Survival at Age Six
For my seventh birthday I requested a doll carriage. Terry, Maria, and Tony taunted me with their acquisitions; now I would show them that my adored mother, a patient at Lovella Sanitarium, could also bestow gifts which I would benevolently share. Thus, I hoped to pacify my enemies.
From that August day when the blond man in the bowler hat drove me to the dismal little house in East Orange, New Jersey, I knew the Califanos would be challenging. The Bowler Hat Man and I had passed neatly-fenced yards of lilies and roses to stop in the seedy neighborhood of Water Street. Here were no white clapboards, no crisp curtains, no trim yards, no flowers. Just sagging roofs, battered screened porches, and sad-eyed children: a distressing omen.
Terry Califano, tall and gangling at thirteen, greeted me with narrowed eyes and sulking mouth, helpfully establishing our relationship. Behind her trailed Maria aged eleven with her grimy brown curls and tattered dress. Frowning, she sucked on her thumb. Tony, the eight-year-old boy, clutched at his mother's quilted skirt and observed me with squinting blue eyes and drippy nose.
Mr. Califano had abandoned the family, perhaps because his wife--thin and birdlike with pinched lips--was a shrill-voiced ogre whose memory even now rakes up layers of pain.
The children shared a bedroom upstairs beside their mother's while I enjoyed the ersatz privilege of foster care: a small room adjoining the kitchen. Except for the living room's bay window, the house blurs into a labyrinth of dark, dingy cells with torn upholstery, shoddy knickknacks, and faded beige curtains drawn against the cheerful sun.
So there the four of us lived in the intolerable ambience of, "You son of a bitch, you do as I say or I'll smack you!"
Whack across the face.
"You mean bastard!"
Screams. Tears. Enter patient Mrs. Califano to impartially resolve the conflict. "Jenny, you mean, spiteful little girl!" she would yell, her voice halfway between shriek and howl as she shook my shoulder. While the others giggled at my impotence, Mrs. Califano would lock me in my room with the admonition, "If you're so set on misbehaving, maybe this will quiet you down."
At first I didn't mind being locked in. It obviated having to defend my small territory of torn jeans, blouse, and partially-demolished comb. I'd clamber onto the old army cot and observe the neighborhood children playing in their yard. Or I'd fish out a catalog cached under my mattress and linger over happy families with wonderfully bright teeth, lounging by their pool in the plushiest white robes.
The robes, Maria maliciously informed me one evening, were cheap junk that cost only a few dollars. I called her a liar. She dashed upstairs to return victorious with a ragged chenille robe.
"When Daddy was here," she explained solemnly, sucking on her poor, overworked thumb, "Mama said I needed a robe and Daddy said, well, if it's on sale go ahead and order it then, what are you bothering me for, so Mama got it but it tore after a while Mama said because it was cheap junk and that's the truth." She paused for breath, her lips screwing up in a tearful pucker.
"Maybe Daddy will come back," I said brightly, hunching up beside her on the couch in a sympathetic moment.
She pushed me away fiercely. "In a pig's eye! You think Mama would take in boarders if he was coming back and now that you're here why he'll never come back because there's too many children and Daddy wouldn't like that."
"Well, it's not my fault!" I shouted. "I wish I was so far away from this awful place, you'd never, never find me."
Terry entered abruptly as arbitrator and slapped me across the face. I blinked back tears to maintain my aplomb. Experienced with foster homes, I understood the need for bluffing.
"Any more smart talk from you and Mama will kick you out on the street," she said. I shrugged in disdainful silence. She pointed a warning finger at me. "You'd better do as we say if you don't want to live on the street."
Unbowed by her horrible prophecy of my future, I said, "Your mama can't kick me out 'cause she's poor and needs the money."
Terry's eyes narrowed in a way that chilled my soul, her lips forming a funny, half-smile. "Boy, are we gonna fix you," she said quietly and left.
For several weeks I anxiously awaited the calamity. Nothing. I noticed, though, that my meals had faded. For breakfast: juice. Lunch: a lone hot dog and milk. Dinner at my isolated corner table: several slices of bologna and more milk while the family feasted nearby on roasted chicken and fries. I complained to Mrs. Califano one afternoon while she washed dishes.
Her face reddening, she waved a plate at me. "We hardly have enough to feed ourselves and you expect to eat like a princess!" The plate slipped; she stooped to gather the pieces decorating the worn gray linoleum. "Now see what you made me do! You'd better shut up about food or you won't eat anything!"
Alarmed I backed out of the kitchen, anxiously feeling my body beneath the blue jeans. It seemed to be imperceptibly shrinking. I decided to devise a plan before I faded altogether. After the family retired to bed, I sneaked into the kitchen, prudently bypassing the chocolate cake for the more filling cheddar cheese and tomato sandwich that I carried to my room, careful not to drop anything. Surprisingly no one caught on and I enjoyed my nightly forays, my satisfaction partly arising from having outwitted the loathsome Califanos. Cockiness heralded my downfall. One night I began too early, rashly intending to add the cake as dessert. Mrs. Califano, wandering by and mumbling about hot tea and who left the light on, noticed me frozen at the scarred wooden table.
"What on earth are you doing here?" she whined. "Never let any of us have a second's peace."
I remained perfectly still under her scrutiny, wracking my brain for a plausible excuse. Deciding that perhaps truth was its own best alibi, I mumbled politely about how hungry I was and would she mind, please, if I fixed myself a little snack? I was awful careful about crumbs and promised not to dirty anything. I said this in my most appealing manner, my dark-eyed gaze focused in all shy innocence on the hole in my right tennis shoe. When I looked up, I realized with horror that truth does not always triumph.
Mrs. Califano was furious. "You imp from hell!" She pummeled me, the hard whacks across my buttocks proving so painful, I burst out sobbing, "I'm so awfully hungry. I just want something to eat. Please give me something to eat."
"I'll give you something, all right!" Dragging me by my bobbed black hair, she tossed me into my room and locked the door, her odious voice squealing into my inner sanctum, "No one steals in this house. We may be poor but honest. There'll be no stealing here! Do you understand?"
Dazed, I had crawled up onto the cot and lay there in a vanquished heap.
"Missy, you'd better answer when I talk to you! You hear me?"
"Yes, ma'am," I replied quaveringly amidst quiet sobs.
Seemingly satisfied, she left.
I lay awake plotting rebellious plans to run away, determined to retain my independent spirit. However, the following week the Bowler Hat Man paid a surprise visit to see whether I was misbehaving, like at the Fraziers who could have been the Califanos' clones.
Mrs. Califano received him in the musty living room and they chatted while I remained in my room. Hearing my name called, I shyly edged into their presence.
The Bowler Hat Man frowned at me. "Well, you're not causing Mrs. Califano any trouble, I hope?"
"Uh...I shrank against a vaguely-grayish armchair. "I don't think so."
"Hmmm..." His voice trailed off while his mind explored various thoughts. His somber gray eyes examined me; his blond eyebrows raised slightly at Mrs. Califano. "She looks thinner. She isn't sick, showing symptoms of...well, we do have to be careful."
"She's okay!" piped Mrs. Califano dryly. "A little problem at first and no wonder...mother catching tuberculosis and the father too stupid to hold a job." The Bowler Hat Man frowned again. Mrs. Califano heaved a deep, convincing sigh and spread her hands helplessly against the quilted skirt. "Well, I do what I can for the poor little tyke..."
"Hmmm..." The Bowler Hat Man turned to me abruptly. "It's only September but your mother wants to know what gift you'd like for your seventh birthday. She can't afford much but what is it to be? A pretty new doll?"
He smiled quizzically as I mentally culled from among multitudinous toys something impressive that wouldn't leave Mother penniless. Finally I said timidly, "Would a doll carriage cost very much?"
He teased me by pretending to ponder while I anxiously awaited the verdict. Then with a solemn smile, he said, "I think it can be arranged."
Mrs. Califano, smiling, escorted him onto the sagging porch, chirping her delight at his dropping by. I followed behind, flushed with the promise of the doll carriage but as I watched their protracted goodbyes, I realized it wasn't the doll carriage I longed for. Suddenly I felt an overwhelming urge to cry out, to clasp the tall, slender man crossing the porch and beg him to release me from the detestable Califanos. The prospect of my mission failing--and Mrs. Califano's subsequent wrath--loomed ahead, so, instead, I rushed to the bay window. Parting the curtains, I saw the Bowler Hat Man waving at me as he revved the motor. I waved back and the car roared down the street. I waved and waved long after it turned the corner.
Mrs. Califano seemed kinder after that; she even read "Little Red Riding Hood," to me in the living room. After lunch, as usual, she napped, complaining she needed rest to care for so many children. I couldn't understand why since she spent most of her day listening to radio soap operas. While she napped, I thought about the doll carriage. By the time the other children arrived from school, I actually felt happy. The more I thought about the carriage, the happier I became.
Terry also seemed kinder. She treated me that evening to meat loaf with mashed potatoes and peas. The cake and ice cream, though, were taboo. Maria, faithful to habit, requested I watch them enjoying their dessert--a game Terry had invented to impress upon me my status. I waited dutifully on my low stool until Terry, disgruntled at my indifference, murmured, "Scram!" and I scampered to find Mrs. Califano poised with the key to my bedroom door. Determined to fulfill her duty, she escorted me to the bathroom and then locked me in my bedroom despite my sincere protestations of a full belly.
Unfortunately, the nocturnally-locked bedroom door led to a revolting habit of bed wetting. Though I strained and strained to squeeze out the very last drop before bedtime, there always remained some mysterious, unquenchable source to drench me before awakening.
Faced with the daily burden of wet, smelly sheets to scrub in the galvanized tub, Mrs. Califano's patience quickly evaporated. She tried reforming me with rebukes, then a light beating, then harsher ones that dotted my body with omniously-purplish lumps but invisible through my clothing. Still, my bladder refused to cooperate as did Mrs. Califano's unyielding conscientiousness. Finally, she allowed Terry free rein, certain that I, being the smallest child, would emerge the loser and thereby profit from the experience.
Amidst my despair, the doll carriage became a buttress of hope. Irrationally I convinced myself it would resolve all my troubles, alchemize evil into good, pain into ecstasy, and I clung to that absurd notion until the crisply cold November day when the Bowler Hat Man removed the carriage from the big car's trunk and deposited it on the vaguely-beige living room carpet.
If man's vision of heaven molds itself from infinity, surely my doll carriage metamorphosed from Mount Olympus for I had never imagined anything so fantastic, so totally unobtainable. Far larger than I had expected--its handlebar rested just under my chin--it was sky blue with a saucy black stripe on either side, the black hooded top collapsible. Awed, I gazed at it, trying not to imagine the bottomless poverty my dear mother had probably plunged herself into simply to satisfy my desire.
Mrs. Califano escorted the Bowler Hat Man outside and then left to shop while the other children disappeared upstairs for a conference.I folded myself onto the parlor carpet and contemplated with graditude my mother's love. Added to this was the pleasure of Terry, Maria, and Tony returning with handshakes and a promise of lasting friendship. To seal the pact, Terry asked me to leave for a moment; they had planned a wonderful surprise.
"What is it?" I asked, wide-eyed, hoping perhaps they'd contribute a doll to complete the carriage's stature.
Maria smiled shyly, Tony giggled, and Terry's mouth, for once, was twisted into a grin. "Oh, you'll see," Terry said, all grins. "You'll see."
Barely able to contain my curiosity about their wonderful surprise, I sequestered myself in my room to await their glorious summons. The house filled with mysterious hammering, clunking, and grinding as if they were making something. After an interminable wait, I ventured a timid, "Can I come out now?" Silence. Finally, Terry yelled okay. Relieved, I sprang out as if goosed, unable to bear the suspense any longer.
The scene ahead stopped me short in the living room archway. Strewn about the carpet lay the shiny blue remnants of my doll carriage. In disbelief I stared at the dismembered pieces, unable to grasp the carriage's sad demise: its wheels lurching against armchairs, the splintered handlebar teetering across the coffee table, the hooded top sprawling against the bay window seat where I had waved to the Bowler Hat Man.
From some hazy distance, I heard Terry mutter, "You always think you're smarter than we are. Well, this'll show that you're not!"
After that, memory blurs. I remember wailing and then throwing things--plaster of Paris knickknacks that I smashed through the bay window, tossing out ripped pillows as a lagniappe to the shattered glass. Mrs. Califano, returning with her shopping cart, ran into the living room and grabbed at me; I kicked her hard in the groin. She screamed and let go. In the kitchen: dishes, crockery, glasses, all crashing into the sink, the cabinets smeared with splattered milk, mayonaise, ketchup. Upstairs: more shattered windows, dresser mirrors, clothing, jewelry, perfume atomizers and dusting powder, jars and bottles from the bathroom--everything cracked, ripped, shredded, utterly demolished.
Panting after me hysterically, Mrs. Califano shrieked for help from the others who huddled on the porch, terrified. They finally pursued me as I bounded through the yard and down the street. Hearing their shouted curses, I fiercely taunted them to catch me. My strength felt Herculean in its exploding passion; I savagely wanted to destroy them like the house breakables. Finally, they grasped my uncontrollable rage; they vanished after several blocks and I ran to a small park where I slumped on the cold grass, my revenge exhausting itself in short heaving gasps.
As I lay there, debating sanctuary, whom to ask for help, I dozed off, drained from my ordeal. Shivering with cold under my thin sweater, I awakened and looked up in surprise at the Bowler Hat Man bending over me, anxiously shaking my shoulder. He didn't say anything. He just nodded, picked me up, and strode toward the big black car stationed near the park gates.
I remember the snug warmth of his arms holding me tightly, the beat of his heart under the cashmere coat so cozy soft against my chest, the whole world contracting into just the two of us. I remember how safe and secure I felt from my enemies and the rude wrench from that security when he released me and deposited me gently on the front seat.
I wanted to explain my misbehavior: the lack of food, the bed wetting, the beatings, the hatred. I had so much to tell him, I thought I'd burst with it. Perhaps I had too much to tell him for I remained silent, my face suddenly wet with tears.
Sighing deeply, he patted my hand on the seat, and said, "I think you'll be happier with the Beldens."
We drove on to the next foster home. But that's another story called, "Refuge."