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Excerpt from Chapter 1:
Mama's PlanWhenever I was alone in our apartment, which was -quite often, and if I was very quiet, I could hear the sounds of other families below and around us. They traveled through the thin walls and in or over the pipes. I could move my ear from the wall on one side of the room to the other or take myself to another room, preferably the bathroom or kitchen, and press my ear to the walls there and hear different noises-what I thought of as the symphony of the Garden Apartments. It was almost like changing stations on a radio.
There were families who always seemed to be at war with each other, complaining, screaming, threatening in growls and shouts. There were those who spoke softly, enjoyed some laughter and even some singing. And there were often the sounds of crying, even sobbing, as if someone was walled in forever like in the short story by Edgar Allan Poe. Of course, I could hear television sets and hip-hop music. There were at least a half-dozen white families in our project, but their music wasn't very different, and I often heard as much shouting and crying from them as well. I didn't know any other person who paid as much attention to the symphony of the Garden Apartments as I did. They were too busy making their own noises to listen to anyone else's and rarely did an hour pass in their homes when silence wasn't broken. Silence, I learned early on, frightens people, or at least makes them feel very uncomfortable. The worst punishment imposed on my school friends seemed to be keeping them in detention, forcing them to be still and shutting them off from any communication. They squirmed, grimaced, put their heads down and waited as if spiders had been released inside them and were crawling up and down their stomachs and under their chests. When the bell that dismissed them finally rang, they would burst out like an explosion of confetti in every direction, each talking louder than the other, some even screaming so hard that veins strained and popped against the skin in their temples.
Mama wasn't any different. The moment she entered the apartment, she turned on the radio or clicked on the television set, crying, "Why is this place like a morgue?"
If she had done some drinking with a girlfriend, she would dance and laugh, calling to me to join her while she fixed dinner; if I didn't come or if I made a reluctant face, she would pounce on me and accuse me of being strange, which she blamed on my daddy and his side of the family.
"Never seen a name fit better than the name I gave you, girl;' she would declare. "The only time I ever see a smile on your face is when you're singing in that church. You going to be a nun or something? Wake up. Shake your booty. You got a nice figure, honey. You're lucky you don't take after your daddy in looks and be big boned like that Tama Gotchuck or somebody similar.
"You got my nose and mouth and you're getting my figure," she said with her hands on her hips, turning as if she were surrounded by mirrors.
Mama didn't need mirrors to look at herself though. She could spot her reflection in a glass on the table or a piece of silverware and suddenly fix her hair or touch her face and complain about aging too quickly. She wasn't. She was just anticipating it with such dread that the illusion of some tiny wrinkle forming or a single gray hair put hysteria into her eyes and panic in her voice.
'You wouldn't be so crazy nervous about yourself if we had another child," Daddy told her. "It would give you something more important to worry about."
He might as well have lit a firecracker in the middle of our living room, but for as long as I could remember, Daddy wanted to have more children. I know he wanted a son badly. However, Mama grin bled that giving birth to me had added a half-inch or so to her hips and another child would surely turn her into another one of those "walruses waddling around here with a trail of drippy nosed brats they couldn't afford to have. Not me. I'm still young enough to turn a head or two."
"That's all that makes you happy, Lena," Daddy retorted. "Being the center of attention."
He didn't make it sound like any sort of accusation or even a criticism. It was just a mattes-of-fad statement. Even so, Mama would go off on one of her tirades about how he wanted her to be fat and ugly so other men wouldn't look longingly at her anymore.
"You used to be proud to have me hanging on your arm, Cameron Goodman. I could see how you would strut like a rooster, parading me in front of your friends, bragging with your eyes. I let you wear me like some piece of jewelry and I didn't bitch about it, did I7 So why are you complaining now?"
"I'm not complaining, Lena, but there's more to life now. We're settled down. We have a home, a child. We should be building on this family, too;" Daddy pleaded, his big hands out, palms up like someone begging fm a handout of affection and love. "I told you a hundred times if I told you once, Cameron. We can't have any more children on your salary;' she replied and turned away quickly to end the argument or to run from it.
That wasn't fair or even a good excuse. Daddy made a decent salary. He had always done well. Now he was the head of security for Cobbler's Market, a big department store on Ninth Street. He had been a military policeman in the army; after he came out, he started working different security positions until he was chosen to head up one and then another.
It wasn't just his size that recommended him for the job, even though he stood six feet four and weighed two hundred and twenty-five pounds. He was considered a clear-thinking, sensible man who could manage other men. I know for sure that his calm, patient demeanor helped him get along with Mama. It took a great deal more than it took most men to get him to lose his temper. He seemed to know that when he did, he would unleash so much fury and rage, he couldn't depend on his power to rein it in. He was truly someone who was afraid of himself, of what he could or would do. Amazingly, Mama never seemed afraid of him, never hesitated or stepped back even when it looked like she was treading on thin ice. I have seen her throw things at him, push him, even kick him. He was like a tree trunk, unmovable, untouched, steady and firm, which only seemed to get Mama angrier. Finally, frustrated with her inability to get the sort of reaction from him she wanted, she would retreat out of exhaustion.
"You're just like your father when it comes to your cold personality;" she accused, pointing her long, right forefinger at me like some prosecutorbecause to her way of thinking not to be outgoing and emotional was truly a crime. "There's where the ice comes into your veins. Certainly not from me, child. I'm full of heat," she bragged "A man looks into these eyes and he melts:'
She would wait for me to agree or smile or look like I was envious, but I didn't do any of that and that brought a sneer to her lips.
"What is with you, girl? You think you're better than everyone around here or something?"
I shook my head vigorously.
"Because I never did anything to make you be lieve that. I never pumped be-with compliments and such until you walked around with your head back, looking like you got flies in your nose or something, did I? Well, did I?"
I knew she would keep at me until I spoke.
"No, Mama," she mimicked. "So?" she said, her hands still on her hips, "why are you home all the time, huh? Why don't you have girlfriends and boyfriends? When I was your age, my daddy put a double lock on the door to keep the boys out. Here you are seventeen," she said, "and you ain't been out on a real date yet. I don't hear the phone ringing either," she complained.
It nearly made me smile to hear her grievances. All the other girls my age were constantly moaning and groaning about how their parents came down on them for being on the phone too much or being out too late and hanging around with bad kids. "Are you ashamed of this place, ashamed of us? Is that why you hardly ever utter a word? Your family embarrass you? Huh?"
I shook my head again.
'Because the worst kind of girl is a snob girl," Mama declared. "She's worse than the other kind who teases and such. Are you a snob? Is that what your friends think, too? You think because you have a nice singing voice, you can't waste it on us ordinary folks? Is that it? Because if it is, that's a snob. Well? Answer me, damn it."
"I'm not a snob, Mama," I insisted. "I'm not ashamed of you or Daddy either." Tears tried to come into my eyes, but I slammed the door shut on them.
She raised her eyebrows, surprised she had gotten so strong a verbal reaction from me.
"No? Well, what are you then? What's your probIem, girl? Why do people talk about you being wage and mute? People here say good morning and You just nod or they ask you how you are and how Your family is and you smile instead of talk. I hear about it. Some of them like rubbing it into me like oil or something. Is that why you don't have a close girlfriend and no boyfriends? I bet it is," she said nodding. "I know boys don't want to waste their time on someone who acts deaf and dumb.
"You ain't ugly, far from that, child. You look too much like me. What is it then? You just shy? Is that it? Was that grade-school teacher right about you years ago? You're Miss Bashful?" She drew close enough to me that I could smell the whiskey on her breath. "Huh? You got no self-confidence?" She poked me in the shoulder. "You afraid they going to laugh at you?" She poked me again. "Well?"
I put my hand over my shoulder where it was getting sore, but I didn't cry or even grimace.
"What?" she screamed at me.
"No one interests me yet," I said calmly.
That stopped her. She thought about it a moment and then shook her head.
"Well, you don't have to think of every boy as your future husband, Ice. Don't you just want to go out and have a good time once in a while?"
I didn't answer.
"You're shy;" she decided, nodding firmly. "You're just too much like your daddy. He was so shy, I had to kiss him that first time. How's that? It surprise you to know that big, strong, bull of a man was afraid to kiss a girl? That's right. He was shaking in his shoes so bad, I could have pushed him over with one finger;' she said, smiling. "I have that effect on most men. And you could, too, if you'd just listen to me. You don't even put on lipstick unless I hound you, and you still ain't trimmed those eyebrows the way I taught you:'
Mama had spent six months in a beauty school when she was seventeen. It was her one real attempt at any sort of career for herself, but she lacked the sense of responsibility and the discipline to follow through. If she woke up tired, she just didn't go in, and soon they asked her to leave. However, she had learned a great deal.
"You need the arch," she pursued, running her forefinger over my left brow. "You put the high point directly above the middle of your iris. Brows are the frames of your eyes, Ice. Don't be afraid to tweeze them! Why should you be afraid of something like that anyway?"
"I'm not afraid, Mama:' I said stepping back.
"Well then, why don't you do it? You can make Your eyes look bigger. Remember what I told you: tweeze the hairs from underneath, not from above. Best time is after a shower. It's less painful, but a lit de Pain can go a big way"
I looked down, hoping she would get bored as usual and start on some other pet peeve of hers, like how small our apartment was or how she couldn't buy the new dress she wanted because it was too expensive Usually, she ended up threatening to go get a job, but she had yet to apply for work anywhere. Most of her day was spent looking after her hair and her skin, doing her beauty exercises or meeting her friends for lunch, which usually ran most of the afternoon. She always had too much to drink at those lunches and always reeked of smoke.
I once asked her why she smoked and drank if she cared so much about her looks and she responded by throwing a water glass across the room and accusing me of being too religious. She threatened to keep me from attending the church choir or make me quit the school chorus.
"It's the only time I ever see you show any interest in anything. What kind of a young life is that? Even birds do more than just sing:' Actually, both our school chorus and the church choir were award winning and were often asked to sing at government and charity events, "but what did Mama know about that? She rarely came to hear me sing.
"You'll end up mealymouthed and fat, worrying about your everlasting soul day in and day out instead of having any fun," she rattled on. Now that she was on a roll, she seemed driven by her own momentum like some car that had lost its brakes going downhill.
"My mama was like that and that's why I was glad to get out of that house when your daddy came along and made me pregnant," she said without the slightest shame.
Other mothers would hide the fact that you were an accident, but not mine. Depending on her mood when she talked about it, she was either seduced by Daddy or clever enough to get herself pregnant and married as a means of escaping imprisonment at home. Whatever the reasons, however, my birth had been a blow to her youth and beauty. She never stopped reminding me about that added inch on her hips besides the strain it was on her to care for a baby.
"If you looked after yourself more, you'd have boys asking you out, lee. As it is, they won't give you a second look unless you become one of them easy conquests:' Her eyes widened with her own imaginings: me on a street corner or in the back of some parked car.
"You do that and I'll throw you out on the street," she threatened. 'I'm not having people talk dirt about a daughter of mine:' I stared at her as if she was really talking nonsense now.
"Don't look at me like that, girl. It doesn't take much to turn a nice girl into a street tramp these days. I see it going on all around us. That Edith Merton might as well put a sign on her door out there;' she declared, pumping her finger at our front door. 'That whole family oughta be evicted:'
The Mertons lived at the end of the hall. Edith's father was a city bus driver. She had a ten-year-old brother and her mother worked in a dry-cleaning and laundry shop. Edith's double trouble was to have developed a heavy bosom at age thirteen and to have parents who were so busy working to keep a roof over their heads and food in their mouths that she was left on her own too much....