Vivid, p.1Beverly Jenkins
Copyright © 1995, 2000 by Beverly E. Jenkins
Grayson Grove, Michigan August 1865
Nate Grayson stood before the big bay window in his large, book-lined study watching the rain. By all rights, he should have been more concerned with the business being conducted across the room by his barrister and his wife, Cecile, but Nate preferred the rain. As he stood there, his thoughts drifted to last evening when he'd stood in much this same way…
He'd been in the doorway of the upstairs bedroom, indifferently watching Cecile pack. He'd not been allowed to share the room or her bed since his return from the war in June, and he'd not much cared.
When she had spotted him, she'd tossed a rose silk gown atop the bed and haughtily said, “At least try not to hate me, Nathaniel."
He responded with a bitter chuckle. "It's a bit late for that."
She strode over to the polished cherry wood wardrobe that once belonged to his grandmother Dorcas and took down another armload of gowns, which she tossed alongside the others. As she held each gown up for critical inspection, she glanced back at him and said, "Were you more worldly, you'd not hate me. Marriages end every day. At least we're not being hypocrites by pretending otherwise."
More worldly. He'd heard her throw out that phrase so many times to describe his shortcomings, he swore the words echoed in his head while he slept. More worldly. Had he been more worldly maybe he wouldn't have cared that she came to their marriage secretly carrying another man's child. Had he been more worldly maybe he wouldn't have been bothered by the gossips whispering that she preferred other men to her husband in bed. He admittedly knew nothing about living in this more worldly world she described.
As she continued her packing, he realized he had never loved her, not really. And he never should have married her. He'd been an eighteen-year-old Michigan farm boy, and she the pampered only daughter of one of Philadelphia's best known abolitionist ministers. They'd grown up in entirely different worlds; worlds that would ultimately pit his beliefs and values against hers. Unfortunately, at the time he hadn't known that. When he first met Cecile Gould on a visit to Philadelphia in the spring of 1862, he thought a more beautiful and accomplished woman had never been born. He fell in love with the way she moved, the way she laughed, the way she smelled. She was a brightly gowned butterfly compared to the practical, everyday women he'd grown up around, and he'd been blinded. Despite having known Cecile only seven days, he'd proposed marriage rather than return to Michigan without her, and she'd accepted with tears in her beautiful brown eyes. Only later did he learn that her tears sprang from relief, not joy. She'd married him to give a name to her lover's child, and when she lost that child a few months after their marriage, she began taking new lovers.
She paused packing to ask, "Is there a reason you're here? I'd prefer to do this without you hovering over my shoulder."
"A simple question, Cecile. Did you ever love me?"
She had the decency to avoid his eyes as she answered, "Truthfully, Nathaniel? No. I never did."
The answer did not surprise him, nor did it cause new pain. Any feelings he'd ever had for her had turned to ash long ago.
Then she raised her beautiful eyes to his and said, "Nathaniel, you're a decent, handsome man, but you need a woman more like yourself. I detest this place. I detest the mosquitoes. I detest the mud. I detest living in the middle of nowhere without anything to do or anyplace to go. I need the theater, and dinner parties, and gaiety. Not chickens and trees."
He didn't bother to reply. She'd never understood how much this land meant to the people here. To her way of thinking, land had no value if it didn't sit beneath a fancy house. During the first months of their marriage, he'd hoped she would one day come to appreciate the raw vitality and potential of Michigan, but that was not to be.
"So you only married me for what, my name?"
"Frankly? Yes. I was desperate, and at the time you were my salvation, but I don't need saving anymore."
"What will you tell your father?" he asked her then. The Reverend Gould would demand an explanation when he saw the decree dissolving the marriage.
"That you changed after the war and we no longer suited."
Nate supposed the lie was close enough to the truth— the war had changed him. The haunting sounds of men screaming as they died still echoed inside him, especially at night. If he closed his eyes, he could see the dark clouds of cannon fire, smell the gagging stench of burned flesh and powder in the air. The horrifying memories of Fort Pillow had come home with him, and he could not shake them. "And your lovers, what will you tell your father about them?"
She stopped packing, unable to mask the surprise on her face. The Nate Grayson who'd marched off to fight for Mr. Lincoln in 1863 would never have broached such a subject. Even when confronted with her adulterous behavior, he had blindly set aside his doubts, knowing that of all the men Cecile could have married, she'd said yes only to him, Nate Grayson, an eighteen-year-old farm boy.
But he was older now, in age and in spirit.
Nate asked her again about her father and her lovers.
"There is no need for my father to know anything other than what I tell him," Cecile remarked sharply. She swept all the tiny bottles holding her perfumes and cosmetics atop the dressing table into a large leather valise. "If the country can start anew, Nathaniel, so can I."
"I wouldn't dream of stopping you," he replied, his eyes cold.
She paused and stared as if that, too, had been unexpected. "Surely, Cecile, you didn't think I would care that you're leaving, not after all you've done?"
She laughed, a forced, fake sound. "No, Nathaniel. Although I wasn't really certain you'd actually agree to the decree, considering how provincial you farm people are about things like this."
"Every man expects his wife to be faithful, Cecile, provincial or not."
"Well, next time, choose a nice provincial girl. Maybe she'll be more appreciative of that long drawn-out rutting you seem to enjoy."
The barb hurt, just as she'd intended. He bore it, though, because she would be out of his life soon, taking the hurt with her.
He left the room, and Cecile, intent upon packing her many pairs of shoes, didn't even look up. The soft voice of Nate's barrister interrupted his musings and brought him back to the matters at hand.
"Nate, I need your signature. I've worked up some figures, if you'd care to review them."
Nate didn't move. "Give her whatever she wants, as long as it doesn't involve Grayson land or property."
"I'll still need your signature," the banister, John Freeman, replied.
Nate walked over to the desk and took the documents from Freeman's hand. "Where do I sign?"
Freeman cautioned, "You should review the figures, Nate-"
Nate looked down at the man and repeated, "Where do I sign, Freeman?"
Freeman pointed to the spaces with a finger.
Nate affixed his name in the three places indicated, then tossed the papers onto the desk. He turned his eyes on his faithless wife, "You'll be leaving soon, I hope?"
"Not soon enough, Nathaniel. I can't wait to put this backwater behind me," she replied coolly.
Nate wondered again how in the world he could have ever been in love with her.
Freeman looked between the two of them, then hastily gathered up his papers to leave. "I'll file the decree as soon as possible. Good luck to you, Mrs. Grayson. Nate. I'll see myself out."
Freeman's exit left the two of them alone, a risky situation considering Nate's strong urge to choke her. He'd never put his hands on a woman in anger, and to keep himself from temptation, he went back over to the window and concentrated on the drizzle rolling down
She left his life two hours later.
Watching the buggy drive her away, Nate swore he'd never love again.
Ogallala, Nebraska May 1876
Dr. Viveca Lancaster, affectionately called Vivid by family and friends, glanced up from the medical journal she had been reading, when the blue-coated conductor entered the car. His appearance drew a passing interest from the other nine passengers, who quickly drifted back to their books and conversations as he came down the aisle. But Vivid continued to watch him. He probably wasn't much of a poker player, she noted offhandedly. His nervous eyes and the uncertainty sketched on his face told her what he was about. She almost felt sorry for him—almost. After all, he'd been polite since her boarding. However, there would be nothing polite about the insult he'd come to deliver.
Vivid put aside the Lancet medical journal and looked up into his young face. "Yes."
"Um, I'm going to have to escort you to another car. There's been complaints."
Vivid assumed the complaint had been lodged by the man across the aisle. Ever since he'd gotten on at Cheyenne, he'd been unable to mask his displeasure at the sight of her seated in the car. She glanced his way now, and he flashed her a superior smile of triumph. Vivid looked away. A majority of the passengers had boarded the Central Pacific as she had at the station in her hometown of San Francisco. At the Great Salt Lake they'd all switched to the eastbound Union Pacific. None of them had been overly polite, but none had gone so far as to take issue with her presence.
The young conductor appeared relieved now that he'd given his speech, but there was nothing for her to say in reply. She was en route to Michigan to open a practice and had journeyed as far as Nebraska without any such complaints, so in some ways she counted herself lucky. Jim Crow was a plague creeping across the nation. Many trains both local and transcontinental were refusing to seat Blacks on some runs. Vivid wanted to rail at the man across the aisle about this injustice; after all, she'd purchased her ticket just as he had, but she held back her words. She had no desire to share the same fate as the woman she'd recently read about who, after being Jim Crowed from an Iowa train, spent the night alone on the plains, snapping and unsnapping her umbrella to keep away the predators. Vivid could also hear her mother's advice in her head, reminding her to pick her battles, and this was not one Vivid could win, so instead she gathered up her bag and books from the unoccupied seat at her side.
She paid scant attention to the covert glances from the other riders or the low-toned buzz her banishing evoked. With the dignity of an ancestry that spanned three continents, she held her head high, stepped into the aisle of the moving train, and followed the conductor from the car.
He led her to a small unoccupied boxcar at the train's rear. The noise was deafening. The windows were unsecured against the elements, and as a result the smoke and cinders from the train's stack poured in freely to foul the air and cover the floor and walls with a thick coat of coal dust and black ash. There was only a narrow wooden bench built into one wall where she could sit, and she had to share that with a mound of soot.
The conductor stayed no longer than necessary. He mumbled something that sounded like "Have a pleasant trip," then hurried back to resume his duties. She watched his departure silently.
Alone now, Vivid walked over to the bench. She extracted a petticoat from her small traveling bag and blackened the snow-white garment by wiping the dust from the seat. As she sat on the hard wood with her handkerchief to her face to filter the thick smoke billowing in, she wondered how her great-great grandfather Esteban would have dealt with such treatment. He'd been of Moorish descent and had sailed with the Spanish on one of the early expeditions to the land now called California. He'd settled there and married her great-great grandmother Maria, a Spanish slave of Ethiopian ancestry. Together, they and twenty-four others with African blood were among the forty-four people from eleven families who founded the Spanish settlement of Los Angeles.
But Vivid's illustrious ancestry mattered not at all in 1876. Today she'd been bitten by Jim Crow, and even though she was one of a small but growing cadre of women able to declare themselves certified physicians, society forced her to travel under conditions even oxen would find appalling.
As the sunlight waned and shadows filled the car, Vivid began to wonder where in the ashes she could sleep. The bench she sat on was barely wide enough to hold her hips, let alone her whole body if she were to lie prone. Frustrated, she took a deep breath, refusing to give in to the tears of anger and loneliness threatening to roll down her cheeks. She was dashing away any telltale moisture when she was startled by the door opening. The conductor, looking even more uncomfortable than before, stood in the opening, and after some hesitation finally spoke. "Miss, I feel real bad about putting you back here, especially with night coming on. Why don't you come with me?"
She wondered briefly where he planned on taking her now, but didn't ask. She gathered her belongings and followed him out.
He led her to the crowded and very noisy smoking car. Inside were men seated around tables playing poker, men on the floor circled around a dice game, and others lounging on the upholstered seats with bottles of liquor and gaudily dressed fancy girls. The smoke from the cigars and pipes thickened the air. Vivid looked the room over, then smiled. For the first time since leaving San Francisco, she felt at home.
All activity and conversations stopped at their entrance. The conductor mumbled his standard "Have a comfortable trip," and backed out of the door.
"And you are?" one of the card players asked in regal tones.
Vivid saw that the high-toned voice belonged to a very well-dressed, dark-skinned man. He looked close to her father's age. His face had been ritually scarred. The exotic scarification coupled with his great height made him appear quite imposing. "I'm Dr. Viveca Lancaster," she replied.
He bowed at the waist, saying, "We are graced by your presence."
In a voice loud enough to be heard clearly by everyone in the car, he then stated, "The lady doctor is under my protection. Approach her with anything other than respect and you will die. Is that understood?"
The men were a spectrum of race and class. Not a one said a word, so Vivid assumed the gambler had been understood.
The activities resumed as he beckoned her over to his table. "Welcome, Dr. Lancaster." He then commanded, "Someone get this young woman something to eat. Let her have a seat, boys."
At her approach, every man at the table instantly stood and offered her his chair. She smiled politely at them, then took the seat nearest her newfound protector. The man whose chair she'd taken retrieved another for himself from a table nearby and rejoined the group.
As if by magic, a plate appeared on the table before her, piled high with ham, chicken, yams, and bread. She smiled, and everyone seemed pleased as she picked up the silverware and ate.
For the balance of the evening Viveca found herself charmed by the men who'd taken her under their wing. They all went out of their way to be polite in their manner and speech, and not once did the scarred man who introduced himself as Ned Johnson find it necessary to kill anyone. He'd spent quite a few years in Michigan, Vivid found out as the talk flowed and the card game resumed. He'd escaped from his Missouri slave owner in 1846, and followed the North Star to the edge of Michigan's northern peninsula. As fate would have it, he discovered a large deposit of copper on the land he had purchased and sold the mineral-rich lode to a group of Boston capitalists for more money than he would ever need.
"So what is your life's work?" Vivid asked during a break in the poker game.
"This is my life," Ned said, smiling. The matching scars on either side of his face creased like dimples. "There is seldom Jim Crow at the poker table. Gamblers tend to judge you on your honesty, not on the color of your skin."
Vivid saw some of the othe
That brought a round of laughs and more nods of approval. The game continued, and when Vivid asked to be dealt in, a quiet settled over their small group. "I can play," Vivid assured the men around the table, all eyeing her skeptically. "Not as well as I play billiards," she confessed, "but I won't embarrass myself or you."
Their eyes widened. Vivid, familiar with the shocked stares, assumed they would not let her join in. To convince them, she added, "Gentlemen, I have played in hell houses all over San Francisco, surely you'll give me a—"
"You play poker and billiards?" Ned asked, grinning.
Ned looked to the other faces at the table, then surveyed Vivid. Finally he said, "Gentlemen, deal the lady doctor in."
They agreed to play for matchsticks out of respect for Vivid.
Ned explained, "We make our livings at cards, Dr. Lancaster. We don't wish to take advantage of you."
"I do appreciate that, Mr. Johnson," Vivid replied genuinely, then proceeded to win the next two pots.
As Vivid scraped up the cards for her turn as dealer, she smiled as Ned proclaimed with awe, "You can indeed play."
Vivid held them all spellbound as she shuffled the deck with an expertise born of long practice. That done, she slapped the deck down on the tabletop for the mandatory cut and replied, "Yes, Mr. Johnson, I can indeed."
For the remainder of the journey to Omaha, and then from Omaha to Chicago, Vivid played poker with her new gambler friends, read her medical journals, and slept as best she could on one of the lounges in the car.
When the train pulled into the Chicago station, the games and talk ended. Her small cadre of protectors had been more than kind, yet when she attempted to express her gratitude for their outstanding company, they waved it off. "You're traveling alone," one of the men said in explanation.
Vivid by Beverly Jenkins / History & Fiction have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on50 votes