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November 2021 Issue [Readings]

Melancholy & the Infinite Sadness

From The Perishing, which will be published this month by Counterpoint Press.

My name is Sarah Shipley and I’ve slept with five women. Since I married a man, no one asks the kind of person I choose anymore. I’ve been married six times, all of them men, all of them taken from me, by God or by man, death in all cases. My first husband is who I remember most.

First Husband was once born in 1948 and was murdered just like my third, but I wasn’t surprised. Devastated, but not surprised. We’re all on the verge of somebody else’s violence.

It used to scare people when I’d let down my guard and confess that my husbands were murdered. They would call me cursed, not unlucky. In fact, the word “unlucky” would only be used by those who thought I had something to do with it. “ ’Cause no one’s that unlucky.” So now, when people ask how my husbands died, I say they stopped breathing. And for my own sake, I don’t remember the faces of those who took their breath anymore.

I was forty years old when First Husband died the first time. And in every life, forty is the age when I start losing things—memories, glasses, friends—the frequency of their deaths make dying pedestrian.

But not always.

Sometimes, it is life altering. It hurts me to watch the anguish of others who don’t understand it’s not always over. Not for everybody.

First Husband was devastated when he lost his mother, Florence “Mary” Clay. She had nine kids. In 1956, when he was eight years old, Mary walked off the cotton fields to work cleaning classrooms, 7 am to 7 pm, two dollars a week, slave labor, but “we all thought we were rich,” First Husband said.

Mary was the first female janitor at his school in Mississippi—preschool through high school—one school for all the Negroes, and she kept the whole school clean by herself. At lunch she worked in the cafeteria making sandwiches for all us children, he said, serving warm plates and apples. Never missed a day so folks respected my momma.

On Sundays, he and his brothers would walk up Columbus Street, their skin dark as wet soil and their new haircuts lined and shaped into something like helmets full of black flowers.

They’d wear Sunday suits then, each pressed paper-hard and without crinkle or sound, folded around their bodies like origami.

Folks would point and say, “Those’re Mary Clay’s kids,” and they’d make room for them. That’s how I knew about people, he said. Not by the way they treated me but by how they treated my momma. Respected her. That’s how I decided who I liked and who I didn’t. The other children at school would straighten their chairs and pick up trash before the school day ended because they knew my momma was coming.

First Husband was eighteen years old when his momma died. Sixty-one years of age. So at her funeral, he started counting down his own life because he was convinced he wouldn’t outlive her. He counted forty-three more years to make something of himself. First thing he did was call off the wedding.

You see, his girlfriend Olive was pregnant, and marriage was the Christian thing to do, but since his momma was gone, they had no reason to pretend they were religious. So he moved to California, and Olive said she’d stay with her family in Mississippi to have the baby, and that was that.

By the time I met First Husband, he was forty-five years old and had already stopped chasing the son he’d abandoned. He decided the best thing to do was to wait and let his son find him when his son was ready. And every birthday that edged him closer to sixty-one, he reminded me that he didn’t have much time. “I know I’ll die by sixty,” he’d tell me, “because I’m not worth more than what Momma had.”

I’d argue.

I’d tell him no one could know when his time was to die, but he said he did know, and then he proved it. First Husband died at sixty years old and I don’t disagree with him anymore.

When First Husband was thirteen years old, he had a best friend named Sammy. At thirteen, Sammy told him, “I’ll be dead in a week,” and he was.

My husband and Sammy were in the Mississippi Youth Gospel Choir together, and they’d been invited to sing at a church in Alabama. The pay was food and shelter and there were rumors that Mahalia Jackson would be there. Mahalia was Sammy’s savior, after Christ himself. A goddess. And she was the reason Sammy’s momma never broke his legs.

His momma had heard that Mahalia had the same condition as Sammy, legs bowed like a wishbone from his hips to his feet, yawned open at his knees and hardened like roof pitches curved outward.

Mahalia was the only Black person alive, she thought, with legs like his, so Sammy’s momma did what Mahalia’s auntie did. Instead of having the doctor break and reset his legs straight, as prescribed, she rubbed her boy’s legs down with grease and bathed him in boiled dishwater. The heat was tolerable. It would relax the bones, she thought, like chicken bones tumbled in hot broth, softened and flexible, and would dry stiff and straight in the sheets she’d wrap around his legs at night, and come morning his ankles and toes were blue from the tight bandages. It would take time, of course.

The hope of this cure is why Sammy’s legs never got broken. They never got healed either.

Each of the kids, if they were going to go on the trip and sing, had to pay their own bus fare, so the whole choir got good at chopping cotton for nickels a week. Sammy and my husband, who was then just Billy Clay, put in hours every day, from first light to nightfall, singing songs that Sammy had made up and written in ink on his arm with the ballpoint pen he found under the bus station bench.

Sammy’s falsetto became like the sweet sound of a cooing woman, so good that he earned himself the lead spot in the choir. But five days before they were supposed to leave on the bus, Sammy’s momma told Sammy that she’d used his travel money. She said, “You need it to pay for school clothes and not some trip to Alabama.”

Sammy was so disappointed when he found out about his money that he fell onto the ground, crying, right in front of everybody. And after he begged his momma one more time, unsuccessfully, with dirt and straw tumbling down from his cheek, he made a new wish. A few days later, he started telling his friends, “You’re not going to see me anymore.”

“But, Sammy,” my Billy said, “you’ll see me, right? We’re best friends.” “No, not even you, Billy.”

The day before the choir left for Birmingham, Sammy asked Mary Clay if she’d make him his favorite dump cake, and she did. So before the bus left, before Sammy’s week was up, Sammy and Billy snuck into the church building, sat in the pews, and ate a mess of pineapple and peach and butter and nuts with some mint, all dumped and baked into cake batter. The result was the distinctive flavor of strawberries. Proof that dump cake is life. No matter what you put in it, no matter what you try, how you’re received is not always up to you. And when they finished, Sammy sang what my husband described as “Sammy’s last bit of sweet-lovely, his notes high and soft like a fairy.”

It was the Wednesday of the ride back home from Alabama when everybody heard the news. Missus Johnson had phoned ahead to the school to let them know our failure—runners-up out of twenty-five—and that we were on our way. When she got back to the singing hall to meet us, no one noticed her changed expression before she told us, flatly, “Get on the bus.” It made sense to all the children because we had come to win, after all.

It had been hot that day, my husband said, and the night hadn’t cured it, so the starless eleven o’clock sky was like a boiled rag thrown over Birmingham, our bus an oven, its windows bleeding with moisture.

First Husband said that about halfway through the ride Missus Johnson stood up and gripped her seat’s back cushion, full-fingered, making frown lines in the plastic. Then she told everybody what happened: that earlier that day during summer school, some big kid in the lunchroom lifted Sammy up by his collar, then pushed him into the wall in such a peculiar way that it broke Sammy’s neck. Thirteen years old and he died instantly. My husband’s momma was the one who had to clean his urine off the floor.

So you see, we know, my husband told me. Sammy is proof that there’s no point in trying to outlive the date you’ve been given. Folks like us, we just need to leave something good behind. But you. Not you, he told me. “You’ve got forever,” he said.

He said it because I’d told him everything.

Because I promised to try to find him again.

Because I can’t be sure I can.

Because some people are bonded over lifetimes. Not a soul mate—a wasted term—but a kindred spirit. No, not spirit. The inarticulable part of ourselves.

Everybody I love dies, and no matter. Most people won’t survive everyone who loves them. Our lives are meant to mimic a passing breeze that won’t return.

Not me.

I have to live with my losses forever. Life after life in new bodies, new cities, and new countries, where I’ve always been Black, not always a woman. But people who are meant to be in our lives will find us. No matter how far we wander. Even if when we find each other we’re lost. Together.

So sometimes I’ll find my pair—like First Husband—even though I won’t search for him. Even though I promised. Because, for a while, I’ll forget our before this and finding him will be like a rediscovery, a shock of holy hallelujah.

We’re supposed to forget ourselves and each other after this. But I remember because I’m broken now. He won’t remember, because he’s not. This is my undoing.

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November 2021

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