I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou (1993)
I had decided that St. Louis was a foreign country. I would never get used to the scurrying sounds of flushing toilets, or the packaged foods, or doorbells or the noise of cars and trains and buses that crashed through the walls or slipped under the doors. In my mind I only stayed in St. Louis for a few weeks. As quickly as I understood that I had not reached my home, I sneaked away to Robin Hood’s forest and the caves of Alley Oop where all reality was unreal and even that changed every day. I carried the same shield that I had used in Stamps: “I didn’t come to stay.”
Mother was competent in providing for us. Even if that meant getting someone else to furnish the provisions. Although she was a nurse, she never worked at her profession while we were with her. Mr. Freeman brought in the necessities and she earned extra money cutting poker games in gambling parlors. The straight eight-to-five world simply didn’t have enough glamor for her, and it was twenty years later that I first saw her in a nurse’s uniform.
Mr. Freeman was a foreman in the Southern Pacific yards and came home late sometimes, after Mother had gone out. He took his dinner off the stove where she had carefully covered it and which she had admonished us not to bother. He ate quietly in the kitchen while Bailey and I read separately and greedily our own Street and Smith pulp magazine. Now that we had spending money, we bought the illustrated paperbacks with their gaudy pictures. When Mother was away, we were put on an honor system. We had to finish our homework, eat dinner and wash the dishes before we could read or listen to The Lone Ranger, Crime Busters or The Shadow.
Mr. Freeman moved gracefully, like a big brown bear, and seldom spoke to us. He simply waited for Mother and put his whole self into the waiting. He never read the paper or patted his foot to radio. He waited. That was all.
If she came home before we went to bed, we saw the man come alive. He would start out of the big chair, like a man coming out of sleep, smiling. I would remember then that a few seconds before, I had heard a car door slam; then Mother’s footsteps would signal from the concrete walk. When her key rattled the door, Mr. Freeman would have already asked his habitual question, “Hey, Bibbi, have a good time?”
His query would hang in the air while she sprang over to peck him on the lips. Then she turned to Bailey and me with the lipstick kisses. “Haven’t you finished your homework?” If we had and were just reading—“O.K., say your prayers and go to bed.” If we hadn’t—“Then go to your room and finish … then say your prayers and go to bed.”
Mr. Freeman’s smile never grew, it stayed at the same intensity. Sometimes Mother would go over and sit on his lap and the grin on his face looked as if it would stay there forever.
From our rooms we could hear the glasses clink and the radio turned up. I think she must have danced for him on the good nights, because he couldn’t dance, but before I fell asleep I often heard feet shuffling to dance rhythms.
I felt very sorry for Mr. Freeman. I felt as sorry for him as I had felt for a litter of helpless pigs born in our backyard sty in Arkansas. We fattened the pigs all year long for slaughter on the first good frost, and even as I suffered for the cute little wiggly things, I knew how much I was going to enjoy the fresh sausage and hog’s headcheese they could give me only with their deaths.
Because of the lurid tales we read and our vivid imaginations and, probably, memories of our brief but hectic lives, Bailey and I were afflicted—he physically and I mentally. He stuttered, and I sweated through horrifying nightmares. He was constantly told to slow down and start again, and on my particularly bad nights my mother would take me in to sleep with her, in the large bed with Mr. Freeman.
Because of a need for stability, children easily become creatures of habit. After the third time in Mother’s bed, I thought there was nothing strange about sleeping there.
One morning she got out of bed for an early errand, and I fell asleep again. But I awoke to a pressure, a strange feeling on my left leg. It was too soft to be a hand, and it wasn’t the touch of clothes. Whatever it was, I hadn’t encountered the sensation in all the years of sleeping with Momma. It didn’t move, and I was too startled to. I turned my head a little to the left to see if Mr. Freeman was awake and gone, but his eyes were open and both hands were above the cover. I knew, as if I had always known, it was his “thing” on my leg.
He said, “Just stay right here, Ritie, I ain’t gonna hurt you.” I wasn’t afraid, a little apprehensive, maybe, but not afraid. Of course I knew that lots of people did “it” and that they used their “things” to accomplish the deed, but no one I knew had ever done it to anybody. Mr. Freeman pulled me to him, and put his hand between my legs. He didn’t hurt, but Momma had drilled into my head: “Keep your legs closed, and don’t let nobody see your pocketbook.”
“Now, I didn’t hurt you. Don’t get scared.” He threw back the blankets and his “thing” stood up like a brown ear of corn. He took my hand and said, “Feel it.” It was mushy and squirmy like the inside of a freshly killed chicken. Then he dragged me on top of his chest with his left arm, and his right hand was moving so fast and his heart was beating so hard that I was afraid that he would die. Ghost stories revealed how people who died wouldn’t let go of whatever they were holding. I wondered if Mr. Freeman died holding me how I would ever get free. Would they have to break his arms to get me loose?
Finally he was quiet, and then came the nice part. He held me so softly that I wished he wouldn’t ever let me go. I felt at home. From the way he was holding me I knew he’d never let me go or let anything bad ever happen to me. This was probably my real father and we had found each other at last. But then he rolled over, leaving me in a wet place and stood up.
“I gotta talk to you, Ritie.” He pulled off his shorts that had fallen to his ankles, and went into the bathroom.
It was true the bed was wet, but I knew I hadn’t had an accident. Maybe Mr. Freeman had one while he was holding me. He came back with a glass of water and told me in a sour voice, “Get up. You peed in the bed.” He poured water on the wet spot, and it did look like my mattress on many mornings.
Having lived in Southern strictness, I knew when to keep quiet around adults, but I did want to ask him why he said I peed when I was sure he didn’t believe that. If he thought I was naughty, would that mean that he would never hold me again? Or admit that he was my father? I had made him ashamed of me.
“Ritie, you love Bailey?” He sat down on the bed and I came close, hoping. “Yes.” He was bending down, pulling on his socks, and his back was so large and friendly I wanted to rest my head on it.
“If you ever tell anybody what we did, I’ll have to kill Bailey.”
What had we done? We? Obviously he didn’t mean my peeing in the bed. I didn’t understand and didn’t dare ask him. It had something to do with his holding me. But there was no chance to ask Bailey either, because that would be telling what we had done. The thought that he might kill Bailey stunned me. After he left the room I thought about telling Mother that I hadn’t peed in the bed, but then if she asked me what happened I’d have to tell her about Mr. Freeman holding me, and that wouldn’t do.
It was the same old quandary. I had always lived it. There was an army of adults, whose motives and movements I just couldn’t understand and who made no effort to understand mine. There was never any question of my disliking Mr. Freeman, I simply didn’t understand him either.
For weeks after, he said nothing to me, except the gruff hellos which were given without ever looking in my direction.
This was the first secret I had ever kept from Bailey and sometimes I thought he should be able to read it on my face, but he noticed nothing.
I began to feel lonely for Mr. Freeman and the encasement in his big arms. Before, my world had been Bailey, food, Momma, the Store, reading books and Uncle Willie. Now, for the first time, it included physical contact.
I began to wait for Mr. Freeman to come in from the yards, but when he did, he never noticed me, although I put a lot of feeling into “Good evening, Mr. Freeman.”
One evening, when I couldn’t concentrate on anything, I went over to him and sat quickly on his lap. He had been waiting for Mother again. Bailey was listening to The Shadow and didn’t miss me. At first Mr. Freeman sat still, not holding me or anything, then I felt a soft lump under my thigh begin to move. It twitched against me and started to harden. Then he pulled me to his chest. He smelled of coal dust and grease and he was so close I buried my face in his shirt and listened to his heart, it was beating just for me. Only I could hear the thud, only I could feel the jumping on my face. He said, “Sit still, stop squirming.” But all the time, he pushed me around on his lap, then suddenly he stood up and I slipped down to the floor. He ran to the bathroom.
For months he stopped speaking to me again. I was hurt and for a time felt lonelier than ever. But then I forgot about him, and even the memory of his holding me precious melted into the general darkness just beyond the great blinkers of childhood.
I read more than ever, and wished my soul that I had been born a boy. Horatio Alger was the greatest writer in the world. His heroes were always good, always won, and were always boys. I could have developed the first two virtues, but becoming a boy was sure to be difficult, if not impossible.
The Sunday funnies influenced me, and although I admired the strong heroes who always conquered in the end, I identified with Tiny Tim. In the toilet, where I used to take the papers, it was tortuous to look for and exclude the unnecessary pages so that I could learn how he would finally outwit his latest adversary. I wept with relief every Sunday as he eluded the evil men and bounded back from each seeming defeat as sweet and gentle as ever. The Katzenjammer kids were fun because they made the adults look stupid. But they were a little too smart-alecky for my taste.
When spring came to St. Louis, I took out my first library card, and since Bailey and I seemed to be growing apart, I spent most of my Saturdays at the library (no interruptions) breathing in the world of penniless shoeshine boys who, with goodness and perseverance, became rich, rich men, and gave baskets of goodies to the poor on holidays. The little princesses who were mistaken for maids, and the long-lost children mistaken for waifs, became more real to me than our house, our mother, our school or Mr. Freeman.
During those months we saw our grandparents and the uncles (our only aunt had gone to California to build her fortune), but they usually asked the same question, “Have you been good children?” for which there was only one answer. Even Bailey wouldn’t have dared to answer No.