For the next hour Shaw v. Reno was forgotten, and in response to Cheryl’s steady prodding, Frank told her how his grandmother had used her position as the wife of a prominent local doctor to chip away at segregation in Lathrop, Virginia. Once, in the early sixties, he told her, when the city closed the public library rather than obey a court order that it be opened to black people, his grandmother had set up a free library in the basement of her church, donating her own books for circulation. A few years later, after the public schools had integrated and a black student was named valedictorian, the school board had turned to Mrs. Watkins to give the award reception for the student when the local segregated golf club refused. There were more stories, each more surprising to Cheryl than the last, and by the time he finished talking, it was two in the morning. By then the wine was gone, and they lay together in bed, their heads propped up on pillows, the dimly lit room silent except for the murmur of traffic on Columbus Avenue twelve stories below.
“How is it that I’ve known you all this time and I’ve never heard any of this?” Cheryl asked.
“I don’t know, I guess I didn’t want to sound like I thought I was ‘down with the struggle.’”
She waited, sensing that, while this was no doubt true, it was only part of the answer. Finally, he looked up at her.
“I haven’t told you about Annie Johns, have I?”
“No. Who’s Annie Johns.”
“She was a girl who worked for my grandparents,” he said. “Or no, that’s not quite right. She was the niece of the woman who cooked and cleaned for my grandparents, and she came to Lathrop one summer to make a little extra money.”
A chill rippled through Cheryl as she realized she wasn’t going to like this story. She wanted to hear it, she needed to hear it if she was going to go on seeing this man, but she wished she was sitting fully clothed at a restaurant, or in a library carrel at school—anywhere but naked in bed, her legs intertwined with his.
“We used to spend the summer in Lathrop every year, me and my little brother and a bunch of my Virginia cousins,” Frank said. “The summer Annie was there I was about eight or nine. One day I had a cold, or I don’t know, maybe I was just having a bad day, and I decided I didn’t want to go swimming at the golf club. Instead, I spent the day helping Annie clean up the attic.”
“This Annie, how old was she?”
“My age, maybe a year or two older.” Frank lay still, his head propped on the pillow, remembering. “We didn’t get much cleaning done that day. We played with some of the toys they had up there, and then we started playing house. I was the daddy, she was the mommy, that kind of thing. I don’t remember how it came up, but I said something like, ‘If we’re going to be married we’re going to have to kiss.’”
Cheryl nodded. “I was wondering when we were going to get to that.”
“I know, I know. I had bit of a thing for her, I guess. Like a little-boy crush. That wasn’t the first day I’d come up with an excuse not to go swimming at the golf club.”
“Had you ever kissed a girl before?”
“Cheryl, I was eight,” he said. “I was still in the girls-have-cooties stage. But it had occurred to me that, you know, it might be nice to trying kissing one.”
“And you figured this girl’d be good to practice on.”
“No, it wasn’t like that,” he said. “I liked her, I did.”
Cheryl didn’t care for the defensive tone that had crept into his voice, and she sensed that he didn’t either. She resisted an urge to reach out to him, to soothe him and make this easier on him.
“This was like the third or fourth summer I’d spent in Lathrop,” he said. “It was so hot we couldn’t go outside and we weren’t allowed to watch TV, so we spent all day at the golf club and being carted around to these boring, grown-up parties. Annie wasn’t part of any of that. She was from this little town in Arkansas I’d never heard of, and she was smart and funny—and I don’t know, just so full of life. She was interested in things. She kept asking me all these questions, weird, interesting questions it never would’ve occurred to me to ask.”
“Like, if I’m so smart how come the only summer job I can get is working as a maid?”
“No, Cheryl. She was just a kid, but she got it. My grandmother had this idea, I don’t know all the details, but she was going to send Annie to a private girls’ school near Lathrop. Her family had land in Arkansas, some kind of farm, I guess, but they didn’t have much money. So she wanted to know what California was like. If my dad liked being a lawyer. If I wanted to be one, too. That kind of thing. I can’t explain it, she was just— ”
“Exotic,” Cheryl said.
“I was going to say ‘different’.”
“Right. But you meant exotic.”
“Okay, maybe she was kind of exotic to me,” he admitted. “But also smart. And interesting. And very pretty.”
Cheryl’s first sensation was deep anger and hurt. Was this what Frank said about her when she wasn’t around, that she was “smart” and “interesting” and “very pretty”? But his honesty disarmed her. He wasn’t making excuses. He wasn’t looking for her approval the way most white people she knew did when a conversation touched, even glancingly, on the subject of race.
“So you kissed her,” she said.
“No, not right away,” he said. “We were both so scared. I mean, we weren’t supposed to be up there in the first place, and we knew we’d be in big trouble if we got caught. So we just kind of sat there holding hands for a while. Finally she told me to close my eyes and think of something else far away. ‘Think of birds,’ she said.”
“‘Think of birds’?”
“I know, isn’t that weird? But that’s what she said: ‘Think of birds’.”
“Like love birds?”
“Maybe. I don’t think she knew herself, really. But it worked. I closed my eyes and thought of two birds—eagles, I guess, riding the updrafts. And that’s what gave me the courage to kiss her.” He smiled. “It wasn’t long after that my grandmother walked in on us.”
Cheryl watched him, in equal parts appalled and fascinated. If he’d flinched, if he had in any way signaled that he was looking for her to tell him it was all right she would have kicked his handsome white behind out of her bed then and there. But he was just telling a story, trying to understand it himself.
“I’ll never forget the look on my grandmother’s face,” he said. “It was like she’d walked in on me killing somebody. Literally, taking a knife and cutting them up. She stood in the doorway for the longest time, just staring, and then she turned around to get Annie’s aunt Mattie. In the end, she got so worked up they had to put her to bed and my granddad had to come home from work to deal with me. But in that first minute, she was quiet, staring at me.”
“She was too angry to speak?” Cheryl asked, trying to imagine what her father would have done if he had caught her kissing a white boy in their attic.
“That was part of it, sure,” he said. “But also disappointed. Like I’d failed her, somehow, gone and ruined everything. But you know, I was such a kid. Even after it was over and I’d told everybody how sorry I was, I still didn’t understand what I’d done, why everyone was so angry. That afternoon when I went in to talk to my grandmother, I asked her what would happen to Annie, whether she’d get in trouble. And that was it, they sent her home.”
“Home? Back to live with her aunt?”
“No, back to Arkansas,” he said. “After dinner that night, I sneaked into the little room where she was staying behind the kitchen and her bed was stripped bare. I never saw her again. Nobody even mentioned her name. She was just gone.”
About the author:
Michael Bourne’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, The Common, and The Cortland Review. He is a contributing editor at Poets & Writers Magazine and a staff writer for The Millions.