When Bernadette got to Jimmy Cat’s place, it was nearly empty. Jimmy sat in the corner booth counting money. Two men in shiny black slacks and crumpled shirts sat at the bar. They sat loose, almost dripping off the stools, their hands limply curled around half-empty glasses of beer, which looked stale and settled like sample jars of piss.
Bernadette nodded at Jimmy and went up to the far end of the bar. Gloria, the bartender, saw her coming and smiled with a hunch of her shoulders. Flipping a dingy cloth across her shoulder, she reached under the bar and grabbed two shot glasses. Bernadette sat down on the cool, black stool directly in front of her.
“You ain’t been down here past the witching hour in a long while. Who you been hiding in?” Gloria chuckled through closed teeth with a hiss. She thought it downplayed the size of her mouth, which was wide with large pink gums and tiny teeth.
“I’m not fooling with you tonight, Miss Gloria,” Bernadette said. She watched Gloria fill the two shot glasses with Johnny Walker and set the bottle down. Gloria slid one shot to Bernadette and lifted the other.
The two women, friends since Lincoln Middle School, nodded at one another before knocking the shots back and slamming the empty glasses on the bar. Gloria smiled and refilled the glasses. They repeated the quick drink and Bernadette shivered despite herself.
“You ain’t getting old on me is you Miss Bernadette?” Gloria flipped her hair and poured two more shots.
Bernadette grabbed the shot glass. “You’re getting old. I’m getting better.” She raised the glass to Gloria and held it to her lips. Her friend followed suit and they slammed the drinks once more.
“I know when you come in here after two a.m. you looking for more than whiskey to wet your tongue.” Gloria put the Walker away and spun around to the dented, white cooler behind her. She took out a can of Pabst, popped it and slid it to Bernadette.
“I don’t get a glass?” Bernadette leaned forward on the bar to scoot her stool closer.
“Oh, you want a glass tonight, huh?”
“A woman is nothing unless she’s a lady,” Bernadette licked her lips. She looked around the bar. “And speaking of…”
“Uh huh.” Gloria tilted a pint glass and poured the beer slowly. “Only lady here for you tonight is Binky.”
Bernadette grimaced. Gloria laughed.
“Aw, don’t look so glum sugar-plum.” Gloria reached into her tight v-neck blouse and pulled out a slip of paper. She held out the folded white paper. Bernadette didn’t even look up.
“What’s wrong? You always perk up for some strange.” Gloria looked at her friend closely. “You don’t look like you been sleepin’ much. Little Iris been keeping you up?”
Bernadette cut her eyes and pursed her lips. She took another long gulp of beer.
“Iris is just staying until she ready to go home. It’s nothing.”
“Well something got those bags under your eyes.” Gloria searched her friend’s face. “You been having that dream again?”
“Yeah,” Bernadette said. “And it’s worse. It’s like I wake up from it, but I’m not really awake. It’s just continues. Like it’s following me.”
“Sounds like Type 2,” Gloria said. “Waking up in a dream but you really dreaming. Some of the worse kinds of nightmares, baby. You want to talk about it?”
“Type 2, huh?” Bernadette sipped her beer. “You know you should have finished school.”
“I got a degree in hard knocks, sweetness,” Gloria wiped at the bar. “I dole it out right here, but my clients sit on stools instead of laying on couches.” She winked.
Bernadette sighed and shook her head. Her eyes stinging with tears, she took a deep breath and forced a smile. Gloria handed her a napkin to wipe her eyes.
“You’re coming apart, baby.” Gloria said. The statement a matter of fact. “Iris is bringing it all down. I know you trying to help, sister-girl, but you’re fragile yourself.”
“How do you get through it, Gloria?” Bernadette gripped her beer.
Gloria looked away. “I don’t think about it.” She reached beneath the bar for the Johnny Walker. She poured two more shots. “I make myself forget. Sometimes with a little help. Dr. Gloria has ways of getting what she needs to ease the pain.”
Bernadette sighed. She eyed the shot before grabbing it. She twirled the small, thick glass between her index finger and thumb. “This won’t fix it, nor anything else ‘Dr. Gloria’ can get her hands on.”
“What about this?” Gloria lifted the small folded paper she had pulled from her bra.
“Offering me a distraction?” Bernadette eyed the paper suspiciously. “A new woman, a new outlook on life?”
“If you want it,” Gloria fanned the paper back and forth. “Do you want it?” she waved the paper back and forth, trying to return the mood to light and lusty.
“I’m actually going to pass this time, Miss Gloria,” Bernadette said, surprising herself.
“She’s cute. Redbone. Slim and curvy. A dream to challenge them nightmares.”
“Or a cheap thrill to add to my horrors. I need something else. Something… I don’t know.”
“This might be it,” Gloria said, raising her eyebrows up and down. “That something you’re looking for.”
“Love?” Bernadette said.
“Oh, shit. Miss Bernadette getting deep on us! Love? I don’t know about that, sugar. You’d have to take that chance.”
Bernadette shook her head.
Gloria tucked the paper back in her bra and poured another pair of shots. “You blowing my mind tonight, baby.”
Bernadette crept back into her apartment after 2 a.m. A little drunk, she peeked in on Iris, who had been staying with her for a few days after fighting with her husband, Arthur.
“What you doing awake?” Bernadette asked.
“Can’t sleep,” Iris said. She was sitting up in bed flipping through a Jet Magazine. “Reading about how Aretha bounced back. Maybe I can learn something.” She smiled. The swelling had gone down, but a blue-black bruise marked the flesh underneath and extended to the bridge of her nose. Just looking at Iris made Bernadette’s heart ache.
Bernadette nodded. “Well, I was just checking in on you.”
“Where were you? I mean, where do you go when you leave so late?”
Bernadette smiled her crooked smile, the right side of her wide mouth always rising higher than the left. It gave her face a vulnerable look, which she needed with eyes as intense and hard as hers. Bernadette’s eyes looked black set against the shiny brass of her skin. She looked younger than her forty years, the eight years she had on Iris only registered when she spoke.
“Just out, you know. I have a good friend at Jimmy Cat’s. She lets me come in after hours. Treats me right.”
“Jimmy Cat’s. Arthur goes there sometimes. Hell, I sorta wish he went there more often. Have a drink after work and relax instead of coming home messing with me.” Iris twisted her lips. The cut in her bottom lip, still red and puffy, looked painful to the touch.
“You ready to talk about it?” Bernadette asked. She sat down, her body causing a slight squeak of the bed. She was a formidable woman, big and tall. Her hair was cut into a natural afro, a widow’s peak and slight graying around her temples giving her that same fragility and softness that her smile did.
Iris closed the magazine and placed in on her lap. Bernadette could already see the tears forming in her friend’s eyes, and instantly, she felt sober. She rested her hand atop Iris’s. “Tell me what happened.”
Iris leaned her head against the wide mahogany headboard and closed her eyes. “Arthur don’t really like it when I have people over to the house. But what the hell am I supposed to do at home with them kids all day? I get bored.”
“I told you I can get your place back at the bank any time you want,” Bernadette said.
“I know, I know.” Iris wiped at her eyes. “And I’m thinking about it. I am. Anyway, I sent the boys out and invited a few people over. We had some drinks, played some records, and…”
“When you say ‘people,’ what do you mean?” Bernadette asked.
“Oh, some fellas from around the way. Scratch, Terry, and three of their friends.”
Bernadette chuckled softly. Her round shoulders moved underneath her polyester shirt, the collar reaching across the width of her. “Iris, you were entertaining five men while your kids were out playing and your husband was at work?”
“We was just drinking and listening to records. I grew up with Scratch and Terry and their friends were cool, so we was just catching up,” Iris said. “So, Arthur came in, his dusty and stood in the middle of the dining room yelling my name. Scratch and Terry and me was in the kitchen and the music was kinda loud so I didn’t hear him.
“Scratch turned off the record player. Then, I heard him, screaming my name like I was stuck on a mountain top somewhere. The way he looked at me when I came through the kitchen door, shit, I wished I was on a mountain top somewhere.”
“Arthur yelled at everybody to get the hell outta his house. They split, too, swiped up the records and beer just as fast. I laughed at them. It was funny. They ran like the house was on fire. Arthur didn’t like me laughing because he dropped his lunch box, stomped over to me, and grabbed me by the shoulders. Well, you know me, Bernadette, I pushed him. Next thing I know we having a shoving match. He pushed me hard enough to knock me through the doorway to the kitchen, and I fell into one of the kitchen chairs.
“Did he say anything?” Bernadette asked.
“Yeah. He was yelling. Respect this and sick and tired of that. I jumped up to my feet, yelled back. I told him to leave me alone and that I wasn’t in the mood for his foolishness.”
Bernadette turned on her wide bottom. The bed squeaked as she brought a leg up and rested her elbow on her bended knee, leaning in, unblinking.
“Arthur stood there sweating and breathing hard. I moved towards the stove and turned the skillet that I use to fry my chops down low. ‘I don’t know who the hell you think you are busting in like you King Kong, running my company off,’ I said. He said, ‘I don’t like all them people in my house.’ I turned to face him. I said, ‘I don’t know what you worried about. If I was fooling around on you it wouldn’t be in this house knowing you was coming home, shit, I’m a lot smarter than that, Arthur. You might be a fool but I’m not.’ And that’s when he slapped me across the face. ‘I ain’t nobody’s fool,’ he said. I cut my eyes at him, turned around, and said, ‘Don’t act like one then.’ He grabbed me talking about I bet not ever call him a fool and I bet not ever turn my back to him. He slapped me again, and I grabbed a cast iron skillet from the range and went upside his head before I even thought about it.”
Bernadette gasped and put a hand to her chest. “You hit him with the skillet? Did it have hot grease?”
“The grease flew out, mostly getting on the floor. I think some splashed on his ear because he yelled, ‘Bitch’ and spun around holding the side of his head. I dropped the skillet. I looked at Arthur, and he had the eyes of a damn grizzly bear and seemed just as big, so I picked the skillet back up. He came at me again, and I hit him again. He stumbled then ducked. I swung a real hard one, like I was gonna kill him, really knock him the hell out, because I was tired, you know, tired of fighting with his ass.”
Bernadette put her hand on Iris’s thigh.
“Arthur jumped at me. I swung again, one more good time, the kind of swing I thought in those quick, crazy seconds would knock Arthur’s head clean off,” Iris wiped at her eyes. Her tears came in streams, but a mad excitement danced in her eyes. “But he ducked and popped up like Joe Frasier and caught me in the eye. One punch. Never been hit so hard in my whole life. I fell flat on my damn back.”
Bernadette’s eyes went black and shiny as oil. She blinked hard and slow, trying to will the tears to stay put.
Iris lowered her voice. “I started to get up, pushing myself up on trembling arms and…” Her throat caught on itself, but she didn’t clear it. The words came out raspy and weak, the re-telling fragile and old, a story from long ago, the past flaring up in the constant fire of present time. “He walked over to me and kicked me in the stomach. I coughed and fell to the floor. He said, ‘Stay down, bitch. Don’t get up until I fucking tell you to.’ I pressed my face against the cool linoleum, thinking that maybe I should stay down.”
Iris wrapped her fingers around her friend’s hand and squeezed. Bernadette tried to squeeze Iris’s hand back, but she felt weak. Every part of her trembled. Maybe Gloria was right. Trying to help Iris was too much for her, yet it had always been Bernadette’s way – helping, saving, loving.
“Arthur stood over me, and I looked up at him from the floor. He waited for a second to see if I was gonna move. I didn’t. I didn’t move a muscle. When he went to step over me, I used the last little bit of strength I had, and shot my fist right up between his legs. I scrambled to my feet and ran out the back door.”
Bernadette cleared her throat and looked away, rage and sorrow, memory and nightmares and imagination surging against her rib cage; her heart suddenly too large for her body. It threatened to burst.
“I’m sorry,” Bernadette said, the two words sincere but weak.
“Me,too. I glad you were home. I didn’t know where else to go.”
Bernadette didn’t even attempt to wipe her eyes. Tears dripped from her chin; she watched them leave spots on her taupe corduroys. “What can I do for you?” she asked.
“I think I just need to rest,” Iris lay back on the bed. She closed her eyes. Bernadette rose from the bed slowly; Iris reached out to her. “Will you lay with me? Just lay with me?”
Iris slid over, making room for Bernadette. Still in her clothes, Bernadette rested herself next to her friend, spooning her, sighing with her, and silently crying with her.
Look it’s Bernard. Hey Bernard. Can we call you Bernie? Bernie. Bernie. Bernie, everybody know you funny. Funny Bernie. Bull-dagger Bernie. Bull-dyke Bernie. Ball-busting Bitch Bernie. Dyke-bitch-need-a-good-dick Bernie. Need-a-good-dick Bernie. Need a good dick Bernie. Huh, Bernie? You need a good dick? Here you go Bernie. Here’s a good dick for you, Bernie. Ain’t so funny now is it Bernie?
“NO!” Bernadette screamed out in her sleep. She was sweating, gnashing her teeth and biting the insides of her jaws. Blood, salty and disarmingly sweet, filled her mouth and she gagged. Coughing, she ran trembling hands over her afro. Moist and matted on the sides, sweat kinked up the edges and ran down her face. She pulled her hands away from her head and clumps of hair came out in her hands. She ran her hands through her hair again. More hair. Small tufts of tight curls and matted knots of black and gray. She jumped up and ran into the bathroom, hitting her knee on the coffee table on the side of the couch. Blood continued to fill her mouth, the taste like baking soda mixed in sugar water. Bernie heaved. She finally made it into the bathroom. It was stark white. Too bright. The overhead light fluorescent, otherworldly, so white it was almost blue, like lightning.
Bernadette looked at herself in the mirror. Dark circles under jaundiced eyes and blood crusted at the corners of her mouth. She lifted her hands to her cheeks, strands and balls of hair between her fingers, her nails split and broken off at varying lengths. Her crusty, peeling lips twisted into a scowl. Her teeth were gray and pointed, like jagged stones, gargoyle teeth that didn’t belong to her. She screamed out and her tongue, black and forked, flew out of her mouth and slammed into the mirror, a starburst of cracks overtook the mirror, but it did not shatter. The cracks spread, reaching out like vines, alive somehow, across the mirror to the walls and ceiling. The room began to crumble and shake, flecks of white tile, chips of porcelain, and shards of glass floated around her like a snow globe.
“Bernadette, Bernadette!” Iris shook her friend harder and harder. “Bernadette!”
Bernadette’s arms flew forward and caught Iris in her still healing eye, knocking her out of the bed. Bernadette sat up with a start. She clutched her soaking wet nightshirt and checked her face, teeth, and hair. Iris struggled to her feet, her hand cupped over her swollen eye.
“Damn, Bernie!” Iris said.
“Don’t call me that.” Bernadette said. She was panting. Cold sweat dripped between her breasts, and she shivered.
“What?” Iris said. She pushed at the dark blue flesh around the corner of her eye and winced.
“Bernie” Bernadette answered. The word was bile in the back of her throat. She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “Don’t call me ‘Bernie.’ Told you that before. I hate it.”
“I’m sorry. I forgot. Shit.” Iris sat down. She twisted and tugged at the lace that lined the double-stitched hem of the slip she wore as a night-gown. “I was just trying to wake you up. You were screaming.”
“Sorry I hit you.” Bernadette said.
“It’s all right.” Iris didn’t look at Bernadette. She kept her eyes on the hem of her slip. “Can I get you something?”
“I’m fine.” Bernadette hadn’t meant for her voice to be so sharp, and she saw Iris stiffen out the corner of her eye. She pushed herself out of bed.
“Just go back to sleep, Iris!” Bernadette disappeared into the darkness of the hall. In the bathroom, she stood in front of the mirror. Her face hidden in shadows, she refused to turn on the light. She touched her mouth, fingertips running over her lips and teeth. Afraid to look at herself, she leaned against the sink and cried.
When Bernadette returned to the bedroom, Iris was spreading the blankets across the bed. She wore one of Bernadette’s shirts. It was too big, the arms folded up and pushed past her elbows.
“What’s going on?” Bernadette asked.
“I’m going home,” Iris said.
“It’s five in the morning.”
“I know.” Iris grabbed her clothes. She folded them quickly and held them close to her chest. “I should go home. It’s… it’s time.”
“Why? Why now?” Bernadette. She leaned against the door jam.
“I was just thinking. Me and Arthur’s fight. It was… serious. I almost killed him, Bernadette. I almost killed my children’s father.”
“Yeah, but he could kill you! The fighting. I know it’s not the first time. So what about next time? There will be a next time. And a next time. And a next time!” Bernadette yelled, her voice straining. “Then there will be a last time, Iris. A last time.”
Iris shook her head. “You don’t understand. I’ve got to make this right. I’ve got to go home.”
“Let’s talk about it,” Bernadette hoped she didn’t sound as desperate as she felt.
Iris walked up to Bernadette. She touched her face. Slowly, she leaned forward and kissed Bernadette’s lips.
“Thank you, Bernadette.” Iris smiled.
Bernadette started to say something, but Iris pressed her fingers against Bernadette’s lips.
“I know it’s crazy, but I love him.”
Stunned, Bernadette moved aside. Iris slid past her. Bernadette followed Iris into the hall, but Iris was moving so quickly she had already reached the door.
“Iris,” Bernadette called out.
Iris turned, her hand on the knob. “I’m going to be fine. And you are, too.”
“How do you know?” Bernadette asked.
“It’s a woman thing, Bernie,” Iris said. She blew Bernadette a kiss and closed the door behind her.
Bernadette rang Gloria’s doorbell tentatively. The sun was breaking the horizon, and the air was crisp but full with the smells of spring: flowers, dirt, and rain.
Gloria peeked through the sheer curtain on her door then opened the door quickly.
“Bernadette? Get your ass in here. What are you doing? What’s wrong?” Gloria yanked her friend into the house. “Do you know what time it is?”
Bernadette nodded. Gloria ushered her to sit on the loveseat. “You look like shit. What happened? Is it Iris? Did Arthur come up to your place? Talk to me!”
“No. She left. I don’t know why she keeps going back to him,” Bernadette trembled and bit her lip against the truth. She certainly hadn’t wanted Iris to go back to Arthur, but the anguish she felt had to do with Iris leaving her; she didn’t want to be left alone. “I’m always thinking about it, Gloria. I can’t get it out of my brain. All this time.”
Bernadette let Gloria hold her. “I try to help people, try to save them, but it’s me. I need help. I need saving,” she said.
“Hush, baby, hush.” Gloria rocked her friend in her arms, kissing the top of her head. “Let me make you some tea or a hot toddy. That’s what we need, warm brandy with a little honey. Don’t that sound nice?” Gloria kissed Bernadette once more and slowly released her. She stood up and walked swiftly to the kitchen.
Bernadette rested her head in her hands. Her thoughts all too ready to betray her, it all came flooding back, waves of rage and pain and dread, a tsunami of memory, destruction and despair washing over her.
They were teenagers when it happened, she and Gloria, and they always looked out for one another. That night, Gloria had thrown rocks up at Bernadette’s window to wake her, and when Bernadette came downstairs she found her friend a bloody, disheveled mess. Torn sweater, her bra missing, and her skirt twisted. Bernadette snuck Gloria into the basement of her house and washed her up before setting up her father’s old fold-away cot for her by the furnace. Bernadette sat with her until she slept, then took to the night dressed in her father’s old work-shirt, ‘Bernard’ stitched across her left breast.
Crowbar in hand, she ran through alley after alley after alley. A fire burned in her chest, and her feet felt swollen and numb inside her sneakers. Bernadette came up on Freddie’s garage, the yellow paint chipped and cracked, the door pulled halfway down, a wide beam of light shining from underneath and smoke curling into the crisp October air. She saw a shuffle of feet and when the garage door lifted, Freddie and three other boys, all tall and bony except for one who was short and wide like a barrel grill, stood facing her. They laughed when they saw her. Laughed and began taunting her. They called her names, swiveling their hips, grabbing their crotches, and flicking their tongues at her. Freddie had stepped forward and ducked when Bernadette swung the crowbar. He caught her in the stomach with an uppercut and she doubled-over dropping her weapon. He pulled his fist way back and punched her, one quick, hard, calculated punch that knocked her down. He spit on her and said, “You stay down.”
The rest is a blur, a blur of sour spit and sharp teeth, ripping flesh and dirty nails, trembling muscles and pressing, pressing, pressing against an oily, gritty garage floor.
Bernadette wanted to wail, wanted to scream for the brave girl who, even as she was being smashed into the ground, wanted more than anything to make everything right, to make everything fair and safe. Gloria startled her with a tap on the shoulder. She handed her a steaming mug and waited for Bernadette to sip from it.
“Go ‘head,” Gloria said. “It’ll calm you. I promise. Then, when you’re all relaxed, you can lie back and tell me everything. The doctor is in, baby.”
Bernadette took one sip. A small one. She held the hot liquor in her mouth and swallowed slowly. It eased down her throat easy, making her face warm and tingly.
“Good, right?” Gloria said. “Drink some more.”
Bernadette took a deep breath, inhaling the vapors from the cup. She looked up at Gloria, dropped her eyes, then looked past her. On the television across from where she sat, Bernadette saw a small piece of folded paper. It sat atop the television set like a tent or the roof of a tiny house.
“Take another sip,” Gloria said, sternly.
“I need more honey,” Bernadette said. “You know I like it sweet.” She forced a wink and crooked grin. “And fix you one, too. Probably just what we both need.”
Gloria smiled. “You got it, sistergirl.”
While Gloria was in the kitchen, Bernadette stood up and snatched the number off the television. She read the name to herself, “Ruby Red.” The name made her smile despite herself. She left her cup where the number had been, then snuck out the front door.
A Milwaukee, Wisconsin native, Sheree L. Greer has been published in Hair Trigger, The Windy City Times, Reservoir, Fictionary, and the Windy City Queer Anthology: Dispatches from the Third Coast. She has performed her work across selected venues in Milwaukee, New York, Miami, Chicago, and Tampa, where she hosts Oral Fixation, the only LGBTQ Open Mic series in Tampa Bay. Ms. Greer received a Union League of Chicago Civic Arts Foundation Award, earned her MFA at Columbia College Chicago, and currently teaches writing and literature at St. Petersburg College. As an Astraea Lesbian Writers Fund grantee and VONA alum, she published a short story collection, Once and Future Lovers. A novel excerpt “Prom Story in Three Parts,” received a special mention in Publishers Weekly and appears in Best Lesbian Romance 2012.
Her novel, Let the Lover Be, will be published with Bold Strokes Books in August 2014.