The atmosphere of the house crackled as Dixie slipped into the kitchen. Her mother was at the sink cleaning up the remnants of supper. Her father sat at the table with a book and his evening coffee. Dixie could see the tension in her mother’s shoulders. The door clicked softly behind her drawing her father’s eyes to her own. Her mother methodically dried her hands and turned to face her. Dixie’s smile faltered.
“Dixie, what in heaven’s name possessed you to bring that young man home?” her father asked. He was incredulous, but there was a touch of kindness in his voice.
She could tell her parents had exchanged words. Her mother was expecting him to correct their daughter. Dixie fought the ire growing inside her. What had possessed her to do such a thing? She never had before. Come to think of it, they only ever had respectable people over; church members, her few friends, town councilmen. They just didn’t bring home strangers as a rule. Despite all that, she had known at the time it was the right thing to do. It was, wasn’t it?
“Dad, he just seemed to need some kindness. I didn’t go out looking for a stranger to bring home.”
“Dixie, I would prefer you not give strange men rides when you’re alone, much less bring them home,” interjected her mother, adding her sharp voice to the conversation.
It seemed useless to explain, again, that she wasn’t in the habit of offering strangers rides, especially men, and had thought Kenny was a girl from a distance.
“Yes, ma’am,” she answered mildly, hoping to end a conversation that she was not winning. But something in Dixie’s eye must not have satisfied her mother, and Sharon made the unfortunate choice of not dropping the subject.
“You may think yourself quite independent, but you still have a lot to learn. Remember your father’s position and mind the company you keep. You must be more careful.”
Sharon knew the moment the words were out of her mouth that she had pushed too far. She saw the flame creep into her daughter’s eyes and light her whole complexion on fire. She braced herself for impact.
“Careful!? I’m never anything but careful, Mother.” Dixie fairly spat the words. “What is so hideous about Kenny that giving him dinner and a kind word is going to ruin me and spoil Daddy’s reputation? Yes, he’s different than us. I know that. I never would have picked him up if I’d known what I was getting into. But I’m glad I did. He’s just a person and he has a lot less than we do. At the very least we should be kind to him.” Each phrase was punctuated by a toss of wild, flaming curls and then she was gone, leaving a wake of heat behind her.
“Well that went well, don’t you think?” Her dad closed his book. Weariness colored his motions.
“Richard, don’t joke, this is serious.”
“Serious? That our daughter wants to show someone kindness? I admit, the situation makes me uncomfortable. But we could be fighting about far worse things. She’s hot-headed, but she has a good heart, Sharon. Let’s have a little faith in her. I’m confident this situation will blow over.”
He probably would have been right. But he underestimated the tenacious women he was dealing with. Alone they were formidable, pitted against one another they were a full out storm.
Upstairs Dixie had fled to the solace of her room. Hot, angry tears stung her eyes. She flung herself across her four poster cherry-wood bed, startling Pumpkin. Why did she even care what her parents thought about Kenny? He was a stranger. She should drop the whole thing. But she couldn’t un-hear the heartache behind his words, or forget the sense of injustice about his story. She didn’t mind a good fight, but she wanted it to matter.
Taking a deep breath, she pulled herself upright and gathered two of the most important things in her room, Pumpkin and her guitar. The orange kitty stretched out beside her as she strummed. She found her heart untangling itself in the notes of the music. By the time her fingers ached from playing and her voice was hoarse from singing, she had decided she would see Kenny again. And she would talk to her two best friends about the matter.
Weary from the conflict of a sure past colliding with an uncertain future, and a harsh clash of ideas, Dixie surrendered to the velvet respite of sleep.
The next morning was Saturday. Instead of sleeping in, she slipped out of the drowsy house as the first birds began to greet the day. Sadie met her at their favorite spot, Fannie’s Café.
Plopping into the booth across from her best friend, Dixie launched into conversation. Nothing uncommon about that. Sadie was used to it by now and smiled to herself at her friend’s enthusiasm. The two friends often didn’t bother to greet each other. They just picked up the conversation where they had left off.
Dixie was saying, “Honestly, I wish my mother had more faith in me. Am I so terrible that she really thinks I’m out to ruin the family name?”
Sadie listened. Patience was in her nature. She didn’t know what new trial Dixie was talking about, but, if she waited a minute, she would have every detail necessary – and then some.
Abruptly Dixie asked, “Sadie, do you know any gay people?”
“Of course not.” Sadie’s tone betrayed her confusion. “Dixie, what are you talking about?”
Forcing herself to regain composure, and stopping to order a cream cheese cinnamon raisin bagel and coffee, Dixie unfolded the events of yesterday evening. “What would you have done, Sadie? You can see how I couldn’t have just ignored Kenny’s loneliness and hurt!”
A cloud hung over Sadie’s usually placid countenance. Knitting her brows over dark eyes she replied, “I never would have picked him up in the first place, Dixie.”
Exasperated Dixie flung out, “Neither would I! I thought he was a she. But that’s not the point. After stopping and hearing his story, I mean, wouldn’t you have wanted to make sure he was okay?”
“No, Dixie, not really. My parents would kill me if they found out I was giving rides to, to ... that kind of person. We’re nice girls Dixie. Our dads have respectable positions in town. It just wouldn’t look right if we were seen with someone like that.”
“Like what? Gay or poor?” shot back Dixie.
“Does it matter?”
“Well, I guess not. I’m just confused. I didn’t know kindness was just for certain people. I had thought we should be kind to everyone.”
“Sure, if you want to take him a Christmas dinner or send him to the food pantry. But that doesn’t mean you have to be his friend.” Sadie paused, then asked, “You’re not going to see him again, are you?”
“I don’t know. Probably. I was thinking about inviting him to church tomorrow.”
“Why would he want to go to church, Dixie? You would just make him feel uncomfortable.” Sadie’s face was genuinely confused. She was used to Dixie’s enthusiasm and random ideas, like the time she wanted to explore and photograph every abandoned house in the county, but this was different. She didn’t understand it one bit.
“Sadie, I feel like you’re not listening to me. Didn’t you hear how I told you his dad treated him and that his mom is gone. He was crying for pity’s sake. He’s lonely. Why wouldn’t he want to go to church?” She thought a moment, then asked, “Unless we make him feel uncomfortable.”
Sadie fiddled with the sugar packets on the table. Letting out a frustrated sigh she said, “He may be lonely but he’s not a puppy. You can’t just make him your project. Taking him to church might make things worse. I think it will just make everyone uncomfortable, including him.”
For a moment, the friends sat in silence. Dixie focused her attention on her bagel. Sadie worked on smearing blackberry jelly on her toast. Dixie had expected Sadie to understand. But, of course, Sadie’s parents would feel the same way Dixie’s parents did on the matter. Sadie wasn’t in the habit of displeasing her parents. Maybe she should just drop the subject for now and give Sadie time to think. She didn’t need everyone mad at her.
After a few minutes Dixie reached her hand over and laid it on top of Sadie’s, giving a little squeeze. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t get mad at you when I ask for your opinion and you give it to me. It’s a lot to process. Let’s talk about something else.”
Sadie offered a smile and squeezed Dixie’s hand back. “All right. There are much more interesting things to talk about anyway.”
Dixie felt ire at her friend’s comment and knew this conversation wasn’t over, but she pushed the feelings down and changed the subject for the time being.
For the next hour they talked about Dixie’s teaching job, Sadie’s new job as nanny for the Truvy family, what their friends were up to, plans for the holidays, anything except Kenny.
From an outsider’s view everything would have appeared tranquil when they parted, but underneath both girls knew they were swimming in strong currents. Their ideologies had never diverged or been tested. It had never crossed their minds that they would be.
Outside of the café Dixie swung her booted leg up into her old truck. Slamming the door behind her she called her friend Angela.
“Hey Ange, you busy today? Can I come over? “
“Yeah Dixie, come on. I’ll be here.”
“Okay, see ya in a few.”
Dixie pulled her old blue truck out on the main drag and headed across town to Angela Murphy’s home. Angela lived with her parents in a modest house in a respectable, working class neighborhood. Her dad was a postal worker and her mom was a teacher at the public high school.
Perhaps Dixie should just let the topic of Kenny go, but once she’d set something in her mind she was determined to follow through. Even though things hadn’t gone well with Sadie she still wanted to hear what Angela had to say. While she had known Sadie longer and their friendship was closer, in a lot of ways she identified with Angela more. They spoke a similar language, bold and straightforward.
As Dixie pulled onto the Murphy’s street, brown children of varying sizes were playing in groups. She slowed and they scattered, waving as she passed.
At the door, Mrs. Murphy greeted her. “Dixie, honey, it’s good to see you! Come on in.”
Dixie smiled as she entered. Mrs. Murphy’s voice was like a song of joy and the bright smile that creased her smooth umber skin crinkled all the way to her eyes. She liked Mrs. Murphy. Come to think of it, she liked the whole Murphy family. Mr. Murphy and Angela’s two teenage brothers were as affable as Angela and her Mother.
“Angela’s on the back porch, you can go on through.”
“Thank you,” smiled Dixie as she headed through the small yellow kitchen to the back deck.
Angela glanced up at her friend from the magazine she was reading. “Hey, Dix, pull up a chair.”
Dixie grabbed one of the several mismatched folding chairs lining the porch rail.
“What’s up girl?” asked Angela, arching a brow.
Plopping down next to her friend Dixie took a deep breath. “I need some advice Ange. Or at least a listening ear.”
“Ya came to the right place. I’m listening.” Angela folded the magazine in her lap, stretched her long, dark legs out, and cocked her head to listen.
Dixie started from the beginning, describing, for the third time, how she had met Kenny. She told his story, related the tense dinner, the conversation with her parents afterward, and Sadie’s less than encouraging response this morning.
“I don’t know, Angela. I recognize that Kenny’s different. And I know what the Bible says about his lifestyle. I can even understand how my mother would be freaked out by me picking up a hitchhiker. But it seems the issue here goes deeper than that. I feel compassion for Kenny.” She paused for a thoughtful moment. “His eyes are so sad and it’s obvious he’s lonely. I just think it would be a good idea to invite him to church and offer him friendship. But my parents and Sadie are so resistant. They think it would be a bad idea and make everyone uncomfortable. I suppose it would, but…” Dixie left the sentence unfinished and turned troubled eyes to her friend.
Angela was studying Dixie’s face, weighing out her own thoughts. “Dixie, who goes to your church?”
Dixie looked puzzled, “People, Christians, what do you…”
“What kind of people?” prompted Angela.
“I don’t understand Angela. People people. Men, women, children.”
“Do any black people go to your church, Dixie?”
Dixie opened her mouth. Closed it. Opened it again. “I … you know what kind of people go to our church. What has that got to do with Kenny?”
“Why don’t black people go to your church?” persisted Angela.
“They could if they wanted to. You visited once before,” defended Dixie.
“But they don’t go regularly, do they? Why don’t black people go to your church, Dixie Lee?”
“Because they would be uncomfortable?” Dixie mumbled her answer.
“Dixie, Kenny should be welcome to visit any church he chooses. Who is going to help him better than folks who know they are loved? But Sadie and your parents are right. Your church will be uncomfortable if you bring him, Kenny will be uncomfortable if you bring him, and you certainly will be uncomfortable. But you gotta’ ask yourself, ’who should be welcome in my church’?”
“Angela, did you feel uncomfortable when you visited my church a couple of years ago?”
“Dixie, I was the only black person in the building. Of course I felt out of place and uncomfortable.”
“Were people friendly to you?”
“They weren’t rude.”
Dixie looked at her beautiful friend. Her soft skin – smooth over high cheekbones, kind brown eyes, black curly hair piled up high. Maybe she’d never really seen her before.
“Angela, have I ever… ever treated… ever made you uncomfortable before.”
A musical laugh rang out from her wide smiling mouth. “Not on purpose, Dix! I’ve been treated badly by white folks before, and I’ve come to learn the difference between well-meaning and hateful white people. But there’s a big difference between tolerating people and including people.”
Hot tears stung the back of Dixie’s eyes. This was way worse than she thought. She stood up to go and Angela stood with her. “Thanks Ange,” she managed, and reached to hug her friend.
“No. Thank you, Dixie Lee. Thank you for asking the hard questions. Not many people do.”