(Read the other chapters here.)
I wanted some bread pudding. Yes, I wanted Glory’s chocolate bread pudding warm from the oven. I wanted to be twelve again when Dyson and I would sneak back into the kitchen after Glory had already told us to get from underneath her and go be Christian, go be productive. But heathens, resolute ones, instead we’d return on the pretense of taking out the trash or getting something to drink. Then quiet, we’d watch her tear the bread into bite size shreds, putting eggs, heavy cream, sugar, vanilla, chocolate chips, and melted butter into a bowl, mixing the goop together with her bare brown hands, and we’d listen for the tick, tick, tick of the oven as it heated up, giggling as Glory teased, “For being so nosey, both of you wash those dishes up.” For me, it was these rare June Cleaver times, which made Glory undeniably glorious.
I thought of Glory’s bread pudding as I took the short ride on the free Purple Circulator down St. Paul street to the Housing Inspection Unit to get what was needed to make things right: a variance. And, then again, as I walked down the hall through the maze of cubbies that made up the Housing Unit, and then finally as I sat quietly in the waiting area and filled out the application for the variance. Bread pudding warm from the oven was the only thing I wanted—other than my variance, and a little mercy.
Regina Moore, who had been a housing unit clerk for seven years–though she had only been 2-months old in 1986, when the Housing Unit as it is comprised today opened its doors–wasn’t in the business of giving mercy. She started straight out of high school. She had wanted to go into the Army like a favorite aunt, and had even taken the entrance exam, but thought better of it, when she was told by the recruitment officer that because she had scored higher than she should have, she would have to take the exam again. She refused. Opting instead to take Baltimore City’s Civil Service exam, which she told her aunt, “was a darn sight easier.” For her age, 26, Regina Moore had a reputation for fairness that far surpassed many of her older, more seasoned colleagues. But as for what she liked to call, “coloring outside the lines,” this she didn’t do.
Of course, I knew none of this as my number flashed across the neon wall monitor and I walked quickly to line 23. I did notice–it was hard not to–that the young woman sitting ramrod straight at her desk, the one who when she picked up a pen, put that same pen down exactly where it had been lifted, looked particularly “normal.” She didn’t have elaborate hair. Nor did she have nails filed to such fine corner points they could be used for letter openers. And though younger than me by ten years, the woman before me appeared to be extraordinarily rational, and I took comfort in this.
“Good Morning,” I began, handing the application to the woman.
“Not yet, I’ll ask for your paperwork when I’m ready.” I sat perfectly still. My head up and hands in my lap just as I had learned in Mrs. Howard’s third grade class. Fidgeting was a sign of lack of control, and, according to Mrs. Howard, was a sure sign a person was up to something–Mrs. Howard was the only white teacher, the only white person period in all of Stanton Elementary, which Principal Thompson reminded students made her a supreme credit to her race. I in no way wanted this woman, Regina Z. Moore, as her name tag read, to even remotely think I was up to something.
“Now, I will look at your papers,” she said. I handed her the application for variance, along with my original application for opening a hostel that was actually a bed & breakfast.
Regina Moore looked over the papers, like a surgeon looking at a particular uninteresting abscess. “So, you’re not opening the hostel?”
“Well no, you see, I’m opening a bed & breakfast, and…”
“So why did you check hostel? A hostel’s not a bed and breakfast.”
“I know, but you see there was no listing for bed and breakfast, so I thought…”
“So you thought you’d do an end run, and check hostel?”
I looked at the woman and quickly tried to figure out the best way to ultimately walk away with what I needed and get back to my bed-and-breakfast—or what Glory would probably end up labeling as my latest meanderings. I smiled, hoping that my eyes were as round and bright as they had been when looking up at Mrs. Howard and said, “Yes, ma’am. It was a mistake on my part.”
Regina Moore smiled. “Well, mistakes do happen, especially in housing. Let’s see what we can do to rectify this.” Again, she looked at my original application, comparing it to what I now was asking to be allowed to do with the variance. “Okay, the only real difference that I can see is the serving of food. Other than that, you really wouldn’t need any permit at all, but,” she said, looking up, eyes narrowed, “You will be serving food?”
I wasn’t sure if it was her tone, but I now wondered whether I should rethink things and, perhaps, not serve food, perhaps go ahead and run a student hostel. But then, I knew it was too late to rethink things, and nodded my head, “Yes, I will be serving food.”
“Alrighty then, how many? Because,” Regina Moore began, looking me in the eyes, “If it’s less than five guests at a time, then you won’t have to have your kitchen classified as industrial, and we can just have one of our inspectors come out and do the certification. If it’s less than five being served, then I’m pretty sure the I.G. will sign off on the variance. But, if it’s more, then…”
Before the woman could finish, I assured her that it would be less than five and was already signing and initialing where she pointed on the variance application to say that this was the case.
“Ms. Moore, so how long will it take for the variance to be approved?” I asked.
Regina Moore continued typing information into the system. “It shouldn’t take more that 90 days, perhaps 60, depending on the backlog.”
Although I felt my eyes brimming over, like those times Mrs. Howard sent me to the corner though I hadn’t done anything wrong, but had simply been a fidgety eight-year old, I was determined not to let this woman get the best of me. I knew what I was feeling had little to do with the woman’s cool and perfunctory manner, but everything else that had happened up to this moment. So, I asked her, taking a deep breath, “Well then, Ms. Moore, considering, I’ve got these guests coming from out of town in two days, what would you suggest I do?”
Regina Moore looked up from her computer screen, and like a Jeopardy contestant who had the double jeopardy answer to the very category she had been cramming for all her life, she answered, “Just don’t feed ‘em, Ms. Tinsdale.”
to be continued…
Willett Thomas is the president of Write of Passage, Inc. She earned her MA in writing from Johns Hopkins. She has received artist fellowships from Blue Mountain Center and the Millay Colony. She was selected as a Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation fellow for the District of Columbia, and is the recipient of the 2008 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange award for fiction.