CHANA FEINSTEIN - FIRST STAND
Chana Feinstein writes, and has won prizes, across genres. Currently teaching creative writing, she is a former caseworker/advocate for the homeless, prisoners, and those on welfare. Herpoetry has been published in Sojourner and Rise Up Review; fiction in Walrus and Every Day Fiction. She has humor forthcoming in Defenestration.
We were going to the store. Our Mother had said keep quiet and there weren't any more quiet things to do in the house. We weren't to start school yet: we were to stay home as long as there was work to be done. The day before we had already taken the furniture from the moving van, we’d cleaned, and did laundry. Mommy was in bed for the day. As far as we could tell, for good. We'd been surprised to see her rise to as high a level of activity as she had to direct us. So now it was time for us to get out of the house if we knew what was good for us.
There were four of us. Me, my big sister Lora, and the two little ones; Tina and Tim. We huddled together and decided to explore our new street, possibly even as far as the store. We were worried but all we had seen were white kids since we got here and, from past experience, knew they couldn't fight. These had looked particularly soft. Their shoes were tied, hair combed, and everything.
I led the way. No one whispered as I reached for the cold metal knob of the front door and opened it. Directly ahead of us was a shattering rectangle of sunlight. In shock from the clean quiet of that afternoon, I wasn't aware that my mouth had dropped open; a small dark circle in a larger pale one. All I was aware of was brightness. Not horrible brightness or heavenly brightness. Just light --big and empty.
Soon I could tell the different colored patches. There was the stark, green, knife-edged patch of lawn. Our lawn. A dark strip of road, white-washed square houses with peaked roofs. And starting close to the ground, closer to earth than I'd ever seen it -- the sky. Blue. Some blue. Velvet blue? Silly balloon blue? What kind of blue was it? I'd never seen such a blue. And suddenly I knew. It was sky blue. The sky in my old neighborhood had always been some gray as far as I could remember. Sky blue. I felt like dancing.
It was just like the crayon. The one in Belinda's box. She had blue eyes, real blonde corkscrew curls, and the only box of 64 crayons in the whole class at my old school. Everyone else had eight or none. Everyone was nice to her in the hopes that she would share but she practically never did. When she did, she only shared the ugly ones. She'd lent yellow-green or ochre, never silver and gold. But I had never wanted silver or gold anyhow. I had wanted sky-blue.
I pushed open the screen door and the world became shinier than I thought possible. Like the laundry in a detergent commercial when the announcer stripped off that hidden layer of dirt. We stepped out on the porch to observe the sunlight.
Every thing stayed the same. The sky glowed in a big puff, the houses across the way flashed their clean sides at us, the grass separated from a strip of velour cloth into individual blades.
I stooped to rub my hand along the grass. It wasn't as soft as it looked. It was as cold as a lizard's belly, and as stiff and sharp as paper. I wondered if you could get a grass cut like you got a paper cut. The younger ones wanted to sit on the grass but I could tell by their faces and the way they stood around that they were afraid they might hurt it. I showed them the grass, our grass, would spring back, and finally they sat while we decided what to do next.
We looked up and down the street. There was a bird somewhere, maybe even several birds. Nearby, the wind tossed leaves in the trees by the small handful. We listened deeply into the silence.
Finally, lined up single file, we marched like the end of some parade; like the tail of a parade with no instruments, where there are no banners left. Up the street to the end, where it stopped.
A house stood where more street should have been. This we learned later, was a cul-de-sac. With no place left to go on that side, we marched to the other. We blinked both directions down the cross street.
Our Mother had told us the day before that there was a store right around the corner and we should go play there. This seemed like a funny idea. We had never played in a store before but there was nothing any better to do, so we went. The scary part was crossing all those streets. They were so empty. Dodging traffic wasn't easy but it couldn't be as bad as dodging no traffic.
What if a car suddenly came out of all that nowhere? There must be some reason we saw no cars on the road. What if it was because they were so fast in this strange town that you couldn't see them coming. At home, at least, we had always seen what was coming.
We agreed to cross in order of size; biggest first. If a car came, Lora would pull the rest of us like a game of crack-the-whip and we'd be flung out of the street, out of danger.
It was tried, and proven to work. But silently I feared for the future because no cars came speeding out of nowhere to really test it. I put this aside. All of our concentration would be required to continue our journey.
We came to a sort of clearing. In front, a lot full of dirt and a few dirt-colored weeds. An old gas station with one pump stood to the side. It was closed, locked and seemed to be looking inward as if watching its own dull red paint peel.
A tumbleweed crossed our path. Stores circled the lot like dun-colored wagons. But still no cowboys, or Indians. It was like an old movie on TV just before the bad guys hit town.
When we were hiding behind the couch the day before, we heard Mommy say Grandpa said, we had Indian blood.
Then Daddy said, “your Father, that son-of-a….”
“Hush. Little Pitchers. Besides, he never said anything about Cherokee Princesses, no fancy stories, so…. And my female cousins all claim Black Irish... but I never heard the old men sitting around on the porch down to the main store talk about how those Hughes boys were anything other than a bunch of drunken Indians.” She laughed. “Could have said drunken Irishmen.”
Me and Lora looked at each other. Not India Indians, Lora whispered, Native American. Lora’s older and knew everything.
We would walk quiet as Indians, I told them. So, we moved single file along the sidewalk.
One of the stores, though dun-sided like the rest, had some bright things in the window. We crept closer.
I whispered, "ssh" though no one had made a sound for several minutes. We stood around the blank wall side of the store and tried to act casual. "Try to act casual," I said.
Three pairs of big, dark eyes just stared at me. Tim put his thumb in his mouth.
I peeped around the corner. The window was too far to see into from here. I turned back to the troop. Tina had caught on to Tim's bright idea and they were now both sucking noisily. I told them to be quiet and stop acting like babies. Did they want the kids in our new neighborhood to know they suck their thumbs?
Tina looked at me, frowned and sucked louder. Tim's eyes widened and his full lower lip began to tremble ominously.
"Alright, alright," I said, "go ahead and suck your thumbs then.”
"But you want to be good Indians don't you?"
Tim's lips trembled even more and a slight scowl made his dark brown eyes even darker.
A change of tactics. "Well, good cowboys then. Cowboys do everything quietly so they can catch the bad guys by surprise."
Tim looked at me in wonder, then sniffed, loudly.
"Okay," I said, "there aren't any bad guys but we need to be very quiet anyway. And I don't think you are babies. I think you're all very brave. You came all the way out here didn't you?" They looked around fearfully and I hurried on, "we're all very brave."
Tim smiled from behind his thumb, then covered the smile with his fist.
"Okay, then. Let's go inside."
"Yeah," Lora said and swaggered up to the door. When she pushed it open a bell rang somewhere and we all shrank back. Then we gathered ourselves together and went in.
The room smelled good. Glue, paper, and candy. Big, pink dolls made out of feathers sat on glass shelves under lamps with ladies on them, next to sparkly cards and other tiny, pretty things. The carpet was so soft it felt like underneath there must be a sponge.
Other than us, the store was empty. It must not really be a store, we decided. Stores are always full of people. Nobody would leave all this stuff with no guards. Maybe this was some rich lady's house and she'd forgotten to lock the door. The sign over the door, 'Carmichael's,' could be the name of some people who lived here.
We had turned to leave when a voice behind us, a lady's voice, said, "May I help you?"
Someone had asked if they could help us: the room seemed suddenly filled with golden light and the smell of perfume.
Was she Mrs. Carmichael? Would she adopt us? If she did she'd probably let us pick soft, shiny toys off the shelves like fleas off a cat. Maybe they have fairies in this new land we'd come to, and they grant you one wish. Maybe she'd give us sandwiches.
I hadn't eaten since I snuck a slice of bologna from the fridge the night before. Mommy was too tired to cook again, and Daddy said to be quiet and not disturb our Mother by banging around in the kitchen. I knew they'd probably let us cook later but I was hungry now. The lady had said "May I help you," and I was still deciding exactly what to say when she broke into my thoughts.
"Well? What do you kids want? Shouldn't you be in school? What are you doing loitering around the shops?"
So it was a store. I decided to answer the easier question first to give me time to think. "Our mom said we don't get to go to school, yet." I thought of explaining more but by this time had had a chance to examine my questioner.
She was old. This was usually a good sign but I'd never seen an old like this one, and thought I'd better give other things more weight. Things like her expression. She was not smiling. And she was examining me as closely as I'd been her.
She had that look people get after they pour salt on a slug. All puckered up. I was never big enough to stop anyone from pouring the salt, and couldn't stand to watch, so I'd go away, or just watch the faces. This lady looked like the sort who secretly likes to pour the salt.
"This is a drug store. Did your mother send you to pick something up or are you just playing hooky?" None of us knew what to say and Tim twisted up his face like he was going to wet his pants when I remembered the magic words.
"No, thank you." I said carefully. "We're just looking."
Tina, Tim and Lora gathered around me, their eyes shining with admiration.
"Hmph," she walked away, stymied. "I'll have my eye on you. You better keep your hands in your pockets. I've seen kids like you before."
"Maybe we should just leave," Lora said. Her face wore her permanent, puzzled frown. She dropped her glance to the floor and I knew she felt the eyes at her back.
"No. I'm going to look around. You guys can stay with me if you want."
"What if she asks you what you want again? Or calls the police?"
"Maybe I'm gonna buy something." I lifted my chin and rubbed the hand-full of warm change in my pocket for reassurance.
"You have money?" Lora's mouth dropped open. "You never have money."
I nodded. "I found it when we moved the couch."
I could tell from her expression that she thought that I should give it back to Mommy and Daddy. That it was their money. But I figured that they would forget to give us our allowance again, and this dollar would cover it -- so I would keep it unless they asked for it specifically, and they wouldn't unless Lora told, and she wouldn't.
I looked around.
On the shelf before me, a pink, feathered doll with long gold curls was $44.95. I tried to figure how many allowances that was, how many allowances I would probably get.
From the back came the sound of that lady tapping the eraser end of a pencil against the glass counter.
I took a last sniff of the pink-smelling air. There wasn't anything here I really wanted anyway.
We slipped outside, one-by-one, single-file. We walked along kicking and watching.
Tim was still sucking his thumb. His other hand was in a fist. Something poked out of that fist.
"Hey Tim, what did you find?"
Tim opened his hand. On the small, sticky palm lay a yellow and red wrapper. It read Sugar Daddy.
"Tim. Are you going to eat candy you found on the street?!"
Tim shook his head without removing the thumb from it. We all stopped walking and circled him.
"Tim! You didn't find it. You took it, didn't you? You stole it."
He nodded. The pink fingers curled around the candy so tightly, it turned his knuckles white.
The rest of us all looked at each other.
Lora's face went red and her cheeks full like she'd puffed them full of air.
Tina's face was pale, and the corners of her mouth turned down even more and away from the thumb she still sucked.
The two of them stared at me.
Tim looked at no one but occasionally the corners of his downward turned eyes twitched, as if they were drawn against their own will to his fist and the gaily colored wrapper.
I felt the money I’d found inside the couch cushions deep in my pocket, and sighed. Sugar Daddys cost a dollar fifty.
"Do you have any cash?"
Tina answered for him. "We spent ours on popsicles yesterday. We were hungry."
I sucked in one lip. "You'll have to take it back." My mouth tasted sour.
The wind came down from the trees to pluck at our pockets and toss our hair like leaves. It was so quiet
I could hear everyone's breath. Nobody was going anywhere.
They all waited.
Mommy would say give it back, you bad girl. She'd say, "I knew it. I knew you were bad from the moment you were born. Ugly and yellin’." I twisted the change around in my palm. That lady in the store didn't need candy, anyway -- ten Sugar Daddys wouldn't make her sweet. Besides, she did ask what we wanted and never gave me a chance to tell. I could make Tim give it back, or we could go -- no one would ever know.
They'd know. They’d all know. They're all still waiting. I'd probably be making T.V. dinners for us kids again, tonight. They're probably better for you than candy. And stealing is bad. I didn't want us to be bad guys.
Looking toward the door, I could see the slug-lady's nose up against the glass. Tina hiccupped.
Then the bell on the door tinkled. The lady wasn't waiting for us to come back. She was mad and headed straight for Tim.
Without words, I grabbed his other hand, right as she grabbed the fist with the candy in it. Tina took her thumb out of her mouth and put her hand in mine.
Lora caught on fast. She grabbed Tina and started pulling.
We all pulled hard toward Lora and the road.
The slug lady yanked back so hard Tim crashed into her. Lora flew off the other side, bouncing off the big window and we all broke away. When Lora slammed to the ground you could hear whatever was in her back pocket crack.
No cowboys hollering to the rescue just left us.
As the lady began marching Tim away back to the store in a two-fisted grip on the candy arm that kept him dancing up barely on toe tips, we all caught back on. Four kids against one slug-lady, in heels -- and no surprises this time -- we made it back to the curb.
Backwards to the street, the lady whipped left, and we all jerked right.
Then Lora cracked-the-whip.
The lady went flying off one end, we flew the other.
All the way across the street, where we stopped. The first car of the day rolled slowly between us, blocking the slug-lady's view long enough.
We Indians whooped all the way home.
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