Our mother taught us to substitute the word “tiger” for the word “nigger” when the neighborhood gang chose up teams. Sitting here on my brother’s porch, watching my nieces play in the yard with their friends. I think how much has changed since he and I grew up in Atlanta—for one thing, two of their playmates are black. Yet children, their summer games, even this ancient choosing rhyme—catch a tiger by the toe—haven’t changed at all.
Back then my brother and I said tiger, but we didn’t have much influence on our next door neighbor, Carson Foster. He poked his finger in our chests as he chanted “eenie, meenie, miney, moe” and emphasized the forbidden word even more. “If he hollers, let him go.” He also added codas if “moe” brought his finger to one of us girls. “Eu-gene Talmadge told me so,” or “My father said. To pick the. Very. Best. Man.”
But then my mother said a variation of the word herself. “Can you imagine a nigra named Queen Esther Parris?” I overheard her say to Daddy, who answered, “Is that her name or her title?”
“Name,” said Mama. “Wants her checks written out to Queen Esther Parris.”
“Checks?” I heard his low voice repeat.
“Queen Esther wants to be paid by check.”
“Strange,” said my Dad.
This fact, which I now understand to have been phenomenal in the forties, was strange to me, too, because I thought I knew what checks were—money that was not real, the pale blue of Great Aunt Tisha’s Christmas check for a million dollars that Daddy stuck in his mirror frame, the many-colored money that stuck out from under the Monopoly board at the Foster’s next door. When we weren’t playing Softball or strip poker, we’d gather around the board on the Foster’s screen porch and play Monopoly. Though sometimes he let a boy get to the hotel stage, Carson Foster usually won all the money, his pile of gold thousands as big as our worthless pink fives and white singles.
Queen Esther, paid by check (how much? I wonder) on Fridays, worked for us when I was around ten. I remember my age because I can picture and hear the moment in my back yard when Carson laughed at my mother working in her garden and said behind her back, “Your mother’s a hoer. Get it?”
I didn’t get it, but I was certain he had insulted my mother, and I was sick of him and sick of his games. That day in the garden as my mother hoed the border, I stood, I imagine, with my hands on my hips and told Carson, “Look. I’m almost ten years old and I’m not doin’ that strip poker and movie-love stuff with you anymore.” I have no memory of exactly what he looked like—except that he was big, and he had long square fingers that he liked to put on me—but today I can hear my own words perfectly: “I’m almost ten years old.” And I know I didn’t say them until after Queen Esther had been with us awhile.
“Hey Mary Meade . . . your maid’s sure some Ubangi,” Carson had jeered over the hedge when she first came. Later I saw a movie, King Solomon’s Mines, I think it was, and there were those six or seven foot Negroes—blacks I mean— and true, I guess Queen Esther might have come from such a tall African tribe. She was at least six feet. She towered over me (though now I’m very tall myself); I remember most her pink palmed hand turned slightly outward at her side, and what would I have been then—maybe four feet tall? We’d walk to Connell’s with me skipping at her side to match her long strides, my younger brother and sometimes other children trailing behind, Queen Esther tickling her nose all the while with her triffle.
Queen Esther’s triffle was a piece of cotton, frayed into a fringe at the end, that she wound around her forefinger and used to tickle her lips or nose or cheeks. Now I know that it was the same kind of habit as smoking, or fingering a blanket’s satin edge, as I do every night to get to sleep; then it was mysterious, like her height and her name.
“Queen Esther, why you have that whatcha-callit?” one of us would ask.
“That’s my triffle,” she’d reply.
“What’s a triffle?”
“Your business is to direct us all to this drug store. My triffle is to help me following you, so we get there.”
But she never followed us, and after the first time we walked to Buckhead, she never needed help to get there. I suppose she meant the triffle habit was to help her be where she was.
Queen Esther ironed. She did everything else, too: the vacuuming, the laundry, the beds, the scraping scrambled eggs out of the iron skillet left in the mornings before she came, the picking up of toys and children’s clothes and grown-up underwear in the sheets when she changed the beds, the tossing of empty bottles, scraps of hardened cheese on Chinese plates left from Sunday on the screen porch, the emptying trash cans of Modess and deposit slips and green Coca-Cola bottles.
When Queen Esther ironed, she put books under the legs of the ironing board. After she’d tried the Atlanta phone books once, she never used them again. She’d go to the bookshelf in the den or the living room and try a different selection every Tuesday. I was pretty much loving books myself then, so I’d notice, sitting on the floor by the ironing board, just what was raising it up to her arms. I think back now to the selection of books available to her for lifting the ironing board:
Readers Digest novels, Up Front, Gone With the Wind, volumes of Colliers’ Encyclopedia, Clothes Make the Man, Leave Her to Heaven, The Decameron, Southern Textiles, and Warp Sizing, the last two either written or given to us by our uncle.
She came to use only the brown encyclopedias, eight to an ironing, and I think she and I were probably the first in our house to crack every one open and look at it. We’d find a picture or more often a map she’d be interested in, and while she was sprinkling down the sheets, I’d read about it out loud. After a time, we started reading a little together—I’d read some words, then she’d read some words—”while the iron heats up,” she said.
One day before she placed “E” on the floor, we discovered Esther, the Biblical queen of Xerxes who saved her people from destruction. After we read the short column aloud, her namesake read it over to herself.
“Left out the best part, Mary Meade,” she said.
“Tell,” I said.
“Esther, she knows her husband kicked out his first wife on account of she didn’t come when he called her.”
“They got a divorce?”
“No. He the king, she out on the street.”
“But even so, when time comes to save her people, Esther said, “Then I will go to the king though it be against the law and if I perish, I perish.”“
She pronounced the quotation slowly, like a teacher.
“That straight out of the Bible . . . from Esther’s own book.” Then she said quickly in her getting-down-to-work voice, “Now you read your own story for a while.”
I remember the brown books under the wooden legs, the scratch of the rug through my cotton underpants, the book in my lap—probably one of the Black Stallion novels—as I sat by the ironing board, reading while Queen Esther intoned the throaty songs that repeated every line with just a little change. When you get up tomorrow I’ll be gone, babe, when you wake up tomorrow, I’ll be gone.
After Queen Esther found out I could charge money at Connell’s Drug Store, we walked to Buckhead every Friday, just the two of us. Doc Connell, or Miss Presson, would write my father’s name on the pad with carbon paper, write “money” on the first line and “$1.00” beside “total.” Then he’d hand me the dollar bill. For several weeks, I’m not sure how long, Queen Esther would stand tall and silent behind me as I made my transaction. After the first surprised look from Doc Connell and Miss Presson, they didn’t look at her at all. It was clear she was my maid. “Thanks a lot,” I’d say politely. “Your’re welcome, Mary Meade,” he or both of them would answer. If it was Doc Connell, he usually added something about how come I never spent my money in his store, and I always said the same thing, that it was for the Saturday double feature and serial.
I’d pocket the dollar and walk past cosmetics with Queen Esther, out the screen door to Peachtree, down to the corner at Paces Ferry Road where we waited for her bus. “Well, bye,” I’d say when the Five Points bus to downtown Atlanta came, “see you Monday.” She’d nod her head to the side with this way she had, and I’d start back to our neighborhood to hand over the money to Carson.
One Friday afternoon, standing at Connell’s counter, I was surprised by the long black arm extending from behind me, Queen Esther’s boney fingers holding out three beige checks to Miss Presson. Miss Presson looked from my face way up over my head and then down at the checks in the black hand. “We don’t cash checks,” she said to me.
“Those are Mama-an-Daddy’s,” I said.
“No, Sweetie, those are your maid’s. And Doc don’t allow cashing except for charge customers.”
“Mary Meade a charge customer,” said Queen Esther.
“What’s cashing?” I suppose I asked, because it was then I got a lesson in finance from Miss Presson, learned the difference between my parents’ checks and Aunt Tisha’s, and watched Queen Esther’s arm retreat. As we walked to the bus stop, I asked her how she was going to get real money in place of those beige checks. She stopped still and swivelled her head around on her long neck, looking up and down Peachtree Street. “Some how,” she answered.
Who knows who called my parents, Doc or Miss Presson. “We have to have a talk,” said Daddy in his lowest voice, guiding me with a pinch of the back of my neck into the den. “It looks like, Mary Meade, that we need to talk some economics tonight.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Do you know what I mean?”
“Economics is a big word for, uh, hmmm. Uh, money. Things about money.”
I remember his hemming and hawing more than his exact words. But Daddy always kept you standing for a long time, getting to the point, and I remember the word “economics” so well from that evening that even today it gives me a catch in the stomach.
“I’ve been letting you charge a dollar here and there at Connell’s—figured it would teach you something—but it looks like you been at it every week. And I would like to ask just why you need so many dollars. I know about the shows at the Buckhead and all, but you also have your allowance, and your money for sitting with Robert.”
“I mean yes, what are you doing with the money, Mary Meade?”
I looked at Daddy and opened my mouth. Probably the only two times I’ve ever been as terrified as that was the time with Carson and the day before my wedding when I told Clifford Sealew that I could not go through with it. Without planning to, I had lied to Clifford, told him there was someone else.
“Well?” said my father.
From my opened mouth the words slipped easy as a prayer. “I gave the money to Queen Esther.”
Unlike Cliff, Daddy didn’t explode or break down. He said something along the lines of “I thought so” and went on to question me about Queen Esther going in Connell’s with me and trying to cash checks. Then he came back around to my lie. He asked me if she’d forced me to give her money.
“On, no, no, no!” I saw immediately what I’d gotten into. I saw his angry look gathering, and I knew it was directed at her. “No, Daddy. I wanted to give it to her. She can’t get real money for your checks. She tried, and she can’t.”
He said something like “so I heard” and changed into being real sweet to me. He praised me that night, which I’ll always remember, and my fears subsided. We hugged and kissed and I was sent on somewhere, having learned that lying pays, while Daddy stayed in the den in his leather armchair, smoking a cigarette.
That Friday afternoon I ran to catch up with Queen Esther, who’d already started for Buckhead without me. Even after I caught up with her, breathless, she walked faster than I could keep up beside her.
“What you running for?” she called loud enough to keep from turning her head. “You don’t need to go to Connell’s anymore. Your charging days are over.”
I remember the back of her, its motion—slim thighs, boxy rear end, long, long spine showing through something like jersey, wide shoulders. I think of her in something grey or tan, with a shiney red belt—probably patent leather. I think of her moving, her hips moving smoothly, and me running behind her, eyelevel to her red belt.
“How do you know?” I yelled at her shoulders, the long loops of earrings touching them.
“He wouldn’t tell you.”
“Oh yes he would. He did.” She wore a sort of glittery turban that day, and she turned her head in a flash of shine and swinging earrings. Running, looking up, I saw the profile of her moving lips.
“You are a liar.” she said.
“You are a hoer,” Carson had rasped slowly at the opening we’d made in the lagustrum hedge.
“Un uh,” I said, shaking my head and toeing the soft dirt with my bare foot.
“Yes you are.”
“Un UH.” I was getting scared. Fear was suffusing my body the way pleasure had when Carson and I had been in the bushes.
“A hoer is a girl who does stuff like you did with me. A bad girl.”
“I’m not a bad girl.”
“You let me tickle you . . . down there.”
“Come on, you already forgetting movie-love?” He pointed at a bunch of tall azaleas in his back yard. “Under there? Those times you let me tickle you with my finger? A long time. And you said it felt good.”
“Well you can say no all you want to, girl. But I’m telling.”
The fear was pushing out at my surfaces. I know my pale white skin was red.
“You liked it,” Carson said real low, looking up and down my red skin.
“I said I wasn’t. . . . I said stop it, you know I did.”
“Yeah—later you say “I’m ten.” Big deal. You’re still a hoer. You still liked it. And I’m telling.”
“Ah, Carson. Please don’t,” I whined. I wonder now why I didn’t say “tell who?”, “tell what?” but to a child “I’m telling” needs no who.
He reached through the opening in the hedge and yanked down the elastic top of my sundress, pulling my bare chest into the pruned branches.
“What’ll you pay me?”
“What’ll you pay me to never tell?”
I had no idea what he meant.
“You get an allowance, dontcha?”
I just stood there burning with this new, unbearable feeling.
“Listen!” he spat. “Do you?”
“What?” The backs of my legs prickled like poison ivy.
“Do you get an allowance? Do you get lunch money? Movie money?”
“Movie . . . allowance.”
“I want one dollar a week.”
“Why?” I’m pretty sure I said. I remember being completely confused.
“Why! To keep me from telling you’re a hoer. That’s why.”
He seemed surprised. “Okay?”
“Okay.” It seemed easy that afternoon to stop the burning. Just pay my next door neighbor one dollar and he would never tell that I let him put his finger between my legs and move it around and make me feel good, and bad.
“Wait a minute, Queen Esther,” I yelled, catching up. “Please wait!”
She didn’t exactly wait, but she must have slowed her long-legged stride a little because I came up alongside her, puffing.
“Queen Esther, I really wish I could give my dollars to you.”
Far above me I saw the whites of her eyes as she rolled them. She just kept walking, getting ahead of me again.
“If you can’t get cashed.”
She looked over her shoulder. “If you knew somethin beside nothin, you’d be trouble.” And then she raised her arm as if to swat me backward, but she only stroked her upraised chin with her triffle.
That slowed her a little and I caught up. My heart was thudding with running and what I was about to do.
“Queen Esther—I have to give all my dollars to Carson!”
“Carson. The charge money. I give it to him.”
She Stopped. “Wuf fo?” she said in the language I knew as well as I know French now.
What I told Queen Esther as we stopped on the road to Buckhead was surely not the whole story. I never told anyone about feeling the sweet sensation that had spread over my body and made me bad.
I told her we’d played strip poker and “doctor” and I had to pay to keep it a secret.
“Blackmail!” sang Queen Esther. “Bluemail, man-mail, exto. Strongarm, Strong, strong.”
It sounded like a chant. Whatever she was saying or chanting, her stride had slowed to let me stay beside her.
We walked together, past my school, past the bungalows smaller than my house, to Paces Ferry Road. Her bus stop was ahead, down at Peach tree.
“Don’ pay’m mo.” she said, and I heard this clearly as Don’t pay Carson any more dollars.
“But how?” I looked up and she heard that clearly as Without his telling Mama and Daddy I’m a hoer.
“Say: I’m good. And I know it. And I ain’t givin’ you a cent. Say: You boy, I am a good girl.”
I thought about it. “He’ll still tell.”
“No. He won’t.” said Queen Esther.
We’d come to Connell’s Drug Store and both tried to look the other way.
“I won’t be coming back, Mary Meade. I been let go.”
“Where you going?”
“Some other house.”
“Where you cashing?”
“I knows a man.” She looked down at me. “If I perish, I perish. . . .”
“Oh. Can I wait with you for Five Points Bus?” We waited with the group of maids and yardmen at the corner. Queen Esther was taller than all of them, and the men looked embarrassed to have her standing like a giraffe in their midst. The women seemed ashamed to be dressed so ugly. Every one of them looked drab and dusty. Queen Esther, in her shining turban and earrings and glowing skin, was beautiful. I remember understanding that for the first time.
We watched the bus make its circle around the Buckhead traffic island to head back downtown. Queen Esther looked down and said, with no smile or sadness, no emotion at all, “Tell the boy no mo dollars, and tell your daddy they never were for me.”
Then she took the steps up the bus with one step, ducked her head and was gone.
All the black people around me moved toward the bus, and I turned toward Paces Ferry Road.
I went home and lied to Carson that my Daddy had found out anyway so I couldn’t pay him anymore, and I lied to Daddy by never saying another word about it. I never told anyone, then or now, that I am good.