Raised in Harlem, MARTIN J. HAMER has since lived in every borough of New York except Staten Island. He writes, however, “I have spent most of my years traveling inside myself; for at least the horrors there are of my own making.” He works as an electromechanical designer and is an evening student at the City College of New York, where he is majoring in psychology.
A Story by MARTIN J. HAMER
IT SNOWED on Thanksgiving Day. With the wonder of all the preparations and the knowledge that a man was coming to visit, the snow was more than Clyde could bear. “It’s snowing!” he screamed. “Mama, it’s snowing!” In a frenzy he ran into the kitchen to tell his mother the news. He was in the way; he was sent back into the living room. He came sneaking back, frightening his Aunt Bea with a loud “Boo!” He ran out again and opened the window. The snow was falling in great silver flakes. He took what he could catch in his hands and blew it across the room. “Snow! Snow!” he cried. He was placed in a chair and given a magazine.
Bea Boyce had come early to help out. She was a rotund woman, forty-six years of age, with a romantic air and quick brown eyes. As she moved around and around setting the open-leafed table, her taffeta dress swished and swirled about her and she hummed in a very high key. She placed the silverware with elaborate care and folded the linen napkins into white fluffed caps. When she remembered that the shoes she wore were open at the toes, she said aloud to no one in particular that she hoped Mr. Boyce would think to bring her rubbers. Then she began to whistle “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” the wobbly sound coming from between her large, pursed lips, the effort hollowing her cheeks and arching her penciled-in eyebrows. Sarah called from the kitchen that house whistling was bad luck.
“It’s not Christmas, anyway,” Clyde said. “It’s Thanksgiving!” His aunt rolled her eyes at him, and he pushed himself into the farthest corner of the chair and tried to roll his eyes at her.
“You’re getting too cute,” she said. “Mr. George will fix you, though. He’s going to fix your wagon, but good!”
“Don’t frighten the boy,” said Sarah. She came from the kitchen with the water glasses tinkling in her slender hands, and after placing them on the table she viewed herself solemnly in the mirror. Her hair was drawn straight back from her oval face, and her pierced ears showed tiny pearl earrings to match the necklace hanging in the fullness of her breast. Unlike her sister’s, her brown pupils moved slowly. Her expression was apprehensive, and there was the suggestion of a clown’s sorrow about her mouth where the lipstick had been drawn boldly onto the dark facial skin of her upper lip. Turning her body from side to side, she smoothed her purple dress about her hips and asked Bea, “How do I look?”
“Like a belle of the ball,” said Bea.
Sarah frowned. “A belle of the ball at forty. A real belle of the ball.” She placed one leg out in front of her and pressed a hand to its knee. “I think this dress is too short.”
“What do you mean, too short? Look at mine!”
“Yours is too short too,” Sarah said,
“Well, honey, that’s the style these days.”
“Dress like this will only put ideas in his head.”
“And that ain’t what you want?”
“I most certainly do not. Getting a man means about as much to me as getting an ice-cream cone.”
“Which is why,” said Bea, “you’re making all this fuss about dinner.” She went back to the table and fluffed a fallen napkin. “You just better pray that Ann’s not in one of her moods. ‘Cause, child, she’ll sure mess things up for you.”
“She’d better not,” said Sarah angrily. “She’d just better be on her p’s and q’s if she knows what’s good for her.”
“I can’t see why you even invited her. You know how she is.”
“I invited her for the same reason I invited you — you’re family.”
“Well,” said Bea, “remember what Papa used to say: Ain’t nothing worse — Ain’t nothing worse than family.”
“I just wish you’d shut up,” said Sarah, “for once!”
The doorbell rang, and Clyde scrambled into the hallway calling, “Who is it? Who is it?”
“ It’s me!”
“It is I,” shouted the final and strongest voice from far below, and his Aunt Ann’s three boys came thundering up the four flights to the landing. They swept past him shaking snow, fists, and tongues in his face. When Ann appeared on the landing, she took his small bewildered form in her arms and pressed him deep into the damp fur collar of her coat. Before they were inside, the bell rang again and Mr. Boyce came up the stairs puffing. A great wool muffler swathed his neck, and his mustache sparkled with melting snow. Bea Boyce made it clear to everyone that he had not thought enough to bring her rubbers.
ANN sat near the oilstove and warmed her bony frame in its shimmering heat. She was dressed in black, and the huge iron cross that hung about her neck made her corner of the room solemnly remote. Mr. Boyce sprawled on the couch, hung one hand on his vest pocket in the manner of a train conductor, and caressed his bushy mustache with the other. His wife fluttered among the children like a bird. “The boys have grown,” she said. “They give no trouble,” replied Ann. In less than ten minutes, thought Sarah, they’ve used Clyde’s caps, broken his gun, crushed a plastic soldier, and rolled most of his marbles under the piano. “Well,” she said loudly, “you all just make yourselves comfortable.” “Gimme that!” said Ann’s oldest. Without looking up, Ann said, “Now, now.” Then she reached into her purse and took out her Bible. Sarah picked up a cigarette from the table and started to light it. Mr. Boyce brought out a fat cigar. “I hope you’re not going to light that thing before dinner,” said Bea. He glowered at her, rolling the fat cigar between his jaundiced-looking fingers. He harrumphed and placed it back in his pocket. Sarah’s match popped loudly, and Mr. Boyce watched as a cloud of smoke obscured her. “Blow a smoke ring, Aunt Sarah! Blow a smoke ring!” Bea frowned, the doorbell rang, and everyone became silent. When a light rap sounded at the door, Bea crossed her legs and whispered to Mr. Boyce to sit straight. Ann look one hand from her Bible and began to finger her cross. Her boys gaped stupidly at the door, and Clyde moved cautiously toward his mother. Sarah closed her eyes and prayed: Please, Lord, don’t let anything go wrong. “Come in!” she called. “Come in!”
A huge man entered, his black coat glistening with melted snow, and immediately a chilled air, heavy with the pungent odor of stale tobacco, spread about the room. “Come in, Mr. George,” said Sarah. “Come in and meet the folks.” He removed his coat and stood before them in a neat but tattered blue suit, a bright new white shirt, and a faded maroon-colored tie. His gaze moved easily from face to face; his slightly graying hair and soft features made him appear calm, but there was the indication of surprise in his manner and his brow was drawn and deeply furrowed. Sarah introduced him to Mr. Boyce. “How do you do, sir,” said Mr. George. Mr. Boyce was flattered. He pumped the tall man’s arm, mumbling that it was a pleasure to meet a gentleman. Bea was squirming on the couch all the while, and by the time she was introduced her skirts were so high you could see where her stockings ended. When Sarah saw that Mr. George had noticed, she said, “Now, you wouldn’t think she was the oldest, would you?” Everyone was silent. “And,” Sarah went on loudly, “over here’s my other sister, Ann.”
Ann extended her left hand, holding onto her cross with her right. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” she said.
“Thank you,” said Mr. George warmly.
“I wouldn’t be so quick to say thank you if I were you. You’re not at all what I expected.”
Mr. George stopped smiling. Sarah quickly said, “These are all her boys, except one. This one.” She pushed Clyde forward. “This is Clyde. Well,” she said to the boy, “what do you say?” Clyde stared at Mr. George and then retreated back behind Sarah.
“Boy sure needs to be taught,” said Ann. “I’ve never seen a child so backward.”
The fire could be heard burning in the oilstove, and Sarah closed her eyes to pray to God. “I brought you these,” said Mr. George awkwardly. When Sarah turned, he was handing her two brown-paper-wrapped packages. Embarrassed, she mumbled “Thank you” and looked toward the floor. He was standing in a small puddle of dark water. “One of you boys fetch a piece of newspaper,” she said loudly. “And one of you come take the gentleman’s coat.” Ann’s boys moved furiously about the room. “The paper’s in there,” she screamed. “Take the coat in there, and the rest of you go get washed! Bea! Come help me in the kitchen.” Bea rose like a princess, the swishing sound of her dress adding to the confusion. “Hurry up now, you boys,” Sarah screamed. “Put those things up! Get washed! Dinner’s almost ready.” She turned to leave the room; she turned back. “Oh, have a seat, Mr. George. Do have a seat.“
AND, dear Lord,” droned Ann. asking the blessing, “help those of us who have erred from your path of righteousness and who are even now sittin’ in your house, at your table, eatin’ your food without your grace.” One of her boys snickered. A loud pop echoed in the silence, and as Ann continued the boy whimpered soitly, the short, gurgling wheeze of his breath punctuating his sobs. “God, we thank you for this food which we are about to receive, for the nourishin’ of the body, and for Christ’s sake” — she looked up — “Amen.”
“Amen,” they all chorused.
“Leg or breast?” asked Sarah. “Just let me know.” She carved the turkey, and the plates were passed in silence, tilled with turnips, rice, and bread stufling. Clyde poured the gravy on his plate for so long that Mr. Boyce quipped, “ That bird can’t swim, son.” Everyone laughed; Bea frowned; then she went out of her way to pass Mr. George the bread. Struggling to cut her share of the bird, Sarah took time to make note. I’m going to have to speak to her before this day is over.
“How many churches, Mr. George, Ann began slowly, “do they have out there in Queens?” She rested her fork on her plate, the effort of the question distracting her from eating.
“What kind of churches?” asked Mr. George.
“Baptist,” came the reply.
“Wouldn’t know,” he said curtly. “I’m Episcopalian.”
Mr Boyce grinned. Ann stiffened her bony frame until it loomed like a cattail over her boys. “How many of those do you have, then?”
Mr. George hesitated and looked toward the ceiling. In the interim Mr. Boyce belched. Sarah waited for him to excuse himself; then she asked Mr. George, “Did you know that the Boyces are business people? They own that candy store at the corner, one of the nicest in the neighborhood.”
“Is that so?” said Mr. George.
“You in business too?” asked Mr. Boyce.
“No, not me,” he said. “Don’t you know I work with Sarah?”
“I thought you met in a dance hall,” said Ann.
“I just read in the paper,” said Mr. Boyce, “about two people who got married.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?” asked Bea.
“If you’d let me finish.” He wiped his mouth. “I was going to say they got married in a dance hall.”
“Couldn’t be no worse sin,” said Ann. She placed a finger in her mouth, and to Clyde’s wonder and Sarah’s chagrin removed a small bone covered with masticated food.
“is that the wishbone?” Clyde asked.
“If it is,” chimed Mr. Boyce, “better give it to his mama.” He chuckled; Sarah banged her fork onto her plate, rose, and announced that she was going for dessert. In the kitchen she leaned against the cupboard and cried. They were all against her, and Bea was even trying to make time with him. Nothing’s worse than family. Nothing’s worse. Oh, Papa! Why’d you have to be right? She moved to get the dessert plates and saw the packages on the table. Unwrapping them carefully, she found the first was a bottle of Scotch; the second, a fuzz-covered monkey in a red velvet suit. It played a blue metal drum and raised a plastic bowler while marching to the sound of an unsteady, tinny beat. I don’t know what he sees in me. Lord! I sure don’t know what he sees in me. But if You let him go on seeing it, I’ll treat him well, I swear it. I’ll treat him well.
She re-entered the room and was pleased to see that Mr. George had become the center of attention. He had grown up not far from them on St. Nicholas Avenue, and he was telling them how nice Harlem was in those days. “Curtains at all the foyer windows,” he said. “And I used to make my money by going around polishing the mailboxes.”
“Yeah,” said Mr. Boyce, “those were really the days. Really the days — ”
“Now, out in Queens, where I am now — ” he went on.
Sarah thought of Queens. Beautiful Queens. That’s where she’d like to live. Throw out all this junk and move to Queens. Only thing I’d keep — she looked about the room — is the piano; Clyde will have to learn to play someday. And maybe the couch. It needs a new cover. With a new cover it won’t look so bad. She straightened her shoulders, walked to the table, and handed Clyde the monkey. “Say thank you to Mr. George,” she prompted.
“Is that his father?” asked Ann’s youngest.
“Hush!” said Ann.
“That’s all right,” Mr. George said. “Children don’t know any better.”
“You sure have a fine sense for the pumps in life,” said Bea.
“Bumps!” corrected Mr. Boyce.
“Bumps, pumps!” screamed Bea. “No matter what you call it, you ain’t got it!”
Mr. Boyce harrumphed and looked down at the tablecloth.
“Can’t get together, get apart,” said Ann sweetly. “Man’s a worse worry than hell.”
“Is that why you ain’t got one!”
“Okay, now, you all,” said Sarah.
“Okay yourself,” screamed Bea. “You ain’t much better. Different one every time you turn around!”
“Why don’t you shut up!”
“Look to God,” said Ann. “You all better learn to look to God for your happiness. Better put your faith in the Lord — ”
Tears blurred Sarah’s vision. I’m going to move to Queens, she thought. Beautiful Queens. And I’m not going to see any of them again.
The dessert was eaten in silence. Afterward, Bea announced that she would do the dishes, and Ann offered to help. Sarah sat with Mr. George on the couch while Ann’s boys, who had overeaten, moved more or less circuitously about the room. They stumbled into furniture and relatives like doped flies until finally the two younger ones crashed into one another and fell to the floor and to sleep. The oldest one continued to traverse the route for about five more minutes, and then, on receiving a sudden call from nature, he departed for the bathroom. He was found some time later, asleep on the stool. Clyde, no longer finding it necessary to protect his monkey, fell asleep near the stove, and in the big chair nearby, Mr. Boyce, his belt and shoes undone, began to snore. Soft shadows moved across the cracked plaster walls of the green room. Only an occasional clatter of a dish or piece of silverware from the kitchen interrupted the silence. Mr. George yawned, stretched, and let his big hand fall lightly on Sarah’s thigh. She jumped. “What do you think I am?” she said.
“We’re finished,” said Ann, entering the room. “Well, will you look at this.” She motioned toward her boys and Bea’s husband. “Child, what did you put in that food? All right now, c’mon” — she clapped her hands. “Everybody up and out! Dinner’s over, day’s over, time to go home and to bed!”
The confusion began again. Mr. Boyce wanted Mr. George’s address; Sarah could not find a pencil. Bea came back from the window with the news that so much snow had fallen none of them would be able to get home. “Then you all better hurry now,” said Sarah, “before it gets worse.” She could not find a pencil, so Mr. Boyce stood in the middle of the room and repeated Mr. George’s phone number over and over again until all of the boys were shouting it at the top of their lungs. Finally Sarah got them all to the door. “Good-bye.”“Good-bye.” “Gimme that!” “So long.” “You must come by the store sometime.” “Mama! He took my — ” “Whenever you stop here, stop there.” “Fine dinner, Sarah,” said Mr. Boyce. “Why don’t you come to church sometime?” “Gimme!” “Will you two behave! Give him back his monkey!" “So long, Mr. George,” said Mr. Boyce. “Don’t come crying to me,”said Ann. “Stop it! You’re pulling my clothes off.” “Good-bye.”“Goodbye.” “So long.” They left. Sarah watched them from the window, a huddled group of people in the cold night and the snow. “The world is a beautiful place,” she said softly.
“What’d you say?” asked Mr. George.
“I said the world is a beautiful place.”
“Only sometimes,” he said. “Only sometimes.”
SARAH sighed, discouraged that he could not feel what she felt, and began to tidy the room. She cleaned around Glyde, who had fallen asleep in a chair. She emptied the ashtrays and picked up bits of paper from the floor. Then she put the lights out, leaving the oilstove to light the room, and sat down on the couch next to Mr. George. “There’s something I’d like to tell you,” she said.
“What beats me,” he interrupted, “is why you invited your whole family. I thought it was just going to be me, you, and the boy.”
“You had to meet them sometime,” she said, annoyed. “Anyway, I love my family —”
“Do they always act like that?" he asked.
“Never mind,” he said, and was silent.
She leaned back on the couch. “There’s something I have to tell you. Mr. George, I have to know how you feel about something I have to tell you.”
He drew in his mouth reflectively and slapped a hand to his knee. “OK,” he said, “I’m listening.”
“Once I made a mistake,” she went on slowly, “of not telling a fellow all about me. When people come to find out things about you later, they sometimes come to hate you. I want to tell you the worst things about me. That way, if you can’t understand, we can quit and neither of us will be the worse off for it. If we stay together, I don’t want to have any secrets from you.”
“Sort of like a test, huh?” said Mr. George.
“Sort of,” said Sarah. “I just hope I pass.”
“Well, listen now, Sarah, I don’t care about —”
“Hush! I’ve got to tell you this! Just like I had to have you meet my family — no matter how they treat me. You’ll just have to understand. I want to tell you about Clyde’s father.” She paused, and when he remained quiet, she went on. “I met him in a museum five years ago when I was doing daywork on Fifty-seventh Street. I used to walk past that museum every day. They had this fence made out of wooden slats, and inside was a garden, a beautiful garden with a black stone pool and statues and everything. After a while I got to thinking that one day I was going to go there. Can you imagine that? Me, going to that museum. Well, one day I did.” She stopped and listened. It was the wind gently rattling the sashes and tapping the snow lightly against the panes. “I’ll never forget that day. It was a Sunday in August, and I had on my blue cotton dress, the one with the paisley print, and my white heels and white gloves. I was really dressed to kill. Really dressed to kill. I left my madam at two that afternoon, went straight there, and when I got inside I went to the lunchroom, ordered myself a glass of iced tea, and took it straight to the patio. I can’t begin to tell you how I felt. There I was inside, sitting down, and I could see the place where I used to look through. Do you understand what I’m trying to say? Do you?”
“Sort of,” said Mr. George. He stared steadily into the fire, rubbing the tips of his thumbs together.
“Well,” Sarah said, “after a while I fell like I’d been there all my life. In fact, I was even getting a little bored, and then this fellow came up. He came over to my table and sat down. Just like that. He came over, sat down, and started to talk. We went together that same afternoon, and we stayed together after, for a year. I was really a fool.” She shook her head sadly. “Some fool. But I loved him. I loved him because I could respect him. But I guess I respected him too much. I started being honest with him, and he started to hate me.
“What were you honest about?” asked Mr. George.
“I told him about the men I’d known. I never loved any of them, but I was hurt plenty, and even though it was in the past I had to tell him.”
“I don’t know. I guess it made me feel better. I don’t know. The important thing is that he couldn’t stand knowing I’d been with other men. And when I got pregnant, we broke up.” She paused. “Ain’t you going to say nothing?”
“What’s there to say?” said Mr. George. He rested his head on the back of the couch and touched her shoulder with his hand. She stood up. “I’d better get Clyde to bed, and I think I’m getting a little sleepy too.”
“You’re — ”
“Clyde! Get up and go to bed.” He rose, half asleep, leaving his monkey balanced precariously in the chair, and left the room.
“You’re sure making it hard for me,” said Mr. George.
“Not if you’re a man, I ain’t making it hard. A man is supposed to understand a woman’s weakness.”
“That’s not what I’m — ”
“He’s supposed to understand anything.”
“OK!” shouted Mr. George. “I understand. Now, for the love of God, let’s talk about something else.”
“I wish I could! I wish I could meet somebody who could make me forget about him. Somebody with just a little of his good side. You know, he took me to more places in that one year than I’ve ever been before — or since! And please, don’t get the idea that I’m saying we don’t go out. I just mean he took me downtown, to places we can’t afford to go to.”
Mr. George stood. “Sarah, what do you want?”
She was silent for a while, and then she answered, “I don’t know.”
“Well,” he said, “since you had your say tonight, maybe I’d better have mine.” He paused while she sat down on the couch. “I like you.” He turned from her and watched the shadows on the wall. “As far as anything else goes, I guess I ain’t happy and I ain’t sad. I’m sure not rich — but I ain’t poor either. I ain’t ugly and I ain’t good-looking, and I don’t like going downtown among white folks. They make me nervous.”
The fire in the stove had burned low. The room was almost dark, and he could barely see her face in the remaining light. “Will you look see how much oil’s left in the stove?” she asked. He stooped and then kneeled, peering about the hot metal carefully. “Not much,” he finally said. “Looks like it’s on E.”
“Well then, you’d better turn it out.” He fumbled about for the knob while she went on talking in a low voice. “I’ve been on pins and needles all day,” she said. “I wanted everything to go right. I even prayed to God.” She went over to him. He was still fumbling about the stove, and when she touched him he tried to rise, almost knocking it over. “Damn it! I’ve never known a man to be so clumsy.” His slap sent her crashing into the chair. “Oh, God,” she cried, “aren’t there any men left anywhere in this world!”
“Chica, chica, chica, chi — ca, chi — ca, chi — ca.” The fuzz-covered monkey in his red velvet suit stopped drumming when he bumped into her leg. She reached down, picked it up, and hurled it at him in the darkness.