Gartha Poe was a long way from the age of consent to do the things that adults did, but that didn’t stop her from being as good as possible at many of them, including having a saturnine preoccupation with her looks.
Taller than most girls her age, hair short and nappy, feet large and flat, skinny legs, and a butt small and high, her breasts were fledgling and her pudgy stomach got even bigger when she ate. Conventional wisdom held that Black women had big cabooses, and in her family all of the women had them. Where, Gartha wondered, was hers?
There were even more distractions. She ran track and played soccer. Where were the long shapely thick calves that she should have had? “White girl legs” is what she heard Black men affectionately call them. And why in the world was her name Gartha? And her hair, Lord-a-mighty, was He thinking at all? She obsessed over her hair more than all the other things combined.
Had she been a dark-skinned girl on top of all this, she might just as well have stayed in the “crowd scene” of life and settled on being anonymous. Such was the prevailing attitude in her culture at the time; though dark skinned, “thick” honeys as hip hopsters called them, especially singers, were mounting a good offense in media where possible. To accept such an attitude irrespective of its prevalence, however, was less of a task for Gartha than promoting and pursuing priorities completely at odds with who she believed herself to be and who she really was.
She had the “hi-yella” thing going on and good teeth, considered by some a sign of promise, though a small space between them. But when her smile flushed out her dimples, followed by an utterance of a few clearly and carefully placed words in a cadence blessedly unique to her voice, something in her expression and those willful eyes made people forget about all the other stuff that she was convinced consumed their focus.
And so with these concerns competing for dominance against pure anxiety awaiting the mailman, Gartha couldn’t resist running down the stairs every twenty minutes to see if he’d left the package she expected. It had been at least ten days since she ordered it.
She entered the small bedroom she shared with one of her sisters, her face etched in dejection, and dropped full force onto the twin bed. Abruptly she leapt from the bed to the chair in front of the mirror and stared fervently at her face.
When the package came today, she’d be a different girl. Boys, perhaps even girls, would take her seriously. She glanced at her scab ridden ears, made so by hours of amateur hot combing. A barbaric process, she thought. Singed skin went along with the deed and was meant to be quietly tolerated.
Furtively, she took the magazine from under the mattress and looked at the special picture. At least she’d have another few hours before anyone was home to enjoy the quiet and her package…but God! Where was that blasted mailman!
She yanked the screen from her bedroom window and looked out onto Promise Lane, up and down the block on the side where her project building stood. She held her breath: “What if he’s already passed me by?” she thought, looking now at the neat row of pretty single family homes across the street, trying to see if she could spot the mailman in between the dense foliage.
Slowly she hung her head, only to raise it, and faintly make out the form made tiny by the distance of her mailman. Her heart pranced. She wanted urgently to bound the stairs and run out of the house to him to get her package, but she didn’t dare. She might miss an important call for her mother. Well…she’d waited this long, it was only a matter of minutes before he’d appear at the door.
“Gartha?” she heard someone call through the screen. “You home?”
It was Cynthia, her seventeen-year-old neighbor.
“Yes, I’m here.”
Cynthia’s white buck-toothed grin brought the sheen out in her lightly tanned face. Her chestnut hair was pulled back in a small knot and bangs flattered her face.
“Yo mamma ‘tol me to check in on you, that she’d only be gone a few hours. You glad to have school off today?”
“Of course not. I love school,” she said, thinking it an odd question. “But I’m expecting something from the mailman today and I’m excited about that.”
Cynthia’s ears perked up. “Didja order a dress or somethin’?”
“Nope!” Gartha replied.
“You ain’t got no money, so it cain’t be that much. It must be a game, right?”
Gartha scrutinized the older girl’s warm open smile. What nerve of her to tell her she hadn’t any money? How did she know what she had? She wanted to tell her what she was expecting, yet fought to remain silent. “I’ll tell you later…I promise.”
Cynthia bent down and pushed a long box toward her. “I almost forgot, this is for yo mamma’s party tonight. I think it’s her liquor. They left it with us, after she’d gone.”
Gartha opened the door and pulled it inside.
“Cyn,” Gartha asked, matter-of-factly. “Is Julius your boyfriend? …I saw you kissing him on the park bench.”
“You think he’s cute?” Cynthia queried, her smile fading.
Gartha nodded meekly, “Yes, I do.”
“He too old for you,” Cynthia said flippantly, eyeing Gartha confidently as she proceeded from Gartha’s apartment into her own.
Her words tightened Gartha’s throat. Julius was mighty fine to her; tall and thin, the color of caramel; he had thick black processed hair and even pretty pearly white teeth, a dazzling smile. His eyes slightly drooped like a St. Bernard’s, and he had a reputation for being one of the best dancers around. Sometimes he called her “sweetness” but when he called her “pretty girl” or “beautiful” she swooned, feeling a trace of fever.
Once he even sneaked up on her and “stole” a hug. In her reverie she imagined him dancing with her, holding her tight like he held Cynthia while they moved achingly slow to the rhythm of some sexy record.
“Ms. Poe. Ms. Poe,” the mailman said, and she answered “Yes” through a gentle smile with her eyes closed. He thrust the mail into her hand, shaking his head as he turned toward the next apartment.
She laid the envelopes on the coffee table and then studied the name on the small cardboard box addressed to her. “Moon-Jho Enterprises” it said in big bold letters.
As she climbed the stairs, she shook the box. It felt empty. She floated into her room taking a seat at the dresser and carefully opened the box. Lifting the tissue, the glossy, rich black color made her blush as she lifted the thick twenty-inch-long braid from its place.
It was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. Quickly she pinned it to the back of her head and began to pose. First, with it over her shoulder, then with it behind her ear. She piled it high atop her head and mugged in the mirror. She untwined the braid and with a toss of the head, the dense hair cascaded down her back and her open smile gave her the look of some striking South Seas beauty.
Muddy Waters wailed on the hi-fi, inciting rumps to gyrate and a brave wandering hand to cop a quick feel as a room of beautiful women fired up the dance floor in Nona Poe’s living room.
Leather topped card tables off to the side chaired by men with even busier hands enjoying the resounding smack of their cards against the hides, their bass voices laughing at innuendo. Nona flitted about making sure glasses stayed full and money circulated.
Standing on the fifth step of the staircase wide-eyed was Gartha. Ideas free floated through her head, like feathers dropped from on high, drifting here and there, and occasionally resting depending on what or whom absorbed her gaze.
“Come on down them steps and show us how to boogaloo, baby,” a light-skinned auburn haired woman in a black sequined fish tail gown cooed to Gartha.
“She know she spose to be upstairs watchin’ the kids,” Nona huffed, giving her daughter a sideways glance, but before she could say anything further, Gartha was jostled from her perch on the stairs and surrounded by some healthy looking country women of all height and hue giving up some vigorous expressions to the blues.
She mimicked the women so well that when the record ended, two tables of card players extended hands to her that were filled with dollar bills. She counted 27 dollars.
As the music changed to one of Howlin Wolf’s slower numbers, Gartha made her way through the crush of adults to an extremely handsome fat man, smoking a cigar and seated by the stereo who beckoned to her, arms outstretched. It was Johnny, a family friend and one of her mother’s liquor salesmen.
She ran into his arms and he tossed her up and held her tight against him before putting her down, kissing her ear. “How’s my gal?” he asked, licking his wide full lips and flashing a broad smile.
“Ok,” Gartha smiled.
“So sit down here next to Uncle and tell me what you been doin’? Got a boyfriend yet?”
“Nope!” Gartha said.
He looked at her intently and flashed a grin. “You don’t? A cute li’l thing like you…don’t have a boyfriend?”
He drained his beer can.
“Would you like another beer?” Gartha asked, taking his empty one. “I’ll throw this away. I help my mother keep the house clean.”
“You’re a good mother’s helper,” he said. “Yes, if you don’t mind.”
Gartha threw the can away in the kitchen and took a fresh beer from the fridge, opening it and taking a napkin with her.
“Thank you so much, Gartha. You’re a sweet thing,” he winked. “You gon’ dance again?” Then before she could answer, “Go on and dance for Uncle…How much you want?” he asked her, pulling bills from his pockets, his eyes twinkling.
Li’l Junior Parker’s “Sweet Home Chicago” started to play and off she went into the mix of women on the floor. She strutted and bounced, jutting that miniature butt out so far, by comparison to others, that it garnered plenty of attention. They made a circle and each dancer spent some time in it giving her best offering. When the music finally finished, Gartha rushed into Uncle Johnny’s waiting arms for her money. He mashed her body against his and pressed her into him extra hard as he sat down.
She collected her ten dollars. “Good night, Uncle Johnny,” she said, walking toward the stairs. He puffed from his cigar, as the card tables were turned over with new players.
“Come here for a minute,” he beckoned, walking towards the kitchen.
“Yes, Uncle Johnny?”
“Uncle want to ask you a personal question.” He leaned towards her. “Has anyone ever been…”
“What’s going on, Johnny?” one of her maternal uncles asked as he took a beer from the fridge and sauntered back to the living room.
“Intimate with you?” he smiled faintly, momentarily stunned by the quick entrance and departure of another person in the middle of such a question, but clumsily re-grouped for her response, aware of his pulse racing,
Her gaze was unblinking. “I’m a kid,” Gartha replied.
He exhaled forcefully. “Yes, you are. And I want you to let Uncle know if any one ever attempts to mess with you under your clothes. Here’s five dollars.”
Gartha looked at the money for a few seconds and then took it.
“Can Uncle have a kiss goodnight?” he asked.
“Do you think I’m beautiful, Uncle Johnny?” she asked. “Or pretty?”
He chewed on his cigar a moment. “No you’re not beautiful, or pretty… but you’re cute.”
She gave him a short peck and quickly left the kitchen heading towards the stairs. Her mother was coming down. “It’s way past your bedtime, Gartha,” Nona said firmly.
“I’m going now, Mama…Mama, can I sleep in your bed? Just until you get ready to go to sleep?”
“I guess so,”” Nona muttered.
Gartha lay quietly in the bed in her mother’s darkened room, just off the stairs, thinking about the evening’s deeds. This was a plum spot to be in to see and hear who was throwing up, to see who was stealing kisses, to see who was arguing; also to see who was getting slapped, and who was plotting.
Just as she adjusted the door so that she could see the shadows better, the stairs crackled under the weight of someone very heavy. She didn’t have to strain to make out who it was.
“Sssss!” she said.
The lumbering drunken figure came toward her. “Hey, you cute thing.”
The music was blaring downstairs.
“Uncle Johnny,” Gartha began. “I want a bicycle. I’d like to have it next week.”
“You want a bicycle?” he slurred. “Next week! Ain’t you somethin’.”
“Are you going to get it for me? It’s the only thing I need right now.”
“Well,” he said. “Yo Uncle need a lot of things, too…Yo mamma is fine…and you gon’ look jus’ like her when you…”
“Uncle Johhny… if you don’t have a brand new bike for me by the end of next week, I’ll tell my mamma that you’re always rubbing me up against your privates.”
He steadied himself by holding on to the walls and the door as Gartha’s unsmiling gaze burned through him in the dimness, her words echoing in his ear. “You’re a lyin little monkey, too.” he said.
“No,” Gartha told him. “I’m not a lying little monkey…but what is important…is that I’m a kid.” She paused to allow him time to soak up her words. “I told you that in the kitchen.”
She started back to her bed, his towering frame immobile in the doorway. “Oh… tell my mamma you’re giving me the bike as a gift, because I’m a good daughter and you want to help her out. Good night, Uncle Johnny.”
Gartha then closed her mother’s bedroom door tight and smiled as she undressed down to her underwear and slid under the cozy quilts of Nona’s bed. She thought about her braid. She thought about tomorrow. She thought about what an exciting turn her life was taking.
“I don’t want any of yo friends to be visitin’ you while you there at Sister’s house,” Nona said to Gartha, referring to her eldest sister and Gartha’s aunt. “You there cause she’s expectin’ a package and she don’t trust any of her neighbors to accept it for her.”
“She done probably fucked some woman’s husband on her street, or maybe all they husbands,” Nona mumbled barely audible, as she watered her plants.
“I didn’t hear you, Mama,” Gartha said.
“Never mind,” Nona returned, then she abruptly stopped and looked at her daughter.
“Something wrong?” Gartha asked.
“When you leave this evenin’, put on that suit I brought you. It looks pretty on you and it look like you ain’t gon’ never wear it.” Gartha was surprised. Her mother almost never told her what to wear, never even acted like she cared. Well, there was the time when special visitors came who’d be seeing the house for the first time, or when Nona took her out for some reason, she had to get all dolled up.
Where Sister lived, the apartments were fancy, and just in case Gartha had to speak to someone, as Sister’s niece and Nona’s daughter, she wanted her to represent well. Gartha was all too happy to get dressed up. Now she had a reason to wear her braid to see its effect.
A few blocks away from Gartha’s house, three men were sitting at a kitchen table drinking and talking.
“Man, let’s drive around,” said Obie, the shortest of the three.
“You got money for gas, mufucka?” Dent, the tallest and oldest of them answered.
“I know where we can git ends, man,” Tray said, the middle guy and handsomest of the three.
“Yeah? Where?” asked Dent.
“My moms got some money. She won it playing cards…I can git it but we got to put it back,” Tray said.
“You ain’t shit, man, stealin’ from yo moms! I wouldn’t never do no shit like dat,” Dent said. “When we got to put it back?”
Obie perked up. “Now look who ain’t shit!”
Dent boxed him hard upside the head.
“I figger she gon’ be lookin’ to count it agin in the next couple days, on account she got a lots right now. She keep it wrapped in plastic in her sanitary pad pouch, cause she figger it’s the last place anybody will look if they break in the house and hunt aroun’.”
Obie was caressing his bruise left by Dent’s fist, “Well, she got a point there…dudes stay away from that.”
“You would think so,” said Tray. “That shit stink.”
Dent stood up. “Let’s go.” He grabbed his keys. “I tell y’all all the time bitches is nasty, no matter how fine dey be.”
They settled in the car on the way to Tray’s house. It was approaching dusk and in the single family neighborhood of homes they passed, they could see attractive women getting in cars or next to them at the intersections when they stopped for lights. It didn’t take Tray long to go in and come back with one hundred dollars of his mom’s money.
“Word mufucka!” Dent said as he slapped hi-five with his friend, who handed him some of the money.
“Man, what you doin’?” Dent asked.
“What you mean?” asked Tray.
“Man, gimme the money…the rest of it,” Dent ordered.
Tray sighed. “Man, I gave you fifty. Why you got to have it all?”
“Man, who drivin? Who car is this? Who outta alla us, old enough to buy liquor?” Dent held his hand out.
Tray shook his head and put the rest of the money in Dent’s hand. “Dat mean, you gon’ be the one pay it all back?”
“Git real, mufucka, I’m chippin’ in, jus like y’all! Besides,” Dent continued, “we might not even spend all this.”
Tray turned to look at Obie, who just stared straight ahead.
They stopped for gas. Dent bought a few six packs of beer and they took off down one of the popular bus routes, eyeing the scenery as they cruised by.
“Man, where dese broke down bitches materialize from?” Obie said, as he popped a beer top.
“Slow down, man…slow down.” Tray said as they cruised by the bus stop. “Did you see that?”
Dent looked in his rear view mirror, then slowed the car down for a better look. The girl was dressed to the nines, had on a striking gold pants suit. Besides her light complexion, the thing that was the most arresting was her thick jet black hair, pulled back in a braid.
Obie turned around in his seat. “That’s a hot mama,” he crowed. “She a stuck up bitch, though, them light ones always are.”
“Don’t matter, man, she ain’t gon’ give you the time of day anyway,” said Tray. “You too short! Dat bitch got some pretty hair though! And she a red-bone. I use to fantasize about bitches like dat. You know she a freak! Wanna be white, but not quite!”
“What’s dat got to do with anything?” Obie asked. “She could be dark skinned and fine!”
“Damn…do I have teach y’all dumb mufuckas everything about women, too!” Dent said turning around in his seat. “Yeah, there’s fine dark women, but ain’t much expected of ’em…as a group I mean. Take Frosty back there, she may be a splib, but a li’l mo gon’ be expected of her, on account of the way she look…. It’s always been like dat! So she think different.”
Dent pulled away from the curb. “I’m goin back around so we can get a better look.”
They circled the block and pulled up to the stop. “I don’t need a ride,” Gartha said smiling.
“Are you sure?” Tray asked. “Cause we don’t mind takin’ a lady where she wanna go.”
Gartha caressed her braid, and then swung it behind her back.
“You got some pretty hair, and you dressed nice. You a fox,” Obie said.
“Yeah, y’all look good, too,” she said politely. The braid was working.
“Good,” Dent said sitting up, then springing from the car. “Then we look good enough to go with you.”
Tray and Obie hauled out of the car with him and they deftly dragged Gartha from the stop and shoved her into the back seat, taking off like a shot.
She looked at the lump on Obie’s face, and began pummeling him with the strength of both fists. He was hollering and putting his hands up to protect his face.
“Man, go back there and git that bitch off dat sorry mufucka!” Dent instructed Tray, as he hunted for a through street that wasn’t busy.
Tray crawled over the back seat and pulled Gartha off Obie and slapped her. She twisted her body and kicked Obie in the head, sending it slamming against the side glass and began grappling with Tray.
“Man, dis bitch fight like a road hoe!” he hollered to Dent who now was trying to avoid Gartha’s heels as Tray struggled with her.
“Tray, knock the bitch out!” Dent screamed.
“Man, I cain’t git…”
“Man, if you don’t knock dat bitch out, I’m knockin’ you out!
“Hold her, Obie,” Tray said.
Obie’s eye was bleeding, but he was trying to hold on to Gartha, yet couldn’t get a grip.
Dent quickly sped a couple more miles, pulled off the road, then turned around and yanked Gartha’s legs across the front seat, ripping her pants halfway down, tearing her panties.
As she bucked and Tray held on to her arms, Dent flicked open his cigarette lighter and turned up the flame. He quickly brought the flame to within an inch of Gartha’s pubic hairs.
“I’m gon have to teach a bitch the meanin’ of ‘hot pussy?’” he said.
Gartha stopped fighting. Silence and deep breathing filled the car.
Dent closed the lighter. There were no street lights. The road was gravel. He drove a few more feet, made a sharp turn and cut off the headlights, stopping the car. He gripped Gartha’s shoulder tightly. “Tray, come git this bitch and hold on to her,” he ordered.
Tray did as he was instructed. They exited the car. Gartha knew she wasn’t near the city, but didn’t know where she was. They could barely see each other. She thought if she broke away running, she’d be bitten by snakes or run into some quicksand.
Dent went to the trunk of his car. From the dull trunk lights she saw him take out a hand gun and a shotgun. “Ya’ll some punk muthafuckas,” he said to Tray and Obie.
“Dent, man, we didn’t plan on killin’ nobody,” Tray said.
“Yeah, man, we…” Obie started.
“Shut the fuck up!” Dent barked. “What the fuck we gon’ do with this bitch now? She gon’ tell the police, if we let her go.”
Obie started to cry. “Man, I just got out! They fucked me in jail, Dent! The dudes and some of the staff. I caint go back…I”
“Obie, shut yo damn mouth!” Tray hissed.
Gartha spoke. “I won’t go to the police,” she said softly. “I have drugs at my house.”
She could feel Dent and Tray’s gaze on her, Tray’s arm tightening around hers. “I should top you off right here, right now,” Dent said. “These few folks who live on these farms wouldn’t think nothing of the noise. They’d think I shot a animal messing wit chickens or somethin’.”
Gartha remained quiet, her exterior belying the terror she felt inside.
“What you know about drugs?” Dent asked her.
“I know I have some cocaine and some marijuana,” she said. “My cousin left it there before he was sent to jail.”
“So you do drugs?” Dent said. “Funny… you don’t strike me as the type who do drugs…how you know it’s coke?”
“My cousin said it was coke. It’s in big rocks. I know what reefer smells like.” Gartha breathed deeply, quietly. “We can go back to my place, smoke some reefer, do some coke,”she said. “There’s so much there you can’t do it all. Who knows what else we might think of, once we’re relaxed,” she went on, her voice gentle and calm.
Dent pushed her to the car and inside it. “Tray, ride up here wit us.” They took off down the road, Gartha sandwiched between them. Both men started to drink and began to fondle her.
“I have to pee,” she said.
“You’ll have to hold it ’til we git to yo place. Yo clothes are too raggedy to git out at a gas station. You better not be lyin’ about the drugs either. I did time for shootin’ people, so you ain’t special.”
At least they stopped fondling her.
After about thirty-five minutes, they arrived in a section of the city that was pristine, with lovely rows of sturdy, three storied brownstones with long ornate flower pots decorating the balconies. They all got out in front of the building that Gartha indicated. She felt in her pocket for her aunt’s key.
“I have to enter from the rear,” she said. “I should walk ahead.”
“I thought you said yo cousin was in jail,” Dent said, grabbing for her arm.
“He is…please relax. I live alone.”
“A shot gun and a hand gun is pointed at you, bitch,” said Tray.
She made her way into the blackness leading to the back of the house with them hard and fast on her heels. It seemed the path to her Aunt’s apartment was burned in her mind so accurately, her eyes weren’t necessary. “Watch the eight steps,” she said, taking them by twos.
Then in a moment where naked fear melds with unerring courage, she bolted from her captors and with amazingly precise exactitude deadheaded her key into the lock and opened the door; whisking herself inside and slamming it in the faces, the huge lock catching with sobering finality.
She slumped to the floor as they opened fire, one blast splintering the thick wood in the ceiling and snuffing out the light above her head. She heard them hobbling and running down the stairs in a panic, overturning garbage cans and bottles as they hurried alongside the apartment building in the darkness in a fit to get to their car and escape, their tires screeched signaling to Gartha they’d gone.
Trembling, she pulled herself up from the floor, her panties soiled, to answer her aunt’s phone. It was a neighbor, a policeman wanting to know what happened, whether or not she was alright. Gartha asked him to come over.
She went into the bathroom and stared into the mirror as though looking past who she was. The braid compelled her focus. Vibrancy flooded her eyes. Awed, she put her hand to her chest to still her heart.
She had narrowly escaped a dangerous ordeal with her life, but what struck her most about her reflection at that moment was that her braid was still intact. Most importantly, she looked “beautiful.” As beautiful as the heroine who’d be swept up and kissed by the hero at the end of one of the old classic films she’d watched with so much envy.
She heard the neighbor at her door and, with a toss of her head, the long, thick black hairpiece was imparted like many dead things enshrined in myth, an all-too-real, misplaced, largely unexamined relevance in Gartha’s life.
• • •