All God’s Children
By Anna Gersh
“Yes ma’am, no trouble at all, Miss Helen. We’ll see you tomorrow, I expect,” said the man as he gratefully took the tall, brown bottle from her and embraced it with both hands.
Helen didn’t much like Ralph, but she was thankful that his particular form of enslavement fell within her price range. The paltry sum of a single beer perpetuated the illusion that he was just a neighbor, that this gesture was the equivalent of a social drink with a friend and that he was surrendering to her insistence that he take something, some small token, a humble offering from an appreciative, elderly woman.
She was more realistic. Each day she saw another tiny bit of her power slip away. She counted on Ralph to take care of what were now becoming impossible tasks to accomplish on her own. It had started with the gutters, spring and fall only, and the occasional minor repair. Now changing the cat box and vacuuming had been added to the ever-growing list of regular maintenance activities she relied on him to handle.
She was shrinking.
She did not allow this to trouble her, although she calculated that she had lost five inches in the last fifteen years, some of which was the result of predictable bone loss, but most due to a curvature of the spine that had drawn up her height into an expanding dowager’s hump, further limiting her already difficult movement.
Her neighborhood, too, had changed dramatically since she first came to this country. When she was growing up, every family on the street was from within one hundred miles of her hometown in Poland. Now there were Albanians and Turks and black people. She could still remember seeing a black person for the first time. She was young, about fourteen; the year might have been 1947. Her family had gone to the city for a Christmas mass. It was evening and they were hurrying down the street. It was cold and they were in danger of missing the antiphon. Ahead of her she saw two people. They were elegantly dressed: he wore a hat in the style of the day and a long, wool coat and she remembered his shoes caught the light of a passing car. The woman was wearing fur, nearly to the ground, and a wide-brimmed hat in red with a noticeable but tasteful diamond pin that held it neatly in place, perched at a surprisingly steep angle on her perfectly coiffed head. Both parties were hurrying in each other’s direction when the couple stopped at a newsstand. The man turned to make his purchase and, just as Helen passed, the woman raised her head to survey the sky.
She did not stop, but she could not help staring. She watched the woman in amazement for nearly 30 feet, until, walking in opposite directions, they both disappeared into the night. The image stayed with her forever. She did not often see black people for some time after that, however she considered them intently whenever she did. It was hard to imagine that the people she encountered so often in her neighborhood now were also black. Despite this initially awe-inspiring impression, she had not escaped the fear that defined all her future interactions with anyone different than herself.
On Saturday evenings, which had of late turned into Saturday afternoons, she liked to go to a little family-style restaurant about three and a half blocks away. Despite its proximity, she always drove. From the moment she decided to put on her coat to the point when she was secure in her car might take anywhere between 15 and 50 minutes. Naturally, she had to factor this time commitment into any decision she made to leave the house; she therefore left as infrequently as possible.
She had grown accustomed to allowing at least two hours of preparation to organize herself for an outing, but if she bathed it might take three. Because of the difficulty involved, bathing had become a twice-weekly occurrence. When she first began to show signs of her arthritis, warm showers had provided some relief, but now her body was twisted so violently from its ravages that simply undressing and climbing over the edge of the tub had made the lovely ritual an exhausting and often dangerous experience. For the last ten years she had been forced to whittle her commitments down to only the most necessary. These days if she left at all, she did one thing, and that was enough.
The restaurant was housed in a whitewashed brick façade, situated on a particularly threatening block of this formerly thriving city-within-a-city. It served traditional Polish food, and on most days Polish was the only language spoken on the premises. The food was exceptional, but still somehow managed to stay under the radar. The local papers knew about it, just as they knew about and reported in gloriously paranoid detail every murder, break-in, and rape that plagued the neighborhood, but the city’s desperate and ironic attempt to represent the area as habitable would certainly have been thwarted by referring the uninitiated to this rather unfortunate section of town.
The car sped by in a fit, leaving a wake of dust and street garbage, the sound of its horn disappearing reluctantly in the distance. She was traveling 17 miles an hour on the city’s largest boulevard at 5:30 p.m. She hadn’t planned on this, but she was ready to go. She had been at home, restless, which was unusual for her but her new arthritis medication, specifically designed to combat the lethargy induced by the combination of her old arthritis medication and her blood-pressure medication, made her uncomfortably awake. She decided she needed a drink and started off for the restaurant. But today was Friday, not Saturday. By the time she got on the road, it was after five o’clock and the streets surprised her with their animation.
Like many who do not have the demands of the working world to contend with, she allowed her internal clock to commandeer the planning of her daily schedule. In fact, she rarely found herself combating working traffic. She usually stayed up late, often dozing until four or five in the morning, usually in front of the TV. Since the development of her hump, she found it more and more difficult to get comfortable in a prone position. She often spent much of her night the captive audience of hour-long infomercials singing the praises of personal empowerment or fat-free grilling. Her sleeping hours seemed to vary. She typically slept soundly on the sofa for three to four hours, usually waking around eight or nine a.m. with pins and needles in her hips and toes, and forced herself to get into bed for a couple of hours. She would wake for the day between 11 and 2 p.m., depending on how the night went. Although she welcomed the idea of unexpected vitality, she wondered if it would cause changes in her already complex schedule. She braced herself for upheaval.
Marveling at the number of cars on the road, she gripped the steering wheel with both hands and tried to remain vigilant.
She finally came to a red light and gave thanks. She was in the right lane and in two blocks she would have to make a left. She put on her blinker to give fair warning and began to merge, slowly. Fellow motorists hailed her with a volley of horns and gestures of impatience. She chose to ignore these protests and dedicated herself to the task at hand. She had not planned on the uniquely aggressive tendencies of the prime-time commuter. For every inch she managed to gain from the infrequent benevolent driver, she lost three more to others who were less sympathetic. She watched her exit pass by as she was swept down the boulevard in the rushing current of weekend traffic.
She then planned to make the next left, but it had been changed sometime in the recent past to a one-way street—when, she could not say—but she did not let this little setback worry her. She had grown up in the town and was certain that she could find her way home from any part of the city. Having been designed with cars in mind, the streets were wide and accommodating. Hadn’t the city been laid out in a simple grid pattern? That was certainly her recollection.
The next street was closed due to an ongoing construction project that was waiting, hopelessly, for another infusion of funds. A line of cars had been routed around the large orange barrels that were spilling out onto the main street. She swerved too late to avoid one that had toppled and rolled into the middle of her lane. It was nearly 6:15 and although the first whispers of spring were in the air, the sun was beginning to disappear, another obstacle in an increasingly worrisome situation.
Three blocks later she managed an opportunity and finally made her left. She planned on making the next possible left and heading back in the direction of the restaurant. She was not surprised to find that the road had been closed due to a burst water main that had flooded two streets and was fast making its approach into every basement on the block. It was just a matter of time before the sewer would be backing up and she was glad that the problem had occurred down here instead of closer to her house.
It was now almost completely dark and she was getting concerned. The next three streets were one-ways in the wrong direction. At the very next street she was allowed a left and took it hopefully. It was somewhat disconcerting when she realized she did not recognize the area at all. There was something different about the sense she had now: this area was not only unfamiliar, it was unknown. Was it possible that in nearly 80 years she had never been in this neighborhood so close to her own? It seemed ridiculous. Not one thing she could see caused even the slightest tremor of recognition. She knew she was lost and this revelation sent a shiver of fear down the mountain of her back.
She decided she should pull over. She pulled the car to the side of the road and put it in park. The vehicle came to rest at a 45-degree angle, the long tail imposing itself nearly halfway into the eastbound lane. The traffic, however, had lightened considerably by this point, so it was easy for her to ignore the occasional blared reminder that she was not yet completely docked. She turned off the engine and looked around. She tried to read the street signs, but they were out of her range. She stared at the houses and tried to recall anything.
“Go to hell,” she said quietly as the last car sounded his horn throughout the entire process of maneuvering around her. She put her head in her hands and tried to see the map of the town. She reviewed her process. She retraced her steps and determined she could not possibly be lost. “This is stupid,” she said to herself, mercilessly. “Get yourself back on the road.” She started the engine, and turning her head as far as she could to see behind her, honked the horn to warn any unseen small children or animals, and started to pull out of the spot, slowly at first but speeding up at the end, barely missing a brand-new parked Excursion on the opposite side of the street and causing the owner to rush out to the street, arms raised, and several small children to gather. Fortunately, she did not hit the vehicle and left the scene, grateful to be moving again.
She was pretty sure all she had to do was to continue east and she would be back in her neighborhood. But when nearly eight blocks later she had not reached her destination, she knew she had a real problem. Somehow she had found her way into the industrial wasteland that hugged the city. This was a maze of abandoned buildings, open grassless spaces and threatening garbage. It was a regular contributor to the local evening news, a point of contention for the residents who believed nothing less than a conspiracy against the inhabitants could keep those buildings, forgotten by all but drug addicts and criminals, standing.
She knew she had to turn back, but she was at a complete loss as to where or how. Each street looked the same to her now and they all seemed to lead deeper into nowhere. She decided to turn the car around and head back the same way she came, but halfway into an awkward u-turn she realized the street was a one-way in the wrong direction. She paused and scanned the area for another that seemed to head the way she wanted. She tried it, but soon realized the slope of the curve was carrying her right back to where she started.
She looked at the car clock. It was nearly 7 p.m., the sky was completely dark and even the moon greedily held back its light. Exhaustion overcame her. She pulled the car over easily and neatly against a curb and almost immediately surrendered to sleep.