EXCERPT FROM DEOTHA: “BATH/SCHOOL/PIA”
DEOTHA SHUT THE DOOR firmly behind the persistently righteous religious peddlers, and slammed the deadbolt (with determination). Between the Jehovah Witnesses with their neatly pressed smiles that matched the bright copies of WATCHTOWER and AWAKE, and the insistent ringing of the telephone (…“this is Macy’s calling, your March payment…”), Deotha thought she would never get into the deliciously ample tub of hot water she had started to run almost an hour before.
She paused at the refrigerator for a quick swig of apple juice, making a mental note that the bottle of milk which was the only other occupant of the top shelf was only a quarter full. If she and the kids left tonight it would make do until Monday’s delivery. She hated the store-bought containers anyway. Unbuttoning the African caftan she wore for a robe, she shrugged it off onto the floor, moved down the narrow hallway to the windowless bathroom. Blue sky glistened hot and restless through the window of her bedroom across the hall as she took a container down from the shelf over the toilet, and swirled Calgon Bath Beads into the hot water pounding into the tub. She renewed the drawn bath, making the bubbles froth up again.
Oh yes, she mused to herself, and don’t I remember this all once many times before, back, back she was drawn to when the kidney- shaped blue enamel tub with its slightly raised curved back was pressing against her well-padded little-girl’s ribs, and her mother’s quick hard hands soft for a minute in the warm water. Then back to the capacious white-enamel-over-iron bathtub on the edge of Harlem, its deep bottom raised upon the compact clawed feet between which a terrible darkness lurked, and within that darkness cockroaches big as horses, and goblins, and tarantulas and trolls. Water ran out of that tub through an indifferent noisy drain, and at the bottom shell-like chips waited threatening as the cunning water bugs those chips sometimes hid. Back to the enormous old sunlit tub with its fluted curving edges in the sunny bathroom of Mount Vernon before she was married, the prize possession of her first apartment. When in doubt, bathe. There was nothing a good hot bath couldn’t put into a better perspective, and Dee laughed to herself as she put the Calgon back. That’s just what her mother always used to say about a hot cup of tea!
Naked in the harsh light from over the washbasin, Dee uncorked a small bottle of Sandalwood essence, and added 12 fragrant drops to the water. Directions on the side of the frosted little bottle said 7, but Dee was never one to skimp in her bath. Slipped a stick of sandalwood incense out of the india-paper packet, noting again that her supply was getting dangerously low. Holding her clumsy and beloved old Zippo lighter to the tip of the brown wand until it ignited, Dee blew out the flame and breathed in the acrid plume of nutty scent. Stuck the slender wand between two books in the tiny bookcase beside the toilet, checking to see that the ash fell into the bowl.
Deotha chooses her soap. Her strong stubby fingers hesitate over then pass the slivers of clear Apricot and Avocado that she wheedles as samples out of the health-food store druggist every time she buys the children’s vitamins. Settles on the Irish Moss, gift from Laura on Bastille Day or some equally esoteric holiday, all good excuses for the giving of love-gifts.
She twirls the dial and selects a station on the pocket radio propped up on the shelf between her Old Spice Aftershave Lotion and the Mitchum’s Deodorant Stick. It’s Friday, almost spring, and just this once she passes over WINS, its staccato battering ram of bleached and insistent news -- give us 22 minutes and we will give you the world -- settling instead at the end of the AM dial, lured into the Black richness of Aretha’s ‘Amazing Grace’. Beside all the clutter on the toilet-top shelf lies the wristwatch stripped off as she entered the bathroom. She has chosen. Blows up her yellow bath pillow just enough to cushion her head against the unforgiving rim. The half- filled sack of air yields to her fingers as she attaches the rectangle by little suction cups to the back of the bathtub just above the steamy fragrant water. Glides into the hot scented tub. Goose pimples spring like fire to her thighs, her shoulders. A few bubbles burst whispering to her shudder, then the welcome heat rising slowly over her back like an electric rope.
She felt herself a velvet spring unwinding, a contradiction in terms Dee murmured sinking deeper into the water. A bluet for your belt-page, Dee-Dee darlin’ her head drifting sliding into the open float of caressing fragrant water so like the trailing fingers of a lover. Lifting tension out of back muscles tight in anticipation of defense or attack. Lifting her tough under-exercised but over-driven young Black woman’s body into the lees of a short strong sleep, as if the very cells demanded respite, their own time of quiet.
The moon was rising south through the living room windows as Dee unfolded herself from the paint-stripping of an old oak bureau drawer found in a trash heap on lower Riverside Drive. Her nose twitched and her fingertips stung from the messy task she was hurrying to finish. Discarded section of the Sunday Times layered the round wooden dining table (once salvaged from an alley on the Lower East Side), and the tiny dining alcove reeked with the acrid fumes of varnish-remover.
An old player piano was wedged into a space between the living room and the dining area, its sturdy back forming a low half-wall to the dinette. On its mahogany top perched a footed railroad clock whose chimes accompanied every activity conducted by anyone anywhere in the apartment so long as that activity extended over half an hour, and except on those Sundays when Dee had forgotten to fetch down the brass key from the jar on the top shelf where it lived safe from children’s skate key-seeking fingers, and lovingly wind the two mechanisms that controlled the clockworks and the chimes. Then the Sunday silence would remind Deotha if Adrian didn’t, her 8 year old voice high with reproach, “Hey mom, the clock’s stopped!”
When company came the face framed in ornately carved walnut was turned outward toward the living room, brightly chronicling the leisurely visit. But more usually it faced the dinette, recording the jerky brass seconds that went into every minute wasted or savored or begrudged but never recovered, never sustained, never enough.
Deotha straightened, and out of habit, her eyes brushed past the brassy clock-face, a sudden shiver rolling deeply throughout her body. An abrupt draining off of every other tension into one single focused bone crunching terror-who was supposed to pick up the kids today? Maggie? Selena? Herself? Fire fine shards of ice radiating out from her spine up along the edges of her scalp clear through to the middle of her brain. Realization, no escape. She had forgotten. Forgotten. Forgotten.
No one to pick up the children after school at the bus stop. 7:30 PM already dark outside and the moon just rising. Adrian and Ronald, their plaid book bags and Flintstones lunchboxes still standing on the bustling street-corner. My God! Did anybody see a little brown girl and her baby brother standing on the corner of 135th Street and Amsterdam Avenue worried and alone as the sun was going down? Did someone take them in but nobody’s called they know their phone-number who where when how come who shall I call first control control control seeping out of her like stale urine cool it goddamn it think order order order and Deotha Chambers palmed the cold sweat off her suddenly livid freckles fighting for some rational use for the burst of energy detonating inside order time order time her stomach knotting everything suddenly grey in her eyes and her ears beginning to ring. The battle between panic and useful action threatened to engulf her as she reached desperately for the control mechanisms she had paid so much so often to preserve for just such a dreaded eventuality.
A bright shimmer of sunlight hit the aluminum casing of the bedroom window and shot across the narrow hall, piercing through the nightmare to force Dee’s eyes apart, the ultimate nightmare become reality becoming nightmare again then slowly retreating. One slow minute during which the steadying of her own heart occupied all energy not already sapped by her desperate reaching for control, and within the shifting world of that discrete minute, the nightmare clung to her pores, only slowly yielding its panic to the sunlight’s release.
Deotha stirred, shook herself in the water, and scrambled upright, then stepped dripping out of the now cool tub. She wrapped an outsized and once luxurious orange bath towel around herself and shoved her well-shaped feet into a pair of old plastic beach thongs. She dried herself quickly, paying particular attention to the tender channels between her toes.
“I’m glad I don’t have elegant feet,” Dee thought, pulling the cork out with a hollow pop. “I wonder if Black women’s corns are a socio-economic fact or the difference between pudgy and bony toes. Maybe both…” She listened for a few seconds automatically until she was sure of the slurp slurp that meant the drain stop had released itself and the scented bathwater was running out down the pipes and out to sea. Dee plucked up her nurse’s watch and slid it onto her damp wrist. Twenty of, but she was always five minutes fast. With any luck she would get out of the house only a very few minutes behind and those she could make up driving across town if the traffic wasn’t too heavy.
No time for a real oiling. Dee loved the slip of sweet oil between her palms and the planes of her body, but now there was no time. One quick swipe down her thighs across both knees and around her elbows and heels, hastily. She ran her hands once through her crisp short hair, wiping off the remaining oil and without a break in her movement crossed the hall into her bedroom as she pulled on her jeans, then slid into her light blue sweatshirt, with CCNY emblazoned across the chest. She still wasn’t sure what she was going to do about the meeting tonight.
Dee patted her hair back into place, grabbed her checkbook and comb from the bureau, and moved rapidly through the hall back to the front of the apartment. The intensity of foment over the embattled birthing of a Black and Puerto Rican Department at Connors College percolated through her, bubbling over into her consciousness. A strategy meeting had been called by the junior Black faculty, all three of them. They felt their powerlessness keenly, alternating between bravery and pathos.
The meeting tonight was to draft a position paper on the question of split chairmanship, for even before the already beset department had become a reality, personality clashes between Cumberbatch and Isabella were escalating the always volatile political differences between Blacks and Latins on campus into confrontations that were painful, time-costly, and self-destructive. For these confrontations, bitterly emotional and fueled by painful histories, nonetheless occurred under the scrutiny of an administration that pretended not to interfere, but which would have breathed a collective sigh of righteous relief at the failure of this grudgingly allowed experiment called a Black and Puerto Rican Studies Department. Connors College was committed on paper to its cosmetic existence, a victory won by two years of students striking for open admission. But there were many forces watching gleefully from the sidelines anticipating its still-birth, or early self-destruction.
The four other members of the proposed department, ethnically and sexually mixed, were trying to have some input into the growing acrimony between Cumberbatch and Isabella before the acrimony encouraged polarities between Black and Puerto Rican students. Nursing the distrust between Black and Puerto Rican students on campus was the most convenient tool for encouraging chaos. Complicated by the fact that Cumberbatch Smith, Black sociologist and encyclopedia salesman from New Jersey slated by the administration to head the new department, was a serious mistake, in Dee’s opinion. She has seen the look in his eyes, lightning quick hidden, but not fast enough. The avarice of power.
Complicated by the fact that most of the Black students at Connors, bruised and suspicious of the administration’s unspoken opposition to the department, mistook loyalty to Cumberbatch as loyalty to the cause of Black Studies at Connors College. The long suppressed aspirations of many of the Black students had been given new voice by a wind of possibility called Open Admissions sweeping throughout public campuses, the most promising result of the student unrest inaugurated by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Vietnam war. With the passionate over-simplification of their years, they could not hear that Cumbah Smith’s thirst for self-aggrandizement was no useful substitute for a creatively conceived and executed Afrocentric curriculum.
Complicated by the fact that a largely silent group of students together with members of the junior Black faculty did not accept the idea of Smith as their choice of chairman, but this group looked upon Dee as the other viable Black alternative. After all, she and Cumbah had been at Connors the longest. But this was 1969, Nation time, a time for new beginnings based upon the old ways rediscovered. And in the errors of an incomplete vision, none of the group was willing to suggest publicly at this racial juncture the idea of selecting a Black woman ‘over’ a Black man, no matter how incompetent. Complicated by the fact that, even though she knew she could do a better job than Cumberbatch one hand tied behind her, the last thing in the world Deotha Chambers wanted in her already complex life was the chairmanship of an embattled Black Studies Department.
Complicated by the fact that the only other possible candidate was Isabella Gomez D’Avila, young militant Puerto Rican Nationalist whose worst furies had recently been redirected towards all things Black. And true, Cumberbatch Smith had declared war upon her at first sight, fueled by his woman hatred and distrust of all things Latin. Deotha felt conflicted and uncomfortable whenever she thought of Isabella, whose abrasive manner and quick angers too often led Deotha to ignore the basic commonality of their visions.
Opening her consciousness to the racial complications brewing at Connors made Dee shudder, and gave her an instant headache. A relevant Black education. IF NOT NOW, WHEN? The very thought of it was an excitement that percolated through Deotha also, that kept her thinking and dreaming of the possibility for Black students at Connors. She could see the dangers of a limited vision at the same time as she felt her own reluctance to implement any broader one.
This hastily called meeting tonight was not really going to change anything and it would mean that she and the children would not be able to get out of the city until Saturday morning, which meant it would be late afternoon before, excited and whiny, they would pull into the neatly flowered driveway at the end of Princess Lane, second exit off Route 95 East to Apponaug. And that would be the equivalent of a whole extra day lost. Laura. A whole extra night, which was where it was really at.
Besides, who could she get to stay with the kids on such short notice? Maybe they could sleep over at Selena’s since it was Friday but then it’d be such a hassle getting them away in the morning and back upstairs to pack. But maybe not since they really wanted to go to the country. But she knew from experience past that the kids were good company for Selena’s daughter Cherrie, and their playing together gave Selena some much-needed extra sleep on a Saturday morning. Warm and generous to a fault, Selena’s lack of interest in any pursuit that might mean an end to some pleasurable moment for herself would, without fail, result in her somehow aiding and abetting the natural Saturday morning procrastinations of the Chambers kids.
It would be nightfall before they pulled into the hedge-lined driveway. Laura already in the doorway, having watched them turn into the Lane. Maybe Mattie next door could come over, but Dee would have to try and catch her before Mattie left for music lessons since Friday was an early day for her from school… Dee reached for the cream- colored wall-phone in the dining area, and the instrument jangled under her fingers. “Oh shit!” she mumbled as she raised the receiver to her ear, impatience dripping out of her voice like acid leaving it chill and uninflected and smoothly neutral. “Hello?”
“Leave our department alone, lezzie!”
The angry young male voice was abrupt and almost a shade embarrassed, Dee thought later. A sharp intake of breath was rapidly followed by a click-click interrupting Dee’s startled “Who is this?”, even as her gritty snicker blanketed the surprise in her voice and she found herself holding a dead phone.
Without hanging up, Deotha reached out and thumbed the cradle-hook, dialing Mattie’s number and hoping she hadn’t already missed the girl. As the phone buzzed on the other end, Dee raised her left foot to the seat of the chair over which she was bent, telephone held scrunched between ear and shoulder, tying her sneaker as the phone buzzed on. Had that voice been at all familiar beyond young Black urban male? One of her students, perhaps? The slightest suggestion perhaps of a West-Indian cadence behind “Leave our department alone, Lezzie!” Dee snickered once more, humorlessly, as the receiver was picked up on the other end.
“Hello, Mattie? Dee, next-door. Are you free tonight by any chance? I might have to go out, an emergency meeting at school.” She was the only mother she knew who felt called upon to tell her sitters why she wanted them. As Dee listened, she patted her rear pocket to check for her money, at the same time eyeing the cluttered table for her pocketbook and car-keys. “Okay, good, Mattie” I’ll buzz you after they’re in bed or else I’ll call if the plans change. I really appreciate this. Gotta run.” Dee’s quick fingers reseated the phone as she grabbed up the keys luckily spotted peeking out from under a newspaper.
The afternoon sun filled the space with watered light. From midway up the wall over the phone, a calmly beautiful Watusi princess eyed Deotha quizzically from the framed LIFE Magazine photograph that hung against a three-foot wide panel of once elegant straw cloth wallpaper, its delicate pampas green now faded by the fierce setting sun which shone each evening through the terrace doors 20 stories up over the Hudson River.
* * *
Deotha eased her sneakered pressure from the gas-pedal, consciously forcing herself into a calm outside of panic. She felt the worn back tires of the old Rambler soften as they heeled into the last deep curve of the 95th St. traverse through Central Park. On either side of the sunken roadbed, the spring-tender trees were adolescent green and pale, a-shudder with noisy grackles whose iridescent wings were sleek as the curly hairs escaping along Pia Milano’s neck. But Pia’s hair had more life to it than the bird’s wings -- it was almost like Black people’s hair, especially when it had just been cut.
Dee pulled into the right lane and shot on her turn signal, but the red light caught her at Fifth Avenue and she creaked to an abrupt halt. This was no light to run, ever. Already trucks and busses honked and elbowed their way across the fashionable intersection and past the bubbling fountains of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Spring Show banners were already flying. No matter how old the car, good brakes were one thing Dee always insisted upon having in any car she was going to drive her kids around in. If shocks went they went, but good brakes and solid tires were just common sense. Living defensively, Dee thought, and a comfort too, besides.
Solid tires. Solid tires. A sudden image of the worn and patched spare tire doing service now as the rear left wheel vaulted into Dee’s vision superimposed upon the red streetlight. BLOCK IT! BLOCK IT! The censor that lived behind her left ear pushed the image away. She hated to get caught at this particular light, because it seemed to stay red forever. But no sense in getting upset this close, the worst was over. Dee glanced at her watch, one eye out for the changing light. 3:05. Maybe she was 10 minutes fast today. If so and she made all the lights down Fifth edging left as she went she could swing right into the block and maybe not have to stop for the school-busses still blocking the street and then she’d only be five minutes late which wasn’t so terrible since the traffic today was the worst she’d seen in weeks and at any rate certainly worse than yesterday when she’d been almost exactly on time. At least she’d left the same time and only been five minutes late. For Deotha Chambers on time meant somebody else didn‘t mind the wait.
She swung left into 82nd Street just ahead of the light and of course there were no parking spots. Double-parked cars and busses narrowed the uneven spaces, interspersed with peaks of dirty melting snow. To make matters worse, a honking van forced Dee to circle the block, cursing under her breath. She hoped someone in the school– office had been looking out of the window and had seen her car as she passed, so at least they would know that today her heart was in the right place. She swung into the block again, the huge grey Museum across the Avenue looming in her rear-view mirror like a warning saint.
The absence of mothers gathered and milling about in front of the school told Dee that she was indeed actually and unavoidably late. There were always a few thin, well-dressed and softly apologetic young white women who actually lived in this neighborhood, and they arrived every afternoon on foot to walk their children home. There was even a chauffeured car that picked Eric up daily. On the days that Eric’s mother came along with the car, she too looked softly apologetic, but she still had her driver park, double or triple, directly in front of the school entrance.
Private cars and private school busses clotted the short street. Dee finally nosed the salt-streaked old car triumphantly into an almost spot just vacated by a double-parked van from the Yeshiva up the street and ignoring the loud beeps from the Willow Car driver who’d been waiting for the spot, she shifted into park, jammed on the emergency, and grabbed her bag as her sneakers hit the slush- rotten snow.
Dee shrugged her shoulder straight inside her dull green corduroy jacket, composing herself as she entered the school. Down a brief hallway, and she stepped into her son’s brightly decorated classroom.
Pia Milano looked up quickly from the desk where she was seated, edges of light catching her dark lashes briefly. For Pia, it was the end of a week of four year olds, all healthy, bright children, wired for security. And this week they all seemed to have spring in their bones. For the first time that school-year Deotha noticed that Miss Milano’s wrap-around smock was a lot like her own mother’s post-depression apron, and this made the usually snappy broad- hipped woman with the sparkling smile seem almost familiar.
“Oh good! Hello, there.” Pia Milano’s voice lifted, a curl in the middle. “Ronald, your mother’s here.” Slid back down again, smoothly. “How are you, Mrs. Andrews?” the teacher directed her smile and eyes a fraction lower that Deotha’s, but already Dee could feel herself becoming the late and guilty scholarship mother reacting to criticism.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” she began, “the traffic…” Miss Milano pushed herself away from the desk and stood up, her round black eyes unaccented and without reflection. She caught her upper lip for a moment as if reaching for the faint dark fuzz above her mouth. Her sturdy country-girl’s neck arched downward into fine strong breasts, apron-draped and tame as a teacher, but a light musk rose from the curls behind her ears, from her slanted collarbones and from beneath the one loose strand of dark, escaping hair. Was there the shade of a quirk in the corner of her smiling mouth? Were those flashing teeth really calling calling calling to Dee as she had heard women calling to her before, in silence, sometimes even before they themselves knew the name of the sound of such calling? Without thought, Pia’s tongue flicked quickly over her full lips, and Deotha dropped her eyes in a momentary confusion of time and place.
Suddenly anxious not to lose contact with the other woman, Pia Milano moved forward, closing the distance between them until she stood quite close to Deotha, her fragrance drifting up toward the brown-skinned woman. Pia turned her head slightly and their eyes met once again.
Instantly, Dee’s retina took in an indelible print of desire calling and answering need and this image was totally inconsistent with anything happening in the material world, or even consciously recorded by either woman. But that print would remain in indelible living color within Dee’s image files until some distant moment when it was needed and would then be resurrected, as would be the esters rising from Pia’s body in delicate waves that faded from her nostrils even as she registered them.
“Yes, isn’t the weekend traffic in the block getting terrible?” Pia cocked her head slightly, the shorter of the two. “Is Ronald going away this weekend, Mrs. Andrews? He’s been very excited all day.”
Deotha wanted to say, “I’m using Chambers again, because that’s my own name,” but she’d wondered about the effect of the divorce upon the children’s scholarships, sensing only too well that her primary protective covering in this alien environment was her position as somebody’s wife and Adrian and Ronald’s mother.
“We’re going to visit a friend and maybe do some skiing,” Dee offered, thinking as she spoke that it sounded like a daring and exciting thing to say, an adventure that would disconnect her from the judgmental schoolmarm standing beside her, wreathed in what Deotha felt as a vaguely authoritarian air.
Pia’s eyes brightened with surprised interest. “Oh? That sounds like fun. Where are you going?” And for a moment the two women slid out of character again, and Deotha could feel their worlds swooping closer to each other in some dimly understood but potentially dangerous glide. The sweet green air surrounding the house in Apponaug came back to her with an acute and compelling urgency. Maybe she and Laura could take the kids up into Diamond Hill Sunday morning, renting skis in the park at the bottom of the hill. “Rhode Island,” Dee answered. “Apponaug.”
“Oh. Rhode Island.” The flattened repetition suddenly placed Diamond Hill’s gently homey slope and all of the rest of Rhode Island into their proper and irredeemable perspective. Pia Milano did not sniff, but the tone of her voice clearly indicated she might have as she finished, with an offhand smile, “I didn’t know there was any skiing in Rhode Island.”
Deotha straightened her back, emphasizing the difference in height between them as she breezily covered her tracks. “Oh, it’s just some little hill, you know, where the children can practice. Nothing really special.” She recognized immediately that she had blundered into the restricted outskirts of a world with which this woman—whatever her beginnings—had gradually come to identify. And Pia Milano shared that world vicariously with the mothers who considered New Canaan Day School their neighborhood school, and who took their children skiing regularly at the very best ski lodges.
The two women moved slowly toward the play area of the large classroom. The teacher reached up to pat her hair back in place and began another provocative smile that transformed her face into Madonna-like softness. “He’s just putting his blocks away.”
“How’s Ronno been?” Dee’s query was half in response to Pia’s smile, half to fill the time. Placing the last large cardboard block resolutely upon its shelf, the sturdy round-faced little boy came bounding across the room toward the women, only to swerve at the last possible moment and disappear into the boys’ toilet on his way past the coat corner.
“Oh Ronald’s been very cooperative recently, Mrs. Andrews. Except for rest period, of course. But he always seems to save it for then. Like clockwork. As soon as I turn down the lights and everyone else is quiet. I put him right beside my desk so I can keep my eye on him while I do my papers, but that does not seem to make a bit of difference.” Pia chuckled in exasperated amusement. “But as soon as I turn on my desk lamp and start to work, I can count on Ronald’s starting to act up. It’s like he thinks he’s invisible. Do you have any idea why he acts up like that during rest?
Deotha widened her mouth into a smile that felt more like a grimace, for she was grinding her back teeth at the same time. “I can’t imagine,” she said into the air. She eyes the other side of the room where the door to the boys’ toilet stood mutely shut, beside the brightly colored coat-stalls, each with a child’s photograph thumbtacked into the wood. “At home, when I’m working on my music, I work at the table in the dining room and both kids play in the living room. They know almost nothing they do will disturb me as long as it’s not dangerous. It’s like when I’m working there’s a force-field across the threshold and they both know better than to step across it. Adrian and Ronno can get pretty boisterous sometimes but as long as it stays below a dull roar and nobody gets hurt, they know I won’t say anything. And it works out all right. They get a little ruckus and I get a little time. It beats television.”
Deotha turned her face back to the teacher. She was smiling appreciatively at the thought of those times, and the children’s fine- tuned sense of just how much noise was not too much. She could not say how terribly precious those moments of complete submersion into her work were to her.
Miss Milano looked directly up into Dee’s eyes, a slight but definite reproach written into the lines of her forehead. Dee felt her hackles rise. She hated being patronized, particularly by the New Canaan School staff and teachers. They always did it so delicately and with such attempts at liberal understanding that she found it often impossible to get a handle with which to sling it back into their faces. Pia Milano spoke with some hesitation. “Oh yes, that certainly would explain it, wouldn’t it? but do you think that’s a very good idea?” The two women stopped walking. Dee’s smile faded abruptly. “Well, that’s the only time I have to do my own work,” she said wryly, eyeing the opposite side of the room and wondering what was taking the boy so long. The unspoken rest dangled between the two women, defensive, explanatory, and impatient.
The teacher sought Dee’s face again, her round white face sincere and almost fierce in its earnest appeal. After all, she had been the first teacher on the Board who had fought hard to have Black students be given scholarships to the prestigious school. Pia Milano felt herself committed to making this experiment work, and she felt that her concern certainly gave her the right to encourage the correct behavior. She was sure that Mrs. Andrews was one who would want the best for her children, once she knew what the best was.
“But Mrs. Andrews, you’ve got to remember, you will always be able to write your music but Ronald will only be young once.” Her voice was pleading rather than reproachful. Did it really have to be one or the other? The tasteful little hallway of the Lower School began to heave as Dee felt guilt rising into her mouth like a wall of vomit. “By the way, it’s Ms. Chambers,” she said, carefully, “I use my own name now.”
Before Pia could reply, the door across the classroom opened and a small beige figure in a burgundy velour pullover came hurtling out toward them. Pia turned. “And here’s Ronald, all set for his weekend. Doesn’t he look pleased with himself, Ms. Chambers?” Pia’s voice carried the conspiratorial lilt grownups sometimes use to re-establish connection around children they do not wish to exclude.
But Deotha was not having any such false truce. Racism yawned like a fetid gulch between them, and heavy gates of self-protection clanged shut around her. She reached down to give her son a tight squeeze in greeting, releasing him with a smile as Ronald pulled on his jacket. Her fingers lingered for a moment upon his cheek and then gathered up the plaid book bag he had dropped at her feet.
“Have a good time skiing this weekend, Ronald,” said Pia Milano, patting the little boy’s crispy curls, so like his mother’s. “You too, Ms. Chambers, have a good time.” Ronald and his mother were already at the door. Dee turned, her smile already on automatic. “Why thank you, Ms. Milano, you too.” Pia walked back into her classroom and began to clear her desk.
She felt a stab of disappointment. She had sensed the rapidity with which a certain intensity had drained away between herself and Ronald’s mother. The boy was certainly bright enough. She found his troublesome parent intriguing and infuriating, --a pedagogical challenge. Outreach to the shifting school population. And Ronald was clearly in that category. On scholarship, Black, divorced parents, a working mother…And she was such a busy one, too, from all reports. Of course the boy could be expected to have problems. How surprising the mother didn’t see her responsibilities more clearly, with such bright children, too. The older sister was quite quick, also. And the mother appeared to be quite intelligent, but clearly she was one of these women lately who were too independent for their own good, and of course it was the children who had to pay for it. Mothers were not career women. The idea.
Pia untied her apron and flicked off the light, checking her room one last time. A vision flashed suddenly across her consciousness, Deotha Chambers’ strong shapely hands shepherding her son out of the schoolhouse door.
Dee angled the old car up Madison Avenue, buffeted by a fulminating rage which covered a nagging question. Was it true she could only express her own life at the expense of her children? She knew only too well the elusiveness of such questions, shrouded in the homily of only time will tell. No answer, only a fear.
The little boy in the seat beside her talked on. Dee’s eyes slid sideways for a moment, relishing the animated dance of Ronno’s stubby little hands as he illustrated his day’s journey. The curve of his jaw and the set of his young mouth reminded Dee with a tug of the faded pictures on her mother’s bureau, except his open excited face was beautiful in a way her closed and defensive one had never been at his age.
Dee braked abruptly to avoid a swerving bus. Automatically her right arm shot out across the little form in the passenger seat. She was not yet accustomed to the new seat belts she’d just had installed bullying and bribing the children into the habit of always using them. Force of habit, that gesture that was to outlast both of children’s childhoods.
Adrian, jitter box tomboy helpful beyond her years, Ronald of the soft intractable hair and fiercely beautiful mouth. Was it really them who were paying for that psychic space Dee found it so hard to come by?
It was less than a year now since Dee had made up her mind to wrest, demand, connive, steal, pillage, strong-arm, ransom or bulldoze at least three hours every single weekend in which she could be uninterruptedly with her music-- reading, writing, picking it out on her beloved ill-tuned white elephant of a piano-- sound and vibrations come alive in her fingertips setting up a net of vision that felt like flying.
Even belted in, the little boy’s energy warmed the car, Ronno’s chatter lapped at the edges of Dee’s thoughts as she moved them uptown through the swelling weekend traffic. From time to time she gave a short encouraging ‘um-hum’ to some particularly focused eddy, and that response allowed the stream to continue flowing easily. The specific contents of his childish conversation passed through the mothering section of her consciousness, registering upon her third ear, filtered through that particular faculty whose only function was to alert the next level of concern to any deviation from the wide range of possibilities and occurrences which represented a four-and-a-half- year-old Black boy’s average day at a upper East Side private school with liberal pretentions.
As they crossed 110th Street, that faculty registered an alert. “…to the country tonight?” and the question in the little boy’s voice brought his conversational flow skidding to an expectant halt as he turned to Dee, waiting for an answer. Dee’s censor processed the question with lightning speed through a scatter of unattended considerations and decisions that had been percolating within their own perspectives and without the benefit of conscious attention through the whole time Dee had been dealing with the events at New Canaan and their psychic fallout.
“We’re not leaving for Rhode Island till tomorrow, Ronno. We’ll start out early in the morning and it’ll be nice. But I have a meeting tonight.” It was not until she began to answer her son that Dee realized she had, in fact, made up her mind to go to the meeting that evening.
Ronno’s disappointment was immediate and unequivocal. “Ah, Ma-a-a! Not tonight! I want to drive to the country at night, mommy!” The little boy flopped back in his seat, his small body radiating disgruntle. He was silent for a minute, long curly lashes drooping, almost close to tears. Brightening, suddenly, Ronald turned a mischievous eye upon his mother. “Who’s going to stay with us, Daddy?” The innocence of the little boy’s question did not for a moment conceal the contradictory pressures within him, nor could it dull the unerringly accurate barbs of the perceptive child’s unconscious.
Daddy? With a jolt Dee remembered. Of course. This is the week for Phillip to have the kids from six to nine on Friday night. Well, too bad. If I’m not home by 9:00 he’ll have to drop them off at Mattie’s or Selena’s, and one of them will put the children to bed. Or maybe I’ll let them stay up until I get back. Shouldn’t be past 10:00. But that would mean their sleeping late tomorrow and then no early start. On the other hand, we could pack after I come home … I hate not being here when Phil brings the kids back. He’s such a shit with his nasty remarks to the kids about mother always being too busy .... Deotha swung the weary Rambler along the upper edge of Central Park. Despite the decaying snow on the ground, the willows bordering the underground stream that ran along the park’s north boundary had a rosy tinge. She had already noted them with pleasure that morning, looking out along Riverside Drive from her 20th floor terrace as the children had breakfast.
Spring was coming, thank god. Again. Earth has not decided to give up. Yet. Dee had come to feel a definite stab of relief in recent years when the new season finally showed signs of beginning, even though she had always insisted that spring was her least favorite season. Nevertheless, it always felt to Dee as if the earth had given humanity another brief reprieve, opened herself again to possibility and salvation.
“No, Ronno. Your father’s not going to stay with you. Selena will get you ready for bed if I’m not home by the time you get back. Or you and Addie can start packing your knapsacks for tomorrow so we can leave early. It might even be fun to start out at dawn. What do you think? We’ve never done that before.” Ronald grinned at the idea of a new adventure. Dee wondered if L&F Tires was open that early.
“What did you have for lunch today?” New Canaan was noted for its Friday lunches.
“Some kind of lamb balls and teensy little spaghetti letters and beans and a yucky desert with real marshmallows all over it.”
Good, Dee thought. That means only a light supper, and if Addie gets home from her date with Persia on time we’ll be in good shape. Persia’s mother’s supposed to drop her off at 5:00.
“Sounds like a good meal. How about grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches for supper tonight?” The little boy’s eyes lit up, even though it was not an infrequent treat, only his favorite, for the time being.
“Yeah! Goody! And I get to hold the toasty-iron this time and Addie doesn’t hold it at all because she held it both times last time?” By now Ronno was jumping up and down in his seat belt as they rounded the last curve and headed up Morningside Drive. Dee smiled to herself. She knew the little boy was pushing his advantage, having mommy in the car all to himself. She knew he was also cashing in a bit on her guilt about the meeting tonight preventing their precious night jaunt to Apponaug. 4:15. The street light at Broadway and 123rd street seemed endless.
“We’ll see when Addie comes home.”
Dee remembered last Sunday afternoon, as she stood in the kitchen slicing carrots and watching the late winter rain. She kept one ear on the children’s patter beyond the half-wall in the living- room, where Addie and Ronno and Selena’s Cherrie were trying to decide what indoor game to play. Adrian’s big-sister voice, “I know, let’s play going to a meeting!” Ronno and Cherrie’s excited assent, “yeah, yeah!”
Amused and curious, Deotha moved to the end of the tiny kitchen so she could look past the piano into the living room. This was a new game, and she wondered what it would entail. Seven-year-old Adrian, head in the air, was bustling around the room in quickstep time, gathering up newspapers and magazines under one arm as she went. Her thick dark eyebrows were pulled down in an exaggerated frown as she moved back and forth from chair to couch to table. The other two children followed behind her, lifting up objects and putting them back down, shaking their heads back and forth.
“Where’s my papers, where’s my papers, where’s my papers?” the little girl panted, shaking her tousled head from side to side in an imitation of Deotha so precise and evocative that it left mommy weak with embarrassed and silent laughter in the kitchen. Dee had not realized before how deeply the pressures of the Black Studies controversy at Connors had filtered down into the children’s daily lives.
The light changed and Dee edged into the northbound traffic on Broadway.