Sherrie Fernandez-Williams

Author of Soft: A Memoir

Excerpt

 

Her favorite sweater was an orange v-neck she wore with the gabardine that encased her feminine round, including the pouch that sat contentedly upon her lap when she sat.  The brown and freckled skin within the V shimmered with white powder and a gold plated medallion.  Her earrings always dangled.  Her Afro was always trimmed and her bell-bottoms were always just a little too tight.  Her strapless sandals clicked at her heels.  Her extraordinary hips moved like a large body of water.   With all of that swooshing and clicking down Fulton Street Mall she was bound to sashay her way into some man’s life.  She had reason to hold her head up, but she rarely did.  Her head was kept low.   Her heavy eyes told truths beyond what she even knew herself.  What good was the admiration of strangers when ultimately these men would be informed of the eight children she had at home?  “Wanting me, means wanting them,” she would have to explain to Mr. I-could-love-you-for-the-rest-of-your-life. The street games of New York City can do an aging ego good on lonely days, “but will the serious brothers please stand up!” I would have screamed for her if I understood then what I understand now. 

And though I was too young to make much distinction between those who were serious from those who were plain fools, some gave the appearance of being serious, as in earnest, as in a fully grown adult male, serious enough for my mother to invite them home.  The very few come to me now out of the dimness of memory. 

Carlos was the Dominican brother who wore two-tone shoes.  As a gift he once gave my mother a pair of matching two-tone pumps.  I wondered if he might be the one despite the fact that I found his choice of gift to be a little peculiar, and despite the fact that he barely spoke English. Though my mother is half Cuban, she barely spoke Spanish. Old Latina women would come to her in the street asking for directions, or the time, or who knows what and she would respond in the only phrase she knew, “No speaka Spanish.”  As I refocus my lens to see him more clearly, I think now that Carlos was not a boyfriend, but rather a shoe salesman.  I recall an imprecise image of a flimsy cardboard box full of ugly shoes that sat in our apartment for several days, maybe more.  They were all different sizes, and at least enough to fit eight sets of feet. Yes, I remember now.  I remember my brother Kyle and me deciding that no one could make us wear those hideous things.  As poor as we were, we had the nerve to be particular, but we were often preoccupied with avoiding the appearance of poverty. 

More than his shoes, what remains most clear in my mind is the way Carlos greedily took my mother in with his hazel eyes, and her obvious discomfort displayed by the frown she wore away from his gaze.  He was trying to trade his sad footwear for love. For a moment, she must have considered it an adequate trade. 

Robert came next, or perhaps first.  The broad shouldered man must have been a summer beau because I only remember him in sleeveless shirts that revealed his David-Robinson-like shoulders and arms.  He had a full mustache and the side burns of Richard Roundtree. Maybe I’m just imagining these attributes. I suppose with so many years having passed, I could not identify Robert if he was standing right in front of me, but he seemed to be the kind of man who might be fingered by someone in a lineup. In my adult reconstruction of him, he appears looking something like Roger and Dee’s daddy from that 70’s TV show, What’s Happening!  In any case, Robert went away just as Carlos did before him, or maybe it was after him, and I dared to ask my mother why because I disliked the thought of her being without a companion.  I should have known that her answer would simply be that she’d rather not talk about it.  

Not talking was my mother’s way, which is why I thought Sam would finally be the one who would stay.  I cannot say that he ever spoke one word to me, but I was fond of him.  He certainly had an easy manner, and appeared to embody a measure of decency, which I cannot say for Carlos and Robert.  Sam worked for the City of New York. What he did for the city, I cannot recall, and I’m not sure if I ever knew.  I knew that he had the same job for more than twenty years and had plans to work another ten years before he retired.  I imagine that he would have retired years ago, now, to some place warm, quiet, and slow.  I thought my mother would be the perfect mate for a man like Sam.  She would return home from Atlantic City with bags of salt-water taffies that she would share with me.  She would carry the stuffed-animals home that he had won for her at the Coney Island game booths.  But what I appreciated most about Sam is that he did not call her Dot like everyone else, but Dorothy. 

 A time or two, Dorothy would make a meal and after her youngest children had eaten and scattered away, the two middle-aged adults would sit without chatter, as if they were prepubescent teens who hadn’t a clue about date-talk.  I know this, because I made a point of hovering within earshot.  I remember him saying once that the meatloaf was juicy, and my mother said it was the tomato sauce.  Sam nodded and the rest of the meal was eaten in near silence.  He mumbled a thank you and my mother began to collect the dishes in the gentle and meticulous way she did things when peace was present.  Sam lasted for a few seasons, perhaps even the same season twice, much longer than the others.  When he went away, again I had the nerve to ask why.  This time she’d given me an answer: “I’m not the type of woman to keep company with a man who will not marry.”  My mother was the type of woman to use phrases like “keep company.”  She was a former Burgeon Street beauty, the youngest of the five Fernandez girls who were penniless, but well groomed, pressed and tidy, with multi-ethnic-island-heritage hair. And though my mother was one of the darkest sisters with the kinkiest head of hair, there was still something almost exotic about her in the eyes of a few useless men.  She was considered nearly as pretty as her sisters Helen and Alice who more or less looked Puerto Rican. Under the bizarre hierarchy of color, less being more, the Fernandez sisters reaped fractional benefit from the times in which they were living, the post-northern-migration/pre-afro-pick era when too many of us (us meaning anyone who’s ever lived in a racialized society) were too messed up to see beauty clearly in all hues of the Diaspora. All five of these women, Dorothy and her sisters, found southern gentlemen who promised to love and care for “their girls” for as long as they all remained girls.… Which of course was not the original promise said before God, the Universe, and at least two witnesses, but a promise is only as good as the mouth that speaks it.  And by the time enough years would pass for the sisters to have their Brooklyn apartments filled to their paint-chipped ceilings with children, four out of five of them would have to learn to be gifted in “the art of losing,” in the Elizabeth Bishop sense. Only Eleanor, the one considered the most desirable of all five, stayed married ‘til death.  It was her death from a ruptured aneurism when she was thirty-three.

When peace was present, Dorothy was as tender as her belly.  Then again, sometime after eleven o’clock P.M. she might become Hurricane Dot, as we named her, rising from her slumber while the children waited quietly without making any sudden moves. Soon we would hear the clang of mettle smashing into metal as pots slammed into the kitchen sink.  She’d be mumbling to herself about how she “don’t have nothin'”.  Her red and swollen eyes nearly shut from sleep, but always displayed her rage. We all did our best to stay out of her vision in fear of getting impaled.  “Tear up every damn thing…. Can’t keep shit…. Eat me out of house and home,” she would mutter while sweeping the hell out of the floor, shoving chairs out of her way.  Many nights she woke to find that we were the same ungrateful children she knew we were before she’d fallen asleep while watching reruns of The Odd Couple

In the late night hours, we would become glutinous house rodents devouring all morsels that were not intended for our consumption.  In the midst of one of her midnight fits, one of her eight children might dare to tell her to just calm down, as in, “I’m gonna do the dishes, Ma, just calm down.”  Dot would holler back, “Don’t you tell me to calm down, I’M GROWN!  Get your own damn kids if you want to tell somebody what to do!”  I would attempt to calm her down with cheap affection, like the time I kissed her on the cheek with lips sticky from the no-name syrup.  I only succeeded at turning a Category 2 storm into a three or four as she threatened to blow us right out of downtown Brooklyn to the place where nasty little children go. 

Screaming mothers in my neighborhood were as common as bodegas and check-cashing places.  I woke to the high-pitched shrieks of the woman upstairs scolding her children for doing unthinkable things, just unthinkable, like neglecting to refill the ice trays in the freezer.  I’ve seen mothers in grocery stores drop their kids’ pants and wallop their exposed behinds as they pleaded upon unsympathetic ears.  Alice Walker said that her mother’s generation was “ragged head generals with fists as well as hands.”  Their hands made strong, she said, by working in the field and dragging heavy mops across someone else kitchen.  What of my mother’s generation?  Who were these fussin’ and cussin’ urban women?

My mother and her neighbors had as many babies as God and nature would allow. And sooner or later, mother and babies were left behind.  It was 1974 when my father said that if he stayed, he would only end up drinking himself to death.  I remember the men who did succeed at drinking themselves to death. I’d watched them stumble   around the neighborhood with their bellies jutting outside of their T-shirts, falling asleep on benches, and pissing behind trees, and banging on doors because their wives done changed the locks.

Soon, we’d find the obituary hanging up in the lobby of our building.  Mr. X, Y, or Z, former Navy Man, Korean War Vet, former transit worker, or postal clerk, or dock worker, preceded in death by his mother, father, and two brothers who also died too young.  Mr. X leaves behind an impoverished wife and ump-teen children who would have to ask for donations to cover the cost of his burial.   This is what my father’s death may have been, cirrhosis of the liver, after years of passing out in the street, and vomiting in trashcans chained to benches.   He chose to leave instead. 

 I, as a baby of such a mother, am reminded of quiet, decent Sam, the one who I thought would stay, and wonder if he thought that I was a girl in need of Daddy because I still had growing years ahead of me, and because I was always sniffing around them like some hungry house pet.  If I could, I would tell you, Sam, that all I wanted was to take in Dorothy’s fragrance as she clicked her way out the front door on a Friday night swaying like the Atlantic Ocean after smelling the flowers you just gave her.  On those nights I would stay up late waiting for her and watch you hold her balance as she stepped out of your car.  I watched from the window as you kissed her goodnight.  It was especially satisfying because it was right in front of my mother’s former adversaries, the women of Farragut Projects who once worked overtime to pique my father’s curiosity after their own husbands left or died. 

I would irritate her with questions.  She would tell me that you were a good person, though I could see that for myself.   Once, I rubbed her back with ointment as she ached from sitting too long on the beach with you.  She was too busy being at peace to notice her own skin burning.  When peace was present Dorothy moved slowly.  She might even hum at bit before and after Eleven P.M.  She shared her saltwater taffies and her stories with me, however little she was willing to tell.  She held her head up just a bit more and her eyes appeared less weighted.  I watched her slip into the soft leather slippers you just gave her for Christmas and knew that it had been way too long since she had known such comfort.