“Hey, Aibileen,” Miss Skeeter say, cause she the kind that speak to the help. “How you?”
“Hey, Miss Skeeter. I’m alright. Law, it’s hot out there.”
Miss Skeeter real tall and skinny. Her hair be yellow and cut short above her shoulders cause she get the frizz year round. She twenty-three or so, same as Miss Leefolt and the rest of em. She set her pocketbook on the chair, kind a itch around in her clothes a second. She wearing a white lace blouse buttoned up like a nun, flat shoes so I reckon she don’t look any taller. Her blue skirt gaps open in the waist. Miss Skeeter always look like somebody else told her what to wear.
I hear Miss Hilly and her mama, Miss Walter, pull up the driveway and toot the horn. Miss Hilly don’t live but ten feet away, but she always drive over. I let her in and she go right past me and I figure it’s a good time to get Mae Mobley up from her nap.
Soon as I walk in her nursery, Mae Mobley smile at me, reach out her fat little arms.
“You already up, Baby Girl? Why you didn’t holler for me?”
She laugh, dance a little happy jig waiting on me to get her out. I give her a good hug. I reckon she don’t get too many good hugs like this after I go home. Ever so often, I come to work and find her bawling in her crib, Miss Leefolt busy on the sewing machine rolling her eyes like it’s a stray cat stuck in the screen door. See, Miss Leefolt, she dress up nice ever day. Always got her makeup on, got a carport, double-door Frigidaire with the built-in icebox. You see her in the Jitney 14 grocery, you never think she go and leave her baby crying in her crib like that. But the help always know.
Today is a good day though. That girl just grins.
I say, “Aibileen.”
She say, “Aib-ee.”
I say, “Love.”
She say, “Love.”
I say, “Mae Mobley.”
She say, “Aib-ee.” And then she laugh and laugh. She so tickled she talking and I got to say, it’s about time. Treelore didn’t say nothing till he two either. By the time he in third grade, though, he get to talking better than the President a the United States, coming home using words like conjugation and parliamentary. He get in junior high and we play this game where I give him a real simple word and he got to come up with a fancy one like it. I say housecat, he say domesticized feline, I say mixer and he say motorized rotunda. One day I say Crisco. He scratch his head. He just can’t believe I done won the game with something simple as Crisco. Came to be a secret joke with us, meaning something you can’t dress up no matter how you try. We start calling his daddy Crisco cause you can’t fancy up a man done run off on his family. Plus he the greasiest no-count you ever known.
I tote Mae Mobley into the kitchen and put her in her high chair, thinking about two chores I need to finish today fore Miss Leefolt have a fit: separate the napkins that started to fray and straighten up the silver service in the cabinet. Law, I’m on have to do it while the ladies is here, I guess.
I take the tray a devil eggs out to the dining room. Miss Leefolt setting at the head and to her left be Miss Hilly Holbrook and Miss Hilly’s mama, Miss Walter, who Miss Hilly don’t treat with no respect. And then on Miss Leefolt’s right be Miss Skeeter.
I make the egg rounds, starting with ole Miss Walter first cause she the elder. It’s warm in here, but she got a thick brown sweater drooped around her shoulders. She scoop a egg up and near bout drop it cause she getting the palsy. Then I move over to Miss Hilly and she smile and take two. Miss Hilly got a round face and dark brown hair in the beehive. Her skin be olive color, with freckles and moles. She wear a lot a red plaid. And she getting heavy in the bottom. Today, since it’s so hot, she wearing a red sleeveless dress with no waist to it. She one a those grown ladies that still dress like a little girl with big bows and matching hats and such. She ain’t my favorite.
I move over to Miss Skeeter, but she wrinkle her nose up at me and say, “No, thanks,” cause she don’t eat no eggs. I tell Miss Leefolt ever time she have the bridge club and she make me do them eggs anyways. She scared Miss Hilly be disappointed.
Finally, I do Miss Leefolt. She the hostess so she got to pick up her eggs last. And soon as I’m done, Miss Hilly say, “Don’t mind if I do,” and snatch herself two more eggs, which don’t surprise me.
“Guess who I ran into at the beauty parlor?” Miss Hilly say to the ladies.
“Who’s that?” ask Miss Leefolt.
“Celia Foote. And do you know what she asked me? If she could help with the Benefit this year.”
“Good,” Miss Skeeter say. “We need it.”
“Not that bad, we don’t. I told her, I said, ‘Celia, you have to be a League member or a sustainer to participate.’ What does she think the Jackson League is? Open rush?”
“Aren’t we taking nonmembers this year? Since the Benefit’s gotten so big?” Miss Skeeter ask.
“Well, yes,” Miss Hilly say. “But I wasn’t about to tell her that.”
“I can’t believe Johnny married a girl so tacky like she is,” Miss Leefolt say and Miss Hilly nod. She start dealing out the bridge cards.
I spoon out the congealed salad and the ham sandwiches, can’t help but listen to the chatter. Only three things them ladies talk about: they kids, they clothes, and they friends. I hear the word Kennedy, I know they ain’t discussing no politic. They talking about what Miss Jackie done wore on the tee-vee.
When I get around to Miss Walter, she don’t take but one little old half a sandwich for herself.
“Mama,” Miss Hilly yell at Miss Walter, “Take another sandwich. You are skinny as a telephone pole.” Miss Hilly look over at the rest a the table. “I keep telling her, if that Minny can’t cook she needs to just go on and fire her.”
My ears perk up at this. They talking bout the help. I’m best friends with Minny.
“Minny cooks fine,” say ole Miss Walter. “I’m just not so hungry like I used to be.”
Minny near bout the best cook in Hinds County, maybe even all a Mississippi. The Junior League Benefit come around ever fall and they be wanting her to make ten caramel cakes to auction off. She ought a be the most sought-after help in the state. Problem is, Minny got a mouth on her. She always talking back. One day it be the white manager a the Jitney Jungle grocery, next day it be her husband, and ever day it’s gone be the white lady she waiting on. The only reason she waiting on Miss Walter so long is Miss Walter be deaf as a doe-nob.
“I think you’re malnutritioned, Mama,” holler Miss Hilly. “That Minny isn’t feeding you so that she can steal every last heirloom I have left.” Miss Hilly huff out a her chair. “I’m going to the powder room. Y’all watch her in case she collapses dead of hunger.”
When Miss Hilly gone, Miss Walter say real low, “I bet you’d love that.” Everbody act like they didn’t hear. I better call Minny tonight, tell her what Miss Hilly said.
In the kitchen, Baby Girl’s up in her high chair, got purple juice all over her face. Soon as I walk in, she smile. She don’t make no fuss being in here by herself, but I hate to leave her too long. I know she stare at that door real quiet till I come back.
I pat her little soft head and go back out to pour the ice tea. Miss Hilly’s back in her chair looking all bowed up about something else now.
“Oh Hilly, I wish you’d use the guest bathroom,” say Miss Leefolt, rearranging her cards. “Aibileen doesn’t clean in the back until after lunch.”
Hilly raise her chin up. Then she give one a her “ah-hem’s.” She got this way a clearing her throat real delicate-like that get everbody’s attention without they even knowing she made em do it.
“But the guest bathroom’s where the help goes,” Miss Hilly say.
Nobody says anything for a second. Then Miss Walter nod, like she explaining it all. “She’s upset cause the Nigra uses the inside bathroom and so do we.”
Law, not this mess again. They all look over at me straightening the silver drawer in the sideboard and I know it’s time for me to leave. But before I can get the last spoon in there, Miss Leefolt give me the look, say, “Go get some more tea, Aibileen.”
I go like she tell me to, even though they cups is full to the rim.
I stand around the kitchen a minute but I ain’t got nothing left to do in there. I need to be in the dining room so I can finish my silver straightening. And I still got the napkin cabinet to sort through today but it’s in the hall, right outside where they setting. I don’t want a stay late just cause Miss Leefolt playing cards.
I wait a few minutes, wipe a counter. Give Baby Girl more ham and she gobble it up. Finally, I slip out to the hall, pray nobody see me.
All four of em got a cigarette in one hand, they cards in the other. “Elizabeth, if you had the choice,” I hear Miss Hilly say, “wouldn’t you rather them take their business outside?”
Real quiet, I open the napkin drawer, more concerned about Miss Leefolt seeing me than what they saying. This talk ain’t news to me. Everwhere in town they got a colored bathroom, and most the houses do too. But I look over and Miss Skeeter’s watching me and I freeze, thinking I’m about to get in trouble.
“I bid one heart,” Miss Walter say.
“I don’t know,” Miss Leefolt say, frowning at her cards, “With Raleigh starting his own business and tax season not for six months . . . things are real tight for us right now.”
Miss Hilly talk slow, like she spreading icing on a cake. “You just tell Raleigh every penny he spends on that bathroom he’ll get back when y’all sell this house.” She nod like she agreeing with herself. “All these houses they’re building without maid’s quarters? It’s just plain dangerous. Everybody knows they carry different kinds of diseases than we do. I double.”
I pick up a stack a napkins. I don’t know why, but all a sudden I want a hear what Miss Leefolt gone say to this. She my boss. I guess everbody wonder what they boss think a them.
“It would be nice,” Miss Leefolt say, taking a little puff a her cigarette, “not having her use the one in the house. I bid three spades.”
“That’s exactly why I’ve designed the Home Help Sanitation Initiative,” Miss Hilly say. “As a disease-preventative measure.”
I’m surprised by how tight my throat get. It’s a shame I learned to keep down a long time ago.
Miss Skeeter look real confused. “The Home... the what?”
“A bill that requires every white home to have a separate bathroom for the colored help. I’ve even notified the surgeon general of Mississippi to see if he’ll endorse the idea. I pass.”
Miss Skeeter, she frowning at Miss Hilly. She set her cards down faceup and say real matter-a-fact, “Maybe we ought to just build you a bathroom outside, Hilly.”
And Law, do that room get quiet.
Miss Hilly say, “I don’t think you ought to be joking around about the colored situation. Not if you want to stay on as editor of the League, Skeeter Phelan.”
Miss Skeeter kind a laugh, but I can tell she don’t think it’s funny. “What, you’d . . . kick me out? For disagreeing with you?”
Miss Hilly raise a eyebrow. “I will do whatever I have to do to protect our town. Your lead, Mama.”
I go in the kitchen and don’t come out again till I hear the door close after Miss Hilly’s behind.