In which Wendy reveals her guilt and becomes a true heroine.
That night as the group gathered, Niall felt like he was coming home. He looked with fondness upon each of the others. He could recall nice moments with each of the other five. He remembered Leyden’s smile when she first met him in the bus station. He recalled how D.W. took the time to explain to a stranger how the bus illusions worked. He recalled how Natalie had been kind enough to let him carry her bag when they arrived at the school. He felt more accepted than ever before in his life.
When he arrived, Clayton and Wendy were discussing what had happened the night before.
“I think everybody has things they are ashamed of in their pasts,” Clayton was saying. “I know I do. You could tell that Niall was ashamed of having hit the bartender. I think the most important thing was that Oscar and Niall trusted us enough to let us know the dark side of their lives along with the things they could be proud of.”
Clayton patted the seat on the couch next to himself on the couch as an invitation to Niall to join him there.
“I don’t know, Clayton, I just think there are some things that are so terrible that no one could accept that person again if it were known what they had done.”
“But Wendy, you’re talking about things like mass murder, not the kind of things that ordinary people like you and I might do.”
The others were approaching as they spoke.
“No. There are things… I can’t say.” Wendy’s face grimaced as if in pain and her eyes started to tear.
“Wendy, Wendy,” Natalie said looking almost horrified. “What are they doing to you? What have they said that’s so bad?”
“We didn’t say anything.” Niall said.
“Actually, I was suggesting,” Clayton said,” that since Oscar and you, Niall, had confessed guilty secrets that to balance things out each of the others of us should perhaps also confess to things we were ashamed of in our past. She seems to think that it would break up the group. That we couldn’t like one another if we knew bad things about each other.”
“I’ve done lots of things I’m ashamed of and most of them became public at one time or another but I can’t remember anyone ever rejecting me because of what I did,” Leyden said, hugging Wendy’s shoulder from the other side.
“Yeah,” D.W. added,” I’ve never had trouble forgiving others for their screw-ups.”
“Besides,” Clayton said with a grin, “now that we know Oscar is a preacher he can give you absolution.”
“I can give whom absolution?” Oscar said having just come in.
“Anybody who confesses to the rest of us something they are ashamed of having done. The idea is that since we all know something bad about both you and Niall we should each give our own confessions to balance things out.” Clayton said.
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea, Clayton,” Oscar said. “It sounds too much like forcing someone to reveal things they don’t want to. It sounds like ganging up on some poor soul who can’t defend themselves. It could be quite cruel.”
“How do you feel about your confession last night, Oscar?” Leyden asked.
“Now I feel really good about it. But last night I was terrified. I was picturing being rejected by you all. I was afraid of being an outcast. I know how frightening that is. I wouldn’t want to force that on anybody.”
Wendy looked at Niall and said,” How do you feel about your confession?”
Niall smiled quietly and said,” I haven’t felt this good about myself in years. Each and every one of you have told me that you accept me. It’s a tremendous relief.”
“Well, if it’s all right with everybody, I’d like to take my turn whether anybody else chooses to do so or not.” Wendy looked around with a somewhat shy raising of her eyebrows.
She was hugged by the other women and smiled at by the men seated in front of her.
“Okay,” she said taking a deep breath and moving to a chair that faced the others. “I’ll try. I can start. . . though I can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to finish my story. If I falter, please don’t make me go on.”
“Oh, we wouldn’t make you, dearest Wendy,” said Natalie, then she became almost fierce as she looked around the group “and don’t you others even think about it or you’ll be dealing with me.” Though somewhat startled, the others quickly denied any intention of trying to get Wendy to tell more than she felt comfortable with.
Wendy bowed her head for almost a full minute to the solemn silence of the others and then began in a quiet, almost whispered voice. The others listened carefully.
“I was born and raised on a farm in the Deep South. I married a young man from another farm in the area and we farmed as tenant farmers. Luther was killed in an accident when I was 38 and I couldn’t stay in the house because the owner wanted to bring in another tenant, so I took my four children back to my grandmother’s three-room house which a kind farmer let her stay in for a small rent. It had been redecorated and some work had been done on it so it had running water and an indoor toilet but for those to work we had to have the pump working. Whenever the electricity failed, we had to save the water in the tank for drinking and cooking so we used the outdoor privy. Granny had some income from Social Security and I was able to get some money from Social Security also, after a time. We were able to do some gardening and my oldest boy got work on some of the farms in the area.
Granny wasn’t real happy to have us move in there ‘cause she was always one to want to have her own way so we had to be real nice to her even when she got unreasonable which was pretty often. But we were family so she had to let us in she said.
Granny taught my children to read out of an old McGuffey’s reader. She said she wasn’t going to have any illiterate grandchildren bringing shame on her so they were going to learn to read, like it or not. She had them reading the Bible and old newspapers that my oldest boy got from the farmers. Of course the papers were usually at least a couple of days old and there was often sections missing but the children got a pretty good idea of what was happening out in the world even though the papers was several days old in most cases.”
As Wendy talked you could almost see her change into a younger, rural version of herself. Even her voice changed, taking on overtones of the Deep South and the rhythms of her speech and grammar were altered.
“Well, when the troubles came my youngest child, Di, was about 9 years old. The price of ‘lectricity got so high we kept the lights off most of the time and used the privy even when the ‘lectricity was on to save what we could. The local farmers couldn’t afford to pay my boys to work for them so we done lost that income. Prices of things we bought was gettin’ real high so we just about stopped going to town.
My oldest boy got fed up and went north to Philadelphia to try to get a job and a couple of months later my second boy followed him up there. He was just 17 but I knowed he wasn’t going to have any kind of life at home so I let him go on. Couple of years later my last boy done left when he hit 17 so it was just the three of us, me, granny, and Di.
Anyway me and Di walked the four miles to church every Sunday and the folks there was nice enough. When they saw we didn’t have good coats and shoes, they let us do some work around the Church and paid us in clothes. They knew we wouldn’t take no charity so they was kind enough to let us keep our pride and do the work. I guess the troubles weren’t as bad for us as it was for some of the better off folks around there ‘cause we didn’t have much to begin with. We was still getting by though we couldn’t afford to go to the doctor when we got sick and we all seemed to get sick a lot that winter. I guess that must have been the winter of 2011 because the papers was full of stuff about the Ten Points Bill.
Anyway we saw in the papers that they wanted volunteers to become Payers. Now we didn’t know what Payers were, really, so we didn’t pay it no mind. But there was one of the men in our church that said he was going to do it. He was going to become a Payer. So he got a ride into a big town about fifty miles away where they was teaching people to be Payers. He was there for about 18 months and when he come back he was dressed in these white clothes. I mean he stuck out in that outfit.”
Her audience smiled appreciatively and nodded their heads, remembering how the first Payers had been so conspicuous.
“When he come to church that Sunday right before Christmas, he told the congregation that when people done good things it was his job to tell this computer what they done so it could give them money for it. He also said that food and clothes and houses and even doctor care was going to be free starting at New Year's.
When we got home me and Granny talked it over and we decided it was too good to be true so we pretty much forgot about it and just kept on as before. But when New Year's come the other kids told my daughter that folks were able to get groceries from the store without paying for them. So the next day we took the wheelbarrow and went to town to see if it was so. There was lots of people in the stores, so we went to a department store and sure enough, there was clothes that you didn’t have to pay for. Of course they was all white but they was well-made and sturdy so I got two dresses for me and one for granny. When we went to the children’s section we found out you didn’t have to pay for any of the kids’ clothes, even the colored ones. I got two outfits for Di. My girl had never had pretty clothes like that so she was just about jumping up and down with the idea. She insisted on wearing one of them new outfits home instead of her overalls even though it was pretty cold outside.
Well, we were real happy about things and ate good for a few days till Granny got really sick. I had Di walk to the neighbors and ask them if they could call a doctor for us. Somebody come by a little later in a SUV and offered to take Granny into town. So the three of us put granny in the SUV and we went with her to the hospital. They took her in and put her in a bed and hooked up tubes and machines to her but it didn’t help ‘cause they said she was just too old and sick with pneumonia. She was over 90. . . but when she died a couple of days later I couldn't tell anyone for sure how old she was, ‘cause she kept saying different things when you’d ask her how old she was. That payer fellah from church come by to see her and asked us how they been treating her and who helped us get to the hospital and all so I told him what happened. He said he’d see to it that them as had helped us would get paid for it. I said they was just being neighborly and he said that didn’t matter. If you done something good for somebody you should get paid for it.
He asked me if I’d been paid for anything yet and I said I didn’t think so cause I only had about twenty dollars to my name. I took out my purse and showed him the money but he said that wasn’t money any more. I tell you I was feelin’ pretty bad about then what with granny dying and then losing the last penny I had in the world. I just about broke down right there in front of the Payer and Di and everybody.
Well he could see I wasn’t feeling so good and he asked me if I had an account yet. I told him I never had enough money to go to the bank with. He said he was talking about a new kind of account. He said the new account wasn’t a bank account. He said I ought to come down to the courthouse and get an account set up with the computer right then. So he took us down to the courthouse where they had these computer machines set up and he took me over to one of them and he said ‘This is Wendy White’ right out loud but he wasn’t talking to nobody.
Only this machine suddenly said, ‘What is your full name, Wendy White?’
I tell you I about jumped out of my skin,” Wendy said and gave a little jump to show what she meant. The others chuckled or smiled sympathetically. “I didn’t want to say nuthin’ at first but the Payer man, he said it was okay and Di was sayin’ ‘go on mama. Tell it who you are. ’ So I got up my courage and I said, ‘I am Wendy White. ’ But I didn’t hardly sound like me ‘cause I was so scared. The computer voice said, ‘Is that your full name, Wendy?’
‘My name before I married was Hawkins,’ I croaked out, ‘So I guess my full name is Wendy Hawkins White.’
‘Please place your right hand on the plate,’ the machine said. But there wasn’t no plate there, just a round flat thing about eight inches across that had wires comin’ out of it. The Payer said, ‘That’s it right there,’ and pointed at it. So I put my right hand flat on that thing scared it was goin’ to be hot or somethin’ but it was just cool and then the machine said, ‘Thank you. Now please place your left hand on the plate. ’ So I done that. Then the machine said, ‘Place your chin on the chin rest and look into the eye-pieces, please. ’
“By now the payer knew I didn’t know what to do so he showed me the chin rest and the eye-pieces. Then he went over my hair with a vacuum cleaner thing a little until the machine said it had enough. I tell you I was ‘bout as confused as a body could be. This didn’t make no sense to me at all.”
There were grins all around and Niall was nodding his head, remembering his first experience with the computer at the airport.
“Finally he had me walk up and down in the room a couple of times. Then he talked to the machine and told it something about my having helped granny get to the hospital and he paid me $25. Now I didn’t know that was what he was doing because he sounded to me like he was just gossiping with somebody. But then he told me to ask the machine how much money I had. So I said ‘How much money do I have?’ and land sakes if that machine didn’t say ‘Wendy Hawkins White has twenty five dollars. ’
“I began to feel a little better but it was still confusing to me. The payer let my daughter get an account, too, and he paid her $10 for her help with granny. She was real happy about it.
“All the way home, Di chattered away about new clothes and having her own money to spend and such like but I didn’t really hear her. What with granny dead we didn’t have any excuse to live in her old house any longer. It wasn’t our land and it wasn’t our house. The man who owned that house could tell us to leave at any time. I mean, it was Granny he was beholden to. She was the one who had taken care of him when he was a child. It was granny’s husband who had worked his land and made profits for him for going on 40 years. We were just granny’s guests.
Besides, without Granny needing me to take care of her, what was there holding me to that land and that house? Maybe I could find some better place to live. Maybe I could get me a job in town. My boys had all made out all right as far as I knew. There wasn’t any crops in the ground this time of year in our garden so what was there holding me? Nothin’ but my fears.
So when we got home, or when we got back to the house I should say, I told Di we was moving to town. She asks if we’s going to Philadelphia. ‘No,’ I says, ‘just to town. ’
The next Sunday I talked to the Payer and some others about what jobs I could get in town and whether there was any place we could stay there. There was a rich lady in town named Ms. Fisher who wanted somebody to do housework for her who she could boss around. They said nobody else wanted to work for her since she was so picky and would yell at a body for nothin’ at all. I allowed as how after living with granny for eight years puttin’ up with Ms Fisher should be easy.
So next day me and Di walked to town and found the home of Ms. Fisher. I went round to the back porch where I told Di to sit and wait for me and I went up to the door and knocked and asked if Ms. Fisher might like to hire me to do housework for her. Well the man who answered the door, he asked me to come into the kitchen. So I went in. He asked my name and I said ‘Wendy is my name, sir. ’ He showed me some real pretty glasses on the counter next to the sink and asked me to wash and dry them. They was some kind of fancy glass and real valuable so you better believe I was real careful and washed them all and dried them all with a dish towel real careful and didn’t leave no finger smudges at all. Then I washed some other dirty dishes I seen there on the counter and dried them too. By the time I done finished he come back and looked at them glasses real close. You know, he held them up to the light just so. After he done look at them that way he sees that them other dishes is cleaned to. He looks at me real sharp and says, ‘Did I ask you to clean these dishes, Wendy?’ And I says, ‘No sir, but they was dirty and needed cleanin. ’
He give me a big smile and says, ‘Wendy you have got yourself a job. ’ And I says, ‘Thank you sir and could you tell me if there’s a place around where my daughter and I might live?’
Well he sort of puckers up at that and asks me how old my daughter is. I tell him she’s twelve goin’ on thirteen and that she’s a good worker, too. I tell him that she’s sitting right outside if he wants to see her. So he goes to the back door and there’s my daughter sitting on the steps of the porch looking at a cat that was walking across the yard. Now I done told her not to touch nothin’ and not to do nothin’ till I got back since these rich folks might have her arrested if she touched any of their things. She was a good girl, my daughter, and she had sat right there for the better part of an hour just looking ‘round at the garden and the fancy cars in the driveway that you could see from the back porch.
Well that old cat, he comes walking over to her just as bold as you please and he rubs his face on her leg as cats do you know. And she started to reach out her hand to pet him and then she remembered what I done told her and she snatched her hand back real quick like and put it in her lap and grabbed it with the other hand and squeezed her legs together on both her hands. She was wearing her new dress from the store instead of her overalls so we both thought she looked right pretty. I guess the man did too, ‘cause he said ‘I think I might know of a place. Wait here.’
So I stood right there with my fingers crossed on both hands prayin’ to God just as hard as I could. And I reckon He musta heard me on account of when that man come back he had a beautiful lady with him. He told her, ‘This is the maid I think you’re going to like and on the porch there is her daughter. Wendy tells me that her daughter is also a good worker. Her daughter is twelve and has been sitting there almost without moving for about an hour. She didn’t even touch Snack when he came by asking to be petted. I think they’ll both do very well for you.’
Ms. Fisher, that was the beautiful lady, she said, ‘Let me see your teeth, girl.’ So I opened my mouth real wide so she could see my teeth. I had lost a couple and I had several big cavities at that time so I was pretty scared she was going to tell me she didn’t want me. But she just told the man to take me and my girl to Dr. Green to see about my teeth.
I hadn’t never been to a dentist before and I can tell you that I was right scared. He had that big chair and those instruments and all. Well, he put me in that chair and he looked in my mouth and he went ‘tsk tsk’ and shook his head. I didn’t know what he meant but it didn’t look good, whatever it was. He said it was going to take a while and the man said he’d have somebody come and get me and my Di in a couple of hours. Di was out in the little sittin’ room looking at the magazines. That must have been heaven for her ‘cause she always did like to read and we never had enough reading stuff to keep her happy. Anyway that dentist and this woman that worked with him must have been busy on my mouth for over an hour and they stuck me and drilled me and poked stuff into my teeth until I was about to die. I was all sweaty, just soaked through by the time they finished even though it was nice and cool in there. Then they got Di in that chair and did the same thing to her only her teeth weren't as old and worn as mine so it didn’t take as long.
I was scared that doctor was going to ask for money I didn’t have but they never said nothin’ ‘bout money so I guessed that the rich man who turned out to be Mr. Fisher, Ms. Fisher’s husband, I guessed that he had done paid for me. Well I can tell you I was feeling right grateful to the Fishers about then for what they done for us and I had only just cleaned some glasses for them. So when a young man come in to get us and take us back to the big house I was regretful it wasn’t Mr. Fisher ‘cause I wouldn’t get a chance to thank him right away. The young man was a real nice looking colored boy of about 30. He had this uniform on and when Di asked him about it he said that he was a ‘chauffer’ and them clothes was for driving. Well I ain’t never seen any clothes just for driving a car before so I figured this boy, his name was Andrew but the Fishers called him Andy, I figured he was pretty important.
Andrew told me that we’d, that’s me and Di, we’d be living in a room just off the kitchen in the back of the house. He said that Ms. Fisher would give us clothes to wear while we was working. He said we’d also get one day a week when we didn’t have to do no work at all after we give them breakfast.
I figured that we’d just about found heaven. We had a bedroom with a soft bed and a real thick mattress. It had its own bathroom with a real bathtub and hot water. And the soap smelled wonderful. It had real perfume in it. Ms. Fisher had some dresses for me to wear which were all the same and they was mostly too loose for me but she let me use her sewing stuff to fix them so they fit me good. The dresses was all too big for Di but Ms. Fisher said they’d have some for her too, in a few days and Di could wear the dresses she had until they got her new dresses. She had me measure Di so they could get dresses the right size.
Well it was one of the happiest times in my life. They had machines that made washing and cleaning just as easy as could be. They had a woman who come in just to do the cookin’. Me and Di was eating good ‘cause there was always plenty of leftovers and we had clean clothes to wear every day. Ms. Fisher insisted that we change clothes every day whether the dresses was dirty or not. And she also said it was OK to take a bath every day too, and use the hot water when we was washing. Sometimes me and Di would take two baths in one day ‘cause that soap smelled so pretty and Ms. Fisher said they had plenty of soap so use the soap every bath. And they did have lots of soap. I seen 20 or 30 bars of soap in this little closet they called a linen closet where they kept the towels and such.
I guess Ms. Fisher really liked me and Di at first there, ‘cause she even gave us a special perfume that you put under your arms to keep you smelling good all day. Those were good times.” Wendy sat somewhat dreamy-eyed for a few seconds remembering, with a little smile around her mouth. Then she remembered too much and her mouth hardened and her eyes became a little cold.
I reckon it was just too good to last, though. I would carry in the food to the dining table when they had meals and, after a time, even when they had some guests at dinner. One time a couple of the guests were dressed in all white just like the payer from my church. They were talking about some troubles at one of the businesses Mr. Fisher owned in town. There was somebody stirring up trouble among the boys who worked for Mr. Fisher. You see these men were Payers just like that man from my church and they paid the boys who worked for Mr. Fisher just like I got paid. From what they said, I could tell that it was the Payer from my church that was making the trouble. They were right angry with him and even though I couldn’t tell just exactly what it was he was doing, it was clear that it was costing Mr. Fisher money, whatever it was.
I was feeling bad for the Payer ‘cause he’d been nice to me and Di and he was a God-fearing man ‘cause he was in Church every Sunday. So next Sunday, after the service, I waited and asked him if he was having trouble with anybody because I had heard that Mr. Fisher didn’t like what he was doing. The Payer, he said that Mr. Fisher was cheating the coloreds who worked for him. He said that the white men were getting paid more for the same work.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘ain’t that the way it’s always been?’ and he said ‘Yeah, but it ain’t supposed to be that way now. Now everybody’s supposed to get paid what they deserve. Look,’ he said, ‘Fisher’s got some tame Payers who do just what he tells them to do. He tells them to pay what his managers say to pay and they do it. I don’t know why they do it because Payers are supposed to be fair. Maybe they just got so used to doing what Mr. Fisher says that they don’t realize they don’t have to do what he says any more. Maybe he has some way to pay them off, I don’t know. But whatever it is it’s enough to keep all his colored workers poor.’
‘But I’m one of his workers, Mr. Deeds,’ (The payer’s name was Deeds. ) ‘Mr. Fisher treats me real nice,’ I said. ‘You ought to see what me and Di live like now.’
He says, ‘How much have you been paid, Wendy? Want to know? Remember I paid you after your mother died.’ ‘My granny died,’ I said, ‘My mama died about 15 years ago.’ But he said, ‘Here, you ask the computer how much money you got now,’ and he held out this little cell phone thing to me but of course I didn’t know what it was then.
‘I still got what you give me. I ain’t spent any of it yet,’ I told him. But he said, ‘Just say “How much money have I got” to the computer here.’ So I said ‘How much money have I got?’ and it said ‘You have twenty-five dollars.’
“And he says, ‘How long you been working for the Fishers, now?’
‘Bout six weeks.’
‘Wendy, you shoulda been paid for that work. They’re getting your work for nuthin’, Wendy.’
‘But they’re lettin’ me stay in their house and eat their food and…’
‘But they’re getting’ paid to let you live there and they’re getting’ paid for the food they let you eat and they’re getting paid for the clothes they make you wear. Don’t you understand, Wendy? They’re cheatin’ you.’
I got mad then and I raised my voice to Mr. Deeds and I said, ‘No! They’re good people. They wouldn’t cheat me. They treat’s me and Di almost as good as family. I don’t believe you.’ And I turned and ran out of that Church with tears in my eyes. I ran out of Church. I guess that should have told me somethin’. If you’re eager to get out of Church there’s somethin’ wrong and it’s somethin’ in you that’s wrong.
Well I went back to the Fisher’s house and I went right to work even though Sundays was usually my days off. Di was out visiting some of her friends. She had friends now that she could play with. She never had time for friends before ‘cause we’d lived out in the country and when she had a little time off work it was too far to go to find some other girls to play with. Di had friends now because the Fishers let us live here. Di had dresses, right pretty dresses, because the Fishers let us work here. It was warm in our bedroom and we didn’t have to chop no wood or light no fires in the morning to get warm or cook food. I even had some new teeth because of the Fishers to replace those I’d lost. Everything we had now we owed to the Fishers. They just had to be good people.
So time went on and I overheard more things that just grieved my heart. Things about how Mr. Deeds was stirrin’ up trouble amongst the boys who worked for Mr. Fisher. Some of them boys done quit and left town with their whole families. This was makin’ Mr. Fisher unhappy cause he was havin’ trouble gettin’ enough boys to work to keep his businesses goin’.
Then one day I heard him cussin’ somethin’ fierce to his son. His son was helpin’ him run the business and young Mr. Fisher, when he come out of Mr. Fisher’s office looking angry red in the face, I heard Mr. Fisher yelling after him, ‘Whatever it takes. You hear me? Whatever it takes.’ And young Mr. Fisher he stormed out the house and slammed the front door. I tell you I never worked so quiet in my life as I did the rest of that afternoon and I kept Di doing things in the kitchen so Mr. Fisher wouldn’t even see her.
Couple of days later Di came home from visiting friends and told me that Mr. Deeds had been murdered. She said that somebody had done beat him to death. She said you could hardly recognize him but for his clothes and his phone which they done smashed, too.
I can’t tell you how bad I felt then. I mean, the last time I done seen Mr. Deeds I had as much as called him a liar. And after all the good things he had done for me. I just started to bawl then, and Di, she got all upset too. I guess it was from me bawling, and all. Anyway she tried to comfort me and asked me why I was so upset and I told her about my last conversation with Mr. Deeds and what we’d said to each other. You know, so she’d understand why I was carrying on the way I was. I just couldn’t stop cryin’
Well, Di, she got all quiet then and I could see her thinkin’ but of course then I didn’t know what she was thinking. I thought that she was just realizing why I felt so bad.
She was pretty quiet for several days, there. I thought she was mourning over Mr. Deeds the way I was but it turned out she was thinkin’ ‘bout other things.
My Di, she loved to read, like I told you, and the Fishers they had just lots of books and magazines in their house. They had several rooms with book shelves just crammed with books. Well one day I heard Ms. Fisher screaming from another room so of course I ran quick as I could to see what was the matter. It was Di. Ms. Fisher had come in early from riding still in her riding clothes and boots and had caught Di reading one of their books. Di was standing in front of Ms. Fisher with her head down but it was obvious that she had been sittin’ on the couch with the book in front of her on the coffee table.
Ms. Fisher was screamin’ ‘We just can’t trust no niggers even when they’re brats living in our own houses. You aren’t here to read, especially read my books and you certainly aren’t here to sit on my couch, ever. You’re here to work, you little bitch, not give me any of your lip, you slut.’ And she went on like that till she noticed me in the room. Then she turns on me. Her face wasn’t pretty any more. It was all twisted and red right through her makeup. I can still remember watching the spit come out of her mouth as she yelled and she had this vein on her forehead that was sticking out like she was about to bust a blood vessel.
‘You,’ she screamed at me. ‘You spawned this filth. You didn’t teach her to keep her hands to herself. You didn’t teach her to respect her betters. What are you going to do about this?’ And I said ‘I’ll talk to her and…’ but she done interrupted me and said, ‘No you’re going to spank her and spank her hard.’
She’d done been waving her arms around while she was yelling and suddenly she noticed that she was holding one of those little whips that people who ride horses use sometimes. She held it out to me and said, ‘Hit her with this. Now!’ And Di’s sweet little face looked up at her and then at me with a look of horror on it. And I looked at Ms. Fisher and said, ‘But ma’am. . .’
She grabbed Di and jerked her around to the same side of the coffee table as we were on and shoved the whip into my hand and said, ‘Hit her now or you’ll never get work again. I’ll have you living in the streets, you slut, now hit her!’
‘I can’t hit my daughter with that. Please ma’am. Please don’t make me do it.’
‘She’ll starve. She’ll be a whore with the pox. Everybody’ll know that she’s a slut if you don’t hit her.’”
Wendy was sobbing, her shoulders shaking, her face streaked with tears at the memory.
“God forgive me, I hit her.
I raised my arm and I hit her over and over until Ms. Fisher let me stop. By the time I finished Di was on the floor screaming and pleading with me not to hit her. Ms. Fisher told me to get her out of there, back to our room, and not to let her out for a week. I picked her up as best I could and half carried her back to our room with both of us crying. I must have held her for an hour and kissed her face and smoothed her hair and begged her to forgive me. I pleaded with her to forgive me because I knowed I’d done wrong. I knew Jesus, himself, could never forgive such a sin as I done. I know I can’t forgive myself.”
The others in the room were also in tears at the stark tragedy of it. Wendy had her hands over her face, her body shaking and her voice choked.
“You see, it was that job I wanted. Ms. Fisher was my boss and she told me to hit my daughter. I didn’t hit Di for Di’s sake. Hitting Di wouldn’t make her a better person. It wouldn’t teach her a lesson. All it would do would be to let me keep my job and my nice room and my pretty clothes and the good food. It was all for me that I hit her. It was my selfish, evil self that I hit her for. It was my greed made me do it. While I was trying to comfort her I realized why I had done it. I hated myself for it. I didn’t deserve all the nice things I had now. I felt so bad I had to go to the toilet and vomit. If I could have died right then I would have felt I deserved the Hell I was destined for.
When I got back in the bedroom I could see Di looking at me with those big teary brown eyes and I knew she could never trust me again. I had thrown away her trust. I had beaten the love right out of my baby girl. How could she feel anything but hate and fear for me after what I done to her? I promised her that I’d never hit her again, never, as long as I lived but I could see she didn’t believe me.”
By then the box of facial tissue for blotting eyes was making its circuit around the room and almost everyone was taking at least one tissue. Wendy also blotted her eyes and wiped her cheeks and said, “I guess it’s a good thing Payers don’t wear eye makeup.” And the others laughed quietly. Wendy tried to laugh, too, but the lump in her throat was too big for that. Having gotten some of her composure back, Wendy took a deep breath and continued.
“A couple of weeks later I heard them talking about Mr. Deeds again. One of the newspapers in the big city about 50 miles away said that the police knew who had killed Mr. Deeds because they had recorded the voices of the killers while they were beating him. The computer had recorded everything up until they smashed the phone but that was enough to identify them. It was three men and they was employees of Mr. Fisher.
When they come to trial, the experts from the big city told how they could identify people using voices just as good as by fingerprints. They played the recordings of the sounds made during the murder and you could hear the voices of the three men quite clear. But the jury said they were not guilty. There were 8 white men and four white women on that jury and six of them were employees of Mr. Fisher. The prosecutor and the defense attorney were both friends of Mr. Fisher. After the trial, Mr. Fisher had a party for the three men and all the most important people in town were there. They were laughing about how they had killed Mr. Deeds and I had to serve them.
By then even I knew that the Fishers were not the good people I had thought they were. Even I knew they were cheating me. No matter how nice it was to live in their house and eat their leftovers, it wasn’t worth it to me any more. But I didn’t know what to do.
Di was very quiet. She wouldn’t look at me hardly. I’d ask her what she wanted to do and she’d say, ‘I don’t know,’ and shrug her shoulders. But she never smiled. She wouldn’t go to play with her friends.
One day I finally got her to talk to me some. She confessed that she had been reading a history book. It told about how the slaves had been treated. She said she believed what Mr. Deeds had said about the Fishers cheating us. She said the Fishers were treating us like slaves, even to having her whipped. I can tell you that made me feel lots worse but she kept on. She said that the Fishers got us to the dentist so we’d look better and our breath would smell better. She said the Fishers gave us those nice clothes and let us take baths with soap so much so we’d look nice and smell nice so we wouldn’t shame the Fishers when their friends came to visit. She said all those things the Fishers did were for them not for us. But she said all those things angry and I figured she was angry at me. That was all I could hear in what she said, anger at me.
The black folks in town took the news of the trial hard. They didn’t like it that one of their friends could be murdered and the killers get off even though everyone knew who had done it. Anyway, they stopped going to work. All over town the jobs they usually did weren’t getting done. Mr. Fisher told the food stores to not let them have any food and the clothes stores to not let them have clothes. But then trucks of food and clothes came into town from the city and went up and down the streets where the blacks lived and handed out food and clothes to those who asked. They also brought Payers with them. They were mostly all black Payers but they went all over town. They looked at the places the black folks lived and where the white folks lived. They went to the businesses where the black folks worked even though they wouldn’t let them in. One Payer even came to the Fishers house but I had to turn her away. Ms. Fisher told me to have her get off her property and she, the Payer, went just as quiet as a lamb. Just like nothing was happening. But she had her phone out and I know it could hear me talking to her.
Well, time went by and there come a day when there were lots of folks come to see Mr. Fisher and they was right mad. It seems that they wasn’t gettin’ paid near as much as before. In fact, lots of them wasn’t gettin’ paid at all. Mr. Fisher had his tame Payers there and they kept saying that they couldn’t pay any more. They said that the payer organization had had their own trial and had determined that the Payers, Mr. Fisher’s Payers that is, had been cheating. That they should have been paying the black folks just as much as the white folks for the same work. They also found out that the stores had been selling things to blacks as luxuries that were supposed to be free and had been giving things to whites, well, some whites anyway, that were supposed to be paid for.
It worked like this. A black man would buy something, like say, a TV and the store would give him a standard version of it and tell the computer they had given the luxury version. So the store would keep the luxury TV and give it to some white person, usually a friend of the store owner. The Payers who should have been keeping track of such things would just wink at it ‘cause they were white and the folks being cheated were black. Anyway, since those Payers had cheated they weren’t allowed to pay any more. They couldn’t pay anybody for anything and, of course, they already didn’t have accounts to have money in anyway so they couldn’t go back to having money.”
Mr. Fisher, he gave them some of the old money, you know, currency, and he told the folks to use that in town to buy things and that the store owners should take that money to pay for the things they bought, and that way, he said, everything would be all right. But the stores in town couldn’t get anybody from outside town to send them goods so they began to be pretty empty of stuff. Most of the farms around town didn’t have any produce because it was early spring and there weren’t hardly any crops to harvest yet. So the white folk’s grocery stores began to run out of food. Pretty soon the white folks were demanding that the stores give food and clothes to the black folks again so the white folks could get stuff from other places. So first one store and then another began to let us shop there again and before you know it every store in town except those owned by Mr. Fisher had lots of customers again and the folks that run them stores was getting’ paid again. Mr. Fisher’s employees began to quit, even the white ones, because they wasn’t getting paid much any more.
One day after this had been going on for about two weeks, Di was serving breakfast to Mr. Fisher and Snack went between her legs and she dropped a jar of jelly. Now the jar was plastic so it didn’t break but a great gob of jelly shot out and got on Mr. Fisher’s shoe. He started to yell and cuss Di. I came in from the kitchen and heard what he was saying to Di. And I lost my temper.
‘You don’t speak to a lady like that, Mr. Fisher,’ I said. ‘You can talk to your wife that way and you can talk to your mistress that way but you can’t talk to a lady that way and my daughter is a lady and you can clean up your own mess. ’ And I took Di by the hand and turned and we marched back through the kitchen to our room and I told Di to put on the dress she come in and I did the same. Mr. Fisher was yelling and cussing and carrying on something fierce in the kitchen but I’d locked the door to our room. Before he could bust it down Di and I were ready to go cause we were leaving with just what we come with, which was the clothes on our backs.
I opened the door and said, ‘Out of the way, Fisher,’ and brushed right by him, keeping between him and Di. We went straight through the house to the front door and out onto the big porch with its columns. We went down the middle of the sidewalk with the pretty flowers on both sides to the drive and down the drive to the street. I didn’t look back and I didn’t pay no mind to the gabble-gabble coming from Fisher either.
By the time Di and I had got to down town I knew what to do. I went up to a payer and said, ‘How much money do I have?’ and he said, ‘What?’ and I said, ‘You’re a payer. You have a computer there that’s supposed to know how much money I have. Please let me ask it how much money I have.’
Well he turned that phone around and said, ‘Who is this?’ and the phone said, ‘This is Wendy Hawkins White.’ And I said quick, ‘How much money do I have. ’ The computer said, ‘Twenty-five dollars.’
The payer got a funny look on his face and said, ‘You’re the woman who works for Mr. Fisher,’ and I said, ‘Not any more, I’m not. I’ll never work for that family again.’ He said, ‘would you please come down to the police station then? We have some questions we’d like to ask you.’
I should have been terrified. I mean, Di’s eyes got big and I had flashes of remembering stories I’d heard about black men and women who had gone into that police station and hadn’t come out. But I was still so mad about what had happened that I didn’t have anything left to be scared. I just started walking toward the station and not slowly at all. Di was practically having to skip to keep up and the payer was really stretching his legs.
When we got there I saw that there were a number of State troopers in the building and I didn’t see any of the usual local policemen. They took me upstairs to a room with comfortable chairs for Di and me and they offered us refreshments. Not just canned drinks out of a machine either but real coffee or tea or even orange juice from a pitcher like the Fishers had for their guests. There were several men in suits there who were real interested to talk to me about what I knew about the Fishers. They asked me questions about who came to talk and what they’d said and what days they were there and just ever so many questions, a lot of which I couldn’t even answer. They asked Di what she had seen and heard, too. Well they recorded what we said and had us say that what we had said was the truth so help us God. When they had finished they thanked me and asked if they could give us a ride home.
I said we didn’t have a home, that we’d been living in the Fisher’s house in a room off the kitchen. I said we didn’t know where we were going to spend the night but it sure wasn’t there. They asked me where our bags were and I said all we owned was on our backs. Well, you never saw such a dither. They had people calling people and folks running in and out. Next thing I knew we were in a nice big car, almost as nice and big as the one Andrew drove for the Fishers before he quit a couple months back. They asked me what town I’d like to live in and I said I might as well go to a big city because there was almost bound to be work I could do there. So we went to the city. The apartment there was even nicer than the bedroom at the Fishers.”
I worked in a restaurant for a while and after a couple of years I managed the restaurant. Then I spent some time teaching other people how to run restaurants. Di went to school, then college, and now she works in West Texas developing drought-resistant plants. I don’t want to be too far away from her and I don’t want to be too close to her either. So I just sort of live on the edge. I’m close enough that she can get over to see me when she wants to and far enough away that I can’t just drop in on her. It’s far enough that she doesn’t need an excuse for not coming to see me but not so far that she can’t get to see me if she really wants to.
Di has children now. I failed her but I don’t mean to fail those grandchildren. I’m going to look out for them the best way I know how and that’s by being a payer. I’m going to be the fairest payer I can be. There won’t be anybody who can say I cheated them and there won’t be any cheating by any other payer if I can prevent it. The Payers were the ones who brought something like justice to my little town. Mr. Fisher is still in jail as far as I know along with his son. Di and I even got paid for the work I did for the Fishers. Those three men that murdered Mr. Deeds left the country. Once word spread of what they had done, nobody wanted to risk working with them. It wasn’t that there weren’t any other bigots out there. It was that people who acted like bigots had trouble making money. They just didn’t tend to produce much net benefit.
So I’m going to be a payer because that’s the best way I know of to protect my grandchildren so they won’t have to live a life like mine. They won’t have to do what anybody else says just to get money. They won’t have to beat their daughter to keep a job.”
Wendy settled back into her chair with a little of the grim determination she had shown in leaving the Fishers still showing around her mouth and a little of the sadness of her guilt still around her eyes.