MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE
A SHORT STORY
BY HARRIET MCBRYDE JOHNSON
She sets folding chairs in straight lines across the center of the back room of the American Legion Hall on Romney Street. The arrangement is satisfying, but still she feels low. An old rusty air conditioner makes big noise but fails to cool or even stir the air. Smells -- mildew and Lysol -- just hang there. When the first of the workers get there, she feels like she's looking up at them from a hole.
But she knows that attitude always follows action. She plants a smile on her mouth and makes her eyes beam alert concern. She constructs the face she needs to greet the hospital workers she is trying to unionize and hopes that, once again, her attitude will fall in line.
They greet her with polite, unreadable faces. "Hey Miss Hazel, how you doing?"
"All right," she nods back. Will they ever drop the "Miss"?
The women arrive in twos and threes and form little huddles in the booths that line the walls of the room. Away from her, they start teasing and joking. There is defiance in their hilarity.
A good organizer does not intrude into the life of a community. Hazel lays handouts on the table, tries to diagnose the air conditioner, dumps chips into bowls, and pours ice tea into paper cups.
Their talk bursts out of the huddles, darts from booth to booth, shoots across the rows of chairs. The women have forgotten she exists. It's usually white women ignoring a black woman who's making everything tidy and laying out the food. The turnabout is good.
She hears the door swing open but it doesn't close. Nehemiah has come and has stopped in the door frame. As the old local-union man and elder relative to half the City, it's his job to be solid. He's like a tree planted by the water. He cannot be moved. Coming up from behind, Joel turns sideways and slips right past him. Joel is as nimble as a fish; he can do that tricky maneuver waving both arms and exclaiming. He has a way of exclaiming.
"We've been to such places! You wouldn't believe!" He's especially bright after driving Nehemiah on his rounds.
Hazel speaks to Nehemiah. "I've already laid out the handouts and passed out the agenda. The air conditioner's not doing much but there's sweet ice tea."
"All right!" Nehemiah gives her two slow pats on the back that come close to an embrace. He's still in the doorway.
It's 20 minutes past the announced time for the meeting, but Nehemiah is in no hurry. He finally gets moving across the linoleum floor, but in a slow, stately way. At each huddle, he stops. He stands. He speaks. "How you doing? All right?" When he finally ends up in front of the head table, he stands in place. He rubs his head. Hazel and Joel sit down in one of the back booths. Not one folding chair is taken.
There is nothing that could be called, even loosely, a call to order. Nehemiah stands in his spot. Gradually, purely recreational razzing becomes purposive. The meeting is underway. No one pays attention to the agenda she typed and duplicated. Issues rise and fall, new issues roll in, abandoned issues resurface, issues cross in deflected paths.
Romney Street meetings may seem random, but she sees an underlying structure. They go in waves. Like the waves breaking on the shore, they seem to be getting nowhere. But if you watch long enough, you can measure the rising and falling of the tides. Over the course of a season you can see erosion of the beach and accretion of sand bars. In geologic time, big things happen. The process will continue long after her. Others will see the results long after she moves on, long after she dies.
Beside her Joel is smiling with that cheerful, open face of his. He's enjoying the meeting. How can Joel enjoy a Romney Street meeting? He is so New York, fast talking, fast moving. A Romney Street meeting ought to drive him nuts. She used to think he was just being polite. But now she's lived with him, and she knows better. He really enjoys these meetings, as he enjoys almost everything. He has patience, and not the put-upon patience of people who are forced into patience by some situation that must be endured. He knows what he wants, but he doesn't mind waiting -- no, he's happy to wait -- as long as it takes.
The wave-energy of the meeting dips. Faces are glum. The workers are grumbling. Ancient history has come back to life; words of blame rumble with the air conditioner. They are back to a pointless discussion of what went wrong and who was to blame in the strike of 1969. Nehemiah drifts into ineffectual muttering. His gaze is vacant, floating up to the asbestos tiles on the ceiling. He looks suddenly senile. The momentum -- the whole cause -- seems lost.
But Joel is still smiling. He's waiting. Almost winking at her.
All at once the wave rises again. Attention moves in one direction. Rising voices merge into a united, positive force. An issue is on the table. A plan is forming. Hazel feels herself bounce up, the way you bounce when you're standing chest-high in the ocean and a strong wave rises around you. At that moment, you reach out for your lover's hand.
She grabs Joel's hand, and she says it. "We ought to get married and settle down in Charleston."
Joel smiles the same smile he has been smiling since he entered the room. "OK! Great plan!"
On the surface, nothing has changed between her and Joel. Only inside are things different.
They knew each other before they actually met. As soon as she came to South Carolina, she started hearing about the New York lawyer who was criss-crossing the state for legal aid. She had landed in a tight little circle of progressive people; there is no room for the bickering that is one luxury of life in big places. It was no surprise when he showed up late one night with his sleeping bag. They were in the same struggle, so he was entitled to floor space in her apartment. She pointed him to the bathroom and went back to bed.
Since then, he's stayed at her apartment whenever he works in Charleston or passes through town. Now that's most of the time. His assignments are mostly up and down Highway 17, in Beaufort, Charleston, Georgetown, and Horry Counties. Her apartment is right off the crosstown leg of Highway 17.
Whenever their schedules match, they eat together, usually in front of her TV. They watch McNeil-Lehrer; sometimes they tune into the Spanish soap opera and speculate about what's going on. He drifts into her union meetings.
Their relationship has been easy and companionable from the beginning. Nothing changed when they started having sex. For them, sex has been a simple shared pleasure, a feeding of the senses as natural as taking in food. When he moved his stuff in and started paying part of the rent, it was no milestone, no turning point. They were not in love, not committed; they simply shared a convenient stopping place. Someday it would stop being convenient, and then they would sleep in other places, with other people. That was fine.
But now she knows he wants to marry her. He's a man who knows what he wants and is willing to wait, and now he's waiting for her. She wants to end the relationship all together, but that's hardly fair; she is the one who brought up marriage.
For three months now she's been thinking they should have a serious talk. But first she has to decide on the agenda. And that would destroy what she's always liked about their relationship -- its lack of decision. So her struggle has been to go back to the way things were.
Joel seems to be biding his time. Gently he confirms that the issue is still on the table. One Sunday last month, he looked up from his Bar review materials. "This is interesting!" he said. "Any notary public can perform a marriage! I think Nehemiah's daughter is a notary! How about it?"
She laughed, pretending to think he wasn't serious. But she knew he was serious. He always is.
Just last week he did it again. "Hey! South Carolina recognizes common law marriage! Apparently, if neither party is married to someone else, all it takes is living together, the intent to be married, and holding yourself out as husband and wife!"
That time she pretended to think he was just discussing the law. "What's the age of consent in South Carolina?" she asked.
"Well, that depends…"
Patiently, Joel gave her a lecture on domestic relations law in South Carolina. He won't force a decision.
Joel really doesn't mind that all the washing machines are busy. All day he has been running Nehemiah around. They started at 10:00 with a thing in the yard of a country church -- he still doesn't know what it was about -- and then they went the rounds of corner stores, fishing spots, pool halls and little neighborhoods. They were all over Charleston County. At some stops there were people to meet; at others they picked up people to take them to work, to hospital visits, to their church things, wherever. At odd times, people gave them food. Some food they ate right then. Other food they carried off and ate in the car. And other food they gave away. It was all pretty mysterious, but it was interesting.
He sorts the laundry. That doesn't take long. So then there's nothing to do but wait for Hazel to get there and watch other people's clothes spin around.
Joel is happy to be down South, hanging out in a Southern laundromat. He has always, always wanted to come South. As a kid in New York, he dreamed of coming down to change things. But then his idea of the South came from his uncle who was a Mississippi summer volunteer in 1964. He made Hazel laugh about it. "When I was about 10," he told her once while dishing out spinach lasagna, "I learned that a few things had changed -- I came too late, you know, for de jure segregation and all kinds of peculiar institutions!"
"Yeah," Hazel laughed, "too bad they abolished slavery before you got here."
The truth is, he was a little disappointed. But he never stopped wanting to go South. For years he cultivated people with Southern connections. That's what it takes to find a job in the South. Finally a friend of a friend in legal aid in South Carolina offered him a job. He said yes right away, without even asking the normal questions about pay and all that. So here he is, studying for the South Carolina Bar and working for nine dollars an hour as a paralegal. It's great! He travels from branch to branch, doing odd jobs for the lawyers -- the real lawyers, with South Carolina licenses.
He's done stints in the Midlands, Pee Dee and Piedmont, but he has the most fun on the coast, moving up and down Highway 17. The land's totally flat. And there is so much of it! Every time he sees a stand of big trees in the middle of a broad field, he has to grin. A big wide Southern grin. The South! For real! Headed south from Charleston, he drives past repeating sequences of trees and marsh and rivers all the way to the legal aid office on St. Helena Island. There, at the Penn Center, he walks under huge oaks hung with Spanish moss, on dirt packed hard by the pacing feet of Martin Luther King and Septima Clark and so many nameless people who came for strength. It is almost too much! North of Charleston is different. There, on the way to Georgetown and Conway, miles and miles of pines stick up like bottle brushes by Claes Oldenburg.
"What's the deal with these trees?" he asked a local, a trailer-park white man with a tangle of credit problems.
The man didn't get it at first. South Carolina people don't notice the bottle-brush effect. But finally Joel made him see. "Oh that! That's where Hugo stripped 'em, you know."
"You mean the hurricane? In 1989?"
The man nodded patiently. A special patient nod reserved for Yankee idiots, Joel suspected. "See," the man explained, "they used to have branches and all, and then when Hugo stripped 'em, the new growth shot out of the trunks, I reckon."
Now Joel tells Hugo stories that way, in the active voice, making the storm a character that does wild things. And now he loves those tortured pines as much as he loves the old, whole oaks whose sturdy arms shelter St Helena. And everywhere he goes he breathes in the musty smells of earth. Could anything be better?
Well, yes. Better even than the landscape is doing intake. All day he interviews people -- the people who live in the tiny houses by those open fields, in the trailer parks, in the little pockets of poverty in the cities and towns -- and writes up their problems for the lawyers. It's not easy to figure out what they are saying. From one end of the state to the other! They talk so funny!
But he keeps at it until the clients understand his questions and he gets their answers. Not just their answers. Their stories.
He tells Hazel those stories. He makes them funny, but she always sees something serious in them. She's so serious, committed, full of scruples. He has wondered if she might think him shallow. But it's much more interesting to wonder about her. How did she get the way she is? What makes her care -- not only about the goal, but just as much about the process? What will come of it all? He wants her story. He has wanted it from that moment at 1 am when she greeted him on her doorstep, as cool as a receptionist, as polite as if he had an appointment, and left him to sleep on her floor.
But he knows, for certain, that she won't just give her story to him. He can't just ask for it. The only way to get it is to be there and to watch it unfold, to be a witness. And that could take years, maybe their whole lives. Long before she surprised him -- and herself obviously -- by mentioning marriage, he knew he would stay as long as it takes.
She walks into the laundromat. "You'll never guess!" he says, his face lit up with cheerful irony. "Nehemiah's stuff all ran late! I only just got here! And now we have to wait for a machine!"
She sits down and re-sorts the wash.
"I think I'll walk down to Woolworth's if that's OK," she says. "I need some flip-chart paper and stuff."
"Sure! Hey, I know!" He turns to a woman who is staring at a washer. "Could you watch our stuff so I can run to Woolworth's with her?"
The woman seems charmed that he asked. "All right, go head on then."
"I'll just get my stuff and meet you back here." Hazel is gone as soon as they pass through the theft-detectors at Woolworth's.
Joel wanders around the front end of Woolworth's. He looks at the soaps and detergents. What kind of soap does Hazel like? Probably not Ivory -- "My wife, I think I'll keep her."
He picks up some oatmeal soap and then some light bulbs. A package of M&M's plain. He lurks around the displays listening to the voices of unseen Gullah people on the other side of the racks. He takes a pair of lurid red socks. Only $1.25 and they might be cotton.
Standing within sight of the cash register, he rotates the jewelry display. Pink and orange plastic beads, tiny silver-colored sea shells. Hey! A pair of Malcolm X dangle-earrings. They are sleek, simple and elegant. Light-weight. Made of real aluminum.
But what he can't resist is the white card, oily with handling. A lot of young black girls have handled those earrings, wanting them but not getting them. He wants to track down every one of those girls and ask why she didn't get the Malcolm X earrings she wanted. He wonders how he got so nosy.
It's only been about three minutes, but Hazel will be ready soon. She doesn't like to wait, so he stakes out a place in line, carrying his little things in a green plastic bin.
It's a long line. Teenagers, parents, and children are at Woolworth's to buy school supplies. He looks around. Behind him is an older white woman with a tight curly hairdo. She looks at his bin and scowls. She disapproves. Of the red socks? The M&M's? The Malcolm X earrings? Surely not the light bulbs! Without meaning to, he grins at her. Her scowl deepens. He has to speak. "My wife's doing the serious shopping," he says.
He's surprised by what he has just said but keeps on talking. "And I'm just killing time."
Her face softens a little. "My granddaughter will have her first day in school next week. I hope she'll like these things."
He looks into her cart. "Wow!" he exclaims, "a Beauty and the Beast lunch box and all those rainbow colors! Sure she'll like 'em! She'll go wild!"
The woman beams, won over.
The line moves up and Joel is at the register. He steps aside and turns to the white woman.
"Ma'am, you go ahead. I'm in no hurry. I have to wait for my wife!" This time he says it deliberately.
The cashier begins ringing up the school supplies. The scanner isn't working right; after repeated tries she keys in the prices. She's good. She must have been a cashier a long time before scanners came in.
The white woman looks up from her checkbook. "Oh, here she is, I bet."
Hazel is pushing a cart full of flip-chart paper, markers, poster paper, peel-off vinyl letters, copy paper, and other organizing tools.
The white woman has finished her business but stays behind. She smiles at Hazel and then at Joel.
"Is this your wife?" she asks.
Joel raises his eye brows at Hazel, kicking the question over to her.
She hesitates for barely a second. "Yes," she answers.
"And you must be newlyweds! I can always tell!"
"Yes, definitely." Hazel is red in the face, like a bride.
"And you're a teacher?"
"Well sort of, but my students know more than I do."
"I know you're a good teacher," the white woman coos. "And you're a darling couple. I know you'll be very happy."
Business has come to a standstill. Joel shrugs and smiles at the people in line behind them. No one seems in any hurry.
The cashier is ringing up their stuff. The white woman gives Hazel a kiss, and then Joel. "Now you take good care of this pretty girl," she says. Joel hands her her bags and she leaves.
Hazel picks up the Malcolm X earrings and speaks quietly. "What's this?"
"A wedding present!" They both burst into laughter.
They pay and take their bags out of the store. Rain is coming down in sheets. They lean on the front of the building under an awning and double over and laugh.
"Do you think that lady would like us so much if she knew our politics?" Hazel sputters.
"Probably!" says Joel. "We are a darling couple!"
Hazel leans back and breathes in the curry-charcoal smoke from the Indian restaurant up the block. She is serious now.
"So what's the deal? Are we really married now?"
Joel seems to be working through a Bar review problem. "Let's see! Neither of us is married to someone else! We live together! We've just held ourselves out -- in the Woolworth's on King Street no less -- as husband and wife! Only one issue… Did you intend to be married?"
"When? In that moment? When I said yes?" "In that moment, yes."
"Yes." She says it seriously, but with an air of disbelief. "Is that all it takes?"
"I believe so." He smiles.
"Does South Carolina have common law divorce?" she asks.
"I'm afraid not." His smile broadens. "For divorce you have to go to court and have grounds. The easiest way is to be separated continuously for a year."
"Well, that seems like a lot of trouble," she says.
"And just because we're married -- " "Doesn't seem like a sufficient reason to split up?"
"Exactly. We do get along pretty well, don't we?"
She cannot hear his answer. The rain and all the people talking under the awning and all the traffic sloshing through the water drown out his words.
The rain slackens and again the sidewalk is alive with people. When a shower has stopped but the sky is still green, Charleston people walk as fast as New Yorkers. The tourists, oblivious, plod along.
Shoulder-to-shoulder, Joel and Hazel head up King Street. On a crowded stretch of sidewalk, Joel falls behind and she walks in front. She steps aside to let a black woman pass with her three brown children and it hits her: if she has children, they'll be pale, pale like her, pale like Joel.
A sea of possibility is swallowed up. On both sides, the narrow street is walled with rows of old shop buildings. They press against her, and she has an urge to run, to escape from all these people pulled along by the street's North-South current. But then she pushes herself forward. She looks up King Street and now there is a kind of comfort in its line, its direction. She knows which way to go and feels better for knowing.
Maybe her children will inherit Joel's open face. She hopes they will know what they want, and be willing to wait for it. It's good to have things settled. Yes, it is good. Maybe that's what she's wanted all along.
Up the street and around the corner their laundry waits. By now that woman has put a load in the machine for them. Their white things are spinning around together in warm water. Her panties, his shorts, their T-shirts, their towels, their sheets.
This story was originally published in the summer 1998 issue of Notre Dame Review.
Harriet McBryde Johnson is a lawyer who practices in Charleston.