Clara’s Mistake
 by Yafei Hu
© Yafei Hu 2002
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Friday afternoon, the temperature wasn’t high, but it had plenty of sunshine. I always liked the afternoon sunshine, especially in the winter. Its slanted beams made you feel warm and forget the tiredness and the dullness of the day.

Bill’s shiny black “Benz” was in our driveway, next to our burgundy Chevy. Bill was here again. I had never seen Bill so frequently ever since we moved here. He came from New York twice a week now.

“Hi, Jingjing. How are you?” It was my closest neighbor Clara. She spoke with a heavy nasal sound.

Clara had crossed the street and was walking on the same side of the street as I was. She walked in and out of the shades. There were shadows of leaves moving on her body. I smiled at her, looking at her dark face. She had high cheekbones and small eyes that were set deeply in the eye sockets. Her ancestors were Spanish and Indian.

Clara always called me Jingjing, although my name is actually Yingying. I tried to correct her pronunciation, but it never worked. I finally realized that it was difficult for a person who was close to fifty years old to change anything, let alone an accent that came from a different first language. Gradually I became used to the name of Jingjing, and I liked the sound of it.

Clara and I often came home at about the same time, around 4 p.m. I was the Assistant to the President at Bluehill Community College. My office was about five minutes away from where I lived. Clara was a cleaning lady in Brook School. Her school was also in a walking distance, except that I made a right turn to go to work after I leave the house, while Clara made a left turn.

“Hi, Clara. See, Bill’s here. Are you going to be busy again for a bigger dinner?” I said.

“I guess.” She shrugged as if saying “what can I do?”

In no time, we were in front of our own doors. My front door faced a busy street, I didn’t use it except for guests. Clara’s backyard gate formed a straight corner with my back door. While I was making noise getting the keys out of my pocket, Clara had already pushed open her backyard gate and quietly disappeared behind it.

I noticed that Clara didn’t seem as happy and wasn’t as chatty as she used to be. She used to love to come over to my apartment after work and chat with me before she went back home. She would tell me how much she disliked the new President of the school because he didn’t seem to like cleaning ladies. I would say to her that people had different styles and she should give herself time to get used to the new President’s new style. She would complain about the messy classrooms left by “these American kids.” She would blame teachers for the mess. I would try to come up with some excuses for the wrongly-accused teachers, such as Americans don’t like tidiness; it kills creativity. Clara loved these excuses I came up with. They reminded her of a talk she had with a student, who thought that chickens were in the supermarket packages at birth. She was never tired of mentioning this anecdote. She’d never forget to add a finishing line at the end of the story, “My t hree-year-old nephew in Ecuador knows more than these American kids.”

Clara was from Ecuador. She had lived with my landlady, Mrs. Sheeley, for about thirteen years. She came to the U.S. as a nanny with Mrs. Ham, who had a baby boy then. Twenty some years later, the baby boy grew up and got married. Clara left Mrs. Ham for Mrs. Sheeley. There was no baby in Mrs. Sheeley’s house. She had been living on her own for more than forty years since her husband died of cancer. She was now in her nineties. Mrs. Sheeley’s house had two units. My husband and I rented one and Mrs. Sheeley herself lived in the other. Clara had a sleeping quarter in the basement of the house. We were right above her. She called us her closest neighbors. According to Clara, Mrs. Sheeley had once invited her to move up from the basement to one of the three bedrooms in her unit, but she refused. I didn’t understand why until later.

I went into the apartment from the back door. My husband, Mark, was talking on the phone, “No problem. Come over. Don’t forget the wine.”

I knew it was Bill. “Is he going to bring non-alcohol drink today?”

“Do you really expect Bill to drink juice with us?” Mark said.

Bill and Mark met at most three or four times since we moved in, but they seemed to like each other a lot. They belonged to different generations in terms of ages, but it didn’t seem to matter. Bill always came over here with a bottle of wine when he visited Mrs. Sheeley. I usually joined them for I loved to hear Bill’s talk about his harmonica band playing in a New York restaurant every Wednesday night. When Bill found out that I had the so-called “oriental blush” and was reluctant to drink anything that had alcohol, he promised that he’d bring some non-alcohol drink next time. Yet, he never remembered to do so. He said that his memory was to blame.

Bill was Mrs. Sheeley’s son. It was hard to believe that he had never stepped into the apartment that her mother had been living on by renting until he got to know us. He always came in from the front door because he didn’t know there was a back door that could lead one in through the kitchen.

As soon as he walked in, he said, “Mother isn’t feeling well today.” He called Mrs. Sheeley “Mother” in front of other people as if the word “Mother” didn’t indicate a relationship, but was Mrs. Sheeley’s name.

He continued, “Clara said Mother got up last night to look for her wedding gown downstairs. She asked her to go back to sleep, but she wouldn’t listen. Clara complained about sitting up all night.”

“It was only a couple of days ago that Clara said Mrs. Sheeley was better.” Mark said.

“Very inconsistent. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. Unpredictable. I really have to have someone watch her during the day.” Bill took another sip of wine, and looked at me: “Yingying, have you found a person for me yet?”

“Yeah, I have. My friend May is willing to come. She’s a nurse and she works night shifts at a nursing home. She said she could work some hours during the day.”

“That’s great! Sounds like she’s the best person.” Bill sounded relieved. He took the wine bottle and poured more into his glass.

“Should I call her and tell her to talk to you about the pay?” I asked Bill, knowing that I had succeeded being the middle person for May.

May is a very kind and caring woman. She lived with her six-year-old son. It wasn’t easy for her to raise a child on her nursing home salary alone. She had been looking for some daytime work, and I had promised to keep my eyes open for her.

“Give me May’s phone number. I’ll call her and talk to her now.” Bill said.

Obviously Bill wanted to settle the matter before he headed back for New York. I gave him May’s number, and he left without saying anything to the effect that he was sorry that he forgot to bring non-alcohol drink again.

May came to work on Wednesday. Her hours were from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Her job was to watch Mrs. Sheeley during this time and to make her a lunch. Her pay was ten dollars per hour. May now had less time for herself, but her financial situation was much improved. I was happy for her. I never thought that things that meant well for May could mean bad for Clara.

As I said, Clara had been living with Mrs. Sheeley for many years and she had a full-time cleaning job. In Mrs. Sheeley’s house, she was to make dinner, to do laundry, and to clean the house. In exchange for these, she had a living quarter in the basement, and she got utilities for free. For this reason, Clara was very grateful to Mrs. Sheeley. She thought that she was lucky to have Mrs. Sheeley. She often said to me, “What else do I want? I just hope that Mrs. Sheeley lives long, and I have a place to stay long.” Whenever Clara talked like this, I felt depressed. Why? There must be something wrong with this world! In this world, along with so many people who had plenty and were still greedy, there was a Clara who had very little and was grateful for having little. I’d say to myself, “Clara, have you ever thought that there is a share in this world that belongs to you, and that share is bigger than what you have now?” Yet, I just had the thought. I never said it to Clara. I had the feeling that, perhaps for getting more, Clara might lose what she had, as little as it was.

What happened later was really not my fault because I never mentioned to Clara my thought about the bigger share that belonged to her. I swear I never mentioned that to her.

When May came to work again, it was Friday. Bill happened to be here. He told May that she should meet Clara and ask Clara to show her where everything was.

May called Clara in the evening, and was told that it wasn’t necessary for them to meet.

May called me next and said, “Clara didn’t sound happy. Did I do something wrong?” Her tone made me believe that she thought Clara wanted to be Boss #2, and she did say to me afterwards that Boss #2 was even harder to please than Boss #1.

I held the receiver between the ear and the shoulder, cutting the apple cake given to me by Clara. I said, “Don’t think ugly, May. Clara isn’t that kind of person. She was the one who suggested to Bill that they needed a person to work during the day.”

My soothing words were meant to help May see the matter positively, but I didn’t even convince myself. I couldn’t figure out why Clara refused to meet May. It seems to me that May, like Clara herself, also made a living through hard work. She deserved Clara’s respect. I was puzzled by Clara’s strange behavior.

There was a knock at the kitchen door. I knew it was Clara. I opened the door and let her in. I noticed that her eyes were red and a little swollen. It seemed that she had just cried. “Clara, come on in.” I said.

She followed me and walked into my dining room. I told her to sit down and moved a tissue box from the little table in the corner onto the dining table.

Clara started with her heavy nasal sound, “Jingjing, I have a lot to talk to you. I’ve had these on my mind for quite some time. I felt ashamed to let them out.” She paused.

“It’s no good to keep it to yourself. Spit it out, Clara.” I wanted her to relax.

“As you know, Jingjing, Mrs. Sheeley has gotten worse in recent years. My job has gotten harder and harder. Everyday after work, I start a whole new job. I don’t mind doing some cleaning and making dinner, but the evenings are hard. I haven’t had a long enough sleep for so long that I can’t take it any more.” She lowered her head as if she had committed a crime.

It dawned on me at this moment that Clara’s mood was affected by May’s working for Mrs. Sheeley. May got paid for what she did, but Clara got nothing, while she should have gotten more than what May did because her hours were much longer than May’s. I knew that it was hard for Clara to say all that because of her long-felt gratitude for Mrs. Sheeley. She must have spent a lot time thinking about the matter before she finally said it to me. I figured that Clara needed me to solve the problem for her instead of just some empty comforting words.

“Clara,” I said, “why don’t you talk to Bill? I bet he’ll pay you if you tell him what you want.”

“Jingjing,” Clara raised her head. She didn’t seem to expect that I could mention money so directly and quickly. She said, “Bill knows, but he seems to be avoiding the topic. He probably doesn’t think he needs to pay me anything since I live here.” Her voice became weaker, then louder a few seconds later, “but, how much is a sleeping quarter in a basement worth?”

“A sleeping quarter in a basement really isn’t worth much,” I said to Clara. I realized that the reason why Clara didn’t accept Mrs. Sheeley’s invitation to move upstairs was probably because she had been thinking of bargaining with them and use the not-worth-much living quarter in a basement as a bargain chip. Thinking of bargaining, I said, “Perhaps Bill isn’t trying to avoid the topic. You are like a member of the family, you know. They are just too used to your being there to consider any change.”

I felt that I said something true and helpful.

“I’ve come to say good-bye to you, Jingjing. I’m moving out.”

I was caught by surprise. I didn’t think she had made a decision.

“But, Clara, Why in such a hurry? Mark and I will raise the issue with Bill. I bet he’ll pay you.”

Clara already stood up. She said the following words, “Jingjing, you know it. You know in your heart that I ought to move out and I should have moved out earlier...” I could tell from the way she looked at me that she was determined.

I stood up and was lost at words.

It was the first time that I heard Clara talking about “moving out,” but I found it familiar. Clara was right. She had the right to go out and look for the bigger share that belonged to her.

A couple of months after Clara moved out, I saw three more cars in our drive way. I knew Bill’s “Benz,” but I didn’t know the other two. I asked Mark. Mark said that the red Honda probably belonged to Bill’s sister, Elaine. She lived in Vermont, and she didn’t come often due to the long drive. We didn’t know whose car the black “Lincoln” was.

After dinner, Bill came as usual. He had a bottle in his hand. “Yingying,” I heard his loud voice, “I’ve brought some non-alcohol drink as I promised. Now I don’t have to feel I owe you anything any more.”

“I never said you owe me anything.” I laughed, “You made yourself feel guilty.”

“Well, speaking of feeling guilty,” he sat in the rocking chair given to us as a present by my in-laws, “I just heard from Mother’s lawyer that half of her estate would have been given to Clara if she hadn’t moved out.”

Mark and I quietly threw a look at each other before we took another sip of the drink.

I wondered if Clara had made a mistake.