Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 Bleach Everything

 

 

 

 

Liz entered the dimly lit bathroom, mumbled good morning, ignored Annie’s tears, and emptied the contents of the pitcher—five fresh squeezed lemons, three teaspoons of bleach, and a half quart of milk—into the clawfoot tub. Without instruction, Annie shed her plush white towel and allowed Liz to lift her into the cold water. The usual ritual ensued.

Liz kneeled and reached for the scrub brush. Several circular motions covered every crease and crevice of Annie’s dark skin—nighttime skin, Mrs. Pierre, the child’s mother, joked. At only 30 years old, Liz’s knees were already bad and she shifted every few minutes in search of a more comfortable position. Her knees provided little comfort when she scrubbed Annie’s skin or Mrs. Pierre’s floors—certain to bleach everything. Like her own pain, Liz disregarded Annie’s sniffles, wiggles, and chest heaves as Liz repeatedly dipped the brush into the bath mixture and tried not to cause any bleeding with the porcupine bristled brush. She knew she could only stop when Mrs. Pierre appeared in the doorway satisfied.

“Doesn’t she look brighter today?” Mrs. Pierre smiled. Liz nodded, but never bothered to look in the woman’s direction. “Do you think it’s the bleach or the lemons?”

“Don’t know, ma’m.”

“What do you think, Stampson?” Liz glanced over her shoulder; surprised she hadn’t heard her own child enter. Stampson, who most people mistook for five instead of eight and mulatto instead of simply black, stood in front of Mrs. Pierre still in his favorite dinosaur pajamas from the night before. The pants covered everything except his big toes and the sleeves barely reached his wrists. He rushed to hug Liz’s neck, kissed her cheek, and offered her a chipper good morning. Liz wanted to pull him close and love him like she did when nobody else was around, like she’d never seen Mrs. Pierre love Annie. Like Liz would never consider doing to Annie, a child she was only paid to care for. Instead she tried to be gentle in pushing her own baby aside and continued with the chore to ready Annie for another day of tears and whining.

“If you hurry up and get Annie out of the way, I’ll give Stampson his bath this morning—how about that, Liz?” Liz cut her eyes at Mrs. Pierre, considered a ‘hell no’ response, but showed a few teeth for what almost resembled a smile and nodded. She wanted to leave weeks ago, but Mrs. Pierre paid her well. Just a few more months and Liz would have the money she needed to get out of that redheaded demon’s face. Sometimes she swore that woman’s eyes were more red than green. They haunted her dreams. Liz thought it something strange to see a white woman with such a wide nose and thick lips, but Annie’s presence proved her suspicions true.

Mrs. Pierre said the child had a skin disease.

Stampson was four years older than Mrs. Pierre’s child. While Annie spent most of her day crying, Stampson spent most of his entertaining. When his singing and yelling wrecked Mrs. Pierre’s nerves, Liz had the lolly sticks and marbles handy for him to head out to the shaded porch. If Mrs. Pierre looked a little down, Liz called Stampson in to play her a song on the piano. When Stampson spoke fast and crazy, Liz handed him one of Annie’s Dick and Jane books. And should Mrs. Pierre have company, Liz was certain to make the boy disappear whenever possible.

While Stampson took his bath, Liz sat nearby and spread Skin So Lite cream all over Annie’s naked body like cake frosting, letting it soak into the child’s skin before wiping most of it back into the jar. All the while, the two women secretly watched each other handle the other’s child. Liz, assessing that Mrs. Pierre wasn’t too rough with her boy, and Mrs. Pierre confirming that Liz followed whatever directions—handwritten, verbal, and visual—she’d given about Annie’s skin regime.

Mrs. Pierre grazed Stampson’s body with soap, tickled him here and there, and caressed his ringlets of sandy blonde hair. Stampson giggled, but not too hard, since he knew his mother was nearby. Liz continued to rub Annie down with cream, as the child’s tears mixed in with the ingredients.

“Sing my song, Stampson.” Mrs. Pierre backed away from the tub, kicked off her house slippers, and lifted her nightgown above her ankles.

“Aw, Mrs. Pierre—”

“I told you a thousand times to call me Aunt Zeldona.”

Stampson eyed his mother again as she motioned for him to do as told. Mrs. Pierre was already dancing, kicking one foot out, then the other. She stiffly moved around the bathroom waving one finger around and lifting her nightgown a little higher with the other.

“Caledonia! Caledonia! What makes—”

“Put my name in it, like we talked about the other day.”

“Zel-do-na! Zel-do-na!” He sang with more heart. “What makes your big head so hard! I love her. I love her just the same.” Stampson stretched out his arms in front of him and pretended to finger an imaginary piano as he continued his song.

“Sing it from the beginning—and then later I want you to play it on the piano again. He’s so good, Liz. He needs an agent.”

“Yes ma’m.” He didn’t need an agent; all Liz had to do was get him to California, like she planned. Her cousin happened to be a chauffer for Stepin Fetchit and his letters always mentioned that he was just the celebrity to know in Hollywood. Liz hadn’t heard anything from this cousin in some months, but his neglect only drove her to work harder and save money faster.

When he reached the end, he started another, and Mrs. Pierre kept dancing, until she finally tired herself out.

 

***

The next morning was the same. Liz readied the ingredients, put Annie in her bath, and watched Mrs. Pierre and Stampson’s song and dance afterward. She made the usual ham and cheese omelet for Mrs. Pierre. Annie had oatmeal. Stampson smacked on ham, jelly, and toast. Everybody had milk. Liz had nothing—there was no time. Before she could begin on Annie’s hair, she bleached and cleaned the kitchen. There was nothing she hated worse than starting on the poor child’s nappy head and then having to stop because Mrs. Pierre found a patch of cooking grease on the stove. Sometimes Mrs. Pierre even had the nerve to sniff the air to see if she could still smell the morning breakfast instead of the clean scent of bleach.

Liz twisted the knob for the gas burner, watched the blue flame rise, and placed the iron comb right into the heat. Annie sat on her stool, already rubbing the tears building in her eyes. Liz considered a word of comfort, but remembered other occasions when it hadn’t made a difference. Like the time when Mrs. Pierre said they had to start using a new soap. Liz put on her biggest smile and told Annie how sweet she would smell afterward. The tears rolled. Like the time Mrs. Pierre told Liz to keep the child out of sight while her friends came over for tea. Instead of doing as told, Annie questioned why Stampson didn’t have to do the same. Liz had shrugged before revealing Old Maid cards. The tears ruined the deck. There were countless other times not worth mentioning, and Liz decided she just didn’t want to offer her cup of comfort anymore.

“Before you get started with that,” Mrs. Pierre’s high heel shoes clacked across the white linoleum floor as she entered the kitchen carrying a box under her left arm. “I have something new we’re going to try.” She always had something new. Something she claimed would work this time.

“From what I hear, we’ll only have to use this every four weeks—you won’t even have to be bothered with that hot comb. Isn’t that great?” Silence. “What do you think about that, Liz?”

She thought nothing about it.

“That’s fine, Mrs. Pierre.”

“I knew you’d love the idea.” Mrs. Pierre pulled the white container from the box and waved it right in front of Liz’s face. “Perma-Strate! I hear it’s all the rage in some of the major cities and I had someone send a couple of containers. All you have to do is rub it in her hair, let it sit, then you wash it out—and straight, straight, straight. That’s all! Can you believe it?”

“I have an old magazine upstairs with Dinah Washington—”

“Does she have a skin disease like my precious little Ann?”

“No ma’m, Dinah Washington is—”

“Well, you better get started. I have a whole list of other things for you to do today.” Liz held out her hand as Mrs. Pierre placed the product on the counter before rushing out of the kitchen again.

“Are you sure you want me to use this on this child’s hair?” Liz called after her, but she was already gone. She hesitated for a moment. Even waited another second for Mrs. Pierre to rush back into the kitchen with more demands. But when she didn’t return, Liz twisted off the lid on the plastic jar and took a subtle whiff. She was lucky she’d never have to use anything like it on her own hair. She may have been as dark as Annie, but she’d been blessed with what most called good hair, the kind that hung down her back in loose waves. Liz pitied the girl and considered braiding the child’s hair again, like she did when she first arrived, but Mrs. Pierre swore little white children wore no such styles. Liz started to mention that Annie was by far nothing close to white, but she kept her mouth closed.

“1, 2, 3, gimmie my cup a tea, 4, 5, 6, I need my suga fix . . .” Stampson peeked into the kitchen with his favorite cowboy hat on, singing a song he’d probably just made up himself. “What are you doing now, Mama?”

“My hair.” Annie whispered.

“I wrote a song about you girl. Listen here, I know a gal named Annie Pierre, Annie Pierre got the nappiest hair . . .” Stampson cackled with laughter.

“Was that very nice, Stampson?” Caught by his biggest fan, Stampson straightened and turned around slowly. Mrs. Pierre squatted to make direct eye contact and hugged the boy.

“No ma’m. I’m sorry, Annie.”

“Now, that’s better.”

The kitchen went silent again as Liz noticed those green eyes fixed on her perm application technique. Liz knew the woman would find something to criticize. She heard Mrs. Pierre’s words before her lips even moved. “You’re not putting enough on. I want you to use that whole jar. I want it to be straight, straight, straight.”

“I don’t think that’s how this stuff works, Mrs. Pierre. If you put on too much or leave it on too long, it could burn her.”

“I didn’t ask you.” Mrs. Pierre nearly knocked Stampson backwards as she rushed to snatch the container and comb from Liz’s hands. Liz thought for a second that the woman might slap her down and braced herself. When she realized how difficult it would be for Mrs. Pierre to find another domestic to do all the daily household foolishness she requested, Liz relaxed, pursed her lips, and stepped aside. Annie reached out for Liz, but Mrs. Pierre popped her hand with a plastic comb.



***


Liz began the next morning almost as she had the others. She gave Annie her bath, rubbed the Skin So Lite cream on, and listened to Stampson sing one of his songs from the clawfoot tub. Mrs. Pierre busied herself with the turmoil of the day’s outfit decisions—too busy to join them with her stiff tree-like dance moves. She’d known all week that she planned to have lunch guests today, but had waited to tell Liz just this morning. It didn’t bother Liz, she had enough patience to tolerate three Mrs. Pierres. Liz only worried about Stampson. The last time the ladies came over, they sat him at the piano and made him play until they were too drunk to notice Liz had turned on a record and taken the boy to bed.

Mrs. Pierre appeared in the bathroom just as Liz helped Stampson step into his undies. She called to Stampson, ignoring her own daughter.

“I have something for you, young man.” Mrs. Pierre held whatever it was behind her back as Liz stood and prepared to object. If there was anything her son needed, she had no problem getting it. The only handout she wanted from Mrs. Pierre came on Fridays, in cash. Stampson skipped over to Mrs. Pierre. Once in front of her, she leaned down and pointed to her cheek for a kiss. Stampson glanced back at his mother, who looked away. Stampson obliged.

“I have something really special I want you to wear today—the perfect little outfit for you, young man.” Mrs. Pierre revealed an all white short set. A red-checkered bow tie hung from the hanger, along with a white pair of patent leather shoes and red socks. “You have to look your best today while you perform all those songs we’ve been practicing. Wouldn’t you like that?”

“Oh boy! Yes, ma’m.”

“You don’t have to say ma’m. I told you to call me Aunt Zeldona.”

“Thank you, Auntie—”

“Aunt. Just Aunt Zeldona.”

“Thank you, Aunt Zeldona.”

“Well come on now, let’s go in my room and I’ll help you get dressed.”

“Mrs. Pierre?” Liz called twice and struggled to get off her trembling knees. When no response came, Liz convinced herself that there was no time to argue and fuss over one little outfit. There were too many other things she needed to do to prepare for the day.

The women arrived at noon and not a minute later. On previous occasions, Liz never cared enough to learn any of their names. Especially since they hadn’t cared enough to use hers. She thought she’d heard them refer to her as Nigger Liz, as though Nigger was her preferred title. They called her that, but today let her son eat at their table, telling riddles and jokes until Mrs. Pierre was ready to show off his talents. One of the old biddies even questioned whether the boy was ‘Nigger Liz’s.’ Mrs. Pierre laughed, discreetly glanced around for Liz, and said that Stanford was her nephew from up north. She then went into a long story about his visiting for the summer and other lies about his father and mother. Liz listened from the kitchen, touching two fingers to her lips to quiet Annie’s sobs so she could properly hear what was being said. She continued to listen as Mrs. St. Pierre told the same old fib about how little Annie had a skin disease that kept her from going to school or taking part in most social activities. The skin disease was so severe and so sensitive that she had to keep her out of sight at all times. The ladies had to be tired of that one. When Mrs. Pierre finished with her fictionalized accounts of both children’s lives, Stampson began a jazzy melody on the piano.

In the maid’s uniform that Mrs. Pierre had selected as a gift for the day’s occasion, Liz prepared and offered everything as Mrs. Pierre instructed. There was no real lunch, just canapés and liquor. White bread rounds with egg yolk and green pepper, all slathered with imported caviar. White bread covered with mayonnaise, Swiss cheese, olives, and anchovy paste. Liz couldn’t stomach any of it, but nibbled on the corn chips, potato chips, and nuts each time she had to refill the dishes and bowls. When there was no food to bring, she added ice, juice, and liquor to their glasses. She never imagined that women so petite could be so greedy.

If she made the food and drink deliveries more often than necessary, it gave her an opportunity to check on Stampson. Mrs. Pierre had a record player and could just as easily have played her dry little tunes for her guests, but instead she put Stampson on display. Liz maintained her calm each time she joined them in the living room. She watched firsthand as they spilled everything that was supposed to go into their mouths on the floor and furniture like she knew they would. But she could hardly concentrate on them with Stampson acting like he’d invited everyone over himself for a private show. She took quick looks at him as his little fingers bent and stretched across the piano keys all while his little legs dangled and pumped like the piano bench was a swing. Liz couldn’t help but chuckle. She couldn’t yank him away just yet. His daddy, a well-known jazz musician himself, would be so proud. Liz realized again that she would have to get to California to show him how talented his boy had already become. Maybe then he’d leave his wife.

“Do you remember that birthmark I had on my face, Gretchen?” The grey-haired white woman crossed and uncrossed her ankles as she leaned forward to touch her face for everybody to see.

“Oh, my! I didn’t even notice—”

“It’s disappeared! What did you do?”

“I found a doctor that specializes in that sort of thing. He removes moles, excessive hair, birthmarks—any kind of blemish. For the right price he’ll take care of just about anything for you.”

“Get out of town.” Mrs. Pierre plopped right next to the woman and examined her face closely, even taking the woman’s chin in her hands to lift and twist her head. The women exchanged glances, but didn’t utter a word. Mrs. Pierre examined the spot from all angles. Liz and everyone present knew what was on her mind. “I don’t believe that thing is really gone. How long did it take?”

“Just a few days—but imagine if that thing covered my whole face or body! I bet he’d still find a way to get rid of it—in just a month, no less. He’s an amazing man. He’s been in all the medical journals and newspapers.” Mrs. Pierre covered her mouth.

“You really think if your birthmark covered your entire body that he could get rid of it in just a month?”

“I believe in this man. He’s that good, Zeldona.”

 


***

 

One unusual morning, Liz awoke to the sound of bath water running. Afraid that she’d overslept or forgotten something Mrs. Pierre instructed her to do, she leapt from bed, and hustled down the hall to the bathroom. She took the open door as an invitation to enter without knocking. She expected to see Annie patiently waiting on the toilet seat.

“Ma’m?” Liz spoke, as though she’d been called.

She obviously caught Mrs. Pierre off guard the way the woman jumped and put a hand over her heart as though to calm it. Before Liz could move any closer, the woman grabbed the towel at Annie’s feet and swooped it around her like a cape.

“I can take care of this.” Liz said, but didn’t bother to step forward.

“We don’t need your help this morning.” Mrs. Pierre snapped, but Liz finally moved closer anyway. As she neared, she reached out to remove the towel from Annie.

Mrs. Pierre pushed her away.

“Can I help you with something?”

Liz stepped back into her place and put her hands at her sides again.

“I can take care of Annie this morning, ma’m.”

“I said we don’t need your help.”

“What’s wrong with her?” Liz pressed.

“What do you mean what’s wrong with her? She’s perfectly fine. Everything is working out just as the doctor promised. He promised a month and . . .” Mrs. Pierre paused to look back at Annie. “We’re expecting to see results any day now. Then we can pack up and go be with her father. Just as soon as I get her skin right.” She rambled. “He’s found a new house for us in a perfect little town, but I’m afraid they won’t understand her skin condition. We’ll fix that, won’t we Annie? We’re going to fix that for Daddy—nobody will ever know.”

Liz pushed Mrs. Pierre aside and yanked the towel from Annie’s body. What she saw made her squeeze her eyes shut and cover her mouth. But the image remained with her until she stumbled back to escape her own thoughts and senses.

“Oh, Lord, Mrs. Pierre. What have you done?”

“She’s fine. No treatment is perfect. She’s just having a few side effects.”

Annie’s hair was plastered to her scalp like a cheap doll. Circular peach and white patches covered her body in several places. Blackened scabs spread across her back, chest, and arms. When Annie saw Liz’s reaction, she burst into a fit of tears and wailed so loud it weakened Liz to the floor. Water from the bathtub began to overflow, but neither woman moved to turn off the faucet. Instead, Liz kneeled, pulled the child into her arms and held her. Each time she looked down at her, she hugged her closer and rocked harder. She hugged the child until she stopped crying. Then Liz released a bit of emotion herself.

“You’ve done enough.” Liz repeated several times before Mrs. Pierre decided to leave the bathroom altogether.

Liz rubbed the Golden brand cocoa butter—the brand she used herself—into Annie’s skin and called for Stampson several more times. She knew he’d heard her. Before going to look for him, she tried to fix her mouth to tell Annie what a beautiful little girl she was, but just couldn’t do it. She’d gone this long without saying too much to the girl and decided it best that things stay that way. She didn’t want to know what horrors some doctor had performed to make Annie’s skin look like she’d come close to hell’s fires—there was nothing that could be done about the past. It wasn’t her business. This was just another job and soon there’d be enough money for California. She only had a few more weeks, although she wished minutes. Annie would be fine, Liz convinced herself.

Once Annie’s body was covered in a shiny glow—scabs, burns, and all, Liz took the girl’s hand and stepped into the hallway. She called Stampson’s name right away and looked both ways for him to appear. She heard nothing. She called for him again and walked down the winding front steps, stretching her neck every which way for a view of him. By the time she got to the first floor, she heard the voices from the kitchen. Liz soon found Mrs. Pierre in the kitchen, on her knees, rubbing something onto the top of Stampson’s hands as he crunched on something. Liz left Annie in the doorway and rushed over to grab Stampson’s cheeks.

“What did she give you?” She shouted into his face. Stampson froze. The times when his mother yelled at him or anybody had been few.

Liz repeated her question.

“Candy.”

“Spit it into my hand.” She gripped the bottom of his face and squeezed tighter and tighter.

“Liz, you’re being quite absurd.” She heard the crazy in Mrs. Pierre’s voice, and squeezed Stampson’s chin harder as he pushed out the small brown crumbles from his tongue onto her hand.

“What is this?” Liz asked nobody in particular.

“Candy, just like he said.”

“What kind of candy?” Liz walked to the sink and rinsed the pieces under the faucet before taking a closer examination. “This ain’t candy.” When Zeldona didn’t respond quickly enough, Liz raised her voice again. “What is it?”

“It’s nothing for you to worry about.”

“If you’re giving it to my child it’s plenty for me to worry about.”

“Oh, Liz, you’re getting all upset over nothing. I wouldn’t do anything to harm Stampson. You know that. He’s my little angel. Come on, Stampson—Zeldonia! Zeldonia! What makes your big head—” Zeldona did a twirl and reached out a hand for Stampson to join her in play.

“Mama, my hand is burning.” Stampson stood on his tiptoes and held his red hands up to Liz’s chest.

“Honestly, he looked a little dark this morning when I saw him. When I asked him what you all had been up to, he said you all had been playing outside—in the sun. So, I got some of Annie’s skin pills and some of her cream for him.”

“I don’t need you to do anything for Stampson, Mrs. Pierre. He’s just fine.”

“Certainly, he’s fine now, thanks to me.”

“Can I have some oatmeal now?” Annie asked as she patted Liz’s thigh.

“It’s burning, Mama.” Stampson cried. He flapped his hands around again in front of her chest as Liz struggled to lift him from the floor. Annie whimpered.

Liz rushed Stampson over to the sink, turned on the cold water, and began to drown his hands in dishwashing soap. She tried her best to scrub the burn away. Even once she was sure she’d gotten it all off, she instructed Stampson to keep his hands underneath the running water. Liz turned and noticed that Mrs. Pierre had the nerve to smile. It was an expression that was difficult to interpret.

“I just wanted to help you with Stampson like you help me with Annie. He’s such a lovely child, but if you don’t take the proper precautions, he won’t stay that way for long.”

“What did you rub on my boy?”

“Mama, don’t be mad at Aunt Zeldona, she just wants to help us,” Stampson said through his tears. “She said—”

“Keep your hands under that water and hush.”

“Stampson is a very special child. I love that boy like he was my own. I just wanted to help—”

“What did you rub on my boy’s skin?” Liz asked again as Mrs. Pierre backed away toward the kitchen table. For each two steps the woman took backward, Liz took a large step forward.

“You’re being absurd, Liz.”

“What did you put on his skin!?” Liz shouted as she lunged toward Mrs. Pierre and made a grab for the white jar. Mrs. Pierre refused to give the object up and struggled to elbow and knee Liz to keep her away. Liz did everything except choke Mrs. Pierre as she rocked the woman’s body back and forth, scratched, and repeatedly yelled for the woman to tell her what she’d spread on her child.

Just as Mrs. Pierre unwillingly released the jar, one of her heels wobbled and she lost her balance. Liz stood back and examined the jar. She never acknowledged what she assumed to be Mrs. Pierre’s physical overreaction to a lost battle. Liz mouthed the words on the label and looked up just as Mrs. Pierre’s head hit the edge of the kitchen table. The woman uttered a moan before collapsing to the floor and hitting the other side of her head on the tile.

With her mouth open, Liz waited for the blood. She waited for movement. There wasn’t a sound in the kitchen except faucet water. Suddenly reminded that there were still two children in the room, Liz hurried to the sink, grabbed Stampson, and clutched her oversized baby to her chest. His wet hands palmed her back.

“Shhhhh . . .” She tried her best to calm the children’s cries. Stampson nuzzled his head into Liz’s neck as she patted his back and rocked him. She paced the kitchen for a moment. Annie’s eyes met hers and shifted to her stiff mother on the floor. Liz’s mind went blank.

“I want to go to California too.” Annie rubbed snot from her nose onto the back of her hand and whispered.

Liz prayed that Mrs. Pierre would lift her head from the floor. They’d laugh, hug, and move on like nothing had happened. But Mrs. Pierre didn’t move and Liz realized that there were no choices or plan Bs. Her next acts were decided quickly and without remorse.

 


(first published in The Talon Magazine)
 


Trenee Seward received her M.A. in English at Texas A&M University. She has worked as the graduate assistant to the editor at Callaloo Literary Journal and currently works in special education at a Houston secondary school. Her writing has appeared in Brazos Gumbo and several other online journals. Seward also manages the literary blog
Black Girl Lost... in a Book.