I was looking at myself in a tarnished mirror taped to a crooked wall. I leaned my head left of the crack that split the glass and squinted my eyes to get a better view. Made me dizzy. My shift was about to start, and I was rushing to put on lipstick. The light in the room was so dim I could barely make out my mouth. The shade was too pale, but I made do and blotted on a piece of toilet paper. The door opened just as I was imagining my face with thinner lips. I turned around, and that's when I saw her, not big as a banty hen. Mr. Weinstock was right behind. "Hosanna," he said to me, "this is Gilda Rosenstein, and she'll be working with you. I want you to train her."
There were five of us women cleaning at the Braddock Hotel, all colored. It was right after Labor Day, and we'd finished having our get-started cup of coffee (as compared to our keep-going cup in the afternoon and our hold-on cup toward the end of our day) in a small dark room in the basement. The manager called it the Maids' Room because we were the only ones who used it. We called it Our Room; we did everything in there: change our clothes; drink coffee; eat lunch; smoke cigarettes; steal a quick nap or a drink. Every once in a while somebody would sneak in a man. It was a gray room with peeling paint and furniture that looked as though it needed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Our lifeline was a little secondhand phonograph and a few old seventy-eights. Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, and Louis Jordan resurrected us around the clock. It's been more than fifty years, and I'll bet that all of us, the living and the dead, can recall just what we were doing when we looked at Gilda dressed in that uniform. It wasn't every day we saw a white woman wearing what we wore, doing what we did. Gilda was the first, and I remember her in this life I'm living and the one I left behind.
Death isn't like I thought it would be. The Baptist church stamped me early, and I was halfway expecting pearly gates, winged angels playing on their harps, St. Peter at the door, the works. Turned out that heaven ain't nothing but a space in my mind, no more permanent than a sunshiny day; I go in and out. The background music is whatever song I'm humming. Me, I'm partial to Tina Turner. White's not the only color people wear. Heaven is a great big be-in, where everybody comes as they are. Pajamas. Wild-looking hair. Mink coats. No makeup. Blond wigs. The be-in is right inside you. I think of it as the Land of Calm, a place to reflect, without alarms going off, telling me it's time to do this or that. The only thing that moves me here is spirit.
I'm in heaven now observing my baby girl, Matriece. I say baby, but my child is thirty-eight years old. She can't see me hovering in her bathroom, watching her comb her hair and get ready to go to work. She smiles at herself in the mirror as she gives her hair a final pat. The smile is the good part. My child liking what she sees reflected back at her is the good part. I fought for that, not just for her and her big sister, Vonette, but for all the sisters with hair that didn't ride their shoulders, with flaring nostrils that welcomed air, and lips that came with a pucker. I helped convince them that they were beautiful, unchained their minds every bit as much as Malcolm X did. Now a pretty black girl can do a Mona Lisa on a billboard and sell America a beer or a lawn mower. Pick up a magazine, and there we are, smiling our cover girl smiles. Wasn't always that way. "Because we're already beautiful" --- that was my motto back in the fifties when all colored women had were Red Fox stockings and face powder so light it made us disappear. All right, maybe I shouldn't compare myself with Malcolm X, but I made a contribution. I saw a need, and I filled it. I got rewards for that while I was on earth, but somebody owes me still. I'm not talking about a debt of gratitude; I'm talking about money.
Matriece will make things right. She's the steady one. Vonette is hardheaded, always was, always will be. Fifty million hair care products for black women, and she decides not to comb hers at all. Dreadlocks. That's just to make me turn over in my grave, so to speak. Vonette and I had issues while I was alive, and we still do. But my Matriece . . . She wants what I went to my grave wanting: retribution. And she's the only one who can get it for me.
She applies her lipstick last, after her hair is right and her clothes are on. Makeup ain't nothing but a promise: Use me and I'll get you your man, your romance, your passion, whatever you want. Put me under your eyes, and I'll take away the circles, all the pain, and everything will be new. The name is more important than the purpose. That's Red Drama on her mouth.
Me watching Matriece is heaven, but I can't stop my mind from shifting. I'm not the first one to go to her grave with nothing to leave behind but a fierce yearning. Bits of my life still float by, just like when I was dying. I shine the light on all the faces, all the memories that are with me in my sojourn. This is essential: not to drift or soften, never to forgive or give up. If I find my anger waning I can always renew it just by remembering.
None of the maids at Braddock had ever worked with a white person before. Work for them, now that's a different story. It was soon after the war, 1948, and the five of us had put Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana behind us. We'd all caught that long gray dog out to Los Angeles looking for better times, plus a man. Kissing frogs and scrubbing floors --- that was our lives. We traded fields for toilets, dirt under our nails for ammonia on our hands. Still had to say yessir, yes ma'am. Still had to live all together like lepers on roped-off acres that other people fled from as soon as they saw us coming. Watts --- a sprawled-out piece of land with tiny bungalows lined up on the widest streets I'd ever seen --- that's what we claimed. Come Monday, we caught the first bus. Number 86 ran from Central straight up Crenshaw; the 72 came down Wilshire. Cruising past palm trees, I took in those skinny trunks as if they were men coming to court me. My eyes traveled slowly from the ground all the way to the top and then back down again to see if I'd missed any flaws, any beauty.
When Mr. Weinstock left the room nobody said anything for a long time. Hattie, the oldest in the group, rolled her eyes. I knew how she felt. One way or another, straight through or around the bend, most of the hard times in our lives had come from white folks. The other women --- Winnie, Opal and Fern --- looked at me like I was the one who should decide how we'd treat her.
All right then. I smiled, stuck out my hand, and she shook it. She was a washed-out little thing and real thin. Next to her I felt blown up and lit in neon, not that I was so big. I was average height and weight, not much up top, but I always had some hips on me. Her skin was so white I could see clear to her veins, almost to her heart. My skin was the color of pecans; nothing showed through. Frizzy brown hair touched her shoulders. I had thick rough hair that took a press and curl every two weeks. Gilda looked worn out; I had a baby face. Her teeth were brown, too, as though she hadn't brushed them in a long time. People used to always tell me I had pretty teeth, because they were big and white, so I guess that's why I noticed other people's smiles.
Gilda smelled like roses and didn't smile, but I managed to see that she needed to get to a dentist. She didn't speak much English --- yes, no, please, say it again --- and that caught my attention. The white folks I was used to were homegrown rattlers that damaged as they slithered. The thing that got me, got all of us I guess, was that she didn't seem to know that it was unusual for her to be working with us. She seemed unconscious with her eyes open, as though she had sleepwalked her way into Our Room. I believe if I'd poured ice-cold water on her she wouldn't have made a sound.
I could tell straight off that she wasn't used to cleaning up behind people. That's to say: She wasn't poor white trash. I came out of Inez, Texas, where PWT is a crop that doesn't need fertilizer; I knew it when I saw it. There was plenty of trash walking around Los Angeles, jug-eared, stringy-haired men and women out of Oklahoma and Dust Bowl territory, dandelions blown west during the Depression, trying to make a new start with only fourth-grade educations and their color to recommend them. Gilda was an orchid that somebody's boot had crushed. She didn't seem to mind the job, even though that first day I had to tell her everything at least twice. When she did try to say a few things, I heard the accent, thick as sorghum, and I realized she didn't understand what I was saying. So, I slowed down.
The first month Gilda was really quiet. She did her work, drank her coffee, ate her lunch, and didn't talk to anybody other than me. "Hosanna, what is this? Hosanna, what I do?" All day long.
We were in Our Room not long after she came, and Sarah Vaughan was crooning on the record player. Gilda sat listening, as though she were trying to memorize a bird before it flew away. When the song finished, she turned to me; she was trembling, and there were tears in her eyes. "The music is so . . . It is medicine," she said.
Braddock must have seemed like the land of big white smiles to her. She hadn't been there a week when we were on the fifth floor, and I caught her staring at some guests as they were leaving their room. They were a young, good-looking couple. The wife wore a large diamond on her left hand, and she was laughing at something her husband was telling her. She had hot pink lips, thin and perfect-looking, eyes like tiny chunks of sky. Gilda looked at that woman as if she imagined pushing her hand right through her. She stared at that ring in a yearning way. Maybe she remembered it from her other life.
Whenever Gilda had a break she'd sit by herself and read from a large book. One morning she left it on the table and got up to go to the rest room. I picked it up. Hattie was sitting on the sofa smoking a cigarette. Gilda came back in, rubbing some kind of lotion on her hands, just as I was flipping through the pages. She sat down on the sofa, and I handed her back the manual. "So, you're learning English?" I was just trying to make conversation.
"I learn," she said. She had a quiet voice that stayed on one level all the time. She started pulling on the dark green sweater she always wore, then began fiddling with something in her pocket.
"You'll learn faster if you talk to people," Hattie said in a snappy tone, rolling her eyes. She had a gap between her front teeth, and sometimes she whistled when she spoke. Hattie was a big-boned Louisiana gal. Some of the tales she told, anybody would think that the devil invented white folks just to torment her. There are people in this life who believe that being the biggest victim will get them the best pork chop at the dinner table. That was Hattie. In that moment, looking at Hattie and then at Gilda, I felt as though I were the rope each one had a grip on. I had lived in the land of blood-is-thicker-than-water for so long I didn't understand loyalty to anybody or anything other than family and skin color.
White men stole my daddy's land, more than two hundred acres of lumber and rice. They did it all nice and legal. My father got an official letter giving him forty-eight hours to vacate. Failure to pay taxes, the letter said, which was a lie. Later that day, the Hagertys showed up at our door. Big Bobby and Little Bobby, one with a shock of silver hair, the other's dark brown. I opened the door, then tried to push it closed. I don't know what made me think I could get away with that. My cheek hurt for two weeks from where the younger one slapped me. They were the power around Inez; they owned most of the land and all the politicians, including the tax assessor. When my daddy saw them standing in his house and me holding my face, he shook his head and said, "You win." Two days later he signed the papers the Hagertys put in front of him.
That was 1943. My brother came back from Europe in '45. He had memories of dancing with French women --- a taste of freedom at a dangerous age. By that time my folks were sharecropping. Days after he got back, I heard my brother's voice coming from the back porch. "You think I'm going to stay around here and not kill those sons of bitches?"
I took Tuney's side, but Daddy wouldn't listen. He hustled all of us off the place that night. Had to raise his fist to my brother, although he didn't hit him. The rest of the family moved to Houston, but he put Tuney and me on the bus to L.A. Before we boarded, he showed my brother and me the deed to his "property". "Maybe one day one of y'all can get the land back," he said quietly. "At least we got proof that it used to be ours."
My daddy's face was too sad to look at, so I just turned away.
It took us a week to get there. Tuney and I stayed awake almost the entire time, two crazy spiders spinning webs of vengeance.
We calmed down somewhere in Nevada, which is to say we changed the subject. "I'm going to save my money and open up a candy store," I said.
"Don't know what I'm gonna do, but I tell you one thing: people are going to sit up and take notice. They're going to know my name," he said.
He was big and handsome, my brother, a strong man, with crinkly black hair, a neat mustache, and a mouth filled with big white teeth. He laughed a little at his own daring, and so did I. His laugh came from his belly, and he was generous with it. His dream made him happy for a little while. But then his eyes would go dark and I'd know that he was thinking about the land, and maybe about killing somebody.
Hattie had that same killing look in her eyes. I stared at her hard, and thought about my candy store. Bad times or good times, people always want something sweet to chew on. I wasn't about to let Hattie and her mess come between my goal and me. Fern, who was little and dark and liked a good scrap, at least to watch one, glanced from Hattie back to me, trying to figure out if something was going to go down. Being raised in a family of six, I learned to fight for what I wanted. I was the oldest girl, the thumb on my mama's hand. That Louisiana gal backed up because, even though I was barely twenty-one, well, I've got expressive eyes. "Jew bitch," I heard her mutter.
Gilda heard it, too. And I could tell by the way her eyes clouded over that it wasn't the first time. Maybe she didn't understand English all that well, but Hattie's tone and the looks we were exchanging weren't hard to figure out. After Hattie stomped off, Gilda came over to me and said, "What I do?"I told her, "You have to speak to people. Say 'good morning' when you come in. Say 'good night' when you leave. In between, ask people how they're doing. Understand?" My words were propelled by anger, and as I spoke I realized that the tug-of-war was wearing me out.Gilda backed up a little, although I have to say this, she didn't look one bit afraid. She sat in the chair and didn't say a word for a good two or three minutes. Billie Holiday was singing in the background, and I could tell that Gilda was listening real hard to the words. I was heading out the door when I heard her say, "Hosanna, very hard for me to speak."
I turned around to look at her; Gilda's eyes were the emptiest ones I'd ever seen. There didn't seem to be a life behind them. I walked over to her and said, "Well, honey, you have to try."
I'm usually one to mind my own business, but before I left that day I went to Mr. Weinstock's office. He had on thick rimless glasses, and he was sitting at his desk smoking, drinking coffee, and reading. He always seemed to be sweating; there was a shiny glaze over his face. There weren't any windows, and it felt closed up and hot. Mr. Weinstock passed a lot of gas in there.
He didn't rise when he saw me. But then, I didn't expect that. He glanced up, then turned back to what he was doing. "Yes, Hosanna?"
"Mr. Weinstock, I was just wondering about Gilda."
"What about her?" He mopped his forehead with a dingy handkerchief, then took off his glasses to reveal small dust ball eyes, rimmed in red.
"It's not my business, sir. I'm just curious. Did her husband die in the war, something bad like that?"
He put down his paper and looked at me. "Is she doing her work?"
"Oh yes, sir, she does a good job. It's just, she always looks so sad."
"There are lots of sad people in this world. Do you like your job, Hosanna?"
I wouldn't have put it that way. "Yes, sir.""You want to keep it?"
"Then do your work and mind your business."
Toward the end of the month, maybe the last day, Gilda didn't come in. We had the kind of jobs where if you didn't show up, you missed that day's wages. Most people only took off work if there was a dire emergency or almost life-and-death illness. Gilda was back at the hotel the following day, and she didn't look any the worse for wear. A week later, in mid-October, she missed another day. When she returned, I pulled her aside. "You all right?" I asked her.
"Yes," she said. "I am fine."
"Why didn't you come to work?"
"Yom Kippur. Jewish," she added, then, seeing my puzzled face, "It is the day of atonement. We ask God to forgive our sins. We do not eat during the day. At night we have a feast."
The idea of dedicating one day to say you're sorry to God for everything you've done wrong and then having God wipe the slate clean appealed to me, but I had my own religion to think about. When I woke up on Sunday I was anxious to go to church. Singing always rejuvenated me, and I was a soloist in Mt. Olivet's choir. When I took off my choir robe after church, it felt good wearing a nice dress, a hat, and my only pair of high heels.
That Sunday, as usual, I met up with Tuney downstairs in the fellowship hall. "Hey, girl," he said. I could smell his aftershave when we hugged.
"How's it going?"
"All right. I got another interview this week." Tuney had been trying to get from behind a broom ever since we'd arrived in Los Angeles.
"Fountain. I'd be building airplanes."
The California Eagle had run an article the previous week on how the aerospace industry was beginning to hire back some of the Negroes who had been displaced after the war ended. I prayed that Fountain would give him a chance.
Being in the church basement was like warming our hands over a little ember of Inez. Home folks were standing around in clumps, talking and laughing, hugging and shaking hands, munching ginger cookies and sipping red fruit punch. Our pastor, Reverend Pearl, had gone to the same one-room schoolhouse with my mama and daddy.
Tuney and I spent a few minutes getting caught up with what was going on in Texas, pretending we weren't homesick. Then I mentioned Gilda. He said, "I told you that after the war things would change."
Just then I noticed some of the men smiling, and when I looked up a tall, pretty girl with wavy hair that hung past her shoulders was headed toward us. "There you are," she said, and slipped her arm through Tuney's. She smiled at him and then at me.
"Hosanna, this is my friend Thomasine."
"How do you do?" I said. My brother's motto was: New week, new woman. He'd been that way since his voice changed.
"Very nice meeting you," she said, sounding proper.
I started feeling as though someone had erased me off the blackboard. Girls who looked like Thomasine always made me feel that way. I'd never had a roomful of men smiling at me. But then I didn't have skin the color of peaches or delicate features, and my hair didn't blow in the wind. I chatted with them for a few minutes, then I made an excuse and went home.
Maybe some of the English lessons started to kick in because as the months passed, Gilda began speaking more. When she came in she'd say good morning to Fern, Opal, Winnie, me, and even Hattie, who'd whistle something back. She asked us how we were doing and said fine when we asked about her. She wasn't having conversations, though I could tell by her expressions that she understood a lot of what people were saying. She didn't smile, not with those teeth of hers. But she was trying. Sometimes one of the women might bring in something to eat and share it with the rest of us. Gilda always refused anyone's food but her own. "I must eat special food," she told me. "It must be cooked a certain way." I learned that she was from Poland, but when I asked her how she came to be here, her eyes got that empty look, so I let that be. During those first few months, the only time I ever saw her laugh was when the children came to see her.
We had both finished our shifts, I was headed out the door and so was Gilda. All of a sudden we heard childish voices calling her name. When I turned around she was bent down and the boy and girl were hugging her. There was a stern-looking woman standing behind them, the mother, I supposed. Gilda looked up and saw me. Her eyes shifted to the woman's face, and something about her expression told me that she wouldn't introduce me, that she couldn't. Later I would remember that troubled glance, but I didn't care then. Really, I didn't notice too much other than Gilda's face. It was the first time I knew that she still had a spark inside her, that her soul's light hadn't been completely extinguished by whatever she'd gone through. She was still able to love. Sometimes that's the only power on earth that will heal you.
Excerpted from WHAT YOU OWE ME © Copyright 2005 by Bebe Moore Campbell. Reprinted with permission by Berkley Publishing Group. All rights reserved.
What You Owe Me
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 544 pages
- Publisher: Berkley
- ISBN-10: 0425186318
- ISBN-13: 9780425186312