Ave Maria 1984
DeeDee and I stand in the four-foot wide meridian of weeds that separates the county hospital’s parking lot from the parking lot of the factory where our mothers work. We shield our eyes and squint across the blacktop.
“Looking for your man?” DeeDee smirks.
“Shut up. It’s hot.” I’d smirk back, but she’s way better at it than I am. “We should have made extra lemonade.”
“It’s hard enough to haul what we’ve got.” She squeezes her bare biceps. “I’m starting to get man-arms. Good thing we’re back in school next week.”
There’s a bench behind us with all but two of the wooden slats ripped out. Our jug and cooler balance on the slats. The bench is our service counter. We are boloney sandwich vendors. We used to have a better spot, close to factory, where our customers didn’t have to walk through parked cars to get to us, but we got booted out by one of the factory’s foreman.
“Mr. Harold Jones.” DeeDee flattens her
hand on my collarbone, right below my throat, where she thinks my heart is. She wants to be a nurse but the only body parts she’s got a grasp on are legs, tits, and ass. DeeDee is my best friend by default. There are two other girls our age on our block and they’re each other’s best friends. In a couple of weeks, in high school, when I’m not a boloney vendor
anymore, maybe I’ll meet new friends. If I don’t, DeeDee will.
“Get your stinky lunchmeat hand off me.” I grimace. “He’s old enough to be my father.”
The sun is straight up in the sky. The lunch bell shrills and the workers file slowly out of the big brick factory. You’d think they’d rush out. But they march out in perfect order, a row of ants heading toward a crumb on the linoleum. Hundreds of them and only one time clock to punch. Hot and sweaty, and hungry enough, if they’ve forgotten their lunch or are ready to break the diet they started at breakfast, to pay seventy-five cents for boloney and cheese on white bread.
Mom and Aunt Delia trudge out at the front of the line as usual. It’s a relief to DeeDee and me that our mothers never come to our bench at lunchtime. They head for the big metal picnic tables that sit on slabs of concrete right near the factory. They face us from afar, without embarrassing us by waving.
Aunt Delia whips off her hairnet, makes a production of shaking her hair free, then
hoists a leg onto the bench of the picnic table. Laughing, she examines a run in her stocking, advertising her best feature.
“God, why doesn’t she just spread her legs?” DeeDee groans in disgust. “Shoot me if I ever act like that.”
“Bang.” I point a finger. “You’re dead.”
If Aunt Delia is a bear trap, my mother, with her head hung forward, is day-old bait on
a fishing line. “Sit up.” I hiss. “Why does my mother hunch over like that?” I pull my
“She should take off the hairnet. Shit, she could get a man with her hair alone if she’d loosen up. I’ve got it.” She snaps her fingers. “Make her read Gone with the Wind.”
I watch my Aunt Delia run her hands up her other leg.
“Forget Gone with the Wind.” DeeDee erases the air. “Scarlet O’Hara didn’t do such good
job managing her men, did she?”
I look straight ahead and think about our mother’s bad job of managing men. My father, who I know is an extremely good looking man from the picture tucked under my mother’s mattress, was married to someone other than my mother. My mother, who hides a nice figure under a baggy sweater no matter how hot the day, had sex with a married man? DeeDee’s father did marry Aunt Delia. DeeDee got a Christmas card from him one year.
She cups her hands and whispers in my ear, “Mr. Jones is married.”
I take a couple side steps to get away. “Old and married.” I cross my arms over my chest. “So shut up.”
“Old and married, and?” She widens her eyes. When I ignore her she knocks the top of my head with her knuckles. “Anybody home? He’s black. So shut up yourself, Miss Holier Than Thou.” I turn away from DeeDee, our mothers, and the factory. Like I don’t know Mr. Jones is black. No way DeeDee’s actually read Gone with the Wind. She saw the movie. Slaves and hoop skirts. I look at the Franklin County Hospital while I strap on
my change apron. I love the feel of the apron against my thighs, especially when it’s full of quarters. I love the sound of dollar bills scratching against each other in the pocket when I move. Most of all I love the way my mother hugs the bags of groceries we buy with the money that comes out of the apron’s pockets when we carry them up the stairs.
A woman dressed in white comes out of the glass door below the neon Emergency sign of
the hospital. She moves briskly, with purpose. Her hips sway, just a whisper, none of Aunt Delia’s screaming movement. She won’t come over to buy a sandwich, the nurses rarely do. Maybe they think we’re not hygienic. A doctor once bought three cups of lemonade, but he hasn’t come back. The nurse gets in her Camaro. It’s shiny and red. There are a lot of new cars parked on the hospital side of the parking lot.
“Heads up,” DeeDee says. Four women, hairnets in place, make their way through the grid of parked cars. You can’t be sure if they’re coming to buy or pile into a car. “Crystal Gayle wouldn’t wear a hair net.” DeeDee starts to hum “Don’t it make my Brown Eyes Blue?” She sticks the “Sandwich” flag she made in home ec into the dirt. I fold a checkered oilcloth over the bench slats and line up cups and sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper.
When we first set out to make our fortunes selling sandwiches, it was DeeDee’s idea to
sing. She said people would give us tips for singing. They don’t. We sing anyway. DeeDee starts out soft, just purring the melody, like always. Within a few seconds, I join her. Since we were toddlers our mothers have told us we have beautiful voices. It doesn’t occur to us that other people might not agree. After a couple of stanzas we put words to the music. When the hairnet ladies are fifty feet from us, and clearly on their way over to us, we stop singing.
“Hello.” DeeDee smiles as if handing them sandwiches is her biggest thrill.
Tony G. sprints across the lot, putting on the brakes when he’s two feet from DeeDee. Young and flirty, he grins at her. “Three.” He sticks his puppy dog paw and three dollar
bills in front of me without breaking eye contact with DeeDee. I snatch the money.
“Mustard?” DeeDee turns the name of a condiment you put on boloney into a dirty word. He says, “No thanks,” to the tiny packets she nabbed from the corner diner. I hand him his seventy-five cents worth of change. He peels his eyes away from her to turn and shout, “Hey, Mr. Jones, we on for basketball tonight?”
Mr. Harold Jones and his wife are part of the small group trickling toward us. He does not shout back to Tony G. Mr. Jones smiles and waits until he’s close enough to answer in a normal speaking volume, “Looking forward to it.” He seems amused. He often seems amused. I brace myself for when the machine oil and old spice scent of him hits me. I don’t want to make a fool of myself like my cousin just did. I separate the change from the dollar bills in my apron slowly.
I look up and there he is standing right in front of me.
“Hello, Mr. Jones. Would you like a sandwich?” My delivery is perfect. I smile, friendly, but not school-girl silly. I do not forget to add, “A sandwich, Mrs. Jones?” This bit is crucial. Mrs. Harold Jones is at his side, with her maroon lipstick and Diana Ross flip. I give her the identical smile I gave Mr. Jones.
Mrs. Jones steps off the meridian to help an elderly black woman, who is wearing the blue
stripes of a cleaning lady, into her car. I like Mrs. Jones’ style even though she doesn’t give me the time of day. DeeDee calls her The Fat Jones. Mrs. Jones holds the car door for
the old woman like it’s the most important job in the world. Mrs. Jones holds herself more like a trim nurse than a fat factory worker. She slams the door shut and her body ripples.
She straightens up, Her head is high, like the world should ripple right along with her. She steps back onto the meridian. Her breasts bounce a couple times before coming to rest. “I should have thought to help.” Mr. Jones smiles at her appreciatively.
He’s is the only man I know who acts like this in public, like he’s in love with his
wife. This is why, in my fantasies, Mrs. Jones has got to go. Her death is quick
and I’m the first on the scene to help Mr. Harold Jones through his loss.
“Baby,” Mr. Jones says to his wife. “You want a sandwich today?”
She hooks her arm through his. “I got a taste for beans and rice. Let’s try the
“Alright.” He drags the word out like a caress. He nods at DeeDee, then me. “You ladies sound like Nina Simone.” He often tells us we sound like Nina Simone. “You have a
pleasant afternoon, now.” He smiles, a big, split the world open smile.
I fold my hands against my apron to stop the shake. If I speak it won’t come out right.
“Thank you, Mr. Jones. You have a pleasant afternoon, too.” DeeDee gives them a prom
queen smile and pours a cup of lemonade for a tall man carrying a lunch pail. I’m still mute and motionless. She nudges my ankle with the toe of her pink sneaker. “This man needs fifty-cents change?”
“Thank you, Mr. Jones. Thank you, Mrs. Jones,” I say, after the time for saying it has passed.
Mrs. Jones turns her head to look at me and leans a bit closer into Mr. Jones. He shakes his head and smiles that funny smile he has, like there’s nothing he can do about this funny world but smile.
“Got cravings.” DeeDee’s says as they drive off in their green Chevy.
“I do not.” I snap.
“Yes, you do.” DeeDee shimmies her shoulders in delight. “But I meant The Fat Jones.”
I get busy restacking cups that don’t need restacking so my head is down and DeeDee can’t
read my expression.
DeeDee says, “You need flirting lessons.”
DeeDee smoothes her hands over her skirt.” I got a date with Tony G. You got a date with
“Shut up. I’m not flirting with him. Quit touching your ass. It’s unseemly. Tony G’s a jerk.”
“Unseemly?” She tries out the word again. “Unseemly.” She nods in approval. “That’s a good word.”
I remember why, besides the fact that she’s my cousin, we live in the same tenement, and
she’s the only girl available, I hang around with DeeDee. How many people are so easy going that they can appreciate a word used to criticize them?
After forty-five minutes the factory whistle shrieks again and our potential
customers march back in. “Six customers. This is the worse day we’ve
ever had.” DeeDee starts singing “Fever.” as we pack up. I join in.
In the late afternoon, when the second half of our mothers’ shift is over, I come back to
the parking lot without DeeDee. I perch on the arm of the sandwich bench and wait.
The whistle blows. The workers file out and swarm the lot. I look for Mr. Harold Jones and his green Chevy. My mother and Aunt Delia come out together and stop to talk. Car doors open and slam shut. The green Chevy is nowhere in sight.
“Isn’t that your little Nina?” I hear Mrs. Jones’ voice behind me.
“Hello.” Mr. Jones greets me with a nod.
“Still selling sandwiches?” Mrs. Jones asks.
I shake my head, disoriented because they turned up behind me, but determined to speak
this time. “You parked in the hospital lot?” Did they take the afternoon off? Is one of them sick?
“Yes.” Mrs. Jones raises her eyebrows.
My face burns. “It’s just, I didn’t see you come out.”
“You’re waiting on us coming out?” She cocks her head, like she can’t quite decide what, exactly, is wrong with me.
“I’m not.” I fumble over the two words and have to curl my feet under me and hold tight to the arm of the bench to keep myself from toppling forward. “I’m waiting for my mother.”
“That’s nice,” Mrs. Jones says. “To have a child waiting.” She gives Mr. Jones a glance, over in a split second, so quick any one watching couldn’t be sure it happened. Anyone who isn’t fourteen and in love. I don’t know what the look means, but I want to look at him like that. They walk arm in arm to the green Chevy, which has been parked behind me in the County Hospital lot the whole time I was looking for it.
I hear Mr. Jones say, “Dr. Bello,” before they’re out of earshot.
Doctor Bello? If Mr. Jones is sick I may never know. I start high school next week.
The parking lot clears out. My mother sees me and waves. I jump off the bench.
“My goodness. You haven’t run to me like this since you were in second grade.”
She smiles, takes off the hairnet, and unpins the nest on top of her head. Her hair tumbles down her back. Even unbrushed, it’s her crowning glory. We walk two blocks north and west to stand across the street from the most beautiful building in the city, Saint
Mary’s Roman Catholic Church.
The low afternoon sun makes a halo around the steeple. A crow lands on the tip of the cross. “Prettier than a skyscraper,” she says, referring to Aunt Delia’s and DeeDee’s upcoming trip to New York City. It’s hard to imagine who would howl louder, DeeDee or Aunt Delia, if they found out about our trips to church.
My mother says she and I and Aunt Delia and DeeDee are Catholic by blood, because my
grandparents were Catholic. Aunt Delia says you have to go to mass every Sunday to be Catholic: that the blood thing only holds true for Jews. I’ve never been to mass.
My grandparents died before I was born. I don’t think I carry their religion in my blood.
But I love the music. I wish I had told Mr. and Mrs. Jones I was going to Saint Mary’s. I might have made an impression on them as something better than boloney on white bread. They might think I’m a real Catholic.
My mother takes her eyes off the steeple. “What is it, Rita? Something
I don’t have much practice saying troubling things to my mother. I say, “Let’s go inside.”
We sit in a dark corner in the last pew. The choir is above us, in a loft, in the back of the church. The choir bursts out in laughter. This is unusual. Someone blows a pitch pipe. They get back to the serious business of tuning up their voices.
The choir mistress, soloist, and organist, all rolled in to one skinny woman, walks up
the center aisle. Her head is bowed and covered in black lace. She goes straight
to the altar and kneels. There’s no one else in the main body of the church, just her, and me, and my mother. There will be no priest, no parishioners, no mass, just choir practice. She looks down at her own folded hands. What a waste: to be so close to all those statues and stained glass and look at your hands. She walks back down the aisle. I stare at her. It doesn’t matter. We’re in a shadow and she never looks up. She clicks up the stairs to the
loft. Over our heads, chairs shuffle into place.
My mother kneels, but unlike lunchtime on the bench outside the factory, she holds up her
head, listening, looking. Slanting light streams through the stained glass windows and dances on the back of the pews in front of the church. She cranes her head to take it in. Dappled light hits her hair, changing patches from plain brown to shiny chocolate.
The choir mistress strikes a chord. “Attention.”
“They’re going to start,” my mother whispers. The choir voices hone in on each other like a swarm of bees. They begin to chant. “Gregorian,” my mother informs me, as she always does when the choir chants. I have no idea how she came to know the name for this pretty buzzing sound. My mother stretches forward. Her whole body is taut, angled up, toward the front of the choir loft where the music spills over into the church. It makes me mad, the way she’s so willing to settle for whatever spills over.
I stand. “Come on. Let’s sit farther up.”
She says, “No.” But takes my hand.
We move to a brightly-lit center pew. At first we are both nervous in the light, but the music calms us. I close my eyes and listen, let my thoughts go anywhere they want to. After a while I open my eyes and the light doesn’t bother me.
I look at the statue of Jesus, his sad eyes, his bloody palms. On the other side of the altar stands Mary, her eyes calm, resigned. The statues and I stare at each other.
Now, I can ask my question. Why is it wrong to love Mr. Harold Jones? This is my religion: to listen to holy songs and question plaster saints.
Mr. Jones is a married man. Old enough to be my father? What if he was younger? What if he wasn’t married? He is handsome. He is tall. His lips are the color of the banister in our apartment building, a dark worn brown, as dark as his skin. His eyes are anothe brown. His voice is deep. I love the way people say his whole name, Mr. Harold Jones, like he’s somebody. No one I know would say that it’s right for me to love him. Maybe that’s why I feel sad when he smiles. He smiled at me and said to Mrs. Jones, “Loretta, doesn’t she sound like Nina Simone?” Mrs. Jones said, “No. Pretty voice. But no, not Nina.” After that, I started to daydream about him kissing my neck.
The choir stops chanting and, out of the blue, the revelation that Doctor Bello is the
baby doctor who came to talk to the eleventh grade about teen pregnancy hits me. Mrs. Jones must be pregnant. I shiver. Pregnant Mrs. Jones. I bet she knows it all – the dreams of her husband’s hand up my blouse, his kisses on my neck and shoulders. I slump back. Wait until DeeDee finds out. I try to wring some meaning out of the fact that the music stops just when I’m having my revelation.
The choir sings, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.”
“Saint Francis’ Prayer.” My mother inhales deeply, as if she can smell the music.
This one is in English. They don’t sing in English very often. Besides Ave Maria, Saint Francis’ Prayer is her favorite. She smiles at me. I give her a plastic smile that she doesn’t
question. She closes her eyes in rapt attention to the song and I let the tears roll down my face.
I feel like the worm the Evangelist TV preacher says we all are in Gods’ presence. I feel shame, hot and wet on my face. And anger. I wipe my cheek with the back of my hand. I have a tissue. I could blow my nose, but I don’t want to call my mother back from St. Francis.
The all-knowing plaster eyes of Jesus make me mad. He’s got a leg up; three fathers, Joseph, God, and the Holy Ghost.
DeeDee can date white guys old enough to own cars. Aunt Delia can love losers who tell her she’s pretty. I can’t love Mr. Jones.
Even if he says nice things to me, grownup things? Says I sing like Nina Simone.
He’s different from anyone I know. Isn’t that why girls are supposed to be attracted to boys in the first place, because they’re so different? Leo the Loner, who lives in the apartment under us, gets beat up because the guys on the block think he likes other guys. If you marry a cousin, a boy too much like you, you have retarded babies.
I can’t love Mr. Jones because he’s married.
Even if he wasn’t black. Who
should I love? The white boys at school
who either or talk stupid don’t talk at all?
One of the teachers? The black
boys at school, dumb as the white boys. Mr. Sanchez, the custodian? Aunt Delia’s men? The guys from the factory? Who, in their right mind, wouldn’t love Mr.
Jones instead of them?
won’t. I will not love Mr. Jones. I look from Jesus, to Mary, to my mother.
mouth is slack. Her hands open on her
lap. Her eyes at half-mast. She is in the daze of St. Francis’ Prayer,
which the choir is singing for the fourth time.
She doesn’t argue with God. She
doesn’t argue with anyone. She speaks
softly and averts her eyes. She never
yells at me to clean my room, doesn’t tell me what to wear or who to hang
around with. If she thinks inside the
music, I bet her thoughts are adoring, meek.
I love him because he’s black. Would I have loved Mr. Harold Jones if he
is.” I say, not quite under my
you alright?” My mother touches my
hand. Her voice is dreamy.
I nod like
I’m supposed to, but I say, “Mr. Jones.”
back and looks at me for a long time.
Finally, she brings her lips close to my ear so I can hear her voice
over St. Francis’ Prayer. I feel her
breath on my cheek. “But Dear, he’s
say he wasn’t. Say he was just too
“Well? He is too old.”
he wasn’t too old and he wasn’t married?”
be someone else.”
be a black kid my age.” My
whispered words turn angry. My mother
must know how it feels to love someone you’re not supposed to. She should tell me what she knows. “You loved my father. He was married.” We’ve never spoken of this. The little bit I know about my father I
learned from DeeDee, through Aunt Delia.
doesn’t blink. She stares past me. Like always, she suffers modestly. Something
heats up just under the surface of her skin.
Her cheeks tinge pink. Otherwise her face does not change. Her flush cheeks are all it takes to make me
want to let her off the hook, give her back to St. Francis. She closes her eyes and says, “You can’t
wish someone into the person you want him to be. All the wishing in the world is not enough. Mr. Jones is married. If he were a black child your age, it would
be very hard. People can be very hard,
people Mom. You. What would you
would be hard to see people being mean to you.” She furrows her brow in concentration. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” she
says. We’ve seen the film twice. She shakes her head sadly. “They had money, clothes, big
does that have to do with anything?”
don’t know. It seems to smooth things
out in movies. We don’t live in the
movies do we?” She asks this like
it’s an actual question. She sits up a
little straighter and looks me in the eye when she answers herself. “No, we live in tenement in westernMassachusetts.”
I want to
crawl onto the lap of this timid woman with the soft voice, my mother. I rest my head on her shoulder. Her resignation usually makes me angry, but I
want to burrow into it now. She squeezes
my shoulder. “I wish I could put
you in my pocket and keep you safe,” she says.
what? Wearing a hairnet? Working in a factory? Racism?
stops singing abruptly.
pipe sounds. “Good work this
evening.” The choir mistress sounds
almost cheerful. The organ bench scrapes
the floor. My mother’s arm tightens
around me. She holds her breath. I huddle next to her, not wanting to move and
disrupt the flow of her excitement, not wanting to untangle myself from her. This is it: Ave Maria. We wait, suspended, for the first
heartbreaking syllable. And then the
choir mistress answers the blow of the pitch pipe with her own perfect
note. No need for an organ or other
voices, just one skinny woman, one note.
It comes, like it always does, a shot to the heart. “Ahhhhhhhh.” The hearts of the choir mistress, Jesus, my
mother, Mary, filling the church, bleeding on until the last millisecond, when,
if it did not break to the next note my own heart really might. It seems so real, this passion. “Vaaaaaay.” My mother lets go of me to clutch her
chest. “Maaaaa…” Tears trickle
down her cheek.
only safe passion. She is afraid to look
living men in the eye, but she has this.
The music pumps through us, beautiful.
Beautiful and dangerous.
Dangerous because for a moment you might think it’s enough.
“Ave Maria,” The Saint Ann’s Review, edited by Beth Bosworth, Saint Ann’s School, volume 7, number 1, summer 2007