This was Roy’s house with its black curtains, white walls, black and white marble coffee table, white French doors and a piano that shone with its blackness. Roy was my father by blood and he kept my mother locked in this house. When she began to need a career or therapy or even love, some way to pry open the lock, our family became divorce pioneers.
None of the other couples in that white, Catholic suburb divorced in the early 1950s, and we were no good at it, at first. She fled to the city, got a newspaper job, found an apartment. She bought beds for us and soon would tuck us into those beds at night.
But Roy wanted to keep the house with the poisonous Lilies of the Valley planted along one side, the pretense of marriage, the leaf sweeper, and the master bedroom where he snuck his girlfriend in at night when my sister and I were supposed to be asleep. He wanted to keep us because he couldn’t keep our mother. He wouldn’t grant her a real divorce.
Our mother’s need for my sister and me was like a need for water, and when our mother broke down from thirst she was taken to the hospital one weekend, to a psychiatric ward. That’s when he pinned her again. There are medical records, he said. If she went to court for custody, he would see that she lost us forever to his black and white world. He told us she would come home.
Until then, with a bitter hand on the steering wheel, he drove us to a train station so we could see her on weekends—he didn’t want to drive into the city. I was five, my sister eight, and we rode the train by ourselves, one hour each way with strangers, spilling into Union Station on Saturday mornings. Our mother lived in a tiny place in a bad neighborhood but we went to shows, made impressions with Silly Putty and walked to the ice cream place with her. We pleaded with her to let us stay and she held us tight as piano string as we cried into her skirts.
The man she fell in love with, the man who would become our father, he was a Jew who had the heart of a giant. When we rode the train back again on Sunday evenings—our mother waving goodbye—she broke again into his arms.
One day Roy put us in his car, my sister and me, and drove us to the train station. This was a Monday and we had already returned from the city the night before, so I knew we would finally escape and spend all of our days with our mother. But a dark-skinned woman had arrived from the far reaches of the city and she stepped from the platform and got into the car next to me and we drove back to his house. The word black didn’t exist then, not in that way. Her name was Hattie and she wore a cotton dress and a thin winter coat, and we drove in silence.
She entered the black and white house, and now he had a new prisoner to replace the one who had escaped. She was trapped by the small wages he paid and the tiny room that used to be my bedroom. He kept the decals of lambs and rabbits on my tiny wood cabinet and painted over them with white paint so she had something like a dresser to use five nights a week.
Hattie kept the house clean to his immaculate need and made the meals and did the laundry. She played Mahalia Jackson on the television in the afternoons as she worked, and I shut my eyes and drifted away from Roy’s house for a half hour in that voice. Then she put Divorce Court on and I said I hated her and went out in the yard and pulled flowers up. And she let me pull them up.
I watched her cook. I watched her iron. I asked to help and followed her around and would not leave her alone. One night she told me about her family. She either said she missed them all the time and really wanted to be with them not me, or I heard that thought in my head when she spoke about them. But we both knew where she wanted to be and where I wanted to be. I never once met her children. She never once met my mother.
Hattie saw him beat us when he drank. Unlike my mother who did what she could to block the bedroom door, who pleaded with him to stop, who tried to pull him away, Hattie could only watch. She had a transistor radio she could turn on. She had her bible. She didn’t have a phone to call her family. I don’t know when I realized my mother would not be returning to that house. That black and white house where his girlfriend called my mother, “The bitch from Chicago with her Jew lover,” and my sister and me “n-word lovers.” I guess to her we were all lovers.
But in that moment when I realized my mother would not be reading bedtimes stories to me in that house again, and Roy—who was over at his girlfriend’s house at night with her kids—had no interest in reading bedtime stories to me, I knocked on Hattie’s door. She had worked the whole long day cooking Roy’s breakfast—eggs and bacon, pancakes and sausage, thick cream and coffee—and washing and stacking the fat white dishes, and mending the white socks, and ironing the white shirts and turning out the white light bulbs..
My sister was in bed reading a Nancy Drew since she knew how to hide in a book, and Roy was out again, and here I came to ask Hattie if I could tell her a story.
“Go on,” she said.
And I began to make something up as I looked at the hairpins and pomade and clothes stacked and folded on the tiny cabinet, the stockings she had knotted at her knees, a look of inviolate calm.
When I was done, or by the time I should have been done with my story, she said, “Run along now.” And I went off to bed. The next night I knocked again, and the night after that. She listened through her deep fatigue, in that room with the small bed and a child’s covers. I saw sparks of affection as I worked to improve, to please her, to be worthy of standing in the smallest corner of a room that had once been mine.
The piano sat in the living room, sometimes with the lid up. I was not given lessons like my sister had, now that our mother was gone, but I liked to imagine I could play, and I ran my fingers up and down the keys and hummed. One afternoon, before Roy came home from work, Hattie sat down at the piano with me and put her arm around my shoulders and said she was going to teach me a song.
I didn’t know if the gift of “We Shall Not Be Moved” would carry me away from that terrible house into the terrible world or if it was more of a protest against Roy. But Hattie taught me words that took root. She was one of my first writing teachers and, I believe, my most patient.
© Lise Haines 2016
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"Lise Haines is a novelist of great empathy and penetrating insight."
Haines is the author of Girl in the Arena, a South Carolina Book Nominee; Small Acts of Sex and Electricity, a Book Sense Pick; and In My Sister's Country, a finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize. Her short stories and essays have appeared in literary journals including Ploughshares, Agni and PostRoad, and she was a finalist for the PEN Nelson Algren Award. She has been Briggs-Copeland Lecturer at Harvard, and is currently Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College. Haines’ work has sold foreign rights, and film and TV rights, including an option by HBO.