Raynetta sat down with Mrs. Ramsey, a senior caseworker at the shelter. They had a standing Thursday afternoon appointment. It was the shelter's policy to monitor the progress of each resident.
“How are you settling in, Raynetta?” Mrs. Ramsey looked as tired as Raynetta felt.
“Just fine, thank you.”
Mrs. Ramsey opened a folder and skimmed through her papers with her reading glasses at the end of her nose. “I still have to ask you some questions for our records. Let's see, I already asked about drug and alcohol use, no; domestic violence, no; prior history of mental illness, no. What about extended family? Are your parents living?”
“My father's deceased. My mother stays at Frederick Douglas,” Raynetta was referring to one of the oldest public housing facilities in the area.
The caseworker shuffled her papers and Raynetta looked at her diamond ring shining in the afternoon sun. It wasn't a modern cut, but it was good quality just like her shoes. There were pictures of her family in frames scattered across her desk: Christmas time, vacations, seaside shots, graduation; smiling, happy white people.
Raynetta imagined Mrs. Ramsey at home in the suburbs. She pictured her wrapped in an afghan, reading a book in front of her fireplace as her husband brought her a cup of tea. They probably ate good food on china in a dining room with a big chandelier. She imagined some special breed of dog she didn't know the name of, and grown children visiting on the weekend.
“Had you considered staying with your mother after Brandywine burned down?” Mrs. Ramsey knew you could get kicked out for letting other people stay with you in public housing, but she had to make a case on paper that Raynetta had exhausted all her options.
“My mother's got a full house,” she replied, and smiled.
Raynetta was carrying more on her shoulders than she knew. Employed and attending college, she was the shelter's prized resident; the one they bragged about to colleagues, the one they used as evidence, that their particular brand of intervention was helpful to the poor and downtrodden, justification that their jobs were indeed necessary and their degrees in social work put to good use.
She didn't know it, but Raynetta made coming to work at the shelter worthwhile. One visit with her could erase all the bad experiences the workers might have in a single week: throwing women out for violent behavior, being drunk and disorderly, missing curfew, or leaving their children unattended. The workers had to help women find housing in short supply, and encourage them to seek employment that wasn't out there. They watched them return to abusers after admitting they'd been kicked in the head, bit and spit on. They watched the older ones have nowhere to go on the holidays, see them relapse after months of sobriety, and the children, the children: babies born into poverty with no daddies and futures as bleak as a cemetery in winter.
Workers often fell in love with the children. They'd comment on their growth and swoon over good grades like beloved aunties. More experienced workers kept the women and children at a distance; better not to get too attached to this group. They could leave without notice, relapse, or be swept up by a man who will do them no good.
Some snuck out with their stuff, and others left all their belongings behind: dated clothes that smell like the Salvation Army Thrift Store, half empty bottles of cheap perfume, and pictures of children lost forever. The workers would pack up all the woman's stuff, which they kept for three days before discarding. They stripped the beds and replaced her with another woman unprepared to live in this world.
When a resident secured housing, a caseworker was assigned to accompany her to her new home. It was never what is hoped for her. The neighborhoods were poorly lit and old. The apartments were drafty with worn rugs and curtains that should have been thrown out years before. Unrecognizable smells, dated appliances the worker can recall in her grandmother’s home, thin walls that allowed fights and private conversations to seep through, bedding unfit for a dog. The caseworker would rush through the darkened stairwells back to her car, pressing on the gas pedal and blocking out the images as fast as she can.
The worst scenario is dropping a woman off back with her abuser. The woman doesn't admit it, but the worker can see his large silhouette moving around inside the house through thin curtains. The names he'd called her and the things he did to her flood through the worker's mind, as the woman hurries through her thanks and goodbyes, already determined not to upset him. And the worker knows that after months of counseling and passing the box of tissues, she has dropped off this dear soul in a prison from which she may not escape again, perhaps not even with her life.
“So, everything is okay?” Mrs. Ramsey asked.
Raynetta learned early in life that complaining gets you nowhere. She didn't mention how hard it was to sleep in the shelter because at any given time someone was awake and making too much noise: two residents in the hallway having a conversation at three a.m., one of the crazies hallucinating, or a baby crying, always a baby crying.
She didn't mention the other women taking her food. Someone had finished her milk and helped themselves to several slices of her bread. She remained quiet about how her room was either stifling hot or too chilly to sleep. And then there was the bathroom, Lord don't get me started, she thought, these women up in here ain't never learned how to clean.
“Everything is fine, just fine,” Raynetta smiled at the caseworker who remained smitten with the perfect resident.
Professor Annachild traveled the winding roads of Settler on her way to attend a meeting of a local feminist group called Sisters of Change. It was a solid cold day with no breeze. The contrast of the white snow to the blue sky was particularly pleasing.
It still surprised her that this was where she ended up. Even after eight years, the professor viewed her surroundings as though she was a tourist. The sight of a porch with a double swing, laundry on the line, and farmland continued to charm her. She was still amused by signs that read ‘tractor crossing’, ‘firewood for sale’ or ‘homegrown corn’. Even trees in this great number astonished her as though she'd been sleeping and then dropped off in Settler with no forewarning.
Having grown up in Brooklyn, she, like every other girl she knew, had aspirations of making it to Manhattan. After she finished her thesis for her Ph.D., entitled Marriage as an Oppressive Institution, she was offered a teaching position in upstate New York in a little town she'd never heard of.
Freedom's father didn't want to leave the city. Pamela wasn't altogether disappointed. Robert changed from being a brilliant poet to a sad pothead. What started as a weekend thing at parties had developed into a way of life until she and Freedom were obstacles in his pursuit of happiness.
Robert was gentle with Freedom when she was born. He held Pamela's hand during the birth and carried the tiny baby around the apartment liked a prized trophy, tickling her with his long hair and beard as they lay in bed. Those were happy times and lulled Pamela into believing marriage and family was something that could work. She started to think she'd benefit and flourish from it and not suffocate and drown like her mother did. Her biggest fear was to disappear.
All her research confirmed marriage was a much better deal for men then for women. Married men lived longer than single men, reported happiness at twice the rate, and were overall healthier than their single brothers. Married women, however, suffered more frequently from depression, suicidal thoughts and alcoholism than did single women.
As the years went on and Freedom grew from an infant to a toddler and then to a little girl with her own ideas and demands, living with Robert was a burden Pamela was not willing to endure. Having never been married, she was free to go when the college offered her a tenure-track position teaching Women's Studies in a town she wasn't quite sure how to find. She was excited and heart-broken to leave the bustling streets of Brooklyn for the desolate roads of Settler.
Moving upstate was hard on her daughter. In Brooklyn, it was easy to be called Freedom when your classmates were named Willow and Justice. But moving to a small town where the children are called Betsy, Sally and Bobby made the transition difficult.
To make matters worse, Freedom was suspicious of the quiet and darkness unbroken by street lamps, passing cars or lighted signs. She clung to her mother in open spaces. She asked for her father who called less and less.
Professor Annachild tapped her fingers on the steering wheel. The heat was blasting through the vents, but the cold still seeped through the doors of her second-hand Chevy. She was listening to Joan Baez on the eight-track.
Though she was cold, the professor loved how clean white snow and crisp air made one feel cleansed. Summer made her feel dirty and in need of a shower. She thought of the grime of Brooklyn streets where snow, even when it did fall, soon turned as black as the squirrels.
The professor parked across the street as many cars were lined up in front of Matilda Goodwoman's house. She was born with the name Goodman but legally changed it when she started teaching. The Sisters of Change met once a month. The professor was welcomed by women milling around the house. She was offered wine, bread and baba ganouj.
Matilda tapped the gavel against the coffee table to call the meeting to order. “Let's see. Let's start with old business. The Sisters of Change made a two hundred and seventy five dollar donation to the domestic violence hot line,” the members clapped. “And we didn't need to have a bake sale to do it!” The group members laughed.
“A few women have applied to the highway department since the town allocated one million dollars to expand the highway from Route 37 to 101 which will give residents easy access to downtown shopping. It was announced in the paper these jobs pay $15 an hour.” Murmurs of amazement erupted.
“Only problem is, three local women applied for the highway job and were offered $4 an hour to work in the office.” The members collectively shook their heads.
“We'll never get ahead if we don't make money,” said one member.
“Sons a bitches,” shouted another.
“I say we protest.”
“Catherine?” Matilda addressed her student intern. “Do you mind sending a list around?” She looked to the members. “Please sign up if you want to work on this project.” The young woman made a note at the top of her pad and passed the sheet around.
“The other issue is the clinic,” said Matilda. “The Jesus freaks are harassing the girls going in for an abortion.”
“Jesus would never harass a woman,” the professor said to the woman next to her.
Matilda Goodwoman continued to identify grievances against local woman and possible solutions were discussed.
Professor Annachild looked out the window at the snow falling down. She only half-listened knowing she would not only agree, but volunteer for whatever tasks were deemed necessary to bring about the desired results.
She looked out the window and watched as a neighbor unloaded firewood from his truck. At first, she thought the shadow on his back was long black hair and the man was Professor Walks Tall. She realized it wasn't him and she had only produced his long mane in her mind. Now, what on earth made her think of him?
Raynetta had just finished mopping up at the laundromat when she checked the chore chart in the shelter and discovered she was responsible for mopping the kitchen. She was truly discouraged when the shelter manager said, “be sure to get under the table, someone spilled grape juice.”
She took out the mop and bucket from the supply closet and mixed some cleaning solution with water. Her arms and shoulders were already aching. She thought about how Felicia will never have to clean up after anyone, perhaps not even herself.
After she mopped up, a new resident walked across the floor with muddy shoes and took a bottle of pop from the refrigerator she held in a hand with only three fingers.
“Hey, what's wrong with you?” Raynetta asked. However, upon seeing the woman face to face, she remembered her from a news story that circulated about three years ago.
The woman had been kidnapped, shoved into a van in a store parking lot just before Christmas. She'd been raped and drugged. After the kidnappers were done with her they left her for dead in the woods. She's eventually made it to the highway, naked and half-frozen to death. She lost her fingers from frostbite. Raynetta had read about her in the paper at the time. Every woman she knew was afraid to go out at night until the men were captured.
Now Raynetta looked at the woman. She was short with wild hair and eyes to match. She simply turned and walked to the stairwell on her way back to the third floor. Raynetta mopped up the marks she left behind.
Back in her room, Felicia was finishing her homework. The beds were neatly made and the room was illuminated by the lamp that Felicia was reading by. Raynetta collapsed on her twin bed and opened her Women's Studies book to finish the required chapter for the next day. Felicia looked at her and smiled, “We're both doing our homework.”
Raynetta smiled back and looked down at her book and read, “Madame C. J. Walker: The First Black Woman Millionaire.” Black... woman... millionaire? It was like saying jumbo shrimp. Somehow the words didn't seem to fit together. She looked at the picture accompanying the article. Madame Walker was sitting with her back straight posing for the camera. She was a heavy woman and the black and white film gave the picture an unreal quality. Her hair was coiffed and short framing her face in neat waves, uncharacteristic for a woman of color.
Walker sold hair care products for black women. Raynetta read, “Born in 1867 just two years after abolition, Walker worked the plantation picking cotton with her parents until she was orphaned at age seven. Later she took in laundry.” Why we always got to do somebody else's laundry? thought Raynetta before she continued reading. “Later Madame Walker invented Vegetable Shampoo, Wonderful Hair Groomer, and Vanishing Cream to lighten the complexion and straighten hair.”
Raynetta tried to recall if she had ever once read about a black woman when she was in school. She looked over at Felicia, “Are you reading about somebody?” she asked her daughter.
“Benjamin Franklin,” her daughter answered without taking her eyes from the page.
“Umph, a white man.”
The only black person her daughter was ever required to read about was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and she knew more about his death than his life. The black and white images on the balcony of that hotel, the horrified faces of those around him and all those outstretched arms, fingers pointing in the same direction.
The only black folks Raynetta can recall from her own school days were slaves. Group photographs of black people in rags, looking straight into the camera, the anguish in their eyes captured as sure as they were. Mothers of different shapes and sizes, an occasional old man wearing a worn hat, a young man, muscled and defiant, holding a pick or a mallet, and half-clothed children, the whole lot of them mercifully long dead. Probably the only time they stopped moving was to pose for that picture. They were either working or running from somebody.
Raynetta remembered the Walker saleswomen coming door to door when she was a kid selling hair products. They were young and pretty. Even though the saleswomen were black, she never dreamed the owner was too. Every woman she knew took in laundry, kept someone else's house, or watched someone else's child. The prospect of a black woman owning her own business had never entered Raynetta's mind.
She continued to read and she learned about Madame C.J. Walker's commitment to African Americans, “Although her products were advertised as those that would allow women to blend in with the mainstream with hair straightening products and creams designed to lighten the complexion, Walker supported many black artists and scholars who she thought could 'uplift the race.'”
Raynetta lay on the bed thinking about what she had read. She looked at her daughter. Felicia had washed her hair and now her soft curls that framed her lovely face were moving upwards as it dried.
“Let me do your hair before I get too tired.”
“I'm not going to put that nasty stuff in my hair mama. This is how the kids wear it in school now, you know, natural.”
Raynetta looked at her daughter. Her face was illuminated by the single desk lamp. She smiled at her before she turned over to go to sleep.
Choosing what to wear on Tuesdays and Thursdays became as difficult for Freedom as talking to her mother. As much as she dared to hope for this particular sequence of events to occur, the reality of being lab partners with Jimmy Hawkins both thrilled and mortified her.
Science class was near the end of the school day and Freedom moved reluctantly through the maze of unsatisfying events that filled her teenage existence: cereal in the messy kitchen, the crowded bus, and several tedious classes, until she was finally able to spend a precious forty-five minutes with Jimmy.
Freedom laughed at everything he said. They spent their time in a series of childish flirtations: he took her pencil and held it behind his back, he tugged her hair and looked straight ahead when she turned to see who did it. They fought over things they didn't want just for the opportunity to touch one another's hands in a struggle over a piece of paper or a pencil. “No, that's mine,” they cried, their fingers entwined as they struggled until the teacher reprimanded them.
But when Jimmy looked at her, Freedom's breath caught her throat. To the fatherless girl, attention from a boy was like oxygen in a life with little room to breathe.
“What are you doing after school?” he asked her one day. “Nothing,” she whispered, wondering if she'd really been asked a question. She was supposed to meet her girlfriends and briefly thought of how her mother would interpret the betrayal, but one cannot turn away when a real event is something sprung from imagination. This was unprecedented and her friends would want to hear every detail, quelling whatever bad feelings they might have for her not showing up.
The two met at the back entrance of school as planned. Freedom followed Jimmy through the school yard into the surrounding woods.
“You want to get high?” he asked.
Jimmy took Freedom to a clearing in the woods which he obviously frequented often. Four large logs were arranged in a semi-circle creating a little living room in the clearing. There wasn't much to the small joint that took Jimmy several attempts to light. Freedom cupped her hands near his to get it started. They passed it back and forth until a peaceful haze surrounded them. Freedom savored the warmth from Jimmy's thigh that was pressed against her own as they sat on the fallen tree.
“You cold?” he asked.
“A little,” she said.
Jimmy put his arm around Freedom and rubbed vigorously for a few blissful seconds.
“Thanks,” she said shyly.
They sat in the clearing. The sky was cloudy and a bird sounded above them.
“Do you have any brothers and sisters?” Freedom asked.
“I have two brothers. The older one joined the army and then there's the baby. How 'bout you?”
“No, it's just me and my mom.”
“That's cool.” Jimmy's standard response.
“She works a lot. She's a professor at the college.”
“Whoa, I'm not sure if my parents can read.” The effects of the weed were beginning to take hold and the two laughed about Jimmy's parents much harder than was warranted.
Over the coming weeks, their courtship took place in the patch of woods. Sometimes other kids were gathered there, which Freedom always found disappointing. She liked to listen to Jimmy talk in the quiet of the surrounding trees: his love of music, his hate for his parents, his hopes for the future, his discovery of a hue in her hair or the way she says a certain word, how they sometimes studied one another's features before breaking into a fit of laughter. She savored each warm kiss that soaked up her loneliness as she mourned the end of each embrace.
The only problem was what to do in the hours between those moments. They stretched in front of her like childhood itself. She did her school work, sketched her designs, talked with her friends. But her thoughts were a continuous reenactment of their last encounter with slight variations, including wittier comments from her and Jimmy pledging his everlasting love.
Alone in her room, Freedom stared at the phone and listened to the cacophony of sounds made by the old house: the ticking and hissing of the pipes, the settling of the floors, and the aching in the walls which could only be compared to the dull anguish in her heart.