A Place Between
The concrete curb bit into my hipbones, and I squirmed for relief.
“You shouldn’t hang around with me,” Mavis said, her honeyed vowels sliding into snippets of melody. I thought that if I strung all those vowels together I could compose a symphony. Her eyes, darker than brown, studied the horizon of scrub oak and palmetto. “No good for you.”
“How many times have I told you, Mavis, I don’t care what people think.” I squinted into the July sun, and it sucked sweat beads from my pinking skin. She shrugged, and her shoulder bones tented the thin cotton of her dress. Faded sprigs of violets and pink posies writhed along the folds of fabric. A thought came to me. “Are you scared, Mavis? Scared to be seen with me?”
Her full lips curved into a smile. “What you think they’d do to me, Opal? Think they’d string me up?” She laughed her throaty, husky laugh that spoke of cigarettes and whisky in the colored town juke joints across the river. I wondered if she frequented these dens and if I might accompany her some humid heated night, if I might beat out the rhythms with my feet and whirl in a pounding mass of dancing legs and arms. The city newspapers in the library told of flappers and jazz and bootleg gin, and I imagined Mavis bathed in the sheen of illicit delights. “No, I ain’t scared to be seen with you,” she said. “Folks round here are mean, but not that mean.” The sunlight glinted off her cheekbones and the sweat rivulets on her forehead. She fanned herself with a tattered paper fan advertising J.R. Wimple’s Farm Implements. “Have to wonder, though, Opal, why you still act like we’re such good friends?”
The question socked me in the gut, the answer so obvious to my mind. “We’ve always been friends, haven’t we?”
She snorted. “You played with your maid’s pickaninny while my mama scrubbed your floors. But we’re eighteen now, not kids. Time to live in the world we got, and that world won’t let us be friends.”
She turned to me, her eyes begging me for understanding and agreement, but I fought the understanding, and I couldn’t agree, even though I sensed the pain in her. “What you gonna do, girl? Someday have me and my black as Africa husband over for dinner with you and your husband, who probably belongs to the Klan? You gonna take me to your garden club meetings? Or maybe you’ll sit with me up in the balcony at the picture show with your white face shining in the dark, or maybe I’ll take you to Sunday meetings and you can sing the gospels with me. We got no common place, Opal, except this piece of curb.” Her body sank into that curb like a flower stem gone limp. “Damn you, thinking we’re friends, when I can’t even stay in town after sundown or get thrown in jail.” All that unaccustomed talk left her gasping, huffing like she needed to release a whirlwind in her with her breath. “What they think I’ll do if I’m walking their streets after dark? Kill them in their beds?” And I heard her wish in it.
“None of that’s my fault, Mavis.”
“Then whose fault is it?”
I couldn’t recall a life without her, and I had thought her my center, my repository of dreams and fears, the ear that caught my whispered secrets and the heart that held them close. But now she made my affection childish with an indecent accusation that I was one of them. “I’m not like that, you know it. I love you, Mavis.” A petulance rose up in me, a boiling toddler’s tantrum, and I jumped to my feet because I couldn’t be still. “We’re close as sisters, you know we are.”
She unfolded her long legs and her reed-slim body and faced me, her bold mahogany features inches from my pasty ones, her beauty filling me, the familiarity of it calling up memories of two girls walking on dusty farm roads, chasing through wheat fields, hiding in corn rows. She shook her head, the cloud of hair sparking with sunbeams. “We ain’t sisters, Opal, never were. Sisters go to school together, have lunch at the drugstore together, be in the same house. Hell, girl, I can’t even set foot inside your door, forget about spending the night.” Her lower jaw jutted out at me. “We ain’t sisters.”
A wagon pulled by two mud-caked mules and driven by a colored farmhand called Jebby creaked toward us and stopped. He smiled at Mavis, then shifted a wary dark eye to me, just a second’s glance. I studied his discomfort, and watched it turn to fear under my gaze. That I could have such power over him both sickened and thrilled me. “Want a ride home, Mavis?” he asked.
Her face became anothers, a woman strange to me, a woman without Mavis’s heat. “Don’t bother me again, Opal. I got my life to live, and you got yours.” She climbed onto the wagon seat beside the boy and never looked back.
I watched the wagon become an indistinct dot on the road that turned to cross the bridge over the river into her world of dusky skin and honeyed vowels. My emptiness drank up all the anger I could extract from anguish, for anger could be borne. Mavis had chosen the coward’s path, the easy escape from a relationship that might need some nourishing with courage, but, after all, how much courage would it take to sit on a curb for a chat with a friend? She wanted my understanding of her betrayal, but I couldn’t find it for three years.
Those three years saw the end of my girlhood and a marriage to a man I thought on occasion I loved, but not often. Women congratulated me for landing him, the son of the town banker, landing him, I supposed, like a catfish flopping on the riverbank. Fred nursed grievances and plotted revenge for slights so minor I lacked sympathy, but by way of avoiding his wrath I assumed the role of his comforter, a loyal minion unfailing in devotion. I cooked, cleaned, and true to Mavis’s prediction I allowed my mother to wheedle me into membership in the garden club. But on restless summer nights my thoughts drifted across the bridge and conjured Mavis dancing and jiving in a juke joint, lights flashing on the planes of her face, her hips swaying, a cotton sundress undulating over curves. I could smell the sweat, feel the vibrating dance floor, hear her shrill peals of laughter, and see male hands reaching out to tame her passion.
The bank failed, as many did, in 1929, and Fred’s simmering hate for so much in his world began to overwhelm his better angels, few as they were. As our resources dwindled, our marital bond, never strong, weakened and faded to a ghostly remnant.
On a chill December morning of that year when the gales of a blue norther had beaten back Gulf breezes, Fred finished his breakfast bacon and eggs, took a final sip from his coffee cup, and said, “What was the name of that colored girl you used to play with when you were a kid?” His off-kilter smile hid things I dreaded seeing.
“You mean Mavis Jakes?”
“So it was her. I thought it was.”
My dread boiled into fear. “What was her?”
“Some of the boys got a little rough with her the other night.”
“She fought ‘em, knew better, but she had the nerve to knee Lonny in the nuts. So they taught her a lesson.” He raised his eyes to mine and grinned. “Why, Opal, you look like your best friend died. She’s just got some bruises, nothing to get all out of sorts over.”
I swallowed bile. “They raped her?”
He shrugged. “Just a little fun. They were lettin’ off steam. She should have been agreeable.” He chuckled. “None of the rest would have happened if she’d just been agreeable.”
He stood and ambled to the kitchen window, looked at the sky, and said, “Gonna be quite a storm.” He turned around, victory alighting his face. “See, her daddy got all bothered by a couple of black eyes, maybe a few broken ribs, I don’t know. He came prancing into town, found Lonny, and whacked him with a two-by-four. Poor bastard’s got a concussion.”
“He deserved it, beating and raping a woman.”
He narrowed his eyes into slits of malice. “Careful, Opal, go talking like that, you might get a lesson yourself.”
Fred had refrained from laying angry hands on me, but his fists always hovered in the periphery of consciousness. Once unloosed, I feared they would find such release that nothing would stop them. An excitement animated his features.
“What did y’all do, Fred?”
“You understand we couldn’t let old Jakes get away with it. Let something like that go and who knows what they’d do, attack us all maybe.” His body twitched with an aching to shout his awful knowledge and flatten me.
“What did you do?”
He grinned a hideous toothy revelation of evil. “We burned ‘em out and hung him.” He laughed at my reaction, a moan of loss. “You should have seen him dance, Opal.”
His voice followed me out the back door and through the yard to the street. Don’t do it, Opal, don’t do it. The first drops of a torrent fell on my face, and the wind whipped at my dress and my hair. By the time I reached the dirt road to the bridge, mud grabbed at my feet. Don’t do it the gaping maws of clay warned me. My muddy shoes clumped on the wooden slats of the bridge, each step shuddering through its rickety supports. The river churned red and violent beneath me and added its own roar to the thunder and turbulence. Water ran into my eyes and blurred the path beyond the bridge. Dark shapes of shanties huddled along a suggestion of a street, and dim rectangles of light mapped windows.
I had run from Fred and what he did, but most of all I had run toward Mavis. Standing in the middle of that sodden street, wet to the bone, I realized I had never before come to her place, never crossed the bridge, and didn’t know how to find her in this foreign land.
“What you want here?”
I spun toward the voice, and my feet squelched in the mud. A man stood on the porch of a shack that leaned cockeyed on its foundation of wooden posts. I cleared dripping strands of hair from my face and said, “Mavis Jakes. I need to see Mavis.”
An echo of my childhood came from inside the shack. “Let her in.”
I left my filthy shoes on the porch and stepped into the front room filled with decrepit chairs, a scratched, chipped table, and a sofa covered in faded flowered chintz. On the sofa sat an older version of my mother’s maid, hair more gray than black, features remolded by wrinkles and crevices.
She nodded once at me. “Opal.” Her acknowledgment of me was more a statement of unwelcome fact than a greeting.
I tried to smile, but gave up on it as an inappropriate gesture. “Hey, Lacy,” I said, then regretted it, thinking that in these circumstances she deserved the respect of a younger woman for an elder, not a reminder of her inferior position in my mother’s house, where she had never been Mrs. Jakes.
“Guess you looking for Mavis then.”
I wiped drops from my face and pressed my hand into the wet skirt of my dress. My thigh muscles trembled. “I heard what happened.” I struggled with the voicing of her loss. “I’m so sorry about Mr. Jakes. Is Mavis okay?” But of course she couldn’t be. “Where is she? I’d like to see her.”
Lacy’s eyes, so full of grief and misery, drilled holes into my soul. Her body, once rigid with dignity, sagged. “She’s gone.”
She shrugged. “Took the first bus out of town yesterday.”
“Why?” I felt an unreasonable resentment that she would abandon me without a farewell.
“Why?” she spit the word at me. “Because, Opal, they said they’d come back for her. Said raping her was a rare pleasure, and they’d be back for more.”
My mind shouted a series of buts to counteract her decision. “She could’ve told the police, she could’ve come to me, I would’ve helped her.”
Lacy’s rage welled up into her face, and she leaned forward as if she might spring from the sofa and slay me with the force of her hatred. “You stupid white bitch. One of them was a cop. And, guess what, Miss Opal, another one was your husband.”
I fled, stumbling down the rutted waterlogged street, past the shanties, away from Lacy’s accusation and my guilt. I stopped in the middle of the bridge, halfway between Mavis’s place and mine, stared at my bare feet on the wood planks, heard the splatting raindrops on my hair, and understood the thing Mavis had tried to show me. Fragile affections shriveled and expired on this span between. Peering into the storm at the outlines of my birthplace, a town of hate and sorrow, I knew that I had no place anymore.
I look for her sometimes on the sidewalks of the city I now call home, and on summer nights, with the racket of traffic and laughter blaring through my open window, I imagine Mavis jiving on a dance floor, whirling and twirling and catching the admiration of all who behold her.