Lisa Patterson Lay, “The Rhythm of the Street,” “The Train Home,” and “Bite, Pull, Chew, Toss.”

The Rhythm of the Street

“Try again!” she commanded, now exasperated with his incompetence. He rubbed his sweaty palms on his shorts and, rocking to the rhythm of the two opposing ropes, sucked in his breath and jumped into the middle. But again, he found himself only tangled up in them. “I give up,” he muttered, stalking away now with his head down. His older sister began calling after him, but thought better and stopped herself. “See you at home,” she called to his retreating defeated figure. “Tell mom I’ll be there in time for supper.”

He waved backward in acknowledgment without looking and continued on his kicking way. He thought again of all the careful instructions his sister had given him, how he had to feel the beat of the ropes in his body, feel the rhythm in his feet. She had him practice the skipping motion without ropes over and over and he thought he had it. It was only in the getting in that he stumbled, like an elusive magic portal to another dimension, one for which he lacked the key.

All the girls on the block, and some of the boys too made it seem effortless. Zip, they were in and skipping, turning, even flipping all within the sacred space between the ropes. He could hear the pat, pat, pat of the ropes in the distance as he walked, skipping a little in his stride to match the beat. It was a lot like dancing, his sister had said, although he was not so sure he liked the sound of that. Dancing was for sissies. Still, in another place within him, he liked – no – loved that idea. He had seen and was enthralled by Singin’ In the Rain, West Side Story and Stomp the Yard.

As he side stepped lightly up his family’s brownstone stairs, he heard his mama singing from the open kitchen window. “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy.” He heard her smoky, bluesy voice wafting out and up into the summer city air. “Fish are jumping,” he bellowed from the door, doing his best Porgy, “and the cotton is high.” Mama straightened and turned to look at him as he walked into the apartment.

“Hi baby,” she said, as if she knew he would be standing there. “Set the table please,” and handed him four plates and forks.

 

The Train Home

The ride home was at once interminably hot and also strangely tranquil. The woman sat uncomfortably on the un-airconditioned 7 Train as it wound and squealed its way through the blackened tunnels of Manhattan and into the elevated sunlight of Queens. “Flushing, Main Street,” the static-filled announcement heralded. She got wearily to her feet, along with the burgeoning sweaty crowd. The Pakistani man who had sat next to her most of the way had unknowingly had his elbow poking her in her swollen stomach.

Eight-and-a-half months pregnant, she felt the summer heat at least three times as much as everyone else (she was sure of it!) and the crush of bodies in the claustrophobic space of the train car was suffocating. But she was so used to it—the rocking and swaying, an urban rhythm she had grown to love. The woman had two precious pieces of cargo. One was, of course, the baby growing in her belly and the other, her two-year-old son strapped securely on her back. He was always delighted by the daily trip home, his tiny gentle hands often stroking the cheek or touching the earrings of the person sitting next to him and his mother.

She took the stairs up and out to the street, slowly, of course, due to her ripened condition and the wiggling parcel on her back. People were patient with her slowness, a miracle in such a city where afternoon rush hour was not known for its manners. They smiled as they took in the front of her and smiled again to see the passenger on her back. The street, which could have been a market square in any number of Asian or Central American cities, was teeming with life. The sidewalks were artificially narrowed by vendors hawking their fans, umbrellas, baseball hats and cotton Chinese shoes.

She passed this particularly congested area and, smiling, turned into an ice cream shop, soon exiting with a large cone (with sprinkles). She shared the messy melting treat with her son who patted her shoulder whenever he wanted another lick as they walked the mile home in companionable chatter.

 

Bite, Pull, Chew, Toss

The kitchen was large and square and sunny even on cold winter days. The sheer white curtains were more form than function. The room was flanked south and east by large noisy, knocking, hissing radiators (pronounce raah-diator in Brooklynese), their sturdy silver-painted presence a comfort on cold mornings.

A large, aluminum pressure cooker, the bearer of many dents from years of service merengued merrily on the worn white stovetop, its little valve tapping to the beat of both the steaming pot and the clanking of the steam radiators.

An old woman with steely blue/grey hair and wire-rimmed glasses stood at the stove, stirring another pot, also large, but cast iron and red and full of spaghetti sauce. She seasoned and sampled.

But it was the tapping pressure cooker the children were watching. They were all sitting at the big round kitchen table with the mismatched chairs, swinging and kicking with anticipating feet too short to reach the floor. Ten cousins in all, each with an empty bowl and a cloth napkin by their place. The table was otherwise empty save for an enormous empty mixing bowl placed exactly in the center of the table, just slightly out of arm’s reach.

They laughed and poked at each other, trying to outdo knock knock jokes and TV show impressions, always keeping an eye on the woman in the apron at the stove. “Nani,” one girl said blocking a tickling hand to her left. “We’re HUNGRY!!” All nodded vigorously. “She’s-a ready now, my pupidus,” smiled their grandmother as she scooped up their bowls and took them to the stove, reaching into the pot with long tongs to pull out steaming treasure. With a flourish, she presented each child with their very own stuffed artichoke.

On went napkins. Talking ceased. Only the sound of smacking lips and the occasional giggle were heard when one of the littler children missed the mixing bowl when tossing in a well-chewed leaf.

 

About the Author

Lisa Patterson Lay is a returning college student after a long news writing and graphic design career. Now 58, she has molded her writing into shorter, often autobiographical pieces that paint vivid, succinct pictures with no wasted words. She has five grown children and lives on Long Island’s North Shore.

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