Excerpt from Junction/Flame on the Mesa

Fiction / Jennifer Morales

:: Excerpt from Junction/Flame on the Mesa ::

On the train platform, Dena handed Mat a small package.

“What is it?”

“Open it and find out.” Dena’s eyes glinted behind the net of her vintage hat. She dressed every day as if it was 1945, and she had gone all out to see Mat off, in a tan traveling suit with a broad green belt and matching gloves. Mat suspected she had a handkerchief tucked in a pocket somewhere to wave at the departing train.

Working the tape loose from one end of the heavy paper, Mat slid out a thin paperback with yellowed pages.

Flame on the Mesa? What is this?”

Dena turned Mat’s hand so she could admire the cover: two wasp-waisted, bullet-breasted women, a dark-haired one and a blonde. The brunette cast a lascivious gaze at the other woman, but the blonde’s attention was divided—one eye on her admirer, the other on the bucking silhouette of a horse-mounted cowboy twirling a lasso.

“It’s lesbian pulp fiction. Isn’t it great? I found it at Downtown Books a couple weeks ago and I’ve been dying to give it to you. It seemed like the perfect gift, you know, with you having to go to Iowa to get divorced. It’s about a woman who goes to Nevada to get divorced and has to live there six weeks to establish residency before the court will let her file the papers. Sound familiar?”

“Yeah,” Mat said, flipping the book over. “If you think ‘six weeks in Reno’ and ‘twelve months in Iowa’ sound anything like the same thing.”

Years ago, Mat and Klaudia had married in Iowa, at a time when that was one of the few places gays could legally do such a stupid thing. In their reverie, neither of them had read the fine print: marriage was easy. Divorce would require one of them to live in the state for a year first. When the relationship fell apart, Mat lost the battle over which of them would uproot her Milwaukee life and go.

“Stop feeling so sorry for yourself, Mat.” Dena swatted her with a glove. “You have a cushy job and a place to live waiting for you. You’re getting off with a light sentence, all things considered.”

Mat growled. She didn’t want to talk again about the final straw that had broken the back of her marriage. Wasn’t she suffering enough for the night she spent with Adrienne in Chicago?

“Easy, tiger.” Dena threaded her arm through the crook of Mat’s elbow. “Get on the train. Read the book. It’ll take your mind off things.”

“God, did you see this?” Mat read the back cover aloud:

Janet had only one desire: to go to Reno to free herself from the grips of Hank, the husband back East who had hurt her so badly. But when she meets Lena, another desire is awakened, an unnatural one that would set her burning like a flame on the mesa and leave her amidst ashes of despair. This unexpurgated look at the shocking and tragic lives of lesbians will open the reader’s eyes to a world heretofore unseen.

“What kind of bullshit is that?”

Dena hit Mat with both gloves this time. “It’s pulp, you idiot. You know, like Beebo Brinker? These are seminal works of lesbian literature.”

“Might be lesbian, but I don’t think it qualifies as literature.” Mat thumbed through the book. On a page picked at random, she found two unannounced shifts in point of view. “Yeesh. First we’re in the ticket guy’s head, then the luggage boy’s.”

“Lighten up, will you, Professor Rodriguez?”

“All aboard!” the conductor cried.

Mat added the book to her bag. “I guess I need to go.”

She reached to draw Dena into a hug, but Dena stopped her.

“Wait. I need to put on my gloves.” She tugged them on, then opened her clutch to pull out a handkerchief, ivory with faded turquoise lace around the edges.

“I knew it.” Mat shook her head. “Is that thing for real?”

“Of course it is. OK, I’m ready.” Dena held out both arms and Mat walked into them.

“I’m going to miss you so much.” Mat squeezed her, tight enough to feel bone, and she was overcome by the feeling of her real life slipping out of her grip as Dena stepped aside.

“All aboard!” the conductor shouted again, passing close enough to make them jump.

“See you soon.”

“Not soon enough.” Mat gave the sleeve of Dena’s jacket a final tug.

At the foot of the train’s narrow stair the conductor had placed a step stool. Painted a cheerful, sunny yellow and squatting on sturdy legs, it reminded Mat of those tiny stands they force the elephants to balance on in the circus.

She was in some kind of circus, Mat thought. A clown show in which all the jokes were on her.

Mat watched the conductor steady a hunchbacked, white-haired woman as she boarded the train. He gestured briskly to Mat next and reached out to help her up, too, but she drew her arm close and grabbed the strap of her bag. Even so, he got his hand under her elbow as she hoisted herself onto the metal stairs.

“Up you go.”

“Thanks.” She hated the gratuitous assistance of men.

She stood at the open door to take a last look at Milwaukee—what she could see of it from the station platform, anyway. The conductor scooped up the step stool, whistling as he headed for the front of the train. Across the tracks, a pigeon picked its way along the far wall of the train shed, hunting through a smattering of grass that grew where the sharp July sunlight cut in. When the attendant came to shut the door, Mat resigned herself to taking a seat.

The train was full of vacationers, excited children and their exasperated parents trying to get them to settle in. Mat made her way down the aisle, her overstuffed bag snagging on seat-tops as she went. There was a pair of empty seats on her left, in the middle of the car, and she reached them just as a mother arrived, a boy maybe eight years old in tow.

“Is the other seat taken?” she asked. Her hair was still damp from a shower or a swim and it dripped onto her wrinkled polo shirt.

“No,” Mat said.

“You, sit still.” She pointed to the boy’s chest and he sat down. “I’m just three rows back with your sisters. If you need anything, call me from your seat. I don’t want you running around.” To Mat she added, “If he’s a bother, just let me know.”

“Sure.”

The mom took a video game player from her purse and handed it to him. From her pocket she pulled a set of earbuds, unwinding the cord and plugging one into each of the boy’s ears and the wire into the socket on the machine. She tucked a bottle of orange juice and a bag of gummy worms between his hip and the armrest. As she leaned in, Mat could smell the chlorine in her hair. They stayed at a downtown hotel, Mat guessed, and Mom got in a swim before they had to check out.

“There,” she said. “He shouldn’t be any trouble.”

Mothers amazed Mat. Here she had barely found a place to stow her own bag and this mom had choreographed this kid’s entire life for the next few hours. Mat sized the boy up. His sandy hair was in a bowl cut that he would resent his parents for later, and his round cheeks were peppered with pale freckles. Around his pudgy wrist he wore an orange snap-on band that said “Fisherman’s Cove,” the indoor waterpark at the Hilton downtown, and a light blue silicone bracelet stamped “Benjamin” in black ink.

Benjamin’s t-shirt read, “It wasn’t me,” in neon green letters. That pretty much summed it up at age eight: you were either being blamed for something or trying to pin the blame on someone else. Maybe at age forty as well, Mat thought. She considered the friends she had lost in the split with Klaudia, friends she was sure blamed Mat for the breakup.

The train jerked to a start and she leaned toward the window. She was on the wrong side of the car to see Dena waving, but Mat knew she was there.

The coffee she had for breakfast sloshed around in her stomach as the train picked up speed, adding a wave of nausea to her mounting feeling of dread. She had lost so much in the past year, it seemed insane to give up the few things she could rely on. Her job teaching in the creative writing program at UW-Milwaukee. Playing in the park with her niece and nephew. Lake Michigan shimmering under the rising sun. The worn marble of the stairs up to the second floor of Central Library. The bookstore clerk at Boswell who knew her by name and set aside new titles he thought she would like. Trading Spanish barbs with the produce guys at El Rey. But here she was, leaving everything behind to spend a year at Grinnell College teaching a poetry seminar. She knew she should feel grateful that she had wrangled such a plum gig, but she just didn’t. She was mad. And worried. And lonely, already.

For the first time in years, Mat found herself biting her nails. She pulled out Flame on the Mesa, hoping to distract herself. Taped inside was a pink paper heart, a note from Dena. Her handwriting was girly yet formal, broad loops and extravagant tails riding atop lines so strict it seemed like she wrote along the edge of a ruler.

Dear Mat,

This is a stupid book in some ways, I know, but maybe you can enjoy it in that mindless summer beach reading sort of way. Lesbian pulp fiction developed at a time when it was pretty much illegal to write about our lives—unless the lesbian character died, or went to jail, or went insane and drove herself off a cliff.

Still, when I read it I thought you’re like Janet, having to travel to a new place in order to get divorced and start your life over. It ends badly—the book, I mean, not your life (!!!?!)—but I guess that’s what they had to do back then to keep the nation from falling into irreversible moral turpitude.

I’ll miss you terribly.

Yours,

Dena

P.S. Check out page 93!

Mat started to turn to page 93 but thought the better of it. Knowing Dena, it was probably some sweaty sex scene, something it would be best Mat didn’t read while sitting next to a corruptible minor at risk of falling into irreversible moral turpitude.

It was Melody who told Janet how this was done. Melody was another salesgirl at Woolworth’s and one of the few people Janet had been allowed to talk to after her wedding. Melody got it all arranged because Hank would notice the long distance charges and the letters. It was too risky. She called every beauty shop and five-and-dime, talking up Janet’s skills, until she found a taker.

Melody came into Woolworth’s one Tuesday morning in March bustling with energy. She tied on her apron and sidled up to Janet behind the glass cosmetics counter, where Janet was restocking the lipsticks.

“Guess what?” Melody fairly sang. “The manager at the Riverside Hotel says he might need a shampoo girl at their beauty parlor.” She got a rag from under the counter and began dusting the glass, even though it was already clean.

“The Riverside? Sure,” Janet said. “I mean, whatever kind of job he has, I’ll do it. You’re the best friend a girl could ever have, Melody. If it wasn’t for you, well, I don’t know what I would do.”

“He wants you to send him your picture,” Melody said, polishing the chrome trim on the cabinet to a vicious shine.

“What does how I look have to do with anything?”

Melody smiled at a woman passing by and said, “Good morning.” When the woman had gone, Melody said, “Well, I don’t know.”

Janet looked up at Melody’s face. Her friend was ten years older and a whole lot wiser than she was, Janet knew. There was concern in Melody’s blue eyes but she said only, “Maybe he wants to make sure you’re not a negro.”

“But negroes work in hotels all over the place,” Janet protested.

“Not in Nevada, they don’t.” 

Janet went home that afternoon and, before Hank got home, took the cigar box with her pictures in it down from the shelf in the bedroom wardrobe. She didn’t have that many pictures to spare. Nobody in her family ever had enough money to own a camera. She had a wedding portrait of her parents, her mother in a long white dress rented from the photographer for all the half hour it took to take the picture. Her mother’s real wedding dress was a simple cotton one she wore for the ceremony in the yard of her parents’ farmhouse.

And there was one of the family. Mother, father, and the three girls—Janet and her two younger sisters—taken just after her brother died in the accident with that other boy. That picture always made Janet feel like her parents were trying to settle their minds on this new family arrangement, without Emil. The stern look on her father’s face especially, said, “There. This is our family now.” There wasn’t a funeral and nobody had been allowed to cry. It was like they were just supposed to rearrange themselves in front of the camera and go along like nothing had been lost.

Janet was eleven years old in that picture. Looking at herself at that age made her feel strange inside. Her mother had her hand on her shoulder. Janet could see that the two of them had their jaws set just the same way, determined not to speak of anything they shouldn’t be speaking about.

There were a few other pictures in the box: some snapshots of her and Hank when they were courting, Hank in his Army uniform, one of her and Melody in their heavy coats in front of Woolworth’s. Janet decided to send that one. The picture was taken in bright afternoon sunlight and she and Melody were both squinting. It was hard to see Janet’s face, but at least the manager would be able to tell she wasn’t a negro.

She went to the telephone table in the hall to get a pencil and wrote her name on the back of the photo. She thought a second and then added “(on the left)” after it so the manager would know which one was Janet.

Hank came through the door just then. It was 5 o’clock already. She must have lost track of time while looking at the photographs.

She put the photo in her pocket quickly and began to dust the table and its little nook. Janet had learned to keep a dust rag handy at all times when she was at home, so she could look busy whenever Hank got in.

“Don’t you have something better to do than dust the telephone?” Hank asked with a growl, as he passed by her in the narrow hallway to go hang up his coat. He stopped halfway to the coatrack and came back toward her. He looked deep into Janet’s eyes. She forced herself to keep facing him. “Are you waiting for a call from somebody?” he asked. 

Clearly he could tell she was nervous. Janet looked down at the floor, a big mistake.

Hank squinted one eye. “What’s going on with you?”

“Nothing,” Janet stammered. “I’m just doing a little cleaning.”

He studied her up and down. “What’s in your pocket?”

“Nothing,” she said. He couldn’t see that thin piece of paper, could he?

Hank drew up close to her, close enough that she could smell the ham sandwich with mustard and onions she had sent with him for lunch on his breath, and put his hand in the pocket of her apron roughly. She could feel some of the threads holding the patch pocket to the skirt give way to his big knuckles as he pulled the picture out. He strode out of the hallway and into the dining room near the window to see better. Janet followed him.

The picture was now crumpled a bit. He turned it over. “Is this what you were writing when I came in?”

Had he come in sooner than she thought? Lost in daydreams about her pictures, did she not notice him right away? Janet was unsure.

“Who needs to know which one is you? Who were you going to send this to?”

Janet’s head was spinning. Hank was always a few steps ahead of her. How did he know she was going to send it to somebody?

He looked at the picture again and then back at her with a sneer. “You could have just told him you were the ugly one,” he said, ripping the picture to shreds and throwing them on the floor. He stormed out of the room. “Clean that up,” he shouted as he banged through the kitchen door.

Janet stood for a second, holding onto the dinner table to steady herself. Every piece of her felt hot with shame. Her knees were shaking and she wanted to crawl to the kitchen and throw herself on Hank’s mercy. In her mind’s eye she could see herself doing it, crying, begging for forgiveness. The beating he would give her would put things to right. They could go back to normal and she could forget about this whole crazy plan.

The clock on the mantel over the unused fireplace was clicking noisily. She knew Hank was waiting in the kitchen for her, to apologize, to come get his dinner ready. It’s what they both had come to expect. But some little voice in her head was whispering one word, over and over, and it was getting louder. The sound of it, of what it meant, made her so sick to her stomach she gagged.

The voice was saying, “Now.”

To her own surprise, Janet grabbed her handbag off the chair and her coat and hat from the hook in the hallway. With one look back toward the kitchen door, she ran out the front door, down the steps, and toward the trolley stop. A trolley pulled up just then and she got on.

Okay, Mat thought. It’s not that bad. The writing was melodramatic, but maybe Dena had given Mat a gift after all—some trashy reading to help her knock off a few hours of her life in exile.

Mat shut the book. Benjamin was staring at her, his mouth ajar.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” On the screen of his video game, a green bubble with feet and googly eyes was bouncing in place waiting for the next command.

Mat wondered how long Benjamin had been staring at her. He had a right to be confused. Mat was wearing her favorite summer shirt, a button-up in light cotton, and its looseness hid what little curves Mat had. The rest of her outfit consisted of well-worn jeans, the boots that she was wearing only because their chunky soles took up too much space in her suitcase, and the brown leather strap she kept doubled on her left wrist at all times. Mat had the square hands and trimmed nails of a boy, too. Add in the short black hair and a kid could be excused for not knowing.

“What do you think?” Mat turned and leaned back toward the window to give him a clear view.

He screwed up his face in concentration. “I don’t know. A girl?”

“Why do you think a girl?”

“I don’t know,” he said, turning back to his game. “You move like a girl, I guess. And you have girl eyes.” He put his earbuds back in and pressed a button with his thumb. The green bubble grew smaller and started leaping up onto a series of moving platforms. The game’s jangly carnival music leaked out of his ears.

“Is he bothering you?” Benjamin’s mother had come up without Mat noticing.

Mat smiled. “Oh, no. He’s fine. He was just asking me about my, about my shirt.”

“Oh, good. I’m glad he’s not bothering you.” She peered down at Mat’s lap, her eyes traveling from the book cover to Benjamin’s face, and wrinkled her nose.

Mat lifted the book up and shook her head. “A gag gift, from a friend. Great, huh?” Mat smiled but the mom was scanning the car for another empty seat. There weren’t any. Mat stuffed the book back into her bag and took out her laptop instead. Benjamin’s mother tapped him on the shoulder and pulled the earbud out on his left side.

“Come on,” she said.

He got up, pinning the bag of candy and his bottle of juice between his waist and his knuckles, and made his way down the aisle after his mother. His sisters squealed in protest as Mom ordered Benjamin to share a seat with the smallest one.

Mat opened her book file, hoping to get some work done on some poems, then closed it. Her editor was expecting—no, demanding—a manuscript from her sometime this autumn, and her slack schedule in Grinnell was supposed to help her meet that deadline. But she wasn’t in Grinnell yet. She could read Flame on the Mesa for now. Anyway, maybe Dena was right. She wasn’t reading it for the quality of the writing. Just the lesbian presence, the existence of queer stories, was offensive to some people. It was important to read this book in public.

Janet had gotten on the trolley line in the wrong direction, headed north. She took the trolley much farther than she would normally go, just so she could get off somewhere where Hank would never look for her, then get back on the line the other way, headed toward Woolworth’s.  

The trolley stop where she chose to wait was right on the edge of the negro part of town, across from a soda fountain. The people coming in and out of the fountain looked at her in a way she wasn’t used to. They wouldn’t do that downtown or in her neighborhood. She pulled her coat tighter around her neck and stared at her shoes. The trolley couldn’t come soon enough.

She didn’t know where else to go besides back to Woolworth’s. She knew that if Hank went looking for her—and he would—he would try Melody’s place first. She was her only friend, after all. The store was going to be open late since it was Thursday, but even so, it was getting close to 6:30 already, with all the backtracking she had to do.

Mr. Morris, the store manager, saw Janet come in and knew right away something was up. Janet never came in on her time off.

“Janet, what brings you in? You’re not about to quit on me, are you?” Janet was a good worker, a little quiet with the customers and she could stand up straighter and show that pretty face of hers sometimes. Might sell more lipstick. But he’d hate to lose her. She fairly jumped when he asked her to do anything. A girl like that was valuable.  

“Oh, no, Mr. Morris. I left something this afternoon.” Her eyes flew around the room, like she was looking to make an escape. “My hat.”

Mr. Morris looked at the hat on Janet’s head.

Janet touched her head and said, “My other hat.” She bolted for the stockroom before he could ask any more questions.

She closed the door of the stockroom behind her and wiped her moist brow. It occurred to her that going to Reno meant she was going to quit on Mr. Morris. She hadn’t really thought about it that way. Maybe he’d hire her back once she got into town again and he heard the story. She thought he liked her enough to do that.

She heard a noise in the shadows of the rows of cartons and crates. Janet turned to see Fern, the cleaning woman, hanging up her coat in the corner. Fern’s day started when the shopgirls’ day ended, but her slouching shoulders made her already look tired.  

“How you doing, Mrs. Heinrichs?” Fern asked.

“Oh, I’m alright, Fern,” Janet said. 

Fern came closer and asked, “Are you sure?” This was the closest the two of them had ever been, although they traded pleasantries on the nights when Janet worked until closing. Fern’s dark eyes seemed to hold real concern for Janet. “You’re shaking like a leaf. Did you catch a chill?”

“No, I’m just—” Janet started.

Fern said, “Just what? Just scared out of your wits now that I look at you a little closer. You come sit down, Mrs. Heinrichs. Catch your breath before the devil gets it away from you.”

She led Janet to the corner where Fern kept the mops and rags. Just below where Fern hung her coat every night she had set up a pallet on bricks and a metal milk crate next to it. A little place to eat her supper. Janet had never noticed it before. 

The minute Fern let go of her arm, Janet slumped onto the milk crate.

“Mrs. Heinrichs, if you don’t mind me saying, you look like something’s chasing you. You’re welcome to sit in my seat until you figure out which way you’re going to run, but I have to eat my sandwich and be out on the floor with a broom in my hand in nine minutes.”

Janet looked up at Fern’s kind face. “You go ahead and eat.” The truth was, she had run away from Hank before dinner and she was hungry. She had maybe five dollars in her pocketbook, and she would need every penny of that small treasure just to get through the next few days or so until she could figure out a way to get onto the train.

When Fern saw Janet’s sad eyes following the sandwich on its trip from waxpaper wrapper to mouth, Fern pulled out a folding knife from the pocket of her coat and cut the sandwich in two. “Here,” she said with a sigh, handing the full half to Janet. “Looks like you could use this.”

“Thanks,” Janet said. The sandwich was two pieces of bread with butter and apples between. They sat in silence while Janet worked up the energy to eat it. She felt weighed down by all the questions. Where would she go now? Who would help her? How would she get out of town without Hank finding her first?

“What’s on your mind, Mrs. Heinrichs?” Fern finally asked.

Janet stopped chewing to look at Fern as clearly as she could in the stilted light of the stockroom. Could she trust a colored cleaning lady to keep a secret? She wasn’t sure she had any choice.

She set the sandwich down on the pallet and stood up. “Fern,” she said. “I’m going away. Please don’t tell Mr. Morris. I’m going to—” Janet couldn’t bring herself to say the place. “I’m going away, for six weeks. My husband can’t know and I—” Janet stopped herself. She pulled on her bangs. “Oh, what am I doing?”

“Mrs. Heinrichs.” Fern’s voice was steady, with a note of sternness in it. “In about two minutes, Mr. Morris is going to come through this door looking for me, and he better not find you and me having this little dinner party back here. So, if you don’t mind me saying so, if there’s something you need from me, you better get to the point right quick.”

This was Janet’s chance and again she heard that one word, Now.  

“I’m going to Reno, Fern. Hank hasn’t been a very good husband. I was going to go in a couple of weeks. That was the plan, anyway, but today I ran out of the house after Hank tore up a photo of me I was going to send to the manager of the hotel where they’ve got a job for me, and I don’t have anywhere to go until I figure out how I’m getting on the train. And I lied to Mr. Morris. I said I was coming back here to get my hat.”

Fern looked up at Janet’s head then, with its pale blue hat, a cloche style popular five years before.

“I know,” Janet said. “I told him it was my other hat.”

Fern went to the nail next to her coat and brought down her hat. It was a red felt number with bakelite cherries in cluster on the band. “Take this.” Fern said.

“Oh, I couldn’t,” Janet said.

“Look, Mrs. Heinrichs, you don’t want to hole up in here too long. Mr. Morris will be thinking you’re trying to steal something. Even more so if you come out of here without another hat.”

Janet nodded and took the hat.

“And you take the 10 trolley to the YWCA on Germantown Avenue. They can keep you for a couple of nights until you get on the train. My cousin Cora works there in the kitchen. If you can get word to her, she might be able to help you with whatever you need.”

Janet’s blue eyes were brimming with tears. “I don’t know how to thank you, Fern.” For a second she was tempted to grab the woman and hug her but thought the better of it.

“You best can thank me by putting the rest of that sandwich in your pocket and getting out of here, if you don’t mind me saying so. Make sure you wave that hat around a couple times so Mr. Morris gets a good look at it on your way out.” 

Janet could hardly breathe but she got out one last “Thank you” before doing exactly as Fern advised.

As predicted, Mr. Morris was on the other side of the door.

“Fern,” he said angrily as Janet burst through.

“Found it!” Janet said, pointing to the hat. “Goodbye, Mr. Morris.”

Although it was dark outside and she was alone and running from Hank, she only felt a little afraid. In fact, she felt lighter, like a weight had been lifted off her chest and in its place was a cool sensation, a tickle of freedom she had never felt before. She had a plan, a place to stay, and someone who might look after her until she could get away. She would be alright if she would just stay focused on each minute as it came, on now.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

This is an excerpt from Junction, my as-yet unpublished novel about Mat Rodriguez’s twelve-month “exile” in Iowa, where she must go to establish residency so she can file for divorce from her wife, Klaudia. Junction is set in 2013, before the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court ruling making marriage equality—and, therefore, access to queer divorce—the law of the land.

Within Junction is Flame on the Mesa, a 1950s lesbian pulp novel. I give homage to my foremothers here: Desert Hearts, Donna Deitch’s 1985 Reno-centered lesbian romance film (based on Jane Rule’s 1964 novel Desert of the Heart), as well as Clare Booth Luce’s depiction of the Reno divorce industry in The Women, her 1936 play.

When I was trying to dissolve my queer Canadian marriage (I couldn’t file for divorce in my home state of Wisconsin because the state didn’t consider my marriage legal), I couldn’t help but consider the similarities between Deitch and Rule’s stories of women making the journey to Reno and the many ways LGBTQ couples were caught in the cracks of state divorce laws.

To write Flame, I studied American and European lesbian pulp fiction. Consistent across my reading was an unrelenting whiteness: the main characters were all white, with the exception of one “exotic” black woman and one light-skinned black woman passing as someone from India. As a political-minded Latina queer writer raised in a multiracial/multilingual family, it’s impossible for me not to write about race and ethnicity. But in writing Flame, I faced a conundrum: do I go for an accurate mimicry of the pulp genre and make my cast of characters all white? Or do I reflect the reality that American queer life has always been a multiracial/multiethnic affair?

In the end, I felt compelled to a direct and immediate address of race, as in much of my work. First, there’s Melody’s concern that the Riverside manager won’t hire Janet, who is white, unless she can prove she’s not black. In the scene with Fern, I tried to show through body language, terms of address, and their boss’s behavior the varying expectations for workers of different races. Although depicting Fern as a flat, agenda-less “helper” to Janet would more accurately mimic pulp’s treatment of characters of color, I couldn’t let Fern be just a paper cutout. Instead, Fern is clear what her assistance to Janet could cost her and positions her needs against Janet’s. Throughout Flame, Janet makes alliances with people of color who are well-rounded characters. Ultimately, she falls in love with Lena, a Latina.

In Junction, Mat is a Mexican-American genderqueer suddenly relocated to the nearly all-white context of rural Iowa. She encounters more subtle barriers based on ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender than those confronting Janet and her friends, but together their stories illustrate the intersectionality—and durability—of the oppressions queer women and women of color face.

 

Jennifer Morales is a Wisconsin poet, fiction writer, and performance artist. Recent publications include MAYDAY, Glass Poetry, and Stoneboat. Another Junction excerpt is forthcoming in Happy Hours: Our Lives in the Gay Bars (Flashpoint Productions), edited by S. Renée Bess and Lee Lynch. Jennifer’s first book, Meet Me Halfway (UW Press, 2015), a collection of interconnected short stories about life in hyper-segregated Milwaukee, was the Wisconsin Center for the Book’s 2016 “Book of the Year.”