(This is a continuation of the serial novel: The Charm Offensive. Please read the previous chapter.)
After whacking Leni on her back so hard she had no choice but to choke or swallow, I spent the better part of the day doing hard labor. What were, Delores explained smiling, my daily chores.
The thermometer mounted above the garden gazebo read 32 degrees. Still, there we were in jackets, gloves and mittens, Leni snotted up, the both of us pulling weeds.
“Not that one,” Delores said, causing me to look more closely at what was between my fingers – a long stem, lined with thick foliage, dotted with clusters of white flowers. What I knew from my intermittent botanical studies at Freemont was a weed, but which all the same, I dropped like a hot coal and tamped back into the ground.
Delores had us doing this for an hour, the gardening. I did the bulk. Leni’s hands were too small to make any significant contribution, so Delores told her to “just stand there” and hold tight to the sack while I filled and re-filled it like a per pound migrant worker.
We got a 20-minute lunch break: sandwiches made of watercress and thin onion slices, crusts cut away, made tolerable with a smear of butter. There was milk for both of us. Then we were back again, out into the cold to muck out a barely frozen over koi pond—mucking which also included seeing that the fish and the other reptiles housed in the pond were fed—watercress.
Then we moved on to polishing dingy Halethorpe Family silverware. With Delores giving demonstrations on how to apply up and down motions so we wouldn’t leave streaks. Mid-afternoon, somewhere around 1:30, the main-level floors had to be seen to. After handing each of us an old and grizzled toothbrush, Delores assisted us with this task by first pointing and then inspecting as we scrubbed deep and thoroughly the mansion’s every crack and cranny.
Once we finished with thrashing the rugs and sweeping the stair carpets, but in between sneezing fits, we dusted all Mr. Herbert’s do-dads: trophies for athletics, including college competitions won in broad jump, shot put and rowing. Mr. Herbert’s 50-plus framed certificates for civic contributions and academic degrees were not to be touched.
“I’m the only person—other than Mr. Herbert—who gets to touch these,” Delores said. For some reason she felt the need to repeat this several times throughout the day, gazing at them fondly as if she herself had played a significant role in him having won them.
By the end of this our second work shift, we were slumped back at the kitchen table. Leni was at full recline, head back and mouth open, snoring. I had lowered my own head onto the table in time to see a blue and white blur, Cook as she hurried out the kitchen door and into a waiting car, Benny at its wheel.
“Chores,” Delores began, as noxious fumes from our day’s cleaning still filled the air, “are simple house tasks all children have to do,” she said, taking a moment to lift Leni’s chin, closing her mouth. “All children have to earn their keep. You wanna eat, then you gotta work,” she added, gazing about, looking frustrated that Cook had felt free to leave without asking permission, or providing a clue to what was for supper.
“Y’all get use to schedules,” she said, leaving the kitchen, starting out at a fast clip in direction of the library, where I suppose she was headed to have a private moment with Mr. Herbert’s awards.
My household tasks were to be performed twice daily between the hours of 7 and 9:30 a.m., and then again, after tutoring, from 1:30 to 4:00 p.m. I wasn’t sure about other Baltimore children–how much they knew about Maryland’s child labor laws. But as for myself, I was pretty sure if it wasn’t my house, then doing these tasks just meant I was Mr. Herbert’s indentured servant.
But by the time I began heading for my room – this time backstairs, I was seeing things clearly, and having had a change of heart, now forgave Delores for trying to work me to death, and for her reoccurring bouts of insanity.
The fact that I was willing to do this meant I was maturing. And so, I didn’t have time to be mad at what life (and Delores) had decided to throw my way. This day forward, I needed to be focused to do whatever necessary to: 1. Get my allowance reinstated; 2. Get Leni and me free of this labor camp/old mansion.
If I had thought things through before letting myself be yanked out of the Academy, I would have held on to a portion of the 10 dollar allowance Delores gave me every week. What she now said was allowance on permanent suspension.
But I hadn’t been thinking. I had wanted the chinchilla coat Katherine had, and it seemed right that I have it. Because it would’ve looked better on me, with her being as redboned as she was, really, terribly pale, even for a redbone, and I told her this, “Katherine, that jacket don’t suit you in the least, it does not.”
Then she looked at me slit-eyed and asked me if I wanted it. And I just told it to her straight, “Yeah.” She had started at 10 dollars then eight then seven, saying she’d go no lower, ’cause she had gotten it at Woolworth, the only one left on the rack in a size seven. Then, too, she’d have to figure out something to tell her granny who bought it for her. I agreed that that was a lot to contend with, but this meant I’d still have to come up with the extra three dollars I was short.
Then Katherine, excuse me, Katherine with a K, as she was always introducing herself, as if anybody was going around with pen and pad, dying to get her name down right, winked at her roommate, Euretha. Then Euretha said, “Why don’t ya play for it?”
I knew they’d be putty in my hands. Because if there was one thing I knew how to do, it was play cards. I started sneaking in to watch and stack the players’ quarters for Miss Reynolds’ games as soon as I was tall enough to reach the table. And one card game I for sure knew was Bid Whist, though I knew we’d need to find a fourth. So, I said to them, “What ya wanna play, Spades, Pinochle … Bid Whist?”
“Whatchu think,” they laughed. I laughed, too, watching as the two made Katherine’s bed smooth and ready for play, and then as Katherine went out into the hall and yelled, “Y’all, com’on now!” Then in a hurry, two more girls just as redboned as Katherine, except huge, entered the room. Euretha suggested that she hold the jacket and my money just to keep things up and up. Katherine with a K, propped pillows behind her and motioned me to take a seat beside her, and for the girls to take seats opposite us. Euretha sat on the floor, legs crossed like a nappy-headed Indian, grinning from ear to ear.
It was over before I could bite my lower lip, with Euretha handing Katherine with a K, first, my money, and then her coat. The two girls were each given a dollar from my money, which Katherine explained was for being available and willing to play. Leaving, both girls kissed Katherine and Euretha on their cheeks. I nodded, taking a deep breath, but not sighing out loud. Clearly, I had been duped. They were sly, private school girls with, as Malcolm/Martin would’ve said, “considerable skills.” But this was OK. Never one to cry about past mistakes, or injustices, I just said, “Good game, girls.” I included Euretha ’cause I knew she was in it up to her armpits. But that was OK, too. I knew I’d get to see to them “another day.” This was what my daddy would’ve told me: “Don’t you worry. They ain’t heard the last of you. That’s for sure.”
Though most of my days at the Academy were awful, this particular day, after the girls stripped me clean of every loose cent, hadn’t been such a misery. Especially so, after they pulled out their stash of confessional wine, the gallon or so Katherine with a K, an Academy “trustee,” had siphoned from the giant vat kept safe in the Academy’s church office. Once the cards were set aside, and the jacket back around Katherine’s bony shoulders (an unnecessary display, I thought. But still, it was her room, their win …), they both seemed like-minded, nodding as Euretha pulled out several grape Nehi bottles filled with the wine from underneath her bed. We drank rounds until three of the five bottles that made up their collection were drained, and Katherine, passed out, was tinged blue.
I was slouched against the headboard, but hardly tipsy. I removed several bleached auburn strains of hair from Katherine’s mouth, carefully listening to her breathing—slow and steady—until I was sure that all those consecrated grapes weren’t about to rush back at her, doing her in before I had time to get back to my room.
Euretha, who was also from Maryland and was at the Academy on scholarship, was grinning her gapped-toothed smile, going on in spurts about our upcoming spring break, on how much she couldn’t wait to get back to the “duogs”–whatever “duogs” were. About how they’d probably lose their pea brains when she returned home to dear old “Dundock.”
And it was hearing this, along with the loopy/misty expression she had on her face talking about home, about the duogs, that made me not hate them near as much as I had always promised myself I would–Well, at least not as much that particular day.
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.