I saw Mrs. Baylor first. I saw her making her way up Montego Drive as if she was battling a headwind. It was Monday. She was coming for her interview for the housekeeping job. I watched her from the den window, and where Montego Drive curves like a kidney bean, she stopped, withdrew a hankie from her bra, and mopped her face. Then she blew a stream of air up at her forehead. I saw how she hauled herself heavily up the hill and that she resented that the hill was steep and that she had to worry about having a heart attack or sweating out her straightened hair. And I saw something else. She was a woman who was not going to like me.
I wasn’t going to like her either because she was coming to take our old housekeeper’s place. Shirley was young and pretty and she’d taught my sister, Lily, how to put a smudged brown line in the crease above her eyes and white shadow just beneath her brow. And that Lily needn’t fret about her size-nine shoes because she’d heard that Jackie Kennedy wore a ten.
Shirley kept up with celebrity news, too. She told us little-known facts that she had the inside scoop on. But she had boyfriends who came to visit her in the night. My mother didn’t like the idea of boyfriends slipping in and out at all hours.
She had to let Shirley go. Lily sulked. I cried.
I left the window, slipped back into my room, and closed the door behind me just as the doorbell rang. Then I walked from one end of my room to the other thinking about stuff: How Lily would be leaving soon for college and I’d be left behind in a lonely house where my mother and father didn’t really care for each other, as far as I could see.
I touched one post of my four-poster bed. I ran my hands over the books on my shelf, looking with pride at the dioramas I’d made of scenes from my favorite stories. I decided to ignore the lady who was now crossing the threshold into our home.
I was picking up Anne of Green Gables—?I’d just started it—?when my mother called me. “Sophia, come down here. I have someone I want you to meet.”
In my bare feet, I walked as slowly as possible down the hall to the arched doorway that led to our living room. I listened to every creak beneath my steps. When I reached our foyer, I stood next to the entry hall table, lingering there. I drummed my fingers on my mother’s briefcase. It was full of all her club stuff and charity stuff and art gallery stuff. When my mother wasn’t digging around in her briefcase, that’s where she usually kept it—?on the entry hall table. I waited there until she called me again.
In the shaft of sunlight spilling from the arched window above our front door, my mother stood next to the piano, resting her forearm on it like a lounge singer. The sun was her spotlight. She had a Dorothy Dandridge kind of beauty. My sister once told me that was how she got our father.
Now my mother gave me the once-over and introduced the new housekeeper. She had been desperate to hire someone quickly.
Mrs. Baylor smiled and turned. Two gold-trimmed teeth glinted in the corners of her smile. She lowered her head but kept her eyes glued on me. “And who’s this young lady?” she said in a singsongy way.
“Sophie,” I said.
“Sophia,” my mother corrected.
“Ah, like Sophia Loren,” Mrs. Baylor said, her smile growing wider.
She dabbed at her forehead with her balled-up tissue and I noticed an odd scar on her wrist. Triangular, with a slightly raised border and a smooth shining center. I looked at it for a second, then quickly looked away. It was impolite to stare at a person’s disfigurement.
Yep. She wasn’t going to like me. I could stand on my head and blow bubbles out of my ears, and she wouldn’t be impressed. She smiled and smiled at me now, but I didn’t believe in that smile for a second.
One evening a week or so later, I went into the kitchen to get a handful of Oreos to eat in front of Gidget. My best friend, Jennifer, was over and Gidget was our favorite TV show. My mother was off at her art gallery organizing a new exhibit, Lily was out with her friends, and my father was probably at his office. Mrs. Baylor was sitting at the table sipping coffee with a pile of laundry in a basket on the floor next to her. She seemed to be taking a little rest before tackling it.
Let me explain about Jennifer. See, we moved to Montego Drive in the spring. Before that, we lived on Sixth Avenue near Adams.
We were the first colored family on this block, and for the first few weeks we were very aware of our “coloredness” every time we stepped out the front door. Everybody ignored us, but we knew we were annoying them big time just by being colored and living so close.
The kids who rode by on their bikes or on their skates glanced over with curiosity—?but they kept going. The first Saturday in our new house I could see a bunch of girls down the street jumping rope, but they were acting as if I wasn’t there. I decided to mosey on down. Put my face in front of them and see what happened.
They probably expected me to keep walking, but I stopped. The two girls turning the rope kept it going and the jumper kept jumping—?making a point of ignoring me.
“Can I jump?” I asked one turner, noticing she had on a top with a satin fish that was really a pocket. I wished I had that shirt.
“No,” she said without looking at me.
“We have enough people,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter how many jump.”
“We have enough,” the other turner said.
I spun on my heels and made myself believe that they said no because they really did have enough people. That could be it. But deep down, I knew it wasn’t the truth.
Then a week after we moved in, Jennifer popped up on my porch looking shy but friendly. She lived directly across the street in a two-story house that looked just like a Father Knows Best house. I always wanted to live in a Father Knows Best house. She had red hair and a nose that I call short and she calls pug. She invited me over and we discovered we had everything in common. She was twelve, soon to be thirteen, and going into the ninth grade because she had skipped a grade, and I was twelve, soon to be thirteen, and going into the ninth grade because I had skipped a grade. We both loved the Beatles—?especially Paul, if we had to choose—?and we were still in undershirts, though we both had started our journey toward brassieres. And we loved to read. Me, only real stuff, no fantasy. Definitely no talking animals.
We were going to be like Kim and Ursula from our favorite movie, Bye Bye Birdie....