from Mr. Diggs

by Simone Chimyo Atkinson

Author’s Note: After decades of incarceration, Joe Diggs finds himself living in Brooklyn, New York, renting a room from a distant relative. Diggs is a former hustler disabled physically and psychologically by his experiences in a brutal Southern prison system. Through his relationship with a young relative and her two children he comes to face his past and the turbulent social change of the late 1960s. This is an excerpt from a novel in progress.

They was all nice and sweet when they first come here, that little girl and her brother, Sue Lee’s children. Bertha didn’t even tell me—didn’t bother to ask. Just plopped them down up here in my room. Here I am paying her good money for this old damp, drafty room—bed feel like it got rocks for ticking—and she bring these two chaps up here like this a day care.

“Diggs, you know Sue Lee need to work. They’ll only be here a couple hours a day,” she say. She act like she Sue Lee’s mama and them two her grands. Always giving in to whatever Sue Lee asks. Never mind what her paying tenant might need.

“I can’t have them downstairs runnin’ around while I’m doing hair. That ain’t professional. They good little ones, nice and quiet and they real smart. Besides, they’ll keep you company.”

Yeah, they was all right when they first come. They’d sit up in the bay window playing cards, whispering at each other and looking bored. They didn’t say nothing to me and I didn’t say nothing to them and that was just fine. I could sit back in my armchair and watch the ball game in peace. But then they started getting bold—playing hide-and-seek all up in my wardrobe, opening windows and running back and forth in front of the TV. Six days in and they got to jumping all over my bed, running in and out the room, arguing with each other over nothing and—Lord have mercy—messing with my TV! I tell them to stop and they act like I’m not even here. Bertha might come up and fuss at them a bit when the noise disturbs her or her old raggedy-headed customers downstairs but soon as she leave they start right back up again.

Look, here they come now. That old sassy girl run right up in the room and straight to my television like she don’t see me here watching. Well, I done fixed her today.

“Oh, no! The TV broke!” she holler. I finger the TV knob in the pocket of my bathrobe as she and her brother poke around under the table and the sofa whining about how they missing that dumbass Captain Kangaroo. I am too tickled. Go on stick your little finger on up in that hole, get shocked!

“Miss Bertha, the TV broke!” The girl leaning out the doorway calling downstairs. Bertha take her sweet time as usual and I just chuckle at the girl and her brother crowded up on the TV like gawkers over an accident. This is almost better than the ball game.

“What the hell are y’all carrying on about up here? Get away from that TV and sit your behinds down!” Bertha roll up in the room smelling of burnt hair and Ultra Sheen. She bend over the set and I gets me a nice view of them hips and those pretty calves. This get better and better.

“Y’all done broke the man’s TV. Now who gone pay to have it fixed? I ain’t.” She turn and looks at me making sure I hear the part about her not paying.

“Sit your asses on down on that sofa right now and don’t move. Your mama ain’t taught you nothing!” She lay into them little ones so hard and go on for so long spit dry up in my mouth just listening to her.

After while, one of her clients come creeping upstairs, head wrapped in a towel asking what’s going on. Bertha’s tone and language change right quick then. “I’ll be right with you Miss Beattie. I am so sorry.”

Bertha leaves the girl and her brother looking like they about to melt into the floor. Other than a few sniffles over their hurt feelings, not a peep. Eventually they fall asleep on the sofa.

Today I’m watching the news in peace.

Bertha’s big mouth wake me. It going on six o’clock. I can tell because the beige walls have gone pink in the last light of day and I can hear the traffic kicking up on Flatbush Avenue. Them chaps are gone but I can hear their mama downstairs trying to negotiate with Bertha. Somebody need to tell her she’s on the losing side of that contest.

Next thing, Sue Lee standing in my doorway. I can’t see her too good at first—I ain’t quite awake yet. She asking me how much to fix the set. She dressed up all business-like in a nice A-line skirt and gray tweed coat. Classy looking girl. When she come closer I can smell her. Clean Ivory soap scent; no heavy perfume like Bertha. Her white blouse is still crisp even this late in the day. Her hair is short and combed close on the sides with a little bang over her brow. She ain’t like some of them other young girls out there with their miniskirts and wild hair. That don’t mean she ain’t as trifling, though. You see what she doing to me and Bertha.

I shrug, pull the knob out of my pocket and hand it to her. I watch her wriggle the knob back into place on the set, sucking her teeth and huffing until she gets it on right.

“I likes to watch the news,” I say. She turns the channel and Walter Cronkite come on the screen. She smooth the bed where the kids been jumping, pick the toys and the cards up off the floor and set them neatly on the window seat.

“Thank you Mr. Diggs.” She come near and touches the armrest of my chair as she leaves. I nod.

Downstairs Bertha still talking loud to herself about how Sue Lee need to find somebody else take care her babies. Sue Lee don’t even answer since she knows Bertha just exercising her tongue. Bertha’s own child died in the war overseas. She got pictures of him all over the walls. Even got one in the bathroom. According to Bertha, Sue Lee and her children are the closest thing to family she has left in this world. Bertha too smart not to see that that girl is taking advantage. Still she bend over backwards every time Sue Lee say “boo.”

I wake up from my afternoon nap. I’m feeling good; I had my shower today and Bertha left me a fresh set of pajamas this morning. The girl and her brother are here early today. And they quiet as two snakes. The TV ain’t even on and they sitting in the floor playing cards. Got the cards all set out in the floor flipping one card then another trying to match up the pictures. I watch them for a bit. Seem like the girl is winning but she keep trying to help the boy out, giving him hints here and there or acting like she don’t know where the match is when it’s her turn.

After while I lean forward in my chair and this startles them. They sitting straight up eyes like to pop out they heads.

“I hear y’all supposed to be pretty smart,” I say. They looking like the devil just spoke. Hell, maybe he did.

I get up and turn on the set. Mets is playing today. Behind me the boy asks, “Why you so mean?”

I turn around and the girl looking at her brother like he out of his mind. The boy look just like his daddy. He got Sam’s sharp nose and those thin lips on top of his mama’s pretty brown skin. The girl look like Sue but Sam floats around in the movement of her face—when she grins or frowns you know she his.

Sam been dead three years now. These children too young to even remember him. I myself never saw his face in life. Only the few photographs his mama sent me before I was locked up.

The boy still sitting there waiting for an answer to his question.

“Why y’all so mean to me? Don't listen, messing with my TV, leaving a mess. Why y’all so mean?”

The boy picks up a card and turns it over. It’s picture of two dogs and a doghouse with the number 2 up in the corner. I reach down and flip the matching card. “There it is,” I say.

To my surprise, the boy pick up the card place it near my foot. Then, he turn to his sister, “Your turn.”

Sue Lee shows up while we watching the game. “Mets is winning, Mama,” the boy call to her when he notice her standing in the doorway. The little girl get up and starts pulling on her coat. I think she don’t like baseball much.

“The Mets are winning,” Sue Lee says as she moves on into the room. She nods and smiles at me. She got an envelope in her hand, “What’s the score?”

“I don’t know, but they winning,” the boy say over his shoulder.

“Mind if I sit down, Mr. Diggs?” Sue Lee asks. “It’s been an eventful day.”

I nod and she sidle into the narrow space between my chair and the bed. She sit right on the edge of the bed so prim, the blanket barely wrinkles around her hips.

“I have some news myself.” She g ot a big smile on her face. “The teacher’s strike is over! Mama’s going to be teaching at PS 241 just a few blocks away from here. I start next month. And Emily, you are finally going back to school!”

The children start jumping around like they just heard it gone be Christmas every day from now on. Sue Lee is laughing trying to tell all the details between their squeals and questions. All the sudden she gasp a little, tears start welling and she cover her eyes. “I have been waiting for this for two years,” she say, “ever since I got my teaching certificate. It must be a sin to be this happy.”

I turn back to the television.

The children crowd around their mama as she shows them the letter. The girl (little show-off), looking at the paper, turning it over in her hands, like she understand what it say. Sue Lee hug the children close telling the boy to get his coat on. She stand up, carefully smoothing the bedspread as the children tumble out of the room calling out their news, “Miss Bertha! Guess what!”

Sue Lee turns toto me. The tears she was holding back go ahead and fall. She pull a wadded-up tissue from her coat pocket and dab at her nose.

“Mr. Diggs I am so grateful for your patience these past few weeks. Hopefully, now, I’ll be able to quit the part-time at Key Food and find a permanent sitter for Eric. Thank you so much. It’s so good to have people from down home who understand.”

I can’t look at her, can’t stand to see no woman crying. “I seen them white teachers on TV picketing, saying black folks was taking they jobs. You better be careful,” I say.

“I don’t believe there’s any cause for worry, Mr. Diggs. Things are getting better, whether they like it or not. You watch.”

Sue Lee lean over and kiss my rough cheek on her way out of the room. I need to remember to shave some mornings.

Bertha come in with two breakfasts on the tray this morning.

“Morning, Diggs. Eric will be here in a few minutes,” she say, all excited. “This is Sue Lee’s first day at her new job. Eric going be staying with us until she get a real babysitter…if that’s okay with you.”

“Eric who?” I say. I know she talking about the boy. The children haven’t been here in over a week and ain’t nobody said nothing to me about them coming back.

Bertha just suck her teeth at me. “Now don’t eat all the toast. Oooh, I forgot the jam. Oh well.”

It’s Monday. Bertha don’t have no clients on Mondays, as this is her day to go shopping for her beauty supplies. I notice she already dressed to go out.

“You ain’t leaving me up here by myself with no chaps. One thing I ain’t is no babysitter.”

“Come on, Diggs. It's just for an hour or two. I’ll be back in time to fix y’all some lunch. Better yet, I’ll bring you something back from Lula’s.”

She know I like Lula’s spareribs. “Better have some extra sauce on it this time,” I say. Bertha just chuckle and the doorbell rings.

A minute later Little Man bounds on in the room followed by his mama. “Good morning, Mr. Diggs.” Sue Lee look like she going to church in a black knee-length skirt, her tweed coat open at the throat showing off a string of cheap pearls against her brown skin. She carrying a little briefcase in one hand and a black clutch purse in the other. She look old-fashioned next to the folks I see on TV. “Where you going? The opera?”

“Don’t she look good though!” says Bertha leaning on the doorsill beaming like she the one dressed Sue Lee this morning. “Sue, you look like you oughta be the one running the school in that outfit.”

Sue Lee just smiles. “Thank you so much Mr. Diggs for agreeing to this.”

I don’t say nothing. Just nod.

“I had it all arranged for him to stay with my neighbor, Sandy, but she just got hired down at Transit. I promise I’ll have him out of your hair as soon as I can.”

The boy, Eric, pipe up, “Mama I don’t want to stay here. Why can’t I go to school with you?”

His face is streaky so you can tell he already been crying and is about to start up again.

“Baby, I told you, you won’t be old enough to go to school until next year.”

Eric don’t say nothing but he sniffling and screwing his face all up. Sue Lee scoops him up in her arms and carries him out the door and on to the landing, whispering and cooing at him. After a while she bring him back in and set him down on the sofa.

“Look here,” Bertha say, reaching for the boy, “Mr. Diggs has some breakfast for you.” I pick up the untouched plate and hand it to her. When she start hand-feeding him, I get up and turn on the TV.

“Boy too big for that mess,” I mumble. The women give me a sharp look but they keep on feeding him. Finally, Sue Lee look at her watch.

“Okay, baby, I have to go. Can’t be late for my first day. You be nice to Mr. Diggs, now. No jumping around, no noise.” Eric just nods, gnawing on a piece of toast.

“Aw, he ain’t no trouble Sue,” say Bertha as they leave. “Diggs’ the one. Crotchety ol’ coot.”

I don’t notice when the boy finish his breakfast. In fact I forgot he was even here. My mind is kind of cloudy in the morning. Take me a while to get fully awake sometimes. When I do notice, the boy is laying asleep on the sofa, toast crumbs and bacon grease all over his lips. I get up and go to the bathroom out on the landing to brush my teeth and wipe my face.

I go to the wardrobe, but the shelf where my pajamas are usually stacked is empty. Seems Bertha forgot to leave me some clean pajamas this morning. For a minute I feel a little unsteady. I pick up the pajama shirt I just took off but it smells stale and musty. Can’t abide wearing no dirty clothes. Had enough of that in prison. I open the wardrobe again and pull out the brown suit pants and white shirt hanging there and put them on. I catch myself in the mirror over the sink—an old Negro with dark circles under his eyes and a thick black scar down the right side of his face. Same face I got to look at every day. I feel a little woozy so I go back to my chair and sit down. I need to close my eyes.

Haven’t been feeling too good lately. Mostly up here in this room by myself since Sue Lee took the children down to Spartanburg for the summer. Bertha come up here sometimes talking about, “Why you don’t go for a walk today?” or “How ‘bout we go get a cup of coffee down at Siegel’s this morning before my clients start coming?” I ain’t feeling like going out in that heat. Besides, she talk too much.

Bertha came up this morning to tell me Sue Lee and the children are back in town and she’s invited them to dinner this evening. She stand there like she expect me to get up and start dancing or something. “I know you’ll be glad to see little Eric and Emily. You don’t fool me.”

I don’t say nothing. She can think what she want. I must admit the boy been good company though. Somebody to watch the ball game with.

When Bertha leaves I go through my drawers and pull out the new dress shirt I bought at Korvette’s last week. This one don’t have no sweat stains under the arm and the collar is nice and sharp. I also got me a new pair of pants too, gray. And a sport coat. I’m told people don’t wear suits no more just slacks and a coat to mix and match. I shakes out the slacks a bit and hang them on the outside of the wardrobe hoping the creases will fall out by this evening.

I must have fallen asleep again.

I hear Bertha down in the kitchen banging away on that old stove and the smell of her pot roast is making its way through the house. I hurry up to the bathroom to rinse my mouth and put my clothes on. While I’m in there the doorbell rings. My hands are shaky and have a bit of trouble getting my shirt buttoned right. When I open up the bathroom door Eric is standing there grinning. All those teeth flashing I can’t help but grin back.

“Hey, Mr. Diggs! We back!” He laughs and grabs my hand.

“We been down to Grandma’s house down south. It’s hot down there, boy! And she got a garden and big old trees and things. And we ate fish at the church and strawberries right out of the ground! Did you miss me?”

He’s got a photograph upside down in his hand, waving it around.

“Look what Grandma gave me! See.”

“I can’t see nothing with you wriggling around like that! Hold still and let me see.”

He hand me the picture. It’s old, creased up, black and white and a little out of focus. Three teenagers standing in front of a wagon, the rump and tail of an old mule just barely in the frame. Davy and I are wearing the same overalls, so brand new that even in black and white you can clearly see the white stitching against the dark denim. Hattie stand between us in a light-colored dress, yellow maybe, with a white scarf tied turban-style around her head, and short white socks. I’m holding a guitar as if I’m playing it. I look foolish with my teeth showing and my hair parted on the side. We might have been going to or coming from church.

“Where you get this from?” I asks.

“Grandma. She says that’s you playing the guitar. Is that really you playing the guitar?”

“Do it look like me?”


I can’t hardly take my eyes off the picture. The house in the background where me and Davy grew up. The old wagon I used to drive to the fields. For a second I feel the memory of those reins going taut in my hands, of Davy and Hattie’s voices vibrating through church as I strummed along on my guitar, of other memories I dare not stir up.

I hand the boy the picture.

“But Grandma says it’s you. She told us that you used to play guitar and play baseball and ride horses.”

“Yeah, well I suppose I did once upon a time.”

“She says you knew my granddaddy.”

“I grew up with your granddaddy.”

Sue Lee appears at the foot of the stairs. “Hello, Mr. Diggs! Good to see you! Y’all come on down. Bertha says it’s time to eat.”

I nod to her. “We just up here washing our hands. We’ll be down there directly.”

Sue Lee’s brought her new beau with her. Nice guy, Mr. Kwame “Something-or-other-African.” Says he’s from some place name Ghana but he got an accent like them English boys we met over in Europe during the war. Says he a professor and is going to be working over at the new college they building for Negroes down on Carroll Street. He say this college is for everybody, not just Negroes, but I can’t image no white folks signing up for a school named after no Negro. Mr. Kwame acts like a real gentleman, pulling Sue’s chair out at the table and all that. He calls her “Susan” instead of Sue Lee like us country folk. Children seem to have taken to him pretty well with all his stories about living in Africa, and England, and France and just about everywhere else to hear him tell it. I guess it’s been about four years now since Samuel passed. Time for Sue Lee to get on with it, I suppose.

After dinner Eric jumps up runs to the kitchen and starts pulling on Sue Lee’s sleeve while she helping wash the dishes. “Mommy, can we give it to him now?”

“Just wait until after we finish cleaning up, okay?” she tells him. But Little Man and Emily ain’t got a bit of patience, so next thing they out in the foyer bumping around and come dragging a package into the living room. Sue Lee comes rushing out the kitchen drying her hands. “Didn’t I tell you two to wait! You’re going to damage it banging it around like that!”

Mr. Kwame takes the package from the children and sets it at my feet.

“Hattie asked us to bring this to you,” Sue Lee says. “Miraculously, it was one of the few things they were able to save from the fire.”

All I can do is look at it. My face start feeling hot and then my head is throbbing. I puts my hands over my eyes to stop the room from spinning but it don’t help.

“Ain’t you going to open it? It’s your guitar! The one in the picture!” Eric is grinning, already tearing at the paper. Sue Lee pulls him gently away. “Stop it Eric. That’s for Mr. Diggs to open whenever he’s good and ready.”

I can see the concern on Sue Lee’s face. My voice won’t come so I wave my hand trying to let her know it’s okay. The children are looking at me confused and hurt. “Aren’t you going to play it? Grandma said you used to play all the time,” Emily says.

“Hush,” Sue Lee says, herding them towards the kitchen door. “You two go in help Miss Bertha finish up.” Sue Lee shoos the children out of the room. They peek over their shoulders at me looking hurt and disappointed.

Sue Lee says, “I’m sorry. We didn’t mean to upset you, Mr. Diggs.”

“You ain’t upset me,” I tell her. “Just ain’t used to all this company. Getting too old to stay up this late.”

I excuse myself and head for the stairs. Mr. Kwame offers me his arm, but I wave him away. He follow me up carrying the guitar, and lean it against the wall outside my room.

“It has been a pleasure meeting you, sir,” Mr. Kwame says shaking my hand on the landing. “I do hope you will soon feel better.”

I close the door but I can still hear their voices downstairs. The children’s voices rising with questions and the adults’ low and measured with only half answers. I feel too ashamed to even open the door while they still in the house. They stay for a little while longer chatting with Bertha. I feel like I can’t move until I hear the taxi horn and see its headlights shining through my window as it pull away.

After a while, I get up, put on my pajamas and go out to the bathroom to splash my face and brush my teeth. The guitar is still there leaning against the wall on the landing. I guess I must have been just standing there staring at it for a while because Bertha was suddenly at the foot of the stairs looking up at me.

“You all right up there?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I answer her.

“You need anything? Some tea? There’s another slice of pie if you want it.”

“No, no thanks.”

“I got a half a bottle whiskey. Want a sip of that?”

“Doctor say I ain’t supposed to be drinking.”

“Sip every once in a while can’t hurt. Some nights you just need something to put you down,” she say and disappears.

I reach over and touch the top of the case. The paper crackles under my fingers. I grab the paper-covered handle. The weight is familiar but strange. This ain’t supposed to be here. I lay the package on the bed and sit down in the armchair. Bertha appear in the doorway holding two short glasses of whiskey.

“Well, who’d of thought Hattie would still have that old guitar,” she say, setting one of the glasses next to me on the TV tray and turning on the lamp next to the bed.

“I remember that house fire,” she says. “Happened right before I left Spartanburg. Wasn’t nothing left of that house but the chimney.”

I pick up the glass and take a sip. It burn my throat and makes me cough like some green teenager.

“You all right?” Bertha asks. I just nod and take another sip.

Bertha settles down on the sofa. “Lot a memories,” she say nodding toward the guitar. “I remember. I wasn’t but a child back then, or course, but I remember you and Davy singing in church. Y’all were something else. Couldn’t nobody sing those slow, sweet hymns like you and Davy.”

She sit for a while reminiscing. Talking about her mama and daddy and those wild older sisters of hers. As she talks, my brain lets loose a flood of memories—the half-remembered faces of the folks she mentions, the view through the schoolhouse window, Hattie in the kitchen, her hands coated in flour and meal, lying in my brother’s bed on a hot summer night, his wife’s tears pooling in the crook of my elbow while she tried to convince me and herself how happy they were.

Bertha talks for a long time. After a while she stop and I think maybe she fallen asleep. I can feel the weight of the guitar over on the bed. I can smell its age and its sins. I don’t remember why I left it at the house that night. I suppose I’d expected to go back there and pick it up along with the clothes and other odds and ends Davy allowed me to store in our old bedroom. Like the clothes, and all my intentions, I thought it had disappeared long ago.

I reach over and tug at the paper where Eric had already torn it away. I set my empty glass down and stand over the package on the bed. The smell of old leather and moldy closets get stronger as I unwrap it. The case is scabby along the edges, the leather worn away around the clasps and from the handles.

I hear Bertha stir in the dark behind me.

“Thing probably ain’t no good,” I says. “Don’t nothing last if you don’t take care of it. Can’t imagine why she would keep such a thing.”

I pop the clasps and open the case. The pale wood gleams in the dim light of the room. I stroke the fret board gently and am surprised to find the instrument strung. Running my fingers along the curve of the body I find the familiar dings and scratches in the wood, the inlay. I pick it up, feel its full weight. The strings sound when my pajama sleeve brushes against them. I try a few licks. It's way out of tune but the strings are good, new. Somebody, maybe, has played it, used it, cared about it. Maybe they just cleaned it up before sending it to me.

I sit down on the bed and almost without thinking begin fiddling with the pegs. Bertha gets up and goes downstairs. She come back with the rest of the whiskey. She pours a little more in my glass, and fills her own to the top as she settles back on the sofa. She sits in silence as I tune and adjust the guitar.

I strum a few chords and doodle a little, getting reacquainted with an old friend. I play bits and pieces of hymns and a few blues rifts. My hands are not as deft as they used to be and the words to the songs I used to know so well are long forgotten. Then Bertha starts singing, “Precious memories, how they linger, how they ever flood my soul…”

I playing the song badly, she singing it badly but I play and she sing it though to the end. I hear her sniffling across the room. “That’s enough,” I says and lay the guitar back in its case. “Hattie ain’t had no business sending this up here. Would have been better if she’d sold it.”

Bertha come over and takes my glass. “All of us have lost so much in this life. What’s the harm in trying to hold on to what little bits and pieces we got left. ’Night, Diggs.”

I listen at her tuneless humming as she make her way downstairs. I slide the guitar under the bed.

Lying here watching the cracks in the ceiling grow and the streetlights of this strange city playing through Bertha’s old raggedy curtains, I can feel it. Like the strings are still humming down there in the case, the vibrations echoing through the mattress, through my body and up through that cracked ceiling. I wonder if this is Hattie’s revenge, or what? I wonder if people ever do really forgive. I wonder what those kids will think when they grow up and find out who that dusty old man in front of the TV really was.

Simone Chimyo Atkinson is a Zen Buddhist nun and head of practice at Great Tree Zen Temple in Alexander, North Carolina.