On Tuesdays we would wait for Weeze outside her school. Way before we turned the corner from Sparks Street I always saw it sitting like a giant, grayish mushroom alongside Highway 22: a tall, wooden, multi-storied rectangle whose paint had long ago peeled away. When the bell rang, Weeze would stroll out to our car, wave good-bye to her cluster of friends who stared at us curiously each time, climb into the back seat, and say, “Hi you, Miz Harris, hi you, Miss Laurie?” as she slammed the door. Before Weeze got to the car, Mama would always mumble, “Come on, Weeze, hurry up, Weeze.” Weeze never hurried, though. At least, I never saw her hurry.
On Tuesdays, Mama went somewhere; I don’t know where she went, didn’t really care, but she always dressed up a bit, wearing one of those gauzy dresses whose fabric I loved to slide my fingers across, high heels whose open toes revealed red-lacquered nails, and bright lipstick that left its mark when she kissed me good-bye on her way out. I loved watching her dress before we went to pick Weeze up, used to sit in the chair by a window in her bedroom, knees pressed against my chest, as she moved from closet to dresser, to bathroom, then back to closet again, putting on her lovely things, dusting her slim body with sweet-smelling powder, sliding her legs into slippery hose, transforming herself from my ordinary mother into a beautiful being. I knew I would miss her, would fuss when she left as I still experienced that separation-anxiety that plagues many young children, even though I always looked forward to staying home those afternoons with Weeze.
Weeze wasn’t really her name. I couldn’t pronounce Louise back then, so I called her what I thought sounded like Louise. Mama started calling her Weeze as well eventually; I suppose she heard me say it incorrectly so many times, she fell into the habit. I finally learned to say it right, but by then Weeze wasn’t coming to stay with me any more on Tuesday afternoons.
Weeze wasn’t really my babysitter, Mama explained to me one day when I complained about wanting Weeze to play Go Fish and she wouldn’t do it, told me she had work she needed to finish for my mama, shooing me away, saying, “Go on and find you something to do by yourself, now, Hon.” On nice, sunny days, I didn’t care so much if Weeze played with me or not, for she let me go outside to the sandbox or swing set, didn’t seem to mind if I got sand in my shoes and underpants like Mama did. On rainy days, however, I’d wander around the house like a restless pony waiting for Weeze to finish doing the ironing or washing out the toilet bowl, or whatever tasks Mama had given her, telling her I wanted her to play with me, that she must play with me since I was her job. But Mama had eventually explained that Weeze’s job was actually ironing our clothes and straightening up the house and keeping an eye on me in the meantime, not entertaining me, for heaven’s sake.
As soon as Weeze climbed into the car Mama would begin listing the little chores she’d left for her to do that afternoon. Weeze would say, “Yes’m” to everything Mama told her, and I used to wonder how on earth she could possibly remember all those tasks until I realized that they were the same every Tuesday.
I loved Weeze. I loved everything about her: her fingernails that looked pink against her brown skin even though they bore no polish; her stiff black hair worn sculpted in various shapes, so controlled, so perfectly formed, so unlike mine—fine and limp. I loved her skin—like chocolate candy, smooth, shiny when she rubbed cream on it, soft and dusky when she did not. I loved her voice—husky, calming, especially when she sang, songs I never heard anywhere else; when singing, her voice could become high and light, quick like her movements at the ironing board, darting everywhere almost like a little bird. Most of all, though, I loved her stories, stories she would tell me about people in her family, people she knew from church, other children she tended at other houses for other mamas who went out while she ironed or dusted, or washed out their toilet bowls.
Some of the characters in her stories had peculiar names, like Cornbread or Whiskey or Shine, or funny double names like Willie-T or Johnny-Bones or Sukey-Lock. I loved these names, would whisper them to myself after Weeze had left, gone home to these people she shared a life with. I longed to have such a special name as these to roll on my tongue and taste, often replaying later with my dolls a story she’d told me, using just those names. Weeze had a boyfriend she spoke about too named Martene-Lewis Spencer who according to her was the handsomest man in the whole town of Jessup, Mississippi, and who promised to marry her as soon as he saved enough money from his job at his uncle’s barber shop, The Blue Bird. Weeze’s face would take on a special glow when she talked about Martene-Lewis Spencer, and though I had never laid eyes on him, I became jealous of his effect on Weeze, so I truly despised him.
I never sat in Weeze’s lap. I don’t remember ever hugging her or telling her how much I loved her. She was always so busy, always in motion, never sitting down to rest. Even when she finished her work, instead of plopping on the sofa as did Ruby, our other sometimes-help, to wait for Mama to arrive and pay her before she caught her ride home, Weeze would dart here and yonder, smoothing, wiping, moving from room to room, touching, handling, straightening all Mama’s delicate knick-knacks, her pretty towels, vases filled with flowers, I tagging along behind, knowing my time with her was limited, drawing out every minute I could, listening to her precious voice.
One Tuesday Weeze told me a story about a little girl she knew, a different story from her usual—those about odd characters who’d get lost when fishing or hunting, causing all kinds of panic among people who loved them, then return with wild adventures to relate. Or her stories of women like her aunt Big Lennie who could chop firewood with an axe, or the church ladies who bustled and rallied around to help any time someone got sick or died or had any malady of any kind whatsoever. This time Weeze told me about a little girl named Mary Ethel who was just my age, who had brown eyes (like me!), black hair she mostly wore in pigtails and who loved to draw with her crayons and play with her dolls. I loved hearing about Mary Ethel! Even though Weeze’s past stories about grownups had fascinated me, I hadn’t fully understood all of them, sometimes found them difficult to follow. But a little girl who was just my age, I wanted to know all about, everything. Full of questions, I interrupted Weeze so often she finally told me: “Listen, Miss Laurie, let me tell it my way, hear?”
I wanted to know how big Mary Ethel was, if she liked to climb trees, build streets and houses in a sandbox, dress her cat in doll clothes, color inside the lines, dance to radio music, eat red Jell-o; if she could roll her tongue or kiss her elbow. But I had to wait for Weeze to tell me.
That day Weeze took a long time ironing, so caught up with her story about Mary Ethel that Mama came home before she even finished the last piece, one of my pretty pink dresses that had a myriad of little pleats to press flat.
“Mama, Mama!” I yelled when I saw her walk into the kitchen where Weeze stood at the ironing board and I still skittered around the room while listening to her Mary Ethel story. “Weeze knows a little girl just my size who doesn’t have a single pretty dress to wear! I’m giving her my pink dress that she’s ironing because I have so many pink dresses and now Mary Ethel will have one!” I remember feeling like a princess then, so excited that I could give my possession to someone—even though I didn’t know her, I felt as if I did after hearing all Weeze had told me—who needed it. I danced around the kitchen, smiling, even giggling, waiting for Mama to exclaim her delight at the plan we—Weeze and I—had concocted.
Mama didn’t smile. She looked at Weeze, then at the dress lying on the ironing board, its little pleats stiff and straight where Weeze had pressed them, a small section still damp and crumpled, one of Weeze’s hands smoothing it, the other holding the steaming iron. Weeze’s head was down. “Yes, okay, then, I guess.” Mama had smiled at me then, a tight smile not matching her eyes, said without turning back to Weeze: “Finish it quickly, Weeze. Your ride is waiting outside.” Mama left the kitchen and strode into the living room, high heels clicking on the tiled floor, reaching into her big handbag as she did so, searching, I suppose, for Weeze’s payment.
“Hurry! Finish it, Weeze!” I told her. “When will you give it to Mary Ethel? Will you bring her here so I can see her wear my dress? Can I play with her?” Still excited despite my mother’s disappointing reaction, I longed to meet this Mary Ethel, knew we would love each other since we shared so much in common. Because she was Weeze’s friend, she would be mine too.
When Weeze was ready to leave, Mama followed her outside the back door onto the porch landing. I could hear Mama’s voice—harsh, whispered sibilance—but none of her words. Yet when Daddy arrived shortly after, I did hear Mama clearly from the hallway: “She talked her into giving away her pretty dress to a colored girl! What could I do but let her take it? But I tell you, Bennet, I let her know that would not happen again. Using a little girl to get what she wants just will not be allowed!” I didn’t hear Daddy’s mumbled response, didn’t pay attention because my mind was whirling. My entire vision of my little friend Mary Ethel had altered while hearing Mama’s words. All at once, her pigtails had stiffened, her skin had darkened, her voice had changed.
Yet in my mind, though her image now was different, Mary Ethel remained the beautiful little girl Weeze had told me about, had remained my friend, though I never got to meet her. For weeks afterwards, I used her name for nearly every doll I owned, imagined her swinging on the empty swing beside me or running cars and trucks alongside mine in the sandbox. Weeze never mentioned Mary Ethel to me again. Despite my attempts to talk to Weeze about her on subsequent Tuesdays, she would change the subject, ignore my questions, begin chattering about other friends, relatives, involve my interest in different stories before I realized I hadn’t heard what I wanted. She told me all about Big Lennie and Whiskey and Willie-T, but not about Mary Ethel.
I never saw Mary Ethel, not even a picture of her, yet her image seems as clear to me today as it was when I was five. Better than a black and white photo from Daddy’s camera, my vision is in color, not bordered by white, scalloped edges, not bent or torn. I see Mary Ethel forever wearing her new pink dress, pigtails trimmed in ribbons, sometimes dancing to radio music, sometimes drawing with crayons. I used to see her smiling, but now I wonder….
Kathryn M. Hamilton is a retired English professor from Columbus State University where she taught composition and literature. She has published a few short stories and essays in the past. She enjoys spending time with her grandchildren, playing tennis and traveling, and loves watching baseball.
© 2014, Kathryn M. Hamilton