JUNE 22, 2011
It was an odd request—visit a stranger’s house and peer inside a closet—and as I drove through the neighborhood searching for the address, I felt my anxiety mounting.
There it was: number 247. I hadn’t expected the house to be so large. It stood apart from its neighbors on the gently winding road, flanked on either side by huge magnolia trees, tall oaks, and crape myrtle. It was painted a soft buttery yellow with white trim, and everything about it looked crisp and clean in the early morning sun. Every house I’d passed, although diﬀerent in architecture, had the same stately yet inviting look. I didn’t know Raleigh well at all, but this had to be one of the most beautiful old neighborhoods in the city.
I parked close to the curb and headed up the walk. Potted plants lined either side of the broad steps that led up to the wraparound porch. I glanced at my watch. I had an hour before I needed to be back at the hotel. No rush, though my nerves were really acting up. There was so much I hoped would go well today, and so much of it was out of my control.
I rang the bell and heard it chime inside the house. I could see someone pass behind the sidelight and then the door opened. The woman—forty, maybe? At least ten years younger than me—smiled, although that didn’t mask her harried expression. I felt bad for bothering her this early. She wore white shorts, a pink striped T-shirt, and tennis shoes, and sported a glowing tan. She was the petite, toned, and well- put-together sort of woman that always made me feel sloppy, even though I knew I looked ﬁne in my black pants and blue blouse.
“Brenna?” She ran her ﬁngers through her short-short, spiky blond hair.
“Yes,” I said. “And you must be Jennifer.”
Jennifer peered behind me. “She’s not with you?” she asked.
I shook my head. “I thought she’d come, but at the last minute she said she just couldn’t.”
Jennifer nodded. “Today must be really hard for her.” She took a step back from the doorway. “Come on in,” she said. “My kids are done with school for the summer, but they have swim-team practice this morning, so we’re in luck. We have the house to ourselves. The kids are always too full of questions.”
“Thanks.” I walked past her into the foyer. I was glad no one else was home. I wished I had the house totally to myself, to be honest. I would have loved to explore it. But that wasn’t why I was here.
“Can I get you anything?” Jennifer asked. “Coffee?”
“No, I’m good, thanks.”
“Well, come on then. I’ll show you.”
She led me to the broad, winding staircase and we climbed it without speaking, my shoes on the shiny dark hardwood treads making the only sound.
“How long have you been in the house?” I asked when we reached the second story.
“Five years,” she said. “We redid everything. I mean, we painted every single room and every inch of molding. And every closet, too, except for that one.”
“Why didn’t you paint that one?” I asked as I followed her down a short hallway.
“The woman we bought the house from speciﬁcally told us not to. She said that the couple she’d bought the house from had also told her not to, but nobody seemed to understand why not. The woman we bought it from showed us the writing. My husband thought we should just paint over it—I think he was spooked by it—but I talked him out of it. It’s a closet. What would it hurt to leave it unpainted?” We’d reached the closed door at the end of the hall. “I had no idea what it meant until I spoke to you on the phone.” She pushed open the door. “It’s my daughter’s room now,” she said, “so excuse the mess.”
It wasn’t what I’d call messy at all. My twin daughters’ rooms had been far worse. “How old’s your daughter?” I asked.
“Ten. Thus the Justin Bieber obsession.” She swept her arm through the air to take in the lavender room and its nearly wall-to-wall posters.
“It only gets worse.” I smiled. “I barely survived my girls’ teen years.” I thought of my family—my husband and my daughters and their babies—up in Maryland and suddenly missed them. I hoped I’d be home by the weekend, when all of this would be over.
Jennifer opened the closet door. It was a small closet, the type you’d ﬁnd in these older homes, and it was crammed with clothes on hangers and shoes helter-skelter on the floor. I felt a chill, as though a ghost had slipped past me into the room. I hugged my arms as Jennifer pulled a cord to turn on the light. She pressed the clothes to one side of the closet.
“There,” she said, pointing to the left wall at about the level of my knees. “Maybe we need a flashlight?” she asked. “Or I can just take a bunch of these clothes out. I should have done that before you got here.” She lifted an armload of the clothes and struggled to disengage the hangers before carrying them from the closet. Without the clothing, the closet ﬁlled with light and I squatted inside the tight space, pushing pink sneakers and a pair of sandals out of my way.
I ran my ﬁngers over the words carved into the wall. Ancient paint snagged my ﬁngertips where it had chipped away around the letters. “Ivy and Mary was here.” All at once, I felt overwhelmed by the fear they must have felt back then, and by their courage. When I stood up, I was brushing tears from my eyes.
Jennifer touched my arm. “You okay?” she asked.
“Fine,” I said. “I’m grateful to you for not covering that over. It makes it real to me.”
“If we ever move out of this house, we’ll tell the new owners to leave it alone, too. It’s a little bit of history, isn’t it?”
I nodded. I remembered my phone in my purse. “May I take a picture of it?”
“Of course!” Jennifer said, then added with a laugh, “Just don’t get my daughter’s messy closet in it.”
I pulled out my phone and knelt down near the writing on the wall. I snapped the picture and felt the presence of a ghost again, but this time it wrapped around me like an embrace.
I swept the ground by the tobacco barn, hoping for a chance to talk to Henry Allen. He was on the other side of the field, though, working with the mules, and it didn’t look like he’d be done soon. No point in me staying any longer. All the day labor was gone already and if Mr. Gardiner spotted me he’d wonder why I was still here. Mary Ella was gone, too, of course. I didn’t want to know which of the boys—or men—she went off with. Most likely she was someplace in the woods. Down by the crick, maybe, where the trees and that tangle of honeysuckle made a private place where you could do anything. I knew that place so well. Maybe Mary Ella knew it, too. Henry Allen told me “just don’t think about it,” so I tried to put it out of my head. My sister was going to do what she wanted to do. Nothing me or nobody else could do about it. I told her we couldn’t have another baby in the house and she gave me that hollow-eyed look like I was speaking a foreign tongue. Couldn’t get through to Mary Ella when she gave you that look. She was seventeen—two years older than me—but you’d think I was her mama trying to keep her on the straight- and-narrow path to heaven. Some days I felt like I was everybody’s mama.
I headed home down Deaf Mule Road where it ran between two tobacco ﬁelds that went on forever and ever. I couldn’t look at all them acres and acres of tobacco we still had to get in. My ﬁngers was still sticky with tar from that day’s work. Even my hair felt like it had tar in it, and as I walked down the road, I lifted one blond end of my hair from under my kerchief and checked it, but it just looked like my plain old hair. Dried hay. That’s what Nonnie said about my hair one time. My own grandma, and she didn’t care about hurting my feelings. It was true, though. Mary Ella got the looks in our family. Roses in her cheeks. Full head of long wild curls, the color of sweet corn. Carolina- blue eyes. “Them looks of hers is a curse,” Nonnie always said. “She walks out the door and every boy in Grace County loses his good sense.”
I took off my shoes and the dust from the road felt soft beneath my feet. Maybe the best thing I felt all day. Every time I did that—walked barefoot on the dirt road between the Gardiners’ two-story farmhouse and our little house—I felt like I was walking on Mama’s old ragged black velveteen shawl. That was practically the only thing we had left of hers. I used to sleep with it, but now with Baby William sharing the bed with me and Mary Ella, there wasn’t no room for nothing bigger than my memory of Mama, and after all these years, that was just a little slip of a thing.
I came to the end of the road where it dipped into the woods. The path got rough here with tree roots and rocks but I knew where every one of them was. I put my shoes back on before I came to the open area with the chigger weeds and by then I could hear Baby William howling. He was going at it good and Nonnie was hollerin’ at him to shut it, so I started running before she could get to the point of hitting him. For all I knew she’d been hitting him all afternoon. Nonnie wasn’t all that mean, but when her rheumatism made her hands hot and red, her fuse was right short. She said she raised our daddy, then me and Mary Ella, and she thought she was done with the raising. Then all of a sudden, Baby William came along.
“I’m here!” I called as I ran into our yard. The bike me and Mary Ella shared was on its side in the dirt and I jumped over it and ran around the woodpile. Baby William stood on the stoop, saggy diaper hanging halfway down his fat legs, his face all red and tears making paths through the dirt on his cheeks. His black curls was so thick they looked like a wig on his head. He raised his arms out to me when he saw me.
“I’m here, baby boy!” I said, and I scooped him up. He settled right away like always, his body shaking with the end of his crying. Now, if Mary Ella was with me, it’d be her he’d reach for—he knew his mama—but right now he was mine. “Gotcha, sweet baby,” I whispered in his ear.
I looked through the open doorway of our house, trying to see where Nonnie was, but it was dark in there and all I could see was the end of the ratty sofa where the sunlight lit on it from the open doorway. Nonnie kept the shades drawn all day to keep the house cooler. Mr. Gardiner put electricity in our house when I was little, but you’d swear Nonnie hadn’t ﬁgured out how to work it yet. Didn’t matter. The only real light in the house was the one I held in my arms.
“Let’s get you changed,” I said, climbing the stoop and walking into the house. I drew up the crackling old shades at the two front windows to let some light in and the dust motes took to floating around the room. Nonnie showed up in the doorway to the kitchen. She had a bundle of folded diapers and towels in her left arm and she leaned on her cane with her free hand.
“Mary Ella ain’t with you?” she asked, like that was out of the ordinary.
“No.” I kissed her cheek and I could of swore her hair had more gray in it than just that morning when she spent a few hours helping with the barning. She was turning into an old lady before my eyes, with big puffy arms and three chins and walking bent over. She already had the sugar and the high blood and I had this worry of losing her. You got to expecting it after a while, things going wrong. I wasn’t no pessimist, though. Mrs. Rex, my science teacher two years ago, told me I was one of them people that looked on the bright side of things. I thought of Mrs. Rex every time I started to say the word “ain’t” and changed it to “isn’t.” “You can’t get anywhere in life talking dumb,” she told us. Not that I was exactly getting anywhere in life.
I took the laundry from Nonnie with my free hand, catching a whiff of sunshine from the towels. “Maybe she’s getting some extras from Mr. Gardiner,” I said, trying to think positive. I wanted to wipe the scowl off Nonnie’s face. Once or twice a week, Mr. Gardiner, Henry Allen’s daddy who owned all them acres and acres of tobacco, gave Mary Ella things from his own personal garden—and sometimes his smokehouse—for us. He could just as easy hand them to me, but her being the oldest seemed to mean something to him. Or maybe it was that she was a mama now and he thought the food should go to Baby William. I didn’t know. All I knew was that we needed them extras. Mr. Gardiner took care of us in a lot of ways. He gave us a Frigidaire and a new woodstove so big the heat could reach the bedroom as long as we left the door open—and since the door didn’t close all the way, that was easy. Nonnie was about to ask for indoor plumbing when Mary Ella started sprouting her belly. Then Nonnie decided she better not ask for nothing more.
“Did Mary Ella tell him about them deer getting into our garden again?” she asked. The deer got into our garden no matter how much fencing I put around the little bit of good soil Mr. Gardiner let us work for ourselves.
“Yes,” I said, though it was me who told him. Mary Ella didn’t like talking to Mr. Gardiner so much. She wasn’t a big talker to begin with.
“Got your wages?” Nonnie asked, like she did every day.
“I’ll give ’em to you soon as I change this boy,” I said, walking to the bedroom. Mr. Gardiner paid us pennies compared to his other workers, but he let us live here for nothing, so we never complained.
I plunked Baby William down on the bed and started tickling the daylights out of him because I wanted to hear him giggle. We rolled around on the bed for a couple minutes, both of us getting the worries of the day out of ourselves. Sometimes I just liked to stare at that boy, he was so beautiful. Black curls like satin when you ran your fingers through them. Black eyelashes, long and thick. Eyes so dark they was nearly black, too. Mary Ella’s hair was even lighter than mine. I didn’t like to think where Baby William might of got all that black from.
There was a rustle of the trees outside the window and Baby William looked in that direction. We worried early on he might be deaf ’cause he didn’t seem to care about noises and Mrs. Werkman and Nurse Ann said he might need a deaf school, so now every time he heard something, I celebrated inside.
“Mama?” he asked, lifting his head to look through the window. It was about the only word he knew, which Mrs. Werkman said wasn’t right. He should have more words by two, she said. I didn’t like how she was always ﬁnding something wrong with him. I told her he was just quiet like Mary Ella. Not a jabbermouth, like me.
“It’s just a breeze out there,” I said, nuzzling his sweaty little neck. “Mama’ll be home soon.”
I hoped I wasn’t lying.
In the kitchen, I fed Baby William on my lap while Nonnie made salad from the last of a chicken we’d been eating most of the week. It was getting near dusk and Mary Ella still wasn’t home. Baby William wasn’t hungry. He kept pushing my hand away and the chunks of squash fell off the spoon.
“He’s always a crab at suppertime,” Nonnie said.
“No he ain’t,” I said. I hated how she talked about him like that. I bet she talked about me and Mary Ella that way when we was little, too. “He just needs some cuddling, don’t you, Baby William?” I rocked him and he hung on to me like a monkey. Mrs. Werkman said we shouldn’t hold him when we feed him no more. He should sit on a chair at the table, up on the block of wood me and Mary Ella sat on when we was little, but I just loved holding him and he crabbed less on my lap. Sometimes when I held Baby William like that, I thought I could remember my own mama holding me that way.
“I doubt that,” Nonnie said when I told her that one day. “She wasn’t much for holding y’all.”
But I remembered it. Maybe I only imagined it, but that was near as good.
Nonnie scooped Duke’s mayonnaise out of the jar and mixed it into the salad, looking out the window the whole time. “Gonna be dark before you know it,” she said. “You better go see if you can find your sister. That girl forgets her way home sometime.”
I let Baby William eat a piece of squash with his ﬁngers. “No telling where she is, Nonnie,” I said, but I knew I had to try or we’d both be worrying half the night. I stood up, handing Nonnie the baby and the spoon, and she set him on the wooden block. He let out a howl and she clamped her hand over his mouth.
Outside, I checked the johnny ﬁrst just in case, but she wasn’t there. Then I walked through the woods and across the pasture, turning my head left and right, looking for Mary Ella. I walked down the lane that ran next to the tobacco, which looked spooky in the evening light. When I was little, Mama would tell me fairies lived in them tobacco plants. Nonnie said I imagined this, that Mama would never say such a fanciful thing, but I didn’t care. If I had to make up memories of Mama, I’d do it. I used to think someday I’d be able to ask her myself if the things I remembered was true, but Mrs. Werkman said no good could come from me paying Mama a visit after all this time. “No good for either of you, dear,” she said, and by the way she said it I knew she felt real bad about the whole thing.
Way off to my left, I could see the Gardiners’ house blazing with light from just about every room. I walked faster so I could see the back of the house and the two windows I knew was Henry Allen’s room. I’d been in that room. Snuck in, of course. I would of been kilt if anyone knew. Mr. or Mrs. Gardiner. Nonnie. Lord, Nonnie would have my head! But Henry Allen would keep me safe. Nobody I trusted more than that boy. Even when we was little, he’d take on anybody that said a bad word about me. Back then I couldn’t of known I’d come to love him like I did.
I nearly tripped over my own feet as I watched the windows, trying to see Henry Allen’s shadow move past one of them, but I was so far from the house that the windows was nothing more than rectangles of light. It was real dusky out now, so he probably couldn’t see me even if he was looking. But I felt it anyway, that long invisible thread that connected me and him. It always had.
Down the lane in front of me, a light burned on the porch of the Jordans’ house, the other family that lived on the farm. I knew Mary Ella wouldn’t be there, so I turned around and pretty soon I could see the farmhouse windows again. I stared so hard at Henry Allen’s windows that I near forgot I was supposed to be looking for my sister. I wondered if he was listening to his radio. He had one of them little ones you could carry around with you. He brung it with him whenever we met up at the crick. We had a big old radio, of course, but you had to plug it in. Henry Allen said he was going to get me one of the little ones, and when I thought of having music I could carry around, I couldn’t believe it. The Gardiners even had a television and Henry Allen promised someday he’d show it to me but it had to be a time when his parents and the help was out of the house and I didn’t know what it would take for that to happen. A funeral maybe. I didn’t want to wish for no funeral just so I could see a television.
I looked down the lane ahead of me, wishing I brung a lantern with me because it was getting right dark out. The moon was big, though, and it spilled light all over the tobacco like glitter.
“What you doin’ out here this time of night, Ivy?”
I jumped, and it took my eyes a minute to make out Eli Jordan walking toward me. He was so dark he blended into the night.
I slowed my walking. “Just looking for Mary Ella,” I said, casual like, not wanting to sound worried.
“That girl’s a traveler, ain’t she?” We was nearly face-to-face now and he looked off across the ﬁeld like he might be able to see her. He was seventeen, same as Mary Ella, but could of passed for twenty. Taller than me by a hand and broad in the shoulders. Nonnie called him a buck. “That Jordan buck can do the work of four men,” she’d say, sounding admiring, and then a breath later add, “Stay away from him, Ivy,” like I’d be fool enough to mess with a colored boy. Wasn’t me that needed that warning. Sometimes I felt like he could look out for me. Other times, I felt scared by his power. Like the day he lifted a giant tree stump from the ground to the back of Mr. Gardiner’s blue pickup, the muscles in his back rippling like water in the crick. He was a boy who could be for good or evil, and I didn’t know which one he was going to pick.
“Did you see her since the barning today?” I asked.
He shook his head and started walking past me toward his house. “Ain’t seen her,” he said, then over his shoulder, “She’ll probly be home when you git there.”
“Probly,” I said, and I started walking again, faster this time.
The moon lit up the rows of tobacco and I went back to watching the lights in the farmhouse as I walked. I put my hand in my shorts pocket and felt the scrap of paper. “Midnight, tomorrow,” Henry Allen had written in the note. Most every day, he left a note for me near the bottom of the old fence post where the wood was split. He could tuck the note in real deep and no one but me would know it was there. Sometimes he’d say one o’clock or two, but usually it was midnight. I liked that best. Liked the sound of it. I liked thinking someday I’d tell our grandkids, Me and your grandpa would meet by the crick at midnight. Of course, I’d never tell them what we did there.
I saw a lantern in the distance. Someone was walking along Deaf Mule Road where it ran between the Gardiners’ house and the woods. It wouldn’t be Henry Allen. Way too early. As I got closer, I saw the moonlight fall on my sister’s blond hair, which was out of her braid, loose and wild, a crazy big moonlit halo around her head. She was carrying something and I knew it was her basket with the extras Mr. Gardiner gave her for us. I walked faster till I was close enough for her to hear me.
“Mary Ella!” I called out, and she stopped walking and looked around, trying to see where my voice came from. Then she must of spotted me. Instead of walking toward me, though, she ran right across the path I was on, heading for the woods and home, and I knew she was running to keep away from me. She didn’t want to see me. Or me to see her. My sister was a strange one.
By the time I got home, Mary Ella was sitting on the porch rocking Baby William in her arms. Even in the dark, I could tell she was holding him so tight you’d expect him to cry, but Baby William put up with Mary Ella lovin’ on him. She was the only one who could calm him when he got frustrated from not having the words to tell us what he wanted. He knew who’d carried him closest to her heart. Moments like this, they was two quiet souls cut from the same cloth.
“Where you been?” I asked, like I expected her to tell me the truth.
“Had to get the extras from Mr. Gardiner,” she said.
I didn’t bother arguing with her. It didn’t take hours to get the extras unless she had to grow them herself. I didn’t say nothing about how I saw Eli walking home about the same time she was. There was something real breakable about Mary Ella and I was always afraid if I touched her in the wrong spot, she’d crack.
Nonnie came out on the porch, rooting through the basket in the light from the house. “He gave us some of Desiree’s banana pudding!” she said. “Oh sweet Jesus, I wish he’d do that every week.”
“You can’t have that, Nonnie,” I reminded her as I sat down on the stoop. “Your sugar.”
“Don’t go telling me what I can and can’t have,” Nonnie snapped. “You seem to forget you’re my granddaughter, not my mother.”
I shut up. Nonnie was like a little kid about her food. You told her she couldn’t have something and she’d eat it just to be ornery. You reminded her to test her pee, and she’d lie and say she already done it.
I smacked a skeeter. I wouldn’t last long out here. Once you stopped moving, they was on you.
Nonnie went back in the house and came out a minute later with a spoon. She settled into her rocker and set the bowl of pudding on her lap. I couldn’t watch her take that ﬁrst bite. I heard her let out a sigh.
“I’m at the end of my natural working life, girls,” she said. She’d been saying that for years, but lately I believed it. She didn’t last but two hours at the barn today, and even chasing after Baby William seemed too much for her. It was up to me and Mary Ella to work hard enough to keep Mr. Gardiner happy so he’d let us keep the house. He could have a bunch of real workers in it. A family with a father and sons who could do ﬁve times what me and Mary Ella and Nonnie did. I was always afraid one day he’d tell us it was time to go. What we’d do without our house, I didn’t know.
I watched my grandmother digging into the bowl of banana pudding and my sister holding her secrets as close as she held her baby, and I wondered how much longer we could go on this way.
Dr. Carson reached his hand toward me to help me sit up. I clutched the thin fabric gown against my body as I balanced on the edge of the examining table, my legs dangling uncomfortably. He rolled away from me on his stool, then folded his arms across his chest and smiled at me, his thick gray hair giving him a grandfatherly appearance.
“I think your ﬁancé is a lucky man,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said, although I couldn’t imagine what on earth he was basing that on. I’d barely said a word to him during the examination, too embarrassed to do anything other than stare at the ceiling. Now, though, I had to look at him. He seemed determined to hold my gaze with his own eyes, magnified behind his black horn-rimmed glasses.
“Do you have any concerns about your wedding night you’d like to discuss?” he asked.
It was so strange to be asked that question by a man I didn’t know. My own mother wouldn’t ask me that question. Gloria wouldn’t have, either, and she’d been my college roommate and best friend. And certainly not Robert. I felt my cheeks burn, not for the ﬁrst time in the last hour. This man had touched my breasts, slipped his fingers inside me, and explored parts of my body even I had never seen. Why should a question about my wedding night feel even more intrusive?
“No,” I said. “No concerns.” I couldn’t wait to leave his office, but there was something more I needed from him. It was now or never, and he waited as though he knew I had more to say. I cleared my throat. “I was wondering if you could prescribe that new birth control pill for me,” I said.
He raised his bushy gray eyebrows. “You don’t want children?” The way he said it was accusatory, and I felt his opinion of me plummet.
I pressed the gown tighter to my chest. “I’d like to put off having children for a couple of years,” I said. “I plan to work for a while first.”
“Surely you don’t have to work.” He looked at me curiously. “Not married to a pediatrician.” He’d told me he’d met Robert somewhere in the Raleigh medical community, and I didn’t like that connection.
“I want to work,” I said. Dr. Carson sounded like my mother, who claimed she only worked while my father was alive because his teaching salary had never quite paid the bills, and she only continued to work after his death because the life insurance wasn’t enough to see us through. I knew she loved working in the library, no matter what she said. Robert wasn’t thrilled with my plan himself, though. He never out-and-out said I couldn’t work. He did, however, say it would be embarrassing for him, since none of his friends’ wives worked. Only Gloria, who taught second grade, seemed to understand.
“What do you want to do?” Dr. Carson frowned at me as though he couldn’t imagine a job I might truly want.
“I just graduated from Woman’s College in Greensboro,” I said. “I have an interview this afternoon to be a caseworker for the Department of Public Welfare.”
“Oh, you don’t want to do that!” he said, as if I’d said I was going to pick up garbage in the street. “Nice-looking blond girl like you? That’s so dreary. If you have the itch to work, get a job at Belk’s where you can dress up and sell jewelry or smart little hats.”
“I want to do something that helps people, the way Robert does.”
“You could have gone into nursing, then.”
“I could have, if I could stand the sight of blood.” I smiled as sweetly as I could to keep my annoyance from showing.
“Well,” he said, slapping his hands on his knees as he stood up. “I haven’t prescribed the birth control pill yet and I won’t be starting today without getting approval from the man of the house.” He pulled a cigarette from the Phillip Morris pack on the ledge above the sink and I watched as he lit it with a bronze lighter and inhaled deeply. “Once you’re married,” he said, “have your husband call me with his permission and I’ll write you a prescription.”
I was twenty-two years old and having to ask Robert’s permission was humiliating. Also futile. He would say no. He thought the pill hadn’t been studied enough and the side eﬀects were too dangerous. Plus, he wanted to start a family right away. I wanted a family, too. Three children sounded perfect to me, but not yet.
Dr. Carson blew a stream of smoke into the air and studied me where I sat waiting, still wrapped in the skimpy gown. “Seems like I don’t see many virgins anymore,” he said. “Congratulations on that. You’re a smart girl.”
“Thank you,” I said, although I didn’t like him passing judgment on me. Besides, it was a miracle I was still a virgin. Robert and I couldn’t keep our hands off each other. We’d come really close to crossing the line, but we decided to wait. If it had been up to me alone, I’m not sure I could have held out.
He pulled the door open an inch or two. “Children are the greatest blessing,” he said over his shoulder. And then he was gone.
Once alone in the room, I slipped out of the gown and began to dress, surprised by the sting of tears in my eyes. I hadn’t gotten what I’d wanted from this visit: foolproof birth control. Instead I’d been patronized and belittled. I wished I’d had the guts to respond differently to him, but that might have gotten back to Robert. I was already wondering if Dr. Carson might call Robert to tell him about my request. I didn’t want to think about any deep meaning behind the fact that I couldn’t be honest with Robert about wanting to take the pill. Everything else between us was good, and thinking about him eased my heart as I sat down on the stool to attach my stockings to my garter belt. Robert and I were a wonderful team together and the one thing I was absolutely sure of was his love. Love made any problem solvable.
I was still thinking about that miserable appointment as I drove to my interview. My car had belonged to my father and I thought it still smelled faintly of his pipe tobacco, although Robert said he couldn’t smell anything. It reassured me, that smell, and I tried to put Dr. Carson out of my mind. The last thing I needed was to go into a job interview upset and angry. Still, my inability to get the pill now hung over my head. Gloria’s doctor had prescribed it for her months ago, even before it had been approved for birth control. Even before she was married, for pity’s sake. I’d make an appointment with her doctor and hope I could get it in time for our honeymoon.
“Everything will work out,” I said out loud to myself as I stopped at a red light. That’s what Gloria said whenever I shared my doubts about ﬁtting into Robert’s social sphere. Although he and I both came from middle-class families, his fortune changed dramatically when he got that M.D. after his name. His father was an electrician and no one else in his family had graduated from college, much less medical school. He’d worked hard for years to get where he was and it meant something to him to be a part of the country club set and to play golf with some of Raleigh’s most prominent citizens. I didn’t care about the trappings of wealth and status, but he did. He was proud of his accomplishments and I was proud of him, and other than having babies right away, I would do all I could to make him happy.
I’d only known him for a year. He’d asked me to marry him when we’d been together six months, though it felt like forever. “Six months is only six months, no matter how long it feels,” my mother had warned me when I told her we were engaged. She did like Robert, though. She particularly liked the fact that he was a doctor and I would want for nothing. As a widow, she worried about that.
We’d met at the wedding of a girl I went to college with, and we happened to be seated at the same table. It had only been a year since the accident that cost my father and sister their lives, and I was still weighed down by grief. Sitting next to Robert, though, I felt suddenly awake, as though I’d been sleepwalking through the past year. Lord, he was a handsome man! He reminded me of Rock Hudson, cleft chin and all. He said I reminded him of Grace Kelly, which was ridiculous but flattered me anyway. All my life, I’d been called plain. Teresa had been the pretty one. Suddenly, I felt beautiful. It was one of those attractions that made everyone else at the wedding disappear.
He was thirty to my twenty-one, but the age difference didn’t matter. When I found out he was a doctor . . . Well, I could be just as shallow as the next girl. I was doubly attracted to him.
We crammed a lifetime of getting to know each other into that one night. He liked that I was not your typical girl. I didn’t make a fuss when the woman sitting next to me accidentally dropped butter on my dress, ruining it with a greasy stain. I didn’t blush when a man at the table told an oﬀ-color joke. We talked about music we liked and movies we’d seen. I’d just seen Peyton Place and his eyes widened at that. That movie had shocked me, but I didn’t let on. When the band started playing, we danced and danced and danced. My feet ached in my high heels and I tossed them under our table and kept on going. I felt giddy with joy. I’d nearly forgotten how it felt to be happy.
When we parted that evening, he kissed me in a way that turned my knees to jelly. Then he asked for my number. “You’re so refreshing,” he told me. “So different. You’re not always running to the ladies’ room to powder your nose or check your hair. I love how you took off your shoes to dance. I really like you.”
His extended family was huge and important to him, so I agreed to have the wedding in Atlanta, where he was from, instead of Raleigh. He’d been raised Methodist, so once we were married, we’d attend the Edenton Methodist Church instead of my beloved Pullen Baptist, where my father had been a deacon. When Robert’s parents came to visit him in Raleigh, I proudly took them to my church, not realizing that a visiting colored pastor would be preaching that day. That was nothing new at Pullen, but it was far too radical for my future in- laws, who walked out during the service. To Robert’s credit, he stayed with me for the service and apologized for their rudeness, but I knew he’d never set foot in Pullen again.
Leaving my church would be only one change among many. I was bidding good- bye to life as I’d known it and saying hello to the country club, where I couldn’t quite get my bearings, and the Junior League, which I still hadn’t applied to join. I would have Robert and that would be good enough. He’d brought me back to life when I hadn’t even realized I was dead.
I found a parking place in front of the Department of Public Welfare. My dress stuck to the back of my legs as I got out of the car. I was sure my hair was a mess after the drive with the windows open, and I tried to comb it into place with my ﬁngers as I walked into the building. My appearance wasn’t going to make the best first impression and I suddenly felt nervous. I really wanted this job.
There was a fan in the oﬃce where I waited to be interviewed and I sat as close to it as I could without turning my hair into a rat’s nest. The air it blew on me must have been ninety degrees, but it was better than nothing.
A woman stepped out of her oﬃce and walked toward me, smiling. “Miss Mackie?” she asked. She was very slender and wore a short-sleeved blouse tucked into beige slacks. A Katharine Hepburn sort of look.
“Yes.” I got to my feet and shook her hand.
“I’m Charlotte Werkman,” she said. “Come with me.”
I followed her into the small oﬃce, its one window wide open, an oscillating fan in front of it fluttering the papers on her desk. “Shut the door behind you, please, and have a seat,” she said.
I sat down across the desk from her, smoothing my dress over my knees. I took in everything in the tiny oﬃce: the wall calendar with its picture of the governor’s mansion, photographs of children at various ages, a family picture of a young man and woman and two small children. A vase full of mixed flowers, the petals beginning to go brown at the edges but still adding a pop of color to the room. Someday, I thought, I might have an office like this.
“So.” She settled behind her desk and smiled at me and I liked her instantly. Such warmth and conﬁdence in that smile! She looked nothing like I’d imagined a social worker to look. She was striking. She had to be in her forties—maybe even her ﬁfties—but, except for a starburst of faint lines at the outer corners of her eyes, her skin looked as if it belonged in an Ivory soap commercial. Her gray eyes were huge and her hair, which was a pale, pale blond—nearly white—was clipped into a short ponytail at the nape of her neck. But it was the smile that most impressed me, and I felt all the muscles in my body loosen as I relaxed into the chair. I wanted to be like her, someone who could put people at ease with a smile.
“This would be your ﬁrst job?” she asked, and I saw she had my thin résumé on the blotter in front of her.
“Well, my ﬁrst . . . professional job,” I said, motioning toward the résumé, which covered my 4.0 grade point average from Woman’s College. It also showed the summer jobs I’d had working at a day camp for kids and the Red Cross volunteer work I did with my father and Teresa one week each year for most of my life. I had reference letters from two of my professors, attesting to my work ethic. It was the best I could pull together. I hoped it was good enough.
“Your degree is in sociology,” she said. “Did you consider a degree in social work?”
“It wasn’t oﬀered at Woman’s College,” I said. “I had a couple of psychology courses, though, and those in addition to my sociology courses give me a good background, I think.”
She gave a slight nod. “Better than many applicants,” she said. “I was intrigued with what one of your professors—Dr. Adams—said about you.” She lifted one of the letters and began to read. “ ‘Miss Mackie’s passion for her work is matched only by her desire for perfection.’ ” She looked at me. “What does he mean by that sentence, do you think?”
I’d read that sentence in Dr. Adams’s letter many times, knowing he meant it not quite as the compliment it seemed. He thought I got carried away with my work sometimes. He said I was the only student he’d ever taught who wanted to redo a paper he’d graded an A because I thought I could make it even better.
“It’s important to me that I always do my best,” I said now to Mrs. Werkman.
“That can take a toll on a person, don’t you think?”
“That’s exactly what Dr. Adams said, but here I am.” I smiled broadly.
She returned the smile. “Well, you don’t look too much the worse for wear,” she said. “You look sweet and perky and attractive and much younger than twenty-two. I wonder how ready you are to get your hands dirty.”
“Very ready,” I said. I hoped I was telling the truth.
“I want to be sure you have no illusions that this is a glamorous job,” she said.
“I’m not looking for glamour,” I said. “My father always said, ‘True happiness comes from helping others.’ I believe that, too.”
She smiled again. “Tell me your strengths, then.” She sat back in her chair, ready to listen.
“I’m a quick learner,” I said. “I love people. I couldn’t imagine ever having a job where I didn’t interact with people. I’m smart.” I motioned toward my résumé and its GPA again. “I communicate well. I have good writing skills. I know I have to keep good records to do this work.”
“You mentioned on the phone that you’re getting married in a few weeks.”
“Two weeks. Yes.”
“What type of work does your husband-to- be do?”
“He’s a pediatrician.”
“Really! With a pediatrician husband, I’m sure you won’t have to work.”
Here we go again, I thought. “But I want to,” I said.
“I’m widowed,” she said, “so I really have no choice, though I do love it. How does your ﬁancé feel about you working?”
“I’m sorry you lost your husband,” I said. How? I wondered. My gaze moved to the photographs on her bookshelf, landing on the one of a whole family that looked like it was taken when she was much younger. The man had such a warm smile. My eyes welled.
“Oh, my dear.” Mrs. Werkman leaned forward, a small smile on her lips. She reached her hand halfway across her desk as if to console me. “You may be too soft for this work.”
“It’s just that . . .” I smiled with embarrassment. So much for my tough exterior. “My father died a couple of years ago,” I said. I wouldn’t mention Teresa. Not when I was trying desperately to keep my wits about me.
“Ah,” she said. “I’m sorry to hear that.” She followed my gaze to the photograph. “That’s not my family,” she said with a laugh. “This actually isn’t even my oﬃce. It’s just the one I’m using for interviews. And I lost my husband a long time ago. It was terrible at ﬁrst, of course, but I’ve adjusted. And this interview is about you, not me. That’s something you’ll have to learn very quickly, Miss Mackie.”
I was confused. “What is?”
“That your work with your clients is about them, not you. You might relate to something they’re going through, but you’ll have to learn to put those feelings aside. Never talk about your own life. Focus on your clients and their needs or you won’t be able to help them.”
“I understand,” I said.
“Back to my question, then. Does your ﬁancé support the idea of you working?”
“I know how good he feels that he can help people as a doctor and I know he’d like me to have that feeling, too.” It was the best I could oﬀer—an evasive answer.
“How about children?”
“No plans for them right now.”
“You’ll be in the ﬁeld ninety percent of your time,” she said.
I nodded. I liked the sound of that: “in the ﬁeld.” It made the job sound adventurous and important.
“Half your caseload will be colored.” She studied me with those huge pale gray eyes to see how I’d react to that.
“That’s ﬁne,” I said. I thought of the poor colored neighborhoods in Raleigh. If I was being honest with myself, there were areas I was afraid to walk in. I was going to have to develop a stronger backbone— and maybe keep it from Robert for a bit. He would never allow me in those neighborhoods.
“How do you feel about what happened in Greensboro?”
I was confused for a moment, thinking of WC, which is what we called my Greensboro college. Then I thought I understood. “Oh. Do you mean the protests at the Woolworth’s lunch counter?”
She nodded. “What did you think of that?”
I hedged. I certainly knew what I thought, but I didn’t know if it was the “right” answer or if it could cost me the job. Still, I couldn’t lie about my feelings.
“I think they were very brave,” I said of the Negro students who dared to sit at the lunch counter reserved for whites. I thought of the “colored” and “white” drinking fountains I’d passed in the hallway on my way to Mrs. Werkman’s office—or whoever’s oﬃce we were in. “I think all people should be treated with the same respect and have the
She smiled. “An idealist,” she said.
“If that’s the definition of an idealist, then I guess I am one,” I said.
“I’m afraid this job could turn you into more of a realist and that would be a shame,” she said, “but I agree with you. With your ideals, though, it may be too soon for the minds of the South. You’re going to see what centuries of fine quality have done to your Negro clients, and your white clients won’t be much better oﬀ. The challenge we have is relating to people who have very different backgrounds from our own, regardless of race. It’s difficult because so many of them, you’ll find, are of very low intellect.”
“I’d like the challenge,” I said, and I meant it.
“Keep your ideals in your mind and your heart,” she said. “And remember that with all of your clients, there but for the grace of God . . .”
“I have the job?” I asked.
“Yes, Miss Mackie, you do. Salary is $185 a month. Can you start two weeks from Monday?”
I was stuck on the hundred and eighty- ﬁve dollars. Better than I’d expected. Then the “two weeks from Monday” sank in and I gave an apologetic shake of my head. “My wedding is that Saturday.”
“Ah yes.” She turned to look at the calendar. “And then a honeymoon, I suppose?”
“Just for a week. I could start the Monday after.”
“That will have to do, then,” she said. “You’ll actually be taking my place in the ﬁeld. Our director’s retiring and I’m moving into his position.”
“Congratulations.” I smiled.
“Thank you, I think.” She laughed. “I’ll miss the field, but I hope I’ll be able to make some positive changes in the department. So”— she glanced at the calendar again—“we’ll begin that Monday. You’ll go on home visits with me and get to know some of your clients. We’ll only be able to do that for a couple of weeks, though, because we’re terribly short staﬀed, as you’ll soon ﬁnd out. Dress is professional but casual. I prefer slacks for fieldwork and made the department loosen the dress code a few years ago for that reason, so you may wear them if you like. You’ll want to purchase a briefcase something like this.” She lifted a briefcase from the floor. Worn brown leather with a sloping top and brass clasp, very much like the one my father used to carry. I loved the idea of having my own.
“Okay,” I said.
Then she gave me a look of warning. “You’ll have a large caseload to balance,” she said. “I have sixty cases at the moment, but I won’t dump them all on you at once.”
“Where?” I asked. “What part of Raleigh?”
“Not Raleigh at all,” she said. “Grace County. All rural families.”
Grace County. “Oh,” I said. I hadn’t expected that.
“Is that a problem?”
“No, just a surprise. I’ve never really been to Grace County, except to pass through on the way to the beach.” It was a lie, but I didn’t want to talk about one more thing that might make me cry.
“It will mean a lot of driving. Are you comfortable with that?”
“I love driving,” I said. Where in Grace County? I wondered.
“I can tell you’re a passionate person, Miss Mackie, as your professor wrote in his letter,” she said. “I like that. Will the commute be a problem for you? Your oﬃce will be in Grace County, of course. In Ridley. That’s where mine is, but it was easier to interview candidates here.”
“No problem,” I said. “I have a car.”
“Where do you live?”
“Right now, Cameron Park with my mother, but my fiancé— husband—and I will be living in Hayes Barton.”
“My,” she said, eyes wide. “How lovely.” She got to her feet and I stood as well. She led me to her office door.
“You remind me of myself in the early days,” she said, as she opened the door for me, “But I believe you’re a bit more . . . fragile than I was and that concerns me. This can be soul-searing work.”
“I can be very strong,” I said, wondering what had given me away. My knees had gone soft at the mention of Grace County.
“We’ll see,” she said. “Have a lovely wedding.”
I drove home feeling both happy and anxious. I wouldn’t call Robert at his oﬃce to tell him I had the job. I’d wait until I saw him tonight, and then I’d mention it in passing, as though it were no big deal. I didn’t want to invite his questions about it. But I had to tell someone, so I drove to the library and found my mother taking a break on one of the benches out front. She was reading a book and smoking a cigarette. I sat down next to her and she looked up in surprise.
“Guess who got a job!” I said.
“You got it?” She turned the book over on her lap. “The social work job?”
I nodded and reached for her cigarette to take a drag. I was an occasional smoker. Robert didn’t like it, so I never smoked around him. He loved his cigars, though.
“Well, congratulations, honey,” she said, even though I knew she had mixed feelings about me working.
“I’ll have my own clients,” I said, handing the cigarette back to her, “and I’ll be making a hundred and eighty- ﬁve dollars a month!”
“Where exactly will you be working?”
I shrugged. “Not sure yet,” I said. “Out in the country somewhere.” I smoothed a wayward lock of her salt- and-pepper hair behind her ear. I’d keep Grace County to myself for a while. Mom hadn’t really been herself since the accident. I so rarely saw her smile anymore. I didn’t want to bring up anything that might upset her.
She stroked my arm with her free hand. “Daddy would be so proud of you, honey,” she said. “I hope Robert is, too. I hope he knows what a treasure he has in you.”
“Mother.” I laughed at the emotion in her voice. I would have been embarrassed if anyone had overheard her, but as it was I just felt loved. I kissed her cheek. “I’ve got to go shopping for some work clothes. See you at home tonight?”
“So many changes,” she said, as if she hadn’t heard me. “You’re leaving home. Getting married. Working.” She shook her head. “I’ll miss you so much.”
“I’ll only be a couple of miles away,” I reassured her. The sadness in her voice worried me.
“My baby’s all grown up,” she said with a sigh, and maybe it was only my imagination, but I thought she was thinking of her other baby. The one who would never have the chance to grow up. I would grow up well enough for both of us.
Excerpted from Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain. Copyright © 2013 by Diane Chamberlain. First published in the United States 2013 by St. Martin’s Press, New York. First published 2013 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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