I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
God lived on the wick inside the glass of oil and water on top of the old woman’s chest of drawers where He was kept alive as if he were a lightning bug inside a jar. God lived in other places too, places much more natural to Him, places He belonged like funeral parlours and adoption homes, where there were people trained to talk to Him, who could look after Him as He got old, the young girl knew. He did not belong on Ya-yia’s chest of drawers. He did not belong inside a glass. He did not belong in circles on the ceiling in the dark where the young girl slept along the wall beside the kitchen after her parents drove away and left her in the hottest place in all Viginia with the old Greek Woman, Fanny.
She could count the words that she and Fanny had in common. There were 40. Some were Greek and some were English. Some were words like yardthi, roofi, striti. Some were counting words like ena, thia, tria, pente, ex. Fanny never spoke the English or the Greek for number four. She acted like the number wasn’t there. She never used or said it, which was strange, because she had four sons. And another thing about her was that she had diabetes. These two facts were not connected except in the girl’s mind as she counted slowly when she filled Fanny’s syringe. Some other words they spoke to one another were hypo, insulin, come help, what time is it? teevee. All the other words were names: Papou (Fanny’s husband, dead); Maria (Fanny’s daughter); Michee, Nichee, Archie, Yorgi (Fanny’s four sons); and the Dots.
The Dots were the girl’s aunts, the wives of Fanny’s sons. There were four of them and none of them were Greek. Michee—that was Fanny’s word for Uncle Mike—married a woman called Dot when he came back from the Navy and she was skinny and she came from Danville and she wore a diamond in her crucifix and she crossed herself from left to right, the wrong way, in the ekklesia, and Fanny learned to speak her name as if it formed a category the day Nichee brought a woman home from North Carolina. Nichee’s other name was Uncle Nick and Nichee’s Dot worked at the percale factory and had a trophy in her house from when she’d won Miss Conviviality. Her real name was Cat. She was the size of several Miss Convivialities now and had a moustache stained from nicotine and she wore dresses made from imperfect sheets that she got free from the percale factory. Since the girl had known her the labels on the outside of Cat’s dresses had progressed from TWIN to STANDARD to FULL SIZE. Known collectively, like sirens, the Dots were never singularly named, but the other two were Brenda and Jeanette, and Fanny never spoke to them because none of them, not even one among the four, had done her bit and had a child. Brenda, who wore pedal-pushers and bolero tops that showed her midriff and whose favourite lipstick was called Red on Red, told the girl the whole truth one afternoon when they were sitting on a blanket in the backyard about how all four of Fanny’s boys had got the mumps at the same time one summer when they all were just beginning to get manly. “Ignorance and immigrants go gland in hand,” she said, and the girl had known that she was hearing higher wisdom from a higher source, even though she didn’t understand it, because then Brenda said, “You’ll see, angel. You keep finding out most things too late in life.” Then Brenda said what she wanted was a sugar baby even if it had to come from some passing stranger for a daddy but, she said, George wasn’t on her side so she was takin’ vitamins. She was takin’ lots of exercise, she said, and laughed. Soon after that there was the trouble about George skipping bail when he had shot a passing stranger in the backyard running from the bedroom. Then Brenda cleared her stuff out of their house and gave her the collected tubes of Red on Red, which were a lot and only half-used because Brenda hated using lipsticks once they got all flatty on the top, she said. She gave the girl a pair of genuine white cotton gloves, mismatched, and some beads and two high heeled shoes, also mismatched. Then George turned himself in to try to get Brenda to come back, but she never did and their house went into foreclosure and he went to jail and never looked the same. His hair went white which made his skin look yellow. The night before he went to jail he came to Fanny’s house and took the girl and Fanny out to High’s for ice cream. Fanny had vanilla like she always had, the girl had peach. George cried a lot and Fanny cried a little, then they shouted at each other a long while in Greek. The girl was used to so much shouting. Every Sunday morning since she’d lived there, Michee, Nichee, Arch and George came over to the house to eat and shout.
Sunday mornings Fanny and the girl woke and the girl gave Fanny her insulin then Fanny made sweet coffee in the brass kafes while the girl took up the household rugs. When it was raining, rugs were hung on the back porch and beaten by the two of them with willow racquets and when it wasn’t raining, rugs were shaken on the lawn then laid out on the grass and hosed. This happened daily. While they dried, Fanny, in her flannel dusting slippers, buffed the floor. But on Sundays Fanny let the girl take charge of all the rugs alone while she washed and oiled her hair. Her hair was longer than her self and she carried it in three loops on her arm when it was loose and it weighed more when it was wet than the two grey rugs from the kitchen put together. It wasn’t white, more like a heavy liquid silver, like a river of bright mercury. The girl worked hard on Sunday mornings just to finish with the rugs in time to be inside the kitchen when Fanny came in in her nightslip carrying her hair to lay it out and oil it on the table. The girl believed the hair belonged to someone else before it had belonged to Fanny—she believed the hair had grown the woman, that the hair had history and a language that the woman didn’t have and that the woman was the growth of many years with which it chose to decorate itself. This belief, like all the girl’s beliefs, was fleeting because when the hair was oiled, Fanny coiled it, then, with some strategic pins stuck in it, it disappeared. It became the back of Fanny’s head. To the girl its transformation from a river to a knot was as magical a change as anything the Ghost could do, and it put her in the mood for church. In church she stared hard at the ikons and wondered why the men saints—George and Mike and Andrew—showed their hair and why the Virgin didn’t. In church the incense made her sick in summer and in winter incense and the dark-eyed saints made her feel outlandish, like an alien inside some foreign smoky borders. After church she and Fanny walked the 12 blocks home and Fanny put on an apron and dressed the lamb and put it in the oven while the girl squeezed lemons for the soup and then her uncles came and shouted. What they shouted she was never sure. She listened for a word she knew but words she knew were never used. She knew that Panayia meant The Virgin, she knew scata meant shit, because anybody, even children in a foreign place, she knew, can tell the holy words from all the others, and the curses. But what the reason for the shouting was she had to let herself imagine. She imagined something made the shouting necessary, part of what they had to do, as if there was no choice. She imagined it was so the dead could hear, and she imagined that the dead were shouting somewhere too and sometimes staring at the glass in which God lived she pretended she was dead and pressed her lips together in an imitation of death’s mask and took a breath and made a shout with her whole being ’til she shook with the full violence of its silence, then she came alive again and thought about the things that might begin to happen on the day she took a breath that finally blew God’s candle out.
After Yorgi went to jail the girl and Fanny went to visit him each Friday. Angel was not allowed to go inside until it was discovered Fanny couldn’t read or speak so they sent a prison guard to go for her because they thought the girl would translate for them. For this purpose Angel taught her grandmother the word okay. The guard would say, “Tell the old woman she can talk to him ten minutes,” and Angel would turn to Fanny and point toward the prison clock and say the word for ten but not the word for minutes ’cause she didn’t know it and then Fanny would nod her head and tell the guard oké. Then the guard would say to Angel, “Tell her I need to search her purse,” and Angel would say, “pursi,” and Fanny would nod and tell the guard “oké” and give the purse to Angel who would pass it over. Then the guard would root through all the stuff they’d brought for Yorgi (cigarettes, dolmathes, olives, halvah, toothpicks, and dates) and then another guard would come and take Fanny away and Angel would sit down on the chair and kick her feet backwards and forwards as a way of passing time. I bet you’d like a Pepsi Cola, this one guard said to her one day.
“No, thank you,” Angel knew enough to answer.
“I bet you would.”
“Ice cold and ever’thang.”
“Oh you’re not?”
“Talkin’ to a stranger.”
“What’s your name?”
“Cause you act like one?”
“Hard to say, ain’t never seen one.”
“Every evening you can see a bunch of angels down around the river.”
“Oh I ain’t allowed down there.”
“Girl like you? Don’t they think you’re old enough?”
“How old are you?”
“I bet you’re still in school.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“I made them think I can’t talk like a normal person, you know. I made them think I’m dumb.” She clamped her lips together. She clamped her knees together, too.
“Well, why’d you do a thang like that?”
“Because I felt like it.”
“But here you are—you’re talkin’!”
“I feel like it.”
“But what if someone finds out?”
“No one ’spects a mute to answer.”
“You ain’t worried?”
“Somebody turns you in?”
“Who’d do a thang like that?”
“I doubt it.”
“I’m kinda with the law in this capacity. I kinda have a duty.”
“They’d never put a person of my age in jail,” she said, but just in case, she put her hand around the empty hypo in the pocket of her pants and tried the sharpness of its needle with her fingernail.
“They could send you to a Home,” the guard was saying just to scare her.
“How would you like that?” he asked. “Send you to a Home, nice pretty little thang like you? ”
“I guess I’d hate it,” Angel said.
“I guess I’d suffer so’s I’d start to try to find a way to kill myself.”
“So there you are. You ought to cry and start to act what you was named for.”
Angel blinked and touched the needle. She thought the guard was saying something with a reference to her parents. But then he just went on and on and talked to her about the things he’d seen, the ghosts down by the river.
Maybe Fanny had told Angel George’s hair had turned white and Angel hadn’t understood, but the first clue Angel had that George had changed was on that Sunday when Arch cried. It was too terrible. Arch was the second youngest of the four and last among them in the smarts department. All he’d ever wanted out of life was to paint exteriors but he’d fallen off a ladder through the windshield of a parked DeSoto and he’d lost an eye. The dead eye roamed. It roamed so bad he wore a patch so people wouldn’t have to turn away from looking at him. Angel liked to watch the dead eye when the patch was pushed up because the dead eye jumped but when she looked at it Archie always told her, “Shit don’t watch it like that, sugar,” and slipped the patch down on the eye again. On the Sunday that he cried the tears ran down from underneath the patch as Angel watched. She couldn’t understand at first exactly what was happening. Arch had come around before the lamb was in the oven and had seemed like he was going to cry right from the start. Usually he chewed tobacco. Angel saw he didn’t have a bulge inside his cheek so she felt that something strange was going to happen. Her whole life she had never seen a member of her family cry and then this year she’d seen both George and Fanny cry and now it seemed like Arch was going to, too, but first he sat down beside the lamb and breathed real heavy and Angel went on squeezing lemons for the soup and Fanny acted like the lamb that she was dressing was a criminal. Finally Arch began to talk and Angel couldn’t understand a word that he was saying except every now and then he said the name “Jeanette” who was his Dot. Then he started saying “George” and started crying so Fanny started shouting at him. “It’s all gone to shit,” he said in English between sobs to Angel. “George. He shot a man. His hair’s turned white. It’s all just gone to shit in a straw basket.”
That was the first time Angel heard about the hair and it was the first time that she learned that George had killed someone. She had never thought that “shot” and “killed” were words that meant the same before, because “shot” had come to mean the thing she needed to take aim for, but “killed” had always meant to her that something might be dead, but it was jumping.
Sundays changed soon after that. Nichee, Mike and Arch still came to eat but no one shouted and from time to time Arch left the table altogether. Then one Sunday Nick brought two six packs of malt liquor and the next week Uncle Ray showed up from next door with a pocket full of silver dollars, two unbroken decks of cards and a bottle of Four Roses. He asked Angel to stand beside him as his luck charm, then they let her cut the deck and then Ray told her she could go ahead and sit down on his knee and he wouldn’t eat her.
Ray wasn’t Angel’s uncle like the others were because he wasn’t Fanny’s son. He was an undertaker and the owner of Gould’s Funeral Home next door and it was Ray, not Dr. Brickhouse, who’d taught her how to hold the hypodermic to inject the insulin. Dr. Brickhouse had her practicing on oranges but Ray had let her practice on real skin. He also let her help him out with pancake make-up. Everybody said no one in the Tidewater was equal to Ray Gold with skintones. Even Nichee’s Dot, Cat, who had been in beauty contests and been made up by professionals said that when it came to helping nature out with pancake make-up Ray was an artiste so Angel was real privileged learning tricks from him. Another privilege having Ray next door was the flower arrangements. Once a week Ray brought a floral spray to the back door that he said no one would miss. This was nice especially in winter, even if the flowers spelled out DEAR DEPARTED or, if they didn’t, tended to be gladiolas.
EDNA spelled in pink carnations was the centerpiece that Sunday when Ray showed up and the shouting stopped for the next to final time and Angel learned the smell of whiskey and learned a straight takes four of a kind and when a person lies and wins by acting like he isn’t lying it’s expected and the name for it is bluffing. After a while people got to know where Ray was spending Sunday afternoons and sometimes the phone rang with an emergency because Ray owned the only ambulance in town as well as its two hearses. One Sunday afternoon Angel was wondering what he was up to asking for one card while he was holding nothing but a four and five of the same suit when they got a call from Ned at the Police who said there’d been an accident down on City Point and how come they hadn’t heard the noise it made all the way up there at the house on North 14th, because it looked like a real doozy. Ray said, “I’m holdin’ cards,” and Ned said something else then Ray put down the phone and asked Angel if she’d like to take a ride and run the siren. When they got to where the steam was rising off the wrecks on City Point, Ray suddenly said, “Sugar this ain’t something you had better see,” but Angel got out anyway and followed him and then she wished she hadn’t because the ones she’d put the needles into, the ones she’d seen at his place in the basement had been strangers and this one in the road was Arch’s Dot, Jeanette.
They let George out of jail so he could go to Jeanette’s funeral but they didn’t let him stay around when people went to Archie’s house to have a bite to eat after the burial. People brought a lot of food for the occasion and there were lots of olives and dolmathes wrapped for George to take back to the prison with him and although everybody ate a lot Angel noticed Cat had lost a lot of weight and she wasn’t eating. She must have come down from a FULL SIZE to a CRIB and she was acting real convivial. “Don’t you love my figga?” she asked Angel and made a wobbly pirouette on tippytoe and told Angel to go ahead and try to get her thumb and finger ’round her wrist. “I bet you can slide them right ’round it now,” she said, “whereas before you couldn’t jam a hoolahoop around it.” Dot was there too, the real Dot, acting disapproving as if to say that since there were only two Dots left out of the four the real one ought to occupy the higher place because not only was she married to the oldest son but dee oh tee was actually her name. Fanny didn’t speak a word to either of them and they acted like they didn’t recognize her. What’s your point? the slimmed-down Cat who now actually looked much more like a cat than a big round dot, asked, but it was a formality because clearly Jeanette’s jewelry was the only point for miles around so they both pretended that the other things that would begin to collect dust in Arch’s life were what the conversation ought to be about so Dot, the real one, said, “There’s a lot of this here stuff which needs a one-way straight into the garbage.” Like what? Cat said. Corsets, stockings, underwear, Dot answered, and Cat sniffed. Jeanette and Arch had never had a lot of money so Jeanette accumulated only middling things but there were some things she’d inherited and come into the marriage with like two silver brooches, one rhinestone tiara, one fox stole with its head still on, five pearl earrings and some diamonds which could be made to look a lot more decent with resetting. Since they didn’t want to fight the Dots decided what was fair was to take everything and split it down the middle according to their tastes and in the odd case of the earrings what they’d do was take a pair for each of them and give the odd one out to Angel only Archie, who’d misplaced his patch somewhere since the death, said he wouldn’t hear of anything of Jeanette’s being thrown out with the garbage and whatsmore Dot and Cat weren’t laying hands on anything of hers because everything was going as it was into boxes to be kept for Angel for that time when she was grown into a woman and could appreciate it. Corsets? Dot demanded, This lil’ polebean of a girl? She got uppity and said, “Well, I guess puttin’ it in boxes makes the best sense—after all you might decide you ought to get remarried,” whereupon Arch said to Mike he ought to slap restraint onto his wife because Jeanette weren’t even cold yet in the ground and then before Mike had a chance to speak Dot said she’d never known such skinflint people who couldn’t even keep pearl earrings in the family and Archie said she wasn’t “family” and she said she’d rather be dead than be a relative of his so Archie spit at her then Mike had to spit at him so Archie punched him and Mike punched back then Archie fell against the table with the plate of koulembiathes on it and Fanny got five dozen powdered sugar pastries in her black-dressed mourning lap and Nichee threw a punch at Michee because he’d thrown a punch at Archie and everybody in the family started shouting at each other and they all went home in other people’s cars claiming that they’d never speak to one another and later that same week Ray got absent-minded and delivered a carnation spray that said JEANETTE and DEARLY MISSED to the back door.
Cat was the next to go, the women disappearing from the family right and left like pocket money, Ray complained. He and Angel were at work on Cat’s face on the morning of her funeral when Ray said, “Sugar it’s all gone to shit in a straw basket,” and she could tell he was torn up. Cat had dropped to 97 pounds and her face was hard to set in any kind of less than skeletal expression, but Ray had got her color almost perfect. If Nick had found her half an hour sooner Ray might have got her to a stomach pump in Richmond in the ambulance because that baby held a hundred miles on dry road like a you know holds a tit that’s why he blamed himself, he said, a lot of deaths don’t need to happen when they do.
They let George out of jail so he could go to Cat’s funeral and this time they were willing to let him stay around for food but no one got a party up so Ray drove George back to prison in the hearse and then Nick brought a box of Cat’s stuff over to the house on North 14th for Angel, including Cat’s trophy that she won for Miss Conviviality and Angel put Cat’s stuff with all the other stuff she had from the two other Dots in the suitcase that she kept under her bed. In all the time she’d lived with Fanny she had kept her things inside her suitcase so they’d smell like what had been her parents. The mice had found the artificial leather to their taste and through the years the shiny nylon lining lost all of its aroma but every time she sprang the locks on that old suitcase Angel’s heart began to jump. Its existence was a world in which she struggled not to need to live so badly that it made her cry but one she’d like to think she could return to, when she wanted, for a visit. In it there were things that couldn’t possibly have meaning when looked at all together by any other person in the world but her and the fact that they articulated no one’s losses, on one’s history but her own made her feel safe each time she took them out, they made her feel that she was needed. Fanny had a drawer of such things, too, the bottom of the four drawers in the chest of drawers on top of which God lived. Everything inside those drawers smelled like oil and wax except the things inside the bottom drawer. The things inside the bottom drawer smelled sweet and Angel liked the smell of them. In the corner of the bedroom there was a stuffed chair by the window which looked out across the yard over to Ray’s funeral home and that’s where Fanny sat each evening since her legs had started swelling up. Her feet were blistered and her ankles were both bloated and she couldn’t wear her old shoes anymore and the pain of being upright slowed her movements so she spent most afternoons and evenings in the chair with both her legs propped up in front of her. The first time Angel learned about the drawer where Fanny kept her things was when she brought Fanny her meal one night when Fanny had her slippers off and Fanny tried to hide her feet from Angel but Angel wouldn’t let her move them ’cause she knew that moving hurt her. Her grandmother’s embarrassment embarrassed her, but neither spoke, until Fanny gestured that she wanted something from the chest of drawers. Angel knew the top two drawers held Fanny’s clothes and that the third drawer had been cleaned out for her things when she arrived and that except for yellow paper liner it was still completely empty. Angel hadn’t ever looked inside the fourth drawer. When she opened it that evening her heart jumped the same way that it did when she unlocked her suitcase. There were things inside which were not beautiful but looked as though they might have been or could be, still, in someone’s eyes. There were paper flowers of a dusty color. There was a sort of satin pillowslip and a bit of rusty lace. Near the bottom was a decorated shawl which seemed to be the thing that Fanny wanted. It wasn’t until Angel opened it and spread it over Fanny’s feet that Angel recognized the shawl. It was the same one in the picture next to God on the chest of drawers, the picture of a young girl in a wedding dress and shawl standing by a young man who is sitting with a high hat in his lap. Angel ran her hand along the cloth to say to Fanny that she thought that it was pretty. Then Fanny touched it, too. Then Fanny told her what it was, or who had made it, or where it came from, or if she’d ever worn it at any other time after her wedding, or what she felt like on her wedding night or what her husband had been like as a young man. Angel didn’t understand the words Fanny was telling her so she imagined what her grandmother was saying. When she finished telling Angel all about the shawl Fanny gestured Angel to bring the next thing from the drawer and then she told her a long story about that object, too, and she let Angel hold it while she talked and they passed it back and forth between their hands. By the time the story found its end it was dark and the only light inside the room was from the glass of oil and water where God lived but Angel put her suitcase to the middle of the room and snapped the locks and lifted up the lid and sat back on her feet and chose a very special thing which she took to Fanny and let Fanny turn it over in her hands while she explained to Fanny in a foreign language all about where it had come from and who had given it to her and what had happened on that day and what the weather was and what the words were that were spoken. Fanny watched her tell the story as if she understood each thing Angel said and when Angel had finished speaking Fanny held the object in a new way, Angel thought, she held it in the same way she herself would hold it, with the memory that it provoked. From time to time they took more objects from their secret places and told each other stories. When all the stories had been told Angel set the objects on the floor as if it was a stage then she selected one thing, each, for them to hold and they looked at all their things set out, arrayed before them in the room, the candle flickered and they watched and didn’t speak again and each one knew the other one was waiting for a different thing to come and take her.
Angel will be included in Marianne Wiggins’s book of short stories, Bet They’ll Miss Us When We’re Gone, due out this May from Harper Collins. Her novels include: John Dollar and Separate Checks.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.