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Safe In Her Heart

ISSUE:  Spring 1998

The worst thing is when the founder of the sorority come down. Last year those girls they wanted turkey, dressing, the works like a big Thanksgiving dinner right smack in the middle of May where here in Virginia it’s hot as Hades. Those girls. Drinking their beer and killing their babies before they leave the womb. That’s all they’re up to in college. And they don’t know anything. Poor things. But they’re lucky. Lucky. Yeah, when the founder come down everything change. Those girls that wear nothing but pedal-pushers and short-shorts with their granddaddy’s T-shirts break out these cotton dresses that look a mile too big on them and gold chains ‘round their neck and pearls, things I didn’t even know they owned. They break out those dresses that day and act like that’s what they wear all the time. They smile and smile at the founder and use manners I’ve never seen on them before. Like those dresses a mile too big.

That day for the founder’s dinner I started at 6 o’clock putting turkeys in the oven. I use four ovens, those big stainless steel industrial ovens where there’s a place for the forks and spatulas and so on up top; they hang down right over my head as I cook, and pots too, they hang down in a big square like a necklace for Cod. That copper on the bottoms of the pots gleams and gleams like mirrors. It smells of scouring powder every morning from the night help. But thank God I don’t have to clean. I’m the cook, I don’t clean. All the girls know that, but they ask anyway all the time.

“Bernice, would yon come up here a minute?” They call down the stairs to me; this sorority house being like one of those old Southern mansions, with the wide hall and the long stair. And people think things have changed so much. Think about it. Black people probably worked in this house before the Civil War and here I am working still, hauling those big heavy turkeys into the ovens just so the founder can sit down and tie on the feed bag. “Pretty please?” they call down the stairs.

Well, I am heavy, too heavy I know that but I like to eat and guess that’s why I’m so heavy and it’s why too I’m such a good cook. So, big as I am, it’s no fun to climb those stairs. But I do it sometimes for the girls, especially the ones I like. It’s funny how that works. The ones I like are not the ones calling down the stairs, “Pretty please,” like I’m one of their playmates or a toy or a pet.

“So, Bernice,” Ashley says, she’s the new president of the sorority and the one that called down, “pretty please.”

“Have a seat,” she says.

Her room has clothes everywhere, just dropped all around, disrespectful of the hard work it takes to make the money to buy them. One time a good while back one of the girls in this house said, “Have a seat,” and that time it meant something. This time somebody wants a favor. I been up here plenty because this Ashley’s always asking me to look at a hem or a stain on one of her blouses. I’ll say, “I’ll look but you know, Ashley, I’m the cook.” I pick up a slip off a chair and make a show of where-do-I-put-this? She grabs it, exasperated-like, and I sit down on a chair, a black rocker that has her high school’s name on it in gold letters at the top. “St. Anne’s,” I say like I’ve never seen it before but might want to remember it for some reason.

“So Bernice. I want to thank you for agreeing to the turkey dinner for the founder’s visit. I know it might be hot, you’re right about that. And I thought about your suggestion, cold salads and luncheon meats and all and I thought. . . .”

Ashley holds her hands palms up, like a preacher, and like she’s thinking about a big crisis, a crisis or something.

“And I thought, cold salads, what’s so wrong with cold salads?” Her voice gets higher and higher, like she’s desperate and I really start to wonder what it is with these white girls that makes them so nervous about what they’re going to eat. Lord, with these girls starving themselves so till they dies and what with all the new diseases and all you’d think they’d let up on the silly things. The silly things is what they think counts. But, oh, no. There was a time. It was not that long ago that they let up on the silly things. It was before this new phase of jumping up and down and running around all the time in expensive tennis shoes and athletic clothes. It was back when the boys took to looking like apes. The white boys and girls had found out about marijuana, which has been around the juke joints as long as there’s been musicians, for as long as I’ve been alive. Like I said, all the boys wanted to look like apes. Hair so long some of them needed a little red wagon to pull along behind them to tote it. Anyway. It was the peace days, remember them? Holding up two fingers in a V, like at the end of World War II. And people think things have changed so much. Fact is, my favorite girls were back in those days. And my very favorite, Annie Lee. Now at first Annie Lee irritated me so she like to drove me crazy. Like having a fly buzz in your face.

It was just as hot as it was when I had to fix those turkeys for the founder of the sorority. Annie Lee had been disappointed by one of the apes and had been in her room, not coming clown to eat, for a long time. Annie Lee she take disappointment hard. She feel things so. The truth is that she was up there in her room drinking wine. She’d fetched it up from the cellar in her laundry bag. I saw it the day she did it. I was making some green salad to go with the chicken salad, so many of the girls stopped eating meat there for awhile. Annie Lee came through the kitchen from the cellar dragging her laundry bag behind her. Now laundry doesn’t normally make noise. And I had a sister-in-law that drank and she had that same softness in her face and that same jumpiness, like she wanted to get away from herself real quick. My sister-in-law she kind of melted. I let Annie Lee scoot by me for a minute, she hardly ever passed me in the kitchen without hanging over me asking me my stand on this or that matter having to do with the rights of my people.

“They’re just not your people,” I told her one day to explain and also to get her out of my kitchen where I’m working. She turned hot in the cheeks and looked hurt like a child. Annie Lee she means well, but she could irritate me, drunk or sober.

One day I hit on this combination of a sweet bread to go with this oyster stew I was stirring up. I was humming, pouring cream in the stew; add a little bacon for taste, a little more. I felt good. Then Annie Lee sidled up to me.

“Bernice, we’ve got to get you out of here,” she says, like I’m in on some crime with her and we’ve got to whisper.


“I mean, look, Lincoln freed the slaves. But you’re still like a slave as long as you’re cooking in this kitchen. You’re too smart for this. You’ve been cheated out of an education. All you need is an education.”

“Like the one you’re gettin’,” I say real slow, “like the education you’re gettin’ girl?” I say, like it’s a question.

See, Annie Lee she brags about what little she has to do in school and how she gets away with things, taking art appreciation and music appreciation when she don’t appreciate a thing.

I like it in this kitchen, I like to cook, I tell her, “What I doan like is you buzzin ‘round me like a fly in my face while I’m working. I can’t concentrate this way. Now shoo.”

She go on in to eat. The girls eat in a room off the kitchen that used to be the back porch—they’re out of my hair there—unless they’ve got a guest and then they have to have it formal, in the big dining room at the front of the house. In the porch they eat buffet style. I set it out on a sideboard and they have to eat in shifts; there’s only the one oak table. It’s like the table where I ate in my grandmama’s house and makes me think of her sometimes, her arms covered with flour up to her elbows, her big smile. It makes me long for those days. We’d pick apples and cherries right off the trees and eat right where we were playing. There’s nothing like ripe cherries off the tree—talk about appreciating things! That Annie Lee. She irritated me about half that year and worried me the rest. When she stole the wine, sneaking past me that day, I almost turned the other way. I don’t need trouble. Then I thought about her getting kicked out of school and going home to live out the year with that sorry excuse for a mother I met on Parents Day. I call out, “Annie Lee,” and I hear her set that laundry bag down slow. It sounded like people making a toast at a big funeral, all those bottles clinking together like that. “What you got in that bag? Oh, you must be gonna clean your room. That must be bottles of bleach, ammonia and so on.”

She peek her head around the doorframe. “It’s wine,” she said, her face all pink and puffy and beat up looking because she’s at it already but she kinda smile. “And you know it.”

“Sister, remember that day in the big dining room?” Now she turn her head away, she don’t want to hear a lecture. So I talk to the back of her head. Annie Lee’s got hair the color of butter, and it sticks out in tufts around her neck, she chops at it so. Tow head, we used to call hair like that.

“You listen up. I had a sister-in-law that drank. I know what I say. It can get away from yon real fast.”

We stand there for a long time, not saying a thing, just listening to the front door open and close as the girls go out. I don’t say nothing about the ape who disappointed her or that horse that broke her heart. We stand there in T-total silence. We’re way in back at the kitchen. I really didn’t want one of the girls coning through right then. See, girls like Annie Lee don’t have everybody liking them. Now the ones that like her love her to death. The girls that everybody likes, the ones that act the exact same with every person—nice, nice, nice—well, they’re phony, that’s all, phony. Pretty soon Annie Lee gather up that laundry bag and go rattling up to her room and stay there. Couple days go by and she gets mighty sick. The girls say they hear her heavin’ into the toilet. The girls stop just short of making fun; they know how I feel about making fun. Annie Lee won’t even let her best friend Dana come in the room. Even when Dana beat on the door and cussed her. I see I better get up there before she crosses that line. When a woman takes to drink, there’s just so much she ran do. I’ve seen it. She crosses a line where there’s no going hack. So I go up those stairs.

“Annie Lee?” I call through her door. “It’s Bernice and I’m comin in.”

“You can’t,” she says, sounding weak, like a cat.

“Unlock this door before I go get my master key.” She don’t know I don’t have a key and she is too sweet to think that they wouldn’t give me a key; they always thinking I would want to steal from the white girls. Now what do they have that I would want?

All she’s got on is a painted T-shirt and her underpants. She falls back into bed after she opens up the door and puts a pillow over her face. It smells terrible in there. Cigarette butts stacked up in empty wine bottles and coca-cola bottles. I see some nab wrappers and that is a good sign. She’s at least been eating nabs.

“You been sleepin?” I ask and she nod her head, the whole pillow moves up and down from the bed, her toes painted white like a corpse, but her little self is dear to me. The very first of that year before she got so disappointed by that ape and way before she met that Frank, she came down to meals regularly and carried her books like she was going to class, and I think she did go to class back then.

It was fall, I remember, not so hot; the leaves not yet turned all the way. I needed a sweater at the bus stop. We were having a big dinner, not for the founder but for somebody high up and like I told Ashley about those turkeys, you can have a fancy dinner without all that. That time we had roast beef and rice with mushroom gravy, asparagus spears and fruit cups. It was in the big dining room up at the front of the house where the windows go down to the floor and all these tall ladder-back chairs go around a long skinny table. It smelled so good in there that day, I remember. The furniture had been rubbed down with lemon oil and the windows up after a long rainy spell. A breeze rustling up the leaves. Nice and quiet too. I had the dinner trays made up and stacked in my server at the far corner, where I was looking out the long windows, enjoying the day. Then everybody filed in, all dressed up in skirt and sweater sets, all perfumed up, except of course Annie Lee, who was smoking a cigarette. “Put that thing out,” I whispered in her ear as she strolled by me. She stuck her cigarette butt in the potted palm and staggered into the fern. She had on her dungarees and this football shirt that Dana said was vulgar. All that was on it was a big number—69—now, how can a number be vulgar?

They all sit down; their fruit cups were already set out. “Serve from the left,” I was always taught. I didn’t have any help that day, I don’t recollect why, so I was huffing and puffing with those big heavy trays of roast beef and rice platters, lugging them from the server to the table. The guest, whoever she was, was at the head but the other end, the far end, was empty. Down at the far end, that’s where Dana and Annie Lee sat, Annie Lee always calling the guests the blue-hairs. And though I don’t like making fun, I have to admit this one’s hair was exactly the color of my late husband’s aqua shave. But she had a nice smile and nodded at me.

Now there’s something about serving food to that bunch of white girls that I can’t describe—a feeling—they want to make like you’re invisible. They’re not even being rude; they think it’s a part of their being nice, to play like you’re invisible standing around behind them with their food. You edge the plate around their shoulders and they lean a little bit but act like it’s not really happening. Like the plate came there by magic. Otherwise they’d have to say “thank you” or “excuse me” and they don’t know which. I feel sorry for them. Trying to be grown-up ladies when they’re like small children.

I had all the dinner plates served on one side and the guest served and had started down to the far end when I felt somebody watching me. I get a feeling and I know somebody’s eyes are on me. I look up and it’s Annie Lee, staring. I’m headed her way and here she’s looking at me like she’s never seen me before, like I dropped down from the light fixture just that minute. I served Dana’s dinner plate and then Annie Lee’s. She turned around to face me, looked at me. startled-like, not smiling like she usually does, her lip curved around that mole she paints to look like Marilyn Monroe.

“Have a seat, Bernice,” she says, clear as rainwater. She motions to the big ladder-back chair, the one with arms, at the head opposite the blue-haired guest. All the dinner table noise quiets down.

“Sit down,” she says.

I ignored it.

Then she says, a little softer, “Take a load off.”

There’s a kind of quiet that folks can feel—black and white folks—and it seems you feel it so hard it freezes up a whole roomful of people and nobody wants to make a sound. And if there’s any noise in the room whatsoever—like a refrigerator running—it’s 10 times the noise it ever was. That’s what happened when Annie Lee asked me to sit down. My breath sounded in my ears like a train coming. Nobody said anything and nobody moved. Even Annie Lee only played with the tablecloth and scooted her silver around. Then she looked up at me like she was asking me to say something to get her out of a jam. She looked kind of pitiful.

“I always eat in the kitchen, Annie Lee. I’ve got my plate set out in the kitchen,” I said, still breathing loud.

“Well, sit down for a minute and have a cup of coffee,” Annie Lee says and reaches out and gets a coffee cup like she does it every day and pours from the silver teapot they save for special. Well, I did it. I sat down. My dogs was tired. I said, “Thank you Annie Lee. My dogs is tired.”

“Dogs?” she said.

“Feet. My feet.”

“Bernice, have you ever heard of the Black Panthers?” Annie Lee said, and the girls started shuffling in their seats.

I was not going to get into it with Annie Lee and her friends and the girls who weren’t her friends all splitting up into different camps of opinions right in front of the guest, so I said, “I thank you for the coffee. I’ll talk to you later, Annie Lee, in the kitchen.” I knew she’d be in there, buzzing around me.

“This school is going to have a Black History Month next year. Finally,” Annie Lee said.

“How do you know?” Dana said, “The administration hasn’t said so.”

I look from one to the other. How those two like to mix it up.

“They have. They agreed to it. I know I’m on the committee.”

“You know why she’s on that committee Bernice? You know why? To meet guys. It’s behind her every march, every protest of any kind.”

“Oh yeah Dana, what about this place? This sorority has a white and Christian clause in its bylaws. I looked it up.”

“You are white and Christian,” Dana said.

“I ought to march around this place.”

“You do.”

“Well, at least I meet the right kind of guys that way.”

“The right kind?” I stepped in on that. “I hope you don’t think that ape was the right kind.”

I don’t think I drank any of that coffee. But what did me good was that one of the girls finally saw that I was not invisible at all, and that I could freeze a roomful of people by standing there with Annie Lee’s roast beef and rice. That warmed me up to her all over again. That’s why I had to step in when I saw her take to drink.

That day I went into her room when she looked so much like a corpse I figured I could get her to listen to me since she kept the pillow over her head that way. Face to lace Annie Lee don’t do so good. She feel things so. And she don’t want it to show.

She swung her legs against the dust ruffle of the bed and kinda moaned under that pillow. She had a chair similar to the one that Ashley has, and I sat down in it and rocked, slow, like 1 did with my babies when they were small.

“I had a sister-in-law that drank. Sang the bines and drank. Would fall out where ever she was. Peoples couches. Peoples yards. Then it got so she couldn’t fall out at all. She’d be up all night drinkin’ and cryin’ and tryin’ to find some more to drink. II ever yon don’t fall out. you find your little self in big trouble.”

I felt a quiet, a stillness in the room and I saw she’d stopped swinging her legs. She was listening.

“You’ll be okay if you pull yourself out of this,” I said, though I wasn’t sure that was true at all. Then I broke one of my cardinal rules and picked up her room a little. Empty bottles crammed with cigarette butts makes an awful smell and I thought Annie Lee might think a little more of herself if she wasn’t in such a pig pen. Maybe she would go back to playing cards with Dana on the bed.

Later on that year she filled out and her clothes looked better. Her hair grew out and didn’t look so much like a duck’s be-hind. Course Frank had come into the picture by then. Funny how that work. He wasn’t one of the apes—he kept his hair trimmed and didn’t go in for all the marches the way Annie Lee used to love to. There was something about him I didn’t like, the way he held his mouth or something and Annie Lee so quiet around him.

It was Christmas when she got that diamond ring. I’ll swear it looked like a headlight on her finger. It was funny, her marrying Frank that way, with the rest of her friends going to the love-ins and all, or else hooking up with a bunch of apes to live out in the country, like tribes of Indians. But Annie Lee marches down the aisle like a soldier on parade. I saw it myself. I went to the wedding. And afterward I sat right by the cake and gave her the eye. She had a bottle in each hand; Frank beside her, all gluey-eyed. He don’t know what he’s in for, poor Annie Lee in love with liquor. But I didn’t say a word. I don’t carry tales. Before I went to work for the sorority at Sweet Briar I used to work in people’s houses, but the women they thought I carried tales back and forth. Those were old ladies who don’t change with the times. Now the girls, they styles and so on, just change and change in some ways and other ways, things stay the same. Annie Lee was in love with liquor but the next girls be in love with some kind of dope. These days the girls all like to work up a sweat. When they could be settin’ in a chair reading a good book, they all out jumping and running, wearing those bands across their foreheads like wild Indians. That don’t change. Every group that come through have to look like wild Indians one way or another. Ashley she do her jumping and running on the weekend; she work so hard on her studies during the week. Ashley she in love with initials: BMW cars, MBA college degrees, LLB clothes. When I thought I’d seen everything, I turned on the television set one night last week because I couldn’t sleep and I saw a man pulling a rubber over a banana. “Here’s the proper way to use a condom,” he said. Well, no thank you. Lord, sometimes I do get tired of seeing all the different girls troop through here. Then I get to thinking about working for the old ladies again, but I don’t like being accused of things I don’t do. And I don’t carry tales. I keep them still, safe in my heart.


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