2016 Short Story Contest Winner
Updated: Nov 30, 2021
by Elaine C. Ray
Our youngest daughter, 10-year-old Desiree, comes into the bedroom, urinal in hand. "Good morning, Daddy" she smiles and lands a kiss on my forehead. She is wearing a black leotard and pale pink tights. It must be Saturday.
I offer her no pleasantries. The occasion does not call for it. She helps me sit up; waits patiently while my shaky hands undo my pajamas. Then, without fanfare, she scoops my privates into the urinal. She's oblivious to the fact that she has no business doing this. She's oblivious to the fact that the metal is cold against my manhood. Her eyes are on the urinal, thus my penis, but she is not really looking, her mind is someplace far, with the imaginary friends she consorts with. She's humming. Some lighthearted show tune.
I fix my eyes on the yard outside the bedroom window. Green leaves are beginning to poke out of the branches of the apple tree. Soon scoundrels will be jumping the fence to snag the fruit. Edith, my wife, will tell them to come to the front door; that she'll give them as many apples as they want. She doesn't want anyone to get hurt.
"If they break their necks, more pies for us," I'll say.
"You don't mean that," Edith will say.
Of course I'm not sure who would bake those pies if we had more apples. Edith is no cook. The only one of my daughters who has shown any interest in cooking is this one – Desiree. But interest is one thing; ability another.
I relieve my bladder.
"All done?" Desiree chirps. She pulls the urinal away, letting my privates flop unceremoniously.
"Where is your mother?" I ask, my voice raspy with sleep.
"Kitchen. She's making waffles for Rita Jean and I, before we go to ballet class," she says, fidgeting excitedly. I worry that she is going to spill the contents of the urinal on me.
"'Me,' not 'I,'" I say.
"Rita Jean and me," she says, dutifully, but with a slight roll of the eyes. My children are accustomed to me correcting their English.
"You should learn to make breakfast," I say.
"Mommy says she will teach me once we get a new stove," Desiree says as she takes her leave from the bedroom, the urinal sloshing. I hear the toilet flush and her stockinged feet bounding down the stairs. She is still humming.
I readjust myself into my pajamas.
I have asked Edith repeatedly not to send our daughters to do this.
"There's no dignity in peeing your pants," she says, reminding me that I am the one who fired the nurse who took care of this sort of thing.
Marsha, our eldest daughter, is 15. When Edith sends her to help me take care of my business, she knocks first. And only when I answer does she open the door. She asks if I need help walking to the bathroom. Then she waits patiently outside the closed bathroom door until I am finished or ask for assistance.
"Is there anything you need? The newspaper?" Marsha asks as she helps me back to the bed.
My 12-year-old, Diane, the middle child, tells her mother she wants no part of this bathroom business.
"You do it," she says. "He's your husband."
She is my favorite.
I can smell bacon burning. My stomach growls.
Edith, as I mentioned, is not a cook. She once got hired as a baker for a white family in Philadelphia, her hometown. It didn't take long, however, for her lack of skill to become apparent. I can just picture her standing in the center of a huge, fancy kitchen, flour dusting her face, arms and hair, producing bread that wouldn't rise, cakes that fell flat, and a pie overflowing with cherries that still had their pits.
To Edith, who tells this story often, it's meant to demonstrate to the children the lengths she had to go to pay her way through college. The man of the household fired her, but gave her money for her school fees when he found out why she had taken the job she was not qualified for.
"It sounds like something Lucy would do," Desiree says.
Lucy is Lucille Ball, my youngest daughter's favorite TV character and also the name of her best imaginary friend.
"Only my friend Luci spells hers with an 'i' at the end," Desiree informs anyone who will listen.
It is difficult not to be a superstitious man.
Lucille is the name of my first wife.
I grew up in Barbados. My mother spent every cent she had to send me to an Anglican school, where they flogged us for speaking any kind of slang or dialect.
Nevertheless, that formal education served me well. I scored high enough on my school examinations to earn a scholarship to secondary school. Still, the opportunities for someone poor and so purely black to attend university back then were slim to none. At 17, I got a job working as an apprentice to a printer and then took my skills to Bermuda, where I worked in the composing room for the Colonial Gazette.
I was happy to have a job, any job, but the workers there were not so grateful. They complained about everything: the noxious fumes, inadequate ventilation and the dangerous machinery. The newspaper's owners were unsympathetic. If we didn't like working for hours with no breaks, there were plenty of others who would. I didn't want to be labeled a scab, but I was no rabble-rouser. I set my sights on America. It would have been an embarrassment to go back home.
I landed in New York from Bermuda in my late 20s filled with the strong scent of the sea and an even stronger sense of myself. Speaking the King's English set me apart from the average American Negro, and being from Barbados gave me an in with the West Indians in the city. No, the streets weren't paved with gold, and I was still a black man in a white man's land. But I had made a vow to my mother that I would send for her as soon as I struck it rich, and I was determined to make good on that promise.
My plan was to land a job at one of those big Negro newspapers. But first I had to put in some time with the Burns, a family with ties to the printer I had worked for back home. Oliver and Olivia Burns owned an establishment that printed invitations, birth announcements and funeral programs. They had clients that fell into three categories: The well-heeled customers they received in the front parlor of their shop with the curtains open – most of them were white or Negroes who could pass for white, like the Burns themselves. In the second tier were those who were welcomed in the shop, but with the curtains drawn. They were mostly prominent, but darker-skinned Negroes. At the bottom rung of the Burns' pecking order were those who brought in most of the money. They were dark, working class and poor and were not welcomed in the shop at all. Those are the ones I was hired to call on.
That's how I met Lucille Braithwaite, an enterprising Trinidadian who had worked her way into a comfortable living in the 10 or so years that she'd been in New York. By night, she toiled in a government factory in Tarrytown. But by day and on weekends she made her money doing hair, managing a rooming house and hosting gatherings – from rent parties to wedding receptions – in the upstairs parlor of her Harlem brownstone. She was known to pack a shotgun – lest anyone bring trouble or think about coming between her and her money. She was unmarried and had no children, but kept a parrot named Scarlet whose first language was Pidgin English.
Scarlet was a master of impersonation, picking up accents, inflections and languages with impressive precision.
"Who did you say sent, you?" Lucille asked the day I knocked on her door. At first glance it was hard to tell who was talking: the woman or the bird that stared from atop her head. Both gave me the once over.
"Mr. and Mrs. Burns. You wanted to order some leaflets?" I tipped my hat – a straw cross between a pith helmet and a fedora. The bird snatched it.
"Don't be rude, Scarlet," Lucille said, obviously amused, as she opened the door wider and handed my hat back.
Had it not been for Scarlet's antics, Lucille, whose hair was wrapped in a brightly colored scarf, would have looked like she was wearing a piece of intricately constructed millinery festooned with bright red, blue and yellow feathers.
"Where are you from, Mr. Clark?" Lucille asked.
I did not realize how ridiculous I looked until I was reflected in Scarlet's narrow eyes – a dark, diminutive, bespectacled figure in navy shorts, a starched white shirt, navy blazer, knee socks and leather sandals.
Lucille was tall, slender, and the color of strong tea. She had a beaklike nose and full lips. When she listened, she stood with her torso thrust forward and her hands on her hips, her elbows taking on the shape of wings.
"Barbados," I said.
"That must be how you know the Burnses," Lucille warmed. "Come in." She led me into a spacious sitting room with two matching upholstered chairs, also bright with color, with a coffee table in between. A large wicker birdcage sat in one far corner. The place was neat as a pin.
"I don't allow men in the kitchen when I'm doing hair," Lucille explained, directing me to one of the chairs. "The women don't like men to see them with their hair standing on top of their heads. Let me get my client started, then I'll be right with you," she said, turning in the direction of the kitchen. "You want some ginger beer?" she asked. "It's homemade. The first glass is free."
"Him stick out like a sore thumb," I heard Lucille whisper to the woman whose hair she was preparing to wash, reverting back to her patois. "Way he talk, you think George the Fifth him father. Not bad, working for the Burns though," she continued. "Their work good. Good price. You should talk to him about your wedding invitations."
Lucille came back to the sitting room and handed me a napkin followed by a tall, glass of ginger beer, icy sweat running down the sides. Scarlet was still on her head.
"You gwan put dat pigeon in the cage before you touch me hair?" her client called from the kitchen.
"Scarlet’s no pigeon. She’s a parrot, a beautiful parrot," Lucille protested.
"Scarlet shit on you, you be blessed," the bird squawked, obviously miffed.
"Don’t be rude, Scarlet," Lucille said, as if speaking to a child.
"Mr. Clark, I will be right back," she said, putting Scarlet in her cage.
"Him stick out like a sore thumb, Awwk!" the bird mocked, fixing her gaze on me. I stared back as long as I could, then diverted my eyes.
When Lucille or Scarlet spoke in their Trinidadian vernacular, the memories of those stern Anglican schoolmarms flooded back and made me cringe. But there was good money to be made in that brownstone.
I saved up enough money to buy a box camera and started offering to take pictures of Lucille’s ladies after their hair was perfectly coifed. I'd develop the portraits and take them up to the shop, where Lucille would display and sell them, taking a cut of course. Like her, I had several jobs. I worked for the Burnses. I set hot type for the Harlem News. And while shooting photos during my visits to Lucille's, I developed my reporting skills, gathering gossip for the paper's columnists.
"You're a regular Jack-of-all trades," Lucille liked to say.
It was from Scarlet that I learned that Lucille had taken a liking to me.
"Gwan marry that Henry Clark one day. Awwwk!"
"Shut up, Scarlet," Lucille blushed, shushing the bird with a wave of her hand.
"Shut up, yourself, dammit," Scarlet squawked back.
Lucille and I married April 6, 1949.
"The plaintiff, Lucille Clark, and defendant, Henry Clark, are residents of the City of New York,” the initial divorce complaint stated. "During about October and November 1952 at 370 West 120th Street, the defendant committed adultery with a woman unknown to the plaintiff."
That was all a fabrication. I had not committed adultery, though looking back on it, that might have been a more honorable course. But I had no intention of challenging the veracity of the court document. Besides, by the time they served me the final divorce papers, I was in Pittsburgh and well on my way to my second marriage.
I first noticed Edith Greene on the 82 Lincoln bus in Pittsburgh, or more accurately, she spied me. In many ways my two wives looked like they could have been sisters. Both were endowed with long, beautiful legs and their skin color was almost the same, give or take a shade.
Of course, Lucille, who was a good ten years older than my second wife, would not have been caught dead in a pillbox hat or a pair of white gloves – Edith's signature accessories. Edith did not like animals of any kind and probably would have served for Scarlet for dinner.
"Are you Henry Clark, from the Courier?" Edith asked one day when she spied me on the bus. "You're quite a writer. You were pretty tough on Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes for their support of Stalin."
I nodded with modest appreciation, looking around to see if anyone was listening. I had been living under the illusion that no one in this town knew me, who I had been and what I was capable of.
"I've been following you for a long time," Edith said, admiringly.
I'm sure she was referring to "following" my columns, but once you've dealt with the authorities, that word takes on a different meaning.
I got off the bus and walked the rest of the way to work and tried my best to avoid Edith after that, but she was everywhere.
My column for the Courier was mostly about the social to-ings and fro-ings of Pittsburgh's Negro elites, a circle Edith was working her way into. If there was an afternoon salon, Edith was one of the hostesses. If there was a charity event, Edith's YWCA teens were the helpers. If there was a concert or theater performance, Edith was there in her white gloves. All she needed was a husband, primarily to allay the fears of her married counterparts that she was trying to steal theirs. That's where I came in.
I'm not sure if I was smitten or just impressed with the way Edith, a laborer's daughter with no apparent pedigree, managed to maneuver her way into Pittsburgh's fancy Negro social life. She worked hard at ingratiating herself to them. (I learned after we were married that her Pendleton suits were hand-me-downs from the white women her mother did day work for.) She had added an "e" to her last name, Greene, to make it "more distinguished."
When I asked her to marry me, I offered to restore the "e" I'd dropped from "Clarke" when I'd arrived at Ellis Island.
"Don't be silly," she said coyly, but I'm certain she considered it.
Edith is still beautiful. Even after three pregnancies, she has not lost her figure. Around friends and neighbors, she is full of cheer and practical advice. But at home, she is tired and overburdened. The way she harangues our daughters, you would think she is preparing to marry them off into royalty.
"The spoon is for stirring, not sipping! No elbows on the table!" she insists.
She tries to sound playful when she calls them "Dumb Dora" and "Calamity Jane," but I can't help wondering about the true meaning of her words. When she calls them clumsy, I think she is projecting on them the anger she feels toward me. When she barks, "No slouching!" "Stand up straight!" "Pick up your feet!" "Hold your head up!" I take it personally.
Edith drags the girls all over the city on the bus to ballet classes and French lessons and piano instruction. She insists that they listen to Mozart and Bach and dismisses the blues and Motown as "beer garden music." As far as she is concerned, Marian Anderson is the great almighty and that child prodigy Philippa Schuyler, the daughter of my former Harlem News colleague George, is the second coming. The piano in our living room is a shrine to them.
Edith insists that the girls eat whole grain bread and refuses them candy and Kool-Aid. Popcorn is their only pleasure.
"I draw the line at raw meat," I tell her. "I don't care what George Schuyler's crazy wife feeds that girl. "
"If eating raw meat and vegetables makes you that brilliant and beautiful, I'm willing to try it," Edith retorts. I worry that if something happens to me she will try it, but Edith's problem is overcooking rather than undercooking our food, so I don't lose too much sleep.
Edith sleeps with a baseball bat under the bed. She thinks I don't know. It's for protection. I am not up to the task of defending her. I am no longer a man.
"You are a man," she insists. "You have a family that loves you, including three beautiful daughters. And you have a great mind, which is what I fell in love with in the first place," she adds. She wants me to get up and go out, take walks around the neighborhood with her. "Don't be so proud,” she says. “I did not marry a quitter."
Edith is right that I have nothing to be ashamed of, at least in this instance. I should not be embarrassed by an affliction over which I have no control. Our neighbor, Johnny, stumbles home to his wife and children in a drunken stupor every single night. A neighbor across the street, the pharmacist with the maid whose only job seems to be dressing the windows, beats his wife. And then there is Frankie, the shell-shocked Korean War veteran who wanders the neighborhood muttering to himself. These people probably wouldn't even see me as being anything out of the ordinary.
When we bought this house a decade ago, it was because it was a nice neighborhood, but even the well-to-do, and those striving to be so, have skeletons, and not always the kind buried in the back of the closet. And Pittsburgh being a city where Negroes – those of means and those with no means, the educated and the illiterate – are forced to live in close proximity, the crooks are never too far away.
The neighborhood junkies tiptoed through the dining room window, crawled across our table and sauntered out the front door with our television last summer. I heard their whispers, the creaking floor, but could do nothing. If they had come upstairs to kill me, rape my wife and daughters, hold all of us hostage, they could have. There is no power in my body to stop them. They probably know that.
I did not wake Edith while that transaction was taking place. She seldom sleeps soundly, but that night, thankfully, she was snoring. She might have tried to intervene.
After the thieves invaded our home, I dreamed they had come upstairs to taunt us. There were three of them – jeering, squawking – their dark beady eyes were laughing at us.
I am not a superstitious man. But ever since my marriage to Edith, things seem always a bit off kilter – especially me. Our girls are a blessing. Their health is generally good. Still, every one of them was born with some minor affliction. The eldest, Marsha, was born with a lazy eye. The middle child, Diane, is stricken with frequent nosebleeds. The youngest, Desiree, breaks out in red rashes at the drop of a hat. Some days I long for a son, but I'm sure he'd be born with twelve fingers and a dozen toes. It is for me that Lucille has reserved the most severe punishment. Parkinson's Disease.
I can hear Desiree outside the door. She has come home from school for lunch. I have fallen trying to get to the door. She is crying. I can picture her crumpled face and wide-open sobbing mouth. She shakes the doorknob so hard, I fear it will fall off. I am on the floor, trying to right myself, but nothing that is reachable is solid enough to bear my weight. There is an end table nearby, but one of its legs is already wobbly. The piano is the sturdiest piece of furniture in the house, but it is just out of reach.
"I'll go see if Miss Jackson has a key," Desiree says, trying to sound reassuring, even through her tears.
"Hold on a minute," I call back in as strong a voice as I can muster. "I think I might be able to get up."
I drag myself a foot or two across the floor and grab a piano leg. I will my shaky hands to hold on and push myself up far enough to take a seat on the piano bench. Somehow, I am able to scoot the wheeled bench to the door, reach up to unlock it, then scoot back enough to allow the door to open and let Desiree in. Her face still covered in tears, she is trying to catch her breath.
"Are you going to tell Mommy that I forgot my key again?" she asks, wiping her snotty nose with the heel of her hand.
"Let's keep this our little secret," I say. "From now on, we'll leave a little crack in the dining room window, so if this ever happens again, you can open it and climb through."
By the time I have calmed her down; it is time for Desiree to go back to school. Still, she takes a few minutes to make me a cup of tea, which she places on the wobbly end table. She brings me the urinal, but I wave it away. She puts it next to me on the couch and kisses me goodbye.
Edith is at work. At a substitute-teaching job somewhere on the other side of the city. She comes home animated with stories about ill-behaved schoolchildren and insists that she has no tolerance for such behavior in her own house.
I hate the fact that Edith is working again. I was to be the provider, she the caretaker of the children and of me. She was still working at the YWCA when we got married and she got pregnant, not necessarily in that order. "You belong at home," I insisted. She was not happy, but she quit the job she loved so much. Perhaps this is her payback. I still believe it is Lucille's.
It is Easter Sunday. I would like to go to church, but not to what has by default become the family's place of worship. Edith, who was raised Baptist, has taken the path of least resistance, or perhaps the path toward upward mobility, to the Lutheran church around the corner. I dislike that church. The minister mangles the English language and his sermons are incoherent.
"Not one member of that choir can sing on key," I complain.
Edith has stopped asking me to go with her.
Holy Trinity is the only Episcopal church in the city with where Negroes are welcome, but it's on the other side of town. The last time I ventured there, I ended up in jail after tripping over my own feet and falling face down in the snow. The cops mistook me for a drunk. I would not suffer that humiliation again, not even for God.
After one too many of those falls, Edith insisted that I see a doctor to find out what was wrong with me. The doctor has prescribed a new experimental drug called Levodopa, but the side effects are sometimes worse than the disease. I have wild dreams if I sleep at all, and I get confused and disoriented. This disease has put a damper on my sexual prowess, but the pills heighten my desire – quite a frustrating combination. One doctor recommended things my wife and I – mostly my wife – could do to "satisfy my urges. " But even in the free-love 60s and after 16 years of marriage, Edith is not the kind of woman who talks easily about such things. That is why I had to get rid of the nurse. Not that she did anything improper. But even the slightest touch can arouse me.
I have frequent wet dreams. Sometimes they involve strangers; sometimes they feature Edith. But the most vivid ones feature Lucille. Those are the ones from which I awake sweating and flailing. The doctor says the trembling is most common when the body is still – they call them resting tremors. But this shaking is from fear, pure and simple.
I am awakened this morning by the smell of pink. Of flowered lotions, powders and perfumes. Our house is fresh with my wife and daughters, who are dressed for Easter. Edith, radiant in a deep green sheath and yellow high heels, gives me a shave then guides my stiff body down the steep stairs for a change of scenery. I worry that we both will tumble, but her body and her perfume give me comfort.
"What beautiful swans you are," I say, as the girls, waiting in the living room, catch my eye. Marsha is wearing a solid, deep pink dress. Her hair is styled like that model Twiggy. Diane's dress is white with pink flowers, and Desiree is wearing a slightly smaller opposite version – pink with white flowers. They hold their bonnets in their gloved hands.
"Do you like my Shirley Temple curls?" Desiree asks, twirling her head.
"How I wish I still had my camera," I say as Edith lowers me to the couch.
"It looks like rain. Get your rain scarves,” my wife says to the girls. "But hurry, we're already late."
"Happy Resurrection Day, Daddy," Desiree calls as she waves from the door.
I did not commit adultery in 1952 with a woman unknown to my first wife, Lucille, as our divorce papers say.
I like to think of myself as an honest man, a good husband, then and now.
I did not commit adultery. I did commit a vile infidelity. But if Lucille had told the judge the real reason our marriage dissolved, she would have implicated herself.
Some of the gatherings Lucille hosted before and after we were married were political in nature. We signed petitions for jobs for Harlem residents, better wages and working conditions in factories in New York and elsewhere, and petitioned our congressmen to support anti-lynching legislation in the South. We had friends who were card-carrying Communists and many more who were sympathizers. Who didn't in those days?
But after a few years of marriage to Lucille, I grew weary of it all. I wanted a wife who was devoted to me. I wanted a wife who needed me. I felt more like an appendage than a husband. I felt abandoned.
Lucille was at that factory job all night, and she stayed on many days to help organize the workers. On Saturdays, there was a steady stream of women getting their hair done. On Sundays, there were more political meetings. We were never alone.
"Lucille," I would say. "When are we going to have children?"
Scarlet would answer for her.
"No chil'ren comin' outa here, Henry Clark. Baw!"
Many times I thought about killing that bird. Instead, I made her my comrade.
When Lucille was not home, Scarlet and I talked. I had her recite names and addresses of the people who came to our house for meetings.
"Miss Gwendolyn Bennett of Jackson Avenue."
"Mr. Hughes, Manhattan Avenue."
When Scarlet greeted our guests by name, some visitors were amused. But when she started adding “Communist" after some of those names, some got nervous.
"You and your wife could lose everything," the FBI investigators told me when they came to my job with questions about our activities. "We know how much you value your American citizenship, Mr. Clark. If you help us, you and your wife can avoid the humiliation of having it revoked."
"I'm not afraid of those red baiters,' Lucille would say. "Tell them if they have questions, talk to me."
The authorities knew Lucille would go to jail herself before she'd give up any names.
They knew who the weak one was.
"Talk to that bird, I told them. "Scarlet knows everything."
Edith and the girls leave the TV on for me. Lucy is mocking Ricky Ricardo's Cuban accent. The rainfall outside lulls me to sleep. I dream once again that I am with Lucille. I am begging her for something. I am not sure what. Forgiveness? Marriage? Children? It is not clear. She is laughing. Her naked body is tempting me. Her hair is on fire. Her laughter is at first distant, then it becomes louder, like thunder.
The dining room window rattles, and I realize that this is not a dream. It is not Lucille's hair that is ablaze, but our apple tree, which has been split in two by a zigzagging blaze of lightning. The tree is swaying first toward the house then away, as if in a seductive dance. My first impulse is to will myself off the couch and out of the front door, but I am calm. For once, my hands, my limbs are not trembling.
© 2016 Elaine Ray