At Night All Cats Are Gray


Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 115 in 2008.

Between her fingers, the denim dress is smooth, saturated with the fat from ten thousand chickens sacrificed for the marketplace. No matter how often she washes the garment, despite all efforts to remove the grease, the denim remains as waterproof as if it had been treated to repel moisture. And the odor of cooked chicken permeates the cloth as well as the car. Charley doesn’t notice, though, for his blue jeans and his button down cotton shirt are as stained as her own clothing. He smells as rank as she.
Above, the sky is scattered with brilliant stars, tiny diamonds that appear to wink as clouds scuttle across the face of a full moon. Silver light illuminates the dooryard of the concrete block dwelling built in a square, two rooms front to back and another pair with a single bathroom tacked between the bedrooms. The slant of the hill is extreme and, because the car faces downward, there are moments in which she feels quick alarm but it fades in the cool hush of the breeze that swifts through the valley, touches her face and cools it.
After ten hours on her feet in heavy rubber boots that reach her knees, the wind refreshes, revives. Laurie’s feet ache deep into the bones even though she put her simple cotton shoes back on in the parking lot. Yawning, she puts her head back against the seat and listens to Charley. His voice is low and fervent so she hears it as if it comes from far away.
“You’re from out there, too,” he was saying. “You understand. How do you bear it here? How?”
Stretching, she smiles although she knows he cannot see her face in the shadows of the house.
“It’s not so bad.”
“Not so bad?” His deep voice raised three notes higher on the scale. “How can you say so when you wear dresses to the knee like an old woman and can’t even wear lipstick?”
“I don’t know.” She misses makeup, the smoothness of it in her hand before she spread it over her face, the scent of it, the feel of her lips thickened and colored with lipstick.
Neither speaks for a moment. Silence is an easy thing with Charley. He is not her lover and not her brother although he has been taken for both at different moments.
At work, at the poultry processing plant where she debones chicken with her bare fingers and he cooks the birds in a huge vat, most everyone assumes they are siblings. It is their closeness that is seen, their avid interest that lacks romance or sexual desire. They sit, heads together, at break and talk, never hearing the babble that rings in the room.
At church, at the Holiness Church of Jesus Name, many of the brothers and sisters think that they are lovers. Laurie has seen the envy burn in their zealot eyes, lust fueling their fervor as they shout and dance, always watching in the hopes of finding out Sin. The night she began crying, tired and weary of the strange services, he carried her out in his arms. Innocent and yet ancient, these people view all in stark white and dark black, no gray area. If he held her against his chest, then they are lovers, sinners who twine their limbs one against the other in delightful wrong.
They are neither. He is her friend and she is his. Even his mother, a sweet-faced elderly woman married to a fat man, thinks she is Charley’s sweetheart. She helped make dinner once on Sunday when they were invited and his Mama liked her too much. When Charley called her into the bedroom to ask a question, his mother beamed and Laurie cringed deep inside. His mother is religious but not Holiness but, still, Laurie was not raised in church so she finds subterfuge hard. Lying hurts her tongue, makes her mouth ache with the false words but she has told lies more since she came to this church, this place, than ever before.
“I can’t stay much more.” His voice is a low growl like a pickup truck dropped into third gear. “Look at us. We’re in the middle of nowhere, no bright lights, nothing. I want to get back to Nashville.”
He plays guitar and does it well. In another life, he played with many stars in the country music firmament. He drank whiskey with them, sometimes shared their whores or their dime bags, and partied. Charley’s been to Willie Nelson’s ranch in Texas. He can get session work in any studio and she believes it. Sometimes he gets up and picks up a bass guitar, makes it rock when the music is best. Holiness people don’t play the slow-paced, old-fashioned songs she expected but rockabilly beats that get the folk dancing with the Holy Ghost.
“You’ll really go?” Somewhere deep within a hole bursts through the wall of her heart. This man is her one friend, her ally, her sanity and sometimes salvation.
“Damn right.” He is defiant as he spits out the mild swear word, forbidden here. “Come with me?”
Inhaling deep, she can taste the sweet scratch of tobacco smoke in her throat, something she has not known for two years. Her fingers curl around an imaginary cigarette but she stops short before she pretends to puff it.
“I can’t.” Her words are a cry, wrenched from the bottom of her soul.
“The fuck you can!” Charley’s pretense of faith fades now in the moment of reality. “Leave the sorry son-of-a-bitch!”
“Can’t.” Whispered, the word strangles and she coughs, lungs filled with night air and the wafting smell of chicken manure from across the road.
“You’re not even his wife!”
“I’m not yours either.”
Heads swivel to face one another, glares powerful for a moment that ends in laughter.
“That’s ‘cause you ain’t near dark enough, sugar,” Charley says. His love for black women is something she knows. He loves the way their skin shimmers back the light, the tight curl of their hair, and those liquid brown eyes. As a teenager, his preference was a scandal. When he took Nikki Delight to the high school prom, he had been removed from all sports teams and kicked out of the National Honor Society.
“Your loss,” Laurie croaks. Her throat aches and she wants to cry. If she were a black woman, he would love her, want her, and need her. Because she is not, he loves her as his friend, his companion but nothing more. She desires him in all ways and loves him. Always, since the day she met him, but they have never kissed on the mouth.
“I know.” Something in his voice makes her tense. Shoulders tighten and she feels like opening the car door to run away. Instead, she draws breath.
“What do you mean?” Some strange emotion too much like hope flares up inside and makes her chest ache with the strain of it.
“You fry chicken better than any chick I’ve known.” His laughter echoes in her ears like harsh static but she tries to force her lips into a smile. Her effort failed because she saw his grin slide from his face like eggs over easy off toast.
“It’s more than that.” His voice was different now, strange to hear. “You always smell so nice and you think like me. I’ve often thought it was sorry that you weren’t born black.”
Whether or not he teased, she did not know but anger replaces her hope.
“That’s as racist as anyone not liking someone because of skin color.” Salt on her lips from perspiration tastes metallic and flat. “What you’re saying is that I’d be ideal for you, that we would be a couple, except for the simple fact I’m a white girl.”
Laughter vibrated in his chest without humor.
“Yeah, I guess.” He did not sound very sure.
Mental images of his last three lady friends play across her brain. There had been Leona, a light coffee color who came to church and with whom no one but Laurie helped to pray when she came to the altar. Then Rudi, a woman older than Charley with very dark skin and bright red lips, beautiful and exotic. She worked at the poultry plant, too, until a few weeks ago when she quit because her daughter had a baby and she was going to mind it, days. Before both, Charley had been with a sweet-faced girl – no more than twenty years old – named Thrusha who sang like a lark but preferred bars to church pews, especially on Saturday night.
Quiet came and it was uneasy, turbulent and filled with unspoken emotion. Laurie feels it like a drumbeat in her blood and despite the humid night, she is cold enough to wrap her arms around her body. Fear that she had spoiled the friendship between them makes her shake. Without Charley, she would be alone. If he were upset with her for raising the subject of a relationship beyond what they knew, then she would leave. Church, work, this humble house would all be left behind and she would change herself into someone else, a new creation.
Waves of sorrow hit with such powerful strength that she uncurls her hands to cover her face and sits, leaning against the steering wheel. She grieves that he did not understand her, that he does not want her, that he cannot love her as she does him and all because of her pale hue. Sobs hurt her throat and the pain grows until she must open her mouth to release them. Ugly, racking moans fill the car and she loses control of her emotions.
When he touches her, she stiffens but he pulls her to him, embraces her, and puts his mouth over hers. His lips are warm on hers and her body softens, weakens, as it wakes to his touch. Between her legs, a moist tension cries for satisfaction and she caresses him, hands reaching beneath his shirt without care. Her fingers, nails shorn short to debone chicken, move over his skin with heat.
“Jesus God.” He is not praying now.
The crotch of his pants looks swollen and she regains enough cognizance to wiggle backward.“Let’s go in the house.” Her voice is husky, her nose stuffy from the tears. “If you want me, let’s go in the house.”
They go and cannot wait until they reach either of the bedrooms but fall to the living room floor to join with power, with joy, with such lust that she thinks she will die from his strokes. She does not and floats instead on a flood of intense pleasure, release that shakes her soul. After, their grease stained clothing that reek of cooked chicken crumpled into a corner, he traces a line from her cheek to her breast.
“First time I ever did it without a woman of color as my partner.” His voice sounds faint, as if he is dying from giving his all, from pouring his essence into her body. “Is that so bad?” With effort, her voice is light.
He bellows out a laugh that causes her to start, to half sit up and then fall back, laughing with him.
“No, not bad at all.” Charley says, face between her breasts. “I think maybe I’ve loved you for a long time but didn’t see it. Sorry, Laurie.”
“I’m not.” She can speak with strength now. “My granma always told me, at night all cats are gray.”
He sits up; face serious now, pale in the moonlight that comes through the thin lace curtain on the window.
“I don’t know about that, kitty-cat.” He says, his face sober and still. “But I’m buying you a lipstick tomorrow morning and a pair of blue jeans ‘cause you’re gonna to Nashville with me. Okay?”
“Yeah.” She feels like a cat, contented, full, sated and certain. “Oh, yeah.”
They sleep; naked and twined together bathed in moonlight, sinners just as the church folk had feared.