Saturday, November 22, 2014

Chapter 2

Chapter 2        Bessie

 (Chapter 1

Five days a week Bessie’s routine included making her own home spic and span before leaving for Mrs. Marjorie and Dr. Fred’s house. Once in a while she worked for them on a Saturday when they needed her to babysit Hal and V. Sundays, however, were off limits. Even when Mrs. Marjorie called in a fast and frantic voice, like she did yesterday, she’d stick to her guns and say, “God called first, off to church. See you Monday morning.”

A chirp curled up from Bessie’s throat whenever she spoke her tiny lies. She wasn’t off to church. She was praying her own Sunday way by reading piles of magazines and soaking in a hot tub with Calgon—just taking her away.

She lived alone in a narrow row house with a big floppy lilac tree on 4908 Baltimore Avenue West Philadelphia. Bessie planted the tree when Loretta was three, the year Whitey took the 44 bus to work and never got on the return bus. Maybe he got killed, or just kept taking buses until he passed the city line, passed the big suburban stone houses, then made it clear cross to a place where there wasn’t any work to be done, where no old woman complained about her back, and no baby girl cried. Bessie thought maybe Whitey lived in a cabin on a mountain with a river and lots of fish, and a Spirit cleaned the fish for him, fried them, and then scrubbed the pan. God, she  imagined, didn't do that kind of work, but could have, in all His mercy, sent a Spirit to do that for Whitey, a good hearted man just trying to find his way in the world.

 “Life keeps on no matter the comings and goings of any man,” Bessie had said to her daughter encouraging her to stop that crying and help dig the hole for the lilac tree.

Now, since her mother had died, and Loretta, was in New York City enrolled in business school, she had only one bed to make before heading out to work. In eleven months, Loretta would be getting a job in a lawyer’s office as a stenographer. She’d go to work in high heels, a patent leather belt and a gold pin with big colored stones on her lapel. Women didn’t wear gloves or hats anymore unless they were headed to church, but Bessie imagined Loretta dressed for work with those matching accessories. She warned Loretta about her hair.
“No lawyer with a fancy office is going to hire you if you look like you’re going to raise your fist  for ‘Black Power.’ Bessie thought the afro that young woman were wearing was a ticket to trouble. “You have to buy the new hair relaxers by Johnson and Johnson. I saw in Ebony Magazine they don’t have lye so your hair won’t be getting thin like mine.”

Bessie shook out her blanket in search of the other side of the bed. With no one standing across from her to help it lay flat in one toss, she went back and forth until she got the bed just right.
A few men had come in and out of her row house, in and out of her her double bed, since Whitey. She was only thirty-five, but someone who didn’t know her would have guessed that she had ten more years on her. She didn’t have the time to be looking for a man. And not too many men come looking for a woman whose hands smell like bleach and feel like a scrub brush.

Before, shutting her bedroom door, Bessie straightened the two portraits of real men hanging over her bed. The late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the late President John F. Kennedy watched over her nights' sleep.

 If it hadn't been for them, Loretta would be putting on a yellow uniform with an apron like she did every morning heading out to clean up rich people’s shit. 

Most men, according to Bessie, were too pumped up by their mamas’ praise. “You are so wonderful,” boys are told for just for taking a dump and wiping their own asses. Little boys grow up to be bigger boys wearing men’s shoes expecting women to treat them like the Christ child himself, serving up compliments, cold beers, and clean underwear. And when you are bending over to pick up their newspapers they want to lift your skirt and bang you hard till they are satisfied without a care for what you might be needing. Bessie buttoned up her fall red coat, turned the key on the top and bottom locks, walked past the lilac tree, and stood in the fall breeze with the other women waiting to cross the city line on the 44 bus.

Marjorie’s brown Continental was third in line behind the other big cars in the parking lot of the Chinese restaurant Chopsticks. The women were waiting to pick up their “girl.” Most girls came two days a week. Bessie came Monday through Friday.

“I really needed you yesterday Bessie,” scolded Marjorie. Marjorie cracked her window and took a big inhale of a Virginia slim tucked into the black cigarette holder while she waited her turn to drive down Montgomery Avenue through Wynnewood, past Bala Cynwyd and down toward Bryn Mawr. The Welsh had been the earliest settlers in these tree lined acres, leaving behind names that could only be pronounced by people in the know.  The 44 bus didn’t go as far as Bryn Mawr. 

“Sorry,” Bessie couldn’t help that little laugh from curling up her throat, “Church and all.” It’s not that Bessie never went to church. She’d been baptized in a river as a girl.

She could rise to her feet from listening to Pastor Moore preach at Mt Olive Baptist. He was the one who baptized Loretta, a giant in the ministry, a teacher extraordinaire preaching the Word so you could witness God  move in the congregation. By time most Sundays came, Bessie needed her feet soaking in a tub more than Pastor Moore’s message of judgment and even his promises of hope.

“We had a dinner party Saturday night.” Marjorie said as she pulled her coat tight covering up her terry cloth pink bathrobe. She inhaled again and announced like she was saying "Hal has baseball practice after school," that  “Dr. Fred and I are leaving on a trip tomorrow. You won’t have to come after today for two weeks. The children will be at my mother’s.”

Two weeks of not working meant not making one hundred and sixty dollars. Loretta’s rent would be due. Bessie counted in her head how short she'd be. Loretta wouldn't like it if her rent check was late.

“I can come and dust, water the plants. The curtains could use some ironing,” Bessie tried. "I could get up in your studio and give a good going over." Marjorie shot her an eyebrow, Bessie was not permitted in the attic. The children weren't permitted up there either.

“Won’t be necessary. Take a vacation too, Bessie. It's always good to restart your engine.”

Coming up the driveway of the house, Marjorie pushed the electric garage door opener. Bessie was amazed every morning how Marjorie managed getting that car into the garage with barely any room on each side, but she did most days without a scratch.

Just as promised the kitchen and dinning room were a mess. There was enough food left out on the counter to feed a whole family and instead she'd have to throw all that meat down the garbage disposal. 
Marjorie threw her coat on the white silk sofa in the living room and headed up to the attic to paint. She didn’t come down all day while Bessie scoured the pans with brillo, washed and ironed the tablecloth, and polished the banister with brass-o. In a few hours the kitchen and dining room looked as if there had been no party Saturday night.

It was the bedroom that was the real challenge. Miss Marjorie’s bottle of Interlude was broken on the rug. Glass was scattered across the floor and the perfume had soaked into the powder blue shag rug. A martini glass was broken at the other end next to Dr. Fred's  armoire.  This one must have been a real doozy. Dr. Fred was prone to slamming doors as was his right. He did his fair share of "go to hell" but Bessie never saw things flying across a room. Mrs. Marjorie was more like a sulking cat when she got mad. Who  did the throwing?  She windexed the powder blue wall to get rid of the streaks of liquid that had left their mark.

Bessie picked up the broken pieces of glass carefully in her hands. The Hoover upright vacuum got the rest. She made a baking powder paste to soak up the perfume. Her mother had taught her how to use baking powder to clean up almost everything. It even takes the bite out of a bee sting.

Dr. Fred had already started packing. He was a real man, Bessie thought. Not in the same way as Dr. King or President Kennedy. It's not like he is undoing the  injustices of her world. But, he always has time to talk. He is a healer and that's what God wants, healers. He'd never walk out and leave Mrs. Marjorie alone to raise the children. Dr. Fred would never get on the 44 bus without making sure to buy a return ticket. 

In his leather suitcase that had double G initials, Dr. Fred  had packed two bathing suits and beach shoes. His tuxedo and white dinner jacket were already in the suit bag. They must be going somewhere warm and formal Bessie ventured.  Florida? A cruise? Europe maybe? Once Dr. Fred had told her all about their trip to Rome, Italy with beautiful sculptures and the best food. Loretta might get to Rome one day. 

When Hal and V came from school the house was ordered. She hung up their book bags and gave them oreo cookies and milk. Just like she did when Loretta was young, she sat them down to do homework before they were allowed to watch the television. V was the smart one. She finished off her assignments without asking for any help. V had red hair like her mother but they didn't seem to have much more in common. Every one of V's greetings had a smile attached to it. Bessie could imagine V as a healer like her dad. She could grow up and go to nursing school so she wouldnt have to worry about the comings and goings of any man.

 Hal needed Bessie's attention for homework help. Poor kid couldn't keep his multiplication tables straight. Bessie had made him a big chart from the one's to the nines and put it up on his closet door. No one was telling him he was so wonderful. So Bessie did even when he missed 7X8, 8X8, and 9X8.

Marjorie, still in her terry cloth bathrobe, came down stairs at 4:30 ready to drive Bessie back to the 44 bus, then head out to pick up Fred. The best you could say about Marjorie's efforts that day would be an incoherent color mash from her experiment with a kind of portrait that blurred the line between faces and windows. By mixing abstract and realistic approaches Marjorie thought she could convey in a new way, her way, what Goya had done with his masterful traditional strokes. She  was reaching for a new kind of portrait that acted as a window to a life story. At the end of the day there was no life and no story on her canvas. 

Saturday night was playing and replaying in her head. She hand't meant to sound so jealous. She totally got  that Fred and Irv spend lots of time together because of their work. But there was a time when Fred turned to her about important things. Irv and Fred were debating about the next painting to purchase for the office collection which they shared as a investment and a tax write off. For God's sake, she was an artist. Wouldn't they ask her opinion?

They all had  a laugh about the kiss. As Irv had explained, they were trying to figure out how two of their teenage patients managed to come in with their braces locked. It was the fight after Irv and Evelyn had left that had turned things upside down. Fred had screamed at her like a child, actually calling her a "spoiled brat."  And sometimes she felt that way, like when Fred handed her the weekly allowance for the house expenses. Or when he was in deep conversation with Irv, as if she weren't even at the table. Or when Fred told her to be ready in 48 hours. They were going on a trip. He was trying to make up, but really he could have asked.

Marjorie walked into the kitchen with paint smeared on her sleeves. Some baking powder might get that out, thought Bessie.  Whitey had gotten his name from paint. He was as black as any man she ever saw, but because he always came round with white paint all over him from his odd jobs, folks just got to calling him Whitey. What could you call Mrs. Marjorie? Rainbow didn't seem to fit. Colored? Bessie got a good tickle out of that.

 Counting out an extra ten dollars, Marjorie pushed the bills into Bessie’s hand. “Sorry things were such a mess. I’ll call you when we come back from our trip. You take some vacation too.”

“Maybe I’ll go visit Loretta, I’ve been wanting to do that,” Bessie said buttoning up her red fall coat, a little chirp came up her throat.

“Sounds good,” Marjorie said. It was no surprise to Bessie that Marjorie didn’t know who Loretta was.
I wanna come too,” Hal popped up from his G I Joes on maneuvers.

“Stay with your sister. I’ll be back in an hour.”

V didn’t even look up. She was watching One to Life to Live and on this soap opera Viki Lord was the lord of her castle in Lanview, Pennsylvania--crazy but powerful.  To live like Viki Lord, the head of Lord Enterprises, was V's mission, even if it meant she might have bouts with multiple personalities.

 V was glued to the television working very hard not notice her mom. "Spic and Span wouldn't leave all that dirt,"  hummed the commercial. Why would she lift her eyes for her mom, she didn’t seem to notice V.

"See ya tomorrow Bessie," V called. Marjorie hadn't yet told the kids that she and Fred were headed for two weeks vacation and they'd be staying at their grandparents.