My mother is fond of saying that life is full of situations and that it’s up to us to make the most of them, good or bad. I’ve decided that at eleven and three quarters years of age, my life is the cross roads of bad situations and there isn’t a lot to be made of them.
It started with my birth and the situation in which my mother found herself with Emmit Louis Mansfield. At the time my mother was a receptionist in his office in Memphis. As soon as the consequences of that particular situation became evident, he moved my mother to Bidwell and established her as proprietor of this boarding house. It would sustain us he promised. And it probably would if my mother wouldn’t take in men as boarders. She’s susceptible, you see.
There have been other types of situations through the years, many of them of little consequence to anyone but me. Since the age of seven I’ve helped clear the tables for the lunch crowd that is the major source of money here at Rosa Lee’s. People will sometimes leave a penny or two, even the occasional nickel. Ernestine gets puffed up about this and sticks out her lower lip and says I should share but I don’t see the logic of it. I’m not to blame that she’s stuck in the kitchen preparing food.
My mother, Rosa Lee, has never been shy about robbing my piggy bank. Cigarettes, nylons, or even a bottle of nail polish or a new lipstick are justified by her current situation and the need for these little niceties to feather the nest. She never fails to bring up the occasion when, waking in the night to strange noises coming from her room, I staggered in half asleep to find her in the middle of a very private situation that would have been the one if not for my untimely intrusion. Since that time my sleeping quarters have been in the slave quarter. I don’t mind this much as it gives me the freedom to come and go as I please without anyone the wiser.
It took me a while but I wised up about my money. I no longer keep it in a piggy bank and when Rosa Lee comes seeking a few dollars I say I’ve spent it on bubble gum or paper dolls. It’s no skin off my back if she repeatedly lets her current situation skip out without paying his board.
Rosa Lee’s new situation is what has prompted me to decide to take a vacation from my life. Although, as Daphne Desiree would say, I have not yet entered the world of women, there is something in the way he looks at me that makes me fear a situation of my own. You might question how, at eleven and three quarters years of age I would know this but I have been well educated even though I have been, more or less, self educated. Daphne’s novels have been a great source of knowledge, along with observing the things that go on in a boarding house.
Some would consider my education less than well rounded. There was a time when I attended school more or less regularly. It was the less regularly part that caused all the trouble with my fourth grade teacher. When Rosa Lee answered the door in a dressing gown that barely covered what she wasn’t wearing underneath at mid-morning one day to find Estelle Brooks on our doorsteps, my formal education basically came to an end. It was the threat to snatch Estelle bald if she touched the bell one more time that pretty much freed me of all concern about absenteeism.
I spend a lot of time in the library, mostly to keep from doing chores or to be out of the house in the afternoons when my mother retires to her quarters. There is no one to supervise my choice of reading material and the librarian has become so accustomed to my presence that she is barely aware that I’m there. It was at the library that I found the inspiration for my new course in life.
The Bidwell Library has a copy of the Memphis Herald delivered daily. It arrives a day late but it’s still news to anyone wishing to know what’s happening in the city. It was an article about the new office building of one Emmit Louis Mansfield that inspired me to pack my bags and retrieve my savings from beneath the loose floorboard under my bed.
In addition to the few articles of clothing that still fit, my newest patten leather shoes that pinch only a little, my favorite paper dolls, and the latest Daphne Desiree novel, I packed the vital evidence needed to enter my new life. This included my birth certificate upon which my mother was wise enough to enter the name of my father, Emmit Louis Mansfield; a letter from the same Emmit Louis Mansfield stating that he thought Emmie Lou would be a beautiful name for his new daughter; and a check that Emmit Louis Mansfield sent her soon after my birth, and in her typical scatter brained way, my mother misplaced and forgot to cash. I debated taking the Bible where all the particulars of my birth and parentage were committed in my mother’s elaborate handwriting, but decided against it. The Bible is used as a weight to smooth out the table napkins so they don’t have to be ironed and therefore would be missed long before I would.
It’s amazing the amount of wealth you can accumulate in four years from the pennies and nickels left as tips at a boarding house. I had taken this store of coins periodically to the corner drug store where they were always in need of change. As I prepared for my departure from Bidwell, I had seventy-nine dollars and thirteen cents, quite a fortune in 1956.
It’s forty odd miles from Bidwell to Memphis and the bus runs through town every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, with the return leg on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday afternoons. I planned my departure for Thursday. I figured my absence would cause only a mild stir on Friday when I wasn’t there to help with the lunch crowd. Rosa Lee’s doesn’t serve lunch on the week-end and my departure on the 3:15 would assure me of three or four days before anyone truly missed me.
On Thursday I took the valise that had been left at the boarding house by a man climbing out the upstairs bathroom window as the sheriff pounded on the door one August morning. It was in pretty good shape and the latch worked if you held it just right to make it fasten. I was glad I had decided against the Bible as the weight of the valise and my few possessions had my arms aching by the time I reached the drug store where the bus would depart. I didn’t much worry about anyone seeing me leave. Mother had retired to her room for the afternoon. Ernestine sat at the kitchen table with her chin touching her chest and snoring to beat the band. Everyone else in Bidwell was accustomed to my coming and going as I pleased and though the presence of a valise might create a mild curiosity, it would soon be forgotten.
I didn’t buy my ticket from the pharmacist. The drug store would be the first place my mother would look for me if she looked at all. I didn’t want Mr. Hendrix to tell her I had bought a bus ticket to Memphis. My mother is scatter brained, not stupid. I hid my valise in the alley that runs along the side of the drug store until the last minute before the bus departed then nearly gave myself a hernia trying to get it and myself aboard before the driver closed the door.
It was my plan to arrive at Emmit Louis Mansfield’s office before the close of the business day. I am, after all, smart enough to know that there might be some difficulty finding a place to stay the night for someone only eleven and three quarters years of age.
The bus took an eternity to reach Memphis, stopping every few miles to pick up passengers along the side of the road and wasting a full twelve minutes at a small crossroads with a general store and a post office. It was four thirty-five when the bus finally pulled into the depot in Memphis. I was beginning to panic until a man told me that the Mansfield building was a mere three blocks north of where we stood.
The Mansfield Building is an impressive structure, a full ten stories tall. A man in a uniform smiled at me and opened the heavy carved door and asked if I needed help with my valise. Though my arms ached from the strain of carrying it, I declined.
There were people hurrying to and fro in the foyer and I wasn’t sure how to proceed from there until a woman in a dark wool skirt, white blouse buttoned up to her neck, and high heels stopped to ask me if I was lost. I told her I was looking for Emmit Louis Mansfield and her painted on eyebrows rose nearly to her hairline. She told me to take the elevator to the tenth floor.
Another woman sat behind a big wooden desk just outside the elevator doors on the tenth floor. When I told her I wanted to see Mr. Mansfield, her eyebrows rose also, and she looked at a large grandfather clock against the wall. The hands showed four minutes to five. I could tell when she opened her mouth that she was about to tell me that Mr. Mansfield wasn’t there but the telephone rang and she answered it. The call distracted her and she only remembered my presence when she hung up and stood as if to go off on some errand.
She hesitated at the sight of me then said, “Mr. Mansfield isn’t available. You need to come back tomorrow. With your mother.” With that she glanced at the double doors behind her desk before coming around to the elevator where she pushed the button. When the doors opened she motioned for me to enter. I did just as the telephone began ringing again. When her back was to me, I stepped back out of the elevator and slipped behind a large wing backed chair. As soon as she hung up the phone she hurried off down the hallway. I walked over to the large double doors and entered the room.
Emmit Louis Mansfield looked up from a sheet of paper he was frowning at when I entered the room. It took him a minute to take in the fact that I was standing there, valise in hand, patten leather shoes pinching the life out of my toes. His mouth dropped open. “Where did you come from?”
“Bid–” He stood part way then fell back into his chair.
A woman’s dark head appeared from around the side of the wing back chair that faced his desk. She looked me up and down. “Well.” A slow smile lifted the corners of her mouth. “What a nice surprise.”
Her appearance was something of a surprise to me as well. It’s not every day that you run into a mirror image of yourself, even if that image is quite a few years older.
“What’s your name?”
“Emmie Lou but I go by Skeeter.”
The grown version of me rose from the chair and came to stand in front of me. “Well, Skeeter, I’m Emily Louise Mansfield and I think you and I are going to be great friends.” She looked over her shoulder at Emmit Louis Mansfield then back at me. “How do you like the idea of New York city?” She took my valise and with the other hand took mine as we headed for the door. “I was just trying to convince Father I’d be much happier living there.” She smiled more broadly. “It looks as if you’ve arrived just in the nick of time.”
I looked back at Emmit Louis Mansfield as we walked through the door. He was on his feet now with his mouth gaping open.
“We’ll be at the Peabody, Father.” Emily Louise Mansfield gave my hand a little squeeze. “In the Presidential suite.”
Emmit Louis Mansfield is no dummy although I could say some things about his judgment in general. Before we had time to settle into our room at the Peabody he had everything arranged. I took my first ever airplane ride the following day and even though I threw up in a paper bag and stank to high heaven, Emily Louise just laughed and said we’d buy all the new clothes and shoes I’d need as soon as we got to the Plaza.
I’ve no doubt Emily Louise will be a great actress. She’s charmed her way into an off-Broadway play and the owner of our brownstone in Little Italy has made a fool of himself over her southern accent. The dripping faucet was fixed almost before she could complain and two fans were delivered just this morning to alleviate the heat in our bedrooms.
New York doesn’t frighten me. It’s a lot like a boarding house only a lot bigger with more people. You can see and hear just about anything if you keep your eyes and ears open.
A group of boys came down the sidewalk as I closed the door to our apartment. They were speaking a language I didn’t understand but I knew pretty much what they were saying. Eleven and three quarters years in a boarding house teaches you to understand without words. One of the boys stopped and turned back to look at me as they moved past, laughing and poking each other. It made me want something although I didn’t know quite what. It was then I realized how Rosa Lee often found herself in a situation. No matter how dead set you are against it, one can drop into your lap just like that. Life’s strange that way.
©Rebecca Campbell Barrett / Nov. 2009