Dandelion Summer | Chapter 13 of 41

Author: Lisa Wingate | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 2135 Views | Add a Review

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Chapter 4
 
Epiphany Jones
 
 
 
 
The man lived on one of those streets where kids like me don’t go. You show up just strollin’ down the sidewalks on Blue Sky Hill, people in their big houses figure either you’re the hired help or you’re casing the place. Kids that live on the Hill don’t walk, for one thing. They drive real nice cars, and wear clothes that say, Yeah, I got money. I belong here and you don’t. Right after I started at this new school, the history teacher brought in an old lady to talk to us about segregation. The lady said there used to be places in Dallas where she just plain couldn’t go. She remembered how they used to have “colored day” at the state fair, and how in most of the stores, she couldn’t try on clothes unless she bought them first, and then if it didn’t fit she was stuck with it.
She laughed and said, “But the Lord provides for those that’ll try, because that’s how I started my own business.” Her cheeks crinkled up and her eyes twinkled like two tiny black dots of fresh paint on an old piece of brown paper. I scooted up in my seat, getting into the story a little. I never thought of myself too much as black, or African-American, whatever you want to call it. On Martin Luther King Day and all that stuff, I was just me. Some weird mix that was just different from everybody else I knew. Mostly in the little towns we lived in, some of the Mexican kids had skin about my shade, but you could tell I wasn’t Mexican just by looking.
When I listened to the lady telling her story, I could relate to not being welcome someplace. I liked the idea that God might take that very thing that stunk the worst about your life and change it around into something good.
“I worked in the back at a dry cleaner’s.” Her voice was crackly and old. “When I was done at the end of the day, the man would let me use the sewin’ machine, and I’d alter up dresses for all the black women who couldn’t return them to the stores—for lots of white women, too, who couldn’t fit the sizes, and such. But the black women, they wanted those dresses to fit so they could look good at the jazz clubs down in Deep Ellum. I saved that sewin’ money, and it wasn’t too many years before I started my own little store.”
She looked around the room then, and her eyes got misty, and she said we kids oughta remember there was a time when some folks had it a lot harder than others. I couldn’t see how things were so different now. The upscale neighborhoods in Blue Sky Hill weren’t all lily white anymore, but you could be sure their kids didn’t wear our kind of clothes, or get free lunches at the Summer Kitchen, or pick up used books and magazines down at the Book Basket store, or go to the public school. These days, it wasn’t about what color you were, but how much money you had. The same, only different. It was still people not wanting to be with people who weren’t their kind.
I wasn’t the kind to be heading up the sidewalks of Blue Sky Hill, but Mama’d told me that if I didn’t make some money to pay for the damages at the church, I could just get out of her house. After that, she warned me about the man, Mr. J. Norman Al-vord. She wanted me to practice saying his name right. I wasn’t about to practice some stupid rich guy’s stupid name, but I didn’t want to end up out on the street either. DeRon had asked me to come with him after basketball practice, and part of me, the Epie part, thought about chucking the Blue Sky Hill job and hanging out with DeRon. I’d started to think that, if I was DeRon’s girlfriend, the rest of the kids in that school might leave me alone.
But there I was, lugging my backpack while the private school kids in their nice cars drove by and stared at me like I was an alien from another planet. Guess I wasn’t as much Epie as I thought, because I was afraid not to show up for the job.
Just because you’re showin’ up don’t mean you gotta do the job, Epie whispered in my ear. You let this old man know you ain’t the help. Let him find some other sucker to cook for him and clean up his nasty mess. Who’s he think he is, anyway? You ain’t his aunt Jemima. . . .
What I really wanted to do was go on home. I could have the whole place to myself. After hanging around all weekend, Russ was supposed to pack up his piece-of-junk trailer and head out to a knife and gun show tonight. That was Russ’s job, if you could call it that—selling weapons and T-shirts and Harley stuff at gun shows and flea markets. Usually, jobs were supposed to actually make money, but Russ spent about as much as he brought in. Right now, Mama was on Russ’s case about money, which was good, because it’d get him out of the house. I’d had to crawl into Mama’s bedroom while he was sleeping to take the Someday Book from under the bed. Tonight, after he left and Mama was gone to the temp job, I was headed for the closet to see what else was in there.
I found Mr. J. Norman Al-vord’s house, and, sure enough, it was high-dollar. The place was old, like most of the houses on Blue Sky Hill. They’d all been put there by folks who got rich off oil back in the roaring twenties or something—the history teacher told us about it—and not far away, there’d be streets crammed full of little houses where the maids and the cooks and the gardeners had lived. You can guess which of those streets was ours.
Who in the world needed three built-in garages and another one out by the street, anyway? The house was like a redbrick castle, three stories high, with about a million long windows that had fancy colored glass around the edges. Other than being a TV star or playing for the Dallas Cowboys, what did a person do to get a house like that? Even the garage out by the street looked like good digs, with a place for cars underneath and an apartment up top. It was, like, twice the size of our place.
One of these days, I’m gonna live in a house like that, I thought. Epie laughed in my head and said, Girl, you trippin’. You better just turn your little bubble butt around and head on back to your own neighborhood. It ain’t even healthy, looking at a house like that.
I shut Epie down, because by then I wanted to see the inside of that house, job or no job. I’d never been in a place so big.
I headed up the driveway, and a window blind slapped shut, then another, and another, and another. A shiver ran across my shoulders. Maybe I was at the wrong address. What if they called the police, and I got hauled off for trespassing?
The closer I came, the more I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there. The house had a weird vibe to it, and I got the creepy idea that someone in there was watching me. I stopped and looked at the address number again. Yup. This was it. There was a little nameplate above the house number that read, MR. AND MRS. J. NORMAN ALVORD.
I crossed the porch and knocked on the door. Nobody answered, so I leaned close to one of the long, skinny side windows. There was a filmy curtain over it, like the veil a bride wears, so I couldn’t see much inside, except a dark hallway and the bottom of a staircase. “Hey,” I called out, and pushed the doorbell again. “Hey, I know somebody’s in there. I’m supposed to come work this afternoon.” Mama’d warned me that the old man was a real jerk, and whatever he said, I should ignore it, because his daughter was the one writing the checks. She’d even given Mama a little extra. She called it hazard pay.
I wondered if she’d hand me money me for sitting on the porch, since I couldn’t get in the door.
I pushed the doorbell a half dozen times in a row. Finally the locks clicked and the door swung open. The dude on the other side was pretty much what I expected—an old white guy. He was skinny and kinda stooped over, so that he just about looked me level in the eye, but I could tell he must’ve been tall before he got, like, way old. He was wearing a tank top thing, with chest hairs and droopy skin hanging out everywhere, and striped pajama pants pulled almost to his armpits. His hair, what there was of it, looked like the fuzz on a baby’s head after you pull a T-shirt on in the wintertime and the air crackles with static.
His lips made a big ol’ frown, and he tipped his chin up, looking at me through glasses so thick, they were like the magnifier we used in science lab. He seemed like he was waiting for me to say something, and I was waiting for him, I guessed.
What?” he asked finally. “I told you Girl Scouts not to come here anymore.”
That made me laugh, but he probably didn’t mean for it to. I figured he was trying to make trouble so I’d give up. But I was supposed to get twenty dollars for fixing him supper and cleaning up his kitchen—eight dollars each for two hours’ work, and another four just for walking over here from school, then riding the city bus home. That wasn’t bad money for a little cooking, and I liked to cook, because I used to do it with Mrs. Lora.
That look he gave me made Epie pop right to the surface. She worked up some major attitude, just like the mean girls at school would’ve. Sounded like them, too. “Mister, I ain’t no Girl Scout. I’m here to cook your dinner. My mama cleaned your house yesta’day.”
“Yes-ter-day.” He spit out the middle of that word like he was making sure I knew how to say it right. Then he looked me over again, and I could tell what he had on his mind. I’d been getting that look my whole life. You’d think it wouldn’t be too hard for people to figure how a white woman gets a brown baby, but people, especially old people, always looked at me like it was some kind of surprise.
“Mmm-hmm, yes-ter-day af-ter-noon.” I put on the voice we’d learned in after-school enrichment last year, when we got to spend a week pretending we were news broadcasters. “Your daugh-ter said to come at four thirty.” I’m not so dumb, when I don’t want to be, but you go talking all proper around the kids in school and somebody’ll jump you, thinking you’re trying to act like you’re too good. This old dude wouldn’t know one thing about that.
He kept an arm stretched across from his shoulder to the doorframe, like a bar to shut me out. “I’m not hungry.”
Mama was right about Mr. Al-vord. “Well, your daughter says you are.” I bent down, ducked under his arm, and ended up on the other side of him, in the hallway. All of a sudden, even if I didn’t want this job, I was gonna show him he couldn’t go trashin’ on me. I got a stubborn streak that doesn’t give in easy, especially not to some old rich dude with his nose in the air, telling me not to come in his big house.
He turned around, his mouth popping open and shut like one of the little tadpoles the country boys used to catch in the creek behind my old school. They’d hold those things out of the water just to watch them squirm and try to get a breath. I never did know why they did that, but with Mr. J. Norman Alvord, it was kind of funny. He looked like he didn’t have a clue what to do now.
He coughed, and then pulled out a hankie and coughed some more, then folded whatever he’d hocked up inside the hankie and tucked it in the waistband of his pajamas. That was about the nastiest thing I’d ever seen. And these old dudes were the ones complaining about boys wearing their pants sagging? Least people my age didn’t hock one up and keep it for later.
“Come back another day,” he barked. “I have work to do. I’m in the middle of a project.”
I turned my shoulder to him and went a couple more steps into the house. The hallway was big, with paintings hanging in fancy gold frames, like you’d see in a museum. Off to the right side, there was a room with flowered couches and little chairs. That room had doorways to other rooms, and then to the left, a hallway stretched way too far to be in any one person’s house. Ahead was a huge staircase with a big stained-glass window halfway up, and what looked like another big room sat off to the right. This guy was seriously loaded, but the place felt like Dracula’s castle, with all the shades pulled, shadows everywhere, and the air stale and quiet.
“Tell you what,” I said to Mr. J. Norman Alvord. “You go do your work, and I’m gonna do my work, and we won’t bother each other, huh? House like this, you prob’ly won’t even know I’m here.”
“Most pro-ba-bly I will,” he grumbled, pronouncing the word like I hadn’t said it good enough. Then he smacked the front door shut and headed for the stairs without saying another thing.
“Hey, you gonna show me where the kitchen is?” I called after him, but he didn’t answer. “Guess not.”
I stood there for a few minutes, waiting to see if he’d come back. When he didn’t, I slid my backpack down and set it on the tile. The zipper hung open where it was broke, and I could see the Someday Book inside. I’d been carrying it with me since I got it out from under the bed. It was mine, after all, and even though the ideas in it seemed stupid now—someday I’m gonna fly an airplane; someday I’m gonna have a horse; someday I’m gonna have a big bedroom with a roof thing over the bed—it was still kind of interesting, looking back at what you dreamed about in the seventh grade. Besides, if Mama found it around our place, I’d be dead for sure, because she’d know I’d been in her box.
I wandered through the downstairs, checking out the hallway to the left. A couple bedrooms and bathrooms, and a little room with lots of bookshelves and windows, some sofas at one end, and an old pool table at the other. There were photos in the hall, the old kind with the colors faded—a little girl running in the waves on a beach, a boy playing in the sand under a palm tree, a family standing on the deck of a sailboat, smiling for the camera. Mom, dad, two kids. The perfect postcard. The sailboat was high-dollar, and the man looked enough like J. Norman that I figured out who it was. He had red hair when he was young. He wasn’t a bad-looking dude—nothing like the prune-faced guy who’d just opened the door. But the man in the picture didn’t look happy, either. The woman and the little girl and the boy were all focused on the camera, but the man was looking off a bit, like he’d pasted on a smile for the picture, but his mind wasn’t in it. I stared at it and thought, If somebody put me on a boat like that, my mind wouldn’t be anyplace else. That looked like the good life, right there.
I wandered on past some more baby pictures and high school graduation pictures, and pictures of J. Norman and his wife. They’d gone on trips all over the world—the Great Wall of China, some pyramids like in Egypt, a big ship out in the ocean, a castle someplace. His wife had on pretty dresses in some of the old pictures, and hats to match, and little white gloves. She was as classy as an old-time movie star, with a big white smile, and red lipstick, and dark hair piled high on her head. From where I was standing, the life in those pictures was a fairy tale.
I left the photos and went back up the hall and across the entryway, past the stairs. I could hear J. Norman up there making noise in one of the rooms. He had a TV on loud, and drawers and cabinets were slamming. Mama’d told me I was supposed to keep an eye on him, and that his daughter didn’t want him upstairs, but what was I supposed to do about it—go up there and carry the man down like a big ol’ baby? He was a grown-up, after all, and if he felt good enough to be smacking drawers around, he couldn’t be in too bad shape.
Then I thought, Yeah, what if he fell down or something, and that’s what all the racket up there is about? I remembered when Mrs. Lora came home from the hospital the first time. The night she got back, she fell in the bathroom and was stuck beside the toilet. I had to break the door lock to get in there and help her out.
Maybe I should check on Mr. J. Norman Grouchface Smartmouth Alvord. . . .
Then again, if he saw me, he’d probably bite my head off for bothering him. The kitchen was a safer place, since that’s where I told him I’d be. . . .
I tiptoed up a couple steps and listened, anyway. He was talking to someone up there . . . or talking to himself. Anyway, he wasn’t yelling for help, and so I decided he wasn’t dying or anything. I left him be and went through the rest of the downstairs. There were so many rooms there, you could get lost. I liked the front room with flowered sofas and lace curtains and a cabinet full of teacups from all over the world. Each one had a little label on the bottom telling where it came from. I could’ve stayed in that room all day, but I figured I’d better go do the job I was supposed to do.
The kitchen was huge, with green tile countertops, a refrigerator big enough to stuff dead bodies into, and a giant brick archway with pans hanging overhead. Inside it, the shiny new stainless-steel stove looked weird, since everything else in the kitchen was old. Off to the left, a little table sat tucked back by some windows. There were bird feeders hanging all over the backyard—like, fifty of them. Birds darted in and out, checking the feeders, but they were empty and it looked like they’d been that way for a while. I wondered if the pretty lady in the pictures used to fill them. One time when we lived in Odessa, Mama and me rented a trailer house from a lady who fed the birds out back of her house. She said a free bird is good for the soul.
There was an envelope on the counter with my name on it. I opened it and found money and a note inside. J. Norman’s daughter wrote the note, I guess. It was full of instructions, step by step, for what I was supposed to cook, and where everything was, and how to turn on the stove, and to be sure to turn it off, and where to set J. Norman’s plate, and that I was supposed to hang around and clean up after he ate. Geez. Really, as long as she must’ve spent writing all that, she could’ve just fixed him dinner herself. At the bottom, the note said, I assume your mother told you that my father is not to be climbing the stairs unassisted, under any circumstances. All necessary items have been moved downstairs for him. If he argues with you about this, please call, and I’ll talk to him. After that, there was a phone number and her name, Deborah. At the top of the page, the stationery had a fancy emblem from the college, and her full name, Deborah Lewis, PhD. She had perfect handwriting, and the strokes were deep into the paper, like she was pushing hard when she wrote.
Since I’d already messed up in my first thirty minutes on the job, there was no way I was gonna call her. Anyone who’d write a note like that wasn’t about to pat me on the head and tell me it was all right.
I was supposed to make some kind of pasta for J. Norman. His daughter’d left all the ingredients in the refrigerator, chopped up in separate little baggies—onions, mushrooms, green peppers, and low-fat imitation hamburger crumbles. There was pasta and a bottle of sauce on the counter, and whole-wheat bread. The note did everything but tell me which side to butter it on. Guess Deborah didn’t know I’d been cooking since I was old enough to pull a chair up to the stove, because Mama was always too tired, and most of her boyfriends liked food on the table when they came in. I didn’t mind it so much. Once I got old enough to come home and stay by myself after school, cooking gave me something to do, and besides, I like to eat.
J. Norman didn’t have to worry about me eating his food, though. That low-fat fake hamburger smelled nasty, even once I put the vegetables in. I looked around in the refrigerator to see if there was anything else I could add to it, and came up with a little low-fat ham. I chopped it thin and put it in, and fried it all and added the sauce. In about twenty minutes, dinner was done, and it was only four fifty-five. Now what was I gonna do with myself until six, when I was supposed to leave? Four till six Tuesdays and Thursdays. Man, this was gonna stink.
I put the food on the table, made toast and a glass of orange juice (just like the note said), and set a single place at the table. Then I went looking for J. Norman. He was upstairs in a room with the door shut. I knocked on it, and he hollered at me, “What do you want?”
“Your food’s ready,” I told him.
“I’m occupied.”
“Well, it’s ready, and it’ll get cold.” What was I supposed to do now? Kick in the door, drag the man downstairs, and sit him in front of his plate? This job was such a stupid idea. Why was I even still here?
“What’s in it?” Something in the room, a drawer shutting maybe, smacked like the crack of a gun going off, and I jerked back.
“What’s in what?”
“The food? What’s in the food?” His voice was closer to the door now. Just on the other side, but we were still yelling through the wood.
“The stuff that was in the refrigerator.” Duh.
“I don’t like those things.” A chair squealed. I guessed he was sitting down in it. Looked like J. Norman wasn’t coming to dinner.
I gathered up my nice and tried one more time. While I was cooking, I’d started coming up with a use for the money for this job, and I was getting kind of attached to the idea. “I made it like your daughter said. Like Deborah said. In the note. I know how to cook.”
“She doesn’t care what I like.”
“Except I added a little ham.”
“What for?”
“To make it taste better. Like pasta carbonara.” I had pasta carbonara in a restaurant with Mrs. Lora once, and I liked it, so me and her found a recipe. Now I couldn’t help wondering if that was the Italian in me coming out.
“Never heard of it.” The chair creaked and a drawer slid open. “I don’t like ham.”
“Then why’s it in your refrigerator?” He didn’t have an answer for that, I guess. He snorted loud, and then the phone rang. I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to answer it or not. I thought about the fact that it might be Deborah, and if nobody answered, she’d think something was wrong. Then she’d come over and find J. Norman upstairs and his dinner all cold on the table. I’d be out of this job in a hurry. Mama would go off on me like crazy.
The phone on the hall table kept ringing and ringing. I could hear one in the office, too. Guess J. Norman wasn’t gonna answer no matter what. Maybe I needed to. Maybe I’d get in trouble if I did. Maybe I’d get in trouble if I didn’t.
Finally, I grabbed the phone. It was Deborah, and she was mad. “He’s ignoring the phone, isn’t he?” she asked, and I heard a click like someone was picking up another receiver. Deborah heard the click, too. “Is that him? Did he just pick up? Dad, are you on here?”
“I don’t think so,” I told her, and I wasn’t sure why I said it. The office door opened, and J. Norman poked his head around the corner, the phone cord wrapped across his chin and pulling his left ear down flat. The sunlight reflected off his glasses, so that I couldn’t see his eyes, but his mouth was hanging open a little.
“Has he eaten?” Deborah wanted to know. “Did he give you any trouble about it, because I told him not to. . . .”
“He’s eating right now.” Whether I was trying to save J. Norman’s rear or my own, I didn’t have a clue, but Deborah sounded like she could chew somebody up one side and down the other. “That’s why he didn’t pick up the phone.”
J. Norman tilted his head back, squinted at me underneath the black plastic rims of his glasses. He frowned, like I had him all confused.
“You want to talk to him?” I asked. “Because I can go in the kitchen and get him.”
J. Norman put up a one-handed stop sign and shook his head. He made a sidestep toward the stairs, like he was afraid Deborah could see him right through the phone. The cord stretched tighter and his ear got flatter.
“It’s just that he’s, like, in the middle of dinner.” I looked him in the eye. He stopped with his hand on the doorframe. “He likes it a lot, I think.”
His eyes went wide.
“He’s eating a ton,” I said.
He cocked his head to one side and squinted at me again.
Deborah let out a long, slow sigh, like the mad was flowing out of her. “No, don’t bother him. I’m glad to hear he’s eating a good meal, for once. I just wanted to check in.”
“Everything’s great. He can’t get enough of that pasta. He even said he liked it.” I stared J. Norman dead in the face, and his mouth dropped open again.
“He did?” Deborah was in full-on shock.
“Yes, ma’am. He even told me ‘thank you.’ ”
J. Norman coughed like he had a bone in his throat, and he shook a fist in the air.
His daughter said good-bye; then I pushed the button to hang up the phone, pointing the antenna at him. “You owe me big-time now.”
I had a feeling I wasn’t gonna have near as much trouble with Mr. J. Norman anymore, and I was right. By the time I left for the day, we were getting along, if that’s what you call it when two people act like they don’t notice each other, but they don’t argue, either. I cleaned up the rest of the kitchen and left him at the table, eating pasta carbonara. I couldn’t tell if he liked it or not, but I didn’t really care, so everything was fine.
Russ was gone when I got home, and Mama was already down at the university, trying to get those classrooms shiny clean so she could get promoted from being on a temporary status to full-time with benefits. That meant I was free to finally get in Mama’s closet again and pull out the secret boxes.
I opened the big box first this time. It was full of old clothes that smelled kind of musty, but they weren’t the kind of clothes Mama would wear anymore. They were nice dresses, like she might’ve put on for a dance or a party at someplace fancy, but all of them would be too small for her now. Smashed on one side against the cardboard were some things that must’ve been hers when she was a kid—a china doll in a pretty dress but with her hair moth-eaten; a lacy white little girl’s dress, like a wedding dress, only smaller; a pink ballet costume and a pair of crushed ballet shoes. I never even knew my mama was a dancer.
I laid everything back in the box and put it in the closet, feeling like I was digging around in her life. None of it had anything to do with me.
I opened the shoe box next, set aside all the stuff I’d already looked at, and got out the baby book and the pictures in a Wal-Mart envelope. The baby book was mostly blank inside, the notes about first teeth and first steps stopping after I was about a year old. On the page that said, First Birthday, there was nothing but an imprint of the Wal-Mart envelope. I guessed Mama had planned to paste the pictures on there, but never got around to it.
I set down the book and picked up the envelope of photos, flipped it open. There wasn’t much inside. I counted seven pictures as I spread them out on the carpet. Seven little bits of my life I never knew existed. Three pictures were taken outside some church, and four looked like they were from a picnic in the park. In the church pictures, my mama was standing with five other women—my daddy’s family, I guessed. I stared into the faces of those black women—tall, dignified, decked out for church in wide-brimmed hats and matching dresses and heels. They looked like something out of a magazine, like they were about to walk the runway at a fashion show. My mama was dressed like them, but her smile was careful, pasted on, like she felt kind of silly being there. She was so young when that picture was taken. Just eighteen, I guessed, because I was a year old. The birthday girl. The big dress-up celebration in the park was for my birthday. I could tell it was the same day, because none of the dresses changed.
I couldn’t remember ever having a birthday party in my life. Some years Mama rushed around at the last minute and brought home a cake. Some years she forgot. Some years a birthday present came along a week or two later, when she ran across something at the grocery store or the dollar store.
I studied my mother’s face in the pictures—no hard lines, no cold look in her eye, no dried-up cigarette skin. I could see myself in her—same wide hazel eyes, except hers were darker than mine, same chin, same nose. But those black women were in me, too. Their high cheeks, their long, narrow fingers, and their tall, thin bodies were like mine. Now I knew where the flat chest and the stick legs came from, too. I didn’t get my mama’s; that was for sure. My mama was short and curvy, even back then.
I sat for a long time looking from one picture to the next, trying to hear the sounds that would go with it, trying to pull the voices from my mind. In one of the pictures, I was sitting on the lap of a woman who looked a hundred years old. I stared into her eyes and tried to decide, Do I remember her?

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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