(Read the other chapters here.)
Somehow I was able to keep the tears from falling, keep from cursing Glory, and even as I heard the first stirrings of the bombardier, keep from going back into the cabinet and reaching for the cognac. Instead, remembering what Pete had always said, “Need to work something out? Then get to work!,” I grabbed my shovel and a trash bag, not caring that Miss Pauline was out, sucking up all the air, and got to shoveling. I didn’t bother to speak to the woman as she never returned my greetings. Then, of course, this being the case, she spoke.
“That old fool makes me sick.”
I turned to see if the woman was indeed speaking directly to me and not some other person, maybe up in a window, or standing to the side out of view.
“Yeah,” I said, continuing to shovel, not quite sure the best way to continue with someone who on all other occasions had felt free to publicly shun me.
“Yeah, he’d stopped then started up again when you got here.”
I stopped my shoveling, turned and looked the woman dead in her cloudy, cataract laced eyes. But before I could say anything, her aide, Ruth, emerged from the shadows of Miss Pauline’s always open doorway.
“Now, Miss Pauline, you know that ain’t the truth. He’s been throwing pumpkins or anything else he’s got a mind to at those boys doing their business forever. It’s almost a game for ‘em. He don’t do too much after dark, because by then they’re through on this end, just hangin’ out some. But he don’t tolerate it in broad daylight. Don’t you mind, Miss. It ain’t just you he don’t like.
I simply nodded and kept to my shoveling.
“Your company left, ‘em white folk?” Ruth asked.
“Yeah, they said they had a nice stay, they did.” I didn’t want to go into the Minnesotans, the whole experience was better relegated to been there did that got the Kewpie doll.
“So, that’s what you’re up to,” she said, smiling slyly, her big boxy teeth framed in gold, making her look like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. The woman gestured to the Literary Bed & Breakfast sign that looked as though someone had tried to pry it off. Tired, I sat down on my stoop, and like a weary confessant defeated by my own misdeeds, began telling this stranger, chapter and all the verses, everything that had brought me to this point in what Benny laughingly called, Adventures in Estellaland.
“Of course, it seemed like a good idea. I mean being so close to the train station, and this being a new arts district. I figured how could I fail? I had no idea of the bureaucracy involved with wanting to let people sleep overnight and give them a biscuit or two for having done so…”
“Well, sure sounds like a good idea. Sure does. So don’t give up, hon. Got to keep trying, even when it seems everyone’s against you.”
I appreciated the woman’s sentiments. And if I hadn’t sworn never to lay eyes on Glory again, I would’ve high tailed it back to Florida, grateful to start my new life in servitude to the Lord, and, of course, Glory. I’d gladly hand out fans imprinted with the Passaway Greater Hawthorne Funeral Home’s motto: It may be hot now, but Praise Jesus, it won’t be where you’re going. I’d struggle to hold down those who wanted to be baptized, but who the Devil was still trying to yank back. I’d roll the wheelchair bound to the side, out of the way of the able-bodied, locking them in place until the end of Glory’s service. Even as I sat on the stoop, the smell of putrid pumpkin constricting my nostrils, I saw this as clearly as if it was happening right before my eyes.
“I’m not too sure of my next move,” I said. Getting no response, I looked over to see Miss Pauline now snoring and Ruth busy taking long convulsive pulls from the cigarette clamped between her lips.
“Well, nice talking to you ladies,” I said.
“So, you don’t work?” Ruth said, looking at me fisheyed, blowing smoke up, into the wind.
I didn’t know how to answer. I didn’t think this woman who worked taking care of people like Miss Pauline, blotting runny noses, mouths, leaky eyes, helping to pull on and off undergarments, rubbing balm on scaly skin, could possibly grasp the ideal of someone giving up a six figure job so they wouldn’t have to hear Ted Marin say in that nasal, condescending way of his, “Estella, when you get a moment, please come into my office,” ever again. Understanding this, I lied.
“I’ve got a bad back,” I said, loosening my grip on the shovel.
If she made the connection, she didn’t acknowledge it, saying, “So, you thought you’d take folks in for pay because you don’t want to mess up your back?”
“Something like that. It’s not bad, not disability bad. But I don’t want it to get worst.” I looked over at Miss Pauline, her head cocked at an angle so close to her chest, I wondered about her airflow. “Is she all right?”
Ruth laughed. “She’s fine, been napping under that tree at this time everyday for the last twenty years.”
I averted my eyes from the woman. The thought of 20 years stashed under a tree washed me in dread and made me want to right then dial Glory, fall on my pumpkin goop covered shovel and beg for mercy. This to me sounded like as good a plan as any other I might come up with, considering the mortgage payment was overdue and my stomach was still achy from all those gluten laden brownies I downed.
Just then a woman came walking toward us holding the hand of a little girl, brown as a berry, wearing a sun dress, her hair perfectly styled in twists, each one topped with a little pink bow. “Morning,” the woman said as they passed. With her free hand, the child waved too.
“Oh, she’s so cute,” I said, smiling.
“Yeah, they must have come from the church.” Ruth gestured to the Baptist church at the end of the row of six houses.
“Church services in the middle of the week?” I asked.
“Naw, Tuesday is when they have the foster kid open house. You see ‘em every Tuesday, all those folks with their foster kids. I think they have the new parents, folks thinking about doing it, meet up with the older ones. Sometimes, I go in just for refreshments.”
Before I could catch myself, I squinted at the woman.
“They pass out cookies and fruit punch, hoping it will make folks think about takin’ in one of ‘em kids. Ain’t moved me yet. Too much work, plus those cookies are store brands. What they need is to put out some Pepperidge Farms, Milanos, some like ‘em…”
The woman looked at me queerly, the cigarette she had been smoking finished. The butt extinguished under her comfortable black health aide tech shoes. “Well, hon, you get a stipend for taking ‘em in. It’s foster care.”
“A stipend for taking in a child,” I repeated. What, a couple of hundred dollars for having to do everything for a child, and more?” I huffed. “It probably doesn’t even come out to minimum wage.”
“Shame more don’t do what they can.” Miss Pauline’s head bobbed up. “That’s the problem with some folks. They go through all kind of hoops taking in whites but when it comes to their own, all they got to say is ‘How much, oh, that ain’t enough,’” she said, now in shun mode again. I watched as she struggled back up the stoop to her house.
“Now, go on, Miss Pauline. Time for Judge Judy anyway, go on. I’ll be in there.” Ruth said, grabbing the old woman by the elbow, assisting her up the stairs and into the house.
I didn’t know why I felt a need to explain myself. It’s not that simple. The bed and breakfast’s not just for white people. In fact, the theme is African American literary lions, the best of the best. Anyone could have booked a room. It just happens that these first folk were white. That’s all.”
Ruth laughed. “Don’t pay no mind to Miss Pauline. She’s at that age, been like this forever. She just says what pops into her head. You don’t have to go an’ explain yourself to nobody ‘round here,” she said, reaching into the little pouch hanging around her neck for another cigarette. “Everybody’s got a hustle,” she said, stepping inside Miss Pauline door, “Don’t you go feelin’ the need to apologize for yours.”
“I’m not apologizing for anything,” I said, standing up.
Ruth continued to smile her golden Grinch grin. “Hon, I didn’t say you were.”
Just then several groups of parents and kids came walking down the sidewalk, saying “Morning, how’ y’all,” getting into cars, some walking to homes in the neighborhood.
“Oh,” Ruth began before shutting the door, “That stipend for being a foster parent? It’s probably not what you’re use to, but not too many folks think of $3,200 a month as minimum wage,” she said, then added as the door closed, “Well not around here anyway.”
I stood there unable to move. Thirty-two hundred dollars per month was way more than I expected from taking guests in each month. Not even at double occupancy. Of course, she had it wrong. It was probably closer to $1,320 a month. A pittance for caring for a child someone else didn’t or couldn’t take care of. Still, I couldn’t help but let my mind go there, $3,200 a month to basically babysit a child who would either be in school the bulk of the day or fast asleep. I patted my pocket, making sure I had my house keys, and with nothing but a baseball cap on my head, a gook covered shovel in my hand, and old sneakers soaked with pumpkin goop, I practically skipped down the sidewalk to the church, bumping into another group of smiling parents leaving the church as I did.
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.