Gail Upchurch is a writer of young adult and adult fiction. She is a 2022 Kimbilio Fellow, WINNER of the 2022 Taint Taint Taint James Baldwin Fiction Prize, a finalist for the 2022 Pen Parentis Fellowship, a 2021 Tin House YA Scholar, a 2021 Community of Writers Scholar, a finalist for the 2021 Crystal Wilkinson Creative Writing Prize, and WINNER of the 2021 Tupelo Quarterly Prose Open Prize. Gail holds a Ph.D. in English from Binghamton University’s program for writers (SUNY), an MFA in fiction from Chicago State University, and a BA in English from Howard University (The Mecca!). Gail has recent short stories published or forthcoming in The Missouri Review, Obsidian: Journal & Ideas in the African Diaspora, Tupelo Quarterly, and Taint Taint Taint Magazine and is currently at work on two young adult novels and a collection of linked short stories for an adult audience. Originally from the south side of Chicago, Gail now lives in Maryland with three kiddos and a hubs. When she’s not making up stories, she serves as an assistant nonfiction editor at Tupelo Press and organizer of the Maryland chapter of Women Who Submit; teaches composition and literature at a small community college in Maryland; and keeps up with Academy Awards buzz. Follow Gail on her website and on Twitter.
At the beginning of summer, when crickets argued at all times of day and night, Jimmy appeared on the porch of Mrs. Emily’s Vayle’s Dress Shop just as Mabel pulled blue thread through a delicate organza. Sweat and exhaustion met up together and settled on his golden face. Jimmy pushed the damp, dark curls from his forehead with back of his wrist and rapped on the wooden door frame three times. He didn’t need to do that, though. Jimmy already had her attention in the palm of his hand.
“Hello, Mabel.” He waved his hand at her through the screen, which only offered the promise of breeze—the air so thick and humid you could scoop it into a cup and stir it around with your finger.
“Come on in, Jimmy. Mrs. Vayle out at the beauty parlor. You can put the paper on the table there.” Mabel’s scalp sweated beneath her thick, unruly hair. She stopped stitching to cover her mouth with a few fingers. Dresses and petticoats she had sewn with her own hands crowded the walls, which upped the temperature in the shop at least three degrees.
“You know when Emily—,” he stopped to clear his throat, “when Mrs. Vayle’ll be back in the shop?”
“I suppose she’ll be back when her hair is done.” Mabel’s knee bobbed up and down. She couldn’t help it. Jimmy made her feel like fizz, and not because he did anything all that special. To anybody else, he was a plain boy, wiry and ordinary, holding a newspaper with one hand and a cap in the other. But to Mabel, he was someone who could pull her apart limb by limb with the slightest smile. She liked the fullness of his lips, so different from the other boys she had met in Boston since she started working on this side of town. She liked the dip right above Jimmy’s upper lip which right now was a fleshy bowl made for catching his sweat. She even liked the small, smooth keloid scar on his upper right cheek. She liked that it worried her. How long did that thing bleed? Who tended to him? What would it feel like underneath my tongue?
“Right. Well, just tell her I come in to . . . drop off her paper.” Even though Jimmy spoke parting words, he sat across from Mabel and squinted his eyes. “I don’t mean to disturb you. I see you working and whatnot.”
She got this feeling like somebody sprinkled tinsel in her chest. Before she could say another word, a young, dark-skinned woman approached the door holding a full-length garment over her forearm. Mabel’s heartbeat quickened as she left her stool to answer the door.
“You do alterations?”
From the sound of her, Mabel could tell this woman wasn’t too far from the countryside where her mother had lived as a girl, maybe South Carolina or Virginia.
“I’m sorry. We don’t serve coloreds here,” Mabel said, low.
The woman gave Mabel a face, cocked her head to the side. “Well, you know some place that do?”
Mabel sucked her teeth. “Come back at closing. Come around back, and I’ll see what you need done.” The woman nodded her head and disappeared down the steps. Mabel breathed deeply, relieved to be rid of her. When she turned to face Jimmy, his body seemed to lean in to her.
“Mrs. Vayle know you serve coloreds out the back of the store?” he asked.
“That’s my business, Jimmy. And that’s my money. Mrs. Vayle doesn’t need to know.”
Jimmy held up both his hands. “I understand you, Mabel. Don’t worry. I can tell you got your share of secrets. And I’m not just talking about that back door thing you doing with your colored customers.”
Mabel stopped pulling the thread. “Secrets?” She covered her mouth.
“Emily, I mean Mrs. Vayle, thinks it’s awfully strange you don’t ever talk about your people. I mean, everybody has people. She thinks you might have gotten turned out or something.”
Mabel stopped sewing and covered her full mouth with her hand. Mrs. Vayle had talked about her to him? Mabel couldn’t lose her job. She was on her own, and she had to eat somehow. A flash of her mama came to her— skin the color of Alaga Syrup, fingers long and tough, voice as deep as a grave. She didn’t want to think about her mama because it made her miss her too much, and there was no solving that problem. Mabel had made her choice. She rose from her chair and put a hand under Jimmy’s elbow to help him up from the stool. She blinked the water away from her eyes. “I don’t have any of those kinds of secrets, Jimmy, and I haven’t been turned out.” She gently shoved him toward the door. “Now, I got to get back to this hemming.”
He stopped. “Okay. Lord have mercy.”
Mabel thought a few more words might be dangling on the threshold of Jimmy’s mouth, but he shut himself up. He gave Mabel a lingering look before leaving. When she sat down again, Mabel pricked her finger with the needle, forming a tiny, round drop of blood that fell on her skirt before she had a chance to suck it down her throat. She stared at that one dot of crimson spreading out into the cotton fibers.
Blood was a hard stain to wash out.
By the fall, Jimmy was off to that fancy college in Poughkeepsie, New York. It wasn’t until Thanksgiving that he came around to Mrs. Emily Vayle’s Dress Shop again.
When Mabel saw Jimmy all dressed up in his suit and tie, his hair clean and parted on one side, she felt her stomach wave inside. “Jimmy, you look like you washed up for a change. Is that what you’ve been learning at that college of yours?” Mabel looked to the floor, smiled.
Jimmy laughed, rared back on his heels. “Now see, why do you have to talk to me like
Mabel stood in front of him, looked down, twisted her foot into the maple floor board. He had never just come to see her before without a newspaper in his hand.
“Hey,” Jimmy said, soft.
“Why are you here?” Mabel’s voice quivered. She glanced up at him then closed her eyes before sitting back in the chair. The gentle brush on her hand startled her. If Jimmy wasn’t standing there in front of her, she might have mistaken the feeling for an ant scurrying across her hand looking for an old tea cake crumb or a roaming thread from a discarded spool she used the day before. When her eyes popped open she found Jimmy’s all-grown-up body still there.
He smiled, but not with his mouth. Dear God. She refused to smile back because that would mean she was sure enough crazy, that she was inviting trouble. When Jimmy touched her again, this time on the shoulder, she let her better judgment get lost somewhere between the moment he kissed her lips and when he unfastened her brassiere.
In early spring, Jimmy found a dilapidated cottage with only two rooms made to feed their bodies: a bedroom and a kitchen. They would steal away to sate themselves on every firm surface. When they bored of the claustrophobic indoors, they found places outdoors to drink one another. She plucked a blood-greedy tick from her hip after one inconvenient moment of desire in tall, prickly blades of grass. By the end of May, Mabel’s initial uneasiness about their lovemaking had waned. When Mabel got as close as she could to Jimmy’s skin, the fuzz on his shoulders, the broad back that lightly smelled of sweat and Castille soap, his warm-sticky breath on her milky neck, she only thought about how good it felt. In that cottage, under the deep blue cover of night and blanket, he plunged into her, raising her fur to meet his. During these moments, she barely even worried anymore about her nasty, graying tooth. Never worried that the curl that tightened at the nape of her neck with perspiration might betray her. And she almost didn’t waste her time anymore wondering about whether or not he thought about how her skin managed to be so tanned, like baked bread, after only a week in the sun.
By summer’s end, as Jimmy prepared to go back to Poughkeepsie, a smell as simple as well-water made Mabel’s stomach curdle. She dozed at work, nearly falling off her sewing chair twice in one day.
Despite Jimmy’s clumsy attempts to snatch himself out of her before finishing, he put a baby in her.
“A penny for every one of your thoughts,” Jimmy said, after sneezing again. He circled her navel with the bulbs of his first two fingers. Lost, Mabel shook her head, focused on the wild ivy vine that had sprung up outside the window. She wanted to tell Jimmy everything right then and there, but how could she? She sat up with her bare back facing him.
“Mabel, where are you going, honey? We still have a little time. Mrs. Vayle won’t be looking for you until nine or so. C’mon now. Don’t go. I’ll be gone in a week.”
“I have to move on, Jimmy. There are some things I need to do before then.”
“Alright, but let me look at you first before you go scrambling away.” He ran his dry, warm hands down the length of Mabel’s back, causing her to shiver. “I don’t care that you’ve gained a little weight. I like it. Really, I do. You were too skinny before. Now, you’re more . . . womanly.”
“I wish I could, but I think you’ve put some witchcraft on me because I can’t think of much else besides you. I wonder what you eat, where you go after work, who your people are.”
That talk of people again. “Jimmy—”
“—not because I want to tell you what to do or anything like that but because I want to know you. You and your mama have a falling out or something?”
“That’s important information when you want to marry somebody.”
Mabel leapt off the bed like it was on fire. “Marry somebody.” Mabel backed away from him, knocking into the chifferobe. She covered her tooth with one hand, rubbing her stinging hip with the other.
He scrunched his eyebrows in toward his nose. “Careful, honey. Slow down, now. I’m not trying to marry you today or anything, but we can’t keep going around like this. Can’t stay in this little house forever,” he whispered, reaching his hands out to her.
She had to get out that stuffy cottage and breathe in fresh air. She ran for the door and barely opened it before vomiting on the bushy grass that met her toes. Mabel hung on to the doorframe with abandon, the fresh breeze penetrating her skin, making her engorged nipples harden and throb.
“Here. Drink this,” Jimmy whispered, holding a glass of water, pushing Mabel’s hair away from her face. “You got too hot, I think.”
Mable drank and then leaned over her knees to stave off another wave of nausea.
“You got yourself all worked up,” he said, taking the glass from her. “I bet you’re worried your parents are going to think I’m too poor. It’s true. I’ve been on my own since I was fourteen years old, and it wasn’t always easy for me to get by. But I’m going to be a lawyer one day. You can tell your people that. All folks tend to like me once they get to know me. And, I love you Mabel. I don’t even care if you get all fat. I’m still going to love you. You see, I can’t help it.” Jimmy pulled her in to him and wrapped his arms around her. And for a second Mabel thought she might believe him. She had just puked something thick and beige, and he didn’t flinch. Maybe they could do this another kind of way. Maybe a body is a just body is just a body. “I’m colored,” Mabel whispered into the fine hairs that lay on his chest.
Jimmy put a finger under her chin, tilted her head up, eyes big as two oven-warm biscuits. “You’re what?”
Mabel knew by the sound of his voice it was a mistake for her to have said anything. She shook her head. “And I’m expecting,” she blurted. It was terrible news but better than the former.
Jimmy put his hands on both shoulders and gently pushed her back a step, far enough to get a good look at her face. Then holding her face so she could not avert his gaze, his mouth formed the letter “W” without making a sound.
Mabel worked to get her face free of his grasp, but Jimmy held her firm, his chest heaving. “You can’t say nothing more about it,” he said.
“Which one? Which ‘it’?”
“Lord, have mercy, Mabel, the first one. Not to anybody, not ever.”
Mabel nodded. “But Jimmy—”
Jimmy shushed her. “Not another word, I swear.” His eyes went soft and sad. “Lord have mercy, Mabel.” As if not saying the thing makes the thing not true, she did as he told her.
For a few minutes, they stood and stared at each other. Mabel covered her mouth. A
softness passed over Jimmy’s face as he pulled Mabel in to him again, lowering his arms to her waist.
“I’m sorry I talked to you like that just now,” he said and held her tight, resting his chin on top of her head. Her ear against his chest, Mabel heard something deep in him crash and break, like water against rocks. “I shouldn’t have, but this a mess,” he whispered into the air over her head. After a long pause he said, “I guess I ought to tell you something.”
She looked up at him.
“My own mother was colored, so, yeah, you and me are in a royal-sized mess.”
This time it was Mabel who pulled back. Jimmy put a finger to her lips. “Shhh.”
She saw him more clearly now. Curly dark brown hair. Thick lips. Flat nose. My God. Jimmy—colored? A wave of something came over her, not nausea this time. This time it was disgust, disappointment. Mabel knew how to get a colored boy in bed with her. She thought Jimmy was something special. But no. He was caught up in his own blood story, same as her.
And blood was a hard stain to wash out.
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