| FRANCES SAUNDERS
NOT OUR KIND
Whenever I recall my adolescence, that portion of my life is shrouded in gray gloom, like the string floor mops set out to dry on our black iron fire escape.
The red brick tenement where I lived until my fourteenth birthday, deteriorated over time into a state both unsafe and unsavory. One by one my friends fled, some to the Grand Concourse, others to Washington Heights, leaving me behind like a cocoon that forgot to open.
On our school playground, the popular girls convulsed with laughter, their warm breath fogging the cold air, while I looked on as though I didn't give a damn. They were the rosy-cheeked, sweet smelling ones who resided cross-town in single family homes behind privet hedges. The rest of us flawed creatures with stuffed noses, sallow complexions, and scuffed shoes were referred to disparagingly by our teachers as those tenement kids.
Last night, I pressed my ear against my parents' bedroom door.
"Another week and you still haven't asked for a salesman's job?"
"For God's sake Lena, let me sleep."
"Listen to him. He wants to sleep in this broken down tenement. My family lived better in Odessa." I visualized Mom gazing heavenward, imploring a higher power to intercede on our behalf.
"Aren't you ashamed, an American born man carrying sides of beef on your back? For what? To live like this?"
I'm tempted to fling the door open and shake my father. "Do you know what it feels like to be me?" I scurry back under my featherbed to search for pockets of warmth, to sleep and dream my mother's dream.
# # #
In the morning, Mom is hunched over a glass of steaming tea, a vinegar soaked cloth tied around her forehead to ease a migraine. I helped myself to a cup of hot cocoa and sipped standing, the sweetness softening the gloom in the kitchen. Fortified against the cold, I kissed Mom. She walked me to the door and, as she did every morning, called after me.
"Be careful. Come home right after school. Don't talk to strange men." She said something else, but I had stopped listening.
Later that day, meanness in my chest, I find Mom kneading dough, a spiteful flour screen clouding the air between us.
"I wish we could leave this dump."
"Don't you think I would like that too? When Pop works up enough nerve to ask his boss for a raise we'll move." She wiped her hands on her apron and pulled me into a hug. My throat hurt.
In Miss Sullivan's sixth grade, I made it my business to arrive early, copy the blackboard assignment, assume a face washed of expression, giving her no excuse to find fault. Ever since a recent humiliation, good grades and good behavior have nourished my thirst for revenge.
About a week ago, Mom sent Miss Scott, our gym teacher, a note to excuse me from volley ball because of menstrual cramps. I sat on a bench within earshot of my teacher and Miss Scott. All at once Miss Sullivan rolled her eyes in my direction and, thinking I was both deaf and blind said, "What do you expect from those Sheenies?"
When I told Mom, she spat out a curse reserved for such occasions. "A plague on all of them."
Some days later, after composition, two girls, one brown skinned, the other white, stood in the doorway of our classroom. Miss Sullivan motioned them inside, glanced at their admission slips and grumbled to no one in particular, "More transfers. Mary sit here, and you Clarice over there." Tight-lipped, rocking on the balls of her feet, Miss Sullivan waited for the class to quit shifting and staring.
"Our school has been honored to participate in a borough wide poetry program. I'm mindful of your heavy graduation schedule, therefore I have selected "In Flanders Field," a poem you might recall memorizing when you studied the Great War. To my surprise Mary waggled her hand frantically as though she had an urgent call to use the "Girls."
"Miss Sullivan, could we recite something more modern like poetry by Edna St.Vincent Millay?"
"Definitely not. Now if we might move along with no further interruption, do I have any volunteers?" No one came to her rescue, not even Gloria the brown noser. Clarice and Mary's hands flew straight up. I joined them for the pure pleasure of irritating Miss Sullivan. She looked beyond us, perhaps hoping for more attractive performers. I knew why she by-passed me, but what did she have against the other two? When it became obvious there were no takers, we three won by default.
During a morning of interruptions, there came yet another. Miss Watkins, our principal, arrived unannounced. Her heels clicked as she made her way between the rows stopping at peroxide Peggy's desk. She stooped and whispered in her ear like best friends telling secrets. Peggy shrugged, although I saw her lower lip quiver. Stuffing a handful of papers from under her desk into a book bag, she stalked out ahead of Miss Watkins. Miss Sullivan stood as if transfixed, her arms draped across her chest. As soon as the door closed, Bertha, who sits behind me, trumpeted gleefully, "I bet she's pregnant." The class held their collective breath. Miss Sullivan sighed and pointed her forefinger at us like a gun.
"Very well, let's see what you three can do with the poetry."
In the lunchroom I ate with Mary and Clarice. "Say," I tried to sound off-handed to conceal my ignorance. "Do either of you happen to know how Peggy got pregnant?"
Mary bit into her ham sandwich, chewed, and then slowly washed it down with milk. "For Pete's sake she erupted. Where have you been?" She bumbled around an impossible arrangement between men and women, beyond reason or imagination. Not to be outdone, Clarice added to our weighty discourse.
"Before my Grandma passed, Mama and I drove to my granddaddy's farm in South Carolina. I watched a calf push out from between a big old cow's legs. Mama covered my eyes and Grandma got mad and said, "Lorraine, let the child see life."
"So, now we're cows?" Mary said. "Look, you numbskulls, how did the calf get inside the cow in the first place? How did the baby get inside Peggy? Isn't that the question?"
Even though I remained skeptical, at least I had friends to ask.
At break, under a weak sun, we three met on the playground to talk about the poem. When Clarice removed her glove to offer sticks of Juicy Fruit gum, I wanted to touch her velvety skin, undo her braids that poked beneath her crocheted hat for the feel of it. I didn't, of course. It would be too much like petting a puppy and the last thing I wanted to do was offend her.
"Mary, why was it so important for you to perform in the spring program?" I asked.
"If I'm ever going to be famous like Greta Garbo, I need to practice in front of an audience." All at once it came to me how much Mary and I resembled each other, olive skin, Buster Brown haircuts, even to our skimpy coats fastened with mismatched buttons.
"Miss Garbo," Clarice moaned. "Shake a leg and divide the poem. It's freezing."
School over, I ran five blocks, up two flights, and burst into the kitchen panting.
"Mom, you won't believe this. Two new girls registered in our class this morning. I asked them to come home with me to study. Clarice can't. Not until her recital is over, but Mary can."
Mom heaved a sigh as if struggling to make sense of so much at one time. "Those two are the best you can find?"
"Why would you say that, Mom? You haven't laid eyes on either one."
"Mary, Clarice. What kind of names are those?"
"Mom, listen to yourself. You sound like Miss Sullivan." Mom's fair skin darkened.
I ran to my room, slammed the door, and flung myself on the bed. Why couldn't I hold my tongue, stupid fool that I was? Why did I ask permission in the first place? Why didn't I just bring Mary home?
During supper an uneasy silence hung between us. "Mom, this is the best stuffed cabbage you ever made."
"I made it for you because I know how much you enjoy it." In an unexpected moment of lightheartedness, Mom cleared the table and sang "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" I seized the moment to pencil Mary on the wall calendar for Monday.
Monday, the hours dragged. Lost in a daydream, I watched a sparrow peck on a tiny morsel. It couldn't have been more than a moment before I had the uncomfortable, feeling that Miss Sullivan's eyes were crawling down my back. All I needed was for her to keep me in after class. I turned ever so slowly, wrinkled my brow in concentration and wrote hastily as if inspired.
At day's end, Mary and I ran down the stone steps into a balmy winter afternoon. She unbuttoned her coat. A small gold cross I hadn't noticed earlier dangled on a chain around her neck. Holy smoley, maybe this hadn't been such a great idea. The closer we came to my building, the more my stomach somersaulted. I rang our vestibule buzzer. Mom opened the door. She greeted us in her good green dress. Her long blonde hair was fastened with amber combs. The kitchen table held two gold-rimmed glasses, a pitcher of milk and a sliced Ward's Silver Queen cake. The kitchen had the scrubbed look of Friday night.
# # #
Mary removed her coat. The necklace had slipped underneath her cardigan and in my feverish state, I imagined the cross smoldered on her chest. I passed a slice of cake. Mom stood over us, something she never did with my other friends. Come to think of it, she hadn't treated them like royalty either. After Mom exhausted her store of sociable questions. "Where do you live, how do you like school, and what do your folks do for a living?" Mary told Mom her mother sewed in a coat factory and her father worked in construction. Then chatty Mary rattled on. "We're from the Ukraine, but I was little when I came to America."Then, in the heat of the kitchen, Mary slipped out of her sweater.The overhead light shimmered on her gold cross. Mom recoiled, steadying herself against the refrigerator. I gulped milk to keep from choking on a mouthful of cake. Mary, unaware anything was amiss, dug into a mound of icing she had saved for last."Mary, let's go. My mother needs to clear the table for supper." I hustled her out into the safety of my bedroom. Mary pulled a dog-eared Silver Screen magazine from between the pages of her notebook. We sprawled across my bed and spent over an hour drooling over our favorite stars. After Mary left, I bounded into the kitchen, exiliarated."Mary's such fun."Mom dropped her spoon, splattering gravy on the stove. "There's more to living than fun. Better to be alone than have friends like her. Have you forgotten how it was for me to grow up with pogroms? People like her danced on your grandparents' graves.""Mom, Mary had nothing to do with pogroms. She was only a baby when she came to the United States. It's not fair to blame her for what happened years ago." Mom's face crumpled. She lowered herself into a chair and buried her face in her hands. Repentant, I wept for my crazy mixed up life.In the days that followed, Mom didn't mention Mary or Clarice. When Mary came to study, Mom gave her a disinterested nod and kept her misgivings to herself. If Mary noticed Mom's cool reception, she didn't say. Her visits lacked the fuss and bother of her first time, which suited me fine. We helped ourselves to milk and crullers, like I used to do with my old friends. But it wasn't the same. Mom's hurtful silence cut like a scalpel.
# # #Clarice's invitation came shortly before graduation. When I told Mom she had asked me over after school, I could tell from the look on her face, she had hoped my interest in her had waned."It's not the end of the world if you don't go.""No, but I'll perish of a broken heart.""Phoo. Such nonsense. Why can't she come here?" "Because she practices piano every afternoon. Her mother wants her to play in Carnegie Hall. It's like you Mom, wanting me to get good grades and teach.""I'll tell you what. Find out where she lives and we'll take a walk. That way I'll know where you are." Sunday morning, I tagged along side Mom, feeling like a small child. What if I bumped into Clarice? What business did I have in Harlem? We found Clarice's house, one of a row of brownstones on St. Nicholas Ave. The windows were curtained in lace. Brass fixtures gleamed against a polished brown door. I could tell Mom was impressed. She lowered her voice as though the house had ears."That's a fancy house.""Clarice's mother owns the Beauty Shop in the basement, and the family lives upstairs.""My heart tells me letting you come here is a terrible mistake." Desperate for permission, I consorted with the devil, mumbling, "Step on the cracks, break your mother's back.""Stop jumping. Maybe if you promise to walk with Mary, and leave enough time to come home before dark, we'll see."The day I'm to visit Clarice, Mary stayed home from school. Mom knew where I would be, and only a ninny could get lost. Clarice twirled with delight when I told her I would come anyway. We chattered about this and that, and how a war poem brought us together.
Clarice unlocked her front door. I sucked in my breath. Was it possible I had stepped into the Jumel Mansion, a historic home my fifth grade class had visited on a field trip? Of course there were no "Do Not Touch " signs, but instead of a harpsichord a grand piano dominated the living room. When I stroked the red roses on the fringed shawl, Clarice stuck out her tongue."If you had to practice every afternoon, you wouldn't think it's so great." She found a Baby Ruth in a cupboard, measured the candy bar with a ruler, cut it evenly, and suggested a game of checkers. A key clicked somewhere in the rear of the house. A tall woman in a pink uniform, skin the color of butterscotch and marcelled shiny black hair came toward us."Hey you two. Having fun?" She narrowed her eyes. "Baby, you did practice your scales and chords?""Yes, mama.""Good. Sorry I have to run or Ruby will fry under the drier."We played until the clock chimed the half hour. "I better get going.""Must you?""I have to get home before dark.""Pick some marigolds in the garden for your Mom, then she'll let you come again."
# # #Bored with the same scenery on the way home, I wondered if there was something different to see on the opposite side of the avenue. I crossed over, passed a yard goods store, a small grocery, a barber shop, and a saloon with men lounging outside on wooden crates. My stomach growled. I could taste Mom's pot roast and potatoes soaked in brown gravy. The sun had gone down. I ran past a chain of empty lots strewn with trash. The last of the shoppers fanned out into the side streets and I was alone. To my relief, I had arrived on the other side of the avenue where I lived. Just then the light went on in our apartment. This week Pop worked the night shift and Mom must be mad as a hornet waiting for me.Suddenly a black arm circled my waist, squeezing the air that's in me. "Let go," I gasped, wriggling and kicking. The grip tightened. Mouths grinned from behind shadows. I'm dragged to a gaping maw, an open coal chute like the one in our building. "Let me go. I'll give you my milk money." They jeer. My heels dug into the sidewalk, bare shins scraping concrete. A calloused hand, reeking of tobacco, slapped my mouth shut. My threshold for pain had reached its limit. I puked down his arm."Shit."He flicked the slime in my face. A dog growled."Take your time, Choo, Choo. These old legs can't move fast," a voice scolded the dog."Scram, It's old lady Grant." I'm dropped on the pavement. Stars blinked behind my eyelids. A dark skinned woman, white haired like someone's grandmother, peered at me in the fast fading light. The bulldog licked my face. She shortened the leash, and extended her hand. Then clicking her tongue, she examined my smudged skirt, my spit-up stained blouse, the book-bag and the wilted flowers strewn on the sidewalk. The boys were gone."My, my child. Are you hurt?" I shook my head. "We all fall and with the help of the good Lord start over. Gather your posies. Your mama won't mind." I limped across the avenue on legs that trembled and met Mom coming toward me."Don't I have enough trouble without you giving me more?" She opened our apartment door and switched on the light. "God in heaven. What happened to you?" She touched my forehead with the back of her hand the way she did when I had a fever. "Are you sick?""I brought you some flowers from Clarice's garden, slipped on dog doodoo and fell. The smell made me throw up.""What were you doing across the street? Come here." Mom clicked off the light and raised the window shade. Night stared back."You want friends? They know where you live." Tears burned behind my eyelids for stupidly acting on a whim. I filled a tub, lowered my bruised body into the scalding water and soaked until my fingertips shriveled. Later, when Mom bent over my bed, I pretended sleep. The next thing I knew the sun's rays lit the room. I swung my aching legs over the edge of the bed. Last night rushed back, sparing me none of the vivid details. Mom had warned me the world was a hazardous place and I didn't believe her. Since that unforgettable fright, I became less adventuresome, more cautious, less hair-brained and more serious minded, all in growing older.The long awaited graduation day finally arrived. My relatives congregated in our living room for the event.. Pop used the occasion to brag how he had worked his way up to a better job and we would be moving. I left ahead of the rest, found my place in the processional, and avoided eye contact with Mary and Clarice fearful I might giggle or dissolve into uncontrollable weeping. I recalled little of the program except that I'm holding a diploma tied with a blue ribbon. I handed the scroll to Mom and rested my head on her shoulder, trying to forget the tug of war that pulled us apart."I'll be right back, Mom." Cutting loose, I zig zagged around ladies in flowered dresses, and men in straw hats, colliding with Mary."Hurry, get your family. Clarice's mother is snapping pictures."We were arranged in family groupings, then the three graduates dressed in white posed, our arms entwined."I'm starving," Mary's father bellowed. "Let's go."We hugged, clingy and weepy, promising to write. I lingered, the last to leave. Mom hung back, waiting for me. The family strolled on ahead. It struck me, if ever I was going to speak my mind, it would had to be now."Mom, in a few months I'll start High School in a strange new neighborhood. Isn't it time you trusted my judgment?""What's come over you all of a sudden?""Mary, Clarice..." my throat tightened.Mom stared straight ahead. I imagined she had been holding her breath, casting back into her pool of ugly memories. I slipped my sweaty hand in her cool one and held on. She squeezed. It was one small gesture, but if meant a lot.