This serialized novel follows 17 year-old Mayella Winton, who has recently been expelled from the tony Freemont Academy for Negro Girls, and comes to live with her Mother, Delores, who is the live-in housekeeper for Herbert Halethorpe, a rich, Baltimore industrialist.
This excerpt: Mayella's first day at the mansion. Thanks for reading.
The Charm Offensive -- Chapter Three (Excerpt)
After whacking Leni on her back so hard she had no choice but to choke or swallow, I spent the better part of the day doing hard labor. What were, Delores explained smiling, my daily chores.
The thermometer mounted above the garden gazebo read 32 degrees. Still, there we were in jackets, gloves and mittens, Leni snotted up, the both of us pulling weeds.
“Not that one,” Delores said, causing me to look more closely at what was between my fingers – a long stem, lined with thick foliage, dotted with clusters of white flowers. What I knew from my intermittent botanical studies at Freemont was a weed, but which all the same, I dropped like a hot coal and tamped back into the ground.
Delores had us doing this for an hour, the "gardening." I did the bulk. Leni’s hands were too small to make any significant contribution, so Delores told her to “just stand there” and hold tight to the sack while I filled and re-filled it like a per pound migrant worker.
We got a 20-minute lunch break: sandwiches made of watercress and thin onion slices, crusts cut away, made tolerable with a smear of butter. There was milk for both of us. Then we were back again, out into the cold to muck out a barely frozen over koi pond—mucking which also included seeing that the fish and the other reptiles housed in the pond were fed—watercress.
Then we moved on to polishing dingy Halethorpe Family silverware. With Delores giving demonstrations on how to apply up and down motions so we wouldn’t leave streaks. Mid-afternoon, somewhere around 1:30, the main-level floors had to be seen to. After handing each of us an old and grizzled toothbrush, Delores assisted us with this task by first pointing and then inspecting as we scrubbed deep and thoroughly the mansion’s every crack and cranny.
Once we finished with thrashing the rugs and sweeping the stair carpets, but in between sneezing fits, we dusted all Mr. Herbert’s do-dads: trophies for athletics, including college competitions won in broad jump, shot put and rowing. Mr. Herbert’s 50-plus framed certificates for civic contributions and academic degrees were not to be touched.
“I’m the only person—other than Mr. Herbert—who gets to touch these,” Delores said. For some reason she felt the need to repeat this several times throughout the day, gazing at them fondly as if she herself had played a significant role in him having won them.
By the end of this our second work shift, we were slumped back at the kitchen table. Leni was at full recline, head back and mouth open, snoring. I had lowered my own head onto the table in time to see a blue and white blur, Cook as she hurried out the kitchen door and into a waiting car, Benny at its wheel.
“Chores,” Delores began, as noxious fumes from our day’s cleaning still filled the air, “are simple house tasks all children have to do,” she said, taking a moment to lift Leni’s chin, closing her mouth. “All children have to earn their keep. You wanna eat, then you gotta work,” she added, gazing about, looking frustrated that Cook had felt free to leave without asking permission, or providing a clue to what was for supper.
“Y’all get use to schedules,” she said, leaving the kitchen, starting out at a fast clip in direction of the library, where I suppose she was headed to have a private moment with Mr. Herbert’s awards.
My household tasks were to be performed twice daily between the hours of 7 and 9:30 a.m., and then again, after tutoring, from 1:30 to 4:00 p.m. I wasn’t sure about other Baltimore children–how much they knew about Maryland’s child labor laws. But as for myself, I was pretty sure if it wasn’t my house, then doing these tasks just meant I was Mr. Herbert’s indentured servant.
But by the time I began heading for my room – this time backstairs, I was seeing things clearly, and having had a change of heart, now forgave Delores for trying to work me to death, and for her reoccurring bouts of insanity.
The fact that I was willing to do this meant I was maturing. And so, I didn’t have time to be mad at what life (and Delores) had decided to throw my way. This day forward, I needed to be focused to do whatever necessary to: 1. Get my allowance reinstated; 2. Get Leni and me free of this labor camp/old mansion.
If I had thought things through before letting myself be yanked out of the Academy, I would have held on to a portion of the 10 dollar allowance Delores gave me every week. What she now said was allowance on permanent suspension.
To read more of chapter three, or previous chapters, go to: