LIPSTICK ON HIS COFFIN
Among non-human female primates, estrus, the cyclical reddening of the genitalia, announces readiness to copulate and conceive. In human females, sexual readiness is not necessarily wed to procreation. and the engorged vulva is demurely hidden. Cultural anthropology suggests that when a woman reddens her mouth; it is an unconscious mimicry of estrus, a rosy incan-tation, promising purchase to more secret lips, Of course, painting ones lips may have no seductive motive. If the blush on a woman’s lips is a nod to convention or enticement to the male, others, typically pass judgment.
I asked too many questions, had too many answers. My father was frightened of me since I was a very little girl. I figured this out much later. At the time, I thought he just hated me. He’d chase me down the cellar stairs, his hand raised to hit me, his mouth filled with curses. In my dreams, he was a gorilla crushing me between the bed and the wall; squashing me like a bug.
I clung to my mother, which threw him into a fury. He blamed me for all the troubles my mother had. “You stay away from your mother!” He’d shout. But I would not.
My mother’s unhappy childhood was a shroud around my own. By the time all six of us were born my mother, was worn out. Each one of “God’s gifts”, as we kids were called, seemed to drain life from her. She muttered to herself all the time; her eyes looked haunted. My father thought we kids were the cause of my mother¹s sadness. He said that if he knew what it would do to my mother, he never would have let her have us. I used to wonder what he would have done, since the Church forbade both birth control and abortion. Years later, I heard that they were abstinent for the seven years between the birth of the fourth child, Janice, and Paul Mark, the fifth. Seven more years passed before Teresa Ann, the sixth and last child was born. She came into the world twenty years after I did.
When I was very young, I forged a connection with my mother that no one else had. In my eyes, she was an aristocrat, trapped in the wrong life; she had married beneath her station. I set myself to the task of restoring her to her proper place. I figured she and I didn’t need all those other kids and we didn’t need my father either.
My father used to call me “back-fence Irish,” a notch below shanty Irish. He told me to quit putting on airs. “Why don’t you just be fat dumb and happy!” he’d say. “Stop thinking! You think too damn much!”
“I can’t help it, Daddy; thoughts just come into my head!” I’d cry. I’d reassure myself, “God gave me a brain and I’m supposed to use it!”
I knew my mother and I were cut from different cloth than the rest. We didn’t belong with this bunch of peasants. We didn’t even look like them. We had naturally curly, deep auburn hair. We each had a widow’s peak; a sign of beauty, my mother said.
When I studied Latin, I began calling my mother, Mater, in preparation for our real life that would come one day. I could not bring myself to call my father, Pater. He worked in a factory. Leaning over the cast iron sink in the basement, he¹d wash his hands with Lava soap. He smelled of sweat, machine oil and coffee. Pater did not fit him.
Sadly, my childish cruelties hurt my father more than I could know; a hurt that was never to heal. When I moved to California, at seventeen, he, my brothers and sisters were glad to be rid of me. Even my mother, beloved repository of my dreams, wanted me gone. Later, when she’d lost her mind, she’d speak of me in hushed voice, “Evelyn, oh she was too much for me!” Instead of rescuing her, I was another failure, hers and my own. The mansions, the voyages, and the life I¹d imagined for the two of us were demands neither she nor I could meet.
These many years later, my family is more phantoms of memory than characters in my ongoing life. For more than forty years, we’ve had little contact. My family was and is a secretive lot. Births, deaths, marriages passed outside my awareness. As I was away from family celebrations and troubles, I heard about the incest between the two last-born, and my youngest sister’s suicide attempts by merest chance.
My trips east to see my parents did not serve to apprise me of family secrets. “Let sleeping dogs lie!” my mother would say if I asked questions.
My father told stories about people I didn’t know. “You remember Beth Nordgren,” he’d say, confusing me with one of my sisters.
“No” I’d say, ’til I finally began saying, “yes” to let him get on with it. My siblings’ enmity towards me grew strong in my absence, undiminished by time and distance. The next-born after me, Dick, nurtured bitterness towards me that I could not fathom. Decades later, if contact between us was unavoidable, he’d scream as if he were seeing the devil. “Keep her away from me!”
In recent years, my trips east became more frequent. My parents now lived separately, my mother in a nursing home, my father, in assisted living. Both were failing. I’d stay by the shore; visit my mother, then drive twenty miles north to see my father.
Not long after returning home from a trip to Connecticut, I flew back again. My father had had another heart attack. He looked so vulnerable sitting, hunched, on the edge of the bed. I leaned over kissed his forehead. His skin was as soft as a child’s and as sweet. He rose to his feet, his face hard with scorn. My chest constricted just as it had when I was a child. For a moment, I was afraid he’d hit me.
“Don’t you ever do that again!” He walked unsteadily into the bathroom to wipe my mark off his face.
My brother, Paul Mark, and his daughter witnessed my humiliation. I hid my tears. “Help him,” I said. “I need to go.”
That was my good-bye to my father, the last time I would see him alive.
Until recently, with intermittent trips to the hospital, my father lived in his own apartment in a residential home, run by the Lutheran Church. Lutherans treat people better than the Catholics do, he said, though he remained devout to his faith to the end. He couldn’t tolerate being in church because of his vertigo. Everyday, a brown robed Benedictine brought communion to him. He watched Mass on television.
Seven years before, my father had put my mother in a nursing home. After years of depression, she’d finally cracked and began running away. My father would follow her in his old car while she¹d march, with seeming purpose, down Main Street. He’d stay well behind her because he didn’t want to hurt her feelings, nor remind her that she was lost. He thought she could make such discriminations though she no longer knew her own name. Finally, she forgot who he was. She forgot they were married. She said it was a sin for a strange man to stay in the house with her. Her father would not allow it.
His heart broke. Her not knowing him hurt his feelings and scared him. He could not comprehend what was happening to her. A lifetime of depending on her sense of what to do left him unprepared for the holes dementia made in her mind. Like Don Quixote imagining the beauteous Dulcinea, he followed the imperatives of her lunacy.
Soon after he put her away, he sold the house on Main Street where they had lived. Betrayed by her lost memory, he rarely visited her. He said she was turning into her own mother whom he never liked. My mother’s mother hallucinated that men in the ceiling watched her undress and beckoned her with obscene gestures. “Crazyirish,” my father called her, saying it as if it was one word. He’d stare at the sepia photograph of my mother taken when she was nineteen. She was nice, he’d say.
He enjoyed his little apartment, festooned with pictures of all his children and grandchildren. There were no pictures of me in his gallery.
He liked the company of widowers. They walked and chatted together in the surrounding woods. He was wary of the widows, being a married man, after all. One old woman baked him cakes in exchange for small jobs he did for her. He kept his distance from the rest, suspicious of their mo-tives.
My father was popular with the staff at the residence. The cook posted a note in the kitchen in deference to him. It read NO TOMATOES FOR CHARLIE! HE DOESN’T LIKE ‘EM! The nurses put a sign on his door that read THE BOSS. He’d kid with around them in his jokey way.
Some of the aides told him their troubles. He said he didn’t know why they confided in him. He’d listen to their stories but re-mained blind to what had gone on under his own roof. He never noticed the undertow that pulled his wife and family down. He liked to keep things simple, he said.
Candy, Paul Mark’s youngest daughter, found my father dead when she brought him coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts as she did every morning when she finished working the night shift. His lips were slightly parted. He looked peaceful, beautiful even, Candy reported.
When I returned for his funeral, spring had transfigured the small Connecticut river town where I was raised. The trees flamboyantly emerald, lime and russet, raised their arms skyward. New grasses greened the hills. The river ran brown, glutted with spring rains. My father’s funeral would no doubt be the last time I would see my family. Death seemed at odds with the fecundity of the season, but my father had predicted he would die in the spring. In winter, he’d said, the ground was too hard to bury him. True to his word, he died in his sleep at five in the morning, on May l4th. Weakened by leukemia, his blood no longer nourished his heart and he was released from a life he could no longer live.
I drove to my sister, Margaret’s house where everyone was supposed to gather. I was not looking forward to the reunion with my siblings, to experiencing either their studied indifference or open hostility. Most especially, I was anxious about seeing my brother Dick. Dick hadn¹t visited my father during his illness or in the hospital for fear that he might run into me, but of course he would be there for the funeral.
I had not seen Dick since I’d come home for our parent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. His reaction to my presence was so apoplectic; I was startled into asking him what was wrong
“Do you remember l957?” he whispered. It was now l989. “That guy, the guy at Wesleyan. What you did with that guy! Dad told me not to have anything to do with you!” he sobbed. “You cause all the trouble in this family!”
So, his elaborate rejection stemmed from a dismal event that had happened more than thirty years before. I remembered Harry. Triumphant with conquest, he’d actually missed his goal; he left his sticky deposit in the crease of my thigh.
I remembered looking into my bedroom mirror that night thinking that I had committed the worst sin. At the same time, it had been so meaningless, so empty an experience; it hardly seemed to merit damnation. Yet, I was sure I was going to hell. I swallowed a bunch of aspirin, and then vomited them up. My mother, white faced and anguished came into my room that night. Like a witch, she knew what I’d done; not the part about the aspirin, but that I’d ruined my life, and shamed the family forever.
“Please don’t tell Daddy!” I begged her. But of course, she did. And my father, who’d always said I was a tramp, was justified in banishing me from his heart. I was a fallen woman.
The kitchen of the aborted yellow Victorian where my sister, Margaret and her husband, Vinnie lived was full of people when I came in the door. My arrival went unremarked. Dressed in bib overalls and work-man’s boots, Theresa Ann, my youngest sister and her partner, Sharon, stood near the cellar stairs that led to the “rec room” below. With their wire-rim spectacles and men’s haircuts, it was no wonder that my mother mistook them for “nice young men.” But there was no mistaking the maternal, worshipful relationship Theresa Ann had had with my father.
In a speech she was to read at the funeral Mass, she recounted how she had told her kindergarten class, that our father, who had been elected president of the county volunteer fire chiefs, had been elected president of the United States. “It seemed perfectly reasonable” she said, “that when Daddy left for work with his lunch box and thermos, he was going out to run the country!”
It was mostly on Theresa Ann¹s behalf that I had come back for the funeral. Paul Mark, my youngest brother, understood having power of attorney to mean that he controlled all information and access to our father. He forbade Theresa Ann, from talking to our father¹s doctors. He would tell her (as well as the rest of us) all she needed to know. In the absence of being loved, Paul Mark grasped at power wherever he could. He was a bully yearning for someone to think him important, to care about him. He hungered for some acknowledgment from Dad; some recognition of how diligently he was taking care of him. Our father, blind always to emotional needs, his own as well as that of his children, had now left Paul Mark eternally unsatisfied.
The heart of the conflict between my two youngest siblings lay in their early relationship. According to Theresa Ann, Paul Mark’s nightly visits to her room began when she was very young and continued until she was hospitalized for the first time. Even recently, he had stalked her, she said. She had crouched on the floor of her apartment while he circled her house and called at the windows to let him in. ” You can¹t get away from me!” He reportedly said. ²I tried suicide about a dozen times; sometimes I’d cut my arms, just to see the blood.” Her voice was calm as butter.
Paul Mark denied that any of what Theresa Ann said was true but no one believed him. He was known for his rage as well as for intimidating anyone who stood in his way. He bragged that he never drew a sober breath in over twenty years. My father called him a loose cannon, yet seemed to admire Paul Mark’s capacity to instill fear. He talked approvingly about Paul Mark getting things done because people were afraid of him.
Paul Mark had worked in army intelligence and did a stint as a mercenary in Cambodia. He boasted that he knew state secrets. He even claimed that he was in charge of the president¹s briefcase that held the signal for nuclear war! He bragged about the drugs he’d injected and the chances he had taken. Yet, his arrogance had a hollowness to it. Underneath, lay his plea to be accepted by those who feared him. I could not help knowing that Paul Mark was a lonely, unloved little boy himself when he first slipped into his younger sister’s room in the middle of the night. Like two birds, they were starving in the nest.
Dick had already been to Margaret’s house when I arrived. Standing in the middle of the kitchen, Paul Mark was holding court. “Well,” he drew in his breath and looked at me, “Dick says he wants to be sure he won’t have to stand near you at the wake or the funeral. He wants me to put you at the end of the line.”
I wanted to leave. I was crazy to have come back. The rejection no longer mattered but I felt ridiculous, being where I was not wanted, and where I didn’t want to be. I knew it would cause more ruckus if I left since Paul Mark had insisted I be there, “out of respect for Daddy.”
I had always tried to avoid open conflict with my family, but I was not going to stand for this. My back hurt after flying and driving for so many hours. And besides, where would I go? “This is unbelievable! No! I won’t do it! I will not go to the end of the line like some pariah!” I said, annoyed at my tears.
I refused to play the fallen woman to Dick’s ancient obsession with my virginity. I was sixty years old for God’s sake! Paul Mark volunteered to stand next to me.
“Not at the end of the line,” I said.
“Nope, not at the end of the line. You’ll be next to me and Cindy at the head of line. Let him go to the end if he wants to be that way.”
I felt so absurdly grateful for his support, I cried in earnest.
In the morning, we all gathered for the wake at the funeral home. The white clapboard funeral parlor stood directly across the street from the house where my parents had lived. My father’s coffin, flanked with red roses, stood on a platform at the front of the white receiving room. He was dressed in his Sunday suit; he wore his glasses. He did not look like himself. His mouth looked odd, stiff and narrow, his full lower lip, diminished. His hands were covered in deference to Theresa Ann who, having tried to die by her own hand, could not bear to see dead people’s hands.
As chief emeritus of the town’s volunteer fire department, he had been honored, the autumn before he died, in a parade of all the volunteer fire departments in the county. He’d worn his old uniform and had his picture taken as he rode in the fire truck that had been named after him.
Now, for his final parade, he wanted his coffin carried on the back of the fire truck to the cemetery. As he’d wished, his fire helmet sat on top of the coffin. Members of the fire department formed an honor guard on either side of the bier. Every half hour, two new guards approached the coffin. With somber salutes, they changed guard.
The photograph of my father in the fire truck, other early snapshots, various honorific medals and a framed blessing from the pope had been placed on a small table against the wall. There was no picture of him with my mother.
Across the room was a row of high-backed chairs in front of which we arranged ourselves to greet those who came to pay their respects. I stood next to Paul Mark, his wife, Cindy; Janice, her husband, Dan were followed by Margaret and Vinnie on my left. Theresa Ann and her partner, Sharon were next in line. Dick and his wife, Noni, were last.
Like my father, Dick had a long upper lip that barely moved when he talked. His brown basset eyes were turned down at the corners in permanent sadness. His body looked tense, as if he was warding off the very air around him. Even his voice fought for breath in his throat. His red hair had darkened and receded from his forehead. Were I to have seen him on the street, I would not have known him.
One by one and two by two my family went up to the prie-dieu in front of the coffin. Among the first, I knelt alone in front of my dead father. Those that preceded me all wept but I struggled to conjure up feeling. My heart felt thick and quiet. “Good-bye, Dad. Good-bye. I hope you’re at peace!”
On impulse, I leaned over and kissed him. His skin was cold and grainy beneath my lips. A scarlet imprint blazed on his forehead. “What are you going to do now Daddy?” It was my final, paltry defiance.
Margaret pressed into my back, Paul Mark breathed heavily behind her.
“What have you done? Take that off him! Take it off! Right now!” they hissed in unison.
“I will, I will, I will.” I was calm. I took out one of my father’s big old handkerchiefs; I wiped away the evidence of my transgression.
Back in the receiving line, I felt more like an observer than a participant. Few people knew who I was and I did not know them. Nor did I really know the man they came to mourn.
“Sorry for your loss” someone would murmur shaking my hand and move then on to embrace Paul Mark and his wife. “Sorry for your loss.”
From the corner of my eye, where he stood with his wife, I could see Dick watching me.
Four hours later, the mourners had come and gone. The funeral director approached us; it was time to say our final good-byes before we boarded the limousines (separate ones at Dick’s insistence) to go to the church.
“I’m going out to pray in the parking lot!” the funeral director announced.
“Pray in the parking lot?” Paul Mark was confused.
“I’m going to pray that the coffin doesn’t fall off the damned truck!”
The grandchildren served as pallbearers. They carried the coffin to the back of the waiting fire truck. There was a moment when the coffin hung at a precipitous angle. I had a grim fantasy of the casket dropping and my father’s body falling out. But despite the novelty of the hearse, the coffin was secured without incident and led the parade to St. Pius for the funeral Mass.
We were each given a candle at the entrance to the church. Slowly, we walked in procession to the front pews. Amazing Grace pealed out in sweet soprano from the choir loft. The Benedictine stood smiling at the altar, welcom-ing “our brother Charles” home to his heavenly reward.
After Mass, we were back in the limousines. We followed the fire truck as it wound its way up Main Street to the next town, Rocky Hill. A light rain had begun to fall as my father¹s coffin was lifted gently down from the back of the truck to the open grave.
We stood waiting for some direction. Were there to be no prayers at graveside, no final words of mourning or comfort, no Kaddish for my father? No one seemed to have an idea of how to bring things to a close, yet, simply walking away felt wrong.
“Is the priest going to say something?” I whispered to Paul Mark.
“I dunno,” he was stymied like the rest of us.
Something should be done. “I’ll read the Twenty-third Psalm,” I volunteered.
I took out the prayer card we’d been given at the funeral parlor and began to read:
‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” My voice sounded solemn in the hush of the falling rain.
I came to the phrase: “THOU PREPAREST A TABLE BEFORE ME IN THE PRESENCE OF MINE ENEMIES.” My voice rang with the truth of the words; the rain was a benediction on my face.
“Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over!” I exulted. Free at last, free at last! “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil!” Giddy, light coursed through me. Triumphally, I read it to the end.
“And I shall dwell in the House of the Lord forever!”
I kissed my fingers and put them to the coffin. When I moved my hand, I saw a bright streak of lipstick glistening on the dark wood. I lifted my eyes. My brother Dick was watching me from across the grave, his eyes wet with longing
Trial and Tribulations
Rose couldn’t stop grinning. She marveled at the sight of Mo’s dusky skin right next to her freckled, sunburned arm. Her heart bumped against her chest. She grabbed Mo’s hand, squeezed it in her own and swung his arm back and forth in wide arcs. She shot a glance at Mo. He giggled, his white teeth gleamed against his mulberry lips.
They sauntered up to Mrs. Young’s cranberry red front door, flip-flops slapping against the brick path as they walked. They stepped up on the small brick porch. Rose’s face shone with sweat. Standing on tiptoe, she took hold of the brass eagle knocker and rapped. Too excited to wait for an answer, she pressed the doorbell.
Mrs. Young opened the door. Her flowered housedress was white with flour spilled all down the front. She smiled, hesitated in the doorway and rubbed at the dishtowel in her hands. The minute she laid eyes on Mo, her smile turned upside down. Clutching the towel against her stomach, she moved back a few steps and half hid behind the door.
Mo dropped Rose’s hand and stared down at his toes. Rose tried to recapture his hand but he’d moved just out of reach. His arm hung slack and uninviting at his side.
Mrs. Young peered around the door. Fear made her blue eyes look hard as stone. “You gotta come in now, Rose!” She turned her head in Mo’s direction but wouldn’t look at him. “And he’s gotta go! Now!”
Rose’s face burned red, her mouth screwed into a scowl. Her body tensed up so much, she found herself standing on one foot. She swallowed in a gulp of air, cleared her throat but her would-be determined voice still came out as a whine, “I—we just wanted to go back to the picnic. There’s a picnic—at the tobacco field. Mo and I—“
“No!” Mrs. Young interrupted her. “ You’ve gotta come on in right now Rose! Come on! It’s time!” She swung her head in the direction of the inside of the house.
Mo’s head hung down. Rose couldn’t see his eyes. He turned to go. “See you tomorrow at work, Mo!” she said. Her voice skidded up in a plea of apology. But Mo shuffled off to the tobacco fields without so much as a glance back at her.
Rose stood rooted in front of the door. Shame ran like fire through her body. She shook herself. Her eyes defiant, she looked straight ahead. She marched into the house, swept past Mrs. Young then swerved around to face her. Her breath came fast and hard. She planted herself so close in front of Mrs. Young, that the woman was trapped between Rose and the front door. Rose could see Mrs. Young’s eyes water up and that she chewed at her bottom lip as she closed the door behind her.
Rose pulled herself up to her full five feet two inches, put her hands on her hips, and in a tone of injured justice, demanded: “Why did you make me come in? And why did you treat Mo like that?” Her voice trembled but her words cut sharp. “He’s my friend! ‘He’s gotta go now!’” She mimicked. She leaned forward, and stared into Mrs. Young’s watery blue eyes.
Backed up against the door, stuck halfway between outrage and being cowed, Mrs. Young twisted the towel in her hands. She looked away from Rose, glanced from side to side, as if searching for an escape. She cleared her throat. Her lips were so rigid, her mouth barely moved when she spoke, making her voice sound muffled. “Your mother said to watch you while she was away. And…I”, she blew out a puff of air, sucked in her breath, then continued, “your mother would not want you going out with a—a nig-nig-grow!”
“What? Watch me? Watch me? Like a two year old? My mother would never, never, say I can’t go out with a Nee-gro! My mother is not prejudiced! And besides he’s Not a Nee-gro. He’s a Hawaiian!” She tossed her head and leveled a look of scorn at Mrs. Young. She never realized that Mrs. Young was so Prejudiced and so Ignorant! She didn’t even know the difference between a Negro and a Polynesian!
Rose gave a snort of contempt, turned and jerked her body toward the stairs, and took off up the stairs like she was running from the plague. All the while, she muttered under her breath what she would tell her mother. She would tell her mother that her friend was Prejudiced! Her mother wouldn’t have had Rose stay here if she knew that. Her mother wouldn’t even want to be friends with Mrs. Young anymore! Left in Rose’s wake, Mrs. Young, stood at the bottom of the stairs with her mouth open.
Rose ran into the bedroom and slammed the door behind her with a big bang. She hurled her body towards the white chenille-covered bed. Her shin clunked against the bed frame. She howled, grabbed her knees, crouched on the bed and cried like an animal. Finally, the throbbing in her shin subsided.
She wiped her tears on her arm, rolled over on to her back, and spread her arms out at her sides. Her pulse thudded like shock waves all over her body as a picture of Christ hanging on the Cross flashed in her mind. She crossed her feet, putting one on top of the other. She wondered how long the nails had to be to get through His feet and into the cross. She sucked in a mouthful of air. And what would she have done if she had been scourged like Jesus? Would she have been brave and self-sacrificing like Him? Would she have screamed? Begged for mercy? A weight hit the bottom of her stomach like a hot rock with the realization that she would have done anything, said anything to make them stop. She wouldn’t be willing to die for the sins of the world. In fact, she never really understood why innocent people should die for other people’s sins, and why God wanted His Son to die. No, she definitely wouldn’t have been able to stand it. Maybe she was just a coward.
She sighed, rolled her head back and forth on the pillow. An image came to her: the sad Virgin at the foot of the Cross, crouched under His feet stained with trickles with maroon ceramic blood, like the statue at St. John’s . She looks like she’s just waiting for the next blow. Rose sniffed to herself, pulled between disgust and admiration. Suffer, suffer, suffer! Why? Why do You want people to suffer? She screamed at God in her head. The stab of guilt that hit her made her wrench her body up on the bed. Leaning on her elbows, she stared at the wall. She knew she was sinning again. Everytime she thought about these things, she ended up sinning. Her thoughts were sins. Questioning God was a sin. Doubt was a sin. She was constantly having bad thoughts and every bad thought, word and deed put another nail in Jesus.
She gave out a loud sign and collapsed back on the bed. She shook her head back and forth trying to shake off her thoughts. Turning on her side, she drew up her knees, crossed her arms across her chest and hugged herself. Her breath came out in rasps and a lump of shame filled her throat. Tears spilled from the corners of her eyes, ran down and soaked into the bedspread.
As she lay there weeping, her thoughts turned to Mo. She worried about how he felt when Mrs. Young was so rude to him? Could he tell it was because Mrs. Young was prejudiced? She bet he could tell that right away. She felt so bad for him. How horrible it was that she was actually staying in a house with prejudiced people! Had white people treated him like that before? He told her that the word for white people in Hawaiian was hoali. Was that a bad word like nig–? Ohh! She wouldn’t not say that word even in her mind.
She wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. She squirmed around on the bed at the thought of Mo with his head hung down and how he wouldn’t look at her. What did he really think of white people? What did he really think of her?
Oh God! She whispered. I hope he knows that I’m not prejudiced! I’m not like that! Sometimes I wish I wasn’t white so I wouldn’t have to worry so much. She squeezed her eyes shut and licked at the tears running down her face.
Then she remembered a story her mother used to tell and a small smile curved her lips. It was the story about the first time Rose ever saw a Negro. She was about three or four years old at the time, waiting in the car while her mother went into the Belden Library. “When I came out,” her mother would say, “there was a colored woman and her baby in a baby-carriage, and the colored woman was smiling and smiling. She was just beaming! I asked what had happened and she said that you had said, ‘What a beautiful tan you have!’” Rose could see the smile on her mother’s face. She could tell, her mother was really proud of her.
She let her arms fall to her sides and stretched out her legs. Mrs. Young was so mean! She sighed a big sigh and shook her head. Her mother would never be mean like that to anybody, especially not a colored person. Her mother talked about how much Negroes had suffered, she talked about the evils of slavery, and she’d often say how patient and good the Negroes were, how it was a miracle that they weren’t angry.
She remembered a time that she took her mother’s words to school. In the fifth grade at Nathaniel White, some kids were picking on a Negro girl out in the playground. She really told those kids off!. A couple of them kept sniggering while she explained how Negroes had been brought to America in chains against their will, how white people made them into slaves, and how evil and wrong slavery was. And she told them that even though Lincoln had freed the slaves, Negroes still suffered to this day. She told them in no uncertain terms: White people had absolutely no right to be cruel to Negroes!
She shuddered; she remember that after her speech, she’d had the sense she’d had done something wrong, but she could not figure out what it was. It wasn’t that the white kids didn’t seem to care about what she’d said, but she could see that the Negro girl did not look happy and had walked away, her face shuttered, closed like a mask. She’d looked embarrassed while Rose was speaking, like she was ashamed. She looked as if she wished Rose would just shut up.
Despair and confusion felt like a jumble of knots in her brain. Rose pressed on her forehead with her hands. She covered her eyes and began to sob. Why was it so hard to do the right thing! What was the right thing? You tell the truth, do what seems right and the very person you’re sticking up for gets mad! She socked the bed with her fist.
Her face was wet with tears and snot. She leaned up on one elbow, reached with her other hand in her pocket for a hankie, blew her nose, and caught a glimpse of her swollen face. Throwing herself back down on the bed, she snuffled and dabbed at her eyes, and went back to thinking about Mrs. Young.
I can’t understand how Mrs. Young could be like that! She knew what it was to suffer! She had a blind son! He had cancer of the eyes. Everybody felt sorry for him. She ought to feel sorry for other people like they were sorry for her son. Her own mother felt sorry for him. She read to him all the time and even made tapes of the books he needed for school. Her mother always talked about how smart he was.
Nobody was mean or made fun of him. Even though she hated to think it or say it, he did look scary, his eyes looked really awful. One eye was open; on the other one, the lid was pulled down, like it was glued down. It was kind of flat like he didn’t have an eye, except you could see a little bit of blue at the bottom coming out of a dark hole. His open eye looked like it was glass, but it wasn’t. There wasn’t enough bone to hold a glass eye, her mother said.
Even though she knew it was wrong, Rose couldn’t stop staring at his eyes even though it she’d get a strange tightness way down inside. Just thinking about him gave her the willies. She shivered and blew her nose. She wondered if he knew somehow, how she stared at his dead eyes.
All the questions she had seemed too terrible to ask: Like: what is it like to be blind? What did they do to his one eye so that the socket looked empty? Did they leave in just a piece of his eye? Yuck! The thought of a cut eyeball made her clench her teeth. Is everything black when you’re blind, or is it gray, or white? Did he have any pictures inside his head from when he was little and could see? But she could never ask him anything.
Her mother said she should thank God she wasn’t blind and didn’t have cancer. That always made her mad. Why should she have to thank God that she wasn’t blind or have polio and that she had enough to eat? Why did God make other people blind or crippled? It made her feel like a worm or some terrible, crawly, whiney thing blubbering to God, thanking him for not doing something really horrible to her.
He’d done enough. He made everything she did, everything she thought seem wrong somehow. He made being alive into a torture. He made her into a helpless wreck.
She hated all the terrible feelings inside her, how everything made her cry, though she did think, in some way, her suffering must make her special. Maybe it was that she was more sensitive. She knew other people didn’t get all wrought up the way she did. She’d heard it often enough: ‘Why don’t you just calm down!’ and ‘You take everything so seriously!’ Like it wasn’t serious! Like it wasn’t a matter of life and death! And besides, she couldn’t help being the way she was! Her mother told her she was marked by Christ! What did that mean? That she was supposed to accept all the pain in the world and do nothing but PRAY? She flailed her arms, pounded her fists on the bed and kicked her feet. It felt all black inside her head.
Her whole body burned with rage at God. She railed against all the terrible things in the world. All the things God did that made no sense or were just plain cruel. She couldn’t stand thinking about Jesus on the Cross. Why did God let His only begotten Son Die? Is that what You expect from me? That I’ll just go like a lamb to slaughter? Goddamn You, God!
The yelling inside her came out in a hoarse whisper in the room. Why do You have to give people cancer? Why are You so cruel? And the other horrible, terrible things that You, Supposedly Omniscient, Supposedly Omnipotent, Supposedly All-Merciful God do! Letting children starve, making people poor, putting unbaptized people, (including babies, innocent newborn babies who happen not to be Catholic!) in Purgatory! And what about the Africans and what about the people starving in China and The War and the Nazis and killing the Jews? Her tears dried and her throat grew hot as she gave God a good piece of her mind.
She grimaced, remembering how her mother had said that before the Jews killed Jesus they had been given a choice, between Barrabas and Jesus. And that the Jews cried out “Give us Barrabas!” Barrabas was a thief, her mother said. And the Jews chose Barrabas. “And Jesus?” They were asked. And the Jews said, “Let his blood be upon us and upon our children!” Her mother shook her head sadly. “And God said: So be it.”
Rose yelled, “That’s horrible! Making people suffer forever for something they didn’t do! What kind of God would do that? Why can’t people believe the way they want to believe? What if people never even heard of Jesus!”
Then her mother said, “Rose, we mere mortals can’t fathom the ways of God. It’s a mystery!”
Rose saw the unhappiness on her mother’s face even while she said that such a horrible thing was a “mystery”. She’d seen her mother cry over what happened to the Jews during The War. But why did she keep trying to make excuses for God? There was no excuse! She shouted back at her mother, “Ugh! That’s not a mystery! That’s horrible! It’s cruel and mean! A God that takes revenge on people! I don’t know how you can believe in God! I don’t believe in God! Not that God!”
er mother turned white, her voice like ashes and death, “Rose, we are commanded to love God! Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Don’t! Don’t say you don’t believe in God! That’s a terrible thing! A terrible sin!”
“I can’t help it! I can’t help it!” But inside, Rose was afraid. What if her mother was right? What if all the evil and suffering God made happen in the world was part of His Divine Plan? What if it was somehow Right because He did it? Rose’s head throbbed like it was ready to split open. Beside herself, she slapped at her face, flung her arm across her eyes, turned over on the bed and buried her head in the pillow. She wished she could just die! Right now! She cried and cried until no more tears came, till she was empty.
She turned over and lay on her back. She looked up at the white ceiling, past the places where the tape had started to loosen along the seams of the wallboard, to the clouds beyond and thought about the God she used to believe in. When she was little. A Good God, a God that streamed down Light from the clouds, the God who made the sky like a blue dome over the earth. She used to think the sky was like an enormous crystal ball that held the ball of the earth inside; like a glass paper-weight, the kind you could shake and see the snow swirl around inside.
She used to lie on her back in the long gold grass on Sugarloaf Hill and gaze up into the clouds trying to get a glimpse of God. She thought the bright clouds she was seeing were the bottom of heaven, and that maybe, maybe she could spot God the Father sitting up there with His choirs of angels. Sometimes she even thought she could hear singing from up there. She used to believe in miracles.
Of course, she had to learn there was no blue dome. There was only space and more space. Just nothing. Space only looked blue. It was gravity that kept everything down. And, she was told, heaven isn’t up in the sky. It was in Eternity. Also, God is Invisible and you can’t see him when you’re alive. Only when you’re dead. Only if you get to heaven. And then you get to sit around heaven and look at Him forever. She remembered her disappointment when her mother told her that was what heaven was like. It sounded very boring. It certainly didn’t sound like a reward.
She lay there picking at the rows of chenille, smoothing them down then pulling them up in little ridges. She smiled to herself and thought, I like the way I had it figured out much better. Much better. Her breath felt suddenly sweet. She folded her arms across her chest which rose and fell, gentle and quiet.
Sweat had glued her tee shirt to her back. She could feel the ridges of chenille press into her damp flesh. A fly buzzed on the screen of the organdy-curtained window. She glanced over at the window and watched the fly’s hapless dance. It crawled across the screen, erupted in a flurry of buzzing against the barricade then crawled back only to begin again.
d completely forgotten to check on how she looked! She shot upright on the bed and turned toward the vanity. Her legs hung down over the edge of the bed. For a moment, she wished she had a vanity with an organdy skirt and a mirror in her own room at home. At home she had to kneel on the toilet seat to use the medicine cabinet mirror when she wanted to get a good look at her face. Here, she could see sitting on the bed, but she moved to the little stool in front of the vanity to get a closer look.
She peered into the mirror and let out a gasp. Her face looked like a red moon and her eyes were round and black under their swollen lids. She pressed at her face with her hands to soothe away the redness. She lowered her eyelids; her eyes looked better that way. More sophisticated. Actually, her swollen lids added to the effect. She sucked in her cheeks, and pinched the sides of her nose, trying to make it narrower and longer like Marlene Dietrich. Now her nose looked even fatter from all her crying.
She practiced smiling while trying to keep her eyebrows raised and her eyelids lowered. She let go of her nose. It popped right back out, only now it had white marks on it where she’d pinched it so hard. It was still the same stupid pug nose she had before she’d started trying to mold it. Her nose was like a pig snout. She tried flaring her nostrils but couldn’t keep her eyelids lowered at the same time.
Her lower lip started to tremble. Her eyes, turned down at the corners, began to blur with tears. Her body slumped on the stool and she looked away from the mirror. It was no use. She was just ugly. Then, like a morsel of hope, an idea occurred to her. Maybe she was an ugly duckling because she would grow into a swan! She smiled, raised her chin, arched back her neck and gazed again into the mirror. Oh God! She even had freckles on her neck! And her face had more freckles than the day before! Look at them! There must be a million, too many to count! And they’ll never, ever join together and become a tan.
She was a hopeless case. She heaved a great sigh, turned away from the mirror got up and flung her body on the bed. She lay on her back, looking up at the ceiling and tried to console herself. Mo and other guys who worked on tobacco didn’t seem to notice her freckles or her red hair at all. At least they didn’t call her Red like some stupid people. She tilted her head, but, how could she be ever be sure they didn’t think she was ugly but were too polite to say it?
A breeze wafted through the open window and whispered over her body. She felt her body relax into the bed and watched the dust motes floating in a channel of sunlight shining over her head. She lifted her hands up into the sun; the light was so bright it lit the tips of her fingers, like it was almost shining through them. She moved her hands lazily through the motes when she noticed their shadow image on the wall. Two fingers up, thumb folded over, a rabbit. Now a fist, index finger over the thumb, a what? A turkey? No. An eagle. Now it’s a duck. Oh stop. This is for babies. She brought her hands down and began to daydream about the guys.
Many of the guys came from islands, far away. Places like Barbados and Jamaica , even Hawaii . They came to work in the shade-grown tobacco fields in her little town in Connecticut , during harvest season. Some people from town, like Pauline Costello, and Jane Kjellen, and some older kids worked there, too. And Rose, at fourteen, was the youngest that had ever been allowed to work there She had begged and begged her mother and it was probably because of Pauline and Jane, who were friends of her mother from the Catholic Daughters that her mother finally let her.
Some of the guys that worked there were Negroes, like Shorty from Barbados and Reynaldo who came from Cuba . Reynaldo looked part Negro and part white. He was the color of coffee and cream and his eyes were black and he had very long lashes. Oh to have eyelashes like that! John Robinson from Jamaica was definitely pure Negro, but his features were pure white. The muscles on his arms looked like they were carved out of dark chocolate. His skin was soft and smooth as satin. You could even see the muscles on his chest and back through his tee shirt. He had the most beautiful teeth and was always laughing. How Rose loved to hear him talk! He’d say ‘mon’ and things like, “wat you doin’ mon?” His voice sounded growly but laughing at the same time.
And the singing! The guys sang songs like ‘Day-O’ and ‘ Kingston Town ’. She knew the words but she always kept her voice low, so nobody could hear her. Before working on tobacco, she’d only heard songs like that on the radio, but never actual people, not actual people from their own countries really singing their own native songs!
The Hawaiians, Sammy, and Fisher and Mo, had very dark skin, almost like a Negro, but it was more of a yellow brown and their eyes were more Chinese looking and their hair was straight black. And they had muscles, too, but they were shorter and really not so handsome, but they were really nice all the same.
The only Hawaiian she’d ever seen in her life was Hale Loke on the Arthur Godfrey Show when she went over to her aunt’s house to watch television. Her parents didn’t have a television. They said they were waiting till it was perfected, but really it was because they didn’t have the money. Rose made a soft sound in her throat and ran her fingers softly over her midriff. On the flowered wallpaper, she could see a pale moving shadow. It was the soft billow and collapse of the organdy curtains. The darker shadow, almost like a steep hill, was her raised knee.
Mo was not the handsomest guy, not anything like John Robinson, but he could play the ukelele and he even taught her a Hawaiian song. With Mo, she wasn’t too scared to sing out loud.
She got up from the bed, and faced her shadow. It looked so tall and thin! She tilted her head and watched the head of the tall shadow move with her. Then, she moved her hands like waves in water, trilling her fingers through the air. She swayed her hips and in a voice so soft she could barely hear herself she began to sing her Hawaiian song.
In her mind’s eye, she could see all the guys laughing and clapping as they watched her dance her way down the dirt aisle of the tobacco barn hung with rows and rows of fragrant, curing leaves. And Mo was laughing, “Oh my! Look at my haoli girl dancin’!” The ladies, her mother’s friends, looked shocked at first, but even they began to clap and stamp their feet while she danced.
Suddenly, John Robinson stood right in front of her. “Let’s see you do the limbo!” He looked deep into her eyes. She felt herself become a warm, lithe creature. She began to shimmy her shoulders and bend back, back, back, and her graceful shadow melted back with her.
At first she couldn’t tell if she was hearing something or not. Was someone at the door? She quickly sat down on the bed. Then, softly, softly she heard her name. “Rose, Rose, Honey.” It was Mrs. Young. Rose had forgotten she was angry. For a moment, she felt the storm start to brew up again inside her.
“Yes.” Her voice was clipped but polite.
“Come down for supper, Dear! And guess who’s here! Your Mother. She’s come back!”
Rose felt her heart jump in her chest, her face lit up in a big smile. Sometimes when the sounds of thunder and the lightning flashes have enough time between them, it means the storm is off in the distance; it’s passed by. Rose swung her legs off the bed and leapt to her feet, opened the door and bounded down the stairs. She could smell the smell of baking, of muffins, of pie. She could smell butter, real butter. Not damned old oleo. Rose could tell the difference. One good thing about Mrs. Young, she thought: she cooks with real butter!