I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou (1993)
The house seemed smaller and quieter after the trip south, and the first bloom of San Francisco’s glamour had dulled around the edges. Adults had lost the wisdom from the surface of their faces. I reasoned that I had given up some youth for knowledge, but my gain was more valuable than the loss.
Bailey was much older too. Even years older than I had become. He had made friends during that youth-shattering summer with a group of slick street boys. His language had changed. He was forever dropping slangy terms into his sentences like dumplings in a pot. He may have been glad to see me, but he didn’t act much like it. When I tried to tell him of my adventures and misadventures, he responded with a casual indifference which stilled the tale on my lips. His new companions cluttered the living room and halls wearing zoot suits and wide-brimmed hats and dangling long snaky chains hooked at their belts. They drank sloe gin secretly and told dirty jokes. Although I had no regrets, I told myself sadly that growing up was not the painless process one would have thought it to be.
In one area my brother and I found ourselves closer. I had gotten the knack of public dancing. All the lessons with Mother, who danced so effortlessly, had not borne immediate fruit. But with my newly and dearly bought assurance I could give myself up to the rhythms and let them propel me where they willed.
Mother allowed us to go to the big band dances in the crowded city auditorium. We danced the jitterbug to Count Basie, the Lindy and the Big Apple to Cab Calloway, and the Half Time Texas Hop to Duke Ellington. In a matter of months cute Bailey and his tall sister were famous as those dancing fools (which was an apt description).
Although I had risked my life (not intentionally) in her defense, Mother’s reputation, good name and community image ceased, or nearly ceased, being of interest to me. It was not that I cared for her less but that I concerned myself less about everything and everyone. I often thought of the tedium of life once one had seen all its surprises. In two months, I had become blasé.
Mother and Bailey were entangled in the Oedipal skein. Neither could do without or do with the other; yet the constrictions of conscience and society, morality and ethos dictated a separation. On some flimsy excuse, Mother ordered Bailey out of the house. On an equally flimsy excuse he complied. Bailey was sixteen, small for his age, bright for any and hopelessly in love with Mother Dear. Her heroes were her friends and her friends were big men in the rackets. They wore two-hundred-dollar Chesterfield coats, Busch shoes at fifty dollars a pair, and Knox hats. Their shirts were monogrammed and their fingernails manicured. How could a sixteen-year-old boy hope to compete with such overshadowing rivals? He did what he had to do. He acquired a withered white prostitute, a diamond ring on his little finger and a Harris tweed coat with raglan sleeves. He didn’t consciously consider the new possessions the open sesame to Mother Dear’s vault of acceptance. And she had no idea that her preferences prodded him to such excesses.
From the wings I heard and watched the pavane of tragedy move steadily toward its climax. Interception and even the thought of it was impossible. Easier to plan an obstruction to a sunrise or a hurricane. If Mother was a beautiful woman who exacted the tribute of obeisance from all men, she was also a mother, and “a damn good one.” No son of hers was going to be exploited by a used-up white whore, who wanted to milk him of his youth and spoil him for adulthood. Hell, no.
Bailey, for his part, was her son as she was his mother. He had no intention of taking low even from the most beautiful woman in the world. The fact that she happened to be his mother did nothing to weaken his resolve.
Get out? Oh, hell, yes. Tomorrow? What’s wrong with today? Today? What about right now? But neither could move until all the measured steps had been negotiated.
During the weeks of bitter wrangling I sat in hopeless wonder. We were not allowed profanity or even obvious sarcasm, but Bailey looped his language around his tongue and issued it out to Mother in alum drops. She threw her “ing bings” (passionate explosions guaranteed to depilate the chest of the strongest man) and was sweetly sorry (only to me) after.
I had been left out of their power/love struggles. It would be more correct to say that since neither needed a claque I was forgotten on the sidelines.
It was a little like Switzerland in World War II. Shells were bursting all around me, souls were tortured and I was powerless in the confines of imposed neutrality—hopes were dying. The confrontation, which brought relief, had come on an ordinary unheralded evening. It was after eleven o’clock, so I left my door ajar, hoping to hear Mother go out, or the creak of Bailey easing up the stairs.
The record player on the first floor volumed up Lonnie Johnson singing, “Tomorrow night, will you remember what you said tonight?” Glasses clinked and voices rubbed each other. A party was shimmering below and Bailey had defied Mother’s eleven o’clock curfew. If he made it in before midnight, she might be satisfied with slapping him across the face a few times with her lashing words.
Twelve o’clock came and went at once, and I sat up in bed and laid my cards out for the first of many games of solitaire.
My watch hands made the uneven V of one o’clock.
“Yes, Mother Dear?” En garde. His voice thrust sweet and sour, and he accented the “dear.”
“I guess you’re a man … Turn down that record player.” She shouted the last to the revelers.
“I’m your son, Mother Dear.” A swift parry.
“Is it eleven o’clock, Bailey?” That was a feint, designed to catch the opponent offguard.
“It’s after one o’clock, Mother Dear.” He had opened up the game, and the strokes from then on would have to be direct.
“Clidell is the only man in this house, and if you think you’re so much of a man …” Her voice popped like a razor on a strap.
“I’m leaving now, Mother Dear.” The deferential tone heightened the content of his announcement. In a bloodless coup he had thrust beneath her visor.
Now, laid open, she had no recourse but to hurry along the tunnel of her anger, headlong.
“Then Goddammit, get your heels to clicking.” And her heels were clicking down the linoleum hall as Bailey tap-danced up the stairs to his room.
When rain comes finally, washing away a low sky of muddy ocher, we who could not control the phenomenon are pressed into relief. The near-occult feeling: The fact of being witness to the end of the world gives way to tangible things. Even if the succeeding sensations are not common, they are at least not mysterious.
Bailey was leaving home. At one o’clock in the morning, my little brother, who in my lonely days of inferno dwelling had protected me from goblins, gnomes, gremlins and devils, was leaving home.
I had known all along the inevitable outcome and that I dared not poke into his knapsack of misery, even with the offer to help him carry it.
I went to his room, against my judgment, and found him throwing his carefully tended clothes into a pillowcase. His maturity embarrassed me. In his little face, balled up like a fist, I found no vestige of my brother, and when, not knowing what to say, I asked if I could help, he answered, “Leave me the shit alone.”
I leaned on the doorjamb, lending him my physical presence but said no more.
“She wants me out, does she? Well, I’ll get out of here so fast I’ll leave the air on fire. She calls herself a mother? Huh! I’ll be damned. She’s seen the last of me. I can make it. I’ll always make it.”
At some point he noticed me still in the doorway, and his consciousness stretched to remember our relationship.
“Maya, if you want to leave now, come on. I’ll take care of you.”
He didn’t wait for an answer, but as quickly went back to speaking to his soul. “She won’t miss me, and I sure as hell won’t miss her. To hell with her and everybody else.”
He had finished jamming his shoes on top of his shirts and ties, and socks were wadded into the pillowcase. He remembered me again.
“Maya, you can have my books.”
My tears were not for Bailey or Mother or even myself but for the helplessness of mortals who live on the sufferance of Life. In order to avoid this bitter end, we would all have to be born again, and born with the knowledge of alternatives. Even then?
Bailey grabbed up the lumpy pillowcase and pushed by me for the stairs. As the front door slammed, the record player downstairs mastered the house and Nat King Cole warned the world to “straighten up and fly right.” As if they could, as if human beings could make a choice.
Mother’s eyes were red, and her face puffy, the next morning, but she smiled her “everything is everything” smile and turned in tight little moons, making breakfast, talking business and brightening the corner where she was. No one mentioned Bailey’s absence as if things were as they should be and always were.
The house was smudged with unspoken thoughts and it was necessary to go to my room to breathe. I believed I knew where he headed the night before, and made up my mind to find him and offer him my support. In the afternoon I went to a bay-windowed house which boasted ROOMS, in green and orange letters, through the glass. A woman of any age past thirty answered my ring and said Bailey Johnson was at the top of the stairs.
His eyes were as red as Mother’s had been, but his face had loosened a little from the tightness of the night before. In an almost formal manner I was invited into a room with a clean chenille-covered bed, an easy chair, a gas fireplace and a table.
He began to talk, covering up the unusual situation that we found ourselves in.
“Nice room, isn’t it? You know it’s very hard to find rooms now. The war and all … Betty lives here [she was the white prostitute] and she got this place for me … Maya, you know, it’s better this way … I mean, I’m a man, and I have to be on my own …”
I was furious that he didn’t curse and abuse the Fates or Mother or at least act put upon.
“Well”—I thought to start it—“If Mother was really a mother, she wouldn’t have——”
He stopped me, his little black hand held up as if I were to read his palm. “Wait, Maya, she was right. There is a tide and time in every man’s life——”
“Bailey, you’re sixteen.”
“Chronologically, yes, but I haven’t been sixteen for years. Anyway, there comes a time when a man must cut the apron strings and face life on his own … As I was saying to Mother Dear, I’ve come to—”
“When were you talking to Mother …?”
“This morning, I said to Mother Dear—”
“Did you phone her?”
“Yes. And she came by here. We had a very fruitful discussion”—he chose his words with the precision of a Sunday school teacher—“She understands completely. There is a time in every man’s life when he must push off from the wharf of safety into the sea of chance … Anyway, she is arranging with a friend of hers in Oakland to get me on the Southern Pacific. Maya, it’s just a start. I’ll begin as a dining-car waiter and then a steward, and when I know all there is to know about that, I’ll branch out … The future looks good. The Black man hasn’t even begun to storm the battlefronts. I’m going for broke myself.”
His room smelled of cooked grease, Lysol and age, but his face believed the freshness of his words, and I had no heart nor art to drag him back to the reeking reality of our life and times.
Whores were lying down first and getting up last in the room next door. Chicken suppers and gambling games were rioting on a twenty-four-hour basis downstairs. Sailors and soldiers on their doom-lined road to war cracked windows and broke locks for blocks around, hoping to leave their imprint on a building or in the memory of a victim. A chance to be perpetrated. Bailey sat wrapped in his decision and anesthetized by youth. If I’d had any suggestion to make I couldn’t have penetrated his unlucky armor. And, most regrettable, I had no suggestion to make.
“I’m your sister, and whatever I can do, I’ll do it.”
“Maya, don’t worry about me. That’s all I want you to do. Don’t worry. I’ll be okey-dokey.”
I left his room because, and only because, we had said all we could say. The unsaid words pushed roughly against the thoughts that we had no craft to verbalize, and crowded the room to uneasiness.