A Small Fortune
"Behind every great fortune is a great crime." —Balzac
I was always afraid of meeting a dog on the long walks up to those fancy houses or a maid after I rang the bell, but you'd be surprised how many of those big beautiful homes on White Oaks Drive stood unguarded, empty and quiet all day long, waiting for the unexpected.
When I first took up door-to door selling of no-run nylon hose, something I knew I could do because my father in Arizona was a good salesman—encyclopedias, vacuum cleaners, Bibles, he'd done it all—I thought it would be easy. Of course, selling anything is hard, but it was all that was available to me, fresh out of high school, living in Strickland, a small south Georgia town, near the Florida state line. We, my Lebanese husband Francis and I, were newly married, both attending Strickland College, living in his Aunt Yazmine's back bedroom, and we needed extra cash.
"I'm going to sell no-run hose," I declared to my thick-shouldered, ex-football player husband one evening after I read the ad in the newspaper: "Unique Opportunity. Sell no-run nylon hose. No investment required." The hose couldn't be bought in department stores and you could jab them with a sharp point and they wouldn't run.
"Okay, as long as it doesn't cost anything," was Francis's response. He was working part-time after school in his father's dry-goods store, making $40 a week. It was the 50s, and no one enrolled in college made much money.
So, like my Dad always did on entering new territory, I categorized the houses of the prospective customers. First, there were the shotgun shanties on the south end of town where the "coloreds" lived. That's what my Lebanese mother-in-law, Josephine, called African-Americans then, "coloreds". I didn't think much of the term then, having not seen but one or two of those dark-skinned people in Arizona. Besides, some of the Lebanese aunts and uncles were darker and had almost the same tight curly hair, traits I knew better than to point out. But I knew there was no money in those small, leaning houses on the unpaved, rutted roads. Then, there were the old frame houses with shutters, like Aunt Yasmine's, where Francis and I lived. I tried those first.
For two weeks, after classes, I plodded up and down the oak-lined streets, carrying my no-run nylon-hose sampler, but the women who lived in those neighborhoods had no more money than I did. Two dollars a pair was too much, and besides they didn't wear nylons.
Next, I tried selling to the women in the small stucco and brick-veneer ranch styles, the kind of houses that Francis's family, the Smahas, owned and rented out. Those women were home every day and had a little money, but they always had to ask their husbands' permission to buy anything. Also, one of them might be an acquaintance of my mother-in-law, and I didn't want her to know what I was up to. She wouldn't approve of her daughter-in-law selling anything door to door. And I soon realized that a fifty-cent profit on each pair of nylons—that is if I were able to sell a pair for two dollars—was not worth all the time and all the walking.
So, I changed to another company, Beth Marie Cosmetics, and I went to a fourth group of houses, the large, brick, two-storied homes on the half-acre lots on the north end of town, near the country club.
The trouble was that most times those houses were empty. Later on, I figured that the wives, not kept at home by chores or children, were probably out playing golf or bridge, or might even be employed, working like I was. Wherever they were, they and their families, the houses were deserted. The air around the front door would tell me right away, for invariably it was different, heavier with no one inside. No cars in the driveways or in the garages—showing through narrow-glass panels—would be my first clue, but the air would convince me. It was like walking into an eerie zone of patient waiting, making the hairs rise on my arms as I pushed the doorbell. The buzzing, dinging, or bonging—whatever sound the bell made—would wash like sonar through the stillness inside the house, passing from room to room, telling me back at the front door: "Empty. Empty here, too. Only empty rooms behind this door." Empty, that is, of people. I always rang the bell five times in the front, with a little pause of two breaths in between—I counted—and five rings with breaths at the back door, but after the first two rings I'd know for certain. I was never wrong. No one was home.
No sales, I thought, just like the no-run nylon hose, except that now I didn't even get to do my demonstration. And unlike my zero investment in Guaranteed-Never-To-Run Hosiery, which I could afford and at least wear to St. Joseph's Church on Sunday, now I had $23 in a hot pink "tote bag"—what Beth Marie called it—money that Francis had warned me not to spend. My mother-in-law said, "It don't look good for a Smaha woman to work, not outside the home, that is." I shrugged. Though not Lebanese, I was married to her son and obviously was a Smaha woman. I just didn't want to spend what few hours I had after class, cooking and watching the soaps like she did.
And I liked opening the demonstration case with all its different colors of eye shadow, of lipstick and rouge in decorated tubes and vials, all held on plastic tiers by little rubber bands, like a miniature dressing table. The mixed scents of rose and sandalwood and whatever else was in cosmetics would pour out, making me feel beautiful and business-like, all at the same time. I imagined myself, as Beth Marie promised, "striking up friendships with clientele," and eventually not having to sell at all but just take orders over the phone and deliver.
But that first day of selling was a big disappointment. I stood and rang the bell of the third empty house over and over, more times than necessary. Maybe that's how I came up with the five-rings plan afterwards, but right then I was just plain frustrated and angry. I sat down on a wide stone planter by the front door and kicked at a mat with WELCOME cut deep into thick, green pile. The mat moved and the shiny edge of a key showed, which really was no surprise since that's where everyone left house keys in those days and sometimes still do.
Then, without a thought, as though I were a relative that the key had been left for, I picked it up. The flat silver thing lay in my palm for over a minute. A talisman? A temptation? Who knew? I stood and fitted the key into the latch and turned. The heavy, dark-wood door swung open without a sound. I'll never forget that moment, that door: its rough-hewn panels, its hinges and latches made of wrought iron, sort of medieval. It swung slowly inward, seemingly pulled by a rush of cool air. I bent and put the key back under the mat, then straightened, squared my shoulders, and walked right in. I closed the door behind me.
My mind winced at the boldness, at the audacity. Something actually moved inside my skull, moved and divided into layers. It was as if I were in two places at once: first, I was inside the house's front foyer, and then as though the top floor and roof had been lopped off, I was also high above the house and street, seeing my '54 Plymouth back where I'd left it, not wanting to walk and drive in small, separate increments.
"What in the hell are you doing?" I whisper-hissed out into the empty air. For also, in my omniscient, above-everything vision, I imagined the house-owners' car or a police car coming up the street from the other direction.
I started practicing what I would say: "The door was open, and I just stepped inside to see if anything was wrong. I'm just a Beth Marie Cosmetics agent. This is my assigned territory."
I mouthed those words and walked on numb legs across a rose and blue Persian carpet to the edge of the front window. I pushed an antique satin drape aside, giving me a narrow slit to peek out of. And here, too, at the window, inside that silent pink and blue room and sort of again inside my body, I was completely aware—dust came off the drapery—that on-coming trouble might still be waiting. My legs shook, I held on to the wall, but no owner was pulling into the driveway and no policeman was coming up the walk.
I breathed, counted to ten, and then I stepped my way through the silent, empty rooms of the bottom floor. I couldn't call those first hesitant steps walking, for my legs felt too heavy and my feet were weighted down with fear. And in each room I went to a window, pulled back a drapery or a curtain and checked, and always I saw the same well-tended yard and flower beds outside, and thanks to whatever possessed me, all totally devoid of human presences.
The rooms were enormous, each one twice as big as the rooms in Aunt Yazmine's frame house on Thorpe Street. The front two chambers, separated by an arch, were formal and ornate, filled with curved couches and chairs. Oil paintings and watercolors in fancy gold frames hung on the walls, and large art books and ceramic figurines sat on white gilded tables. The back rooms were more comfortable—you could tell the family spent its time there—shelves filled with books lined the walls, and wide, soft-leather chairs and rough-hewn wooden tables were heaped with magazines. Off the den, there was a huge kitchen of stainless steel appliances, like a restaurant. Plants were in every corner and photos on every wall and on every table.
I thought of my mother's home-made draperies and her living-room mirror, charged at Sears and hung over a second-hand sofa to make the room seem larger. I thought of my parents' few things, all fitting into one U-Haul trailer every time they moved from Florida to Arizona and back again. I thought of Francis's and my brass bed that made so much noise and my single wedding photograph on Aunt Yazmine's rickety night stand.
So I walked through the rooms and "plundered". My German grandmother would have called it "plundering" for I looked in closets and pulled drawers open. I didn't touch. Something at first kept me from violating all the things that were revealed, all the material possessions that were loaded into chests and cabinets, held behind doors and inside bureau drawers. The owners of that house had so much. Quantity, that's what impressed me, the sheer numbers: neat stacks of linens piled onto shelves and inside cupboards; boxes, of who knows what, although labeled, lined up in closets and stored in cabinets and drawers; generations of things handed down—I could tell—all neatly saved and taken care of, all clean and in place. Somehow, from the order and leftover trace of furniture polish in the air, I knew it must be the maid's day off or she was sick. Monday and no maid, I made a mental note.
In the middle of the house was a wide gray-carpeted staircase leading up to the second floor. I stood at the bottom, breathing slowly, working up my courage, and then I stepped up each riser, pausing on the landing to look again out of a round, porthole-type window. Again, I was safe. No one in the yard or out on the street, no car coming from either direction.
But upstairs in this enormous house was different, more personal, full of the owners' noiseless presences, their powders and perfumes, their damp towels on racks—this time I touched—their clothes in the many closets. Upstairs seemed more dangerous. Sounds were muffled by thick carpets, and the rooms were darkened by pulled blinds, and people seemed about to appear from around a corner or out of a bathroom. Still, I ran a finger along the shining wood surfaces of chests and dressers, along the edges of elegantly-carved footboards, and sat and bounced on thick mattresses covered with quilted bedspreads. My nerves had settled a bit. I ate a chocolate out of a box of mostly smashed ones and lifted a silver hair brush and mirror from a white satin-lined box.
My face in the mirror was different; a blonde stranger with tight, frightened eyes looked back at me.
And then, I took two quarters from a crystal dish full of change on a dresser in the master bedroom; and then, downstairs, I took four eggs, nestled with twenty others, from a bin in the refrigerator. I put the quarters in my pocket, and I put the eggs in a small compartment in the Beth Marie tote.
On the way home, I bought fifty cents' worth of gas with the quarters, and that night I made muffins with two of the eggs, and the next morning fried-egg sandwiches for Francis.
"How many sales you come up with yesterday?" my innocent husband asked. Not looking up, his eyelashes were as long as a girl's, and a trickle of butter sat in the corner of his full mouth. He was in his last year of college, working afternoons and evenings, and out of the $40 he made every week, he gave me $20 for groceries and gas. Living free in Aunt Yazmine's back bedroom, we were not poor.
"Only one," I answered, my face unchanged, calm as never before in a lie. After that day, sitting back in the car, feeling my heart slide out of my mouth and return to its rightful place, I knew I'd never be nervous again. "But my territory has a lot of potential," I added.
Funny how it worked out. I did exactly what the Beth Marie manual said to do: set up "working hours" and called on a set number of houses each day. There were more than I thought. It took me two months, three or four houses at a time, to go down all the streets. Sometimes I actually sold cosmetics, which messed me up because then I had to file a sales sheet and mail it in. Beth Marie always shipped additional merchandise that I hadn't ordered but still had to pay for.
The people in the neighborhoods got used to seeing my old green Plymouth, parked, and me in my pink suit, walking down White Oaks Drive or around Truman Circle or up Lakeside Boulevard, carrying my Beth Marie tote. They'd wave or nod. I talked with their maids, got to know their names, sat on the back steps of those grand houses. "You work every day, all day?" I'd ask. No, they worked mostly mornings and for more than one household: for Dr. French on Mondays and for Mizzrus Robinson over on Melrose on Tuesdays and Thursdays; on Wednesdays and Fridays it was the Jamesons, and on and on.
As Beth Marie advised in her manual, I made lists and charts: each house, the maids' hours, when Mizzrus Elizabeth had her bridge club, when no one was home, and where the keys were kept: under a mat or a clay pot by the front or back door, or up on a ledge. I could count on the sliding glass doors or the pass-through window from the patio to the kitchen being open, although I didn't like to climb up on whatever was handy and roll across the sink. The best time was from two to four in the afternoons after the maids left. Soon, I just went into the kitchens and master bedrooms, in and out in less than fifteen minutes. And I never went to houses with dogs.
And I only took change, but never more than 50 cents. There was always money lying on dressers, in bowls or in a jar, and it added up. Four houses a day meant two dollars, which was ten bucks a week and made a big difference. Now, with the twenty Francis gave me, I had thirty dollars a week to spend on clothes and things for my future home, spend any way I wanted since I didn't have to buy groceries or supplies. I started a savings account, and Francis's mother stopped saying, "You shouldn't be working outside the home."
For the big items, I used the big Beth Marie bags, like someone had ordered a lot of cosmetics, and I'd put Beth Marie pamphlets on top to hide a roll of toilet paper, a bar of soap, paper towels, potatoes, tea bags, a stick of butter, bananas, or apples—most of the houses had fruit bowls sitting out—what we liked to eat. I'd take two bananas if they were over-ripe and make banana pudding that night. Steaks, pork chops, chicken, or hamburger—one package only—from the freezers. Most of the people had their meat cut special and wrapped in slick white paper. The beef was always tender and juicy, the pork chops thick. I told Francis I'd found a new butcher. Canned milk and canned soups, one at a time, and some odd things, too, like sardines in tomato sauce and artichoke hearts in olive oil. "Why'd you buy that?" Francis would ask. I started making lists of what we were out of. I took plastic bags for scoops of soap powders or coffee or sugar, dumping them into my boxes and canisters in Aunt Yazmine's kitchen, and brown-paper bags to put garbage in, so it would look like I'd been to a grocery store.
Once, I took an unusual cup, with octagonal sides and lavender flowers, from a set of twelve in a china cabinet. The cup was far in the back, and I moved the others around so there wasn't a gap. The silver trays and bowls in the cabinet were tarnished black, so you could tell the cups were never used. I probably could have taken one of everything without anyone knowing. But the next day, I dropped the cup in the sink and it broke.
"I should have left you where you were, you beautiful thing," I whispered to the porcelain pieces as I put them into the trash.
When the weather turned cool, I took an old quilt from the back of a closet. We needed another blanket, but when I shook it out, it was nicer than I thought, handmade out of hundreds of taffeta and velvet triangles, with odd stitches in different colors of thread. To explain its elegance and worn edges, I told Francis I'd bought it at St. Joseph's thrift shop. Later, I learned it was a Victorian crazy quilt, and it's still with me today, a sort of punishment every time I look into my guest bedroom, a dare with myself.
Still, the best part wasn't the food or the money. It was the excitement, the secret, trembling quiet I'd carry away with the groceries. I'd shake just the slightest the whole time I was inside a house, but afterwards everything seemed more solid, more calm—like you would imagine after an earthquake. It was a demon-adrenaline charge that carried me through the rest of the day. At home, I'd pull ordinary goodness around me: do college homework, clean house, cook supper, and sew. I even started taking an evening painting course at a downtown gallery and began visiting my mother-in-law. Her talk of five-cents-off bargains—her plain, honest soul showing—or of what she'd cook for dinner tomorrow wasn't so boring with the stillness of the houses still floating inside me.
I kept telling myself, "You're going to get caught," but after six months, on the third round of my territory, I didn't believe it. True, I'd had some close calls, people driving into their garages, coming in the back door while I went out the front. I'd turn around and ring the bell, pretend I'd just walked up, their stuff hidden in the Beth Marie tote right beside me. Those houses were so big and well built, you couldn't hear from one room to another, unless you were like me, on guard, listening, looking out a window.
Sometimes I tried to feel guilty, thought of confessing, but I was sure the priest would recognize my soft western twang in amongst all those drawly southern voices. And it would seem trivial to say, "I took a roll of toilet paper, fifty cents, and a pound of hamburger meat from a doctor's house on White Oaks" when I had bigger sins to confess, like sometimes wishing I'd never married a Lebanese man, whose idea of an evening out was watching television at his parents' house.
How long would it have gone on if not for my mother-in-law's maid, Eddie Mae Bell?
Eddie was a short, dark shadow in the Smaha household, who worked from eight until six every day for three dollars. She took to asking me for five-dollar loans after she heard my mother-in-law brag about how well I was doing with Beth Marie. To work off the debt, Eddie would come to Aunt Yazmine's house for a half day on Saturdays while Francis was at a ball game. She'd iron and I'd sew. Two outsiders, we'd discuss the Smahas: how the men were so stingy with their money and the women so accepting of the men's rules: lunch at exactly 12 o'clock and rice and gravy at every meal.
Eddie Mae was forever saying, "You make such a nice dress, Miss Carla, you ought to sew for them fine ladies instead of selling them paint pretties." Unlike my mistake of thinking I could sell like my father, I really could sew because of my mother's talent. From the time I was six years old, she'd taught me, explaining over and over how to measure, how to cut and baste, how to guide the material next to the sewing machine's foot, and how to keep my fingers away from the needle. At noon, I'd take Eddie home in spite of her fussing, "I should work more'n a half day for five dollars." We'd hug when she left the car.
"They steal you blind," my mother-in-law said one evening into the telephone receiver.
It was late one Saturday and a heartbeat skipped in my chest. I'd started paying attention to words like "steal" and "crook" and robbery stories on television, and I always read the crime section in The Strickland Free Press, the police report from the night before, about whose house was broken into and what had been taken.
But then I'd ask myself: who in their right mind would report a package of missing pork chops or the loss of two specked bananas? And who ever counted the change in the jar on top of a dresser? Sometimes I'd rub my hands together in imitation of a cartoon villain, even laugh aloud, "Hee, hee, hee." I'll admit I was tickled.
"Who's stealing?" I asked my mother-in-law.
"Eddie Mae, who else," she answered; a smirk pulled down the corners of her mouth. Off the phone, she settled into her part of the couch, Francis already half asleep on the other end. "They always steal; it's their nature," she said.
I thought of the times I'd driven Eddie home from the Smahas', her brown empty hands folded in her lap, her thin dress stretched over the rolls of her stomach, the uncomplaining acceptance settled far back in her black eyes. If she carried a bag or a parcel, it was one my mother-in-law had made up, usually aluminum-covered plates of leftovers.
"What does she steal?" I asked.
"Oh anything loose, anything laying around, you know. The change off the dresser, a wash cloth, eggs, a stick of butter, anything she thinks I won't miss."
"Like those dishtowels you lost last week, then later found in a bottom drawer?"
"Well, I didn't tell her. I'd never say anything to Eddie Mae."
The maids I had talked to in the past months lined up in my mind: thin, bent Rafaela, who must have been eighty, waving from a front porch as she swept; Algebra, tall and regal as a Nubian queen, waiting at the end of a driveway for her boyfriend to pick her up; and two or three others, their heads tied up in scarves or nylon hose, walking home as I walked the other way. "Mighty late in the afternoon to start a day's work, Miz Smaha," Juliana would say. And what about the other ones that I never saw but perceived through their efforts: the pine-oil washed floors and lemon-scented, polished furniture, the ammonia-cleaned windows and chlorine-bleached bathrooms and kitchens—the smells of their labors.
I never went back. The next week, I had flyers printed up and mailed them to all the neighborhood houses I'd been robbing—I had the names and addresses. I re-introduced myself, said I was leaving Beth Marie Cosmetics, and from now on would be doing alterations and sewing. Soon, I had more customers than I could manage and was making enough money so that Eddie Mae quit the Smahas and started working for me. I paid her ten dollars a day until she could sew as well as I did, and then we split all the profits, fifty-fifty. A year went by. I gave the empty Beth Marie tote to Eddie Mae, couldn't think of a thing else to do with it. I had used up or given all the sample cosmetics away.
Francis graduated with a degree in accounting, took his CPA exam and passed, and two years later, we bought one of those houses on White Oaks Drive, next to a doctor. We had children, seven in all. Maybe I was trying to obey some rules since I'd violated so many others, and I had a maid every day just like my mother-in-law.
Now, in the late afternoons, I play bridge or golf at the country club and leave my big, beautiful house empty.