The Poole family lived on Frailey Way. Jimmy was ten. His sister Anna was nine and his brother Mike was four. They had a mother and father, but Jimmy was the designated adult.
There was a knock on the door of the Poole’s home. Mrs. Poole grabbed little Mike and whisked him to Anna’s room. Surprised by her sudden action, Mike stopped wailing.
“Anna, someone is at the door. Please watch Mike while they are here.”
“Yes, Mother.” They had to call her “Mother.” She said that only low class, ignorant people said “Ma” or “Mom.”
A change came over Mrs. Poole when she was in the presence of those whom she considered “people of quality.” Her bearing no longer had its usual weariness and despair. She stood straight and walked confidently. Her voice altered and she sounded like a completely different person. The children could see a change and hear the difference in her voice. They couldn’t know that she had stepped into a wholly different place and time, or so it seemed to her.
She opened the door. “Why, hello, Miss Himes. How nice it is to see you. Won’t you come in, please?” (Miss Himes was the Parish Visitor for the Armistead Gardens Presbyterian Church.)
“Thank you, Mrs. Poole. It has been such a pleasure to have your three children in Sunday School. They are there every Sunday. I know that when children attend Sunday School so faithfully that it is because they have parents who know the importance of Christian teaching. You haven’t been coming with your children. We would love to have you take part in our women’s class.”
Miss Himes was dressed in an attractive cotton dress with a flowery print. She had added a white lace removable collar. She wore a white straw hat with a wide wavy brim decorated with a large daisy. She was wearing light beige nylon stockings; her shoes were low heels, white with blue trim.
Mrs. Poole was wearing a shabby cotton dress, thin with wear, whose pattern had been washed out. But she imagined that she too was in a summery dress. She could smell the rose water she fancied she had splashed on herself after a long relaxing bath. She was entertaining Miss Himes in genteel surrounding, not a house in a low-rent project. There would soon be a pitcher of lemonade and nice tall frosted glasses brought out by the maid. What was taking the maid so long?
“Mrs. Poole, you must have come from a Christian home and background yourself. What church did you gow up in?”
“My mother and her family were United Brethren. That is the church to which I belong; Jimmy and Anna were baptized in that church.”
“I am from Pennsylvania. I belonged to the United Brethren church all my life. The church I am working for in Armistead Gardens and where Jimmy, Anna, and Mike have been attending Sunday School is Presbyterian. It is the only Protestant church in this community.”
“My husband and his family are Presbyterians.”
“Invite him to take you to church with him.”
“Yes….you do that.”
The mention of her husband suddenly brought her back to reality. She felt uncomfortable. She was painfully aware and ashamed of her shabby dress and worn-out shoes.
“Where are the children?”
“Jimmy is at the library. He sometimes stays there until they close at 6:00 P.M. Anna has Mike back in her room entertaining him.”
“Well, I’ll run along. Please remember that you have a cordial invitation to the women’s Sunday School class at the Presbyterian Church. And your husband can come to the men’s class. Both classes meet while your children are in Sunday School.”
“Thank you for coming to see us, Miss Himes. Come again whenever you can.”
Glenda Poole went to the sofa torn between hope and despair. There was no food and no money in the house. Today is payday. If her husband comes home from work, they will go to the Acme Market and buy several bags of groceries. If he doesn’t come home…
Tom Poole would sometimes go on drinking sprees of two and three days. During that time, he would drink up or otherwise waste away his pay for two weeks work. They lived from payday to payday and by payday there was no food or money.
The next day there was fork toast for breakfast, one slice for each of the children. Mrs, Poole told them she wasn’t hungry. There was no bus fare so Jimmy and Anna couldn’t go to school that day. There was no food for the rest of the day. That afternoon Mrs. Poole found a dime while sorting the dirty clothes.
“Jimmy, I found a dime. I want you to take the bus to Monument and Kresson Streets and see if you father is in the saloon. If he is, tell him to come home. We need money for food before the store closes.”
When Baltimore had streetcars, the terminus of several streetcar lines was at Monument and Kresson Streets. A block-long car barn was there. Half of the old car barn was now used by Baltimore Transit Company to park and maintain buses. The other half was now a very large saloon.
Jimmy was afraid to go on the bus alone at a time when mostly adults were on it. He was even more afraid to go into that big saloon. He had only seen it from the bus window. What would he do if his father wasn’t there? He didn’t have a dime to ride the bus back home and it was a very, very long walk along the highway to get back home. Jimmy knew that he couldn’t tell his mother how scared he was or ask her what to do if his father wasn’t there. She would just cry.
“Be careful, Jimmy.”
He walked to the bus stop and waited for a bus to come.
“Jimmy, what are you doing, waiting on the bus?” It was a lady who he had seen at church, Mrs. Krantz. She was awfully nosy, but he was glad someone he knew would be on the bus with him. There might be bad people on the bus.
“Yes, ma’am, I have to run an errand for my mother.”
The bus came and they got onto it. Jimmy was glad that he could sit next to Mrs. Krantz. He was thankful that the noise of the bus engine made it impossible for her to ask any more questions. He was ashamed of his errand. Too soon the bus arrived at Monument and Kresson.
He went into the saloon. It was a very large room with heavy, dark wooden tables and chairs. The bar was on the wall opposite the entrance doors. It stretched the whole length of the room. Bottles of various colored spirits behind the bar sparkled like jewels. Neon logos of different brands of beer hung on the walls providing the only illumination in the otherwise dark and dank room.
The air was cloudy with cigarette smoke. At the tables men were talking, drinking, and smoking, but none of them seemed happy or friendly. They were dressed in work clothes soiled from the day’s work. Their clothes gave off the odor of where they worked – grease and cinders from the railroaders, a garbage like smell from workers at the olive oil plant, and the smell of pickles from the men who worked in the pickle factory across Monument Street from the saloon.
One of the men challenged him, “Hey, kid, whatda yuz doin’ in here?”
Jimmy’s fright turned to terror. Then he saw that his father was seated alone at the bar. Jimmy hurried to the stool where his father was seated. His father turned his back away from him. He tugged at his father’s trouser leg.
“Hey, Tom, the old lady sent one of the brats to bring you home.” The men all laughed.
“What do you want?”
“Mother sent me to ask you to come home. We haven’t eaten all day and the store will close in a couple hours.”
“Here’s some money. Tell her I’ll come home when I am good and ready to come home.” Angrily grabbing some bills and change off the bar, he threw them on the floor. Jimmy was shaking so hard that it was with difficulty he picked up the money from the floor. Down at floor level there was the smell of beer, tobacco, urine and vomit in the drafts of air. He was afraid that he would throw up or cry.
“I won’t cry, not in front of my father, not ever!”
He kept a dime for the bus fare and stuffed the rest of the money in his jacket pocket and zippered it shut. He didn’t remember the bus ride home.
Jimmy handed his mother the bills and change.
“What did your father say?”
“He said he’d come home when he was good and ready to come home.”
She gave an angry response to her absent husband, slammed the money on the kitchen table, stomped into the living room, threw herself onto the sofa, and commenced intermittently screaming and sobbing. Anna turned and silently went to her room. Mike stood in the middle of the room wailing and looking confused.
Jimmy took a dollar from the money she had thrown on the table. He ran out the door to go to the Acme Market. Baked beans, macaroni and cheese, bread. Maybe there will be enough for oleo.
By the time they had eaten, it was nearly bed time. Jimmy went to the room he shared with Mike. While his mother was getting Mike ready for bed, he lay on his bed and cried through his pain and fear and confusion, muffling it with his pillow.
Sometime after he had gone to sleep, he was awakened by his father coming into the house and slamming the door. There was a loud argument. He could tell that his mother was being hit. She ran into his room and hid under the double bed. His father staggered through the house looking for her, then detoured into the bathroom to noisily expel two days of drinking. After that, his father must have gone to sleep. The house was quiet again. His mother crawled out from under his bed.
Jimmy waited for a while, then tiptoed up the hall to check on his mother. She was sitting at the chrome dinette set in the kitchen. One eye was swollen, her cheek had an angry red spot, and one of her lips was puffy. She was humming a French song she learned in high school.
Alouette, gentil alouette,
Alouette, je te plumerai.
Je te plumerai la tete, je te plumerai la tete,
Et la tete, alouette.
He looked into the living room and saw a big smear of mustard on the wall. A bag with hot dogs was lying on the floor below it. They were still warm. They had chili, mustard, and onions! He put the bag in the refrigerator. In the bathroom he got a wet wash rag and tried to clean the mustard off the wall. Then he went back to bed.