Friday, 20 April 2018

by Embe Charpentier

Brookhaven, an Atlanta suburb, June, 1970
     “Never set foot in this house again!” The satisfying slam of an oak door and the shudder of stained glass ended the eviction of Dr. Mason Philips.
     “I’m in the right,” Ivy whispered.
     After she heard his oxfords pound the last step, she sunk into the wing chair. Twins Andrew and Abigail wailed like fire engines.  Their howling forced Ivy into the formal dining room. She noticed the small tears in the wallpaper that Mason had made when he had hammered the crown molding in place. She picked Mason’s bourbon bottle from the sideboard and poured the contents of the bottle into the kitchen sink.
      Andrew skidded across the kitchen floor. His shoes were wedged over his hands. He pounded her legs with their hard soles.
      Ivy ignored him.
     “Pawpaw’s never coming home!” Abigail stomped her feet. “If you go, he can come back. Go, Mommy. Go get him, and he can get Jewel, and then it’ll be alright again!”
      “It’ll be just fine, you’ll see.” Ivy pointed to the oven.  “And look, dinner’s almost done.”
     Andrew stood up. “I don’t wanna eat! Pawpaw didn’t do anything wrong! He tells the truth, all the time. And you’re mean.”
     Ivy scooped one twin under each arm and brought them to the living room. She commanded Andrew to sit in the corner. “Stay there until you calm down. You’re almost six. Act your age.”
     Abigail pulled on her honey-colored braids as her face reddened. She sat next to Andrew, huffing and snuffling until snot ran onto her top lip.  “I love you, Andrew.” She patted her brother’s back as his chest heaved. “Pawpaw has no home. Why? You slapped him! I heard you do it. You be in the corner.”
     “That was disrespectful, Abigail. And, as for you, Andrew, when I allow you out of the corner, you will not hit me again.” Ivy directed her slit-eyes stare at Andrew’s hands.
     She returned to her white kitchen and placed the kettle on the stove. In the oven, pork chops dried into shoe leather. When the kettle whistled, she forgot to slip on an oven mitt, grasped the handle of the kettle, and branded her hand. She screamed in pain.
     The truth was not for children.
May, 1970
     “Sir, may I speak to you?” Jewel, their maid, asked Mason after tucking the children into bed. Ivy could not hear the question over the pastor’s wife’s prattling on the phone, but witnessed Jewel’s proximity to her husband’s ear.  She ended their conversation as she saw the furtive way he scrutinized the kitchen before leaving by the back door. To obtain the right vantage point, Ivy ran up the stairs.
     Out in the yard, partially hidden by the azaleas and the arbor’s arch, Mason and Jewel spoke. From her surveillance post in their bedroom, Ivy heard only the barest whisper. She saw her husband embrace the young housekeeper. She gasped. Down the stairs she tumbled reckless as a blind cyclist.
      When he returned to the living room, he turned on the TV just in time for Marcus Welby, M.D. Ivy stood in his path, right in front of his recliner. “What’s the matter, honey?”
    “Why were you outside with that Negro?” Ivy planted her feet, hands on her hips.
     “She just needed money, that’s all.” Mason walked by, almost bumping her as he sat down. “Now I want to watch this fake doctor pretend to be me. I suppose the writers must have surgeons and general practitioners advising them…”
     Ivy marched to the TV and turned it off. “We pay her. She’s plenty well-fed. Did you give her anything?”
     “No. Now I want to watch my show. Remember Ephesians 5:22 – wives, obey your husbands, etcetera.” He wagged his finger and a smile slipped across his lips. He got up from his chair, but before he arrived at the dial, Ivy turned the TV back on.
    “I’m going to listen to the revival preacher on my radio.” Ivy retreated upstairs.
    As Ivy took off her clothes, she looked for flaws in her petite figure, but found none. She turned on the radio, then brushed out her hair. The preacher spoke for some time before his sermon about David’s sins drew her attention.
     “David, though he was God’s chosen, stole Uriah’s wife… and then David took Uriah’s life for he craved Bathsheba for himself. And we know that he sinned! But God’s favor rested on David nonetheless. Yea, brothers and sisters, God knows who he has called! David’s son Absalom turned upon his father and was slain. If David had not taken Uriah’s wife to his bed, Solomon the wise, who controlled the demons themselves, would not have been born. Such are the Lord’s mysterious ways.”
    Ivy had asked Pastor Mark a question in Sunday school. “Why do some sinners dwell in God’s favor?”
     She hadn’t received an answer, just a platitude. “The rain falls on the just and the unjust,” he’d said, then turned to answer a simpler question from a snooty high school principal.
    After Marcus Welby dispensed his weekly wisdom, Mason strolled into the bedroom. By then, Ivy had decided the excessive size of Solomon’s harem made him nearly as sinful as David.
     As Mason undressed, Ivy spread her hair across the pillow.
    “Do you think all men want more than one woman?” Her eyelashes fluttered.
     Mason gave her a look reserved for his more peculiar diagnoses and pulled his tie over his head. “Why do you ask that, darlin’? I can’t speak for every man.”
     Ivy luxuriated on pink satin. “Come to bed, honey,” she cooed.
     And after the most cursory encounter, lacking in intimacy, with no “I love you” at its conclusion, Ivy laid awake. Did Mason think of her or the harem?
     The next day, Ivy observed Jewel readying Andrew for school. “C’mon, l’il man.” Jewel knelt down to tie Andrew’s shiny shoe. He giggled when she tied it in a double knot.
      “Hurry him along.” Ivy said. “You’ve got cleaning to do.”
      That day, Jewel took down the winter curtains. She hand-washed each curtain in a washtub before putting it on the line. After a few hours, Ivy observed the young woman’s movements slow. Jewel’s molasses-toned skin glistened with water and sweat. Ivy wondered how much money Mason had given her.
     As she finished the last of the curtains, a fine, cool sprinkle, little more than dew, grew into a spittle of alligator tears. General Hospital held Ivy’s attention until the commercial break. The annoying tones of the “emergency broadcast system” drove Ivy into the kitchen. She supervised Jewel from the window above the sink.
      Ivy looked on as Jewel dragged two wet curtains onto the screened-in back porch. As water droplets trickled through the screen, Abigail rested her baby doll into her carriage; Andrew ran his fire truck against the wooden wall. The children both stopped to help Jewel lay the drapes atop the benches.
     “You don’t need to do that, babies,” Jewel said. “I’d hug y’all, but I’d get you wet. You want some lemonade?”
     Both children nodded.
    “Get you some soon as I’m dry.”
     The screen door slammed as Jewel entered the kitchen.
     “Why didn’t you pick the first ones you washed to bring in?” Ivy’s glare burned its way from the tiny pearls of water that lay on Jewel’s short hair to those that decorated her breasts.
     “Sorry, Miss Philips. None of’em was dry anyways.”
     “Get a towel. I can see the edges of your brassiere, and that won’t do.”
    After Jewel skittered off, Ivy brought the children their lemonade. Andrew bumped his truck along the floorboards until it banged into the base of the baby doll’s bassinet.
    “Wah-wah. Oops, baby’s cryin,” Abigail said. “Gotta go pick’er up.”
    “She’ll go back to sleep. You don’t pick babies up the minute they cry. Finish your drink.” Ivy observed Andrew as he created a multi-car collision with his Hot Wheels. His foot knocked his half- glass of lemonade over. The liquid spilled across the porch. Andrew sat in the puddle, then stood up. He bent over and pointed to the stain.
     “I peed my pants!” Andrew pointed to his bottom. Abigail laughed as she patted her doll’s back.
     “That’s not funny!” Ivy’s face burned red. “Bad boys wet their pants. You wanna be a bad boy?”
     Andrew shook his head. “No, Mommy.”
     “Well then, you better act your age.” Ivy picked up the glasses as Abigail again made the crying noise.
    “You woke li’l baby Jewel up.” Abigail alternated between crying and a lullaby as she bounced the baby. She stopped Little Jewel’s crying altogether to finish singing. 
Paint and Bay,
Sorrel and gray,
All the pretty little ponies.
So hush-a-by, don't you cry,
Go to sleep, little baby.

      As Abigail placed her little Jewel doll back down, Ivy patted her daughter’s head. “You’re a good mama. Now tell me why you named that white baby Jewel?”
     “Cause I love her like I love Jewel,” Abigail trilled. “Andrew and Daddy love her, too. Don’t you?”
     Ivy nodded and returned to watch the end of her soap opera. As nurse Gail Brewer cried over her cheating husband, a tear trickled down Ivy’s face.
      Jewel fried catfish for dinner and put the children to bed before leaving at eight. At five past eight, Mason rose, cigarette in hand. He ambled out the front door, but didn’t stay on the porch. Ivy peered out the window to watch him make his way south toward Dresden Drive.  He didn’t return until after nine.
    In the fifty-five minute interim, Ivy breathed a thousand times. She tidied the already-neat kitchen, vacuumed the clean carpet, and finally went upstairs to listen to the preacher again.
     Tonight, he spoke of the Beatitudes. “And I tell you, brothers and sisters, they are be-attitudes! Do you understand that the meek and the peacemakers are to be blessed? And that those who hunger for justice will receive it?”
     Ivy’s hands shook as she turned the radio off. She picked up the Ladies Home Journal from the nightstand. The magazine fell open to the end of the “Can this marriage be saved?” feature. She read the scandalous story of a woman who had confronted her philandering husband in a motel. The couple had gone to marriage counseling. “Phyllis has become a more loving wife, and has learned to trust Harvey again,” the author claimed.
    No, Mason wasn’t cheating. She wouldn’t allow it.
     Ivy pinned up her hair, then bathed in bubbles and rosewater. Though the water grew tepid, she remained in the bath. Mason entered the master bath to find her laying back against the wall of the claw foot tub. She laid barely submerged among the suds.
     Mason leaned his lanky frame in the doorway. “Is my lovely mermaid ready to emerge from the sea foam?”
     Jewel’s clothing had still been damp when she left. Ivy checked Mason’s cream-colored shirt for moist stains between the chest and navel, but found none.
     His head pulled back slightly and his smile drifted away. “You’re starin’ at my shirt. Why? Is it dirty?”
     “Maybe. Somebody might be getting lazy with the laundry.” Ivy emerged from the tub, stretching her body before his eyes to reach for a towel. His hands nearly spanned her slim waist.
     “Let me dry your back.” After he toweled her off, Mason massaged her warm muscles. She turned toward him and unbuttoned his shirt with a playful giggle.
     Mason struggled to smile. “Ivy, I’m a little worried about something tonight. Mind giving me a rain check?”
     “Sure, honey.” She laid awake for over an hour, watching him breathe. Finally, she took a Valium and found dreamless sleep.
     On Saturday, Mason had no surgeries scheduled; he left late for his nine o’clock tee time. After he came back from the golf course, he took the twins to the park for hours. Ivy phoned other doctors’ wives and agreed to host a luncheon. From her damask-covered fainting couch in the master bedroom, she heard Mason counsel Abigail.
     “Now, don’t bother your mother. I have a call to make… for work. Go watch your brother, honey.”
     Abigail ran off to the back porch. Ivy’s silent tiptoe down the front stairs got her as close to the living room phone as she could without being discovered.
    “Yes, Wednesday morning. Thank you for delivering the message.”
     Ivy’s wild imaginings flourished.
     Their day of rest began with Sunday school and dire warnings. The heat built, but by the afternoon, the sheer curtains breezed in on a west wind to fan the formal dining room. The Bartlett pear tree bent with the force of the gusts before the first flash of lightning. Andrew ran upstairs to hide under his bed. Mason coaxed his son to come out by squeezing into the cramped space beside him.
     Ivy looked down upon them both. “Mason, you’re a good father.”
     On Tuesday, Ivy busied herself by reminding Jewel how to properly clean the kitchen. After Jewel scrubbed the stove top with steel wool for fifteen minutes, she asked Ivy for Wednesday off.
    “My momma needs me.” Jewel stood stock-still, eyes lowered, fingers red and throbbing.
    “Well, I suppose that’s alright.” Ivy ripped off her rubber gloves.
     That night at dinner, Ivy’s suspicions left her with little to say. When the hospital called Mason to perform an emergency surgery, he left right away. He didn’t return until after ten.
       On Wednesday morning, Mason woke early and left. Every hour, the grandfather clock chimed later and later. When Mason returned home, Ivy held her tongue, obeying the biblical admonition to be subject to her husband. She served him baked chicken, spoke to him little, and went to bed as he read the children “Little Red Riding Hood”. 
     Ivy suspected the wolf wasn’t the only one who hid in plain sight.
      On Thursday, Jewel returned to work, but didn’t pick the children up when they whined. By mid-afternoon, a blood stain grew on the back of her dress. “Oh, you are on the cotton?” Ivy left, returned with a menstrual pad, but Jewel had never used one.
     “We use a piece of rag, ma’am.” Jewel retreated after accepting the pad. “But thank you so much.”
      “This bleeding… it’s extreme, isn’t it?”
     Jewel gave a tiny nod and thanked Ivy again as she ran to the restroom.
     Mason joined Jewel as she put the children to bed. He patted the young woman on the back and thanked her. He told her he would walk her to the bus stop. Ivy turned her radio not to the preacher, but to music. Though Elvis Presley’s gyrations were crude, his version of Anything that’s Part of You forced a knot to rise within Ivy’s throat.
     Ivy’s melancholia lasted days. Finally, Mason knelt beside her bed and took her hand.
    “What has you feelin’ so blue, Sugar?” he asked.
     Yet the words did not come. While she lay in bed alone, dark thoughts held sway. She was sorely tempted to speak her mind despite the wifely obedience the Bible demanded.
     The next morning, she rose, then dressed in her bed jacket. For the first time, she saw that her house neither looked nor smelled clean. She had taken what few meals she could in the confines of her bedroom. Fried chicken grease spattered the stove top. The carpet had not been vacuumed. The children had brought their toys in from the back porch. Andrew rolled his muddy Matchbox car under the couch. Abigail stood on a stool, searching for a snack within the butler’s pantry.
     “Jewel!” Ivy shouted.
     Jewel emerged from the bathroom, her body bent over, her face contorted in agony. Yet Ivy’s anger exploded. “What has become of my house?”
    “Sorry, ma’am.” Jewel rubbed her forehead with her fingers. “I’m doin’ the best I can. I know I must keep my eye upon the children. But I’m not well. I couldn’t stay home to care for myself, especially while you’re sick and all.”
     The corners of Ivy’s mouth fell. “Tell me what happened to you a week ago Wednesday, or I swear I will fire you this very moment.”
     “I can’t say, ma’am. It’s personal to me,” she whispered.
     “But you’re caring for my babies!” Ivy protested. “You’re bleeding like a stuck pig, and won’t say why.”
     Jewel’s hand covered her heart. “I lost a child. I can say no more than that.”
     Ivy’s hands balled into fists as the children cringed. “You have no husband. God took your child because you acted against His law.” Ivy’s words grew still louder. “1 Thessalonians 4:3! I cannot allow my children to hear the words, but you know them! You know what the Bible says!”
    A tear ran down Jewel’s face. “I know what the Bible says. I can say no more than what I have said, Miss Ivy. Now please…”
     Ivy grabbed Jewel’s forearm. “You will come with me.” After commanding the children to go to their rooms, she took her out onto the back porch.
    “You don’t want to speak because… you seduced Mason. My husband fell into your wicked trap, didn’t he?” She grasped Jewel by the shoulders. “You, competing with a lady like me. Did you teach him your disgusting ways, you homewrecker?”
     “No, ma’am! Not at all. The doctor’s been kind to me. I wouldn’t even think of such a thing!” Jewel’s hands tented into a prayerful clasp.
     Ivy’s command boomed loud enough for the children, poised on the steps, to hear. “Then tell me who fathered your child. You will give me a name.”
    “Why?” Jewel cried. “The name will mean nothin’ to you. I know much about your life, but you know little about mine. That’s how it should be for a hired woman…”
     Ivy pushed Jewel back a step. “Say his name!”
     “Esau West." Jewel gestured, palms open. "I didn’t want him! I went dancin’ at a joint in Bedford Pine, so maybe I was wrong to be doin’ such a thing. But he took me outside. I can’t say exactly what happened ‘cause I don’t recall. But he just got outta the prison farm, ma’am. How could I want a child from such a man?”
    “So you did not want this child?”
    “No, Miss Ivy.”
     “And so God took it from you? How fortunate-” and Ivy’s mind began to spin a worse tale, one she was afraid to entertain. “Why did you discuss this with my husband?”
     “Cause the crampin’ started and I didn’t know what to do. Please ma’am. God has chastised me. I’m never goin’ to the joint again!” She shuddered. “I need my job.”
     “But you are a liar,” Ivy said. She crossed her arms over her chest. “The day before this bleedin’ began, you said you were caring for your mama. But that was a deception, wasn’t it?”
     “Yes, ma’am. I want to keep my business private. I’m sorry I lied. Please forgive me.”
     “I am through discussing this.” Ivy closed her eyes and turned her face from Jewel’s. “I will speak to my husband about this tonight. And I swear upon the soul of my grandparents that I will fire you if you have lied to me even once more. Go home. Get out of my sight.”
    As Jewel shut the door on her way out, the children scampered upstairs. Ivy turned on the television to the national news. A woman named Gloria Steinem was speaking about the right of a woman to speak her mind and choose if and when to have a child. Ivy considered Mason’s betrayal of her trust and the teachings of the Bible about adulterers over a glass of sweet tea.
    “My silence has given him power,” she muttered as she cooked ham steaks and potatoes. Mason arrived and kissed her as she sweated over the hot stove. She didn’t speak to him until she’d put Abigail and Andrew to bed.
     “Say your prayers, honey.” The pretty child knelt, and spoke the words of the petition by heart.
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep:
If I die before I wake I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take. Amen.

    After coming down the stairs, Mason asked her to go outside on the back porch. “Why is Jewel absent? And why didn’t you speak to me tonight?” he whispered.
     “You know why.” She paused for effect. “That trollop was expecting a child, but you said nothing to me. Why?”
      Mason’s voice came soft and slow. “She asked me to keep it to myself.”
      The stammered question stumbled and fell. “Have you slept with her?”
      “No! Absolutely not!” Mason’s eyes met her own. He stood stiff and tall. “She needed understanding, and I provided it.”
       As voices grew louder, the children crept down the stairs. Abigail covered her face with her hands. Andrew stuck his fingers in his ears.
      But the news broadcast had created new questions within her heart. “You provided more than understanding, didn’t you?”
      “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Mason pulled at the knot of his tie.
     “You… you aborted her baby. You cut it from her womb, you murderer.” Ivy began to cry. Her face burned crimson.
     Mason hesitated between words.  “She didn’t want it. She said she could never love it. She couldn’t afford to care for it.”
      Ivy’s hand struck her husband with the force of a judge’s gavel. His head snapped backward. Though her palm stung, she hit him a second time.
     He grabbed her wrist. “Stop it! Do not hit me a third time, Ivy.”
    Abigail wretched, then tiptoed up the stairs to the bathroom. Andrew followed, tears dripping down his chin. 
    “You butcher! You criminal! By tomorrow, you will leave this house. I’m going to file for divorce.” Ragged pulls of breath shook her.
     His face fell and his eyes filled with tears.  “You can’t take my home and my children from me. Not now, not ever. My family is my whole life.”
     “I haven’t called the police on you. But I could if I wanted to. Tonight, you will sleep on the couch. Leave by the end of the day tomorrow.”
     As Ivy stormed up the stairs, she thought she heard Abigail sniffle. She closed and locked her door. Mason had ripped God’s protection from their family. They had dwelled beneath the security of angel wings. Ivy cried on the feather pillow.
      By the mandate of her church, the only grounds for divorce was adultery. Such a lie was better than the truth.
     When Ivy fired Jewel, she told her that begging would never excuse her lie. “You started my husband along this path. Now he’s going to Hell. If you hadn’t gone to a juke joint, my marriage wouldn’t be over.”
     “Please don’t hurt Mason. He loves his babies, just like I do.”
      Ivy gave Jewel Green five minutes to bid the children goodbye.
      Mason’s departure for the Country Club was marked by chaos and the children’s hate. By Thursday, Ivy had spoken to a lawyer for a divorce. Her parents agreed that adultery with a Negro was sufficient grounds according to God's law. 
     On the Sunday after Mason’s departure, Ivy and the children sat in their usual pew. She recognized him from across the church. After the rest of the congregation left, Mason still knelt on the cold tile floor.  Pastor Mark rushed to Ivy’s side as she asked a member of the Ladies’ Guild for a ride home.
    “You must seek counseling, Mrs. Philips. What God has joined let no man put asunder.” Pastor Mark’s soft tone sought her understanding.
     “My husband deserves his fate,” she answered. She dragged both children from the church as they begged her to allow them to stay.
     She found a new nanny through recommendations. Marla Parks, a thick-bodied, light-skinned black woman, cooked well. The first few weeks went uneventfully; the forty year-old did her job in a slow, competent fashion. Yet the children dissolved into tears at the slightest provocation.
    “Marla’s not like Jewel.” Abigail clutched baby doll Jewel to her chest.
     "Just a trip to the park, Mama. I need to see Pawpaw," Andrew pled. 
     “Not today. But it’s all going to be alright.” Every night, Ivy planned a future like a gambler played gin rummy - not seeing the next card, believing life random.  
    Weeks passed. Finally, Ivy agreed to a counseling session. The pastor took them to his office. Mason’s cowed body slumped into an armchair. As she faced his haggard countenance, she took the divorce papers from her purse and laid them upon his lap.
     “I agreed to this counseling session for one reason.” She paused and extended her hand toward him. He grasped it as a drowning man holds a life preserver. “I’m expecting your child, Mason.”
      Mason sobbed from deep within his chest. “Do you forgive me, Ivy?”
     “Do you think I should?” Ivy bristled. But then, she was not alone. “Pastor Mark, I’d like to talk to my husband alone.”
      They compromised in the quiet of the priory, until all that was left was discretion.
      They would protect the children.
     A week later, Jewel Green returned to the Philips residence. Abigail ran to her side with a delighted yelp. Andrew grabbed her leg. “Don’t leave us again!”
     Jewel’s eyes remained lowered, her voice silenced.
     “The children certainly are glad to see you.” Ivy struggled to control the bile that rose in her throat.
    “Mama’s going to have a baby.” Abigail held up her baby Jewel doll. “You can help us take care of her.”
     “Go to the porch,” Ivy told the children. “We’ll be there soon.”
     As the children ran off, Ivy handed Jewel a list of chores. Her throat tightened with every word she spoke. “This is what needs to be done today.”
      She didn’t wait for a reply. She walked past Jewel, into the front hall, where just weeks before, she’d commanded Mason to leave. During their negotiations, she’d promised she’d try to forgive him. They both knew the implication of her words. Ivy stared at the red stained glass panel in the door. Mason deserved nothing. Jewel deserved the same.
     “I’ll always be in the right,” Ivy whispered.  

* * * * *
Embe Charpentier has two novellas published by Kellan books in 2015 and 2016. Thirty of her short stories have been featured in diverse literary magazines such as The Quotable and Polychrome

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