A Long Way to Go
Atlantic Prize Story
BY JEANNE E. WYLIE
ALEX said, ‘I love you, Baby.’ He stroked me under the chin with his finger. ‘I’ll send for you in a couple months. We’ll get married, Baby.’ He kissed me. Then he said, ‘Go over and see Ma sometimes like a good girl, will you? She’ll be lonesome.’ Then he set off for Detroit to find himself a better job.
Not a word about how lonesome I might be!
Of course I went over to see his Ma the first Sunday I could. She’s been like a real mother to me since I was sixteen and my own died and I left the farm for good. I put on my white sandals and my white piqué and my white cartwheel and walked the ten blocks on the shady side of the street. The ten cents for bus fare I’d already put in the tin box I keep in my room. I had fifty-six dollars there toward getting married. It wasn’t bad, out of eighteen dollars a week wrapping packages in Sheffel’s basement. What hurt me was that kid Alex making as high as a hundred and sixty dollars a month right here in town and never saving a cent in a tin box. He never saved enough to buy a tin box.
Three times in four years he’s gone off like this looking for better jobs. He says it’s to get money to buy nice things for Ma and me. Ma says it’s the gypsy in him and he can’t help it, no more than he can help coming back home again when the moon is right.
I turned the corner onto Ma’s street and got away from some of the noise and smell of Sunday traffic on Delancey Street. The tops of the houses shimmied in the heat, and the sky was so pale it was hardly blue, but I thought I smelled rain far off.
I rang the bell and Ma buzzed the door open. She was in a sateen slip with her hair in curlpapers. I ran up the stairs and she grabbed my hands.
‘Rilla, you got a letter from him! Where is he?’
‘No, Ma.’ I shook my head.
She laughed. ‘I find it myself.’ She put her hand down my dress front. She felt under my arm. She opened my purse.
I said, ‘Honest, Ma.’ I was awful letdown. ‘I thought you’d have one.’
‘No.’ She went in the front room and sat in the big plum chair he always sat in. She started fanning herself with a newspaper.
‘If I only knew he’s in Detroit safe, with still some money left,’ she said.
‘He can take care of himself, Ma,’ I said.
‘I know, I know.’ She laid the paper down. ‘He’s cygan. Big and black, after his father. What is the word?’
‘Gypsy, Ma,’ I said. We’d been over all this lots of times before.
She got that far look in her eye. ‘ Geepsies, yes,’ she said. ‘They come every winter down the Elbe to Mělník where it makes a joining with the Vltava. My Moussel and all the Vuhlpas and the cousins and the uncles. All winter they dance and make love in the square behind the markets of grain. Then, spring, they go, south by the Vltava with their wagons and music. The spring I was sixteen, when they go I go too, with Moussel. Then we come to this country.’
I sat down on the davenport, careful not to muss my white piqué. I was dressed up so fine because whenever Ma wrote first to Alex I wanted her to say that I’d been over and how nice and pretty I looked. There was an old pipe on top of the radio, and a picture of Alex. Mr. Vuhlpas must have been a handsome one if he looked like Alex.
Ma started fanning herself again with the paper. She liked me to pretend I hadn’t heard her tell all this before.
She said, ‘There was a woman on the boat, a Czech. She read the hands. The hand of Moussel made a shadow on her face and she would tell him nothing. But for me, she says we travel far before we stop. Then we have a son who goes farther and never stops. She says we carry him a long time. Then he will carry us.’
‘You think he will, Ma?’ I said.
She sat up straight. ‘You don’t think so? Moussel never sees it now, God soothe his hot blood. But you and me — we see. You wait.’
‘But, Ma,’ I said, ‘he could write to us, at least.’
‘Not till he’s got the good news. Don’t you go to cry, Rilla, now, or I . . .’
‘I’m not crying. Not for him!’
She laughed till her chest shook. ‘You should do like I do to stop the crying,’ she said. ‘Buy yourself a new dress.’ She got up and pulled her slip down in back and up over her bosom in front. ‘Come see,’ she said, and I followed her into the bedroom.
She took a dress out of the cupboard and laid it on the bed. ‘Two ninetyeight at Sheffel’s,’ she said. She stood smoothing it with her wide fingers. It was dark blue with embroidered holes in it. It had red buttons and a red belt. She began unwinding her hair off the papers. ‘My grocery business ain’t so good now. You think I am crazy?’
‘Crazy nothing!’ I said. ‘We can’t crawl off and die because he’s gone again.’ I fingered the hem of the dress. ‘I bet this’ll look swell on you with your blue hat. You’ll have to go some place now and show it off.’
She stuck bobby pins in her hair behind her ears. She blushed a little. ‘There’s that circus,’ she said, only she called it ‘seerkoos.’ ‘Once in Praha I saw a circus. I never forgot.’
‘Where’s the circus?’ I asked her.
‘ You don’t see it when you come down Delancey Street — that big lot?’
‘I didn’t see anything. I was . . .’
‘I know. You think of him all the way. Ty parchante! My real son, but I say it.’ She pinched my arm above the elbow. ‘You’re thin,’ she said; ‘saving your money and not eating enough. Put some more red on your mouth now and we go across to the circus and catch you a better man.’
I laughed and took out my lipstick while Ma climbed into her dress. It was always that way between us, pretending he was dirt and spitting him out all the time we rolled the salt of him around on our tongues.
I leaned at the mirror and worked my lipstick. I wished he could see me now with my hair reddy brown from the vinegar rinse, and my straw cartwheel with the blue ribbon. It wasn’t me ever drove him away with nagging or anything like. Saying good-bye tore at him same as me. But he always said he had to go, so he put the hurt from him and went. It hit me sudden a man was like the submarine I saw once in a newsreel, with watertight doors between the compartments. If one flooded he’d still be snug and dry in the other parts. But if a woman’s heart sprung a leak she went down in no time. It must’ve been the storm in the air made me see clear like that.
Ma said, ‘Can you make this little top button stay, Rilla? My fingers are so stiff.’
I turned and buttoned the neck of her dress. She had tears in her eyes. Suddenly I had tears in mine. She reached out and hugged me with her fat arms. We rocked back and forth and she cooed little Czech words at me I didn’t understand.
Then she stood away and blew her nose. ‘Such monkeyshines,’ she said. She liked that word. She opened the dresser drawer and took out her purse.
‘No, Ma,’ I said, ‘I’ve got money.’
But she said, ‘No, I’m going to take you to the circus to pay a little for the heartache I bring you, birthing that gypsy devil Alex. We forget him a while and have ourselves a good time, eh?’
There were lots of people standing outside the big tents in wilted shirts and wrinkled seersuckers and voiles. There was a wagon where they were spinning pink sugar into balls like cotton on paper sticks, and a booth selling three dips of frozen custard in ice-cream cones for a nickel. That kid Alex would rather eat frozen custard than a T-bone steak.
Ma kept trying to see everything at once, squeaking and poking my arm and pointing. When I was little on the farm we drove to town to see the circus once, too. I remembered it was something grand. But this was scraggy and noisy and dirty. I was dripping sweat down along my spine and down my breastbone in front.
A man outside the tent stood up on a box and began to shout, but we couldn’t hear. Ma said, ‘Let’s get close.’ So we wiggled up through the crowd. On the sides of the tent were posters in gaudy colors. One showed a dark lady winding snakes around her torso in a sensational Dance of Death. There were Siamese twins in tights and pink hair ribbons, Hawaiian hula dancers, and a picture of a man with his arms and legs tied in a bowknot over his stomach.
Ma hissed, ‘Listen what that man says.’
I said, ‘Ma, you don’t believe all that stuff!’
She said, ‘I believe anything to laugh.’
We stood listening. I squeezed her hand. The barker spat tobacco over his shoulder. He wiped his face with a dirty rag and then tucked the rag back under his suspenders.
He hollered, ‘All for two bits, one fourth part of a dollar, fifteen colossal separate acts, starting now.’
The people had tramped the field grass dry and it smelled like good feed hay. There was a boy sneaking his arm around his girl’s waist next to me, pinching up under her belt. Maybe that kid Alex was doing the same thing now, out in Detroit with some girl he’d picked up. When I was with him he’d always turn his thumbs down behind every other girl he saw. But he noticed things like legs and sweaters. How’d I know what he might do if he got lonesome?
Ma gave me a push. ‘Let’s go in the tent,’ she whispered. ‘I want to see the snakes and that man with rubber legs.’
I smiled quick and swallowed a lump. I said, ‘O.K., Ma.’
We bought two tickets and went inside. It was hot and smeary with smoke. There was a Punch and Judy show going on, but me and Ma are both short. All we could see was the top of a green crocodile snapping its jaws at a stick. Next to Punch and Judy was a wood platform with a drummer and three hula dancers sitting. The hula girls were trying to keep their grass skirts closed over their bare thighs. Next to them was a colored band, and two black girls in front in yellow feathers. They tapped their feet and rolled their eyes, waiting for the music. Clear around the tent were people sitting on platforms waiting for their own acts to go on. So we walked away from the crowd and went looking at everything.
One place a tiny lady with a big swollen head was selling Bibles for ten cents, no bigger than a postage stamp. Ma had to get one of those and then she couldn’t read it even with her glasses.
She said, ‘Two years I was wine maiden at the castle on the hilltop at Mělník, picking grapes and mashing with my feet in barrels. I saved the money to buy a Bible like this, only bigger. Now he, Alex, has it with him in Detroit. He’ll be a good boy if he keeps his finger on it.’
Neither Ma nor me believe what all is in the Bible. But we swear on it anyway, just to be on the right side in case there is some truth in it.
We walked and stopped at another place with chameleons for sale, twentyfive cents, tied to chains all over a pink screen.
Ma stood clucking at them. She asked the woman, ‘What do they eat?’
‘A little sugar and water.’ The woman unfastened one and handed it to a fat boy with chocolate smears on his cheeks. The chameleon had its eyes closed and you could see its sides push in and out when it breathed. The woman said, ‘They change color with every dress you wear them on. Ladies like them for chic lapel ornaments.’ She took the quarter from the boy and bent over the screen, straightening the creatures’ legs and tails so they all hung down.
Ma said, ‘Sugar and water. Is that all?’
The woman yawned and nodded. ‘They’ll catch flies to eat if you give them a longer chain.’ She sat back in her chair and crossed her legs.
The fat boy pressed the sides of his chameleon with two fingers. ‘Damn it,’ he screeched, ‘it don’t change color!’ He shook it by the tail.
Ma saw him. She reached and clapped him smart on the side of the head. ‘There’s one to make you change color,’ she yelled. ‘Chistova noho! Hurting a poor lizard!’ The boy backed off and started running, with Ma shaking her fist after him.
‘Pig of a dog!’ Ma shouted. ‘That little shameleon will be dead by nighttime. It’s a sin!’
We dodged four screaming kids and started on around the tent.
‘Still,’ Ma said, ‘there’s lots of people and children lying with their bones broke and their heads mashed in all over the world this minute. That’s a bigger sin.’ She took my arm. She was puffing again. ‘But if that Alex was called to the army now, you think I would cry? I could sleep peaceful nights, knowing where he was, and his belly full.’
‘Amen to that,’ I whispered, and wondered right away why I’d said it. What would I do a year without him when two weeks was so bad already?
We walked past a man made up like Popeye. Ma nudged and I turned and saw the man wink and slop his lower lip clear over his nose so only half his face showed, with his pipe stuck out from the middle.
I pulled her along, but she walked looking back. She said, ‘That man don’t make faces like my boy can. You remember the time he made Hitler, and then Mussolini, and then that one with the nose, you know . . .’
‘Snozzle Durante, Ma,’ I said.
The night she was thinking of we popped corn in the kitchen. The kid did Scotch and Cockney and Jewish accents till we nearly died laughing. He used to say, ‘Never a dull moment after you’re married to me, Honey.’
Ma was stopped in front of a man with a saw and a violin bow beside him on the table.
She said, ‘What is it he does with that saw?’
The man had a red nose and no hair. He stared without seeing us.
‘He plays music on it, Ma,’ I said, ‘with a violin bow.’
‘I sure as God don’t see how.’ She reached up and touched the man’s toe. ‘Play it now,’ she said.
He looked down at her. ‘It ain’t time for me to play yet, lady.’ She acted so disappointed he reached over to the table and handed her a pamphlet with his picture on. ‘This’ll learn you how to play one yourself — if you got a saw with you.’ He laughed loud and short and then forgot us and sat staring again. I could see moth holes in the shoulder of his tux.
Ma giggled. ‘Sit down this minute, Rilla,’she said. ‘We see how this works.’
I peered over her shoulder. The front of the pamphlet under the man’s picture said, ‘Professor Harry Klunsch, international novelty and radio artist.’ Below was, ‘How to play music on an ordinary hand saw. Price fifty cents.’
Ma cried, ‘Why, that good man gave it to us for nothing!’
She opened it up and began reading. It was all about how to hold the saw between your knees and make a double curve to play low C. Ma read, ‘Grip the small end of blade with left hand. Pry upward with the fingers at the end of blade and downward with the thumb three inches from the end. The small end of the blade will make an angle of thirty-five degrees with the large end.’
Ma looked sad. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘we get the saw first. Then we try. I keep this for Alex. He understands real quick.’
I said, ‘Ma, everything you see just makes you talk more and more about that kid. I thought we came to the circus to forget him for a while.’
She gave me a sharp look. ‘Rilla,’ she said, ‘we forget that we breathe. We forget to eat, maybe. But you and me don’t forget that one, never!’
‘ I bet he forgets us,’ I said. My throat hurt, wanting him so that minute.
‘You should burn in hell to say such things.’ But she smiled and patted my hand and I smiled back.
The people were crowding away from the Punch and Judy show now, and the barker stood at the end of the tent by the man with rubber legs.
I said, ‘Hurry, Ma, and we’ll get a place close up before the others get a chance.’
We ran and got so close we could smell the sweat from the barker’s shirt. The rubber man was all over pimples. Ma couldn’t take her eyes off him. He wound his arms twice around his neck. Then he bulged his spine in a great camel’s hump on his back. He kept talking along with it all, telling how he learned in India to go into a godlike trance and make his body the servant of his will. From the looks of his body, I’d’ve rather had a monkey for a servant.
Ma said, ‘India’s a far distance — farther than Czechoslovakia.’
I said, ‘Ma, you don’t think he was ever there!’
And she answered, ‘Be silent, child. He says so, don’t he?’
Then the man said he’d make his stomach disappear. He puffed and blew and heaved his chest up and down, and all of a sudden where his stomach was was only a big hole — nothing there at all but skin with his ribs and chicken bone like a skeleton around it and his backbone pushing through. It spilled my insides and I gave a little shriek.
Ma laughed and said, ‘Watch him now.’
The man turned and there was his stomach hanging under the skin over his hip, behind. It was awful. The band started playing ‘Girl of My Dreams’ fit to tear your ears out, and with a pop like a gun the man cracked his ribs, and his stomach was back in the right place. I couldn’t find mine.
The crowd moved over next to the platform with the hula dancers. We watched, and Ma said once, soft to herself, ‘These poor, sorry people.’
I said, ‘I thought you liked all this.’
‘ I do.’ She looked at me. ‘ It takes me from that flat and the store and selling groceries to friends who ain’t the money to pay me, every day the same. I like to watch this. But they’re poor, sorry people still.’
I remember the kid always talked that way, too. He got bored at home and went hunting new faces. But he never found a place or folks he liked as good as here.
Ma didn’t fancy those hula dancers. She said they were no better than street women, wiggling their hips and shaking their busts. I wondered if she was worried too about who Alex might’ve found for company off in Detroit this afternoon. She was right, we couldn’t forget him. He was with us all the time. We kept seeing through his eyes.
We moved on to a booth done up in gauze curtains and painted camels and palm trees. A woman with towels wrapped on her head came out, holding a crystal ball. I know enough about that stuff not to take it for true — like what the Czech woman told Ma on the boat to America. The stars are too far off to know what we’re doing or care. As for spirits talking, I’ve always said, like Alex, when you’re dead you’re dead and can’t come back. I’ve seen too many lambs dropped and lost in the spring blizzards and not found till they’re rotten blotches in the far pastures in May. People go the same way when they die, and I can’t see a spirit rising from a mess like that.
The woman’s name was on a sign over the tent. ‘Madame Yarra. Your Past and Future. One Dollar per Reading.'
Ma was already into her purse. The woman was smiling.
I said, ‘Ma, not a whole dollar! It’s all bunk anyhow.’
She sucked in her lip. ‘Bunk, yes. But I thought . . .’
‘Don’t think, if it’s going to make you spend a dollar for nothing.’ I knew what she wanted was to hear something about the kid, no matter what. But a dollar comes hard to Ma.
‘Fifty cents for the lady, special today,’ the woman with the crystal lisped. Her eyes held Ma’s like a snake’s.
I said, ‘It’s too much, Ma, for a lot of lies like that.’
It was the first time Ma ever spoke fretful to me.
‘ Maybe a lot of lies is worth fifty cents sometimes,’ she said.
‘But she may tell you things you won’t like.’
‘ No one says I got to believe the parts I don’t like,’ Ma answered softly.
So I followed her into the tent. It smelled of hamburgs and sweet incense. The lights were on the floor under layers of gauze. The woman sat down behind a table and set the ball in front of her. Ma sat in the only other chair and I stood by her shoulder.
Ma took out her fifty-cent piece and crossed the woman’s hand with it. The woman said, ‘Ah, I see you’re from the old country. Not an unbeliever, like this American child.’
‘Bosh,’ I said between my teeth.
But the woman had her eyes closed and her fingers pressed on her forehead. We waited. I looked at the grass stains on my white sandals and a dust streak along the hem of my white piqué. I couldn’t get enough air to breathe. I heard myself whisper, ‘Kid, if there’s anything to this spirit stuff, you listen to me now. Come on home where you belong. I don’t want Venetian blinds or white leather chairs. Imitation maple’s good enough for me. Honest.’ I never once let myself dream he could find such a fine job in Detroit he could send for Ma and me and give us all those things. Dreams leave too big holes when you wake up, like that rubber man’s stomach.
The woman started talking then. She opened her eyes and stared into the crystal. I could see the three of us in the glass, tiny and upside down.
She said, ‘Your name is—’ She bent close to the crystal. ‘Anna — Anna — no — Vanya. Vanya.’
Ma gave my foot a little jog. It was her name, all right.
The woman said, ‘You have a son. He is young yet. He has much in his heart for you and this girl.’ Her finger pointed slowly at me. There was a great silver ring with a topaz on that finger. ‘Much in his heart,’ she said again, ‘and little in his hand.’
Ma took a handkerchief from her bosom and wiped her nose. I felt queer myself.
The woman said, ‘I see him far from home — East — a long way . . .'
I swear Ma and me and the woman started fading in that crystal. It got cloudy, smoky, like factories, like Detroit.
‘He’s a wild boy and you are afraid,’ she said. Then she shouted, ‘Don’t be afraid!’ I jumped. She went on, more quiet: ‘He has a long way to go. He’ll never stop. Some day you’ll be proud. He’ll send for you.’ She closed her eyes. ‘I see a letter — it’s on its way now. It says —’ She stood up suddenly. ‘That’s all I can see. For fifty cents more I can tell you what it says.’
But Ma had my hand and was pulling me out of the booth.
‘Me let her read my son’s letter to me, a stranger like her!’ Ma laughed and straightened her blue hat and ducked her head so I wouldn’t catch the tears. She pulled me after her clear outside the tent. There were black clouds over the sky in the west. The sun was gone. Dust and papers were whirling in a little wind around our feet.
Ma whispered, ‘Rilla, you heard that? Like the woman told Moussel and me twenty-five years ago? He has a long way to go, that Alex. And he never stops.’
My voice was shaky. ‘I heard it, Ma,’ I said.
There was a rumble of thunder just then. All at once I felt beautiful and tall, tall enough to see across the prairies to Detroit. But I said, ‘Don’t you want to see the rest of the show, Ma? The snakes . . .’
‘What show? What snakes?’ Ma set her hat straight again and tugged down on her skirt front.
‘What are you going to do, then?’
‘You make fun with an old woman now,’ she said. She started off across the dry grass, pushing against people and shrieking children in her way.
‘Don’t you even want a frozen custard cone?’ I shouted from behind her. ‘Or some of that spun pink sugar?’
When I caught up with her she was smiling, with a tear mark down the powder on her cheek.
‘You talk such foolishness to tease me,’ she said. ‘Candy, custard, when maybe there’s a letter.’
‘But it’s Sunday.’
‘There’s been special delivery before now, hasn’t there?’ she said. ‘We could miss it already, waiting around that crazy circus!’
‘Well, come on, then,’ I hollered. ‘Let’s hurry.’
I took her arm and we started to run.