the souls of my people

May 28, 2010
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The sharp groan of the chair startled Gloria, who woke slowly from her sleep. Realizing she was alone, she managed to bring her heartbeat down to a semi-normal pace. The woman moaned as she got out of her rocking chair and onto her feet. She turned and ran her wrinkled hands slowly along the arms of her chair, feeling the familiar dents and chips in the wood. Whatever varnish had once been applied by the chairs' craftsman had worn away, and the chair now wobbled sideways as well as the intended front to back. And the shrieks of protests that issued from the chair if it moved just a couple of inches kept the old woman from doing even that. Yet the chair always managed to hold her weight just one more time; it was old and worn out, just as she, but it still worked. The worn down chair was one of the few things Gloria had managed to salvage when she lost her independence, the rest had been lost with the truck. Her daughter Donna always said it was a simple misunderstanding that the drivers mistook her possessions for goodwill donations.
Gloria sighed slightly as she walked to the window. The gloomy March air had left patterns in the window, through thin sheets of frost. Instinctively, the woman shivered. She grasped her hands together, a vain attempt to bring back warmth to her icy white fingertips. Outside, she heard the soft calls of robins flitting about the yard.
"Why hello my little friends," she breathed quietly, daring the leftover breezes from winter as she opened the window to get a better look.
"You were gone for a while... I see you've brought new materials for your home." She smiled and glanced at the broken washing machine in the corner, where a half-built nest was resting. The young birds had been working at it for a while now, and it was finally beginning to look like more than just a pile of grass and string. Gloria had found it strange that the birds were building a house so early in the year, but she had once seen, on a television show that some robins did not migrate, and she enjoyed the thought that these rebel, maverick birds that would be the ones alleviate her isolation.
The cool, bitter air that flowed in from the slightly open window followed Gloria to the back door, where she opened the blinds that hid the dead and gray of the backyard.
"Oh, your little home looks just grand!" she crooned. The birds jumped about on the rusting machine, pecking at the nest then flying away for more material. Gloria leaned against the window and closed her eyes with a sigh.
She pulled the bleak blue in from the sky and wrapped it around herself like a battered blanket. She turned into a robin, moving through the raw, chilly air, she felt the warmth of the muted sun’s rays, struggling to reach her through the muddy clouds that hung in the dim March sky. Higher into the air she went, daring to be exhilarated, daring to think that no one could hurt her.
The sound of a car engine rudely interrupted Gloria’s fantasies. Some car doors slammed loudly, and then an assault of shouts grew louder until they hit the door. Someone fumbled with a group of keys outside, until they finally managing to bang open the door. Two young boys ran in screaming, leaving a trail of backpacks, lunch pails and an open door behind them.
Gloria stepped away from her spot quickly, rushing to keep herself invisible.
"Ey!" yelled the younger boy, Nick, taking notice of her hurry. "What’s she looking at?"
Gloria began to protest but the boys heard nothing, they ran to unlock the back door and ran out onto the cracked cement and dying weeds.
"There's nothing here. It’s just the same ol’ sh*t."
Gloria winced, still unused to the explicit use of such words, and especially disconcerted to hear it coming from such young pairs of lips.
Proud owner of such a mouth, Nick kicked a clod of dirt into the air. It exploded against the side of the house, bursting like a sad imitation of a fireworks display. Not that Gloria remembered them well, the most she knew of fireworks now came from what she could hear on the dark nights of Fourth of July, and, when she was alone, glances snuck from the windows in the back of the house.
"Well what'd you expect, dummo?" scoffed the uncombed, mop haired boy pushing his way in front of Nick. Being 10 - 3 years older than Nick - Joseph felt justified in his assuming he always knew better than the boy, though the belief seemed to carry over with everyone else he met.
"She's an old lady." continued the boy, "Old people don’t do stuff-"
He was interrupted by his brother’s shouts. Nick had discovered the treasure resting on the washing machine.
Gloria knew what was coming, but could only wring her hands as her heart sped up. Her grandsons ran screaming to the birds, who flew into air like a burst of feathers. The children seized the nest and after examining it for no more than a couple of seconds, threw it on the ground and kicked it around the yard.
A knot formed in Gloria's throat as she watched the nest get reduced to pieces. The robins screeched in protest but were as helpless as she to stop the destruction. The boy’s laughter turned into the laughter of her husband, the nest the broken pieces of her belongings, thrown down time and time again in his haphazard fits. The birds had quieted, perhaps understanding as she had so many years ago, that being quiet, staying still made it end faster.
When the small home had been fully stomped into the ground, Nick announced that he was bored. He and Joe darted into the house arguing about whose turn it was to get the remote.
Gloria stood at the edge of the open door, the breeze tugging at her clothes. She stared at the ground, littered with twigs and string. Her head turned up at the hushed sounds of the mournful robins flying away. She didn't blame them for neglecting to say goodbye. She pressed the tears behind her eyes, shut the door, and turned to cook dinner for the boys, who would no doubt be hungry by now. She could go back to her chair, and close her eyes, when she was done.

* * * * * * * *

Dusk had been swallowed by the night, and the darkness that followed came stronger than usual. Gloria stumbled through the dark house, twisting a small, creased paper in her permanently wrinkled hands. The children were with their mother in the living room, fighting over control of TV. The hallways were eerily still.

Gloria kept her eyes away from the inside of the rooms, but the quiet amplified the voices of her phantoms. Her husband’s voice whispered spitefully in her ear. Dirty little tramp,you wearing makeup so everyone will notice you? ‘Stupid Glory,' they’ll say, ‘she couldn't even make it out of high school without getting pregnant, and now she wants to be a w****?‘ ”

She had believed him then. She had felt grateful to him even - grateful that he kept her from making a fool of herself, in his debt for teaching her to be a proper wife, even if it meant taking a beating when his day had been stressful. Still she was confused whether she ought to feel animosity toward him. In any matter, it was easier to muffle the voice now. Gloria had learned to keep his voice down to a simple buzz in the back of her head.

In the living room, the children were strewn across the furniture; Donna had her own spot on the couch. Gloria asked quietly if she'd ever heard of Langston Hughes.

"I had a book that had a short collection of his stories." she explained.

Joe wrenched the remote out of Nick’s hands. He flicked through the channels continuously, pausing for no more than five seconds on each program.

"I found a poem of his that made me smile yesterday."

No one acknowledged her.


Donna muttered something inaudible. Her eyes followed the every movement of the masked man on the screem. The living room seemed inundated in the televisions harsh glow.


The stark contrast of screen against the dark burned Gloria's eyes.


"God mom, shut up. we're trying to watch the TV"

Gloria flinched but moved back silently. Laughs, shouts and screams crashed through the living room. She went to her chair and no one said another word to her.

* * * * * * * *

Gloria woke up mid-dream in the night, when everything was dark and the poor house took the chance to breathe, if only slightly. She lay on the couch and pulled her fraying blanket tighter to her, but the cold that she felt penetrated straight to her bones. The slight glow of the moon lit her footsteps as she walked through the kitchen, but when she entered the highway she was left in darkness once more. Tom must have come home, the air smelled of alchohol. Gloria contemplated switching on the lights, but decided it was better not to. She wouldn't want to wake anyone up.

Inching her way down the hall, Gloria thrust her hands clumsily in search of the bathroom door. Before she could find it, she heard the voices coming from behind the bedroom door.

"There's no point in having her here. What the hell does she DO all day? You throw away more money on her than her stupid social security check can even cover," hissed Tom in his deep voice.

"You know Rick and I stopped talking like twelve years ago," said Donna, " I'm not going to call him now and say 'Hey Ricky, I know it's been a little while since we talked but I just wanted to see how you're doing and hey, maybe you'd like to take back mom! cause you know what? I just found out Tom drove us into bankruptcy-'"

Donna voice stopped at the sound of a slap. Gloria shut her eyes, feeling in the thud the sting of her own husband’s hands. A cough shot up into her throat, wedging itself right behind her tongue.

"You know we can't afford to put her in a home." snarled Tom, "We can barely afford having her HERE.”

“But she’s my MOM.”

“She’s not our responsibility.”

By this point the cough wouldn't stay down any longer. Gloria wheezed piteously as it escaped her mouth. The voices behind the door stopped. She rushed back to the couch and shut her eyes. Slowly she recited the poem she had now learned by heart, trying to believe its words were true.

* * * * * * * *

In the morning, drops of sun danced through the blinds and landed on Gloria's eyes, stirring her out of her dreams. She opened her eyes slightly was but was still half drowned in her sleep. The first shouts began in the hallway only minutes later - a trumpet announcing the daily army of incessant sound.

The boys ran into the kitchen, punching each other as they argued over the last frozen waffle. Donna followed them, looking groggy and somewhat startling with last night’s eyeliner smudged under her eyes. Eyes barely open, and evidently not completely awake, she bumped into Gloria as they walked into the kitchen.

"Oh! Mother," gasped her daughter, "you surprised me." A jumpy laugh escaped from her mouth.

"Sorry." cringed Gloria. She began to turn

"No, it's, uh, fine. Actually I wanted to? I wanted to tell you we're going to, um, Josephs’ game today."

Gloria blinked. She didn't understand why Donna was stopping to inform her of the day’s plans. The boys' shouts grew louder, Joseph had reached the waffle first.

Donna continued. "Nick and Joe are leaving earlier, with their teammates, so Tom will pick us up later."

Joseph ran through them, holding the box of waffles about his head, taunting his brother. Nick pushed past them and followed his brother. Mother and daughter each stared at their children. Donna sighed, and glanced down at her feet. She looked up at Gloria and attempted to put on a friendly smile but succeeded only in making her mouth look disfigured. Donna stared at her mother, eyes going over the hands that had taken care of her in childhood but were now no more than a burden. Tears came to her eyes. She began to speak but stopped herself.

"Well, go get ready!" she huffed, face turning hard. Then she pushed past her mother no less roughly than her sons had and went to the kitchen.

* * * * * * * *

Toms’ car was stuffy. Gloria wondered if all the cars of Donna's boyfriends had smelled this way, like old cologne, alcohol and cigarettes. She glanced at the paper in her lap, the same poem from the night before. She'd hoped to share it with Donna, but the silence in the car was frightening, and she did not wish to be the one to break through it.

Tom reached for the radio and let the announcers’ voice cut through. The man was promoting a sale and the background music was swelling. Donna scoffed and slapped his hand away. She turned off the radio then recrossed her arms and turned back to the window. Gloria looked outside as well, some birds were landing on the gutter of the grocery store. It was funny, she thought, that a city she did not know could have so many little things that she did know.

"Uh, mother?” Donna interrupted her thoughts.

“Could you, uh, go get us some.. Gatorade? Joe's gonna need it for the game. Here's some money." Donna's hands trembled as she handed her Gloria a hundred dollar bill."Um, I need change." she explained, voice shaking.

Gloria slid out of the car slowly, and walked to the store. When she came out with the pack of drinks in the cart, Tom’s car was nowhere to be found. She collapsed on the bench, wishing she had her chair to comfort her. She dropped the paper she had clenched in her hands from the moment she had left the car. Visible, on the edge of the paper were the last few lines of the poem Gloria so loved to read upon her chair, and had so wished to be believe. "Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people..."

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