Thursday, March 20, 2008
EXCERPT: Being Plumville
by Savannah J Frierson
Living in the small, southern town of Plumville is effortless, seamless, and safe . if you follow the rules. You're given them from birth, and anything that could possibly make you break them is removed from your life-even if it's your best friend.
Such is the case for Benjamin Drummond and Coralee Simmons, two best friends separated during childhood because Benjamin is white, Coralee is black, and relationships between the two races are unspoken in its taboo. However, fifteen years later during the turbulent 1960s, Benjamin and Coralee are reunited, and despite their upbringing, neither are able to deny what they had in their innocent youth, nor suppress the desire to rekindle it-maybe even into something more.
The reunion forces the pair and those around them to examine the consequences of following the status quo versus following their hearts. Is friendship too high a price to pay to be Plumville? Is love? Will Benjamin and Coralee become who Plumville raised them to be, or who they were born to be?
The speakerphone felt impossibly heavy in her grasp, and it took all of Coralee’s strength to hold it to her mouth.
“Ladies and gentlemen . . . we are here, on the brink of change, of starting a new era for Solomon College, and later, the world . . .”
The words tumbled off her tongue, automatic and precise, though her stomach jumped with each word pumped from her diaphragm. This was her important speech, and she had to deliver it well.
“Too long has our history been in the hands of another, spun, molded, and shaped to fit certain perceptions, to justify the gross wrongs done to us. Tonight we take it back, but not only that, expose the real truth of our people. Black Studies today, Black Studies forever!”
The crowd cheered, and some of the weight on Coralee’s shoulders fell away. They were responding to her, energized. Posters ranged from “Black Studies Now!” to “We Have History, Too!” . . . some only decorated with black fists or afros or black bodies holding books at their chest and a raised fist. Some at the rally wore dashikis, others more American clothes, and Coralee thought it was a fitting tribute to their two histories. They learned about one extensively, almost oppressively, while the other was only anecdotes told by their parents or other elders.
Jermaine was right; there could be no half-stepping when it came to their cause.
The sun’s rays honed in on the library like a spotlight, as if she were an actress in her biggest debut. Instead, however, Coralee felt she was a proxy for her ancestors—their ancestors—the ancestors of black Plumville, Bakersfield, Georgia, America; the many blacks who came from all classes, regions, and colors.
They were tired of being treated as second-class students at Solomon College, tired of being discounted because their skin color triggered notions of an ignorant, incapable people. They would show the school what they could do, what their people had done; they would show that without them, there wouldn’t be a United States of America.
“The journey toward our goal will be long and arduous, but not as long and arduous as our forefathers and mothers, who toiled the fields and picked the tobacco, rice, and cotton that made the South what it was—the richest region in the nation. It was from our forefathers and mothers’ blood, sweat, and tears that many of our peers’ families were able to live as comfortably as they did—”
“And it was because of y’all uppity niggers forgettin’ yo’ place the South fell!”
A chilling breeze swooped across the gathering, strains of Dixie floating upon it. Coralee clenched her jaw at the Confederate flag flying high from the other group. Though it wasn’t a foreign sight, it still caused an unpleasant, visceral reaction. In one piece of cloth held the hatred, humiliation, and harassment she and hers had experienced since the moment they were born. Never had Coralee reacted so strongly to something inanimate, but how could she not when most in Plumville and Bakersfield pledged allegiance to that flag instead of the national one.
Not that the national one was much better, but at least those under that flag made an effort.
Jermaine eased Coralee aside, taking the speakerphone from her. Dixie got louder as the group approached, and the rally members moved closer together in a show of unity . . . and protection as well. “This is a peaceful rally! We don’t want any trouble!” Jermaine said, his static-reproduced voice echoing throughout the quad.
The second group booed, jabbing the flag and other less benign posters in the air.
“Get down,” Jermaine whispered to her.
“Get down from the steps, Coralee! Right now you ain’t nothin’ but a target!”
A whiskey bottle barreled toward them, overshooting its target and exploding with a sickening shatter behind them. Coralee didn’t run down the steps, refusing to show her fear, but as soon as she reached the bottom, Freda and Nick yanked her into the safety of the crowd.
“That Negro needs to get off those steps! What if they don’t miss next time?!” Freda said, terror lacing her voice. Jermaine remained and picked up Coralee’s speech where she left off, his tone strong despite heckling and vulgarity from the dissenting group. Another whiskey bottle exploded at Jermaine’s feet, soaking his brand new sneakers. It was then Coralee realized they weren’t missing at all, aiming just enough to show intent, to warn.
“And now we rally, my friends, rally so our voices will finally be heard . . . we rally for change!”
Booing and cheering fought for dominance, and Jermaine jogged down the steps to join the rest of the BSU board. They linked arms and began singing We Shall Overcome, and walked towards the office, but the other crowd moved to stand in front of them, blocking their progress and looking mighty pleased to do so.
They didn’t stop singing; instead, they got louder, unleashing the power of their voices and the voices they represented. The song angered their opponents. Their jaws clenched. They gripped their sticks, branches and bats harder. They waved the Confederate flag more vigorously than earlier. Coralee felt the disgust and lust from each foe she saw, but she gasped and stumbled back when she met a particular set of eyes. Benjamin Drummond stood looking every bit as angry and severe as the rest of his group, and she tightened her arm around Nick’s to draw strength. As if last week’s comment wasn’t enough, his presence added salt to the wound.
Dixie now clashed with Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel, the songs dueling for supremacy. However, this was not enough for some, and a scream pierced the cacophony.
A fight ensued. Nick pushed her back into the crowd, away from the oncoming opposition, and Coralee fled. Someone grabbed the back of her cardigan; a scream lodged in her throat. She began kicking and scratching as an arm wedged itself between her collarbone and jaw.
“The only thing you nigger women are good for is a screw . . . and not even a good one!”
Coralee struggled against him, especially when he worked his hand down the front of her blouse to grope her breasts. Before her, a rally member stood dazed, blood seeping from a wound at his temple and small twigs from the branch used to strike him strewn at his feet.
“I could take you right now, right here in the middle o’ all this, and no one would stop me . . . not even yo’ lil’ uppity nigger boyfriends—ouch! You stupid nigger bitch!”
Coralee had stepped on his foot and jabbed him hard in the stomach with her elbow, gaining freedom. She tore through the crowd, tears of frustration, sadness, terror, and anger coursing down her cheeks. All the weeks of planning, of preparing for every possible counter-attack, had fallen short because none in the BSU could fully fathom the animosity and hatred of their opposition. It seemed no amount of discussion or teaching would do anything to stop it.
Amid the chaos Coralee stumbled upon the sidewalk, not realizing it was even there. Suddenly arms wrapped around her and she screamed, struggling once more. A hand clamped around her mouth, and she fought for breath, she thought he was choking her again. Instead, he lifted her, cradling her like a baby, and she wrapped her arms around the person instinctively. Coralee gasped when she saw Benjamin’s tight jaw, and hid her face in the crook of his neck.
He ran with her, his football training coming in handy, to a faraway alcove of trees behind the chapel and library. He set her down with her back against a tree, his front pressing her against it. His arms locked her in, and he kept looking behind him, as if searching for danger. Coralee tried to relax against the tree, but she couldn’t stop trembling. Blood and adrenaline surged through her and she took deep breaths as if oxygen would run out in the next five minutes. She felt her heartbeat in her wrists, temple, stomach, chest, the backs of her knees—everywhere—as the heart worked overtime.
Thunder bounced off the roofs and trees, mixing with the yelling and fighting from the melee. Lightning flashed too brightly to be unconcerned about it, and Coralee jumped, a sob escaping her. Benjamin’s large, calloused hand touched her cheek, catching the silent tears she shed. Coralee jerked, glancing at his eyes that were still full of the righteous anger and severity from before. What if Benjamin was the attacker from earlier?
She gasped again, pushing against the tree as if forcing it to envelop her. She hadn’t recognized her first attacker’s voice, her adrenaline-enhanced senses distorting it, but Coralee couldn’t rule Benjamin out, no matter how much she wanted to do so.
His hands moved from her face to her body and Coralee froze, feeling the backs of his fingers ghost across her stomach and the bottom of her breasts as he worked her buttons. Her bottom lip slid between her teeth and she closed her eyes tight. Suddenly he stopped touching her, but she didn’t relax, slowly opening her eyes to him. He was looking at her intently, his expression blank and hands fisted in his pockets. Coralee relaxed and looked down at herself.
He had righted her clothes, even buttoning the formerly opened cardigan she wore on top of her blouse. Rain began falling, flourished by the thunder and lightning, and she hugged herself. Benjamin opened his jacket in silent invitation.
Experience taught her not to, conditioned by her father and grandmother and everyone else who told her white people couldn’t be trusted. Yet here this white boy was,
protecting her from molesters and now the elements, only asking for her trust in return.
Did these small acts of chivalry deserve it?
They weren’t children anymore; they couldn’t hide in the bubble of innocence, of make-believe. The dragons were real, disguised as rednecks in pickup trucks who ran black people off the road for the fun of it. The wicked witches and warlocks were real, disguised as fellow students, professors, and police officers. The only person who hadn’t been real was her prince, and yet . . . it seemed he was trying to be, even if he didn’t know how to go about it so well.
She peered at him, hugging herself tighter. “Benny?”
The name was small, barely discernable from the pelting rain and wind rustling through the leaves. A flash of lightning illuminated behind him, casting shadows along his face. His blue eyes totally focused on her, and he stepped closer, opening his jacket wider.
It was the please that uprooted her feet and propelled her into his arms. She hugged his middle, and breathed in his scent mixed with the rain and whatever soap he used earlier, and that cinnamon smell he always had, even when he was younger. Coralee was warm, partly from the jacket, but mostly from him. This was a familiar embrace—the embrace he would give her when he used to protect her from Luther Jr., or Tommy Birch . . . a spider.
The rain was more calming than it should’ve been. Her clothes were ruined, but the rain had less to do with that than her harasser. Water seeped into her shoes, squishing around whenever she moved or redistributed her weight from one foot to the other.
She snuggled closer to Benjamin, taking more of his heat.
“You’d never guess this,” he said after a while, one hand sweeping along her back slowly, comfortingly, “but your mama asked me to look out for you while you were here.”
That should’ve surprised Coralee far more than it did, but it made perfect sense. Her mother still worked for his family, and Patty had always liked Benjamin. Yet if that were the case . . .
“You never spoke to me until this year.”
“I don’t have to talk to you to look after you.”
“Then why did you look so surprised to see me that day in Professor Carmichael’s office?”
He laughed, and his chest rumbled under her ear. “You were going to be my tutor!”
“Oh, yes, a black girl tutoring a white boy? Who would’ve thought?”
“No, Ceelee,” he replied, his hand now smoothing down her hair. “The student now was the teacher.”
She pulled back slightly. Water dripped off his long, narrow nose and fell to his lips. Freda had been right—they were very full . . . kissable.
That was certainly an inappropriate thought, and she coughed in reaction.
“Maybe we should get you inside,” he whispered.
Coralee dropped her forehead against his chest again, fully against the idea. It meant she had to leave his warmth.
“I’ll walk you to your room, loan you my jacket.”
Even as Benjamin shrugged out of it, Coralee remained close, staring at the ground as the rain churned up dirt and small rocks. The jacket came around her shoulders, and she slipped her hands through the arms of it. The garment was wet and too large, and every time she pushed up the sleeves, they fell back over her hands.
Finally the rain stopped and it was quiet, the weather apparently scaring off everyone and leaving her and Benjamin alone in the quad. They didn’t talk or touch as they walked on the rain-soaked path; Coralee concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, bunching the excess cuffs in her hands. Benjamin sighed and looked around as if discovering a new place. Perhaps he was, they were, and yet, it wasn’t so new.
The trust, the friendship, had been easier once—natural and automatic.
Benjamin hesitated, grasping her elbow gently to guide her in front of him, helping her avoid a large puddle she had been one step away from walking in, and she muttered her thanks. Her attention hadn’t been on her feet despite her show of otherwise. He fell into step next to her, but didn’t remove his hand. In fact, he tightened his grip, and eased her towards him so smoothly Coralee barely registered it.
She didn’t make him let go.
They reached her dormitory and Coralee slid out of the jacket, still staring at her feet. “Thank you,” she whispered, handing it to him. Their fingers brushed against each other, and she shivered, meeting his eyes briefly before going to the door.
She turned to him, and had the strongest urge to brush his wet-slicked hair from his forehead. Benjamin approached her, studying her. She pressed her back against the glass door.
His lips were even softer than Nick’s as he kissed her cheek. Coralee forgot to breathe, especially when he squeezed her shoulder a little before drawing away and going back down the lane.
Clouds cleared and the moon shone high in the sky, its man smiling down on her and the rest of campus. Tomorrow morning, after a night’s sleep, she would wake up to the same campus with the same people living on it.
But a new balance had been formed, especially between her and Benjamin.
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