jizos av masi: a short story from GERMANTOWN

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Every working day at 5:40 a.m., like a ninety six pound prize fighter in training, Bernadette Murcheson wakes up to the tinny bell of the wind-up alarm clock she got from her mother as a graduation gift at the end of high school. The little clock, after all these twenty four years, is the only thing left from that original windfall of dime store treasures she got to commemorate her big move into the world beyond Golders Park. The utilitarian nature of every one of those family-given gifts (alarm clock, stapler, can opener, sewing kit, compass, miniature crescent wrench set) had seemed to Bernadette, back then, to be a flatteringly affectionate send-up of her austere and pragmatic personality. With cynical hindsight she now sees that these items were all simply available from the same aisle at Woolworth’s. But what has yet to dawn on her is what those gifts reveal about the family’s perception of the something about Bernadette of which they never speak. The gift of the set of miniature crescent wrenches, in particular, was their subtle version of a blessing.

First the tinny bell, going on and on and slower and slower and softer and softer, until the unwound spring rather maddeningly stops before quite completing a final click. Then the bathrobed shuffle to the shower for very hot or very cold water accompanied by a.m. radio news (in those days so much more surprised sounding; so much less knowing), and then the gurgle of the percolator as she hunches (shoulder blades almost touching) over the week’s lesson plan like a military campaign spread over the tiny Formica table in her tiny Formica kitchen in a not-bad corner of Woodlawn, near the University of Chicago, a fifteen-minute walk from the sculpture-commemorated site where the world’s first controlled atomic chain-reaction happened. An hour, by three connecting busses on the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority), from work. Three is a recurrent motif in Bernadette Murcheson’s life.

There are three goals that Bernadette has set for herself for this semester’s fourth grade class at Harriet Tubman Elementary. The first is to get Richardina Fortneaux (already, at twelve, two or three years older than her classmates) speaking something resembling American English. The second is to coax Salter Douglas out of his shell to the extent that what Bernadette believes is Salter’s enormous potential (especially for a child of that neighborhood, Tubman Gardens, aka The Reservation) will find at least a fraction of its flowering. And the third… the third… but the toast is burning. Without moving to rescue it and seized with sudden inspiration, Bernadette writes, on the back of her lesson plan in immaculate (but sensual) script:

Haiku
the toast will burn as
sadder immolations we
can’t confess occur

On the bus (63a) during the first third of her journey towards work, Bernadette notices, sitting across from her, on the facing long seat, a daydreaming woman she recognizes, dark skin dramatic against a cherry-red blouse and short white pleated skirt plus white tam-o-shanter jammed at a jaunty angle atop her neat little Afro. No rings or jewelry (not even earrings) of any kind. The woman is perhaps a dozen years Bernadette’s junior and Bernadette wouldn’t have recognized her so quickly (she always gets on at Kimbark Avenue and always sports a hat) if Bernadette hadn’t thought the first time seeing her exactly what she is thinking now: child, you better see to that mustache. But otherwise the young woman is quite attractive… if you like huge breasts and Bernadette decides that she does.

It’s the kind of early summer morning (sunlight fingering through the shifting green prism of the boulevard trees, heating what they strike and leaving the cool air untouched; the smell of earth knotted to grass rising clean from the previous night’s downpour) which turns going to work into a Mosaic test of character. Not a cloud in the. Bernadette could call in sick. She’s accumulated three solid months of paid sick leave in her time at Harriet Tubman Elementary. She could call in with a summer-long coma if she wanted. But no: the children. The children.

Richardina, for example. That precious little hard-to-like and even harder-to-please black girl. With her too-small-with-so-many-disappointments eyes and her undernourished pipe-cleaner arms and legs and the two stiff bent little pigtails (like antennae) on top that make her look like a Disney ant.

She speaks this impenetrable Creole or pidgin (or is it patois? Gullah?) and first baffled the administration into burying her in a “special” class for kids with learning disabilities and speech impediments… the dummies, mostly, and Bernadette had nearly had to threaten legal action to get Richardina Fortneaux transferred into her fourth grade class where she was two years older than all the other students. It’s clear, with close attention, that Richardina speaks her language (whatever it is) well, without impediment; with great fluency; her sentences aren’t punctuated with uhs and likes and you knows and all the stuttered ambiguities and the dumbfounded gaps of the others. She never supplements her verbal communication with the hyperbolically pictographic gestures so typical of her classmates and which irritate Bernadette more than all the gum-snapping and belch-talking and chair-scooting in the world.

Are we Italian, Mr. Dixon? she’ll ask. Then why are we talking with our hands? Richardina, properly, talks with her mouth. It’s just that she isn’t speaking English when she talks. Her native tongue itself is an impediment and her parent(s) can’t seem to be contacted. Official letters to home go spookily unanswered and there is no phone and though Bernadette (shocking her colleagues) actually once dared venture into the heart of Tubman Gardens and found the grim place where the Fortneaux clan was reputed to dwell, no one answered when she knocked.

But neighborhood kids… boys, mostly… sinisterly mustached teens in sleeveless t-shirts and flared dungarees straddling feminine bicycles… were watching. Ms. Murcheson is far from vain but she is also aware of the fact that clean living has preserved her tiny frame extremely well. She’s nicely-proportioned and fine-boned and black-haired still, at forty two. And her face,  with its diamond-cut cheekbones and fragile jaw and generous upper lip, is far from unattractive. And how attractive does a well-dressed ninety pound woman have to be in order to risk harm prancing around in the (she loathes the historical ambiguity of this word but euphemisms are even worse) ghetto? Boys: she has a policy on them: after the age of twelve they are beyond reaching.

By the age of thirteen, boys grow into their Darwinian birthright and dedicate themselves to the incidental propagation of the species through rape. It’s only ever a question of whether the rape is suave or violent. Or done with the aid of alcohol or poetry. Remunerated or gratuitous. What is a seduction but a society-sanctioned rape? When is it not a rape? When the female enjoys it every bit as much as the male, of course, and how often does that happen? Exactly. But female pleasure is not what sexual intercourse is there for. It’s less enjoyable for the female for a reason: so she’ll avoid it, fight it off, which ensures that the male who does manage to plant his seed is the strong one… strong enough to overpower the female, strong enough to defeat rivals, strong enough to fertilize as many as possible and hand down his physical strength. If sexual intercourse weren’t rape, the species would never have made it out of the Olduvai Gorge.

If sexual intercourse weren’t rape, the world would now be run by a cabal of homosexual poets.

Bernadette is fully aware of the fact that this opinion would not play well among her co-workers; it wouldn’t play well with anyone she’d care to associate with. This is why she keeps it to herself. “Humankind,” as T.S. Eliot once put it, “cannot bear very much reality.” She doesn’t hate these boys for being what nature makes them; she has nothing against boys or men; it’s simply that she just doesn’t see what they have to do with her as a woman. And yes, Bernadette knows how unnatural she is. She’s proud of it. The noblest traits of the human race are unnatural, in her view. The natural, from a truly human standpoint, is usually rather horrible. That’s where the Bible lost its grip on Bernadette Murcheson at an early age; that’s when she knew it was nonsense, this Bible that her mother touted. She knew it when the lamb lay down with the lion. As if. Why not the horsefly lying down with the wolfspider? The bacterium lying down with the paramecium? In the real world, the world that works, the lamb and the lion have a time-tested relationship: the lamb is the lion’s dinner.

The blank-faced boys with breaking voices pedaled around her like circling sharks as she walked (chin up and at a moderate pace) away from the Fortneaux apartment back towards the isolated bus stop across the highway from Harriet Tubman Elementary, which itself was situated on the outermost edge of Tubman Gardens. It was a twenty minute walk and when Bernadette crossed the highway she felt safe again. She indulged in a living cliché and let out a very loud sigh of relief. And the boys on their bikes, like vampires stopped at a river bank, watched from the other side.

“Jizos awa fade, Jizyu frend of sina.”

Richardina is tugging on Miss Murcheson’s sleeve with proselytic dedication. Miss Murcheson is writing OLAUDAH EQUIANO in big block letters on the blackboard. It is her experience that the nicer she prints a word on the blackboard, the more likely the students are to remember it. She makes Olaudah Equiano look like the HOLLYWOOD sign. She has a good eye and a steady hand and fat and thin and multi-colored chalk as her tools. Sometimes, at the end of a long day, her blackboard is as beautiful with text and illustration as an illuminated page from a 14th century manuscript. Were there medieval nuns of African origin in Tuscan cloisters, illustrating treatises on Thales? Bernadette has to admit to herself that some of her blackboards are masterpieces. She hates to sponge it all off in the morning, but that’s where discipline comes in.

“Jizos awa fade…”

“Richardina, please take your seat…”

Richardina stamps the floor, and spins on a heel and stomps back to her desk.

“…like a lady. Thank you.”

There’s a curt rapping on the milky glass of the classroom door and Bernadette can see that the rapper is Miss Green, the white librarian; her hawkish, busty silhouette is a precious puzzle piece projected on the glass. Bernadette crosses the room with as much composure as she can improvise and opens the door.

“Yes Miss Green?”

“I’m sorry to disturb you, Bernadette…”

“Oh, no trouble at all… Carole. How can I help you?”

Carole Green bites her lower lip and wrings her hands theatrically in that way of hers. Bernadette feels something quiver and twist and plummet inside… a dew drop falling towards its thirsting bud… she has to narrow her eyes to keep them from growing wide. Something has loosened a honey-blond lock (only her hairdresser knows for sure) from Miss Green’s barrette-cantilevered hairdo… it hangs across her cheek as if carefully placed there. If I only had the nerve, Bernadette thinks, to reach out and…

“Well, as you know, today is Salter’s day in the library, and I’m aware of the fact that he comes, normally, after recess… but do you suppose…” with praying hands, “… I could have him early today, before recess? I know he’ll miss lunch but he can share mine. We got a very generous private donation of books this morning and I’d like to use the time after recess to start Dewey-decimalizing them…”

“Oh, of course! You can have Salter now if you wish.” Miss Murcheson turns to smile at the back of the classroom. “Mr. Douglas?”

At that moment, Richardina is stage-whispering to Salter: “Ef yu keych tu pipul dey ab, chuk pin na banana weys, denh go fashin towgeda sowtey yu pul di komot dey…” and she grabs his arm to hold him in place against Miss Murcheson’s beckoning. “Ef yu keych tu pipul…”

“Mr. Douglas? Let’s not keep Miss Green waiting. Chop chop.”

Salter, risking Richardina’s ire, frees his arm and (braving a gauntlet of subsonic taunts and cloaked leers) shuffles from the back of the classroom, staring at the floor, to a spot between Miss Green and Miss Murcheson who, side by side, are practically allegorical in their visual impact. Of similar build and stature, one looks like the racial ersatz of the other, and little Salter, with his sharp features, black skin, and East Indian hair, appears to be their mixed-race Parthenogenic offspring. He’s still a year from his heroic growth spurt and is not quite as tall as these five-foot-four-in-their-high-heels ladies.

Miss Murcheson puts a hand on Salter’s shoulder and says “I guess you’ll survive missing today’s lesson…” with a pang she can’t decipher. Down the long corridor, shuffling behind Miss Green, goes nine year old Salter Douglas, as if to his doom.

Miss Green loves him and he knows it. Miss Green, Miss Murcheson, Miss Gussman, Miss Douglas, and Miss Fortneaux: they all love Salter, and he knows it. For each of these women, loving Salter Douglas means something very different, as it does to him. Miss Green wants to mold Salter into a paragon of proud black manhood (like the handsome campus revolutionary Huey Newton); Miss Murcheson wants to mold Salter into a hyper-civilized, poetry-writing androgyne (a la Langston Hughes), Miss Gussman wants to mold him into the spit and image of her long-dead husband Selmar (and she has gone to great lengths to achieve this), Miss Douglass (his mother) wants to mold him (without knowing a bit of science herself) into a world-famous scientist. And Miss Fortneaux wants to mold Salter into her dog. At nine years old, Salter already has the kind of secrets that an adult would have trouble keeping.

The first time Richardina did it, he was walking home from school, the long way, after having wasted hours in the field. The field, beyond the school playground and bordering a stretch of the highway, was marshy in a dragon-flied corner replete with frogs. He was catching the tiny jewel-green things with his cap and releasing them again before he realized he would be so late going home that there might be trouble over it, even though summer was in high gear and the days had grown nice and long.

He’d commenced trudging home across the field when Richardina Fortneaux rose up from a shock of thistles and gripped him by his long black hair and wrestled him down. She got his corduroy pants past his skinny hips easily enough and his underwear too and pinned his arms and hocked a goblin of spit upon his rusty nail of a penis. She piled dirt on top and manipulated it like a scrawny recalcitrant tuber she was trying to yank from the earth. Salter was terrified by the matter-of-factness she displayed while doing this, but there was a lag of almost a minute before he started kicking and squirming and burst into tears and wailed for her to get off of him.

The next time, a week later, he was just a block from home when he saw Richardina out of the corner of his eye, coming up fast on his left side, though he did not quicken his pace. She got his left arm behind his back and marched him towards what had once been a community recreation center, built when Tubman Gardens was new and not called Tubman Gardens at all; it hadn’t always been a ghetto. The entire four square mile complex had originally been fabricated (poured in concrete) as housing for low-security-clearance white factory workers during The War. This community recreation center had once featured table tennis, dart boards, judo mats and a miniature golf course. Now it was a one-story red-brick wreck, with boarded windows and sooty black rainbows scorched on both the outer and inner walls where fires had been built and everything reeked of piss and the adamant garbage of the poor.

Richardina forced Salter inside the ruins where dozens of thin beams of daylight angled through bullet holes in the plywood windows and again she grabbed his hair and wrestled him grunting to the ground, which was damp concrete. This time, however, as Salter lay on his back in the gloom, forearms pinned under Richardina’s sharp knees, she didn’t undress him, but worked her hand into her own dirty pants and dug around a bit, and when she finally pulled out she stuck an index finger under Salter’s nose and it was clear to him that the finger had spent time in her rectum. Again, she stared dispassionately as if watching it all from a great distance, and after a cursory struggle let Salter up to run home.

The library in Harriet Tubman Elementary is not new, but newer than the rest of the school, as it was added five years ago with Federal money allocated through Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on poverty” program. Miss Green has seen to its recent refurbishment (fresh white paint and modular plastic furniture) and it is through her connections (her father is on a first name basis with Mayor Richard J. Daley) that truckloads of donated second-hand books are funneled in every month.

As always, Miss Green unlocks the library’s double doors and flips the switches and fluorescent light appears across the ceiling in jointed rectangles like blinding words across the face of a heavenly crossword puzzle and she bids Salter enter. The only time the general populace of Harriet Tubman Elementary enters the library is in the herded form of a whole classroom at a time, to watch educational filmstrips or work on book reports or to fidget at the occasional guest speaker (most recently a colored man with his own small Security Firm) so Salter’s use of the facility is anomalous. For one hour every Tuesday the library belongs to Salter, and Miss Green, alone. She watches him shuffle across the oatmeal-colored municipal carpeting, dwindling towards the pine-blond stacks and waits for him to fetch back the book they have carefully placed where no meddling soul can disturb it.

While Salter is busy in the library, lunch time arrives with high noon. To offset the shame felt by kids signed up for the free lunch program, Miss Murcheson eats a free lunch herself: an apple or an orange plus a half pint of milk and a baloney-or-salami-and-cheese sandwich, though the mayonnaise and/or butter slathered on the white bread means that she has to skip dinner on school days to justify this gross intake of empty calories. The free lunches are sickening if she thinks about them (what is baloney but a congealed pudding of garbage from the slaughterhouse floor mixed with the gelatin of rendered hooves and pressed flat into discs a color never before seen on Earth?) so she does her best not to. But when the kids giggle “Miss Murcheson, how come you be eatin’ dem nasty ole welfare meals?” she looks astonished (eyes wide) as though they’ve lost their minds and declares (after swallowing politely), for the thousandth time, how delicious this free lunch cuisine is.

What she notices today is not new. Before this, Bernadette couldn’t be sure that what she’d been seeing represented a meaningful pattern. The subtext to what she observes is something like: oh, the wonderful arrogance of childhood! (It’s all those early successes of the Baby Race that makes them so arrogant, of course: they invented speech itself, and walking, after all)… to believe that adults are so stupid, so blind; to believe that the old dinosaurs see nothing. But Bernadette clearly sees, after passing out the identical brown paper free lunch bags to seventy percent of the class (several of the kids not signed up for free lunches regularly bring fried chicken or bar-b-cued ribs for lunch, and eat with the low-faced guarding postures that wouldn’t be out of place on a Neolithic veldt)… she sees that a tiny cabal of Richardina’s classmates, as they seem to have done every two or three days for a month now, surreptitiously pass their lunches to her. And further that Richardina, despite being signed up for the program, is rarely to be seen actually eating in class during lunch. As funny to Bernadette as the idea of some kind of black market economy in school lunches is, she knows that whatever Richardina is up to, it’s not in the least bit funny to her. Swallowing the final bite of her free lunch with difficulty, Miss Murcheson thinks: today I will get to the bottom of the Richardina Fortneaux mysteries.

Just then, another curt rapping on the milky glass of the door, another pretty silhouette; you’d think this classroom was situated at a swanky cross-roads in the heart of Manhattan rather than at an outpost of civilization in a windblown ghetto in the upper Midwest. Who can this be, now? Bernadette brushes crumbs from the front of her brown velvet midi-dress and says “Marnie Collins, more chewing and less giggling, please… Theodore, that slice of bologna is not a hat…” and she crosses to the door and opens it.

What she finds is a petite woman (another one), copper-colored, with shiny black hair done in a French braid like a big fat licorice twist… very nicely dressed in a black pantsuit showing modest décolleté graced with a string of genuine pearls in the shadow of a stylish black hat with a veil, and black gloves… she looks like a South American dictator’s widow. A very young one. The only details missing are the sunglasses and the bodyguards. Her face is shockingly beautiful (and somehow familiar) in a Lena Horne sort of way and Bernadette forgets all about Carole Green when she clears her throat (with a demure hand on her chest) and says, “Yes?”

“Miss Murcheson?” Bernadette thinks she detects a bit of a North Carolina in that. Mass Marchson? And the pleased look this attractive woman gives her seems to be the result of a quick, experienced appraisal. Could she be…

“Miss Murcheson?”

“Yes?”

Peering behind Bernadette into the classroom the woman says: “I’m Salter Douglas’ Aunt Virginia…”

“Ah! Salter’s aunt… what a pleasant surprise! Please come in, Miss…”

Mrs. Gussman.”

Mrs. Gussman. Yes, please do come in and have a seat. Salter’s such a wonderful boy, we just love him. I do hope everything… is anything… the matter?”

They step into the classroom and all the ambient eating-and-goofing noises come to a sudden halt as the children snap to attention, alert to the possibility of some wonderful shame or horror in the making. The last time a family member entered the class like this, the corresponding student (Tyrone Tynan) got a fifty-nine-second spanking (with a belt) right in front of everybody. He managed an impressively stoic resistance towards the impulse to cry for the first fifty eight seconds of the whipping but broke with the final emphatic stroke into such a heartrendingly pitiful wail of anguish that even the kids themselves didn’t enjoy it much (at the time; but in retrospect, greatly) and Miss Murcheson was upset and discreetly shed tears but knew better than to intervene… or to ever send a disciplinary note back home with one of her students again. “Is Salter…”

“Well, that’s just it, and that’s why I’ll have to regretfully decline,” regratfli d’clahn, “your kind offer of a sit-down, Miss Murcheson… there is sort of a family emergency and time is of the essence…”

“Oh dear! He’s not in class at the moment but I can fetch him immediately… I won’t be five minutes…” and Bernadette hurries down the hallway, her heels going tock-tock tock-tock tock-tock…

In the teacher’s absence the classroom remains silent as Mrs. Gussman, looking like nothing any of these kids has ever seen outside of a television, investigates the front of the room. Idly spins on its tilted axis an ancient globe on Miss Murcheson’s desk, rifles through a history textbook next to the globe, frowns at the blackboard with her gloved hands folded behind her back. She finally turns to face her auditors with an amiable sneer of total comprehension that takes them aback, somewhat. A very fat, yellowish boy named Lamar Jackson, seated in the front right corner, is hunched over a half-eaten pile of bar-b-cued ribs, chins and hands bloody with hickory sauce, peering at her from under his baby Sumo brow and chewing with feral meticulousness when she points at him and says,

“Big boy, if you chew any faster, you’re gonna lose a whole hand in that mouth…”

…and the cork on classroom decorum pops and the kids all whoop and laugh and a half a baloney sandwich sails in a high arc from the back left corner of the room to the front right to slap Lamar upside his head.

Miss Murcheson is so flustered (“family emergencies” in Tubman Gardens invariably involve the police or the hospital or a combination thereof) that she doesn’t even knock at the library door before entering. Miss Green is perched precariously on the edge of an egg-shaped white ultra-mod plastic chair, reading aloud to Salter, who is seated, eyes closed, hugging his legs, his chin on his knees, at her feet on the carpet. Miss Murcheson doesn’t notice, until Miss Green notices her notice and tries rather awkwardly to hide the book, that Miss Green is reading to Salter from a paperback best-seller of the day, an autobiography with a lurid cover (the cover is a take-off on King Kong’s famous photo op with Fay Wray: a big black ring-bedecked hand clutches a scale model of a voluptuously naked blond). The paperback is ManTan in Lily Land, by Napoleon Fanon.

Miss Murcheson feels as though she’s been slapped twice in the face, her lips are numb, but she manages to say, with a more-or-less level voice, “Salter, hurry back to the classroom, please… your Aunt Virginia is waiting there for you. It’s very important.” And she claps, “Chop chop!” And Salter is up and running without a word. When the library door swings shut, Miss Murcheson says, softly, without managing to meet Miss Green’s gaze, “I was under the impression that you two were reading Jules Verne.”

Miss Green stands from the ultra-mod chair and carefully lays the book on the spot upon which she’d been perched. “Yes, monsieur Jules Verne is what we started with. But Salter couldn’t relate to it. It didn’t grab him…”

“Are we here to ‘grab’ these kids?”

“That may not be the word you’d chose to describe it with, but, yes… I’d say we’re here to ‘grab’ or involve these kids in the world around them. Jules Verne is about as relevant as the price of marzipan in a Parisian patisserie to someone like Salter…”

Someone like Salter. Meaning?”

“Meaning the obvious. Salter is a Negro child living in a North American ghetto. How are we ever going to educate him if we keep trying to stuff him full of arcane, lily-white cultural artifacts like Jules Verne? We should be turning him on to his own culture.” Miss Green picks up the paperback again. “Look, Bernadette…” and she hopes for a softening with this but sees none, “I don’t like the cover of this book any more than you do…it’s a cheap ploy by venal Jewish publishers to push more product. But the book itself is marvelous and it’s vividly written and it’s real and… more importantly… it was written by someone Salter can identify with… one of his own people…”

“His own people? Someone he can identify with? The man who wrote this ‘book’ of yours is serving time for kidnap, rape and Heaven knows what else!”

Miss Green folds her arms over her bosom and lowers her chin. “You know how justice goes in this country.”

“But…. and please do correct me if I’m wrong, Miss Green… the gentleman in question confessed to all the crimes he was accused of, yes?”

“He raped because he had to. He raped to send a message. Do you think he enjoyed raping? Have you even read the book? Or have you made up your mind that it’s just trash beneath your lofty notice simply because a man… a black man, at that… wrote it?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s not supposed to mean anything… it means it. I’m sorry, Bernadette, I really am… I don’t want to offend you, and I sincerely wish that it were somehow possible to bring about a change in this society without breaking a few hearts in the process… but I am not about to stand by and let you… infect that beautiful young man with your… confusions. You may have a problem with your race and your gender, but why should he? For God’s sake, give him a chance! Why must the old… always destroy the young?”

This last sentence is shouted at Bernadette Murcheson’s back as she marches back down the hallway towards her own classroom with as much composure as she can improvise. The hallway seems unnaturally bright and long and she knows it must be a result of some sort of trauma she’s experiencing; some state of shock causing her pupils to dilate, causing the normally dim passage to glow like something illuminated for a Hollywood Premier or to floodlight the scene of a disaster or it’s like what the dying are reputed to see. That famous tunnel with eternity’s terrifying whiteness at the other end.

Classroom doors along the way have swung open and curious black heads pop out… what’s all the commotion? Who always destroy the young? Why must the old what? What she say? Miss Murcheson just has to make it to room 108. If she can make it to room 108 and get in the door and close it behind her and sit behind her desk and get a good look at all those familiar little faces… all those little black people who depend on her for the truth and are unquestionably on her side… she we will be alright. But then she stops and puts her hand over her mouth and whispers:

Oh God, I’m Sidney Poitier

And she remembers being all dressed up and sitting in the balcony to watch To Sir, with Love in the Park Theater in 1964, five long years ago, and thinking what an off-putting, pretentious and implausible prig the Sidney Poitier character was, bringing his corny notions of civilization to the dead-end East-End white delinquents of his classroom. Dispensing his uptight colored homilies in a weirdly deracinated accent. All with nary a sexually ambiguous glance at the easy-as-pudding Lulu or that deliciously slutty sloe-eyed mod called Pamela. But Bernadette had loved the title song and had gone the next day, while visiting her parents, and bought it at Soul-O records in the Golders Park Shopping Center and the young buck working there… well, they only had one copy of To Sir, with Love by Lulu, and Bernadette inquired, with innocent enthusiasm, while handing over her dollar nineteen for the 45, did the other copies sell out so quickly? And the guy looked at her like she was ridiculous and said we only stocked one and I guess it was waitin’ for you, sister. Real nasty. Like she should have been buying OUR PEOPLE’S music, instead. Like there’s not only a list of the kind of words she’s allowed to say and a rule book of how she’s allowed to say them and a list of the kind of lessons she’s allowed to teach and the kind of people she’s supposed to admire. There is also a list of the 45s she’s allowed to buy and a list of ones she isn’t and she can’t seem to avoid running afoul of these lists. Isn’t the fact that she is black, black as night, with flared nostrils and everted lips and kinked black hair and her ancestors were slaves who came over on boats from central Africa and with not a single drop of European or American Indian blood (as far as anyone knows) in her lineage: isn’t that enough? Does a black person have to act black, too? By whose definition? For what jury? And what does acting black entail, other than fulfilling pretty much every single demeaning damn antebellum stereotype imaginable?

It’s overwhelming… this little white girl… this prissy honkie… this honkie librarian fresh out of Northwestern… only white faculty member, only white person for miles… drives in every day from Evanston Illinois in a brand new ‘69 four door Ford sedan that looks like it’s on loan from the F.B.I… on a first name basis with everyone from day one, even the superannuated pecan-colored Dr. VanBuren, the Principal here since the school was built, with two yellow hairs on his head each older than her parents, whom everyone else calls Dr. VanBuren, she calls Herbert… and she runs the library like her own private air-conditioned paradise… runs the library like her citadel… she rations access like a boon she doles out with queenly beneficence… is there some kind of gene… some kind of arrogant gene they pass down… some kind of ugly gene of racial arrogance but surely that can’t be… but look at her… honkie acts like she owns everything and knows everything and now she’s even an expert on Negritude… now she’s lecturing little black Miss Murcheson herself on blackness and black manhood and spinster Negro school teacher sexuality to boot… it’s overwhelming….

Miss Murcheson takes a deep breath and opens the door to her class room and little more than the standard pandemonium is in progress. It takes but two sharp hand claps to quiet them down; to send them scurrying back to their proper seats. It’s as if nothing happened. It’s as if nothing happened at all. If anything, the little brouhaha with that idiotic white brat has helped Miss Murcheson to clarify her thoughts. And the first thing she thinks with her freshly clear mind is: did I really allow a woman I’ve never seen before who claimed to be related to one of my students take this student out of class and off of school property without even showing me so much as a current I.D.?

When the final bell rings and Salter hasn’t come back, Miss Murcheson is worried but there’s nothing she can or ought to do about it until Salter’s mother calls the school and asks about his whereabouts, which Bernadette can only pray (in her secular fashion) won’t happen. She’s not really so worried about Salter… the woman who fetched him was clearly a relative and did not in the least resemble a child-molesting lunatic but Bernadette knows that teachers have been reprimanded for far less and how would that look on her otherwise spotless record and she rebukes herself for making another serious error as a result of what she thinks of as her tragic weakness for beauty.

Women are beautiful and beautiful women are… beyond. Beyond is the destination. Listen, thinks Bernadette, I don’t smoke, drink, lie, curse, brag, steal, covet, eat gluttonously, or gamble. A person needs… something. Sometimes.

Homosexuals can always go buy the solace of their sin but for a woman in love with beauty there’s no recourse but hoping and waiting and meanwhile carefully refining the senses sharply enough to detect that evanescent signal from a kindred spirit as it flits in proximity. A wink, a smile, an over-long glance. And standing around the Mod Lit aisles of various U. of C. campus book stores and waiting for a coed to purchase The Well of Loneliness can sometimes speed the process. Gertrude Stein and Jane Bowles work, too…

Richardina is a good two blocks ahead of Bernadette and it’s getting dark, prematurely, at three in the afternoon under the scorch-bottom clouds (the amassed armada, she thinks) of an imminent indiscretion of the adolescent sky, the second storm in two days, but that’s okay. Bernadette has an umbrella and this ghetto needs a Biblical rinsing (in magnitude if not ideology) anyway and no matter where Richardina goes, Bernadette is going to walk right up to that door at 649A East 131st street and she won’t stop banging until someone damn well answers it. If she has to she’ll wait it out until it’s so dark that they’re forced to switch the lights on in there and then she’ll have them. She is determined to get to the bottom of the Richardina Fortneaux enigma and not even her concern about Salter Douglas’ whereabouts or safety will distract her.

How did we fall so far? wonders Bernadette. And why do I still bother to marvel at this Fall? This close to achieving The Prize and my Negro Race seems to have let it slip from our fingers, she’s thinking, as the landscape grows dark around her and curious eyes shine brightly out of the surrounding jungle of Tubman Gardens like effects in a Rousseau painting. But we never knew what The Prize really was… and that’s why we couldn’t grab it, even when it was inches away. Unless it was yet another cruel white illusion like Santa Klaus.

Bernadette had this discussion with her father soon after her father and the youngest four of the family moved to ‘Fed’s Row’ in Golders Park almost two years after her mother died and Mister Murcheson howled, in retort to his daughter Bernadette’s bleak assessments, “Bernuh, ah cain’t for the life of me unnerstand what you mean by that! We got The Prize, child! We got a hold of it! Haven’t you noticed? We own our own house in the best part of a good neighb’hood with the lowest crime rates of the South Side of Chicago! Hell, there’s white folks would envy us! My Papa wore cardbode shoes his whole childhood and he would buck-and-wing for pennies on State Street, what you so gloomy bout? Them chicken-shack nigguhs way over there in The Reservation ain’t us, they always gon’ be po, they ain’t jus’ colored, they plain po… and Mr. Christ he said they always gon’ be with us and on that account ah must say he was right. So why not just cheer up a little? Honestly, girl, if that what an education do for you, ah must say ah ain’t entirely impressed. Now eatcha corn.” Koan. “An’ stop talking nonsense.”

Bernadette winced to remember that she’d once invoked Rene Descartes in an argument with her father, who never even finished grade school, when she was still at teacher’s college; Descartes… soi disant… ad hominem; she could remember every single ten-dollar word she’d ever dropped sophomorically on her poor father’s head. She’d once casually referred to Thelma’s common-law husband as a “soi-disant” preacher.

“A what kinda preacha?”

“Soi-disant.”

Huh?”

“Soi-disant.”

What?”

But why take the trouble of learning a word if you could never use it? Bernadette didn’t as yet have concrete evidence that knowing what the Big Bang Theory was, or what the “S” in T.S. Eliot stood for, or how to pronounce sui generis, or memorizing a Phyllis Wheatley poem, or knowing the length of a meter or a fortnight, or that moon in Swahili is mwezi whereas in Serbo-Croat it’s mjesec could in any way improve one’s life. Her evidence to that effect was as intangible as her soul itself. But by partaking of the widest variety of the purest fruit that civilization had to offer (knowledge) wasn’t she confirming her right to that knowledge? And wasn’t the confirmation of her right to that knowledge the only tenuous hold she had on Humanity itself in a society that was just itching to deny it to her? Miss Murcheson’s older students were invariably shocked to hear from her that, as late as the 16th Century, European writers were describing the peoples of Africa as superior in wit and intelligence, reasoning that the hot, dry climate “enlivened their temperament.”

A century later, by which time the superior wit and intelligence of thousands of these Africans was not of much commercial use or interest to their owners, teaching an American slave to read was a capital offense, and remained so until about fifty years before Bernadette’s birth. Wasn’t that reason enough for her, or any descendant of slaves, to master the language in order to read and write even better than fish could swim? And that was merely the mundane legal aspect of the argument, as far as Bernadette was concerned. The highest reason, the real motivator, in Bernadette’s case would always be pure pleasure. The pure pleasure of knowing. That was The Prize, as far as Bernadette was concerned. Of course Carole Green wants to keep Salter Douglas away from Jules Verne! Of course she wants to keep him away from Homer and Robert Frost and Oluadah Equiano too! Bernadette nods to herself: first thing tomorrow morning I go to Principal Van Buren

But first thing now she has to deal with the Richardina Fortneaux situation. The time has come. She raises her hand to knock on the door chez Fortneaux but something tells her: don’t. She turns to get a look at the last lights of the sun as it’s crushed under the black press of a solidifying cloud which is the size and shape of the sky itself and the crushed light is intensely white under the black pressure of the coming rain like a glacier of brilliant ice the storm is riding in on. The green air quickens with litter and dust and there is suddenly grit in her mouth and her eyes. A wall of rain rips up the distance down the street straight towards her, pouring out of the unzipped air, drenching niggers who shriek and laugh and dart down the sidewalk with translucent t-shirts plastered to perfect torsos and Bernadette averts her gaze and twists the door knob and voila. She enters. This is a door that has never been locked.

The air inside is close and rank and she is loath to step in completely and to shut the door behind her; she is afraid to be closed in here. Something had told her to open the door rather than knock on it and she knows now that if she had knocked, Richardina would simply have locked it, trapping Bernadette out in the storm, and the same sixth sense is now telling her: go. Beware of houses with unlocked doors.

It stinks.

The interior is sealed and putrid, mud-silent. Every poured concrete dwelling in Tubman Gardens is laid out identically. Two levels, bottom level a kitchenette and a living room, then up a flight of stairs along a recessed wall, two small bedrooms and a bath. Perfect temporary housing for the small (often childless) white families it had been built for in ‘42, but now there are black families of five, six, even ten stuffed in these boxes. The bottom level in the Fortneaux place consists of a sofa upon which a ragged ton of old newspapers is baled like hay. The floor is carpeted with newspaper. Where is all the furniture? There’s a massive Magnavox console television on the wall opposite the sofa and a tall empty birdcage (crusted with shit) atop it. The window is behind the birdcage. A tall brass floor lamp next to that. That’s it.

The window is curtain-less and it is now so dim outside and the dirty window is running with the sluice of dark rain and occasional flashes of lightning in Gary and across the floor, as Bernadette’s eyes suddenly grow equal to the gloom, she tracks wet prints in the newspaper carpet to a corner where Richardina is standing, staring, absolutely motionless, attempting a snake’s mindless invisibility. Remaining absolutely still that way for long enough, the girl knows, is exactly like asserting a lie so persistently that it will gradually become true.

Bernadette decides that there is no rush in forcing Richardina to cease denying her own presence. Moving very slowly, in such a way as not to spook her, Bernadette pads across the crackling newspapers towards the window. It’s obvious that no adults are on the premises so Bernadette has deputized herself as the ad hoc head of the household and the first adult decision will have to be to let some air in. This is not healthy in here; this is a plague smell. It’s a little like burning rubber but duller, softer. The stink is clotted and heavy and hanging so thick and low that Bernadette imagines she can see it swirl like scum on brackish water as she struggles with the window. She won’t be able to do it with one arm as she’d hoped so she lays her wet umbrella down on the television and in doing so realizes how secure she’d felt. Holding it like it was some kind of weapon. Which is just plain silly. This is a twelve year old girl we’re talking about, not a monster.

“My goodness, how does Richardina breathe in this place? There’s no air!” says Bernadette, in a cheerful sing-song, as if talking to herself, putting her weight against the filthy edge of the metal window, trying to slide it in its track. “She’ll like it much better in here with a little fresh… air,” she grunts, talking as much for her own sake as the child’s because Richardina’s zombie act is making the short hairs on the back of Bernadette’s neck stand up. But the window won’t open, and all this effort on Bernadette’s part has done nothing but intensify the odor by stirring it up, or maybe the energy expended has got her breathing it in more deeply now. She notices, while she’s at the window, leaning on the hardwood top of the Magnavox, that on the other side of the empty shit-encrusted bird cage which is also on the television there is a picture frame, the size of an eight by ten, face-down.

Well, what about some light? Get some light on the subject. Bernadette finds a switch on the wall beside the door and flips it and nothing, of course. Unpaid bills. All the necessary information was already available on a subliminal level when Bernadette first entered this place: not even a refrigerator’s gurgle or hum from the kitchen. The thick-walled space is stuffed with the weird old silence of pre-electric America. No light, no refrigerator, no telephone. Great.

Somewhere in this apartment there is a stack of about forty unrefrigerated bologna and cheese sandwiches. Survival provisions. Half rotten, of course. Therefore the smell. Right? And as much as Bernadette will hate to do it, she realizes that she must lock and chain the front door, should the child decide to stop playing invisible and bolt. Bernadette can just picture haunted little Richardina Fortneaux running out into a storm which is already so powerful that the old trees Bernadette can see through the blurred window are bending and shaking like true believers flipping their wigs at a roof-raising Baptist revival. Oh, this is perfect, thinks Miss Murcheson. We’re having us a good old fashioned Cook County tornado and I’m trapped in this…

The stairs climbing the wall above Richardina are barricaded with all the furniture that once knew the living room floor. Four chairs from a dinky dinette set, another tall floor lamp, a hassock, a coat rack, a couple of very large flower pots and big black garbage bags and heaps of old records and newspaper and clothing. It’s all piled on the twenty-step staircase up to the second level and the largest stuff is at the top of the stairs, stacked in a panic against the door.

“Richardina,” asks Bernadette, rhetorically, “Honey, did you put all those things on the stairs?”

Bernadette returns to the window and gently lifts the framed photograph which is face-down on the television and holds it up to what little light is still coming in through the window. What she sees in the photograph is a much younger (six? seven years old?) Richardina in a cheerful dress, smiling in a way that Miss Murcheson has never seen Richardina smile. Sitting in the lap of a very old woman in a shapeless garment and some sort of head-wrap. The old woman’s face is spookily indistinct by the available light and she is not smiling so Bernadette carefully replaces the picture face-down on the television.

 

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