The Mirrors (part seventeen)
“I really need to go home first. It’s not much past seven, is it? Last night I couldn’t let my aunt know why I didn’t…there’s no phone line out that way. Someone would have to have walked from the gas station…”
Poor Mr. Roy, the owner, be rung off his cot by the bell.
And Esta, she doubted, knew what number to ask for. Unfair to put her in such a position, needing the operator’s help finding Rothesay, as though she chased after this city doctor’s business. As they did, but for the direst of crises, Esta would query the grapevine.
“And what do you do at the institute?”
Her driver was the secretary. But Paul now told her his work was in the archives. “You see, all the studies collect reams of data, and…say…a professor in Canada, a doctor in Switzerland, wants to know if a public milk program would improve test scores for children. So we find anything done on milk, for health, anything showing upcurves in performance of schoolchildren, and compile the fields that overlap. The client makes use of our work as he sees fit, of course.”
“And so you don’t particularly assist Veronica?”
He turned pink and laughed. “Everyone assists Veronica.”
“Oh, I believe you.”
It was necessary to tell him where to make his turns, and advisable, if while keeping an eye out and making small talk she could, to learn what those at the institute knew of Dumain. Likely the staff were naïfs. Possibly they shared and guarded the secret.
“You don’t sound like a local. Does the institute advertise, or do professors recommend graduates for a place? Is it…”
She cut short the answer he was bursting to give, and covered herself with a touch of demurral. “I’m sorry to pry, but it’s so interesting! Is it an insider’s arrangement? For, statisticians…? Or are you really only medical researchers?”
“No, ma’am. Not medical per se, more public welfare. A lot of the programs started…or, go back…”
This last muttered, a coaching of himself. “Taking the Spanish flu into account…that was a big upsetter, you know…the country was not ready for it.”
He stopped speaking, as they’d come to the canning plant, the gas station, and her turn.
“The Dumains, did they have a special reason?”
“That I can’t say. The funding was from the trust, and then the institute separately…”
Won grants…a guess. Coming so soon on her house, a time/distance equation always measured walking, she laid a hand on his arm. In her town, the few who owned cars contrived their ways of keeping them. Houses fronted close to the road, none had drives or garages. But there were backyards. What Paul was to do, or what he might want to do, she hadn’t thought.
“Pull over if you can, and come in.”
“Oh, maybe I should stay with the car, in case.”
“I need to change clothes. It will be a while.”
He didn’t mind, he said.
Well, she couldn’t fault his courage, bound to carry only so far. He’d described his work without tone or simplification, called her ma’am without condescension. Whether Veronica taught her people things…whether they knew why…was a question not to be asked.
She pulled her door shut, her mind on what clothes to change into. Her work shift and apron couldn’t suit the visit Charmante had hectored herself into paying, before the daunting thing…before Rothesay’s house.
“Who’s that out there?”
“You look comfy. Maybe I should let you take that chair home.”
Esta was stretched on the brown rocker, feet on the ottoman, afghan on her lap. “Now, was I sitting here talking to myself?”
“His name is Paul. I don’t think I caught the other. He works for the Metropolitan Institute, in town.”
“Well, I don’t know. The only bona fide Dumain I’ve met is Veronica. And she’s an employee there…of some kind. What are your plans?”
“I just came to see you got home all right.”
“Maybe you ought to make coffee while I change. Maybe Paul will come in. Maybe he won’t.”
Her silk stockings, home-dyed, were for church. For church, this was not showoffish—it was respect, wearing one’s best to visit His house. But what would Jane think? Mrs. Breedlove to you, Charmante told herself. And being honest, found she had that inclination…to not love Mrs. Breedlove, for whose opinion she had to weigh whether her best would bring the greater condemnation, or the clothes she wore maiding for Rothesay.
“That boy of yours is out there talking to Mr. Meeker and writing down in a book.”
Esta reported this, coming into the bedroom, without having put the pot on.
“It’s his work. They’re serious people at the Institute… Esta! We’ve never talked about the riot.”
She stepped into a taffeta frock, and Esta moved to fasten the buttons.
“Don’t worry…I don’t want to know much. Just, what did you think went on, yourself? About Daddy.”
“I thought what everyone knew. Not where they took him…not if he was dead. They all folks, Dumains, stirred the trouble up, that’s what I thought. Two hundred men arrested and sent off for labor.”
Oblique was the way people said it. Even Esta, even here in a town where the sentiment was universal. They’d wanted men in the coal mines. Prison labor cost nothing. The only thing between a free citizen and a prisoner was a fall. A fall was an easy thing to arrange for a black man.
“What did you think, then, about Harold Wright? And Rance, of course, Rance Goodson.” Who’d had a mother, too.
“No sense. Couldn’t do what they was taught.”
Esta’s face came round her waist, in the vanity mirror catching her eye, making Charmante close her mouth.
“I set up for you cause I have a thing to tell you. You couldn’t never surprise me, no matter what, once you got yourself in with Dumains. I said, I know just why she ain’t come home. Nothing I can do. But then I said, Esta, now, after all this time you better tell.”
Said this, for the ears of Mrs. Parkins, or of God?
Charmante sat on the bed; Esta took the armchair.
She was twenty years old.
Her birthday was not remarked in the household. She had been married two years to Charles, not a choice. Esta hadn’t yet, at eighteen, considered love, whether love were possible, and if so, who? She had a brother nine years her elder, better placed to walk free of Roback land. He was gone. Takings like his, going alone to the city, patching along for yourself, cowed. She thought Ma’am wouldn’t like it…would in that way of hers big up those despairing eyes, flutter those hands, say: “Well, go,” on a great sigh. Auntie Livie, a very old servant, whose husband had been Augustus…names Esta’s brother had made her believe, without saying, were for the lowest and the blackest…
Augustus really had come from Africa…dear old man…
Livia told her, you can’t go, just because you think you can.
Esta didn’t exactly think it. Polly had wanted her to marry Charles. She’d done this; she saw Livia’s point. What did it mean to say, I’d rather not? It meant you thought you had someplace to go.
She was out in the kitchen, seeing if there was a little fat and flour to bake a cake for herself. A wildcat shriek came from the riverside. Or the noise had seemed a panther. Livia pushed to her feet on her stick.
“Lord Amighty! Charles get his shotgun.”
Quiet, and then keening…like a caterwaul but with words to it, human…
She and Livia had to wash and lay out the body. This was not so awful—Polly had been fresh. Livia clucked and moaned. Esta patted the hair with a linen towel.
“Auntie, should I get some rosewater to rinse it out?”
“Well, child, go on.”
“Charmante, I baked that cake.”
“Ma’am, you had a right.”
Esta and Livia baked a number of things through the rest of the week. First, Godfrey upstairs lay frozen on his bed, eyes drilling the ceiling, eerie little noises coming from his chest…Esta leaving the door standing open when she had to bring up a tray. On another day, he ate in a ravenous way that she found obscene.
“Charles, what’d you see when you went down there?”
(2020, Stephanie Foster)