Miss Brown to you.
—Billie Holliday

What the hell were you thinking, Melvin
Williams, when you burst into my office
of dim cinder blocks in Padelford Hall

while all my graduate T. A. office mates
were teaching? You still eatin them chitlins
wif corn pone an fatback?

The hair pick stuck into your flattop Afro
cocked forward at a jaunty pitch, your jaw’s jut
an echo gesture, you did a stiff-legged

strut into the room and pivoted
before my desk: What’s all this shuck
an jive about Rayanne?

A private thundercloud roiled and
swirled around your head, you drew out
the dialect syllables with grim pleasure.

I sat stunned
and blubber-tongued. Not one word
crossed the thin pink line of my lips

deficient of melanin; the ceiling’s fly-specked
fluorescent tube threw a shade like a minus
sign under my sensible brown shoes.

What could I have said to please you,
Melvin? You were the bronze-starred
commander of Romance Language’s

graduate teaching platoon; you’d flown back
from Tonkin and Pleiku through a daze
of agent orange, despairing of decorations.

You’d landed here, to man your book-lined
battle station down the hall.
Was I the only one

who missed the drift of your Navy Seal’s
rancor? At the department chair’s
Labor Day cookout, I seared marshmallows

and chocolate chunks on skewers, and as evening
drifted down, I poured tequila over shaved ice
and fruit juice for everyone except myself

and Rayanne Brown, my friend since the first
grad student meet-and-greet two weeks before.
All cookout long, you glared at us,

Melvin, as we ate and chatted, compared
class schedules and watched faculty children
splash in the pool, while you lurked

by the table of sweating bottles,
refilling your glass of gin. Once
you brushed past me near the pool–

what did you mutter? Scuse me,
Miss Ann friend!
Did I hear you rightly?
You turned away from my question.

Why not make friends with Rayanne?
She’d come so far: the gritted streets
of Oklahoma City’s Deep Deuce,

struggling for her own Visible Woman
dignity—That’s Miss Brown to you
her head tilted high as she walked out

of her warehouse job in Bricktown
with straight A’s from Oklahoma City College.
She’d taken the streetcar back to her great-

grand-aunt and uncle’s clapboard bungalow
in the shadow of Oklahoma’s domeless
statehouse. Walked straight off the night shift

to the Greyhound bus: graduate school’s
full ride and her single room in Seattle’s
downtown YWCA; the first few weeks

she knew no one. Why not make friends
with Rayanne? Could I understand, even
in my own hometown, what it was like

to be alone? That fall I strolled across the Quad
with Rayanne as she sang praises of eligible
young baritones in the Capitol Hill A.M.E.

church choir she’d joined her first week in Seattle.
I asked her about you. A grenade lobbed
into our conversation. That boy, she fumed

and stopped herself. That gentleman
she dropped race loyalty’s torn curtain over
the tabernacle of her real thoughts—he nurses

his crush like a grudge. In the silence
about you she never broke afterwards,
could I understand your fury?

Melvin, you can ease back now,
down the badly lighted hall,
back to your stack of quizzes

on the imperfect tense, our own flawed
memories of who we were. Let us,
two shy women—one black, one white—

keep walking up University Avenue together
with our brave faces and uncertain prospects
into a future still gathering its forces.

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