by Sharyn Skeeter
From the novel Dancing with Langston from Green Writers Press
The jerk sat with his fingers tapping on the meter, waiting for his tip.
“Lady! Look, I can’t get the cab through. They got that truck blockin’ the street. You gotta get outta here.”
“Get out here? Are you kidding?”
This wasn’t good for me, but he was right. There was no way into the side street, past the construction truck and parked cars. I had to lug out from the back seat the old blue suitcase and plaid carry-on that I’d brought for Cousin Ella’s clothes.
When I got out on the corner, I fumbled in my purse to pull out Dad’s letter. I needed to reread where he said I’d find Cousin Ella. I was on Lenox Avenue, standing under the scaffolding surrounding the buildings on the block. My heart raced when I heard the clunks of falling bricks above my head and I coughed from breathing old dust from busted walls. I skimmed to the end of Dad’s letter—shaky handwriting on lined paper.
P.S. The pain is starting, but I’m not asking for morphine yet. With my fuzzy mind, I forgot to say where she lives. I can’t even remember the street. The building is number 24, her apartment is 62. You’ll find it in a side street directly across from those tall apartment buildings where Mr. Jackson lived.
I had to get my bearings. I had looked up Cousin Ella’s address in the white pages, but I wanted to be sure. Facing east, the Harlem River was just beyond that housing complex of tall buildings across the street. Mr. Jackson, Dad’s old Army war buddy, lived there when I was a young girl. Dad used to bring me when he’d go to see him. Sometimes when the men would talk war stores, Dad would mumble about how his older cousin Langston gallivanted around the world while he put on a uniform and fought for his country—and life—in the Black Forest. He also told me the Savoy Ballroom had been right across there on Lenox Avenue and 141st Street, and the Cotton Club had been nearby. I loved his stories of the jazzy dancers in the chorus line. I imagined myself in their short skirts as I tried out their dance steps in my bedroom. Cousin Ella had been one of those dancers before she went to Paris. Why did everything that was gone remind me of Dad?
But I had no time to sightsee. I just had four hours to get the odds and ends of Cousin Ella’s packing done. I had to be at the lawyer’s office to sign away my condo to a Wall Street trader.
With my purse and the carry-on hanging on my shoulders, I pulled the suitcase into the block, then halfway down the street past a newly renovated gated building until I reached number twenty-four, a wreck of a place with a bumpy sidewalk in front. There were a few construction workers wearing yellow hard hats who were off-loading blue pipes and boards from the truck and placing them near the curb. Large oily puddles from last night’s rain blocked my way to the entrance.
Cousin Ella was being kicked out. The entire block was being gentrified. These construction guys seemed to be marking time, moving slowly with their work, and telling jokes. They glanced my way as if I were another pipe or plank.
By then I was panting. I stopped to look around at what once must have been a lovely building. The lobby’s walls and floors were dirt-streaked, tannish marble. The ornate moldings near the ceiling were pocked with chipped paint. The floor had ruts from a hundred or more years of shoes, boots, slippers walking back and forth to the stairs at the right of the elevator.
I checked Dad’s letter again. I needed to be clear.
My dear daughter Carrie,
The hospice nurse just told me that I might be gone by next week. They are giving me meds to try to calm me, but I’m still anxious about asking you to do this.
You probably don’t remember Cousin Ella, but you’ve heard me speak of her. She visited us once when you were a toddler. She had just come back from Paris to live in Harlem. She got you to do a little dance with her.
Mom (rest her soul) didn’t like Cousin Ella. You never got to know her because Mom wouldn’t let her visit us again. She didn’t want Cousin Ella near you. Mom thought she might corrupt you.
But you’ve got to do this for her—for me! I want you to take care of her.
He was right. I’d forgotten about Cousin Ella until last week when I was cleaning out his apartment and found the folded letter in his nightstand. Maybe Cousin Ella had forgotten about me, too. She might think I was coming out of nowhere. Why would she want me to help her?
Of course the elevator wasn’t working. It was a gaping cave with the outer door off and the car gone. It smelled of rancid garbage. My footsteps and every sound I made in that lobby echoed, as did voices, probably squatters. I’d have to walk up the stairs.
Just as I lugged myself and the bags to the first landing, my phone buzzed. My husband.
“Bill? Yes, yes. I know we need to leave tomorrow. But I just got here . . . no. I haven’t seen her, not yet . . . OK. I’ll hurry . . . yes, I know. Tomorrow night, red-eye. I know. Bye!”
Yes, I knew it. I’d hung up too abruptly. But he really couldn’t complain. He’d found an excuse not to come with me to help. Before I’d left the condo, he’d told me he had more work to do on his new job papers and had business to take care of. He’d be the first black employee in his department, and I was proud of him that he got hired, but he’d gotten that word on the same day that Dad had died. I’d been in no mood to celebrate anything.
Broken, detached doors were piled up on two floors. Old soda spills on landings were sticky under my sneakers. I promised myself to do for Cousin Ella what Dad asked. When Dad died, besides the cancer, he had heart failure. When I was younger, I worked out every day to stay fit, but sometimes, like when I found my heart racing as I climbed the stairs, I worried about my own health. But I made it—past the trash, rotting chicken wings, and a few haggard squatters on mattresses in open apartments without doors.
Here it was just a few days after burying Dad up in Westchester and I had to deal with Cousin Ella—a relative who I only knew from family gossip. To Mom, she was “Jezebel”—the shameless cabaret dancer. Mom said Cousin Ella was a hussy. I didn’t know why Cousin Ella made Mom so upset, but when I was a child, when Dad made his weekly trek from the Bronx apartment to Cousin Ella’s Harlem place with a box of food and toiletries, I was left at home with Mom to sneak a peep at the photo of Cousin Ella—a very young, brown, smiling woman in a red, fringed dress dancing some hootchy-kootchy in a Parisian café. I’d been intrigued. But over the years, my fixation on Cousin Ella had faded. I’d been wrapped up in my marketing career—and Bill.
On the top fifth and sixth floors, the apartments still had doors. Number sixty-two, Cousin Ella’s, was in the corner on the sixth floor, according to Dad’s details. I stood at that landing to catch my breath and set down the bags to rest my arms. Then I took out the letter again, as I had several times a day for the past week. I unfolded it like an altar cloth.
I know that in a few weeks you’re moving to Seattle with Bill. (He’s a good provider and a credit to all of us. You’re a lucky woman.) There’s enough in my safety deposit box for you to move Ella to the assisted living place—you know the one—where your mom was in her last days.
Now everything is different. Cousin Ella can’t stay where she is even though she’s been there for maybe 40, 50 some years. We had good times at her place, and even sometimes Langston showed up.
She didn’t have much then. I gave her whatever I could. No, your mother didn’t like that, but she couldn’t stop me.
I’m passing on now, so it’s your turn. Cousin Ella is my blood. All I have left of the old people. All YOU have left.
She has a gift for you. It’s something of value that I’m ashamed that I couldn’t give you—and too afraid to give you myself. Carrie, I want this to make it right. I want you to be happy.
We’ve always been loyal to each other. Promise me you’ll do this, so I can go in peace.
Your loving Dad
My eyes were getting heavy. But, no. I couldn’t cry. I’d done enough of that during the past week. I wondered if my crying was for Dad or myself. I had to tighten my face, control the tears.
“Don’t you know how to knock on a door?” A woman’s high-pitched, raspy voice yelled at me.
I was stunned. Then I looked up and saw a tiny woman in the half-open doorway. She opened the door a crack more. The chain lock on the door was still attached above her eyes.
“I know who you are. Carrie. Cousin Doyle’s daughter. He showed me photos of you. Look, I’ll let you in. But I tell you now. I’m not going anywhere. I. Am. Not. Moving. You get that?”
“No buts. So . . . do you want to come in or stand out in that hall? I don’t want to stand here forever letting in that stink.”
She was right. The smells of molding food and pools of stagnant water from ceiling leaks were upsetting my stomach. She released the chain and opened the door fully.
She was nothing like the photo of the oval-faced, slim dancer in the red dress. She was a short woman in a baggy sunflowered housecoat. I saw, in the door’s shadow, that her face had rounded. Her gray hair was in two long braids. Her hands looked like dry, weathered parchment. This was Jezebel—the cabaret dancer Mom feared?
When she let me in, the scent of old rose perfume was overpowering—and so was the living room. I felt like I had stepped into a time machine. It was dark because the window blinds were pulled down. I scanned the room. Every inch of wall was covered with photos, portraits, nightclub scenes, old show programs from black Paris and Harlem in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Bricktop, Josephine Baker, Cousin Ella herself, and Langston Hughes. All were framed and giddily smiling everywhere on the paint-cracked walls.
So, it looked like the family stories Dad told Mr. Jackson about Langston being a cousin must have been true. Langston’s books were lined atop the ornate ivory and gold-painted breakfront against the back wall. Kitschy, chipped coffee mugs with his photo were on a tray on a scratched wood table in the middle of the room. Langston Hughes. Dad’s cousin, Cousin Ella’s, and I guess mine, too. But at home, when I was a girl, Dad went silent whenever I dared to mention his name, like when I was in middle school and had to memorize his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” He’d been off from his shift that night. He’d helped me with algebra. But then he shut down. He said he didn’t have the time to help me with that poem.
“Well, come in all the way. What are you standing in the doorway for? Put those bags over there. We won’t be needing them.”
Cousin Ella pointed to a space on the floor between the breakfront and a faded yellow barrelback side chair. I was glad to set the luggage down. My right arm was aching from carrying the bags up the stairs.
I wished I had come with more than a suitcase and a carry-on. I was all set to pack some slippers, nightgowns, and sweaters—a few old lady dresses for special dinners in the assisted living home. The building manager there told me that’s all she’d need. But how could I possibly pack all this? Just with a quick scan I saw crystal wine glasses, the Tiffany lamp in the corner (Was it real?), the gold-rimmed dinner plates greasy with leftover barbecue. I saw piles of who-knew-what along the side wall. No doubt there were lots of valuables I couldn’t leave behind for the construction workers to pick through, or worse, to destroy when in a day or two they would crash in the door.
I remembered seeing a liquor store down the block. I could get boxes there. Oh, but I’d have to get them up the stairs! That, and pack all this.
“So what do you think? You think you can fit my home in that cramped little old folk’s place you got for me? I told you I’m not moving. I can’t.”
She watched me as I ignored her. She couldn’t stay. She had to know that.
I looked around the room more slowly. As I got used to the shadowy light, I began to see the yellows, greens, oranges, blues, and lavenders of some furnishings. They were faded, frayed, and dusty—most in need of repair. I felt a suffocating need for sunshine and fresh air. Then I looked at my phone: 9:30. I had until lunchtime to get her out of here. My head jerked up when she giggled like a young girl.
“You can’t do it.”
Was she playing me? If she kept that up, I would leave—my promise to Dad or not. I had no loyalty to her. Then she’d be just like the other squatters in the building. I visualized her hungry, her eyes glazed, sitting on a blanket on her scuffed parquet floor. I didn’t want her to wish she had taken my offer to move her.
I walked around the room, assessing it. She had so much of value, and so much junk. It could take a few days just to sort it out. I moved closer to see the photos and art on the wall, and quickly, Cousin Ella turned toward me, full face.
The smells of cloying rose perfume and stale barbecue sauce were making me queasy.
“You’re funny, you know. You don’t say much. But from those suitcases you brought, I know you want me outta here.”
I didn’t think I, or anything about this situation, was amusing. I heard my clipped, precise business voice. “That’s why I’m here. They’re tearing up this building. This apartment is condemned. I’ve made arrangements for you to go to a good place—”
“What place? An old folk’s home to die?” She was getting more strident as she held the back of the sofa to steady herself.
“You’d have everything you’d need there.”
“This is my home.”
“Your ‘home’ is in a condemned building!” I was losing control. What was wrong with her? Was she senile? Couldn’t she see?
We stared at each other, saying nothing. Only street sounds came into her apartment—cars honking, workers laughing, a pipe striking the sidewalk. She lifted her hand to reach out to me, then stopped and pulled back.
She mumbled, “Then I guess we’re stuck with each other.”
She looked down at the skirt of her housecoat, threadbare at her knees, then put her hands in the pockets.
“What clothes do you want me to pack?”
She didn’t answer.
“What do you want me to pack?” I repeated, and went to pick up the large suitcase that I’d brought.
“Not a damn thing!” a deep, steady voice behind me boomed.
I dropped the suitcase, turned, and saw a tall, bald man in shirt and tie stooped in the shadow of the bedroom door. He leaned on a wooden cane with a carved monkey head for a handle. He held an empty bucket in his left hand. I saw water dripping from the ceiling in the bedroom behind him.
Sharyn Skeeter is a writer, poet, editor, and educator. She was fiction/poetry/book review editor at Essence and editor in chief at Black Elegance magazine. She’s taught at Emerson College, University of Bridgeport, Fairfield University, and Gateway and Three Rivers community colleges. She participated in panel discussions and readings at universities in India and Singapore. Sharyn Skeeter has written and published numerous magazine articles. Her poetry and fiction are in journals and anthologies. She lives in Seattle where she’s been involved with Humanities Washington and ACT Theatre. Her grandmother’s Langston family and their oral history of Langston Hughes inspired Dancing with Langston.