A story in serial format by: Darlene Wesenberg Rzezotarski
January: Wherein the caretakers of the English basement apartment successfully finish off the semester at UWM, but face ongoing challenges with caretaking, parenting and academics. Jay shares a true Pandora’s Box story from his Ottawa heritage. Frank visits in the night. Jay sells blood. The sea of political and social turmoil continues to churn around them.
The person standing outside their door at exactly 12:13 AM on New Year’s Eve was not a keyless tenant, but Frank Baranski, member in good standing of the Poets for Peace; although he was at present abandoning the call of the poet, in the midst of working on a novel. His black ringlets had escaped from his ponytail and his beard seemed to have the remains of cheese pizza embedded in it. He looked like a slapdash, smiling angel.
Blue Jay laughed, “C’mon in, Franko. Thought you were a tenant. Good luck for me. You’re the first visitor to cross the threshold in 1970.”
“I was walking by on my way home from Downer. Not in the mood for big partying. Noticed all your lights were on, so I thought we could share some holiday cheer!” He pulled a partly-consumed bottle of vodka out of his parka pocket.
“Lily?” he nodded in her direction. “A little swig of Poland’s best?”
“No, thanks. Another time.” Lily sighed, realizing it was going to be a long night, and went to retrieve Little Jay, who had given up on the tambourine and had resorted to his customary wailing.
“C’mon, Hatchling. It’s the new year already. Let’s leave those guys to do their guy talk. It’s definitely time for beddie-bye.” She scooped him up and called Lenore. “Snuggle time.”
She yawned. “Let’s sit in the rocking chair and you can fall asleep again. Let those guys talk all they want. Let them create vodka-inspired metaphors that turn into nothing but wispy, whispered alcohol breath. Frankly, they can have a Frank talk. Josh. Joke or gently tease. I think that’s a good name for a baby bird, too. Works for your daddy…. I hope you don’t grow up hating your name….” Lily’s thoughts began an undisciplined ramble as mother and child fell asleep in the nursery rocking chair and Lenore stole back to plunk down on the floor next to Frank.
Seated in recycled lawn chairs at the vintage round oak table, Blue Jay and Frank lifted their paper cups of vodka to toast the new decade. “Sto lat! That’s a Polish toast. May you live to be a hundred!” Frank intoned.
“And may you be in heaven a hundred years before the devil knows you’re dead!” Blue Jay responded. “That’s Irish. And speaking of the devil, I’m almost done with The Tragedie of Joanie Fist. My semester writing project, based on the Faust story. Faust is German for fist; and instead of Johann, it’s Joanie. Righteous Joanie sells her soul to the devil for fame and financial gain, but lives to regret it. I’m reading parts of it in our creative writing seminar next week. It’s a little nerve wracking. Professor Wiegner is a tough critic. I’m sweating it. I need an A if I want to get into any grad school writing program.”
“The writer’s life is tough in general.” Frank sighed, taking another sip of vodka. “Selling your soul to the devil? Don’t all of us writers do that? Sure, I’m first of all a writer, always will be, but I’m majoring in public relations and business. Anything my pa thinks is impractical, no tuition comes outta his pocket. It’s okay. I can still write. I’ll be able to pull a regular paycheck.” He paused. “Like Kafka. A postmaster by day.
“I’m going to have to decide pretty soon if I should enlist or try to get into a graduate program. I’m not against the army. Just against that war. If I enlist with a business degree, I think I could request West Germany or Italy. Maybe travel around on my breaks.”
Jay shrugged. “You’re already in school. You have a safe draft number. Just stick with school, is my advice.”
He nodded as Frank re-filled their paper cups with vodka, draining the bottle.
“By this time next year, where will we be, Blue Jay?” No. I’m serious, man. It’ll be a whole new scene for both of us.” Frank paused. “Let’s stay in touch.”
“Agreed. Who’d proofread my work and give me straight feedback? Sometimes I look at what’s going down around here and think I should just move us to the Upper Peninsula. But that would last about a couple weeks before I’d get the urge to run; and even if I wanted to stay, I doubt that Lily would last that long.”
Jay often found it hard to talk about his personal past, but the alcohol talked too. It urged the words to spill out. “I wanted to be a writer since it dawned on me that I could write my way out. I was fifteen when I found my role model. My parents usually never looked past the doorway of their restaurant, but in March of ‘59 they closed the restaurant for the morning and took my sister and me to Ishpeming. We waited for a Hollywood Special train. Then it hissed and squealed into the station and out stepped Jimmy Stewart and Otto Preminger and all those other stars to make a movie, Anatomy of a Murder. Everyone in the crowd was breathless—oohed and aahed. Me included.”
“Heavy. It’s another country up there!” Frank lifted his paper cup, which was on the verge of disintegration. “To decaying movie stars and the ghosts of Christmas past! Or as Old Pa said and still says, ‘Na z’drowie!’ To your good health.”
Jay nodded, “Thanks,” and lifted his cup again. “A few years before, there had been a big scandal over a murder. An army dude went deranged when a bartender raped his wife. One of our local luminaries defended him and got him off, and then wrote a book about it—which I had to sneak out and buy because our library banned it. Then Hollywood picked up on it and descended upon us and made notorious half-truth into something glorious.”
Frank laughed. “Keep consuming that vodka, pal. It’s loosening your tongue. Not too much, though, or it will loosen your guts.”
Jay continued, “He published the book under a pseudonym, even though we all knew he was John Voelker. He lived in this huge Victorian house in Ishpeming that we could have fit about ten of our houses and the restaurant into. Other people looked at his place and thought, ‘What a great lawyer;’ but I looked at it and thought, ‘A smart man who wrote a book lives here. Someone from the UP is a famous author. It’s possible.’
“I was already keeping secret poetry notebooks, but at that point I began scouring the dictionary for new vocabulary words and making it an issue to excel in English classes. Thinking back, I sure was obnoxious. I came down here after I graduated and started taking classes at UWM, off and on, and now here I am going on seven years of part time classes, ready to graduate. Amen!”
“Such a whiz kid. Ready to age out of the draft, even.”
“I’ll drink to that. Hand over the bottle.”
“Sorry. We finished it off.”
“And then there’s something else weird. I always knew from my Grandma that I had a few drops of Ottawa blood in me, even though my father chose to ignore this in favor of his Finnish and Irish ancestry. I took a pen name in high school, Blue Jay Hawk. The name just popped into my head.
“But when my grandmother died, I was helping sort through her stuff and I found this old book, History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan. My grandma had written inside, ‘Book written by my great, great grandfather, Chief Andrew J. Blackbird, descendant of the Hawk clan, the Pe-pe-gwen tribe, called the Undergrounds. His parents were taken captive out west by the Ottawas after a great battle and were adopted into the Ottawa tribe.’ I rescued this book from the trash pile where my father had put it. I read the whole thing and I always keep it in my top dresser drawer under my socks. Pe-pe-gwen is a kind of small, ferocious hawk. How did I know to give myself that name?”
By this time, both young men were afflicted with the garrulousness that sometimes occurs with the consumption of too much vodka, and the tales continued.
“I have a story, too, Bro,” Frank said. “How do you think a black woman from Arkansas and a Polish man from Warsaw ever got together? I guess they just thought at first that the married life would be one long honeymoon on the moon. Had to find out the hard way. I found out they had a fight about what to name me when their surprise came–Rufus or Frank. Learned to compromise. Managed to hold it together. Franklin Rufus. Did you know my middle name is Rufus?
“They wouldn’t go to Poland. Couldn’t go South. My grandpa came North to take care of me while both my parents worked day and night. Best thing that coulda happened. I called him Big Man and he called me Little Man. He was my preschool and my kindergarten and my Bible School. Cabrini-Green didn’t really like any of us and we-all didn’t like being there, but we had no other plan at first. The Polish grandparents disappeared back behind the Iron Curtain. Not exactly doting over their little black grandbaby. Now you see me sitting here.”
“Living to tell.” Jay nodded.
“Being a ghetto baby makes you tough. A fighter. Some street friends turn into junkies with big cars and you don’t know them. I had other plans. My Big Man steered me straight. Right now, everybody has a shitload of anger. Black. White. Nam. Pigs. Panthers. Draft. Daftness. Deafness. Slurs. Slaps.”
He punched Jay on the knee, laughing. “Imagine the look on a potential boss’s face when a guy named Frank Baranski shows up for the job interview. The boss thinks it’s gonna be a brawny white Polack boy, and it’s scrawny black me! Fuck that shit!”
“We have to keep the volume down so we don’t wake the Hatchling!” Jay cautioned.
“Water off a duck’s back. Never apologize. Just be your best self and move on. We moved up to Cudahy when I was nine. Big Man said Chicago was as far north as his feet could go and went back to Arkansas. My pa landed a job at Laddish in the core-making department with a decent enough wage and my ma finally could stop cleaning offices every night and put her feet up. Now she enjoys living in her little American Dream bungalow and Pa just keeps putting in the hours to make the mortgage. Piece of cake, but not my party.”
“Far out! And here we are together. On this day. At this time. 1970. In this place. Tannenbaum Arms. I don’t have any answers, but I hear you. I feel it. I’ll drink to that, Franko!”
“I’ll drink to that, Blue Jay Hawk!”
“Here’s to the new year!”
As the vodka was finished, so were their tales—but for that night only.
~ * * * * * ~
The day passed uneventfully with a very late breakfast, studying, defrosting the refrigerator, and organizing. Several boxes still needed sorting and unpacking since their September move, and Lily resolved to get the year off to a good start. Blue Jay recovered enough to clean the front hall, empty several buckets of trash, and check the water level on the boiler. Then it was back to The Tragedie of Joanie Fist, which needed only to be proofread and tweaked into final form.
When it was her turn to use the faithful Underwood-Olivetti typewriter, Lily put the finishing touches on her final paper for Dr. Milton’s seminar analyzing the Puritan attitudes towards wealth and morality and their present-day ramifications in American society. Even the Hatchling was relatively mellow, perhaps enjoying the fact that both parents were home at the same time. They put up an expanding gate for a barricade and kept him confined in the living room where they worked.
“So, what are your thoughts on the Puritan ethic, Blue Jay?” she asked over a supper of leftover spaghetti.
“Do you really want to know?” he asked.
“Puritan ethics is an oxymoron. I’ve been thinking about a story from my great, great, however many great grandfather’s book. He wrote about the English. Maybe not Puritans, but English. In the early 1800s, I guess it was, during the French war with Great Britain. Some of the Otttawa tribal leaders were summoned to Montreal by the British. They were given a tin box to take back home with them. They were told that there was a treasure in it that should not be opened until they returned home.
“They obeyed this great English chief,” Blue Jay continued, a bitter edge creeping into his voice, “and when they got back to their familiar tribal Lake Superior peninsula, they summoned their people and opened the box.
“Inside the box was a smaller box, and inside that box was another box. There was a box in a box in a box. And inside that box, was there a gift? Only little crumbly, moldy pieces of something. Then they all took sick and many, many died. Entire lodges filled with corpses with no one to bury them. Others had to live out their days with terrible round scars all over their faces and bodies. The gift was smallpox.
“And you’re asking me what I think of these ethics. Fuck Puritan ethics. What an ugly Pandora’s box.”
“Ancient Greece, Canada…. My God, Jay, you never told me about this before.”
“There’s still a lot you don’t know. It’s not always in the front of my mind, but after Frank and I talked last night…”
“But that was then and this is now. 1970. What are your thoughts on now?”
“And are any of us any better? Have humans learned anything from all the evil and suffering that’s already been perpetrated and endured? Breaking into an apartment and shooting a man in his bed? Butchering pregnant movie stars? Trouncing over helpless people and bragging about body counts? You’d think we could have come up with a better world than this.”
Jay might have continued, driving them both deeper into despair.
Aware of this, Lily sighed. “Hey, Blue Jay, not to change the subject, but we haven’t sold our blood for a while. If you’re feeling up to it, let’s go to the blood bank tomorrow and get some money for second semester books. Let’s concentrate on the issues we can actually do something about.”
“That’s my point, exactly. I hope the Hatchling will never have to sell his Rh-negative blood!”
“Our slogan could be Rh-Negative Blood for books.”
“Blood money. How did two negatives find each other? And do two negatives make a positive?” she replied.
“Hey, Lily, you’re just too clever for words,” he smiled. “I think I married you for your sense of humor.”
“Well, Blue Jay Hawk, you certainly don’t have to worry that I married you for your money.”
The Blood Center was a long bus ride away, on a neglected street with many boarded up shop windows. A large sign across the front identified it, flanked by a generic red cross on either side.
Inside, all was business to the tune of Muzak. There were white walls, white floors, the strong odor of disinfectant. Reclining chairs were draped in white sheets and an aura of sterility prevailed.
Blue Jay had talked Lily into staying home with The Hatchling; children were not allowed. Jay wished he could just go to the regular blood bank and donate, but the $20 paid for Rh-negative blood at this alternative site would be a transfusion to the budget.
He checked in, showed his driver’s license; having previously given blood, there was no extensive paperwork. As he was directed to a chair and the needle inserted, he closed his eyes. Before him, he could see Lake Superior with the eyes of his heart. He felt drawn back; he stood on an eroded embankment, studying the root formations that had been stripped of their soil, looking like powerful sculptures of endurance. The lake roared, whispered some message in a hushed language he strove to understand, but could not.
“Mr. Haakens,” he heard his name called sharply.
The reverie was over. A plastic bag filled with precious garnet liquid bulged on the metal frame beside him. He collected his cash and waited in the cold for the bus that would bring him back to the East Side. Since the entire ordeal had taken less than an hour, he was thankful he could use the same transfer.
~ * * * * * ~
On impulse, Jay got off the bus on Brady Street, a few stops earlier, to pay a visit to Interabang Book Shop, just south of Brady on Warren. He needed a used copy of Aristotle’s Poetics for a second semester class. He ended up browsing through the stacks longer than he intended, unable to resist battered copies of Ginsberg’s Howl and Milwaukee poet Barbara Gibson’s Our Bedroom’s Underground, as well. He and Lily read Barbara’s frequent articles in Kaleidoscope and respected the Gibsons for what he regarded as their radically poetic lifestyle, as embodied in their poetry. “Lily will enjoy the Gibson book, too,” he justified the additional spending. “And the underlined passages in the Ginsberg will challenge us to figure out why the reader marked them.
“Interabang. Question mark, exclamation point. I guess the name fits the place. I love the peculiar smell inside bookstores. Emanates musty, papery allure. The power of words. Much going on here at once; some thoughts to question; some to exclaim over.”
A mustachioed man entered the store, dressed in a tattered wool English duffel coat. His large Russian fur hat with earflaps clung to his unruly hair like a helmet, giving him the look of a diplomat who had wandered in from a past century.
“His Nibs, George Sharkey!” he greeted a man who had been arranging papers on the counter.
“Polish George in the flesh!” was Sharkey’s response. “Here. Take one. Or maybe two. I know what you’re after. Add these to your treasure trove.”
The diplomat raised his hand in a fist salute. “Many thanks, my good man!”
Jay noticed the colorful mimeographed newsletter, filled with what seemed to be deliberately pranksterish spelling and typefaces, that Sharkey pressed into the man’s hand.
Sharkey then turned his attention to Jay, as if seeing him for the first time. “Take one. It’s free. Judging by your choice of reading material there, I’d say you’re ready for this. I’m the editor of Street Sheet. We’re publishing three times a week now. All the latest narc and drug news right off the street, along with helpful hints on communal life and healthy recipes and protests. Courtesy of your local anarchists, YIP, the Youth International Party.”
He smiled. “And that’s Polish George. He’s into historic documents and collects everything counterculture. I’m Pat, otherwise known as George Sharkey. Or maybe I’m George Sharkey, otherwise known as Pat. This coffee can here is for donations, and this other one is for readers to submit news bulletins or stories in general. You can be anonymous or give your name.”
Jay grabbed a copy and plunked a quarter into the can. “Thanks. I hope you plan to distribute this around UWM. We need it.”
“Ubiquitous! We are ubiquitous!” AKA Mr. George Sharkey replied. “Hang on to this.” He paused. “And here.” He reached under the stack. “This is an old one, but it’s a copy of Volume 1, Number 1. Frame it. It marks a turning point of people’s history.”
“I’m sure our paths will cross again. Thanks,” Jay replied.
Classes resumed after the break, along with ongoing political troubles, just as they had ended, as if there had been no holiday break. With two more weeks until first semester final exams, Jay thought the unrest was escalating. There had been a fire in the basement of Mitchell Hall, but it did not spread upstairs. The fire department and UWM made a big deal of saying it was not arson, but then a few days later Jay picked up a copy of the Kaleidoscope and noticed a letter purporting to be from “The Intergalactic Conspiracy for Cosmic Consciousness” claiming responsibility to “avenge the death of Fred Hampton, the Black Panther Leader.”
Jay felt this might be closer to the truth. He had lost much trust and respect for the administration, but at least they were not blaming anyone willy-nilly. “I’m going to be so glad to get out of this place,” he thought. “Just one more semester! If it actually was an attempt to burn down Mitchell Hall, at least it was a failed attempt. But what about next time? Will there be a next time?”
Some students wanted to bring it on and bring it all down, but other students were on edge, thinking that increasingly violent protests could be imminent. What would destruction of property prove, that taxpayers would just have to spend money on repairs? Jay sighed.
As for the faculty, they were under tight administrative scrutiny. Jay’s favorite creative writing teacher, Dr. Kathleeen Wiegner, had been denied tenure. The Poets for Peace group had unanimously signed a letter of protest but received no reply. Granted, she hadn’t published any articles in academic journals, but she had started an alternative-press poetry magazine and had used her writing talent to oppose the war. Students regarded her as an excellent teacher and mentor. Her encouragement of student writers was well-known.
Other professors were likewise under scrutiny, including the two English profs, known as “The Gibsons;” and one of Lily’s former sociology professors, who was suspected of encouraging draft dodgers. An article in Kaleidoscope warned about the presence of narcs in classrooms, hired by Police Chief Harold Brier, ready to turn in faculty and students alike. This fueled further feelings of disorientation and paranoia.
It was an open secret that professors had been ordered to stand their ground academically. “Give no leeway to students who skip class during protests.” Faculty members were encouraged to keep close attendance records, even to give pop quizzes on light attendance days. Jay discovered there would be a big change in operations in his German class. His professor announced that those continuing with his class during the spring semester would have to abide by the following policy: Three or more unexcused absences during the upcoming semester would result in a lowered grade. Five or more would be an automatic course failure. That had been met with grumbling in the classroom. “Does he think he’s teaching high school?” But the real reason was clear, and Jay noticed a tremor in his teacher’s voice.
The first semester had seemed to drag on forever, but finally came to a lurching end. Exams went well, as did the presentations of Blue Jay’s epic tragedy and Lily’s term paper on Manifestations of the Puritan Ethic in Present Day America. Students were enthusiastic about Lily’s presentation and a lively discussion ensued. Lily asserted that, as in Puritan times, many people still seemed to view the US as “the city on the hill,” with a crusading need to impose its values on the rest of the world. To further strengthen her assertion, she had interviewed classmates about their views toward the role of American leadership. Several students spoke of the connection between the early days of the country and what was happening now with US involvement in Vietnam.
Professor Milton said little during the discussion, but listened intently, occasionally nodding and smiling. Lily was sure he was impressed with her work.
Professor Milton was a recent arrival from the East Coast. Administration let it be known that he was a great catch for the university. He vowed to make UWM “the Yale of the Midwest.” As students were leaving, he asked Lily to stay for a moment.
“It’s about your paper, Mrs. Haakens,” he said pointedly. “Please have a seat here at the front by my table.”
“I want to give you some feedback. You’ve done some original research here and the paper is well organized. You write very well for a woman, but I make it a point never to give a woman an A.” And with that, he penned a large B+ upon the top of her paper.
Lily felt the floor fall beneath her feet. She drew a deep breath. “I will not let myself cry. I will not curse him to his face.” She wanted to raise her voice and confront him with the unfairness of his action, but she caught herself and pursed her lips. She knew she had no recourse; there was no fair system of arbitration in place for handling problems like this. A ruling would always fall in favor of an esteemed professor who could find something wrong with anything when pushed against the ivy-covered wall.
“I can’t burn my bridges,” she thought, biting her tongue. “If we end up staying here, I will need financial assistance for the fall semester. I have to keep my cool.”
With tears of rage just behind her eyes, she spoke, “Thank you for the compliment on my writing.” She grabbed her backpack and left the classroom without looking back.
In the hall, half blinded by tears, she almost bumped into a fellow classmate, one of the few women in the same class.
“So, Lily,” she said. “I waited for you. I noticed he called you back.”
“He’s a bum. A womanizer. Did he try to feel you up?”
“Um, not that kind of bad,” Lily replied.
“I heard from some other students that he likes skinny women with big boobs. Thought he might have tried something.”
“No, but I met another side of his piggery. Amazingly ironic, since it was following a presentation of my paper on the Puritan ethos.” She explained the situation to Viola.
“Well, my women’s consciousness raising group is keeping lists against professors for this kind of thing. Eventually we will figure out how to make administration listen. We’re compiling a file on him, in case you’d like to add to it. Of course, he’d deny everything, but you aren’t the first person to have a grudge against Dr. Ivy-League-of-the-Midwest. He thinks he’s God Almighty. Bet his penis is the size of a toothpick and he feels he has to compensate. Or maybe he was low man on the totem pole at Yale and he’s taking it out on us Midwesterners.”
“Thanks,Vi. You should be majoring in psychology, not sociology. That makes it a little better. B+. Bad scene. I’ll never take another class from him. I swear.”
“Never give up. Never give in. I’ll keep in touch.” She embraced Lily and departed. “Peace!”
~ * * * * * ~
Lily walked quickly through the dusk. The edges of the snowbanks had melted during the day, but now were beginning to re-freeze, creating intermittent gleaming pools of black ice on the sidewalk. The cold felt welcome; a light sleet had begun to fall, its biting numbness kissing her face. “The Eskimos are supposed to have thirty-seven words for snow,” Lily grimly reminded herself. “I wonder what little spits of ice are called. Maybe Sky Tantrum.” She resolutely trudged on.
The inevitable meltdown came as soon as she entered the refuge of their doorway beneath the fire escape—the front door of their home. “What do you think, Jay? I think I have every right to have a sky tantrum! I write very well, for a woman. That’s what Professor Milton said about my paper. All that work I put into it! I should have known better. I was doing fine in the Sociology Department until they knew I had the Hatchling. For a woman. Does a woman get locked in the ivory tower like some poor Rapunzel who is ordered to let down her hair and then gets punished for letting down her hair?”
Blue Jay gave her a great bear hug. “Don’t worry. You can finish up this semester and shake the dust off your sandals if you want. That’s what my mom would say, and she’s had it worse than any of us. Just shake the dust off.”
Lily smiled, “Or the snow, as the case may be. But it’s not as easy as you make it sound. I’d rather fight. I am a fighter, you know. A guerilla. No, maybe a gorilla, swinging from trees.” She glanced up. “Or from these infernal heat pipes all over the ceiling.”
“Keep your options open. Time is on your side. You can always switch your major or switch schools if they try to pull any shenanigans here. Anyway, who knows where we’ll be in the fall.”
“Get those applications going, Blue Jay. I’ll just sit here and let my anger boil. Maybe I’ll write an anonymous letter to Kaleidoscope. Or hell! Sign my name in capital letters.”
“Hey, sign your name. I’ll back you. 100%.” Blue Jay paused and smiled, “Aren’t you the formidable lady who got 97% on her boiler operator’s test?”
“Right on! I’ll sleep on it.”
“That’s the spirit!”
~ * * * * * ~
There was a three-day hiatus between semesters, during which time the building was given a thorough cleaning and the loads of laundry washed. The Hatchling was taken in for his well-baby check-up and booster shots, giving him the opportunity to bellow like a champion, proving that nothing was wrong with his lung capacity. Lily and Mrs. Grant cleaned Messy Bessie’s cage and drank mint tea; Lily bought glass beads at the Ben Franklin to make more necklaces; Jay scouted out the bulletin board in the English office and found grad school application forms for Georgia and Iowa and the University of Chicago.
At eight o’clock the next Monday morning, Blue Jay set off for what he hoped would be the first day of his final semester as an undergraduate. Lily had gone to bed with a lump in her throat but awoke at nine o’clock with a bee in her bonnet. “Action,” she thought. “I will continue my research and my writing. This is what I love doing and this is what I will continue to do.”
She threw off her flannel nightgown. “The old fool even admitted that I write well. Maybe I’ll hitch up with W.I.T.C.H. and do women’s underground theater. Zap! Make huge, bigger-than-life-size puppets and we’ll have a sit-in like everybody else. Maybe….”
She pulled on her favorite comfort garment, a red Bucky Badger sweatshirt she had acquired during her freshman year at UW-Madison. “I’ve had my head in the sand. They treated me differently here at the university when they didn’t know I was a mother.”
She fished for clean underwear and socks in the laundry basket. “Puppet shows by Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell! I’ll do it!” Lily indulged in her occasional habit of delivering soliloquies when she was upset. Putting on her worn tennis shoes, she added, “That is, if W.I.T.C.H. will take me. Or maybe I will work with that new group Theater X.”
She marched into the small nursery off the kitchen where the Hatchling was beginning to stir. “You are a sleepyhead today, Baby Blue Jay. Rise and shine! Your mommy writes very well….for a human!”
Perhaps that very day Lily would have checked around campus for a poster advertising the next W.I.T.C.H. meeting, or she would have begun an all-out campaign to publicize the sexist attitudes prevalent in the Sociology Department. However, at ten o’clock that morning, the phone rang. Mrs. Davis was speaking in her usual deliberate voice. “Lily, I want you to know, Mrs. Grant passed away last night. I noticed her paper was still at the door, so I called her. No answer. Lenny across the hall keeps her spare key, so I told him about the newspaper and he let himself in when she didn’t answer the door. He found her in her bed. Looked like she was asleep, so peaceful. No need to involve you. They’re coming in about an hour to remove her body. And I notified her daughter in California.”
Lily inhaled and held her breath, waiting for comprehension to sink in. “No! It can’t be,” she inadvertently spoke. Why does life have to be like this? Her thoughts tumbled around. Best not to become too attached to people. But it’s my nature to attach. Mrs. Grant was my first friend in this building….
Mrs. Davis attempted to console Lily. “In my church, it’s what we call ‘a good death.’ I’m sorry. I know she cared very much for you.” Lily knew such words of tenderness were difficult for the tough old soldier. She appreciated the kindness.
“Should I come up? Is there anything I can do?” Lily asked, fighting back tears for the second day in a row.
“It’s quiet as death up there, except for that noisy bird. Maybe you can take the bird,” Mrs. Davis suggested. “She loved that little squawker for as long as she had it, you know. Maybe in a couple days you can help her daughter clear out her things. Let me know if you want to stop in for a cup of tea later.”
Mrs. Grant loved this daughter. She had her pictures sitting around everywhere. Finally this daughter is coming to Milwaukee. Why didn’t she visit her mother more often when she was alive? Lily paused, separating her spoken words from her thoughts. “That would be nice—later when I come up to get Messy Bessie,” Lily replied. “Sure. Thanks, Mrs. Davis. I know you’re feeling this, too.”
“Hatchling, my dear,” said Lily, planting a kiss on his forehead as she replaced the receiver. “Some things are more important than others in this world. Like you. Like Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Davis and your papa. Like love and Lost Lenore and all good lives. Some people like Professor Milton are just plain slow learners. They’re not worth wasting your time on.” Then after a pause she added, “Except it is not a waste of time to take action against injustice.” Another pause. “Remember that, little Hatch!”
Hearing Lily’s soliloquy, Lenore sprang to action and began urgently whining at the door.
“Hey, Hatchling, how about a ride in your back carrier? Let’s take Lenore out on a potty walk.” Lily made every effort to keep the tremor out of her voice as her thoughts turned to the loss of a kindly woman who had become a dear friend.
Winter weather graciously brought a late-January reprieve to the cold tundra in the late morning hours. Although the city had endured a bout of Dutch Elm Disease in the mid-sixties and many mature trees had been slaughtered, the boulevards on the East Side had been re-forested with fast-growing red maples. These trees had been spangled with ice overnight but were now dropping their diamond treasures like gracious ladies-in-waiting in obeisance to their queen. Lily breathed the damp air deeply and concentrated on the future. “No more classes with Professor Milton,” she thought. “I’ll drop my seminar with him and add something else—maybe a public policy class—while I still can make a schedule change for the new semester.”
At eleven forty-seven, Blue Jay left his German class, so lost in his own thoughts that at first he did not notice that Lily, Lost Lenore, and the Hatchling were waiting at the entrance of Bolton Hall for him. “We decided to walk you home,” Lily said. “I have some sad news.”
Lenore almost knocked him over, trying to kiss him on his lips.
“Yow! Dog’s breath!” he laughed. “So what’s to be sad about?”
~ * * * * * ~
Messy Bessie adjusted well to her new home, her cage hanging from a chain looped around a radiator pipe on the kitchen ceiling. Since the kitchen was always the center of action, she chattered away in bird gibberish, always ready to add her comments. When Lenore discovered that this feathered creature would remain out of reach, she showed attitude of species superiority by ignoring the parakeet. The Hatchling loved to pull himself to standing position on the table leg and stare up at it, laughing.
Mrs. Grant’s daughter arrived and decided that there would be no funeral; just a simple cremation would do, and the ashes would travel back to California with her. She requested Lily’s and Jay’s help clearing out the apartment. The woman was elegance personified, from coiffured silver hair to gleaming high-heeled boots. She moved with that same certain grace that her mother had shown, and had that same small, careful hesitance in her speech. “Just call me Leticia, Lily. Mrs. Behrenson is just too formal.
“My mother told me you were a great help to her, Lily,” she continued. “I always tried to get her to move to California to be closer to me, but she was set on staying in Milwaukee. As you probably know, my mother could be really formidable. Really stubborn when she dug in.”
Lily was surprised to hear that hear that this offer had been made and Mrs. Grant was the one who chose to stay on alone. She resolved not to make so many snap judgments about people from that moment on.
“I don’t plan on taking this furniture. I’ll just grab the photos and sort through the personal papers. I will have to box and ship the Cruikshank Dickens etchings from the dining room. Then there’s that Spicuzza oil painting of Bradford Beach with the Milwaukee skyline in the background that I grew up with—I can’t part with that, along with some of Mother’s Spode china that was her wedding gift. Anything else you can use, help yourself. The rest can go to the St. Vincent or Goodwill.”
Remembering how she had volunteered with meal preparation at Casa Maria Hospitality House during the spring before Little Jay’s birth, she asked, “Leticia, is it okay if we call this place that helps a lot of homeless women and children and vets?” Letitia approved without hesitation.
This offer of furniture was exciting news, leading to the familial acquisition of an enamel-topped kitchen table with four red vinyl chairs, a maroon velvet couch, and a Persian carpet for the living room. As they were hauling the goodies down to their apartment, Jay proclaimed, “The prize is this dresser for the Hatchling. I’ll paint it bright blue with Lake Michigan scenes and lines from e.e.cummings poems.”
Lily and Jay spent their entire Saturday packing up the clothing and dishware and miscellaneous household items. Lily gave Casa Maria a call, and two returned Vietnam vets in a battered pickup truck were only too happy to come by that same evening to pick up the items.
“I misjudged her daughter, Jay. I seem to be good at that,” Lily mused. “Letitia seems to be a really independent person, but so was Mrs. Grant, when you think about it. Mrs. Grant had her options. I am glad she stayed here so I got to know her.” She paused. “I’m going to miss her presence overhead in Apartment 2.”
Letitia departed early Sunday afternoon. She came down the back stairs to the lower level to hand over the keys. Her words of thanks were effusive as the taxi driver out on Cramer Street kept honking impatiently. Lily noticed Letitia’s large, plaid travel bag, sure that it contained the canister with the remains of her friend Mrs. Grant. The Civil War of the Heat was over; Lily would miss it for as long as she and Jay and the Hatchling and Lost Lenore and Messy Bessie would live in the English Basement of Tannenbaum Arms.
~ * * * * * ~