The Picture Behind The Picture
They hurried down the narrow alleyway, little girl trotting at her motherís side.
"Come on child, quit dragging, the bus will be at the corner soon."
Playing mother to the tattered baby doll dangling from one hand, the little girl mocked,
"Quit dragging Mandy." As she ran on.
The rain continued to cry buckets and the dusky sky bade indifference to fleeting silhouettes scurrying for cover. The mother had fashioned a sling-like carrier out of a beach towel, where her infant son jostled against her body, inside her oversized raincoat.
The little girl fell down after tripping over something slimy on the ground. She screamed, which caused the baby to bawl in kind. The mother quickly surmised that her daughter was more frightened than hurt, and said,
"Get up from there child. Come on now. I canít be late for my appointment. Damn Drunks!"
The mother snarled at a vagrant whose shadow swayed on the ground like a ghastly aberration. The man appeared unmoved by her remark as he bent forward hurling more putrid gook quite near where the little girl had fallen. The mother snatched her daughter up, stopping long enough to wipe tears mingled with muddy rain from her daughterís face. She said softly,
"Youíre mommaís big girl. Now pick up your doll and come on."
The mother secured the carrier as best she could, and ran on with her daughter trotting at her side. The baby, however, needed more assurance as the motherís brisk steps gave way to a syncopated rocking of the infant close to her chest.
The little girl was four years old. Victoria was her name. She lived with her mother Ann, her baby brother Jimmy and sometimes her father, Jim in a run-down tenement in one of the Cityís poorest neighborhoods. Little Victoria didnít know that she was poor. She was born in that neighborhood and as far as she was concerned, everyone lived the way that she did. Once, while watching television, she had observed a little girl just about her age, whose bedroom it seemed was as big as her entire apartment. The little girl on television had all kinds of dolls arranged neatly about the enormous pink and white room. She even had a dollhouse with real furniture for her Barbies to live in.
"Uuuuweee!" Victoria had exclaimed.
"Momma look at all those pretty baby dolls and the great big doll house and momma the closet is full of pretty Easter dresses and things and momma, momma look momma sheís got a great big bed momma aaaaalllllllll to herself! Uuuwee momma why canít I have those things and be in that big ole room like that with all of those babydolls and things? Why momma why?"
Victoriaís burst of enthusiasm - eyes as round as Bo dollars and barrage of questions had caught Ann by surprise. This was the first time she could recall that her daughter measured her own existence with that of someone else. Suddenly aware of her nearly impecunious circumstances, Ann said the first thing that came to mind.
"Victoria thatís just television, not real life. That little girl is just playing house. She doesnít really live there. TV is not real child. Itís just to make you laugh. Its entertainment."
Victoria stared at the television, then back at her mother, trying to understand.
"Whatís inarainment momma?"
"You mean, entertainment." Ann corrected.
"Well, that means to have a good time, to laugh and enjoy yourself. Just like that show youíre watching. You see how much you like those pretty things she has? Well, thatís why sheís showing them to you, to make you smile. But those things donít belong to her. Thatís just TV."
"But momma, why doesnít she have roaches?"
Victoria queried, standing back on one of her slightly bowed legs, twisting her hair around two fingers. She continued,
"And I donít see any mice either. Why momma?"
Ann wrung her hands nervously.
"Stop playing in your hair and thatís enough questions for right now. Like I said, TV is just entertainment. Donít go looking at what other people have, thinking thatís what everybody should have. Just thank God that we have food to eat and youíre healthy. Understand?"
"Yes momma." Victoria said solemnly, and settled back into the wonders of TV land.
The rain had begun to taper off. Thick lazy drops now fell in place of the pouring only minutes earlier. They were finally at the corner of Wilkes and Maine, along with a sizable crowd of others who were all awaiting the bus. Ann stood with Victoria and the baby beneath the awning of Swift Cleaners. She began to tend to little Jimmyís needs. He lay nursing a bottle that she had skillfully propped against her breasts. A big boy for seven months old, he was getting too heavy to be toting around witho ut a stroller, she thought. She had left the stroller at home, anticipating the crowded bus. People, Ann lamented, werenít as nice anymore either, what with the recession and poverty everywhere you turned. People rarely smiled or said hello, unless they were begging for spare change or trying to sell you something. Grown men wouldnít even give a woman with children a seat on the bus unless pressed by the bus driver.
Ann sighed, blowing air through the gap between her two front teeth as she rocked the baby gently. He was fast on his way to sleep, the bottle having worked its magic. Victoria stood, cute and dimpled as ever in her second hand yellow rain coat with matching hat, goulashes that she adored because she loved how the buttons fastened on either side. In her own attempt at mothering, she had taken an old plastic bag, poked holes in it and made a raincoat for her baby doll. As she examined Mandy, she decid ed to discard the plastic cloak, casting it into the damp spring air.
"Donít worry, momma will keep you dry."
She explained to the dollís button eyes, then placed Mandy securely inside her raincoat.
"Be still child. I want your brother to stay asleep. Quit fidgeting around."
Ann was worried, tired and worried. She could handle tired because it seemed as if she had always known tired. Three weeks ago to the day, Jim had walked out on her. She had come back from the laundromat to find his guitar, street clothes and work uniform, his shoe shine kit, cologne, chess game, cigar box, his four leisure suits and other toiletries all gone. She had thrown herself down on the bed and cried. It wasnít the first time that Jim had left. Every four months or so it seemed, Jim would b reak up with her. After almost a month of waiting and praying that he would return, after the last of the money he had left behind on the dresser threatened to run out, Ann dried her eyes and called the welfare office for an appointment.
At twenty-nine years old, Ann was still a relatively young woman. She didnít feel young however, she felt old. Her youth she sensed was seeping out of her body little by little every time she breathed. Six years in the penal system for writing bad checks had marked time in dog years across her face. She had been foolish enough to help an ex-boyfriend steal checks from their employer. When they finally got arrested several months later, the ex painted her as the brains behind the scheme. Since Ann w orked in the payroll office, the jury found her more liable. With no family support after leaving prison, Annís probation officer helped her find an apartment and a job. She met Jim, an ex-con himself at her new restaurant job. During that same year, Ann and Jim became lovers, she got pregnant, Jim moved into her apartment and the rest was history. That was five years ago. After the birth of Victoria, Ann quit the restaurant job and Jim went to work at the packing plant. They survived on one income. The rent always got paid, even if it was after the landlord threatened to throw them out.
Alienated from her family, with no friends to speak of, Annís self-esteem suffered gravely. She ate her way into thirty extra pounds while Jim, who was five years older only got better looking as time went on. With nothing but food and babies for company, Ann shied away from people outside of Jim. She felt ill at ease. She didnít know what she could discuss with people that would interest them. Every so often, Ann would get the courage to apply for employment. Her courage was always short lived, h owever, as a craven fear of having to explain her past incarceration on a job application would set in. This fear would thus make it easier for her to retreat back into the safety of her marginal existence. Besides, she often rationalized, her children were too small. She didnít believe in baby sitters.
As a result, each time that Jim left, Annís only means of financial support was the welfare line. There was one other way to pay her rent but Ann could not stomach the thought of sleeping with Eddy the landlord. Eddyís bloated alcoholic nose never failed to sniff out Jimís departure. With feigned sympathy and freakish eyes, Eddyís lecherous lips would remind Ann that rent was due in payment of her choice, cash or flesh.
"Youíll get your rent money on time Eddie!" Ann would yell before slamming the door in his face.
At those times, Ann prayed day and night for Jim to come to his senses and return home.
Jimís failure to "come to his senses" unfortunately necessitated her standing at the bus stop, no longer able to put off the inevitable, going back on welfare.
She cringed, imagining how her name would be yelled across the crowded waiting room as others looked on. She would struggle to keep up with the nonchalant intake worker, whose back would put an icy distance between the two of them as they headed for the maze of cubicles. What she hated most was the impertinent look of the interviewer when brow beating her on Jimís whereabouts. She knew the entire script:
"Ms SmithÖ..is it Mzzzzz or Mrs. Ann Smith? Are you married to the father of one or both of these children? Youíre not married to either one of them? You say they have the same father? Well, where is he? We have to know his whereabouts. Does he work? Where does he work? How much money does he earn? Do you know his social security number? You realize that the state shouldnít have to take care of his responsibilities. If we find out that you are withholding information, you know Ms. Smith, yo u can be prosecuted. Is there anyone else helping you meet your rental obligations and other bills? How have you been getting by? Is anyone else living with you? Anyone else contributing to the welfare of you and these children? Hmmm? You do understand that you have sworn to tell the truth here Ms. Smith, etcetera etcetera blah blah blah."
The bus finally came barreling down the street as Ann led Victoria through the crowd that had now grown even larger. They stood near the curb along with countless others.
Debris filled water careened up into the air, showering down onto the crowd. The bus never stopped, however, as it sped on, filled to capacity with passengers standing and sitting. All around people began yelling, complaining and wiping wet grime from their bodies.
"My boss is gonna have my ass this morning if I donít hurry up and make it in!" One lean faced man commented to a barrel shaped fellow in hard hat, who stood with lunch pail in hand, frustrated also.
"Looks like two buses back to back coming!" A woman exclaimed.
"Its about time." Another huffed.
Everyone crowded up to the curb once more; relieved at seeing the buses slow their speed as they neared the bus stop. To Annís relief, she was able to find seats near the front, after dumping her entire fare consisting of two nickels and the rest pennies into the fare box. She didnít have time to be embarrassed and ignored the line of people behind her who sighed in exasperation, waiting on the clanking of small change to end. It was all the money that she had. She was grateful that the welfare depart ment would supply her with two weeks worth of bus tokens plus emergency food coupons at the end of her appointment. Seated finally with Victoria near the window, Ann peered inside her raincoat, getting a glimpse of her baby, who was still sleeping soundly. The bus moved along at a steady pace, stopping here and there to pick up angry but grateful passengers.
"Momma can I have a cheeseburger and fries and a shake when you finish with your business?" Victoria asked anxiously, staring up into her motherís worn face.
"Iíll make you something when we get back home. Now be good. You just ate before we left."
Victoriaís bottom lip drooped and for a moment she pouted, her dream of McDonaldís now sprinkled in dust. As was her whimsical demeanor, disappointment for this little girl soon faded, for moments later she cheered up and began playing mother to her baby doll again. She whispered,
"Momma will take you to McDonaldís later on, you hear? Weíll have cheeseburgers and big ole milk shakes and chocolate ice cream and all of that. And Ronald McDonald will eat with us. Now hush and let me take care of my business first, alright?"
Ann heard Victoriaís whispered conversation and had to smile in spite of herself. She sometimes got a kick out of how her daughter tried to imitate her.
"Wellington and Central coming up!"
The bus driver yelled and a flood of passengers rushed toward both exits. Annís smile waned as she thought of Jim, knowing that most of the people getting off were headed one block east to the packing plant where Jim worked, or at least he worked there last time she saw him. As the bus came to a screeching halt and people piled into the drizzling street, Ann looked anxiously about, hoping to see Jim in the crowd. She didnít know where he laid his head those days, or what bus he took or if he still too k the bus. Maybe some woman had bought him that car he was always dreaming about. If she could only see him. But what would she do if she spotted his brawny frame in that crowd? Would she scoop Victoria and the baby off of the bus and run through the streets yelling,
"Jim, Jim, come back home, we need you, I need you honey! Donít make me go back on welfare!"
No, she settled on back in her seat, looked straight ahead as the bus drove away from the businesses, factories and streams of bustling humanity.
The welfare office in Annís neighborhood had recently merged with another all the way across town.
"I donít need this extra hassle."
Ann thought, remembering how close the old office had been to her home. Two blocks down and her feet were planted at the door of the old location. Now, even though it was a straight shot on one bus, the fact remained that it was nearly an hour long ride, with two children and a diaper bag on her shoulder that weighed almost as much as the baby. She was beginning to get a headache and removed her rain scarf, giving it to Victoria to hold onto. A moist half curled bang fell into her face. She waved i t away with the back of her hand irritably. The baby snored lightly. He had always done that. She fished inside her raincoat pocket for the lone piece of peppermint candy, broke it in two, placing a piece in Victoriaís mouth first, then her own.
Now the scenery began to change dramatically, almost in unison with the rain that had all but ceased. Ann had a clear view of white washed streets and sidewalks, of lawns that had just begun to turn green in their spring time luster, rows of neat looking homes with green hedges and newspapers strewn across front porches. The bus had made a turn off of the main street into a residential area. It had been so long since Ann was on that side of town. She had forgotten what Parkview looked like. She imag ined that Parkview was what those in other countries pictured the average American resided in. If they only knew, she thought. With the bad economy, work being so scarce, especially for someone like her who had a prison record, a person was lucky to have a dump to live in.
"I canít blame anybody but myself."
Ann said out loud, before self-consciously realizing what she had done. In an attempt to disguise her slip of the tongue, she commented to no one in particular,
"Yep, canít blame anybody but myself for not leaving earlier this morning."
Victoria turned around to catch her mother managing a smile in her direction, then went back to enjoying her view from the window seat. Annís introspection continued, however, as she thought,
"Oh, if I could do it all over again. I donít regret my babies, but I wouldnít be such a fool for men, especially good looking ones with nothing to offer but heartache."
"Momma are those houses inside the TV?"
Victoria asked, drawing a comparison between the little girl sheíd watched with the beautiful bedroom on television and the houses in Parkview.
"What kind of a question is that child? No, those houses are real. Real people live there."
Ann had forgotten all about her prior explanation to Victoria involving the television show. Victoria, with a look of hurt and bewilderment on her face began to whimper.
"But momma, you told me real people donít have nice houses and green grass like that. You said it was all for the TV, remember?"
Ann admonished, before finally putting two and two together. Out of the corner of her eye, Ann felt someone watching her. She turned to notice a pinched-faced older woman across the aisle staring, apparently overhearing the childís queries.
"Weíll talk more about it when we get home, now hush."
Ann held the womanís gaze as if to say, "Mind your own business."
The woman shook her head from side to side, then faced forward mumbling under her breath. Ann wiped Victoriaís tears and took the remaining sliver of peppermint from her own mouth, placing it between her daughterís lips. The little girl smiled and that was the end of that.
Ann began reflecting on Victoriaís never having been on that side of town. Her daughter had only ridden the bus as far as the business district where stores, McDonalds and other businesses were. Victoria had never seen houses that didnít have broken fences or graffiti. She had only known buildings that leaned as if abandoned, where for rent signs were always posted. She had only known dirt filled patches sprinkled with cut glass where grass should have been. She had only known a play ground with brok en swings and other equipment that dated back over thirty years. She had only known the stench of a drunkardís vomit mingled with disinfectant and urine permeating the stairwell of her building. She knew all about grownups fighting in the streets and alleyways, rats that roamed the streets at night, sometimes even in the day. She knew about roaches that drank roach spray as if it were Kool-Aid, mice that ran up the wall and got into your bed if you werenít careful. Little Victoria had never known Parkvie w. Ann cleared her throat in an effort to stave away the guilt that threatened to creep inside of her heart.
"Iím doing the best that I can." She consoled herself.
Little Jimmy began to stir as Ann looked down into his pudgy innocence. He cooed and she began to play peek-a-boo with him. The bus made a swishing noise, coming to a gliding halt. Ann looked up in time to see a woman dressed in fine clothing step onto the bus. The raincoat she wore was lavender in color, with matching umbrella. Her coat was open so that one could easily discern the beautiful spring dress that played mauve in the presence of the emerging sun. She wore high heels that fastened at ea ch slender ankle, carried an attaché case, a newspaper and a small handbag. Her hair was swept back in a neat bun and her skin, like the golden embers of a dancing flame, was undeniably flawless.
"Good morning Charlie! Why yes it is turning out to be a fine day after all."
Ann drank in this woman who stood making lively conversation with the driver as the bus moved on. She watched, as the same man who hadnít even said good morning to her, seemed to have nothing but pleasant things to say to the woman at his side. In the recesses of Annís subconscious, there suddenly crept a feeling of being violated in the cruelest way possible. These feelings pushed forward in a display of anger so primitive, it made Ann shudder.
"But why?" She wondered.
Was this woman a reminder of how she had destroyed her own career? Was she merely jealous?
"No." Ann thought, as she sat there musing. She felt somehow that her emotions ran much deeper than that.
"Whatís wrong with me? Why am I so angry all of a sudden?"
Searching desperately for reasons to justify her anger, Ann wondered,
"Why canít that woman just sit down someplace? Flirting shamelessly out in the open like that. A brazen hussy! The nerve!"
Annís face flushed crimson as suddenly the true essence of her anger slithered past her subconscious and lodged on the tip of her tongue. Indignation coursed through the slump in her defeated shoulders, rendering her erect. She held the baby even closer, viewing him with a special kind of ethnic pride. She removed Victoriaís rain bonnet and smoothed down the little girlís golden locks that framed a rubicund face crowned in dimples on either side, just like Shirley Temple. Nose twitching as if she were trying to avoid a pungent odor, a look of scorn and rebuke settled in Ms. Annís sea blue eyes. Her thin lips pursed before quivering into a snarl, just like her ancestors might have done upon witnessing such a sight. In that instant, all of her problems were forgotten, her self-esteem restored, as she stared daggers into the colored womanís back, and quipped,
"Humph, well at least Iím not a nigger!"