NOTHING IN RETURN
by Roberta Tennant
The wind was strong and relentless on this cold November day, and Ethel Mae Harris, a woman in her late fifties, was shivering as she waited at the bus stop. She stood on a winding street, high in the wooded hills above the city, where large, comfortable homes thrust their high roofs through a tangle of trees. The woman's legs ached as she shifted from one foot to another on the hard pavement, and in her back there was the same old twinge of deep pain, that would get worse with the rainy season. It was aching more now because she had lifted too much at work that morning.
"Ethel Mae, you're going to kill yourself one of these days," Dr. Granger had said last week. "You've got to stop doing that heavy work." She had looked at her hands and said nothing, knowing that she could not stop, and would not. The woman had been at one of her day-work jobs, in the twelve room home of the Wilmont Peters, since eight that morning. It was now close to three, and she had still to buy groceries and stop by the post office.
In the Peters' home, the wife glanced with a pleased expression at her spotless house, while she drank coffee and talked to a friend over the phone: "I'm really looking forward to the party tonight, Susan! It's going to be just lovely. I've had Ethel Mae over all day, of course, and you know what a good job she does. You should see my floors!" Mrs. Peters kicked off her shoes and stretched in her comfortable chair as she spoke. "She's the most marvelous worker. I don't know what I would do without her. Do you know, she's worked for me for six years, and she's never been late, never missed a day! And her rates are so low! Sometimes I feel just a shade guilty about that, but then some of these people are such clever managers, and of course she gets a welfare check for her little grandson."
At the post office, the woman stood in line on the polished floor. Her long brown coat was worn at the sleeves, and the faded blue hat she wore looked unsteady, cresting like a small boat on her black, wiry hair that was streaked with gray and pulled into a knot. Perspiration formed on her dark forehead, and the veins stood out on her legs. ("Now Ethel Mae, if you keep on your feet so much I won't be responsible for those veins," Dr. Granger had said. "We'll just have to take them out, you know.") At last she reached the window and purchased a money order which she made out in the name of the man who owned her house, placed in an envelope, and dropped in the appropriate mail slot.
The following evening, in a large house overlooking the Bay, the woman's landlord, Mr. Todd, smiled appreciatively as he opened the envelopes with the rent money. It was the first of the month, and he was pleased to see that all the payments were on time for a change. It had been rough putting the Dias family out that time, he thought, what with the kids and all. But it had to be done, and it had shown the rest of them that he meant business.
"Greg," called his wife from the kitchen, "are we going to make the boat payment this month?"
"You bet, Honey," the man chuckled as he slit open the envelope that contained Mrs. Harris' money order. "All the rents are in, and here's one I never have to worry about, Ethel Mae's check, on time as usual. I can always count on her!"
"Does she still have that house on Center Street? I thought you were going to tear that old wreck down a year ago!"
His wife's voice sounded faintly annoyed, and the man looked pained. "Now, Honey, that house is in fine condition, especially for that neighborhood. Just needs a few minor repairs. Tell you what, soon as we get ahead, maybe this Spring, I'll fix up those few little problems for old Ethel Mae. She's been living there for ten years now, never missed a month's rent. I guess we owe it to her." And with a satisfied smile, the man put down his mail for a moment to watch through his picture window, as the sun began to set over the waters of the Bay.
The sun was going down over West Oakland when the woman finally reached home. She balanced a small bag of groceries carefully on one arm while she unlocked the door. Inside the house, instead of feeling warm, she began to shiver uncontrollably. The cracks in the walls admitted the November wind, and the ancient heater was worse than useless. She was afraid to turn it on at all. Instead, she lit all the gas burners on the stove, set the coffee pot on one burner, and then went to the bedroom door. Her eleven-year-old grandson was asleep fully clothed on the bed, where he had lain down after playing. She watched him for awhile and then went to the window where she could see the sun going down over the towers and cranes of a waterfront factory. The window had been broken months ago by a stray rock from the street. It was patched with cardboard that could not keep out the wind. It carried a sharp, corrosive smell to her nostrils, and she prayed inwardly, "If Mr. Todd can just get the window fixed before it gets too much colder."
Wearily she turned away from the window and walked to the kitchen table, which instead of a cloth was covered with a month-old issue of the local newspaper. Silently, she sat down with the telegram in her hands and began to study it as if she had never seen it before. She had read it through that morning when it had first been delivered, but all day she had not had time for what she gave way to now: the inward twisting, the trembling of hands, the water that formed in her eyes.
Once she looked up at a photograph on a shelf, a portrait of a young black man in a trim Army uniform. Then she crumpled the telegram of wasted regrets in her hand and leaned over the table as her shoulders shook rhythmically. Her eyes were staring and unfocused so that the headlines on the yellowing newspaper did not catch her attention; she had seen the words so often. "Welfare costs soar!" it screamed in faded letters. "Deadbeats take dole and give nothing in return!" The house grew darker, and the water that fell from the woman's eyes formed a tiny pool that was absorbed round the words "nothing in return." It was very still in the room, but outside, with an inexorable rush and moan, the wind took the house in its chill embrace, and the winter rains began to fall.
Note:This story was written after the author had spent five years as a social worker for the Alameda County Welfare Department, in West and East Oakland, West Berkeley, and Alameda. You may be absolutely certain that it is based upon not just one true story, but many.
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