, even though she would have to change into the required white lace ups in her locker when she got there.
Turning the corner off Fulton Street onto Ashland Place, the shoes were still a little tight. She wiggled her toes, adjusted her back, held on harder to her shoulder bag, and kept right on stepping. As she approached the house, she hoped again that Missy was ready. She hated to have to wait. But she especially hated to have to talk to that old fool that owned the house where Missy rented her room.
Robert Conner had to be about thirty-three (which in her nineteen-year-old mind was actually ancient), and he lived alone there with his five-year-old daughter. Folks said he had been married and that his wife had died when the baby girl was just two, but Marie and Missy didn’t know about any of that. All they knew was that Missy couldn’t live with Marie, nor her own siblings and sick mother anymore, the rooms at Mr. Conner’s were clean, affordable, and quiet, plus the house was conveniently located one block away from Brooklyn Hospital on DeKalb Avenue, where they both worked in the kitchen. So, when Missy turned eighteen she went on ahead and rented it. That was almost a year ago and so far, so good.
The heels of Marie’s shoes clicked quickly against the concrete but slowed down the closer she got to 201 because Missy wasn’t anywhere in sight. All she saw was him. But this morning, instead of hanging his big head out of the second-floor window saying stuff like, “gal, stop yelling up to the window, will ya! It’s too early for alla that!” or, “you need to go on ahead and ring the bell like a lady. Why you making so much noise this mornin’? Your mama didn’t teach you better?” he was sitting right there on the steps. And was that a smirk she saw on his face?
“Well, good morning, little lady,” Mr. Conner said deliberately not looking up or directly at her, acting like he was reading the morning’s Daily News.
“Morning,” Marie mumbled. She was in no mood for mindless banter. Especially not with his tired ass. She knew good and well he was flirting with her. Even at her age, a girl knew these things. Her momma didn’t raise no fool. Wasn’t no other reason he made a fuss about her yelling up to the window. Horns beeping, people shouting, ambulances wailing, tires screeching all up and down the busy street, and all of a sudden, she was the noise problem? Negro, please. Silently, she sucked her teeth. She wanted to yell up to the window right then and there from the sidewalk the way she always did. But this time, she didn’t. Something about the man’s close proximity gave her pause. So instead, she stomped up the steps, right past where he sat, and rang the bell. Hard. Missy had better hurry.
“Making all that clickety clackety noise with them shoes. They must be new. Next time get the soft soles.”
Why wouldn’t he shut up? And what gave him the right to comment on her shoes or her yelling or anything for that manner? That’s why she hardly paid most men no never mind. They always thought they knew everything, thought they were smarter than women; when women and men alike knew good and well, that was not the case. Damn fools. She had brothers, so she knew. She had a good-for-nothing daddy that didn’t even claim her as his own, too, so you know she knew. The way they talked loud about things they didn’t know nuthin’ about, the way they made messes they didn’t clean up, the way they expected the world but didn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. Shiiit.
She stood there for a minute, deciding what to do. Should she go on ahead to work or wait for her friend? Looking up at the Williamsburg Bank clock, Marie realized she had only a few minutes to spare before she’d be late. Panicking, she forgot all admonishment, discarded all decorum, leaned back, opened her mouth, and yelled at the top of her lungs, “MISSYY!!! I’m leavin’. If you ain’t down here in one minute…”
Immediately Missy’s head popped out of the third-floor window.
“I’ll be right down. I’m coming right now!”
Marie could see that Missy’s hair was done, and she had already put on her lipstick. Seemed her friend was ready after all, which reminded her… after reaching into her shoulder bag and fumbling around for it in the bottom of her purse, she pulled out her own lipstick. It had a small mirror on its imitation gold-plated case, which is what she liked best about it. Just as she was about to touch up her lips, Missy finally came on out the door.
“Let’s go. I’m ready,” Missy said, clearly out of breath after running down them stairs. But since she had made Marie wait, Missy was gonna have to wait a hot minute, too. Marie looked into the mirror. One eye was on the clock behind her, its reflection hovering over her head, the clock you could see from Atlantic Avenue all the way to Myrtle and right on into Manhattan. The other eye was on her own full face. Sometimes doing something so simple as looking at herself in the mirror made her smile. She would never admit it to anyone aloud, but she knew it was true. She was beautiful. Smooth almond skin, plump lips, high cheekbones, head fulla hair. She acted like she didn’t know but believe you me, she knew.
And Mr. Conner knew too. He could barely take his eyes off her. When they finally left the stoop, fast-stepping to work, even Missy, once she was sure her landlord was out of earshot, said so.
“Marie, I ain’t never seen Mr. Conner look at nobody like he looks at you.”
“Well, I don’t know what he’s looking at. I ain’t got no time for that old fool.”
“You the one being a fool!” Missy insisted.
Marie stopped mid-step and turned to stare at her friend. After a few silent seconds, she started stepping again. Hot on her heels, Missy kept talking.
“Mr. Conner a nice man. Got a house. Real friendly. Everybody in the neighborhood knows ‘im, and any woman ain’t married from here to Ralph Avenue after him. And he only got eyes for you.”
“Well, good for him… just so long as he looks and doesn’t touch! Besides…” Marie’s voice trailed off.
“What? Besides what?”
Marie stopped again and, this time, let out a sigh. Momentarily her eyes glazed over.
“Girl, you know I’m crazy about that Benjamin. Can’t stop thinking about him, hot damn!”
“He is a good-looking son of a gun,” Missy had to admit. “It doesn’t make no never mind, tho. Your momma ain’t having you running up and down Fulton Street with that Negro, and you know it. He fine but…”
“Humph,’ Marie thought to herself, ‘my mother don’t think nothing as black as Benjamin is fine, but she don’t gotta know nothing.’
As they approached the hospital, other employees rushed into the building, pushing past them both, making Marie realize that if they didn’t hurry, they’d be late to clock in. She was not about to let that happen. There was nothing she hated more than late Negroes, and she sure as hell was not about to be one, today or ever if she could help it.
“I’ll talk to you about it later, girl!” Marie declared, dashing into the building. “After work.”
“I’m doing a double shift tonight. Gonna have to catch you tomorrow,” Missy announced, rushing in her own right.
Marie ran up the stairs secretly glad that Missy couldn’t see she was smiling. As much as she loved their ritual of coming to work together in the mornings and leaving with each other in the evenings, tonight, Benjamin was picking her up. She was relieved she was not going to have to explain their ever-evolving relationship to Missy, or worse, wonder if Missy would blab to her mother about who she was with or worse, run her mouth to her brothers. Marie had five of them, and they all thought they were in control of her life, even though she was the second to oldest sibling. Her brother Percy was just a few years older, but he acted like the man of the house, and since there was no man of the house, her mother let him go right on ahead acting like it. Ever since Marie had started filling out, working, making her own money, and leaving the house every day, he had a-hundred-and-one questions for her, whatchadoinwhereyougoinwhyyouwearinthatwhattimeyoucominhome?
And for some reason, even her younger brothers—William, who was called Bill because it was just easier to say; Charles, who they’d nicknamed Buster after that Buster Keaton from the pictures since he was always being silly; and Thomas also known as Midgie seeing that he was sorta stout and always would be—all felt they had a say about what she was up to, all except little Theodore, their Teddy bear, named after the former President, and who, at six, was too young to care.
Nobody needed to worry. Marie was mostly a good girl and was hardly ever up to no good, although she sure enough could not stop thinking about Benjamin all day. From the moment she clocked in, the ch-chung of her timecard going into the time clock puncher seemed to signal the countdown to when she would finally get to see her handsome Benjamin. He’d said something about a dance he wanted to take her to, and she couldn’t wait. Not only was Benjamin tall and slim and black as molasses, but he was one of the best Lindy Hop dancers in Brooklyn. And coming from Marie Young, you ought to know that was saying somethin’. Yes, sirree! She was one of the best out there, no denying it. Even her big brother, Percy, had to admit it. After seeing her dance just last week at Mason’s Ballroom, he said to her, “go ‘head with yo’ bad self!” She loved him for that, for saying that to her. She knew it was just a street slang saying, the thing the kids on the block said to each other all the time, but she sure liked hearing those words thrown out there, especially if they were coming at her. They sounded like an affirmation, an acknowledgment. To her ears, those words sounded like love.
If you had on a new church outfit, you’d hear, “go ‘head with your bad self,” right before or after Sunday service; or if you got a new bike or even an old one for that matter, someone sitting on a stoop or hanging out of a window would yell out, “go ‘head with your bad self.” Everybody said it all the time where she came from. But coming from Percy, it really meant something. It made her feel good and just like when she started working at the hospital; real, real, proud.
When the hospital started recruiting again, most folks they knew applied for jobs there, even though hardly any of them got hired. Marie did, though, that’s for sure. Everybody knew it was because her best friend, Missy, had put in a good word for her. That didn’t matter none to her or to Percy either, and the night she told her momma and her brothers all about it, Percy, sure enough, smiled his big bright smile and said: “go ‘head with your bad self, Marie.”
With the hospital job, she could help with the bills around the house, and it wouldn’t have to be all on him, especially since it was looking like Momma’s working days were behind her. Giving birth to little baby Amy three years ago had taken a lot out of her mother, Harriett, and it seemed to Marie like whatever it was that was gone, Harriett wasn’t about to get it back anytime soon.
So, she went on to work. It wasn’t an easy job, but if Missy could handle it, Marie sure could, too. Wasn’t nothin’ to it. Just peeling carrots and potatoes, chopping tons of onions, washing dishes and more dishes, and of course, scrubbing great big ole pots and pans that just seemed to keep coming. Even though Missy had been working there a year before she got hired to the hospital, Marie paid that no never mind. She was a quick study and got the hang of things real fast. It wasn’t like this was her first job either. Seemed to Marie she’d been working ever since she could walk.
Back in Greensboro, North Carolina, before she and Percy come up to New York to be with Momma and her boys, Marie would help her grandfather catch and kill rabbits. The rabbits were fast, but little Marie was faster. She’d pull water from the well, too. And wash clothes in the bucket, then hang ‘em on up on the line. One thing was for certain; Marie Young wasn’t scared of no hard work. So, when Momma got pregnant and was too tired to take care of the babies she already had, it was Marie who changed the diapers, boiled the bottles, cured the colds, and quieted the crying. When her mother could no longer lift the mop bucket on account of her bad back, it was Marie who would sweep and then mop down the steps in that four-floor walk-up they were lucky to live in. If it didn’t get done every single week, that meant the old landlord could charge her mother the full rent for their top-floor apartment, the whole twenty dollars a month. Lord knows they couldn’t afford that. So she did what she had to do. That was one thing about that gal. If she saw something needed to be done, she went on ahead and did it, which was why she was gonna go on ahead and go to that dance with Benjamin tonight. She wasn’t trying to stay out too late, anyway; she did have housework to tend to in the morning. She wasn’t planning on doing anything foolish, either; she did have some sense. She just wanted to have fun, to finally feel young and free for a change. And for sure, she just wanted someone besides her big brother, Percy, to realize how bad she actually was.
As soon as she started thinking about the coming evening, Marie regretted letting her thoughts get away from her and not focusing her mind on the tasks at hand. Five o’clock wouldn’t come soon enough. As she pulled her plastic protective bonnet over her hair, making sure not to mess up her freshly pressed and curled hair, she looked at the clock hanging on the wall, right there over the door, right there in her line of vision, and realized she had eight hours of workday left. It was only a quarter past nine. It was going to be a long day.
With Your Bad Self is published by Jacaranda Books and is available in hardcover from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and many independent bookstores. Learn more and place your order at WithYourBadSelf.com.
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