The Dangerous Year (A Work in Progress)
Alone now, and old, Gina clutched a dented pack of Lucky Strikes in her hand. She struggled with getting a cigarette out and sticking it between her lips. She had no way to light it, but even unlit, it was a comfort. The cigarette dangled from her lips while her eyes remained focused on the small bedroom window. She was relieved for the darkness. Puffing absently, she drew it inside her as she thought back to a night so black; it was as if the dawn would never waken.
It was 1961. The hemlock grew wild that year, the dangerous year.
She had opened her bedroom window to fresh air and watched as a man emerged from a shadowy gangway. Looking at his black face, she thought, he’s as black as the ace of spades, black as a moonless night, black as coal, black as the steel coming out of that foundry there. He took a deep drag on his cigarette before flicking it away. Slow and easy he brought the saxophone hanging from his neck to his lips and leaned way back. He held the sax high in the air, and blew a long note. The horn throbbed and growled, sounding like a lonely mating call.
He looked up. The yellow lamp lit window outlined her body in her thin night grown and he grinned, teeth flashing like a row of piano keys.
Her heart raced and she was about to slam her window down.
“Wait. Don’t go.”
Something in his voice made her hesitate.
“You’re my forbidden Juliet.”
His words rushed through her with the urgency of a coming thunder storm. Her breath quickened. Her arms grew limp. She could never tell a soul – not in a million years. She would be looked on with scorn and disapproval. She was excited by him. It wasn’t as though she had never seen a black man. She saw hundreds every night from her bedroom window. Every night she watched black men flee the Ironworks Foundry; their shoulders slumped from exhaustion, anxious to get home, but this was the first time one had ever spoken to her.
He blew on his sax, deep bluesy notes. She studied him, his eyes closed, leaning into the music, his breath gathering her into a rhythmic dream of love and foolishness. She had the strange desire to follow him, like Pied Piper, wherever he asked her to go.
“Friends call me TL,” he said quietly, lowering the sax.
“What does TL stand for?”
His laughter startled her. No one she knew laughed like that. If she closed her eyes she would guess it was a braying donkey.
Now she laughed.
“I see you’re quick to understand.” He ran his hand over the sax. “But this baby,” he shined a spot with his elbow, “she gives me a groove that says I’m more than a braying ass.”
“Oh,” I didn’t think you were a- -” She stopped, knowing that was exactly what she was thinking a minute ago.
“What do people call you?”
“Gina. Gina Baretta.” She smiled. “But you can call me Gee.”
Just then the whistle for the 3am shift change at the foundry blew.
“I want to see again,” he shouted over the siren. He titled his sax at her and hurried away, anxious to blend in with the other black men rushing out the foundry doors.
She watched him move down the street, trying to keep him in her sight, but soon, black men melted into the night and she couldn’t tell one from another. The men walked quickly, in silence, shoulder to shoulder while the foundry whistle blew its last warning.
Still sucking on her unlit cigarette, she remembered the strange yearning she had felt that night. She grinned at the memory and wasn’t aware her daughter Anna had entered the room until she called out, “Ma, for God sake put that cigarette down!”
She heard the agitation in her daughter’s voice and in response flicked a make-believe ash, wanting to irritate her even more. This was the odd thing, Gina reflected, putting the unlit cigarette back in the package: she had always done what was best for Anna – until recently. She stared at her daughter, standing in the middle of the room, looking for a moment like a stranger in a purple jacket Gina had never seen. No more could she run out and buy a purple jacket. She couldn’t keep the envy from spreading like an ink stain inside her as she tried to remember the last time she was able to get out and shop. It must be more than a year, she thought, picturing herself standing in Walgreens drugstore looking at a row of toothbrushes. She had chosen a purple one, the same color of her daughter’s jacket.
Her daughter’s cheeks were still rosy from the cold, and Gina turned away when she leaned in to kiss her.
“How you feeling today, Ma?”
“Is this the Santa Maria Nursing Home?” Gina asked. She looked around as if this was the first time she noticed where she was. She couldn’t pin-point when exactly she began to be forgetful, she only remembered days going by when no one called, not even Anna. Long days, alone, watching the 6’oclock news, eating a bowl of cereal for supper, going to bed with the TV on. After a while she fell into the habit of forgetting, letting little moments of the day go by unrecognized, and eventually forgetting was something she did without even thinking, like the bad habit of asking someone to repeat what they said even though she heard it the first time, or continually repeating herself. “Is this Santa Maria Nursing Home?” she asked again.
“That’s right, Ma. You used to work here. Remember? When I was little?”
“I worked here. Eight years ago. I was almost 20.”
Her daughter only nodded.
I was married to her father then, Gina thought. Perhaps I would have stay married if it hadn’t been for the protests. “Nonsense,” she muttered aloud.
“What, Ma, what nonsense?”
“The weather. Why is it so cold?”
“It’s fall, Ma. Chicago’s always damp and cold in September.” Anna took off her shoe and hit the radiator. “Remember how you use to hit the radiators and swear because the heat never came on until October?”
“I remember radiators hissing and clanging but not buying myself new clothes.”
Anna smoothed the new jacket down over her hips and glanced at herself in the dresser mirror. “That’s right Ma.”
Her daughter irritated her. She was young, only forty-five. Frowning, she nervously paced the room, stopping every now and then looking at her as if she wanted to say something but couldn’t find the courage. Gina wanted to tell her to go home, but she kept quiet, no longer sure how to be tactful. Instead, she began counting in time to her steps, “one two, three, four,” over, and over, letting her agitation sift down until her daughter sighed deeply and stopped.
“You make me dizzy, Anna. Pacing like a child running back and forth, back and forth.”
“And take your jacket off, why don’t you?”
Anna removed her jacket and sat down.
“There. Now you look like you’ll stay for a while.”
“You know I always stay until 9.”
“The nurses talk about you. They say I am lucky you visit every week.” Gina bit her bottom lip
“Of course I visit you every week, Ma.” She answered with a dull annoyance, not wanting to be reminded of her duty as an only child.
I wouldn’t blame her if she did stop coming, Gina thought. I am always gloomy now. But there was a time when I wanted to do things, when I wanted to make a difference bad enough to risk everything. TL consumed her then. Racial problems, protests and making love were all they talked about. Who would they have been if they didn’t talk about the insults, violence, oppression he lived with every day. She excused herself for everything, for messing up her marriage, for putting Anna through a bitter time because she felt she was a part of something important.
Gina pulled the blanket up to her chin and slumped down. She listened to rapid tapping of a tree branch against the window. The wind had picked up.
Her daughter shivered and got up, took off her shoe and hit the radiator again. When she sat back down, Gina asked her to read something. “Take my mind away from my own troubles. Mine, not yours,” she couldn’t keep from emphasizing.
Anna didn’t answer, only gave her mother a hurt look. She rose and slowly walked to the dresser, unrolled the Chicago Sun Times and fluttered the pages to straighten them out the same way her father did. She studied the front page, then, cleared her throat. “The American military death toll in the Iraq war reached 2,000 Tuesday with the announcements of three more deaths.”
“Oh for pity sake,” she Gina cried out, startling her daughter.
“What Ma? Are you in pain?”
Her daughter’s worried face disturbed her. It was unsettling, to have the child act like the parent. “It’s nothing, nothing. Only no war, something else.”
“Well, there’s not much else.” Anna folded the front page over with an angry jerk. “The Arab American Experience in the Two Years since 9/11.”
Anna read the article. “Since 9/11, …..
Half aware of her daughter’s voice, she dozed lightly. Martin Luther King Threatens Chicago Mayor With Marching on Cicero. After a while she dropped down into a deeper sleep and found herself watching people being singled out by the police. They were protesting. She wore her purple jacket, the leather one with the long fringe and had taken care to dress Anna in her blue jean jacket with small fringe hemming the bottom. It was supposed to be a peaceful march, protesting the unfair tactics of realtors in the Hyde Park neighborhood, but the police had set up ropes so the crowd couldn’t go beyond a certain point. Now, people were crowded together, pushing for more space. She was scared. They were going to get crushed and she grabbed her daughter, jerked her up into her arms. She didn’t say anything, only smiled and brushed her daughter’s hair back, but she knew she must get her out of the crowd or they would be crushed.
She felt a hand on her shoulder. “Pig”, people yelled at the police who held tear guns in their faces.
It was TL’s hand. “This way” he shouted over the din of voices. “Duck under the rope.” He held the rope up with one hand and pushed her to go through with the other. She lowered her eyes at the policeman who curled his fingers around his gun and glared at TL, daring him to cross under the rope. The sweat on his top lip, the blank look in his eyes, she was sure he was about to shoot. But he didn’t. He only glared and licked the sweat from his lip, but didn’t move when he saw Gina with a child in her arms.
TL paced close to the rope – strutted is the word she wrote in her journal. She remembered writing how he strutted in front of the police, his head high, he behind tight, his long legs stiff as uncooked spaghetti. Afterwards, when she saw him again, he grinned, that lopsided grin she found so charming. One side of his mouth looked satisfied while the other side of his mouth looked as it was questioning why he was smiling at all. She told him she was looking for a toilet for Anna. He was quick to kneel beside Anna, reassuring her they’d find a bathroom.
He stood up and moved close to Gina. She tried to look away, tried to concentrate on Anna, who was jumping up and down, trying to hold her pee, but she couldn’t look away from him, the smell of him, the way he looked deep into her eyes, his energy fluttering around her with an urgency she recognized as desire.
Shame flooded her even now, in her dreams and she woke from her sleep. Confused she cried out. “Anna?”
“Yeah, Ma. I’m here. You dozed off while I was reading.”
Slow recognition of her dream came back. “I took you to protest.”
“Almost eight. I think that year you were almost eight.” Gina sat up and reached for her daughter’s hand. “What do you remember?”
“I remember having to go to the toilet a lot and having to hold it.”
Gina’s head shot up. She peered at her daughter. “Anna?” Her voice was soft. “You remember anything else?” She looked at her daughter’s still face. It seemed like someone had just clicked on a light. She leaned back, folded her hands in her lap and closed her eyes and waited.
The quiet held.
Then Anna spoke. “I remember you and Daddy arguing about it.”
Gina knew. She knew the time Anna was referring to, but she didn’t answer. Instead she began humming an old marching song.