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1. Fifth of May
Whenever something bad happened, my aunt Odella was always quick to say how the end of one thing was the beginning of something else. During the war, she cooked for a lot of church funerals, where any comforting morsels of wisdom you could hand out to grieving folks with a plate of fried chicken and green beans sure came in real handy. Maybe that’s where it all started, who knows.
To be honest, the spring of 1945 was so full of endings, sometimes it was hard to make a guess as to what the beginnings might be. It was the end of Hitler, of course, although nobody would fry a chicken’s eyeball over him being dead. A lot of people were saying it would be the end of the Nazis and the whole war itself pretty soon, if we were lucky. But the crazy Japs kept insisting no matter what happened, they’d keep on fighting forever.
Seeing how often Aunt Odella handed out her funeral advice to other folks, I shoulda realized the day would come when she’d turn around and use the same words on me. But it was like the Japs sneaking up on Pearl Harbor while the entire country was sleeping. I was taken by complete surprise when she did.
I remember it was early on a Saturday, the first week of May, when Aunt Odella came barging into my room like the blitz. I was loafing in bed, half asleep, half awake, my big feet drifting over the edge. They’d been doing that a lot. Or maybe the bed was drifting out from under themI’m telling you, I was thirteen with feet the size of U‑boats.
My mind was drifting too. I shoulda been thinking about my father, who was serving in the army, and who was still staring at me from the same picture frame he’d been stuck in since he left. Or my best friend Archie’s older brother who was missing in action, they said, and who could be dead somewhere over there in Germany.
But I gotta admit I was thinking about girls.
I was wondering if the stocking on my scalp was gonna make any difference at all. Every Friday night Aunt Odella smeared my head with a thick coat of Vaseline and pulled one of her old stockings over my hair, pressing it down smooth. Then I had to wear the fool thing all night, praying like the dickens that there wouldn’t be an air raid drill or half of Chicago would see me with ladies’ hosiery stretched around my skull.
“You gotta start early if you want good smooth hair when you grow up, so all those colored girls will like you,” Aunt Odella insisted. Good hair lays flat. Bad hair springs up in clumps. Clumpy hair. That’s what my aunt called it. Lately she’d been worrying a lot about my looks and my future.
I tried telling Aunt Odella how there wasn’t a girl who would get within a hundred and fifty miles of me if she knew I wore stockings and Vaseline on my head every Friday night. Heck, no girl got within fifty miles of me now anyhow, which was fine with me. “Good to hear it. You be sure and keep it that way,” my aunt would say, slapping on some more grease.
So I was lying there with a stocking stuck to my scalp and my big feet dangling over the bed when Aunt Odella came in that Saturday morning and made a beeline for the window next to me. She pounded her fist on the frame that hadn’t moved since last November. “Open up.” After pushing that stubborn window toward the sky, she took a deep gulp of the Chicago morning stink, turned around, and announced to me and the world, “It’s a new day, Levi. And I’ve decided it’s time to start thinking about your future.”
Like I said, this was a favorite theme of hers. The future. I gotta admit there were times during the war when none of us were real sure we’d get one, what with Hitler and all. But since Germany seemed to be on the verge of surrendering, maybe there was hope for us yet.
Through my half-shut eyelids, I watched warily as Aunt Odella planted herself on one corner of my bed like she owned it. Which she did, of course. When I’d come to stay in her tiny apartment after my daddy left for the war, she’d given up her only bed and moved out to a cot in the front room, so she could have her space and I could have mine. Who knew she’d be sleeping out there for three years?
Aunt Odella wasn’t a small person either. Man oh man, just about every night I’d hear that rickety cot creaking as she sat down on it and Aunt Odella hollering how the whole thing was gonna fold up and squash her flat as a bug one of these times. “I hope you’re paying attention to all these sacrifices I’ve been making for you and your daddy and the war, Levi,” she’d shout as she wrestled with the fold-up metal legs, “especially if I die here tonight in this cot.”
She called me a sacrifice about ten times a day. I was used to it.
From where she was sitting at the end of the bed, Aunt Odella pretended to be studying a spot on the wall above me. The wallpaper in the room was pink roses, good God. I couldn’t tell which rose she was staring at. I tried not to look at them to begin with.
“So, I’ve gone and made up my mind about a few things,” Aunt Odella said in this determined-sounding voice, and I thought, Oh nobecause my aunt making up her mind was like the Germans deciding to invade Poland. There was no defense.
I figured she was probably planning to sign me up for the church choir. Because of the war, Shiloh First Baptist’s chair was often short of men, and Aunt Odella was always threatening to volunteer me to sing. I sent up a quick prayer: Please, dear God almighty, not the choir. I could carry a tune, but I’d rather lug hot coals across the Sahara than sing with a bunch of old ladies who wore choir robes resembling firstaid tents.
What Aunt Odella said next was nothing I ever saw coming.
“In life, you know how the end of one thing is often the beginning of something else?” She glanced over at me.
“Yes ma’am.” I nodded my stocking-covered head as if this was the very first time I’d heard those familiar words. Part of me wondered if a funeral plate of fried chicken and green beans was gonna appear next.
“Well, this is one of those beginning and ending times, Levi. Because I believe I’ve done more than my share in raising you. More than most folks my age woulda done.” Aunt Odella continued, “And with the war ending soon, I think it’s time for a change in both our lives.”
That’s when I suddenly got a real bad feeling about what was coming next.
I watched as my aunt gathered a big steadying breath, squared her shoulders, and with no more emotion than if she was an officer ordering his men to storm the beaches of Normandy, she said how she knew it wouldn’t be easy, but she’d decided the time had come for me to move on. To go somewhere else. To leave.
And, you know, part of my brain just couldn’t believe I was hearing her right. While there were days when I’d wished on every darned star and planet in the sky to be living somewhere else, I never thought my auntwho knew my whole life like an open bookwould ever think of sending me away.