What Billie and Phyllis Sang About

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I

Patricia Maguire has occupied her fortunately obtained, rent-controlled, two-bedroom, railroad, 800-square-foot, “It is what you make it” Harlem tenement apartment almost since the Illinois Central picked her up from Indianola, Mississippi, in 1995, and dropped her off alone as far as the first ticket would go to Memphis, where she met a newlywed couple on honeymoon to see the bride’s family first, heading back to New Jersey in time for the groom to start his new job at Marlboro Psychiatric next. 

To save money from what would have bought the next ticket, Patricia caught a ride with them instead. The newlywed bride was queasy for an obscure reason that turned into a guessing game along the way, but her nausea accounted for the sedan her husband proudly rented to relieve his wife of the train ride. Talkative and humorous, they were nice enough to drive Patricia way beyond their Jersey Shore exit through Lincoln Tunnel straight down the streets from Port Authority and Grand Central Station.

Almost there. Close enough. On time. Early even. Thank you.

From there, Patricia scooted herself, a Kmart pleather tote purse and two other monstrously stressful bags down 39th Street in a ferocious storm of thoughts and calm throes of people she somehow knew to follow. She lost a kitten heel on Broadway right before she crossed 41st. She lost her mind on 42nd.

He didn’t come to meet her there like he had said he would.

She hogged up one of the disappearing phone booths, once aplenty in Times Square, to call and call and call the number he left on top of her TV right next to a significant piece of the money he had made that month from overnight work rigging thermal slats into toaster ovens on the assembly line where they’d met. He was gonna go to New York to escape the line, like some of his friends already had. Patricia used the same old greasy quarter and pinkish dime over and over and over after the phone spit them out for nobody answering her call. She waited. She called. She called. She waited. She bought a Big Mac and ate it while she stood in a long line to pee in McDonald’s. She went back to the booth. She called. It went on like this, until her first sunset near the coast, and her first sunrise outside of Mississippi. She wished she could carry the entire glass booth on her weary back so she wouldn’t have to bump into bodies—yet another problem in addition to her wanting to scream and cry and stomp on aching, imbalanced feet. She nursed her gut in a Hell’s Kitchen budget Comfort Inn for two evenings before an Iranian concierge directed her to the Harlem YMCA. He even translated her transplant situation to a Nigerian cabbie, who took her up the West Side Highway and pointed out the Hudson River as well as shared a bulk of his life story on the way. The driver went up to the YMCA front desk with her to explain her situation. He refused a big tip she offered upon their goodbye.

From the pay phone there, she resumed her calls that very day. And the day after that. And her persistence on the third day is how she overheard the young grandniece discuss having to leave her eighty-something great-aunts all alone here, so she could get on back to her boyfriend as well as her studies in Cambridge before the fall. She didn’t know who was gonna look after them now, but they must keep up with their appointments and prescriptions and nutrition, or their ends would be more than inevitable but nearby. And their social security checks and dead husbands’ pensions would bunch up with all the junk mail or just plain disappear from perpetually broken mailboxes, as they had before when the management complained of unpaid rent but kept heart not to evict these particular two. They never made a peep. Matter fact, to square away their home was the only reason the niece sacrificed a summer she had planned to spend teaching English in Liberia, for it was her duty to get these affairs together. It was the least she could do for these particular aunts on account of their dedication to her spelling bees, fundraisers, pageants and private school tuition to take her from a hillbilly on a flyover to a lady in the academy. Few others helped. Her heart would break if she knew these aunts who made her life possible were slumped over with broken hips or strokes no one could easily put up a fuss about. She didn’t grow up with them and all, but still. It is only right.

It is, Patricia agreed.

With only enough to stay in the YMCA for one more night, Patricia thought on her feet. She slithered out the phone booth to make her presence known to the niece. She explained how she could help. Her Southern drawl was convincing. Indeed it was all she had; she unraveled a yarn going back to Indianola, a distant relative’s invitation to visit East, a Marlboro Psychiatric job offer while here, a hiring freeze that put her new job unexpectedly on hold. The niece was a liberal and open-minded. She stopped Patricia from walking to her hostel locker, to rummage through her bags to find her Mississippi LPN license. This was fortunate for Patricia. It wasn’t there. She didn’t have one.

That afternoon, the women shared a brisk but comfortable walk up 8th Avenue, as well as a booth and a meal at Manna’s Soul Food Buffet, to discuss their impressions of New York City thus far, as well as challenges of their crazy current commitments. In a manic daze now, too desperate and determined and distressed to enjoy reaching her early adulthood dream of one day leaving Mississippi for a big place, Patricia kept going with it and going with it, until she found herself sat in Clemetine and Carol Jefferson’s old tenement building apartment on 147th near Lenox, sipping tap water and crunching on butterscotches. It was the glassy-eyed Carol who sensed Patricia must have stepped in the dog crap out there on them sidewalks, more likely than bird crap. This ain’t a lucky place, baby. Patricia got an unaccompanied tour of the prewar railroad apartment—all 800-square feet and two bedrooms and eat-in kitchen and bleak view and defunct dumbwaiter of it—when she went to the pink linoleum-tiled bathroom to wipe the crap off the bottom of her final pair of shoes. Flat and go-to ones, no less. She sat on what seemed to be a ton of an old toilet without even a back to it, just a snaky shiny silver pipe with a stiff handle at top of it. Still, she leaned back against the pipe and let its moist cold hit her spine so she could count the perfectly round beige water spots all over the ceiling. The place was disarrayed. She found no toilet paper holder but a clumpy, over-painted towel bar the rolls sat atop of. She felt bad to unwrap a new one. But after she scratched the last few sheets off the rounded cardboard she found at her feet, she unwrapped a new roll to place on the sink. She put the cardboard remnant in a short cream wicker basket lined with a black plastic bag. A carrot-top wig piece fit in next to a rolled-up diaper caught her off guard. When she came back to the living room, the niece was ready to go. No sooner they had shut the door than the pretty-speaking young lady made an announcement:

They like you.

Patricia played it cool. She invented an objection to getting too close and comfortable—in case the full-time job with vacation time and health insurance called her mama’s house back in Indianola, to say they wanted her now. No need to leave Clemetine and Carol in a rut soon as they get used to somebody, only to have the person leave. The niece was a go-getter and idealistic. She rebutted they would cross that bridge if they came to it but for now, the necessary help would do until it was done.

Patricia’s training took place the next early morning, four hours before the niece’s twice-rescheduled flight out of LaGuardia. It was a rush of houseplant introductions, chore lists, closet and drawer memorizations, phone numbers, prescription pronunciations, grocery store directions and television listings. It all added up to no difference anyway. Clemetine and Carol moved better than now-“Pat” did. Half-blind, Carol cooked with the lights off. Arthritic, Clemetine actually liked to clean and carry water pails so she could bend and reach and stretch out often. They confided in Pat what they had temporarily suspended and withheld from the niece, because they said she was “too learn-ed” to have ensured she wouldn’t interfere or defect: they self-medicated daily; they gulped cod liver oil and chewed sardines and bit into homegrown aloe vera leaves and sucked licorice so they could stash their doctored meds for sale to neighbors who would knock for what they had no health insurance or medical care to get on their owns. The gout (alcoholics), high blood pressure (smokers), high cholesterol (obese) and pain pills (addicts) were most in demand. No no…they didn’t intend to get her mixed up in it.

Other than waiting in Duane Reade for the prescriptions, Pat never had to say a word or aluminum-foil one pill or put away one dollar in the stacked Entenmann’s butter cookie tins. Don’t even gotta go to the door. They liked to take care of everything in the house. They mostly liked her to do the things outside the house they weren’t interested in attempting anymore. Namely she should go to the store for their spontaneous tastes for prunes and Neopolitan ice cream and single slice sweet potato pie in plastic containers and butterscotch, or whenever saltine crackers were low. Their lives depended upon Equal and Mrs. Dash. Play the same number patterns for every Take 5 and Pick 10, and pick up a Daily News by the time real news come on television, so they could have more dialogue than surprise with newscasters. Pat should know they have favorite shows all day every day ’round the clock, mostly reruns but some new stuff like the judges and Oprah. She was more than welcome to watch whatever she wanted to at night.

They did not mention if she could have company or not, but Patricia assumed about that. She was not interested in company anyway. She opened her eyes before the sisters started to ease up around Good Morning America and she put them to bed around the time of Charlie Rose replay. This left her more than a few hours a day towards her original purpose for coming here to begin with, a volunteer position that had become automatic and furious and benevolent: to keep on calling him. And she did. For a few weeks, while she got used to the itchy thread-upholstered couch, she took the dollars the sisters often gave her and bought herself a few warmer things to pile in her dresser at the corner of the living room. Her sleep schedule became so erratic her constantly fogged mind could little distinguish between one day and the next, with only the fact of new voices at the door and brand name rotations in the olive green refrigerator to signal change. Clemetine and Carol, both rather lithe and perhaps sultry once, were merely shadows moving about their own home. Occasionally, new tasks fell out of their mouths like the laundry hung loose from gangway windows. Otherwise, they were easy.

Pat, too head-blown to be homesick but still startled by New York and able to use countrified naivete to her advantage, obeyed them. They were easier to her for it. They never asked if Marlboro Psychiatric had called or what her old jobs had been. They lived in the day, the moment, the breath, the necessity, the chore, the chuckle. Their lack of concern with her past or her plans enabled the false legitimacy of her present: to count precisely how many times her finger could press the numbers overnight and before dawn, to learn how many catnaps would be insufficient before tropisms of the potted Dieffenbachia and ficus played to her eyes like restless guests. By most mornings, once the night strained to stay on as indigo and one or both of the sisters was hacking a way out of sleep, Pat blew the occasional shadow out of proportion. Or she felt the occasionally grazed points of the spider plant leaves to be way too sharp. The tricks were natural. But still, she didn’t sleep. She convinced herself it would not kill her but make her stronger.

She broke their favorite mugs in unslippery but careless accidents, swept up the pieces and prayed the sisters would not remember or notice. She dropped hair and weight also. In a perpetual promise to do it right before she went to sleep, but instead passing out rather than going to bed, she stopped brushing her teeth. She just swished and spit water when she drank it. For months. Unto a row of molar cavities, bleeding gums, brown rim where it was once pink. Were it not for the sisters’ lotteries never won and stacked newspapers and empty candy dishes and “Catfish tonight?” and no molasses left, then Pat would have forgotten what outside air tasted like. Back home, she had lived off that taste. In the city, New York (but without he who had told her to meet him there, and to call the number to let him know), she was suffocated from the taste before she recalled it.

She did, however, exchange conversation with a couple neighbors who looked about her age. She avoided the men hanging purposelessly on their imposing and dented soft marble stoop instead of rushing underground to get to work. She ignored whistlers. This meant she pretty much did not talk to anybody. She got in habit of politely declining a few friendly faces’ invitations to a barbecue or sidewalk party to stay firmly put not too far from the sisters. She was way too scared of ever again seeing that rush of people and circus of signs and terrifying mob of the Times Square, where more than her heel had broken. Every Sunday, she feigned rapture. She told her very pleased and proud mama he was spoiling her. She had met his family. They had gone to see “Cats” twice already. They went out to eat all the time, but no, “This food ain’t good as ours.” She reasoned, to her mama and herself, he liked the night shift: gone all night and sleep all day.

She wished to tell him about how she had gone too far to the grocery stores further down Manhattan so she could read the whole paper and get to learn the right directions, colors and jists of the MTA—all by herself. He could be proud. She wanted to mention the mangos she bought off a 125th Street vendor and tasted for the first time. They could share them next time. She wanted to brag about her brilliance: on the best ways to handle a misplaced turd dropped by its frazzled owner, how to trick a brittle but unabashed native New Yorker from a pee-stained gown to a better one now. She wanted to share with him how she had turned this whole mess around and she was such an asset to him for it. For a few months, with a resignation speech ready (on how much she has enjoyed the experience and can come back on the weekends to look after them, but now her full-time Marlboro Psychiatric floor nurse job has called), she kept on calling and calling and calling and calling and calling and calling and calling and calling him. Then when he finally answered her at 2:47 a.m. it wasn’t him at all. It was a woman.

 II

When the niece came back the following summer, Pat, Clemetine and Carol moved together like the Three Stooges and the niece was satisfied she had saved the days. After that woman had answered her call, and crackled out a hateful speech starting with “Bitch” punctuated by “cut this shit out,” it took about a good year or two for the carving of mortified sorrow between Pat’s breasts to smooth into a less rocky path toward sleep through a night again. But still the index finger on her right hand remained restless enough to move without her moving it, center stage of her body, like a prima donna. If it wasn’t digging in her ear it was tapping at the wooden arm of the couch or sliding itself across her thick eyebrows or pointing out an old tune to the back of her neck. Its fingernail remained chewed down. Its cuticles bled often. When the sorrow left, the finger caught itself around cigarettes; the sisters cried she now smoked, but so long as she did it on the fire escape it was alright. And so she melted into the neighborhood and its people that way, the girl-turned-woman-turned-broad busying her right index finger with a Virginia Slim bought on slim allowance. She fit in—finally—with them, not just another transient dropping off bags until that big part or couch-surfing until the project sold or stretching a meager academic stipend across hood grime until graduation day. Except for Amtrak voyages back to Indianola after a lover’s drunk-driven truck crushed her youngest sister and a 70th birthday party was had for her mother in the basement of the Lutheran church she was baptized in, Pat never left Harlem again.

She thought of him every single day, looked for him without looking.

The sisters held on past five years. Eventually, they went on, nearly one after the other, in their bedrooms. Pat was thankfully asleep the first time and out lingering on an errand the next time. The one left didn’t understand what had really gone on when the first one went, so she still asked about her every single day. Talked to her even. Then the second one passed on, too. Pat made the calls to the niece, who made the calls to the shred of family who had made a decent showing for the first sister. Then they left it to the neighbors and Harlem friends to pay all respects to the second. The niece also alerted the right offices to stop sending checks for Carol and Clemetine Peterson, though she and Pat admitted it was tempting to test how to keep them appearing in the mailbox. What to do with the apartment became the next question, until what to do became absolutely nothing but to pay the rent. And so, with the envelope of thanks the niece shared with her after the last funeral and before they never saw each other again, Pat did. For the next year. Until half the envelope ran out. In the next year and with half of what was left of half the envelope, Pat bribed the building’s management not to kick her single person out of one of the larger two-bedroom apartments so they could add stainless steel appliances and parquet floors and skylights to raise the rent substantially for white or new people.

One of the sisters’ forlorn and desperate pill customers clued Pat in to the New York Children’s Services and its ongoing foster parent recruitment. All Pat had to do was go to a class for a few months and pass a background check to be certified to share all that space with the pitter-patter of little feet she had outgrown her days to achieve. Not to mention, she could get $600 a month in food stamps if she kept the maximum three kids. Under the structure, she could fit two in one bedroom if they were of the same sex and one in the other room, where she slept, if it was an infant. Or (and this was even more brilliant), she could get to Atlantic City to try her hand at video poker even though she didn’t play any poker. But surely somebody told her how once, so she would recall it once she arrived to the Boardwalk maybe. She would start with video poker. Her finger so good for dialing could now be good for poking.

With the other half of what was left in the envelope, or all of the rest of it, Pat paid almost half 2001’s rent and planned a trip to Atlantic City, allotting enough for the Trailways ticket, overnight motel room and eating money. To see what would happen.

If not… it had been so long she was closed up so tight that she needed rose water oil and witch hazel to restore her scent. But worse come to worst, she would figure out a way to hang a shingle to the nicer fellows and older gentleman with handicapped placards in big sedan windows on Harlem blocks. And it would be lovely, and fun, and win-win.

The sisters no longer hovered over her. The countless heavy and ridged frames displaying the spying ancestors were off the wall now, a heritage for the niece. The gone photos left Wonder Bread-white squares behind on bread-crust-color walls no one had painted since 1978. Pat washed them down, and still the accidental mosaic stayed. She spent a bit of the envelope on posters sold in Harlem shops: to see Billie smile, men and women straddle each other with dreadlocks hiding their lushy privates, Malcolm X photographed mid-fiery sentence. Even cheaper, she went through the foolish fire hazard of a pantry filled with Ebony, Jet and The Enquirer the sisters subscribed to, to cut out pictures of the stars in fancy gowns. She planned collages on dollar-store construction paper with hearts cut out the corners. She jumped on their remarkably enduring Sealys and shook her wet ass out of a Calgon-filled tub. She dusted the sisters’ vinyl and jiggled the needle on the record player for show, until the neighbors understood the whole damned story after Phyllis and Aretha and Sade and Tina and Patti played too much with the record skipping and nobody rushing to change the tune.

She would make the whole place pleasing, starting with the slumlord’s sons. She would be a working girl rather than a foster child/woman. She would only call men who answered now, and knock for men who opened and console men and lie with men and light their ways to the bathroom and shine a flashlight down black halls and make herself essential and come into their beds to say “It’s okay, baby” the next time a sad smell of charcoal floated all the way up over the rooftops of Harlem at the stroke of midnight from what had happened downtown at the near break of day, finally understanding that her mama could not possibly be there now to hold her hand if she died in New York. And God? He left her alone.

She still pleases them now.

 

Photo By: gabro

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About Author

Kalisha Buckhanon’s novels are Conception (St. Martin’s, 2008) and Upstate (St. Martin’s, 2005). Her writing awards include an American Library Association Alex Award, Friends of American Writers Award and Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Prose. She and her work have been featured in Essence, Guardian/London Observer, Michigan Quarterly Review, London Independent on Sunday, Mosaic, Colorlines, xoJane.com, London’s Pride and Sable Lit magazines, and more. She has taught creative writing, humanities and English through PEN American Center’s Prison Writing Program, Kankakee Community College and many inner-city schools programs, summer arts camps and library initiatives.

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