Beatings for Very Good Help
|by G. K.
(from The Barcelona Review)
Wendy Alice and I talked secretly on the phone quite often. Now and then she came over but there was always some risk with that. Her “free time” was at her employer’s discretion and as often as not was simply denied.
Since my job was with an old American man I could give Wendy Alice such time as she needed whenever she needed it. I don’t believe we ever abused that flexibility.
My contractor, Mr. Longfellow, had been an executive who’d made decisions and turned those decisions into money, a great deal of money both for himself and the business he started as a young man. He wasn’t making decisions anymore and I think he missed that. He’s a healthy man without a schedule but I think that causes some problems for him. His focus can be intense; it can also be quickly dissipated.
He asked me one time what I’d done before coming to this country, what my work had been, “in that place, wherever it is, that country from which you’ve come.”
“High level,” I said, “but I don’t want you to think I’m dissatisfied. Munitions, mostly, procurement. It tends to be women’s work over there.”
“Do tell,” he said. “That’s fascinating.”
“Most of our junior executives are dead,” I said.
“Suggests an opportunity,” was his only
response to that.
Mr. Longfellow had heart scars on his chest and wandered the big house without any clothes on (he’d asked my permission on this), something he had to do, he said, but he didn’t want me to think him crazy.
“Good men,” he said, “nearly all of them rather oddly short in stature, made my clothing. They took photos of my body and drew lines on the photos. I was complimented, fussed over. Sometimes I had to give them nicknames because I couldn’t pronounce their real names.”
“These were designers?” I said.
“Artistes was how they referred to themselves,” he said.
He estimated that what he’d spent on clothes could have lifted a dozen families out of poverty and put them on the road to good times. Thus had he been defined; thus had he succeeded.
Now he was seeking other definitions and I understood that. Lives start and stop more often than we like to think. I spoke no more about dead executives, but I’d had brothers, I said, so I understood nakedness. His daughter did not.
His daughter had seen to good locks on the doors and I was the only one who had the keys.
“He is not to go outside,” she told me, “not naked for God’s sakes, not even if he sees a whole dictionary out there filled with the new words of whatever he wants to be now.”
“This place, though,” I said, “it is so big – all the growing things, and he has his own forest. If it makes him happy …”
“Do I sound as though I’m seeking a consensus?” she said. The woman can be very abrasive in her conversations and I don’t believe she is yet thirty.
“No, ma’am,” I said.
“Mr. Longfellow is retired,” she said. “He is not dead. Friends come by, unannounced as you well know, and his face still appears in the advertisements. His image still powers large schemes and fuels substantial investments. Care must be taken.”
As any servant would do, I merely listened. I was no longer a citizen of any country at all, so the only customs I knew were those of the world. Gravity came to mind, along with light and air. All else was subject to change.
Wendy Alice, who is usually about as diplomatic as a nervous skunk (yes, we have them in my homeland), handled him quite well the one time she came over and Mr. Longfellow suggested we have tea together.
“This time of day,” he said, “for decades it was always cocktails along with the callous planning of yet one more imperial scheme. Tedious. Tea, I think, is so much more civilized. Do you suppose we have any cookies?”
“I believe we do, sir,” I said.
Wendy Alice, not at all shocked by the serviceable nakedness of this older man, sat at the table on the large veranda, took one sip of tea, then rose quickly and said, “Your hair. It’s all wrong. We must do something about it.”
He was agreeable which, according to his daughter, was a new trait. She seemed to think it something worthy of suspicion and that puzzled me. Most of the people I’d met so far seemed to regard what they called an “easygoing” nature as something quite virtuous. Mr. Longfellow had that, even if he hadn’t always. I don’t recall him ever refusing me anything though he always took a moment to deliberate even the smallest request.
The grocer is here, sir. You might want to go and take your shower now.
Yes, yes. That could well be a good idea. My skin, though, does it appear at all dry to you?
I’ll get you some lotion.
“You’ve trimmed hair, Wendy Alice?” I asked.
“How hard can it be?”
Apparently, not hard at all, at least for Wendy Alice. For myself, I had a moment of strange cultural detachment, the kind of thing where I saw Wendy Alice and myself comfortably at work and at peace in the middle of more wealth than the entirety of my country could have put together. We were relaxed as a gentle sun poked through a canopy of greenery. Though salaried servants earning small wages, we chatted and walked barefoot on a polished marble terrace while a naked Mr. Longfellow explained in great detail something about a Mr. Dow and a Mr. Jones and their various industries. It was almost frightening to be so well-set and to have almost no idea where I was.
Mr. Longfellow’s hair, too, ended up looking quite professionally trimmed.
One time, however, I went out to the lake to take care of the ducks and Mr. Longfellow slipped out behind me. I hadn’t locked the door, not since the time he’d told me that ducks were like rats with wings and if he had his way the whole bunch of them would be scooped up and sent to a Chinese restaurant somewhere. I guess I assumed in that a certain dislike of his own (as they say) “grounds.”
It could have been a worrisome time; certainly, had his daughter seen him she would have thought him ready to leap the hedges and strike out over the land seeking all those things of which she disapproved. I’m not sure I ever saw quite that much energy in the man but I had learned not to dispute that daughter’s opinions.
As I began to walk back from the lake I saw him. Quite casually, and giving me only the slightest of nods, he walked up to a long outdoor table and started to talk. He was conducting a meeting, I think, a successful meeting where there were good things to report, though he told me much later he preferred to conduct those meetings where things had been unbelievably bad, unbelievably sour. Redemption, he said, nearly always involves second chances.
That first day, though, I simply alternated between watching the ducks and watching him – and listening.
I think that’s commendable and certainly ought to be looked into …
You’ll simply have to make do with what you have. We’ll all understand that …
Would you like me to talk to him? You’ll do it? Very good …
I finally told him that his people needed to get back to work and that his lunch was ready and it was time to go in. I went out later with a water hose and washed the table where he’d peed all over it. There are things about meetings – hidden agendas – you often don’t know about, but I couldn’t begin to guess what his peeing all over the table meant in terms of things his staff had to know. Since his staff now existed only in his mind (except for me, perhaps his daughter), I assumed he’d explain it to them at a later meeting.
There were other times when I would accidentally leave a door open and the result was always the same. He couldn’t have predicted my inadvertency, but he was always prepared for the meetings and the meetings seemed to go well. I assumed redemption was prominent at those meetings, since I continued to have to hose down the picnic table.
Wendy Alice finds Mr. Longfellow amusing. She asked me once if I’d go running after him should he ever decide he had more grandiose meetings to attend, a whole world hoping his words would amuse or heal, “or the mister himself hoping his body will provide great joy.”
Wendy Alice said she had visions of him leaping over ditches and prancing down roadways as he worked his way to the train station in town, his manly thing flopping like the tail on a happy horse.
“No one should be naked out in the world,” I told her. “Don’t you remember those policemen who made us stand naked on the highway? Where was that – the Indiana? We are not suited to such things and I would do whatever was necessary to save him.”
Anyway, I concluded, it seemed mostly to be when he’d had a few drinks that this need for motion overcame him, and, at least so far, parading his humanitas before an indifferent populace had not surfaced as an agenda item.
Wendy makes more money than I do, and she has the Socialized Security paid for her and I don’t. But I sometimes think even America can’t contain all of her dreams, her big plans for legal status, then politics and her whispery voice on the evening news voicing novel solutions to ancient problems. Someday, too, she says, she will have money, and then there will be photos of her in magazines where she’s looking relaxed at important parties, a crystal trinket filled with white wine in her hand. Wendy Alice knows languages, and she knows, she says – her father a notable politician before he disappeared – the rickety places where secrets are hidden, “which branches on the tree will break and which will hold, and how to use a lemon so as to tolerate the smell of death.”
I am sometimes near tears when she says these things, since so often she says them with a swollen lip, a bruised eye, now and then her rear quarter so sore from being kicked she can’t sit down. All she says, though, is that she has a streak of arrogance no one has yet been able to remove – so these things happen.
“It’s your fault, then?” I said. “These beatings?”
“I have a lot of ambitions,” she said.
“That’s considered honorable in this place,” I said.
“I know, I know. But I’m paid for my actualities, not my hopes.”
“What does that mean?” I said.
“I have not yet directed myself into productive channels of effective accomplishment. It’s a temporary failing.”
“Sometimes you talk like books I don’t want to read,” I said, “and while I respect your channels of … whatever they are, all I’m concerned about right now is this right here, this bruise. It’s about the size of a mango.”
“I know, but the baby woke up in the middle of the night. She was crying and full of bubbles so I thought it was all right to give her some Coca-Cola.”
“You gave her Coca-Cola? A baby?” I said.
“Something my mother taught me long ago. I try to use some of those things so that I don’t forget them. Actually, the baby had these three really big gas belches and then went right to sleep.”
“So you might have found a cure for colic?”
“Bubbles. Baby bubbles.”
Dolly, Wendy Alice’s employer, had found the Coke can in the nursery the next morning, and there had been, Wendy Alice said, “quizzing moments about a sticky lacquer surrounding the baby’s mouth,” then moments of a necessary (Wendy Alice’s word) beating.
Just then, Mr. Longfellow came into the kitchen and sat down with us. He had shaved himself and put on a three-piece suit, a red necktie, and wing-tipping shoes. He’d brushed his hair the way Wendy Alice told him to after she’d trimmed it. He looked distinguished, very sophisticated, a composed man whose only flaw was that he’d neglected to put on a shirt.
“It’s a look,” he said, when I pointed it out to him. “Change the look and you change the culture.”
“Quite unique,” I said as Wendy Alice and I rolled our eyes into each other’s humor.
“Thank you,” Mr. Longfellow said.
“Do you remember Wendy Alice?” I asked him.
“An intern from Accounting, correct?” he said.
That might have been a quip, his lazy humor, but you never knew. Like most diminishing men, he tended to make light of his losses, to let mockery fill an increasingly frightening void. Both Wendy Alice and I nodded politely.
“Regularly beaten, though, as I recall,” he said.
Wendy Alice quietly whispered, “yes,” and then Mr. Longfellow said, “You provoke these things, you know. That’s the way it works.”
The next time Wendy Alice came over she had her left arm in a sling.
“Really minor,” she said. “I was dusting under the baby’s crib and had one arm through the bars so I could pat her tummy. Got up too quick, though, and dislocated my shoulder.”
“The expression,” I said, “the American expression, which you don’t even have to understand to really feel it, is, ‘Would you buy a pre-owned car from this woman?’”
“It’s hard to have a friend you can’t lie to,” Wendy Alice said. “Mrs. Dolly popped it right out trying to flip me, but I fell on the davenport so it wasn’t so bad.”
“Flip you? What means this flip you?”
“Like trying to turn me upside down.”
“Oh,” I said. “She did that.”
“It’s a big davenport,” she said.
“You’ve been to the hospital?” I asked.
“There was a plumber in the house at the time. We’ve been having problems with one of the banquet sinks in the kitchen. This plumber, though, it turns out he used to be a muscle therapist in the old Yugoslavia. He knew right away what to do and he told Mrs. Dolly how to make the sling. She’s still angry, though, since I was only able to pour coffee and tea at her party last night.”
“You make me hurt, Wendy Alice.”
Wendy Alice is abstract only when she talks about those things; that is, there are real plans, things she has thought out about fishing practices, property management, freedom to speak, pet ownership, the United Nations – things grand, things petty, and all of it worked out in an American context. She used to write a lot of it down until Mrs. Dolly discovered her doing it one day and took away all of her papers and pencils. Now Wendy Alice keeps it all in her head, but it’s a busy head and while she can be boring she is rarely silent.
I sometimes think Wendy Alice has been cloned – that may not be the right word – from Mr. Longfellow.
I began to worry about Wendy Alice and to think we might not be understanding what was happening. At home, a High One beats a Low One out of respect. Even the people of salaries do it, though I have heard those beatings are largely symbolic. Anyway, it is a way of saying that, in all charity, I would have you better than you are, that I would have you more astute, less lax, swifter on the uptake, alert to flaws, more diligent, cleaner. It is a faith preached by fist or cane, but Wendy Alice was becoming increasingly mottled by her yieldings beneath that faith.
Softly, Wendy Alice told me one time, “I would have her be instructional and she is not that.”
“Very cold,” I said. “That’s always been my sense.”
“Not even therapeutic,” she added.
“Misbehavior is a disease easily cured,” I said.
“Indeed,” said Wendy Alice, “but there is little to be learned having your head pushed into the water of a toilet or your hand placed upon an electric stove burner.”
“She’s done these things to you, Wendy Alice?”
“I heal quite well,” she said, “quite efficiently, and even though she might be sour about it, she always adjusts my workload following the punishments.
“Nevertheless,” she concluded, “if your superiors aren’t also your teachers why do we have them?”
“What do Mrs. Dolly’s children think of all of this?” I asked Wendy Alice.
“Mrs. Dolly’s children,” she said, “are very young children. They are not happy at all and they are allowed to kick Mrs. Dolly and throw things at her, which keeps me busy since there are always messes to be cleaned, broken things to be taken for repairs.”
“And Mr. Dolly?” I asked.
“His name is Jim,” she said.
Wendy Alice rarely saw him because he traveled a lot in his work. When he was home Wendy Alice had to stay in one of the yard houses because Mrs. Dolly said Jim had certain biases, prejudices about women and he was not to be trusted. If she was needed when Jim was home, Mrs. Dolly made Wendy Alice wear raggedy clothes and she’d rub wet meal trash into Wendy Alice’s underarms so that she would smell offensive. Sometimes she put cigarette ashes in Wendy Alice’s hair or rubbed them on her face.
“I think that’s more than a little disgusting,” I said.
Wendy Alice said Mrs. Dolly appeared to have a lot of questions and very few answers that satisfied her.
She also told me that Mrs. Dolly and Jim were religious people, too, who prayed all the time. They ate their meals with a prayer and attended worship services. Mrs. Dolly, too, seemed always to be holding up the behaviors of her Jesus as some kind of model.
“Very personal,” Wendy Alice said. “Sometimes I think she regards him as yet one more thing she owns.”
“It has been said these are the most religious people on earth,” I said to Wendy Alice.
“Mrs. Dolly and Jim?” she said.
“No, no – the populace. These Americans.”
“Mr. Longfellow?” she asked.
“An exception. His expectations sink almost daily,” I said. “I don’t think all these churchy things mean much if you’re not seeing a pretty peppy future.”
My point here, however, isn’t quite as sanguine as all this suggests.
When Wendy Alice told Mrs. Dolly that she, herself, had been a Christian all her life, she was quite excited, thinking at last she might have found a bridge out of her naughtiness (Wendy Alice’s word), or at the very least something they could talk about that didn’t suggest the total hopelessness of Wendy Alice’s every waking moment.
Mrs. Dolly, however, was not at all kind, not at all willing to admit any commonality of memberships.
She put a bar of white soap in Wendy Alice’s mouth and made her keep it there for a whole day – much to the amusement of the children. Wendy Alice giggled when she told me that because it reminded her she’d swallowed so much soapy saliva that day she was passing soap bubbles into the toilet for days afterward.
Both Wendy Alice and I well understood how the mule in one country can be a jackass in another, but Wendy Alice wanted training, she wanted skills (an American notion), even the craft that would help her build the ladder upward that would one day find her giving speeches before the entirety of the United Nations in New York (the city). She felt, instead, that she was doing nothing more than bothering her relatives with repeated cellphone calls for information on the healing of this, the mending of that. Sometimes, she said, she felt like an athlete competing in a faraway land for prizes that seemed ever more elusive.
I wrote home and had my aunty send me a copy of Respectful Beatings For Very Good Help, long a classic in my country, and gave it to Wendy Alice who in turn gave it to Mrs. Dolly.
“Puzzling,” was how Wendy Alice began when I asked her what the reaction had been to the book.
“Did she say anything?” I asked.
Wendy Alice furrowed her brow up so tightly that I finally reached over with my fingers and began massaging her forehead.
“She said, ‘Eat it,’” Wendy Alice said.
“Eat it?” I asked.
“The book,” she said. “I had to eat it, page by page. Of course I couldn’t really do it, but I ate some of it, and then, while I was kneeling over the toilet in the lawnsmen’s shed and regurgitating, she told me I might have to be put in the jail for a few nights because my attitude was appalling. I couldn’t remember what that word meant. Actually, it was hard to remember anything because she was also kicking me on my hindquarters while I was being sick. It was a very busy time.”
Yes, yes, he said, he remembered her, of course he did, very bright-eyed, something foreign about her, wasn’t there? Then I’d lose him to something else for a time – a recitation of useful planets, a breakdown of something called high-risk derivatives. Finally – being very unsatisfied with my progress – I had him take off his clothes one morning (pajama tops and flippity-flop shoes) and follow me down to the long table near the duck pond.
“You’ve called a special meeting, sir,” I said.
“So I have. Are we all here?”
“I believe so.”
“Good enough. You have the agenda?”
Small formulas, I thought. Delicate habits. Sometimes the entire largeness of a life is nothing more than training for the smallest of moments.
“Would you mind if Wendy Alice came to live with us?” I said.
He held his hands up to stop me and said quite gently, “Information, please. Hard data.”
He wondered what other families had done in similar situations and if I had researched all the many liability issues. There was the matter of duties, too, and certain questions about compatibility. Finally, he wanted to know what the point was to all of this, where we were going.
“She’s being beaten,” I said, my final point.
He looked me in the eye then and said, “There’s more than one way to see a beating.”
That was very American and I saw it as progress: if there’s more than one way to see a problem, there ought to be at least one acceptable solution.
I didn’t press him on the point that day. He mentioned something about constituting a small commission to examine the situation and I said I’d look into it. As the expression goes, I’d broken the ice. That was enough for one day.
Nevertheless, I worried that things were going too slow. Shortly after our duck pond meeting, Wendy Alice came over and her nose was bleeding and broken. I had to set it (doctors not being an option for some of us, and Yugoslavian plumbers aren’t always around) and fill it with wet tea bags to stop the bleeding.
“There is nowhere I can go,” she said to me.
“I know, my darling,” I said.
Mr. Longfellow finally told me he’d take the issue up with his board, a prospect I might have found discouraging had I not listened to so many of those solitary conferences and knew that he often worked out very real problems at those times. The brickwork is in need of attention, Mr. Longfellow. He took it up with his board and a whole crew of masons came in to make the repairs. That sore on your leg needs attention, Mr. Longfellow. Shortly after that meeting the daughter was summoned and medical care was arranged.
“The addition of residents is a serious matter and not a decision I care to make on my own. Consultation, you see, consultation. That’s the essence of everything that happens on this earth”
“Can you tell them these are urgent circumstances?” I asked.
“I’ll do my best,” he said.
As hero to Wendy Alice, I had saddled a limping horse (as my father used to say). I knew that, yet I had to hope. We were tradition, Wendy Alice and I, new passengers on an old transit and it all had to work. Failure meant deportation and a life spent shelling walnuts or canning fish brains. Wendy Alice would be Senator of her arms and legs and nothing else – that they might once again be unbruised being but a small consolation.
Not wishing to give him time for second thoughts, I wrote a note on his stationery and had Wendy Alice include it in Mrs. Dolly’s daily mail. This was a thrilling thing, and even more so on the day of the meeting as Mr. Longfellow dressed in his most dignified clothing, shirt included.
“Eleanor,” he said, “would you see that my check ledger is on top of my desk?”
I said I would do that. Then he added, “Call Dolly, Eleanor, and tell her I’d appreciate it if she’d bring her girl with her to the meeting. Wendy Alice, is it?”
I prepared the drinks and some sweet and salty foods, nodded only slightly to Wendy Alice as she followed Mrs. Dolly into the house and the small library near the front door.
“Eleanor?” Mr. Longfellow said, “would you come in please and take the minutes?”
I was not familiar with that expression, but caught it quickly enough as he handed me a small tablet and a pencil. He spoke then, his voice firm and clear. I still have all the notes. It was a long speech about democracy, very lucid, certain points emphasized with important pauses. He said he understood Mrs. Dolly’s investment, yet he also understood fair play – surely the keystone of certain things we hold dear.
“We,” he said, “you and I, Dolly, are a beginning for these folks. We can give them strength and understanding. They, in turn, can give us infinity, a thousand years of pax humana.”
There was a great deal more, and for as much as I could see Mr. Longfellow passing that secret door again and again, that door into his nakedness, that room where people listened to him and fought over the chance to do his bidding, where he wrote unsent letters to the Pope, to presidents, to kings, and corporate journeymen, where he could take a beautifully jeweled letter opener and cut small wounds onto his skin and then ask me, “But where, where I need to know, does this hand come from, this arm – to whom does it belong? It is insistent. It is tenacious. It will not go away.” Indeed, that room offered great pleasures and all the many solitudes he’d spent a whole lifetime waiting for – but he stayed out of it as he talked to Mrs. Dolly, something shining in him that I told Wendy Alice later was what the Americans always worshipped as professional.
Mrs. Dolly left then with a check in her hand. Near the front door she said to me, “Eleanor, arrange to have the girl’s things picked up.”
She left then, as had Mr. Longfellow – off to his bedroom, I assumed, or perhaps out to the gardens in back. I would allow him that luxury without surveillance, allow him to board old boats sailing for Hong Kong or Bremerhaven if that was his fancy. Whatever he’d been master of for all those years had not left him yet, and I told myself I would not pollute his triumph.
Alone then, Wendy Alice came over to me and we embraced. I told her I was hugging the future of the country, but she could only laugh and say, “Who is Eleanor?”
“I have no idea,” I said.