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Training Aunt

danYell's picture

Training Aunt

What will grow quickly, that you can't make straight
It's the price you gotta pay
Do yourself a favour and pack you bags
Buy a ticket and get on the train
Buy a ticket and get on the train
-- Black Swan, Thom Yorke

She was born in the city, but she grew up in the country. A Haitian father and a white American mother, they struggled to move their family out of a two-bedroom apartment in Harlem and into the bucolic Hudson Valley. She was nine when they loaded up the truck and followed it in their Peugeot up the Palisades Parkway to a small town on the Hudson River. When they got out of the car she was sheepish, didn’t know what to do. She circled the four-acre property with her older sister Ingrid while her parents fumbled with the keys to the house. She and Ingrid discovered plant life with no name. “Is that a dandelion?” “Actually,” said Ingrid, “it’s not even yellow.” There was a stream, a babbling brook, running along the back edge of the yard, and a pond with an island in the front. “You think anyone can see us?” asked Fleuriana. “Probably not,” said her sister. So Fleuriana removed her shirt and shoes, picked half a dozen purple flowers and sang the dandelion song anyway. She waded in the stream and toyed with a mass of fishes eggs. She was interrupted by her mother, who opened the back door, demanded to know why she’d wrecked the irises, and where in the world was her shirt anyway. Her father laughed.

It was in the country that the confusion began. Three weeks after they arrived it was summertime. Their parents boarded the commuter train in the morning and returned to work in the city, so their grandmother came to sit with them. Their mother’s mother, she arrived from Iowa with a deck of cards a bottle of whiskey, and a whistle. She wore her late husband’s ring on a chain around her neck, and each afternoon at 5 she had a glass of whiskey and Squirt. She was a cookies-and-milk woman with the girls, and a card shark. Her game of choice was bridge, but with the girls she played Spite and Malice, and she taught them well.

During the day, their blue-haired Grandma kicked her feet up in the Lazy-boy recliner and watched her programs. When it wasn’t too humid or raining, the girls spent most of their time outside. All that grass, all to themselves; no men flashing them from behind a tree, and they didn’t have to hold hands all the time for fear one of them would be snatched. Fleuriana kept her shirt on and collected tadpoles and frogs from the pond. Ingrid took hers off and sunned in the yard. At noon Grandma called them in for dinner and as many hands of cards as they were willing to play. The cards they played at the kitchen table, the soap operas running in the family room. This routine served them all summer.

One afternoon, during the fifth hand of Spite of Malice, the phone rang. Grandma and Ingrid were tied, but Fleuriana was ahead this round- just one more card in the goal pile, and three wilds in her hand. Grandma answered the phone. She held the receiver to her ear, and then she hung the phone back up.
“Well,” she said.
“Who was it?”
“Wrong number,” she tugged on her necklace. It was a habit, like patting your pocket to check for you keys.
Fleuriana won that hand, but Grandma didn’t feel like playing anymore.
Wednesday, after dinner, the three sat at the kitchen table, playing cards, soap operas running in the family room. Fleuriana had just won her second hand, Grandma had a single win, and Ingrid was polishing her nails. A week before the new school year, Ingrid was perfecting her look- purple polish. She used q-tips to take off the polish that crept onto her skin. The room stunk of remover. Grandma was teaching Fleuriana the art of creating a bridge while shuffling the deck when the phone rang.
“Well,” Grandma said standing up. She put down the cards and picked up the receiver. “Hello?” The cord on the kitchen telephone was long. It stretched all the way to the sink and back, and could even be used as a jump rope. Grandma stood where she was, breathing. She hung up the phone.
“Who was it?” Ingrid asked, blowing on her right pinkie.
“No one.” Grandma went to the sink and filled a glass with water. She leaned against the sink and looked at the girls. She drank the water, rinsed the glass. “I’m going to watch my programs,” she announced, and touched the ring dangling on her chest.
Fleuriana listened for the creak of the Lazy-boy. “Who do you think it is?” she whispered to her sister
“Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a ghost.” Ingrid noticed a spot of polish on her knuckle and rubbed it away.
“There are no ghosts.”

Thursday, it rained. Fleuriana sprawled on her bed and read Popo and Fifina. Ingrid sat on the floor of her room across the hall and wrote in the latest volume of her journals. Grandma, downstairs baked sheet after sheet of Aunt Liza’s cookies and the house smelled of ginger. “I need to get some sugar for the icing,” Grandma called up the stairs. “Anyone want to come with me?” Fleuriana jumped off her bed and slid on sock feet to the doorway of her sister’s room. “You gonna go with Grandma?”
“Actually,” said Ingrid, “I’m in the middle of something.”
“It can’t be about your boyfriend, ‘cause you don’t have one.”
“Shut up.”
“Hello,” Grandma called, “Anyone coming?”
“Nah, we’ll stay here,” Fleuriana called back.
“See you later, Grandma,” Ingrid shouted.
“So, what’s it about?”
“Nothing. Wanna get out of my doorway?”
“Can I read it?”
“You can barely read.”
“I can too. You’re rude.” Fleuriana stared at her sister, and Ingrid scrawled in the corner of her journal. They had played this game many times before. If Ingrid spoke, Fleuriana answered, but if Ingrid remained silent Fleuriana got bored and went away.
“I’m gonna get some cookies.”
“See ya.”
“I won’t bring you any.”
“Don’t want any.”

Fleuriana backed out of the doorway and went downstairs. There were hundreds of cookies covering the counters of the kitchen. Seventy years ago, Aunt Liza had six children and ran a farm; her colossal and delicious cookie recipe was unalterable. Any change in the measurements would change the consistency of the dough and the magic would be lost. And these were not drop cookies; each sheet had to be hand rolled and cut the right thickness. Making Aunt Liza’s cookies either meant a party or a nervous breakdown, especially if icing was involved. Grandma said she was doing it so the girls would have something to take with them to school.

Fleuriana chose one of the walnutty brown, perfectly round cookies. She had been eating them all morning and was experimenting with different biting patterns. Taking a large bite out of the side of the cookie was interesting, as was taking small bites all the way around the smooth edge. This time she tried nibbling from the top down. She started on one edge, but as she got to the middle the cookie crumbled. She was standing in the middle of the kitchen deciding whether or not to get the broom and dustpan when the phone rang. She heard Ingrid’s footsteps on the ceiling prancing towards their parents room.

“Who do you think it is, your boyfriend?” Fleuriana shouted up the stairs. Of all the fun things to do on a rainy day, tormenting one’s older sister takes the cake. Fleuriana ran to the kitchen phone with its extra long cord. She waited. The phone rang again. She had experimented with the silent-simultaneous-telephone-pickup many times, and was successful about a third of the time. Usually, if she was undetected during the pickup, her breath gave her away less than a minute into the conversation. This time she was determined to get it right. She rested her hand on the receiver as the phone began its third ring. Midway through she picked up. Ingrid did too.
“Hello?” It was hard to tell when Ingrid knew right away that she was on the line because she would ignore Fleuriana’s presence until after the greetings. Fleuriana held her breath. The caller was silent.
“Hello, Ingrid speaking.”
A man cleared his throat.
“Hello?” Ingrid tried again.
“I want you to go back where you came from,” he said.
“Go back where you belong, bitch.”
“Actually,” Ingrid began, but the caller hung up before she could finish her sentence.
* * *

The evening before the first day of school Fleuriana was subjected to the bathing ritual for the first time since they moved to the country. She thought that somehow the fresh air and good smelling bushes made her mother dizzy, it had been so long since she’d braided her hair. In the city, the unbraiding and re-braiding was a weekly and terrible occurrence. She was under the impression that because there weren’t any nuns at her new school the tight braids and the itchy white shirts would disappear as well. Fleuriana had gone eight weeks with the same forty braids and she loved it; she wept just thinking about the comb. Her mother dragged a chair, comb and Fleuriana into the family room and set them up in front of the television. Sunday night, 60 minutes, followed by NOVA; the only highlight of the first hour was the ticking clock and the guy at the end telling jokes Fleuriana almost understood, NOVA was good though.

The first day of school. New clothes, tight shoes, and an aching scalp, Grandma left them gripping each other’s hands in the hallway outside the principal’s office. She had forgotten the cookies in the car, but promised to hand deliver them to the girls’ classrooms.
“Welcome,” a voice boomed from inside. Ingrid squeezed her sister’s sweaty palm. “This is quite extraordinary!” The principal came out of his office smiling. His body did not fit is voice; he was balding, had the body of a jockey, and smelled of raspberry bubblegum. He clapped his hands, rubbed his palms together, and stared at the girls for three heartbeats, Ingrid counted. He quit smiling and gave them a look of caring it seemed he had practiced.
“You are the first black family in our town.”
“Actually,” Ingrid exercised any opportunity she could to use her favorite word. “we are brown. Well, not all of us, two of us are brown, one of us is black, and two of us are white. Did you meet my Grandmother?”
“Extraordinary!” He too had a favorite word it seemed. “No, I haven’t met her, but we will have plenty of time for that later.” He started walking towards the lower school classrooms and motioned for the girls to follow him.
“So, Ingrid, you will be in Ms. Borakove’s homeroom, and you, little girl,” he reached out and tugged on a few of Fleuriana’s braids, “you will be in Mr. Douty’s highly esteemed Star City!” Fleuriana frowned and took a step backwards, pulling her sister with her. “Oh, it’s not terrible!” he said, “Mr. Douty is a local favorite, you know.”
“I’m sure he’s extraordinary,” said Ingrid. She regretted not begging to go to summer camp. The summer with Grandma had been great, but there were twenty kids in her class, and she didn’t know any of them. The principal continued talking about the teachers, but the girls tuned him out. There were much more interesting things to look at as they approached their classrooms.
“See ya,” said Ingrid when they stopped in front of Fleuriana’s room. Fleuriana peeped inside before releasing her sister’s hand. There were stars dangling from the ceiling and the desks were connected in rows.
“Presenting Fleuriana,” the principal boomed, leading her to the teacher, and Mr. Douty didn’t seem demonic when he showed her to her desk. The honor of being the new kid was coated with oddity of being the only brown kid. The cookies arrived and everyone seemed confused about Grandma. Whispers sprayed cookie crumbs into friends’ ears while teachers begged for the recipe. Grandma laughed and said it was a secret.
Recess came quickly that day. But aren’t kids always terrible on the playground? Fleuriana free at last; she ran towards the swings. She saw Ingrid chatting it up with a girl in a purple skirt and blue nail polish. She wished she had a friend. The kid that sat next to her that morning had a runny nose that he wiped on his spelling book. During the penmanship lesson she faked not knowing cursive so she wouldn’t be too nerdy. The girl across from her kept eye-balling her paper. When Fleuriana found the courage to eye-ball her back, she saw a wad of green wax in her ear. She prayed they would move seats.
“Heads up!”
Fleuriana on the ground, eye to eye with a dandelion puff. Ingrid ran to her.
“You ok?” she asked, picking her little sister off the ground.
“Uh, yep.” Fleuriana stood and discovered that she had run smack in the middle of the big kids kickball diamond.
“What’s the matter with you?” Ingrid demanded of a freckly boy two years her junior.
“What’s the matter with you?”
Ingrid got in his face. “You watch yourself.” The Manhattanite junior-high stance came easily.
“Tell your sister to watch herself, ya monkey.”
“What’d you call me?”
“You heard me.”
“Say it again!”
“What’s going on here?” It was the milk lady come recess aide. “You ok?” she brushed the dust of Fleuriana’s new blue pants.
The aide drew her verdict: “Looks like an accident to me. Run along and play now, recess is almost over.”

* * *
“Dad, hurry up!” Flo looked at her watch again. They were going to miss the train. Today they were heading to Philadelphia to look at colleges. The Amtrak train would leave Croton-Harmon Station in thirty minutes. This early in the morning, driving to the station would take twenty-two minutes and then, with her father’s Caribbean attitude, walking to the track would take another ten.
“Chill, man,” Flo’s father smiled and emerged from his house wearing a suit and patting his pockets, front, back, jacket breast, jacket inside, front again.
“You have everything?”
“Ok then,let’s go.”
They made it to the station on time, the train pulled in just as her father started down the steps to the platform. Flo ran ahead and held the doors, watching him. He was looking pretty good these days. After the divorce he had a few rough spots. He didn’t know how to feed himself. If was amazing to her that a man, fifty years old, could lack the most basic life skills. When he came out of his two-year depression and fast food eating binge he began cooking. Not the stuff her mother made, an American’s attempt at rice and beans, a bi-monthly excursion with seafood; he was making the real deal. Djondjon and lambe, plantains and bread pudding, she was impressed.

As was he. Today’s trip to Philadelphia was the highlight of his year. He sent one daughter to the Ivy Leagues and he’d be damned if he wouldn’t send both. Ingrid had graduated from UPENN just two years ago and now she was plugging away at Georgetown Law. Not bad for the kids of an immigrant. On the train to Philadelphia he plotted out his daughter’s futures. While Flo listened to her discman, he had them performing multi-national takeovers, marrying smart self-starters, and birthing brilliant black baby boys.

Not much for writing himself, he was a lecturer. At every opportunity he shared his impression of the world with his daughters. “Take no prisoners” was his favorite phrase, a close runner up being, “Assholes.” His personal secretaries, his daughters, were familiar with his political views and loyalties. He dictated letters for Flo to send to the President, Congress, and Mayor Giuliani. He constantly related how difficult his American experience had been. He came to this society at a time that was impossible for black men. The decades spent on American soil were terrifying. He worked to lose his accent and claim a new identity as an American; met and married a white American woman, assimilate. This experiment, successful in a broad sense, had failed for him personally. He graduated from City College and started out as an architect. Charisma flowing and fear concealed he opened his own business in construction. Financial success, material success achieved. A house in the country, cars for everyone that could drive and a motorcycle for the Hudson Valley weekends, a satellite dish and a big screen TV, American dream fulfilled? He had never felt safe, and as he aged he felt particularly vulnerable. The physical power of his youth was rapidly fading, and those that wished to destroy him, destroy what he worked for; they lurked everywhere. Assholes.

From 30th Street Station in Philadelphia they transferred to a commuter train that would take them out to the local suburbs. The College out there looked promising. One of his childhood friends had a daughter who had applied and been rejected, even better. His daughter would get it. He prayed. Saint Anthony brings good things to his people, to Haitian people. In every city he visited he found the church named after this Saint and lit a candle. He prayed. Pray to Saint Anthony, he told his daughters. They would see.
“Dad, this is our stop.”
“What? What’s that say? Is that English?”
“It’s the name of the town, Dad. It’s Welsh. It means big hill.”
“How’d you know that?”
“I did my homework, Dad.”
They got off the train. Admissions offices and deans, lunch and then a tour, they were back where they started. He was still impressed. When he got home he would light a candle. She would get it. It was simple, and it would be true.
“What’d you think?”
“Very nice. I really like that one dorm they have out in the woods. It reminds me of our old house.”
“Yeah? How do you get to class from there?”
“Oh, I think the van that we rode out there runs pretty regularly.”
“I hope so.” He took out a handkerchief and blew his nose. “You know that’s not safe.”
“It’s not safe, walking on that road.” He pointed in the direction of the College.
“Nah, there’s not that much traffic. I walk on the side of the road at home all the time.”
“It is not safe.” He folded the handkerchief and put it back in his pocket. He looked at her. “White people will run you down just for fun.”
Flo rolled her eyes, “Don’t be paranoid, Dad.”
“I am telling you, do not walk on that road. You see a white pick-up, you get out of the way.”
“Dad, stop being dramatic.”
His shoulders dropped.
“Ok, Ok, I won’t walk on the road.” She looped her arm in his and they walked towards the train station. “Jeez, I don’t even know if I’m coming here and you’re already micro-managing me.”

* * *

Shit. Shit, shit, shit. Did I miss it? I only fell asleep for like two minutes. Two minutes. What time is it? 11:56. I missed it. Shit. That’s it. I have to walk. If this final paper isn’t in that mailbox in 34 minutes I am completely screwed. Nothing like waiting ‘til the eleventh hour, Flo. Smooth move, sister… That’s cool. I’ll walk. Keys, wallet, phone. I don’t have my phone. I don’t need my phone. I’m just walking to the English House and then I am finished. Done. One year down. I am going to pour myself the biggest rhum and coke when I get home. I still have the good stuff that Dimi gave me. Dimi… What was that comic he loved? It was a movie. I can’t remember. I need to get some sleep. Aww, look at the baby geese. They’re cute. One good thing about living out here in the woods, Fox, deer, geese. Anything interesting in the stream? Nope. I wonder if these driveway gates ever close. Probably not. Ok. The street. It would be useful if they had sidewalks here. I wonder if they have sidewalks in Africa. Stupid question. Stay focused… eyes on the prize. Steady now, look both ways. Watch for cars. Nothing. Wait. Am I on the right side? Pedestrians face traffic, bicycles join traffic. Can they see me? Here comes a yellow bus. Make eye contact with the driver. Hello driver. He sees me. Wish I had my phone. I need to make some celebratory calls. Ingrid is going to be psyched. I wonder when her graduation is. This side of the road is really narrow. The fence is falling down, it’s a death trap. Look behind, no cars. Should I cross? Yes. NO. Here comes a pick-up truck. Turn off your brights! Who uses their headlights during the day anyway? Pick-up truck, a Pick-up truck. Make eye contact with the driver. Stop blinding me! What color is it?... Am I going to die? OK. I’m ok. Look both ways, Cross now. Excellent. Man, I’m starved. I need pizza. Almost to the light. Almost to the side-walk. Here comes a car behind you. Look over the shoulder, SUV. Stop walking. Make eye contact with the driver. Hello driver. Nice Benz. What time is it? 12:04. I am so good. I am so done.
* * *

The three run to catch the train at 59th Street, losing their dandelion necklaces along the way. They have spent the day chasing one other around the Central Park: the zoo, paddling around the duck pond, and eating bologna sandwiches with mustard for lunch at Strawberry Fields. It is spring. Though the daffodil and tulip have come and gone, it is time now for lilac and iris. Underground, the number 9 train strains against the tracks, taking them north towards Harlem.
“Wanna hear a joke?”
The kids amuse themselves with their aunt Flo’s fleshy upper arms. Maggie squeezes and releases, squeezes and releases again the soft spot above her aunt’s elbow. Ralph, happy to lean against her, sounds out the words of the ads overhead around the thumb in his mouth.
“OK,” Maggie palpates the arm. “Where do astronauts eat their lunch?”
Ralph sits up and pulls his thumb out of his mouth, “I know that joke, that’s from my joke book. I got it from the library at school.” He is almost shouting.
“Is it? I still can’t believe you’re reading,” says Flo. “Where do they eat?”
“At the launch pad,” Maggie says before her brother can. He pouts and jams his fists in the pocket of his hooded sweatshirt. His legs swing, heels bang against the radiator under the seat. A man in a Yankees cap looks up from his magazine.
“My turn,” Ralph says pulling Spiderman from his pocket.
“Can you remember one?” asks Flo, placing a hand on his legs.
Ralph prepares Spiderman for attack. “Where do Martians leave their spaceships?”
“That’s easy,” says Maggie.
“Let me guess, at the launch pad?”
“They wouldn’t use the same answer for two different jokes, Aunt,” says Maggie.
“They leave them at the parking meteors.”
“Oh, that’s smart.”
“My turn,” says Maggie. “Where does the Martian president live?”
“I don’t know, where?”
“In the green house!” Ralph shouts and folds his arms across his chest.
“The green house, huh?”
“Yep,” he nods, “the green house.”
“But why the green house?” asks Flo.
“Because he’s green,” says Maggie; rolling her eyes, long beaded braids swinging.
“Well, then who lives in the white house?” asks Flo.
“The president,” says Ralph.
“Does he have to be white?”
Maggie releases her aunt’s arm and sweeps a dozen braids over her shoulder. “Aunt, be serious, I haven’t seen any brown people as president, have you?”
Flo arches a single brow, she is still learning how to talk to this new manifestation of Maggie, the pre-pre-teen. “Couldn’t you be president?”
“uh, no, Aunt, but I could be the president’s wife.”
Flo measures her words. “Well, the story is changing, Maggie. We could have a woman president, or a brown president very soon.”
“Keep dreaming, Aunty.”
Shaking her head, Flo formulates her response; she can’t find the starting point. She imagines the logic that the kids’ parents would use, the precise reasoning of her sister Ingrid, or the authoritative voice of her brother in law. What would her father say? She sees the blue and white tiled walls of her stop, 116th Street, the University. “This is our stop you guys,” she says and stands. She adjusts her backpack and offers a hand to Ralph.
“Aunt,” he says sliding off the seat and tucking Spiderman back in his pocket.
“I could be president.” He is standing now, and smiling. The train brakes hard and throws him into her legs.
“No you couldn’t,” Maggie says grasping a pole, her eyes, the color of mink, flashing.
“Yes I could!” He is shouting again. The doors open and he tugs his aunt’s hand. “Aunt, Maggie says I can’t be president.”
“I heard her, come on,” Flo says leading them off the train under her arms.
“Well he can’t!” Maggie exclaims, dodging a woman boarding the train.
Aunt grabs Maggie’s wrist and shouts over the noise in the tunnel, “Yes he can, you both could.” Her voice challenges the departing train, and echoes off the tiled walls.
“Not at the same time we can’t,” Maggie says laughing. She runs ahead, “I’d kick his butt out of the white house so fast.”
“I’ll kick your butt,” Ralph says. He drops his aunt’s hand and chases his sister up the stairs.

* * *