The Other Side of Town
(Louise, Fall 1998)
Probably it is for the best that Caroline has chosen to go to play practice rather than to attend Sandy’s funeral with Nanny Rose and me. Still, Nanny Rose will give me hell when she realizes that neither Caroline nor John Henry is coming. (Nor Charles for that matter, who is only eleven and too young for this.) Sandy worked for Nanny Rose for the last thirty-three years. The last eleven of those years she worked for us too. That was Nanny Rose’s gift to us after I had Charles; she sent Sandy over to our house once a week. Of course she waited until I had a boy to offer help, even though it turned out Charles was an easy baby while Caroline nearly drove me to the loony bin.
Sandy was there the day I brought Charles home from Piedmont Hospital. And a year later, when we moved from our Peachtree Hills starter house to our current home in Ansley Park, Sandy held the baby while I directed the movers with the furniture. Poor Sandy. When she walked out the door of our little house carrying Charles, our dog Cleo up and bit her on the leg. Cleo had never been a biter; the only explanation was that Cleo thought Sandy was taking away the baby same as the movers were taking away all the furniture. Most of the movers were African American, as is—was, I should say—Sandy.
After that I kept Cleo in the fenced side yard every Monday when Sandy would come. Sandy loved Baby Charles. Once he was old enough to chew, she’d bring him a candy bar every week. I would have to drive to the gas station on Peachtree and buy Caroline one too or else suffer through her tantrum. Of course I would have preferred it if Sandy had brought both children a treat, but I didn’t feel that I could ask her to do so, knowing that she didn’t have any extra money.
She spoiled Charles, as did I, and he seemed none the worse for it. Our spoiling just made him sweeter. Really. He was just as pudgy and smiley as a baby could be. How John Henry and I created such a sweet boy—such an open and loving little person—from the same genes that formed Caroline the Terror, I will never know.
I NEVER NOTICE how messy my car is until it is time for either John Henry or Nanny Rose to ride in it. John Henry is fond of saying that I use my car as a giant handbag, stashing all sorts of stuff in it. Well, I’m sorry. My house and my person are always tidy. There has to be one place where I can allow things to get a little cluttered. I pick the empty Diet Coke cans off the car floor and throw them into the Herbie Curbie. If Caroline were with me she would insist that I recycle them, but the recycle box is inside the house and I simply do not have time to go back in there. I honk good-bye to Charles and Faye (my other cleaning lady, who comes on Thursdays, although now I suppose I’ll have to see if she can come on Mondays as well) and pull out of the driveway heading down Peachtree Circle toward Peachtree Street. Nanny Rose lives a few miles north, in Buckhead. The funeral is on the south side of the city, so it is out of the way to pick her up, but Nanny Rose is seventy-seven and both John Henry and I try to make sure she drives as little as possible. John Henry jokes that in her dotage she “speeds more and sees less.”
EVEN THOUGH I was born in Ansley Park, and John Henry and I have lived here for over ten years, it still gives me a little thrill to drive through my neighborhood. I just love the tall old trees, the fine architecture, the sense that even though the skyscrapers of Midtown frame the neighborhood, when you are in Ansley Park you are in the South. So many of the old houses here remind me of the houses that line Franklin Street as you drive into Chapel Hill, where John Henry and I met, or rather, where we began our relationship, as we had met once or twice before we went to college. Our families, both from Atlanta, ran in similar, though not entirely overlapping circles. (Frankly, John Henry’s family was “older” than mine.) Before college John Henry and I hardly knew each other. The fact that we went to rival high schools had a lot to do with that. He attended Coventry while I went to Birch.
If John Henry had his way we would probably live in Buckhead or even Sandy Springs. He complains that the houses in Ansley Park are too close together and that there are too many cars parked on the streets, especially during the weekends, when people from other neighborhoods drive over here, park, and walk to Piedmont Park. And good Lord don’t even get him started on Freaknik, when students from all of the black colleges around the South meet up at Piedmont Park for a party, but not before blocking the traffic in our neighborhood for hours with all of their jumping in and out of each other’s cars and dancing in the streets.
What really bothers John Henry about the neighborhood is that he’s in the minority being a Republican over here. Not that Ansley Park is a hotbed of radicalism. (Lord no. Daddy, whose political views often put him in the neighborhood minority, still counted many from Ansley Park as his friends and allies.) Still, to John Henry’s chagrin, most of our neighbors are progressive in their politics. They are usually tasteful about it, of course. Most people from Ansley Park would rather write a big check than make a big scene.
Another thing John Henry is not thrilled about is Ansley’s close proximity to Midtown. Not the office buildings, but the little strip of shops on Piedmont and Tenth Street that cater to a gay clientele. Midtown, after all, has become the gay capital of the South, and John Henry is not, as my colorist, Chevre, says, “gay friendly.”
But I love our neighborhood. I love the tall modern buildings peeping over the gracious old homes. Living in Ansley Park, you never forget that Atlanta actually is a city. Most people who say they live in Atlanta do not live in the city at all. Most of our four million residents live OTP—outside the perimeter. But Ansley Park is in the center of things, and consequently I never have to drive more than fifteen minutes to get anywhere I need to be. The farthest I drive is to Coventry, where Charles and Caroline are in school, and that’s only about five miles away. It’s like my best friend Tiny always says: “The only time I go OTP is when I’m on an airplane.”
Caroline says that the whole city is one big strip mall. I say it’s made up of neighborhoods, that the old homes are really its attraction. True, there isn’t one spot in Atlanta where you stop and think, “Now I’m in the heart of the city.” Atlanta isn’t like a New York or a San Francisco. There’s no equivalent to Greenwich Village or North Beach here.
Virginia Highlands, with its boutiques and restaurants, tries to be that, I suppose, but it doesn’t have the diversity, the push and pull, the tumult. To be honest, Oakland Cemetery, over there off Memorial Drive, is where I feel most in the city. The cemetery is wide, hilly, and shaded with oaks. The two smokestacks of the old mill in Cabbagetown border it on one side; the modern Atlanta skyline on the other. Inside the actual cemetery are crumbling brick paths, stone gravestones, and mausoleums bearing the names of important Atlanta families. Also, there are thousands of unmarked Confederate soldiers’ graves and a section where large tombstones bearing Stars of David and Jewish names are all smushed together (the cemetery was originally segregated and the Jews were only given a small plot). Bobby Jones is buried at Oakland. So is Margaret Mitchell.
I wonder where Sandy will be buried. I don’t even know how you go about getting buried nowadays if your family hasn’t already bought a plot of land for you. Maybe Sandy will be cremated, though I doubt it. I have a feeling that as a Baptist, she’d rather be laid in the ground so that her body will be around for the Resurrection.
I TURN RIGHT on Peachtree Street and head toward Nanny Rose’s white brick house on Peachtree Battle Avenue, the same house John Henry grew up in. Nanny Rose has not redecorated since she moved in over fifty years ago. She once told me that “good taste never goes out of style,” which, frankly, assumes a lot. John Henry’s old room is painted egg yellow, same as it was when he slept there as a boy, and it still has two metal-framed twin beds in it, one for John Henry and one for Wallace, John Henry’s twin brother, who shot himself in the head his senior year at the University of Georgia.
IT’S ONE THIRTY on the dot when I arrive at Nanny Rose’s house, but even so, she is waiting outside in the ninety-degree heat. (I’ve lived in Atlanta my entire life except for when I was at college, yet every year I forget that early September is often just as hot as August.)
Nanny Rose has a way of making you feel that you are always late. You wouldn’t think such a little woman could be so intimidating.
Her hair is so black it looks almost blue in the midday sun. She must have colored it last night. I have asked her a million times to let Chevre do it, to give it a softer, more natural look, but she refuses, even though Chevre is the absolute best, able to transform my dull brown hair—embedded with lots of gray—into the glossy, rich color of polished mahogany. Nanny Rose says that hiring someone to fix her hair would be an unnecessary indulgence.
As much of it as she has, she’s really quite frugal with her money.
I drive up next to her, stop the car, lean over the passenger seat, and push her door open from the inside. She stands stiffly beside it. I sigh, turn off the ignition, and get out. Oh Lord. Here we go.
After officially opening the car door for her, I hold Gunther, her blond Pomeranian, who is apparently going with us to the funeral, while she lowers herself sideways into the seat.
“Come on back to Mother,” she says, holding out her hands for the dog.
Once Gunther is safely in her lap, she rotates her bottom until she is facing forward. I close her door and walk back around to the driver’s side. Once in my seat, I notice that Nanny Rose’s smell, a mix of floral perfume and Aqua Net, has already permeated the air.
“Hello, Louise,” she says. She tilts her cheek, almost imperceptibly, toward me and I lean over to kiss it. Her cheek feels dry and powdery beneath my lips. She has applied her rouge in a red circle, much as a clown would, although on Nanny Rose it doesn’t look clownish, just old-fashioned.
“Nanny Rose, I like your suit,” I say.
I do. She wears a pink-and-white-checked suit—ancient Chanel, I’m sure—nude pantyhose, and pink flats. As always she wears a thin gold chain around her neck with her diamond engagement ring and her wedding band hanging from it. Her fingers, which are bony and long, swell from arthritis. She runs her right hand roughly over Gunther’s spine. He emits a low growl.
“Where are the children?” she asks, peering around to look in the back of the car as if Caroline and Charles might be hiding below the seats. “Where is John Henry?”
“John Henry has a deposition in Birmingham, and Caroline—well—she got cast in the school play, Steel Magnolias, and she really didn’t feel that she could miss practice.”
Nanny Rose looks at me as if she just swallowed something that tastes terrible. “She can’t miss play practice for a funeral?”
“Apparently it was a huge deal that she got a lead part as a sophomore, and she’s just nervous about it. She doesn’t want to upset the director.”
“Do you think it’s appropriate for her to put so much time and energy into extracurricular activities when her grades are so dismal?”
I shrug my shoulders. Frankly, I have no idea what I should do about Caroline and her terrible attitude toward school, but I’d no sooner take acting away from her than I would throw her out on the street. That girl lives to perform.
“John Henry never had any scholastic difficulties,” says Nanny Rose. “He was an excellent student.”
“I know, Nanny Rose,” I say, flashing her a smile before focusing again on the road. “He and I met at Chapel Hill, remember?”
“Oh yes. Of course. Which house were you in?”
“Chi Omega,” I say. We have been over this a hundred times.
“Chi Omega is a good old house. Of course, Pi Beta Phi is best, isn’t it, Gunther?” She scratches the dog under his chin.
“Chi O was a top house,” I say, turning onto the entrance ramp of I-75 south.
“We’re taking the expressway?” asks Nanny Rose, her voice alarmed. Nanny Rose never drives on the expressway.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say. “Don’t worry, this will pop us right over to the church.”
“Thirty-three years Sandy worked for me and I never knew she was a Baptist.”
“Sandy didn’t talk much about her personal life,” I say.
Nanny Rose nods solemnly. “I know. That was one of the things I liked best about her. She always showed up on time and never called to say she was sick and couldn’t make it. I had this other girl working for me—Josephine. She’d come on the day Sandy was at your house, except she hardly ever came. There was always something the matter with either her child or her car. Not Sandy. Sandy was as reliable as the postman. More so!”
I glance at Nanny Rose and see that her eyes are pooling with tears. She reaches into her quilted clutch, pulls out a linen handkerchief, and dabs her eyes with it.
“I’ve slowed down,” she says. “I can’t do everything for myself the way I used to. Sandy, she used to help me in and out of the bath; she used to help me into my clothes. Why, it got so I’d even let her help me into my girdle! Now she’s up and left me and I’m not going to have anyone to help me get around anymore. You can’t help me, can you, Gunther?” she asks, lifting Gunther’s chin with her hand.
“I’m not going to be able to go to circle or to play bridge or to go have lunch at the Club now that my Sandy is gone. No one will be there to help me get myself together.”
Nanny Rose is crying in earnest now. She looks so small in the passenger seat. She looks like a child.
“You got yourself together today, didn’t you?” I ask. “Look at how nice you’re dressed.”
Nanny Rose blows her nose into the corner of her handkerchief and then folds it over.
“We’ll find you someone else,” I say. “Sandy might have a granddaughter or a niece who would like to come and work for you.”
I consider suggesting that Faye might be available, but I refrain. Though I’m sorry that Sandy died, I am not sorry to be done with sharing “help” with Nanny Rose. The less tangled my day-to-day life is with my mother-in-law, the better.
“No one will be able to replace her, Louise. You ought to know that.”
I have never heard Nanny Rose talk about Sandy this way. They were always so formal with each other. Nanny Rose still had Sandy wear a maid’s uniform, for goodness’ sake, a little starched black dress with a white apron. Nanny Rose was always “Mrs. Parker” to Sandy. Nanny Rose even had a little silver bell she would ring when she needed her.
Our exit should be coming up, but I’m not exactly sure which one it is. I ask Nanny Rose if she will look in the glove compartment for the directions. She starts pulling out all the folded maps that John Henry makes me keep in there.
“No, it’s just the directions John Henry wrote out for me. Look for a yellow sheet of legal paper.”
Nanny Rose fumbles around in there some more, pulling out several of Caroline’s CDs. One shows a close-up of a girl’s tiny pink shorts, the V of her crotch evident. Nanny Rose snorts.
“They let any hussy put her picture up nowadays, don’t they?” she says.
All I can think to say is “Yes, ma’am.”
I spot the directions in the corner of the glove compartment, and I reach across Nanny Rose to yank them out.
“You drive,” she says. “I’ll look at these.”
She straightens the directions with her hand. “Turn left on Peachtree Circle,” she says.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say, as patiently as I can. “I already did that. We’re all the way to where we exit off I-Twenty. Does it say which exit we want to take?”
Nanny Rose runs her eyes down the page. She rests the directions on top of Gunther’s head, making it look as if he is wearing a paper hat. “All right now. Get on I-Seventy-five south.”
“Yes, ma’am. We’ve done that.”
“Get onto I-Twenty west,” she says.
I have to hold myself back from snatching the directions out of her hands.
Gunther barks, knocking the directions off his head and onto the floor. Nanny Rose bops him on his wet nose. “Bad boy!” she says.
As she bends down to fish the directions off the floor, I pass the exit. That was it. That was where I was supposed to get off. Damn. John Henry warned me to follow his directions carefully. Otherwise, he said, it might be Bonfire of the Vanities all over again. I pull off at the next exit, hoping I will see an entrance ramp as soon as I do, so I can get back on I-20 heading east and backtrack to where I am supposed to be.
Once off the expressway, I notice right away that the billboards are smaller on this side of town and that they feature black people instead of white. On the side of the road, just in front of a strip mall with a Dollar General and a check-cashing business, is a man selling socks. His sign reads “100 pair for $5.” He sits behind a cardboard table, bags and bags of socks stacked on top of it.
If I bought everyone in my family a hundred pairs of socks, I wouldn’t have to do laundry for weeks.
“I believe John Henry Senior once owned some property over here,” says Nanny Rose. “A sign. He rented it for twenty dollars a month.”
It seems John Henry’s daddy owned some piece of every neighborhood in Atlanta.
“John Henry Senior and I used to drive by his properties after church,” says Nanny Rose. “Sometimes he would need to collect rent. Afterwards we’d stop for a Frosty Orange at the Varsity on our way back home. He called this area Colored Town, though I guess people don’t say that anymore.”
Where is that entrance ramp? Did I get so distracted by those damn socks that I drove right past it?
“I don’t think I’d use that expression at the funeral if I was you,” I say, looking for a good place to turn around.
Nanny Rose and I may well be the only white people there. I glance down at my brown Armani pants that I wear with a black silk shirt that ties in little bows around the cuffs. My outfit would pass muster at an Episcopalian funeral, but I start to worry I’m not dressed up enough for the Baptists.
I turn down a side street that appears residential. Nanny Rose holds Gunther up to the window, looking to see if they can spot any dogs on the sidewalk.
“Good heavens, Louise,” says Nanny Rose. “Why are you driving us through the slums?”
We pass a house stripped entirely of its siding. We pass a boarded-up apartment marked with “No Trespassing” signs. We pass unadorned lawns, an old Cadillac, and a sleepy-eyed man in overalls whose gaze follows our car until we have passed him.
“Are the doors locked?” Nanny Rose asks.
I wish I hadn’t already thought the same thing. I wish I didn’t get nervous driving through poor black neighborhoods. I wish I wasn’t relieved that the Lexus locks automatically, which is such an improvement over when you had to lock the door yourself, drawing attention to the act both by moving your hand to the lock and by the loud clicking noise that accompanied the action.
Up ahead by a stop sign is a group of black boys who must be around Caroline’s age. All of them wear long white T-shirts, which look as if they have been bleached and ironed, on top of jeans pulled down so low the seats cover their knees instead of their rears. All but one wears bright white sneakers. The other has on black sneakers with Velcro straps instead of laces, the straps flailing to the sides, intentionally left undone. A couple of the boys wear their hair braided into thick cornrows; one has an Afro with a comb stuck in it. It is he who looks down the street and notices our car coming their way.
I grip the steering wheel even tighter while telling myself to calm down. These are only boys, only children Caroline’s age, and there is no reason, just because they are black, that I should be afraid of them. We studied the perception versus the reality of actual danger once in Sunday school and how it is our internalized racism that makes us scared of those who are—in fact—quite often the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. Still, it’s not as if Nanny Rose and I blend into the neighborhood. It’s not as if we are driving a rusty old car. No, we are driving the new silver Lexus that John Henry gave me for my birthday.
“I would just drive on through that stop sign if I were you,” says Nanny Rose. “A group of boys is never up to any good.”
The boys spread out, watching us come toward them. I tap the brakes. As we roll toward the group I lock eyes with the one who has the comb stuck in his hair. He raises his hand as if he’s waving me on by, then just before I drive past him, he steps in front of the car. I swerve, barely avoiding contact, and drive through the intersection without stopping. From my rearview mirror I watch him laugh and slap the hands of his friends.
THE SERVICE WAS scheduled to begin at two. It’s almost two thirty by the time we finally find the church. The small parking lot is full, but we find a space across the street. Nanny Rose takes her compact out of her purse and reapplies lipstick while I wait for her outside the car. It is so hot I am beginning to sweat. I hope there are no rings of perspiration seeping through my silk top. When Nanny Rose has finished reapplying her lipstick she looks up at me through the window, indicating that I may open her door. When I do, she rotates her bottom once again so that her legs are sticking out. She holds Gunther in one arm and grabs my hand with the other. I pull her to her feet. It always surprises me when I stand next to Nanny Rose that she is a half foot shorter than I am.
Nanny Rose fishes Gunther’s leash out of her purse, attaches it to his collar, and puts him down on the hot sidewalk. His toenails make a fast little clicking noise as we cross the street.
The church is a plain white brick building, a perfect rectangle with a pitched roof supporting a metal cross. The cross looks like a lightning rod. Nanny Rose, Gunther, and I walk to the front door. Above it “Jesus Is the Answer” is painted in red, blocky letters. A short black woman, wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat and white gloves, holds the door open for us.
“Welcome,” she says. “I’m Miss Ella Watson, Mr. Brown’s next-door neighbor. I’m also on the Mother Board here at Mount Zion.”
“How wonderful,” says Nanny Rose. “I’m Mrs. John Henry Parker Senior, and this is my daughter-in-law, Mrs. John Henry Parker Junior. Sandy worked for our family for over thirty years.”
“Call me Louise,” I say.
“Well, it sure is good of y’all to come,” says Miss Watson. “And Sandy looks just as peaceful as can be, praise God. The undertaker did a fine job, a fine job indeed. Pastor’s not here yet, so there’s still time to look at the body.”
Nanny Rose bends down to pick up Gunther. I doubt he’s allowed in the sanctuary, but it’s too hot to leave him outside. His little brain would cook in no time.
The church is packed. As I expected, Nanny Rose and I are the only white people in here. As we walk toward the viewing line, I notice that there are no hymnals tucked into the backs of the pews. No Bibles either. At All Saints there are kneelers beneath each pew, but of course Baptists don’t use those. There is a portrait of a black man in a white suit hanging behind the altar. At first I think the portrait is a rendering of a black Jesus, which I think is just wonderful, but as we move up in the viewing line I’m able to make out the lettering below the portrait, which reads “Pastor Williams.”
There must be over a hundred people packed into this church. I have no idea who any of them might be. Sandy never spoke about her home life. I probably should have asked her about it, but I was always more comfortable having a business relationship with her. To tell the truth, I felt guilty having a black housekeeper. I felt as if I were holding a string that connected me to my mother and grandmother (both of whom had black maids), all the way back to the wives of slave owners. Maybe it is silly, but I’ve always felt more comfortable having Faye, who is white, clean for me, even though Faye comes with her own set of problems and Sandy was the much better worker of the two.
The woman directly in front of us in the viewing line wears a blue hat with a white polka-dot band. She turns to look at us, and I detect a flicker of surprise on her face. I don’t know if she’s surprised because we are white or because of Gunther.
“Can you believe that no-good preacher hasn’t showed up yet?” she asks.
Nanny Rose sticks out her free hand. “I’m Mrs. John Henry Parker Senior,” she says. “And this is Gunther.”
The woman looks at me, confused. “Gunther?” she asks.
“No, ma’am,” I say, smiling. “I’m Louise Parker, Mrs. Parker’s daughter-in-law.” I point at the dog. “That’s Gunther.”
“Lord have mercy,” she says. “I’m Mrs. Evelyn Brown, and that sure is the tiniest dog I’ve ever seen.”
Gunther bares his teeth and starts barking at Mrs. Brown. Nanny Rose quickly slaps his nose.
“Bad boy!” she says. “You’ll have to excuse him. He is just distraught over Sandy’s passing.”
“Have mercy,” says Mrs. Brown. “That dog must have liked Sandy a lot more than Sandy liked it.”
We edge closer and closer to her coffin. I remind myself not to touch Sandy’s face. Ever since I was a little girl and I went to my great-grandmother’s funeral, I have had a compulsive urge to touch the dead. I don’t know why. It’s almost as if I can’t believe the flesh will be cold instead of warm and I just want to feel it for myself. Some people, I’m sure, find it morbid to view the body after death, but I find it greatly comforting. It’s just so obvious that the person—his or her spirit—is no longer present. It makes me wonder if there is indeed a place the spirit might go.
There is a stir in the church. I turn around and look at the entrance and see that the man whom I recognize from the portrait behind the altar is making his way down the center aisle of the church. Pastor Williams has finally arrived. The viewing line starts to move faster and faster until Mrs. Brown is saying a prayer over Sandy’s body, and then it is our turn.
I take Nanny Rose by the hand and we walk to Sandy’s coffin, stand next to it, and peer over its edge. Obviously I expect to see Sandy in it—or rather, the shell of her—wearing her best dress and curly wig.
Only, our Sandy isn’t in the coffin. In her place is a petite black man wearing a dark brown suit, a mustard yellow shirt, and a slightly darker yellow tie. Attached to the tie is a small metal pin shaped like a peacock.
“Why, we must be at the wrong viewing,” says Nanny Rose, but it is too late. I have looked closer and realized that no, we are at the right funeral. Placed in Sandy’s hand is a pink leather Bible, just the Gospels, with her—his—name stamped on it in gold. The Bible was a present from Nanny Rose for Sandy’s sixty-fifth birthday. Nanny Rose gave Caroline one just like it.
I make a quick decision. “You’re right,” I say. “This isn’t Sandy. Let’s go.”
But no, Nanny Rose is peering into the coffin and reading the engraving on the front of Sandy’s Bible.
She begins to shake her head. Gunther struggles in her arms, trying to get to Sandy, barking like crazy. I feel every eye in the church on our backs.
“I don’t understand,” says Nanny Rose. She is too confused to shush Gunther. “I gave Sandy that Bible.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I say, “I recognize it.”
Gunther is barking again and again at Sandy, and I surprise myself by reaching over and slapping his nose myself.
Nanny Rose clutches my forearm. “Louise,” she says, her voice cracking, “that is Sandy.” She lets go of my arm and points an accusing finger at the dead man’s head. “That man is Sandy. My Sandy was a black man!”
“Yes, ma’am,” I say. “Hush now, people are watching us.”
Nanny Rose’s eyes fill with panic. “Louise, that man helped me into my girdle! That black man helped me into my girdle!”
She hands me Gunther, who is still barking his head off, rolls her eyes toward heaven, and faints to the floor.