The March on Washington

“Call her.” Bo steers their late model Buick into the dirt driveway with one hand and flicks her Camel out the window with the other hand. “Regina worshiped President Kennedy. She won’t refuse a call today. Someone dies, you want a phone call.” It’s Bo’s week to chauffeur herself and Jackie back and forth to their jobs at the paper mill in the sedan they bought and own together, so Bo gets to keep the car for the upcoming weekend.

The two women barely spoke on the fifteen-minute ride home. A first for Bo. They sit silently with the car idling, looking out the dashboard window at the side of the barn.

“Hell of a thing.” Bo puts a hand on Jackie’s shoulder. “Hell of a thing, my friend. Me and Regina, we have our differences, but we’re all in the life. You love her. Some good should come out of the misery that happened today. Call your girl.”

“Not my girl anymore.” Between mourning the loss of Regina and the escalating rumors of layoffs at work Jackie thought she was already carrying all she could handle. Now this – assassination? How is a person supposed to understand?

“Come on, you know I love you, don’t make me tell you you’re being an asshole. Call her.” Bo’s “I love you,” embarrasses Jackie to the point it’s all she can do to stare straight ahead without breaking down. Eventually, she turns, first toward Bo then to look out the passenger window. Finally, she reaches into the backseat for her thermos. “I’ll call Regina at seven like I do every Friday night and she’ll refuse my call like she has every week for the last five months.”

“What would make somebody shoot the President?” Bo grimaces. “Too many damned nuts in this country. Had to be planned, though, don’t ya think? I better call New York. My parents must know by now. Mama will be a mess, want me to move back home, grow my hair out, put on a skirt. Whatever the trouble, Mama Lucy believes me living at home, calling myself Bonnie Louise and wearing silk stockings will help the situation.”

Jackie snorts, as she does every time she hears Bo’s unlikely given name. “Good luck getting your turn on the phone at your place.” She refers to the fact that Bo lives with three other girls and shares one phone that’s on a party line. She opens the passenger door.

“Don’t think we’ll be playing cards tonight. Might be something at my church,” Bo says.

“It’s ‘my’ church now?”

“A tragedy happens, people get churchy. Don’t be small-minded. Couple of people stood up for me, including the pastor. Long as I don’t wear that hat, I’m welcome.” Bo offers Jackie a flickering smile. Several parishioners tried to ban Bo from attending when she showed up for services with her fedora in her hand and Yvonne, a roommate interested in Jesus and Bo in equal measure, on her arm. “If I was a wiry broad-shouldered girl like you, eight inches taller, less meat on my hips, I’d go ahead and pass.”

Jackie returns the smile, but it’s not very convincing. “In my home town?” This is the first time Bo has mentioned that one or both of them should try to pass as male since Bo decided to move from the big city to Western Massachusetts. Bo and Jackie are both mistaken for men all the time. Not that Jackie necessarily tries to pass. Her voice usually gives her away. By passing, Bo means living as a man, day in day out, not just occasionally when the mood suits. Bo has cultivated her naturally low voice. Her breasts are no problem. If Bo wears a T-shirt under a well-cut shirt, her small chest blends right into her belly. Her broad hips are her biggest giveaway. In the relative anonymity of Manhattan, Bo held more than one job she never would have gotten if she wasn’t passing and held more than one woman she never would have held. She got roughed-up more than once for holding the wrong jobs and the wrong women, too.

“You’d have to cut back those lashes,” Bo says, still trying to lighten the mood.

In better times, Jackie likes to razz Bo about passing, and Bo likes to razz Jackie about long lashes making her too girlie to pass. Bo should have known better than to think foolish banter would lift anyone’s spirits today. This is going to be a hard day, a hard week, a hard year, maybe. They just must help each other through it. Try to stay safe.

Bo keeps talking and leans halfway across the front seat, so her words will reach Jackie who has already slid out of the car. Jackie stoops, one hand on the car’s hood.

“You think there’s gonna be more trouble?” Bo asks. “The killer was against civil rights, that’s why he did it?”

“You can bet he’s a racist,” Jackie bends her head into the open door to listen. “I hope this doesn’t mean more trouble at work.”

“Work? Jesus fucking Christ.” Bo pushes the back of her head against the car seat.

Bo, Jackie and two other girls in the factory got punch press jobs that some of the guys thought should have been theirs. The other two girls get sneers; their time cards go missing. Jackie gets the same, plus mumbled threats, one of the guys bumped into her, knocked her down last week, feigning an accident, whispering “nigger lover” after he held out his hand to help her up. But the safety on Bo’s machine was tampered with, the big red button used to stop the punch from taking a bite out of her hand was purposely jammed. And a note with just one word was taped to Bo’s machine- the hideous word itself.

“We got the Union now,” Jackie says. “The guys will act better, not worse.” Jackie shudders, hoping this is true.

Bo shakes her head, “Your average racist will be cheered on by this. Some would be happy to see bullets clear out the queers, too. Just when there’s less work at the mill. We are so screwed. Call Regina. You want to be someplace safe with people who care about you tonight. More of a crowd than just you and your folks. My guess is the church people will have a service, a food and fellowship thing. Ha,” Bo laughs bitterly. “A safe place?” She whistles through her teeth. “Four little girls blown to kingdom come in that Baptist Church would have been safer at home.”

“Why the hell did I bring up work? Come in. Have a beer,” Jackie says.

“The balls to murder Kennedy.” Bo hits the steering wheel with her fist. “What’s that going to mean for the rest of us? That kind of guy would beat on a colored girl because he couldn’t figure out if she’s a dyke or a fag.”

“You’ve got every reason to get worked up, but you do a bad job keeping yourself safe when you’re angry,” Jackie says with tenderness that catches in her throat.

“Yvonne will be waiting. We’ll calm each other down. You go in, have a beer.” Bo puts the car in reverse. “Hug your mama.”

“You’ll pick me up? For the service, if there’s one tonight?”

“Yvonne probably already invited Regina. Be good for me and Yvonne to be around other black folks. You’ll be welcome, and you won’t be the only white girls there. Tell your girl to wear a nice hat. Those church ladies welcome well behaved white girls, but they will not forgive a raggedy hat.” Bo grins. “I ain’t going off half-cocked. Get off my car. Lemme go.”

“Our car.” Jackie straightens up, closes the door and slaps the top of the car, a sign of affection; a gesture unconsciously meant to keep Bo safe. “I love you, too,” she says, probably loud enough for her friend to hear. “Hell of a thing.” She watches the dust kick up behind the car as it drives down the long dirt drive. Bo’s reasons for going to church, other than her desire to impress a woman, finally make some sense to Jackie.

“Mom,” Jackie calls as she walks into the kitchen. “Dad.” She’s not surprised that neither of her parents is in the house. It’s milking time. They only have six cows left and do the milking by hand, often together. She stands by the sink, staring at the phone on the wall, thinking of her parents, how well they know each other, how many bad days they have made it through together in the last forty years – the death of her soldier brother in a driving accident on leave during the war, almost losing the farm, the day the letter arrived announcing Jackie’s dishonorable discharge from the Army. It has taken her these last long months alone to understand that having Regina in her life, by her side year after year, would give some shape, maybe even meaning to the hard days. She tries to remember easier days; days you could accept as they unfolded, days you didn’t have to struggle to understand.

She picks the receiver off the hook, starts to dial and stops. She should know what she wants to say in case Regina does take her call this time. She puts the receiver back in the cradle. What if Regina won’t take her call, not even today?

She faces the sink, wraps both hands around the edge of the countertop and bows her head until it almost touches the counter. “Regina,” she whispers. The only thing that stops her from weeping is the possibility of her parents walking in. No doubt, her mother has already had a good cry. Probably every mother in Massachusetts and most of the nation has had a good cry today. She cocks her head and listens to the soft bleating coming from the barn. She doesn’t listen long. If she’s going to call Regina, she should do it while she has some privacy. There is only the one phone in the small farm house.

Something stirs in the front room. “Mom?” she calls.

In the front room, Regina rises off the couch and walks slowly toward the kitchen. She stands in the doorway hugging herself. They stare at each other, transfixed, not five feet between them.

Until Regina steps around Jackie into the kitchen. “They’re so good, your parents. They gave me big hugs,” she says. “My parents are so relieved to have me back as a normal unmarried spinster that they pretend not to miss you. My mother pretends you never happened.”

“You came.” Jackie wonders for a moment if she’s hallucinating. She’s never seen Regina in this stance, drawn into herself, shoulders hunched, cradling herself with her arms. So small. Regina has always been thin. Now she is downright skinny.

“You heard?” Regina looks away to avoid seeing the tears run down Jackie’s cheek. Regina has been living in a state of dogged determination to stay on the track she has chosen for herself: work and night school. She hates her day job less than the preparatory courses she is taking to become a nurse. Teaching and nursing courses are what the community college offers at night, and she is drawn less to children in grades K-12 than she is to sick people. Neither profession calls her, but if she is doomed to live with her parents for the rest of her life, she must prepare herself for something besides selling cosmetics. “Your mom said it would be okay for me to wait in here.” She had not known that simply being in Jackie’s home would magnify the loss of what happened today and shine such a harsh light on her daily routine of work and school.

“I’m surprised.” Jackie moves toward Regina. “Glad you came.”

“Yvonne gave me a lift. She’s worried all hell will break loose. I am too. There’s been so much trouble between the races already. I haven’t been able to get in touch with my sister.”

Regina turns, walks back into the front room and puts a hand on top of the television console, rubbing a circle with her finger on the polished blonde wood, looking down, talking to the top of set. “I had to put the T.V. off before I went crazy.” Her voice is shaky. “It’s disorienting, eerie, because it feels like the nightly news is on, but all day long and only one horrible story to tell since it happened, not giving you a second to forget. Not that you could forget. Not that I even want to forget.” Her eyes glance at Jackie and then back to her own finger still making the same circle on top of the wooden cabinet.

“Every radio station, too. It feels like the end of the world. I was trying to sell a customer a tube of lipstick when she told me something bad had happened, but she wasn’t sure what. Then the store made the announcement over the intercom, and the whole place went silent, and the manager came on and said we were closing and we should all go home to our loved ones. Yvonne came straight up from the stock room to find me. I haven’t even seen my parents yet. They must think I’m still at work. Poor Mrs. Kennedy.” She rubs her temple still not looking at Jackie. “Can you imagine? Hearing a thing like this over the intercom? Yvonne says the mill might be getting ready to layoff? Well, I wondered if that’s how you’d heard it, too. At work? I couldn’t bear the thought of you coming home to an empty house. It’s one thing to have a lousy job. It’s another thing not to have a job. Not to have someone to come home to. Not that your parents. Not that I’m saying we should get back…”

Jackie who had been silently crying inhales a sob that makes Regina look up mid-sentence.

“Oh, no. Don’t cry. Please, don’t cry.” Regina hugs herself. “If you cry, I’ll start, and I may never stop.”

Jackie takes the few steps necessary to embrace her. Regina’s arms are wrapped around herself, so Jackie pulls her in without being embraced in return. Regina lets herself be held and they both cry until they are sniffling hitches of breath.

Regina pushes away and goes to the bathroom to fix her face. She comes back to find tea on the coffee table for them both. She walks to the window to look out into the shadows. Jackie stands a few feet behind her fighting the instinct to put her arms around Regina’s waist.

They both stare out at the yard without speaking until Regina says, “It so dark, so calm while the world falls apart.”

“I’m afraid. For all of us. But the us I’m talking about now is you and me,” Jackie whispers. “If you had asked me outright to be faithful I would have said yes,”

Regina turns, feeling a terrible composure. “I doubt you had it in you at first. You were too in the habit of sleeping around. It was a way of life. But after we were together for a while, if we had gotten back together one last time, you might have agreed.”

“Are you happier without me?” Jackie asks. Regina doesn’t answer. Jackie sits on the couch, leans forward and rests her elbows on her knees. “Because I’m miserable without you. I should have pretended I wanted what you wanted from the beginning. To keep the peace. To keep you. In the end, that’s what people do. Bend.” Jackie gestures for Regina to take a seat on the couch next to her.

Regina remains standing. “Yes, we’ve had this conversation. This fight. Me and my romantic notions. You and your misgivings about ‘one on one ‘til death do us part true love.’ I’ve had lots of time to think about it, to write a poem about a willow tree.” Regina lets out a derisive snip of a laugh and stops talking to give Jackie a moment to smile at the thought of Regina’s poetry. But Jackie is all sincere attention. “Well, I’ve come to agree with you,” Regina says. “How often does ‘forever’ last? Even for married people, men and women who stay together? Couples who have a house and kids and dinner parties with their neighbors to keep them together – how happy-ever-after are most of those couples really? Never mind two girls with no money who get the evil eye from the old biddies in the grocery store?”

“Our parents are happier together than they would be apart. We were too isolated. Bo lives in Holyoke now. She and Yvonne have parties. They belong to some women’s society in Boston. Boston’s not so far. It could be different.”

“We’ve switched arguments, have we?” Regina says without malice. She moves a family photo to sit on top of the console. “I’ve thought a lot about freedom since we split, who has it, who doesn’t. Today I kept thinking that your kind of freedom is a type of bondage too, or no, I don’t mean to be melodramatic, not today of all days, a burden maybe. I just mean there’s a price no matter which way you jump.”

Jackie nods. “Freedom to be alone on this damn day.”

Regina hops off the console. “What’s happening to me? I’m sitting on the television set.” She moves the photo back where it belongs. “I do believe you’d be faithful if I asked. But I don’t want to spend my life trying to be better than the hurt and anger that rears up when I think about you and those other girls. I always wanted to be brave. Heroic. The only brave thing I’ve ever done is loving you.” Regina sits on the horse hair chair that was once in their apartment and before that in Jackie’s apartment in New York. The comfort of that chair starts her crying again.

Jackie gets up, pulls a chair closer to Regina’s.

“What are we going to do with our lives?” Regina throws up her hands. “All of us, lesbians?” She wonders if she will ever find a word she didn’t get out of a psychology book, a kinder word.

“Whatever we do, we should do it together, you and me. Who we are, that is our lives. I’m sorry I messed our lives up.”

“Oh sorry,” Regina huffs and crosses her arms in defiance, not self-comfort this time. “I remember sorry.” She seems, at this moment, more like Regina than she has since Jackie walked in the house. “I’m sorry, too. So what? I’m sick of sorry. I’m sick of sitting around on overstuffed chairs and standing behind cosmetic counters. Some maniac murdered the President, he was the best decision this country ever made, and now all hell can break loose, or we can get off our asses and do something. What was I doing in August during the March on Washington? I was reading about it in the newspapers and crying over you, that’s what.”

“We should have been there,” Jackie nods. “Bo says the march was something.”

“Bo went to Washington?”

“The Union sent the steward and two other people.”

Regina smirks. “They sent Bo Meeks? They know what she is? Of course, they know.” She wipes the look off her face when she sees the look on Jackie’s.

“Bo pays her dues. She never misses a meeting.” Jackie is surprised at how soon irritation slides back into her feelings for Regina.

“She’s always had guts. I just can’t see Bo in Washington DC unless it’s at a poker table with a drink.”

“Why? She’s from a big city,” Jackie says flatly. “What if she did have a drink and play cards while she was there?”

Regina hears what she has just said as Jackie heard it and bites her lip, agreeing. “You see I’m the same old girl, even now in the middle of this tragedy, quick to judge.” She takes Jackie’s hand. “I apologize. Truly. There. Now you can be sick of sorry, too. Bo did something good. Good for her. It’s not fair that I associate Bo with our troubles.”

“Not fair,” Jackie agrees. “Bo wasn’t even here. She was in New York during our worst times. She thinks there’ll be a service at her church tonight.”

“Mourning, proper respects.” Regina walks a small circle in front of the window. “Something to do besides sit numb in front of the TV.”

When Jackie’s parents walk in Jackie and Regina are sitting on opposite ends of the couch, watching a loop of horror on the console, waiting for Yvonne to come back for Regina.

Later, alone in the kitchen with Jackie’s father, Jackie’s mother lowers her voice so Jackie won’t hear. “It’s not that I object to her having Negro friends. You know I don’t.” Jackie’s mother stands at the stove holding a big wooden spoon, uncharacteristically distracted from her task, letting the food in the pot pop and hiss, spitting a bit of hot gravy on her wrist before she stirs the stew and lowers the heat. “People are nervous. Some may feel tender-hearted, but some will be jittery, looking to cast blame.” She wipes her hands on the dishcloth tucked in the waist of her apron.

“Today of all days. Jackie calls enough attention to herself. I like Bo. But Jackie and Bo together?” Her mother purses her lips and flaps a hand. “Don’t look at me like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, Jack. People pass remarks. You’ve ignored them, same as me. We’ve all lived with this thing since she was a young girl. You know how the good people of this town can be. Four girls going around together? Who knows if they have enough sense not to hang on each other’s arms? People are going to think they’re on a double date.”

Jackie’s father stares at his wife, wondering if she really doesn’t understand that the best thing that could happen would be Jackie on a date, getting back together with Regina. “Our girl lived in New York City. She can handle herself.” He goes to the cupboard and gets two mugs. “Sit. Have a cup of tea with me before dinner.” He places the cups on the table and puts a teabag in each one. “The coward who shot the President would be happy to know he was keeping four young girls from attending a church service in Kennedy’s honor.”

“I can’t lose another child.” She clicks on the gas burner and fills the kettle with water from the tap. “Talk to her. She listens to you.”

“They’re going to church, not a war zone.” Jackie’s father pulls out two chairs.

“The President had bodyguards.” Jackie’s mother makes the sign of the cross.

Jackie has been standing in the front room, out of sight, listening. She’s thinking about what Bo said about the four little girls from Alabama getting blown to kingdom come for going to church as she steps into the kitchen. “We’ll be all right, Mom. I’m not the President. No one’s interested in me.”

Her mother stands as tall as her five foot eight frame will stretch.
“You girls have dinner here. All four of you. I made plenty.” She pulls a chair out for Jackie.

“Mom. Thanks. We’ll take you up on it. Another night. Tonight, we’re going to the Baptist Church. There’s Bo,” Jackie responds to the sound of the Buick pulling up in the driveway. She kisses her mother on the cheek. “Good night, Mom.”

Her mother grabs her by the wrist. “Please.”

Jackie squats next to her mother. “We can’t all stay in our kitchens.”

“Why not?” Jackie’s mother snaps at her father, “Talk to her.”

Jackie’s father removes his wife’s hand from his daughter’s wrist and gets up to answer the door.

“Good-evening,” Yvonne steps inside, followed by Bo. Yvonne is dressed in black, wearing her best-veiled hat and black sheath, looking more like Ruby Dee auditioning for a part as a grieving young widow than a girl who works in the stock room at a department store. Bo is wearing her best suit. She has stashed her fedora in the trunk of the car.

Back at the car, Bo starts for the driver’s side, but Yvonne informs Bo she’s not driving. “It’s going to be black girl, black butch in the back seat, white girl, white butch in the front seat. I plan on doing my bit for integration, but not on the way to church and not tonight. It’s enough we arrive together.”

“Where’s the logic? It’s Zion Baptist,” Bo says.“The parishioners are going to be driving their own cars. White people who see us on the way and give a damn will think I’m the chauffeur.”

“Not in a ten-year-old Buick with a dented fender.” Yvonne shakes her head. “With a beautiful girl next to you – they’ll think you’re my pimp.”

“Trying to second guess the mind of bigots? People see me and Jackie in this car every day. Some fool might be angry that the white girl is driving around the black girls.” Bo looks to Jackie for support, but Jackie just raises her eyebrows, noncommittally. “There’s no winning an argument with Yvonne,” Bo says, hands Jackie the keys and asks Yvonne, “So, who do you want to take the back seat until we pick up Regina? Or do we all cozy up front?”

“You’re right.” Yvonne throws up her hands in defeat. “I’m trying to apply reason. Reason got shot down with Kennedy. I have no godly idea who should sit where.”

“It’s okay, baby,” Bo puts her arms around Yvonne, who is taller and rests her cheek on Bo’s forehead. Yvonne rearranges her hat before she slides into the back seat.

Regina is outside fidgeting against the cold when the Buick pulls up.

“Why’s she waiting at the end of her driveway?” Jackie wonders out loud.

“Parent trouble is my guess,” Yvonne says.

Jackie has one foot out of the car, planning to jump out and open the back door for Regina, hoping for a brief word, but Regina is inside, seated next to Yvonne before Jackie’s second foot hits the ground. Regina slams the car door behind her. Jackie and Bo both turn in their seats to see the look Regina gives her parents’ house.

“You alright?” Jackie says.

“Please, just drive.” Regina’s lips almost disappear into her smirk.

Yvonne’s eyes meet Jackie’s questioning gaze in the rearview mirror as Jackie backs out. “Mrs. LaFleche invited me in for tea when I dropped Regina off this afternoon,” Yvonne says. “Explained in her frilly little living room why Regina and I must end our friendship.”

Bo nods having just heard the story on the way to Jackie’s.

“‘For both mine and Yvonne’s good.’” Regina wags her head, mimicking her mother, “‘For safety sake.” Regina sounds like herself when she’s on her own high horse. “Yvonne never flinched. Finished her tea,” she says with satisfaction. “Just stood up, said, ‘Good-bye Mrs. LaFleche’ and asked if I still wanted a ride to church tonight.”

“Wanna take odds on that three-way battle of wills?” Bo asks Jackie.

Jackie is not about to respond to that question.

“I wasn’t sure you’d make it out of the house tonight,” Yvonne says.

“Thank you for coming. I don’t think I would have come back if I was you,” Regina says. “It got worse. She figured out you and Bo are a couple.”

“I assumed,” Yvonne says.

“Took an assassination for the lady to figure it out?” Bo points at herself in her vested three-piece suit and whistles through her teeth. “I thought she liked Yvonne though. Yvonne is a good Negro. Mothers never do like me.”

“My mother tolerates Negroes.” Regina grimaces. “She thought she was done with having to put up with,” she makes a circle in the air over her head to indicate the occupants of the car, “us. She flipped out when it was just her and me. We both did.”

“You should not be living with your mother,” Yvonne says.

“Yvonne, please,” Bo says. “This is no time for an old argument.”

“Don’t Yvonne, me. Making your way to a memorial service is no time to fuss over your racist mother.” Yvonne arranges her purse on her lap. “Tolerates. I hate that word. Join the NAACP like you keep threatening, Regina. Give Mama something to fuss about.” She cuts her eyes at Jackie, who has not stopped glancing at her in the rearview. “Don’t look so troubled. I like Regina. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be bothered. I’ll take her to a meeting. She should lick some envelopes. I guarantee there will be a table in the vestibule after the service tonight where she can sign up.”

Regina stares out her window without saying another word until they get to the church.

Weeks later, Regina accompanies Yvonne to a volunteer meeting held in the community room of the Quaker Meeting House. She’s finding out political work involves lots of sitting on folding chairs, either in halls listening to men talk or, as Yvonne warned, in basements licking envelopes. When it comes to licking envelopes, the volunteers are mainly women. Today most are still in their Sunday clothes and sit at a long table near the front.

Regina and Yvonne sit alone at a small folding table in the back, kitty-corner to each other and talk quietly as they work. Yvonne is telling Regina about spending last weekend in Boston at her parents’ house. “I should never have told Daddy our meetings alternate between the Baptist Church and a Quaker Meeting House.” She lowers her head and her already quiet voice. “He’s worried about subversives and socialists.”

“If begging for money and drumming up audiences for lectures on non-proliferation and Reverend King makes you a socialist.” Regina raises her eyebrows.

“Doctor King and Jesus calmed Mother down. Daddy’s still worried. He thinks non-proliferation is a swear word and Quakers are a white cult.” She secures a pile of envelopes into two neat stacks with rubber bands. “I brought up Sojourner Truth.”

Regina tears off a row of stamps from a sheet, licks one and sticks it on an envelope. “One of the Ruths made up that story about Sojourner being a Quaker to make the Baptists feel welcome.”
There are three Quaker volunteers named Ruth.

“No, it’s true,” Yvonne looks up from her work. “Oh, you’re making a joke.” She crosses out the last name. “We conquered this list. Daddy thinks you people are going to be my ruination.”

“I’m not a Quaker.” Regina sips her tea.

“White people.” Yvonne grins.

“That’s because you haven’t introduced him to Bo.” Regina grins back.

“You got me there.” Yvonne stops smiling. “I used to think Quakers were the ones who don’t drive cars or use electricity.”

“That’s the Amish.” Regina picks up the list of crossed-out names. “What’s the matter?”

“Assumptions,” Yvonne shakes her head. “Even now, you tell me the Amish don’t drive or use electricity, without knowing one such person, notions about the Amish that have nothing to do with the fact that they don’t drive or use electricity pop into my head.”

“I feel a sermon coming on.” Regina waves the list at a man in the front of the room. “Let’s get the real pastor over here.” She smiles as he glides towards them.

“Hello, ladies.” The Reverend in his white collar and tasseled loafers carries an empty cardboard box. “You’ve made quick work of this. Can I talk you into another batch?” He places the stacks of addressed envelopes in the box.

“Thank you, Reverend Joe.” Yvonne looks at her watch. “My girlfriend,” she says in her churchiest voice and sits up a little straighter, “is picking us up at in twenty minutes. I’m happy to do as much as I can until that time.” She looks at Regina. “Another batch?”

Both the Reverend and Regina skip a beat before they respond.

“Certainly,” Regina says, “that’s why I’m here.”

“Wonderful.” The preacher returns seconds later with another list, envelopes, and stamps.

“My girlfriend?” Regina says as soon as he’s out of hearing distance. “You are a subversive.”

“Relax. He likes men more than you do.” Yvonne wets a stamp on a sponge, slaps it on an envelope and shoves it toward Regina who stuffs in a flyer.

“You don’t know that,” Regina says. Yvonne shoves another envelope at Regina. “Because of how he walks?” Regina says. “Talk about assumptions.”

Yvonne continues to shove envelopes Regina’s way for several minutes before stopping abruptly. “If we can’t push the envelope here,” her voice rises, “where can we?”

Regina squares her stack of flyers. “Sometimes you’re so rude for no reason, it makes me want to behave better myself.”

“All right,” Yvonne says. “I won’t insult your intelligence by pretending I didn’t say girlfriend in a certain tone. Just once, I’d like to scream from the pulpit that I’m a homophile. How dangerous is saying ‘my girlfriend’? These ladies,” Yvonne gives a nod toward the tables in front of them, “call each other ‘girlfriends’.”

Regina gestures for Yvonne to lower her voice. None of them look like Bo, she thinks, but says, “Saying girlfriend is not as dangerous for us.”

Yvonne pushes back in her chair. “Which us would that be?”

“Women who wear skirts. Girly girls who are,” Regina pulls her chair closer to Yvonne’s, “queers.”

Yvonne flinches when Regina says queers. “You think I’m a fool who has to be told it’s harder for Bo and Jackie,” she folds her arms over her chest, “because you can tell by looking at them?”

Regina wants to say that she likes the word homophile less than queer but the conversation is going too fast. She crosses her legs and folds her arms over her chest, too. “Why are you being so hard on me?”

“You know what else is hard?”

Regina waits, understanding that Yvonne plans to ask and answer the question.

“Walking around as a colored girl – try slipping out of that skirt. Ask Jackie who got the worst of it in New York. At the bars? On the street? And at the mill, who better say, “Yes, sir” to the foreman every damn time?”

“Bo,” Regina unfolds her arms. “Bo.”

“Tell me,” Yvonne picks up her coffee and puts the cup down without taking a sip, “why don’t you like Bo?”

“I like Bo just fine.” Regina looks away, lifts an inch off her chair, runs her hand under her skirt and resettles.

“And Bo likes you ‘just fine’ right back. Jealous. Both of you.”

Yvonne turns a few degrees to consider Regina head-on.
Regina considers Yvonne ‘right back’.

“Maybe Bo’s too dark, too dangerous,” Yvonne says.

“That’s not true,” Regina bristles. “You’re saying I’m prejudiced?”
Yvonne waits a long minute to answer. “I’m not saying you’re not. Calm down. I’m saying what Bo says all the time, she nobody’s good Negro. You said as much a minute ago when you were teasing me about not introducing her to my parents. Anyone with eyes can see that Bo is a danger to good people everywhere. Jackie, too. But not like Bo. Bo is the boogie man, come to steal their way of life, their girl children.” Yvonne sucks in a breath and huffs it out. “And their manhood while she’s at it.”

“None of us is,” Regina hesitates, flustered by Yvonne’s anger and rising voice, “good. I do know what you’re saying to me. Bo is worse than Jackie. I don’t mean worse, I mean more dangerous, I mean in more danger.” She leans in, both hands on the table, disrupting the pile of envelopes, becoming more rattled by her own words. “You’re right I’m more afraid for her, for all of us, when we’re with her. But it’s not like I’m at ease when I’m with Jackie in public. It’s not like I’m at ease with myself. Afraid. Sorry. Because more than once I’ve wanted to make one or all of us, especially me, invisible.”

Yvonne moans. “This would be easier if you were just a normal tight-ass white girl.”

An elderly woman, wearing a hat with a hazardous looking feather, walks up to their table. Yvonne greets her with a veneer of politeness, “Hello, Mrs. Johnson.”

“Hello, Yvonne.” Mrs. Johnson smiles and points to her left ear. “My Earle bought me a new hearing aid, catches every little sound. You young ladies might want to keep your voices down.”

Yvonne nods. “Nice of you to mention it, Mrs. Johnson.” She gestures to Regina. “You’ve met my girlfriend, Regina?”

Regina and Mrs. Johnson exchange pleasantries before Mrs. Johnson says, “You girls take care, now,” and heads back to her table.

Yvonne continues with her voice lowered, “You’ve got backbone, but you need to take criticism.” She frowns before her eyes smile. “So do I. You hit my last nerve, teasing me about not introducing Bo to my family.” She shakes her head. “It’s worse than you think. I do love Bo. But I have to choose.”

“Why? Your parents live ninety miles away.”

“Not between my parents and Bo. Between Bo and Howard. I’m going back to Howard.”

“Howard?” Regina stands up and sits back down. “Poor Bo.”

“Shhh,” Yvonne reaches for Regina’s hand. “Not a man. A school.” Regina stares down at the hand covering hers. “My parents are thrilled. Daddy went to Howard,” Yvonne says. “He was furious when I moved away to work here, in Western Massachusetts of all places, in a department store. Mother still insists I move back to Boston every time I go home.”

“It was too hard,” Regina falters, trying to make sense of what she’s being told, “to be,” she fights for a word, “homosexual in your hometown?”

“And now I have to leave Bo if I want to be a doctor.”

“A doctor? Medical school?” Regina stares, her mouth half open, holding back speech, she looks down at Yvonne’s hand covering hers, places her other hand on top and says, “A black female doctor, Jesus Yvonne. How smart are you? How brave are you?”

“I’m going to find out.” Yvonne places her other hand on top, making a pile of their hands.

“Howard?” Regina leans in. “Is that a black school? A school where they’ll give you a fighting chance?”

“It is,” Yvonne says.

They sit with their hands piled between them on the table. “I didn’t know your father went to college.” It suddenly occurs to Regina that Yvonne is from a wealthy family or maybe just a well-educated family. “Why do you have to leave Bo to go to medical school?” Regina tries to remember if they have ever spoken about what their fathers do for a living. She’s never known a colored girl who went to go to college before. She’s never know any girl who went to college before. She’s never seen Yvonne blush before.

“My parents wouldn’t pay for school if they knew about Bo.” Yvonne sighs, pulls away and slumps a little in the folding chair. “I know, shocking, I’m deceiving them, so they’ll pay my way. I’m choosing medical school. For now. Bo knows. She agrees with my decision. Or, anyway, she understands.”

Regina holds out an open palm, “Just don’t tell them.”

“I won’t tell them.” Yvonne sits up tall in her chair. “But I won’t drag Bo to Washington with me either. If I’m ever forever-after serious, about Bo, I’ll tell them. Right now, I’m more serious about school. Are you stunned or disappointed? Angry, maybe?”

Regina doesn’t answer. Yvonne starts stacking the disarray of envelopes. When Regina still doesn’t answer, Yvonne sits back. “You and Bo both love Jackie. You should know that Bo’s done nothing but encourage Jackie to get back together with you. You and Bo need each other.”

“I’m stunned. Not angry. Proud of you for going to school. Maybe disappointed, too. About Bo. I don’t know. It’s between you and Bo, of course. I’m going to miss you.” Regina wipes a tear. “You said you’re going back to Howard? Why didn’t I know you went to college?”

“It wasn’t yours to know,” Yvonne rubs her upper arms like she’s suddenly got a chill, “until now. There was an incident with a girl. That I loved. We both got sent home. She took getting caught hard. Now I’m going back.”

“Oh,” Regina says.

“One thing I learned by leaving school and my parents is that I can’t stop being what I am. We all need other girls like us.” Yvonne sits up, regaining her poise. “Our Bo is having a hard time forgiving you for turning her playmate into a love-struck puppy who wants to settle down and be a full-time husband.”

“Husband?” Regina’s mind spins. “Jackie doesn’t want to settle down. She’ll settle for settling down.”

“So? She wants you more than that whole other life she had in New York. Occasionally you give up one thing to have another. Where’s the insult?”

“I still don’t understand why you have to leave Bo. You just said we all need other girls like us.” Regina puts both hands flat in front of her, threatening to topple again the pile of envelopes that Yvonne just stacked.

“Well then, maybe you just won’t understand. I need an education more than I need to be with Bo. She’s not in love with me the way she’d have to be to stick it out while I slog through pre-med and medical school. Maybe she will be someday. But not yet.”

“Medical school.” Regina has so many questions. Are Yvonne’s parents rich? “I’ll miss you.” She looks at her lap, surprised to be so hurt that Yvonne held this information so long, surprised to find out just how much she’s come to care for Yvonne, sorry to be losing one of her few friends. The friend who has parties and makes her stuff envelopes with strange religious groups and loans her books she’s never heard of. “Congratulations. It’s Washington DC, not the state, right?”

“Yes, DC. I’ll miss you, too. I’m not afraid to hop on a bus to Massachusetts. Bo and I aren’t giving each other up completely. We’re just not promising anything.” Yvonne smiles sadly.

Regina moans softly. “Bo and Jackie loose on the town.”

“Yes. I thought of that. I do love Bo, but I’m not a believer in quick love.” Yvonne purses her lips at Regina who is dabbing at her eyes. “You and Jackie are clearly in it for the long haul. Why don’t you move back in with her?” Yvonne’s eyes narrow. “Then you won’t have to worry about her and Bo on the town.”

“Move in?” Regina says barely above a whisper. “We’re not even.”

“Still not intimate? Dear God. Anyone paying the least attention, the Good Reverend, I bet he thinks you’re a couple,” Yvonne smiles wickedly, “of deviants. Putting up with all the nonsense and not getting a bit of the goodies. Forgive me for saying so, but that is just dumb as a bucket.” She stops to take in the fact that Regina is openly crying. “Are you crying for me or Jackie?”

“You and Jackie. Maybe a little for Bo.”

“Well, stop.” Yvonne puts up a hand. “If you make me blubber in the Quaker Meeting Room I’ll never forgive you.”

“Then you should have told me in the Baptist Church, where no one would notice a few extra tears.”

“You’ll take care of them?” Yvonne tears up herself.

Regina pulls tissue from her purse and hands one to Yvonne. “I suppose we’ll take care of each other.”

Photo Credit: santiagonostalgico Flickr via Compfight cc

Sally Bellerose

In her writing, Sally Bellerose loves to mess with rhythm, rhyme, and awkward emotion. Bellerose writes about class, sex, sexuality, gender, illness, absurdity, and lately, growing old. Her novel The Girls Club, Bywater Books, won many awards including an NEA Fellowship. Her poetry has been widely published and is featured in Lady Business, Sibling Rivalry Press. Bellerose’s current project, a book titled Fishwives, features old women behaving badly.

  1. Sally J Bellerose
    Sally J Bellerose

    Thank you for taking the time to comment, Dori Owen – much appreciated. This story is a version of chapter from a novel that is with an agent at this moment. Fingers crossed. Best, sallyb

  2. Sally Bellerose

    Thanks Dori, Appreciate your comments. This is part of a longer manuscript that is with an agent. Fingers crossed. And Happy Spring which is just appearing here in MA. ooSallyB

  3. Sally Bellerose

    Thanks Dori. Just saw this. Just got a great agent for the book, am so pleased. Appreciate your comments. xsallyb

  4. Avatar

    Sally, I’ve followed your work since before your first novel, “The Girls Club”. This is a great piece. Can’t wait to read your second book, “Fishwives”.
    It is clear that the bio posted by the Feminist Collective is NOT yours! I hope they correct this on their website!!

  5. Dori Owen

    This is an incredible story, Sally. I’m mesmerized by the plot, sub-plots and societal relevance that could easily go from “that was then and this is now.” Your characters are so deep, and the dialogue so real, I did not want it to end. Sigh. I haven’t read anything so powerful in a long time. Congrats on an incredible read. xD.

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