Looking back, I realize that my mother was always at her very best during snow, although she was always exquisite all of the time. My mother—our mother, really, for there were six of us depending upon her for life support, our father long ago having deserted the fold—but I suppose that being the youngest, at 12 going on 13, gave me a special sense of ownership about my mother for which I was always being slapped down gently and politely behind her back by others of the family who also thought that they owned her.
But all of us were wrong in that respect, for my mother was nobody’s property, although she had long ago given herself to gentleness, good manners, and extraordinary common sense. She was a poor woman from Virginia, which meant that here in Cousinsville, N. J., and anywhere else in even a semi-civilized world, she would be considered a lady of excellent good breeding if not of solid means. For even Virginia’s “worst”—if such a thing existed in the Old Dominion— would always be thought to be at least a cut above everybody else’s very best.
So my mother thought, so we all thought and acted in the way we treated each other and our neighbors, our friends, and our guests. Even the bullying of my brothers and sisters against me carried a warmth and gentility about it that made the torture somewhat easier to bear. If we had been from some place like South Carolina or Georgia, then blood would have been flowing like rivers through all of our eight rooms on Decatur Street in Cousinsville. But because we came from Virginia, we treated everybody with consideration and respect, even if they didn’t deserve it; to have done less would have been as unspeakable as boisterously breaking wind at the Sunday dinner table and especially in the presence of guests.
As for children at the dinner table, we were orchestrated by the eyes of grownups, like instruments guided by the conductor’s baton, eyes always on us to approve, chide, or subdue, with not a single word spoken to us as we worked our way through the dazzling labyrinths of a Virginia dinner—that most splendid of all events—where the cook for the occasion usually lurked in a tizzy in the kitchen to slit her throat if the meal was not judged to be excellent in all respects.
Even Virginia’s colored people, like Germany’s Jews long before the Hitler era, considered themselves to be the crème de la crème among colored people everywhere, and subject to a more benign malignancy when it came to the matter of “separation,” as the thing was nicely called in the Common-wealth in those days. Politeness and pleasantness were everything, with something as picayune as replacing a burned-out light bulb falling within the purview of good taste and requiring the services of at least two Virginians: one to screw in the new bulb, and one to lay the dead bulb to rest by talking about how “good” it had been, how truly long it had served and lasted.
Of course, none of this code was ever put into words—that would have been tacky—but I suppose it came to all of us, and to generations of Virginians ever since the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown in 1607—by a kind of not always pleasant osmosis, passing through the semi-permeable membrane of custom and usage, race and status, as quietly as the body goes about digesting a blob of homemade peach preserves dissolving around quietly excited taste buds on a happily erect tongue.
Which brings me to the girl who sat in the window sometimes on the first floor of the house directly across Decatur Street from us. Her name was Rita Mae Brown, and her family had come to live in Cousinsville from Virginia only last summer. Mr. Brown, an invalid, was wrapped in blankets in a wheelchair on the porch that late November afternoon in the 1930’s when my mother was baking a cake, and before the season’s first snow began trickling down. Mr. Brown was said to have been wounded in the last war, requiring the amputation of both legs just above the knee, and received a pension for that. His wife, who attended him, was a tall, thin, sour-looking, and rusty black woman who had the reputation of being stuck up.
But it was Rita Mae Brown who brought the Virginia sunshine with them from Burnside to Cousinsville. She was around my age and nearly as tall and thin as her mother. But she was certainly not stuck up, with large velvety brown eyes and shiny black hair that she wore in corn rows, and lovely lips that formed a beautiful smile in her oval-shaped face. If I had known then what love was, I would have realized that I had loved Rita Mae Brown right from the first minute I saw her early last summer.
And I watched her now as she fussed over her father’s blankets where he scrunched down in the wheelchair on the porch. Mr. Brown was fussing at her, calling her all those dreadful names that murders something in children before it is ever fully grown. “You’re dumb, you’re stupid, you ain’t fit for a damned thing!” Mr. Brown shouted that, showing that absolutely nothing at all was wrong with his tongue. We all had known at once that he wasn’t a native Virginian, even before word got round that he’d been born in South Carolina, which explained everything.
Still, he was probably in great pain from having lost both legs and most of his youth fighting some war somewhere for his country that gave him as little love as he gave Rita Mae. I could hear his abuse from all the way across the street. But, of course, he was from South Carolina—geechies, they were called; they ate rice and fish heads, like Chinese coolies do— and I probably would have gone over and given him a piece of my mind, if I’d been older. “Now listen here, Mr.Brown. You’re hurting that girl, can’t you see?”
But of course he could not see, for she had taken refuge behind him. And when I looked at her, she was already looking at me, eyes bright and shiny, as though seething with tears underneath the soft surface. She had been looking at me that way ever since she came to Cousinsville; and it was too much to see. I left the gray outdoors, the threatening sky, and went into our house, where my mother, on her day off, was putting the finishing touches to a golden layer cake with chocolate icing.
My mother was a sleep-in maid in East Orange for an Irish family, with Thursdays off; and her appearance among us that single day a week brought us all together in the house on Decatur Street and away from whatever other tasks or ramblings we might have been involved in, just to be in the presence of my mother’s eyes, her warmth and smile, and the unyielding excellence of her Virginia gentility.
She had married young and would die young, leaving the six of us to brood about the wrongs we might have unknowingly done her. And, for my own part, believing in a heaven against my better judgment, where I might fly into her angel’s arms and confess all the sins that I had wrought against her in the name of love and in the name of jealousy, which is love’s uglier twin.
I suppose that all of this came to me as things usually did— in a series of quick flashes, like lightning streaks—just before Mr. John Nabors came to our door that day. By then, my mother was almost finished putting icing on the cake; outside, it had turned cold and dreary, with a light snow falling on Decatur Street. Everything outdoors seemed to be drawn down and huddling inside itself, an aspect of misery that was cold and gray, and that my mother seemed to want to undo by baking a cake which we could hardly afford. In those days, everything cost only a few pennies, a few dollars at the most; but it was during the Depression and money was hard to come by. Although our house was warm and comfortable with the coal stove burning, our mother there, and the smell of cake creeping like a delicious but invisible fog through all the rooms.
So when Mr. John Nabors came—he of the enormous feet and the absolutely staggering appetite—and knocked on the door, nobody especially wanted to open it. There was a starched white curtain covering the top part of the door, which was made of glass; and we could make out the unmistakable silhouette of Mr. Nabors with his old slouch hat, his glutton’s lips, and the stub of a pipe that he gnawed on between forever hungry teeth.
When he knocked again, my mother looked at us all with a clear admonition in her eyes. “Somebody let Mr. Nabors in,” she said softly, spinning the cake in a platter held in her left hand as she laid the chocolate on. I looked at the delicate serenity of her features as Jesse dragged over to the door as though he had been told to let a wolf in. My mother’s lips parted in the faintest of smiles.
None of us children especially liked Mr. Nabors, who came to visit us almost every Thursday probably because there was always something good to eat, along with my mother’s pleasant laugh, her gentle conversation, and a sense about her that she could forgive even John Nabors’ terrible hunger and his awkward ungainliness even if no one else in our town could.
He was a very tall, powerfully built black man in a black overcoat, a gray felt hat, and long, large brown shoes that fitted his feet like boats. He always made himself comfortable at once when he came to our house, for it was his nature to do so as well as the nature of our home to encourage his comfort.
“How good of you to drop by, John Nabors,” my mother said, extending her hand. “Do come in. It’s indeed a pleasure to see you again.” And John Nabors’ outsize lips slid into a pleased grin. So we were taught by example, our mother’s own special way of welcoming a guest, and the guest responding with a sense of easiness and amplitude that her welcome was as genuine as it was warm.
“The very strangest thing happened to me today,” Mr. Nabors said, once he was out of his coat and galoshes, and had settled down to watching my mother go back to work on the cake. We were all watching my mother, in fact, as she balanced the platter aloft on the tips of her fingers now and designed the last intricate sworls and patterns in chocolate on the double-layered cake that perfumed the kitchen like a hot sachet.
“There,” my mother said. “That’ll be ready to serve soon.” Taking off her apron and folding it away, she sat at the table with Mr. Nabors. “What did happen to you, John? I’m sure we’re all just dying to know.”
The prospect that we might really be near suspenseful death seemed to agree with Mr. Nabors. “Well, I was on my way here,” he said, grinning around the stub of his pipe to all of us, but especially to my mother, “when I stepped off the curbstone over in front of the tavern and there was this old T-Model Ford coming around the corner. Well, you know that I’m not a small man and those T-Models don’t weigh all that much. And I didn’t feel like stepping back up on the curb. So I just reared back and the car ran over my feet.”
He laughed lazily at his own stupidity, heisting up those vessels he called feet for everybody to laugh at. By evening, he would be in Memorial Hospital with both feet in plaster casts from being broken because of his little adventure. But none of us knew that then; and I for one was not really amused, although I went along with the general laughter.
For I had seen the really darker other side of Mr. John Nabors, that big, dumb looking clown, which he had made me promise absolutely never to tell about. Although I recalled it vividly as everybody laughed at Mr. John Nabors and waited for the cake to cool. My mother’s laughter was like the rippling of clear creek water, and she laughed until tears came to her lovely brown eyes.
I had found Mr. Nabors lying in an empty lot early last spring where he had fallen asleep among weeds, assorted trash, and the wrecks of cars. But he had probably gone there for the same reasons that I had, which shocked me once I considered it. How did Mr. Nabors know that people went to the empty lot at night to make love in the abandoned cars? Cousinsville was my private domain, or so I thought then, where only I saw everything while all others went around in dumb depression, looking for what they surely thought were the essentials of life. My own ramblings had to do with my own essentials, and I especially looked for those acts that people perform in what could be called a public secrecy.
Like the lanky white men in flamboyantly colored costumes who came to Cousinsville and sat on flagpoles for days and nights at a time. Everybody went to see them during the day, as they perched, aloof as Oriental potentates, on platforms on the tops of poles that they had shinnied up like lizards. We had all seen them eating as they sat atop their silly perches; but how did they respond to nature’s other calls? I went late at night and surprised them relieving themselves in gray enamel pots that were raised and lowered to them on pulleys. After that, they did not seem so extraordinary to me. I had cracked their code, so to speak, and the mystery had disappeared.
The empty lot had also lost most of its mystery. I had found a garter snake there, a multitude of old condoms, and several pairs of women’s discarded underwear, the last items giving me a hint of what really went on in the lot after dark. So I went there often, and peeped through broken windows of slowly rocking and creaking cars with rusty old springs singing unexpected songs of love.
I was the only one who knew of these happenings, or so I thought; even the people who put on the performances came and went as though they were engaged in some respectable endeavor or enjoyed a special veil of invisibility through which only I could see—high-stepping women in tight dresses; greased and shined men in pin-striped suits, adding to the further pollution of the empty lot.
So I was surprised when I found Mr. Nabors there among the garbage. “What you doing here?” Mr. Nabors said thickly. It was obvious that he had stumbled onto this lode because of drunkenness and not from any previous knowledge or an established plan. He was notorious in Cousinsville for the size of his feet; and I suspected that he had slipped in the mud and got himself tangled in them.
“I’m going home,” I lied, edging away from him as he crawled towards me on all fours. It was grotesque and appropriate, I thought, and I felt like a kind of sovereign with big, ugly, black John Nabors on his knees in front of me. But before I could get away, he recognized me and grabbed. “You Mrs. Hubbard’s boy, ain’t you? What you doing out here by yourself?”
“I’m going home,” I said, trying to get away from his hand. But he held me fast; then, using me for support, he pulled himself up like a scarecrow rising from collapse.
There were wooden tenement buildings around us—what were known as tenements in those days, two and three story apartments piled hideously atop one another—and I could see the rising moon behind them, spattered across the sky like runny egg yolk, even as I heard the exotic song from two or three cars that moved up and down and side to side like the large dislocated lungs of dinosaurs. Men and women were making love in those cars—the night air was rich with subdued sighs and blissful groanings—whiling away the time until World War II should fall upon us, dragging us from these dark caves into the shining bright light of the Atomic Age.
“You come on with me,” Mr. Nabors said. “I got something I want to show you.” At my hesitation, he slyly defied my own estimation of myself. “You’re curious, ain’t you? Well, I’m going to show you something you never seen before. Nobody ain’t ever seen it before.”
It was hardly a challenge that could be refused, since I had long ago grown tired of the singing cars and what went on inside them. My own excitement had more recently turned to small, exasperated puddles in my hand, and I was hungry for new adventure. So Mr. Nabors cleaned himself up as best he could, and we slunk like conspirators down the streets of Cousinsville under a steadily strengthening moon. We boarded the trolley car on Main Street and swayed and bumped against each other on the hard seats under the blinking lights until we got off at the meat packing plant near Orange Street, and the almost empty trolley took off with a hideous clanging of bells and grinding of wheels.
There were hardly any people at all on the streets in those nights, everybody at home usually, huddled around radios listening to “Amos “n” Andy,” “I Love a Mystery,” “The Kate Smith Hour,” or some other popular program that bound families together even while that other destroyer of families, television, was already in the experimental stage for its mass onslaught against the social fabric.
My heart was thumping with excitement as Mr. Nabors led me across the trolley tracks to the back door of the meat packing plant, where the odor of blood hung in the air like a noxious mist. “What we going to do here?” I whispered, as though we were walking through a graveyard. Before Mr. Nabors could answer, a clock in the Catholic church nearby began to toll; it rang nine times before it stopped.
And Mr. Nabors sucked on his pipe and allowed his large juicy lips to curl in a satisfied smile. “I’m on time,” he said. “I work here.” Then, with a masterful flourish, he opened his overcoat and dug into his vest pocket for a large key. “They trust me with this,” he said proudly. “So I don’t want nobody to know what I’m going to show you. You promise?”
“I promise.” I was squirming with excitement at so much mystery and decided that I liked Mr. Nabors after all. Terrible stories had been told about him all through Cousinsville—how his wife had died of breast cancer without his lifting a finger to help her; how his son, also named John, had driven stark naked in a Model-T Ford into James River in Virginia, leaving a condemning note that was safety-pinned to the flesh of his chest in his first-grade scrawl: I done it cause Daddy don’t love me. Everybody knew these things, and especially my mother, which probably explained why she seemed to treat Mr. Nabors with a special affection whenever he came to our house. And he came practically every Thursday because he was hardly welcome anywhere else, and probably drew strength from my mother’s excellent ability neither to judge nor to be dismayed by the gossip of others.
The smell of blood was stronger and wilder inside the plant, as though some sort of unholy orgy had recently taken place where extraordinarily strong beasts had been gutted and bled, leaving their dried stench as a punishment to survivors. Mr. Nabors walked softly—tipping, actually—on the toes of his large shoes; I did the same, feeling a sense of something ominous in the deeper shadows etched upon the shadows that surrounded us. It was very cold and absolutely quiet, except for the sound of our breathing and walking, as though we had violated an ancient tomb where horror and revenge awaited us. Then, Mr. Nabors stopped; his arm reached out and clicked the light switch; and I was blinded for several moments by the sickly glare.
When I could see, a thousand small pink eyes were looking at me, as though embedded in a maze of white cotton. They were rabbits, hundreds and perhaps thousands of them, like an invasion of Easter bunnies, watching us from absolutely indifferent pink eyes. The sight of them shocked and surprised me, so many of them and yet so silent. Always silent. I have never liked rabbits because they are so silent and weak. Looking at this mass, I felt sickened and drew away. But Mr. Nabors eased me forth. “They always call me whenever there’s a shipment in,” he said. “Now, you don’t go telling anybody, you hear? You know how folks like to run their mouths.”
I did not know what there would be to tell people; but after his double admonition, I sensed that something was going to happen that might well be worth the trip. So I waited impatiently while Mr. Nabors went to a locker against the wall, and changed from his street clothes into white coveralls. The unlit pipe was still stuck in his mouth, and his breath came out in little puff balls from the cold.
As for the rabbits, they seemed to have come alive, hopping and bumping among themselves with far more energy than before, as though trying to keep warm. I had seen other animals suddenly come to life at feeding time, and I felt decidely disappointed. Had Mr. Nabors misjudged me so much that he thought I would be satisfied watching him feed a bunch of rabbits? Grinning, he jumped into the pen with the greatest alacrity and began to cut their throats.
When he jumped into them, it was like watching a large frolicking child leap into a snow bank. Perhaps all the rabbits were not white, but it did not seem to matter as Mr. Nabors yanked them up by the ears and sliced their throats, tossing the still quivering carcasses onto a pile this side of the wire mesh fence that separated me from the slaughter.
The cold in the room intensified, and something in my own throat seemed to close down and go dry. Mr. Nabors was killing and grinning, the pipe somehow still clenched between his teeth; rabbit’s blood was all over him and his coveralls, scarlet and dripping, the smell like a warm kind of dreadful disease in my nostrils. I took a step backwards, prepared to flee. But Mr. Nabors sliced another rabbit’s throat—so viciously that the head came off in his hands, blood shooting out like a geyser—and paralyzed me with his eyes.
And then the mayhem began in earnest. Throwing the knife away, he grabbed the rabbits by the handsful and broke their necks. I was reminded of the snapping of brittle twigs as you walk through winter woods. But what was perhaps most horrible of all was the incredible silence, except for the stumbling about of Mr. Nabors as he picked up rabbits in great bountiful armsful, like a jolly black giant gone berserk, and broke their necks, or mashed them to death against his chest, pulled their heads off, or reached inside their fluffy breasts to rip their hearts out.
It was more than I could stand. “I’m going home!” I cried; and the words seemed to break the spell.
“Home?” he said. He was bathed in blood and his eyes seemed glazed, like hot, stunned marbles. “Well, it certainly was nice of you to come with me. And you give my regards to your mother, you hear?”
It was like a tremendous slap in the face, that he could remember to be polite while he stood in the midst of his slaughter. “You’re not from Virginia!” I cried, and it seemed the craziest possible thing to say.
He stared at me in utter amazement through the blood. “I most certainly am from Virginia,” he said, with pride and indignation. “Why on earth would you say a thing like that?”
Why, indeed? Somehow, I got the door open and went out into the refreshing air. It had turned cold and the moon was round and seemed stained with blood, that day’s miserable afterbirth. Not having carfare, I walked and ran all the way home to throw up in our bathroom so as not to dirty the street.
Easter Sunday would be in another two or three weeks, when everybody on government relief—as welfare was called in those days—would be given frozen packages of the rabbits Mr. Nabors had killed. Our family was not on relief; when it was proposed, my mother had rejected the offer with quiet dignity: “We’d rather work, sir, if it’s all the same to you.”
And we all did work, including myself on weekends, when I delivered groceries for Mr. Mellinger and Mr. Meyer, the two Jewish grocers, who paid me enough for me to make my small contribution to the family pot.
So I was thinking about the secret I carried when John Nabors came to our house that snowy November afternoon and talked around his stub of a pipe clenched between his teeth while my mother and the rest of us waited for the cake to cool.
“With that car running over your feet,” my mother said, once the laughing had settled down, “it’s a wonder you didn’t break them.”
And John Nabors slapped his sturdy thighs and glowed. “It’ll take more than a T-Model to break me,” he said. I had a momentary’s vision of him bloody and heated among the rabbits, how he had broken them. And I remembered how his knife had sliced the fluffy throats and my own throat felt vulnerable, dry.
Did he remember? He never gave me any indication that he did; and his very indifference towards me seemed to increase the menace and the weight of the burden he had laid on me. I had promised never to tell about the rabbits, which was a worrisome pact between us; for some Virginians have been known to die before revealing personal secrets.
I went to the window where cold had fogged the glass, and wiped a space with the heel of my hand to look out. Rita Mae Brown was also in her window, looking out. Between us was the narrow street and the snow falling now in heavy flakes, like large white feathers. It was still afternoon, but a strange kind of darkness had set in over the pointed rooftops and formed a gloomy backdrop to the swirling snow. Yet I knew that Rita Mae’s eyes locked with mine, like the clasping of warm hands, as if we were alone in a world which would never be the same again beyond this day. The falling snow seemed to hit the street and sizzle, as though a heated white chasm separated and brought Rita Mae Brown and me together at the same time. When my mother called me softly, I turned from the window with an unaccountable sense of sadness. The snow was like a curtain covering over the past; nothing ever would be the same again.
Smiling happily, my mother was holding the cake high for all of us to admire it before the feast; and it seemed to be a creation worthy of Michelangelo himself. I was sure that my mother was smiling especially for me; but probably all of us had that same sensation of being special in her eyes. Looking at that cake, in the comfortable heat of the kitchen, we might have been admiring the crown jewels of England suddenly transported to Cousinsville and exposed to our hungry eyes. Even John Nabors seemed to be more than normally impressed by the goodness he contemplated.
As for my mother’s eyes, they seemed to flash out and encompass us all at once—I thought of a lighthouse steering exotically laden ships into the warm arms of piers—but with a mellowness that chipped away any resentment we might have had that Mr. Nabors, as guest, would get the first slice. But above all else, the cake represented the triumph of our family over our father’s desertion, and government relief, and the fact that we were still a family together that even had prospered in the face of adversity and the country’s worst Depression ever.
But our guest was foremost in our mother’s mind as she carved the gem into eight equal parts. “You certainly do deserve cake, John, after all you went through today.” And she held out the platter to him.
Which he dutifully took, along with the paper napkins from her hand, and began to eat the whole cake. “That’s mighty hospitable of you, Mrs. Hubbard,” he said, mouth crammed, knocking off a chunk in two or three bites, already reaching for the next slice.
I was absolutely astonished. We all were. Except my mother, of course. She seemed to undergo a marvelous transformation as her shoulders hunched forward and her eyes flashed out and held us, shooting messages to us like arrows: He is a guest in this house. If any of you dare say a word or so much as snicker, you’ll have me to deal with later on. Is that clear?
I felt like wetting my pants from excitement and disappointment, but my mother’s message was very clear indeed. I had never seen her so intense. Of course, none of us had ever been exposed to the spectacle of John Nabors eating all of our precious cake, making a real pig of himself. But what I most clearly remember was my mother’s narrowed eyes commanding us all into silence, and the quick, birdlike jerks of her head as she held us mesmerized while John Nabors finished the cake, then herded the crumbs on the platter together with his fingers, and stuffed them into his mouth as well.
With the cake gone, John Nabors decided to go too. “Well, Mrs. Hubbard, I sure do hate to eat and run. But I don’t want to overstay my welcome. And I can’t tell you how very much I appreciate the cake. It was just delicious, it most certainty was.” He was pulling on his galoshes, letting Jesse help him into his overcoat, arranging his pipe back between those unforgivable lips,
My mother’s eyes flashed another warning at us, then settled on him with the sincerest warmth. “It’s always a pleasure to have you, John. And we are so pleased that you enjoyed yourself. Do come back and see us real soon, you hear?”
“I’m certainly going to do that, Mrs. Hubbard.” He drew his overcoat collar up around his neck, said his final goodbyes, and went out into the snow. A blast of cold air came through the opened door which Jesse quickly closed behind him.
Now certainly we would talk about it, show our indignation. . . . But my mother’s eyes still denied us, the control intensified, slender shoulders in a near crouch, eyes blazing, transfixing, magnetizing.
And then, when it was clear that we dared not question the actions of a guest, even in his absence, she reached for her change purse and counted out coins. “You go and buy a pound of sugar,” she said to me, examining my eyes for any sign of bad manners or a tendency toward gossip about a guest.
Did she see the slaughter of the rabbits in my eyes, framed by John Nabors’ sickening grin? Or did she see my disgust at the absurd code that permitted any aggression by people like John Nabors, as long as it was done with politeness?
Apparently not. She folded the coins into my hands with a pressure that seemed to be a promise and a plea: Trust me; it’s not perfect, but it is a way. She also sent Jesse and Brother out for more ingredients. The storm had worsened; snow kissed my face like sharp cold lips that dissolved into a sensation of warmth.
Looking across the street, I made out the figure of Rita Mae Brown in her window with the light on behind her, for it had suddenly become very dark and the storm was howling now. But I could see that she was smiling; and when I lifted my arm to wave at her, she waved back. It was the very first time we had done that.
I walked on to Mr. Mellinger’s. And despite the darkness, the cold and wind and snow, I had a wonderfully clear vision of what my discipline would be: some night soon, I would hold Rita Mae Brown in my arms in the forbidden darkness of the empty lot, and perhaps take her innocence as I gave her mine.
Then, exactly two weeks from today, my mother and the rest of our family, dressed in our very best, would trudge through deep snow on Thanksgiving Day to take a small basket with turkey, fruit, nuts, and cake to Mr. John Nabors in Memorial Hospital to cheer him up. It was what you did when people were alone and you were from Virginia.