Sweet Thang

by Allison Whittenberg


Chapter One

I can travel through time; sometimes it’s voluntary;

sometimes it’s not. Just the other night, I saw a movie with these white people with dark hair -– I think they were Italian.  In this film, there was a funeral scene where the main character jumped in after the coffin was lowered the six feet into the ground, and all of a sudden I was at that day. My reality, though, had black people all dressed in black and only a smattering of whites from the nursing program she was in.  She left behind a son.  She had named him Tracy John Upshaw.

She was Karyn.  I knew her as Auntie; she was Daddy’s little sis.

I recall everything annoyed me that day.  I was watching Auntie Karyn in her coffin, and I knew Auntie Karyn was watching me. At the gravesite, the Reverend Whitaker, who wore his hair in a Caesar, led us away, saying, “There’s nothing we can do now.”

I didn’t want to be ushered to the side, and I hated those words: ”There is nothing we can do now.”  Especially the word “nothing.”  There had to be something — something that would bring her back.

Reverend Whitaker had his arm bracing, then moving, me. My legs felt like they might fold. Off by the limo, other relatives were sobbing in one big huddled mass.

The last look at Auntie made my chest hurt.  I was only nine, but I felt like I was having a heart attack. Auntie had always been fair, but her face was now whiter, glittering, and waxen. Each hope, every dream, every prayer was lost, gone.  Her large penny-colored eyes were closed forever.

Back at the house, my nuclear-and-beyond family gathered, and Otis Redding was playing on the stereo, singing that Fa Fa Fafafafa sad song.  There was a lot of chicken.  Fried, braised, broiled, roasted in a pan, chicken potpie.  So damn much food — nine trays of potato salad.  Distant relations ate heartily, even sloppily, macaroni salad sliding off their spoons onto their chins.

Tracy John was asleep during most of that day.  He was passed from arm to arm.  Everyone wanted to hold the precious one; he was like a hot potato in reverse.  Family and friends didn’t leave till it was night.  Then it really sank in — I’ll never see her again.

“I just want to know why,” I sobbed in my open hands.

Daddy’s usual husky/tender voice offered no explanation.  He just held me while I pulled myself together again.  Though he didn’t sob that day, neither in public nor just with me, I realized that he wasn’t whole.  Like the rest of us who loved her, he would have a hole in the heart that wouldn’t go away.

With the sun now down, sorrow solidified with the moon.  My head felt lighter.  My heart was heavier.

Around midnight, Uncle O’s car broke down by the airport. He said the engine died. Daddy took jumper cables and my older brother, Horace, to Island Avenue to rescue him.

That night my eyes were propped open by an unknown force.  I wished Daddy had taken me instead of Horace.  Maybe working a jack or holding a flashlight could have gotten my mind off my heart and the pain that it felt.

Gammy had Tracy John for the rest of the week, and I thought she was going to keep him.  The following week, he was with us; mid-week, Gammy took him back. Then that Friday, I was over Uncle O’s apartment, and Tracy John was there.

By the end of the month, he was at our house, and I guessed that Tracy John was going to stay with us forever, which back then wasn’t a problem. He was small and playful with Daddy, Ma, and my two brothers, Horace and Leo. And he stayed out of my way.  I think something changed when he was in the first grade, but I’m not sure.  Maybe the change was in me, for it has taken me this long to discover that Tracy John ruled.  For example, within a week of Tracy John moving into our home for good, I lost my room.

After Ma told me, I screamed, “What?!”

Daddy backed her up by repeating what they’d decided.

“No, no,” I pleaded. “Let him move in with Leo.”

“Leo is moving in with you, Charmaine,” Ma said.

“But he’s a boy.  I can’t live with a boy.”

“Boy, girl, don’t make no matter.” Daddy waved me away.  “We’re all family.”

I turned to Ma. “I don’t have any friends who share a room with their brothers.”

“Then you don’t have any friends who share a room with their brothers,” Daddy said. ”That don’t mean nothing.  You and your brother will live together.  That’s how they do it in the country.”

“What country?” I asked.

Daddy shot me a look that told me it was in my best interest not to seek any more answers. I didn’t argue with Daddy; for you see, even at the age of nine, I was pro-life -— my own.

Inside, I was mad.  How could they do a thing like that to me?  How did Tracy John get his own room?  Tracy John could have stayed with Leo, or Horace for that matter.  Tracy John wouldn’t even know the difference.

As worried as I was back then, now, at fourteen, things have reached crisis proportions. I’d calmed down, but each day I learned it was all about His Highness.  The precious one, Tracy John Upshaw.

Just last month, Tracy John almost cost Daddy sixty dollars for a pair of glasses that he didn’t need.  Ma had taken him to get his eyes examined for the start of the school year. Tracy John had been reading ever since he was three-and-a-half, so he knew his letters very well.  The doctor discerned that Tracy John should wear a strong prescription because he’d read all but the two top lines wrong.  Ma escorted him to the eyeglass shop.  Over the next two hours, Tracy John tried on children’s frames.  He didn’t like a one.

When they came home, Tracy John pointed at me and said, “I want glasses like her.”

Her? Her!  It’s only like I lived in the same house with him.  He’d known me his whole life.  I wasn’t a “her” to be pointed at like some stranger on the street.  I was only his blood relative: Charmaine.  He could have called me that, or Maine, like everyone else.

“You tried on glasses like that, Honey,” Ma said to him, with patient and understanding.

“I want her glasses,” Tracy John repeated as if he was going to grab them right from my face.

The next day Ma, pixie-faced Tracy John, and I went all the way downtown to another eyeglass store.  This time Tracy John spent another two hours trying on forty-seven pairs of frames.  I was about to blow my stack hearing Ma alternate between, “Do you like this one, Sugar?” and, “How about this, Pumpkin?”  Even the salesclerk was in on the act, calling him, “Peanut”. They patted him on the head after fitting each frame around his ears. It was outrageous.

The other patrons smiled and cooed at him, and over time they formed a small circle about him.   In the end, Tracy John settled on a pair of glasses that looked nothing like my octagon-shaped frames.  His choice was small, black wire glasses that looked Ben Franklinish.

The shop promised to put in a rush job on account of the doctor’s report saying Tracy John was half-blind. Ma left a ten-dollar deposit, leaving a balance of over fifty. We took the 13 trolley back to our home in Dardon. No sooner were we on the streetcar than Tracy John tugged at Ma’s arm and said, “I don’t want glasses. I see twenty.”

Ma gave him a quizzical look.

He was insistent. “I see twenty.”

We got off at the next stop and caught the other trolley going back to Center City.  Back at the eye doctor, it was conclusive. In fact, Tracy John did see twenty.  Twenty-twenty.

What had Tracy John done the previous day? Just made up letters like some damn fool. Later, Ma told Daddy, and he just chuckled at it.

Further into the evening, Daddy was in the living room, Tracy John cuddled in his lap.  He sneaking sip of his beer. This kid was too much. Daddy encouraged him. Habitually, Daddy would tell him to run into the kitchen and tell Ma a bad word.  Tracy John would run into the kitchen and say, “Unc told me to say bullshit”.  And Daddy would laugh at Ma’s fit. This left me to wonder — would Tracy John get away with all this mayhem if he weren’t walking around with Auntie Karyn’s face?

As I watched this Godfather imitation and reflected on gangsters and spoiled brats, the phone rang.  Ma told me it was for me.

I walked to the phone, wishing I had my own phone in my own room, so that people wouldn’t listen like stowaways to my conversation.  I wanted a king-sized bed with a heavy velvet canopy where I could talk the day away.  Instead I  had the phone stretched into the bathroom.

I closed the door and sat on the lidded toilet seat. I was on the phone only ten minutes — I was talking to my best friend, Millicent, about that new boy at school who was the son of a surgeon, Demetrius McGee.

“Did you see him in that blue sweater, Millicent?  He has to be the best-looking guy ever.  He looks like a Greek god.  An African-Greek god,” I said.

“Oh, Demetrius!” Leo and Tracy John mock-swooned in unison behind the door.

I was endlessly heckled.  They just didn’t understand when I was talking about something important.

“Excuse me, Millicent,” I said into the phone and then put it to the side.  I opened the bathroom door to them.

“Will you two get out of here?!”

They laughed all over themselves, especially Tracy John with his sickeningly-sweet, squinched-up face.

“Shoe y’all,” I told them, and chased them back into the living room.

As soon as I was back to the phone, my mother told me to get off, complaining about message units.

“Millicent, I gotta go.” I hung up.

That was the last straw:  I had to have my own room!  I wanted my own room, so I could play my own music (my Roberta Flacks and Al Greens). I needed privacy.  Our house was worse than Watergate; filled with bugs, and not the kind that you could spray with Raid.  This was a slow night; usually I couldn’t even get the bathroom to myself when I was talking on the phone.  There was no place to get away from everyone.  I’d go in one room and Leo and Tracy John would be in there. In another, Horace would have a girl or his recruiter over; he was about to go to basic training. I’d go downstairs, and Daddy and his pinochle friends would be there.  Ma would be in the kitchen, running the faucet, clattering the pots and pans or silverware, and I would try to slip away before she had a chance to see her and ask me to help her stir butter into the beans or mix the gravy or mashed potatoes.

Dejected, I went to my half of the room. Though Leo wasn’t as bad as a proverbial jailhouse Bubba, this had to be worse than a jail cell. Leo kept his side of the room neat.  He always picked up after himself and had the footlocker organized well.  I thought of that copycat Godfather movie and turned the lights off, drawing the curtains, shutting out the streetlight.  I was cold. It was going to be a hard winter.   Soon I’d have to have to sleep with my socks on.

I couldn’t sleep, so I thought about her.

Usually, it worked the other way: I’d wake in the night thinking of her.  I lifted my head from the pillow, so I could hear.  I waited, waiting in the nothingness of three a.m. — or maybe four.  The quick shuffle.  The hiss of the water pot.  She’d be downstairs with her nurse books.

Auntie Karyn.

It’s a funny thing; just when I thought it was under control, that’s when it would hit me. Maybe it wasn’t about the movie.  Maybe it was because Horace was due to ship out in about a week. A June graduate of Dardon Senior High, Horace signed up for the service after a long summer of Daddy’s badgering him: “No son of mine is living in this house and not working.” It wasn’t like ‘Nam was still going on, but it did mean our family would once again be broken up.


The occasional mail came with an occasional phone call from people who I supposed had been on Mars and had no idea she’d been killed.  They’d want to know details — as if to recall the details weren’t painful for us to recount.  Daddy would handle it by providing curt commentary:

“She died.”

“She was twenty-four.”


“Then he shot himself.”

“Yeah, he should have done that first.”

“Yeah, it’s that kind of world.”

People generally said the same thing when they learned of her passing.  They said she was so nice/so pretty/it was such a shame.

Five years after her death, I am still trying to make sense of it.  And I, at fourteen, don’t think I ever will.