Isaac’s mother, Mrs. Elizabeth DuPree, owner of the DuPree Boardinghouse for Negro Men in Chicago, had standards. She took only the men what worked the day shift at the slaughterhouses. She said they were a better class than the ones what worked nights. No drinking, no swearing, no women visitors in the rooms—those were a few of Mrs. DuPree’s rules.
“My responsibility is to do my part in advancing the respectability of hardworking Negroes,” she told the men when she collected the rent every Saturday. “We’ve got to be as good, even a little better, than white folks if we’re ever going to get ahead.”
That was how Mrs. DuPree talked.
The men listened to her, showing their respect by nodding when Mrs. DuPree fixed them with a sharp look. What they said, though, when she wasn’t around, was that they stayed on, paid the extra dollar on the week, and put up with her fancy standards all because of the fine meals I cooked. Not that Mrs. DuPree would admit to that. She was forever pointing out that her boardinghouse was the cleanest in the city. Her house was quality; it was on the far edge of the stockyard district. Quality and cleanliness—that was why her rooms were full. No one said different. The bedclothes were changed every other Monday, and the outhouse shined like a new Indian-head penny. But it was the food the men admired out loud.
Six days a week for nearly eight years, I cooked at Mrs. DuPree’s. Every morning, long before dawn, I let myself in the back door, put on a fresh apron, and fired up the coal cookstove. I was at home in that kitchen with its canisters of flour and sugar on the shelf, the coffee grinder bolted to the edge of the wooden counter, and the icebox by the cellar door. In that kitchen that wasn’t really mine at all, I baked rows and rows of buttery biscuits. My bacon was crisp, and I fried the eggs until the edges curled up and browned just a tad. That was how the men liked them. I perked the coffee deep and strong. After breakfast, I sent the men off to the slaughterhouses with ham sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper. When the dishes were washed, I baked my pies, sometimes butterscotch cream, other times apple or cherry, depending on the season. On Saturdays the men counted on me to make a cake, maybe gingerbread or chocolate or sometimes a white cake.
“What’s for dinner, Miss Reeves?” the men asked me most every morning. “Fried chicken or maybe pork? Roast beef?” “That sounds good,” I liked to say, teasing. I wasn’t going to tell them, and they knew it. Those men hated their work at the slaughterhouses. They deserved one good surprise in a day’s time.
Early evenings, the men showed up in the alley behind the boardinghouse, their shoulders bent and their heads down. They had washed at the slaughterhouses and left their overalls and boots stiff with blood there. But being of a particular nature, Mrs. DuPree made them wash with soap at the backyard pump before coming inside. I watched them from the kitchen window. In the winter these washings were hurried, the men shaking in the icy wind. In the summer, though, the men scrubbed their hands, faces, and necks hard, doing their best to rid themselves of the animal grease that worked its way into their skin. But even the best scrubbing couldn’t clean spirits worn down by the butchering of screaming animals.
I liked to think my dinners perked up the men some. They sat elbow to elbow on the two benches along the dining table and joshed, bragging about having the dirtiest jobs or about having the meanest bosses. This went on until I served their pie. Those men loved pie, but for some reason it changed their talk. Maybe it was because pie made them think about their people back home. Maybe it took them back to when they were boys and how they watched their mamas roll the crust. I didn’t know. But when I served pie, the men’s voices got deeper and the joshing quieted down.
One of these days, the men said after licking their forks clean, they’d quit their stinking jobs and go back home, cash in their pockets. Looking back, they said, thinking about it now, they weren’t sure why they ever left. If someone had told them what it was like in the slaughterhouses, they would have stayed put.
It was the money that brought them to the city, that’s what it was. But who could save money in a place like Chicago where nothing was free? Back home, now that was a different story. Neighbors were friendly, bosses were fair, and the girls were the prettiest in the world. Home, the men said, stretching the word long. Home. Someday, they’d go on back home.
I listened to the men while I scrubbed dried-up, crusty pans in the kitchen. This dining-room talk was nothing new. I had been working for Mrs. DuPree since I was seventeen.
When the coffeepot was empty and their plates scraped clean, most of the men went upstairs. Some of them played cards in their rooms or wrote letters home. Others moseyed into the kitchen. I’d come to expect this from the ones what didn’t have wives or sweethearts waiting for them in some far-off place like Louisiana or Alabama.
At first, Mrs. DuPree didn’t allow the men in the kitchen, but by the time I was twenty-five, she pretended not to notice. Likely she thought I was an old maid and that the men looked at me as nothing more than an older sister. But maybe there was a spot of kindness buried somewhere in her heart. She had a son of her own far away from home. Maybe she understood that a man needed to lean against a kitchen wall. Watching a woman tidy up was good for easing homesickness.
But not all of the men saw me as a sister. Some of them tried to court me.
One particular evening it was Thomas Lee Patterson who spoke up. Four other men ringed the kitchen. “Miss Reeves,” he said. “That strawberry pie was right tasty.”
“Crust didn’t do like it should,” I said, drying the last pan.
“Puts my grandma’s to shame, it was that good.”
“Better not let her hear that.”
He grinned, straightened up, and looked at the other men. I felt their eyes telling him to go on, give it a try. I shook my head a little to warn him off . Thomas Lee didn’t seem to see. Instead, he took a steadying breath. “What say, Miss Reeves? How about me walking you on home tonight?”
The air tensed.
“Oh my,” I said. I tilted my head, acting like I was considering the offer. But I wasn’t. Thomas Lee was as good as the next slaughterhouse man, but that was what he was: a slaughterhouse man. I had lived in the district since I was eleven and knew all there was to know about such men. Dad was one until he slipped and fell in a mess of hog guts and blood, knocking himself senseless for a night and a day. When he came to, his face drooped, his left hand dangled by his side, and one of his legs didn’t do like it should. He never was able to work again.
There was something about slaughterhouse work that soured a man; even my mother said so. He could start off all right, but if he stayed more than a year, the work laid him low. Killing animals for a living broke a man’s dreams, turned him bitter and mean. Or turned him to drink. That wasn’t the kind of man I wanted. I wanted a man what aimed to better himself, what wasn’t afraid to look inside a book, and was willing to save his money for something grander than a pint of beer.
Thomas Lee Patterson was a handsome man. But he’d been in the slaughterhouse for nearly three years. He’d never get out.
“Much obliged,” I said to him, “but you know my father. Most likely he’s out there now, on the stoop, waiting for me.” That was because, I could have added, Dad didn’t want anybody courting me, he didn’t want me getting married. Him and Mama counted on my wages.
“Yes, ma’am, I do. Men back home, that’s how they do for their daughters. It’s just that your daddy, he drags that leg of his so bad, thought maybe it’d go easier for him if somebody else was seeing to you.”
“Where you from, Mr. Patterson?”
“Well then. You’re a Southern gentleman just like Dad.” I took off my apron and put it in a laundry basket for Trudy, the housemaid, to launder. “Now out of my kitchen,” I said, flapping my hands. “All of you. Out.”
“But—,” Thomas Lee said.
“Out,” I said as if I didn’t know his meaning. One of the other men laughed. I shot him a hard look, shushing him. Thomas Lee’s head drooped. I stepped close to him, wanting to make him feel better. “It’s my father. He’s old-fashioned,” I whispered, shrugging my shoulders as if to say that otherwise it’d be different. He drew in some air and gave me a quick glance as he left. He didn’t believe me but pride kept him from pressing. Pride, I also knew, would keep Thomas Lee out of the kitchen from then on. He’d have to find something else to do to fill the lonesome evening hours, and that made me feel bad. But not bad enough to change my mind.
Alone in the kitchen, I hung up the last frying pan and put the footstool back in the corner. I set the dining table for the morning, and then, after giving the kitchen one last look to make sure everything was in its place, I turned off the electric lights. Outside in the crisp April evening, Dad leaned hard on his cane and heaved himself up off the top step of the back stoop. He tossed his glowing cigarette butt at a rat. He missed.
“Ready?” he said. Then, seeing the cloth sack in my hand, Dad pointed. “Something I like? Fried pork, maybe?”
One afternoon not long after, I was stoking up the cookstove fire, getting it hot enough to bake my bread, when Mrs. DuPree swooped into the kitchen, her round body making the room feel too tight for the both of us. It wasn’t like her to bother with me in the middle of the day. Afternoons were when Mrs. DuPree liked to go over her accounts and order supplies for the house. Either that or call on friends, sit in their parlors, sip tea from fine bone china, and exchange ideas about how best to advance the Negro race.
“Rachel,” Mrs. DuPree said that day, “I want you to help Trudy with the cleaning. You’ll have to stay late a few evenings.”
“Oh,” I said, surprised. We’d just done spring cleaning last month.
“My son’s coming home. He’ll be on leave, expects to be here for several weeks.”
My heart fluttered.
Mrs. DuPree waved an opened envelope. She put on her eyeglasses, pulled out the letter, and read it to herself, her lips putting shape to each word. “He’s to arrive next Wednesday. That’s if the trains run on time.” She peered out the kitchen window. Elevated railroad tracks crisscrossed every which way two blocks over. “Still surprises me to think they have trains out there in Nebraska.”
“Nebraska,” I said, but I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about Isaac DuPree. I had met him once before when Mrs. DuPree took sick with pneumonia and the doctor declared her on death’s doorstep. Isaac rushed home; he was just back from winning the war in Cuba. That had been five years ago. I had given up on ever seeing him again.
Mrs. DuPree pushed her eyeglasses back up and studied the letter like the words might say something new. She was a hard one to know, I thought. Most widows would be smiling with joy to see their only child. But that wasn’t Mrs. DuPree’s way, at least not in front of the help. But all the same, Mrs. DuPree was excited. Her heartbeat showed in her neck. I hoped my own heartbeat wasn’t so easy to read.
“I want this house shining,” Mrs. DuPree said, “every pot, every pan, every inch of it shining. Even behind the cookstove. He’s been out in the wilderness so long I’m afraid he’s forgotten how civilized people live.”
“Oh yes, ma’am.”
“And I want the food to be good. I’ll make up a list of his favorites.”
I smiled. “I’ll do my best.”
“See that you do.” She eyed me. My smile was too big to suit her. I made it go away. She said, “Start with the floors—get the marks up. And I want the silver polished and the sideboard waxed.” I nodded and she left.
I waited until I couldn’t hear her footsteps. Then I drew up my skirt, held it above my ankles, and did a little waltz around the kitchen. Isaac DuPree, I sang to myself. Isaac DuPree was coming home. Coming home.