Princess Norma G by Jack Christian
Princess Norma is Anna’s former next-door neighbor. You see her around town in her straw hat and purple velvet. She’s so skinny she almost floats. She stops frequently to do something that looks like worship, and for this she comes up in conversation fairly often. She and Anna shared a porch in a white duplex, back when Anna still lived on Williams Street. We used to have to step around her on our way in or out, where she did her sun salutes. She’d hold an object — playing card, credit card, folded piece of paper — against her forehead, which usually was wrapped in old fabric. Her other arm she’d extend up and wide, while she swayed back and forth like she was listening to Christian praise music. As we’d pass, she’d maneuver herself so we didn’t interrupt. We’d move slow, making minor corrections so as to not touch.
Otherwise, she mostly sat in her house, in her kitchen, behind the door, which she’d slam when anyone came up the stairs to Anna’s apartment. She’d leave trinkets on the porch: figurines, clothing displays, messages to Ka and Ra. I looked them up: Both are Egyptian deities; Ka is the celestial human double; Ra is the sun god, like the musician “Sun Ra.” When Anna and I first started dating, she seemed to me like a Boo Radley character. Then, she yelled at me once for touching a small rock on some kind of playing board. Other times she’d come out and hassle us a little about smoking cigarettes on the porch, or sitting in what she said were her green plastic porch chairs. These things she did with the quality of a sullen child.
The story about Norma is that she comes from an extremely well-to-do family in Boston, and that she was incredibly well-educated, but that when her apparent schizophrenia set in, her family had her moved to Northampton. Since she moved to Williams Street, she’s been signing her rent checks either Princess Norma G—, or Pharoah Princess Norma G—. The superintendent Danielle told us. In the neighborly talk about her, Norma’s education and her blackness make her a more noble sufferer; her disease and her families’ neglect make her an object of pity; her moods make her slightly scary. We wondered if she had started in the State Hospital that was shut down in the 1980s? She has one son – a lawyer, Danielle says – who comes out weekly to bring her groceries and take care of her.
For Anna and I, Princess Norma was somewhere between a slight annoyance, a small threat, and someone we quite befriend and couldn’t know and couldn’t help. And yet, we spent so much time with her. Anna’s bedroom shared a wall with Norma’s livingroom and kitchen. We’d hear her singing “This Little Light of Mine” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Sometimes we’d wonder who she was singing to, and even if she was singing to us. In the winter she’d turn more to preaching and talking to herself, usually at inconvenient times, like 3:30 in the morning.
Her apartment smelled like urine. The only time she ever knocked on Anna’s door was to ask Anna’s roommate Nicole to “Stop putting fumes in her house.” We used to worry that she could hear us – especially when she left an empty wine bottle on the porch, on which she’d written, “WHORE.” (Anna joked, “Oh Norma, you don’t have to leave me presents.”) Because we kind of knew she could hear almost anything we did, and because she sounded very lonely, we wondered if we were weirdly keeping her company, or if it was stupid to wonder how we kept each other company.
If she wasn’t worshipping, we’d say polite hi’s and bye’s when we’d pass her. Sometimes she’d say, “gorgeous weather we’re having.” She’d say it no matter the weather. One time I helped her carry a large ceramic elephant she’d bought at a tag sale up to the door of her house. Another time, I drank a beer from an unopened holiday six pack she may have left as some sort of offering at the back corner of the duplex. After Anna yelled at me for drinking a beer I found – it was part-frozen – we put it together that 1) Maybe Norma put it there, 2) Maybe she’d think whoever she’d left it for had enjoyed one, 3) Maybe I was now cursed. We had to be more careful encountering her after we heard about the cops being called because she, upon seeing the downstairs neighbors out on the street, and then seeing them cross the street to avoid walking past her, made a beeline for one, and pushed her to the ground.
Then, there was the time Anna and I got the cops called on Norma. I think our intentions started in the right place. Or, if we were wrong, it was because we’d been with regard to Norma, somehow, for a while. It was about 10 o’clock on a Tuesday night in mid-March and she was well into her fifth night of straight preaching. We could hear bits and pieces of famous speeches thrown in with her own ad-libs. It was freezing drizzle outside. Anna was miserable.
We both sat there having what our pre-marriage counselor would call “an assertiveness dilemma.” I decided we owed it to ourselves, and to Norma, as a person – “we’re all just people, right?” – to knock on her door, and explain calmly that we could hear her, and could she please quiet down a little, preach at a different time, or do so in a different part of her house? She came to the door, and said, “Oh, hello Neighbor, am I keeping you awake?” She looked like a regular old lady. I said, it was no big deal, but we’d appreciate it if she spoke a little softer. She said she would. She said she was surprised we could sleep at all with the monitors monitoring us. She said, weren’t the monitors making it hard to sleep? She shut the door.
It was about two minutes before the preaching started back up. Anna was in the kitchen making tea. I was in the living room, listening carefully to the quiet. When she got started again, we realized I was the new subject of her oratory. Between curse words, she was saying, “Come and knock on my door, White Man!” She said she would continue to Speak Truth to Power. She would not take orders from Chemical Joe from Iraq.
We called superintendent Danielle for advice. She, over our misgivings, was the one to call the cops. She said that was the only way to document it. Danielle’s big thing with Norma was always to document it. This was best, she said, for eventually having Norma moved someplace better, or at least some place else. Her family has money, she reminded us.
When the cops came, Norma fired off a litany of things we’d supposedly done to her. According to her, we were guilty of porch-sitting, cooking, and watching tv. The cops left and things quieted. We went to bed stressed-out. In that apartment, I usually slept on the outside of the bed, by the door, but that night I slept by the wall. I lay there still thinking about whether we could’ve handled things differently, or if it was all plain fate. I fell asleep for a while. When I woke up, I had rolled over, and I could hear Norma. Her face must’ve been pressed opposite to mine. She was saying, quietly, slowly: “I know you work for the Police, White Man.”
Jack Christian is the author of the chapbook Let’s Collaborate from Magic Helicopter Press. His poems are upcoming in Web Conjunctions and have appeared recently on the web in Drunken Boat, Sixth Finch, Ink Node, I Thought I was New Here, and Cimarron Review. He is from Richmond, Virginia and now lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.