THE FIFTIES. I don’t remember much—I was a small child—but I do know that fear was always buzzing in the background, like static from a transistor radio: a jangly, jazzy fear, not altogether unhappy.
The day I discover I’m a freak of nature, the thrill runs from my bellybutton to my throat. We’ve come to see Dr. Freitag about the mysteries in my mouth, and he’s found two whole sets of teeth up there in my top gums waiting to claim the space when my baby teeth fall out. TWO ROWS OF TEETH. The current jolts me, sitting there in his big red leather chair, a princess on my throne. Not everybody gets a spare set of teeth.
But my mother squints and blinks at the x-ray film, and when she finally makes out all my extra teeth, she moans, “Oh my God,” the way she did when she heard that Sister Alma’s boils were cancer of the face. That’s when I understand that I’m a monster. That’s when I see how I’ll have to curl my lip, how the prissy girls on the playground will lift up their pink chiffon skirts and shriek at me.
Dr. Freitag says we must go to Charleston. For special shoes and my father’s assistant principal suit we go to Savannah. For special doctors, like when my mother almost lost the baby again, we go to Charleston.
“It couldn’t be polio-related, could it, Herb?”
Dr. Freitag rubs his big belly and cackles. Out in the colored waiting room, his parrot Lucinda lets out a cackle, too. “Doris, you take the cake, and I mean the twelve-layer cake. Sweetheart, you just nervous about this baby, all the trouble you’ve had. Fanny, don’t pay her any mind.”
“Don’t you tell Fanny not to pay me any mind.”
“Y’all excuse me. I’ve got to go turn the x-rays off.”
When he’s halfway out the door my mother rubs her own belly. “The way he forgets that machine we’ll all be dead of radiation time we’re forty anyways.” She’s raised her voice and I’m already dead, from the shame of having a mother who says what she thinks. Don’t say Jewish, don’t say Jewish, don’t let her say Jewish, I pray, though I’m not exactly sure what Jewish means. My mother wouldn’t even know it if she broke Dr. Freitag’s heart.
Those times were a lot like these times: the way paranoia travels the airwaves, the way we’re all so afraid. I can see clear as that bright summer day in 1958 the way I flee Herb Freitag’s office and run for my life through the alley and down to the docks. Every few feet I peer over my shoulder to see how much ground my mother, in hot pursuit, is losing. Our feet pound out a desperate rhythm on the old rotting boards, the bay sloshing beneath us, and every time we come to a knothole we miss a beat. She could trip and lose the hat she holds to her head, or even the baby. I take pity on her and let her catch me, though my father says I run like the devil and if I wanted to I could be over the bridge and onto the islands by now. My mother leans over, precarious, and the fake ostrich feather quivers atop her head as she stretches to deliver that hard slap to my thigh (at home she uses the hairbrush, and not on my thigh). To spite her, I don’t even flinch.
But then she’s the one who takes pity. She tells me I won’t go through life with two sets of teeth. They’ll give me an operation, or operations, and it’ll be scary—no, she’s not going to deny that, because so many children catch pneumonia after the anesthesia. But we’ll all say a rosary before I go under, and that should make it come out right. We’ll be brave no matter what happens. “Oh Fanny, it’s good training, sugar, because I mean to tell you it’s scary going under the gas when you have babies, too. I’ll be there behind you, little pixie. Little changeling girl. We can’t have you with two rows of teeth and those cowlicks, too!”
Do you suppose you can possibly remember something as clean and as whole as I think I remember screeching to a halt on the docks that day? I couldn’t stand it when she called me changeling. I used to chant I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, though it never occurred to my sisters to say such a thing. She pulled down our panties and used the back of the brush, only she was never going to do that to me again. I incited my brothers to riot. I was her match, and we both knew it.
“It couldn’t be polio-related, could it?” I ask my father. I’m still such a freak I’m allowed to sit up front between my parents the whole way to Charleston. My mother likes it when I rest my hand on her big belly, and I like that too, better than anything except maybe resting my head there to hear the swoops and the gurgles, which might be gas and might be the next one, a boy or a girl I cannot say. In the middle seat AgnesAnn and Teresa have Caroline between them. Willie and Martin are all the way back, covered with filth already, and every five minutes one of them says, “I’m suffocating, I’m dying, help me, I can’t bweathe.”
“Girls! You cannot keep the windows rolled tight when it’s ninety-two degrees outside. You cannot.”
“My hair,” AgnesAnn shrieks.
“You have to compromise,” my father says, “and roll them down halfway.”
Will moans that he’s going to throw up.
“Stop melodramatizing,” my father calls to the back of the station wagon, and we all count the syllables. My father speaks that way all the time, even on the baseball field, where he’s apt to bark out, Maintain your equilibrium, men. To me he says: “No, Fan, it’s nothing to do with polio. It’s a genetic anomaly.”
Anomaly sounds like a dread disease, a sickness of the blood. My frantic mother often calms me down, but my calm father makes me think I’m dying after all.
“It’s no big deal, is what that means. Where do you want to go after we see the specialist? You’re the patient. Pick three spots.”
“Only one of them has to be Harvey’s,” my mother says. Harvey’s is the restaurant where my parents can get a martini, which my father says is illegal like everything else in the godforsaken state of South Carolina. I could go to jail and never get rid of my freakish teeth, but my father reads my mind and says, “Don’t worry, the mayor drinks there, too. And the sheriff.”
“Okay, Harvey’s. And the slave market. And the Battery.” I pat my father’s thigh under the steering wheel. He hands me his smoldering cigarette to rub out, which is almost as good as listening to my mother’s belly.
When I raise my head from the ashtray, the sun blazes off the yellowing marsh, the air prickles with road dust, the whole world waits to explode. Up ahead we’ll pass between two rows of live oaks, the moss swishing down, a canopy of shade. Hurry, hurry. Soon we’ll drive over the bridge with the little stone chambers where the fairies hide till nighttime, and then we’ll be in Charleston. Hurry, hurry. My father reads my mind again and speeds up till we’re under black cloud-cover. The world darkens. AgnesAnn and Teresa roll down their windows a little way, and hot wind comes rushing in.
The surgeon doesn’t have nearly so much time to talk as Dr. Freitag, and there’s no parrot in his waiting room, just Martin and Will raising holy hell. He makes a face at the sounds coming from his outer office and says I’ll have surgeries, not surgery, a childhood of waiting for the monster teeth to ease down low enough to pluck, then a new battle plan after we see how the survivors drop in.
My mother says it will be like childbirth: I won’t remember what it’s like. If you did remember, you wouldn’t show up the next time and then the poor babies would never get born. Already I think of my extra teeth as babies that are going to get dropped into the incinerator the way my mother’s last baby did, their bloody roots sizzling in the flames, next to little charred baby fists.
But that first day I get no gas and no flames, just my parents white-faced in the bright sun when, after the surgeon’s, they take us to the Battery so Martin and Will can clamber onto the cannons and fire on Fort Sumter. I’m supposed to be clambering too, only I hang behind with Teresa and AgnesAnn, shamed, and we overhear my mother moaning:
“We’ll never get out from under now.”
“Don’t worry, Fanny,” Teresa says. “You can’t go through life with two sets of teeth! We’ll find the money somehow.” Teresa is the sacrificial one who always says she doesn’t need any new clothes or shoes or second helpings. I look at her mournful, encouraging face and take off, darting between park benches till my father, this time, catches me.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
I won’t look at him. I won’t, I won’t.
He has to bend to take my hand. I’m so short and so skinny that they’re always saying I could blow away—and I did once, during a little tornado nobody saw but my mother, a baby funnel cloud, a whirligig that swirled me up in our backyard till my mother at the clothesline pulled me back down to earth. Now my father hangs onto me.
The whole family has to go without clothes and shoes and second helpings just so I’ll be normal, but I’m never going to grow anyway so why don’t I just join the sideshow the next time the fair comes, when the greasy man with no teeth at all stands outside the sagging tent, beckoning? My father says you call them carnies, and don’t get too close. Don’t peek inside. It would break your heart.
I drop my father’s hand and dash off to climb aboard a big cannon. The clouds over the bay gather in my honor, sulky and mean. A storm brews over Fort Sumter: the wind swoops, the palmettos rustle, the hairs on my arms rise up, defiant. I spread my legs wide so I can blast away.
At the slave market my mother takes wet diapers wrapped in waxed paper out from her giant pocketbook and scrubs Will’s and Martin’s faces and hands till they holler. Then she makes AgnesAnn do their knees. She can’t bend anymore. My father lines us up, scrubbed, for the slave lecture.
“Remember, these were human beings, wrenched from family and forced to do whatever the plantation owners wanted them to.”
“But Pat, don’t forget, lots of times the owners tried their best to keep the families together—”
“They were ruled by the whip.”
“In fact, the whip was very rare in South Carolina, very rare. Slaves were like family, and the climate was just like Africa.”
My father glowers. “The idea that you could own another human being.” He shakes his head, and we six shake our heads and hang them down, ashamed, ashamed, deliciously ashamed and so relieved we were not born colored because if we were colored we would think about whips and shackles day and night.
Now we are allowed to walk through. It’s an open air market, with a roof above: I’m trying to get it right. Was the roof tin? I see straw but that, I think, is from some fairytale. Brick pillars, or wood? Wood, surely. These days it’s a tourist trap, with gewgaw stalls for the Yankee tourists, but then it was mostly empty, only an old lady or two selling tomatoes or cucumbers or woven baskets. A ghost hall, light stippling down.
We tiptoe, our tongues dry. We don’t make eye contact with the fat old colored lady: we don’t want her to know that our eyes are already glistening. A crate’s upended, and we see a big young man forced to stand atop it, stripped naked for all to see, a whip curled in the auctioneer’s hand. We are all six chilled up the spine. We are our father’s children.
In Harvey’s all the waiters are dignified old colored gents with crinkled white hair to match their white jackets. They only see my father once a year, but they always say, “Doctor! How you been down there in Due East?” I don’t know why they think my father’s a doctor. My mother says they call him Doc because he looks so distinguished in his assistant principal suit and because he can pronounce the French names on the menu. My mother looks pretty distinguished herself, with her pink straw boater pushed back over her curls. Lots of women don’t wear hats anymore, but my mother says in her day you could tell a lady by her hat.
She tells us don’t look now but there’s the weatherman in the corner, and we all count to three before we turn. He looks exactly like he does on the television. We’ve only had it a little while, and we still gather around it every night. My father says the way we watch it is as much of a prayer as the rosary we say after. The weatherman’s drinking a martini, too. When they bring my parents’ martinis in those very same royal glasses, it occurs to me that maybe we aren’t so poor after all, not for all my mother threatens to sell Tupperware and Teresa makes a big show of washing her panties in the sink so we don’t have to buy her so many pairs.
After a few sips of martini my father says we should get anything we want on the menu, anything. Teresa runs her finger down the prices—she’ll get a plate of hush puppies with not so much as a glass of tea to wash it down—and Martin and Will cry, “Meat! Meat!”
“Shush now.” My mother laughs at them, balancing her hat as she leans her head back. “You’d think we starve you poor orphans.”
Only on the word orphans her voice drops down low, as if she’s seen an apparition. Here she goes again. Lately she’s been crying over anything we do and sobbing out that she just hopes she doesn’t die in childbirth because we would feel such sorrow and ache then. Women don’t die in childbirth anymore! It doesn’t happen! My father says so.
“Stop now,” my father says. “Stop.” But she juts her head out, like a turtle, to stare. Then she turns as white as she did out in the blazing sun. All four of us girls, sitting across from her, turn around to look.
It’s a giant taking his seat. Really, it’s a giant, and we all see him this time, not just my mother. He’s twelve times my father’s size, but he’s wearing a suit just as normal as an assistant principal’s suit, a blue seersucker suit same as all the Charleston men wear in the summer, only twelve times bigger. His hair’s combed over to the side like my father’s, too, but the giant’s hair is sparse and oily like the carny’s. Don’t get too close. His face looks smushed: his nose is a flattened, streaked tomato, as if somebody stepped on him. Who would step on a giant? Maybe he has cancer of the face like Sister Alma. He sits down all alone to eat his supper at Harvey’s, and we all hold our breath to see if he breaks the chair. If he orders a martini, they’ll have to bring it in a bucket. Caroline waves at him, only he doesn’t see. My mother gasps.
“Just calm down,” my father says, or at least I think that’s what he says. He’s whispering, and so is everybody else in Harvey’s.
“Here’s what we do,” my mother hisses. “I’ll grab up Caroline, and Willie and Martin can hang onto my skirt. One of the girls can distract him—you, AgnesAnn.”
“Spill a glass of water or something. I’ll get them out on the sidewalk, Pat, while you slip the waiter enough for the martinis.”
My father groans, and AgnesAnn groans with him. My mother does this all the time now. The giant looks perfectly charming—see, the waiter greets him like an old friend, and then turns toward our table. My mother whispers: Tell him. Tell him.
The waiter leans in above my father. “Some tall gentleman, heh?”
“Uhm-hum,” my father says, stiff and sad.
“Must be very nearly eight feet tall. You see him before?”
“Nun-unh,” my father says.
“You hear about him, though.”
“No, I can’t say I have.”
“Most famous man in Charleston. Come in here about once a month,” the waiter says, not even troubling to lower his voice. “Got a law practice specialize in colored people problem.”
“Fair man. Very fair man.”
“You see, Doris.”
That is too much for my mother, who jumps from her chair but forgets the part about grabbing up Caroline and Will and Martin. She pushes through the restaurant, which is not so easy with her belly that big, and the giant half rises in his chair as if to give her a hand. She escapes him, though, and wends her way through table after table till she passes through the doorway to the illegal bar.
“Think she gone find the washroom all right?”
“She just needs a breath of fresh air. She’s…expecting,” my father says.
The waiter chuckles. “We know how ladies get.”
And then we all order our food, as if my mother has not fled the restaurant, as if she isn’t part of this family anymore. My father leads us in conversation about the miracle of television and what it must be like to be the TV weatherman, and when we have exhausted that, we move on to Captain Kangaroo, a saintly man, kind as my father. The food comes in waves, like the tide, and we don’t mention my missing mother, though every now and again I remember how she lost the last baby. We all thought she was just carrying on, till the blood pooled all over the front seat of the car and ran out the passenger door. I wonder if she’s sitting on the sidewalk in a pool of blood.
When Teresa’s hush puppies land, I seize the moment to peek at the giant again. He’s stooped over his own plate—shrimp! a mountain of it, a giant-sized portion—and not just because his head is so high above the table. His bones are bent, his back stooped. His neck hangs down from shame, the way ours were hanging down in the slave market: only ours was the shame of being white and his is the shame a being a freak of nature. I want to go sit in his lap. I want to show my mother there’s nothing to be afraid of. I wouldn’t actually tell him about the two rows of teeth, but if I opened my mouth wide enough he would see, and I wouldn’t mention that they were going to fix me.
The giant reads my mind the way my father does, and smiles, his own teeth huge and crooked and a soft yellow, like roses. He has four or five sets in there. Nobody sees but me.
“That suit custom-made,” our waiter says when he brings dessert—vanilla ice cream with sparklers, six cut-glass bowls he removes from the tray with great caution, as if they’re alive. We all sit in awe as the sparklers sputter and pop, red and blue, the ice cream itself singing out a cheerful message.
When we come outside, blinking in the bright, cloudy haze, my mother is sound asleep in the hot car, all the windows rolled down but the door locks depressed and the plastic seat covers hot to the touch, as if they’re melting. Her hat’s tumbled down and my father makes us all stand back while he plucks it off the seat and rests it on her head. When he sets the paper bag of food down next to her, she starts awake at the rustle, then stares as if she doesn’t have the least idea who he might be.
“Did the giant take the babies?”
We all laugh. She’s joking!
“Everybody in.” My father brings Martin and Willie round to the back and opens the tailgate. Then he comes back for me, to go in through the driver’s side.
“Aren’t you hungry?” I ask my mother. She won’t answer, but squeezes my hand, and when I look up I see the tears streaming down. I squeeze back, furious, and let my nails dig in.
My father lights a cigarette before he pulls out. He has to guide us through the narrow Charleston streets and then the gloomy Charleston highway, where the wrecks pile up in the summer: drunken marines and blown-out tires and people with bad luck who don’t see they’re running off the shoulder, into the muck. “Got to make tracks, chickpeas. Got to beat out this storm.”
By then the sky’s blistered with black cloud puffs, and the streets of Charleston are still. The birds have all found their shelter, and if we don’t make it over the fairy bridge fast, we’ll be trapped. “I hate Charleston,” I say.
My father says: “I think it’s the specialist you hate.”
“Don’t tell her who she hates,” my mother whispers.
My father drives on, over the bricked streets and past the walled gardens. Everybody in Charleston lives in a mansion, unless they’re poor and live in an old shack.
“If I die in childbirth,” my mother says, “I suppose you’ll marry her.”
“Doris, stop melodramatizing. Women do not die in childbirth anymore.”
“I would rather you did. I would rather the children had that mother than no mother at all.”
“Doris, I will not have you scaring them.”
“I want to go to the cathedral,” she whispers. “I want to make my confession.”
“Marry who?” Martin calls, all the way from the back.
“Nobody.” My father speaks in a calm, clear voice that roars through the station wagon. “We’re not going to the cathedral, and we’re not going to scare the children.” He drives on, his cigarette burning close to his finger.
“I’ll put it out.” I’m whispering. He doesn’t hear me.
My mother sobs. “I want to go to the cathedral. Please. Take me to the cathedral.”
“Let her go.” Maybe I’m still whispering. He drives on. “Let her go to confession.” My mother squeezes my hand. I never take her side.
“Fanny’s the only one, the only one who sees what it’s like for me.”
I’m her match. I can run like the devil and I will never let her spank me again. My heart is murderous, monstrous. “She’s scared.” I cannot stop myself, pleading for her.
My father drives on. We’re almost up to the fairy bridge, almost, but here comes a yellow light. My father slows, but before the car rolls to a stop, my mother opens her door, and so he must slam on the brakes. She’s out before the light turns red, before the tires stop turning. She runs on those little bird-legs, her hand to her hat and the rain just starting to spit. Martin starts to cry, and then Caroline, and then Will. AgnesAnn says: “There is no woman, sillies! Daddy wouldn’t do that. There is no woman.”
When the light turns green, my father slides the station wagon forward and we all sit stunned as we realize he means to take us home, over the fairy bridge, down the narrow highway in the darkening night, through the woods and over the marshes, while our mother wanders the streets of Charleston with a giant abroad. And she hasn’t even had her supper.
A great clamor arises, even from Teresa, even from AgnesAnn. We’re all shrieking her name, our mama, our mama, a cacophony of miniature Doris-voices. In our terror, we’ve become our mother. I hear myself hiccup: “She just wants to go to confession. She just wants to go….”
When my father turns the car around and goes back for her, she’s waiting, dignified, at the curb, though the rain lashes down and the water slides in streams from her boater. Or am I making up that part, melodramatizing, hurling down lightning bolts to show how dazzling my mother was? Maybe she was only waiting in the wilting heat. Maybe she was trudging away from us, still heading for the cathedral.
She climbs into her seat and smiles down sweetly at me. Don’t let her squeeze my hand again, don’t, don’t. She takes from my lap the brown bag of food my father’s brought her from Harvey’s, a doggy bag that any other time would make her cringe with shame. But this dark night she opens it eagerly and removes a single shrimp, from which she takes a dainty bite. The thunder crashes around us as we cross over the fairy bridge into the night. Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe I don’t need a storm to find sitting next to my mother thrilling. We never did go back to the cathedral for confession that night, but still all our troubles were forgotten, washed clean.
By the time she was done, my mother delivered nine babies who survived, and even I, the hippie flower child, had four—but I’m not holding my breath waiting for grandchildren. My daughter told me she wasn’t so sure she wanted to raise a child in Brooklyn, waiting for the F train to blow or the bombs to start going off in cafés, and I thought: oh no, it’s the fifties all over again. I should have told her that it’s not just the terrifying world, it’s your own selfish heart you question over and over when you bring children into the world. Over the years I asked again and again about that woman my mother invoked, but begrudgingly my sisters AgnesAnn and Teresa would explain that there never was another woman. How could there have been? Wasn’t my father always around? Even when the baseball team had an away game he was home by midnight, and on Sunday mornings he stood at the back of the church, an usher resplendent in his assistant principal suit—then, hooray, his principal suit. I never entirely believed them. Sometimes I wished my father loved another woman. Sometimes I prayed for it. You’re a mean old shriveled witch, I hissed at her. And later: You’re a racist, an anti-Semite.
And then, when I gave birth myself, I thought I understood her whole: the loneliness of living with small children, of never being heard, the way I thought I’d been banished from the world, hushed up and locked away, a princess in a tower with no one coming to rescue me. I even thought I understood her paranoia—I was a little paranoid myself, when my children were babies.
Now, all these years later, she haunts me. That time haunts me. Sometimes as I’m drifting off to sleep, I feel my mouth crowded with another set of teeth and I can’t open my jaw, can’t get a word of warning out. Sometimes I wake with my head sliding across the pillow, listening for swoops and gurgles, sounds of life. Sometimes I remember that one and only time I took her side, imagined her despair, and feel again that the years themselves are transmitting messages. The air is electric. The world waits to explode.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.