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I work for four hundred and thirty-eight white ladies in a three-story mansion, not a one of them over the age of twenty-two. When I took this job, nearly twenty-five years ago, I did it out of necessity. Things in my life had … well, let’s just say they had jumped the track. All of the women in my family, as far back as any of us knew, had worked as domestics. I had been determined to do something different—graduate from college—and make a name for myself. Yet here I am following along in their footsteps.
I clean toilets, I mop floors, I polish fancy furniture, and I shine the sterling silver. I do a whole lot more, unrelated to housekeeping, but I’ll get to that later. Even though things may not have turned out the way I planned, I like to think I’ve made the best of it. My people always told me, “When the praises go up the blessings come down, even if they are found in the most unlikely places.”
Now, let’s get back to the young ladies. Only sixty-six of them actually stay in the mansion. The other four hundred or so stay in dormitories or apartments and come over for meals, to do their homework, attend chapter meetings, and just be together. They’re sisters. Not by blood. Sorority sisters. Alpha Delta Beta sorority sisters. It’s considered one of the oldest and finest sororities on the University of Mississippi campus. And that mansion I mentioned? We all call it “the House.”
In a way, it reminds me of that Downton Abbey house on PBS. Not as spectacular on the outside, but with every bit of drama on the inside. Like Downton, there’s a staff of people cooking and cleaning at the Alpha Delt House, plus a whole lot of wealth, gossip, pretty clothes, and tears.
Until it went off the air, the sisters living in the House used to pack into the TV room and watch that show every Sunday night. Made it into a party, too, bringing in cheese plates, dips, and desserts. Always had an adult beverage—or two—to go along with their hors d’oeuvres. They’d have to be sneaky about it, though. No alcohol allowed in the House, even if the drinker is twenty-one.
Looks to me like some things haven’t changed all that much in a hundred years. Yet other times I know they have, for the better. Last year, the Alpha Delts let in their first black sister. I see the positive in that—I’m not denying it—but truth is I’m curious. I’m trying to get up my nerve to ask her why she wanted to join a white sorority in the first place when there are three black sororities on campus. Seems like she’d feel a whole lot more comfortable over there, rather than sticking out like a black swan over here. I know it’s not my business. But, like I said, I’m curious. Every time we pass each other in the House, me in my navy work scrubs, she in her fancy designer dresses, I can’t help but wonder what it is she’s thinking when she looks at me.
Wouldn’t it be nice if all the black and white sororities combined? I ask myself that sometimes. But that has about as much of a chance as all the black and white churches coming together. Personally, I think that’s the way the Lord meant for it to be, but it would be easier for the Delta State Statesmen to beat the Ole Miss Rebels than it would be to fully integrate Mississippi.
We—that’s the rest of the staff and me—have been working like mules for a solid week now trying to get this House ready for the new school year. It’s been closed up all summer long and the cobwebs—thick as bagworms—have found a home in every nook and cranny. I’ve been wearing myself out ten hours a day, washing down the baseboards, cleaning the dust off all the mahogany dining room tables and the hundreds of matching Chippendale chairs. Vacuuming the draperies. Vacuuming the upholstery. Polishing the silver. Woo. Makes me tired just talking about it.
I finished scrubbing the bathrooms on all three floors yesterday, and today I’ve still got the composites. It’s my job to make sure they are dust and fingerprint–free; we’ve got one for every year clear back to 1912. I have to laugh when I look at them all lined up and down the halls and in the chapter room with tiny oval pictures of all the members. It looks like white is the only race. Except for last year’s composite with that little black head on the end. That’s Alberta Williams, our pretty black swan.
Seems like I’m doing nothing but murmuring and complaining. God hates a complainer. I know that full well. Scripture says so. I do it, and I might do it more often than I should, but the truth is nobody’s twisting my arm to work at the Alpha Delta Beta House. There isn’t but one thing tethering me to a job where after twenty-five years of loyal service, I don’t get but $11.50 an hour.
That one thing, the only thing, keeping me working here is the girls. I love them like they are my own daughters. And most of them love me right back. Sure, there’s a few with their noses stuck up in the air who don’t want much to do with me or the rest of the staff, but that’s anywhere. The vast majority are twenty-four-karat gold. They’re my babies. Whether it’s my advice, a shoulder to cry on, my prayers, or my unquestionable love, they always seem to be in need of Miss Pearl.
* * *
I hear someone squealing my name and the scurry of flip-flops on hardwood clapping in my direction. Today is move-in day and I’m inside my hall maintenance closet searching for a spare bottle of Windex with my backside poking out the door. When I straighten up, look behind me, Elizabeth Jennings is standing there with that pearly white smile of hers spread clear across her pageant-perfect face. Mississippi is the beauty queen capital of the world and all it takes is one glance inside the Alpha Delt House to understand why.
An armload of clothes on hangers falls, kerplunk, onto the floor, and Elizabeth jumps in the closet with me. She throws her arms around my neck, squeezes me like I’m family. “I missed you, Miss Pearl.”
“Welcome back, sweetheart. I missed you, too.”
I have to keep from laughing at her tiny self. That backpack she’s wearing is bigger than she is and it’s bulging at the zipper like a tight dress. She’s wearing Lululemon shorts with an oversize white Alpha Delt T-shirt and leather flip-flops. Why all the girls want to wear those big T-shirts, hiding the prettiest parts of themselves, is something I’ll never understand. Her legs are dark, like caramel candy, and well toned.
“Woo-whee, baby, your skin looks like mine,” I say, busting out laughing.
“I just got back from Seaside four days ago.” She holds her arm up to mine. “Our family goes every summer. Did you go anywhere fun?”
I’m thinking to myself, Me? Go on a vacation? I’m laid off three months every summer. Best I can do is collect an unemployment check, and that’s not enough to fill a sugar jar. Some might wonder why I don’t look for temp work. I do. Aside from a babysitting job or two, there’s not much left. Oxford is a college town. Things scale way back in the summer. But that’s not Lizzie’s problem, nor her fault. “No, baby, I had too much going on right here in Oxford.”
The crease between her eyebrows deepens. “I’m sorry, Miss Pearl.” She closes her eyes, pokes out her bottom lip. It’s genuine. I know Lizzie’s heart.
“I’m not worried about it. And you shouldn’t be, either. What room are you moving into?”
“I don’t know yet. I was on the way to Mama Carla’s apartment to get my key, but there was a big line. So I came to find you.” She hugs me again.
Mama Carla is our housemother, although these days people say House Director. On move-in day she checks out room keys to each girl and has them sign a contract swearing to obey all the House rules.
After a few minutes of catching up, Lizzie sighs and says, “I guess I better get in that line.” She leans down, scoops up half the clothes into a messy pile, high as her chin. Any ironing done before today was a big waste of time.
I lean down, pick up the rest. “I’ma help you with your things. Come on, let’s use the back steps.”
“You’re sweet to offer, but my dad’s around here somewhere. Just stick the rest on top.” She laughs. “If you don’t mind.”
I plop the remainder of her clothes on top of the pile, mash them down so she can see. “Be careful now.”
“I will.” She takes a few steps toward Mama Carla’s apartment, turns back around. “I’ve got a lot to tell you—when you get a minute.”
“You know I’m here for you. My office is always open.” All the girls know they can stop by my office, also known as my maintenance closet, for counseling any time they choose. I’ve got two stools inside exactly for that reason. Alpha Delt In-House Counselor is another of my unofficial titles.
She steps forward to hug me once more, remembers the load in her arms, and kisses my cheek instead. “Thanks, Miss Pearl. You’re the best.”
Lizzie has always been one of my favorites. Oh, Lizzie is what most everyone calls her. She’s a senior this year and I’ve known her since she was a pledge. She’s also this year’s Recruitment Chairman and that is one heck of a job. I’ve never met her dad, but her mother’s real nice. She’s always polite and tells me she’s relieved I’m working here. Last year when Lizzie came down with that kissing disease, mono-something-or-other, and almost had to leave school, her mother must have called me every other day for three months asking would I please check on her baby.
“Pearl,” she’d start, like my name had two syllables, “it’s me again.” There was no reason for her to tell me who “me” was. She knew I had her name in my phone. I have almost all the mamas’ numbers in my phone.
Most of the rest of the mamas are good to me, too. Whenever I meet one for the first time they say, “Miss Pearl, I’ve heard so much about you.” That lets me know their daughters have been talking well about me. Somehow or another, they all find out my cell phone number and a week doesn’t go by without one or two of them calling to ask me to take care of their daughters. They are well past the age of needing taking care of, but tell that to some of these mamas.
Last year, I had Genna Ferguson’s mother call and ask if I would drive over to the Walgreens and pick up a neti pot, a bottle of Advil, one of zinc, and a six-pack of Sprite for her sick daughter. After I left there, she wanted me to drive to Simpson’s Deli, clear across town, to get an order of their chicken soup because it was Genna’s favorite.
Another mama asked me to make sure her girl’s dress was ironed for a big date she had that evening. Said he came from one of the finest families in Jackson and she couldn’t make it to town in time to ensure her daughter looked all right.
Still another mama called one morning and asked if I’d go up to her daughter Liza’s room and calm her down. Said her boyfriend had cheated on her with “a Chi Theta whore” and asked if I could put my arm around her and make sure she had a “mama-like” shoulder to cry on. I never turn any of them down. I’m happy to do it. I feel like the girls are half mine, anyway.
Several of the mamas bless me with nice things for taking care of their girls. I’ve got a collection of scarves and throws, decor pillows and candles. Sometimes it’s bubble bath or a nice bar of soap. Other times it’s a gift certificate to a restaurant or Macy’s. And oftentimes it’s plain ol’ cash. Last year I got a letter from one of my girls telling me, “You are a special person. I don’t know what I’d do without you. I love you, Miss Pearl.” She left it for me outside my closet. Put a candle with it, too. One of those good-smelling kinds. But something about that note, the I-love-you-Miss-Pearl part, tugged at the deepest part of me.
Before I can get out of my closet, here come Scarlett McDonald and Clemé Barkley rapping on the door. When they see me, they both throw their arms around me. Caitlin Ishee slips in between. They’ve been rooming together in a three-person room for the last two years, and are as tight as the lid on a honey jar. That’s the best thing about joining a sorority; once a friendship is formed, that bond is so thick it would take a thousand soldiers to knock down their bulwark.
“Excuse me, Miss Pearl,” Clemé says, “Mama Carla needs your help. The line to check in is pretty backed up and Amelia Williamson is upstairs sick.” Amelia is this year’s House Manager and is in charge of room assignments. It’s her job to sit with Mama Carla all day handing out keys.
“Well, okay then. Tell her I’ll be on soon as I lock up.” The girls scurry off in front of me as I pull out my key. “Tell her not to worry,” I holler. “Help’s on the way.” It’s not uncommon for Mama Carla to ask for my help. She gives me plenty of extra responsibilities around the House. There is nothing she can’t trust me with and she knows it. Trustworthiness is paramount in this job. Without it I’d be out on the street faster than cotton catches fire.
I shut and lock the door behind me, then make my way to her apartment. It’s in the front of the House near the door, so she can see who’s coming and going. Lord. I look down, let out a big sigh. This morning I could see my face in these floors. Now, after folks been tracking in dust all day long, they are some kind of filthy all over again.
Right before walking into Mama Carla’s apartment I notice the front door standing wide open, letting every bit of the cold air out. I reach out to shut it and a rush of heat hits me in the face like I’ve opened the oven. August is sure enough showing off today. Weatherman said Oxford is predicted to tie the record at 106.
When I do make it in, four sisters are clustered together. Arms are swinging, hands are dancing. When they see me, they stop talking and get to squealing, “Miss Pearl!” Reunion is what I love most about move-in day. When Mama Carla sees me, she rolls her eyes. Beads of sweat have collected all over her forehead and it’s running down the sides of her cheeks. Her face looks like a giant ripe tomato.
“Lord have mercy,” I say to her. “Are you sick?” The poor thing’s hair is wringing wet and she’s fanning herself with a magazine.
“This is what happens when you stop taking hormones. Is the front door open?”
“It was. I pulled it to. But it won’t stay that way long. Too many people runnin’ in and out of here.” I grab another magazine off the table and sit down next to her.
She blows a long puff of air. “Enjoy your youth, Pearl. Once you hit menopause the party’s over.”
“I’m not that far away,” I say, fanning her from the side.
“You’ve got plenty of time. Oh, to be forty-four again.” She runs her fingers through her hair in an attempt to restyle. Bless her heart. There is no use.
I help her with the keys and contracts and hand each girl her welcome back gift. Every sister staying in the House this year gets her own copy of The Southern Belle’s Bible, courtesy of the Jackson Alums. One of them self-published the handbook and to show their support the alums have bought sixty-six copies. Word is the lady spent over twenty thousand dollars of her own money on publishing costs five years ago, and she’ll have to sell fifteen hundred copies to ever turn a profit.
“I’ll be right back,” Mama Carla says, standing up. “If I don’t dunk my head in an ice bucket I’ll keel over and die.”
“Not really, but I think I’ll spend a few hours in the walk-in cooler.” She laughs. “I’ll bring you a Coke if I live that long.” She knows Co-Cola’s my drink. “Will you watch Trudy for me?”
“Of course. Here, Trudy.” I snap my fingers, pat my hip. But that tiny shih tzu never looks my way, just follows Mama Carla right on out the door.
I’ve been at the table ten minutes when Sarah Mason walks in. When she eyes me, she screams, “Oh. My. Gosh. When did you get extensions?” Then she knocks ten of the handbooks off the table trying to put her arms around my neck. “You look so pretty.”
“Thank you, baby.” I turn around, let her inspect the back.
“I’ve been thinking of getting them myself. Who did yours?”
“You know my friend, Shirley? The beautician?”
She nods. “I met her that time she came over here to meet you after work.”
“That’s right. Sure did. She did it for me.”
Sarah eyes my hair with interest. “How long did it take?”
“Took her five hours.”
She wrinkles her nose. “Forget that.” Sarah’s like all the other young ladies in this House. None of them like to wait for things.
“It wasn’t that bad,” I say with a chuckle.
“How much did it cost?”
A few moments pass before I answer her. “We do it differently than y’all do. It wouldn’t cost the same,” is all I say. There are some things I like to keep to myself.
“You look hot.” She turns around and asks Shannon Harris and Emily Leonard, who have both just arrived, if they agree. Now everybody’s talking about my hair.
Once we’re alone Sarah takes Mama Carla’s chair. “Wait till you hear about my summer.” She pulls one foot up on the seat and props her chin on her knee. “A lot has happened.”
“I hope it’s good.”
“It’s not.” Pain creeps all over her little ol’ face.
I reach over, take her by the hand. “Are you okay, Sarah?”
She squeezes my fingers, shakes her head. By the way she’s biting down on her bottom lip I can tell she’s fighting back tears. “I’m okay. I just wish my life could go back to the way it was.”
“Come here, baby.” I wrap my arm around her, pull her in tight. Her parents divorced last year and it about broke her heart. Mine, too, watching the way it tore her up inside. Sarah and I are close. We’ve spent hours talking about everything from Alpha Delt to grades and female friends to boyfriends, even more serious subjects like faith, dying, and the afterlife. It makes me feel good to know I can soothe her.
“My dad insisted on helping me move in today. He’s around here somewhere. Asshole.”
I pull back, look her in the eye. “What makes you say that?”
She lowers her voice. “The truth finally came out. He’s been cheating on my mom with a girl only five years older than me.”
“Lord have mercy.”
“I’m so embarrassed.” Tears flood her eyelashes.
“Sarah. I know that’s hard on you. But listen to me. Your daddy’s actions do not define who you are. You may come from him, but you are your own person.”
“I know, I just don’t want people gossiping about me.” She’s right about that. Gossip is a favorite pastime in sorority houses.
“Let them talk. They aren’t talking about you; they’re talking about your daddy.”
She nods. But only slightly. A tear streaks down the side of her nose.
Jenna Dole and Liz Lemley bounce in the door for their keys. When Sarah sees them she looks off, wipes her tears away with her fingers.
“You just remember who you are and whose you are,” I whisper. “Will you do that for me?”
A shy smile builds. “You always make me feel better.”
“That’s what I’m here for.”
What is it with these men who would sooner wreck their kids’ lives than deny that urge hanging between their legs?
Copyright © 2018 by Lisa Patton