The Family Song
In June of 1956, the South Towne Movie Theater sat on Sixty-third and Emerald like an old terra-cotta southwestern fort--the Alamo or Fort Worth. On Saturday afternoons, kids flocked to the theater while adults flocked to Sears Roebuck, F. W. Woolworth's, Wiebolt's, and other stores on Halsted Street. The blare of traffic and the chatter of voices fused with the clickety-clack of the Englewood-Howard el. Whites and blacks mingled and went about their weekly shopping and business transactions as if they had co-inhabited Englewood for generations.
In 1956, seven-year-old Neecey's universe converged on Sixty-third and Halsted. After the Chicago winter curled itself into sleep, she and her daddy, Jesse, walked the five blocks from Sixtieth and Peoria to the bustling business district. They stopped at Fannie May's and purchased a box of fruit fudge for her mama, Ruby. They stopped at F. W. Woolworth's for a hot dog, french fries, and cola. The latest edition of Superman
comics was added to a pile of purchases: aspirin, a bag of steel wool, a bottle of Griffin White Shoe Polish, and finally the doughnuts.
The sweet greasy aroma slithered from the shop underneath the el tracks, looped around Jesse and Neecey, and tugged them into the long narrow room. The doughnut shop, always packed to capacity, pulsated with voices that competed with the rumbling el. Rows and rows of glazed, powdered, and coconut doughnuts, chocolate eclairs, and Bavarian creams sat in the glass cases that separated the blue-haired white women from the onslaught of customers. The women rushed up and down their tiny aisle from the large silver coffee urns, to the milk case, to the doughnut racks, and to the cash register. They grabbed money from the drooling men, women, and children while passing bags of greasy doughnuts to them. Once Jesse and Neecey purchased the doughnuts they left the shop and headed for home.
"Watch that hole, Daddy, the ground'll swallow you!" Neecey warned as she jumped across a grate in the sidewalk. Her cork brown knees and legs glistened with Vaseline petroleum jelly. Two of her three thick braids bounced against her shoulders. Her front braid brushed against her face and wiped the glaze from the corner of her mouth.
Jesse laughed as she leaped across grates and manholes. He was a short, muscular man with tiny feet. His caramel eyes sparkled beneath eyebrows as thick and black as electrical tape. His round nose sloped over a pencil thin mustache and small lips. His mouth turned down in a crooked smile. His brown skin reminded Neecey of golden brown corn bread. When Neecey held his hand, she felt his callused fingertips against her skin. But always, when he touched her face, his hands were gentle.
The stores disappeared behind them as they made their way home, jumping across manholes, skipping over cracks in the sidewalks, laughing, running, waving at bus drivers, and oohing over fancy cars--Buicks, Chevrolets, or Cadillacs that soared down the street like big birds. When they turned off busy Halsted Street into their quiet neighborhood, women working in their gardens exclaimed, "What a pretty little girl!"
Neecey giggled and clasped Jesse's hands. Yes, she was her daddy's pretty girl--a thin girl with a long oval face. Her hazel eyes questioned everything. Her nose commanded the center of her face, while her lips, thick and full, spread in a continuous smile. Jesse called her his li'l cutie pie. Because she was happy to be so cute
and her daddy's little girl, Neecey skipped ahead of him, singing Skip, skip, skip to my Lou
Her small squeaky voice rose and disturbed the quietness of that Saturday morning. Jesse, knowing the child could not carry a tune and would never be able to sing a decent note, lifted his bushy eyebrows and grimaced at the women. When they approached their gray stone building, Neecey spied her Uncle Pete leaning against the wide gray column and puffing on his pipe. She ran the last few yards, yelling "Uncle Pete! Uncle Pete!"
"How was yo' trip, honey bun?" He laughed. His narrow eyes sparkled under a thicket of eyebrows. Pete and Jesse's eyes and lips announced to the world that they were brothers, but the resemblance ended with the thick eyebrows, caramel eyes, and small lips. Pete had a pointy head like a football and a parrot nose that hooked over his tiny lips. Jesse's was compact and round. Pete was tall and angular. Jesse had small feet. Pete had large feet that always appeared to be moving in different directions.
"What kinda doughnuts you get today?" Pete asked.
"Glazed! Glazed, Uncle Pete!" She laughed and widened her big round eyes.
"Glazed." Pete laughed and scooped her up. He spun her around. Her legs flew out like kite tails.
"Aaah, ha, ha, ha, ha!" She laughed. "Put me down, Uncle Pete. Ha, ha, ha. Put me down."
"Don't make her throw up," Jesse warned as he walked up the steps.
"Glaze doughnuts coming in for a landing," Pete said as he lowered her to the porch. He stooped and pulled a big white handkerchief from his back pocket. "You better wipe that glaze from yo' mouth before yo' Auntie Della sees it and has a hissie-fit."
"Laud, Jesse," Pete imitated Della's voice. "You ain't got good sense, giving this child sweets before lunch."
Neecey laughed and grabbed his cheeks. She watched his mustache stretch into a thin black line across his face. "Auntie Della," she said. "Whada big mustache you got."
"Honeybun, yo' hands are sticky, too!" Pete said in his own voice.
Jesse laughed. "I thought we could sneak past Della today."
"She's sitting at the dining room table with her Bible opened," Pete warned as he rubbed his handkerchief across Neecey's hands. "You ain't getting past her today. And man, you gonna catch the Sox game with me or what?"
"Be ready before you can say Jackie Robinson." Jesse laughed. "Let me get the kids taken care of."
Neecey and Jesse stepped into a jungle of houseplants--philodendrons, rubber tree plants, and mother-in-law tongues. The jungle separated the dining room from the living room with its furniture sheathed in plastic. A door off the living room led into Pete and Della's bedroom. Pete's wife, Della, sat at the dining room table with her eyeglasses perched on the tip of her nose and an open Bible on the table. Behind her was a door leading into the bedroom that Jesse shared with his wife and three children. The center of the plants rustled. Neecey spied the bright red shirt of her four-year-old brother, Jack.
"Ssssshhh!" Jesse said.
"Aaargh," a tiny voice came from the plants.
"Daddy, Daddy." Neecey clutched Jesse's leg. "Itsa monster!"
"Aaaaarrrrgh," Jack said. He walked out of the plants with his arms held high above his head and his hands bent like claws. He resembled Jesse, from his thick, wavy hair to the small frame of his body.
"Get 'im, Daddy!" Neecey cried and hid behind Jesse.
"Take the bag, sweetie," he said and shoved the package at Neecey.
She wrapped her skinny arms around the large bag and placed her chin upon the box of doughnuts. Jesse dashed forward and scooped up Jack.
"I got the monster!" he shouted.
"I swear, Jesse," Della said as she looked up from the Bible. Her bat eyes peered over her glasses. "You're worse than a child."
"You're worse than an old snot, Della." He laughed.
Like Pete, Della was all bones and angles. While Pete was a soft playful brown, Della was a dark, hard brown. Her shirtwaist dresses lay against her chest like linen on a table. Her small breasts were puckers that didn't hold much promise of pleasure. Her arms and legs were as skinny as new saplings. Neecey noticed that, as usual, Della was rubbing her left toes around the ankle of her right foot. Her pencil-thin eyebrows narrowed into a V. Her small eyes seemed to disappear in their sockets.
"How many doughnuts you let this child eat?" she asked Jesse.
"About six," he lied and set Jack on the floor.
He took the packages from Neecey and started past Della, but twenty-two-month-old Odessa wandered out of the bedroom with a bottle dangling from her mouth. She saw Jesse, and her eyes widened. She popped the bottle from her mouth and ran to him.
Jesse swept her up with his free arm and imitated W. C. Fields. "My Li'l Chickadee." He walked past Della with Jack on his heels.
"Come here, Neecey," Della beckoned as Neecey passed her. She turned the Sunday school book over onto the Bible and drew Neecey to her. She lifted the thick braid that hung down the side of Neecey's face. Her fingers were rough and hard like Jesse's.
"Got glaze all in this child's hair!" Della called to Jesse.
Della rubbed the braid between her forefinger and thumb as she stared into the child's almond-shaped eyes. "Honey, you gotta learn to say no thank you or you gonna be Auntie's fat dumpling."
Neecey looked into Della's little eyes, "I only ate two, Auntie."
"Two is too much sugar for a li'l girl. I 'spect you won't eat a bite of lunch." Della pushed her glasses up on her face.
"Ain't hungry," Neecey said.
"Jesse!" Della shouted down the hall. "You hear this? She ain't hungry. You filled her with all that sugar and ruined her lunch."
"Della, she had a hot dog." Jesse returned from the kitchen.
"Hmph, and a Coca-Cola and french fries and probably a couple of Pay Days!" Della shouted and rose from the table.
"Only ate one Pay Day, Auntie." Neecey stepped back and looked up at the tall tree of a woman.
"That's too much sugar!" Della exclaimed. "You're gonna drink a glass of milk right now."
Milk was Della's cure-all. Della grabbed Neecey's hand and pulled her down the hall. As they passed the bedroom, Neecey saw her mother lying with her back to the door. Her arm rested upon her large beach ball belly.
Perspiration ran down Ruby's face. She felt the sweat attacking each of her red pin curls. Nevertheless, she refused to get up and open the window, refused to let them
know she was awake. Children everywhere
, she thought and rubbed her belly. She hummed a few bars of "God Bless the Child," then stopped. She closed her eyes and listened to the family scurrying around the kitchen table.
The kitchen was a wide room with a large pine table in the center. Although the dining room could have easily held all the members of the family, it was in this kitchen that everyone gathered for meals, news of the day, a game of Spades, or Candyland with the children. Neecey scrambled into the chair next to Jack. Jesse, with a dish towel slung across his shoulder, strained to open a jar of sandwich spread. A loaf of bread and a pack of bologna lay on the table next to a small tray with a sugar bowl, creamer, and condiments.
"Why don't you go on to the game?" Della said. "I can fix these kids some lunch."
"You're sure, Della?" He looked at her as he twisted off the top.
"Go on," she said. She leaned across the table and took the jar from him.
"Thanks," he said and shoved the sandwich fixings across the table.
A bedroom door swung open, and Louise stormed out. She was a tall dark woman with long dark hair that hung in waves around her shoulders. She threw her hands out as if directing a choir. The hanging flab of her upper arms flapped like flags in a breeze.
"Thanks?" she barked. "Thanks? You need to get that lazy wife of yours up!"
"Ma'Dear, don't start on Ruby," Jesse said as he removed the towel from his shoulder. "She gotta take it easy. Losing this baby would be hard on her."
"Hard?" Louise sneered as she stormed across the room to the sink. "She don't want none of . . ."
"Louise!" Della interjected. She looked pointedly at the children. "Why you wanna talk about folks in front of kids, I'll never know."
"Soon she won't be able to," Jesse said and flung the towel over Louise's head to the sink.
"Don't think I'm gonna sweat tears because y'all move out," Louise said and pulled a coffee cup from the cabinet over the sink. She turned to the stove and poured lukewarm coffee into her cup.
"Go on, Jesse," Della said as she slapped the sandwich spread on a slice of bread. "I'll take care of the kids 'til you get back."
"Thanks again, Della," Jesse said. "And you, Ma'Dear, don't start no bull in front of my children."
"You coulda done so much . . ."
"I said no bull, Ma'Dear," he warned. "Promise me."
"Yeah, yeah," Louise said and took three gulps of coffee.
"Be good," Jesse said to the children.
"Okay, Daddy," Neecey said and set her long face on her hands.
Louise grimaced as he kissed the top of Neecey's head. She downed the rest of her coffee as he ruffled Jack's head and then kissed Odessa. He looked in her face as he moved around the table. He stood in front of her and smiled his crooked smile.
"Be a good girl, Louise," he said and chucked her double chin.
She lifted her head and tried to fake a frown. He dropped a kiss on her forehead.
"Go on," she said. "Go on before you miss the first ball."
"Thanks again, Della," he said and left the room.
Della set saucers with sandwiches before Jack and Odessa while keeping an eye on Louise. Louise pulled a face cloth from the pocket of her housedress, turned to the sink, and wet her towel under the running water.
"Why can't you just go to the bathroom and wash yo' face like everybody else?" Della asked as she twisted the top on the jar of sandwich spread.
"Why I gotta be a second-class citizen in my own home?" Louise asked. "I should be able to do any damn thing I want to."
Della's small bat eyes widened. "Louise!"
"Oh, Della," Louise said and wiped the towel across her face and in the corner of her eyes. "You don't shock that easily . . ."
"Naw, but you got grandchildren at the table," Della said. "And I don't want you talking like that around them."
Louise looked at her and nodded. Della's eyes had narrowed to slits. Louise did not want to upset this daughter-in-law who itched to give her a God-don't-like-ugly
sermon. If it had been anyone else but Della, Louise would have told them to get the hell out of her face. But Della was not Ruby, who slept all day and made Jesse wait on her hand and foot. Della was Louise's Ruth and, like that biblical Ruth, she was a good wife to Pete and a good daughter in-law to Louise. She had no secret past, no outside children.
Excerpted from Neecey's Lullaby by Cris Burks. Copyright © 2006 by Cris Burks. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.