“I’ll be damned if anybody beat me again, tellin me I’m ugly and worthless. What’s family? I don’t need you or your bullshit. That’s what I told them when I left. I was thirteen, but I was determined I could make it.
So, I strutted off down the road not knowin where to stay, where my meals was comin from. Didn’t care. I was young and any place was better than there.
Small town I lived in Alabama only held two for sures for me besides being beaten by my father. I would work for white folks, and I’d be subjected to they men’s advances. I didn’t want either. I heard it was different up north and that’s where I headed; in that direction.
Long the way I meets up with Case. He was a gentleman; a soldier back from the war. He let me stay in his hotel room with him. He had a car. Where I come from not many black folks had one. He was much older and told me I could ride with him when he moved on. I had all my stuff in a sack. He had suitcases, three to be exact. One was full; the others empty; clothes placed neat in the hotel drawers. When I asked what was in it, he say, you’ll know soon enough. After a couple of days he say he goin to take care of some business. Be gone a few days and I should stay there. He showed me the insides of his suitcase. I never seen so many bills together; must have been enough to fill a bank. He was rich. I likes him even more then. He say guard this with your life and I said I would.”
“Is that how you got into jail?” I asked pointedly.
“You want to hear the story or guess…?” She stopped for a minute, and then continued as to be oblivious to my impertinence.
“I stayed in the hotel for coloreds a day when I thought to move on by myself with his suitcase. I took it to the bus station with me and bought a ticket to Pittsburgh. I heard there was steel drivin mens in that place with lots of money and that suitcase…wasn’t gone last forever. I knew that.”
“Did he catch you?” I’ve always been impatient with long drawn out stories. But, Clara Belle grimaced at me. I was put on notice.
“Interrupt me again and I’ll be a clam. I promise.” She started back slower than before, to make a point I guess. “Now where was I? Oh, I got in Pittsburgh pretendin I was grown and got me a room. I was careful bout peoples knowin my money situation, so I got me a job in a little store on the colored side of town. Found it was that way up north too. I wondered if heaven was gone be segregated.
So I worked in the store and lived in my small room with meals attached. I was scared to take to peoples ‘cause I thought they would steal my suitcase. They thought I was uppity ‘cause I didn’t do no domestic work. I had bought some city stuff with the money before I left Alabama. Folks knew once I talked from the slowness in my speakin where I was from. Then they speaks to me ‘cause they figured they was better.”
“But why are you in jail?” I wanted her to get to the point fast.
Clara Belle rolled her eyes. “What I tell you? You so impatient. Reporters always is.” But she started back despite my previous warning. I guess she wanted to tell the story.
“Bye and bye, I met my steel drivin man. He took me to clubs and dinner and treated me special. I felt like a lady…Yeah, I found me a man who made my feelins come free… You know what I mean. We married. After we married, we moved into his house on the colored folk’s side of town. He had a car and he say his house was paid for. He say the work he do almost like bein a slave, hard labor. He deserved some softness and fun. He smiled at me and brought me to him. He say that’s why he married me.
I ain’t tell him about the suitcase right away; I was scared. By then I was wonderin if Case would ever catch up with me.
When I showed him, his eyes got big as silver dollars. He say we could live well off all that money. He say he quit his job. He say he tell peoples he saved up ‘cause you know how nosey peoples is. Specially if they think you got something they ain’t got.
He wanted children and I found out from the doctors I couldn’t have none. And besides, by now he started drinkin heavy with all his time. When I try to tell him it ain’t no good, he say, a woman can’t tell him nothing. He the man. He make the decisions.
After that it be touchy with him. He seem like he hate me and the money was runnin out ‘cause he be playin big man payin for everybody’s drinks and they told me he was hangin round with wild womens. You know they couldn’t wait to tell me that piece. I proached him about it and I saw he was a different person. His eyes was pointed and red and he speak with another voice cursin me. He always remind me he the man.
That’s when I asked him bout the money. ‘Cause since he the man, he say he take care of it. I guess that was it for him. He beat me. He beat me all in my face like I was another man. I thought I was back with my father.
I told you when I left I ain’t let nobody beat me no mo. But he left and came back and pologized and I couldn’t help it. My feelins come free again. He promise he go back to work and stop hangin with womens but without the money, he ain’t have no choice. He always be complainin bout his job then. He don’t want to be no slave. He always had that at work so if I say anything, he say, I ain’t the master and beat me.
So, one day he comes home. He say he quit his job, but he got an idea to get plenty money comin in again. He’d introduce me to the gals he knowed and they teach me to be one of them. You young, he say, and you can’t have no kids no way.
Before I knew it I turned on him like I turned on my family before I left. I cursed him and was walkin toward the door. He grabs me and start beatin. I could see my father then. He had introduced me to the adult’s life and beat me…all that hate come up inside me and I see stars and den…I see nothing.
When I come to myself, I see him dead, bloody on the kitchen floor and me, I has a bloody butcher knife in my hand and blood on me head to toe.
Well, I call the police. And I sit and waits for them on the front steps with the butcher knife in my hand, same clothes. I ain’t even wash my face. When they comes, I said I kilt him ‘cause he beat me. I spose I should have tried. Now, I’m just one mo niggah in a cell.”
I spose I should have tried. Now, I’m just one mo niggah in a cell.”
My eyes hit the concrete of the cell.
Best quote in the world, but I wasn’t writing it.
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Photo credit: Prince Akachi
Jacquese Armstrong received the 2018 Naomi Madgett Long Poetry award. Her book, blues legacy will be released in February.