Authors: Lois Ruby
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This Old Man
“Get out of here. Go!” These were the first words I heard Old Man say, in that hummingbird voice of his, and Wing had to translate even that much for me. It was three months more before I ever saw Old Man's face. He might as well have been a towering figment of Wing's imagination, except that I heard him behind his hospital door, and I saw how Wing's moods hung on the tone of that thin, shrill voice.
He was Wing's grandfather. Although he'd lived in San Francisco for nearly seventy years, I imagined him to be a young scholar in a silk dragon robe, wandering the courts of his ancestral home in China. The true facts were these: there was no longer a home in China, Old Man was ninety-two, and he didn't do any wandering now. He lay in Chinese Hospital, issuing deathbed orders to my friend Wing.
I was sixteen, one year older than Wing, but a lot more worldly. He hardly ever left Chinatown, whereas I, Greta Janssen, had had what you'd call a Questionable Childhood. My mother worked a job you wouldn't brag about in anybody's front room. Let's put it this way. The term
had a different meaning in my mother's world. Hackey Barnes was her old man, and would be mine now, if my mother wasn't such a big fan of Ann Landers, who always says, “Wake up and smell the coffee.”
So my mother woke up and sent me to this place called Anza House. You'd call it a house for misfits; around here they call it a group home. The group consisted of four other girlsâSylvia, Jo, Darlene, and Pammy; a housemother named Elizabeth, who had a face shaped like a potato; and social workers and welfare workers who dropped in unannounced, especially at dinnertime. We weren't bad kids. They told us we weren't, every day. We were just kids from Intolerable Home Situations. The hope was that if we stayed here long enough, the situations would improve, or we would. The goal was to get us back home. Of course, I couldn't go home, because of Hackey.
It's complicated to tell about Hackey, just as it's complicated to tell about Old Man. But since they're no doubt the most important men in my life, I'm trying to tie their stories together, like in that giant macramÃ© thing Elizabeth has hanging in the living room here. It's got feathers and shells and buttons, Christmas bells, jagged stones, Popsicle sticks, even shower rings, tied into it. It looks like the city dump, but Elizabeth says it chronicles her life. She says we'd all be smart to weave or macramÃ© our lives. That theory comes right out of Art Therapy 603, which she's taking at San Francisco State, for her Master's.
The point is, Old Man and Hackey are woven into one tapestry in my mind, though you'll never in your life meet two men more different.
Memories of Hackey invade me â¦
Hackey Barnes makes a big show of knocking on our apartment door, then lets himself in with his key. My mother, Marla, greets him like he's her daddy who's shown up for the school play, smack in the middle of a workday.
“Grab your coats, ladies, we're going to North Beach for lunch.”
“Where are we eating, Hackey?” My mother is putting on her make-up. Now that Hackey's here, she doesn't even need rouge.
“Where else? To Tivoli's, San Francisco's finest cheap Italian restaurant.”
“Who pays?” I'm the practical one in the family.
“Now doesn't sweet Hackey always pay?”
“Silly question. Get something on,” my mother says.
I go into our cluttered bedroom to find something almost clean to wear, smacking my lips. The first thing going into my stomach today will be sausage manicotti. Beats Cheerios and Pop Tarts, which is what other sixteen-year-old girls eat for breakfast, I hear. How lucky can a girl get? Every time Hackey blows in, a party begins. It also beats your standard father-comes-home-exhausted-at-five routine.
Only I can't find a clean blouse in the heap on the closet floor, and after the manicotti, what will we eat tomorrow?
I guess I should describe myself. Let's say I was never asked to be on the Teen Board of the Emporium department store. What does that mean? Well, only that sales clerks at the Emporium and student-body reps from my school weren't particularly struck by my taste. Up until the time I came to Anza House, I wore my hair in pigtails wound into circles behind each ear. Hackey said I looked like a Little-House-on-the-Prairie waif. He said the businessmen dug the look. I thought I looked like my great-grandmother in Sweden. Of course, I'd never met the woman, who was better than dead already, but I was sure that old Swedish ladies wound their braids like cinnamon rolls. I just wasn't too sure where Sweden was.
Once I was at Anza House, it didn't matter where Sweden was, or Hackey either, so I started wearing my hair loose, like a long brown saddlebag down my back. I was forever pulling it off my forehead and tucking it behind my ears. For effect I'd toss it like a mane in the school cafeteria, but I knew it wasn't the stuff shampoo commercials are made of.
At home we didn't get the paper, but at Anza House we did, and I made a point of grabbing the Sunday paper before anyone else was up. I'd toss the Funnies here, Travel there. I didn't care a bit if Real Estate and Want Ads were buried under the couch. They were just for lining birdcages anyway. What I liked best were the department store ads. I admired the tall, line-drawn women who modeled tweed suits and big-tie blouses in the I. Magnin ads. I was tall; I would look splendid in that flaring watermelon chiffon, fetching in that peignoir with the white fur collar, stunning in the brown leather knee pants and vest.
If there was still no stirring upstairs, I'd even trot around in front of the parlor mirror, which had been cracked by some girl who'd had a fit one night, and I'd picture myself modeling jeans that had to be painted on my rear end, with coordinating sweaters so tight that if I let out a war whoop, they'd unravel into something a cat could play with. There I'd be, trying to look malnourished, with sunken cheeks and a concave chest, but the truth was, I was rather curvy. On the whole, I was pleased with what the shimmery parlor mirror reflected back at me. I'd kiss the mirror for its undying loyalty, leaving puppy tracks of hot breath on it.
So much for the voluptuous Greta and her high fashion. Upstairs I'd slide into the limpest of denim overalls, which were white at the knees, and an Orange Julius T-shirt. I. Magnin and chiffon and white furry peignoirs were great, but I had this idea that if I looked like something out of the road-show production of
Jesus Christ Superstar
, the businessmen would leave me alone.
I had to change my image a little once Old Man came along. Sure, Chinese women wear pants. When I was twelve Hackey bought be a pair of forest green Chinese lounging pajamas, with a quilted top and frog-loop fasteners. I though I was something straight out of the pages of
The Good Earth
. I stopped wearing shoes for a while, like the peasants.
But carpenter's overalls? I instinctively knew Old Man wouldn't approve. Toward the end, when we were really getting to know one another, it seemed important that I look right. I already felt huge and ungainly, towering over his bed or wheelchair like a skyscraper next to a church. I so much wanted to be small and demure for him. I wanted to be â¦ Chinese.
I spent a lot of time talking to Mr. Saxe about Old Man. Mr. Saxe was my assigned social worker. I guess the county paid him; my mother sure didn't. He was my Tuesday commitment. It took me no time at all to catch on to the jargon:
commitment, negative reinforcement, positive self-image, alternative lifestyles
, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, as the King of Siam says. I could dish it out as well as Mr. Saxe could, which taught him a good lesson. Pretty soon we were talking in normal words. It put him at ease, I think.
The other social workers would call for their clients in the waiting room, but Mr. Saxe always came out and greeted me with a smile, even though he had been studying my chart to be sure who I was. I'm thinking of our third meeting, that Tuesday in February. He was dressed neck to ankles in brown: khaki jeans, a tan shirt, and a cable knit sweater the color of a chocolate milk shake. A plaid tie was loosely knotted at his neck, and he pulled at it from time to time.
“Anything interesting happen since last week, Greta?” He started the same way every weekâthe same tone, the same words, served up on a platter upon which I could unload every sweet agony of my life. But I never unloaded. I told him only what I thought he'd want to hear. I couldn't believe he'd actually want to listen â¦
Hackey's paying bills at our place. He's suddenly the respectable businessman, you see, with utility bills, taxes, credit cards. “How ya doing, babe?” he tosses behind him as I blow into the apartment.
I've had a rotten day, in a fifth-grade sort of way, and I take the big risk; I tell him about it. “Mr. Weir, the principal? Well, he came down on me for crawling out the window to recess. Everyone else was doing it, I swear. But I'm the only one who had to stay in at lunch. It wasn't fair, Hackey. Then I split my jeans climbing out the window, and I had to tie my sweat shirt around my waist, and all the sixth-grade boys kept lifting the sweat shirt to have a good look.” My face is hot with shame, but Hackey doesn't notice. He says, “That's great, babe. Get me a diet soda, will you? Never mind, make it a Lite beer.”
“No, not much has happened since last week,” I replied.
“Um-hmm. Are you having any luck with â¦” Mr. Saxe looked over my chart. “With Sylvia, or Jo?”
“Not really. They're a closed corporation. But the one who's pregnant, Pammy? She's been nice to me. She's in her sixth month. She goes to the bathroom all the time, so she has to pass my room. We talk about a lot of things.”