Loudly Momma was singing “Stop in the name of Love” by the Supremes. It was definitely Saturday, and we were cleaning the house from top to bottom to Motown Music on the radio. We always listened to WILD radio―shoot, on Saturday, you could hear it in stereo throughout our entire building. They played all the songs that made you want to move and clean the house. By the time the music changed, we were almost done.
My mom told me that it was Ma Pearl’s birthday, and we were going to surprise her by baking her favorite 7-Up cake. Ma Pearl and my mom were the tenants who had lived the longest in our building on Humboldt Avenue.
As I began to spray the window with cleaner, I noticed Ma Pearl leaning out of her second-floor kitchen window wearing bright red lipstick and smoking a cigarette. The other windows were covered with so many plants, they looked like chlorophyll curtains. She sat completely still, peering down the street as if she was summoning something or someone. She didn’t look down at the kids playing on the stoop of her brownstone, although by now she would have yelled at them or even thrown cold water out of her window claiming she was watering her plants, even though there weren’t any in that particular window.
I watched her from my third-floor window. She looked especially sad and transfixed on chain-smoking cigarette after cigarette for what seemed like hours. You could see the smoke rings dance across the soft wrinkles etched in her face. Ma Pearl was going to be 70 years old today, but her deep mahogany skinned was radiant, along with her salt-and-pepper hair. Her smoking mimicked a weightlifter determined to get his reps in before his main event.
The digital clock in my bedroom now said 12:12 p.m. I noticed she had not budged from the window, although she usually watched the afternoon news on channel 5. I knew this because it would play so loudly from her apartment that it bounced off the plastered walls in the hallway. My mom often joked that she played her TV loudly as an excuse to not answer her door when anyone knocked. My mom also said that Ma Pearl once was a very nice lady. She was a lead teacher at the daycare center where she had taught for 25 years. She also said that when I was small, she watched my sister and me whenever my mom had to work late at the clinic. When I asked why she stopped babysitting us, my mom would just say that something happened to Ma Pearl that made her so depressed, she was not able to take care of us anymore. I wondered what could make her so sad that she would stop taking care of my sister and me; we were really well behaved, or at least I thought so. The more I pushed for the real answer, the more my mom frowned at me; I knew to leave it alone. I knew my mom loved Ma Pearl because after all these years, she still slipped an envelope under her door with fifty bucks in it every month.
As I watched Ma Pearl, she slowly switched her glance toward the street. A tall, slender man sauntered down the street as if he was doing a slow drag. He wore a white shirt and khaki-colored linen pants that flowed behind his legs like wings in the wind. He had on a maroon fedora hat that didn’t budge in the breeze sweeping down the city block. He was dark skinned with a chiseled jaw and deep-set brown eyes that gently peaked out from under his brow. He stopped just below her window, and she returned his deep stare. This stare challenge was intense, but suddenly, he softened his gaze at Ma Pearl. Although tears streamed down her face, she never uttered a word. She meticulously lit another cigarette. She seemed to blow out the smoke effortlessly, watching it travel downward toward the street. The man arched his back as if he needed courage. He yelled, “I am here now. Open the door.” He repeated himself at least three to four times, but Ma Pearl acted like the best statue smoking a cigarette I ever saw. I wanted to tell my mom what was going on with Ma Pearl, but I could not bring myself to leave the window or this duel. I just knew Ma Pearl was going to ring the buzzer for apartment G4 to let him in, but she sat there letting every tear she had inside roll down her face. The tears seemed to get bigger and bigger and wet her bright pink blouse, but her stoic face never changed. The man slowly raised his hands in the air and began uttering, “Ma Pearl, we have more time. I know you got time for me…”
He faced the window, ignoring her tears, and then turned around and began walking back down the street. He removed his hat from his head, looked down at the gold ring on his left hand. He began yelling, “Ma Pearl, I am sorry I did not come back sooner. I thought you would wait for me!”
Ma Pearl abruptly left the window and returned with a vase of long stemmed red roses and a white ceramic framed wedding picture. She threw them out the window and they shattered loudly on the ground below.
AUTUMN REIGN is a public health educator, restorative practices facilitator, and community engagement specialist. She is especially interested in working with youth on setting goals and accessing secondary education. She works in the community to bring awareness about the maternal health crisis for women of color, restorative practices in education, and high quality youth development programming.