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Authors: Eleanora E. Tate

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BOOK: Celeste's Harlem Renaissance
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Mr. Smithfield opened and closed his mouth, then lowered his head. “I see.” He cleared his throat, straightened his cap, then patted me on the shoulder. “Take good care of yourself, Miss Cece, and I hope to see you back home soon.” He tipped his cap to us and walked away fast.

“Bye, Mr. Smithfield.” I kept calling to him until Aunt Valentina tugged on my arm.

“Still an ole flirt,” she murmured, shaking her head. “Well, Cece, now we’re off on a grand adventure. Shall we?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. Now it was just me. And her. And New York. Not only my tummy, but now all of me was in knots. “Aunt Valentina, what color is your new motorcar? Will I have my own room in your mansion?”

She didn’t answer, but instead hurried me up the cold street through the crowds so fast I could barely get my words out. Folks were still out — at night! Back home everybody would probably be asleep by now. I smelled rotten fish and sour vegetables from the trash cans lining the sidewalks and the snow-clumped alleys.

We walked and we walked and we walked. My sore shoulders and knees, and my bare ears, fingers, and cheeks began to ache in the freezing air. And my dogs were barking!

I got up my courage. “Aunt Valentina, are we almost to your mansion? I’m tired.”

“No, we have to make a stop first. Come on now, we’re late.”

“Late for what?”

She stopped under a streetlamp. She wasn’t smiling now. She wore that blank look grown folks like Mrs. Bracy and Mr. Hodges use when they’re trying not to show how mad or irritated they are. “Celeste, your train was so late I left my job twice to get you. I’m bent over now because I strained something in my back so bad last night it feels like a fire burning my spine. You have to come help me work.”

“I’m going to the theater to help you dance? Or sing?” Thrilled and alarmed, I tried to imagine myself onstage kicking up my legs with a feather boa around my shoulders. No, indeedy! Not Miss Mouse! “Oh, I couldn’t do that, Aunt Valentina. But maybe we could ride in your car to ease your back? Mr. Smithfield said it was a Pierce-Arrow.”

“I don’t have a car anymore. No more questions!” she snapped, to my surprise, then mumbled, “We’re going to scrub floors and wash walls.”

Scrub floors? No car? Was she joshing with me? She sure didn’t look joshed. What was going on? What was next? A hog slop supper? If I saw a little man with a beard dancing around with wooden feet, then I would know I was still on the train. Dreaming. But that cold wind gnawing my face and fingers let me know I was wide awake.

Finally we came to a monstrous building with a million stone steps. I groaned. Like climbing one of Big Willie’s mountains! But Aunt Valentina hurried us around in the dark to a back door, and knocked.

A man opened it. “You keep coming and going like this and I’ll get somebody else,” he said.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Hartwig,” my aunt said meekly. “It won’t happen again. I’ve brought my niece here to help.”

“All right, but it’s two for the price of one. Get it?”

What did that mean? Aunt Valentina said, “Yes, sir,” and motioned for me to follow her. We entered a small, dimly lit lobby. My aunt removed her coat and hat, set them on a bench, and told me to set my things there, too. I hesitated. “It’s all right. It’s just us here and the doors are locked. Now, let’s get to work.”

“Can we sit down for a minute?” I begged.

“No. Well, for one minute.” She sat down, rubbing her back and making a face. I set my schoolbag and my violin down, then placed her coat on top of them. I had hardly sat down when she eased back up. “Mr. Hartwig’s the head janitor, and my boss,” she whispered. She nodded toward a short White man standing by some double doors. He smiled a little when we passed through.

I gasped. Rows of seats stretched before me to a massive stage, where gold brocade curtains cascaded down on each side. Ornate balcony seats were suspended above both ends of the stage. Marble pillars decorated with carved figures of fat babies toting harps, bows, and arrows lined the walls. Chandeliers with hundreds of yellow electric lightbulbs glittered from the ceiling. I reckoned the room was five times as big as our capitol’s rotunda, and the capitol was the biggest building I’d ever been in. Mouth open, I turned to Aunt Valentina.

“Yes, isn’t it fabulous?” she said without smiling. “You’re in the Abyssinian Theater. Fabulous productions in a fabulous place, for Harlem.”

I still tried to see her in furs and jewels on the stage singing grand songs. “And where you work?” I asked hopefully.

“Yes, scrubbing floors. Right now.”

“Oh.” My vision collapsed. I followed her into a small room. She picked out scrub brushes, soap, water buckets, and long stained aprons, and gave one of each to me. We tucked bunches of dry rags into the apron pockets. “I scrub and you rinse, then we both dry.”

“But, Aunt Valentina —”

“Shush your mouth and come on.”

I hated to admit it, but Aunt Society was right about one thing: Aunt Valentina was going to work me to death. When we began our trek to the stage, I tripped on my apron, and the heavy water bucket I carried struck my leg. Water splashed onto the velvety red carpet. Aunt Valentina set down her bucket and quickly dropped rags on the wet spots. Squatting, I patted the carpet with my rags, too. “It’s all right, we got it up,” she called to Mr. Hartwig, who was watching from back at the doors. “Be more careful, Celeste!” she snapped at me under her breath.

Holding up my apron with one hand, I carried the heavy bucket with the other. It didn’t have quite as much water in it now. Even so, struggling up the steps to the stage with that bucket was like climbing the Statue of Liberty with her torch in my hands.

We began the awful job of scrubbing, rinsing, and drying the enormous stage floor. Down on my tender knees, I trailed after Aunt Valentina. After the first hour I was as wet as the floor. The sweet voice that cheered me so when she came to Raleigh and that she’d greeted me with at the train station now snarled, “Go faster! Don’t let water sit on the floor. It’ll stain the wood. Girl, you missed all that soap!”

My tears mingled with the rinse water. My back and knees throbbed. I’d scrubbed floors back home but not like this. Now I knew why Aunt Valentina walked bent over. I reckoned that I would, too, pretty soon. Just like in that book of fairy tales I loved to read at school, I felt like I was poor overworked Cinderella and Aunt Valentina was
both
mean stepsisters. She had changed from the beauty to the beast with her ugly ways almost in an instant. But this wasn’t a fairy tale. This was real!

After a while I lost track of the time. I vaguely remember leaving the building and staggering in damp clothes through icy air and black streets with my schoolbag and Dede. I stumbled a lot. Seems the last time, I fell and didn’t get back up.

A warm hand touched my cheek. Familiar perfume tickled my nose. Momma? When I opened my eyes, the face I saw was Aunt Valentina’s. Harlem, New York. No clothes. No Poppa. Where was Dede? I saw my violin at the foot of the bed I lay in, by my schoolbag, praise the Lord.

“Good morning, sweetheart,” said my aunt in her regular calm, soothing voice. “I’m sorry you had such a hard introduction to New York. Have these poached eggs and toast.” She held out a tray.

“Thank you,” I whispered back. I took the small tray of food and set it on my lap, careful not to let it touch my sore knees and legs. I told myself not to drop anything on the quilt covering me, either. It looked just like the one we had at home. My fingers were so full of water blisters that the fork slipped and fell into an egg. The yolk broke and poured into the white. Now, I knew about eating scrambled, fried, and boiled eggs. But did New York folks eat them raw? Not wanting to hurt Aunt Valentina’s feelings, I sopped at the egg with a piece of burnt toast and nibbled at it. It wasn’t too nasty.

My aunt sat at a small table against the wall, drinking coffee from a large green cup, watching me eat. She still looked like how I had imagined her when I was on the train. At least that part hadn’t changed.

I tried to think of something friendly to say. “Do you mind if I start calling you Auntie Val, for short?”

She smiled, nodding. “Sure. But with an ‘i’— not ‘ie.’ Makes me think it’s fancier.”

Encouraged, I continued. “Can we go to Easter service? We most always go back home, and I’m usually in the Sunday school program.”

“It’s this Sunday, isn’t it? We’ll see. You’ll need to find something to wear.”

“Oh, that’s right.” Damn that robber! “Maybe I can keep my coat on.”

She nodded like she was sympathetic, but didn’t say anything else. Not knowing what else to say, either, I glanced around the room. It was tiny, for one thing. A small icebox and sink stood by the table, where a hot plate set. The four-poster bed I was in filled the whole end of the room. Bags, hatboxes, sacks, and shoes were piled on the floor along the walls. Dresses, coats, and other clothes swung from hooks and nails stuck in the walls. One white dress with a white head rag made me wonder if she was a nurse. Or was it a costume? A red, black, and green flag draped over the back of the front door. What country was that from?

I tried to think of something else simple to say, because I was afraid to ask about the serious stuff. “Your coffee sure smells good.”

“Oh, here.” When she poured a cup from the pot on the hot plate and brought it to me, I froze. Neither my parents nor Aunt Society allowed me to drink coffee. Aunt Society, who was always on the lookout for things that would make me darker-skinned than I was, said drinking coffee could make me black. I didn’t believe coffee could make anybody black, because Poppa and the old bat drank it and they stayed the same color. Momma hadn’t drunk it at all.

Being this far from home and Aunt Society, I decided to give it a try, just to see. But before I could wrap my fingers around the handle, Aunt Valentina took the cup away. “I forgot. You’re too young to drink that. I’ll fix you some mint tea.”

As she filled the pot with water at the little sink, she said, “We need to have a good girl talk and catch up on everything. But right now I have to go out for a bit. While your clothes dry, you can wear that blue waist and skirt hanging from that hook. Oh, wait! I meant to ask earlier. How was Taylor when you left?”

“Fine,” I said around a mouthful of raw egg.

Wrong answer. She frowned up. “He couldn’t be fine. He has consumption. When does he go into that sanitarium? Or do you not know?”

“No, ma’am, he’s not fine, but he’s still stirring. I don’t know when he goes in, but Mr. Hodges said it should be sooner and not later.” I smoothed out the quilt on the bed. “We have a quilt just like this at home.”

Her frown disappeared. “Momma — your Grandma Lassi-ter — made one for me and one for your momma when we were little bitty girls. Momma was one of the best seamstresses in Raleigh. She taught your mother how to sew, but I managed to avoid learning. It’s a Seven Sisters quilt. See the seven points? This yellow’s from an old tablecloth, this white’s from old sheets, and this green’s from a skirt she had. I forget now where the burgundy cloth is from.”

She rinsed out her cup at the sink, then gathered up her coat, hat, and purse. “I’ve got to go out for a little bit. I’ll be —”

“Oh, but can’t I go with you? What if there’s a fire, or a terrible storm, or somebody tries to break in? What if —”

“Oh, girl, you’ll be safe. You can always go next door to Mrs. Dillahunt’s, in Nine-A.” She pointed to the wall beside the bed. “She knows you’re here. Now I
must
get going. Just feel right at home. What there is of it. Oh, and I keep a chamber pot under the bed, and you can wash up at the sink. You can take your bath and do your other business in the lavatory. It’s the door by that pretty fern plant in the hallway. Mrs. Dillahunt and I are the only ones on the third floor of this boardinghouse, so we have the lavatory to ourselves. Bye now.”

Then the door closed and the room was as quiet as a coffin. I was by myself in big old hog slop, poached-egg-and-burnt-toast-eating, sweatshop-working, floor-scrubbing New York City. My new home.

Chapter
Six

A
s soon as Aunt Valentina left, I propped the chair she’d been sitting in against the door. That helped me feel more secure, since I saw a hole where a key could go, but she hadn’t left me one. On the way back to the bed, I noticed a framed photograph on the wall. Two women in pretty dresses — one standing, the other in a chair holding a baby — stared unsmiling at me. Behind them stood a handsome, unsmiling young man in a suit, with his hand on the seated woman’s shoulder. Friends of Aunti Val’s, probably. Somebody’s family? Unlike my family, at least they were together. But here I was, all by myself. How could I persuade Aunt Valentina to return to Raleigh with me, so we could be a family together again, too?

“Oh my, look at me, in New York City sipping tea,” I said aloud. Hey, I’d made a poem. Thinking of “Forsythia,” I remembered that I’d lost our only copy of the
Brownies’ Book
magazine. If only I’d placed it in my schoolbag.

Momma would say I should quit thinking sad thoughts and that I wouldn’t get much done lying around. So first I’d get dressed. It might be fun wearing my aunt’s clothes. These weren’t fancy like hers that I’d tried on back home, and they were still too big, but this was all that I could wear, for now. Next I needed to wash my dress and stockings so I’d have something clean, too, not just dry. I could write in my journal about my trip; I could write to Poppa, Aunt Society, and to my Butterflies friends. I might play Dede. Maybe I’d even go meet that lady next door. I set my cup on the night table by the bed. Things might not be so bad up here in New York, if I worked at it.

With the tray in my hands, I slid out of bed. But my right foot tangled in the quilt, and I hit the floor. A yellow stream of slimy egg rose into the air and splattered on the quilt.

“Oh, my heavenly Father!”
Quick, soap, rags!
With the quilt still snarled around my ankle, I crawled across the floor and scrounged around in the drawers for rags and soap, but couldn’t find anything. We sure had had enough last night.

BOOK: Celeste's Harlem Renaissance
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