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Fiction

Lulu

Lenka Devenyi

Some kids have mobiles. I’d look up at the world through bars. What Grandmother did was to find an extra refrigerator shelf from a junk shop and put it over my bed like a lid.  However, the shelf had not been well cleaned by the junk store owner. Yellow bits of dried goop dripped down toward me like so many stalactites, crusted over with ancient droppings from another place and time. It was like living in my own apartment building; above me was my Grandmother’s drawer of underwear, below me, her sweaters. 

From the time I was around three months old I stared at a refrigerator shelf after my mother, Hilda, had dropped me off at Grandmother’s house for good. 

Once I learned how to sit up, I could see my Grandmother's bed. It was without any bars that covered my own sleeping quarters; however, a strangely shaped bag attached to a long-nosed tail was draped across her headboard.

There was nothing on her bed I could see that resembled a blanket, which next to the refrigerator shelf was the other constant in my life, a piece of green cotton hemmed in by a darker moss green satin with a coolness that I liked to rub against my gums. The room consisted primarily of her bed, a lamp table, and the chest of drawers, the floor was covered in brown linoleum.

Of course, back then I didn’t have words for these things — they were mostly sensations and feelings.

My vision was segmented; I reconstructed the world around me — a dress hanging from the closet door looked like flagged swatches of blue and white.   The goop on the shelf, probably freeze-dried orange juice, gave me something to look at, a texture that moved whenever I blinked my eyes, whereas the plaster cracks in my Grandmother’s bedroom ceiling never changed.  There was also the white moon of her washbasin tucked beneath her bed, and the lace doilies that hung over a chest of drawers. I carefully studied the crocheted pattern that wrapped itself into petals, but it was the refrigerator shelf that captured my attention mostly because it shared my existence the way nothing else in my Grandmother’s room did. I clutched the blanket to my side and reached out with my fingers, and tried to touch the bars. 

I always knew that I wanted to make music.  I knew if I could find a way for the waxy orange and the brown crusts to make sounds, they would keep me company while Grandmother sat on the toilet in the bathroom until I heard the water gurgle and the lid fall down, two sounds that signaled her appearance. When I looked up, there she was through the grille.  She bent down and removed the shelf. I saw her full face now, flesh dug deep into a trench of wrinkles that moved from the corners of her hazel eyes toward her chin, the line of her lips snaked upward trying to camouflage a mouth. But nothing about the refrigerator bars had prepared me to understand how some event in my Grandmother’s life had caused those two halves of her lips to break apart.

Whenever she held me I knew it was to feed me, but the refrigerator bars gave me love. Whenever she shook the green blanket over me at night it was to keep me warm, but the refrigerator bars gave me comfort. Whenever she called my name, “Lulu, Lulu,” it was to get my attention, but she didn’t hear the sound of my name washing over itself.  She was too busy covering herself with liquids and creams, tickling smells that caused my brown hairs to stand up and cast shadows along the length of my arm; her lamp table was covered with bottles, jars, tubes, and faces in photographs whose names she'd intone to herself in a quiet prayer, Moishe, Leah.

Sometimes Grandmother’d pick me up, bounce me around several times, and wait for a response that I wasn't able to give, like a doll whom you expect to cry “Mama, Mama,” when you push a button on its back.  I wanted to please her and smiled.  I can remember her eyes softening as she pulled me closer. Mostly all she’d say was,  “I’mprotactingudarklink.” Then she’d put me down and walk away.  After she left, I sucked on my hands and fingers and they tasted good.

Later I discovered my feet that propelled themselves upward from my hip sockets and lunged forward. One day as I lay on my back, my toes were wild bandits pressed against the cold metal; I couldn’t stop moving them until I actually balanced the refrigerator grille on the soles of my feet, and watched the metal shelf turn around, spin, then drop, clink on the tiled floor. I was so happy, my feet touched and rubbed against each other.  I heard them squeak. I hugged their softness.  I told myself, “Lulu, remember this.”

It took a long time to escape that dead thing in my life, a concave saucer lipped in red and cracked gray in two spots on its rim, an ordinary washbasin, the only thing, Grandmother said she still possessed from the old country. It came from deep within her past. 

Grandmother always filled the washbasin at night with her underwear that expanded like a sponge reptile in water until there was no water–a pair of underwear soaking in the basin, another drying on the shower curtain rod. In the morning, she’d put on her underpants and bra and hang the wet ones over the shower curtain, unrolling them carefully so as not to cause runs. She hoped by performing this ritual, she’d bring peace one day to her bowels.

Because deep inside her stomach, she said, was an iron claw that pinched and tormented her, a monstrous living thing without a body. How she came to host this creature she didn’t know. Except she felt locked in battle. The final showdown took place in the bathroom, which she entered with her head held high, the place where she proved herself every day as superior to the thing that gripped her, teasing her on some days with a fading, dull pain and then coming back to sock her just when she was feeling better.

She despised going to the bathroom. It was a constant humiliation, an exercise filled with pain only to remind her she was like everyone else. She tolerated the pain, only because she felt its purpose was to prove her worthy of appearing on the Johnny Carson Show. She knew one day she’d defeat the monster and be invited to tell her story before the entire American public. But until that day, she needed to concentrate her attention so as not to be caught unawares by the iron claw.

Her pain was visible. It drained the blood from her face, making her appear even paler than she normally was. I watched her as I folded napkins, brought out glasses and silverware and plates. I could see the pain creep through her body, trapped, moving from place to place, eluding a list of specialists which grew longer each year. Internists, cardiologists, hematologists, chiropractors, even hypnotists had treated my Grandmother. They put her on diets, prescribed pills, injections, vitamin therapy. But the pain would not go away. At times, when she read or listened to the T.V., it would stop. But then, without warning, triggered by an innocent motion of an arm or leg, it would return. “Don’t just stand there! Help me to the bathroom!”  She’d gasp and remain in the position in which pain had cast her, and remain on the toilet for hours, the blood collecting into a circle imprinted on her behind.

Grandmother raised me in an apartment building built after World War I, a brick walk-up with a solitary bush growing in the courtyard. Apart from an occasional blade of grass that forced its way between the slab sidewalk, the color green didn’t play a big part in my life. But smell did.

“Here,” she said proudly, “is an American sandwich. Go ahead, eat it,” she urged, and pushed the sandwich toward me. “What’s the matter? Eat it!” I took a bite. “Well, what do you think?”

”It’s okay,” I said, wishing there was something else to eat before I went back to school. “Any blintzes?” I asked, very fond of those buttery thin pancakes filled with cottage cheese and raisins.

“Acch!” she said. “This girl doesn’t know what’s good for her.”

“I only asked.”

“We don’t eat things like that in this house,” she sneered. “That’s Jewish food!”

“But Grandmother,” I said. “We are Jewish.”

She ran to close the kitchen window. “Don’t ever say that or it‘ll come back to kill you in your sleep. Remember what I told you,” she warned. “I’m protactingudarklink.”

In a few moments, I’d hear her curses on the toilet, one for Hitler, another curse for the iron claw.

When she was 16, Grandmother had escaped from the concentration camp at Auschwitz and had hid from Hitler’s SS troops in a bunker covered with hay, alone for two weeks with one slice of bread. She said she sucked on hay for water. Grandmother spent the rest of her life trying to wipe out every vestige of her Judaism. Even so, spoke with a heavy Yiddish accent, which she claimed was German.

Her husband, my grandfather, and she had divorced after the Second World War. Neighbors who knew that she was Jewish had long since stopped trying to coax her to shul. They shook their heads and said she was meshugge and moved along with other fellow Jews to Pelham Parkway or even such distant places as Westchester County.

Most of the time I couldn’t understand her. I agreed with her friends that she was meshugge.

The one thing I knew with any certainty was that I was going to become a singer. Even my mother, Hilda, had told me how  music had been in my life from the start, how she'd given birth to me on the back seat of a Mercury Comet to the tune of “Goodie, Goodie,” which was playing at the time on the car radio.  She'd given birth on a pile of newspapers  as a taxi driver had pulled off the freeway to park at a meter and to help her deliver me. "Turn the radio up," she said, "so this won't hurt so bad."  Three months later, my mother had dropped me off at Grandmother's.

For a bedtime story, Grandmother would tell me how my mother, Hilda had sold me to her for a bar of chocolate. “She took the chocolate bar and ran down the street,” she said.  It was special chocolate that had come from far, far, away. The chocolate was wrapped in silver and red paper; it was tied with a golden ribbon.  People walking in a forest with their shawls wrapped around them tightly, if they had shawls to wrap, wanted to grab it; they were even willing to die for it,” she said.  “People had never tasted a chocolate bar such as this one with a creaminess that would light up your whole soul.  It had come from far, far away where the winters are so cold, a breath of wind on a certain day would peel off your nose.” I gasped. “And whenever any particular person ate one of these chocolate bars, explained my Grandmother, "it gave them the power to live. Even one small square of it, the size of my thumbnail. That’s all it would take."

“Like music?”

“Such a child. You don’t know a thing.”

If this chocolate bar contained the power of life, I asked myself, why was my mother given a black mark for trying to share the gift?  I was sure that somebody as smart as Hilda would return to get me.

"But where did you get the chocolate?" I asked Grandmother. “Quiet!” she said. “Go to bed.”

Estrella was the one who saved me. She lived on the first floor. Actually, everyone knew her as “Star.” She’d simplified her name from Estrella to save herself the trouble of explaining how to pronounce the Spanish. She was superintendent of our building, and had danced at the Baile Club in Havana, Cuba, but was now studying herbs with Joey the Witch from Manhattan.

“My permanent fixture is here,” she always said, announcing me to the four walls. “Did you put cold water in her washbasin today, or what?” She wore her usual ruby red lipstick and blue green eyeshadow, her hair black and wavy and molded carefully alongside her double chin, her complexion oily and dotted with blackheads, a large woman with a balcony of a bosom, always wearing muumuus that she bought on the basement tables of Alexander’s Third Avenue.

“I hate her,” I said. My composure began to slip. “Why does she hate me so much? Why can’t I live with my mother?”

Star wrapped me beneath her arm. “If I could answer that question, hija, we’d both be rich.” Her body was large and fragrant. Her muumuus covered her body in giant flowers. I sat down on her red velour couch and allowed her to ply me with chocolate mint cookies and milk. Then she let me examine her pantry of glass jars, each filled with differently colored powders, leaves, and berries. “My spice of life shelf,” she chuckled.

“This is to sleep better,” she said, holding an apothecary jar filled with what looked like tea leaves. “And this is to make your husband love you more at night.” But I seriously doubted its effectiveness, since her husband’s impotency was her favorite topic of conversation at every card and bingo party in the neighborhood.

I’d sit at the edge of a folding chair and beg, “Tell me about the shows. Tell me about Havana,” because I knew this was the only subject more dear to her heart than her spice of life shelf, since it brought back memories of when she weighed 120 pounds and wore a size 6.

First she lit a stick of jasmine incense because the smell reminded her “of my island,” then she returned to the pantry area, cordoned off from her bedroom by a curtain of red and blue wooden beads that clicked together. “The costumes, the music,” she said, inhaling the jasmine smoke. “How can I begin?”

“Can’t I try on the earrings?” I pleaded. “Can’t we listen to music?”

She disappeared for a moment behind the beaded curtain and came back holding a black lacquer box with red Chinese characters. She gave it to me and I balanced it on my closed thighs.  I asked, “Which one should I put on first?”

“The red rubies.” Star felt they went particularly well with my complexion.

I was thoughtful. “No, I always wear those,” and removed a twin bunch of golden bananas encrusted in green jewel leaves instead.

“Rubies, bananas,” said Star. She opened her chest drawer, and pulled out colored silk scarves, solids and prints, draping them in elaborate knots around our wrists, waists, in our hair, until we looked like a chorus line from a remnant store. “Now we are ready to begin,” she announced, and reached for the arm of the record player.

She mamboed — not Star, but the girl Estrella who wore black net gloves up to her elbows and a skirt of green ostrich feathers that had to be resewn for every performance, so much did the shaking of her hips disturb the feathers from their nesting place. Even the seamstress of the Baile Club told Estrella no one dancer had ever required the same vast quantity of ostrich feathers, not to mention the green tulle frock whose beading took a specialist four days to make. “I was such a beauty when I met George,” she beat her chest in front of the sofa, “they used to come from miles around the island in donkey carts just to see Estrella dance. And I didn’t just dance,” she turned to me, “I gave them my heart. I performed outside the club, in the dirt, because they couldn’t afford to come inside.”

Then I whirled effortlessly through her beaded curtain, to flirt with my own image in the dresser mirror, back again, to face Star, who took my hand and arched my head to the floor in the last dramatic dip of “Besame Mucho.

Bastante, bastante,” wheezed Star, who stood before me again in her rayon muumuu, hand to her heart. “You are getting better, but remember when you are on stage, your body must talk love to every face who is looking at you from the audience. You must give them a little bit of hope so when they go home, they can warm themselves.”

“When I grow up,” I said, “I want to be a great performer.”

“And you will, dear, if you don’t make the same mistake as I did.” She lowered her voice to make sure the evil spirit in the house wouldn’t hear. “You must always be sure to keep your figure. And remember,” she said, waggling her finger at me, “once you have children, everything goes flaaa.”

I sank back into Star’s couch. “Please, please, I don’t want to go back upstairs.” I hung on to her sleeve. “Adopt me.” After all, she didn’t have any children of her own.  “Or will you be my foster mother?”

George walked into the kitchen, his beard freshly shaven. Once in the kitchen, he continued to slap his face with Florida water cologne, a sweet smell. “What’s this stuff about foster mother?”

“The girl’s just talking,” said Star quickly, and poured his eggs into the pan.

But the breakfast gave me courage. “You’ll get lots of money every month from the Agency for my just living here,” I said, “and we’ll be able to dance all the time.”

“I told you not to get so involved,” said George, reaching for Star’s arm. “It’s like feeding stray dogs. You leave food outside, and they keep coming back.”

She cast his arm aside, “Don't you tell me anything. All you do is moan and groan about your two choices.”

George always talked about how he wished his father had stayed put in China and not bothered to travel to Cuba because all that traveling didn’t change the fact he had only two choices in life: working as a cook or working in a laundry. George wanted to race cars. That was his third, if I really had a choice, choice. “Well, you’ve had lots of choices and you walked away from them. All of them.”

“How can you say that? You’re the one who said the Revolution wasn’t for artists. Remember? You’re the one who said we had to leave.” They were talking about Cuba again, which was their biggest argument.

“Gusano,” she spat.

“You were so in love with your pretty costumes, you thought the revolucionarios  were going to take away your figure from you also. Your precious figure,” he turned to his side and sucked in his stomach, imitating Star.  “Am I too fat here, George?”

“You!” said Star. “My figure was my livelihood. No one came to hear a fat woman sing!”

“All those men drooling over you. And you loved it.”

“They appreciated my beauty.”

“Sure, sure,” he waved her on.

“Never mind my figure. Who was so afraid of loosing those precious junk cars of yours,” she said. “You started to haul them out to your cousin’s chicken yard to hide them.” She cackled like a chicken. “Co-ri-co, co-ri-co, coo-coo-coo.

“I bet they’re still in the back of the house,” she laughed. “rusting away. If you were smart,” she said, “you would’ve sold them all. For parts.”

“You said Castro was just another gangster. Remember? I can remember us standing in the kitchen just as we are now and you said...”

“You said it was the gangsters who gave us our jobs,” said Star.

“It’s true,” he sighed, “Wasn’t it?”

Star took a moment. “When they closed down the Club, they closed down my heart, but I never wanted to leave.”

“Blame it on me; that’s the easy answer. And tell me who decided never to get pregnant again? Foster child,” he gargled under his breath. “What about our own child? When is that going to happen? You’re going to turn 32 next month!”

“Don’t talk about my age, especially in front of Lulu.” Thirty two didn’t seem old. My Grandmother was 67.

“You’re no spring chicken.”

“George, I couldn’t go on living if I had a child who died again,” she sobbed.

“Estrellita, we have to try.”

“But you don’t want to! You refuse! Every night turn away from me in bed!”

“Not true.”

“It’s Blanca’s fault,” she screamed. Blanca was a new tenant who lived upstairs on the fourth floor with her baby girl.

“Blanca!"

She gathered herself into a hurricane, like her entire body was swirling in chiffon clouds. "Couldn’t you have picked somebody different? What an insult to me! Blanca’s so ugly.”

“At least she doesn’t scream all the time!”

“Now you see--so you admit that you and Blanca have been sleeping together!”

“I said no such thing.”

“Caught,” she said. “What a low kind of man. Talk to me about having a baby while you’re sleeping with someone else.”

“That’s ridiculous, Star. I’ve just stopped by her apartment a few times to fix her sink.”

“Is this how you punish me? It wasn’t my fault that the baby died.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying. I swear to you there’s nothing between me and Blanca. She’s just a tenant.”

Star’s mouth trembled.

George took her hands in his hands and kissed them. “Estrella, I don’t know why the baby died. But we couldn’t help it.  We did everything. Sometimes when I look out on the fire escape, I think of how it use to be in Havana when we looked out from our balcony to the ocean.”

It knew that it was time for me to go. It was okay for me to be there while they were fighting, but not if they were making up.

Those were the house rules.

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