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I was crying. As warm water cascaded over the top of my head, I hit the light-blue tiles with the side of my fist.

Twice.

And then again.

Which is when I felt John wrap his arms around me. I had not heard him enter our slender shower stall. I did not turn around, I just kept crying.

“Mari. I know. I know.”

He didn’t immediately say anything else. We just rocked back and forth while he hugged me and I kept crying, tears and water streaming down my face.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said in soft, almost mournful tones. “I told you a long time ago: you go to work, I’m going to be here every time, whenever you get back. I don’t care when, how long. I’m going to be right here. And I am not afraid of anything. I will always love you and hug you. Siempre abrazo.”

I used to joke with him: “Ah huh, where else you got to go? You write on your computer all day while I’m bandaging sores and shooting medicine and pain killers into patients.”

I knew it was cruel. He washes clothes. He cleans floors. He cooks. Whatever we need. Although sometimes I can’t help myself from venting, from taking stuff out on him, I feel bad… the next day, or even three or four days later. And I get angry with myself.

As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t shut down my feelings. I kept seeing her twisted face. I imagine it was his mother, or older sister, but not his wife; he was so young. I was briefly standing off to the side. I felt how the spasms of grief wracked her body, and I couldn’t do nothing but look. I couldn’t hug her or even talk to her. I heard her entreaties to God through the face mask she was required to don.

I’ve learn to accept patients dying–it took me a while to get used to it when I first started but eventually I did.

Never used to carry all this death home with me. But now this shit just bubbles up at odd moments.

I think what it is, is that in this killing season so many people die alone. Families and loved one kept separate, thick walls between them and the newly deceased. Not even glass windows.

And worse yet. No wakes. No funerals. Not that I usually go to any of them. But it must be hard. Recently there are so many people whom I was among the last to see them alive, to see them expire, to see their souls leave the earth.

Never before, used to be most of my patients got well, or at least well enough to leave the hospital. Now, when they come to me, they die.

And something in me dies with them.

Sometimes, too many times, when I should be relaxing, I keep having this weird vision. I am dead. Lying on a bed. And all my patients  who preceded me in death are standing there looking down at my corpse. And none of us are saying anything. How could we. We are all dead. What could we say?

Soon–I don’t really know how soon–I sniffled, blew water out my nose, turned off the faucet, and then abruptly but gently pushed John away. I was as clean as I was going to get. He didn’t say anything, just looked at me through sad puppy eyes. I dried off with one of the fluffy, rose-colored bath towels we had purchased at the discount store on the highway not too far from the hospital. I know I should have better responded to his embrace but I was too tired.

I had used up all my daily allotment of being optimistic. All I wanted to do was sleep and so, without saying a single word, not even a soft sigh, I just walked away and crawled into bed.

* * * *

“I’m sorry about not talking last night. I just. . . I couldn’t. Didn’t.”

I looked at the steeping cup of red zinger tea that John fixed for me. Even though it was one of my favorite breakfast snacks, I didn’t feel like eating the lightly toasted bagel with cream cheese and lox placed on the maroon saucer atop the floral, cloth placemat in front of where I usually sit at our little dining table.

“You don’t have to talk. I mean, if you don’t feel like it.”

I didn’t say anything.

Five full minutes after I had erected a wall of silence, I looked up at the clock. It was about that time.

For a brief moment, a re-occuring thought sneaked into my mind: why am I doing this? Doing what? All of it. Any of it. Especially when treating those ill with the virus can so easily lead to your own illness. Your own death.

Being exposed to patients who’ve caught the virus–or did the virus catch them, maybe someone unknown passed it on, or worse yet they got it from their mama or someone they love–treating the virus is worse than playing Russian roulette with two bullets randomly placed in the six chambers. Regardless of the increasingly shitty odds, we try our best. We do no harm and hope each trigger pull ends up on an empty chamber.

Doctor, nurse, orderly, or housekeeper, what a revolting development our hospital profession leads to: helping others sometimes means harming yourself.

I wonder if my face betrayed my morbid thoughts. After awhile I furtively glanced over and caught John watching me out of the sides of his eyes. I guess he was afraid to face me full on. Maybe even scared to see me in my doomed soldier determination. I had to go. I looked away as though I was shy. 

Funny, I wasn’t scared. I was angry.

The futility of my condition made me crazy, especially when I realized that what I really wanted was to stay home and get sexy busy with John. But I also really wanted to go do the work I knew needed to be done. I really wanted it all. A normal life–hell, what is normal anymore?–and a valiant life. Persevering on both the home-front and the battle-front?

“The world may be going to shit, but I’m still going to work,” I softly intoned to myself without fully facing John. Funny, I don’t feel like being no damn hero today. When did treating the sick become an act of heroism? Why?

“You know you don’t have to be superman, I mean superwoman.”

For the first time today I smiled, stood up, put both hands on either side of my hips, spread my legs in a buffalo stance, and acclaimed: “You’re right, but you’re wrong. I’m wonder woman. Don’t you see that big-ass ‘W’ on my chest. We all are a wonder.”

“And a butterfly,” John said, reaching out and touching the colorful broach I always wore pinned to my scrub top.

“Yes. That too.”

“You’ll be muy bonita after all these caterpillar days.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

I reached around him to pick up the car keys off the table and turned to start out the door. But then I stopped and pivoted back to face him.

“You know what?” I didn’t even wait for a response. I tilted my head upward and gave him a quick kiss. “I love you.”

I pulled my knit cap down securely on my head, walked to the door, and defiantly voiced my determination, but, this time, loudly enough for John to hear, I said “The world may be going to shit. But I’m going to work. I’ll see you when I get back.” I started to add, “if I don’t die first”. But I knew that last tag was too much for the average young lover to hear.

I scrambled to the front door and then firmly stepped into the inviting morning sunlight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“No! When?”

Ellis was in the hospital. Had that virus. His oldest son had taken him to the infirmary. Ochsner, the same mega-medical conglomerate who were the providers for my wife, Nia, is now where Ellis is sequestered. And, well, yes being in the hospital with coronavirus in New Orleans devolves into a major form of isolation

He can’t have no visitors. Including family. Nobody. That’s for his own good and also for the good of the broader community. People afflicted with the virus need intensive care and they are also highly contagious, meaning during treatment they require close contact with their care-givers but are simultaneously a major danger to visitors.

Illness with the virus is a lonely situation. The attending medical personnel are under massive strain. They have to be extra-careful in terms of administering treatment to victims afflicted by the coronavirus and at the same time, because of the daily demands, medical personnel can not spend extended time next to, talking with, touching. . . besides, most of their patients are on a ventilator. The very equipment needed to help cure victims makes it impossible for the person to hold conversations with their caregiver.

Safely providing medical treatment is an arduous and, yes, a dangerous occupation. Moreover, it’s an isolated environment within which to recuperate. Plus, ultimately and tragically, bereft of contact from family and friends, the virus is an especially lonely way to die.

Moreover, I don’t know how the medical personnel do it. How they keep going. How they keep themselves mentally fit.

During the coronavirus season is no time to be sick. Not that there is ever any good time to be sick, but these virus-challenged conditions create an atmosphere for recuperating that is much worse than simply not good.

We’ve got some turbulent waters to cross, waters that will require us to deal with tons of therapy and, in the most extreme cases, endless hours of exhaustive and intensive treatment. In the interim, there is a daunting reality: the economic wealth as we knew it pre-virus will not survive the onslaught of repercussions that will be the result of the unavoidable business slow-downs and shut-downs that inevitably will happen in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

Ellis Marsalis Jr. was born November 14, 1934. He made his transition on April 1, 2020. He is survived by six sons: Branford (saxophone), Wynton (trumpet), Ellis III (photography), Delfeayo (trombone), Mboya, and Jason (percussion).

I produced an Ellis Marsalis album, Piano In E, featuring his solo piano music and interpretations. I think about those and many other music times we shared. I especially recall the melodious way he could make those keys sing. New Orleans, and indeed musical audiences worldwide, are sure gonna miss Mr. Marsalis now that he’s gone.

 

 

I’ve been paying attention to nationally televised news reports in relation to the coronavirus. Most of the telecasts are saying the situation in New Orleans is bad. But despite the warnings from numerous news stories, for a number of reasons, I don’t believe we are getting an accurate assessment of our conditions.

One, in the absence of broad-based testing, we have no way of accurately determining what our situation is. Two, given that we are dealing with a virus that has already demonstrated in Asia and Europe that once the virus hits a place, there is no mild case in any densely populated area. And three, the truth is so deeply discouraging that as the saying goes, we can’t stand the truth.

I believe our situation is worse than bad. 

I remember reading last week–which seems like a long time ago–when New Orleans popped up into national consciousness as an example of how bad the virus is. Like many, my initial reaction was that our politicians had fallen victim to the Louisiana syndrome of being incompetent and even criminal. The number of politicians who have spent time in jail is a long-standing and cliche-ridden story.

As the tale is told, we never should have celebrated Mardi Gras in 2020. The mayor should have called it off. It was rank incompetence for us to be dancing in streets while large numbers of people were dying from a highly contagious disease. That’s a backward-looking verdict that seems to make sense, but the timeline of what happened tells a different tale.

During my investigations I ran across a clip of mayor Cantrell. She was mad, close to stereotypical Black woman upset. As was reported in the Washington Post:

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said canceling or curtailing Mardi Gras was never considered. Federal agencies that are part of planning Mardi Gras every year — including the FBI and Homeland Security — did not raise concerns about the coronavirus, she said. Federal officials who walked the parade route with members of her administration were focused on terrorist attacks.

“We were not given a warning or even told, ‘Look, you know what? Don’t have Mardi Gras,’ ” she said.

At that point in late February, American life had not been seriously altered. People were still packing airports. The NBA hadn’t suspended games, and Disney World was still open for business.

“Leadership matters,” Cantrell said. “And if the federal government is not responding to or saying that we’re potentially on the verge of having a crisis for the pandemic coming to the U.S. — that would change everything. But that wasn’t happening.”

Cantrell noted that a couple weeks later, she did cancel the St. Patrick’s Day Parade — and was harshly criticized by some in New Orleans. As it happened, partiers didn’t heed the ban, and bars in the French Quarter were packed.

In short, there was no government authority warning her, not to mention, no one prohibiting her from carrying on as they have year after year, celebrating “fat tuesday” even during the leanest of years. Well, at this point, it is difficult to imagine a 2020-like celebration with over a million revelers in 2021.

We’ve got some turbulent waters to cross, waters that will require us to deal with tons of therapy and, in the most extreme cases, endless hours of exhaustive and intensive treatment. In the interim, there is the reality: the economic wealth as we knew it pre-virus will not survive the onslaught of repercussions that will be the result of the necessary business slow-downs and shut-downs that inevitably will happen in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

We will survive but what will our new reality look like and how many of us will be able to confront and carry on in the immediate future? Those are two critical questions — questions we are not yet able to accurately answer.

And on another note, a man who called for and led a second-line funeral had an arrest warrant issued for organizing a traditional send-off. At somebody’s funeral we can’t celebrate life in the streets anymore. Oh, my darlin’ New Orleans really got the blues. We sho nuff got the coronavirus blues.

 

 

 

 

 

How we respond, or don’t respond, to the reality of the virus will specifically determine the course of how we live and die during the first half of the 21st century.

Most of us are not fully aware of the extent and nature of the virus crisis. For example, medical workers are directly in danger as they deal with caring for those of us who are ill. Doctors and nurses who are treating virus patients, statistically are the professional segment most affected by resultant illness and, unfortunately, death.

Hospital workers (from housekeepers and maintenance personnel to physicians, technicians, and everybody in between), these are the heroes. While most of us stay home, they go to the medical battle front every day.

Imagine, the healers are the ones most susceptible to becoming a victim of the virus. Can you imagine, going to work everyday to help others and knowing that your therapeutic work could also be your own death sentence?

Medical practitioners are so dedicated to helping others, that despite the risks they face, they go to work anyway. Healthy or un-well, we all owe medical workers and associated crew, a deep and very sincere “asante sana” (thank you very much).

 

 

Never surrender to despair. Don’t isolate, reach out and relate.

Let the drumming of our heartbeats lead us to communicate with those whom we love and with whom we share social spaces, times and circumstances.

We in the USA have been advised to socially separate. Maintain physical distance. Don’t touch. Stay apart six or more feet; back, or behind, or on the side. Have a lot of daylight between you and the other when you have to go out somewhere.

It’s hard, especially in New Orleans where we are so used to not just fist-bumping and hand-shaking; we used to be all the time embracing and kissing each other, not to mention, mob-deep dancing in the street. Or, yeah, you right, collectively celebrating damn near weekly with home-cooked food and a favorite brew.

Yes, these are different, difficult and dangerous times, nevertheless, all the trials and tribulations not withstanding, we remain social animals. No matter how much we isolate as a means of fighting the highly contagious corona-virus, we do better living in concert rather than struggling alone. Connecting with one another is the healthy choice.

On my recent birthday (24 March 2020, when I made 73 years old), I spoke with folk I had not conversed with in years. And that’s when it hit me. Don’t mourn. Organize!

Let’s not get down emotionally when faced with the current anti-social conditions. Let’s creatively respond. Make a commitment: EVERY DAY I WILL CALL AND TALK WITH SOMEONE I HAVE NOT SPOKEN TO OR SEEN IN OVER A MONTH.

Thanks to the near universality of mobil devices and wi-fi, we live in a world when the vast majority of us are just a phone call away from each other. So everyday, we ought to reach out and have a little talk with friends, family and associates. Not the same people every day but rather a different person each day. Even if no more than to say: hi, hello, how you doing? Been thinking about you.

Creating an active and extensive social circle is a responsibility of maintaining our humanity. Consistently touch at least a month’s worth of contacts. That’s an average of 30 different people we talk with on the regular.

Imagine how closer we would all feel if we maintained contact day after day, frequently, and without fail. Don’t even have to be anything deep. Just a quick check in. A swift “hello”.

Let someone you know, know that you know them.

Try it for a few days. I guarantee it will improve your mental health. Will bring social sunshine to light up what would otherwise be lonely hours spent self-isolating in dank and rank social darkness. As the song says, reach out and touch. Make this world a better world. I know you can.

Yes, we can, can. Great gosh almighty, I know we can do it.

 

today is my 73rd year circling the sun

and i think

not of the past, but 

rather of all that i’ve yet begun

 

this year, for me, has a special bite

as i live in solitude–on previous occasions

as an adult, i have never been alone

always a companion close by enough

i could touch them without a phone

perhaps, as i age, i taste how

my paternal fore-fathers have 

literally been men who died

without spouses by their side

my grandfather, whom i remember

saying his father came from paris, france

died during hurricane betsy sequestered

into a closet, his body not revealed

until a week after the drowning

my burly father, my map of manhood

who transitioned while i and my two brothers

stood silent at his hospital bed side

both branches of my lineage 

were wifeless when they expired

and similarly i am recently wifeless

as i live–it is not a morbid thought

simply a recognition of reality

 

i am a writer

i remind myself and the world

 

this morning i snuggled into a black t-shirt

emblazoned with a photo

of my patron saint, langston hughes

i still have so much i want to do

not places to go (especially

as i am encased in this virus blighted world)

not even people i want to see

but rather book projects to complete

and, hopefully, friends and survivors

to inspire, and so, to them and

to the world, i say: salud, carry on

hold the line, maintain the struggle

to make this world

better and more beautiful

no matter what is before us

let us leave behind

actions, times and memories

that make all of us

better and more beautiful

 

–24 march 2020

 

 

 

 

These be dangerous times–not just “hard”–these are actually dangerous times; times when some of us, many of us, might not survive, and even if we survive, we will be forever changed, never again the same.

As counter-intuitive as it may sound, this is also a time of growth. But not growth in terms of size but rather growth in terms of maturity. Growth when we realize that we have got to become better. All of us. Even the least of us. And especially the wealthy of us.

The wage and wealth gap in the USA has widened rather than contracted. In both physical welfare and net worth terms we are far more than six feet apart. We live in separate worlds; indeed, in the real world, some of us struggle to merely survive, while far fewer of us continue to prosper.

Check it: we are social animals who require exchange with others to fully be ourselves. Yet in this virus time we are mandated/made to stand and stay apart. Here are the recent updated statistics.

So what do we do?

What we can’t keep on doing is what we recently have been cavalierly doing. Hard as it be, if we want to live free we must put restrictions on ourselves. The main restriction is we have got to clean up and realize that we must stop relying on others to serve us, to cook our food, to clean up our waste, to make our asses comfortable. We have got to re-learn and value the beauty of doing for self.

I live in New Orleans, a legendary but not overly large metropolitan area, yet, at the beginning of this silent-spring in our virus-dominated-time, the Crescent City ranks high in the nation in terms of this virulent virus affecting literally thousands of citizens.

At first I was mystified: why were we ranked so high? But in thinking through what is going on, an event screams out as a major contact point. Our situation was screamingly obvious: we were a focal crossroads of all kinds of foot traffic and social interchange.

My younger brother is a physician, an expert cardiologist. When we talked about the current situation, what became clear is on February 25, 2020 our city was the center of a major international gathering: Mardi Gras. Hence our city was a petri-dish for the transmission of this virulent disease.

There will be no comparable Mardi Gras crowds of millions in 2021. We all know trying times demand better, even if we didn’t all do better in 2020. Last year was the last mad bacchanal of thousands in the streets shouting “throw me something, mister”. I don’t think any of us want to catch the Covid-19 virus.

 

 

(I wrote this years ago, during better times. Two weeks after the services for Nia, my nephew Kamau Ferdinand and I were cleaning out the garage. I found the foto above.

You know the way our minds work: one thing leads to another thing, and soon a third thing pops into your consciousness, which in turn leads you to an act/tion or a thought that is (or isn’t) related to the first thing, or even (for that matter) related to anything else in the immediate sense.

The unforeseen/unplanned moment jolts you and may, or may not, lead you to think of, to envision, to birth something completely unrelated.

Of course, of course, that’s the way life is.

I was doing one thing and another thing arrived, and without even having to think on the circumstances, voila, a new-ness is created.

–Kalamu ya Salaam)

#######

 

BUDDY BOLDEN

a bunch of us were astral traveling, pulsating on the flow of a wicked elvinesque polyrhythmic 6/8 groove. although our physical eyes had disappeared from our faces, we still had wry eyebrows arched like quarter moons or miniature ram’s horns. every molecule of our thirsty skin was a sensitive ear drinking in the vibes. at each stroke of sweat-slicked drumstick on skins, our wings moved in syncopated grace. shimmering cymbal vibrations illuminated the night so green bright we could feel the trembling emerald through the soles of our feet. deep red pulsing bass sounds throbbed from our left brain lobes, lifting us and shooting us quickly across the eons. we moved swiftly as comets, quiet as singing starlight.

 

as we neared the motherwomb, firefly angels came out to escort us to the inner sanctum. with eager anticipation i smelled a banquet of hip, growling, intense quarter notes when we entered the compound. a hand carved, coconut shell bowl brimming with hot melodies radiating a tantalizing aroma sat steaming at each place setting, heralding our arrival. whenever i rode this deeply into the music, i would never want to return back to places of broken notes and no natural drums.

 

on my way here i heard nidia who was in a prison in el salvador. she had been shot, captured. her tormentors were torturing her with continuous questions, sleep deprivation, psychological cruelty, and assassination attempts against her family. she sang songs to stay strong. singing in prison, i dug that. 

 

once we made touchdown, we kissed the sweetearth (which tasted like three parts blackstrap molasses and one part chalky starch with a dash of sharply tart orange rind) and smeared red clay in our hair. then lay in the sun for a few days listening to duke ellington every morning before bathing. i was glad to see otis redding flashing his huge carefree smiles and splashing around in the blue lagoon. finally after hugging the baobab tree (the oldest existing life force) for twenty-four hours we were ready to glide inside and hang with the children again. whenever one returned from planet earth, we had to take a lot of precautions. you never know what kinds of human logic you might be infected with. since i had spent most of my last assignment checking out far flung galaxies, on my first examination i was able to dance through the scanner with nary a miscue. my soul was cool.

 

i only had ten centuries to recuperate before returning to active rotation so i was eager to eat. the house was a buzz with vibrations. a hefty-thighed cook came in and tongue kissed each of us seated at the mahogony table, male and female, young and old, whatever. that took about six centuries. she was moving on cp time and when i tasted her kiss i understood why.

 

up close her skin was deeper than a sunken slave ship and glowed with the glitter of golddust pressed across her brow and on the sides of her face just above her cheekline. she wore a plum-sized chunk of orangish-yellow amber as a pendant held in place by a chain braided from the mane of a four hundred pound lion. her head was divided into sixteen sectors each with a ball of threaded hair tied in nubian knots, each knot exactly the same size as the spherical amber perfectly poised in the hollow of her throat. i was so stunned by the beauty force of her haunting entrance, i had to chant to calm myself.

 

“drink deeply the water from an ancient well.” was all she said as she spun in slow circles. tiny bells dangled between the top of the curvaceous protrudence of her posterior and the bottom of the concavity of the arch in the small of her back where it met her waist and flared outward to the expanse of her sturdy hips. suspended from a cord she wore around her waist, the hand carved, solid gold bells gave off a tiny but distinctive jingle which rose and fell with each step.

 

emanating a bluegreen aura of contentment, she didn’t look like she had ever, in any of her many lifetimes, done anything compromising such as vote for a capitalist (of whatever color) or succumb to the expediency of accepting any system of domination. she didn’t say a word, instead she hummed without disrupting the smiling fullness of her lips. she wasn’t ashame of her big feet as she stepped flatfootedly around the table, a slender gold ring on the big toe of each foot.

 

her almond shaped, kola nut colored eyes sauntered up to each of our individualities, sight read our diverse memories and swam in the sea of whatever sorrows we had experienced. she silently drank all our bitter tears and became pregnant with our hopes. she looked like she had never ever worn clothes and instead had spent her whole life moving about in the glorious garment of a nudity so natural she seemed like a miracle you had to prepare yourself to witness as she innocently and righteously strode through the sun, moon and star light.

 

when she neared me she effortlessly slinked into a crouched, garden tending posture and, with sharp thrusting arm movements, choreographed an improvised welcome dance (how else, except by improvisation, could her movements mirror everything i was thinking?). placing my ear to her distended stomach, i guessed six months. she arched her back. a ring shout undulated out of her womb. i got so excited i had to sit on my wings to keep still.

 

when she stood up to her full six foot height with her lithe arms akimbo, i coudn’t help responding. i got an erection when she placed her hand on the top of my head. she laughed at my arousal.

 

“drink your soup, silly” she teased me and then laughed again, while gently tracing her fingers across my face, down the side of my neck and swiftly brushing my upper torso, briefly petting the hummingbird rapidity of my chest muscle twitches. and then the program began.

 

a few years after monk danced in, coltrane said the blessing in his characteristic slow solemn tone. you know how coltrane talks. as usual, he didn’t eat much. but we were filled with wonder anyway. then bob chrisman from the black scholar gave a short speech on one becomes two when the raindrop splits. everybody danced in appreciation of his insights.

 

when we resumed our places, the child next to me reflected aloud, “always remember you are a starchild. you will become any reality that you get with unless you influence that reality to become you. we have no power but osmosis and vibrations. as long as you don’t forget your essence, it’s alright to live inside something else.” the child hugged me while extrapolating chrisman’s message.

 

a voice on the intercom was calling for volunteers to help move the mountain. even though i wasn’t through with my soup and still had a couple of centuries left, i rose immediately. i had drunk enough to imagine going up against the people who couldn’t clap on two and four. “earth is very dangerous” the voice intoned. “the humans have the power to induce both amnesia and psychic dislocation.”

 

the child smiled at me and sang “i’ll wait for you where human eyes have never seen.” we only had time to sing 7,685 choruses because i had to hurry to earth. our spirits there were up against some mighty powerful forces and the ngoma badly needed reinforcements. but i took a couple of months to thank the chef for sitting me next to the child.

 

“no thanx needed. i simply gave back to you what you gave to me.” then in a divine gesture she lovingly touched each of my four sacred drums: head, heart, gut and groin. cupping them warmly in both her hands, she slow kissed an eternal rhythm into each. before i could say anything she was gone, humming the child’s song “…where human eyes have never seen, i’ll wait for you. i’ll wait for you.”

 

i got to earth shortly after 1947 started. people were still making music then. back in 1999 machines manufactured music. real singing was against the law.

 

walking down the street one day i saw what i assumed was a soul sister. she was humming a simple song. i sensed she was possibly one of us. she looked like a chef except with chemically altered hair on her mind instead of black puffs of natural nubianity. i spoke anyway. she walked right through me.

 

i turned around to see where she had gone. but she was gone. i looked up and i was on the bandstand. i was billie holiday. every pain i ever felt  was sobbing out of my throat. i looked at my black and blue face. the fist splotches from where my man had hit me.

 

“I’d rather

for my man

to hit me,

 

            then

            for him

 

to jump

            up

and quit me.” i sang through the pain of a broken jaw.

 

“have you ever loved somebody who didn’t know how to love you?” i asked the audience. in what must have been some kind of american ritual, everyone held up small, round hand mirrors and intently peered into their looking glass. the music stopped momentarily as if i had stumbled into a bucket of moonlit blood. my left leg started trembling. every word felt like it was ripped from my throat with pieces of my flesh hanging off each note. i almost fainted from the pain, but i couldn’t stop singing because whenever i paused, even if only for a moment, the thought of suicide pressed me to the canvas. and you know i couldn’t lay there waiting for the eight count, knocked out like some chump. i was stronger than these earthlings. i had to get up and keep on singing, but to keep on making music took so much energy. i was almost exhausted. and when i stopped the pain was deafening. exhausting to sing. painful to stop. this was a far heavier experience than i had foreseen.

 

i kept singing but i also felt myself growing weaker. drained. “i say have you ever given your love to a rascal that didn’t give a damn about you?” this was insane. when would i be able to stop? there was so much money being exchanged that i was having a hard time breathing. i could feel my soul growing dimmer, the pain beginning to creep through even while i was singing. so this is what the angels meant by “hell is being silenced by commerce.” legal tender was choking me.

 

for a moment i felt human, but luckily the band started playing again. some lame colored cat had crawled up on the stage and was thawing out frozen conservatory school cliches. made my bunions groan. but i guess when you’re human you got to go through a lot of trial and error. especially when you’re young in earth years. the whole time i was on that scene i felt sorry for the children. most of them had never seen their parents make love.

 

humans spend a lot of their early years playing all kinds of games to prepare themselves to play all kinds of games when they grow up. the childrearing atmosphere was so dense the only thing little people could do was lie awake naked under the covers and play with themselves but only whenever the adults weren’t watching cause if those poor kids got caught touching each other, they were beaten. can you imagine that?

 

damn, i thought smelly horn wasn’t ever going to stop, prez had to pull his coat, “hey shorty, don’t take so long to say so little.”

 

as soon as the cat paused, i jumped in “have you ever loved somebody…” yes, i had volunteered, but i had no idea making music on earth would be this taxing.

 

when our set ended, i stumbled from the stand totally disoriented. by now i almost needed to constantly make music in order to twirl my gyroscope and keep it spinning. after the set, i found it very difficult to act like a human and sit still while talking to the customers. i kept wanting to hover and hum. but i went through the changes, even did an interview.

 

“the only way out is to go through it all” i found myself saying to an english reporter who was looking at me with insane eyes.

 

he did his best to sing. “you’ve been hurt by white people in america and i want to let you know that there are white people who love and respect you.” i could hear his eyes as clear as sid catlett’s drum. i appreciated his attempts but those were some stiff-assed paradiddles he was beating. the youngster was still in his teens and offered me a handkerchief to wipe the pain off my face. i waved it away, that little bandana wouldn’t even dry up so much as one teardrop of my sadness. at that moment what i really needed was a lift cause the scene was a drag.

 

“the only way to go through it all is to go through it all. yaknow. survive it and sing about it.” i said holding the side of my head in the cup of my hand and speaking with my eyes half closed and focused on nothing in particular.

 

“why sing about it?” he said eager as a pig snouting around for truffles (even though he wasn’t french, i could see he had sex on his mind).

 

“cause if you keep the pain within you’ll explode.” he reached for his wallet about to offer me money. for sure he was a hopeless case. once i dug he didn’t understand creativity, i switched to sociology. “millions of people been molested as children.” he had been there, done that. he was starting to catch my drift. “men been beating on women. you know i was a slave. that means i was violated. that means i was broke down. that means i would lay there and take it. in and out. lay there. still. i have heard reports that i was a prostitute. but i never sold myself just for money, i lay down because there was no room to stand up. in and out. in and out. til finally, they ejaculated. and finished. for the moment, for the night… til… whenever.” i looked up and his mind was on the other side of the room; i had lost him again.

 

poor child doesn’t have a clue. that’s why he’s looking all pitiful at me. i couldn’t find a way to unfold the whole to him. i wanted to say more but their language couldn’t make the changes. he will probably write a treatise on the downtrodden negro in tomorrow’s paper.

 

sho-nuff, next day–quote:

 

            So-and-so is an incredibly gifted Black American animal. People were actually crying in the audience when she howled “No Body’s Bizness” in the voice of a neutered dog. This reporter is a registered theorist on why White people are fascinated by listening to the sounds of their victims’ pathetic crying. I had the rare opportunity to interview the jazzy chick.  Although she was not very familiar with the basic principles of grammar, I managed to get a few words from her illiterateness once she took some dope which I had been advised to offer her.

            I asked her what harmonic system she employed? My publisher had authorized me to offer her music lessons. I quote her answer verbatim.

            “I sing because, like the Funky Butt Brass Band used to holler, you got to open up the window and let the bad air out.”

            That was it. When I turned off my voice stealing machine, she said “I got a lot of s–t in me. If I don’t get it out, I’ll die.”

            If she doesn’t die first, there will be a concert tonight. Cheeri-O.

 

unquote.

 

i couldn’t wait to get back to the motherwomb…

 

But, just as I was about to fly, I woke up. I was cuddled next to Nia’s nakedness, her back to me, my arm embracing her breasts, and my leg thrown up in touch with the arc of her thighs.

 

I stared into the deep acorn brown of her braided hair. I couldn’t see anything in the unlighted room except the contours of the coiled beautiful darkness of her braids. After a few seconds the sweet familar scent of the hair oil she used began lulling me back to sleep.

 

Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough sleep time left to continue my flight dreams. And I spent the rest of the day trying to decide… no, not decide, but remember. I spent the rest of the day trying to remember whether I was a human who dreamed he was something else or was indeed something else doing a temporary duty assignment here on planet earth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Times tough. Everything gets harder and harder. Especially the trials of social living. How to survive when the costs of survival are higher than the resources we have at hand? The renumeration for our labor no longer is sufficient to cover the costs of living especially when we consider testing, medical bills, and care-taking charges. Most of all we face the stresses and strains associated with dealing with modern day realities. Many of the measures that gave us pleasure and succor to carry on, whether it be rooting for our favorite sports activity or annually taking a trip to New York to take in the theater, do some shopping, or visit a favorite museum. Things simply ain’t what they used to be–and, in reality, “things” never were for many of us.

The current reality of life on earth constricted by a global pandemic was far, far from our consciousness, or even far from negative scenarios in our imaginations. Unfortunately, we are not getting enough detailed information from our national political leadership.

Who knows what to believe? I do know, today is situation serious. Beware the ides of March. We just may be living in a society dominated by lunatics. Below is an analysis I found illuminating.

 

#######

 

“Everything the president’s said has been wrong, and that has two real-world consequences, aside from our standard, Oh, Trump lies.” Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

 

 

 


In October 2014, with the threat of Ebola looming, President Obama put Ron Klain in charge of coordinating the administration’s response. A longtime Democratic operator before he became the “Ebola czar,” Klain had previously served as the chief of staff to vice-presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden and was Gore’s lead lawyer during the 2000 election recount. (He’s kept it up since then: a debate prep expert, he advised Hillary Clinton in 2016, and he’s now doing the same for Biden’s presidential campaign.) Klain spent nearly five months overseeing the government’s deployment of resources to West Africa, its domestic and international preparations, and its response to cases and scares within the United States. Now he’s watching the Trump administration’s response (and lack thereof) to the coronavirus from the sidelines. I called him on Tuesday to hear his thoughts on what’s happened so far, what comes next, and what he’d still like to see.

Do you see parallels here to Ebola?

There are similarities, and there are differences. The differences are obvious: Our main challenge with Ebola was fighting it overseas in poor countries in West Africa and trying to contain it there and avoid its introduction to the United States. And then here at home, we did have a focus on finding out who was coming from West Africa, treating the occasional case of Ebola we had here, and getting the homeland ready for the risk of that future epidemic. Here, any effort to contain this overseas has already failed; we’re dealing with it as a domestic problem principally. So far, where it’s raging overseas it’s in countries that can manage their own health-care problems. With Ebola, we sent 10,000 people to West Africa to fight the disease; we’re not going to send 10,000 people to Italy or China to fight the disease. So it’s mostly a domestic issue. Where it’s the same is, at the end of the day, the key challenge is mustering all of government effectively, efficiently, and quickly to fight this disease. And that’s what we did in 2014, and that’s exactly why there are some problems in 2020.

So what worries you most when you look at the current administration’s handling of this?

I think there are problems of competence, and there are problems of confidence. On the competence side, this testing fiasco is a fiasco of the first order. Any hope we had of isolating the disease — preventing its widespread transmission in the U.S. — rested on quickly testing people to identify where the disease is and who has it. And the administration made much of their policy of excluding some travelers from China, and whatever you think of that policy, it was always doomed to fail eventually. It bought time, not protection. And then they didn’t use the time that it bought to get this testing thing sorted out. So when you wake up in the morning and you see that 150,000 people have been tested in South Korea and fewer than probably 4- or 5,000 were tested here, that’s a failure of execution. There’s no technology or special skills they have in South Korea we don’t have in the United States. And so that’s a giant failure. And the second thing I’m most concerned about is: Where are we on building the surge capacity we need — in what will ultimately probably be a handful of cities that will need emergency additional hospital beds, emergency additional treatment capacity, to prevent their health-care system from being overwhelmed by this disease, and having consequences for people who will never get coronavirus? Because if you look at epidemics, what happens is, yes, some people die from the disease. But when they get bad, what happens is, people die from many other things, because the health-care system stops being responsive, doctors and nurses are sick, hospitals are filled, and lots of other things kill people, too. So with the time we had, we should have been in a place where there were readily deployable medical facilities that we could drop down into cities to deal with this capacity problem. Those are the two things I’m most worried about on the competence side.

On the confidence side, the communication from the president — and to a lesser extent the vice-president, but mostly from the president — has been horrible. False assurances: 15 days ago, he said we only have 15 cases in America and they’re all going down. Everything the president’s said has been wrong, and that has two real-world consequences, aside from our standard, Oh, Trump lies. One is that’s helped to create this economic panic. Markets and economies react to confidence and the lack thereof and the fact that it seems like our president doesn’t know what he’s doing. But I think it also has an impact on the first set of problems I mentioned. Because on the best days, you want the federal government to respond quickly, forcefully. The president has to be saying: This is a big problem, and I want people to attack this big problem, and really put the pressure on to attack the problem. What the president has said, in February and March, is, This is not a problem. His chief of staff called it a hoax. That has the opposite effect on the bureaucracy, the people who are working to fix the tests and to fix the hospitals, they’re hearing from the leader, I don’t want to hear about bad news, don’t bring me problems. This is all going to go away. So the communication has a concrete impact, it’s not just we don’t like hearing it.

Then what’s your diagnosis for why the U.S. appears to be so ill-prepared and uncoordinated in its response, even compared with a country like Italy — which is really saying something?

Let’s look at what happened before this all happened, and then what’s happened since. Not to relitigate the past, but in 2018 President Trump abolished the White House office on pandemic preparedness, so there was a whole bunch of people who were supposed to be getting ready for this event, and we got rid of them. That didn’t help. The president has cut the Centers for Disease Control, the people who were supposed to find these diseases around the world. He cut three-quarters of those offices. So we were less prepared to deal with this the day it arrived than we were three years earlier. We un-prepared for the preceding three years. Since it broke out, instead of going and attacking these problems, the president has tried to deny these problems, to say, No big deal, nothing to see here, so on and so forth. We know that officials have said internally that this is a serious thing, we need to really step up. They were either swept to the side or deliberately silenced, and that unquestionably has an effect on the intensity and pace of the response.

So if Trump had called you when reports of the disease first came out of Wuhan late last year, what would you have advised him to do?

A couple things. Once it became clear how bad this was in China, in late December you had to know it was coming here. It’s just, that’s a fact. So you would need to do a couple of things. One, even if he had previously abolished the White House office of pandemic preparedness, he should have then put someone in charge in the White House. That’s the first thing. So we had no one in charge in the White House until essentially last week, when he put Pence in charge. So that’s a lot of lost time in January and February, early March. Second thing is, he should have really upped the pressure on China at the highest levels to get U.S. experts on the ground in China, to get a really accurate read on what’s happening and what we know. So he finally did call President Xi several weeks into this thing, but you remember the very first White House briefing on this thing, when Azar chaired the task force, he said, basically, We’re trying to get into China, we called their health minister, they said no, blah. As opposed to, you know, this is a White House problem. The president of the United States calls the president of China and says we’ve got to know what’s going on there. That was the second lost opportunity in January. And then, you know, some of this is basic blocking and tackling and good government. Which is, someone running a task force at the White House should have made a list of what the urgent priorities are, like testing, like capacity, and started to execute against that list, early. And, if anything, over-prepared. Like, if we had ordered the capacity to test 30 million people in January and we didn’t need it, that’s just life. Instead, we’re waiting until we know we need it, and that’s just too late.

We’re clearly now at a point where a lot of faith is being lost in the government, in these public institutions — do you worry about whether it can be regained at this point?

The facts speak for themselves. I remember when Craig Spencer was diagnosed with Ebola in New York five years ago. And there was speculation about how dangerous it would be, and I remember saying that night that our Ebola response was going to be tested in real time — that either we would successfully treat Craig Spencer and no one else would get it, and then our subsequent statements would be validated, or we unsuccessfully treat Craig Spencer, the disease spreads in New York, and our statements wouldn’t matter. And I think the challenge here is this isn’t something that the president can just tweet away. Either the number of cases go up or they go down, our hospitals are capable of doing it or they’re not. People are seeing this on the ground in their communities right now, their local news is telling them every day: Ten new cases, 20 new cases. This person couldn’t be tested, blah, blah, blah. That’s a reality, and people will judge the reality for themselves. The president can try to tell his supporters it’s a hoax, or whatever, but the reality is going to speak volumes here.

So do you think it’s too late for the government to get control of the spread of this here?

It depends what we mean by “control.” I think we can certainly slow the spread and perhaps — perhaps — protect some areas, perhaps not; ultimately it might get everywhere. But slowing the spread is vital because what you can’t have is a sudden surge of cases that overwhelms the health-care system. So by using testing, by isolating people who have it and treating them and not letting it spread and not letting it get into the hospitals and not letting doctors and nurses get sick, we can slow the pace with which this is being transmitted and then smooth out the curve so no particular city or hospital or health-care system is overwhelmed at any given moment.

So is it still possible to do that kind of mass mobilization without causing panic in the streets, or at least reaching a new level of public concern?

It’s the absence of this that’s causing panic. We as human beings, and as Americans, if you tell us, Here are the five things you need to do, we tell them clearly, we have an action plan, we have the resources against it, we can face some challenges. And I think what’s really lacking is that we don’t really have a plan, and we’re not executing a plan. And I think that’s what creates anxiety. The more the president has told us, Don’t worry about it, it’s all going to go away, it’s going to disappear, a miracle, you know, the more people say, I don’t see a miracle. So with clear communications, clear strategy, people seeing resources deployed against it, things would calm down.

How should Democrats talk about this? Obviously they don’t want to politicize it …

I don’t think it should be politicized, I don’t think it’s a political issue. But I think it’s not politics to point out what’s gone wrong with the response and demand that it be changed. And to say that this testing fiasco is a fiasco and the administration needs to fix it? I don’t think that’s political; that’s just demanding action. And I hope everyone, on both sides — I hope Republicans say it, too — will say, Look, here’s what’s gone wrong, here’s what we need to do, and let’s go do it. I mean, let’s give Congress some credit here — a sentence not heard very often. While I thought the administration took too long to put together the emergency spending package and then put together a package that wasn’t up to the challenge, Congress, on a bipartisan basis, in literally a matter of days, gave the administration $8 billion to fight this virus. In the category, Can Congress get some things done? This is: Yes. They did.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

 

 

I Sing Because…

 

         Amid the weariness of work day’s end, Sarah-Bell savored the quiet of oncoming twilight. At last, she could momentarily take it easy, unhurried. And she was grateful for small blessings.

         Lilting into the breezeless amber of the October evening, a mesmerizing wordless song flowed from Sarah-Bell’s full, plum-colored lips as she plodded down the dusty lane. Her ankle-length, thorn-tattered, sweat-soiled skirt swished with each step.

         Six-foot-four-and-a-half-inch, one hundred-eighty-seven pound Jim One-Toe, deftly dragging his maimed left foot, hobbled beside Sarah-Bell. He had a pretty fair voice himself.

         One-Toe smiled in admiration of the way Sarah-Bell made each phrase of her improvised reel end on a little upward swoop that just naturally made a man feel good.

         “Sarah-Bell, you sing so pretty. Can I be your man?”

         Sarah-Bell furtively peeked over at One-Toe, smiled and immediately refocused her gaze on the last visible tip of the orange sun swiftly falling behind the nearly clean-picked field of cotton plants.

         “One-Toe, you know I got a man.”

         “But he don’t come to you all the time,” One-Toe retorted. A quick grin of near perfect white teeth flashed across the dimpled midnight of his handsome blue-black face.

         Almost two good moons had passed since anybody had seen Mule-Boy visiting Sarah-Bell. Gathering was most over, Mule coulda been sold off by now—everybody knowed Master Gilmore over to the nearby plantation was good for sending you down the river at the drop of a hat.

         Sarah-Bell scrutinized the squinting sincerity of One-Toe’s slender eyes. “It ain’t that he don’t. He can’t co…”

         Suddenly interrupting herself, Sarah-Bell deftly hiked-up her skirt as she stepped around a fresh pile of smelly horse droppings. Then, while shooing away a fat, green and black, fly with a quick fan of her much-pricked, field-toughened hand, Sarah-Bell continued her conversation, “…and you couldn’t be with me every night neither, that is, if’n I was to even let you come by at all.”

         One-Toe was encouraged that Sarah-Bell was at least considering the merits of being with him. He spyed a brief glimmer of interest smoldering in her eyes as she announced her decision, “Naw. I don’t think so, One-Toe. I thinks I can wait.”

         “Yes, m’am.” One-Toe was disappointed, but not discouraged. He had plenty mo’ days to blow gently on the spark he glimpsed in Sarah-Bell’s pecan-shaped eyes. He reckoned harvesting the love of a woman like this was worth a long season of planting and weeding.

         “But if you was to get tired a waiting. I would come. You know I would. Like a bird to the nest. I would come to you every night I could.”

         “Which make you no different from my far-away man who come to me every night he can.”

         “Well, don’t forget I’m closer to the nest. I can get to you quicker than him, even if’n I ain’t got but one good foots,” One-Toe joked. Sarah-Bell grinned as One-Toe made fun of his own infirmity.

         She liked his gentle humor but she didn’t feel a need for another man climbing on her just now, even a fine man like One-Toe.

         For a few seconds they exchanged knowing glances and allowed their eyes to speak for them. Then, while holding her hand palm side out, Sarah-Bell gracefully waved to One-Toe and spoke in a husky half-whisper as she strolled on, “Good night, brotha One-Toe.”

         One-Toe peered longingly at the broadness of Sarah-Bell’s back and the ampleness of her hips. He looked til his imagination was as full as it could stand to be. One-Toe wanted that pretty-singing woman. He had seen a bunch of women who was face-prettier, but he had never heard no one or nothing, neither woman, man, child or bird, what sang prettier than Sarah-Bell.

         One-Toe had been thinking so hard about holding Sarah-Bell in his huge arms he missed catching sight of Chester Browne squatting nearby Sarah-Bell’s door. When her singing faltered and then abruptly fell silent, One-Toe quickly surveyed the area to see what disturbance had stilled Sarah-Bell’s song. One-Toe glared at Chester. Everybody knowed what a driverman in the lane after hours waiting by a woman’s door meant.

         One-Toe spit into the dust, turned and drug himself into the bitter barreness of his resting room. Shortly thereafter One-Toe heard the thudding shuffle of Chester’s horse moseying past the open doorway as Chester and Sarah-Bell rode out the lane. A high-pitched whinny from the horse taunted One-Toe, but One-Toe refused to look at the too-familiar abduction.

         Chester wasn’t talking, and Sarah-Bell wasn’t singing.

         The chomp chomp chomp chomp of the sorrel’s hooves echoed against the mud-caked wall of One-Toe’s sleep space and reverberated inside One-Toe’s skull.

         One-Toe forcefully buried his face into the gritty dirt floor and stifled an urge to say something, to say anything; a word, a sound, call her name, something.

         Sarah-Bell’s silence tormented One-Toe. He would gladly let them ax-chop his good right foot if-in he could visit Sarah-Bell; Chester or no Chester. Naw, if-in he had a cooing dove like Sarah-Bell to share nights with, he wouldn’t even dream of running again. He would stay and comfort her.

         It was nearly an hour later before Chester had finished his business. Chester never kept any washing-water in his cabin, and Sarah-Bell had not even dared think about going down to the master’s well, so all she could do was wipe herself with her skirt tail before she set off to walking back.

         Despite her general habit of immediately forgetting the weight of an overseer hovering over her and thrashing into her, Sarah-Bell found herself mulling over her plight. Her thoughts were accompanied by the stark crunch of her footfalls on the loamy trail.

         Maybe, if-in it proved necessary and she didn’t wait too long, maybe Sarah-Bell could brave a trek over to Gilmore’s and plead with Mama Zulie for some womb-cleaning chawing roots. Sarah-Bell paused and fleetingly hugged herself. I sure hope nothing that drastic is needed. Probably not. Her regular bleeding had just stopped a day or so ago.

         As Sarah-Bell pushed determinedly on a trivial worriation nagged at her. Even though she was aware that Chester’s drool could do her no harm, it sure was a mighty aggravation the way the taste of Chester’s nasty kiss sometimes seemed to stay in her mouth for days. Luckily, on this particular night, he had mostly wanted to suck at her nipples rather than her lips.

         Plus, he had come quickly enough. It hadn’t been too long fore a spent and drowsy Chester dozed off and Sarah-Bell had been able to scoot from under him, slip off his pallet and proceed to walking the three-quarters a mile back to the lane.

         By the time she was most halfway there Sarah-Bell had managed to bury Chester’s assault and summon up a plaintive song to soften the knot of jumbled sorrow resting heavy in the bottom of her stomach.

         Shortly, for the second time, the soles of Sarah-Bell’s thickly-callused feet felt the well-worn familiarity of the lane’s path. Sarah-Bell was welcomed back by the sleeping-sounds of her people. Snores. Whistles. Sobs. Groans. A few moans from someone sick, or was it from someone really tired, or maybe both.

         Sarah-Bell was too exhausted to stumble fifty more yards down to the creek for to wash herself. She would do that in the morning. And though she was hungry, she was also too fatigued to gnaw on the piece of hardtack secreted deep in the pocket of her skirt. Right now she needed to lay down by herself and seek the solace of sleep so she could disremember the dog-odor of Chester’s hair she had endured when he had been slobbering on her breasts. It was funny how that foul smell lingered in her consciousness. Seems like smell and taste had mo staying power than the abuse of touch.

         Sarah-Bell’s sharp ears caught the faint sound of some animal moving in the woods. Judging from the swift lightness of the rustling coming from the bushes, she guessed it must be a rabbit. An owl hooted. Sarah-Bell wordlessly empathized with the prey–run brother rabbit, less you be somebody supper.

         Times like this Sarah-Bell wished she was brave enough to hightail it like One-Toe had done. Maybe she would make it to Mexico, which is where One-Toe said he had been headed. Sarah-Bell thought of what One-Toe had declared when they brought him back: Some gets away, some don’t. Getting free was worth the risk, worth losing some of a foot.

         She flinched at the thought of so permanent a loss. Even though she had survived more than her share of suffering, Sarah-Bell still didn’t know if she could stand one of her limbs being mutilated or cut away.

         Sarah-Bell was too tuckered out and emotionally drained to do anything more than collaspe into her doorway. She didn’t even crawl over to check on her children balled together in slumber beneath a patchwork spread of sackcloth and shirt pieces. No sooner her dark-haired head nestled onto the curved comfort of her pillow-stone, a weary Sarah-Bell was dead asleep.

         The next day in the pale dim of half-dawn morning light only one child sat where two usually fidgeted. Sarah-Bell’s heart dropped. “Where Suzee-Bell?”

         “Them took her,” Johnny-Bell replied.

         Was no need to say who “them” was. Was no need to ask “where” they took her.

         We ain’t got nothing but each other, and they won’t let us hold on to that, Sarah-Bell’s insides roiled with anger. Both man and God was unfair. Man for what he was doing. And God for allowing men to act the low down way they did. Sarah-Bell knew Johnny-Bell would be next. She knew it just as sure as she knew a snake would eat an unprotected egg.

         Johnny-Bell was her fifth child.

         “What’s yo name, boy?”

         “Johnny…” the child stuttered frightened by the hissed intensity of his mother’s question.

         “Naw. Yo name Johnny-Bell. BELL. You Johnny-Bell. Yo brothers is Robert-Bell and Joe-Bell. Your sisters is Urzie-Bell and Suzee-Bell. No matter where they cart you off to, no matter what they call you by, you remember the name yo mama give you. And if you ever hear tell of yo brothers or yo sisters, you go find ’em if you can. But you remember ’em even if you can’t find ’em. You remember yo people. You hear me?”

         “Yes, mam.”

         “Say, yes, Sarah-Bell. Don’t mam me. Call me by my name. Sarah-Bell.”

         The confused four year old wet himself. He had never heard his mother speak so harshly to him; but he didn’t cry.

         When she realized how hard she was shaking him, Sarah-Bell softened her grip on Johnny-Bell’s shoulder. He was just a scared little boy, and her rage wasn’t making this crisis any easier for him. She could feel currents of fear in the heavy trembling racking his little body, which was twitching like a throat-cut calf at slaughtering time.

         Within seconds Sarah-Bell reigned in her emotions, mustered up her fortitude, and tenderly enfolded Johnny-Bell into the comforting shelter of her bosom. They swayed in mutual anguish as she sought to rock away both his fear and her grief.

         Instinctively she handled her perdicament as best she knew how. Within seconds of hugging Johnny-Bell, Sarah-Bell was breathing out a long-toned lullaby and anointing the reddish-brown hair of her son’s head with song-embellished kisses.

         And she didn’t loosen her embrace until she heard the rooster crow for day. After emerging into the muted shine of daybreak, hand-in-hand, mother and child marched down to the water to bathe themselves.

         The word about Suzee-Bell buzzed through the small community. Just before departing for the fields, glassy-eyed and scowling, Sarah-Bell stood in the middle of the lane sullenly declaiming her determination.

         “Yalls, hear me. Every time I have one, they take and sell ’em away. Sarah-Bell is through birthing babies. No matter who lay down with me, ain’t no mo babies coming out of me. I’m done. Done, you hear me. Done.”

         And with the finality of her words resounding in everyone’s ears, Sarah-Bell whirled and commenced to trudging off to the field. One-Toe scrambled to catch up to Sarah-Bell.

         Without breaking stride, Sarah-Bell closely examined One-Toe’s unblinking gaze. Satisfied with what she saw, Sarah-Bell gave a quick nod and gratefully accepted the respectful silence of One-Toe’s company.

         She started singing, quietly at first but more forcefully as they sauntered on. The irresible refrain of Sarah-Bell’s song syncopated their gait. Together, they would face another day.