Chapter 9

Baby Doll and the Boulevard Queen Take Trolley Rides

The first time I pushed the bike to the corner store, I was sent to get a can of Carnation condensed milk for the baby, and stupidly, I went right by Red Wriggler Edna’s house. She hovered around her back steps, watching me with her dry brown eyes. She had power over me because she knew I was “bad to the core,” like Big Arthur said most times when he beat me.

“You still ain’t learned to ride that thing, have you now?” Edna called out.

I pushed the bike faster and tried to keep the spinning pedals from hitting my calves.

“Can, too,” I said, rushing past her.

She showered me with pebbles that she had scraped up from her driveway.

“You cannot. All’s you can do is pick on people littler than you.”

“Can, too, but you ain’t never gonna get to see me do it.” I was at the corner by then. The light was red, and contrite as I was for what I’d done to her, I wasn’t about to kill myself for her. I had to wait. Red Wriggler Edna was at me again. She pelted me with handful after handful of pebbles. I stood and took it. I had already been beat, and I had thought that evened the score, but maybe I deserved more for putting those wrigglers down her shirt. Those worms sure had made a quick, hot, red mess of her back. She was out of school for days.

She screamed at me, “You’re mean, you’re mean, you’re just plain mean!”  I knew it. She grabbed my bike out of my hands and shoved it at me. I fell fast, scraping and bruising one side of my body as I hit the sidewalk. The pedal gouged my left calf, and the handlebars twisted and struck me in the jaw. The weight of the bicycle and the shock of the fall kept me on the ground for several minutes. Somewhere in my misery, I heard a screen door slam.

“Go inside, Edna. Now.” It was her mother. I saw the outline of her house, the big elm tree, and the sky beyond.

“Get yourself up and get out of here, and don’t let me ever see you bothering Edna again. And don’t think your daddy won’t hear from me this time.”

“He’s not my daddy,” I said, but low this time, so she wouldn’t hear.

I pushed the bike to the store, got the Carnation milk, and went the opposite way home. I cleaned myself up. I put Merthiolate on my cuts and scratches, and held my screams in. To let the cuts air out, I chose a dress, and I sat on front porch like nothing had happened. I kept cuts, scrapes, and bruises on me from beatings and from my tomboy roughhousing. Nobody would notice. I refused to cry, but little hiccup sounds escaped from my lips, and I nearly got a case of the snubs.

My Grandma Blair came out and sat beside me on the porch just as the boys sped by. She said, “It’s just as well that bike has parked you here. You don’t need to run around with them boys. And I think Little Arthur spends far too much time with them, too.”

To me they were not some undifferentiated group of boy-wildness whirling through the neighborhood. They were Chuck, who said he was an Indian; Jerry, whose grandma fed us pecans and cookies from little tin dishes; Scott, Jerry’s little brother; sometimes Peewee, the Wee-wee-er; always Barry, my secret boyfriend; and my brother Little Arthur, who was two years older than I.

I belonged with them more than anywhere else. In the summertime, I wore my brother’s hand-me-down shirts and dungarees most of the time, and with my hair bobbed short, I looked more like a rag-tag little brother than I did a sister. The boys were barefoot and scruffy; they whooped and hollered and always made me race to keep up with them, but till I got that darn bike, they never left me behind completely or thought of me as a girl, except for Barry.

I pulled the skirt of my dress down over my legs and hugged them, but I did not draw away when Grandmother Blair put her arm around me. Usually she kept her distance, and I was glad she did, but that day I even leaned toward her a bit. I had to squeeze back tears until they found a hot resting place in the center of my chest and didn’t spill out of my eyeballs to give me away.

That’s how it began. From that hug on, Grandma Blair discovered I was the same sex she was, and she made it her mission to advertise my femaleness to the world by sewing me a summer wardrobe out of scraps from making this-or-that for herself or her sister Ida. Next, she insisted I accompany her wherever she went, so we spent that summer riding all over Greensboro on the trolley buses together with me dressed up “like a lady,” she would say, or in a different mood, “like my baby doll.” Big Arthur didn’t interfere.

My most famous outfit was a pair of tight red shorts with white polka dots the size of silver dollars on them. She cut the fabric and sewed the shorts in a flash on her treadle Singer sewing machine – a few seams, and her part was done. I pinned a large diaper pin to one end of a piece of white elastic and threaded it through the waist of the shorts.

Then she made an oversized, matching halter-top, and through its wide seams at the top and bottom, I threaded more elastic. The halter-top constantly slipped down when I wore it, though, and if I didn’t keep hitching it up, the gathers made me look like a buxom six-year-old.

I let her dress me any way she wanted. I was starved for trolley rides. Only stars and lightening bugs, which didn’t need to be plugged in to light up, enchanted me more than the trolleys that glided nearly silently except for the occasional squealing of brakes or the opening and closing of the doors.

For me, those trolley trips were magic, powered by electricity, by something invisible just like magic carpets. Grandma Blair didn’t look the part of a genie, and except in that long, lonely, tragic summer, she never brought magic into my life. But that summer, once I was on the trolley with her, she transformed into my fairy godmother.

She was in her early forties, and her square shoulders, wide hips, and full chest made her rise tall and solid like a column. Her short hair, which she dyed, was mahogany for the first few days after she “did it.” Then it turned into brassy red-wire copper and set her head ablaze in the sunshine. It was amazing.

I wouldn’t see those colors on a woman’s head again until the Eighties when some of my high school students wore black half-slips for skirts and poured that same mahogany shade of red onto their hair, surely from dusty bottles left over from Grandma Blair’s era that they found on back of the shelves at Rexall’s.

She would always get off the trolley a stop early after we’d finished our errands.

“Let’s walk from here,” she’d say in her raspy voice. “It’s a pretty day.” 

She smoked. They all did. My mama. Big Arthur. Aunt Ida. Uncle Will. Grandma Blair did it in private, though, or with me when we were away from the house. Her lips already had lines around them, and as she sucked on the unfiltered cigarettes, the lines would deepen.

The red lipstick stains left on the thin white paper and the gold tube with the red wand of lipstick fascinated me. Grandma Blair would take the tube from her purse, and without a mirror, she would apply the ruby-red lipstick perfectly while we walked. Most times, she’d catch me watching.

“Turn your face up,” she would say.

With my head thrown back, the sun in my eyes, and my pursed lips reaching for the sky, I would stand attentively before her. She would bend down and kiss me right smack dab on the lips.

“Now rub them together,” she would say.

The color always felt bright as a stoplight, and though it transformed me, it wouldn’t last long enough for me to see it in the bathroom mirror when I got home. The rose-petal feel of her lips lingered, however, as did the smell of tobacco.

Adorned in this manner, into a candy store we would go, holding hands.

“Now, who is this little princess?” the man behind the counter would ask.

I would preen for him, but now that I have seen pictures from those years, I know how dissembling he was. My hair ran amok, unless my mama greased it with Vaseline. Then, stringy, it would flop into my over-sized green eyes. My red mouth popped out like a “fox’s rear end,” so said Big Arthur when he caught me once with my lips rouged by Grandma Blair’s kiss. My outfit was styled for 1970’s hot-pants nubiles or wannabe Lolita’s, not for a six-year-old.

Grandma Blair would smile and say to the storeowner, “Isn’t she a doll baby?” She would open her purse, which was an art object itself, so large and red, too, like her hair. She would hand me coins, fuss with my halter-top, and say, “Go on, Baby Doll. Get yourself something.” 

I noticed but understood neither the sneers nor leers as they crossed the faces of these candy men; nor did I enter their imaginings about what I would look like in ten years inside that same outfit. Only later would I recall and know those odd looks for what they were.

During that summer, I would run to the candy counter and take two Hershey bars, one for me and one for Little Arthur. Only occasionally, when she did not have enough coins for her cigarettes and both bars of candy, did she have me put one back. Then I could buy either a lined Hershey bar without almonds, so I could break off half for me and leave half for Little Arthur, or I could get a bar with almonds and eat it before I got home.

We would walk like queens down the block or two of boulevard before we reached the Portland Street intersection. She would puff her way along, giving in now and again to my squeals for more smoke rings. I would bite into the Hershey bar, mining it for its almonds. If Portland Street caught us by surprise before we had finished our indulgences, we would sit on the bench at the trolley stop and wave the trolleys by while we finished up. That’s how we filled many a day unless it was one of Grandma Blair’s bad days when she couldn’t get herself out of bed. My mama said since we were partners that Grandma Blair had fewer and fewer of those bedridden days when we all crept around like we were invisible.

Grandma Blair always reminded me after that time we got caught by Big Arthur, “Don’t you forget to wipe that off your face before your daddy sees it.”

That’s what she called Big Arthur, but I knew it wasn’t so. My real daddy was dead. My real daddy would never have beaten me like Big Arthur did.

Late in the summer, talk of buying new school clothes mixed with talk about moving “to the country,” and that put an end to the trolley rides. Most days, Grandma Blair looked after Deborah and Eddie while my mama packed. Little Arthur and I had to stay out of the way.

I went back to my long days of moping in the yard while Little Arthur rode his bike and pushed as far as he dared beyond the limits laid down by Big Arthur. My bike, which Barry had nicknamed, “The Green Demon,” still rested against the side of the garage, beneath the eaves. Its front tire was flat even though I had never ridden it. Deflated, the bike rested right in the gully where I’d planted the tobacco seeds that had drowned before they could sprout.

Barry’s sister Becky called to me to open the gate before I saw her coming. I couldn’t rightly escape, for she was my boyfriend’s sister. She was four, I would be seven in the fall, and I wasn’t up for babysitting. I took my time reaching the gate. As I dragged the metal gate across the paved driveway, it sounded like a trolley’s brakes, reminding me of my lost glories.

“Come on,” I said. “Let’s find something in the garage to fix that tire with.” She followed me until we almost reached the garage. Then she tugged hard on my shirttail.

“Get off me!”

“But look!”

Her baby-girl voice was urgent, so I turned around. She pointed toward the middle window, the big one in Grandma Blair’s living room.

“What’s she doing?” Becky whispered. She let my shirttail go but hid behind me.

Only Grandma Blair’s head was visible above the café style curtains she had sewn and pulled onto curtain rods she’d placed halfway up the window. She wasn’t shouting; nor was she waving, but I felt her calling to me. As I ran toward the window, whatever I had heard, or thought I heard, ceased. I stopped. I stood four feet away from the closed glass. I stared at her. Silently she stared back, but not at me, not at anything in particular.

Her head was as bald and wrinkled as the base of a dandelion after a child, wishing for a TV, blows away all the dried-up petals. She had shaved off all her fine red hair!

My mama never asked about my trolley adventures; nor did Little Arthur. No one understood how my heart broke, when at summer’s end, Grandma Blair left us and went to stay at Butler Sanitarium. No one knew how my heart broke again when I went to see her there.

We all drove out there together, but Big Arthur was about to head up the grassy hill by himself to see her in the single-story unit that looked more like a motel than a mental hospital.

“I wanna go! I wanna go!” I said.

“It’ll be okay,” he said. “Mother’s doing so much better,” he said.

The sun outside was bright. The wooden room door was open. The screen door, shut. I couldn’t see into the darkness. I stood outside with Big Arthur. He called to her.

“Mother?  Mother?  We’ve come to visit. Sandra’s here with me.”

Suddenly she was at the screen door, opening it, screaming, and trying to get at me. Her arms were flailing, and her breasts were floundering on her chest. Sunshine flooded across her body and the shock of seeing her, enormous and naked, like the women on the deck of dirty cards in Uncle Will’s pantry, made me scream, too. Big Arthur pushed her back inside with one hand and pushed me outside with his other hand. He entered the small room and shut the door.

After weeks of lockup in that hospital pantry, Grandma Blair went home. My family had moved to the country. When I visited her at Portland Street, Grandma Blair looked right past me, like we had never shared those magical summer trolley rides and like I couldn’t possibly be anybody’s baby doll, certainly not hers.