Penguin Group USA
Table of Contents Copyright Page Dedication AIBILEEN chapter 1 – August 1962 chapter 2 MINNY chapter 3 chapter 4 MISS SKEETER chapter 5 chapter 6 AIBILEEN chapter 7 MISS SKEETER chapter 8 chapter 9 MINNY chapter 10 MISS SKEETER chapter 11 chapter 12 chapter 13 AIBILEEN
chapter 14 chapter 15 chapter 16 MINNY chapter 17 chapter 18 MISS SKEETER chapter 19 chapter 20 chapter 21 AIBILEEN chapter 22 chapter 23 MINNY chapter 24 THE BENEFIT chapter 25 MINNY chapter 26 MISS SKEETER chapter 27 chapter 28 AIBILEEN chapter 29 MINNY
chapter 30 AIBILEEN chapter 31 MINNY chapter 32 MISS SKEETER chapter 33 AIBILEEN chapter 34 Acknowledgements TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE ABOUT THE AUTHOR
AMY EINHORN BOOKS
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First published in the United States by Amy Einhorn Books, published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Copyright (c) 2009 by Kathryn Stockett
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eISBN : 978-1-440-69763-0
To Grandaddy Stockett, the best storyteller of all
MAE MOBLEY was born on a early Sunday morning in August, 1960. A church baby we like to call it. Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning. But I ain’t never seen a baby yell like Mae Mobley Leefolt. First day I walk in the door, there she be, red-hot and hollering with the colic, fighting that bottle like it’s a rotten turnip. Miss Leefolt, she look terrified a her own child. “What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I stop it?” It? That was my first hint: something is wrong with this situation. So I took that pink, screaming baby in my arms. Bounced her on my hip to get the gas moving and it didn’t take two minutes fore Baby Girl stopped her crying, got to smiling up at me like she do. But Miss Leefolt, she don’t pick up her own baby for the rest a the day. I seen plenty a womens get the baby blues after they done birthing. I reckon I thought that’s what it was. Here’s something about Miss Leefolt: she not just frowning all the time, she skinny. Her legs is so spindly, she look like she done growed em last week. Twenty-three years old and she lanky as a fourteen-year-old boy. Even her hair is thin, brown, see-through. She try to tease it up, but it only make it look thinner. Her face be the same shape as that red devil on the redhot candy box, pointy chin and all. Fact, her whole body be so full a sharp knobs and corners, it’s no wonder she can’t soothe that baby. Babies like fat. Like to bury they face up in you armpit and go to sleep. They like big fat legs too. That I know. By the time she a year old, Mae Mobley following me around everwhere I go. Five o’clock would come round and she’d be hanging on my Dr. Scholl shoe, dragging over the floor, crying like I weren’t never coming back. Miss Leefolt, she’d narrow up her eyes at me like I done something wrong, unhitch that crying baby off my foot. I reckon that’s the risk you run, letting somebody else raise you chilluns. Mae Mobley two years old now. She got big brown eyes and honey-color curls. But the bald spot in the back of her hair kind a throw things off. She get the same wrinkle between her eyebrows when she worried, like her mama. They kind a favor except Mae Mobley so fat. She ain’t gone be no beauty queen. I think it bother Miss Leefolt, but Mae Mobley my special baby. I LOST MY OWN BOY, Treelore, right before I started waiting on Miss Leefolt. He was twenty- four years old. The best part of a person’s life. It just wasn’t enough time living in this world. He had him a little apartment over on Foley Street. Seeing a real nice girl name Frances and I spec
they was gone get married, but he was slow bout things like that. Not cause he looking for something better, just cause he the thinking kind. Wore big glasses and reading all the time. He even start writing his own book, bout being a colored man living and working in Mississippi. Law, that made me proud. But one night he working late at the Scanlon-Taylor mill, lugging two-by-fours to the truck, splinters slicing all the way through the glove. He too small for that kind a work, too skinny, but he needed the job. He was tired. It was raining. He slip off the loading dock, fell down on the drive. Tractor trailer didn’t see him and crushed his lungs fore he could move. By the time I found out, he was dead. That was the day my whole world went black. Air look black, sun look black. I laid up in bed and stared at the black walls a my house. Minny came ever day to make sure I was still breathing, feed me food to keep me living. Took three months fore I even look out the window, see if the world still there. I was surprise to see the world didn’t stop just cause my boy did. Five months after the funeral, I lifted myself up out a bed. I put on my white uniform and put my little gold cross back around my neck and I went to wait on Miss Leefolt cause she just have her baby girl. But it weren’t too long before I seen something in me had changed. A bitter seed was planted inside a me. And I just didn’t feel so accepting anymore. “GET THE HOUSE straightened up and then go on and fix some of that chicken salad now,” say Miss Leefolt. It’s bridge club day. Every fourth Wednesday a the month. A course I already got everthing ready to go–made the chicken salad this morning, ironed the tablecloths yesterday. Miss Leefolt seen me at it too. She ain’t but twenty-three years old and she like hearing herself tell me what to do. She already got the blue dress on I ironed this morning, the one with sixty-five pleats on the waist, so tiny I got to squint through my glasses to iron. I don’t hate much in life, but me and that dress is not on good terms. “And you make sure Mae Mobley’s not coming in on us, now. I tell you, I am so burned up at her– tore up my good stationery into five thousand pieces and I’ve got fifteen thank-you notes for the Junior League to do . . .” I arrange the-this and the-that for her lady friends. Set out the good crystal, put the silver service out. Miss Leefolt don’t put up no dinky card table like the other ladies do. We set at the dining room table. Put a cloth on top to cover the big L-shaped crack, move that red flower centerpiece to the sideboard to hide where the wood all scratched. Miss Leefolt, she like it fancy when she do a luncheon. Maybe she trying to make up for her house being small. They ain’t rich folk, that I know. Rich folk don’t try so hard. I’m used to working for young couples, but I spec this is the smallest house I ever worked in. It’s just the one story. Her and Mister Leefolt’s room in the back be a fair size, but Baby Girl’s room be
tiny. The dining room and the regular living room kind a join up. Only two bathrooms, which is a relief cause I worked in houses where they was five or six. Take a whole day just to clean toilets. Miss Leefolt don’t pay but ninety-five cents an hour, less than I been paid in years. But after Treelore died, I took what I could. Landlord wasn’t gone wait much longer. And even though it’s small, Miss Leefolt done the house up nice as she can. She pretty good with the sewing machine. Anything she can’t buy new of, she just get her some blue material and sew it a cover. The doorbell ring and I open it up. “Hey, Aibileen,” Miss Skeeter say, cause she the kind that speak to the help. “How you?” “Hey, Miss Skeeter. I’m alright. Law, it’s hot out there.” Miss Skeeter real tall and skinny. Her hair be yellow and cut short above her shoulders cause she get the frizz year round. She twenty-three or so, same as Miss Leefolt and the rest of em. She set her pocketbook on the chair, kind a itch around in her clothes a second. She wearing a white lace blouse buttoned up like a nun, flat shoes so I reckon she don’t look any taller. Her blue skirt gaps open in the waist. Miss Skeeter always look like somebody else told her what to wear. I hear Miss Hilly and her mama, Miss Walter, pull up the driveway and toot the horn. Miss Hilly don’t live but ten feet away, but she always drive over. I let her in and she go right past me and I figure it’s a good time to get Mae Mobley up from her nap. Soon as I walk in her nursery, Mae Mobley smile at me, reach out her fat little arms. “You already up, Baby Girl? Why you didn’t holler for me?” She laugh, dance a little happy jig waiting on me to get her out. I give her a good hug. I reckon she don’t get too many good hugs like this after I go home. Ever so often, I come to work and find her bawling in her crib, Miss Leefolt busy on the sewing machine rolling her eyes like it’s a stray cat stuck in the screen door. See, Miss Leefolt, she dress up nice ever day. Always got her makeup on, got a carport, double-door Frigidaire with the built-in icebox. You see her in the Jitney 14 grocery, you never think she go and leave her baby crying in her crib like that. But the help always know. Today is a good day though. That girl just grins. I say, “Aibileen.” She say, “Aib-ee.” I say, “Love.” She say, “Love.” I say, “Mae Mobley.” She say, “Aib-ee.” And then she laugh and laugh. She so tickled she talking and I got to say, it’s about time. Treelore didn’t say nothing till he two either. By the time he in third grade, though, he get to talking better than the President a the United States, coming home using words like conjugation
and parliamentary. He get in junior high and we play this game where I give him a real simple word and he got to come up with a fancy one like it. I say housecat, he say domesticized feline, I say mixer and he say motorized rotunda. One day I say Crisco. He scratch his head. He just can’t believe I done won the game with something simple as Crisco. Came to be a secret joke with us, meaning something you can’t dress up no matter how you try. We start calling his daddy Crisco cause you can’t fancy up a man done run off on his family. Plus he the greasiest no-count you ever known. I tote Mae Mobley into the kitchen and put her in her high chair, thinking about two chores I need to finish today fore Miss Leefolt have a fit: separate the napkins that started to fray and straighten up the silver service in the cabinet. Law, I’m on have to do it while the ladies is here, I guess. I take the tray a devil eggs out to the dining room. Miss Leefolt setting at the head and to her left be Miss Hilly Holbrook and Miss Hilly’s mama, Miss Walter, who Miss Hilly don’t treat with no respect. And then on Miss Leefolt’s right be Miss Skeeter. I make the egg rounds, starting with ole Miss Walter first cause she the elder. It’s warm in here, but she got a thick brown sweater drooped around her shoulders. She scoop a egg up and near bout drop it cause she getting the palsy. Then I move over to Miss Hilly and she smile and take two. Miss Hilly got a round face and dark brown hair in the beehive. Her skin be olive color, with freckles and moles. She wear a lot a red plaid. And she getting heavy in the bottom. Today, since it’s so hot, she wearing a red sleeveless dress with no waist to it. She one a those grown ladies that still dress like a little girl with big bows and matching hats and such. She ain’t my favorite. I move over to Miss Skeeter, but she wrinkle her nose up at me and say, “No, thanks,” cause she don’t eat no eggs. I tell Miss Leefolt ever time she have the bridge club and she make me do them eggs anyways. She scared Miss Hilly be disappointed. Finally, I do Miss Leefolt. She the hostess so she got to pick up her eggs last. And soon as I’m done, Miss Hilly say, “Don’t mind if I do,” and snatch herself two more eggs, which don’t surprise me. “Guess who I ran into at the beauty parlor?” Miss Hilly say to the ladies. “Who’s that?” ask Miss Leefolt. “Celia Foote. And do you know what she asked me? If she could help with the Benefit this year.” “Good,” Miss Skeeter say. “We need it.” “Not that bad, we don’t. I told her, I said, ‘Celia, you have to be a League member or a sustainer to participate.’ What does she think the Jackson League is? Open rush?” “Aren’t we taking nonmembers this year? Since the Benefit’s gotten so big?” Miss Skeeter ask. “Well, yes,” Miss Hilly say. “But I wasn’t about to tell her that.” “I can’t believe Johnny married a girl so tacky like she is,” Miss Leefolt say and Miss Hilly nod. She start dealing out the bridge cards.
I spoon out the congealed salad and the ham sandwiches, can’t help but listen to the chatter. Only three things them ladies talk about: they kids, they clothes, and they friends. I hear the word Kennedy, I know they ain’t discussing no politic. They talking about what Miss Jackie done wore on the tee-vee. When I get around to Miss Walter, she don’t take but one little old half a sandwich for herself. “Mama,” Miss Hilly yell at Miss Walter, “Take another sandwich. You are skinny as a telephone pole.” Miss Hilly look over at the rest a the table. “I keep telling her, if that Minny can’t cook she needs to just go on and fire her.” My ears perk up at this. They talking bout the help. I’m best friends with Minny. “Minny cooks fine,” say ole Miss Walter. “I’m just not so hungry like I used to be.” Minny near bout the best cook in Hinds County, maybe even all a Mississippi. The Junior League Benefit come around ever fall and they be wanting her to make ten caramel cakes to auction off. She ought a be the most sought-after help in the state. Problem is, Minny got a mouth on her. She always talking back. One day it be the white manager a the Jitney Jungle grocery, next day it be her husband, and ever day it’s gone be the white lady she waiting on. The only reason she waiting on Miss Walter so long is Miss Walter be deaf as a doe-nob. “I think you’re malnutritioned, Mama,” holler Miss Hilly. “That Minny isn’t feeding you so that she can steal every last heirloom I have left.” Miss Hilly huff out a her chair. “I’m going to the powder room. Y’all watch her in case she collapses dead of hunger.” When Miss Hilly gone, Miss Walter say real low, “I bet you’d love that.” Everbody act like they didn’t hear. I better call Minny tonight, tell her what Miss Hilly said. In the kitchen, Baby Girl’s up in her high chair, got purple juice all over her face. Soon as I walk in, she smile. She don’t make no fuss being in here by herself, but I hate to leave her too long. I know she stare at that door real quiet till I come back. I pat her little soft head and go back out to pour the ice tea. Miss Hilly’s back in her chair looking all bowed up about something else now. “Oh Hilly, I wish you’d use the guest bathroom,” say Miss Leefolt, rearranging her cards. “Aibileen doesn’t clean in the back until after lunch.” Hilly raise her chin up. Then she give one a her “ah-hem’s.” She got this way a clearing her throat real delicate-like that get everbody’s attention without they even knowing she made em do it. “But the guest bathroom’s where the help goes,” Miss Hilly say. Nobody says anything for a second. Then Miss Walter nod, like she explaining it all. “She’s upset cause the Nigra uses the inside bathroom and so do we.” Law, not this mess again. They all look over at me straightening the silver drawer in the sideboard
and I know it’s time for me to leave. But before I can get the last spoon in there, Miss Leefolt give me the look, say, “Go get some more tea, Aibileen.” I go like she tell me to, even though they cups is full to the rim. I stand around the kitchen a minute but I ain’t got nothing left to do in there. I need to be in the dining room so I can finish my silver straightening. And I still got the napkin cabinet to sort through today but it’s in the hall, right outside where they setting. I don’t want a stay late just cause Miss Leefolt playing cards. I wait a few minutes, wipe a counter. Give Baby Girl more ham and she gobble it up. Finally, I slip out to the hall, pray nobody see me. All four of em got a cigarette in one hand, they cards in the other. “Elizabeth, if you had the choice,” I hear Miss Hilly say, “wouldn’t you rather them take their business outside?” Real quiet, I open the napkin drawer, more concerned about Miss Leefolt seeing me than what they saying. This talk ain’t news to me. Everwhere in town they got a colored bathroom, and most the houses do too. But I look over and Miss Skeeter’s watching me and I freeze, thinking I’m about to get in trouble. “I bid one heart,” Miss Walter say. “I don’t know,” Miss Leefolt say, frowning at her cards, “With Raleigh starting his own business and tax season not for six months . . . things are real tight for us right now.” Miss Hilly talk slow, like she spreading icing on a cake. “You just tell Raleigh every penny he spends on that bathroom he’ll get back when y’all sell this house.” She nod like she agreeing with herself. “All these houses they’re building without maid’s quarters? It’s just plain dangerous. Everybody knows they carry different kinds of diseases than we do. I double.” I pick up a stack a napkins. I don’t know why, but all a sudden I want a hear what Miss Leefolt gone say to this. She my boss. I guess everbody wonder what they boss think a them. “It would be nice,” Miss Leefolt say, taking a little puff a her cigarette, “not having her use the one in the house. I bid three spades.” “That’s exactly why I’ve designed the Home Help Sanitation Initiative,” Miss Hilly say. “As a disease-preventative measure.” I’m surprised by how tight my throat get. It’s a shame I learned to keep down a long time ago. Miss Skeeter look real confused. “The Home… the what?” “A bill that requires every white home to have a separate bathroom for the colored help. I’ve even notified the surgeon general of Mississippi to see if he’ll endorse the idea. I pass.” Miss Skeeter, she frowning at Miss Hilly. She set her cards down faceup and say real matter-a-fact, “Maybe we ought to just build you a bathroom outside, Hilly.”
And Law, do that room get quiet. Miss Hilly say, “I don’t think you ought to be joking around about the colored situation. Not if you want to stay on as editor of the League, Skeeter Phelan.” Miss Skeeter kind a laugh, but I can tell she don’t think it’s funny. “What, you’d . . . kick me out? For disagreeing with you?” Miss Hilly raise a eyebrow. “I will do whatever I have to do to protect our town. Your lead, Mama.” I go in the kitchen and don’t come out again till I hear the door close after Miss Hilly’s behind. WHEN I KNOW Miss HILLY GONE, I put Mae Mobley in her playpen, drag the garbage bin out to the street cause the truck’s coming by today. At the top a the driveway, Miss Hilly and her crazy mama near bout back over me in they car, then yell out all friendly how sorry they is. I walk in the house, glad I ain’t got two new broken legs. When I go in the kitchen, Miss Skeeter’s in there. She leaning against the counter, got a serious look on her face, even more serious than usual. “Hey, Miss Skeeter. I get you something?” She glance out at the drive where Miss Leefolt’s talking to Miss Hilly through her car window. “No, I’m just . . . waiting.” I dry a tray with a towel. When I sneak a look over, she’s still got her worried eyes on that window. She don’t look like other ladies, being she so tall. She got real high cheekbones. Blue eyes that turn down, giving her a shy way about her. It’s quiet, except for the little radio on the counter, playing the gospel station. I wish she’d go on out a here. “Is that Preacher Green’s sermon you’re playing on the radio?” she ask. “Yes ma’am, it is.” Miss Skeeter kind a smile. “That reminds me so much of my maid growing up.” “Oh I knew Constantine,” I say. Miss Skeeter move her eyes from the window to me. “She raised me, did you know that?” I nod, wishing I hadn’t said nothing. I know too much about that situation. “I’ve been trying to get an address for her family in Chicago,” she say, “but nobody can tell me anything.” “I don’t have it either, ma’am.”
Miss Skeeter move her eyes back to the window, on Miss Hilly’s Buick. She shake her head, just a little. “Aibileen, that talk in there . . . Hilly’s talk, I mean . . .” I pick up a coffee cup, start drying it real good with my cloth. “Do you ever wish you could… change things?” she asks. And I can’t help myself. I look at her head on. Cause that’s one a the stupidest questions I ever heard. She got a confused, disgusted look on her face, like she done salted her coffee instead a sugared it. I turn back to my washing, so she don’t see me rolling my eyes. “Oh no, ma’am, everthing’s fine.” “But that talk in there, about the bathroom–” and smack on that word, Miss Leefolt walk in the kitchen. “Oh, there you are, Skeeter.” She look at us both kind a funny. “I’m sorry, did I . . . interrupt something?” We both stand there, wondering what she might a heard. “I have to run,” Miss Skeeter says. “See you tomorrow, Elizabeth.” She open the back door, say, “Thanks, Aibileen, for lunch,” and she gone. I go in the dining room, start clearing the bridge table. And just like I knew she would, Miss Leefolt come in behind me wearing her upset smile. Her neck’s sticking out like she fixing to ask me something. She don’t like me talking to her friends when she ain’t around, never has. Always wanting to know what we saying. I go right on past her into the kitchen. I put Baby Girl in her high chair and start cleaning the oven. Miss Leefolt follow me in there, eyeball a bucket a Crisco, put it down. Baby Girl hold her arms out for her mama to pick her up, but Miss Leefolt open a cabinet, act like she don’t see. Then she slam it close, open another one. Finally she just stand there. I’m down on my hands and knees. Pretty soon my head’s so far in that oven I look like I’m trying to gas myself. “You and Miss Skeeter looked like you were talking awful serious about something.” “No ma’am, she just… asking do I want some old clothes,” I say and it sound like I’m down in a well-hole. Grease already working itself up my arms. Smell like a underarm in here. Don’t take no time fore sweat’s running down my nose and ever time I scratch at it, I get a plug a crud on my face. Got to be the worst place in the world, inside a oven. You in here, you either cleaning or you getting cooked. Tonight I just know I’m on have that dream I’m stuck inside and the gas gets turned on. But I keep my head in that awful place cause I’d rather be anywhere sides answering Miss Leefolt’s questions about what Miss Skeeter was trying to say to me. Asking do I want to change things. After while, Miss Leefolt huff and go out to the carport. I figure she looking at where she gone build me my new colored bathroom.
YOU’D NEVER KNOW IT living here, but Jackson, Mississippi, be filled with two hundred thousand peoples. I see them numbers in the paper and I got to wonder, where do them peoples live? Underground? Cause I know just about everbody on my side a the bridge and plenty a white families too, and that sure don’t add up to be no two hundred thousand. Six days a week, I take the bus across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to where Miss Leefolt and all her white friends live, in a neighborhood call Belhaven. Right next to Belhaven be the downtown and the state capital. Capitol building is real big, pretty on the outside but I never been in it. I wonder what they pay to clean that place. Down the road from Belhaven is white Woodland Hills, then Sherwood Forest, which is miles a big live oaks with the moss hanging down. Nobody living in it yet, but it’s there for when the white folks is ready to move somewhere else new. Then it’s the country, out where Miss Skeeter live on the Longleaf cotton plantation. She don’t know it, but I picked cotton out there in 1931, during the Depression, when we didn’t have nothing to eat but state cheese. So Jackson’s just one white neighborhood after the next and more springing up down the road. But the colored part a town, we one big anthill, surrounded by state land that ain’t for sale. As our numbers get bigger, we can’t spread out. Our part a town just gets thicker. I get on the number six bus that afternoon, which goes from Belhaven to Farish Street. The bus today is nothing but maids heading home in our white uniforms. We all chatting and smiling at each other like we own it–not cause we mind if they’s white people on here, we sit anywhere we want to now thanks to Miss Parks–just cause it’s a friendly feeling. I spot Minny in the back center seat. Minny short and big, got shiny black curls. She setting with her legs splayed, her thick arms crossed. She seventeen years younger than I am. Minny could probably lift this bus up over her head if she wanted to. Old lady like me’s lucky to have her as a friend. I take the seat in front a her, turn around and listen. Everbody like to listen to Minny. “. . . so I said, Miss Walters, the world don’t want a see your naked white behind any more than they want a see my black one. Now, get in this house and put your underpants and some clothes on.” “On the front porch? Naked?” Kiki Brown ask. “Her behind hanging to her knees.” The bus is laughing and chuckling and shaking they heads. “Law, that woman crazy,” Kiki say. “I don’t know how you always seem to get the crazy ones, Minny.” “Oh, like your Miss Patterson ain’t?” Minny say to Kiki. “Shoot, she call the roll a the crazy lady club.” The whole bus be laughing now cause Minny don’t like nobody talking bad about her white lady except herself. That’s her job and she own the rights.
The bus cross the bridge and make the first stop in the colored neighborhood. A dozen or so maids get off. I go set in the open seat next to Minny. She smile, bump me hello with her elbow. Then she relax back in her seat cause she don’t have to put on no show for me. “How you doing? You have to iron pleats this morning?” I laugh, nod my head. “Took me a hour and a half.” “What you feed Miss Walters at bridge club today? I worked all morning making that fool a caramel cake and then she wouldn’t eat a crumb.” That makes me remember what Miss Hilly say at the table today. Any other white lady and no one would care, but we’d all want a know if Miss Hilly after us. I just don’t know how to put it. I look out the window at the colored hospital go by, the fruit stand. “I think I heard Miss Hilly say something about that, bout her mama getting skinny.” I say this careful as I can. “Say maybe she getting mal-nutritious.” Minny look at me. “She did, did she?” Just the name make her eyes narrow. “What else Miss Hilly say?” I better just go on and say it. “I think she got her eye on you, Minny. Just . . . be extra careful around her.” “Miss Hilly ought to be extra careful around me. What she say, I can’t cook? She say that old bag a bones ain’t eating cause I can’t feed her?” Minny stand up, throw her purse up on her arm. “I’m sorry, Minny, I only told you so you stay out a her–” “She ever say that to me, she gone get a piece a Minny for lunch.” She huff down the steps. I watch her through the window, stomping off toward her house. Miss Hilly ain’t somebody to mess with. Law, maybe I should a just kept it to myself. A COUPLE MORNINGS LATER, I get off the bus, walk the block to Miss Leefolt’s house. Parked in front is a old lumber truck. They’s two colored mens inside, one drinking a cup a coffee, the other asleep setting straight up. I go on past, into the kitchen. Mister Raleigh Leefolt still at home this morning, which is rare. Whenever he here, he look like he just counting the minutes till he get to go back to his accounting job. Even on Saturday. But today he carrying on bout something. “This is my damn house and I pay for what goddamn goes in it!” Mister Leefolt yell.
Miss Leefolt trying to keep up behind him with that smile that mean she ain’t happy. I hide out in the washroom. It’s been two days since the bathroom talk come up and I was hoping it was over. Mister Leefolt opens the back door to look at the truck setting there, slam it back close again. “I put up with the new clothes, all the damn trips to New Orleans with your sorority sisters, but this takes the goddamn cake.” “But it’ll increase the value of the house. Hilly said so!” I’m still in the washroom, but I can almost hear Miss Leefolt trying to keep that smile on her face. “We can’t afford it! And we do not take orders from the Holbrooks!” Everthing get real quiet for a minute. Then I hear the pap-pap a little feetum pajamas. “Da-dee?” I come out the washroom and into the kitchen then cause Mae Mobley’s my business. Mister Leefolt already kneeling down to her. He’s wearing a smile look like it’s made out a rubber. “Guess what, honey?” She smile back. She waiting for a good surprise. “You’re not going to college so your mama’s friends don’t have to use the same bathroom as the maid.” He stomp off and slam the door so hard it make Baby Girl blink. Miss Leefolt look down at her, start shaking her finger. “Mae Mobley, you know you’re not supposed to climb up out of your crib!” Baby Girl, she looking at the door her daddy slammed, she looking at her mama frowning down at her. My baby, she swallowing it back, like she trying real hard not to cry. I rush past Miss Leefolt, pick Baby Girl up. I whisper, “Let’s go on in the living room and play with the talking toy. What that donkey say?” “She keeps getting up. I put her back in bed three times this morning.” “Cause somebody needs changing. Whooooweeee.” Miss Leefolt tisk, say, “Well I didn’t realize . . .” but she already staring out the window at the lumber truck. I go on to the back, so mad I’m stomping. Baby Girl been in that bed since eight o’clock last night, a course she need changing! Miss Leefolt try to sit in twelve hours worth a bathroom mess without getting up! I lay Baby Girl on the changing table, try to keep my mad inside. Baby Girl stare up at me while I
take off her diaper. Then she reach out her little hand. She touch my mouth real soft. “Mae Mo been bad,” she say. “No, baby, you ain’t been bad,” I say, smoothing her hair back. “You been good. Real good.” I LIVE On GESSUM AVENUE, where I been renting since 1942. You could say Gessum got a lot a personality. The houses all be small, but every front yard’s different–some scrubby and grassless like a bald-headed old man. Others got azalea bushes and roses and thick green grass. My yard, I reckon it be somewhere in between. I got a few red camellia bushes out front a the house. My grass be kind a spotty and I still got a big yellow mark where Treelore’s pickup sat for three months after the accident. I ain’t got no trees. But the backyard, now it looks like the Garden of Eden. That’s where my next-door neighbor, Ida Peek, got her vegetable patch. Ida ain’t got no backyard to speak of what with all her husband’s junk–car engines and old refrigerators and tires. Stuff he say he gone fix but never do. So I tell Ida she come plant on my side. That way I don’t have no mowing to tend to and she let me pick whatever I need, save me two or three dollars ever week. She put up what we don’t eat, give me jars for the winter season. Good turnip greens, eggplant, okra by the bushel, all kind a gourds. I don’t know how she keep them bugs out a her tomatoes, but she do. And they good. That evening, it’s raining hard outside. I pull out a jar a Ida Peek’s cabbage and tomato, eat my last slice a leftover cornbread. Then I set down to look over my finances cause two things done happen: the bus gone up to fifteen cents a ride and my rent gone up to twenty-nine dollars a month. I work for Miss Leefolt eight to four, six days a week except Saturdays. I get paid forty-three dollars ever Friday, which come to $172 a month. That means after I pay the light bill, the water bill, the gas bill, and the telephone bill, I got thirteen dollars and fifty cents a week left for my groceries, my clothes, getting my hair done, and tithing to the church. Not to mention the cost to mail these bills done gone up to a nickel. And my work shoes is so thin, they look like they starving to death. New pair cost seven dollars though, which means I’m on be eating cabbage and tomato till I turn into Br’er Rabbit. Thank the Lord for Ida Peek, else I be eating nothing. My phone ring, making me jump. Before I can even say hello, I hear Minny. She working late tonight. “Miss Hilly sending Miss Walters to the old lady home. I got to find myself a new job. And you know when she going? Next week.” “Oh no, Minny.” “I been looking, call ten ladies today. Not even a speck a interest.” I am sorry to say I ain’t surprised. “I ask Miss Leefolt first thing tomorrow do she know anybody need help.” “Hang on,” Minny say. I hear old Miss Walter talking and Minny say, “What you think I am? A
chauffeur? I ain’t driving you to no country club in the pouring rain.” Sides stealing, worse thing you’n do for your career as a maid is have a smart mouth. Still, she such a good cook, sometimes it makes up for it. “Don’t you worry, Minny. We gone find you somebody deaf as a doe-knob, just like Miss Walter.” “Miss Hilly been hinting around for me to come work for her.” “What?” I talk stern as I can: “Now you look a here, Minny, I support you myself fore I let you work for that evil lady.” “Who you think you talking to, Aibileen? A monkey? I might as well go work for the KKK. And you know I never take Yule May’s job away.” “I’m sorry, Lordy me.” I just get so nervous when it come to Miss Hilly. “I call Miss Caroline over on Honeysuckle, see if she know somebody. And I call Miss Ruth, she so nice it near bout break your heart. Used to clean up the house ever morning so I didn’t have nothing to do but keep her company. Her husband died a the scarlet fever, mm-hmm.” “Thank you, A. Now come on, Miss Walters, eat up a little green bean for me.” Minny say goodbye and hang up the phone. THE NEXT MORNING, there that old green lumber truck is again. Banging’s already started but Mister Leefolt ain’t stomping around today. I guess he know he done lost this one before it even started. Miss Leefolt setting at the kitchen table in her blue-quilt bathrobe talking on the telephone. Baby Girl’s got red sticky all over her face, hanging on to her mama’s knees trying to get her look at her. “Morning, Baby Girl,” I say. “Mama! Mama!” she say, trying to crawl up in Miss Leefolt’s lap. “No, Mae Mobley.” Miss Leefolt nudge her down. “Mama’s on the telephone. Let Mama talk.” “Mama, pick up,” Mae Mobley whine and reach out her arms to her mama. “Pick Mae Mo up.” “Hush,” Miss Leefolt whisper. I scoop Baby Girl up right quick and take her over to the sink, but she keep craning her neck around, whining, “Mama, Mama,” trying to get her attention. “Just like you told me to say it.” Miss Leefolt nodding into the phone. “Someday when we move, it’ll
raise the value of the house.” “Come on, Baby Girl. Put your hands here, under the water.” But Baby Girl wriggling hard. I’m trying to get the soap on her fingers but she twisting and turning and she snake right out my arms. She run straight to her mama and stick out her chin and then she jerk the phone cord hard as she can. The receiver clatter out a Miss Leefolt’s hand and hit the floor. “Mae Mobley!” I say. I rush to get her but Miss Leefolt get there first. Her lips is curled back from her teeth in a scary smile. Miss Leefolt slap Baby Girl on the back a her bare legs so hard I jump from the sting. Then Miss Leefolt grab Mae Mobley by the arm, jerk it hard with ever word. “Don’t you touch this phone again, Mae Mobley!” she say. “Aibileen, how many times do I have to tell you to keep her away from me when I am on the phone!” “I’m sorry,” I say and I pick up Mae Mobley, try to hug her to me, but she bawling and her face is red and she fighting me. “Come on, Baby Girl, it’s all right, everthing–” Mae Mobley make an ugly face at me and then she rear back and bowp! She whack me right on the ear. Miss Leefolt point at the door, yell, “Aibileen, you both just get out.” I carry her out the kitchen. I’m so mad at Miss Leefolt, I’m biting my tongue. If the fool would just pay her child some attention, this wouldn’t happen! When we make it to Mae Mobley’s room, I set in the rocking chair. She sob on my shoulder and I rub her back, glad she can’t see the mad on my face. I don’t want her to think it’s at her. “You okay, Baby Girl?” I whisper. My ear smarting from her little fist. I’m so glad she hit me instead a her mama, cause I don’t know what that woman would a done to her. I look down and see red fingermarks on the back a her legs. “I’m here, baby, Aibee’s here,” I rock and soothe, rock and soothe. But Baby Girl, she just cry and cry. AROUND LUNCHTIME, when my stories come on tee-vee, it gets quiet out in the carport. Mae Mobley’s in my lap helping me string the beans. She still kind a fussy from this morning. I reckon I am too, but I done pushed it down to a place where I don’t have to worry with it.
We go in the kitchen and I fix her baloney sandwich. In the driveway, the workmen is setting in they truck, eating they own lunches. I’m glad for the peace. I smile over at Baby Girl, give her a strawberry, so grateful I was here during the trouble with her mama. I hate to think what would a happen if I wasn’t. She stuff the strawberry in her mouth, smile back. I think she feel it too. Miss Leefolt ain’t here so I think about calling Minny at Miss Walter, see if she found any work yet. But before I get around to it, they’s a knock on the back door. I open it to see one a the workmen standing there. He real old. Got coveralls on over a white collar shirt. “Hidee, ma’am. Trouble you for some water?” he ask. I don’t recognize him. Must live somewhere south a town. “Sho nuff,” I say. I go get a paper cup from the cupboard. It’s got happy birthday balloons on it from when Mae Mobley turn two. I know Miss Leefolt don’t want me giving him one a the glasses. He drink it in one long swallow and hand me the cup back. His face be real tired. Kind a lonesome in the eyes. “How y’all coming along?” I ask. “It’s work,” he say. “Still ain’t no water to it. Reckon we run a pipe out yonder from the road.” “Other fella need a drink?” I ask. “Be mighty nice.” He nod and I go get his friend a little funny-looking cup too, fill it up from the sink. He don’t take it to his partner right away. “Beg a pardon,” he say, “but where . . .” He stand there a minute, look down at his feet. “Where might I go to make water?” He look up and I look at him and for a minute we just be looking. I mean, it’s one a them funny things. Not the ha-ha funny but the funny where you be thinking: Huh. Here we is with two in the house and one being built and they still ain’t no place for this man to do his business. “Well . . .” I ain’t never been in this position before. The young’un, Robert, who do the yard ever two weeks, I guess he go fore he come over. But this fella, he a old man. Got heavy wrinkled hands. Seventy years a worry done put so many lines in his face, he like a roadmap. “I spec you gone have to go in the bushes, back a the house,” I hear myself say, but I wish it weren’t me. “Dog’s back there, but he won’t bother you.” “Alright then,” he say. “Thank ya.” I watch him walk back real slow with the cup a water for his partner. The banging and the digging go on the rest a the afternoon.
All THE NEXT DAY LONG, they’s hammering and digging going on in the front yard. I don’t ask Miss Leefolt no questions about it and Miss Leefolt don’t offer no explanation. She just peer out the back door ever hour to see what’s going on. Three o’clock the racket stops and the mens get in they truck and leave. Miss Leefolt, she watch em drive off, let out a big sigh. Then she get in her car and go do whatever it is she do when she ain’t nervous bout a couple a colored mens hanging round her house. After while, the phone ring. “Miss Leef–” “She telling everbody in town I’m stealing! That’s why I can’t get no work! That witch done turned me into the Smart-Mouthed Criminal Maid a Hinds County!” “Hold on, Minny, get your breath–” “Before work this morning, I go to the Renfroes’ over on Sycamore and Miss Renfroe near bout chase me off the property. Say Miss Hilly told her about me, everbody know I stole a candelabra from Miss Walters!” I can hear the grip she got on the phone, sound like she trying to crush it in her hand. I hear Kindra holler and I wonder why Minny already home. She usually don’t leave work till four. “I ain’t done nothing but feed that old woman good food and look after her!” “Minny, I know you honest. God know you honest.” Her voice dip down, like bees on a comb. “When I walk into Miss Walters’, Miss Hilly be there and she try to give me twenty dollars. She say, ‘Take it. I know you need it,’ and I bout spit in her face. But I didn’t. No sir.” She start making this panting noise, she say, “I did worse.” “What you did?” “I ain’t telling. I ain’t telling nobody about that pie. But I give her what she deserve!” She wailing now and I feel a real cold fear. Ain’t no game crossing Miss Hilly. “I ain’t never gone get no work again, Leroy gone kill me . . .” Kindra gets to crying in the background. Minny hang up without even saying goodbye. I don’t know what she talking about a pie. But Law, knowing Minny, it could not have been good.
THAT NIGHT, I pick me a poke salad and a tomato out a Ida’s garden. I fry up some ham, make a little gravy for my biscuit. My wig been brushed out and put up, got my pink rollers in, already sprayed the Good Nuff on my hair. I been worried all afternoon, thinking bout Minny. I got to put it out a my mind if I’m on get some sleep tonight. I set at my table to eat, turn on the kitchen radio. Little Stevie Wonder’s singing “Fingertips.” Being colored ain’t nothing on that boy. He twelve years old, blind, and got a hit on the radio. When he done, I skip over Pastor Green playing his sermon and stop on WBLA. They play the juke joint blues. I like them smoky, liquor-drinking sounds when it get dark. Makes me feel like my whole house is full a people. I can almost see em, swaying here in my kitchen, dancing to the blues. When I turn off the ceiling light, I pretend we at The Raven. They’s little tables with red-covered lights. It’s May or June and warm. My man Clyde flash me his white-toothed smile and say Honey, you want you a drink? And I say, Black Mary straight up and then I get to laughing at myself, setting in my kitchen having this daydream, cause the raciest thing I ever take is the purple Nehi. Memphis Minny get to singing on the radio how lean meat won’t fry, which is about how the love don’t last. Time to time, I think I might find myself another man, one from my church. Problem is, much as I love the Lord, church-going man never do all that much for me. Kind a man I like ain’t the kind that stays around when he done spending all you money. I made that mistake twenty years ago. When my husband Clyde left me for that no-count hussy up on Farish Street, one they call Cocoa, I figured I better shut the door for good on that kind a business. A cat get to screeching outside and bring me back to my cold kitchen. I turn the radio off and the light back on, fish my prayer book out my purse. My prayer book is just a blue notepad I pick up at the Ben Franklin store. I use a pencil so I can erase till I get it right. I been writing my prayers since I was in junior high. When I tell my seventh-grade teacher I ain’t coming back to school cause I got to help out my mama, Miss Ross just about cried. “You’re the smartest one in the class, Aibileen,” she say. “And the only way you’re going to keep sharp is to read and write every day.” So I started writing my prayers down instead a saying em. But nobody’s called me smart since. I turn the pages a my prayer book to see who I got tonight. A few times this week, I thought about maybe putting Miss Skeeter on my list. I’m not real sure why. She always nice when she come over. It makes me nervous, but I can’t help but wonder what she was gone ask me in Miss Leefolt’s kitchen, about do I want to change things. Not to mention her asking me the whereabouts a Constantine, her maid growing up. I know what happen between Constantine and Miss Skeeter’s mama and ain’t no way I’m on tell her that story. The thing is though, if I start praying for Miss Skeeter, I know that conversation gone continue the next time I see her. And the next and the next. Cause that’s the way prayer do. It’s like electricity, it keeps things going. And the bathroom situation, it just ain’t something I really want to discuss.
I scan down my prayer list. My Mae Mobley got the number one rung, then they’s Fanny Lou at church, ailing from the rheumatism. My sisters Inez and Mable in Port Gibson that got eighteen kids between em and six with the flu. When the list be thin, I slip in that old stinky white fella that live behind the feed store, the one lost his mind from drinking the shoe polish. But the list be pretty full tonight. And look a there who else I done put on this list. Bertrina Bessemer a all people! Everbody know Bertrina and me don’t take to each other ever since she call me a nigga fool for marrying Clyde umpteen years ago. “Minny,” I say last Sunday, “why Bertrina ask me to pray for her?” We walking home from the one o’clock service. Minny say, “Rumor is you got some kind a power prayer, gets better results than just the regular variety.” “Say what?” “Eudora Green, when she broke her hip, went on your list, up walking in a week. Isaiah fell off the cotton truck, on your prayer list that night, back to work the next day.” Hearing this made me think about how I didn’t even get the chance to pray for Treelore. Maybe that’s why God took him so fast. He didn’t want a have to argue with me. “Snuff Washington,” Minny say, “Lolly Jackson–heck, Lolly go on your list and two days later she pop up from her wheelchair like she touched Jesus. Everbody in Hinds County know about that one.” “But that ain’t me,” I say. “That’s just prayer.” “But Bertrina–” Minny get to laughing, say, “You know Cocoa, the one Clyde run off with?” “Phhh. You know I never forget her.” “Week after Clyde left you, I heard that Cocoa wake up to her cootchie spoilt like a rotten oyster. Didn’t get better for three months. Bertrina, she good friends with Cocoa. She know your prayer works.” My mouth drop open. Why she never tell me this before? “You saying people think I got the black magic?” “I knew it make you worry if I told you. They just think you got a better connection than most. We all on a party line to God, but you, you setting right in his ear.” My teapot start fussing on the stove, bringing me back to real life. Law, I reckon I just go ahead and put Miss Skeeter on the list, but how come, I don’t know. Which reminds me a what I don’t want a think about, that Miss Leefolt’s building me a bathroom cause she think I’m diseased. And Miss Skeeter asking don’t I want to change things, like changing Jackson, Mississippi, gone be like changing a lightbulb.
I’m STRINGING BEANS in Miss Leefolt’s kitchen and the phone rings. I’m hoping it’s Minny to say she found something. I done called everbody I ever waited on and they all told me the same thing: “We ain’t hiring.” But what they really mean is: “We ain’t hiring Minny.” Even though Minny already had her last day a work three days ago, Miss Walter call Minny in secret last night, ask her to come in today cause the house feel too empty, what with most the furniture already taken away by Miss Hilly. I still don’t know what happen with Minny and Miss Hilly. I reckon I don’t really want to know. “Leefolt residence.” “Um, hi. This is . . .” The lady stop, clear her throat. “Hello. May I . . . may I please speak to Elizabeth Leer-folt?” “Miss Leefolt ain’t home right now. May I take a message?” “Oh,” she say, like she got all excited over nothing. “May I ask who calling?” “This is . . . Celia Foote. My husband gave me this number here and I don’t know Elizabeth, but . . . well, he said she knows all about the Children’s Benefit and the Ladies League.” I know this name, but I can’t quite place it. This woman talk like she from so deep in the country she got corn growing in her shoes. Her voice is sweet though, high-pitch. Still, she don’t sound like the ladies round here do. “I give her your message,” I say. “What’s your number?” “I’m kind of new here and, well, that’s not true, I’ve been here a pretty good stretch, gosh, over a year now. I just don’t really know anybody. I don’t . . . get out too much.” She clear her throat again and I’m wondering why she telling me all this. I’m the maid, she ain’t gone win no friends talking to me. “I was thinking maybe I could help out with the Children’s Benefit from home,” she say. I remember then who she is. She the one Miss Hilly and Miss Leefolt always talking trash on cause she marry Miss Hilly’s old boyfriend. “I give her the message. What you say your number is again?” “Oh, but I’m fixing to scoot off to the grocery store. Oh, maybe I should sit and wait.”
“She don’t reach you, she leave a message with your help.” “I don’t have any help. In fact, I was planning on asking her about that too, if she could pass along the name of somebody good.” “You looking for help?” “I’m in a stitch trying to find somebody to come all the way out to Madison County.” Well, what do you know. “I know somebody real good. She known for her cooking and she look after you kids too. She even got her own car to drive out to you house.” “Oh, well . . . I’d still like to talk to Elizabeth about it. Did I already tell you my number?” “No ma’am,” I sigh. “Go head.” Miss Leefolt never gone recommend Minny, not with all a Miss Hilly’s lies. She say, “It’s Missus Johnny Foote and it’s Emerson two-sixty-six-oh-nine.” Just in case I say, “And her name is Minny, she at Lakewood eight-four-four-three-two. You got that?” Baby Girl tug on my dress, say, “Tum-my hurt,” and she rubbing her belly. I get an idea. I say, “Hold on, what’s that Miss Leefolt? Uh-huh, I tell her.” I put the phone back to my mouth and say, “Miss Celia, Miss Leefolt just walk in and she say she ain’t feeling good but for you to go on and call Minny. She say she call you if she be needing help with the Benefit.” “Oh! Tell her I said thank you. And I sure do hope she gets to feeling better. And to call me up anytime.” “That’s Minny Jackson at Lakewood eight-four-four-three-two. Hang on, what’s that?” I get a cookie and give it to Mae Mobley, feel nothing but delight at the devil in me. I am lying and I don’t even care. I tell Miss Celia Foote, “She say don’t tell nobody bout her tip on Minny, cause all her friends want a hire her and they be real upset if they find out she give her to somebody else.” “I won’t tell her secret if she won’t tell mine. I don’t want my husband to know I’m hiring a maid.” Well, if that ain’t perfect then I don’t know what is. Soon as we hang up, I dial Minny quick as I can. But just as I do, Miss Leefolt walk in the door. This a real predicament, see. I gave this Miss Celia woman Minny’s number at home, but Minny working today cause Miss Walter lonely. So when she call, Leroy gone give her Miss Walter number cause he a fool. If Miss Walter answer the phone when Miss Celia call, then the whole jig is up. Miss Walter gone tell this woman everthing Miss Hilly been spreading around. I got to get to Minny or Leroy before all this happen.
Miss Leefolt head back to her bedroom and, just like I figured, the first thing she do is tie up the phone. First she call Miss Hilly. Then she call the hairdresser. Then she call the store about a wedding present, talking, talking, talking. Soon as she hang up, she come out and ask what they having for supper this week. I pull out the notebook and go down the list. No, she don’t want pork chops. She trying to get her husband to reduce. She want skillet steak and green salad. And how many calories do I spec them meringue thingies have? And don’t give no more cookies to Mae Mobley cause she too fat and–and–and– Law! For a woman who ain’t said nothing to me but do this and use that bathroom, all a sudden she talking to me like I’m her best friend. Mae Mobley’s dancing a hot-foot jig trying to get her mama to notice her. And just when Miss Leefolt about to bend down to pay her some attention, whoops! Miss Leefolt run out the door cause she forgot she got a errand to run and a blooming hour done passed already. I can’t make my fingers go round that dial fast enough. “Minny! I got a job lined up. But you got to get to the phone–” “She already call.” Minny’s voice is flat. “Leroy give her the number.” “So Miss Walter answer it,” I say. “Deaf as doo-doo and all a sudden it’s like a miracle from God, she hear the phone ringing. I’m going in and out a the kitchen, not paying attention, but at the end I hear my name. Then Leroy call and I know that’s what it was.” Minny sound wore out, and she the kind that don’t ever get tired. “Well. Maybe Miss Walter didn’t tell her them lies Miss Hilly started. You never know.” But even I ain’t fool enough to believe this. “Even if she didn’t, Miss Walters know all about how I got back at Miss Hilly. You don’t know about the Terrible Awful Thing I did. I don’t ever want you to know. I’m sure Miss Walters tell this woman I’m nothing short a the devil hisself.” Her voice sound eerie. Like she a record player going too slow. “I’m sorry. I wish I could a called you earlier so you could pick up that phone.” “You done what you can. Nothing nobody can do for me now.” “I be praying for you.” “Thank you,” she say, and then her voice break down. “And I thank you for trying to help me.” We hang up and I go to mopping. The sound a Minny’s voice scare me. She always been a strong woman, always fighting. After Treelore died, she carry supper over to me ever night for three months straight. And ever day she say, “Nuh-uh, you ain’t leaving me on this sorry earth without you,” but I tell you, I was sure enough thinking about it. I already had the rope tied when Minny found it. The coil was Treelore’s, from back when he doing
a science project with pulleys and rings. I don’t know if I’s gone use it, knowing it’s a sin against God, but I wasn’t in my right mind. Minny, though, she don’t ask no questions about it, just pull it out from under the bed, put it in the can, take it to the street. When she come back in, she brush her hands together like she cleaning things up as usual. She all business, that Minny. But now, she sound bad. I got a mind to check under her bed tonight. I put down the bucket a Sunshine cleaner them ladies is always smiling about on the tee-vee. I got to set down. Mae Mobley come up holding her tummy, say, “Make it not hurt.” She lay her face on my leg. I smooth her hair down over and over till she practically purring, feeling the love in my hand. And I think about all my friends, what they done for me. What they do ever day for the white women they waiting on. That pain in Minny’s voice. Treelore dead in the ground. I look down at Baby Girl, who I know, deep down, I can’t keep from turning out like her mama. And all of it together roll on top a me. I close my eyes, say the Lord’s prayer to myself. But it don’t make me feel any better. Law help me, but something’s gone have to be done. BABY Girl Hug On MY LEGS all afternoon to where I bout fall over a few times. I don’t mind. Miss Leefolt ain’t said nothing to me or Mae Mobley since this morning. Been working so busy on that sewing machine in her bedroom. Trying to cover up something else she don’t like the look of in the house. After while me and Mae Mobley go in the regular living room. I got a load a Mister Leefolt’s shirts to iron and after this I’m on get a pot roast going. I cleaned the bathrooms already, got the sheets changed, the rugs vacuumed. I always try to finish up early so me and Baby Girl can set together and play. Miss Leefolt come in and watch me ironing. She do that sometimes. Frown and look. Then she smile real quick when I glance up. Pat up the back a her hair, trying to make it puffy. “Aibileen, I have a surprise for you.” She smiling big now. She don’t have no teeth showing, just a lip smile, kind you got to watch. “Mister Leefolt and I have decided to build you your very own bathroom.” She clap her hands together, drop her chin at me. “It’s right out there in the garage.” “Yes ma’am.” Where she think I been all this time? “So, from now on, instead of using the guest bathroom, you can use your own right out there. Won’t that be nice?” “Yes ma’am.” I keep ironing. Tee-vee’s on and my program’s fixing to start. She keep standing there
looking at me though. “So you’ll use that one out in the garage now, you understand?” I don’t look at her. I’m not trying to make no trouble, but she done made her point. “Don’t you want to get some tissue and go on out there and use it?” “Miss Leefolt, I don’t really have to go right this second.” Mae Mobley point at me from the playpen, say, “Mae Mo juice?” “I get you some juice, baby,” I say. “Oh.” Miss Leefolt lick her lips a few times. “But when you do, you’ll go on back there and use that one now, I mean… only that one, right?” Miss Leefolt wear a lot a makeup, creamy-looking stuff, thick. That yellowish makeup’s spread across her lips too, so you can barely tell she even got a mouth. I say what I know she want to hear: “I use my colored bathroom from now on. And then I go on and Clorox the white bathroom again real good.” “Well, there’s no hurry. Anytime today would be fine.” But by the way she standing there fiddling with her wedding ring, she really mean for me to do it right now. I put the iron down real slow, feel that bitter seed grow in my chest, the one planted after Treelore died. My face goes hot, my tongue twitchy. I don’t know what to say to her. All I know is, I ain’t saying it. And I know she ain’t saying what she want a say either and it’s a strange thing happening here cause nobody saying nothing and we still managing to have us a conversation.
STANDING On that white lady’s back porch, I tell myself, Tuck it in, Minny. Tuck in whatever might fly out my mouth and tuck in my behind too. Look like a maid who does what she’s told. Truth is, I’m so nervous right now, I’d never backtalk again if it meant I’d get this job. I yank my hose up from sagging around my feet–the trouble of all fat, short women around the world. Then I rehearse what to say, what to keep to myself. I go ahead and punch the bell. The doorbell rings a long bing-bong, fine and fancy for this big mansion out in the country. It looks like a castle, gray brick rising high in the sky and left and right too. Woods surround the lawn on every side. If this place was in a story book, there’d be witches in those woods. The kind that eat kids. The back door opens and there stands Miss Marilyn Monroe. Or something kin to her. “Hey there, you’re right on time. I’m Celia. Celia Rae Foote.” The white lady sticks her hand out to me and I study her. She might be built like Marilyn, but she ain’t ready for no screen test. She’s got flour in her yellow hairdo. Flour in her glue-on eyelashes. And flour all over that tacky pink pantsuit. Her standing in a cloud of dust and that pantsuit being so tight, I wonder how she can breathe. “Yes ma’am. I’m Minny Jackson.” I smooth down my white uniform instead of shaking her hand. I don’t want that mess on me. “You cooking something?” “One of those upsidedown cakes from the magazine?” She sighs. “It ain’t working out too good.” I follow her inside and that’s when I see Miss Celia Rae Foote’s suffered only a minor injury in the flour fiasco. The rest of the kitchen took the real hit. The countertops, the double-door refrigerator, the Kitchen-Aid mixer are all sitting in about a quarter-inch of snow flour. It’s enough mess to drive me crazy. I ain’t even got the job yet, and I’m already looking over at the sink for a sponge. Miss Celia says, “I guess I have some learning to do.” “You sure do,” I say. But I bite down hard on my tongue. Don’t you go sassing this white lady like you done the other. Sassed her all the way to the nursing home. But Miss Celia, she just smiles, washes the muck off her hands in a sink full of dishes. I wonder if maybe I’ve found myself another deaf one, like Miss Walters was. Let’s hope so. “I just can’t seem to get the hang of kitchen work,” she says and even with Marilyn’s whispery Hollywood voice, I can tell right off, she’s from way out in the country. I look down and see the fool doesn’t have any shoes on, like some kind of white trash. Nice white ladies don’t go around barefoot. She’s probably ten or fifteen years younger than me, twenty-two, twenty-three, and she’s real pretty, but why’s she wearing all that goo on her face? I’ll bet she’s got on double the makeup the other white ladies wear. She’s got a lot more bosom to her, too. In fact, she’s almost as big as me except
she’s skinny in all those places I ain’t. I just hope she’s an eater. Because I’m a cooker and that’s why people hire me. “Can I get you a cold drink?” she asks. “Set down and I’ll bring you something.” And that’s my clue: something funny’s going on here. “Leroy, she got to be crazy,” I said when she called me up three days ago and asked if I’d come interview, “cause everbody in town think I stole Miss Walters’ silver. And I know she do too cause she call Miss Walters up on the phone when I was there.” “White people strange,” Leroy said. “Who knows, maybe that old woman give you a good word.” I look at Miss Celia Rae Foote hard. I’ve never in my life had a white woman tell me to sit down so she can serve me a cold drink. Shoot, now I’m wondering if this fool even plans on hiring a maid or if she just drug me all the way out here for sport. “Maybe we better go on and see the house first, ma’am.” She smiles like the thought never entered that hairsprayed head of hers, letting me see the house I might be cleaning. “Oh, of course. Come on in yonder, Maxie. I’ll show you the fancy dining room first.” “The name,” I say, “is Minny.” Maybe she’s not deaf or crazy. Maybe she’s just stupid. A shiny hope rises up in me again. All over that big ole doodied up house she walks and talks and I follow. There are ten rooms downstairs and one with a stuffed grizzly bear that looks like it ate up the last maid and is biding for the next one. A burned-up Confederate flag is framed on the wall, and on the table is an old silver pistol with the name “Confederate General John Foote” engraved on it. I bet Great-Grandaddy Foote scared some slaves with that thing. We move on and it starts to look like any nice white house. Except this one’s the biggest I’ve ever been in and full of dirty floors and dusty rugs, the kind folks who don’t know any better would say is worn out, but I know an antique when I see one. I’ve worked in some fine homes. I just hope she ain’t so country she don’t own a Hoover. “Johnny’s mama wouldn’t let me decorate a thing. I had my way, there’d be wall-to-wall white carpet and gold trim and none of this old stuff.” “Where your people from?” I ask her. “I’m from . . . Sugar Ditch.” Her voice drops down a little. Sugar Ditch is as low as you can go in Mississippi, maybe the whole United States. It’s up in Tunica County, almost to Memphis. I saw pictures in the paper one time, showing those tenant shacks. Even the white kids looked like they hadn’t had a meal for a week.
Miss Celia tries to smile, says, “This is my first time hiring a maid.” “Well you sure need one.” Now, Minny– “I was real glad to get the recommendation from Missus Walters. She told me all about you. Said your cooking is the best in town.” That makes zero sense to me. After what I did to Miss Hilly, right in front of Miss Walters to see? “She say… anything else about me?” But Miss Celia’s already walking up a big curving staircase. I follow her upstairs, to a long hall with sun coming through the windows. Even though there are two yellow bedrooms for girls and a blue one and a green one for boys, it’s clear there aren’t any children living here. Just dust. “We’ve got five bedrooms and five bathrooms over here in the main house.” She points out the window and I see a big blue swimming pool, and behind that, another house. My heart thumps hard. “And then there’s the poolhouse out yonder,” she sighs. I’d take any job I can get at this point, but a big house like this should pay plenty. And I don’t mind being busy. I ain’t afraid to work. “When you gone have you some chilluns, start filling up all these beds?” I try to smile, look friendly. “Oh, we’re gonna have some kids.” She clears her throat, fidgets. “I mean, kids is the only thing worth living for.” She looks down at her feet. A second passes before she heads back to the stairs. I follow behind, noticing how she holds the stair rail tight on the way down, like she’s afraid she might fall. It’s back in the dining room that Miss Celia starts shaking her head. “It’s an awful lot to do,” she says. “All the bedrooms and the floors . . .” “Yes ma’am, it’s big,” I say, thinking if she saw my house with a cot in the hall and one toilet for six behinds, she’d probably run. “But I got lots a energy.” “. . . and then there’s all this silver to clean.” She opens up a silver closet the size of my living room. She fixes a candle that’s turned funny on the candelabra and I can see why she’s looking so doubtful. After the town got word of Miss Hilly’s lies, three ladies in a row hung up on me the minute I said my name. I ready myself for the blow. Say it, lady. Say what you thinking about me and your silver. I feel like crying thinking about how this job would suit me fine and what Miss Hilly’s done to keep me from getting it. I fix my eyes on the window, hoping and praying this isn’t where the interview ends. “I know, those windows are awful high. I never tried to clean them before.” I let my breath go. Windows are a heck of a lot better subject for me than silver. “I ain’t afraid a no
windows. I clean Miss Walters’ top to bottom ever four weeks.” “Did she have just the one floor or a double decker?” “Well, one . . . but they’s a lot to it. Old houses got a lot a nooks and crannies, you know.” Finally, we go back in the kitchen. We both stare down at the breakfast table, but neither one of us sits. I’m getting so jittery wondering what she’s thinking, my head starts to sweat. “You got a big, pretty house,” I say. “All the way out here in the country. Lot a work to be done.” She starts fiddling with her wedding ring. “I guess Missus Walters’ was a lot easier than this would be. I mean, it’s just us now, but when we get to having kids . . .” “You, uh, got some other maids you considering?” She sighs. “A bunch have come out here. I just haven’t found… the right one yet.” She bites on her fingernails, shifts her eyes away. I wait for her to say I’m not the right one either, but we just stand there breathing in that flour. Finally, I play my last card, whisper it because it’s all I got left. “You know, I only left Miss Walters cause she going up to the rest home. She didn’t fire me.” But she just stares down at her bare feet, black-soled because her floors haven’t been scrubbed since she moved in this big old dirty house. And it’s clear, this lady doesn’t want me. “Well,” she says, “I appreciate you driving all this way. Can I at least give you some money for the gas?” I pick up my pocketbook and thrust it up under my armpit. She gives me a cheery smile I could wipe off with one swat. Damn that Hilly Holbrook. “No ma’am, no, you cannot.” “I knew it was gonna be a chore finding someone, but . . .” I stand there listening to her acting all sorry but I just think, Get it over with, lady, so I can tell Leroy we got to move all the way to the North Pole next to Santy Claus where nobody’s heard Hilly’s lies about me. “. . . and if I were you I wouldn’t want to clean this big house either.” I look at her square on. Now that’s just excusing herself a little too much, pretending Minny ain’t getting the job cause Minny don’t want the job. “When you hear me say I don’t want a clean this house?” “It’s alright, five maids have already told me it’s too much work.”
I look down at my hundred-and-sixty-five-pound, five-foot-zero self practically busting out of my uniform. “Too much for me?” She blinks at me a second. “You . . . you’ll do it?” “Why you think I drove all the way out here to kingdom come, just to burn gas?” I clamp my mouth shut. Don’t go ruirning this now, she offering you a jay-o-bee. “Miss Celia, I be happy to work for you.” She laughs and the crazy woman goes to hug me, but I step back a little, let her know that’s not the kind of thing I do. “Hang on now, we got to talk about some things first. You got to tell me what days you want me here and… and that kind a thing.” Like how much you paying. “I guess . . . whenever you feel like coming,” she says. “For Miss Walters I work Sunday through Friday.” Miss Celia chews some more on her pink pinky-nail. “You can’t come here on weekends.” “Alright.” I need the days, but maybe later on she’ll let me do some party serving or whatnot. “Monday through Friday then. Now, what time you want me here in the morning?” “What time do you want to come in?” I’ve never had this choice before. I feel my eyes narrow up. “How bout eight. That’s when Miss Walters used to get me in.” “Alright, eight’s real good.” Then she stands there like she’s waiting for my next checker move. “Now you supposed to tell me what time I got to leave.” “What time?” asks Celia. I roll my eyes at her. “Miss Celia, you supposed to tell me that. That’s the way it works.” She swallows, like she’s trying real hard to get this down. I just want to get through this before she changes her mind about me. “How bout four o’clock?” I say. “I work eight to four and I gets some time for lunch or what-have- you.” “That’s just fine.” “Now . . . we got to talk bout pay,” I say and my toes start wriggling in my shoes. It must not be much if five maids already said no. Neither one of us says anything.
“Now come on, Miss Celia. What your husband say you can pay?” She looks off at the Veg-O-Matic I bet she can’t even use and says, “Johnny doesn’t know.” “Alright then. Ask him tonight what he wants to pay.” “No, Johnny doesn’t know I’m bringing in help.” My chin drops down to my chest. “What you mean he don’t know?” “I am not telling Johnny.” Her blue eyes are big, like she’s scared to death of him. “And what’s Mister Johnny gone do if he come home and find a colored woman up in his kitchen?” “I’m sorry, I just can’t–” “I’ll tell you what he’s gone do, he’s gone get that pistol and shoot Minny dead right here on this no- wax floor.” Miss Celia shakes her head. “I’m not telling him.” “Then I got to go,” I say. Shit. I knew it. I knew she was crazy when I walked in the door– “It’s not that I’d be fibbing to him. I just need a maid–” “A course you need a maid. Last one done got shot in the head.” “He never comes home during the day. Just do the heavy cleaning and teach me how to fix supper and it’ll only take a few months–” My nose prickles from something burning. I see a waft of smoke coming from the oven. “And then what, you gone fire me after them few months?” “Then I’ll . . . tell him,” she say but she’s frowning at the thought. “Please, I want him to think I can do it on my own. I want him to think I’m . . . worth the trouble.” “Miss Celia . . .” I shake my head, not believing I’m already arguing with this lady and I haven’t worked here two minutes. “I think you done burned up your cake.” She grabs a rag and rushes to the oven and jerks the cake out. “Oww! Dawgon it!” I set my pocketbook down, sidle her out of the way. “You can’t use no wet towel on a hot pan.” I grab a dry rag and take that black cake out the door, set it down on the concrete step. Miss Celia stares down at her burned hand. “Missus Walters said you were a real good cook.” “That old woman eat two butterbeans and say she full. I couldn’t get her to eat nothing.” “How much was she paying you?”
“Dollar an hour,” I say, feeling kind of ashamed. Five years and not even minimum wage. “Then I’ll pay you two.” And I feel all the breath slip out of me. “When Mister Johnny get out the house in the morning?” I ask, cleaning up the butterstick melting right on the counter, not even a plate under it. “Six. He can’t stand to do-dad around here very long. Then he heads back from his real estate office about five.” I do some figuring and even with the fewer hours it’d be more pay. But I can’t get paid if I get shot dead. “I’ll leave at three then. Give myself two hours coming and going so I can stay out a his way.” “Good.” She nods. “It’s best to be safe.” On the back step, Miss Celia dumps the cake in a paper sack. “I’ll have to bury this in the waste bin so he won’t know I’ve burned up another one.” I take the bag out of her hands. “Mister Johnny ain’t seeing nothing. I’ll throw it out at my house.” “Oh, thank you.” Miss Celia shakes her head like that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for her. She holds her hands in tight little fists under her chin. I walk out to my car. I sit in the sagging seat of the Ford Leroy’s still paying his boss twelve dollars every week for. Relief hits me. I have finally gotten myself a job. I don’t have to move to the North Pole. Won’t Santy Claus be disappointed. “SIT DOWN On YOUR BEHIND, Minny, because I’m about to tell you the rules for working in a White Lady’s house.” I was fourteen years old to the day. I sat at the little wooden table in my mama’s kitchen eyeing that caramel cake on the cooling rack, waiting to be iced. Birthdays were the only day of the year I was allowed to eat as much as I wanted. I was about to quit school and start my first real job. Mama wanted me to stay on and go to ninth grade–she’d always wanted to be a schoolteacher instead of working in Miss Woodra’s house. But with my sister’s heart problem and my no-good drunk daddy, it was up to me and Mama. I already knew about housework. After school, I did most of the cooking and the cleaning. But if I was going off to work in somebody else’s house, who’d be looking after ours? Mama turned me by the shoulders so I’d look at her instead of the cake. Mama was a crack-whip.
She was proper. She took nothing from nobody. She shook her finger so close to my face, it made me cross-eyed. “Rule Number One for working for a white lady, Minny: it is nobody’s business. You keep your nose out of your White Lady’s problems, you don’t go crying to her with yours–you can’t pay the light bill? Your feet are too sore? Remember one thing: white people are not your friends. They don’t want to hear about it. And when Miss White Lady catches her man with the lady next door, you keep out of it, you hear me? “Rule Number Two: don’t you ever let that White Lady find you sitting on her toilet. I don’t care if you’ve got to go so bad it’s coming out of your hairbraids. If there’s not one out back for the help, you find yourself a time when she’s not there in a bathroom she doesn’t use. “Rule Number Three–” Mama jerked my chin back around to face her because that cake had lured me in again. “Rule Number Three: when you’re cooking white people’s food, you taste it with a different spoon. You put that spoon to your mouth, think nobody’s looking, put it back in the pot, might as well throw it out. “Rule Number Four: You use the same cup, same fork, same plate every day. Keep it in a separate cupboard and tell that white woman that’s the one you’ll use from here on out. “Rule Number Five: you eat in the kitchen. “Rule Number Six: you don’t hit on her children. White people like to do their own spanking.” “Rule Number Seven: this is the last one, Minny. Are you listening to me? No sass-mouthing.” “Mama, I know how–” “Oh, I hear you when you think I can’t, muttering about having to clean the stovepipe, about the last little piece of chicken left for poor Minny. You sass a white woman in the morning, you’ll be sassing out on the street in the afternoon.” I saw the way my mama acted when Miss Woodra brought her home, all Yes Ma’aming, No Ma’aming, I sure do thank you Ma’aming. Why I got to be like that? I know how to stand up to people. “Now come here and give your mama a hug on your birthday–Lord, you are heavy as a house, Minny.” “I ain’t eaten all day, when can I have my cake?” “Don’t say ain’t, you speak properly now. I didn’t raise you to talk like a mule.” First day at my White Lady’s house, I ate my ham sandwich in the kitchen, put my plate up in my spot in the cupboard. When that little brat stole my pocketbook and hid it in the oven, I didn’t whoop her on the behind. But when the White Lady said: “Now I want you to be sure and handwash all the clothes first, then
put them in the electric machine to finish up.” I said: “Why I got to handwash when the power washer gone do the job? That’s the biggest waste a time I ever heard of.” That White Lady smiled at me, and five minutes later, I was out on the street. WORKING FOR Miss CELIA, I’ll get to see my kids off to Spann Elementary in the morning and still get home in the evening with time to myself. I haven’t had a nap since Kindra was born in 1957, but with these hours–eight to three–I could have one every day if that was my idea of a fine time. Since no bus goes all the way out to Miss Celia’s, I have to take Leroy’s car. “You ain’t taking my car every day, woman, what if I get the day shift and need to–” “She paying me seventy dollars cash every Friday, Leroy.” “Maybe I take Sugar’s bike.” On Tuesday, the day after the interview, I park the car down the street from Miss Celia’s house, around a curve so you can’t see it. I walk fast on the empty road and up the drive. No other cars come by. “I’m here, Miss Celia.” I stick my head in her bedroom that first morning and there she is, propped up on the covers with her makeup perfect and her tight Friday-night clothes on even though it’s Tuesday, reading the trash in the Hollywood Digest like it’s the Holy B. “Good morning, Minny! It’s real good to see you,” she says, and I bristle, hearing a white lady being so friendly. I look around the bedroom, sizing up the job. It’s big, with cream-colored carpet, a yellow king canopy bed, two fat yellow chairs. And it’s neat, with no clothes on the floor. The spread’s made up underneath her. The blanket on the chair’s folded nice. But I watch, I look. I can feel it. Something’s wrong. “When can we get to our first cooking lesson?” she asks. “Can we start today?” “I reckon in a few days, after you go to the store and pick up what we need.” She thinks about this a second, says, “Maybe you ought to go, Minny, since you know what to buy and all.” I look at her. Most white women like to do their own shopping. “Alright, I go in the morning, then.” I spot a small pink shag rug she’s put on top of the carpet next to the bathroom door. Kind of catty-
cornered. I’m no decorator, but I know a pink rug doesn’t match a yellow room. “Miss Celia, fore I get going here, I need to know. Exactly when you planning on telling Mister Johnny bout me?” She eyes the magazine in her lap. “In a few months, I reckon. I ought to know how to cook and stuff by then.” “By a few, is you meaning two?” She bites her lipsticky lips. “I was thinking more like . . . four.” Say what? I’m not working four months like an escaped criminal. “You ain’t gone tell him till 1963? No ma’am, before Christmas.” She sighs. “Alright. But right before.” I do some figuring. “That’s a hundred and . . . sixteen days then. You gone tell him. A hundred and sixteen days from now.” She gives me a worried frown. I guess she didn’t expect the maid to be so good at math. Finally she says, “Okay.” Then I tell her she needs to go on in the living room, let me do my work in here. When she’s gone, I eyeball the room, at how neat it all looks. Real slow, I open her closet and just like I thought, forty- five things fall down on my head. Then I look under the bed and find enough dirty clothes to where I bet she’s hasn’t washed in months. Every drawer is a wreck, every hidden cranny full of dirty clothes and wadded-up stockings. I find fifteen boxes of new shirts for Mister Johnny so he won’t know she can’t wash and iron. Finally, I lift up that funny-looking pink shag rug. Underneath, there’s a big, deep stain the color of rust. I shudder. THAT AFTERNOON, Miss Celia and I make a list of what to cook that week, and the next morning I do the grocery shopping. But it takes me twice as long because I have to drive all the way to the white Jitney Jungle in town instead of the colored Piggly Wiggly by me since I figure she won’t eat food from a colored grocery store and I reckon I don’t blame her, with the potatoes having inch- long eyes and the milk almost sour. When I get to work, I’m ready to fight with her over all the reasons I’m late, but there Miss Celia is on the bed like before, smiling like it doesn’t matter. All dressed up and going nowhere. For five hours she sits there, reading the magazines. The only time I see her get up is for a glass of milk or to pee. But I don’t ask. I’m just the maid. After I clean the kitchen, I go in the formal living room. I stop in the doorway and give that grizzly bear a good long stare. He’s seven feet tall and baring his teeth. His claws are long, curled, witchy-
looking. At his feet lays a bone-handled hunting knife. I get closer and see his fur’s nappy with dust. There’s a cobweb between his jaws. First, I swat at the dust with my broom, but it’s thick, matted up in his fur. All this does is move the dust around. So I take a cloth and try and wipe him down, but I squawk every time that wiry hair touches my hand. White people. I mean, I have cleaned everything from refrigerators to rear ends but what makes that lady think I know how to clean a damn grizzly bear? I go get the Hoover. I suck the dirt off and except for a few spots where I sucked too hard and thinned him, I think it worked out pretty good. After I’m done with the bear, I dust the fancy books nobody reads, the Confederate coat buttons, the silver pistol. On a table is a gold picture frame of Miss Celia and Mister Johnny at the altar and I look close to see what kind of man he is. I’m hoping he’s fat and short-legged in case it comes to running, but he’s not anywhere close. He’s strong, tall, thick. And he’s no stranger either. Lord. He’s the one who went steady with Miss Hilly all those years when I first worked for Miss Walters. I never met him, but I saw him enough times to be sure. I shiver, my fears tripling. Because that alone says more about that man than anything. AT ONE O’CLOCK, Miss Celia comes in the kitchen and says she’s ready for her first cooking lesson. She settles on a stool. She’s wearing a tight red sweater and a red skirt and enough makeup to scare a hooker. “What you know how to cook already?” I ask. She thinks this over, wrinkling her forehead. “Maybe we could just start at the beginning.” “Must be something you know. What your mama teach you growing up?” She looks down at the webby feet of her panty hose, says, “I can cook corn pone.” I can’t help but laugh. “What else you know how to do sides corn pone?” “I can boil potatoes.” Her voice drops even quieter. “And I can do grits. We didn’t have electric current out where I lived. But I’m ready to learn right. On a real stovetop.” Lord. I’ve never met a white person worse off than me except for crazy Mister Wally, lives behind the Canton feed store and eats the cat food. “You been feeding your husband grits and corn pone ever day?” Miss Celia nods. “But you’ll teach me to cook right, won’t you?” “I’ll try,” I say, even though I’ve never told a white woman what to do and I don’t really know how to
start. I pull up my hose, think about it. Finally, I point to the can on the counter. “I reckon if there’s anything you ought a know about cooking, it’s this.” “That’s just lard, ain’t it?” “No, it ain’t just lard,” I say. “It’s the most important invention in the kitchen since jarred mayonnaise.” “What’s so special about”–she wrinkles her nose at it–“pig fat?” “Ain’t pig, it’s vegetable.” Who in this world doesn’t know what Crisco is? “You don’t have a clue of all the things you can do with this here can.” She shrugs. “Fry?” “Ain’t just for frying. You ever get a sticky something stuck in your hair, like gum?” I jackhammer my finger on the Crisco can. “That’s right, Crisco. Spread this on a baby’s bottom, you won’t even know what diaper rash is.” I plop three scoops in the black skillet. “Shoot, I seen ladies rub it under they eyes and on they husband’s scaly feet.” “Look how pretty it is,” she says. “Like white cake frosting.” “Clean the goo from a price tag, take the squeak out a door hinge. Lights get cut off, stick a wick in it and burn it like a candle.” I turn on the flame and we watch it melt down in the pan. “And after all that, it’ll still fry your chicken.” “Alright,” she says, concentrating hard. “What’s next?” “Chicken’s been soaking in the buttermilk,” I say. “Now mix up the dry.” I pour flour, salt, more salt, pepper, paprika, and a pinch of cayenne into a doubled paper sack. “Now. Put the chicken parts in the bag and shake it.” Miss Celia puts a raw chicken thigh in, bumps the bag around. “Like this? Just like the Shake ‘n Bake commercials on the tee-vee?” “Yeah,” I say and run my tongue up over my teeth because if that’s not an insult, I don’t know what is. “Just like the Shake ‘n Bake.” But then I freeze. I hear the sound of a car motor out on the road. I hold still and listen. I see Miss Celia’s eyes are big and she’s listening too. We’re thinking the same thing: What if it’s him and where will I hide? The car motor passes. We both breathe again. “Miss Celia,” I grit my teeth, “how come you can’t tell your husband about me? Ain’t he gone know when the cooking gets good?” “Oh, I didn’t think of that! Maybe we ought to burn the chicken a little.”
I look at her sideways. I ain’t burning no chicken. She didn’t answer the real question, but I’ll get it out of her soon enough. Real careful, I lay the dark meat in the pan. It bubbles up like a song and we watch the thighs and legs turn brown. I look over and Miss Celia’s smiling at me. “What? Something on my face?” “No,” she says, tears coming up in her eyes. She touches my arm. “I’m just real grateful you’re here.” I move my arm back from under her hand. “Miss Celia, you got a lot more to be grateful for than me.” “I know.” She looks at her fancy kitchen like it’s something that tastes bad. “I never dreamed I’d have this much.” “Well, ain’t you lucky.” “I’ve never been happier in my whole life.” I leave it at that. Underneath all that happy, she sure doesn’t look happy. THAT NIGHT, I call AIBILEEN. “Miss Hilly was at Miss Leefolt’s yesterday,” Aibileen says. “She ask if anybody knew where you was working.” “Lordy, she find me out there, she ruirn it for sure.” It’s been two weeks since the Terrible Awful Thing I did to that woman. I know she’d just love to see me fired on the spot. “What Leroy say when you told him you got the job?” Aibileen asks. “Shoot. He strut around the kitchen like a plumed rooster cause he in front a the kids,” I say. “Act like he the only one supporting the family and I’m just doing this to keep my poor self entertained. Later on though, we in bed and I thought my big old bull for a husband gone cry.” Aibileen laughs. “Leroy got a lot a pride.” “Yeah, I just got to make sure Mister Johnny don’t catch up with me.” “And she ain’t told you why she don’t want him to know?” “All she say is she want him to think she can do the cooking and the cleaning herself. But that ain’t why. She hiding something from him.” “Ain’t it funny how this worked out. Miss Celia can’t tell nobody, else it’ll get back to Mister Johnny. So Miss Hilly won’t find out, cause Miss Celia can’t tell nobody. You couldn’t a fixed it up better yourself.”
“Mm-hmm” is all I say. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, since Aibileen’s the one who got me the job. But I can’t help but think that I’ve just doubled my trouble, what with Miss Hilly and now Mister Johnny too. “Minny, I been meaning to ask you.” Aibileen clears her throat. “You know that Miss Skeeter?” “Tall one, used to come over to Miss Walters for bridge?” “Yeah, what you think about her?” “I don’t know, she white just like the rest of em. Why? What she say about me?” “Nothing about you,” Aibileen says. “She just . . . a few weeks ago, I don’t know why I keep thinking about it. She ask me something. Ask do I want to change things. White woman never asked–” But then Leroy stumbles in from the bedroom wanting his coffee before his late shift. “Shoot, he’s up,” I say. “Talk quick.” “Naw, never mind. It’s nothing,” Aibileen says. “What? What’s going on? What that lady tell you?” “It was just jabber. It was nonsense.”
MY FIRST WEEK at Miss Celia’s, I scrub the house until there isn’t a dust rag or a stripped sheet or even a run panty hose left to wipe with. Second week, I scrub the house again because it’s like the dirt grew back. Third week, I am satisfied and settle in my ways. Every day, Miss Celia looks like she just can’t believe I’ve come back to work. I’m the only thing that interrupts all that quiet around her. My house is always full of five kids and neighbors and a husband. Most days when I come in to Miss Celia’s, I am grateful for the peace. My housekeeping tasks fall on the same day for every job I take: on Monday, I oil up the furniture. Tuesday, I wash and iron the damn sheets, the day I hate. Wednesday is for scrubbing the bathtub real good even though I wipe it down every morning. Thursday is for polishing floors and sucking rugs, minding the antique ones with a hand broom so they don’t thread. Friday is heavy cooking for the weekend and what-have-you. And every day is mopping, washing clothes and ironing shirts so they don’t go getting out of hand, and generally keeping things clean. Silver and windows, they’re as needed. Since there aren’t any kids to look after, there’s ample time left for Miss Celia’s so-called cooking lesson. Miss Celia never does any entertaining, so we just fix whatever she and Mister Johnny are having for supper: pork chops, fried chicken, roast beef, chicken pie, lamb rack, baked ham, fried tomatoes, mashed potatoes, plus the vegetables. Or at least I cook and Miss Celia fidgets, looking more like a five-year-old than the rich lady paying my rent. When the lesson’s over, she rushes back to laying down. In fact, the only time Miss Celia walks ten feet is to come in the kitchen for her lesson or to sneak upstairs every two or three days, up in the creepy rooms. I don’t know what she does for five minutes on the second floor. I don’t like it up there though. Those bedrooms should be stacked full of kids laughing and hollering and pooping up the place. But it’s none of my business what Miss Celia does with her day, and ask me, I’m glad she’s staying out of my way. I’ve followed ladies around with a broom in one hand and a trash can in the other trying to keep up with their mess. As long as she stays in that bed, then I’ve got a job. Even though she has zero kids and nothing to do all day, she is the laziest woman I’ve ever seen. Including my sister Doreena who never lifted a royal finger growing up because she had the heart defect that we later found out was a fly on the X-ray machine. And it’s not just the bed. Miss Celia won’t leave the house except to get her hair frosted and her ends trimmed. So far, that’s only happened once in the three weeks I’ve been working. Thirty-six years old and I can still hear my mama telling me, It ain’t nobody’s business. But I want to know what that lady’s so scared of outside this place. EVERY PAYDAY, I give Miss Celia the count. “Ninety-nine more days till you tell Mister Johnny bout me.”
“Golly, the time’s going by quick,” she’ll say with kind of a sick look. “Cat got on the porch this morning, bout give me a cadillac arrest thinking it was Mister Johnny.” Like me, Miss Celia gets a little more nervous the closer we get to the deadline. I don’t know what that man will do when she tells him. Maybe he’ll tell her to fire me. “I hope that’s enough time, Minny. Do you think I’m getting any better at cooking?” she says, and I look at her. She’s got a pretty smile, white straight teeth, but she is the worst cook I have ever seen. So I back up and teach her the simplest things because I want her to learn and learn it fast. See, I need her to explain to her husband why a hundred-and-sixty-five-pound Negro woman has keys to his house. I need him to know why I have his sterling silver and Miss Celia’s zillion-karat ruby earrings in my hand every day. I need him to know this before he walks in one fine day and calls the police. Or saves a dime and takes care of business himself. “Get the ham hock out, make sure you got enough water in there, that’s right. Now turn up the flame. See that little bubble there, that means the water’s happy.” Miss Celia stares down into the pot like she’s looking for her future. “Are you happy, Minny?” “Why you ask me funny questions like that?” “But are you?” “Course I’s happy. You happy too. Big house, big yard, husband looking after you.” I frown at Miss Celia and I make sure she can see it. Because ain’t that white people for you, wondering if they are happy enough. And when Miss Celia burns the beans, I try and use some of that self-control my mama swore I was born without. “Alright,” I say through my teeth, “we’ll do another batch fore Mister Johnny get home.” Any other woman I’ve worked for, I would’ve loved to have had just one hour of bossing them around, see how they like it. But Miss Celia, the way she stares at me with those big eyes like I’m the best thing since hairspray in the can, I almost rather she’d order me around like she’s supposed to. I start to wonder if her laying down all the time has anything to do with her not telling Mister Johnny about me. I guess she can see the suspicious in my eye too, because one day, out of the blue she says: “I get these nightmares a lot, that I have to go back to Sugar Ditch and live? That’s why I lay down so much.” Then she nods real fast, like she’s been rehearsing this. “Cause I don’t sleep real well at night.” I give her a stupid smile, like I really believe this, and go back to wiping the mirrors. “Don’t do it too good. Leave some smudges.” It’s always something, mirrors, floors, a dirty glass in the sink or the trash can full. “We’ve got to
make it believable,” she’ll say and I find myself reaching for that dirty glass a hundred times to wash it. I like things clean, put away. “I WISH I COULD TEND to that azalea bush out there,” Miss Celia says one day. She’s taken to laying on the couch while my stories are on, interrupting the whole time. I’ve been tuned in to The Guiding Light for twenty-four years, since I was ten years old and listening to it on Mama’s radio. A Dreft commercial comes on and Miss Celia stares out the back window at the colored man raking up the leaves. She’s got so many azalea bushes, her yard’s going to look like Gone With the Wind come spring. I don’t like azaleas and I sure didn’t like that movie, the way they made slavery look like a big happy tea party. If I’d played Mammy, I’d of told Scarlett to stick those green draperies up her white little pooper. Make her own damn man-catching dress. “And I know I could make that rose bush bloom if I pruned it back,” Miss Celia says. “But the first thing I’d do is cut down that mimosa tree.” “What’s wrong with that tree?” I press the corner of my iron into Mister Johnny’s collar-point. I don’t even have a shrub, much less a tree, in my entire yard. “I don’t like those hairy flowers.” She gazes off like she’s gone soft in the head. “They look like little baby hairs.” I get the creepers with her talking that way. “You know about flowers?” She sighs. “I used to love to tend to my flowers back in Sugar Ditch. I learned to grow things hoping I could pretty up all that ugliness.” “Go head outside then,” I say, trying not to sound too excited. “Take some exercise. Get some fresh air.” Get out a here. “No,” Miss Celia sighs. “I shouldn’t be running around out there. I need to be still.” It’s really starting to irritate me how she never leaves the house, how she smiles like the maid walking in every morning is the best part of her day. It’s like an itch. Every day I reach for it and can’t quite scratch it. Every day, it itches a little worse. Every day she’s there. “Maybe you ought to go make some friends,” I say. “Lot a ladies your age in town.” She frowns up at me. “I’ve been trying. I can’t tell you the umpteen times I’ve called those ladies to see if I can help with the Children’s Benefit or do something from home. But they won’t call me back. None of them.” I don’t say anything to this because ain’t that a surprise. With her bosoms hanging out and her hair colored Gold Nugget.
“Go shopping then. Go get you some new clothes. Go do whatever white women do when the maid’s home.” “No, I think I’ll go rest awhile,” she says and two minutes later I hear her creeping around upstairs in the empty bedrooms. The mimosa branch knocks against the window and I jump, burn my thumb. I squeeze my eyes shut to slow my heart. Ninety-four more days of this mess and I don’t know how I can take a minute more. “Mama, fix me something to eat. I’m hungry.” That’s what my youngest girl, Kindra, who’s five, said to me last night. With a hand on her hip and her foot stuck out. I have five kids and I take pride that I taught them yes ma’am and please before they could even say cookie. All except one. “You ain’t having nothing till supper,” I told her. “Why you so mean to me? I hate you,” she yelled and ran out the door. I set my eyes on the ceiling because that’s a shock I will never get used to, even with four before her. The day your child says she hates you, and every child will go through the phase, it kicks like a foot in the stomach. But Kindra, Lord. It’s not just a phase I’m seeing. That girl is turning out just like me. I’m standing in Miss Celia’s kitchen thinking about last night, what with Kindra and her mouth, Benny and his asthma, my husband Leroy coming home drunk two times last week. He knows that’s the one thing I can’t stand after nursing my drunk daddy for ten years, me and Mama working ourselves to death so he had a full bottle. I guess I ought to be more upset about all this, but last night, as an I’m sorry, Leroy came home with a sack of early okra. He knows it’s my favorite thing to eat. Tonight I’m going to fry up that okra in some cornmeal and eat like my mama never let me. That’s not the only treat to my day either. It’s October first and here I am peeling peaches. Mister Johnny’s mama brought back two crates from Mexico, heavy as baseballs. They are ripe and sweet and like cutting through butter. I don’t take charity from white ladies because I know they just want me to owe them. But when Miss Celia told me to take a dozen peaches home I pulled out a sack and plopped twelve right in. When I get home tonight, I’m eating fried okra for supper and peach cobbler for dessert. I’m watching the long, fuzzy peel fold down into Miss Celia’s basin, paying no mind at all to the
driveway. Usually when I’m standing at her kitchen sink, I map out my getaway from Mister Johnny. The kitchen’s the best room for it because the front window looks out to the street. Tall azalea bushes hide my face, but I can see through enough to spot an approacher. If he came in the front door, the back door would escape me into the garage. If he came in the back, I could slip out the front. Another door in the kitchen leads out to the backyard, just in case. But what with the juice running down my hand and me nearabout drunk on the butter smell, I am lost in a peach-peeling reverie. I don’t even notice the blue truck pull in. The man’s made it halfway up the walk by the time I look up. I catch a sliver of a white shirt, the variety of which I’m used to ironing every day, and the leg of a pair of khaki pants like I hang up in Mister Johnny’s closet. I choke on a yelp. My knife clatters in the sink. “Miss Celia!” I dash into her bedroom. “Mister Johnny home!” Miss Celia jumps out of bed faster than I’ve seen her move before. I turn around in an idiot circle. Where am I going? Which way do I go? What happened to my getaway plan? And then I snap into decision–the guest bathroom! I slip in and keep the door cracked. I crouch up on the toilet seat so he can’t see my feet under the door. It’s dark in here and hot. I feel like my head’s on fire. Sweat drips off my chin and splats on the floor. I feel sick by the thick smell of gardenia soaps by the sink. I hear footsteps. I hold my breath. The footsteps stop. My heart is thumping like a cat in a clothes dryer. What if Miss Celia pretends she doesn’t know me so she won’t get in trouble? Acts like I’m a burglar? Oh, I hate her! I hate that stupid woman! I listen, but all I can hear is my own panting. The thud-thud in my chest. My ankles hurt and creak, holding up my body like this. My eyes grow sharper in the dark. After a minute, I see myself in the mirror over the sink. Crouched like a fool on top of a white lady’s toilet. Look at me. Look what it’s come to for Minny Jackson to make a damn living.
I DRIVE MY mama’s Cadillac fast on the gravel road, headed home. Patsy Cline can’t even be heard on the radio anymore, for all the rocks banging the side of the car. Mother would be furious, but I just drive faster. I can’t stop thinking about what Hilly said to me today at bridge club. Hilly and Elizabeth and I have been best friends since Power Elementary. My favorite photograph is of the three of us sitting in the football stands in junior high, all jammed together, shoulder to shoulder. What makes the picture, though, is that the stands are completely empty around us. We sat close because we were close. At Ole Miss, Hilly and I roomed together for two years before she left to get married and I stayed on to graduate. I rolled thirteen curlers in her hair every night at the Chi Omega house. But today, she threatened to throw me out of the League. Not that I care so much about the League, but I was hurt by how easily my friend would be willing to cast me aside. I turn up the lane that leads to Longleaf, my family’s cotton plantation. The gravel quiets to smooth, yellow dust and I slow down before Mother sees how fast I’m driving. I pull up to the house and get out. Mother is rocking on the front porch. “Come sit, darling,” she says, waving me toward a rocking chair beside her. “Pascagoula’s just waxed the floors. Let them dry awhile.” “Alright, Mama.” I kiss her powdery cheek. But I don’t sit. I lean on the porch railing, look out on the three mossy oak trees in the front yard. Even though it’s only five minutes outside of town, most people consider this the country out here. Surrounding our yard lie ten thousand acres of Daddy’s cotton fields, the plants green and strong, tall as my waist. A few colored men sit under a distant shed, staring into the heat. Everyone is waiting for the same thing, for the cotton bolls to open. I think about how things are different between Hilly and me, since I came home from school. But who is the different person, her or me? “Did I tell you?” Mother says. “Fanny Peatrow got engaged.” “Good for Fanny.” “Not even a month after she got that teller job at the Farmer’s Bank.” “That’s great, Mother.” “I know,” she says, and I turn to see one of those lightbulb-popping looks of hers. “Why don’t you go down to the bank and apply for a teller job?” “I don’t want to be a bank teller, Mama.” Mother sighs, narrows her eyes at the spaniel, Shelby, licking his nether parts. I eye the front door, tempted to ruin the clean floors anyway. We’ve had this conversation so many times. “Four years my daughter goes off to college and what does she come home with?” she asks.
“A diploma?” “A pretty piece of paper,” Mother says. “I told you. I didn’t meet anybody I wanted to marry,” I say. Mother rises from her chair, comes close so I’ll look her in her smooth, pretty face. She’s wearing a navy blue dress, narrow along her slim bones. As usual her lipstick is just so, but when she steps into the bright afternoon sun, I see dark stains, deep and dried, on the front of her clothes. I squint my eyes, trying to see if the stains are really there. “Mama? Are you feeling bad?” “If you’d just show a little gumption, Eugenia–” “Your dress is all dirty on the front.” Mother crosses her arms. “Now, I talked to Fanny’s mother and she said Fanny was practically swimming in opportunities once she got that job.” I drop the dress issue. I’ll never be able to tell Mother I want to be a writer. She’ll only turn it into yet another thing that separates me from the married girls. Nor can I tell her about Charles Gray, my math study partner last spring, at Ole Miss. How he’d gotten drunk senior year and kissed me and then squeezed my hand so hard it should’ve hurt but it didn’t, it felt wonderful the way he was holding me and looking into my eyes. And then he married five-foot Jenny Sprig. What I needed to do was find an apartment in town, the kind of building where single, plain girls lived, spinsters, secretaries, teachers. But the one time I had mentioned using money from my trust fund, Mother had cried–real tears. “That is not what that money’s for, Eugenia. To live in some rooming house with strange cooking smells and stockings hanging out the window. And when the money runs out, what then? What will you live on?” Then she’d draped a cold cloth on her head and gone to bed for the day. And now she’s gripping the rail, waiting to see if I’ll do what fat Fanny Peatrow did to save herself. My own mother is looking at me as if I completely baffle her mind with my looks, my height, my hair. To say I have frizzy hair is an understatement. It is kinky, more pubic than cranial, and whitish blond, breaking off easily, like hay. My skin is fair and while some call this creamy, it can look downright deathly when I’m serious, which is all the time. Also, there’s a slight bump of cartilage along the top of my nose. But my eyes are cornflower blue, like Mother’s. I’m told that’s my best feature. “It’s all about putting yourself in a man-meeting situation where you can–” “Mama,” I say, just wanting to end this conversation, “would it really be so terrible if I never met a husband?” Mother clutches her bare arms as if made cold by the thought. “Don’t. Don’t say that, Eugenia. Why, every week I see another man in town over six feet and I think, If Eugenia would just try . . .” She presses her hand to her stomach, the very thought advancing her ulcers. I slip off my flats and walk down the front porch steps, while Mother calls out for me to put my
shoes back on, threatening ringworm, mosquito encephalitis. The inevitability of death by no shoes. Death by no husband. I shudder with the same left-behind feeling I’ve had since I graduated from college, three months ago. I’ve been dropped off in a place I do not belong anymore. Certainly not here with Mother and Daddy, maybe not even with Hilly and Elizabeth. “. . . here you are twenty-three years old and I’d already had Carlton Jr. at your age . . .” Mother says. I stand under the pink crepe myrtle tree, watching Mother on the porch. The day lilies have lost their blooms. It is nearly September. I WAS NOT a cute baby. When I was born, my older brother, Carlton, looked at me and declared to the hospital room, “It’s not a baby, it’s a skeeter!” and from there the name stuck. I was long and leggy and mosquito-thin, a record-breaking twenty-five inches at Baptist Hospital. The name grew even more accurate with my pointy, beak-like nose when I was a child. Mother’s spent my entire life trying to convince people to call me by my given name, Eugenia. Mrs. Charlotte Boudreau Cantrelle Phelan does not like nicknames. By sixteen I wasn’t just not pretty, I was painfully tall. The kind of tall that puts a girl in the back row of class pictures with the boys. The kind of tall where your mother spends her nights taking down hems, yanking at sweater sleeves, flattening your hair for dances you hadn’t been asked to, finally pressing the top of your head as if she could shrink you back to the years when she had to remind you to stand up straight. By the time I was seventeen, Mother would rather I suffered from apoplectic diarrhea than stand up straight. She was five-foot-four and first-runner-up as Miss South Carolina. She decided there was only one thing to do in a case like mine. Mrs. Charlotte Phelan’s Guide to Husband-Hunting, Rule Number One: a pretty, petite girl should accentuate with makeup and good posture. A tall plain one, with a trust fund. I was five-foot-eleven but I had twenty-five thousand cotton dollars in my name and if the beauty in that was not apparent then, by God, he wasn’t smart enough to be in the family anyway.
. . . MY CHILDHOOD BEDROOM is the top floor of my parents’ house. It has white-frosting chair rails and pink cherubs in the molding. It’s papered in mint green rosebuds. It is actually the attic with long, sloping walls, and I cannot stand straight in many places. The box bay window makes the room look round. After Mother berates me about finding a husband every other day, I have to sleep in a wedding cake.
And yet, it is my sanctuary. The heat swells and gathers like a hot-air balloon up here, not exactly welcoming others. The stairs are narrow and difficult for parents to climb. Our previous maid, Constantine, used to stare those forward-sloping stairs down every day, like it was a battle between them. That was the only part I didn’t like about having the top floor of the house, that it separated me from my Constantine. Three days after my conversation with Mother on the porch, I spread out the help-wanted ads from the Jackson Journal on my desk. All morning, Mother’s been following me around with a new hair- straightening thing while Daddy’s been on the front porch growling and goddamning the cotton fields because they’re melting like summer snow. Besides boll weevils, rain is just about the worst thing that can happen at harvest time. It’s hardly September but the fall drenches have already begun. My red pen in hand, I scan the squat, single column under HELP WANTED: FEMALE. Kennington’s Dept. Str. seeks salesgirls w/poise, manners & a smile! Trim, young secretary wanted. Typing not nec. Call Mr. Sanders. Jesus, if he doesn’t want her to type, what does he want her to do? Jr. Stenographer wanted, Percy & Gray, LP, $1.25/hr. This is new. I draw a circle around it. No one could argue that I hadn’t worked hard at Ole Miss. While my friends were out drinking rum and Cokes at Phi Delta Theta parties and pinning on mum corsages, I sat in the study parlor and wrote for hours–mostly term papers but also short stories, bad poetry, episodes of Dr. Kildare, Pall Mall jingles, letters of complaint, ransom notes, love letters to boys I’d seen in class but hadn’t had the nerve to speak to, all of which I never mailed. Sure, I dreamed of having football dates, but my real dream was that one day I would write something that people would actually read. Fourth term of my senior year, I only applied to one job, but it was a good one, being six hundred miles away from Mississippi. Piling twenty-two dimes in the Oxford Mart pay phone, I’d inquired about an editor position at the Harper & Row publishing house on 33rd Street in Manhattan. I’d seen the ad in The New York Times down at the Ole Miss library and mailed them my resume that very day. On a sprig of hope, I even called about an apartment listing on East 85th Street, a one- bedroom with hot plate for forty-five dollars a month. Delta Airlines told me a one-way ticket to Idlewild Airport would cost seventy-three dollars. I didn’t have the sense to apply for more than one job at a time and I never even heard back from them. My eyes drift down to HELP WANTED: MALE. There are at least four columns filled with bank managers, accountants, loan officers, cotton collate operators. On this side of the page, Percy & Gray, LP, is offering Jr. Stenographers fifty cents more an hour. “Miss SKEETER, you got a phone call,” I hear Pascagoula holler at the bottom of the stairs.
I go downstairs to the only phone in the house. Pascagoula holds the phone out to me. She is as tiny as a child, not even five feet tall, and black as night. Her hair is curly around her head and her white uniform dress has been tailored to fit her short arms and legs. “Miss Hilly on the phone for you,” she says, and hands it to me with a wet hand. I sit at the white iron table. The kitchen is large and square and hot. Black-and-white linoleum tiles are cracked in places, worn thin in front of the sink. The new silver dishwashing machine sits in the middle of the room, attached to a hose stretched from the faucet. “He’s coming next weekend,” Hilly says. “On Saturday night. You free?” “Gee, let me check my calendar,” I say. All traces of our bridge-club argument are gone from Hilly’s voice. I’m suspicious but relieved. “I can’t believe this is finally going to happen,” Hilly says, because she’s been trying to set me up for months with her husband’s cousin. She’s intent on it even though he’s much too good-looking for me, not to mention a state senator’s son. “Don’t you think we should… meet first?” I ask. “I mean, before we go out on an actual date?” “Don’t be nervous. William and I will be right next to you the whole time.” I sigh. The date’s been canceled twice already. I can only hope it’ll be put off again. And yet I’m flattered that Hilly has so much faith that someone like him would be interested in someone like me. “Oh, and I need you to come on by and pick up these notes,” Hilly says. “I want my initiative in the next newsletter, a full page next to the photo ops.” I pause. “The bathroom thing?” Even though it was only a few days ago that she’d brought this up at bridge club, I’d hoped it was forgotten. “It’s called the Home Help Sanitation Initiative–William Junior you get down or I will snatch you baldheaded Yule May get in here–and I want it in this week.” I am editor of the League newsletter. But Hilly is president. And she’s trying to tell me what to print. “I’ll see. I don’t know if there’s room,” I lie. From the sink, Pascagoula sneaks a look at me, as if she can hear what Hilly’s saying. I look over at Constantine’s bathroom, now Pascagoula’s. It’s off the kitchen. The door’s half open and I can see a tiny room with a toilet, a pull string flusher at the top, a bulb with a yellowing plastic shade. The small corner sink hardly holds a glass of water. I’ve never once been inside. When we were kids, Mother told us she’d spank us if we went in Constantine’s bathroom. I miss Constantine more than anything I’ve ever missed in my life. “Then make room,” Hilly says, “because this is pretty darn important.”
CONSTANTINE LIVED ABOUT a MILE from our house, in a small Negro neighborhood called Hotstack, named after the tar plant that used to operate back there. The road to Hotstack runs along the north side of our farm, and for as long as I can remember, colored kids have walked and played along that mile stretch, kicking at the red dust, making their way toward the big County Road 49 to catch a ride. I used to walk that hot mile myself, when I was a girl. If I begged and practiced my catechism, Mother would sometimes let me go home with Constantine on Friday afternoons. After twenty minutes of walking slow, we’d pass the colored five-and-dime store, then a grocer with hens laying in back, and all along the way, dozens of shacky-looking roadside houses with tin roofs and slanting porches, along with a yellow one that everybody said sold whiskey from the back door. It was a thrill to be in such a different world and I’d feel a prickly awareness of how good my shoes were, how clean my white pinafore dress that Constantine had ironed for me. The closer we got to Constantine’s house, the more she’d smile. “Hi-do, Carl Bird,” Constantine’d holler at the root-selling man sitting in his rocking chair on the back of his pickup. Bags of sassafras and licorice root and birdeye vine sat open for bargaining, and by the time we poked around those a minute, Constantine’s whole body’d be rambling and loose in the joints. Constantine wasn’t just tall, she was stout. She was also wide in the hips and her knees gave her trouble all the time. At the stump on her corner, she would stick a pinch of Happy Days snuff in her lip and spit juice straight as an arrow. She’d let me look at the black powder in its round tin, but say, “Don’t tell your mama, now.” There were always dogs, hollow-stomached and mangy, laid out in the road. From a porch a young colored woman named Cat-Bite would holler, “Miss Skeeter! Tell your daddy hey for me. Tell him I’s doing fine.” My own daddy gave her that name years ago. Drove by and saw a rabid cat attacking a little colored girl. “That cat near about ate her up,” Daddy’d told me afterward. He’d killed the cat, carried the girl to the doctor, and set her up for the twenty-one days of rabies shots. A little farther on, we’d get to Constantine’s house. It had three rooms and no rugs and I’d look at the single photograph she had, of a white girl she told me she looked after for twenty years over in Port Gibson. I was pretty sure I knew everything about Constantine–she had one sister and grew up on a sharecropping farm in Corinth, Mississippi. Both her parents were dead. She didn’t eat pork as a rule and wore a size sixteen dress and a size ten ladies’ shoe. But I used to stare at the toothy smile of that child in the picture, a little jealous, wondering why she didn’t have a picture of me up too. Sometimes two girls from next door would come over to play with me, named Mary Nell and Mary Roan. They were so black I couldn’t tell them apart and called them both just Mary. “Be nice to the little colored girls when you’re down there,” Mother said to me one time and I remember looking at her funny, saying, “Why wouldn’t I be?” But Mother never explained.
After an hour or so, Daddy would pull up, get out, hand Constantine a dollar. Not once did Constantine invite him inside. Even back then, I understood we were on Constantine’s turf and she didn’t have to be nice to anybody at her own house. Afterward, Daddy would let me go in the colored store for a cold drink and sucking candy. “Don’t tell your mama I gave Constantine a little extra, now.” “Okay, Daddy,” I’d say. That’s about the only secret my daddy and I have ever shared. THE FIRST TIME I was ever called ugly, I was thirteen. It was a rich friend of my brother Carlton’s, over to shoot guns in the field. “Why you crying, girl?” Constantine asked me in the kitchen. I told her what the boy had called me, tears streaming down my face. “Well? Is you?” I blinked, paused my crying. “Is I what?” “Now you look a here, Eugenia”–because Constantine was the only one who’d occasionally follow Mama’s rule. “Ugly live up on the inside. Ugly be a hurtful, mean person. Is you one a them peoples?” “I don’t know. I don’t think so,” I sobbed. Constantine sat down next to me, at the kitchen table. I heard the cracking of her swollen joints. She pressed her thumb hard in the palm of my hand, something we both knew meant Listen. Listen to me. “Ever morning, until you dead in the ground, you gone have to make this decision.” Constantine was so close, I could see the blackness of her gums. “You gone have to ask yourself, Am I gone believe what them fools say about me today? ” She kept her thumb pressed hard in my hand. I nodded that I understood. I was just smart enough to realize she meant white people. And even though I still felt miserable, and knew that I was, most likely, ugly, it was the first time she ever talked to me like I was something besides my mother’s white child. All my life I’d been told what to believe about politics, coloreds, being a girl. But with Constantine’s thumb pressed in my hand, I realized I actually had a choice in what I could believe.
CONSTANTINE CAME TO WORK in our house at six in the morning, and at harvest time, she came at five. That way she could fix Daddy his biscuits and gravy before he headed to the field. I woke up nearly every day to her standing in the kitchen, Preacher Green playing on the radio that sat on the kitchen table. The minute she saw me, she smiled. “Good morning, beautiful girl!” I’d sit at the kitchen table and tell her what I’d dreamed. She claimed dreams told the future. “I was in the attic, looking down at the farm,” I’d tell her. “I could see the tops of the trees.” “You gone be a brain surgeon! Top a the house mean the head.” Mother ate her breakfast early in the dining room, then moved to the relaxing room to do needlepoint or write letters to missionaries in Africa. From her green wing chair, she could see everyone going almost anywhere in the house. It was shocking what she could process about my appearance in the split second it took for me to pass by that door. I used to dash by, feeling like a dartboard, a big red bull’s-eye that Mother pinged darts at. “Eugenia, you know there is no chewing gum in this house.” “Eugenia, go put alcohol on that blemish.” “Eugenia, march upstairs and brush your hair down, what if we have an unexpected visitor?” I learned that socks are stealthier transportation than shoes. I learned to use the back door. I learned to wear hats, cover my face with my hands when I passed by. But mostly, I learned to just stay in the kitchen. A SUMMER MONTH COULD STRECH on for years, out on Longleaf. I didn’t have friends coming over every day–we lived too far out to have any white neighbors. In town, Hilly and Elizabeth spent all weekend going to and from each other’s houses, while I was only allowed to spend the night out or have company every other weekend. I grumbled over this plenty. I took Constantine for granted at times, but I think I knew, for the most part, how lucky I was to have her there. When I was fourteen, I started smoking cigarettes. I’d sneak them from Carlton’s packs of Marlboros he kept in his dresser drawer. He was almost eighteen and no one minded that he’d been smoking for years anywhere he wanted to in the house or out in the fields with Daddy. Sometimes Daddy smoked a pipe, but he wasn’t a cigarette man and Mother didn’t smoke anything at all, even though most of her friends did. Mother told me I wasn’t allowed to smoke until I was seventeen. So I’d slip into the backyard and sit in the tire swing, with the huge old oak tree concealing me. Or, late at night, I’d hang out of my bedroom window and smoke. Mother had eagle-eyes, but she had almost zero sense of smell. Constantine knew immediately, though. She narrowed her eyes, with a
little smile, but said nothing. If Mother headed to the back porch while I was behind the tree, Constantine would rush out and bang her broom handle on the iron stair rail. “Constantine, what are you doing?” Mother would ask her, but by then I would’ve stubbed it out and dropped the butt in the hole in the tree. “Just cleaning this here old broom, Miss Charlotte.” “Well, find a way to do it a little quieter, please. Oh, Eugenia, what, did you grow another inch overnight? What am I going to do? Go… put on a dress that fits.” “Yes ma’am,” Constantine and I would say at the same time and then pass each other a little smile. Oh, it was delicious to have someone to keep secrets with. If I’d had a sister or a brother closer in age, I guessed that’s what it would be like. But it wasn’t just smoking or skirting around Mother. It was having someone look at you after your mother has nearly fretted herself to death because you are freakishly tall and frizzy and odd. Someone whose eyes simply said, without words, You are fine with me. Still, it wasn’t all sweet talk with her. When I was fifteen, a new girl had pointed at me and asked, “Who’s the stork?” Even Hilly had tucked back a smile before steering me away, like we hadn’t heard her. “How tall are you, Constantine?” I asked, unable to hide my tears. Constantine narrowed her eyes at me. “How tall is you?” “Five-eleven,” I cried. “I’m already taller than the boys’ basketball coach.” “Well, I’m five-thirteen, so quit feeling sorry for yourself.” Constantine’s the only woman I’ve ever had to look up to, to look her straight in the eye. What you noticed first about Constantine, besides her tallness, were her eyes. They were light brown, strikingly honey-colored against her dark skin. I’ve never seen light brown eyes on a colored person. In fact, the shades of brown on Constantine were endless. Her elbows were absolutely black, with a dry white dust on them in the winter. The skin on her arms and neck and face was a dark ebony. The palms of her hands were orangey-tan and that made me wonder if the soles of her feet were too, but I never saw her barefooted. “Just you and me this weekend,” she said with a smile. It was the weekend that Mother and Daddy were driving Carlton to look at LSU and Tulane. My brother was going to college next year. That morning, Daddy had moved the cot into the kitchen, next to her bathroom. That’s where Constantine always slept when she spent the night. “Go look what I got,” she said, pointing to the broom closet. I went and opened it and saw, tucked in her bag, a five-hundred-piece puzzle with a picture of Mount Rushmore on it. It was our favorite thing to do when she stayed over.
That night, we sat for hours, munching on peanuts, sifting through the pieces spread out on the kitchen table. A storm raged outside, making the room cozy while we picked out the edges. The bulb in the kitchen dimmed then brightened again. “Which one he?” Constantine asked, studying the puzzle box through her black-rimmed glasses. “That’s Jefferson.” “Oh it sure is. What about him?” “That’s–” I leaned over. “I think that’s . . . Roosevelt.” “Only one I recognize is Lincoln. He look like my daddy.” I stopped, puzzle piece in hand. I was fourteen and had never made less than an A. I was smart, but I was as naive as they come. Constantine put the box top down and looked over the pieces again. “Because your daddy was so . . . tall?” I asked. She chuckled. “Cause my daddy was white. I got the tall from my mama.” I put the piece down. “Your . . . father was white and your mother was . . . colored?” “Yup,” she said and smiled, snapping two pieces together. “Well, look a there. Got me a match.” I had so many questions–Who was he? Where was he? I knew he wasn’t married to Constantine’s mother, because that was against the law. I picked a cigarette from my stash I’d brought to the table. I was fourteen but, feeling very grown up, I lit it. As I did, the overhead light dimmed to a dull, dirty brown, buzzing softly. “Oh, my daddy looooved me. Always said I was his favorite.” She leaned back in her chair. “He used to come over to the house ever Saturday afternoon, and one time, he give me a set a ten hair ribbons, ten different colors. Brought em over from Paris, made out a Japanese silk. I sat in his lap from the minute he got there until he had to leave and Mama’d play Bessie Smith on the Victrola he brung her and he and me’d sing: It’s mighty strange, without a doubt Nobody knows you when you’re down and out I listened wide-eyed, stupid. Glowing by her voice in the dim light. If chocolate was a sound, it would’ve been Constantine’s voice singing. If singing was a color, it would’ve been the color of that chocolate. “One time I was boo-hooing over hard feelings, I reckon I had a list a things to be upset about, being poor, cold baths, rotten tooth, I don’t know. But he held me by the head, hugged me to him for the longest time. When I looked up, he was crying too and he . . . did that thing I do to you so you know I mean it. Press his thumb up in my hand and he say . . . he sorry.”
We sat there, staring at the puzzle pieces. Mother wouldn’t want me to know this, that Constantine’s father was white, that he’d apologized to her for the way things were. It was something I wasn’t supposed to know. I felt like Constantine had given me a gift. I finished my cigarette, stubbed it out in the silver guest ashtray. The light brightened again. Constantine smiled at me and I smiled back. “How come you never told me this before?” I said, looking into her light brown eyes. “I can’t tell you ever single thing, Skeeter.” “But why?” She knew everything about me, everything about my family. Why would I ever keep secrets from her? She stared at me and I saw a deep, bleak sadness there, inside of her. After a while, she said, “Some things I just got to keep for myself.” WHEN IT Was MY Turn to go off to college, Mother cried her eyes out when Daddy and I pulled away in the truck. But I felt free. I was off the farm, out from under the criticism. I wanted to ask Mother, Aren’t you glad? Aren’t you relieved that you don’t have to worry-wart over me every day anymore? But Mother looked miserable. I was the happiest person in my freshman dorm. I wrote Constantine a letter once a week, telling her about my room, the classes, the sorority. I had to mail her letters to the farm since the post didn’t deliver to Hotstack and I had to trust that Mother wouldn’t open them. Twice a month, Constantine wrote me back on parchment paper that folded into an envelope. Her handwriting was large and lovely, although it ran at a crooked angle down the page. She wrote me every mundane detail of Longleaf: My back pains are bad but it’s my feet that are worse, or The mixer broke off from the bowl and flew wild around the kitchen and the cat hollered and ran off. I haven’t seen her since. She’d tell me that Daddy had a chest cold or that Rosa Parks was coming to her church to speak. Often she demanded to know if I was happy and the details of this. Our letters were like a yearlong conversation, answering questions back and forth, continuing face-to-face at Christmas or between summer school sessions. Mother’s letters said, Say your prayers and Don’t wear heels because they make you too tall clipped to a check for thirty-five dollars. In April of my senior year, a letter came from Constantine that said, I have a surprise for you, Skeeter. I am so excited I almost can’t stand myself. And don’t you go asking me about it neither. You will see for yourself when you come home. That was close to final exams, with graduation only a month away. And that was the last letter I ever
got from Constantine. I SKIPPED MY GRADUATION CEREMONY at Ole Miss. All my close friends had dropped out to get married and I didn’t see the point in making Mama and Daddy drive three hours just to watch me walk across a stage, when what Mother really wanted was to watch me walk down the aisle. I still hadn’t heard from Harper & Row, so instead of buying a plane ticket to New York, I rode home to Jackson in sophomore Kay Turner’s Buick, squeezed in the front with my typewriter at my feet and her wedding dress between us. Kay Turner was marrying Percy Stanhope next month. For three hours I listened to her worry about cake flavors. When I got home, Mother stepped back to get a better look at me. “Well, your skin looks beautiful,” she said, “but your hair . . .” She sighed, shook her head. “Where’s Constantine?” I asked. “In the kitchen?” And like she was delivering the weather, Mother said, “Constantine is no longer employed here. Now let’s get all these trunks unpacked before you ruin your clothes.” I turned and blinked at her. I didn’t think I’d heard her correctly. “What did you say?” Mother stood straighter, smoothing down her dress. “Constantine’s gone, Skeeter. She went to live with her people up in Chicago.” “But . . . what? She didn’t say anything in her letters about Chicago.” I knew that wasn’t her surprise. She would’ve told me such terrible news immediately. Mother took a deep breath, straightened her back. “I told Constantine she wasn’t to write to you about leaving. Not in the middle of your final exams. What if you’d flunked and had to stay on another year? God knows, four years of college is more than enough.” “And she . . . agreed to that? Not to write me and tell me she was leaving?” Mother looked off, sighed. “We’ll discuss it later, Eugenia. Come on to the kitchen, let me introduce you to the new maid, Pascagoula.” But I didn’t follow Mother to the kitchen. I stared down at my college trunks, terrified by the thought of unpacking here. The house felt vast, empty. Outside, a combine whirred in a cotton field. By September, not only had I given up hope of ever hearing back from Harper & Row, I gave up on ever finding Constantine. No one seemed to know a thing or how I could reach her. I finally stopped asking people why Constantine had left. It was like she’d simply disappeared. I had to accept that Constantine, my one true ally, had left me to fend for myself with these people.
ON A HOT SEPTEMBER MORNING, I wake up in my childhood bed, slip on the huarache shoes my brother, Carlton, brought me back from Mexico. A man’s pair since, evidently, Mexican girls’ feet don’t grow to size nine-and-a-half. Mother hates them and says they’re trashy-looking. Over my nightgown, I put on one of Daddy’s old button-down shirts and slip out the front door. Mother is on the back porch with Pascagoula and Jameso while they shuck oysters. “You cannot leave a Negro and a Nigra together unchaperoned,” Mother’d whispered to me, a long time ago. “It’s not their fault, they just can’t help it.” I head down the steps to see if my mail-order copy of Catcher in the Rye is in the box. I always order the banned books from a black market dealer in California, figuring if the State of Mississippi banned them, they must be good. By the time I reach the end of the drive, my huaraches and ankles are covered with fine yellow dust. On either side of me, the cotton fields are a glaring green, fat with bolls. Daddy lost the back fields to the rain last month, but the majority bloomed unharmed. The leaves are just starting to spot brown with defoliant and I can still smell the sour chemical in the air. There are no cars on the County Road. I open the mailbox. And there, underneath Mother’s Ladies’ Home Journal, is a letter addressed to Miss Eugenia Phelan. The red raised font in the corner says Harper & Row, Publishers. I tear it open right there in the lane, in nothing but my long nightgown and Daddy’s old Brooks Brothers shirt. September 4, 1962 Dear Miss Phelan, I am responding personally to your resume because I found it admirable that a young lady with absolutely no work experience would apply for an editing job at a publisher as prestigious as ours. A minimum of five years in the business is mandatory for such a job. You’d know this if you’d done any amount of research on the business. Having once been an ambitious young lady myself, however, I’ve decided to offer you some advice: go to your local newspaper and get an entry-level job. You included in your letter that you “immensely enjoy writing.” When you’re not making mimeographs or fixing your boss’s coffee, look around, investigate, and write. Don’t waste your time on the obvious things. Write about what disturbs you, particularly if it bothers no one else. Yours sincerely, Elaine Stein, Senior Editor, Adult Book Division
Below the pica type is a handwritten note, in a choppy blue scrawl: P.S. If you are truly serious, I’d be willing to look over your best ideas and give my opinion. I offer this for no better reason, Miss Phelan, than someone once did it for me. A truck full of cotton rumbles by on the County Road. The Negro in the passenger side leans out and stares. I’ve forgotten I am a white girl in a thin nightgown. I have just received correspondence, maybe even encouragement, from New York City and I say the name aloud: “Elaine Stein.” I’ve never met a Jewish person. I race back up the lane, trying to keep the letter from flapping in my hand. I don’t want it wrinkled. I dash up the stairs with Mother hollering to take off those tacky Mexican man shoes, and I get to work writing down every goddamn thing that bothers me in life, particularly those that do not seem to faze anyone else. Elaine Stein’s words are running hot silver through my veins and I type as fast as I can. Turns out, it is a spectacularly long list. By the next day, I am ready to mail my first letter to Elaine Stein, listing the ideas I thought worthy journalism material: the prevalence of illiteracy in Mississippi; the high number of drunk-driving accidents in our county; the limited job opportunities for women. It’s not until after I mail the letter that I realize I probably chose those ideas she would think impressive, rather than ones I was really interested in. I TAKE a DEEP BREATH and pull open the heavy glass door. A feminine little bell tinkles hello. A not-so-feminine receptionist watches me. She is enormous and looks uncomfortable in the small wooden chair. “Welcome to the Jackson Journal. Can I help you?” I had made my appointment day before yesterday, hardly an hour after I’d received Elaine Stein’s letter. I asked for an interview for any position they might have. I was surprised they said they’d see me so soon. “I’m here to see Mister Golden, please.” The receptionist waddles to the back in her tented dress. I try and calm my shaking hands. I peek through the open door to a small, wood-paneled room in the back. Inside, four men in suits bang away on typewriters and scratch with pencils. They are bent over, haggard, three with just a horseshoe of hair left. The room is gauzy with cigarette smoke. The receptionist reappears, thumbs me to follow her, cigarette dangling in her hand. “Come on back.” Despite my nerves, all I can think of is the old college rule, A Chi Omega never walks with
a cigarette. I follow her through the desks of staring men, the haze of smoke, to an interior office. “Close that thing back,” Mister Golden hollers as soon as I’ve opened the door and stepped in. “Don’t let all that damn smoke in here.” Mister Golden stands up behind his desk. He’s about six inches shorter than me, trim, younger than my parents. He has long teeth and a sneer, the greased black hair of a mean man. “Didn’t you hear?” he said. “They announced last week cigarettes’ll kill you.” “I hadn’t heard that.” I can only hope it hadn’t been on the front page of his newspaper. “Hell, I know niggers a hundred years old look younger than those idjits out there.” He sits back down, but I keep standing because there are no other chairs in the room. “Alright, let’s see what you got.” I hand him my resume and sample articles I’d written in school. I grew up with the Journal sitting on our kitchen table, open to the farm report or the local sports page. I rarely had time to read it myself. Mister Golden doesn’t just look at my papers, he edits them with a red pencil. “Murrah High editor three years, Rebel Rouser editor two years, Chi Omega editor three years, double major English and journalism, graduated number four… Damn, girl,” he mutters, “didn’t you have any fun?” I clear my throat. “Is . . . that important?” He looks up at me. “You’re peculiarly tall but I’d think a pretty girl like you’d be dating the whole goddamn basketball team.” I stare at him, not sure if he’s making fun of me or paying me a compliment. “I assume you know how to clean . . .” He looks back to my articles, strikes them with violent red marks. My face flushes hot and quick. “Clean? I’m not here to clean. I’m here to write.” Cigarette smoke is bleeding under the door. It’s like the entire place is on fire. I feel so stupid that I thought I could just walk in and get a job as a journalist. He sighs heavily, hands me a thick folder of papers. “I guess you’ll do. Miss Myrna’s gone shit-house crazy on us, drunk hair spray or something. Read the articles, write the answers like she does, nobody’ll know the damn difference.” “I . . . what?” And I take the folder because I don’t know what else to do. I have no idea who this Miss Myrna is. I ask the only safe question I can think of. “How much . . . did you say it pays?” He gives me a surprisingly appreciative look, from my flat shoes to my flat hairstyle. Some dormant instinct tells me to smile, run my hand through my hair. I feel ridiculous, but I do it. “Eight dollars, every Monday.”
I nod, trying to figure out how to ask him what the job is without giving myself away. He leans forward. “You do know who Miss Myrna is, don’t you?” “Of course. We . . . girls read her all the time,” I say, and again we stare at each other long enough for a distant telephone to ring three times. “What then? Eight’s not enough? Jesus, woman, go clean your husband’s toilet for free.” I bite my lip. But before I can utter anything, he rolls his eyes. “Alright, ten. Copy’s due on Thursdays. And if I don’t like your style, I’m not printing it or paying you squat.” I take the folder, thank him more than I probably should. He ignores me and picks up his phone and makes a call before I’m even out the door. When I get to my car, I sink down into the soft Cadillac leather. I sit there smiling, reading the pages in the folder. I just got a job. I COME HOME STANDING up straighter than I have since I was twelve, before my growth spurt. I am buzzing with pride. Even though every cell in my brain says do not, somehow I cannot resist telling Mother. I rush into the relaxing room and tell her everything about how I’ve gotten a job writing Miss Myrna, the weekly cleaning advice column. “Oh the irony of it.” She lets out a sigh that means life is hardly worth living under such conditions. Pascagoula freshens her iced tea. “At least it’s a start,” I say. “A start at what? Giving advice on how to keep up a home when . . .” She sighs again, long and slow like a deflating tire. I look away, wondering if everyone in town will be thinking the same thing. Already the joy is fleeting. “Eugenia, you don’t even know how to polish silver, much less advise on how to keep a house clean.” I hug the folder to my chest. She’s right, I won’t know how to answer any of the questions. Still, I thought she’d at least be proud of me. “And you will never meet anybody sitting at that typewriter. Eugenia, have some sense.”
Anger works its way up my arms. I stand up straight again. “You think I want to live here? With you?” I laugh in a way I’m hoping will hurt her. I see the quick pain in her eyes. She presses her lips together at the sting. Still, I have no desire to take back my words because finally, finally, I have said something she’s listening to. I stand there, refusing to leave. I want to hear what she’ll say to this. I want to hear her say she’s sorry. “I need to . . . ask you something, Eugenia.” She twists her handkerchief, grimaces. “I read the other day about how some . . . some girls get unbalanced, start thinking these–well, these unnatural thoughts.” I have no idea what she’s talking about. I look up at the ceiling fan. Someone’s set it going too fast. Clackety-clackety-clackety . . . “Are you . . . do you . . . find men attractive? Are you having unnatural thoughts about . . .” She shuts her eyes tight. “Girls or–or women?” I stare at her, wishing the ceiling fan would fly from its post, crash down on us both. “Because it said in this article there’s a cure, a special root tea–” “Mother,” I say, shutting my eyes tight. “I want to be with girls as much as you’d like to be with . . . Jameso.” I head for the door. But I glance behind me. “I mean, unless, of course, you do?” Mother straightens, gasps. I pound up the stairs. THE NEXT DAY, I stack the Miss Myrna letters in a neat pile. I have thirty-five dollars in my purse, the monthly allowance Mother still gives me. I go downstairs wearing a thick Christian smile. Living at home, whenever I want to leave Longleaf, I have to ask Mother if I can borrow her car. Which means she’ll ask where I’m going. Which means I have to lie to her on a daily basis, which is in itself enjoyable but a little degrading at the same time. “I’m going down to the church, see if they need any help getting ready for Sunday school.” “Oh, darling, that’s just wonderful. Take your time with the car.” I decided, last night, what I need is a professional to help me with the column. My first idea was to ask Pascagoula, but I hardly know her. Plus I couldn’t stand the thought of Mother nosing around, criticizing me all over again. Hilly’s maid, Yule May, is so shy I doubt she’d want to help me. The only other maid I see often enough is Elizabeth’s maid, Aibileen. Aibileen reminds me of Constantine in a way. Plus she’s older and seems to have plenty of experience.
On my way to Elizabeth’s, I go by the Ben Franklin store and buy a clipboard, a box of number two pencils, a blue-cloth notebook. My first column is due tomorrow, on Mister Golden’s desk by two o’clock. “Skeeter, come on in.” Elizabeth opens her own front door and I fear Aibileen might not be working today. She has on a blue bathrobe and jumbo-sized rollers, making her head look huge, her body even more waif-like than it is. Elizabeth generally has rollers in all day, can never get her thin hair full enough. “Sorry I’m such a mess. Mae Mobley kept me up half the night and now I don’t even know where Aibileen’s gotten off to.” I step inside the tiny foyer. It’s a low-ceilinged house with small rooms. Everything has a secondhand look–the faded blue floral curtains, the crooked cover on the couch. I hear Raleigh’s new accounting business isn’t doing well. Maybe up in New York or somewhere it’s a good thing, but in Jackson, Mississippi, people just don’t care to do business with a rude, condescending asshole. Hilly’s car is out front, but she’s nowhere to be seen. Elizabeth sits at the sewing machine she has on the dining room table. “I’m almost done,” she says. “Let me just hem this last seam . . .” Elizabeth stands, holds up a green church dress with a round white collar. “Now be honest,” she whispers with eyes that are pleading for me to be anything but. “Does it look homemade?” The hem on one side hangs longer than the other. It’s wrinkled and a cuff is already fraying. “One hundred percent store-bought. Straight from Maison Blanche’s,” I say because that is Elizabeth’s dream store. It is five stories of expensive clothes on Canal Street in New Orleans, clothes that could never be found in Jackson. Elizabeth gives me a grateful smile. “Mae Mobley’s sleeping?” I ask. “Finally.” Elizabeth fiddles with a clump of hair that’s slipped out of her roller, grimaces at its obstinacy. Sometimes her voice takes on a hard edge when she talks about her little girl. The door to the guest bathroom in the hall opens and Hilly comes out talking, “. . . so much better. Everybody has their own place to go now.” Elizabeth fiddles with the machine needle, seems worried by it. “You tell Raleigh I said You are welcome,” Hilly adds, and it hits me, then, what’s being said. Aibileen has her own bathroom in the garage now. Hilly smiles at me and I realize she’s about to bring up the initiative. “How’s your mama?” I ask, even though I know this is her least favorite subject. “She get settled in the home alright?” “I guess.” Hilly pulls her red sweater down over the pudgy roll in her waist. She has on red-and- green plaid pants that seem to magnify her bottom, making it rounder and more forceful than ever. “Of course she doesn’t appreciate a thing I do. I had to fire that maid for her, caught her trying to steal the damn silver right under my nose.” Hilly narrows her eyes a bit. “Y’all haven’t heard, by the way, if that Minny Jackson is working somewhere, have you?”
We shake our heads no. “I doubt she’ll find work in this town again,” Elizabeth says. Hilly nods, mulling this over. I take a deep breath, anxious to tell them my news. “I just got a job at the Jackson Journal,” I say. There is quiet in the room. Suddenly Elizabeth squeals. Hilly smiles at me with such pride, I blush and shrug, like it’s not that big of a deal. “They’d be a fool not to hire you, Skeeter Phelan,” Hilly says and raises her iced tea as a toast. “So . . . um, have either of y’all actually read Miss Myrna?” I ask. “Well no,” Hilly says. “But I bet the poor white trash girls in South Jackson read it like the King James.” Elizabeth nods. “All those poor girls without help, I bet they do.” “Would you mind if I talked to Aibileen?” I ask Elizabeth. “To help me answer some of the letters?” Elizabeth is very still a second. “Aibileen? My Aibileen?” “I sure don’t know the answers to these questions.” “Well . . . I mean, as long as it doesn’t interfere with her work.” I pause, surprised by this attitude. But I remind myself that Elizabeth is paying her, after all. “And not today with Mae Mobley about to get up or else I’ll have to look after her myself.” “Okay. Maybe . . . maybe I’ll come by tomorrow morning then?” I count the hours on my hand. If I finish talking to Aibileen by midmorning, I’ll have time to rush home to type it up, then get it back to town by two. Elizabeth frowns down at her spool of green thread. “And only for a few minutes. Tomorrow’s silver-polishing day.” “It won’t be long, I promise,” I say. Elizabeth is starting to sound just like my mother. THE NEXT MORNING AT TEN, Elizabeth opens her door, nods at me like a schoolteacher.
“Alright. Go on in. And not too long now. Mae Mobley’ll be waking up any time.” I walk into the kitchen, my notebook and papers under my arm. Aibileen smiles at me from the sink, her gold tooth shining. She’s a little plump in the middle, but it is a friendly softness. And she’s much shorter than me, because who isn’t? Her skin is dark brown and shiny against her starchy white uniform. Her eyebrows are gray even though her hair is black. “Hey, Miss Skeeter. Miss Leefolt still at the machine?” “Yes.” It’s strange, even after all these months home, to hear Elizabeth being called Miss Leefolt–not Miss Elizabeth or even her maiden name, Miss Fredericks. “May I?” I point to the refrigerator. But before I can help myself, Aibileen’s opened it for me. “What you want? A Co-Cola?” I nod and she pops the cap off with the opener mounted on the counter, pours it into a glass. “Aibileen”–I take a deep breath–“I was wondering if I could get your help on something.” I tell her about the column then, grateful when she nods that she knows who Miss Myrna is. “So maybe I could read you some of the letters and you could… help me with the answers. After a while, maybe I’ll catch on and . . .” I stop. There is no way I’ll ever be able to answer cleaning questions myself. Honestly, I have no intention of learning how to clean. “It sounds unfair, doesn’t it, me taking your answers and acting like they’re mine. Or Myrna’s, I mean.” I sigh. Aibileen shakes her head. “I don’t mind that. I just ain’t so sure Miss Leefolt gone approve.” “She said it was alright.” “During my regular hours working?” I nod, remembering the propriety in Elizabeth’s voice. “Alright then.” Aibileen shrugs. She looks up at the clock above the sink. “I probably have to stop when Mae Mobley gets up.” “Should we sit?” I point to the kitchen table. Aibileen glances at the swinging door. “You go head, I’m fine standing.” I spent last night reading every Miss Myrna article from the previous five years, but I haven’t had time to sort through the unanswered letters yet. I straighten my clipboard, pencil in hand. “Here’s a letter from Rankin County. ” ‘Dear Miss Myrna,’ ” I read, ” ‘how do I remove the rings from my fat slovenly husband’s shirt collar when he is such a pig and . . . and sweats like one too . . .’ ” Wonderful. A column on cleaning and relationships. Two things I know absolutely nothing about.
“Which one she want a get rid of?” Aibileen asks. “The rings or the husband?” I stare at the page. I wouldn’t know how to instruct her to do either one. “Tell her a vinegar and Pine-Sol soak. Then let it set in the sun a little while.” I write it quickly on my pad. “Sit in the sun for how long?” “Bout an hour. Let it dry.” I pull out the next letter and, just as quickly, she answers it. After four or five, I exhale, relieved. “Thank you, Aibileen. You have no idea how much this helps.” “Ain’t no trouble. Long as Miss Leefolt don’t need me.” I gather up my papers and take a last sip of my Coke, letting myself relax for five seconds before I have to go write the article. Aibileen picks through a sack of green fiddleheads. The room is quiet except for the radio playing softly, Preacher Green again. “How did you know Constantine? Were you related?” “We . . . in the same church circle.” Aibileen shifts her feet in front of the sink. I feel what has become a familiar sting. “She didn’t even leave an address. I just–I can’t believe she quit like that.” Aibileen keeps her eyes down. She seems to be studying the fiddleheads very carefully. “No, I’m right sure she was let go.” “No, Mama said she quit. Back in April. Went to live up in Chicago with her people.” Aibileen picks up another fiddlehead, starts washing its long stem, the curly green ends. “No ma’am,” she says after a pause. It takes me a few seconds to realize what we’re talking about here. “Aibileen,” I say, trying to catch her eye. “You really think Constantine was fired?” But Aibileen’s face has gone blank as the blue sky. “I must be misrememoring,” she says and I can tell she thinks she’s said too much to a white woman. We hear Mae Mobley calling out and Aibileen excuses herself and heads through the swinging door. A few seconds pass before I have the sense to go home.
WHEN I Walk in THE HOUSE ten minutes later, Mother is reading at the dining room table. “Mother,” I say, clutching my notebook to my chest, “did you fire Constantine?” “Did I . . . what?” Mother asks. But I know she’s heard me because she’s set the DAR newsletter down. It takes a hard question to pull her eyes off that riveting material. “Eugenia, I told you, her sister was sick so she went up to Chicago to live with her people,” she says. “Why? Who told you different?” I would never in a million years tell her it was Aibileen. “I heard it this afternoon. In town.” “Who would talk about such a thing?” Mother narrows her eyes behind her reading glasses. “It must’ve been one of the other Nigras.” “What did you do to her, Mother?” Mother licks her lips, gives me a good, long look over her bifocals. “You wouldn’t understand, Eugenia. Not until you’ve hired help of your own.” “You . . . fired her? For what?” “It doesn’t matter. It’s behind me now and I just won’t think about it another minute.” “Mother, she raised me. You tell me right now what happened!” I’m disgusted by the squeakiness of my voice, the childish sound of my demands. Mother raises her eyebrows at my tone, takes her glasses off. “It was nothing but a colored thing. And that’s all I’m saying.” She puts her glasses back on and lifts her DAR sheet to her eyes. I’m shaking, I’m so mad. I pound my way up the stairs. I sit at my typewriter, stunned that my mother could cast off someone who’d done her the biggest favor of her life, raise her children, teach me kindness and self-respect. I stare across my room at the rose wallpaper, the eyelet curtains, the yellowing photographs so familiar they are nearly contemptible. Constantine worked for our family for twenty-nine years. FOR THE NEXT WEEK, Daddy rises before dawn. I wake to truck motors, the chug of the combines starting, the hollers to hurry. The fields are brown and crisp with dead cotton stalks, defoliated so the machines can get to the bolls. Cotton harvest is here. Daddy doesn’t even stop for church during harvest time, but on Sunday night, I catch him in the dusky hall, between his supper and sleep. “Daddy?” I ask. “Will you tell me what happened to Constantine?”
He is so dog-tired, he sighs before he answers. “How could Mother fire her, Daddy?” “What? Darlin’, Constantine quit. You know your mother would never fire her.” He looks disappointed in me for asking such a thing. “Do you know where she went? Or have her address?” He shakes his head no. “Ask your mama, she’ll know.” He pats my shoulder. “People move on, Skeeter. But I wish she’d stayed down here with us.” He wanders down the hall to bed. He is too honest a man to hide things so I know he doesn’t have any more facts about it than I do. That week and every week, sometimes twice, I stop by Elizabeth’s to talk to Aibileen. Each time, Elizabeth looks a little warier. The longer I stay in the kitchen, the more chores Elizabeth comes up with until I leave: the doorknobs need polishing, the top of the refrigerator needs dusting, Mae Mobley’s fingernails could use a trim. Aibileen is no more than cordial with me, nervous, stands at the kitchen sink and never stops working. It’s not long before I am ahead of copy and Mister Golden seems pleased with the column, the first two of which only took me about twenty minutes to write. And every week, I ask Aibileen about Constantine. Can’t she get her address for me? Can’t she tell me anything about why she got fired? Was there a big to-do, because I just can’t imagine Constantine saying yes ma’am and walking out the back door. Mama’d get cross with her about a tarnished spoon and Constantine would serve her toast burned up for a week. I can only imagine how a firing would’ve gone. It hardly matters, though, because all Aibileen will do is shrug at me, say she don’t know nothing. One afternoon, after asking Aibileen how to get out tough tub rings (never having scrubbed a bathtub in my life), I come home. I walk past the relaxing room. The television set is on and I glance at it. Pascagoula’s standing about five inches away from the screen. I hear the words Ole Miss and on the fuzzy screen I see white men in dark suits crowding the camera, sweat running off their bald heads. I come closer and see a Negro man, about my age, standing in the middle of the white men, with Army men behind him. The picture pans back and there is my old administration building. Governor Ross Barnett stands with his arms crossed, looking the tall Negro in the eye. Next to the governor is our Senator Whitworth, whose son Hilly’s been trying to set me up with on a blind date. I watch the television, riveted. Yet I am neither thrilled nor disappointed by the news that they might let a colored man into Ole Miss, just surprised. Pascagoula, though, is breathing so loud I can hear her. She stands stock-still, not aware I am behind her. Roger Sticker, our local reporter, is nervous, smiling, talking fast. “President Kennedy has ordered the governor to step aside for James Meredith, I repeat, the President of the United–” “Eugenia, Pascagoula! Turn that set off right this minute!”
Pascagoula jerks around to see me and Mother. She rushes out of the room, her eyes to the floor. “Now, I won’t have it, Eugenia,” Mother whispers. “I won’t have you encouraging them like that.” “Encouraging? It’s nationwide news, Mama.” Mother sniffs. “It is not appropriate for the two of you to watch together,” and she flips the channel, stops on an afternoon rerun of Lawrence Welk. “Look, isn’t this so much nicer?” On a HOT SATURDAY in late September, the cotton fields chopped and empty, Daddy carries a new RCA color television set into the house. He moves the black-and-white one to the kitchen. Smiling and proud, he plugs the new TV into the wall of the relaxing room. The Ole Miss versus LSU football game blares through the house for the rest of the afternoon. Mama, of course, is glued to the color picture, oohing and aahing at the vibrant reds and blues of the team. She and Daddy live by Rebel football. She’s dressed up in red wool pants despite the sweltering heat and has Daddy’s old Kappa Alpha blanket draped on the chair. No one mentions James Meredith, the colored student they let in. I take the Cadillac and head into town. Mother finds it inexplicable that I don’t want to watch my alma mater throw a ball around. But Elizabeth and her family are at Hilly’s watching the game so Aibileen’s working in the house alone. I’m hoping it’ll be a little easier on Aibileen if Elizabeth’s not there. Truth is, I’m hoping she’ll tell me something, anything, about Constantine. Aibileen lets me in and I follow her back to the kitchen. She seems only the smallest bit more relaxed in Elizabeth’s empty house. She eyes the kitchen table, like she wants to sit today. But when I ask her, she answers, “No, I’m fine. You go head.” She takes a tomato from a pan in the sink and starts to peel it with a knife. So I lean against the counter and present the latest conundrum: how to keep the dogs from getting into your trashcans outside. Because your lazy husband forgets to put it out on the right pick-up day. Since he drinks all that damn beer. “Just pour some pneumonia in that garbage. Dogs won’t so much as wink at them cans.” I jot it down, amending it to ammonia, and pick out the next letter. When I look up, Aibileen’s kind of smiling at me. “I don’t mean nothing disrespectful, Miss Skeeter, but . . . ain’t it kind a strange you being the new Miss Myrna when you don’t know nothing about housekeeping?” She didn’t say it the way Mother did, a month ago. I find myself laughing instead, and I tell her what I’ve told no one else, about the phone calls and the resume I’d sent to Harper & Row. That I want
to be a writer. The advice I received from Elaine Stein. It’s nice to tell somebody. Aibileen nods, turns her knife around another soft red tomato. “My boy Treelore, he like to write.” “I didn’t know you had a son.” “He dead. Two years now.” “Oh, I’m so sorry,” I say and for a moment it’s just Preacher Green in the room, the soft pat of tomato skins against the sink. “Made straight As on ever English test he take. Then later, when he grown, he pick himself up a typewriter and start working on a idea . . .” The pin-tucked shoulders of her uniform slump down. “Say he gone write himself a book.” “What kind of idea?” I ask. “I mean, if you don’t mind telling . . .” Aibileen says nothing for a while. Keeps peeling tomatoes around and around. “He read this book call Invisible Man. When he done, he say he gone write down what it was like to be colored working for a white man in Mississippi.” I look away, knowing this is where my mother would stop the conversation. This is where she’d smile and change the subject to the price of silver polish or white rice. “I read Invisible Man, too, after he did,” Aibileen says. “I liked it alright.” I nod, even though I’ve never read it. I hadn’t thought of Aibileen as a reader before. “He wrote almost fifty pages,” she says. “I let his girl Frances keep hold of em.” Aibileen stops peeling. I see her throat move when she swallows. “Please don’t tell nobody that,” she says, softer now, “him wanting to write about his white boss.” She bites her lip and it strikes me then that she’s still afraid for him. Even though he’s dead, the instinct to be afraid for her son is still there. “It’s fine that you told me, Aibileen. I think it was . . . a brave idea.” Aibileen holds my gaze for a moment. Then she picks up another tomato and sets the knife against the skin. I watch, wait for the red juice to spill. But Aibileen stops before she cuts, glances at the kitchen door. “I don’t think it’s fair, you not knowing what happen to Constantine. I just–I’m sorry, I don’t feel right talking to you about it.” I stay quiet, not sure what’s spurred this, not wanting to ruin it. “I’ll tell you though, it was something to do with her daughter. Coming to see your mama.” “Daughter? Constantine never told me she had a daughter.” I knew Constantine for twenty-three years. Why would she keep this from me?
“It was hard for her. The baby come out real . . . pale.” I hold still, remembering what Constantine told me, years ago. “You mean, light? Like . . . white?” Aibileen nods, keeping at her task in the sink. “Had to send her away, up north I think.” “Constantine’s father was white,” I say. “Oh . . . Aibileen . . . you don’t think . . .” An ugly thought is running through my head. I am too shocked to finish my sentence. Aibileen shakes her head. “No no, no ma’am. Not… that. Constantine’s man, Connor, he was colored. But since Constantine had her daddy’s blood in her, her baby come out a high yellow. It . . . happens.” I feel ashamed for having thought the worst. Still, I don’t understand. “Why didn’t Constantine ever tell me?” I ask, not really expecting an answer. “Why would she send her away?” Aibileen nods to herself, like she understands. But I don’t. “That was the worst off I ever seen her. Constantine must a said a thousand times, she couldn’t wait for the day when she got her back.” “You said the daughter, she had something to do with Constantine getting fired? What happened?” At this, Aibileen’s face goes blank. The curtain has drawn. She nods toward the Miss Myrna letters, making it clear that’s all she’s willing to say. At least right now. THAT AFTERNOON, I stop by Hilly’s football party. The street is lined with station wagons and long Buicks. I force myself through the door, knowing I’ll be the only single one there. Inside, the living room is full of couples on the sofas, the chaises, the arms of chairs. Wives sit straight with their legs crossed, while husbands lean forward. All eyes are on the wooden television set. I stand in the back