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Windowlight

Published by "Stories" Magazine, 1984

There she goes. Mama, lightswitching to wake me to work. Maybe if I sleep beautifully along she'll go away. No. She stands there by the door and flips the switch. Lights go on, lights go off, lights go on . . . I squeeze open a crack in my eyelid. Through the wet yellow light I can see Mama's mouth say, "Get up, Lily. Right now."

I wake up and show Mama that I'm alive again. Good thing, too, because she was about to come and give me a hit. You can always tell when Mama gets hit mad. There's a red blood spider in her cheek that glows real hot. That's when stupid deafies better move. I move. She knows I was just fooling, sleeping. I smile and wave. She just stands there with a hand on the lightswitch and her mouth going down on the end. The blood spider throbs in her jaw. Then she turns and goes off to the bathroom to make her morning mess.

I look over at Crystal, sleeping and sleeping. The light never wakes her. She has a magic radio to wake her with some music sound. The magic music will happen at seven-thirty. She will stretch her smooth arms and leave her dreams and get ready for high school. I'm a working woman now. I have a Social Security number.

I go to the bathroom, squeezing past Mama at the sink fussing with her curler snarl. She doesn't look at me. From the jerky snatchy way she works her hands at the curlers, I know she had a bad night. Better if she doesn't look at me today.

I finish and go to the kitchen to start the morning chores. There are still the little fluffy dirts on the cold floor in the hall where Crystal did not run the machine on Saturday when it was her turn. There'll be a hit for that on poor Crystal. Also for the living room where all of Crystal's health and beauty aids are spread around the light-up mirror on the dinner table. Mama's chair is full of perfect woman magazines.

In the kitchen everything is tidy and nice. I put the coffee water kettle on to heat. It's a new kettle that Mama got on Canal Street last week. It's yellow and has a button to push that makes the little lid open when you pour the water in and out.

I look out the window to see if I can tell what kind of day we're having. At least it isn't raining. I can just see some grey light at the top of the air-shaft. It's warm again so we won't need the heavy coats. Maybe just the raincoats, because rain might happen later. Across the air-shaft, the lights come shining on in the neighbor's kitchen that is just like ours, only backwards. There’s a couple living there that moved in last year after Mrs. Goldman finally died. From times I have watched them talking, I know their names are Holly and Perry, or Barry. She is pretty, and about the same age as me. She's pregnant, and from the size of her it looks like baby time is pretty soon, all right. Barry is very wild and funny and maybe even a little crazy, the way he jumps around and flaps his nice strong arms. Maybe he's only happy, I don't know. He comes into their kitchen to make his coffee water hot too. I hope that he' Il look at me. I' m all set to smile and wave, but he never does look. I think he knows I'm here, but I make him uncomfortable, probably. Deafies do that to people.

I see they have a plant now on their window shelf. It’s just a little one, a single stalk with two leaves at the top. I wonder if there's enough light for it there. I wish we could have a plant. We need some life around here. It's been just Mama and Crystal and me ever since little Fluffydog died from eating the chicken bone. I wanted to get a kitten, but Mama pinched her nose together when I showed her a picture. I bet a plant would be okay, though. They don't eat anything except water. If I had my own money, that's what I'd buy.

I' m looking out the window dreaming about a plant when I get a hit on the shoulder. Mama is standing there with angry spiders in her face. She points to the coffee water kettle which is blowing steam out of the little hole in the lid. Her mouth says I should stop daydreaming. So I have to get busy and put instant powder in the mugs and make the toast and get out the butter and jam.

I feel sorry for Mama. She doesn't have such an easy time, you know. She's lonely and sad, and she has to work and take care of me and Crystal, so now she's getting tired, I guess. I try to help, but like Mama says I'm a little stupid. When I was very small they thought I was retarded, but then they found out I was only a deafie so they brought me back to live with them and new little baby Crystal.

We have good times sometimes. We play checkers and watch TV. I don't understand much, but it's good practice for lipreading. Some nights Mama feels so sad that she cries and I hug her and hold her. These days Crystal goes out with her friends a lot, and it's just me and Mama. I wish I could go out and have friends, but I'm a little scared. Like Mama says, what if something happened?

I take Mama her toast and coffee in the living room where she's watching people's heads on the TV. She takes a bite of toast and says something that I miss.

I say, "I'm sorry," and wait to see if she says it again.

She says, "Goddam . . ." and then, "Get the box!"

I bring her the little blue filecard box from the bookcase. She sighs and puts down her coffee and goes through the cards. This is always trouble. I tell her I'm sorry and I wish she'd just tell me what she wants. I bet I could read her mouth without the toast in it. First she shows me the "stupid" card; which is getting very tattered by now. Then she shows "Crystal" and "Wake up." So that means a fight for sure because it's only 7:15. I try to tell Mama but she doesn't want sassy backtalk from me this morning. She throws the card box at me, but she misses, and cards go all over the carpet.

Okay then, I go and give Crystal a hit and that sure does wake her up. Boy is she mad! She jumps up and comes for me with a big, ugly mouth. I run into the living room to show Mama that I did what she said. Crystal comes in right behind me, pointing and making big mouths, but Mama tells her "Shut up!" real strong. I've never seen Mama so mad at Crystal. Crystal tries to sass but Mama won't stand for that. Then they start in to fight and yell. It's really hard to see the words when their mouths are so mad. Pretty soon I figure out that it's about Frankie, Crystal's boyfriend.

Mama is calling her stupid and tramp and a lot of words I don't know. Crystal is telling Mama to shut up and mind her own business. She says she loves Frankie.

Mama says, "Where would you learn about love?"

Crystal says, "Not from you!"

I stop watching their mouths and pick up the cards, because some of them are sticking to Crystal's bare feet. Then I go into the bathroom for my turn.

 

We're sitting in the "D" train on our way to work, me and Mama, when I remember that I want to ask for a plant. I put my hand on her leg and when she looks from her newspaper, I give her a smile. She gives me back a little smile and I see that we can have a nice time again. I start to ask her about money for a plant, but her eye goes down to the end of the car.

A young deafie man has just come in. He goes around to all the people, giving out his little yellow cards. He is a friendly looking boy, a little older than me, probably. Brown frizzy hair sticks out around the edge of his Mets cap. There's an old camera with white tape on it, hanging down inside his open army jacket.

I look at the card he gives me. It says, "Hello! I am deaf, won't you help me?" and there's a waving American flag on the front. On the back are rows of little hands that make the fingertalk alphabet. Mama snatches the card away from me and throws it on the floor. She hates fingertalk. When I went to school she made sure it was an old-fashioned school that taught kids to lipread and not fingertalk. They used to tie our hands behind our backs, they hated fingertalk so much.

The man kneels down to pick up the card. It's hard for him because the car is so crowded and shaking with speed. I look at his eyes which are nice and brown. I wish he would go away before Mama gets mad. He looks at me and I can see he knows I' m deaf. He fingerspells "Hi." Mama sticks me with her elbow real quick, and raises up her Daily News like she is going to give the man a hit.

He moves away but he looks at me again and smiles. Then he holds up his camera, which looks like it just came from the hospital, and takes my picture. Mama glares at him, but he just winks and goes to collect his cards, and hopefully some quarters, from the people. The next stop is 34th Street and we have to get off.

 

Boy, it is nice not to be raining, and winter almost gone clear away. There's some wind though. A hard wind full of wet air. It blows us down the avenue and then down the street and keeps right on blowing us up the stairs until we get to Fabra-tex and shut the door. Mama goes right away to the girls' room so she can fix her hair back into perfect woman curls. I go on into the machine room.

The light of Fabra-tex is always the same, no matter what. There's a window in the back, but it only shows a wall outside. There aren't any other windows in the long room full of sewing machines. At the front is the office, with windows facing the street, but since we're only on the second floor, you can't see the sky or anything. Long, green-white tubes on the ceiling shine away, all day, every day. They make everybody look a little green. It's not so bad later when people start sewing. Each machine has a hot white light shining on the work.

This is my favorite part of the day. The machines are quiet. Everybody is sitting around drinking coffee regular out of blue cardboard deli cups, and talking to each other. I look around for Inez, and finally find her in the back corner by the window, talking to Mr. Weisman. Inez is hard to read, especially when she talks fast like she is doing now, so I know she is probably asking for more money. She needs more money since her husband is still out of work, and now her sister's had a baby, and the two of them have moved in too.

Mr. Weisman is probably saying what he always says: he can't make no exceptions or everybody will want to be exceptions.

Mr. Weisman is a really nice boss as long as you don't talk about money. He is always really nice to me, and this morning when I come up to him and Inez by the window, he is nice again. He smiles and says, "Good morning, Lily." He talks clear and careful, always watching to see if I understand, but he doesn't shout or make a big show like some hearing people do. I say good morning back, and good morning to Inez, too, but she's still thinking about money.

Mr. Weisman looks at his watch and then starts clapping his hands and telling people it's time to start work and this isn't a luxury cruise. Inez and I go to our machines, which are right next to each other. I want to ask her if she will help me buy a plant at lunchtime, but she is talking to Morry, the union deputy, instead. Then black Eddie brings the pieces and I have to start sewing.

Looking up I can see that Mama has her hair back in perfect curls again and is sitting at her desk behind the glass wall. She used to be a seamstress, but now she's Mr. Weisman's secretary, which is how she could get me a job here. I can't ask her for a plant in front of Mr. Weisman. Maybe at lunchtime . . .

We are still working on cowboy shirts. I have the easy job again, hemming the bottom. Rubin, the shop foreman, thinks I'm dumb and can't do the hardest work. I wish I could do the embroidery on the pockets and collars.

Now the room is beginning to pound as everybody sits down to work. I always get a little excited in the mornings to feel the first sewing machine rumble. Usually Mr. Lopez is first. Then another person starts his machine, and that's a different rumble, where it starts and stops, and how the person works. Then more and more machines rumble up, and each one is different.

It reminds me of the time we studied music in school. They had a music machine that played records, and we could all feel the music when we put our hands on this big table and the table would rumble and tingle and throb. The music would grow through my bones from my hands to my chest to my feet and every bone would throb and tingle from the music.

I sew. The machine turns and pounds. The needle jabs up and down, up and down, so fast that it stops being a needle and becomes just a rumble of light.

I feed the machine the cloth and dream about a little plant growing on our window shelf, and about our neighbors. I wonder how it feels to have a baby inside. I dream about Barry or Perry and his waving arms. I think about Crystal and I wonder if she has touched Frankie. And I dream about money, and a bank account, and checks with my own name printed on them.

I finish the first stack of shirt pieces and Eddie takes them over to Morry for sleeves, then they will come back to Inez for collars. Collars are hard. In school we played a game where we passed around a button. Here we pass around the whole shirt.

At ten o'clock I have a little break. I see that Mr. Weisman is out of the office and Mama is working there alone. I go into the office. It always feels so different in the office. It's a place between glass, with the grey street on one side, and the bright workroom on the other. There are lamps in the office that make warm pink light for the desks full of paper.

Mama is typing, her back to the door. The label of her blouse is sticking up, so I go to put it in for her. When I touch her neck she jumps and turns in her chair.

"What do you want?"

"The label on your blouse . . ." I say in mouthtalk.

"What?"

"The label . . ." and I try to show her, but she fans me away.

"Stop that! What are you doing?" She slaps the desk and stands up.

I step back before she gets mad.

"Why aren't you . . ." She turns to look out into the machine area to see where Mr. Weisman is.

"Mama, wouldn't it be nice if we had a little plant for the window in the kitchen?"

"A what?"

"A plant. You know," and I start to make a little sign with my hands.

She raises her eyebrows and gives me the look that means, "No fingertalk, remember?"

"What do you want with a plant?" she says.

"It would be nice, that's all. A little bit of green life in the kitchen."

"I don't like plants," she says. "Why would you want a pot full of dirt near our food?" "It's not dirt, Mama, it's soil."

"What's the difference?"

"Please, Mama."

"Not today. I have to work through lunch today."

“Maybe Inez will take me."

"Well, fine. If Inez wants to waste her lunch hour, that's her business. Go ahead then."

"I need some money."

“Money? I gave you money last week."

"It's gone."

"Again? Honestly, Lily!” and she sighs and picks up her purse.

“Maybe it s time I had my own bank account Mama."

"Let's not go into that again. You know you're not capable of handling a bank account."

"But Mama, Crystal has a bank account and she doesn't even have a job."

“Crystal has ears! Crystal, has a future!"

"But if I can earn money, why can't I have money?"

"We need all our money to keep us alive. You live free. You don’t pay for the rent or food or anything you need . . ."

“But Mama . . . "

“That's enough, Lily!" She shuts her purse and smiles past my shoulder. I turn, and there is Mr. Weisman coming in the door. I look back at Mama, but she has her purse down and I see I won't get any plant money today. I hurry out and go back to my machine.

From where I sit I can see Mr. Weisman and Mama through the glass, talking to each other. Mr. Weisman is asking Mama a question. His face is open and kind.

Mama's face is turned, so I can't see her mouth. Mr. Weisman listens to her and then he says: "The girl is old enough to take care of herself."

Mama turns to`him and says “She has the mind of a . . ." some word I don t know. “I m trapped, Sam. I'll have to take care of her for the rest of my life."

"She's okay . . ." says Mr. Weisman, ". . . she reads lips and talks . . ."

Mama says: "She sounds like some animal that's learned how to talk."

Then she turns and sees me. Her jaw clamps shut and the little red spider spot starts to grow in her cheek. I get busy winding a new bobbin. My ears are hot and it feels like there's a high-heeled shoe stuck in my throat.

Eddie brings me more pieces to hem. I start to work. All the time I'm sewing, I'm thinking about Mama and what she said. She's stuck with me, all right. Soon Crystal will get married and go away, and then it will be just Mama and me. An animal that learned to talk.

I remember how she loved Fluffydog. He was so white and cute. She never got mad at him, even when he peed on the carpet. I would have to scrub the place with vinegar while she fed Fluffydog some Liva-snaps. My eyes are getting hot. I start on a new shirt. My thumb goes under the needle! I must have made a big noise, because everyone stops work and runs to me. Inez is holding my hand tight and blood is going everywhere. Someone wraps a shirt around my hand, and they all pull me down the narrow space between the machines to the girls' room. I cry and howl when they put my hand under the cold water and hold it there. I look and see Mama pushing into the crowded girls' room. Her face is all red and white and her eyes are saying to me, "Stupid!"

After the Doctor has pulled out the needle and stung me hard with red medicine and jabbed me in the arm with another needle and bandaged my thumb so it looks like a sock, I go back to Fabra- tex. Mama says I can probably still work since it's only my left hand. But Mr. Weisman tells me to go home and rest for a few days. He even gives me five dollars for a taxi. Mama has to give me the spare keys. Outside it is starting to sunshine. The wind has made some big holes in the clouds and the people are blowing past me with their shadows running after them. My thumb is throbbing and rumbling like all the machines at Fabra-tex. I hold it close so it won't get bumped in the crowd. There are taxis but I don't want to try telling the hard-faced drivers where I live. I never want to make mouthtalk again. As I walk up the avenue the wind blows in my face, pushing the tears back into my hair. I walk slowly down the steps to the subway, carrying my thumb like an egg.

The dim, dirty platform makes me think of old toilets and shoe soles. The people look into the black tunnel mouth and wait for a train. At last we see a light on the curving tracks, and then a rush of wind and the "D" train rumbles up.

There is a man sleeping in the corner of the car. He smells, so I move down toward the other end. I look around, hoping to find one of the deaf man's yellow cards. The floor is dirty. Old newspapers and candy wrappers and a folded beer can are there, but no yellow card. The bad boys have been at this place with their black paint. The walls and windows and doors and seats and posters are covered with strange swirls of writing that I can't read. It feels odd to be here in the middle of the day without Mama. In all my twenty years of life, this is the fourth time I've taken the subway by myself. There are only a few people on the car, so I'm not scared. I close my eyes and watch the swirls and colors inside my eyelids as we rumble along. I try to find pictures in these squirming lines, but it's no use. My thumb has settled into an ache, now. I rock it like a hurt dolly.

I am still watching the shapes in my eyes and counting the stops until Grand Street, when someone steps on my foot. I look up and there is a huge, black, blind man with a music box that stretches and puffs in the middle. He stands over me, swaying. His fingers stop and his mouth moves. He probably says he's sorry about my toe. He turns the box so the cup that's hanging on the front is right in my face. There's a little sign taped to the cup, written in ballpoint over and over to make the letters thick and heavy. "Please?" it says. I look up at his empty eyelids. He waits, listening to the cup, probably. Finally he begins playing again and walks awkwardly on down the rocking car. He steps perfectly around a post a little way down. He must be counting his steps.

I close my eyes again and imagine that I am blind. I wish I could have put my hands on the man's music box and felt the rumble of his music. He is lucky because even though he can't see, he has his music. Probably, if he could see, he would never have learned to play. Now he can give the people music and they give him money and everybody's happy. What is there for a deafie, though? Little yellow cards?

Suddenly something happens. The train has come out of the tunnel and sunlight is pouring through the windows! I am very frightened. Is this the wrong train? What happened to Grand Street? Nobody else is bothered at all. The sleeping man keeps sleeping; other people keep reading their papers and chewing their gum; the blind man probably doesn't even notice we're out from under the ground.

I look out the window. We are crossing a river on a great high bridge. I know that I live on an island, and now I must be going someplace else. I kneel on the seat and put my face close to the dirty window. The glass buildings of the island shine in the sun. There's another bridge not far off, swinging across the glittery water. The air is full of birds, flying in the bright blue wind. There are ships in the water and cars on the curved roads beneath the bridges, and even though I can't see them, I know there are many, many people on the sidewalks and inside of those great glass buildings, and each one of them is having a life.

I forget all about being afraid. I forget my thumb. I forget everything and just look at the light. It's so clear it makes me want to cry. One at a time, the dark steel parts of the bridge slide across the window and block the view; as each one passes I can see the city again, fresh and new. I wish the train would stop and I could just sit there and look, or that I could be a bird, and fly between the buildings, and over the water, and through the light. Seeing is not enough. I want to hold it somehow. To keep it so I can show it to Mama and Crystal and Mr. Weisman and say to them, "Look what's there. Look what's always there! So close, Mama, we could see it every day if we wanted! Look where we live, Mama."

The bright city shines like new through the spaces of the bridge, over and over again. I watch it, time after time after time, all the way across the river.