Find A Penny, Pick It Up
The trail started with a penny, round and burnished, hot from sitting so long in the summer sun. Angela scooped it up and held it in her palm so tightly the copper nearly burnt her skin. She glanced around to make sure no one else was watching, then took a few more baby steps and crouched down again to collect the rest of the nickels, dimes, and quarters that lay scattered about the sidewalk. By the time she came to the end of the path, she was standing in front of Charlie’s Sabrett stand. She couldn’t remember how she knew his name was Charlie, but she did, just like she knew the names of the two Housing Authority patrolmen who were stationed between Building Five and Building Six, just like she knew Norm the Good Humor man, who came to the projects in the summer and parked his squat truck at her building’s entrance for hours on end, but who disappeared to a warmer place called Miami once September arrived, and just like she knew Frank, the speed runner, who circled the seven buildings of the Spuyten Duyvil Houses, as if the buildings themselves were tall cypress trees standing in the middle of an Olympic track, and the small acolytes who trailed after him and immolated his cockeyed chicken walk were his fans, chasing hi down for autographs.
When she looked up, Charlie was staring at her, his cheeks puffy and white from craning over his steaming hot dogs all day. She caught the scent of grilled onions and sauerkraut from the stainless steel flats that hung just above the boiling water. She’d waited behind her brother, Richie, when he’d been sent down to bring home dinner for the family, but this time, it ws different. She was going to be able to order what she wanted and eat whenever she liked.
Charlie beckoned to her, and like a devotee, she followed. She could almost taste the cured meat, the stodgy white bun smeared with yellow mustard, the tickle from the 7-Up bubbles as they flew up her nose.
“Whaddaya want,” he asked, in a coive that was half bark, half shout, and reminded her of her uncle Harold who drove a bus up in the Bronx.
Angela didn’t know what to say. She’d tucked some of the coins in her front pocket for safe keeping, others were cramped in her fist, but she was afraid that if she opened her fingers one by one and displayed her treasure, Charlie would tell her that the change was his—dropped by some careless customer, or fallen from his silver change bank—and then she’d have to give the money back. But the coins were hers. She’d found them, and he also knew that she had to spend them before her brothers heard about the windfall and tried to snatch it away.
The other kids were still dashing back and forth across the worn lawn, as a pink Spauldeen ball was tossed in one direction then the other. In the pack of black, white, and brown faces she spotted her three brothers, Richie 12, Bobby 10, and Dennis, 7. Dennis was the youngest, but because he was male, he had automatically been relegated to a position in the family she knew she would never have.
No one missed her in that stream of laughing faces. No matter what games the kids played, Tag, Caps, Running Bases, or Dodge Ball, she was always the first to be cast “out” or the last one to be picked for a team. For all any of them cared, she could hae paid her fifteen cents, hopped the I.R.T., and taken it all the way downtown to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral or Rockefeller Center—far away places her mother dragged her to on public holidays and special occasions. She remembered how her ma’s drawn face would immediately slacken when she stood before the dark altar at Saint Pats. It was the one spot on Fifth Avenue her ma could take the whole brood without worrying about fitting in, not like Saks, where after the unwieldy children charged through the revolving doors, hey were greeted by the sales ladies’ upturned noses as if the large department store had an unspoken rule that when you entered the glistening showroom, you brought only one well-behaved child and left any others at home with the nanny. But her ma never bought anything in that store anyway.
Charlie reached into his vat and lifted up a bloated hot dog. “Whaddya have on it?” Angela thought about the hot dog and how it would cost twenty-five cents, one entire quarter taken away from the pile of coins she would have preferred to have saved until St. Francis had their carnival, but the chances were too great that her brothers would find the money before then, so she looked into Charlie’s milky eyes and said “the works.”
Hearing this, Charlie slapped a line of mustard down the length of the meat, plucked stingy onions and sauerkraut from their containers and handed the heaping pile over to Angela who coveted it to her chest as if he’d just presented her with a wounded bird.
Above them, the sun had cast each west-facing window of the fourteen story buildings in a golden glow, as if the residents were rich Moguls, and teh glass had been purchased tinted with this exquisite color to show off their wealth. Anglea clutched her hotdog and started over to one of the benches that lined the carefully laid out walkways. The benches were a safe haven, a protected base, where she knew she could sit undisturbed and eat her mean purchased with the magic coins she imagined good fairy had tossed down onto the sidewalk just for her.
There was something so comforting about sitting alone on a bench without anyone nagging at her. She felt as if she’d been born into a family that was already too large. In her nine years, nothing was ever just hers. She shared a bedroom with Dennis; his matchbox cars and Hot Rod track had been their brothers’; their boy jeans, denim shorts, and stretched out tee-shirts covered her little girl body. Sometimes Angela felt as though her ma was so busy working at the hospital she never had time to notice that she’d given birth to a girl.
On Sunday mornings, when her parents were asleep and th ekids were left alone to watch T.V., Angela’d see advertisements for dolls dressed in frilly gowns: Weeping Bessie, Baby Betty. The girls playing with them in the commercials all had blonde pony tails pulled tightly behind their cute smiling faces, but when Anglea stepped up onto the rim of the bathtub and poked her face into the mirror about the sink, she knew she’d never look like those television girls. Although her hair was blonde, it was not shimmering or straight. Her face was nearly always smudged with soot or grime, and the lines on her palms were sometimes caked as brown as the dirt she played in. When she smiled, her teeth looked crooked and dull. Every now and then, usually just before Christmas or Easter, her ma would send the boys into the hall to play while she kept Angela inside and worked at her tangled locks with a steel tooth comb.
On these days, Angela would sit so close to her ma that she could smell the perspiration off her white nurse’s uniform and hear her ma’s heartbeat sound so familiar and strange. The comb would tear at Angela’s hair, snagging the knots, pulling through split ends, until tears formed at the corners of her eyes, although she knew a mere hair brushing wasn’t enough to make her cry. Real tears came on rainy Sunday afternoons, after her ma left for work and her dad lay on the couch watching the Mets or the Jets. First Rickie or Bobby would start teasing her about her teeth, or her hair, or the fact that one day she was going to grow boobies as big as Dolores Hunts’ down in 9G, and she’d run past the T.V. just as Joe Namath was about to throw a pass, and her dad would grab her whatever material was hanging off her body and give her a shove that said more about the way he felt about her than a million words could ever say.
She liked the way she could stuff the hot dog into her mouth and close her lips around the end, cutting off the meat in one distinct bite, then chew on the mixture of sauerkraut, salty sausage, and mealy bun until it all became a mishmash in her moth. With no one picking on her, she could eat as she pleased, until she didn’t feel like eating any more. No one was coming to say it wasn’t hers, or that they wanted a bite of it, or to tell her to stop and fetch something from the kitchen.
Out of the corner of her eye, she kept a watchful glance on a small group of Puerto Rican girls who were standing on a bench nearby, striking poses and flipping their curls into the breeze. To Angela, these girls meant trouble because they were older and there were more of them than there were of her. They wore clothes that actually fit around their developing bodies, and their hair glistened black and shiny. She could just imagine the hours they spent combing it out every night. When they laughed, their teeth sparkled like the teeth on the woman in the crest commercial. To them, she knew she was a nobody, insignificant, a ghost lingering in the pace they all shared, oblivious to their complicated lives of makeup, hairdressing, Double Dutch, and boys.
“Fire, fire, false alarm. Fell into my boyfriend’s arms. How many kisses did he receive,” they sang as one by one they hopped off the bench and started jumping rope in double time to the snapping cords that twisted so fast, Angela knew she could never ask to join in. “One, tow, three, four...”
But suddenly the rope stopped, and the girls turned towards her and started to laugh. “Look at the way she’s eating that thing. It’s as if she’s starving and never had a meal in her life.”
“That’s probably all the food her family can afford,”
“I bet they have line up to get groceries from St. Francis every Thursday with all them other welfare people.”
“I seen them kids going thought the garbage like rats.”
“And they white people too.”
Angela closed her eyes and felt the juices from the hot dog souring her stomach. Even when she wasn’t chewing on sausage meat, her stomach felt as though something acidic and corroding was down there eating away at her insides. The girls were right. There was shame in the way she was and nearly everything she did: how she looked, the color of her skin, her ma’s smelly uniform, her dad never working, even being a girl in a family of rodent faced boys. That’s when she was overcome by a really bad premonition about the rest of her life, as if for the first time she became aware that the sour after-taste she was feeling right then was about all the grace she was ever going to get from the world. But then her survival instincts kicked in and she jumped up to defend herself. “Why don’t you just shut up,” she heard herself yell. “We never eat garbage like you people do.”
It took a moment for the girls to realize that Angela was fighting back, and when they did, they quickly knotted up around her. By then, Angela knew it was too late and braced for a fight, telling herself that she had every right to be sitting there eating her hot dog, just as the girls had the right to be jumping rope next to her, but she needed something more to hate them for. Although she’d heard her father mutter bad things about living among so many niggers and spics, until then, she always ignored him, but all of a sudden his insulting words started to make sense to her.
Annette, the longest and the leanest of the girls, approached and stood real close, swinging her hips into Angela’s stomach. “Garbage? Garbage? Who you saying eats garbage? Look at what you just stuck in your mouth?”
Angela threw the rest of the hot dog over her shoulder and poised herself ready for flight because she was adept at running. She just needed one little hole in the circle of girls and she would be able to escape as quickly as a roach can run under an oven. She thought of possible hiding places and remembered the landings inside the stairwell. All she had to do was make it up the first four or five flights and the girls wouldn’t follow because no one clibed the steps as fast as she did, or had the will and the stamina to conquer all fourteen stories on foot. Sometimes, on cold and rainy afternoons when she had nothing better to do, she’d run up and down the stairs just to see how fast she could do it. First, she’d start at the lobby, taking the steps two or three at a time until she reached the third floor. Then, she’d turn around and dash back down again, holding onto the railing and catapulting herself over an entire flight. After every successful run, she’d turn around and go back up one landing higher, until she reached her own floor and would be so exhausted, she’d have to lean against the concrete wall while her heart stopped pounding and her head cleared.
She closer her eyes and wished someone would come to rescue her. She’d watched adults break up fights and heard the Housing Authority police blow their whistles, at unruly children, but just as often she’d seen crowds gather around excitedly to cheer on two residents who were punching it out.
Annette’s hand curled in a fist, the knuckle of her middle finger jutting out to inflict more pain.
“I’m not scared of you,” Angela taunted.
“You like garbage,” the girl continued. “Well, we gonna make you garbage.”
Angela faced them down, her breath coming hard and fast. “Yeah, well make me,” she blurted, just as the ring leader lunged for her. Then, like a football player whose game relies on physical contact, Angela shoved back until she found an opening between two of them, broke through the circle, and dashed towards the entranceway to her building, the girls swarming in behind.
Heads turned in their direction as the older girls’ long legs circled like pinwheels, chasing after the lone nine-year-old, but no one intervened. Angela’s feet were talking to her as she ran into the lobby, repeating her father’s scornful words: niggers and spics, niggers and spics. Her sneakers squeaked as she took a sharp corner around the mailboxes, pulled open the heavy metal stairwell door and began bounding up the steps, taking four or five at a time, the words giving her the energy she needed to keep moving. At the fifth floor landing she stopped and listened for the shouts and curses that echoed from far below. From their voices, she guessed the girls were two or three stories away, but they would soon turn around. If they chased her any further, they were going to miss precious minutes showing off outside.
Angela’s heart beat like the tom tom drum Mrs. Henley played in her thrid grade classroom when she wanted the kids to settle down. Angela considered running out onto the sixth floor corridor and taking the elevator the rest of the way up. If only someone was waiting to protect her back in her own apartment, but she knew no one was there. Her ma wouldn’t be home from work until midnight, and her dad, as usual, had disappeared.
Emerging from the stairwell, she stepped out into the brightly lit corridor and glanced in both directions. The apartment doors stood closed. No one could explain anything about why the girls had picked on her, or how come her insides curdled whenever she thought of them, but she felt giddy because she’d outrun them and she wanted to get in the last word, otherwise, they’d think they’d beaten her and chased her away.
First, she dashed over to the elevator and pressed the button to go upstairs, then she ran back to the stairwell and opened the door just long enough to stick her face into the darkness: “Niggers and spics,” she shouted. “Niggers and spics!”
Across the hall, the elevator arrived and she jumped in. After the hall, the elevator arrived and she jumped in. After the door slid shut, she stood in the far corner waiting for the cables to magically lift her though the spine of the building. The girls would hate her. Their accusing eyes would follow her as she walked along the pathways or sat on the benches with the other kids. But that was nothing new.
On the eleventh floor, she pushed open her apartment door and was greeted by a heavy gust of wind that swooped in from an open bedroom window and welcomed her with a tremendous slam before it passed on and dissipated out onto the corridor behind her. The living room was perfectly still. So high up, no children’s shouts or screams could reach them from down below. For once, the television set had been turned off and her brothers weren’t around. She smiled to herself, remembering how minutes earlier she’d been flying up the steps, as if her heels had wings that were propelling her to safety. Then, she reached into her front pocket where the coins had rolled themselves into a warm pile.
It’d only take a nickel and dime to get downtown, a quarter to buy a hot dog, fifteen cents for an Archie comic book. With the money, she’d create a world for herself where she could have whatever she wanted. She’d be rich and powerful. She’d be loved and looked after. She’d jump rope with the rest of the girls until the evening sky turned gray and a cool breeze swept down from the Bronx, and some internal clock told her it was time to go upstairs for dinner where she’d find her ma, home from work, about to pull a sputtering roast out of the oven like the ones she’d seen Mrs. Brower in 11A serve on Sunday afternoons when Angela had nothing better to do and was in the hallway, her cheek pressed against the cool linoleum floor, spying on a real family from underneath the crack in their door.
Nava Renek lives in Brooklyn. Her novel Spiritland is forthcoming from Spuyten Duvil in the Fall of 2002.