Issue 131, Summer 1994
“Child, this ain’t no place for the likes of you.” That’s what Ophelia said to me this morning, when I showed her my new room. She comes every morning now to pick up the cartload of laundry those two girls manage to mess up in a night. She’s the biggest, strongest, sturdiest woman I ever saw, can wad sheets, tie them tight up in a ball and lift it with one hand, balancing it over her head. She is something else. Even Mizz Addie seems admirous.
I reckon it is a wonderment that somebody like me’s got a room like this. All mine —not a porch cot, not a little closetsize one to share with however many more. Four square white walls, a real bed with a clean cover, sheets, my own pillow. I’m situated at the short end of the outback building —that’s what Mizz Addie calls this place I’m lazing a little this afternoon, where I’ll sleep tonight and every night from now on, where Bess and Chantal earn they living. Outback.
She chose a name for the main house, too. Hazelhedge, on account of the bushes grow tall round the porch. They’ll keep prying eyes out, she says. Got a wooden sign made up with the name carved on it, painted red and gold, and stuck on a post in the front yard grass.
You ask me, that name ain’t half fancy enough to suit. Ain’t anybody asked, though.
This’s been the busiest three weeks I ever lived through. And what’s happened to this Hazelhedge in the between-time’s about as wondrous as the magical changement came over Bess and Chantal the day I first saw them in their working clothes, when they went all a sudden from homely white girls to fancy hoes. Which Mizz Addie says I ain’t supposed to call them, but in my head I tend to.
Mizz Addie’s big on proper names for things. “Ladies, Minyon.” That’s what she wants me to call them. “Sporting ladies, if you will.” According to her, this ain’t no hoe house, either it’s a sporting house.
The last bit of furniture got delivered today. Mizz Addie took me round to every room, teaching me proper names, telling what I’m supposed to do. Keeping it all straight seems like one big job.
Like the light in the front parlor—so big it took three men to hang. “One hundred and twelve crystals, Minyon.” She pulled over a chair and stood on it, reached up and unhooked one of them. Light sparkled like splinters in the room.
“Twice a month, Minyon, take these down, one by one. Soak them in vinegar, scrub them thoroughly, dry them to within an inch of their lives, and put them back up.” She hung the crystal back.
“One hundred and twelve, Minyon. And they’ve all got to shine. No point in having a chandelier, otherwise.” My head filled with points and sparkles and the bigness of the job. I felt relieved when she turned the light off and the room settled back to daytime dark.
Two marble tables in the parlor need just once-a-day wiping with a damp cloth, she told me. Brass tables and trays and the spitting bowl —spittoon, she names it —got to be polished every week. Silver, too. “No sense in having nice things, Miflyon, if you don’t take proper care of them.” Real big on proper.
And dust—Lord, never seen so much stuff got to be dusted every day: lamps with green and red shades, hanging from chains, fringes swinging long and low; fancy paintings with gold frames where the paint stands up thick enough to feel with your finger; mirrors about everywhere you look, with carved gold frames got plenty nooks and crannies for dust to hide; big vases Mizz Addie says come from clear round the world, place named China.
That ain’t all I got to do, either—not even close. In the cleaning department, they’s sweeping every day, and scrubbing two toilets plus this one special one made just for cleaning your cooter. And washing the dishes they dirty up at night. Glasses take forever, how she makes me do —one at a time in the sink, same as chandelier crystals. She’s awful big on one at a time, too.
Then’s the sheet situation — enough to keep a body hopping all night. Every time Bess or Chantal get through with a customer, I got to run up, rip off sheets, and put on a fresh set before the next show starts. Seem like the biggest waste in the world to me—sometimes ain’t a wet spot nor a stray hair on them.
After seven or eight times a night, I’m wore out with it and ain’t even half through. The linens make a huge pile in the kitchen, so every morning when Ophelia comes and takes a look, she shakes her head, rolls eyes to heaven, says something like, “Lord, those girls been too busy last night.” Then she commences wrapping the sheets up to take home. Every day she brings a clean load, takes home a dirty one. Mizz Addie says clean linens’s the surest sign of a first-class sporting house. Which this one surely must be.
Ophelia don’t stay but about an hour, getting that laundry together, and sometimes she’s come and gone before I get to see her. Which I’m sorry for, on account of they’s something about her comforts me, with her big old wide self. Makes me ^iss my old Gan in Little Town, want nothing so bad as to just crawl up in Ophelia’s large lap, quit cleaning and changing sheets and polishing and learning the proper name for everything in sight.
Two other coloreds work here now, but don’t none but me live in. Sarah the cook, she comes round four of an afternoon, cooks the one real meal we eat, which I’m generally starving plumb to death for by then. I eat on the side porch cot used to be my bed, a heaping plate of good food every afternoon except Sunday, when we pretty much got to scrounge for ourselves.
Sarah’s the blackest woman I ever saw, with hair pulled back in a bun so tight it makes her eyes slant up. Face’s never once cracked a smile since she’s been here—maybe since she’s been born, for all I know. She’s so dark and fed-up looking, I do my best to stay right out that kitchen when she’s in it. I ain’t know what that woman’s so mad over, but I ain’t particular about getting in the way of it.
Then they’s Frank Washington. He comes in time for supper most days, and two times now he’s sat with me on the side porch. We don’t talk much, just sit together for eating. He fixes drinks for the customers, nights, and generally makes himself useful. “You have to have one good man in a proper sporting house, Minyon.” That’s what Mizz Addie says. “Keeps everybody honest.”