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Authors: H. M. Mann

The Waking

BOOK: The Waking
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a multicultural coming-of-age novel




H. M. Mann


















Kinfolk Books

Roanoke, VA


Copyright © 2011 by H. M. Mann


Cover picture courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division



Though based on actual events, this is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s warped imagination and experiences or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental … and


Excerpt from
Granddaddy’s Dirt
by Brian Egeston. Copyright 2001. Reprinted by permission of Carter-Krall Publishers.









Also available from Kinfolk Books and H. M. Mann:

























Part I: The Way Out


1: The Hill


It all started with a toilet.

I had been working steady for Manpower as a condition of my probation after my last tour of duty at the Allegheny County Jail in downtown Pittsburgh. My first tour was at the old jail for selling dried up mushrooms instead of peyote to white boys from Shadyside. I wasn’t even dealing anything illegal, but they got a law for everything these days, even if you’re just playing a prank on some rich white boys who only come to the ‘hood to score. I’m glad they closed that old jail down, with its “Bridge of Sighs” and no heat. A guy killed himself there, and it took them forever to take the body out. My second tour was at the new jail for possession of heroin with intent to distribute, which is a stupid charge, the possession part, especially. Yeah, I was holding a large quantity. How could you miss it? As for “intent,” I was a dealer. It
my intent to sell it. What else was I gonna do with it?

Besides using a little on the side.

But now I was rebuilding the Hill, the neighborhood that the Mellon Center destroyed with a parking lot before I was born. The pay was decent for an unskilled dropout who had graduated from an institution of lower learning. I got on-the-job training and became an apprentice, which is another name for gopher, as in “go fer this” and “go fer that.” If the weather was nice, we went up on scaffolds outside old brownstones on Dinwiddie and row houses everywhere we looked just ripping and repairing. Mostly ripping. When it was cold outside, we worked inside ripping and repairing chipped, cracked, dented sinks rusted to counters, replacing black iron pipe with white PVC, and taking out tubs with claw feet sunk into the floor like they didn’t want to leave either. It wasn’t too hard. Most of the tubs, all of them rusted brown, had only bits of caulk with only patches of dry wall around them. You could even see the room next door to the bathroom sometimes. A century of drips can turn floors to quicksand, so we rebuilt most bathrooms from the floor up, one nasty, sagging mess at a time.

Just two days ago, I got stuck removing an old American Standard toilet. Most of the lid was gone, only a hunk of porcelain at one corner of the tank, but on the underside I saw “Made in Mexico” clearly etched into the lid. American Standard is made in Mexico? Is nothing sacred? Removing the old toilet was tougher than any other toilet I had ever done. The nuts were rusted to the bolts coming through the floor, the bolts holding the tank on the seat were rusty and stripped, and the floor sagged and cracked every time I tried to rip the entire two-hundred-pound relic from the linoleum. After an hour of fussing and cussing, it came free, releasing fifty years of stench into the bathroom.

I lugged it out to the curb, bruising my knees and elbows, and in the light of day, it looked like a wicked piece of modern sculpture you might see at some fancy place on Liberty Avenue. After rebuilding the floor around the iron pipe leading down into the depths of the cesspool, I unwrapped a new shiny and tiny one-piece toilet made in China. A Chinese toilet for African-American behinds.

And that’s when I realized something. I might be able to work on these brownstones, maybe one day work on the $200,000 houses sprouting over on Centre Avenue or at Crawford Square, the development supposedly built on a cloud, but I’ll never be able to afford living in them. Never. I guess that’s what they mean by urban renewal now. Urban folks rebuild so that suburban folks can move in.

At Arthur and Bedford, red brick buildings look across the street at vacant lots saying, “I’m better than you,” and the vacant lots reply, “You’ll look like us in no time.” Sure, they hired folks from the neighborhood to fix up the neighborhood, but then they told us, “Oh, I’m so sorry, you did such a nice job that you can’t
live in such a nice neighborhood.” What would I do with a two-car garage and no car or license anyway? What would I do with a Whirlpool bathtub besides wash my clothes because I don’t have a washer and dryer? Why would I want to live in houses with the same blue sameness?

So there I was thinking about that old toilet that held so many ethnic behinds. They first held the Poles and the Jews and the other folks with long last names no one can spell with all those silent letters who worked the coal and steel back in Pittsburgh’s smoky past. Then they held a bunch of wide black behinds since the ‘40s working what was left of the coal and the steel. When I looked at the skinny Chinese toilet built just for Chinese cheeks or skinny white butts, I realized that even the toilets were against us. That’s all you have to do, really. Just check out the toilets in new or renovated houses in a neighborhood. If the throne is large, black folks will be in charge. If the throne is thin, the white folks will be moving in.

I cashed my paycheck at the Central Baptist Church Federal Credit Union that day all the way. I don’t use real banks because you can never know when one will go under with your money. I usually put aside fifty for Auntie June, my mama’s sister who raised me since I was four, to buy some groceries, but on that day, it was all for me. No sense in giving Auntie June fifty dollars to get on a bus to go to Homewood to buy groceries. The Hill still has no supermarket, and there hasn’t been one here for years. What, eight thousand folks live here, and there ain’t but two Gold Coast Markets charging too much for food and drink. And beside one of the Gold Coast Markets, some junkie has painted a mural of a guy fighting a monster, the words “Never give up” in bold letters.

As far as I know, that junkie’s dead. At least the monster didn’t give up.

I drank my paycheck under the table at the L&M Bar and Grill, right near C&J Soul Food on Centre, drank it
before going to see my girl Saint Mary, a good girl, a good young Catholic girl with a little wild streak just for me when her mama is working nights over at Mercy Hospital. Mary’s a small, dark, black, chocolate, good, Catholic girl. Saint Mary Moore. They don’t make women like her anymore.

I used to be a Whitman Sampler before I met Mary, you know, sampling everything in the box, a nibble here, a bite there, devouring whatever girl I could. But I had the right since I was the son of a Cajun man who came up from Louisiana to work the steel mills when Pittsburgh was a real workingman’s steel town without all this neon and all that culture on Liberty Avenue. My mama was black as the coal that used to be right underneath us.

It kept me up nights as a kid when I learned about the Pittsburgh Seam, a big seam of coal burrowing a hole like a rat under the whole neighborhood. One day the whole block was supposed to fall down a mineshaft, maybe even blow up from a fire burning way underground, like the one down south of Pittsburgh somewhere that’s been burning now for close to twenty years. I’ve never understood that. Where does fire get the oxygen to burn like that so far underground? Maybe the earth breathes or something.

I see my Cajun daddy every morning in the mirror, his good hair, his gray eyes, and his straight nose. Being light-skinned and mixed and in between has its advantages, particularly with the ladies. But Saint Mary cured me of all that, and she’s about as good a woman as any I’ve known including Auntie June, who says she’s an African griot storyteller or something like that from a long line of griots.

Why you in Pittsburgh then?” I had asked her as a kid.

We got us a history here, too, right?” Auntie June said.

Auntie June’s been telling me the history of the Mann family since I can remember, all the way back to the beginning of time. I used to know the story by heart, mainly because she made me recite it as best I could until I couldn’t anymore, how Kazula was taken by Dahomey slavers with his sister Abassa from their home in Tamale, Ghana, how Abassa was sold to an Arab trader going east and was never seen again. Auntie June says Abassa went to Ethiopia, but that can’t be right. Those folks are too skinny and ashy to be my kin. She told me how Kazula survived weeks of walking to the Gold Coast only to spend months more in some jail fortress, how Kazula survived the Middle Passage on the
with the others in his tribe of Tarkbars and arrived in Mobile Bay, Alabama, in July 1860 just in time for the Civil War. Then he had his name changed to Kazzie Lewis or something like that. She also says Kazula helped create Africatown, wherever that is.

I don’t remember much more of that now, especially how the Lewises and Manns got together, and the times in the North, and it wasn’t because Auntie June wasn’t boring or anything like that. She has this voice, this spooky, quivering, singsong voice. It’s hypnotic. But I don’t believe a single thing she ever told me. Kazula? Abassa? Tarkbars? Africatown? Those are nonsense names. She only told me those stories to take me away from the darkness of the Hill, and when the stories were over, the darkness would come crashing down on me again.

So I had me a healthy drunk on when I saw Saint Mary. I fell into her door, and she let me in. Mary always let me in no matter what, even when I was slinging the boy and getting popped, it seemed, every other month by some undercover cop in a baseball hat during Weed ‘n’ Seed, Pittsburgh’s funny name for cleaning up the Hill in the early ‘90s. I was only using a little heroin then. I mean, I was living in Hill-hell, so I needed a little heaven every now and then.

I knew from selling that only three percent of a bag was heroin, so I mostly had starch, sugar, or powdered milk going through my veins. It’ll probably give me diabetes if I live that long. I was only chipping, weekends mostly, at first. I wasn’t in The Life. Yeah, I was out there wearing my CK hat and Adidas shoes and wind pants, dodging undercover cops wearing Pittsburgh Pirates baseball caps, like we didn’t know who they were. But when the cops tried to flip me to avoid County after my fourth arrest, they didn’t know who they were dealing with. I like my freedom, but I’m nobody’s snitch. I did my time instead, and when I got out, I started doing nightcaps then wake-up shots to get straight.

BOOK: The Waking
3.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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