A story by Alice Adams
Every morning of all the years of the thirties, at around seven, Verlie Jones begins her long and laborious walk to the Todds’ house, two miles uphill. She works for the Todds— their maid. Her own house, where she lives with her four small children, is a slatted floorless cabin, in a grove of enormous sheltering oaks. It is just down a rutted road from the bending highway, and that steep small road is the first thing she has to climb, starting out early in the morning. Arrived at the highway she stops and sighs, and looks around and then starts out. Walking steadily but not in any hurry, beside the winding white concrete.
First there are fields of broomstraw on either side of the road, stretching back to the woods, thick, clustered dark pines and cedars, trees whose lower limbs are cluttered with underbrush. Then the land gradually rises until on one side there is a steep red clay bank, going up to the woods; on the other side a wide cornfield, rich furrows dotted over in spring with tiny wild flowers, all colors—in the winter dry and rutted, sometimes frosted over, frost as shiny as splintered glass.
Then the creek. Before she comes to the small concrete bridge, she can see the heavier growth at the edge of the fields, green, edging the water. On the creek’s steep banks, below the bridge, are huge peeling poplars, ghostly, old. She stands there looking down at the water (the bridge is halfway to the Todds’). The water is thick and swollen, rushing, full of twigs and leaf trash and swirling logs in the spring. Trickling and almost dried out when summer is over, in the early fall.
Past the bridge is the filling station, where they sell loaves of bread and cookies and soap, along with the gas and things for cars. Always there are men sitting around at the station, white men in overalls, dusty and dried out. Sometimes they nod to Verlie. “Morning, Verlie. Going to be any hot day?”
Occasionally, maybe a couple of times a year, a chain gang will be along there, working on the road. The colored men chained together, in their dirty, wide-striped uniforms, working with their picks. And the thin, mean guard (a white man) with his rifle, watching them. Looking quickly, briefly at Verlie as she passes. She looks everywhere but there, as her heart falls down to her stomach and turns upside down. All kinds of fears grab at her, all together; she is afraid of the guard and of those men (their heavy eyes) and also a chain gang is one of the places where her deserting husband, Horace, might well be, and she never wants to see Horace again. Not anywhere.
After the filling station some houses start. Small box houses, sitting up high on brick stilts. And the other side of the highway red clay roads lead back into the hills, to the woods. To the fields of country with no roads at all, where sometimes Mr. Todd goes to hunt rabbits, and where at other times, in summer, the children. Avery and Devlin Todd, take lunches and stay all day.
From a certain bend in the highway Verlie can see the Todds’ house, but she rarely bothers to look anymore. She sighs and shifts her weight before starting up the steep, white, graveled road, and then the road to the right that swings around to the back of the house, to the back door that leads into the kitchen.
There on the back porch she has her own small bathroom, that Mr. Todd put in for her. There is a mirror and some nails to hang her things on, and a flush toilet, ordered from Montgomery Ward, that still works. No washbasin, but she can wash her hands in the kitchen sink.
She hangs up her cardigan sweater in her bathroom and takes an apron off a nail. She goes into the kitchen to start everyone’s breakfast.
They all eat separate. First Avery, who likes oatmeal and then soft-boiled eggs; then Mr. Todd (oatmeal and scrambled eggs and bacon and coffee); Devlin (toast and peanut butter and jam); and Mrs. Todd (tea and toast).
Verlie sighs, and puts the water on.
Verlie has always been with the Todds; that is how they put it to their friends. “Verlie has always been with us.” Of course, that is not true. Actually she came to them about ten years before, when Avery was a baby. What they meant was that they did not know much about her life before them, and also (a more important meaning) they cannot imagine their life without her. They say, “We couldn’t get along without Verlie,” but it is unlikely that any of them (except possibly Jessica, with her mournful, exacerbated, and extreme intelligence) realizes the full truth of the remark. And, laughingly, one of them will add, “No one else could put up with us.” Another truth, or perhaps only a partial truth: in those days, there and then, most maids put up with a lot, and possibly Verlie suffers no more than most.
She does get more money than most maids, thirteen dollars a week (most get along on ten or eleven). And she gets to go home before dinner, around six (she first leaves the meal all fixed for them), since they—since Mr. Todd likes to have a lot of drinks and then eat late.
Every third Sunday she gets off to go to church.
None of them is stupid enough to say that she is like a member of the family.
Tom Todd, that handsome, guiltily faithless husband, troubled professor (the 10 percent salary cuts of the Depression; his history of abandoned projects—the book on Shelley, the innumerable articles)Tom was the one who asked Verlie about her name.
“You know, it’s like in the Bible. Verlie I say unto you.”
Tom felt that he successfully concealed his amusement at that, and later it makes a marvelous story, especially in academic circles, in those days when funny-maid stories are standard social fare. In fact people (white people) are somewhat competitive as to who has heard or known the most comical colored person, comical meaning outrageously-childlishly ignorant. Tom’s story always goes over well.
In her summer sneakers, shorts, and little shirt, Avery comes into the dining room, a small, darkhaired girl carrying a big book. Since she has learned to read (her mother taught her, when she was no bigger than a minute) she reads all the time, curled up in big chairs in the living room or in her own room, in the bed. At the breakfast table.
“Good morning, Verlie.”
“Morning. How you?”
“Fine, thank you. Going to be hot today?”
“Well, I reckon so.”
Avery drinks her orange juice, and then Verlie takes out the glass and brings in her bowl of hot oatmeal. Avery reads the thick book while she eats. Verlie takes out the oatmeal bowl and brings in the soft-boiled eggs and a glass of milk.
“You drink your milk, now hear?”
Verlie is about four times the size of Avery and many more times than that her age. (But Verlie can’t read.)
Verlie is an exceptionally handsome woman, big and tall and strong, with big bright eyes and smooth yellow skin over high cheekbones. A wide curving mouth, and strong white teeth.
Once there was a bad time between Avery and Verlie: Avery was playing with some children down the road, and it got to be suppertime. Jessica sent Verlie down to get Avery, who didn’t want to come home. “Blah blah blah blah!” she yelled at Verlie—who, unaccountably, turned and walked away.
The next person Avery saw was furious Jessica, arms akimbo. “How are you, how could you? Verlie, who’s loved you all your life? How could you be so cruel, calling her black?”
“I didn’t—I said blah. I never said black. Where is she?”
“Gone home. Very hurt.”
Jessica remained stiff and unforgiving (she had problems of her own); but the next morning Avery ran down into the kitchen at the first sound of Verlie. “Verlie, I said blah blah—I didn’t say black.”
And Verlie smiled, and it was all over. For good.
Tom Todd comes into the dining room, carrying the newspaper. “Good morning, Avery. Morning, Verlie. Well, it doesn’t look like a day for getting out our umbrellas, does it now?”
That is the way he talks.
“Avery, please put your book away. Who knows, we might have an absolutely fascinating conversation.”
She gives him a small sad smile and closes her book. “Pass the cream?”
“With the greatest of pleasure.”
But despite the intense and often painful complications of his character, Tom’s relationship with Verlie is perhaps the simplest in that family. Within their rigidly defined roles they are even fond of each other. Verlie thinks he talks funny, but not much more so than most men—white men. He runs around with women (she knows that from his handkerchiefs, the lipstick stains that he couldn’t have bothered to hide from her) but not as much as Horace did. He bosses his wife and children but he doesn’t hit them. He acts as Verlie expects a man to act, and perhaps a little better.
And from Tom’s point of view Verlie behaves like a Negro maid. She is somewhat lazy; she does as little cleaning as she can. She laughs at his jokes. She sometimes sneaks drinks from his liquor closet. He does not, of course, think of Verlie as a woman—a woman in the sense of sexual possibility: in fact he once sincerely (astoundingly) remarked that he could not imagine a sexual impulse toward a colored person.
Devlin comes in next. A small and frightened boy, afraid of Verlie. Once as he stood up in his bath she touched his tiny penis and laughed and said, “This here’s going to grow to something nice and big.” He was terrified: what would he do with something big, down there?
He mutters good morning to his father and sister and to Verlie.
Then Jessica. Mrs. Todd. “Good morning, everyone. Morning, Verlie. My, doesn’t it look like a lovely spring day?”
She sighs, as no one answers.
The end of breakfast. Verlie clears the table, washes up, as those four people separate.
There is a Negro man who also (sometimes) works for the Todds, named Clifton. Yard work: raking leaves in the fall, building a fence around the garbage cans, and then a dog kennel, then a playhouse for the children.
When Verlie saw Clifton the first time he came into the yard (a man who had walked a long way, looking for work), what she thought was: Lord, I never saw no man so beautiful. Her second thought was: he sick.
Clifton is bronze-colored. Reddish. Shining. Not brown like most colored (or yellow, as Verlie is). His eyes are big and brown, but dragged downward with his inside sickness. And his sadness: he is a lonesome man. almost out of luck.
“Whatever do you suppose they talk about?” Tom Todd says to Jessica, who has come into his study to help him with the index of his book, an hour or so after breakfast. They can hear the slow, quiet sounds of Verlie’s voice, with Clifton’s, from the kitchen.
“Us, maybe?" Jessica makes this light, attempting a joke, but she really wonders if in fact she and Tom are their subject. Her own communication with Verlie is so mystifyingly nonverbal that she sometimes suspects Verlie of secret (and accurate) appraisals, as though Verlie knows her in ways that no one else does, herself included. At other times she thinks that Verlie is just plain stubborn.
From the window come spring breaths of blossom and grasses and leaves. Of spring earth. Aging, plump Jessica deeply sighs.
Tom says, “I very much doubt that, my dear. Incredibly fascinating though we be.”
In near total despair Jessica says, “Sometimes I think I just don’t have the feeling for an index.”
The telephone rings. Tom and Jessica look at each other, and then Verlie’s face comes to the study door. “It’s for you, Mr. Todd. A long distance.”
Clifton has had a bad life; it almost seems cursed. The same sickness one spring down in Mississippi carried off his wife and three poor little children, and after that everything got even worse: every job that he got came apart like a bunch of sticks in his hands. Folks all said that they had no money to pay. He even made deliveries for a bootlegger, knocking on back doors at night, but the man got arrested and sent to jail before Clifton got any money.
He likes working for the Todds, and at the fewother jobs around town that Mrs. Todd finds for him. But he doesn’t feel good. Sometimes he thinks he has some kind of sickness.
He looks anxiously at Verlie as he says this last, as though he, like Jessica, believes that she can see inside him.
“You nervous,” Verlie says. “You be all right, come summertime.” But she can’t look at him as she says this.
They are standing in the small apple orchard where Verlie’s clotheslines are. She has been hanging out the sheets. They billow, shuddering in the lively restive air of early spring.
Clifton suddenly takes hold of her face, and turns it around to his. He presses his mouth and his body to hers, standing there. Something deep inside Verlie heats up and makes her almost melt.
It is Avery, suddenly coming up on them, so that they cumbersomely step apart.
“Verlie, my father wants you.” Avery runs away almost before she has stopped speaking.
Clifton asks, “You reckon we ought to tell her not to tell?”
“No, she’s not going to tell.”
Verlie is right, but it is a scene that Avery thinks about. Of course, she has seen other grown-ups kissing: her father and Irene Macomber or someone after a party. But Verlie and Clifton looked different: for one thing they were more absorbed. It took them a long time to hear her voice.
Tom is desperately questioning Jessica. “How in God’s name will I tell her?” he asks.
Verlie’s husband, Horace, is dead. He died in a Memphis hospital, after a knife fight, having first told a doctor the name of the people and the town where his wife worked.
“I could tell her,” Jessica forces herself to say, and for a few minutes they look at each other, with this suggestion lying between them. But they both know, with some dark and intimate Southern knowledge, that Tom will have to be the one to tell her. And alone: it would not even “do” for Jessica to stay on in the room, although neither of them could have explained these certainties.
Having been clearly (and kindly) told by Tom what has happened in Memphis, Verlie then asks. “You sure? You sure it’s Horace, not any other man?”
Why couldn’t he have let Jessica tell her, or at least have let her stay in the room? Tom is uncomfortable; it wildly occurs to him to offer Verlie a drink (to offer Verlie a drink?). He mumbles, “Yes, I’m afraid there’s no doubt at all.” He adds, in his more reasonable, professorial voice, “You see, another man wouldn’t have said Verlie Jones, who works for the Todd family, in Hilton.”
Incredibly, a smile breaks out on Verlie’s face. (“For a minute I actually thought she was going to laugh” Tom later says to Jessica.)
Verlie says. “I reckon that’s right. Couldn’t be no other man.” And then she says, “Lunch about ready now,” and she goes back into the kitchen.
Jessica has been hovering in the dining room, pushing at the arrangement of violets and cowslips in a silver bowl. She follows Verlie into the kitchen; she says, “Verlie, I’m terribly sorry. Verlie, wouldn’t you like to go on home? Take the afternoon off. I could drive you . . .”
“No’m. No thank you. I’d liefer get on with the ironing.”
And so, with a stiff and unreadable face, opaque dark brown eyes, Verlie serves their lunch.
What could they know, what could any of them know about a man like Horace? Had any of them seen her scars? Knife scars and beating scars, and worse things he had done without leaving any scars. All the times he forced her, when he was so hurting and quick, and she was sick or just plain exhausted. The girls she always knew he had. The mean tricks he played on little kids, his kids. The dollars of hers that he stole to get drunk on.
She had always thought Horace was too mean to die, and as she cleans up the lunch dishes and starts to sprinkle the dry sheets for ironing, she still wonders: is Horace dead?
She tries to imagine an open casket, full of Horace, dead. His finicky little moustache and his long, strong fingers folded together on his chest. But the casket floats off into the recesses of her mind and what she sees is Horace, alive and terrifying.
A familiar dry smell tells her that she has scorched a sheet, and tears begin to roll slowly down her face.
“When I went into the kitchen to see how she was, she was standing there with tears rolling down her face,” Jessica reports to Tom—and then is appalled at what she hears as satisfaction in her own voice.
“I find that hardly surprising.” Tom says, with a questioning raise of his eyebrows.
Aware that she has lost his attention, Jessica goes on. (Where is he—with whom?) “I just meant, it seems awful to feel a sort of relief when she cries. As though I thought that’s what she ought to do. Maybe she didn’t really care for Horace. He hasn’t been around for years, after all.” (As usual she is making things worse: it is apparent that Tom can barely listen.)
She says. “I think I’ll take the index cards back to my desk,” and she manages not to cry.
Picking up the sheets to take upstairs to the linen closet, Verlie decides that she won’t tell Clifton about Horace; dimly she thinks that if she tells anyone, especially Clifton, it won’t be true: Horace, alive, will be waiting for her at her house, as almost every night she is afraid that he will be.
Sitting at her desk, unseeingly Jessica looks out across the deep valley, where the creek winds down toward the sea, to the further hills that are bright green with spring. Despair slowly fills her blood so that it seems heavy in her veins, and thick, and there is a heavy pressure in her head.
And she dreams for a moment, as she has sometimes before, of a friend to whom she could say, “I can’t stand anything about my life. My husband either is untrue to me or would like to be—constantly. It comes to the same thing, didn’t St. Paul say that? My daughter’s eyes are beginning to go cold against me, and my son is terrified of everyone. Of me.” But there is no one to whom she could say a word of this; she is known among her friends for dignity and restraint. (Only sometimes her mind explodes, and she breaks out screaming— at Tom, at one of her children, once at Verlie— leaving them all sick and shocked, especially herself sick and shocked, and further apart than ever.)
Now Verlie comes through the room with an armful of fresh, folded sheets, and for an instant, looking at her. Jessica has the thought that Verlie could be that friend, that listener. That Verlie could understand.
She dismisses the impulse almost as quickly as it came.
Lately she has spent a lot of time remembering college, those distant happy years, among friends. Her successes of that time. The two years when she directed the Greek play, on May Day weekend (really better than being in the May Court). Her senior year, elected president of the secret honor society. (And the springs of wisteria, heavily dowering, scented, lavender and white, the heavy vines everywhere.)
From those college days she still has two friends, to whom she writes, and visits at rarer intervals. Elizabeth, who is visibly happily married to handsome and successful Dabney Stuart (although he is, to Jessica, a shocking racial bigot). And Mary John James, who teaches Latin in a girls’ school, in Richmond—who has never married. Neither of them could be her imagined friend (any more than Verlie could).
Not wanting to see Jessica’s sad eyes again (the sorrow in that woman’s face! the mourning!), Verlie puts the sheets in the linen closet and goes down the back stairs. She is halfway down, walking slow, when she feels a sudden coolness in her blood, as though from a breeze. She stops, she listens to nothing, and then she is flooded with the certain knowledge that Horace is dead, is at that very moment laid away in Memphis (wherever Memphis is). Standing there alone, by the halfway window that looks out to the giant rhododendron, she begins to smile, peacefully and slowly—an interior, pervasive smile.
Then she goes on down the stairs, through the dining room and into the kitchen.
Clifton is there.
Her smile changes; her face becomes brighter and more animated, although she doesn’t say anything—not quite trusting herself not to say everything, as she has promised herself.
“You looking perky,” Clifton says, by way of a question. He is standing at the sink with a drink of water.
Her smile broadens, and she lies. “Thinking about the social at the church. Just studying if or not I ought to go.”
“You do right to go,” he says. And then, “You be surprise, you find me there?”
(They have never arranged any meeting before, much less in another place, at night; they have always pretended that they were in the same place in the yard or orchard by accident.)
She laughs. “You never find the way.”
He grins at her. his face brighter than any face that she has ever seen. “I be there.” he says to her.
A long, hot summer, extending into fall. A hot October, and then there is sudden cold. Splinters of frost on the red clay erosions, in the fields. Ice in the shallow edges of the creek.
For Verlie it has been the happiest summer of her life, but no one of the Todds has remarked on this, nor been consciously aware of unusual feelings, near at hand. They all have preoccupations of their own.
Clifton has been working for the Macombers, friends and neighbors of the Todds, and it is Irene Macomber who telephones to tell Jessica the sad news that he had a kind of seizure (a hemorrhage) and that when they finally got him to the Negro hospital (twelve miles away) it was too late, and he died.
Depressing news, on that dark November day. Jessica supposes that the first thing is to tell Verlie (after all, she and Clifton were friends, and Verlie might know of relatives).
She is not prepared for Verlie’s reaction.
A wail—“Aieeeee”—that goes on and on, from Verlie’s wide mouth, and her wide, wild eyes. “Aieee—”
Then it stops abruptly, as Verlie claps her hands over her mouth, and bends over and blindly reaches for a chair, her rocker. She pulls herself toward the chair, she falls into it, she bends over double and begins to cough, deep and wrackingly.
Poor, shocked Jessica has no notion what to do. To go over to Verlie and embrace her, to press her own sorrowing face to Verlie’s face? To creep shyly and sadly from the room?
This last is what she does—is all, perhaps, that she is able to do.
“You know,” says Tom Todd (seriously) to Irene Macomber, in one of their rare lapses from the steady demands of unconsummated love. “I believe those two people had a real affection for each other.”
Verlie is sick for a week and more after that, with what is called “misery in the chest” (no one mentions her heart).
Thinking to amuse her children (she is clearly at a loss without Verlie, and she knows this), Jessica takes them for a long walk, on the hard, narrow, white roads that lead up into the hills, the heavy, thick, dark woods of fall, smelling of leaves and earth and woodsmoke. But a melancholy mood settles over them all; it is cold and the children are tired, and Jessica finds that she is thinking of Verlie and Clifton. (Is it possible that they were lovers? She uncomfortably shrugs off this possibility.)
Dark comes early, and there is a raw, red sunset at the black edge of the horizon, as finally they reach home.
Verlie comes back the next day, to everyone’s relief. But there is a grayish tinge to the color of her skin that does not go away.
But on that rare spring day months earlier (the day Horace is dead and laid away in Memphis) Verlie walks the miles home with an exceptional lightness of heart, smiling to herself at all the colors of the bright new flowers, and at the smells of spring, the promises. □