Elizabeth, my grandmother, Miz Lena's housekeeper, said, "Jus' say yo friend ask you is he ugly, and he is. What you gonna say? You ain't gonna say he is, even if you think he is. You ain't gonna say he ugly. He yo friend. You understand? You ain't wanna get him all upset, cuz he yo friend. You understand that? The Lord say don't lie. But he understand dat kinda lie."
She said this to me in the kitchen. I was around 7 years old. It was summer. I was once again living with my grandparents. Elizabeth and I had just come very close to being busted by Miz Lena for listening to "the devil's music" on her blue and white Zenith clock radio. It sat on the kitchen drain board, bordered by the sugar bowl and a set of ceramic chicken salt-and-pepper shakers. The white hen was salt, and the black rooster was pepper. The radio was really more like a fancy clock.
If I asked Grand Mom to turn it on, she'd say, "This radio is for the news. You wanna listen to the news?" I'd say no, that I wanted to listen to music. Her answer was always the same, "Looka here, I don't want to run down my warranty. Somethin' could go wrong, and there goes my brand new radio." The radio was already a few years old. It just looked new, because it hardly ever got played. Miz Lena continued, "Besides, Elizabeth kain't concentrate on her work with that music blarin' all over the house."
Miz Lena, getting ready to run some errands, said, "Elizabeth, make shore he gits some of that chicken noodle soup there on the stove. They's Lay's potato chips in the bread drawer, and he can have just one bottle of Coca-Cola." Back then, Cokes came in 6-ounce bottles. Miz Lena's refrigerator got so cold that ice would form inside the bottle. Slush ice. It made it the best-tasting Coca-Cola of all time! It was hard to have just one.
Grand Mom picked up her keys off the little desk back in the utility room and stepped back in the kitchen. More Butch instructions. She told Elizabeth, "Get him fed." Then to me, "Butch, you hurry up and eat and then go on outside and play in the yard. Looka here, don't you go wanderin' off where we kain't find yuh. If yuh need to go the bathroom, you be shore to take off yore shoes before you walk across my clean carpet. And don't be runnin' through my dinin' room. You're gonna chip my good china, and you'll be payin' it off till yore full grown."
Then, back to Elizabeth, "Elizabeth, don't you let him sweet-talk you into him bein' in the house. Understood?"
Elizabeth said, "Yes'm, Miz Lena."
After I finished my lunch, I started working on getting another Coke. I always went for pity. I said, "Elizabeth, I know Grand Mom said only one Coca-Cola, but she doesn't know how hot it is out there. May I please have just one more? Please? Didn't you see me faint out in the front yard yesterday?"
Sometimes, when I was trying to get back in the house, I'd fake it like the sun had gotten the best of me and fall to the ground right in front of the kitchen window. It never worked.
Elizabeth said, "Child, you know yo' grand mama count them soda-pop bottles." Shaking her head no, she continued, "Mmm-mmm. Just one. Dat's it." I tried every angle I could think of to get that extra Coke. Elizabeth never wavered.
But every once in a while, I could talk her into letting me turn the radio on and dance to the music. I liked the same station as did Elizabeth — a black radio station out of Nashville. She'd walk over to the radio and kinda look around the room, out the sink window and back behind her. Then she'd twist the knob and turn up the volume to the most exciting music I'd ever heard. Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Little Richard. The Coasters!
Immediately, the spirit overtook me, and I became a dancing fool! I'd shake my butt and bop my head to the rhythm. Elizabeth had me take off my shoes. She said, "We don't wanna scratch up yo grand mama's flo." It was linoleum. In my socks, I could slide across the floor like James Brown.
By the third song, Elizabeth felt the spirit, too. She'd shake a little bit and start singing along with the song. I thought she was the best singer I'd ever heard. She knew all the words. Even the doo-wop parts.
Pretty soon, we were dancing all around the kitchen, our hands in the air. We bopped our heads in unison to the beat and laughed out loud. We were lost in the music. The joy of dancing!
We couldn't turn the volume up too high. We needed to be able to listen for the car motor. Miz Lena could show up out of the blue.
I don't remember Grand Mom ever giving a time she would return. We just knew that our time was somewhat limited. Elizabeth and I got the most out of our music. After a few songs had played and during commercial breaks, I'd run in and out of the utility room and peek out the window toward the gate entrance.
The gate was less than 50 yards away. Still, you had a good minute and a half to put things back to normal before Miz Lena opened the back door. But no sense in taking any chances.
One day, I looked out the window and Grand Mom's car was already parked under the carport and she was heading toward the back door to the kitchen. I sounded the alarm!
Lickity-split, Elizabeth turned off the radio and faced the sink. I sat down at the kitchen table and opened my crayons box and one of my coloring books to a page I had already colored and began to write at the top of the page, "I love Grand Mom."
Miz Lena could spot something wrong from a mile away. There was no hiding anything from her. She had X-ray vision, was able to hear things from a mile away, and she could read my mind. Superman had nothing on Miz Lena.
I was doing my best to act composed. Elizabeth had become a mute statue. Dead quiet in the kitchen. That clock on the radio ticking off deafening seconds of the minute. CLICK, CLICK, CLICK. Grand Mom, standing there, looking back and forth at Elizabeth and me. She started in on us, rapid fire! "Awright, what's goin' on in here? What are you two up to? How many Cokes did he have, Elizabeth?"
Grand Mom looked over at me and said, "Looka here, I thought I told you to play outside. What are you doin' in here in my kitchen?" Elizabeth remained paralyzed. Grand Mom said, "Elizabeth, didn't I tell you to keep him outside?" Elizabeth turned around. She had that "deer in the headlights" look on her face. It appeared to me that she was gonna crack.
Before Elizabeth could answer, I handed my hand-signed coloring to Miz Lena. It moved her. Grand Mom gave me a kiss on top of my head and headed to the back. All was forgotten. Elizabeth breathed a huge sigh of relief. Me, too. We made it.
Later that day, Elizabeth and I were alone in the kitchen. She was visibly shaken — big-eyed and rubbing her hands together. She said that what we had done was wrong. She loud-whisper told me, "And we ain't gonna do dat no mo'. Miz Lena have done been too good to me. So dat's it. Child, I'm sho' da Lord understand why we lie dis time. But yo' grand mama, she don't think like da Lord do."
Bill Stamps spent four decades in the entertainment business before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tennessee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.