Tide Elizabeth sat with her back to the stove and me. The doctor didn’t approve of her getting a relaxer while she was pregnant, so I pressed her hair with an old hot comb I’d kept stored in a box. Each time I brought the comb to her hair, steam rose up from where the metal burned against the pomade. She flipped through one of her magazines, whistling along with the music on the radio. Not the kind of stuff a Witness should listen to, mind you, it being Christmas music and all. The Society had warned about the snares of that seasonal spirit. But something about this music made me calm enough to ignore the things about Tide Elizabeth that were vexing.
I’d asked her before to start wearing the maternity dresses I bought with the money her father gave me, but most of ’em was still in the bags in her closet. From where I stood over her, I could see her cinnamon belly button stretched out like a Cracker Jack. She swung one foot back and forth. Underneath the little gold charm she wore on her ankle, there was a tattoo. New or not, I wasn’t sure. Should a pregnant woman be getting tattoos? I kept thinking.
Hummm, hummm, like a chorus, harmonizing, me in the higher register if you could believe that, and Tide way down low.
“Last time you didn’t get the ends so it still looked nappy,” she said.
I hummed, louder, sang a couple of the words too, an old one by Mahalia. “I wonder as I wander out under the sky…”
“You heard me, Mama?”
“I heard you,” I said. “I don’t need to hear nothing about burning or it’s too hot if you want this straight.”
She mumbled something, popped her gum, swung her leg.
I’d been meaning to tell her about my talk with Brother Stirling, that the elders wanted to know her position, if she was coming back. He’d spoken to me at the Kingdom Hall just that morning. It was the fourth or fifth time he asked about Tide, but I didn’t have nothing new to say to him.
“You know who I saw at the clinic?”
“I know you gonna tell me.”
I’d done about half her head, so the one side lay down flat down to her back while the other side stood tangled in a big bushel of hair that she, unfortunately, got from my side of the family. When she was little, she never sat still long enough for me to do this right. So when she was seven or eight, I told a girlfriend to put a relaxer in so I wouldn’t have to deal with it more than four times a year. Then this damn baby – pardon my language – and her hair just curled up like a bird’s nest.
“I saw Lexy from school,” she said. “Pregnant. But I knew she was gonna get pregnant. Said the daddy is some fool from the neighborhood. I should ask Daddy if he know him, if he be serving over there with the rest of them.”
Roger ain’t been much more than mortgage checks and weekend visits before all this. All of a sudden, now, it’s Daddy this and Daddy that. She told me he wanted to fix her up in a place over the shop or in one of his apartments when the baby came, but I wasn’t too sure about that. His life wasn’t our life. My life. And if Tide had any chance of coming back, I’d prefer she not keep company with her father.
“Anyway, she said something stupid like she knew the Witnesses wouldn’t be enough to keep me … dang, Mama, that’s my ear!”
I put the comb down on the grill. With a washcloth, I rubbed some Vaseline on her ear where she say she got burned. She sucked her teeth, mumbled “that’s what I be talking about,” and I hummed, even though the DJ was playing something new and I didn’t know the song.
I let a lot of things go for the spirit, to connect to the spirit. Your life changes when that happens. You don’t need it no more, the cussing, the friends who spend weekends in clubs drunk on scotch and milk. Nothing wrong with music and dancing, except it brought out that other spirit in us. The one that made my mother care more about needles than the three kids she left behind. The one that drove my daddy to drink and say he only did it ’cause Terence, Lucious and me was some of the loudest little niggers ever to come up.
That other spirit was what I needed to get away from.
I get embarrassed thinking about what I used to do, and who with. In the clubs sometimes, bathrooms, cars; once I was so drunk I let a man put his hand up my skirt on the dance floor. And that time in the storeroom after classes senior year when I was supposed to be meeting Roger to get money for Leticia’s baby’s powder milk. Roger just smiled at me, licked his lips in a way that I can’t explain, and then there we was, my head bumping up against a box of cleaning supplies. Next thing you know I was letting a screaming child suck on my tit, and sometimes I missed my Friday scotch so bad my head hurt. And fighting, lord we’d fight. Most times that other spirit would imbue me with enough strength I’d give that nigger lick for lick, beat Roger so bad his friends started making fun of him, but lord the sex.
I knew nothing of pure spirit until the Witnesses brought me that Watchtower magazine that explained what I was missing. Not the kind of spirit you get from somebody laying hands on you for a few dollars, but the kind you get by working the way Jesus worked, walking and talking to people, telling ’em about the Lord’s plan. The kind that stop you from sleepin’ with men ’cause they have nice lips, or cussin’ out your mother on a street corner ’cause she didn’t recognize you and asked you for change.
It don’t come down on you like flames or doves. It don’t send you speaking in tongues and healing folks out they sick bed. It just makes you better, made me better. So for the sake of the spirit and what I knew it could bring, I told Roger to get up out my house, because of the other spirit that was in him.
I needed pure spirit more than I ever needed anything else. I worked hard for the sake of that spirit, to honor it. After I was baptized, I brought so many people into the truth you could say it was my congregation by year five. But knowledge of that spirit keeps you humble. I never lorded anything over nobody or acted like I was better off. I didn’t let the funny looks I got from the uppity sisters faze me none. Or when people closed their doors – screamin’ things so foul it didn’t make sense ‘cause all you was doing was offering to share something special with them – I stayed calm. Once, a lady let her dog loose on us, and Sister Stirling started running. I smacked that ugly dog with my umbrella, and the lady started cussing at us to get out o’ her goddamned yard. In the car, Sister Stirling could barely keep her hands steady on the wheel, but I couldn’t stop laughing, the way the dog whimpered, the way the lady screamed, the way Sister Stirling ran, but mostly the calm I felt when it was unraveling, because I knew I had the spirit with me.
Tide and me was arguing about some junk mail she left on the coffee table, and she was standing on my good rug when she messed the floor. I helped her to the bathroom, sat her in the tub because she said she needed to lie down. When the paramedics came, they said they could see the baby’s head pressing out. And sooner than I could say “Praise Jehovah,” there was a screaming baby in the bathroom and his mother was crying and bleeding.
At the hospital, Roger stopped by with one of his girlfriends. She had gold lipstick and smelled like supermarket perfume. She popped her gum like a twelve-year-old when Roger hugged me and kissed my mouth. “Grandparents, Dessie,” he said. He kissed me again. I was crying, so I kissed him back. Our daughter slept in the bed, sedated, and the baby slept in a little crib the nurse had brought in. Pale was the first thing I thought when I saw him, born with slick layers of black hair, his eyes pressed shut. His fingers and toes were pink, the only color on him.
Roger stroked Tide’s hair, then he walked around her bed to the baby.
“Who he look like, Daddy?” the girl said from the doorway.
“Go down to the cafeteria, Cookie, and get you a drink.”
“You said I could see the baby.”
“Roger, if you wake either one of these children–”
“Dessie, I got this.” He turned to the girl in the doorway. “Go on down to the cafeteria.”
The girl sucked her teeth and backed out into the hallway. I started laughing, a kind of quiet hiss. Roger shushed me, but that only made it worse.
“I wouldn’t have to fool with these stupid girls if my wife told me I could come home.”
“Don’t blame me for that, Roger.”
“Ain’t nobody else to blame.”
“I got bigger things in my life to worry about than Roger Greywood. You look at that booklet I left for you at the store?”
“Ahhh, Dessie,” he said, as if my words had pained him, loud enough that Tide woke and told us to keep quiet. The baby cooed. I picked him up and offered him to his mother.
“She bought the formula?” Tide said looking up at me and the baby.
“You gon’ take him or you gon’ leave me standing here?”
She stretched her arms out. She had him in this funny position, so that his head fell back over her arm. I adjusted him so he could rest more comfortable in her bosom.
“Where they at?” Tide asked.
“Where what at?” I said.
“The goddamned formula! Is you deaf?”
“Now, you know, Dessie, she got that mouth from you and your people,” Roger said, shaking with amusement.
“If you gon’ act the nigger, Roger, you can go.”
“Now I remember why we don’t stay together no more.”
“Jesus Christ, y’all,” Tide screamed. Thomas shivered in her arms, his feet and arms reaching out and spit sliding down the side of his face. “Can somebody ask that dumb-ass nurse where the formula I asked for?”
I took the baby up, rested him on my shoulder. “Last time I check,” I said, “Jehovah fill you up with enough milk to keep him quiet.”
“I ain’t doing that no more,” Tide said. “I told you. It hurt.”
“You want to talk to your daughter?” I said to Roger.
“I don’t have that kind of knowledge,” he said. “Maybe I’ll just go see about the nurse.”
I rocked the baby to quiet him, and as I did, I asked Jehovah if he could descend upon my grandson just a fragment of his spirit, protect the child from all that ailed his mother and me, and hold him to his bosom until the hereafter becomes the present. I promised Jehovah all of me, even the fragments of my soul that I had kept hidden away, bits of that other spirit that I knew lay dormant in me.
A phase is what I thought, tame compared to myself at her age, but a phase that would pass because I had the spirit, lived the truth, breathed it deep. Sometimes Tide Elizabeth wore skirts so short if she bent the wrong way she’d show all the little boys her business. But if you’d ask her about it, asked her what she felt about the truth, she would lie and give you all the right answers. Elders were the ones who told me she wanted to get baptized. I told them I didn’t think she was ready. They said she was sixteen and dedicated, and maybe she thought she was, but how could she when not more than a month later I found the empty condom wrapper in Tide’s jean pocket on laundry night.
That other spirit came to me that night. I stormed into her room, snatched the phone from her. “Who the hell you got sliding up in you?”
Tide snatched it back, rolled her eyes and talked into the phone. “Girl, I don’t even know what’s up with her? She came up in here and just grabbed the phone from me. I tell you, I can’t wait ‘till college.”
I called her full name. “Tide Elizabeth!”
“It’s all right, girl,” she said to the phone. “Lemme handle this. I’ma call you back.” And she pushed a button on the handset. “Yes, mother?”
I held up the wrapper.
“That ain’t mine.”
“It was in your pants.”
“Didn’t Daddy come around to give you the money for the rent?”
“I think you too old to be getting’ pregnant. Maybe y’all don’t need them condoms.”
I hit her so hard I stumbled forward, and Tide fell flat on the bed. I hadn’t hit Tide since she, as a little girl, had taken it upon herself to toss out Sister Jefferson’s apple pie at a congregation gathering because there was no place for my peach cobbler on a serving table.
“This ain’t how you was brought up,” I said.
There were a lot of ways I could have handled it that day. I could have talked to her the way I did when I went out preaching. I could have shown her, maybe through patience, maybe through some kind of love, that there was more to what I had than what she couldn’t do or where she couldn’t be. But I didn’t know any other way to reach her. I was scared for her, because every day she looked more like I used to look, more like my mother that day I saw her on the street. I can’t say rightly that I loved Tide Elizabeth then. I can’t say rightly that I ever really loved her, because she was her father’s daughter, my daughter, borne out of something dark in me.
Maybe that’s why she turned out the way she did.
When Paul started calling, stammering as he did in his broken English to pronounce Tide’s name, I passed the call on. A few times I saw them through the window when I heard the engine of his car pulling up to the house. There was no group, no chaperones, only my daughter wearing half of nothing and the boy – hell, he was a grown man – looking at her with eyes that were drunk with the kind of spirit he was supposed to be clean of.
When Tide came running into the house, her blouse torn, bruises on her neck and chest, I took care of it myself and kept it to myself. Who was I going to tell? My sixteen-year-old daughter was the one with the reputation, and Paul was giving talks from the platform.
I did it for the sake of the spirit, because I knew where it lived, in that Kingdom Hall, with those people.
I washed her back and braided her hair and shushed her to sleep. I paid for the first test and the second and the third, the doctor’s visits, the new clothes, the baby crib. I let her stay home. I let her teachers send her work home, and when she got too big to hide, I told her she could take one of those correspondence classes for the GED. Tide said she didn’t want nobody to know. I didn’t want anybody to know either. For the sake of the spirit I didn’t, I couldn’t, say anything. Not even at the supermarket that Wednesday, when I saw Sister Stirling and Sister Nor come around the corner, both dressed in neat suits, both carrying pocket books, in mid-rise pumps, just as Tide was asking me which formula was best. They saw me first, sped up a little bit, then saw Tide Elizabeth, the formula, the belly, and their smiles turned to something pitiful, sad.
“I don’t really know what to say, sugar,” Sister Nor said.
“How about you try, evening sisters?” I said, and I was sorry after saying it because the pity on her face turned into something else, anger, betrayal maybe, or a mix of both.
“Tide Elizabeth,” Sister Stirling said. “My word. Tide Elizabeth?”
“Sugar, I really do not know what to say to this,” Sister Nor said.
“Mama, let’s go,” Tide said.
When we got home, the calls started, Brother Nor just as angry as I expected, but Brother Stirling on the verge of tears. After service that Sunday, they asked me all kinds of questions, about how long I know, about the father, about whether Tide Elizabeth would come in to talk to them. Alls I could say was no, brothers, no brothers, no brothers, because to say anything else to them would have broken me in half, because I’d promised her none of them would ever know, ever, so she wouldn’t have to speak his name or live it ever again, or have people judge her for something she was too weak to prevent.
I thought I could hate them both, that I did, because every time he screamed for her, every time she said she was too tired to pick him up, I wanted them out and didn’t care where, on a street, in a shelter, at a motel, anywhere that was away from me so I could study.
He cried and cried. For food, for changing, just because. Most of the time just because. I didn’t remember Tide ever being that loud and persistent. Belly full of food, clean diaper, resting in your arm, he’d cry. Eight months in and he was still crying and she was still saying she was too tired. Out in service one Saturday, Brother Stirling asked me about the baby and its mother. There was somethin’ about the way he said it, first time he had anything to say about either one of them since the day they announced she was being put out.
“She doing . . . I mean, they . . . you and them okay?”
We were in Miami Shores. I could smell the water coming off the bay, cool breeze whipping around my ankles and through my hair. I hadn’t read the Watchtower that month yet, but had already given away fourteen of them. Brother Stirling’s wife was around the corner with another sister, and he was here with me, moments after a man slammed his door on us, asking me if I were okay. He and I came into the truth around the same time. He was single then and I was like I am now, half-way to single but not scripturally free. Right before they made him an elder, he asked me to go on Bible studies with him. We were good together on that study, me and him on one side of a table and a Baptist deacon and his wife on the other. If I didn’t know a scripture, he knew another that did the trick. On the walk back to our cars, he tried to put his hand in mine. I said, “Now, you know better.” He said, “It wouldn’t be that bad, now would it?” I said, “My husband might not mind, but Jehovah is another thing.” Pretty boy, even with the weight and the bad skin, tall and smart and caring. He stayed that way after all this time. “Baby’s growing,” I said.
“The baby’s mother?”
“How she always been.”
“How she doing spiritually?”
I stopped at the gate in front of the next house. Big house, white and flat with clear windows and the kind of porch you think about having when you a little kid, with toys all over the place, and a swing. I could see the lady of the house standing in the living room holding a baby on a hip. Her nose scrunched up, assessing whether she wanted to be bothered today with visitors. I started to take the latch up. Brother Stirling put his hand on mine and held it there.
“If y’all need anything, Desta, you call me,” he said. “We all get tested by this world. I don’t want you to think you’re carrying the burden by yourself. Call me, hear?”
I pushed the gate open. Tide was my child, my burden, seventeen years and counting. I wondered then, and still do, if I did her wrong by sending Roger away when she was so young. Something about not having her father around unsettled her. She’d undo her braids in the middle of service, refuse to knock on doors, fight little boys when we’d go to other folks’ house for fellowship. By the time she was a teenager, I was doing all I could to keep Tide at the Kingdom Hall. There was no greater shame than allowing your own child to fall to the world. No matter how many Bible studies you could get under your belt, if you couldn’t convince your own child to follow you in the truth, what kind of Witness was you?
The woman didn’t open the front door even though we could see her through the window. At the next house, we met a teenage girl who took a magazine but didn’t give us her name. I wrote the address down in my book so I could come back on my own. At the end of the block, Brother Stirling and I stood under the shade of a palm tree. I thought for a minute about what my life would be like if I had dragged Roger into court and gotten the divorce that the scriptures say I could get with proof that he’d been sleeping with every loose skirt he came upon. Brother Stirling would probably be three times the size he was because his wife can’t cook. I thought for a minute about what Tide might be like, whether she’d be working somewhere decent or getting ready to marry the right kind of brother.
Brother Stirling had a wide, flat face and a mouth that disappeared when he thought too hard. He looked at me, opened his mouth to say something, then shook his head. I imagined if he and I had married, that I would be a different woman, unsatisfied in a way that would make me worse off than I was now. As if he were in my head, he smiled.
“How long is she staying with you?” he asked.
“She’s my daughter.”
He shook his head, smiled some more.
“Something amusing, brother?”
“Naw,” he said. “Just how things is.”
Gariot Pierre Louima is the Bahamas-born son of Haitian immigrants. He has an MFA in fiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars and a BS in journalism and English from the University of Miami. He worked as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, Times-Picayune and Palm Beach Post. His short stories have been published in The Caribbean Writer, carte blanche, Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora, Tupelo Quarterly, and in the anthology So Spoke the Earth (Women Writers of Haitian Descent, 2012). He’s taught writing at Broward College and Antioch College, and founded the Antioch College Writing Institute. Gariot is currently the dean of admissions at Goddard College and an associate editor at Tupelo Quarterly.
Previous: Fiction, “This Bird Has Flown” by S. Frederic Liss
Next: Midwestern Youth Fiction, “Survival of the Fittest” by Zoie Cole, winner of the LSSU High School Short Story Prize