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 meets the tutor. Thanks for reading.
I woke with a whole new perspective. And though my face still ached from Delores’ bout with insanity the day before, I smiled.
My academy uniform lay at the foot of my bed washed and pressed, topped with a note from Delores: May-May – she hadn’t called me that since my babyhood – Sorry your welcome home turned bad so fast. Sometimes I think we’re too much alike, then, sometimes, I wonder how you can be so willful and still be my child. Oh well, let’s try to make the best of this time. Before we know it, you’ll be off to college and married, and we will regret not having more time together.
Delores, Your Mother. P.S.–Don’t make a racket coming down for breakfast. Mr. Herbert likes a quiet house, especially in the morning.
I was maturing. I knew this because of that last part, ‘Don’t make a racket.’ Any other time this would have had me sliding down the banister and belting out This Little Light of Mine. But not today, today I had to get my mind right for all that was before me.
When I walked into the kitchen Delores’ first words to me weren’t, “How’d’ you sleep? Did you manage okay on that old lumpy mattress?” No, they were, “You’re late.” and “What’s this?”
I took the small frame from her hand then handed it back to her.
“Whatchu mean, what’s this?”
“I mean, why does this diploma have smudges all over it.”
This is what I so hated about my mother, her capacity to exaggerate. There couldn’t have been more than one smudge on it, because I distinctly remember after she told me the fourth time not to touch anything in Mr. Herbert’s study, that I needed to be extra careful, and so, only touched this particular framed item once, twice at the most—I wanted to see if the curly letters were flat, or raised up off the paper. They appeared under close inspection to be raised.
“I have no idea why. Did you forget to shine ‘em up?” I said.
“Mayella, just tell the truth. Did you go into the library when I expressly told you not to because Mr. Herbert likes his things just so.”
“No ma’am, I did not go into the library.” And this was the absolute truth. I went into the study. If she was now saying that the study and the library were one and the same, then that’s something else again. All I knew was until someone said otherwise, there was a study in the mansion, and somewhere else among the twenty odd bedrooms and other immaculate nooks and crannies, there was also a library.
“I can’t stand liars,” Delores said, staring at me. Leni, too busy stuffing her face–and having been an audience of one for our many dramas since birth—ignored us and took a handful of bacon off the platter, leaving one lone piece as if this was sufficient for anyone else wanting bacon.
My mother looked closely at me, smiling what I’ve come to think of as her witch smile. The same one I remember seeing on the face of the witch in Hansel and Gretel. The same one the witch wore as she tried to cook Hansel and Gretel to a crisp.
But instead of pushing me into the oven, Delores said, “Get on in the library. He’s waiting.”
“Who? Mr. Herbert?” I was scared.
“The tutor. Now, go on.”
“Which way?” I said.
“Which way, what?” Delores repeated.
“To the library?”
The witch smile again, then “Straight ahead, double doors on the left.”
“What about morning chores?”
“Mr. Herbert prefers the inside to be seen to by house staff. You girls will help with the outside, after lessons with the tutor.”
“But, Delores—mother, aren’t we house staff too?”
She turned away, toward Leni, and began wiping her pork greasy mouth and hands.
“Leni, you can help me while Mayella works with the tutor. When he’s finished with her, he’ll work some with you,” she said. Leni nodded, her big brown eyes following the platter and that last piece of bacon as Delores moved both to the counter.
“Mayella, go on now. Mr. Herbert’s paying good money for that tutor.”
“Straight ahead, double doors on the left, right?” I said, wondering if I should make a grab for the last piece of bacon.
She did not acknowledge me, but picked up the platter, handing the extra piece of bacon to Leni, before placing the platter in the sink with a hard clank.
Chester Williamson was standing at the fireplace mantle as if striking a pose for The Saturday Evening Post. He graduated second in his class at Morgan State’s School of Theology, and now was a doctoral candidate in Social Anthropology at Howard University. All this he told me with a big cheesy grin on his face. And even if he hadn’t been grinning from ear to ear, I know I would have still found other reasons to hate bug-eyed Mr. Williamson.
He wore a blue and red bow tie and glasses, which he referred to as spectacles: “Oh, my spectacles certainly need cleaning,” or “Where did I place my spectacles?”—They were always either straddling his pumpkin head, or what had to be nasty, their ear piece, dangling from the corner of his lower lip. He was a light brown man with big, squinting eyes, and always, no matter what he had to say, sounded like the butler in the Charlie Chan movies.
“Well, aren’t you pretty,” he said, his eyes made even buggier behind his spectacles. “You must be Mayella. It’s a pleasure to meet you young lady. I’m Mr. Williamson. I am your tutor. I hope we become fast friends,” he said, extending his hand. I stuck my hand out and let him shake it.
“Look at that face, such a beauty. Aren’t you just grand,” he said over and over again as if I didn’t know this. There wasn’t a need, but, being grand, I smiled and mumbled, “Thank you, Sir”
He reached into his black satchel and fiddled with the folders, their papers, most of which appeared to be test booklets. These tests he said, also pulling out a small stopwatch, were to find out my current level of academic achievement. He placed two sharpened pencils and one piece of loose leaf paper at the library desk.
“I’m in the 11th grade, and have never repeated a grade, Sir.” I told him I was, by my own estimate, exactly where I should be in life. So there really wasn’t any reason for me to take any of his tests. Hearing this, he removed his spectacles, and then began roaring with laughter, laughter so great his wiry frame began to gyrate, seeming to lift him off the floor as tears streamed from his squinty amber eyes. He would continue to laugh and wipe at his eyes there in Mr. Herbert’s library/study for several minutes as if what I had said was spectacularly funny.
to be continued…
To read previous chapters, go to: The Charm Offensive