Winter 1944

Later, Evelyn would look back and remember that she wasn’t the one who noticed Renard first. No, it was her sister, Ruby, who caught the too-short right hem of his suit pants in her side view. Ruby was thicker than Evelyn, not fat by a long shot, but thick in a way that prevented her from ever feeling comfortable eating. Her favorite food was red beans and rice, and Monday was hard on her. Their mother would boil a big pot and feel relieved, two pounds plenty to feed the family for at least three days, but Ruby felt taunted by the surplus. She’d cut in and out of the kitchen the beginning of the week, sneaking deep bowls of rice and applying as little gravy as she could to maintain the flavor but not alert her family to her excess. Then on Thursday, she’d examine the consequences. It would start in the morning on the way in to school. Ruby attended vocational school and Evelyn attended Dillard University, but their campuses were only a few blocks apart, and they walked the majority of the way together.

“My thighs are touching,” Ruby would say, as if they just started touching the minute before.

“You can’t see it though,” Evelyn would assure her, her own legs so far apart another leg could fit between them.

“Who are you fooling with ‘you can’t see it’? Anybody with eyes could see it. You don’t even need to have eyes; you just need ears, and you could hear my thighs swishing together.”

“You can’t hear anything so soft,” Evelyn would go on, and she’d spend the rest of the day wading through that topic. Just when she’d think she got to flat land, Ruby would pull her back into the murk with a question about her behind. Matters would improve a little on Friday, but Ruby would maintain an edge around her even then, and everyone near her felt the prick. Today was a Friday.

“His pants legs are uneven,” Ruby said about the new boy standing on North Claiborne and Esplanade wearing a brown wool suit, a grey V-neck sweater beneath the jacket. He stood next to Andrew, whom all the girls fawned over at the debutante ball last season. Evelyn’s own escort had been second in charm; he had even silenced her nerves by pointing out his friends’ waltzing mishaps, but despite her mother’s urgings, she hadn’t accepted his visit, and a week later when his interest subsided, she couldn’t help but sigh.

She looked up now, exhaled the smoke of the cigarette dangling from her fingers. It was still early February, and the winter air hadn’t lost its chill. Still all the Seventh Ward girls congregated after school outside Dufon’s Oyster Shop, the best Negro-owned restaurant in the city, and smoked. Evelyn had come to relish the anticipation of the first, slight inhale—she was a lady—and the long release afterward. She would never have referred to herself as an anxious person—Ruby had claimed that role in the family—but any nerves that jingled inside her settled at just the thought of a drag. She blew the smoke out of the side of her mouth so as not to hit her sister and smiled at the thought of the uneven hem. “Maybe he was in a rush.”

“Even still,” Ruby said, breathing in so sharply she almost made herself choke. “He might have found time to even out his pants’ hems,” she laughed. “Cute though. Too brown for most people, but it is a nice shade of brown.”

Evelyn nodded. Cute he was.

Men and women rushed past them, bustling in and out of offices and stores, the Boot Seed and Feed, Queen of the South Coffee, Miller Funeral Home, Meriwether’s Photography, Bejoie Cut-Rate Pharmacy, the Sweet Tooth Ice Cream Parlor, and Fine Time Billiard Hall. The outdoor market where Evelyn’s mother made groceries was just a block away at St. Bernard Avenue, and Evelyn could smell the Cajun spices simmering. The butcher let out a high-pitched call. “Veal to roast, and cabbage and green beans.”

Ruby raised her voice to combat the new noise, “And his hair lays so flat, and that’s not a conk either.”

The uneven man looked over at the girls then, and Evelyn held his gaze for less than a second, so quick if he doubted it had happened, he could convince himself it hadn’t.

She shook her head back at her sister. “No, much more natural looking than a conk.”

“All that, but he couldn’t hem the pants evenly.”

“I wouldn’t have ever noticed those pants if you hadn’t hit me over the head with it, Ruby,” Evelyn said, though it wasn’t true. It was clear that despite his pressed suit and neat tie, the uneven man didn’t belong among the passé blancs he stood with, no, not with their damn near-white skin, straight black hair and even straighter nose, their moustaches like silk against their lips, and she didn’t know what possessed her to declare otherwise. She liked what she’d said though, not only that, but the fact that she said it, and for the rest of the day whenever she thought of the uneven man, she thought of the weight of her voice when it came out firm.

Since that day was a Friday, she had to go the whole weekend with- out seeing him again. That was fine because she had memorized him. Evelyn was in her second year of nursing school at Dillard University, and for a Negro woman to even consider such a rigorous field, she had to be up on her memorization. Because of it, she didn’t need to see a face more than once to imagine it fully, and she spent the weekend doing just that. She remembered details she hadn’t even known she’d seen in the first place: that the shorter hem of his pants revealed a faded grey sock. That he was the color of ginger cookies her mother might bake then sprinkle sugar over, that that similarity made his skin seem like something she might taste, that he was tall, taller than her daddy even who was six three, that he was skinny, but not breakable, that he had small slivered eyes that when she caught them seemed to be breaking through their lids with something vital to say. When she thought on him longer, she realized he had been holding a biochemistry textbook, probably studying to be a doctor. Just like Daddy. Maybe he could help her with amino acids. In all her memorization, she couldn’t get the codes straight.

The following Monday, Evelyn led the way from her house on Miro Street to St. Bernard Avenue then North Claiborne, her sis- ter swishing behind her, and looked for a cigarette, feeling steadied by it even as she reached through her pocketbook. Sure enough, the uneven man walked up halfway through her smoke. He was with Andrew again, a boy with an even hem, but something lack- ing, and maybe it was an uneven hem, which she’d grown used to associating with comfort.

“That ol’ passé blanc has a smug look on his face,” Ruby said about Andrew. “He must think he’s too much.”

“He’s cute,” Evelyn said, smiling while she talked in case the uneven man looked over.

“Not so cute he can’t look at a woman decently,” Ruby said. “Besides, not as cute as Langston.” Langston was her last boyfriend, and he had been cute all right, so cute Ruby had heard from a senior at vocational school that he was carrying around phone numbers for every girl in the Seventh Ward with hair past her bra strap. Ruby had taken that hard, which meant their mother cooked her favorite food all week, and every sentence Evelyn directed at her was presented like a question that had no business being asked. When Ruby had gotten over it, she had sworn off the light brights, but here she was again.

“I could do better,” Ruby said, “and I have done better, but he’s over there looking like he’s the best I could do in the state of Louisiana. Not so,” Ruby added.

“He’s not so bad, just putting on a show,” Evelyn said. The uneven man looked up at her again. He leaned, whispered some- thing to his friend, and both men walked over. Ruby’s man was leading the way, which confused Evelyn but didn’t deter her. When the men reached the girls, Ruby’s stood in the front right beside Ruby, and the uneven man lingered in the back watching his shoes. They were okay shoes, Evelyn noticed. One-tone lace- up oxfords that had been shined too many times. She hadn’t seen them the day before in all the fuss about the hem, and they were okay, but certainly no competition for the rose blush she had applied to her soft nearly white face, or for the long hair Mother had straightened the night before and which Evelyn had rolled into a coil at the base of her head. She stared at him, holding her head high and still, feeling as if she was pushing her chin forward to coax him into talking.

“How do you do there, young lady?” Ruby’s man asked.

Ruby was most confident Monday afternoon. They hadn’t got- ten back to Mother’s yet, and those beans were still at the top of the pot.

“Not as good as I was when it was just me and my sister,” Ruby answered.

“So that’s your sister, huh?”

“That’s what I said, isn’t it? You’re not too quick on your feet, are you?”

“Y’all are some pretty sisters. Your mama must be pretty too, huh?”

“Why are you asking about my mama?” Ruby wasn’t even fooling this time; she was fierce when it came to their mother.

“Aw, I was just making conversation, lil’ girl. Don’t get ya panties all up in a knot.”

“You certainly don’t need to know a thing about my panties,” Ruby said, trying to maintain her frown, but it was hard on her pretending to be so uninterested. She had a weakness for red beans and red boys. And then that talk about her panties.

Evelyn couldn’t take it anymore; she could feel her face heating. The uneven man was lost in his shoes, and she was just standing there, being ignored, as if she weren’t the one Daddy twirled around the parlor for their extended family when he drank more than one glass of Sazerac after Christmas dinner.

Evelyn moved her books around in her hands to get his attention. The uneven man looked up, but when he saw her, he looked down again. Evelyn hadn’t noticed the color of his eyes the other day either. They weren’t so brown they were black like most people’s his color. They were an actual brown, the way the color came out in the crayon box. He had long eyelashes, and their tips might have touched the top of his cheeks when he blinked. He looked up again.

“You two are sisters?” he asked, stammering over the word sisters, and as he spoke he lifted his grey felt fedora and pressed it into his chest.

“We are,” Evelyn said, nearly sighing she was so relieved.
“Are you the oldest?”
“How’d you know that? Everyone always thinks she’s the oldest ’cause she’s—” Evelyn almost said the word vocal but didn’t want to sound resentful.

“I could just tell.” He looked down again.

“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” Evelyn asked, partly to keep the conversation flowing and partly because she was interested.

“Twelve living, two dead,” he said.
“Are you the oldest too?”
“No ma’am, the baby. My mama died having me.”
Evelyn’s heart was beating fast, and she was feeling powerful emotions she didn’t know how to read. It wasn’t what he was saying, but the way he was parceling out his story, like a mother would cut meat for a child, that made Evelyn’s heart feel fragile. She moved forward a little and hoped Ruby wouldn’t see her do it.

“Where do you live?” she asked.

“Amelia Street, Twelfth Ward, two blocks from Flint-Goodrich Hospital.”

Evelyn was surprised to hear that. Though she knew he wasn’t one of them, she didn’t think he was that far off. She looked down at his books again, large hardbacks, biology and organic chemistry. She’d been right; he would have had to be premed to be studying subjects like those, but there weren’t any well-off Negro people uptown. She considered his hem again. She never cared about status the way Mother and Ruby did; it was more how unaccustomed she was to being wrong.

“Where do you live?” he asked. His stammer was back this time on the first word, where.

Evelyn smiled again. She told him, and he raised his eyebrows. The Seventh Ward—it was a mostly Creole area of rich and poor and everything in between, but he looked at her as if he could en- vision her massive bungalow, as if he knew her daddy had birthed every one of the babies on the block except the white family’s across the street.

Ruby and her man seemed to be finishing up their talk. The uneven man looked over at them, then back to Evelyn.

“What’s your name?” he asked.
“All that talking, and you still don’t have the name?” Ruby cut in. Evelyn wanted to shush her, but that wouldn’t be polite. She smiled even wider. “Evelyn,” she said, addressing the uneven man as if her sister had said nothing.

“I’m Renard,” he said. “Renard August Williams.” He turned away as soon as he said that.

Evelyn wanted to reach out, spin him around, and get him to commit to something further as soon as could be, but she stayed in her spot and mouthed the word good-bye. His friend followed him off, glancing at Ruby over his shoulder.

Evelyn’s cigarette had dwindled to a stump and almost burned her fingers. She startled and threw it down, stamping her foot on it harder than necessary.

“You’re excited, huh, girl?” Ruby asked. She started walking toward home, and Evelyn followed her. Ruby didn’t wait for her to answer.

“Those damn near-white boys are all the same, think they’re too cute to ask you on a proper date.”

“He didn’t ask you out either?”

“Are you crazy? He did, but I could tell he didn’t think he had to. I had to lead him over to it.”

“Oh.” Evelyn paused. “When is it?”

“This weekend. He wants to take me to Dufon’s, says he knows the owner. That’s another thing about them. They always have to boast, but Mama says, if you have, you have, and you don’t have to talk too much about it. Not that I think he doesn’t have. His daddy helped found Valena C. Jones Elementary.”

“Yes, chairman of the library committee,” Evelyn mumbled.

Ruby didn’t seem to hear her. “And Daddy says his daddy’s real active in the Seventh Ward Civic League,” she went on. “I may play it cool before I let him know I’m the one he’s been looking for.” She paused as if she suddenly realized she wasn’t onstage. “What about you, Evelyn? When is he taking you? Maybe we can go together, for the first part at least.”

“We’re not,” Evelyn said. She couldn’t bring her head up, but she didn’t let it drag either. It was more level than anything. She looked ahead. Ruby wasn’t as pretty as Evelyn, not as smart either, and Evelyn had tried to muffle herself her whole life to even them out. Here they were though, Evelyn pushing twenty-two and Ruby only twenty, and it was Evelyn who hadn’t gotten a number.

“What, Evelyn? You didn’t even get him to ask you on a date? Haven’t I learned you anything?” Ruby studied the air in front of her own face, as if the key to Evelyn’s incompetence might spring out of it. Then clarity came on her hard and fast. “You’re too nice to these boys, that’s what I’ve been telling you. They’re only good for two things, marriage and babies, and you’re trying to make friends with them. I’m your friend, you only need one. Next time you see him, make him work for it, and watch.” Then she laughed, tipped her head back as she turned, skipping beneath the sprawling oaks. Her pleated silk skirt waved behind her in the wind. Evelyn’s was the same material and color, but Ruby had asked their mother to take her hem in higher. Now Evelyn walked faster to keep up with her sister even as she felt the straps of her cork-soled shoes pressing into her ankles. When they neared their house, the grandest on the block, Ruby stopped, leveled her expression, reverted to her normal pace. Even still, she might not eat a single bean this evening, no matter how long the pickled meat had been soaking in the pot.

__________________________

Born and raised in New Orleans, MARGARET WILKERSON SEXTON studied creative writing at Dartmouth and law at UC Berkeley. A recipient of the Lombard fellowship, she spent a year in the Dominican Republic working for a civil rights organization and writing. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and her stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Massachusetts ReviewGrey Sparrow JournalLimestone Journal, and Broad! Magazine. She lives in the Bay Area, California. A Kind of Freedom is her debut novel.

Adapted from A Kind of Freedom, by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, Copyright © 2017 by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton. With the permission of the publisher, Counterpoint Press.

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