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Clever Magazine presents some short fiction:

A Mid-Century Homily

by Yvonne Chism-Peace

Get Up!

Yvonne writes short fiction and poetry and has been published in many journals, including The Key, Moxie, Aftertaste, In Posse Review, and Saint Anne's Review, to name a few. She was the poetry editor at MS. magazine from 1974 to 1987.

          1.

"Oh, my God! It's almost eight o'clock! Didn't you hear the alarm?"

Probably. Smart has been drifting in and out of sleep for about an hour. Under her pillow the transistor radio waves hiss along the wrinkles of her brain. She grunts, but does not move.

Outside her back bedroom door, all along the dim narrow hallway, her youngish  mother's steel-cleated heels click upon the hard wood. From the aqua front bedroom where the breadwinner still lay closed and dreaming, past the empty orange middle room with its sad closet of the breadwinner's spartan work clothes and high-gloss shoes, into the off-white old-fashioned bathroom, into the grade-schooler's daffodil yellow room with the cramped corner closet, finally to the shut door of Smart's sanctuary of  pea-green wallpaper with repetitive Japanese garden motif. Then back again. Like maniacal scales the motheršs heels tattoo: "I'm here. Donšt you hear me? I'm here. Don't you hear me?"

Thin wire hangars scraping along the rod in the hallway closet. The bump and slide of the Scandinavian teak chest of drawers. The belch and swish of the bathroom sink faucets... Minutes pass.

Smart, the supine one, is awake enough. Her body dawdles, but her mind replays what happens every Sunday. Every freaking Sunday. Six freaking years. Mother and her most important Sunday meditation. Thinking about what to wear, talking about what to wear, deciding on what to wear, changing her mind about what to wear, asking Smart's opinion about what to wear, arguing with that opinion, trying on something else, again asking Smart's opinion, accepting that opinion, expressing doubts about her decision to accept that opinion, and continuing this looney-tune until all three -- youngish mother, college daughter and grade school daughter --  were out the door and seated on the church bus for the nine o'clock kiddies' Mass. Kneeling in the back pew with the parents, Smart often cringed like an unwed mother.

"Are you up? It's a quarter after eight." The voice was halfway down the hall. "Tasha and I are finished in the bathroom. You'd better hurry."

Adult patent-leather pumps click down the slightly creaking stairs, followed by the light patent-leather hop of the seven-year-old sister, like an echo and a final mark of punctuation. Smart grunts again and pushes herself further down under the turquoise comforter. It is late April, but the mornings are still cold.

At the back of this eight-room house Smart has much sunlight from three windows, but the venetian blinds of one are always closed. It faces a window of the house next door. The other two overlook the backyards of three tree-lined streets. Every yard is a flower garden, a lovely quilt of roses, azaleas, tulips and dogwood. Yet, Smart often spends her hours there with all three bedroom blinds closed. No neighbors "sightin' in" is her motheršs rule.

"When I get a place of my own... give me light." This is Smart's daily prayer.

"Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!" The mother's voice, a hammer, is right above Smart's head.  "You're not dressed? You're not going to Mass?"

Smart could lie and save her head which is completely under the comforter. She could wheeze, "I've got cramps." Something perverse pushes out the truth. "I'm going to the eleven o'clock High Mass."

The bedroom door, which Smart had not heard open, barks shut. A vocalized pause, more aggressive than a sigh, more guttural than a hiss. Then words, like buckshot, like water from a high-power hose.

"I raised you better than this! You should go to Mass! Why can't you act like you belong to this family? This is a family! God knows I have tried to make it a family! You're just like him! You don't want to do anything with the family! Just sit in this room and read! So, you go to college -- I wanted that for you, not him! You ought to be going to church with your sister and me! That is the way a family behaves! But no-o-o! You want to go against me for him! But he never took any interest in you! He never wanted you to go to Catholic school! He's not thinking about your college! He was against it from the start! You act just like him! You let the neighbors see that! Sleeping on Sunday! But God is watching you! Just remember that! And God knows I have tried to make this a family! You're just jealous, that's all! Youšve always been jealous! You want to break up my marriage! And, of course, he just loves that! He just loves knowing that! But youšll pay for this! God is watching you and one day youšll pay!"

Smart remains undercover. She doesn't move a muscle, she doesn't move a hair.

"Just remember what I said. We'll discuss this later."

The bedroom door opens, but does not close. The pumps clomp down the stairs.

"Tasha, let's go! We'll be late for the bus. Is my slip hanging?"  The front door swings back. The blinds clatter. The front door lock clamps down hard.
  
                       2.
 
"I think I've missed the church bus. Oh God, don't let me miss that bus. Please, let it be late. Just this one time. I promise God, I'll get up early from now on. I won't sneak and watch The Late Late Show."

Smart's white patent-leather pumps click, clomp, and scrape along the old cement sidewalk. She almost twists her ankle as her heel catches a jagged edge of a crumbling curbstone. It is quarter to nine.

Lateness for Sunday Mass opens up before her like a gaping pothole. Any minute she'll trip and fall headlong into hell. On her way down, like a station of the cross, Sister Perpetua stands at the head of a long line of nuns in lugubrious black veils and gowns with enormous white bibs. They're all counting on their large black rosaries, and her eighth grade teacher's eyes gleam as she chants, "Mortal sin, mortal sin, mortal sin."

Lateness is not thoroughly evil, but for Smart it is a mortal sin. An honor roll student, she knows her catechism perfectly. Lateness is only a weakness, but habitually, she shrugs it off, making it a mortal sin. Smart is never really sorry.

"But I am! Really! Oh, God! I donšt want to get a C in Obedience. Sister Purgatory will do it! She shouldn't, but she will! Old white battleaxe!"

As soon as the thought sails out of her mind like a puff of forbidden cigarette smoke, Smart knows she is condemned. To cover up her own bad habit, she has bad-mouthed the nun.  

Breathless, Smart tries to outrace her anxiety as she runs toward Fifty-Second and Chestnut where a green transit bus stops for the light. If it's a city bus, it'll continue north toward Market Street. If it's the church bus, it'll turn east on Chestnut and proceed to Forty-Fifth where it turns south toward the parish church more than ten long blocks away.

"Oh God, don't let that light change!"

Smart reaches the corner and is ready to dash across, her arms waving to catch the bus driver's attention, when the light turns against her and the bus snorts straight ahead. Sighing heavily, she checks her wrist watch. Pink leather with a pink enamel face like a pink daisy! She sucks her teeth, annoyed with its childishness. Then the actual time taps against her eyeglasses like a pesky guardian angel. Twelve minutes to nine! The church bus can't be this late! She has one alternative: continue walking along the church bus route in the hope that it'll still come along. To walk back home now and hear her mother fuss would be an execution before the trial.

Dejected, Smart begins her trudge toward Forty-Fifth. That callous on the ball of her left foot! Wearing thin nylon stockings, she has to scrunch up her toes a bit to keep the pumps from flying off her narrow bony feet.  

"God, I hate these shoes!"

Nine minutes to nine. The street is deserted, gray and cold even though it is early May. Smart knows the eyes of the world are watching her. Too dark for a white May Procession dress! It isn't warm enough! The horsehair crinoline itches her thighs! But her mother insisted!

"This dress cost me twenty-five dollars. Youšre going to get some wear out of it."

Yes, it cost a lot of money, but Smart is sick of the dress already. She'd have to wear it for the recital in two weeks and under her graduation cap and gown next month and every other Sunday for the rest of the summer because white, according to her mother, is her best color.

Smart picks up speed and steals furtive glances behind her as if fleeing a molester. Wouldn't it be stupid if the bus zipped by her unawares? At each corner she steps off the curb and peers into the distance. A hopeless gesture. Six minutes to nine.

At the corner of Forty-Sixth a neat graystone residence gives her a chill:  the convent. Not where the parish nuns live across the street from the school. This one houses the high school teachers she'll have for the next four years. Smart almost tiptoes past. Then she stops dead in her tracks. A grimy white Chevvie has pulled up to the curb and blocks her from crossing.

"Hmm! Hmm! Bee-youuu-tee-fuuulll!"    
"Hey, momma! Gawnna chuch? Kenna cum wit chu?"   
"Lemme git summa that!"
"Hey, li'l momma. Got room fo' me in that li'l pocketbook?"

Black lumps huddle in the dark interior of the car. This is all Smart can see. One rolls down the curbside back window and sticks out his uncombed head. Must've been drinking whiskey since nine o'clock the night before! Smart steps back and turns toward the bus stop.

"Thank God!"

Bobbing down the street is an old green bus. She focuses on it, clutches her bag, doesn't dare open her purse to get her dime. In a few seconds she'll be safe. Off the curb, she realizes her mistake and steps back again. It's a regular city bus not the church bus. She doesn't have enough for that fare.

"Aw, she ain' gawnna chuch!"

Smart's blank face follows the bus hiccupping, disappearing... Did she hear a car door open? Is he walking over to her? She turns toward the convent steps -- shešll ring the bell if she has to -- but her left foot slips halfway out of her shoe. In that split-second delay a man's firm hand touches her behind. Just a pat or two. But she can feel it. Beneath the white bell-shaped cotton eyelet skirt, beneath the scratchy crinoline, beneath the white cotton slip, beneath the plain cotton panties for preteen girls, she feels it.

Slowly Smart turns. She turns like a page of history turning with all the ancient memory of abuse she has never felt, has never known beyond the covers of a parish school textbook. The drunk's blood freezes. The young pretty dark face reminds him of something. He can't say it. He can't even think it. He feels whipped and scuttles back. The Chevvie drives off.

                       3.

This is the oldest tableau.

The young mother has taken her preschooler to a large room filled with white-skinned people of all ages. She calls it an auditorium. They have walked here from their room in the neat brick rowhouse on Locust Street where they have lived since the grandmother's house fire. The auditorium is not far away, but by the time they have arrived, there are no seats left. The two stand in the quiet crowd at the back of the darkened hall and watch the brightly dressed figures on the lit stage. They are Bible pictures come alive.

The young mother bends down and whispers, "This is a Christmas play." Her breath smells like candy cane, but the child does not ask for a piece, only shifts from one foot to another and stretches her neck from one side to the other in an attempt to see what is going on. There are so many big people in front of her.

In this thick-coated, pale-faced crowd, the brown mother and child have caught the attention of an old lady nearby. Isn't she dressed funny? All in black from head to toe. With a long black scarf instead of a hat like the young mother. The child cannot see her shoes, for they are tucked under her long black dress. The old lady motions to her.

"Come sit on my lap," her fragile hands say. The child is not afraid, but the young mother does not want her to go.

"She's very old and you are too big." It is true. The old lady's tiny face and hands almost disappear into the dark. How black her dress and scarf!

But then the young mother relents. She is rather flattered. Her very smart, very good girl sitting on a white lady's knee.


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