Common Causes

By Tessa Dratt

“God didn’t mean for me to be poor,” Georgia told me once when I complimented her on her leather jacket. “Folks keep giving me things,” she said and laughed, covering her mouth with her hand.

There is something about Georgia, who comes to clean my house on Fridays, that makes me want to give her things. What she can’t use herself, she passes on to her church, the nursing home, or the homeless shelter in her neighborhood. Once a year she drives her truck down to her native Tennessee to pass out the extra clothes, furniture, and other objects she’s accumulated.

I’m a strong believer in recycling, but there are times when I feel the need to throw something out. Like dead tennis balls.

“Kids could use those tennis balls,” Georgia said, looking down at the sink. When she’s about to ask for something, she doesn’t make eye contact.

“But they don’t bounce anymore.”

“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “And what you doing with those flowers?”

“They’re just about gone. I’m going to pitch them.”

“No, no. I’ll take them–and that old plant too. I need to get my hands in some dirt. I’ll fix that plant. If it lives, I’ll bring it back to you.”

“So you garden?”

“Oh yes. I’ve got this patch of backyard. Neighbors know, when I’m on my knees with my hands in the earth, they know I’m working on something in my head. They stay away. But digging in the dirt always calms me down.”

Since Georgia started coming to my house, we’ve choreographed a kind of talking tango. She holds a broom, I hold the mail. Or she swipes at the bookshelves with a dust rag while I look for a misplaced volume. We converse in snatches of sentences as we move back and forth, as if the rhythm of our movement will hide the fact that neither of us is really working.

Once I was packing for a trip to Boston. “What you gonna do there?” Georgia asked.

“Visit my brother,” I told her.

“Oh? What’s he do?”

“Nothing. He’s in an institution. He’s a schizophrenic.”

“I’ve got one of those, too,” she said, and laughed behind her hand. She often punctuates her sentences with laughter, though it usually isn’t joyful. “My daughter, Taconda. My youngest.”

“Then you know,” I said.

“I do. How old’s your brother?”


“Taconda’s 36. Thirty-six years old, and she still lives with me.” Georgia studied my open suitcase for a moment. “He on medication?”

“Yeah, lots. Five or six different kinds.”

“Mine too. Least she’s supposed to be. She’s sly, my Taconda. And she hates me.” Georgia began to dust the corners of my suitcase with the tip of the broom. “Folks don’t understand about schizophrenics. Just ’cause they’re crazy doesn’t mean they’re stupid. They know just how to get to you.”

“You’re right. I travel 900 miles to visit my brother, and the first thing he asks me when I get to the place is when will I be leaving. I don’t think he can help it though.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” she said.

Georgia and I spend a lot of time comparing notes on madness. We both feel it can be catching. Sometimes she rambles on about the crazies on public transportation.

“There’re plenty of folks think I’m crazy,” she says.

“Oh yeah? Why?”

“I always speak my mind. Folks don’t like it when you speak your mind. That’s why I don’t work in an office anymore like I used to.”

“When was that?”

“About ten or so years ago. I hated it. Never learned to keep my mouth shut. Couldn’t get along with the people. Couldn’t stand the bickering or the gossip. I’m better off now, doing this.” She motions with the upholstery brush in the general direction of the living room.

There are days when Georgia arrives angry and preoccupied. Sometimes Taconda has stopped taking her medication, and Georgia’s been up all night going around the neighborhood looking for her. Other times she’s read something in the newspaper. She’s got a lot of anger in her.

A few Fridays back the TV repairman came. It had rained that day, and as he stood in the doorway, I looked down at his enormous work boots.

“Are your boots muddy?” I asked.

“Naw. They’re OK,” he said.

Georgia appeared out of nowhere. “You gonna take your boots off,” she said. “Ain’t no way you walking through this house with those on.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said respectfully, and bent to unlace his boots.

“You gotta learn how to talk to these kids,” Georgia said after he left.

“What do you mean?”

“You just asked him if his boots were muddy. You gotta come right out and tell these kids exactly what you want.” She walked off shaking her head. “Damn kids,” she muttered.

Georgia doesn’t like men, or at least she has no use for them. She once told me she swore off them years ago. The only time she seems uncomfortable at my house is when my husband is home. He stays in his study, but she still gets irritable.

“It’s beautiful out,” Georgia told me when I let her in two weeks ago. “You need to walk. I don’t like the way you look today. You’ve got bad eyes.”

“Bad eyes?”

“Unhappy. You should go.”

“You’re right. I’ll go walking.”

“I prayed for you this week,” she said. “Couldn’t get you out of my mind. I just knew you were upset. You don’t want me to know, but I know anyway. It’s that time of year again–your Jewish holidays.”

“You remember?”

“Sure I do. You were like this last year and the year before. Your holidays make you nervous. Nervous and sad. You’re worse since your mama died.”

I didn’t say anything.

“You gotta quit being so hard on yourself,” she said.

“How do you know I’m hard on myself?”

“A person can’t be coming to this house week after week and not know that,” she said, and laughed behind her hand. Then she held out her arms and gave me a hug that made me want to cry. Her body felt tough and soft at the same time. My head barely reached her shoulder.

“These holidays you got coming up, they’re the ones where you repent your sins and start a new year, am I right?”

“Yeah, it’s all pretty solemn. But how come you know?”

“I work for lots of Jews. Besides–maybe I never told you–my daddy was a preacher. Now, you go on. Get out there while the sun’s still shining.”

She closed the door behind me. In the middle of the courtyard I stopped to look back. She was standing at the window. She smiled and waved me on. I felt as if some piece of me had been dusted off, polished, and returned to its proper place.