By Marge Piercy
PM Press Copyright © 2013 Middlemarsh, Inc
All rights reserved.
In Which Jill Forces Herself on Herself and Begins
The day before yesterday was my birthday and Josh boiled two lobsters in seawater and then baked a chocolate cake for the party later, so rich I wanted to eat it in tissue-paper slices. As the sun shone warm for late March, the first seedlings, tthe cress, broke through the ground in the garden we had plowed and planted last week. All day I was glad but curiously light and cut loose.
In midafternoon I suddenly knew why. When my mother last read my palm that summer I left home for good, she told me I would die between the ages of thirty-eight and forty-two. I had passed out of a zone of danger.
"How could you have believed her?" Josh asked.
I didn't: some child closeted in me did. As I ran out of the house yesterday at seven to drive to the airport with my head stuffed with the grit and sand of fatigue, something was nagging at me. All day in airports and bumpy planes, I hunched notebook in hand expecting a poem to issue from this curious itch, but it didn't.
I was met by three graduate students and taken to my motel. A workshop followed with some good questions and a chance to make a few political points, a potluck supper with the local women's center, my reading. I strode to the microphone in my velvet gown patterned like a starry night and knocked over the water pitcher as I adjusted the micro phone — always preset too high. "We expected you to be taller," they said, as they always say. Then I went for their hearts. Passion out of accidental circumstance transcended is what they're buying.
Afterward at the reception, the timidity, the weirdness, the undulating snake dances of ego before me kept me on edge. "Aw, come off it," I wanted to say. "It's just this person, me. All those years when I made a living at part-time secretarial work, people like you wouldn't even say hello to me. What's the fuss?" They think I am the books solidified, but the books are the books. I'm just this round cranky tired woman who would rather be home in bed with Josh by now telling the beads of our days and making the amber of that reality shine with the heat of our bodies. Too much self-regard has never struck me as dignified: trying to twist over my shoulder to view my own behind. And it is not a mirror I want but a long view back. I feel as if I have come through rough terrain and across the wasteland around factories and down unmarked city streets without a map and I both know and do not know where I have been. I want to explain to somebody. To me? To Josh? The hypothetical gentle reader? For though I have crossed the danger zone alive, still at forty my life was wildly shaken by divorce, and if I find myself still myself now, that seems more of an accomplishment than it used to. I also find myself hard in love in a way I have to search far back in my life to match.
It is not that whole busy swarming life, then, I feel compelled to march through leading you in a crowd of tourists into the bazaar but those few years when I became the woman I have somehow in all weathers and colors of luck remained. I want to revisit that burned-over district where I learned to love — in friendship and in passion — and to work.
Today three planes end to end like rackety subway cars through the clouds have brought me home safe at last, so I'm inclined to dawdle here where there is always wind fresh off the ocean and the sound of wind chimes and gulls crying and cats mewing on the wrong side of every door and one of our typewriters going. Whenever I get back, I wander in circles singing, so glad to be back, so glad to be back. Are you so damned sure you'd like to meet your young self face-to-face? Mother of what I am now, sucker, poser, kid rawer than I would like to admit and yet survivor, with the wariness and strong stomach of the scavenger. I can summon up pity for a battered alley kitten. Annoyance. Patronizing approval. The desire to stick my fingers in and make me prettier, cleaner, braver, better. But what I really feel penetrating my ribs like a knife is stark terror lest somehow entering that mind I'll be trapped back in that skinny sixteen-year-old body. I hardly got through the first time. My idea of hell is to be young again. Ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, cats and dogs, have mercy on the candid for they get what they crave: an education.
To it, then. It's March of 1953. I am sixteen, soon to turn seventeen. The Korean War seems to be winding down; the Rosenbergs are convicted and waiting in prison; Eisenhower has been president since January and Washington emits clouds of grey fog on the news every night; times are pretty good in Detroit for the workers on the line. Give me a sprightly fife-and-drum accompaniment in the back of your head. She is — all right, all right — I am striding from tie to tie between tracks orange with rust while on my left run the shiny tracks on which still once an hour diesels streak by. Ragged stalks of last year's weeds swish against my jeans. Between the tracks puddles stand from yesterday's rain. Not even a rim of ice today. Mother was disinclined to put me into brassieres till high school, so I developed early a slouch and a walk to shield myself, a quick steady glide that still brings me in and out of rooms a little on the sly, for I am small, dark and move fast. Alone I swing along at a good clip past the back picket and wire fences of wooden houses turned in rows like soiled cupcakes to occupy what in my childhood had been a patch of industrial wilderness between the blocks where workers live and the factories where they work. When the UAW (United Auto Workers) is out on strike, our neighborhood runs on empty and the men are testy on the street corners where their kids usually hang out.
In those trash-scarred prairies and thickets Callie and I used to play explorers and scientists and bank robbers and commandos. There we found a dead pheasant and held a funeral in spite of maggots, found trodden weeds and discarded condoms, found a nest of bunnies we could not save from a dog. Last year Callie got in trouble and quit school. Walking I mourn the Callie of twelve whose lanky tomboy rebellion alternated with keeping her nails long and purple and sulking over confession magazines we swiped from drugstores. The roar of a train hits me and I jump, not having heard it come up on the good track. Swoosh-click, swoosh-click the cars loom past, Santa Fe, Chesapeake, Southern Pacific. I wish I could go away, away.
Romantic freight trains of my childhood. Callie and I ran alongside yelling at the brakemen till they threw us pieces of chalk as big around as our starved wrists — chalk they wrote on the cars with. Best for hopscotch and writing dirty words on walls. Dreaming of oceans and mountains, I did not know our tracks were the Detroit Terminal Railroad, shunting goods from one dead end of the inner city to the other. Callie got sent up in '61 for shooting her husband with his own police special when he threw their daughter down the stairs. I think we could make a test case of it now but then all I could do was hitchhike for a visit. She got life.
I have walked a mile and I have another to go before I see my friend Howie. The gritty wind blows the heat and yelling of our tight house from me, at the same time that it cuts through me like a boning knife. We both live in inner city Detroit in predominantly Black neighborhoods, but mine used to be and still is somewhat Irish, Polish, Appalachian, and his used to be and still is somewhat Jewish. Going scalded to him from quarreling with my mother, I build vague tortuous expectations. I have something to tell him. What? Oh, something. A statement that will light the ash-grey sky, mesh my life and dreams, make someone, him, see me. Past the backs of factories I march with the steady thunk of pistons rattling in my knees. Hands stuffed in the pockets of a suede jacket from an old riding habit Mother bought at a rummage sale, I take comfort from the smell of stables and aging leather. I don't even remember what Mother and I quarreled about: it is a continual quarrel that began when I reached puberty.
Far past the factories I turn into Howie's neighborhood of many rooming houses. A chiropractor's sign winks from a wide bay in the bosom of a matronly grey house. Here's one with steamboat prow, newly painted a spanking yellow with maroon trim: TEMPLE OF TRUTH, REV. MADAME FUTURA, SPIRITUAL ADVISOR AND MYSTICAL PSYCHOLOGIST. ENTER AND FIND PEACE. Good old bulldog Howie entered and got in an argument with her secretary.
The wrought-iron gates of the Jewish cemetery stand wide under the awkward cobblestone arch. I peek in the office window. Empty, thank you. Howie's father is old and talking with him strains my scanty Yiddish. I am always nodding at phrases I don't quite understand, embarrassed to pretend. Howie says, "Why should you?" but that's worse. Excused from the gym class of the world, belonging to no team.
Just beyond an island of hemlocks the road divides into the cluttered plain of the necropolis, grey and white as an overexposed snapshot. Necropolis. Howie taught me that word. I say it over gloatingly as I ring the bell of the house. Impatiently I ring again. If you aren't home! I shiver with incremental cold and my calves ache. I should be wearing a winter coat but mine is a plaid in orange and purple with a decayed fur collar that belonged to my mother's friend Charlotte. Mother and I have been skirmishing about the coat for two years. If forced to wear it out of the house to school, I leave it at a girlfriend's house halfway. I get enough grief at school about how I dress to prefer a November-through-March head cold.
The door opens. His face is red and puffy, making him look even younger. He is almost a year younger than I but we're both seniors. "Jill ... hey. ... You startled me. I was dozing."
"You sleep too much." The close heat of the living room makes my nose run. Light dies in front of the narrow windows, before the compacted plush dark. "God, it's hot. Can we open a window?"
"They like it hot. So I'll grow like a potted geranium." He ambles past flexing his arms behind his head, his square jaw pushing on his chest as he yawns. I always forget how tall he is because he hasn't lost what his mother insists is baby fat. The outlines of his strong low-slung body and stubborn face are blurred. With difficulty I conjure you. ... You had not got your own face yet. I do violence in fixing your later face to the broad but pudgy boyish shoulders. I am afraid the face I see by now is the photograph they kept reprinting. You looked when you had just turned sixteen sometimes a sullen baby, sometimes wizened against intrusion like an old man davening, sometimes bleak and sneering, fat boy who thought too much, peering in. Shaking off sleep he scrubs his knuckles against his eyes. "My mother's taking Grandma to the doctor."
The furniture straining to the dark ceiling makes me fidget. "Let's go outside."
We share a stone bench in the courtyard closed in by the high outer wall, the walls of office and house. I like this court where greenish urns hold withered stumps, a wheelbarrow leans against the blank office wall beside flowerpots stacked neatly in each other on the wobbly brick floor. Traffic rumble pours over the wall with a steady bass murmur like the cupped sea in a large shell. Howie talks loudly about the Aristotle he's reading for Great Books. I first met him in a section held in the main library, before I had to quit for an after-school job. I cannot see Howie often enough, but I'll never again see Beck, tall with curly dark hair who talked with such vehemence and wit my hands shook under the table and I could only contradict him crankily. "What's his name — Beck? — does he still go?"
"Sure. He's an ass."
"Yeah? Beck is?" To speak his name is a stinging pleasure, but I would subside like a beached jellyfish if Howie guessed. We must allow no stickiness between us, no messages escaping my bottled inner world of itch and wonder, crush and rumor.
"Beck turns everything around to suit his jabber. Every idea's so simple when he gets done, you wonder why they went to the bother." He grimaces, looking guilty at the judgment.
I can't keep my news back longer. "Howie, I got the scholarship to the university. It came in today's mail."
"Good news." He takes out an old but carefully kept package of Luckies, offering it. "Are you going to Ann Arbor, then?"
"Will they let me?" I get up to pace the bricks. Howie doesn't understand. It's assumed in his family that he'll go to college. He's already accepted to Columbia. His grandmother has saved for years, put aside her husband's insurance money for the best education they can buy him. In my family it's all my idea. "I've been working summers but I'm two hundred short for the dorm. They make you live in it. Will my folks let me go? Will they give me the extra two hundred?"
He nods grimly. "How are you getting on with your mother?"
"Rotten. We had a fight just ..." I sit down.
"Today?" The smoke creeps under his glasses. He waves it away. "What about?" He squints at me.
"Oh, everything. Loud and dull."
He blinks suspicion. "Like what?"
I busy myself with my cigarette. "Well, you. She says it's morbid to hang around here, because you live in a graveyard."
"I live in a house." His grey eyes are blind and inturned. "That's what I used to say in school. I thought it was clever but it never did any good. The kids told stories about me and Papa chewing on the bones." As if for comfort he hauls out the lucky silver dollar his brother Milt brought him from Reno and fingers the eagle.
"I know." I do. When my childhood appears in dreams, my grade school is a prison, the kids tearing at each other in frustration and rage. It smells like piss and blood and cinders. My name Jill Stuart hangs on me queerly, prompting strangers to wonder if there was a mix-up in the hospital. I look like my mother and we both look like Jews from Kazan, where there's a heady admixture of Tartar. In grade school the kids could not decide whether to taunt me for looking Chinese or whether simply to torture me for being a kike. There was one other Jew, a Black girl named Sarah Altweiler. The authorities used to put us on hall guard together. At age ten or eleven, the humor did not escape us. The authorities were right, we got on well together standing back to back in our common freakhood. Then I would go home where if I mentioned anything in front of Dad he would rage at me that I'm not Jewish. I learned early that I had to keep my mouth shut with him and also that everybody is somewhat crazy, except me. And Sarah, maybe. She has frizzy hair of a fascinating metallic bronze and her skin is grey satin. The way our checkered blocks are gerrymandered, she now goes to the Black high school and I go to one still mostly white. I hardly ever see her any longer. Years later of course she was the lodestar that pulled Howie South. At that funeral in Selma I stood with her.
In hot silence Howie tosses the silver dollar, pockets it. We are alike, fat boy, skinny girl, staggering out of our brutal sickly childhoods with arms clutched full of books. How can we possibly draw comfort from each other, when we each look so unlike the stuff of dreams? I stamp out my butt and tuck it under a loose brick, bursting into what I know will draw him into safe abstract argument. "Howie, I've been reading Dos Passos' U.S.A., and I think if we'd been grown-ups in the thirties, we'd both have been Communists —"
With fare borrowed from Howie I board a bus, hollow with the drunkenness of talking too much, too passionately, with no issue. The streetlights come on making night, and I'll get it for being late. Doggy houses crouching with your heads between your paws, you look too working class to carry any magic. I can't imagine potent strangers behind your shades, just a geegaw lamp framed in the exact center of the window, like the one lit by now and waiting for me, still wrapped in its cellophane although four years old. Riviera Theater where I used to stand in line for Saturday matinee, two Westerns and six cartoons, and we'd hide in the john to see the adult show afterward. Now I read Freud and Marx. If I can't escape my parents, I can classify them.
I get off the bus into a sharp air flavored with a locomotive smell of soft coal burning from chimneys; only the better-off families have the new oil. Our street looks cluttered, the wooden two- and four-family flats with their porches banked like crossed arms, the bungalows jostled between, but it is gracious too, for every house has a square of lawn and a big shade tree. Suppertime, so no kids stand under the streetlights. No stopping to smoke a butt or pass a few jokes; no flash of guilt. I stopped hanging with my old gang when I began taking grades seriously, scribbling in my notebooks, saving for college. In all my dreams I am gone from this neighborhood, shot like a cannonball out of the narrow fear of being stuck here, knocked up early, in trouble with the law that always belonged to Them and not to Us, on the streets, fallen in the pits of drugs and booze down which I've already lost friends. From books I learned there is something else and I want it bad. When I talk with them I say, "I'm goin' to the Ra-veer-a Thee-ay-ter," for Riviera Theater, and I say, "Freddie didn't never ball me, he can shut his lyin' face or I'll shut it for him." When I talk to Howie, I talk in a way I learned off the radio. I know I am a fraud and that is part of my guilt. The rest ferments in the stories I carry inside. Everybody talks to me. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Braided Lives by Marge Piercy. Copyright © 2013 Middlemarsh, Inc. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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