The Motown Chronicles: Sing the White Note Black
It all started over a drink he sent down to me. In a little tiny bar on a little tiny street, I started a fight. Well, I didn't start the fight but I finished it. It had been a long time coming. When he first saw me, his first words were, "Hello, my boy." Though, the expression my boy was more for me being a man as opposed to me being his son. He slapped me on the back and his hand squeezed my shoulder real tight. Treated me like I was a houseguest. Told me to have a seat at the bar and he'd be back. There I was, standing in the doorway of his nightclub with a suit on. I don't think he recognized me. We had not seen each other in twenty years. It was now 1964. I had just turned twenty-three years old but looking at Papa Dudds was like looking at me in a mirror. I came in there with sunglasses on. I didn't want him or any of his followers to recognize me. I sat at the corner of the bar. The bartender said to me, "John, what can I get for you?" I started to correct him, to tell him that my name was Henry but then I realized that was a part of being in New York. So, I told him I wanted Papa's favorite: Jack Daniels on the rocks. I looked around. My feet touched faded red carpet covered in mud and dirt and sweat and stink. The place was named Papa's after my father. Outside, a bright neon sign matched a young woman standing outside. She had on the exact same colors and was panhandling for change. People walking by, thought it was a gimmick and most of them ignored her. I gave her all the change I had left: two quarters. I inhaled the air. Sitting down felt good for I had not really smelled free air in a long, long time. There were a lot of things that I had taken for granted over the past twenty five years behind bars. I had taken for granted the sunlight, how when it shines down on your face, especially in a city like New York, where there is not a lot of shade to protect oneself. Sometimes you curse and you curse the tall buildings that give off heat and punishment, that stifle your ability to exist in a large city where people ignore you anyway. I had taken for granted the ability to walk to the store whenever I felt like it, for a Coney Island hot dog. I loved to eat them all the time in Detroit and here in New York, I had only been here a few days but I had already fallen in love with the city's pizza. Up until last night, I took for granted the feel of a woman. I wasn't even sure then when I found a woman to hold me if I was even doing it right until we began to make love and it began to feel right. Most especially, though, sitting in that bar, I had taken for granted the ability of one to coexist in a space with other people as an individual, with the right to excuse them from around me. However, no one was too close to me, which I greatly appreciated. In fact, the place was practically empty, deserted. A few hobos, along with the green-and-pink woman were outside waiting for the sun to come down and the music to begin and my father would deliver them from whatever brought them and kept them out there on those streets. Papa wouldn't even have to ask them where they came from; he would need to tell them where he was going. So, when his right hand man from his glory days, Taxi came back over, he asked me where I was from. I had recognized him instantly but it had been so many years since we had seen each other that he didn't recognize me. But I answered his question and with a swig of my drink, I sighed and said, "Motown. Detroit, by way of train." A slight drop fell in the sparkle of his eyes and I was sure that somewhere in the back of him, a light bulb went off. But he said nothing on the surface. Only a polite nod of his head. A smirk appeared on my face when I asked him where he was from and he said Kalamazoo, Michigan. I knew that was not true. Nothing great had ever come out of that particular city. We continued with small talk. I stayed hidden behind my sunglasses. He told me he had to go practice. Taxi was beaming under the assumption that I had traveled all the way by train from Detroit to Chicago to New York to hear him play. Silly as it was to me, I kept my mouth shut. He complimented me on my suit and left. On my way over here, for several blocks, a man had been following me. I had learned behind bars to watch my back so when I saw him coming into the bar and sitting at the opposite end with a newspaper, stealing glances at me from behind, I was worried. I thought perhaps someone from my past was looking for me but I couldn't think of who that person might be. After all, I was in a strange, foreign city that I had never been to before. The man at the end of the bar caught my eye in the mirror. He had sunglasses on as well, only his were black and mine were brown. He saw me staring at him through the mirror and raised his glass for a toast. I nodded my head, irritated and looked away. I didn't feel like being bothered by anyone. I was used to being in tight, crowded places and I liked having my space. I assumed that he did also because he gave dirty looks to anyone thereafter who looked to sit next to him. The man bent over then as if his stomach was hurting. I braced myself then for him to pull out a knife. I had seen a man do that in the prison courtyard. He seemed like he was losing the fight; he was doubled over in pain. Instead, he had grabbed a knife someone handed him under the table and killed the other man senselessly. But this man didn't do that. He took off his sunglasses. He cried out in a low voice that something was stuck in his eye. When he stood up, I noticed his right eye, made of glass and piercing, looking straight at me, daring me to look back. Music began to play on the stage. Taxi was warming up. He pulled out Ella on stage. He was wiping her off with an old handkerchief. Against my better judgments, I asked the bartender for another drink. I couldn't help it though. It was cold in that room, even though the place was beginning to crowd with people. I felt nervous for some reason, uneasy. The man that had followed me in, that had been staring at me came over to me but hesitated for a moment to come up into my space because he saw me looking around. Taxi snapped his fingers on stage. A piano player sitting at the middle of the bar, stopped eating his sandwich, licked his fingers and went up there to start playing. An older woman with a gap tooth and a flower in her hair began dancing right in front of him. Everyone else was beginning to sit down. The room seated about fifty people and I guessed there were that many people in the room. The man who had followed me into the bar was walking toward me. My stomach was growling. The liquor was too hard on my stomach. It had been so long since I had a drink. He held out his hand. I shook it, cautiously. "What's your name, fella?" I asked him. "Dudds. Henry Dudds," he said. I shook my head, chuckled. "Well, that's impossible. Your name can't be Henry Dudds because that's my name," I said. I downed the rest of my drink and slammed my glass down on the table. I was more amused than angry but I didn't him to know that I was slightly worried that I might have to defend myself. I didn't want to think then of the possibility of me getting involved in something that could potentially send me back to prison. "Good. Then, you are just the person I want to see," he said. He snapped his fingers at me. I was staring at his glass eye instead of the right one, the one he could actually see through. He started laughing at this spectacle. I cleared my throat. "Have a seat," I said. He sat down next to me. The bartender came and brought me a drink. This time it was rum and a Pepsi. I thanked him but he shook his head no. Said it hadn't come from him. I asked him from where and he nodded his head in the direction of Taxi. I turned and my father looked me in the eye. He smiled but there was something devilish in his grin. I began to feel uneasy. "You're a long way from home, Henry," he said. I looked him in the eye then. "How do you know that, man?" I didn't think he could have heard the conversation between Taxi and me. The man had been sitting too faraway. "Pops on stage told me. He told me all about you," he said. "Oh, really? How did you know to follow me?" I asked. "Old girl told me." I nodded my head. I had just come from her place and she had seemed innocent enough. After all of these years, she had not changed at all. "Yeah, and I've come to tell you to get out of here. Go home. Go back to Detroit. I hear the Tigers might win the World Series. Don't be causin' no trouble like that mayor of yours." "First of all, the Tigers haven't won yet but they've got Sparky Anderson and they've got a good chance. Second, that man ain't my mayor. I live away from all that damn noise. Nice little quiet community about five minutes outside Detroit. It's called Oak Park. Just across Eight Mile Road." "Hmm. Fine. Well, I'm sure you're anxious to get back to Eight Mile," he said. The bartender came and sat another drink in front of me. I shook my head no. "Not before I get a chance to talk to him." "Talk to him about what?" he said. He took off his black coat and hat to reveal his bald head. "I came here looking for my father. He used to be his right-hand man back in the day. I thought he might know where he's at and there's some other things I need to talk to him about. Just a few small things. Private things." "Such as?" "I said they were private. Father and son matters. You wouldn't understand." One of the bass players on the stage had the crowd drinking and laughing and dancing and drinking. The older woman with the gap tooth and the flower in her hair was singing now. She had a husky voice that reminded me of Sarah Vaughan. I looked around for a moment. I realized that it hadn't been too hard for the man to find me. Most of the people in here were my father's age. Some, like the bass players, were around my age but most of his fans were older. They were loyal. Sitting there drinking what he drank, eating what he ate and waiting for him to take them back in time. They wanted to get away from people like myself. Young people that didn't appreciate their kind of music anymore and would laugh at them listening to him playing, turning their radios up and pumping more energy into their bands, drowning in the memories of a forgotten era. It would very hard to talk to him on a level where we could find something in common. Suppose then I got mad and said something to him. These people might turn on me. They might take shoes, purses, wigs, and false teeth and beat me. I laughed at the prospect. I was not scared of them, after all. But the man sitting next to me was repeating something that again, I did not hear. "No, I don't think you understand. You got to leave," he said and put his hands on my shoulders and then I reacted. Being in for prison for so long hardened my mind to anything this man wanted from me. I felt the hand clamp down tightly on my shoulder and my fist connected to this side of his face. He staggered back. The crowd moved out of my way. They stood in huddles over by the jukebox. Even the bass players had stopped. Someone pushed a table out of the way so we could get closer to each other. The bartender stood back with his elbows on the back liquor counter. Taxi was screaming epithets at me but I wasn't hearing him. He was calling my name like I had called his name when I first went to prison but we went there anymore. I had been waiting for this moment for a long time. But my moment was being ruined by this man that was blocking my path. He responded to my fist with a big, sloppy grin on his face that revealed several missing teeth. His face was not bleeding but his cheeks were a puffy, red color. He came straight at me but the man was running harder than I expected because he knocked me into a wall and several photographs fell to the floor. A picture of my father and Charlie "Bird" Parker fell to the ground and the frame shattered into a million pieces. I heard someone groan, "Oh, no!" Another woman, this time, young but not quite as attractive, came over to the broken photograph with a broom and dustpan. She dusted off the photograph and placed it to the side before beginning to sweep up the mess that I had made. I bounced quickly off the wall and came at him. I placed his head in a head lock and squeezed tight. The man winced out in pain. By now, Taxi had exited the stage. I could tell by the look on his face that if he had been twenty years younger, he would have came at me. I didn't care. I still wanted him to come after me so I could break his hands again. Then, I thought I would come after him anyway because I hated him. I hated him so much that I tried to pull the man in the headlock towards the stage. I wanted us to fight up there and knock everything over. However, someone gave the man a boost. A glass bottle went upside my head and I winced out in pain. I had been thrown into the lion's den and there was no rope, no harness, nothing for me to grab onto and pull myself away. My body was bent; I was stooped over. He elbowed me with his knee and I was knocked back onto a table. He was coming at me again too quickly and I didn't have time to react. I grabbed a bowl of peanuts and threw the bowl in his face. He caught one, held it up for the crowd in a mocking manner and then ate it. They laughed and clapped and while he was grinning at them, I rammed into him and knocked him partially on the stage. There weren't any musical instruments on the stage except for the piano. I lunged for him again. We rolled around on the stage, biting, hitting and kicking each other. Again, someone came from behind and broke another glass bottle upside my head. I turned around again to see who would not let me finish the fight. Several men stood off to the side but they all had a look of innocence and awe on their faces. Besides,I knew that none of them was brave enough to come after me. They just looked on, edging the man on with fighting words, cursing words and misguided taunts. I saw my father watching out of the corner of his eyes; he was also on the man's side and not mine. But then I felt the man grab me from behind, just as I was feeling the sharp pain on my head. He threw me across the table, which split in two. My back now was in severe pain and I was losing the battle. I was not afraid of him but I stayed on the ground a second too long. I could not think clearly. The broken bottle upside my head had weakened my senses. He kicked me several times and shouted at me to get up. I was still on the ground. My father, with a look of victory in his face, was laughing at me with the other men. I wanted to stay on the ground and rest but then I knew my father would never respect me. I would not respect myself so I stuck my foot out and tripped the man. He fell into a table of empty beer bottles. There was a look of surprise on his face. I pushed against some broken glass and my hands bled as I staggered off the ground. We lunged toward each other again. I began chocking him and he began chocking me. His powerful muscles bulged with the hatred of my father behind it. A man that I had done nothing wrong to except been born and gotten in his way. My muscles ached with the memory of my mother, whose face I could still remember years later. The pull between us threw sweat in every which direction. It was so electrifying that we began to sink to the ground. Each one of us hoped that we would outlast the other. I pulled with all of my might. I put everything I had into bringing him down. I must have been chocking a little bit harder than he was to me for he then began digging his fingernail into my eye. I screamed out in pain as my eyes began to tear. I felt I was being tickled and punished at the same time. The man laughed again and breathed a sigh of relief. In a moment, I would be weak to the point where I would be at his mercy. I knew then that this man, once worked up, might not stop until he killed me. With that, in one swift movement, my left hand became a single grip around his neck and my other hand, the right one, fell down into between his legs and grabbed him there and twisted it. The man screamed out in pain; his hand instinctively dropped down to protect himself. I stood up with my hand still around his throat. I was prepared to squeeze the life out of him. I was thinking though that I would go back to jail and since the crime was being committed in New York, I would go back to jail here in New York and then I thought about the idea, the prospect of dying here in New York and I didn't want that. But before I could react, I felt a great pain in my body. It began at the balls of my feet, almost like I was being chained down and traveled up through my legs that jolted like I had been hit by thunder and lightning. The pain was so sharp that I came on myself and I turned to face the stage, less anyone were to see the huge stain seeping through my light brown pants. I roared as a lion being defeated might do so, only I was no animal but something beastly inside of me was being tamed in an uncouth manner. Who had done me wrong? I turned around. My father had brought down a heavy, metal object on my head. It was in his hand. Everyone began to spin in tilting circles in front of me. I remembered then when my body was spinning in that nightclub how as a small child she used to take me out to Belle Isle Park, an island surrounded by the Detroit River with flowers, a bean-bag giant slide and picnic tables. The pigeons liked to be fed but we didn't have any bird seed to feed them, we couldn't afford it so instead we always stopped at the store and bought a cheap loaf of bread. As I lay there on the floor, my mouth watered as that was what I had a taste for: bread. But not the cheap kind we got from the store but the fresh, sourdough kind we got from the bakery or egg bread that an older, Jewish man named Mr. Katz used to sell out of his store and sometimes gave to us for free. I coughed up blood that spewed everywhere. My jaw felt light and I wondered if all of my teeth were there except for one on the side. I had not lost this particular fight. I just stayed down on the ground and pretended that he had gotten the best of me. I remembered then how years ago, I had lost a fight and pretended to be a dead dog in the lion's den, only now I was the lion, trapped inside a cage with this man, who was an animal trainer and trying to beat or scare me half to death. I felt my hands around looking an object, something I could use to protect myself. I saw a piece of broken glass on the floor. It was covered in blood and my hands were already cut but it would do. I reached for it and a heavy boot clamped down on my hand, crushing it on top of more tiny glass crystals. I yelled out in pain. The man's heavy boot moved away; my father stooped down on his knees to speak to me. "You are foolish; don't know you that, boy? Why are you bothering me after all of these years? Why can't you leave me, alone? Huh?" he said, throwing chairs every which way. A young woman in a white blouse and short black mini-skirt walked up to him, handing a drink that he must have ordered awhile ago. He took one sip, the liquid slightly oozing down his dry, brown lips and shook his head no. He turned around again. Bent down next to me. He whispered to me again, "Why are you bothering me? Why can't an old man just die alone? And in peace?" The other man pulled my limp body off the ground. My father punched me in the stomach. And now, with myself barely hanging on, I realized with my father and this man standing over me, that I was no longer a young man. I could feel the lines of worry growing on my forehead. I wanted to fight back but I couldn't. I didn't have my trusty knife on me. Prison had taught me to use my hands and not use weapons to defend myself. But I didn't know how I could beat the two of them, when there was just one of me? My head was throbbing by now; I actually longed to go back to a familiar and safe place: prison. It was not the first time that someone had fought dirty and it was not the first time that someone not looked out for me. I saw a vision then of my mother. She was standing in a doorway. I was either a small child or I could not reach her. My hands wanted to grab onto her, something to pull myself up. She said something to me but I couldn't hear her. She closed the door then on me. I had not seen her in years and wondered then why she was appearing before now, only to close the door on my face. I stood there trying to open that empty door but there wasn't a doorknob that I could reach and hold and grab onto. Of course, that vision of her then was a reminder of the very first time that I had been taken away from her as a small child. I did not remember my mother. But I had a picture, though. The woman that took care of me, Miss Cecil yanked my arm and pulled me over to where the picture was. She pointed at the picture and said, "Mama. This is your mother, child." She eventually gave that picture to me and for a long time, it was the only possession I had. That picture of my mother told me nothing about her life. I could see her standing on a stage, holding a microphone with the same care that I hoped she had cared for me when I was first born. I used to talk to the picture, especially on the days when Miss Cecil was mean to me and I wanted to cry. I asked her when she was coming but there was never a response. I was found on Miss Cecil's doorstep when I was five years old. A note attached to my Sunday coat. The note said that she would return for me in a few years. I found this out when I was fourteen years old. On that birthday, instead of asking for new clothes or candy like the other boys, I asked for a calendar to mark the days off. As the days narrowed down, the excitement in me led to a behavior that I recall now as arrogance. I just knew that when my mother came, she would not tolerate Miss Cecil's meanness toward me and how she had even made me cry many times over the years but from my first recollection of life, I had always felt different. I was fed, clothed and cared for but I felt different. The house that we lived in was a two-family flat near Allendale Street. We lived on the bottom half and the other family lived on the top half. I used to stare at them, especially the mother. I used to wonder about their life, that other family. They had two boys themselves and they took their mother for granted. Those boys would push her away when she tried to hug and kiss them. Miss Cecil did not believe in hugging, kissing or even bedtime stories. I often waited until after the other boys were asleep and then I made up stories, while staring out the window. Sometimes, I pretended that the woman upstairs with the unruly boys was my own mother but that she just didn't know it. That someone had perhaps switched us at birth and that one of their unruly boys really belonged here with Miss Cecil and I belonged there. Miss Cecil's home was not big enough for all of us. She wouldn't let us go into the living room, dining room or the kitchen unless we were eating. We were forced then to stay in our rooms. Even outside, the backyard belonged to the other family because they owned the home and if we wanted to go outside, we had to go to the park over at the elementary school a few blocks away. We were to go to the park as a group but the other boys often went without me, not even inviting me along. I was so traumatized when I was taken from my mother that I did not speak for the first three years that I lived with Miss Cecil and even afterwards, only 'yes' and 'no' answers. Miss Cecil put her hands on me to give me baths and I refused to allow myself to enjoy her touches, particularly her hugging me as a small child. I fell asleep, crying my eyes out and woke up, saddened that the room was still dark and I was in a place where I didn't belong. I often awoke to find the three boys gone to the park, with just myself and Miss Cecil at the house. I started on my chores but I never did their chores for them, no matter how much they promised me that if I did, they'd be my friend. I shared bunk beds with one of the boys. He, like the others, ignored me as much as possible. I was the outcast in the house. Even Miss Cecil was harder on me than the other boys were. She gave them extra playtime outside, especially during the summer, while she made me come inside. As I got older, I realize now that she was growing more fearful of me with each day passing. Nonetheless, living with Miss Cecil had actually had some pleasant moments. The other boys took turns hiding in her bedroom closet in order to watch her undress. They did it less for excitement and more for curiosity because she said she did not want any of us disturbing her while she changed. The other boys called me names because of this but I enjoyed being close to Miss Cecil. What I really wanted was to hear her speak my mother's name. I wanted the moment to be accidental but have my mother's name linger long enough in the air to formulate sounds and then letters and then a complete name in my mind. I wanted to look her face and know that I came from somewhere. I wanted her to wipe the spit I would hurl into her face away with a handkerchief. When I looked in the mirror, I saw a ghost that I could not escape from. I branded myself then with a knife. I thought if something were to happen to me, at least she would be able to identify myself but the blood trickled too fast and the knife went too deep and was too sharp to form the nice, neat image I had in my mind. I saw the way Miss Cecil responded to the other boys and to me. I could not understand what I had done wrong. It would not be until years later during a conversation with my own mother that I would come to understand the truth. Despite her harsh feelings to me, though, I thought she was beautiful with her rosy cheeks, soft skin and amble warmth. Every once in a while, she even let me climb into her lap and comb her hair with a brush. I loved the feel of her gray, silky hair in between my yellow fingers. It seemed like when she was sitting in a chair, allowing me to comb her hair, the world stopped for a moment. After that, I began to look forward to those hair-brushing sessions. She usually had the radio on, and even the singer on the radio held his note a little bit longer. Miss Cecil seemed relaxed and I thought she almost liked me. She had a beautiful singing voice and I couldn't understand why she never pursued a professional career and I still wondered why every time I heard her sing. Miss Cecil hummed along with the music. She knew the words so well that sometimes she would continue to hum long after the song ended and I was finished brushing her hair and the radio was silent. One night, I even began to hum along with the singer on the radio. I could feel something inside of me growing each time I opened my mouth. A natural instinct took over me and I began to sing. My voice rose softly and Miss Cecil's eyes closed. I had heard the song on the radio before and I didn't know all of the words. But I continued singing because I could think of nothing else. With Miss Cecil listening, I gave my first performance. I longed for her to applaud, for some encouragement, something to convince me to continue. I needed her to guide me towards a point where I could call out to my mother, even though I knew my mother would never answer. My voice was shaky with those first few bars but I hoped that I had touched a nerve in Miss Cecil and we would finally connect to one another. I sang to the best of my ability and found that the entire house stopped to hear me. I didn't know where my voice came from but it was there. Towards the end, I tried to hit the high note like the singer on the radio but then something in the back of my throat tickled me and I felt my voice crack. I couldn't reach that high but I did see the other boys standing behind the stairwell, quiet and listening. They were looking toward Miss Cecil to see what her reaction would be. I saw a look of amazement on her face. She looked down at me and smiled. It was the one and only time that she would have anything positive to say about me. "You've been holding out on me, boy, haven't you?" I shrugged my shoulders. I didn't know quite what to say. I looked down toward my feet where an ant was trying to make its way up my pant leg. I shook it off and continued to look down at the floor. She lifted my face and said, "Well, we are just going to have to get you ready for the upcoming talent show." I didn't say anything but I felt a growing uneasiness. That was the first time I recognized that I had a voice. I didn't know where it came from or how to control it. I didn't know how long it was going to last. I realized, in that moment, that I was afraid of the future. I didn't know quite what to expect and the expectation that Miss Cecil was going to expect from me numbed me until I could not move in that chair. I was petrified. At that age, I was the child that sat in the back of the classroom, who ate lunch by himself under the shade tree and mostly played alone. I didn't know what was wrong with me. At first, I thought it was because of my skin but it was more than that. I was an orphan but then again, so were the other boys. It was something else but what I didn't know. I started to walk away then but Miss Cecil showed her other side, her true side. She grabbed my arm. "I asked you a question: Are you ready? Are you ready for this talent show that I'm about to enter you in. I don't want anyone to embarrass me, understood?" I nodded my head yes, even though I really wasn't ready. I was afraid then of her fat fingers and razor-sharp fingernails. I looked back at the other boys. They were hiding on the stairwell now. They were not laughing at me but they don't cry out in protest either. That day, a part of my childhood slipped away and that night, I slipped under the covers and cried myself to sleep. I awoke the next day to the sound of the other boys outside playing. I knew they would not play with me but I wanted to go outside. I could smell something boiling on the stove. It was probably Miss Cecil's tea and the oatmeal she prepared for us each morning. I was required to wash up before going downstairs. During the summertime, Miss Cecil allowed us to go outside to play while she stayed in the house. On this particular day, I could feel a growing anxiousness to get away from everyone. I bathed quickly and threw on my play clothes. I debated climbing out her bedroom window because there was a tree right next to it but then I thought of what might happen if she came upstairs. I decided against it, knowing that she might punish me by making me stay inside the house. I didn't know what was wrong with me. On most days, I ran down the stairs, grabbed my baseball cap by the coat rack and went out the house but on this day, I tookmy time going down the stairs. Only once did I suspect that she might have heard my footfalls on the steps but I didn't hear her call out to me as she normally did. I felt my hand on the brass doorknob and I could feel her eyes in the back of my neck. On the wall to my right was a country wooden telephone shaped like a face with eyes that rang like cymbals and a round mouth that dialed to any destination in the world. The telephone I was accustomed to being afraid of but I looked at it and realized that it too didn't have control of the sounds that came from within. Then, I heard her voice. "Where are you going?" I understood now why sometimes at night, she would drink sherry and play the same records over and over again. She never wanted them to end because ending those songs meant moving on and going back to reality, which I desperately, in that hallway, wanted to escape. I asked Miss Cecil if I could go outside to play and she said no. I asked her why I could not and she said it was because I needed to prepare for the talent show. There was a first place prize of five hundred dollars. I did not know then how much that was but by the look on her face, I knew it was a lot of money. I didn't understand at the time why this was more important than playing outside. Not even the voice inside me brought as much joy as I felt when I was free. Being outdoors allowed me to escape and dream in my own world. There were so many places in the neighborhood where I could hide away from everyone and play alone. Instead, I was standing in a black-and-white kitchen with Formica countertops and spinning chairs. I saw Miss Cecil reach into a drawer and pull out a microphone. She sat there in her housedress and rollers, sipping tea from a coffee cup. I saw The Michigan Chronicle in her lap. Her teeth were slightly yellow from all of the tea she drank. I didn't know if she had been out last night, as I sometimes heard her sneaking out right at dusk, right when we went to bed and not coming home until right before sunlight but her makeup was slightly smeared like she had a lot on her mind but she was happy. I didn't understand the look on her face so I looked down at the equipment, not sure what to do with it. The look of confusion on my face caused her to grab the microphone from me. "Today, you are going to practice singing for the talent show." "But I don't want to. I want to go outside and play!" "Play? Play for what? You see them out there," she walked over to me, pulled me gently off of my chair and took me over to the back window. I watched them playing jacks on the sidewalk next to the backyard. I nodded my head yes. "They are going to grow up to be just like their mamas and daddies. They are going to be low-lifes. You, on the other hand, could make Miss Cecil a lot of money. Enough to help me out," she looked down at me and winked. I wanted to say something else but my mouth felt dry. I could not find any more words to say. In the meantime, she had placed the microphone on the counter, which I picked up to hold in my hands. It felt foreign, black, and heavy but I knew if I treated it right, it would be more of a friend to me than anyone else I had met as of that day. I saw her then, looking at me for the very first time with a content smile. "All this time . . ." her voice trailed off. The sun was out but it was not hot that day. The boys were throwing down jacks and catching bouncing balls. I felt her words bounce off of me and linger in the air. How long had I had this voice? Where did it comefrom? I realized then that it was more than my skin that separated me from the others. We had one thing in common, though: We were at Miss Cecil's house because no one else wanted us. I wondered then: Did my parents know that I had this voice? Perhaps they had voices like me. Looking back on that moment, I realized then that I was different from all of them, including Miss Cecil. She wanted to use me and though my young mind told me to go along with whatever she said at the time due to my fear of what she might do to me, I realized later on as a teenager that I had taken that opportunity for my own selfish reasons: to find my mother. That decision I later regretted. As a child, my mind only believed in emotion and not reason. I had been taught in school to differentiate between the two but I didn't that year. Instead, I would open my mouth like a puppet and do what I was told but little did I know that the puppet inside me was being guided by emotion and not reason. I began to sing. I closed my eyes and pictured myself rowing a boat. I could feel waves crashing down all around me. A shark or two almost knocked my boat over. I grabbed onto my oars with both hands and tried to stir away from the thunderstorm. The harder I rowed, the closer I felt myself moving toward the lightning. My face was wet and I couldn't tell if it was due to the rain coming down or tears from God himself. I was a grown man with my eyes closed. My long eyelashes kept my grown self from seeing the child who was controlling the dream. I told him to stand up, not to run away but to wait for me. He stood and began beating his chest. He screamed, "I am a man," over and over again but no one was listening. No one cared. I could see the shark coming back for him. I cried out for him to turn around but the thunderstorm drowned me out. He was still standing in the boat, waiting for danger. As he tore his shirt to free his body, the shark knocked him over into the blue-green waters. I opened my eyes. I realized that my face was wet and my throat was sore. She plastered a fake smile on her face. She thought my tears were for her but they were for me. I knew I had done a terrible job. In my own heart, I could feel the satisfaction that my voice wasn't too good. I knew that the other boys regarded me with skepticism and I didn't want those feelings to turn towards jealously. "That's alright. We don't have a lot of time to get you ready. We'll practice, practice, practice until you're ready," she turned around and poured herself another cup of tea. "When we're done practicing, can I go out and play?" I looked toward the window. The other boys were now out in the street, playing football. I knew that Miss Cecil's next-door neighbors were out-of-town, as they were frequently, and I wanted to go climb into their tree to watch the boys play. Once, the man of that home had come home early for lunch and had seen me way up in the tree. He had asked me if the squirrels bothered me. I remembered only shaking my head no. He was glad because he couldn't stand them either. He said that all that they did was dig holes in his yard. He opened the trunk of his car, a 1956 Nash and pulled out his lunch pail. The man tipped his hat to me and went into his house. I was scared that evening to go home because I was afraid that he might have said something to Miss Cecil but if he did, she did not say anything to me. "Go outside? No, we need to stay in and practice. Miss Cecil picked out the perfect song for you to sing." Miss Cecil pulled the curtain closed and turned my body to face her. I could see the stars in her eyes and somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that we eventually were going to disappoint each other but then she asked me to sing and I had to put my growing uneasiness into the back of my mind. Miss Cecil wanted me to sing. She wanted to hear what I sounded like without music. I began by opening my mouth. At the first sound that escaped from me, I sounded breathless and shaky. I tried to steady my voice but my hands felt clammy and cold. I could feel the power inside of me growing weaker. Miss Cecil's face went from satisfaction to contempt in a matter of seconds. She turned her face away from mine and looked down at her fingernails. I guess she thought if she looked away, I might sing better. I could feel my voice getting a little stronger but not enough to please her. I stopped. I shouted that I could not do it. My face was turning red and tears were streaming down my eyes. I hoped that by throwing this fit that Miss Cecil would see that my heart was not into it and would excuse me but she did no such thing. She came over to me and I thought she was going to hug me but instead, she slapped me. She called me all kinds of names. She said that I was going to turn out like the other boys and then she removed something from her pocket. She asked me if I had drawn the paper-constructed picture. I replied with a simple yes. It was a picture of my mother and me. We were standing on the beach in swimsuits. I had drawn our names at the top in my very best handwriting. She told me that she didn't think my mother would want to meet me, knowing that I could not sing and that I was not earning my keep around the house. Miss Cecil then threatened to send me back to where I came from, though I did not know where that place was. After all, since I could remember, she had reminded me that my mother had left me on her doorstep and she had rescued me. I told her then that I was wrong, that I needed to practice, even though I knew I was lying to her. She nodded her head in agreement and smiled at her little victory. She closed the curtains and turned my body so that I was no longer facing the outdoors. I could not see what the boys were doing outside. I longed to escape from my body. I just wanted to be a child and run outside and play. Miss Cecil placed sheet music in my hand. There were words to a song that I was not familiar with. She placed them in my hand and told me that I was to memorize them. For every sentence she gave me, I was to write it down on a piece of paper. She said that writing things down would help me to remember them. I was to carry that piece of paper everywhere I went in my pocket. That piece of paper was my meal ticket. If I came downstairs for breakfast, lunch or dinner and did not know those words or worse, I had lost that piece of paper, I was to march back upstairs, grab another piece of paper and rewrite the words ten times over until they were firmly in my head again. I looked around the room. I hadn't noticed that Miss Cecil had placed a big, giant brown vase on top of a wooden table with a green stain peeking out from under the white, shag carpet. Then, it dawned on me: We were house poor. I looked down at my black pants. There was a hole in the pants knee from a neighborhood baseball game. Miss Cecil had sewn the hole from the pants together with an off-black pouch of fabric. The difference in the two colors was only immediately noticeable to the two of us. She said then that I was the kind of child that would make my parents proud. That if I worked hard enough, I might very well get on television. They would see me and come for me but that would not happen for many years. I didn't realize then how much more other people expected of me than I expected from myself. I personally did not care one way or the other how I performed but Miss Cecil reminded me that one could never be sure of who might be in a singer's audience. She left me then with that image stuck in my mind. She told me to go upstairs and rest my voice while she prepared dinner. The other boys were just coming in now. Usually, whichever one of us had to stay inside due to a punishment, the rest of us laughed and teased whoever was in trouble, including me and I loved joining with them, especially when the troublemaker was not me. But other than that, the boys chose not to bother me. I guess they could tell by the look on my face that I could kill one of them and continue to sing all at the same time. I made my way up the stairs. I could hear their whispers to each other, and finally to Miss Cecil to ask what was wrong with them? I wondered if she told them that I was leaving to go to a new home, would they even care? She told them that I was preparing for a talent show. Their snickers of laughter drowned out the train whistle I could hear in my head. I heard their footfalls on the steps and then they entered the room we shared. I had been given a cot to sleep on in the corner while they slept in twin bunk beds on the other side of the room. They came in the room and ignored me. I could have annoyed them by shouting at the top of my voice and ruining it but then where would I be? I had no other place to go, no other family to turn to. I began to sing. I wanted them to look at me. I wanted every person in the world, in my audience to look at me. I imagined I was up on stage and everyone whom I loved and hated was in the audience. They were all looking at me except for one woman in the back whom I was imagining as refusing to give me eye contact. She started to leave until she heard me singing, and then she knew. My voice started off softly at first. I was shy about this newfound weapon of mine. I began to pick up my voice. I wanted Miss Cecil to turn the radio off downstairs. I wanted the other boys to stop flipping through those movie magazines and pay attention to me. I tried to steady my voice but it wasn't easy. I could feel myself shaking; my sweaty hands I wiped on my pants. I could see one of the boys tapping his foot against the bed. The other two pretended to ignore me at first and I got louder. I felt joy inside me. There was a growing anxiousness in between my legs and the harder I sang, the bigger I could feel myself growing. My face began to sweat and my mouth was dry. They were still turned away from me but they were listening to the words. I began to concentrate on them paying attention to me and then I began to forget the words. I stumbled where I should have soared. I watched them get up and leave then. It was like being at a movie where the movie just couldn't seem to come together. The older two boys decided then that they would rather go outside and play than to stay there and listen to me sing. One of them whispered to the other two, loud enough for me to hear, "He's a joke." He said this just as I was about to hit a high note. I still tried to reach for it but I could feel the sound of the word 'joke' in my brain and then in my throat. My voice cracked. I tried to continue on as I had once seen a singer do on television but the moment was gone. I was standing on the stage and someone had thrown an egg at people and me were leaving, not impressed with my performance. I trailed off the last note and stopped. The last of the other boys turned and looked at me briefly. I thought he forgave me for my bad performance but he quickly looked away. I had failed myself. I wondered then if my parents had ever been in this situation. I wanted to ask the other boys how might I escape this punishment but then, I wasn't sure that I could trust them. I wanted to cry out to them to listen to me but then I thought they might think that I was weak and then use that against me. They already resented me because of my skin but what they failed to realize was that I resented them also. I resented their friendships with the other children and their lack of supposed talent. I chose then to spend the rest of the afternoon looking out the window. I wondered where my parents were, why my mother had left me here for so long, and why she had not come back for me? I supposed that the life she wanted to live was glamorous and did not include me. I began to cry then, feeling sorry for myself. As the tears came down, my voice came out, the right way. It was funny to me how a sense of sadness was what I needed to sound right. I found myself not focused on what people thought of me but what I felt. I tried to hold onto that feeling but I found I couldn't control it and then even my sobbing was uneven. My voice wailed so loudly, I thought the walls were going to shake. I shook uncontrollably but then my shaking caused my body temperature to rise. I could feel the heat on my eyes, nose, lips, tongue, ears, hair, chest, stomach, legs and even my ankles. I could not feel it on my back though. I felt the steam rising from my face that refused to turn the other cheek. I looked around the room. This was not my bedroom. I shared this room with three other boys. I slept on a cot near the window they liked to leave open at nighttime. No wonder, I thought, that my voice could not hit those high notes. I went to clear my throat but it was raspy. I could feel my body about to give out so I went to lie down on my cot but the cot was cold and hard. I didn't want to lie there. The other boys shared the bunk beds. When I had first come to live with Miss Cecil, they had been a few years older than me and I was small for my age. I wet the bed, then, and had asked Miss Cecil for a cot because I didn't want them to know that I wet my sheets but now, I regretted that decision because it made me lonely. I looked out the window. The boys were down the street playing marbles for pennies. This was a regular occurrence for them. Since Miss Cecil would not give us money for any reason, the boys often turned to playing games to earn money to buy candy. I knew that it would be a couple of hours before they came inside. I walked out of the bedroom and to the top of the stairs. I could hear Miss Cecil's voice carrying on. I went back into the bedroom. At first, I thought to lie down on my cot but then I changed my mind and decided instead to lie down on one of their beds. It felt soft and warm. I had only stopped wetting the bed last year but had decided to continue sleeping in my cot. Besides, the only available bunk bed was the top one and whichever boy slept on the bottom feared that my wetness might leak through the bunk bed to the bottom. I had suggested once that they let me sleep on the bottom but then the boys said that whoever slept across from me was going to have to look at my ugly face. I didn't think that my face was that bad to look at but I didn't want to argue with them, for surely this might lead to a three-to-one fight that I could not win. I put my head back on the pillow and looked down on the floor for a moment. Miss Cecil's house depended on the old, hardwood floors for character. I rationalized in my mind that if they came in, I could hear them on the steps. The sun faded away behind our neighbor's evergreen. I watched the sunset through the window facing the bed. Soon it would be suppertime and then after that, Miss Cecil would allow us to watch a little television as long as it was in the living room and with her present. However, that would not happen for another few hours so I turned over onto my stomach. I had left the window open and I could hear the sounds of laughter outside. I smelled fresh-cut grass, smoked hamburgers and a very light scent that reminded me of the gardenia perfume that Miss Cecil often wore. I wanted to be outdoors but I knew that it would be impossible for me to go out the front door. Miss Cecil probably assumed that I was up here practicing but I had tired of that a while ago. I longed to be free like the other boys, outside, exploring the world. I knew then that I could risk going down the tree, which had a huge, steady branch that reached from Miss Cecil's bedroom window to the backyard. Even if she was in the kitchen, the kitchen was so small that usually when she was cooking and talking on the telephone, she sat in the dining room, facing away from the window. I walked over to the edge of the stairs. Miss Cecil's voice floated up the stairs, a melody without pause on the telephone and by the tone of her voice, which was soft and patient; I knew that she would be talking to the other person for a very long while. I went down the hallway to open the bedroom door but it was locked. I had seen one of the other boys pick a lock before. I walked back up the hallway into the bathroom and opened the cabinet. I looked around until I found an old screwdriver behind some cotton balls. I went out of the bathroom and listened at the top of the stairs. The faint smell of English tea threatened to intoxicate me but I came to my senses. I tiptoed back to her bedroom. My fingers went over the lock and played with it until I heard a popping noise and the lock came off. I realized then that in all the time that I had lived there; I had never seen her room before. Every night when I was sleeping, I heard her downstairs drinking tea and sometimes early in the morning when I awoke. I never heard her moving around in her bedroom and when I went in there, I suspected that she probably never spent a lot of time in there. For one, the room was a hot pink color that could have easily blinded me if the sun had been brighter. Her queen-size mahogany bed was covered with a pink comforter and matching shams. The bed had so many pillows, it was impossible to climb up there without knocking it down. Facing the bed was a chest of drawers and over that, a hand-painted portrait of a young woman. The woman had porcelain skin that was smooth like chocolate butter and an expression of sorrow and loss but it was not the face that told me I was staring at Miss Cecil. No, I saw her layered personality through her eyes that were dark and old before they needed to be. She had a rare eye color: black but like a lot of black people, they had gotten lighter over time. Now, they were almost the exact same color of her hair: grey. Her half-smile in the portrait scared me. Who was this person in front of me? I looked down at the objects on top of the chest of drawers: blue rhinestone earrings, a pearl necklace, a tube of lipstick, a half-eaten plain donut, another bag of tea, a yard of white lace. I opened her top drawer and touched her panties. They felt new and silky. I could feel a rise in myself in between my legs. The longer I touched her panties, the harder I became. I needed then to steal a pair, to keep for myself. The other boys had a magazine that they looked at. Once, when they were outside and I was pretending to be sick to escape my chores, I had walked over to the top bunk and lifted it to look at the women in the magazine. The other boys had said there was something wrong with me because I wasn't even interested then at looking at the pictures. I called my own self in question over it but now, I understood the problem. The women in the magazine were small breasted and wore too much makeup. They looked more like dolls than women. I would feel differently about them, as I got older. One year I would accept any woman who would have me and be grateful and call her names that I didn't really mean but when I was eleven years old, I lived in a different world. Miss Cecil, in a world by herself, existed as a black Mona Lisa, regal yet stern. The painter had gone to great pains to articulate and define her, letting her natural beauty fill in for the paint colors he could have used. It would not be until much later that I finally was able to understand that I was attracted to older women. That year, the queen of small breasts had her crown stolen from her and as she would cry on television with her makeup streaming down her face, I realized then how unreal pictures really were. Here stood before me a woman that most people would never see. Miss Cecil hardly ever had visitors other than neighbors and no one came upstairs except us. The shag carpet smelled of citrus oranges and I looked down to make sure that I could still smell the scent after my foot touched a certain spot. But then, I heard footfalls coming toward me. I panicked. Due to the hardwood on the stairs, I couldn't decide if the foot was male or female, I had never really paid attention to the sound of Miss Cecil moving up the stairs. She always used the half-bath on the first floor and rarely came downstairs during the day. I didn't know where to turn, so I opened the closet door and hid inside. I left the door closed but not shut because there was no knob on the inside and I didn't want to be trapped. Miss Cecil had a huge walk-in closet with blue jeans, sweaters, a swing skirt with the top missing, housedresses of every color, a pair of white corseted gloves, an old pair of two-tone buck shoes and endless boxes with more of her belongings. The sweat dripping from my forehead fell down onto the hardwood floor and made a small stain. I hid behind one of her dresses as I heard her enter the room. There were dust particles in the air and I forced myself to hold my nose to prevent me from sneezing. I could hear her sniffing the air and felt her standing in one spot for a second too long. "Who's in here?" she asked the air inside the room. I said nothing. I placed my hand over my head. I was scared that she might come in and see me hiding behind the lock. I saw a huge pile of dirty white wedding gowns on the floor next to an open trunk. Many years later, I found out that she masqueraded as a seamstress and made them by hand. The big pile covered almost a fourth of the closet. I could hide underneath them and pray that she would not find me. I knew that in the spot I was in that I could not very well hide my body. I came out slowly from behind the dress. The sound of laughter, the smell of gin and the throbbing of a very loud radio permeated the room. I hoped that she was distracted long enough not hear me moving around. I took off my shoes and tiptoed over to the pile. I buried myself underneath the dresses, curled up into a ball and hid my shoes behind the trunk. As soon as I did this, I heard the closet door open. Miss Cecil came in. The magic words again: "I said, who is in here?" She looked around the closet briefly and then she did the unimaginable: she locked the door from the outside, trapping me in the closet with an increasingly strange odor of musk. My heart sank and I could feel the weight of the wedding gowns on top of me. Part of me wanted to scream out but in this room of old dresses with one dirt-covered window that probably never had been cleaned off and couldn't be opened unless I broke it with my bare hands. Another part of me wanted to break down the door and scream at her for locking me in there. I came out from under the wedding gowns. I walked over to the window and looked out. Through the dirt marks, I saw the other boys from the house playing touch football with a couple of other boys. Miss Cecil, who rarely went anywhere, was speaking to them. I couldn't hear what she asked them but I saw one of them shrug his shoulders. I assumed then that the question was about me. She turned back and looked again at the house. I saw her staring up at the attic window where I was at and for a moment, I thought she saw me but if she did, she climbed into her car, a 1958 Chevrolet Bel Air and drove off. My nose began to bleed. It ran down onto my lips and I wiped it away with my hand. I kicked over some boxes and slumped into a corner. The temperature of the room began to rise and the weight of panic threatened to overwhelm me. My body slid to the floor, paralyzed and stiff. I opened my mouth to shout out for help but nothing came out. The sun was beginning to go down. Was this it for me? Miss Cecil's bedroom was all the way down the hallway on the far right. I cursed her, convinced that she deliberately placed her room far away to escape from civilization when she needed to but then I rationalized, when did she ever have visitors other than neighbors? The telephone calls she received were always private and kept her talking into the wee hours of the night but never did I discover their identity nor did those callers ever come over. The kitchen, a home away from home, allowed her to live an entirely different world. A world where a woman could leave her home with boy children running through the streets, finding their salvation out there and me, in this closet, alone. Anger rose through me quicker than the lightning rod of God. I walked back over to the window. I could see our neighbor next door pulling into the driveway with his Ford. I banged on the window as he got out of the car. He turned toward me in a gray fedora hat with a wool jacket and his trademark hanky, an open neck dark blue shirt, black pleated pants and wingtip dress shoes. He nodded his hat towards me and proceeded towards his house. My fists banged on the window as I tried to get his attention. He shook his head, as if I was a child with too much time on my hands. I recalled then that he and his wife did not have children, at least not yet. They were in their own world where the movements of crickets provided their only source of annoyance. I knew then that Miss Cecil had seen me and in her anger, had left the house. I turned around and faced the pile of wedding gowns. I sank down in them and began to cry again.