Rosetta knelt to look at the stump in the corner of her client’s bedroom. It had the likeness of a ten-year-old boy, four feet tall, dressed in an oversized shirt and suspenders, and its features were flawless, from the newsboy’s cap cocked on its tight curls, to its pupil-less eyes fringed with long eyelashes. The only oddity was that stump’s hands were unformed, shapeless blobs. It was easy to believe that a sculptor had chiseled a boy out of wood and had stepped away just before finishing its hands.
Rosetta sucked in her breath through her cloth face mask. The SPC hadn’t told her that her first stump extermination would look like a child.
“Why did it take you so long to report this?” she asked the woman who rented the apartment.
“Went to visit my sister in St. Louis last week. When we got back, there it was.” The bedroom door opened, revealing a gaggle of gawking kids. The woman shooed them back, then frowned at the white man maneuvering a medium-sized crate into the bedroom. She sidled up to Rosetta and whispered, “He gotta be here too?”
“It’s all right; he’s my handler. Set the vacuum up over there, Marty.”
Marty Houchen winked a blue eye at the woman. “I do all the heavy lifting, ma’am. Sister Tharpe got the harder job.” Rosetta could tell he was smiling behind his own face mask.
The woman hmphed. Her mask, the cheap, paper sort usually sold at the SPC, dangled from her neck above her plain cotton-blue maid uniform. It made Rosetta feel overdressed in her faux fur and white kid gloves. To cover up the awkwardness, Rosetta went to look out the window.
The woman’s apartment was on the tenth floor of the Ida Wells Projects, the newest housing development touted as affordable for those with low incomes. The woman’s apartment was sparse, but everything was neat and clean, albeit it smelled of oxtail stew and shoe polish. It was also stifling hot in the apartment. Sheets of thick, opaque filters lined most of the windows in the main rooms. In the bedroom, there were no filters, but the woman had hung up bedsheets across the windows—a cheaper alternative.
If the woman had just returned from a trip, she probably had opened the window without thinking to let in the cold, fresh, February air. Just enough for a spore to float in and take root.
“What’s this made outta of anyway?” Rosetta turned around to see the woman prodding the stump’s cheek with her finger. “Don’t feel like wood. Feels spongy.”
“Don’t do that!” Rosetta rushed over to grab the woman’s wrists. The slight indent that the woman made in the stump’s cheek was already remolding itself back into shape. Rosetta glanced down to the stump’s formless hands. Was that the hint of fingers? “Marty, hurry!”
“I’m working as fast as I can.”
Still holding the woman by her wrist, Rosetta steered her into the kitchenette and scrubbed her hands with Ivory soap. “You need to be careful. Stumps can grow anywhere. These things can start growing on you and you don’t even know it. You might think it’s a boil or a pimple between your shoulder blades, behind your knee. If it bursts, you’re as good as dead.”
“Just wanted to see why they call ’em stumps,” the woman grumbled. “They don’t feel like wood.”
“They’re not wood. And they’re not people. No matter how much they look like them. You should wear your face mask at all times. Or at least put up filters on your windows in your bedroom.”
The woman glanced at her children piled on the sofa. “Those window filters cost the same as my rent. It takes ages to save up for them. And the face masks don’t do nothing. My kids tear through them before they even get out the door. How am I supposed to keep this place from getting infected if I can’t even buy what I need?”
Rosetta gave the answer that she had been trained to give. “Go talk to the SPC. They can work something out.”
The woman pursed her lips but didn’t say anything.
Marty emerged from the bedroom. “Get ready, Rosetta. I’m almost done.”
Rosetta went back into the bedroom and reached into the opened crate. She pulled out her guitar case, laid it on the bed, took a deep breath to prepare herself, and opened it. Her Gibson L-5 greeted her with its tan finish and gold-plated turning keys. She slipped the strap over her head and its weight settled, heavy and comforting like a baby in a sling.
It had been almost a year and a half since she played it. People used to make fun of it, saying it was nothing but a glorified mandolin, but Rosetta never took it as an insult. She strummed a G-chord, and she was no longer in the woman’s apartment, but in a crowded church somewhere in Tennessee. The pounding of feet on the wooden floorboards, the wafting of cardboard fans with pictures of funeral directors advertising their services, the heat and the sweat in the air, voices raised in song while hands and tambourines beat out rhythm …
… And Momma’s comforting presence as she swayed and plucked at her mandolin.
A twinge of emotion in her chest deepened into full-on heartache.
Rosetta lifted the guitar off her and put it back in the case. Marty glanced at her, but he didn’t say anything.
“What are you doing?” the woman asked. Rosetta quickly closed the case, but the woman had directed her question to Marty as he slipped a thick, transparent bag over the stump’s head.
“This is so that no spores get out during the extermination.” He adjusted the bag so that it fully covered the stump and secured the bottom with weighted lead rings. “There has to be no gaps or else one spore slips through and—kekkkkk!” He drew a finger across his neck.
“Stop scaring her, Marty.”
“Just stating the facts. Better get your mask on.”
Rosetta hated this part. From the crate, she took out a larger mask with thick, plastic goggles and a long hose dangling from the circular breathing plate, which contained a specialized filter made of the same material as the filters in the woman’s windows. Rosetta slipped the mask over her head and adjusted the straps, so it fit snugly around the back of her head and ears. Marty took the end of the hose and attached it to another one that was connected on top of the stump bag.
“Yeah,” Rosetta said, hating how mask stripped her voice of depth and timbre, rendering it flat and lifeless. Nothing for it but to do what she was supposed to do. She closed her eyes and began to sing.
“Up above my head, I hear music in the air. Up above my—”
A muffled whump came from the bag. Marty flapped his hands at Rosetta to stop. The bag billowed briefly, then slumped to the floor as if empty. Marty flicked a switch, and the vacuum inside the crate began sucking the remnants of the stump, shimmering particles larger than dust.
“Well, I’ll be goddamned,” the woman declared.
“God doesn’ damn anybody,” Rosetta said as she pulled off the mask. She felt tired, very tired, and this was just her first extermination. It wasn’t real singing, though. Anything that lasted only a few seconds long couldn’t be considered real singing.
Which was fine. She didn’t deserve to do any real singing anyway.
* * *
Minnie hated the SPC.
The walls were too white. The lights were too bright. The air was too dry. The constant whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of the air purifiers, filtering out every ounce of dust in the air, was too damn loud. Every time Minnie came here with her handler to drop off her quota of stump dust, the boogers in her nose turned to hard pebbles and set her head to throbbing. The SPC was a miserable, stupid place.
“I have the numbers from what you’ve brought in,” the weighing attendant said, referring to her clipboard. “It’s only forty percent of your quota.”
“It’s been rough, ya know?”
The weighing attendant frowned. Her eyebrows had been penciled in a thick, high arch as if perpetually astonished at Minnie’s presence in the SPC. “It also says here your handler has requested to be transferred to another department. Says you’re too ‘belligerent and uncooperative to work with,’ and you show up late to your exterminations—when you bother to show up at all. That’s the third handler now who refuses to work with you.”
Minnie gave a shrug. She hadn’t even bothered to learn his name.
“Now Lizzie,” the attendant said, drawing out the ‘z’ in a condescending buzz, “being an exterminator is a very rare calling. There are many people out there who would love to have that same ability as you. We’ve already had several exterminators pulled to help at the war front in Europe. That brings the total licensed exterminators in Chicago down to six.” The eyebrows rose until they nearly disappeared into the attendant’s red hair, pinned in a victory roll, the latest fad in the white folks’ world. “You don’t want Chicago to be quarantined just like New York, do you, Lizzie?”
Minnie didn’t answer. As far as she was concerned, the SPC quarantined her the day they showed up on her doorstep.
Nonplussed, the attendant referred to her clipboard. “Now, I do have some good news. A new exterminator just started working today. Between you and her, you should be able to contain the stumps in the Bronzeville district, which current count is … 23 as of today. If you continue to not meet your quota,” here she gave Minnie a stern look, “we’ll have to find some other way for you to serve in Stump Prevention Control.” It was always “Stump Prevention Control” with these people, never the “SPC.” Like them uppity folks who go around insisting you call them Mister so-and-such, Esquire. Like the attendant insisting on always calling her Lizzie.
“Just gimme my pay.”
The attendant sighed and handed Minnie twenty dollars. “We are assigning another handler to you. It will take several days to find someone who can handle your … temperament.”
Fuck you and your eyebrows. Minnie picked up her guitar case and left.
A team of men in hazmat suits brushed past Minnie as they headed down the hall to the elevators that would take them to the lower levels. All of them were white. Her handlers had all been white. The weighing attendants, the office workers, everyone was white. The SPC sure liked their white folk, which was funny, seeing that the building itself was located on the South Side, where all the black folk had ended up.
When she first started, Minnie had tried to get Lawler as her handler—he had been a lousy recording manager, but he was great with his hands, inside the bedroom and out. The SPC said that handlers had to undergo a rigorous one-year training to learn how to manage the machines, the vacuums, the pumps, the brushes, etcetera. Minnie then asked why she even needed a handler. Seemed like she could learn to do all the work herself without some white man always watching her, making her nervous. The SPC said her job was to only focus on exterminating the stumps. Her voice was too important to exert herself on manual labor. Only handlers with the appropriate training could handle the equipment due to the extreme toxicity of the stumps.
In other words: no niggers need apply.
Minnie reached the large lobby. Posters provided some relief from the monotonous hallways and overbearing lights. On one side were pictures of bright smiling white families in front of tidy houses with the words: “KEEP YOUR HOME SPORE FREE — BUY PERCY’S GRADE A FILTERS FOR YOUR WINDOWS — A FILTERED HOME IS A STUMP FREE HOME.” On the other side where posters of ‘famous’ exterminators: Bing Crosby, Marlene Dietrich, two of the Andrews Sisters (but not all three). There was even a separate section of black exterminators in the furthest corner of the lobby: Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Marian Anderson.
As usual, the lobby was full of people, mostly black. Many stood in line for various windows to report a stump sighting, arrange for an exterminator, or pick up a free paper mask to filter out spores. A longer line of people snaked in front of a door that had a sign above it in bold, yellow letters: “DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO BECOME AN EXTERMINATOR?”
In the center of the lobby was a television set displaying, in grainy black and white, a young blonde woman singing into one end of a long, glass tube. At the other was a jar of stump dust insulated inside a thick glass box. A chipper male voice narrated, “If this woman was just a normal person, nothing would happen. But she falls into that 1% of the population that has a ‘unique vocal resonance’ with the spores. Just look at that reaction!” And indeed, the camera cut to show the dust in the jar shimmering and swirling as it coalesced into tiny, indistinct forms. “All from the power of her voice!” the man pronounced in amazement.
The scene changed to show the woman, her hair and clothes perfect, striding into a building with a number of handlers. The narrator gushed about the exciting, yet dangerous, nature of the exterminator’s life. An exterminator’s voice raised in song could cause a stump to spawn, mature, and ultimately burst in a matter of seconds. An experienced handler was absolutely necessary for knowing when to stop the exterminator from singing to prohibit any more spawning. Inexperience could result in sloppy exterminations, respawning, or even immediate death. Despite the danger, the narrator enthused, exterminators and handlers were paid handsomely, for what they provided was a necessary civic duty for their country.
Minnie snorted. It was all bullshit. She was living proof of that.
She exited the SPC and headed to the bus stop just to the right of the entrance. Setting her case down, she pulled out her weekly copy of The Chicago Defender and flipped to the music section. As usual, there was no mention of her, her records, or the fact that she had been an exterminator for six months now. Count Basie was in town though—that took up half a page. Big bands were becoming more popular as more singers were being recruited into exterminators. The other half was an ad for Ella Fitzgerald, who became an exterminator in October 1939. Now everyone was buying up her records. The SPC had released a statement that recorded voices had no effect on stump spores, so for some singers, becoming exterminators were their best publicity yet.
But not for Minnie. She could still sell her records, but they didn’t sell too well; she had always sounded better live. Unfortunately, the SPC banned her from singing lest she’d activated any stump spores that might be floating about. So, no more concerts. No more tours. No more singing in clubs. She tried to do just guitar pickin’ at clubs, but it was annoying with her handler there, watching her every move.
A black Ford sedan pulled up in front of the SPC building. A white man with a derby got out, the words “Stump Prevention Control” stitched in yellow on the back of his grey trench coat. He opened the back door of the car and out stepped a young, black woman in a long brown coat rimmed with fur and wearing short heels. She looked familiar.
Minnie glanced back down at the music ads. Ah, right there, towards the bottom: a photo of the same woman, holding a guitar, eyes cast upwards in a heavenly gaze. The caption beneath read: “Cheers to Chicago’s Very Own Sister Rosetta Tharpe as she starts her new life as an exterminator on the South Side.”
So, that was the new exterminator. Damn. Girl got a notice in the Defender her first day working at the SPC, while Minnie got squat. Ain’t that a bitch.
As the SPC man pulled a full storage bag that made Minnie’s haul look like a deflated coin purse out of the car’s trunk, the woman caught sight of Minnie. She minced over with eager steps—amazing a big girl like her could stay upright in those short heels.
“Why, hello!” Minnie caught a strong force in her voice held in check, like an ocean wave restrained by a dam. “They said that there was another exterminator who also played guitar just like me. I see you got a guitar. Are you her?” A mole graced her left cheek.
Minnie’s bus rolled up. She tucked the paper under her arm and picked up her case and told the girl, “Mind your own fucking business.”
* * *
According to the SPC, the first stump appeared in a corner of a Bronx apartment in April 1938. A German family, who had just moved to the apartment, assumed it was a statue left by the previous owner. They dusted it, hung clothes on it, and even allowed the children to play on it on occasion, until one day it burst.
By the time the police reached the apartment, two children lay dead, the parents alive but convulsing, bloody foam oozing from their mouths and nostrils. They died minutes later.
As paramedics wheeled the bodies away, they noticed brown lumps forming along the floors and the walls of the apartment. Within the day, the lumps had taken on human shape.
They looked very much like the German family who had just died.
Soon, reports began to pour in from all around Manhattan. Brooklyn. Queens. Harlem. People called them stumps because, in the shapeless form, their wood-grain appearance really did make them appear like the stumps of trees. They always took on the form of deceased people. After a certain period of time, they burst into glossy, light-catching motes the size of dirt particles. These spores were light and easy to spread to any surface: carried on the wind, buried in a dog’s coat, breathed in by an unsuspecting person.
Face masks and dust filters grew in high demand.
In August 1938, the government, already burdened with a war it had entered against its intentions, had the Public Health Service commission a new agency, the Stump Prevention Control (SPC), to investigate and eradicate the stumps. The SPC discovered a small number of individuals contained a unique vocal resonance that could force stumps to mature and burst. This resonance only occurred in a cadence of embellished notes—in other words, singing. Recordings could not produce the resonance. The person had to sing directly to the stump to force a reaction.
At first, the SPC recruited well-known celebrities. Many were surprised when Frank Sinatra failed the test. Then there were the Andrew Sisters, where the two older sisters were found to have the resonance, but not the youngest. In September 1939, the SPC expanded the call for anyone with a talent for singing to come to their centers to be tested.
That same month, The Reverend Elder W. M. Roberts from the Fortieth Street Church of God in Christ visited Rosetta Tharpe at her apartment on Prairie Street. He sat in her kitchen, looking grave in his Sunday preaching suit. “Sister, it’s been over a year now. Folks say you’ve gotten diminished.”
He paused to let that sink in.
“You’ve been here ever since your mother brought you as a child to our fold. I know you’re hurt, but it’s time for you to start singing again.”
Another pause. He started to pat her folded hands, but one look from her made him change his mind. Instead, he said: “Your mother would’ve wanted it that way.”
The following week, Rosetta went to the SPC office to take the resonance test. She wasn’t surprised when she passed. Momma always did say she had a strong voice.
They gave her six weeks of training. She watched reel after reel of scientists explaining the effects of burst stumps, pointing to bodies that had been exposed to stump dust, noting in clinical terms the bulging eyes, the seized muscles, the froth dripping from their mouths and noses and ears, all in black and white. She learned about filters and masks, spent hours practicing how to put on her specialized mask until she could do it correctly in three seconds.
They also introduced Marty Houchen as her handler. He was easygoing and chatty, and liked wearing derbies and ascots like Cary Grant. “You may not know this,” he gushed at their first meeting, “but I heard you a couple of years ago on the All Colored Hour radio show. You were amazing! And your guitar! I mean, I’m not particularly religious, but after hearing you, I just about got saved that night—”
He stopped gushing when he saw the change in Rosetta’s face. Since then, he never brought up her music career.
Six days out of the week, she got up at 4:00am and changed the filter on the air purifier, the first major purchase she’d made when she became an exterminator. It was a bulky thing that sat in her living room window, but it allowed her to go about her apartment without needing a face mask.
After washing up, dressing, and a quick bite to eat, she left her apartment to meet Marty, waiting for her outside with a thermos of coffee with a thick plastic straw that could be slipped under her mask. In his car was the extermination gear: the hoses, vacuum, containment bags, brushes, masks—over 50 pounds of gear. After going over the list of addresses that contained stumps in their district, they were off.
They exterminated up to twenty stumps per day. Setup took fifteen minutes, vacuuming a good twenty to forty minutes, depending on the size of the stump. A site containing more than one stump could take up their entire day. Not a single speck of stump could be left behind.
They’d return to the SPC around 8:00pm—midnight if it was a particularly heavy day. They turned in the stump dust they collected, updated their dockets, and collected payment, splitting it 50/50. Rosetta then left Marty to take the equipment to the fumigation rooms to ride home in one of the ubiquitous SPC yellow vans. She went through her nighttime routine of going over her apartment for stumps, checking each corner, beneath her furniture. She changed the filters inside her vents, washed her face mask with the SPC’s special sanitizing solution. She then took a shower herself with the same solution, scrubbing, rinsing, and drying every inch of herself. She didn’t mind the work, or the long hours, or the tedious routine. It kept her from thinking too hard.
Sundays were her only day off.
She still attended the Fortieth Street Church of God in Christ. It was the church she grew up in. It was where she first started playing guitar, standing on the piano, dancing while the congregation clapped. Where she met Thomas, fell in love with him, and married him. Where the women elders cried with her after she got the telegram two years ago that broke her life apart.
Now that she was an exterminator, the praise and gospel music, joyful as it was, only painfully reminded her what she had lost. That and the whispers.
“There goes Sister Tharpe. She was gonna go to New York once, didn’t she?”
“Singing gospel music at the Cotton Club! Like a church!”
“Well, ain’t gonna happen now. God must be judging her. You know she was going to divorce Thomas, right?”
“Well, like the Good Book says: ‘be sure your sin will find you out.’”
Momma always said to keep your head high when people talk about you, so that was what Rosetta did. She threw herself into ushering, serving in the nursery, helping with dinner before the evening services. But she didn’t sing. Wouldn’t do it, no matter how many times the pastor asked.
How could she when it was her singing that killed Momma?
* * *
One day, Rosetta left the SPC examination room from where she had her weekly throat check and caught sight of the woman who was so vulgar to her three weeks ago. The woman stood by a stairway door, waiting for a group of men in lab coats to pass. Then, to Rosetta’s surprise, she ducked through the door.
Rosetta paused. After her last encounter, she wasn’t so sure she wanted to face the woman again. But that staircase was off-limits except for authorized personnel. So, where was that woman going?
Rosetta pretended to rummage in her purse while the lab coats passed her, deep in their conversation:
“—tests only showed 2% growth rate—”
“So, should we increase the sample area?”
When they had turned the corner of the hall, she also slipped through the stairway door. It didn’t go down to the lower levels. Only up.
A few minutes of huffing and puffing lead her out onto the roof. It was graveled, edgeless, and loud—the roof was dotted with large metallic curved ducts rising from the gravel. Unseen machinery hummed and whined, drawing air into the ducts; like Rosetta’s air purifier, but much louder.
The other woman stood next to a duct, her back to the stairwell, watching the sun sink into rosy-hued clouds and the rocky landscape of buildings.
Rosetta adjusted her face mask and walked towards her, careful to place her feet—this roof was not meant for short heels. The ducts were loud enough that the woman didn’t hear her approach, but as Rosetta drew near, a different sound, just underneath the duct’s whoosh, made her stop in surprise.
The woman was singing.
Rosetta couldn’t pick out the words. Something slow and bluesy. The woman rocked back and forth, keeping time by tapping her foot, as her voice rose and fell, a low controlled caterwaul that wound itself around the ducts like a hungry cat, then slinked down into a growl before evening out again. The SPC had been so adamant about Rosetta not singing at all, and here was this woman right on the roof of the SPC, flaunting her voice. She wasn’t even wearing a face mask. Her face was bare, open. Exposed.
The smart thing to do was to go back downstairs and report her to the nearest SPC agent.
But despite herself, Rosetta found herself rooted in place. She found herself thinking back to when she was eight and was sick with a bad fever, and how she had woken up in the middle of the night to Momma sitting by her bedside, laying cool cloths on Rosetta’s forehead and humming non-stop, the vocalization of her worry vibrating through her lungs and chest like prayer.
It had been so long since she heard anything like that.
The memory burst when the woman in front of Rosetta broke off from her singing to hock a wad of something brown and wet onto the roof. She pulled a handkerchief from her coat pocket and was lightly dabbing her lips when she finally caught sight of Rosetta. She turned, sticking her hands back in the pockets of her tweed coat. “Well, well, well. Whaddy’we got here?”
Rosetta replied with the same nonchalance as the woman. “You’re singing.”
“That’s right. I am.” Her speaking voice was a cross between a drawl and a growl. She was an older woman. Not as old as Momma had been, but, maybe, late thirties, early forties, with a hardness in her eyes and mouth that had nothing to do with age. “Watcha gonna do about it?”
Rosetta blurted the first thing that came into her mind. “Ain’tcha scared?”
The woman blinked, clearly not expecting the question. “Huh?”
“You’re out here, in the open. There could be stump spores floating around us right now—”
“Oh, that’s what got you all worried?” She pointed to the ducts. “This here’s probably the safest place in the whole city. Them things is sucking in all the air into the building. Ifn there be any spores, they get stuck in them fancy filters they got in there. Course, with you charging up behind me without closing the door, there’s probably got a whole team of SPC agents charging up the steps right now.”
Rosetta threw a panicked look at the stairwell—but then she heard a squeal of laughter from the woman. “Oh, girl, look at your face. Got you good there, didn’t I?” She bent double, slapping her knee, chuckling and snorting in a most unladylike manner. Her teeth flashed gold, not just a trick of the fading light, but real gold teeth.
Rosetta pressed her lips tight, then started towards the stairwell. “Hey,” the woman gasped. “Come on, I was just kidding. Hey!” She reached for Rosetta’s sleeve, but Rosetta snatched her arm away.
“Look, if you don’t want me up here just say so. I was just listening. Haven’t heard good singing since—” Rosetta stopped as her eyes suddenly stung with tears. Had it really been that long?
The woman sighed, then stuck out her hand. “Lizzie Douglas. But you can call me Memphis Minnie.”
“Sister Rosetta Tharpe.” Rosetta searched the woman’s hand, looking for tobacco stains, before finally giving it a shake.
“One of them holy rollers, huh.” The woman spat another plug of brown spit onto the roof. “And yet you followed me up here.”
Rosetta shrugged. “I gotta keep an eye on the only other black woman in this place.”
“Only bla—Oh my god, this girl. This girl!” Minnie threw back her head and gave another squeal that descended into a husky chuckle. Despite herself, Rosetta smiled.
When the woman got herself under control, she dug in her coat pocket and pulled out a business card. “Here.”
“My way of sayin’ sorry for swearin’ at you the other day. Tonight. 11pm. Follow the directions on the card.” The woman sauntered to the stairwell. “And don’t let anyone follow ya. We don’t just let any ol’ person in.”
* * *
The Alley Cat Club was located around 47th and Grand Boulevard, near the Regal Theater. The club itself was hard to find. You had to pass through two alleyways, tap on a back door three times, get ushered through a low hallway into another alley, go down some steps, and tap on another door two times. Prohibition officially ended seven years ago, but the Alley Cat still preferred to remain hidden from scrutinizing eyes.
And with good reason. Minnie had read in this morning’s edition of the Defender that there had been another club closure. The SPC cited that the owner had a faulty air purifier. Funny that none of the clubs the SPC closed were ever allowed to reopen.
The Alley Cat was the opposite of the SPC—dim, humid and smoky, even with the purifiers cranked on high. Dark girls in orange cat ears and floppy tails waded through the sea of tables. Men, black and white, tossed back their drinks and tried to cop a feel from the waitresses, roaring in laughter when they got their hands slapped. Women decked in furs and jewels mocked the men and flirted with the busboys. On stage, a colored girl in nothing but beads jutted her hips to the strains of a ukulele—which could barely be heard over the chatter, the shrieks, and the occasional crash of chairs toppling over as a fight broke out and just as quickly stopped.
No one wore face masks here.
Well. Except for one person. When Minnie glanced out at the crowd from backstage, there was the young holy roller sitting at one of the front tables, prim and proper, breathing mask firmly in place. She looked so stiff and uncomfortable, one of the waitresses had taken pity on her and poured her a glass of ice water. Now and then, she peeked up at the dancer onstage before dropping her eyes back to her hands folded on the table.
“Hey, Lawler,” Minnie called out.
He put down the trunk he was carrying and scrambled over. Minnie had met Lawler back in her touring days. He sang on a few recordings with her before managing to woo her away from her first husband. Nowadays, he spent most of his days doing the occasional odd job, and most of his nights being an asshole. “What’s up, baby?”
She pointed to the table. “I want you to keep an eye on that girl there.”
Lawler pulled out a rag to wipe his sweaty face. “She get lost on her way to the midnight prayer meeting?”
“Goddammit, just watch her. Jesus.”
The dancing girl did one last shimmy and scampered off, blowing kisses to the audience, and Minnie sauntered onto the stage. Tonight, she wore her best jewelry: a ring made from a six-sided die, and a silver dollar bracelet made from coins minted in the year of her birth. She had brushed her hair back, leaving a few curls high on her brow, and had donned a pair of glasses that made her look, according to one of her male friends, “like a colored lady teacher in a neat southern school.”
Instantly, the audience leapt to a standing ovation; outside the Alley Cat, she may not have been well-known, but here, everyone knew and loved her.
“Hey y’all!” Minnie yelled. “How ya feelin’?”
“Fine!” the audience roared back.
She strolled to the left of center stage, where resting against an amp sat her new toy: a steel-bodied electric National guitar, already plugged in. How Andre managed to get one when they weren’t officially available to the public, she didn’t know. She slung it over herself, got it settled in a comfy position, then drew her fingers down the strings. The electric chord crashed into the room, making people howl and Church Girl jump.
“Whoo, I don’ know about you, but I feel like singing tonight. Y’all wanna hear me sing?”
The audience shrieked their approval. Church Girl looked around, her eyes wide. She looked ready to bolt.
“We got you, Minnie!” Andre shouted from the back. Andre Fuqua, the owner of the Alley Cat, was a big guy with a tiny pencil mustache to go with his high, almost girlish voice. His purifiers were the best ones off the black market, and every so often, he paid off a couple of guys to reroute SPC inspectors to other bars and clubs. “Sing ‘Fashion Plate Daddy’ for me!”
“I sing whatever I goddam feel like,” Minnie snapped. And she launched into “Jump Little Rabbit.”
Her fingers came alive: frolicking, spinning, jitterbugging down the strings, while she belted rhythm on the guitar’s body. She made her voice growl, snarl, and groan as the songs tumbled from her in a waterfall of sound: “Jailhouse Trouble Blues,” “Can’t Afford to Lose My Man,” “Soo Cow Soo.”
She whipped the audience into a frothing frenzy with “Dirty Mother For Ya,” letting the rhyme lead up to where a cuss word ought to be, then cooling them down with a lick of glissando and a tamer word, only to rile them back up with an arched eyebrow and a jangling of notes. Every once in a while, she glanced over at Church Girl, expecting to see her storm out in a huff. But Church Girl stayed put, brown eyes wide and wet above her mask, following every movement of Minnie’s hands on the strings with awe.
And why wouldn’t she? The blues was the pluck of callused fingers on guitar string, the mmmm thrumming deep in the throat, the ice clinking in a glass of forbidden whiskey. It was the moaning and the wailing locked behind a stoic face, of lowering your gaze when a white man yelled at you, the standing outside of the church and knowing that you will never, ever be let inside. That night, Minnie forgot she was Lizzie Douglas, exterminator, whose voice could endanger the lives of everyone in this room. Tonight, she was Memphis Minnie, blues woman, who could play a mean guitar and make a church girl cry.
When she finished her final lick, Minnie sashayed off the stage, sweating and thirsty. Lawler handed her a gin and tonic on ice, and she went to plunk herself at Church Girl’s table. “So. There’s the answer to your question on the roof.” She tossed down the drink and ordered another one. “What you think of that?”
Church Girl wiped at her wet cheeks. “You just like breaking the law.”
Minnie blinked, then howled and pounded the table. “That’s the first thing you say to me? After I pour myself out like that? Jesus …”
The girl broke in, “… is God and Savior and Lord of all.” She then crossed her arms and gave her head a firm, decisive shake as if that settled the matter, which only made Minnie crack up even harder.
* * *
Rosetta came back to the Alley Cat the following week. And the next week. And the next.
She always sat up front, prim and proper, never drinking anything harder than tonic water. She didn’t need to—she drank the acts on stage with wide, thirsty eyes. Sometimes, Minnie caught her tapping her foot or moving her head, but after a few minutes, she’d stop as if mortified she was actually enjoying herself. The girl was so damn solemn. It was hard to tell that she was the same person as the woman in the newspaper, guitar in hand, gazing heavenward. At least she stopped wearing the filter mask inside the club.
They didn’t speak to each other when they were at the SPC. It was an unspoken agreement; they always got such looks, as if two black women in the same room together was too much of threat. But at the Alley Cat, it was easier for Minnie to hang with the girl. And Rosetta was starting to show signs of loosening up.
One night, they spotted Rosetta’s handler, Marty, sitting at Andre’s table. He looked up, caught sight of them, and turned a deep red. Minnie grabbed Marty by the arm and dragged him, protesting, over to a corner, leaving Rosetta to stand there staring awkwardly at Andre.
“Look. I don’t know what the SPC got against clubs, but if you breathe one word of me and Rosetta bein’ here, I’ll shoot you with my own gun.”
“What? Why would I even—”
“Look.” Minnie jerked her head towards Andre’s table. Rosetta had sat down and was now laughing at something he said, her demeanor relaxed. “This place is doin’ some good for her. If the SPC finds out the both of us been comin’ here, they shut down this place so fast, even you being Andre’s favorite boy-toy won’t cheer him up.”
Marty’s red face reversed color, draining to paper white. “How did you know?”
“I know Andre. You’re his type.”
He folded his arms and laid a finger alongside his sharp nose. “Fine, I won’t tell the SPC about you and Rosetta being here. Just don’t tell her about me and Andre. I don’t know how she’ll feel about it.”
Turned out, Marty wasn’t all that bad of a guy. He and Minnie chatted for hours about blues artists such as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Bessie Smith. Minnie also tried to pick his brain about the SPC. The longer she worked at the SPC, the more things bothered her. For instance, just what did they do with all the stump dust she and Rosetta collected? Where did it all go? How come she and Rosetta weren’t allowed to go down to the lower levels of the building? What was with all the lab coats?
Marty didn’t know. “I’m not allowed on the lower levels either. The only reason I got this job is because I don’t ask too many questions. I just do what I told, you know?”
The SPC assigned Minnie a new handler, a thick mooch of a guy who must’ve felt he was a sergeant in the army. He yelled at her if she did not stop singing immediately when he told her to stop. Forced her to sit in the back seat of his car and not touch anything. Harassed her if she lingered over lunch just a little longer than the required 15 minutes, or if she needed a break or the bathroom during an extermination. After a week of this, Minnie was at her wits’ end.
It was Rosetta who suggested that she and Minnie combine forces at work. “Right now, we’re both doin’ our own thing. If we’re the only exterminators in the black part of the South Side, we need a better way of hitting all the stumps that pop up. We need to plan our routes together. That way we can cover more ground, and your handler gets more work to keep him busy and not so focused on you.”
So, from that point on, Minnie had her handler take her to Rosetta’s apartment, where all of them divvied up the stump sightings for the day. At first, the mooch grumbled and complained, but he shut up quick when Minnie not only started meeting her quota but exceeding it. For the first time since becoming an exterminator, Minnie was finally making money.
“Hey, we make a pretty good team,” she told Rosetta. “Maybe one day you and I need to get together to play for real. I keep hearing how good of a guitar picker you are.” Minnie grinned, showing all her gold teeth.
Rosetta matched her with a rare grin of her own. “They used’ta say to me, ‘Shout, sister, shout!’ And I would do this trick I learned from Mom—”
She broke off and turned away, her face gone stiff as if shutting her emotions behind a door.
This always happened. Rosetta would get to relaxing and then something caused her to shut down, pulling a hard shell of grief down to protect herself. For any other person, Minnie would’ve given up.
But Minnie had seen Rosetta’s fingers twitch on the table when a horrible guitar picker played on stage at the Alley Cat, drumming out the correct notes with a dexterity that intrigued Minnie. This girl need to play again; that much was clear.
So, Minnie invited Rosetta over to her house on Thursday nights for dinner. She taught Rosetta how to play spades. She told stories of when she toured with the Ringling Brothers Circus, and busked on the Midway at Beale Street, though she only talked about the good times, not the darker, more questionable things she did to survive. It felt good to hang out with a fellow musician. Now if she could just get the girl to loosen up, things would be good. She just needed time, and if there was one thing that Lizzie “Memphis Minnie” Douglas had, it was plenty of time.
That is, until the day the SPC shut the Alley Cat down.
* * *
One morning, Rosetta opened her front door, expecting to greet Marty, but found a slew of SPC agents instead. They took her to the SPC, where she spent a full day undergoing a full body check for spores, inside and out. Throughout it, the agents asked her about the Alley Cat. How long had she been going there? Did she ever sing?
Bewildered, Rosetta said she had never, ever sung at the Alley Cat. She kept quiet, however, when they asked about Minnie, staring at her hands in front of her, not willing to tattletale on the only female friend she had since … well … since her momma died.
The agents sighed and made Rosetta re-watch the movie reels they had showed her at training.
It was close to midnight when they finally released her to Marty, who told Rosetta the truth. “The SPC stormed the Alley Cat after you left last night. They said they found stump dust in a small closet and shut the whole place down.”
Rosetta wanted to curl into a ball. Her eyes felt gritty, but when she closed them, she kept seeing the images of dead people from the training, their pain and horror frozen forever on their faces. “How did they know Minnie and I were there?”
“Minnie’s handler. He tailed her after work and saw the two of you meeting up in front of the club.” Marty scowled. “Andre’s a wreck. He said that closet is part of his routine check day and night, and he hadn’t seen any stumps there at all.” Marty stopped, peered closer at Rosetta. “Are you all right? You’re shaking.”
The full body check had included a laxative to clean out her insides. Her mouth tasted like chalk. “I’m fine. How’s Minnie?”
“They released her a little bit before you. Are you sure you’re all right? If you want to take tomorrow off—”
“No,” Rosetta said firmly. “We’ll work, same as always.”
“That’s my job, isn’t it? To prevent something like this from happening? Come on. We’ll talk to Minnie tomorrow.”
* * *
But Minnie didn’t show up to Rosetta’s house the following day. Or the day after that. At the end of the week, Rosetta had Marty drive her straight to Minnie’s tiny house, not too far from her own apartment. All the shades were shut, and no one answered the door. “Maybe she isn’t home,” Marty said. Rosetta threw him an annoyed look and went around to the back.
Minnie had finally earned enough from the exterminating job to buy an air purifier, a hulking beast which stuck out her left kitchen window. “Like my twenty-year-old ass,” Minnie had joked while it was being installed. Because of that, she no longer used her window filters, so Rosetta and Marty were able to peer into the kitchen window to see Minnie, clad in a pink housecoat, lying face down on the kitchen floor. The back door was unlocked, and Rosetta and Marty had to shove it open. A strong reek of moldy food and unwashed funk greeted them. Empty bottles, newspapers, and dirty dishes littered the floor.
“Oh, dear God,” Rosetta said, surveying the mess. “Is she dead?”
Minnie curled into herself and coughed a small stream of clear liquid onto the linoleum.
“No,” Marty said, wrinkling his nose. He stooped to pick up a half-empty bottle of gin. “Just drunk.”
“Oh.” Rosetta looked down at the still form of Minnie for a long time, then turned to Marty with a bright smile. “Okay. You head on home. I’ll take it from here.”
Rosetta bent over Minnie to hide her face. “Go on. I’ll be fine.”
When Marty left, Rosetta dropped her smile. She half-steered, half-carried Minnie to the bathroom. She started the shower, then reached for Minnie, uncertain on whether she should undress Minnie or just stick her under the spray. But Minnie was coming out of her stupor, grumbling and pushing away Rosetta’s hands to fumble at the housecoat’s belt. Rosetta started to speak, then pressed her lips tight and went back to the kitchen. She put coffee in the percolator, found a somewhat clean skillet, and braved the icebox for bacon and eggs.
By the time Minnie moseyed in, toweling her hair, the bacon lay, still sizzling, on a plate and Rosetta had slipped the last egg into the hot bacon grease in the skillet. Minnie plopped herself in the small table in the center of the kitchen. “Hooooooweeee! Man, I’m so hungry, my stomach hurt like it’s got meningitis. Hey, you know I wrote a song about that?” She began humming, slapping the table in beat, “‘Hmmmm hmmm hmmm … the Minnie-Jitis killin’ meee.’ Get it? Minnie-jitis?” She chuckled at herself.
Rosetta stirred the grits, keeping her face towards the hot stove. “How long have you been lying on the floor like that?”
“Damn, girl, you never ain’t seen a bender? Hell, this ain’t nuthin. Should tell you about the time back when I was busking back in Memphis. Got into a drinking match with Tiny Joe. Drunk him under in three hours. Then he drunk me into bed, and oooweeeee!” She leaned back in the chair, chuckling to herself. “Came home strutting like an alley cat. Stinkin’ like one too.”
Rosetta flipped the eggs over easy. “I just thought you’d have more common sense than this.”
“So, I drank too much. Don’t worry yourself, Church Girl. Get some food in me and I’ll be back singing for the Man and my supper in no time. Jesus Christ—”
Rosetta didn’t correct her.
Minnie started rooting through the dirty dishes on the table, looking for her tin of tobacco. “All right, what’s with you? So, the SPC finally caught up to us. No harm done.”
“No harm done?” Rosetta whirled to face Minnie. “They found stump spores at the Alley Cat. If you had sang, people would’ve died. And not only that, you missed a whole week of work! And for what? Because you were lying drunk on the floor all week?”
“Yeah, but no one died, didn’t they?” Minnie finally found the tin and tried opening it. Either the lid was on too tight or she was still too hungover to do anything, so she threw it back on the table in disgust. “Hell, it could’ve grown and burst anyway without us being there at all.”
“How do you know? You could’ve done what you did just now. It don’t take much, Minnie. Even if it’s just a bit of singing, that could be enough for a stump to do its thing.”
“All right, all right,” Minnie grumbled. “I hear you.”
“No, you need to get this through your head. You’re an exterminator now. Singing’s become too much of a liability. If that stump burst at the Alley Cat, think of how many people could’ve died. Maybe it wouldn’t be our fault, but still, we can’t take the risk. And maybe it’s a good thing it got shut down. What if someone who hasn’t been tested as an exterminator started singing and made the stump burst?”
“So, we just shut up and do our jobs and in the SPC will use any excuse they can to shut down more clubs. What’ll happen after that? Think the SPC just gonna stop there? You do a lot of singing at church, dont’cha? The SPC could start shutting them down too. Pretty soon everyone’s gonna be too scared to sing. Think of it. No more songs, no more lullabies. Hell, no more jingles. That what you want?”
Rosetta’s voice quavered. “Even the Bible says, ‘There is a time to speak and a time to be quiet—’”
“Now that’s some bullshit right there. I’ve seen how you at the Alley Cat. Your eyes all big and shiny, sitting at that table in the front, drinking all them songs in. Face it, honey, you need singing to live.”
Rosetta slammed the skillet on the stove hard enough to make it rattle. “My momma died because of my singing!”
In the sudden silence, the percolator let out a shrill burst of steam. Rosetta turned it off, then stood there, pressing her palms into the counter. “I was all set to go to New York to join the Cotton Club. The owner there had heard me sing and wanted me to be part of the act there. Momma said if I could make it at the Cotton Club, I could make it anywhere.
“But my husband didn’t like it. We had been married for four years, and he wanted to settle down, have kids. But I wasn’t ready, lord, I wasn’t ready. When I got offered the job at the Cotton Club, oh, we fought and fought. Finally, he said fine, we’ll go to New York, but only if I let him be my manager. Momma had been managing my singing ever since I was born. She told me that if Thomas became my manager, I would never get any good gigs, so the both of us decided that I would divorce him.
“I stayed behind in Chicago to start the paperwork, while Momma went to New York with Thomas. She was gonna break the news to him there. Momma was always doing the hard things for me. ‘God’s given you a gift, Rosetta,’ she used to tell me all the time. ‘You can’t keep quiet. You need to let the world know! Those people in the club ain’t gonna hear gospel music otherwise.’ And I believed her. I believed her.”
Understanding made Minnie sober. She sat up in her chair. “Let me guess. She died before telling him.”
“They both died. A stump in an alley burst just as they were passing it walking down a street in Harlem, looking at apartments.”
“It should have been me!” Rosetta cried as she turned to Minnie. “If I hadn’t accepted that gig, Momma would’ve never gone to New York. I couldn’t even bring her home because of the quarantine.”
“What about your husband? You miss him?”
Rosetta pressed her hands against her eyes. She then faced Minnie; her eyes were red but dry. “No,” she said. “I don’t miss Thomas. He was … a jealous man. He didn’t deserve death. But I married him, for better or for worse, and now I’m paying the price for putting my singing career above being a wife to him. Even if they hadn’t died, my career would’ve been over. The Cotton Club was one of the first clubs they shut down during the quarantine there. The stumps are a punishment from God.”
Minnie snapped. “Look, I feel bad for ya, but I ain’t gonna let you talk like that. What happened was an accident. Could’ve happened to anyone. And it sure ain’t no punishment if you got different aspirations than your man. Ifn’ he couldn’t deal, then you were right in walkin’ out the door. Ain’t no such thing as punishment.”
“It’s still sin, though. Sin is the consequences you get for following false idols. Mine is putting my singing before everything else. Yours is thinking you can do whatever you want when you want. The Alley Cat closing is just one of the signs.”
“Now hold on,” Minnie said, rising to her feet. “Finally showing that holy roller side, huh? You fuckin’ knew what you were getting into when you met me. Ain’t no angel wings on my shoulders.”
The pot of grits on the stove bubbled fiercely as the egg in the bacon grease took on a sharp burnt smell. “You’re a sinner, Minnie. Being reckless. Flaunting the rules. Drinking until you pass out. You need Jesus in your life. Only he can save you. Probably the only reason why He brought us together was to keep you from going to Hell—”
Minnie’s face twisted. “Get out.”
Minnie swept her arm across the breakfast table. The dishes, the newspapers, all went crashing to the floor. “Get the hell out of my house! Go on! Get!”
Rosetta hesitated, then turned her back on the ruined breakfast. She paused at the back door. “I’ll pray for you.”
She then ran to avoid the pot of burnt grits crashing against the door.
* * *
Minnie sat fuming and muttering to herself at the back of the No. 29 bus, her overcoat wrapped around the gray-pink dress, her wet hair tied under a black scarf. When other riders came towards the back, she scowled hard enough for them to sit somewhere else.
Rosetta saying she’d pray for her. Ain’t that rich. Minnie had people praying at her all her life.
“Lord, help Lizzie to stop runnin’ off so much. Lord, help Minnie to stop sleepin’ with so many men, so the right man can come along an’ marry her. Lord, please make Lizzie just stay home and stay outta trouble?”
Thing was, Minnie didn’t see how the alternative was any better. Just because you were saved and sanctified didn’t mean that life got automatically better for you. Good people still had to sit in the back of the bus, got chased from their homes from moving into the wrong neighborhood, lynched for looking at white people the wrong way. If God was supposed to make everything better for those who believed in Him, He was doing a shit job at it. People like Rosetta didn’t care just how hard a life Minnie lived. All they cared about was how ‘pure’ and ‘holy’ she was. Well, Minnie lost her pureness long, long ago.
Fuck ’em. Fuck ’em all.
Minnie looked out the window and saw that they were now in a different neighborhood. The signs on the storefronts were in a different language than English. “Hey, driver!” she called out. “What happened to Wentworth Avenue?”
“We passed it ten minutes ago,” he called back. “We in Bridgeport now, lady.”
A chill went through Minnie. Blacks never went into the Bridgeport neighborhood. Lots of Polacks, Irish, and Lithuanians folk, none who took too kindly to their black neighbors to the east. State Street was the dividing line; any black folk caught passed that were sure to get chased back across if they were so lucky. Common sense would be to stay on the bus, ride it to the end, then ride it back to Bronzeville. Tell the driver she fell asleep and missed her stop.
Instead, she pulled the cord to let her off at the next stop.
Butcher shops and furniture stores glowered at her with their shabby storefronts. Old women with scarves tied around their chins stopped on the sidewalk, bushy eyebrows pulling down in disapproval as she passed by. Young children peered out of doorways, unsmiling. Hard faces. Pale faces. Unwelcome faces.
Minnie shoved her hands deeper in the pocket of her coat and kept her pace steady, but not dawdling. Yeah, I’m walking my black ass down the street. What’cha gonna do about it?
She turned a corner into an empty lot and came across the largest patch of stumps Minnie had ever seen.
About twenty of them, in odd clumps and bunches, as if someone dumped stump dust by the handful and allowed them to grow. All were in various stages of maturity: a formless mass here, a fully formed torso and arm of a man there. One stump of a black woman looked fully matured; Minnie could count the coils of her hair, the lines her outstretched fingers, the other hand splayed over the full roundness of her stomach. Her mouth was stretched wide open in what was undoubtedly a scream.
Minnie circled the patch, baffled. Standard SPC protocol was that discovered stumps would be secured with bags so they could at least be contained until an exterminator dealt with them. But none of these stumps were bagged. Why were so many stumps out in the open so close to people? And why so many?
She reached up to make sure her filter mask was in place; her fingers touched bare skin. She had stormed out of her house without her filter mask. She was unprotected.
“Well, well, what we got here?”
Minnie turned to see about six to seven white men of various ages, dressed all in denim. For face masks, they had tied handkerchiefs and strips of fabric from shirts and bed linen around their noses and mouths. Above their impromptu face masks, their eyes were hard and suspicious. They must’ve worked in the stockyards, for the all had a smell of butchered blood.
As much as she hated the SPC, she used it as an excuse now. “I’m an exterminator. Just checking out these stumps. I’ll be gone before you know it.”
“Is that so?” A burly man with a red handkerchief stepped forward. “Seems like we had all sorts of SPC types crawlin’ around here as of late. What happened? Did they abandon you?”
“What are you talking about?”
The men laughed. It wasn’t happy laughter. “Your yellow vans been crawling all over our neighborhood at all hours of the night. Next day, there’s stumps all over the place. They don’t send no one to take care of them neither. We had to form brigades to keep stupid kids away.” Red Handkerchief’s eyes narrowed. “And you.”
“Wait.” Minnie rubbed her head. The anger she had sustained up to now was beginning to ebb, leaving in its place a pounding headache that intensified the more she tried to think. “Where’s your exterminator? I know you have one for this area.”
“Yeah, funny thing that. He’s gone. Haven’t been around for weeks.”
“But still, they should have at least secured the area, so the stumps don’t spread.”
“You think they do that, but they haven’t. In fact, we’ve been doing it ourselves with sacks. But here’s the thing. When we come back later, our sacks are gone. Somebody’s been taking them off.”
“But that makes no sense,” Minnie said. “Why leave the stumps exposed? At this rate, so many of them would spread, they’ll have to quarantine the city just like—”
Minnie’s hangover vanished as her entire body went cold.
What if that was what the SPC wanted all along?
“Go home,” she told the men, her mind racing. “Get your families and get out of the city, now. A whole lotta people gonna die.”
“We ain’t goin’ nowhere,” Red Handkerchief said. The men behind him spoke.
“For all we know, maybe it’s you who’ve been stealin’ our bags.”
“Maybe she was sent here to see if the stumps done their work.”
“I ain’t even sure she is an exterminator.”
“Niggers always lie to get outta anything.”
More ugly laughter. Minnie stepped back, beginning to regret ever saying she worked for the SPC. Used to be that she would carry a pistol for times like this, but like an idiot, she left it back at her house—
Something hard poked her between her shoulder blades. And Minnie realized she had a weapon after all.
“Back off,” she snarled, moving aside to show the stump of the black woman with her fingers outstretched. “I’ll sing.”
Some of the men looked at the Red Handkerchief, uncertain. He shook his head and scoffed, “She’s bluffin’. She’d get killed too.”
It wasn’t the offhand way he said it, but the way the other men nodded in agreement that filled Minnie with fear. She opened up her mouth to sing, “You saayyy that’s life; there’s something wrong with me …”
Red Handkerchief lunged towards her. “Stupid bitch! Stop!”
Several things happened at once. The stump of the black woman burst into shining motes. The man’s fist punched into Minnie’s stomach, making her double over, her breath exploding from her. Her clawing hand raked his face, yanking down his handkerchief, exposing his face. As the motes floated around her, Minnie struggled, trying to ride out the ache in her abdomen and the instinct to breathe in. But her lungs won over her abdomen, and when her stomach muscles unclenched enough, she made a ragged, involuntary, gasp—
Rose Haskell is standing on the corner, waiting for the trolley to pass. Her son squirms in his arms. He’s a year old, and already so heavy. Or maybe it’s her belly, heavy with another child. Sweet Charlie is at his second job, cleaning offices. He’ll only have a few minutes to eat dinner before going to the stockyards. The workers were on strike, so the stockyards were paying him to cross the picket lines. He didn’t want to do it, but perhaps it could give him permanent work.
She hears the shouting of the men before they round the corner of the street. Angry men, running so fast, she doesn’t have time to move, to scream. They surround. They yell. They yank her boy from her arms. He shrieks so loud, so loud until he stops abruptly. That red thing being bashed on the sidewalk. No, that couldn’t be. That’s not her son. That bloody thing, red matter flying, no …
And then they’re tearing into her, ripping, grabbing, tearing, thrusting, why don’t they stop, animals, animals, so much pain, she can’t fight, it hurts so much red, so much—
Then Minnie found herself on her hands and knees back in the lot, staring at the ground.
What the hell?
Minnie rose gingerly to her feet and checked herself. Other than the dull ache of her abdomen, she seemed fine. No seizures, no foaming at the mouth, no coughing up blood. Red Handkerchief sat flat on his ass, staring pop-eyed into space. A couple of other men began to sit up from where they’d lay in various positions, groaning as they stared around them. The rest must’ve run off.
She was fine. The men were fine. They were all fine.
So, what the hell happened?
Minnie jerked her gaze back to Red Handkerchief. “What did you say?”
“That woman. Rose Haskell.” He touched his face, then splayed his hands over his stomach and stared at it for a long time.
Minnie shook her head, stunned. “You saw her too?”
“Saw her? I was her. I lived her. I … was her. I know things about her. Those men … what they did … I could feel it … how do I know all this?”
One of the men retched. Minnie whirled, heart hammering, but the man pulled off the cloth around his face and wiped his mouth with it. “I remember my pa telling me about that race riot. He never said he was part of it.” He spat. “I felt everything they did to her. She was pregnant. And that boy. How could they—”
Minnie said slowly, “You were about to do the same to me.”
Red Handkerchief jerked up his gaze, anguish in his face. He started to speak but Minnie put up her hand to stop him. She was missing something, something she needed to look at right now.
On the ground, she could see the stump dust. She bent, touched a bit with her finger. She had never seen stump dust outside of a filter bag before. It was soft and powdery, like dull chalk dust. There was an almost sweetish smell to it, like dried rose petals.
“How come we not dead?” she asked.
“Stumps burst, people die. That’s what’s supposed to happen. But we’re all alive, aren’t we? What changed? Why aren’t we dead?” She stopped, then said, incredulous, “All I did was sing …”
In the distance, she could hear the faint wail of sirens. Bending, she scooped up a handful of dust. Putting some distance between herself and the remaining stumps, she bent her head and hummed into her cupped hands, just barely under her breath. The dust in her hands didn’t shimmer or reform. They didn’t do anything.
Those lying sons of bitches.
The sirens grew nearer. Minnie ran over to Red Handkerchief. “Hey! You wanna do something about what you just saw?”
He stared up at her as if still dazed. Minnie dug into her coat pocket, threw the business card at him. “Call that number on the card. Tell whoever answers to find Rosetta Tharpe. Tell her she needs to sing to the stumps. You got it? Don’t go to the SPC. You tell her Minnie said to sing to the stumps! Sing! Just like her momma told her to! Go! Go!”
Red Handkerchief fumbled at the card. The other two men were already scrambling out of the lot. She pushed him to get him going, then stood with legs braced in front of the stumps. By the time the SPC roared into the lot with their yellow vans, Minnie was the only one left. She set her hand on her hips.
“About time, boys. We got some talkin’ to do.”
* * *
The black phone by Rosetta’s bed jangled. She put a hand out from the covers, groped for the receiver, and pulled it under the covers. “’Lo?”
“Rosetta? Is that you?”
“Marty? What-what time is it?”
“Rosetta, it’s two in the afternoon. Are you in bed?”
She grunted a garbled reply.
“I take it that’s a yes. Listen. I need you to get dressed and come down to the Alley Cat right away. It’s important.”
“The Alley Cat was closed.”
“Yeah, but that’s not the only place anymore. Rosetta, Chicago’s been quarantined!”
Rosetta shot up from the covers. “What!”
“You really don’t know, do you? Look, I’m sending a taxi to your place right now. Be ready in fifteen minutes.”
Rosetta tried to say more, but Marty hung up. Annoyed, she set the receiver down, pulled the scarf off her head, and ran her fingers through her disheveled hair. She hadn’t gone to church that morning; a rare thing for her. She just hadn’t been in a worshipping mood, not after what happened at Minnie’s yesterday. But the SPC putting Chicago under quarantine must’ve meant things gotten bad. But why would Marty have her go to the Alley Cat instead of the SPC?
An hour later, Rosetta arrived at the Alley Cat, where Andre let her in. Empty of its patronage, the club had an empty, lonesome quality to it. Marty waved at her from the only table that didn’t have its chairs stacked on top of it. Next to him another white man twisting a red handkerchief in his large hands. Andre left her and headed into the dark, silent recesses behind the stage.
Rosetta sat down. “What’s going on?”
Marty made a face. “It’s Minnie. The SPC picked her up last night over in Bridgeport.”
“Bridgeport! What was she doing over there?” Actually, it would be just like Minnie to run off and do something stupid like that.
“We’ve been patrolling the place, my friends and I,” the man said, not looking at her. “We found her at this patch of stumps. She … we … aw, hell. We were threatening her. Just wanted to scare her really. We weren’t gonna do anything serious. But she got scared, so she sang.”
“She what? In front of the stumps?” She glared at the man. “You’re lucky you’re not dead!”
“Yeah … that’s the thing. We didn’t die. No convulsions, no coughing up blood. Even your friend was fine, and she wasn’t even wearing a face mask. But the stump that burst … we saw … we saw.”
Haltingly, he told the story of the Rose Haskell, how he saw everything in her life, right up to how she and her children died at the hands of a mob. Rosetta listened, her hands pressed to her mouth. “And all of you saw this? Even Minnie?”
“Yeah. She was pretty sure it was her singing that did it. Otherwise, we would’ve been dead.”
“But the SPC told us to only sing enough to make the stumps burst. They said anything more and it would be too dangerous!” She turned to Marty. “Did you know about this?”
He dropped his gaze, started playing with the brim of his hat.
“You … did … know,” she said in slow disbelief.
“What you and Minnie saw is called ‘residual memory.’” Marty spoke in a low voice, not looking up from his hat. “It’s the last form stump dust takes after it’s been rendered inert by an exterminator’s voice. Once the memory gets played it, it just becomes useless dust. Our job as handlers was to gather the stump dust before it became residual memory.”
“H-how long have you’ve known?”
“Since my first day. At the time, I thought nothing of it. I wasn’t paid to think. All I had to do was keep quiet and do my job.” He glanced at the other man. “Then I heard about your exterminator. Seems he also found out the stumps’ secret by accident. The SPC took him in and he was never seen since.”
“And now they got Minnie,” Rosetta said, her voice hard. “But you still haven’t said why the SPC would do this. Why all the secrecy? Why are they doing this?”
Marty dropped his eyes again. “I don’t know.”
The man cleared his throat, twisting the handkerchief so tight it was close to tearing. “‘Scuse me, but your friend? She gave me a message for you. She said … to tell you to sing to the stumps.”
She stared at him. “What?”
“She said to sing to the stumps. It’s somethin’ you’re supposed to do. Like your momma told you to.”
It was as if a ghostly finger plucked her insides.
The man rose. “Look, I need to get home.” He hesitated, then, said in a rush. “If you ever find your friend, tell her … tell her I owe her a drink.” With that, he left. Minnie would see it as an apology. It did, after all, involve alcohol.
Assuming they could find Minnie.
“Where are they holding her now?” Rosetta asked Marty. “And don’t you dare say, ‘I don’t know.’”
He said, resigned. “They would have taken her to the lower levels. It’s … it’s where I’m also supposed to take you. In fact, my orders were to bring you in last night.”
“But you didn’t.”
He squirmed, which made him look younger. Rosetta stood up and hollered towards the stage. “Hey, Andre!”
He emerged, rubbing his hands with a rag. “Yeah. What’s up?”
“We’re going to the SPC and I need your help.” She gave Marty a hard look. “Both of you. We’re gonna do some warfare of our own.”
* * *
Rosetta kept her eyes fixed on the road as Marty raced his Ford towards the SPC. She clenched the door handle tight as if she could add every ounce of her strength to make the car go faster. Every so often, Marty glanced over towards her.
“You all right?”
He stayed quiet for a couple of minutes. “You sure you want to do this? I mean … think about Minnie—”
“Minnie can take care of herself,” Rosetta snapped. “We need to do this first. I need to do this.”
Marty clammed up. Rosetta focused her attention back on the road and her rage.
The SPC had used her. All that talk of being careful with her voice, the throat checks, the admonishments to always being careful not to sing. All this time, it was a lie. No … worse than a lie. It was a coverup of epic proportions. And she had been complicit in it, using her guilt over her mother’s death, her own faith—her own faith—to justify the SPC’s work.
By nature, Rosetta considered herself a joyful soul: quick to smile, slow to anger. But now, she was startled to discover that a furious rage had been slowly building inside of her. Rage at the SPC, at herself, at Marty. And she had liked Marty. He always found some way to make her laugh. He had been so considerate of her since her first day on the job.
She hadn’t felt such betrayal since the day Thomas beat her when she told him about the Cotton Club job.
The street leading to the SPC was closed off by police. Marty showed them his SPC badge and indicated he was bringing Rosetta in per their request. The police waved him through but warned him. “Got some folks angry about the quarantine. I suggest you get some of the security guards to help you. It’s not a pleasant sight.”
Indeed, the place was in chaos. A crowd of men—and a few women—stood in the street outside of the SPC, shouting at the security guards lining the entrance. Several bodies lay on the ground, eyes fixed in death, frothy blood streaming from their mouths and noses. The guards wore heavy gas masks, similar to the one Rosetta used in extermination.
And everywhere were stumps. The sidewalk and street were littered with misshapen clumps of them growing together, like the strangest game of freeze tag. As she watched, a guard lifted what looked like a tube to his shoulder. There was a dull whump as something shot out of the other end to land several yards away in a burst of smoke. The crowd scattered to the other side of the street, but one or two stumbled. They dropped to the ground, their bodies jerking and seizing as they tried to claw at the rags tied around their faces, then they stilled.
From the smoke, a shapeless mass began to form. By the time Marty pulled up, it had sprouted several arms, a foot, and the head of a small child sightlessly gaping at the sky.
Rosetta’s gut crawled. Now she knew what the quarantine was for. The SPC were turning stumps into weapons and wanted to test them out. She wished she could swear like Minnie.
“Get me as close to the sidewalk as you can,” she told Marty. “Put us between them and the crowd.”
Marty did so, muttering. “I sure hope this works.”
There was an electric feeling in the air, something like Rosetta used to feel before coming on stage to do a concert, but this felt tense, simmering with anger. As she emerged from the car someone shouted, “Sister! Sister Rosetta Tharpe!”
She recognized Lawler’s voice; he had one of Minnie’s face masks strapped on, but it was undoubtedly him. He shouted at her, “They won’t let me in to see Minnie!”
“We’ll see about that,” Rosetta shouted back. She hiked up her dress a bit and hoisted herself onto the hood of the Ford. Every eye instantly riveted on her. Good, she still knew how to play a crowd. Ignoring Marty’s horrified face as the hood groaned and buckled under her boots, she surveyed the scene, hands on her hips.
One of the guards moved towards her, his voice hissing from his gas mask. “Miss Tharpe … Miss Tharpe … come down. We’ll have someone escort you inside. It’s too dangerous out here.”
She turned her back on him and addressed the crowd. “What’s this I’m hearing about a quarantine? The stumps are getting outta control? Is that right?” Rosetta was never the sort to need a microphone to make herself heard. She turned so that she could include the guards. “Stumps kill. We all know that. We see their handiwork now. But I just found out something that makes me question all that. Y’all know Memphis Minnie, right?”
A few cheers rose from the crowd. Most, however, exchanged confused looks, including the guards.
“Well, let me tell you, she learned something she shouldn’t have and now the SPC’s went and took her in, and we got this quarantine. Coincidence? I don’t know. But like my momma always said, strange things are happening, every day.”
She gave a signal to Marty, who stuck Minnie’s National guitar out the window.
The sight of the guitar elicited a response from both sides; the crowd crying out and scrambling back, the guards moving forward, yelling at her to stop. Rosetta settled the guitar around herself and strummed. Andre had set up the amp to run from Marty’s battery in his car and the effect was powerful. The chord jangled into the air, electric and glassy and just a little bit off-key.
“I don’t know about you,” she boomed, “but I think it’s gonna rain.”
She was no longer at the SPC, but back in church, six years old, dressed in her pink pinafore and her hair braided in four pigtails with pink barrettes, standing on an old piano while Momma beamed at her from below as she strummed on her mandolin.
Sing, baby girl, Momma said back then.
And so, she did. She launched into the old spiritual “Didn’t It Rain,” gospeled up her style. She made that guitar talk, riffing and jamming, her fingers dancing over the strings. She called out, “Didn’t it rain, children?” and then responded to herself, “Yes!”
“Oh, didn’t it? Didn’t it rain? Yes!”
Rosetta could never get a straight answer on what happened next. Marty said one of the guards panicked. Lawler said, no, the guard knew exactly what he was doing. All Rosetta knew was that one moment, she was so deep in her music, the next, something struck her in the center of her chest, knocking her off the hood of the car. As she tumbled, she gasped, and it was like breathing in tiny sparks of hot embers—
Yu Lan Lin lugs her suitcase down Cermak Avenue in Chinatown. Though many of the street signs and buildings are in her familiar Mandarin, she doesn’t know which street would take her to her uncle’s apartment. She squints at the piece of paper which holds his address, then up at the buildings pressed against each other. In a small way, it reminds her of Beijing—
A rough hand wraps around her mouth before she has time to scream. More hands drag her into an alley. Cold, sharp metal presses against her neck … and disappears just as quickly. The hands let go of Yu Lan, who drops to her knees, dimly aware of someone fighting off her attackers.
“You wanna mug poor, defenseless girls? You gotta go through me first!”
The attackers run off, and the young man turns to help Yu Lan up. “They won’t be bothering you again.”
“Thank you,” Yu Lan starts to say, then stops. The young man in front of her looks half-Chinese, wears a well-tailored shirt and trousers, and is clearly not a man.
“They call me Rita,” she says. “My pops run this place. Where do you need to go?”
Yu Lan will die of pneumonia a year later, but her time spent with Rita Moy, daughter of the unofficial Mayor of Chinatown, would be considered the best years of her life.
And Rosetta found herself flat on her back, staring up at the sky, her chest heaving … but alive. She sat up and the crowd gasped. Rosetta could barely believe it herself. There was no hint of pain or seizures. Her head was clear, albeit filled with joyrides and the warmth of Rita’s arm across her shoulders. Rosetta rose, brushed the powdery remains of stump dust off herself.
“We’ve been doing this all wrong,” she said, scooping up the guitar. “We’re supposed to sing them down. That’s all they want.” She went to a stump. This one was an older looking black man, crude cap and overalls just beginning to form. She found her fingering, began singing again. This time, when it burst, she was prepared—
Lawrence Jameson has worked almost fifty years in construction. He’s proud of his work, though sometimes he had to fight to get jobs. But he’s a man of integrity. He’s on a building now, hauling a wooden plank on his shoulders, walking a girder forty-one stories up with the ease of walking across a fallen log … until his foot slips and his stomach flipflops as he loses his balance, falling through the air
—And was Rosetta back and whirling over to another stump—
And she was a runner for Al Capone drowning in the Chicago River and she was an old woman dying in bed after days of battling a hard cough and she was a young woman pausing from scrubbing a tub to listen to her children’s laughter and she was a homeless man beaten in an alley …
For this was what the gospel was supposed to be. It was never about fear. It was about going to those all alone in darkness and bringing them light. Gospel was voices lifted in song, the open-throated cry of joy. It was water bent towards parched lips, the tears and laughter bubbling from reunited friends. It was standing in front of the church and proclaiming, “I don’t care what you’ve done. You are always welcomed here.”
“Rain!” she sang, spinning in the street.
“RAIN!” she shouted, her voice echoing off the buildings.
“RAIN!” she thundered, and the crowd swarmed past her, past Marty’s car, past the guards—who had removed their masks and had the shell-shocked look of survivors who didn’t expect to live through a fire.
In plucks and chords and harmonies, she brought those stumps to church, spun their memories into riffs and chords and sang them out for everyone to hear.
It took her a moment to recognize Marty shaking her arm. “You can stop now. Look! The stumps are all gone.”
She coughed with a dry throat—it had been too long since she sang. “Where’s Lawler?”
“He booked it into the SPC a while ago.” As he spoke, Rosetta could hear shouting and the shattering of glass coming from inside the building.
“Well, then.” Rosetta pulled her Gibson out of the car and gave it a strum. Somewhere, her momma was smiling. “Now we can go get Minnie.”
* * *
In her later years, an older, thinner Memphis Minnie would sit and cackle over what she called “The Storming of the SPC.”
“Oh, it was a riot,” she would say in interviews. ”All the SPC people running around like chickens with their heads cut off. They put me in a room and then get all panicky and put me in another room. I had no idea what was going on. Whoooo—ee! I didn’t know if it was a jailbreak or Mardi Gras.”
What she never told the interviewers—or anyone else, for that matter—was when Minnie was finally found by Lawler and Rosetta—Lawler punching out lab coats right and left, and Rosetta singing “When the Saints Come Marchin’ In” at the top of her lungs—she had to press her face into the wall so no one could see her cry.
The FBI was called in to investigate the illegal activities of the SPC: spreading stump spores in poor neighborhoods and analyzing the results, kidnappings, extortion, experimentation on homeless people. Eventually, Minnie and Rosetta were asked to help the government put together a new stump elimination program, one that focused more on allowing the stumps to release their memories safely. They agreed, but with one condition.
“So, that’s how we got Andre his club back,” Rosetta told a group of party-goers.
She and Minnie were at the newly re-opened Alley Cat. Andre had begged both Rosetta and Minnie to sing. He had even presented Rosetta with her own electric guitar: a National Triolian, similar to Minnie’s.
So, for the first time, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie jammed on stage together, Rosetta with her high chants, Minnie with her low growls. They sang until one in the morning when they both came down to take a break and let others take the stage.
“Damn straight,” Minnie said. “Way I see it, if the SPC is gonna pay me to sing, and I mean really sing, I’m gonna jump on that shit.”
“I thought you didn’t like following their rules.”
“I can too. When they make sense.”
“Mind if I join?” Marty came to their table, his tie loose, carrying a couple of glasses. Rosetta rose to her feet.
“Actually, I’m going to do some more singing. You two can talk without me.” Rosetta avoided Marty’s eyes as she headed towards the stage.
Marty sighed as he sat down. “She’s not going to forgive me, is she?”
“Can’t blame her. Your testimony may have done some good, but you gotta long way to get her trust back.” Minnie gave him a wide grin. “And we loooove holdin’ onto our grudges.”
On stage, Rosetta strapped on her Triolian. “I’m gonna need someone to help me. Anyone know ‘Up Above My Head’?”
“I do,” another woman called out. She was ushered onto the stage. She had sweet eyes and a sweet smile.
“Well, then, let’s see if you can keep up!”
Rosetta launched into song. The woman, at first, was hesitant, but then as she became more comfortable, she grew more animated, trading lyrics with Rosetta with all the confidence of a well-seasoned singer. Their two voices fit each other like two peas in a pod, the woman’s strong contralto wrapping itself effortlessly around Rosetta’s high soprano. Minnie sat up straighter, noticing that other people were watching spellbound.
Well, damn me if they don’t got something there …
If the room hadn’t been loud before, it certainly erupted when they finished. Rosetta whooped and grabbed the woman’s hands.
“That was amazing! What’s your name?”
The woman blushed. “Marie Knight. I just became an exterminator two weeks ago.”
“Is that so?”
Minnie snorted and drained her glass. Great. Another holy roller to contend with. When she set it down, she saw that Rosetta and Marie were still holding hands, gazing into each other’s eyes, cheeks slightly flushed, their smiles soft and slightly silly.
Well, well, well.
Minnie gave Marty a nudge. “Hey. You wanna get Rosetta’s trust back? Tell her about you and Andre. I got a feelin’ she won’t mind.”