“Everybody does.” Her hair lay heavy on her neck, glued to it. “It’s so hot in here, Mouse. Can we just go?” She could feel his eyes on her, but she wouldn’t glance up.
by Carole W
artwork by Linn Bankson
Mouse appeared in the doorway, an eight-sided, green-plaid hatbox not in his hands but balanced on his head. His arms outstretched, he bent and straightened his knees, bent them again and waddled in a circle. The satin, spiral-corded handle drooped across his face and when it caught under his nose, he giggled, sending the box sliding forward. He caught it, held it extended in his arms, bowed over it with a flourish. Jamie saw him peek up and she tried not to smile.
A voice rang from the back room and there was a single sharp rap on the floor, the sound of short shuffled footsteps. “That’s my best church hat, young man! My good crown! Careful with it now!”
Jamie laughed when Mouse jumped and scuttled from view, Miss Rhonda behind him waggling her cane in the air, winking as she passed.
She turned back to the balcony railing and her inspection of it. There was too much give and the apartment was two floors up. No way could she let Miss Rhonda use the little terrace. Jamie studied the packed brown-earth yard below, the sooty brick building across the graveled alley. She’d have to build some risers for Miss Rhonda’s plants, something to screen the bleak view. Tomorrow, she decided, she’d come back with Cullen and some tools. The braces needed new concrete screws maybe. Maybe the posts were rotten. If the super had a ladder long enough; if he’d let them borrow it ... She shoved the clay pots against the balusters, a double-deep barricade to mishap.
Jamie backed into the kitchenette and dragged the sliding glass door along its track. Gummed up, she grumbled. She wrestled with the latch and won, but the gap wouldn’t close. Once winter came, all the expensive heat would leak right out. Another thing not good enough. She’d need some WD-40, a toothbrush, a scraper. Better make a list.
The elderly woman scuffed into the room. Never Rhonda, not even Mrs. Burt, she was Miss Rhonda to everyone; even Father called her so. Small and indistinct, she blended at the edges ... until she smiled. Her fine, soft hair haloed her face, a gray-white froth against her sepia skin. Like a dandelion. Jamie blinked in the sudden sun of memory – a patchwork of yellow flowers and green grass at her feet, a cloud in one hand. Wishes, someone whispered, planting a kiss deep in the part of her hair. Blow. Somewhere, someday, they’ll take root. Just you wait and see, princess.
Princess? Nobody called her that. They wouldn’t dare.
Her mouth was dry from the dust of moving, but the kitchen’s boxes were stacked in a corner, still taped shut. They'd passed a bodega on the corner. Maybe she should run downstairs, grab some juice or soda, some paper cups ...
“How’re my pretties?” Miss Rhonda asked, going on toe and cane-tip to peer over Jamie’s shoulder. Her voice was rich and warm, like a ribbon of chocolate pleated from a full spoon. “Not too much slip-sliding in that truck, was there?”
“They made it fine,” Jamie said, barring the way. “But I don’t think you should go out there until Cullen takes a look.”
“Aw, honey. I don’t weigh so much as you. The woman here before me was a whole lot bigger and she ‘bout lived outside, the neighbor-lady said.”
“It’s not the balcony,” Jamie persisted. “The railing’s really rickety. Promise you’ll stay away from it, okay? Just one day. We’ll be back tomorrow.”
The woman looked around the room. “I guess I have enough to do, all these boxes, all those empty cabinets.”
“We’ll stay,” Mouse said, reappeared in the doorway. “Help put.”
“No, no. Strange enough, moving at my age. Turns out I don’t need so many things anymore. Mostly memories in those boxes. I'll take it nice and slow ... visit with what I kept.”
“What about groceries?” Jamie asked.
“My nephew’s coming by with cold cuts and milk and eggs, he said. Thinks I can’t or won’t shop.” Miss Rhonda chuckled and patted Jamie’s cheek. “But I can and I will, don’t you worry. This street’s where I started, once I left momma and daddy’s, before I found Win. Yes, I know.” She raised one hand, a vow or a blessing. “Things are different now, but Serena downstairs knows the neighborhood. Been here more years herself than she’d want me to count out loud. We’ll go around together when we need to. Like we used to.”
A sweet perfume swept from her sleeve, from the bit of linen showing tucked inside her cuff. Her fingers were cool and dry and for a moment, Jamie wanted nothing more than to lean into her palm, press her hand close. She’d been surprised when Father summoned her for this task, surprised Miss Rhonda had asked for her particular help. Half a dozen times during the day, she almost asked the reason. Years had passed since she’d seen Miss Rhonda. A Winterfest or two a long time ago, Jamie remembered. And when her husband died, a day she’d never forget – how, when Miss Rhonda came down with the news, Winslow caved in on himself, how he sank to his knees. And the sound he made, the low heavy groan that went on and on and on. Mr. Burt, Mr. Burt ... Miss Rhonda wept and cupped Winslow’s cheek and that was sad enough, but Winslow’s crying was agony and how he clutched at Miss Rhonda’s small hand and when Jamie sidled over and put her hand out too, how he filled it with tears ... She’d been scared. She’d thought only little kids cried. Other little kids.
The back of her throat tingled. Time to go.
“Well, if you’re sure,” Jamie managed and busied with the few drawers either side of the sink, testing each to make sure they weren’t stuck. She knew Mouse watched her, even after Miss Rhonda edged past for the living room. Her back to him, she opened the tap and waited for hot water, counted the seconds until it changed. Satisfied, she swiped her hands dry on her pants legs.
The sofa was mounded with more hatboxes, some round, some square, some flowered or striped, some polka-dotted with gauze ribbon handles, some worn brown leather with brass latches. Miss Rhonda shifted one after another to the floor, building a pyramid as tall as she.
“Can only wear one at a time,” Mouse observed. “Why so many?”
She stopped her work, lifted the hot-pink lid from a tall oval container. “Lord knows, I’d rather go to meeting in my housecoat than show up without a hat,” Miss Rhonda said, smiling down into the hatbox, reaching in with both hands. A complication of black net, of white feathers and velvet emerged from a tissued nest. “I wore this one to my first Winterfest, even though Win warned me not to. The wind blew it clear down the tunnel, but Devin ran after it, brought it back only a little dirty.” She turned the hat this way and that, pointed to a pale red smudge. “Lucky it didn’t swirl down the abyss.” The lid resettled and the hatbox set aside, she reached for her unearthed pocketbook, freed the clasp, searched its compartments.
Mouse shook his head at the folded-over twenty dollar bill. “You keep.”
“Take this. I won’t have nonsense from either one of you.” Miss Rhonda silenced Jamie’s sputter with a stern look, though something softer flickered in her eyes. “You’ve given me an entire day of your lives and I can’t offer you tea or even a cookie until I get at those boxes with a cutter. I hear your middles rumbling.” She stuffed the money into Jamie’s pocket. “It was good to see you again, honey. All grown up. Now, you two scoot on. Have supper someplace decent. A sit-down place, you hear? None of that stuff off the street.” She'd shooed them out the front door and they were halfway down the steps when Miss Rhonda leaned over the bannister. “Home before dark, now,” she called. “S’what I always told Marcus.”
The stairs creaked; an agitated aroma swirled – curry and hot oil, onions and boiled coffee. “Who’s Marcus?” Mouse whispered.
Jamie shrugged and tested the railings on the landing, her stomach in a sudden, cold knot. They thudded down the worn steps and out onto the sidewalk. The security door clanged shut behind them, the lock holding fast when Jamie pulled on the bars. Traffic droned and blared.
“Should have moved below,” Mouse said. “More room. Way more quiet.”
“No sun for her plants.” Through the canopied window of LaNelle’s Beauty Bin, Jamie watched the lone hairdresser twirl a client to the mirror. At Jamie’s tap, she nodded and smiled and waved goodbye with her wide-toothed comb. “No niece below either.”
Mouse pressed his face to the glass. “Look,” he said, pointing to the display. Nestled in a mannikin’s upturned palm were three tiny bottles – orange-red, shell pink, a shimmery gold gilt – capped with long tapered wands. “Pretty colors. For Elizabeth maybe? Awful small though. Won’t last long.”
“That’s not paint, Mouse. Not exactly. It’s nail polish.”
Mouse laughed and danced around her, bumping up against her shoulder. “Joke, huh? Nails don’t need polish. They come silver already. Or come black or come rusty.” He giggled again.
“You goof!” Jamie said, bumping him back and spreading her hands wide before her. “Polish for finger-nails.” Mouse stared from her hands to the window and back. She curled her fingers in, tucking them to her palms. Even Mouse could see the difference, she was sure, but he only raised his brows.
“Don’t get it.”
“Forget about it, Mouse.” The nearest subway was four blocks away. They could take the train past the park and with twenty dollars get a slice at her favorite place and ice cream too or maybe try the Moroccan restaurant she’d passed last week. The menu read like a fairy tale feast. It was take-out but they could split a tagine or maybe a couscous in the park and head for the entrance near the carousel when they were done. Jamie started for the corner, but dizzy with sun, she stumbled. The pavement sloped away; everything ... loomed.
Sometimes she’d try to remember, but no matter that she’d squeeze her temples between the heels of her hands – nothing would come. Now she felt the warm wooden steps beneath her bare thighs, their splintery dryness against her calves. Her hands on her knobby knees, she bent over them, smiling as she tapped her feet – one, then the other – against the bottom rung. She loved her shoes, her new white sandals with the sparklies in the cross-straps and her toenails painted a pearly sugar-pink, the exact color of the popsicle Daddy promised to buy her at the park ...
Though she heard the long screech of brakes and the fist-pummeled horn, Mouse stopped her from stepping into traffic, dragging her back to the curb as a taxi groused by. “Jamie! Careful!” Mouse laced his fingers with hers. “Hold on tight,” he begged.
Hold on tight. Hers was a leaping white horse - a jumper, Daddy said - with a jeweled harness, a golden saddle and a blanket edged in blue-silver ribbon and she rose and sank and rose and sank and there was a time when she couldn’t see him but there he was again, waving her on and she rose and sank and rose and the music almost but not quite hurt her ears–
The milky vision winked out. She pulled her hand away. “I guess I’m hungry.”
The subway station was in sight but Mouse was lost. She spun on her heel, spying him three shops back, his nose pressed to a window, his hands up shading his eyes. Oh no, she groaned. A Salvation Army store. Mouse-heaven.
“Look!” He touched his forehead to the glass and whispered. “Always, always wanted one.”
Jamie shaded her own eyes. A lava lamp. Another one. Though the base was gold and shaped like Aladdin’s Lamp and the lava was a glittery blue. She couldn’t read the price sticker. “If we buy anything, we won’t have enough to get supper.”
A terrific need lit his eyes. “Could get hot dogs,” he ventured. “They’re cheap.”
“They’re gross,” Jamie answered but she brushed past him and with both hands on the bar, pulled open the heavy door.
Once inside, Mouse ... disappeared. Resigned, Jamie threaded the narrow aisles. The air was close and heavy, an odor of wool and starch mixed with musty-fusty. Jamie giggled at her own words. Musty-fusty? Where did that come from. Such an old-world word. A grandma’s word. A short jean skirt hung at the end of one rack. She turned to the mirror with it held waist-high, her shoulders bunched in anticipation, but the look of her baggy cords and work boots dulled the possibilities. She shoved the skirt between two sequined, sleeveless dresses. Stupid.
A stretch of tables anchored the back wall, piled with playthings. Underneath was a bin of balls, boxes of books. Luke’s birthday ...
The pull-toys were too babyish and the miniature xylophone wouldn’t earn her any points with Olivia or Father or Mary. The books were oversized and colorful and she could get three for a dollar, but Luke had books. Maybe a game. She recognized a bright yellow and red box – Operation – and prised the lid away. The tiny Ankle Bone was there and the Bread Basket and Spare Ribs. The Butterflies were still wedged in the stomach; the Funny Bone in the elbow. But the Charley Horse was missing and the Wish Bone too.
The coloring books had only a few pictures filled in and she’d begun a stack when a pale balsa-wood box caught her eye. Nearly weightless in her hand, its brass hook-and-eye catch slipped smoothly free. Inside was a boat, a small wooden boat, a white-washed mint-green and lemon-yellow boat. She lifted it out by the key that wound the propeller, the key that would send the boat motoring across the park’s pond with all the other boats and she would watch with all the others on the shore ... but hers, hers was the most beautiful, hers with the rose-pink letters across its transom. Hers. Princess.
The screen door slapped shut and she turned to look over her shoulder. He stood on the porch, just two steps above her. In one hand was her little boat, in the other his gray brimmed hat with the black ribbon trim and the little yellow feather. She smiled and he smiled back. The steps bounced under his weight. He sat down beside her but she scrambled up, wedging between his knees. She took his hat, settled it on his head, tipped it forward and back until she was satisfied. Pinched the crown as she’d seen him do. Bent the brim.
Ready to go? he asked and she nodded and they stood up and his shoulders and hat blocked out the summer sun so she didn’t even squint when she took his hand and tugged him to the sidewalk.
But they didn’t go. A car turned down their street and stopped. A woman stepped out and for a long time she stared across the hood of the red car.
How’d you find us, Molly? Why? he finally asked, but the woman didn’t answer.
She smelled funny when she knelt down – like flowers – but underneath there was something sharp and sour. Her palms were damp.
Vonny, she said. Her voice was too big. Too huffy.
What? she asked and her head snapped up.
Her name’s Jamie now, he said.
“Hey! Neat!” Mouse was suddenly at her elbow. In his arms he cradled the lava lamp and a pair of green rubber boots and on his head was a gray felt hat with a black grosgrain ribbon, a pinched crown, a bent-down brim. He dumped his finds on the table and reached for the boat still clutched in her hand. “Wind-up! Cool.”
“I had one once.” She felt ... emptied out ... and surprised her shallowed breath could form words. “When I was little, I sailed it on the lake.”
“Mirror Pool’s good for sailing.”
“Not the Mirror Pool. Somewhere else. Before.”
Mouse’s voice fell to a whisper. “What before? Before the tunnels? You never told about before.”
“It was a present. From my dad.”
“You had a dad?”
Mouse gathered up his treasures. “Okay fine,” he agreed. “How much?”
“The lamp’s thirty dollars, so it’s out. You can get the boots though.”
“The hat too? Like Father’s. Like Winslow’s.”
The knot in her stomach tightened. “Winslow had a hat like that?”
“Saw it once. In his wardrobe. Top shelf.”
Jamie dug in her pocket for Miss Rhonda’s money. “Take this, okay? You pay up front. I’ve ... I’ve gotta go outside.”
The bench flanking the door was empty. She kicked her way through a litter of crumpled brown paper bags to the far end still in the awning’s shade. Her elbows propped on her knees, she scrubbed her face hard with palms as damp as the woman’s had been, leaned her forehead to them. Behind the screen of her hands, the fret of the city ebbed away.
She’d stayed put on the steps like he’d asked her to, but even with her hands over her ears she could hear the yelling. The crying. Then it got all quiet until the screen door opened behind her. This time he didn’t let it slam and that made her sad.
Molly wants to take you to the park today. Okay?
Who’s Molly, Daddy.
She’s your mother, Princess. Here’s your boat. Wanna wear my hat? Keep the sun out of your eyes.
Are you coming too?
It’s just for an hour or so. I’ll be right here waiting for you. Listen. If you– If she– He looked away. Do you remember the name of our street? he asked.
She nodded, but he made her say it out loud. Oleander Street.
They parked the red car and started walking. Molly hurried her and hurried her and once she stopped at a phone booth and made her stand outside while she talked. Daddy always held her up so she could put the money in. When they were standing in line, Molly bent down. Let’s play the hush-hush game, she said. If she could be quiet until they were on the bus, she’d get a special treat.
A man took the papers from Molly’s hand. He had on a hat too and his shirt had a picture of a dog on it. All the way through to New York City, he said on a whistle. Long way from N’Orleans.
I like your outfit, Molly said once they settled in their seats.
Jamie smiled down at her blue plaid shorts, at her sky-blue tank top with the white ruffle on the hem. She liked her outfit too. Her favorite, like wearing a cloud. What’s New York City? she asked.
It’s where the park is, Molly said. It’s okay if you want to go to sleep. When you wake up, we’ll be almost there.
That wasn’t true. She woke up a dozen times, sometimes in the dark, sometimes in daylight. They were still nowhere, Molly said when she asked. The bus swayed and bumped and the smell made her feel woozy. It was dark when they descended the steps and they didn’t go to the park. Molly squeezed her hand too hard. A car pulled up to the curb and they got in the back seat. She was hungry and the lights made her head hurt and that night she had to share a bed with two little girls she’d never seen before. They didn’t even notice when she crawled in beside them. The next morning one of the older boys passed out juice boxes to all the other kids. There must have been a dozen of them, sprawled out on pallets and the one other bed. A boy let her borrow his toothbrush. When he asked her name, she said Vonny. Molly said she’d never really been Jamie.
Molly was there sometimes. She bought her the treat she'd promised, but it wasn't a popsicle. An ice, Molly called it, kind of like a snow cone, but it was almost white, not pink, and lemony, not strawberry. She never did get to sail her boat. Somebody stepped on it. Broke it. One day, she got into a fight over her hat.
Sometimes Molly disappeared for days. Sometimes there were parties. Once, Molly didn’t wake up for two whole days. Raven taught her when to hide in the closet, when it was okay to come out, that sometimes it was better to run to the alley. Behind the trash bins they built a clubhouse and after a while, three of them stayed there, even at night. Richie taught her to throw rocks, said she was really good. They could keep almost everybody away.
The night they found the car, it was raining. Richie called it a station wagon. The rusted door yawned open already but it screamed when she pulled it wider. It was just the two of them now.
Shssssssh, Richie warned her. They’ll hear you.
That’s a grocery store. Somebody lives upstairs though. See the lights?
Me too. Tomorrow, I’ll get us something. Go to sleep.
But Richie didn’t come back.
She knelt on the ripped seat, ready. At hand was a pile of stones, gravel from the alleyway. The voices inched closer. Two grown men.
There’s a little girl in there, Marcus. I’ve been watching her outta the window upstairs.
You gotta be kidding, Mr. Burt.
Nope. Been here three days holed up in that old car. There’s already a trail of mashed-down grass back side of it, goes off behind that old shed. I left food out and she eats but she won’t talk. I can’t woo her out. I’m thinking you two maybe got some stuff in common. Why don’t you see what you can do.
She’s got real good aim. Be careful.
I know you’re in there. You might as well give it up, haul yourself over here. You gotta be a righteous mess ...
Not gonna talk? Well, I guess I’ll just sit here then. It’s a nice day. Wind’s blowing a bit. Sky’s all blue with those puffy clouds sailing by. Yep, I think I’ll just lean back and watch for a while ... maybe have myself one of these ice-cold soda pops.
Grrrrl. You got to come out. I’m ready to go home. Missed my lunch ...
I can’t let you stay in this car. Come with me. I live in a good place. There’re other kids there. People to take care of you.
No. Don’t wanna live like that any more.
Ah. You can talk. That’s a start, he said
But then he got quiet. So quiet she figured he’d gone inside. She rose up just enough to peek out and there he was, sitting in a straight chair with his head hanging down. She ducked again and waited. For a long time, it seemed.
You know, he said, when I was little, some older than you, but not much, I didn’t wanna live like that any more either. My momma ... didn’t like me, I guess, but Mr. Burt – he owns this store – and Rhonda – she’s his wife – they took me in for a few days and then they took me ... home. Where I call home now anyway. It’s a real good place. Different. Way different than up here. Give it a chance. You don’t like it, I’ll bring you right back ... or take you anywhere you need to be.
She was still thinking it over when he pushed up from his chair.
Tell you what. Try it for one night. Rhonda’ll put you some clothes together somehow, like she did for me, and I know you need a bath. You gotta go clean. OW! What’s that about. Thought we were getting along real good.
You’re not giving me a bath.
Course I’m not! You outta your mind? Nobody’s giving you a bath. You’re old enough to take care of yourself, aren’t you?
Been what? Taking care of yourself? Grrrrl, I just bet you have. Now listen. I’m gonna come over there, open the door and you’re gonna come out all nice-like. No more rocks, you hear?
She grabbed a rock, nearly her last, but the man had the door open already. He had skin like black coffee and coal-colored eyes but he wore a hat just like Daddy’s, a gray hat with a ribbon, a pinch in the crown. His shoulders were wide and he blocked the last blaze of sun and when she looked up she didn’t even have to squint.
What’s your name, Grrrrl?
The man snorted. You’re something to be so puny. Get you fattened up, we’ll all have to give you a wide berth.
What’s your name?
Is not. That man called you Marcus.
If you know so much already, how come you asked? Hmmmph. He leaned against the car and folded his arms. Well, I’ll tell you the truth, he said and his voice wasn’t boomy anymore. My name used to be Marcus and that’s how Mr. Burt knows me, but I go by Winslow now. Sometimes he forgets. I didn’t want to be Marcus anymore and when I got the chance, I changed my name. It’s his name, Mr. Burt’s name. He’s Winslow too. I wanted to grow up, be like him I guess. That’s why I wear this hat. It’s just like his. One of these days, I’ll tell you all about it, ‘bout those days.
She could see him cut his eyes her way.
Now, he went on. Your turn.
Mine used to be Jamie. Then it was Vonny.
Which you like better?
Rather be Jamie. She scooted to the edge of the seat, let her heels hang down.
Okay. So ... Jamie. You got a mom? What’s her name?
Daddy called her Molly.
Where’s she at? You don’t know? What’s your father’s name?
You know where he lives?
Uh-huh. Oleander Street.
Oleander ... where’s that at? Queens? The Bronx?
The hot was different here. The cold too. On Oleander Street, there was a lot more sky.
I don’t think so.
“Got you something.” Mouse held out the toy boat.
Tears stung her eyes. He’d put back the boots and the hat.
“Here’s the change, enough for supper. And something else. Was in with the money.” Mouse handed over a slip of pale blue paper. “Read it. Couldn’t help it. There’s a picture too. Old one.” That came next from his pocket.
Miss Rhonda’s script was even and neat across the small square. When it’s just you and me, it read, I have some things to tell you. Jamie unfolded the photograph. Creased in thirds, the ridges through the image ran soft and feathery. It was faded, but not so terribly old. A polaroid. She remembered watching the picture swirl and form and sharpen.
“Winslow. Young. Hair.” Mouse rested his chin on her shoulder. “Who’s that with Miss Rhonda.”
Mouse wouldn’t remember. He was still a darting shadow below when Mr. Burt died. “That’s her husband.” A question in his eyes, Mouse pointed to the last figure, the pale waif glued to Winslow’s side, gripping his hand. “That’s me,” Jamie said.
She hadn’t been in Winslow’s chamber since he died, though she’d sworn everyone off limits to it, declared she’d be the one to box his things, clear the room. No one pressed her. When she was ready, Vincent said, he’d help her. She’d made it to his doorway a few times, never able to set foot over the threshold. Even now she expected his growl, warning her away from his possessions. Get on now, Grrrrrl.
She eased his wardrobe open, dragged a chair close and climbed up. Winslow’s hat was there, nudged into a corner. She pulled it forward. Concealed beneath it was the wooden propeller of her toy boat, the one her Daddy gave her and all that was left of it by the time Winslow found her. She found her father's hat there too, the brim long ripped away, the crown frayed to a bare skullcap. She rubbed the scrap against her cheek.
At the tunnel entrance to the park, she settled Winslow’s hat on her head. It was too big and its crisp jaunt was lost to time and condition, but still she pinched the crown, bent the brim. The sky was blue; a breeze played high in the branches. The lake would dance with light. She held her treasure up to the sun, turned it this way and that. The paint across the transom was dry now, the words a deep marine blue either side of the wooden propeller. Marcus. Vonny. She turned to
ward the lagoon, already winding the little boat’s key.
A/N: Companion to Jamie's, Winslow’s story – the wind ... blowing in the same bare place – can be found on this site, Everything …, in the Shades of Grey project.
Inspiration for this story: I Still Can't Say Goodbye. Jimmy Moore and Bob Blinn. Right Track Records, 1983.