Sometimes I'd grab a Coke from the refrigerator and slump down on the couch with her, slurping intentionally from the bottle.
A girl named Lucinda Cote thought she was going to get it -- told me as much. She was a big piece of cheese, very stuck on herself. But no, they gave it to me. And here is my very own granddaughter who can't even sit correctly on a divan. She watched in silent horror as I stuck my thumb over the Coke bottle opening and shook, then let the foam erupt into my mouth. Evenings after the dishes, Grandma hobbled around the house with her frayed prayer book which was held together with rubber bands.
Then she'd settle in front of the television to watch her westerns -- "Bonanza," "Rawhide" -- while I sat out at the kitchen signing corny get-well cards to Ma and pages of complaints to Jeanette. In our first week together, Grandma told me it was a sin the way I wasted hot water, toilet paper, my spare time. She said she'd never heard of a girl who had reached my age without learning to crochet. I retaliated by shocking her as best I could. At breakfast, I drowned my scrambled eggs in plugs of ketchup. Evenings, I danced wildly by myself to my 45s while she watched from the doorway.
It was mostly for Grandma's benefit that I mouthed the declarations of the girl singers: My love is like a heat wave. It's my party and I'll cry if I want to! One night Grandma wondered aloud why I didn't ever listen to singers who could carry a tune. I lied and told her one of her precious Lennon sisters -- Diane, the oldest, her favorite -- was having an illegitimate baby.
But her lip quivered and she left my room making the sign of the cross. Pierce Street smelled of car exhaust and frying food. Glass shattered, people screamed, kids threw rocks. She told me she had warned her husband, my grandfather, that they should follow the doctors and lawyers and schoolteachers who had moved out of the neighborhood after the war. But Grandpa had put it off and put it off and then, in , had died, leaving her with teenage children and a two-family home with a leaky roof.
She had come to see her staying on amongst the "riffraff" as the will of God. He had placed her here as a model of clean Catholic living.
She was not obliged to speak to any of her neighbors, only to offer them her good example. At dusk each evening, Mrs. Tingley, Grandma's third-floor tenant, clip-clopped down the side steps with her bug-eyed Chihuahua, Cutie Pie. Tingley always said, while the dog circled nervously on his tether. In all the years Mr. Tingley had rented from my grandmother, Grandma had assumed he was the drinker, not her.
But after Mr. Tingley's death, the package-store man had kept pulling up to the curb as usual.
She’s Come Undone
My bedroom ceiling was Mrs. Tingley's bedroom floor. The only sound from above was the click of dog toenails, and I pictured Mrs. Tingley up there lying in bed, sipping in silence. Across from Grandma's was a tin-roofed store divided in two. One half was a barbershop.
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The barber, a thin, jowly man, sat sadly at the window most of the day, reading his own magazines and waiting for customers. The other half was the Peacock Tattoo Emporium. It was run by a skinny, older woman with dyed black hair and red toreador pants. On my second afternoon at Grandma's, she waved me over from where I was sitting on the front porch, waiting for the mailman.
She introduced herself as Roberta and asked me to run to the store for a pack of Newports. When I returned, she waved away the change and proceeded to dazzle me with her exotic life story. She had once been married to a sword swallower who was now in jail where he belonged. Her second husband, the Canuck, God love him, was dead. Roberta had traveled with the Canuck to both Alaska and Hawaii and liked Alaska better.
She'd dreamed President Kennedy's assassination the week before it happened. She had been a vegetarian since the day in when she opened up a can of beef stew and found a baby rat. When Grandma came outside to sweep the porch, she spotted me through Roberta's plate-glass window and motioned me home. Back inside, she hit me on the head with a rolled-up newspaper. The center of activity on Pierce Street was Connie's Superette, a little market housed on the bottom floor of a large, asbestos-shingled apartment building.
Connie, a fat woman with Lucille Ball red hair, sat behind the counter on a webbed porch chair. She kept a whirring electric fan trained on herself and was careful not to risk breaking her two-inch fingernails as she grudgingly rang up people's stuff. Connie's nephew, Big Boy, was the butcher. He whistled through his teeth and wore madras shirts and an apron smeared with blood. Grandma traded at Connie's because she had never learned to drive a car, but she held a grudge against Big Boy, who had said to her one day in front of a whole storeful of customers, "What'll it be, tootsie?
Daily, she folded money into my palm and sent me down the street for Tums or cornstarch or prune juice. As I headed out the door, she never failed to remind me to steer clear of both Big Boy and the dirty-magazine aisle. The Pysyks lived in the apartment above the superette. Their twin daughters, Rosalie and Stacia, were the only two girls my age on Pierce Street. They hung out on the upstairs porch, where they danced and giggled and flicked their middle fingers back to neighborhood boys who shouted vulgar remarks up to them.
They had a portable record player with a plastic polka-dot case and one scratchy record, "Big Girls Don't Cry," which they played nonstop at top volume. Both girls wore short shorts and frilly midriff blouses and were Q-Tip skinny, although they seemed forever to be eating and drinking something. Their whole day was like a party -- a private one. I was both jealous of the twins and petrified of them. Grandma had once thrown a pitcher of water at the girls and called them "dirty DP's" when she had caught them ringing her bell and hiding behind her catalpa tree.
The Pysyk sisters took an immediate dislike to me, and my daily treks to the store became nightmares. Her sister hung over the railing, smirking and eating from a bag of potato chips. Got a broom up your ass? I'm really enjoying it. I'm really enjoying it,' " Rosalie mimicked back. Both girls brayed like donkeys. Her sister squealed in horrified delight, pulling off a candy wrapper with her teeth and spitting it over the rail at me. Each day it happened again.
My heart raced.
MORE BY WALLY LAMB
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