She liked getting to work early. There was something about the peaceful elevator ride to the 38th floor that she loved. Maybe it was the view of the city. It could have been the multitude of sunrises she experienced. Perhaps it was the quiet before the storm. She knew by the time she stepped off the elevator, triggered the light sensors and brewed her first cup of coffee it was only a matter of minutes before the chaos of her busy work life would begin.
Before she left for work in the mornings she made sure to double check herself in the full length mirror. She had nightmares of panty lines, stray lint and well hidden stains or tears in her impeccable clothes. She never wore a shoe that had even a slight flaw. Her hair was the perfect shade of brown. She paid a lot of money for her stylist to create this shade just for her. Her face was perfectly powdered, lips lined filled with the perfect shade of red plum and her shadow evenly applied on each lid. Her eye lashes were lengthened and water proofed, not that she ever cried but she had gotten something in her eye once causing agitation which led to her rubbing it and triggered a watery reaction in her eye. Needless to say she began purchasing waterproof mascara. She also has two sets of identical makeup for home and office.
She intentionally selected the 38th floor of this building for her office. It held a special meaning to her. Thirty-eight was the number of times she remembered being called trash by Roberta when they were eleven. Before she could call her that a thirty ninth time, she moved to a different neighborhood. Her dad lost his job and her mother was diagnosed with cancer. They moved in with an elderly aunt in a rough neighborhood. Her mother told her all of this much later. At the time she only told her that a bitch named Karma had gotten Roberta’s family. For years after that she thought Karma was the girlfriend of they guy who sold handmade cigarettes on the corner.
Momma loved to tell the family history after supper. As little girls we would gather in the drawing room and listen. If we had guests over, as we often did, the stories were more animated and even boisterous at times.
“Isn’t that devine! Have mercy! My eyes have never see anything as beautiful as this before!” My great grandfather Hubert and great grandmother Willowmene exclaimed these words when they first saw the land they had purchased and planned to farm. This land represented their hopes and dreams to become landowners, raise a family and serve our Lord. “Devine Mercy has been in our family for generations and will continue to be forever more. One day one of your husbands will inherit all of those hopes and dreams and continue to make them a reality.”
“It’s time for bed my little doves.” I had become the storyteller after mother’s illness left her unable to speak above a whisper. I had become many things during her illness. I now realize it was preparation to become the mistress of Divine Mercy.
By the time daddy and momma died I understood how to run the home, the house slaves, create menus and host parties which were talked about in neighboring states. The governor and his wife were regular attendees. Our slaves played the best music and our food was the most coveted. Poppa use to always say, “A man who beats his slaves is no man at all.” Because we didn’t beat them, they produced the finest of everything for us. They were loyal to us. Well, at least most of them were. I do not believe I will ever understand why any of them would want to run away from here. It was the best plantation around. The ones who ran were immediately sold upon capture. We would not allow them to come back and poison the minds of the others. We posted the paperwork in the quarters for several nights. Although they couldn’t read they understood the meaning. The runaway had been captured. Because we didn’t beat or mistreat our slaves they were sold at the highest prices.
Momma had taught me to use my head when making decisions regarding how I ran the house. She would often say to us, “Never allow jealously to rule your emotions. The good books says a man who is unable to control his emotions is like a city without walls.” I stopped going to the slave quarters after seeing the children born from the slaves we bought from a few counties over. My heart broke each time I saw another brown, male version of my husband. I prayed faithfully to God for a son. During the nights when John left our bed for the quarters I would silently cry out to God. “Please allow me to birth just one healthy boy, an heir like Isaac.”
My cries were often drowned out by their cries.
I hated the summer nights more than anything. It had nothing to do with the long, hot and humid nights. Growing up in the Deep South I was as accustomed to the heat as anybody could get.
In the winters all of the shutters were pulled to and latched. The windows were closed. The heavy curtains were drawn at night to keep out the draft. Three layers of wood, glass and the best material this side of the Mississippi kept the house silent at night. But in the summers, sometimes in the late springs, curtains were pulled back and windows were open and the shutters no longer blocked the night sounds. This was the beginning of my sleepless nights each year.
The land we lived on and the house we lived in was my granddaddy’s and his daddy’s before him. My mother was the only surviving child of six. When she married the land went to my daddy. Since my mother only birthed girls this beautiful land went to my husband when poppa died. It helped that I had married well and he proved to be a good business man. Poppa loved John like a son and better than his own daughters.
I never paid much attention to the sounds until I was older. It was after John and I married that realized what was going on. I went to momma. I cried tears of despair in her lap. She stroked my hair and told me it was not my place to ask John any questions. This was business and the best way to keep a plantation thriving was through the labor of the negros working the land. The way we kept cost down was by creating our own laborers. That’s one of the reasons we had huge profits. She tilted my chin up until I was looking her in the eyes and she said, “Never mention this conversation or cry another tear. This is our way and has been for generations. Now get up and make yourself presentable to your husband when he walks through the door.”
I did as I was told. In all the years of marriage I never said another word. But the night cries kept me awake. The seasons held me hostage. No amount of singing, cotton in my ears or strong drink could drown out the night.
It was not love, she told me. It was business. It was how we as a family continued to thrive. It was necessary.
I believed every word until I saw a mulatto baby boy toddling around the quarters. He was an exact replica of John. Only with brown skin and curly hair. I had yet to give him an heir. Much like my mother I was cursed with girls. Three beautiful girls who adored their father as much as he adored them. But still, only girls.