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.”