Day Tripping

August 15, 2016

Slowly taking the tiny rollers out of her hair, Val squints at herself in the mirror above the kitchen sink. She’s sweltering in the one-room apartment in the St. Nicholas Houses, at 129th and 7th Avenue in Harlem. As she pulls out the last roller with one hand, she grabs a towel from the refrigerator door handle with the other. She chose the tiniest rollers she could find at the Pharmacy in Grand Central Station. With urgent two-handed towel rustling, she shakes her newly permed Afro free. Voila!At the front hall she slides a pale pink and blue paisley silk scarf down from the coat hook and ties it around her head. She is pleased with her reflection. Very Age of Aquarius circa 1960! Maybe she'd find some bright orange loop earrings to go with her pale yellow slip dress. She had joked with Curtis, that when they got to Harlem, she would get “A godamned afro and rub brown shoe polish all over her face,” to stop the staring, every time they were out on the street. “Haven’t you ever seen a white girl with a negro man before?” Clearly they hadn't. Curtis, ensign in the US Navy was from deep-south Alabama, loaned to the Royal Canadian Navy, and stationed with HMCS Preserver, Montreal, when Val met him. She imagined people ogled at their exotic mystique or perhaps they had never seen true love before. Leery to go outside unarmed, she needed some incognito coverage to test the waters on her own, hence, the Afro. No need for brown shoe polish this time, as her glowing caramel tan would suffice.Stalling, she sits at the feeble card table attaching her apartment key to a ring as she assesses her surroundings. A simple worn oak bed sits to the left of the window, a night table and armoire with a faulty hinge, door hangs askew. Yellowed walls and peeled paint make a spider web effect, winding to a dried rusty leak, to the torn linoleum. She wonders if it’s where the odor of decayed hair comes from. What a dump.She’s unfazed. She bats away negative thoughts, thinking only about the wedding. Once married, they could figure out a better place to live. Ever since laying eyes on him in that starched white uniform at Brandy’s, his dark skin and knowing eyes, she knew destiny. Man in uniform Valerie? A classic escape. Your heart was always too soon made glad. Her dead mother’s voice speaks to her. It was kind of Curtis' Navy bunkmate, to refer it. Lodging in the city was near impossible. She had never fathomed living lowlier than whence she came, The Point, a crude borough in Montreal. With nervous procrastination, she stands peering out the window onto the lawn. There’s bound to be a breeze out there. She watches a frail balding woman in a floral print, sitting in her wheelchair smoking. She is awkward and twisted, as if her limbs are misaligned. Beside her, a large dainty, white poodle service dog, guards her with blasé entitlement. More ridiculous are the dogs clothes; bright red leggings, purple vest and Red Cross emblems that say, “Don’t touch me, bitches, I’m radioactive!”Her stomach aches and tears of pity burn behind her eyes like sandpaper. “It’s not your fault you look so stupid, dog.” The sight brings her back to being seven in Larissa’s basement. Mother had sent her over to fetch Rodney, her slower thinking brother, who was there playing Larissa’s young siblings and some other kids.“Reeee-tard, retaaard, r-retaaaarded,” Val hears, as she descends the stairway. "Watch this. Watch what a dummy Rodney is…. Rodney, do that thing. Go on, do it…” one of the boys hollers.At the far end, near the brick fireplace, there’s her Rodney in front of the audience, smiling maniacally, and drooling. He turns his back toward them, bends over pulling his sweatpants down, and gives the proudest bare-assed moon. His testicle-teardrops swing back and forth, as if on a pendulum. Without reference point, Val freezes, her mouth flopped open. Unfathomable. The children peel with laughter having witnessed this spectacle before. They watch salivating for her reaction.1-2-3.A pent up scream-laugh explodes out of her chest, followed by stabbing shame, heart-piercing recognition that she’s done something awful. Rodney, Rodney, No. His sweet vulnerability is the closest thing she’s witnessed to spirituality. Her instinct is to throw a sheet over him and whisk him to safety, but mob-instinct seduces her joining the frenzy of man-boy degradation. Lurking inside, was a euphoric surge of engorged self-fulfillment. She learned how easy it was to be cruel.The memory gives her a jolt of ambition. Never mind pesky feelings. She is even more enthusiastic about facing her fear of Harlem. You had best get a move on little sister; nobody’s going to show you how! Val wheels a rickety metal-frame shopping cart through the dank, sulfur-stench of the ground floor, opens a large steel door sending rodents scampering away from the light The bastards are fast! She trots faster, cart clanking, passing a woman with toddlers playing marbles on the damp concrete.“Girl what’s going on with you? You some kind of ‘spic or something? You got any money to help a gal out?...” she hollers.Val looks at the woman missing some front teeth and wonders what a ‘spic is.New York City is tropical and humid. She adjusts her silky scarf and smooth’s down her dress hem. Looking back at the St. Nick, the buildings look new, modern and sleek compared to the slums of Point Saint-Charles. The towers are huge plus signs rise fourteen stories into clear blue sky. She heads along 129th street, toward Lenox Avenue; where there is a small grocery she had been to with Curtis once.Three black boys frolic on the lawn with a water hose, reminding her of the effervescence of youth. She thought of the catalyst that got her here, and poor Rodney back home. Their 3-storey walk-up apartment was forever populated with her parents’ lowlife friends. Daddy’s boozing was epic, but it all worsened when Mother caught up, outshining all of them, with her cursing dementia and booze soaked self-absorption. She died late last spring, then Daddy lost all sense of authority. That final night, Val was well on her way to being sexually assaulted, by “uncle” Joe, when brave Rodney intervened, just in time for her to flee. Your father was too good to them. I always knew you’s kids were play things to them.That night her decision to accept Curtis’ marriage proposal solidified. They were on a train for New York the next day. She is still sickened, thinking how Rodney must’ve taken a severe beating, protecting her. You don’t need to protect Rodney anymore. The farther Val walks from the projects, the more tense she feels. Why are people staring? Her beauty and style or has her Afro homage missed the mark? All she ever wanted in life was to fit in. At Lenox Ave she looks south, toward lower Manhattan. She remembers a grocery down the way, so crosses onto the Malcolm X side. The hustle and bustle of Harlem is obvious here, but the scene is also slow motion as heat mirages emanate off the sweating asphalt. Chaos sparks at the pedestrian crosswalk and she nearly trips over a skeletal figure slumped atop the subway grate. She stares down at the shriveled woman’s creased forehead and sweat-sheen face. She is awestruck. Val has never seen a person appear so close to death. Perhaps the air blasts from the subway grate give her life support. Mommy?A hand shoots passed Val’s face, directly at the woman. A burnt-yellow glass tube is fit into her mouth like a final puzzle piece. Half-awake but nearly gone, the woman inhales deeply as her hands rise Halleluia cupping, stopping the loss of precious fumes. As mouth-siphons, cheeks adhere to her skull. Smoke luges down through the tube easily into her needy mouth.“Jay-sus!” Val shrieks, coughs and gasps as her jaw is jerked away, by unseen force shielding her eyes from horror. Numbness drops over her body like lead as if the crackpipe has empathically been administered to her. She cries thinking of the woman, collecting coins, to supply the pipe pusher. Mommy, I didn’t mean to neglect you. I’m sorry. King Kong’s invisible hand lifts her out of harm’s way and gently plops her on a bench yards ahead beneath an ivory spire. A huge red brick church shades her, as burlap wraps tightly around her, and the hum of Mommy’s washing machine caresses inside her. Trauma and fear have diminished, replaced by joyful relief. It feels like the divine evidence of her will to survive. You are safe. You don’t have to do anything right now. She is shell-shocked but presses on. Stepping inside Green Garden Deli at 128th, she’s relieved, now to the task at hand, a nice meal for the fiancé. She tries to shake the off the experience. She sees women shopping, overweight mothers with gaunt faced children, lists in hand. Down one aisle and up the other, she peeks into passing buggies seeking ideas: canned peas, corn nibblets, catsup, kidney beans, macaroni, and potato chips. She’s grateful she isn’t quite so poor; she pities the children for not having had a choice in being born into Harlem. Her grocery mission accomplished, she can head back shaken but proud. Two blocks south, Val looks up at Sylvia’s Soul Food. The large steel gray stonework stands out uniquely. Curtis had said the food reminded him of his youth in Alabama. She stops in for a coffee and perhaps a southern treat for him. From table to table the over-dressed man, in tan safari suit, wearily begs for change, "I been trying real hard to get into the city program. I haven't seen my girls in 2 years. Please help me." His voice is sincere. He hasn't always begged. His quest seems motivated by hunger and desperation. Repeatedly, he is declined. Are they onto his scheme? For all she knows, he's making a decent living begging. She averts eye contact, but her fingers twitch toward her change purse. Guilty-ridden and relieved when he moves onto the order counter where five customers are queuing. He shadows a well-dressed lady in purple, with a pink floppy sun hat, the brim shading her face. Her elegant wrist dips, fingers pointing here and there with precision, as she makes selections through the glass display."Will you get me a Po’ Boy." He whispers, looking downward at her food through the glass.Gentle. Beautiful. Without interrupting her order, she says, “Sure honey, but they don’t make that here. How bout Chicken and Waffle?"He bows. Val is impressed by her poise and grace. The din of conversation and clinking silverware is silenced and it’s serene. The lady pays for both orders and sashays out the door like a fashion model. Val looks back to the man who’s next in line. He watches the chef work on his meal. Simple-like, Val’s world starts to make sense. Maybe there are angels in this city. She heads home, toward 7th along 126th, wheelie cart and take-out peach cobbler in brown paper bag. She is different. She is embarrassed with happy tears. Such foolishness, she fell into stereotypes and her own fearful embellishments about Harlem. Yes but Valerie girl, you could have been high on crack, raped and robbed blind! Val giggles thinking how judgmental her mother was, except when she had five drinks in her belly.The rushes in behind her, quick given the heat, “Hey pretty lady," the tread of his shoes and amiable voice is present beside her, "let me help you with that cart...” Straight home now, Valerie. How many times do I gotta tell you, No dilly-dallying! She stops walking and turns sideways to face him. Tall, a slender string bean in pajama bottoms and a low cut white overstretched tank top looping low, revealing far too much bare chest, armpits, and spindle-arms. His smile and eyes willfully lock onto hers. What would the glamorous woman do?"I might've taken you up on that but I've got just the right balance," she says, nodding down at her buggy handle and paper bag. She senses this being the moment, when control is granted or taken away. Her Heart skips a beat. "I’m perfectly fine. You'd be quite amazed at how much I can tote, these rubber wheels are a godsend,” God take the hint, disguises my fear.He grins at her, with gold teeth, greying dread locks and longish goatee. A wad of previously chewed bubblegum is ‘saved’ into his long beard? Bright pink, pastel greens and blues. How much more can her senses take? Her index fingernail is jabbing into her palm to absorb her heavy breathing and hide her terror. “You got some nice freckles. Like Bo Derek. Allow me to escort you,” She nods but continues. He is well-spoken and gallant walking beside her, matching her easygoing pace. Except his nose is running from nostrils his upper lip and the colorful chewing gum is glistening. She swallows dry-mouthed and weak. He’s onto her. She counts to five in her head. “Alright buddy, I’m a naïve Canadian white chick conducting an undercover Black Like Me book report. Go ahead and rob me.”That felt good. Instead she says, “I’m afraid I’m in quite a hurry but thank you sir, I’m meeting my naval officer husband at the subway station. Thanks, gotta run,” with a casual hand wave, her muscled limbs synergize and rocket her forward with the stride of a gazelle. "Alrightee then... I look forward to it..." Within minutes she is out of urban mischief facing a manicured garden parkette. Heart-palpitations replaced with peace. What if he just wanted to talk to her? What if we are all starved for a connection? A simple firm "no thank you," could have sufficed instead of swirls of paranoia. The St. Nick is up ahead.Val stops at the stoop where the woman still sits and gives away Curtis’ Peach Cobbler.“Oh Chicca, you are angel!”Inside, she unpacks the cart. She wonders how the women would prepare their meal tonight. She sautés cabbage, onion and kidney beans, with chili sauce. Then opens a can of beef stew and pours it into a saucepan. Some collard greens and Curtis is bound to love it. A cornucopia of colour and aroma, just like Harlem.“Fake it till you make it, mother darling.”


 

 

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