Memoir Excerpts: “William” and “The Emergency Room”

Memoir by Christola Phoenix


When and how William caught the eye of Mama and entered our lives, I’m not sure. But she probably got his attention on her way from work at her factory job, turning the corner on Lenox Avenue at 134th Street. She was short, with pretty bowlegs and a sassy walk. Mama was one of the thousands of Negroes who moved during the Great Migration from the terrors of the Jim Crow South to Northern cities. Harlem was the place most came when they arrived in New York. It was a city within a city. Landlords broke up large apartments into smaller ones and rented out rooms. They charged higher rents for smaller spaces.

For those employed, most as elevator operators, messengers, porters, dishwashers, domestics, and factory workers, they were paid less that whites for similar jobs. Everyone in our brownstone rooming house worked and hustled to scratch out a living and to send a few dollars back to families they left in the South.

William worked the corners of Lenox Avenue with his buddies, drinking Thunderbird wine all day; they pooled their change to a buy a pint.

“What’s the word? Thunderbird. What’s the price? Thirty twice.” That was their hustle jingle for want of sixty cents.

One day there were two of us in bed, and then one day we were three. William slept on the front, Mama in the middle, and me on the back facing the glossy green chipped painted wall. Just like chipped peeling paint, our lives began to peel away. He was the beginning of Mama’s end.

The summer of 1956, it was a hot, steamy, no-breeze evening. The fire hydrant sprinkler in front of our brownstone rooming was on. Some kids were running through it. Me, Bettyjean, Bitty, and some of the boys on the block, were playing “red light, green light, one two three.” The lamppost streetlights came on, a signal for us to head home. We all dashed in different directions up and down West 134th Street. I took the steps at the brownstone rooming house two at a time to the second floor landing. Our one room was in the back, which faced the backyard. A bit out of breath, I pushed the door open. William, Mama’s boyfriend, was in front of the dull brown wooden dresser with missing drawers. He stood wide-legged looking into the round mirror framed by the same matching dark wood, with black, dotted, burnt marks along the edge where he placed his lit cigarettes.

Mama sat on the edge of the metal frame bed. Her legs crossed at the ankles. She looked up when I came in, but said nothing. I sat in the backless chair, my butt made a good fit for the small wooden hole where cotton cushion and plastic covering used to be. My elbow rested on the small white table with specks of black dots peeping through the chipped enamel. The one burner hot plate on the table was unplugged. A quiet hung in the air. Most nights, he and Mama would be sipping on wine out of grape jelly or mayonnaise jars. I sensed something was wrong.

William rocked back and forth on heels of his tan brown leather shoes. He was tall, good looking. His smooth skin matched the color of light coffee. He wore tinted dark brown glasses all the time, which he lifted up and down constantly with his right hand, his pinky finger pointed upward. He held a handkerchief in his left hand and dabbed at the corners of his eyes. I heard through adult conversation that he suffered an eye injury when he was in the Army.

He pivoted from the mirror toward Mama. “Lee, give me the money. I’m not playin’ with you. Give me the fuckin’ money,” he said with a snakelike hiss.

“William, I don’t have any extra money. I have just enough to get food for us to eat,” Mama said in a pleading voice.

He kept his wallet, Pall Mall cigarettes, and a pearl-handled straightedge razor on the dresser. Most of the men who hugged the corners of Lenox Avenue had either a switchblade knife, which clicked open by the press of a small silver dot on the handle, or a straightedge razor. With the flip of the wrist, it gleamed its shiny blade. They sat on wooden milk crates cleaning under their fingernails with the point of the blades or flipping out their razors for show and sport.

Just like a snake, he uncoiled and his venom spewed. In a flash with the razor in hand, he lunged at Mama. “Bitch, give me the fuckin’ money!”

I flew across the room to Mama. So fast his hand came down and up, down and up, again and again. I saw colors of red and silver. Red wet blood dripping from the thin shiny blade. I was sandwiched in between. I was screaming; Mama was screaming. She couldn’t move. I tried to push him away. I tried. With one hand on her shoulder, he held her down, and slashed us both with the other. Strawberry-red blood all over us, and like in the movies, my screen faded to black.

When did he stop, who stopped him from cutting us, from killing us? Who called the police and how did we get to the hospital? There are some blurred memories of that night I can’t bring into focus, but I remember someone with big hands holding me, carrying me down the brownstone steps. I felt the night’s warm air on my bloodied naked leg. There were people on the stoops across the street, people standing on the curb. Water gushed from the hydrant. No one was playing in it.

The Emergency Room

My eyes opened to bright white light. There were voices distant, then near. “She’s going to be okay. That’s her mother over there,” one whispered.

The bright light hung from the ceiling. The walls of the room were shiny white. The air smelled cleaned, like when the janitor at my school mopped the bathroom floors. Men and women were moving fast. The face of the soft voice was pink. His lips were closed tight and curved downward. I turned my head to ‘over there,’ and there was Mama. We looked at each other from our stretchers.

I closed my eyes tight; I wanted to see me and Bettyjean, my best girlfriend, on the brownstone steps playing to be ‘grown-ups’ with our paper curls made out of old newspaper, clipped to the sides of our braided hair with bobby-pins, peanut hulls pinched onto our ear lobes, and holding candy cigarettes between our fingers. I opened my eyes. This was not a dream. Mama and I were in the emergency room of Harlem Hospital.

The man with the pink face had on a white shirt, with something shaped like a ‘Y’ hanging from his neck with a silverlike bell at the end of it. He put the end tips of the ‘Y’ in each ear. He rubbed the silver bell on the palms of his hand, and placed it on my chest. His ocean blue eyes met mine. He patted my forehead. The downward curve of his mouth turned upward. The ladies with brown faces in stiff white dresses moved about with quick steps. Their hats sat on their heads like a crown; a thin, black stripe streaked across the top just below the edge.

The right side of Mama’s face and around her head was wrapped in white bandages. It looked like she had the mumps. The second finger on my left hand, which dangled, was sewn back to one piece. The gash on my right thigh with pink fat showing, just below my private area, was stitched-up and bandaged.

I don’t remember the pain. I’m sure it hurt.

2017 Top 10 Finalist for the Still I Rise Grant for Black Women Writers

Christola Phoenix, RN, BSN, lives in New York. She is a lifetime resident of the Harlem Community. She retired from a dedicated nursing career of thirty-four years at Harlem Hospital Medical Center, the same hospital she was born in. She began her writing journey at Gotham Writers Workshop. She has also studied at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and The Creative Nonfiction Conference in Pittsburgh. She is a finalist for the 2017 Still I Rise Grant for Black Women Writers, and the recipient of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference 2017 Katherine Bakeless Nason Scholarship for Nonfiction. She is working on her first book, Paper Curls and Peanut Earrings, a coming-of-age memoir set in Harlem. This is her first publication. You can find more about her at her website.