I AM NOT SIDNEY POITIERA Novel
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2009 Percival Everett
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-1-55597-527-2
I am the ill-starred fruit of a hysterical pregnancy, and surprisingly, odd though I might be, I am not hysterical myself. I'm rather calm, in fact; some might say waveless. I am tall and dark and look for the world like Mr. Sidney Poitier, something my poor disturbed and now deceased mother could not have known when I was born, when she named me Not Sidney Poitier. I was born after two years of hysterical gestation, and who knows what happens in a mind when expectant, anticipative for so long. Two years. At least this was the story told to me.
To make a long and sad story abbreviated and sad, this is how I have put it together: My mother, famously eager to have a child and likewise famously odd, offbeat, curious to all who met her and famously very much without a partner, one day told her neighbors, near and not so near, that she was pregnant. Everyone nodded in appropriate and understandably sympathetic, if not outright patronizingly though benignant ways, but then much to their surprise, horror to some, befuddlement to nearly all, my mother's belly began to inflate. Her belly grew quite large from all reports, but after the customary nine or so months there was no baby. This full and soon to be overfull, too-full term had been preceded by two hysterical miscarriages, both matters of public knowledge and joking, and so there was already plenty of room for doubt. And then after ten, eleven, twelve months there was still only brown belly-skin stretched drum-taut over what many believed to be a volleyball, and so everyone understood that my crazy mother, volley ball theory notwithstanding, was suffering, or perhaps perpetrating, yet another hysterical or, more likely or precisely, insane pregnancy. Then after twenty-four months I was in fact born and not terribly quietly, mind you, as my mother woke many people with this emergency, at first by knocking, then by howling like a coyote, and so my entry was well attended and well documented by a shocked few who told a shocked, though mainly uncaring, many.
It was also, as one might suspect, a bit of a hysterical delivery. My mother's wailing caught the attention of a nearby woman who called another neighbor woman and soon there were three of them huddled like conspirators around the spread-eagled legs of my mother, staring at her privates and believing that nothing would be forthcoming. One of them had a notion to summon the doctor from down the street, and so she did. The short, waddling doctor, bleary eyed and out of sorts, arrived and asked a reasonable enough question: "What week are you in?"
"One hundred and four." This came from the first woman.
The claim was backed by all present, including my mother, though her exact words were, "Far too many!" She then wailed, "Stand back, girls! Two years he's been forming and now he's coming!"
The doctor thought in his Thunderbird-booze haze that all of them were crazy while the huddle of neighbors believed only my mother was crazy. Then the doctor pulled out his stethoscope and gave the belly a long listen. Standing back, he said, "This woman is going to have a baby."
Another wail from my mother.
"I'd say imminently."
"Would you like me to boil water?" one of the women asked.
"If you'd like," the doctor said. "Tea would be nice."
But my coming was not as imminent as my mother might have liked as the labor proceeded to last some forty hours, a forty hours that saw a parade of curious well-wishers, voyeurs, file through the house: some drinking coffee, some eating popcorn, and all commenting on the very strange gestation period and even stranger actual existence of a baby. The doctor was quite sad he'd been called because even though he had taken the Hippocratic oath, he thought that there were better things he could have been doing, not the least of which was finishing the bottle he'd abandoned, though the neighborhood women finally used the kitchen to prepare much food that he found to his liking. As it happened, I finally burst out, though perhaps burst is not the right word as I came along feet first and oversized head last, all ten pounds of me, nearly tearing my mother apart, all of this very slowly. Her screams filled the streets like screams.
The birth astonished everyone in the community, perhaps no one more so than my mother, who viewed me as nothing less than an immaculate conception. Even news crews from as far away as San Diego and a couple of university sociologists and biologists came around to sneak a peek. The best I can figure is that my mother was in fact hysterically pregnant and that in month fourteen or so of that pregnancy she somehow managed to find and utilize the sexual organs of my father (a term I of course use in the strictest zoological sense), who may or may not have been Sidney Poitier, and she actually did become pregnant, and so here I am. Twenty-four months in the womb was the local legend, and so as a tyke I was seldom called by my odd name Not Sidney, but instead I was tagged Elephant Boy and on occasion Late Nate and once Ready Freddy by a boy who had moved to Los Angeles from Ohio. That one never did make sense to me.
As described, my birth was a difficult one, to say the least, sheer hell to say the most, a scary thing certainly, a near- death experience for my mother, a near- life one for me. She became obsessed with the belief that her pregnancy need not have ended so painfully, and that belief led to a campaign that she took very seriously, a campaign against all vaginal births. Our house was perpetually cluttered with T-shirts and posters with the same image and slogan: a vagina in a circle with a line through it and MISCS which stood for Mothers In Support of Caesarian Sections.
Though my mother, her name was Portia Poitier, was absolutely, unquestionably, certifiably crazy, she was not without resources. Perhaps she simply was lucky, I will never know, and therefore neither will you. When I was two, in 1970, she invested every dime she had in a little-known company called the Turner Communications Group that would later become Turner Broadcasting System. Every dime she had came to about thirty thousand dollars, most of a settlement from an elevator accident at her job with the phone company-a lot of money at that time, and for someone in our neighborhood it was a fortune. It turned out to be enough to make her filthy, obscenely, uncomfortably rich. Not as filthy rich as she would have been had she lived a little longer. Instead, I became filthy and insanely rich. In fact, so much stock did she have that Ted Turner actually paid her a visit shortly before her death. I was seven and remember the manic white man exploding into our house like a pale, mustachioed, talking tornado.
"Hello there, young fella," he said to me with that fast southern accent, engaging and alarming at once. "You seem like a nice young man."
I was standing on the porch of our house when he arrived, and a couple of the guys had just ridden by on their bikes calling out, "Hey! Where's your trunk, Elephant Boy!?" My mother, who had spoken to Turner numerous times on the telephone, called him Teddy.
The neighbors stared at us from their yards and through their windows. My mother, not out of any distrust but out of disposition, had kept her wealth guarded, not spending more than would seem ordinary. What she did spend her money on was hardly perceptible to those outside our home: books, music, and language lessons for me, and really good, sensible, and therefore ugly, shoes. She would spend hundreds of dollars on a pair of shoes that no one suspected cost more than thirty. My white and blue Oxford shirts came from London's Savile Row, she told me, though I had no idea why that mattered. All I knew was that I hated the shirts that no one else wore, longing every day for a T-shirt or a jersey of some kind.
Turner clicked his tongue against his impossibly white teeth and surveyed the neighborhood. He seemed comfortable in his skin and that made me comfortable with him. "Your mama's quite a businesswoman, yessireebobby, quite a business mind." I kicked a couple of toys away from the center of the floor. "Is that Lego you're playing with? I love Lego. Didn't have Lego when I was a boy, had an erector set. You've probably never seen one. Used to cut my poor fingers to kingdom come, blood all over the little screws and bolts. Always loved building things. Are those brownies I smell? Don't tell me your mama can bake brownies too? Don't you love them when they're just out of the oven, all warm and gooey and smelling to high heaven? Chocolate all over those screws and bolts. Yep, some businesswoman, your mother." That was what he was like and I have to say I liked him, and he genuinely liked my mother and loved the fact that she had had such faith in his business. And she liked him, called him Teddy, as I said. When he asked her why the kids had called me Elephant Boy, she told him that they were just jealous. He chewed his brownie and stared at me; her answer seemed to satisfy him.
"Tell me, Portia, just what kind of name is Not?" he asked.
"It's Not Sidney," my mother corrected him.
Turner was puzzled momentarily, then nodded his big head and laughed. "Oh, I get it."
Then it was my mother's turn to look puzzled. I never knew the story of my name. One might have thought that my mother imagined that our last name, rare as it was, was enough to cause confusion with Sidney Poitier, the actor, and so I was to be Not Sidney Poitier. But her puzzled expression led me to believe that my name had nothing to do with the actor at all, that Not Sidney was simply a name she had created, with no consideration of the outside world. She liked it, and that was enough.
My mother died shortly after that visit from Ted Turner. An illness came over her. That was how it was put to me. An illness has come over your mother. Within weeks death came over her as well. She passed away in her sleep, and I was told that was a good thing - no suffering, no pain. Even then I wondered why that was a good thing. We had no family, and certainly no one in the neighborhood would take in the abject spawn of the crazy lady, the product of such a strange and probably demonic, prolonged gestation. Had they known I was worth millions of dollars Elephant Boy might have been slightly more attractive, but they didn't know and they wouldn't have believed it if I or anyone else, even Ted Turner, had told them, even if they had known who Ted Turner was.
Enter Ted Turner once again. Turner saw my mother's substantial investment in his dream as a kind of symbol and charm for his success. My mother was the kind of grass-roots, if not proletarian, person he wanted to imagine his media world touching, however tangentially, on his way to great and obscene wealth. Anyway, Turner showed up and, to the drop- jawed bewilderment of the neighborhood and city, took me away to live with him in Atlanta. To say that I lived with or was raised by Turner is misleading and simply or complexly untrue. I lived at one of his houses and was left pretty much to my own unformed devices. The staff of my part of the household, mostly black women, prepared my meals and took care of my needs, and my teachers, mostly black women, came to the house to educate me. I hardly ever saw Turner or his family, though for a while, during puberty, I found a place to secretly watch his leotarded wife, Jane Fonda, perform her disco exercises by the pool. Her ribs jutted from beneath the spandex, and I felt more than a little lust, though I held no crush.
To Turner's credit even he was not comfortable with the scenario of the rich do-gooding white man taking in the poor little black child. Television was polluted with that model, and it didn't take a genius to understand that something was wrong with it. My situation was somewhat different as I was in fact extremely wealthy as a result of my mother's business acumen.
I was supposedly free to make decisions concerning my own life. The house staff was run by a statuesque woman from St. Lucia. Claudia, with her massive afro and keen stare, made it clear to me, on more than one occasion, since she had decided: that, though sweet, I was a bit of a numbskull; that it had been made very clear to her that I was paying the bills out of my own pocket and not Ted Turner's; that she worked for me and not for Ted Turner; that her job was to please me, not Ted Turner. She liked the truth of that; I could tell by a certain tilt to her afro. And so did the two women who took care of my part of the house along with her. My teachers were a string of girls from Spelman College who thought I was either simply adorable or a stinking pariah, a pathetic social abomination better left unhandled, if not unconsidered. One, however, Betty, was a raving socialist who liked me, liked teaching me, and liked especially the fact that I had money to burn, real money she called it, and I trusted her because she spoke of it openly. She imagined that one day I might use my wealth for good. Still, she had some difficulty accommodating the reality of my residing in Ted Turner's house. I was eleven when I told her that I actually paid rent to live there and so really wasn't being cared for by Turner at all. Technically I was paying rent, but the money was being funneled back to me through some kind of manipulation of stock options. I understood the concept if not the machinations. I was slightly precocious, and Betty liked that about me. Betty was my first crush, though I never imagined her working out to disco music the way I did with Jane Fonda. Betty called herself "big boned," and she was even in my eyes a little plump, but I thought she was beautiful.
She taught me about Marx and Lenin and Castro and the ills of American democracy and the fall of the Roman empire and about how the British lost their empire because they were likely as not to stand around in sheer amazement upon recognizing that they were not loved by their colonized peoples. She taught me that America preached freedom yet would not allow anyone to be different. She usually told me all of this while stuffing her face with big greasy sandwiches from Hardee's and greasier chicken from Popeyes. Wiping her mouth the while and sighing, she was likely to say, "This is why I'm big boned," and then she would let out her rather endearing snorting and loud laugh.
"Multinational and defense corporations, those greedy bastards, they are the real powers of this country," she said. "The mass media and the oil, they're the movers, the facilitators. Politicians are just tools used to make us think we have some choice and a little power."
I was rubbing my shoulder under the coarse white fabric of my karate dogi. A bigger boy had roughed me up the day before, and I was awaiting the as- usual, one- day- too- late visit from my martial arts instructor.
"Ted is in the media," I said.
"My point exactly." She looked around the room as if to be sure no one was listening. "He's precisely the kind of pestilential, poisonous, pernicious parasite I'm talking about." She often gave in to some inexplicable and strange, but I thought quaint, alliterative urge.
"I like him."
"You're a child."
"He likes you," I said.
This threw her off. "Why do you say that?"
"He said so."
"I don't know."
"What exactly did he say?"
"He said, 'You know, Nu'ott, I like that big- boned teacher of yours.'" I affected my best, but not very good southern accent. I was confused by how much Betty enjoyed hearing this. "Do you like him, too?" I asked.
"Of course not, Not. That man is the devil. You be careful around that white man. And around whitey in general."
"Why do you say he's the devil?" I asked.
"Young brother, young brother, you have no idea. Money be green, we be black, and the devil be white. That's all we know and all we need to know. Trust me, your big-boned sister."
"I just don't see why him being white makes him the devil. My mother liked him. My mother was smarter than you. I like him. And he likes you."
"Stop saying that." She reached into her bag for some hard candy and unwrapped it. She stared at me while she put it in her mouth. "Why do you insist on repeating that he likes me."
"I said it only twice," I said.
"That, Not, is called repetition. I'm amazed. Really, you would think that after all I have tried so untiringly, diligently and un tiringly to teach you, you would know that."
"You said 'untiringly' twice."
"I did not."
"Are you saying that 'you did not' or that 'you did, Not'?" I asked.
"I did not say untiringly twice, Not."
I didn't press the matter, but felt mightily puzzled by her behavior.
"Besides," she said, "you must have misheard him." She rearranged her big bones in her seat. "What expressly, explicitly, exactly did he say?"
"He said, hating to repeat myself, 'Nu'ott, you know, I like that big-boned teacher of yours.' "
She bit into her candy. I think it was butterscotch. "And why does he say your name like that?"
"I don't really know," I said. And I didn't. I imagined that he considered Not to be an actual name and couldn't believe it would be simply the single syllable it was. So, it came out Nu'ott, the same way god became ga'awd for the evangelist on the street in downtown Decatur.