In which I become thirteen, I imagine Egypt,
I learn about America and the real world.
I sat between Robin and Aunt Bevy in an old Kansas City movie palace, our faces turned up to the big screen, watching the magnificently eye-shadowed Queen of the Nile. Only a few hours earlier I’d been sitting beside Mama, watching this same actress, Elizabeth Taylor, pretending to be (National) Velvet Brown, back when she was probably my age and not allowed to wear all that makeup.
I covered my third yawn with my hand. “Don’t you like the movie?” Aunt Bevy whispered into my ear, “You’re not bored are you?”
“No! I love it! I didn’t sleep much last night, that’s all.”
Her lips twitched. She pointed at the person on her
other side. Jimmy, who’d won a hard campaign to come with us, was sound asleep.
Cleopatra was the best grownup movie I ever saw and we got to see it on the best day I’d ever lived, so far. Jimmy and I hardly ever got to go to the movies much less have grilled cheese sandwiches in a city restaurant with tablecloths and waiters. Robin and I saw a man wink at my aunt, so glamorous in her orange dress and shocking pink shoes to match her purse. My purse didn’t match anything, but it was stuffed with presents: my own personal yo-yo and a tube of pale lipstick plus a compact with powder puff. Around my neck was Jimmy’s macaroni necklace. At home, up in my room was Clark’s yellow clay stegosaurus, three especially-scribbled, torn-out coloring book pages from the twins and Georgie, and from the folks: a blue plastic transistor radio complete with dangly earplug.
Back in the hot, glittery outdoors, I still had tears in my eyes from how Cleopatra’s story ended.
Robin flung both her arms out wide. “Absolutely excellent!”
“I’ll say!” said Jimmy, blinking and squinting his eyes.
Aunt Bevy winked at me from behind her bejeweled sunglasses.
“But it was too sad at the end,” Robin went on. “Didn’t you think so, Miss Gillespie?”
Aunt Bevy nodded her beehive hairdo. “That was the best part,” she said, blowing her nose and flicking a tear from her eye with a pink-polished fingertip.
“At least poor Cleopatra died glamorously,” I said, “in her very own palace, with a serpent.” My private plan was to draw the beautiful dying queen as soon as I got home to my paper and pencils.
“How about if she just told both of those Roman guys to go soak their heads in a bucket,” said Robin. “Then she could rule Egypt all by herself.”
“There’s a thought!” Aunt Bevy exclaimed. “That’s what I’d’ve done.” She began tapping her fingers on her steering wheel keeping time with “Sugar Shack” on the radio.
Did the people in ancient Egypt and Rome know they were ancient or did they think they were modern?
Will people in the far-off future think that 1963 is ancient, I wondered? I fingered my French-braided hair, all sleek and knobby, thanks to Mom.
Aunt Bevy drove us through shadowy canyons of buildings. She pointed out her department store where she worked. “Shame we don’t have time for you kids to meet everybody.”
We wrinkled our noses at the smells of busses, cars’ tailpipes, and street pavement gone spongy in the heat. As we waited at a red light, a group of black people crossed the street in front of us. My eyes caught on the men’s thin shirts and narrow-brimmed straw hats, the women’s hats and sleeveless, summer dresses. Aunt Bevy rested her head on her hand. “I wonder how they’re all feeling about what’s going on these days in this country,” she said, more to herself than to us.
“My dad talks a lot about how people get treated,” said Robin, “just for trying to vote, or go to school or ride busses like everybody else. It’s not fair.”
“They talked about those things on the news,” Jimmy added, “and you know what Mama said?”
I nodded. “I bet she wished everyone would just be nice.”
“It’s a good idea,” Aunt Bevy said. She flicked her lipsticky cigarette butt out the window. “Whew!” she sighed, and wasn’t it hot?
At our house, Harry and Larry rocketed out the screen door like snakes out of a can. Darren Culpepper and Clark sat on the roof of the porch, dangling and kicking their feet. “Daddy’ gone to work,” Clark called out. “He said to tell you happy birthday, Buddy!”
“You and Darren get away from that edge, you idiots ,” I yelled, “before you fall off of there!”
“Look, Carmie, my tooth fell out!” Harry hollered, pointing at the hole in his grin as he climbed up on the curved front of Aunt Bevy’s car. “Georgie’s been a brat.”
“But not us,” said Larry. “Except Harry broke the light in the front room after Mom told him not to throw his ball in the house.”
Robin, Jimmy, and I climbed out of the car. Aunt Bevy hollered up at Clark, “Say there, how’s your mama?”
“She’s okay! She’s in the kitchen cooking tomatoes and putting ‘em in jars!”
“In this heat?” Aunt Bevy’s high heels went clicking up our walk. At the sight of totally naked Georgie running out of the house, Robin and I made faces at each other. Aunt Bevy picked him up as she flounced into the house, letting the screen door slap shut behind her.
“Thanks for the movie, Miss Gillespie!” Robin called out. “Happy Birthday, Carmen! See ya later!”
Her dad, who was over locking up their front door, turned and said, “Perfect timing! We were waiting for you. I can tell you had a good time.” Mrs. Culpepper was hurrying to her side of the big, black car, cradling a covered dish in her right arm and checking her watch on the left.
“Darren!” Mr. Culpepper called, “Get your ridiculous little self down OFF that roof and come get in the car. We’re due over to Uncle Loyd’s and Aunt Margie’s.” After plenty of So long’s, Happy Birthday’s, and slamming car doors, they were gone.
When I went inside, Aunt Bevy was scolding Mama
“DeeDee, you sit yourself down, right now, over here. You look like you’re about to melt. What are you thinking of? Canning tomatoes when the whole outdoors is an oven and you’re about to pop! Are you out of your mind?”
Aunt Bevy stood tiptoe in her high heels so she could adjust the clothespins on our bedsheet curtains. She picked her way through our regular, everyday clutter of toys and coloring books to aim the window fan at her sister. It blew Mama’s damp hair in floaty curls around her face. Aunt Bevy rescued the knocked-down straw-castle, all tangled around a red rubber ball and baby tricycle handlebars, and hung it on the freshly-busted Sputnik chandelier.
“These boys have been pretty wild all day,” said Mama. “I wanted to get the canning done up before the baby comes. Did you have a good time? Everybody behave themselves?”
“Yes, we did have a good time and everybody had nice manners, but have you behaved your-SELF? No! Here you are, canning tomatoes! In your condition! As if there weren’t plenty of tomatoes in tin cans up at the store!”
Amen! That’s just what I was thinking! The mild look on Mama’s flushed face showed perfectly well that she knew Aunt Bevy wasn’t really mad at her. She petted Harry’s and Larry’s heads as they pressed their ears against her light green dress and knocked their little knuckles on her hard belly. “Come out, baby,” they called in soft voices.
“Whew!” said Aunt Bevy. “That baby might want to stay inside of you, Dee, where it’s cooler. Might as well be in the jungles of Borneo as Missouri in July!” She leaned down and kissed Mama on the forehead.
“I’ll call you later, sweet thang. Got me a date tonight. You need any help ‘round here before I take off? Anything from the store?” She slapped her forehead with her hand. “Oh for crying out loud, it’s a good thing my head’s screwed on! Carmie, run out and get me that sack under the front seat.”
Aunt Bevy dug around in it and pulled out a jar of sweet pickles and a tin of sardines. “Here you go, Dee-Dee. I hope these aren’t too cooked, being in my car all day. I know how you like ’em when you got a baby goin’.”
“Bless your heart, Bevy.” Mama smiled up at her. “I’ll have ’em for dessert tonight.”
Clark and Larry crossed their eyes and pretended to puke.
Aunt Bevy bent down and put her cheek against Mama’s hair. “Are you sure I can’t do anything for you?”
“No, no,” Mama said. “You go on. Carmen can help me with supper and anything else. Call me tomorrow and tell me about your date.”
Up in my room I yanked off the dress I wore into the city. I pulled on cutoffs and one of Dad’s shirts, got my drawing pad and pencils, and hurried back downstairs to grab the C book from the encyclopedia. I had to look up Cleopatra.
Jimmy lifted his own book up and out of the way so I could plop down, fling my legs across onto his lap and prop my feet on the arm of the couch. My fingers absolutely itched to draw the queen of Egypt, her snaky crown, her beaded necklace, her white gown. Would I show her on her barge on the River Nile? Too hard to draw all those rowing guys. Smooching the Roman emperor? Too sappy. Mama slowly rose from her chair as I pictured Cleopatra’s eyes, like black fishes with jewels. I’d only have to draw one of’em if I drew a side view. And I was thinking that a sideways nose was easier to draw as Mama patted one of my bare feet. The floorboards creaked as she walked past me, putting her hand on my head. “Say there, Birthday Girl, why don’t you clear off the table for me, here in a little bit?”
She ruffled Jimmy’s hair with her fingers. Clark and Harry took turns clicking the channel dial making images flit and sputter across the television. Carefully, Mama walked off toward the kitchen, around Georgie’s and Larry’s block tower, the hem of her light green dress skimming the top of Georgie’s head.
Just as Jimmy turned his page, just as I was drawing a pyramid behind Cleopatra, we all jumped at the sounds of a gasp and breaking glass and the real world came crashing in on us.
The whole kitchen was red.
Mama’s back was bowed and she was holding tight to her stomach. Her other hand gripped the edge of the table. Between the freckles, the skin of her knuckles was white. Tomatoes and smashed glitters of glass were swimming in tomato-y water and a redder, darker wetness was everywhere, soaking into boxes, pooling around pots set to soak. Blood! Mama turned her streaming face to me. She grabbed my hand hard and gasped out, “The baby. Carmie, it’s the baby.”
“What do I do? What do I do!” I was almost screaming, then Mama sagged against me. It made my mind snap down to business, ice cube-cold. I shouted at the wild-eyed, blubbering boys, “Get out of here! Get away! There’s glass all over the place! You don’t have your shoes on! Out! Get OUT of here! Clark, don’t just stand there. Bring me towels! HURRY!“
Harry shouted at me, “Carmie! What’s the matter? What’s wrong with Mommy?”
“Mommy!” Bawling Georgie tried to claw his way through Larry’s legs to get into the kitchen. Jimmy’s wide-eyed face appeared in the doorway then vanished.
“She’s bleeding!” Larry shrieked.
“Shut UP!” I yelled. “Larry, take Georgie in the other room! Jimmy!” The front door slammed as Clark burst into the kitchen with a bundle of towels. “He ran outside. Did Mama cut herself?”
“Outside? Clark, can you get the telephone cord to stretch into here? I gotta call the doctor or Daddy to come home!”
“Maybe you better ought to call an ambulance!”
“Yeah, okay, bring me the phone book. Hurry, Clark! Then go – oh, I don’t know. Take the little ones upstairs and try to settle them down.” Dumb to think that anybody would be or could be calm.
I cradled Mama’s head in my lap. My shaking fingers scrambled for the right number to call when an urgent-sounding voice demanded, “Where is she?”
“In the kitchen,” said Jimmy. Hard-heeled feet came stomping through the house and Richie Scudder burst into our kitchen. Maybe if I suddenly saw Elvis Presley, I would’ve been more shocked, but I don’t see how.
Somehow, in the next crowded, horrible, five-minute-long eternity, Richie and Jimmy and I got Mama into the back seat of his old Cadillac. “We’re gettin’ you to the hospital,” said Richie, real gentle. “You’ll be okay, ma’am.”
“Okay,” she whispered. Mama’s eyes opened wide then squinched tight shut and she pressed her lips together as a hard hurt took her. Then she tried to smile at me. “Be a big girl and look after the little ones. I’m counting on you, Carmie.”
Jimmy hopped in and they roared away with Mama.
“Mom!” Clark shouted. “Goodbye, Mom!”
I ran into the street to catch Georgie. “Mommy!” he screamed. “Come back! Mommy! Don’t!” he cried, chasing after Richie’s car. I grabbed him and he struggled in my arms out in the middle of the street until the car disappeared around the corner. “Don’t go away!” he wailed. “Mommy!”
Clark turned to me, wiping his eyes with the backs of his hands. “I’ll go call Daddy at the factory, okay?”
My lips made the word “okay,” but no sound came out of them.
I felt the neighbors looking at us. Mr. Herman, his milkweed hair all white and wild, was standing on his porch steps. I swallowed hard and called to him and the Monroe ladies out in their zinnia beds. “We’re okay,” I lied. “Mom’s having the baby.”
Miss Effie cupped her gloved hands around her mouth. “Mercy!”
“You be sure and let us know what kind she has,” said Miss Lillian, “girl or boy!”
I waved and nodded my head at the ladies. Mr. Herman looked both ways then set off across the street to us as I said to the boys, real soft, “We don’t be crying in front of all the neighbors, okay?” As if crying weren’t the most sensible thing anyone could do in such a moment. I lied to them too: “Everything will be all right.”
Georgie buried his face in my neck and Larry sniffled. With the back of his hand he dashed away his tears, like he was too big to be crying in front of Mr. Herman. Harry, with his thumb in his mouth, wasn’t quite so proud.
“Now there,” said Mr. Herman, crinkling his eyes at me. “I wasn’t spying and I don’t like to barge in on you just when you’ve got your hands full.” He shifted his cane to his other knobby hand so he could pat Larry’s shoulder.
“I just happened to see the way your little brother. Now, James didn’t come to me. He knew I didn’t have no car no more! Then that wild Scudder boy went tearing off with your mom and the way them little fellers were carrying on. I could see that you were having a bad time. You say the baby’s comin’?”
“I think so.” I gulped. “Thank you for...you’re really, really nice to come check on us, but...”
I thought Mr. Herman was searching his pockets for peppermints, but instead he dug out a bent calling card and held it out to me. “This here’s got my phone number. Now, you call if you need any – I mean any little thing. You fellas help your big sister, okay?”
“Okay, Mr. Herman, we will,” said Clark, in a way that made me think I wasn’t the only one who was thinking just go away and quit being so blasted nice before I start bawling in front of you. We’re in terrible trouble and I can’t even stand to think how much help we need. I
herded the boys into the house and leaned my back against the closed front door.
“I told a guy at Dad’s work to tell him about mom,” said Clark. “Do you think he’s at the hospital now?”
“Probably. He’ll call us any minute now, I bet, to tell us about mom and the new baby.” I put an arm around Clark’s bony shoulders. “You wanna help me …uhm… let’s clean up the kitchen a little bit, okay?”
Clark and I attacked the splintery mess. I stuck Band-Aids over the places we’d cut ourselves. Beside the sink was Mama’s gift from Aunt Bevy. Dumb how that stupid tin of sardines made me feel even more terrible. I stuck it in a cupboard and went down to the cellar. I plunged the stained towels into the washtub, pulled my shirt over my head and pushed it in too. Blood moved like red smoke, like mermaids’ hair in the water. I shivered and rubbed at the goosebumps on my arms. Why hadn’t Jimmy or Dad or anybody called from the hospital?
The soft thumps and voices of the television and the boys sifted down through the ceiling beams. From Mama’s rainy day clothesline, laundry hung like a row of ghosts in the gloom. I yanked off a shirt and put it on, then, like Mama probably used to do, I stood listening to the sounds of everyone’s voices and footsteps up above the dangly wires and spiderwebby house beams. It was comfortable, in a strange sort of way, to hear everybody from this little distance. Down here, away from them all, you could appreciate the idea of our family. It felt like a glimpse of the mom I hadn’t known, like I understood her better, somehow.
What was happening to her? What were they doing to her?
I headed back up the cellar steps, away from the rush of feelings that came with my memory of Mama’s face and what she’d said to me.
All of the boys were scattered about the front room, each with cereal bowls full of ice cream. “Ice cream always makes things better,” Clark said meekly.
I smoothed his hair. “Good idea, kid.”
“Mom got it to go with your birthday cake,” said Harry. An almost empty ice cream box was leaking all over the table. I popped a spoonful of it in my mouth and put the box in the freezer and the phone rang.
Clark won the scramble of ‘I’ll get it’s’. “Daddy? Okay, okay, here she is.” He scowled. “He just wants to talk to you.”
I grabbed the phone away from him. “Is Mom okay?”
“Carmen?” Dad said, “Is that you?” I could hear people talking in a busy background. “Well, we got us a baby.”
“How’s Mama?” My question collided with Dad’s news. I blew out a big breath and told the boys, “Mama had a girl!”
“Yuck!” Larry shouted, wrinkling his nose in mock disgust at Harry who clapped his hands. Clark stood staring at me, worry frozen on his face while Harry, Larry, and Georgie kept pulling on me and pestering me. “When’s Mommy coming home? Lemme talk to her! Lemme talk!”
“Be quiet, you guys!” I stuck a finger in my ear so I could hear Dad say, “Carmie? Are you all okay?”
“Yeah, we’re fine, but you didn’t tell me how’s Mama? Are Richie and Jimmy there?”
“They’re right here. That Scudder boy’s gonna bring Jimmy home in a little bit, but, listen honey, I gotta go. Your mama’s not …he’s not doin’ so good. Now, the baby’s fine; she’s just perfect, but...“ I heard Daddy clear his throat.
“Now Carmie, I got hold of Beverly and she said she’d stay there with you all tonight. The baby hadn’t showed up yet so Bevy doesn’t know. You go on and tell her and...oh, I don’t know.” I gripped the phone tighter while Daddy paused. “It, uhm --it may be late before I can get home.”
My whole insides felt like a cave full of bats. My face must’ve been pretty scared-looking because even Georgie piped down. “Daddy? Don’t go!” I pleaded. “What’s the matter?”
“I gotta go, honey. They’re callin’ me. Say your prayers.”
He hung up and so I did, too.
If things were normal around our house, if I wasn’t needing to be here with the boys, I’d have run upstairs to my room and closed the door. Of course, if things were normal, I wouldn’t be standing by the phone trying not to cry in front of them because Mama would be here. But she wasn’t and things were rotten.
It wasn’t much later when Clark ran to the window. “Aunt Bevy’s here!”
The boys followed her in the door. Her makeup was smudged and her beehive hairdo had come loose since she’d taken us to the movies way back a million years ago.
“I just got in the door when your dad phoned,” she said, sounding out of breath. “I didn’t even call the fella I was supposed to go out with tonight I speeded all the way back over here and I think I ran a red light! Carmen, what on earth –? What happened? Has your mom had the baby?”
TelIing Aunt Bevy made me see everything all over again in my mind. “It was right after you left. In the kitchen – Mom was bleeding. She was hurting real bad.” I choked out the words and couldn’t stop a tear from rolling down my cheek. “It was because of the baby.”
Aunt Bevy pulled me to her in a hard squeeze.
“It’s a girl,” said Clark. “That’s what Dad said.”
I heard Aunt Bevy say, “Oh my!” and my own thick voice:
“He said to say our prayers.”
I pulled away from her, wiping my eyes, but Aunt Bevy kept tight hold of my hand. She pursed her lips and looked at all of us Cathcarts, then, for a little bit, down at her pointy-toed shoes. She stepped out of one high heel then out of the other, pushed a toy truck aside with her stockinged foot, and knelt down on her knees on our front room floor. With a twirl of her hand she motioned for us to kneel down beside her.
“Fold your hands,” I told the boys, “and close your eyes.” Aunt Bevy’s hoarse voice began, “Our Father, who art in Heaven...”
It was late. The ten o’clock news had started and Robin’s family had come back home from visiting their relatives. Lights were on over there. It seemed strange that Robin was right next door and didn’t know yet that anything was wrong. Aunt Bevy and I had gotten the little kids in bed. A car stopped out front.
Two doors slammed. I saw Jimmy and Richie get out and come up the walk, their heads bowed-down tired. They climbed the steps into the moth-flutter around the porchlight. It glowed on Jimmy’s glasses, then haloed Richie’s summer crewcut. His eyes darted around at all of us as he followed Jimmy into the room. My eyes kept going to their blood-stained tee shirts.
Without a quiver, without even a ‘hi,’ Jimmy looked at me hard and said, “I think Mama’s going to die.”
“What?” I looked over at Richie, then back to Jimmy who wouldn’t answer me, just headed up the stairs. “What?” I pulled at his shirt. “Did the doctors –? Did Dad tell you that?” I sputtered, grabbing his arm. “Did you hear the nurses say something?”
He only frowned and scrunched his head down and away from me, like I was hitting him. “I don’t know! I just think she is! Leave me alone!” He yanked his arm away and trudged up the stairs.
Aunt Bevy had been sitting on the couch with sleeping Clark using her lap for a pillow. Now she struggled out from under him to follow after Jimmy. Richie glanced at me from under his eyebrows as he stalked out of the house. I ran to catch the screen door before it slammed. “What happened?” I called after him.
He stopped in the middle of our cracked walk and rubbed the back of his neck before he turned around. “They all seemed kind of worried and runnin’ around, I guess,” he said. “Look, I ain’t no doctor, kid.”
Richie seemed different, kind of older, somehow, than before. Maybe it was because now I knew more about him. Plus he’d helped Mama. I followed him to his car. “Thank you for all…” I leaned down so I could look at him through the passenger window. “Thank you for all you did.”
He started up the car and turned on the headlights before he spoke, without ever once looking me in the eye. “Yeah, well, I was just glad the kid came and got me. Must not’ve been anyone else around with a car.”
“He must’ve thought you could help.” I rested my hand on the car door. I started to say ‘Imagine that,’ but it’d sound too dumb.
“Anyway,” he muttered, “maybe it made up, kind of, for that trouble with the dog and all...“ He gave a little snort. “Oh yeah, your kid brother said it was your birthday.” Real quick, he directed his eyes at mine then back to the lit-up dashboard. “Some day, huh?” His hand reached itself toward mine, like people do sometimes: pat your hand, comforting-like. Just in time, he snatched his hand away and said, “Look, I hope your mom’s okay.” Then he jammed his car into gear and I jumped back. Richie Scudder roared up the black street away from our house and he screeched around the corner, and the sound of his engine faded into the night.
I sat out on the front steps, leaning against the porch post. I looked up and down the quiet street at the porch lights and gleams of light shining through whirring window fans. Mr. Herman’s bungalow was dark. So was the house where the Monroe ladies lived. The treetops were blowing black in the cool night breeze, like God was breathing down, like guardian angels were fluttering their wings.
‘Sometimes things go wrong,’ Mama had said. Please, please, I prayed. A sharp smell of cigarette smoke interrupted my memory and my hoping. Aunt Bevy had turned off the porchlight and come outside.
“Did you call over to the hospital?”
“Just now.” She paused. “The nurse said that your father’s on the way home.”
“What else did she say?”
I couldn’t see her face. She was just a construction paper silhouette against the front room window. The spark at the end of her cigarette flowered orange as she inhaled more smoke. “What did she say?” I asked her again, louder this time, and I held my breath. My face felt cold.
Aunt Bevy wiped at her eye with the heel of her hand, like Georgie does when he needs a nap. She sniffed and I heard a soft sob come from her throat. Another sound made me turn to see Jimmy at his bedroom window. Headlights came around our corner. Our old Rambler shot up the driveway, then the engine fell into a deep, humming sort of silence. You wanted to hold onto such a quiet.