Book Excerpt – I Can’t Wait on God

I Can’t Wait on God
by Albert French

    Publication Date: Aug 17, 1998
    List Price: $22.95
    Format: Hardcover, 256 pages
    Classification: Fiction
    ISBN13: 9780385483643
    Imprint: Doubleday
    Publisher: Penguin Random House
    Parent Company: Bertelsmann

    Read a Description of I Can’t Wait on God

    Copyright © 1998 Penguin Random House/Albert French No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher or author. The format of this excerpt has been modified for presentation here.

    Chapter One

    Pittsburgh, 1950

    Summer night air was always sticky kind of air, had that stinkin mill smoke stuck all in it. Them old freight trains comin into Pittsburgh would come around that curve, rumblin, rollin, and shakin them houses down over the hill from the tracks. Them folks livin down over the hill from the tracks was used to hearin them trains comin on by, used to hearin the dogs barkin and howlin at them trains. Sometimes when them trains make too much noise, some folks wake up, grunt, then turn on over and go back to sleep. But that train noise and that hot, sticky air would still be out there. Them summertime nights could be long nights, too, if it was real hot. Them nights could stick around long after that freight train took its noise with it and went on by.

    Gus Goins’s place was down off the tracks, down in that alley behind Fiance Street. Gettin up into Gus Goins’s place didn’t take any thought. Folks could find their way through that dark dirty path leadin up in there real easy and kept goin up in there all night long, especially durin them mill payday nights. Gus always had some kind of light hangin off that old shack porch of his. But before folks could get to that light, it be pitch black, stinkin, too, from them chicken coops Gus kept in the yards there. But folks found their way, slip, slide, and stumble til they got to where they were going, kept comin and goin all through the night. Them chickens never did get any sleep, they couldn’t even hear them trains goin by for all that loud jukebox music comin out off that back alley shack.

    Gus Goins didn’t smile too much. He had one of them round, light-skinned faces and some dark shiny hair that he always kept greased down and combed real nice, but when he be sellin you somethin, he could grin then. Gus Goins sell you anything, you know you could always get some chicken anytime and that moonshine he be sellin bring folks back from their grave to get some more.

    In that back room at Gus’s, them cards and that money be just a-flyin. Bloodshot eyes be eyein too, lookin that cold-face black queen right in her eyes. Pete Turner was as black as any of them spades he was holdin, but had them ugly yellow teeth from all that cigar juice he keeps up in his mouth.

    Al Johnson was a quick-talkin man, ask anybody anything at anytime, always up in somebody’s face about somethin. Al Johnson is starin across that card table at Pete Turner, been starin at him for a while.

    “What ya goin ta do?" Al Johnson done ask Pete Turner again. Pete Turner ain’t answerin and ain’t takin his eyes away from them cards he’s holdin and starin at.

    Al Johnson gets to rockin in his chair and sayin at the same time he’s rockin, “What ya goin ta do, huh? Shit, damn, make ya play.”

    Wendell Hill is sittin at that card table, too. He’s leanin back in his chair some and givin a little laugh and lookin over at Al Johnson. Then he’s sayin, "Pete ain’t got shit. Ya dones got the fool’s money. Let the nigger have his time.”

    Out in that front room of Gus Goins’s folks are just a-talkin and sippin on whatever they got in them paper cups. Cissy Hall been in there way before it got dark. She’s tellin all she knows about anything she can think of. She done told Bertha Wilks all about that Lando Parks sneakin up there around Herman Stokes’s place and tryin to mess around with that German white woman Herman brought back from the war. Cissy told Bertha, “He thinks ain’t nobody seenin him standin over there in that empty lot tryin to get that woman to come out. Ah done seen dogs wit better sense than ta be standin out in the middle of broad daylight and thinkin they’s hidin and can’ts nobody be seein what’s they up ta. Any damn fool knows what’s goin on.”

    Bobby Rose has that Indian-colored skin and that thick black curly hair. He used to try and tell folks his mama was full-blooded somethin. Folks be tellin him, “Man, git out of here wit that shit. Ya ain’t nothin but some full-blooded Mississippi nigger. Ya need ta go back where ya come up here from.”

    He’s tellin Olinda Harris, “Ya know ya’s ain’t meanin that." Then he’s askin her, “Why ya doin me likes this fore, huh? Come on now, why don’t ya be sweet likes ya can be, huh?”

    Bobby Bose and Gus Goins’s moonshine is about the same thing now. Them words comin from his mouth is just a-covered with that moonshine smell. Sometimes Bobby Rose ain’t sayin nothin, just standin their and lookin down Olinda Harris’s dress, tryin to see as far as he can see down there. But that moonshine still makin noises, make him moan and grunt a little.

    Olinda Harris has them dark starin eyes and that brown skin that shines just like them buckeye nuts that be fallin off that tree up at the end of the alley. Sometimes folks be comin down the alley, be thinkin about things they be needin and things they ain’t never goin to get. Sometimes they slow down a little, take a look at that pretty brown buckeye bustin out of that ugly green skin of its. Folks look down at it, give it a thought, let that thought take a few steps with them fore that need they carryin in their head smack at the inside of their skull.

    Bobby Rose is still lookin at Olinda Harris. She’s lookin back at him, cuttin her eyes at him, givin him some looks that make that moonshine splash up in his head. She’s twenty and knows how she looks and what them looks can do for her.

    Dicky Bird is sittin in the corner. Got him some chicken in his mouth and chewin as fast as he’s talkin. He’s talkin to Bill Lovit, but he don’t know, and might not care if he did know, that Bill Lovit ain’t listenin to a word he’s sayin. Bill Lovit ain’t been right since the fire. Sometimes he still gets to cryin. Folks say that’s all right, say they’d cry too if they come home and find they house all burnt down and all them seven children burnt past knowin which one was which.

    Dicky Bird is tellin Bill Lovit all about Miss Macune. Miss Macune lives up there at the far end of the alley. Folks don’t see her much. She keeps herself in that big house all by herself since that man of hers died, and that’s been some twenty years or more. Dicky Bird is sayin, “Ah wents on in there. Ah tells ya, that woman was talkin ta somebody the whole time Ah was in there. And it sure wasn’t me, Ah tells ya that. And there weren’t nobodies in there cept me. She wants me ta come back up there and gits them leaks she’s got. Them pipes ain’t nothin but rust. Ah tries and tell her that. Ya know, tells her she needin some new plummin in there. She gits ta talkin ta me and at the same time she talkin ta whoever ain’t there. That’s when Ah come on out of there.”

    Gus Goins’s jukebox got to seemin like it was bouncin. Somebody want to hear somethin that would make them move, wanted to hear some drums beatin, hear that music that gets sweat to rollin. Olinda Harris gets to swayin with that drum beat. Bobby Rose tries to get closer to her, move with her sways, but she don’t let him. That blue dress she’s got on becomes a blur of color in his eyes.

    The black, sticky, hot air of midnight is still, hoverin above Gus Goins’s place in the alley. The beat of some drum and now the squeal of a horn get stuck in the air, squiggle there. Alley cats stray in the night, eyes glowin and tails curled. Gus Goins’s chickens squat in them coops, quiver when them alley cats come by. That music is still jumpin. Olinda Harris’s hips sway and roll. Dicky Bird is watchin and still chewin on that chicken, just about got them bones clean. Folks sittin back in the corner just watchin the night go by. They might take a little sip out their paper cup, give somebody close to them a little talk, then they get to starin at Olinda Harris or just starin at the nighttime goin by. Jeremiah Henderson is sittin way back in a dark corner, he’s sippin from his cup, but he ain’t watchin Olinda Harris or talkin to nobody. Folks know he keeps to himself, got that kind of stillness about him. He ain’t got to say nothin for them to know he’s there.

    Back in that back room, Al Johnson has some sweat comin down in his eyes and is up in somebody’s face. “What ya talkin about, huh? What ya talkin about, motherfucker? Ah want my motherfuckin money, man. What the fuck wrong wit ya? Ah wants my money.”

    Richard Norris is shoutin back at Al Johnson, “Man, ya goin ta git yer money. Ah done told ya, now gits out my face wit it.”

    Pete Turner done lost all the money he had and tries to borrow some more. Asks folks, “Lets me hold somin? Ah gits it back for ya fore the night’s over.”

    Folks tell Pete Turner, “Ya gots ta be crazzy.”

    Mosquitoes were buzzin and bitin at anything in the light hangin out on that back porch when Pete Turner went on out the door. He went on past where the glow from the light failed to go any farther, then stumbled and slithered up the dark path that goes to the alley. Some cat curled its back up in the dark, hissed and vanished in the night, only leavin the brief death of its sound skirtin in the air.

    Pete Turner reaches the alley, takes a few stumblin steps until he gets to one of them back alley fences. He stops, sways while the splashin sound of his urine hits the fence. He jerks away from the fence and starts up the alley, leavin some short grunts behind.

    Olinda Harris has left, took her sweet ways on home. Bobby Rose still talkin about her, sayin, “Ya all just wait. Um goin ta get that, yeal.”

    Gus Goins’s moonshine takes Bill Lovit on home, too. Takes him up the alley, then he cuts across Dunferline Street until he’s on Susquehanna Street. The moonshine he’s carryin in his gut begins to carry him as he passes through the lot still filled with ash and jagged burnt timber that been his house, reaches the shack he’s built in what been his backyard. The moonshine whispers, too, tells the dark dead faces of his children to leave him be.

    Jeremiah Henderson looks up and keeps starin into Dicky Bird’s face while Dicky Bird’s sayin somethin about the late hour and, “Yeal, Ah think um goin on out of here. Gots ta git me some sleep …" Dicky Bird’s words drift as soon as his eyes fall from Jeremiah Henderson’s face, then he gets up and staggers away. Jeremiah Henderson says nothin, stares into the dark space where Dicky Bird’s been.

    Gus Goins’s chickens were stirrin, some distant alley dog was barkin. Dark eyes on a dark face looked into the night, searched where the dark lay low along the alley fences, glanced away to where the alley began or ended. To where it became Homewood Avenue, where streetlights hung far in the night. Jeremiah Henderson lowered his eyes from them lights. Closer by, the browns, grays, and greens of the row houses were only black in the night that Jeremiah Henderson walked through.

    * * *

    When the sun came up, it came up over them hills up in Wilkensburg. Then it wasn’t too long fore them sun rays started lightin up the alley. Officially, the alley was named Annon Way—somebody that was important named it that. But folks livin back in the alley didn’t know who and never asked either. Annon Way hadn’t changed much since they put it back there to make some room for them wagons to get down in between them front street houses. Then somebody built some back alley houses and them folks that didn’t have that front street-livin money could live in them back alley houses. Back alley folks seemed to be a little different from front street folks, seemed to do a little bit more sittin on them steps and porches they had back there. When nighttime came, a lot of them front street folks from all around would get to comin back in the alley. Everybody knew how to get back up in Gus Goins’s place. Before that Second World War got started, white folks used to live back in the alley and out on them front streets, too. After the war, Coloreds started tricklin in them alley houses, right before the white folks started gushin out.

    Mister Allen got one of them alley row houses first, got that second one from the end. He told folks that house was just what he was lookin for. Lester Jones got that row house on the end. Mister Allen said he could have had that one on the end if he would have wanted it, but he wasn’t givin that white man all that extra money to be on the end of anything. Mister Strayhorne moved right next door to Mister Allen. He’d been knowin Mister Allen from way back down in North Carolina. Mister Strayhorne’s wife, Lilly, say Mister Allen’s a fine man. She say, Mister Allen got plenty of respect for himself. She say she wish some of them damn fool-actin niggers that be comin around there get some of that respect Mister Allen gots.

    Mister Allen is out on his sittin porch tryin to get as much of that mornin quiet as he can get fore them alley children get to runnin around and yellin all day. Some of them alley dogs have got to barkin and Mister Allen looks up, squints his eyes some, and looks down the alley and sees that old cart comin up through them early mornin shadows. Mister Allen can’t see Dicky Bird, just that big old rotten wood cart with them old horse-wagon wheels comin. Mister Allen puts his head back down, he don’t have to see Dicky Bird to know it’s him comin, that cart and Dicky Bird is the same thing anyway. Next thing Mister Allen knows, Dicky Bird is lookin up in his face sayin, “Mornin, Mister Allen.”

    Mister Allen looks down at Dicky Bird, gives Dicky Bird a little mornin grin, then says, “Mornin, Dicky Bird,”

    “How ya be ta-day, Mister Allen?”

    “Um just fine here, Dicky Bird. Looks like we gots us a nice day comin. Ah hope it ain’t too hot.”

    “Yes, sir, Mister Allen, this here heat can gits ya.”

    Some alley woman gets to callin her cat. Dicky Bird wipes some of that cart-pushin sweat off the back of his neck, looks up at Mister Allen, and says, "Ah hears Mat Hicks is dead.”

    Mister Allen gives a little gasp, then asks Dicky Bird, “Where ya hear that?”

    “Ah seen Eddy Pope this mornin and that’s the first thing he tells me.”

    “Lord have mercy. Ah just saw Mat Hicks up on Homewood Avenue, couldn’t have been but a day or so ago. We stood up there and talked a good bit. What they say happened to him?”

    “He just fell on over. Eddy Pope say they all up Mott’s place just sittin around. And the next thing they knew, Mat just sittin there and not movin or sayin nothin. They say his eyes were wide open, but he wasn’t movin or sayin nothin. Eddy say he yelled over to Mat, ask him what was wrong wit him. Eddy say Mat ain’t said nothin back at all. Then Eddy say it was just like watchin some tree fall. Ya know, ya cut it and it don’t seem ta fall, it just seem to stand still. Then all of a sudden it comes down. Eddy say Mat topple on over like that. They’d know he was dead then, know he wasn’t havin any liquor in him.”

    Dicky Bird goes on up the alley, pushin that cart of his. Dicky Bird has some pickin to do, pickin at what folks didn’t want anymore. Mister Allen goes on with his early mornin thinkin. Mister Allen still sittin quietly, sometimes starin down the alley and sometimes just lookin down at them shadows layin on the porch steps. There’s a quick rattlin sound, then some real fast-soundin footsteps fillin that quiet mornin air. Mister Allen looks up, knows he’ll see Jimmy Maben comin out his house. Jimmy Maben gives Mister Allen a quick, “Good mornin, Mister Allen. How ya ta-day?”

    “I’m fine there, Jimmy. How you?”

    Jimmy Maben’s hurryin down his steps and tellin Mister Allen, "Got ta make this day, ya know.”

    Mister Allen yells out, “Dicky Bird was by here a little while ago. He say he heard Mat Hicks is dead. Say Mat just fell on over.”

    Jimmy Maben slows his gettin-to-the-mill walk with a quick turn of his head. “What?”

    Mister Allen goes on and tells Jimmy Maben what Dicky Bird done told him. Word sounds seemed to hang in that mornin air for a while as Jimmy Maben walked on down the alley still shakin his head. But that mill was waitin on him, told him to hurry that step. Mister Allen used to work them mills, worked out on that Curry Furnace in Rankin, used to walk them five miles every day to get there. Watchin Jimmy Maben goin on down the alley, Mister Allen wished he was going, too. But he had to come out that mill with what back he had left. He told folks, “Now I like to work, but thirty years out there can get you. I miss that payday comin.”

    That Miss Duncan come out on her porch. She has that row house down next to Jimmy Maben’s. She call herself Miss Duncan, but folks know she ain’t never married that LeRoy Duncan. She just pretends to be that man’s wife while she spendin all his money. Everybody knows that. She gives Mister Allen an early mornin what-ya-lookin-at look. Mister Allen gives Miss Duncan a nod of his head, then he looks away, anyplace. Mister Allen don’t like that woman’s evil ways, at all. Mister Allen can get mighty upset with that kind of actin that Miss Duncan be carryin on with. Miss Duncan goes on back in the house.

    Mister Allen had him a good woman. Adline. She was a real respectful kind of woman, always called Mister Allen “Mister Allen," but she got that cancer all up in her breast. Next thing Mister Allen knew, she was dead. Mister Allen didn’t marry Miss Allen til he was fifty-five and Miss Allen was thirty. Mister Allen had him a woman before, but he don’t say nothin to nobody about her.

    Some of them alley children started comin out and puttin some noise in that early mornin air. Mister Allen was still sittin on the porch when he heard that distant rattle of a door comin open. He looked up, knew what he would see, then put his head back down. That noise them children were makin seemed to still in the air, stay there. Mister Allen kept his head down for a while, then slowly looked up and watched that woman of Jeremiah Henderson’s go down the alley.

    Them new alley bricks were red, but down where Gus Goins’s chickens were runnin around, them alley bricks were those old kind, them ones they first put in and ain’t thinkin about takin up. They didn’t have any color to them that folks even thought about unless it was the green they saw from them weeds growth up between them. Dark eyes kept starin down at the cracks between the bricks.

    Gus Goins’s chickens flapped their wings and scooted from the sound of quick-clickin heels comin. Willet Mercer kept her head down, wasn’t thinkin about Gus Goins’s damn chickens. There was a flow to her black hair that seemed to keep with the rhythm of her walk. It was always a quick walk, but like the dark hair, the walk would flow through the stillness of the early mornin, seem not to touch or be touched by the alley.

    That early mornin sun would seem to linger, stay up over them hills in Wilkensburg, then all that heat it was bringin would seem to come all at the same time. Everything would get hot; red alley bricks would get to glarin. Mister Allen been gone in the house. Them alley cats and dogs done climbed up under somethin lookin for what shade they could find. Little beads of sweat that was stickin on them dark bare backs of them alley children playin out in that sun got to poppin and makin them backs shine hack at the sun. All that yellin and carryin on them children got to doin chased anything that was quiet away.



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