Angel in the Outhouse
by Kathya Alexander
My mama say she have a son get burn up one time in a fire. I scratch this memory from out her scalp. She in a chair. I stand behind her. Dark done fell. Our lights is off. Cause Daddy forget to pay the bill. Mama know it is his payday where he work down to the mill. She say she do not know what could have happen. He ain’t showed up for her to ask. My Daddy big. My Mama little. But right now she could whip his a–.
I scratch a scab up from her head and give it to her in her hand. She say it bring to her remembrance of that nite her son get dead. She say this thing to me real quiet. Voice so low my blood run cold. That night, she say she get a scab too. Not on her head. One on her soul.
She say wudn’t no TV nor electric way back when my brother die. She say they use a lamp like this one fill with kerosene all the time. I want to ask what do they do instead of watching My Three Sons. But, I don’t. Instead I listen to her story just begun.
She say she wake up from a dream and something tell her get straight up. She rock and rock. Go back and forth. And pray for now she know not what. A spirit dance upon her ceiling. Beckon for her come and play. “Get out of here, you evil spirit. Get out my heart,” she say she say.
She see the spirit it just lightning when she come back to herself. Then thunder rattle pane in window. She know she better rouse herself. She push her feet from out the cover. Slide one foot into a shoe. She say she never did find the other. Not with fire and Clyde death too.
She say she run all thru the house. The nite so black feel like a touch. She say, “Darkest hour come just foe day. And ‘member ain’t so sucha thang as luck.”
I do not know why Mama want me ‘member this thing. But I say to her, “Yes, m’am.”
She say, “The boys they sleep in one room. The girls they sleep just like a lamb.” She say, “The fireplace it need stoking. And the night it get real cold.”
“What y’all house look like?” I ask her.
She say, “Like this one. ‘Cept with moe doors. It have a fireplace. Not like this one. Seem like white folk only have them now.” I wonder why it seem po’ coloreds can’t seem to get ahead no how.
She recollect how fear come on her. Gnaw at her skull just like a rat. “You know what that like?” she turn and ask me.
“I know what rat like. Turn yo’ head back.”
She say she know some thang ain’t right. But, she say, she cannot see. She scream, “Get up!” into the darkness. “Cleo! Clyde! Azra Lee! Get up. Get out right now!” she holler. Then she run where girls is sleep. Vernell and CeCe in the kitchen. They resting calm as they can be.
I like for Mama to tell me stories bout way back when my brother die. Cause back then I wudn’t even a twinkle what shine in my Daddy eye.
My brother, Cleo, he real little. He grown now. He live Los Angeles. He drink a lot and act a fool. He keep my mama on her knees. He ball his fist up and he hit me last time he come home to stay. Just cause the way I bring him water ain’t fast enuf to suit his taste. I ask my Mama do she remember that time when Cleo in a fight. One time when he go to the jook joint. Back off in the woods one Sat’dy nite. I like the part bout how that man raise Cleo way up in the air. (I hear this story from his friends. Of course, you know I wasn’t there.) Say razor come out Cleo’s sock so fast it look like it was greasy. Cleo stutter and he say, “Puu-ut me down easy. I mean rr-real easy.”
My Mama frown and grunt. She say, “Shoot, Cleo nice as any other til L’il Man get hit by that truck.” Mama say that change my brother.
My brother Azra Lee he die from something happen in the war. My Mama wrap his pipes and medals up in silk. They in a drawer. I hear her take them out and cry sometime when I lay wake at night I make him a get well card when he sick. And people shock that I can write.
I go stay with my Cousin Cece in St. Louis when school get out. My Mama raise her cause her mama she too busy stepping out. Her son a big old stanky cry baby by the name of David Earl. He get on my last nerve sometime because he act just like a girl. My cousin call pinto beans ‘brownies’ like she think they is a treat. I get so excited the first time she say that. I’m so surprise come time to eat!
Vernell I do not like at all. She try to act like she my Mama. Hit her one time up side her head with mop so hard she start to holler. “Whip yo’ own,” my Mama tell her. “Send her to me she show out.” I stick my tongue out at Vernell. Mama backhand me so quick she knock the spit from out my mouth.
“No electric show don’t help arthritis none,” my Mama say. She rub her knee. Same one she hurt on roll’way bed that nite she say. She say she drag the girls out one door just as she hear another slam. She think all the boys safe on the back porch once she hear the door go blam! But, she say, something about the sound that tell her thangs ain’t right. But, she say, she do not follow her first mind that awful nite.
She look at me and she say, “Mandy, all way follow yo’ first mind.”
I say “Yes, m’am.” And then I part her thick grey hair in a long straight line.
She say, “Don’t never love a man so much that you can’t tell when he is lying.”
I scratch some dander from out her scalp.
I do not think she know she crying.
“Damn you,” she say just like she do when she come home and lights is off. “Daddy gone the nite Clyde die.”
I ask her, “Where?”
Her voice get soft. She look into the lamp beside her. Adjust it so it don’t go dead.
“Do it hurt?”
She whisper, “No.”
I mean her heart.
She mean her head.
Damn you, A.D. she scream at her husband when she find the two in bed. She remember all the times she found the long red hair from the woman’s head on A.D. clothes. She don’t pay them no mind. She think she and the woman friends. She walk in on them out in the shed. Candles burning soft and dim. A.D. he cover up his butt and push the white gal to the floor. Belle close her husband out her heart. And slam the door forevermore. She run out the shed into the orchard. She scream the way a banshee might. Her whole world fall down round her knees on that warm October night.
She feel the air go still around her. Then the lightning strike the house. “This the sound it make,” she tell me. “Craaack!” She make the sound back in her mouth. She say she stand with her mouth open and watch the fire eat up the roof. When she come back to herself she covered up with smoke and soot.
She say, “Just then Cleo and Azra come round the corner from side the house.” She say she still don’t know Clyde missing till Azra Lee open up his mouth. He ask her, “Mama, where my brother?” Mama say the baby said. She look back at the house and she know. Her oldest child is good as dead.
Another streak light up the sky. She turn and see Clyde in the window. Mouth shape in his Mama name. He calling for her, “Come and get me!” She say she never will forget the look of fear upon Clyde face just before the house fall down. And turn itself into Clyde grave.
Then she quiet. And you know my Mama forget I stand behind her. I scratch her scalp real soft. And up come big ole flake of juicy dander.
She get him out somehow or nother. She don’t know how she say to me. She pick her son up in her arms and set him down by the old oak tree. He scream her name out till he die. Skin burnt so bad it’s black and smooth. The Chi’ren Who Live scream out behind her. But, she say, she cannot move.
“Lord, please have mercy on my soul!” All nite long my Mama beg. She stay this way till Daddy find them. He reach for her. She bite his leg. She say she like a dog who mad. Her mouth all full of spit and foam. I cannot ‘magine this my Mama. I wipe the dander from off the comb and put my finger to the soft spot on her head. She start to moan. I rub her scalp real soft and easy. Careful so the nail don’t rub.
“How long you stay that way?” I whisper.
“Until the day the angel come.”
A pain, she say, shoot thru her butt and make her come back to herself. She in her daddy bed she say. She smell like she done soil herself. She don’t know just how long she been there. But she know it must have been a while. Cause she can smell the honeysuckle. It smell so sweet it make her smile.
She crawl up out the bed she lay in. Stomach cradle in her palm. No one at home she say she reckon. Cause the house real nice and calm. She say she look round for her shoes, but she don’t find none for her feet. So she walk barefoot to the toilet. In pain so bad it make her weep.
The darkness wrap itself around her. The grey wood cool beneath her feet. She heish her skirt up round her waist and set down on the wooden seat. Bitterness roll from her eyes. She hurt so bad she start to moan. The pain cut thru her like a razor. The scream in her throat sound like a song. “Blessed Father up in heaven. Have mercy on me, if you please.” She need to get up off the toilet. She need to fall down on her knees.
“Help…me…Lord,” I cry to Jesus. “Hear yo’ servant humble call.” She turn to me. Say, “’Member all way, God He catch you when you fall.”
What happen next my Mama say she never tell a living soul. She say a hand reach out and grab her. And just like that! her pain is gone. She say a woman stand before her. Bright and shiny as the sun. She say the angel speak and say, “I come from God. His will be done.”
When angel speak she say she hear it not in her ear. But in her soul.
I say, “It must be sorta like the nite you hear the thunder roll.”
“Yes,” she say. “It just like that.”
“Was you scared?” I want to know.
She say her knees was almost buckling. My Mama say she scared for show.
“God send me to you with a message,” Mama say the angel say.
“And what’s this message so important you come to my outhouse today?” She say she just can’t help but laugh. This bout as foolish as thangs come.
“Forgive,” she say the angel say. Then poof! Like that! The angel gone.
“What she want you to forgive?” I ask my Mama. Her voice get low.
“Myself,” she say. “Yo’ Daddy too.”
For what is what I like to know. I quiet while I think on this. Mama quiet too, I see. She sit and stare off into space. And rub that old wound on her knee.
God could just as soon have ask her walk on water. Part the sea. She don’t remember back in time when ‘forgive’ a thing she want to be. What it feel like she not lukewarm. If she say just what she meant. She wonder what have happen to her. She wonder where her passion went. She hold her hand up to her nose and breathe, although its clog with snot. Her breath come out just like she know. It come out neither cold nor hot.
She know she do not hate her husband. That would mean she have to care. The way she got her life set up caring is something she just don’t dare. Apathy spread so far and wide it make her pie crusts gummy. And her cakes don’t rise.
I love you, he says. His touch make her jake her body back from him like she bit by a snake. That don’t make him quit reaching. She can’t say that it do. He just sing Baby Belle, Baby Belle to the tune of the blues. He bring her persimmons. She spit in his face. He give the ‘simmon pits to the chi’ren. But the knife and fork he leave in place.
“What you say then, Mama?”
“Show me how,” she say she say. And then my mama tell me, “Member God will all way show the way. All you got to do is ask Him. Just look at me,” my Mama say.
Just then the lights all come back on. And the furnace start to hum. Daddy walk in thru the front door. Two bags of grocery in his arms.
“Be glad the Lord He touch my heart, A.D.” my Mama say. Her voice all mean.
“And that I is, Baby Belle, Baby Belle. God know I is!” my Daddy sing.