MR. GILMORE WAS SUPPOSED TO have died that day at the Justice Rally, but I got in the way and now people in my hometown of Vigilant, Michigan, are either calling me an Uncle Tom hero or hissing that I’m a double-stuffed Oreo bitch. Actually, I’m neither, but I realize now that one of the reasons why people’s attitudes about me are as nasty as dried snot is because there is a critical lack of information about my motives. Those who love me already understand my reasons. For them, it’s enough for me to say the ancestors made me do it. Other folks, however, especially other folks of color, feel I need to testify about why I, Grace Johnson, a supposedly rational African-American high school senior and honor student, committed racial treason.
If it were up to me, I wouldn’t say anything. I would just leave everyone in the dark and go on about my business. But the voices of the ancestors tell me I owe an account of my story as an example of the true meaning of my name. Now, I can blow people off, I can tell them what part of hell to go to and give them detailed directions on how to get there. The ancestors, however, cannot be ignored. They can’t be told to mind their own ethereal business because we, the living, are their business. Pain and suffering have made my hindsight telescopic, so let’s begin at the true beginning, a breath to prime my memory: “rise, story, rise.”
THE ONLY WARNING OF THE coming destruction of my old life last October was sweat and a swelling sense of unease. I woke up sodden, so slick with perspiration my nightgown had formed a big wrinkly fist and climbed up my legs. At first I thought I had the flu, then decided I just needed to open a window because my room was stuffy and hot. The weather was still acting like summer, even though the calendar read autumn, but I had no explanation for the sense of unease. It wasn’t my usual muddy angst, and yet the nameless brand of anxiety raised crops of goose bumps on my arms and made me turn my head to check the emptiness behind my back.
Restless and damp, I stood in my bedroom doorway scanning the hall for evidence of my so-called family. The depth and texture of the silence told me my sister Jamila was still sucking all the beauty she could from sleep, and Mama didn’t have to do overtime as a clerk at city hall. If my luck wasn’t stingy, the house would be my private sanctuary for one or two hours.
An unusually swift current of hunger pulled me toward the kitchen. I made a big pot of grits, which I garnished with more than the recommended daily requirement of butter and cheese, and fried a half-pound of bacon––even though for the hundredth time that year I’d sworn I would become a vegetarian. My morning nerves seemed to drive my appetite. I ate and ate, my lips smacking out a greasy melody as I crunched on crisp cords of bacon and shoveled in snowy drifts of congealed corn. All the while I kept thinking about how good it would be to escape to college next year. Anyone who has lived in the desert realm of high school unpopularity knows how eager I was to go where no one knew me as me. It looked as if Spelman College might accept me, and I was excited. But as I sat there still hungry, even after two plates of food, my joy dissipated. I think even then I knew Spelman was being put on hold, but at that time, I had only a shadowy understanding of my true metaphysical identity.
I was thinking so hard about the future, I almost didn’t hear the present pounding on the front door. I opened it to find my friends, Shanta and Nikki, standing on the porch and doubled over from laughing. They didn’t reveal the joke, and I didn’t think to ask what was so funny because it just seemed odd they were there so early. They were not the type of people who even knew what eleven in the morning looked like on a weekend.
They plopped on the couch, looking for all the world like dogs who had done something they knew wasn’t right. Hot as it was, Shanta looked cool, her pecan-colored skin dry, as if her pores were too proud to leak. Nikki’s face, on the other hand, was tinted the shade of ruby red grapefruit, and it was shiny from the sweat dribbling down from under her dense canopy of curly auburn hair.
Shanta and I had always been together. I was closer to her than I was to my own sister. What we lacked in blood kinship, we made up for in the shared DNA of dreams and experiences. We had bonded in preschool, after my father died and her family had stepped in and tried to help my crazy mother raise me and Jamila. Nikki had been a more recent addition. She’d made Shanta and me her friends after falling out with the pretty white girl cliques at school because they thought she was hanging around too many black people. Nikki was fun to be around, but I always got the feeling that she liked Shanta a whole lot more than she liked me because I was a size sixteen instead of a size six.
“Ok, what brings you out this early?” I asked suspiciously. We hadn’t talked before about doing anything over the weekend. Frankly, I had planned on hiding out in my room and studying the great defiler of my GPA, calculus.
“You know the Pumpkin Harvest Jazz Festival you’ve been talking about since I don’t know when?” Nikki started to explain.
“Yeah, the one I can’t afford to go to,” I said.
The festival was the annual fundraiser for the exclusive Diamond Yacht Club located a few miles outside of Vigilant. Ticket prices started at one hundred dollars, putting it out of reach.
“Nikki’s mother got us tickets.” Shanta’s voice rose in anticipation of the joy I would feel.
“You’re not messing with me, are you?” I asked.
“Would we mess with you about something like this?”
I shrugged and told my hopes to lay back down. Nikki read the doubt on my face and burst out laughing. “Oh, here look.” She pulled three tickets from her purse and handed them to me. I held them like the musical gold they were. If they had been food they would have been drool worthy.
“See, I told you,” Shanta chided.
I ran my fingers across the glossy surface, taking in the legendary name of Ornette Coleman and others. I wanted to go so bad but pride made me say, “Nikki, I can’t take this. I mean, I can’t even begin to pay for it.”
“It’s not about affording it, Grace. My mother’s on one of the committees and she got some freebies.”
“Shoot, Grace, you think I would be going if I couldn’t get in free? I don’t have that kind of cash,” Shanta added.
“Come on, Grace, they’ll just go to waste if you don’t come ’cause this isn’t exactly what me and Shanta are into.”
I chuckled to myself because Nikki was right. The tickets wouldn’t be used, not even scalped. Shanta loved Hip-hop and Nikki was partial to country. Neither of them understood my need for jazz. And it was a need. More like something I couldn’t live without than a subject I was just interested in.
“Actually,” Nikki said, “I don’t see why you want to listen to old people’s music, but I’m willing to hang out with you while you do.”
“I suppose it’s just a matter of what you like,” I offered.
Shanta sat back and slid deep into the couch cushion. I watched as her smile straightened into a serious expression. “It’s more than that with you, I think, Gracie. My dad says you love jazz and blues the way macaroni loves to be with cheese, or the way beans need to be with cornbread because you’re an old soul. He says it’s like you’ve been here before and heard it all because it comes to you so naturally.”
A covey of shivers coasted out of nowhere and my hands shook a bit. Old soul. Shanta’s dad had always told me that but I hadn’t exactly known what he meant by it. I was just happy Mr. Manning was willing to let me sit around with him and listen to his wonderful collection while he talked about the acts he had seen on stage. He was the closest thing I had to a father, and I cherished the relationship.
“Your dad’s just a good teacher,” I finally said as I held up one of the precious tickets. “Shouldn’t you be giving him one of these anyway?”
“He’s got to work and don’t think he hasn’t been bitching about it. You might as well go because he’s going to want to know all about it. He’ll be disappointed if you had a chance and didn’t take it.”
“Yeah, you might as well go,” Nikki chimed in.
I swiftly calculated the amount of my homework against the time left in the weekend and decided I could indulge in some recreation. The term was young and I was, after all, finally a senior. I got dressed and left a note for Mama, because asking for forgiveness was easier than asking for permission.
As I walked out into the seamless heat, I turned and looked next door to see a very tall, very dark homeless man I knew only as Oba talking to our short, slightly-built neighbor, Dr. Monroe. On so many different levels–besides their contrasting physical appearances–their being together seemed odd. But I just thought it wasn’t any of my business. Both men’s faces held serious expressions as they nodded at me. I smiled and nodded back just to be polite. Almost immediately, I had to shake off the feeling they had been talking about me in great detail. How could they? I asked myself. I didn’t know Dr. Monroe well, and I didn’t know Oba except by name and sight. But I didn’t feel like I had paranoia on the brain. My suspicions felt valid.