James had been going to Paul’s juke joint since right after he turned fourteen, and it felt like a sort of home on account of it being one of the places he’d been around the longest. He had always been welcomed there but he wondered if that would change after tonight.
He didn’t know what made him want to do it, what made him think it was okay. It made his skin tingle to think about it, but this was something he felt had to be done. He knew enough of himself to know it wasn’t a compulsion or an illness like some folks said. He guessed he was looking for acceptance in this secondary home. Without regular attendance in school, he could avoid the gaze of his peers often enough. He knew he’d never felt like his true self before, like his outsides matched his insides, and he was ready to retire that feeling.
Even though the gas station restroom was for whites only, he entered. Inside was small and dirty and lit by a light that now looked blue-gray with the length of the tubular shell covered in a film of outdoor filth and dotted with small dead insects. James stood there trembling slightly at the feeling that this was too quick an onramp for testing fate. Where had his warm-up been? His practice in inviting or even accepting attention? It certainly wasn’t at school, church, or the flophouse. Those were places where he hid, but would the juke joint be different? He willed himself to slow his breath as he heard footsteps approach the door. They stopped and he counted to five before hearing them move on. He exhaled.
James dropped his duffel bag to the floor and, as he opened it, he thought about how he carried most of his life in that bag. Pearl was in that bag if he could pull it off. He dug to the bottom and shook out the black dress that he’d hawked from the Salvation Army, the faint sparkle of it immediately fighting against the dull light. Over the last few days, there’d been no place that was safe enough to do more than hold it against his skin. It was the sort of fabric that was able to stretch and pull without showing the wear; it would snap back snug, as if wanting to fit without being too tight. The fabric offered barely raised resistance under his fingertips, like fur waiting to be smoothed in the right direction. The promise was becoming real to him, now he could be she, would be Pearl when she next unlatched the bathroom door.
Pearl pulled the dress over her head after stripping out of the boy clothes. Her nose wrinkled as she shoved the faded gray sweatshirt and jeans into her duffel bag and stood in the fluorescent bathroom in her socks, the tile slightly cool against them. She held the sides of her head tightly in the mirror, frowning a bit, needing a sign. What if others didn’t see what she saw? Her neck was long, slender, and the dress hugged just below her collarbone, sleeves cut off right above the elbows. She worried for a split second, worried about not having a bra, would anyone notice that part? The mirror was a length that revealed her reflection down to the waist. She cut away from the mirror to dig back into her duffel bag to retrieve the flat slippers she’d borrowed from the daughter of a man at the flophouse. She’d had to wait days before seeing someone who looked to have the same size feet. She returned to the mirror to stare at the chest she did not have, while the voices that had been loud enough outside the door minutes ago faded away even further. She stilled as they blended into the hum of the rest of the night sounds. She gripped the edges of the sink, heard her own swallow in her ears, and tried to release her tightly furrowed brow.
She’d decided ahead of time to wear her black sweater over the dress. It was a men’s sweater, but you couldn’t tell, it was thin and fit her snugly. It was either this sweater or the pink one Francis had given her two summers ago, but Pearl had chosen to leave the pink one behind for safekeeping. Pink seemed too bold a choice, even for tonight. The black offered the chance to keep some parts of her secret. And if she lost tonight, she didn’t want it to be with the pink sweater from Francis. It was one of the first things she’d owned that allowed her to imagine looking more like her true self. It had taken her some time to begin to wear it regularly, and she noticed how eyes lingered on her for a beat longer than usual, as if she wasn’t hiding what others thought she was supposed to. Maybe that had been her practice? If tonight didn’t work out, she would need that gift to return to.
Pearl’s shoulders relaxed as she pulled the black sweater on, one sleeve at a time, pulling the opposing flaps tightly over her chest, then releasing them. The buttons of the sweater were too big, but the dress looked good beneath it. And there was some comfort in the cover, masking her breastless chest. As her eyes scanned up and down, she practiced sucking in her stomach. Women did that, right? Pearl settled on the thought that she looked good, and she wondered if others ever found a sigh of relief in their own reflection instead of mere satisfaction.
Pearl’s eyes burned, nostrils stung at the thought of not being able to pull this off, but she chose to ignore it, and instead tried to transfer those feelings into budding excitement, into something larger that took up space. Her jaw shuddered just so after relaxing it where she’d been clenching it shut. She closed her eyes, pressing her palm firmly against her forehead. You’re just trying tonight; you can ignore what they say. She ran her fingers through her tight-knit curls to smooth her hair once again and held her hands intertwined at the back of her neck. Yes, try tonight.
She zipped her bag and it echoed in the small bright bathroom. She ran her tongue lightly over her lips, pressed them together. Then she pushed the side of her body against the door and leaned for just a few seconds before she released the latch and swung the door ajar.
The cool breeze of the night air hit her face as she scanned the perimeter of the filling station. No one seemed to notice her, the boy who pulled the girl from inside to out, exiting the bathroom. She sniffed, pulling her shoulders in, folding in on herself as she put one foot in front of the other.
She began walking the five short blocks to Paul’s, hiding her bag behind one of the bushes along the way, tucking her last dollar in the bottom of her flat. Heels needed practice, even kitten ones. It was cool out, unusual for a summer night in the South, and she wondered if what she felt was the breeze or her fear. She hoped that it didn’t start to rain before she got inside. Paul’s was recognizable by a brightly lit sign that hung over the doorway reading as such.
Pearl didn’t pause outside, too afraid of losing nerve. Instead, she brushed past the doorman, Grant, with a quick and airy Hey, how ya doin? A look of vague recognition flashed across Grant’s face, but he said nothing, simply let her pass.
Safely inside, Pearl tried to make herself comfortable at the makeshift bar. She practiced breathing and blinked several times to allow herself time to adjust to the semidarkness inside. She could hear her heart beating in her ears and tried to focus in on the sound of the music to cover it, force it over the thumping in her chest. A thin layer of sweat was starting to form on the back of her neck, and a prickling snuck under the arms of her sweater.
It usually didn’t bother her that Paul’s was low-lit and loud. It was full of smoke, sweat, and mingling cologne, men in loose suits and women in tight dresses. She’d purposely chosen a corner stool at the end of the bar so she could look around to see if anyone noticed her. No surprises. She scanned the establishment again. Nothing unusual. Paul’s was about the size of a small country churchhouse. It could fit fifty people without much wiggling room, but was better with a bit less. They also sold bootleg for cheap and other things that could be helpful to someone’s mood every once in a while, but Pearl didn’t think it safe to indulge in anything other than a drink. Liquor was legal again, but Black folks preferred the homemade kind, fiery and easier on the pocket.
While there’d been a chill outside, it was warm inside the juke joint. One of Paul’s musicians was playing “Baby Please Don’t Go” on the piano, and a few couples clung to all parts of each other as they slowly swayed on the dance floor. Pearl reached down into her shoe to fetch her last dollar. She went ahead and ordered a drink and it came in a jar, clear and lukewarm without too much hesitation. The bartender Johnny’s eyes held on to her. He didn’t say anything when she ordered, but continued to look long and hard at her before turning to walk away. She was dampening with sweat and not wanting to appear rude, so she thanked him, drew out his name long and singsong-like. It was her usual way of thanking him when she ordered as James. She didn’t think about it. It just slipped out.
“Thanks, Jooohnny,” she chimed.
He looked at her, his confusion clear as day.
Instantly, his face was in hers. “What the fuck you doin’ in them clothes?” he whispered in a hiss. It felt loud. She couldn’t tell if it was threat or concern, his words were so close. She pulled away. He’d always liked her. The betrayal felt like confusion blooming in the center of her chest. She could see concern on his face after pulling back. Was it concern? It looked as if he wanted to cover her up. He looked around, causing her to do the same. No one here had ever forced her to talk about her mama, talk about her past, which meant something in this place, because everyone knew something of everyone else’s story in towns like these. It’s just that the story was usually incomplete, contained holes big enough to equal contempt or confusion. But no one here had ever looked at her as if she didn’t belong. She’d been accepted in parts, like the rest of them, laying out one piece at a time to reveal herself whole. Maybe she was better in pieces?
Before she could offer explanation, a sweet, sly expletive. Before she could remind Johnny that she was the same playful person that he knew, the same in the way that mattered, out of nowhere, Grant was on her. He covered the space between the door and her stool in a blink. She heard her sweater rip as he yanked her from the barstool with such force that the backs of her knees hit the legs of the stool with a dull thud and she slid out of one of her shoes. Her chin bounced off her chest and the force clamped her back teeth over tongue with a sharp click. In a croaked inhale, she was freed from her stool. As Grant dragged her out the door, she attempted to get the arm of her sweater back from him. She didn’t want to lose her covering.
In the doorway, he turned toward her in one motion and grabbed her throat with his hand, the back of her elbow with the other. Grant who knew her. Grant who had offered her silent nods of acceptance to this place night after night. Grant who didn’t ask questions about whether she might be too young for a juke joint. She’d never expected to be on this side of one of his punishments. Francis had birthed him, birthed half the folks in here. She hoped Francis wouldn’t be disappointed in her.
Grant used his full weight to throw her out the door. She landed on her side. Her hip and elbow slammed into the pavement, the bare foot hanging slightly over the covered one. And as she turned, ready to rise, the last thing she remembered was his boot coming toward her face.
▴ ▴ ▴
Francis remembered the first time she had to say good-bye to James. Her mind had been full of all the things that come with new babies. None of it was unfamiliar, but somehow it was still special with him because he’d come into her life by circumstance. Every tiny fist shot into the air, or his plump little legs unfurling seemed a relief. She remembered fighting the instinct to overprotect, to not let it run her awry or take over her senses like a mother who knew nothing of babies and only too much of the world. She simply wanted what was best for him. She’d never startled him, not from the first time she took him from that no-good mama’s house to now. His look, always piercing and dark, resting in the same bassinet her older sons had used, was as familiar as if she’d been the one to carry him. When he held her gaze like that, it soothed something in her she didn’t quite understand. It seemed every new movement, every little thing he absorbed, was just for her. Yes, before he was taken back that first time, many mornings paired with soft-haze sun held them in this ritual.
While asleep, James had a tendency to fold in on himself, turning into a soft little ball. Francis would examine the half circle he made of his body and would rub full ones over his back, her hands covering so much of him. She could feel the outline of his spine through the thin cloth. She’d straighten his onesie and pause for a few seconds on each shoulder, waiting on him to unfurl himself for her. Usually, he would open up slowly, greeting her eyes first, never any other part of her. Not her shoulder or midsection. It was always eyes first, as if he could see her in his dreams, knew her movements by heart and where she would be at any given time. She was fixed in his orbit. Their mornings an offering, an opening he could count on each day.
He wasn’t a fussy baby, and he hadn’t cried anything so awful except right after the first time his mama left. He generally greeted her with a half-smile, like he was trying on the day, not quite sure which way it would go just yet. Her hand would rest enclosed over his shoulder, cradling the back of it with her palm, while he took in a staccato breath with a yawn that finally closed in a pucker smaller than a grape. His eyes would shut tighter while yawning and then reopen into half slits. He would survey Francis as if she’d been standing there all night. She would move her hand to cover his stomach and chest and rock him gently, playfully before changing his diaper in quick motions.
But years later, when he returned to her time after time, it was too often with fresh scrapes and old bruises. His needs threatened to outgrow those curable by her midwifery skills. She had to work harder for his unfurling. She tried to do things that reassured him that she continued to watch him closely, still circled his orbit. When she gifted him the pink sweater, they both knew that she could have chosen any other color. But she knew that other colors would act as dismissal, and she was determined to get ahead of his urge to retreat. How much attention she paid sometimes bothered him, but Francis had learned to pay no mind to that.
When she bought the sweater, she was thinking of how many times over the past fifteen years he had been able to open only one eye instead of two, or how when she finally got up close enough, his neck still held a trail of unfaded fingerprints. She thought of how few sweaters he owned and, of those, how many were frayed the total length of the hem. She could no longer get away with holding his head to her chest to rock him. But she could help him find the things he needed in order to hold on to whatever he was gathering; she could do that.
He was careful with the box when she handed it to him, and she could see his mind puzzling over it.
“It ain’t my birthday or Christmas. What’s the occasion?”
“Occasion is the temperature dropping outside.”
She eyed him while his attention was on the gift. Again, he was too thin for her liking. It was so hard to keep track and keep weight on him. She wondered if the size might be too big. He quieted fully while he made it past the wrapping and lifted the box. He gently peeled back the thin paper to reveal the sweater inside. It was the shade of pink that made it almost alright to say good-bye to the sun. Francis stood there and watched as James’s shoulders drooped, realizing that she hadn’t noticed he’d been holding them tight, high up around his neck.
“Where I’m gonna wear this?” His tone wasn’t asking for an answer, but she offered one.
“With me and—”
“And where else?” He stuttered a bit. “Church on Easter Sunday? ’Cause boys past ten can hardly get away with wearing yellow.”
“But you could—”
He shook his head no, and Francis had nowhere to retreat. She looked down and raised one hand slowly to the back of her neck and squeezed. He held the box in his hands but hadn’t yet touched the fabric. At her insistence, the store had wrapped the sweater in the thin paper usually used for gifting, and she was looking at how it had fallen quietly back into place covering the color of sweater. When she first saw it, she thought about how the color, both pale and bright, would look against his skin. His skin that was so rich and balanced. His skin that had endured such roughness and come back time and again.
“I got it wrong.” She said it more to herself than to James, but he looked up, for the first time, away from the gift.
He tossed the box gently onto the table, and the sound made a slight echo in the room. He instantly looked sorrowful.
“You don’t have to keep it. You don’t. I can.”
“But where?” It was a plea for her to help him figure it out.
She watched again as his sorrow slid back into frustration.
“Anywhere,” she said. “Anywhere and nowhere. That’s you that gets to decide that. I just wanted you to have it.”
James didn’t look up at her again, didn’t check to see if she was still standing, watching him as he walked over to her, seeming like a child again as he slid his hand around her waist and let his head fall softly against her shoulder.
▴ ▴ ▴
When Pearl woke, she heard beeping. It was the cleanest scent she’d smelled in a long time. Without opening her eyes, she could tell it was daylight, seeing red instead of black behind closed eyelids. The sheets felt clean but a bit rough. Her head hurt with a deep burning, as if she’d fallen asleep near a hot eye on the stove. Her mouth felt even worse, and, as she shifted her jaw, she tasted the metal of blood. The ache in her nose alerted her to it not working properly, as she caught a faint whistling through it. She seemed to be able to breathe out of only one nostril. Pearl felt everything from a slight distance, as though she were not fully in her own mind, not rightly in her body. She’d felt this way before, her whole life, but this time was different, somehow induced, probably from too much of the artificial she’d already smelled but couldn’t quite identify. It felt a bit like drowning without water, her face under a thin sheet of cool, still liquid.
She had no desire to open her eyes, so she left them closed. Please God, just let me sleep right on through this, she thought.
“You been a hard one to find, youngin.” The voice was low, sweet, and familiar.
“Was aiming for off-the-radar, so I done it right,” Pearl replied, squinting one eye open. Pain radiated from the back of her head. Her eye throbbed from the brightness that hit like too-cold air on a broken tooth. She winced and closed it again as Francis kept on.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say you done it right, but you done something, we’ll see soon enough.”
Pearl should have known Francis was one of the few people who would make sure she’d end up in a hospital and not somebody’s back room with the wrong herbs and barely a bandage. Even when the local hospital was for whites only. Not all Black midwives pushed to know doctors, but Francis had discovered on more than one occasion some of her people locked away in rooms or wheeled too close to the morgue waiting for death, when they only needed minutes of proper medical tending. She’d been known to raise so much hell that, nowadays, doctors picked up the pace if they were lucky enough to catch sight of her coming before she caught sight of them. They’d learned to listen, or at least to admit the patient, as opposed to trying to outrun another one of Francis’s rants. And it wasn’t fullproof or seamless. Over the years, Francis had had to pull bodies out of dark rooms and threaten to tend to them herself. It wasn’t until she started ending her rants with, “Be awful if word got out that a Black woman midwife can patch up organs and bones better than city-trained doctors,” that she got more than a boot out the door or worse. It also didn’t mean she hadn’t received three broken fingers and another broken wrist from fighting with these same men who had gone to school to heal, all because she insisted on being in a building she wasn’t really supposed to be in, insisting on doctors acting like doctors.
“I left you alone too long and now look.” Francis’s whisper trailed off.
Pearl said nothing, raised a hand to touch her head, opening her eyes fully for the first time. She moaned softly at the bright light. She felt a long, curved split just behind her hairline as she sat up searching for the damage and felt stiff stitches. She looked at the next bed over, thankful the person wasn’t awake to witness. Francis always said, Wasn’t no privacy in hospitals unless you was dying or they thought you was. The shared room was a good sign for her predicted outcome.
Pearl looked at Francis in her overalls and wondered if she herself would ever look as good in something so plain. She liked that Francis looked as good in men’s overalls as she did in the A-line dress she wore when she was more willing to accept some attention that was paid to those clear womanly parts of her. Pearl had always liked looking at Francis. Even more so when she appeared as if she wanted to participate in the world around her. She moved differently, with a readiness and ease, like she’d conquered everything and nothing at all. Pearl thought Francis was the most gorgeous woman she’d ever seen, and she’d witnessed others share that same opinion over the years. Francis was a woman wherever she went. Her thick black hair was pulled back in her usual loose bun; escaped strands outlined an attentive face. Always watching.
Francis eyed Pearl now with the look that said she was trying her best not to be frantic with worry. She was failing. Pearl noticed the restlessness. Francis pulled up a chair to the side of the bed, trying a couple of positions, leaning forward and then back again. Pearl had never seen Francis fidget, even when she spoke of stillborns or guns that had been aimed at her head. Francis leaned back again and rubbed the palms of her hands hard over her eyes, as if she hadn’t seen sleep for a few days. Pearl also noticed that her skin was a shade or so lighter, like she hadn’t seen sun for longer, but that was the life of a midwife.
“I know you got some babies to deliver,” Pearl offered lightly.
Francis shifted once more in the chair and paused. The sudden stop in movement intensified how intently she was watching Pearl.
“You one of my babies,” Francis countered, remaining still, her hand resting on the seat between her legs as she sat with them squared apart. She was leaning her weight onto the one hand and holding a kerchief in the other. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d noticed Francis attempting to stifle sniffles.
“I’m almost grown,” Pearl said.
“You almost grown with a half-broke jaw and split skull,” Francis finished, the tears more alive in her voice as she suddenly choked back a sob. Pearl watched as tears dripped onto Francis’s palm.
Francis was never afraid, never worried, and it made Pearl desperate to sit up in the bed and convince Francis she was alright.
“I’m fine, gone stay fine,” Pearl said.
Francis leaned forward again, pulled her chair all the way into the side of Pearl’s bed, her nose pointed toward her work boots. She rested her palms against her eyes while placing her elbows on the bed. Francis wasn’t one to break eye contact. It was not lost on Pearl that Francis couldn’t bear the looking at what had been done. Pearl noticed the deep red around Francis’s nose. How long had she been here? Pearl nudged her blanketed toes against Francis’s elbow, as she was crying openly now. Francis took her time in looking up again but when she did, she met Pearl’s eyes directly.
“It’s past time you came home with me,” Francis said. “And that’s what it’s gone be when you leave this hospital.”