My Mama always tell me don’t listen in to conversations that ain’t meant for me. But I can’t help myself. I always been quiet and Miz Corliss so loud you can hear her way down at the next town over. Anyways, if Bobby be coming home today and I got to be helping out with him, it’s good to know earlier ‘stead of later.
I can tell Miz Corliss excited about her son coming home. She pace around, poofing up her hair, and checking her face in the vanity mirror damn near every five minutes. And she keep giving me stuff to do, like I done cleaned the piano five times today. If I even stop and catch my breath for a minute, she say, “Rosie, you just sitting around? Go change the linens, girl.” Except those linens don’t need to be changed every hour, Miz Corliss. I never say that though. Mama taught me never to talk back, and I be a good girl.
When I bring the trash out to the curb, I take my sweet time, knowing the second I come back in, Miz Corliss will be having more work for me to do. I see Charlie raking leaves in the garden and he give me that big ol’ smile that he always got for me. His ebony skin crinkles like old leather. “Busy day today?” he ask, looking at my face.
“Bobby Corliss, he coming home,” I explain.
“Poor little Rosie,” Charlie say, chucking a bit. “They havin’ a parade for the war hero?”
I shrug. “I heard he got he got hisself hurt.”
“Oh yeah?” Charlie raise up his eyebrows.
Between you and me, Charlie ain’t such a big fan of Bobby Corliss. I met Bobby a few times when he come home on leave and he seem nice enough to me, but Charlie, he don’t like him. Charlie say Bobby Corliss think he own the whole world. That because he so good looking and the Corliss family got money, although not so much money now that Mister Corliss dead and the depression got them hurting and all.
“I can cheer you up, Rosie,” Charlie say. “Let me cook you up a nice meal tonight.”
That there is another thing. Charlie, he like me. Not just that he think I’m nice and all, even though he does. He like me the way a man like a woman and want to get with her. I’m used to this by now. I realized when I was but six years old, that I was prettier than most girls my age. When I was fourteen, I got some big ol’ breasts and Mama say, “This one’s gonna be trouble.” Excepting I wasn’t trouble because whenever boys came calling, I always said no. Sometimes they kept asking, sometimes they called me names, not so nice ones, but I just kept on saying no.
Now Mama say I’s too picky, that soon I gonna be too old and I’ll have done missed my chance. But I don’t care. I ain’t going out with just anybody.
“Busy this week,” I say, giving the trash a little kick.
“You always busy, Rosie,” Charlie say.
“Miz Corliss need my help with her Bobby,” I say, even though she’s said no such thing.
“Someday you’ll say yes, Rosie,” he promises me.
Excepting I know I won’t. I don’t want to spend my life with Charlie or even one night.
When I get back in the house, Miz Corliss be in full out panic mode. She usually got this perfect blond hair, not a strand out of place, but now it’s nearly come undone from her bun. She’s holding a giant wood board that’s taller than her, and looking like she just don’t know what to do. “Oh, Rosie, thank God!” she say when she see me. “Put this outside.”
She thrust that board into my hand and I just look because I don’t know what to do with a big old board neither. “Miz Corliss?” I say. “Where…?”
“Over the steps,” she say as if I’m thick.
Like I said before, Mama taught me never to talk back. So I take the big board and squeeze it out through the front door. I have to tilt it to make it go, and it fits only just barely. It’s heavy and I’m straining to keep it in my hands. When Charlie catches sight, he runs over to help me. Sometimes it’s good to have a man sweet on you.
“Over the steps,” I gasp.
We lay the board to cover all them steps to the front door. Charlie take one end and I take the other and we get it straight as we can. Charlie look at the board and he get this interested look on his face. “Bobby Corliss must be hurt real bad,” he say.
I frown. “Why you say that?”
“Because Miz Corliss done made him a ramp for a wheelchair.”
I look down and realize he’s right. But that can’t be. Because I just can’t imagine handsome Bobby Corliss in a wheelchair.
Charlie, he smarter than I give him credit for.
In the next few hours, Miz Corliss mostly be directing me and Charlie to get all Bobby’s stuff down from his bedroom upstairs and making him a new bedroom in the sitting room. She don’t explain why, but I’m guessing that Bobby really can’t go up the stairs.
The hardest part is Bobby’s bed. We move it in a bunch of pieces, but it’s still so heavy that my arms ache. I nearly collapse when we get to the bottom of the stairs, and Charlie, he say, “You rest yourself, Rosie. I’ll get down the rest.”
Miz Corliss won’t let me just sit around so I go about organizing Bobby’s new room. He’s got hisself least ten trophies to put up on his dresser. Bobby, he a big athlete in school. And now he a big war hero. I overheard Miz Corliss saying on the phone that he shot hisself a boatload of them Nazis.
I adjust a photo of Bobby. The black and white of the photo don’t do him justice, it don’t. It don’t show how his blond hair gleams and his blue eyes twinkle, but it do show his powerful jaw and the broad shoulders. I wonder if he still look the same.
Bobby got a big bookcase, filled with thick novels. Bobby, he love to read. I run my hands over the binding of each book, smiling at the familiar titles. The books has got dusty. Later, I gone dust them for Bobby, make sure his books look right nice for him.
Mama nearly raised Bobby Corliss, to hear her tell it. She took care of him every day when he was just a little baby and up through high school, finally giving up the job to me when Bobby went away to war. I got raised hearing stories about Bobby and all his achievements. Mama took personal pride in him. I also got to hear about all the girls. To hear Mama tell it, Bobby had taken out just about every pretty girl in Mississippi. “He always treated those little girls right though,” she told me. “Never left them cursing his name.”
Since I been working for the Corliss family, I met Bobby a few times. One of those times been when he come home for the Christmas holidays. He wasn’t alone then. He brought along Miss Cecelia, with her white-blond hair and pink rosy cheeks, and according to Miz Corliss was the prettiest girl in all of Mississippi. Miz Corliss said Bobby done good when he asked Miss Cecelia to marry him, and she said yes because who wouldn’t want to marry a handsome war hero? As for Bobby, he was getting the prettiest girl in Mississippi who was well off to boot. Miz Corliss was ‘specially happy about that last part, I hear her telling her friend on the phone about all the money her Bobby was marrying into.
This was my first Christmas dinner and I knew before I served it that I overcooked that danged turkey. Mama even kept saying to me beforehand, “Rosie, don’t you be cooking that turkey too long!” I could see the unhappy look on Miz Corliss’s face as she chewed on the turkey breast. But for the sake of company, she at least played like it wasn’t so bad.
Until Miss Cecelia had to go saying, “Elizabeth, your girl has overcooked the turkey something awful!”
Miz Corliss got this pinched look on her face, and before I knew what was what, I heard her yelling, “Rosie! You get in here!”
I hurried in, wiping my hands on my apron. “Yes’m?”
“How dare you insult us by serving us this dry turkey!” Miz Corliss barked at me.
“I’m so sorry, ma’am.”
Miz Corliss, she looked me up and down and decided I wasn’t sorry enough. “I’m going to take the cost of this turkey out of your wages.”
My heart, it done fell a million miles. That turkey surely cost more than I made it in a month. How would I explain this to Mama?
“You’ll do no such thing, Mother!” Bobby spoke up. He took a big ol’ bite of turkey thigh. “I think Rosie cooked this turkey just right.”
Bobby might have only been twenty years old, but with his daddy gone, he was the man of the house now. And what he said was the law. So I didn’t get charged for no overcooked turkey. I was thanking my lucky stars that Bobby liked my cooking most of the night, but then before he run off back to Europe, he come see me in the kitchen one last time, looking tall and important in his uniform. He said to me, “Goodbye, Rosie. You learn how to cook a turkey like your mother next year. Because that one was just terrible.” And then he winked at me as I pressed a sopping wet plate into my chest.
When I told Mama what Bobby done for me, and she smiled and laughed. “That Bobby Corliss will do just about anything for a pretty face.”
“But I ain’t a white girl, Mama,” I pointed out.
“Bobby don’t care nothing about that,” she said.
Bobby come home two other times since then, each time looking more handsome than the last, and I figured out Mama was right. Bobby was always real nice to me, treated me just like a pretty white girl and not like his mother’s servant.
Miz Corliss keep checking her big ol’ grandfather clock, saying Bobby’ll be here any minute. Another soldier is giving him a ride here from the airport. She finally puts a chair by the window and plops down in it, staring at the driveway. I keep on dusting and making like I’m busy, but truth is, I’m staring out the window too.
Half past four, an old truck pulls into the driveway and Miz Corliss, she stands up so fast her chair topples back. I rush over to right it for her.
“Rosie,” she say to me. “You come on out too. Bobby may need some help.”
I follow Miz Corliss outside, craning to see Bobby’s face through the car window. He’s sitting in the passenger seat and looking just as handsome as he always do. But when his friend in uniform get out of the car, he just keep on sitting there. I see the friend open the trunk and pull out a folded up wheelchair.
That’s when Bobby’s door pops open and I see what parts of him got left back in Germany. His legs. Both of them. All of them.
Miz Corliss, she gives this little gasp and clutches her chest like she’s gonna go and faint. And I’m thinking to myself, “Miz Corliss, don’t you dare be fainting on me!” But she stays up on her own two feet, thank the Lord.
Bobby’s pants legs are pinned under what’s left of his legs, which let me tell you, ain’t much. Maybe six or eight inches on either side, if that. He swings them out of the car, and grabs his friend ‘round the neck. The friend lift him into that wheelchair, then Bobby right himself and he good to go.
Bobby, he wave his hand at us and he grinning like there ain’t nothing at all wrong with any of this. Meantime, Miz Corliss’s eyes are popping out and she looks like she damn near gone cry. He wheels over to us, his grin slipping just a smidge. “Bobby!” Miz Corliss say, her voice breaking. “I’m so happy you’re home.”
Bobby look up at Miz Corliss’s face. He still looking real handsome, least from the waist up. “Gee, you don’t look that happy, Mother.”
Miz Corliss seem like she can’t think of nothing to say, which is near a miracle if you ask me. Anyhow, she nods in my direction. “You remember Rosie, right? She’s going to be helping you out from now on. At your disposal any time you need her.”
Bobby turns his eyes on me. Them eyes so blue, you can’t hardly believe it. I ain’t never seen nothing as blue as Bobby Corliss’s eyes. “That so, Rosie?”
“Yes, Mister Robert,” I say, bowing my head.
“You show some respect now, Rosie!” Miz Corliss snaps at me. I thought I’d been doing that by bowing. “You call my son Mister Corliss now. Or else, sir.”
“Yes, sir, Mister Corliss,” I mumble.
“That’s better,” Miz Corliss say. She feel better ‘bout herself now that she got some yelling out of her system. “Now, Rosie, you take Mister Corliss’s bags and we’ll go inside.”
Miz Corliss, she march on into the house like she in a parade or something. Bobby though hangs back with me. He take one of the heaviest bags right out of my arms and put it in his lap. “By the way,” he say to me, “you don’t have to call me Mister Corliss. Bobby is fine.”
“Yes, sir, Mister Bobby,” I say.
“No,” he say. “Not Mister Bobby. Just Bobby.”
I don’t know what he’s playing at. Miz Corliss will up and go crazy if she hear me calling her son by his first name. And he know that.
“Don’t worry about my mother,” he say, winking at me. “Please. Just Bobby.”
I watch him as he pushes up the ramp Charlie and I done laid out for him earlier today. He nearly loses the bag on his lap as he does it, but he gets up there without any mishap. The front door’s still open and it’s a tight squeeze but he can make it through.
“We rearranged everything,” Miz Corliss say, looking right proud as punch, even though me and Charlie did most of the work. “Your new bedroom is in the den.”
“Uh huh,” Bobby say. He casts a glance up the stairs and for just one little second, he get this look on his face. Like he real sad. But then he’s all smiles again one second later. “It looks great, Mother. I appreciate it.”
Except Miz Corliss, she didn’t plan this so good as she thought. The way the furniture arranged, Bobby can’t get through the whole of the living room to get to his new bedroom. Miz Corliss see him trying to make it between the sofa and the coffee table and she burst into tears. She crying so hard, she fall onto the couch, her face in her hands. “I’m so sorry,” she cry. “I’m so sorry, Bobby.”
Bobby reach over and shove the coffee table aside so he can get to his mama. He puts his arm around her. “It’s okay, Mother, really,” he say. “I’m okay. I’m really okay. I swear it.”
I don’t know what Bobby Corliss is playing at though. He ain’t okay. Boy’s got no legs. And ‘less they growing back, he be in for a world of hurt.