DISCLAIMER: This is original fiction so all of the characters and happenings
come directly from my twisted imagination. Violence: no. Sex: no. Angst: for sure.
Sorry, its just a short story about women and the things they put themselves
through. I dont even remember writing any bad language. Oh well (heavy sigh).
Many thanks to Ginger for her beta reading expertise.
FEEDBACK: Yes, please. All comments will be appreciated and can be sent to mailto:email@example.com
Copyright 2003 © by nyrdgyrl
Netta Williams hated bingo. Every Tuesday night, for the past 27 years, shed found herself slouched beside her mother, lavender dauber in hand, breathing the stale smoky air trapped in the basement of the Ebenezer Baptist bingo hall. As usual, her mother was splitting her attention between 16 cards and the new - old gossip being bandied about by her cronies. Netta knew she would scream if she had to listen to her mother rant about Bebo Carvers peccadilloes just one more time. If she only knew .
Bebo was a legend in their community, right up there with Oprah and Steadman or Whitney and Bobby except that no one knew who Bebo shared her time with. Netta knew, and she wished she was half as brave. Instead shed played at being a good girl. She lived in her childhood home, slept in her childhood bed, and had suffered no boyfriends since high school when Teddy Clarkson shoved his tongue down her throat on prom night and touched off her gag reflex. Netta shuddered in remembrance. Chiffonaded spinach didnt go well with pink taffeta under any circumstance. That was the first time Bebo rescued her and the first of many times shed melted like butter in Bebos large and very capable hands.
Except for her secret, Netta led a quiet life. Born and raised in Eufaula, Alabama, she obeyed her mother, catered to her adopted aunts, and lived the life she thought she was supposed to live. She had a job at the Piggly Wiggly that paid fairly well once her mother went in and demanded she be given a raise. It wasnt very challenging and sometimes Netta wished shed gone to business school or maybe even college, but she knew if she stuck with Piggly Wiggly, shed probably get to manage the customer service desk after Ruby Lee retired. Netta was sure that shed do a much better job than Ruby; she at least cared what people thought. Ruby hadnt cared since her husband skipped town with his chiropractor.
Almost all of her other time was spent at either the library or the senior center. The library sheltered her while she read books shed be too embarrassed to take home and dreamed about adventures that she knew shed never have. The senior center nurtured her lounge lizard persona. Years of mind numbing scales and arpeggios enabled her to hold a semiweekly golden request hour where shed play tunes from the forties and fifties. "Ol Blue Eyes" was her favorite.
Nettas world was small but every time she thought to check, Bebo was somewhere in a nearby orbit. Over the years that realization had brought her a certain amount of comfort. At least someone younger than sixty-five cared about what she did with her life.
Netta straightened in her chair when she realized that B9 was the only space left uncovered on her best card; she was one call away from a two hundred dollar prize. When "Bingo" rang out from across the room, she groaned then threw her dauber down in disgust; winning would have been the sign she had prayed for. In all the years shed played, shed never won a single time. Surely she was due some luck sometime soon.
After wasting a few dollars on pull-tabs, Netta draped her cardigan over her shoulders and mumbled her usual inarticulate good-byes while she rounded up her bevy of hens and herded them out the back door. Bebo ducked into the shadow of an old honey locust tree before anyone but Netta noticed she was even there.
♦ ♦ ♦
On Friday afternoon, Netta was in the childrens reading room silently mouthing the closing words to Jeanette Wintersons Sexing the Cherry, when her gaze was drawn to the sunlit corner. Bebo lounged there, limned in gold, looking both sinful and divine. The warmth that burned in her belly didnt quell the goose bumps that prickled her chest when Bebo raised a questioning eyebrow. Today was her deadline; Bebo was leaving and not coming back. Unfortunately, Netta still hadnt decided if she wanted to go.
Netta knew what it was to be prey when Bebo shifted her weight off the wall and stalked towards her with her cat-like rolling gait. She peered up at the woman towering over her chair and sucked in a deep breath, unconsciously holding it until her vision swam from lack of air.
"You coming?" As usual, Bebo cut right to the chase. Netta knew that Bebo had everything ready for the move out of town. Shed quit her job at the country club, rented out her house, and had a crumpled map sitting on the front seat of her pickup waiting for Netta to choose their destination. Over the past few months, Netta had held that map in her sweaty hands more times than she could count while Bebo went on about their future.
Bebo had even promised to support her while she decided what she wanted to do with her life. Her job as a groundskeeper didnt pay much, but Bebo hired herself out on odd jobs and put every penny into savings telling Netta it was for their life together. She regularly left her savings account statement out, and the amount of money shed saved had been astonishing. Despite Bebos love affair with Chivas Regal, shed managed to accumulate a respectable nest egg.
Perched on the edge of her child-sized chair, Netta leaned forward, very much in danger of falling. Bebos eyes burned into her own, drawing her in, making it hard for her to think. Since the very first time, Bebo had held this power over her body. Pulled towards Bebo by the strength of her attraction, Nettas balance shifted and the chair fell out from under her. Sharp pain from her knees drove some sense back into her head and Netta scrambled to her feet hissing, "Not now. Meet me later," then turned and hurried towards the exit. Before Bebo moved to follow, Netta was in her car and halfway down the street.
Netta drove slowly, with her arm out the window, enjoying the crisp fall breeze that rippled the waters of Lake Eufaula. She imagined herself behind the wheel of a sporty little convertible or even a small SUV, but shed settled for the Crown Vic; it was the only car big enough to hold her mother and her adopted aunts. Tonight would be clear and cool, but she wished for the fog the morning would bring. It would be a closer match to her mood. Bebo wasnt going to be happy with her once they met up. Today had been the first time ever that Netta had walked away voluntarily and that didnt bode well for their future together. She parked her car in a lot on the Georgia side of the lake and scuffed her feet along the leaf blanketed path. It was a roughly a mile to Bebos shack and she covered the distance in silence, certain that Bebo wouldnt be far behind.
Two hours later Bebo still hadnt arrived and Netta worried that she might not bother to show up. She pushed a curtain aside to peer outside, straining her eyes against the pressing darkness. The shack she was waiting in had belonged to Bebos father, Bishop Carver. Hed used it as a retreat from his ministry, and as far as Netta knew, other than Bebo, she was the only person who knew of its existence. Before he died, hed given the cabin to Bebo and she often joked that if he knew what they did there, hed resurrect himself and smite them with his tombstone. Bishop Carver had little tolerance for sins of the flesh and what she and Bebo shared surely fell into that category.
Ordinarily, Netta preferred to curl up in a chair with a book on her lap or snooze on the bed while she waited for Bebo to arrive. Today, she chewed her lipstick off while she trod across floor boards that groaned under each of her fretful steps. There wasnt much room in the cabin; just enough for a small table, an overstuffed chair, a small but serviceable kitchen and a double bed. The toilet was outside. Netta had tried to make it homey by placing a few framed prints on the wall and flowered curtains on the windows, but it still looked like what it was: a dilapidated hunting cabin slightly gone to seed.
Hidden by a copse of birch trees, the cabin was shrouded with fallen leaves that served as a natural alarm so Netta knew when Bebo finally arrived. She stopped pacing and stood frozen with apprehension when the door creaked open and Bebo stepped into the room accompanied by a blast of brisk night air.
In terms of looks and temperament, Netta and Bebo were polar opposites. Netta had been a pudgy child whod grown into a full figured woman whose interests leaned towards books and music. She was short like her mother, with smooth café au lait colored skin and hazel eyes that shifted hue depending on her mood or the colors around her.
Bebo, on the other hand, had always towered over Netta. As a child, shed been tall and reed thin. Over time, her job had broadened her shoulders and muscled her physique, transforming the skinny urchin into a powerfully built woman. Netta sighed, remembering how those muscles twitched and jumped under her hands when she ran them across Bebos soft skin. Bebo loved being outside and tried to interest Netta in fishing or hiking, activities which usually devolved into outdoors sex which Netta found equally thrilling and frightening.
Bebo shrugged her Carhardt jacket off and blindly threw it towards the hook on the back of the door. In all the years theyd been together, shed never missed her target. Though she practiced religiously, Netta had never been able to consistently duplicate the shot. Usually Bebo made a tired joke about her skill versus Nettas poor aim, but today she stood with her head down and hands dangling, acting like she was next up on the executioners block.
Shifting uncomfortably under the weight of Bebos silence, Netta placed a manicured hand on her cocked hip and asked, "See something you like?"
Bebo raised her eyes and said, "You know I do." She grasped Nettas face between her calloused palms and pressed chilled lips to her forehead.
Unwilling to let her physical need get in the way of what she had to say, Netta gently pushed Bebo away. Shed rehearsed her speech during her walk through the woods and needed space to make sure she said everything just the way shed practiced. Being near Bebo always scrambled her synapses.
Bebo threw her hands up and pressed her back to the door looking like she needed its solidity to stay on her feet. Bebo was disconsolate and Netta knew her mood would only darken as the night went on. She had no desire to hurt her friend, but she couldnt see leaving the only home shed ever known. Surely there had to be a compromise somewhere. She spoke slowly. "Tell me again why we have to move."
Cradling her head between her hands, Bebo slid to the floor. Her eyes rimmed with tears and she swallowed convulsively. She said, "Baby, weve been over this a thousand times. Lets not beat it to death."
Netta hated to upset Bebo and wanted nothing more than to throw herself onto her lap and kiss the tears away. Instead she held herself back and murmured softly, "I know we have, but I still havent heard a reason why we cant just keep things the way they are. Tell me again please."
Bebo looked up and the expression in her eyes forced the air out of Nettas lungs in one explosive whoosh. Bebos lips trembled and her mouth moved, trying to form the words that would make Netta see. Her voice was gritty as she choked out, "I cant stay here. I cant live here with people talking about my every move about what a disgrace I am to my fathers memory. I cant stay here and be with you in secret anymore. I need to go somewhere, where no one knows us, and love you like you deserve to be loved. And I want you to love me that same way. We cant do that here. I know you know that." She captured her lower lip between her teeth to keep it from trembling and dropped her head back into her hands.
The room was silent, even the breeze that had been rattling the naked tree limbs had grown still. In all the years theyd been seeing one another, "love" had never come up. Theyd played together, had sex, argued and made up and Netta was sure this was the first time shed ever heard Bebo say the word love, the first time shed let herself think about love in relation to Bebo.
Shocked speechless, Netta found herself on her knees before Bebo, arms raised in dismay and supplication. Silently she searched her heart but found nothing there. She knew there should be something, some feeling other than her ever present desire, but there was nothing. It frightened her. How did she get to be thirty-four and never have anyone other than her mother and her adopted aunts tell her she was loved? Worse yet, how did she end up in this position and not know if she loved in return?
Bebo tipped her head back against the door and stared at the woman kneeling before her. She finally asked, "Do you love me, Netta?"
"I I ."
Shoving herself to her feet, sorrow etched in the slump of her broad shoulders, Bebo said, "Dont lie to me, Netta. Please dont bother." She fumbled with the keys dangling from her belt, pulled one off, then pitched it onto the bed. "Heres my key, the shacks yours. Youve paid for it by now." She sent a long, deliberate look at the bed, turned her back, then walked out of Nettas life.
♦ ♦ ♦
Normally, Netta was oblivious to the passing seasons. This winter was different though, as it was the first shed spent without Bebo since high school. Once Bebo had left town, Netta found herself thinking about her life in terms of W.B. and A.B.: with Bebo and after Bebo. There was no life before Bebo and she was rapidly finding the same to be true A.B.. Nothing seemed the same anymore. Even food tasted like dust in her mouth and that was inconceivable; she loved to eat. She still went to bingo on Tuesdays, still volunteered at the library and the senior center, but there was a Bebo sized void in her life that she despaired of ever filling. She rocked on her heels and stared off into the distance while she waited for Ruby Lee to tally her tray.
"Your counts off again."
Netta was wretched from her daze by Ruby Lees grating whine. "Huh?"
"I said your counts off again. This time by $11.47. Thats the fifth time this month bringing your total to " Ruby Lees fingers danced across the keypad in front of her, " $78.63. If you keep this up, theyll take your Christmas bonus back." Ruby Lee sucked on her teeth then offered a saccharine sweet smile. She probed, "Got something on your mind?"
Netta drove her nails into her palms pushing down the desire to claw the womans eyes out. Since Bebo had left, Ruby Lee had taunted her mercilessly, making sly comments about how she understood what she was going through and offering her a shoulder to cry on anytime she needed it. Netta was tired of her fake sympathy and annoyed that shed let the woman get under her skin. Ordinarily she dealt with irritants with grace, but lately she hadnt had the energy to spare. She offered a wan smile and said, "Nothing in particular, Ruby Lee. Just tired I guess." When Ruby Lee pursed her lips, Netta threw out, "Just dock my pay if you have to. You know Im good for it."
"Sure, Netta. Youre good for it now, but for how long?" She dropped her voice to a whisper and leaned forward waving Netta closer. "I just overheard the manager talking about you to the district supervisor. You keep this up and youll be on unemployment before you know it."
Ruby Lees warning brought tears to her eyes and she swiped at them impatiently. Her emotions careened from detachment to remorse to sorrow in the time it took her heart to beat and Netta was tired of feeling out of control. Shed even snapped at a customer the other day and that hadnt happened since she was a teenager. Ruby Lee was right, a cumulative shortage that large could be used as grounds for dismissal and the last thing she needed to do was lose her job. It was one of the few constants left in her life. With fear clogging her throat she said, "Let me get my purse and Ill write a check for the difference. Ill be right back." Netta turned away from the counter and headed down the hallway.
Ruby Lee called after her, "Dont worry about it, Netta. Ill cover you. We girls have to stick together." She winked and waved a hand when Netta wheeled about and bumped into someone leaving the break room. "Take care of yourself now."
Netta gathered her possessions and hurried from the store with her head down and her face turned away, trying to hide her distress from her co-workers and customers. She threw the car into gear and skidded out of the parking lot headed out of town while her vision blurred with tears.
♦ ♦ ♦
Having always been quiet and self contained, months passed before Nettas mother acknowledged her abstraction. She worried about how to help, thinking that maybe Netta was going through a phase, but finally admitting to herself that it was more than that. Her daughter was profoundly sad but she couldnt think of a single thing to help. The question began to plague her every waking hour until she too was tired and anxious.
Dot Williams hadnt always lived in Eufaula, but shed grown to love the town and its people, especially her closest friends Shirley Macon, Hettie Smith, and Rose Parker. The foursome had been friends since Netta was an infant and Dot knew that she could always count on them to provide advice, assistance, friendship and love; she shuddered to think what her life would have been like if these women hadnt adopted her and her infant daughter.
They sat in Shirleys kitchen, paired up as usual for their rotating Friday night Bid Whist game: Shirley and Dot vs. Hettie and Rose. The women had been playing together for years and their skills were so closely matched that no one knew at the beginning of the game whod go home the victor. Tonight was extraordinary because Dot, usually the most competitive player among them, was playing like shed just learned the rules to the game.
Shirley grumbled, "Darn it Dot. Thats the third time youve reneged in the past half-hour. If you cant keep your mind on the game we should just quit now and do something else. Were so far behind already well never catch up."
Dot threw her cards down with a snap of her wrist making Hettie groan and roll her eyes at her partner. It had been awhile since Dot had thrown a tantrum and it looked like one was brewing now. Wanting to head it off before it boiled over and ruined their quiet evening; Hettie suggested a break for snacks. Food always soothed Dot whenever she was anxious. Not unlike her offspring.
They were settled over cake and coffee before Dot decided to talk about what was on her mind. "Im sorry, girls. Its just that Im worried about Netta, Ive never seen her like this before and I dont know what to do about it."
Rose spoke up; shed always loved Netta like she was her own and wanted to do what she could to help. Exasperated with herself for her long silence she glanced at Hettie before speaking then said, "She misses Bebo. Maybe we should tell her about Hettie and me. I mean if she knew, maybe it would help." Hettie and Rose were neighbors and had been lovers for the past fifteen years, ever since theyd lost their husbands within months of one another. Their relationship was a secret that few were privy to, not wanting to rock the neighborhood boat or upset their children. The picture they presented to Netta was of very close friends.
"Dont say that," Dot cried. "Bebo has nothing to do with this. Shes just been down, thats all."
"Youre being blind as well as stupid if you think that girl doesnt miss Bebo. Theyve been sneaking around together since high school. Everybody knows that, Dot. Even you." Rose turned a disgusted eye on her long time friend. Sometimes the woman could be stubborn and thick as a brick if the world didnt work the way she thought it should. Shed been that way for as long as theyd known her.
"Shes just lonely-"
Rose piped up, "Yeah, lonely for Bebo. What we dont know is what happened. Why do you think Bebo left her?"
Dot muttered under her breath, "Another woman, probably. That girl is just no good. It wouldnt surprise me at all if she was cheating on my baby."
"Whatd you say, Dot? Speak up." Hettie smiled at Rose wanting to calm her before she said something that would make the situation worse. Dot had just revealed she knew about Nettas relationship with Bebo but was reluctant to publicly acknowledge it. Theyd have to wear her down.
Always more gentle than her partner Hettie asked, "Are you ashamed of us, Dot? Of me and Rose? Does our relationship bother you?" She laid her hand on her friends forearm and squeezed gently, drawing the womans attention away from the floor.
"Of course not," Dot cried. "I love you both. You know that. Its just "
"Just what?" Hettie nodded slightly in approval as Shirley assumed her role as peacemaker and drew Rose out of the room. Rose could be volatile and they all knew that Dot would be more forthcoming if she didnt have an audience. Hettie prompted, "You were saying?"
Dot sighed heavily, not wanting to say the words aloud because simply by speaking them, shed imbue them with truth. "Its just that I wanted more for Netta. I wanted her to have what I didnt, what I couldnt once I got pregnant. She wont get that with Bebo."
"So its not Bebo specifically, its women in general," Hettie asked gently. "You dont want her to be with a woman?"
Eyes shimmering with tears, Dot looked up into the gentle brown eyes of her dearest friend. She couldnt bear to say anything that would hurt her, but needed to tell the truth. She snapped then gentled her voice when Hettie flinched. "Its not natural. I dont want her to be with a woman. Especially not a woman like Bebo. Dont hate me because I want more for my baby."
"Oh, Dot. I could never hate you." Hettie shifted her bulk across the sofa and gathered her friend in her arms. "But who are you to say whats natural? Especially after how you conceived Netta?" She shook her friend gently, needing her to open her eyes and her heart. "Lots of people would find that unnatural."
Stricken, Dot gasped, "Do you?" She deflated when Hettie shook her head no then shrank into herself and sobbed quietly, wetting her blouse with tears long suppressed. Reluctant to voice her fears she rocked and cried, sick at heart at what she feared was the truth. In desperation she offered one last protest. "But why Bebo? That girl has been nothing but trouble since she was a child. I mean, the things she put her father through and him a man of the cloth."
Shaking her head in disbelief over her friends refusal to see reality, Hettie grasped Dots hands wanting to keep her in place while she shattered her long held fantasy. "Bishop Carver was a man of the cloth alright, but his mind was in the brothel."
Eyes wide with shock and denial, Dot raised her head. "Dont say that! How could you say that? He-"
Angry now, Hettie interrupted, "He diddled that child every time he got a chance. It was a miracle she turned out as well as she did. Netta was the only person Bebo ever loved and now somethings happened to destroy it. I hope it wasnt you."
"Me? What did I do?" Nettled by her friends unfair accusation, Dot drew away then whined, "I didnt do anything."
"Youre right. It wasnt only you. It was all of us. We should never have let you go on about Bebo like you did. Not in front of Netta." She released Dots hands and turned her body towards the window. "We all knew better but we never stopped you. Just like no one ever stopped the Bishop." She sighed and wiped the tears that dripped from her eyes, determined to goad her friend into doing what was right. She reached into her pocket, drawing out a crumpled piece of paper when she withdrew her hand. "Here, Dot. This is Bebos new address. Rose and I found her on the internet. Shes in Atlanta." Dot opened her mouth to protest but Hettie rushed on before she could speak, "You need to give this to Netta." She pressed the paper into her friends knotted fist and held it closed until Dot nodded and turned away.
"Do it, Dot. Dont wait. Nettas suffering enough as it is. You know we all just want to help, dont you. We all love Netta and if Bebo makes her happy, then we need to do whatever we can to fix things for her, for them."
Dot sighed in frustration. She loved her daughter and only wanted what was best for her but reuniting her with Bebo didnt fall into that category as far as she was concerned. Complaining of a sudden pounding headache, Dot stuffed the crumpled note into her pocket and left for home.
♦ ♦ ♦
Winter turned to Spring which turned to Summer and then Fall and Netta drifted through her days in a haze, settling into a depression that darkened her days and lengthened her nights. She dreamed of Bebo often, wondering what she was up to and castigating herself daily for not taking a chance on love. Pride then fear kept her from searching for Bebo, from looking and possibly discovering it was too late, that she had moved on.
Dot kept a close watch over her daughter and struggled with her conscience. After extracting a promise of silence from her friends, shed thrown Bebos address away and their friendship had suffered as a result. She and Rose were barely speaking and Hettie was torn between feeling sorry for and wanting to throttle her friend. Shirley wisely kept her opinions to herself.
Thanksgiving Day arrived and Netta sat across the table from her date pushing food around aimlessly and occasionally lifting a forkful to her mouth then lowering it after taking a nibble. In the past year shed lost so much weight that her clothes hung from her frame and complete strangers asked about her health. She was tired of feeling sorry for herself and decided to do something about it. The recently divorced Teddy Clarkson had passed through her line the other day and shed invited him to supper in a poorly conceived attempt at offering succor to a fellow cripple. He, at least, could identify with having been left behind.
Tension was thick around the table and Rose glared at Dot, angry that Netta had resorted to dating men and willing her former friend to reveal the long withheld secret of Bebos address. She was sorely tempted to do it herself, but Hettie had made her promise before theyd come over that she wouldnt say anything and she struggled with keeping her word.
Dot stared at the table stubbornly refusing to meet anyones gaze. Everyone was uncomfortable with Teddys over-eager presence. Even Bebo would be better than sharing the table with the ill-at-ease man. Clenching her teeth at her unsettling thought, Dot distracted herself by assuming her hostess duties.
"Anybody ready for dessert?" Dot bustled around the table clearing barely touched plates and half-full glasses. "How about coffee? Ive got pie. Hettie, I made your favorite. Dutch Apple with homemade ice cream. Want some?"
Hetties chin trembled and she burst into tears at Dots feeble attempt at reconciliation. She pushed herself away from the table and stumbled down the hallway towards the bathroom.
Rose slammed a palm against the table, rattling the dishes and startling everyone who was still seated. She yelled, "Now youve done it," and followed her partners footsteps toward the back of the house.
Netta raised her eyes from her supper, her fork suspended on the way to her open mouth. Teddy continued to shovel food in as fast as he could lift his hand, and her mother dropped into her seat and planted her elbows on the table on either side of her plate. Netta asked, "Whats going on here?" The stunned silence had penetrated her self-absorption and clued her in that something was seriously wrong. Her long repressed anger rose abruptly. She dropped her fork onto her plate, splattering mashed turnips across the table and asked again, "Whats going on?"
When no one answered, she turned to her date and said, "Im sorry, Teddy, but you have to go. Aunt Shirley, could you fix him a plate?" She pushed the stunned man towards the kitchen then stomped down the hallway and pounded on the closed bathroom door. "Aunt Hettie, Aunt Rose? I need you to come out here and talk to me. Ill give you five minutes."
It took longer than that to clear the table and divide the food among the four households, but eventually everyone was seated around the living room anxiously awaiting Nettas next demand. She trapped her hands between her knees and looked down at the floor. "I know Ive been distracted lately, but youve all been behaving oddly and I want to know why. Who wants to start?"
Rose said, "Your mama-"
"Rose, no! You promised." Hettie grabbed Roses hand and squeezed it as tightly as she could. "We promised."
Netta asked, "Promised what?"
Four gray heads turned towards one another, each woman waiting to see who would speak first and break their shared vow. When no one took Nettas challenge, Dot heaved a sigh of relief and settled back into her chair satisfied that once again her friends hadnt let her down.
"I see. Its a secret." Netta admired the bracelet that sparkled on her wrist. It had been a present from Bebo that shed never worn for her, afraid that someone would ask where shed gotten it and she wouldnt be able to answer. Now, she wore it constantly as a tangible reminder of her lost love. Wearing it made her feel better and she wished Bebo was there to see it.
The cushion she was sitting on moved when one of her aunts shifted restlessly and Netta lifted her head realizing that she still held the floor. She glanced at her aunts who sat closer to one another than propriety would dictate and said, "Do you want me to guess?"
Hettie sidled away from her partner and extended her right hand palm outward in protest. "Now, Netta-"
"Let the girl talk if she has something to say. I want to hear it." Rose scooted her hips over to close the gap that Hettie had just created and draped an arm across the back of the sofa. "Go ahead, Netta. Whats on your mind?"
Somewhat unsettled by her aunts cavalier and unexpected response, Netta faltered, her confidence of a few moments ago fading towards uncertainty. Her brow furrowed as she studied the women seated around the room. Aunt Shirley perched on the edge of the easy chair wringing her hands, her mother occupied the recliner, both feet firmly planted on the floor as if claiming the space, and she shared the sofa with Aunt Hettie and Aunt Rose as usual, but this time Netta noticed something more about the seating arrangement.
"Were waiting. You were saying " Rose leaned around Hettie and looked directly into Nettas eyes daring her to take a chance and say what she was so obviously thinking. She whispered something in Hetties ear that put a tiny smile on her lovers face.
"I, um, I " Nettas throat closed as she floundered for words until Hettie turned slightly and laid a plump hand on her knee.
"Go ahead, Netta. Its alright." Hetties eyes crinkled with warmth and she nodded encouragement before she settled back against the sofa under her partners outstretched arm.
Gaining confidence from Hetties assurances Netta said, "Okay, well, I think ." She swallowed thickly, wishing for a sip of the wine shed had with dinner. "I think that you and Aunt Rose are seeing each other and its upset Mama. Thats why youre not getting along."
Dot gasped, "Netta!"
"Let the girl talk," Rose said with indignation firming her jaw. "If shes got something to say let her say it."
"But its not true!" Dot shouted.
Netta watched the argument go back and forth trying to understand why her mother was being so strident in her denial. "Whats not true? Aunt Rose and Aunt Hettie arent seeing each other?" Genuinely puzzled, Netta sank back into the cushions seeking comfort in their familiar contours.
"None of its true." Dot surged out of the recliner and pressed her fists to her hips. She pinned each woman with a glare as she insisted, "None of it, do you hear me?"
"Yes it is," Rose argued. She pulled Hettie closer and squeezed her gently before saying, "Hettie and I are a couple. Weve been seeing each other for some time now."
Netta nodded slowly, recalling all the clues shed seen and disregarded over the years, the biggest being Bebo telling her straight out. Something about her aunts being intimate made her stomach jump, but something about it also felt just right. Her thoughts turned to Bebo, trying to imagine the two of them seated comfortably in her mothers living room and surprisingly, the picture was now clearer than it had ever been before. Heartened by her imagined future her lips curled in a tentative smile and she asked, "Are you happy?" Twin nods reassured her and she bobbed her chin once, settling the idea in her mind. "Well, if youre happy, Im happy for you." Gathering her courage, Netta turned to her mother who was trembling and clenching her fists. "Are you upset about this, Mama? About Aunt Rose and Aunt Hettie?"
"No, no Im not. But I dont want to hear another word about it."
"But-" Netta looked to her aunts for support but they all avoided her eyes.
"Enough," Dot said. "Thats enough."
"But, Mama "
"I said, enough." Dots expression was black as thunder and she glowered at her friends until they squirmed then gathered their possessions and eased out the kitchen door. Netta stood in the center of the room with her thoughts swirling and her emotions in tatters. She reached out to her mother, but dropped her arms in resignation when Dot turned and left the room.
♦ ♦ ♦
In the weeks after Thanksgiving, Netta slowly emerged from the fog that had surrounded her for over a year. She still obsessed over Bebo, wondering if there was anything she could ever do to make things right between them, but her guilt over starting the Thanksgiving Day argument niggled at her until Bebo was forced to the back of her mind. Despite her everyones adamant denial, there was a rift separating her family members and Netta was certain that she was at its center. She begged her aunts for an explanation, but theyd all clammed up and went about their lives pretending that nothing had changed. Listening to local gossip at work and at bingo didnt help; when she was finally interested, the gossip mill was silent. She needed information and didnt know where to find it. In desperation, she resorted to something shed never done before: espionage.
She started by watching her aunts Hettie and Rose thinking theyd be the best source of information. Within a few days she realized how willfully blind shed been; the reality of their blended life was visible to anyone who cared to see. Their relationship was thriving and Netta knew that the answers to her questions lay elsewhere.
Aunt Shirley didnt yield any information. She was close-mouthed as usual, offering food and company, but no answers.
Finally, Netta turned to her mother. She spent every spare minute underfoot, trying to discern by force of will what was going on. Her mother moved through her days as if all was well in her world, enjoying Nettas attention but denying that anything was wrong between her and her old friends. The only outward difference in her behavior was that whenever she thought Netta wasnt paying attention, she spent a lot of time staring at something in her purse.
After weeks of polite but strained conversation between her family members, Netta couldnt stand it anymore. In desperation, she invaded territory held sacred since her childhood and rifled her mothers purse, sure that the answers she sought were nestled somewhere in its cavernous depths. What she found during her search only yielded more questions.
On the Friday before Christmas, Netta ambushed her mother while she was in the kitchen baking pies for Christmas supper. She held her booty in one hand and stuck the fingers of the other into the sweet potato filling that awaited its pie shell, fully anticipating the swat she received from her mothers wooden spoon. Sucking on her injured fingers, she extended her other hand with the picture shed found turned upright and towards her mother. Carefully searching her mothers face she asked, "Whos this?"
Dot blanched and wobbled on rubbery legs when she saw what Netta cradled on her outstretched palm. Shed meant to tell her, searched for a way to tell her the truth, and now the problem had been thrust into her face. Trembling, she groped behind her and latched onto a chair for support. Netta noticed her fumbling and lurched forward in fear.
"Mama, what is it? Are you alright?" In her rush to help, she placed the photograph face up on the table, directly in her mothers line of sight. After settling her into a chair, she poured a glass of water and placed it on the table. "Here drink this. It should help."
Dot ignored the water and extended trembling fingers to the faded Kodachrome print lying on the table. She pulled it towards her, needing to remove it from her sight, but Nettas hand grasped her wrist before she was able. Sensing a long held secret, Netta pressed, "Who is it, Mama? Tell me."
Tears gathered in Dots eyes and she swallowed thickly, trying to work some moisture into her mouth that had gone dry as the Gobi desert. Finally noticing the water glass, she raised it to her lips all of her resistance melted by the need in Nettas eyes. She whispered, "This is a picture of your daddy. Ive carried it with me for years."
The strength in Nettas legs fled, thumping her bottom into a fortuitously placed kitchen chair. Voice cracking, she rasped, "This is my daddy? But hes just a boy, and hes white."
Gathering her resolve, Dot replied, "I know baby, he was but this is your daddy just the same."
Netta glanced up quickly at her mothers firm voice and her eyes filled with tears before she dropped them to stare at the photo in silence. Ever since she was a girl shed begged for information about her father, wanting to know who and where he was. Each time shed asked, her mother claimed ignorance, saying that hed left years ago and she hadnt heard from him since. Now she was saying that this boy, this football playing, high school aged boy was her father. Her ears buzzed and her surroundings receded until the only thing she was saw was the picture lying on the table and the tips of her mothers trembling fingers. With one hand she reached out and grasped her mothers fingertips, needing the connection to keep her head from floating off her shoulders. The other hand reached for the picture and she pulled it closer, peering intently at the smiling young man in the football uniform with the number 32 centered on his chest. She smiled sadly when she realized that it was only Bebos fascination with football that gave her the knowledge that this boy played in the backfield.
The women stared at each other in silence, Netta brimming with questions but unsure of which she wanted to ask first, and Dot agonizing over her long silence on the subject. The kitchen clock chiming six broke their silence and Netta carefully laid the picture on the table before turning and facing her mother.
"Mama, I have so many questions that I dont know where to start. Hes youre ." Tears threatened and she closed her eyes against their onslaught, desperate to maintain her composure. She failed.
Nettas tears broke Dots long silence and she spoke haltingly. "How about I just tell you about him and then if you have any questions Ill answer them." A slight nod started her down memory lane. Leaning forward, she pressed her fingertips to the photograph.
"His name is Willy Marcanatel. A Cajun through and through. He was one of the boys in my first period English class "
"English class? You were a teacher? But youve always been a secretary." Netta jumped up and drifted around the small kitchen, randomly touching items to bleed off her tension.
"Yes, baby. I am now, but then I was a teacher in Duchamp, Louisiana."
Dot held up her hand palm outward. "Netta, youre going to have to be quiet and let me tell this my way. Otherwise Ill never get through." She hooked Nettas chair with her foot and waited until she settled down before continuing.
Netta sat on her hands, bursting with questions but afraid of making her mother angry before she finished her tale. She said, "Okay, Ill be still. Tell me."
Tapping a chipped fingernail against the photograph, Dot continued, "Anyway, I was his teacher and he was one of my best students. His friends teased him about being the teachers pet." Dot smiled fondly, remembering Willys enthusiasm for learning and life in general. "He was a terrific student, really interested in literature and " She paused, needing to make this admission but afraid of what her daughter might think, " and me." She rushed on. "He wanted to be a writer." Dots face darkened to purple as she remembered those long ago events where shed lost her job, her self-respect and her family, but gained the most important thing in her life. She spoke softly.
"Our real last name is Stevens and I grew up in West Point, Mississippi. After high school I attended Mary Holmes College while living at home with my parents. Theyre both dead now. Back then your grandfather had a church up on Lee Street." She took a few deep breaths before continuing. "After college I moved to Louisiana, mostly to get away from home, but I justified my move by claiming it would help with school integration. Most of the teachers in that part of the country were still white." She raised the glass to her lips and took another small sip.
"Anyway, it was my first year there. My first as a teacher and I was young, unsupervised for the first time in my life and very foolish. I did a lot of things I shouldnt have. Things I wouldnt have done if I had listened to my friends, but I was so hard headed. I knew better " Lost in her memories, Dots eyes filmed with tears and her voice dropped until she was speaking so softly Netta had to lean forward to hear her words.
Rapt, Netta listened, her attention riveted to her mothers voice. As the story of forbidden love between teacher and student, between white boy and black woman unfolded, her mouth sagged open in shock. When her mother spoke of the disgrace of being fired and then thrown out of her family home where shed gone to have her baby, Netta cried for her mothers ancient pain.
Sometime during the story, Netta slipped from her chair and sat at her mothers feet. She laid her head against her leg, trying to ease long held misery by being close and wept abject tears as each hidden detail was finally exposed. When Dots voice trailed off into silence, the women held their positions, unwilling to disturb the calm that had settled over them after her long confession. As the clock chimed seven, Nettas stomach grumbled and shattered the peace.
"Just like clockwork. You could run a ship by your stomach." Dot shifted her hips until Netta stood up and extended a hand to help her from her seat. She waddled to the refrigerator and rummaged around searching for something to feed her hungry child. "Soup and salad okay?" At Nettas nod, she moved about setting the table and warming the soup. Netta made the salad.
The women shared a companionable meal, both mulling over the recently revealed story about Nettas conception and birth. Though shed always loved her mother, Nettas heart was brimming with admiration and respect for everything shed endured to provide her with a home.
Swallowing her last bite of salad, Netta waved her fork about then said, "Mama, I cant begin to tell you how proud I am of you and how thankful I am to be your daughter. Youve been through so much and youve never complained." Nettas heart went out to her mother who was huddled over the remains of her dinner. She wanted to let it rest, to give her mother a chance to recover, but words were forcing their way up her throat and she knew she couldnt hold them back. "Mama, I have one more question." She wiped her lips with her napkin then laid it next to her plate waiting until her mother raised her eyes before continuing. "Why did you keep this a secret for so long? Why is today the first time Ive heard this story?"
Tears ran unchecked down Dots face and she clutched her fork so tightly that her knuckles stood out in relief. She took a few deep cleansing breaths then admitted, "I was ashamed, baby. Embarrassed and ashamed and I didnt want you to think less of me once you knew."
Shame. The word struck Netta right between her eyes and she blinked as the last 16 months of her life slid into sharp focus. Shed let shame rule her and as a result shed thrown away the single most important thing in her life. Steeling herself for the conversation to come she murmured, "No more, Mama. No more," then grasped her mothers trembling hand and began her own confession.
♦ ♦ ♦
Netta Williams still hated bingo but now her hatred was tempered by love and by family. Her mother still played 16 cards and gossiped with her cronies, but these days theyd moved on to other, less offensive topics. As was usual, Nettas attention wandered and she found herself reflecting on the events of the last few months. After her mother finally revealed the facts behind her birth, Netta made it her personal mission to ferret out any as of yet unrevealed truths. Her search had netted her father and he now sat across the table squirming but staring dreamily at his long lost love. Shed found him widowed and retired, still living in St. Martins Parish and when shed introduced herself, she thought her ribs were going to crack from the strength of his embrace. He was even more enthusiastic when he greeted her mother and Nettas heart swelled with joy at their happiness.
She sighed and glanced to her left when her thoughts turned to her own happiness. Bebo sat there scowling at her cards and muttering under her breath at the caller. Feeling the heat of Nettas gaze upon her face, Bebo looked over then up and into the eyes of her love. Her eyes widened in delight when the caller announced the number shed wished for. She poked her lover in the ribs and pointed at her cards.
Catching onto Bebos agitation, Nettas eyes flew to her cards and she leapt up, knocking her chair over backwards in her excitement. "Bingo," she cried. "Ive finally got bingo!"
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