I could tell straight off that she wasnt used to cleaning up behind people. Thats to say: She wasnt poor white trash. I came out of Inez, Texas, where PWT is a crop that doesnt need fertilizer; I knew it when I saw it. There was plenty of trash walking around Los Angeles, jug-eared, stringy-haired men and women out of Oklahoma and Dust Bowl territory, dandelions blown west during the Depression, trying to make a new start with only fourth-grade educations and their color to recommend them. Gilda was an orchid that somebodys boot had crushed. She didnt seem to mind the job, even though that first day I had to tell her everything at least twice. When she did try to say a few things, I heard the accent, thick as sorghum, and I realized she didnt understand what I was saying. So, I slowed down.
The first month Gilda was really quiet. She did her work, drank her coffee, ate her lunch, and didnt talk to anybody other than me. "Hosanna, what is this? Hosanna, what I do?" All day long.
We were in Our Room not long after she came, and Sarah Vaughan was crooning on the record player. Gilda sat listening, as though she were trying to memorize a bird before it flew away. When the song finished, she turned to me; she was trembling, and there were tears in her eyes. "The music is so . . . It is medicine," she said.
Braddock must have seemed like the land of big white smiles to her. She hadnt been there a week when we were on the fifth floor, and I caught her staring at some guests as they were leaving their room. They were a young, good-looking couple. The wife wore a large diamond on her left hand, and she was laughing at something her husband was telling her. She had hot pink lips, thin and perfect-looking, eyes like tiny chunks of sky. Gilda looked at that woman as if she imagined pushing her hand right through her. She stared at that ring in a yearning way. Maybe she remembered it from her other life.
Whenever Gilda had a break shed sit by herself and read from a large book. One morning she left it on the table and got up to go to the rest room. I picked it up. Hattie was sitting on the sofa smoking a cigarette. Gilda came back in, rubbing some kind of lotion on her hands, just as I was flipping through the pages. She sat down on the sofa, and I handed her back the manual. "So, youre learning English?" I was just trying to make conversation.
"I learn," she said. She had a quiet voice that stayed on one level all the time. She started pulling on the dark green sweater she always wore, then began fiddling with something in her pocket.
"Youll learn faster if you talk to people," Hattie said in a snappy tone, rolling her eyes. She had a gap between her front teeth, and sometimes she whistled when she spoke. Hattie was a big-boned Louisiana gal. Some of the tales she told, anybody would think that the devil invented white folks just to torment her. There are people in this life who believe that being the biggest victim will get them the best pork chop at the dinner table. That was Hattie. In that moment, looking at Hattie and then at Gilda, I felt as though I were the rope each one had a grip on. I had lived in the land of blood-is-thicker-than-water for so long I didnt understand loyalty to anybody or anything other than family and skin color.
White men stole my daddys land, more than two hundred acres of lumber and rice. They did it all nice and legal. My father got an official letter giving him forty-eight hours to vacate. Failure to pay taxes, the letter said, which was a lie. Later that day, the Hagertys showed up at our door. Big Bobby and Little Bobby, one with a shock of silver hair, the others dark brown. I opened the door, then tried to push it closed. I dont know what made me think I could get away with that. My cheek hurt for two weeks from where the younger one slapped me. They were the power around Inez; they owned most of the land and all the politicians, including the tax assessor. When my daddy saw them standing in his house and me holding my face, he shook his head and said, "You win." Two days later he signed the papers the Hagertys put in front of him.
Reprinted from What You Owe Me by Bebe Moore Campbell by permission of G. P. Putnams Sons. Copyright © 2001 by Bebe Moore Campbell. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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