When Sunday school was over, I said, to no one in particular, “I have to go downstairs to church to meet my parents.” It
wasn’t true. It just felt good to say it.
I like to sit in that church. It’s built in the shape of a cross. From the roof of my apartment building, looking down, the church is a big hen setting her nest on the green grass. The cross’s arms are her wings. The bell tower is her head. When I go in the church, I walk slowly like a bride walks, down the long aisle. I make believe, Well, here I am, in the hen, a hen as big as a church. My Mary Janes clatter on the grey stones, but what I imagine is, I’m strolling through a hen’s inside when she’s still alive. Inside her body, she is not dark, but warm and flooded with light. Her breast bones rise up to a point and are the same as the arches that hold up the inside of the church. Her wishbone is the highest arch. I touch her tough gizzard and her liver and her fast-beating heart.
To think that is peaceful. Now that it’s Monday and I stand around sweating in the noise of Macy’s while Mama’s mother shops the sales, I wish I hadn’t done it. Gone to church. The preacher talked about Hell.
He started out by leaning over the open-mouthed angels carved into the front of the pulpit. Then he looked out into all our eyes, as if we were personal friends. “Dear ones,” he said, “the end of the world is near.” All our breaths sucked in. The woman by me in the pew had on what Mama calls “a smart suit,” and around her shoulders, she wore two fox furs with head and feet still attached, and on her own feet, alligator shoes with open toes. Inside her purse, alligator too, I could see she smoked Camels.
To the man next to her, dressed in gangster pinstripes with built-up shoulders, she said, “Doesn’t the thought just make your blood run cold?”
Up to that point, I’d liked her.
I’d felt as if anybody who looked at us would have said, about her and me, “That must be her little girl.”
“In the midst of life,” the preacher said, “we are in death.” His words crackled off the microphone. People flinched. “Some of us,” he said, “will be consigned to eternal torment.” The r’s of eternal torment were bullets shot out of his mouth. The woman next to me put her hand to her bosom.
This morning, all the way down here to Macy’s on the subway, station signs flew by. We had caught an express. It went so fast, the metal rattled, Mama’s mother’s cheeks jiggled. Because it’s Monday, our car was packed full. I had to stand by Mama’s mother’s seat and hold on to the back of it.”
I always hate to look around and think someone is saying to themselves about me that Mama’s mother is my grandmother. When most people think “grandmother,” they wouldn’t for the life of them think Mama’s mother. They picture maybe somebody prim. They hear in their minds a pigeon coo and words that pipe out like frosting words on birthday cake.
Not me. How could anybody this fat and loud-mannered have brought out of her big stomach my mama, who has, surely, a bad temper but also a beautiful face and a body no bigger, they say, than a minute, a waist the size of an hourglass? How?
Dressed up, face painted on, pincurls let loose, rusty hair shook out and shiny, you can’t find one mistake on Mama. Even the mole on her neck, which her mother tells her over and over could be cancer, even that looks like it belongs.
When I grow up, will I be like Mama’s mother? Or favor Mama? Some of Mama I wouldn’t mind getting for myself.
On the subway train this morning, the train swayed me so much, I felt sick to my stomach. Mama’s mother tried to talk above the clatter about what she might buy and how snow was coming, a real blizzard, and how she sure thanked God (although she’s not religious) she didn’t have to get cows in out of it. She told me the story of how once the snow fell so many feet deep that her best Poland China 600-pound sow got swallowed up and sunk down in it. Nobody found her until spring thaw, and when they did, the sow was frozen perfectly, her mouth still open to squeal for help. I thought, then, while Mama’s mother was still talking and even the bored New Yorkers looked up to listen, about how a body’s outside is fragile as a paper lantern. How a body’s outside can get you run over and smeared on pavement, flat. It can sizzle on the subway third rail, get fried to a pork cracklin’ by the A-bomb, or trifled with by dirty men.
If the outside of you were factory-built of metal and flameproof, you could enjoy better what’s inside, thoughts and all. Your thoughts would melt pleasantly, like butter does, inside a hot roll.
* * *
I thought about how at school, when the fire alarm shrills, they tell us to quickly and without panic form a single line outside our room for fire drill. If it’s cold, we get time to grab our coats from the cloak room. In a real fire, we might not. In orderly fashion, no talking, we snake down stairs and stand out on 110th Street across from Central Park. We try not to stare at poor people from Spanish Harlem who walk by in shabby coats or who, when it’s warm, dress up in colors brighter than we ever wear, who put gold hoop earrings in the ears of even bitty babies, and we try not to look scared when pachucos’ heels, with metal taps nailed in then, click by us on the sidewalk. Pachucos nib their skinny mustaches with a pinky finger and grin and then go