It was strange how she felt then, sitting alone in the dark in the crotch of an old oak tree deep in the backwoods of Virginia holding a dead cell phone in her hand. Free was part of it. But also unmoored. Untethered. It was her father who had insisted she buy a cell phone in the first place. There had been an incident on campus the previous fall. One night, a pair of young black men wearing do-rags and baggy jeans hanging halfway down their backsides had followed her from the law library to the subway at 116th Street, calling her pretty baby and asking if she wasn’t ready for a break from all that college-boy dick. They followed her into the subway, leaving her alone only when Cheryl stopped to talk to a transit cop. The next week, after Cheryl told her mother a sanitized version of the story, her father sent her a check to cover a full year of cell phone service. In nine months he hadn’t called her once, but she knew he was calling her now, spluttering into her voice mail, demanding to know what had gotten into her head, just who she thought she was to hang up the phone on her own father. Cheryl had no idea what she was going to say when she got home, how she was going to unravel the web of lies she’d spun around herself in the last year. But for the moment it didn’t matter: so long as she kept her phone turned off for the next week she was, for the first time in her life, truly on her own.
She stole back toward the house, keeping to the tree line to so as not to step into the dim pool of light the chandelier cast over the lawn. She was thirty feet from the porch when she heard voices, two of them, both female, on the back porch. A few steps more and she saw them, or rather, she saw the outlines of their chairs rocking slowly against the lighted windows, clouds of cigarette smoke rising above their heads.
“I mean it,” one of them was saying. “Something about that man just don’t sit right with me.”
“Mama, stop,” the other woman laughed.
“I’ve been watching that show of his for years and it ain’t half bad some of the things he cooks, but honestly, have you ever heard a grown man go on so much about his mama?”
“So, he loved his mother,” the younger woman said. “Where’s the crime in that? Anyhow, the man’s been married twice. You saw those two girls of his this afternoon.”
From her hiding spot under the oak tree Cheryl recognized the younger woman as Mae Watkins, Frank’s stocky, ginger-haired cousin who had picked them up in Lathrop.
“That don’t mean a thing, not these days,” her mother said. “These gays, they have wives and kids and then they get on the Internet and go hunting for boys. Meet ’em in public restrooms on the Interstate. There’s special ones, evidently. You gotta be one of ’em to know which is which.”
Cheryl knelt in the grass, giggling. Mae’s mother was onto something, as far as she was concerned. Five minutes into Down Home with Shelby, Cheryl had decided he was gay, too. But Frank swore his uncle was straight and there were those two girls. Some woman had stayed with him long enough to give him them.
Soon Mae and her mother had moved on, starting in on other relatives Cheryl didn’t know, and she began to consider how to get back inside. The parking lot was just thirty feet away, on the other side of the line of trees, but then she would have to walk twenty yards on gravel in her bare feet to reach the front door, where for all she knew, the smirking bellman was still on duty. But she had no choice so long as Mae and her mother were on the back porch. She took a deep breath to steel herself for the sprint across the gravel when the words “that little black girl” stopped her cold.
“Mama, hush,” Mae scolded. “They’re just upstairs.”
“I know where they are,” her mother said. “I don’t know what was in that boy’s head bringing her here. Did you see the help? Having to fuss over her all night, calling her ‘ma’am,’ pulling out her chair. They didn’t care for it, not one bit. I was watching her, too. She wouldn’t look at them. Wouldn’t even make eye contact. Probably ashamed to, all tarted up in that skimpy dress.”
“I think it’s brave of her, coming down here like this,” Mae said.
“Brave, my foot,” her mother said. “You saw that boy: handsome, good family, gonna be a lawyer. You think she’s gonna let a few redneck relations get in the way of that?”
“She’s a lawyer herself, Mama,” Mae said. “Frank says she’s working for a federal judge. A girl like that, I reckon she can get any man she wants.”
“Maybe so,” her mother said. “But you ever see a black one wouldn’t rather marry white if she had a choice? Be honest now, have you?”
At that, Cheryl stood and marched out onto the dimly lit lawn. On the porch the two chairs ceased rocking, and one sweet second later, Cheryl heard a low, hissed, “Oh shit.” When she reached the porch, the two women shot up out of their chairs. Cheryl strode toward Mae’s mother, taking slow, deliberate breaths to keep from slapping her.
“Can you see me now?” she asked.
The old woman nodded, defiant. “I see you fine. What of it?”
“Then you’ve seen a black one who wouldn’t rather marry white if she had a choice.”
She didn’t wait for an answer, just stepped around the dumbstruck old woman and stormed into the house, slamming the door behind her. She didn’t care how much noise she made, how many people she woke up. She was tracking mud and bits of grass across the living room and into the stair hall, but she didn’t care about that either, just enjoyed the wet slap-slap of her bare feet against the polished oak. As she neared the top of the stairs, a door swung open and a bleary, unfamiliar Buford face peered into the hall. The face blinked twice, taking her in—a tall, black, barefoot stranger, braless under her Columbia Law School t-shirt—and ducked back behind the closed door.
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.