One day when there wasn’t any school my father instructed me to stay home because Regina the maid was coming. I resented him acting as though Regina couldn’t be trusted. She had worked for us for two years by then. I wanted to go to the mall with my friends, so I did, and thought nothing of it, until I pulled up in front of my house at six o’clock that evening.
There was my father in his business suit sitting on the front steps pushing a cup of coffee at Regina who was sloppy drunk, her wiry hair mashed to one side, her yellow cotton shirtwaist twisted around her legs, her stockings ripped at one knee, the bare skin bulging out. He was trying to pour coffee down her throat and I got a tongue lashing.
“You were supposed to stay home. Now clean up that mess in there. I’m going to drive her to the bus stop.” He put the coffee cup down so hard on the cement step, it cracked and fell over, spilling coffee on Regina’s hand but she didn’t seem to feel it. Her eyes were dull, she looked at me without recognition.
I stepped around her and went inside, watching as he lifted her up with his hands under her armpits and helped her as she stumbled down the flagstone walk to the driveway. Once inside the house, I couldn’t see anything wrong. Then I went into the new room where he kept his liquor in a pine washstand. The doors were open wide, a bottle of bourbon was on its side, and across the room I saw that the floor lamp had crashed into the glass fireplace doors.
I set the bottle up, screwed on the top tight, and closed the cabinet doors. I righted the lamp, swept up the glass, and threw it away and then I went to sit on the couch and wait for my father. I was sorry, not about going out when he told me to stay home, I was sorry that Regina wouldn’t be coming to work for us anymore.
Suddenly I saw my mother’s tired, pinched, once beautiful face telling me proudly that she had been careful to explain to Regina that leukemia was not catching. “They don’t understand things like that,” she had confided in me.
My parents didn’t know Regina at all and I didn’t like the way they looked down on her and seemed to assume she was stupid. She had always been nice to me, especially after my mother died. She was considerate and kind. She didn’t avoid me and looked right in my eyes when she spoke to me. One afternoon I was upstairs in the kitchen and she was in the basement ironing. I wanted to ask her advice. I looked in the fridge and saw a chicken there, shut the door and went to the top of the basement stairs. “Regina?”
“Yes?” She had a soft eager way of speaking.
“How do you like to cook a chicken?”
She came to the bottom of the stairs and looked up at me brightly. “Well, Sally, I like to sprinkle a packet of onion soup mix on top of it; do you have any of that? Then I cook it slow, at about 300 for an hour.”
“Thanks,” I said enthusiastically as I turned around and began bustling in the kitchen. We didn’t have any onion soup mix but I chopped up onions and splashed some vinegar on top of the chicken and put it in the oven, trying to ignore the extreme sadness I so often felt during that time.
I was assigned to iron my father’s shirts since Regina wouldn’t be coming back to work for us anymore. One day I opened the games closet in the basement next to the ironing board and saw her purse there, a cream-colored plastic satchel. The sight of it there next to board games like Monopoly and Battleship frightened me. I immediately stopped ironing, got the bag, hurried to my car and drove all the way to the grocery store to leave it on top of a public trashcan.
In the grocery store I wandered the aisles pushing an empty cart and tears streamed down my face. I had no control over the crying. People looked at me. One man followed me. I think he was a security guard even though he wore plain clothes. I saw him veer off my trail and snatch an open box of cookies left by a girl about my age. He followed her to the cash register and handed her the box, saying something like, “Oh, miss, you forgot this.”
I abandoned the cart and walked out. We exchanged a mutual glare as I passed. His stare was full of suspicion. I think he must have thought I’d managed to swipe something the moment I was off his radar. That was before electronic buzzers. He’d have had to search me to know for sure and I think I might have relished it, the injustice of it.