“One cola Couronne, please,” she said timidly. “Very cold.”
She lowered her head as the vendor fished inside his cart for the soda, moving the bottles around noisily with his hands. Grace thought about having to cross the busy boulevard again back to the other side. The man handed her the soda. She took it; it felt icy cold in her hand. She held on to it with both hands not wanting to drop it. Her mother could not afford to lose fifty cents.
“We are poor people,” her mom often said, “good family people, but poor.”
The vendor handed Grace two cents back. She held the cold soda snugly against her chest although it felt very uncomfortable. She approached the edge of the road, stood there, and watched both ways. Her mother waved her across. A big truck was coming from the right a distance away. Its big metal nose was enormous. Its mouth, a wide silvery grid, had what looked like iron teeth gnashing at her.
“I hope the driver can see me,” she thought to herself.
“I’m not going to slip and fall this time! I’m not!”
With one quick movement she walked speedily across, choosing not to run, for fear she would fall down again. She handed the bottle to her mother. The vendor had partially uncapped it. Therese took it from her hand with a smile, twisted the cap off, and gulped down a few mouthfuls. She moaned as she drank the cold beverage, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. Grace sat down quietly on the grass, on a big bundle of clothes, next to her mother. Turning and moving the bottle toward Grace, Therese asked, “You want some?”
“No, thank you,” she answered somewhat weakly, her head inclined slightly toward her mom. “You drink the whole thing. You’re thirsty,” she added, wishing to sound polite. The child sat there, her head bowed low. She was very quiet the whole afternoon, like those little sheep she saw in the neighborhood, resting meekly on the grass, with seemingly no one watching over them.
Therese got up; Grace followed suit. Together they resumed their way. The mother held the little girl’s hand as they walked to and fro, from one client to another. The neon signs that usually fascinated her now made the child dizzy. She felt as though she were alone in a foreign country, unknown, unprotected. A lot of ideas ran through her head. “When we reach home,” she said to herself, “I’m going to ask Father to send me to the little public school.” It was almost three o’clock when they arrived back in Carrefour. Before entering her yard, an annoyed Therese stopped briefly to pick up a couple of breadfruits that one of the neighborhood women offered her, calling out loud to her cheerfully, “Therese! You’re just now reaching home?” “Just as you see, neighbor,” Therese said passively. “You had to wait a long time for the camionette?”
“Here are some breadfruits Augustin picked just a few minutes ago from the tree. Take two for the kids!”
Therese did not like to take things from the neighbors. She did not like to take things from anybody really. She was a very private person. But she was now too hot and exhausted to get into a long discourse with Andrea. So she accepted the breadfruits, sending Grace inside the yard to pick them up.
“Thanks, Andrea,” she called out nonchalantly to the woman with a wave of her hand. “Have a good night.” She left the neighbor’s gate and walked slowly the few paces down to her home. The smell of codfish greeted her as she entered the house. Julienne had cooked salted cod with plantains. Grace was glad and she smiled; it was her favorite food. Therese, however, went inside the bedroom to lie down, the odor of the food making her lightly nauseous. Grace marched to the table, picked up her plate, which was resting on a well-starched white tablecloth, and went to a little bench where she sat with the metal plate balanced evenly on a wooden tray upon her lap.
“I was awaiting your coming so I could go out,” Julienne called to her mom from the front room.
“Go,” Therese answered weakly. “How long ago did you get back? I see you had time to cook.”
“At about one,” Julienne called back to her, while preening herself in front of the mirror. “I’m out! OK!” “All right. But don’t come back too late. Did Mondestin say where he was going?” “To play dominos!” “He ate already?” “Yes! You’re the only one who didn’t eat! I’m gone, OK!” “OK, my child.”
Meanwhile, Grace was eating and hoping that her father would return right then and there so she could talk to him while still alone in the living room. Her heart was pounding slightly. She knew that the family was poor, but she now knew that she wanted to go to school—yes, now more than ever. She waited and waited. It was almost dark when her father walked in—the darkness coming down heavily and suddenly upon the yard. The kerosene lamps were already lit inside the nearby houses. There was practically no electricity to speak of in the area. Therese had come out to eat her meal and gone back to bed. Grace was now drowsy, but she was sitting there quietly on her little bench awaiting her dad. She had not heard his footsteps when he entered the yard; she realized that he was home only when she heard him saying something about the bundle of clothes still lying near the entranceway. Mondestin turned to Grace and asked, “Where is your mother?”
“Inside,” she answered, wiping her eyes.
The child got up to move the bundle of clothes from the entranceway but her father had already brought it inside.
“Papa,” she walked up to him and asked as though completely out of the blue, “did you ever pass through school?” Mondestin looked at her inquisitively. Grace lowered her head with a smile and walked back to her bench.
“School? What kind of school you’re talking about, Grace?”
“Any school, Papa,” she let out with a shrug of her shoulder.
“No, my child! My feet never passed through school,” he exclaimed while fixing something or other on the table. “Your mother, though,” he grinned. “She passed through.
Why don’t you ask her?”
The child sat there silently. Mondestin turned to look at her. “Papa, I was wondering,” she continued, not raising her head up, “do you have to pay a lot to go to school for the public?” “Yes,” let out Mondestin. “It’s people who have money who can go to school, child! There are uniforms and all sorts of things to buy: rulers, books, and all sorts of things to pay for, year after year.”
Grace was silent.
“Why do you ask?”
She did not answer.
“People don’t need to pass through school to live, Grace,” Mondestin went on, now almost to himself, “Not if they can’t afford it! The sea is right back there”—he gestured—“God made it for everybody. Everybody! The land is God’s land— don’t care who says he has papers to prove he owns it. God made the land and the sea one time for everybody! All that we need to live we have right here! If we needed to read to live we would have been born all knowing how straight from our mothers’ wombs!”
Grace didn’t want to hear any more. She wanted the discussion to end right there, but out of her throat, in a voice almost not hers, came the words: “Papa, I would like to pass through school. This way when I grow up I can help you, Maman, and the whole family.”
Mondestin looked askance at her. “Who’s putting all these ideas into your head, Grace? Your mother? I know that deep down inside she thinks she’s better than everybody around here. Don’t think I don’t know it!”
“No, Papa,” the child answered forcefully.
“And what about Julienne?” Mondestin queried in earnest. “If you go to school and she don’t—what will she say? No! It will breach the family, child! Later on you might think you’re better than her just because you can hold a book right side up in your hands!”
Grace did not say a word. She was in fact sorry she brought up the whole subject. She did not know that such a simple question would raise so much talk. “Look at Tonton Augustin who lives right there around the bend. He has nine children. Some passed through school; some didn’t. And what you think happened? It breached the family just like that! Now, I must say that they do help the father, but this child here doesn’t think he is the equal of that one! That one thinks he’s better than this one! And for what? For a piece of paper? No! They should all be the same! All of them! Either you can send all your children to school or none of them! That’s what I think! This business of sending this one and not that one—uh uh! That breeds resentment! I’ve seen too much of that in my time. No, Grace! Seeing that you asked me, I say, no!” Grace was hurt but she tried not to show it. She kept silent with her face down to the ground.
“What are you two talking about with so much courage?” asked Therese, emerging now slowly from the next room.
“Nothing!” said Mondestin curtly. “How was your day?”
“Mondestin, if Grace wants to go to school and it’s her own idea that came up to her heart, then I think we should do all that we can to send her. That’s what I think,” continued Therese, still leaning against the doorpost.
“And how are we to pay for books, for pencils, and all of that?” her husband asked dramatically.
“We’ll manage,” the wife let out sternly. “We’ll tighten our belts!”
“Therese, look at you!” Mondestin let out jokingly with a grin. “Isn’t your belt tight enough as it is? Your little waist is already thin like this—if you ask me!”
Grace smiled. Her mother did not budge.
“That’s right! Keep on joking!” she snapped. “One should never refuse a child who wants to go to school. That’s what my mother always told me!”
“The whole life is a school, Therese! The whole life!” Mondestin launched walking up to her. “Didn’t your mother tell you that? Me, I’m telling you! The whole life is a school! What this child learns right here there’s no school can teach it to her. No school I tell you! It’s all those people who’ve passed through school, all of them with knowledge, who’re destroying this country! If they were simple they wouldn’t be so outright cruel and selfish!”
Grace sat on her little bench, listening. She didn’t mean for all this to happen. She didn’t mean for her mother and father to argue. She wanted them to end the discussion right now but Mondestin started talking again.
“Why you’re always contradicting me, Therese?! Always! It’s you who thought we ought to get married like rich folks do, when ‘placeage’ was good enough for all those who came before us! You want always to live beyond your means, Therese, always! When are you going to accept that you are poor, eh? Tell me!”
He now sweetened his tone. “All the schooling in the whole world will not make people want you or like you if they don’t want to, Therese. And you are good people just as you are. Just as you are. Trust me.” He turned to look at Grace. “All this talk of schooling will only disunite this family. You mark my words. You mark my words!”
“Mondestin, I only want the child to go to school. Is that so bad?” Therese whined.
“Yeah, and after two days, when she meets up with me in the street, for her to say I’m not her father!” Grace did not understand. All she wanted was to go to school.
“Mondestin, this will not happen! Trust me! And all we are doing now is teaching Grace how to be poor. Like us! What else is she learning?”
Mondestin walked out.
“Maman, it’s OK,” Grace let out emphatically after her father left the room. “It’s just an idea that passed through my head. That’s all!”
“And why didn’t you ask me?” Therese asked authoritatively.
She gave no answer. “Maman, Papa said you passed through school. Is that true?” she asked. “Ah!” Therese let out with a gesture of dismissal. “All that belongs to the past, Grace! Today is Sunday. Tomorrow I’ll dress you up and bring you to the little school. But when you start, you must finish. You hear me? You must do all your classes no matter what! That’s all I ask!” “Yes, Maman,” the child answered innocently. “There needs to be no disunity in a family,” Therese continued out loud, arranging things on the table just for the sake of arranging them. “Just because one person can read and the other can’t! The problem is not school! It’s class! Money! Color! That’s what’s causing all the breach in this country! Not school!” Yes, Therese knew firsthand about family rifts. She remembered it all now. Being the “outside” child of a wellto- do man, she suffered enough shame and degradation just from being born of a poor mother and from the poor side of town. When she’d meet up with her wealthy half brothers and sisters on her way to school, they would walk on by. Only Pierre, out of the whole lot, ever regarded her as anything. Therese’s illiterate mother had put her in a nearby public school when she was five years old. She struggled, peddling fabric up and down the streets of Jacmel, to support herself and her daughter. When she died Therese was only eight. She was in the third grade. She had to stop going to school.
Therese was resentful for years for not being able to continue with her schooling, at least up through certificat or the sixth grade, which would have enabled her to work at least as a paraprofessional. Her life would have been so much different, she felt. She would not have been obliged to ruin her hands washing clothes and heavy male uniforms, her fingers soaking in the water all the time. Her father had paid little attention when her aunt appealed to him on behalf of the child and in the name of her dead sister. He gave the woman a few dollars; that was all. The poor aunt took care of Therese for a while but she could not manage for long. She was herself struggling to make ends meet, and when she got sick, she again brought the child to her father’s house. Therese sat outside, in the kitchen with the maids, next to her aunt, until Monsieur Didier Lemoine, a jolly, wealthy lawyer, finally came out to talk to them. He tried to persuade the woman that it was not feasible at all for him to have the child live in his house. After many pleas and numerous supplications, he reluctantly consented to have her stay, on a trial basis only, on condition that, if the arrangement didn’t work out, the aunt would come back and pick up the child right away. The woman accepted. She thanked Monsieur profusely.
A silent Therese got up and kissed her aunt goodbye. Her heart was racing. Though she was sorry to part with her aunt, she felt fortunate to be able, at long last, to live with her father inside his beautiful mansion, to go to school with her well-dressed half siblings, perhaps, even to play the piano. It was a dream come true. Her heart leapt inside her little chest with excitement, albeit also with apprehension. The father walked out. The child was left sitting in the kitchen for what seemed like hours, her little suitcase resting on the floor next to her chair. When finally he reappeared, Didier Lemoine instructed the maid to prepare a place for the girl to spend the night, somewhere in the servant’s quarters. Therese felt that surely this must be some mistake, a big misunderstanding. But, she reasoned, her presence was unexpected. Also it was late in the afternoon. Yes, she could understand that. So she made no fuss. Tomorrow is another day. She followed the maid obediently and spent the night quietly in the servants’ quarters. Bright and early the next morning, an angry Madame Lemoine entered the servants’ quarters austerely and illhumored, with a long list of chores that she rattled out loud to Therese without even looking at her. When she had finally stopped and was almost halfway out the door, Therese ventured to ask almost apologetically, “Would that be before or after school, please?” “Surely you jest!” The woman exclaimed with scornful laughter. “You have got to be kidding!” Leah Lemoine exited the entranceway just as briskly and as furiously as she’d entered it, huffing and puffing, her perfume dominating the air, imposing itself on the whole room long after she was gone. Within minutes she was back. “There will be no school! Do you understand?” she let out forcefully. “I spoke to my husband and he agreed! School indeed! For you to sit around and go to school and for me to take care of you? Indeed! Consider yourself fortunate to even be here! Not many women would put up with this! Not many women would accept to be . . . to be . . . subjected to this! Consider yourself lucky indeed to have food on your plate and a roof over your head! School indeed! Just who do you think you are?”
She was halfway out again and then returned. “And your name is Therese Charles! Remember that! You are no relations of mine nor that of anybody else in this house! You get that? You’re just a domestic! Like all the other domestics in this house! Do you understand? And if you don’t like it, well, you know what to do!” Therese was too shocked and intimidated to cry. The poor child just stood there, frozen, her face downcast, her eyes filled with tears.
“Now put on your work clothes and start your chores!” Standing there in her school uniform, Therese’s ears were ringing; her face was hot, but her hands were cold. She, who had entertained hopes of sleeping upstairs with her new family, sitting in the grand living room, and playing the piano with her siblings, was now trembling and nearly sick to her stomach. For years, when passing in front of the big house, she would stare inside the yard, admiring the beautiful flowers, the bougainvilleas all pink and purple, the roses red and white, hanging gaily over the white trellis, the grass so green and well kept. The house was like a palace to her. She had taken pride in it though she had never been inside. But always, she had wanted to enter its heavy, wrought iron gates, to see up close the beautiful furniture, the ornate crystal chandelier that she would glimpse from the open windows when the wind would blow the lace curtains apart, exposing the plush, elegant interior.
“That’s your father’s house,” her mother would tell her proudly, with a smile, while passing in front of the house, “Isn’t it beautiful?” and “You are a Lemoine,” she would say, while dressing her up for school. “I cannot dress you in any old way. You must never shame the family name. You hear me? Your father is a society person, and so are you! You must always do him proud! Remember that!”
It was only when Therese started school and heard herself addressed for the first time as “Therese Charles” that she knew her last name was not Lemoine. Marilia, her mother, worked extra hard to make sure that she always dressed well and behaved in a manner worthy of the Lemoines. Now all her dreams were being shattered right before her eyes. She was not used to being a servant. Her mother had spoiled her. Never did she send her even once to run an errand. Now she was to parade up and down the street carrying groceries, even water, on her head. The little girl was devastated.
The next day, while removing the breakfast dishes from the dining-room table, Therese caught a glimpse of her father, all dressed up in his white suit, his briefcase in his hand, fixing his tie in the hallway mirror. She looked both ways, then entered the hall way with quick, little steps. “Papa,” she let out, quickly, catching the man off guard, “I had been looking for you. Mother said never to sully the family name, that I must do all my schooling until I grow up, you must tell Madame . . .”
“Shhhhhhhh!” Let out Didier Lemoine, bending down over the girl, his index finger over his mouth. “You must never call me that! You hear?” He raised himself slightly and turned back to take a quick look behind him, “If you don’t want to incur Madame Lemoine’s wrath! As it is, I am extremely grateful that, in the kindness of her heart, she has accepted to forgive me my indiscretion.” He turned to look behind him again. “And she has so graciously accepted to take you under her roof, which is more than I could ever have expected! So, please, remember who you are, child!” He wagged his finger up and down the little girl’s face. “You are So Ya’s child [the child of a lower-class woman]. You must learn to accept that! Be grateful that you are in this house! With your aunt, you would have been trailing in the streets! Selling goods up and down every corner of town! Your mother—good woman that she was—never made trouble for me. And now, don’t you start! You are clothed and fed three times a day. Be content! And please try to show a little gratitude here!”
With the finger still wagging in her face Therese listened in disbelief.
She was broken, shaken, and dumbfounded, and, without uttering another word, she went back to the dining room, cleared the table, then made her way down the stairs, a pile of dirty dishes in her hands, resting precariously against her little chest. It was as though her life had ended. She managed, somehow, to come back again and again to pick up the rest of the dishes and bring them down to the kitchen below. Tears flowed freely down her cheeks. Her cold little hands wiped them off as quickly as they came.
There was no one to console her.
How she wished that her poor mother was here and that she was out of this evil house! She had had so much hope for her! Now Therese resented even her mother for all that she had told her about the grand family name, and everything else that she had led her to believe. How she had wanted her to be a society lady! Never would she have believed that one day she would end up a servant in her own father’s house!
Yes, it was a bitter pill for the little girl to swallow. But swallow it she did. That night, before she went to bed, Therese looked at her uniforms all pressed and neatly folded in her suitcase. She despised them! She wept, but there was no one to appeal to besides her poor aunt who had made her promise that she would do all she could to remain in her father’s house because it was her dying mother’s wish. Where would she go? Everyone on her mother’s side was poor. Some were serving as maids and servants in rich people’s homes, and others were selling in the market place. They had no better lot to offer her.