**TW: mentions of violence against LGBTQ people and people of color**
Rodney held the papers up to his face next to the bulb dangling above the kitchen table to read the fine points of terminating parental rights and responsibilities. In the murky glow, his sculpted cheekbones and slim face looked near deep blue. He dragged one finger across the page, slowly, because there were legal terms. Keeping his finger on the important part, he planted the stack on the white oak table and lifted the jar of whole milk to his mouth. With the furnace off for the evening, his breath froze in the cool night air and he figured he should’ve heated the milk. Rodney’s dark brown eyes squinted into focus, fixed on the sentence.
Marlene appeared in the doorway, her auburn hair swarming her narrow shoulders in thick strands. She balanced half on the linoleum and half on the threadbare green shag carpet, the light from behind spilling around her feminine curves. Her delicate features and clear pale skin gave an air of youthful innocence to Marlene, the image of a teenager trapped in the body of a middle-aged pregnant woman.
Rodney uttered a guilty sigh and raked his hand through his close-cropped black hair. “I’m just checking the fine print.”
A stifling midnight lull settled on the apartment clinging to the smells of a fried dinner painted on the musty detritus of a seventy-year old building. An unborn child hovered on the precipice, a chasm of values, resources, and family threatening the infant like a fairytale curse; a single, simple stroke of the pen as the tonic to rescue his soul.
“You’re allowed.” She edged into the room, somber. “How was work?”
“The Walmart Supercenter’ll be featuring paintball guns and protective pararescue goggles tomorrow.”
“They say they’d give you more hours?”
“Manager isn’t gonna let me. They don’t wanna pay healthcare.” Rodney exhaled.
She grasped his arm. “How you feeling?”
The chair creaked, unstable from Abe and Tucker leaning backwards on two legs. “I feel like I held out hope at the plant too long.”
“Not what I was asking.”
They never married.
When Marlene complained about not getting a wedding, Rodney reminded her about Chester Mayhew and Janet Cleburne.” They paid $5,000 for that Inn in Tuscaloosa, which makes it right at $1,000 a month for the marriage.”
By contrast, they attended the backyard wedding of Marlene’s cousin Jeanine. The FoodWorld Supermarket catered and Chuck bragged about saving thirty-five cents a tin foil tray by ditching the Jell-O. “Chuck and Jeanine are living proof; best couple on the planet, worst wedding ever.”
Rodney peered at her over the rim of the milk filled jar. “I told them about the adoption agency.”
“What’d they say?” She leaned in with her hand clutching her chin.
“Chuck gave me a hug and Jeanine said she had faith we’d do the right thing.”
The rest of Marlene’s family thought it a problem that Rodney was black. Her Aunt Lucinda declared, “It isn’t fair to the kids.”
Lanky Uncle Hilmar complained there were enough of the right color to go around and why didn’t Rodney find a nice black girl?
Rodney’s family wasn’t better. They liked Marlene, but said her mother talked too much, which was true, and her father was missing, which was also true. They all had a fit about the gay cousins and two uncles, flamers.
Their first baby came along when they were living together just under a year. Rodney got home late and she was already in labor. “We gotta go Rodney. Now,” her voice trembling.
They pushed her into the back seat of the blue Ford Taurus with her pocketbook and the dog; she wanted a friend she said. Rodney cried all the way to Elmore Community Hospital. The car swerved down the road, zigzagging, reeking of dog, and filled with the howls of Marlene and Buster in unison. Abe came out six minutes after they got to the hospital so Marlene got no help with the pain and Rodney cried about that too.
During those early years, seemed Rodney and Marlene were helping one relative or the next. They took on debt to pay for the chemo that tortured Rodney’s lovely sister, Denise, and paid bail for Marlene’s slippery younger brother Billy.
The couple had been careful and it was almost ten years between babies. “How can we still be nickel and dime-ing rent and groceries?”
“Hate to tell you darling, rumor has it plant’s slowing down.”
Rodney groaned. “Are you kidding me?”
“Priority turn-arounds are moving to central dispatch in Macon.”
Marlene had her mother move into the olive green three-bedroom unit on the second floor of the River View Apartments when Tucker was born. Doris made the best chicken fried steak, which made up for leaving cold cream on the bathroom sink and to-do lists for Rodney on the kitchen table.
Tucker attended the monthly Wetumpka Quarterback Club with his mom, passing out cookies to the boosters, who gossiped. He mimicked Abe at his football games.
Abe’s coach watched the boys play toss.” Woo-man. That Tucker can run. He is a natural.”
Rodney declared, “Kid plays football, should prove he isn’t gay.”
By the time Tucker was five, Marlene was sure. “Rodney, there’s no mistaking it.”
Tucker played dress-up with the little girl next door and favored Cinderella coloring books.
In first grade, two kids sat on Tucker on the playground. The teacher said Tucker was a target and they needed to prepare him. Rodney spun around on the teacher. “Maybe we could prepare the two boys who sat on him?”
In second grade, the teacher didn’t assign blame to Tucker when the two kids held him upside down at recess for fifteen minutes.
Marlene worried about Tucker coming up gay in Alabama and about all her boys being black. The police cast fear.
Wetumpka had nearly a third of the town black and Rodney had grown up there. But the day white men marched downtown with hateful signs terrified Marlene.
Rodney was fit to be tied. “You took those two boys down to the courthouse?”
“You don’t take a stand you may as well be one of ‘em.”
He found the placards in the hallway. “You had them holding up signs?” Rodney got so mad his whole body shook.
Marlene scrunched her face at him.
After the boys had gone to bed, she changed the subject. “The Biloxi Sun Herald said they found one of those transgender teens beat to death in Theodore.”
Marlene insisted. “Rodney, we need to find out which kind we’re having.” Sure enough, another boy.
She studied scientific information online. Marlene pinched her earlobe as she read out loud to Rodney. “Here it is, here it is.” Marlene flapped one hand. “Scientists noticed that gay men tend to have gay cousins or uncles on their mother’s side.” She glanced at Rodney. “So they focused in on the mother’s X chromosome.” Marlene tapped the screen. “They found the gay gene, Xq28.”
Having heard it once, Rodney remembered that sequence of letters and numbers forever. “You have that gene, you’re gay?”
“Says you might be.”
“Can you be gay without the gene?”
“I’m not sure. Having older brothers predicts you’re more likely to be gay. Odds increase if you have older gay brothers.”
Rodney rolled his eyes when another website said there was no gay gene.
One night he startled at finding her wrapped in a blanket on the couch, reading a stack of printed pages in dim light.
“You up late.”
“I waited until I put the boys to bed. Look here Rodney; this one is about Billy Jack Gaither from Sylacauga. They cut his throat before torching him atop a pile of old tires.”
Rodney puffed out a burst of air.
“Scotty Joe Weaver, 18-year-old from Bay Minette, killed by his roommates.” She shuddered. “Childhood friends.”
Rodney reacted. “Nothing is happening to Tucker. He is well liked.”
Marlene erupted. “You aren’t listenin’.” Her arm extended with a finger pointing nowhere. “Did you hear me tell friends murdered Scotty?”
Rodney brewed frustration.
“You shoulda seen the teasing my cousin Eddie took.”
“Times are changing.”
“I knew you’d say that. The Southern Baptists decided that even thinking about a homosexual relationship is,” she scanned the page until her eyes locked on the right part, “always sinful, impure, degrading, shameful, unnatural, indecent, and perverted.”
“Jesus is about love and that’s what we’re gonna focus on in this household.”
“News said they burning Nazi swastikas over in Newnan, barely two hours drive.”
“Confederate Memorial Day.”
“Yep, cause we wanna celebrate slavery.”
Rodney looked grim. “We don’t have the money for another baby.” He slapped the table.
The noise startled her. “I don’t disagree.”
“How the hell are you irresponsible with the birth control? We pay for it, I’m damn straight sure of that.”
“Sometimes birth control fails.”
“Give up a baby? That’s what you want?”
Marlene came back fast with a nasty tone. “Been real simple to abort.” She snapped her fingers.
“Ok,” He shook his hand at her. “This is where we are.”
“This baby is coming and he’s got two brothers, one of ‘em gay.”
“You can’t be sure, Marlene.” Rodney whispered.
“Nope, not for certain.”
“Even if, can’t he be ok here? He’d look up to Tucker.”
“Rodney, Is Tucker ok?” She paused. “We’ll look like grandparents at the child’s graduation.”
“Let me see the thing.”
Marlene handed him the manila folder. “Did you read the references?”
“Gail is a lawyer and Margo, she does catering part time.”
He sat silent for a period. “My biggest fear,” he choked on the words, “is I won’t be able to protect him from God fearing folks.”
“Rodney, doll, we can’t say these women don’t get divorced or both die in a plane crash and leave him an orphan.”
“Can he grow up ok with two mammas?”
“Sounds like heaven. Laundry gets done. There’s food. I betcha we get pictures and we’ll be asking to move in.” Marlene smiled. “They let people like your mamma’s cousin Walter and his peach of a bride reproduce and we’re pitching a fit about gays being parents?”
Rodney huffed. “Don’t start on my family. Brittany and Howard? That seem like a good idea to you?”
He closed his eyes. “Will he be ok away from family if he’s black and straight living with two white women and no father?”
“No, no. The lawyer’s black.”
“You don’t pay attention.” Marlene spread the papers wide. “See?” She drummed the spot with one finger. “Says she’s 60% African.”
His eyes brightened. “You think he’ll be ok?”
“Do you think living in a fancy house in San Francisco will be ok? Going to better schools?”
“I mean, can he make it in that world?”
“He isn’t gonna be one of us, that’ll be his world.”
Rodney blew out a long slow breath and stood up supported by the table. Opening the cabinet overhead, he grabbed the can of Folgers. The aroma of coffee filtered into the cool air and brought the edge of morning. He loaded six scoops into a new filter in the Mr. Coffee. “Hell.” Rodney leaned against the sink and the smell of coffee and the legacy of family ties. “Jesus Christ.” He stood with both hands clutching the counter.
She offered no relief, sitting still, staring back. The light hit the crest of her pregnant belly.
“Let’s go with Gail and Margo in San Francisco.”
The years ebbed by, Tucker and Abe’s exploits consuming the family. The uncertainty and then chaos of Abe starting college ate up a good year. But the pain crusted over the household like a scab. God gave them grace over the thing when a picture arrived proclaiming the child would start kindergarten. The photo showed Malcolm with his friend, an olive skinned girl from next-door named Mathilda. They stood arm in arm in pink tutus.
Image Credit: Flickr