Black History Month Special Issue Fiction Runner-up: “Mama Diaspora” & “Help! I’m Fine”

Mama Diaspora

For an afternoon, Georgie offered me friendship and $50 dollars’ worth of Kanekalon jumbo, included in the box style. Braiding hair, silk-soft and crimped, blackest at the tips. I took her offers, because I wanted a friend and saved enough money to buy a new version of myself that month.

Georgie’s salon was in the living room of her apartment in Fort Monroe; she lived alone. She looked like me, Black and huge-eyed, except she was better—taller and glowing; all her glowing was blindingly unachievable. She clicked her tongue when she dipped her hands into my massive hair, told me I let my coils tangle too-badly. Her oiled fingers worked my knots until they sprung loose. When she unraveled the clumps to lanky root, she said, “This isn’t all bad. But you’ve got to take care of what you own, what is attached to you.”  

She washed the life-gunk from my curls, then washed again, air-dried it, combed it out. With a comb tip, she divided the hair into four squares that looked like quilt-blocks. To hold the braid, she weaved in that Kanekalon, the sort that fit my texture different, reminding me nothing fake will truly fit. Georgie braided the three strands, one-two-three, one-two-three. I felt all this looping and threading and overlapping but couldn’t see the job being done. Her work was fast and sharp, but my head, in all its red throbbing, felt all right, like it was loosing itself from something. With every finished braid, with every thin river of scalp exposed, there was roughness, then relief. This pull and twist, under Georgie’s hands, felt necessary, like passed-down power. When Georgie saw me wince, she told the back of my head, “This is your process. Just how it goes.”

Georgie kept going, and my chair got hot from Virginia sunrays slamming through the window. Her phone was ringing, and she ignored it. She asked me about my life, and I told her it was small, Black and normal, now. That I lived on many islands, lost my parents and lovers during several squalls, but I knew how to survive. I told her I’d taken well to living alone. She said, “That’s the way it goes, how it goes,” and we traded platitudes, angrily,— que sera sera, life goes on and on and on and—-. She saw me wriggling and said, “Hold still. I’m taking care of you. So you can do this yourself,” and I obeyed. 

I asked Georgie how she got her name. She didn’t tell me, but she did tell me about the man called George who stamped his name upon her.  This George ripped my stylist from her green home when she was full-bodied and middle-aged. He wanted her Guinea grains and golds, her sparkling sugars and breadfruits stuffed hot inside of her womb. This George pretended to love her, because he saw how fresh her body was, smelling like damp sand and dewdrops. He decided he wanted to take what she had, nibble on her slow so he plotted how best to snatch her lovely things. One night, George gave her a mixed potion that knocked her out. He took her body into his own, beat  her bad, threw her over his shoulder and swum back to his home with my stylist on his back. He beat her again, then left her to work on his fields. She lived foul, unwillingly committed to the amber lands he’d stolen from another dark woman. My stylist was called wild and unseemly, so like something wild, she bounded from George on another night, she made her own kind of free.

As she told her story, she twisted the three parts of my hair, the plastic myths, the ancestral truths, the unknotted real. She intertwined these strands like she was stitching something into me. I asked her if she thought about George because she had his name, and she said he didn’t matter. She told me George tried to find her, years later, in the wilderness, but he couldn’t, and she lived with others like her. They all hid and fled, hid and fled, and grew older. Years after she’d found a little place to live, liberated, and George showed up and he’d grown enormously in size. He’d gobbled up lots of names, her original one too, that’s why he was so large and tall. He stood in her door and she looked him in the eye while he watched her. Her looking made him mad and he left, promising to bring an army for her, and she said: try. She missed all the parts he took, felt pissed about how big he’d become, but she decided he could never take anything because he was nobody. She could steal his name back, she could become anyone, and still be herself. So she rebirthed herself, and lived all of her lives, looking forward.

I didn’t know what to say. Her body was fresh-smelling and seemed to hold every secret I wanted to know. I was afraid for her, because I knew why someone would hunt her down; she had infinite riches. I asked if her original name was Motherland, or the name of another pillaged country and she said, “Yes. If you see it that way, all those names are mine.”

 She kept braiding, the twisting got tighter, it hurt more and I didn’t know if I wanted to have these braids in anymore because this all hurt so bad, the yanking and tugging, and I wanted to scream or tell her to stop, but I bit my tongue so she could see I was as strong as her real, dark hair. My teeth sunk into my tongue too-deep, and I tasted blood and realized I’d never tasted my own blood; it was sea-salty and foreign and confusing. The pain in my head and mouth got worse, the braids came together even quicker now. She asked me my name, what I was called, and I couldn’t remember.

Georgie said she was willing to share her life now, with any girl or daughter, after what had happened. She told me she knew me before I was born, that I was from a green home too. I told her about my islands, my dead parents whose faces I’d forgotten long ago. I told her about my time with pirates and schemers and merchants, who had stolen things from my womb too. I told her I missed my parents. I told her I didn’t know how to change; I was used to being unrooted. She said, “That’s a privilege. Choosing when to change. Hold still, daughter. Wait, now, right there—-”

 Hours later she finished my hair. The hours didn’t feel that long. They merely stretched on indefinitely into past and future, like a song without a final downbeat. When Georgie was done with my hair, she stepped back and looked at me. She turned me around in the chair and showed me my face in the mirror. The braids looked good, they stretched down my body to my ass, my scalp was exposed for the world to take a peek. I thought I looked lovely and out of place. I shook the heavy hair, didn’t know how it should feel, all I knew is that it felt heavy.

“By the way,” she said to the mirror. “My name’s not Georgie. Not George. Never was. Someone just told you that and you believed it. Here, in this…” She patted my tough, finished braids. “I’ve sewn a map that goes wherever you go.” Then she told me her real name, and I tasted the leftover blood in my mouth. She said her name again, and then mine, and I wept in her apartment, because both names sounded so beautiful together. I’d never heard them before, and I felt pit-deep shame. I told her I was sorry, sorry, for thinking we could be called anything else, that we could make sense in any other tongue but the unspeakable….

She stepped away from me, kept one hand on my shoulder. I gave her two one hundred dollar bills, Ben-face down, and she waved it away like this was the wrong time. She looked at our reflection in the glass and kissed me on the forehead.

We looked back in the mirror, and saw ourselves loving our whole heads. We glowed then; we are glowing still.

Help! I’m Fine

It was the last day of Intro to Clowning, and the juniors were very excited. Under the esteemed Professor Dr. Bartles de Fay, the class had spent their semester jigging around in plump red noses; they’d transformed into common clowns. The class was full of pride before the performance even started. The local news arrived the day of their show, wanted to see what Dr. de Fay had up his moonprint sleeves. The juniors invited their parents, but they didn’t come. That was OK, though, the class thought, because strangers who looked like their grandparents straggled in, and basic freshmen in Basic Acting were forced to watch the show for credit. Still, the class was eager to prove to the world they were Real Clowns.

The juniors’ props were in the center of the basement theater. They’d brought stuff from their dorms: plastic chandelier crystals and fetlock boots, mesh-lined swivelchairs and a Litman stethoscope from Carla’s dad, who was an electrophysiologist. There was a silicone bong, a gnawed notebook, a hand-loomed rug half-eaten by someone’s rabbit. There was an empty morphine bottle, a keyboard sans keys, a sawed-off shotgun, a break-up letter with rainbow pen blotting the receiver’s name. Someone threw in some Oreo packets with the cookies crushed inside, in case the class got hungry or had to pretend to eat. The juniors were dressed up too, but not in typical stereotypical clown attire. They were sophisticated clowns, as Dr. de Fay taught them to be. Clowning, in its highest form, their professor taught them, captures the character in her most innocent and id-projecting self. Not Bozo stuff, not rageful like It, the sophisticated clown wears a simple red nose and exaggerations of the clothes she wants to wear in real-life but can’t. Her simplicity is her strength, de Fay explained. For example, instead of her trademark shearling coat, BeeBee was wearing a polka dotted tee which represents her whimsy and that she likes colorful dots. Dan had on a silver shirt which meant he wanted to soak up the spotlight in clubs, and also that he was a douchebag. Marla, the only Black girl in class, had a veil on her face and sang Negro spirituals beneath the fabric when she walked, which was a pretty good symbol that the class didn’t know how to interpret and reasoned it was because they hadn’t taken that African American studies class yet. Anyway, Professor Bartles de Fay made the class re-arrange all their things in the center of the stage, and when they were ready, they lined up behind the curtain. Tonight, said their dear de Fay, is your opportunity to truly improvise. Your script is your absent script. Tonight, you participate in the primal ritual of profaning the spotless, of showcasing the splitting and aggregation of the self. You, he cried, as the class stretched their college bodies and slapped their faces until they burned, you people, you children, he spat, are the audience and they are you! He screamed at them in his loudest voice, so loud the audience could probably hear him. You are their clowns and they are yours! Yes, to the aporic interpretation of you, to the magnificently carnal simplicity of us! As the class leapt on stage Dr. de Fay screeched: Now go forth and and and and and transmogrify!

The class was very excited because they didn’t understand anything Dr. de Fay was saying, but he made them feel like they were important, for the first time in their lives. When they ran onto the student stage, with the tv-cameras on them, with an older woman watching while she sipped from her Juicy Juice box, with the sophomore cornerback looking at them with zig-zaggy eyes, they knew their importance. They grew and grew in this basement space. After the show started, after the lights came on they’d become Dr. de Fay’s true clowns. They had learned the important art of improvisation. They flipped over the chairs and cursed at them, they tore up the break up letter and ate the crushed Oreos and sat on the sawed off gun. They used the stethoscope to listen to each other’s hearts, and said things like “The heart is dying! It’s working, it’s dying!” They tore off Marla’s veil and laughed at her sucking her teeth, and they said veil veil veil veil. They danced next to Dan’s silver shirt which caught the stage light and blazed their blurry reflection back at them. The juniors grinded on Bee Bee’s polka dotted stomach which they thought represented post-modern amalgams of polka and hip hop, and also they liked to dance because it was fun. As the minutes went by, the more they screamed and cooed, the more the camera got closer to their  faces, and the more they could feel their  clown bodies swelling with pride and swelling and swelling and–

Around halfway through the performance a girl wandered into their basement stage. She wasn’t part of the class. This could have been a trap, the class thought, set by Dr. Bartles de Fay to test their commitment to clowning. Or perhaps she was an audience member, after all, the audience was the actor too. Or she was a student who only showed up to the course for the final, like Johnny had done in American Lit after his Pops drove off that bluff. They couldn’t see this girl all that well because they were still dancing; she was shrouded in shadows. Her whole body reminded them of Marla’s veil. The class were kind people, so they slowed their show. They saw the shadowgirl, tugged her toward them, they brought her into their quickly forming circle. The stage light blared on the shadowgirl but the class still couldn’t see her. She looked confused in their arms, her eyes darting around like the class were predators (wrong!) and this was their challenge, they thought, to love a nervous stranger they couldn’t see. So they circled her, hugged her to show their  audience they were welcoming the unwelcome. She said, “No…Help!” and they said, “We are here!” and she said, “No, real help! I’m not part of this class…” and they said, “I’m not part…I’m not part…” and the class realized the shadowgirl was giving them a metaphor about never belonging anywhere. They got this one, they felt alone too, which was why they found each other, why they wanted so desperately to impress Dr. de Fay, the projection of their backturned fathers. So they hugged the shadowgirl harder and the audience clapped louder, because the audience got this one too. The crowd knew what it was like to not be a part of anywhere too, the universal feeling of estrangement. The audience saw the class loving this girl and they cheered because they felt like they were good people now, loving the shadowgirl. The class heard the praise and yelled louder, “Not a part, I’m not a part of anywhere! Help!” And the shadowgirl said, “No, seriously, help!” and they screamed, “No, this is serious, help! I’m not a part of anywhere!” and they embraced her so hard she nearly fell over and they caught her and she slapped them away and hollered, “I’m fine! Never mind, I’m fine!” and they held her even closer, tight enough that she couldn’t move. They stroked her lush shadowhair and she clawed at their chests to get away, and they held her in place so she could see she was one of them, she could fit in with them. She said, “Forget it! I’m fine, I’m fine!” and they sang the shadowgirl her own lullaby, “Help! I’m fine! Help! I’m fine!” Dr. de Fay was clapping with such vigor the class thought he’d cum right in the curtains, and they were blissfully happy to have his love. They hugged the girl again, with their full power, so she could understand how happy they felt. Then, the girl went still in their arms. They laid their  new friend down on the ground, and put magnolias from downstage around her body to show the audience she was honored. The audience exploded in applause and the tv crew got a little teary because of the kindness the class had shown. The girl was a test, she must have been. That tricky de Fay!  Just like Dr. Bartles de Fay had promised, the class had created Authentic Art. Such a performance could happen, on the spot, and they’d done it! How vast was the unfamiliar and the unknown!

What the juniors didn’t realize until the end of the show, was that the shadowgirl wasn’t in Intro to Clowning. She was actually pretty sick, they didn’t know what she had, maybe some heart thing. The juniors learned she was disoriented from being so sick, and wandered into the basement. They got chilly in the bones when the EMTs arrived, and they found out what was going on. The audience started running up to the stage to see the spectacle, to see the shadowgirl on the ground. The EMTs were swatting away their  magnolias, which the class didn’t like because the magnolias were set up pretty nicely. While the EMTs tried to save the girl, the class stood nearby, seeing if the girl could be revived, on the spot. Like improvisation. The camera zoomed in on the class’s singular face, then her face. When her body was taken away, they hoped she’d be OK. She was still breathing a little, they noticed, so no reason to feel completely guilty. 

Man, they thought, what a show. Look at what they’d achieved. As the paramedics carried the girl out, the audience sucked their teeth and cried and clapped, Dr. de Fay bowed, and the television crew shoved microphones at the juniors’ mouths asking what happened, what happened, what happened. The class didn’t know what to do so they clapped for themselves, knowing they killed that show. Then, they went back to acting. 

About the author

Jennifer Maritza McCauley is an Afro-American-Boricua teacher, writer, and editor. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Kimbilio, CantoMundo, Sundress Academy and the Knight Foundation, and awards from Best of the Net, Independent Publisher Book Awards, the Academy of American Poets and a Pushcart Prize Special Mention. She is currently Poetry Editor at The Missouri Review and Fiction Editor at Pleiades. Her work has appeared in Puerto del Sol, Passages North, Columbia Journal and Los Angeles Review, among other places. Her recent cross-genre collection SCAR ON/SCAR OFF was released in 2017 on Stalking Horse Press.

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