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From 'The Leaning Trees.' (excerpt) (Black South Fiction, Art, Culture)

Robel Resez, guilty (AP) Durham - Resez screamed, when the verdict was read, and charged toward the jury box ..." There it was, stamped across the front pages of every newspaper in the country, in bold print, for all the world to see.

Stamped in Jois mind, though was the sound of Robel's animal-like howk. "Nooooooooooo!" that rang out over the court room and into the corridors. Stamped there, also, was the sight of that mob of reporters that flooded the courtroom, all screaming at Robel at once, and acting like vultures, waiting for their prey to die .... And the photographers, flashing cameras in Robel's face.

It was that combination - that, and the stress of Joi's desperately futile attempt to save Robel's life - that pushed Joi over the edge.

"Order in the court!" Judge Johnson demanded. And years later, a mentally frail Joi sat in the middle of her bed rocking back and forth whispering'" Order in the court, order in the court." It made an indelible impression on her. At one point, Judge Johnson stood up and screamed. "I'll have order in this court!" as she pounded her gavel, or I'll clear the courtroom!"

Dead silence.

Stunned reporters and photographers backed out of the courtroom, as if they were choreographed to the same silent beat Three Mandingo-sixed sheriffs escorted them.

Another half-dozen sheriffs rushed over to where Robel stood, atop the defendant's bench, screaming, "I'll get you! If it's the last thing I do, I'll get you!" at the jury. The sheriffs wrestled Robel to the floor, handcuffed him, then snatched him to his feet.

Robel's celery-green eyes glared around the courtroom. The hatred that be felt at that moment showed in his eyes from across the room. Joi, incognito, must have seen it, too. She sat in a far corner on the prosecutor's side, thinking nobody would recognize her behind her shades. She looked horrified. Like she feared being associated with Robel Like she thought somehow Robel might implicate her. The doubts that were written on her face seemed to pose questions of subpoena or perhaps even an eventual conviction. Had Robel seen her? Why had she not come forward to testify in his behalf? Apparently, these doubts were Joi's constant companion, and while Joi could easily conceal her feelings from the public, these uncertainties weighed heavily on her mind.

Joi looked apprehensive, hidden among the spectators. Afraid that any minute her name would be called, that she would innocently reveal some childhood secret which, especially to the prosecution, might make her look like an accomplice. She felt an overwhelming urge to run, but the magnetic force of curiosity stopped her, and whispered, "Stay here. Stay here and see what pens."

The courtroom roared with whispers when the sheriffs snatched Robel from the floor and dragged him from the courtroom kicking and screaming, "I'll get you! I'll get you!" at the jury.

Spectators pushed and shoved one another for a glimpse of a disheveled Robel in his rumpled, dusty navy-blue-and-white pin-striped suit. He wore a white silk shirt and a burgundy-blue-and-white polka-dotted tie. A gold stick pin fastened the tie to his shirt. Robel's shirt tail hung out of his pants, and a blob of dust stuck to one side of his face.

"All rise," the bailiff said. Judge Johnson, speaking directly to Robel's lawyers, set a sentencing date, then made a hasty exit from the courtroom.

Though Joi had no intention of making an appearance at Robel's trial she felt driven by an uncontrollable force. That force, curiosity, compelled Joi to read every word that the afternoon editions of The Sun and The Morning Herald printed about the trial. Curiosity made Joi look at the pictures of the two sheriffs on the front page. Each was holding one of Robel's arms and dragging him behind them.

Joi dropped the newspaper at first sight of its graphic depictions of the trial and tried to brush the filth of the headlines from her hands.

Still in her nightgown, Joi moved aimlessly about the room, regretting being drawn from the warm comfort of her bed before day. She moved to the recliner, and sat down, more determined than ever not to give in to the forceful pulls of curiosity. She certainly had no intention of showing her face at the courthouse.

Coffee, Joi thought, that'll take my mind off all of this unpleasantness.

Minutes later, Joi took small sips of the hot, dark-brown liquid. The caffeine stimulated her. She walked over to the commode, shut off the radio, and turned on the television set. News of Robel's trial flashed on the screen. Joi shut off the TV and plopped down in the recliner wearily.

Curiosity began to tug at her again, so forceful this time that it moved Joi to shower and put on a dress, a hooded London Fog that covered her forehead, and shades and drive across town.

Joi parked on Main Street, in front of a four-story Neo-classical-revival-style building and checked her watch. Eight o'clock, she thought, there's nothing happening here, yet. She gazed across the street at the fluted stone pilaster facade with Corinthian capital. She drank in the beauty of the huge, solid bronzed doors (now painted red). That's when the thought of slipping into the back of the courtroom and getting lost in the crowd hit her. She crossed the street, quickly, and sneaked into the side basement door. Then Joi rushed up the black-slate stairs that led to the first floor.

I spoke to Joi, when the trial was over, and got the distinct impression that she was depressed about the way the trial had gone. She appeared to be depressed almost to the point of despair. Yet, she seemed fascinated with the courthouse.

"That courthouse,' Joi told me, "is the epitome of 19th-century architectural beauty."

Joi mentioned the white Vermont marble staircase, in the lobby, with its newel post of white marble and clusters of fruit and flowers. I attempted to draw her out of herself concerning the trial but .... She did mention that the trial had taken much longer than she had expected. And then she was gone.

She hurried up the staircase (its balustrade was cast in bronze, as was the grillwork on the doors) to the second level and stood on the stone balcony, marveling at the motif. A muffled, sobbing sound from a room across the hall caught her attention. Three well-dressed men walked up to the door, opened it, and went in. Curiosity made Joi move closer.

Joi thought, this is it. This is the courtroom Robel's trial is in. She opened the door and eased in so quietly that not a head turned.

Now inside, Joi could see that it was Robel's father, the elder Mr. Resez, openly sobbing into a white handkerchief. He and his daughter Croline, Robers half-sister, sat huddled together behind the defendant's bench.

Caroline and the elder Mr. Resez were Joi's friends, too. They were people she had known and loved all her life. But Joi didn't dare approach her friends to show her support. She felt too involved, perhaps even responsible for Robel's troubles. She remembered countless times saying to Robel," I could just kill her for doing that," or "Couldn't you just kill her?' She meant no malice toward anyone. Apparently, Robel had taken her literally.

Joi crouched down in a seat in the back of the courtroom and watched it fill to standing-room-only capacity. At 9:30 am, six sheriffs - two in front, two on each side, and two behind - escorted Robel into the courtroom.

Joi learned later that the three well-dressed white men she had seen go into the courtroom ahead of her were Robel's Richmond, Virginia lawyers, the Shearin brothers (Alexander, Glen, and John). They sat at the defendant's table reviewing their notes, when the sheriffs escorted Robel into the courtroom in shackles.

John Shearin, the youngest of the three, stood when he saw Robel. The elder Mr. Resez and Caroline reached out to embrace Robel, but the sheriffs blocked their touch.

"All rise," the bailiff said, at exactly 9:30, and those in the courtroom rose to their feet.

At that point, Joi held out a glimmer of hope for Robel. She knew that witness after witness would take the stand and swear to tell the truth, and Joi was counting on the truth to free her one-time lover.

The star witnesses for the prosecution were a young lady and her brother, whom Joi vaguely remembered Robel introducing her to. The lady's name was Celestine Tate, a slender woman of 33, who, compared to what Joi remembered when they were introduced, had acquired a flair for fashion.

Celestine's Carolina-blue silk shift and matching blue belt looked as if she had just taken the price tags off them. Her matching blue shoes looked new, too.

Celestine took the stand and her oath with bewilderment. The prosecutor waited. He thumbed through his notes. Whispered to his assistant Paced. Apparently waiting for Ms. Tate's obvious case of nerves to pass.

What is your name?'

The prosecutor's first question terrified Celestine. Ce ... Celestine Tate," she stuttered.

"Ms. Tatel the prosecutor put emphasis on the Ms., tell the court how you know the defendant, Robel Resez."

Celestine opened her mouth, but not a word came out. "Ahhh," she finally drawled, glancing in the direction of the defendant's bench, "he's my brother's friend."

Your brother's friend?" the prosecutor said, with a touch of sarcasm.

Celestine began to tremble. She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand.

When did you last see the defendant, Robel Resez?"

"June 15th."

"Do you remember what day that was?"

"Night. It was at night."

"Was Mr. Resez alone, when you saw him?"

"No. He was with a man that Robel said was from Raleigh."

"I object!" the elder Shearin thundered.

"Your honor, I'm trying to establish Mr. Tate as the last person to see the deceased, Tony Bradley, alive."

"Objection overruled," Judge Johnson said.

Celestine looked back and forth from the prosecuting attorney to the defendant's attorney, and back at Judge Johnson. Judge Johnson sat up and leaned in Celestines direction."

"You may answer the question."

"Can you repeat the question?" Celestine said, her voice near faint.

"Who was with Robel Resez the night you saw him last?"

A young boy. I don't remember what Robel said his name was, but he was from Raleigh, and Robel said he had just graduated from high school."

Joi couldn't listen any longer. She began to cry and ran from the courtroom. At that point, the courtroom roared. Judge Johnson called a recess.

That evening the magnetic force - curiosity - that had first pulled Joi along sent her back into the courtroom. The prosecution called its second key witness, Lenard Lang. Lenard, devoid of any fear, strutted across the courtroom. He raised his hand, anxious to testify on Robel's behalf.

Lenard was dressed casually in faded jeans that were ripped across both knees and a sweat shirt that said, "Born to be loved." He acted pompously. One could tell he had been around the courtroom a time or two.

"Mr. Lang," the prosecutor began, "do you know the defendant, Robel Resez?"

"Yes." " Can you tell this court how you know him?"

"Friend." Lenard hunched his shoulders. "Grew up wit him."

Lenard one-word answers spelled trouble.

"You mean, you lived in the same house with Robel Resez?"

"Practically." Lenard said, his dark-skinned face smirking at the prosecutor.

The red-faced prosecutor paused for an uncomfortable length of time.

"Oh," he said," so you knew about the alleged murder beforehand? Is it fair to say that you were Robel Resez's accomplice?"

Whispers buzzed in the courtroom. Lenard sat straight up. His eyes grew big and his once-crossed leg plumped to the floor.

"Order in the court! Order in the court!"

"Hey, man," Lenard said. He was serious now. He had a look of reverence on his face, and he began to sing like a bird. "See, man, my family lived next door to Robers half-sister Caroline. Caroline's mother used to keep Robel. Me and the dude played together up till Robel was nine or ten years old-up till he was old enough to go help his old man wit his landscaping business."

The prosecutor was immediately aware of Lenard new respect for him Though Lenard intentions were to testify on Robel's behalf, Mr.. Wade's accusation had made Lenard a witness for the prosecution.

When did you last ow Robel?" "I don't know the exact date, man. Last summer. I was over at my sister's house, drinking and playing music and having a good time, when Robel and this dude from Raleigh came in. Robel said his name was Tony Bradley.

"Robel and the dude hung around about an hour, then Robel called me into the bathroom, showed me a gun, and said, 'I'ma burn him.'"

Lenard leaned forward with one hand propped on his knee. The other hand was extended in the air, gesturing, pleading with Mr. Wade to understand.

"Man, that like to blew me away, cause dat's something dat happens in the movies. At first, I won't sure I heard Robel right, cause my mind was on them women, you know?" Lenard rambled on. "And I was kinda concerned about them women seeing me go into the bathroom wit another dude, right outta prison." He made a feminine gesture with his hand. "Man, I didn't want them women to think there was nothing sweet about me. Then it registered, what Robel said.

"Huh?" I said. Then Robel repeated his self. "I'ma burn him. I'ma take him out in the woods and burn him.'"

The courtroom roared. Reporters and photographers, who had been standing on the sidelines, rushed forward yelling questions, some at Robel, and some at Lenard.

"Order! Order! Order in the court," Judge Johnson pounded. "Order in this court!" She turned to the bailiff. "Bailiff," she said," I want you to remove anyone who is out of order from this courtroom."

Silence again.

The prosecutor turned to Lenard, who sat on the edge of his seat. His face wore a look of disbelief that he had projected himself into the spotlight.

"Man," Lenard began frowning "I had no idea Robel was really going to off that dude." With an open hand, Lenard made a chopping gesture, then sat back in his seat in disgust.

As Lenard walked across the courtroom, photographers napped a tall, lean figure, who bowed to hide his face from the cameras. That night it was front page news: "Lenard Lang. Friend or Foe?"

Joi felt she wanted to run, as fast as she could, from the courtroom; to her surprise, that magnetic force that had drawn her to the courtroom, and held her there, released her.

Joi looked around for a way out. People were everywhere. Reporters, photographers, spectators - all wanted to see and hear what happened to Robel firsthand. No afternoon headlines for them. Nor did they want any of Dan Rather's Rather biased reporting. They wanted to live this verdict along with Robel.

I'll never get through this crowd, Joi thought. She was beginning to feel trapped. Physically trapped. Unable to penetrate the mob, Joi tried to ignore Wade's closing argument. She realized Lenard's testimony had hammered the nails into Robel's coffin. She knew, too, that the mob wouldn't settle for less than a death sentence - a lethal injection.

Determined not to hear any more damaging testimony, Joi concentrated on the faces of the Shearin Brothers. They not only looked intellectual they were also handsome. They possessed a look of integrity. Alexander, the oldest, had a fine grade of brown, curly hair that had begun to thin on the top. His face was round, clean-shaven, with graying sideburns. Each wore a dark suit that fit him like a rented tuxedo. Alexander's was charcoal gray. He wore a gray tie with red, diamond-shaped designs down the middle. Black socks and shoes. Those Joi could only imagine, because Alexander"s feet were not visible. Alexander's every move was premeditated. His gestures resembled a game of charades. A performance for the benefit of the jury, no doubt. Impressive, Joi thought. This is no shoddy lawyer.

Despite Joi's attempt to ignore Nathaniel Wade's closing argument, occasionally phrases like premedidated murder and in cold blood seeped through. Joi covered her ears with her hands, her pointed fingers plugged deep into their canals; she buried her face in her lap. She saw Glen Shearin, a man of about 40 and clean-shaven, exchanging note pads with his brother Alexander when she finally looked up. They studied each other's notes for a while, then passed the pads back.

Glen wore a black, double-breasted suit. His hair was shoulder length. His wire-framed glasses projected a legal savvy that convinced Joi that, like a magician at the last minute Alexander and his brothers could pull this rabbit out of the hat.

Joi looked from Glen to Robel who was sitting between Glen and John. How handsome Robel looked. Had he not been wearing handcuffs and shackles, it would have been impossible for a stranger to determine which of the four men was the defendant Robel looked alert. Occasionally, he exchanged notes with the brothers, giving the impression that he was instrumental in his defense.

"This is only one of the three murders Resez is accused of," The Herald said. "If found guilty of any one of them, he could receive the mandatory death sentence, lethal injection."

Joi remembered that in the courtroom the prosecution wasn't allowed to mention any of the other murders. That, she thought, was a stroke of luck for the defense. But the same rules didn't apply to the media. Every newspaper, tabloid, and pamphlet - fire or otherwise - heralded "Resez Guilty" and, after fury depicting the day's events, speculated on charges that were pending.

The night Robel's trial was over Joi cried hysterically. I found her in bed. She was breathing rapidly. Her eyes were swollen her nose running, and she was clutching a handkerchief that was saturated with perspiration. At one point I thought she would hyperventilate. I had never seen her so upset. She refused to leave her room even to eat. I felt helpless, not knowing what to do to help her, or what to say to comfort her.

It wasn't as if Joi didn't see a conviction coming. Everybody said Robel had virtually no defense. I understand Robel's lawyers told the elder Resez, "The most we can do for Robel is save his life."

Joi was right there when the verdict was read, stunned and trembling in a comer. She was there when the reporters darted out of the courtroom with the latest scoop. She saw TV cameras, a clear indication that this was no small show. But Joi was desperately holding onto her childhood memories of Robel and nothing that was said phased her, not until she heard a reporter yell, "Mr. Prosecutor, are you pleased with the outcome of the trial?"

Turning to face the cameras, Mr. Wade chose his words carefully. "We accomplished what we set out to do," the prosecutor said, his voice soft and confident. "Mr. Resez sat calmly through the week of court proceedings, almost nonchalant about what was going on around him. But we made the mg Robel Resez - the mad man - stand up."

"The mad man," the prosecutor had said. Joi wondered just how much truth there was in his statements. Could Robel have snapped ... and killed all those people? Then she thought, the Robel I know wouldn't hurt a fly.

II

Mattie sat ringing her hands in anguish and disbelief. "Miss Joi knowed Robel and Carolin the better part of her life'" de told the Fisher Point Mental Institute administrator. "Why, dem chilluns jist lak sister and brother. And I don't blame nobody, but my own self." She pointed to her chest. "Ma'am trusted me to take care of dat chile since the day she was born."

Mattie began to cry. She pulled a white handkerchief from her purse and blew her nose. "Loved Miss Joi lak she was my own blood. Had no chillun of my own, you see." Mattie waved her handkerchief in the air to indicate nothing or no one. "Miss Jo's mama Mrs. Mattherhorn Mattie sniffled," "she the one put me on my feet. Got on my feet, got too busy to stop in and check on dat poor girl once a week."

Mattie paused for what seemed an uncomfortably long time before she spoke again. "Course, didn't think I need to, by then. Miss Joi was a full-grown woman," Mattie said, almost as an afterthought, then she began to weep openly. In her fit of sorrow she admitted," "Miss Joi was the only family I had." Then she buried her face in her hands and sobbed.

Tears were no stranger to Old Lady Phelps, who sat quietly while Mattie cleansed her soul. Still teary-eyed, but more composed than before, Mattie began to reminisce. She was no longer speaking to Old Lady Phelps but, rather, remembering. "When Miss Joi went off to college, Ma'am 'cided won't nuff work round da house to keep me busy. Said, her sister, Mrs. Sonsara, thought she should send down der to dat Durham Technical College, where Mrs. Sonsara teach to study nursing. Fought dat woman tooth and nail, trying to git outta going to nursing school Same thing with driving school.

"Come winter, realized Ma'am was right. Won!t nuff to do round the house. Thought then that Ma'am won. Know now I was the real winner.

"Went on down to dat Durham Technical Institute whole year. Graduated, too. Had nobody to thank for it but Ma'am, and, of course, Miss Leanne. Hadn't been for Miss Leanne, don,t know if I'da made it"

Mattie smiled through tears when she talked about Miss Leanne. "Der we was, me and Miss Leanne, coming home wit our arms full of book." She sniffled. "Dem the happiest days of my life. First time in my life I ever felt like I was somebody."

"Yeah, it's all my fault," Mattie said. "Saddie calm me'rectly after Robel's trial. Said, 'Miss Joi done missed her last three hair 'ppointments.' Told Saddie then, 'Ain't seen Miss Joi.'

"Planned to stop by her house after work on Monday, see if she all right, never got round to it."

As Mattie thought about her neglect, she suddenly stopped crying. There was anger in her voice when she spoke again. "Sholdn'ta never let dat boy near Miss Joi in the first place." She hit her thigh with her fist. "Hurt her. All he ever done was hurt her." Mattie shook her head, and one could see she was in great pain. "I'm the one dat had to tell her. I'm always the one who have to bring her bad news."

Old Lady Phelps could no longer follow Mattie's conversation, but she didn't interrupt.

Sent the letter to Miss Joi right through the mail." Mattie looked at the administrator, like she expected Mrs. Phelps to say it was illegal." How was I t know it would have dat bad effect on her? I'da jist soon cut off my right hand, all cause Miss Joi pain."

Tears ran down Mattie's face, though she made no crying sounds. She paused too upset to speak, and rocked back and forth. "Miss Joi musta been ..." Mattie thought for a minute she continued to reminisce, as she continued to reminisce, "Ummmmm, eight grade, back then." Clarifying her memory with association, she continued, "Same year she and Mrs. Sonsara met Miss Leanne."

This was the third time Mattie had mentioned Miss Leanne.

"Leanne?" Old Lady Phelps said.

"Miss Leanne, Miss Joi's Aunt Sonsara's ward. Yeah," Mattie said, shaking her head in agreement with her memory. She wore that faraway look people get when they go way back in their minds to remember what happened years ago. "Same year the elder Resez and his boy Robel moved into the Richmond house.

"See," Mattie said, pulling her chair closer to Old Lady Phelps's desk, "far back as I can remember, the elder Resez cared for the Rolling Hills Community lawns. Dat was one of the reasons Ma'am - Mrs. Matterhorn ... never called her nothing but Ma'am - chose Rolling Hills, cause she so fascinated with how well-kept all the property looked. Long fore she learned the elder Resez the caretaker.

"Miss Joi and Miss Leanne both at summer camp dat year in ...." Mattie looked up, as if she could pull the answer out of thin air." Atlanta, Georgia. Dat's where Ma'am from, Atlanta, Georgia.

"Same summer Robel got involved in dat football practice. All of a sudden he didn't have time to help his poor papa no more. The elder Resez told me himself, 'Every time I turn around I have to stop my work, and go pick dat boy up from school. All the time I'm bringing him here or carrying him there.' If you ask me, that Robel ain't worth the salt dat go in in his bread."

Mattie calmed down. She leaned back in her chair. Her conversation took on the tone of a friend catching up on the latest gossip. "That particular Sadday," she said "the elder Resez asked Sadie, the woman he came over here from the Islands with and lived with many years ... Caroline's mama, to pick Robel up from football practice. Well, Sadie already had her day planned. Most of the time, Sadie spends Sadday with her sister Opal out in the country. That Sadday, Sadie took Robel along with her and Caroline to Opal's house.

"They tell me," Mattie continued, clearly enjoying what she considered firsthand news, "Sadie and Opal sat under a shade tree the better part of the evening drinking moonshine. Then they spotted Al and Syd, their drinking buddies, coming down the road in Sy's old pickup truck."

Mattie coughed. "Can I get you some water?" Mattie's crying spell had ended, and Old Lady Phelps was feeling more comfortable with her. Old Lady Phelps walked across the room to a dormitory-style refrigerator, opened it, pulled out a pitcher of cold water, and poured a plastic cup full. Not wanting to interrupt Mattie's train of thought, she crossed the room and handed the cup to Mattie.

A couple of s' s later the coughing passed. "Thank you kindly," Mattie said.

"You were saying?"

"... when Sadie and Opal saw Al and Syd coming, Sadie hid the jar of moonshine in the trunk of an old, broken-down car dat was parked behind the lawn chairs they were sitting in.

"'Hi y'all,' Al said, when he climbed out of his old pick-up. 'Y'all coolin' it, today, ain't you?'

"Syd spoke, 'Howdy. Come to see ifn y'all wanna ride t town wid us. Aimin ta come 'rectly back.'

"'Yeah," Al said, 'alcohol level gittin pretty low. Need anodw supply of juice.'

"Sadie and Opal jumped at a chance to gift free booze and enjoy the company of the opposite sex to boot." Mattie crossed her legs, and took another sip of water. She rattled on as though Old Lady Phelps had given her a shot of gin instead of water.

"Honey, chide," Mattie and, pausing to drink the remainder of her water, then set the cup an the table beside her, "them younguns messed around there found dat moonshine, and drank it up. Got drunk too - ever last one of |em"

Mattie stopped to think. "Robel couldn't been no more'n 15-16 years old. They tell me, while Sadie and Opal was gone, Robel had sex math Opal's daughter Juneplum. Sadie and Opal come home, and there Robel and Juneplum is laying up in bed in their birthday suits, still asleep.

"Well, I'm here to tell you Opal was mad. She'd had a coupla good shots of dat gin in the truck on the ride home, and when Opal saw Juneplum laying up there naked with Robel, look like she lost her mind. Eyes a-bulging she went into a fit of rage. Opal snatched dat cover off dat bed, and was on them younguns like white on rice, hitting and kicking them, and causing. Lord, did she put down some cussing dat day. Opal picked up Juneplums baton and started hitting Robel in the face. First lick caught him across the bridge of his nose, and blood oozed down his face. Opal raised her hand, again, to hit Robek and dat's when Sadie stopped her, and called the police. Police came, carried Robel to jail, and kept im there more'n fifteen years.

"Dat's the summer I first saw a change in Miss Joi." Mattie's voice changed when she remembered Joi. Her nose ran and she sniffled. "Miss Joi come home from camp the summer Robel got locked up thin as a rail. Started acting all depressed ... Sleeping all day, throwing temper tantrums. Complaining she sick on the stomach to stay out of school Made no sense tall to me. Ma'am, she took Miss Joi to the doctor two, sometimes three times a month. Didn't help.

"Day after day I'd find Miss Joi sitting out back on the patio, long hours in the night, staring at the Richmond house. Got to where Miss Joi would burst into tears if you said good morning to her. Things got so bad Ma'am took Miss Joi to a psychiatrist, jist fore Christmas. Found nothing wrong with her."

Old lady Phelps sat up in her seat with reviewed interest. She started thumbing through Jors file on her desk as Mattie talked.

There's nothing here about Ms. Matterhorn seeing a psychiatrist."

III

The bewildered look on Old Lady Phelps face confused me, but I 'cided to finish my thoughts. "Me, I always believed Miss Joi morning," I told Old Lady Phelps, and leaned back in my chair with certainty. "Ain't one bit of difference in the way Miss Joi mourning, than the way a mother mourns the loss of a chile."

"You mind if I record this conversation'" Old Lady Phelps interrupted.

Fore I could get the words out my mouth Old Lady Phelps pulled out a tape recorder, flipped it on, and began firing questions at me.

"You remember who Ms. Matterhorns physician was? Which hospital? Was she hospitalized here in North Carolina? What about medication? Was Ms. Matterhorn on mood elevators?"

A shriek that came from the other end of the hall, startled us, and we jumped to our feet.

"Excuse me," Old Lady Phelps said, as she scrambled past me. "Just relax. I'll be right back."

For an old lady, Phelps sure could move. She was on her feet, out the door, and down the hall in record time. Patients begin to shuffle in the same direction and gather around the balcony. Several nurses, the housekeeping staff, and a couple orderlies rushed over to calm the crowd.

I stood there for a minute after Old Lady Phelp, was gone, wondering what'd happened. What Old Lady Phelps asking me all these questions for? I don't want to talk about all this stuff. I talk about this stuff, and I get all choked up. Stomach starts tying up in knots. Dat's how much it affects me. I can't afford that, I'm not a well woman.

I devoted my being to alleviatin' fret, to caring and comfort. That's what a maidservant does. Along the way I woe myself a family, a responsibility dat didn't end with a final paycheck. Got me a substantial savings account and a career dat plunged me into a respectable working-middle-class society.

I felt so sad, thinking about Miss Joi here in this place. I couldn't help thinkin I'd let Ma'am down over the years, with what I had let happen to her baby. I was ready and willin' to take full responsbility for my neglect, until I saw the look of honor on Old Lady Phelp's face when she reappeared in the doorway.
COPYRIGHT 1993 African American Review
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Rogers, Gloree
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Excerpt
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Words:5337
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