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Authors: Eleanora E. Tate

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BOOK: Celeste's Harlem Renaissance
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Besides runny eggs, the toast had also hit the quilt, but at least not butter-side down. I scraped the eggs off with my fingers, then ate the egg and bread. If Aunt Valentina kicked me out for destroying her quilt, at least I’d have some food in my gut.

Hurry, girl, hurry!
She might return any minute.
I wet the toe of one of my stockings and rubbed at the remaining egg. That only spread the yellow stain. Maybe the lady in 9A would know what to do. Quickly I dressed in Aunti’s clothes, smoothed down my hair that was sticking out like porcupine quills all over my head, and rinsed my mouth with the last of the tea.

When 9A’s door opened at my knock, I jumped back. A monster head draped with wet brown and green strips peered at me through small oval slits. The skin on its face was a gooey white. A thin twig dangled from the red gash that probably was its mouth.

“I — I —”

“You must be Valentina’s niece, enty?” the thing said, waving rubbery hands, which I saw were actually rubber gloves. “I’m Miz Dillahunt, but call me Miss D. Don’t I look a sight? My head pain me so bad I got to use this home cure.”

“Hello,” I squeaked. Suddenly a miniature monster stuck its white face around Mrs. Dillahunt’s hip. I did my back-away dance again.

“And this is Gertie, my grandbaby.” Mrs. Dillahunt pushed the little monster toward me. “I babysit her now and then. Say hello to Celeste, Gertie. She’s eight. That’s why I got the head-hurt. My beauty mask fights off wrinkles. Gertie likes to wear it, too.”

Gertie made a face at me. Or was she smiling? I didn’t see any teeth in her mouth. Mrs. Dillahunt pulled the brown strips from her head. “They say paper and collard greens soaked in vinegar and wrapped around the head like this draw out the hurt, see.”

Now I knew that drinking everlasting life tea or inhaling smoke from burning pine tar knots cured headaches, but I kept that to myself. Grown folks sometimes didn’t like someone young telling them things they didn’t know.

“So you come aknocking on my door. What you want?”

“Yes, ma’am, I need to clean some egg off something.”

Her white eyebrows rose high on her forehead. “Like off a pan been scorched?”

“No, ma’am, like off a quilt.”

“Oh, blessed assurance, not that Seven Sisters quilt!” She pushed past me into Aunti’s room.

Gertie followed. “Your aunt’s gonna beat your butt,” she said.

“No, she won’t,” I replied. “It was an accident.” Or would she?

“Where t’is? Oh, here t’is.” Miss D held up the quilt and eyed it carefully. “Well, this won’t be your death, nor the quilt’s, either.” She carried it to the sink and splashed water over the stains. Opening a cupboard above the sink, she removed a bar of lye soap and rubbed it over the quilt. I frowned. Why hadn’t I thought to look up there?

“Some better.” She studied the wet quilt. “I’ll sling it over these chairs to dry. How did egg jump to quilt, Miss Celeste?”

I told her what happened. “Wouldn’t it dry faster if we hung it out the window?”

“Where you see a window, Celeste?” Gertie asked.

I looked around in surprise. No windows! No wonder Aunti kept the lights on all the time. I sat back down on the bed and rested my chin in my hands. “Thank you for cleaning it up, Miss D. I was afraid Aunti would kick me to the curb for this.”

“I doubt that, being as she just left the curb herself. See how thrown together this room is, boxes and such everywhere? I just got through helping her get this place. Where
she, anyway?”

“I don’t know. She said she had to go out.”

“You the one whose momma be dead?” Gertie asked.

My mouth opened and closed. How did she know that? “Yes, her momma’s passed on, but we don’t talk about that, you hear?” Miss D scolded. She draped the quilt over the chairs, with newspapers beneath it to catch the drips. Then she headed for the door. “Time to wash off this mess, Gertie. Mine’s itching. Celeste, do come over whenever you want. Gertie needs to be around young folks like you who have good manners, and I’ll enjoy your company.”

I thanked her again but I wasn’t ready to deal with Gertie yet. And what did she mean about my aunt just getting off the curb? I carefully inspected the wet quilt. The egg stain was gone. At least that part wasn’t ready for the curb.

A few hours later Aunt Valentina returned. When I started to explain about her quilt, she just shrugged. “It’s all right. Miss D told me downstairs.” She set a large straw basket on the table. A skinny loaf of bread stuck up from it. “We’ll eat, then we got to go out.”

“Where? To the theater?” I asked hopefully. “Or to scrub floors again? My hands and knees still hurt. And I was wondering, when will I get paid?”

“I’ll explain later. Get some bowls, and spoon out this oxtail soup, honey. It’s delicious with this French bread. Then put this sweater on under your coat. That waist and skirt are thin.” She handed me her blue sweater while I pinned my lips together, then I set the table. The soup was good, but I wanted to talk! When I opened my mouth to speak, she frowned slightly and kept chunking food into her mouth, so I did the same. Afterward, she pumped at her thick braided hair and batted her eyes in the mirror over the dresser a couple of times. “Ready?” She headed for the door. After throwing on her sweater and my coat, I followed her downstairs.

Aunt Valentina didn’t walk bent over now, so this time I really had to move my dogs to keep up. Pickin’ ’em up and puttin’ ’em down! We flew along One Hundred Thirty-sixth Street and past its crowds. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible for so many people to be on one street at the same time. I wondered where Madam C. J. Walker’s building was, but I didn’t dare ask. Clothes flopped from windows and lines strung overhead between brick and brownstone buildings.

The sunny day lifted my spirits a little. Now and then I saw girls my age playing hopscotch in dresses and Buster Browns and coats like mine, and twirling jump ropes. If I hadn’t been so mousey, I’d have asked Aunti if I could join them for a few minutes.

Several ladies snuggled in coats sat on the stoops of buildings talking, sewing baskets in their laps. Men stood in grocery store and pawnshop doorways, laughing and spitting. A black-and-white gooch-eyed dog barked at us when I walked too close. A couple of boys stood by with shoe-shine kits. Seeing them look at me made me think of Big Willie. Had he reached the coal camps yet? Would he return to Eagle Rock, and would I see him again? I hoped so. I didn’t know exactly why, though. Maybe it was because he was moving from one home to another, like I was. And those long eyelashes!

When Aunt Valentina stopped to allow a Dodge touring car and a Model T to pass, I spoke up with something I thought would be safe. “Miss D and Gertie put white wrinkle cream on their faces, and Miss D put collard greens on her head.”

“Yes, for her head-hurts. Did she use her Gullah talk? Like ‘enty’ means ‘doesn’t it’ or ‘isn’t it’ or ‘is it’ or ‘don’t you think so’? Sometimes I don’t know what she’s saying. She’s from around Charleston, and she believes in that make-do medicine, too, like my sister did. But Elizabeth never did that collard-green thing.”

Praise God, she was talking! Anxious to keep her going, I asked, “Does Gertie live with her? I don’t want to have to put up with her mouth every time I turn around.”

“She just babysits Gertie whenever her momma wants to run around. Seems like that’s been happening more and more lately. Miss D’s a sweet woman, but her daughter-in-law takes advantage of her.”

Eager to unravel another mystery, I went on flapping my lips. “What did Miss D mean when she said you just got off the curb?”

“It means that Miss D talks too much,” she snapped. She took off walking fast again. Oops. After that I couldn’t even get a grunt out of her.

After a while I noticed Colored doormen in green and black fancy uniforms help Colored ladies in expensive-looking furs and Colored men in stylish suits into and out of new motorcars, then in and out of their swanky buildings. I’d seen people dolled up in fit-to-kill outfits at the Stackhouse Hotel but not like
Harlem folks. Aunt Valentina had dressed like this when she’d visited us in the past. I didn’t see many clothes like that in her room, though.

Finally we stopped at a wooden one-story building where the marquee read
Aunt Valentina smoothed my hair. “I have a job interview here, so just sit down in the lobby, take your coat off if you get hot, and stay put.”

Hesitant to ask what
of job, I only nodded, and trailed her inside to the lobby. Aunt Valentina introduced herself to a light-skinned, gray-haired woman behind the counter. The woman looked down her long nose at Aunt Valentina, then swept out of the room, my aunt behind her. The lobby was furnished with red upholstered Queen Anne chairs, matching thick carpeting, and red and emerald wallpaper. An enormous, lush Boston fern sat regally in front of the bay windows that looked out onto the street. I carefully crossed my legs at the ankles and settled my hands in my lap as I had learned to do in our etiquette class at school. But even so, in my old coat and my greasy hair, I was out of place there. I hoped that woman wouldn’t come back and give me the evil eye like she had my aunt.

Just then a young Colored woman in a tall pompadour hairstyle and carrying a smart black coat walked past. A black glove fell from her coat. “Oh, miss,” I called, quickly grabbing up the glove. “Miss!”

“Yes?” She turned around uncertainly, then spied the glove I held out. “Why, thank you. I’d have never even known where I’d misplaced it.”

She smiled in such a friendly way that I got over some of my shyness. “You’re welcome. I’m waiting for my aunt. She’s a famous — uh, my favorite aunt.”

“Oh, does she give lessons here?”

“No, ma’am, she had to talk with someone.”

“I see. My name’s Caterina Jarboro. I’m studying voice and piano, to be a concert singer. I just finished a lesson. You may have heard me singing.”

“Oh, my.” I stared at her until I remembered my manners. “My name is Celeste Lassiter Massey, and I’m from Raleigh, North Carolina. I’ve never met a concert singer before. I play the violin and I call it Dede.”

“After the violinist in New Orleans? How creative! I’m from Wilmington, North Carolina, but I live in Brooklyn now with my aunt. Small world, Celeste.” She reached into her bag, removed a small card, and gave it to me. “Call me sometime. We North Carolinians have to stick together. All right, I must run.”

On the cream-colored card in elegant writing it said,
with an address and telephone number. I tucked the card into my sweater pocket to show to Aunt Valentina. Perhaps a new friend already. What a blessing!

I was daydreaming about eating at a fine Harlem restaurant and eating the good food Mr. Smithfield talked about when the long-nosed woman returned. Aunt Valentina followed, frowning, her lips pressed tight together. “Come along, come along” was all she said to me.

Outside, the air had grown chillier. As we walked, I kept peeking at her, but she stayed quiet so I did, too. We walked and walked till night arrived. I was freezing, and my dogs howled. We entered a side door of a building, and like before, she handed me a long apron and a bucket. But this time I wouldn’t take them. “Why’ve we got to be doing this?” I fumed, unable to keep frustration from my voice. “You said you were a famous singer and dancer.”

“I thought I was, too, but it doesn’t look that way now, does it? So let’s get to work.”

“No! I’m tired!”

“Do as I say,” she said calmly.

“No, I want to go home!”

“Go home, then. I got work to do.” She picked up a bucket and a bundle of rags and left the other things on the floor. I balled up my fists as she walked down the long aisle and then turned a corner without looking back. As soon as she did, my heart took a leap. I couldn’t stay there by myself. What if some ruffian came up behind me and grabbed me? I didn’t even know the way out of the building, let alone back to the boardinghouse.

She had truly brought me there to work me to death. I would have been better off being worked to death by the Hugel-burgers. At least I’d still be in North Carolina. I snatched up the apron and trudged after her, the heavy water bucket, apron, and rags flapping and sloshing against my coat. Again. When we staggered back to my aunt’s tiny room, I think my back was bent as low as hers had been.

We both fell into bed angry. “Well, just exactly when are you going to pay me after all this work?” I hissed into the dark.

“Sure won’t be tonight,” she hissed back. “And we won’t be going to Easter service. I’ll be too tired even then. Now close your mouth and get some sleep.”

“And what about school?” I held my breath.

“It’s too late in the year. Now go to sleep, I said!”

Tears rolled out the sides of my eyes and soaked the pillow. I should have known. Aunt Society was right. And sure as sugar, I reckoned that things would only get worse.


paused from drawing a picture of our forsythia bush in my journal, with a cardinal singing on a branch. Praise God for my good health. April arrived in Harlem still so chilly I fixed echinacea and goldenseal teas each morning to ward off colds, pneumonia, and croup, after walking home every night in wet clothes. After three weeks here I hadn’t seen a single show in New York, but I did know that Harlem must have the dirtiest theater floors in New York.

Most days Aunt Valentina’s eyes seemed so sad I thought she forgot she even saw me. And whatever had made me think that Aunt Valentina could help me keep our family together? That was why I had wanted her to come to Raleigh, so I could stay home and we could take care of Poppa — or at least see him. But here we just staggered from one awful night of scrubbing to another.

I closed my journal, tired of drawing and writing. Momma would say I should pray for the Lord to turn my burdens into blessings. If I could do that, maybe I could lift my aunt’s spirits, as well as my own.

Aunt Valentina had gone out again somewhere. I hoped she’d return with food. She usually brought back small tin buckets of soup, beef bones that we gnawed and sucked until they turned shiny, the heels of bread loaves, a baked potato or two, and tiny fancy squares of cake. From where, she never said. So good, but never enough.
Dear Lord, please don’t let it be from hog slop troughs!

BOOK: Celeste's Harlem Renaissance
6.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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