“There’s no other way to describe Oleeta Savidge, except mean.” Trevor leaned way back in his porch chair and rearranged his hat. “When the Good Lord was handing out hearts, Oleeta probably told Him to mind His own business.”
By now Delia Ballard was getting tired of hearing Trevor run on. She knew all about Oleeta Savidge, knew her from girlhood. And the last thing she wanted to talk about today was Oleeta. Besides, it wasn’t Christian to berate someone who wasn’t there to defend herself—-even Oleeta. In her heart though, Delia knew Trevor was right. Everybody in town knew it. And though they didn’t spend their days talking about her, folks agreed that Miss Oleeta had devoted herself to poisoning the lives of everyone in her orbit.
“Trevor, you help little Tinker here pick up the rest of these shells while I get out to the kitchen and get our supper.” Straining to set the heavy bowl on the floor, the woman could barely get up out of her rocker. Her rough hands were sore and discolored from shelling purple hull peas all afternoon, much too sore to be cooking.
“I’ll bet Miss Oleeta ain’t eatin’ peas and fried bread tonight,” Trevor said, in a sharp, sarcastic voice.
“Now Trevor, don’t you start up again,” Delia snapped. She wasn’t in any humor to listen to any more of his ranting. “You need to worry about your own business and let the Good Lord take care the rest.” She was referring to the fact that Trevor had been out of work for three months. “Besides, there’s folks in this town that would envy our table. Being poor makes you take notice of them that’s got, and that’s what makes you strong enough to accept the ones that’s got more.”
Trevor stared off in silence for a few seconds then returned to sweeping the last few shells over the porch edge—-one eye on his mama as she disappeared into the dimly lit house. He couldn’t feel the same way she did. He just didn’t have the same Christian spirit. The way he saw things, poor was poor. Poor was anything less than wealthy—-and the wealth of the world was controlled by vermin like Oleeta Savidge. Clear as a bell to him. And he couldn’t understand how his mama didn’t see it, how she went through life with self-imposed blindness.
“Don’t you dare drop that bowl, Tinker, I’ve done enough pickin’ up for the day,” Trevor teased, and the two made their way quietly into the house.
Supper went by without so much as a whisper about the porch conversation, not a word about Trevor losing his job or about Oleeta Savidge. But they all knew it was just below the surface of their pleasantries. Delia controlled the conversation, the better part of it spent reminiscing about other times and other meals she had served at this very table. How her late husband, Landry, loved to eat. How he polished off a whole potato pie before supper one night and ended up going to the hospital to have his stomach pumped, only to find out that it wasn’t the pie after all, but a bad gall bladder that had to come out. And even though her stories brought laughter to the table for a while, there was still a gnawing pretense between Trevor and her. He was her youngest son, the baby of the family, and though she doted on him his whole life, he never felt more distant from her than he did at this very moment. The story was in his eyes, and his mama could read those eyes like a book. But what could she do? She had nowhere to go with the matter, except to retreat into her own memories of better days. Days when children’s problems could all be fixed with nickel candy. Days that had long since passed.
After supper, Trevor decided he needed to get out of the house for a while, and that usually meant a trip to the Southside Club—-a local joint his mama had signed three petitions to close down. The only reason she held her tongue this night was because of the grief she was feeling, and the fact that he didn’t have to climb behind a steering wheel. Her late husband had never touched a drop of liquor in his life to her knowledge, and she could not understand how anyone thought they could find hope or redemption in a bottle. Trevor was more open on the subject but always managed to make it home on his own—-and never thought about bringing a bottle into his mama’s house. Delia forbade it.
No one knew when Trevor walked out the door that tonight would mark an end to a shadowy chapter in the lives of several people. The events were set in place from the very moment he entered the club. The whole room was jumping, folks dancing and carrying on like it was Saturday night. He recognized most of the customers, several of whom had been thrown out of work along with him.
“Trevor! Hey, Trevor!” Someone was yelling from across the room, but he couldn’t make out voice or face through the racket and cigarette smoke. “Trevor!” they called again, and this time he saw arms flailing on the far side of the dance floor, an animated silhouette. For a moment, it could have been anyone, but with study, he recognized it was his foreman from the mill, Junior Grant, the very man who had hired him ten years before, and let him go last May. And though Trevor harbored no ill feelings toward him, he did wonder how Junior managed to keep his own job while other foremen seemed to be disappearing from the dock list. Nonetheless, they’d had a good working relationship—-and a few good times right here at the Southside.
“Trevor, you remember Rena Smelts. Rena used to work for us at the mill a few years back—-before she left to hawk insurance for Liberty Life.” The couple was hugged up like two people in love. Trevor didn’t honestly remember Rena but pretended he did. Except for the tightness of her dress and the heavy make-up, there was nothing remarkable about her. He wondered to himself what Junior saw in the woman.
“Rena! You remember Trevor here-–he was the best worker on my crew. I wrote it up several times, too. Right there in his records at the mill!’’ The whole while, Junior winked and nudged Trevor to a red-faced grin. There was mutual admiration, to be sure, but in truth it was strained and awkward.
Junior had been drinking for some time, and he grew more liberated with every swallow. Through all the laughter, Trevor sensed something else. In all the years he had known Junior Grant, he’d never seen him in this state. Like he was teetering on the edge of something—-something hidden from those around him and would be hidden from Trevor too, except for intuition. Junior was a model of integrity at the mill. He worked shoulder-to-shoulder with his men, harder than most. He had hired Trevor and supported him right up to the day he let him go, and everyone knew that wasn’t his fault.
The laughter soon deteriorated to a maudlin drunkenness that drove Rena into the arms of two men in a neighboring booth. A man of steel at work, Junior began to take on the tone of a penitent with a burning need to pour out his soul.
By the bar clock, Trevor could see it was half past ten, and even though he knew he was expected to be home at a decent hour, his conscience won out. Kindness, he reminded himself, is more important than duty-—a virtue his mama herself had taught him to live by. So, if listening to Junior in his time of need would put them both in God’s graces, he would listen.
Junior’s was a complicated and layered tale, one of fear and powerlessness—-and curious circumstances of Trevor’s employment and dismissal. And though the man grew more incoherent with every drink, one thing was crystal clear to Trevor: all of Junior’s troubles could be traced to a single source-—Oleeta Savidge. She owned the mill and everyone in it. She controlled it as a willful child might dominate a coveted toy. And she used it like a club to beat folks into submission and keep them in their place. Since her husband’s death last year, the mill had become her entire life. What she said was policy, and she spent her days making sure it was followed to the letter. If she didn’t like a worker, he was gone the next day. And since she liked no one, everyone was on notice.
The only positive return on the woman’s meanness was a bright, redeeming irony of abiding church attendance. It kept folks on their knees praying for their jobs. Sometimes she would send note to a foreman with instructions to let so-and-so go, without so much as an explanation. And though her severance letter might be crowded with malicious hearsay, the foreman who didn’t carry out the order would find himself in the unemployment line along with the others.
Trevor had gotten his notice directly from Junior. But there was much more in his case. Trevor’s file referred to matters of insubordination and poor performance, without proof or any chance of appeal. Fearing for his own job, Junior was forced to remove the commendations in Trevor’s file, sign the hateful statement and carry out the directive without argument—-an ugly deed he’d kept hidden somewhere deep for the past three months, convincing himself it was his job.
But liquor now set loose a tide of humbling guilt. He hoped Trevor could forgive him, but that was not the case. Trevor was angrier than he had ever been in his life. He lashed out, knocking Junior from the booth to the floor in one swipe—-BAM. The noise brought the entire room to attention, and all eyes were now upon Trevor, towering over Junior who lay sprawled and whimpering.
“How could you do this to me?” Trevor shouted. “How could you live with yourself all this time, knowing what you did?”
Truth was, Junior wasn’t living with himself very well at all. That’s why he was drinking tonight. And last night. And the night before that.
“Get up off the floor so I can knock you down again!” Trevor shook his fist heavily at Junior, who lay cowering in drunken self-pity. Before he could strike him again, Trevor was collared from behind, arms pinned back so far he couldn’t see his assailants.
Soon a third man stepped up and fastened himself to one of Trevor’s pinned arms, dismissing one of the two men who had grabbed him. This man had more on his mind than restraint. He had words to say. Scalding words.
“It ain’t Junior that lost you your job, you damn fool!” Trevor struggled furiously to get loose, to see the faces of his hateful captors. “It’s your own mama!”
The words nearly dropped Trevor to the floor with Junior. He was stunned and limp, so disarming as to prompt one of the men to let go his hold. Trevor swung around face to face with the man whose words had paralyzed him—-a worn and sullen figure Trevor now recognized as old man Hubbard from the mill’s printing office, a man who had been with Savidge Mills as far back as anyone could remember. But what could he know of any of this?
By now, Rena had returned to attend the cut on Junior’s lip. Even the jukebox, it seemed, had paused to see what happened next, and every eye stared with a hateful mocking look that marked him as the butt of an ugly joke. Trevor felt a terrible anger welling up again, anger for every person in the room. What had old man Hubbard meant by his cruel remark? What hadn’t Junior told him? Overcome by the suddenness of survival, Trevor turned and charged toward the door, leaving tables up-ended in his wake.
Outside, a heavy fog had settled in, a condition Trevor did not notice right away. He was too far lost from realities of the physical world. But he could hear heavy steps quickening behind him. Then like an apparition delivered by the dark, old man Hubbard emerged.
“You’ve got to wait, Trevor. I can’t run you a foot race.” The old man was panting. “We got to talk.”
Trevor had nothing to say, and if old man Hubbard wasn’t so old, he would have knocked him to the floor, too. An odd and cruel curiosity was the only thing that kept him from it now.
“I been knowin’ your mama and daddy since before you was born, Trevor,” the man started, “but not till tonight did I realize how much I knew about them.” He pulled his thin sweater a little tighter against the dampness. “I was settin’ right there listenin’ to every word you and Junior said. Not on purpose mind you, I just couldn’t help myself. Junior’s a fine man, but I knew somethin’s been eatin’ away at him for months now. I didn’t know what. Not until tonight.”
“What did you mean about my mama being the cause of me losing my job?” Trevor demanded, expecting a quick answer. By now both men were seated on a low block wall, but they had not yet established eye contact. Trust.
“All her life, Oleeta Savidge had everything she wanted, Trevor. Everything except the heart of the one she loved.” The man drew a long breath and faced Trevor head on. “Your mama was the great love of Carter Savidge’s life. He finally up and died of a broken heart shortly after your daddy passed away. His whole life the man secretly prayed that something would happen to remove the barrier between him and the only woman he loved. And when your daddy passed away, he went straight to Delia and poured out his heart about his prayers. Prayers that took your daddy.” Trevor shifted uncomfortably. “Oleeta found out about him calling on your mama and told him she would burn in Hell before giving him a divorce. And though your mama had only pity to offer Carter, Oleeta had no such capacity in her heart. It held only contempt and hate. You have to understand, Carter Savidge had led an empty existence without Delia. All his days amounted to nothing more than a pitiful mockery of life.”
The man paused and shifted closer. “With your daddy and Carter both gone, Oleeta knew she had only one weapon left to use against the woman who stole her husband’s love. She kept you at the mill long enough to make you dependent and beholden. And when she felt she finally held your family’s very future in the palm of her hand, she destroyed it with one stroke.” He paused again, wheezing from the night air.
“Your mama went to see Oleeta the very day after you were laid off. She couldn’t bear to see her own son punished for a lifetime of sinful pride and misplaced love. She pleaded with Oleeta, swearing upon your daddy’s soul that he alone held her heart, that she never loved Carter Savidge. But it wouldn’t do. Oleeta would not be moved. So, you see, it was in fact your mama who caused you to lose your job. A poor, tragic figure, your mama—-shielded by the two who loved her most. And even though not one grain of blame can be assigned to her, she must live with the consequences. The Bible says, the sins of the father shall be visited upon the son, but your father, Trevor, had done no evil.”
Trevor bowed his head and closed his eyes, but not in reverence to Mr. Hubbard’s Bible verse. He was searching his mind for some wise corner to sort things out. He did not see or sense in any way the man’s disappearance into the fog again. He could attend to nothing but his own dream-state thoughts for a long while, until at last the spell was broken by a powerful sense of coldness.
In his present state, Trevor had ambled aimlessly and waist-high into the murky pond that shapes the footpath home. He was suddenly and deeply frightened by the possible consequence of such a trance, and not until he grasped a muscular branch at the water’s edge did he feel connected to safety again.
Home, he thought aloud. “Home.” Repeating the word, his steps grew quick, then quicker, until at last he found himself before the vine-trellised porch where he had spent an angry afternoon. He did not wish to break the silence or wake the sleepy house with his restlessness. Going over and over details of Mr. Hubbard’s story, searching for meaning, he grew calm, contemplative. And in the fading hours before dawn, as if by divine intervention, he found himself oddly at peace—-peace with Junior Grant and old man Hubbard, even the ignorant crowd at the Southside. And, in a greater, more powerful way, he felt at peace with Oleeta Savidge, too. He could not change the past, he could only liberate his own soul–-as his mama had tried to teach him—-by forgiving and letting go. Today he would begin that journey, starting with Oleeta. And if he could not reach her, he knew in his soul that even she could be disarmed by prayer. Like a light heaven sent to illuminate his way, he received the message. This would be his task, his mission. For who else on God’s green earth would be offering up prayer for Oleeta Savidge? And wouldn’t his mama be proud.