I was stirring a pot of collards when I heard his key in the lock.
“Come on back in the kitchen, Cristophe,” I called. “I got some talk for you.”
He slouched into the room with his round-shouldered stride, a dirty muskmelon tucked beneath his arm. I didn't even have to ask. It had been hastily plucked from his stepfather’s garden, big but green around the edges. He’d been pulling up things before they were ready ever since he was a little boy.
Cristophe thrust the melon at me, a dusty peace offering. When I didn't reach for it he dumped it dirty on my clean kitchen table.
King Kool coming in
to the lion’s den
Collard greens cooking
Moms ain’t looking
too happy to see
her nappy son
Boosh, boosh, boosh.
uh-huh, huh, huh.
He bleated out a beat box rhythm, thumping his lean, concave chest. My son had this annoying habit of spooling the ends of sentences into freestyle rap lyrics. It was a tick, a nervous habit. Did he sense trouble brewing in the pot of greens?
We had named our son for a warrior, a Haitian freedom fighter. He'd been chipping that name away nearly all his life. At four he was calling himself Donatello after a cartoon turtle. He went through stages of Christopher, Chris, and the single letter, "C." Now he was going by the hip hop stage name of “Young King Kool.”
Cristophe did have a certain lazy touch, improvised rhymes sprouting wild like weeds in a backyard garden. His talent seemed wasted on hip-hop pipe dreams with little possibility of panning out. But then he was a dreamer and a drummer, just like his father.
“I know about the baby, Cristophe. Jamila told me everything. What’s wrong with you, boy? Is you lost your mind?”
My son was 20 and still growing. The baby care books said to stoop and establish eye contact when disciplining your toddler. Now I was forced to grab him by the shoulders and yank him down to my level.
Cristophe threw back his head, laughing like this was some kind of joke. I was not joking. I was 39 years old with one child coming out of high school and a dropout who had me on the hook for his student loans. I was too young and way too broke to think about being a grandmother.
He launched into his sound effects again. “Sh-sh, shucka, shucka. Might not be mine anyway. Brother gotta see about a DNA.”
“Don’t even start,” I warned. “You two been kicking it for what – almost a year? Just last week I caught y'all going at it hot and heavy on the porch swing, right out in the open where folk could see you.”
“It was nighttime, Moms. Nobody saw. And I used protection.”
“Protection ain’t foolproof, especially if it’s not used right. How many times did you forget to put it on? You forget everything else -- your keys, your library books, your parking tickets. You’ve been that way since kindergarten.”
“You’re ranting, Moms.” Cristophe snorted and rolled his eyes. Like I was the one being unreasonable. Like I went out and knocked up some 19-year old college girl. “Jamila runs her mouth too much. She shouldn’t be out blabbing our business.”
“If she hadn’t called me, when would I have known? When she went into labor? After the baby was born? When it’s ready to go to college?"
Cristophe shuffled his feet, kicking backyard dust from oversized sneakers onto the kitchen floor.
College ain’t knowledge
It’s a numbers racket
King Kool can’t hang
Brother just can’t hack it
“Stop it, Cristophe. This is real life, not some ghetto nursery rhyme. You got a situation coming along.”
"Don't call my son no 'situation,' Moms," he protested, forgetting he'd just denied its paternity.
"How do you know it'll be a boy? And what are you going to do about it?"
The same words might have been uttered twenty years ago. Except then I’d probably said "we," including myself in the equation.
I had cornered Joe-Natham in his dorm room. I let myself in through the unlocked door and waited for him to come from the shower. He stopped when he saw me standing there. Adjusting the towel around his waist, he glanced off to the side like he suddenly remembered somewhere else he had to be. I reached out and grabbed his arm just in case he tried to bolt.
"What are we going to do about this situation?"
“You sure about this, Marie? Have you even been to the doctor?”
“Student Health Center,” I reminded him, “the day before yesterday. You were supposed to meet me there.”
“Why didn’t you remind me? You shouldn’t be going through all this alone.”
A half smile, a sprinkle of sympathy. That was all I needed. I sank against him like a punctured balloon. My bones turned weak, my will to water. “It’s further along than I thought, Joe-Natham. I'm almost four months gone.”
“It’s alright,” he soothed, kissing my hair. Moving me like we were dancing. Maneuvering me backward through the clutter of the dorm room, onto his roommate’s bed. His own was buried in books and clothes and jazz CDs. “Brother's gonna work it out, Marie. You know I’ll be a man about it.”
The towel around his waist loosened as he gathered me against his body, pulling me tightly to him. Beads of water hung like dewdrops in the kinks of his hair. I buried my nose in the warm space at the nape of his neck, inhaling the soap and cocoa butter scent of him. I kicked off my shoes, stretching out beside him on Daryl’s neatly made bed.
Joe-Natham lifted my sweater and stroked my belly. “You got my generations, girl,” he murmured in husky vibrato. “That’s my son growing in there.”
“Or daughter,” I reminded him. “It could be a girl.”
“Baby, that’s a boy. I ought to know. I put him there.” At least he didn’t try to deny his child. At least I can say that.
Joe-Natham Kingsley played drums in the Lake Forest College Jazz Band. He was a warrior on the traps. Hunched over torso, arms and legs thrashing in measured fury. He was going to be the next Elvin Jones to hear him tell it. Laid down some sho' nough jazz licks in Daryl’s bed that day, not bothering to reach for the communal box of condoms sitting open on the windowsill. It hardly mattered anyway. The damage was already done.
And hadn’t he said he would work it out?
“Lord in heaven, boy. You are just like your father.”
I swore I’d never say those words in anger. Not when Joe-Natham began to slip away like smoke after the baby was born. He graduated, got a job, and moved to Indianapolis. Months passed between phone calls and visits. He married and had two kids, both boys. He began forgetting birthdays and visitation weekends scheduled months in advance. But he did claim his first son, had given him his name. It was more than you could say for some men.
You are just like your father. I would only say those words in tenderness. When he was born with that booty chin, a cleft just like his father’s. When the baby fat began to melt from his bones and long, lean warrior limbs emerged. When I noticed that his laugh was developing a husky vibrato.
“Cristophe Kingsley, you're your father all over again.”
He headed for the doorway, muskmelon rollicking on the unsteady table. The floor was paved with Saltillo tiles I’d found on sale for $20 a box. They set unevenly when Delroy laid them down, so now the table rocked when anyone bumped it or shut the door too hard. I jumped up quickly, the melon spinning like a misshapen moon in the center of the table.
I stepped directly into Cristophe's path, blocking his get-away. Heavy-lidded eyes watched warily back. Eyes that crinkled when he smiled or narrowed when he frowned. The same eyes that searched the crowd for me when paramedics carried him to the first aid tent after he got heat stroke one year at the Bud Billiken Parade.
“You're not a little boy anymore, Cristophe Kingsley. I can’t keep cleaning up behind you.”
He frowned and glanced off to the side like he just remembered somewhere he had to be. “Moms, this isn’t about how Jonathan left you pregnant at nineteen. This is my business, mine and Jamila’s.”
When had Momma become Moms, and Daddy Joe snipped to Jonathan? Not the way I said it, Chicago folk laughing to hear it. How had someone with my father's own name broken my heart?
Yes, it was spelled Jonathan. But nobody back home said it that way. My daddy was a Joe-Natham bluesy as Beale Street. His stage name Memphis Joe-Natham Moore, rich and crumbly like the Tennessee soil people sent up North packed in shoeboxes. To pinch and eat like tonic. To sprinkle into backyard gardens, helping collards and muskmelons grow through short city summers.
“You and Jamila going to keep this baby?"
I’ll help, I wanted to say even though there’d been no help for me. When Mama said "come on back home where your peoples at, baby." But I decided to stay in school. When the babysitter didn’t show and Joe-Natham’s El Dorado-driving, fur-wearing mother had better things to do than watch her grandchild. When I shrugged off the glares of other students. Professors sighing, shaking their heads. “I’m a mother myself, Marie, but you know kids don’t belong in college classrooms. Let this be the last time.”
A campus custodian saw me standing near the half-open door during finals week, trying to hear the lecture and afraid to go inside. Cristophe bumped toy cars in the corridor, skidding them across slick terrazzo tiles. Most of my freshman class had graduated two years before.
Delroy Merriweather, who did not have warrior limbs, waved at me from across the corridor. “Go on in, sister girl. Me and little shorty can hang here for a minute. You go inside and catch your learning.”
I decided to trust him. To look past the clucks and warnings. A janitor? I bet he doesn’t even have his high school diploma and you’re going for your college degree. Girl, what do you see in that man?
I’ll tell you what I saw. A Maywood man with Tennessee ways, easy enough for a child to call Daddy and a woman to call husband. Who put that woman through her last years of college. A man who paid parking tickets, laid kitchen tiles, patched roofs and planted backyard gardens, summer squash and muskmelon. I never once saw Delroy Merriwether glancing off to the side.
Joe-Natham Kingsley and I had now changed places. The Chicago boy got him a good job with Coca-Cola Corporate and moved down to Atlanta. I stayed on in Maywood, western suburb of an overgrown city, dreaming of Memphis on winter days.
All my family was down there, mother and father, grandparents and siblings. I pulled together my own little family Up South. I had my boy named for a Haitian warrior. I had a man to love, to promise me Tennessee when we retired. I had a girl child we both had planned. Where there had been maternity leave, money enough for cotton diapers, the luxury of breastfeeding.
What are you going to do about this baby?
I must have whispered those words because Cristophe didn’t answer. The slamming front door echoed through the house, sending that kitchen table wobbling and shaking. The muskmelon spun in place but did not fall.
I rinsed it off and set it in the kitchen window, hoping the sun would help it ripen.
Sandra Jackson Opoku is an award-winning novelist, author of THE RIVER WHERE BLOOD IS BORN (winner of the American Library Association Black Caucus Fiction Award) and HOT JOHNNY AND THE WOMEN WHO LOVED HIM (an Essence Magazine Bestseller in Hardcover Fiction). She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at Chicago State University.