Almost Family / Edition 2 available in Paperback
About the Author
Roy Hoffman is author of the novels Almost Family, winner of the Lillian Smith Award for fiction, and Chicken Dreaming Corn, a BookSense pick endorsed by Harper Lee. He is author of two essay collections, Back Home: Journeys Through Mobile and Alabama Afternoons: Profiles and Conversations, and his articles and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, Fortune, Southern Living, and the Mobile Press-Register, where he was a long-time staff writer. A graduate of Tulane University who worked as a journalist and speechwriter in New York City before moving back south to Fairhope, Ala., he received the Clarence Cason Award in nonfiction from the University of Alabama and is on the faculty of the Spalding Brief Residency MFA in Writing Program. On the web: www.Facebook.com/RoyHoffmanWriter
Read an Excerpt
"What you think is so different 'bout them?"
Nebraska Waters shrugged at her friend Mary's question. From the kitchen of the Blooms' house, where she worked as extra help at the Madoc, Alabama, Mardi Gras party, she looked through into the living room and saw the group of revelers clustered. One wore a face like a homed devil. Another, a man, was painted with lipstick and rouge.
Nebraska finished chopping the celery for the potato salad and scraped the pieces into a bowl. "Well, the pastor say they from over in Jerusalem!"
Mary threw back her head and laughed, the muscles in her throat twitching like rope. "Don't you think peoples from over in Jerusalem just like anybody else?"
A small, broad man named Cantor Klein whirled near the kitchen door. Nebraska spotted the black skullcap on his head and wondered if that were part of a costume he had failed to complete. "I guess so," she answered reluctantly. "Course ... course ..."
"Course what?" Mary laid out ladyfingers onto a large dish and began to cover them with strawberry preserves. "Ain't no course 'bout it. First of all, Jewrish peoples might be from Jerusalem, but they got over here to Madoc now. And second thing, peoples is peoples wherever."
"I guess you right," Nebraska remarked with some reservation. She finished scraping the celery pieces and started chopping an egg. Mrs. Bloom appeared at the door."How're things going, Mary?"
"Fine, fine, Miss Bloom. Nebraska make the sixth day-worker we done hired for the party. It's just the right number."
"Would you have Nebraska catch the front porch with the broom before long, please?"
Nebraska looked up from the egg and smiled. "Yas'm. I'll be there directly."
Mrs. Bloom turned and disappeared into the living room, and Nebraska watched the guests milling and talking, drinking and laughing. More guests arrived, and she could hear Mrs. Bloom greeting them enthusiastically: "Why, Sheryl! Why, Don! How are y'all? I was afraid you weren't coming." Edna and David Solomon, Doris and Cantor Klein, Cindy and Daniel Finklethe family names were pronounced one by one as the guests came up the steps, moved under the streamers hanging from the light fixture, and were introduced to any who did not already know them. The names sounded strange to Nebraskaforeign, and holy.
Nebraska had not known that this was to be a Jewish Mardi Gras party. It was not until she bumped into Mary on the way from her small shack near the Alabama state docks that she found out that the Blooms were Jewish and that most of their guests for the day were to be Jewish as well. Then and there she had confessed to Mary, "You know, I don't think I ever met no Jewish peoples," and Mary had answered, "Just do as I do, say as I say, and everything will be fine. The Blooms is just like anybody else."
And Mary had been right. The Blooms' house, with its high windows and turning fans and Victorian furniture, was just like any other on Governor Street, the main thoroughfare of Madoc and the principal parade route. The party food, too, was pretty much the sameladyfingers and cold bologna and potato salad and eggnog (though Nebraska did not see the usual party staple of ham). And the people, though they were Jewish, were white.
"Miss Mary?" Another day helper stood at the kitchen door. "Miss Bloom want to know if we got enough soft drinks in the garage for later." Mary nodded, and the day helper went back to relay the assurance to Mrs. Bloom. "I swear," Mary said crossly, "if Miss Bloom want me to manage this party, she ought to let me manage it and she can go off and worry 'bout somethin' else. I don't like nobody doin' my business for me."
Nebraska cracked another egg, peeled it, and chopped. She hardly heard Mary for watching the guests, especially the one called Vivian Gold.
Vivian Gold was a young woman, about thirty, with finely penciled brows and dark hair swept back in a snood. Nebraska thought of a Hollywood actress as she watched the woman holding a bloody mary not far from the kitchen door. She could overhear part of the conversation.
"It's so good to have you back from Washington." Cantor Klein spoke. "This day is a simcha, a joyous time."
The man standing next to VivianNebraska presumed he was her husbandresponded warmly. "Yes, Cantor, the war is over. It's a simcha for us all."
"We Jews were blessed," Cantor Klein said more somberly. "Only now we are finding out how many"he paused and looked away at a streamer for a moment, then looked back "how many Jews were not."
"Let's not be sad today." The cantor's wife took her husband's hand and patted it. "For Mardi Gras we will only celebrate."
Vivian nodded and smiled. Her husbandNebraska heard someone refer to him as Edward leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. She waved him away with mock embarrassment. "Honey, are you tipsy!"
"Ain't she a living doll?" Edward asked the cantor, who nodded his agreement. "Ain't she?" The cantor nodded again.
Vivian addressed Doris Klein. "Edward's been a child at a birthday party ever since we got home."
"And you're not?" asked Doris.
"I feel great," Edward said. "Real estate's really gonna take off now, and you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to make my wife a lady of leisure, a princess even!"
"Already she's a princess," the cantor replied, lighting a cigar.
"I've never seen Edward act so silly!" Vivian pouted expressively, broke into a laugh, then reached over and kissed her husband lightly on the ear.
As Nebraska scraped the last chopped egg into the potato salad, added a dollop of mayonnaise, and started to stir the ingredients with a wooden spoon, she continued to watch Vivian Gold, held rapt by the woman's lively manner.
Mary interrupted her eavesdropping. "You workin' anywhere full time now?"
"No." Nebraska saw two large pink splotches on Mary's face, like pale hands reaching over the old woman's neck and temple. For the two years since she and Abraham and their two sons Todd and Junior had lived in Madoc she had not kept a job in any white person's house for more than three months. And, as she had told Abraham, it was not her fault. There had been the first woman, the one with the cats crawling over the oven and dining room table and drinking water out of the toilet. When the woman had caught Nebraska grabbing one of the cats by the scruff of the neck and yanking it down from the counter top, the woman had fired her immediately. Then there had been the couple who lived in a house so far from Madoc proper that it took Nebraska nearly an hour to get there every day. And when she did get there she had no place to run and hide when the white man threw his tantrums, shattering glasses and punching doors in jealous attacks on his wife. Then there had been the young couple who lived not far from the Blooms. After three weeks Nebraska and been so entirely humiliated by the young woman's insistence that she ask before eating food from the refrigerator, and that she show the contents of her shopping bag before heading home every eveningsince "theft had gotten so bad around town"that she just went home one night and never returned.
"You never worked a Jewrish house, I take it," Mary said, setting out silverware. "They's the nicest to work for. They understands." Mary glanced up at the clock. "You better stop fussing with that potato salad and go on and sweep the porch."
Broom in hand, Nebraska started out the kitchen and through the living room. Suddenly she heard the word Randomville and turned to find herself staring directly into the dark eyes of Vivian Gold. Nebraska asked meekly, "Randomville?"
"Yes, do you know it?" Vivian returned.
"Know it?" Nebraska's bearing came back to her and she knocked the butt of the broom handle against the floor and puffed up her chest. "I was raised up round there. I just moved down to Madoc not two years ago."
"To Madoc all the way from Randomville?"
"Well, my husband Abraham just brung me down with him."
"I've got kinfolk up that way myself," Vivian said.
Nebraska felt Vivian's eyes staring deep into her. "I probably knows them."
Vivian hesitated. "Of course ... of course they are white."
"I know white, black, red, and yellow in Randomville."
"Does the name Simmons ring a bell?"
"Simmons?" Nebraska put her hand to her lip, figuring. "Oh, yeah. Yeah! Of course I know Simmons, 'cause Lottie used to work for someone lived next door to them. My, my."
"That's my cousin," Vivian explained.
"You know," Nebraska went on excitedly, drawn more deeply into Vivian's gaze, "I even remember the day the Simmons baby was baptized. Lottie worked the big party afterwards. She"
"I was there," said Vivian. "I probably ate some chicken salad Lottie dished up. Alabama's really not such a big place, is it?"
The whole day began to get tangled up in itself for Nebraska. She envisioned the Randomville baptism and the Blooms' Mardi Gras party fusing into one gigantic gathering. She looked beyond Vivian to the long table of potato salad and bologna and bread and to the white-vested bartender pouring whiskey into tumblers. Someone else put on a mask and whisked through the room looking like a homed devil. Beyond the bartender Nebraska spotted a cook slicing roast beef and looking in her direction with an air of general perplexity.
"I'm confusin' on it," Nebraska said abruptly.
"Pardon?" said Vivian, who had begun to drift into another conversation.
"The pastor told me the people from Jerusalem don't got no baptism."
Vivian looked at her curiously. "What people from Jerusalem?"
"Mary told me ..." Nebraska tried to resist completing the question, but felt herself hurtling forward. She felt Cantor Klein at her side, staring, she imagined, at her split shoes. "Mary told me this party was a Jewish people's party. I don't remember nothin' 'bout the Simmons or anybody else in Randomville being Jerusalem people!"
Nebraska saw Miss Bloom at her right side laughing uproariously like a mirror image of Cantor Klein, to her left side, laughing so hard he choked on his cigar. In front, Vivian leaned back against Edward and clutched her side, trying to catch her breath in the midst of her own laughing. A dozen more people clustered around, passing along Nebraska's comments, and the horned devilwho Nebraska figured was the real devil dressed up like a play onelurched toward her as if to drag her off to hell.
As they headed to hell, Nebraska heard the Chickasabogue marching band playing a brassy rendition of "Dixie," with trombones and trumpets rebounding through the room. The high, hard smell of whiskey hit her nostrils. "That 'bout knock me out!" she said over the noise. Someone dressed like a cartoon convict, plastic mask gruesome with a jagged scar running across one cheek, pushed his face up to hers, and someone held her arm fast as the whole group spilled into the front yard.
The Crazy Indian Paradea satire on a real Mardi Gras paraderolled down Governor Street. Men and women with red-painted faces and clusters of headfeathers jumped about and threw fake goodies to the crowd. An Indian tossed out a roll of serpentine, which, attached to a rubber band, popped back into his hand as soon as someone in the crowd tried to catch it. One float had an outhouse in the middle with Up North written on the side. An Indian appeared from the outhouse, shaking his flap, and hurled a corncob into the front yard of the Blooms, sending it squarely toward Vivian's face. Nebraska reached up with her broom and swatted it down from the air.
"Sign her up!" the cantor cried. "She could knock crazy a baseball!"
A military school band filed by playing "South Rampart Street Blues." Edna Solomon fired off a spool of serpentine from the porch, and the orange thread, leaping into the air, spiraled down over the table in the front yard.
"How long you been working for the Blooms?" Edward asked Nebraska over the din.
Nebraska called back over the band, "'Bout a few hours!"
"Yes, sir, do I. Cook since I was twelve."
"Come work for us."
Vivian, shocked, looked at her husband. "Edward, are you getting carried away? How can we afford help? We've already got expenses as high as the roof of the First National."
Edward sang back over the music, "With real estate booming, we'll be buying up the First National!"
"But nothing," Edward pronounced. He reached over and shook Nebraska's hand. "What do you say? Give it a try?"
As Nebraska shook back and nodded, a single phrase beat like a litany in her mind: "I gots me a job, I gots me a good job!"
* * *
To the side of the old brick house stood a Japanese magnolia, and during the first week or two after Mardi Gras every year, little else bloomed save that tree. Its blossoms suffused the rooms with colora pale red glow seemed to tinge the couch on the porch, the chairs in the dining room, and the dressing table near Edward's closet in the bedroom.
Vivian woke from her afternoon nap, staring straight into the petals that pressed against her window. The backs of the petals were pink, their cores soft white. The creamy texture of the cores reminded her of the creamy, chubby place just behind Bachel's knees. She listened for the chortling of her baby girl from the middle bedroom down the hall.
She'd been dreaming of the train, the brakes of pine sliding by in the Georgia dusk, and Sarah getting motion sick just after passing Macon. She remembered her daughter's slender face pressed against the window in the ladies' room, her dark eyes red and tear-stained. And there was the conductor again with his voice bellowing out the stops like an ornery mule: "Atlaaanta! Biiirmingham! Tuscaloooosa! Maaadoc!"
They had returned to Madoc after two years of Edward's being stationed in Washington. As the train had rumbled south, her hometown had come into view: unfurling first at the edge of the blue-brown water of its bay where the wharves jutted out along the shore, then opening into the downtown with its squat, gray banks and sand-colored courthouse and green-and-brown-fronted stores. The train had chugged to a halt close to the plaque that Vivian had memorized as a childas had every citizen of Madocand that served as the basis for a local belief that Madoc was distinct from, and superior to, all other American towns:
ON THIS SPOT, LOCAL HISTORIANS BELIEVE, THE WELSHMAN MADOC GWYNEDD, AFTER AN ARDUOUS AND PERILOUS JOURNEY ACROSS THE ATLANTIC, THE CARIBBEAN, AND THE GULF OF MEXICO, FIRST PITCHED CAMP IN THE NEW WORLDTHREE HUNDRED YEARS BEFORE THE BIRTH OF COLUMBUS. THOUGH MADOC THEN TRAVELED SOUTH TO MEXICO IN THE NAME OF HIS KING, A BAND OF HIS FELLOW SAILORS STAYED ON PERMANENTLY AND SPAWNED A RACE OF BLOND, BLUE-EYED INDIANS THE FIRST TRUE AND NOBLE EUROPEAN BLOODLINE IN AN OTHERWISE SAVAGE LAND.
And they had stepped off the landing board of the sleeper into the heavy smells of the docksthe smells of banana boats, molasses vats, splintered rum kegs, and the iron tracks of the GM&O, where her father used to take her on Sunday afternoons to watch the cars roll in from New Orleans and roll out headed north. The smells that day had reminded her of how hot Madoc was, how damp and steamy come summer nights, and how much she had wrongly recalled it as cool, dry, and sweet when reading the war reports in Washington and dreaming of returning home. The smells had also brought back all that made her uneasy about Madoc: its confinement, its neighbors looking over your shoulder at what you were doingeven, at times, what you were thinking.
Vivian rubbed her eyes, yawned, and got up from the bed. The dream and memory of the trip from Washington whirled away and a more recent memory took its place: a scene from The Merriest Bachelor.
Lines she had rehearsed just that morning came back to her:
Why Ronald! You don't ... don't really think Jennie's going to marry Sebastian, do you? She'll never trap the old coot.
As she recited the lines, she scrutinized herself in the mirror, throwing her arm out in a grand gesture and driving the point home to deluded Ronald:
Besides, if Jennie did snare him one way or the other, imagine what Melissa would do. Shoot herself? Shoot Jennie?
She said the lines again, turning to three-quarter profile in the mirror. Noting her own dark eyes and heart-shaped lips, she thought of another VivianVivien Leighand brushed away the thought. An extravagant comparison, she decided.
A large form floated somewhere behind her right ear and vanished into a wall. Vivian stepped to the left to catch sight of it from another angle and saw a dust mop suspended in the air.
"Poor Melissa," came a voice from the dust mop, with Nebraska appearing suddenly behind it. "She's been studyin' on killing Jennie or herself, one, for three days now."
Vivian turned, walked quickly to the bedroom door, and pushed it closed. She calculated that Nebraska had been working in her home not fourteen days, but already she suspected the woman was a touch odd.
* * *
The first day in Vivian's house, Nebraska had worn sneakers. After entering and being introduced to Sarah and Rachel, she'd slipped off the sneakers and begun to walk about barefoot. As Vivian showed her where to stack the dishes and where to place the knives and forks, she could not help but watch the large, cracked feet moving over the linoleum floor.
"Nebraska, what on earth happened to your poor feet?"
"Nothin' happened, Miss Gold, just swolled up."
"Honey, feet don't just get 'swolled up' for no reason!"
"My foots been bad since I been fifteen, ma'am."
"Since you've been fifteen! How can you bear it?"
"Sometimes I can't." Nebraska held some drinking glasses up to the light, viewing the mark on their bases and changing the subject. "Did you get these glasses from far away?"
"Those things?" Vivian laughed. "We got those at the filling station. One glass for every ten gallons of gas."
"My, ain't there every kind of 'vantage in driving a car," Nebraska said longingly.
They had not talked about Nebraska's feet anymore that first day. When Nebraska sat down, however, Vivian slid over some copies of the Madoc Register for her to rest her soles on. Sheepishly, she lowered her naked feet on a picture of a girl eating a vanilla ice cream cone.
The second day, Vivian had found tobacco ground into the edge of the living room carpet. Nebraska explained that a bee had stung her left big toe and that she had borrowed two of Mr. Gold's cigarettes for tobaccowhich she mixed with spitto draw out the swelling.
On the third day, Vivian had gone to the store and bought a pair of oversized slippers, medically treated foot pads, and some gauze. After these had been presented to Nebraska, she had wrapped up her feet, donned the slippers, and trudged obediently about the house. When Vivian went into Rachel's room later that evening, though, she had found the slippers hidden under the bed. The next morning Nebraska had explained: "They itched my heels too bad."
As Vivian finished rehearsing her lines for The Merriest Bachelor that afternoon and walked back to her bedroom door and opened it, she remembered to make yet another appointment at the podiatrist's for Nebraska (who had failed to show up for the first two). Moving down the hallway, calmly hunting for her daughters, Vivian felt the character of Mona Wright still clinging to her. When Sarah popped out from the hallway bedroom, her ponytail swinging, it was Mona Wright who reached down and lifted the rumpled, dark-haired child. One huge Band-Aid crossed Sarah's elbow and two were stuck on the insides of both calvesmarks of her having shinnied easily up a tree, but not so easily down.
"Where's Rachel, honey?"
Sarah pointed to the bedroom. "In there with Nebuba."
Mona Wright gave way to Vivian again. "Dear, the girl's name is Nebraska. Can't you say that? Ne-bra-ska!"
"Nebuba," replied Sarah. "That's the way Nebuba says it."
"That's not a nice comment. Just because she talks different doesn't mean she talks wrong!"
"Yes, ma'am," Sarah said sweetly.
"It sounds like you're making fun of her when you say her name that way."
"But I like Nebuba," Sarah protested. "I don't make fun of her. Nebuba! NEBUBA!"
"Hush," Vivian said. "You'll startle Rachel." Coming to the entrance to the room at the end of the hall, Vivian saw Rachel sitting on the floor, haphazardly pushing a wooden block engraved with the letter I next to a block engraved with E.
"Ice cream," Sarah exclaimed. "She's spelling ice cream!"
"I doubt it," Vivian said. "Besides, half the blocks have been missing since you were that age."
"I didn't throw them into the gulley," Sarah piped. "I didn't, I didn't."
Rachel turned and grinned at them both; saliva drooled down the side of her mouth.
"Don't spit," said Sarah.
"Oh, she's just a little baby," Vivian explained, lifting Rachel up. "She can't help it." She cast a glance at Nebraska, who sat in the couch in the corner with her head tossed back and mouth open. A low sawing came from her throat. Her arms were spread out over the sides of the couch with palms turned upward, as in supplication.
"Mommie, look at Nebuba's feet!"
Nebraska shifted position, settled, and resumed sawing.
"Let her nap," Vivian whispered. She leaned closer and stared at Nebraska's feet, soles the color of clay and crisscrossed with lines and ridges like the Mississippi Delta seen from an airplane. They began to twitch.
"Is she having a nightmare?" Sarah asked.
"Maybe she's just tired," explained Vivian. "Or maybe she's dreaming about running. Maybe she's running from her husband or somebody."
Nebraska stirred again. She started to mumble, the mumble changing into a shout: "Yeow! YEOW!" Her eyes fluttered and opened.
Sarah sprang to her shoulder. "Are you all right, Nebuba?"
Vivian reached out and put the back of her hand to Nebraska's brow. "Do you feel okay? You're not sick, are you?"
"I was having a dream is all," said Nebraska, as in a fog. "A dream 'bout Abraham. He was trying to flick water on my titties."
"What?" Vivian drew her hand away and motioned for Sarah to leave the room. The child resisted and Vivian took her by the shoulder and sent her out.
"I'm sorry to frighten you, Miss Gold. Just saw my Abraham trying to flick water on my naked titties. Wasn't no more than that. He was goin' just like this." She flicked her fingers to demonstrate.
Vivian walked brusquely to the door of the room, then turned back briefly to speak before leaving. "I think you better go start supper, Nebraska. Enough napping for now." After parting she turned back a moment, adding, with an edge in her voice, "Edward likes his lamb chops medium."
* * *
The next day Vivian drove the Nash down Governor Street to the small playhouse not far from the Temple. Passing the Temple, she calculated a month to Passover. Azaleas were beginning to push open along its drive.
She passed the parking lot of the playhouse, all the while thinking of Nebraska. She did not yet feel comfortable with the image of a strange woman working in her housea strange woman who arranged Edward's drawers differently and arranged the dishes in a confused manner and rearranged Vivian's perfume bottles after dusting.
Parking the car along the curb, she got out, seeing Izzy Berman's wife, Margery, peering out through the playhouse door. Margery came out and waved, holding a bottle of nail polish in one hand. "Izzy's sick," she called. "He's got the flu."
Vivian came up to her. "What a shame. Does he have much fever?"
"Not much. He's not big on holding a thermometer under his tongueor anywhere else for that matter but it was a hundred one at last tally."
"I'm disappointed too," Vivian said, "but, God, don't tell him that. It's just that finally I got my lines down pat. I bumbled so last rehearsal, it was awfully embarrassing."
"Izzy probably threw you off," Margery contested. "All that boozing during Mardi Gras weakened not only his resistance to the flu, I think it also weakened his brain."
"Izzy's first-rate," Vivian said. She leaned to the side to get a better look through the theater door. "Where are the others?"
"John called off practice altogether. He gave you a ring, but your cook said you had gone out to run some errands."
Vivian sighed. "Will I ever, ever become a great actress?"
"Do azaleas bloom in Madoc?" Margery asked, nodding in the direction of a burst of red flowers.
"I have my doubts sometimes." Vivian fell silent a moment then veered toward another question. "How long has Romaine been working for you?"
"Romaine?" Margery figured a moment. "Well, she came to our house when Izzy started working at Lafayette High, and I'd just bought that specially imported lawn furniture.... Oh, I'd say three, three and a half years."
"Answer me straight. Doesn't having Romaine around the house make you feel a bit uneasy? Like a lady of leisure or something?"
"Vivian Gold! My self-defeating friend!" Margery put her hands on Vivian's shoulders. "No, it doesn't make me feel uneasy, and yes, it makes me feel like a lady of leisure. I'm always up for a little pampering. Who's not?"
"Well," Vivian began, feeling awkward about disagreeing with her friend. "The truth is, I'm not. At least, I don't think so. I grew up in one of the poorest Jewish families in Madocyou know that. The thought of having a maid is like the thought of driving a Cadillac. It's just not my style."
"Mona Wright's got a maid in The Merriest Bachelor," said Margery. "When you're Mona Wright you don't seem to have any trouble making it your style."
"Exactly. And Izzy's a playboy with a moustache and a derringer. What does that prove? He still shaves in real life, and I don't think he carries a gun."
Margery dropped her hands from Vivian's shoulders and smoothed down her dress. "Think about it like this, Vivian. Now you've got somebody to help you have more free time. How're you ever gonna be a Rita Hayworth if you don't have time? She's probably got ten maids, one for every room, so she'll have enough time to be a star."
"Margery," Vivian said soberly. "I'm thirty already. The problem is not time. The problem is talent."
"Right. Bull's-eye. Now dig a hole and crawl into it. You got super reviews in the Madoc Register for Play Taps for Suzy. You want me to pull it out and read it to you right here on the street? I will if you don't quit your moaning."
"That was a one-week run and we had a grand smashing total of one hundred fifty-two adults and forty-eight children," said Vivian.
"So is this Manhattan?" Margery threw up her hands. "Is little ol' rundown, culturally famished Madoc the bright lights of Broadway? I don't see them, but maybe I need glasses." She blinked.
Vivian laughed at her friend's insistence, secretly pleased at the encouragement. "Well, you may have a point."
"So we've decided," Margery began boisterously. "Your Romaine gives you time to pursue your theater work, time to become a star. Some colored gal's got a darn good job with a darn good family. And, most important perhaps, Edward is able to give you something specialthe luxury of a maid. Don't you think that makes him feel good? Makes him feel like more of a man?"
Vivian's mood turned. "Margery, I think Edward is man enough without having to present me with a Negro cook!"
"Hey, darling, don't get hot under the hem. It's just a figure of speech."
"I'm sorry," said Vivian, walking back toward her car. "Maybe my resistance is down a little bit after Mardi Gras too." She opened the door and climbed in.
"Call me later," Margery called, as Vivian cranked up the Nash and drove off.
* * *
A lady of leisure, a lady of leisure. Vivian turned the phrase over in her mind as she pushed the grocery cart by the frozen foods counter and caught an image of herself in the railing of the bin. A thin, dark-haired, convex woman spilled over the silver rail.
Watching her reflection on the rail, she thought of a portrait in the World of Art book in the den library. "Madame X" by John Singer Sargent was the painting, and she had paused over it often. In her black gown, Madame X leaned back comfortably against a table, a haughty look on her face. Would not Madame X have maids, attendants, helpers? Certainly a petite French maid in a white lace apron would pour teanot a cumbersome, sore-footed Nebraska.
Another woman's face moved along the railing of the frozen foods counter. Behind it moved a black face. Vivian looked up to see a middle-aged woman in green slacks and curlers trailed by a gaunt, silver-haired mammy.
Vivian pushed the grocery cart on to the canned goods area. She looked up and down the aisles, noting the different combinations of white women and black women, or black women alone, shopping for white. There were large, handsome, strong-featured black cooks, and there were scrawny, sad, defeated-looking women as well. She tried to imagine Nebraska trailing behind her, turning a can bottom upwards to read the company mark.
No, Vivian decided, the vision didn't click. There was simply no room for a helper, for a shadow, in her life. She would tell Nebraska as sweetly as she could when she got home that their ways must part.
* * *
When Vivian was at least ten houses away in the automobile, she heard the screams. The screams became a wailing, loud and plaintive. She saw the Japanese magnolia dropping blood petals on the lawn as she slowed the car and caught first sight of Nebraska. The woman stood in the middle of the lawn, barefoot, hands clasped, rocking from side to side and moaning.
"What's wrong?" Vivian cried, hurriedly parking the car and rushing across the lawn.
"Sarah!" Nebraska wailed. "Sarah, ma'am!"
"Sarah?" A flush rose through Vivian's body. "What's happened to Sarah, woman? Where is she?"
Nebraska continued rocking from side to side, starting to slap her hands together. "It's little Sarah."
Vivian latched onto Nebraska's shoulders and shook hard. "What have you done with my daughter, dammit?"
"Her foots, ma'am." Nebraska danced as on thorns.
Vivian stepped back in disbelief. "Her feet?"
Hearing her child's first screams, Vivian tore into the house, only to find Sarah slung over Dr. Schwartz's large shoulder. Her feet bobbed near his chest, and when her right foot touched his arm, she shrieked. In horror Vivian looked at the foot: its sole, brutally red, erupted with blisters.
"What's going on here, Frederick?"
"Don't have time to talk," he returned, grabbing up his satchel with one hand. "Your cook called and I got here as fast as I could." He lumbered out of the kitchen with Sarah over his shoulder, and as they disappeared into the hallway Sarah's sobs changed to "Mommy!" The bathroom door slammed.
Vivian leaned against the icebox and nearly passed out. The room turned slightly, then straightened, and all Vivian could see were Nebraska's cracked and swollen feet.
Those feet clung in her mind, and behind them spun shots of dark, unclean places, of Negro tenements, of slum toilets. Over these unclean places the large feet moved, naked and coarse.
The feet moved into her own house and the strange colored woman balanced above them. The feet fell on the carpet of the living room, on the throw rugs of the hallway, on the floorboards of Sarah's bedroom. A sickness crept out of them, an infection that lit up the walls and pillows and beds. The infection leaped to Sarah's feet, igniting the precious white skin.
Vivian hurried to the bathroom and violently pushed open the door. Dr. Schwartz had muffled Sarah's screams in his neck. He kept her pressed close, running water from the tub. "Easy," he said. "Easy ..." and suddenly shoved the blistering foot under the stream of water and began rubbing it with a rough cloth. Sarah's screams rocketed through the house.
"This damn butter," muttered Dr. Schwartz. "Damn butter!" He clenched his teeth and scrubbed harder.
"What?" Vivian started toward her child, but the doctor motioned her back.
Another scream shot through the house, this one through the bathroom window. Nebraska stood in the backyard, nose pressed to the windowpane. "Oh, Sarah! I rot in hell, Jesus, for little Sarah." Raising her palms in prayer, Nebraska shouted, "Jesus, help Sarah!"
The doctor dropped the brush, pulled Sarah close to his chest, and began to rock her slowly. He stroked her hair and began to croon "The Tennessee Waltz."
"I rot in hell for little Sarah!" Nebraska wailed again.
Dr. Schwartz laughed. "Vivian, go on out and tell your poor cook nobody's gonna rot anywhere this afternoon. Tell her Sarah's the third child this spring who's stepped in a bucket of boiling starch."
Nebraska's wail rose but subsided quickly this time.
"Yes, yes, the starch. I guess your cook didn't know any better than to slop butter all over Sarah's foot." He shook his head. "Maybe some Edison will invent a decent starch one day you don't have to boil. It'll sure save me a few emergencies every year."
Vivian reached for Sarah, but Dr. Schwartz nodded her back. "Better to let her cry it out for a few minutes, Viv."
The house stilled completely now. Vivian took a deep breath and exhaled. With Sarah weeping behind her, she walked down the hallway, to the kitchen door, and around to the backyard. Through the fronds of a banana plant she saw Nebraska. The woman was slumped in the dirt like a small mountain, sobbing and praying.
Coming up to her, Vivian placed a hand on the woman's shoulder. "It's all right, Nebraska." Vivian jiggled her lightly, but Nebraska continued to sob. After another moment she stopped and looked up, eyes wet and red.
Vivian squatted, searching Nebraska's bloodshot eyes. Had Nebraska possibly detected the fantasy gone through her mind? "Really," Vivian said softly. "It's okay, Nebraska. The doctor says she'll be fine."
"I'm so sorry, ma'am. God forgive me."
"It's all right." Vivian leaned over and picked off a blade of grass from Nebraska's forehead. "Let's go on in."
The small mountain shifted and rose, and Nebraska now stood by her side, leaning on her shoulder a moment before regaining her balance. The two women walked slowly back to the kitchen door.
As they passed the banana plant, the only sound was Nebraska's voice, thick with sadness and relief. "Miss Gold, you got a touch of the angel right round your head, ma'am. I'll stay with you as long as I live."
SONG The University of Alabama Press
A Journey down the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers
By Joe and Monica Cook
Copyright © 2000 The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved.