by Shoshana Levenberg
“This heah is my pusher; goes by Shorty,” she drawled to the two black-suited Jesuit priests and two women religious. Bell’s natural southern accent became treacly, camouflage she employed while committing verbal mayhem. Startled, the priests simultaneously looked to the boxy, steel-grey-haired woman, who interpreted, “Harriet, honey, don’t you mean, this is my hospice nurse?” Though the words were patronizing, her clear affection leached the condescension.
“Isn’t that what I said?” Harriet Bell countered as she jabbed me in the small of the back, propelling me into the center of the gathering.
Used to Bell’s provocations, I laughed and introduced myself, adding that I’d be happy to come back later in the day. “No, no, sit, have a cup of tea,” Bell ordered, her sense of hospitality offended. “We won’t be long.”
The conversation was about the proposed canonization of an obscure nineteenth century abbess. My yeshiva background didn’t give me much to contribute, so I sat back watching Bell in her element, sparring with the priests. Harriet Bell had the peaches and cream complexion inherited from her rapist father, the sheriff, a wide nose being the only feature she got from the black mother who raised her in Plaquemine Parish, Louisiana, before and during the Great Depression. She was raised Southern Baptist but had always loved the pomp and ceremony of Catholicism. Her tiny living room in the Church-sponsored senior housing was the meeting ground, or rather more often, the battleground of the conservative and progressive factions of the Church. Bell, eyes gleaming, her trenchant intelligence finally unfettered, jumped into the fray, now on one side, now on the other.
Her childhood’s poverty was not a bloodless economic stratum but a howling need where a surfeit of any kind—of food, shelter, shoes, or affection—was unimaginable. Her only escape was marriage at fifteen to the first male who asked her. LeRoy Bell was honey-colored and honey-tongued. His smooth and easy ways captivated her. They moved into a tar-papered shack where Miz Bell, as she now insisted on being called, found a job doing white folks’ laundry. Hard work bred into her bones, she quickly accumulated a coterie of customers. LeRoy was of a more delicate nature and thought it best to wait until he could find a job suited to his skills.
LeRoy stayed eight months, leaving Bell with a burgeoning belly and her first taste of pleasure. When telling me about LeRoy Bell, her descriptors were ‘trifling,’ ‘shiftless,’ ‘lightweight,’ but all these years later, her eyes sparkled and turned inward to her secret places.
As her son, rambunctious from the outset, grew in her belly, the heat and hot steam, the fumes of the bleaching, dying and bluing from the laundry work, made her faint. The scoring of her hands and the burn scars up to her elbows, she ignored. But it was the heavy lifting of huge wet bundles that made her fear a miscarriage and motivated her to look for an easier, house cleaning job. The white women, furtively gazing at her belly, this unimpeachable evidence of her sexuality, refused to hire her, even at the reduced rates she offered. “It’s not contagious,” she wanted to scream, but didn’t.
She continued doing laundry until three days before giving birth to Samuel. Later she did find housework, which included everything—cleaning, cooking, childcare, dog care, mistress care, though she always managed to steer clear of mister care. Long hours earned her a pittance, just enough to feed Samuel and herself, but it gave her the ability to live on her own terms.
Telling the story of Samuel’s first day at school, Bell’s face lit up in reminiscence at that long-ago day of hope and the promise of new beginnings. She dressed him in a pair of pants, stiff with sizing, brown lace-up shoes, and a dazzling white shirt. He clutched a plastic case with three pencils and two pink erasers in one hand as she held the other and walked him to the small schoolhouse. He was going to get the schooling she had yearned for although it didn’t turn out quite the way she had hoped: Samuel was an indifferent student who squirmed through his lessons, turning sullen when he didn’t know the answer. Yet she learned to read from his primer, how to divide and multiply from his homework. Mathematics she found to be irritating, one-dimensional, with its insistence on a single right answer. But, books, oh, my! The library was for whites only, but one of her ladies recognized that she much preferred hand-me-down books to ill-fitting, ill-suited, hand-me-down clothes.
A cousin, back for a visit, told her of the cornucopia of jobs in Oakland, California: in canning factories, in shipping yards, in warehouses; work for women, work for black women outside of domestic service. War was coming and with it, economic opportunity. She packed up Samuel, by then a gangling boy of twelve, and moved to Oakland. Finding a job was comparatively easy. Finding housing in the booming, severely-restricted housing market of the Bay Area was not. Eventually, she found a room in West Oakland, home to the burgeoning black community.
Those first years were good for Bell; she blossomed outside the narrowness of rural Louisiana. Her only sorrow was Samuel, who began cutting school and hanging out on street corners. Determined that he go to college, Betts enrolled him in a Catholic school, working extra shifts to pay the tuition, though she was uneasy that he was one of only a few blacks in the school. At first, he seemed to do well; he stopped hanging out with the boys in the neighborhood and went to school regularly. He didn’t have her love of learning but got by on his father’s charm. Slowly she realized that he no longer brought any friends home. Even more slowly, it dawned on her that he was ashamed of her. At fifteen, he was gone. A neighbor spotted him in a white section of town. Passing, muttered her friends. Years later, she saw Samuel going into a restaurant in uptown Oakland, his arm wrapped possessively around a white woman. She started to call to him, but didn’t. She never saw him again. When telling me about Samuel, Bell said, “I worked my fingers to the bone for that boy. Now, wasn’t that stupid?”
Bell developed lung cancer while in her eighties. When she declared her unwillingness to undergo chemotherapy, her physician referred her to hospice, which required a six-month prognosis. Humans sometimes don’t fit the algorithms, and Bell rarely did, so six months came and went, and she kept chugging along. Except for a dry cough and fatigue, she was largely asymptomatic. As a hospice patient, she was entitled to a weekly RN visit, six hours of a home health aide—someone to help with household chores and personal care—a social worker, and a chaplain. She refused everyone except the RN. The truth was that she didn’t need the nursing visits either, but I tickled her, and she allowed me to come and drink tea, fiddle with her medications, and give her unheeded medical advice.
I worried about what was going to happen when she was no longer able to care for herself; her friends were also elderly and there was no one to tend to her. Hospice was set up to give technical and minimal practical support to families who were caring for a dying loved one, not for solitary people without support systems. I talked to my supervisor about “banking” her unused home health aide hours so that she could have twenty-four-hour care at the end.
On one of my weekly visits, a bleak, rainy Thursday afternoon, a pudgy man the color of used chalk was sitting in Bell’s living room when I arrived. I watched him slip Bell an envelope as she hustled him out the door.
Responding to my raised eyebrow, Bell said tersely, “He’s my bookie.”
“Really,” I said disbelievingly.
“Yes, really. He usually comes Thursday mornings, but his car wouldn’t start in the rain.”
I let that sit there, not knowing what to make of it.
“Actually, I’d been meaning to talk to you about it,” she said. “But not if you’re gonna be a sanctimonious ass.”
Trying my best not to look either sanctimonious or ass’ish, I sat quietly, giving Bell her opening.
“Don’t you have folks who need money?”
Now completely baffled, I said, “Sure.”
“You know,” said Bell, “I have everything I need: this apartment, plenty to eat, clothes, a little extra for whatever I want.” She grew uncharacteristically reticent. “But I shore do love the horses,” she burst out. “And it turns out I’m pretty good at it. I win, well, I win a lot. I usually give it to the Church, but I was wondering if maybe some of your poorer patients couldn’t use a little help.”
“Don’t you keep anything?” My astonishment vied with my pragmatism.
Bell was indignant. “Absolutely not,” she said emphatically. “It’s my job to distribute the money, not buy some knickknack I don’t need. My joy is in pickin’ the winners.”
That was the beginning of the Bell fund. It helped pay for a mother’s plane ticket from Guatemala to see her dying daughter and a respite worker for an elderly man caring for his wife and the funeral expenses for a young woman. I always said the money came from an anonymous donor who had been grateful for hospice services. I always wanted to say this gift was funded by the long shot, Northern Dancer, in the fifth but didn’t.
Bell died six months later. My supervisor reneged on the deal to give her the many unused hours, so she spent her last weeks in a hospital, isolated and alone. I thought that if I were a decent human being, I’d quit my job in protest of the broken promise. Or, at the very least, get a leave of absence and take care of her. But I didn’t. Embarrassed and ashamed, I didn’t even visit her in the hospital.
I was just another in a long procession of disappointments for Bell. Yet in a life landmarked by disappointment, she never let the corrosive drip of regret or dissatisfaction blemish her enjoyment. In a world over which she had little control, she was never helpless. She was indomitable. I picture her lounging on a cloud, endlessly picking the winner, Diomedes, in that very first Greek horse race.
Shoshana Levenberg has been a Jill-of-all-trades, from community organizing in the 1960s, to becoming an RN in the 1980s to work as a hospice nurse during the worst of the HIV epidemic. Now retired, she lives in California with her wife and their neurotic poodle.
Her work has appeared in the Washington Post Magazine, the Alabama Literary Review, Persimmon Tree, and the Green Briar Review, among other publications.