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
“Ssssss.” They shoot spit right out onto the sidewalk near our feet.
Pie-face Amy, whose father is a bird colonel, retired, and on Wall Street now, told us pachucos carry shivs pushed into their belts, right up against their naked skin, just like Negroes keep ice picks inside their jackets. Amy said, “Don’t ever look in their eyes. It gives them ideas.”
Our teachers like fire drills. They can stand outside and smoke and gossip. If it’s cold, cooks bring them out trays of steaming coffee and dessert leftovers, usually a sheetcake square.
With A-bomb drills, it’s different. Teachers get almost embarrassed. Nobody brings out cake. “ ‘When will I be blown up?’ don’t ya know, they wonder.” That’s what Amy said Miss McCallister said to Norm, our art teacher. “Miss Man-Crazy McCallister disgusts me,” said Amy, “the way she chases after Norm.”
For A-bomb drills, the school alarm sounds for three minutes without stopping. We crawl under our wooden worktables and guard our heads with our hands until the all-clear: three one-minute blasts, with two minutes of silence in between. Teachers have to get under tables too. Their bottoms stick up. You count out one, one-hundred, two, two-hundred, three, three-hundred, and on up to sixty. That gives you one minute’s time.
When I was four and five, I lived in Arkansas on my mother’s farm. I gathered eggs out from under hens, morning and afternoon. Her hired hand told me to be careful and not hit my head when I stood up quick from bottom rows of nest boxes. “Your head’d break open like one of them eggs.”
Even though I’m not happy, I don’t want to die. Not at nine, going on ten. In olden days, soldiers fought wars on battlefields. They saw who they killed. Now, it’s all scrambled eggs.
Russians would fly over in bombers. New York would be a prime target. The Empire State will topple. St. Patrick’s and Best & Co., the only store that sells my D-width shoes, will turn to dust. For sure, Rockefeller Center, where Atlas leans over with his shoulders bent under the weight of the world, that will be like it was never built.
Around the city, air-raid shelters store food, water, first-aid supplies, Bibles, and games. When A-bomb red-alert sounds, let’s say you are downtown: you must dive for whatever cover’s close by. If you see a round black sign with a yellow triangle in it that says “CD” in black, that’s a shelter. Rush into it. You could live there for up to a month.
You have to get into a shelter in time. When the A-bomb fell in Hiroshima, a Japanese child had on a dress made out of material with roses printed on it. They brought her to the hospital, and nurses saw that the bomb flash had burned roses onto her stomach and back.
Amy’s father saw them bombed in Germany, where it was only regular bombs. In the canals, Nazis boiled up like stew meat. In gutters, they fried in their own fat. “Can you imagine that?” asked Amy. She said, “They deserved it, I guess.”
Mama’s mother says, when bad things happen to some people, “Them that gets it, deserves it. God was never known for bein’ merciful.”
When I asked Mama what we should do at home about the A-bomb, she said, “You won’t know what hit you.” Mama’s like that.
But she pinched my shoulder and warned me, within an inch of my life, “In no uncertain terms are you to talk about A-bombs with your grandmother, do you hear me?”
Yesterday the preacher ended his sermon with: “The idea of the end of the world has recurred again and again in the past, and yet the Earth has not ceased to exist. God is always waiting. Invite him, brethren,” he said, flapping the wide black wings of his robe, “invite him.”
I was glad when we stood up yesterday and sang the recessional hymn, just like I was glad this morning to get out of the swaying subway and up on solid ground in Herald Square so that my stomach calmed down.
The hymn was “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus, You Soldiers of the Cross.” The woman in furs shared a hymnbook with me. The fox heads bobbed when she reached for high notes. Her hands shook. She apologized, said, “It’s a nicotine fit, why my hands are shaking.”
I was tired from sitting and got out from the church fast, pushed past grown-ups crammed into aisles who stood in line to shake hands, outside on the steps, with the preacher. I was grateful to hit fresh air and opened up my mouth wide as the angels’ mouths open up on the pulpit.
Before I went back to the apartment yesterday, before I even put on my gloves, I stood out in front of the church and untied out of my handkerchief the two liberty dimes and a buffalo nickel Mama had given me for offering. Navy blue dress-up coat flying, Mary Janes clop-clipping, I ran, pretending to be a wild pony, down the two blocks to the cigar store on Broadway, and bought a Bit o’ Honey and the brand-new Donald Duck comic.
On Saturday afternoon, I had already known I wanted the Donald Duck.
All the way back uphill to my apartment I had to fight wind coming down off the Hudson River. It was strong wind and bent over skinny leafless trees planted in holes in the concrete. The wind struck through my coat, jumper top, blouse, and undershirt. So I walked backwards all the way home. In the lobby, the smell of Sunday dinners seeped out from first-floor apartments. Before I got in the elevator, I went to the basement storeroom and, deep in my bike knapsack, hid the comic and candy and the dime I had left.
My mama’s mother likes crime. So after Sunday dinner (which included dumplings), she got back out her Sunday papers. She read me from the Daily News: “Mobster found dead, six bullets lodged in head…Deranged Vet Murders Thirteen in Twelve Minutes.” She told me a story about a jealous wife in Michigan who strangled her husband, butchered him into chops, steaks, and roasts, and wrapped up his pieces as Christmas presents.
I said, “You made that up about Christmas presents.”
She rattled newspaper under my nose. She pointed with a print-dirty, fat finger, “Look, young’n, look right here.”
It was there.
After that, Mama’s mother read out loud about a train wreck. “They’re digging,” she read, “through the wreckage.”
Mama, who keeps up on voice recitals at Town Hall, on her favorite soprano Lily Pons, and operas and opera stars and cares nothing about Berlin or what Russia is up to and whether Alger Hiss is a Communist or Whittaker Chambers a liar or Judith Coplon a spy, sat by the window, as always, to get sun on her Sunday New York Times. Mama looked up from her papers and said to her mother, “I wish you wouldn’t read that trashy paper out loud.”
Mama’s mother told Mama in no uncertain terms, “Your homely friend Gertrude reads this same paper.”
“Appearances aren’t everything,” said Mama. “It’s what you’ve got inside that counts.”
“Tomorrow,” Mama’s mother said to me, “I want you to take me to the sales.”
I acted like I didn’t hear.
Then later, while Mama’s mother took her afternoon nap, Mama and I had a big fight.
About taking her mother shopping.
Mama told me, “One of these days, you’ll be old, and you’ll hope someone will be good to you.” I told her I didn’t know any other kid who had to take her grandmother everywhere. Mama corrected me, “Kid is a baby goat,” then said, “You wallow in self-pity.”
Mama may be correct about my self-pity. I should be grateful, she says, for my good life and not so filled with complaints.
I have friends. They like me. I like them. We play and we have fun, sometimes so much fun, I forget we are just pretending. Saturday afternoon I was the pioneer mother tied tight to the tree by the Indian braves and about to be scalped, and in the game it got to where I could hear the Indian’s whoo-whoo-whoo war dance and feel the knife coming near my forehead and hear my children beg, “Save me, save me.”
But from the outside, my life doesn’t look right. Before I started school and began to make friends and get myself invited to other people’s apartments and saw their families, I think I didn’t know the difference between my life and other children’s. All I knew was I felt sad.
In books I read, many children don’t have families. If they did have families, authors couldn’t use them as characters. They’d have to stay home, so there’d be no plot. Can you imagine what kind of story Heidi would be if she weren’t orphaned?
I shouldn’t compare. But I do. I put my life up next to William’s, with his mother and father and big brothers and sister. They’re always about to celebrate somebody’s birthday or to climb in the station wagon with a lunch hamper packed full of tuna-salad sandwiches to go to a picnic.
When I play at William’s apartment and his mother sits us down at the round kitchen table and pours out our milk, she looks at us when we talk. Mama looks at me when she’s mad.
At our apartment, what we do is make do and last minute and make the best of it. The milk bottle is on the table. The crusts never get cut off sandwiches. The food falls out of the bread. The way William’s mother does everything, her family’s life looks like a play that’s been practiced until it’s perfect, where everybody remembers their lines. Except it’s real life. They are not actors, so no one pretends. What’s more, the curtain never comes down. Sometimes I hate William for his perfect real life because I know that all the time, for breakfast and lunch and supper and summer and winter, every day of the year, William feels like I feel only when we are all up on the roof or over at Grant’s Tomb and playing at being Indians and pioneers or spies and FBI and are so lost in our game of being anybody we choose to be, of being able even to fly above the Earth if we decide that’s the game, that we wait too long, in our real lives, to pee.
So, here it is, Monday afternoon, and my school winter vacation, and here Mama’s mother and I are, having had lunch at the Macy’s lunch counter (beef pot pie), and we’re all finished shopping and now in the Macy’s lady’s room where so many women crowd in, you can barely breathe. They’ve got cranky children with them, children with bright fever spots on their cheeks, little girls my age who look more tired than I feel, and no fresh air gets in. Some ladies smoke cigarettes. Smells build up. There’s coughs, sneezes, and nobody covers her face.
Three salesladies took almost an hour and a half to fit Mama’s mother up in the right corset. In the cubbyhole of a dressing room, she stood bare naked except for her vest and drawers. Her hose fell down around her knees and drooped over her Red Cross pumps, and from excitement, blue veins popped up on her clabbery thighs, and she sweated a stream. Sweat popped out all over her, and then it’d run, run, run down. She held up her arms in an “I’ve surrendered” while they hooked and laced the stiff corset back. She panted to take herself a good breath. The closer the saleswomen got to the end of the laces, the more of Gramma’s yellow fat rolled up over the corset top. Then when the ladies went to zip it, a piece of fat got caught in the zipper teeth. She howled ’til you could hear it all across women’s lingerie. Those women jumped. One saleslady ran and got what turned out to be her supervisor, this little Italian woman with a mustache and black eyes that beat Mama’s mother for piggy-eye-squint meanness. I never saw anybody quite calm Mama’s mother down so fast before. When it was all over and Mama’s mother had chosen which corset she wanted, then I knelt on the floor and tied her laces on her pumps and pulled her galoshes on over her shoes, a struggle.
Now, Mama’s mother, lost in her faraway smile, sits right in front of the dressing table mirror. Her old face with its turkey-wattle neck crams between other women’s faces in the long mirror where it’s all pucker mouths, powder puffs, and spit-on fingertips tracing eyebrows into shape. Mama’s mother puckers her mouth some and powders. Really, she’s resting. And because she’s elderly and heavyset, nobody troubles her for her place at the mirror.
My coat has made me sweat. My feet hurt, even though I long ago broke in my oxfords. I stand here, first one foot, then the other, her packages mounded to my knees. Four flannel nightgowns, two corsets, four pairs of to-the-knee woolly underpants, and four vests she wears under corsets to keep stays from biting so bad. It will be five o’clock and dark when we get to 116th Street. Then we have four short blocks and one long one, two of them steep uphill, before we’re home.
I’m not much company, and when Mama’s mother asks the Negro woman on the stool next to hers, “Did you do any good at the sales?” I guess she’s been lonesome for talk.
“I got myself a nice checkered tablecloth,” the lady answers. Her daughter, my age, leans against her mother’s arm. Her eyes droop down. She looks half asleep.
Mama’s mother compliments the woman on her child, explains that I am her granddaughter, that she visits New York every winter from her farm. “Those sure are cute braids your little girl’s got,” says Mama’s mother. The daughter pushes harder into her mother’s arm, looks down at the tiles.
I know what’s coming. Mama’s mother believes it brings luck. She sets her purse up off her lap onto the counter, says, “Come, darling, give Mrs. Roberts here a closer look at your hairdo.” The child opens her sleepy eyes toward her mother, who shrugs her off in the direction of the fat hand. Raised up to the height of the child’s head, my grandmother’s old hand waggles in the smothering cigarette-smoke air. The child scuffs to her. “My, what a pretty little thing we are,” Mama’s mother says, and slowly, around and around in a circle, Mama’s mother rubs the girl’s crinkled hair.
Mama’s mother smiles, showing all of the front of her false teeth. And before any more can happen, I speak up, loud above the ladies’ room chatter. “Please, Gramma, it’s time to get home.”
Once I get her moved through the revolving doors, which scare her because she thinks she’ll get trapped, we are out in Herald Square where, while she shopped, the sun has gone down and the storm has come up. Snow hisses past lit-up signs. Car lights are on. Horns honk. The buses moan. Her packages hump up in my arms, and hurrying people, to most of whom I am chest high, jostle me. Their breaths make steam, and steam rises up out of grates on the street. So I head straight for the subway. I walk fast, on purpose, her trailing behind me in her heavy coat. I walk fast enough that I can feel my own heart beat against the packages. Mama’s mother knows I’m mad. She gets right up to my ear, and her breath comes hard and hot on me, “Her ma didn’t know. Northern colored don’t do hoodoo.”
In the station, other shoppers and people going home from work pack our platform. I let Mama’s mother fend for herself. I can feel her near me, but I won’t look. She comes close. I move away. She comes close again. I move more. Something in me will not melt, and I keep my teeth clamped down.
Two trains that are not ours, with bleary faces behind the yellow squares, shriek by fast and dig like blind moles dig, back into their underground tubes dug deep into the earth and strung out all over the city. It makes me think about Hell and about every bad, wrong deed I’ve done. It makes me think that the truth is I stole collection money when I didn’t, on purpose, put it in the plate, and that I hate my own grandmother. I do.
The string on her packages cuts my hands. I am her mule. She never says, “May I carry one of those?” She never says “May I” at all. It’s always, “You will. You better do as I say.” All day she would not buy me so much as a yard of grosgrain ribbon to cut in half and tie on the ends of my pigtails. She would not order me Coca-Cola at lunch. She said, “Drink water.” She never looks me in the eye and smiles.
I am so tired that after we get arranged in our seats, with me by the window, I fall asleep to the rocking car with my cheek up against the wicker that covers the subway seat. But only partway asleep, so that a dream, in black and white, about the devil and the A-bomb and Atlas at Rockefeller Center collapsed, mixes with how warm her body is by mine, like all the cattle’s bodies warm around the cradle in the Christmas story.
Mama’s mother shakes me awake, and we are at our stop. My eyes itch from sleep and blink at the sudden bright light in the car. I barely have time to gather up packages and stumble out of my seat and upstairs out into the street. I feel still in the dream, a person I am watching in a dream and not myself who can now hear her own boots scratch on new snow. I remember the story about the Poland China sow. It is dark night, and snow shoots past lamp posts, and right off flakes start cooling my cheeks so that I wake up fast.
We hurry, Gramma and I, between whole families who carry string bags packed to a bulge with groceries. Snow, like doormen’s epaulets, has piled up on almost every shoulder. There is snow an inch deep already against gutters. It comes back to me that we learned in science how each flake is not like any other one. Each has a life of its own. So I smile.
There have been days, late in the afternoon after I’m home from school and alone in the apartment, after I’ve drunk my glass of milk, when the sun has gone down into the river and fallen back behind New Jersey, and the grey church stones turn black and the grass under my window has turned spinach green, I have had to hold back from winding the window all the way open, getting up on the ledge, squinching my shoulders through and throwing myself out, down all five floors. I can see myself, a bundle down there. Just to be done with it all, and, partly, because once I’ve drunk my milk and everyone else has gone in to supper, sometimes I don’t know what to do next and there’s no one home to tell me.
When Mama’s mother and I pass 117th, 118th, and cut on over to Claremont where it’s quiet, even deserted, and I see the church turned to white hen by the snow, her belltower head lost in snowclouds, and can walk through this snow until I almost float through its swirls of spiraled whirlwinds, all white sparkles under rows of the yellow lamp globes, I want to live forever. A bird rises up in me and flaps its wings. My ballerina music box has on top a ballerina turning, slowly, her arms up in third position and her eyes on something out beyond herself. Focus, they call it in dance class.
We are almost to the apartment, both huffing and puffing. Mama’s mother can barely keep up. She pants and foams breath at the mouth and drags her galoshes. She’s not said one word since we left the subway. So I slow down and say “I love you” to her and give her a kiss on her dough cheek, which, because she is so short, I don’t even have to do on tiptoes.
I feel better. It’s true. A body is your hazard. Like oily rags in an attic, your body can kill you.
For fire-prevention week last year, we made posters. Our teacher assigned us each a hazard. I got “Don’t Play With Matches.”
I do play with matches. I adore fire. Mama has always suspected. But she’s never been sure. Once she thought she’d caught me at it. She said she could smell sulphur off the matches on my skin. She gripped my wrists until bones crackled. She stabbed me with her eyes. “I know you, know you through and through to the bottom of your toes. Don’t think you hide anything from me.”
I can, Mama. I do.
For there’s that Bit o’ Honey, the Donald Duck, and my liberty dime.
— Judith Moore
Originally published in the Reader on August 27, 1987 .