|Wendy's story is long past due. We have wasted the best part of a lifetime prisoners of the fear of being misunderstood. Finally, I can listen to what she wants me to hear; there is no way I could ever judge her. I know she lived in terror for most of her lifetime, that I would look down on her. I hold her in my arms wanting to comfort the broken child she was back then, that still hides inside the extraordinary woman that she is now. I look at her sitting beside me in the early morning light. The sounds of the swamp awakening and her gentle breathing are music to my ears.
"Daveed it is long past time for me to tell you what I should have said to you before you went to Viet Nam. I was so afraid of your judging me that I pushed you away and never told you my story."
I wondered if she would talk about her son Malcolm who was born while I was in Oak Knoll Naval hospital.
Making coffee while Wendy collected her thoughts gave me time to get ready emotionally to hear her story.
"Daveed I'm going to start where it all began, in Mississippi. There is so much I never could bring myself to tell you."
Wendy searched her memory carefully for the words to describe her last day on the farm. She hesitantly began almost as if she were exposing something very sore to a surgeon’s knife.
In 1952; our place was a farmed out piece of black dirt which would hardly grow weeds, much less cotton. Rural Mississippi about 65 miles NE of New Orleans La. was a wasteland. All the precious nutrients necessary for the growth of cotton had leached from the soil as a result of attempts to grow cotton on the same patch of land year after year. People lost hope. Sharecroppers with no crop became desperate when it became readily evident that sweat alone would not replenish the depleted soil, or make anything grow except dust.
In all my life I only remember two good years. That memory starts with a load of shit piled high on a squeaky old wagon pulled by a lop-eared temperamental grey mule. That was back before Ma left. Pa wasn't the monster that he became. I remember so clearly spreading manure six inches deep over our entire one-half section. We worked hard, all of us. Ma was out front with pitch fork spreading manure. “If it will make the cotton grow,” she said,” I will spread shit all day and all night.”
That old mule brought load after load from the slaughterhouse in which Mr. Edson, our landlord, had acquired an interest. Behind the main building was a several years accumulation of composted manure and waste from the process. It took many trips to fertilize our farm. The eldest son of our landlord urged the poor old mule to pull a plow and replenish each exhausted share farm.
Mr. Edson fertilized all four sections of his land before the pile behind the slaughterhouse was exhausted. He told us that every year there would be enough new offal to replenish several farms, doing the others the next year. The home place, of course, would be fertilized every year.
That mule brought new life to our farm, and hope into our hearts. I even saw my Ma smile; it was a look of sheer hope. After the planting, a sea of green reached skyward. It was the best crop I had ever seen. At harvest, Mr. Edson gave a big party at the home place and invited all his sharecroppers to bring their families. He barbecued a whole calf. Moonshine and homebrew flowed freely, and my Pa played his fiddle so people could dance. My mother looked happy, and she even did the two steps a few times with various neighbors. I know she had fun, and a few drinks of “Sweet tea laced with moonshine.”
I didn’t understand precisely the argument that ensued when we got to our house. My oldest two brothers had dates and would come home as late as their date’s dads would allow. The younger boys went right to bed. I heard unidentifiable words, yet they were ugly and intended to hurt. Ma’s face was bruised the next day from “a fall in the barn.” I slept in the space above my parent’s room so I could plainly hear the slaps and punches. I think that was the beginning of my Pa’s change into a monster. The next year Ma stayed home and caught up on her sewing when the harvest festival came. The second year the yield was only half what it had been the year before. Next year we would get the fertilizer and cotton would grow again. There was a fly in the ointment. The slaughterhouse went bankrupt, and Mr. Edson lost a lot of his money. The next year nothing grew except weeds. We hoed, sweat, and toiled, and Ma finally dried up like the earth and left.
Only a few scraggly plants grew that summer Pa drank more moon than before, and he began to use me for sex. The worse things got, the more often he would force me to my knees or across a kitchen chair to service his carnal desires. Of course, all of us received at least one beating with his wide leather belt every day “to keep our mind right.” Toward the end of the summer, he began sharing me with the boys as they had been grumbling about running off to a city to find work. I guess he figured that screwing me would lessen their desire to roam. I turned fourteen the year Ma left. It wasn't long before I followed.
We tried so hard to make the cotton grow with our suffering. It was blistering hot and dusty in the field. Sweat seeped from under my bandanna leaving mud tracks down my face. The worn hoe in my hand was the only weapon I had to fight the never-ending battle to grow any salable cotton.
I was exhausted and the "days of hell" seemed endless. For a moment, Pa turned his back on me, and I took advantage of the opportunity to sneak a little break. I looked down at my hard calloused hands. A crack had formed on my left palm that would probably bleed before the sun buried itself into the horizon.
Fourteen hot, back-breaking hours in the sun was such a long time since our breakfast of side pork and grits eaten before dawn. After eating, I quickly washed dishes and joined Pa and my brothers in the hot dirty task of hoeing weeds. There was no time to waste on a sharecropper's farm.
The heat kept me from really getting hungry. My breakfast stayed in a hard lump in the pit of my stomach. We shared a water bucket, all six working members of our family. Being the youngest, it was my job to carry water a quarter mile from the cast iron well pump. You know the kind; where you raised the handle and strained to pull it down quickly with forceful enough strokes to lift the water from the shallow well into a waiting bucket.
The walk back was the hardest part. The heavy bucket caused pain that originated between my shoulder blades and ran down my arms. At times it felt like the weight would pull my arms from the sockets of my shoulders. If I spilled, any Pa would take off his belt and beat me right there in front of everyone.
Pa always had a ready remark to show that he was the undisputed boss. “Move it, Wendy, people could die of thirst waiting for your slow ass!” Pa’s voice revealed the cruel, unrelenting taskmaster he was. Tending the fields, we share-crop had left him sunburned a deep red color. His skin was tight across his mule-like, muscles. He was hard inside and outside, tough like leather. By then he had sweat out the very last trace of love, or mercy left in his soul. Now he lived to inflict pain and make everyone else as miserable as he was.
I knew better than to say anything back to him. I struggled to take faster steps as I crossed the dusty field.
“Git over here girl, and give a thirsty man a drink.”
When I reached the location where Pa was kneeling on the ground digging out a large weed; I set the bucket down, filled the dipper and held it for my Pa. He laughed a cruel leering filthy laugh, as he lifted the bottom of my flour-sack dress. He copped a feel of my bare bottom underneath. The rough callouses of his hand were like sandpaper on my private parts. I knew that if even a drop of water spilled, he would beat me until I could barely stand; and then send me back to work. Somehow I managed to keep a steady hand. When he finished his water and his filthy groping, I took the bucket to the far side of the field where my brothers were hard at work. The bucket was soon empty, and I had to make another trip to the pump.
Six people drank a lot of water to keep going in the heat. I was still expected to finish hoeing ten rows of cotton, even though I fetched water for the whole family. By the time the sun sank into the horizon, and the only light was the afterglow of the day; I had only finished nine and one-half rows, each a half mile long.
Pa called, “Go to the house! Get along you lazy bitch!”
I cringed knowing full well when I finished making a supper of cornbread with greens and side pork, and washing our dishes; Pa would extract his punishment one more time.
When everyone finished supper, I gathered the dishes and washed them in the dishpan. It took three runs to the well earlier to fill a kettle and a tub for washing I dumped the wash water outside and fetched the heavy black iron kettle off the stove to pour scalding water over the clean dishes. The dishes air dried quickly. Then as I put them back on the shelf I kept them, Pa said, “Fetch my after dinner drink.” I took a glass and a jug of rot-gut moonshine whiskey from the shelf and set them on the table in front of him. “Pour me a drink, you lazy bitch!”
I poured a huge drink for him, hoping that maybe he would drink enough to make him so sleepy that he would forget my punishment.
The boys left the room immediately, and crawled into their bunks in the room they shared, taking every opportunity to rest their weary bones and to avoid Pa.
“You got something you want to say, Girl?”
“Pa I am sorry I didn’t finish hoeing my last row,” I hung my head knowing the worst was yet to come. I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when Pa loosened his belt, and I realized he was not going to beat me again. He had something else in mind. He dropped his pants to the floor along with the saggy flour-sack drawers that I had stitched by hand for him.
“On your knees, you lazy little bitch; show me how very sorry that you are.”
I tried to “get him off” as quickly as possible, but the large drink of whiskey slowed him down. My jaw ached, and he was nowhere close to a climax. “Lay your scrawny ass over the chair, and give me some of your ass.”
I bent over a kitchen chair assuming the position. Pa grabbed the bottom edge of my dress and jerked it up over my butt. He spits on his fingers, and I could feel them probing my butt-hole. The lube was for him, not me.
Wendy shuddered in my arms, crying softly as the memory overpowered her in the darkness.
“I had no idea, Honey, if I had only known.” I had a massive lump in my throat which made it hard to speak.
“You never asked; if you had known all those years ago, would it have made a difference?” Wendy asked.
"Wendy, If you could see yourself in the mirror of my eyes, perhaps you would understand how much I loved you from the first time I saw you.”
"I see your tears if it is too much for you to hear, Daveed I will be silent, but I thought it was the time to get all this off my chest before I exploded! It is long past time that you know enough to understand, why things happened the way they did.”
Without a doubt, she thought that I wanted to avoid the unpleasant story that she was laboring so hard to tell me. “God, Wendy I want to know anything that you want to tell me. Anything that will help you have peace of mind is something I need to know. I love you more now than ever before; I need to understand." I held her tightly feeling her tears dripping on my arm. She took a deep breath and started again right where she had stopped.
I knew better than to resist Pa if I did; he would make every effort to hurt me as much as he possibly could. Pa enjoyed hurting others; I guess he was spreading the pain that he carried around inside. He shouldn't be doing this; it just isn't right, I thought. I had had only a little schooling, but during the best year, Ma took me with her to church to thank God for the crop. So I knew that this was not the way things were supposed to be. I thought I knew why Ma left. When Pa finished, finally, I lay across the chair too weak and in too much pain to hop right up. I felt like he had turned me wrong side out down there. I could feel the blood seeping from the tears.Pa poured himself another drink. “You smell like shit! Go clean yourself up, and go to bed.”
I slept on a pallet on the floor above Pa’s room. It was always hot in summer and cold and drafty in the winter. The rough boards formed a ceiling for Pa and a floor for my loft. The roof is too close to stand up, except right in the middle where the apex left just enough room to stand, with my hair just brushing the tin roof. I walked upstairs to where I kept the few things that were mine and got a fresh rag to clean up.
I strolled out to the water well pump. I wore no panties, never had even owned a pair, but I wore a rag at my period. I used the fresh, wet cloth to wipe away the blood and what Pa left on my behind. Silently I cried as tears streamed down my face. I choked back my sobs and looked at the moon wondering if this hell would ever end.
On my way back to the house, a pickup truck stopped. The fresh white shell in the driveway hurt my bare feet as I walked toward the gate. “Probably someone who is lost and needs directions,” I said to myself. The moon was bright enough now so that I was sure that the two men who got out of the truck were not locals.
“Sheeit, lookie here,” said the taller of the two.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“Pushy,” said the shorter of the two, his speech slurred like someone with much more to drink than they could handle gracefully.
I could have screamed; perhaps my brothers might have come to my rescue. For a few seconds, I was speechless. When I found a voice, it was a complete stranger who had replaced the barefoot girl standing in the shell. It asked, “Where are you going?” I thought, Perhaps, somehow this might be turned into a way to escape from Pa.
“Louisiana,” slurred the drunker of the two. “We got jobs there working in the oil fields close to New Orleans. You gonna give us some pushy, or are you gonna just stand there hopping from one foot to the other?”
I couldn’t hurt much worse, my jaw ached, my butt-hole burned like fire, and my feet hurt, but maybe these two could provide me a way out. I decided in a heartbeat. “You take me with you, and I’ll give you some pussy for the ride to New Orleans.” I looked at the blackness of the sky not seeing the moon which was suddenly hidden by a passing cloud.. Have I just taken the first step into Hell; or is this a way out of the Hell, back there on this miserable worn-out black-bottom Mississippi cotton farm?
“Up here,” said the drunker of the two men. He patted the bed of the truck as if he were calling a dog.
I did not look back as I scrambled up, like a severely abused pup, into the back of the truck. The drunken boy pulled his pants down to take out his thing and laid down. He wasn’t in any shape for sex, and after a few seconds, he was asleep with his limp organ still in his hand.
The driver stopped the truck a couple of miles down the road and opened the door to the cab. I climbed down from the back and up into the cab. “You want to stop for a while?” I asked.
“We are supposed to be at Uncle Bob’s rig at sunup, so we gotta keep moving. Can you do me while we are driving?”
“Just don’t go in the ditch when you get your rocks.” I put my head into his lap and went to work. It didn’t take long. I spat out the cab window and curled up against the door. Pa was never that easy.
Even though it was close as the crow flies, the winding two-lane shell roads made for a long ride to reach the rig. Finally, the tires on the truck roared adjusting to the metal grid of the Pearl River Bridge.
“We are in Louisiana now,” announced the driver waking me up.
“Ummm, how much farther is it?”
“Thirty to forty minutes to the rig.”
“Where do I get out?”
“Stay with us; we’ll get you to civilization as soon as we can.”
Just before sunrise, the truck pulled up to an Airstream trailer with “Acme Drillers” painted on the door of the office of the drilling company. The driver spoke very loudly intending to wake the sleeper in the back of the truck; “I’m gonna check in and see if I can get some coffee.” He stepped out of the truck and mounted the three steps that provided entry to the office. He opened the door and stepped inside. The young man sleeping in the bed of the truck struggled into an upright position.
“Ere the fuck am I,” he groaned? I knew that bouncing his head off the truck bed for four hours must have made his hangover into something that defied description. He hitched up his pants and stepped down to the ground. He leaned against the back of the truck, barely able to stand up by himself.
The door to the trailer opened; the driver descended the stairs, coffee in hand, with a six-foot-seven-inch tool pusher behind him. The tool pusher was not happy. “Where is Toby?” he asked.
The driver said, “He is a bit hung over, Uncle Bob.”
“Toby and Timothy, McPherson, you are two of the poorest excuses for human beings I know of; if you weren’t the sons of my only brother I’d kick you off this property with the toe of my boot!”
Toby weaved out from behind the truck. “Unka Bob, I’m sorry, musta got some bad lightning.”
Uncle Bob grabbed Toby’s collar and dragged him around where he could stand next to his brother. “You two get your asses into Slidell; tell Thelma, the motel manager of Thelma’s Motel, that I said to put you two on my bill. Close by there is a place to eat . Thelma will point you in the right direction. I expect you here tomorrow morning at daylight, SOBER and ready to WORK as you have never worked before.” Just then Bob spied me curled up in the seat of the truck. “Get rid of that little underage whore, she ain’t nuthin’ but trouble, of the very worst kind. I damn sure ain’t paying for her keep!” Unka Bob’s face was purple with veins in his face protruding like they are ready to burst.
Toby returned to the back of the truck. This time he used a bedroll from the cab for a headrest. Timothy climbed into the front of the pickup and started the engine. I joined him. We didn't talk, and I wondered where I was going to wind up. A cold wave of fear clutched at my chest as I peered intently trying to see a spot of sky through the canopy of trees overhead. The truck crept down the four-mile very rutted stretch back to the main road. After twenty-five more road-miles and in just less than an hour later he parked in front of Thelma’s Motel in the early gray light of day. The fog seemed to have come from nowhere saturating the air.
Finally, Timothy introduced himself and his brother. “We are the McPherson brothers. He,” gesturing toward the back,” is Toby. I am Timothy. Honestly, I do not know what we are going to do with you, just wait here.”
“What have I done?” I was afraid and struggled to hold back a flood of tears. I was terrified of having to go home. I thought about the beating I would get, and how many times my father and brothers would rape me as punishment. I opened the door and vomited even though my stomach was nearly empty. Sour bile left a rank burning taste in my mouth.
Timothy went into the Motel Office he left the door open so that I could hear every word spoken inside. I saw an enormous woman with brass-colored dyed hair up in curlers wearing a worn cotton print dress. “I’m Thelma,” she said.
Thelma had a “whiskey and cigarette tenor” voice. She handed a key to Timothy, “Stow your gear in #5 then take your brother to the 24hr café around the corner; tell Gloria to feed you on Bob’s nickel. If I were you, I would get some rest. You will be expected to eat breakfast at 4 AM, tomorrow. Bob will work you harder than you ever dreamed possible.”
“Do you have any idea what we can do with our hitchhiker?”
Thelma took a look at me standing by the pickup truck. “Humph might as well send her in where I can get a look at her; I might know a way to help her.”
When Timothy talked to me, he said, “Look you need to talk to Thelma. She said maybe she could help you.” I walked hesitantly into the office and paused before the closed door, choking back my terror and the dry heaves.
“Come on in sweetie, Damn! You are a young one to be on your own! Tell me your story and I will try to help you.” She moved a stack of newspapers off the top of a little table increasing the height by several inches, of the already overflowing trash-can in the corner of the room. Thelma got a couple of cups, and a fresh pot of coffee and set them on the table. Two hours later and after a second carafe of coffee and four sticky pecan buns, I finished my tearful story.
“Honey, you ain’t got no reason to worry about going back home; I know someone who can and will help you. She is a madam, and she rescues girls in your situation. What you do from here on is between you and Madam Angelique Simone Dupree.
Thelma took the telephone around the corner trailing the long coiled cord lead from behind the desk into her little apartment. I could hear Thelma talking, but could not tell what she was saying. The fan on the counter made enough noise to keep anyone from understanding anything spoken into the phone.
Thelma came back and sat down across from me. “Honey, you are a lucky girl; a certain “Fallen Angel” wants to meet you. She will come here in a little while.” Thelma was mentally counting her finder’s fee.
Thelma once worked in the same place that Madam was to acquire through a fortunate twist of fate. Then Thelma gained well over one hundred and fifty pounds, severely limiting her usefulness as a prostitute. Thelma bought the motel in Slidell using her savings and a sum from Madam, offered as a loan, to a partner. Owning outright eliminates other hands reaching into your pocket. Thelma told me a little of her story as we waited for Madam.
A little over two hours later a shiny lipstick-red Studebaker convertible with its white leather top down, pulled into the shell parking lot by the Motel. A very short dainty woman emerged from the car and seemed to float across the parking lot to the office.
“That is Angelique, You ready to go, sweetie?”
I stood up when Angelique came through the door. I inspected Angelique thoroughly; at the same time, Angelique scrutinized me. I was very conscious of my dirty bare feet, sack dress, and tangled dirty hair that cried for attention. Madam seemed satisfied with what she saw. “Let me see your hands, Wendy.”
I held my rough callused and cracked hands out for inspection.
“Ouch, I know that hurts,” said Angelique, she dug into a little purse she always carried, “Use this lotion on those hands. It will help soften them and keep that crack from bleeding more.”
I did as instructed working the creamy mixture into my sore hands. Then I followed Angelique to the car. Angelique opened the passenger door and motioned for me to get in.
“We have a couple stops to make on our way home.”
I peered out of the convertible at a whole new world when we started through New Orleans. It was not like anything I had ever seen before. Seven hours later I had been freshly bathed in a real bathtub, and my skin had the scent of rosewater. I dressed in new store-bought clothing from my skin out. I even had panties, the first ever. My feet were in new well-fitting shoes, and my soft honey-colored hair was in a neat, stylish coiffure. In the back seat were several dresses, bras, lacy panties and stockings made of real silk. There were three more pairs of new shoes in boxes. An expert manicured my nails. Callouses were no longer the most prominent feature of my hands. I had experienced a makeover second to none. Angelique spared no expense, including a quick visit to a doctor.
I felt like a princess, far beyond anything I could ever have imagined possible. We talked about things so far removed from Mississippi that a whole new world opened like a flower before my eyes.
When the red convertible with the white leather seats came to “La Maison de Fontaine de Bleu” (the house of the blue fountain), my eyes opened wide. I never dreamed such a Palace existed outside of picture books.
Madam Angelique parked in the circular drive by the fountain and escorted me up the front steps of the mansion. I paused for a few moments enthralled by the fountain. Madam spoke to the uniformed butler, charging him with the task of unloading the car, and moving those treasures to my new room.
These were my first steps into a world that I could not even imagine existed before this long strange day. It was only the beginning of my new life.
Angelique stood looking at me. “Honey you are the most radiant, beautiful little girl I have ever seen.”
At the time I did not understand what the thoughts were behind her enigmatic smile. I now realize that she was thinking "I will help this child any way I can."
I could never fathom the influence on my life that she would have.
“It is time to eat and meet the girls, Honey.” Angelique leads the way to the dining room. Inside was a fine hardwood table, set with crystal, fine china, sterling silverware. Already several other women were seated. “This is Wendy, and she will be staying with us for a while.”
"Daveed, I am emotionally exhausted right now. Let's eat breakfast and let me recharge my batteries before I begin the next segment of my story."
I put my arms around her and smelled her hair. It has been so very long, but in the last couple days, I rediscovered that I have loved Wendy all along. Even a man in his middle seventies can feel the wonders of love. It is as bright and beautiful like it was the first time I held her in my arms.
The wind is picking up; a squall line rocks the houseboat. We anchored in the east end of Deux Lacs channel south and west of New Orleans. We worked together and prepared breakfast. When we sat down and started eating, I couldn't help but take her hand and say thanks.
"We have plenty of supplies, and no one will bother us here. It is the best place I could dream of to listen to Wendy's story and to fix what we allowed to get broken so long ago.