The Girls of Cottage Grove

 
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Jane Marchant

Art by Cindy Rehm

 
 

The girls of Cottage Grove are precocious, pretty, and products of their parents’ miscegenation. They are Betty and Wanda, in the brief weeks they’re both eight, and they think they’re too grown to play with their little brother, a lanky six-year-old fixated on the twin knobs of his Philco radio. The year is 1941 and the girls like Dorothy’s ruby-red shoes and Clark Gable’s mustache.

Spring is early and the earth is mud from new rain. There are two sides of Chicago’s Cottage Grove and the girls walk its center median, alert for the children who will grow up to be Air Force pilots or insurance salesmen or stand in the NASA control room as Neil Armstrong walks on the moon. Betty wants to be a ballerina and Wanda a nurse, but this won’t happen for either girl of Cottage Grove, instead there will be babies, clotheslines, and a bar fight that makes a widow. Today, they are two sisters buying flour for their mother. She is baking a cake.

The girls pass Doyle’s Grocery and enter Bertie’s, which has a bell on its door Betty once tinkled the whole while, as Wanda picked out yams, salt, and beans, and as Wanda paid, Bertie pointed at Betty and said, She does that again, you won’t be welcome at Doyle’s or Bertie’s and you’ll have to go all the way back to Kentucky and pick the yams yourselves. Betty takes life literally so she keeps her hands at her sides as Wanda pays Bertie for flour and three pieces of black licorice. Black licorice is Wanda’s favorite and since she’s oldest (only by eleven months, Betty always inserts), she handles the money. Candy is candy and the salty-anise has grown on Betty.

Back outside, Billy Preston sees the girls walking Cottage Grove’s center median.

Hey! he shouts from the sidewalk.

The girls keep their eyes on skeletal trees ahead.

(What Betty and Wanda don’t know is how yesterday Billy Preston turned ten-years-old and crouched in the alleyway behind his house on Calumet, his father tinkering with their Chevrolet’s radiator, and listened to his father’s whiskey-white laughter as he told Billy the story of how the girls’ parents met.)

Hey, hidden n——s, Billy spits as he steps into the street. I know all about you.

A stone hits a trunk in front of the girls.

Doctors had to tie your mama up to stop her making more of you.

Wanda keeps walking and Betty is strong, too, but this is the first insult she’s heard aimed at her mother. Her insides liquefy then volatilize. She spins around and says, Why’re you talking about our Mama like that, no one ever strung her up or tied her up. Our Mama’s a lady.

Billy whips back his arm and the stone is a wasp that tears the flowers from Betty’s spring dress. The black licorice is three lumps of coal in the mud. Billy’s words are sludge on the banks of the Chicago River, detritus on Lake Michigan’s shores after lightning storms, they are wind and hail and icy stairs without handrails and railroad cars coming home empty.

Betty picks up a stone.

 
 

Betty and Wanda never talk about what happens next. They don’t talk about it on their walk back to the Ida B. Wells Homes, Wanda cradling the flour to her chest, nor when they hand Mama her change and she’s in her sapphire dress with the white collar framing the thin key around her neck (To your father’s heart, Mama said when she first put it on). They don’t talk about it as they take off muddy socks and change into clean dresses then open kitchen cabinets and stand on chairs to help Mama sift flour and baking powder into sugar. Their father is coming by after dinner. They must bake a good cake.

Mama smears it with Baker’s chocolate frosting. The night freezes and the gas meter ticks each minute he’s late. To Wanda, the cake tastes like the ash of Pompeii, to Betty yams fallen in fires. Their little brother licks icing from his plate.

Your father said he was coming next Friday, Mama says, don’t know how I forgot. Get you to bed.

Betty sneaks a piece of cake upstairs, places it in a shoebox, and slides it under the bed she shares with Wanda. The girls lie back-to-back under covers, becoming sisters without words, and the cake waits, molds, and months later gets taken off by a rat on the night a thief leaves a hand-sized hole in the entryway window.

The last time the girls of Cottage Grove see each other, Betty is twenty-six, in town visiting friends not family, and one girl is on one side of the street, the other on the other. There is no median running between them, there never has been, and Betty wonders, What have I been remembering this whole time?

Betty takes a train home, east or west it does not matter, and as she sits at her kitchen table eating peanuts and jelly beans out of a small bowl her children refill, Betty picks out each black licorice bean and sets it on the table beside her.

 

Spring / Summer 2024



Jane Marchant

Jane Marchant is a writer and photographer whose interdisciplinary narratives have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Guernica, Apogee, Catapult, Columbia Journal, and elsewhere. She’s a 2024 National Endowments for the Arts Literature Fellow and a Lucas Artists Fellow at Montalvo Arts Center, and has received support from the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Foundation, Tin House’s First Book Residency, Headlands Center for the Arts, Ucross Foundation, and Oak Spring Garden Foundation, among others. Formerly the PEN America Literary Awards Program Director, Jane holds a BA and MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University.



Cindy Rehm

Cindy Rehm is a Los Angeles–based artist and educator. She serves as co-facilitator of the Cixous Reading Group, and is cofounder of the feminist-centered projects Craftswoman House and Feminist Love Letters. She is the founder and former director of spare room, a DIY installation space in Baltimore, MD. In 2021, she launched Hexentexte, a collaborative project at the intersection of image, text, and the body.



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