Things That Happened
Sadie stared at her reflection with a mixture of admiration and guilt. The layers of fabric hung strategically, giving shape and mystery to what she knew were just mounds of flesh wrapped around fat, hugging muscles gone unused.
She contemplated the phrase: Dying Alone. It was a phrase she’d used in jest for decades. She reached back for the details of an actual death she’d read about: Janis Joplin, she remembered from a yellowed article, had two dates scheduled for the night she died. One with a man, the other with a woman.
In the end, Joplin died standing up, falling face first and breaking her nose against the hotel room floor.
Sadie could see the body vividly, face smashed, mouth limp, hair matting in congealed blood while legs lay slightly parted, the heels falling to either side.
That’s what happens when you don’t choose wisely.
Sadie searched her mind for memories of paths not taken, options that might have had a salutary affect on the image looking back at her.
She could find none.
There was no boy who’d gotten away, no once in a lifetime opportunity squandered. If she had her choices to make over again she wouldn’t have done anything differently.
The problem, it seemed, was with the choices themselves. None of them promised to lead to anything worth having. A life worth living had never been on the table.
It was cold comfort, but comfort nonetheless, to know that, no matter what combination of choices she’d made, she would likely be here, staring at her reflection, dreading another day.
Mary Dale had always hoped for sons. In 10 years of marriage, she had had 5 miscarriages, 2 stillbirths, and 3 daughters, but not a single boy to carry on her husband’s name or serve as a check on the young suitors who would one day come seeking her daughters’ favor. Joseph Dale, long since resigned to living in a house full of women, had met his end peacefully, going to bed one night and refusing to wake up the next morning.
But even with her husband gone, Mary ached for a little boy to run her ragged. She would watch with envy as other young mothers scolded mischievous sons in church, wisps of hair slipping out of their hats as they struggled to keep the boys in their seats. Compared with the strength and vigor of those young boys, Mary’s well-behaved daughters seemed like lifeless dolls, their hair perfectly plaited, their dresses neatly arranged, their hands folded in their laps as they listened intently to the sermon. While the mothers of precocious young sons prayed for a child that would simply sit for five minutes together, Mary longed to be agitated.
The Dale sisters were each too enthralled with their own hopes and frustrations to notice their mother’s. The eldest was Anita, who at 12 years old had just discovered that she was beautiful, and was relishing the attentions of boys her age, and, to her mother’s dismay, some much older. With this new discovery came a new world of concerns that had never occurred to her before. Suddenly her dresses had to always be spotless, pressed, and cut just so to show off the figure that was just beginning to reveal itself. Anita devoted hours to maintaining her dresses, cutting and sewing and starching and bleaching them to perfection. Her shoes were similarly buffed and carefully protected from the perils of marching up and down the Island’s dusty roads. Each week, sitting in church, Anita sat up straight, head tilted to show off her long graceful neck, eyes slanted to determine which boys were giggling in her direction.
At 10, Cloey was less interested in attracting boys than she was in making them bleed. Short, square, and powerful, she was able to out run, out jump, and out punch nearly every boy under 11 on the island. The few who were stronger than she was usually succumbed to a lack of daring, as Cloey would tempt Death himself, rather than be shown up. While her older sister surveyed the pews for signs of attention, Cloey surveyed them for her next conquest.
Little Yola was not terribly interested in anyone at all, boys or girls, young or old. She lived her life almost entirely in her own head, indulging fantasies, picturing her future, and quietly observing the voices that would occasionally invade her inner world with warnings, tall tales and vague prophecies.
Every now and then, while acting out a game as Queen of the Island, her dolls serving as loyal subjects, her favorite hog playing the part of the dim-witted but kind-hearted king, Yola would suddenly feel as though she had been ordered to sit in silence. Immediately upon doing so, the voices would come, soft, insistent whispers as vivid as her mother’s commands. They would let her know that she should not walk along her usual path that day, because there was a rattler waiting on the side of the road. Or they would tell her about other worlds, big cities with paved roads and thousands of cars, and families packed into tiny little boxes, living on top of one another without knowing each other. Sometimes they would tell her stories about people she would never know, the lives of grandchildren and great grandchildren, some of whom would do great things, most of whom would do nothing in particular.
The voices would weave in and out of each other, one beginning a story before the last had finished, sometimes for hours, before finally fading away. When the last story had been told, the last voice silenced, Yola would return to her games.
Yola was the one sister who was actually as attentive as she appeared in church, closely studying the minister’s sermon for clues as to why the voices came to her, and hoping for some sign that, though no one else ever spoke of it, others were visited by such voices as well. She knew that speaking to the dead was a sin, but what if they spoke to her? And were these the voices of dead folks? How could she know? They never introduced themselves, never explained themselves. All they ever did was sit her down and tell her stories.
In 1962 my grandmother won the lottery. Actually, the bet she won was an illegal one, placed with a numbers runner in Harlem. But what mattered is that she found herself with $5,000 in cash and knew immediately how the money was to be used: She was going to put a down payment on a house.
My family was never supposed to have ended up in a tenement on 132nd street in the first place. My grandparents had given up a nice apartment on Sugar Hill in anticipation of moving into their first house, only to see the deal fall through. My grandfather lost his job for a time, and ten years later the family, my grandparents and their three children, were stuck in that tenement, getting by but not much more. So when my grandmother’s number hit, she took the opportunity to pick up where she left off, and took her oldest son, Junior, house hunting.
The first agent my grandmother met with sent her away in tears. How dare she waste his time with a paltry $5,000, didn’t she know that couldn’t buy her a tent in New York City? Defeated, my grandmother headed back home, feeling foolish and wondering how much longer it would take to get her family out. Sitting on the train, Grandma listened as the rhythm of the subway car riding along the tracks seemed to transform into an insistent, repetitive command: Get-the-paper—Get-the-paper—Get-the-paper.
The command became louder, and more insistent until finally, she relented, shouting out loud, “Fine, I’ll get the damn paper!” Junior looked up at her confused. Without explaining herself, she dragged him off the train, walked up to the nearest newsstand and purchased a paper. She shoved the rolled paper at my increasingly worried uncle and reentered the subway.
The subway car was not satisfied. Now it commanded, Read-the-paper—Read-the-paper—Read-the-paper. Exasperated, my grandmother opened the paper to an ad for homes being built in an upper middle class neighborhood in Queens. For families of veterans, which my grandfather was, the required down payment was $5,000.
And so it was that my grandmother was led to the home in which both I and my mother would spend the bulk of our childhoods. And thirty years later, when that neighborhood became not so upper middle class, that house paid for the next move away from a sometimes dangerous city into a place with sprawling lawns and quiet neighbors.
My grandmother had grown up owning land as the daughter of subsistence farmers on Sapelo Island, off the coast of Georgia. The land had been in the family since slavery ended, acquired by a set of brothers, former slaves who divided the land first among themselves and later among their children so that no member of their family would ever be dependent on someone else for survival.
My grandmother’s sisters, Clara and Nellie Bell, left the island for work in Florida in the 1930s. My grandmother, their baby sister, shortly followed. This would be the first generation of my family since the Middle Passage to make their lives away from Sapelo. From Florida, they traveled to New York City, where my family would remain until I was born many years later.
And in New York City my grandmother married, was abused, beat her husband out of her life and married someone new. She went from Sugar Hill to a run-down tenement to a three bedroom house, all while raising five children, and spoiling 5 grandchildren and one great grandchild before she passed away.
The details are a little bit hazy. I was in a strange place, and knew fewer than half of the people in the room—and I had had a lot to drink. One of the people I didn’t know was telling a story that he found to be so funny he could barely get two words out before bursting into laughter. He was so enthralled by his story that he didn’t notice the joint in his hand burning down to his fingers as other people I didn’t know yelled, “puff, puff, give, man!”
The story he was telling went something like this: he and his friends were hanging out one night when they say these black kids. The word was italicized when he said it. The “A” was flat and long, the way Midwesterners say it. Maybe he was from the Midwest.
They started chasing the black kids, yelling out, “Hey, Tito!”
At this point he doubled over with laughter again, nearly dropping the joint as people yelled, begging him to pass the fucking joint. He obliged and his laughter continued until the joint came back around to him.
“So, like I was saying, we were like, “Hey, Tito!” And again, he lost his shit.
Staring at the floor, drunk and high and tired and annoyed, I said to no one in particular, “I am no longer comfortable with this conversation.”
And with that, everyone laughed.