BELONGING

by

Kathleen Glassburn

 

It was our first time at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. We huddled in a back pew, my head resting on Mom’s arm, Markie fidgeting on her other side.

Reverend Newton stood in front of the altar and announced in a booming voice that made me jerk upright: “The Youth Choir starts today. Besides joy in praising God with song, each member will earn two weeks at Camp Duncan. So, children, see you in the loft.” He pointed at three pews to the side.

Gathering her purse and sweater for a quick exit, Mom said, “Do you want to join the choir, Anne?”

I can see myself, with pleading, brown eyes, saying, “I really do.”

“Your father will have to wait to eat.” She cooked delicious Sunday dinners of fried chicken or pot roast. Turning to my little brother, she went on, “If Anne’s doing this, you can sing in the choir too.”

“I want to stay,” Markie whined.

“It might be fun.”

With a sniff of disgust, I grabbed his hand.

We had moved to another Minneapolis apartment, the fifth in my seven years. Dad kept promising that someday we’d have a real house. When he found employment as a bricklayer, he brought in good money. When he didn’t have a job, which happened through the winter months, at least there wasn’t much rent. He and Mom were caretakers in these many buildings, each a better deal than the last. This Hopper Street apartment, in a gloomy basement, looked out on an alley. The raucous shouts of garbage collectors and the bang—bang—bang of barrels being emptied awakened me every Tuesday morning.

It took several minutes for the choir director, Mrs. Ashworth, who had a huge bosom pooching out from a low, round neckline, to organize the twenty or so children gathered. A subdued Markie hovered close to me. The other boys tussled like a pack of friendly mutts. The girls chattered like a farmyard full of hens. One girl, with inky-dark blue eyes and a face blank as an empty page, stood against the wall, watching. She had been in my Sunday School class. Tilting her head toward me, she squinted as if measuring my height.

Eventually we were arranged in the loft. I was placed in the front pew and Markie at the end of the back pew. He looked ready to bolt. To my right, closest to the altar, sat Emily Price, the watchful girl. She was half a head taller than me.

Mrs. Ashworth took a deep breath, her bosom rising like a bowl of bread dough, and clapped her hands to quiet the ruckus. “I want to teach you one of my favorites—‘The Saints of God.’”

This hymn brought pictures to my mind: folks at tea; a shepherdess on the green; a knight killing some fierce, wild beast.

“In a month I want you to sing for the congregation,” Mrs. Ashworth said. “Do you think we can make that happen?”

No one responded.

“Remember, participation in choir means two weeks at Camp Duncan.”

“Yessss, Mrs. Ashworth,” we said in unison.

“I sing a song of the saints of God/Patient and brave and true…”

In half an hour Mrs. Ashworth said, “That’s enough for today.”

Emily shifted toward me. “You have a really good voice.”

“So do you.” It seemed polite to say this, even though, while floating off to faraway places with my singing, I hadn’t noticed.

“Let’s get some cookies.”

“Sure, but I have to bring my brother.” He was nowhere to be seen.

Upon entering the church hall, I spotted Mom. Markie stood behind her like a shadow. She sipped coffee, listening to a woman who kept waving a hand back and forth as if leading the choir herself. This woman’s black hair streaked with gray made her look like someone’s grandma.

“That’s my mother,” Emily said.

Mrs. Price wasn’t partnered up with a man. I soon found out that Emily’s father, similar to my own, never went to church.

“Can Anne come to play?” she asked.

“Certainly,” Mrs. Price said. “How about this afternoon?”

“Do you want to?” Mom leaned close and I caught a whiff of something fresh, like the fragrance of early morning flowers.

“I do.” Visiting other people’s real houses, with plenty of room for everyone, fascinated me.

I hopped in the backseat of Mrs. Price’s blue Oldsmobile next to Emily and gave a cheerful wave to Mom and Markie, standing hand-in-hand on the curb. At the time I failed to see how deserted they must have looked. A pine-smelling cardboard tree hung from the car’s rearview mirror. It failed to cover up the odor of cigarettes.

* * *

St. Barnabas, with its grand history, stood down the block from our building. The mayor and university president attended. Many of the families lived in mansions on Lake Beckwith Boulevard, a few miles from the Hopper Street neighborhood. In between was Emily’s three-story, stucco house on Oldhaven Avenue.

Standing on the sidewalk, I thought, It’s big! I didn’t notice the peeling blue trim.

Inside Emily pointed to a pink powder room. “Let’s wash up.” In our apartment there was one all-purpose bathroom with a tub/shower.

On the way to dinner, I peeked at the living room. Hundreds of books filled built-in shelves.

Once we were seated at the shiny mahogany table, I waited for someone to say Grace. Mom and Markie and I prayed before meals. Instead Mr. Price said, “Pass your plates,” with that same blank face Emily often assumed. He carved the chicken, which looked as dark as a Brazil nut.

She and I asked for white meat.

“They want breasts.” Her oldest brother, Geoffrey, was about sixteen.

Pretending not to hear him, I spread a thick, paper napkin across my lap. Each of the others had silver rings with white, linen napkins rolled inside. Loopy, engraved letters made the rings look like something for royalty. I later realized these were called monograms and that the silver needed polishing.

Once everyone started to eat, I pressed my fork into lumpy mashed potatoes and stirred mushy mixed vegetables. A fancy chandelier made up for what the meal lacked. At that time I didn’t see cobwebs winding through the candle-like lights. My food tasted as bland as dry toast. Still, I ate everything.

Mrs. Price said, “Do you want another serving?”

“Yes, please.”

She smiled broadly, showing yellow teeth.

“As much as you eat, you should be bigger than Em.” Geoffrey leered at me.

I scrunched lower in my chair.

“Rude!” The other brother, Bradley, was about a year younger than Geoffrey.

The two boys went to St. Barnabas High, where Emily attended elementary school.

Mrs. Price, who, according to Emily, spent all her time doing “guild stuff,” talked during that first dinner about new altar cloths and people who dedicated floral arrangements and an upcoming wedding of a Lake Beckwith neighborhood couple.

Mr. Price wore a blue sweater draped over his shoulders. He didn’t say a word after serving our chicken. By contrast, my talkative father brought up the Democratic Party and upcoming elections and unions while we ate.

I learned that Mr. Price sailed in the summer and skied in the winter and worked in Mrs. Price’s father’s stock brokerage and seldom read a thing. When we were by ourselves, Emily filled me in on lots of family details.

Near the meal’s conclusion Mrs. Price said, “You didn’t clean your plate, Emily. No dessert.”

Pushing the last of some peas onto a fork with my pointer, I waited for anything tasty.

“Anne dear, use a bit of dinner roll, not your fingers,” Mrs. Price said.

I hid my hands in my lap.

(After Mrs. Price dropped me off at the apartment, I filled my mother in on the wonders of Emily’s house and some of my awkward moments. When I told her about rolls for pushers, she blurted out, “Well…I never!”)

While Mrs. Price stepped away for dessert, Emily said, “I’ll wait ’til you finish the bananas and cottage cheeeese.”

Not even a cherry. My mother would have put this yucky stuff out as an optional side dish. I took a tiny bite and said, “I’m sorry. I’m full.”

Geoffrey said, “It’s about time.”

Bradley said, “Nasty!”

“That’s enough, boys,” Mrs. Price said. “You girls may be excused.”

* * *

            A large room took up almost the whole third floor. Streaky dormer windows faced the street. There were three doors, one to a bathroom. Used towels strewn around made a musty smell, like in a swimming pool’s changing area. The other closed doors went to Geoffrey’s and Bradley’s bedrooms. A slouchy, gray sofa sat across from the television. I figured Mr. and Mrs. Price came up here for programs.

My parents snuggled every night on our tan sofa for Milton Berle, The Honeymooners, or I Love Lucy. In hysterics, Markie and I would roll around on the linoleum when the ditzy lady pulled her antics.

A metal climbing structure, like a jungle gym at the park across two busy streets from our building, filled one corner. A wooden slide, about which Emily said, “Be careful. You might get a sliver,” stood beside it. A trapeze was bolted into the high ceiling. “Look what I can do!” She hung from her knees. Her dress made a tent around her face, revealing tattered, white underpants. A dollhouse, tucked in a dormer, looked like one of the brick mansions on Lake Beckwith Boulevard. She said, “My grandfather built that for me. It’s an exact replica of where Mother grew up.”

“Did your father live by her?”

“He came from inner-city Chicago.”

I wasn’t sure what “inner-city” meant but decided that the Hopper Street neighborhood, with its once-beautiful buildings, might be described this way.

* * *

            The next Saturday Markie said, “I’ll go to Sunday School, but I’m not singing in that dumb choir.”

“What about you, Anne?”

“I want to do it all. Will I be invited over to Emily’s?”

“I don’t know but you need to reciprocate.”

“What’s that mean?”

“She should visit here.”

“Alright.” I looked into Markie’s and my bedroom, cluttered with Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs and trucks, hoping her visit wouldn’t happen for a long time.

Mom got a call from Mrs. Price that very day. Afterward I heard her say to Dad, “…awfully bossy…” and “…almost demanded…”

I got to go for a sleepover.

In her second floor room, Emily gestured to a twin bed. “That’s yours.”

Her carpet, where we sat cross-legged and played Go to the Dump, was dark green and velvety-feeling except on the worn spots. The wallpaper that came apart at a few seams was covered with lilacs, making it feel as if we were sitting on the ground with high, blooming bushes all around. Next to the bedroom was her very own bathroom with a claw-footed tub.

Across a hall, wide as the one by my principal’s office, was another large room with a single bed.

“That’s where Mother sleeps,” Emily said.

As I studied the room, she added, “My father sleeps in his den downstairs.”

On weekend mornings Markie and I crowded in our parents’ bed. The sheets carried a sweet smell like my mother.

That night Emily and I ate toasted cheese sandwiches and watched television in the third floor room that we had to ourselves because the boys were out.

“When will your mom and dad come up here?”

“He’s always gone on Saturday night—all night.” Emily shrugged.

When we got tired, she led me back down to the second floor. I saw Mrs. Price in her bedroom, sitting on a green brocade-covered chair, listening to what, in the future, I identified as Bach. She never looked up from stitching needlepoint. A crystal tumbler of brown liquid sat on a small table next to her. Beside the tumbler a matching crystal ashtray held her smoldering cigarette.

“Bradley says Mother’s booze helps her sleep,” Emily said.

* * *

            She became my weekend best friend—a lucky thing because our family continued to move, causing me to change regular schools and every-other-day best friends almost annually. Music had brought us together, and we continued to sing much of the time. Her favorite pop song was “Blue Suede Shoes.” Emily wiggled her hips and did an imitation of Elvis, dark hair slicked back with her father’s Brylcreem. “You can be Pat Boone,” she would say. “Your soft hair is the same color as his.” My song was “April Love.”

Occasionally Emily did stay with us. I shoved all Markie’s junk in the closet beforehand, and he slept on the sofa.

One Saturday night we piled into Dad’s old Ford and went to a drive-in movie. Raintree County was playing.

“That was great,” Emily said afterward, and I agreed, even though parts had gone over my head.

Before the next day’s church service, I heard Mrs. Price telling Mom, “That was not an appropriate film for the girls.”

My mother rolled her eyes. Markie and I followed her into a back pew while Mrs. Price and Emily headed for theirs up front.

* * *

            In the summer we took a bus to Camp Duncan on Woods Lake—a session for girls up to sixth grade. Seven of us and a teenaged counselor stayed in each cabin. Almost always, Emily and I shared a bunkbed with her on top. At campfire singalongs we started out with songs like “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,” rocking our bodies back and forth. Everyone agreed I should do solos. Singing something like “The Saints of God,” I’d tingle from my toes on up to my ponytail. We’d end chanting the “Nunc dimittis” while gazing into glimmering embers, our shirts and shorts and hair picking up the smell of smoke, our shoulders touching.

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace…”

The last night of camp we had a special program. Each cabin performed a skit and awards were presented. I usually received Best Singer and Emily received Best Swimmer. A special honor was Best All Around Camper, given to a sixth grader.

The first four years are a happy blur. I remember crying each time our session was over, and Emily, close to me on a bus seat, saying, “I wish we could live together forever.”

The fifth year remains etched in my mind.

* * *

            After our idyllic fourth time, Emily became too busy to talk on the telephone or get together. She and Bradley were crewing on her father’s sailboat.

At last autumn arrived and she invited me for a Saturday overnight.

Sixth grade was still elementary school for me, but Emily’s sixth grade was the start of junior high. Her brother Geoffrey attended the University of Minnesota, where he lived in a fraternity house. Bradley didn’t go to college or work and still lived at home.

In the afternoon Emily took me to Geoffrey’s old room and reached under the mattress and pulled out a worn magazine. “This is Playboy…what do you think?”

A blonde woman spread across the middle pages had a bare bosom, as big as Mrs. Ashworth’s, but the rest of her was much smaller. “Didn’t she get embarrassed?”

Emily scrutinized me in her blank way before pushing that magazine back under the mattress.

We were in her bathroom, bobby-pinning our hair into elaborate styles that fell out as soon as we moved, when she said, “I’ll bet your parents have sex all the time.”

I held my comb mid-air. “I don’t know.”

“They’re always hugging.”

Mom had told me about sex and said it was special, for when you were married. I thought they’d done it twice because this was the way to get Markie and me.

Emily glanced sideways. “Dad does it with Roberta.” And, with my questioning expression, “She’s the receptionist at The Club.”

“How do you know?”

“Bradley told me she’s his mistress.”

It was a stifling evening, and we sat on Emily’s porch swing until the sun went down, singing some of our old favorites, swaying rhythmically: “Mairzy Doats” and “White Coral Bells” and “Frere Jacques.”

Suddenly she dragged her foot, causing the swing to lurch to a stop. “I know what to do with my boyfriend when the time comes…Bradley showed me.” Her shoulders squared for a few seconds before they crumpled. Then she started swinging faster than ever and we quit singing.

After our toasted cheese sandwiches upstairs, we settled into the familiar twin beds in her garden-like room. Once the lights were off, she said, “I have a boyfriend.”

“You do?”

“We’ve kissed lots of times. I let him feel me up.”

I bunched the blanket around my ears and pretended to fall asleep.

* * *

Emily’s new choir friend, Monica, lived in the Lake Beckwith neighborhood, went to St. Barnabas School, and had a boyfriend too. When I heard that she and this girl would be bunkmates at camp the following summer, a gripping pain settled in under my tiny developing breasts. I’m not going!

Mrs. Ashworth said, “This’ll be your last year. They need your lovely voice.”

I ignored her.

My mother said, “It would be a chance to practice your singing.”

So I changed my mind.

The other girls at camp were paired up, except for me and fat, pimply Frances, who lived by Monica. We were assigned to be bunkmates in a cabin several doors away from Emily’s. Everywhere I went Frances tagged along, jabbering, “It’s so much fun doing things together.”

From afar I watched Emily and Monica, whispering and laughing and giving each other easy pokes. One afternoon they were missing for hours. Counselors flew into a tizzy until the two showed up for dinner, where they behaved as if nothing had happened.

Frances, who knew everything, said, “Their boyfriends hitchhiked out here and met them in the woods.”

A day or so later, trying unsuccessfully to lose her, I headed down a deserted path to the boathouse. There huddled Emily and Monica, smoking.

Frances gave me a nudge. “Should we report them?”

“I don’t want to be a tattletale.”

Toward the end of our two weeks, Emily approached me. “Come to our cabin after lights out.”

“Sure.” I hoped she didn’t see my trembling.

“Bring Frances if you can’t get rid of her.”

In the dark she and I entered Emily’s cabin. Scantily dressed girls carried gleaming flashlights and talked in a garbled way and passed a bottle around.

The counselor, Monica’s older sister, Sharon, said, “If you two want to belong in our club, you have to take your shirts off. Show us what you got.”

Frances fumbled with a button as I backed away. “You don’t have to do this.” They would howl at the rolls of fat beneath her large breasts.

“I want to be part of their club.”

“I’m leaving. You can go with me.”

She shook her head.

Emily scowled at me. “You don’t belong here anyhow.”

I stumbled out the door and back to my cabin. I scrambled up to my bunk. I listened to the other girls’ sighs and snores, trying to fall asleep on my wet pillow. When Frances crawled in the bottom bunk, I smelled something sort of sickly sweet and sort of like she’d thrown up. I heard muffled sobs which made me consider, What’s it like to be a Lake Beckwith neighborhood girl who’ll never fit in?

We had our special program the last night. All I wanted was to go home. Still, I barely could conceal my disappointment when Reverend Newton handed out awards. A fourth grader who lived close to Frances and always went flat got Best Singer. Monica was chosen Friendliest. At last he dramatically cleared his throat and boomed, “I’m proud to announce Best All Around Camper for 1959. This year’s choice goes to a girl we all love and respect—Emily Price.”

* * *

In September Mom answered a telephone call and, after a minute, said, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Ashworth. Anne can’t be in Advanced Choir. We’ve moved too far away. It won’t be convenient to attend St. Barnabas any longer.”

She hung up and saw me, and her face turned so red that the freckles disappeared. “You shouldn’t have heard.”

Truth was my parents were restoring an old brick house in the Hopper Street neighborhood with plenty of rooms for all of us.

“Singing in my junior high choir is better.”

The next Sunday morning, while she stirred waffle batter in our torn-apart kitchen, I overheard Mom say to Dad, “I’ll never have to put up with that woman again.”

For a while I wanted to see Emily. For a while I wished she’d call so I could hang up. After a while I forgot about her—most of the time.

 

THE END