Got her first paying job at ten drying dishes in a tea shop, socking away the white lady proprietor’s bottom of the wishing well pennies in a jam jar. Dream was to buy a record store, own a chain of them, produce a few blue-eyed soul singers, groom them pretty, put them in matching suits, syncopated dance moves, fried hair straightened to a T; fly overseas to where the Brits were taking Negro music with their milk and porridge and growing into war machines, death merchants running down governments and whole villages in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos. Goal was to make her own killing for sure. Market the real deal. Everyone else was making bank so why not her. Who better to bottle the hip cock, the language, the math of it all than her. In the body she was living in, the disintegrating one with sickle cell and bile and spit that she used to polish her cut legs after fights with the other foster home girls, she never got farther than the four walls in her plotting. She had an empire when she closed her eyes and made semi-peace with the time she was losing in the gap between vision and execution. Every second, every minute, every hour, getting closer to where the exact nature of her death would be delivered up to her on a silver platter.
She found the T.A.M.I show and Elysian Church around the same time. Getting up and going to work every morning a galaxy away in Hot Springs and the TAMI concert had the biggest R&B and rock ‘n’ roll acts in the world in California. Stone’s throw from miles of golden sand and white ladies laid out in whale blubber formation, buried under dark shades and pop idol magazines on the shore. She’d never been to a beach before, never seen any kind of large body of water that wasn’t in a map or picture book, that churned with the skeleton goulash of doomed boats, planes, explorers, slaves; sea the color of frog hide green and unknown. Mildly obsessed with the concert and all its wriggling, camera-mugging teen stick figures, burnt blond, straight teeth, carefree, euphoric in network TV black and white, or so she imagined, wanting to fuck Brian Wilson’s pipsqueak twang down to a croak, listening to playback snippets on the only radio station that came in clear when she was doing dishes and plotting her bus route home.
Wish they all could be California girls surfing U.S.A. up shit’s creek.
In forty years, she fantasized that she’d be beyond that. Beyond the wet behind the ears awe for simple things, for fat hooks on a summer day, for white girls’ who had the world by the balls, flaunting it to the rest of the universe. By then, her DNA would be ghosting suspect through another generation. By then, music would be a telepathic trick, a sleight, a matter of thought and concentration, crackling brain cells, black vinyl melting on history’s dust heap, first editions the price of a piece of bubble gum race records snug behind museum plate glass.
Elysian helped her recover from the white girls. Impressed from jump by the first Sunday service she attended. All the opportunities they trumpeted. Nursery school for her youngest, a softball team, hot meals and arithmetic prep for her struggling middle boy. She plucked out the friendly faces from amidst the suspicious shifty-eyed ones, the switchboard operators who made a few more nickels a week, the ones wallowing in judgment over her clothes, unkempt babies, no man status, the halting cadence of her speech, how she read scripture with her finger tracing the page. There was something, though, about the way Divinity stood over the congregation and demanded people take stock of themselves in all their quivering, cherry jello smallness. Nobody could hide, make excuses, slouch, bow down to mediocrity or piss on anyone else from on high. ‘Cause all us sinners are naked in the eyes of God.