Yeah, yeah. I know. I’ve been MIA. Life has gotten in the way, I’m afraid. Or maybe I’ve gotten in the way of my life. I haven’t decided which one it is yet. LOL! Anyway…we didn’t have a guest blog for WHAT?! Wednesday this week but we do have something
special…an excerpt from my new book—The Unlikely Remnant. It will be released
August 15th as an e-book and August 28th everywhere else. This first chapter is free…the rest you have to pay for. 😉 And now, I introduce to you…Mother Faye.
Mother Faye Duncan
A form of godliness
I was born in the church. Literally. Momma’s water broke right before the eleven o’clock morning service and one hour later my coffee-colored, wrinkle-covered bottom made its first appearance right there in the choir room. Surprise! Nowadays, young girls drop babies left and right and no one is even shocked or appalled. But not back then. Not in the Mount St. James Church of God Pentecostal Holiness Church. My mother was the sixteen-year-old daughter of the esteemed senior pastor. Needless to say, her unexpected labor just seconds before the doxology sent the church folks’ tongues a’waggin’ and everyone else into a frenzy. Especially the women with the white hats and coats and shoes who we always called nurses, even though none of them had ever been to nursing school.
I guess with a name like Faye Josephine Baker, I was destined to always make an exciting entrance; sometimes wanted, many times not. My family’s name was actually Baker, but I think my mother, wanting to get back at her daddy, the Apostle, for putting her out so soon after she gave birth, decided to name me after the woman he often called a “harlot” and a “disgrace to the race” in his sermons. Two days after I was born and with a resolute smirk on her otherwise cast-iron face, she anointed me “Josephine Faye Baker.” But the joke was on her. A few weeks later, the birth certificatecame back Faye Josephine Baker, a mistake that illuminated her sixth-grade education. So, I’ve been Faye ever since. Mother Faye. Well, technically, I’m Mother Faye Josephine Baker Johnson Greenwell Duncan, but I’ll get on to that in a minute.
Birthed into certain uncertainty, my inaugural life lesson was this: bridges burned could either light my path or bury me in the ashes of my own choices. Unfortunately, my mother would only know the latter. And it looks like the apple really doesn’t fall that far from the tree, either.
I know it sounds impossible – and maybe it is – but I remember seeing Momma’s face once I made my entry into this world. Or, at least, I imagine it to be her face. Until the day she died, I’d never seen her look any other way. As I’ve always known it, her face was a weird concoction of vapid emotion. A merger of fear and pain and sorrow with a smidge of anger to top it all off. I don’t know if anyone was really happy to see me arrive the way I did, but the least happy of all seemed to be Momma. Now that I think about it, maybe that’s why I worked in the church so long. For retribution. To try to pay her back for the grief I caused her. It was my penance for being the manifestation of her rebellion and the reason why her father, my grandfather, never spoke to her again. Either way, you would have thought after all these years I would have earned some credit with God for that alone, much less the fifty-some odd years I’ve spent praying and fasting, speaking in tongues and laying on hands. I, for sure, was more of a servant than most and yet, here I am: sitting in the frigid blackness of the sanctuary that once was my second home, while those who I know smoked more than me, danced more than me, sexed more than me and certainly prayed a whole lot less than me, are with the Lord now.
Why didn’t I go? Lord, why didn’t you take me up with the others?
Of course, there are no answers now. Just the stifling echo of my voice and the equally arresting truth I’ve refused to acknowledge hidden way down deep in my words.
By now I would have thought I’d be accustomed to rejection. From God or anyone else. It’s probably been the only constant in my life. I could count on being rejected the way most people could count on the mail. Only for me, the message being delivered was always the same: I wasn’t worthy of love.
The first time I experienced rejection, I was eleven. Every day after school, I’d pass the corner store – the bodega is what the Mexicans who lived in the row home next door to us would call it. The store sat at the end of my block. I’d find myself stopping in for what we called “penny candy” back in the fifties. Some days it would be Lemonheads, the tangy, yellow balls that never lasted longer than twenty minutes in my pocket. Other days, I favored Black Taffy, the stretchy licorice that would stain my tongue and teeth, making my mouth look like a miniature version of the black hole. But the truth is, satisfying my sweet tooth was really only an excuse to see him. Him was the fat, yellow boy with red, wooly hair and biscuit-brown freckles that sat behind the register. He was probably only thirteen years old but to me, at the time, that was one hundred percent man. I liked him mostly because he was nice to me. Nice wasn’t something I was accustomed to. One time, he told all of the little kids – the six- and seven-year- olds who went to the elementary school across the street from the store – they couldn’t buy any more candy at his store because they were picking on me (yes, even the little kids found me an easy target). It wasn’t really his store, of course. It was his uncle’s, but for us kids, there wasn’t much difference. That particular day, when all of the younger kids scattered, I turned to leave with them and he stopped me.
“Hey, Brown Girl.”
I kind of liked how that sounded. I turned back to look at him.
“Don’t you want to try the new Sugar Babies?” He smiled as he held out the green and gold package like rare diamonds before a hopeful bride-to-be. For me, it might as well have been.
I took it and tried to hand him a penny. “You don’t have to pay for it.” I smiled. “This time,” he added with a smirk.
To an eleven-year-old who spent most of her time in church and the rest being the butt of jokes by the young and old alike, that moment was precious, holy even. I wasn’t beautiful. Didn’t look like Dorothy Dandridge or Billie Holliday or the pin-up girls in Jet magazine. I had wild hair, deep-set eyes and lips that, in the fifties, were considered too large but later became all the collagen-fueled rage in Hollywood. I’d been told by my Momma and everyone else’s Momma that I had a body I needed to be mindful of, and while I didn’t really know why, I interpreted this to mean my body was my only asset.
So I thought, “Fine. I’ll pay later.” Man, did I ever! The next time I came into the store, the same little kids were standing in the candy aisle. “Hey, Lionhead!”
“Look! It’s the rat-faced girl!”
I guess his threats from the day before didn’t stick much. Sure enough though, as soon as the last adult paid for what, in our Nicetown neighborhood, was probably the last gallon of milk until payday, Fat Yellow Boy screamed at the kids to get out and again, they did (although not without a couple of them slipping a few sweet tarts into their pockets when he wasn’t looking).
This time, my confidence bolstered by his previous attention, I knew I didn’t have to leave with them.
“Hey, Brown Girl.” He smiled like he had some big secret. Like my neighbor Mr. Burle’s Cheshire cat did after catching a mouse.
“Do you wanna see something?” Of course I did. But something told me to be cool. Or at
least pretend to be. I turned around to make sure no one else was in the store. There wasn’t.
I shrugged nonchalantly. “Sure.”
Was that what it meant to be cool, I thought? Was that something Carmen Jones would have said?
I followed him to the back of the store where there were boxes of food stacked in silos as high as the ceiling. I’d never gone to the back of a grocery before, so I was fascinated by the weird scents – a sour-smelling gumbo of cardboard, oil and rotten fruit.
Fat Yellow Boy stopped suddenly and, lost in my own swarm of thoughts; my fascination with what I anticipated was coming, I ran into the back of him. Startled by the idea of even clumsily touching him, I just as quickly took three steps backward, only barely keeping my balance. He just stood there grinning.
“Do you like me, Brown Girl?”
I didn’t know what to say. It was so sudden. At that time, I had no idea what it meant to play coy nor did I know what it looked like. Of course, I had Dorothy and Betty and Rita as my models, but I was certain that mimicking them would end in disaster. I just smiled and hoped it was what girls who knew how to deal with boys did; hoped that my smile was good enough.
And it was. Good enough, I mean. He slithered closer to me, his feet never leaving the ground, closing the gap between us significantly. I remember feeling my underarms itch as sweat drops of need emerged on my forehead. The drums in my chest beat their frenetic rhythm as my nerves entangled themselves in want and collided with my good sense. The closer he got, the more I thought he was going to kiss me. I just knew it. After expertly allowing the heat between us to nearly suffocate me, my yearning marinating in my ill- informed, eleven-year-old perceptions of his intentions, he finally leaned forward so his lips were only inches away from mine. But just as I’d gotten the nerve to close my eyes like I’d seen Elizabeth Taylor do in the movie Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he stepped back. I opened my eyes and saw him standing there holding a candied apple. Needless to say, I was confused. More than that, I was embarrassed. My heart beat fast as I tried with all my might to hold back the tears that were burning to make their debut.
“Aww, Brown Girl. Don’t cry,” he said as he touched the side of my face. “We will kiss. But first, I want you to do something for me.”
At that point, I would have done anything to get him to make me feel like Ms. Taylor or, even better, my mother on the days she had company and gave herself permission to smile.
“I want you to eat this candied apple.”
I stared at the fruit barely holding onto the stick that bored through the bottom of it. This was no ordinary candied apple. This was a six-month-old candied apple with rotten caramel and tiny maggot-sized holes on one side. My eyes, now filled with tears, widened.
I guess he never expected me to ask him that because he took a while to answer.
“To prove that you like me enough.” Enough? Enough to me was coming to the back of the
grocery with him when I knew I should have been home caring for my baby sisters and putting the ground beef in one of Momma’s cast iron skillets so it would be ready for her to make a casserole when she got home. But, according to him, it wasn’t. I didn’t know enough back then to truly evaluate what I would receive from Fat Yellow Boy in exchange for such a disgusting act. Reciprocation would never be something I was familiar with. All I knew is that I liked him and I wanted him to like me back.
“Okay.” Trying to sound resolute, I put my hand out to take the stick.
“Okay?” Fat Yellow Boy’s eyes were as wide as saucers at my acceptance. I guess he really didn’t think I’d do it. I suspect this is when his respect for me all but diminished.
“Okay. You eat the apple and we’ll kiss.”
The itch under my arms returned as I thought about his lips touching mine.
“Hurry! Give it to me.”
I took the stick, held my nose and bit into the green fur that lined the outer skin of the apple. As soon as my teeth hit the fruit, tiny bugs came out of the soft, badly bruised fruit and crawled into my mouth and up my nose. I dropped the apple and began to vomit repeatedly, nearly passing out.
What was I doing?
Fat Yellow Boy shook with evil laughter. His voice resembled what I imagined the devil might have sounded like. He didn’t bother to help me. He didn’t move to clean up the mess I’d made on the floor or on my own clothes. He just stood there howling like he was watching the Jack Benny Show. Believe it or not, with everything that had happened, I wasn’t angry. In my adolescent mind, I did what I had to do. I turned to Fat Yellow Boy, hopeful. When he realized what I was thinking, his face turned red (he was the only Black person I knew who could do that) and his lips turned up in disgust.
“I just know you don’t think I’m goin’ kiss your nasty mouth! Ugh!”
He shook his head and had the audacity to try to interpret scripture.
“And they said that Adam got the rotten apple!” More laughter.
Just as I was about to plead with him, his uncle walked into the back of the store where we stood. I froze, vomit a la rotten apple streaming down my shirt and on the floor. Angry doesn’t even begin to describe his reaction to the scene. Blue veins protruded from his pale neck, throbbing to the angry beat of boiling blood.
Popping Fat Yellow Boy – who’d resumed his laughing, by the way – on the head, Mr. Uncle was harsher with me. He grabbed my arm, lifting me in to the air.
“Aren’t you Ms. Ruth’s girl?” My eyes lowered, affirming his recognition.
I read his face, which oozed with both pity and disgust. He might as well had said, “At least you get it honestly.” But he would’ve never said that aloud.
“I’m so sick of these fast, little girls coming in my store.”
That’s when the tears broke free from their prison. Sure, I’d just bitten into a rotten apple and could still feel the tiny gnats nipping at the inside of my jaws. Yes, I’d just been rejected by a boy I really liked. But nothing compared to the hurt of being called fast. I’d heard enough about “fast” girls in church. It seemed like that was all the deacons talked about. “Fast girls” will always end up getting pregnant. “Fast girls” are always tempting the older men of the church. “Fast girls” are going to hell. I knew what it meant to be lumped into that category and what would happen if Momma found out about it.
“You can cry all you want, but I’m going to talk to Ms. Ruth about your fast tail!” He shouted the word again at me as he dragged me out of the store, banning me from ever returning again without my mother.
He also made good on his promise to tell my mother. I got the worst beating of my life that day, but not because I’d been tricked by a boy for the first time. As the big, black, leather belt sliced my skin as it smacked against my bottom, arms, legs, and occasionally my back if I moved the wrong way, I tried to tell her he’d tricked me. Her response?
“Welcome to the real world. ‘Bout time you learned the truth about thangs. Men trick you and you end up paying the price. He couldn’t have tricked you if you hadn’t been in there being fast.”
That word again. Fast. It would follow me for most of my teenage life and even into my twenties. So much so that I would soon learn how to twist it into a badge of honor, a battle scar, all to mask my shame.
I think my mother was most angry about my embarrassing her than anything else. Maybe my predicament hit a little too close to home. Given the way I came to be, I’m sure she fought her own battle with being labeled as “fast.” In our house, embarrassing Momma was bad, but her having a daughter being called fast was probably worse. I tried to make it right, though.
Ten years later, I married Fat Yellow Boy.
I know, I know. Most people were shocked by our quick trip to City Hall in the summer of ‘64. But what was I supposed to do? I was pregnant. He was the father. Not much had changed since I was eleven. He was still daring me to do things to earn his affection and I was still doing them. That was until I lost the baby and finally learned it was not out of love that he tested me. He loved the power he held over me and when that power got old, he got saved, and since there was no baby to keep him, he left me. He claimed he was leaving because God wanted better for me and that he needed to make things right. But I never believed him. Never did.
READY FOR CHAPTER 2? YOUR THOUGHTS?