I sat up on the back seat of Rodney’s Buick and tried to gather my wits and bearings.  It was very dark and seemed very late and rather cold and I wondered how long I’d been alone in the car and to where the car had been driven.  Jillene’s cake was flat in the box I’d been using as a pillow and I opened the flattened box and scooped some smashed cake out and fed myself with voluptuous intensity, the best cake I had ever tasted. I was so hungry I found myself shaking as I ate and then that voice cried “Daddy!” again, a voice so similar to mine that it had fooled me, initially and I  wiped my chin and pulled the blanket, which  I found on the car seat,  around my shoulders. I wiped my fingers off,  on the back of the seat in front of me,  and cautiously exited the vehicle to investigate.

The car was parked in an alley lit only by the light from a row of curtainless windows three or four stories above my head. And the odor I smelled was garbage and perfume.  Near the diagonally-parked  Buick’s front right fender there was a row of lidless garbage cans, dull metal against a dull red wall of brick. To my right a good twenty paces there stood a figure with its head leaned forward against the same brick wall,  face hidden, arms high above its head, palms flat against the wall. That was where the “Daddy!” was coming from.  That,  I guessed, was also the source of the perfume. The figure was barely delineated against the dark surface of the lower half of the wall and only her black forearms and the backs of her black hands, and the little nodes of her polished fingernails,  rising into a less murky height, where light from the curtainless windows above us was reflected from the wall opposite,  were clear in the murk. The eerie effect was of the arms of a long-ago-drowned woman listlessly beseeching the merciless night.  I wasn’t afraid because her voice was a woman’s  and so much like mine and she seemed so weak in her grief that I moved in her direction to help her.

Without moving an inch she began to laugh a low, mean, hair-raisingly guttural chuckle as I approached. This wouldn’t have been so frightening if I could have seen her face (though maybe, I worried, the opposite is true). To the right of her, in the direction I was heading, I saw there was a door with no handle and a slot,  at eye-level, glowing. As I approached this door I heard the faintest suggestion of music.  It was in a state of near-terror that I moved carefully around the frozen, but chuckling, figure toward that door and its muffled music, a journey of no more than two dozen paces.  If the creature turned to face me, I promised myself, I would scream.

The slot wasn’t a slot but a brass flap. The music was more distinctly music (no hallucination)  than ever and I made the decision to pound on the door before the chuckling phantom  came for me.  Supernatural visitation or not, I did not doubt that she could scratch me to ribbons with the polished claws I’d seen arrayed on the dark brick wall. I smashed the door with both my palms and kicked it, too, and wondered if I was still drugged and hallucinating.  The second time I kicked the door the brass flap flipped up, pressed outward from within by the tip of an umbrella. The music was loud and a gruff voice said,

“Celeste, I done told you…!”

“Not Celeste!” I shouted  (as the phantom laughed closer and louder).


Without thinking (and from where within the thousand drawers of my memory I’ll never know) I blurted “Tinklebox” and the heavy door opened and as I darted for safety,  inside,  the phantom lunged… I was expecting by then a witch or a female impersonator or a grinning skull in a burning cloak… but what I glimpsed was a very young girl of unusual beauty, with a very black face and bushy hair and very red lips and eyes just swimming in rage or sorrow…  she couldn’t have been older than 12…  wearing a string of dimestore pearls… who was caught by the waist by the  bouncer and hurled unceremoniously into the  alley again before the door was slammed and secured, snapping off the livid tail of her perfume.

I shivered in a kind of vestibule, three steps up from the main floor of a moodily-lit speakeasy with a  low ceiling, a dozen or more little round rustic tables lit by hurricane lamps, each table attended by a lonely Negro male,  or a Negro male and a Caucasian female, or a Negro male and two Caucasian females, on a date. I wouldn’t claim it was the most shocking thing I had ever seen but it probably was. There were iron-braced wagon wheels,  cleverly made into chandeliers, hanging from the low rafters,  as well as decorative muskets on the walls.  Negro waiters in baseball uniforms threaded incongruously between the tables with their laden trays and in front of it all a combo of some sort, on a low stage,  was swinging cheerfully along, led by a muted horn. None of the females I could see were Colored and none of the males Caucasian.  It seemed more like something from the distant future than 1958 and it seemed illegal, somehow, and frightening. I was not the kind of girl to partake but I was definitely the kind of girl to watch from a droll distance.

I affected a kind of nonchalance and said “That poor girl!”  to the doorman, to whom I handed my blanket as though it were a stole.

“Oh, she’ll go home. She always do. She don’t live that far. Are you…?”

Before the fezz-wearing doorman could straighten his tuxedo and ask if I was expecting guests I spotted D’Ora at a table near the far-right corner of the stage and waved at her, and called her name,  though she couldn’t possibly have seen or heard me, concentrated as she was on the action onstage.

“I was wondering if you’d ever wake up tonight,” shouted D’Ora, her head slung as low between her shoulders as a vulture’s, chin over her glass, when she turned to watch me taking a seat beside her,  “or, that is,”  she corrected herself, after glancing at her wrist, “this morning.”

“What time is it?”

“Four fifteen give or take a few days. I feel like I’ve been here for weeks already. Not that Johnson isn’t great company…”

“Oh my goodness,” I smirked but I was speaking with painful slowness; not quite yet myself. “You found him. At the grocery store? Where is he?”

“Talking to friends in the kitchen. He promised to fetch back something nice. He’s such a cute little cocoa-brown fruit, isn’t he?”

“Why are they dressed up like a baseball team?”

“To tell you the truth, Doll,  Johnson explained it to me with admirable thoroughness  not an hour ago and I’ve already forgotten. Ask him when he gets back to the table. Meanwhile, somebody has her wicked little eye on that magnificent buck of a trumpet player…”

I followed the line of sight that was leading her train of thought to the center of the stage and shrugged. He was tall,  alright, and tinted like a Mexican peasant, broad-shouldered and  better-built than any heir I’d ever lain with …  but a bit too baby-faced.  His nose was barely there between the brilliantined waves cresting his shiny brown forehead and the cleft in his chubby chin. He frowned when his cheeks bulged,  a toddler having a tantrum on the mouthpiece of his horn.  His plummeting eyebrows were so well-delineated that they served as his caricature;  his creator had captured him in two bold strokes. No thrill for me there, I’m afraid. No thrill beyond the social frisson of the unexpected and unprecedented proximity of Negroes. D’Ora was lots less blasé about it.

“I’d like to suck that gentleman’s soul right out the tip of his cock,  like an oyster. Or like a… raw egg in a shot glass with some Worcestershire sauce. I guess I could dip the cock in the sauce first… you know Rodney pronounces Worcestershire with five syllables?”

She was snapping her fingers on the twos and the fours and licking her lips on her vulture-low face and I suddenly felt very old, and smugly so,  though D’Ora was the one with bags under her eyes.  D’Ora’s red velvet conductor’s tuxedo looked like a flower crushed in the grass long after a wedding. The impersonal lust possessing her made her look a lurid forty, her face on lugubrious display over the hurricane lamp, a pagan goddess in training presiding over the cute little model of a sacrificial volcano. It seems that no matter what it is we want, if we want it badly enough, if we want it too badly, a law in heaven is broken and the wanting of the thing degrades us. I suddenly recognized the tune the trumpeter was blowing:  a slouching, walking-bassline rendition of Felix the Cat.  I touched D’Ora’s arm. I touched her at the wrist just above an exquisite platinum bracelet setting off the richness of her tawny skin. Touching her wrist I noticed that her fingernails were red-rimmed and bitten to the quick.

“You really do make me feel like an old maid, kid. Compared to you my libido is in the negative numbers. Screwing is just a boon I grant; it’s not that I actually like what it’s doing to me when it’s being done.”

“Oh,  I live for it. I just love the various calibres of cock and I love how they snap to attention when you make an entrance. It makes me feel like a regular Eisenhower. Part of the fun is trying to guess before the trousers drop but in his case, I’m afraid…” she blew a kiss at the stage.

“Foregone conclusion.”

“Say again?

“Foregone conclusion!” I shouted, my hands cupped around my mouth.

“I’m sure it’s nothing I haven’t already seen at the Kentucky Derby,” D’Ora shouted back. “I’ve never had one so big that it really hurt. Have you?

“I’ve never had one so big that I even noticed.”

We laughed together embarrassingly loud at exactly the moment Felix the Cat finished, calling attention to ourselves while everyone else was applauding,  amusing the room.  The trumpeter said, “My my my, laughter instead of applause, now that’s a first! I guess I’ll be quitting the trade after this next number…!” and he counted in what I immediately recognized as The Woody Woodpecker theme,  but as a Cugat-style rumba. It reminded me of my mother’s po-faced shelves of autographed phonograph albums. It made me think of Latin gigolos passing for whites.

“Y’all going to get us arrested!”

It was Johnson in a Zoot suit with a miraculous tray of food. I was still starving, despite the crushed cake I’d gobbled like a she-wolf in the Buick.  I was so grateful to see Johnson with that tray that my eyes watered a little and I had to dab them with one of the napkins Johnson brought over with the tray.

“How you holdin’ up, girl?” Johnson turned to D’Ora. “Sierra father died last Christmas season. Fact of the matter, we met on the evening of the day the poor fellow done died,” and I had the queerest urge to correct Johnson, mentally, while “keeping it to myself,” but the astonishing fact (that would continue to feel at least a little astonishing for months or years, I imagined) was that everything he’d said was perfectly true as described: he had known more about my circumstances than I had at the time. My father had died the morning of the day that Johnson and I had met, and we had met because I’d driven out to Chicopee with what’s-her-name in a diverted quest to find the legendary race-mixing club I had to assume I was sitting in at that very moment, delivered by Fate,  arrived by accident. What a circumlocuitous path the Gods had chosen for me!  Had I been enlightened, punished, seasoned or mocked by the extra time and distance, or was it that the Gods were merely stalling? Postponing a finer or grander or more humiliating moment to come? Or were they merely no longer interested? Maybe whatever it was I was doing (or being done to by) had no meaning or purpose at all.

“Oh I’m fine, old friend,” I shouted across the little table, “I’m fine but thank you very much for asking. My father lived a full life, as they say… I guess. It’s rather queer being half-way to orphanhood. It’s like waiting for the proverbial penny to drop.  Say, if you don’t mind: what’s the name of this place, again, and why are the waiters dressed in baseball uniforms?”

The Last Will and Testament of Crispus Attucks.”

“Oh, that’s fabulous,” said D’Ora, after stretching her lips on a delectable drumstick. Hungry as I was, my snob training held me back. I would wait until D’Ora had had three or four and only then would I daintily pluck a leg or a wing from the big red pagan bowl steaming before us. Johnson went and came back, quickly, with a carafe of something and two fancy long-stemmed glasses.

“As to the attire of the waiters, now that is a  story and a half. Up until 1937… see, this club been here a long time already… the waiters were attired in period costume in keeping with the theme of the establishment, which was named after the first fellow to die in what they called the revolutionary war,  a colored gentlemen name of Crispus Attucks, which, you’ll pardon me for observing, ain’t even the most imaginative Colored name I have ever heard. In nineteen hundred and thirty seven,  see, another  great man died, the first ever colored man to play in the major leagues, and so the waiter’s uniform was changed to honor this man,  Weldy Walker, middle name Wilberforce: Weldy Wilberforce Walker.  His initials take longer to say than his name! Ain’t you hungry, Sierra? No need to put on airs here, gal. You among friends. Dig in before D’Ora done left you zero residuals but them bones to crack for the marrow!”

I couldn’t help thinking the friendliest, and most innocently racist, thought of the evening in response: He’s right! It’s just a room full of Colored people and their fallen white doxies! Hadn’t I seen my own mother, when I was a girl, sitting on the toilet with the water closet door wide open, giving the maid instructions?

The set was over, I was full enough to burst and the man with the horn came right to our table. He pulled a chair from another table and slid it under himself beside Johnson’s empty seat.  Where had Johnson disappeared to, anyway? The trumpeter took my hand and addressed me directly: “Hullo Sierra.”

“Marvellous show. How do you know my name?”

“Who else could you be? Jillene only talked about you all the time, gal.”

And it all clicked into place. So this was Jillene’s illicit swain. This was their rendezvous joint. Chubby, middleclass Jillene would have felt like a Princess slumming it here. Jillene was to the clientele as I was to her.

“I promised Jillene I’d stop by tonight for tea and cookies and I’m afraid I’ve let her down.”

“You and me both.” He turned his attention to D’Ora without releasing his tender grasp of my fingertips. “Byron Stouffer. Charmed to make your acquaintance…. miss…?”

“Catherine the Great,” leered D’Ora.

“Royalty!” laughed Byron. “Boy, I’m honored.”

“Why don’t you hold  hands with both of your admirers, Mr. Stouffer?  Double your thrill.” D’Ora turned to me. “Or shall we arm wrestle for dibs?”

I retracted my hand gingerly. “You’d pull my shoulder  right out of its socket, D’Ora.” I turned back to Byron. “Consider yourself warned.”

Byron  winked. “I ain’t complaining.” I noted how scrupulously he sounded the terminal “g” of the verb. An aberration?

“The morning is still young,” said D’Ora, taking each of Byron’s huge bronze hands in those dainty white spiders of hers. “How many heiresses have you screwed?”

“More than you’d think, mostly likely, but not as many as I’d hoped. You aiming to be my last?”

The next thing we knew, we were in the alley, marching on our merry way to Byron’s automobile, D’Ora and Byron and I, and I was feeling too competitive to ask to be driven home. I couldn’t help myself. For all my jokes,  I was not quite ready to see myself as an old maid of 18 being replaced by the coming generation of depraved 15-year-olds.  I had begun to scan my memory of D’Ora’s japes and jabs of the evening, up until that moment,  and it occurred to me that mine had been far more self-deprecating than hers. Which was not the Sierra Temple I knew.  I wasn’t the reigning Queen of  Tyler House of Smith college campus for nothing. Tired as I was, I decided to rise to the occasion, which is not to say I intended to screw Jillene’s Byron but that I intended to make it clear, when D’Ora inevitably screwed or blew him, that D’Ora had been Byron’s second choice, his consolation prize,  by necessity. Tired as I was. I was exhausted.

“The chest muscles under his dinner jacket are solid as slabs of beef, Sierra,” said D’Ora. “Come feel!”

“Right now I’m just worried about my own chest, dearest. Its components are freezing solid. Let’s get in the car before you continue the anatomy lesson.”

I had forgotten to fetch my blanket at the coat-check before leaving, you see. I felt a pang about it.

“And very pretty components they are, Sierra!” boomed Byron, slapping his pockets for his car keys. “We gotta take care of those poor things, gal. Gotta protect them!”

“Don’t forget to protect mine!” said D’Ora. “They were the components of a virgin last week!”

Byron’s auto was parked beside Rodney’s, or, that is,  D’Ora had parked Rodney’s beside Byron’s before swanning into the nightclub with Johnson on her arm, leaving me on the back seat, sleeping off Rodney’s mickey finn. As if to improve my reconstruction of that moment in recent history, we,  all three of us, as we were directly upon Byron’s Studebaker, saw a nearly-familiar figure asleep, knees up,  on the hood. Or maybe not asleep.

“Celeste,” said Byron, his voice more bemused than angry, “What you doin’ on the hood of my car?”

“Ain’t you got eyes no more, Daddy?,” said the skinny black girl,  languorously, staring at the starless sky. “You blind from staring at Fays all night…? What’s it look like I’m doing?  See: your hood was nice and warm…”

And lo, it was true. She lifted her hand from between the legs,  exposed by her hiked-up dress, and the fingertips appeared to glisten in the weak light from yellow windows above us in the alley.

“Ain’t warm no more, Celeste.”  Tenderly,  softly, Byron added, “You want me to drive you home?”

“Home? What’s that?”

“Come on now.  Get off my hood and I’ll get you home safe and warm.”

“I’m telling you, Daddy. Ain’t got one. My momma… my momma… ”

“Shoot. She kick you out?”

The black girl sat up on the blood-red hood of Byron’s Studebaker and pulled her dress back down around her legs (rather demurely, suddenly). She was wearing a blue satin dress with rips in it and an oversized masculine dark green or brown rain coat. Her features were fine and very pretty, her bushy hair in gushes from under her raincoat’s bonnet, her eyes like 80-carat diamonds. She rolled off the hood onto the other side of the car,  high-heels tapping the asphalt, tip tap.

“When your momma kick you out of the house, Celeste?”

“Yesterday night?  Week ago? I ain’t even sure, Daddy. Why it even matter? I guess life was sweeter when I was just a cripple, huh?”

“Well,  you climb in the car and I’ll drive you to a place I know you’ll be welcome.” Byron turned to D’Ora and me. “We’re going to take a little detour, y’all.”

“The more the merrier,” said a muted D’Ora, with a sheepish smile. I could tell she was touched and I could tell that I was, too.

Celeste sat in front beside Byron and D’Ora and I sat in the back.

Touched as we were by the poor mad Colored girl’s plight, neither one of us wanted to smell, or be touched by, that hand. It was as though D’Ora and I suddenly weren’t there, or, no, more like we suddenly found ourselves sitting in seats at a  Social Realist Play,  for Colored People,  sponsored by the WPA. Byron and Celeste were handsome as actors. Their voices were largely clear over the hum of the Studebaker motor and where the bits of dialogue weren’t clear to me, I have opted to reconstruct it. The gist of what I remembered hearing that night is accurate.

Byron’s Studebaker’s headlights illuminated objects in the dramatic realm of the windshield in the background,  the background’s near horizon  being the leading edge of our story. The backs of his and Celeste’s silhouettes in the foreground, and the objects struck by the headlights,  enjoyed a dramatic and spectral prominence, like objects on a stage play’s set, as each was picked out by the spotlight at special moments. Then I laid myself down, yawning. I enjoyed the drowsy luxury of  genuinely not giving a damn where Byron’s car was taking me.

For the longest time there were no words. Just the occasional sound of Celeste giggling to herself, or scratching her scalp in sudden and mad-seeming bursts. I think I began dozing. My head was in D’Ora’s lap, though D’Ora herself was dead to the world,  eyes closed, her face an introspective moon over the mountain-ridge of her sweaty bosom, that bosom rising and falling, lap warm,  the sweaty smell of her red velvet tuxedo a strangely homey comfort.  I wondered if she’d already pulled an all-nighter the morning I first met her, with Rodney and what’s her name,  in the brilliant sunshine of another world,  the other world of most of a day ago, when I was on the way back from that unexpected meeting with Jillene in the bakery.  The manifesto and the cake. Rodney’s handjob in the cinema.  Abbot and Costello.

Then I thought, with a very tiny red sparkle of guilt, a sparkle of guilt that was the jewel of my paltry inheritance of fellow-feeling, about Jillene, who was probably still waiting up for me to drop by. I thought: why are people like Jillene such gluttons for endless slights from people like me?  Then I thought of Smith, where we are trained in the fine art of such slights. I seemed to be drifting rather far from my school lately. Far from my parents, living and dead.

I woke.


“No, but, on the level this time.  Just between us. Why she kick you out? I need to know.”

“I told you, Daddy: because I ain’t shit.”


“Ain’t nothing but a worthless black Billiken spasm with kinky hair and knock-knees. I bet you can’t even see me in your own car unless I be grinnin’. See me grinnin’ now?”

“Crazy talk, Celeste. You are a beautiful young lady  but you are talking like Mr. Charlie now. How they get you talking like Mr. Charlie about your own damn self?

“Nitty gritty. My mammy, she said get your black ass outta my house…”

“She said that…?”

“… cause I wet the bed.”

“Okay. But that ain’t no reason to kick a child out her own household in the dead of winter, Celeste.”

“But it weren’t the bed. It was the davenport.”

“The davenport?”

“Brand new davenport.”

“Okay. Why you wet it?”

“I guess you could say I was beside myself with fear, Daddy.”

“Why you beside yourself with fear, Celeste?”

“Radio program.”

“What radio program?”



“Uh huh. It was a episode called Three Skeleton Key. I was so scared, Daddy… ”

Three Skeleton Key?  With the rats? I heard that one.  It was on in October two  years ago, gal. It was on Halloween night in 1956, Celeste. This here is springtime of 1958.”

“Oh it was, Daddy? It is? Really?”

“You been out on the streets that long? Since 1956?”

“Have I?”

“Is that why you so skinny?”

“You tell me.”

“I’m asking you, Celeste.”

“Who you heard it with?”


“Who you heard it with?”

“In ’56?”

“Was you alone?”

“Don’t matter, Celeste. You a child. You can’t be out there on these streets in the cold in 1958 as a child.

“I been doin’ it since I been nine. Some say I can do it better than mammy now.  Now how am I a child, Daddy?”

“Since nine. Well I’ll be damned. You are what now exactly? Twelve? Thirteen?”

“Po-lice put the figure at twelve.”

“Twelve is a child, Celeste. No matter what you been doing or how long you been doing it.”

“No matter who I been doing it with?”

“Who you been doing it with?”

“You know who.”

“All of them?”

“Most of them. Until I got stop.”

“Stopped? You mean when you got sick?”

“I got stop when the Polio stop me, Daddy. Polio,  po-lice, what’s the difference?”

“I bet you were happier when you got sick, huh?”

“Like I was eight again.”

“Must’ve been ten. When you had the Polio? On crutches? You were about ten. Looked like a schoolgal. You looked like I always imagine the mischievous little gal on Fibber McGee and Molly looked.  You remember that? I think her name was ‘Tiny’.”

“You think I looked like your picture of Tiny?

“To me you did.”

“You want me to kiss on it?”

“Going to pretend I didn’t hear that.”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Oh alright.”

“Good.  Now tell me better things, Celeste. Things I won’t mind remembering that I heard.”

“Po-lio was sweet, Daddy. Nobody wanted nothing from me or gave me a smack or the bum’s rush and somebody even gave me a bowl of free ice cream and fixed my hair and bought me a hand me down dress for a picture. See this dress? Used to look good as new.”

“You resent being cured, Celeste?”

“That where you driving me? You taking me back?”

“It’s peaceful out there, Celeste. In the country. Safe and peaceful.”

“Uh huh. I know it’s peaceful, Daddy.”

“You remember that?”

“You really thought I look like your picture of Tiny from Fibber McGee and Molly when I got the Po-lio? Me? A skinny little dark black colored girl?”

“Sure I did, Celeste. What else you remember back then?”

“I remember He cured me.  Made me eat nothing for almost a week and then He made me eat soup once a day and then He made me walk with heavy boards on my feet and my hands. I thought it would take a year but it was over quick.  All them coons on the block,  they said it was a miracle. Coons who seen me dancing, they  said it was impossible. You believe in that old Jesus?”

“Mr. Jesus workin for Mr. Charlie. I just use him as a symbol.  See?”

“My Mammy sure believe in him, though. She [inaudible]

“Your Mammy put a helpless child on the streets in winter because she soiled some  furniture. I don’t care how much a davenport is so-called worth.  Mr. so-call Jesus wouldn’t agree with that, Celeste.”

“Shoot. I don’t know if I believe in that Jesus but I sure believes in [inaudible]

“You call him that?”

“Ike ain’t a coon?”

 [inaudible: we were at a railroad crossing and the passing freight train was loud]

“What you say?”


“Who told you that?”

“Don’t pay me no mind, Daddy.”

“Everybody always say ‘Celeste’ crazy. They [inaudible].

“You know them coons jealous.”

“Fine but[inaudible].

“You think I’m crazy?”

“Let me put it to you this here way, Celeste. Frankly speaking. Why you on the hood of my car playing with yourself if you not?”

“I was? When?”

“Not an hour ago. For all the world to see.”

“Shoot. You know who I was thinking ’bout?”

“No and I don’t want to,  Celeste.”

“Can I aks you one thing?”

“All ears.”

“Somebody sittin’ in the back seat of your car or [inaudible]?

“No,  they really there, Celeste.”

“These people Fay?”

“You could call them that.”

“We gonna slice they throats?”

Byron laughed.

I wasn’t paying strict attention, at first, because I was tired, still tired,  I was still so tired,  sinking back into the sweet blind warmth of the languid stupor I had climbed out of,  fully able, again, to sleep on rocks or wet rags or lumps of coal. All I wanted was to sleep. But my eyes popped open in the dark and slammed shut again as I was paying strict attention to what was being said. My heart raced as my eyes jammed shut and I  pretended to be asleep. Asleep like an innocent child in a film featuring Clara Blandick. Please don’t cut our throats, I was praying. Praying not to god but to Celeste.


Contrary to the impression I may have given, dear reader,  I wasn’t stricken with terror as I listened in on this conversation, which I transcribed, as soon as I could get my hands on pen and paper, later that day.  The roller coaster  I rode while eavesdropping on two Negroes speaking frankly was a roller coaster with peaks and troughs of sorrow and guilt. I was at no point genuinely terrified. Being terrified of Negroes was what our parents were good at.  I wasn’t terrified because I was both foolishly (invincibly)  young and socially aware that D’Ora and I were worth a thousand times what Celeste was, to Byron, and the worst thought that Byron might fleetingly, and bemusedly, have  entertained, was “rape,” though why would he? D’Ora had proven herself to be eager and capable of raping Byron without anyone’s  help, least of all Byron’s.

No: Celeste was clearly, tragically and harmlessly insane.  I assumed that all colored girls, that year, were, after all they’d been through. Maybe hindsight is granting more racial wisdom than I really had at that age. But the worst I feared from Celeste was that she’d touch me with the pruney fingers  she’d been frigging herself with. She was only twelve years old and crazy in that layered,  almost-technical way that the seriously, professionally, functionally deranged are. She could speak total lunacies with perfectly accurate (though pidgin) syntax.  She could make sense for almost an hour and destroy the illusion with one violently unselfconscious facial expression or gesture. It was impossible to imagine Celeste at 20, or Celeste as a mother or a grandmother. Her natural lifespan seemed very short to me.

I didn’t doubt, for a moment, that the pressures of the whites-constructed world she found herself born into, a world that had nothing but contempt for her, had contributed substantially to the breaking of her childish mind. Crazy as she was, Celeste had already known more about the world at nine than either D’Ora or I knew or would know… ever. Compared to Celeste, the merely-slutty D’Ora was Shirley Temple (while looking uncannily like Dorothy on her way to Oz) and I was Goody Proctor. My evening down a Negro rabbit hole had left me feeling ready to join a convent. But I wasn’t quite ready to return to the convent that was Smith College, despite the mild danger Celeste had reminded me that I must be in, a Caucasian debutante in Byron’s auto.

Up front, Byron was speaking, slowly, in calming tones. Trying, no doubt, to get poor Celeste’s train of thought onto a less problematic track,  with rails that wouldn’t diverge, treacherously, or melt. D’Ora really was asleep, and snoring slightly, and farting minutely like a pet rabbit:  tiny, tightly-wrapped, Easter-green lettuce  balloons  I didn’t really mind smelling as I nestled in her lap,  pretending to be out of it.

And then I really was asleep and this time more deeply and for four hundred miles of the gradually-diluting darkness and increasingly brightening road,  despite the direction the car was travelling in, chasing inland into darkness toward the West.

When my eyes opened, they opened to discover that I hadn’t had my throat cut, and the sun was rising, and we were in the clean-aired, pagan-skied countryside of Pennsylvania. I acquired this geographic detail later. I wouldn’t have been unduly surprised to be told that we were in Holland.   The blue of the crown of the dome of the dawn was sternly innocent.

The morning sun was already a bit far off and not as low, as I would have expected, on the horizon. I stretched my numbed legs and walked around Byron’s dew-beaded Studebaker while D’Ora rubbed her eyes and scratched herself in the car’s cozy cove of morning breath, not quite ready to emerge.  How long had D’Ora and I been sleeping alone in the car?

Birds out there were being cryptic from sparse trees, when they were close, and making quite a fuss in the distance,  and this may have been the first time I sincerely appreciated the country and in the way the older people did. The older people liked the country for its calm and I was feeling the same.  I didn’t want anything else to happen for days or weeks.  Being in the company of Colored people could be too much for anyone so new to it.  Could it be that being a hick was the clandestine height of sophistication all along?

There were several structures some distance from the Studebaker, which was parked in a long rectangle of short grass, surrounded on three sides by taller grass,  far from the dusty curve of the unpaved  road. One of those structures looked like a barn, and one, near it,  like a yellow, two-storey house. Also things two like sheds or shacks.   I assumed that Byron had already walked Celeste into the  Van Gogh painting of the  house, which featured two little black chimneys,  one at either end, smoke dragged sideways from the nearest chimney,  the lowest row of windows below which were fortified with weak sheets of artificial light. I knew enough about Western Civilization to guess that these windows belonged to the kitchen and this thought made me hungry.

“Slow down, big sis!” cried D’Ora. She was carrying her mules, by their straps, in one hand and she limped along, on the grass,  looking fetchingly dissolute.

“Take my hand like a proper sibling, then,” I said, and D’Ora did so and we traipsed through the short grass as it became tall grass, like fallen angels come to impose on the hospitality of  godfearing villagers. We had perhaps a hundred yards to walk to the house and traipse was all we were prepared to do.

“I pray to God they have a working tub in this joint,” said D’Ora. “Or a bidet at least…” And the sincere absurdity of that wish made us both pause before laughing.

“Yes, ”  I said, “Perhaps we’re in Paris.”

“And this is our Grand Tour. Imagine a copper tub with a porcelain jug for pouring the hot war down our backs… ”

“I wouldn’t mind that at all. But why water? Why not champagne as long as we’re dreaming?”

“And breakfast sausages. Pancakes…”

“Whatever it is that good country folk eat these days.”

“Why do you suppose Byron knows good country folk at all?”

“I’m wondering myself.”

“Wouldn’t it be amusing if he’s simply dumped us here at random?”

“To run off with Celeste,” I said drily.

“So she can kiss on it,” said D’Ora, imitating Celeste’s squeaky voice perfectly.  Kizz-own.

“You were awake that whole time?”

“Weren’t you?”

We paused together and laughed, together, again. I gestured grandly at the countryside that seemed to surround us as though nothing else had ever existed.

“This is not Paris. This is Lake Como.” I decided to impress D’Ora with a bit of academic gossip that Professor Arvin, in one of his revolting attempts to seduce me, with his intellect, had sprung on me. Along with the admonition that he didn’t think that a dozen scholars on this Earth are aware of this, but….

“Mary Shelley, middle-aged, Percy dead, all her children, but one, dead, returned here, to the splendor of Como,” I clasped my hands over my bosom, “With her surviving child, Percy’s namesake, to stage the most embarrassing episode of her climacteric.”

D’Ora tittered. Did she even know the word climacteric?

“The former beauty now merely handsome and her greatest works behind her. She dragged her dreamy son to the scene of her former triumphs and her dreamy son, a dead ringer for James Dean,  thought it was dullsville, Daddyo, so Mary, in a sexually sublimated fury buzzing  with Oedipal undercurrents, nursed an ill-conceived obsession with a grubby Italian Anarchist. You see, like many well-born women with time on their hands, Mary had always been somewhat of a supporter of lost causes. She threw herself into the service of this bindlestiff’s lost cause, wrote him lubricious letters ill-befitting the authoress of Boris Karloff’s greatest role. She hit upon a scheme to write a travel book,  about her middle-aged swoonings in Italy,  in order to send the money, from the proceeds, of what turned out to be a popular book,  to her shabby Italian anarchist, who wasn’t even ten years her junior. Entirely too old to be a proper excuse for indulging in an humiliating,  last-ditch,  escapade of the heart, if you ask me.”

“Gosh, you’re smarter than I thought you were, Sierra. Am I intimidated? I think I am!  This is the first time I’ve heard you talk like this. Did all this really happen?”

“And how, doll. The Anarchist repaid Mary for her troubles by attempting to blackmail her with her own disgusting love-letters!”

“Typical. Who can we distrust the most, the Poor… or Men?”

Poor men, probably.”

“Touché. And then what…?”

By then we were standing on the front porch of the yellow house. I looked D’ora in her big brown eyes, dramatically, while lifting a fist to knock on the door and I whispered “She snapped out of it and Mary the Anarchist-lover called the Italian police!”

“What was the name of this awful man?” whispered D’Ora, glancing nervously at the door as I knocked again, this time a bit louder.

“Who knows? Who cares?” I winked. The back of my head was toward the door, even as I knocked on it.

The door opened. I watched D’Ora’s eyes grow wide.




It was perhaps two weeks later that I tapped Sister D’Ora, on a shoulder, while we were cleaning the kitchen and I whispered, “Can you still remember what you were thinking when they opened the kitchen door and you saw all those black faces staring at us?”

“Sister Sierra,” she smiled and whispered back, “I was just, this moment,  thinking of that very thing.” She pushed back the rough fabric of my hood, which, I suppose, technically, is called a veil, and touched my cheek with a blistered finger tip.  It would have meant everything to D’Ora if I’d kissed that finger tip but I couldn’t bring myself to do it, despite how close we’d grown in a dozen or so days of living in the same guest room in the attic.  But I didn’t hesitate to give D’Ora my smile at the touch.

“It was such a confusing mixture of fear and excitement.”


There was a tin bucket full of tepid suds between us. We each had a homely wooden scrub brush with densely  crooked wire teeth. We were on our knees and up so early that the kitchen was still very cold, the huge iron wood burning stove, on claw feet like a devilishly lidded black  bathtub,  was deathly silent and  unlit.  Frost on the surrounding  windows softened an already extremely soft daybreak and D’Ora’s profile looked pink in it.  We could see each other’s breaths. We were up so early that only Quasar himself was awake and we could hear his occasional movements in the study above the kitchen.  Quasar, we were told,  often slept on the floor in the study, the only person in the compound, ironically, to have no bed of his own.

“Is that his excuse for sleeping with initiates?” I had wisecracked, cynically, on my second morning,  and I will regret making that joke until the end of my days.

“No, Quasar has no bed…  to protect his humility. It wasn’t his idea, it was mine. No man in this community is allowed to have sexual relations with any woman in this community, not even Quasar. This rule is not a misguided imitation of Yankee Puritanism,” added Sister Rhondella. “Unplanned pregnancies would be a disaster to this project. There was an instance… ”

“But what is this project?”

“You will know when you are no longer an Initiate, Sister.”

“What if I’m unusually impatient?”

“It’s a 45 minute walk, straight up the road you can see from the top of the barn, heading North,  to a rural bus shelter. The bus to Scranton arrives at that shelter once a day at 8:17 am. The ticket will cost you three dollars and fifteen cents. If you hurry you can still make it. But you’ll have to skip breakfast.”

This information was delivered free of rancour and with a bemused tone, even.

Sister Rhondella had towered over me and her brown cat eyes twinkled as I looked up into them, feeling like a petulant child, though Sister Rhondella could not have been twenty five years of age. The skin surrounding the orbits of her tigress eyes was as smooth and fever-warm as moments-old gingerbread. I sometimes wanted her, or one of the other of the Faculty,  to sit on the glider on the porch on a mellow afternoon, heat from the wood stove in the kitchen filling the porch,  and hoist me up on her knees and nurse me with her flat black bosoms, a strange thought I know. Reverie interrupted, I would, more often than not, in fact, find myself hauling wood, for the stove, from the back of the farmhouse.

Most of the Faculty consisted of stunning black giantesses like Sister Rhondella. There were twelve or thirteen of them. There were half-a-dozen stunning black giant males, called Counsellors,  and all of the Initiates but one (Celeste) were girls very much like D’Ora and me.

I think there were two dozen Initiates. The Counsellors and Faculty lived separately in two little dormitory structures, which reminded me of barracks, behind the Barn. The barracks were each one-story tall and rather long and most nights we could hear rather extraordinary music coming from them, but as Initiates we weren’t yet allowed to venture into the field, behind the barn, where the barracks were hidden. All we did as Initiates were to take turns cooking and cleaning for each other on a carefully organized schedule, copies of which were posted all over the farmhouse, all three floors and on the trunks of the trees in the backyard, too. We were all required to fill out a form declaring whatever technical expertise in cooking, baking, cleaning, sewing, carpentry,  nursing, animal husbandry or arts and crafts we possessed and put to work exploiting these skills for the good of our Sister Initiates.

The whole thing had felt like an elaborate kind of charity work,  the first few days, but this impression inverted itself at the end of the first week,  with D’Ora and I and the others realizing that we were the recipients of the charity. We were being fed and sheltered and molded into a sympathetic community, in other words improved into being caring and responsible adults, free of charge.  I think it was mostly to do with dressing like nuns, the transformation. I think it’s fairly impossible to be a good person in expensive clothing.

Not that we were literally dressed like nuns, who are stylish in comparison. More like monks in hooded robes fashioned crudely from surplus US Army blankets. There were mornings I awoke with a start, in my itchy robe, under a blanket of the identical material,  and remembered where I was, and whose bunk I slept beside,  and wanted to spend the day laughing in bed. Mostly, though, it was a soothing kind of piety that took me over and guided me through the days. Also a sense of freedom. I had escaped somewhere without first knowing I had lived there,  in a high security prison,  my entire life. The prison guards you first meet are your parents.

I soon learned that the Initiates were from all over the country and that two of them, the exotically pretty Vonya and Delma, were from Germany. Vonya, who could have been Yvonne De Carlo’s stand-in on the film Salome, Where She Danced,  a film my father treated me to when I was 13,   was the older of the two and I felt drawn to her. Delma seemed like a young and moody adolescent who could be nice when she wanted to; she resembled a very young, almost child-like, Natalie Wood. There was a girl named Dolly Bach, from California, and a voluptuous redhead, with a silhouette like Mansfield’s,  from Minnesota, who referred to herself as “plain old Trudy,” in the third person, whenever we found ourselves working on a chore together. Trudy was the classically top-heavy bombshell type.  Trudy, D’Ora and I were the least skilled of the Initiates and therefore always found ourselves, together or separately, scrubbing, dusting,  polishing or carrying things. The other girls I never really got to know, despite feeling sisterly sensations of great warmth, for all of them, the longer we all lived together and served each other as a group, driven by some mysterious goal.

One evening, “plain old Trudy” and I were scraping the peeling paint off the double doors of the root cellar, which were angled into the earth,  preparing the doors to be painted, by more capable Initiates the following morning, when Trudy nicked herself, a little, saying “Oh” instead of “ouch,”  and developed a bloody little finger on her right hand. All scraping ceased and we sat on the gentle slope of the double doors, Trudy sucking on the wounded finger. She said,

“I was having a chat with Becky, Becky T. from D.C., the other day. We were cleaning the toilet in the water closet at the end of the hallway on the second floor. We were whispering. Ever notice how often you find yourself whispering, these days? I’m whispering now.” Trudy interrupted herself to suck on the bleeding  finger, pull it back out of her mouth, and look at it in the poor light from the naked bulb over the root cellar doors, “And Becky said, Don’t you find this rather peculiar? And I said don’t I find what rather peculiar? And she said: this. And I thought about it and agreed. I mean, there are, like, fifteen or sixteen of us, we’re all Caucasians, we’re from leading families. I mean, okay, I’m the provincial. Me and Kay from Wyoming. But, I mean, we’re all from quite wealthy families, more than half of us are studying at prestigious institutions, as Becky pointed out. And look at what we’re doing. What are all these debutantes doing cleaning toilets and scraping root cellar doors in rural Pennsylvania? A month ago we’d never heard of this place or each other. But here we are, like it’s the most natural thing in the world, scraping the doors of a root cellar with these… I don’t know. Are they our Colored overseers or our spiritual guides or something? My mother is a follower of Blavatsky but this is an entirely different proposition. You know what else Becky from D.C. pointed out and this really scared me a little? Maybe you don’t know this. Every single one of us, except your chum D’Ora… all of us have recently deceased fathers.”

It was very cold in the naked light of the bulb over the root cellar doors and profoundly quiet because, despite it being the month of May,  it was still too cold for crickets. I looked at “plain old Trudy,” in her hooded monk’s robe, apparel identical to my own,  and nodded slowly but said nothing, as I knew she had more to say. She giggled and added, “It’s like we all just somehow kidnapped ourselves. But maybe that’s just plain old Trudy being her typical worry wart self again. But what mysterious force do you think lured us all here, honey,  and how is it keeping us? Is it some new kind of magnetism?  I haven’t spoken with my mother in six weeks. She must be worried sick. Why have we all turned our backs, on our former lives,  and the outside world, so darned effortlessly?”

I knew the answer to that one, at least from my perspective, but I didn’t care to say. Few things were as forbidden as some of the things I was thinking. The mysterious force keeping me in this remote location in rural Pennsylvania was Quasar.

He seemed to be a young man, a born leader type, a deep thinker, with the weight of the world on his powerful shoulders. A North American Gandhi with a hero’s body, a sonorously penetrating voice, sad eyes, a tender and patient smile. I saw him, once, on the roof, in the bright sunshine, on a warm day weeks after my conversation with plain old Trudy.

He was helping to repair the farmhouse  chimney,   with two of the young Counsellors, who were both taller than he, and lighter-skinned,  more brown, but not nearly half as muscular or sure in their movements. I have never seen a body like that on anyone, and certainly no black one, a powerful body so graceful and black. It was enough to make me loath my own people. I remember needing, almost, to vomit, so overwhelmed was I by the sight, so I sat down with my back to the spectacle instead. I could hear them talking and chipping bricks with rusty tools and scuttling across the roof tiles, laden with heavy things,  but their actual words escaped me. I hadn’t yet seen Quasar’s obscenely compelling torso when Trudy wondered what force compelled us to stay but it was as though I knew I would one day. See it, I mean.  So when I saw it on the roof there was a recognition and I couldn’t help thinking the phrase forbidden fruit.

“How old are you, honey, if I may be so audacious to ask?”

“Eighteen,”  I shrugged. “But we need to finish scraping,” and Trudy kept her right hand’s bloody little finger in her mouth while she scraped, like a toddler, with her left.

When I finally tip-toed my way up the attic stairs and slipped into my perpetually unmade bunk beside the bunk of the serenely asleep D’Ora,  her features water-colored,  silver,  by the helpful rural moon adhering to our attic porthole,  and half-eclipsed by her hood, I think I probably began dreaming before my hooded head dropped. I felt myself fall into a dream featuring a Negro Mary Shelly, but that’s all I remember of it.


It was weeks later, the end of May, the world becoming warm, when I woke to a morning that had seen fit to deposit Harold on the end of my bed wearing a preposterously naive-looking college sweater. In fact my feet were trapped by Harold’s weight on my coarse blanket and that is what woke me up.

“You’ve never looked more ravishing, Sierra,” said Harold.

“You’ve never looked less prepared,” I parried. I attempted to pretend that I wasn’t shocked to see Harold but why should I have been?

“I envy your betrothed.”

“You know him?”

“Of course I do.”

“Promise to introduce us?”

“I already have, Sierra.”

“Harold,  my feet. You’re making them feel claustrophobic. If you could…”

Harold stood at once and I detected the outline of an amusing disturbance in his pleated Ivy League trousers.  Harold saw me see it and smiled.  “Rise and shine. It’s a beautiful morning. Have you ever been to the pond?”

“There’s a pond?”

Harold pointed to a battered old wicker picnic basket I just then saw at his feet. Which was when I noticed, too, that Harold was wearing very un-Ivy League, and Beatnik-y,  sandals. “I’ve prepared an early lunch for us, Sierra. Decadent capitalist treats. Before the established order collapses and bourgeois frivolities like this become a little harder to come by.”

The Old Me (of only a few weeks prior!) would have showered, shaved my legs, dolled up under killer Kabuki, styled my hair with a barrette or bobby pins and taken quite some time to assemble just the right outfit for lunching  sur l’herbe.  The New Me grabbed my donated tooth brush and padded down the attic stairs, to the nearest communal water closet. I brushed while urinating, whistled for Harold and accompanied him downstairs and out into the soothingly blinding sun in nothing but  my coarse cloak and bedroom slippers. I hadn’t even brushed my hair.

The look on Harold’s face was a distinct presence as he led me to our assignation from slightly behind and to my right, the laden wicker brushing his pleated Ivy League trousers to sound out a jazzy march. Harold was stunned and therefore impressed. Did he want this Revolutionary Sierra  a little more or a lot less? I couldn’t yet tell and I couldn’t yet tell if I still slightly cared. His cologne was appetizing and his cheeks were shiny pink from a very recent shave.

“Down the hill past the barracks. We are going to veer left.”

Then Harold put his free hand to his chest and coughed and said “I think my heart is racing.”

My hand shielded my eyes from the sun. “You haven’t been keeping up with your sculling, Harold.”

“Oh that’s not it, Sierra.  That’s not it at all. And by the way, do you know what undergraduates this year mean by the term sculling, but with a ‘k’?”

“Don’t be vulgar in the sunshine, Harold. You’ve just ruined what was shaping up to be a genuinely romantic moment,” I teased, but Harold was stricken by the comment and apologized, which disarmed me.

Then I began crying. And Harold began sniffing and crying, too, and I reached out and he took my hand.  We had climbed to the top of a hillock, sniffing together,  the pretty pewter pond was at the bottom, intermittently mirroring the morning sky. Pewter,  blue and Verdigris. Or copper and Verdigris, I suppose. The little pond was full of all kinds of mysterious oils and sediments and run-offs and it didn’t smell nice. We stared at it for a moment, holding hands, and Harold tugged me gently down the hill, around the pond and up a higher hill on the other side,  from the top of which I saw  a wire fence running along a dirt road to the North. We marched in tandem toward that fence and Harold helped me over it.

He wiped his nose. “Is there anything back in the farmhouse you really need?”

“No?  Oh wait: my journal? It’s written on folded up sheets of butcher paper I stole from the kitchen.  I told you I’m a bad egg. It’s under my pillow.”

“My car is parked right up this road, Sierra. Would you like to wait for me in it while I go back to try and fetch your journal?”

Harold handed me the old wicker picnic basket and it was very light and so I discovered it was empty.

“Wish me luck,” said my red-eyed Harold.







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