Moses: The Making of a Man
Ruth Z. Deming
In the old country, Mama had eaten the raw eggs of the peahen when I was inside her. Like to spit them out but she never did, wanting a strong healthy child, and praised the Lord when I came out, not a whelp but a little man, with a fine little pedestal of manliness. The midwife Shira placed me on her belly. I blinked my black, still-encrusted eyes, looked at her, and smiled.
“Moses,” she laughed. “My little Moses.”
I was the last of seven children who played beneath the vast African skies and tilled the soil. The red earth I still see in dreams from ten thousand miles away and Mama dead and my brothers and sisters scattered like the stars in the heavens.
“You will go with this nice man,” Mama told me when I was fifteen. She had not warned me and I had only a few moments to gather my belongings – The Old Testament and The New, a colorful doll made of straw and pitch and dried brown maize, my boxes of warrior paint – and slung them over my shoulder in a colorfully woven back pack.
“Aye aye aye,” I would have wailed to the skies, to our beloved “Chukwu” had I known I would never see my people again. Never. Never. Never.
In the new country I was sent to school to be educated. Most surprising were all the new lands I learned about under the same sun and stars as back home. Places whose names were written with chalk on a blackboard: Canada, Great Britain, Scotland, France. I myself was even permitted to write on this blackboard with soft chalk that rubbed off on my dark fingers and black pants.
Divisions everywhere. This America, my new land, was divided into states, then cities, then streets. And houses. How can I ever compare my American house with a front porch where we sat and sang songs and played the bongo - to our beautiful home back in Kenya, made of red clay, straw, and animal dung. Where we slept on straw mats on the floor instead of mattresses towering high above the floor.
“Moses, you are one of our best students,” said Mr. Tanenbaum, who brought me to America. “We will pay for your education. University of Pennsylvania or Drexel will suit you well.”
Mama would be proud.
The last time I saw Mr. Tanenbaum was in the living room of the small house where he lived by himself. His eyes were fastened upon mine, eyes I no longer recognized, for they lacked the glow of the living and black circles had dug little trenches below his eyes.
The man had fallen on hard times. He was dying, he told me, and could not attend to his business. He handed me an envelope and told me to open it. Hundred dollar bills, a thick pile of them, were enclosed in a thin brown rubber band, which I plucked back and forth with my finger.
I looked at this man I had come to love.
“Go home now, Moses, and God be with you.”
I slunk out of the house and would ride my bicycle home to a house where I lived with other boys from Africa and Mrs. Fabian, who cooked for us. I now bore the distinction of having lost my mother, my sisters and brothers - and now I lost the man who took care of me. I was at the mercy of Chukwu.
* * *
In America, there are always kind people to step in to help the misfortunate. I was now among them. On our trips to Philadelphia we had seen them. Bearded men, some with black skin, sitting on the sidewalk leaning against buildings. They would hold out their hands for money. Some of these misfortunates were asleep on the hard cement sidewalk. I was told not to look their way nor to give them any money.
I disobeyed. I had a doughnut in a bag which I put into the hands of a white man with shoulder-length white hair that was dirty and tangled. “Eat, brother, eat,” I said to him. Did I wish I was back in Africa? Did I wish I were gazing at the straw-colored lands and the high-rising banana trees where small green bananas hung upside side waiting to ripen into yellow, the color of the stripes on the tiger?
“You must go forward,” said a voice inside me. Was it the voice of Mr. Tanenbaum or was it Chukwa?
As I plugged along with my classes at Abington High School, Mrs. Fabian told me she had found me a job. This unfortunate boy would not be going to college, she said, but I could work and save up money.
Bonnet Lane Diner had a kitchen that smelled none too good. When I first walked in, droplets of hot steam settled upon me like mist in the morning. It was spray from a newly opened dishwasher. People clad in uniforms brushed past me, back and forth they walked, some with trays of food and drinks. Cooks, wearing white, read tiny slips of paper, then placed what I would learn were bacon, lettuce, and tomato club sandwiches on a high perch for waitresses like Bonnie Jean, Melody, and Patti to deliver to the two huge dining rooms and the counter with drink machines in the back.
The boss was a tall man named Mike who moved and talked quickly. On the few occasions he spoke directly to me, I had to cock my head and listen with such intensity I would get dizzy. I still thought in Swahili and my English was none too perfect.
They had me dress up in a green apron that read “Bonnet Lane Diner.” I had to wear a hair net, so my little black squiggles of hair wouldn’t fall into the soups or sandwiches, the pancakes with sweet syrup, or onto the tiny bowls filled with sugars of all kinds – in America they have something called “artificial sugar” – and tiny parcels of cream for their coffee.
You never forget nice things people say about you.
“You are a good worker, Max,” said Mike the boss.
Or the bad things which haunt you when you lay in bed or sit in math class.
“You stupid idiot! They wanted toast, not waffles. Go back to Africa!” said Patrick, a waiter.
On a busy weekend when there was a line out the door in order to get seated, one of the three chefs called in sick.
“Max,” said Mike the boss, “Think you could do some cooking for us?”
This had been my dream. Mr. Tanenbaum had told me, “America is the land where your dreams come true.”
So, no, Patrick, I will not go back to Africa, and I will love you like you are my own brother.
* * *
Could anything be better than standing in the steamy kitchen, amidst the noise and swooshing of rubber-souled shoes on the floor, and beating up eggs for breakfast? A special tool called “whisk” was my instrument of transformation of the slippery slimy egg.
I had in mind a notion to gulp one down in memory of my mother and her infusing me with the raw eggs of the peahen, which served its purpose of making a man out of me. I was strong, especially when not nice men like Patrick made a mockery of me. I must be patient with him. I caught him looking at me with an evil eye as my whisk sped over the golden-colored eggs.
Splat! On they went into the hot griddle with such a splash I laughed out loud. Over and over again I produced one fine egg dish after another, all so very different, some with vegetables, others with cheese melted like sweet cream over the top. And I must say I permitted myself a taste or two, never having eaten eggs in the old country, and I liked the taste and the sensation in my mouth.
We were allowed to take breaks. I would go outside, feel the cool air of autumn, and sit myself down for a rest on the bench at the bus stop. York Road was a long endless road.
Across the street was a funeral parlor, with a long black car I saw many times pull out of the driveway and back in again. It reminded me of Mama and I felt sad for a moment, but knew how proud of me she would be.
“You’re always so serious,” said Mary Beth, one of the waitresses, as she sat down next to me on the bench. A pretty young girl with blond hair – in fact, Bonnet Lane seemed to hire only golden-haired women – she let a cigarette slouch from her mouth. Looking straight ahead, she blew a beautiful stream of smoke up toward the sky.
You may be surprised by this, but I trained my mind to have no interest in women. Oh, I thought of them at home, but not much. I was too busy studying my math and my geography and writing things down in my composition book.
As another stream of smoke blew into the air, I sliced it gently with my fingers and asked her “What do you enjoy doing?”
She laughed. And made a thoughtful face.
“Dogs,” she said. “I love dogs. My family are dog breeders.”
She explained what that meant and pulled out a picture from her pocketbook.
The dog was small, brown and white, with ears that fell from his head like women’s long hair.
“Is this a poodle?” I asked.
“English Springer Spaniel,” said Mary Beth. “You must come over some day and meet our Dooby.”
It appears that I had made a friend. A real American friend and not one of my African friends with whom I lived. And you know what I did? I quickly forgot my silent oath about not thinking about women.
* * *
Should I tell my boss my name was “Moses” and not “Max?” Mary Beth and I planned it. As she picked up a tray with codfish almondine that I had prepared, she approached him.
“That Moses sure knows how to cook, don’t you think?”
“Moses!” he exclaimed.
“Yes, that African man. Moses. Moses. Moses.”
From now on I was Moses to everyone. Moses with the round face and dark deep eyes. They knew me. And called me by my name.
I noticed a man sitting at the counter. A cup of coffee had been set down before him and a piece of apple pie. He did not ask for ice cream but rather a slice of cheddar cheese to be broiled on top of the pie. Who had ever heard of such a thing?
When I peeked out from the kitchen, as I often did, in order to see how people were enjoying our food, he beckoned to me. I stepped out of the kitchen, embarrassed to be seen in my dirty green apron, but what can you do when you’re a cook, and he spoke loudly. There is always so much noise and amusement and laughter at Bonnet Lane.
“Young man,” he said. “Do you know who the chef is here?”
“Chef?” I answered. “Well, I, sir, am certainly one of the cooks.”
He asked me what were some of the main courses I had cooked.
“Sir, I noticed you have eaten our salmon loaf with tomato sauce dressing, and our new sweet potato fries served with home-made mayonnaise. I am pleased to say those are some of the things I have, uh, created.”
“My name is Jack Goldberg,” he said, offering his hand.
I shook it heartily, watching the contrast of white and black, like pieces on a chessboard.
* * *
Mrs. Joanne Fabian drove me to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Jack Goldberg in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania. Their home looked like something you might see on the television. A place I was not to feel comfortable in. I felt like a waif. Mrs. Fabian pulled up into what I learned was a circular drive. At the front door, a tiny bejeweled oblong piece of jewelry slanted itself on the side.
“A mezuzah,” she laughed, after I touched it. “People of the Jewish faith place it on their door for good luck.”
Jewish faith. What was this? I only knew Christians and Protestants and Catholics. We had a Muslim family who ate at Bonnet Lane, the woman all in black, the children laughing and making mischief, coloring in the books we give to the children.
“Welcome, Moses and Joanne!” said Marilyn Goldberg, a lovely dark-haired woman who wore what I learned was a Jewish star across her chest.
We heard music from a piano, loud music, jazz, as Mrs. Goldberg walked us into the living room.
“Aaron,” she said. “Please meet Moses and Joanne.”
He was about my age, a tall, handsome man with more legs than body.
We shook hands and again I marveled at the black against the white. Porcelain and ebony.
Jack Goldberg sat at the kitchen table, smoothing out a newspaper called the New York Times. Maps on the far wall showed the entire world, the United States of America, and the city of Philadelphia, where points of interest were circled by black Magic Marker.
Mrs. Fabian and I sat down at the table. Mrs. Goldberg served small green cups filled with fragrant tea, and then put cookies with almonds in the center of the table. Pink cloth napkins and placemats adorned the table. A bit fancier than at the diner, I thought.
“Moses, if I may call you by your first name,” began Mr. Goldberg. “I am extremely impressed by your culinary – cooking – skills at the diner.”
This dark-haired man looked at me across the table. His blue eyes narrowed as he spoke. Was he fooling with me? Could I trust him? What if I left the diner and I learned all of this was a joke?
I nodded thoughtfully.
Just then a wailing was heard in the house. It reminded me of the coyotes back at home. Ah-eeee! Ah-eeee!
Mrs. Goldberg stood up from the table.
“I’ll see what she wants,” she said, walking toward a door that led to the basement.
Now I was really afraid. They kept people locked up in their home. We read a book called Jane Eyre in English literature. The madwoman, Mrs. Rochester, was locked up in the attic.
Mr. Goldberg apparently sensed my fear.
“Moses,” he said. “My wife’s grandmother lives with us. She has her own room in the basement. She has a television, a bathroom, and joins us for meals. The woman wants for nothing. Except her mind. She is one hundred and two.”
I laughed with relief.
* * *
Of course we had a party at Bonnet Lane Diner, a goodbye party, for me, Moses of Kenya. I was not permitted to make a single item of food, not even the pecan pie with Ready-Whip on top. In the new restaurant where I was going, we would use real whipped cream, no artificial anything.
The party was held on Monday, the only day we were closed. A few of the patrons were invited like the man and woman who owned the Laz-e-Boy furniture shop right next door. The staff took over the huge dining room. Soft rock music piped through the speakers as Mike, holding a chocolate milkshake in his hands, made a toast.
Mr. and Mrs. Goldberg were there, snapping pictures of the brown-carpeted room, with the sweeper discreetly tucked away, and huge photos of dogs on the walls, courtesy of Mary Beth, the waitress, who had worn her golden hair in two long braids down her back. Her cigarettes rode in the back pocket of her jeans.
“What’s the name of the new restaurant?” asked Jo, Mike’s wife.
I looked at the Goldbergs.
“Black Lightening,” they said in unison.
“Where is Patrick?” I asked.
“Over here, Moses,” he answered, standing tall with combed black hair over by the Bunn coffee maker.
“I am glad you have come to my party. You must come for a free meal – all of you! – at Black Lightning. I am the sous-chef. After I graduate high school, I will attend cooking school – culinary school – in Philadelphia – by the grace of the Goldbergs and my god Chukwu.”
I picked up the slice of pecan pie and ate it with a small spoon.
Mama, in her big colorful dress – blues, purples and reds – was seated over by the window, sipping on a glass of water through a straw.