First thing this morning, getting ready to leave the house, I heard over the news broadcast that another University of Chicago graduate student had been shot and killed in a holdup in Hyde Park. I was holding my breath—but the name was not one I knew. I am a graduate student at the university and I live in Hyde Park. I listened closely for details—the time of night, a number, a street. You always want to know how close these things have come to you.
There were two students. They were at a party and had gone out to get more beer. On the way back three youths demanded their money. The one student gave up his wallet immediately and walked away; the other was a black belt in karate—he put up a fight. Five times the gun clicked and misfired; the sixth shot tore his side. The radio announcer went on to recall other such incidents in recent years, the last student murdered only a few months ago.
It was a densely dark morning. I live in a small studio on top of a high rise—mostly windows; a friend calls it a perch on a flagpole, because I never draw the shades. Lately one visitor after another has expressed a wish for an apartment just like mine: “It’s perfect,” they say. From which I infer that they all want to climb up the flagpole: remove themselves. There is certainly something remote about my situation. For instance, I can see the helicopters surveying the morning traffic snarls, hovering over the city. On days like today they seem to be putt-putting about in thick gray gloom like outboard motors. The noise takes up the whole sky. Maybe because the radio didn’t give more exact details—because the young man was unknown, faceless to me—because I couldn’t pinpoint the spot—all at once there were no lines of demarcation. There were no limits. It was out there—I realized for the first time in a long time that it didn’t matter where. What mattered was that it was happening. Therefore it was close to me.
One other thing. I was about to set off for my cousin’s wedding. And it seems that every time I trek north for one of these family occasions, the subject is bound to come up: why I continue to live on the South Side of Chicago, with its high crime rate and race warfare. And almost inevitably something like this will have happened, been on the news, plastered over the headlines. But this morning I had a strange, obstinate reaction: I didn’t feel like being hassled in this way—didn’t feel apologetic about living in Hyde Park. Maybe it’s inertia; or mulishness—a family trait.
My Uncle Rudy’s height and hulking shoulders filled the space behind the wheel. A huge man, six-foot-four, two-hundred-and-fifty pounds; crew-cut, bullet-headed: the thick close-shaven folds lay on his neck. Even from the back, in his checked gray suit, you could tell—a cop. I looked at the back of his head, graying bristles, wondering what he was thinking. Impenetrable. The head seems too small for the great body; his nose is a beak. When his nose got broken somehow on maneuvers, the army doctors offered to make it over for him while they were at it. But Rudy wouldn’t hear of it: tampering with his destiny. An obstinate man; he’s somewhat deaf, he lost the hearing of one ear in the service. He could have an operation for nothing. But he never will: “Who needs another hole in the head? One ear’s enough.” He pulled into the grimy, sluggish traffic, deaf or indifferent to our female conversation.
I couldn’t believe that we were going to talk about Roxanne’s hair all the way to the wedding. Rudy’s wife—a few years younger than I am, actually: a big, fair, stable type in a sleeveless dress, with her pale head drooped over her knitting. Peculiarly pale, a rock-candy shade, almost translucent.
“Oh, you did something to your hair,” my mother remarked as we climbed in back.
“I don’t like it,” Roxanne said at once, without looking round or lifting her head, her bare shoulders scarcely moving in their sockets as she plucked at her needles. “I tolt her beige blont and she dit it silver blont instet.” She spoke in her discontented mountain drawl.
“Go back and make them do it over,” my mother said. “You pay enough for it.”
“It looks pretty though,” my grandmother said, squinting and peering.
Roxanne flicked the yarn irritably over her forefinger. “I don’t like it.”
And so on. But sometimes it seems that’s all these occasions are really for. “Aren’t you going to put on any makeup?” my mother said as soon as I walked in the door. “Look how thin she’s getting,” my grandmother complained, looking at me disapprovingly. “She’s putting on weight,” said my mother. Even my grandmother is all dolled up—a little old lady, shrunken, gazing out from between shoulders hunched with arthritis. Swollen crippled fingers clasping her coat, the lapels weighted down with dime-store brooches. She loves adornment. There was a pause just before as we were leaving her flat: she wanted to retrieve her watch—a big Timex with a Spandex band, a man’s watch. The utilitarian chunk of nickle-plating dangled from her fingertips. The stiff fingers stretched the band, dragged it over her wrist. She’s eighty-three and she’s even more obstinate. Her children beg her to come and live with them, get out of that wretched neighborhood; now their own children are marrying, they all have room—they’d love to have her. But she knows better. At her age it’s bad enough being mortal, without having to make apologies for it too.
“Hey! Which way you going?” My mother sat up suddenly in her dark mink stole, her erect striking white head looking all about. She was in black and white from head to foot, stark contrasts: a long evening skirt and pointed shoes. “I thought you were going to take Sheridan.”
“Hah! We’d be there tomorrow, I took Sheridan,” Rudy said, calmly looking over his shoulder and showing the dark spaces in his teeth. Though his is a hazardous occupation, the teeth were in fact knocked out in a tobogganing accident. He has a loud offended voice, the result of his partial deafness.
“You don’t mean to tell me you’re taking the Edens Expressway!”
“Naturally. What do you think? I’m taking Edens.”
“Edens! Who ever heard of anything so stupid! Taking Edens!” My mother, erupting, was rummaging rapidly in her purse. She took out a mimeographed slip of paper—a map of directions to the church, in one of the northernmost suburbs; it had come with all the invitations—and she thrust it over the seat at her brother’s big back. “Here! Look! You go straight out Sheridan, you’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
“You should have driven your own car, you wanted to take Sheridan,” Rudy said, unmoved. His eyes were level, watching traffic in the mirror.
“I woultn’t say nothing more if I was you,” said Roxanne, turning sideways in her seat to view my mother. “We’re liable to ent up in Milwaukee. You know how stubborn Ruty is.”
Yes, and he’s had riot training. But my mother does not know how to desist. After a while she sat back, however, and began whispering to me in a continuous undertone, thrusting the map under my nose. I had already been traveling an hour and a half to get to my grandmother’s, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. That displeased her. She got angrier with me, flapping the piece of paper in my face—her own face startlingly sallow under her beautiful white hair. She must have seen I had no sympathy with her either. I couldn’t help it; my mother’s panic is an old and potent enemy of mine.
It was now noon, the wedding was called for twelve-thirty. “And when they say twelve-thirty, they mean twelve-thirty,” my mother said, laying her hand to her cheek, her fingers studded with rings. “That’s not Jewish time you know.”
As a Chicago patrolman, Rudy has to live in the city. But one of the reasons my grandmother won’t move in with her other children is that she finds the suburbs so dull; she likes to be able to see lots of people, to sit in a lobby somewhere and watch the world go by. All she asks is a lobby. In her neighborhood, with all the grim apartment hotels for the elderly, shelter homes and half-way houses, there are plenty of lobbies. But the one in her building is too dark, off to one side, you miss everything; and so she prefers to sit in the large window of the A&P, resting her shopping bags. Her next-door neighbor, confined to a one-room flat, always keeps the door open—sitting buoyed up among her pillows, like a pile of life-preservers, watching. She has a darkened, pewtery complexion; you feel her eyes on you. She’s hearty enough, though—banging the rubber foot of her cane on the wall to get your attention.
Today when I had alighted from the elevator, both doors were open—my grandmother was going back and forth between the two rooms, keeping the neighbor company. She kept introducing us. “This is my granddaughter! My son! My daughter!” Today she was particularly proud of her visitors, because we were dressed up for the wedding. In fact my mother was still getting dressed, presenting her back—all unzippered—to the wide-open doorway, her long skirts hiked up about her hips, fastening her garters.
“So what do you call this, Mother?” I said.
“Hmm,” she replied airily, bending over her black stockings, “nobody ever comes by here anyway.”
And yet she is the first to complain about the suspicious types lurking in the elevators and passageways. They need encouragement. This is what you call flinging down the gauntlet. You see it all the time. I ring a friend’s bell and she emerges into the dingy apartment hallway in her underpants to answer. My mother was also taking the opportunity to announce that her charms are all used up (not so, by the way). Compared to other buildings in Uptown, my grandmother’s is not that bad—a very large, dated structure: the entrance, long and naked as a ballroom, the dim, narrow pier-glass mirrors, harking back to days of luxury. And as we passed through this long corridor, my grandmother was reminded: the other day one of the tenants—a tall old man, broad-shouldered, I knew which one—got robbed on the bus. He had just cashed a pension check, eighty dollars. He sat in his shirtsleeves in the lobby, telling the others all about it. There wasn’t that much to tell: he had the money in his pockets when he got on the bus, it wasn’t there when he got off. His fingers felt about his chest, still groping in his pockets for the money—as if it might turn up yet. All at once he stiffened in his chair, his heart gave a leap beneath his shirtfront. He stretched himself out dead.
“So it turned out that yener”—the other, she meant the pickpocket—“needed that money worse than he did.” Thus my grandmother, a graphic old lady with a babushka poked under her chin.
By the time we got to the church, the ceremony had already started. The church itself seemed rattlingly empty: row upon row of varnished pews, and only the white sheet down the middle aisle to indicate any of the usual trappings of a wedding. I’d heard it would be small and simple, but there was something intimidating about such austerity. I crept into the last pew on the aisle in back, my mother and grand-mother slowly following arm in arm. The old lady—well under five feet—shuffling along with her head forward, watchful and determined. A few other latecomers hurried in, crossed themselves with holy water, and—stooping quickly on the aisle—slid into the bench on the other side of me. It was the first I’d realized that Millicent was Catholic, though I knew that her parents had objected to her marrying my cousin Gregg. (As they had objected last year when Gregory and Millicent traveled through Europe together. “If it was my daughter, I wouldn’t let her go,” my Uncle Leon had reassured them.) I don’t know what Gregory considers himself. Long-legged in his striped pants and frock coat, he stood with his hands clasped in front of him, swaying very slightly. I could just glimpse the edge of his swarthy handlebar moustache. Millicent looked very tall in her white veil, with her long black hair curling down her back beneath the train.
Rudy strolled in with his hands in his pockets—looking back and scowling at us over his shoulder. Wondering what we were doing, of course, sitting all the way in back and on the wrong side—the bride’s side. It was bright as daylight in the lofty empty church; he looked monolithic, wading through the pews. Roxanne followed, tiptoeing softly, tugging at the belt of her short black vinyl coat to cinch in her waist.
The priest asked us to rise. At once my eye was attracted to Uncle Leon’s handsome head—the same arresting white mane as my mother’s. From the back he seemed as broad-shouldered and narrow-waisted in his frock coat as Gregory, and he was standing in the same way—his hands clasped in front of him, swaying. A romantic figure—dark Latin features, bushy black brows; women are always telling him how handsome he is. “Ah I wish they wouldn’t,” my Aunt Irene will say, “there’s no living with him after.” A robust, pleasing matron, brown-haired, red-cheeked, beaming with hospitality, with a bosom like a tea service: a Quaker from the Lebanon Valley. She met Leon at Valley Forge; he a wounded corporal, she a hospital administrator. For him she joined the Wacs. In those days she could shake down her stoical braids and sit on her hair, all ripples and waves. Everyone knows that Leon raised the general level of intelligence, energy, capability, industry in our family several notches when he brought Irene into it. Yet after twenty-five years she is still the outsider. She’s not Jewish. And everyone is sure that Irene for her part is still anti-Semitic. She probably is too—if their own prejudices are any indication. Some crevices run deep. It used to be that at election time the two of them would make a pact: they promised each other that neither of them would vote, since their votes could only cancel out. Irene is a Republican, straight down the line; Leon is a party Democrat, one X in the box and that’s it. But each would sneak off and vote just the same, so now they ignore politics.
Again the priest asked us to rise. By this time my mother had begun to whisper, bending in her dark mink stole over my grandmother. The old lady looked owlishly ahead, she couldn’t negotiate these ups and downs. “Do you think she’s Catholic?” my mother was saying. “Nobody told us she was Catholic!”
The bride and groom turned around to accept the offertory. The bride’s dark-browed face, broad in its headdress, suddenly, unexpectedly, shone upon us. It was burning, fiercely beautiful. “The Lord Bless you and keep you and make His face to shine upon you. . . .” For the first time all day I remembered what it was all about, felt privileged to be a witness. And everyone must have felt it. People came to their senses. There was almost a sigh of relief. The choir boy in his full black skirts crouched, quivering the brass bells. Millicent lifted her face to take Communion. Gregory did not take it.
“He isn’t Catholic?” The ladies on the other side of me were whispering among themselves. “What is he then if he isn’t Catholic! Jewish? You really think he’s a Jew?”
I had waited almost fifteen minutes for a bus and when it finally came it wasn’t an express. The expresses weren’t running. The express goes from Hyde Park directly onto the Outer Drive, and it takes ten or twelve minutes to get downtown. The local takes forty or fifty minutes. And it meanders through the South Side slums. At this point I could have walked a block to the Illinois Central commuter train, and taken a bus from downtown to continue north to my grandmother’s; but it was obviously a day when my inertia was great. I got on the bus and sat down by a window in back and opened a book on my lap.
I always take books with me on buses or trains; I never read them. Years ago when I was an undergraduate at the university, I used to travel three hours a day on these same buses, commuting between the South Side campus and my home on the West Side. “You can get all your studying done,” that’s what people would tell me. But I never got any studying done; I’d sit with the towering pile of books on my lap (I remember the thick green volumes of The People Shall Judge), looking out the window. Three hours a day, an hour and a half each way, looking at the same sights out the same windows. I was fifteen then and it’s possible that all this traveling was stupefying me. But it still seems to me that there is something immoral—because inattentive—about reading when your body is in transit. And maybe I felt even then that I should be paying attention instead. But paying attention to what?
The thing I’d forgotten was how the bus kept turning. Up 51st to Drexel; down Drexel to 47th; up 47th to Martin Luther King Drive; down King to 43rd. . . . Every few blocks it nosed onward, plunging deeper and deeper into the black ghetto. The coins clicked and rolled in the fare box.
The South Side has always been Chicago’s black belt; these slums were here years before I was born. But in the past when I traveled back and forth this way almost every day, I never noticed that I was white and the other passengers were black; I never paid any attention. Of course blacks themselves had not pressed the issue; and it must be said right off that the fact that I paid no attention to race and that it really did not matter to me one way or the other did not alter or affect the situation of blacks in any way. I remember becoming fully aware of this discrepancy reading Native Son, when the rich Communist girl and her boyfriend think that their lack of prejudice (a sentiment!) will make up to Bigger for everything! The trouble is that these one-to-one solutions—I-love-you, you-love-me; you-shoot-me, I-shoot-you—are just no use. They don’t work. Still, this ignorance or purity was long gone and I would have given a great deal to have it back again. Today I was very much aware of the color of everyone else’s skin, and I was sure that everyone else on the bus was equally aware of mine. But this was manifestly not so—no one was paying attention to me, any more than I was paying attention to the pages of the book open on my lap. As a matter of fact, almost everyone else seemed to be reading—the newspapers crackling, the murder black in the headlines.
The bus was getting crowded; passengers swayed in the aisle and grappled for the strap-hangers. A young girl groped her way, arm over arm, along the rails, an unlighted cigarette between her fingers. Hot-pants, vinyl stretch-boots, a turban. Her face broad, flat, artificially pale; expressionless. She leaned her shaved eyebrows over my seat: “Got a match?” I gave her matches.
This has got to stop. I’ve got to stop reacting to people according to color. This is what’s been happening to me; it’s happening to every white I know. You can’t help reacting in this way—just try it. Try it walking down the street some night. It’s a reflex. Everyone is becoming conditioned. And for some reason I realized this all of a sudden listening to the news this morning, realized that I’ve been allowing myself to become conditioned, letting this fear, this racism, run away with me. I’m not sure why a murder in the streets—even around the corner—should have had this bracing effect on me. But I used to know these things. Maybe that’s why I got on the bus today; you’ve got to come up for air some time.
The sign on the parking lot gate said “Left Turn Only,” so Rudy turned right. The rest of the cars had already gone off, leaving the church in a motorcade to the motel where the wedding reception would be held; it was too late to follow. Roxy was studying the little mimeographed map.
“It’s right arount the corner.”
As a matter of fact we were at Fort Sheridan, the army base; I used to think it was much farther when I was a little girl and Rudy was stationed here. Now the low-lying motels all around were not that easy to distinguish from the barracks, the tracks of wire fences.
“Hey. How come you guys sat on the wrong side of the church?” Rudy asked. “How come you didn’t come up front with the rest of the family? What’s the matter with you—don’t you like to see what’s going on?”
“All that standing and kneeling,” my mother said. “Nuts to that! I’m exhausted. I didn’t know it was going to be a Catholic ceremony.”
“I coult’ve tolt you right away if I lookt at the invitation,” Roxy said. “Only I never even lookt at the invitation.” She spoke with some authority: she’s Southern Baptist, I think.
I was wondering about this business of bride’s side, groom’s side. Maybe it represented real divisions. But how intransigent—how primitive—were these divisions? Roxy jerked a thumb toward the window. “You turn right at this corner. Right at the stop sign.”
Rudy went straight.
“Hey! Stupit! You shoult’ve turnt back there,” Roxy said, looking round and still jerking her thumb. “He’t get lost for sure if I ditn’t tell him.”
“I think he must be doing it on purpose,” I said.
“Congratulations,” my mother told me, the corner of her mouth grim against her cheek. In a moment we came to a dead end, and Rudy had to back the car out through the trees.
By the time we got to the motel the reception line had already broken formation; the bride and groom were off having their pictures taken, and guests were milling about the pleasant blue room with its huge fireplace and stately chandeliers. Blue gas flames flicked and curled about the artificial logs; champagne glasses were being filled as quickly as they were snatched from the trays. When I have the chance, I always drink champagne.
I wasn’t at the shower, so I hadn’t met any of Millicent’s family before. There seemed to be a preponderance of fair freckled aunts. Her father was a slight dark man with a stiff highball getting jostled in his grip; dour-faced. Well he might be, a plumber with four daughters to marry off, having to foot the bill for all these bashes. His wife impressed me: remarkably slender, elegant, blonde, in a bright long dress, full of delicate vitality. And the four strapping girls of course are all bouncingly beautiful. So it looks as though Gregg, like his father, has done awfully well for himself. This was the gist of the intelligence report I had already received from my mother.
“You know me, one drink and I’m out,” my mother said, tripping up in her long skirts and holding her champagne glass aloft to show it was empty. It’s true; usually she gets dazzling and giddy. But today she didn’t look at all light-headed to me; everywhere I looked I kept seeing her vivid head, and her dress—black & white—as grimly prominent in the crowd as the two priests’ habits.
“Someone asked me who I was and I forgot my name,” my Aunt Sylvia said. My mother’s younger sister: a helmet of smooth iron hair, long earrings. She was talking about her diet. She really did look much thinner, svelte and narrow in the bust and shoulders. But her face was thinner too, it looked pinched, sour (the intelligence report from my grandmother), and she was smoking—she never used to—holding the cigarette out awkwardly at arm’s length, away from her skirts, the gold tips of her shoes, very judiciously tapping the ashes.
“Guess what? Gary called up from school and told us to break out the champagne.” Gary is her son.
“He’s engaged?” my mother asked.
“No—he got a job.”
The job was at Zenith Radio, where Sylvia herself used to work during the war years when my Uncle Fred was in service. I remember very well—she lived with us at the time—her going off to work in her baggy-seated overalls, her hair bound in a turban with the black curls springing out at the top. She was on the assembly line. Gary will be financial adviser, fourteen thousand to start. A lot more than Fred makes as a printer.
My grandmother sat down at one of the empty, white-clothed tables, surveying the sea of preparations, the busboys filling the sparkling water glasses; she was waiting to be called by the photographer. She always says she hates to have her picture taken, but I noticed she had slipped off her glasses and dropped them into her purse. Without the old-fashioned harlequin frames (which make her appear somewhat owlish), she looks—bushy brows, coarse powerful white hair, wide cheeks—like a shaman. Her dress was of some green iridescent material, the shimmering jacket bunched under her heavy brooches. As a younger woman my grandmother never used to have this personal vanity, she never cared for such things. But now her copyright has expired, so to speak; she has entered the public domain. She clutched her purse on her lap, smoothing back her strong hair with stiff, misshapen fingers.
Millicent’s grandmother, a very large woman listing heavily on a cane, came up to be introduced: two old matriarchs. She’s in her eighties too, seems vigorous—in her corsets, with the silver rinse on her hair. Her complexion darkened with age-spots, tarnished almost: like the neighbor with her pillow cushions. She had been opposed all along to the marriage because Gregg—or at least his father—is Jewish. The last holdout in the family; the wedding had been delayed to appease her.
“You must come and take tea with me some time,” she said, grasping my grandmother’s hand. “Or coffee,” she added, shaking emphatically.
“When are you going to get married?” my Uncle Rudy asked, suddenly towering over me.
“I’ve already been, I don’t have to do it again.”
“So you wouldn’t get married a second time?”
“Would you?” I said, sipping from the rim of the thin-stemmed glass.
“I didn’t want to get married a first time,” he said, in his dull monotone and peering about in his hawkish way—a head above the crowd. That’s one thing about my Uncle Rudy: you can never tell when he’s putting it on, pretending to be thick, deaf, slow, stubborn; you can’t distinguish between these gross exaggerations and the crystalline, disarming truths.
Now he seemed shrugging but persistent: “How come nobody tells them?” We were both looking toward my little cousin Mindy, almost gravely pretty, with her long thin exposed legs and parted curtains of hair. Hers will be the next wedding. “Go ahead. Say something. Tell her”
“I know, but you can’t—it’s not fair,” I said.
My Uncle Fred—surrounded by Millicent’s mother and aunts—scarcely glanced my way as I came up, and went on talking. His low, sibilant whisper. The hostess’s blonde hair dipped forward attentively. It was Gary’s job again—evidently this subject was of the most intense interest! I didn’t understand the significance of this at first. The wedding itself was a sort of truce: it was the subject of Gary’s job that seemed to be really uniting everybody.
Sylvia works as a clerk to help send Gary and Mindy though school; my Aunt Irene has been a waitress for years. And these blonde aunts of Millicent’s, with their sparse fair brows, must have done as much. Now the job market had collapsed; a college degree was almost a liability. Millicent is still substitute teaching. Gregg was teaching driving, but has turned up something better—still temporary—with OEO. Mindy has been looking almost a year for a teaching position, and her fiancé will be graduating this summer with another useless certificate. But they’ve promised him he can stay on at the shoestore. Wherever you turned, the story was the same. And now that the situation is so bad, it isn’t the kids who are worrying either—they are going to school, marrying, and traveling in Europe all the same. It’s the parents—the plumbers, the printers—the same class who have borne the brunt of things all along, who are still worrying about the future.
I noticed the contact lens over Fred’s wandering eye. An old shrapnel wound, quiescent for twenty-five years, all of a sudden it’s started acting up. It gives his expression a piercing intensity. All my uncles are damaged with war wounds. There’s Rudy’s deafness: his loud, injured voice. Leon—strutting among the snowy white tables in his broad pleated shirtfront—is slightly lame in one arm; striking a match with his thumb, he lets it hang by his side. Leon is a notorious scofflaw—he will go out of his way to park illegally. This seems odd to me, such a profligate image.
What was secretly depressing everyone was this: after seven years of a sacrificially expensive university education, Gary will be earning about the same money as Rudy—a City of Chicago patrolman, who had to be trundled through high school in a wheelbarrow. Rudy makes a better living than any man in the family (Leon is a shop foreman; my father also worked in a factory until his retirement), but Rudy is the one who is supposed to be so stupid. It rankles. And—to make matters worse, and as if to rub it in—he has nothing to show for it. A dilapidated apartment, a car that isn’t paid for; the little boy is cross-eyed and needs an operation, there isn’t a penny in the bank. (It seems that everybody knows their business!) And he and his wife don’t get along either, there is rancor to go with the squalor. No one can understand such a life. They feel sorry for, irritated with, Rudy. Rudy and Roxanne seldom show up at these family occasions.
“So who’s taking care of the children?” Sylvia asked, looking up at Roxy. Roxy is almost a six-footer in her high-heeled slings, with her great wad of pale hair. Bare-armed, statuesque, but drained of vitality: she goes to the doctor twice a week to take liver shots. Of course my mother had already asked her that question; everybody kept asking her. “They’re olt enough to take care of themselves,” she said tartly.
I still have custody, but since my two sons are older they have gone to live with their father, and now I’m the one who gets to see them only on school vacations. They had just gone back a few days before. It’s not such a piecemeal arrangement, I’m not complaining. In some ways it’s too good, too rich—we are just skimming the cream. Only I truly believe that life, a real life, is lived day to day. There is this to be said for it, however: at least no one asks me who’s taking care of the children! Indeed, no one ever asks me much. Today I’m not even getting grilled about the usual topics, the crime and the “colored.” Maybe because I won’t talk about it. I was glad to see the dishes being wheeled in, in gleaming tiers on the service carts.
The best man—even swarthier than Gregg, with long black hair parted in the middle and pendulous moustache—was offering his arm to my grandmother. Still time for one last picture; she was much in demand.
“Oh how little she’s getting,” Sylvia remarked, biting her lip as she looked after the old lady—who was leaning deliberately on his dark sleeve, and shuffling along with outthrust head. She’s adamant; she won’t use a cane. “She used to be as tall as I am.”
The thing is, I don’t feel sorry for my grand-mother. I don’t think it’s such a shame that she’s so old. I love her with admiration, not out of pity. She is probably the only member of our family who doesn’t wrench it out of me that way.
My father was in Israel, visiting my sister and the other set of grandchildren. At table, over fresh fruit cup of sherbert, everyone started to complain about the postcards they had received from him. They were all identical. “That’s nothing,” my mother said. It seems the two letters she received were also exactly the same. “He just doesn’t know how to write a letter, poor man.”
This is true, if I may judge from the five or six letters I have received from him in my life. Stilted, formal, almost to the point of illiteracy—all the more so because he writes a scribe’s hand, slanting and fluid. Palmer method: I believe he won prizes for his handwriting in grammar school. It’s as if someone else had written them down for him, at his embarrassed dictation: “Be a Good Girl. Apply Yourself. Obey Your Mother. Don’t Disappoint. . . . Your Dad.”
My mother was working in a summer camp then; my sister and I used to spend our whole summer away from home, and I would miss my father bitterly. Crouching homesick in my lower bunk—with its coarse army surplus blanket and the damp smell of rough wood—reading these spartan lines over and over—his moralizing tone bewildered and bereaved me. What had I done wrong? What was I going to do? How did he know about it? But that seemed to be his prerogative; my father is a sort of natural moralist. Almost as big as my Uncle Rudy and far more powerful: he can fix anything, though his hands look thick and clumsy, capable only of brute strength. Once he lifted the back of a truck when a fellow worker was trapped under it. What I like about this story is its sequel, unimpeachably authentic and typical of my father’s fortunes, his outlook, his whole life!: the man he had saved would never talk to him again, shunned him sullenly, couldn’t look him in the eye!
Last summer my father fell off a ladder while fixing the roof of a house (he’s one of these obsolete men who maintains things). His size and strength added to the terror I felt in the hospital, observing his helplessness—a huge broken creature, gray-fleshed—the slick wet-mop grayness of internal bleeding—being lifted and turned by little nurses’ aides. How they accomplished this was a mystery, for they would draw the canvas curtains about his bed before they assayed such a task. When I heard the noises behind the drawn curtains—when I watched the blips on the heart monitor while he lay laboriously breathing—his heart was leaking—I felt something like the pangs I used to feel when I read his letters in summer camp. There was a persistency of tone. Reproach. I was wondering, if he left like this, how I would live with it?
His trip to the Holy Land was a Pilgrimage after this Reprieve (his words, naturally). Passing silver sauce boats, baskets of crusty rolls, spearing icy butter pats (I always have difficulty), I started thinking of what it would be like to get a letter from my father. What if I tore open the blue airmail envelope and confronted once again the same old phrases in the same sloping hand: “Be a Good Girl. Tend to Business. Try to Make the Best of It. Don’t Disappoint. . . . Your Dad.”
The meal was excellent, salad with bib lettuce, the dressing really first-rate; prime rib, good and rare, with sauce Béarnaise. Our hostess had a flair for these things. The waitresses hovered attentively, and the photographer stalked about, screwing the lens to his eye. He was one of Millicent’s uncles, a sparse fair type like the rest; he’d fling up one arm and stiffen suddenly, as if he were dangling from it, lifeless.
“Take off your glasses,” my mother cautioned, knocking my arm with her elbow as he flashed our picture.
She was dissatisfied with me, and that’s how it comes out. How well I know—and yet I found myself reacting to her in the same absurd way—noticing all through the meal that she seemed to talk only when her mouth was full and her cheek was bulging like a fist. Alarming! Her sallow cheek. She was having a bad day, a dry-eyed day; she seemed cynical to me, bitter, discolored. I still wish I had been kinder.
The groom rose—slouching in his tux, like his father, with his dark symmetrical moustache. “I guess there’s everyone in this room who means anything to me,” he began, lifting his glass. Everyone was touched; it was as if we had had to be reminded once again; applause, murmurs, rose gratefully from the white circles of the tables, the clatter of dishes being carted away.
My grandmother of course doesn’t eat meat out, it’s not kosher. And we had forgotten to order her fish. The waitress looked at her plate: “You finished?”—eying the damp red slice of meat. My grandmother turned stiffly sideways to peer at the sound—since she can’t move her neck.
“Take it away.” She hadn’t touched her food. She hadn’t complained, hadn’t carried on, though it was all in the script.
She turned back and looked at the wedding cake—they were rapidly distributing slices over the scraps and crumbs of the tables. “Wrap up a slice for me,” she ordered my mother, pointing her big distorted finger. “I want to bring home for the goy.” (She meant her neighbor.)
My former husband descended in a direct line from a Pilgrim who fell overboard during the voyage of the May-flower. “A lustie younge man,” Governor Bradford describes him, who held long and fast to the halyards, “sundrie fadomes under water,” until they hauled him in out of the lurching sea. Since then the family had considerably loosened its grip. Papa was a civil engineer, a professor at Purdue, and they lived in a fine Victorian relic. There were raccoons in the attic—the shell-like claws left perfect tracks in the powder the exterminator had sprinkled; and in the bathroom—an afterthought, a cul-de-sac squeezed under the stairs, all eaves and crannies—you got the most delicious sense of privacy, as though people might forget that it and you were there. A grim reminder, however, was the mark painted about two inches up from the curved bottom of the bathtub—indicating the permissible water level. The same thing they did in the bathtubs of Buckingham Palace during the war. So they say. The fact is, my in-laws were tight. Not the scraping, face-saving, working-class sort of thrift I was used to: they were flagrantly, shamelessly stingy—the virtue of the faded Wasp aristocracy. Papa cooked up a stew of beef and carrots at the beginning of the week, and added oatmeal and water at the end. And he would follow you about, animated, talking, systematically switching off all the electric lights behind you. A hazard, since the house was crammed to the rafters; Papa had to climb up on a step-ladder to fetch down his books; there was furniture on top of the furniture—my mother-in-law collected antiques. He kept his magazines and newspapers, his yellowed files, in her cradle-rockers and canopied cribs and Filipino hammocks and even the upright commode-stools. But they were “only camping,” she told me—in this house whose every niche and shingle they had penetrated, occupied, swelling and expanding like the rock-wool insulation they had had pumped in, blown through a giant snorkel. Even at that time they had lived in Indiana over thirty years. But what’s thirty years to a New England blue-blood? They were ready to move back “at the drop of a hat.”
Now there were only two sons left, and one a confirmed bachelor. This branch had lost most of their money about 1905—before any of my progenitors had so much as stepped off the boat. What the family needed was some fresh blood, “hybrid vigor.” Thus Papa, thrilled at the prospect of having a Jewish daughter-in-law, breeding with the race—for he believed that all Jews were cultured, cosmopolitan, intellectual, and rich. I had never run into this wacky Puritan Jew-worship before, for obvious reasons: I didn’t fit the description, and I didn’t know anybody who did. What the dear old man thought when he took a half-day off from his duties at the university (only time he would take; he had seven years’ leave accumulated and untouched at his retirement, which had been forestalled through a special act of the state legislature), what he thought when he took his half-day off in honor of the wedding and came up for the afternoon on the James Whitcomb Riley, what he thought when he finally met me and my family, I don’t rightly know. And it doesn’t matter either, because he was right about the “hybrids.”
“Now listen you two,” I said, as the automobiles were pulling up to the carpeted canopy, “I’d like to get home some time today, so please don’t go nagging Rudy any more, leave him alone. He’s the driver—let him do what he wants.”
“Okay okay,” said my mother.
“She promist, I ditn’t,” said Roxanne, reaching deep into her bag for her knitting.
It had turned out to be a nice day after all; the sun had finally come out in the late afternoon, the sky was dark opaque blue, full of luminous banks of clouds. Rudy drove with exaggerated slowness, like the Sunday driver he was pretending to be—taking Sheridan Road, the scenic route home, to please my mother. The road wound and dipped through wooded ravines, still rusty brown with oak leaves. These are the affluent North Shore suburbs.
A little red convertible, a Fiat Spider with the top down, cut in front of us. The driver had very short, shaggy windblown yellow hair and the roots were dark—like the center of a daisy.
“There!” Roxanne said, growing somewhat animated and pointing the bright tip of her knitting needle. “There! That’s the color my hair was suppost to be!”
The little car sped off in a burst of exhaust and lost us quickly on the winding road. Roxanne leaned back, curving her spine and clicking her needles.
“Well I’m just glad Pa wasn’t here to see that,” my mother said at last. “It would make him feel terrible.” She shrugged her mink stole round her shoulders. “It just doesn’t work out. It’s much better when two people have the same background. It makes for a better chance in a marriage.”
“Is that how come you get along so good with your husband?” Rudy said, rearing back his head so he could eye her in the mirror.
“I wasn’t speaking personally,” she said.
My mother always says what she is thinking; but what could she be thinking of? Rudy and Roxanne in the front seat, bigger than life, her own daughter sitting right beside her. And if you observe that my marriage was a failure, and that Rudy and Roxanne are no great success, it does not make her remark seem more tactful. But it was a little late in the day for tact—every man could swim for himself. What bothered me was where she was at, what sort of world she must be living in. The fact is, with the exception of my sister, no one in my mother’s family has married a Jew in the last thirty years—which means that by now half her own relatives are no longer Jewish. And yet she still sees her family as average, normal, the salt of the earth. Which, in her terms, means Jewish.
Of course I know where she was at. She was reliving the scene of her own greatest humiliation—the day of my wedding. Only now, each time this scene is repeated, she finds herself older, less resilient, stonier—more isolated. A ship in dry-dock. She adjusted her furs, offended, while we stopped for a train-crossing. Bells shrilling, lights flashing and winking back and forth. The heavy boxcars knocked and shuddered over the tracks, the hood of the car glimmered. We were staring straight into the disc of the setting sun.
It dawned on me: we were supposed to be heading south and east, and there are no train-crossings on Sheridan Road. We were elsewhere. “Oh for God’s sake Uncle Rudy!” I said, shouting over the noise. “What is this? Don’t you know I have to get back to the South Side yet!”
“You’re the one that sait it, I ditn’t,” Roxanne said, turning round and grinning full into the back seat.
After the last student murder a few months ago, there were certain stirrings in the Hyde Park community. First Aid courses, an emergency switchboard service. It had taken almost an hour to get the young man to the hospital, with his fourteen stab wounds, and he bled to death. The purpose of first aid, switch-boards, is to keep people from bleeding to death in the streets. And I suppose it makes all the rest of us bystanders, supernumeraries, feel more effective. But these are after all only ex-post-facto, one-to-one solutions. It all reminds me, weirdly, of the fallout-shelter craze of the early 60’s, when people were sinking concrete blocks into holes in their back yards, stocking up with canned goods, flashlight batteries, shovels, and rifles. The point is, these people were preparing for nuclear attack; they were accepting it as an eventuality—they were acquiescing. One questioned the quality of such survivors. This was called civil defense. And telephones and tourniquets are obviously civil-defense measures too; the similarity is not accidental. The latest thing is a campaign to distribute silver whistles: you’re supposed to keep them handy, wear them around your neck, blow them—after an assault.
None of this is going to stop the conditioning. Now that nights are warmer—windows open to the darkness, artillery noises from the street—you sense it all the more. The fear is quicker. Besides, everyone knows that violence increases with fair weather. Numbers only assert, but at least a dozen young women I know have been raped, beaten, and terrorized. The nature of the crime is significant; we are a passive population under siege. This anarchy, the flashing of guns and knives, may as well be martial law; there may as well be curfew in the deserted streets. You feel stranded after dark. The air is penetrating, particularly foul in Hyde Park, with the ghosts of the old stock yards to the west, and—very much alive, a red glow from my windows—the gritty spewings of the steel mills. It reminds me of the days after Martin Luther King’s assassination: the odor of smoke and cinders blowing over the city; the slums were burning. The conditions I describe are only a reflection of the terror of that life. “He wasn’t a member of a gang or anything,” a black mother is quoted in the papers after the slaughter of her son: “Someone at Ribs-n-Bibs just thought David was laughing at him.”
In the meantime all this is the most frequent, acceptable topic of ordinary everyday conversation. Our fear is becoming socialized. Moving is a constant theme: one friend who has been raped, burglarized, and had her car stolen (three separate occasions), is still considering leaving Hyde Park. There are plenty of reasons for leaving. The rents are as high here as anywhere in the city, and the food prices are even higher—typical of slum communities, a captive market, no competition. The same goes for other goods and services. There are only two movie-houses in all of Hyde Park, indeed for many miles around; restaurants and businesses close early (more and more, they close for good); there are no gathering places. There is no lively night life—how could there be? People are too afraid to go out at night. It is just an island surrounded by the defoliation of the slums.
And yet none of these is a real motivation for leaving. The fact is that most people have come to Hyde Park in the first place just because of the things it does not have. And I realized this morning that “security” is not the main thing either. Once you have lived in a place like Hyde Park you will never feel “secure” again anywhere anyway; you will know—or you ought to know—that “security” is an expensive illusion. We can’t all climb into the fall-out shelters. In my grand-mother’s neighborhood, Uptown, it is the notorious desolation, the poverty, that is the constant reminder of what the real facts are; in my neighborhood—so much more green and affluent from its rooftops—it is the tension between blacks and whites. And I believe that the real reason people want to leave is not so much that they think they will feel “safer” anywhere else, or so that they will be able to go out to a movie at night: it is because they don’t like their own automatic responses any more. That’s what they want to get away from. They want to halt the fatal conditioning process that is dehumanizing us.
“Aren’t you going to come in?” Rudy asked, sticking his head and shoulders in at the window. We had only stopped long enough to drop Roxy off so she could get back to the children; but he seemed disappointed. “Her,” he elaborated, prodding his jaw at me. “I want her to come in and see my wallpaper.”
With anyone else this might have meant that he had something he wanted to say to me in private; but not with Rudy. This will never happen, Rudy will never speak his heart. I followed his ponderous shoulders into the house. The landlord lives next door, and his side of the front porch is even more sagging, swaying, and peeling than theirs. But the rent is cheap, and they have a sort of mutual nonaggression pact: they won’t expect any upkeep, he won’t expect any raises. He’s an old Swede, gaunt, bald, deaf, toothless, and he just doesn’t want to be bothered. Something Rudy understands.
Rudy is an honest cop. When my high-school sweetheart joined the force—he couldn’t wait to get on the take—Rudy told me right away he would never last. “They don’t want that kind any more.” I am sorry to say I don’t know who was right, but the point is, Rudy is not a cynic. And anybody has enough brains to be cynical. He is immutable, incorruptible, that is the real truth of his nature. How could you buy him? How could you approach him? He has no greed, he has no vanity; a threat would only invoke his obstinacy—the most powerful, obdurate, inertial force of all. It would be like trying to bribe Starved Rock.
As soon as we got inside, Rudy pointed out—he’s so literal—the wallpaper in the living-room, a large crowded pattern on a gold ground. “Roxy put it up.” Stroking the wall.
“When was that?”
“It’s been two years,” Roxy said.
The children in the meantime had gone out to the car to say hello to Bubby—my grandmother. In a minute the little boy in his long pants and baseball jacket—tiny, with enormous horn-rimmed glasses—came running back, bursting with excitement. “Guess who’s in the car?” he said, grinning up at us through the thick dark frames wider than his face, the one eye tugging at its inner corner, irresistibly. “Bubby! Bubby!” He ran back out again, with heavy tread.
Rudy tugged at my sleeve. “Come see the wallpaper in the kitchen too.” It was an attractive patterned vinyl, and it covered the ceiling. “Roxy put it up with a broom,” Rudy told me, gazing up at the gloomily high ceilings, his small head ducked between his shoulders. Roxy is very handy around the house, and she knits, crochets, sews to perfection—the handicraft of her Kentucky hills. The place is full of her work; Rudy wandered about, fingering scraps, cloths, pillows, quilts: “Roxy did this too.” At last he shoved a great padded book at me—a photograph album—carefully exchanging it for the cup of water I was fetching for my grandmother.
“Sit down and look at this, I’ll bring her the water.”
He seemed very insistent. It was no use, I didn’t try to argue; I sank down in the wing-back chair and the two tall girls came and stood shyly behind it, looking over my shoulder as I turned the pages in my lap.
Their baby pictures, snapshots of vacations: the grim isolated South. Roxy decamps several times a year, goes home to her mother who runs a gas station. In several photos I noticed a beautiful, sturdy blonde child with fat pouting cheeks and built like the baby Hercules. I asked Roxy who she was. Rudy had found her abandoned in a hotel-room; he knew how she’d be shuttled about if he turned her over to the welfare people, so he brought her home so Roxy could take care of her. When the mother showed up in due time, he gave the child back.
“Oh you get uset to that living with Ruty.”
Now the girls had sidled up on the arms of the chair, turning pages for me, showing me their school pictures. The whole class lined up in the gym on wooden benches, with hands folded in their laps—just the way we used to do it. The same grins with the teeth missing. Only now the pictures come in color, and the girls giggled and squealed as I pointed out their faces.
“Here—you wanna see Phoebe’s report card?” Harriet said, waving the long manila envelope at me.
“Hey! No fair! Gimme that!” Phoebe said, snatching for it. I guess she’s no scholar. So they started fighting, pummeling. “Dirty trick! Dirty trick!” I was ready to leave, but Rudy insisted I tour the basement first. His tall figure hulking and stooping ahead of me down the narrow stairs.
As high as the ceilings are upstairs, they are that low in the basement. Rudy moved ahead of me in his slow wading way, his hands in his pockets, looking back over his shoulder, his head continually dodging the pipes. I had seen it all before: the laundry room with washer and dryer; the storage room with the kids’ new bikes; his own retreat—an overstuffed rocker and an old-fashioned floorlamp with a scorched, parchment shade. I don’t suppose he ever really uses it; the basement’s dry enough but dingy, raw cement. He kept gazing all around, his head with its graying bristles retracting—shrugging, dismissing—as if he had forgotten what he was looking for. I was struck with the aimlessness of his wide back.
There was even a workshop; but the high, rough-hewn bench, the rough shelves were empty, except for an ashtray filled with ground-out cigarettes. It looked threadbare. “I don’t know how to do nothing, so I don’t use it,” Rudy said, humbly, looking idly about with his hand on the light-string. He ducked his head under the door as we went out.
Against the wall was a bookcase lined with corrugated packages of light bulbs. If you pay your electric bill in person, you get them free. “You need light bulbs?” Rudy asked suddenly. “Here take some light bulbs,” he said, catching at my sleeve. “What do you need? 40’s? 60’s? 100’s? They’re all here, take what you want.”
He started turning over packages, examining them. “You need bigger ones? Here—here’s 150. Here’s 200.” I didn’t want to take any light bulbs home with me on the bus, but he seemed very anxious that I should take some. “Soft lights? Three-way? You like pink ones? We’ll get a bag upstairs.” He piled the weightless packages up on me. I held out my arms.
Roxanne wanted Rudy to take her to Osco’s—they had a sale on yarn. When I got back into the car I saw that we had a stowaway: the little boy, squeezed between my mother’s long skirts and my grandmother’s green coat—his feet sticking straight up in their dark thick-soled shoes. But before Roxy even stuck her head in, his head popped up: “Hi Mommy! Hi Mommy! Hi Mommy!” he piped, poking his chin over the front seat and grinning through his glasses with crazy cockeyed charm.
My grandmother peered round, large-faced in her babushka: “What have you got in the bag?”
“Light bulbs.” I was feeling very sad. I think maybe it was the light bulbs. They made me want to cry. Once again I was looking at the back of Rudy’s neck: thick, remote. For he is remote—my uncle is a blunt and mysterious man to me. His life flows in another direction, I shall never understand it. And yet I felt closer to him than to anyone I had seen all day. I felt that he had been trying to give me some message about his life; I sensed its powerlessness—but it moved me. Rudy and I are both outsiders, as far as the family is concerned. We are not in the main-stream. And we are made of the same raw material; even this unexpected surge of feeling for him was an obstinate, unpredictable force. I was wondering what role such forces must have played in my life. It always feels depleting to make these self-discoveries. Anyway, it makes a long day to go up north and see the family, and by this time I had realized that I was going to feel awfully tired when I finally got home—washed-out, weary, let-down, empty. Blue. Yes, very blue.