Passing Loveby Jacqueline E. Luckett
Nicole-Marie Handy has loved all things French since she was a child. After the death of her best friend, determined to get out of her rut of ordinary living and experience something new, she goes to Paris, leaving behind work, ailing parents and a proposal from her married lover. While there, Nicole chances upon an old photo of her fatherlovingly inscribed,… See more details below
Nicole-Marie Handy has loved all things French since she was a child. After the death of her best friend, determined to get out of her rut of ordinary living and experience something new, she goes to Paris, leaving behind work, ailing parents and a proposal from her married lover. While there, Nicole chances upon an old photo of her fatherlovingly inscribed, in his hand, to a woman Nicole has never heard of.
What starts as a vacation for Nicole quickly becomes an investigation into her relationship to this mystery woman. Moving back and forth in time between the sparkling Paris of today and the jazz-fueled city filled with expatriates in the 1950s, PASSING LOVE is the story of two women dealing with love lost, secrets, and betrayal . . . and how the City of Lights may hold all of the answers.
It's midnight in Paris, now and in the mid-20th century, in Luckett's second novel. In this dreamy and lyrical paean to all things French. . . Luckett weaves a fascinating portrait of women of color who defy family and tradition to follow love and chase success. . . . In the end, it's the soulful, headstrong, romantic Ruby whose passion resonates in this story of discovery and acceptance."Publishers Weekly"
Luckett's loving descriptions of Paris evoke the sights, smells and sounds of the City of Light. Nicole's story is one with which any woman, regardless of age or skin color, can relate, but Ruby's tale and the author's meticulous research into the Paris of the period following WWII is the real star of this novel. . . . Well written and engaging, a celebration of life after 50."Kirkus Reviews"
C'est magnifique! A delicious read, brimming with hope, love, and light."Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow"
Luckett has written our Paris dreams come truebetween two lives and two generations, this story delivers the romance and the heartbreak of all that the City of Lights has to offer. You will escape with this novel and question or embrace your own unlived lives."Heidi W. Durrow, author of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky"
A fierce, beautiful novel . . . a heroine for the ages . . . Luckett is a writer to watch and admire."ZZ Packer, O Magazine, 2007"
Lush, evocative and seductive. Only read Passing Love if you're willing to give yourself over completely to the excitement of the jazz scene of post-WWII Paris, and a woman's determination to find her place in the present-day City of Light."Lalita Tademy, author of Cane River and Red River
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Read an Excerpt
By Luckett, Jacqueline E.
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2012 Luckett, Jacqueline E.
All right reserved.
The phrase depuis quand? (how long?) is used to question actions or events started in the past and still going on in the present.
la frousse (lah fruhs)
chercher (share shay)
to look for
indécis(e) (ahn day see)
remettre au lendemain (ruh meh truh oh lawn duh man)
to put off until tomorrow
She’d waited all her life to go to Paris.
As for the reasons why the dream of speaking French in France, of standing beneath the Eiffel Tower at the stroke of midnight, of lingering in sidewalk cafés took so long to come about—she chose to evade, not explain them. Her greatest fear, the one she carried like a locket close to her heart, was that in taking too close a look at the days that composed her fifty-six years, the dam that confined her existence might break and release a river of regret for all the places she’d never visited, the books she’d never read, the things she’d never done.
With the given name of Nicole-Marie Roxane, she believed the choice was not her own. Bowlegs, a widow’s peak, and French, her inescapable and defining particulars. People asked if she was from Louisiana, teachers inquired how she (a Negro girl, they said) could have not one but three French names. Her neighbor to the left of their stucco bungalow (who never let anyone forget her Louisiana roots), Mrs. Albert—ahl bear, no hard T, chérie, spoke Creole French whenever she wanted Nicole to walk her miniature poodle or inform gentlemen callers that she was otherwise occupied. Merci. Her father, clicking through false pearly-whites, used his military French to teach his daughter basic phrases when he wasn’t absorbed in one of his beloved books. “Comment-allez vous, Mademoiselle Handy?” A greeting so formal for a little girl. “Comprenez-vous, Nicole?” Nicole, never Nicki, not from her father. Oui, oui.
All of that, and the blue book.
Years ago Nicole discovered it, slightly bigger than her nine-year-old hand, in the trunk at the foot of her parents’ double bed. Secrets in a cedar box. A sampling of their lives before she came along—a wispy bed jacket, a woman’s suit covered with an enraged dragon spitting embroidered threads of red, orange, and yellow flames, a soldier’s cap and jacket bound in sheets of brown paper and pungent mothballs, a manila envelope filled with her father’s Army discharge papers, their birth certificates and marriage license, dozens of crisp hundred-dollar bills, a military patch with the three stripes of a staff sergeant stitched in parallel rows beneath the pointed top, a worn French paperback—Cyrano de Bergerac—and the blue book.
Saturdays when her handyman father had an emergency repair and her mother ran errands best done alone, Nicole was left to entertain herself the way only children were in the sixties—without ever feeling lonely, neglected, or scared. The minute her father’s run-down truck bumped the curb at the end of the driveway, Nicole bolted down the hallway to her parents’ bedroom and claimed it as her own. Eventually, her snooping refined itself into a routine that never varied: check the dusty space beneath the bed, her mother’s panty drawer and jewelry case, the cedar chest, and, close to Christmas, the deepest corner of the one closet in the compact bedroom. Without fail, she inspected the antique hope chest to see if the contents had changed. She slipped the peach bed jacket over her shirt, its fluffy sleeves swallowing her thin arms, and daydreamed about the meaning of such a sheer and dainty garment. She marched with the soldier’s cap tilted on her head. Left. Left. Left. Right. Left. Her fingers traced the embroidered dragon on the gabardine suit in search of the reason her mother no longer owned a single outfit as elaborate as this one.
Nicole never touched the money, but she took the blue book—a French dictionary. Under the cover of night and fuzzy blankets, she practiced the phonetic pronunciations, whispering French phrases instead of girlish secrets into her feather pillow. Every noun and verb transported her to a place miles from Berkeley and its dreary summer fog: bonjour (bone zhoor), comment allez-vous (come mawn tah lay voo), bien merci (be in mare see). Every phrase meant passage to another reality. Paris (pah ree).
Weeks after the discovery of that blue book, confidence settled in. Three weeks before her tenth birthday. When, at last, Nicole decided to surprise her father, she waited by the back door. It was easy for Nicole to love him. Tall and trim, he was strong enough to lift her with one hand and interested in her—had she memorized the short Langston poem he gave to her; eaten lunch alone or with friends? Nicole lived for the light of his smile, his approval, his explanations of poetry and politics. He was the parent who played hide-and-go-seek indoors, told her she was beautiful, read to her, and described the Eiffel Tower, tallest of all structures in Paris. To her nine-going-on-ten-year-old self, he was handsome and fascinating, an expert on the world, on Paris.
When he came through the door, Nicole jumped into his open arms. “Tiens, Papa… la famille… est ensemble… maintenant.” Spoken to another aloud, her sentence had a choppy, yet musical tone. Tee ehn, pah pah, la fah meel eht ahn sambluh maa ten nawh. Astonishment beat out her father’s toothy grin. He never questioned how she learned this new phrase—“the family is together now”—without him. He replied as if the most natural occurrence in the world were his daughter chattering in the language that he, too, practiced. “Vous avez raison, Mademoiselle Handy. Je comprends.”
Her mother snapped at child and husband celebrating the newfound vocabulary. “That nonsense needs to stop,” she yelled, not looking away for one minute from the chicken frying in a cast iron skillet. “Best to make sure you’ve got your arithmetic finished, missy. French won’t do you any good in this life.”
And then the blue book was gone.
Nicole searched high and low. She refused to ask her mother the dictionary’s whereabouts, understanding that the mention of it was an admission of theft. Had she brothers or sisters, she would’ve pummeled them with her fists or pinched them until they confessed. In the following hours or weeks that seemed an eternity in her young mind, her father stopped speaking French. He avoided her hazel eyes and shushed his child when she demanded why. Pourquoi? When, at last, he answered, his harshness surprised Nicole. “When you’re a big girl, you can go to Paris and speak all the French you want.” But she missed this connection to her father. Le français. No phrases whispered behind her mother’s back. No practice. No spinning the black globe in the living room to seek out the patch named France, as if no other countries had existed.
Paris. Not how she’d intended, but Paris nevertheless. Sixty-one hours before boarding the nonstop flight from San Francisco to Charles de Gaulle. Twenty-nine whole days in France, plus one to get there and one to come back. Vacation hoarded over the years. Nicole poured a tall shot of one of Mexico’s finest añejo tequilas into a crystal glass. Years ago she’d bought the hundred-dollar bottle for a special occasion. If this trip didn’t count as special, she figured she didn’t know what did.
A smattering of travel paraphernalia topped the coffee table: luggage tags, an airline itinerary, a shuttle service schedule, emergency numbers and security codes for the rental apartment, her brand-new passport, five hundred euros in denominations of five to fifty. And a notebook, Tamara’s gift—a combination journal, address book, and log of miscellaneous events and information. A means to capture Paris. Nicole ran her fingers over her friend’s angular cursive.
Even as they planned their trip, Nicole realized Tamara must have had a clue that her health wasn’t the best. The last time she saw her, Tamara had looked years older than her forty-three: bloated middle, face drained and spent. Beneath Tamara’s loose gown, her collarbone jutted and a bone poked where a rounded shoulder should have been. A white canister hung from a slim pole on the opposite side of the hospital bed. It beeped—a persistent and unwanted reminder—and administered intermittent doses of morphine, a nurse in a plastic box.
“I’m not afraid, Nicki.”
Nicole pressed a glass of water to her friend’s lips. Over the course of a few months, weight had dropped from Tamara’s heavy frame. After her biopsy, the doctor pronounced the diagnosis with certainty—pancreatic cancer. The discovery was too late, and the insidious disease had reached her liver.
“Did I tell you my daddy preached? I delivered a sermon every now and again. I was pretty good. Tonight, I’m going to preach to you. I figure me in this bed, acting pitiful, is the perfect setup to get you to change.” That was when Tamara pulled out the notebook and wrote on the inside cover, Be wild. Dance in the streets. Take French lessons. Walk the wrong way home. Don’t play it safe. “This is your mantra, Nicki. Promise me you’ll go to Paris, no matter what.” Determination edged Tamara’s tone like a mother’s counsel to a confused child.
Nicole sat on the edge of Tamara’s bed, straightened her back, and repeated the pledge. “I promise to go to Paris, no matter what.”
The shock, the cancer’s rapid consumption of her friend’s body, and the isolated grieving accelerated this decision. The afternoon of Tamara’s funeral, the dam burst sure as the rain started when the pallbearers lowered the casket into the ground. Tamara’s death did what years of procrastination hadn’t. Nicole got the lesson—live; play, don’t watch.
She settled on the floor beside the fireplace’s deep hearth and stuffed newspaper under the manufactured logs. Four matches held to the edges and smoke burst into dancing flames; a frolicking light show of yellow, orange, and red tipped with blue. The real estate agent had hesitated to show her the run-down 1940s bungalow, but she fell in love with the house, the garden filled with hydrangeas, the turquoise blue lanterns tacked under the eaves, cooing rock doves, and the morning sun shining through the windows. The fireplace cinched the sale; visions of frosty nights stretched out in front of it, the toasty scent of burning wood, crackling flames, and her man’s arms around her. Married, divorced, or single, she could count the evenings she had snuggled there in the twenty-one years she’d owned the place; not one man had turned that image in her head into a long-term reality. Hand to heart, she held the place that ached with the need to rest against the shoulder of a full-time someone who cared.
The tinny ding-dang-dong of the doorbell’s chime broke the quiet and caught Nicole off guard. Only one person had the gall to stop by this late at night without calling ahead.
Nicole first met Clint Russell when she was twenty-three and he was twenty-eight, compact and husky, irresistible and charismatic beyond his years. He’d sized up the volunteers at the conference registration desk, then swaggered to her station. “You know you have simmering eyes,” he’d whispered and requested directions to a meeting clearly posted on a sign behind Nicole. “You mean shimmering,” she’d corrected, thinking he referred to her makeup. “I meant exactly what I said: simmering. Bubbling underneath that crisp blouse.” Not her first love, but her first lover, they spent ten months together.
Three and a half decades since he left Oakland for the East Coast and his failed promise to return and pick up where they left off. Even though her beloved friend was no longer present, Tamara’s voice was in Nicole’s head, nagging, as she often had. “Forget Clint. If you kicked him out of your life, you wouldn’t even know he was gone. What does he do for you?” Never had she answered her friend and now Nicole sat motionless, while the doorbell chimed nonstop, frustrated that she could both love and not stand (or resist) this man. Forgetting him, her ex-husband, all the men who’d failed her—awkward loose ends of her past—was what she needed to do. Maybe she’d figure out how in Paris. Maybe not. Nicole poured a second shot of tequila into her glass, sipped, and considered a third.
Maybe she wouldn’t open the door.
Five years ago, she’d heard the chatter when he came to the law offices—not his name, simply the description of the attractive lawyer collaborating on a case with one of the partners. Clint recognized Nicole when he passed the word-processing bullpen. Time had been generous. Clear skin. His shaved head defied a receding hairline. His suit shouted power and money. “You have simmering eyes, Ms. Handy.” He played with the line that caught her attention back in 1975. “And I do mean your eye shadow.”
They went from lunch to dinner to an expensive hotel to bed. Bored and fighting the lingering loneliness from her divorce, Nicole surrendered to his spell and let Clint fill that hole without his ever mentioning and her never inquiring about a wife.
After five minutes passed, she opened the door.
“What took you so long? I came to check on you.” Clint passed his suit jacket to Nicole and headed straight for her bedroom, ignoring the fire, the papers on the coffee table, newspapers and assorted junk mail spread over the dining room table that he usually complained about until she organized or tossed the whole mess out. She followed and watched him stretch out on her queen-sized bed and pick at the striped duvet. Nicole stood at the side of her bed, crossed her arms, and breathed in his faint smell—cologne mixed with hours spent polishing the fine print of contracts, and pressuring any associate and administrative staff within reach of his booming voice.
He fingered the elastic waistband of her flannel pajamas. “Such practical nighties.”
What, Nicole thought, would he say if she asked if his wife wore flannel pajamas or slinky negligees or tied her hair up in satin scarves at night? “You came to apologize?”
“No, baby. You owe me an apology. I’ve been waiting for it.”
“My timing was wrong. I’m sorry, but you should be sorry, too.”
In the five years since they’d taken up with each other again, Nicole had convinced herself that Clint kept a separate phone for her calls, one left in his car or office, free from discovery or suspicion. Raindrops had sprinkled the mourners during Tamara’s funeral and flattened Nicole’s spirit. Later, she’d checked her bedside clock on the hour, every hour, from eight o’clock on. By midnight, she’d tossed and turned herself into a blanket cocoon. By one, she was wide awake, and by two, her whole body ached for comfort. Clint’s cell phone rang until his husky voice came on the line.
“If this is an emergency, it better be good.” He fumbled with the phone, creating an echo, but not before Nicole heard a lilting voice, and in that moment that woman in bed with him was no longer simply the wife, but Eleanor.
“Tamara’s funeral was today.” Nicole stuck to her rules. Not even in boozy hazes or feeling pitiful had she succumbed. She sensed he’d moved from the bed to a safer place to talk.
“I’m sorry your friend died, Nicki, but I can’t talk. You’ll ruin everything.”
Tonight, without noting the six weeks since her crazy middle-of-the-night breach, Clint whistled a mindless tune. Nicole had resisted phoning him. Anger, she supposed, was why he hadn’t called her. Six weeks ago, she might have welcomed this impromptu visit.
“My friend died… the least you could’ve done was call me back.”
“Eleanor grilled me the rest of the night. When I got to the office in the morning, all hell broke loose. I know Tamara meant a lot to you. I’m sorry. I really am.” Turned out that his firm, he, had lost a multimillion-dollar client and he was left with no opportunity to debrief before another contract was in the works. “It’s been crazy. You know I would have if I could have.”
“But you didn’t, and I guess that says it all.”
Nicole stared, watching Clint take in the room. Piles of clothes covered the floor, the bed, the sofa bordering it—each item awaiting a packing decision. He pursed his lips. “What are you doing? What’s this mess?”
“I’m going to Paris. I leave in two days.”
“Paris? I figured since Tamara passed, you’d change your mind.”
“I made a promise.” She had the passport, the tickets, the place to stay. No refunds. No turning back. I promise to go to Paris, no matter what.
“I love you, baby, but you’re not a woman to be in Paris on your own. You’ll never make it.”
“When I planned to go with Tamara, you implied she wasn’t sophisticated enough for a trip to Paris.”
“Have some respect.”
“I call it like I see it—that’s what I’m paid to do. And my opinions haven’t worked out so bad for you.” Clint pulled her on top of him. Nicole squirmed out of his hands and shifted to the other side of the bed. “Stop complaining and admit you like having me around.”
“Sometimes I wish I didn’t.” She wanted to say, “Watch and see,” but doubt inched up her throat—the same uncertainty that had kept her from Paris for so long. He was her rock. His opinions were as important to her as water to the lavender shrubs lining her garden. She’d taken every tip he’d given and doubled her investment accounts, replaced her aging car, refinanced her mortgage, and made herself trustee of her aging parents’ will. He listened when she fussed about her job, sent flowers, wined and dined her at dimly lit restaurants. Even though he’d never met her, he had a knack for helping defuse her mother’s subtle tantrums and nagging over her daughter’s single status, her hair, or her weight.
“If you wait, I’ll take you to Paris.” Clint wiped his face with his palm and sat up straight. “I shouldn’t have lost that deal. Incompetent associates. Contracts. Wheeling and dealing. I think I billed ninety hours last week, and it’s getting worse. I can’t bear another of Eleanor’s black-tie, five-hundred-dollar-a-plate, dry chicken dinners.” He ignored Nicole’s stiffened pose and slid his hand onto her thigh. “You keep me grounded, Nicki. I don’t know if I can keep it together. Don’t go to Paris. Stay here. I can get away for a long weekend. Santa Barbara? You love nice hotels.”
One second. For one second she allowed a semblance of joy to spread along the width of her mouth. She marveled at him, as important as the big-shot partners she worked for, wanting to take care of her. Nicole envisioned a rare, entire weekend—forty-eight hours—the ocean, the salt air, strolling aimlessly, holding hands without the worry of discovery, and luxuriating in an expensive hotel room.
“Do you think I’m stupid?” She slapped Clint’s hand and shoved him back against the pillow. You want me to change my plans because… your wife didn’t appreciate my call? It got you in trouble? You’re addicted to your work?”
Her pajama bottoms loosened with one quick yank as if she’d planned her next move. She pounced on top of him and adjusted her frame. Neither fat nor thin, Nicole held him under her. He whistled a single, long note, and released to her control. She bit his lip. He turned away. She was sick of him, his bribes and his part-time love. Sick of his big white house on a hill. His Saturday night tuxedo dinners and Sunday brunches at restaurants with one-hundred-eighty-degree views of the Bay. Sick of his four kids in private school and his damn latest-model Jaguar. His law partnership. His dimples, his idea of what made her happy. She unbuttoned his shirt, unzipped his pants, and marked him, left red imprints on his belly, forcing him to do his best to avoid the evidence of his infidelity. Without hesitation, Nicole pressed him into her, and rode him, tightening and squeezing her thighs to make him feel her pain. She rode him, her buttocks slapping against his thighs, her hands forcing his shoulders into the pillow. She rode him without kisses or foreplay. He never spoke, never shouted for her to stop. He moaned. He came. She didn’t. Nicole backed off of Clint and ran to the bathroom.
In the shower, she rubbed her skin until it colored under the hot water, soaped and scrubbed her graying pubic hair until every drop of Clint’s quick release slid between her legs and down the drain. Without bothering to towel dry, Nicole threw on her robe, took a cigarette from the pocket, and went back into the bedroom. She watched Clint zip up his pants, tuck in his shirt, and smooth the creases. His face was flushed and blank and covered with satisfaction.
“What got into you?” He smirked and waved away the smoke Nicole blew into his face.
“You got what you came for.”
Arms open, he moved to hug her. When Nicole stepped aside he tugged at her again, holding her in his arms. “I’m sixty-three, Nicki. Losing this deal, after the work I put into it, was a heartbreaker. Baby, we have no guarantees in this life. Think about it. I am.”
“And that means what?”
“Stay and find out. Paris is a tough city—you can’t speak French, you don’t like to travel, and certainly not by yourself. You can’t be alone.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I know you. You have routine, baby. Not spontaneity. Stay.” He held her hand. “I need to see if this, us, will work more than three nights a month. I love my kids. I won’t hurt them. I respect my wife, but I don’t love her. I haven’t for a long while.”
“Because the clock is ticking fast. Stay. With me. We can go to Paris on our honeymoon.”
Mississippi, Spring 1944
Martha told RubyMae, at least twice yearly, that the day she was born, the afternoon sun had carried a red hue over its round self as if Jesus’s blood had dripped onto the brightest star to welcome her newborn babe. To RubyMae, that peculiarity of red sun meant she was born to be exceptional. It augured a fate to live and die beyond Sheridan where her parents were born and bound to die, where her grands and great-grands and the greats of the greats—ancestors, the slaves she had come from—lay in the red dirt still waiting for Jesus’s hand to lead them to freedom.
She was one of those women born under the sign of dissatisfaction. Nothing mother, father, or friend did brought her happiness. When she reached thirteen, she complained of a burning deep within—she came to call it longing. Her mother called it restlessness. Now and then, RubyMae swore it kept her fingers from pushing buttons through hand-stitched holes on starched white blouses, somber skirts, and dresses full on high to her neck that her mother, Martha, made her wear. The impulse pushed, nigh on to a living creature. On hot nights she squeezed it, rocked herself quiet with its ache. It pushed her to not come when she was summoned and run wild in the street where the neighbors whispered behind their hands.
The longing kept her in front of the mirror where she stared at her face, tugged at her skin, ran fingers through her hair and pondered how it must be to stand at the head of a line, to be addressed by voices filled with respect, not lust. To be white; lady not gal. Later, after first blood stained her panties, she pondered the feeling of a man’s lips on her own. Her thinking stretched to a world without a staid big sister, a demanding church with lengthy sermons, and commandments that kept her from breathing. Had Martha known, these feelings were the kind best done away with the stick behind the kitchen door or the back of her hand. Instead, RubyMae was marked a lazy child, a dreamer.
But there was meaning to a blood-covered sun. Though she had never seen that huge ball of light covered in such a way, RubyMae knew it was different and so, too, was she. So instead she made friends with the moon that showed itself whole every month. The moon was her kin, and RubyMae gave herself to the waxing and waning of its love. She watched it turn from yellow to silver as it moved from the trees to winter puddles or summer blossoms past Sheridan, past Jackson and Clarksdale and past Tennessee to places her schoolteachers marked on a yellowed wall map. With the waning moon her head spun, her heart pumped fast, the soles of her feet itched.
On this night, the moon was at its roundest, primed for the eccentricities that came to pass when its surface was so close to earth. The air bristled against the fine hairs on RubyMae’s arms with the breeze of possibilities. The longing goaded her out Lurlene’s window, through Martha’s garden, the scent of ready-to-pick radishes spicy in the air, past the caged rabbit and down the darkened street toward a waiting car. At the black sedan, RubyMae tucked and tugged at the dress Lurlene lent her. The curve of her breasts burst from the low neckline.
“Hurry!” Lurlene’s whisper blended with the wind rushing through the tall pines. She opened the back door of the sedan, slid to the far side of the leather seat, and motioned for Ruby to get in. The two mustached men grinned not at the women’s eager faces, but to what was spilling out of the front of RubyMae’s dress visible in the car’s dim interior light. The girl had worked her manipulations on Lurlene for weeks to get the older woman to take her along. Lurlene got a companion and a little protection from these two men she just met; RubyMae got the chance to wear makeup and a dress that fit her like it never had Lurlene, and have a bit of real fun. “Chester’s behind the wheel and LJ’s riding shotgun. This is RubyMae Garrett.”
“Ruby, just Ruby.” She extended her hand to LJ’s, letting it hang midair, thinking a limp hand a sign of womanliness. From the moment Martha had taken her in as a border, Lurlene and Ruby were drawn to each other. On occasion they slept in Lurlene’s narrow bed, talking through the night about the opposite sex and what ladies could do to catch a man; getting along in the way Ruby and her big sister never did. Ruby latched on to Lurlene, understanding even almost six months before she turned sixteen that a woman who described herself as a beautician, but never touched a hot comb or lifted a curling iron to any woman’s head, save for her own, might well have a lesson to teach her.
That was how Ruby came to be sneaking out Lurlene’s bedroom window at eleven o’clock on a night filled with moon glow. She was testing. It took the four of them little conversation, several ditches, a very bumpy road, and two slow swigs each from a pint bottle of bourbon to get deep in the woods. Here and there the eyes of a skunk or a possum glowed in the headlights. No other cars, no signs of humans or good times until they turned down a lane marked with a washboard nailed to a tree stump. The joint at the end of the road seemed like a living space, not the rowdy place Ruby had expected. It was compact, neatly built, and surrounded by beams from car headlights. Music spilled out the windows, sneaked under the joint, and swirled fast as tumbleweeds.
“It’s just a shack.” Ruby giggled. Men and women dawdled on the steps or by the door, anxious to be near the music blaring within. Some stood waiting in the dirt for the room to clear out so they could refill the space. Most were dressed up; men in suits with wide lapels, women in close-fitting hats or bareheaded with hair marcelled in deep waves. Light skin, brown skin, dark skin, and every shade of colored in between glistened with the sweat from the warm night.
A wailing saxophone followed a singer’s plea, a cinder from a raging fire ignited that place in Ruby. The music grew loud over the wails, mostly women’s, of appreciation. The piano and bass stopped and started, stopped and started, and alternated the second ditty following the saxophone’s lead. Ruby pushed past Lurlene and their men friends to the head of the line.
“What kinda horn is that anyway?” Her question was addressed to no one in particular.
“That’s a saxophone, baby,” Chester answered with a big grin. “Stick with ole Chester and he’ll teach you.”
When Ruby entered the crowded room, a musician occupied the farthest corner. Standing with his saxophone in his hands, fingering the keypad in the way that he would for all his breaks that night—absentmindedly. Moving through the room, she felt his attention, unsure until Lurlene schooled her that his was the instrument that had taken her breath away. She sighed and Chester, who had attached himself to her right side, mistook that breath for timidity. He grabbed her arm, swung her so that her dress flared, exposing her short legs. Chester held her. His arms begged her to feel the rhythm of the music and the desire rising in his pants. Ruby felt the want, saw it in the men that glanced at her, and she jerked away. She felt it from the saxophone man. Her body responded before she could think or will it to do differently. She stepped slowly, aware of that clinging dress, its fabric soft against her thighs. Years later she would remember telling herself that night was not for dancing, but for watching and sensations she had yet to understand. Instead, she conserved her energy, this power she discovered her body had, and popped her fingers, ignoring the sheen of sweat collected at the pit of her throat.
The saxophone man sauntered from his corner to the band, which seemed to separate for him; even the piano player seemed to scoot the upright piano and his stool away from the center. Moses, she would call him when they met, because the crowd parted so wide for the man. But merely once that night, because, he made a point to let her know later with the most serious of faces, he had no interest in Moses or the Bible. “Arnett,” he would say, “is my name. Arnett, no middle name, Dupree.”
Arnett put the saxophone to his lips and blew, the notes soothing and sad. They sweet-talked Ruby, and she let the call of the saxophone work up her arms and down her spine. She squared her hips in a way she knew was nasty because Lurlene had shown her when they had practiced what Lurlene termed “seducting.” That was how Arnett worked her. He removed the felt hat from his head and covered the saxophone’s bell, turning the music from blaring to muffled. He blew one long note that reached for her soul, and she let it fly.
They met in the middle of the room. Had Ruby been a woman by age and experience, she would have waited for him to come to her. She moseyed to where he had situated himself amidst a cluster of women, their finger waves shiny under the bare lightbulb. To a woman, the five of them jockeyed for Arnett’s attention, twisting this way and that, showing off painted lips and supple curves and touches of whatever else was available to a good-looking, saxophone-playing Louisiana man.
Ruby stood among the women—chickens posing for the rooster—and grinned. Her lips, ample and tempting, were her best feature. She parted them enough to reveal slightly crooked teeth. “Ripe.” Arnett grabbed her hand with the assumption of having known her forever. “Ripe enough to bite. Why haven’t we met before?”
She should have known. She should have known by that line and mocked him and rushed to Chester’s arms because, despite his puffery, that young man meant no harm. Unable to decide which one influenced her most—the liquor, the moon, or the burning that demanded his comfort—she held on to Arnett’s hand.
“Right here, Moses!” Her eagerness drew the smirks of the women beside her. “I mean Sheridan. I been in Sheridan—that’s where I’m from.”
She was tickled by his laughter, but confused by the women’s titters. Yet they fell away, moths parting a light gone cold. With that simple and slick line they, too, might have fallen for just the taste of Arnett. They understood that with Ruby’s naïve reply, Arnett had chosen.
He strode to his corner, Ruby following as if she’d had no other choice. She squeezed past dancers and drinkers and entwined lovers to that corner. When she joined him, Arnett pushed her hair from her ear, so that his fingers brushed her lobe. The saxophone hung from a strap around his neck. The J shape of the instrument pushed into her torso. It was cool and sharp, surprising, not hot from the warmth of his music. He put his face close to hers.
“And who, baby love, are you?”
“My name is Ruby.”
“Ruby, Ruby.” Arnett picked up a glass jar from the stool beside them. He swigged back a long taste of the amber liquid and spoke again. “Ruby, my jewel.”
Ruby tilted her face to meet his. He was sharp and cool in that hot and musty room. Thick hair slicked back in natural waves from his wide forehead. Lashes long and brows—the kind women envy—evenly arched over deep-set eyes. A hint of hair above his lips; a faded line, as if he hadn’t made up his mind whether or not he wanted a mustache.
Arnett lit a joint and touched his thumb to Ruby’s chin, parting her lips. He exhaled into her mouth so that she tasted the bitter reefer. She coughed the smoke into her throat and let that smoke set her free. She ignored the fumes threading through her hair, the liquor on her breath—these telltale signs of where she had been, the likelihood of discovery. Ruby ignored the harshness of her mother’s backlash if her daughter was not asleep in her bed, driven as Martha was by swift anger when Ruby did wrong. Never did she think of Lurlene, LJ, and Chester, though to his credit she’d watched him shift his attention to a big-boned woman.
“You’re a pretty one.” Arnett fiddled with the cut-glass brooch pinned to the shoulder of Ruby’s dress. “Pretty as this fancy glass flower. Sparkly. How old are you, anyhow?”
Ruby arched her back. “How old do you think?” She waited for Arnett to stop laughing.
“You Bricktop and Josephine rolled into one.” He kissed her. Had she been able to think, she knew he must play his saxophone with such need as she felt in his kiss—her first real kiss. Their tongues fit into one another; found pieces of a puzzle gone missing.
It was Arnett who turned from Ruby. “Come back and see me when you’re legal.”
He strode, the back of his jacket hugging his body, moving not from her but to the band. He slipped the reed from the mouthpiece, tested its pliability with a swift bend, then slipped it back into the neck and began to blow.
Ruby waited in his corner. He never came back. If she had been woman in body and mind, she would have known better, would have known to get the hell out and never come back. As it was, Ruby was saved by Lurlene. “Girl, you let that guichee Creole put a spell on you?” She led Ruby from the corner and into the night. “And don’t tell me you don’t know that’s a grown man you messing with.”
French is a living language. Memorizing vocabulary lists and conjugating verbs in their various tenses is necessary, but the language is best learned in conversations.
la maladie (lah mah lah dee)
travailler (trah vy yea)
aller (ah lay)
joli(e) (zho lee)
Impatient in the spacious seat of the transatlantic flight, Nicole tinkered with every button and switch on her armrests until she found a comfortable seat position, pleased she’d upgraded to business class. After two movies and five chapters of a forgettable book, she gave herself permission to daydream. Whenever Clint popped up in her head, her stomach knotted in protest. Taking a cleansing breath, she dismissed this musing and what she characterized as his proposition; he’d called it a marriage proposal.
It was bad enough that her mother hadn’t taken to the idea of Nicole’s going to Paris when she’d shared her plans three weeks earlier. The elderly woman had sidled into her kitchen on frail legs and jerked her cane at Nicole as if she were a displaced animal in her mother’s glass menagerie needing to be reminded of her place. Clint didn’t simply think she lacked follow-through; he didn’t believe in her. Queasiness proved her own uncertainty. The airplane began its descent. Nicole peered out the window at the unfamiliar territory below, released the negativity, and let her thoughts drift to the blue book.
Over the years, the memory of the dictionary refused to fade and rendered the navy cover, the language and pronunciations, the tissue-thin pages larger than they had been. If she felt comfortable with the man sitting beside her, she might have poked him and described the book that generated her love of French. She giggled, reverting to her nine-year-old self first discovering the blue book.
Yesterday she’d spoken a few phrases to her father. Not since the dictionary disappeared had they toyed with French. No recognition of the language they’d shared. If he were healthier, he would have celebrated her trip with a Langston Hughes poem written in the city where the poet had spent time or recited a verse of his own composition. Instead, her father settled into his plastic-covered recliner and recommended she take along an umbrella. “I’m going to speak French in France, Dad.” Nicole tried to jiggle his brain and make him remember when they’d shared the language and he’d promised Paris was in her future. “I’ll be fluent when I get back,” Nicole teased. In a single moment of clarity, her father had focused on his daughter. “Oh, baby, your mother will be happy.”
She missed that blue book. She missed her father.
The flight attendant’s announcement alternated between French and English. It wasn’t the ten-hour flight, the drone of the engines steady and low, the tremor in her foot that cramped her calf, or the bona fide French that marked themselves as the sensations and images to remember years from now. It was her body’s reaction to the pilot’s downward turn toward the City of Light—a hint of motion sickness and what Nicole understood was anxiety. How far would reality fall short of the dream?
In Paris, the sky will always be blue, she prayed, God will love me there. Life will be sweeter, filled with adventure not found on the streets of Oakland or San Francisco or Berkeley. The Eiffel Tower breaking the skyline. The Seine flowing fast beneath its many bridges. Stepping out of a cab, her feet touching the sidewalk, it will be home.
The taxi driver cut through the traffic on the invisible border surrounding Paris. “Le Périphérique,” he said. In the sunlight of this June afternoon, the city showed off the way an ardent suitor does at the beginning of a perfect love affair. Regardez-moi: statues—men on horses, animals with wings; fountains, countless bridges poised over the Seine. Roundabouts. Métro signs with curlicue lettering. Gray, yellow, verdigris. Pockets of green gardens and red geraniums. Steeples. Each scene a snippet from posters, guidebook pages, advertisements for a perfect getaway. Her dream had come true, not quite how she’d imagined, but true nevertheless.
“Est-ce que tout va bien, Madame?” The driver looked at Nicole in the rearview mirror and touched his hand to the place on his face where tears striped hers. He grabbed tissues from the passenger seat and passed them to Nicole.
“It’s beautiful,” she mumbled. At home, the flatlands of Oakland and Berkeley abutted the base of hills speckled with eucalyptus trees and homes. Virtually every glance westward exposed a body of water or a bridge or the peaks and valleys of San Francisco’s skyline. Home was a different beautiful. “Jolie, très jolie!”
Paris, no matter what. This new love wooed and enchanted. Nicole opened to it, taking in every gargoyle and wrought iron balcony, every rooftop and streetlamp beyond the windows of her cab, willing and eager because, forever and for always, she would only have one first look at Paris.
The concierge, Monsieur Large, introduced himself when Nicole entered the lobby. Monsieur was not large. He was gaunt and his head came up to her nose, or at least that was Nicole’s estimate, given the man’s proximity. Monsieur lugged her suitcases into the compact elevator and demonstrated, complete with hand signals—he spoke as little English as Nicole did French—how to hold down number one for what Americans call the second floor, and RC for rez-de-chaussée, the entry-level floor of every French building.
Opening the heavy wood door, Nicole knew she’d hit the jackpot. God bless Tamara. God bless Tamara’s friend’s naughty Swiss ex-husband who rented this apartment to fund his alimony payments. A collection of antique chairs and tables. Built-in bookcases lined with leather-bound books. Crystal chandeliers in the middle of a high ceiling. Traditional herringbone plank floor. A wall of mirrors.
After Monsieur Large dragged her heavy suitcases into the living room, Nicole pushed open one of three floor-to-ceiling windows and inhaled: a hint of river, exhaust fumes, and early afternoon. Without stretching past the windowsill, she saw bridges to her left and right. On their second date, she learned her ex had visited Paris. Her wedding present to him was a scrapbook of his disorganized Paris photographs. Not understanding their logic or connection, she’d put together an album, only to have him peel photos of Paris’s most popular attractions from between the cellophane sheets. “When I take you, you’ll see they’re all wrong.” Placement right or wrong, the Seine before her now was the exact replica of what he’d rearranged: water rushed through open arches supporting each level structure and lapped against concrete embankments. Booksellers attended their stalls, pedestrians, joggers, and bicyclists navigated traffic. Iron, glass, masonry, and elaborate rooftops. Beyond the windows, cars jammed the street, the Quai des Grands-Augustins—her street now—and a view of the Île St.-Louis beyond the Seine.
A first promise, even her ex’s first promise, was the sweetest and the toughest to forget. Let the past stay where it belonged. What did he care if she was in Paris or Outer Mongolia? They hadn’t spoken in years. Seven years of unpredictable flashbacks of the loss of a cunning man who’d broken his vows and his promise to bring her to this city. In Paris she was supposed to work on letting go of the past. Stop. Live.
Nicole hauled her suitcases up the spiral staircase to the second-floor bedroom and paced the length of the room. Her cell phone pinged twice inside her leather handbag. How did the cliché go, she thought: you never miss your water till your well runs dry. Her hands trembled as if she’d had too many cups of the strong black tea she loved. She reached for her notebook and reread Tamara’s challenge: Be wild. Dance in the streets. Take French lessons. Walk the wrong way home. Don’t play it safe. Staying inside was not an option—twenty-nine days left to unpack, to shake off the fatigue, to rest. This was Paris.
The streets were wonder-filled observed from the cab; with the cobblestones uneven beneath her rubber-soled shoes, reality hit as solidly as the jet lag. Outside, releasing to the sensation of both, Nicole closed her eyes, fought the oncoming drowsiness, and listened to the familiar: short bursts of horns, the screech of tires, gunning engines, the whisper of the summer breeze. This was the din of home. The difference was in the snippets of French, and when she opened her eyes again, the difference was in the view.
Her phone pinged again. Nicole removed it from her purse and glared at the screen. Clint’s proposal had been a cliché—the married man, at last tired of his wife, proposed to his mistress. That last night they were together, he’d taken the cigarette from Nicole’s hand and stubbed it out in a nearby ashtray. “Well, what do you have to say? I asked you to marry me.”
“You didn’t say the words.”
“Does that make a difference?”
“If I chuck my trip and stay in Oakland to help you through this latest crisis, or when it’s over…” Clint, Nicole reminded herself, had dangled the hint of marriage before, qualifying it with his children’s needs and his wife’s social position. “… what’s to say you won’t change your mind?” The angry sex had worn her out. She wanted him to stay, wanted him to leave. To leave and make the decision easy and put him into the past, a place to glorify and regret their relationship. If he left, never to return, the option of “no” was easy. Nicole giggled.
“It’s not a joke, Nicki. I’m serious.”
“I’m not sure I want to be married,” she blurted, surprising herself and Clint.
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Me and you. Yes. But permanently?” Infidelity had broken up her marriage. If Clint could be unfaithful to his wife and leave her as he said he wanted to do now, what was to say, Nicole considered, down their own married road, that boredom or stress wouldn’t prevail? “Let’s leave us the way we are for now.” He’d saved her from the sadness of divorce; she’d escaped loneliness. A little bit of someone, married or not, was better than a whole lot of no one at all.
That was her decision: a definite maybe. Nicole deleted the voice message without listening to it and read the text. CRAZY HERE. WANT 2 COME BACK EARLY? THOT ABOUT WHAT I ASKD? Clint’s offer, she reasoned, was an effort to keep her in Oakland, not necessarily a decision to take her as his wife.
Beyond Nicole, the Seine flowed at least fifteen feet below street level. She’d never seen the Mississippi. Her parents spoke of the mighty river so wide, the current so fast, the cargo-laden barges alongside tugboats. The view of the Seine was as reassuring and calming as the San Francisco Bay.
“Puts the postcards to shame.” Nicole giggled at her thought, spoken aloud as if a friend were standing beside her.
“Wasting my Paris time on Clint,” she whispered and wiped the sheen of sweat from her neck. On an island in the middle of the river, the spires of Notre Dame poked at the sky. The panorama stopped her in her steps. The June sun was hot, the air tense with humidity. Nicole clapped her hands. “I did it!” She was hot and cold, happy and happier all at once. Paris was simply Paris. If hers was a photographer’s eye or a painter’s hand, she reflected, she’d capture Paris and make postcards. Postcards for her parents, the hunched woman who delivered her newspaper, even Clint.
I’m okay, she’d write. I am here. In Paris. All on my own.
Mississippi, Late Spring 1944
All Ruby wanted when she went to that place in the woods was to experience a juke joint, taste what her PapPap called hooch, have a little fun and learn about life—either which way, hers was forever shifted. Some girls she knew set their hearts on recipes and picket fences, wedding veils and white gowns, babies and a good man. Ruby dreamed of things a fine musician could provide: silk dresses, fancy shoes, and trips to cities dotted with buildings touching the sky, anywhere outside the confines of Sheridan, Mississippi, population 2,576. For days after she met Arnett, she suffered from distraction while her teachers spoke of proper sentences, while she succumbed to the habit of biting her fingernails nearly to the quick. While brushing her hair, changing the bed linens, and eating her meals, all the while thinking of Arnett’s lips blowing into the saxophone and into her, the taste of smoke mixed with spearmint gum, the tickle of his mustache. These thoughts, these sensations made her knees tremble even now.
What a grown woman might have classified as mere flirtation, Ruby interpreted otherwise: not as love, not yearning. Destiny. A future linked to Arnett’s. Twice she declared this to Lurlene before convincing her to take him a handwritten note. Lurlene explained to Ruby that she was merely experiencing her first longing for a man and not to take the feeling as seriously as the dilemma of what she wanted to do.
Lurlene watched Ruby now, the girl, not the almost woman she had been in that juke joint fourteen days earlier. She reeked of her mother Martha’s control: hair thick with pomade, braided and bound with no hope of stray hairs going free; black skirt old-woman shapeless, clearing buttocks, past knee to calf, socks, and clunky shoes.
“Your mama find out, she bound to whip you and kick me outta here, and then where would poor Lurlene go?”
“Then you shouldn’t have taken him the note. But you did.” Ruby wrapped her arms around her friend’s ample frame. Lurlene had gone again to that shack in the woods with Ruby’s lavender-scented note secure in her brassiere. In her childish hand, Ruby pleaded for Arnett to meet her in town this very afternoon. With no assurance or certainty of his coming, she merely trusted that he had fallen, too.
“Girl, I’m nigh on to twenty-two and not half bold as you. Not even a woman. Least not like that.”
Ruby was gone for Arnett, and it was too late to come back. It was in her face, the fluttering lashes, the blush on her cheek, the distraction. It was in the place between her legs that she dared not name, the place Martha pointed to when she wanted her daughters to make sure they were clean.
“Listen, RubyMae, you best forget that man and stick to boys. Arnett is a musician, honey, and a saxophone player to boot. I used to love me a sax man, and let me tell you… a saxophone played right is as close as a person can get to God and a woman can get to good loving. And the combination?” Lurlene picked up the hem of her dress and fanned herself the way she would if summer heat had crept up her legs and into spaces godly women were not supposed to think about. “Lord, the combination will spoil you forever.”
Martha didn’t watch daughter and boarder move from the spacious porch down the steps to the street. Nor did she note her daughter’s quickened pace, her lightened step. Lurlene and Ruby dawdled, letting the neighbors see the two of them and confirm they had been together. Gone was the brooding stride Ruby had maintained when ordered to run errands or go into the center of town. At Ruby’s direction, the two friends parted at the short road leading to the courthouse square.
The plan that came together in Ruby’s head had to do with providence. Not the sort the preacher went on about Sunday mornings involving the Almighty and Heaven. The kind that made two or three events come to pass at the same moment without preparation—it happened when she met Arnett, and she wanted to make it happen again. Ruby was set to run into Arnett in front of Mr. Lewis’s ice cream parlor between one and two—a believable happenstance, considering the sun’s heat.
Men, and women with children in tow, strolled on either side of the street, listless in the afternoon mugginess. Few lingered near the ice cream parlor except two barefoot colored boys examining the coins in their hands and calculating the cost of two cones. “Mr. Lewis, don’t ’low no credit!” The shorter of the two boys punched his companion’s arm before taking off, leaving behind a wake of dust.
On the far side of the street, a colored man lingered in the shade of the dry goods store, hat cocked to his left, left leg over right. Smoke drifted from his cigarette to nowhere in particular. He seemed lulled by deliberation. Ruby sucked in air to slow her pace to make sure this was the man she expected. No one in the whole of Sheridan stood straight as Arnett. It seemed to Ruby that none of the boys at school stood at all. To a tee they acted foolish, yanking at her hair and running off.
The urge to run to Arnett rushed over her as it had the night she followed him to his corner. She paced before the little store, thinking to trifle with Arnett same as she did when one square-headed young man knocked on the Garrett door. The young man had stammered and shifted the posies he’d brought from one hand to the other, waiting for permission to keep her company. She had not waited for Arnett in the juke joint, and with Lurlene’s advice ringing in her ears, Arnett, Ruby figured, needed to understand that she was worth the wait.
Selling ice cream and dry goods to whites and coloreds was how Mr. Eugene Lewis supported his family and kept himself in fancy suspenders. Following Jim Crow’s rules, he kept “WHITE” and “COLORED” signs affixed to the two doors of his establishment. The signs were plain and clear for all to see, for every colored man, woman, and child to heed. A believer in partial if not whole truths, Ruby stepped into the ice cream parlor through the door marked “colored” and ordered a vanilla ice cream cone. It was the white man’s habit, and her game, whenever they were alone in the tiny store, to talk to Ruby in a tone reserved for white folks. “RubyMae, don’t you ever want to taste another flavor?”
“It’s the tasting that precipitates experimenting, Mr. Lewis. I know what I want.”
She batted her eyes, knowing such an action between a colored girl and a white man was open to interpretation. Clothed as she was, Ruby felt his glare from the top of her head down to the clunky shoes on her feet.
“Well, don’t go letting that ice cream spoil your appetite.”
“No sir, I won’t.” She set two nickels on the counter.
Because Mr. Lewis didn’t bother with Jim Crow when his white customers were not present, Ruby stepped to the door marked “WHITE.” Without looking back at the elderly man, she sashayed right through it, imagining life in a place where signs didn’t confine her use to a specific door or toilet or water fountain; where a colored girl did not have to tolerate lecherous glances for a minute’s worth of equality.
Mr. Lewis set his attention on Ruby’s backside and she watched for Arnett. Neither of them noticed the white boys, close to Ruby’s age, posturing against the wood siding. Ruby surveyed the two boys at almost the same minute she noticed Arnett move to one of two posts supporting a flimsy canopy. He pushed back the sleeve of his jacket, and to Ruby, it struck her that he was going to leave. She picked up her pace.
“Hey!” she shouted. In her hurry to get to him, she plowed straight into the boys. In that one flat second, she examined them, then stared dead in their blue eyes and motioned for them to go on. They bowed deep, caps to ribcages; a towheaded boy and a second one, puffy in the face, two competing Casanovas ready to play the same game.
Ruby recollected neither of the two. Sheridan was not large compared to Jackson and, maybe, Biloxi, but she recognized newcomer from citizen. In Sheridan, coloreds knew their whites and vice versa. Everyone knew she was colored because everyone, colored and white, had seen her all over town with Martha and Paul. Everyone knew she got her color from her daddy and her temper from her mother.
“Y’all want another cone, miss?” The towheaded boy was the braver of the two. His face was covered with freckles that matched the color of his dirty hair. He showed her his grubby dollar bill, proof that he was able to afford floats or a ticket to the movies, if that was what she was partial to. “I favor strawberry, myself.”
She continued ahead, disregarding the boys and their inquiries. The other boy stepped closer to Ruby. “How you keeping so fresh in this weather, miss? I can hold up one of them pigtails so’s you can get air on yer neck.” He smirked and reached for Ruby’s hair.
Mr. Lewis stepped into his doorway. “Y’all leave that colored gal alone now, and go on back to where you came from.”
Ruby lowered her head and separated herself from the boys, aiming toward the reason she had come to the ice cream parlor in the first place. She caught sight of Arnett. His view of her was as clear and straight as hers was of him. Nothing on his face showed that he grasped Ruby’s predicament. She stepped to the curb. The pudgy-faced boy examined her as he might a June bug tied to a string.
“Well, I’ll be gotdammed! I heard tell of these whitish negras, but I ain’t never seed one.” The towheaded boy whooped and stuck his face right in hers, forcing Ruby against the large window of Mr. Lewis’s store. “Hey, brother, this gal been trickin’ us. Acting white.” He rechecked the “WHITE” sign and moved to touch Ruby’s hair.
“Don’t you know no better?” The second boy poked his finger at her chest. Ruby sidestepped to the right, keen to escape. They blocked her. She moved in the opposite direction, and they blocked her path a second time.
“Either let me pass or be on your way.” Her command was loud enough for anyone close by, and surely Arnett, to hear.
“Ain’t no monkey gonna make a monkey outta me.” The towheaded boy cleared his throat and hocked spit onto her ice cream. The thick glob stuck to the ice cream, then proceeded down the cone. His flexed arms dared her, or any colored folk nearby, to make a move.
The boys positioned themselves on either side of Ruby. Ruby pursed her lips, prepared to spit at the unruly young men, not caring that the consequences of her action might cause trouble for her and her family. She inched backward, knowing where white folks were concerned reckoning was not a colored girl’s privilege. Surveying the street again, from the boys to Arnett fixed to his spot, Ruby saw the brim of his fedora set farther down his face and his interest in the details of the soil beneath his polished shoes.
“Get on outta here.” Mr. Lewis flapped his hands the same as he would at a flock of bothersome chickens. “Shoo, now! Ain’t no need for trouble. This is a quiet town. We get along with our coloreds.” He moseyed back into his store and stepped behind the counter. It seemed to Ruby that he placed his hand beneath it. “Don’t know where you’re coming from,” he bellowed, “but best tend to your business, and get on back.”
The boys paused, seeming to consider Mr. Lewis’s alert; they were old enough to know better, but young enough to respect their elders.
“Ain’t worth it, brother.” The towheaded one frowned at Ruby. “Not for one little nigger gal.”
They scooted past, knocking Ruby off the sidewalk, their heavy boots noisy even in the tamped dirt. The abrupt motion sent the ice cream down her skirt and into the street. She went to the gutter and wiped at the milky mess. When the boys were completely out of view, and it was clear they had no intention of returning, Arnett came to her.
“You see what they did?” Ruby threw what was left of her cone into the dusty street. She kicked Arnett and he stumbled from the force of her small foot. Then she stomped on the cone, the vanilla cream dotting the vamp of her shoe, and mashed the ice cream until it blended into an unrecognizable muck.
Excerpted from Passing Love by Luckett, Jacqueline E. Copyright © 2012 by Luckett, Jacqueline E.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Jacqueline E. Luckett is the author of Searching for Tina Turner. A San Francisco Bay Area native, she lives in Oakland, California. For more information, and to read her blog, you can visit www.JacquelineLuckett.com.
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