Archive for June, 2006

Chapter 12 – Elston Avenue (Part 4)

June 1, 2006

After my fight in the playground I realized that somewhere deep inside me was something powerful that I didn’t much care for. It was unharnessed anger. I came to the conclusion that I’d have to learn to control that anger if I were to have any peace in my life. I still didn’t like fights, physical or verbal. I had never learned anything from arguing with Harriette. It’s impossible to win an argument with someone who has to have the last word and Harriette always had to have the last word; well usually six last words to be exact. Her favorite phrase when confronted with an inarguable point was “Go fart up a cherry tree!”

Retiring from the fighting world did not stop me from watching the other kids fight in that school yard. My favorite scrapper was one the young teenage boys who had helped dig out our basement that summer. He had thick wavy blond hair and hazel eyes and his name was Carl. Most of his opponents were much bigger then he was (he was sometimes referred to as a runt, which was probably one of the reasons he felt he had to fight so much). Carl may have been small, but he was extremely quick. He was so quick that no one could hold him down long enough to get a good punch in. Of all the fights that I witnessed, Carl never lost a single one. I’d sit cross-legged on one of the concrete sills of a ground floor window facing the playground, deep in the shadows at the corner of the building, a place where I was certain none of those boys could see me and watch Carl go to battle with each of his opponents. One fight at a time, more exciting than any Welterweight or Heavyweight Championship and even more entertaining than baseball’s World Series, Carl fought his way through seventh and eighth grades undefeated as I sat quietly like a fly on the wall and watched. I knew then that if I ever needed someone to protect me, that someone would have to be Carl.

Though I was watching all of Carl’s fights, I never spoke to him directly for fear of being rejected. I didn’t comment to others about what had happened during any of those fights either. That was my secret. Harriette, Jane and I would walk for hours in the evening when I could talk about everything. Everything that is except Carl. My feelings for him belonged only to me. Jane was so crazy about him that she let everyone within earshot know. She’d chase him down the street, pumping her arms and legs wildly until she caught up with him. She’d throw her arms into the air and proclaim, “He’s mine!” and then bowl him over just to be able to touch him. Jane’s actions reminded me of Minnie Pearl’s hogtying routine. I kept my mouth shut, kept my distance, and watched. For some reason, I knew that fighting with Carl or knocking him down were not good ways to get his attention. Harriette showed her feelings for Carl by arguing with him. She argued with everyone she liked (which proves that she really, really loved me!). Most of the kids didn’t know how to take Harriette’s argumentative nature, but Carl had absolutely no problem with it and actually seemed to enjoy it. He’d sometimes tease her just to bring out her temper and then reign it back in to show that he was still in control of the situation. His ability to deal with Harriette was just another one of his endearing qualities. Through it all I remained the observer, watching and learning.

During the summer between seventh and eighth grades we went back to Florida for another visit, which would be our last one as a whole family. Bobbie, Sissie and Normie got to take a Greyhound bus to Chattahoochee. They were dressed identically in spaghetti strap sun dresses as they boarded that bus. They looked like three grown women, both scared and excited at the prospect of being on their own for the very first time during that long journey. The rest of us would pack up the car later in the summer and join them.

My Uncle Henry was Chattahoochee’s Chief of Police. My cousin, Jeanette, was as bubbly and alive as ever, doing hand flips and cartwheels wherever the mood struck. Her mom, Lillian (Mama’s sister) believed we made a special trip to her house just for her double chocolate cake (it was rich and delicious) while Henry insisted that we came down just to eat his grits and eggs and bacon every morning.

Jeanette’s brother, Billy, was becoming very sophisticated and even firmer in his conviction that all of us, with the exception of Normie, were just a bunch of uneducated cretins. Whenever Jeanette would inform him that he was just another hillbilly, he let all of us know in no uncertain terms that he was NOT a hillbilly, he was a Mountain William (which is simply nothing more than an educated hillbilly). Little Mama had gotten married to a man we called Uncle Harvey. There were changes going on, and we all just sort of went along with them.

To make room for everyone, our family split up. Mama, Daddy, Ben and Buddy spent their nights with Little Mama and Uncle Harvey in their little apartment across the street from the entrance to the Florida State Hospital while the rest of us stayed with Lillian and Henry. They cleared a space in the living-room to use as sleeping quarters for Harriette, Jeanette and me. We shared a pallet made of blankets on their living room carpet. Laying under a thin sheet and wearing one of Henry’s white cotton tee shirts, we’d tell each other stories long past the time when Jeanette’s mom and our siblings were sound asleep in the adjoining rooms.

Jeanette loved to tell her own brand of ghost stories to see how long it would take me to get scared (which was never very long). For the most part, her stories were classic tales straight from the crypt keeper. She had told these stories every year during our summer visits. This year, however, would be the last time she tried to scare any of us after having a fright of her own.

It happened late one night while Henry was working. Jeannette was telling another story about grave-robbers when we heard a knock at the front door. Jeanette raised her head to peek through the door’s windowpane and saw an extremely tall huge black man with a cauliflower ear with his nose pressed to the glass peering into the room, his eyes darting from left to right. Gasping, Jeanette quickly ducked down below the window and crawled on her stomach into Lillian’s room.

Shaking Lillian, she whispered, “Mama, quick, wake up. There’s a colored man at the front door. He’s big and he’s ugly and he’s got a cauliflower ear and I’m scared!” Lillian was instantly awake. Tossing back the sheet and sitting on the edge of the bed she said, “I’ll take care of it. You just stay here while I call your Daddy. He’ll know what to do”

Lillian called Henry as Jeanette sat on the floor beside the bed with her knees tucked under her chin. After listening to Lillian’s description of the stranger, Henry told her just to invite him in and offer him a cup of coffee and anything she could find for him to eat. Jeanette crawled back into the living-room to sit with me and Harriette. Lillian then opened the front door and with a welcoming “Good evening” asked the tall stranger if he’d like some coffee and a piece of her double chocolate cake.

The three of us girls sat curled against each other in the corner of the room, our arms intertwined, and watched as Lillian and the stranger sat at the kitchen table eating cake, drinking coffee and chatting like a couple of old friends. We, however, were scared to death because we had no idea if he had other more sinister plans for us.

It seemed like hours, but it was just a few minutes before Henry walked in the back door. He witnessed his wife and this stranger sitting at the table carrying on a perfectly sensible conversation. The pride in his eyes was unmistakable.

Henry stepped over to the table, placed his hand on the man’s broad shoulder and said, “Say, Bud, don’t you think it’s about time we got you on back?”

Without a word, the stranger placed the last bite of cake onto his fork, lifted it to his lips and finished off with the last of his coffee. Setting the fork back onto the table, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and nodded to Henry. Tipping his head toward Lillian, he thanked her for her hospitality, rose and left the kitchen with Henry, leaving the rest of us to finally breathe again.

As it turned out, the man had escaped from the Florida State Hospital (the mental institution which the movie Chattahoochee was based on) and had thought that the burning porch light meant that he had found a boarding house.

From the moment that Harriette and I watched Henry walk out the door with the man that had frightened us so badly, Henry was no longer just our uncle, he became one of the bravest men on the face of the earth, even though he was the only one who knew that the stranger was completely harmless.

Our summer together was surreal for us that year. The scent of jasmine was somehow stronger than in previous summers, the bird-songs clearer, the sky bluer, and the water cleaner. There was nothing that Harriette, Jeanette and I couldn’t do. We were invincible, untouchable, immortal. That summer it felt as though our lives stretched on before us forever.

During these last two weeks of August Normie and Billy decided to prove themselves to be of superior intellect. Jeanette and I found them seated in front of the mirror plucking the hair in the center of their foreheads one morning. Staring into that mirror, their eyes squinted, the look on their faces sheer and total concentration, they ignored us.

Sitting at the foot of the bed and staring at them, Jeanette asked, “What are you two doing?”

Billy looked back at her in the mirror and rolled his eyes as if to say, ‘Oh ye of so little knowledge, ye mere mortal, must you ask?’

In his best upper-crust, highbrow Southern gentlemen accent, he replied, “Why Jeanette, everyone who’s anyone knows that all the world’s geniuses have widows peaks. We’re simply doing what nature forgot.”

The two of them did manage to form perfect widow’s peaks that day, but unfortunately, nature only saw fit to let half of it grow back in. Does that mean that they were only half-smart or just half-wits?

Leaving Mama’s family that year wasn’t any easier than leaving them had been during any of the previous years. We did our share of bawling and squalling for at least a mile down the road. I’d have given anything at the time to be able to stay in the warm Florida sunshine forever, that is until September set in. It’s my favorite month of the year and the beginning of one of my two favorite seasons, Fall (the other season being Spring).

Talk about Spring Fever all you want, I found that I experienced the same emotion every September as the leaves began to turn shades of red, orange, burnt sienna and yellow. The kids in the neighborhood spent every available hour outside before the air turned cold and winter set in, closing us indoors for months. I relished the clean crisp air, the leaves scattering across the sidewalks, dancing in the gutters, and crunching beneath my feet. I also loved watching people, young and old. They seemed to get closer to each other as they walked down those sidewalks in September, reacting completely opposite to their response to a touch in the hot summer months when another’s hand against your skin is uncomfortable and often confining. Fall actually seems to welcome physical contact. Even I welcomed the closeness of Harriette, Jane, and Dawn on our long walks as we huddled together on the sidewalk and gossiped about everything and nothing.

School started, as always, the day after Labor Day. I finished eighth grade the following Spring and graduated from Brentano. I was all set to follow Harriette to Schurz High School on the corner of Addison and Milwaukee Avenue. Harriette did her best to ignore me during my entire freshman year so that I’d have every opportunity to make a complete fool of myself, which was the one thing I was always a success at. Besides, who wants to be affiliated with a freshman?

I had joined the Royal Airs Drum and Bugle Corps in grade school and was kept fairly busy on weekends as well as a couple of afternoons during the week. I enjoyed the structure of the drill, I loved the rhythm of the drums and the sound of the bugles, and I cherished the camaraderie of the group. I met kids that weren’t from my neighborhood; kids that came from different backgrounds than mine. Kids that went to Catholic school instead of public school. I started carrying a lace handkerchief in my pocket so I could cover my head just in case we felt the need for prayer. I often found myself going to a church close to the Royal Airs Hall on North Avenue on Ash Wednesdays and any other day with the girls in the color guard — kids who weren’t ashamed to be seen walking into a church in the middle of the week to pray or receive the ashes from a strange priest or to light a candle and kneel in quiet reflection while the rest of us prayed. All it would take was one of the girls to say, “come on, let’s go to church,” or “I need to go light a candle.” Whatever the reason, the girls in the color guard went as a group. I learned about our differences and why it was those very differences that made us so much alike.

Belonging to the Royal Airs made me feel like a member of a special society. I was allowed to go where so few were permitted. Putting on the uniform of the Royal Airs gave me confidence I didn’t otherwise feel. I wasn’t afraid to step out in perfect formation and march a five mile parade route or take the first step off the line during competition. Even though I couldn’t carry on a civilized conversation with another member of the human race at any other time, I was brave when I was wearing that blue and white uniform. My fears were invisible, my vulnerabilities shielded behind the flag or rifle that I carried. Even though I left the corps before I moved from the Junior Corps to the Senior Corps, in my heart I will always be a member of Chicago’s finest, the Royal Airs.

January 17, 1966 was Harriette’s sixteenth birthday. Sweet 16 for her consisted of getting a huge birthday poster taped to her school locker so that everyone knew she was now old enough to be kissed. She was presented with a corsage and a teddy bear from her friends after home room. That evening, Daddy bought a cake for her with rock and roll figures on it so that we could all celebrate. Come to think of it, the only reason any of us can remember what our 16th birthday cake looked like is because it’s the only birthday cake any of us ever got. It made us believe that this birthday was a real milestone.

Harriette worshiped Daddy and would do anything for him (and usually did). One year he raised rabbits in the garage behind the house. Now, I’m not saying that it was a legal enterprise, but there were lots of things that people did that weren’t exactly legal. He was simply providing meat for his family in the only way he could. After all, where would he keep a cow? When he decided it was time to butcher those rabbits Harriette volunteered to help him. Better her than me. I don’t even remember being home when they started their massacre of all those little thumpers in the garage. Daddy held them by their feet until they lost consciousness and then he’d thump them on the head with a hammer to kill them, skin their hides and bring them into the kitchen for Harriette to clean.

Later that evening when I did walk into the kitchen, Harriette was still standing by the sink cleaning rabbits. Her face pale, she’d been standing in the same spot all evening, foregoing supper to help and was still at it well past her bedtime. I’m not sure if it was the lack of food or the copious amount of rabbit blood and entrails, but after I asked how she was doing, she turned to speak to me and immediately passed out stone cold on the kitchen floor.

Daddy panicked and called Mama at work, “What am I supposed to do?”

Mama said, “Don’t worry, once she comes to, give her orange juice and Castor oil.” He did, and Harriette was mad as a wet hen the next day.

She asked Mama, “whatever possessed you to have Daddy give me orange juice and Castor oil?”

Mama told her in a matter-of-fact tone, “It didn’t hurt you one bit and it made your Daddy feel as if he were doing something really important to help you.”

As a result of the rabbit incident Harriette refused to ever take Castor oil again (in any form).

Daddy’s form of discipline was always to keep us occupied, believing that if we were working we would either be too busy or too tired to get into trouble. It’s not a bad philosophy and usually worked. Other than Saturday morning house cleaning, when we’d start at the living room and clean our way to the back porch (at which time we had to decide what to do with all the stuff that ended up on the back porch), our job was to wash dishes every evening after supper and do our homework.

Without giving me a choice, Harriette would always start washing the dishes, leaving me to dry them and put them away and wash down the stove, refrigerator and counter tops. It was Harriette’s nature to start an argument in the middle of the glassware, before she ever got the to silverware (which is the part of the job we both hated for some reason). She’d work herself into a frenzy, acting even more and more furious until she’d finally blurt out, “I quit!”

At first Daddy attempted to intervene, telling her to behave and get her job done. There was nothing that anyone could say, including Daddy, that would convince Harriette to finish. When she said she quit she meant it. I’d end up having to do it all (and looking back, I think she planned it that way).

I really had to hand it to Harriette, she was good! To this day I can’t stand going to bed and leaving a sink full of dirty dishes. And my stove, refrigerator, and counter tops get washed off every evening.