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The Accomplice


ISSUE:  Autumn 1989

Olliemae smells fried, I thought. It was washday, and we were in the cool basement, with me helping the help. The air was damp and thick with the smell of bleach and Oxydol and later the perfumey smell of starch when Ollie fit the pants-stretchers into all the trouser-legs. Fried, like potatoes fried in bacon grease, with some onion on the top for flavor. She smelled that way most of the time, though now and then she smelled like a backrub, or sometimes like a bottle of dimestore perfume broke on her, a wicked-smelling scent all in the front of your nose and nothing like any flower.

We carried the heavy laundry outside, load after load in creaking wicker baskets, past the rosebeds, the coral bells and correopsis and calendulas, out past the line of gooseberry bushes. We took down the dry and hung the clingy wet, then propped the lines with the smooth long forked sticks, worn with years of water and sun and hands peaking up clothes-lines with them. My bare feet felt like smiles in the sweet cool grass.

Then we went back in with the dry and ironed. I ran the mangle on the towels and T-shirts while Olliemae ironed my Sunday dress, the men’s shirts, my mother’s silk underwear from the hand wash, on cool. I fed the mangle everything flat there was: pillowcases, handkerchiefs, folded sheets, undershirts. The heat of our irons made the clothes smell even more like air and Oxydol, sweeter and stronger. When the ironed linen tea towels came out of the mangle roller, I could fold them like sheets of glass.

Then I smelled Dentyne. Here, Ollimae said, and she slid me a piece across the ironing table. I unwrapped the powdered red brick and felt a salty ache in my mouth. Forbidden stuff. I put the gum in my mouth and my tongue grew numb, and when I chewed into the sensational gum and smiled at Ollie, she smiled back, her teeth wide and white.

Well, it was noon. Olliemae fixed me a sandwich, and we ate and drank iced tea, and then we did the upstairs floors. Her black and pink hand dug into the amber Flaxoap goo. Plot, into the pail, the smell of linseed oil, oily water. The hardwood’s narrow oak strips curved around the open staircase in the upstairs hall, rings around the chain of the chandelier, like paths of the planets in a wooden solar system. Olliemae washed the floors, first around the bedroom rugs, then the hall. Then ping, the lid was off the wax. The orangey smell of pastewax clung to the folded cloth, then to the floor, then wafted into the air. You sit right there, Lady Jane, she said, though my name isn’t Jane and never was. While the wax was drying I sat on the top step tying sweaters on my feet. When she finally said go, I skated the skater’s waltz with the tallest man and best skater in the world, wearing his invisible cape of course; then I changed imaginary costumes myself and was Hans Brinker, then Sonja Henie, then the whole chorus of the Ice Capades, then the featured star of the Ice Follies. Beneath my sweater-skates the floor was gleaming, ice and spotlights and applause from Olliemae.

Ammonia. Vinegar. Windows. The snap of old diapers. Don’t want no lint on these here windows, no ma’am. Don’t you leave no lint in them corners, missy, Olliemae said. Your mama won’t put up with it.

I was done with my apple, but they were still talking in the basement. I heard them all the way up in the kitchen, so I knew something was really wrong. Mama’s voice was loud and angry, and I could even hear Olliemae, too. The smell of apple filled my nose and mouth, and the sound was sour. Something bad, I could tell. I went downstairs and hid, listening, in the dark workroom. They were in the ironing room, where Olliemae hung her coming-and-going dress and kept her purse on the back of the big table where we put the finished ironing.

“You got no business in my things,” Olliemae said, angry herself and hurt. “No ma’am, no business.”

“I told you,” Mama said, “the child found it. She brought it to me, thinking she’d found my lost billfold. She’s always into everybody’s belongings.”

“The child was with me,” Olliemae said. “She helped me all day long.”

My mother made a strange kind of laugh. “Are you calling me a liar?”

“No ma’am, but I know that girl was with me all day. You know that too.”

Olliemae was crying and sniffing. It had to be Olliemae. Mama doesn’t cry.

“You don’t have an explanation about the wallet.” There was silence. “It is my unquestionably my red calf wallet, Olliemae. It disappeared from my purse one day last month, just like that, into thin air. And now it turns up in your purse, with your papers in it. What am I supposed to think?”

“No ma’am, it’s not yours. I know it looks the same, but it’s not your billfold. I know you had one, I saw it, I’m not denying that, and I thought it was beautiful. Like something I’d like to have one day. That was why I had to get me one like it.”

“It’s an unusual and expensive wallet, Ollimae. Just where did you get it, then?”

“At Ratheim’s,” Olliemae said.

“And you can prove that, of course.”

Olliemae sniffed and blew her nose.

“I’m sorry, Olliemae. You’ve been a willing worker, but I will have to let you go. I won’t be able to use you any more after today. I’ll give you a week’s pay to tide you over.”

Olliemae started in sobbing as if she’d been beat up on, like the time she told me once Homer did her. “Please,” she said, “please don’t send me away. I’ll somehow buy you another red billfold. Please, my babies need food. Homer won’t work, won’t do nothing but drink and gamble away everything I make. You’re right, I took it, and I know it was wrong. I was just weak, wanting for something pretty like a lady has. I swear I won’t ever do anything like that again, I swear—”

But Mama stopped her swearing. “I am sorry,” she said. “Please get your things together and change your clothes. I’ll have your pay waiting for you in the kitchen.”

I crouched down behind the toolbench just in time. Mama’s high heels tapped up the stairs into the kitchen, and I sat on the cool, damp concrete, thinking of the long-legged spiders probably around me, and of Olliemae and the funny smell of the lies about the wallet, Olliemae’s and Mama’s, about me going in Ollie’s purse. Over in the ironing room, Olliemae was crying herself a soft song, about oh what she going to do, no money no job, oh what she going to do, no food for the babies, no man worth nothing, ain’t use a crying, it’s all over now. It sounded to me like her heart was going to break.

Mine too. I couldn’t help crying out loud, and Ollie stopped singing and then she came to the workroom door and called my name. Come out, she said, I know how you are and I know sure as shooting you’re hiding in this room. Maybe she knew more than I did about this place where the truth took lies, and the lies made me a traitor.

Mama called my name and then, “Where are you?” from the top of the basement stairs. “Come here, right this minute,” she said when I answered. I ran for the stairs, knocking past Olliemae, escaping the pink maps of her hands, the frayed red nails. Ooof, she said as I knocked her back, and her voice was full of tears as she called out, Don’t fall, baby.

I ran straight into the dress that would endure. The permanent hands pushed back my hair, the smell of Chanel and hand lotion and the dry sweet smell of cigarettes. This person was imperishable, I thought, invincible, and Olliemae was not. Olliemae would be over with, gone forever in a few minutes. That was decided.

“I didn’t want to hire her in the first place,” the voice inside the dress said. “I always said I wouldn’t ever have one in my house, and I was wrong not to stick to my word. You can’t trust them, saying yes-ma’am and stealing you blind.”

“Mama,” I said, but I didn’t know how to ask about the billfold.

“You mustn’t talk to her,” she said, turning my face to look me hard in the eye. “Olliemae did a very bad thing, taking my wallet, and she has to go away.”

“I know,” I said, “but I didn’t get out her billfold.”

“Hush,” she said. “It doesn’t matter. You just mustn’t talk to her any more. She isn’t our friend.” She pulled me closer than I could imagine and I couldn’t breathe. Then she turned me loose and smoothed her clothes. “Now run along and be a good girl.”

Now, though, I didn’t know where to run along to, and I had thought I was being a good girl. I couldn’t run to Olliemae any more, or I wouldn’t be a good girl. So I followed Mama out onto the back screenporch where she was lowering the porch shades, making it into a dark room with canvas walls that blocked the sun, and wondered why it was that Mama told that lie. I sat in a rocker and held tired Susy in my lap, but she looked crosseyed-stupid. As I rocked the two black discs of her eyes moved idiotically inside their clear plastic cases, click, click. Susy was no help at all and had wasted her entire afternoon taking a nap on the porch steps. And here she was feeling fine, not a care in the world. She smelled like the sun that now baked smells out of the hot canvas and the porch rug made of grass, square after square after square.

Olliemae came into the kitchen. On the counter by the sink lay her money, next to the red calf wallet. I didn’t care whose wallet it was anymore, if people had to lie so about it. Ollie wiped the money into her hand like crumbs and left the wallet where it was. She came to the door, stopped for a second, and then came across, past me, heading for nowhere. I wished it would be all right to say just goodbye, but Mama was near. I just looked at Olliemae’s shoes, cut out at the corners for her lumpy toes. She had on a dress Mama was through with, a black flower-print voile dress with a lace collar. It had become Ollie’s presentable dress for bus trips here and home. I couldn’t look up at the lace collar. I had everything to say, but couldn’t.

Olliemae hitched up the shoulder bag Mama said I went through. I held stupid Susy tight, with her head of yellow yarn, and turned my own head the other way, to look out over the tops of the hydrangeas at Mama’s hybrid rosebushes, Snow Queen and Charity and Sweet Emma and all the rest. Our crop of clothes was gone, the white cotton clotheslines were wound and put away. The props were hidden in the coal cellar until next week, and the wicker baskets rested, silent, in the dark downstairs. The thick green noon shade had wandered off to the edge of the grass. What we were was vanished. It was four thirty or so, and the late sun filled the space under the elms. Olliemae said, “Don’t worry, child. It’s all right. Ollie understands.”

Just then Mama filled the kitchen doorway and said my name. Her face looked angry. I sat stiff, afraid to move, afraid she thought I had done the very thing she told me not to. I could feel my heart grabbing.

“I didn’t say anything,” I said. I ran past them both, through the kitchen and the whole house, into my closet. I shut the door on my space of Oxydol and sun and starch and ironing, silent, dark, and safe.

Before long Mama was in my room, and then she opened the door and the slant-slatted light fell in. There was no hiding from her, no escaping; she always found me. “Come on out,” she said, “you mustn’t run off and hide like this. You do it far too much. You must learn to face things.” She took me by the hand and pulled me out of the closet. “Come along while I get dressed,” she said. We went down the hall toward her room, across the ice pond oak floor still smelling of wax, around the half-circle of the open stairway. Her room was a cool, wide, light place that projected from the north side of the house with awninged windows on three sides.

“Here,” she said, leading me and then letting my hand go as if I were a scarf, “sit here.” My path sent me forward to the windowseat in the double window toward Main Street. Mama stood in her closet considering clothes and humming her favorite song, “I Get a Kick Out of You.” I pulled my feet up, waited, and watched. She chose a white dress with ruffled eyelet sleeves, all freshly ironed. She slipped her feet into her white high heels and sat down at the three-mirror dressing table to brush her hair.

I watched and counted for a while, to 20. Out on our corner Olliemae waited for her bus. She looked up the street, tilting her head and leaning out over the curb, and when she saw it wasn’t coming, she shuffled the cut-out shoes. Her hands hung low, her shoulders looked pulled down. I longed for a piece of Dentyne. Olliemae always waved to me from the bus stop, but today she didn’t look up to find me in one of the windows or on the front porch. An empty time passed with just the sound of electricity popping from Mama’s hair to her hairbrush. Then the careening bus pulled up at our curb, gold and maroon, airbrakes hissing. Its doors scissored open. The person wearing Mama’s black flower-print dress stepped on. The doors shut, the brakes whooshed. Olliemae was gone.

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