In the midst of the turbulent 1960s, four girls enter college in Orangeburg, South Carolina. As Sardis, Grace, Dorcus, and Taletha develop friendships, they find solace, support, and laughter through a regular weekend card game that erases the harsh reality of the times. Unfortunately, the girls’ worlds are about to be rocked with tragic results.
Twenty years after the tragedy, the girls secretly reunite to finally finish the game interrupted on the worst night of their lives. After the old friends greet each other warmly, a strange atmosphere settles over the table. None of the women wants to step back into the dark place that will force them to relive their pasts and the horrible events that led up to the Orangeburg Massacre. But as the game marathon begins, Sardis, Grace and Dorcus soon realize that guilt still haunts them; until they can let go of the powerful emotions that have held them prisoner for so long, they will never be able to move forward.
Bid Whist at Midnight is a compelling tale that illustrates the power of friendship as three girls embark on a coming-of-age journey that will lead them to forgiveness, love, and a long-awaited farewell to a friend.
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Bid Whist at Midnight
By Marva Washington
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Marva Washington
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBOOK I—DAYS OF INNOCENCE
Where should this story begin? It could begin in the 1950s; things were simpler then. There was a place for everything, and everyone knew their place. Black or colored did not mix with white or beige. Red and other related colors were secured on reservations, while yellow hid in alcoves separated by cultures and traditions. Colors did not run together. Those who would eventually become friends had no way of knowing each other yet, even though they were virtually neighbors, living only a mile or two apart, because the colors were never allowed to blend. For all they knew, they might as well have lived on different planets. The story could begin in the 1960s, when they first became friends, but it would have to end on February 8, 1968. Or perhaps it could begin on that day, but then, how could you begin the story on the day that was to bring an end to the innocence and the fun and the bid whist?
"The game is postponed until what time?" asked Dorcus in disbelief. Mrs. Fontain was dying—again! She sighed gently. I am surprised she is still with us, thought Dorcus. I could handle starting this game at 6:00 PM when it was originally planned, but midnight? Well, I need to take a nap.
Grace was the first to arrive. As she approached the door, she pulled out her reading glasses and held her wristwatch up to catch the faint glow from the nearest street light. "Eleven forty-five PM," she whispered to herself. "I haven't been up this late in ages." Her hand moved toward the bell and then froze. She wondered how she would appear to the others, who were probably already inside. She was forty years old and hadn't seen these women since they'd been in their early twenties. "I still look a lot like my old self," she reasoned, patting her face and thighs while still gathering the courage to announce her presence, "but I'm no longer the same Grace X they knew in those days."
She was Grace Pinckney again. The road back had been a long and difficult one. Her once dark-brown, full-blown afro was now permed and spotted with flecks of gray, and the stylish African garb that had once adorned her sleek physique had been replaced long ago, in fact four pregnancies ago, with a loose-fitting dress, or frock, as her mother had used to refer to them, that covered a now rather full frame. "No age spots, thank goodness," she chuckled to herself. Women as dark as her didn't develop age spots, and her face was also relatively wrinkle-free; just a few worry lines here and there. "Let's get this show on the road," she sighed, finally summoning the courage to press the bell.
The chime disturbed the tranquility of this neighborhood of small but well-tended houses, but only momentarily. Nothing rustled; nothing moved. There was no constant traffic like in New York. In fact, there was no traffic at all, and no dogs barked, unlike the neighborhoods where she had lived in Washington DC. The nearby street sign, which was difficult to read, having faded over the years, confirmed this was the intersection of Logan and Beaufain Streets. In the city of Charleston, South Carolina, especially in the historic district, nothing changed without an act of Congress, in a manner of speaking, or at least the consent of the local historic—or hysteric, depending on your point of view—society. If it had been there prior to the war, either Revolutionary or Civil, it was staying put. If it had arrived after the war, it was still staying put. South Carolina took pride in being one of the original colonies in the United States and Charleston in being one of its oldest cities. This was a colored neighborhood, one that, once upon a time, Grace could not have contemplated entering, let alone living in. It was indeed literally colored, because the people who lived there were neither black nor white. They were in that no-man's land of being colored; it was one of those color separation things—black from beige.
Hesitantly, the door opened, and Grace immediately recognized the welcoming smile of her old college friend and card partner, Sardis. "You look just the same," said Grace, wrapping her arms around the slender Sardis and hugging her. "The years sure have treated you right."
Sardis silently motioned for Grace to follow her inside. The white house, with its green-trimmed doors and shutters, was typical of most structures in the low country. It wasn't called low in jest, either. The streets had a tendency to flood during the rainy season, so many of the houses were built well off the ground, on high foundations. A lot of them appeared to have three stories when, in reality, most were only two stories, with a large side porch attached to both upstairs and downstairs.
Houses were separated into functional areas, with the upstairs used for sleeping. There was normally a large bedroom at the front where the parents slept, and then three or four smaller children's bedrooms toward the rear. Downstairs, there was a separate parlor, located directly under the parents' bedroom. This was a large, formal area, reserved for receiving and entertaining guests. Despite being fully furnished, with numerous overstuffed chairs and small tables, it mostly remained unused and was off-limits to children, unless they were sent in to dust the furniture, a frequent task, as there is something about unused furniture that seems to make it attractive to dust. Sardis liked this task as a child, for with her active imagination, one particularly regal-looking high-backed chair had become her throne, from where she would hold court as the queen of her imaginary empire. Sometimes she would dance with her imaginary prince of the House of Logan.
The rest of the downstairs area contained a formal dining room, used for Sunday dinner and for guests, a large kitchen with an informal table and chairs that were used for everyday meals, and in many cases, a small back porch where many family activities were held. The large side porches were rarely used, being too exposed to the streets, allowing for little privacy. The back porch, however, faced the yard area, where there were no prying eyes. Since most of these structures had been constructed prior to the introduction of indoor plumbing, many had outhouses. However, all over the neighborhood one could see where the washhouses had been torn down and bathrooms added. Some were professional jobs, while others looked like hasty afterthoughts, unsuited to the style of the existing structure. Sardis's house had a well-constructed addition, and the entire house had been well maintained.
As Sardis led the way on tiptoe through the downstairs area to the rear, Grace had a chance to take in a lifetime of treasures and secrets the house held. The large dining room table could easily seat six to eight people, which was more than enough for Sardis's immediate family. Grace recalled there were only Sardis, her older brother, her mother, and her father. The rest of the chairs must have been for when they had company. Most of the space that was not taken up by the table was occupied by a very large and imposing china cabinet. Grace guessed this was the good china, for special occasions only, because it looked new, and as far as she could see, not one piece had a chip. It looked as though it had never moved. The third piece of furniture in the room was a cabinet, on which was displayed a fireman's helmet surrounded by prayer candles and pictures of a very handsome man.
Grace had a thousand questions to ask about this shrine, but Sardis motioned for her to follow through the kitchen and into a back room, which had obviously once been a small back porch but was now a converted den. A stairway leading from the kitchen had been added to make access to the rear of the house easier, with doors top and bottom to hide its existence, although the lower door was wide open. Sardis went over to it and gently pushed it almost all the way closed. Finally, she felt able to talk freely. "Mom is very ill. The doctor has been with her all day, and now she's asleep. The doctor said it would be best to put her in a room directly above us, in case she moves or needs help, so I set things up back here so I can listen out for her." Grace nodded.
"How have you been?" asked Sardis, hugging Grace again. Now that both were in full light, Grace noticed that Sardis seemed much smaller than she remembered. She'd always been slightly built, but her thin arms and pale complexion made her look skeletal. Grace feared for her old friend's health. She hadn't contacted Sardis over the years but heard about her mother's constant illness from mutual friends. Sardis's mother had to be at least eighty by now, and since she'd lost her son, and then her husband, Sardis had been her life. The strain of caring for her mother all these years had clearly taken its toll on Sardis. "Bring me up to date while I get the sandwiches," said Sardis as she turned and headed toward the kitchen.
Grace glanced around the room, which was warm and comfortable. The card table had been placed in the middle of the floor, and four chairs were set out around it. Space was tight because, like the rest of the house, the room was stuffed with furniture. A large beige leather couch was pushed back against one wall, while a matching chair sat against an adjoining wall. Grace could see that the couch had only been moved recently, probably to make more room for the card table, because there were indents in the rust-colored carpet where it usually sat. There was a bookcase squeezed into a corner behind a black easy chair that sat facing a television set, and a whatnot stand was squeezed into the corner opposite.
"Your best actress award!" exclaimed Grace as she scanned the whatnot stand. "I heard about this at State." With a hint of regret in her voice, she added, "I'm sorry I missed it."
Sardis reentered the room just as Grace picked up the statuette depicting the masked faces representing comedy and tragedy and held it up to the track light as if admiring a Tony or an Emmy. At first, Sardis's face showed no emotion. She hadn't thought about all that for a long time now. It was just another memento among the other odds and ends of her life that sat collecting dust. The pain of a long-suppressed memory, and of a career that should have been, began to surface, and tears began to well in her eyes. Just then, the bell rang again. Sardis turned away quickly, giving silent thanks for the distraction as she went to welcome her other guest. She had grave misgivings about hosting this game, but the joy of sharing company with her old friends overshadowed her doubts. Her mother's condition flaring up as it had fed her fears, but she'd resolved that she wasn't going to let Mom ruin this for her. She headed quickly to the door before her visitor rang the bell again. She didn't want to wake her mother now.
Dorcus was, well, Dorcus. When she came through the kitchen, she practically bounded into the room where Grace was waiting, engulfed Grace in a warm embrace, and then turned back to Sardis and held her tightly again, just as she'd done when Sardis opened the front door. It was as if they'd last been together just three days ago instead of twenty years ago. Time had been good to Dorcus, who had added very few pounds to her petite frame. Her thick-lens glasses probably weighed more than she did.
"Girl, who are you kidding? Those are not reading glasses," Grace teased after Dorcus tried to tell them that she didn't really need to wear the spectacles. "Those things are so thick you'd probably walk into a door if you took them off."
Dorcus's eyes had paid the price for years of teaching at a private school. It hadn't been her plan to remain in the classroom all those years, but life does not always turn out as you imagine. They all had to face that fact, especially now, as they sat down to play and silently acknowledged the empty chair, for although there were four chairs set out around the table, they knew that Taletha would not be joining them this evening.
Chapter TwoFebruary 1968—The Protest
As the voiceover used to say at the beginning of the old television series Dragnet, it was a Thursday. The city was Orangeburg, South Carolina, a sleepy college town where two college campuses existed side by side. Both were schools for Negro or colored students, terms subsequently replaced by Afro American and then black. South Carolina State, as the name implied, was a state-supported institution that had grown out of Claflin College. Founded in 1869, Claflin was the state's oldest black school, having been set up by the United Methodists to help prepare freed slaves to become full American citizens.
The campus at SC State College had been unusually quiet all day. However, the city of Orangeburg, South Carolina, had not. This was the third day of demonstrations by students from both colleges who were determined to obtain their rights. As in many cities across the South, students were leading the way toward changing the segregationist policies that were in place. The targets in most cities had been segregated lunch counters, located primarily in cheap five and dime establishments. Colored people could shop in the stores for their shoddy merchandise, but seating at lunch counters was reserved for white patrons only. On this day, however, and on the preceding two days, the students had targeted All Star Bowling Alley, an establishment whose management was in the habit of locking their doors whenever they saw black faces approaching and refusing them entry.
* * *
Taletha came bounding through the front door of the senior dorm and flew up the stairs to the second floor two at a time, no mean feat for a woman of her size. When she reached the top of the stairs, the others could hear her huffing and puffing all the way down the long hallway. The hall was usually teeming with life this late in the day, but this evening, because of what was going on in town, it was quiet. The strains of Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness," a song that black women really connected with, could be heard from one room, and reading lamps burned brightly in other rooms here and there, but Taletha knew that her girls would have a game going. That was how they always coped with stress. Lately, they'd been playing a lot. "I know y'all didn't start the game without me!" she yelled down the half-empty hall.
"We could have," came a voice in reply. "The way you play, you should be the dummy hand all the time."
"I'll ignore that," she replied as she dashed past their room mumbling something about having to go real bad. Taletha hoped the bathroom on their dorm hall was not already full with other women who, like her, were returning from the protest. She didn't have to ask who made that snide remark about her playing skills. It had to be Grace mouthing off again; Dorcus and Sardis were too polite to make a remark like that. Besides, Dorcus had Anton on her mind, as she often did these days with graduation drawing ever closer. She was hoping for a special gift from him. And Sardis was probably mentally rehearsing for the next student production. She amazed everyone with her ability to focus on so many things at once. Taletha was relieved to find the bathroom practically empty; she wasn't sure she could have made it to an adjoining floor.
The dorm was a relic, one of several classical brick structures built in the 1890s when SC State had been conceived as a land grant school for Negro students. Most of the buildings bore the names of some long-deceased black person, names like Miller, Bradham, Manning, and Bethea and along with the student center and cafeteria, formed a square that was the hub of student life. It was campus central.
The school was still necessary so that the segregated school system could remain intact. However, the design did little for the comfort or convenience of its students. The halls were long, drab firetraps, with each floor containing one bathroom to service anywhere from thirty to forty women. Dorms that had been built to house white students in other colleges, even those erected around the same era, were designed as suites for the most part, with four students sharing a connecting bathroom between their adjoining rooms.
The only thing four students shared at State was living space. Many of the rooms, which had originally been designed for two students, now contained one or two extra beds to accommodate the expanding student body. Juggling schedules and reading and study times was a real challenge.
Excerpted from Bid Whist at Midnight by Marva Washington Copyright © 2011 by Marva Washington. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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