PLEASE READ THE INSTRUCTIONS CAREFULLY. DO NOT SUMMARIZE!!!!Use these questions below to guide you as you complete your
reading responses for short stories. I suggest that you choose
only a few questions to answer in your response–but make the response a paragraph–don’t
number your responses. You will probably notice that some of the
questions are similar and that some of the responses may
overlap–that’s fine. Your response should reflect your own
thoughts and analysis of the story. Your response to each story
should be at least 200 words (but will probably be longer) and
should show that you have read the story carefully. You should
mention the names of characters, details from the story that
support your response, incidents in the story that affect your
reading of it, etc. (You must use quotations from the stories in
1. What did you like about the story? What did you dislike? Why?
2. Who is your favorite character? Is he or she like you in any
way? Would you make the same decisions (or react in the same ways)
in the same situations as this character? Why or why not? Which
characters remind you of people you know?
3. What did you learn about American history, society, art,
literature, philosophy, science (etc.) from this story? What
research might you do to help you understand the story better?
4. What did you learn about life from the story?
5. In what ways do you identify with the story?
6. How would you describe the writer’s style or voice? Style
includes use of irony, symbolism, figurative language, point of
Here’s an interesting checklist of literary style that you might
find helpful: Checklist:
Elements of Literary Style
7. What are your favorite sentences, passages, words, etc. from
the story? Explain your choice.
8. What would you tell a friend about this story?
9. Who would you recommend this story to and why?
10. What value does this story have for you?
11. What connections do you find between the life of the author
and his or her work?
12. What questions did you have after you finished the story?
13. What words did you look up?
Here are questions responding personally
to the poetry. Be sure to respond to four poets.
you liked about the poemwhat
you related to the poem personallyyour
favorite lines (quote these)what
you learned from the poemwhether
you would read it to a friend and why how the
poem reflects the poet’s philosophical beliefshow the
poem seems to relate to the poet’s lifewhat
words you looked up as you were reading the poem (with
definitions, of course).The Life You Save May Be Your Own
THE OLD WOMAN and her daughter were sitting on their porch when Mr. Shiftlet came up their road for
the first time. The old woman slid to the edge of her chair and leaned forward, shading her eyes from the piercing
sunset with her hand. The daughter could not see far in front of her and continued to play with her fingers.
Although the old woman lived in this desolate spot with only her daughter and she had never seen Mr. Shiftlet
before, she could tell, even from a distance, that he was a tramp and no one to be afraid of. His left coat sleeve
was folded up to show there was only half an arm in it and his gaunt figure listed slightly to the side as if the breeze
were pushing him. He had on a black town suit and a brown felt hat that was turned up in the front and down in
the back and he carried a tin tool box by a handle. He came on, at an amble, up her road, his face turned toward
the sun which appeared to be balancing itself on the peak of a small mountain.
The old woman didn’t change her position until he was almost into her yard; then she rose with one hand
fisted on her hip. The daughter, a large girl in a short blue organdy dress, saw him all at once and jumped up and
began to stamp and point and make excited speechless sounds.
Mr. Shiftlet stopped just inside the yard and set his box on the ground and tipped his hat at her as if she were
not in the least afflicted; then he turned toward the old woman and swung the hat all the way off. He had long
black slick hair that hung flat from a part in the middle to beyond the tips of his ears on either side. His face
descended in forehead for more than half its length and ended suddenly with his features just balanced over a
jutting steel-trap jaw. He seemed to be a young man but he had a look of composed dissatisfaction as if he
understood life thoroughly.
“Good evening,” the old woman said. She was about the size of a cedar fence post and she had a man’s gray
hat pulled down low over her head.
The tramp stood looking at her and didn’t answer. He turned his back and faced the sunset. He swung both
his whole and his short arm up slowly so that they indicated an expanse of sky and his figure formed a crooked
cross. The old woman watched him with her arms folded across her chest as if she were the owner of the sun, and
the daughter watched, her head thrust forward and her fat helpless hands hanging at the wrists. She had long
pink-gold hair and eyes as blue as a peacock’s neck.
He held the pose for almost fifty seconds and then he picked up his box and came on to the porch and
dropped down on the bottom step. “Lady,” he said in a firm nasal voice, “I’d give a fortune to live where I could
see me a sun do that every evening.”
“Does it every evening,” the old woman said and sat back down. The daughter sat down too and watched
him with a cautious sly look as if he were a bird that had come up very close. He leaned to one side, rooting in his
pants pocket, and in a second he brought out a package of chewing gum and offered her a piece. She took it and
unpeeled it and began to chew without taking her eyes off him. He offered the old woman a piece but she only
raised her upper lip to indicate she had no teeth.
Mr. Shiftlet’s pale sharp glance had already passed over everything in the yard-the pump near the comer of
the house and the big fig tree that three or four chickens were preparing to roost in-and had moved to a shed
where he saw the square rusted back of an automobile. “You ladies drive?” he asked.
“That car ain’t run in fifteen year,” the old woman said. “The day my husband died, it quit running.”
“Nothing is like it used to be, lady,” he said. “The world is almost rotten.”
“That’s right,” the old woman said. “You from around here?”
“Name Tom T. Shiftlet,” he murmured, looking at the tires.
“I’m pleased to meet you,” the old woman said. “Name Lucynell Crater and daughter Lucynell Crater. What
you doing around here, Mr. Shiftlet?”
He judged the car to be about a 1928 or ’29 Ford. “‘Lady,” he said, and turned and gave her his full attention,
“lemme tell you something. There’s one of these doctors in Atlanta that’s taken a knife and cut the human
heart-the human heart,” he repeated, leaning forward, “out of a man’s chest and held it in his hand,” and he held
his hand out, palm up, as if it were slightly weighted with the human heart, “and studied it like it was a day-old
chicken, and lady,” he said, allowing a long significant pause in which his head slid forward and his clay-colored
eyes brightened, “he don’t know no more about it than you or me.”
“That’s right,” the old woman said.
“Why, if he was to take that knife and cut into every corner of it, he still wouldn’t know no more than you or
me. What you want to bet?”
“Nothing,” the old woman said wisely. “Where you come from, Mr. Shiftlet?”
He didn’t answer. He reached into his pocket and brought out a sack of tobacco and a package of cigarette
papers and rolled himself a cigarette, expertly with one hand, and attached it in a hanging position to his upper lip.
Then he took a box of wooden matches from his pocket and struck one on his shoe. He held the burning match as
if he were studying the mystery of flame while it traveled dangerously toward his skin. The daughter began to make
loud noises and to point to his hand and shake her finger at him, but when the flame was just before touching him,
he leaned down with his hand cupped over it as if he were going to set fire to his nose and lit the cigarette.
He flipped away the dead match and blew a stream of gray into the evening. A sly look came over his face.
“Lady,” he said, “nowadays, people’ll do anything anyways. I can tell you my name is Tom T. Shiftlet and I come
from Tarwater, Tennessee, but you never have seen me before: how you know I ain’t lying? How you know my
name ain’t Aaron Sparks, lady, and I come from Singleberry, Georgia, or how you know it’s not George Speeds
and I come from Lucy, Alabama, or how you know I ain’t Thompson Bright from Toolafalls, Mississippi?”
“I don’t know nothing about you,” the old woman muttered, irked.
“Lady,” he said, “people don’t care how they lie. Maybe the best I can tell you is, I’m a man; but listen lady,”
he said and paused and made his tone more ominous still, “what is a man?”
The old woman began to gum a seed. “What you carry in that tin box, Mr. Shiftlet?” she asked.
“Tools,” he said, put back. “I’m a carpenter.”
“Well, if you come out here to work, I’ll be able to feed you and give you a place to sleep but I can’t pay. I’ll
tell you that before you begin,” she said.
There was no answer at once and no particular expression on his face. He leaned back against the
two-by-four that helped support the porch roof. “Lady,” he said slowly, “there’s some men that some things mean
more to them than money.” The old woman rocked without comment and the daughter watched the trigger that
moved up and down in his neck. He told the old woman then that all most people were interested in was money,
but he asked what a man was made for. He asked her if a. man was made for money, or what. He asked her what
she thought she was made for but she didn’t answer, she only sat rocking and wondered if a one-armed man could
put a new roof on her garden house. He asked a lot of questions that she didn’t answer. He told her that he was
twenty-eight years old and had lived a varied life. He had been a gospel singer, a foreman on the railroad, an
assistant in an undertaking parlor, and he had come over the radio for three months with Uncle Roy and his Red
Creek Wranglers. He said he had fought and bled in the Arm Service of his country and visited every foreign land
and that everywhere he had seen people that didn’t care if they did a thing one way or another. He said he hadn’t
been raised thataway.
A fat yellow moon appeared in the branches of the fig tree as if it were going to roost there with the chickens.
He said that a man had to escape to the country to see the world whole and that he wished he lived in a desolate
place like this where he could see the sun go down every evening like God made it to do.
“Are you married or are you single?” the old woman asked.
There was a long silence. “Lady,” he asked finally, “where would you find you an innocent woman today’? I
wouldn’t have any of this trash I could just pick up.”
The daughter was leaning very far down, hanging her head almost between her knees, watching him through
a triangular door she had made in her overturned hair; and she suddenly fell in a heap on the floor and began to
whimper. Mr. Shiftlet straightened her out and helped her get back in the chair.
“Is she your baby girl?” he asked.
“My only,” the old woman said, “and she’s the sweetest girl in the world. I wouldn’t give her up for nothing
on earth. She’s smart too. She can sweep the floor, cook, wash, feed the chickens, and hoe. I wouldn’t give her up
for a casket of jewels.”
“No,” he said kindly, “don’t ever let any man take her away from you.”
“Any man come after her,” the old woman said, ” ‘ll have to stay around the place.”
Mr. Shiftlet’s eye in the darkness was focused on a part of the automobile bumper that glittered in the
distance. “Lady,” he said, jerking his short arm up as if he could point with it to her house and yard and pump,
“there ain’t a broken thing on this plantation that I couldn’t fix for you, one-arm jackleg or not. I’m a man,” he said
with a sullen dignity, “even if I ain’t a whole one. I got,” he said, tapping his knuckles on the floor to emphasize the
immensity of what he was going to say, “a moral intelligence!” and his face pierced out of the darkness into a shaft
of doorlight and he stared at her as if he were astonished himself at this impossible truth.
The old woman was not impressed with the phrase. “I told you you could hang around and work for food,”
she said, “if you don’t mind sleeping in that car yonder.”
“Why listen, Lady,” he said with a grin of delight, “the monks of old slept in their coffins!”
“They wasn’t as advanced as we are,” the old woman said.
The next morning he began on the roof of the garden house while Lucynell, the daughter, sat on a rock and
watched him work. He had not been around a week before the change he had made in the place was apparent. He
had patched the front and back steps, built a new hog pen, restored a fence, and taught Lucynell, who was
completely deaf and had never said a word in her life, to say the word “bird.”
The big rosy-faced girl followed him everywhere, saying “Burrttddt ddbirrrttdt,” and clapping her hands. The
old woman watched from a distance, secretly pleased. She was ravenous for a son-in-law.
Mr. Shiftlet slept on the hard narrow back seat of the car with his feet out the side window. He had his razor
and a can of water on a crate that served him as a bedside table and he put up a piece of mirror against the back
glass and kept his coat neatly on a hanger that he hung over one of the windows.
In the evenings he sat on the steps and talked while the old woman and Lucynell rocked violently in their
chairs on either side of him. The old woman’s three mountains were black against the dark blue sky and were
visited off and on by various planets and by the moon after it had left the chickens. Mr. Shiftlet pointed out that
the reason he had improved this plantation was because he had taken a personal interest in it. He said he was even
going to make the automobile run.
He had raised the hood and studied the mechanism and he said he could tell that the car had been built in the
days when cars were really built. “You take now,” he said, “one man puts in one bolt and another man puts in
another bolt and another man puts in another bolt so that it’s a man for a bolt. That’s why you have to ‘pay so
much for a car: you’re paying all those men. Now if you didn’t have to pay but one man, you could get you a
cheaper car and one that had had a personal interest taken in it, and it would be a better car.” The old woman
agreed with him that this was so.
Mr. Shiftlet said that the trouble with the world was that nobody cared, or stopped and took any trouble. He
said he never would have been able to teach Lucynell to say a word if he hadn’t cared and stopped long enough.
“Teach her to say something else,” the old woman said.
“What you want her to say next?” Mr. Shiftlet asked.
The old woman’s smile was broad and toothless and suggestive. “Teach her to say ‘sugarpie,'” she said.
Mr. Shiftlet already knew what was on her mind.
The next day he began to tinker with the automobile and that evening he told her that if she would buy a fan
belt, he would be able to make the car run.
The old woman said she would give him the money. “You see that girl yonder?” she asked, pointing to
Lucynell who was sitting on the floor a foot away, watching him, her eyes blue even in the dark. “If it was ever a
man wanted to take her away, I would say, ‘No man on earth is going to take that sweet girl of mine away from
me!’ but if he was to say, ‘Lady, I don’t want to take her away, I want her right here,’ I would say, ‘Mister, I don’t
blame you none. I wouldn’t pass up a chance to live in a permanent place and get the sweetest girl in the world
myself. You ain’t no fool,’ I would say.”
“How old is she?” Mr. Shiftlet asked casually.
“Fifteen, sixteen,” the old woman said. The girl was nearly thirty but because of her innocence it was
impossible to guess.
“It would be a good idea to paint it too,” Mr. Shiftlet remarked. “You don’t want it to rust out.”
“We’ll see about that later,” the old woman said.
The next day he walked into town and returned with the parts he needed and a can of gasoline. Late in the
afternoon, terrible noises issued from the shed and the old woman rushed out of the house, thinking Lucynell was
somewhere having a fit. Lucynell was sitting on a chicken crate, stamping her feet and screaming, “Burrddttt!
bddurrddtttt!” but her fuss was drowned out by the car. With a volley of blasts it emerged from the shed, moving
in a fierce and stately way. Mr. Shiftlet was in the driver’s seat, sitting very erect. He had an expression of serious
modesty on his face as if he had just raised the dead.
That night, rocking on the porch, the old woman began her business at once. “You want you an innocent
woman, don’t you?” she asked sympathetically. “You don’t want none of this trash.”
“No’m, I don’t,” Mr. Shiftlet said.
“One that can’t talk,” she continued, “can’t sass you back or use foul language. That’s the kind for you to
have. Right there,” and she pointed to Lucynell sitting cross-legged in her chair, holding both feet in her hands.
“That’s right,” he admitted. “She wouldn’t give me any trouble.”
“Saturday,” the old woman said, “you and her and me can drive into town and get married.”
Mr. Shiftlet eased his position on the steps.
“I can’t get married right now,” he said. “Everything you want to do takes money and I ain’t got any.”
“What you need with money?” she asked.
“It takes money,” he said. “Some people’ll do anything anyhow these days, but the way I think, I wouldn’t
marry no woman that I couldn’t take on a trip like she was somebody. I mean take her to a hotel and treat her. I
wouldn’t marry the Duchesser Windsor,” he said firmly, “unless I could take her to a hotel and give her something
good to eat.
“I was raised thataway and there ain’t a thing I can do about it. My old mother taught me how to do.”
“Lucynell don’t even know what a hotel is,” the old woman muttered. “Listen here, Mr. Shiftlet,” she said,
sliding forward in her chair, “you’d be getting a permanent house and a deep well and the most innocent girl in the
world. You don’t need no money. Lemme tell you something: there ain’t any place in the world for a poor disabled
friendless drifting man.”
The ugly words settled in Mr. Shiftlet’s head like a group of buzzards in the top of a tree. He didn’t answer at
once. He rolled himself a cigarette and lit it and then he said in an even voice, “Lady, a man is divided into two
parts, body and spirit.”
The old woman clamped her gums together.
“A body and a spirit,” he repeated. “The body, lady, is like a house: it don’t go anywhere; but the spirit, lady, is
like a automobile: always on the move, always . . .”
“Listen, Mr. Shiftlet,” she said, “my well never goes dry and my house is always warm in the winter and
there’s no mortgage on a thing about this place. You can go to the courthouse and see for yourself And yonder
under that shed is a fine automobile.” She laid the bait carefully. “You can have it painted by Saturday. I’ll pay for
In the darkness, Mr. Shiftlet’s smile stretched like a weary snake waking up by a fire. After a second he
recalled himself and said, “I’m only saying a man’s spirit means more to him than anything else. I would have to
take my wife off for the week end without no regards at all for cost. I got to follow where my spirit says to go.”
“I’ll give you fifteen dollars for a week-end trip,” the old woman said in a crabbed voice. “That’s the best I
“That wouldn’t hardly pay for more than the gas and the hotel,” he said. “It wouldn’t feed her.”
“Seventeen-fifty,” the old woman said. “That’s all I got so it isn’t any use you trying to milk me. You can take
Mr. Shiftlet was deeply hurt by the word “milk.” He didn’t doubt that she had more money sewed up in her
mattress but he had already told her he was not interested in her money. “I’ll make that do,” he said and rose and
walked off without treating with her further.
On Saturday the three of them drove into town in the car that the paint had barely dried on and Mr. Shiftlet
and Lucynell were married in the Ordinary’s office while the old woman witnessed. As they came out of the
courthouse, Mr. Shiftlet began twisting his neck in his collar. He looked morose and bitter as if he had been
insulted while someone held him. “That didn’t satisfy me none,” he said. “That was just something a woman in an
office did, nothing but paper work and blood tests. What do they know about my blood? If they was to take my
heart and cut it out,” he said, “they wouldn’t know a thing about me. It didn’t satisfy me at all.”
“It satisfied the law,” the old woman said sharply.
‘The law,” Mr. Shiftlet said and spit. “It’s the law that don’t satisfy me.”
He had painted the car dark green with a yellow band around it just under the windows. The three of them
climbed in the front seat and the old woman said, “Don’t Lucynell look pretty? Looks like a baby doll.” Lucynell
was dressed up in a white dress that her mother had uprooted from a trunk and there was a Panama hat on her
head with a bunch of red wooden cherries on the brim. Every now and then her placid expression was changed by
a sly isolated little thought like a shoot of green in the desert. “You got a prize!” the old woman said.
Mr. Shiftlet didn’t even look at her.
They drove back to the house to let the old woman off and pick up the lunch. When they were ready to leave,
she stood staring in the window of the car, with her fingers clenched around the glass. Tears began to seep
sideways out of her eyes and run along the dirty creases in her face. “I ain’t ever been parted with her for two days
before,” she said.
Mr. Shiftlet started the motor.
“And I wouldn’t let no man have her but you because I seen you would do right. Good-by, Sugarbaby,” she
said, clutching at the sleeve of the white dress. Lucynell looked straight at her and didn’t seem to see her there at
all. Mr. Shiftlet eased the car forward so that she had to move her hands.
The early afternoon was clear and open and surrounded by pale blue sky. Although the car would go only
thirty miles an hour, Mr. Shiftlet imagined a terrific climb and dip and swerve that went entirely to his head so that
he forgot his morning bitterness. He had always wanted an automobile but he had never been able to afford one
before. He drove very fast because he wanted to make Mobile by nightfall.
Occasionally he stopped his thoughts long enough to look at Lucynell in the seat beside him. She had eaten
the lunch as soon as they were out of the yard and now she was pulling the cherries off the hat one by one and
throwing them out the window. He became depressed in spite of the car. He had driven about a hundred miles
when he decided that she must be hungry again and at the next small town they came to, he stopped in front of an
aluminum-painted eating place called The Hot Spot and took her in and ordered her a plate of ham and grits. The
ride had made her sleepy and as soon as she got up on the stool, she rested her head on the counter and shut her
eyes. There was no one in The Hot Spot but Mr. Shiftlet and the boy behind the counter, a pale youth with a
greasy rag hung over his shoulder. Before he could dish up the food, she was snoring gently.
“Give it to her when she wakes up,” Mr. Shiftlet said. “I’ll pay for it now.”
The boy bent over her and stared at the long pink-gold hair and the half-shut sleeping eyes. Then he looked
up and stared at Mr. Shiftlet. “She looks like an angel of Gawd,” he murmured.
“Hitch-hiker,” Mr. Shiftlet explained. “I can’t wait. I got to make Tuscaloosa.”
The boy bent over again and very carefully touched his finger to a strand of the golden hair and Mr. Shiftlet
He was more depressed than ever as he drove on by himself. The late afternoon had grown hot and sultry
and the country had flattened out. Deep in the sky a storm was preparing very slowly and without thunder as if it
meant to drain every drop of air from the earth before it broke. There were times when Mr. Shiftlet preferred not
to be alone. He felt too that a man with a car had a responsibility to others and he kept his eye out for a
hitch-hiker. Occasionally he saw a sign that warned: “Drive carefully. The life you save may be your own.”
The narrow road dropped off on either side into dry fields and here and there a shack or a filling station
stood in a clearing. The sun began to set directly in front of the automobile. It was a reddening ball that through
his windshield was slightly flat on the bottom and top. He saw a boy in overalls and a gray hat standing on the edge
of the road and he slowed the car down and stopped in front of him. The boy didn’t have his hand raised to
thumb the ride, he was only standing there, but he had a small cardboard suitcase and his hat was set on his head
in a way to indicate that he had left somewhere for good. “Son,” Mr. Shiftlet said, “I see you want a ride.”
The boy didn’t say he did or he didn’t but he opened the door of the car and got in, and Mr. Shiftlet started
driving again. The child held the suitcase on his lap and folded his arms on top of it. He turned his head and
looked out the window away from Mr. Shiftlet. Mr. Shiftlet felt oppressed. “Son,” he said after a minute, “I got the
best old mother in the world so I reckon you only got the second best.”
The boy gave him a quick dark glance and then turned his face back out the window.
“It’s nothing so sweet,” Mr. Shiftlet continued, “as a boy’s mother. She taught him his first prayers at her
knee, she give him love when no other would, she told him what was right and what wasn’t, and she seen that he
done the right thing. Son,” he said, “I never rued a day in my life like the one I rued when I left that old mother of
The boy shifted in his seat but he didn’t look at Mr. Shiftlet. He unfolded his arms and put one hand on the
“My mother was a angel of Gawd,” Mr. Shiftlet said in a very strained voice. “He took her from heaven and
giver to me and I left her.” His eyes were instantly clouded over with a mist of tears. The car was barely moving.
The boy turned angrily in the seat. “You go to the devil!” he cried. “My old woman is a flea bag and yours is a
stinking pole cat!” and with that he flung the door open and jumped out with his suitcase into the ditch.
Mr. Shiftlet was so shocked that for about a hundred feet he drove along slowly with the door stiff open. A
cloud, the exact color of the boy’s hat and shaped like a turnip, had descended over the sun, and another, worse
looking, crouched behind the car. Mr. Shiftlet felt that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him. He
raised his arm and let it fall again to his breast. “Oh Lord!” he prayed. “Break forth and wash the slime from this
The turnip continued slowly to descend. After a few minutes there was a guffawing peal of thunder from
behind and fantastic raindrops, like tin-can tops, crashed over the rear of Mr. Shiftlet’s car. Very quickly he stepped
on the gas and with his stump sticking out the window he raced the galloping shower into Mobile.
by Amy Tan
My mother believed you could be anything you wanted to be in America.
You could open a restaurant. You
could work for the government and get good retirement.
You could buy a house with almost no money down. You could become rich. You
could become instantly famous. “Of course, you can be a prodigy, too,” my mother told me
when I was nine. “You can be best anything. What does Auntie Lindo know? Her daughter,
she is only best tricky.” America was where all my mother’s hopes lay. She had come to San
Francisco in 1949 after losing everything in China: her mother and father, her home, her first
husband, and two daughters, twin baby girls. But she never looked back with regret. Things
could get better in so many ways.
We didn’t immediately pick the right kind of prodigy. At first my mother thought I
could be a Chinese Shirley Temple. We’d watch Shirley’s old movies on TV as though
they were training films. My mother would poke my arm and say, “Ni kan.
You watch. “And I would see Shirley tapping her feet, or singing a sailor song, or pursing
her lips into a very round O while saying “Oh, my goodness.
” Ni kan,”my mother said, as Shirley’s eyes flooded with tears. “You already know how.
Don’t need talent for crying!”
Soon after my mother got this idea about Shirley Temple, she took me to the beauty training
school in the Mission District and put me in the hands of a student who could barely hold the
scissors without shaking., Instead of getting big fat curls, I emerged with an uneven mass of
crinkly black fuzz. My mother dragged me off to the bathroom and tried to wet down my
hair. “You look like a Negro Chinese, “she lamented, asif I had done this on purpose. The
instructor of the beauty training school had to lop off these soggy clumps to make my hair
even again. “Peter Pan is very popular these days” the instructor assured my mother. I now
had bad hair the length of a boy’s; with curly bangs that hung at a slant two inches above my
eyebrows. I liked the haircut, and it made me actually look forward to my future fame.
In fact, in the beginning I was just as excited as my mother, maybe even more so. I pictured
this prodigy part of me as many different images, and I tried each one on for size. I was a
dainty ballerina girl standing by the curtain, waiting to hear the music that would send me
floating on my tiptoes. I was like the Christ child lifted out of the straw manger, crying with
holy indignity. I was Cinderella stepping from her pumpkin carriage with sparkly cartoon
music filling the air. In all of my imaginings I was filled with a sense that I would soon
become perfect: My mother and father would adore me. I would be beyond reproach. I would
never feel the need to sulk, or to clamor for anything. But sometimes the prodigy in me
became impatient. “If you don’t hurry up and get me out of here, I’m disappearing for good,”
it warned.“ And then you’ll always be nothing. “Every night after dinner my mother and
I would sit at the Formica topped kitchen table. She would present new tests, taking her
examples from stories of amazing children that she read in Ripley’s Believe It or Not or
Good Housekeeping, Reader’s digest, or any of a dozen other magazines she kept in a pile in
our bathroom. My mother got these magazines from people whose houses she cleaned.
And since she cleaned many houses each week, we had a great assortment. She would look
through them all, searching for stories about remarkable children.
The first night she brought out a story about a three-year-old boy who knew the capitals of
all the states and even the most of the European countries. A teacher was quoted as saying
that the little boy could also pronounce the names of the foreign cities correctly. “What’s the
capital of Finland? My mother asked me, looking at the story. All I knew was the capital of
California, because Sacramento was the name of the street we lived on in
Chinatown. “Nairobi!” I guessed, saying the most foreign word I could think of. She checked
to see if that might be one way to pronounce Helsinki before showing me the answer.
The tests got harder- multiplying numbers in my head, finding the queen of hearts in a deck
of cards, trying to stand on my head without using my hands, predicting the daily
temperatures in Los Angeles, New York, and London. One night I had to look at a page from
the Bible for three minutes and then report everything I could remember. “Now Jehoshaphat
had riches and honor in abundance and…that’s all I remember, Ma,” I said. And after seeing,
once again, my mother’s disappointed face, something inside me began to die. I hated the
tests, the raised hopes and failed expectations. Before going to bed that night I looked in the
mirror above the bathroom sink, and I saw only my face staring back – and understood that it
would always be this ordinary face – I began to cry. Such a sad, ugly girl! I made highpitched noises like a crazed animal, trying to scratch out the face in the mirror. And then I
saw what seemed to be the prodigy side of me – a face I had never seen before. I looked at
my Reflection ,blinking so that I could see more clearly. The girl staring back at me was
angry, powerful. She and I were the same. I had new thoughts, willful thoughts – or rather,
thoughts filled with lots of won’t. I won’t let her change me, I promised myself. I won’t be
what I’m not. So now when my mother presented her tests, I performed listlessly, my head
propped on one arm. I pretended to be bored. And I was. I got so bored that I started counting
the bellows of the foghorns out on the bay while my mother drilled me in other areas. The
sound was comforting and reminded me of the cow jumping over the moon. And the
next day I played a game with myself, seeing if my mother would give upon me before
After a while I usually counted only one bellow, maybe two at most. At last
she was beginning to give up hope. Two or three months went by without any mention of my
being a prodigy. And then one day my mother was watching the Ed Sullivan Show on TV.
The TV was old and the sound kept shorting out. Every time my mother got halfway up from
the sofa to adjust the set, the sound would come back on and Sullivan would be talking. As
soon as she sat down, Sullivan would go silent again. She got up – the TV broke into
loud piano music. She sat down -silence. Up and down, back and forth, quiet and loud. It was
like a stiff, embrace less dance between her and the TV set. Finally, she stood by the set with
her hand on the sound dial. She seemed entranced by the music, a frenzied little piano piece
with a mesmerizing quality, which alternated between quick, playful passages and teasing,
“Ni kan,”my mother said, calling me over with hurried hand gestures. “Look here.”
I could see why my mother was fascinated by the music. It was being pounded out by
a little Chinese girl, about nine years old, with a Peter Pan haircut.
The girl had the sauciness of a Shirley Temple. She was proudly modest, like a
proper Chinese Child. And she also did a fancy sweep of a curtsy, so that the fluffy
skirt of her white dress cascaded to the floor like petals of a large carnation. In spite of these
warning signs, I wasn’t worried. Our family had no piano and we couldn’t afford to buy one,
let alone reams of sheet music and piano lessons. So I could be generous in my comments
when my mother badmouthed the little girl on TV. “Play note right, but doesn’t sound good!”
my mother complained “No singing sound.”
“What are you picking on her for?” I said carelessly. “She’s pretty good. Maybe she’s not the
best, but she’s trying hard.” I knew almost immediately that I would be sorry I had said that.
“Just like you,” she said. “Not the best. Because you not trying.” She gave a little huff as she
let go of the sound dial and sat down on the sofa. The little Chinese girl sat down also, to
an encore of “Anitra’s Tanz,” by Grieg. I remember the song, because later on I had to learn
how to play it.
Three days after watching the Ed Sullivan Show my mother told me what my schedule
would be for piano lessons and piano practice. She had talked to Mr. Chong, who lived on
the first floor of our apartment building. Mr. Chong was a retired piano teacher, and my
mother had traded housecleaning services for weekly lessons and a piano for me to practice
on every day, two hours a day, from four until six. When my mother told me this, I felt as
though I had been sent to hell. I whined, and then kicked my foot a little when I couldn’t
stand it anymore. “Why don’t you like me the way I am?” I cried. “I’m not a genius! I can’t
play the piano. And even if I could, I wouldn’t go on TV if you paid me a million dollars!”
My mother slapped me. “Who ask you to be genius?” she shouted. “Only ask you be your
best. For you sake. You think I want you to be genius? Hnnh! What for! Who ask you!”?
“So ungrateful,” I heard her mutter in Chinese, “If she had as much talent as she has temper,
she’d be famous now.”Mr. Chong, whom I secretly nicknamed Old Chong, was very strange,
always tapping his fingers to the silent music of an invisible orchestra.
He looked ancient in my eyes. He had lost most of the h air on the top of his head, and he
wore thick glasses and had eyes that always looked tired. But he must have been younger
that I though, since he lived with his mother and was not yet married.
I met Old Lady Chong once, and that was enough. She had a peculiar smell, like a baby that
had done something in its pants, and her fingers felt like a dead person’s, like an old peach
I once found in the back of the refrigerator: its skin just slid off the flesh when I picked it up.
I soon found out why Old Chong had retired from teaching piano. He was deaf. “Like
Beethoven!” he shouted to me: We’re both listening only in our head!” And he would start to
conduct his frantic silent sonatas.
Our lessons went like this. He would open the book and point to different things, explaining,
their purpose: “Key! Treble! Bass! No sharps or flats! So this is C major! Listen now and
play after me!”
And then he would play the C scale a few times, a simple cord, and then, as if inspired by an
old unreachable itch, he would gradually add more notes and running trills and a pounding
bass until the music was really something quite grand .I would play after him, the simple
scale, the simple chord, and then just play some nonsense that sounded
like a cat running up and down on top of garbage cans. Old Chong would smile and applaud
and say Very good! But now you must learn to keep time!” So that’s how I discovered
that Old Chong’s eyes were too slow to keep up with the wrong notes I was
playing. He went through the motions in half time.
To help me keep rhythm, he stood behind me and pushed down on my right shoulder for
every beat. He balanced pennies on top of my wrists so that I would keep them still as I
slowly played scales and arpeggios. He had me curve my hand around an apple and keep that
shame when playing chords. He marched stiffly to show me how to make each finger dance
up and down, staccato, like an obedient little soldier.
He taught me all these things and that was how I also learned I could be lazy and get away
with mistakes, lots of mistakes. If I hit the wrong notes because I hadn’t practice enough, I
never corrected myself; I just kept playing in rhythm. And Old Chong kept conducting his
own private reverie. So maybe I never really gave myself a fair chance. I did pick up the
basics pretty quickly, and I might have become a good pianist at the young age. But I was so
determined not to try, not to be anybody different, and I learned to play only the most earsplitting preludes, the most discordant hymns. Over the next year I practiced
like this, dutifully in my own way. And then one day I heard my mother and
her friend Lindo Jong both after church, and I was leaning against a brick wall, wearing
a dress with stiff white petticoats. Auntie Lindo’s daughter, Waverly, who was my age, was
standing farther down the wall, about five feet away.
We had grown up together and shared all the closeness of two sisters, squabbling over
crayons and dolls. In other words, for the most part, we hated each other. I thought she was
snotty. Waverly Jong had gained a certain amount of fame as “Chinatown’s Littlest Chinese
Chess Champion.” “She bring home too many trophy.” Auntie Lindo lamented that Sunday.
“All day she play chess. All day I have no time do nothing but dust off her winnings. “She
threw a scolding look at Waverly, who pretended not to see her. “You lucky you don’t have
this problem, “Auntie Lindo said with a sigh to my mother. And my mother squared her
shoulders and bragged: “our problem worser than yours. If we ask Jing-mei wash dish, she
hear nothing but music. It’s like you can’t stop this natural talent.”
And right then I was determined to put a stop to her foolish pride. A few weeks later Old
Chong and my mother conspired to have me play in a talent show that was to be held in the
church hall. But then my parents had saved up enough to buy me a secondhand piano, a
black Wurlitzer spinet with a scarred bench. It was the showpiece of our living room. For the
talent show I was to play a piece called “Pleading Child,” from Schumann’s
Scenes from Childhood. It was a simple, moody piece that sounded more difficult
than it was. I was supposed to memorize the whole thing. But i dawdled over it, playing a
few bars and then cheating, looking up to see what notes followed.
I never really listen to what I was playing. I daydreamed about being somewhere
else, about being someone else.
The part I liked to practice best was the fancy curtsy: right foot out, touch the rose on the
carpet with a pointed foot, sweep
to the side, bend left leg, look up, and smile.
My parents invited all the couples from
their social club to witness my debut. Auntie Lindo and Uncle Tin were there. Waverly and
her two older brothers had also come. The first two rows were filled with children
either younger or older than I was. The littlest ones got to go first. They recited simple
nursery rhymes, squawked out tunes on miniature violins, and twirled hula hoops in pink
ballet tutus, and when they bowed or curtsied, the audience
would sigh in unison, “Awww, and then clap enthusiastically. When my turn came,
I was very confident. I remember my childish excitement. It was as if I knew, without
a doubt, that the prodigy side of me really did exist. I had no fear whatsoever, no
nervousness. I remember thinking, This is it! This is it! I looked out over the audience,
at my mother’s blank face, my father’s yawn, Auntie Lindo’s stiff-lipped smile, Waverly’s
sulky expression. I had on a white dress, layered with sheets of lace, and a pink bow in my
Peter Pan haircut. As I sat down, I envisioned people jumping to their feet and Ed Sullivan
rushing up to introduce me to everyone on TV. And I started to play. Everything was so
beautiful. I was so caught up in how lovely I looked that I wasn’t worried about how I would
sound. So I was surprised when I hit the first wrong note. And then I hit another
and another. A chill started at the top of my head and began to trickle down. Yet I couldn’t
stop playing, as though my hands were bewitched.
I kept thinking my fingers would adjust themselves back, like a train switching
to the right track. I played this strange jumble through to the end, the sour notes
staying with me all the way. When I stood up, I discovered my legs were shaking. Maybe I
had just been nervous, and the audience, like Old Chong had seen me go through the right
motions and had not heard anything wrong at all. I swept my
right foot out, went down on my knee, looked up, and smiled. The room was
was quiet, except for Old Chong, who was beaming and shouting “Bravo! Bravo! Well
done!” By then I saw my mother’s face, her stricken face. The audience clapped weakly, and
I walked back to my chair, with my whole face quivering as I tried not to cry, I heard a little
boy whisper loudly to his mother. “That was awful,” and mother whispered
“Well she certainly tried,”
And now I realized how many people were in the audience – the whole world, it seemed.
I was aware of eyes burning into my back. I felt the shame of my mother and father
as they sat stiffly through the rest of the show. We could have escaped during intermission.
Pride and some strange sense of honor must have anchored my parents to their chairs.
And so we watched it all. The eighteen-year-old boy with a fake moustache who did a magic
show and juggled flaming hoops while riding a unicycle.
The breasted girl with white make
Up who sang an aria from Madame Butterfly and got an honorable mention. And the elevenyear-old boy who was first prize playing a tricky violin song that sounded like a busy bee.
After the show the Hsus, the Jongs, and the St. Clairs, from the Joy Luck Club, came up to
my mother and father. “Lots of talented kids,” Auntie Lindo said vaguely, smiling broadly.
“That was something’ else,” my father said, and I wondered if he was referring to me in a
humorous way, or whether he even remembered what I had done. Waverly looked at me and
shrugged her shoulders. “You aren’t a genius like me,” she said matter-of-factly. And if I
hadn’t felt so bad I would have pulled her braids and punched her stomach. But my mother’s
expression was what devastated me: a quiet, blank look that said she had lost everything. I
felt the same way, and everybody seemed now to be coming up, like gawkers at the scene
of an accident to see what parts were actually missing.
When we got on the bus to go home, my father was humming the busy-bee tune and my
mother kept silent. I kept thinking she wanted to wait until we got home before shouting at
me. But when my father unlocked the door to our apartment, my mother walked in and went
straight to the back, into the bedroom. No accusations, No blame. And in a way, I felt
disappointed. I had been waiting for her to start shouting, so that I could shout back and cry
and blame her for all my misery. I had assumed that my talent-show fiasco meant that I
would never have to play the piano again. But two days later, after school, my mother came
out of the kitchen and saw me watching TV. “Four clock,” she reminded me, as if it were
any other day. I was stunned, as though she were asking me to go through the talent-show
torture again. I planted myself more squarely in front of the TV.
“Turn off TV,” she called from the kitchen five minutes later. I didn’t budge. And then I
decided, I didn’t have to do what mother said anymore. I wasn’t her slave. This wasn’t
China. I had listened to her before, and look what happened she was the stupid one.
She came out of the kitchen and stood in the arched entryway of the living room. “Four
clock,” she said once again, louder. “I’m not going to play anymore,” I said nonchalantly.
“Why should I? I’m not a genius. “She stood in front of the TV. I saw that her chest was
heaving up and down in an angry way. “No!” I said, and I now felt stronger, as if my true self
had finally emerged. So this was what had been inside me all along. “No! I won’t!” I
screamed. She snapped off the TV, yanked me by the arm and pulled me off the floor.
She was frighteningly strong, half pulling, half carrying me towards the piano as I kicked the
throw rugs under my feet. She lifted me up onto the hard bench. I was sobbing by now,
looking at her bitterly. Her chest was heaving even more and her mouth was open,
smiling crazily as if she were pleased that I was crying. “You want me to be something
that I’m not!” I sobbed. “I’ll never be the kind of daughter you want me to be!”
“Only two kinds of daughters,” she shouted in Chinese. “Those who are obedient and
those who follow their own mind! Only one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient
daughter!” “Then I wish I weren’t your daughter, I wish you weren’t my mother,” I shouted.
As I said these things I got scared. It felt like worms and toads and slimy things crawling out
of my chest, but it also felt good, that this awful side of me had surfaced, at last.
“Too late to change this,” my mother said shrilly. And I could sense her anger rising to its
breaking point. I wanted see it spill over. And that’s when I remembered the babies
she had lost in China, the ones we never talked about. “Then I wish I’d never been born!” I
shouted. “I wish I were dead! Like them.” It was as if I had said magic words. Alakazam!-her
face went blank, her mouth closed, her arms went slack, and she backed out of the room,
stunned, as if she were blowing away like a small brown leaf, thin, brittle, lifeless.
It was not the only disappointment my mother felt in me In the years that followed, I
failed her many times, each time asserting my will, my right to fall short of expectations. I
didn’t get straight As. I didn’t become class president.
I didn’t get into Stanford. I dropped out of college. Unlike my mother, I did not believe I
could be anything I wanted to be, I could only be me. And for all those years we never talked
about the disaster at the recital or
my terrible declarations afterward at the piano bench. Neither of us talked about it again,
as if it were a betrayal that was now unspeakable. So I never found a way to ask her why she
had hoped for something so large that failure was inevitable. And even worse, I never asked
her about what frightened me the most: Why had she given up hope? For after our struggle at
the piano, she never mentioned my playing again. The lessons stopped. The lid to the piano
was closed shutting out the dust, my misery, and her dreams. So she surprised me. A few
years ago she offered to give me the piano, for my thirtieth birthday. I had not
played in all those years. I saw the offer as a sign of forgiveness, a tremendous burden
removed. “Are you sure?” I asked shyly. “I mean, won’t you and Dad miss it?” “No, this your
piano,” she said firmly. “Always your piano. You only one can play.” “Well, I probably
can’t play anymore,” I said. “It’s been years.” “You pick up fast, “my mother said, as if she
knew this was certain. “You have natural talent. You could be a genius if you want to.”
“No, I couldn’t.” “You just not trying,” my mother said. And she was neither angry nor sad.
She said it as if announcing a fact that could never be disproved. “Take it,” she said. But I
didn’t at first. It was enough that she had offered it to me. And after that, every time I saw it
in my parents’ living room, standing in front of the bay window, it made me feel proud, as if
it were a shiny trophy that I had won back. Last week I sent a tuner over to my parent’s
apartment and had the piano reconditioned, for purely sentimental reasons. My mother had
died a few months beforehand I had been bgetting things in order formy father a little bit at a
time. I put the jewelry in special silk pouches. The sweaters I put in mothproof boxes. I
found some old Chinese silk dresses, the kind with little slits up the sides. I rubbed the old
silk against my skin, and then wrapped them in tissue and decided to take them hoe with me.
after I had the piano tuned, I opened the lid and touched the keys. It sounded even richer that
I remembered. Really, it was a very good piano. Inside the bench were the same exercise
notes with hand written scales, the same secondhand music books with their covers held
together with yellow tape. I opened up the Schumann book to the dark little piece I had
played at the recital. It was on the left-hand page, “Pleading Child.” It looked more difficult
than I remembered. I played a few bars, surprised at how easily the notes came back to me.
And for the first time, or so it seemed, I noticed the piece on the right-hand side. It was
called “Perfectly Contented.” I tried to play this one as well. It had a lighter melody but with
the same flowing rhythm and turned out to be quite easy. “Pleading Child” was shorter but
slower; “Perfectly Contented “was longer but faster. And after I had played them both a few
times, I realized they were two halves of the same song.(1989)
By Alice Walker
I will wait for her in the yard that Maggie and I made so clean and wavy yesterday afternoon. A
yard like this is more comfortable than most people know. It is not just a yard. It is like an
extended living room. When the hard clay is swept clean as a floor and the fine sand around the
edges lined with tiny, irregular grooves, anyone can come and sit and look up into the elm tree
and wait for the breezes that never come inside the house.
Maggie will be nervous until after her sister goes: she will stand hopelessly in corners, homely
and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms and legs, eying her sister with a mixture of envy
and awe. She thinks her sister has held life always in the palm of one hand, that “no” is a word
the world never learned to say to her.
You’ve no doubt seen those TV shows where the child who has “made it” is confronted, as a
surprise, by her own mother and father, tottering in weakly from backstage. (A pleasant surprise,
of course: What would they do if parent and child came on the show only to curse out and insult
each other?) On TV mother and child embrace and smile into each other’s faces. Sometimes the
mother and father weep, the child wraps them in her arms and leans across the table to tell how
she would not have made it without their help. I have seen these programs.
Sometimes I dream a dream in which Dee and I are suddenly brought together on a TV program
of this sort. Out of a dark and soft.seated limousine I am ushered into a bright room filled with
many people. There I meet a smiling, gray, sporty man like Johnny Carson who shakes my hand
and tells me what a fine girl I have. Then we are on the stage and Dee is embracing me with tears
in her eyes. She pins on my dress a large orchid, even though she has told me once that she
thinks orchids are tacky flowers.
In real life I am a large, big.boned woman with rough, man.working hands. In the winter I wear
flannel nightgowns to bed and overalls dur.ing the day. I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly
as a man. My fat keeps me hot in zero weather. I can work outside all day, breaking ice to get
water for washing; I can eat pork liver cooked over the open fire minutes after it comes steaming
from the hog. One winter I knocked a bull calf straight in the brain between the eyes with a
sledge hammer and had the meat hung up to chill before nightfall. But of course all this does not
show on television. I am the way my daughter would want me to be: a hundred pounds lighter,
my skin like an uncooked barley pancake. My hair glistens in the hot bright lights. Johnny
Carson has much to do to keep up with my quick and witty tongue.
But that is a mistake. I know even before I wake up. Who ever knew a Johnson with a quick
tongue? Who can even imagine me looking a strange white man in the eye? It seems to me I
have talked to them always with one foot raised in flight, with my head fumed in whichever way
is farthest from them. Dee, though. She would always look anyone in the eye. Hesitation was no
part of her nature.
“How do I look, Mama?” Maggie says, showing just enough of her thin body enveloped in pink
skirt and red blouse for me to know she’s there, almost hidden by the door.
“Come out into the yard,” I say.
Have you ever seen a lame animal, perhaps a dog run over by some careless person rich enough
to own a car, sidle up to someone who is ignorant enough to be kind to him? That is the way my
Maggie walks. She has been like this, chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet in shuffle, ever since
the fire that burned the other house to the ground.
Dee is lighter than Maggie, with nicer hair and a fuller figure. She’s a woman now, though
sometimes I forget. How long ago was it that the other house burned? Ten, twelve years?
Sometimes I can still hear the flames and feel Maggie’s arms sticking to me, her hair smoking
and her dress falling off her in little black papery flakes. Her eyes seemed stretched open, blazed
open by the flames reflected in them. And Dee. I see her standing off under the sweet gum tree
she used to dig gum out of; a look of concentration on her face as she watched the last dingy gray
board of the house fall in toward the red.hot brick chimney. Why don’t you do a dance around
the ashes? I’d wanted to ask her. She had hated the house that much.
I used to think she hated Maggie, too. But that was before we raised money, the church and me,
to send her to Augusta to school. She used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other
folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice. She
washed us in a river of make.believe, burned us with a lot of knowl edge we didn’t necessarily
need to know. Pressed us to her with the serf’ ous way she read, to shove us away at just the
moment, like dimwits, we seemed about to understand.
Dee wanted nice things. A yellow organdy dress to wear to her grad.uation from high school;
black pumps to match a green suit she’d made from an old suit somebody gave me. She was
determined to stare down any disaster in her efforts. Her eyelids would not flicker for minutes at
a time. Often I fought off the temptation to shake her. At sixteen she had a style of her own: and
knew what style was.
I never had an education myself. After second grade the school was closed down. Don’t ask my
why: in 1927 colored asked fewer questions than they do now. Sometimes Maggie reads to me.
She stumbles along good.naturedly but can’t see well. She knows she is not bright. Like good
looks and money, quickness passes her by. She will marry John Thomas (who has mossy teeth in
an earnest face) and then I’ll be free to sit here and I guess just sing church songs to myself.
Although I never was a good singer. Never could carry a tune. I was always better at a man’s job.
I used to love to milk till I was hooked in the side in ’49. Cows are soothing and slow and don’t
bother you, unless you try to milk them the wrong way.
I have deliberately turned my back on the house. It is three rooms, just like the one that burned,
except the roof is tin; they don’t make shingle roofs any more. There are no real windows, just
some holes cut in the sides, like the portholes in a ship, but not round and not square, with
rawhide holding the shutters up on the outside. This house is in a pasture, too, like the other one.
No doubt when Dee sees it she will want to tear it down. She wrote me once that no matter
where we “choose” to live, she will manage to come see us. But she will never bring her friends.
Maggie and I thought about this and Maggie asked me, “Mama, when did Dee ever have any
She had a few. Furtive boys in pink shirts hanging about on washday after school. Nervous girls
who never laughed. Impressed with her they worshiped the well.turned phrase, the cute shape,
the scalding humor that erupted like bubbles in Iye. She read to them.
When she was courting Jimmy T she didn’t have much time to pay to us, but turned all her
faultfinding power on him. He flew to marry a cheap city girl from a family of ignorant flashy
people. She hardly had time to recompose herself.
When she comes I will meet—but there they are!
Maggie attempts to make a dash for the house, in her shuffling way, but I stay her with my hand.
“Come back here, ” I say. And she stops and tries to dig a well in the sand with her toe.
It is hard to see them clearly through the strong sun. But even the first glimpse of leg out of the
car tells me it is Dee. Her feet were always neat.looking, as if God himself had shaped them with
a certain style. From the other side of the car comes a short, stocky man. Hair is all over his head
a foot long and hanging from his chin like a kinky mule tail. I hear Maggie suck in her breath.
“Uhnnnh, ” is what it sounds like. Like when you see the wriggling end of a snake just in front of
your foot on the road. “Uhnnnh.”
Dee next. A dress down to the ground, in this hot weather. A dress so loud it hurts my eyes.
There are yellows and oranges enough to throw back the light of the sun. I feel my whole face
warming from the heat waves it throws out. Earrings gold, too, and hanging down to her
shoul.ders. Bracelets dangling and making noises when she moves her arm up to shake the folds
of the dress out of her armpits. The dress is loose and flows, and as she walks closer, I like it. I
hear Maggie go “Uhnnnh” again. It is her sister’s hair. It stands straight up like the wool on a
sheep. It is black as night and around the edges are two long pigtails that rope about like small
lizards disappearing behind her ears.
“Wa.su.zo.Tean.o!” she says, coming on in that gliding way the dress makes her move. The short
stocky fellow with the hair to his navel is all grinning and he follows up with “Asalamalakim,
my mother and sister!” He moves to hug Maggie but she falls back, right up against the back of
my chair. I feel her trembling there and when I look up I see the perspiration falling off her chin.
“Don’t get up,” says Dee. Since I am stout it takes something of a push. You can see me trying to
move a second or two before I make it. She turns, showing white heels through her sandals, and
goes back to the car. Out she peeks next with a Polaroid. She stoops down quickly and lines up
picture after picture of me sitting there in front of the house with Maggie cowering behind me.
She never takes a shot without mak’ ing sure the house is included. When a cow comes nibbling
around the edge of the yard she snaps it and me and Maggie and the house. Then she puts the
Polaroid in the back seat of the car, and comes up and kisses me on the forehead.
Meanwhile Asalamalakim is going through motions with Maggie’s hand. Maggie’s hand is as
limp as a fish, and probably as cold, despite the sweat, and she keeps trying to pull it back. It
looks like Asalamalakim wants to shake hands but wants to do it fancy. Or maybe he don’t know
how people shake hands. Anyhow, he soon gives up on Maggie.
“Well,” I say. “Dee.”
“No, Mama,” she says. “Not ‘Dee,’ Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo!”
“What happened to ‘Dee’?” I wanted to know.
“She’s dead,” Wangero said. “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who
“You know as well as me you was named after your aunt Dicie,” I said. Dicie is my sister. She
named Dee. We called her “Big Dee” after Dee was born.
“But who was she named after?” asked Wangero.
“I guess after Grandma Dee,” I said.
“And who was she named after?” asked Wangero.
“Her mother,” I said, and saw Wangero was getting tired. “That’s about as far back as I can trace
it,” I said. Though, in fact, I probably could have carried it back beyond the Civil War through
“Well,” said Asalamalakim, “there you are.”
“Uhnnnh,” I heard Maggie say.
“There I was not,” I said, “before ‘Dicie’ cropped up in our family, so why should I try to trace it
that far back?”
He just stood there grinning, looking down on me like somebody inspecting a Model A car.
Every once in a while he and Wangero sent eye signals over my head.
“How do you pronounce this name?” I asked.
“You don’t have to call me by it if you don’t want to,” said Wangero.
“Why shouldn’t 1?” I asked. “If that’s what you want us to call you, we’ll call you.”.
“I know it might sound awkward at first,” said Wangero.
“I’ll get used to it,” I said. “Ream it out again.”
Well, soon we got the name out of the way. Asalamalakim had a name twice as long and three
times as hard. After I tripped over it two or three times he told me to just call him
Hakim.a.barber. I wanted to ask him was he a barber, but I didn’t really think he was, so I didn’t
“You must belong to those beef. cattle peoples down the road,” I said. They said “Asalamalakim”
when they met you, too, but they didn’t shake hands. Always too busy: feeding the cattle, fixing
the fences, putting up salt. lick shelters, throwing down hay. When the white folks poisoned
some of the herd the men stayed up all night with rifles in their hands. I walked a mile and a half
just to see the sight.
Hakim.a.barber said, “I accept some of their doctrines, but farming and raising cattle is not my
style.” (They didn’t tell me, and I didn’t ask, whether Wangero (Dee) had really gone and married
We sat down to eat and right away he said he didn’t eat collards and pork was unclean. Wangero,
though, went on through the chitlins and com bread, the greens and everything else. She talked a
blue streak over the sweet potatoes. Everything delighted her. Even the fact that we still used the
benches her daddy made for the table when we couldn’t effort to buy chairs.
“Oh, Mama!” she cried. Then turned to Hakim.a.barber. “I never knew how lovely these benches
are. You can feel the rump prints,” she said, running her hands underneath her and along the
bench. Then she gave a sigh and her hand closed over Grandma Dee’s butter dish. “That’s it!” she
said. “I knew there was something I wanted to ask you if I could have.” She jumped up from the
table and went over in the corner where the churn stood, the milk in it crabber by now. She
looked at the churn and looked at it.
“This churn top is what I need,” she said. “Didn’t Uncle Buddy whittle it out of a tree you all
used to have?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Un huh,” she said happily. “And I want the dasher, too.”
“Uncle Buddy whittle that, too?” asked the barber.
Dee (Wangero) looked up at me.”Aunt Dee’s first husband whittled the dash,” said Maggie so
low you almost couldn’t hear her. “His name was Henry, but they called him Stash.”
“Maggie’s brain is like an elephant’s,” Wangero said, laughing. “I can use the chute top as a
centerpiece for the alcove table,” she said, sliding a plate over the chute, “and I’ll think of
something artistic to do with the dasher.”
When she finished wrapping the dasher the handle stuck out. I took it for a moment in my hands.
You didn’t even have to look close to see where hands pushing the dasher up and down to make
butter had left a kind of sink in the wood. In fact, there were a lot of small sinks; you could see
where thumbs and fingers had sunk into the wood. It was beautiful light yellow wood, from a
tree that grew in the yard where Big Dee and Stash had lived.
After dinner Dee (Wangero) went to the trunk at the foot of my bed and started rifling through it.
Maggie hung back in the kitchen over the dishpan. Out came Wangero with two quilts. They had
been pieced by Grandma Dee and then Big Dee and me had hung them on the quilt ftames on the
ftont porch and quilted them. One was in the Lone Stat pattetn. The other was Walk Around the
Mountain. In both of them were scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had wotn fifty and more years
ago. Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jattell’s Paisley shirts. And one teeny faded blue piece, about the
size of a penny matchbox, that was from Great Grandpa Ezra’s unifotm that he wore in the Civil
“Mama,” Wangro said sweet as a bird. “Can I have these old quilts?”
I heard something fall in the kitchen, and a minute later the kitchen door slammed.
“Why don’t you take one or two of the others?” I asked. “These old things was just done by me
and Big Dee from some tops your grandma pieced before she died.”
“No,” said Wangero. “I don’t want those. They are stitched around the borders by machine.”
“That’ll make them last better,” I said.
“That’s not the point,” said Wangero. “These are all pieces of dresses Grandma used to wear. She
did all this stitching by hand. Imag’ ine!” She held the quilts securely in her atms, stroking them.
“Some of the pieces, like those lavender ones, come ftom old clothes her mother handed down to
her,” I said, moving up to touch the quilts. Dee (Wangero) moved back just enough so that I
couldn’t reach the quilts. They already belonged to her.
“Imagine!” she breathed again, clutching them closely to her bosom.
“The ttuth is,” I said, “I promised to give them quilts to Maggie, for when she matties John
She gasped like a bee had stung her.
“Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts!” she said. “She’d probably be backward enough to put
them to everyday use.”
“I reckon she would,” I said. “God knows I been saving ’em for long enough with nobody using
’em. I hope she will!” I didn’t want to bring up how I had offered Dee (Wangero) a quilt when
she went away to college. Then she had told they were old~fashioned, out of style.
“But they’re priceless!” she was saying now, furiously; for she has a temper. “Maggie would put
them on the bed and in five years they’d be in rags. Less than that!”
“She can always make some more,” I said. “Maggie knows how to quilt.”
Dee (Wangero) looked at me with hatred. “You just will not under.stand. The point is these
quilts, these quilts!”
“Well,” I said, stumped. “What would you do with them7”
“Hang them,” she said. As if that was the only thing you could do with quilts.
Maggie by now was standing in the door. I could almost hear the sound her feet made as they
scraped over each other.
“She can have them, Mama,” she said, like somebody used to never winning anything, or having
anything reserved for her. “I can ‘member Grandma Dee without the quilts.”
I looked at her hard. She had filled her bottom lip with checkerberry snuff and gave her face a
kind of dopey, hangdog look. It was Grandma Dee and Big Dee who taught her how to quilt
herself. She stood there with her scarred hands hidden in the folds of her skirt. She looked at her
sister with something like fear but she wasn’t mad at her. This was Maggie’s portion. This was
the way she knew God to work.
When I looked at her like that something hit me in the top of my head and ran down to the soles
of my feet. Just like when I’m in church and the spirit of God touches me and I get happy and
shout. I did some.thing I never done before: hugged Maggie to me, then dragged her on into the
room, snatched the quilts out of Miss Wangero’s hands and dumped them into Maggie’s lap.
Maggie just sat there on my bed with her mouth open.
“Take one or two of the others,” I said to Dee.
But she turned without a word and went out to Hakim~a~barber.
“You just don’t understand,” she said, as Maggie and I came out to the car.
“What don’t I understand?” I wanted to know.
“Your heritage,” she said, And then she turned to Maggie, kissed her, and said, “You ought to try
to make something of yourself, too, Maggie. It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you
and Mama still live you’d never know it.”
She put on some sunglasses that hid everything above the tip of her nose and chin.
Maggie smiled; maybe at the sunglasses. But a real smile, not scared. After we watched the car
dust settle I asked Maggie to bring me a dip of snuff. And then the two of us sat there just
enjoying, until it was time to go in the house and go to bed.
Everything only connected by “and” and “and.”
Open the book. (The gilt rubs off the edges
of the pages and pollinates the fingertips.)
Open the heavy book. Why couldn’t we have seen
this old Nativity while we were at it?
—the dark ajar, the rocks breaking with light,
an undisturbed, unbreathing flame,
colorless, sparkless, freely fed on straw,
and, lulled within, a family with pets,
-and looked and looked our infant sight away.
On My Birthday
At low tide like this how sheer the water is.
White, crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare
and the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches.
Absorbing, rather than being absorbed,
the water in the bight doesn’t wet anything,
the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.
One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire?
one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.
The little ocher dredge at work off the end of the dock
already plays the dry perfectly off-beat claves.
The birds are outsize. Pelicans crash
into this peculiar gas unnecessarily hard,
it seems to me, like pickaxes,
rarely coming up with anything to show for it,
and going off with humorous elbowings.
Black-and-white man-of-war birds soar
on impalpable drafts
their tails like scissors on the curves
or tense them like wishbones, till they tremble.
The frowsy sponge boats keep coming in
with the obliging air of retrievers,
bristling with jackstraw gaffs and hooks
and decorated with bobbles of sponges.
There is a fence of chicken wire along the dock
where, glinting like plowshares,
the blue-gray shark tails are hung up to dry
for the Chinese-restaurant trade.
Some of the little white boats are still piled up
against each other, or lie on their sides, stove in,
and not yet salvaged, if they ever will be, from the last bad storm
5. Its Latin root (infans) means “speechless.”
1. A bay or inlet.
2. French poet (1821–1867) whose theory of
correspondences (see line 32) pro
through poetry, between the physi
Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.
You will never neglect or beat
Them, or silence or buy with a sweet.
You will never wind up the sucking-thumb
Or scuttle off ghosts that come.
You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh,
Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.
I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of
I have contracted. I have eased
My dim dears at the breasts they could never suck.
I have said, Sweets, if I sinned, if I seized
And your lives from your unfinished reach,
If I stole your births and your names,
Your straight baby tears and your games,
Your stilted or lovely loves, your tumults, your marriages, aches,
and your deaths,
If I poisoned the beginnings of your breaths,
Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate.
Though why should I whine,
Whine that the crime was other than mine?
Since anyhow you are dead.
Or rather, or instead,
You were never made.
But that too, I am afraid,
Is faulty: oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?
You were born, you had body, you died.
It is just that you never giggled or planned or cried.
Believe me, I loved you all.
Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you
a song in the front yard
I’ve stayed in the front yard all
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.
How young I seem; I am exceptional;
I think of all I have.
But really no one is exceptional,
No one has anything, I’m anybody,
I stand beside my grave
Confused with my life, that is commonplace and solitary.
What a girl called “the dailiness of life”
(Adding an errand to your errand. Saying,
“Since you’re up …” Making you a means to
A means to a means to) is well water
Pumped from an old well at the bottom of the world.
The pump you pump the water from is rusty
And hard to move and absurd, a squirrel-wheel
A sick squirrel turns slowly, through the sunny
Inexorable hours. And yet sometimes
The wheel turns of its own weight, the rusty
Pump pumps over your sweating face the clear
Water, cold, so cold! you cup your hands
And gulp from them the dailiness of life.
Thinking of the Lost World
This spoonful of chocolate tapioca
Tastes like-like peanut butter, like the vanilla
Extract Mama told me not to drink.
Swallowing the spoonful, I have already traveled
Through time to my childhood. It puzzles me
is like it.
Come back to that calm country
Through which the stream of my life first meandered,
My wife, our cat, and I sit here and see
Squirrels quarreling in the feeder, a mockingbird
Copying our chipmunk, as our end copies
Back in Los Angeles, we missed
Los Angeles. The sunshine of the Land
Of Sunshine is a gray mist now, the atmosphere
Of some factory planet: when you stand and look
You see a block or two, and your eyes water.
The orange groves are all cut down … My bow
Is lost, all my arrows are lost or broken,
My knife is sunk in the eucalyptus tree
What peaches and what
sles full of husbands! W
and vou, Garcia Lorca, w
Footnote to Howl
I saw you, Walt Whitma
The meats in the refrigerat
I heard you asking ques
price bananas? Are you m
I wandered in and out
followed in my imaginatic
We strode down the op
artichokes, possessing eve
Holy ! Holy ! Holy ! Holy ! Holy ! Holy ! Holy ! Holy ! Holy ! Holy ! Holy
Holy ! Holy ! Holy ! Holy !
The world is holy ! The soul is holy ! The skin is holy ! The nose is holy
The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy !
Everything is holy ! everybody’s holy ! everywhere is holy ! everyday is in
eternity ! Everyman’s an angel !
The bum’s as holy as the seraphim ! the madman is holy as you my soul
The typewriter is holy the poem is holy the voice is holy the hearers are
holy the ecstasy is holy !
Holy Peter holy Allen holy Solomon holy Lucien holy Kerouac holy Hunde
holy Burroughs holy Gassady’ holy the unknown buggered and
suffering beggars holy the hideous human angels !
Holy my mother in the insane asylum ! Holy the cocks of the grandfathers
of Kansas !
Holy the groaning saxophone ! Holy the bop apocalypse ! Holy the
jazzbands marijuana hipsters peace & junk & drums !
Holy the solitudes of skyscrapers and pavements ! Holy the cafeterias filles
with the millions ! Holy the mysterious rivers of tears under the
Holy the lone juggernaut ! Holy the vast lamb of the middle-class ! Holy the
crazy shepherds of rebellion ! Who digs Los Angeles IS Los Angeles
Holy New York Holy San Francisco Holy Peoria & Seattle Holy Paris Hoe
Tangiers Holy Moscow Holy Istanbul !
Holy time in eternity holy eternity in time holy the clocks in space holy the
fourth dimension holy the fifth International holy the Angel in
Where are we going, W
Will we walk all night
shade, lights out in the
Will we stroll dreamin
miles in driveways, home
Ah, dear father, grayb
id you have when Char
smoking bank and stood
A Supermarket in California
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman,’ for I walked down
the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at
the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon
fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
I walked on the banks
huge shade of a SC
the box house hill
Tack Kerouac? sat besic
thought the same
surrounded by the
The oily water on the
Frisco peaks, no
tired and wily.
Look at the Sunflower
sky, big as a man
1. All the figures mentioned here are Americans
who shared or inspired a literary bohemia of the
time. “Peter”: Peter Orlovsky (1933–2010), Beat
poet and Ginsberg’s lover for four decades.
“Allen”: Ginsberg.”Solomon”: Carl Solomon
(1928-1993), whom Ginsberg met at the psychi-
atric hospital where Ginsberg’s mother was being
treated and to whom Ginsberg dedicated “Howl.”
“Lucien”: Lucien Carr (1923-2005), one of the
Beats and Ginsberg’s roommate at Columbia
University in the 1940s. “Kerouac”: Jack Kerouac
(1922–1969), novelist and founding figure of the
Beat generation. “Huncke”: Herbert Huncke
(1915-1996), writer who influenced Ginsberg
and who introduced Ginsberg and Kerouac to the
term “beat.” “Burroughs”: William Burroughs
(1914–1997), writer, spoken-word performer,
social critic most famous for the novel Nada
Lunch (1959). “Cassady”: Neal Cassady (1925-
1968), an icon of the Beat generation and the
inspiration for the character Dean Moriarty in
Kerouac’s best-known work, On the Road (1957
1. American poet (1819-1892), author of Lentes
of Grass, against whose homosexuality and vision
of American plenty Ginsberg measures himself
Federico García Lorca (18
e and dramatist and autho
whose work is charact
– Forgetfulness. In Greek
es of Hades, the Under
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