Search This Blog

Friday, July 3, 2009

Allene's Voice


It is January of 1964, a few days after my seventh birthday. It is my first birthday without my father, who died 4 months earlier. I have been sick a lot since then, and my mother has an interview today and can’t stay home to take care of me.

I am a veteran croup kid. When I cough, it sounds like the bark of a bull seal. I also have a temperature. As a special treat, Mom calls Allene to see if she can come watch me.

Having Allene there guarantees that I’ll have an exceptional day, despite my being sick. Before Daddy died, she would come to the house to clean and make us a nice fried chicken dinner. Now, without our man-of-the-house income, we can only afford to have Allene on rare occasions.

In Tampa, it is a common site every day at 8 am to see throngs of black women walking down the street in front of our house. They arrive on the bus that brings them from the other side of this segregated city. They dress colorfully, and some carry umbrellas to keep the sun off of them. After their walk, they arrive at the residences of white ladies, where they change into their crisp white maid dresses and scrub floors and toilets, wash windows, vacuum, dust, and sanitize their kitchens after making the evening meal. For all this hard work, they get paid only a few dollars a day, less than minimum wage. In the late afternoon, they don their bus dresses again and walk back to the bus stop, laughing and trading stories about their day.

Today when Allene arrives, as always, she pretends not to know who I am. “Where’s Billy? All I see is a big boy.” Then after taking a closer look at me, she says, “Well lookie there. You’re growing so big!” I give her a hug. She smells like line-dried laundry and vanilla.

Allene changes from her traveling clothes to her white dress in the back bathroom and puts her colorful dress in the clove-scented broom closet in the back hall.

After my mother leaves, Allene comes to my room and asks me what I want. It’s always the same: a Coke. Allene makes a Coke like no one else. She wraps ice cubes in a dish towel and goes out on the back step and pounds it with an empty glass Coke bottle until the ice is coarsely crushed. She transfers the ice into a plastic tumbler and then pours the Coke over it . She wraps a paper towel around the base and serves it to me in bed and asks if I want a story.

“I want to play school,” I say.

“Your Mama said you need to rest. But maybe later we can play if you’re up to it,” she offers.
She pulls out The Tall Book of Nursery Tales. The book has been opened and closed hundreds of times by Allene and my parents. Many pages are dog-eared. The spine is split, and some pages are loose.

My favorite story is always "The Three Bears." She sits beside me in the bed, holding the book with one hand in front of me so I can see the pictures. The other arm is behind my neck with her callused hand resting on my shoulder. She reads with such joyful expression and uses different voices for all three bears and for Goldilocks. I laugh with her, and she reads me another one, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, which puts me to sleep as her voice intentionally softens.
She wakes me up in a couple of hours to give me a Sucrets lozenge and a tablet of penicillin and asks me what I want for lunch.

“Peanut butter and jelly,” I say.

“What kind of jelly?” she asks.

“Ummmm, apple.”

“What else?”

“A banana popsicle.”

“You want to watch some television?” she asks. “If you take your blanket and pillow out into the den, you can stay warm on the couch.”

I am happy to do so. There is a long sectional sofa that I bundle up on. We have two televisions, but they are both in the den. One is an old DuMont console that stands like Atlas, holding on its shoulders the Sylvania black and white portable that used to be my grandmother’s. They are set up this way because the DuMont only has sound, and the Sylvania, on top, only has picture. Sometimes we like to watch NBC while listening to CBS. When my dad was alive, he would watch Chet Huntley, and then when it switched over to David Brinkley, he would let me switch the sound to the other channel, which was Woody Woodpecker. I loved watching Woody’s voice come out of David Brinkley’s mouth. When Chet came on again, I had to switch the sound TV back to his voice.

Today I decide to watch The Price is Right, and in a few minutes, Allene brings me my sandwich, cut in four even squares, just the way I like it, and some apple slices and thin strips of carrot. And of course, another crushed-ice Coke. For a while she watches the show with me as people win new ranges and other things we can’t afford, like new color televisions.

“Aren’t you going to eat something?” I ask her.

“I think I’ll get something later,” she says, but she never does. She doesn’t eat our food. Allene always brings a piece of fruit or some crackers from home, even though we have told her many times to help herself to anything in the house.

After lunch, I fall back asleep to the sound of someone winning an Amana refrigerator-freezer. When I wake up, I’m back in my bed. Allene has carried me there because it’s closer to the kitchen, where she can keep an eye on me. I stretch and yawn and call her name.

“Awake now?” she asks, arriving at my bedside with half of a popsicle.

“Yes, can we play school now?” I ask.

“Sure,” she says, “after you finish your popsicle.” The cold bar is soothing on the back of my swollen throat, and I finish it slowly, savoring its sticky coldness as it trickles past my tonsils.

We go into the kitchen, where we arrange two dinette chairs to face each other, and we sit.
Sometimes Allene is the teacher, and sometimes she is the student. This time, as the teacher, she holds up a pad of lined paper that we pretend is a chalkboard. She draws a picture of a cat on it.

“Can anyone in class tell me what this is?” she asks, panning the room of imaginary students. I raise my hand, but she calls on Jennifer. She cups her hand to her ear. “What? What, Jennifer? Speak up Jennifer. A horse? No, this is not a horse. Go sit in the corner.” We both laugh.
She sees me with my arm up. “Billy, can you tell me what this is?”

“A cat,” I say.

“Yes, that’s right, it’s a cat. Now can you spell cat?”

“C-A-T,” I recite.

Below the drawing of the cat, she writes, D-O-G

“No,” I correct, “it’s C-A-T.”

“That is C-A-T,” she insists.

“No it’s not. It’s dog, D-O-G.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes I’m sure.”

“Why don’t you write it for the class, then?” she suggests.

She gives me the crayon and the pad of paper. I cross out D-O-G and write in C-A-T.

“Oh, that’s right. You’re so smart. You get an A-plus.”

This game goes on for an hour. We switch, and I get to be the teacher, and she intentionally answers my questions wrong. Two plus two equals five, she insists, and we both break up with laughter. I love to hear her laugh. It is a hoarse, wheezing chortle that grows into big belly laughs.

Not too long after that, Mom comes home, frustrated and in a bad mood. But the smell of Allene’s fried chicken is somehow soothing, sitting steaming on its paper towel-covered plate.
Allene has also prepared her scrumptious milk gravy. Later Mom will make rice to put under the gravy and also a box of frozen vegetables. Mom thanks her and offers to drive her home.

“I’ll take the bus. You don’t want Billy out in the cold car, now.”

Mom thanks her again.

She changes clothes, and I always cry when she leaves. She gets down on one knee and hugs me and promises she will be back soon. I watch her through the jalousie windows as she joins some of her friends on their walk to the bus stop.

My sister and I grow up and learn to cook. We are made to vacuum and dust, wash windows and strip wax off the kitchen floor. We rarely see Allene now. She is old and doesn’t work much anymore, but now and then she comes over to make us chicken and visit with us.

As I enter adolescence and become politically and socially aware, I chastise my mother for taking advantage of Allene and tell her she should send her a thousand dollars. Times are a little better now for us, and we have a cleaning woman, Helen, who comes in once a month. Mom pays her $7.50 for a day’s work, and she never even sees Helen. She just leaves her the money in an envelope with the instructions written on the outside.

It is 1969, and I am 12. When my grandfather takes us out to dinner, it is always to the cafeteria. At the end of the food line there are a half dozen black men dressed in starched white uniforms. They work for tips only. Three men carry our trays for us, and my grandfather gives one of the men a dime. It drives me absolutely out of my mind.

When my grandfather dies, more than anything else, I feel relieved that I no longer have to be a witness to his selfishness. But now, when Mom takes us to the cafeteria, she puts only a quarter on one of the men’s trays. She doesn’t even put it in his hand. She places it on the empty tray the man offers, just as my grandfather had.

The next time she offers to take us there, I refuse to go. My mother and I bicker about it. I insist the cafeteria is violating labor laws, getting something for nothing and is taking advantage of minorities. My mother insists the men are just carrying trays, for God’s sake. What do they expect for that? She asks, “Would you feel the same way if they were white men?”

“Absolutely. The cafeteria is getting free labor no matter what color they are,” I insist.

“Well then why do they do that job if they feel like they’re being taken advantage of?” she asks.

“Maybe they just need the money.”

“Well they should be glad they have a job. It took me months after your father died to find employment.”

It’s no use arguing with her, and I stand firm in my convictions. “Fine,” she says, “your sister and I will go, and you can stay home and fend for yourself.”

So I do stay home. I eat a peanut butter sandwich. With apple jelly. Cut in four squares, just the way I like it, and some apple and carrot slices.

Now it’s 1983. I am working in Saudi Arabia, and the mail, which is addressed to me at work, is the highlight of my day. I recognize my mother’s handwriting on the envelope and return to my office to read it.

My Dear Bill,
I have the unfortunate task of having to tell you we lost our dear Allene last night. Her house caught fire and she was trapped inside…

I weep hard, like a child, and my tears smear the ballpoint ink on the letter. After I was old enough to do so, I never visited Allene, even though I loved her and thought of her often. I was a teenager and was too busy misbehaving with my friends to pick up the phone and call her. I feel just dreadful; my guilt is immeasurable, and I’m consumed with sorrow. I can no longer picture Allene as the sweet, generous woman from my childhood. I can only picture her with a look of terror on her face as her rickety old clapboard house, in flames, engulfs her.

Today a copy of The Tall Book of Nursery Tales arrives in the mail. It is a sentimental find from eBay. When it arrives in the mail, I am happy to see that it is as beat up as our old copy had been. I leaf through it and admire the colorful illustrations. I sit down and read "The Three Bears." The words come back to me, but I don’t hear my mother’s voice or even my dad’s voice.

It’s Allene’s voice I hear.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.


  1. Billy, this was a very touching story. Though we saw each other every so often as kids I never really knew a lot about your life (and Kathryn's). You guys were just the cool cousins from the other side of the bridge. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  2. That was too sad...did she really burn up in a fire?? I alwys felt the same way about the men at Morrison's was always embarrassing

  3. Unfortunately, she did die in her burning house. I always felt horrible going to Morrison's as well; it was so pre-Civil War. And you just know they were advised to hold out their trays for tips because those old white southern belles didn't want to touch black hands.

  4. My recollection is that she lived in a brick project apartment ... with burgular bars on the windows..... She had all the doors locked and the burgular bars and the firemen couldn't get in to save her.

  5. Bill, you need to read this book:

    THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett. She lives in Atlanta and the book is all about living in Mississippi in 1960s and she "chronicles" the lives of the black maids who serve white families. It is fiction, but it is facinating. It will give you new perspective on our "back bathroom".

  6. This was a great piece, Bill, and it brought back so many memories. I've tried telling my northern or younger friends about Morrison's or the buses bringing the maids in along Bay-to-Bay, mostly going to the big houses west of Manhattan but also to my more modest neighborhood. They never seemed to really appreciate the sharp stratification it all represented, but whenever I describe it in the future I'll try to conjure up your words to do the heavy lifting for me. You really captured the time and place.

    For a brief time in my preschool days, we had Ruth the Maid come in to clean for us. A close family friend and neighbor had dibs on the name Ruth, which seemed to justify always linking her with what was considered such a low position. My defensiveness on this point really emphasizes how hard it is for me talk about her even now without being distracted by just how far into the cracker mindset we were at that time.

    The fact is that with all that she did for me, including making my favorite bologna and mustard sandwiches and buttoning my jeans when my little fingers didn't have the strength, I don't recall any curiosity about her as a person and I never thought of her existing beyond her role with us. She seemed like a very mobile appliance. Some of that comes with being four or five and some with my reluctance to engage with people, but years later it was quite a shock when her husband drove her over for a visit after she had lost a leg to diabetes. (She had a husband? They had cars?) Instead of a reunion, it felt like an imposition on us, something that exceeded her station. I'm not saying the rest of the family saw it that way and I don't recall discussing it. For myself, though, I wish so much that I had more memories of interacting with Ruth as the important adult in my early years that she was.

    So in that context, you can imagine how much I appreciated reading your memories, with all the affection and connection they contain. I started recalling just how comfortable and reassuring it was when I could turn to Ruth for help, which she offered with more affection than I could then appreciate. I recalled her smell -- perhaps from her uniform? -- of freshly ironed cotton and something else, maybe vanilla? I recall those things now quite clearly, but if I'm borrowing some of your memories I don't really want to know. The returning memories make my childhood seem that much richer now, with a bit of forgotten warmth.