Backwater

Maddie Bowen-Smyth


 

Everybody knows betrothals are old-fashioned—a vestige that twentieth-century thinking has no need for. 

Still, everybody knows that Colette Cassidy will marry Ray Johnson. They attend every prayer breakfast together and, according to whispers, he’s set to propose. Ray’s two years older and works as an elevator attendant at the Highwater Lodge; a stable, respectable job. Mr Johnson’s a chauffeur; Mrs Johnson helps Mrs Cassidy manage the church’s social calendar; Mr Cassidy couldn’t possibly expect any better for his only daughter, could he?

Colette didn’t mind the attention when it was all in the theoretical. Now that she’s almost eighteen, and the whispers have grown cacophonous, she has her misgivings. 

“Next year, I can get work as a chauffeur,” Ray tells her. “Save some extra money. It’ll come in handy, you know…” He trails off meaningfully. 

“That’s great.” Colette flicks through her magazine. “Hey, let’s go out tonight. We could listen to some jazz.” 

 

Ray’s brow furrows. “I’m not sure that’s the kind of place—”

I’m going,” she says. “You’re quite welcome to escort me.”  

His face takes on a dour sheen. “Etta, your father’s very particular about us being unchaperoned.” 

“He won’t know about it.” Colette pauses longingly at the summer fashion pages. God, if only they had a proper department store here; she’d be a stylish radio starlet by now. “Anyway, I want to celebrate with you.” — Well, she’s ambivalent, really, but Ray’s the closest thing she has to a best friend. Nobody’s in a hurry to befriend the homeschooled daughter of pastors, not even in this backwater. 

“All right,” Ray allows. “Maybe that would be fun.” 

If there’s something she does love about Ray Johnson, it’s how much of a pushover he is. 

#

The dance hall is one of the only places worth going to, at least in Skayuk Falls. Sure, it’s not that cool, not like the scene in Harlem or the meagre handful of mixed clubs on offer in Seattle, but it’s something. There’s jazz, moonshine, levity—that, and a lot of petting.

After a few cups of moonshine, Colette’s priorities muddy. The other girls her age keep telling her she must be excited; she must be looking forward to having a husband who’ll—said with a wink, far too suggestive for a Sunday service—take care of her? From this, Colette’s deduced that abstinence inspires too much arousal for its own good.     

Her mother oft-espouses the risk of eternal damnation, lots of fire and brimstone talk, but she’s always wondered if God takes kindly to such sour thinking. Anyway, if her immortal soul is ending up damned, at least it’ll be before she’s damned to matrimony. 

Ray can’t handle his liquor. After one cup, he’s as tipsy as she is. Colette catches his lapel and tugs him closer, throwing propriety to the wind. 

They end up in the backseat of his father’s car. It’s clumsy, awkward, inept; entangled limbs squashed into a sybaritic space. Ray complies with almost anything she says, which gets annoying—what she wouldn’t give for something more charged

It’s okay, in the end. Colette’s curiosity is satisfied, even if the rest is lacklustre. Ray dozes next to her, languid and lean. He’s handsome, in the way that nice boys are, but it leaves her cold. 

She could build a home with him—sleeping beside him as children wedge between them, entertaining people from church, even tolerating her parents’ everlasting smugness. It would be mapped out with nowhere to hide, but she’d have somewhere that’s hers. 

Nothing’s warm about it, nothing about the image sticks; it recedes like sand through fingers. If she wanted to end up with a fettered future, there’s plenty of chance for that already. 

She wouldn’t have to marry Ray Johnson to get there.

#

“Do you ever,” Colette asks him, later. “Worry about the future?” 

“Not really, no.” Ray’s head snaps in her direction. “Oh, no, are you pregnant?” 

“Never mind,” she sighs. 

#

Nobody’s home when Colette packs her bags. Her mother will have a fit when she reads the note (‘Gone fishing in a bigger pond’, because it’s easier than trying to break everything down.) Her father will be furious, but she’s done trying to assuage him. 

The train rattles into Seattle some hours later. Colette sneaks out of the baggage car. The porter merely tips his cap at her in silent solidarity.

Aunty Callie, she’s been told, lives a life of debauchery and intemperance. Cities exist in the shadow of God’s light, as her father likes to say. 

In actuality, Aunty Callie works at a fancy gallery uptown. She’s properly cosmopolitan. She hosts dinner parties, attends openings and premieres and galas, and has a whole roster of high-flying friends. Her apartment is on the fringes of the International District; near department stores, hair salons, cafes, a cinema.

“Etta, you’re looking positively provincial.” Aunty Callie finds a loose thread at Colette’s sleeve. “Grey isn’t your colour.” 

“Etta is my mother’s name,” Colette snaps, without quite meaning to. 

Calista thinks on it. “I suppose it is. Letta sounds more distinguished, don’t you think?” 

#

Her aunt mostly leaves her to it, which is fine by Colette, even if it creates vacant hours in an apartment with a perpetually bare pantry and laden-down drinks trolley. (“We only eat in when there’s a party,” according to Calista.)

Aunty Callie introduces her to Polly, who knows Clancy, who knows Herbie—and on and on the circle goes, until she meets most of Seattle’s dilettantes. Colette loses track; details fade beneath glittering lights and champagne. 

Polly holds the kinds of soirées that would make the church mothers glossolalic. She’s also very nice to kiss.

 

“Do you do this all the time, then?” Colette asks.

Polly laughs. “I did go to boarding school, darling.” She reapplies Colette’s lipstick for her. “You don’t?”

“I was practically engaged,” Colette explains, “since I was fifteen.” 

Polly makes a face. “Ghastly, Letta! Is that how they do things in the country?”

#

Ray sends her a letter; it’s halting and wretched. Etta, your parents tell me you’re not coming back. Is that true? And then, she can almost feel the tentative: I could visit?

Colette puts it aside. The apartment is deserted by her aunt’s busy schedule, so she goes out instead. At a club that smells like spilled gin and sage, she meets a girl called Minty, who assures her it’s short for Clementine.

 

“My parents can’t stand it,” Minty brags.

The night wears on; drinks flow, chatter swirls; Minty flutters her eyelashes at some gentlemen to score them another round. They take their drinks up to an abandoned rooftop, hiding in the folds of the awning’s shadow.

I couldn’t wait to get out of Skayuk Falls either,” Minty leans over the railing. “Who could stand such a stifled place?” 

Colette buries the unpleasant jolt in her drink. “Not stifled, exactly. There’s just too much sometimes, pressing in.” 

“Exactly,” Minty shakes her head. “One day I’ll live in LA, or New York. If you want to be a radio star, you should too.”

“Do you ever,” Colette asks. “Feel like it’s desolate here?”

“Not really, no.” Minty smiles. “You’ve had too much wine, Letta. You’re in the doldrums.” 

“Let’s talk about something else,” Colette replies.

They don’t do much talking. Colette’s deduced that where boys (Ray, she supposes) are sturdy, heavy like woodsmoke, girls are honey-smooth, syrup and citrus. Things fall into place.

#

Ray visits. It’s as strained as she’d expect, considering, but he’s polite about the apartment, about her clothes and hair. 

“It’s pretty when it’s natural,” he adds, his voice tinged with dismay, but he agrees that it’s more important here to be fashionable.

“You could’ve told me,” he says next.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Colette swats his hand away. “You’ll make some other girl very happy.” 

He looks like he’ll cry, then, and—she’s not a soulless monster, so she draws him in for a hug. Boys might be altogether repellant, but he’s still nice to hug. There goes her conscience. 

Ray looks around. “I guess there’s no chance you’ll reconsider?”

“I doubt it,” Colette admits. “I know you won’t ask, but I don’t have a new fella.” He’s relieved, briefly, until—“I have been fucking girls, though.” 

Ray’s eyes go wide; he very carefully sets his water glass down. “Hot damn.” 

#

Partying is fun, but the days drag on when it’s the only thing to do. Colette cuts out an advertisement in the paper and heads downtown to a glossy old building. It’s some Seattle newspaper office—they’re hiring, though, so here she is.

An editor, Ava, runs the interview. “Can you type?” 

Colette’s never heard of a Black woman editing a city newspaper before. But if a Black woman can be a big city editor, maybe a Black young lady can be a radio starlet. “Not particularly, ma’am.” 

“Where do you see your career going?” Ava asks next, unbothered.

Career’s a strange word. Colette shrugs helplessly. “I want to be on the radio.” 

Ava doesn’t think it’s silly. Her parents rolled their eyes; Ray suggested readings at the Sunday service instead. Aunty Callie keeps telling her not to hold back, though, so here she is. 

“Then let’s start with the typing and go from there,” Ava says. 
 
The typing pool is noisy, wedged out of sight, but the girls are friendly. Ava leads her to a free chair. “There’s never an empty moment. We’ll see how you go, if you enjoy it.” 

Colette sits next to a pretty blonde girl. She’s absorbed in her work, clacking away at frightening speed, until one of the journalists drops off some copy. When the girl glances at it, she scrunches it up and lobs it at his head. “Fuck off with your chicken scratch, Collins.” 

Collins grouses but complies. She waves a hand emphatically. “The standards in this place are dropping every day.” And then: “I’ve only been here a few weeks, so that’s worrying, huh?” Finally, she graces Colette with the most enchanting smile she’s ever seen. “I’m Evie.”

 

She returns the smile. The image is warm; it sticks. A city job, a ‘career’, a desk next to a pretty girl, a place that’s never quiet. “I’m Colette.” 
 

Maddie Bowen-Smyth is perpetually, endlessly tired. She’s an avid tabletop roleplayer, an incurable fan of fried shallots, and an indefatigable hunter of obscure historical facts. Her work explores mental health, identity, and the relationships we have with our bodies. Born in Singapore, Maddie worked in Japan for several years and now lives in Australia with her wife. You can find her on Twitter @calliopium.