Airs and graces: hymns and prayers.
Shades and curtains: ghosts and graves.
South Holloway Street is the buckle on The City’s Black Belt. It borders one side of a namesake park where the Curry family reunites every 4th of July to celebrate the birthday of their patriarch Ezekiel, who claims every year that all the fireworks in town are being set off in his honor.
Big Zeke came from sharecropping stock in Choctaw County, Alabama, where he lost his first wife to tuberculosis and his livelihood to boll weevils. With four young sons and a freshly-wedded second wife in tow, Zeke took part in the Great Migration northward to The City. Midway there the Currys were joined by newborn Catherine, who from an extraordinarily tender age took charge of kith and kin and never relaxed her grip during the next sixty years.
(“That doggone Cat got claws in her paws!” Big Zeke would often say.)
The Currys settled on South Holloway and Zeke went to work at a meatpacking plant, which “sure beat pickin’ cotton—cain’t eat that, no matter how deep you fry it!” Over time he sired seven more children (the youngest, Delores or “Duz” as the dozenth, would be only a decade older than Nonique and more of a big sister than a great-aunt) in between burying Cat’s mother, marrying her best friend, and burying her too after Duz was born.
“I done my share o’ bein’ fruitful ‘n’ multiplyin’—‘n’ payin’ off undertakers too!”
Cat Curry, having witnessed this marital mortality, took vows of spinsterhood but got talked out of them by amiable Abram Randle, who was part of the CIO’s effort to organize packinghouse labor. This crusade, remarkable for its integration across racial and ethnic lines, helped Big Zeke keep putting meat in his offspring’s many mouths:
“Bad enough bein’ saddled with all these chillun, ‘thout ‘em wantin’ to be fed three times a day!”
Cat never quite forgave Bram for winning her heart while still in her teens. To compensate, he was frequently urged to make a better life away from the Stockyards for Cat and their firstborn Alfreda, who from infancy was told in no uncertain terms that she was going to graduate from high school and go on to college before she’d be permitted to so much as think about wife-and-motherhood.
Cat’s spouse and child knew better than to disobey. Bram learned the electrical trade while in the army and got into the refrigeration business after WWII. Freda studied hard, received straight A’s, and made plans to become a teacher. The Randles were augmented by postwar son Curry, called “Babe” by everyone except his mother, who said after all the grief he’d put her through—twelve pounds at birth!—he must be intended for either the church or the penitentiary; so she’d see him standing in a pulpit or lying in a casket—his choice. (Babe pursued his love for music into a career as an African Methodist Episcopal choirmaster.)
Alfreda attended the State University, pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha, and roomed with Leatrice Higden who adored babies and couldn’t wait to become a delivery room nurse so she could help bring more into the world—even after she met Mama Cat and heard, at length, about the miseries of unloading Babe. Freda the future teacher preferred children who were old enough to be disciplined without causing tear-floods, yet not so old as to require what Big Zeke defined as “serious ass-whuppin’.” For the foreseeable future she didn’t anticipate kids would be calling her anything but Miss Randle or Cousin Freda. (Zeke’s progeny now included forty other grandchildren.)
Then she met Vernon Smith. He was six-foot-eight, with proportionate fingers that could work wonders with a basketball, and an innate ability to juke his way out of any predicament. These had served him well growing up (and up, and up) downstate in Little Egypt, where racial attitudes were much the same as in deepest Dixie; they also won him a full scholarship to the U., a position in its starting varsity lineup, and letterman’s status at a time when that still meant being a Credit To His Race.
“Shucks! T’warn’t nothin’ more’n chile’s play!” he would smirk, particularly when talking to a pretty girl.
Most of the Alpha Kappa Alpha ladies were pleasantly aware of Shucks Smith, and he worked his systematic way through their affections. Leatrice Higden remained immune, having fallen for Airman Second Class Marvin Wilmore of Chanute Air Force Base; but Alfreda Randle, to her amazement, found herself most heavily smitten.
(Not for nothing had Shucks lettered as a power forward.)
She was the last in her sorority to succumb—“I always save the sweetest fo’ dessert,” he told her in his best Sam Cooke voice—and she was the one who consoled Shucks when The State dropped out of contention his senior year after ranking in the top ten nationwide. Freda introduced Shucks to her folks: Bram was laudatory, Babe a hero-worshiper, and even Cat gave conditional approval of Vernon Smith’s being a college man—albeit one who had to ride his own athletic coattails to earn a degree.
Which he then did nothing better with than play professional basketball. In those days the NBA had only eight franchises, none of which drafted Shucks; he landed a tryout with Cincinnati, but got lost in Bob Boozer’s gold-medal shadow. Bram Randle offered assistance in finding him a good steady job in refrigeration, but Shucks went and signed with the Harlem Globetrotters, thereby donning a permanent duncecap in Mama Cat’s remorseless eyes. Freda too was disillusioned: her heart beat high for daring young men on flying trapezes, but she had only scorn for circus clowns.
So they parted. Freda, after serving as Leatrice’s maid of honor, returned to The City and began her sadder-but-wiser teaching career. Then the Globetrotters came to town, competing with a squad of college all-stars in what was billed as “the World Series of Basketball.” Bram took Babe to see this; Babe teased Freda into accompanying them; the Trotters minimized their trademark antics to prove the legitimacy of their chops; and Freda got smitten all over again with Vernon Smith—this time for keeps.
Abe Saperstein was forming a new league to rival the NBA, and handpicked Shucks to play on The City’s team. Shucks took Freda out to celebrate at the Regal, where he amazed her once more by proposing marriage. This resulted in an honest-to-God elopement: the happy couple drove down to Chanute so Mrs. A2C Wilmore could be matron of honor, and tied the knot while the entire base was distracted by Gus Grissom’s near-drowning after his Mercury spaceflight.
Freda would feel almost as sunk as Liberty Bell 7 when her blissful telegram home triggered this reply from Mama Cat:
we did not put you through college just to marry a dribbling fool
And that was the final word (for awhile) from South Holloway Street.
The newlyweds took an apartment in Bronzeville; Shucks played a season with the ABL Majors; and Freda barely completed a second year of schoolteaching before Vernonique Curry Smith made her Juneteenth debut. Leatrice Wilmore wired congrats and regrets at not being on hand for the L&D, while Grandma Cat resurfaced—"like ol’ Moby Dick,” muttered Shucks—to take charge of mother and newborn, and behave as though eleven months hadn’t elapsed since last she’d spouted.
“Not the slightest doubt but this child is purely a Curry,” declared Cat, cradling baby Nonique in her unshakable arms.
“Ain’t nothin’ like a birthin’ fo’ gettin’ a free see-gar!” added Big Zeke outside the nursery window, puffing on one of Shucks’s robusto grandes. His own seventy-second birthday would be celebrated two weeks later at South Holloway Park, with Nonique paying carefully-hydrated respects for a few pre-pyrotechnic minutes.
And life went on swimmingly till year’s end, when the American Basketball League abruptly folded and left the Smiths high and dry.
Shucks hooked up with some barnstorming hoopsters to try making ends meet; his wife and child left their Bronzeville apartment to move in with the Randles; and Grandma Cat broadcast the three little words TOLD YOU SO in every way expressible.
Nonique would later guess this was when her parents first assumed Dickensian traits: Freda vowing I will never desert Mr. Micawber and Shucks affirming that Something will turn up. And something actually did: himself on the roster of the St. Louis Hawks, thanks to a lucky break (of another power forward’s leg) that enabled Shucks to juke his opportune way out of another predicament.
The Smiths had three good years in St. Louis, and Shucks had three good seasons with the Hawks—twice making it to the NBA conference finals—before being summoned back to The City in the expansion draft for the brand-new Bull-onies. At the same time his household expanded to make room for Vernon Randle Smith, whose lusty howls (“like Mowgli trying to act like a wolf cub”) darkened Nonique’s earliest memories.
Randle would be taught to call Shucks “Dada,” but to Nonique her father had always been “Taw”—her infant pronunciation of tall. A favorite family portrait showed her clinging to Taw’s shin, gazing upward for miles and miles to see his beaming face. By the age of four she was able to take conscious pride in Taw’s accomplishments, bragging on them to fellow preschoolers—till karma came home to roost at the International Amphitheatre, where Taw broke his leg and was out for the rest of the season.
He worked long and hard to recuperate, regain his form, recoup his jukes. Then he jumped to the new American Basketball Association and had the best year of his career, playing for Pittsburgh with Connie Hawkins and the champion Pipers. Nonique made a new set of kindergarten friends and anticipated a long stay in Steeltown; but after only one season the team upped stakes and moved to Minnesota, where Nonique had to start over from scratch with a different bunch of first-graders.
Which was nothing compared to the scratch Taw had to start over from when he got sideswiped by an Oakland Oak, reinjuring his leg worse than before. This, it seemed, might be The End: Vernon Smith was over thirty now, convalescence took longer, and he had a wife and two growing children to support. Freda nudged him gently toward a new vocation, say in physical education; but Shucks couldn’t bear to bow out as a player just yet.
He made the rounds of training camps, and his knack for opportune juking pulled him through once more: this time as a veteran reserve with the Kentucky Colonels. Freda, however, had been hauled out of four different homes in four different cities in as many years, and drew the line at moving to Louisville.
Her parents had left Holloway Street for a townhouse in Ferndean Gardens, a new cooperative development (“not the projects!”) in Riversgate, which was as far south as you could go without stepping across The City limits. Here Freda was determined to settle down, give Nonique and Randle a stable upbringing, secure an anchored base for them and herself—and Shucks too, wherever else the bouncing ball might take him.
(I will never desert Mr. Micawber!)
Nonique was used to Taw being away on the road for weeks at a stretch, and didn’t miss him more than usual. She knew girls and boys whose daddies never came home at all, their whereabouts unknown. One such was LaVinia Wilmore, daughter of Leatrice (“Aunt LeeLee”) and Sergeant Marvin (MIA in Vietnam). The non-missing Wilmores also relocated to Ferndean Gardens, giving Nonique and Randle automatic best friends in LaVee and her little brother Reggie.
Nonique and LaVee were the same age, same race, same gender, and had both come from gypsylike backgrounds (pro ball vs. military) but otherwise they were complementary opposites. Nonique was the pretty one, the quiet one, the nice girl, the obedient girl. LaVee was the cute one, the noisy one, the wild child, the “sassyfrass.” She took the lead in double-daring-do, able to turn any dull chore into adventurous fun; Nonique yanked them back from toppling into truhhhhble, and saved LaVee’s sassyfrass from getting smacked—some of the time.
Ferndean Gardens was a wonderful place to grow up in. It was run by a tight-knit community; the adults looked out for each other’s kids, and not simply for self-protection; gangs and drugs were kept at bay. No one who lived there was rich but most were fairly comfortable, holding down jobs at factories and industrial plants, with the occasional teacher like Freda or nurse like LeeLee. There might be truhhhhbles to contend with, yet they were outnumbered by joys.
For Vernonique Smith, the foremost joy was instrumental music. What her father’s fingers could do with a ball, or her mother’s intellect with self-discipline, or her Uncle Babe’s lungs with breath control—all these Nonique could do with woodwinds, beginning on a plastic recorder in second grade.
“That child is blessed with Talent, and you know I don’t use that word lightly!” said Miss Fanny Hooker, an old friend of Grandma Cat’s who was constructed from much the same armor plate. (No kid ever laughed at her name more than once.) Miss Fanny’s music lessons were neither cheap nor easy, but Nonique excelled and was soon starring in recitals on the flute. Uncle Babe encouraged her interest, buying her record albums, taking her to the Summer Festival and Orchestra Hall. There she first heard Ray Still play Bach and Mozart live, her eyes filling with tears at his oboe’s ringing singing tone, till she’d have to close them and sit weepily enraptured.
“Why you wanna go all the way up there just to take a sad nap?” LaVee would ask.
There were no words to explain.
Not many of Nonique’s peers shared her partiality to the classics. LaVee could enjoy any musical genre so long as it was loud and rhythmic and danceable-to, preferably as part of a crowd. (From the age of nine her ambition in life was to appear on Soul Train.) When Mrs. Mosely the docent took their fourth-grade class to a Symphony Youth Concert, LaVee almost had to be tied down to prevent her boogeying in the aisle to the Radetzky March.
“(Just sit and clap along!)” hissed Mrs. Mosely.
“Aw, let’s put our HANDS together!!” shouted LaVee, and the entire Hall suited deed to word. Conductor Henry Mazer thanked them for their enthusiastic response, but Mrs. Mosely gave LaVee the stink-eye all the way back to Riversgate.
Miss Fanny Hooker, strict as she was, would never do that; yet she wasn’t wreathed in smiles when Nonique asked about taking up the oboe. “That is a challenging instrument, a difficult instrument. The double reeds, the embouchure, the articulation—they need a world of practice and an eternity of patience, child! Are you willing to bear with that?”
“I can try,” said Nonique. And the first time she laid hands and lips on an oboe, it felt like it was part of her—as though she’d sprouted wings that might someday allow her to fly and swoop and soar, if she could learn how to use them.
“Why you gotta be blowing on that thing alla time, just to make it honk like a goose?” LaVee would sniff. “You better hope you grow boobs before you sprout any wings, sistah!”
Nonique progressed beyond duckcalls to vibrato to the chromatic scale to alternate fingerings and, in due course, to the limits of elementary oboe education. Miss Fanny and Uncle Babe found an affordable intermediate instructor near Greektown (“of all the places on the Lord’s good earth!”) in old Mr. Nikodemos, who as a youthful junk dealer had bought a broken oboe, mended it, mastered it, and gone on to play it in taverna ensembles.
“Hoo-wee!” went LaVee. “If you gonna start hanging round with an old white man, why not one who looks like Burt Reynolds?”
Nonique had a few forebodings, but soon warmed up to Mr. Nik who was exacting yet praiseful when merited; and also to Mrs. Nik who gave her Greek treats that she at first only nibbled at so as not to hurt any feelings, before developing a taste for them which made her feel very cosmopolitan.
Mr. Nik taught Nonique how to play the full range of the oboe and do it expressively, with phrasing and dynamics, building up her strength to tackle longer pieces without fatigue. He spoke to her about the future—making her own reeds, entering competitions, applying for scholarships that might pay for most or even all expenses at a fine conservatory.
The Lord knew Nonique could use such funding; she was hardly likely to be a grand heiress. Taw didn’t rake in big bucks as an aging ABA reserve, and while he never failed to fork over his share of what might as well be called child support, there were whispers that he spent the bulk of his balance at the track, in gambling houses, and on “image.”
Louisville sports reporters dubbed him “the Ol’ Colonel” and Taw gloried in that role, growing a moustache and goatee, wearing tailor-made white suits offcourt and twirling a gold-topped cane. He could always be relied on for a colorful quote, and the clippings he sent home for Nonique’s scrapbook contained more of his chatter about games than how often or how well he played in them.
Kentucky was a prime contender all three of Taw’s seasons there, going to the ABA championship series his second year. He promised Freda he’d retire if the Colonels won it, but they lost game seven in a heartbreaker. The next season they compiled the best record in league history; but Taw tore ligaments in his knee just as the playoffs started, Kentucky bowed out during the first round, and Vernon Smith announced his retirement a day later.
(“Now he got a use for that fool cane,” said Grandma Cat.)
He seemed a shoe-in for a job as color commentator at one of the Louisville TV or radio stations, but no shoe fit and apart from rehab, Taw was left at very loose ends. Then Charles O. Finley came to his rescue —if that was the right word—by hiring Taw for the last-place Memphis Tams, whose paychecks bounced higher than their basketballs.
Had something turned up? Nothing but turnips for two grotesque years of repeatedly getting fired and rehired, Charlie-O-style. Nonique put away her scrapbook and struggled not to feel shame, nor to resent her father’s dwindling to a shadowy figure on the fringe of her life.
It was around this time that she began to dream of the Shady Man.
Who had no connection to Taw (she was sure) but probably stemmed from what Freda euphemized as “becoming a woman”—though Grandma Cat said that wouldn’t occur till Vernonique’s wedding night, so long as Cat had any breath left in her body. Whichever woman-tense might be accurate for a sixth-grader (became? becoming? will become?) Nonique was shy around boys; especially compared to LaVinia Wilmore who could juggle a dozen crushes at once, including whichever one of the Chi-Lites she favored most at the moment. Sixth-grade boys took increased notice of them both; LaVee reeled them in as if fishing off a pier, but Nonique (no longer able to brag on her dad) stood by tongue-tied, shifting from one shapelifying leg to the other. Shyness wasn’t the only reason: most of these boys were as brattily immature as Randle or Reggie Wilmore, and (as Miss Fanny would say) it was “challenging and difficult” to picture any of them ever having the stuff dreams could be made of.
Unlike the Shady Man.
Arriving in Slumberland, Nonique would meet the Shady Man in some tranquil poetic setting lit by candlelight—a Paris bistro, maybe, or a loge in an old-timey theater. She wouldn’t be able to make out his features in the flickering dusk, but didn’t need to since she knew they were of one mind, one heart—as simply intimate as Schumann’s Second Romance for Oboe and Piano. The Shady Man would pour effervescence from an uncorked bottle of champagne; they would clink costly goblets, entwine their arms and drink till the bubbles ran up their noses...
Night after night after night.
Did her mother still dream of Taw that way? Did she relive his proposal at the Regal, their elopement to Chanute? Better that than be reminded of his riding the has-been bench for the moribund Virginia Squires, till the inevitable day he messed up his knee again. And even then he refused to throw in the towel, turning up like a washed-up turnip at next year’s round of training camps for one last try.
He was out in San Diego when Frank Deford recognized him—Didn’t you used to be Shucks Smith?—which led to that “On the Rebound” profile in Sports Illustrated. Only a page and a half, but it lent the Ol’ Colonel’s muleheaded tenacity a quixotic valor sprinkled with winks and shrugs and jukes. No one signed him to play ball that season (the ABA’s finale), yet his mention of all the vitamins he’d consumed during his comebacks inspired Universal Nutrition to have Taw make a commercial for their health-food markets.
“Listen up, folks! This here’s the Rebounder!”
And just like that, he was launched into semicelebrity.
(“First a hoopster, now a huckster,” grumped Grandma Cat.)
Vernonique could’ve done without seeing the “gentleman of leisure” suits he chose to Rebound in—on TV, on billboards, in newspaper and magazine ads, at every Universal Nutrition Market in The City. That said, she voiced no complaint at Christmastime when Uni-Nute money bought her a splendid new Yamaha oboe; though all the menfolk from Big Zeke down to Randle cracked jokes about her popping wheelies on it.
Taw at least applauded her medley of holiday carols. “That’s cold—that is cold, baby girl! Someday you gonna be playin’ that thing for the Queen o’ England!”
And she’d want him there to hear her do it—if he’d lose those pimpish outfits first. Too many of her fellow eighth-graders subscribed to that sartorial regimen, in Nonique’s opinion; part of the interminable debate about straightened hair vs. natural Afros, dressing/talking/acting “street” vs. dressing/talking/acting “white,” etc. etc. and so forth.
“I don’t see what all the fuss is about,” ironic Reuben Burns would say.
“Hey, man! Where yo dog at?” insensitive passers-by would ask.
Reuben, cupping a hand behind his ear: “Sounds like some mutt’s barking at me.”
Nonique would cup a righteously defensive hand inside his elbow, and the mutts would change their tune to “Hey, man! That yo seein’-eye fox?”
No denial by Reuben, tapping his cane on the junior high school linoleum.
He and his mother (the extensively-traveled AME missionary Jarena Otway Burns) had recently come to Riversgate after a prolonged tour of Bangladesh. Grandma Cat could not comprehend how Widow Burns could drag a boy that young and blind through a foreign country so afflicted by war, flood, and famine, no matter how many good-work points the Lord might award them. But Reuben was capable of looking out for himself, with a little help from his friends—a chocolate labrador named Kukura, that Reuben wasn’t allowed to bring to school; and a classmate named Bruiser Poole, whose presence restrained raillery to Reuben’s being called “Ray Charles,” “Stevie Wonder,” etc. etc. and so forth.
Girls giggled interestedly around Reuben, at least when his misshapen eyes were shielded by dark glasses. He seemed a bit older and worldlier than most students at Riversgate Junior High, with an air of detached remoteness that many girls took as a personal challenge to penetrate—none more so than madcap LaVee, who claimed Reuben was faking blindness to trick women into shedding their inhibitions in his presence. To prove this, she’d flash her bra and drawers at him while watching for a giveaway reaction.
“See? See that? He got sweat on his brow!”
“Probably ‘cause he can guess how crazy you’re acting!” said the scandalized Nonique, tugging LaVee’s skirt back down.
Reuben ran unruffled fingers over a keyboard in the Riversgate band room: “It was an itsy-bitsy teenie-weenie yellow-polka-dot bikini...”
“You SEE? He SAW!”
“You’re wearing pink,” Nonique reminded her.
Ironic arpeggio by Reuben.
He was a budding virtuoso on a wide range of instruments, from mandolin to sitar, but especially adept at ivory-tickling. At school and church he and Nonique made beautiful music together: Schumann’s Three Romances, Carl Nielsen’s Fantasy Pieces, Saint-Saëns’s Sonata for Oboe and Piano. Their spending a lot of time off by themselves, rehearsing and “jamming” and listening to LPs, had predictable side effects—from LaVee’s “So is he alla time trying to ‘feel yo face?’” to Uncle Babe’s “How soon should we reserve the wedding chapel for you two?”
Nonique’s lips were primly sealed; but Reuben had concluded one of their classical jam sessions by asking if he could kiss her.
“Um, sure,” she replied. (Would this count as her First Kiss? Given how she hoped she wouldn’t glimpse his blemished eyeballs through his Ray-Bans?)
It went okay: he felt good, smelled good, tasted good, and she kept her own eyes shut. But as an audition for a live-action Shady Man, it was a bust—no pop of champagne cork, no passionate fizz of intoxicating bubbles. They were compatible in every other way, like-minded, well-matched; it would’ve been so convenient for Reuben to be her Shady Man Made Flesh, even without perfect sightliness. Yet as Grandpa Bram always said: you can’t hope to make a sundae if your ice cream’s in an unplugged fridge.
So dream on, Vernonique—night after night after night...
Then came Thornford. Riversgate’s senior high school was named for Rowland Thornford, “the black Ambrose Bierce,” whose grimly sardonic stories were now staple texts in Language Arts classes. You’d expect a school of that name to look like a Gothic citadel or crumbling tenement; but Thornford High, Home of the Ravens, was built along Bauhaus glass-box lines and regarded (not always approvingly) as “modern” in outlook.
Though not overprovisioned with resources, its graduation rates were high; many students went on to earn college degrees; a significant percentage of The City’s younger black doctors, lawyers, and other professionals were Thornford alumni. There was also a boastworthy music department under the direction of Mr. W.C. “Handy” Lynn, who’d been following Nonique’s progress as avidly as an NCAA coach would monitor an outstanding sports prospect.
“Good oboists are worth their weight in gold—no, platinum,” said Mr. Lynn, preadmitting Nonique to the Thornford Concert Band before her first day as a freshman. He had fifteen clarinets, most of them upperclassmen selected after rigorous evaluation; but Nonique was the lone oboe.
Band work was a sorely needed diversion for Nonique after her bittersweet parting from Reuben Burns, whose mother’d decided their missionary efforts were needed in China where an earthquake had just killed a quarter-million people.
“But what about Kukura?” worried Nonique, scratching behind the lab’s chocolate ears. “Aren’t there like quarantines ‘n’ stuff? And don’t those Chinese Communists hate running dogs? Not that you let Kook run around that much...”
“Well,” said Reuben, “I don’t think they’ll eat her, though I do hear that she looks delicious. And maybe they’ll quarantine us both; then I’ll have time to finish my Requiem.”
Not the Requiem again. Nonique hated when he talked about that weird blend of Bartók and Jacques Brel, sounding as though he were composing it for himself. “Reuben? We ever gonna see each other again?—oh, y’know what I mean...”
“Not like I’d like to. But we’ll always have Schumann. Here’s looking in your direction, kid.”
Nonique wept a little as she kissed him goodbye, partly because (again) there was no spark when their lips touched. Then too, she was left without even a facsimile of a boyfriend at the very start of senior high; leaving her prey to full-grown men who shaved and smoked and had driver’s licenses, not to mention wolfish intentions toward freshgirl lambs. What she needed wasn’t a boyfriend but a bodyguard—someone like Bruiser Poole.
“Forget him,” sniffed LaVinia as she braided Nonique’s hair. “Him ‘n’ ‘Love Bite’ think they’s made fo’ each other.” (Louder sniff, resentful of snooty Elouise Briggs for pre‑empting a nickname ideal for LaVee.) “How ‘bout you give ol’ Winth-ROP a whirl?”
“Oh please!” went Nonique. She’d known Winthrop Eshton since Miss Fanny Hooker’s recitals; he could play a mean trombone but had a meaner mouth off the instrument, going so far as to argue with Miss Fanny about arrangements and getting away with it. Now he lived and breathed for participation in the Thornford Marching Band, reportedly wearing his uniform and plumed shako even in bed—“Eww!” went the girls at that grisly image—and deriding Nonique for her exemption from marching duties.
“It’s not band music if you aren’t up on your feet, out on the street, in a parade! Sitting all day on a chair in an auditorium’s nothing more than fooling around!”
“Better’n fooling around with ol’ Winth-ROP,” said LaVee, handing Nonique a mirror for braid inspection. “How ‘bout Stumpy, then? He’s always checking you out, be more’n glad to guard yo body—”
“Hush now!” went Nonique. George Sumpter was built like a rain barrel and used that as an eye-level excuse to ogle bosoms. “Which he wouldn’t do so much if you’d let me wear what I wanna wear to school.”
“Girl! Am I not yo very best friend?”
(Sigh.) “Yes, you’re my very best fr—”
“Are we not practically cousins, practically sistahs?”
“Yes, we’re practically cou—”
“Do I not owe it to you to help you look yo best? Anybody object to that fine outfit I picked out fo’ you to wear tomorrow? No ma’am, not even Miz Cat! And if y’own grandmom don’t object, why on earth should you?”
At least the close-fitting dress hanging on the closet doorknob would keep Nonique’s curves decently covered, and by her favorite shade of blue; whereas LaVee’s blouse was half-unbuttoned (as usual) so the world could enjoy her native shade of brown.
Nonique scowled at LaVee’s cleavage. “If you don’t button that up, Stumpy’s gonna dive in ‘n’ go deaf. You’ll have to yank him out by the ears so he can come up for breath!”
“Ooooh girl, what you saaaaaaaid...”
There wasn’t much they didn’t saaaaaaay to each other. But not long into their first semester at Thornford, Nonique was asked to do something that had to be kept clandestine especially from LaVee.
Possibly due to her musical mentality, Nonique was very sharp at math and aced all the quizzes in Mrs. Dent’s Algebra class. Alas, the same could not be said for Addie Mae Anderson. If a Frolicsome Frivolette pageant were ever staged, she would qualify as an instant finalist; and if a short attention span could be considered a talent, the tiara would go to Addie Mae without question. But she’d only been admitted to the eleventh grade after scrambling to stay off academic probation at school—and keep out of solitary confinement “till you get them grades up!” at home.
For a supergregarious girl like Addie Mae, isolation was unendurable. Even in the womb she’d demanded a second egg cell be fertilized so she could have a twin companion—who, as it turned out, was the only person unmoved by A.M.’s crying alone in her room after flunking yet another subject.
“That’s what you get fo’ bein’ a dizzy-dimpled simp!” her twin would shout through the closed door.
“You the bigger dummy!” she would sob-respond, hoping to kick off a conversation. “Hey, you still out there? C’monnnn, talk to meeee...”
Addie Mae was neither stupid nor lazy; she always tried extra hard to concentrate on her studies, memorize enough of them to answer enough questions correctly so she could continue to circulate and jubilate. Everyone at Thornford (except her twin) loved A.M. and wanted to help; but she could reduce the most seasoned tutor to a state of exhaustion. One such exhaustee said coaching her was like trying to herd a sugar-high kindergartener through a field trip to a puppy farm.
Vernonique had helped LaVee, Reuben, and other friends cram for math tests; she’d even pounded some arithmetic through Randle and Reggie’s stubborn little skulls. So after consulting her mother on instructive strategy, she accepted Mrs. Dent’s challenge and agreed to try tutoring Addie Mae Anderson. Five minutes into her first attempt, she fully grasped the sugar-high puppy-farm analogy.
“—you SO purty not like that last sourgrapes couldn’t teach a toad how to hop hey ain’t yo daddy that Rebounder man on the TV? he SO handsome I do loves me tall dark ‘n’ handsome men ‘ceptin’ this one beanpole Dwayne? he gone now but we dated some and tall? I tell you he was taller’n a traffic light but nowhere near as bright ‘n’ you cain’t date a man that dumb fo’ long you just cain’t his dumbness’ll rub off on you so who YOU datin’ girl? I know you just a freshie but SO purty why when I was yo age the boys filled up the whole front yard ‘n’ my daddy’d say ‘Addie Mae!’ he’d say ‘Count o’ five I’mma turn the hose on that pack o’ hyEEnas!’ but ‘Daddy!’ I’d say ‘What can I do?’ I’d say wasn’t like I ax’d ‘em to fill up the whole front yard oh listen to me gibbetin’ on while you wait so patient I sure don’t wanna dispoint Miz Dent again she such a nice lady not like that sourgrapes I had for Basic Math? first time I took it hadda take it twice Miz Dent she say to me ‘Addie Mae!’ she say ‘You gotta pay closer ‘tention!’ but ‘I TRY!’ I tell her ‘I TRY Miz Dent!’ but doin’ that homework? takin’ them quizzes? why it feel like when yo popsicle slurps off’n its stick ‘n’ lands onna hot sidewalk ‘n’ what can you do when it all melts off’n yo MIND?—”
(This Bicentennial Minute was brought to you by Miss Frolicsome Frivolette.)
Nonique did her best to translate the x’s and y’s of abstract formulae into graspable scenarios, such as how much it would cost to design, prepare, and market different ensembles of clothing. This Addie Mae could readily understand: she was a habitué of thrift shops and church bazaars, mixing and matching ingenious new wardrobes. Her twin dismissed this knack as “bag-lady boogie,” but A.M. set fashion trends for much of teen-female Thornford and definitely LaVinia Wilmore, who closely tracked how she dressed and did her ‘do and painted her face and polished her nails and carried on as a partygirl paragon.
“Ever’body needs a role model,” LaVee would say. “Her role is bein’ my model.”
Nonique knew LaVee would never-forgive-her-as-long-as-either-of-them-lived for not being asked to sit in on the Addie Mae tutorials, or even to know they were underway. But that would double the puppy-farm and treble the sugar-high, and could not happen till Nonique’s illustrative examples strung a rope ladder from A.M.’s cascading stream of consciousness to potential passage of Algebra.
Exam time came. The rope ladder, though flimsy, did not snap; Addie Mae Anderson received a tolerably adequate C-, and so adopted Nonique as her personal good-luck charm. Invited to sit with A.M.’s clique at a crucial football game against archrival Millcote, Nonique asked “Can my best friend LaVee come too, she’s like your biggest fan?”; and so avoided excommunication when the whole tutorial business was at last made public.
SAY IT NOW ‘N’ SAY IT PROUD!!
HERE WE BE—THE LOUDER CROWD!!
Steered by senior Marquita McLeod, this was not the snobbish coterie dominated by Elouise Briggs’s big sister Rochelle, nor the earnest overachievers led by Winthrop Eshton’s big sister Aimee. The Louder Crowd simply sought to have the best possible time at the highest possible volume, and no social get-together could be considered a Party without the Crowd’s involvement.
LaVee, wearing a double-breasted storm coat just like Addie Mae’s, was torn between delirium and smugness at being among the Crème de la Crowds at the Game of the Year. Nonique, huddled by her side in a hooded polyester parka, wished they weren’t outdoors on such a windswept November evening. LaVee had palpitations for five different varsity Ravens, elevating each in sequence to soulmate-status as he ran or passed or caught or blocked; Nonique couldn’t tell any of them apart in their black jerseys in the chilly darkness, and wished she’d gone to see Bugsy Malone instead. At least she and her oboe didn’t have to march with Winth-ROP’s trombone over that frigid-looking unacoustic field.
“Lookit lookit there’s Fair Catch!” went LaVee as the Ravens lined up for a kickoff return. Nonique knew that “Fair Catch” was Addie Mae’s twin brother Eddie Ray Anderson, who habitually signaled for fair-catch receptions of kick or punt. Moreover, he was deemed to be a fair catch by girls like LaVee, despite Eddie Ray’s longtime liaison with a haughty majorette named Rumah Myers, who reputedly had Creole blood and could cast voodoo hexes: “bad mojo with a spinning baton.”
LaVee risked Rumah’s wrath by openly sighing and moaning and squealing for Eddie Ray, even outshouting the rest of the Louder Crowd in a concerted
Two bits! Four bits!
‘Fro needs a pick!
Ever’body stand up
‘N’ do the Funky Chick!
late in the fourth quarter when the Millcote Broncos kicked off after taking the lead 21-20. As the football descended and Eddie Ray began to raise his arm for the usual fair catch, LaVee shrieked his name at the top of her lusty lungs, piercing the tumult and diverting E.R. from the task at hand; his facemask turned her way as the ball caromed off his chest and into the crook of his unraised?/upraised? arm. A second later three Millcote Broncos threw him to the turf, where five others piled on top.
Burst of referee whistles, amid which LaVinia turned to Vernonique and said “He was looking at you when it happened!”
After they exhumed Eddie’s body, his arm was ruled to be more up- than un-; so Millcote got socked with interference and personal foul penalties, Thornford scored a last-minute field goal, and the Ravens won the Game of the Year. Eddie Ray received a chanting stamping tribute as he was loaded on a stretcher and carried off the field; but Addie Mae was fit-to-be-tied at being told she had to go with E.R. to the E.R., thus missing the Louder Crowd’s postgame bash-o-rama.
“Why I gotta go?? Wasn’t me got knocked down ‘n’ stomped on like a big ol’ clumsy dummy!!”
LaVee felt even more indignant, since she and Nonique lost their Golden Ticket to the bash-o-rama when A.M. left. Nonique doubted their folks would’ve sanctioned their being present at a probable saturnalia, but LaVee sniffled all the way home and there got confined by Aunt LeeLee on Monday after incubating a fullblown case of the flu.
That’s what you get for not wearing a hooded parka, thought Nonique; though not too snidely since she knew LaVee feared being sick all week including Thanksgiving, when she’d normally eat her weight in turkey ‘n’ trimmings. “And not gain an ounce, ‘cept where it counts!” (Shake-shake-shake of sassyfrass.)
That same Monday Addie Mae had an anxiety attack about Mrs. Dent’s new unit on inequalities, which A.M. thought had been eliminated by the civil rights movement. Nonique was implored to come to the Andersons’s house for that afternoon’s tutorial:
“I gotta go straight home ‘n’ babysit that Big Clumsy Dummy ‘n’ his big busted armbone fo’ free after he gone ‘n’ ditched a whole day o’ school my momma’s waitin’ fo’ me t’get there so she can go t’work she say ‘Addie Mae!’ she say ‘He yo twin brother!’ like any o’ that’s my fault him ‘spectin’ me to wait on his hand ‘n’ foot—”
The Andersons lived in Douser Dell (“the Dow-Dee” to street-linguists), a bleaker, more projectlike part of Riversgate. Daddy worked at the paint factory and Momma cleaned offices, both with frequent overtime obligations. The twins were assigned to keep the house tidy; but since neither spent much time there, Momma had to pick up the slack. “Z’if I didn’t spend twenty-four hours a day on my feet cleanin’ the rest o’ the world already!”
In the Anderson front room was a davenport sofa, and lolling upon it was Eddie Ray in a red plush bathrobe and red plush slippers, with his right arm in a cast and sling. Wedged between his left ear and shoulder was a telephone receiver, and from it came a stream of almost-decipherable vitriol.
“Hold on, baby,” E.R. told the phone. “Gimme ‘nother pop!” he told A.M.
“I am not yo waitress!” snapped Addie Mae. “F’that’s Rumah, tell her t’bite yo head off ‘n’ be done with it!... C’mon,” to Nonique.
”Hold on,” Eddie interposed. “Who this you brung home fo’ me to see?—naw, baby!” (into the phone, hastily) “Just sayin’ hey to my stupid sis! ‘Hey, Stupid Sis—’”
“Shut yo mouth, Eee-Yore!”
Nonique could detect no trace of twinness in the Anderson siblings. Not only were they different sexes, but Eddie Ray had none of Addie Mae’s cinnamon-skinned/eyed/haired beauty. His face was dark and comical, rubbery-featured with roguish eyes and elastic lips, like photos Nonique had seen of Louis Armstrong. His voice added to this impression: rich, slow, deep, gravelly, the polar opposite of Addie Mae’s “gibbeting.”
“...but baby, I still got one strong arm can hold you tight... heh heh heh heh... ain’t nothin’ wrong with my legs neither, dance all night till the ol’ rooster crow... heh heh heh heh... ‘cock-a-doodle-doooo’... hey Addie! I ax’d you fo’ ‘nother pop!”
“Ignore that clumsy dummy,” A.M. told Nonique in the cluttersome dining room, clearing a space for their Algebra texts and notebooks, then giving her guest a sudden apprehensive glance. “Unh-UNH! Don’t do it, girl! Don’t even think ‘bout fallin’ fo’ him! You too good, too smart fo’ that—we find you a really fisticated type f’you t’date—”
But, of course, it was too late.
Vernonique Smith had found her Shady Man.
Pop went the cork; pffffohhh went the effervescence.
She tried to pay this no-never-mind, burying her brain and Addie Mae’s in the intricacies of unequal equations; and for awhile she almost succeeded. Then from the front room rose a rich, slow, deep, gravelly sound of heavy breathing that edged toward all-out snores. Over which crackled a fiery new stream of audible vitriol:
“Eddie Ray Anderson?? You better HOPE you didn’t fall asleep on me!!”
“‘Scuse me a sec,” Nonique told A.M. Up she stood; over she marched; out from under E.R.’s sagging jaw she plucked the phone; up she hung it with a decisive click.
Eddie’s eyes popped open, assimilating what had just happened; then his elastic lips extended from ear to ear. “Sweet thing, you saved my life!” His free hand reached out; in it was a Sharpie marker. “Sign my cast... ‘n’ put yo phone number after yo name... heh heh heh heh...”
And there they were: bubbles running up Nonique’s intoxicated nose.
By Thanksgiving Day she was ready to confess all to LaVee, beg her pardon for claimjumping one of her crushes, and beseech her aid in winning Fair Catch’s heart. Also in eluding any reprisals by Rumah Myers, who’d publicly dumped E.R. for hanging up on her (also for inconsiderately breaking his arm right before the holiday season) but was not the sort to tolerate her love-dumpster being sifted through by scavengers.
Eddie’d taken their split-up in stride and turned that to strut, returning to Thornford decked out in cast and sling and a cluster of honeys who hung upon him while appending their names and numbers to his plaster-of-Paris. “Write with a fine point, now! Leave a li’l room fo’ the next gal in line!”
Nonique had neither clustered nor queued, yet her path got crossed again and again by the Fair Catch strut. Each time he gave Sweet Thing another ear-to-ear elastication, while his hangers-on shot eye-daggers at Nonique from top to toe.
LaVinia had shot her a couple of eye-thumbtacks before relenting for Thanksgiving and best-friendship’s sake. “You just lucky I been sick—else I’da scooped him up. You even luckier I got well enough in time to eat. Okay, girl, I help you catch him, but only if—IF—we hook me up with one o’ his better-lookin’ varsity buddies. Don’t matter which sport, but he gotta be at least twice—TWICE—as funktastic as George Sumpter!”
So they set out to bag themselves a couple of wild turkeys.
LaVee quickly set her sights on Damon Ingram, high diver on the Raven swim team (“Ooooh, don’t he just fill them trunks!”) who’d been known since wading pool days as “Dook.” Some said this was as close to “Duke” as he could spell; others attributed it to his eccentric hygiene, though LaVee argued that he was cleansed by chlorine and had precisely the right degree of macho aroma.
LaVee being LaVee, she soon mapped out Dook’s and Eddie’s daily routes through and around Thornford, locating points where these could be easily intersected by herself and Nonique. When all four converged on certain spots at certain times, LaVee would wield her enticing rod-and-reel while Nonique stood by, tongue-tiedier than ever—and let Eddie Ray Anderson handle the palaver. He had to keep his cast on till Christmas, but nothing fettered his tongue or lips or gravelly voicebox as he brought them to bear on susceptible Nonique. Other girls continued clinging to him as a Fair Catch; yet he seldom let slide a chance to bear down on Sweet Thing and coo a few sly suavities into her hotly-blushing ear.
There were only four-and-a-half downsides to this delightfulness.
The first-and-a-half was that neither Eddie nor Dook made any move to actually ask the girls out, for even so much as a 7-Eleven Slurpee. And if they ever did, the odds were zilch for getting parental permission; their mothers had dictated “No date-dating till you turn sixteen,” and as far as Taw was concerned, “You ain’t goin’ out with any boy till you been married sixteen years!”
Secondly, Rumah Myers kept parading around the periphery like the aloof majorette she was—or the voodoo hexcaster people said she might be. Some whispered that Rumah’d caused Eddie’s injury by skewering an effigy she’d made out of chicken bones. You could hear the Witches’s Chorus from Macbeth whenever Rumah’s roving thundercloud obscured the horizon.
Thirdly, this didn’t intimidate LaVinia or stop her from telling Eddie (on Nonique’s speechless behalf, when Rumah was within earshot) that because the Smiths came from Little Egypt, they were therefore gypsies and endowed with uncanny powers of their own. Hence the Rebounder’s expertise at basketball and Nonique’s on the oboe: “Y’ever hear her play that thing? She can blow up a storm, and don’t need no scraps from a chicken bucket t’cast her magic spells!”
“(Veeee...)” shrilled Nonique.
“I c’n dig it,” nodded Dook.
“’She was a gypp-see woman... she was a gypp-see woman,’” sang Eddie (à la the Impressions, not Brian Hyland).
And out on the periphery Rumah Myers went “rrrgggh”—or whatever noise a tigress makes when gratuitously flouted.
Fourthly and finally: the Band’s marching season had gone on hiatus (to Winthrop Eshton’s desolation) and concert season was in full swing, with incessant rehearsals for the annual holiday program. These obstructed Nonique’s intersecting with Eddie Ray, till LaVee contrived one of her clever workarounds.
Twenty-five years earlier, Mr. Lynn had composed a musical about the Three Magi titled Christmas Caravan: A Kismet Carol. Every December he foisted excerpts from this opus on Thornford High, with varying degrees of appreciation. (The dancing camels were always a hit, though far more students auditioned for their front halves than their back.) It included all due reverence and adoration of the Christ Child (which needed to be soft-pedaled in a mid-Seventies public school) and had a soulful oboe solo for Nonique to perform when Yazmin, daughter of the Magus Melchior, relinquished her precious frankincense to own a Deity nigh.
LaVee (God bless her everyone) lured Eddie and Dook into the auditorium long enough to hear Nonique practice this, pouring her heart out through her embouchure, imagining each note was a strand in the romantic lariat she hoped to sling around Fair Catch’s rich-slow-deep-gravelliness.
Then came that exultant moment by the metal shop, where just Nonique encountered just Eddie—no LaVee, no Dook, no cluster of hangers-on, no Rumah darkening the skyline—and was presented with a shiny-bright split-ring washer as if it were costly jewelry:
“My Christmas gypp-see woman... my Christmas gypp-see woman...”
Chords crashed like breaker waves on the beach of Vernonique’s devotion, sweeping her away from there to eternity.
Or what might’ve been eternity had winter not descended with a vengeance: the harsh winter of forty-three straight days below freezing, twelve of them below zero, and the Lake itself nearly transformed into an iceberg.
Rumah Myers’s brother Maurice got stabbed on Christmas Eve, officially while resisting a robbery at the Dow-Dee liquor store their father managed; though rumor had it that Rumah did it herself when Reese tried messin’ with her. However it happened, Rumah was in need of what Dennis Desmond would call “CONdolence and CONsolation” and so drew Eddie Ray back into her web. By New Year’s Day they were fully reconciled, and Fair Catch was off the free market.
Nonique had scarcely a minute to bemoan this before Grandma Cat suffered a bad stroke that turned much worse when the weather delayed her being rushed to the hospital. Not that Cat would admit to any need for admission there; in her mind, the doctor’s diagnosis was plumb wrong, making her fritter time away in a convalescent bed. Her certainty about a swift return home was contagious, at first, thanks to apparently unimpeded vigor:
“It still snowin’? You better not tell me you been shovelin’ it, Abram—get that Jenkins boy to clear the driveway—make sure he salts the front steps good—I don’t wanna slip on ‘em the moment I get home. You eat right last night? What you fix for dinner?”
“Bacon and eggs,” said Grandpa Bram.
“Bacon and eggs! Better not be ruinin’ my kitchen! Where you drain the grease?”
“Don’t you tell me you poured it down the drain!”
“Course not, honeybunch! Sopped it up with a piece o’ toast.”
“Okay—that does it—get my clothes—I’m outta here—someone gotta save your fool arteries from hardenin’—”
Cat tried to fling off the bedcovers with her unaffected arm... and couldn’t. The next day she sounded almost as rambunctious, but a trifle less coherent; and each day after that was a further step down into the shadows.
Agitation displaced hardihood. Doctors, nurses, therapists were accused of lying about her condition so they could keep her in the hospital and run up the bills. Husband, children, siblings were rebuked for collaborating. Cat suspected perfectly well that Vernon Smith, not Medicaid, was picking up the tab for week after week in this semi-private room, and she wouldn’t stand being beholden to that man, do you hear?
The thing of it was, she could no longer stand even when aided. Increasingly she could not make herself understood. Inexorably she melted away, degree by degree, as the once-harsh winter was starting to do outdoors.
Before long the only ones able to comprehend Cat without difficulty were her youngest sister Aunt Duz, who taught sign language to deaf children; her old friend Bessie Higden, Aunt LeeLee’s mother, who was an experienced social worker; and Nonique, on the purely-a-Curry wavelength.
Glance from the eye with the undrooping lid. Press of the hand whose fingers could still return a squeeze. Exchange of words without recourse to phonetics.
Don’t you be running yourself ragged, child.
I’m not, Grandma.
You look like you are. Don’t want the both of us here in this fool bed.
I’m too big to fit in that one with you anymore.
That’s right, you’re a big girl now. But don’t be thinking you’re a grown woman yet.
Not even sometimes?
I’ll tell you when you are. Until then, no more wearing yourself out.
It’s just this awful weather. What they call cabin fever.
Tell me about it—stuck in here. Better yet, play me “From All That Dwell.”
Nonique was permitted to bring her oboe to the hospital during visiting hours and play it in Cat’s room, so long as the other occupant (latest in a succession, all of whom groaned in their sleep) didn’t object. An audience would gather around the doorway (medical staff, other visitors, ambulatory patients) to hear the miniconcerts of what Uncle Babe liked to call “airs and graces—hymns and prayers. Get it? Get it?”
Let the Creator’s praise arise
Let the Redeemer’s name be sung
Through ev’ry land by ev’ry tongue
And till that cabin fever breaks (thought Nonique) don’t spill the beans about my heartaches.
In eighth grade she’d read a scary story about how silent secret snow made the world grow smaller and smaller, like a flower shrinking backward into a tiny cold seed. Such was Nonique’s life that bitter winter: an ever-abbreviating cycle of rise without shine, frost without thaw, means without end. Home, school, hospital; or home, church, hospital; or home, Mr. Nik’s, hospital. With only dribs and drabs of awareness of what was going on beyond that cycle. Being cut some slack for this by everyone, even LaVinia who usually demanded complete attention. Glimpsing the Shady Man in just the loges and bistros of Slumberland, unvexed by voodoo hexes yet vanishing at the next rise-without-shine.
Eternal are Thy mercies, Lord
Eternal truths attend Thy word
Thy praise shall sound from shore to shore
Till suns shall rise and set no more
A time fast coming for Catherine Curry Randle.
Enough of her old armor plate remained intact to threaten she might linger in an interminable vegetative state, like Karen Ann Quinlan. Yet as Cat herself would’ve put it, “The Lord knows me better than that”—and she breathed her last shortly before Easter and her sixtieth birthday, when the thermometer took a typical Citylandish leap from below freezing up into the eighties.
We are (we are) / climbing (climbing)
Jacob's ladder / soldier (soldier) / of the cross...
With Cat’s grip gone from the reins, her family faltered to a halt. Patriarch Ezekiel was Big Zeke no more, but a wizened old mutterer-about-undertakers who’d buried three wives and now his eldest daughter alongside two of them. Grandpa Bram could not bear to live alone in the Ferndean Gardens townhouse and so bunked with bachelor Uncle Babe, both of them swamped by melancholia. Bessie, LeeLee and Miss Fanny Hooker took it upon themselves to divvy Grandma’s effects, acting on instinct for who Cat would’ve wanted to inherit what. Nonique received a gold locket that she was afraid to wear outside her blouses, but felt uncomfortable dangling beneath them.
“Under’s best—leastway if the chain snaps, yo bra’ll catch it ‘fore it falls,” observed LaVee, regarding the extra cupsize Nonique had gained over the winter.
“(Not so loud,)” went Nonique, hugging her oboe to her accentuated bosom.
“Girl, we’re here t’be heard!”
They were at a rehearsal for The Wiz, Thornford’s Spring Musical, in which LaVee’d been cast as one of the Munchkin/Winkie chorus. She’d wanted to be a Funky Monkey till hearing they wouldn’t be flown on harnesses over the stage; Thornford couldn’t afford the insurance coverage.
Snobby-conceited Rochelle Briggs had won the role of Dorothy, which was only slightly less preposterous than Diana Ross’s stealing it from Stephanie Mills for the upcoming movie version. Not that it’d matter, since Thornford’s show was certain to be stolen by Marquita McLeod as Evillene the Wicked Witch. That part seemed more suitable for Rumah Myers, but she and the other majorettes were performing all the standout dance numbers, with Rumah turning the Tornado Ballet into a Striptease of Seven Veils (off a disco leotard).
Addie Mae Anderson would’ve been perfect as Addaperle the Feelgood Witch, if the Drama Club had been able to raise enough funds to rent her a giant teleprompter. She was content to stitch together wondrous concoctions as the show’s costume mistress, taking “bag-lady boogie” to a theatrical level. Meanwhile the stage crew enlisted Eddie Ray to handle the switchboard, he being almost as proficient with toggles and rheostats as his twin was with needle and thread.
“Say the word and I’ll be dimmin’ the lights!” he proclaimed at every rehearsal, leering down from the backstage catwalk—
“You listening t’me?” LaVee broke into Nonique’s reverie, cutting her no more slack. “High time you quit that sleepwalking.”
“Not s’posed to wake up sleepwalkers,” murmured Nonique.
“Well I got to, don’t I? Ol’ Tippins be calling us any minute now—”
“Winkies front and center, please!” crackled Mrs. Tippins over the P.A. “All Winkies, on the double!”
“What I tell you?” sighed LaVee. “Bet they don’t treat dancers like a bunch o’ cows on Soul Train!”
Off she mooed for another run-through of “Brand New Day,” while Nonique joined the Concert Band in front of the stage to provide accompaniment. As the lone oboe, she played the A-note for the Band to tune to: a task she previously took pride in, but now was just another trancelike step taken through another somnambulistic afternoon.
It wasn’t as if she hadn’t tried to perk up since Grandma’s funeral. Everyone kept urging her to do so, even the chorus onstage: Just look about! / You owe it to yourself to check it out!
Easier sung than done when you kept stumbling and fumbling through opaque darkness, brushing against unseen things that clung to your hands and arms till you were afraid you’d be pinioned, caught in a winding sheet, shrunk down to that tiny cold seed—
—as Mrs. Tippins whistled the Winkies to stop after stop and Mr. Lynn had the Band do likewise, going back and doing over and we’ll-stay-here-all-night-till-you-get-it-right which wasn’t apt to happen (the staying if not the getting) while you persevered, your clung-to arms outstretched, trying to sleepwalk past the unseen and find an exit or at least some illumination—
“Kill the lights,” ordered Mrs. Tippins, her voice rough with disgust. “That’s enough for one day. Everybody out.”
LaVee promptly swooped off the proscenium—who needs a harness to fly?—and, giving Nonique an airy wave, sprinted up the aisle out of sight. Nowadays she was going with (as well as after) Dook Ingram, and had to hustle to make the most out of Friday-night-until-curfew (or-as-late-as-can-be-gotten-away-with).
Nonique remained behind to mechanically dismember her oboe. Swab out its joints, blow out its reed, pack these in their separate cases, latch them glumly shut—snick, snick—
“Allow me, Sweet Thing,” went a gravelly unravelly voice.
Classical masterful laying-hold of her instrument with one hand, as the other arm (long since freed of plaster) draped itself over her shoulders, causing her internal candelabra to undergo spontaneous combustion.
“Might I be transportin’ you anywheres?”
“Addie? She off to one o’ her ‘quiltin’ bees’—and’ll be there makin’ outfits fo’ Poppies till they put her to sleeeeeeep—”
“No, I mean...”
“You twistin’ that purty head ever’ which way lookin’ fo’ Rumah the Tornado? Don’t worry none ‘bout her—she won’t be showin’ till my next payday.”
Eddie had a part-time job at the Riversgate Conoco station, which didn’t generate enough income to keep Rumah satisfied on a full-time basis. In the meantime she was stepping out with Billy Carter—not the new President’s beer-swilling brother, but a senior on the Thornford track team who preferred fortified wines like Ripple.
Be that as it may, Nonique didn’t feel Tornado-safe till she was buckled into Eddie’s elderly Cutlass Supreme with all its doors locked, and they’d driven far enough away that the school could no longer be seen in the rearview mirror.
“Come on ‘n’ ease on down, ease on down the road,” crooned Eddie before cranking up Studio 107 on the car radio—and, like the SuperAfro dude in Car Wash, lip-syncing Rose Royce’s “I Wanna Get Next to You.”
Well, you have—and you are, thought Nonique between poundings of her heart. So what happens next?...
A segue to Earth Wind & Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love,” and Eddie’s idling at a red light to strike up a cigarette.
“What brand you smoke?” asked Nonique, thinking Could you ask a more idiotic question?
“Newports. ‘Bold ‘n’ cold!’ Want one?”
“Oh no thanks.”
“They menthol—good fo’ the throat.”
“Um maybe so but I gotta save my lungs, y’know, for the oboe...” Idiot! Idiot!
“That’s cool.” (As Kool & the Gang chimed in with “Open Sesame.”) “You right to take care o’ yo’self. And to look out fo’ that Rumah Myers. Her ‘n’ me, we was lazin’ ‘round this one time when a moth flies inna her room. She screech ‘That’s the devil been chewin’ holes in my clothes!’ ‘n’ jumps up to catch it. Knockin’ stuff over as she chases that bug—chair, lamp, perfume bottles—then she grabs hold of it, ‘n’ takes this pin looks big as a chopstick ‘n’ impales that po moth like she was giggin’ a frog! She watches (and makes me watch) till its wings quit beatin’—then sticks that damn pin with that dead bug in her hair.”
Slow smoky-clouded exhalation out the Cutlass window.
(“Get down with the genie!” commented Kool & the Gang.)
“Heh heh heh heh...” went Eddie. “Now if I caught me a moth, I woudn’t do no worse’n stick it down some purty gal’s neck”—demonstrating with the back collar of Nonique’s floral print blouse.
Yeeeep!! by Nonique.
“Now what we got here?” inquired Eddie, his finger snagged. “Feels like you got sump’n heavy hangin’ on this here chain—heavy ‘n’ hid away. Wonder what it could be?”
“Don’t!” went Nonique, clapping an arm across her bustline as if he’d gone straight for her bra hooks.
“Oho—it’s like that, is it?” said Eddie, cruising the Cutlass to a halt along a side street. His snagged finger gently (yet irresistibly) traced the chain under the collar around to the throat, and there hoisted up its pendant accessory till it glittered in his hand. “My oh my... where you get this?”
“From my Grandma,” wobbled Nonique.
“Well, that’s nice—real nice. Par-tic-u-lar-ly since you didn’t get it from no other boyfriend.” He propped the locket on her bosom-shelf with careful exactness, and snuffed his Newport in the chockablock ashtray. “Why don’t we straighten our legs a little?” he suggested, sauntering out and over to open the passenger door like a courteous gentleman.
It seemed rude to stay seated inside.
He’d parked the Cutlass beside a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, beyond which lay vast acreage belonging to the water reclamation plant. No one was nearby except a few seagulls wheeling overhead, and a row of crows perched companionably on the fence. Lounging against it below the crows, Eddie used a thumb to dislodge teardrops from Nonique’s tremulous lashes.
“Ain’t gonna cry on me, are you?”
“(Not ‘less you make me.)”
“Now why you think I ever do a thing like that, Sweet Thing? Course, you might cry fo’ joy if I give you a fine bracelet to match that nice necklace.”
“(Thought you said you got no money.)”
“That’s cause I invest it, see? Like a moe-gool, fo’ a ree-turn—such as one o’ these” (encircling her waist) “or one o’ these” (drawing her to him) “or one o’ these” (pressing his tobacco-tinged mouth to her Fashion Fair lipgloss—)
thunder thunder thunder stormed Nonique’s circulatory system as he tightened his Fair Catch embrace, till they were mashed together and the locket dug into both of their chests.
So it began.
The spring fling that would become a flung sprung.
Nearly all of it (but not enough, in the end) done on the sly.
Vernonique realized from the get-go that she was the Other Woman in a triangle with Rumah Myers—or a quadrilateral, if you included Billy Carter—unless it was a pentagram, factoring in the Voodoo Devil. Whichever way you outlined the relationship(s), discretion would be the greater part of survival.
LaVinia knew all about it, of course, and teemed with ploys to facilitate matters. Addie Mae knew too, wringing her hands (when not busy at the sewing machine) as she counseled noncompliance with Eddie Ray’s tendencies. And then, during another take-five at another Wiz rehearsal, an additional interested party reared an unwelcome head. Winth-ROP Eshton, who’d never shown the least concern for Nonique’s wellbeing before now, executed a double-left-flank-hut to block her path and hiss into her face: “(What are you doing? What do you think you’re doing? Have you gone and lost your mind?)”
“Wh—” went Nonique; but Winthrop had right-oblique-hutted off to the backstage ladder and was clambering up it to the catwalk. There he confronted Eddie Ray—who had on a neon orange jogging suit that outshone the spotlights—and, while keeping his hiss low, demanded to know Eddie’s intentions vis-à-vis Nonique.
“Guess you could say I’m a mew-chew-ull friend o’ the fambly,” said E.R., emphasizing the B to madden Winth-ROP, who was a stickler for clear enunciation.
“Well, you just... you just... you just... leave her alone, that’s all!” he stammered. “If you know what’s good for you!”
“I jus’... I jus’... I jus’... always know who’s good fo’ me,” remarked Eddie from on high. “Run along now, li’l freshman—yo trombone’s tootin’ fo' you.”
Winthrop descended the ladder and harch-harch-harched back to hiss “(You see? You see? I am SO disappointed in you!)” into Nonique’s dumbfounded face, before falling out of formation and retreating from sight.
“What was that?” Nonique asked LaVee.
“Looks like you got a secret admirer.”
“Aw, noooo... not him.”
“Sure looks like it. Mind if I don’t get jealous?”
That task was speedily volunteered for by Marian “Midget” Pettis the glockenspiel player, who’d borne an unrequited crush on Winthrop since first grade. LaVee theorized that Midget had been dropped on her head as a baby, accounting for both the crush and her lack of height. Now she peered up at Nonique with wordless reproach; and the pentagram was enlarged to whatever you called a plane figure with seven points. (Heptagon? Heptazoid? Hepzibah?—good name for the Voodoo Devil.) Making it even trickier to keep Nonique and Eddie’s intersections on the QT. His neon orange jogging suit didn’t help, either.
As The Wiz edged on down the road to and through what Mrs. Tippins, with morose optimism, called the worst dress rehearsal in Thornford Drama Club history, Nonique yearned for a cyclone cellar in which she might hide from crackpots and lamebrains. When she wasn’t being mutely accused of love-larceny by Midget Pettis, her heels were getting dogged by the abnormally hamfooted Winthrop. Then she had to withstand LaVee’s goading her to do-this-with-Eddie, try-that-with-Eddie, while Addie Mae lobbied for hindrance and restraint, and Teri Rhett (the chummiest of the Band’s fifteen clarinets) kept asking “What’s the story with you and Fair Catch?”
All of which was preferable to the goings-on and gettings-down in Slumberland.
Where once Nonique had cozied up with the Shady Man, she now could only see him at a lengthening distance, unable to be followed or called back, till she was abandoned to stumble and fumble again through clinging obscurity—before brushing up against Hepzibah the Voodoo Devil who was armed with a pinion bigger than a chopstake and set for pointedly blood-red impalement—
Awaking to circulatory thunder thunder thunder, night after night after night...
“Don’t let no bad dreams bother you,” soothed Eddie Ray. “Do what I do—have yo momma make you a glass o’ warm milk fo’ you go to bed. Course now, there’s other things you can do at bedtime that’ll give you a good—sound—sleep... heh heh heh heh...”
On that subject he was never at a loss for words, or moves, on unfrequented sites around Riversgate where their intersecting could take place. Besides the fence by the reclamation plant, there was a quiet corner behind the auto salvage yard; an odd little grove out back of the Full Gospel Pentecostal Church; and various hidey-holes off Deliverance Road, which wound through semigreenery between the Expressway and the River.
There’d been an assembly during Black History Month about how Deliverance Road got its name from being one of the “stations” on the Underground Railroad, where escaped slaves were given safe haven by abolitionists (like Joshua Douser of the original Douser Dell) en route to freedom in Canada. However, this inspirational tale clashed with present-day Deliverance Road being a notorious lover’s lane—plus a reminder of that backwoods-redneck movie from a few years ago, so all the class clowns began to make “Dueling Banjo” noises and squeal like a pig.
Nonique continued to frequent these hidey-holes as The Wiz came and went. Maybe too frequently, given Eddie’s mastery at manipulating causes and effects; particularly on a Good Girl who meant only to allow the milder liberties to be taken, as she had with Reuben Burns (and a few of those had been inadvertent). But E.R., unlike Reuben, could see clearly how to breach her barricades step by step; and for him it was as easy as riding up an escalator. Or more aptly an elevator, since he could play upon Nonique’s buttons as if they were switchboard rheostats.
Down the garden path she was led through that merrily-rolling-along month of May. In short order they advanced from full-frontal hugs and Franco-American kisses to fondling (her) through fabric, to liberating the upper torso (hers) from Lycra, to hickeyfication of her liberations (shunting Grandma’s locket aside) and then to tentative fondling (him) through fabric. All of this was accomplished without high-pressure tactics on Eddie’s part—unless you counted whatever mesmerizing gambit he employed to make Nonique be the sensual aggressor and take the backseat initiative, time after time.
“Go ahead, Sweet Thing,” he would sigh with feigned capitulation. “Do with me what you will!”
And she did, again and again. Eddie might play upon her blouse-buttons, but it was Nonique who undid them. He might slide an inquisitive fingertip into the front of her bra; she was the one who reached behind her back to unhook it. He might raise his Fair Catch hand in benediction on her emancipated bosom; she’d grab that hand and put it to touchy-feely work. He might pucker his rich/slow/deep/gravelly mouth; she’d cradle his head wet-nurse-style while it sought sustenance and nourishment.
Then Nonique would go to bed (alone) after drinking the prescribed glass of warm milk; and before her nightly brushup against Hepzibah’s chopstake, she would re-enact that day’s latest double-daring-do. Sometimes writhing with shame; sometimes thrilling with bliss; always boggling at her own audacity. Were it not for the thankfully hidden bosom-hickeys, she’d’ve been inclined to chalk it all up to fantasization.
Yet how could she—she—be taking such steps forward, for real? Steps down the garden path and through the gates of the Carnal Chocolate Factory, to carry on like Augustus Gloop and Veruca Salt and Violet Beauregard combined? Her face (and chest) burned at the thought; never before had she given way to covetous gluttony. Now she was involved with embouchures on a whole different scale—one that entailed much heavier breathing, and a lot more saliva.
“What is that man doing to me??”
“Don’t you know?” asked LaVee as she painted Nonique’s toenails Fashion Fair Foxy Pink.
“If I did, would I ask?”
“‘He’s yo boogie man, that’s what he am, here t’do whatever he can,’” sang LaVee. “Hold still, girl! This is my good polish!”
Restive shifting by Nonique, with gaze-aversion from the swim team photo (blown up to poster-size and taped on LaVee’s bedroom wall) of Dook Ingram in anatomically-correct trunks.
“Do I not come from a medical background?” LaVee had sassyfrassed when Aunt LeeLee’d objected to this being hung.
“So you’ll put these up beside it,” LeeLee’d replied, adding really gross diagrams of the human muscular and skeletal systems to the same wall.
Imagine how the Smith household would react if Nonique dared replace her gallery of favorite oboists—Ray Still, Harry Smyles, Evelyn Rothwell—with beefcake Polaroids of Eddie Ray Anderson in the backseat of his Cutlass Supreme—
(Ohhhh sweeeet motherrrr...)
(Her imagination never used to go to such fervent lengths...)
“Hardly need t’turn on a lamp in here, you blushing so bright,” smiled LaVee as she started on the other foot.
“Quit tickling!... You think I wanna have these ‘thoughts’ running wild through my mind?”
“Face it, girl: you always been a thinker, not a doer. Now yo bod’s finally catching up with yo brain, and about time too. Perfectly natural—no need t’freak. Would be, if you blushing so bright over ol’ Winth-ROP—”
“Will you hush?”
It wasn’t bad enough to behave like a Bad Girl, knowing she should reject impulses to trespass on personal private property (his and hers) instead of sizzling with possessive anticipation and palpable gratification. No: along with all that, she had to steer clear of Winthrop Eshton. Which was nothing new, since he’d never hesitated to shoot off his longwinded mouth about recital precedence or the superiority of marching bands. These days, though, he seemed to have trouble putting two words together without spluttering. Worse yet, too many of those words seemed to center on his being infatuated.
She’d been crushed on by plenty of boys—first for being her father’s daughter, then for prettiness enhanced by bashfulness and blossoming shapeliness. Not one had been worth reciprocating (Reuben fit more into a friend-with-benefits category) and LaVee’d told them to buzz off, occasionally reeling a crusher in for her own fun before throwing him back.
Winth-ROP, however, was unbuzzable as well as unbearable. He’d show up at the most inopportune times, ahem-ing and harrumph-ing without managing to clear his throat, grimacing at Nonique’s brow or chin but never quite into her eyes as he rang disjointed changes on his earlier What do you think you’re doing? query.
“Do you mind?” Nonique would huff at him.
“Do YOU mind being made a fool out of?” he’d try to reply, after apparently swallowing an entire hardboiled egg unchewed.
“What business is it of yours?”
“Funny business! And I’m here to tell you—so listen good!—there isn’t anybody, not anybody who wouldn’t laugh themselves sick if they knew what you’re getting up to—or should I say getting down with?”
“Get away from me!” Nonique would request; and LaVee (if present) would add something like “Yeah, go ‘n’ empty yo spit valve over someone who deserves it!”
“You bet I will!” Winthrop would vow, sounding as if that hardboiled egg was lodged inside his windpipe. “I’ll just have a word or two with your Tin-Eared Woodman” (clenching one fist while shaking the other) “and maybe teach him a thing or two about where and how he can slide his oil!”
Away he’d lurch with none of his parade-ground precision; leaving Nonique to seethe and LaVee to scoff and Midget Pettis to quaver “If he gets beat to pieces, it’ll be on your two heads!”
“None o’ this be happening if you be woman enough to work yo wiles on a man, or even a Winth-ROP!” LaVee would sneer; whereupon Midget would trot off in unrequited tears, making Nonique feel even worse.
“You didn’t have to tell her that.”
“You want her hanging round all afternoon, giving us the stink-eye?”
Well, no. This heptawhatsit was becoming far too complicated for Nonique. She felt relatively sure that Eddie wouldn’t fight Winthrop unless he (Winthrop) came after him (Eddie) with an axe. Yet Eddie was liable to bombard Winthrop with witticisms about being a li’l tromboner who played upon his own buttons, till he (Winthrop) did come after him (Eddie) and get himself beaten to pieces (axe or no axe). And then there’d be a ruckus, and Midget would fuss it up further, and Rumah Myers would hear about it, and Nonique would be constricted more tightly than ever by this heptawhatever—
—when all she craved was an exclusive undivided intersection with Eddie Ray. And not just another huggery-muggery backseat miniliaison, either. There had to be more to romance than erotic angling, no matter what LaVinia thought or how Eddie maneuvered.
You couldn’t hash such things out with a parent or teacher or school counselor or clergyman. The only approachable adult Nonique knew was Duz Curry, technically her great-aunt but really her surrogate big sister, and one who’d savored La Dolce Vita. “Oh, that Delores,” Grandma Cat had always called her (with a sigh and shrug and headshake). Freda called her “Acksh”—partly from years of saying “Actually she’s my aunt” and partly from Duz’s colorful career as an Action Girl.
In the late Sixties she’d cultivated an Angela Davis Afro and attitude, her militancy disturbing Big Zeke and her older siblings who thought it foolhardy to openly antagonize white folks. Duz had simmered down (politically) since then and now resembled that Get Christie Love! actress who’d joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Duz opted instead to learn sign language and have a quickie affair with her Caucasian instructor, whom she (with voice and hands) cheerfully called “Honk.”
(Oh, that Delores!)
Nonique arranged to interview her about ASL for a Thornford project. After taking many distracted notes on signing and special ed in Duz’s Bronzeville flat, she gingerly broached the subject of breaching barricades—and nearly fainted when Duz pressed a fistful of condoms into Nonique’s petrified hands.
“I know, honey, and here’s hoping you won’t need ‘em for a long while yet. BUT—don’t you ever let a man take that last step with you ‘less he’s got one of these on. And don’t take his word for it, either—you watch while he puts it on (try not to laugh) or better still, you put it on for him, they almost enjoy that—”
“I know, honey. Just think of ‘em as insurance premiums.”
To be hidden in the concealed zipper-pocket of the fancy tampon pouch (warranted to scare off meddlesome little brothers) that Duz also gave her, as an early birthday present.
Nonique barely survived the El ride back to Riversgate, dead certain all the other passengers could tell her purse was overflowing with prophylactics. Which would have to be kept secret even from—especially from—LaVee, who’d say or do Lord only knew what if she found out about them. And the exact same could be said for Eddie... at least for the time being. Until later. If not sooner. But then when?...
“Pastime Paradise” was chosen as the theme of that year’s Junior-Senior Prom, beating out the Louder Crowd’s high-volume bid for “Midnight Love Affair.” Eight different guys sought Addie Mae’s company on Prom Night; she, unwilling to hurt any feelings with an outright turndown, had them stage a tournament which was won by Freeman Sumpter (Stumpy George’s taller cooler older brother). Eddie offered Freeman mock consolation for spending $100 on Addie’s ticket, Addie’s corsage, and Addie’s limousine rental when he could’ve gone stag (like Eddie) to sift through a ballroom of ladies brought and paid for by other suckers. Including Billy Carter, who might escort Rumah Myers to the Prom, but had no guarantee she wouldn’t depart from it with somebody else.
LaVee vowed this somebody wouldn’t be Dook Ingram’s body, which she’d branded property of LaVinia Wilmore. Not many freshgirls got asked to the Prom, and LaVee flaunted Dook’s dutiful invitation to such an extent that Nonique had to keep reminding herself This is my very best practically-cousin practically-sistah friend, and not just an uppity-butted egomaniac. Who invested $100 of her own allowance-advancement in a formal gown, shoes, accessories, hairdressing and makeover—
—yet got diverted from the official afterparty to visit a leased-by-the-hour room at the Gaffer Motel, where many a virginity had been shed and LaVee’s was no exception.
Worth it, as having “proved her love” for Dook; and even if the First Time didn’t live up to hype or feel especially pleasurable, “practice makes perfect” which Nonique of all people shouldn’t need to be convinced of, so quit making that face.
“Well, did he at least use a—a—”
“A what? Snorkel? Nose plugs?”
“Did he use an I-know-what? Oh sure.”
(Equally interpretable as Of course and Yeah right.)
Anyway: woe to any girl who tried to swipe Dook away now. As for Nonique, she’d better shore up her Eddie Ray sand castle before the tide swept it away; E.R.’d been a boogie man with just about every female on the “Pastime Paradise” dance floor, even Mrs. Tippins the chaperone. And quite a few had judged him to be a Fairly Available Catch—hexed or unhexed.
Thus: a fork in the road.
Take the safe route and maybe get left behind on her lonesome. Or climb aboard a roller coaster of “love-proving” and plunge headlong into the depths of peril like a daredevil. Which was all very well for a cowabunga madcap like LaVee; but Nonique had always been the sensible one, the prudent one, the cautious-for-caution’s-sake one.
“Eddie? Are you ‘n’ me—the two of us—are we... going anywhere?”
“Far as you like, Sweet Thing. Just hold on tight, ‘n’ be gentle, ‘n’ promise you’ll respect me in the mornin’.”
All abooooaaaard the Cowabunga Express!
Yes. Better to risk peril than shrink backward into that tiny cold seed, left fallow and forsakenly unhatched.
As was hammered home (like the last nail in a coffin lid) during the family Memorial Day re-gathering at Grandma Cat’s still-fresh gravesite. Big Zeke stayed away—“Ain’t givin’ y’all a chance to go ‘n’ leave me thar!”—and Taw was off negotiating renewal of his contract with Uni-Nute; but the rest of the extended Curry/Randle clan came bearing flowers, and Nonique brought her oboe to join the hymn-singers led erratically by Uncle Babe, who couldn’t trust his voice to stay unbroken through “How Great Thou Art.”
Nonique, as she worked keys and reeds with proper decorum, couldn’t trust her heated brain to not rewrite sacred lyrics:
O Eddie Ray, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the moves thy hands have made
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power through my anatomy displayed—
Wait for the familiar Grandma-glare you’d been lanced with whenever LaVee’d get bored in church and start something irreligious that, try as Nonique might to smother it, seldom failed to make her titter.
Don’t tell me you two’re making light of the Lord in His own House!
Today there was only the glare of the sun through intermittent rainclouds, and the sound of Uncle Babe choking up on “humble adoration.”
(Unless you counted Aunt Duz’s telepathic You still insured, honey?)
Afterward they took Grandpa Bram out to Leon’s BBQ and then to see Muhammad Ali in The Greatest, which he pretended was a pick-me-up though he returned to Uncle Babe’s place as despondent as he’d left it. Nor was Nonique overjoyed to glimpse Winthrop Eshton lurking around her own townhouse, spurring her to close all her bedroom shades and curtains despite the uncool Memorial Night.
Airs and graces: hymns and prayers.
Shades and curtains: ghosts and graves.
That night, instead of another stumbly-fumbly sojourn through Slumberland to the Voodoo Devil’s chopstake, she was drawn to a bump against implacability: broad and high and black as the Space Odyssey monolith. Grandma Cat might lack breath in her body, but that didn’t hinder her getting a dream-message across good and plain:
Don’t think you’re becoming a grown woman yet. I’ve told you when that’ll happen.
So: step on the brakes.
No need to freak, as LaVee’d said; or to rush, as LaVee’d done. The whole summer lay ahead, oodles of time for coming to grips with love-proving, and maybe Rumah Myers would disappear somehow from the heptamacallit—taking that devilish chopstake with her and leaving Nonique’s intersection free and clear.
Well and good, and hopefully acceptable by the Memorial Monolith.
But then Taw came home driving a brand-new Fleetwood Brougham, waving an aggrandized contract renewal that verified the Rebounder wasn’t some flash-in-the-pan like Larry “Junk Food Junkie” Groce. Meaning it was high time for the Smiths to split from Ferndean Gardens and moo-hoove on up to a dee-luxe apartment in the sky—or out in the ‘burbs, shaking the dust of Riversgate from their affluent heels.
And the sooner the better.
Alfreda was amenable, and not simply because I will never desert Mr. Micawber. Lately (as she told LeeLee) you could almost feel the earth moo-hoove under your feet and not from any Carole Kingish tumbling-down, but as if the River itself was eroding the ground below you. Little by little security was slipping away; the tight-knit community was coming apart, factory workers were worrying more and more about how long their jobs might last. Neighborhoods increasingly pitted themselves against each other—the boys of Ferndean Gardens, slandered as “soft” by those of Douser Dell, declared a state of enmity and escalated squabbles into fistfights. How much longer could parents hope to prevent encroachment by gangs and drug hustlers?
“So you think Exodus is the answer?” sniffed LeeLee, who was all about keeping the faith (and still expected her MIA Sergeant Marvin to show up any day out of the blue).
Nonique couldn’t afford to be that confident. Not when precious hours were being lost having to study for finals, and cram Addie Mae through the Algebraic obstacle course—a task not made any easier by Addie’s continually citing this or that boy as worthier of Nonique’s attention than her clumsy dummy of a twin brother. Nor by Winthrop’s getting hold of Nonique’s yearbook and blotting one whole page with DON’T SAY I DIDN’T WARN YOU!!! in Magic Marker. (Beneath which Midget Pettis squeezed a miniscule no don’t say that.)
Then the school year ended and the course ahead was mostly cleared. Winthrop and Midget left town, taking their trombone and glockenspiel to a downstate marching band symposium. Addie Mae (waving her final C from Mrs. Dent like a captured battle flag) went to spend a couple weeks with kinfolk in Detroit. And Randle Smith was packed off with Reggie Wilmore to be philistines in summer church camp.
The course’s remaining obstacles could be sidestepped with a touch of subterfuge. Till now, Nonique’s miniliaisons had been kept under the parental radar by a variety of alibis, all corroboratable—though coming from Nonique, they were rarely questioned. (LaVee said she had the makings of a criminal mastermind oboist.) Now that school was over and vacation begun, her chief pretext for absence in the evenings became “dropping by the Y,” where she was associated with a children’s musical appreciation program. Even when this wasn’t in session, Nonique took pains to be seen inside the Y before sneaking out and down the block for Cutlass pickup when Eddie got off Conoco duty.
Then it was time for Sweet Thing’s chariot to swing low and swing fast, her foot no longer stepping on the brake. Reckless? Yes. Wrongheaded? Maybe. Yet a ravenous thirst was upon her to quaff champagne with her Shady Man—and not some Lawrence Welky bubblewater either, but a trampled-out vintage where you could taste the very toes that had pressed the grapes. No reluctance, no holding back, lest the goblet (make that the bottle) be dashed from her lips to shatter into squandered fragments of unproven love.
So in even shorter order than before, Vernonique became a consummate organist: playing by ear with hand and mouth, putting her embouchure abilities to extraordinary use as she produced rich/slow/deep/gravelly grunts and groans and “Damn, girl! where you been all my life?”s from Eddie Ray Anderson.
Her own life was about to complete its fifteenth year, on a Sunday this time around; and another miniliaison was slotted into the preceding Friday evening (“Maybe I’ll get up enough nerve to give you yo First Kiss, heh heh heh heh”) but Nonique put her criminal mastermind to making this a maxiliaison—indeed, the maxiliaison.
She’d have to stake her claim without delay, outstaking Rumah’s blood-red chops to pin down the Shady Man and bind him to her. She was better looking than Rumah Myers, better built, better natured, better suited to accommodate a lover she’d already finessed with hand and mouth. But Rumah would undoubtedly be on the warpath: Billy Carter had graduated from Thornford and left town, so there was nothing to avert that whammy-eye from Nonique or divert that juju-charm from E.R. And even if there were, how many other girls might be ready to step in if Nonique vacillated at this critical moment?
No (or, rather, Yes): the Friday before Juneteenth would be her prima notte.
Which, like the “premiums” in her tampon pouch, had to be kept dead secret.
Even though, when that fated Friday rolled around, she badly needed a pep talk by a recent undergoer of the ritual. So up she went to the undergoer’s bedroom, where black jeans and a black T-shirt were being pulled on over black drawers, a black bra, and a liberal coating of Yoni Yum feminine spray powder.
“What’s all this for?” she asked the undergoer. “You going out to buy my birthday present?”
“Already been got, and hid where you ain’t gonna find it, so forget trying.”
“Where’s Dook taking you tonight?”
“Taking me?” snorted LaVee. “That boy’s steppin’ out on me! So I aim t’play Night Stalker on his high-diving butt—all night, if that’s what it takes—”
“LaVinia?” Aunt LeeLee yelled up the stairs.
“(Ssshhhh!) Yeah Moms?”
“I’m off to work” (the late swing shift at the hospital). “Remember that The State got a curfew, The City got a curfew, and you got a curfew.”
“How can I forget?”
“I’m calling this phone at eleven sharp ‘n’ expect you to answer it on the first ring.”
“At midnight sharp, didja say?”
“Don’t sassyfrass me, young lady! You heard what time I said!”
(Nonique knew LaVee was capable of popping home at 10:59, taking the curfew confirmation call, heading back out at 11:01, and explaining later that she’d slept through any subsequent ringing by the phone—and making LeeLee the faithkeeper believe it.)
BANG went the front door, and back to what passed for a pep talk went LaVee. “You gotta sink yo hooks into a man deep as you can, if you wanna keep him caught. Then get the jump (‘n’ the stomp) on any skank dumb enough to try snatching him away.” She laced up a pair of black Converse gym shoes that didn’t look lethal on LaVee’s little feet, but probably would be if she got to jumpin’ ‘n’ stompin’ on a steppin’-out fool.
“You watch yourself out there tonight,” Nonique warned.
“I’ll be busy enough watching him ‘n’ any her, if there is one and I find out who.”
What would you say if I told you my plans for this evening? What advice would you give, what tips would you offer? One thing for sure: you’d never try to talk me out of taking a Geronimo! jump out of a plane or off of a cliff. As I’ve got to do, with or without your blessing—
“Don’t go making That Face at me again,” said LaVee.
“I’m just... kinda jumpy myself, I guess.”
“Took you long enough! How many times I try getting you to jump double dutch when we was kids, and you always chicken out?”
“’Spect it’s too late for that now.”
“But not for me to use this ol’ jumprope to hogtie Dook if he’s messing around on me! Okay, I’m ready—see you tomorrow. Don’t do nothing tonight I wouldn’t do.”
There it was: advice and blessing intermingled.
Nonique gave her a hug, wondering how LaVee could hope to shadow Dook while wrapped in a cloud of fragrance that didn’t quite camouflage her underlying tension; and so they parted.
It was time to Drop By The Y, be seen there as the clock ticked down to the pickup hour, and recheck her appearance (clad all in Foxy Pink) every fifteen minutes. You can do this. You will do this. You must do this, or it’ll be too late for more than double dutch.
Four days shy of the summer solstice, the sun was just setting as Nonique snuck away and slipped into the Cutlass as it came gliding by. Steered one-handedly by Eddie Ray as he Fair Caught her with the other, moving it hither and thither over her Foxy Pinknesses, now grazing them with fingernails, now stroking them with open palm; breaking contact only to light a Newport or navigate the still-novel drive-through window at a Golden Arches. (Far enough from Riversgate that few if any Thornford Ravens would be on its premises, eating or working.)
“Hold the onions, heh heh heh heh,” Eddie spoke into the mike, adding “You can see why I said hold ‘em!” to the Golden Archer at the window, who leered appreciatively at Nonique as he handed over a sack of Big Macs and jumbo fries.
One real-life raven flew over to perch on the Cutlass hood and peer at them through the windshield as they munched onionfree burgers.
“Hey, li’l brother! You oglin’ my chow or my chick?” asked E.R., tossing it a greasy fry that went unpursued; the bird stayed put and focused beadily on Nonique.
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting—
till Eddie snapped on the headlights and gunned the engine. Away flew the bird and so did the Cutlass through the gathering dusk, while Nonique wiped ketchup from her mouth and replaced it with fresh lipstick. (Not Foxy Pink but Sangria Red, chosen to leave a multitude of marks.)
Eddie’s left hand steered them back to Riversgate while his right meandered over every reachable part of Nonique. She in turn redirected right-hand traffic toward routes more to her liking, as mutual expectations steadily rose.
They turned onto Deliverance Road (cue the dueling banjos) and came to an isolated stop in one of the semigreen hidey-holes reserved for parking-minded teens. Eddie left the motor running so the fan could supplement a sporadic breeze and the radio could contribute a Studio 107 soundtrack: Natalie Cole’s “I’ve Got Love on My Mind,” Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” the O’Jays’s “Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby (Sweet Tender Love)”—
—counterpointed, before long, by E.R.’s grunts and groans.
Nonique, always a thorough rehearser, had sacrificed one of her insurance premiums to practice rolling it onto the end of a mop handle; and so had no problem enveloping the genuine article once she’d rendered it good and ready.
“GawDAMN but I’m a lucky dude!” gasped Eddie as he got nimbly outfitted.
You said it went Nonique’s brain as she divested her body and reclined on the Cutlass backseat. I’m gonna be the best you’ll ever have, Mister, so follow my lead wherever I go...
Prepping for pain.
Prepping for risk, rubberized or not.
Prepping for proof that the ultimate intersection can cross up hexes and undo voodoo.
O whatever God hath wrought
Don’t let me be overwrought
And then, and then, on the very brink of the final verge—
Uttering a sustained high-C piggy-squeal at the sight of a ghastly visage gawping at her through the car’s rear window.
Eddie Ray (bucked up and off and into a rampant squat) took one look at the haggard specter, then uttered an unrich/unslow/undeep “Fuck you, Reese! Go find yo own woman!”
The frightmask, completing its survey of their sweaty nudity, receded from view.
“That fuckin’ Reese,” laughed Eddie.
So it hadn’t been Winthrop or Midget back from their marching band conclave, or Bruiser Poole or “Love Bite” Briggs or Teri Rhett of the clarinets or Marquita McLeod of the Louder Crowd or Miss Fanny Hooker.
No: it’d been Maurice Myers, Rumah’s brother, who since getting stabbed on Christmas Eve had become a black Boo Radley—hiding by day in the liquor store stockroom, then emerging after dark to prowl around Riversgate like a Peeping Po’ Boy.
The mood he crack’d from side to side
“The hex is come upon me,” cried
The Lady Overwrought
“Now then, where was we ‘fore we got so roooodly interrupted, heh heh heh heh—”
Laughing again. Laughing again.
“Back off,” ordered Lady O, redonning her foxy pinkies and requesting to be taken home immediately.
This time, button-playing availed him not. Nor did gravelly reassurance nor whining pleas nor indirect threats—all fell on deafened ears. Nonique wouldn’t even return to the frontseat beside him; Eddie was obliged to chauffeur her to Ferndean Gardens like a furiously frustrated cabbie, without a single heh-heh when the Climax Blues Band sang “Couldn’t Get It Right.”
“Well thanks fo’ the free spanky-hanky!” he said through gritted teeth. “Mind if I use it on somebody else?”
“You do that,” she retorted, flouncing out of the car and into her townhouse.
For hours that night she lay in a pit of stone-cold humiliation, hearing echoes of Gothic lyrics: A frost had come at midsummer; a December storm had whirled over June. Far beyond anger, beyond rage, beyond writhing with shame, she resonated incredulously.
The Code of the Macho meant he couldn’t betray any embarrassment: okay.
The state he was in kept him from chasing Reese off or punching his lights out: okay.
And “C’mon, whyncha relax already?” was his idea of tender comfort following a traumatic incident: even that might’ve been tolerable.
But why did he have to LAUGH??
Why couldn’t he have cared enough not to LAUGH??
(My love shivered in my heart, like a suffering child in a cold cradle...)
And again: thup.
A few more seconds, and: thup-thup-thup.
As if gravelly pellets were being hurled against her bedroom windowpane.
Probably by LaVee, who’d been known (though not by parents) to accidentally lock herself out after answering a curfew call and then returning to the fray.
Bleary glance at the digital clock showed it to be 3 a.m.
Thup. Thup. Thup—
Blinking glance between the curtains, below the shade and through the window.
At a silhouette too tall and broad to be LaVinia Wilmore. (Or Winthrop Eshton, who’d’ve been your unhappy second guess despite his still being away downstate.)
The silhouette waved a hand upward. In breach of proper decorum and, at this curfewed hour, of civil ordinance; yet also of barricades. As if signaling for a fair catch.
Oh sweet mother—
Pause only to step into sandals, and listen half a sec outside the master bedroom door for the snores testifying that Vernon Smith Sleeps Here. (Alfreda said she herself couldn’t get a good night’s shuteye when out of earshot of this incessant barrage: I will never desert Mr. Micawber.)
Creep downstairs then, wearing just jammies: no bra, no makeup, hair bent out of shape, breath touched by despair yet ready to inhale new hope. Creep down to the patio door, unbarring and unlocking and sliding this open just far enough to permit egress.
A nightlight was on above the patio, as were others behind neighboring townhouses, and more across the grassy courtyard on the opposite side of the block; yet these were more like low-lying stars than lamps to see by. There was no moon, no beams from passing cars, no sound of crickets or katydids—too early in the summer for them. Nothing except the silent silhouette on the narrow walkway that divvied up the courtyard.
Again it waved, but came no closer.
Nor would you, if you were a guy seeking to make amends at 3 a.m. with the teenage daughter of a six-foot-eight Rebounder who might wake up at any moment.
Instead, a come-hither gesture.
Step slowly and soundlessly over the patio, over the courtyard lawn, over to where the silhouette stood waiting to be forgiven—
—and perceive an instant too late that the silhouette didn’t belong to Eddie Ray Anderson, but to Damon Ingram (commonly known as Dook) whose eccentric hygiene was accented less by chlorine at the moment than a bouquet of cheap booze.
What was he doing here? Why had he targeted Nonique’s window, when they were secondhand acquaintances at best?
Dook slurrily asserted that E.R.’d told the truth—Nonique was all broken in for bareback gallops, and champing at the bit like a filly in heat for a fresh buckaroo.
Which was awfully unaquatic talk for a watersportsman. But not nearly as awful as his taking hold of her with gropy squeezy paws that reduced Nonique to stupefied paralysis.
“(L-L-LaVee?)” she managed to whisper.
“‘At gal stanks lakka daid fish,” badmouthed Dook, propelling Nonique along the sidewalk. “Tries cuvvin’ it up, but cain’ nothin’ de-stankify a daid fish. Now y’all, betchoo smell mo lakka rahp peach—so les hustle, car’s down hyah—”
The streetlamp at the end of the block revealed a beatermobile parked at a crazy angle, one front tire straddling the curb.
“He say he’p m’self, he done w’f’you. Be a long time ‘fo I am—”
Nonique tried to dig benumbed sandal-heels into the courtyard, collect enough of her demolished wits to scream for help; but before she could do either the path was blocked by a dark shadow that sprang forward like a short martial artist and gropily-squeezily grabbed Dook by the throat.
“Ssstanksss??” it hissed. “Ssstanksss??”
Nonique, shaking herself loose, dodged behind a sycamore tree whose roots had raised a big bump in the courtyard sidewalk. (Kids swore that a treasure and/or skeleton was buried within this bump; many attempts had been made to extract its contents.) She watched Dook stagger back from the assault, then break the shadow’s grip and thrust it away from him so it tripped on the rootbump and landed in a chokeberry bush.
“Shi’, don’ need this sorta shi’ no-how!” mumbled Dook. “Where you go, ‘Sweet Thang?’ Ain’ up fo’ playin’ no hide ‘n’ seek... Well, I catch you later—sometime when ol’ Stanky-Snatch ain’ buttin’ in on us.”
He teetered off to his beatermobile; almost drove it straight into the streetlamp; then careened away for additional temptation of doom.
Leaving the night soundless again, except for ragged irregular whimpers from inside the chokeberry bush.
Nonique, feeling number than ever, stepped around the sycamore and bent down to extend a helping arm—
—only to tumble back over the rootbump with a muted cry as the end of a jumprope lashed out, its handle flicking her smartly across the face.
“Yoooo??” went the shadow. “Yoooo??”
Try to deny, to explain, to make more than thin keening squeaks like a fieldmouse beset by a hoot owl. But by the time she was able to sit up, clutching her welted cheekbone, the shadow had dissolved into the unhearing darkness.
Then came a gap in Nonique’s recollection. The next awareness she had was of being tangled in her own bedsheets, with the sunlit clock showing that noon had passed.
Any thought or prayer that recent events had simply been a nightmare got quashed by the sight of her motley contusion in the bathroom mirror. Which at least she was able to face by herself: a note taped by the mirror informed Sleepyhead that her parents had gone for a tour of potential suburban domiciles. They might not be home till late, but her birthday breakfast would be served without fail at the customary time tomorrow morning. No need to remind Nonique, of course, that tomorrow was also Father’s Day. (“Hint Hint” addendum in Taw’s scrawl.)
A memento punctuated by a tremendous SLAM against the townhouse’s front door.
Suck in a great gulp and hold it for hours, waiting for the next outburst (or inburst).
But not so much as a twitter-tweet followed.
So treat your cheek with Betadine and ease on down the stairs for circumspect reconnaissance, taking Randle’s toy periscope to ascertain whether anyone lurked within its range. Then unlock, unbolt, and open the front door by infinitesimal degrees—
—and find a large unsealed cardboard carton, filled to the brim with freshly-minted trash.
Drag it inside and upstairs. Spend the afternoon sifting through its shreds and scraps.
Every trace of half a lifetime’s best friendship, practical cousinness, practical sistahhood. All the things you’ve ever given or loaned to LaVee—clothing and cosmetics and cassettes, photos and postcards and plush toys—all ripped apart or smashed to splinters. Some, like a paperback copy of Wuthering Heights borrowed for an end-of-semester book report, were defaced with thickly-printed monosyllables.
Sort out these remnants. Arrange each on your unmade bed, putting them in date order like a sequential jigsaw puzzle; harking back to the past so as not to think about the present. Until, at the very bottom of the carton, a gaudily-wrapped birthday gift is found flattened as if by a flailing hammer, and with the bluntest-possible monosyllable smeared over it in Fashion Fair nail polish.
(If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee.)
So throw on some untorn garments; throw a few more into your shoulderbag; latch onto your oboe case (snick, snick) and run the hell away from that box, that room, that house, that block, that cooperative development. Hasten to the station and board a northbound El, trying to erase your mental chalkboards and keep them blank till you can take sanctuary with Aunt Duz in Bronzeville and seek some answers to...
...why is the sun so low in the sky...
...whether your last meal was yesterday’s burger and fries...
...wherefore art thou, inasmuch as which...
—how could he—
—how could she—
—how could they—
...did you leave a going-to-Duz’s note for the folks...
...should you have tried phoning there first...
...because it’s Saturday night and That Delores isn’t responding to her buzzer and where do you go now since your second choice would be to join Reuben and Kukura in Chinese quarantine but fat chance of reaching them this evening...
—how could he—
—how could she—
—how could they—
—blankness, keep the blankness intact as you rest against the Bronzeville brownstone and let Bill Withers chant “Lean On Me” in your mind’s ear, segueing to “Grandma’s Hands” while you tug Cat’s gold locket up from inside your cotton top and clasp it for strength, rub it for guidance—
—and get struck to the ground for the second time that day, more heavily this time and more painfully as the locket-chain snaps off your neck and the bag-strap gets wrenched off your shoulder and the oboe case is wedged between your ribcage and the pavement with an all-the-wind-knocked-out-of-you OOF—
Not quite drowning out the sound of fugitive footsteps.
No telling who the culprit or culprits was or were.
Nor are any witnesses or “Stop thief!” Samaritans nearby.
So, singlehanded and unassisted, regain your wind... and your seat... and, incrementally, your feet.
If not clarity of thought. Or understanding of incidents.
Vague memory of an emergency five-spot that ought to be tucked inside your bra. But you can’t remember stashing it there today... and don’t feel up to rummaging around for it. Modesty aside, your neck and shoulder and ribs (and cheekbone, again) all feel too sore.
At least the undamaged oboe case is still bearhugged to your midriff. Which intensifies discomfort while bestowing some relief... as well as self-admonishment: you completely forgot about your regular Saturday lesson with Mr. Nik.
Okay. Start trudging westward, where the sunset’s last rays are receding beneath the horizon. Try to find a pay phone in functional condition. (Easier said than done.) Finally locate one at a filling station—not a Conoco—several blocks away, and dial O for Operator.
“...yeah, um... need to place a collect call.”
“What is your party’s number, please?”
“...uh... can’t remember the number. His name’s Mr. Nik.”
“Can you tell me his last name and address?”
“...his last name is Nik... Niko... I forget the rest of it. He lives near Greektown.”
“(Sigh.) I’m afraid we’ll need more than that to place your call.”
“...er... he’s my oboe teacher?”
“Why don’t you try again when you can remember more, dear?” (Click.)
Try again. Easier told than done.
Receiver’s still in your hand, but who else...? Aunt Duz was a no-show. Folks won’t be home yet, and you don’t want to return there anyhow. Aunt LeeLee’s probably working the swing shift again—and you don’t want to talk to anyone by the name of Wilmore. Or Anderson. Or even Uncle Babe or Grandpa Bram or Big Zeke or Miss Fanny Hooker, any of whom would just make you go back... and re-face the music.
Which you can do by yourself.
Still got your oboe, safe in its good sturdy case. Maybe it’s not too late. Maybe Mr. Nik’ll overlook your tardiness (unprecedented) if you demonstrate how serious and dedicated you are... by walking all the way to his place. Like the song says: if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
Just keep going west till you reach the old Egyptian Road, then turn right and head north. As if you were a courageous escapee from slavery following the Underground Railroad to freedom. (But not to Deliverance—never again anywhere near Deliverance.)
The old Egyptian Road: Taw said they called it that because it ran all the way up here from Little Egypt, and one time in his teens he hitchhiked its entire length via rides with a series of pretty women in sports cars.
“Only goes to show you what a good-for-nothing road it is,” Grandma Cat would snort. “Seedy where it’s not sordid—got a saloon on every corner—and’ll never be rid of the reek of them infernal Stockyards.”
I know, Grandma. But I have to do this. I lost your locket. I lost my purse—
You lost nothing, child—they were stole. The Lord’ll punish the sinners who did it. And He will walk beside you this evening, if you make a joyful noise unto Him in your heart.
Sing with me, Grandma.
Have you seen the light, light of the world?
Have you seen the light, light of the world?
Ever-shining on this—ever-shining on this—
Ever-shining on this road!
Not around here you haven’t: a white blue-collar neighborhood renowned for its hostile unfriendliness to outsiders, especially those with dark skintones.
You are a Curry, child. Stand up straight and hold your head high.
(Sore neck and all.)
Plod as inconspicuously as you can, veiled in unobtrusive abstraction, sticking to the (hate-to-say-it-but) shady side of the street. It’s almost Midsummer Night, and you are a classical musician: play the Overture from Mendelssohn’s Dream in your head. Where it’s startlingly infused by:
If we shaddas have offended
Tink but dis and all is mended
Dat ya have but slumber’d here
While dese visions did appear—
—as pronounced by Hizzoner Da Late Mare, whose habitat this was (and seemingly still is).
Some visions are less than likely to restore amends. See a patrol car come rumbling toward you: don’t think twice before you duck down a side street. “Culled folk don’t need to find no PO-liceman in This Here City,” Big Zeke would say. "If you culled, that PO-liceman gon’ come find y’all.”
And arrest you as a vagrant juvenile curfew-violator—confiscate your oboe as stolen merchandise, even though your name is printed on the case—then clap you in a jail cell crammed with desperate degenerates and leave you to their mercy.
(Oh sweet mother...)
Count to a million Mississippis before drifting v-e-r-y casually around the corner...
Patrol car’s out of sight. Okay. Get your bearings back. Take care to face the right direction—due north, like a compass needle. And resume your trek up the old Egyptian Road, trying to blend into the “shaddas,” ducking and dodging as you go.
Plugging your ears against any refrains of She was a gypp-see woman...
The hardest stretch is going through the Expressway underpass, then having to cross the South Branch bridge. Nowhere to hide in/on either case. Suppose desperate degenerates approach you from both the front and rear??
They don’t, though. They leave you alone, as does every passing-by vehicle, for which you’re thankful and forlorn because you’re all by yourself in the middle of This Here City. Out after dark without a dime or a friend and what did you do to deserve it? To be subjected to misjudgment, betrayal, insulting defamation by people you loved and cherished?
Unfair. Unjust. Unforgivable.
And undeniably unnerving when you enter the next neighborhood, once Czech, now mostly Mexican, where the walls are painted with lurid murals that look like Night Gallery backdrops. Meant to be uplifting and motivational, and maybe they are when the sun shines on them—but not as they surface through the murky gloom like underground graffiti exposed to atomic radiation.
With them comes an eerie jangle of random notes that resolve not into samba or salsa but, of all things, the third movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony. “Minuet in G minor,” remarks Reuben Burns as he strolls out of nowhere up beside you, led by tail-wagging Kukura. Neither of them disturbed by the lateness of the hour or the darkness of the world; Reuben’s Ray-Bans being an ironic touch. “Says it all in a nutshell, don’t you think?”
“G minor. Pain. Grief. Tragedy.”
...just ‘cause it’s a minor key doesn’t make it sad...
“Be that as it may; this is no time for minuets. Better shake a leg; we haven’t got all night.”
Together you allegro assai along a viaduct till you reach the Big Blues Street Market, currently a ghost town. By daybreak (if day ever breaks again) throngs will gather here for Sunday morning whoopjamboreehoo: a teeming bazaar of huckster kiosks, bargain hagglers and burly shills who harangue the likes of Addie Mae Anderson into purchasing hawked-up wares.
Right now it feels more like an easy-credit no-money-down Twilight Zone, exuding a low-tide odor of corruption and decay.
“Never fear,” says Reuben, remotely detached as ever. “If worse comes to worst, you can always pick a spot and play your oboe for pocket change. Earn enough to buy a shovel, dig yourself a hole and follow us to China.”
He and Kukura drop out of sight, as if through a trapdoor in the gritty grimy asphalt, and take Mozart’s 40th with them.
Alone again (naturally). Passing through fetid alleys between decrepit edifices, pursued by a wraithlike cadence that builds into a twelve-bar chord progression:
I done went ‘n’ caught me a Holy Mackerel
Yeah, done went ‘n’ caught me a Holy Mackerel
Now he gon’ turn me into sump’n unnatural
As sung by the one Grandma Cat never talked about: her brother McDonald, who performed at this very market on many a Sunday and, like Little Walter, was said to pack a gat in his amp.
Uncle Babe, without mentioning him by name, would sometimes get mischievous and begin to hum a “Mackerel” Curry tune around Grandma, who always shut him up sharp: “That is the Devil’s music, boy! Don’t you raise your voice against the Lord in this house! And don’t think you’re too big for your britches for me to take a strap to their seat!”
You never seen such scufflin' and shufflin' 'til the break of dawn...
And if you ever want to get a fist in your eye, just mention a Saturday night fish fry...
Cain’ nothin’ de-stankify a daid fish—
Try to run then, run on blistering feet away from the market till its garbage-stench is overwhelmed by fried onions and sausage from a 24-hour Italian diner. Your empty stomach howls like a ghoul even as your gorge rises at the notion of swallowing solid food. Were you not a Curry, you might go in and beg for a drink of anything quenchable—but you are, so you don’t, and continue to Walk On By like Dionne Warwick.
Foolish pride / is all I have left...
Nobody lives in Greektown anymore. Its tavernas and restaurants and giftshops may have been spared, but all the residences got bulldozed in the name of urban renewal. Among them was Mr. and Mrs. Nik’s, despite their valiant resistance and that of their neighbors.
“We fought as Leonidas did at Thermopylae,” Mr. Nik once told you before playing the theme from The 300 Spartans. “Alas, with much the same result.”
However, the outcast Niks were rescued by their grandson Milo Savas, who along with likeminded risktakers invested in a couple of blocks a mile or so west of Greektown. Here too the houses had been slated for demolition, but were saved from the wrecker’s ball and awarded landmark status. Built as mansions almost a century ago before degrading to fleabaggery, they’re now well on their way to renovated restoration and are informally known as “the Preserves.”
Milo Savas’s particular Preserve is a three-story Neo-Classical greystone, with the Niks occupying its first floor. Often when you go there for lessons Mrs. Nik will take you aside to admire some fresh refurbishment, most recently a beautiful stained-glass picture window fit for a church.
“Now Mother,” Mr. Nik chided from his den/classroom, “the girl is here to study music—”
“Which means to say she appreciates the finer things in life! Is that not so, Vernonique?”
Oh yes ma’am.
True then; true now. And toward which end you turn left (right? yes, west is left) and limp the last mile or so, deeply dehydrated as well as footsore, necksore, shouldersore, stomachsore, cheekbonesore, and heartsick. (Actually all of the above except footsore, since you can no longer feel your feet...)
Just a few more blocks for to tote the weary load
No matter, ‘twill never be light
Just a few more blocks must we ease on down the road
To my oboe teacher’s home tonight...
And there, improbably, it is.
But by the time you negotiate the front gate and the front walk and the front stoop and curl up on the top step with your case in your arms like a nursing baby, the hour is so very very late or very very early that you think it polite not to bother the Niks quite yet...
“(Kid! Hey, kid! C’mon, you can’t sleep here—say, don’t I know you?)”
Nonique opened her eyes.
A man who looked like Milo Savas was peering squiffily down at her.
“M’here f’my lesson,” she informed him.
Only patchy recollections after that.
Mrs. Nik’s arms enclosing her. Mrs. Nik doling out cool sips of tap water, more palatable than the costliest champagne. Mrs. Nik bathing and bandaging her external wounds, and dosing the internal ones with secret Grecian elixirs. Mrs. Nik lending her a summer nightie, bedding her down on the couch in Mr. Nik’s den, then propping her up on pillows while feeding her spoonfuls of avgolemono soup. Shushing Nonique’s frequent tearful “(Sorrys,)” while sending dithersome grandson Milo upstairs to his own bed. (Milo’s wife had taken their kids to visit her parents for a few days, so he’d indulged in a night out "striking a blow for historic preservation” at some of The City’s more venerable bars.)
Through her tears and over the soup spoon Nonique stayed fixated on the oboe case Mr. Nik had persuaded her to surrender. He kept one protective hand upon it as he sat at his desk in his bathrobe, the other hand patiently dialing the Smiths’s number at five-minute intervals and getting a busy signal each time.
“Your mother and father must be very anxious about you,” he remarked.
“Once again: you say you fell down? And lost your purse? And walked all the way here, in the middle of the night?”
“But you do not wish us to call the police?”
“Shush,” went Mrs. Nik, again plying the soup spoon. “Eínai dýskolo gi 'aftoús,” she reminded Mr. Nik: It’s difficult for them.
After the last eggy-lemony spoonful came a fadeout of indefinite length...
—till the door whacked open like it did at the end of that silent secret snow story, letting in “a gash of horrible light” along with Shucks Smith playing power forward on a fast break as he scooped Nonique off the couch, telling her she’d “imposed on these good people” long enough, striding out of the den past the protesting Niks while Nonique yelped for her oboe, Alfreda intervening to retrieve the case and assure the Niks that Nonique hadn’t fled from an abusive home. And incidentally informing Nonique that “Your father had a word with That Boy—he won’t be upsetting you anymore.”
“Ahhhh,” said Mr. and Mrs. Nik, nodding at each other. “There was a Boy.”
A very strange enchanted Boy / who made me wander very far, very far...
She curled up in a fetal position around her oboe case on the Fleetwood Brougham’s backseat (so thoroughly different from the Cutlass Supreme’s) and answered none of Taw’s many interrogatories, he giving her no time to reply to one question before posing the next; culminating with “Whatchoo tryin’ to do, gal?? Tryin’ to ruin Alla This fo’ m—fo’ us??”
“Darling,” murmured Freda as the car swerved and veered.
“Well, it’s a helluva way to celebrate Father’s Day!”
Or to turn fifteen years old.
Knowing that her father had become so enmeshed in “Alla This”—ego-tripping as Uni-Nute’s high-dollar Rebounder, yet fearing relegation back to washed-up turnipdom—that he could never be “Taw” to her again.
Much later she would piece together the having-a-word-with That Boy. For openers, her parents had returned late as predicted from their tour of potential residential suburbs. Her mother’d taken a sleep-tight peek into Nonique’s room and found the bed occupied only by a scurrilous scrapheap. Recognizing LaVinia’s monosyllabic handiwork, Freda’d run over to the Wilmore townhouse, let herself in with a spare key and discovered LaVee passed out on the carpet beside an empty fifth of Jack. (Obtained covertly from Reese Myers in the liquor store stockroom: his equivalent of Boo Radley’s knothole offerings.)
LaVee’s revival took considerable time and effort (and bouts of porcelain purgatory, grimly induced by Aunt LeeLee when she came home from her hospital shift). Far from coherent and farther still from rational, LaVee vented a bilious opinion that Nonique could be found boinking her skanky deceitful two-faced ass all around the Dow-Dee, starting with Eddie Ray Anderson.
Freda knew the Andersons’s address, having jotted it down when the Algebra tutorials began; so the Fleetwood roared over there at a very wee hour for Daddy A. and Momma A. to be rousted out by the Rebounder pounding on their door, and astounded by his demanding to know his daughter’s whereabouts.
Eddie, as it happened, had slunk in a short while earlier after allaying Friday’s frustrations with a late Saturday in Rumah’s bewitchable embrace. Summoned from the bed he’d just climbed into (and told by his mother to go put something on over his boxer shorts) he issued a general denial of wrongdoing followed by “Hey, she led me on, man!”
This got repudiated at great length by Addie Mae, back from Detroit and in fact back inside the house only five minutes herself, after an ardent curfew-elusive tryst with Freeman Sumpter. (Daddy Anderson always waited up for her on date nights, but invariably dozed off long before A.M.’s arrival.) Momma pleaded with everyone to keep their voices down, yet Addie Mae boosted hers to Louder Crowd volume for insistence that there wasn’t a better or nicer girl at Thornford High than Nonique Smith, she’s the one who got me my C in Math, but also the one I warned a hundred times not to get scrambled up with this clumsy dummy but oh no he had to go ‘n’ get her all brainwashed so don’t you believe a single word he says about her and oh my Mr. Rebounder if you don’t mind me saying it at a time like this you sure do look even handsomer in person than you do on the TV (et cetera, et cetera, and so forth).
“Well, Eddie Ray?” went Daddy A. “What you got to say to that?”
Daunted by the circle of scowling adults, E.R. took a Bible oath that he and Nonique had only funned around with each other, no harm done; and the last time he’d seen her had been very early Friday evening when he gave her a ride—that is to say, drove her home, at her request, again no harm done—regardless of what some people (furious squint at his twin sister) might imply, impute, or insinuate.
“Ax him!” Addie insisted. “Ax him if he ain’t been talkin’ trash ‘bout Nonique to his lowlife friends!”
“Course not!” pledged Eddie, with mea culpa written over his Fair Caught face.
Vernon Smith, bumping the Anderson ceiling at a fully-risen six-foot-eight, had the aforementioned Word with That Boy about contacting, discussing, or upsetting Nonique in any way, shape, or form ever again. Then he and Freda hurried back to Ferndean Gardens, where LeeLee’d pried several more specifics out of LaVee: among them an inkling of the role Dook Ingram’d overplayed with both girls.
“(I think he gave my baby trich,” said LeeLee. “And if he did and if I get hold of him, there’s gonna be one sorry swimmer boy looking for work as a cutdown harem guard!)”
Freda, at a mindblown loss, returned to Nonique’s bedroom and methodically tidied it, eradicating the jigsaw puzzle of sullied shredded splinters, depositing these in the carton they’d come in and that carton underneath a stack of old magazines. Grieving all the while for the two little moppets who’d romped in this room “just the other day” with dolls and toys and stainless inexperience.
Downstairs Vernon manned the phone, apologetically waking up friends and relations to ask (between jawcracking yawns) if they’d heard from Nonique. Among these was Mr. Nikodemos, who reported that she’d neither shown for yesterday’s lesson nor called to cancel. Which didn’t smooth away any worry-wrinkles, but accounted for why the Niks weren’t entirely surprised when Nonique turned up on their doorstep.
“Now I gotta call ‘em all back ‘n’ tell ‘em you been found—ain’t never gonna see my bed this night—you can just forget ‘bout this bein’ yo birthday—you ‘n’ me gonna be talkin’ ‘bout this in the mornin’—no, make that the afternoon—and I’ll be wantin’ some answers, gal, so you best go dream up a few good ‘uns!”
Shucks Smith, as an often-on-the-road dad, had seldom administered day-to-day discipline. When he did it was almost exclusively to Randle, along athletic lines. (“Drop ‘n’ gimme twenty!”) With Nonique an occasional “Quit that practicin’ and get some sleep!” had been sufficient. Now his little girl had raced off the teenage rails without a word of warning, whether at That Boy’s behest or her own; and he dreaded the morrow’s Q&A session. Hitting the sack at last, Vernon tried to think how this might be fobbed off onto Alfreda, but swiftly settled into Snoresville.
Fobbing would not be necessary. For the first time in three months, Nonique slid down a ladderless chute and alighted in dreamfree oblivion—no devilish chopstakes, no implacable monoliths, no effervescent Shady Man. Nothing but static void...
...till this got rippled by a pulse-pulse-pulsing that transitioned to a melancholy mournful tempo, not unlike Purcell’s Funeral Sentences...
Cometh up and cutteth down like a flower
Fleeth as it were a shadow
Ne'er continueth in one stay...
—till erupting into sudden explosive sobs that gushed forth like Vesuvian lava over Pompeii.
OH SWEET MOTHERRR
who materialized right on cue to enfold her, nestling into the narrow bed as if to recreate another accouchement from fifteen Juneteenths ago. Rocking her like a slow metronome till the lava dwindled to a trickle, cooling on cheeks and chin and pillowcase.
“(Okay. Talk to me. The truth, now. Nothing but.)”
Confess then to having dated Eddie Ray Anderson without parental knowledge or consent, knowing this to be wrong but Eddie wanted to keep it strictly confidential since he had a really mean ex-girlfriend who stuck pins into live moths. So Nonique was swayed into secrecy, cloak-and-dagger intrigue—even to going parking on Deliverance Road despite its reputation. Eddie took her there early Friday evening, but before anything “happened” (no mention of consummate organist exploits) they were ambushed by the really mean ex’s mentally ill brother. So Nonique came to her senses and told Eddie to drive her right home, right then, and he was mad and objectionable about it yet did as she asked.
Then on Saturday morning—yesterday morning—LaVee’s boyfriend Dook showed up (no mention of wearing only pajamas outside in the courtyard at 3 a.m.) to proposition her, quoting lies Eddie’d allegedly spread about her; and before she could deal with that shock, LaVee (who already suspected Dook of being an unfaithful cheaterbutt) popped up and jumped to the wrongest conclusion imaginable. Which was no excuse for her going off the deep end and dumping a carton of trashed friendship at the Smiths’s front door.
That was the camel’s backbreaker for Nonique, who couldn’t bear to stay there a minute longer and so ran off to Aunt Duz’s, forgetting to leave a note but intending to phone from Bronzeville, except Duz wasn’t there and Nonique got blindsided by an unseen mugger, losing her purse and Grandma’s locket but saving her oboe (thank the Lord) and groggily recalling she was late for her lesson at Mr. Nik’s house. To which she proceeded to walk, not realizing how far it would be (seven miles, as later measured on a map) or how long it would take, till it was too late to turn back. Yet even though the way had been dark and ominous and sometimes menacing, she’d feared no evil because Cat was there beside her, and Reuben and Kukura for part of the time, and even “Mackerel” Curry towards the end.
She was very sorry about it all, having bothered and frightened so many people who cared about her; and she didn’t want to see Eddie or LaVee or that nasty Dook or anybody else in Riversgate ever again. The sooner the Smiths could pack up and move away to some distant suburb the better, so far as Nonique was concerned.
It went without saying there was more to this story than had been told, and Alfreda knew it; but also that what had been disclosed, however bowdlerized, was “nothing but the truth.” All the same, certain boundaries had been crossed with illicit intent; and even after weighing Nonique’s travails in the balance, certain consequences must ensue.
For going out on dates without knowledge or consent, the verdict was detention—as Randle called being grounded by their substitute-teacher/permanent-mother. That was fine by Nonique, who shunned re-entry into the Gash of Horrible Light. Yet a retreat into the shell of a tiny cold seed brought her no “grounding” in the regain-emotional-sensibility sense. She picked listlessly at food, continued to shed tears in her sleep, grew gaunt and lethargic and unresponsive. Even on the oboe she played only “Dido’s Lament” (in G Minor) over and over again.
When I am laid, am laid in earth
May my wrongs create no trouble
No trouble in thy breast...
Utterly unsure what to do, her parents welcomed a suggestion by Aunt Duz (who felt guiltily responsible for not having been there when her great-niece/kid-sister needed her). Why not have Nonique come along on a summer course Duz was taking at Gallaudet College in Washington DC, one of the foremost academies for the deaf? Change of scene; change of mood. It’d mean missing the Curry Fourth of July reunion in South Holloway Park; but as Big Zeke himself said, “We done come together too many times this year fo’ the worstest sorts o’ reasons. Y’all skedaddle—‘n’ go tell Jimmy Carter heighdy from me!”
So off they went to the District of Magnificent Distances. And apart from its sweltering even worse during July and August than Home Sweaty Home, their trip there proved to be a cure-nearly-all for Nonique. She found her appetite and refilled her figure; studied ASL basics at Gallaudet; practiced less inconsolably lugubrious music. Mr. Nik was able to connect her with a local oboe instructor named Del who majored in that instrument at Howard University and was almost rockstar-handsome, yet safely benign since he had an unabashed boyfriend called Rio and didn’t rise to pushup-bra bait (much to Aunt Duz’s disappointment).
Del taught Nonique how to blow the blues à la Yusef Lateef—“Trouble in Mind” became a signature tune—and showed her around the Howard campus, where she wanted to skip the rest of high school and enroll that fall. Rio played tour guide on sightseeing jaunts around the capital, asking deliberately naïve questions in a loud singsong voice (variously accented) and while they never got to say heighdy to the President, they did catch a living glimpse of his mother Miss Lillian.
But the cure-nearly-all had mixed results in Slumberland. No more quaffing champagne with the Shady Man in candlelit loges or bistros; she now stood on a dank riverbank and watched as he floated past, skewered by a chopstake and tossed into the drink by a Rogue Trombonist in a black-plumed shako. Some nights Nonique stood by and beheld the Shady Man’s ultimate sinkage; some nights she waded in to stage a rescue and do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation with her expert embouchure.
Either way, she could not risk returning to Riversgate. Each night, whichever way she dreamed, a prayer was sent up for deliverance from the road to relapse.
Then good news came as she and Duz were about to go out and enjoy their last lunch in DC. Nonique’s folks had just signed a rental lease on what was said to be a really fine place in Vanderlund, a far northern suburb on the opposite side of The Cityland from Ferndean Gardens and Douser Dell. “They have really fine schools there too,” Alfreda enthused long-distantly, “and the high school has a really fine orchestra.”
That much Nonique knew already: the Vanderlund student ensemble, directed by Gerard Conzelman and sponsored by generous underwriters, was perennially one of The State’s top-rated.
Brief excitement, checked by a queasy qualm.
“Is it... y’know... integrated?”
“What, darling? Speak up.”
“Is it integrated—the school? The neighborhood? Vanderlund?”
“Oh. Yes. Some.”
“...how much is some?”
“Don’t worry, darling. We won’t be alone.”
Seven words to pinprick the cure-nearly-all balloon in seven places.
Tiny cold seeds of worriment and loneliness began to sprout tiny cold tendrils.
At lunch, and at the airport, and on the flight back Aunt Duz was full of assurance that this would be a good move, one bound to come up roses. Which was a change of tune from a onetime militant who’d disdained Room 222 as “chocolate milk for Establishment Oreos” and said if you wanted a depiction of real-life schooling, go see Halls of Anger. But Nonique had enjoyed her weekly visits to Walt Whitman High, where everybody got along pretty well and even sweet shy white Helen could be unterrified friends with big belligerent black Jason.
Maybe it couldn’t happen in The City, only out in Hollywood; but as Nonique envisioned a future career with a Symphony or Philharmonic, she knew this would require mingling with white people, blending in and (hopefully) standing out on her merits. She wanted to be Vernonique Curry Smith, World-Class Oboist—not abbreviated to “that black oboist” or “that girl oboist” or, especially, That Foxy Brown Sweet Thing Check Out Her T&A Oboist. She wasn’t ashamed of who she was or how she looked or where she came from; but didn’t want those things to comprise the first and maybe only impression she might make on people, either.
Back in The Sweaty City everything was rush-rush-rush so they could moo-hoove on up in time for the kids to start school on schedule. Randle’d returned from church camp to accept the impending migration with a complacent shrug, as befit an eleven-year-old boy who had a powerful physique and gift of glib gab. (“Shucks Smith all over again,” their father’s friends called him.)
Nonique by contrast felt more and more hemmed in by stark images from Black History: Dr. King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, the Little Rock Nine. She honored and esteemed them all but did NOT want to stand out as they had—she was nowhere near that brave, that strong, or that able to juke her way out of predicaments (as her father’d done to survive at the State U).
Nor was she used to being so stranded, so isolated—so not having a best friend to talk to and rely on and commune with.
Their mothers took several shots at arranging a reconciliation, if only to say goodbye. But Nonique’s heart had hardened over the summer; she knew LaVee too well, had yanked her back too many times from toppling into truhhhhble. By now LaVee would be wholly committed to the unshakable conviction that Nonique must have given Dook some sign of readiness, willingness, availability—why else would he have let himself be seduced away from LaVee? (Never mind anything Dook might’ve inflicted on her; that was just a side effect of Being In Love.)
LaVinia had made her never-forgive-her-as-long-as-either-of-them-lived choice; now she could lie in it.
Nonique, cleaning out her bedroom, packed that selfsame carton with everything she’d ever received from or shared with LaVinia Wilmore, neatly folding the fabric items, wrapping the breakables in tissue paper, and paying Randle three dollars (bargained down from five) to lug it over to that no-longer-practically-cousin/sistah’s front door.
That’s how you smack a sassyfrass.
Then came the exodus from Ferndean Gardens, the pilgrimage up the Expressway through The City to Vanderlund. Glad their Fleetwood was so well air-conditioned, since emotional clamminess had joined physical perspiration to foggify her mind.
As she had on the Old Egyptian trek, Nonique held her oboe case close and tight from start to finish, trying to find Reuben Burns in her mindfog and solicit more worldly words of unruffled wisdom; but the only response she got was reply hazy, ask again later.
Then they arrived at the Rented House.
From outside it did look to be a really fine place, one that belonged in a far northern suburb, and fortuitously shielded from intrusion by a high brick wall with an iron-barred gate. So far, not so bad. But indoors—
They said the old lady lawyer who owned this house was a longtime advocate of civil rights, and had personally selected the Smiths as the ideal family to inject a dose of soulful color to lilywhite Kessell Road.
Promises of “minimal harassment” may have been made, but the interior of this Rented House didn’t appear to have gotten that memo. Each room seemed wary of the Smiths, or at least of Nonique: vigilant, dubious, mistrustful. Making her feel like she’d gone into a “mainstream” store and—even as the sales staff smiled—been automatically tagged as a potential shoplifter.
May I help you? (Meaning: Don’t help yourself.)
Try to picture how Grandma Cat would react, Cat who’d’ve told a Ku Klux Klan rally to go run their sheets through the washer again and this time use bleach.
Were you raised to let a vacant house rile you, child? Put your faith in The Lord and your best foot forward.
It calmed her a little but not a lot. And there was no time for fretting or brooding about this stupid house; not with the First Day of New School to psych up for.
From her jumbled baggage Nonique dug out an Addie Mae Anderson designer original: a skimmer dress of cobalt blue, its hue suitable to her mood. Which wasn’t improved by having to run for the bus that First Day, or having to board it with her cobalt bosom heaving for all the boys to see (T’s for two and two for tease), or having to put her best hesitant foot forward into a vast gray mausoleum of a high school.
At least there were other black students in attendance; though nowhere near as many as on Room 222. From this fraction she thought she found a friend that very First Morning: Claudia Thurman, who was slightly high-strung and overweening yet well-versed in the ways of Vanderlund and also nearby Lakeside Central University. A most valuable person for a newbie to know and, with any luck, buddy up with.
No such luck. “Why didn’t you tell me your father’s ‘the Rebounder’?” Cloudy demanded that afternoon in a voice dripping with scorn. Rumor had it that Vernon’d spurned an offer to live in “Happel Land” with the Thurmans and most of Vanderlund’s other black families. Vainly did Nonique deny having any say in where they’d moved; Cloudy wouldn’t listen and dismissed her with a withering “I suppose you think you’re something else!”—the most inexcusable conceit among female teens.
So Nonique finished that First Day of New School feeling miserable, and ever more so during her solitary walk “home” from the bus stop—solitary as in the only brownskinned person visible on the length and breadth of Kessell Road. True, no Caucasian accosted her by word or glance; but all the other really fine places along both sides of that lilywhite street sounded the same challenges as the Rented House’s interior:
Who are you? What do you think you’re doing here? State your business. Show some ID. Servant’s entrance is through the rear door. No excuse for failure to wear a maid’s uniform. How long before you turn tail and go the hell back where you came from?—
“Why aren’t we in Happel Land?” she wailed at her mother.
“Oh, don’t be silly. Hurry and do your homework now, so there’ll be plenty of time after dinner to unpack and set up your bedroom—”
“What’s the point? I bet we won’t last a month in this—this—” (gesture/expression interpretable as creepy old dump). “Be better off living out of suitcases, ready to move away at a moment’s notice!”
Infuriatingly, Alfreda humored her defiance and asked only that Nonique agree to make the best of things for the month in question, till the end of September. Maybe this was to keep her from bolting off again to the Niks’s, or back to DC to stay with Del and Rio; or maybe her mother too had reservations about trying to live in this—this—and would be just as glad to decamp.
Kid brother Randle had no such misgivings. He rapidly entrenched himself at Dopkins Elementary, indifferent whether he hung around with Reggie Wilmore or a gang of white boys so long as they followed his lead in raising hell. It mortified their mother, who slapped extra detention on top of the school’s; while Grandma Cat (the Implacable Monolith) doubtless waited to finish him off for his myriad sins. Whoever called him “Shucks Smith all over again” wasn’t lying.
Their father also seemed to fit in dandily on Kessell Road, signing autographs and sharing his predictions for the Bull-onies’s chances that year. (“Not as good as if I was still playin’ for ‘em!”) Nonique wondered sourly if his white audience would act so cordial if he were to announce that more blacks might be joining them next door or down the street. In any event Vernon soon took off on an extended publicity tour for Uni-Nute, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves.
Hear the echo: easier said than done.
Nonique kept out of trouble and out of the swing of things at Vanderlund Township High, where other black girls were of no more help than Claudia Thurman. Willamene Fowler, though polite, frowned at her not being a more fervent churchgoer. Etta Lang had no interest in anyone who wasn’t athletic, while her big (make that BIG) sister Louisa nodded at Nonique in the halls but had nothing to say. Rhonda Wright talked too much, all of it jokes: “You got to join the Minority Students Association, it’s a hoot ‘n’ a half—even there ‘they’ got us outnumbered three to one!” And the black guys were a flock of turkeys: bogus lothario Floyd Lewis, disaster-prone Mark Brown, gutbucketed Gabriel Bailey, and tiresome wannabe “Sniper” Jones who made Winth-ROP seem charismatic by comparison.
Pickings were a little (but not a lot) better in the Orchestra. There she was accepted hospitably by Mr. Conzelman and with a tip-o’-the-Stetson by Beau Guthrie, who projected the image of a banjo-plucking cowpoke but was possibly The Cityland’s most gifted young oboist and had won praise from Ray Still himself.
Beau was an amiable first-chair player and easy to talk to about music (he dreamed of playing woodwinds in the Hot Band for his belle ideal Emmylou Harris) yet you could hardly ask him to listen while you spilled your most intimate secrets. Not just those from the blistered past but also the distressful present: about how you always had to wonder what this-or-that white person really meant by saying such-and-such to you—and then, when you got back to the place you were staying, you had to wonder whether every unexpected thump or thwack was a racist offensive being launched at last. Which would almost be better than these constant jitters, this endless uneasiness, this perpetual anticipation of hazards ahead.
(So bad for the heart: keeping control while falling apart...)
No, you couldn’t talk to a guy about such things, not even an unfailingly kind and supportive guy like Melvin-the-Missing-Link Linfold. Only another girl would be able to fathom what you’d gone through before and were up against now. But that wouldn’t be any of the black girls you’d tentatively approached; nor Sheila Quirk (brazen, boisterous, argumentative) nor Fiona Weller (edgy, closed-off, peculiar) nor Robin Neapolitan (definitely someone to keep your distance from) nor Laurie Harrison (gossipmonger lately gone uptight) nor Samantha Tiggs (odd combination of sports star and infatuated groupie) nor Alex Dmitria (superextrafriendly for brief interludes before galloping off elsewhere) nor even Joss Murrisch (zealously wanting to be black, even combing her light brown curls with a fist-for-a-handle Afro pick).
If you were going to unburden yourself, there was only one person to turn to.
The one who’d held the bus when you ran late that First Day. The one who’d helped you back into your dress when you were upset by Cloudy’s censure. The one assigned to be your lab partner, and study hall colleague, and regular-seat-at-a-lunch-table finder. The one who (though as pretty a white girl as you’d ever known personally, even after getting socked in the face by a high-speed volleyball) apparently had as unfortunate a romantic track record as your own. The one you’d felt gratitude toward, and resentment for that gratitude, and remorse for that resentment. The one you might talk to, and rely on, and commune with—who clasped your hand and held it and encouragingly squeezed it when this story got difficult to tell. Though you sure didn’t know why she wanted to sit through it all, when (as she herself had said) it was none of her beeswax.
“Well,” said Vicki Volester after several throatclearings, “wanna know what I think?”
“Friday’s the last day of the month.”
“You said you’d give it till the end of September.”
“So maybe Joss and I, and Alex if she’s not busy, could come over after school and help you unpack. Set up this room so it’s yours.”
“‘Cause... um... I want you to stay. And not feel bad, or alone. I was a New Girl in Vanderlund, and would’ve been completely lost if I hadn’t met Joss. It helps so much to have a friend—better still, a bunch of friends. You’re never alone then. Sometimes you even want to be, and have to go hide from them awhile—”
As on the First Day, a ladylike snort trembled on the brink before tipping over into a reluctant yet unmistakable snortle. “You always make me laugh.”
“Do I? With me or at me?”
“Bit of both, I guess—”
Then a humongous SLAM from downstairs.
The girls dropped their empty Fanta bottles and clutched each other till an end-of-a-long-day voice said “Vernonique?”
Sighs of mutual relief.
They found Alfreda Smith in the process of wriggling out of her pantyhose, right there in the watchful wary rented living room. She’d hoped to resume full-time teaching now that Randle was in sixth grade; but since budgets were being cut even by far northern ‘burbs, she had to make do with intermittent work as a substitute.
“Oh!” (smoothing down her skirt with an assumption of academic dignity) “—hello there. I’m guessing you’re Vicki?... I don’t generally greet guests like this,” she added as Vicki gaped at her with dropped jaw.
“No ma’am—I mean yeah, I’m Vicki—I mean ‘scuse me for staring—but you look just exactly like my Aunt Fritzi!”
Pin-up model, showgirl, chorine, dance studio mistress, professional party planner—all the Fritzi Ritz hallmarks were there to be seen, most unexpectedly in light of everything Vicki’d just been told about her.
Now Freda and Nonique’s mouths hung open.
“Um—should I say Ahhnt Fritzi?” Vicki faltered. “I mean, she tans pretty deep—so do I—see?—‘olivaceous,’ they call it,” holding up a still-summerkissed forearm.
And causing a wild whoop of laughter to burst out of Vernonique: bemusedly, but indubitably.
Joss had a mild case of hurt feelings when informed that she’d auditioned a tad too off-puttingly for the role of Nonique’s soul sister. Don’t you dare say “I told you so,” Vicki was sub-ordered.
Why would I say you told me so?
Oh shut up.
You shut up.
At any rate, on Friday afternoon Joss came to the Old Brandoffer Place as her normal convivial self, telling funny stories about Miss Emily Brandoffer whom she’d met at law-firm festivities, and presenting Nonique with a roomwarming poster of Richard Pryor playing a bassoon. (Which Vicki was made to pay half for, even though Joss had bought it for herself a year ago: “I was just breaking it in for her.”)
Alex regretfully couldn’t be there (the volleyball team had a special Friday practice for the weekend tournament at Startop) and Ozzie was tied up till late at the Lot; but Felicia came over after awhile to meet Freda and marvel at her Fritzi-resemblance. The two mothers speculated about how genetic applesauce might’ve criss-crossed between deepest Dixie and Lithuania, while they pulled together an impromptu supper that the three girls ate up in Nonique’s half-assembled room so as to avoid rubbing grubby elbows with Randle and Goofus, who’d been shooting trashtalk hoops with the rest of their gang.
“I was feeling sorry you had to live in such an old inland house,” Joss said between bites of sweet potato pie, “but at least the walls and floors here are solid enough you don’t have to overhear every little annoyance. (This pie is so good—beats whortleberry tarts by a mile!)”
All in all, the roomwarming went “like a boudoir on fire” (as Joss phrased it) and when Nonique finally bedded down that night, it almost felt like it was her room. The entire Rented House seemed to take a sabbatical from surveillance, allowing Nonique to have her first truly pacifying sleep in a month.
(No: make that the first since New Year’s Day.)
On Saturday morning, the 1st of October, she took her oboe up to Burrow Lane where Joss and her cornet had sleptover as usual on Friday, and Nonique was invited to do likewise if and when she chose. They were soon joined by Spacyjane Groh, bringing her guitar from Cecidia Drive and also Floramour the china doll. Nonique had seen Spacyjane on the bus and thought of her as a trippy-hippie chick, given the straw fedora and embroidered haversack and unfocused star sapphire eyes. Now, from the way Vicki and Joss were reacting to her having arrayed Floramour in a tight red leatherette minisheath, Nonique had to wonder whether some criss-cross applesauce with Rumah Myers might be afoot here.
“Space, what have you done?” Joss asked sternly.
“Oh, I just thought it’d be justified. You know, for what we’re doing today.”
“Did you like sew this? It’s a perfect fit,” said Vicki, peering doubtfully at the doll.
“A little too perfect,” said Joss. “Better phone Alex and make sure Is made it to the tournament.”
Nonique raised inquisitive brows (and beauty dot) at Vicki as they trooped out to crowd into Felicia’s Firebird. “(Is?)”
“(Ever met Isabel Carstairs?)”
“(Don’t think so.)”
“(Let’s hope you just didn’t.)”
Felicia drove them to Jupiter Street, long enough for Vicki to drop off her overnight bag for the Saturday sleepover, and Joss to give Nonique a quick tour of her “I Like Black Guys” aerie gallery (where a new Richard Pryor poster replaced the one with the bassoon). Then back in the Firebird and down to the gateway of Auldforest Woods, where Jenna Wiblitz awaited them in a stiffening breeze with a weighted-down sketchpad propped on a plastic-bagged portfolio propped on birdwoman-knees propped on a furled yellow umbrella.
“How’d you tote all that over here?”
“Call me Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” chirped Jenna, whose frames today featured tiny carousel horses.
“Are you girls sure you’ll be all right?” nattered Felicia. “It’s supposed to start raining later—”
“Provided for,” said Jenna, hauling up her umbrellow by its corncob handle and giving it to Vicki, the only one without an instrument or zippercase.
“Yes, but remember what happened to you two last Saturday—”
“Mom, that was completely different! We were out with a couple of lunatics!”
“And there aren’t more of those in there?” Fel headjerked at the Auldforest Woods, as though a dozen Mad Bludgeoners were concealed behind a dozen trees.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. V, they’ll know better than to tackle all five of us at once,” Joss told her.
“All six of us,” said Spacyjane, nodding at the blonde china head protruding from her haversack. Felicia gave it a nervous glance and the Woods another, but eventually left them on their own.
“Your mom’s nice,” Nonique remarked.
“You bet she is!” Joss warmly agreed.
“She should’ve stayed—her aura’s really green,” observed Spacyjane.
“Well, before our auras get really wet, let’s take a dab at this,” said Jenna, leading the way into the forest preserve.
Trees quickly pressed around them, tall and thickset on either side of the path, arching overhead to link branches into a dense canopy that shut out the sky. Which might be helpful if it did start to rain, but also dimmed the light and cut off the breeze.
Like a regular wilderness thought Nonique, keeping close to the rest of the group. Wouldn’t want to walk seven miles in here after midnight.
“Is this really a good idea, with the weather and all?” Vicki asked Jenna. “Maybe we should’ve gone to the Startop tournament—at least that’s indoors. I mean, will Lisa ever forgive you for missing it?”
“Lisa hasn’t forgiven me yet for missing the spelling bee she won in second grade,” said Jenna. “She’ll be fine. We’ll be fine.”
“If we did do this later and Alex was with us, she could build a Girl Scout shelter out of twigs and leaves,” Joss threw in. “And if we wait a couple weeks, the leaves’ll be lots prettier—”
“Oh, I think they’re neat right now, just starting to turn,” said Spacyjane. “And raindrops hanging off their edges might be scenic.”
Scenic is as scenic does, Nonique was thinking when she, for once, almost fetched up against Vicki as she, for once, came to an isolated standstill—at the head of a footbridge that the others tromped over without pause. Her line of vision could be traced to a clump of skinny ash trees, the sight of which made Vicki take a long deep breath.
“(Tell you my story sometime,)” sighed Vicki, almost unheard over the brook babbling beneath their feet.
“(Can’t wait. But got to, for now. C’mon—)”
They caught up with the others at the “rather boggy and sad” hollow reminiscent of Eeyore’s Gloomy Place. On past Saturdays it would’ve been filled with stoners and dealers and rowdy wastrels; today there were only a few b-z-z-z-z-ing dragonflies that put the word chopstake through Nonique’s brain, very briefly, before Spacyjane distributed handwritten sheet music.
She’d unearthed some lyrics from one of the books she collected by and about women named Jane, to go with a tune “noodled together” for this occasion. That’d been enough to dissuade Fiona Weller from taking part, despite Vicki and Joss’s coaxing. “(I don’t play the clarinet outdoors, and even if I did I still wouldn’t play anything she ‘noodled.’ She gets the hell on my nerves as it is, and I don’t need that set to music.)”
Nonique could sympathize. With one eye on the score, she rolled the other at its composer: “Adagio in G minor?”
“My favorite tempo and favorite key,” smiled Spacyjane. “Hers, not so much,” she nodded at Floramour.
The players, situated by Jenna, took precarious seats on the brim of the hollow; then spoiled this tableau by scootching forward so as not to slide down to its boggy bottom. After a new arrangement (with less risk of mud) was devised, the cornet and guitar and oboe came out of their cases, the sketchpad was opened to a fresh page, and a charcoal stick was picked up like a conductor’s baton. All this in aid of delineating a scene from Phantaphyre, Wiblitz & Skinner’s shōjo manga about a star cruiser of female astrocadets landing on a planet of extradimensional entities—music-minded ones in this scene.
Nonique felt self-conscious about posing, though Jenna’d often drawn her (along with everybody else) at the cafeteria table. She was more confident about providing the group’s tuning note like a good oboist; and more at ease than Vicki the background vocalist, who had to share a score with Floramour. Less willing to dilly-dally, though; her regular lesson at the Preserves was pending, and Joss likewise had a Saturday cornet “tootorial” to get to.
Then Spacyjane began strumming a slow ethereal melody on her guitar, and in a sweet true (yet eerie) voice sang:
I dreamed it would be nameless bliss
As I loved, loved to be-ee-ee
And to this object did I press
As blind as eagerlee-ee-ee
But wide as pathless was the space
That lay our lives betwee-ee-een
And dangerous as the foamy race
Of ocean-surges gree-ee-een
And haunted as a robber-path
Through wilderness or woo-oo-ood
For Might and Right and Woe and Wrath
Between our spirits stoo-oo-ood—
Breaking off there because Joss had ceased to blow her horn, having succumbed to one of her silent-but-contagious gigglefits when they reached the haunted robber-path.
Jenna, usually unfazeable, verged on a Moana Lisaesque conniption flip until Nonique (again the good oboist) stepped up to restore harmony.
“How ‘bout we try it again without the singing?”
“Then what am I supposed to do?” asked Vicki. “Sit here and hold Floramour?”
“Look up at the sunshine,” suggested Nonique.
Sure enough, some slender beams were filtering through the overclouded sky and branchy canopy to shed a little light and cast a little shadow. So the artist went back to her sketchwork, the trio went back to adagio-ing, and the background vocalist (if not the china doll) hummed along with the otherworldly air as it was played in the shade.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Copyright © 2019-20 by P. S. Ehrlich
Return to Bolster, Not Molest Her Contents