by Shade Akinmorin
“Gimme wunna dem poke chop, hunny… Anna Mae? You gon’ answer me wen I talk to you, young-n.”
“Mama! Please, call me Anna. And I’m sorry, but you see this?”
I walked over to the stove and shoved the ad in her face. It was about the atom bomb blast showing at Benny Binion’s Horseshoe Club on the other side of town. As she stood in front of me I couldn’t help but admire Mama. My mama, Louise Parker, was dark with smooth skin. She stood tall at five-foot-nine. Mama was a heavy set woman who carried her weight graciously. She did maid work on the side, but mostly stayed home to watch my three younger siblings. My father, James Parker, was a pastor at the Negro Baptist Church where we lived in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“You’re not goin’.”
“But everybody is going, Mama!”
Every day, I felt like I was slowly losing the freedoms associated with living in New York, but most importantly, living far away from parents. I was slowly losing Anna Parker, a student of Purdue University and the only female out of ten colored people currently attending the University. I was an English major and avid dancer for a dance company headed by a colored woman, Ms. Betsy. Ms. Betsy owned a local club in the area with her husband. I was home for the summer and after three long years of my new life, in less than two weeks, I was losing it all. As if I wasn’t already lost as soon as I got off the Pullman and sat down on a piss smelling black bench in a small corner labeled ‘colored.’
“You not ev’rbody. I don’ know what those fokes teach you-n New Yawk, but you gettin’ too fast an’ too loud for my likin’. Doin’ the hoochie-coochie at that club, an’ then tellin’ me you goin’ to school, too.”
I didn’t bother to plead my case to her.
“I’m leaving, Mama. I’ll see you later tonight.”
I strolled over and gave Mama a kiss on her cheek and then held her soft frame.
After a long pause, she hugged me back and kissed me on my forehead.
“Min’ yer manners to fokes, and you come back home in time fo’ dinner, yah hear? Dis Nevada, baby, an’ don’ you forget it.”
“Yes, Mama,” I said shutting the house door behind me.
“John, you know you can’t be talking to me like this, right?”
“I wish we visited my parents instead.”
“Well we’d have more freedom there” he said gayly, brushing my hair from my face.
“I’m sorry… I can’t show you to Ma-, my mother. I’m sorry I can’t show you to my mother.”
John never heard me call Mama, Mama. Just like he never saw me without my curly hair straightened without a good press from my iron. I had very light skin that got lighter with the north eastern weather. Mama was raped by a white man exactly 20 and half years ago. I am the daughter of a white man and a colored woman. In the cold months when my skin became pale, I could pass for a white woman and go out to dinner with John. John knew I was a black woman, but he didn’t care. He was a first generation Italian-American, and segregation was not something he quite understood.
“Please move away from me.”
Instead, John grabbed my hand and led me into a local bar on the white side of town.
“A beer for me and a Coke for the lady.”
The bartender smiled at me and I couldn’t help notice his chipped tooth.
“Well aren’ chu a purdy lil’ thin’.”
“That’s my lady. You watch your eyes now, boy.” John replied, joking with the bartender.
John, sensing my nervousness, squeezed my right hand under the table.
“She mighty fine, sir. My apologies.”
Playing my role as the woman, I giggled generously at the old chipped-tooth fool.
Sometimes I forgot who I was. Whether I should be the timid black girl who must say “sir and ma’ams” to every white person I saw on the road, or a white girl from upstate New York with a history that only started in the summer of 1959, three years ago. On campus, I was known as the colored girl on scholarship. I was harassed by only some of the girls, and occasionally hit on by the guys, but most of the time I was ignored altogether. I kept with the rest of the colored students. We studied together and hung out together, which wasn’t really hard because we all lived in the same hallway of our dorm. The other students never came to our hallway on the top floor.
I met John when I was at the park with my friends, off campus. He was talking with some boys from school and when I walked by him, he winked at me. At first I thought it was a mistake, but overtime I found love notes on my desk in every British Literature class. I always sat first row, by the window. Whoever this person was, he knew me very well. After two weeks of finding love notes on my desk, he finally came up to me after class one day. The other students looked shocked, but simply walked out of the room. When we were alone, we started talking. From there, I fell in love with my first love.
“Stop looking so tense,” John purred into my ear.
An older couple by the bar smiled at us as John began to dig his nose into my hair. I looked away.
It was John’s idea for us to hang out outside of campus in the state of New Jersey. We went out in public and I would pretend not to be colored; in reality, I simply acted like myself. I could have even kept my southern drawl, but I found it horrendous compared to the fast-talking Yankees. In those special outings with John, never in my life had I felt so human.
“Ya’ll goin’ to Benny’s Horseshoe Club tonight?” the old woman piped up when I accidently looked her away again.
“I don’t know, ma’am. It sounds dangerous. Is it safe?”
“Hunny, don’ be a fool now. Course is safe. I can tell youse and your-n husband are Yankees, but dats wat we do-n Nevada. Is been our tradition since April 22, 1952, wen ole’ Big Shot was dropped-n Yucca Lake. One bomb ev’ry three weeks.
“We’ll be there, ma’am. Thanks for letting us know,” John replied, while pulling me to my feet.
He paid the waiter and we entered the streets of Las Vegas.
“Are you serious? Should we go?” I asked as soon we left the bar.
“Yes, let’s see what Truman spent our hard-earned taxpayer money on throughout the 50’s.”
“I don’t think we should go, John.”
“Why not? It’ll be fun. One more week before we get on those damned separated Pullmans back to New York.”
I wanted to believe it was O.K. to be twnety and disobey Mama. I wanted to believe I had more wisdom than her because I was able experience life as both a black woman and white woman. All she ever-experienced was a life cleaning white folk’s homes. I went to New York, a place she heard about but could never imagine…..where the buildings touched the skies, where women wore fitted skirts and smart jackets. Where colored people had just a little more dignity than in the South. But most of all, I wanted to believe John. He loved me. He risked his life by being with me every chance he had. If anyone were to find out that we were dating…..he was willing to die for me. Or he could simply lie and say he didn’t know I was colored…..I looked at John, who on cue turned to look down at me and grin. He could never.
“Is only nine, Anna Ma-. Anna.”
“I know, but I’m tired, Mama. When Pa gets back from church, give him a kiss on the cheek for me.
“She lyin’ Mama. Don’ truss her! Anna Mae up to sompin’.”
Angela, the second oldest, spoke up, eyeing me up and down. No matter how many times I told her to call me Anna, the pest wouldn’t do it.
I went around the table and gave the twins a peck on the cheek. When I got to Angela, she side-eyed me but hugged me in return. I turned to leave the kitchen, not knowing my life would never be the same after that night.
I heard a loud sound hit my window at a quarter past twelve. I looked through bedroom curtains knowing who it was. John waved at me before sprinting down the street. I already washed and changed into my finest dress before I got into bed. I took a look into my door mirror and smoothed my short, black sequined dress, then started removing the curlers out of my hair. When I was done, I opened the room door and stuck my head into the hallway. The hallway was dark, only illuminated by a candle Mama put out in front of the bathroom door. I crepted out slowly, hiding my petite frame in the shadows of the hallway that never seemed so long until now. When I reached the stairs, I sprinted down the steps and out the front door. I was so scared that I kept running, forgetting to walk down the street. I saw John, his outline barely defined by an oil lamp down the street; he started running towards me.
“What’s the matter?”
Nothing. Just scared.”
John gave his whole-hearted laugh and pulled me into him.
“I got you, darling. Let’s just hurry out of here before your neighbors wonder why two white folks are walking through their town.”
“I’m black, John.”
“Anna, you knew what I meant. Shessh, sorry. Let’s just go before we get in some trouble.
When we entered Benny’s, we were greeted by the smell of grits, sweat, and beer. The music was loud and the women were trapped on the dance floor with their partners. John and I found tables at the back of the restaurant. The music stopped abruptly and everyone started moaning and cursing the DJ. Then “Good Rockin’ Tonight” by Elvis came on and the club was merry again.
“Shall we dance, my lady,” John asked standing and holding out his hand to me like a true English gentleman.
“We shall,” I replied with a slight curtsy.
We laughed and shimmied our way to the dance floor. John spun me around and around ‘til I became dizzy. I got drunk that night; I never got drunk before. I couldn’t complain. I was having the time of my life.
“Can we get your attention, please!”
The crowd gave one last cheer before they quieted down.
“We’re gonna proceed to the back of dis ‘ere place an’ witness an explosion!”
The crowd erupted once more.
“John, I’m so scared!”
John turned to look at me. I started jumping up and down laughing, my barrel curls hitting my face like a little girl. John laughed, too, and then we took each other’s hands and ran to the front. We wanted to be the first pair to make it out onto the large balcony. The club’s inhabitants shuffled after us and we lined up along the railing of the balcony. Some people couldn’t fit, so drunk men started climbing on top of the roof, leaning over with their arms dangling, trying to pick up their women. The majority of the women walked away from their lovers as if they were not just tightly holding them on the dance floor, swearing they would never leave. The space on the balcony grew smaller. I secured my balance by holding the rail. I got a perfect spot, directly in front and center. John stood behind me, holding my waist.
Below the balcony, stretching the entire strip of the hill where Benny’s was located, a crowd gathered holding candles and lanterns. Fathers carried their sons on their shoulders hoping to get a glimpse of the action. Women frantically ‘shushing’ the girls to stay solemn for an event that would be dangerously beautiful. Benny came out with his workers passing out goggles.
“Y’all wear dis to protect yer eyes, now!”
When everyone put on their goggles, the lights at Benny’s were turned off. One by one the crowd outlining the hills bellow blew out their candles and lanterns. We were silent dark bodies lining the hills around Yucca Lake.
“John, is it coming?”
He whispered into my ear, “it’s coming.”
For some reason, dread more than excitement filled me when he said those words.
“Turn y’all heads to da left!” Benny yelled.
The crowd, like robots, turned their heads to the left as the bomb dropped. We waited the prescribed time, then turned our heads to look forward. A bright cloud resembling an umbrella climbed towards the heavens. We braced ourselves for the shock wave that followed the explosion. A heat wave came first, and I immediately felt my arms burning. I released my hold on the rail. A shock wave came next, and I stumbled back into John, who held the rails around me tightly. Then after what seemed like hours, rather than mere seconds, the sunburst faded away.
I awoke to screaming. I found myself back at our table with my head buried into John’s neck with his cold, clammy hands around my shoulders. My head was throbbing and the room looked like it was spinning. I remembered there was an explosion, then coming back into Benny’s for free drinks. Then everything went blank. I tried to think, but it hurt.
“Lookey what we found here!”
Benny came out dragging what seemed to be a person behind him.
“Impossible,” I thought. This could never happen in New York! Then I remembered I was not in New York. And that things that were dragged in Nevada were either animals or colored folks. My heart dropped. Benny was pulling in a colored man who had their face down in shame.
“Disrespectful folk. We given’em dey own place to liv an’ shop an eat, but dey come on ‘ere.”
“John!” I whisper screamed into his ear. “Let’s go!”
John woke up and squinted his eyes around the room, then ruffled his hair before he turned to look at me. He froze mid yawn when he saw the panic on my face. He rescanned the room, stopping when he saw Benny by the bar holding a leash tied around a colored man’s neck. Without a word, he grabbed my hand and we stood to go trying to walk casually to the door. Some people were still passed out, some were awake and held the confused expression that I held only minutes earlier. Others were awake and eager, like they were out for blood.
“Anna Mae!” was the voice that echoed throughout the place. It sounded like death.
I stopped and John looked at me quizzically before registering that Anna Mae was my full name. I felt fear crawl from my face, down my neck, engulf my spine and then settle around my stomach peacefully.
The club went quiet. All eyes searching for an Anna Mae that a colored man could possibly be calling in their only-white facility.