Black Clouds

Excerpt from “Ghetto Exodus,” a chapter from No Place for Disgrace — a memoir about mental illness, teenage love, and tragic consequences, set in the American suburbs in the waning days of the twentieth century.

The sky that day was rippled in black clouds that intermittently exploded with rainfall, expelling pounding sheets of rain occasionally broken by a gray and steady drizzle. Everything was wet, from the large pieces of cardboard dropped for protection on the hardwood floor in the living room, to the treacherous staircase turned waterfall that led from our front patio to the street below. The happiness of moving day was fading, a growing anxiety rooted in its place.

My grandmother cursed the movers, a pair of men nicknamed Scratch and Dent, because they lacked the motivation she expected from hired help. They also made the mistake of calling her grandma when they first arrived—a grave error to a woman whose manners and etiquette were forged in a more sophisticated age and tempered by a lifetime of practice. It didn’t help that each time the rain worsened Scratch and Dent retreated to the back of the moving truck for a cigarette break, their bodies splayed across the blue and white floral print of our living room furniture as they sent smoke signals out into the damp Pittsburgh air.

From her perch on the top floor of our duplex, my grandmother telegraphed her disappoint to my mother every chance she got, urging that she go down there and tell those men that their behavior was simply unacceptable. As far as my grandmother was concerned, it was in the best interest of the movers to finish the work they were hired to perform. If not, well, my mother would pay for their incompetence by way of merciless running commentary, a practice my grandmother had perfected over the years. Fortunately, my mother was too busy shoving the last of our belongings into cardboard boxes and fixing the flaps shut with whatever tape she could find to pay full attention to my grandmother’s screed. My aunt, in on a Greyhound from St. Louis, did the same. She wrapped plates and glasses in old newspaper, checked closets for forgotten clothing, and corralled other miscellaneous items into piles. In the space between tasks my aunt checked on my grandmother, kept her apprised of what she couldn’t see from her lookout way up high.

(Photograph: Google Street View; click to enlarge. Caption: Alleyway behind 716 Princeton Boulevard in Wilkinsburg’s Princeton Park neighborhood, present day.)