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There Issa is. There, faltering on the top of the front stoop, wearing a red plaid dress with a white lace collar. (Since it is March, and cold, how did I ever escape without a sweater?) A customer of Gilda's is coming up the walk to the house. She is here to get a haircut upstairs. She shocks me by saying, "Issa dear, what a big girl you are!"
I am three years old today and the one truth I know about myself is that I am a very small girl, very little, hardly a person yet. Grownups can be wrong and grownups can be stupid. I am shocked but deeply satisfied by this idea. I feel stronger, knowing it.
Upstairs in the beauty shop is where real life is: the clip, clip of Gilda's silver scissors, the sizzle of the little sausages of brown paper as she dips them in hot water, their sudden squish as she presses them into the rubber tubes. The tubes are part of the metal holders that Gilda clips over the cylinders of the women's rolled hair. Their hair fries and smells terrible, but afterward gets curly and beautiful. Gilda, my aunt, is a magician.
Gilda announces to all her ladies, "My little angel has natural curls. She'll never have to come to me." She presents me, holding out her arm as if I am coming on stage (I have already been to a movie where dancing girls kick their legs high) but what she says isn't true. I'll always have to come to Gilda. I'll always want to. I wish she were my mother and not my aunt because an aunt can't have me whenever she wants.
My mother owns me and says so. "You're mine, you're not hers. And she better not forget it." Sometimes when Gilda wants to take me shopping on Avenue P, my mother says, "No, you cannot go with her to the bakery. She wants you to? So what? She wants lots of things. She'd like to have your father, too, if she could. She'd probably like to do away with me. No, darling, it's too bad if she wants to take you to the bakery. You stay right here with me."
I don't know why it has to be too bad, my mother has no plans. I could be with Gilda without hurting anyone, without having to stay in this house where someone, possibly myself, will die soon. This is the house where my grandmother is busy clutching her chest and putting small white pills under her tongue, where my mother has to squint her eyes shut against the pain in her head. Something terrible is definitely going to happen in this house.
Outside, with Gilda, if I could go shopping with her, I would hold onto the black wicker stroller (I don't ride in it anymore) as we walk down 4th Street to Avenue P, past the three playgrounds strung out across 3rd, 4th and 5th Streets, to the fish store and the bakery, past the Claridge Theater (where I first met Pinocchio), into the drugstore where Mr. Bass always gives me a Cocilana cough drop. With Gilda I am important; Gilda holds back her arm and presents me joyfully to the world.
When my mother drags me shopping (I feel dragged; I hold onto the stroller and she races along with it so that I am pulled) she never talks to the bakery lady, she only buys bread, buys it fast, is annoyed when the bakery lady gives me a cookie. She's annoyed that the bakery lady knows all about me from my trips with Gilda (bends down to talk to me, asks me about my doll, Margaret—Peggy for short—by name); my mother doesn't see the sense of wasting time on chatter with unimportant people. For Gilda talking to people is the whole point of shopping.
My mother has to put up with a lot; that's what my father tells me when she has her fits. My mother has to have three things besides cooking every day: her fits, her headaches, and her piano playing. The fits come the instant I don't eat my food. She thinks I will die if I don't eat whatever she cooks for me, and the meals are endless. Hardly do I manage to get up from the hard kitchen chair after one meal when she begins chopping and peeling for the next. She hates grease on her hands, the smell of onions on her fingertips, but she cooks so I can stay alive.
Why does she think I could die at any moment? I have come to believe, I am certain, this is a real possibility. When I think it, my heart loops loose like the chains of the swing when I pump too hard; also something snaps shut in my throat.
As soon as she's done cooking and I don't eat it all, she gets her headache. Her headaches started when The Tree Trunk didn't want her to name me Issa. The Tree Trunk is the secret name she calls the other grandmother, my father's mother, because of her thick ankles. The Tree Trunk told my mother Issa was no name for a girl. My mother said, "She's my baby and I'll name her what I please!"
Issa sounds like a secret, like the steam escaping from the pressure cooker so it won't explode and kill us all. Issa is me. Part of me comes from my mother's dead father, Isaac, who died on my birthday ten years before I was born.
The Tree Trunk argued with her, and then pulled me bodily out of my mother's arms. At that moment my mother got her first blinding headache. Maybe it was also the moment my own heart tore loose and began its wild flying about in my chest. Who knows? Everything has the moment of its beginning; my mother is certain of it. Usually someone is to blame.
Bring me a wet cloth, darling.
I know how to do this very well, I am the family expert when the headaches come. I wring out the washcloth so it doesn't drip, but isn't too dry. I make sure the shades are pulled down before I take the cloth to her bed and lay it over her forehead. There is a blue wing-shape beating above her eye. I have checked my own forehead to see if I have one, but the only blue in my face is the color of my eyes. ("Like little bluebells," Gilda described my eyes to one of her ladies. "Blue eyes, yellow curls, pink cheeks. This child is the rainbow of my life.")
"Keep everyone out," my mother tells me when the washcloth is in place. She means my grandmother and the ladies, who like to offer their wishes for her to feel better. In the next room we can hear the clip of Gilda's scissors and the dull roar of the standing hair dryer. I am turned into a policeman for my mother, which stiffens my mind. It means I cannot get deeply into my games with my doll and her cradle, with my forcing Peggy to eat unless she wants to die, with my punishing her for not eating and giving me headaches.
Being given authority means I have to be alert and pay attention so that no one peeks into the bedroom and bothers my mother. I feel important but under pressure, limited in my freedom.
My mother is bothered by so many things. I understand that it's possible to see the whole world as a bother; I begin to practice thinking this. It's very satisfying. Instead of being bored and obedient, I begin to have tantrums almost as wild as my mother's. I can tell she admires me for this. I carry on about the unfairness of having to eat when I don't want to, of having to take a bath and shiver till my teeth bang together.
Being cold is my horror: each night I dread getting out of my warm clothes and into cold pajamas, sliding into a bed as hard and cold as whatever it is we all fear will happen in this house. Then—each morning there is a worse threat: the furnace in the cellar shudders and bellows. Every radiator in the house begins to clank as if there is a monster in there with a great hammer. One day the pipes will burst and we will all be engulfed in flames. I have seen the furnace; I know. When the door of it is opened, I understand what it must be like to die by fire.
My father watches me change. His forehead creases. I know he's worried that I am not enjoying myself. He points out to me the beauty of icicles hanging from the eaves. He warms my cold sheets with a hot frying pan before I slide into bed, he holds the wedge of an orange inside his lips to make me laugh (I don't), he sees me sitting on the toilet with a stomach ache, and he sticks his head in the doorway, making horrible faces while using his own hand to grab his own hair and pull his head away.
I protect my stomach ache, keep it with me, double over with it, and throw him a look of disgust. I am catching on: look what I have to go through! My mother is extremely pleased I have learned her important lesson.
She invites me to join her in bed, wring out a washcloth for myself as well as for her. We lie there in the dim bedroom, hearing the whirr of the electric clock and the hum of the standing hairdryer from the next room. I wish she would hold my hand, but she doesn't. We could both die at any moment. Won't my grandmother be upset? Won't Gilda? And won't Daddy? We will have their complete attention if we die. We can almost never get it during regular time. My grandmother is busy holding her heart, and Gilda is absorbed cutting hair and my father is determined to make endless, silly jokes. They are all so stupid. My mother wants me to see this. I do, it's true. Stupid, stupid. I discover this myself, in grownups, even before she points it out to me. But could it be my mother is wrong some of the time, lying in the dark, sighing angrily? Aren't there also things that are wonderful? Beautiful? Isn't the snow beautiful? Isn't Gilda's dog, Bingo, beautiful, lying with his nose between his paws, his sad eyes watching Gilda cut hair?
My mother is surely beautiful, resting there. If I could roll over and press my cheek against her, my heart's swinging chain would slow down and hook back into rhythm, the gate in my throat would open. I might even become hungry. But she keeps her profile to me, her nose toward heaven, waiting for something to save her.
On certain nights my father goes on "calls." On these nights he could be robbed because he carries rolls of money in his pocket. He goes up long stairways in strange houses to attics, or down long stairways in strange houses to cellars to buy antiques which he needs for his store. Anyone might be waiting to knock him over the head with a gun; strangers call and he goes to whatever house they ask him to go to and he takes rolls of cash. Is he really that stupid? Would he be that stupid, that he would let himself be knocked over the head and die? What would we do without him?
No one seems to know. They all watch out the front windows of the house, taking turns. Gilda and my mother peek out from behind the curtains every few minutes, but my grandmother opens the front door and lets blasts of icy wind come in. On the street, cars swish through the slush; I can see the snow falling against the street lamp. The place where my father would park his car, just in front of the wishbone tree, is empty. I begin to imagine how the scene will look as his car pulls up, its headlights shining on the hedges along the street. Please let it pull up, let him be in it, let him come into the house shaking snow from his hat, let him put his huge freezing fingers on my cheeks, let me have him back!
Now I know why everyone in this house is afraid to die. We would be gone forever. It is the worst thing that can happen to you, and it is the worst thing you can do to someone else, be gone forever.
Knowing this gives me a new bad feeling, different from all other bad feelings, and it is the worst. Absolutely the worst. I watch with them, I keep my eyes at the window, I press my hot, damp palms against the cold glass, making paw prints, where is he? Where is he? Daddy, I want you, want you, want you!
Sometimes I am forced to go to bed, but sometimes I am awake when he comes in, in a blast of cold, a cloud of smoke coming out of his mouth. He is alive! The women dance around him, taking his coat, his scarf, his hat. They don't even ask if someone hit him over the head and took his money. They just surround him, and then Gilda makes him hot chocolate, and my mother brings him his pipe, and my grandmother smiles with her big white teeth while she lays his scarf on the radiator. Even though it's late at night, very late, and the whole world is sleeping, my mother—just before we all go upstairs to bed—sometimes plays a few chords on the piano, not sitting down, but with her head bowed over the keys, chords that are deep and thrilling, but are also wonderful and calming. They reverberate through the house, they make the curtains shiver. When she raises her head, we all smile at each other. For this night we are safely here, all of us together.
The piano is the one place my mother can get calm. The piano sits, unafraid of her, square in the living room downstairs. Its legs are also like tree trunks, but these she admires, down on her knees, dusting and polishing them, standing to caress the shiny black lid above them. When my mother plays, I know she is not thinking about anything but music. She has forgotten me by the time her pretty legs move about under the bench. One is tucked back, and one taps here and there on the pedals, those little rounded gold feet I like to rub with my finger. They are cold and smooth to my touch. She doesn't mind if I lie under the piano while she plays. She doesn't care about me at all, or about anything, then.
I love her music because—when she plays it—I am safe from her fury and she is happy.
There comes a day I simply cannot swallow little squares of liver. They have things in them, secret pockmarks, rubber knots that will not be chewed or swallowed. My mother has broiled them on a wire grate. Flames have shot into the air, nearly catching her hair on fire. (Her hair has gone white. Worry has turned her hair white. I have turned her hair white.) On the plate are lima beans, grainy as mashed chalk. And spinach, which has iron in it, that Popeye eats for strength, but it's sandy in my mouth. I cannot ever eat enough to please my mother.
"Eat it," she says. "Chew and swallow it or I'll kill you." It's very simple. Either I will die from not eating, or I will die while eating, or—if I don't eat—she will see to it that I die by her own hand. My stomach ache comes back, my old friend that now lives with me. I know this pain. It swirls and swishes like the washing machine in the cellar. I double over with it—it's wonderful, it will get me to the bathroom where I can spit out the liver.
"No you don't," my mother says. She has left the burner on and blue flames form a star on the top of the stove. "You will not get away with that. Do you know what the butcher charges for liver? Your father works his heart out to pay the butcher."
I gag. I didn't plan it, but I gag.
"All right," she says. "I'm calling the Peter Pan Nursery." We both know what happens there. Even though she knows I know, she tells me again. "When they take bad girls like you away to live there, they give you black stockings to wear. If you don't eat, they make you sit at the table till you do. And if you throw up, they make you eat the vomit from the floor."
This is the moment when my mother goes to the phone. Black and cold, it sits in the living room. When she picks it up, I become a giant ear. I freeze as she begins to dial. I count. She is proud that I can count and have not yet begun kindergarten. I count: one, two, three, four, five, six! Only six! I am saved! Six is not a phone number. Only seven dials of her forefinger is a phone number. Only seven dials will bring the black van from the Peter Pan Nursery. Only seven swings around the circle of the dial will bring my tongue to floor to lap up liver vomit.
She is warning me, that's all.
I rush to my seat at the table. Gratefully, I shove little cubes of cold liver into my mouth. I set my teeth to grinding. Gag all you want, I tell the snake moving up and down in my throat. I will get this down. I love her! She isn't going to send me there tonight. Tonight I get to slide between my freezing sheets and live till morning.
In the morning we do rhymes sitting on her bed. I want to help Gilda with the ladies, but my mother insists that rhymes are very important, more important than hair.
"No—another word that rhymes with hat."
"Bat! Fat! Rat!"
She kisses me. I glow, there is a hot spot at the point her kiss meets my cheek.
"Tomato!" she cries out.
Now she hugs me. Hugs and kisses. For this!
We both laugh in triumph.
"Don't be silly," she says. "We can't afford to be silly about this."
"Why can't we?"
"Because if you do this right, you are going to be a very important person."
"Really?" I have her attention now.
"You are already brilliant," she says. "Just wait and see, Issa. You are going to be someone important."
Excerpted from The Kingdom of Brooklyn by MERRILL JOAN GERBER. Copyright © 1992 Merrill Joan Gerber. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted July 2, 2008
Found this book in a Goodwill Store on Friday night. I could not put it down and ordered three of her books yesterday.
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Posted April 19, 2009
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