The Good She Didby Amanda Yskamp
The good she did, volunteering in the classroom, sewing slings at the hospital, serving the hungry, she did out of fear of hell. She was viciously good, dressed irreproachably: dark colors and a haircut to deflect advances. The nuns could do it, then so could she. She'd changed her name to Edgar because that was the ugliest man's name she could imagine.
Edgar had lived with her mother in a 6th floor walkup on the East Side until she was old enough to make her exit. Mother had fed her with weak praise and scrutiny and at 18, Edgar was more than ready to make a scene on the front stoop and head out in a U-haul to find her own place.
She'd lived four years in the loft above the laundromat, working at the library shelving books for a little more than minimum. All her other available time she spent being so good the claws of sin couldn't reach her, though sometimes she could feel the lashing breeze on her heels.
She met a man serving him a tray of chili, cornbread, seared greens, and iced tea. He was all cheekbones and deep, calm eyes. He couldn't say what he thought because a line of the needy extended behind him, but he said this:
"Did you make this yourself?"
Edgar said, "I helped."
"It looks good. I mean it looks like it will do a lot of people a lot of good," he said and then had to move along.
When she fixed the corner of the elbow on the sling she stitched at the hospital the next day, she fitted it according to the quick measuring glance she'd given his arm.
The lesson in 4th period at Booker Elementary where she helped out on Tuesdays was on the aborigines. Edgar listened with one ear, her attention turned inward. She tried to focus, repeated these words, "There is something in humility which strangely exalts the heart," but her thoughts wandered. She'd been asked to this classroom to cut triangles of construction paper, each color representing a resource for barter: produce, green, tools, red, skills, gold, water, blue. One girl, Celia, asked, "Isn't there something missing? Where's their gods, what color should they be?" Edgar stopped cutting triangles and listened for the teacher's answer. Fourth Period: Mrs. Lane . Celia's shoulders slumped the same way Edgar's did when Mrs. Lane said, "This is about trade, remember. Valuable exchange."
Wednesdays, Edgar arrived at St. Joseph 's right after work to chop onions, lay out cookies on doilied trays, and toss salads, before they opened the doors. She wasn't a churchgoer herself, so she didn't know why some people were upset when she expanded seating onto the stage that served as the sanctuary. People had to eat. She had to make room somehow.
"May I have another helping?" That man stood before her. The rule was no. She noticed that his eyes were two different colors: one greener, the other a golden brown. By now nearly everyone had eaten their meals. Edgar saw it for what it was, a handsome snake luring her into temptation. It surprised her only a little how willingly she scooped up another portion to serve this hunger.
Now she was being trained in fitting crutches at the hospital. That involved having the patient stand beside her as she reached into their armpit to size the extension 1-1.5 inches below, with a slight bend in the elbow with hands on the grips. While the head nurse stood nearby, Edgar saw how the crutch's lines accentuated the sculpted vulnerability of the girl's good leg. She reached up gently along the girl's snowflake printed johnny to feel where the crutch-pad sat.
"Take a turn around the room," Edgar said, and watched the girl, broken on her drive home from the DMV with her new license, make her looping course on one barefoot and the crutches Edgar had adjusted for her faltering, yet graceful circuit.
At the library, Edgar was sorting books from the drop box according to the Dewey decimal system, her second language. This, she thought, is the fingerprint of our town: Divorce for Dummies, Living in a Nutshell, Collected Elegies, What to Expect When You're Expecting. Sometimes people dropped in books from other libraries or their own, and Edgar had to place them on a special shelf. Sometimes she found personal effects tucked between the pages. Today, inside a copy of Emerson's Society and Solitude, she found this poem written in ballpoint on a St. Joseph handbill.
She doesn't see me.
She sees only the stream of need.
There are those who stand mute
and grateful in a line
and those behind the table with ladles.
Each is an each is an inch is an ache.
Each is an hour and an us, so gathered.
It was tucked on a page someone had underlined with a faint pencil these lines:
As in this gale of warring elements, it was necessary to bind souls to human life as mariners in a tempest lash themselves to the mast and bulwarks of a ship, and Nature employed certain illusions as her ties and straps, a rattle, a doll, an apple, for a child; skates, a river, a boat, a horse, a gun, for the growing boy. Slowly the mask falls and the pupil is permitted to see that all is one stuff… The beggar cracking fleas in the sunshine under a hedge, and the duke rolling by in his chariot ; the girl equipped for her first ball, and the orator returning triumphant from the debate, had different means, but the same quantity of pleasant excitement. … Who is he that does not always find himself doing something less than his best task?
Edgar looked around her. Along the far wall, an old man was reading today's news. Nearby, a woman squatted to read the spines of the mysteries. The head librarian was whispering to a patron; all Edgar could hear was the pitched hiss of the sibilants and fricatives. Edgar slipped the handbill into her bag. It was or wasn't a message from that man. It still spoke to her heart. She could use the computer to find who had last checked this book out so that she could have a name without having to ask. But then that name might attach itself to hers in a way that demanded personal response, motive, she thought.
A job employs and commands specific tasks and allegiances; volunteering is a gift of devotion; autonomy and the will to join are in one's nature, or not; and even if choice is illusory, even if the good she did would not end in salvation, that's how she would live; that's what she would continue to do, for hell was in daily maintenance merely, a meal, a mouth, month after month, with no hope for any value beyond material exchange. And still, on the walk home from the library, she drew out the church handbill more than once and read, "each is an hour and an us, so gathered," in step with her pace, adding at the end, to punctuate her progress, her own amen.