Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Short Story: The Little Holly Market
She wakes up early, alone. It is late July. Her bedroom is east-facing, and a brick building to boot. The rotating fan on the floor doesn’t do much, just stirs the moist hot air around, like river water down in the Bottoms. She doesn’t want to be awake. She wants to hold onto sleep as long as she can, hold on to sleep and not knowing. But even in sleep, the heat makes you fretful.
The sheets are at the edge of the bed, kicked off in the night, her nightgown twisted up under her breasts, sticky. She hears the children in the front room, the cartoons going full-tilt. The front room stays pretty dark all day, cooler, and the vinyl sofa, cracked but not bad, is also cool. The children love to dive into the cushions, thrash into them like water, loving the feel of it against their bare arms and legs. Even the cracked parts feel like little fish mouths nibbling at you all over.
Sleep gone, she rolls over silently, straightening her gown. No sense layin here. Might as well get up an move. She is of indeterminate age. Her flesh is the color of roasted coffee beans and absolutely smooth but for a single vertical line carved between her brows. Her body is heavy. She shuffles her feet in an old woman’s drag, unconscious that this is how she walks, that she has slowly worn a groove into the industrial carpeting from her bed to the hallway. It would startle her to know that she has been here that long.
Her face puckers as she reaches the window, through which the sun is shining too brightly. The light is like the light reflected off car windshields, off tinfoil, jagged and hateful. It gives the dingy walls and the old bed sheets and pillowcases a bleached look. The edges of things seem out-of-focus. Heat like the worst headache you can imagine, like glass in your head, lodging in the tender spots in the folds of your brain, turning your stomach sour, your eyeballs to jelly. Squinting, she yanks the shade down.
She steps out into the little space between her bedroom and the kids’ rooms. Can’t even call it a hallway. It’s too small to correckly call it that. To the right is the bathroom. The children are quiet. They don’t even turn around as she shuts the bedroom door behind her. Their eyes are glued to the nineteen-inch screen. The color is off. All the pictures have a reddish tint.
They been listless, she thinks. This damn heat. Her mamma used to say saps. This heat just saps your energy. Mamma used to keep a cool rag around her neck, a pitcher of water in the fridge. But the heat is only one problem. She keeps a pitcher of water in the fridge like Mamma used to.
Problem is, that’s all that’s in the fridge. Her cupboards, like the woman’s in the nursery rhyme, are bare.
She takes her time, sitting on the toilet. She doesn’t want to leave the bathroom, even though it is always stuffy. Mamma never had no air condition neither. She stands, flushes. Even if she had, she wouldn’ta turnt it on. She was forever screaming about the ‘lectric bills. Washes her hands and face. Her hands are very dark against the white basin. Brushes her teeth, thinking of Mamma. She wishes her Mamma was here to tell her, Don’t you do it. But then, if Mamma were here, she might just as easily say, Girl, you do whatever you got to to get them babies fed.
She combs her hair, then comes out of the bathroom and goes into the kitchen. Any minute now, the elder children will come wandering back to the house, scrounging for breakfast. There has been nothing in the house but oatmeal and rice for days, and they are now out of oatmeal. So she resigns herself to heating water on the stove to boil the last of the rice. She will mix in a little sugar instead of salt, so it will be at least a little like Rice Krispies. Except for there’s no milk.
The little ones come get their bowls and quietly return to the living room floor to eat in front of the TV. They eat slowly, making little fuss. She wants to cry.
Almost as if on cue, the elder children come inside and they each have a small bowl. One of them makes a face, picks at his food.
“That’s all they is,” their mother tells them. “I gotta go to the store.”
“When ya goin to the store?”
She doesn’t answer. Instead, she goes out onto the stoop and lights a cigarette, barefoot, still wearing her nightgown. It’s so humid, she perspires right away, a little pool forming in the groove of her upper lip. The paper of her cigarette turns damp where she holds it between her fingers. Check won’t come till next week. After he is done eating, her oldest boy, Quentin, comes back out and sits on the stoop next to her. She tilts her cigarette away.
“Still hongry,” she says. It’s not really a question, and certainly not the question.
She nods once, curtly. “Miz Flores wa’ant home?”
She nods again. “Well, we’ll go down bout 11:30. Go get us some Hot Lunch.” The way they had come to use the term was like a brand-name. There was a Boys and Girls Club on Twentieth. It had a lunch program in the summer—free hot lunches Monday through Friday. Lunch was served at noon, but you had to get there early. The line would be almost up the block.
“Okay,” Quentin says cooperatively. She gives him a little sideways glance. He’s a good boy, this one, never no back-talk. In a rare stray bit of affection, she reaches out her free hand and runs it playfully over his summer-cropped curls. He ducks, grinning.
“Go on now,” she says. He runs off. Probably somebody would go around to the fire hydrants along Holly and Mercier Streets with a wrench, opening up the valves so the children could play in the water. She has half a mind to join them. Instead, she just sits for a little longer, fiddling with the cigarette and looking out over the block of housing that zigzags down the hill. Knowing the children would get at least one meal on the weekdays was fine. But it was Thursday already. And then the long weekend with nothing to eat, if she didn’t do something about it quick.
Every woman in the neighborhood knows a way to get free groceries round here, if she got a mind to. The thought makes her shiver, despite the heat, and a fine rash of goose pimples raises on her bare upper arms. Her stomach, queasy to begin with, drops.
Rising heavily to her feet, she flicks the cigarette away in the dew-damp water grass growing in scraggly patches around the building. She starts to go inside, but she hears the screen door around the side bang open, and her neighbor, Twyla, comes out, a yellow laundry basket on her hip. She has her daughter with her.
"Hey, Yvonne!” Twyla calls. Twyla is tiny, wiry and dark, darker even then Yvonne, with a tight little cap of crazy curls that stick straight out from her head, making her look like a black Raggedy Ann. At the moment, she is wearing a bright yellow and white flowered sleeveless blouse tied at the side of her waist, sky-blue polyester shorts, and blue jelly sandals.
“Hey,” Yvonne calls back easily enough.
Twyla moves with quick little movements like a terrier, covering a lot of ground on such itty-bitty feet, dropping the basket in the beaten dirt under the clothesline. She starts to bend over but pauses ever-so briefly, stealing a glance at Yvonne.
“What’s th' matter wit choo?” she inquires.
Yvonne shrugs. “Nuthin.”
Twyla takes a baggie full of clothespins out of the basket and hands them to her girl. “Nuthin my ass.” Then she starts taking clothes out of the basket. Straightening up, she shakes out one of her son’s T-shirts and begins smoothing it out on the line. “Sheeyit. I wish I had a pair a big ol titties like you. Bad enough I’s born dark, and skinny to boot. I say make em work for you, girl.”
"You hush yo mouth!” Yvonne snaps.
Twyla’s eyes roll, gold tooth flashing. “God damn if they wouldn’t have to pay me to cover up knockers like dat! I be flashin em every chance I got! All my blouses be cut down to dere.” Gesturing to her belly button, she gives a little shimmy, wiggling her hips.
Yvonne waves her hand. “You don’t know whatchoo talkin bout.” But she has to fight hard to stop from grinning herself.
“Oowee,” Twyla exhales, holding out a brown palm to her daughter, who obligingly hands her a clothespin. “We got a bashful one right here, don’t we? Big-tit mamma.” She slaps her own ass. “Afrait to shake dem puppies out.”
“Quit it now!”
“All right, all right,” Twyla agrees, still flashing her gold tooth. “I just playin.”
Yvonne turns and goes back inside without another word, Twyla’s cackling chasing her all the way back to her bedroom, where she goes to the closet (the sliding door is propped on the wall next to it—it had come off the track sometime ago and Yvonne couldn’t get it to go back right). It shouldn’t matter what she wears today, but somehow it does.
There is not a lot to choose from. She is a big woman, and the fact is, there just aren’t many nice clothes for big women, black or white. She selects a magenta-colored halter dress and holds it up in front of the mirror, her mouth twisting. For a minute, she sinks back down on the bed. Then, with a new force of determination powering her body, she yanks off the nightgown. Her fingers are swift as they do up strings and snaps, white bra, panties, the dress. It has a print pattern like palm fronds. She slides her feet into a pair of tan-colored sandals. It’s too hot to put on make-up, she’d just sweat it right off, but she checks her hair, checks the hang of the dress, fussing with the folds and creases, tucking and smoothing until it looks just right.
Then she folds her nightgown and stows it away under her pillow, makes the bed, and goes back out into the living room. To general protest, she shuts the TV off with a snap.
“Go on now!” she says, shooing the children outside. “Go play.”
She goes out too, shuts and locks the door behind her. Twyla’s laundry is completely hung already. There is no breeze to stir the dripping shirts, T-shirts, baseball jerseys, (Twyla’s oldest boy plays on the church team with Quentin), but the July sun would just about bake them dry, sure enough.
Going up Twenty-First, the rows of units that make up the Pennway Projects are squat and red like crabs crouched on a shelf of rocks, surrounded by a flat asphalt sea. Cresting the hill, she turns and follows a cracked footpath to one of the middle units. As she expects, an old woman is seated on a glider swing on the front stoop, looking impassively out over Holly Street. A small rotating fan is positioned on the window sill to blow in her direction.
“Hey,” Yvonne leans down and kisses the old woman’s cheek, wrinkled and soft as crepe.
“Hey, baby,” Pinky greets her, that old face lighting right up. Her voice is quavery, yet pleasant. “Just look at you, so purdy! Gonna set with me a while?”
“Thought I might,” Yvonne said, settling down on the glider swing next to her, turned slightly to face her. Pinky had been a friend of Yvonne’s grandmother, now well into her eighties. Her hair is mostly white, shot through with a few sprigs of silver. She wears large, thick bifocals with pink plastic rims. Never a heavy woman, the years have rendered her body shapeless: flattened breasts hanging to her waist, belly pooched out. She has had three hiatal hernias. The doctors refused to operate on the latest because of her advanced age. Compounded by the formless housedress she is wearing, so wash-worn and faded its pattern seems to blend with Pinky’s high yellow skin, she resembles a lump of clay set on a pottery wheel. Yvonne didn’t know how she could stand even those half-sleeves in this heat. Prolly had that dress since 1962, she thinks with some wonder.
Underneath it, Pinky’s legs are bare, broken-down looking, heavily streaked with veins. The ankles are slightly swollen over her white orthopedic shoes. Her hands, also swollen, sit bunched in her flowered lap, but her back is straight as a measuring stick. She rocks the glider steadily with an easy heel-toe action.
“How you doin?” Pinky asks.
“Doin all right.”
Pinky nods amicably and pats her hand. “You always was a good girl, Yvonne. Always was. Mmm-hmm.” The two of them settle back in the glider seat, looking out. The silence between them is comfortable, with the low whir of the fan behind them and the steady creak of the glider punctuated only now and then by some quiet remark from one or the other as they watch the neighborhood regulars go by.
After a while, along comes Mr. Peregrino. He is a small, neat little figure of a man in a hat, starched button-down and sharply creased trousers. With his litter stick and a trash bag, he makes the last of his rounds before the afternoon and the worst of the heat, picking up scraps of paper and crumpled soda cans. There is Miss Bailey, who is white. And crazy. She shuffles along in her strange, ungainly lurch, barefoot as always, despite the abundance of broken glass on the street. Sometimes she waves; today, she does not. Just lumbers along with her head down, hair hanging in clumps to hide her face, so only the shiny tip of her nose is visible. Yvonne heard that one afternoon, Miss Bailey got into some kind of argument with some boys in the neighborhood while she was sitting on the front porch of her house. She had screamed insults at them, then pulled down her panties and flashed them, bumping her bare ass right up against the chain link fence. Then she yanked out her tampon and threw it. But it was, in Yvonne’s estimation, them boys’ fault. Everybody knew Miss Bailey wasn’t right. That was why she wasn’t married and lived with her mother, even though she had to be at least forty.
"Poor soul,” pronounces Pinky, shaking her head.
There aren’t many white people on the hill. There are the Baileys, which, in addition to Miss Bailey, consist of old Mrs. Bailey, her mother; and an assortment of nieces and nephews. There is Mrs. Flores, who was actually a German, married to Mr. Flores, and known to be the best cook in the neighborhood. Her children are all but grown, but she still cooks enough for twelve every day. Anyone who comes through her door is welcome to either a plate of brats and sauerkraut with mashed potatoes, or a big bowl of menudo, or a patty melt on Texas toast, depending.
Otherwise, the hill itself is almost all Mexican. They live in the houses on the west side of Holly Street, the barrio. And the blacks on the east side, in the projects. The line had been drawn a few years ago. Yvonne can still remember that day. Too many robberies going on in the houses on the west side-- on Mercier, on Twenty-First. One of the Ramirez girls’ boyfriends got beat up real bad when he came to take her out on a date, put in the hospital. And somebody tried to break into old Mrs. Martinez’s house when she was home. She’d seen him—a big black man. So without a lot of noise or fuss, the Mexican men all got together and lined up in the middle of Holly Street, right on the invisible line that divided the neighborhood, black from brown. They’d all had rifles. They’d said there’d better not be any more robberies. Tell the men, they’d said. They wouldn’t go to the police. The police don’t do nothin. So they’d have to take care of it themselves. No more.
There weren’t hardly any men in the projects. Teenaged boys, sure. But no men. If you saw a man, he had a woman here, a woman and kids. And he only came around after dark.
As if reading her mind, Pinky asks, “Where’s Sam lately? I ain’t seem im around.”
Yvonne doesn’t answer. After a pause, Pinky pats her hand again, strokes it.
There is one other white man in the neighborhood, in a manner of speaking. Mr. Hauffman, the big German who owned the Little Holly Market at the bottom of the hill. Mr. Hauffman had married himself the prettiest girl on the hill, a little slim gal, one of the Salamanca sisters. Germans marrying Mexicans, what was that all about? The Salamanca girl has a Spanish name, but Yvonne can’t think of it. Their daughter had come out milk-white. Yvonne saw her one time, not that long ago, when she was down buying a carton of cigarettes. The little girl was sitting up on the counter. She couldn’t be more than three years old, with her mother’s dark hair and Spanish eyes—not wide, but long, with dark lashes. And with that skin, she looked just like a little doll. Just the prettiest little girl you ever saw, wearing a little white sundress and matching white sandals. The dress had yellow bows on the shoulder straps. She was sucking on a red Blow Pop. Her little bow-shaped mouth was the same color as the sucker. If his daughter was there, his wife, presumably, could have come in at any time. Mr. Hauffman was nothing but polite to her that day as he slid the carton of Kools across the countertop.
Right around 11:15, as if on cue, the children showed up, the younger ones in pairs, Quentin on his own, soaking wet, shoes squelching as he comes up. Each and every one of them gives Pinky a kiss. There was a time when they could have climbed up in her lap, but her arthritis is too bad now.
Sighing, Yvonne rises, holding fast for a second to Pinky’s fingers before she lets them go. “You okay?” she asks.
“Go on, honey,” Pinky waves her gnarled hand. “I’ll be fine.”
Yvonne smiles and herds the children down the sidewalk, thinking she should have checked Pinky’s cupboards while she was there.
The projects border Observation Park, which is fenced off on one side, so they have to take the long way around to Holly Street. On the south and west sides of the park is a graduating stone wall. While it is still low, the children scramble up it. Sometimes they dart ahead, to where the wall rises above the sidewalk by a good ten feet, shrieking and dangling their legs. It’s the children’s favorite spot for hurling eggs at passing cars, or water balloons at each other.
The Boys and Girls Club is on the other side of the park, to the north. There is a bright orange swing set in front, a blue jungle gym, and a row of those little rocking horses on metal coils. It seems to be boiling over with people already, crowded and bustling as an anthill. The children frolic on the playground equipment. Mothers huddle in clumps to talk, turning occasionally to shout something at their offspring. There are some picnic tables where a few people have already sat down to eat, but most prefer to eat indoors, where it’s air conditioned.
Yvonne looks around at the people already coming out of the cafeteria with their pale green Styrofoam trays of food. It’s like hospital food—mealy hamburgers, limp corndogs, sweaty hash browns, warm Jell-O, neon-green pickles, runny ketchup—all wrapped in cellophane. But it’s food. It hurts to watch the children apply themselves to it so eagerly. There are also cartons of milk, and occasionally, pints of vanilla ice cream to be eaten with flat wooden spoons that leave splinters on your tongue.
She turns to Quentin. “You watch yo brothers and sisters. I’m gon run down to d’ store.”
He nods. “Okay, Mamma.”
She watches them for a moment as they get in line, making sure none of them can look to see what she’s doing before she turns and hurries off down the street.
The road is narrower here. Originally, her mamma told her, most of these back streets were designed for streetcars, but the tracks are long gone. The houses end on a series of vacant lots, houses lost in a fire. Arson. A set of stone steps are all that remains. Stone steps covered in vines and graffiti, leading up to air, and at the foot of the hill is Mr. Hauffman’s store. It’s a simple, square, cinderblock building in the middle of an untreed gravel lot. It’s almost noon, so the shadeless building seems to float on a wave of heat above the concrete curb, bare walls absorbing and reflecting light in a pale, screaming glare. Across the front is a white sign with cheery red lettering, THE LITTLE HOLLY MARKET, like a candy cane. It has no windows except for a small, square pane set in the thick wooden door. She does not allow herself to think about this. She just tugs on the handle and steps inside.
As she crosses the threshold, she feels suddenly as if she’s hit a pool of water. Her body feels heavy and light at the same time. Overhead, a bell chimes and the door swings shut behind her. There is the shock of air conditioning. How icy it is in here, how dim. The air is dry and somehow still compared to the raucous light outside. After her eyes adjust, she sees directly in front of her are three narrow aisles lined with food. Immediately, her stomach starts to growl, her mouth fills voluptuously with spit. She’s been subsisting on rice, oatmeal and cigarettes for two weeks. She almost forgot that there even was such a thing as treats—chips, pretzels, peanut butter crackers, snack cakes, beef jerky. In a freezer case in the corner are pints of ice cream – good ice cream, not the kind you eat with a tongue depressor -- individual Eskimo pies, Big Tops, Bomb Pops. And of course, there are all the more sensible things. Loaves of bread, jars of peanut butter, canned soup, tins of sardines packed with good fat. Along the back wall are cold cases stocked with beer, pop, milk, eggs, lunch meat, and cheese. Back against the right wall is the counter, with shelves underneath for candy bars.
Behind the cash register is Mr. Hauffman. He has the look of a once-handsome man now going to seed, not bad yet, but you could foreglimpse paunchy, bald middle age coming up fast, as if the man in front of her is being erased a little bit at a time, blond hair getting thin, belly becoming soft and vast, straining against the buttons of his shirt.
“Hey there,” he says.
Yvonne forces herself to nod. “Hey,” she says uncertainly, lingering at the end of the food aisles. There is no one else in the store, so he watches her. She tries not to stare back and looks down at the shelves instead.
The bells over the door chime again as someone else comes in, a woman in cut-off shorts that Yvonne doesn’t know. Mr. Hauffman turns his attention to her as she grabs items, heaps them on the counter. Yvonne turns her back to them, momentarily relieved. Keeping her eyes on the shelves, she picks things up and puts them back down again, not really seeing, too busy listening to Mr. Hauffman and the other woman.
“That everything?” Mr. Hauffman asks.
"Yep. That about does it.”
He punches the numbers into the cash register and gives her the amount. The shush-shush of dollar bills being counted out, the clink of change in the cash register drawer, rattle of brown paper bags. The bells jingle for a third time and the woman is gone.
Mr. Hauffman gives her a look. “Help you find something?”
She fiddles with the can of soup she is holding. “No.”
His eyebrows raise. “You just browsing?”
“No,” she says again. “I . . . I ain’t got no money.”
“Well,” he says. “That is a problem.” The way he talks sounds funny to Yvonne, like he’s trying to be cute or something. It distracts her.
"I need groceries,” she says a little hesitantly.
“Sorry, honey. I ain’t running a charity.”
Yvonne takes a deep breath. She is sweating, despite the air conditioning. “Maybe I could pay you some other way,” she says real fast.
For the first time, he looks interested. “Yeah?” he smirks. “What way would that be?”
Yvonne’s tongue feels like it’s caught in the roof of her mouth. He crosses his arms and waits, leaning against the counter, looking at her so nasty she wants to cover her face and run out the door.
She swallows a couple of times. “I’ll show you my titties.”
He walks over and locks the door. There is a piece of cardboard taped to secured to the door with duct tape. He unfolds that and smooths it over the small window in the door. “All right,” he says, still smirking. “Let’s see em.”
Her arms feel heavy, the muscles weak, as if she’s been pummeled. Slowly, she slides the straps of her dress down, then her bra. She moves them down so he can see, concentrating very hard on the movements so as not to see him. How he steps closer. Those pale blue eyes make it easy to see the black iris opening wide, the beads of sweat on his upper lip, at his receding hairline. Bare arms beneath his rolled sleeve cuffs. The hair on the back of his arms is so blond it’s almost silvery, like fish scales, white skin speckled like trout. At the end of his arms, his hands are enormous, the thick, chapped fingers, more blond hair sprouting from the knuckles. It makes her sick, the thought of him laying those hands on her.
“That all?” he says. “For groceries? C’mon, honey. Raise your arms. Jiggle em a little.”
She does as he says, painfully aware of every inch of bare skin, prickling and burning with shame, aware of the weight of her tits as they bob up and down, heavy and dark, her arms out. But she looks anywhere but at him, her eyes trained on a corner of the ceiling. Slowly, she raises her hands and begins playing with her tits, squeezing them and pinching the nipples.
His breathing roughens a bit, but otherwise he is still, she can see out of the corner of her eye. For a long time, he just stands there, looking as she stands with her arms out, upper body bare. Somehow, she knows he isn’t going to lay a finger on her. Not this time. Next time, maybe, or maybe he’d just want her to take all her clothes off and jiggle for him. Next time, it wouldn’t so hard. And then what? And what then? How much could she get out of him? Sooner or later, he’d be tired of her.
At last, he goes over and takes a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk from the shelves and sets them on the counter while she re-does her bra, pulls the top of her dress back up. He even bags it for her. Milk and bread, that’s it. But it’s something. She wonders how far she can stretch it.
She doesn’t notice as she steps back out into the sunshine that the top of her dress is slightly askew, brown paper bag on her hip. Behind her, she hears the door lock again.
From now on, she promises herself, she won’t come here. She would shop at Jingle’s on 17th when she had to, or run down to the liquor store on the Boulevard. She couldn’t afford the temptation she thinks as she walks slowly back up the hill.
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