The law office of Reed, Wright, Pray & Singh was in a quandary: not from lack of business, which was in fact burgeoning, but from lack of help.
The simple fact was that the young, the middle-aged, and the early elderly had been promised free, safe passage to Luna City, the new moon colony, so there was no one left to perform the support tasks of a law office.
“Free passage to the moon, free apartments for life, a $50,000 signing bonus—how can we compete with that?” Arthur Reed, the senior partner, asked in a morning meeting of the firm’s partners. He was grumpy from pulling an all-nighter to prepare a legal brief.
“We can’t. We’ll have to rely on a temp service. Surely they have people who can staff our office,” Ronald Wright said.
Lettice Pray nodded agreement and drank the rest of her coffee; Kuldip Singh looked at the others and said, “I will contact the agency this very morning to get the people we need.”
However, in the conference room at lunchtime he reported that his efforts had failed. “There is no one, but no one, available,” he said. “Everyone’s gone to the moon.”
Pray looked up from her peanut butter-and-banana on whole wheat and said, “I have an idea. No, I’m not going to tell you what it is until I’ve sounded out the parties concerned. However, if I’m successful we may have the solution to our problem.”
“Excuse me, but do you have any more brochures on prison reform?”
Darren’s head was under the cloth that hung from the table in his booth at the town fair, so he stuck up a hand high enough so the visitor could see it. “Be right with you, okay?” Even to him, his voice sounded muffled.
Having extracted a pile of the brochures he wanted to replenish, he groped rightward to the box in which the prison reform brochures were kept and grabbed a few. Then he stood up and looked straight into the face of the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.
In fact, she was probably the most beautiful woman in the world. Slim and graceful, she appeared to be just a few inches over five feet. Her dark brown afro hugged her beautifully shaped head. Bright brown eyes, filled with amusement; long, long black eyelashes; smooth café-au-lait skin, and red lips pressed together. She looked as if she would burst out laughing at any moment.
Aware that he looked like the nation’s prize idiot, Darren stammered, “H-how can I help you?”
“Prison reform brochures,” she repeated and could barely conceal a smile as he handed them to her.
“D-do you need anything else?” Wildly, he looked around the booth, hoping to find something that would tempt her to linger, to chat.
“No, thank you,” she said firmly, “I have what I need. Good day.”
She turned and began to walk off. She mustn’t get away! Hardly aware of what he was doing, Darren left the booth and called after her. “Wait!”
She turned. “Yes?” Her tone was cold.
“May I ask you a question?”
She looked bored. “If you must.”
He took a deep breath. “How would you rate my chances of taking you out to dinner next week?”
Her eyes widened. “That’s not at all what I expected!”
“What did you expect?”
“I thought you’d say something like, ‘Have you ever dated a white guy’ or a more vulgar variant thereof.”
Darren’s lips tightened. “I would never say anything vulgar to you or to any woman.”
“Glad to hear it,” she said, and turned to walk away.
“Wait,” he called out. “Is there anything I can do to convince you I’m a nice guy who just wants to know you better?”
She half-turned, appearing to consider this for a moment, then shook her head. “No, not really.”
Chastened, he watched her walk away. He’d never get to know her. She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever met and he’d never get to know what made her tick, what kind of music she liked, whether she enjoyed long walks in the woods.
Please, Goddess, don’t let her go out of my life!
She’d proceeded a few yards when she suddenly paused. Turned. Walked back until she stood just a few feet away.
“You know, I don’t have time for most white guys, but I’m getting a vibe from you that says—well, never mind what it says. So…yes. There is something you could do to prove you’re serious.”
“Come to dinner at my grandmother’s house on Sunday.”
Despair turned to delight in seconds. “I accept with pleasure!”
She pulled a small notebook from her handbag, wrote something on it, and handed it to him. He scanned it rapidly, noting the address, the phone number, and the date and time he’d be expected. “My name’s Darren Peterson,” he said. “And here’s my number, in case you need it.”
She entered it in her mobile. “Thanks. See you Sunday.”
“Oh, by the way,” Darren called after her as she began to walk away again, “what’s your name?”
She looked back at him over her shoulder. “Collette.”
Black, beautiful, and wild described Pombagira Rodriguez. Her promiscuous nature would have doomed her to perpetual pregnancy if it hadn’t been for a certain medical procedure a year ago; as it was, she was known for staying out all night and then gaining access to the house by climbing a tree and entering through a partly open window.
“She’s a second-story cat,” Celine Rodriguez would say with a sigh. “What a naughty girl!”
“You treat that cat as if she were your child,” people would say from time to time. “What a pity you never had children of your own.”
“I teach, I blog, I write. I have brain-children, and I labor just as hard bringing them into the world as women who give birth to physical children,” Celine would reply. She was referring to intensity of effort, not physical discomfort, although she did sometimes have to retire to her bed with headaches.
Happily, Pombagira and the dogs, Joel Collie and Eleanor Labrador, were available for the cuddles that books, posts, and lectures couldn’t supply.
Five minutes before the knock sounded on the front door, Celine gazed out the window at the rain blowing through the front yard. “Remind me again why we got married in October?”
“Because we got a fifty percent discount on a last-minute deal for a cruise to the Bahamas,” Eduardo reminded her. “We decided to make that our honeymoon. Stop worrying—the weather forecast says the rain will stop at six o’clock. We can still go out to dinner to celebrate our anniversary.”
“And that will be the only good thing about this gloomy fall Saturday,” Celine said.
But she was wrong, because the knock on the front door turned out to be the United Parcel Service delivering a package addressed to her and Eduardo.
“Who’s it from, Celine?”
“It’s from my sister priestess Serafina,” Celine said. “How nice of her!”
“You open it, dear,” Eduardo said, handing her the box cutter. “Knowing her, it could be anything.”
Eagerly Celine undid the wrappings, slit open the seams of the box, opened it, and gasped in delight.
It was late summer again, time for the yearly gathering on Serafina’s property. This year the gathering would fall on Celine’s birthday, the first of August. As she packed her large beach bag she shivered in anticipatory delight—she looked forward to this occasion all year.
Into the bag went a flashlight, sunscreen, a beach towel, flip-flops, and a sun visor. No book would be necessary for the sunbathing part of the day, because the company would be so congenial she’d spend her time chatting. She added a pashmina—the evening was always chilly with the breeze coming off the water—and filled her water bottle. She was ready.
The large cooler filled with ice and soft drinks was already in the trunk of her car, as were the fruit and crackers she was bringing for snacks. Serafina, of course, would be cooking up a storm of both Puerto Rican and African-American specialties. Celine smiled as she thought of the arroz con gandules, rice with pigeon peas, that was her friend’s signature dish. She was planning to eat lightly all day so she could give the evening feast the attention it deserved.
The hour-long drive passed pleasantly as Celine, always analytical, contemplated why this yearly celebration meant so much to her. For one thing, no men would be present. There would be no need to appear deferential to male sensibilities, no need for the women present to refrain from speaking their truths around the fire circle: everyone could say whatever she damn well pleased. The best part of being with other women, Celine thought, was that one didn’t have to explain anything. Women already knew.
She smiled again as she drove on and the miles ticked away on the odometer.
Tashkent Auset was also looking forward to the gathering. Awakened as usual by cockrow, she had risen with the dawn, gone out to feed the roosters, hens, and goats, and prepared breakfast for herself and the children. Later she dropped off six-year-old Nico and three-year-old Yana at her mother’s house before setting out on her journey to Serafina’s beach property.
Jannah, previously her divorce lawyer and now her friend, had told her a great deal about the gatherings of previous years. “Only women of color attend,” Jannah said. “No white people, no men. We can be ourselves.”
It sounded wonderful to Tashkent Auset. Ordinarily shy in company because she lacked money, social position, and advanced degrees, she knew she’d feel comfortable even though most of the women present would be strangers to her. Among other women of color there would be no one to disparage her dark skin, her homemade clothes, her lack of cosmetics. There would be no need to be careful of what she said for fear of offending white people’s feelings or disturbing their comfortable stereotypes.
Driving the rattletrap car she’d acquired after the divorce,Tashkent Auset sang as she drove to the gathering place. She hoped the other women would like the brownies she was bringing to the feast.
An hour earlier Jannah, too, had set off in her sleek little Morris Minor to Serafina’s place. In the trunk of her car was a cooler full of fried chicken—a cliché, Jannah thought dispassionately, but nonetheless delicious for all that—and a blueberry cake she’d made because it traveled well and required no messy frosting that would melt in the heat. She was looking forward to seeing the people she knew would be there—Celine, Serafina, and Tashkent Auset, for instance—and women she didn’t even know yet. It had been a tiring year so far, with one difficult case after another, but this weekend would be her time to swim, eat, dance, and thoroughly enjoy herself.