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Aunt Bell
Flood #3: August, 1956
As he walked, making his right, then his left, than his right, through this maze of ugly square buildings—though the stone was sometimes pretty—like a mouse after some cheese, he reflected on how different the world was, how much lonelier it was, when you didn’t just know where a place was. In this place of many crossways, slanted and parallel directions a body felt lost even when all closed-in with houses, people sitting on their stoops, cars driving by. In the hour it had taken him to get from the train station to Stoddard Alley, he had seen more cars drive by than he had seen in his entire life, not counting the drive into Atlanta. But on that drive, he had been fixated on the standing places they passed like a cartoon world winding by. But in this place, up here in Baltimore, as a body crept steadily by the many buildings packed with people, cars, cars and more cars forever rolled by. Almost all of these—all except for one—had been driven by white folks, indicating that they lived not far off and that they were in fact all around.
Not a one of the motorists took a notice of the boy in the shining black Sunday shoes, bright white shirt, and somewhat threadbare pants held up by the twine he had trimmed from behind the chicken coup door. But there were many ladies and men who sat on the concrete stairs, three steps high mostly, before the open doors of their houses that looked so much like ovens and must have felt the same. There were not a lot of smiles from the ladies, no greetings from the men, and the boys—boys so menacing in their hard eyes that he neglected to look after the girls playing skip-rope along the way—gathered in their twos, and threes and fours and fives. These groups of boys never had a “hello” or a “how are you doing,” or even a “what you lookin’ at” for him. Rather they looked at him like so many wolves might be looking at a lone dog slinking through their hunting range.
He made not the mistake of asking after his way or trying to say “hey” and was mighty grateful for the shoeshine man who had lent him that wordy hand.
At last he stopped on Prestman [1] Street as it crossed Stoddard Alley and saw people in the alley, which was actually a paved street with a real fancy street sign rather than the dirt and gravel track he had imagined. These people were sitting out on their stoops as the sun started going over behind the row houses enough to give them shade on the right hand side of the street. There were ladies a plenty, men sometimes near, and no gang of menacing boys. So he hunched right, walked that way, hefting his bag on his shoulder to make it clear he had just detrained, and walked up the way and asked the first lady, wearing a pink dress and sandals, “Ma’am, ma name is Israel and I come lookin’ for my Aunt Bell, Bell Jackson.”
“She right there,” pointed the woman with one slim finger, up the way and across the street on the sunny side. “Thank you ma’am,” he drawled and crossed, noticing that no cars were parked on this narrow street and that up on the end some men were rolling dice against the curb.
His Aunt Bell greeted him at the door with a smile and a hug, took his bag and said, “Israel,” I’ll wash your clothes in the tub. You big, so I need you to go with Alvin down the way to the market and get some groceries. You don’t need any money. We have an account, a bill. You’re to spend three dollars for the fixings for a chicken dinner.”
As if she had forgotten something, Aunt Bell apologized under her breath, went and got a skinny boy his age, brought him to the door by the hand with a glass of water in the other hand and said, “I’m sorry, Baby, you must be thirsty. But the market closes in two hours and I couldn’t go as I was waiting on you and, well, Alvin knows the way but can’t go on his own. Israel, Alvin’s daddy up and got killed over in Korea and I’ll be leaning on you. Don’t you worry though—I’m made of tougher stuff than your mamma—poor thing.”
Alvin looked at him, looked down, looked back up, shivered, looked around up one side of the street and then the other, looked back into his eyes and said, “Hey,” and they were off as his skinny cousin pointed right and directed, “This way, around the corner and downhill to the store.”
-1. Origin of street name could be “pressed-man” “prest-man” or “pressman,” the former two the objects and the latter the agents of forced service on board merchant and military ships.
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