My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick. That’s why we were
taken to St. Bonny’s. People want to put their arms around you when you
tell them you were in a shelter, but it really wasn’t bad. No big long room
with one hundred beds like Bellevue. There were four to a room, and when
Roberta and me came, there was a shortage of state kids, so we were the
only ones assigned to 406 and could go from bed to bed if we wanted to.
And we wanted to, too. We changed beds every night and for the whole
four months we were there we never picked one out as our own permanent
It didn’t start out that way. The minute I walked in and the Big Bozo
introduced us, I got sick to my stomach. It was one thing to be taken out of
your own bed early in the morning-it was something else to be stuck in a
strange place with a girl from a whole other race. And Mary, that’s my
mother, she was right. Every now and then she would stop dancing long
enough to tell me something important and one of the things she said was
that they never washed their hair and they smelled funny. Roberta sure did.
Smell funny, I mean. So when the Big Bozo (nobody ever called her Mrs.
Itkin, just like nobody every said St. Bonaventure)-when she said, “Twyla,
this is Roberta. Roberta, this is Twyla. Make each other welcome.” I said,
“My mother won’t like you putting me in here.”
“Good,” said Bozo. “Maybe then she’ll come and take you home.”
How’s that for mean? If Roberta had laughed I would have killed her, but
she didn’t. She just walked over to the window and stood with her back to
Turn around,” said the Bozo. “Don’t be rude. Now Twyla. Roberta. When
you hear a loudbuzzer, that’s the call for dinner. Come down to the first
floor. Any fights and no movie.” And then, just to make sure we knew what
we would be missing, “The Wizard of Oz.
“Roberta must have thought I meant that my mother would be mad about
my being put in the shelter. Not about rooming with her, because as soon
as Bozo left she came over to me and said, “Is your mother sick too?”
“No,” I said. “She just likes to dance all night.”
“Oh,” she nodded her head and I liked the way she understood things so
fast. So for the moment it didn’t matter that we looked like salt and pepper
standing there and that’s what the other kids called us sometimes. We were
eight years old and got F’s all the time. Me because I couldn’t remember
what I read or what the teacher said. And Roberta because she couldn’t
read at all and didn’t even listen to the teacher. She wasn’t good at
anything except jacks, at which she was a killer: pow scoop pow scoop
We didn’t like each other all that much at first, but nobody else wanted to
play with us because we weren’t real orphans with beautiful dead parents
in the sky. We were dumped. Even the New York City Puerto Ricans and the
upstate Indians ignored us. All kinds of kids were in there, black ones,
white ones, even two Koreans. The food was good, though. At least I
thought so. Roberta hated it and left whole pieces of things on her plate:
Spam, Salisbury steak-even jello with fruit cocktail in it, and she didn’t care
if I ate what she wouldn’t. Mary’s idea of supper was popcorn and a can of
Yoo-Hoo. Hot mashed potatoes and two weenies was like Thanksgiving for
It really wasn’t bad, St. Bonny’s. The big girls on the second floor pushed
us around now and then. But that was all. They wore lipstick and eyebrow
pencil and wobbled their knees while they watched TV. Fifteen, sixteen,
even, some of them were. They were put-out girls, scared runaways most
of them. Poor little girls who fought their uncles off but looked tough to us,
and mean. Goddid they look mean. The staff tried to keep them separate
from the younger children, but sometimes they caught us watching them in
the orchard where they played radios and danced with each other. They’d
light out after us and pull our hair or twist our arms. We were scared of
them, Roberta and me, but neither of us wanted the other one to know it.
So we got a good list of dirty names we could shout back when we ran
from them through the orchard. I used to dream a lot and almost always the
orchard was there. Two acres, four maybe, of these little apple trees.
Hundreds of them. Empty and crooked like beggar women when I first
came to St. Bonny’s but fat with flowers when I left. I don’t know why I
dreamt about that orchard so much. Nothing really happened there.
Nothing all that important, I mean. Just the big girls dancing and playing
the radio. Roberta and me watching. Maggie fell down there once. The
kitchen woman with legs like parentheses. And the big girls laughed at her.
We should have helped her up, I know, but we were scared of those girls
with lipstick and eyebrow pencil. Maggie couldn’t talk. The kids said she
had her tongue cut out, but I think she was just born that way: mute. She
was old and sandy-colored and she worked in the kitchen. I don’t know if
she was nice or not. I just remember her legs like parentheses and how she
rocked when she walked. She worked from early in the morning till two
o’clock, and if she was late, if she had too much cleaning and didn’t get out
till two-fifteen or so, she’d cut through the orchard so she wouldn’t miss
her bus and have to wait another hour. She wore this really stupid little hat-
a kid’s hat with ear flaps-and she wasn’t much taller than we were. A really
awful little hat. Even for a mute, it was dumb-dressing like a kid and never
saying anything at all.”
But what about if somebody tries to kill her?” I used to wonder about
that. “Or what if she wants to cry? Can she cry?”
“Sure,” Roberta said. “But just tears. No sounds come out.”
“She can’t scream?”
“Can she hear?”
“Let’s call her,” I said. And we did.
“Dummy! Dummy!” She never turned her head
“Bow legs! Bow legs!” Nothing. She just rocked on, the chin straps of
her baby-boy hat swaying from side to side. I think we were wrong. I think
she could hear and didn’t let on. And it shames me even now to think there
was somebody in there after all who heard us call her those names and
couldn’t tell on us.
We got along all right, Roberta and me. Changed beds every night, got
F’s in civics and communication skills and gym. The Bozo was
disappointed in us, she said. Out of 130 of us statecases, 90 were under
twelve. Almost all were real orphans with beautiful dead parents in the sky.
We were the only ones dumped and the only ones with F’s in three classes
including gym. So we got along-what with her leaving whole pieces of
things on her plate and being nice about no tasking questions.
I think it was the day before Maggie fell down that we found out our
mothers were coming to visit us on the same Sunday. We had been at the
shelter twenty-eight days (Roberta twenty-eight and a half) and this was
their first visit with us. Our mothers would come at ten o’clock in time for
chapel, then lunch with us in the teachers’ lounge. I thought if my dancing
mother met her sick mother it might be good for her. And Roberta thought
her sick mother would get a big bang out of a dancing one. We got excited
about it and curled each other’s hair. After breakfast we sat on the bed
watching the road from the window. Roberta’s socks were still wet. She
washed them the night before and put them on the radiator to dry. They
hadn’t, but she put them on anyway because their tops were so pretty-
scalloped in pink. Each of us had a purple construction-paper basket that
we had made in craft class. Mine had a yellow crayon rabbit on it. Roberta’s
had eggs with wiggly lines of color. Inside were cellophane grass and just
the jelly beans because I’d eaten the two marshmallow eggs they gave us.
The Big Bozo came herself to get us. Smiling she told us we looked very
nice and to come downstairs. We were so surprised by the smile we’d
never seen before, neither of us moved.
“Don’t you want to see your mommies?”
I stood up first and spilled the jelly beans all over the floor. Bozo’s smile
disappeared while we scrambled to get the candy up off the floor and put it
back in the grass.
She escorted us downstairs to the first floor, where the other girls were
lining up to file into the chapel. A bunch of grown-ups stood to one side.
Viewers mostly. The old biddies who wanted servants and the fags who
wanted company looking for children they might want to adopt. Once in a
while a grandmother. Almost never anybody young or anybody whose face
wouldn’t scare you in the night. Because if any of the real orphans had
young relatives they wouldn’t be real orphans. I saw Mary right away. She
had on those green slacks I hated and hated even more now because didn’t
she know we were going to chapel? And that fur jacket with the pocket
linings so ripped she had to pull to get her hands out of them. But her face
was pretty-like always, and she smiled and waved like she was the little girl
looking for her mother- not me.
I walked slowly, trying not to drop the jelly beans and hoping the paper
handle would hold. I had to use my last Chiclet because by the time I
finished cutting everything out, all the Elmer’s was gone. I am left-handed
and the scissors never worked for me. It didn’t matter, though; I might just
as well have chewed the gum. Mary dropped to her knees and grabbed me,
mashing the basket, the jelly beans, and the grass into her ratty fur jacket.
“Twyla, baby. Twyla, baby!”
I could have killed her. Already I heard the big girls in the orchard the
next time saying, “Twyyyyyla, baby!” But I couldn’t stay mad at Mary while
she was smiling and hugging me and smelling of Lady Esther dusting
powder. I wanted to stay buried in her fur all day.
To tell the truth I forgot about Roberta. Mary and I got in line for the
traipse into chapel and I was feeling proud because she looked so beautiful
even in those ugly green slacks that made her behind stick out. A pretty
mother on earth is better than a beautiful dead one in the sky even if she
did leave you all alone to go dancing.
I felt a tap on my shoulder, turned, and saw Roberta smiling. I smiled
back, but not too much lest somebody think this visit was the biggest thing
that ever happened in my life. Then Roberta said, “Mother, I want you to
meet my roommate, Twyla. And that’s Twyla’s mother.”
I looked up it seemed for miles. She was big. Bigger than any man and
on her chest was the biggest cross I’d ever seen. I swear it was six inches
long each way. And in the crook of her arm was the biggest Bible ever
Mary, simple-minded as ever, grinned and tried to yank her hand out of
the pocket with the raggedy lining-to shake hands, I guess. Roberta’s
mother looked down at me and then looked down at Mary too. She didn’t
say anything, just grabbed Roberta with her Bible-free hand and stepped
tout of line, walking quickly to the rear of it. Mary was still grinning because
she’s not too swift when it comes to what’s really going on. Then this light
bulb goes off in her head and she says “That bitch!” really loud and us
almost in the chapel now. Organ music whining; the Bonny Angels singing
sweetly. Everybody in the world turned around to look. And Mary would
have kept it up-kept calling names if I hadn’t squeezed her hand as hard as
I could. That helped a little, but she still twitched and crossed and
uncrossed her legs all through service. Even groaned a couple of times.
Why did I think she would come there and act right? Slacks. No hat like the
grandmothers and viewers, and groaning all the while. When we stood for
hymns she kept her mouth shut. Wouldn’t even look at the words on the
page. She actually reached in her purse for a mirror to check her lipstick.
All I could think of was that she really needed to be killed. The sermon
lasted a year, and I knew the real orphans were looking smug again.
We were supposed to have lunch in the teachers’ lounge, but Mary didn’t
bring anything, so we picked fur and cellophane grass off the mashed jelly
beans and ate them. I could have killed her. I sneaked a look at Roberta.
Her mother had brought chicken legs and ham sandwiches and oranges
and a whole box of chocolate-covered grahams. Roberta drank milk from a
thermos while her mother read the Bible to her.
Things are not right. The wrong food is always with the wrong people.
Maybe that’s why I got into waitress work later-to match up the right people
with the right food. Roberta just let those chicken legs sit there, but she did
bring a stack of grahams up to me later when the visit was over. I think she
was sorry that her mother would not shake my mother’s hand. And I liked
that and I liked the fact that she didn’t say a word about Mary groaning all
the way through the service and not bringing any lunch.
Roberta left in May when the apple trees were heavy and white. On her
last day we went to the orchard to watch the big girls smoke and dance by
the radio. It didn’t matter that they said, “Twyyyyyla, baby.” We sat on the
ground and breathed. Lady Esther. Apple blossoms. I still go soft when I
smell one or the other. Roberta was going home. The big cross and the big
Bible was coming to get her and she seemed sort of glad and sort of not. I
thought I would die in that room of four beds without her and I knew Bozo
had plans to move some other dumped kid in there with me. Roberta
promised to write every day, which was really sweet of her because she
couldn’t read a lick so how could she write anybody. I would have drawn
pictures and sent them to her but she never gave me her address. Little by
little she faded. Her wet socks with the pink scalloped tops and her big
serious-looking eyes-that’s all I could catch when I tried to bring her to
I was working behind the counter at the Howard Johnson’s on the
Thruway just before the Kingston exit. Not a bad job. Kind of a long ride
from Newburgh, but okay once I got there. Mine was the second night shift-
eleven to seven. Very light until a Greyhound checked in for breakfast
around six-thirty. At that hour the sun was all the way clear of the hills
behind the restaurant. The place looked better at night-more like shelter-
but I loved it when the sun broke in, even if it did show all the cracks in the
vinyl and the speckled floor looked dirty no matter what the mop boy did.
It was August and a bus crowd was just unloading. They would stand
around a long while: going to the john, and looking at gifts and junk-for-
sale machines, reluctant to sit down so soon. Even to eat. I was trying to fill
the coffee pots and get them all situated on the electric burners when I saw
her. She was sitting in a booth smoking a cigarette with two guys
smothered in head and facial hair. Her own hair was so big and wild I could
hardly see her face. But the eyes. I would know them anywhere. She had on
a powder-blue halter and shorts outfit and earrings the size of bracelets.
Talk about lipstick and eyebrow pencil. She made the big girls look like
nuns. I couldn’t get off the counter until seven o’clock, but I kept watching
the booth in case they got up to leave before that. My replacement was on
time for a change, so I counted and stacked my receipts as fast as I could
and signed off. I walked over to the booths, smiling and wondering if she
would remember me. Or even if she wanted to remember me. Maybe she
didn’t want to be reminded of St. Bonny’s or to have anybody know she
was ever there. I know I never talked about it to anybody.
I put my hands in my apron pockets and leaned against the back of the
booth facing them.
“Roberta? Roberta Fisk?”
She looked up. “Yeah?”
She squinted for a second and then said, “Wow.”
“Sure. Hey. Wow.”
“It’s been a while,” I said, and gave a smile to the two hairy guys.
“Yeah. Wow. You work here?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I live in Newburgh.”
“Newburgh? No kidding?” She laughed then a private laugh that
included the guys but only the guys, and they laughed with her. What could
I do but laugh too and wonder why I was standing there with my knees
showing out from under that uniform. Without looking I could see the blue
and white triangle on my head, my hair shapeless in a net, my ankles thick
in white oxfords. Nothing could have been less sheer than my stockings.
There was this silence that came downright after I laughed. A silence it was
her turn to fill up. With introductions, maybe, to her boyfriends or an
invitation to sit down and have a Coke. Instead she lit a cigarette off the
one she’d just finished and said, “We’re on our way to the Coast. He’s got
an appointment with Hendrix.”
She gestured casually toward the boy next to her.
“Hendrix Fantastic,” I said. “Really fantastic. What’s she doing now?”
Roberta coughed on her cigarette and the two guys rolled their eyes up
at the ceiling.”
Hendrix. Jimi Hendrix, asshole. He’s only the biggest-Oh, wow. Forget it.”
I was dismissed without anyone saying goodbye, so I thought I would do
it for her.
“How’s your mother?” I asked. Her grin cracked her whole face. She
swallowed. “Fine,” she said. “How’s yours?”
“Pretty as a picture,” I said and turned away. The backs of my knees
were damp. Howard Johnson’s really was a dump in the sunlight.
James is as comfortable as a house slipper. He liked my cooking and I
liked his big loud family. They have lived in Newburgh all of their lives and
talk about it the way people do who have always known a home. His
grandmother is a porch swing older than his father and when they talk
about streets and avenues and buildings they call them names they no
longer have. They still call the A & P Rico’s because it stands on property
once a mom and pop store owned by Mr. Rico. And they call the new
community college Town Hall because it once was. My mother-in-law puts
up jelly and cucumbers and buys butter wrapped in cloth from a dairy.
James and his father talk about fishing and baseball and I can see them all
together on the Hudson in a raggedy skiff. Half the population of Newburgh
is on welfare now, but to my husband’s family it was still some upstate
paradise of a time long past. A time of ice houses and vegetable wagons,
coal furnaces and children weeding gardens. When our son was born my
mother-in-law gave me the crib blanket that had been hers.
But the town they remembered had changed. Something quick was in the
air. Magnificent old houses, so ruined they had become shelter for
squatters and rent risks, were bought and renovated. Smart IBM people
moved out of their suburbs back into the city and put shutters up and herb
gardens in their backyards. A brochure came in the mail announcing the
opening of a Food Emporium. Gourmet food it said-and listed items the
rich IBM crowd would want. It was located in a new mall at the edge of town
and I drove out to shop there one day-just to see. It was late in June. After
the tulips were gone and the Queen Elizabeth roses were open everywhere.
It railed my cart along the aisle tossing in smoked oysters and Robert’s
sauce and things I knew would sit in my cupboard for years. Only when I
found some Klondike ice cream bars did I feel less guilty about spending
James’s fireman’s salary so foolishly. My father-in-law ate them with the
same gusto little Joseph did.
Waiting in the check-out line I heard a voice say, “Twyla!”
The classical music piped over the aisles had affected me and the
woman leaning toward me was dressed to kill. Diamonds on her hand, a
smart white summer dress. “I’m Mrs. Benson,” I said.
“Ho. Ho. The Big Bozo,” she sang.
For a split second I didn’t know what she was talking about. She had a
bunch of asparagus and two cartons of fancy water.
“For heaven’s sake. Roberta.”
“You look great,” she said.
“So do you. Where are you? Here? In Newburgh?”
“Yes. Over in Annandale.”
I was opening my mouth to say more when the cashier called my
attention to her empty counter.
“Meet you outside.” Roberta pointed her finger and went into the express
I placed the groceries and kept myself from glancing around to check
Roberta’s progress. I remembered Howard Johnson’s and looking for a
chance to speak only to be greeted with a stingy “wow.” But she was
waiting for me and her huge hair was sleek now, smooth around a small,
nicely shaped head. Shoes, dress, everything lovely and summery and rich.
I was dying to know what happened to her, how she got from Jimi Hendrix
to Annandale, a neighborhood full of doctors and IBM executives. Easy, I
thought. Everything is so easy for them. They think they own the world.
“How long,” I asked her. “How long have you been here?”
“A year. I got married to a man who lives here. And you, you’re married
too, right? Benson, you said.”
“Yeah. James Benson.”
“And is he nice?”
“Oh, is he nice?”
“Well, is he?” Roberta’s eyes were steady as though she really meant the
question and wanted an answer.”
He’s wonderful, Roberta. Wonderful.”
“So you’re happy.”
“That’s good,” she said and nodded her head. “I always hoped you’d be
happy. Any kids? I know you have kids.”
“One. A boy. How about you?”
She laughed. “Step kids. He’s a widower.”
“Got a minute? Let’s have a coffee.”
I thought about the Klondikes melting and the inconvenience of going all
the way to my car and putting the bags in the trunk. Served me right for
buying all that stuff I didn’t need. Roberta was ahead of me.”
Put them in my car. It’s right here.”
And then I saw the dark blue limousine.
“You married a Chinaman?”
“No,” she laughed. “He’s the driver.”
“Oh, my. If the Big Bozo could see you now.”
We both giggled. Really giggled. Suddenly, in just a pulse beat, twenty
years disappeared and all of it came rushing back. The big girls (whom we
called gar girls-Roberta’s misheard word for the evil stone faces described
in a civics class) there dancing in the orchard, the ploppy mashed
potatoes, the double weenies, the Spam with pineapple. We went into the
coffee shop holding onto one another and I tried to think why we were glad
to see each other this time and not before. Once, twelve years ago, we
passed like strangers. A black girl and a white girl meeting in a Howard
Johnson’s on the road and having nothing to say. One in a blue and white
triangle waitresshat-the other on her way to see, Hendrix. Now we were
behaving like sisters separated for much too long. Those four short
months were nothing in time. Maybe it was the thing itself. Just being
there, together. Two little girls who knew what nobody else in the world
knew-how not to ask questions. How to believe what had to be believed.
There was politeness in that reluctance and generosity as well. Is your
mother sick too? No, she dances all night. Oh–and an understanding nod.
We sat in a booth by the window and fell into recollection like veterans.”
Did you ever learn to read?”
“Watch.” She picked up the menu. “Special of the day. Cream of corn
soup. Entrees. Two dots and a wriggly line. Quiche. Chef salad, scallops . .
I was laughing and applauding when the waitress came up.
“Remember the Easter baskets?”
“And how we tried to introduce them?”
“Your mother with that cross like two telephone poles.”
“And yours with those tight slacks.”
We laughed so loudly heads turned and made the laughter harder to
What happened to the Jimi Hendrix date?”
Roberta made a blow-out sound with her lips.”
When he died I thought about you.”
“Oh, you heard about him finally?”
“Finally. Come on, I was a small-town country waitress.”
“And I was a small-town country dropout. God, were we wild. I still don’t
know how I got out of there alive.”
“But you did.”
“I did. I really did. Now I’m Mrs. Kenneth Norton.”
“Sounds like a mouthful.”
“Servants and all?”
Roberta held up two fingers.
“Ow! What does he do?”
“Computers and stuff. What do I know?”
“I don’t remember a hell of a lot from those days, but Lord, St. Bonny’s is
as clear as daylight. Remember Maggie? The day she fell down and those
gar girls laughed at her?”
Roberta looked up from her salad and stared at me. “Maggie didn’t fall,”
Yes, she did. You remember.”
“No, Twyla. They knocked her down. Those girls pushed her down and
tore her clothes. In the orchard.”
“I don’t–that’s not what happened.”
“Sure it is. In the orchard. Remember how scared we were?”
“Wait a minute. I don’t remember any of that.”
“And Bozo was fired.”
“You’re crazy. She was there when I left. You left before me.”
“I went back. You weren’t there when they fired Bozo.”
“Twice. Once for a year when I was about ten, another for two months
when I was fourteen. That’s when I ran away.”
“You ran away from St. Bonny’s?”
“I had to. What do you want? Me dancing in that orchard?”
“Are you sure about Maggie?”
“Of course I’m sure. You’ve blocked it, Twyla. It happened. Those girls
had behavior problems, you know.”
“Didn’t they, though. But why can’t I remember the Maggie thing?”
“Believe me. It happened. And we were there.”
“Who did you room with when you went back?” I asked her as if I would
know her. The Maggie thing was troubling me.”
Creeps. They tickled themselves in the night.”
My ears were itching and I wanted to go home suddenly. This was all
very well but she couldn’t just comb her hair, wash her face and pretend
everything was hunky-dory. After the Howard Johnson’s snub. And no
“Were you on dope or what that time at Howard Johnson’s?” I tried to
make my voice sound friendlier than I felt.”
Maybe, a little. I never did drugs much. Why?”
“I don’t know; you acted sort of like you didn’t want to know me then.”
“Oh, Twyla, you know how it was in those days: black-white. You know
how everything was.”
But I didn’t know. I thought it was just the opposite. Busloads of blacks
and whites came into Howard Johnson’s together. They roamed together
then: students, musicians, lovers, protesters. You got to see everything at
Howard Johnson’s and blacks were very friendly with whites in those days.
But sitting there with nothing on my plate but two hard tomato wedges
wondering about the melting Klondikes it seemed childish remembering
the slight. We went to her car, and with the help of the driver, got my stuff
into my station wagon.
“We’ll keep in touch this time,” she said.
“Sure,” I said. “Sure. Give me a call.”
“I will,” she said, and then just as I was sliding behind the wheel, she
leaned into the window. “By the way. Your mother. Did she ever stop
I shook my head. “No. Never.”
“And yours? Did she ever get well?”
She smiled a tiny sad smile. “No. She never did. Look, call me, okay?”
“Okay,” I said, but I knew I …
We value our customers and so we ensure that what we do is 100% original..
With us you are guaranteed of quality work done by our qualified experts.Your information and everything that you do with us is kept completely confidential.
You have to be 100% sure of the quality of your product to give a money-back guarantee. This describes us perfectly. Make sure that this guarantee is totally transparent.Read more
The Product ordered is guaranteed to be original. Orders are checked by the most advanced anti-plagiarism software in the market to assure that the Product is 100% original. The Company has a zero tolerance policy for plagiarism.Read more
The Free Revision policy is a courtesy service that the Company provides to help ensure Customer’s total satisfaction with the completed Order. To receive free revision the Company requires that the Customer provide the request within fourteen (14) days from the first completion date and within a period of thirty (30) days for dissertations.Read more
The Company is committed to protect the privacy of the Customer and it will never resell or share any of Customer’s personal information, including credit card data, with any third party. All the online transactions are processed through the secure and reliable online payment systems.Read more
By placing an order with us, you agree to the service we provide. We will endear to do all that it takes to deliver a comprehensive paper as per your requirements. We also count on your cooperation to ensure that we deliver on this mandate.Read more