John Holman ~ Flocked

They’d been going out for six months but this was their first trip out of town as a cou­ple, using a week­end of win­ter break to browse Greenville, two hours and change from where they taught col­lege in Atlanta.   Back in the spring, at the buf­fet table, they had gri­maced and then smirked at each oth­er after tast­ing bland black bean tarts served at the Dean’s spring recep­tion for pro­mot­ed fac­ul­ty, and they won­dered why they hadn’t seen each oth­er on cam­pus before.  Laney had blonde hair swept to one side, a floaty white dress print­ed with flow­ers and birds, and green suede ankle boots.  Davis liked her style.  He wore his blue jack­et and brown chi­nos with a light blue shirt and brown shoes.  No tie.  He taught Sociology, and Laney taught Drawing and Painting.  Both now full Professors in their for­ties (late for Davis, mid for Laney), they felt old enough and secure enough to ven­ture into a mixed-race Southern romance.  They dis­cussed it dur­ing the third or fourth time they met for lunch, after a night of kiss­ing like teenagers in Davis’s car out­side a gallery where some of her stu­dents had a show.  Who cares?  Not their ex-spous­es.  Laney’s, a chem­istry pro­fes­sor, had moved on to anoth­er uni­ver­si­ty three years before, and Davis’s, a com­put­er coder, dis­cov­ered van life, trav­el­ing the coun­try and work­ing from wher­ev­er she want­ed. “Which isn’t with you,” Laney said, to test for resid­ual pain. “Definitely not,” he replied.  So, no longer feel­ing the loss of their exes, they said they were ready for each oth­er.  Besides, it seemed they couldn’t keep their bod­ies apart.  They guessed it was great good for­tune they had met.

They made a hand­some cou­ple, Davis with his height, Laney with her green-eyed, blonde shape­li­ness.  They fig­ured they were envied at pubs and can­dlelit restau­rants, on hikes of green­space trails, in line out­side the­aters.  Maybe they were resent­ed by some.  Sometimes Davis noticed black women par­tic­u­lar­ly with sour expres­sions look­ing at them.  He felt self-con­scious, men­tioned it to Laney, who said she saw the looks, too.  Yet, before they met, sel­dom had oth­er women, race and eth­nic­i­ty irrel­e­vant, paid him atten­tion at all.   Still, his­to­ry held that if there ever was a dan­ger from somebody’s dis­plea­sure it would prob­a­bly be from white guys, but more like­ly out of the city, where Confederate flags still flew.  They got in the habit of look­ing past peo­ple in crowds, on the streets, on the trails, avoid­ing pos­si­ble dis­ap­proval.  They got in the habit of look­ing at each other.

Among his emo­tions, includ­ing all-day affec­tion and occa­sion­al trep­i­da­tion, Davis felt proud to be with Laney, who was smart and fun­ny and increas­ing­ly good look­ing.  She could talk about social issues and art, had read a lot of what he had read, and had good stuff to rec­om­mend.  She liked movies with sub­tle moods and great open scenery–brooding char­ac­ters around water and cliffs.  He liked them too.  Before he met her, he watched movies alone any­way, most­ly stuff that made him laugh out loud, and thrillers, which for her were often too vio­lent and laden with threat.  He liked her paint­ings, misty shapes streaked with col­or– turquoise, yel­low and pink–as if impres­sions of fogged and rainy spring land­scapes. Or maybe clouds in out­er space. They touched a lot, held hands on dri­ves and on walks, laughed.

They had heard Greenville was a cool place and sus­pect­ed maybe a young scene with book­stores and cof­fee shops, but it sur­prised them with its busy city hol­i­day vibe.  Young, sure, sin­gle and cou­pled, fam­i­lies with kids, float­ing clumps of spec­trum-haired teenagers, and peo­ple their age and old­er on the side­walks and in dec­o­rat­ed stores and restau­rants. Their hotel was joy­ful with twin­kling Christmas trees, red-vest­ed car­ol­ers, and bathed with lots of nat­ur­al day­time light in the lob­by.  For Davis their inter­ra­cial aspect did cause more anx­i­ety out of town.  He hard­ly saw oth­er black peo­ple except some hotel work­ers and the cooks in the kitchen of the restau­rant where they had lunch that first day.  None were among the din­ers, and few were among the shop­pers going in and out of the var­i­ous stores.

Exploring, they walked to a park that fea­tured a riv­er right down­town.  Delightful.  At one point, briefly, he lost Laney there when he stopped to read a plaque about a Civil War event and she walked on to watch the water rush by.  He looked up and couldn’t find her among the oth­er peo­ple sit­ting on rocks and bench­es and stand­ing along the river’s hilly bank.  But then she turned to him on the bank and her smile ignit­ed his.  Happy recog­ni­tion and reunion.  Privately, he was star­tled to real­ize she could dis­ap­pear or be so sud­den­ly absorbed among oth­ers.  But it hap­pened again the same day when they sep­a­rat­ed in a many-sec­tioned store that sold a con­fus­ing assem­blage of goods—clothing, can­dles, col­or­ful met­al water bot­tles, sil­ver and bead­ed pic­ture frames, arti­sanal jams and rel­ish­es, jew­el­ry, books, under­sized block-print greet­ing cards.  While Davis tried on hats in one room, Laney roamed oth­er rooms.  He sought her out for her opin­ion about a cap, dark tweed with a snap brim and a buck­le in the back, but he couldn’t find her.  Room after room, he car­ried the cap.  Blonde women, sim­i­lar­ly shaped, in quilt­ed jack­ets and blue jeans and boots, shopped in all of them.  From behind, they all looked like Laney, and even from the front if he didn’t focus hard on their faces.  There was some­thing of a bad dream about it, a lit­tle fun­ny while awake, like the recur­ring dream when he had to walk for miles at night search­ing for his car.  Except this was day­time, and not even shad­ows dimmed the store, over­head light falling equal­ly on every­thing, bright­en­ing already bright strands of tin­sel strung among the mer­chan­dise.  At the riv­er, she had reap­peared rather quick­ly but now a pan­icked, strand­ed feel­ing edged clos­er.  As he stepped over thresh­olds, from one bright room to anoth­er, he imag­ined the store was pop­u­lat­ed with a dis­pro­por­tion­ate abun­dance of yel­low par­rots, light­ing on shelves of hot sauces, pil­lows, and cof­fee table books, and on racks of T‑shirts and coats and car­toony socks.  So much same­ness among so much vari­ety.  He decid­ed to go out­side and come back in with a fresh per­spec­tive.  Maybe Laney was out there, any­way, on the side­walk.  First, he need­ed to return the cap to its rack.  It was back with the hats that he saw her, relief wash­ing away the lost, pan­icky feel­ing, but not the embar­rass­ing com­e­dy of his fail­ure to pick her out of the crowd.

She didn’t like the hat he’d cho­sen, at least not as he wore it. “Thug?” she said gri­mac­ing, pret­ti­ly, as she had that first time he saw her at the Dean’s par­ty.  But she did like the book she was hold­ing, pho­tographs of birds.  “Cool,” he said, and flipped through the glossy pages that, of course, flut­tered like wings and fanned his hot face.  He thought, how kismet would it be if he found there a yel­low par­rot. When he found a page with lots of them, blue and green ones too, all smoth­er­ing some spindly trop­i­cal tree, he looked at her and smirked, but as he closed the book and returned it to her, this time she wouldn’t know why.


John Holman is the author of Squabble and Other Stories, Luminous Mysteries, and Triangle Ray. His work has appeared in many jour­nals and antholo­gies. He teach­es writ­ing at Georgia State University.