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You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down, Page 1

Alice Walker

  You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down

  Alice Walker

  This book is dedicated to my contemporaries

  I thank my sister Ruth for the stories she tells.

  I thank Bessie Head, Ama Ata Aidoo, Buchi Emecheta, Wa Thiong’o Ngugi, Okot p’Bitek and Ousmane Sembene for the stories they write.

  I thank Gloria Steinem, Joanne Edgar and Suzanne Braun Levine of Ms. magazine, who greeted each of the many stories Ms. published from this collection with sisterly welcome and enthusiasm.

  I thank Ma Rainey, Bessie (A Good Man Is Hard to Find) Smith, Mamie Smith and Perry (You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down) Bradford, among others of their generation, for insisting on the value and beauty of the authentic.


  Nineteen Fifty-Five

  How Did I Get Away with Killing One of the Biggest Lawyers in the State? It Was Easy.


  The Lover


  Coming Apart


  The Abortion


  Advancing Luna—and Ida B. Wells


  A Letter of the Times, or Should This Sado-Masochism Be Saved?

  A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring


  A Biography of Alice Walker

  It is harder to kill something that is spiritually alive than it is to bring the dead back to life.

  —Hermann Hesse

  Nineteen Fifty-Five


  The car is a brandnew red Thunderbird convertible, and it’s passed the house more than once. It slows down real slow now, and stops at the curb. An older gentleman dressed like a Baptist deacon gets out on the side near the house, and a young fellow who looks about sixteen gets out on the driver’s side. They are white, and I wonder what in the world they doing in this neighborhood.

  Well, I say to J. T., put your shirt on, anyway, and let me clean these glasses offa the table.

  We had been watching the ballgame on TV. I wasn’t actually watching, I was sort of daydreaming, with my foots up in J. T.’s lap.

  I seen ’em coming on up the walk, brisk, like they coming to sell something, and then they rung the bell, and J. T. declined to put on a shirt but instead disappeared into the bedroom where the other television is. I turned down the one in the living room; I figured I’d be rid of these two double quick and J. T. could come back out again.

  Are you Gracie Mae Still? asked the old guy, when I opened the door and put my hand on the lock inside the screen.

  And I don’t need to buy a thing, said I.

  What makes you think we’re sellin’? he asks, in that hearty Southern way that makes my eyeballs ache.

  Well, one way or another and they’re inside the house and the first thing the young fellow does is raise the TV a couple of decibels. He’s about five feet nine, sort of womanish looking, with real dark white skin and a red pouting mouth. His hair is black and curly and he looks like a Loosianna Creole.

  About one of your songs, says the deacon. He is maybe sixty, with white hair and beard, white silk shirt, black linen suit, black tie and black shoes. His cold gray eyes look like they’re sweating.

  One of my songs?

  Traynor here just loves your songs. Don’t you, Traynor? He nudges Traynor with his elbow. Traynor blinks, says something I can’t catch in a pitch I don’t register.

  The boy learned to sing and dance livin’ round you people out in the country. Practically cut his teeth on you.

  Traynor looks up at me and bites his thumbnail.

  I laugh.

  Well, one way or another they leave with my agreement that they can record one of my songs. The deacon writes me a check for five hundred dollars, the boy grunts his awareness of the transaction, and I am laughing all over myself by the time I rejoin J. T.

  Just as I am snuggling down beside him though I hear the front door bell going off again.

  Forgit his hat? asks J. T.

  I hope not, I say.

  The deacon stands there leaning on the door frame and once again I’m thinking of those sweaty-looking eyeballs of his. I wonder if sweat makes your eyeballs pink because his are sure pink. Pink and gray and it strikes me that nobody I’d care to know is behind them.

  I forgot one little thing, he says pleasantly. I forgot to tell you Traynor and I would like to buy up all of those records you made of the song. I tell you we sure do love it.

  Well, love it or not, I’m not so stupid as to let them do that without making ’em pay. So I says, Well, that’s gonna cost you. Because, really, that song never did sell all that good, so I was glad they was going to buy it up. But on the other hand, them two listening to my song by themselves, and nobody else getting to hear me sing it, give me a pause.

  Well, one way or another the deacon showed me where I would come out ahead on any deal he had proposed so far. Didn’t I give you five hundred dollars? he asked. What white man—and don’t even need to mention colored—would give you more? We buy up all your records of that particular song: first, you git royalties. Let me ask you, how much you sell that song for in the first place? Fifty dollars? A hundred, I say. And no royalties from it yet, right? Right. Well, when we buy up all of them records you gonna git royalties. And that’s gonna make all them race record shops sit up and take notice of Gracie Mae Still. And they gonna push all them other records of yourn they got. And you no doubt will become one of the big name colored recording artists. And then we can offer you another five hundred dollars for letting us do all this for you. And by God you’ll be sittin’ pretty! You can go out and buy you the kind of outfit a star should have. Plenty sequins and yards of red satin.

  I had done unlocked the screen when I saw I could get some more money out of him. Now I held it wide open while he squeezed through the opening between me and the door. He whipped out another piece of paper and I signed it.

  He sort of trotted out to the car and slid in beside Traynor, whose head was back against the seat. They swung around in a u-turn in front of the house and then they was gone.

  J. T. was putting his shirt on when I got back to the bedroom. Yankees beat the Orioles 10–6, he said. I believe I’ll drive out to Paschal’s pond and go fishing. Wanta go?

  While I was putting on my pants J. T. was holding the two checks.

  I’m real proud of a woman that can make cash money without leavin’ home, he said. And I said Umph. Because we met on the road with me singing in first one little low-life jook after another, making ten dollars a night for myself if I was lucky, and sometimes bringin’ home nothing but my life. And J. T. just loved them times. The way I was fast and flashy and always on the go from one town to another. He loved the way my singin’ made the dirt farmers cry like babies and the womens shout Honey, hush! But that’s mens. They loves any style to which you can get ’em accustomed.


  My little grandbaby called me one night on the phone: Little Mama, Little Mama, there’s a white man on the television singing one of your songs! Turn on channel 5.

  Lord, if it wasn’t Traynor. Still looking half asleep from the neck up, but kind of awake in a nasty way from the waist down. He wasn’t doing too bad with my song either, but it wasn’t just the song the people in the audience was screeching and screaming over, it was that nasty little jerk he was doing from the waist down.

  Well, Lord have mercy, I said, listening to him. If I’da closed my eyes, it could have been me. He had followed every turning of my voice, side streets, avenues, red lights, train crossings and all. It give me a chill.

  Everywhere I went I heard Traynor singing my song, and all the little white girls just eating it up. I never had so
many ponytails switched across my line of vision in my life. They was so proud. He was a genius.

  Well, all that year I was trying to lose weight anyway and that and high blood pressure and sugar kept me pretty well occupied. Traynor had made a smash from a song of mine, I still had seven hundred dollars of the original one thousand dollars in the bank, and I felt if I could just bring my weight down, life would be sweet.


  I lost ten pounds in 1956. That’s what I give myself for Christmas. And J. T. and me and the children and their friends and grandkids of all description had just finished dinner—over which I had put on nine and a half of my lost ten—when who should appear at the front door but Traynor. Little Mama, Little Mama! It’s that white man who sings ——— ——— ———. The children didn’t call it my song anymore. Nobody did. It was funny how that happened. Traynor and the deacon had bought up all my records, true, but on his record he had put “written by Gracie Mae Still.” But that was just another name on the label, like “produced by Apex Records.”

  On the TV he was inclined to dress like the deacon told him. But now he looked presentable.

  Merry Christmas, said he.

  And same to you, Son.

  I don’t know why I called him Son. Well, one way or another they’re all our sons. The only requirement is that they be younger than us. But then again, Traynor seemed to be aging by the minute.

  You looks tired, I said. Come on in and have a glass of Christmas cheer.

  J. T. ain’t never in his life been able to act decent to a white man he wasn’t working for, but he poured Traynor a glass of bourbon and water, then he took all the children and grandkids and friends and whatnot out to the den. After while I heard Traynor’s voice singing the song, coming from the stereo console. It was just the kind of Christmas present my kids would consider cute.

  I looked at Traynor, complicit. But he looked like it was the last thing in the world he wanted to hear. His head was pitched forward over his lap, his hands holding his glass and his elbows on his knees.

  I done sung that song seem like a million times this year, he said. I sung it on the Grand Ole Opry, I sung it on the Ed Sullivan show. I sung it on Mike Douglas, I sung it at the Cotton Bowl, the Orange Bowl. I sung it at Festivals. I sung it at Fairs. I sung it overseas in Rome, Italy, and once in a submarine underseas. I’ve sung it and sung it, and I’m making forty thousand dollars a day offa it, and you know what, I don’t have the faintest notion what that song means.

  Whatchumean, what do it mean? It mean what it says. All I could think was: These suckers is making forty thousand a day offa my song and now they gonna come back and try to swindle me out of the original thousand.

  It’s just a song, I said. Cagey. When you fool around with a lot of no count mens you sing a bunch of ’em. I shrugged.

  Oh, he said. Well. He started brightening up. I just come by to tell you I think you are a great singer.

  He didn’t blush, saying that. Just said it straight out.

  And I brought you a little Christmas present too. Now you take this little box and you hold it until I drive off. Then you take it outside under that first streetlight back up the street aways in front of that green house. Then you open the box and see… Well, just see.

  What had come over this boy, I wondered, holding the box. I looked out the window in time to see another white man come up and get in the car with him and then two more cars full of white mens start out behind him. They was all in long black cars that looked like a funeral procession.

  Little Mama, Little Mama, what it is? One of my grand-kids come running up and started pulling at the box. It was wrapped in gay Christmas paper—the thick, rich kind that it’s hard to picture folks making just to throw away.

  J. T. and the rest of the crowd followed me out the house, up the street to the streetlight and in front of the green house. Nothing was there but somebody’s gold-grilled white Cadillac. Brandnew and most distracting. We got to looking at it so till I almost forgot the little box in my hand. While the others were busy making ’miration I carefully took off the paper and ribbon and folded them up and put them in my pants pocket. What should I see but a pair of genuine solid gold caddy keys.

  Dangling the keys in front of everybody’s nose, I unlocked the caddy, motioned for J.T. to git in on the other side, and us didn’t come back home for two days.


  Well, the boy was sure nuff famous by now. He was still a mite shy of twenty but already they was calling him the Emperor of Rock and Roll.

  Then what should happen but the draft.

  Well, says J. T. There goes all this Emperor of Rock and Roll business.

  But even in the army the womens was on him like white on rice. We watched it on the News.

  Dear Gracie Mae [he wrote from Germany],

  How you? Fine I hope as this leaves me doing real well. Before I come in the army I was gaining a lot of weight and gitting jittery from making all them dumb movies. But now I exercise and eat right and get plenty of rest. I’m more awake than I been in ten years.

  I wonder if you are writing any more songs?



  I wrote him back:

  Dear Son,

  We is all fine in the Lord’s good grace and hope this finds you the same. J. T. and me be out all times of the day and night in that car you give me—which you know you didn’t have to do. Oh, and I do appreciate the mink and the new self-cleaning oven. But if you send anymore stuff to eat from Germany I’m going to have to open up a store in the neighborhood just to get rid of it. Really, we have more than enough of everything. The Lord is good to us and we don’t know Want.

  Glad to here you is well and gitting your right rest. There ain’t nothing like exercising to help that along. J. T. and me work some part of every day that we don’t go fishing in the garden.

  Well, so long Soldier.


  Gracie Mae

  He wrote:

  Dear Gracie Mae,

  I hope you and J. T. like that automatic power tiller I had one of the stores back home send you. I went through a mountain of catalogs looking for it—I wanted something that even a woman could use.

  I’ve been thinking about writing some songs of my own but every time I finish one it don’t seem to be about nothing I’ve actually lived myself. My agent keeps sending me other people’s songs but they just sound mooney. I can hardly git through ’em without gagging.

  Everybody still loves that song of yours. They ask me all the time what do I think it means, really. I mean, they want to know just what I want to know. Where out of your life did it come from?




  I didn’t see the boy for seven years. No. Eight. Because just about everybody was dead when I saw him again. Malcolm X, King, the president and his brother, and even J. T.. J. T. died of a head cold. It just settled in his head like a block of ice, he said, and nothing we did moved it until one day he just leaned out the bed and died.

  His good friend Horace helped me put him away, and then about a year later Horace and me started going together. We was sitting out on the front porch swing one summer night, dusk-dark, and I saw this great procession of lights winding to a stop.

  Holy Toledo! said Horace. (He’s got a real sexy voice like Ray Charles.) Look at it. He meant the long line of flashy cars and the white men in white summer suits jumping out on the drivers’ sides and standing at attention. With wings they could pass for angels, with hoods they could be the Klan.

  Traynor comes waddling up the walk.

  And suddenly I know what it is he could pass for. An Arab like the ones you see in storybooks. Plump and soft and with never a care about weight. Because with so much money, who cares? Traynor is almost dressed like someone from a storybook too. He has on, I swear, about ten necklaces. Two sets of bracelets on his arms, at least one ring on every finger, and some kind of shining buck
les on his shoes, so that when he walks you get quite a few twinkling lights.

  Gracie Mae, he says, coming up to give me a hug. J. T.

  I explain that J. T. passed. That this is Horace.

  Horace, he says, puzzled but polite, sort of rocking back on his heels, Horace.

  That’s it for Horace. He goes in the house and don’t come back.

  Looks like you and me is gained a few, I say.

  He laughs. The first time I ever heard him laugh. It don’t sound much like a laugh and I can’t swear that it’s better than no laugh a’tall.

  He’s gitting fat for sure, but he’s still slim compared to me. I’ll never see three hundred pounds again and I’ve just about said (excuse me) fuck it. I got to thinking about it one day an’ I thought: aside from the fact that they say it’s unhealthy, my fat ain’t never been no trouble. Mens always have loved me. My kids ain’t never complained. Plus they’s fat. And fat like I is I looks distinguished. You see me coming and know somebody’s there.

  Gracie Mae, he says, I’ve come with a personal invitation to you to my house tomorrow for dinner. He laughed. What did it sound like? I couldn’t place it. See them men out there? he asked me. I’m sick and tired of eating with them. They don’t never have nothing to talk about. That’s why I eat so much. But if you come to dinner tomorrow we can talk about the old days. You can tell me about that farm I bought you.

  I sold it, I said.

  You did?

  Yeah, I said, I did. Just cause I said I liked to exercise by working in a garden didn’t mean I wanted five hundred acres! Anyhow, I’m a city girl now. Raised in the country it’s true. Dirt poor—the whole bit—but that’s all behind me now.

  Oh well, he said, I didn’t mean to offend you.

  We sat a few minutes listening to the crickets.

  Then he said: You wrote that song while you was still on the farm, didn’t you, or was it right after you left?

  You had somebody spying on me? I asked.

  You and Bessie Smith got into a fight over it once, he said.