Photo taken by Hyunsoo Leo Kim.
Adapted from Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues, & Coming of Age Through Vinyl by Rashod Ollison (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.
The picture revealed the happiness I never knew.
On the back of the beat-up, black-and-white, wallet-size snapshot, the names are in lovely penmanship, probably Mama’s: Raymond + Dianne Ollison. The location: Juarez, Mexico, where my parents honeymooned in September of 1970.
In the picture, they sit in a café booth. Daddy’s arm wraps around Mama’s slim shoulders as he presses his dark, angular face next to hers. He gives the camera a seductive stare. With flipped bouffant hair, Mama looks like a member of the Marvelettes. Her smile is so wide, sweet, and radiant it melts the heart. I’m startled at how svelte she is. For as long as I can remember, Mama has battled serious weight issues.
I saw the photo nearly forty years later and its effect was like fresh air circulating through a musty room. Mama Teacake, my maternal grandmother, gave my younger sister Reagan the picture just before she died. When Reagan shared it with me, I was at her place in Little Rock. We were close to thirty and had grown up knowing only the stormy years of the marriage, which ended just as we started grade school.
“Dusty, look at this,” Reagan said, handing me the photo. “Can you believe this?”
I stared at it for a long time.
“You betta not walk out of here with it,” she said. “I’ll get you a copy made.”
Much has changed since somebody captured the budding marital bliss of the attractive couple from Malvern, Arkansas, both nineteen at the time. Daddy’s long dead. Mama steers clear of talking about the early years when their love bloomed. She will, however, go on about the drama, when Daddy left home for days, skipping out on paying the light bill to “lay up with some bitch ’cross town.”
“I was always left in the dark,” Mama said, the double meanings lost on no one.
The country-glam woman-child in the photograph worked two full-time jobs for years, found comfort in food, and constructed a fence around her heart that kept everybody, including my two sisters and me, at a safe distance.
As long as food was in the fridge, clothes on our backs, and a roof overhead, I guess Mama never felt compelled to offer hugs or say “I love you.” The proof of that love was all around us in the comfortable homes she could barely afford to rent. The proof of that love was in every tired sigh she released before heading to a job she detested.
Growing up, I heard relatives drop intriguing bits about the early years of the marriage, and always with a tinge of sadness.
Yeah, that was back when Dianne and Raymond had just got together. Lawd, you couldn’t tell Dianne nothin’ ’bout Raymond. She know she loved him and he loved her.
Uh-huh, they was silly and in love then.
Oh, that’s before your time, boy, back when Raymond and Dianne used to go ev’rywhere togetha. ’Memba how they used to dance?
Whenever I asked specific questions about that time, the subject quickly changed or I was told, “Go ax ya mama.” Sometimes I found the nerve to ask her how things were in the early years before Reagan and I were born. But Mama always blew me off with, “Boy, that was a long time ago. Don’t even remember. Hell, think I was depressed.”
She remembers. The end of that marriage, which lasted thirteen years, haunts her still. It haunts me, too. Out of the ashes, mystery and ugliness, I found music.
* * *
The trumpet in Mama’s throat could be sharp and piercing.
It often cut through the music spinning on my record player, knocking me off my cloud and back to Omega Street.
“Dusty! Turn that shit down, or turn it off.”
I always wondered if she had a problem with the music itself. These were Daddy’s records, after all. And Lord knows she never had a kind word to say about him. Something in Gladys Knight’s anguished belting and Bobby Womack’s testifying growls made me feel wise. Maybe they unsettled Mama. I don’t know. It probably wasn’t even that deep.
Mama threw her head back, flashing the smile she wore in Mexico all those years ago. Then the record went off, Mama stopped dancing, and the ghost of Daddy vanished.
Sometimes, though, her face unknotted when she walked by my bedroom door and a song stopped her. This sudden change in her mood always surprised me. One day, it was “The Rubberband Man” by the Spinners. Mama pushed opened the door. Her hair was in rollers, her feet were in slippers, and her old housedress hugged her hips.
“Oh, that was the jam,” she said, a smile brightening her face. I smiled too. “Turn that up.”
Mama snapped her fingers and bounced her shoulders. She wasn’t in the room. She seemed transported well beyond our apartment as she shuffled her feet, the Spinners harmonizing through the scratchy vinyl. She shouted, “Hey!” and rolled her hips.
I wanted Daddy to appear. And suddenly, there he was: sober, groomed, and handsome. He grabbed Mama, their smiles met, and the room became a bright and infinite place in the sky.
Daddy released her and she dipped. “Get it, baby,” he shouted. He pulled her from behind and whispered something in her ear. Mama threw her head back, flashing the smile she wore in Mexico all those years ago. A silly song about a rubberband man had lassoed joy and made all well again. Then the record went off, Mama stopped dancing, and the ghost of Daddy vanished.
Mama’s smile faded and she pulled her housedress down.
I didn’t want her to leave. “You want me to play it again, Mama?”
“No,” she said, heading toward the door. She stopped and furrowed her brow, her face back to a tense mask. “Turn that music off , anyhow. Come down here and sweep this kitchen up.”
* * *
No prayers kept the lights on at Baker Street. So after about a year, we moved. The new house, across town on Audubon Street, was just around the corner from Dusa’s high school. Reagan and
I transferred to Oaklawn Elementary, which was two or three short blocks away. The neighborhood was another quiet one where standoffish whites dominated. Maple and magnolia trees shaded fastidiously neat homes, where plastic pink flamingos bent their necks in fresh-cut grass and ceramic gnomes nestled under chrysanthemums.
Our house was moss-green and smaller and much less stately than the one on Baker. It felt like a cottage, with wood-paneled walls and stingy windows that didn’t let in much light. The kitchen was large with ugly floral-print carpet. The bathroom, tiny as it was, must have been an afterthought.
Soon after we moved in, Mama started wearing more makeup, Fashion Fair Glam Girl, and her smile was dazzling. She still worked two full-time jobs, but she wasn’t home much the few days she had off.
She’d met a man.
We’d walked home from school one day, excited to see Mama’s bug-eyed, sky-blue Chevette under the carport. But whose boxy white sedan was parked in front? Reagan and I ran inside and found an ebony-skinned man in a burgundy sweater with black geometric leather patches sitting on the couch, his arm thrown over the back. We froze at the door.
Aglow with a made-up face, Mama strolled in from the kitchen.
“There’s something to eat on the stove,” she said. “Y’all fi x your plate and go in your room.”
We exchanged looks. Who was gonna ask about this muthafucka on the couch?
I looked directly at him. “Who are you?”
“Dusty!” Mama hissed my name through tight lips. “You don’t pay no bills in here.”
The man chuckled and rubbed his knees. “That’s OK, Dianne. I’m Dennis, lit’ man.”
His smoked-out baritone caressed Mama’s name with a sly affection that made me bristle. I could smell his pungent, gag-inducing cologne all the way at the door. I hadn’t known this Dennis cat for one whole minute and already I detested him—the way he sat on our brown-and-burnt-orange couch gap-legged as though he’d bought it; the way he rubbed his knees as though he was satisfied and expected someone to bring him something.
I hated Reagan’s juiced-up Jheri curl, and so did she. Now here was this Dennis, greasy and shining with a stringy curl—short on the sides and long in the back. Did Mama think he was cool? Gold chains hanging from his neck, a gold-nugget pinky ring gleaming on his broad, dark hand—who the hell did he think he was, Rick James?
Mama snapped her fingers and pointed to the kitchen. “Dusty and Reagan, y’all go fi x ya something to eat and get back in that room and do your homework now.”
We slowly made our way to the kitchen, dragging our coats and book bags while looking back at Dennis.
Later that night, Mama went out with him. Dusa didn’t have to work and, as always, was pissed about having to stay home with us. We were in the living room watching Alf when I asked Dusa about Dennis.
“Who is he?”
“Mama’s new boyfriend.”
“He ain’t my daddy,” Reagan said.
“Nobody said he was,” Dusa shot back.
“Where she meet him at?” I wanted to know.
“Who you askin’? I don’t know.” Dusa pouted. “And she gon’ go out with him and leave me here, like I don’t wanna go out on my night off.”
But Dennis remained a stranger to me, a hologram with stank-ass cologne, whose presence made me deeply resent the fact that I could neither vanish nor fly.
“Where you gonna go?” Reagan asked.
Dusa continued, ignoring her. “And we don’t know nothin’ about him. He was in here the other day, before y’all got home from school. I’d missed the bus and needed Mama to take me to work, and she gon’ fuss me out. They were getting ready go somewhere, and I had to be at work.”
“She take you to work?” I asked, suddenly feeling like her equal.
“She finally did, and I was late.” Dusa rolled her eyes.
We turned back to the TV. After Alf went off, Reagan turned to us and affirmed what she’d said before: “He ain’t my daddy.”
* * *
Mama’s affair with Dennis snatched from us what little time she had between jobs. When she was home, Dennis was usually around or on his way over. Once, in the middle of the night, I awoke to use the bathroom and noticed Mama’s bedroom door closed. She never slept with the door closed. Dennis’ musky cologne sang in the air as it always did when he was around. I wanted to bust into the room and tell him to get the fuck out. The fantasy was delicious: Dusty, the pint-sized, shit-talking hero in Superman pajamas.
I would snatch Dennis’s curl shag and pull him through the living room and onto the front porch. I’d stomp his leg and say, “Split! Before I kick yo’ dog ass up and down this block.”
He’d struggle to his feet, looking at me all bug-eyed, and scurry to his raggedy car and peel away. I’d stand on the front steps with my fists on my hips and send a deadly beam from my eyes, zeroing in on the back of his car, and blow the muthafucka up to the sky. Afterward, I’d strut back into the house, like Sherman Hemsley as George Jefferson, and slam the door.
But Dennis brought out Mama’s sunshine smile, which she beautified with cranberry-colored lipstick. But he remained a stranger to me, a hologram with stank-ass cologne, whose presence made me deeply resent the fact that I could neither vanish nor fly.
Mama’s affair made Dusa defiant. Her relationship with Mama, especially after Dusa started working when we were over on Omega Street, became a partnership. Mama leaned on Dusa alot—to help with the bills, to mother Reagan and me while she held down two jobs to make ends at least wave at each other if not fully meet. Sometimes Dusa seemed to relish the responsibility. By the time we’d moved to Audubon, her cooking had improved. She’d make easy recipes from the old, tattered cookbooks Mama had. She’d stand at the stove hand on hip as she stirred the pots. Her grown-woman affectations had become less awkward.
Like Mama, she wore her invisible suit of armor, her voice often a whip snapping at us for every offense no matter how small. But from time to time, the insecure seventeen-year-old playing the weary grown woman revealed herself.
“Y’all come eat,” Dusa ordered.
Reagan and I exchanged glances as if to say, “Lord, what did she cook now?”
Dusa had fixed our plates. Anytime she tried a new recipe she insisted we all sit at the table.
“This is tuna casserole,” she said.
I examined it and noticed the melted cheddar on top; didn’t look bad.
Reagan asked, “What’s this green stuff in it?”
“Peas,” Dusa snapped. “You eat peas.”
Reagan frowned. “Not like this, though.”
“Eat!” Dusa commanded.
We all picked up our forks and dug in. I felt Dusa’s eyes on us. When I turned to her, the armor was temporarily gone and her eyes searched for approval. Her face softened.
Slowly, I chewed. I had a feeling that if I said the casserole was disgusting, it would crush her. But it really wasn’t bad; needed less salt, but pretty tasty. Tell the truth and shame the devil, as Mama would say.
“It’s good,” I said.
Reagan nodded her approval and said in between forkfuls,
“Uh-huh. I like it.” A half-smile almost crept across Dusa’s face, but she stopped it and put on the armor.
“Y’all gon’ wash these dishes after y’all get finished.”
* * *
With Dennis’s regular visits, Dusa’s affronts to Mama went from sly to bold. Whenever he came by, we all gave him a limp “hello” and disappeared into our rooms. He and Mama stayed in the living room, watching TV, talking, or listening to the stereo. Dennis sometimes brought over cassettes—mostly Quiet Storm cuts by Freddie Jackson or Peabo Bryson. I thought his taste in music was lame.
When Dusa arrived home from school or work and saw Dennis, she’d roll her eyes, go to her room, and slam the door. She’d sometimes interrupt Mama’s time with him by busting into the living room and abruptly asking for the keys to the car. Mama sometimes gave her the keys, just to get her out, I guess. But whenever she told her no, Dusa stomped back to her room, slammed the door, and got on the phone.
“You are still a child in here. There’s only one damn queen. You hear me?”
Once while Dennis was over, Dusa strolled through the living room dressed in panties and a painted-on T-shirt. Reagan and I sat in the adjacent area, playing Uno at the dining room table. Dusa’s half-nakedness didn’t shock us. She always strolled around in her bra and panties—but never in front of Dennis. Reagan whispered, “Look at her.”
Mama sat straight up on the couch. Dennis glanced at Dusa and quickly turned his head to the TV.
“Dusa! What the hell you doin’?” Mama said. “Get the hell outta here and put some clothes on.”
“I’m looking for something,” Dusa said, shuffling through Jet magazines on the coffee table.
Mama’s eyes flashed fire. “Girl, I’m gon’ tell you one more time to go put some damn clothes on.”
Dusa plucked a Jet from the stack. “Found it,” she said and sauntered back to her room, slamming the door.
Dennis left shortly afterward, and Mama rushed to Dusa’s room. Reagan and I followed to catch all the drama.
Mama opened the door and ordered Dusa off the phone.
“What was that shit you tried to pull?”
Reagan stood close to me in the doorway. Dusa sat up in her bed, looked at us and shouted, “Y’all go somewhere.”
“Never mind them,” Mama said. “I’m talkin’ to you.”
Dusa folded her arms, rolled her eyes, and turned toward the Prince poster on the wall.
Mama put her hands on her hips. “Heff a, you roll your eyes at me one more time, I’m gon’ knock them clean out yo’ head.”
She stood over Dusa. “Look at me!”
Dusa’s jaw tightened and she didn’t move.
Mama snatched Dusa’s hair and jerked her toward her. Reagan and I flinched as Dusa’s face scrunched up and tears fell.
Mama’s voice had spikes. “Girl, don’t you ever pull no shit like that again, disrespectin’ me in my damn house. You hear what I’m tellin’ you?”
Dusa whimpered, “Yeah.”
“You are still a child in here. There’s only one damn queen. You hear me?”
Mama pushed Dusa’s head away, and Dusa buried her face into a pillow, the way Jason did that day Phyl slapped him over on Omega Street.
Mama turned toward the door. “Dusty and Reagan, y’all get somewhere and sit down.”
We scurried across the hall to our room and shut the door. I slid onto my bed, and Reagan sat on hers facing me. We exchanged wide-eyed stares.
“Mama sho was mad,” Reagan said.
I didn’t blink. “She sho was.”
* * *
A few months after Mama snatched Dusa’s hair, she felt strange pains in her abdomen. She went to the doctor and had several tests done. After she got the results, she called us into the living
room and delivered the news in her usual straight-no-chaser style.
“I got cancer, y’all.”
When Dusa put her hand to her mouth, I sensed this was not good. I had no idea what cancer was. I looked at Reagan and knew damn well she didn’t know.
“You got what?” I asked.
“Cancer, Dusty,” Mama said, rolling her eyes. “I’m gonna have to go into the hospital for a while, and they gon’ have to do a hysterectomy.”
I was confused. “A what?”
Dusa sighed. “Mama’s gonna have to have a surgery, Dusty.”
“Where we gon’ go?” Reagan asked, on the verge of tears.
“Well,” Mama said. “First thing, we gotta move again.”
Dusa and I slumped back on the couch.
“Shoot!” Dusa said.
After just a year, the rent on Audubon had become too high. We never knew our neighbors. Like Baker Street, the area hardly had any color (literally) and definitely no funk. I was glad to leave Omega Street but sometimes missed the wooliness over there.
“We gon’ be all right,” Mama said. “I’m just gonna have to go into the hospital for a while, and Dusa, you gon’ have to look over things. Doctors said it shouldn’t be too serious, that I should be fine after this hysterectomy. Caught it in time, they said.”
“You talk to Dad?” Dusa asked.
“Where’s Daddy?” Reagan asked.
“Shit, I don’t know,” Mama said, curling her lips. “Over in Malvern somewhere. Ain’t sent no child support. That much I do know.”
“He needs to know what’s going on,” Dusa said.
Mama looked away as though her thoughts were reflected on the wood-paneled wall. After a moment, she said, “He don’t need to know shit. It’s just us. Always been just us.”
* * *
The new place, a three-bedroom white Colonial on Garland Street, held no cheer.
We were two blocks away from Baker Street, back in the same lifeless neighborhood that looked like a Kodak shot. The living room had a fi replace and generous windows. The long hallway seemed to stretch a mile, and at the end of it, a mirror covered the storage closet door. Two full baths. One was across the hall from Dusa’s room, and she designated it as her own, and “Stay out,” she told Reagan and me.
The other was between Mama’s bedroom and the one I shared with Reagan. Mama’s closet was linked to ours, and you could walk through our clothes and hers and open the door into her bedroom.
Soon after we settled in, Mama got ready to go into the hospital. She gave Dusa her checkbook and went over what bills to pay and when to pay them. At seventeen, Dusa had complete run of the house and keys to the car, in addition to going to school and working at Taco Bell.
Reagan and I had transferred back to Jones Elementary, barely two blocks away, where our third- and fourth-grade classes were mostly white. And we had no friends.
The day Mama left for the hospital, she called us into the living room. She was beautiful—her thick amber hair nicely coiffed, as always, her makeup expertly applied. If she felt any fear, it must’ve been concealed by the Fashion Fair or buried so deep that no trace revealed itself in her steady gaze.
“Y’all give me a hug,” she said.
We threw our arms around her. A lump rose in my throat, and I tried to hold it together.
“Dusty, don’t start cryin’ now,” Mama said. “You too big for that. I’m gon’ be OK. Y’all be good and mind what Dusa say. Hear me?”
Mama left and I refused to look up for what seemed like a long time. I could have turned to stone in that spot and would not have cared—head bowed, my tears dotting the chestnut carpet.
* * *
Going to sleep was hard without Mama in the next room snoring. I missed the familiar comfort of her early morning noises: her house shoes scrapping across the bathroom floor, the news playing on the TV in the living room, coffee brewing in the kitchen. I missed the floral scent of Beautiful, her perfume, lingering after she left .The nearly two weeks she was in the hospital felt like a year. Every time I asked Dusa for an update, she said, “She’s fine.”
“Can we go see her?”
Dusa softened her tone. “She’s OK, Dusty. Stop worrying. And, Lord, please don’t start cryin’ up in here. You know how you do.”
The radio near my bed was always tuned to Power 92, the urban station. At night, the DJ mixed new and old soul. A song struck me one night. The lyrics were about a woman, a “sweet and gentle flower growing wild” whose freedom only comes as she sleeps. The wrenching emotion imbuing the song, shadowed by ebbing horns, washed over me as I lay with my headphones on. New Birth seemed to sing Mama’s story.
She was always tired. And everything was a struggle: paying the bills, keeping us fed, maintaining a house she could barely afford to rent, in neighborhoods where we were invisible.
She always told us, “I got to work like this. Who else gonna pay these bills and take care of y’all?” Working two full-time jobs also meant Mama wasn’t home much and didn’t have to look into our faces and see the loneliness hanging there; she didn’t have to feel the cold absence of a husband, either. Often, when she came home between jobs, we were still at school, and she had time to take a nap, take a bath, and change into her uniform before heading to her evening job, job number two.
When we got home, her perfume still lingered and maybe a casserole was wrapped in foil on top of the stove, if she’d had time to whip one up. I just wanted her to be there in the living room smiling her sunshine glamour smile when we walked through the door. Sometimes I’d go into Mama’s room to watch TV after school. She always told us to stay out of her room, but I just wanted to be where she had been, to wrap myself in the comforter where just a few hours before she had fallen into much-needed sleep inside a quiet house.
New Birth’s lead singer crooned of a weary flower, the horns echoing his sympathy, and I wondered if things would’ve been easier for Mama had I not been born.
Dusa was her partner, and Reagan was the baby, seemingly in constant need of attention. I was needy, too, but I hid it—or tried to. I always felt pressured to be a “big boy,” stoic and unaffected.
But I always felt what I felt intensely, and that seemed to annoy everybody in the house.
Daddy sometimes made cameos in my dreams, and those old records remained an aural lifeline to him. I was his friend, his running buddy, his Dus-Dus. Now he never came around.
What was I to Mama? I looked for her smile whenever I entered the room but seldom found it. Most times, it was the severe, critical face—lips tight, eyes stern—making sure my hair was combed and my clothes were neat, policing my mannerisms and correcting my speech. I often left the room gathering pieces of myself.
But life became magically coherent—storm clouds parted, blossoms opened, rainbows arced in a turquoise sky—when Mama beamed her Ebony magazine smile.
The thought of her never coming home made my stomach twist and turn. She’s coming home, I told myself, sometimes aloud. And when she finally arrives, healed and picture-pretty, I’m going to be a very good son. I’m going to clean up more, study more, and make myself indispensable. Maybe I’ll learn to cook. Maybe I won’t eat so much.
“Damn, Dusty, you finish your food that fast?” Mama said a few times. “Did you even taste it?”
Mama will direct her Fashion Fair smile at me and say, “You’re a very good son.” She’ll rub my head and I will float. Whatever it takes, whatever I need to do, I’m going to find a way to make Mama happy. She’ll come home from work and will be glad to see me, beaming the smile she gave a greasy-haired Rick James wannabe who smoked cigarettes and wore a pinky ring.
“There you are,” Mama will say, “my baby, my honey, my very good son.”
* * *
Rashod Ollison makes music on the page with his story about growing up gay in Arkansas, during the 1980s and 1990s, raised by a single mother and confronting the dysfunction, poverty and depression that surrounded them. He spent his difficult childhood in the housing projects, serenaded by the music of Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, and Michael Jackson and local haunts like the soulful blues of Denise LaSalle, the lively funk of Shalamar, and the romantic duets of Alexander O’Neal and Cherrell. His story is both universal and singular – weaving together a tale about community, identity, strength, resilience, and inspiration. I had the chance to speak with Rashod about the inspiration for his work, the possibility of transferring the musical experience to the written page, and how a childhood of struggle can turn in to an adulthood of inspiration.
If you want some musical flavor to your reading experience, check out Ollison’s Spotify playlist that he made to go along with the book – get ready to groove.
— Raluca Albu for Guernica Daily.
Guernica Daily: What inspired this project?
Rashod Ollison: About six years ago, I moved to Virginia from Baltimore to take my current job as the culture writer for the Virginian-Pilot. I had been laid off from the Baltimore Sun, where I had been the pop music critic for six and a half years. So in the midst of this fresh start in this new area, which was very different from what I had been used to, I fell in love. That was a complete, total, utter, foolish disaster.
Then I dropped into a depression. To pull myself out, I started a three-pronged makeover of sorts: I lost weight, hired a therapist and started working on the book, which was a way to challenge myself creatively and delve into the abandonment issues that surfaced after my heart was broken.
The idea for the book had been floating around in my head for at least a decade. I initially thought that I would appropriate parts of my childhood for a novel but it ended up being a memoir written like a novel. It was a cathartic process and rewarding one, too. I was able to use more of the creative writing side of my degree — showing as opposed to explaining and telling, which is mostly what I do as a journalist.
Guernica Daily: Music is so visceral – your story captures that so well. I used to wonder if music was something that can be written about. You proved it is something that can be written about. Does it need to be written about?
Rashod Ollison: I’ve made my career writing about music and the people who make it because it’s such an integral part of my existence. I think in song lyrics; I talk in song lyrics. Music helps to shape our emotional development. It’s so many things: a balm or a bomb, a stimulant or a relaxer. It conveys so much about the human experience, connecting and touching us all so profoundly. As long as there’s humanity, there will be music of some kind. And music is such a great way to achieve an understanding of the rich and gloriously complex ugly beauty of being human.
Guernica Daily: Does music take you back? Or bring you forward? Both, maybe?
Rashod Ollison: Music brings us back home. My adult life couldn’t be more dissimilar to the lives of my parents and siblings. My career as a music journalist has afforded me opportunities to engage personalities, both famous and infamous, and people from around the world. That has exposed me to so much, including different types of music. But the older I get, especially with so many relatives recently dying off, I find myself often revisiting the music I heard while growing up. Snatching away the sentimental filter, I hear it all now with new ears. I understand the blues better. I now get the double meanings that made my grandparents chuckle. I understand now what my mother heard in the voice of Aretha Franklin, a sense of validation. Those recordings don’t change, of course. We grow with them. In a way, music becomes a safe harbor to which we can always return and see new versions of ourselves. At its best, as with any transcendent piece of art, music becomes not just a mirror but a door.
Guernica Daily: How does he think the music of today has or doesn’t have similar stories behind it?
Rashod Ollison: Somebody somewhere is probably listening to Beyonce and feeling empowered. Somebody somewhere hears Drake and sees himself. I have no idea. Much of contemporary pop isn’t made for a guy like me. I can dissect it and write about it as a journalist, but it doesn’t speak to me on a deep personal level, which is fine. Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Adele, Drake, they aren’t making music for me. But I can guarantee you that some young person is seeking a place of refuge in their music the same way I was trying to find myself in a Chaka Khan record some 30 years ago.ShareTweetE-mail
They can’t shave their heads every day like they wish they could, so their tattoos show through stubble. Little black hairs like iron filings stuck on magnets. Big roundhead fool magnets.
The Chicano fools have gang names on the sides of their skulls. The white fools have swastikas. The Vietnamese fools have writing I can’t read. And the black fools—if they’re too dark, they can’t have anything on their heads. Maybe on the lighter skin at their chest, or the inside of the arm.
Where I sit for the morning shift at my window, I can see my nephew in his line, heading to the library. Square-head light-skinned fool like my brother. Little dragon on his skull. Nothing in his skull. Told me it was cause he could breathe fire if he had to. ALFONSO tattooed on his arm.
“What, he too gotdamn stupid to remember his own name?” my godfather said when he saw it. “Gotta look down by his elbow every few minutes to check?”
Two names on his collarbone: twins. Girls. EGYPT and MOROCCO. Seventeen and he’s got kids. He’s in here for eight years. Riding in the car when somebody did a drive-by. Backseat. Law say same as pulling the trigger.
Ten o’clock. They line up for shift between classes and voc ed. Dark blue backs like fool dominoes. Shuffling boots. Fred and I stand in the doorway, hands on our belts, watching. From here, seeing all those heads with all those blue-green marks like bruises, looks like everybody got beat up big time. Reyes and Michaels and the other officers lead their lines past the central guard station, and when the wards get closer, you can see all the other tattoos. Names over their eyebrows, teardrops on their cheeks, words on their necks, letters on their fingers.
One Chicano kid has PERDóNEME MI ABUELITA in fancy cursive on the back of his neck. Sorry my little grandma. I bet that makes her feel much better.
When my nephew shuffles by, he grins and says softly, “Hey, Auntie Clarette.”
I want to slap the dragon off the side of his stupid skull.
Fred says, “How’s your fine friend Tika? The one with green eyes?”
I roll my brown eyes. “Contacts, okay?”
I didn’t tell him I saw Tika last night, at Lincoln Elementary. “How can you work at the youth prison? All those young brothers incarcerated by the system?” That’s what Tika said to me at Back-to-School Night. “Doesn’t it hurt you to be there?”
“Y’all went to college together, right?” Fred says.
“Mmm-hmm.” Except she’s teaching African-American studies there now, and I married Ray. He quit football and started drywalling with his uncle.
“Ray went with y’all, too, didn’t he? Played ball till he blew out his knee?”
The wind’s been steady for three days now, hot fall blowing all the tumbleweeds across the empty fields out here, piling them up against the chain-link until it looks like hundreds of heads to me. Big-ass naturals from the seventies, when I squint and look toward the east. Two wards come around the building and I’m up. “Where you going?”
The Chicano kid grins. “TB test.”
He flashes it, and I see the nurse’s signature. The blister on his forearm looks like a quarter somebody slid under the skin. Whole place has TB so bad we gotta get tested every week. My forearm’s dotted with marks like I’m a junkie.
I lift up my chin. I feel like a guy when I do it, but it’s easier than talking sometimes. I don’t want to open my mouth. “Go ahead,” Fred calls out to them.
“Like you got up and looked.”
Fred lifts his eyebrows at me. “Okay, Miss Thang.”
It’s like a piece of hot link burning in my throat. “Shut the fuck up, Fred.” That’s what Michaels and Reyes always say to him. I hear it come out like that, and I close my eyes. When I get home now, and the kids start their homework, I have to stand at the sink and wash my hands and change my mouth. My spit, everything, I think. Not a prayer. More like when you cool down after you run. I watch the water on my knuckles and think: No TB, no cussing, no meds. Because a couple months after I started at Youth Authority, I would holler at the kids, “Take your meds.”
Flintstones, Mama, Danae would say.
Fred looks up at the security videos. “Tika still single, huh?”
She has a gallery downtown, and she was at the school to show African art. She said to me, “Doesn’t it hurt your soul? How can you stand it?”
I didn’t say anything at first. I was watching Ray Jr. talk to his teacher. He’s tall now, fourth grade, and he smells different to me when he wakes up in the morning.
I told Tika, “I work seven to three. I’m home when the kids get off the bus. I have bennies.”
She just looked at me.
“Benefits.” I didn’t say the rest. Most of the time now Ray stays at his cousin Lafayette’s house. He hasn’t worked for a year. He and Lafayette say construction is way down, and when somebody is building, Mexican drywallers get all the business in Rio Seco.
When I got this job, Ray got funny. He broke dishes, washing them. He wrecked clothes, washing them. He said, “That ain’t a man—that’s a man’s job.” He started staying out with Lafayette.
Tika said, “Doesn’t it hurt you inside to see the young brothers?”
For my New Year’s resolution I told myself: Silence is golden. At work, cause me talking just reminds them I’m a woman. With Ray and my mother and everyone else except my kids. I looked at Tika’s lipstick, and I shouted in my head: I make thirty-five grand a year! I’ve got bennies now! Ray never had health care, and Danae’s got asthma. I don’t get to worry about big stuff like you do, cause I’m worrying about big stuff like I do. Pay the bills, put gas in the van, buy groceries. Ray Jr. eats three boxes of Cheerios every week, okay?
“Fred Harris works there. And J.C. and Marcus and Beverly.”
Tika says, “Prison is the biggest growth industry in California. They’re determined to put everyone of color behind a wall.”
Five days a week, I was thinking, I drive past the chain-link fence and past J.C. at the guard gate. Then Danae ran up to me with a book. They had a book sale at Back-to-School Night. Danae wanted an American Girl story. $4.95.
Tika walked away. I went to the cash register. Five days a week, I park my van and walk into the walls. But they’re fences with barbed wire and us watching. Everything. Every face.
“Nobody in the laundry?” I ask, and Fred shakes his head. Laundry is where they’ve been fighting this week. Black kid got his head busted open Friday in there, and we’re supposed to watch the screens. The bell rings, and we get up to stand in the courtyard for period change. We can hear them coming from the classrooms, doors slamming and all those boots thumping on the asphalt. The wind moving their stiff pants around their ankles, it’s so hard right now. I watch their heads. Every day it’s a scuffle out here, and we’re supposed to listen to who’s yelling, or worse, talking that quiet shit that sets it off.
All the damn heads look the same to me, when I’m out here with my stick down by my side. Light ones like Alfonso and the Chicano kids and the Vietnamese, all golden brown. Dark little guys, some Filipino, even, and then the white kids, almost green they’re so pale. But all the tattoos like scabs. Numbers over their eyebrows and FUCK YOU inside their lips when they pull them down like clowns.
The wind whips through them and they all squint but don’t move. My head is hurting at the temples, from the dust and wind and no sleep. Laundry. The wards stay in formation, stop and wait, boots shining like dark foreheads. I hear muttering and answers and shit-talking in the back, but nobody starts punching. Then the bell rings and they march off.
“Youngblood. Stop the mouth,” Fred calls from behind me. He talks to the wards all the time. Old school. Luther Vandross-loving and hair fading back like the tide at the beach—only forty-two, but acts like he’s a grandpa from the South. “Son, if you’da thought about what you were doing last year, you wouldn’t be stepping past me this year.” They look at him like they want to spit in his face. “Son, sometimes what the old people say is the gospel truth, but you wasn’t in church to hear.” They would knock him in the head if they could. “Son, you’re only sixteen, but you’re gonna have to go across the street before you know it, you keep up that attitude.”
Across the street is Chino. Men’s Correctional Facility. The wards laugh and sing back to Fred like they’re Snoop Doggy Dogg: “I’m on my way to Chino, I see no, reason to cry . . .”
He says, “Lord knows Mr. Dogg ain’t gonna be there when you are.”
The Chicano kids talk Spanish to Reyes, and he looks back at them like a statue wearing shades. The big guy, Michaels, used to play football with Ray. He has never looked into my face since I got here. My nephew knows who he is. He says, “Come on, Michaels, show a brotha love, Michaels. Lemme have a cigarette. You can’t do that for a brotha, man? Brothaman?”
Alfonso thinks this is a big joke. A vacation. Training for life. His country club.
I don’t say a damn thing when he winks at me. I watch them walk domino lines to class and to the kitchen and the laundry and the field. SLEEPY and SPOOKY and DRE DOG and SCOOBY and G DOG and MONSTER all tattooed on their arms and heads and necks. Like a damn kennel. Nazis with spiderwebs on their elbows, which is supposed to mean they killed somebody dark. Asians with spidery writing on their arms, and I don’t know what that means.
“I’ma get mines, all I gotta say, Auntie Clarette,” my nephew always said when he was ten or eleven. “I ain’t workin all my life for some shitty car and a house. I’ma get mines now.”
I can’t help it. Not supposed to look out for him, but when they change, when they’re in the cafeteria, I watch him. I don’t say anything to him. But I keep seeing my brother in his fool forehead, my brother and his girlfriend in their apartment, nothing but a couch and a TV. Always got something to drink, though, and plenty weed.
Swear Alfonso might think he’s better off here. Three hots and a cot, the boys say.
We watch the laundry screens, the classrooms, and I don’t say anything to Fred for a long time. I keep thinking about Danae’s reading tonight, takes twenty minutes, and then I can wash a load of jeans and pay the bills.
“Chow time, baby,” Fred says, pushing it. Walking behind me when we line everybody up. They all mumbling, like a hundred little air conditioners, talking shit to each other. Alfonso’s lined up with his new homeys, lips moving steady as a cartoon. I know the words are brushing the back of the heads in line, the Chicano kids from the other side of Rio Seco, and I walk over with my stick. “Move,” I say, and the sweaty foreheads go shining past like windshields in a traffic jam.
“Keep moving,” I say louder.
Alfonso grins. My brother said, Take care my boy, Clarette. It’s on you.
No, I want to holler back at him. You had seventeen years to take care of him. Why I gotta do your job? How am I supposed to make sure he don’t get killed? I feel all the feet pounding the asphalt around me and I stand in the shade next to Fred, tell him “Shut up” real soft, soft as Alfonso still talking yang in the line.
I have a buzzing in my head. Since I got up at five to do two loads of laundry and make a hot breakfast and get the kids ready for school. When I get home, I start folding the towels and see the bus stop at the corner. I wait for the kids to come busting in, but all the voices fade away down the street like little radios. Where are these kids? I go out on the porch and the sidewalk’s empty, and my throat fills up again like that spicy meat’s caught. Ray Jr. knows to meet Danae at her classroom. The teacher’s supposed to make sure they’re on the bus. Where the hell are they?
I get back in the van and head toward the school, and on Palm Avenue I swear I see Danae standing outside the barbershop, waving at me when I’m stopped at the light.
“Mama!” she calls, holding a cone from the Dairy Queen next door. “Mama!”
The smell of aftershave coats my teeth. And Ray Jr.’s in the chair, his hair’s on the tile floor like rain clouds.
My son. His head naked, a little nick on the back of his skull, when he sees me and ducks down. Where someone hit him with a rock last year in third grade. The barber rubs his palms over Ray Jr.’s skin and it shines.
“Wax him up, man,” Ray says, and I move on him fast. His hair under my feet, too, I see now, lighter and straighter. Brown clouds. The ones with no rain.
“How could you?” I try to whisper, but I can’t whisper. Not after all day of hollering, not stepping on all that hair.
The barber, old guy I remember from football games, said, “Mmm-mmm-mmm.”
“The look, baby. Everybody wants the look. You always working on Danae’s hair, and Ray-Ray’s was looking ragged.” Ray lifts both hands, fingers out, like he always does. Like it’s a damn sports movie and he’s the ref. Exaggerated. “Hey, I thought I was helping you out.”
I heard the laughing in his mouth. “Like Mike, baby. Like Ice Cube. The look. He said some punks was messin with him at school.”
I go outside and look at Ray Jr.’s head through the grimy glass. I can’t touch his skull. Naked. How did it get that naked means tough? Naked like when they were born. When I was laying there, his head laced with blood and wax.
My head pounding when I put it against the glass, and I feel Danae’s sticky fingers on my elbow. “Mama, I got another book at school today. Sheep in a Jeep.”
When we were done reading, she fell asleep. My head hurt like a tight swim cap. I went into Ray Jr.’s room and felt the slickness of the wax.
In the morning I’m so tired my hands are shaking when I comb Danae’s hair. “Pocahontas braids,” she says, and I feel my thumbs stiff when I twist the ties on the ends. I stare at my own forehead, all the new hair growing out, little explosions at my temples. Bald. Ray’s bald now. We do braids and curls or Bone Strait and half the day in the salon, and they don’t even comb theirs? Big boulder heads and dents all in the bone, and that’s supposed to look good?
I gotta watch all these wards dressed in dark blue work outfits, baggy-ass pants, big old shirts, and then get home and all the kids in the neighborhood are wearing dark blue Dickies; Ray is wearing dark blue Dickies and a Big Dog shirt.
Like my friend Saronn says, “They wear that, and I’m supposed to wear stretch pants and a sports bra and high heels? Give me a break.”
Buzzing in my head. Grandmere said we all got the pressure, inherited. Says I can’t have salt or coffee, but she doesn’t have to eat lunch here or stay awake looking at screens. Get my braids done this weekend, feels like my scalp has stubbles and they’re turned inside poking my brain.
Here sits Fred across from me, still combs his hair even though it looks like a black cap pushed way too far back on his head. He’s telling me I need to come out to the Old School club with him and J.C. and Beverly sometime. They play Cameo and the Bar-Kays. “Your Love Is Like the Holy Ghost.”
“What you do for Veterans Day? Kids had the day off, right?” he says.
“I worked an extra shift. My grandmere took the kids to the cemetery.” I drink my coffee. Metal like the pot. Not like my grandmere’s coffee, creole style with chicory. She took the kids to see her husband’s grave, in the military cemetery. She told Danae about World War II and all the men that died, and Danae came home crying about all the bodies under the ground where they’d walked.
Six—they cry over everything. Everything is scary. I worked the extra shift to pay off my dishwasher. Four hundred dollars at Circuit City. Plus installation.
I told Ray Jr., “Oh, yeah, you gonna load this thing. Knives go in like this. Plates like this.”
He said, “Why you yelling, Mama? I see how to do it. I did it at Grandmere’s before. Ain’t no big thing. I like the way they get loaded in exactly the same every time. I just don’t let Daddy know.”
He grinned. I wanted to cry.
“Used piano in the paper cost $500. Upright.”
“What the hell is that?” Ray said on the phone. Hadn’t come by since the barber.
I tried to think. “The kind against the wall, I guess. Baby grand is real high.”
“For Ray Jr. Fooled around on the piano at school, and now he wants to play like his grandpere did in Baton Rouge.”
Ray’s voice got loud. “Uh-uh. You on your own there. Punks hear he play the piano, they gon kick his ass. Damn, Clarette.”
I can get louder now, since YA. “Oh, yeah. He looks like Ice Cube, nobody’s gonna mess with him. All better, right? Damn you, Ray.”
I slam the phone down so hard the back cracks. Cheap purple Target cordless. $15.99.
Next day I open the classifieds on the desk across from Fred and start looking. Uprights. Finish my iron coffee. Then I hear one of the wards singing, “Three strikes you’re out, tell me what you gonna do?”
Nate Dogg. That song. “Never Leave Me Alone.”
This ward has a shaved black head like a bowling ball, a voice like church. “Tell my son all about me, tell him his daddy’s sorry . . .”
Shows us his pass at the door. “Yeah, you sorry all right,” Fred says.
The ward’s face changes all up. “Not really, man. Not really.”
Mamere used to say, “Old days, the men go off to the army. Hard time, let me tell you. They go off to die, or they come back. But if they die, we get some money from the army. If they come back, they get a job on the base. Now them little boys, they go off to the prison just like the army. Like they have to. To be a man. They go off to die, or come back. But they ain’t got nothin. Nothin either way.”
Wards in formation now. The wind is still pushing, school papers cartwheeling across the courtyard past the boots. I check Alfonso, in the back again, like every day, like a big damn Candyland game with Danae and it’s never over cause we keep picking the same damn cards over and over cause it’s only two of us playing.
I breathe in all the dust from the fields. Hay fields all dry and turned when I drive past, the dirt skimming over my windshield. Two more hours today. Wards go back to class. Alfonso lifts his chin at me, and I stare him down. Fred humming something. What is it?
“If this world were mine, I’d make you my queen . . .” Old Luther songs. “Shut up, Fred,” I tell him. I don’t know if he’s trying to rap or not. He keeps asking me about Ray.
“All them braids look like a crown,” he says, smiling like a player.
“A bun,” I say. He knows we have to wear our hair tight back for security. And Esther just did my braids Sunday. That’s gotta be why my temples ache now.
“They went at it in the laundry room again Sunday,” Fred says, looking at the screens.
I stare at the prison laundry, the huge washers and dryers like an old cemetery my grandmere took me to in Louisiana once, when I was a kid. All those dead people in white stone chambers, with white stone doors. I see the wards sorting laundry and talking, see J.C. in there with them.
“Can’t keep them out of there,” I say, staring at their hands on the white T-shirts. “Cause everybody’s gotta have clean clothes.”
At home I stand in front of my washer, dropping in Danae’s pink T-shirt, her Old Navy capris. One trip to Old Navy in spring, one in fall all I can afford. And her legs getting longer. Jeans and jeans. Sometimes they take so long to dry I just sit down on the floor in front of the dryer and read the paper, cause I’m too tired to go back out to the couch. If I sit down on something soft, I’ll fall asleep, and the jeans will be all wrinkled in the morning.
Even the wards have pressed jeans.
In the morning, my forehead feels like it’s full of hot sand. Gotta be the flu. I don’t have time for this shit. I do my hair first, before I wake up Danae and Ray Jr. I pull the braids back and it hurts, so I put a softer scrunchie around the bun.
Seen a woman at Esther’s Sunday. She says, “You got all that pretty hair, why you scrape it back so sharp?”
“Where I work.”
“You cookin somewhere?”
“Nope. Sittin. Lookin at fools.”
She pinched up her eyes. “At the jail?”
Then she pulls in her chin. “They got my son. Two years. He wasn’t even doin nothin. Wrong place, wrong time.”
“YA wrong place, sure.”
She get up and spit off Esther’s porch. “I come back later, Esther.”
Esther says, “Don’t trip on Sisia. She always mad at somebody.”
Shouldn’t be mad at me. “I didn’t got her son. I’m just tryin to make sure he comes home. Whenever.”
Esther nodded and pulled those little hairs at my temple. I always touch that part when I’m at work. The body is thy temple. My temple. Where the blood pound when something goes wrong.
The laundry’s like people landed from a tornado. Jean legs and shirt sleeves all tangled up on my bed.
“You foldin?” I say. Ray Jr. pulling out his jeans and lay them in a pile like logs. Then he slaps them down with his big hand.
“They my clothes.”
“Don’t tell your daddy.”
“I don’t tell him much.”
His hair growing back on his skull. Not like iron filings. Like curly feathers. Still soft.
Next day Fred put his comb away and say, “Give a brotha some time.”
“I gave him three years.”
“That’s all Ray get? He goin through some changes, right?”
“We have to eat. Kids got field trips and books to buy.”
Three years. The laundry piled on my bed like a mound over a grave. On the side where Ray used to sleep. The homework. Now piano lessons.
Fred says, “So you done?”
“With Ray?” I look right at him. “Nope. I’m just done.”
“Oh, come on, Clarette. You ain’t but thirty-five. You ain’t done.”
“You ain’t Miss Cleo.”
“You need to come out to the Comedy Club. No, now, I ain’t sayin with me. We could meet up there. Listen to some Earth, Wind and Fire. Elements of life, girl.”
Water. They missed water. Elements of life: bottled water cause I don’t want the kids drinking tap. Water pouring out the washing machine. Water inside the new dishwasher—I can hear it sloshing around in there.
I look out at the courtyard. Rogue tumbleweed, a small one, rolling across the black.
“Know what, Clarette? You just need to get yours. I know I get mines. I have me some fun, after workin here all day. Have a drink, talk to some people, meet a fine lady. Like you.”
“Shut up, Fred. Here they come.”
Reyes leading in his line and I see two boys go down, start punching. I run into the courtyard with my stick out and can’t get to them, cause their crews are working now. The noise—it’s like the crows in the pecan grove by Grandmere’s, all the yelling, but not lifting up to the sky. All around me. I pull off shirts, Reyes next to me throwing kids out to Michaels and Fred. Shoving them back, and one shoves me hard in the side. I feel elbows and hands. Got to get to the kid down, and I push with my stick.
Alfonso. His face bobbing over them like a puppet. “Get out of here!” I yell at him, and he’s grinning. I swear. I reach down and the Chicano kid is on top, black kid under him, and I see a boot. I pull the top kid and hear Reyes hollering next to me, voice deep as a car stereo in my ear.
Circle’s opening now. Chicano kid is down, he’s thin, bony wrists green-laced with writing. The black kid is softer, neck shining, and he rolls over. But then he throws himself at the Chicano kid again, and I catch him with my boot. Both down. Reyes kicks the Chicano kid over onto his belly and holds him. I have to do the same thing. His lip split like a pomegranate. Oozing red. Some mother’s son. It’s hard not to feel the sting in my belly. Reyes’s boy yelling at me in Spanish. I kick him one more time, in the side.
I bend down to turn mine over, get out my cuffs, and one braid pulls loose. Falls by my eyes. Bead silver like a raindrop. I see a dark hand reach for it, feel spit spray my forehead. Bitch. My hair pulled from my temple. My temple.
My stick. Blood on my stick. Michaels and Reyes take the wards. I keep my face away from all the rest, and a bubble of air or blood or something throbs next to my eyebrow. Where my skin pulled from my skull, for a minute. Burning now, but I know it’s gon turn black like a scab, underneath my hair. I have to stand up. The sky turns black, then gray, like always. They’re all heading to lockdown. I make sure they all see me spit on the cement before I go back inside. Fred stands outside talking to the shift supervisor, Williams, and I know he’s coming in here in a minute, so I open the classifieds again and put my finger on Upright. Z
To read other stories from the Fall 2002 issue, click here to purchase it from our online store.