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: Delores reflects on meeting Herbert Halethorpe. Thanks for reading.
The Charm Offensive -- Chapter Five (Excerpt)
After a particularly restless night, the next morning Delores walked into the kitchen expecting to see Cook well into her morning tasks, but instead, there was Benny, seated at the table eating a boiled egg accompanied by several pieces of cold chicken.
“Morning, Miss Delores.” He said, using both fork and knife to cut into the chicken leg on his plate.
“Morning,” she said. He did not look as she remembered him from their Hollis Street days, when he could be found lurking the hallways, shirttail out, face darkened with several days’ stubble. Today he was spit shine, as neat and clean as her father had been, as cologned and freshly talced as her husband had been. Still even with all his effort, she smirked as her eyes looked down to his shoes, their soles slightly rundown, one lace threatening to come undone, he was no Herbert Halethorpe. Of course, Herbert Halethorpe was not spit shine. He was brand spanking new, a pair of men’s Florsheim wingtips fresh from the warehouse each and every day of the week. Just as he had been 18 years earlier, the first day they met, when she was twenty.
When Delores first arrived in Baltimore, she shared a small attic room with another girl at a rooming house for single Christian women. She had applied several times to the school system but even with exemplary secretarial school recommendations, she had been stuck in the school system’s steno pool going on a year. She had only just started dating the good man, who she would later marry, but at that time had had no thoughts about getting serious. And this was fine with the man, because even back then, he was a good man, a patient man.
All she knew was his name, Herbert Halethorpe, and that he was a well-known businessman and philanthropist. One of Baltimore’s “big thinkers” who served on several academic boards, including Baltimore’s school board, chairing the Committee on Attainment Levels for Colored and Nonnative Born Youth.
The rumor was he needed a girl, a “good girl” to work several hours a week as an aide. Hearing this, Delores paid little mind. She had been up for several assignments that would have gotten her out of the pool, but had been passed over by other less qualified white clerk typists, even a girl from Copenhagen, who barely spoke English, and who said she had arrived at Baltimore docks on a tramp steamer.
The steno pool supervisor had suggested several clerks to Herbert Halethorpe—all white, but after seeing Delores from a distance and asking and hearing her qualifications, he told the supervisor, “No, the one in the back. Yes, that one, she should do.”
Though she worked as his aide, she did not see to his typing, or his dictated correspondence, nor did she search the library stacks to assist with the many papers he was always working on. She listened.
“This is what I expect from you,” he said, her first day. “I have questions that require answers and I expect you to listen to these questions carefully, thoughtfully, and then supply honest answers.” She sat nodding, sometimes scrunching her face at the words, terminology she had not heard before, but for the $100 per week he paid—twice what she made sitting in the pool during the day—she figured whatever answers he needed, she’d do what necessary to provide him with them.
Three months later, satisfied with her replies, Delores received via steno pool supervisor, her last check, along with a note from Herbert Halethorpe:
Though I no longer have need of your service, your contributions are greatly appreciated. All the best, H.H.
Three days later as the other women in the pool knitted, wrote letters to family down South, and Delores practiced typing exercises in order to top her 84 wpm–a pool speed record–the supervisor glared down on her and said, “Gather your things, Winton.” Delores took the pink slip of paper the woman handed her and read it. She was to leave the pool immediately and was not to return. The following Monday she was to report to 100 North Avenue–Baltimore City Schools Headquarter. She had been assigned to work as the junior secretary to the Asst. School District Supervisor. Delores folded the paper, and placed it into her purse. She did not share the news with the other women, who she knew did not like her, but who now careened heads and stared expectantly. She covered her typewriter, packed coffee mug and typing book; took off her heels, replacing them with walking shoes, and then quickly left to treat herself to a pastrami sandwich at Attman’s before the lunch rush set in.
Soon after, she was able to afford her own place, first a one-bedroom, then the two-bedroom for herself and Mayella over on Hollis Street.
Delores turned all this over in her mind as she looked around the kitchen. Her face furrowed, lips poked out.
“Where is she?”
“Who, Miss Delores?”
“Yes, Cook, where is she?”
“Well, Mr. Herbert said he had too much to do down at his office to sit and eat a proper breakfast. So once she got finished with the dishes, she took Mr. Herbert his breakfast in a basket. Said the walk and fresh air’d do her good.”
Delores rolled her eyes, just catching Benny’s half snicker before she remembered he wasn’t near as inconsequential as he had been over at Hollis Street.
There he’d be in and out of the ladies apartments, eating their suppers, listening to the gossip, their secrets, even so, it had never been reported that he had uttered a peep of someone’s business. But today he didn’t have to be bribed with covered plates to be on his way. Now he was spit shine, and though she had got him the driver job, Delores knew he had plans for himself that extended far beyond her favor. She also understood she should have thought better before pulling the past into her future.
“Cookie’s a good woman,” Benny said, putting his silverware down beside a near clean chicken bone.
“What she is is a Scandinavian witch,” Delores snapped, which caused Benny to chuckle even as he now sucked on the chicken bone. Delores knew he liked to go at it with her, and so she said, “Just what time did you sit down to the table, Benny? Mr. Herbert don’t pay none of us to sit and lick our fingers and suck chicken bones. And if he do, then please, pull out a chair so I can sit down too.”
“Aw, now Delores, I ain’t been long, not long at all,” he said, getting up, acting as if flustered, but she knew he wasn’t.
“And, don’t call her Cookie. It’s Cook, or Mrs. Nygaard.”
“Um…but, yeah, Cook left you a note; it’s there on the ice box, Delores—Miss Delores. Called up for those girls of yours, but couldn’t get a rise out of them,” he said, standing, placing his dish in the sink, something the women of Hollis took great pains to train him to do. Walking toward the kitchen door, he then looked back and said, “Yeah, she sure did call those girls. They must be clean tuckered out from all you had them doing yesterday–either that, or they heard her all right, but they just got themselves some hard little heads.” With that, he winked, closing the door behind him, his rundown soles barely heard padding down the cobbled walkway.
to be continued…
To read previous chapters, go to: The Charm Offensive