Maya Angelou on “The Mike Douglas Show”

Originally published in The New Southern Fugitives.

Miss Lions, my third-grade teacher, wore mini-skirts and white boots up to her knees. On Wednesday afternoons, she combined classes with Miss Freeman, doubling the tartan mini-skirts and shiny go-go boots. After we saw the science program on TV, they’d let us watch The Mike Douglas Show until the final bell rang while they tittered back and forth in the doorway.

There was Maya Angelou on The Mike Douglas Show sitting next to Mike and reading a story about her grandmother praying during cotton picking season. I don’t know where Mike’s mind was with his burnt-orange leisure suit and polyester smile, but Maya Angelou reminded me of Angela Davis. J. Edgar Hoover said Angela Davis was a radical and put her on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List. Granny said Angela Davis’s giant Afro spooked her to no end. I could envision it reaching past the nightly news and into my living room. Her sullen scowl turning into a haunting smile as her hair choked the life from Granny and me. Angela Davis scared me. Maya Angelou frightened me, too.

Hoping I’d get a bosomy hug, I told Miss Lions I was frightened. But, I got no squeeze, just a suppressed laugh, so then I told her everything else I thought Granny would say if she saw Maya Angelou on The Mike Douglas Show. Miss Freeman stopped giggling. Miss Lions snatched me by the collar and dragged me to see Mr. Foster.

Now, Granny adored Mr. Foster. After church on Sundays, she would slip off her cream white gloves and shake his hand, delicate and slow, not worried about her arthritis. Telling me later how perfect a match he’d be for my Momma, both being so tall and all.

Mr. Foster’s office was dark and cold. The whirr of his window unit smothered the clicking of the typewriters beyond the shut door. His shovelhead was shrouded in the dim afternoon light, but I could detect his crisp, peppery after-shave. Granny said Mr. Foster was a man’s man.

Replaying it, Mr. Foster’s voice was lifeless as he told me to move my raggedy white-trash ass off from his goddamn chair and get over behind his desk. The coarseness of the leather, the burning tear, and his satisfied grunt always return.

Maya Angelou died at eighty-five. Granny died at eighty-five, too, crumpled and twisted like a greasy paper napkin, unable to wipe her own ass, and without a fucking clue about why the caged bird sings.

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