Angelou: Chapter 13

Chapter 13: A Vacation

I was going on a vacation. Daddy Bailey invited me to spend the

summer with him in southern California and I was nervous with

excitement. Since our father’s characteristic attitude was one of

superiority, I secretly expected him to live in a huge house

surrounded by a large yard and serviced by a paid staff.

Daddy Bailey had a girlfriend, who had begun writing letters

to me some months before, and she would meet me at the train.

We had agreed to wear white flowers to identify ourselves. On

the platform I saw a little girl who wore a white flower, but

dismissed her as improbable. The platform emptied as we walked

by each other time after time. Finally she stopped me with a

disbelieving “Marguerite?” Her voice sounded shocked and

mature. So, she wasn’t a little girl. I, too, was surprised.

She said, “I’m Dolores Stockland.”

Shocked but trying to sound well mannered, I said, “Hello. My

name is Marguerite.”

Daddy’s girlfriend? I guessed that she was in her early twenties.

Her suit, shoes, and gloves informed me that she was well-dressed

and serious. I thought that if she was planning to marry our

father she must have been scared tofind that his daughter was

nearly six feet tall and not even pretty. (I found out later that

Daddy Bailey had told her that his children were eight and nine

years old and good-looking.)

I was another link in a long chain of disappointments. Daddy

had promised to marry her but kept delaying until he finally

married another woman. Instead of owning a huge house and

servants, Daddy lived in a small house on the outskirts of town.

Dolores lived there with him and kept the house clean and

orderly. She loved him, and her life would have been perfect. And

then I arrived.

She tried hard to make me into something she could

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reasonably accept. Her first attempt, which failed completely,

concerned my attention to details. I was asked, begged, then

ordered to take care of my room. My willingness to do so was

made difficult by my ignorance of how it should be done and my

awkwardness with small objects. The dresser in my room was

covered with little breakable objects. If and when I remembered

to dust them, I always held one too tightly and broke off a leg or

two, or too loosely and dropped it, and it broke into pieces.

Dad spoke Spanish well, and since I had studied for a year, we

were able to have short conversations. I believe that my talent

with a foreign language was the only quality I had that impressed

Dolores. She couldn’t attempt the strange sounds. Admittedly,

though, her English, like everything else about her, was absolutely

perfect.

We had a test of strength for weeks as Dad watched, not getting

involved but greatly enjoying himself. He was amused and seemed

to enjoy our discomfort. He asked me once if I “liked my mother.”

I thought he meant my mother, so I answered yes—she was

beautiful and happy and very kind. He said he wasn’t talking about

Vivian; he meant Dolores. Then I explained that I didn’t like her

because she was mean. He laughed. When I added that she didn’t

like me because I was tall and arrogant and wasn’t clean enough for

her, he laughed harder and said something like, “Well, that’s life.”

One evening he announced that on the next day he was going

to Mexico to buy food for the weekend. There was nothing

unusual about his announcement until he added that he was taking

me along. He filled the shocked silence with the information that a

trip to Mexico would give me an opportunity to practice Spanish.

Dolores’ silence might have been the result of a jealous

reaction, but mine was caused by total surprise. My father had

not shown any particular pride in me and very little love. He had

not taken me to his friends or to southern California’s few points

of interest. It was unbelievable that I was being included in

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something as exciting as a trip to Mexico. Well, I quickly

reasoned, I deserved it. I was his daughter, and my vacation wasn’t

what I had expected a vacation to be.

In the morning, we started on the foreign adventure. The dirt

roads of Mexico satisfied my desire for an unusual experience. Dad

gave no explanation as we drove through the border town and

headed for the interior. After a few miles we were stopped by a

uniformed guard. He and Dad exchanged familiar greetings and

Dad got out of the car. He reached back into the pocket on the

door and took a bottle of alcohol into the guards kiosk. They

laughed and talked for over a half hour as I sat in the car and tried

to translate the quiet sounds. Eventually they came out and walked

to the car. Dad still had the bottle but it was only half full. He asked

the guard if he would like to marry me. At once the guard leaned

into the car and patted my cheek. He told Dad that he would

marry me and we would have “many babies.” My father thought

that was the funniest thing he had heard since we left home. After

many adioses* Dad started the car, and we were on our way again.

Signs informed me that we were heading for Ensenada. On

that journey along the twisted roads beside the steep mountain, I

feared that I would never get back to America, civilization,

English, and wide streets again. Our destination was, in fact, not

the town of Ensenada, but a place about five miles out of the city

limits. We pulled up in the dirt yard of a cantina, where halfclothed

children chased mean-looking chickens around and

around. The noise of the car brought women to the door of the

old building.

A woman’s voice sang out, “Bailey, Bailey.” And suddenly a

group of women crowded to the door and overflowed into the

* adios: Spanish for “good-bye”; other Spanish words and phrases are cantina

(small bar), la nina de Bailey (Baileys daughter), senoritas (young women), Pasa

(Pass), iQ u ie n es? (Who is it?), mi padre (my father), {Q u e pasa? (What’s

happening?), and iQ u e quiere? (What do you want?)

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yard. Dad told me to get out of the car, and we went to meet the

women. He explained quickly that I was his daughter, which

everyone thought was uncontrollably funny. We were taken into

a large room with a bar at one end. There were a few men sitting

at the bar, and they greeted my father with relaxed familiarity. I

was taken around and each person was told my name and age.

People patted me on the back, shook Dads hand, and spoke a

rapid Spanish that I was unable tofollow. Bailey was the hero of

the hour, and as he responded to the open show of friendship I

saw a new side of the man.

It seemed hard to believe that he was a lonely person,

searching in bottles of alcohol, under women’s skirts, in church

work and important job titles for his “personal place,” lost before

birth and never recovered. It was obvious to me then that he had

never belonged in Stamps, and belonged even less to the slowmoving,

slow-thinking Johnson family.

In the Mexican bar Dad was relaxed, which I had never seen

before.- There was no need to pretend in front of those poor

Mexican farmers. As he was, just being himself, he was impressive

enough to them. He was an American. He was Black. He spoke

Spanish well. He had money and he could drink alcohol with the

best of them. The women liked him too. He was tall and

handsome and generous.

It was a party. Someone put on music, and drinks were

served to all the customers. I was given a warm Coca-Cola. I

was asked to dance. I hesitated because I wasn’t sure I’d be able

tofollow the steps, but Dad nodded and encouraged me to try.

I had been enjoying myself for at least an hour before I realized

  1. I was happy, Dad was proud, and my new friends were

pleasant. I ate, danced, screamed, and drank the extra-sweet

and sticky Coca-Cola. As newcomers joined the celebration I

was introduced as la nina de Bailey, and was quickly accepted.

As the sun went down, I realized that I hadn’t seen my father

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for a long time. When the dance finished, I made my way

through the crowd of people. I was frightened. He wasn’t in the

room. Had he made an arrangement with the guard back at the

pass? I wouldn’t have been surprised. The thought of it made my

knees weak. Dad was gone. He was probably halfway back home

with the money from selling me in his pocket. I had to get to the

door, which seemed a very long distance away.

Seen through the open door, Dad’s car looked beautiful. He

hadn’t left me. I immediately felt better. I decided to sit in his car

and wait for him, since he couldn’t have gone far. I knew he was

with a woman, and the more I thought about it, it was easy to

figure which one of the senoritas he had taken away. She had been

the first to rush to him, and that was when he quickly said, “This

is my daughter. She speaks Spanish.” If Dolores knew, she would

die. The thought of that kept me happy for a long time.

It was getting darker. I began tofeel afraid as I considered the

possibility of sitting in the car all night alone. I tried to stop the

flood of fear. Why was I afraid of the Mexicans? They had been

kind to me and surely my father wouldn’t allow his daughter to

be treated badly. Would he? How could he leave me in that bar

and go off with his woman? Did he care what happened to me?

Not at all, I decided, and began to cry. I was going to die, after all,

in a Mexican dirt yard. I would depart from this life without

recognition.

I recognized his shadow in the near-dark and was ready to

jump out and run to him when I noticed that he was being

supported by a small woman I had seen earlier and a man. They

guided him toward the door of the cantina. If he got inside we

might never leave. I got out of the car and went to them. I asked

Dad if he would like to get into the car and rest a little. He

recognized me and answered that that was exactly what he

wanted; he was a little tired, and he’d like to rest before we left.

He told his friends his wishes in Spanish and they led him to the

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car. When I opened the front door, he said, “No.” H e ’d lie down

on the back seat for a little while. We got him into the car and he

fell asleep immediately.

I thought fast as the couple laughed and spoke to me in

Spanish that I couldn’t understand. I had never driven a car

before, but I had watched carefully and my mother was declared

to be the best driver in San Francisco. She declared it, at least. I

was extremely intelligent and had good physical skills. Of course

I could drive. I asked the Mexican man to turn the car around,

again in my wonderful high school Spanish, and it took about

fifteen minutes to make myself understood. He got in and

headed the car toward the highway. He showed his understanding

of the situation by his next action. He left the motor running. I

put my foot on the accelerator, moved the gear-shift, and with a

loud roar we were out of the yard.

I drove down the mountainside toward Calexico, about fifty

miles away. When it became totally dark, I felt around until I

finally succeeded in finding the lights. The car slowed down as I

concentrated on that search, and the engine stopped. A sound

from the back seat told me that Dad had fallen off the seat. I

pulled the hand brake and carefully considered my next move.

We were headed downhill, so I reasoned that with luck we might

roll all the way to Calexico—or at least to the guard. I released

the brake and we began rolling down the slope. I also stepped on

the accelerator, hoping that action would speed our descent, and

the motor started. The car went crazily down the hill. The

challenge of controlling it was exciting. It was me, Marguerite,

driving the car. As I turned the driving wheel and forced the

accelerator to the floor, I was controlling Mexico, and aloneness,

and inexperienced youth, and Bailey Johnson, Sr.,* and death

and insecurity.

* Sr.: short for Senior

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Eventually the road became level and we started passing

scattered lights on each side of the road. No matter what

happened after that, I had won. The car began to slow down but

we finally reached the guards box. I pulled on the hand brake

and came to a stop. I had to wait until the guard looked into the

car and gave me the signal to continue. He was busy talking to

people in a car facing the mountain I had just defeated. When he

stood up and shouted “Pasa” I was surprised. I released the brake,

put my foot on the accelerator too quickly. The car leaped left as

well as forward and went into the side of the car just leaving. The

crash of metal was followed immediately by Spanish shouting

from all directions. Strengthened by the excitement that had

flooded my brain as we came down the mountainside, I had

never felt better. I got out of the car.

The family, eight or more people of every age and size, walked

around me, talking excitedly. Someone got the idea to look into

the car, and a scream stopped us all. People—there seemed to be

hundreds—crowded to the windows and there were more

screams. I thought for a minute that something awful might have

happened, but then I remembered the sounds of my father

sleeping. The family came back, this time not as close but more

threatening. When I was able to understand one question “ iQuien

es?” I answered without concern, “Mi padre.” Since they were

people with close family ties and weekly parties, they suddenly

understood the situation. I was a poor little girl who was caring for

my drunken father, who had stayed too long at the party.

The guard began waking Dad. When he woke up, he asked,

“tQuepasa? {Que quiere?” Anyone else would have asked,“Where

am I?” Obviously, this was a common Mexican experience.

When I knew that he could understand I went to the car, calmly

pushed the people away, and said, “Dad, there’s been an accident.”

He recognized me slowly and became my pre-Mexicanparty

father.

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“An accident?” he asked. “Whose fault was it? Yours,

Marguerite? Was it your fault?”

“Yes, Dad, I drove into a car”

“In the box. The insurance papers. Get them, give them to the

police, and then come back.”

The guard asked Dad to get out of the car. My father reached

in the box and took out the folded papers and the half bottle of

alcohol he had left there earlier. He laughed, got out of the car,

and put his arm around the other drivers shoulder. He spoke

to the guard, and the three men walked into the kiosk. Within

minutes, laughter burst from the kiosk and the crisis was over.

But so was the enjoyment.

Dad shook hands with all the men, patted the children, and

smiled at the women. Then, and without looking at the damaged

cars, he sat in the driver’s seat and called me to get in. As if he had

not been helplessly drunk a half hour earlier, he drove home. He

said he didn’t know I could drive, and how did I like his car? I was

angry that he had recovered so quickly and disappointed that he

didn’t appreciate the greatness of my achievement. So I answered

“yes” to both the statement and the question. Before we reached the

border he rolled down the window, and the fresh air was

uncomfortably cold. We drove into the city in a cold private silence.

Dolores was sitting, it seemed, in the same place as the night

before. Dad said, “Hello, kid,” and walked toward the bathroom: I

greeted her, “Hello, Dolores,” and went to my room. Within

minutes an argument began in the living room.

“Bailey, you’ve let your children come between us.”

“Kid, you’re too sensitive. The children—my children—can’t

come between us, unless you let them.”

“How can I stop it?” She was crying. “Bailey, you know I

wanted to like your children, but th e y .. . ” She couldn’t make

herself describe us. “I’m marrying you. I don’t want to marry

your children.”

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“That’s your problem, woman. I’m going out. Goodnight.”

The front door shut loudly. Dolores cried quietly.

In my room, I thought my father was mean and cruel. He had

enjoyed his Mexican holiday, and still was unable to offer a bit of

kindness to the woman who had waited patiently. I felt sorry and

even a little guilty. I had enjoyed myself, too. There was nothing

fair or kind about the way my father treated her, so I decided to

go out and comfort her. I stood in the center of the floor but

Dolores never even looked up. I said in my nicest voice,

“Dolores, I don’t mean to come between you and Dad. I wish

you’d believe me.”

With her head still bent down she said, “No one was speaking

to you, Marguerite. It’s rude to listen to other people’s

conversations.”

“I wasn’t listening. These walls are so thin a deaf person could

have heard what you said. I thought I’d tell you that I have no

interest in coming between you and my father. That’s all.” I

turned to go.

“No, that’s not all.” She looked up. “Why don’t you go back to

your mother? If you’ve got one.”

“I’ve got one, and she’s much better than you, prettier, too, and

intelligent and—”

“And”—her voice reached a high point—“she’s a prostitute.”

The awful accusation struck not so much at my daughterly love

as at the basis of my new existence. If there was a chance that it

was true, I would not be able to live, to continue to live with

Mother. And I wanted to very much.

Angry, I walked over to Dolores and hit her. She jumped out

of her chair, and before I could jump back, she had her arms

around me. Neither of us made a sound until I finally pushed her

back on to the sofa. Then she started screaming.

I walked out of the house. On the steps I felt something wet

on my arm, looked down, and found blood. I was cut. Dolores

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opened the door, screaming still, and ran like a crazy woman

down the stairs. I saw a hammer in her hand and ran. I jumped in

Dad’s car, rolled up the windows, and locked the door. Dolores

ran around the car, screaming like a crazy person.

Daddy Bailey and the neighbors he was visiting responded to

the screams and crowded around her. My father motioned to me

to open the window. When I did, he said that he would take

Dolores inside but I should stay in the car. He would be back to

take care of me.

My father came down the steps in a few minutes and angrily

got in the car. He sat in a corner of blood and felt the dampness

on his pants.

“What the hell is this?” he asked.

I said calmly, “I’ve been cut.”

“When? By whom?”

“Dolores cut me.”

“How badly?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

He started the car and took me to his friends’ house. I

followed the woman to a bedroom, and she asked me where I

was hurt. I pulled off my dress and we both looked at the wound

on my side, which had begun to heal. She washed it with

medicine and put a bandage on it. Then we went into the living

room. Dad shook hands with the man he’d been talking to,

thanked my emergency nurse, and we left.

In the car he explained that he had telephoned other friends

and made arrangements for me to spend the night with them. At

another strange house I was taken in and given night clothes and

a bed. Dad said he’d see me at noon the next day.

In the morning I made and ate a big breakfast and sat down

with a magazine to wait for Dad. At fifteen, life had taught me

that surrender, sometimes, was as honorable as resistance,

especially if one had no choice. When my father came, he asked

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how I felt, gave me a dollar and a half and a kiss, and said he’d

return late in the evening. He laughed as usual. Was he nervous?

Alone, I imagined the owners returning tofind me in their

house, and realized that I didn’t even remember what they

looked like. How could I accept their^ity? If I disappeared Dad

would be glad; Dolores would be happy, too. What would I do?

Then I thought of Bailey. What would he do? He ordered me to

leave.

I made a few sandwiches, put a bandage supply in my pocket,

counted my money (I had over three dollars plus some Mexican

coins), and walked out. When I heard the door close, I knew my

decision was final. I didn’t have a key and nothing would make

me stand around until Dad’s friends returned to pityingly let me

back in.

I was free, and I started thinking about my future. The obvious

solution to my homelessness concerned me only briefly. I could

go home to Mother, but I couldn’t. I could never succeed in

hiding the cut in my side from her. And if I failed to hide the

wound we were certain to experience another scene of violence.

I thought of poor Mr. Freeman, and the guilt which remained in

my heart, even after all those years, returned.

I spent the day wandering through the streets. I went to the

library and used part of my day reading. I used its washroom to

change my bandage.

On one street I passed a yard filled with old abandoned cars.

As I walked through them, a temporary solution came to mind. I

would find a clean car and spend the night in it. In my optimistic

ignorance I thought that I’d think of a more pleasant solution in

the morning. The idea of sleeping outdoors strengthened my

sense of freedom. After deciding on a car, I got inside and ate the

sandwiches. I decided to sit there and wait for sleep.

The morning’s brightness awoke me and I was surrounded

with strangeness. When I sat up, I saw a mixture of Negro,

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Mexican, and white faces outside the windows. They were

laughing. They looked so curious that I knew they wouldn’t go

away before they knew who I was, so I opened the door and got

out. I was asked my name, where I came from, and what led me

to the abandoned cars. Tfy^y accepted my explanation that I was

from San Francisco, that my name was Marguerite but that I was

called Maya, and that I had no place to stay. They welcomed me

and said I could stay as long as I honored their rule: No two

people of opposite sex slept together. In fact everyone had his

own private sleeping place. There was no stealing because a

crime would bring the police. Everyone worked at something,

and all the money was shared by the whole community.

During the month I spent there, my thinking processes

changed so I hardly recognized myself. My old insecurity was

gone as a result of the unquestioning acceptance by the others.

After looking for unbroken bottles and selling them with a white

girl from Missouri, a Mexican girl from Los Angeles, and a Black

girl from Oklahoma, I never again felt so completely separated

from the rest of society. The lack of criticism in our community

influenced me, and made me tolerant for life.

I telephoned Mother (her voice reminded me of another

world) and asked her to send for me. When she said she was

going to send my air ticket to Daddy, I explained that it would be

easier if she sent the fare to the airline, then I’d pick it up. She

agreed. After I picked up my ticket I announced rather casually

that I would be leaving the following day. Everyone wished me

well.

I arrived in San Francisco, thinner than usual, dirty, and with

no luggage. Mother took one look and said, “Isn’t there enough

to eat at your father’s? You’d better have some food to stick to

those bones.”

I was home, again. And my mother was a fine lady. Dolores

was a fool and, more important, a liar.

Angelou, M. (1969). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. [http://www.academia.edu/8078608/I_Know_Why_the_Caged_Bird_Sings_-_Full_Text_PDF]. Retrieved from