I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, p.21Part #1 of Maya Angelou's Autobiography series by Maya Angelou
Dolores was sitting, it seemed, in the same place as the night before. Her pose was so similar it was hard to believe she had gone to sleep, eaten breakfast or even patted her firm hairdo. Dad said sportily, “Hello, kid,” and walked toward the bathroom. I greeted her: “Hello, Dolores” (we had long dropped the pretense of familial relationship). She responded, briefly but politely, and threaded her attention through the eye of her needle. She was now prudently making cute kitchen curtains, which would soon starchily oppose the wind. Having nothing more to say, I went to my room. Within minutes an argument ensued in the living area that was as audible to me as if the separating walls were muslin sheets.
“Bailey, you’ve let your children come between us.”
“Kid, you’re too sensitive. The children, er, my children, can’t come between us, unless you let them.”
“How can I stop it?”—she was crying—“They’re doing it.” Then she said, “You gave your daughter your jacket.”
“Was I supposed to let her freeze to death? Is that what you’d like, kid?” He laughed. “You would, wouldn’t you?”
“Bailey, you know I wanted to like your children, but they …” She couldn’t bring herself to describe us.
“Why the hell don’t you say what you mean? You’re a pretentious little bitch, aren’t you? That’s what Marguerite called you, and she’s right.”
I shivered to think how that revelation would add to her iceberg of hate for me.
“Marguerite can go to hell, Bailey Johnson. I’m marrying you, I don’t want to marry your children.”
“More pity for you, you unlucky sow. I am going out. Goodnight.”
The front door slammed. Dolores cried quietly and broke the piteous whimpers with sniffles and a few dainty nose blows into her handkerchief.
In my room, I thought my father was mean and cruel. He had enjoyed his Mexican holiday, and still was unable to proffer a bit of kindness to the woman who had waited patiently, busying herself with housewifely duties. I was certain that she knew he’d been drinking, and she must have noticed that although we were away over twelve hours, we hadn’t brought one tortilla into the house.
I felt sorry and even a little guilty. I had enjoyed myself, too. I had been eating chicharrones while she probably sat praying for his safe return. I had defeated a ear and a mountain as she pondered over my father’s fidelity. There was nothing fair or kind about the treatment, so I decided to go out and console her. The idea of spreading mercy, indiscriminately, or, to be more correct, spreading it on someone I really didn’t care about, enraptured me. I was basically good. Not understood, and not even liked, but even so, just, and better than just. I was merciful. I stood in the center of the floor but Dolores never looked up. She worked the thread through the flowered cloth as if she were sewing the torn ends of her life together. I said, in my Florence Nightingale voice, “Dolores, I don’t mean to come between you and Dad. I wish you’d believe me.” There, it was done. My good deed balanced the rest of the day.
With her head still bent she said, “No one was speaking to you, Marguerite. It is rude to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations.”
Surely she wasn’t so dumb as to think these paper walls were made of marble. I let just the tiniest shred of impudence enter my voice. “I’ve never eavesdropped in my life. A deaf person would have been hard put not to hear what you said. I thought I’d tell you that I have no interest in coming between you and my father. That’s all.”
My mission had failed and succeeded. She refused to be pacified, but I had shown myself in a favorable and Christian light. I turned to go.
“No, that’s not all.” She looked up. Her face was puffy and her eyes swollen red. “Why don’t you go back to your mother? If you’ve got one.” Her tone was so subdued she might have been telling me to cook a pot of rice. If I’ve got one? Well, I’d tell her.
“I’ve got one and she’s worlds better than you, prettier, too, and intelligent and—”
“And”—her voice keened to a point—“she’s a whore.” Maybe if I had been older, or had had my mother longer, or understood Dolores’ frustration more deeply, my response would not have been so violent. I know that the awful accusation struck not so much at my filial love as at the foundation of my new existence. If there was a chance of truth in the charge, I would not be able to live, to continue to live with Mother, and I so wanted to.
I walked to Dolores, enraged at the threat. “I’m going to slap you for that, you silly old bitch.” I warned her and I slapped her. She was out of the chair like a flea, and before I could jump back she had her arms around me. Her hair was under my chin and she wrapped her arms, it seemed two or three times, around my waist. I had to push her shoulders with all my strength to unlock the octopus hold. Neither of us made a sound until I finally shoved her back onto the sofa. Then she started screaming. Silly old fool. What did she expect if she called my mother a whore? I walked out of the house. On the steps I felt something wet on my arm and looked down to find blood. Her screams still sailed through the evening air like skipping stones, but I was bleeding. I looked carefully on my arm, but there was no cut. I put my arm back to my waist and it brought fresh blood as I pulled it away. I was cut. Before I could fully understand, or comprehend enough to respond, Dolores opened the door, screaming still, and upon seeing me, instead of slamming the door she ran like a mad woman down the stairs. I saw a hammer in her hand, and without wondering if I would be able to take it from her, I fled. Dad’s car sat in a yard twice in one day offering magnificent refuge. I jumped in, rolled up the windows and locked the door. Dolores flitted around the car, screaming like a banshee, her face bedizened with fury.
Daddy Bailey and the neighbors he was visiting responded to the screams and crowded around her. She shouted that I had jumped on her and tried to kill her and Bailey had better not bring me back in the house. I sat in the car, feeling the blood slip down to my buttocks as the people quieted and cooled her rage. My father motioned to me to open the window, and when I did he said he would take Dolores inside but I should stay in the car. He would be back to attend to me.
The events of the day swarmed over me and made my breathing difficult. After all the decisive victories of the day my life was to end in sticky death. If Dad stayed a very long time in the house, I was too afraid to go to the door and ask for him, and besides, my feminine training would not allow me to walk two steps with blood on my dress. As I had always feared, no, known, the trials had been for nothing. (The dread of futility has been my lifelong plague.) Excitement, apprehension, release and anger had drained me of mobility. I waited for Fate, the string puller, to dictate my movements.
My father came down the steps in a few minutes and angrily slammed into the car. He sat in a corner of blood and I gave no warning. He must have been pondering what to do with me when he felt the damp on his trousers.
“What the hell is this?” He hunched himself up on a hip and brushed the pants. His hand showed red in the porch’s cast-off light. “What is this, Marguerite?”
I said with a coldness that would have done him proud, “I’ve been cut.”
“What do you mean, cut?”
It only lasted a precious minute, but I managed once to see my father perplexed.
“Cut.” It was so delicious. I didn’t mind draining away into the plaid seat cushions.
“When? By whom?”
Daddy, even in a critical moment, wouldn’t say “By who?”
“Dolores cut me.” The economy of words showed my contempt for them all.
I would have reminded him that I was no doctor and therefore was ill equipped to do a thorough examination, but impudence would have diminished my lead.
“I don’t know.”
He put the car in gear, smoothly, and I enviously realized that although I had driven his car I didn’t know how to drive.
I thought we were en route to an emergency hospital, and so
Dad said, “O.K., kid, errer let’s go.”
We were in a strange driveway, and even before I got out of the car he was on the steps of a typical southern California ranch-type house. The doorbell chimed, and he beckoned me up the steps. When the door opened he signaled me to stand outside. After all, I was dripping, and I could see the living room was carpeted. Dad went in but didn’t quite close the door, and a few minutes later a woman called to me in a whisper from the side of the house. I followed her into a recreation room, and she asked me where I was hurt. She was quiet and her concern seemed sincere. I pulled off my dress and we both looked into the open flesh on my side. She was as pleased as I was disappointed that the edges of the wound had begun to clot. She washed witch hazel over the rupture and taped me tightly with extra-long Band-Aids. Then we went into the living room. Dad shook hands with the man he’d been talking to and thanked my emergency nurse and we left.
In the car he explained that the couple were his friends and he had asked the wife to look at me. He said he told her if the laceration wasn’t too deep he would be grateful if she treated it. Otherwise he’d have to take me to a hospital. Could I imagine the scandal if people found out that his, Bailey Johnson’s, daughter had been cut by his lady friend? He was after all a Mason, an Elk, a naval dietician and the first Negro deacon in the Lutheran church. No Negro in the city would be able to hold his head up if our misfortune became common knowledge. While the lady (I never knew her name) dressed my wound he had telephoned other friends and made arrangements for me to spend the night with them. At another strange trailer, in yet another mobile park, I was taken in and given night clothes and a bed. Dad said he’d see me around noon the next day.
I went to bed and slept as if my death wish had come true. In the morning neither the empty and unfamiliar surroundings nor the stiffness of my side bothered me. I made and ate a big breakfast and sat down with a slick magazine to wait for Dad.
At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice.
When my father came, with a jacket thrown over the striped cotton uniform he wore as a naval dietician, he asked how I felt, gave me a dollar and a half and a kiss, and said he’d drop by late in the evening. He laughed as usual. Nervous?
Alone, I imagined the owners returning to find me in their house, and realized that I didn’t even remember what they looked like. How could I bear their contempt or their pity? If I disappeared Dad would be relieved, not to mention Dolores. I hesitated nearly too long. What would I do? Did I have the nerve to commit suicide? If I jumped in the ocean wouldn’t I come up all bloated like the man Bailey saw in Stamps? The thought of my brother made me pause. What would he do? I waited a patience and another patience and then he ordered me to leave. But don’t kill yourself. You can always do that if things get bad enough.
I made a few tuna sandwiches, lumpy with pickles, put a Band-Aid supply in my pocket, counted my money (I had over three dollars plus some Mexican coins) and walked out. When I heard the door slam I knew the decision had jelled. I had no key and nothing on earth would induce me to stand around until Dad’s friends returned to pityingly let me back in.
Now that I was out free, I set to thinking of my future. The obvious solution to my homelessness concerned me only briefly. I could go home to Mother, but I couldn’t. I could never succeed in shielding the gash in my side from her. She was too perceptive not to notice the crusty Band-Aids and my favoring the wound. And if I failed to hide the wound we were certain to experience another scene of violence. I thought of poor Mr. Freeman, and the guilt which lined my heart, even after all those years, was a nagging passenger in my mind.
I spent the day wandering aimlessly through the bright streets. The noisy penny arcades with their gaggle-giggle of sailors and children and the games of chance were tempting, but after walking through one of them it was obvious that I could only win more chances and no money. I went to the library and used a part of my day reading science fiction, and in its marble washroom I changed my bandage.
On one flat street I passed a junkyard, littered with the carcasses of old cars. The dead hulks were somehow so uninviting that I decided to inspect them. As I wound my way through the discards a temporary solution sprang to my mind. I would find a clean or cleanish car and spend the night in it. With the optimism of ignorance I thought that the morning was bound to bring a more pleasant solution. A tall-bodied gray car near the fence caught my eye. Its seats were untorn, and although it had no wheels or rims it sat evenly on its fenders. The idea of sleeping in the near open bolstered my sense of freedom. I was a loose kite in a gentle wind floating with only my will for an anchor. After deciding upon the car, I got inside and ate the tuna sandwiches and then searched the floorboards for holes. The fear that rats might scurry in and eat off my nose as I slept (some cases had been recently reported in the papers) was more alarming than the shadowed hulks in the junkyard or the quickly descending night. My gray choice, however, seemed rat-tight, and I abandoned my idea of taking another walk and decided to sit steady and wait for sleep.
My car was an island and the junkyard a sea, and I was all alone and full of warm. The mainland was just a decision away. As evening became definite the street lamps flashed on and the lights of moving cars squared my world in a piercing probing. I counted the headlights and said my prayers and fell asleep.
The morning’s brightness drew me awake and I was surrounded with strangeness. I had slid down the seat and slept the night through in an ungainly position. Wrestling with my body to assume an upward arrangement, I saw a collage of Negro, Mexican and white faces outside the windows. They were laughing and making the mouth gestures of talkers but their sounds didn’t penetrate my refuge. There was so much curiosity evident in their features that I knew they wouldn’t just go away before they knew who I was, so I opened the door, prepared to give them any story (even the truth) that would buy my peace.
The windows and my grogginess had distorted their features. I had thought they were adults and maybe citizens of Brobdingnag, at least. Standing outside, I found there was only one person taller than I, and that I was only a few years younger than any of them. I was asked my name, where I came from and what led me to the junkyard. They accepted my explanation that I was from San Francisco, that my name was Marguerite but that I was called Maya and I simply had no place to stay. With a generous gesture the tall boy, who said he was Bootsie, welcomed me, and said I could stay as long as I honored their rule: No two people of opposite sex slept together. In fact, unless it rained, everyone had his own private sleeping accommodations. Since some of the cars leaked, bad weather forced a doubling up. There was no stealing, not for reasons of morality but because a crime would bring the police to the yard; and since everyone was underage, there was the likelihood that they’d be sent off to foster homes or juvenile delinquent courts. Everyone worked at something. Most of the girls collected bottles and worked weekends in greasy spoons. The boys mowed lawns, swept out pool halls and ran errands for small Negro-owned stores. All money was held by Bootsie and used communally.
During the month that I spent in the yard I learned to drive (one boy’s older brother owned a car that moved), to curse and to dance. Lee Arthur was the only boy who ran around with the gang but lived at home with his mother. Mrs. Arthur worked nights, so on Friday evening all the girls went to his house for a bath. We did our laundry in the Laundromat, but those things that required ironing were taken to Lee’s house and the ironing chore was shared, as was everything else.
On Saturday night we entered the jitterbug conte
After a month my thinking processes had so changed that I was hardly recognizable to myself. The unquestioning acceptance by my peers had dislodged the familiar insecurity. Odd that the homeless children, the silt of war frenzy, could initiate me into the brotherhood of man. After hunting down unbroken bottles and selling them with a white girl from Missouri, a Mexican girl from Los Angeles and a Black girl from Oklahoma, I was never again to sense myself so solidly outside the pale of the human race. The lack of criticism evidenced by our ad hoc community influenced me, and set a tone of tolerance for my life.
I telephoned Mother (her voice reminded me of another world) and asked her to send for me. When she said she was going to send my air ticket to Daddy, I explained that it would be easier if she simply sent my fare to the airline, then I’d pick it up. With the easy grace characteristic of Mother when she was given a chance to be magnanimous she agreed.
The unrestrained life we had led made me believe that my new friends would be undemonstrative about my leaving. I was right. After I picked up my ticket I announced rather casually that I would be leaving the following day. My revelation was accepted with at least the equal amount of detachment (only it was not a pose) and everyone wished me well. I didn’t want to say goodbye to the junkyard or to my car, so I spent my last night at an all-night movie. One girl, whose name and face have melted into the years, gave me “an all-enduring friendship ring,” and Juan gave me a black lace handkerchief just in case I wanted to go to church sometime.
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