A Prayer for Geraldine

It was a working class neighborhood in Richmond Hill, Queens made of long blocks of long dark connecting houses that ended down by Jamaica Avenue where the elevated trains ran. I went to P.S. 66 just across 102nd Street along with all of my friends, doing all the stuff elementary school kids do, the red foil hearts taped to the windows on Valentine’s Day, the turkeys made from tracings of our hands at Thanksgiving, stuff like that. I was the last kid allowed to use a pen that year in the fourth grade. I still, to this day, don’t think my penmanship was so terrible as to warrant being the very last child in that class allowed to write with a pen. Crazy.

Summer vacation arrived breathlessly that year, the way it always did. A subtle warming after the Dance Fete in the Boys’ Schoolyard and a leap into weather that felt like the middle of August. The big sixth graders performed the Maypole Dance which signaled the end of the school year in a couple of weeks. Pastel dresses, head bands bedecked with ribbons and flowers, they looked like the ghosts of pagans as they danced, weaving in and out around the pole. The last day of school was a rush and tumble of children screaming out the classroom doors and home. Most would come back again next fall. Some I would never see again.

In our house, there was no air conditioning, just a big fan that pushed the air around in the cooler evenings while windows slammed shut during the day in some sort of compromise with the weather. I wound up spending a lot of my time outside when I was wasn’t stuck reading some library book my mother wanted me to read or practicing the piano. One day, when I was alone and tired from jumping off of our garage roof, I was bouncing a ball along the sidewalk when I heard a voice.

“Hello,” the voice said.

I looked up. “Hi,” I said.

“Can I play?” she asked.

I shrugged and bounced the ball her way. It was Geraldine from down the block. Everyone knew Geraldine. She lived with her grandmother who always dressed in black Old World European garb. Geraldine, who had blonde hair, wore glasses over her slightly almond shaped eyes. Geraldine with her broad gentle face and a mouth that never closed completely.

We played for half an hour or so before her grandmother called for her.

“Seeya tomorrow!” she yelled, waving.

“Okay, Geraldine!” I was happy to have had some company.

The neighbors across the street had a habit of taking my little sister to Jones Beach and leaving me behind. This meant Geraldine and I were able to get into whatever we could whether it was just going to the deli up the block, investigating the garages that ran behind all the houses down 102nd Street or running up and down the loading dock at the pipe factory by my house, arms extended pretending we could fly, the smell of cedar trees in the air.

About that time, I thought I should learn how to skate. I had those old skates that used a key to adjust to the size of your foot. I stood by our stoop looking anything but athletic. Geraldine grabbed my hand.

“Come on,” she said. “I won’t let you fall.”

And off we went, Geraldine holding my right hand in her sturdy left, giving a cheery “Whoops!” every time I stumbled. Not once did I fall or hurt myself that afternoon. She promised me I’d do better tomorrow.

It must have been then that my Mom caught us because that evening I was told never to play with Geraldine again. That she was what they called a “Mongoloid” and “you never know what they’re going to do.” I didn’t understand it. How could Geraldine who had never hurt me before ever even think of hurting me? It just wasn’t in her.

But that was the end of us.

She’d come to the door only to be turned away. Her grandmother would come to the door but the same thing would happen until, finally, they just stopped coming.

Halloween. My favorite holiday. Lewis of Woodhaven’s windows were crowded with jack o’ lanterns, Woolworth’s had costumes for sale, people decorated their houses early in September. New York is crazy for holidays of all kinds. I made my own trick or treat bag from a paper A&P sack as always, decorated our windows with cat dancers and my own drawings.

The doorbell rang. My Dad went to get it.

“Martha, you’ve got to see this,” he said. “They just left. Geraldine’s a little witch.”

I ran out the door, down the block and to the corner. There they were, Geraldine and her grandmother, both dressed in black, one with a witch’s hat and an orange plastic pumpkin, the other in Old World clothing. I watched as they retreated, fading into darkness, until I lost them in the crowd.

They say that time exists all at once; that we only perceive it as a line from here to there. I hope so because every so often I say a prayer for Geraldine. Maybe in that long lost world, whenever it is, things work out differently and perhaps won’t be as cruel.

I say a prayer because I’m so very sorry.

And because I was powerless to do anything else.