Qualified Entry: Fiction Category
By: Debra J. Stone
It’s early morning on a warm late September day. The sugar Maple leaves are turning red gold. A black man is president of theUnited Statesbut race still matters. Sitting at the end of a cul-de-sac is a split level ranch; inside the rooms have lost their order. Diane Whitney whirls through the rooms of the house like a Nebraskatwister. No room goes unscathed. Clothes have been jettisoned out of closets, intimate apparel once neatly folded in dresser bureaus are a jumbled mess on the floor.Chinacups are sitting in peril of falling off kitchen counter tops. She’s snatched opened desk drawers packed with aged curled papers, misplaced nuts and bolts and forgotten cracked black and white photographs; crawled underneath beds and living room chairs with tumbleweed dust bunnies, lifted chintz sofa cushions revealing a few pennies and crumbs of various food particles; rechecked pockets of dresses, pants, coats of the thrown and shaken. All of these things yield nothing. The wedding ring of platinum ruby and diamonds cannot be found.
Her husband, Colson Whitney, of two years slowly pulls off his round black horned rimmed glasses rubs his blue eyes as if to wipe off the dust his wife has stirred up. Brushes the top of his close cropped blond hair receding and graying at the temples, fine lines of middle age beginning around his mouth, “Did you…,” Before he can say another word she snaps, “Yes I looked there too!”
He looks at her frantic face, she’s almost in tears.
“Diane it’s not that big of a deal. The ring is insured. We need to go before the traffic gets heavy. I want to get to the Black Hillsbefore nightfall, we have reservations at the Sylvan Lodge, remember that was the plan. Don’t ruin our vacation.”
Diane thinks to herself, all he cares about is the damn traffic. I’ll never find another ring like that. A ring handed down from five generations of Whitney women, who would have dropped dead from shock to know a black woman was wearing their priceless heirloom jewelry. The ring is the envy of the white women at the country club, eyes speaking volumes when they glance at the ring on her brown finger. The ring sends them a message: Not the cleaning woman scrubbing their shit and pee stained toilets, not the mammy raising their neglected children. Diane was a Whitney of Rochester Minnesota loved and cherished by a coveted white male who should have married one of the country club daughters, but lost his mind some say…Doesn’t matter to Diane, she married Colson Whitney for love and status, beating the disease of poverty that had lived with her and her mother and sister on Russell Avenue North. Never again was poverty going to make her hungry, shut off her lights, come home to heatless rooms and watch fattened roaches dance across her mattress on the floor knowing there was nothing she could do about it. No more faded and torn clothes handed down from rich white women her mother worked hard all day for at a salary Diane made in fifteen minutes. Her mother leaving again at night to launder the cunt and cock stained sheets of hotel rooms where she could never afford to sleep.
She was immune.
“C’mon get in the car we need to go!”
“I’m not going! Not until I find that ring!”
Coleson Whitney is a patient man to a point but his short obstinate wife reminds him of a mule. Her voice starts to bray like a mule in anger and frustration. Her petite roundness counters his tall lanky frame. Short dark brown hair straightened, hiding the natural curl, fine stress lines around eyes. Her explosiveness is his calm. They are each other’s opposites.
“Well, where was the last place you remember putting the ring, Diane.”
“I thought… I remember taking the ring off in the bedroom and placing it on the ring stand on the dresser.”
She’s crying actually blubbering. She can’t help it. When his mother finds out the ring is lost, a ring that’s 150 years old, shits going to hit the fan. Colson’s mother didn’t want her son to marry a black woman in the first place. All kinds of ugly things were said. Their children will have below average intelligence; black genes have diseases that are inherited. Diane hates that woman. She just wanted a plain gold band to wear everyday but he insisted she wear the family heirloom ring. It’s the tradition he said, the eldest son gives his bride the ring and she wears it, end of discussion. A ruby reflecting a pink hue the Maharajahs gave to their favorite concubines. Did that make Diane his concubine? He married her but still sometimes in the dead of night she listens to his breathless murmurs, her mind goes to places it shouldn’t.
“Your sister was over that day wasn’t she?” Maybe since she lost her job, she took the ring.”
“Oh tell me you just didn’t just say that!”
“You know your sister is jealous of you. She’d do anything to put our marriage in jeopardy. Look I’m just saying and really I don’t care one way or…”
She didn’t let him finish that sentence.
“You know what, just because you married into a black family does not mean we are thieves.”
“I’m just saying Diane…”
“I don’t give a fuck what you’re saying!”
“She’s got a drug habit!”
“And she’s in a good treatment program, I put her there myself. Besides Arsinoe getting her act together, she’s got a job! That’s more than what’s happening with your brother the fag!”
“Stop using that word. My brother is not!”
She feels a perverse reward knowing she pushes her husband’s buttons using the word fag.
“You and your whole family in denial about his homosexuality and his AIDS, what do you all need a ton of bricks to fall on your head?”
“Keep my brother out of this since your sister is off limits!”
“Fine, choosing her battles Diane changes tactics. Help me find this ring, please Colson!”
“C’mon Diane forget about the ring. We’ll find it when we get back. If it’s in the house we’ll find it.”
She takes a breath and pauses for a minute.
“I wouldn’t be so determined if I knew I wouldn’t hear about it from your mother.”
“I told you I will stand by you. You will always come before my mother. I love and you’re the woman I want. I’ve had to marry twice before I found you, the right one. Can we please go now?”
He takes her into his arms before more words fly without the thought of their consequences. Colson will give her peace.
Diane is trying to believe him but she knows that this isn’t over.
They drive in silence. The lost ring has put a spell on their first road trip together. The traffic was light for nine. It usually was on Friday morning. Diane concentrates from the car window as she witnesses men, women and children of different colors shapes and sizes leaving neatly painted Cape Codcottages, prairie stucco bungalows, split level houses, entering cars and yellow and black school buses. Lawn sprinklers twirl catching the early morning sun rays creating rainbows.
Colson clutches the steering wheel of the hybrid SUV, he’s starting to speed.
“Slow down,” Diane warns. “You know the cops love to patrol this street.”
Colson give a terse, “Yup.” They continue in silence.
Shops are opening for business, Whole Foods, Dunn Bros Coffee Shop and Walgreens all familiar landmarks. Their owners or employees clean windows with soapy water that dribbles down to the sidewalk. A city bus moves in and out of bus stops snorting diesel fumes with little regard for cars and their harried drivers who take daring risks to pass by so they won’t be delayed to their destinations.
“There’s a Dunn Bros. up ahead, I’m stopping for a latte do you want one too?
“No thanks I packed some cranberry juice in the cooler I’ll have that.”
Colson always stops for coffee. The night before, Diane has packed in the cooler a roasted chicken, French bread, apples, oranges, juices and sodas but the food will probably go to waste. Colson will make up some excuse to eat in a restaurant and to avoid an argument Diane will go along.
Diane remembers growing up in the 1960’s, the summer road trips traveling out West, colored people could be strung up like marionettes on strong armed branches of hanging trees.
That’s how the world worked, so caution came when the family traveled to Grandma and Grandpa Perry’s home inSacramentoCalifornia. Daddy carried a pistol under the driver’s seat and they never stopped in the motels that flashed neon vacancy lights. Diane knew it wasn’t vacant for her family. She and Arsinoe slept in the car, Diane in the back seat and Arsinoe in the huge glass back window of the black Dodge, Daddy called Black Beauty with tail fins and brilliant chrome wheel hubs. Daddy drove Black Beauty night and day. He didn’t let the family sightsee and explore the dusty little towns with the white people that stared at them. Instead they zoomed by in the shiny midnight black car. The girls ate their breakfast in municipal town parks off the main highway, Mama packed individual cold cereals in cardboard containers that split open in the center. Diane remembers her favorite was Sugar Pops. There was milk, soda, fried chicken, bologna sandwiches, potato chips and Oreo cookies for lunch, nothing was wasted.
At a nameless town near Salt Lake City Utah Diane saw her first “whites only” sign in the window of a drab rusty restaurant as the family sped by in their shiny new car. Diane had wished her Daddy would’ve stopped. She wanted to examine that sign, touch it feel it. She wanted to tell the people inside that restaurant her Mama cooked better food packed in their cooler than what they could ever have in that drab rusty restaurant.
West on Highway12 to 55 to Aberdeen South Dakota
“Hey, still thinking about the ring? Colson said breaking a long stretch of silence between them with only the CD playing Luther Vandross, A House is Not a Home, for background noise. I thought traveling the back roads would be more scenic. See the fields of green, its alfalfa.”
“I wouldn’t know I’m from the city.”
“Okay Diane I know you’re upset about the ring but at least try to get into the spirit of things.”
“I’m trying but I know in my mind that ring was on the dresser, in the ring holder your brother gave me as a wedding present”
“Look on the horizon Diane, you can see the buttes.” Colson was ignoring her.
“I just can’t believe the ring isn’t in the house somewhere!”
“Diane you’re fixated on that damn ring, we’re on vacation!”
“Yeah, okay”, she answers with a razor edge in her voice.
“You know my family use to vacation in the Black Hills when I was kid, then we’d go visit my grandparents on my mother’s side in this dinky town calledHavanaNorth Dakota. They came here fromGermanyfounded a town while looking for gold. Funny they never found any gold but became wheat farmers. Hey I got an idea let’s go see the town!”
In the distant horizon Diane could see the buttes jutting up like giant fists, the beginning of theBlack Hills, the Lakota people’s sacred land. Her Auntie Beulah on the Lakota side of the family told her she once traveled there for Pow Wow but she could never go back, it was too sad so many whites had destroyed the land in their frantic search forBlack Hillsgold.
TheRocky Mountainswere the first mountains Diane saw from the family car. She and Arsinoe bragged about the mountain goats and all they saw on their way to California. Their exploits were the envy of the gang of sepia toned children of the neighborhood who went south, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgiato visit family.
Then the brisk air of fall slowed their running and the children prepared for theMinnesotaarctic blast that would penetrate the layer of snowsuits and pants, woolen mittens and hats that made their limbs stiff and awkward like an Egyptian mummy. The days were short and the nights long. Daddy’s cough no matter how much Vick’s Vapor Rub Mama massaged on his chest, the hacking cough grew worse. Slim, that’s what Mama called her husband even though he was hardly slim, with a barrel chest attached to arms like small hams and legs like a miniature tree trunk, it was a nick name left from childhood.
Havana, North Dakota
Havana, early on the town folks thought an exotic name would bring the people. But it remained a small townAmericaleft behind; a mile from the South Dakota border where young Colson and his cousins would walk to buy fireworks. In the small municipal park the weathered band stand built sturdy reminds Colson of the Fourth of July fireworks and where the town band played patriot songs, and main street with the only business surviving, the cooperative restaurant shows the only signs of life where the town elders are gathered for a hot cup of coffee and the best waffles in these parts. Diane liked the feel of this place where time has stood still. The family cemetery small but still neatly tended by the townspeople left with all of Colson’s mother’s people buried in their family plots.
Custer State Park, Sylvan Lodge, the Black Hills, South Dakota
“God damn it, we’re too late we’ve lost our reservation!”
“You’re the one who wanted to detour; toHavana, said we had enough time to get there.”
“I thought you made the reservation for late arrival.”
“Well I guess I didn’t!
“You know this is the high season, damn now what!”
“Let’s just go to a hotel and then go on from there.”
They drove for a half hour to a small strip mall with a billboard advertising one hour helicopter rides to see theBlack Hills. The motel room smelled musty and the yellow carpet had stains from an unknown origin.
“Jesus Colson I don’t know if I can…”
“C’mon Diane don’t start with me, we’re only staying here for one night.”
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry!”
Diane’s Mama worried. She tried not to show it, both of them tried, but her Daddy was becoming his nickname, Slim. His collarbone visible underneath his flannel shirt, his arms thin and sinewy the trousers he wore to the Ford plant so baggy in the rear end, his behind invisible like a white man’s.
“You’ve got to go to the doctor Slim, I saw you coughing up the yellow phlegm, that’s not right.”
“I know baby, don’t worry; I’m going tomorrow, it’s just hard to get time off from work. This is the busy season and we could use the overtime to pay off some of these Christmas bills.”
When her Daddy finally went to the doctor it was too late. The cancer had spread throughout his entire body. In one month he was dead. Mama wouldn’t let Diane and Arsinoe go to the funeral, she said they’d be traumatized. Diane was already traumatized, her Daddy was dead. Who was going to take care of them and take them places, like toCalifornia? Arsinoe would ask when Daddy was coming home from the hospital and their Mama would say he had gone to live with the angels and then she would turn away, washing the dirty dishes left in the sink.
Needles Park, South Dakota
“Finally, I can get out of this car and hike these guided trails… this is beautiful, c’mon Colson get your butt moving!”
Colson isn’t much for walking around, he loves to drive, could drive for hours without resting. Diane must remind him so she can take bathroom breaks.
Mama tried to keep things together. Their grandparents from California would help with the funeral expenses. But the life insurance company refused to pay. Daddy had forgotten to pay the last month premium. Black Beauty was sold, Mama couldn’t drive anyway but it wasn’t enough to help pay the mortgage payments. They had to move and move and move. Mama moved them in with her sister Rosalie. That didn’t last long. So they moved to a dingy apartment on Russell Avenue this time further north. Most of their furniture had been sold or left behind; their friends and family got tired of moving them around the north side.
Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Museum, South Dakota
Where are the black people? I’ve not seen one black couple, child, young person, old person — no one… feel lonely, out of place… but this is my place, but without my people around it’s strange, funny how that happens, like the last bison moving across the prairie… never noticed before always traveled with Arsinoe or my Mom. I’m in another world yet it is my world too, Diane considered these thoughts as she hiked, looked and acted like a happy tourist on vacation with her husband.
Rapid City, South Dakota
Colson bought her a Peyote stitch beaded bracelet from the hotel gift shop and the sales clerk said President Obama bought bracelets for his daughters too while he stayed in Rapid City at the Hotel Alex Johnson.
I guess when you’re trying to be president of theUnited Statesyou must go where you think the votes are, Diane flashed this thought.
Colson said, “Do you want to stay here, I’ll check if we can make a reservation.”
“My butt is sore from sitting and I’m freezing cold from the car air condition even with a sweater on. I have to endure just a little bit more until we find a hotel, motel, whatever, just so I can get out of this damn car. One more day I’ll be home,” she said this silent prayer to herself.
Hotel Alex Johnson, a shrine, a salute to the grand hotel and its founder Alex Johnson, Vice President of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, who was an admirer of the Sioux Indian nation, the plaque reads. In 1927 he started construction. A long line of presidents and celebrities rested in these stately rooms.
Diane doubted many from the Lakota nation Alex so admired rested their travel weary bodies in these stately rooms.
The lobby is a blend of cultural icons, collected or stolen (what you choose to believe in the historical narrative) Sioux Indian Nation artifacts and art work mixed with German architecture, high ceilings with wooden beams crossing, a chandelier made from warrior spears and the hand painted floor tiles show the signs of the Sacred Four Directions.
“Diane the only room available is the Presidential Suite.”
“Well by all means take it! Obama can stay here why not us, just not on the eighth floor.”
“What’s wrong with the eighth floor?”
“I’ll tell you later.”
The room was well appointed but not over the top. It was really too large for two people, a suite with three rooms, a full size kitchen that she had no intention of using, three TVs and a whirlpool bath she knew Colson and her would take advantage of and on the 10th floor.
“You were going to tell me about the eighth floor, Diane.”
“It’s haunted, there was a young bride who was left by her husband on the night of their honeymoon and Roxanne told me when she and Fred stayed here last year they saw the ghost.”
Roxanne said it was 3 am when she looked at the alarm clock, awakened by this chilling wind blowing across her face. She turned looking for the cold draft and there was a woman, young, possibly twenty, in a white gown like a wedding dress, standing at the wide open window. Before she could thump Fred awake, the woman leaped out of the window without a sound. Well she was stunned, she said it took a few seconds to register exactly what had happened. A quick turn back to a snoring Fred, she tried to shake him then a quick jab to the ribs and he was awake.
Fred says. “What the hell Roxanne I’m sleeping!”
“Fred a woman just jumped out of the window!”
Fred starts to turn over to go back to sleep and Roxanne says,
“Fred I’m not kidding! Go over to the window right now I’m telling you she jumped out!”
The room is freezing cold and Roxanne turns on the side table lamp.
Fred is so mad now, “I’m not getting out of this bed! I’ll look in the morning. Now turn off the light and go back to sleep!”
“I’m not turning off the light until you look out the window and close it now.”
So Fred crawls out of the warm bed looks out the window and sees nothing but as he’s closing the window he notices that the dresser drawers are turned upside down and all of their things have been dumped on the floor. A female voice harshly whispers in his ear, “You Jasper!” The hairs on the back of Fred’s neck stand on end.
“Did you say something?” He says to Roxanne.
“No,” she says.
Without another word he gathers their things and says to Roxanne, we’re not spending another minute in this room.
They leave the hotel that night and the night clerk asks if they would like to change rooms but Fred says hell no we’re out of here and the hotel clerk knows, doesn’t ask them another thing.
Diane and Colson made love that night in the presidential suite at the Alex Johnson Hotel, the first time since the ring incident. Colson said, “I love you Diane please don’t worry about the ring, it’s probably somewhere around the house and when you least expect it, you’ll find it.” With those words in her head she fell asleep in his arms in the room where presidents and their wives had slept and made love too. And they never saw a woman in a white dress.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Medora, North Dakota
The beauty of a wild bison with its shaggy coat staggering along the highway with the great bulk of a body on spindle legs looking like an ancestor from the prehistoric age making all of the cars wait until he’s ready to move out of the way, then takes off in a gallop across the plains. Diane can only imagine what a sight it must have been to see hundreds of them grazing and moving across these plains.
During this entire week trip she’s not seen one Indian. And still no black people? European tourists are all over the place. This is the last day tomorrow she’ll be home. She can’t wait.