The long dark tunnel leaned upwards, rippled with stairs – an endless avalanche of wood and walls marching, moving towards me, passing me to gather like storm clouds behind my back. In the lower parts of my body was a growing pressure. A pressure I had recently been taught to respect. A pressure that should only be relieved up there at the top of the tunnel where the sunlight was bouncing around off the gleaming tiles. Leaning forward with my hand on the second step, I reviewed all the methods for climbing stairs.
Now, the pressure was so great that any attempt to raise my leg to take the first step would let it all come spilling out. I tried clamping my knees together and raising my foot, hoping to hook it on the slippery varnished stair. Again and again, my foot fell, like wood to wood.
When that failed, all hope failed. As I dropped my head back on my shoulder to see up the now even higher stack of stairs, anger at my trapped and hopeless situation cried for escape.
As upon command, I was outside of myself, standing a bit to my left, behind me, watching me. I saw standing in the dim stairwell, a curly haired toddler, about fourteen months old, wearing a white sweater that hunched up in the back over a knitted polo shirt, thin cotton underpants, white knee socks, one drooping down over the top of the high laced brown leather shoes. Suddenly, the warm liquid was running down my legs into those brown shoes. I was no longer the observer, but the child who was whimpering, "No, oh please, no."
The wads of protection, the layers of all that swaddled me against the pains and indignities of babyhood closed in again. Later, one corner came unpinned permitting me to hear:
"Dorothy, why did you have to spank her so hard just for wetting her pants? She was trying to get upstairs to the bathroom. She simply didn't make it in time."
"Joe, she's got to learn to come to me before it is too late. She shouldn't just stand there and bawl until she has to go so badly she can't even walk."
"It just seems to me that spanking her is rather drastic. She only learned to walk and..."
"Look, I'm the one who has to clean up after her and I am sick and tired of all the puddles and the laundry and the wet shoes and the smell. I want her trained as soon as possible, like yesterday."
"It just felt wrong to me when you were spanking her so."
"Do you want to take over the job of toilet training her?"
"I didn't think so!"
It was at least a year before the picture book of childhood opened again.
Near our front door, in the living room, was a small curly-carved table that held magazines in its lower pocket. Covering it was a doily made of tie-dyed rayon velvet, tinted with jagged crystals of orange, brown and green. Around the edges was a knotted fringe of long silky threads that hung down over the edge of the table in a hairy triangle.
My pleasure was to touch any part of that doily.
I'd start by bringing my hand upward gradually, pausing, advancing, until the longest thread was just grazing my palm. Back and forth, I would sway, feeling the tickle of a couple more threads, secure in the knowing that when I wanted, I could raise my hand higher so even more strings would slither by tickling my skin. Then more and more, higher and higher, until I had a whole handful of squirming mauveness, dripping between my fingers. Still higher were the uniform bumpiness of the knots to pinch and knead, before my fingers rasped the scratchiness of dyed velvet.
In itself, this was a harmless pleasure. One I could have enjoyed repeatedly if it hadn't been for a cut glass vase that sat in the center of the velvet doily, holding a bunch of dead flowers. Either the vase or the flowers held some significance for my mother because as soon as she saw me reaching out for my doily, she would shout, "Jane Ellen, don't touch that! You have your toys to play with. That is mine. You are not to touch it!"
But I did. While mother was at work, I stayed with the lady who lived with her new husband on the left side of the duplex house. I would tell Mrs. Hope that I was going across the hall to get a toy so I could sneak to the table to touch the fringes.
One day, as I stood there in secret, my hand full and running over with slippery gratification – I was almost to the knots, I saw a dark coated form coming up the steps to the porch. It was my aunt Frieda who worked in the big store with so many clothes in the city. Seeing her here at our house at this time of the morning warned me that something was wrong. I felt I already knew the whole story of the accident, and yet, I needed the reality of Aunt Frieda’s lips to tell it.
Aunt Frieda was knocking on Mrs. Hope's door. My pleasure was now fading, so I went back across the hall to hear how she would describe the story in my head. Strong, proud Aunt Frieda was crying. Mrs. Hope was helping her to sit down on the couch, comforting her without words. Bubbling and blubbling, the phrases fell out of Aunt Frieda. She was so absorbed in the telling, and Mrs. Hopes in the hearing of the details, that neither one saw me standing there listening.
Last night, as Uncle George and Aunt Nellie were on their way home from Granddad's farm, a speeding car came from the darkness of the side road by the country store, and for reasons unclear, ran broadsides into Uncle George's old Dodge crashing against the passenger side – Aunt Nellie's side. The other driver was dead, but we didn't know him. Aunt Nellie, who made the nicest doll clothes in the whole world and really loved me, had her right arm cut so badly from the broken window glass they didn't know if they could save it. Today the doctor would decide if it must be cut off.
My own widening eyes must have made a noise louder than Aunt Frieda's sniffling. The two women looked up to see my horror.
To distract me and get me out of the room so she could hear the rest of the tale, Mrs. Hopes said, "You went to get your doll buggy. I don't see it. Run along and get it like you wanted to."
Deliberately I walked away making their voices smaller and smaller. I went to my doily, hoping for the pleasure there to stop the images in my mind.
Blood and a dozen broken eggs all over Aunt Nellie's shiny black fur coat. Doctors ripping off the sleeve of the coat to find part of her arm in it. This magic was stronger than the power of the tickling touches. The cut glass vase frightened me. I was afraid that what had happened to Uncle George and Aunt Nellie was my fault because I had been doing a forbidden act alone in the house when the knowing came to me. Now, I remembered mother saying something about the danger of getting cut here.
The doily became a troll on a bridge of a table, beckoning me to come back and play. Now I knew better; better how the crooked little table-man could cause bad things to happen to people I loved the most when I enjoyed feeling good. I learned to keep the opened door between me and the table troll as I went in and out the house. On windy days the fringes would wave and call to me, but I refused to be seduced, again.
One can't live long without pleasure, so it was shortly after this that I discovered a new comfort, done only alone, in secret, so no one else could hang hurt on my joy.
When mother wanted to dash to the grocery store without me – sometimes it was raining and too much trouble to bundle me up and dry me out after such a short trip, sometimes I was ill and couldn't go outdoors, and, sometimes I suspected that mother wanted a few minutes to stop being a mother – she would plunk me down on the corner of the gray brown scratchy couch that looked out the square front window. If I stayed on the couch the whole time she was gone, if I didn't get off once, she'd bring me a treat. She claimed to be able to know if I obeyed her while she was gone. I wasn't sure if she could tell if I walked on the rug so I played it safe by keeping my feet up in the air.
On the wall behind the couch hung a large picture. It wasn't the hard kind, all covered with glass. It was velvet stretched over a wooden frame. At the top and bottom were heavy plaster scrolls painted in real crumbling gold. When I dragged my fingers over the cloth, I could feel the nothingness behind it.
As mother went out the door, I would be sitting on the edge of the couch, pressing my face into the starch smell curtain, up against the cold glass until I could see in my mind the pattern of the roses in the lace with the tip of my nose. As soon as mother was safely down the walk, turning on to the sidewalk, I'd leap up, swing one leg over the back of the sofa, to dangle it into the dark that lives between furniture and walls. With my left toe barely resting on the cushion, I'd adjust myself so the hard, not very well padded, wooden back of the couch was perfectly centered between my legs. There I would rock back and forth, while brushing my fingers over the velvet midnight of the big picture. The deliciousness of the natural plush as compared to the varying degrees of harshness where the garish pinks, reds and purples were carelessly smeared, was a never ending source of surprise as satisfaction. My finger traced the edges of the painted surfaces, but my eye never looked for a picture to appear.
This was my secret joy, indulged in with eyes staring unseeing out the front window until mother loomed into view. In a jiffy, I'd swing my leg over the couch, slide down its plump back to be sitting innocently in the place where mother had left me. For all that, I got a penny candy, too.
It was years later, when the velvet picture hung on another wall, in another house, that I noticed there was a man there, on his knees, leaning on a rock, on which his hands lay clasped together. His eyes were raised upward where streams of yellow and white paint ran to his face. It was even more years before I learned that this painting was to represent Jesus in Gethsemane.