Saturday, 3 September 2016

Today's thread is Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz's unforgettable prize-winning story of a girl trying to make sense of abuse, The Story of My Life (So Far), together with Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz's artwork, Sunflowers. 


The Story of My Life (So Far)
Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz

Prologue
We create our lives. That’s what Miss Lewis, the schoolteacher, say but I ain’t sure I believe her. Seem like since I can remember somebody else been dictatin what I’m to be about. I keep wonderin when I’ll get the pen, get to start makin up parts of it myself, cause the way it look right now, I don’t see no happy endin in sight.

The characters
I don’t remember my daddy. It was over twelve years ago that he walked away. I wasn’t yet two, and I must’ve not been able to walk, cause Lord knows I would’ve run after him if I could. 

Folks say I favor him, so you think I could look in a mirror, examine my wide nose and brown eyes and see him, but I don’t. I can look for hours at the dark and wonderin face lookin back at me and not be able to recall the way my daddy looked. Not one bit. Still, when folks say I’m just like him, it make me feel proud inside; like they sayin I ain’t like my mama.

Long as I can remember me and her ain’t never got along. Can’t understand it, me being a part of her, startin off, livin and breathin in her, and I ain’t got no idea what I might’ve done to make her not look at me with some kind of good feelin. 

I try and look at it like we’re opposite sides of the coin; she’s got her way of seein things and I got mine, but then I realize that it’s the same coin and there’s got to be some of me in her and the other way round too, and that’s even more a confusin mess.

Lots of times, I’m wishin I could find that part of her inside me. I’d use it to help me understand. Help me love her in spite of everythin. Or at least help me learn to forgive her. But like those pieces of my daddy—if there’s somethin of Mama in me, it’s found the very best hidin place.

My mama’s got a husband that I don’t like and he don’t like me one bit neither. Some kind of lonely must’ve come over her to make her up and marry the likes of Luther Jenkins. I remember a time she had nothin good to say about or to him ’cept when we were leavin church. He started comin round last winter; bringin wood case we needed it to keep warm. Ask Mama she need a ride: the mercantile, the mission meetin? Mama be laughin at him when he leave—head look like a watermelon, and you know what’s inside just as squashy, but Lord it probably ain’t sweet or he too black ugly to even look at. She let me laugh with her, but come Spring, she tells me to get to packin. 

We’re movin.

She got herself a husband, she say.

I got a new daddy.

Luther Jenkins is considered a big man here. Black folks talk on him, call him a pillar of the Negro community, cause he got most everythin they want. He work for white Mr. Graham, just like them, but he act like he ain’t got to answer to the same.

He don’t like it that I go to school. Think I oughta be helpin Mama clean houses or be in the fields next to him. But I go to school anyhow. Tol’ Mama there were some things I ain’t gonna do cause Luther Jenkins can’t make me. 

I decided early on, the best and only thing Luther Jenkins could do for me was stay out of my way. He is my mama’s husband, but he is not my father. Few things in my life I’m thankful for and that sits mighty high on the list. 

After dinner, when my chores are done—never to his satisfaction, but he cain’t ’pect much from the likes of me—I do my schoolwork. I work fast as I can addin and substractin; make my eyes race cross the page cause I don’t pay the light bill in this house.

Luther see me and start poppin his lips. 

“Common sense beat book sense any day,” he say.

Hmph. Like he got either.

He start to recite what he got with his two hands and hard work. “Ain’t no need for no nigga to be sittin in a chair when they can be out in the fields, workin.”

He wanna argue, but I keep scratchin my pencil across my tablet. I usta try and use Miss Lewis’ words, equality self-sufficiency responsibility of self, to show him how wrong he is but he didn’t never listen.

Said, “Ain’t no woman need be talkin like that.”

“You see she ain’t got no man,” Mama told him.

“Probably ain’t never had one and that’s her problem,” Luther Jenkins said.

The two of them talkin bout my teacher confused me. The way Mama laughed with him. And bout that.

Our first night in Luther Jenkins’ house, her first night in his bed, was full of fussin. All evening Mama took her time fixin dinner and eatin. She talked on and on and on—to me—all the while Luther Jenkins gettin mad. Said he didn’t get no wife to hear her talk.

They wrestled and fought all night.

Stopitstopitstopitstopitstopitstopitstopitstopitstopitstopit

But Luther Jenkins don’t stop. I’ve watched him beat the land outside till it grow crops cause it’s afraid not to. Luther Jenkins get what he want with nothin but his own two hands.

Mama don’t like nothin about it. When I started bleedin, she tol’ me what to do to keep from soilin my clothes, but that’s all she was intendin me to know. 

“But why’s the blood coming out of me?” I’d asked, repeatedly.

She gave me that look a hers when she ain’t studyin none of my questions, but still she said, “Cause that’s the way the Lord made it happen and since He’s a man, He ain’t happy less a woman’s in a mess of hurt!”

“But—” I started.

“Now you look here, girl. Pretty soon men are gonna try’n light on you like flies on shit. But all they be wantin is to stick their thang up in you. It hurt and they don’t give a damn.”

I could be makin my own babies now, Mama told me. Though, if I do, she will twist my head off quick like a chicken’s; me and that baby both be dead ’fore we cause her a moment’s grief.

Still she assure me that that is not likely to happen. No man will ever want me.

I am not a beauty. Least that’s what Mama say. I don’t think I’m ugly. But if she or Luther Jenkins are angry or tired or just bein plain mean, they tell me I am. Ugly. And dumb. A ugly dumb heifer, at that.

The setting
We live in a four-room house with plumbin inside. It ain’t much if you look at what the white folks got, but it’s more’n me and Mama ever had. I got my own room, though I would not have wished the likes of Luther Jenkins in my life to have it.

We live in the backwoods of Texas, in Shetford County. This town is made up of black folks and white ones. They hate us and we hate them.

But that is another story. 

Something called foreshadowing
A good writer don’t tell the reader exactly what’s gonna happen, but a good writer give hints. So when somebody’s readin the story, and they get to the part where somethin BIG happens, they already kind of knew that it would.

If I’d’ve had a hint, I would have done everythin I could — change the way the whole story was gonna go. 

An example of foreshadowing
I’m settin the table for supper and look up to see Mama givin me her mean look. I know I ain’t done nothin, but I wait for her to accuse me.

“You go get a sweater on,” she tell me. “Cause I ain’t sittin here watchin Luther watch your titties while I’m tryin to eat.”

What happens
A story is excitin because the writer makes things happen. It’s called the plot. 

In class, Miss Lewis asked if we understood and even though I didn’t then, I do now. Plot is the bad stuff that just keep happenin.

Through my sleep, I feel the heaviness of him over me. My mind can’t decide what it wants to do—screambreathedon’tbreatheopenyoureyesdon’t—as Luther Jenkins put his hand under my bed sheet. Slip his hand inside my drawers, his fingers searchin for what ain’t his. 

In a story, a writer can make people move through time. A character don’t have to be right here. She can be anywhere she wants until this moment right here moves on.

My heart pound out his steps across the wood floor. This time, I hear the door creak as it’s moved. I want the lamp on, but I don’t pay the light bill in this house. I pull my knees to my chest and tug my gown till it’s stretched over my legs to my toes. I stare in the direction at the door, tremblin, but I ain’t wonderin if he’ll come back.

I’m wonderin if I will.

Plot development
A good writer keep the reader readin. Create scenes with a lot of action. Miss Lewis say to make it so the readers feel like they’re right there in the middle of what’s goin on.

Miss Lewis will just have to forgive me; I don’t think I can do that.

The previous scene is repeated.

The previous scene is repeated.

The previous scene is repeated.

Character development
I ain’t been eatin and Mama is angry. 

“You better eat or I’m gonna take a switch to your hot tail!”

I ain’t got the strength to pick up a fork.

“Think you’re gonna fall out in front of folks and they be thinking we don’t feed you!”

I ain’t got the strength to argue with Mama no more. 

“She ain’t nothin but an ungrateful heathen.”

I lift my head and stare at Luther Jenkins. He don’t turn away. Chewin his food, he open his mouth and say, “One day, your hungry black ass is gonna appreciate everythin I do for you.”

“Mama,” I whimper.

She flingin pots into the sink. “Whatchuu want?” she ask in her angry voice.

don’t want no daddy comin from my ‘magination want daddy copper flesh cry real tears when he see me heart beat wild with love. . . 

I shake my head. “Nothin,” I say and I watch the food on my plate wilt like my heart.

A bit of narrative
All summer, he steal me away. Don’t nobody see me going until school start and Miss Lewis know. Her point of view must be omnipotent. 

The something big in the story and revelation (told in a scene to make Miss Lewis happy)
“You’re distracted,” Miss Lewis say. She sittin at her desk, gradin our spellin papers. She shake her head, lips makin a sound like disappointment. She must be gradin mine. “Are you havin problems here at school?” she ask.

I say I ain’t.

“At home?”

I don’t say I ain’t.

“Your mother just married; that must have brought some big changes to your life.”

From hard to harder. 

“Why don’t you play with the other girls anymore?”

“I’m too old to jump rope.”

“You weren’t too old just months ago,” she say. She collect the papers on her desk and put them nice in a pile. 

“You aren’t making any progress on your reading list . . .

“Your work isn’t as strong as last year . . .

“And it’s always late. . .”

Miss Lewis is standin by me. Her fingers touch my chin, but I don’t let her turn my face. I stare at her empty chair behind her desk.

Miss Lewis is one of those people with kind eyes. She look at you and what you see back make you feel good. But I can’t look into her eyes right now; I don’t want to see the ugliness I’d surely find there.

Her hand is gentle across the top of my head. Even as a baby, I don’t think I ever been touched so nice. 

But I shake her hand away before I clamp my own over my mouth, but they don’t hold nothin back. Through my tears and vomit, what’s left of me spill out between my fingers and across my desk. Miss Lewis don’t say nothin all the way to Luther Jenkins’ house. I think she mad at me, but then she give me a smile. It’s little, but she give it to me anyhow.

She put her arm around me as we walk across the porch. I’m afraid to open the door, but she promise, “It’s going to be all right.”

Mama’s on the couch, darnin when we step in. She stare at Miss Lewis, and say, “What the hell she done?”

Miss Lewis stop and stare at Mama. “Nothing, Mrs. Jenkins. Julia hasn’t done anything.”

And when she say that, she say it like it’s true. 

Miss Lewis push me to sit down on a chair and she sit by Mama. She take a breath and then she glance at me, turn to Mama. “This is about what Mr. Jenkins has done.”

Mama’s fingers work the needle through the pants in her hands. She don’t look at Miss Lewis. She don’t look at me. 

She tyin a knot and breakin the string with her teeth when Miss Lewis is bout to say something, but Mama stop her. Mama lay the pant leg across her lap and run her hand over the patch. Say she knew it was just a matter of time ’fore Luther Jenkins started in after me. Tol’ Miss Lewis she wan’t hopin or wishin for it, but she was expectin it like you expect mud after a rain. 

Mama, happy with her sewin, take care foldin the pants and puttin them on the coffee table. She look over at Miss Lewis and Mama laugh at the surprised look on her face.

“You actin like it somethin new,” she say.

What black gal hadn’t heard stories? Lived it too? Everybody crammed into one room—most times, one bed—course it bound to happen. Anythang with a hole—at the mercy of fathers, brothers, uncles. Granddaddies even. 

Mama wonder out loud what would make a man do something like that to his own kin; make her feel dirtier, lower, than any white man ever could.

“Then why did you allow Mr. Jenkins—”

Allow,” Mama snarl. How she gonna stop a man from doin what he want and in his own house?

“’Sides he ain’t her daddy. And he ain’t done nuthin but touch her. That all, and . . . ” Mama’s voice trail. She pick at somethin in her lap; she look like she ain’t still here with us in this room. “And that ain’t nuthin,” she say finally. 

Miss Lewis stare at Mama like she don’t know quite what to make of her. “Well,” Miss Lewis say after some time. And then she repeat herself, “Well.” She stand, wave for me to follow her and we leave Luther Jenkins’ house. 

I don’t know if Mama stay inside cause I don’t look back. 

Miss Lewis take me to her house. Feed me without complaint. Tell me to go to bed when I’m ready. We don’t have to talk, she say, unless I want to. I shake my head cause there just ain’t no words.

I lie in the extra bed she got, tell myself it’s OK to close my eyes, but as soon as I do, I feel myself bein drawn out of my sleep. 

Mama. Did she come for me? 

But her words take the shape of his hands—surprisin and hurtin me.

“You don’t go repeatin nuthin she done tol’ you. It ain’t nobody’s business what go on up in my house. . . 

“She be makin up stories half the time. . . 

“Ain’t nobody gonna believe her stories against Luther . . . ”

I sit up in the bed, squeeze my arms around my legs real tight, knowing it ain’t him. It’s Mama. She the one makin me fall all apart. 

The purpose of a story
Miss Lewis say stories tell us who we are. A good story make a reader feel somethin for the characters. 

Perhaps this is not a good story. Cause who reading it gonna feel somethin for me when my own Mama don’t? 

What kind of story this is
When I think on what’s happened, it should make me cry. 

I laugh instead.

Epilogue
All night I been writin out the words for Mama, for next time we meet. She say exactly what I want, she do what I need her to. I know, though, that all those parts are still unwritten—a mystery.

I’m tryin to believe Miss Lewis—that this is only one story. She promise that I can create other ones, different and better ones, but I ain’t so sure. 

This is what I do know: That this is the story of my life so far and it is my story to tell.

* * * * *

The Story of My Life (So Far) was first published in FRiGG. It won the Glass Woman Prize in 2008. It is also part of Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz's prize-winning chapbook Where I'll Be If I'm Not There.
The sunflower artwork was first published in Anti-Poetry Journal.