By Stephanie Dickinson
Bessie smith postcard 1 cent
Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out
Bessie & Ma
Ma Rainey taught me stage presence. How to be large when I was already almost 6-feet-tall with a mule-kick of a voice. Ma had that space in her gold-capped front teeth that launched her tongue running over her gums. Let’s see your smile, she’d say, all worried, slipping her shoes off and wiggling her crooked toes with tiger nails. I got my gals to clip ‘em. Shoes off, an older woman gets soft and motherly. Straddling my rope-tied suitcase, she punted it against the wall. Make a record, baby, she said. She sashayed around in bare feet, passing her gin flask, but in a beaded chemise she acted different; scratch my back, right there, squeeze that bump, something’s boiling up. I can’t have babies as wide as my gorgeous hips. I tried on her water silks and rhinestone kimono, her harem girl turban. Her Moroccan crepe. We sing to white men lounging with their women on wine-red velvet couches. Ma’s voice is mare’s milk to the stallions, but her eyes tend to the half-dressed high yellow gals serving drinks with umbrellas in them. Back in the kitchen three sweaty black men are flaming fillet steaks for the monied set.
Past the pool hall, the sawdust honky tonk, and the barber shop, we find hotel rooms Colored Only. The long white sink is one of those flat bottom ones with a tin pan for washing, and another pan for rinsing. Ma dips her hands into the flyblown water, and then presses her palms into the pan, as if to hear its thoughts. The smell of the pie left from supper awakens Ma’s appetite, and she eats enough for three, even polishes off the jelly peach pickles. I wish you could go out there and do my business for me. I don’t feel like moving. The colored can’t get indoor plumbing, and the outhouse gives off the odor of sty dung and peaches. Ma laughs as she mops her brow. Who taught you to sing, you ignorant bitch? My vocal register damn sure pulls weeds sharp as razors and feeds the brain’s craving. I sing with my fingertips on still black days when the breeze teaches how to taste and touch a thing and not know its name. I tell her my phrases are dumb animals trying to speak, rolling and clawing in the noisy dirt on top of a hot silence.
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