Flint’s wife sat on the porch and peeled potatoes. The movement of the small knife across the rough, dirt-flecked surface of the potatoes had a practiced rhythm, one that she’d perfected after years of work. Scrape, scrape, turn the potato, scrape, scrape, into the bowl. Her hands always got sticky as she went, the same grimy, starchy stickiness on the weathered brown skin of her hands as when she cut apples for a pie. She hated when her hands got sticky, but you weren’t much of a cook if you complained about getting your hands dirty, were you?
It wasn’t a porch, though, not really. Back home in Tennessee, when she was a little girl, her grandparents had a real porch, a long one made of creaky boards that wrapped around their home. Every Sunday morning, after Grandpa Joseph preached, she would leave church early with Grandma Rachel, Mama, and the other women of the congregation to prepare Sunday lunch. They would always sit on the porch in the shade, peeling potatoes, snapping beans, and shucking corn while the other women cooked chickens or roast or stew meat. Just around when noon would come, the men of Grandpa Joseph’s flock started trickling in, always offering a smile and a friendly greeting as they took off their hats and entered the parsonage to eat with the pastor.
This wasn’t a porch like that old wooden one, it was actually just a fire escape; she liked to climb out the kitchen window and sit on it while the oven was on in her apartment. At ground level, four stories beneath her, the streets were loud and bustling as taxis and buses drove by, and the men and women of her neighborhood started to come home from work. Even though they’d moved to New York when she was only 13, she felt a little bit out of place here. She still thought of herself as a country girl, especially when she was in Manhattan, and could barely see the sky for all the buildings towering above her. She went into Manhattan for work, cleaning house and cooking with her friend Bernice at a rich white folks’ apartment on 65th and Park. Bernice lived down the hall from her and Flint; she wasn’t married yet, even though she was 4 years older, at 31. They rode the A train into Manhattan together every morning, and then back into Brooklyn every night. Sometimes one of them would fall asleep on the evening ride, being rocked to sleep by the gentle vibrations of the subway car as it thrummed through dark tunnels on its way home.
When did she start thinking of herself as Flint’s wife? It had been a long time since she had just been Beatrice, she supposed. People still called her Beatrice, but it seemed like she was more often Flint’s wife now. When he had friends over to play cards, she was mainly referred to through her connection to her husband; occasionally, she was “Babydoll” or “Honey” if one of the men found her alone in the kitchen, washing dishes or making Flint’s lunch for the next day. They would sidle up behind her, placing their sweaty hands on her hips and pressing their body against hers as they made small talk. She never told Flint about it when that happened. When Bernice got her the job cleaning the Millers’ apartment, Mrs. Miller had smiled at the similar names of her two staff, and started calling them “The Two B’s”. Bernice sometimes called them “The two B’s who are peas in a pod”, which always made them both laugh. She hadn’t been Beatrice, then, but part of a team, one B out of two. She sometimes suspected that Mr. Miller called them both B because he couldn’t always remember which was which. Once she met Flint, though, it seemed like she stopped being Beatrice altogether. She was one of two B’s at work, and Flint’s wife at home. Flint wasn’t even his real name; it was Marvin, but only his mother called him that. He hated the name Marvin because he said it made him sound like a old white man who worked in a bank.
Back before she was Flint’s wife, and still just plain old Beatrice, she had more freedom, or at least, she felt like she did. She and Bernice used to take some of the money they’d saved up from work and go dancing on Saturday nights. Sometimes Bernice’s friends Margaret and Lilian went with them, and once they even bought a pint of bourbon at the drugstore to take to the dance. But that was before. She picked up another potato and continued her established rhythm. Scrape, scrape, turn the potato. She brushed a stray strand of hair out of her eyes, tucking it behind her right ear. She ran the back of her hand over her forehead; she was starting to perspire in the balmy late afternoon air. The Millers were out of town, and so she and Bernice had the week off. Maybe she would go down to the market tomorrow and buy ingredients to bake a pie.
She grinned to herself, remembering the time the girls bought bourbon. She must have looked so silly, she thought, wearing her green cotton dress and new stockings, grimacing and pretending to like the alcohol as the four young women passed the bottle wrapped in brown between them. She had even started to feel a little bit loose from the bourbon. She hated the taste when she first sipped it, almost gagging on the brown liquid as it burned the back of her throat. After a few moments, though, she smiled when it was her turn again, enjoying the warmth of it coursing down into her tummy. She’d actually seen Flint for the first time that night at the dance hall, looking so fine in his yellow suit, his curly black hair slicked back. He didn’t look too strong, like other boys, but that was okay. She loved the way he looked, his skinny neck poking out of his silk shirt, his face black as night against the vibrant color of his suit. His smile was brilliant, heart-breaking even, as he laughed and joked with friends at the bar. Lilian and Bernice had said the bourbon would make them all braver and more relaxed, but it seemed to have the opposite effect on Beatrice. She hadn’t wanted to dance or talk to anyone that night, just to admire Flint from the dark little corner she stood in. She watched him dance with other girls, many in colored dresses not unlike her favorite green dress. She watched him dance the whole night as she pretended to listen to the band, nodding her head to the music as she had seen other people do. The truth was, she wasn’t too much for jazz; she had always preferred the gospel music they used to sing at Grandpa Joseph’s church outside Memphis back home. Flint loved jazz, though; he would sometimes put his records on and turn the player up loud, until the neighbors came by to complain.
They’d started dating eventually, and she would wear her green dress and Flint would wear his yellow suit when they went out. Bernice once told them they looked like a couple of bananas, but one wasn’t ripe yet. Beatrice felt plenty ripe, though, and secretly wanted to be picked by Flint. They’d gotten married a few months later, and they’d moved into a new apartment, which they furnished with odds and ends they’d gotten second-hand from sales. Their first Christmas together, she’d wanted to buy Flint a special gift, one he could be proud to own. She saved up some money, and planned to go shopping somewhere nice. A few days before Christmas, she asked for permission to leave the Millers’ early, and left to find the gift. She rode the subway down to Penn Station and got off, climbing the stairs to street level. She shivered in the gray winter afternoon as she crossed the street to Macy’s in the bustling rush hour traffic, and entered the enormous store. As soon as she came through the revolving door and stood inside the biggest department store she’d ever seen, she knew she didn’t belong there. A fat lady in white furs standing next to the perfume counter stared at her as the lady’s husband leaned on the counter writing a check. Beatrice watched as he tore it off and handed it to the clerk, before picking up several red shopping bags with white stars on them. The fat lady walked by her, not making eye contact as she she left the store, her husband in tow as he struggled to get all the bags through the revolving door in one piece. Beatrice walked through the first level of Macy’s, past the huge bank of gilded elevators, and followed the signs into the men’s department. She felt eyes on her the entire time, appraising her work clothes as she walked around the lavish store wishing she had thought to change into something nicer. She finally found a black fedora with a red feather in it she liked, and lifted it off the rack to get a closer look. Her eyes found their way to the price tag and grew wide as she held the hat in front of her. Still holding the hat in her hands, she turned the rack, and started looking at all the other hats’ prices.
She’d known it would be more expensive than when she shopped near home, but couldn’t believe how much everything cost. She wasn’t sure she could afford anything from there unless she didn’t buy any other Christmas presents for anyone. She looked around, seeing if there was a sale table, but couldn’t find one. She set down the hat for Flint, and held her composure as she left, walking quickly away. It was starting to get dark by then, but she kept walking, getting as much distance from the store as she could. She eventually reached Time Square, and stood back against the wall on a smaller side street, shivering in the December air as tourists and well-dressed people walked by on their way to dinner and shows. Night had fallen. She hugged herself and looked up as she started to weep, the lights on upper Broadway dazzling through the prism of her tears. She caught the last train back to Brooklyn that night. Flint was already in bed, and she took off her shoes and turned on the radio in the sitting room, the warm glow of its face lighting the otherwise dark room. She sat on the second-hand couch next to the window, and listened to soft Christmas music for a little while. Then turned off the radio and went to bed. She sobbed softly to herself as she lay underneath the frayed sheets, listening to Flint’s breathing as he slept.
They still went to the dance hall every once in a while, but sometimes they didn’t stay too long. If Flint decided the band was square, or if he got too drunk, they would leave early. Whiskey and beer heavy on his breath, he would lean on her the entire walk back to their block, whispering things in her ear that made her blush. She didn’t mind too much, normally, and sometimes she looked forward to getting home and kissing with him when he talked to her like that. Often, though, he was too drunk to make good on his whispered promises, and she ended up putting him to bed as he sloppily fumbled with the buttons on her blouse.
Flint was a good man, really, he was; he was always kind, never hitting her or calling her names. Sometimes, though, and she was always ashamed of herself for feeling this way, she thought she missed the time before she married Flint. She thought it might be nice to travel, to see the countryside again, maybe to drive to Hollywood and be in the pictures. She and Flint went on trips every now and then, to Detroit or Atlanta to see his family. They had even driven out to Memphis one spring to see her family; there was a crying baby behind them on the bus the entire time, and the air conditioner broke, so everyone had to open their windows for the whole ride, even when it started to rain. No, she wanted a different kind of traveling. She had seen Mrs. Miller’s bags sitting in the front room as they prepared to go on vacation to Miami Beach for the week; it was so nice and pretty, matching pink bags and luggage with wheels, nothing like the battered old brown suitcase she packed for the bus trips west. It looked like Mrs. Miller had more clothes she was taking for one week in Miami than Beatrice and Flint owned combined.
She would lie awake at night, listening to Flint snore in his sleep, and wonder if other men sounded like that when they were in bed. If it wasn’t too hot or cold, sometimes she liked to make some cocoa or tea and climb out onto the fire escape, listening to the rumbling sounds of night, of cars driving over the Williamsburg Bridge on their way home from a late night or on their way to an early morning. Sometimes, if she listened hard, she could even hear someone playing a saxophone on the bridge, practicing big band music by himself. She wasn’t even sure it was a he instead of a she, but she liked to think so; that it was a handsome young man who liked playing music for people who liked to sit on fire escapes and drink cocoa. Listening to the saxophonist’s fluid riffs and sultry honks, she could make out bits and pieces of songs she recognized from the dance hall; she smiled whenever she heard “Take the ‘A’ Train”. Even though she didn’t like most jazz, she always imagined that song was about her and Bernice. She wondered if the musician was someone she knew; she didn’t think so. Whoever he was, she hoped he wasn’t alone like she was. She would sit there on the iron steps and just listen, pretending she was someone else, somewhere else. She pretended she was still Beatrice.