Second Place Winnter - Diversity Celebration Contest 2003.
|The Other Side of the Story
By Marilyn Mackenzie
Selected as second place winner in a diversity contest.
Sweat dotted her brow as she stood waiting for the bus. There was a chill in the air, and leaves whirled around her feet. She wrapped her sweater closer, almost wishing she had worn a coat. Still, she was sweating. She scanned the horizon, looking for the bus. It was nowhere in sight.
Her day had begun early. She jumped from the bed as the wind-up alarm clanged, not wanting the children to awaken yet. She treasured those few minutes alone each morning. Besides, the heat wasn’t working again, and the landlord refused to even talk about it. He told her to move if she didn’t like it. Like she could move.
Each morning, she awoke early to light the oven and burners on the stove, to bring some heat into the kitchen. When she woke the kids, they didn’t want to come out from under their ragged covers. They welcomed the small pleasure the stove offered in heating that small room. Lately, they’d all taken to dressing in the kitchen.
Sometimes, they could heat the bathroom by running a really hot bath. But the hot water heater was only so big, and soon the water ran cold. Yes, the kids all loved dressing in the warmth of the kitchen. She would have to get the landlord to do something. It wasn’t fair that they had no heat. She paid the rent each month, and on time.
Clara had to leave the kids on their own some days after they awoke. Today was one of those days. She left her eldest, Claressa, in charge of the other kids. Poor Claressa, as a 16-year-old, she didn’t have much time to be a kid. She never had, being the oldest. Clara left instructions for her about getting the other kids off to school and reminded her to turn off the oven and stove burners. She was always afraid that Claressa would forget, and that the apartment would go up in smoke. But they wouldn’t have lost much if it had.
She dreaded her first cleaning job of the day. Mrs. Stephens was such a gossip. As Clara moved about the house, Mrs. Stephens followed along behind her, talking, forever talking. When she first started cleaning for Mrs. Stephens, Clara thought she followed her because the fancy lady thought Clara would steal from her. But that was not the case. Mrs. Stephens was just lonely and a gossip.
Clara didn’t know most of the people about whom Mrs. Stephens gossiped. Some she did. But she really didn’t want to hear about those rich white folks. She had her own problems to worry about. Like getting heat for her kids. Briefly, she wished that Mr. Stephens had been home. He was an attorney. Maybe he could tell her what her rights were as a tenant.
She laughed at that thought. Imagine her even having the nerve to ask Mr. Stephens anything. He thought he was so much better than she was. He never said so, but she could tell by his haughty attitude each Christmas when he gave her a bonus. For three years, it had been the same thing – a bonus of $40. She wasn’t ungrateful, mind you. But did he really have to act so superior? No, she couldn’t ask him about her rights as a tenant.
Clara finally finished cleaning the Stephens’ house, even with the Mrs. trailing behind her. The offer to sit and have a cup of tea came as a surprise. Perhaps she should have stayed to find out what Mrs. Stephens’ motivation was to offer. But she declined, nicely enough she hoped. She had another cleaning job on the other side of town. That meant two more bus rides, and time was ticking on by.
She shivered, noticing the outline of the bus finally coming into view. The brakes shrieked as it came to a stop in front of her. She carried a mop and bucket. Strange, perhaps, but some of these rich folks didn’t have their own cleaning supplies. She never could understand that. Clara guessed that if someone spilled something on the floor, they’d have to wait a few days until she got there to clean. Strange indeed.
As Clara climbed the steps of the bus, she noticed a blond blue-eyed youngster and her mother sitting near the front. The little girl’s face was so pale, and her hair so blond and straight. What a contrast to Clara’s dark skin and kinky, dark hair. The little girl stared at Clara, and Clara smiled at her. "She’s probably never seen anyone as dark as me," thought Clara. "Kids don’t know any better."
Clara noticed the mother’s face showed concern. Clara smiled at her as well, trying to ease her mind. Clara went to the back of the bus. She didn’t have to, not any more. Not that she ever did have to, but the back of the bus was less crowded in the middle of the day, and she wanted to put her foot up. Her feet already ached, and her day was only half done.
Another female passenger wrinkled her nose as Clara passed her. She wanted to shout, "You’d stink too if you had just cleaned a four-bedroom house!" There was much she'd like to say to that woman. Fat, old, white lady. But she quietly took a seat, thinking how nice it would be to have four bedrooms for her family.
She hoped there would be no delays on this bus, and the next one would be on time. She wanted to be home early enough to cook dinner and put the kids to bed, so Claressa didn’t have to again.
The mother and daughter got off at the first stop in downtown. Clara guessed they were going shopping together. Maybe they were going to get their hair done up pretty.
The traffic in front of them wasn’t moving and Clara saw the mother lean down to her daughter’s size to talk with her. The bus window was cracked, and Clara could hear their conversation.
The mom told the little girl that God loved everyone and she started singing,
"Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world."
The child looked confused. She said, "But mom, I know that. I never saw anyone carrying a mop and bucket like that. The lady had a pretty smile."
The mother explained that Clara was probably a cleaning woman. "What’s a cleaning woman?" asked the girl.
The mother chuckled and explained that regular folks did their own cleaning, but that some rich people had others do their cleaning.
"You mean that lady knows rich people?" the little girl asked, obviously impressed.
Clara chuckled to herself. Boy did she know rich people.
I was that little girl, and here’s the story...