|Respectful Beatings For Very Good Help
G. K. Wuori
Wendy Alice and I talked secretly on the phone quite often. Now
and then she came over but there was always some risk with that. Her "free time"
was at her employers discretion and as often as not was simply denied.
Since my job was with an old American
man I could give Wendy Alice such time as she needed whenever she needed it. I dont
believe we ever abused that flexibility.
My contractor, Mr. Longfellow, had been an executive
whod made decisions and turned those decisions into money, a great deal of money
both for himself and the business he started as a young man. He wasnt making
decisions anymore and I think he missed that. Hes a healthy man without a schedule
but I think that causes some problems for him. His focus can be intense; it can also be
He asked me one time what Id done before
coming to this country, what my work had been, "in that place, wherever it is, that
country from which youve come."
"High level," I said, "but I
dont want you to think Im dissatisfied. Munitions, mostly, procurement. It
tends to be womens work over there."
"Do tell," he said. "Thats
"Most of our junior executives are dead,"
"Suggests an opportunity," was his only
response to that.
Mr. Longfellow had heart scars on his chest and wandered the big house without any clothes
on (hed asked my permission on this), something he had to do, he said, but he
didnt want me to think him crazy.
Id had brothers, I said, so I understood
nakedness. His daughter did not.
His daughter had seen to good locks on the doors and
I was the only one who had the keys.
"He is not to go outside," she told me,
"not naked for Gods sakes, not even if he sees a whole dictionary out there
filled with the new words of whatever he wants to be now."
"This place, though," I said, "it is
so big all the growing things, and he has his own forest. If it makes him happy
"Do I sound as though Im seeking a
consensus?" she said. The woman can be very abrasive in her conversations and I
dont believe she is yet thirty.
"No, maam," I said.
"Mr. Longfellow is retired," she said.
"He is not dead. Friends come by, unannounced as you well know, and his face still
appears in the advertisements. His image still powers large schemes and fuels substantial
investments. Care must be taken."
As any servant would do, I merely listened. I was no
longer a citizen of any country at all, so the only customs I knew were those of the
world. Gravity came to mind, along with light and air. All else was subject to change.
Wendy Alice, who is usually about as diplomatic as a nervous skunk (yes, we have them in
my homeland), handled him quite well the one time she came over and Mr. Longfellow
suggested we have tea together.
"This time of day," he said, "for
decades it was always cocktails along with the callous planning of yet one more imperial
scheme. Tedious. Tea, I think, is so much more civilized. Do you suppose we have any
"I believe we do, sir," I said.
Wendy Alice, not at all shocked by the serviceable
nakedness of this older man, sat at the table on the large veranda, took one sip of tea,
then rose quickly and said, "Your hair. Its all wrong. We must do something
He was agreeable which, according to his daughter,
was a new trait. She seemed to think it something worthy of suspicion and that puzzled me.
Most of the people Id met so far seemed to regard what they called an
"easygoing" nature as something quite virtuous. Mr. Longfellow had that, even if
he hadnt always. I dont recall him ever refusing me anything though he always
took a moment to deliberate even the smallest request.
"Youve trimmed hair, Wendy Alice?" I
"How hard can it be?"
Apparently, not hard at all, at least for Wendy
Alice. For myself, I had a moment of strange cultural detachment, the kind of thing where
I saw Wendy Alice and I comfortably at work and at peace in the middle of more wealth than
the entirety of my country could have put together. We were relaxed as a gentle sun poked
through a canopy of greenery. Though salaried servants earning small wages, we chatted and
walked barefoot on a polished marble terrace while a naked Mr. Longfellow explained in
great detail something about a Mr. Dow and a Mr. Jones and their various industries. It
was almost frightening to be so well-set and to have almost no idea where I was.
Mr. Longfellows hair, too, ended up looking
quite professionally trimmed.
Well beyond that veranda and past several gardens regularly tended by Mexican boys is a
small lake. A whole flock of noisy ducks is usually on the lake and Im required to
take two loaves of bread down there every day and feed it all to those ducks. Theyre
noisy creatures and seem generally irritated about something all the time. The water in
the lake is quite clean, and its big enough so that much of it is open to the sun
and it sparkles. Very soothing, although it encourages moments of deep thinking and I try
to avoid that. What Americans call "soul searching" can be quite uncomfortable
when the soul has no practical reference points. I dont even recognize the stars in
the night sky.
One time, however, I went out to the lake to take
care of the ducks and Mr. Longfellow slipped out behind me. I hadnt locked the door,
not since the time hed told me that ducks were like rats with wings and if he had
his way the whole bunch of them would be scooped up and sent to a Chinese restaurant
somewhere. I guess I assumed in that a certain dislike of his own (as they say)
It could have been a worrisome time; certainly, had
his daughter seen him she would have thought him ready to leap the hedges and strike out
over the land seeking all those things of which she disapproved. Im not sure I ever
saw quite that much energy in the man but I had learned not to dispute that
As I began to walk back from the lake I saw him.
Quite casually, and giving me only the slightest of nods, he walked up to a long outdoor
table and started to talk. He was conducting a meeting, I think, a successful meeting
where there were good things to report, though he told me much later he preferred to
conduct those meetings where things had been unbelievably bad, unbelievably sour.
Redemption, he said, nearly always involves second chances.
That first day, though, I simply alternated between
watching the ducks and watching him and listening.
I think thats commendable and certainly
ought to be looked into
Youll simply have to make do with what you
have. Well all understand that
Would you like me to talk to him? Youll do it?
I finally told him that his people needed to get
back to work and that his lunch was ready and it was time to go in. I went out later with
a water hose and washed the table where hed peed all over it. There are things about
meetings hidden agendas you often dont know about, but I couldnt
begin to guess what his peeing all over the table meant in terms of things his staff had
to know. Since his staff now existed only in his mind (except for me, perhaps his
daughter), I assumed hed explain it to them at a later meeting.
There were other times when I would accidentally
leave a door open and the result was always the same. He couldnt have predicted my
inadvertency, but he was always prepared for the meetings and the meetings seemed to go
well. I assumed redemption was prominent at those meetings, since I continued to have to
hose down the picnic table.
Wendy Alice finds Mr. Longfellow amusing. She asked me once if Id go running after
him should he ever decide he had more grandiose meetings to attend, a whole world hoping
his words would amuse or heal, "or the mister himself hoping his body will provide
Wendy Alice said she had visions of him leaping over
ditches and prancing down roadways as he worked his way to the train station in town, his
manly thing flopping like the tail on a happy horse.
"No one should be naked out in the world,"
I told her. "Dont you remember those policemen who made us stand naked on the
highway? Where was that the Indiana? We are not suited to such things and I would
do whatever was necessary to save him."
Anyway, I concluded, it seemed mostly to be when
hed had a few drinks that this need for motion overcame him, and, at least so far,
parading his humanitas before an indifferent populace had not surfaced as an agenda item.
Wendy makes more money than I do, and she has the
Socialized Security paid for her and I dont. But I sometimes think even America
cant contain all of her dreams, her big plans for legal status, then politics and
her whispery voice on the evening news voicing novel solutions to ancient problems.
Someday, too, she says, she will have money, and then there will be photos of her in
magazines where shes looking relaxed at important parties, a crystal trinket filled
with white wine in her hand. Wendy Alice knows languages, and she knows, she says
her father a notable politician before he disappeared the rickety places where
secrets are hidden, "which branches on the tree will break and which will hold, and
how to use a lemon so as to tolerate the smell of death."
I am sometimes near tears when she says these
things, since so often she says them with a swollen lip, a bruised eye, now and then her
rear quarter so sore from being kicked she cant sit down. All she says, though, is
that she has a streak of arrogance no one has yet been able to remove so these
"Its your fault, then?" I said.
"I have a lot of ambitions," she said.
"Thats considered honorable in this
place," I said.
"I know, I know. But Im paid for my
actualities, not my hopes."
"What does that mean?" I said.
"I have not yet directed myself into productive
channels of effective accomplishment. Its a temporary failing."
"Sometimes you talk like books I dont
want to read," I said, "and while I respect your channels of
they are, all Im concerned about right now is this right here, this bruise.
Its about the size of a mango."
"I know, but the baby woke up in the middle of
the night. She was crying and full of bubbles so I thought it was all right to give her
"You gave her Coca-Cola? A baby?" I said.
"Something my mother taught me long ago. I try
to use some of those things so that I dont forget them. Actually, the baby had these
three really big gas belches and then went right to sleep."
"So you might have found a cure for
"Bubbles. Baby bubbles."
Dolly, Wendy Alices employer, had found the
Coke can in the nursery the next morning, and there had been, Wendy Alice said,
"quizzing moments about a sticky lacquer surrounding the babys mouth,"
then moments of a necessary (Wendy Alices word) beating.
Just then, Mr. Longfellow came into the kitchen and
sat down with us. He had shaved himself and put on a three-piece suit, a red necktie, and
wing-tipping shoes. Hed brushed his hair the way Wendy Alice told him to after
shed trimmed it. He looked distinguished, very sophisticated, a composed man whose
only flaw was that hed neglected to put on a shirt.
"Do you remember Wendy Alice?" I asked
"An intern from Accounting, correct?" he
That might have been a quip, his lazy humor, but you
never knew. Like most diminishing men, he tended to make light of his losses, to let
mockery fill an increasingly frightening void. Both Wendy Alice and I nodded politely.
"Regularly beaten, though, as I recall,"
Wendy Alice quietly whispered, "yes," and
then Mr. Longfellow said, "You provoke these things, you know. Thats the way it
The next time Wendy Alice came over she had her left
arm in a sling.
"Really minor," she said. "I was
dusting under the babys crib and had one arm through the bars so I could pat her
tummy. Got up too quick, though, and dislocated my shoulder."
"The expression," I said, "the
American expression, which you dont even have to understand to really feel it, is,
Would you buy a pre-owned car from this woman?"
"Its hard to have a friend you cant
lie to," Wendy Alice said. "Mrs. Dolly popped it right out trying to flip me,
but I fell on the davenport so it wasnt so bad."
"Flip you? What means this flip you?"
"Like trying to turn me upside down."
"Oh," I said. "She did that."
"Its a big davenport," she said.
"Youve been to the hospital?" I
"There was a plumber in the house at the time.
Weve been having problems with one of the banquet sinks in the kitchen. This
plumber, though, it turns out he used to be a muscle therapist in the old Yugoslavia. He
knew right away what to do and he told Mrs. Dolly how to make the sling. Shes still
angry, though, since I was only able to pour coffee and tea at her party last night."
"You make me hurt, Wendy Alice."
Wendy Alice had had her hair cut short once wed found our places. It seems to frame
her face in a curly dust, her blue eyes soft and always slightly teary. In our homeland,
she was thought thin and not healthy, but in this place the staring men call her a
knockout (an aggressive term). Wendy Alice says the short hair will be necessary when she
stands for a public office (certain preferences of the voters), or for presenting the
proper dignity in the boardrooms of the shaking and moving people where it will be her
destiny to amaze everyone with her views and her plans.
Wendy Alice said Mrs. Dolly never apologized after
beating her. I was shocked the first time she told me that a grand gaffe in
etiquette since everyone knows that in all things there should always be the appearance
that whatever was necessary was not necessarily wanted. Servants back home have often
found themselves beaten into inheritances through the penitential largess of their
I began to worry about Wendy Alice and to think we
might not be understanding what was happening. At home, a High One beats a Low One out of
respect. Even the people of salaries do it, though I have heard those beatings are largely
symbolic. Anyway, it is a way of saying that, in all charity, I would have you better than
you are, that I would have you more astute, less lax, and swifter on the uptake, alert to
flaws, more diligent, cleaner. It is a faith preached by fist or cane, but Wendy Alice was
becoming increasingly mottled by her yieldings beneath that faith.
Softly, Wendy Alice told me one time, "I would
have her be instructional and she is not that."
"Very cold," I said. "Thats
always been my sense."
"Not even therapeutic," she added.
"Misbehavior is a disease easily cured," I
"Indeed," said Wendy Alice, "but
there is little to be learned having your head pushed into the water of a toilet or your
hand placed upon an electric stove burner."
"Shes done these things to you, Wendy
"I heal quite well," she said, "quite
efficiently, and even though she might be sour about it, she always adjusts my workload
following the punishments.
"Nevertheless," she concluded, "if
your superiors arent also your teachers why do we have them?"
"What does Mr. Dolly think of all of
this?" I asked Wendy Alice.
"His name is Jim," she said.
Wendy Alice rarely saw him because he traveled a lot
in his work. When he was home Wendy Alice had to stay in one of the yard houses because
Mrs. Dolly said Jim had certain biases, prejudices about women and he was not to be
trusted. If she was needed when Jim was home, Mrs. Dolly made Wendy Alice wear raggedy
clothes and shed rub wet meal trash into Wendy Alices underarms so that she
would smell offensive. Sometimes she put cigarette ashes in Wendy Alices hair or
rubbed them on her face.
"I think thats more than a little
disgusting," I said.
Wendy Alice said Mrs. Dolly appeared to have a lot
of questions and very few answers that satisfied her.
She also told me that Mrs. Dolly and Jim were
religious people, too, who prayed all the time. They ate their meals with a prayer and
attended worship services. Mrs. Dolly, too, seemed always to be holding up the behaviors
of her Jesus as some kind of model.
"Very personal," Wendy Alice said.
"Sometimes I think she regards him as yet one more thing she owns."
When Wendy Alice told Mrs. Dolly that she, herself,
had been a Christian all her life, she was quite excited, thinking at last she might have
found a bridge out of her naughtiness (Wendy Alices word), or at the very least
something they could talk about that didnt suggest the total hopelessness of Wendy
Alices every waking moment.
Mrs. Dolly, however, was not at all kind, not at all
willing to admit any commonality of memberships.
She put a bar of white soap in Wendy Alices
mouth and made her keep it there for a whole day much to the amusement of the
children. Wendy Alice giggled when she told me that because it reminded her shed
swallowed so much soapy saliva that day she was passing soap bubbles into the toilet for
None of this was very good.
Both Wendy Alice and I well understood how the mule
in one country can be a jackass in another, but Wendy Alice wanted training, she
wanted skills (an American notion), even the craft that would help her build
the ladder upward that would one day find her giving speeches before the entirety of the
United Nations in New York (the city). She felt, instead, that she was doing nothing more
than bothering her relatives with repeated cellphone calls for information on the healing
of this, the mending of that. Sometimes, she said, she felt like an athlete competing in a
faraway land for prizes that seemed ever more elusive.
I wrote home and had my aunty send me a copy of Respectful
Beatings For Very Good Help, long a classic in my country, and gave it to Wendy Alice
who in turn gave it to Mrs. Dolly.
"Puzzling," was how Wendy Alice began when
I asked her what the reaction had been to the book.
"Did she say anything?" I asked.
Wendy Alice furrowed her brow up so tightly that I
finally reached over with my fingers and began massaging her forehead.
"She said, Eat it," Wendy
"Eat it?" I asked.
"The book," she said. "I had to eat
it, page by page. Of course I couldnt really do it, but I ate some of it, and then,
while I was kneeling over the toilet in the lawnsmens shed and regurgitating, she
told me I might have to be put in the jail for a few nights because my attitude was
appalling. I couldnt remember what that word meant. Actually, it was hard to
remember anything because she was also kicking me on my hindquarters while I was being
sick. It was a very busy time."
Slowly, I began bringing Wendy Alice up with Mr. Longfellow.
Yes, yes, he said, he remembered her, of course he
did, very bright-eyed, something foreign about her, wasnt there? Then Id lose
him to something else for a time a recitation of useful planets, a breakdown of
something called high-risk derivatives. Finally being very unsatisfied with my
progress I had him take off his clothes one morning (pajama tops and flippity-flop
shoes) and follow me down to the long table near the duck pond.
"Youve called a special meeting,
sir," I said.
"So I have. Are we all here?"
"I believe so."
"Good enough. You have the agenda?"
Small formulas, I thought. Delicate habits.
Sometimes the entire largeness of a life is nothing more than training for the smallest of
"Would you mind if Wendy Alice came to live
with us?" I said.
He held his hands up to stop me and said quite
gently, "Information, please. Hard data."
He wondered what other families had done in similar
situations and if I had researched all the many liability issues. There was the matter of
duties, too, and certain questions about compatibility. Finally, he wanted to know what
the point was to all of this, where we were going.
"Shes being beaten," I said, my
He looked me in the eye then and said,
"Theres more than one way to see a beating."
That was very American and I saw it as progress: if
theres more than one way to see a problem, there ought to be at least one acceptable
I didnt press him on the point that day. He
mentioned something about constituting a small commission to examine the situation and I
said Id look into it. As the expression goes, Id broken the ice. That was
enough for one day.
Nevertheless, I worried that things were going too
slow. Shortly after our duck pond meeting, Wendy Alice came over and her nose was bleeding
and broken. I had to set it (doctors not being an option for some of us, and Yugoslavian
plumbers arent always around) and fill it with wet tea bags to stop the bleeding.
"There is nowhere I can go," she said to
"I know, my darling," I said.
Mr. Longfellow finally told me hed take the
issue up with his board, a prospect I might have found discouraging had I not listened to
so many of those solitary conferences and knew that he often worked out very real problems
at those times. The brickwork is in need of attention, Mr. Longfellow. He took it
up with his board and a whole crew of masons came in to make the repairs. That sore on
your leg needs attention, Mr. Longfellow. Shortly after that meeting the daughter was
summoned and medical care was arranged.
"The addition of residents is a serious matter
and not a decision I care to make on my own. Consultation, you see, consultation.
Thats the essence of everything that happens on this earth"
"Can you tell them these are urgent
circumstances?" I asked.
"Ill do my best," he said.
As hero to Wendy Alice, I had saddled a limping
horse (as my father used to say). I knew that, yet I had to hope. We were tradition, Wendy
Alice and I, new passengers on an old transit and it all had to work. Failure meant
deportation and a life spent shelling walnuts or canning fish brains. Wendy Alice would be
Senator of her arms and legs and nothing else that they might once again be
unbruised being but a small consolation.
"Eleanor," Mr. Longfellow said to me one
day, "I wish a meeting with Dolly, here in my study, early in the afternoon, perhaps
tomorrow or the day after. Ill want brandy, shell want an herbal tea."
Not wishing to give him time for second thoughts, I
wrote a note on his stationery and had Wendy Alice include it in Mrs. Dollys daily
mail. This was a thrilling thing, and even more so on the day of the meeting as Mr.
Longfellow dressed in his most dignified clothing, shirt included.
"Eleanor," he said, "would you see
that my check ledger is on top of my desk?"
I said I would do that. Then he added, "Call
Dolly, Eleanor, and tell her Id appreciate it if shed bring her girl with her
to the meeting. Wendy Alice, is it?"
I prepared the drinks and some sweet and salty
foods, nodded only slightly to Wendy Alice as she followed Mrs. Dolly into the house and
the small library near the front door.
"Eleanor?" Mr. Longfellow said,
"would you come in please and take the minutes?"
I was not familiar with that expression, but caught
it quickly enough as he handed me a small tablet and a pencil. He spoke then, his voice
firm and clear. I still have all the notes. It was a long speech about democracy, very
lucid, certain points emphasized with important pauses. He said he understood Mrs.
Dollys investment, yet he also understood fair play surely the keystone of
certain things we hold dear.
"We," he said, "you and I, Dolly, are
a beginning for these folks. We can give them strength and understanding. They, in turn,
can give us infinity, a thousand years of pax humana."
There was a great deal more, and for as much as
I could see Mr. Longfellow passing that secret door again and again, that door into his
nakedness, that room where people listened to him and fought over the chance to do his
bidding, where he wrote unsent letters to the Pope, to presidents, to kings, and corporate
journeymen, where he could take a beautifully jeweled letter opener and cut small wounds
onto his skin and then ask me, "But where, where I need to know, does this hand come
from, this arm to whom does it belong? It is insistent. It is tenacious. It will
not go away." Indeed, that room offered great pleasures and all the many solitudes
hed spent a whole lifetime waiting for but he stayed out of it as he talked
to Mrs. Dolly, something shining in him that I told Wendy Alice later was what the
Americans always worshipped as professional.
Mrs. Dolly left then with a check in her hand.
Near the front door she said to me, "Eleanor, arrange to have the girls things
She left then, as had Mr. Longfellow off to
his bedroom, I assumed, or perhaps out to the gardens in back. I would allow him that
luxury without surveillance, allow him to board old boats sailing for Hong Kong or
Bremerhaven if that was his fancy. Whatever hed been master of for all those years
had not left him yet, and I told myself I would not pollute his triumph.
Alone then, Wendy Alice came over to me and we
embraced. I told her I was hugging the future of the country, but she could only laugh and
say, "Who is Eleanor?"
"I have no idea," I said.