The Women | Chapter 38 of 41

Author: T. Coraghessan Boyle | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 10560 Views | Add a Review

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The man who met them at the station, all elbows and knees and dressed in denim trousers and an open-collared shirt, wore a mask for a face. No smile, no frown, no expression of any kind. He had dishwater eyes, and that was no surprise—all of them had that washed-out look to them up here in the country, like so many duppies, as if the gloomy dead ashpit of the sky had sucked all the life out of them, and this one hid his behind a pair of wire-rim spectacles. He wore a little sand-colored mustache under the jut of his nose and short-clipped hair the same color and all Julian could think of was river sand, dirty with the rains. At least it wasn’t yellow. Yellow hair was an aberration on a human being and he swore he’d never seen so much yellow hair in his life all the way up on the train and everybody staring at him as if he was the freak and he never raised his eyes once except to look out on the unbroken scroll of green, too much green, green enough to bury anybody—they should have called this place Greenland and not that Eskimo island in Canada. But here he was, the dishwater man. He didn’t say hello or welcome or anything at all civil or even human other than “You must be the new help” and “I’ve come to fetch you up to Taliesin,” and he stood apart from them at the station, as if he was afraid the color of their skin would rub off on him.
In the rain that seemed to have started up the minute the train left them on the platform in a volcano of smoke and cinders, Julian struggled with the weight of the steamer trunk and Gertrude’s overstuffed suitcase and when she went to help him, with that struck-dumb frog-eyed look of sympathy and hopefulness on her face, that look he hated because it demeaned him, made him into a puny slack little boy all over again, he shrugged her off. “I can handle it myself, woman. I don’t need a bit of your help. Now you just stand over there at the wagon and then you climb in and see if you can’t open that umbrella.” That was what he heard himself say, simple instructions, but his voice was choked with a kind of awakening rage she recognized in the space of one second and she stepped lively and that was that.
And what had this dishwater man come to fetch them in when any fool could see it was going to rain like the deluge itself? An open wagon pulled by a little sorrel team that looked as spoiled as household pets—a wagon, as if this was the nineteenth century still, and here he’d been telling Gertrude how they were improving themselves by going to work for a rich man in the country. He’d had enough of Chicago, where the black people acted just like they were slaves still and the whites were as ignorant and tightfisted and blunted as the Hunkies and Polacks and dumb doughy Irish Micks they were. The country. That was what he’d yearned for, thinking of the island, where at least you could get away into a field of sugarcane and talk to the sky when you had to.
But this country was different, he could see that already, see it before he climbed down off the train and hauled the trunk and suitcase to the wagon and settled in beside the dishwater man and watched the horses grind their pretty flanks. This country was desperate. Wild. They’d tried to break it with their mules and plows and axes, but it was a very hell pit of trees and bristling hilltops that ran all the way back as far as you could see, a place where bears roamed and wolves howled and the spirits of the red Indians murmured through the ghost hours of the night. And where the only black face he’d see besides Gertrude’s was when he looked into the mirror and he never looked into the mirror because he didn’t particularly like what he saw there.
So they went up the road past the blood-colored barns and planted fields in the rain that chopped and drove and hissed against the inadequacy of the umbrella, across a bridge with the river spread out under it like a mother’s lap and right into the reek of hogs. He saw the place before she did, a collection of stained sheds and a little clapboard house, a man out there in the downpour with his shovel trying to open up a ditch so the discolored waste of the animals could flow out of the pen, and he felt his heart sink when the dishwater man tugged at the reins and they started through the yard. Is this the place?” he heard himself say, and he wouldnt turn his head to the dishwater man but just let the words tumble out of his mouth like something he was afraid of losing.
Here were the hogs poking their mud-crusted snouts through the slats of the fence, the stink cataclysmic, Gertrude looking woebegone and trying to keep herself from taking in a single breath, and the dishwater man let out a laugh. A laugh. As if any of this was comical. “No,” the man said. “No, this is Reider’s place.” And he pointed on up the hill through the web of the trees and there it was, the biggest house in the world creeping out of the hillside like a wounded beast, like the tail of a big golden dragon, and then they rocked through the ruts and the house came at them and Julian stepped out into the mud boiling up round the flagstones of the courtyard and ruined the shine of his new leather shoes even as his best suit of clothes drank in the wet and clung to his flanks and lay bloated and heavy across his shoulders.
“Hey, Billy!” A voice stabbed at them out of the shadows of an open stall and he saw the man whose voice it was and the motorcar at the same time, a fine expensive machine pulled up safe from the rain and painted just exactly the color of a boatload of bananas. The man was tall, with broad shoulders and a waist narrow as a girl’s, with the swollen lips and wet eyes of a sensualist. Maybe he was thirty, maybe that, no more. “Mrs. Borthwick told me to tell you to take them to their quarters to get settled and then have them come into the house so she can show them what needs to be done.”
The dishwater man was standing in the mud himself now, as unhurried as if he were bathed in sunshine. “Yeah, sure, Brodelle, just as soon as we unload here and I can get the horses unhitched—but it’s a hell of a glorious day, isn’t it?”
“Oh, yeah,” the other man said and he never moved to lend a hand, never even acknowledged that there were two people here, a man and his wife, strangers in need of assistance, “I guess so—as long as you’re a duck.”
“Ah, Julian, honey, you all soaked t’rough.” Gertrude was standing in the middle of the room, her muddy shoes already wiped clean and set neatly against the wall. She’d found a towel in the drawer of a bureau that stood half-open and was working it at the nape of her neck where her hair had fallen loose. “Here, honey, you take it and dry yourself,” she murmured, handing him the limp towel, which he took without seeing it or feeling the nap of the cloth because for just an instant there the novelty of the situation took him out of himself and he was thinking I don’t know this place or these people and nothing smells right here, nothing smells, nothing smells at all except for lye soap and mold and the dead cold ashes in the hearth, and then he was running it over the crown of his head so furiously it was as if he was trying to rub the hair right off his scalp.
There was a white service jacket hanging on a hook on the inside of the bathroom door—rich man’s plumbing, toilet and sink, at least there was that—and if it was two sizes too big for him, he didn’t give a damn. “Let me put de iron to dat,” Gertrude said, fussing over him, and first he said no but then he relented because he was going to go in there ramrod straight and no wrinkle on him and show this rich mistress of the house that he was no shuffling black fool like half the niggers in Chicago but an educated man with his diploma from Combermere School in Bridgetown, Island of Barbados—Little England, they called it, Little England—and an accent as cultivated as the late King himself, even if his wife did speak like a barefoot Bajan peasant and that was no fault of his. They wanted a proper butler, he would give them a proper butler. So yes, put de iron to it, woman.
It wasn’t fifteen minutes and there was a knock at the door and the dishwater man standing there to lead them through the maze of that house and into the presence. Gertrude kept her eyes down the whole way. She’d changed into her best dress and the white apron she’d found hanging beside the jacket and she had her lips bunched in that monkey way of hers that showed she was nervous and he called her out on it, hissing “Monkey, monkey” till she shot her eyes at him. They went back out into the rain, across the courtyard, quickstepping to keep out of the mud—cows lowing, and a smell of them too—then into a door on the other side, which led through a sitting room for the workers. Then there was the long expanse of the studio and two men—he recognized the one from the courtyard—seated there at their big desks with their drawings on sheets of paper the size of tablecloths spread out before them and neither one even bothered to look up. Outside again, but with a roof over their heads—the loggia—and on into the main house and a big pot-cluttered kitchen there with a greasy wood range and a mess of plates and dirty silverware in the sink and the lazy fat bluebottle flies clinging to the walls and windows as if they didn’t have a care in the world. “This is the kitchen,” the dishwater man said and they made one rotation of the room and followed the bony twitch of his shoulders out the door and through a dining alcove festooned with enough artworks, statues, rugs and animal skins—and what was that, a badger?—to stock a museum, and then took a sharp left turn into a great grand room crammed with even more foolery and bric-a-brac and the lake livid as a bruise out there beneath the windows.
They saw her before she saw them. She was sitting at the window in a strange kind of high-backed chair slatted like a lobster trap, her rum-colored hair pinned up in a coil so that her ears stood out like scallop shells, white as white. There were books stacked round her, both on the low table to her left and on the floor at her feet, and she seemed to be inscribing something in the ledger in her lap. He shifted his eyes to Gertrude and there she was making those monkey lips again, her hands knitted in front of her as if she were in the side pew of the church, her eyes gaped wide at the sight of all the fine things in the room—the grand piano, the fabrics and paintings and colored-glass lamps and the books in their polished wooden cases that fit them just so—and he wanted to hiss at her but he didn’t.
He was feeling the same thing she was: they were inside, in the inner sanctum, the place where the white elite lived at their leisure, and it was a new world to both of them, as fantastic as Captain Nemo’s submarine or that spaceship H.G. Wells sent off to the moon. What did they know? They were Bajans. Ignorant and small. And even as the thought came to him he saw himself as a boy filled with shame and excitement as he crouched in the horse nicker and thatch palm outside the grand big house of the landowner, Mr. Brighton, and half the village there ducking down shamefaced to see how he and his white guests took their tea out on the patio, how they lifted their little fingers over the thimble-sized teacups and how the ladies arched their backs and cooed in their little birds’ voices and took their tea cakes up to nibble at them without dropping a crumb or staining their perfect white gloves with even the smallest single spot of sweet cream butter or a granule of sugar. So that was how it was done, they were all thinking and thinking too of their banged-together wood-slat houses listing over the white limestone foundations and picturing their neighbors sitting there, all black, black as the night of the hurricane, lifting their little fingers over the cups that were no bigger than the ones in a dollhouse.
The dishwater man cleared his throat. “Uh, Mrs. Borthwick,” he said, and he was shuffling the toe of his shoe on the carpet as if he was all nerves too, “I’m sorry to disturb you but you said to bring the new help around, and I—”
She started—a quick jump of the shoulders and the blood flushing those scallop-shell ears—and it was as if they’d burst in on her in the bath or in her bed, and she swiveled round in the seat and dropped the heavy book to the floor with a dull reverberant thump he could feel all the way across the room through the soles of his shoes (which he’d wiped up as best he was able, though the shine was dead and gone, maybe forever). “Oh, yes,” she said, up on her feet now, smoothing down her dress, two white hands fluttering to her hair, “hello.” And then again: “Hello.” She paused, drew in a breath. “But how you startled me—I was so deep in my work . . .” Her smile swept all three of them like a lighthouse beacon until it landed on the dishwater man. “But, Billy Weston, how you do creep up on a body.”
They stood at the edge of the carpet. No one moved. Then she laughed in a way that was loose and unbridled, almost flirtatious, and let her gaze fall first on Gertrude and then on him. He watched to see her smile fade, but it didn’t. “And you must be the new people.”
He heard himself say, “Yes, ma’am,” but he wasn’t fully present, or not yet, anyway. He was trying to gauge her, mental arithmetic, trying to add the sum of her parts and reach some sort of accounting because she was a young woman, younger by a good measure than the architect with his big head of gray hair who’d expended a whole three minutes of his precious time questioning them about the island before he hired them on . . . but she was old too, a kind of chameleon, he saw that now in the light that leached in through the window and trembled along her cheekbone—old as his mother but with the face and figure of a girl yet to bear children. And that was another conundrum, because she had borne children, that’s what he’d heard—two of them, by another man altogether—and she was standing here in her pretty dress and her silky pinned-up hair as if she were something high when she was nothing more than common, common and worn-out and old.
And what sort of comment was that, or question or whatever it was: You must be the new people? Who else would they be, standing there on the edge of her carpet, their black faces shining with sweat above the servants’ costumes she’d hung on a hook in the bathroom?
“Well,” she said, “good,” and she took a step forward as if to see them better. “You must be Julius, then—”
“Julian,” he corrected her.
“Julian, yes. And you are—?” She’d turned to Gertrude and she was young again, graceful, sweet.
Gertrude was bunching her lips. For a minute he thought she was going to curtsey. “Gertrude, ma’am.”
“Oh, yes, yes, of course, Gertrude.” The way she said it, the way she pronounced his wife’s name as if she’d taken it up like a pewter pin she’d found in the dirt and then polished it on her sleeve so it glowed like silver, made something seize in him. “And you’ll be cooking for us, then. You’ve seen the kitchen?”
Gertrude nodded, then dropped her eyes.
“You do understand that you’ll be expected to serve as many as ten to twelve people at meals, three times a day—Mr. Wright told you as much, I take it?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “And that you’ll have to handle the meats and the produce and make use of what we’re growing here on the farm, as well as take on all the housekeeping, you and your husband, that is. Do you think you’re capable of all that?”
“Oh, she’s capable, ma’am.” He was standing there at the edge of the rug as if it were a precipice—and for a second it was, waves crashing on the rocks below, gulls screaming in the void. He held himself absolutely rigid. “She may be young, but she’s the best cook in all of Bridgetown, a real paragon.”
The mistress—and what should he call her, certainly not Mrs. Wright, because she wasn’t married, was she?—ignored him. Her eyes were the color of week-old cider with the green flecks of mold still floating on the top of it. They never left his wife’s face. “What sort of things do you like to cook, Gertrude—what do you specialize in?”
He tried to answer for her but he barely got the first word out of his mouth before the woman cut him off. And still she wouldn’t look at him. “I want to hear from you, Gertrude. What do you cook?” A dip of the shoulders, a laugh. “Practically anything’d be better than what I’m capable of . . .”
Monkey lips, monkey lips. Gertrude gave him a look, squared her shoulders and lifted her eyes. “Jug-jug, pepper pot, fish any way you like it. And conkies. I make conkies they famous all up down Baxter Road.”168
He couldn’t help himself. “And white people’s food,” he blurted, “—she makes white people’s food too. Of course.”
“Mash potato,” Gertrude sang out. “Ham hock and black-eye pea, pig he feet, bee’steak in de pan, frittah, dat sort t’ing.”
And here he was, not five minutes into that house and that job of work, and he was hotter than any iron in any smithy’s shop in the whole godforsaken country—peasant talk, low ignorance and the smart of humiliation like a stingaree lashed across his face—and he couldn’t contain himself to save his life. “Hush,” he hissed, jerking his face to hers, every line knitted, “you just shut that, woman! You don’t talk like that. You don’t ever.” He was going to add, Is that the way I taught you?, his right hand, his slapping hand, trembling so hard he had to shove it in his pocket, but he caught himself. This wasn’t the place. But what place was it? Where was he?
The dishwater man rotated his toe. Gertrude stared at the carpet. In his head, sailing high in quick blooming bursts, were the rockets people sent up arcing over the night-black void of the sea on Empire Day, pop-pop, pop-pop. And the mistress—Borthwick, Mrs. Borthwick, was that what the dishwater man had called her?—puffed herself up like a crapaud frog and let her voice rise two levels. “And, you,” she said, pinning him with her eyes while the words rattled like steel blades in her throat, “you will not talk to her in that tone of voice, not in my presence, not in this house.” There was a silence. The earth stopped dead, transfixed on its axis. “Is that understood?”
He could have said anything, could have lost all he’d wanted and dreamed of right then and there and found himself back on that yellow-hairedtrain again, disgraced and disrespected, his poor black peasant Bajan wife crying on his shoulder, but all he said was, “Yes, ma’am.”
Out beyond her, beyond the carpet and the bookcase and the lobster-trap chair and all the rest, the sun suddenly exploded through the clouds in a fiery pillar that silhouetted her like some unearthly being, and he saw that sun and that room and the look on her face and fought himself down. He could never be sure afterward but he might even have bowed his head in the way those people in the bushes bowed and ducked away into the shadows when Mr. Brighton or one of the gentlemen or ladies sitting there under their parasols looked out across the lawn. He might have bowed his head. And for what? For what?
He watched her face, saw her arm rise and fall in a dismissive sweep as she ordered the dishwater man to take them off to the kitchen, and then they were moving, he and his wife, following the twitch of the dishwater man’s shoulders across the floor and out of the room. And what did she say, Mrs. Borthwick-Wright, Mrs. High-and-Mighty, in her voice of scorn? “Woman,” she spat, two syllables flung at his back as he retreated and all the while the rockets going off in his head, pop-pop, pop-pop.
She took a dislike to him the minute she laid eyes on him, and she hated to admit it to herself, hated to admit any kind of prejudice, but there it was. It wasn’t his looks. He was a good-looking Negro, light-skinned, with proportional lips and deep chocolate eyes, of medium height, slim and self-contained. No, it was something in his demeanor, the way he held himself, rigid as a pole, as if he’d just been shocked with an electric wire and was waiting for his torturer to throw the switch and shock him again. And the way he looked at her with a kind of cool insolence, as if she were the one applying for the job, as if she had to meet his expectations. She’d never seen anything quite like it, though admittedly her experience of Negroes was limited—she’d seen them in people’s homes serving at table and the like, and she’d encountered a handful of them when she was a librarian in Port Huron in the days before Edwin, but those Negroes were the ones she approved of, hard-working people educating themselves on their own time. Or at least trying.
And yes, this one—Carleton, Julian Carleton—was well-spoken, as Frank had said, and he seemed intelligent, perhaps too intelligent for his own good, but that he attempted to speak for his wife, to take the words out of her mouth, bully her right there in his first interview in the house, simply infuriated her. She had half a mind to telegram to Frank and tell him to find her someone else because she was sending them right back to Chicago on the morning train, but she didn’t. She needed them, needed somebody, anybody, to get her out of the kitchen and back to Ellen Key and her studies and her writing—the life of the mind instead of the scrub brush and the washboard—and perhaps she was being hasty in her judgment. The wife—Gertrude—had seemed sweet and shy. And so young. If Carleton was twenty-five or thereabout, she must have been five years younger, a girl still, eager to please, with real kindness in her eyes—there was a moment there when she actually thought the girl was going to curtsey to her. Her features were regular, almost pretty but for the exaggerated lips, her skin so dark and exotic it seemed to drink up the light. And the way she spoke, with the broad open vowels and the tripping syncopated rhythm that flowed like a song, like a sweet tropical melody played out spontaneously just for her, was perfectly charming.
But could she cook? That would be the test. If she could cook—and the husband serve the way Frank had assured her he could, serve at table and take up the household chores with some of the rigor that had held him frozen there on the carpet—then she was sure she’d be able to get over the awkwardness of that first impression. It was probably nothing, she told herself. He was uneasy, that was all. Trying to make a good impression. She couldn’t really blame him for that, could she?
She settled back in her chair. Took up her book again. Before long, she was immersed in her work, the afternoon absorbed in the flow of her hand and the rush of sentiments crowding her mind, and if she thought of the new help at all it was in the silences. Somewhere, at the margins of her consciousness, she might have heard a door open and shut again, might have detected the smallest sounds drifting in from the kitchen—a drawer sliding out, a knife at the whetstone, water running in the sink—but it was the long intervals of silence that made her feel that the house was in good hands, nothing amiss, the routine establishing itself by increments from one tranquil moment to the next. She took her dinner privately that evening, out on the little screened-in porch overlooking the lake, and he set the table and served her properly, without any fuss or a single wasted word. And the food—vegetable soup, tomato salad, a steak the wife had rubbed with a combination of exotic spices that managed to be piquant and savory at the same time, cob corn, potatoes braised in the pan with rosemary from the garden and a dessert of custard flavored with vanilla bean and cinnamon—was better than anything she’d tasted since she’d come back from Europe. She took two glasses of wine with her meal and had a brandy afterward, and for the longest while she just sat there staring off into the distance while the ducks and geese settled in on the lake and the shadows deepened and the fireflies traced their punctuated patterns across the night.
The next morning she went to the kitchen after breakfast (which had been equally delicious and just as thoughtfully prepared as the previous night’s dinner), thinking to praise the cook and encourage her too—perhaps even engage in a little small talk. She was curious. She wanted to hear what the girl had to say, listen to her opinions, discover something of her life and where she’d come from. Barbados. It sounded so exotic. And the way she talked—bee’steak, pig he feet—was like a tonic to her, sweet and refreshing. And different. Above all, different.
She eased open the door, a little speech forming in her head—Gertrude, I can’t begin to tell you how pleased I am—and stopped dead. The place had been transformed. Where before the room had been close and rancid with the must of last year’s bacon and drippings immemorial, a real farm kitchen, now the windows were thrust open onto the courtyard and there was a scent of that piquant spice, of fresh fruit and vanilla. And everything had been rearranged, the cluttered oak table gone, the pots sorted by size, the fry pans hanging from hooks over the stove and shining like jewels, every last plate and saucer and piece of cutlery washed and dried and tucked away in the cupboard and not a fly to be seen anywhere. Gertrude was down on her knees, polishing the brass handles of the stove, and Carleton, up on a stepladder, was scrubbing the ceiling—the ceiling!—with long sweeping strokes of his arms, as if he were dancing in place with an invisible partner. She didn’t know what to say. Both of them were aware of her—they had to be—but they gave no notice of it. They went on with what they were doing, utterly engrossed, and she stood there a moment, feeling like a stranger in her own house, until she softly pulled the door to and went on down the hall to her books.
That evening, she had Diana Milquist and her husband, Alvin, to dinner and asked Frank’s draftsmen, Emil Brodelle and Herbert Fritz, if they would join them to round out the party. She’d struggled with her work through the morning and into the afternoon, unable to concentrate, her thoughts repeatedly drifting away from Ellen Key and the woman movement to the Barbadians in the kitchen, the wonder of them, the strangeness, Negroes in the house and who were they, what were they thinking, what sort of bond held their marriage together? Though she wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone, the fact was that with Frank gone she was growing bored. She’d begun her book with a thrill of anticipation, in full command of her materials and with an outline so considered and thorough it had stretched to some thirty pages, and yet now that she’d progressed from her introduction through the opening chapters, a certain sameness had begun to creep into the writing—and worse, each sentence seemed to erect a wall against the next, so that she found herself manipulating phrases instead of ideas till all the freshness had gone out of the task.
The irony wasn’t lost on her. Here she’d chafed against the burden of the housework and cooking, and now that the Carletons were in charge and she had all the time in the world to devote to herself she couldn’t seem to recapture her enthusiasm. But, of course, all writers—even Ellen Key—had to struggle through the dry spots, and she would persist, absolutely, there was no question about that, and she had Frank to look forward to. Frank always enlivened things. Day after tomorrow, that was when he said he’d be back, for a few days at least. And in a matter of weeks, Martha and John would be there with her and everything would be new again.
If anything, the meal was even better than the previous night’s. She’d suggested a menu—roast chicken stuffed with cornbread, white biscuits and gravy, boiled ham, deviled eggs, potato salad and vegetables, sliced melon, perhaps a peach cobbler or blackberry pie—and Gertrude had played her own variations on it. Masterfully. And her husband had impressed everyone with the way he’d served at table, holding himself with the unassailable dignity you’d expect from the head waiter at the finest restaurant in Chicago or New York, attentive to the smallest needs, silently whisking one dish away even as the next was set down in its place. Herbert Fritz—just nineteen and living at home with his widowed mother before Frank brought him and Emil Brodelle out from Chicago and Milwaukee, respectively169—had obviously never experienced anything like it. He was on his best behavior, shooting a quick glance round the table each time he was served as if afraid someone would find him out and snatch the plate away, and he ate with a growing and barely concealed enthusiasm, compulsively bringing the napkin to his lips beneath the trace of mustache he was straining to cultivate. “This is simply delicious,” he kept saying throughout the meal, first to himself and then to the table at large. “Extraordinary. Really extraordinary. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted—”
“Ever?” Brodelle put in. Emil was just thirty, but he liked to think of himself as a man of experience—he tended to lord it above the others when Frank was absent, and she could hardly blame him. There wasn’t much for him out here in the country, apart from a trip to the tavern or a solemn horseback ride along the dusty roads. He had a ready wit and a range of learning rare among draftsmen, who tended to be narrowly focused and—well, to her mind at any rate—dull. There was a moment of silence. When he was sure he had everyone’s attention, he went on. “Aren’t you afraid that comment just might possibly be construed as an implied criticism of our hostess”—and here he smiled at her—“who’s done such a heroic job in the kitchen ever since the last—not a whit lamented—chef de cuisine left us?”
The boy ducked his head. When he glanced up at her, he was blushing. “I didn’t mean—I was only—”
And it was all right. Everyone laughed. Except Carleton, of course, who remained in character, hovering against the wall like a revenant in his white jacket.
“Yes,” she said, laughing still, “I know what you mean. Our new cook is such a paragon”—she was conscious of using Carleton’s term, wondering vaguely if it would please him—“I’m afraid we can all look forward to putting on weight up here at Taliesin.” She raised her glass. “Compliments to the chef!” she said, and everyone, even Alvin, whose profession seemed to have made him dubious about all things oral, lifted a glass in homage. She felt expansive, contented. “Well,” she said, setting down the empty glass, “is anyone ready for dessert?”
She took a long walk next morning, then settled into work. Despite the heat—it must have been ninety by half-past ten—she found she was able to see the book afresh and resolve some of the problems that had dogged her the day before. She read over the completed pages, making small emendations— and they truly were good, the prose sharper and clearer than anything she’d been able to extract from Ellen Key, whose language had a tendency to bog down in a Swedish morass of misplaced modifiers and parenthetical phrases. She was in another place altogether, moving forward with a subtle refinement of Key’s ideas on the evolution of love and the way men often desire a woman before they know her while women are too often obligated to develop sexual desire after the fact, thinking of Frank, Frank and her, and how she’d been the one to reveal herself first, a rainy autumn day, the children in school and Edwin at the office and she in her robe and nothing under it—when she became aware that someone else was in the room with her.
There was a smell of some caustic solution—muriatic acid? gasoline?—and when she looked up she saw Carleton bent over the fireplace with a bucket and scrub brush. He was wearing a blue work shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a pair of heavy trousers, far too heavy for this heat. His back was to her. She watched him go down on one knee, the brush working rhythmically over the upper surface of the stone where the soot stains reached almost to the ceiling like long grasping fingers, but was it wise to use a flammable solution? Even if it would have evaporated, whatever it was, by the time fall came around and the fireplace was in use again? She wanted to say something, wanted to interfere, but she didn’t. Let him show some initiative. Certainly Mrs. Swenson, the housekeeper who’d preceded him, wouldn’t have dreamed of scrubbing the fireplace—or anything else, for that matter, except at distant intervals and then only under compulsion. Just the night before, as Diana was gathering up her things to leave, she’d taken Mamah aside and told her how lucky she was. “These Negroes of yours are just too good to be true. I’m envious. I am. If I could only get Alvin to loosen his purse strings I’d march right over here and steal them away.”
For a long moment she simply sat there, watching him. There was something intrinsically fascinating about the Negro’s movements—he was so fluid and athletic—and he wasn’t so much dancing, she realized, as conducting, as if the brush were his baton and the stone of the fireplace his orchestra. But that was a foolish thought, the stone an orchestra. What was she thinking? She had work to do. She turned back to the page before her (For many men, too many men, sexual attraction precedes any notion of love, and this too often leads to . . .), but the rhythmic swish of the wire brush distracted her and before long she was staring out the window. He truly was a good worker, she thought, glancing up at him again. She watched his shoulders dip and rise, the brush sweeping to and fro like a hypnotist’s watch, thinking she’d been too harsh on him that first day, too judgmental, too quick to take offense . . . but then she saw the rage in his face all over again, the way he’d snapped at his wife, and thought how wrong it was, how inadmissible, how primitive.
He needed education, that was all. There were cultural differences at work here, just as there were in Japan and even Germany, but still, beneath it all, the attitudes were the same. Male attitudes. Archaic. Barbaric. Suddenly she felt herself go out to him—she could help, she could, not simply him but Gertrude too. Her eyes fell on the low table before her, and there, amidst a scatter of books and notepaper, was one of her presentation copies of The Woman Movement, still in its wrapper.170 She took it up on an impulse and rose to her feet. He was an intelligent man, she was sure of it, the sort of man who would welcome the gift of knowledge, thank her a thousand times over, because now, for the first time, he would see the other side of the coin, the woman’s side, see how his wife felt and should be made to feel.
The only problem was that she didn’t know what to call him, not under the circumstances—Julian was too familiar and Carleton too formal. She saw the muscles clench in his shoulders as the sound of her footsteps drew closer, noticed the briefest hesitation before both arms swung back into motion, and then she was standing over him, the reek of the gasoline fumes in her face, clearing her throat. “Excuse me,” she said, “Mr. Carleton, Julian.
He turned at the sound of his name, a slow rotation of his head, the hair there cut short so that it clung to his skin in dark whorls like some extraneous growth wheeling out across the expanse of his skull, but he remained in his crouch, one knee braced against the coping, the brush arrested. And here were his eyes coming into play, dark eyes, so dark she could scarcely distinguish iris from pupil. He stared up at her, his eyes fixed, his features immobile.
She held the book in both hands as if it were a missal, her fingers playingover the wrapper. “I just wanted to say,” she began, “what a splendid job you and your wife are doing. I’m very pleased. Very pleased indeed. And I’ll be sure to tell Mr. Wright.” She hesitated. His eyes were dead, his lips pressed tight. “I’m sure he’ll be—well, he’ll be pleased too. I’m sure.”
If the moment was awkward it was made even more so by the fact that he was kneeling, as if he were bowing to her in subjugation, as if he were a slave in the old South—a darkie—and she the overseer’s wife. Mrs. Legree, Mrs. Mamah Borthwick Legree, her whipping boy at her beck and call. He didn’t smile, he didn’t nod, didn’t utter a word. He didn’t even seem to be breathing.
“I’m sorry,” she said, though she didn’t know why or what she had to apologize for, “—to, to interrupt you like this. You’re doing a very fine job there. But I just wanted to say—about that first interview—well, I’d like you to have this.” She held out the book to him, and without coming up out of his crouch, he shifted the brush to his left hand and took it from her with his right, his gestures so slow and deliberate he might have been moving underwater. He didn’t even glance at the book. Just held her eyes, as if to await further instructions. Or any instructions.
“I think you’ll find this rewarding,” she went on. “Enlightening too, I hope. You see, no matter what our various cultures proclaim, marriage is almost everywhere the same. And, by and large, the women are the ones to suffer—under the current system, the system under which we’ve had to live from time immemorial, from the time of Moses and beyond, the Egyptians, I suppose, the Mesopotamians—women have been unequal partners and must live out their lives unfulfilled, in either love or work. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Nothing. He knelt there in his fumes.
“I’m speaking of Gertrude. Of your wife.”
Suddenly his face opened up. “Oh, don’t you worry about her,” he said, and he was grinning now. “I’ve got that under control.”
“No, I don’t think you understand—she needs to express herself.” The grin faded. He was shaking his head side to side. “I know that, ma’am, and that’s why I work her day and night to stop her talking like a bush nigger and use the King’s English. And she will. She will.” His eyes stared out past her, as if he were addressing someone across the room. His voice went cold. “I promise you that.”
When Frank came home for two days at the weekend, he was every bit as pleased as she was with the new help. Billy Weston fetched him from the station an hour before dinner, and he blew into the house like a cool breeze, taking her in his arms and dancing round the room with her before thrusting a foil-wrapped box of chocolates at her and disappearing into the drafting room to confer with Emil and Herbert. Of course, he couldn’t help shifting a vase from one shelf to another along the way or sliding a chair six inches to the right before deciding to move it back again—it was a compulsion with him—but the house seemed to have passed muster. The next she saw him was when she went out to her garden to cut flowers for the table and he was striding across the courtyard with Billy Weston in tow, firing off instructions to Lindblom, the landscaper, and his foreman, Thomas Brunker (a big-bellied man with a corona of white hair who always gave her a sour look, as if he disapproved of her, and so much the worse for him because she was the mistress of this house now and she was here to stay). “Dinner in ten minutes, Frank,” she sang out, and he smiled and waved and went on round the corner, never breaking stride.
When they finally did sit down to dinner she saw that he seemed to have lost weight—fretting over the loose ends at Midway, sleeping irregularly and to all appearances dining on the fly or not at all—but he tucked into everything Carleton brought out of the kitchen on the silver tray he held high over one shoulder and manipulated with a flourish that managed to be neither subservient nor showy, but just precisely right. Gertrude surpassed herself with the cuisine, serving up one of her spicy stews (“ ‘Hotter de day, hotter de spice,’ dat what my mama say. ‘You got to sweat to cool off ’ ”), with cornbread, cucumber salad and mint yogurt made from a culture she’d brought with her from Barbados via Chicago, fresh-picked melon and a berry tart. The next day she spent the whole morning preparing a picnic lunch, which Carleton, ever proper in his white jacket, served them on blankets down by the lake. Frank was enraptured, declaring the day a holiday from work and inviting all his employees, right on down to the field hands, to join in the festivities. The plates circulated. Carleton went up and down the hill a dozen times and every time he came back the platter was laden and everybody agreed that they’d never tasted better fried chicken or potato salad or pork chops and greens. They were lying there on their blankets, content, when one of the men pulled out a mouth organ and Frank started the singing and before anyone knew it the stars were showing overhead.
The next day Frank went back to Chicago, but not before putting away a two-fisted farmer’s breakfast and raising such a hosanna of praise to Gertrude’s buttermilk pancakes that she sidled out of the kitchen to give him a shy smile and one of her Barbadian homilies (“Nothin’ better den you eat well and purge clean”), and when he came back in the middle of the following week, she slaughtered a turkey for him and stuffed it with a mixture of smoked sausage and something she called cou-cou. And then Frank was gone again and the work of the farm went on and Mamah found herself counting down the days till the first of August, when John and Martha were due for their visit.
She was there at the station an hour early on the appointed day. Billy Weston parked the automobile at the curb and made use of the time to bring out the sheen of its finish with a nappy cloth and a can of wax, always thinking of Frank and how particular he was about the condition of his machines, while she paced up and down the platform in the rising still heat of mid-morning. She hadn’t seen the children since Christmas when she and Frank had gone into Chicago to a hotel and she tried to make up for the past two Christmases by taking them out to a restaurant and the symphony and burying them in gifts they seemed entirely indifferent to. Ellen Key had liberated her and she knew she should feel nothing but joy in her present circumstances—she was one of the chosen ones, a woman living her life in love’s freedom171—and yet still, the looks on their faces, wary and hopeful at the same time, always seemed to flood her with guilt. Each time she saw them she expected them to deny her, to lash out and declare their independence—or worse, to tell her about Edwin’s new bride and how she was their mother now. Because their old mother wasn’t fit. Had never been fit and never would be.
The train pulled into the station, one more arrival, and there they were, looking like strangers, John too adult now at twelve to take her hand and Martha gazing up at her in bewilderment, as if she were having difficulty placing her. “Children,” she cried, “John, Martha, come to your mother,” and they did come, with some prompting by their nanny (Edwin’s employee and no love lost there), because they had no choice. “How was your trip?” she asked as they waved their goodbyes to the nanny and settled themselves in the automobile, and both immediately answered “Fine,” in unison, as if they’d rehearsed it. “Well, good,” she said. “We’ve got all sorts of things planned for you—horseback riding, swimming, of course, and, John, did I tell you there’s a new rowboat for the lake? And, Martha—we’ve got peacocks now, two of them, and they have the most wonderful call or squawk or whatever it is . . .”
It was hot. The children were withdrawn. She found herself nattering on inanely, hoping to spark some sort of reaction in them, but they seemed joyless, as if coming to the country were a rare form of punishment. John perked up a bit over the details of Frank’s motorcar, comparing it (unfavorably) to the new red Abadal Stephen Pennybacker’s father had just bought, and Martha seemed gratified to discover the dolls she’d left behind last summer lined up all in a row on the shelf beside the bed, and yet it wasn’t until after they’d gone down to the lake for a swim that they began to resemble the children Mamah remembered. There was something in that scene—bare legs and feet, the skipping of stones and chasing after the geese, frogs erupting in their chorus, the smell of hair gone wet and dry and wet again—that had a deeply calming effect. By suppertime, both children were complacent, replete with their hamburger sandwiches, Coca-Cola and paper-thin Barbadian potato crisps. By bedtime, she was able to look in on them and offer a goodnight kiss, and Martha, though she announced that she was almost nine now and perfectly capable of reading on her own, allowed her to sit in the rocker by the bed and read aloud from The Wind in the Willows as if the past five years had been merely an interruption.
In the days that followed, as the children gradually acclimated themselves to Taliesin and she began to feel more at ease with them, her work seemed to come easier to her, because she was a mother—their mother—and no use in denying it or avoiding it or whatever she’d been doing. When they were away from her, home in Oak Park with their nanny and their schoolfellows and the new wife Edwin had been so quick to acquire, she pictured them as incorporeal, ghost images on a photographic plate.172 They were distant and so was she. But now that they were here, she realized how much she enjoyed seeing them ambling about the rooms or draped over Frank’s furniture, handsome open-faced children who made her proud. Of course, the situation wasn’t ideal and never would be—they were forever bursting in on her, squabbling over one thing or another, pale children, indoor children who had no appreciation of the countryside and little capacity for entertaining themselves, but that wasn’t their fault, it was Edwin’s.
More than anything, she looked forward to seeing them at meals, where there were no distractions and she could tease out their thoughts. She was amazed at the change in them in just a year’s time. They seemed so mature, especially John, who was on the verge of young manhood, but Martha too, Martha who should have been Frank’s child, but wasn’t and anyone could see that in the set of her eyes—even Kitty, as grasping, jealous and vindictive as she was, should have been able to recognize that in an instant and allow Frank to have his divorce without hesitation. Very gradually, Mamah began to acquaint them with the ideas of Ellen Key—and Frank was a help here, when he was home, the two of them holding a sort of Socratic dialogue for the benefit of the children, never lecturing, but rather letting the subject of the conversation shift naturally from the events of the day to love and the soul and the right—the compulsion—of women everywhere to stand up and take charge of their lives.
She wasn’t going to remake the children in a single summer, she knew that, but her hope was to educate them in the way she was educating Carleton, with the ultimate aim of making the world a better and more equitable place. And, on another level, to ease her guilt, to offer a rationale for what had happened on that awful night in Colorado when she’d stolen away without a word because she had to save her own life before she could save theirs. At any rate, the children were there and Frank was there (when he wasn’t in Chicago) and the Carletons were in the kitchen and Billy Weston came up the hill each morning to see that every little detail fell in place, the peacocks gave out with their desolate cries, the cattle lowed and the horses nickered at the rail because they wanted an apple and they wanted to be mounted and spurred through the fields and out over the hills, and she was there too, as deeply and fully as she could ever remember being anywhere.
Then there came a morning, breakfast done with and the children quietly occupied in their rooms—reading, she supposed, or hoped, at any rate—when she settled down to work with a cup of coffee and realized she’d forgotten something, and what was it? She gazed out on the yard, trying to recollect, the dense moist air drifting in through the open casement windows along with the faintly acid scent of the lady ferns Frank had clustered against the yellow stone of the foundation. For contrast. And there was genius in that too, his vigilance for the telling detail, the flowerbeds of the courtyard alive with color—coreopsis, phlox, hollyhocks and tiger lilies, and she really did need to get out more and tend them—even as the outer walls denied it, the simplest chromatic scheme there, green against yellow and the yellow fading to gold. She saw Billy Weston down below at the base of the hill conferring with Brunker over the lawn mower, the sun shearing them so that their features were annulled, two irregular shining spheres cut loose from the dark shadow of their gestures, and beyond them the lake and the road and the distant smudge of grazing cattle. She took a sip of coffee. Glanced down at her notes.
And then she remembered: she’d meant to speak to the cook, to Gertrude, about baking something special that afternoon for Martha. Or rather Martha’s friend Edna, who was planning on riding her pony over so the two of them could put on their party dresses and have tea like little ladies out on the screened-in porch. Some finger cakes, maybe, something with coconut and crème—Gertrude was a marvel with coconut. And if John promised not to pester the girls, she supposed he could join the party at some point—and Billy Weston’s son, Ernest, who was a year older than John and more rough and tumble, more a country boy, but who at least gave John someone to tag along with. Or maybe that wasn’t such a good idea—the boys could have a separate party, yes, that would be better, perhaps down by the lake where they could work off some of their high spirits.
She got up from the chair—Billy had taken the mower himself now and was cutting a swath away from Brunker, who hadn’t moved save to shove his hands in his pockets—and crossed through the dining room to the kitchen. She rarely came into the kitchen anymore—there was no need to really, and when she did she felt almost as if she were intruding. Especially when both the Carletons were there. It was nothing they said or did particularly, but they seemed to tense when she entered the room, which was only natural, she supposed. Though Mrs. Swenson never seemed to mind. She wouldn’t have cared if Mamah had camped out under the sink—would have preferred it, for that matter, so she’d have someone to complain to all day long in her high ratcheting whine. But the Carletons were different and she respected that.
It wasn’t till she was there, her hand on the doorknob, that she sensed something wasn’t right. A noise alerted her, a sharp wet sound, as of meat pounded with a mallet, succeeded by a curse—a man’s voice, Carleton’s, rising up the scale. She pushed open the door. And entered a room that was like an oven, like a furnace, the windows drawn shut and smoke in the air, something burning in a pan on the stove. She saw Carleton then, his back to her, standing over what looked to be a pile of washing on the floor, but wasn’t washing at all. It was Gertrude. Her left eye was swollen shut and there was a bright finger of blood at the corner of her mouth. She crouched in the corner, shrinking away from him, her head bowed, her arms clutched to her chest.
“You stupid fucking cow!” Carleton shouted. “I’ve told you a thousand times if I’ve told you once: I want my meat cooked rare. Rare, do you hear me? ”
The door was ajar. The smoke erupted from the pan. Carleton didn’t seem to notice. Or care. He was secure. He’d pulled the windows shut on the scene, closed the room off so he could assault his wife and no one to interfere. Mamah stood there in the doorway, paralyzed.
Carleton’s shoulders jumped beneath the fabric of his shirt. He dropped his voice. “You stupid, stupid Bajan slut,” he whispered, and lashed out with the toe of his tarnished tan boot, once, twice, as if he were trying to kick through the wall, and Gertrude drew in two sharp breaths in succession and he kicked her again. “What does it take to get some respect around here? Huh? What do I have to do, kill you? Is that what you want? Is it, woman? Is it?”
That was when Mamah stepped in. She was terrified, panicked, her every instinct to turn and run, but she took hold of the enameled edge of the wash basin and flung herself between them, raising it up like a shield. He was right there, right in her face, the smell of him as raw and unrelieved as anything she’d ever experienced, as death, as mangled flesh, rotten flesh, flesh set afire and burning up in the pan. He didn’t move, didn’t flinch or back off or acknowledge her, and for the fraction of a moment she thought he was going to come at her next, but then she saw that he was as shocked as she was, his eyes retreating from the scene as if he’d just awakened from a dream to this nightmare of abuse and outraged whiteness and the flame under the pan and the smoke rising, rising. “Don’t you dare,” she said.
He took a step back, dropped his arms to his sides.
Mamah could barely control her voice. She was shaking. “You get out of here!” she shouted. “Get out!”
And then the strangest thing happened: he grinned at her. His eyes went cold and up came that automatic grin. But he wasn’t moving. And his hands were clenched. You speak to me like that?” he said, without a trace of emotion. “Who do you think you are? You’re nothing but a—”
“No,” Gertrude groaned, trying to get to her feet. “Julian, no—”
“Nothing but—” And then, only then, did he turn away, jerking the handle of the cast-iron pan so that it skittered away from the flame and clattered to the floor, pausing only to give it a savage kick before he made his way to the door. But he wasn’t finished, not yet. He swung back round on her. “You people,” he spat, “with your books. This woman is my wife here. My wife. Can you understand that?”
“I’m giving you your notice, right here and now, as of this minute,” she said, but the words sounded hollow in her ears, and she knew it and so did he.
He shook his head slowly, as if the motion of it pained him—“And you call us niggers,” he said—and then he was gone.


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Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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