Umber Girl, 1983 by Marie Manilla


Laser had been looking for the umber girl all his life, and there she was, staggering up Front Street in the rain. She was a woman now, draped from head to calf in dark brown. The knit hat was also brown. A shock of green from the muffler wrapped around her throat. Her face was a blur, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was umber. 

The woman’s gait was unsteady as she pitched forward and jolted back, listed from side to side. Her eyes were on her feet as she tromped through puddles. She stumbled off the curb into the gutter. A passing car honked and she lunged back onto the sidewalk. Laser crossed the street and fell in step behind her. Up close, the coat was fake fur, molting in places. Still, Laser wanted to touch it.

“I know you’re back there,” Itty Bit said, the words garbled. She was quite high.

“It’s a free country,” he answered, though he didn’t know why. Word memory. And he no longer believed the country was free. Half the time he holed up in his riverbank shack, the other half he dodged Vietcong. If only he hadn’t killed that family, but he didn’t know it was a family. Now Vietcong wanted retribution, and they’d found him in Wallers Ferry. 

Itty stopped short and Laser bumped into her, knocking her to the ground. “Shit fire!”

“Sorry.” Laser reached down to help her stand. The fur sleeve slid up exposing too many track marks dotting pale skin. Now he knew who she was. 

“I know you.” Her eyelids were heavy, and she bared stained teeth. 

“You need to get out of the rain.” Laser was soaked through, too.

“That’s what I was trying to do, but the landlord locked me out.” She pointed back at The Dorinda Hotel where she and half a dozen other whores lived. 

Laser pictured the little red house in Camptown. “What about your mother’s?”

“She won’t let me in when I’m high.” Her laughter revealed no shame.

            He’d seen her with johns behind dumpsters, in the Boron Station bathroom. He wondered where all her smarts had gone. Folks wondered the same about him.

“Come home with me.” Laser never invited anyone to his shack, but Itty was different now that she was brown. He didn’t wait for an answer, just gripped her arm and tugged her to the ferry landing and the strip of woods beside it.

“Where the hell we going?”

A crack of lightning. “Out of the rain!”

The shack was sturdy, if not airtight. Rain pelted the corrugated tin roof. “I been in worse places,” Itty said. 

Laser knew that was true. He’d seen her with johns behind dumpsters, in the Boron Station bathroom. He wondered where all her smarts had gone. Folks wondered the same about him. 

He pulled a towel from his foot locker and offered it to her. He pointed to the folded blankets that served as a bed. “Just washed them at the laundromat.” He wanted her to know that. 

He fired up his Coleman and stole peeks of Itty running the towel over the coat’s arms, the front. The towel slipped from her hand. “I need to close my eyes for a minute.” She lay down, the coat’s folds looking like mountainous terrain. He was glad she’d kept the dark hat on, was especially glad when she rolled away from him so none of her white skin showed. Just umber fur slowly rising and falling. 

He’d never been drawn to white women. Not even in Nam when there were plenty for the buying, or taking, if truth be told. Skin color didn’t matter to Itty. He’d seen her with white men and black. But today, that rising fur beckoned him. He tried to resist, but when he heard Itty’s snores he thought it might be okay to run his finger across that sleeve, the collar. That’s all he wanted. Just that second of joy. He crawled up behind her, and his fingers trembled as he brushed the fur. It was exquisite, and he closed his eyes so he could pretend it wasn’t Itty Bit. 

She reached behind and pulled him toward her. “Hug me,” she said. “I’m cold.” She was quivering even beneath the coat. 

Laser obliged and spooned her tight. She wrapped his arm around her waist. The fur brushed his nose, his chin, and he put skin of a different color on her bones. Dark skin. Plus a wide face. High cheek bones. Extra padding on the hips and thighs. It was the dream woman he’d been hunting all his life. With the rain pattering the roof, why couldn’t it be her beneath that coat? What harm would it do? None, he decided, especially since he couldn’t stop rubbing the fur along her arms, her back. Her thighs. 

The umber woman moaned and rolled toward him. She opened her furry skin and pulled him all the way inside her. Took his hand and slid it up her dress toward a triangle patch that felt right, the tight coils. Yes. This was her. The black woman he could hide inside where Vietcong would never find him. They would never even think to look for him here: a black man inside a white woman inside an umber one.

Marie Manilla’s novels include The Patron Saint of Ugly, winner of the Weatherford Award, and Shrapnel, winner of the Fred Bonnie Award for Best First Novel. Stories in her collection, Still Life with Plums, first appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Mississippi Review, Prairie Schooner, and other venues. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

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