The Day Eulene Tried to Commit Suicide
by Louie Crew
Like Milk of Magnesia, it coated the large iced-tea glass, not the green kind Mother used for company, but the large clear ones Welch gave away with grape jelly. The DDT can itself, more than half empty, sat on Daddy's place mat. I rushed through the breakfast room towards the back stairs, holding the note Eulene had just pushed at me while I sat on the toilet in the middle bathroom reading about the Hardy Boys.
"What is this?" I asked, startled. I was old enough for people not to open the bathroom door. At least they ought to knock.
"Yore mama is playing bridge at the Country Club, Billy. I wrote down the number," Eulene said.
Eulene had just cracked the door when she reached in with the note, but still....
By the time I called out "What is this?", I shoulda known I had wasted my breath cause she'd already slammed the door that led to the back yard.
I tried to wipe and read Eulene's note at the same time. Bertha, our maid from before I was born, couldn't read and write, except her maiden name, 'Bertha Sistrain,' which I taught her to write real pretty when I took long-hand in the second grade; but Eulene, who worked for us during the three years that Bertha and Mother fell out, was educated. She even taught me, not just writing, but arithmetic, too. Eulene said she wanted to teach me geometry, but Daddy, who headed the school board, told me to wait for that, that I needed algebra first, and not even that until I got to junior high school.
I didn't even take time to wash my hands after I'd yanked up my knickers. The note Eulene had handed me scared me half to death.
"What a thing to say to a 9-year old boy!" Mrs. McWorter told Mrs. Candler,
talking loud enough to hear each other across our back yard between each
of theirs a week later.
Mrs. McWorter and Mrs. Candler did not have maids or get to play cards during the daytime the way Mother did. They spent much time outside, sometimes hanging up clothes or gardening, but often just talking. They didn't know that I sat high up in my treehouse. The hickory dominated our back yard. Simple wire fences ran down either side more to support roses than to keep anyone out. The garage filled one rear corner of the yard, Mother's rock garden the other. Between them stretched a long, high, green wooden fence that separated us from the smelly alley, where dogs and cats and tramps sometimes foraged for scraps.
On the phone Mother had told me to follow Eulene and not let her out of sight until the ambulance came. When I got down the back steps, Eulene had not fled into the alley. Since Mother was fat like Bertha, not lean like Eulene, I knew that it would take her at least five minutes to walk the two blocks home, even after she had spent another five or ten minutes calling the ambulance and the doctor.
"Why did you do it, Eulene!?" I called.
By this time Eulene stood on Mother's violets right at the top of the rock garden. I couldn't understand why she had gone to a closed corner. When I had promised Mother I would keep Eulene in sight, I thought I would have to follow her down the alley. Now looking directly at her, I got scared. I had never seen but two dead persons--my grandfather in his casket and Old Man Galloway in his--and I figured Eulene might stop wailing at any moment and turn into the shade of the waxed fruit that Mother liked, the way that Grandfather and Old Man Galloway had looked.
I might just as well have talked to myself when I asked "Why did you do it?" Eulene ignored me, except that she waved her hands to shoo me away when I started to walk towards her. She scared herself even more than me.
Then she commenced a racket--"Lord, I am dying! Lord, I am dying!
I edged to the door of the back steps, afraid to go any nearer and afraid to leave her alone.
Old Man Galloway had built all the houses on this block so that each pair of back steps faced each other. As I came down ours, Mrs. McWorter came down hers. She held a chicken from her coop on the porch, ready to ring its neck. Mother never asked even our maid to do that, but bought our chickens already plucked and wrapped up in white paper, delivered by Mr. Byrd's grocery boy, an old colored man I liked, named Fincher. The moment Mrs. McWorter heard me, she let the chicken loose:
"Oh, Miz Mac! Miz Mac! Miz Mac! Eulene's done swallowed DDT. Help her! Help her!"
Mrs. McWorter scared us even more when we saw her fear. She would not even speak to Eulene, much less walk over to the rock garden where she howled louder now.
"Oh, sweet Jesus. I'm coming to you, Jesus. Forgive me, Jesus! I had to do it, Jesus!"
Eulene's scar didn't help matters none. Usually she wore a bright scarf round her neck and you could see only the small part that came up over the back left cheek bone across to the bottom of her ear. Her boyfriend Junior did it to her, she had told me, "before he got put into the pen for making white lightning. But he bees the best man I ever seen, and he loves my little Robert just like he's his real daddy. Billy, someday I'm gonna bring my Robert over here and let you meet him. He's only two years younger than you, and you two can play."
But she never brought Robert. Looking back on it, I spec Mother told her not to, but I sure wouldna said nothing to let my parents know if Eulene had sneaked him over while Mother played bridge somewhere or while Daddy fished. I suppose Eulene could not afford to take the risk, but my parents had annoyed me enough that I would have sided with Eulene, especially since my parents would not go to the hospital to get me either a baby brother or a baby sister, the way Miz Mac had for Dick and Mrs. Steele, a Yankee, had for Tommy.
Eulene had sneaked me to her house once though, and I never told anybody bout it, even though it scared me almost into forgetting going there. Even today I would keep quiet about that visit, with her wailing in the rock garden.
As I said earlier, Eulene was a lean, smart woman, not passive like Bertha, and not powerful polite like Mother could be, especially with strangers. Mother wouldn't even let me call her 'Mama,' the way Tommy and Dick did their mothers, cause Mother said 'Mama' doesn't show enough respect. When Daddy left earshot, Mother would even add that he proved her point by the way Daddy and his sister called my Grandmother 'Mama' instead of 'Mother' and then wouldn't even hire a maid, but expected her to do all the work.
Eulene said she let her son Robert call her anything he pleased and that sometime he even called her 'Eulene': that's about the only evidence that I saw that made me think Dick and Tommy right when they said colored people differed from us. Then another Yankee family moved into the big house on the lower corner of the block, and their daughters called both parents by their first name. They put an end to Dick and Tommy's wisdom.
I didn't get to meet Eulene's boy Robert even when she sneaked me in
the colored taxi over to her house. She said he had gone to Huntsville
with his Grandmama. That day so bothered me that now three years
later I can't remember much, even when I try real hard, except for
the early part, leading up to my going there.
It wasn't that any of it had anything to do with me. That's precisely the point. I wasn't meant to be there. I got to see only because Eulene did not have anything else to do with me but to bring me along.
I suspected something when I awoke but didn't smell breakfast. My parents and the McWorters had left by dawn for the Alabama-Auburn game at Legion Field in Birmingham. As Bertha had done before her, and as Eulene herself had done many times too, I expected Eulene to arrive by seven thirty or eight o'clock. Usually she wouldn't wake me until she had my breakfast almost done. Then she would come to the door clanging on a Welch's glass with a spoon, saying in one sustained high tone, "First call to breakfast! Dining car in the rear! First call to breakfast! Dining car in the rear!" the way the conductors did on the train the one time Mother had taken me to stay in the Henry Grady Hotel and see the Cyclorama at Grant Park in Atlanta.
Eulene did not arrive until almost ten o'clock.
"Come with me, child. You must help me out. Okay?"
"Yes, but I'm hungry. Where we going? I'm hungry."
Jones's Cafe didn't open for breakfast. Besides, even if they had started lunch, they would make me eat by myself and push Eulene's food to her through a little window. I didn't want to go someplace I did not know about for how long I did not know.
"Billy, don't I feed you good always?" she said.
"Yes," I whimpered and started to gather a couple of toys to take with me."
"You can't use those today. Like I say. You gotta help me out. I ain't got no choice. You gotta be real good. I'll feed you, but can't nobody spend no time witcha. You man enough to do that?" she asked, as she helped me into my jacket.
"Where we goin? How long we gonna stay?" I asked.
"To my house, to stay all day. Now hurry up. You need to do Number One or Number Two before we go, cause you won't like my outhouse."
"What kinda house is that?"
"Go to the bathroom, and meet me at the door," she said.
The red scarf round her neck clashed with the red scarf she wore over her head. Is it raining? I wondered. I liked Eulene's thick red lips, and she didn't have to wear lipstick to make them that way, like Mother did.
"Why we ridin in a colored cab?" I asked.
"Hurry on to the bathroom like I say, Billy. Please help me. I'll pay you back. I'll always be good to you. But please help me today. Please hurry, and when we get there, please be good and sit in the corner all day. Don't talk to nobody. And don't ever tell your parents that I took you there. Okay? I promise to get you back here and fix hamburgers just the way you like them, even to let you have the peanut butter on them. Okay?
I'd already decided to help her. Bertha and Mother treated me more like a child. Eulene was strong and pretty. I would be brave.
When I finished in the bathroom, I met her at the front door.
"Will they let me ride in a colored cab?" I asked.
"Course they will," Eulene said, but looked over her shoulder towards the Steele's, then towards the McWorter's.
"Why we riding in a colored cab?" I asked about the time she opened the door for us. She motioned for me to scoot across the back seat first, and after she'd closed the door, she answered. "Billy, we riding in a colored cab cause I be colored. You white. You can ride anywhere. Now be good for me. I need you. Okay?"
"Yeah," I allowed.
"The block down behind the Projects," she told the driver and handed him 25 cents.
Like I already told you, I can remember only a few particulars of what happened. Junior was there, wounded, it seemed. I remember a bandage, but can't remember on which part. I think Junior lay on a bed, but maybe on a couch. I remember that a sheet covered the lower part of his body, that he lay naked from waist up. Junior looked much stronger and younger than my father.
The shades stayed drawn from the time I got there until the time Eulene took me back home, around five o'clock. No one bothered about me. About eight or ten people came and went during the day. I couldn't figure out what was going on, and can't figure out most of it, even when I daydream about it. Most of the time it was like I was at the movies, but this movie didn't have any cowboys or any kids. Once in a while, Eulene would come over and whisper, "You're a good child, Billy. God will bless you for this." Sometimes she brought me something to eat. Then she returned to her part in the movie. I stayed on the floor in the dark corner.
That's about it, mostly. I do remember much whispering, but people talked normally at other times. I vaguely remember that even in the chilly room, with a small kerosene heater, several times, maybe nine or ten, the sheet slid off, exposing Junior. No one seemed concerned. Whatever else happened seemed much more important. One man acted like a doctor, but he couldn't have been, because our town still don't have no colored doctors. Eulene touched Junior some, but I can't remember how. Maybe she put the bandage on.
I think a lot about it during the daytime, and sometimes I even dream about it at night. The dream picks pieces from other times that don't have anything to do with that day. At one point I fish with Fincher. We sit in a boat under a shade tree with our shirts off and don't catch a single bream. But Daddy didn't ask Fincher to start takin me fishing until even after the DDT.
The dream also brings back about ten minutes from the day I went to buy nails and gather scrap wood for my tree house. Eulene hasn't even started to work for us yet. The sun shines bright. Nobody's mad at me. I'm mad at nobody. I don't even begin the tree house. The dream seems not about the treehouse. The treehouse is just extra. The dream begins after I have walked most of the way to town. I have come to the first street without trees. It's summer. That's all of that bit.
I won't give all the pieces, cause they don't make any sense to me neither. In one longer part I go to visit my grandmother in the country. My aunt takes me there in her old car. It has the tire in a round metal container on the outside of a slanted trunk. I play dominos and rummy with my cousin. Then my aunt takes me to the bus station and gives a piece of paper to the driver, since I have to change buses in Sylacauga. The second bus is an hour late. I'm thirsty. The fountain marked "WHITE" doesn't work, but when I walk to the colored side, the ticket seller tells me to sit back down. Then he brings me a Coca Cola, but I don't want it, since it's room temperature. The very next thing in the dream, the bus driver lets me out at Eulene's. I don't come by taxi the way it really happened. This time it's night. Something important happens, but I cannot figure out what.
Had Junior escaped somewhere? Had he got shot? Had he and Eulene had a fight? I did not know. They did not tell me. They said to pay them no nevermind, to sit quietly in a corner, and never to tell my parents.
I never did tell them. Eulene quit working for us soon after, and Bertha came back. Still I never told. Certainly I would never have dared to tell them after the ambulance arrived, with Mother waddling down the street behind it.
I didn't go to the back yard again that day. I didn't want to, but I doubt that Mother would have allowed me, even if I had tried. Miz Mac came into the house with me. I showed her the note, which said only what we already knew: "I've taken poison. Life is too much for me now, Miz Worthington. Don't blame Junior. I just can't take it no more. Tell my boy Robert I will love him always."
The next afternoon Fincher come up the back steps with our groceries. He and Eulene talked at the kitchen table.
"You don't know how much you like life till you think you will die," she said.
"I'll bet," he said. "Did that pump hurt bad?"
"I was too scared to notice. This fried chicken's gonna be the best I've ever tasted." "
"I hope you done throwed away that DDT," Fincher said.
"I ain't studying that stuff ever again," she said.
"Good," he said.
I sat on the toilet in our middle bathroom, the one nearest the kitchen, where she had given me the note just the afternoon before, listening.
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