A Story by GRACE PALEY
YOU would certainly be glad to meet me. I was the lady who appreciated youth. Yes, all that happy time, I was not like some. It did not go by me like a flitting dream. Tuesdays and Wednesdays was as gay as Saturday nights.
Have I suffered since? No, sir, we’ve had as good times as this country gives; cars, renting in Jersey summers, TV the minute it first came out, everything grand for the kitchen. I have no complaints worth troubling the manager about.
Still it is like a long hopeless homesickness my missing those young days. To me, they’re like my own place that I have gone away from forever, and I have lived all the time since among great pleasures but in a foreign town. Well, OK. Farewell, certain years.
But that’s why I have an understanding of that girl Ginny downstairs and her kids. They’re runty, underdeveloped. No sun, no beef. Noodles, beans, cabbage. Well, my mother off the boat knew better than that.
Once upon a time, as they say, her house was the spit of mine. You could hear it up and down the air shaft, the singing from her kitchen, banjo playing in the parlor, she would admit it first, there was a tambourine in the bedroom. Her husband wasn’t American. He had black hair — like Gypsies do.
And everything then was spotless, the kitchen was all inlay like broken-up bathroom tiles, pale lavender. Formica on all surfaces, everything bright. The shine of the pots and pans was turned to stun the eyes of company . . . you could see it, the mischievousness of that family home.
Of course, on account of misery now, she’s always dirty. Crying crying crying. She would not let tap water touch her.
Five ladies on the block, old friends, nosy, me not included, got up a meeting and wrote a petition to Child Welfare. I already knew it was useless as the requirement is more than dirt, drunkenness, and a little once in a while whoring. That is probably something why the children in our city are in such a state. I’ve noticed it for years, though it’s not my business. Mothers and fathers get up when they wish, half being snuggled in relief, go to bed in the afternoon with their rumpy bumpy sweethearts pumping away before three P.M. (SO help me.) Child Welfare does not show its concern. No matter who writes them. People of influence, known in the district, even the district leader, my cousin Leonie, who put her all into electing the mayor, she doesn’t get a reply if she sends in a note. So why should I as I’m nothing but a Primary Day poll watcher?
Anyhow there are different kinds coming into this neighborhood, and I do not mean the colored people alone. I mean people like you and me, religious, clean, many of these have gone rotten. I go along with live and let live, but what of the children?
Ginny’s husband ran off with a Puerto Rican girl who shaved between the legs. This is common knowledge and well known or I’d never say it. When Ginny heard that he was going around with this girl, she did it too, hoping to entice him back, but he got nauseated by her and that tipped the scales.
Men fall for terrible weirdos in a dumb way more and more as they get older; my old man, fond of me as he constantly was, often did. I never give it the courtesy of my attention. My advice to mothers and wives: Do not imitate the dimwit’s girlfriends. You will be damnfoof-looking, what with your age and all. Have you heard the saying, “Old dough won’t rise in a new oven?”
Well, you know it, I know it, even the punks and the queers that have wiggled their way into this building are in on the inside dope. John, my son, is a constant attendant now at that Ginny’s poor grubby flat. Tired, who can blame him, of his Margaret’s shiny face all pitted and potted by Jersey smog. My grandchildren, of which I have close to six, are pale, as the sun can’t have a chance through the oil in Jersey. Even the leaves of the trees there won’t turn a greenish green.
John! Look me in the eye once in a while! What a good little twig you were always, we did try to get you out with the boys and you did go when we asked you. After school when he was eight or so, we got him into a bunch of Cub Scouts, a very raw bunch with a jawful of curse words. All of them tough and wild, but at attention when the master came among them. Right turn! You would’ve thought the United States Marines was in charge they was that accurate in marching, and my husband on Tuesday nights taught them what he recalled from being a sergeant. Hup! two, three, four! I guess is what he knew. But John, good as his posture was, when he come home I give him a hug and a kiss and “what’d you do today at Scouts, son? Have a parade, darling?”
“Oh, no, Mother,” says he. “Mrs. McClennon was collecting money the whole time for the districtwide picnic, so I just got the crayons and I drew this here picture of Our Blessed Mother, he says.
That’s my John. And if you come with a Polaroid Land Camera you couldn’t snap much clearer.
People have asked and it’s none of their business. Why didn’t the two of you (meaning Jack and me — both working) send the one boy you had left to college?
Well now to be honest, he would have had only grief in college. Truth: He was not bright. His father was not bright, and he inherited his father’s brains. Our Michael was clever. But Michael is dead. We had it all talked over, his father and me, the conclusion we come to: A trade. My husband Jack was well established in the union from its early struggle, he was strong and loyal. John just floated in on the ease of recommendation and being related. We were wise. It’s proved.
For now (this very minute) he’s a successful man with a wonderful name in the building trade, and he has a small side business in cement plaques, his own beautiful home, and every kid of his dressed like the priest’s nephew.
But don’t think I’m the only one that seen Ginny and John when they were the pearls of this pitchy pigsty block. Oh, there were many, and they are still around holding the picture in the muck under their skulls, like crabs. And I am never surprised when they speak of it, when they try to make something of it, that nice-looking time, as though I was in charge of its passing.
“Ha,” Jack said about twenty times that year, “She’s a wild little bird. Our Johnny’s dying . . . Watch her.”
OK. Wild enough. I guess. But no wilder than me when I was seventeen, as I never told him, that whole year, long ago, mashing the grass of Central Park with Anthony Aldo. Why I’d put my wildness up against any wildness of present day, though I didn’t want Jack to know. For he was a simple man . . . Put in the hours of a wop, thank God pulled the overtime of a decent American. I didn’t like to worry worry worry him. He was kindness itself, as they say.
He come home 6:00 P.M. I come home 6:15 P.M. from where I was afternoon cashier. Put supper up. Seven o’clock, we ate it up and washed the dishes; 7:45 P.M. sharp, if there was no company present and the boy out visiting, he liked his pussy. Quick and very neat. By 8:15 he had showered every bit of it away. I give him his little whiskey. He tried that blabbermouth Journal American for news of the world. It was too much. Good night, Mr. Raftery, my pal.
Leaving me, thank goodness, the cream of the TV and a cup of sweet wine till midnight. Though I liked the attentions as a man he daily give me as a woman, it hardly seemed to tire me as it exhausted him. I could stay with the late show not fluttering an eyelid till the very end of the last commercial. My wildness as a girl is my own life’s business, no one else’s.
NOW As a token for friendship under God, John’d given Ginny his high school G O pin, though he was already a working man. He couldn’t of given her his union card (that never got customary), though he did take her to a famous dinner in honor of Klaus Schnauer: thirty-five years at Camillo, the only heinie they ever let into that American local; he was a disgusting fatbottomed Nazi so help me, he could’ve turned you into a pink Commie, his ass, excuse me, was that fat. Well, as usual for that younghearted gang, Saturday night went on and on, it give a terrible jolt to Sunday morning, and John staggered into breakfast, not shaved or anything. (A man, husband, son, or lodger should be shaved at breakfast.) “Mother,” he said, “I am going to ask Virginia to marry me.”
“I told you so,” said my husband and dropped the funnies on his bacon.
“You are?” I said.
“I am, and if God is good, she’ll have me.”
“No blasphemy intended,” I said, “but He’ll have to be off in the old country fishing if she says yes.”
“Mother!” said John. He is a nice boy, loyal to friends and good.
“She’ll go out with anyone at all,” I said.
“Oh, Mother!” said John, meaning they weren’t engaged, and she could do what she wanted.
“Go out is nothing,” I said. “I seen her only last Friday night with Pete, his arm around her, going into Phelan’s.”
“Pete’s like that, Mother,” meaning it was no fault of hers.
“Then what of last Saturday night, you had to go to the show yourself as if there wasn’t no one else m the Borough of Manhattan to take to a movie, and when you was gone I seen her buy two Cokes at Carlo’s and head straight to the third floor to John Kameron’s . . .
“. . . and come out at 11 P.M. and his arm was around her.”
“. . . and his hand was well under her sweater . . .”
“That’s not so, Mother.”
“It is so, and tell me, young man, how you’ll feel married to a girl that every wild boy on the block has been leanin’ his thumbs on her titties like she was a Carvel dairy counter, tell me that?”
“Dolly!” says Jack. “You went too far . . .”
John just looked at me as red and dumb as a baby’s knees.
“I haven’t gone far enough into the facts, and I’m not ready to come out yet, and you listen to me, Johnny Raftery, you’re somebody’s jackass, I’ll tell you, you look out that front window and I bet you if you got yourself your dad’s spyglass you would see some track of your little lady. I think there are evenings she don’t get out of the back of that trailer truck parked over there and it’s no trouble at all for Pete or Kameron’s halfwitted kid to get his way of her. Listen Johnny, there isn’t a grown-up woman who was sitting on the stoop last Sunday when it was so damn windy that doesn’t know that Ginny don’t wear underpants.”
“Oh, Dolly,” says my husband, and plops his head into his hands.
“I’m going, Mother, that’s libel, I’ll have her sue you for libel,” dopey John starts to holler out of his tomato red face. “I’m going and I’ll ask her and I love her and I don’t care what you say. Truth or lies, I don’t care.”
“And if you go, Johnny,” I said, calm as a dead fish, my eyes rolling up to pray and be heeded, “this is what I must do,” and I took a kitchen knife, a bit blunt, and plunged it at least an eighth of an inch in the fat of my heart. I guess that the heart of a middle-aged lady is jammed in deeper than an eighth of an inch, for I am here to tell the tale. But some blood did come soon, to my son’s staring, it touched my nightie and spread out on my bathrobe, and it was as red on my apron as a picture in an Italian church. John fell down on his knees, and hid his head in my lap. He cried, “Mother, Mother, you’ve hurt yourself.” My husband didn’t say a word to me. He kept his madness in his teeth but he told me later, Face it: the feelings in his heart was cracked.
I met Ginny the next morning in Carlo’s store. She didn’t look at me. Then she did. Then she said, “It’s a nice day, Mrs. Raftery.”
“Mm,” I said. (It was.) “How can you tell the kind of day it is?” (I don’t know what I meant by that.)
“What’s wrong, Mrs. Raftery?” she said.
“Hah! wrong?” I asked.
“Well, you know, I mean, you act mad at me, you don’t seem to like me this morning.” She made a little laugh.
“I do. I like you a great deal.” I said, outwitting her. “It’s you, you know, you don’t like Johnny. You don’t.”
“What?” she said, her head popping up to catch sight of that reply.
“Don’t, don’t don’t,” I said. “Don’t, don’t!”
I hollered, giving Ginny’s arm a tug. “Let’s get out of here. Ginny, you don’t like John. You’d let him court you, squeeze you, and he’s very good, he wouldn’t press you further.”
“You ought to mind your business,” says Ginny very soft, me being the elder (but with tears).
“My son is my business.”
“No,” she says, “he’s his own.”
“My son is my business. I have one son left, and he’s my business.”
“No,” she says. “He’s his own.”
MY SON IS MY BUSINESS. BY LOVE AND DUTY.
“Oh, no,” she says. Soft because I am the older one, but very strong. (I’ve noticed it. All of a sudden they look at you, and then, it comes to them, young people, they are bound to outlast you, so they temper up their icy steel and stare into about an inch away from you a lot. Have you noticed it?)
At home, I said, “Jack now, the boy needs guidance. Do you want him to spend the rest of his life in bed with an orphan on welfare?”
“Oh,” said Jack. “She’s an orphan, is she? It’s just her mother that’s dead. What has one thing to do with another? You’re a pushy damn woman, Dolly. I don’t know what use you are . . .”
What came next often happens in a family causing sorrow at the time. Looking back, it’s a speck compared to life.
For: Following this conversation, Jack didn’t deal with me at all, and he broke his many years after-supper habits and took long walks. That’s what killed him, I think, for he was a habitual person.
And: Alongside him on one of these walks was seen a skinny crosstown lady, known to many people over by Tompkins Square — wears a giant Ukrainian cross in and out of the tub, to keep from going down the drain, I guess.
“In that case, the hell with you,” is what I said. “1 don’t care. Get yourself a cold-water flat on Avenue D.”
“Why not? I’ll go. OK,” said Jack. I think he figured a couple of weeks vacation with his little cuntski and her color television would cool his requirements.
“Stay off the block,” I said, “you slippery relic. I’ll send your shirts by the diaper-service man.”
“Mother,” said poor John, when he noticed his dad’s absence, “what’s happening to you? The way you talk. To Dad. It’s the wine, mother. I know it.”
“You’re a bloated beer guzzler!” I said quietly. (People that drink beer arc envious against the ones in favor of wine. Though my dad was a mick in cotton socks, in his house, we had a choice.)
“No, Mother, I mean you’re not clear sometimes.”
“Crazy, you mean, son. Huh? Split personality?”
“Something’s wrong!” he said. “Don’t you want Dad back?” He was nervous to his fingernails.
“Mind your business, he’ll be back, it’s happened before, Mr. Two-Weeks Old.”
“What?” he said, horrified.
“You’re blind as a bat, Mr. Just Born. Where was you three Christmases ago?”
“What! But Mother! Didn’t you feel terrible? Terrible! How’d you stand for him acting that way? Dad!”
“Now quit it, John, you’re a damnfool kid. Sure I don’t want to look at his dumb face being pleased. That’d kill.”
“Mother, it’s not right.”
“Phoo, go to work and mind your business, sonny boy.”
“It is my business,” he said, “and don’t call me sonny.”
About two months later, John came home with Margaret, both of them blistered from Lake Hopatcong at ninety-four degrees. I will be fair. She was not yet ruined by Jersey air, and she was not too terrible-looking, at least to the eye of a clean-minded boy.
“This is Margaret,” he says. “She’s from Monmouth, Jersey,”
“Just come over on the Queen Mary, dear?” I asked for the joke in it.
“I have to get her home for supper. Her father’s strict.”
“Sure,” I said, “have a Coke first.”
“Oh, thank you so much,” says Margaret. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mrs. Raftery.”
“Has she blood in her?” hollered Jack after his shower. He had come home by then, skinny and dissatisfied. Is there satisfaction anywhere in getting old?
John didn’t inquire an OK of his dad or me, nor answer to nobody Yes or No. He was that age that couldn’t live without a wife. He had to use this Margaret.
It was his time to go forward like we all did once. And he has. Number 1: She is kept plugged up with babies. Number 2: As people nowadays need a house, he has bought one and tangled it around in Latin bushes. Nobody but the principal at Holy Redeemer High knows what the little tags on the twigs say. Every evening after hard work you can find him with a hose scrubbing down his lawn. His oldest kid is now fourteen and useless. The littlest one is four, and she reminds me of me with the flashiest eyes and a little tongue sharpened to a scrappy point.
“How come you never named one for me, Margaret?” I asked her straight in her face.
“Oh,” she said, “There’s only the two girls, Teresa, for my mother, and Cathleen, for my best sister. The very next’ll be for you.”
“What, next! Are you trying to kill my son?” I asked her. “Why he has to be working nights as it is. You don’t look well, you know You ought to see a smart Jewish doctor and get your tubes tied up.”
“Oh,” she said, “Never!”
I have to tease a little to grapple any sort of a reply out of her. But mostly it doesn’t work. It is something like I am a crazy construction worker in conversation with fresh cement. Can there be more in the world like her? Don’t answer. Time will pass in spite of her slow wits.
In fact it has, for here we are in the present, which is happening now, and I am a famous widow baby-sitter for whoever thinks I am unbalanced but within reason. I am a grand storybook reader to the little ones. I read like an actress, Joan Crawford or Maureen O’Sullivan, my voice is deeper than it was. So I do make a little extra for needs, though my Johnny sees to the luxuries I must have. I won’t move away to strangers. This is my family street, and I don’t need to.
And of course as friendship never ends, Johnny conics twice a week for his entertainment to Ginny. Ginny and I do not talk a word though we often pass. She knows I am right as well as victorious. She’s had it unusually lovely (most people don’t) — a chance to be some years with a young fellow like Blackie that gave her great rattling shivers, top to bottom, though it was all cut off before youth ended. And as for my Johnny, he now absolutely has her as originally planned and desired, and she depends on him in all things. She requires him. Her children lean on him. They climb up his knees to his shoulder. They cry out the window for him, John, John, if his dumb Margaret keeps him home.
It’s a pity to have become so right and Jack’s off stalking the innocent angels.
I wait on the stoop steps to see John on summer nights as he hasn’t enough time to visit me and Ginny both, and I need the sight of him, though I don’t know why. I like the street anyway, and the hot night when the ice-cream truck brings all the dirty kids and the big nifty boys with their hunting-around eyes. I put a touch of burgundy on my strawberry ice-cream cone as my father said we could on Sunday, which drives these sozzle-headed ladies up the brown brick wall, so help me Mary.
Now, some serious questions, so far unasked:
What the devil is it all about, the noisiness and the speediness, when it’s no distance at all? How come John had to put all them courtesy calls into Margaret on his lifelong trip to Ginny? Also. Jack, what was his real nature? Was he for or against? And that Anthony, what did he have in mind as I knuckled under again and again (and I know I was the starter)? He did not get me pregnant as in books it happens at once. How come the French priest said to me, crying tears and against his order, “Oh, no, Dolly, if you are enceinte (meaning pregnant), he will certainly marry you, poor child, now smile, poor child, for that is the church’s promise to infants born.” To which, how come, tough and cheery as I used to be, all I could say before going off to live and die was: “No, Father, he doesn’t love me.”