Miss Irene

James Sclater

© Copyright 2011 by  James Sclater


photo of a grown up holding a child's hand.

Miss Irene worked a few days a week for the Lee family. Her salt-and-pepper hair was usually tied tightly in a bun and her clothes, while often worn and frayed, were kept scrupulously clean. She had no car, had no one to take her places. We would see her walking to her house with a large load of groceries, rain or shine. She never could afford a car, so she had no reason to learn to how to drive. She walked so much that folks in Modelle half-jokingly wondered if she was running from something bad or toward something good. If he was available to help her, Mr. Artis Lee picked her up for work and took her home, but she mostly just walked.

 Hers was now a somewhat solitary existence, even though she had a sister and a brother living in the same town. Why her siblings didn’t pay her much attention was not widely known, but they mostly left her alone. They had made it clear that they had their life and she had hers, probably the result of some ancient rift or familial slight that was now more felt than remembered, more myth than reason. They had all three been happy together as children, but now some unspoken division robbed them of any childhood closeness and joy.

Miss Irene went to her church most Sundays, which was about the extent of her social life. She would put on one of her two good dresses and walk to the Ebenezer Holy Gospel Assembly down on Davis Avenue. Ever since that day when, as a child, she walked into the cool Tallacheha River south of Modelle to be baptized in her crisp white dress, she had tried to be steadfast in her attendance. Now as a grown-up in church, she would sit quietly and sway to the rhythm of the choir and murmur a soft “Amen” when the preacher talked about sin and getting right with God. Not one to get overwrought and emotional, she just sat quietly and listened attentively to the Word. A few of the ladies of the church who didn’t know her background were resentful that Irene was not more involved in the goings-on of the Sisters Guild, but most simply respected her desire for her solitude.

Irene had an air of inner sadness that broke for laughter when the occasion arose, especially around the Lee children. They seemed the only ones who could consistently cause her to let down her guard and become again childlike herself. Lucy, the Lees' youngest, especially drew Irene out of herself. Irene’s eyes brightened every time Lucy came into view; she called Lucy her “angel.” Lucy was the only person who could unlock that interior door in Irene’s soul. James and Kenny, the two Lee boys, didn’t cause Irene grief. She simply had trouble keeping up with them. Lucy’s calm and gentle nature, however, seemed to leave its imprint on Irene’s soul like a soft kiss. Each seemed to feed a hunger held by the other. Lucy’s mama thought their relationship was ever so poignant and dreaded for both of them the day when Lucy might tire of Irene.

Irene lived on the outskirts of town and often liked to walk through a wooded area to the house to work instead of following the paved streets that wound their way from her house to the Lees'. The smells of the lofty pines and cooling breezes rustling through the shaded groves nurtured Irene’s spirit. Upon arriving for work, Irene would occasionally pause at the edge of the Lees' property just to reflect on the visible activity at the Lee house. She wondered how different they were when she wasn’t around, whether or not her absence really allowed them to modify themselves into personalities for whom she would feel shame. Irene had heard Doris, her mama, say many times: Nothing can change a person so much as a closed door. We are one thing when others see us and another when we step into the shadows.” Doris believed that living in the shadows bred a special kind of grief that would destroy you. The Lees were nice enough, indeed were good to Irene, but she knew that every person, every family, has secrets and unseen behaviors and rituals. She had certainly experienced those of her family, and the Lees probably had theirs, too. Still, she cared for them and sensed that the Lees had a love and respect for her that brought her cheer and warmth on her darkest days. After Irene had worked for the Lees for a while, she came to believe that if the Lees had shadows, they were mostly benign.

Irene’s ghosts involved a father that abused her and her mother, but not, surprisingly, her sister and brother. When Irene was growing up, her father’s outward persona was that of a caring minister at a little church on the outskirts of Markham, a little town about ten miles west of Modelle. A glad-handing storyteller by day, Thomas Jefferson Dye was popular with his congregation, one that saw him as a wise and humble man of God who brought up his three children in the right way. Irene knew another T.J. Dye when he shut the door to his house. She knew a man who tolerated no question of his authority and from whom love was not a frequent gift. There was a much darker side to him, too, one that made Irene regret her early-blossoming womanhood, her youthful beauty and her feminine appeal. When he would come to Irene, T.J. always told her that God had told him he should love his children, that he was doing God’s will. Through her pain and her tears she would hear him whisper to her that this act was his way to show the Holy Spirit to her. He cautioned her that not everyone understood how the Holy Spirit worked; she was not to tell anyone because the Lord had granted them this especially privileged way to receive His grace and no one else would understand. Doris was aware of T.J.’s interest in Irene and the gradual change in Irene’s behavior, but she had always lacked the courage to confront her husband about it, preferring to dwell in that artificial twilight of denial

Nowadays, Tuesdays always saw Irene doing the laundry and ironing at the Lee house. When the children were home, the boys chasing through the house, wanting her attention, often interrupted her work. The time that Kenny threw the rubber snake onto the ironing board to scare her was just one of many moments in which she had to be both disciplinarian and housekeeper. “You all are just gonna be the death of me,” she would tell them. She would chase them away and wonder what they would do next . Some days they just made her glad she didn’t have any little boys of her own. “I may not be able to catch you, but one day Jesus will,” she’d tell them, “and He’ll turn you all every which way but loose.”

Lucy Lee, on the other hand, lived in one of those childhood worlds in which everything spoke to her in a language only she seemed to understand. Irene would hear her at play, talking to her dolls and her stuffed animals, and just stop and listen in both wonder and amusement. She loved taking Lucy on walks in the woods behind the house where they would pass the time, mostly quiet time, together attending to the riches of nature. Irene almost felt as if Lucy were showing her the innocent childhood she had missed. T.J. had seen to it that Irene had to deal with grown-up issues and feelings well before she was ready. Lucy’s presence seemed to return a small portion of that which was stolen from Irene behind the doors of her house.

When Irene was about fourteen, T.J. started visiting her room more often, always when the others were out of the house. The fear and disgust she felt toward her father completely immobilized her, and yet she felt as though she had no one to turn to. By this time her mother was fully cognizant of T.J.’s malignant behavior but was still too scared of him to come to her daughter’s defense. He regularly beat Doris and then would beg her for forgiveness, saying he just couldn’t help himself. His life within the walls of his house was a mockery of everything he espoused from the pulpit. His only grace was in not involving the two younger children in his madness. Irene felt betrayed by both of her parents: a father who abused her and a mother who refused to come to terms with what was happening and failed to protect Irene from further harm. The deliverance promised that day at her baptism seemed only a cruel joke now, and on her fifteenth birthday Irene burned her baptism dress and hid the ashes in a jar under her father’s bed. That night she prayed that if her father ever touched her again that way, he would die.

James and Kenny Lee loved to play in the woods; they spent countless hours exploring the gullies and streams that ran through the land behind their house. After they had had a few successful forays with their slingshots, the squirrels knew to lay low when the boys came through. Occasionally they would quietly follow Irene when she walked home in the early evening before dinner. The boys pretended to be spies for the Rebel army, silently tracking Yankee agents through the woods. They would keep just far enough behind her to avoid giving away their presence yet close enough so as not to lose her. On more than one occasion they saw Irene stop to pick some wildflowers, bind them up in a bit of colorful ribbon, and place them on a big pile of stones located several hundred yards from her house. They never thought that much about it and vowed someday to ask her why she did that. True to the habits of boys their age, by the time they saw Irene again, they had forgotten to inquire about the stones and flowers. The Lee boys were so busy with their games that they barely remembered to do anything that wasn’t directly associated with the moment. Lucy didn’t really fit into their plans either; she was, after all, a girl, and a quiet one at that: two major-league strikes against her.

About two weeks after the last trip they made to Markham, T.J. attempted to visit Irene’s room again. This time, Irene summoned her strength and although trembling with fear, told T.J. that if he touched her again she would tell the congregation at his church what he had been doing to her. Enraged, he grabbed her and slapped her viciously, all the while yelling at her. Irene struggled to get away from him, but T.J. was finally able to grab her and pin her on her bed. Irene screamed and T.J. slapped her again very hard, telling her to shut up. He got on top of her and began unbuttoning her blouse.

About that time, the door to Irene’s room suddenly burst open and as T.J. turned around, he saw Irene’s mother standing there in the doorway with a big kitchen knife in her hand.  A wild-eyed Doris looked at him and stated with a seething anger, “Reverend, I have been a poor mother in the past, and no doubt I’ll have to answer to God for that. I have pretended not to see things I needed to see. I have pretended to be deaf to the things that, deep down, I know I heard. No more! NO MORE! If you don’t get offa that child right now, as God is my witness, I’ll cut your throat. If you don’t get offa that child and pack up your things and get outta this house, I’ll be singin’ the second verse of Irene’s testimony at yo’ funeral, and the two of us will make a fine duet for that lovin’ congregation of yours to hear. NOW GET OFFA HER!”

T.J. rose up and started toward Doris. She lunged toward him and deftly swiped the knife at his face, incising a bloody three-inch mark on his cheek. He jumped back. He started after her again, and she raised the knife and yelled again, “GET OUTTA HERE! NOW!”

T.J. ran from the room and Doris locked the door. They could hear T.J. in the next room thrashing about getting some things together, cursing at both of them.

We’ll see about this when I get back; we’ll just see about who testifies against who. We’ll see, WE”LL SEE!”, he screamed. He hurried out the front door, slamming it loudly as he left.

After Doris heard the front door slam, she waited a few minutes and then went next door and got the two younger children from the neighbors' house and brought them home, locking the door behind her. Then putting her head on the door, she just began to cry and slumped down and sat limply on the floor. The two young ones became agitated at the sight of the distraught Doris, so Irene gathered herself together and took them to their room and helped them take their mind off their mama’s tears. Later she came back and put her arms around her mama and just sat there with her until they both calmed down. Later that night everyone was quiet, almost formal, with everyone else. Even the younger children seemed to realize that this was a time to be on their best behavior, to let their mama be. The four of them seemed to join in some familial courtly dance of quiet decorum designed to restore a sense of tranquility, and to attune each to the others’ need for calm and reassurance. After the two younger children had been fed and put to bed, Doris opened a window and she and Irene sat close to each other, hands entwined, quietly listening to the tree frogs bark their rhythmic choruses and watching the fireflies illuminate the leaves of the giant pear tree in the side yard. As Doris tried over and over to apologize to Irene for not protecting her sooner, Irene saw the face of a woman torn apart by fear and shame.

As they sat there into the depths of the evening, Doris tried to find the words to explain her failure to her oldest child, but the only thing she could really say was “Them bad days are over now, child. I’ll not let him hurt you no more. Them bad days are for sure over now. Please find it in your heart to forgive me.” Irene only squeezed her hand tighter.

After T.J. left town, Doris had to find more work to keep her family together. The situation was hard on them all, and the two younger children didn’t really understand why their father had deserted them. The boy, especially, grew resentful of Doris and Irene, thinking they had been the cause of his departure. The tension was aggravated by Doris’s inability to bring in enough money for them to live like they had when T.J. was around. Doris was determined to do right by her children, though, so she finally got a job as a lunchroom worker at the high school and worked a couple of nights a week as a maid for a friend of Dr. Fortenberry’s wife.  Doris lived only five more years, about four years longer than T.J., who passed on mysteriously about a year after the family’s upheaval.  Irene, then in her early twenties, took over care of the kids, who were now even more hostile than ever to her. They both left home about the time that Irene went to work for the Lees.

Lucy was being uncharacteristically moody and difficult one day when Irene was taking care of her, so Irene suggested they go for a walk in the woods behind the house. The very thought of this immediately brightened Lucy’s countenance and she readily accepted the idea.

Let me get my doll,” Lucy said. “She wants to go, too.”

It was high summer and the wildflowers were thriving in the sunlit areas around the various trails. Irene took a pail and she and Lucy set out to find some blackberries for a cobbler or two. Only Lucy’s occasional chatter and the miraculous warble of a mockingbird interrupted the crunch of pine straw beneath their feet as he ran through his series of ever-changing tunes in hopes of attracting a mate. Sometimes Irene would stop and look at Lucy’s delicate blonde hair shimmering in the sunlight: the halo of an angel, she thought. During walks such as this, time ceased to be a continuum and simply was. There was no forward or backward. There was simply one sacred moment, then another, and yet another. They were in a sacred place and nature itself was both the host and the wine. It was enough to be here and to be alive; everything else was lagniappe. Irene felt that her gratitude for such moments was so intense as to be almost palpable.

 Lucy saw a patch of oxalis and Irene picked a handful, tying them together with a piece of string she had in her apron. This delighted Lucy, so Irene picked another bunch so they could both have one. As they moved through the woods they laughed at the chattering gray squirrels chasing each other around the trunk of a large oak tree. Lucy tried in vain to imitate the chatter, which only made both her and Irene laugh even more.

Presently a pile of stones nestled in the tall weeds a few feet off the path came into view. Approaching the stones was a smaller path, one that had obviously seen a lot of use over the years. Irene asked Lucy to stop a moment so she could attend to something. She made her way to the stones, placed her bouquet of wildflowers gently on top, and stood for a few moments in silence.

When Irene returned to her, Lucy, ever inquisitive and thoughtful, asked her why she had done that. Irene told her that many years before, she herself had a doll, a little tiny angel doll, a little smaller than the baby doll Lucy was carrying. She told Lucy that her doll had come into the world before the world was ready for it to come, so she had to give her back to the earth so she could grow into a larger doll.

Someday,” Irene said, "the earth will be through nourishin’ her and she’ll grow big and tall like you, and my angel doll will come back to me and be just as pretty and sweet as you are.”

Lucy thought about this a few moments and said, "Maybe I’m your angel doll. Anyway, you can play with my doll anytime you want to.”

Irene leaned over and hugged Lucy and whispered, "You sweet child, you’ll always be my angel doll. I’d be proud to call you my own. Anyone would be mighty proud to call you his own.

It’s getting late," she said. “If we’re gonna make your brothers a cobbler, we’d best be gettin’ back now. Your mama’ll worry if we’re gone too long. You know how fretful she gets sometimes.”

Wriggling free of Irene’s tight hug, Lucy clambered over to the pile of stones and put her bouquet of flowers on the pile, too. “Now your doll will have two reasons to be happy,” she said. Irene took her hand and they started to make their way back to the Lee house. Lucy clutched her doll tightly and again began to try to chatter like the squirrel, laughing at her own ineptitude. In the trees, the mockingbird continued his virtuoso flourishes while the occasional firefly signaled the inexorable approach of early evening.

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