Science Fiction Historical

Button Up Your Overcoat

By Barbara Krasnoff
Jun 23, 2019 · 3,254 words · 12 minutes

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Art by Galen Dara.  

From the author: There's more than one way to pass.


When Camille woke early that afternoon, her mama had just finished feeding Elmer and he was banging a wooden spoon enthusiastically on the floor, singing, “Button button button button,” at the top of his tiny lungs.

“I’m sorry,” her mama said when Camille finally emerged, having washed and dressed. “I try to make that boy behave, but they played his favorite song on the radio, and at his age, they just love making noise.”

“Oh, it’s fine; I wasn’t sleeping anyway.” She kissed the boy on top of his head and checked the seams of her stockings in the mirror on the back of her bedroom door. “Mama, is there any coffee left? I could really use some.”

“Nothing to eat?” her mother asked, handing her a cup. “You really need to eat something before you go out. Men like women with a bit of roundness on them; they don’t want no skin and bones.”

“I’m not hungry,” Camille said, taking one more glance at herself in the mirror. Whatever happened today, it would help if she looked really good. “I’ve got to leave early anyway so I can get my hair marcelled.”

Her mother folded her arms. “You know, you’re making enough at the club. You don’t have to be looking for men all the time as well. It’s hard enough to meet the eyes of my friends at church as it is.”

“Oh, just stop it, mama!” Camille spat so suddenly that her mother took a step backwards. “I know what I’m doing. I’m going to be the saving of this family. What those men give me means you can stay home and give Elmer a proper bringing up rather than go out and scrub floors. And if I can find some rich man to really take care of me, we can be set for years without worrying.”

“If you find some rich white man, me and Elmer will have to stay hidden away--you know that. The moment he saw us, he'd know you were passing, and you'd be out the door.” Her mother shook her head. "Baby, it's not worth it."

“I wouldn’t stick with him for more than a year or so. Just hold on to him long enough to put something substantial away. For us.” Camille shrugged her coat on and put her hand in the pocket. The envelope was still there. She had almost persuaded herself that it was not. She leaned forward, and kissed her mother on the cheek. “Don’t worry. I’ll be home the usual time.”

It was a beautiful spring day, with still a bit of chill in the air. Camille walked briskly to the Ninth Avenue El, ignoring the neighbor ladies who stared at her; one muttered “Whore,” behind her back. Camille didn’t turn her head, but kept it high and listened to the sound of her high heels tapping along the concrete.

Once she was on the train, she sat down, looked around to make sure there was nobody she knew on the car and pulled out the envelope.

The note, written in longhand on a piece of  lined paper, read, “If you’re the granddaughter of Sally Gladstone, who owned a bar on 118th Street around the turn of the century, may I see you after tomorrow night’s show?”

It was a simple request, and Camille was used to getting notes from men who wanted to meet her after the show. Some she even welcomed. But the others didn’t know her family history. And anyone who knew her family history was a threat to Camille and her plans for her future.

She got off at midtown and walked briskly to a small brownstone just off West 45th Street. Stella’s was a private hair salon located on the top floor, and catered strictly to ladies who needed to get their hair done by somebody who didn’t care what they looked like naturally. (The retired actress who resided on the other two floors was happy for the extra income.)

Stella herself was a very businesslike woman in her 50s who didn’t encourage her customers to gossip in any way. “We all have our secrets,” she would say, “and if any secrets get out, I don’t want it to happen here.” 

Today, Camille only needed a touch-up; a full straightening and styling was a several-hour torture session that she only scheduled for a day off.  There was only one other customer there, an older woman who carefully avoided Camille’s gaze. She wore a large engagement ring and a plain gold band on her finger; Camille wondered how long the woman had been married and if her husband knew.

She stared into the mirror as Stella took a toothbrush and carefully started touching up her hair with a light brown color. “You’re good for another few days,” the woman said decisively, “but you’re going to need the hot comb pretty soon.”

Camille took a breath. “Stella,” she asked, a bit nervously. “When you were…when you were younger, were you ever found out?”

The woman smiled, but there was no humor in her eyes. “Honey, I was down in Atlanta romancing the son of an old family. When somebody just looked at me cross-eyed at a dance one evening, I packed and took the next boat up north.”

#

The Hot Tomato was a small speak built into the basement of a downtown clothing store. It was classy enough, and discreet enough, that the occasional local politician would drop by for a tipple. They had a good house band, a couple of comedians, two female singers, an eccentric dancer, and the chorus line. Camille had gotten a job there nearly a year ago, and hoped to make it out of the chorus one day as a torch singer. She wasn't a great singer, and knew it, but she had a pleasant voice and could hold a tune; with the right costume, that was all that was necessary.

The customers sat, elbow to elbow at the small tables, holding the delicate tea cups in which their refreshment was served (it didn't fool anyone, and the owner paid enough in bribes to avoid unannounced raids, but it gave the clientele a chuckle). Camille made her way through the crowd on her way backstage, smiling at the bartender and a couple of customers she recognized. She let her hips sway just a bit, aware she was being watched. You never knew who was in the audience on any given night.

And ran right into one of the black waiters, whose tray, which was loaded with (thankfully) empty glasses, went crashing to the floor. The waiter, a tall, very dark man whom she didn’t remember seeing before, stared at her for a moment, then knelt and started to clean up. Flustered, Camille was about to bend down to help when she remembered herself; who she was supposed to be.

“Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” she said haughtily, and brushed past him.

“Hi, Camille,” said her friend Mandy as Camille entered the small room that passed for a dressing room. Mandy was a bleached blonde who looked like a moll in some gangster movie--and who, as a matter of fact, was being courted by one of the local bootleggers.

Camille took the chair next to her and whispered so that other girls fixing their faces nearby wouldn’t hear. “Listen, have you seen anyone in the place who you don’t recognize?”

“No,” Mandy whispered back. “Well, except a thin kid with glasses at one of the front tables. Looks like he’s hardly voting age. Why?”

“Well, he might be a private dick,” said Camille, improvising quickly. “Somebody told me that a guy’s wife was trying to get some dirt on him, and he and I went out a couple of times.”

“Well, I wouldn’t worry,” Mandy said, running a comb through her hair and standing up. “He looks too young to be anything but some kind of frat boy.”

Camille shrugged as though she didn’t care. But during the first number, she watched the young man carefully from her position on the left side of the chorus-line, and saw how he talked to the tall waiter, who gestured in her direction.

For the rest of the show, while she mechanically went through her steps, Camille calculated how much time she would need to get to the bank in the morning and take out her savings. If necessary, she could take mama and her son and they could disappear into Harlem. And if the club owners got really mad, they could always go down south to New Orleans; she might be able to get work there.

But just in case she was wrong, during the next number she made sure that the young man, who had gotten a seat at one of the front tables, had a good view of her outstretched leg. He colored and stared fixedly ahead.

#

After the show, Camille sat in the dressing room staring at the mirror. Around her, the other girls fixed their makeup. There was a second show later that evening, so they didn’t bother to change, but they were going to spend some time sitting at the tables trying to make time with the more well-off customers and wanted to look their best.    Some of the girls stared curiously at her, but she told them she expected a caller, and they simply nodded knowingly.

A few minutes after the last girl had bustled out, there was a knock at the door. “Come in,” she said softly, and then louder, “Come in!”

The door opened. But it wasn’t the young man in the front row who looked in--it was the waiter who had bumped into her, and who had later pointed her out to the new customer.

“What do you want?” she asked, irritably. “Get out of here. You know you’re not allowed backstage around the girls.”

The waiter entered and closed the door behind him. “I just wanted to talk with you for a few minutes,” he said.

“What about?” she asked. “Make it fast, I’m expecting someone.”

“I’m the one you’re expecting.” When Camille stared at him, shocked, he added. “I need to understand. How you can pretend as well as you do.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said stiffly.

The man looked at her, eyes expressionless. “Your grandmother was a Floradora girl who claimed she was the daughter of a Southern plantation owner--she may have been, but her mother was more likely one of his cotton workers than his wife. She was with the show for three years then disappeared, but a woman with the same name is listed as having owned a bar in Harlem 20 years later. During that time, she had apparently had several children; one, a girl named Rose, worked as an under-housemaid for the Rockefellers for a while until she married one of the gardeners. We lost track of her after that. But we do know that one of her children was a girl named Claudia who, when she was 16, changed her name to Camille.”

Camille felt her face redden under her makeup. She wasn’t going to cry. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. “What do you want?” she asked, trying to keep her tone calm and in control.

The man regarded her calmly. “Information. What happened to your grandmother?”

“Why do you want to know?”

"I'm a …genealogist, you might say. I’m interested in family histories. Yours, in particular."

Camille shrugged. “All right. Grandma left the Floradoras when she'd saved enough money to go into business for herself. She lost most of it in the Panic of 1907, but what was left was just enough to open a blind pig. She sold whiskey until she died, never making more than enough to keep the place going and support her family.”

The man sat down on one of the chairs. “And your mother?”

"Can't you leave my mother out of this?" When the man didn't say anything, Camille shook her head, defeated. “Fine. Mama was the third child, and thought she was going to do well--she worked and saved, and found a sober, hard-working man. When they had enough for a store, they got married. But daddy died in the flu epidemic, and she got sick and lost the store. She had to go to work washing floors and taking care of white people’s houses. Until I got old enough to get this job.”

“Interesting,” said the man. “None of that is in the existing records.”

“So now you know,” said Camille, bitterly. “You know that I’ve been passing.  Once my boss finds out, I’ll be out of here and back trying to get into a chorus uptown--that is, if I’m not arrested first. Look,” she leaned forward, “I’ve got some money in the bank. I can’t pay you a lot, but I can pay you something, and send you more later.”

The man looked amused. “I don’t need your money.”  At her angry look, he added, “No, I don’t want that either. I want…” he paused. “I just wanted to meet you. To know what you were like when you were young. To find out the history of your…” He took a breath. “Of our family.”

She stared. If she really looked, she could see a slight resemblance. Very slight. “I don’t know you. How are we related? From slavery days?”

He snorted, as though what she said was funny. “Yes. That’s it. Distantly--from slavery days. But not the slavery days you’re thinking of.”

“Oh.” She sighed, and stretched; it was as though something very large and heavy had been lifted from her chest. She wasn’t sure exactly what he was talking about, but it seemed he didn’t mean her any harm.

“You gave me a hell of a scare.” She looked at him again. “Listen, you better not stick around--the boss would have a fit if he knew a colored waiter was in the girls’ dressing room. If you want, we could meet later, uptown, and talk some more.”

They both stood, and the man reached over and took her hand. His felt strangely cold and clammy, as though he'd been holding a piece of ice. “Thanks, Camille," he said. “I'd like that.”

She stared earnestly at him. “Don't tell anyone, okay? Because I’d be in a hell of a mess if you did.”

He shook his head. “Don’t worry. Nobody is going to find out. I'm sure of that.”

Camille finally allowed herself to smile. “Thanks. I wish I could be as certain as you.”

“Oh, but I am.” He stared at her. “How do you do it, Camille? How do you pretend day after day? How do you ignore it when people say ugly things to your face about your people because they think you’re like them? That you’re not different?”

She shrugged. “You do what you have to do. If I was darker, I’d be working in uptown clubs or as a maid so I could feed my mama and baby. But I’m young and pretty, and can sing a bit. When I realized that I didn't just pass the brown paper bag test, but could actually pass for white, I decided to use it to earn a living and save a bit against bad times. It’s just what you do.”

The man shook his head. “You’ve got more courage than I do. What if you’re found out? What then?”

“You deal with that if it happens. You just take it day by day.”

The man was still for a moment, then nodded. “Thank you, Camille. That helps.”

Despite his words, though, he looked uneasy, as though he were thinking about some trouble he couldn't tell her. Camille suddenly felt sorry for him--she knew how life could throw you a curve. "It's hard sometimes," she said sympathetically. "I know." She reached up and gently pressed her lips against his cheek.

His face was cool, as cool as his hand had been. And then, as she started to pull her face away, she caught a brief glimpse of his neck. There was a long fold of skin there, almost but not quite covering what looked like a deep slit. At first, she thought it was a cut that had healed badly, but then the fold of skin fluttered and pulsed like something breathing.

Camille stepped back and stared at the man. “What is that?”

“What is what?"

"That--wound on your neck. It looks funny. Like..." She paused, and thought. "Gills."

The man took a deep breath. "Damn. I forgot... It's nothing. Really. Camille, I'm sorry. I’m going to have to leave sooner than I thought. I was hoping I could stay, meet your--our--family. But if did, I might change things that... I need to leave."

"Will you be able to come back?" she asked.

"No. I'm afraid not." He moved toward the door, and then turned back. "You won't understand this--and I can't explain it--but even in a place and time when race won't matter, there will be other ways to be a mix. To be different."

There was a sharp knock on the door. “Hey, Camille,” Mandy yelled. “We’re on in five minutes. And the boss is looking for you--Julie just quit, and he says you can do her solo--but only if you’re onstage pronto!”

“Be there in five,” Camille yelled back, frightened that Mandy would come in.

But her friend only called, “Okay!” and went pattering down the hall.

Camille turned to the man. "Sorry. I've got to go."

"Of course," he said. "So do I."

They regarded each other for a moment more, and then Camille grinned at him. "Take it easy,” she said. “Just don't let them get you down. Day by day, right?"

The man's eyes were intent on her face, as though committing it to memory. "Right," he said, and then smiled back at her warmly. "Thank you again. And don't worry. You're going to do fine. I promise.” He turned and left.

For a moment, Camille just stood, staring after him. Then she ran to the door and into the hallway, but the man was gone.

She went back into the dressing room and sat, her legs suddenly unsteady. She was no longer sure of what she had just seen--or whether she believed it. Maybe it was just a wound, she told herself. A knife cut, or something. After all, it’s not like she'd seen a lot of them.

Camille lifted her hand and touched her lips, remembering the coolness of the man's cheek. “You’re going to do fine,” she repeated slowly. Then she stood, and looked in the mirror.

“Damn right!” she declared. She struck a pose, blew herself a kiss, and ran out of the room.

Backstage, Mandy was waiting with the club owner, a stout, balding man who regarded Camille sourly. "You see?" Mandy said, "I told you she'd be here."

The man looked Camille over. "Okay," he said. "You're pretty enough. Your friend here tells me you can hold a tune. I got to fill Julie's spot. If they like you, you get two shows a night and I'll see if I can manage a little extra dough. You ready?"

Camille fluffed up her hair and threw the man her best smile. "I'm ready for anything!" she declared, and strutted out on stage.

Read about this story's background here

This story originally appeared in Broken Time Blues: Fantastic Tales in the Roaring ‘20s.


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Barbara Krasnoff

Writer of weird speculative short stories.