BY GARY BECK
This story was previously published in Better Fiction Magazine. This is part one of a two -part story; the concluding part will be posted tomorrow. Copyright is held by the author.
CORINNE JONES’ legs ached as she trudged through the cold evening rain to the bus stop on Third Avenue. The poorly designed bus shelter only partially shielded her from the slanting downpour. She waited like a weary farm animal whose labour was done, yet the barn was still far away, for the bus that would take her uptown and across 125th street to Harlem. She held the bag of leftovers under her porous old blue cloth coat to keep them dry for her granddaughter, Sharina. The thought of that beautiful child helped her endure the life-eroding fatigue that was washing over her as relentlessly as the rain.
After a 20 minute wait that seemed forever the bus finally arrived. Corinne hauled herself up the steps, swiped her fare card through the slot and looked for a seat. She started up the aisle and saw Betty Ann, an older black woman who worked as a maid for the Swintons, a wealthy white family who were friends of her employers. Shortly after she went to work for the Pardees she met Betty Ann when they shared duties at an open house party. Betty Ann hated her employers in particular and whites in general. She tried to infect Corinne with her prejudice and started to tell her how to steal from her employers. Corinne stopped her abruptly and refused to have anything to do with her after that. Over the years Betty Ann had forgotten what caused her enmity, but she loathed Corinne and insulted her whenever they met. They often took the same bus home at night and Betty Ann would greet her each time: “You old bitch. Fuck you.” And Corinne would respond: “You mean old hag.” The ritual concluded, they would ignore each other the rest of the way.
Corinne said a silent prayer of thanks that she got a seat, because she didn’t know if she had the strength to stand all the way to her stop at St. Nicholas Avenue. She took the bag of leftovers from under her coat, made sure it wasn’t wet, then stared out the window into the glistening city night without seeing anything. She remembered when she first started working for the Pardees as a maid and Mrs. Pardee would inspect the leftovers bag to insure that Corinne wasn’t taking unauthorized cuts of meat. The degrading search after the humiliation of being given leftover charity still pained her. She shook her head to clear it of the unwelcome thoughts and focused on Sharina.
Corinne had been taking care of her granddaughter since she was seven, when her son was killed in a drive-by shooting. The unfairness of her son’s death was still an ache in her heart. Leshaun had been a good boy, then a good man, raising his daughter after his wife died of cancer. He was on his way home from work, just passing the corner where the drug dealers distributed the poison that was destroying so many of her people, when a car pulled up and gangbangers began firing. According to the policeman who told Sharina about her father’s death when she was the only one he found at home, he died instantly. The police assumed that Leshaun was there for a drug buy and remained skeptical of Corinne’s claim of his innocence, no matter how much she insisted that her son didn’t use drugs. The awful memories were beginning to overwhelm her and she said a silent prayer that sent them away.
She sat there stolidly for a few minutes, as the bus rolled past the luxurious shops and restaurants that mocked the economically challenged who couldn’t afford the prices of the new economy, or the old for that matter. She had willed herself long ago not to want things that she could never have and that way she was never tempted to steal. She didn’t know if this made her a good person, but it made her an honest one. She had also learned to accept the unacceptable for the sake of her beloved granddaughter. The bus passed 96th street and the shabbier stores and buildings sagged drearily in the corrosive rain. Corinne brooded about the last minute instructions she received from her employer just as she was leaving. Mrs. Pardee told her in that false friendly tone of equality that she always used with Corinne: “The family will be going to Westhampton tomorrow morning, so you’ll have to be here early. We’ll come back Sunday evening, and we’ll drop you at 125th street where you catch your bus.”
Corinne had assumed since it had been cold in early October that they wouldn’t be going to the house in Westhampton again until spring. The Yankee weatherman betrayed her with a treacherous forecast of temperature in the 70s. She hated going to Westhampton. She had to sit in the front seat with the chauffeur, Reggie, who listened to ‘gangsta rap’ on his headset and never talked to her. Her only day off was Sunday, so now that was lost. To make it worse she couldn’t bring Sharina, because she had a karate tournament on Saturday. The endless demands of the weekend sent a shudder of dread through her. The Pardees didn’t bring the cook on weekends, so Corinne had to help in the kitchen and clean up afterwards. Between the Pardees and their guests they soiled more dishes, cups, glasses and silverware than an army battalion just off field rations. And Reggie, who did the lawns and pool, would never dream of helping. Her only consolation was that Sharina would start college next September with a full scholarship. Once she was away at school, maybe Corinne could think about another job.
The bus started up the long hill to Harlem. Sometimes she wished that the hill was much higher, so they could look down on the rich folks below. Maybe then if there were race riots the hooligans could roll things down on the rich and not just destroy the poverty community. She shook her head and sent the bad thoughts away and pictured her granddaughter. Sharina was the light of her life, a wonderful girl who bubbled with joy, who was bright, talented and an honour student bound for Harvard and a better future. The bus turned on 125th Street, stopped and some noisy black youths wearing red bandanas on their heads swaggered on, shaking raindrops on the other passengers, daring them to object. Corinne looked straight ahead when they tried to meet people’s eyes and they went to the back of the bus, boom box blasting curses and anger.
Corinne knew about gang colours. Her daughter Tabitha had run with a gang. Corinne had tried to stop her, but couldn’t overcome the violent gang allure that eclipsed her dull, demanding days of school. In a desperate effort to stave off the inevitable, Corinne sent her to stay with relatives in North Carolina. Run-ins with the law and confrontations with the neighbours brought her back to Harlem, where she was beyond control. Her boyfriend turned her onto drugs and when her habit became too expensive he put her on the street as a prostitute, to pay for the white powder of obliteration. Sometime between tricking and shooting up, AIDS arrived and Tabitha slowly rotted away, decayed within and without, giving the gift of death to anyone who entered her wasted body. Then one day she didn’t come home and was never heard from again. Corinne never found out what happened to her. She said a silent prayer for her lost daughter, pushed the stop signal and went to the rear exit so she wouldn’t have to see Betty Ann.
Just before she got off the bus, Corinne risked a glance at the gang boys sprawled in the back, echoing the rap lyrics, yelling and cursing. Their red cotton bandanas reminded her of the field hands picking cotton who her mama had told her about. They were called handkerchief heads because of the cloth they wore to protect them from the sun. She couldn’t help thinking that these violent boys were just as much slaves as the darkies of the past they so despised, except their master wore a different suit of greed. One of the boys noticed her staring at them. “Watcha lookin at, ole black lady?” She turned away and scuttled off the bus, afraid that they might come after her and hurt her. As the bus drove away, the boy raised his middle finger at her, but she ignored it and quickly walked home.
The climb up five flights of stairs was more tiring than usual, but as she got to her door the image of her granddaughter raised her flagging spirits. Sharina was there, safe, sitting at the kitchen table doing her homework. Corinne’s usual fear for the girl’s well-being evaporated temporarily. “Hi, gramma. You look tired.”
The kiss and loving hug rekindled her energy. “I’m all right. Mrs. Pardee told me we’re goin’ to Westhampton in the mornin an’ it just wore me down a bit.”
“Why can’t that woman hire someone out there for the weekend? She couldn’t care less about your welfare.”
“There are worse employers than Mrs. Pardee. At least she pays me for the extra day now.”
“It’s not fair, gramma. You don’t get any benefits and if you get sick they won’t help. They’re so selfish. Why are they always intruding in our lives?”
“It don’t do no good to fret about them. I brought your dinner. Why don’t you eat and forget them?”
“I hate eating their leftovers.” ”
I know. But it’s good food. Next year you’ll be away at college and this’ll be over.”
“You’ll still be working for them.”
“We’ll see. Once you’re taken care of I can do somethin else.”
“Oh gramma, you’ve done so much for me.”
“You’re a treasure, chile. Now eat while I go lie down.”
The warm glow of Sharina’s appreciation revived her and instead of going to bed she turned on the television set. It was the one month anniversary of the World Trade Center disaster. She said a silent prayer for all the people killed that terrible day. The news was mostly about the bombing attacks on Afghanistan. After a humorous commercial that didn’t amuse her, the big story was the third case of anthrax in Florida. It had become a criminal investigation, since they discovered that the source was man made. All the talk of biological attack by terrorists was scaring her and she hoped that the government would capture or kill the terrorists before they killed more Americans. She understood that the people in those Arab countries were poor and oppressed, but they shouldn’t be allowed to murder innocent people. Her neighbour’s husband died in the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th. He worked in the kitchen of that famous restaurant that was so high up and he didn’t come down. He never did anything to Osama Bin Laden.
Sharina finished her homework and came in and sat with her. “What are you watching, gramma?”
“One of those blond haired ladies on CNN is tellin’ us that we don’t have to worry about anthrax. Now she’s really got me worried.”
“There’s nothing much we can do tonight. Tomorrow I’ll ask Dr. Fairstone about it and he’ll tell me what we should do. Now let’s talk about something else.”
Corinne nodded agreement. “I was just thinkin’ about how I used to take you with me to Westhampton when you were a little girl.”
“I always hated going there,” Sharina said. “Those Pardee kids were so stuck up that when their friends were visiting they’d just ignore me, or order me around like a servant. But when they didn’t have anyone else to play with, they’d behave as if those other humiliating things never happened. Sometimes I wished they drowned.”
She looked at Corinne as if expecting her to be shocked, but she just smiled sadly: “I know they didn’t treat you right, but I couldn’t leave you alone back here in Harlem. You were just too young. I didn’t like it any more than you did. Those Pardee kids are as selfish and inconsiderate as their parents. But I had no choice.”
“I understood that even then, gramma. And it wasn’t always awful. Sometimes Wesley behaved all right when no one else was around. It was that Amelia who really got me mad. One day she decided to play ‘Gone With the Wind’ and she wanted me to be Mammy. When I refused she complained to her momma who told me I was being uncooperative. I told her that it was racially degrading for me to play Mammy, but I’d play Scarlet O’Hara if Amelia insisted on playing.”
Corinne laughed. “I remember that. It was one of the few times when Mrs. Pardee was at a loss for words. How old were you then?”
“I was eleven.”
“I was so proud of you when you said that.”
Sharina smiled. “Thanks, gramma. Things got worse when I was 13 and my body started developing. Reggie was always watching me. Even Mister Pardee looked at me. And Wesley was always trying to touch me when we went swimming.”
“I saw that. I was so happy when Doctor Fairstone got you that assistant counselor’s job at the girl’s camp the next summer.”
“Me, too. I wasn’t going to let any of them near me and I know it would have cost you your job if there was an incident.”
“We would have managed, chile.”
“I know, gramma, but it would have been a problem and I’m glad it worked out. When Dr. Fairstone hired me next year as a part-time assistant after school, I started learning so much about medicine that I decided to be a doctor. I’m so grateful to him.”
Sharina didn’t want her grandmother to feel neglected because she praised the doctor and said lovingly: “You’re the best gramma in the whole world. Someday when I’m a successful doctor, I’m going to take care of you. I’ll buy you a beautiful house, and nice furniture, and nice clothes . . .”
“I don’t need those things, chile. I have you and the lord.”
“But you’ve helped me with everything. You got me the job with Dr. Fairstone and the job at Wendell’s Funeral Parlour.”
“I’m still sorry I did that. I don’t know how you can work at that nasty place. The thought of you handlin’ all those dead bodies makes my skin crawl.”
“It’s safe, gramma, and what I learn there will help me in medical school. Now let’s talk about something else. I want to do something wonderful for you.”
“Well, there is one thing.”
“When I die, I want to be buried someplace special.”
“Oh, gramma, you’re going to live a long time yet.”
“That may be, but that’s what I want.”
“Then that’s what you’ll get.”
“You’re an angel. Now give me a kiss and let’s go to bed. It’s gettin’ late.”
Sharina didn’t think of their conversation again and her senior year of high school sped by in a welter of activities. Between school, her two part-time jobs, karate practice and her new boyfriend, Sharina was too busy to spend much time with her grandmother. Soon graduation day arrived and former president Bill Clinton, in a gesture to his Harlem neighbours, was the guest of honour and handed out diplomas. Corinne almost burst with pride when Sharina delivered the valedictory and President Clinton shook her hand. Then Sharina was off to Harvard for the early access pre-med studies program that would put superior students on a fast track. Sharina’s scholarship covered dorm, board, books, fees and tuition, so Corinne didn’t have to worry about how she’d manage away from home. For the first time since the death of her son, the burden of responsibility for her precious granddaughter was gone. She could even start to think about what to do with her life.
Sharina wrote often for the first month or two, but when the first semester started her workload was enormous and she added to it with a part-time job in the anatomy lab maintaining the cadavers. She thrived on the challenges and loved the sheltered enclave of the university. She wrote Corinne that she had enough money to come home for Thanksgiving. She took the train from Boston on November 21st, avoiding flying like many Americans. She got home about 9:00 pm, unlocked the door and found her beloved gramma lying on the floor. She screamed: “Gramma,” and rushed to her, but she was dead. Corinne’s body was cold and stiff, so Sharina knew she had been dead for a while. She gently placed the lifeless head in her lap and cried silent tears that burned her cheeks.
As soon as she was able to stop crying, she phoned Dr. Fairstone and told him the sad news. He said he’d be there right away and the sound of his kindly voice set her crying again. He got there in five minutes and quickly examined Corinne. “She’s been dead for about 10 to 12 hours.”
“My poor gramma. If only I was here for her. I might have gotten her to the hospital in time.”
Dr. Fairstone shook his head. ” It wouldn’t have helped. She had a massive coronary that killed her instantly.”
“Did she suffer?”
“No, dear. She didn’t feel a thing.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” He covered Corinne with a blanket and turned to Sharina: “What kind of arrangements do you want to make?”
“I don’t know. I don’t have any money.”
He patted her arm reassuringly. “I’ll have Mr. Wendell take her to his funeral parlour and we’ll work the details out later.”
To be concluded tomorrow.