Part 18: link
Gaius’ head snaps up at the sound of the front door slamming and grocery bags being set a little more emphatically than usual on the kitchen counter. He sets his newspaper aside and goes to the kitchen, glancing at Arthur, who follows him.
As soon as he sees Alice’s face he knows she’s steamed about something. “How was the market, dear?” he asks cautiously.
“Mortifying,” Alice snaps.
“What happened?” Gaius asks.
“Guinevere?” Arthur asks quietly, having a sneaking suspicion.
“It was mostly
fine,” Gwen answers.
“Until we got to the checkout lane,” Alice huffs.
“I hope this’ll be enough,” Gwen says, staring suspiciously at the two whole chickens, pound of bacon, several bunches of collard greens, sack of cornmeal, box of Corn Flakes, sack of sweet potatoes, and a bag of pecans on the belt.
“Gwen, we’ve got plenty of food. We’ll need to have the neighbors over to help us eat all this, at this rate,” Alice chuckles.
“Sorry. Must be a southern thing. There’s nothin’ more embarrassin’ to a southern woman than runnin’ out of food.”
“It’s not a southern thing,” Alice chuckles, “it’s a female thing.”
Gwen laughs at this, feeling reassured.
“Hello, Betty, how are you?” Alice greets the cashier pleasantly.
“Hi, Alice, I’m fine, thanks. Wish I didn’t have to work, but what can you do?” Betty says, ringing up Alice’s half of the groceries with a smile. Gwen had stubbornly insisted on paying for the things for Sunday’s dinner herself.
“Do you think Gaius and Morgana will like it?” Gwen asks, biting her lip.
“Of course they will. Well, Morgana may turn her nose up at the greens, but she’ll at least give it a try,” Alice says. “You should have seen her when she was little. Trying to get that girl to eat a vegetable was like pulling teeth. Actually, trying to get that girl to do anything she didn’t want to do was a trial,” Alice says, able to chuckle about it now.
“Yeah, I can see that about her. Independent mind,” Gwen nods.
“Oh, goodness, where are my manners,” Alice says, flustered. “Betty, this is Gwen.” Alice pulls some bills out of her purse to pay for her groceries and waits while Betty rings up Gwen.
“Hello,” Betty nods politely to Gwen.
“Pleased to meet you, ma’am,” Gwen smiles back.
“So you and Gaius finally got yourselves a maid, huh?” Betty asks Alice.
“What?” Alice’s face is suddenly like stone.
“Um, isn’t she…?”
“Gwen is not our maid, Betty. Why would you assume such a thing?”
“I… I’m sorry… I don’t…”
“Gwen is family, Betty. She’s engaged to be married to our nephew Arthur. Remember I told you last week when Morgana and I were in here buying half the store? They’re staying with us until the wedding,” Alice snaps.
“It’s all right, Aunt Alice,” Gwen says softly. She sees a small colored girl with her mother staring at her from the next line over, her eyes wide, her little round face taking in every detail. She smiles at the girl and gives her a little wave, trying to let her know that everything’s okay.
“No, Gwen, it’s not all right,” she says. “I’ve known you for a long time, Betty, and it saddens me – no, it sickens me – that you would automatically jump to that conclusion. I know you never would have guessed that she would be Arthur’s fiancée, but jumping immediately to
maid? Gwen is an educated woman with a college degree.”
“You’re… you’re right, Alice. I’m sorry,” Betty stammers. She quickly resumes ringing Gwen’s purchases.
“It’s not me who requires your apology, Betty.”
“I’m sorry, Gwen. I shouldn’t have…”
“Thank you,” Gwen says, not knowing what else to say. She stands straight and tall, consciously keeping her face neutral and her eyes kind. For the benefit of the little girl in the next lane who is still watching and listening.
Betty tells Gwen the total, and Gwen pays. She briefly considers “accidentally” flashing the large collection of bills she has in her purse, courtesy of Arthur’s trip to the bank yesterday, but decides against it. Money doesn’t solve that particular problem.
Gwen collects her change and her bags. “Thank you, Betty, you have a nice day, now,” she says, quite pleasantly. She sees the little girl and her mother finishing their transaction, and Gwen looks directly at the child and lifts her own chin an inch. A message.
Always keep your chin up. The girl smiles at her.
Alice huffs and grumbles all the way back to the car.
“I was mortified. Just… incensed,” Alice says.
“Alice, dear, calm down. It sounds to me like you put Betty firmly in her place and that she’ll definitely think twice about opening her mouth in the future,” Gaius says, hugging his wife.
Arthur had been holding Gwen’s hand the whole time she was relaying the story, rubbing his thumb along the back of her hand.
“So you’re okay?” he asks quietly, gently tilting her head up and kissing her.
“I’m fine,” she says.
“You’re sure?” Alice asks, suspicious.
“Aunt Alice, Uncle Gaius, when Arthur and I decided to come up here, we knew it would be better, but we certainly never thought that this was any kind of Promised Land.”
“Well, that’s good, I guess. I’m only sorry that it got proved so quickly.”
Gwen sighs and sits at the table. “Throughout my life, I have been called all manner of hurtful and hateful things. I don’t think I need to tell you what they are,” she says. “Just last month one was even spray-painted across the front of my house.”
“Oh, my God,” Alice says.
“So did it hurt when Betty assumed I was your maid? ’Course it did. But my daddy used to tell me: ‘There are a lot of ignorant and narrow-minded people in this world, Gwennie. You can’t let the stupidity of others affect your own happiness. We may not own much, but we own our happiness.’”
“Your dad had a good head on his shoulders,” Gaius says, nodding.
“He did. He didn’t have much of an education, but he was smart in that way that they don’t teach in schools,” Gwen says.
“And he would be very proud of his daughter,” Arthur says. He has been standing quietly behind her, softly rubbing her shoulders while she talked.
“I didn’t notice the little girl,” Alice admits. “I’m sorry she had to see that.”
“I’m not,” Gwen says. “I’m glad she saw it and I’m glad I was able to show her that I wasn’t gon’ let some… misguided cashier get me down.”
Morgana comes shuffling into the kitchen now, in her bathrobe and slippers. She stops and surveys the scene in front of her. “Did I miss something?”
“You’re sure?” Morgana asks, steering her Thunderbird into a parking spot.
“For heaven’s sake, Morgana, I am fine,” Gwen sighs, laughing. “I thought you were happy I still wanted to go shoppin’ after this morning.”
“I am. I just… I don’t want a repeat,” Morgana says.
“It will be fine,” Gwen says. “If I let one… stupid cashier stop me from leavin’ the house, what good does that do? If I just stick my head in the sand and hide from white folks it doesn’t do anything to help other colored folks who might not be as brave as me. Like that little girl.”
“You sure you’re not a lawyer?” Morgana asks, impressed.
“Kindergarten teacher,” Gwen laughs, shaking her head. “Now come on. I got money burnin’ a hole in my pocket.”
Luckily, their trip is free of major incident. Gwen learns quickly that Morgana has a wicked glare and a wicked streak, loudly, openly and freely referring to Gwen as “my cousin,” just to watch people’s reactions. She also learned that once the salesclerks discover that money isn’t of much consequence, they’ll bend over backwards to serve you, even if your skin is green and you have antennae sticking out of your head.
Doesn’t mean it’s right, but it’s the world,
she thinks, her fingers tracing a silk nightgown.
“Do I want to know why you’re looking at that?” Morgana sidles up, asking quietly in Gwen’s ear.
“Probably not,” Gwen says, blushing. “But pretend I’m not marryin’ your cousin for just five minutes, now.”
“It’s very pretty,” Morgana says, looking at it. It’s pale lavender silk with spaghetti straps, a fitted bodice, and an empire waist. “It has a robe, too,” she points out.
“Yes,” Gwen says. “I really like it. Do you think not-your-cousin Arthur would like it?”
“For the wedding night?” Morgana asks, raising her eyebrow.
Gwen nods, blushing again.
“I think he would, but I think he’d probably prefer you wear nothing at all,” she says bluntly, grinning devilishly.
“Morgana!” Gwen exclaims, falling into a fit of giggles.
“Well, you asked,” Morgana says, laughing as she breezes away again.
Gwen digs through the gowns on the rack, finds her size, and takes it over to the counter where she has some other things piled, waiting under the watchful eye of a clerk named Marianne.
“Very nice choice, miss,” Marianne says, removing it from the hanger and folding it neatly along with several sweaters, some pants, a long skirt, a scarf with matching mittens, and a heavy winter coat.
“Gwen!” Morgana calls her over to where she is standing by some dresses. “What do you think?” she asks, holding out an emerald green dress.
“For you or for me?”
“For me,” Morgana says, holding it up to her body.
“For you, I like it. It’s a little flashy for me,” Gwen says.
“Flashy is just what I like,” Morgana says, slinging it over her arm. “Got everything you were looking for?”
“Yes, I think so,” Gwen says, and they walk back to the counter. Gwen stops by the nightgowns and grabs a couple heavy flannel ones as well. “Forgot I wanted some of these,” she mutters.
“Somehow I don’t think you’ll have any trouble staying warm during our cold winter nights,” Morgana teases.
“Okay, you can stop pretending he’s not your cousin, now,” Gwen says. When will I stop blushing about this?
That night, Gwen and Arthur join Gaius to watch television for a bit, Gwen cuddled against Arthur on the sofa while Gaius dozes in his recliner. Every once in a while he snores, snorts, and then jerks awake. Gwen suppresses her giggles in Arthur’s shoulder.
“Enjoying the show, Uncle?” Arthur teases.
“Hush, you,” Gaius shoots back. He knows he’s busted and he doesn’t care. “My house, my TV, my electric bill. If I want to fall asleep in front of Gunsmoke,
“If he drifts off and we try to change the channel, he immediately wakes up and yells that he was watching that,” Arthur whispers in Gwen’s ear.
“I thought my daddy was the only one who did that,” she whispers back, giggling. He kisses the edge of her ear, then nips it lightly. She smacks his arm, shocked, ignoring the delicious goosebumps that have just sprung up along that side. “Arthur!” she hisses.
“Did I hurt you?” he asks quietly.
“No, it’s just… your uncle is right there.
“So you liked it?”
“I’m not answerin’ that.”
She can feel him grinning against her ear. Then he does it again. She pinches him. “Stop it!”
“I bet whatever you two are whispering about over there is much more interesting than this show,” Gaius mutters.
“See, now we’re botherin’ your uncle.”
“No, we’re not, he’s just teasin’,” Arthur says.
“Behave yourself,” Gwen admonishes. Really she just wants to turn around and kiss him senseless, but she doesn’t. She won’t.
The show ends and Gwen has been doing some drifting and nodding herself now, so she gets up and excuses herself to go to bed.
She is just heading from the bathroom back to her room, already in her nightgown, when Arthur pops over for his goodnight kiss.
“You’re late,” she says, crossing her arms around her middle, feeling slightly vulnerable in just her nightgown.
“You look cute in your jammies,” he says, smirking at her.
“I don’t like you seein’ me in just my nightgown like this,” she says, heading into her room and grabbing her robe. He follows.
“You’re covered from your neck to your toes, Guinevere, I saw more of you on the day I met you,” he chuckles.
Gwen just glares at him. “You know what I mean.” She looks down at her left hand, missing its ring. She and Morgana stopped by a jewelry store after they left Gimbel’s to get it sized.
“When do you get it back?” Arthur asks.
“Wednesday.” She sits on the bed.
“Are you all right, Guinevere?” he asks quietly. “You seem… cranky.”
“It was a long day,” she sighs.
“I don’t want to push, but you’re sure this morning didn’t bother you more than you’re lettin’ on?” He sits beside her.
“I don’t know. Maybe. It was just kind of… jarring. Alice and I had a nice time, lookin’ around at all the produce. The man at the meat counter was so nice. I was just goin’ to get two whole chickens and cut ’em up myself, but he offered to do it for me. Just like that. Even asked if I wanted the gizzards and livers.”
“O’ course I did,” she grins at him. “I don’t waste things, you know that. I thought it didn’t bother me, but her voice just keeps floatin’ back. ‘So you and Gaius finally got yourselves a maid, huh?’ Didn’t even ask; just assumed.”
Arthur pulls her into his arms, and moments later she finds herself in his lap. “You’re allowed to be upset, darlin’,” he says softly, kissing her forehead. “Even though you’ve dealt with worse. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt any less.”
She leans against him, her head on his broad shoulder. She can feel his comforting warmth through the layers of flannel and terry cloth, and she wraps one arm around his torso. Unbidden, the image of him last Sunday morning with no shirt on flits through her brain, and she is glad that her face is tucked under his chin so he can’t see her blushing. Again.
He wraps his arms around her, holding her close. “Guinevere,” he says.
“Did I ever tell you how much I admire you? You’re ten times braver and stronger than I could ever be, do you know that?”
“Now you’re just bein’ ridiculous,” she says.
“No, I’m not. I… I’m so used to havin’ the world at my fingertips, being able to do and say what I please, go where I will, that I forget how lucky I am to have that privilege. That not everyone is as fortunate as I am. If I had just one of the hardships life had dealt you – your mama dyin’, your daddy dyin’, the trial, hell, even just bein’ colored and a woman besides – I’d probably just curl up in a ball and pull the covers over my head. I’ve learned so much about bein’ a good person since I met you, and I mean that.”
“Arthur…” she sighs, looking up at him.
“Just take the compliment, Guinevere,” he says, mock-scowling at her now.
She ducks her head again. “Thank you,” she says into his chest. “And your mama died, too Arthur,” she reminds him.
“Yeah, but not while I was tryin’ to put myself through college,” he answers back. “Not that I had
to put myself through college.”
“Neither did I, silly. Scholarship, remember?”
“Ah, but you had to keep your grades up to keep it,” he counters.
She looks up at him and sighs. “Are we gonna sit here and nitpick or are you gonna kiss me goodnight?”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to nibble your ear a little bit?” he teases.
“Ooo!” she huffs and tries to climb out of his lap, exasperated.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Arthur grins and holds tight.
“Arthur! You let me go!” she exclaims, trying not to be too loud, pushing his chest, trying not to laugh now.
“Nope,” he says, swooping down with his head. He nuzzles his way in to kiss her neck while she squirms, giggling. Then he pokes her in the ribs and she squeals.
“Ooo, we are
ticklish,” he declares triumphantly, going in for the kill.
“No!” she shrieks, laughing. “Ah! No fair! Arthur!” She is laughing, helpless under his assault, and manages to worm just far enough away for him to tackle her and catch her lips with his.
Gwen’s laughter dies away almost immediately as she finds herself half underneath him, lying on the bed now as he kisses her passionately. She makes a little squeaking sound and her hand finds its way into his hair.
Arthur’s hand drops on her waist, his fingers absently gripping the belt of her robe. Not pulling it free, just holding it, as if he is trying to keep his hand from wandering.
“Oh,” she gasps when he finally releases her lips to feather some kisses down her neck and back up again.
“Whoa, I guess you are all right!” Morgana exclaims from the doorway.
Getting awful tired of these interruptions,
Arthur thinks, rolling away from Gwen. She sits up quickly.
“Sorry, I heard screaming,” Morgana says, smirking at them.
“He was ticklin’.”
“She was tryin’ to get away,” Arthur defends himself.
“I don’t care,” Morgana says. “Go to bed before Mom comes and yells at you,” she says over her shoulder as she walks away.
“Guinevere,” his voice calls to me and I turn, the warm breeze blowing the lavender silk around my body, the material caressing my skin.
Barefoot and bare-chested, he holds his arms out to me and I find myself in his embrace, yet I swear I never took a step.
His hands are on my body, his lips on mine, and we are lying in the cool grass. He touches the silk of my gown and it vanishes. I touch him and feel the warmth of his skin. I can’t see it, but I know he is naked as well.
Our limbs intertwine, our lips explore. It feels heavenly, it feels right.
“I love you, Guinevere,” he whispers against my skin, his lips brushing against me like the wing of a butterfly.
What’s that pounding noise?
Gwen blinks her eyes open, looking around. Looking down. I’m dressed. I’m alone. I’m inside.
“I’m awake, Aunt Alice, thank you,” she calls.
Church. We’re going to church today,
she remembers, flinging the covers back and getting out of bed.
Why do I always have dreams like that on Sunday mornings?
she puzzles. She’s warm and flustered, desire still a new sensation.
It ain’t a sin to be havin’ dreams about the man you are goin’ to marry,
she firmly decides, nodding her head once and opening her bedroom door.
And then Arthur comes shuffling past in his pajama bottoms and nothing else, beating her to the bathroom.
“I’ll just be a minute, darlin’,” he mumbles.
Part 20: link