L & D

baby foot

By Sikivu Hutchinson

What would have been my life is blackness.  But here I am on my skateboard.  Kick, ride, kick.  Black as the rhythm of stones being thrown against a car bumper or respirators sighing in unison, marking time in intensive care.  It is me against traffic.  Faceless boy.  Nameless face.  A stick figure watching the preeners lolling toothily into their car side mirrors, the press-on nail texters smearing out the seconds between red light green light, the dandelion yellow school buses idling out the last twenty minutes before the school bell rings and a blitzkrieg of jeering children descends.

The first time I heard boys laughing they were playing the dozens about punk-faced ‘fags’. The punk in B6 who they said walked like a princess.  The punk in the cafeteria who spoke all proper and shit.  The punk who brought a lunchbox with the daintiest fairiest of pink in the logo.  Batted his eyes.  Undressed us with each blink as we stormed the urinals in the bathroom.  Pirouetted and spread his arms out wide, lissome as Bambi.  I was ready to join the punk conspiracy, to surrender to them, waiting outside the gates of the playground with a pack of Red Vines for anyone who’d let me in. I could read their lips against the thrum of the dodge ball, feel the savage smash of rubber on the asses of stragglers caught in the fifth graders’ gladiator pen.  I willed myself into the middle of each game, snatching the ball from a third grade piglet, tongue green with jawbreakers from trick or treat.

The tall one with the Hello Kitty keychain has been my nurse for the past few days.  From 6 am to 6 pm we’re united in smell, arthritis cream under her fingernails, tomato juice on her breath filching into my sweaty white hospital sheets as she soldiers through her routine, noting each new arrival, the hushed parade of doleful relatives, the mothers doped up, zombified, bereft after the furor of delivery.

Every misshapen infant skull is part of her queenly dominion.  She measures and sizes up and scrapes off dead skin, the room a blur of lumpy wriggling pustulous bodies.  And when no one is looking she takes my foot into her hands. Sucks each toe clean as a finger-licking wishbone while snow piles up all around us in plastic drifts.  As a child in Minnesota snow season was her most treasured memory. The glee of pushing her baby brothers on their sled, plying them with snowballs, a blow to the head for each sin they’d committed by 7, an ice bomb to the occipital for being dirty blond little princes to her mousy brown drudge.

All my dodge ball boys circle jerk for snow.  Dream of pummeling each other into snowy oblivion.  Dream of coming out French kissing; their cub tits hardening beneath their Laker jerseys.  In the Southern California drear, the endless drear of newborn June, none of them have seen snow.  But I have, and now I will be their secret envy.  I will be picked first, allowed to cut in line, to have my pick of ice cream, to get dibs on the biggest scoop with chocolate sprinkles.  Send my drippy valentine to the nurse as she suctions fluid from my belly button, readjusts the tubes taped to my nose, diddles the gilt K-mart cross in her pocket, gives me her God’s blessing in a gin-soaked whisper.  She’s been hitting it, hitting it all night in her studio apartment over the twenty four hour Laundromat on Berendo.  Hitting it as the talk shows bleed into vibrator infomercials.  Hitting it as the test pattern prattle of the morning news crests and she starches up her uniform, burning it into the ironing board.  Our Lord art thou in heaven, fucker of little children, hallowed be thy name.

They taped a name to my bed.  First name, last name, all mongrelized letters in Martian code.  When I tried to pronounce it all I got was a glub of old amniotic fluid, underwater spit that the nurse dabbed quickly from my mouth.

A boy on the playground has the same name.  Initials are NK.  His mother comes to pick him up after school.  I slide into the backseat with my Red Vines and my ruff and tuff lunchbox, nodding brightly to his boasts about winning the candy drive, acing the new video games his friend Antoine lent him, wondering if he’ll notice me after all these weeks of obedience.  In school he is tender wriggling meat on the spit of the big girls prowling the lower grade playground for virgins to bounce water balloons off of.  Because his ride comes every day like clockwork he’s the mama’s boy, her double, her twin; look, they have the same squint when they shit.  Sitting here I see the symmetry to the backs of their heads.  His picks up where hers left off.  He is her when she fell from her tricycle, stole candy from the corner store, darted out into the middle of rush hour traffic on a triple dare, bit the hand of the nice family man with the blue eyes who likes to jerk off in the ashtray of his car right when the last bell rings. The crumbs of her DNA make a horseshoe birthmark on the side of his neck, crackling through each dark tendril of hair, bequeathing the code that will make his hairline recede in ten years at the height of his prancing studliness.

We watch the kids swarm the 7-11 with fistfuls of quarters for hot Cheetos, aisles ablaze with Friday afternoon emancipation.  They hoist Cheeto bags over their heads like big game, brushing by the church boy predators tricked out in Jesus bling looking for someone to mate with.  I lean into N’s ear, his right lobe is all baby oil and pea soup and the musty smooch of the family Cocker Spaniel sprawled dutifully across his bed.  We roll through the number streets to his house, past the dead still of men clustered on porches in jobless midday communion.  Past the check cashing places, the body shops, the blinding kindergarten bliss of the crowded public pool.  He’ll invite me up to his room to watch cartoons, be my hope to die, my refuge for one full episode.  I’d go anywhere with you, I croak, blowing dandruff from his bony shoulders.

Last night I took a crap for the first time.  A good sign, a robust issue, an imperial stool, the visiting team of specialists said, jotting the miracle down on their clipboards as they made the rounds through our gurgling colony of in limbos, swapping bets on who’d make it out alive to taste the clear blue, to see the sunshine unfiltered by the grates of hospital windows, to revel in the stench of the first fuck, feel the highway slithering under them on a cross country drive.  To grow old enough to fear death and start the fool’s bargain.

–You’re a perfect angel, the nurse whispered to me tonight. She ran down her checklist one last time before the end of her shift, avoiding the downward sag of my gaze, my purple lips puckering full tilt.  Her head is cocked, listening for rush hour traffic as I flatline past on my skateboard.  Kick, ride, kick.

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Nashville, 1978

 

RRH final

Sound check.  Cochlea peeling feedback.  Tuning till doomsday, then more tuning.  Roadies flopping and panting across the stage, lion taming cables, speakers, amps.

C to E minor was home for her. Shudder, slide, shudder. Then thump the strings with the right hand, pop ‘em upside the head like a sobering smack for a falling down drunk sprung from a dive.  They were the first chords she got down cold, that gave her a tingle that lasted for hours until Katy intruded with demands to do laundry, wash dishes or practice hymnals she had to memorize until her throat rang raw.  Save the motherfucking prayers, she thought, angry that she hadn’t said something to Divinity in the moment.  Save that dizzy shit for a more willing dupe.  A captive audience.  A roach spinning on its back.

Nothing happened from above.  No heavenly lightning strike, no incinerating rebuke, no ear to ear knife swipe, no primal samurai sword gutting.  Something about Divinity’s posture, her big show with the bible in the studio, gave her an inkling that she knew the jig was up too.  Grasped a bit of it at least, her preacher thing now running on fumes, wheeler dealer theatrics, the knack she’d had since womb dispatch, the prized Negro gift of oratory honed in debate contests, bathroom mirrors, pews damp with waiting, damp with comingled body fluids. She’d always been blessed with speech, magnificent cut-glass diction, the molasses voice that men who couldn’t find other jobs and wormed their way into the ministry would die for.  The thinking was that Divinity never had to really work for it.  Came into a room and owned it with the alchemical curl of her lip.  Spread her arms and poof.  Still, she hadn’t been able to get her own church until some white philanthropist ponied up for the first year’s lease on a storefront nobody wanted.  Becoming the Phoenix rising after years of roof raising to a handful of families, plotting on phone trees, saving their meager Christmas bonuses for her collection plate.  They would help her. An invisible, dear devoted core getting back at all the bishops and prophets and pillar men who’d spewed we shall overcome at marches in Little Rock then blocked her path at every ecumenical board and committee meeting.  She’d memorized their home numbers, spouses, kids’ names, hobbies. Tendencies.

“Get in your fucking places, blokes,” a roadie yelled at the arena attendants picking up junk in the aisles.  “Shit, we don’t need to eat off the floors.  Fuckers will probably trash the place anyway after Jude leaves, judging from those groupie crazies at the radio station. Miss Tharpe, we’re ready for you and your boys.”

Card, Thurston and Butch filed onto the stage silently, corralled by Mick hours before, backbiting put on hold for the moment.  Rory plugged in her guitar, the air rippling with the bustling attendants, some stopping to watch as she cued up a fast arpeggio churning blues number.  The three of them plodded through their parts, Thurston cueing up too fast on the downbeat, Butch letting loose a scattered bridge and Card slapping his bass ragged with his open hand.

“Get it together,” Rory growled as they shambled to a close, the clock ticking down to Jude’s entrance.  It had been years since she’d been in an arena that big, cavernous, bumptious, baby goblins of stage fright coming at her, antsy, suddenly, about Divinity being in the audience, tossed among the record company execs, assassins with submachine guns lurking in the exits sitting in judgment with her cartoon bible.  They would play all the mainstays. Throw in an original that Rory squeaked out after months of stewing inactivity, procrastination, doubt, when she’d tried to write at the end of meals, hiding in the toilet, collapsing on the edge of her motel bed with the guitar, mixing up chords at every angle, the C to E minor old faithfuls failing her in the face of figuring out installments on four months of unpaid doctor’s bills for her back pain and gallstones.

These were all alien matters to Divinity, she was sure. Shielded from calamity by her god force field, her sharp nose for profit and hoarding and saving every penny she got. In the news clips her second cousin sent from back home she’d read about the cathedral and community center Divinity was trying to build with the aid of white donors, rumors that she’d fucked one or several of them spread by her nemeses on the Baptist convention boards. A secret part of her relished the smear, the whiff of freshly ground dirt spread over the old neighborhood’s prudish high regard for the budding junior prophetess of 1930.

They finished the rehearsal and went backstage to their dressing rooms.  Card and Thurston haggled over a joint.  Butch did his ritual finger dunk in warm water and Epsom salts, bracing for the long night. Mick lingered in the corridor, going over the set list, busying himself with the smallest logistics, breaking out his inhaler for strategic hits when no one was looking, avoiding Rory’s orbit, swallowed up in the turbine of Jude’s handlers and sycophants.

“Fifty minutes to showtime, motherfuckers,” a voice screeched over the loudspeaker.

“Let’s blast these rednecks back to the swamps,” a tech chortled from behind the towering Marshall stacks anchored in an iron wall around the stage.

Rory walked back out onstage for one last look.  The attendants stood poised in place at the arena exits, seat rows bathed in the dank glow of the footlights.  Katy sat in the back, blue put-on-airs Monday night revival meeting hat perched on her head, nodding to something.  Precious Lord.  Take my hand.

 

Cotton Plant, Arkansas, 1930.

Route 9 quivered with the distant menace of engines.  Congregants walking, driving, getting the hang of the rattle traps handed down to them with a wink and a prayer for at least another hundred more miles before sudden death on a two-lane blacktop.  Backbone of Calvary Church headed to an after Sunday service fish fry for the Browns, Clemons, Langhornes off to Cleveland in the morning for railway jobs, weekend shifts in sanitation, road maintenance.  A damp evening showcasing child prodigies on piano, guitar, drums with the most suspense and anticipation over the first pulpit appearance of little Divinity Brown offering blessings for new beginnings.

She’d practiced her delivery again and again in the mirror.  When everyone had gone to bed she was still practicing, drawing out words, pausing for emphasis, making musical notes of end phrases like she’d heard bishop do, his kindly russet brown face pushing her to new heights of mastery.

Again and again, in front of him with Sunday school finally over and a barrage of lessons baring down on her, she wended through the scripture lines she’d chosen all by herself, Romans, Jeremiah, First Corinthians, full to bursting with pride at her powers of recall.  How clever, what a big smart girl, what a credit to her name.  The others so plain, less blessed. A few paces farther away from God.

It was the russet stench of bishop’s crotch that woke her up, trickling sweat, tingling with exhaustion in her empty hotel bed.  She always asked for queen-sized, to contain her thrashing, blunt the endless chain of night visitors.

Ten years and three months old fingers.  Just long enough to fit over the head of his cock.  To give her the strength to suffer God’s silence.  To give her the strength to devise the countdowns. Count for the missing tiles on the ceiling.  Count for how many floor tiles she could jump on before hitting a crack.  Count for the number of pinstripes on his suit pants, the creases in the long black preacher robe draping like a sickle over the swivel chair in his office.  Count for the time it would take between the end of her practice sermon and the footsteps approaching in the hallway to reach them. For the doorknob to turn, the crescent of Rory’s face rising in front of them as bishop repositioned her cursed with age fingers to his shoulder.

She got up from bed and took an aspirin. The room shifted into soft focus around her. Warm rain pissed in fits and starts on the roof.  It was only the third integrated hotel she’d ever stayed in in the South. She could feel the tremor of the white bodies who’d slept there before, shrouded in comfort and dream, furtive fucks, sour business dealings over a smoke and Kojak reruns. She fished out her concert ticket.  A good night for a first salvo, to root for our electric girl, for Cotton Plant’s long heralded resurrection.  She laughed to herself, went to the closet, picked out a new outfit, new armor, not too pastorly, straight or prim for the rednecks and gutter heathens who’d paid top dollar to see their clay footed goddess Jude.

Pinstripes.

She showered off the night visitors, dressed and went downstairs.

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The Monstrosity

RRH final

On Rory:

It was the humming that got her.  The spontaneous eruptions at the grocery store when Rory was in line with her lethal favorites, a bottle of Jack Beam and a can of creamed corn.  The floating slips of atonality that dragged her by the ear at the gas station putting another round of diesel in the bus with the last of Mick’s state disability checks.  The gurgling snatches from a cracked car window cruising by at the end of the day; the driver finally having settled on a station that wasn’t playing commercials.  Just one motherfucking station, just one.  It was that miserable squealing like a stuck pig summer when it seemed the whole globe was blasting Jude’s new song in unison.  A twelve-bar Monstrosity that she claimed she’d dredged up from the bottom of the Delta, nicotine fingernails dirty and squirming with the muck of the ancestors one generation removed from the Middle Passage, she drawled in exclusive interviews with the European trade mags.

As crotch sticky and miserable as the tread of June to August was there was no worse torture than the hijacking of the airwaves and every inch of the audible world by the Monstrosity.  She swore off all media, Jack Beam, creamed corn, Solitaire, any whiff of diversion that would take her away from practicing, going up and down the fret board in her head, on the back of her seat, trying to tame the petty little niggling little argument between her mind, which swooped away, wandering and worrying mid-chord change, and her disobedient fingers.

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White Nights, Black Paradise film: Casting Multi-generational Black Actresses

Black women JT group
We’re currently casting for a short film treatment of White Nights, Black Paradise in the L.A. area, looking for diverse Black women 30s-60s, queer, trans, straight  (and a few white folk):

Abbreviated CAST

Taryn Strayer, an African American accountant in her late 30s. Intelligent and reserved.

Hy Strayer (Taryn’s younger sister), sharp, irreverent but slightly unfocused young woman in her early 30s.

Jess McPherson, a 40-something African American woman and therapist who is also Taryn’s lover. Worldly, confident, calculating.

Ida Lassiter, mid 50s, African American journalist and activist. Regal, tough, a critic of the Temple.

Ernestine Markham, 60-something, African American English teacher, long time Temple member and politicized “race woman” who is loyal but also selectively skeptical.

Devera Medeiros, a Black Latina transwoman and journalist for the Peoples Forum newspaper who is in her late 30s. A Temple true believer, conscious, discerning, keen sense of fairness.

Zephyr Threadgill, a fifty-something African American woman who enjoys her unofficial role as Temple “prosecutor”.

Reverend Jim Jones, a white man in his late 40s. Volatile, insecure, devious, solicitous, endearing.

Carol, a white woman in her early 30s. Shrewd, realist, right hand woman/lieutenant to Jones and mother of one of his children.

Please send queries to: shutch2396@aol.com

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White Nights, Black Paradise: The Players

Who is this novel about?

If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember the horror of seeing pictures of the 900 plus dead bodies of Peoples Temple church members, the majority of them African American, in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. You may also know that the Jonestown massacre was where the overused misnomer “drink the Kool-aid” originated. Less known and understood are the actual people of Peoples Temple church; their hopes, dreams, world views, and motivations for going to Jonestown. As the largest religious murder-suicide in American history, Jonestown still elicits a resounding “why”?

The characters in my novel (the majority of whom are fictitious) are a cross-section—they’re queer, lesbian, bisexual, trans, straight, African American, Latino, multiracial, white, age/class diverse and all over the map in terms of spiritual belief. African American sisters Taryn and Hy Strayer anchor the story with their at times turbulent relationship. The book opens with the sisters’ transition to segregated San Francisco from the Midwest. As an atheist lesbian and straight agnostic, they’re attracted to Peoples Temple’s anti-racist ethos, secularism and seeming tolerance. Their diversity reflects the distinctive tenor of the church and forms the backbone of the novel’s mélange of voices. Each person joined the church, stayed with it, or left, for complex reasons that often reflected deep ambivalence and contradiction. For Black members, emigration to Jonestown embodied just another leg of the African Diaspora. Far from being brainwashed dupes, many of the members actively collaborated in the dream—and nightmare—of Jonestown.

The atheist—Taryn Strayer: “In third grade she learned the unreliability of the Lord. She called on him to annihilate the cackling, drooling pinheads who wanted to see her fuck up. What was the Lord God Almighty good for if he couldn’t pull off a small favor after a week’s worth of goodness from her?”

The seeker—Hy Strayer: “The people that are over there building Jonestown say you chop a tree down and it’s got milk and honey for sap. Prime minister, the cabinet, everybody over there in power’s black except for a few Indians who’re taking orders from us.”

The loyalist—Jess McPherson: “That girl’s mother gave up that right when she let her become a drug addict and run the streets all hours. No daddy. Thirteen and running the streets. Think that’s acceptable? That’s the case with most of these parentless kids before they came to Jonestown. If they weren’t here their asses would be dumped or left for dead in juvenile hall. This is the last hope for them to get their lives together.”

CA Historical Society, 1978

Jonestown children, CA Historical Society, 1978

The journalist—Ida Lassiter: “Everywhere, the air changed with the faintest whiff, the hint, of a white woman. When it was crowded to overflowing Goldilocks couldn’t even dip a toe onto a train car north of the Mason-Dixon without a regiment of crackers overseeing every move, making sure no Negro man woman or child twitched, sneezed or batted an eye in her direction. Under the law Negresses could never be raped. And this kept white women safe in their kingdoms.”

The defector—Foster Sutcliffe: “There’s a succession plan. The whites get positioned over us plantation style, load up their offshore accounts and live off the interest until Fidel smuggles them into Cuba or Brezhnev gives Jim Jones the key to Ukraine.”

The doctor-publisher—Hampton Goodwin: “I can still hear the laughter of that first cracker who doubted I would make it through medical school. An Irishman. Naturalized citizen with god given rights as soon as he stepped foot here. Master of the split infinitive, could barely speak English but he knew he wasn’t a nigger and that’s all that mattered.”

The teacher-interrogator—Ernestine Markham: “The church is the people, not any one man. God gave me a purpose with this church. Gossip and innuendo, especially on the Temple, are going to be big hits when all people know about is black people and black organizations being in disarray.”

The white preacher—Jim Jones: “We see white people living up in the hills with serious capital and riches, and black people living in the ghettoes with barely a collective pot to piss in. The fascists want to tell ya’ll that you’re lazy but they’re in collusion with the Judeo Christian ‘God’.”

The enabler—Mother Mabelean Jones: “I’ve turned the other cheek like the righteous leaders, Gandhi, Reverend King, Martin Luther. Even when I saw our people bruised and beaten, witnessed hordes of disgraced members chewed up and spit out like rotten meat, a corner of me protested but said Yes.”

Marceline Jones (Mabelean Reed)

Marceline Jones (Mabelean Jones)

The writer-survivor—Devera Medeiros: “By the time the assassins were through they’d blasted out the roof of the plane. Devera could stand up and touch the clouds from her seat. She could see clear out over the trees, past the bowing rainforest, past the valley of the shadow of death to her people, eating each other alive in Memorex.”

Pre-Order White Nights , due November 2015

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White Nights, Black Paradise book trailer

Due November 2015

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Now Available from Infidel Books

Godless-Americana
“So much conversation regarding atheism and humanism gains no traction, and does little to push beyond areas of comfort and well worn arguments. Sikivu Hutchinson’s work offers an important corrective to this. With clear and sharp insights, Hutchinson pushes readers to recognize and tackle the patterns of thought and action that limit any real ability to respond to issues of race, gender, and sexuality from a transformative and humanist perspective. Read her work, but fasten your seat belt first!” — Anthony Pinn, author African American Humanist Principles and The End of God Talk: An African American Humanist Theology View on Amazon

Moral-Combat
“Sikivu Hutchinson’s superbly written and well-researched book stands out like a sore thumb among the books of “New Atheists” such as Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. Hutchinson puts forth a bold analysis of the political and religious culture wars raging across the U.S. She examines the Religious Right, scientism amongst white secular humanists, the need for social and economic justice, the ethical imperative to defend the rights of LGBTQ people, etc. She does all of this from the perspective of a progressive African American feminist.” – Norm R. Allen Jr., author African American Humanism
View on Amazon

White Nights Black Paradise
“Sikivu Hutchinson’s vision of Jonestown, of the real people who left behind despair for what they thought was belief and hope, is a valuable one – her take is the one America hasn’t yet seen.” Susan Straight, author Between Heaven and Here and Take One Candle, Light a Room

“Sikivu Hutchinson’s beautifully written novel captures the complicated relationship between remembering the past and attempting to forget. Her work is hauntingly evocative.”
Duchess Harris, Professor of American Studies, MacAlester College, Author Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Clinton/Obama

DUE FALL 2015, Preorder on Amazon

Order On Amazon

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The Ghost

CA Historical Society, 1978

Jonestown, 1978

By Sikivu Hutchinson (from White Nights, Black Paradise) The night watchwoman does not drink coffee. She never pees. Never leaves her post for a smoke break, a phone call, a fart in the subzero weather that’s kicked in the teeth of Dover AFB. She sits behind the air force base security console with gloved fingers, eyes darting from screen to screen, scanning for shadows, her desk stacked with packages stamped classified. Our arrival here has been a sensation. A few reporters descended in earnest. A few locals banded together to gawk and complain. The locals say the cold, the snow, is the worst it’s been in a while. That it portends something bad, that it’s a fitting greeting to us. When we were over there we secretly dreamt of a white Christmas. Even though it was forbidden fruit; low-hanging, sickly sweet, a safe place to hide in when the monsters came. Because we didn’t really celebrate Christmas the natives accused us of being Jehovah’s Witnesses. That ratty charade of a million cultists worldwide. Maybe the watchwoman is one of them. Trundling door to door like a wind-up toy with a Santa Claus sack of end-of-the-world pamphlets. When we begged for money in the town square the native children gave us garlands because they felt sorry for us. The white ones and the mixed ones in our group were to be in the forefront. We black ones just looked like all the other children running around, blending in with everyone else. The best window dressing they tell us. The watchwoman’s shift begins at midnight. She takes the bus back home at 8:30, passing the morning shuttle crammed with airmen off to training. She watched us on the banged-up TV set that only has three clear channels, getting her children dressed as the heater rumbles on, shielding their eyes from our bloated bodies while she tries to turn to Woody Woodpecker, to Bugs Bunny, to ordinariness and animals bashing their brains in. We don’t blame her. It’s a mother’s instinct to protect their young from bad things. We have identical lines on our necks. Mine from birth, hers from age, the slow creep into middle age; even at thirty-five she was still young but spiraling downward, an older woman having a baby for the first time thousands of miles from home. She changed my diaper right on the folding chair next to her in the pavilion. She sits in the front row waiting for the performance to begin. A good seat means a plate of hot food at the end of the meeting. It means recognition that she is dedicated. It signals to the leadership that she is serious. The nurses delivered me by C-section, the first one in the settlement. They cleaned me then plopped me on her chest, unable to pry open my clenched pink fingers. She wears my bloody fist print with pride all week, a tiny Black Power salute embedded under her clavicle. She is exempt from participating in the drills because of the C-section. At night we lie together cheek to cheek, listening to the rain blow through as our people rip and run, rehearse and fortify. The takeover could happen anytime. It will come in a flood of white parachutes, blazing military guns, contaminated water. Best to sit on the edge of preparedness than to be caught off guard, slack, flabby, complacent. Her voice is too hoarse to sing me a lullaby. Her body too heavy from the painkillers. Her brain too tired from the crashing chaos. But secretly, really, she is not that kind of mommy. So she holds me to her like a fine cut piece of steel. Does the watchwoman know this as she walks through the morgue inspecting the surnames, lingering at familiar ones, the long and winding road of church families, generations’ deep, the crazy quilt of birthdates stretching back to Indiana, Texas, Chicago, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi. She eats her dinner alone in the cafeteria, the transistor radio by the cash register burbling about hit squads, spies, Negro fanatics that go bump in the night. Be careful down there, the cashier says, banging a roll of nickels into his drawer. Them spooks down there are liable to snatch you up. Does the watchwoman know that when mommy spoke there was no trace of Amarillo about her? That her accent was clean, discreet, with no upturn at the ends of a question, no licorice sucking drawl like that of her grandparents who’d followed Father to California after Newark burned in ’67, their dry cleaning business destroyed. The same thing was happening in San Fran before we left. The same plague of government lies and cover-ups. The same developers thick and ripe as fresh maggots, spewing out eviction notices to the black people. To own land and be Negro was criminal. But this is what the watchwoman doesn’t know, eyeing the mountain of boxes stacked to the ceiling in drill formation rows, marinating in snap judgment. She has worked at the base for three years with no benefits, no sick leave, no retirement or overtime, playing the part of the good night soldier to her sundry charges, the ever changing cast of inmates in the morgue; blessed by God, she’s told, to have a stable job in her neighborhood when so many have been laid off, are rootless and living hand to mouth due to laws that spit on the working man. After a week the press has left, bored by the absence of revelation, fireworks, by the scratching and clawing of next of kin bellowing for revenge. When they begin the grind of identifying remains who will come forward to claim us, mommy and me, lying intertwined, as though I’d never left her to venture on my own into the outside world?

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Mutiny of Sons

stephan & jim jr

Excerpt from White Nights, Black Paradise

By Sikivu Hutchinson

The basketball shot punched into the backboard, flipping off the rim, taking a millennium to land back, melting all buttery in his hands as he turned it around, did a quick layup, manufactured the swish of an invisible net in his head.

How you like that motherfucker? He thought to his brother standing across from him, his eyes obscured in the velvet dark of right before the streetlights fluttered on, the court stretching in front of them like a sliver of dead jungle beneath the window of a plane. Was it true that their mother had dressed them alike right down to the underwear? Was it true that she’d tried to get their picture taken for Christmas at the neighborhood Woolworth and been turned away? That she’d hired one of the church members to play photographer at the last minute, bouncing Demian on one knee and Jimmy on the other, two peas in a rotten pod. The sitting was captured in a collection of amateurish black and white pictures rammed behind the birth control herbs in her dresser drawer. The top of his head is torn off in one of the pictures; his arm around the adopted sister who’d died in a car crash right after being baptized.

She was a refugee from a faraway war torn land, they said; a boat person who washed up on the Pacific shore; never even learned to brush her teeth or write her name in English, flashed through their lives like a handful of lightning then was gone. She was his mother’s jewel, the last book in her rainbow kiddie trilogy. And when the sheriff came to deliver the news she fought him like a wolverine on speed, haggard from doing the church’s books, wrung out with grief.

Daddy, how come you didn’t bring her back from the dead like you did me? Jimmy had asked. Their dad had put his head in his hands, not trying to hide his tears. He asked the Lord to give him strength then took it back.

“There is no fucking God boys. Look what he did to your innocent little sister.”

Demian had kept the black and white picture all these years, fascinated by the symmetry of their bodies, two alive and here; one dead and floating above them, their secret guardian angel.

On the court he and Jimmy always had an audience. A wise ass regiment of snickering eleven year-olds from the Catholic Brotherhood’s after school program running color commentary on every fuck-up and half-step Demian and Jimmy made when all the other players had left and the two of them circled each other like queasy suitors. They made great sport out of Demian’s bow-legged free throw, Jimmy’s ponderous dribble and hard fakes, playing the dozens as though their lives depended on it. Pretty boy, white boy, Bambi, they shrieked. Didn’t they know that Father was a foiled basketball great. A forward with more smarts than agility, pissed on by the others for being a mongrel mixed breed. Wasn’t for that he would’ve led the team to victory. Athleticism, competition, teamwork; that’s in your genes boys, your family inheritance, doesn’t matter whether you’re so-called homemade or not, you’re part of my flesh, my soul, my body and nobody can take that away from us.

We may be from a misfit church but at least we don’t have priests who make choir boys give them head. You tell ‘em that when they try and fuck with you. They’re victims. Objects of pity. The crumbs these charities throw out to these ghetto orphans dwarfs in comparison to the billions they’ve looted from third world countries.

Demian had rehearsed, honed that line in his head, wanting to spit it out at an opportune moment, to draw blood, send the little Catholic charity punks reeling back to the parish. He could never work up the nerve or the meanness.

Could he cut himself open and quarantine the genes that were his father’s for an hour, a day, a year.

Who would assume the mantle, be the rightful heir. Speak truth to power like Dad. Lead the flock to Canaan. Beat back the Pharisees, or whatever the correct analogy was. He couldn’t remember, despite all the years of drilling, training, regurgitating biblical shit in the early days back home in Indiana.

Demian had not changed clothes from that morning. He took off his terry cloth shirt and put it on the park bench, levitating from the smell of his own must, the soggy remains of his fear and anxiety seeing his brother at the donut shop. Jimmy waited for him to get back on the court then thrust the ball at him. He caught it in his chest, cradling it for a second, faking, throwing it back to him with the same brute force that they’d learned when their father had stood over them with a stopwatch, timing them on who passed the ball the fastest.

At the tenth pass Jimmy stopped, conceding. He chucked the ball lightly at Demian, bending down to tie his high top sneakers, a floppy pair on loan from one of the Temple thrift stores.

“That reporter took a real shine to you.”

“How do you mean?”

“You know what I mean.”

“He’s not a homosexual.”

“Whatever he was he was putting the moves on you and you fell for it.”

“I have the right to speak my mind.”

“Speaking your mind is one thing, getting played for a punk is another.”

Demian gripped the ball, holding it over his head, breaking into a hard dribble. Jimmy’s breath hung in the air, a lingering rasp leftover from childhood asthma.

“You ok?”

“Of course.”

He passed the ball to Jimmy. Jimmy drove down the court and did a layup, squeals crackling from behind the gate.

“Time for ya’ll to go home!” Demian shouted.

“Fuck you snowflake,” they chortled.

Jimmy waved his hand dismissively at Demian. “Leave ‘em alone. What other entertainment do they have in their lives? We’re privileged to have a family, to have a place that’s ours.” He stared coolly at his brother, starter mustache droopy with dew. “Dad wants us to leave in a few weeks.”

“I’m not going.”

“You tell him that?”

“In so many words.”

“That’s not good enough. You have to be direct with him. He expects us to show leadership over there, we’re the only ones who can really be trusted not to screw up his vision.”

“I don’t really care what his vision is for that place. I have a life here that I’m not going to ditch just because he wants to play king of the fucking jungle.”

“And what life is that? Smoking weed? Staying out late, getting up late, drifting and screwing your way through every zip code in the city?”

“No, that’s Dad’s thing, get your propaganda straight.”

“Stop deflecting. We go over there for fifteen months, clear the land, get supplies, supervise construction, establish relationships with the locals. You’ll pack a career’s worth of experience into just one year.”

“I don’t want that kind of career. I don’t want to waste one second of my life busting my ass doing shit work for his pipe dream.”

“Look, I know he’s not perfect. He’s done some messed up shit, hurt some people, cast weak ones out when they should’ve been protected. He’s atoning for all that. This move is a chance for atonement. Not just for him but for everybody. It’s bigger than any one person. If you see it as just his pipe dream then you don’t get it.”

“What do Louise, Cassandra and all the other little old black ladies who’ve given Dad and the church their homes and life savings have to atone for Jimmy?”

Jimmy took a step back. “Nothing. Not a single thing. Maybe atone was an overstatement. I just know some people have been waiting their whole lives for this.”

“Then let them go in my place.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Take some acting classes. There’s a few theater groups I want to check out.”

“Theater? Dem you’ve never acted in your life. You know how hard it is to make it in that industry, to make any kind of decent living? Yeah, it’ll be easier for you whatever you do because you’re white but even then people will judge you right out the gate because you’re Jim Jones’ son. As long as we’re pariahs in this place and the conditions for black people stay the same you don’t stand a chance here. Your conscience won’t let you.”

“I don’t have the same kind of negativity as you.”

“Right, you’ve always had things, you had parents, you had white skin. You say jump, the world says how high? What do you have to be negative about when you’ve been sheltered all your damn life?”

“Get off it Jimmy I didn’t get any fucking special privileges. If anything…”

“If anything what? Mom and Dad bent over backwards for a poor little nigger orphan and left Homemade out in the cold?”

“Yeah. Yeah that’s right.”

“You don’t believe that.”

“Stop telling me what I believe.”

“No one’s saying you don’t have your own mind.”

“Stop acting like it then.”

Jimmy put his hand on Demian’s shoulder. Demian flinched, trying to pull away, his brother holding him firmly. “Remember the summer we spent at grandma’s when everyone was out on the road at the Wings of Deliverance thing.”

He was silent. Muddy water gurgled up in his throat. Baby frogs suctioned up his leg, precious as tiny glow-in-the-dark toys. Down, down, down, he’d gone, landing in the seat of a rusted trike. Down, down, down and this was surely the end, he’d thought, of his stupid eight year-old self. Never be able to eat spaghetti with melted cheese again, never be able to press up against Kira’s thigh and pretend like it was an accident, never be able to fly a plane to Brazil. He would sit at the back of the funeral home, drinking in his parents’ hysterical laments at yet another lost child. But then his brother’s arms were around him, snatching at his collar, grabbing hold to the scruff of his neck. His brother’s arms pushing through the hail of leaves, twigs, bone imploring them to stay and play for a while, take a spin on the dead baby’s marooned tricycle.

He’d jumped in the creek on a dare from a neighbor boy; keeping his t-shirt on, ashamed of his scrawny freckled chest even though he and Jimmy had been lifting bricks all summer to get buffed up.

Betcha Sambo can swim better’n you Stringbean, the boy had taunted, cramming strips of baloney sandwich in his hatchet face as he swatted horseflies away. He was the first of many audiences captivated by the spectacle of he and Jimmy; tall, gangly, thick as thieves maybe, watchful of their bodies, selectively protective of each other; now here was Demian taking the bait, jumping into the glorified piss hole he’d feared since he was a toddler.

“Yeah, I remember. What about it?” he asked sullenly.

“That time in the creek. You were petrified. Grandma—tiny little grandma—wanted to beat your butt afterward. Went on and on about this kid drowning in the summer of ’48 that they didn’t get to in time.”

“You want a fucking medal after all these years for rescuing me? That it?”

“It’s not about me. It’s about why you needed to prove yourself to that cracker in the first place.”

“I wasn’t trying to prove shit.”

Jimmy took a towel from his duffel bag on the ground. He reached over and wiped the sweat off Demian’s cheek, handing him the towel. “Didn’t want Sambo to upstage you. Right little brother? I forgave you that then. I forgive you now.”

Demian balled up the towel and threw it back at him. “Fuck off.”

“Before she died grandma used to say that we were the church philosophers, always in our heads thinking heavy, like it was us against the world. She loved that cliché, thrilled her when I took up for you.”

“Don’t trot her out to make me feel guilty.”

“Too bad she didn’t live long enough to see what we’re going to do over there. The bigger vision Dad has is partly because of her, she couldn’t do a fourth of what he’s done because society wouldn’t support a woman doing it. Dirt poor white woman, nobody gave a shit what her ambitions were as long as she popped out a son.”

“So now you want to hide behind her.”

“She thought that if someone so much as blew on you you’d float away.”

“You’re lying.”

“You were the softer dreamier one in her eyes, more like Mom I guess. I defended you then, told her you could be counted on.”

Demian turned away from the court and spit. The Catholic kids had left. In the distance he could see cars flitting by across the spine of the Bay Bridge. He thought he saw someone scaling it, waving a white flag into the barreling headlights.

Jimmy followed his gaze, looking impatient then bemused. “There you go daydreaming again. C’mon, let’s go get something to eat.”

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The Monster at the End of This Book

White_Nights_front
From, White Nights, Black Paradise

Black is surely Beautiful.

The signs from our classroom float in the air, curling from the heat, rain and dried blood.

We like to read. We like to play. We count down the seconds until recess. We tease and chant praise. We dance, doing disco, doing the splits, the poplock, all the crazy freestyle steps we brought from the States, strutting, showing off, running contests. We haven’t seen TV in months. Free from its pollution. It’s bad as doing smack Dad says. Even the show “Good Times”, ‘cause they always want to Stepin Fetchit, to zip coon a strong black man.

Our teacher is teaching us to see ourselves. Not just in the margins of halogen blond Jane and her accomplice little Dick. But fully, the way we were made. Before there were walls and nations and continents and we were all just scrambled cells, babysoft and naked, breathing underwater.

Not just the smart ones are encouraged to speak up in class. Our teacher makes even the slow ones participate. And naw, nobody is higher or better than anybody else. And naw, the blondies that were prettiest in the white American world ain’t nothing here. Dad said it’s the socialist way. Dad says everybody has a special gift to give. Anybody we see acting all big and bad we tell on them. Sometimes they get sent out to the jungle to get their attitude straight. Sometimes a hot pepper on the tongue does the trick. After that, they come back right in the head.

Mondays is science. Tuesdays is ancient civilizations of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Wednesdays is geopolitics. Thursdays is public speaking. Fridays is music, crafts and creative writing. The walls are filled with poems of this better world. The walls are filled with pictures of bombs dropping, ghost white mushroom clouds spreading over L.A. and the Fillmore.

We’re lucky to have escaped in time. Lucky when so many were left behind. We know it’s not right but we secretly pray for the left behind kids. We pray that they could be here with us in paradise. We know prayer is fakeness, magic and fairy tales. We know it’s a con and a lie but we’re scaredy cats, ‘cause what if there’s a god besides Dad.

The grown-ups are always watching for big breeches, big mouths, show offs. Any old grown-up can school you on the spot on what to do and what to be. We follow their lead, but have our own language for emergencies. We do youth council and speak in it just to rile them.

The white people rule, but everybody is equal. The white people say under the skin we’re all blood. The white people say cut us and it’s the same. Che pricked her arm with a paring knife to prove it to one of the mixed white girls who was talking smack. Girl with Laurie Partridge straight brown hair all down her back, trying to get out of slopping hogs like the rest of us claiming she needed novocaine for a sore tooth. Her little clique puts on a show acting black at the meetings in the pavilion to please Dad. When the grown-ups turn their backs they’re picking at us for weak spots, treating us like stepchildren.

There are Sesame Street books with singing rainbow kids and lessons on turning the other cheek. Every month we adopt a new country, imagining how the children live there, performing Indian or Chinese customs, showing off our Russian greetings to all the adults as a warm-up to Dad’s speeches. They clap and holler, bursting with pride. They raise the roof for an encore. Dad, Carol and the others are negotiating for us to move to Russia. Jamiah asks if there are black people there and is told to be quiet.

Later we read to the babies, sneaking in their favorite story about Grover the blue muppet before lights out and the bugs dive bomb every piece of naked skin.

There’s a monster at the end of this book, Grover says, as the patrols start up outside, rain drumming through the roof, into our mouths, making the sheets soggy.

There’s a monster at the end of this book, Grover whispers, batting his googly scarecrow eyes.
There’s a monster at the end of this book, Grover whines, toothpick arms flailing.
Each page we turn there is Grover warning us not to go any further.
Each page we turn Grover puts chains over them to keep us from turning another page.
We turn and turn until the last page and BOO there he is.
Grover, the monster.

The lights shut off and we scatter to our beds, waiting for the inspection. The guards pass, rifles clicking at their sides, snouts poking into the dorms on alert for the faintest stirring, a stray cough, fart or belch.
We are drifting, dreaming of the group of visitors coming the next day from America.
They will sleep good tonight, the guards say as they leave.

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