By Nancy Bourne
The singer clutches the microphone, her bright red lips wide open. Eyes closed. Voice so smooth, like molasses. Like the color of her face, dark, satiny. Amber can’t take her eyes off her. She looks around the crowded Golf Club ballroom at the other wedding guests. A lot of kids from her high school. No longer chatting, but staring at the singer and frowning.
Amber can see her cousin, Sterling, Jr., up front with his bride, Jodie, a brainy sort from New York. They met in Vermont, working at a summer camp.
“Jodie’s hired a singer for the reception,” he’d told her. “She sings in Broadway musicals.”
Amber had expected somebody looking like Julie Andrews or Barbra Streisand, not this dark- skinned woman.
She’s singing Summertime, her voice piercing the high notes in clear, crystal sweetness. Amber loves this song. She closes her eyes and lets the music flow through her. She feels she’s alone in this vast ballroom, just Amber and the beautiful singer, lost in the easy living of Summertime.
What’s she feeling? Amber wonders. That black woman, singing down here in Cypress, South Carolina, in front of all these white people. She looks around. No colored faces here, except on the waiters. She watches them skirt around the guests, in their starched white jackets, holding trays of shrimp high in the air.
The girls from Amber’s high school, in sleeveless silk dresses, sip fruit punch, their bare arms and faces red from the July sun. Their mothers, in pastel linen suits, flutter paper fans in their faces to counter the ineffective air conditioning. Husbands and sons, with jackets and ties hanging loose in their hands, sweat visibly. Pink and blue balloons dangle from the ceiling. Stacks of wedding presents wrapped in silver paper overflow several tables. It has all the trappings of a summer wedding in a small southern town.
Except for that singer.
Amber hears someone say, “I think it’s weird to invite a colored girl down here to sing at a wedding. I mean we’ve got Civil Rights and all that, but it’s in bad taste. We’re not ready.”
Amber closes her mind to the conversations around her and fixes her eyes, large, dark brown, on the satin-skinned woman, on her wide-open mouth, on her eyes, shut tight, on her limber body swaying to the music of her song. Amber can’t stop smiling.
And now the singer is bowing to the smatter of applause, nodding to Mr. Striker, the high school band instructor seated at the piano. She climbs on unsteady spike heels down the stairs from the stage, frowning slightly at the crowd of wedding guests. After a minute of searching the room, she heads off through the guests, who step aside, opening up a space for her.
The ballroom suddenly explodes with the chatter of old friends. “The cake,” someone yells over the noise. “They’re cutting the cake.” There’s a rush to the long table at the side of the ballroom. Amber can picture Sterling, Jr. and Jodie, her hand on top of his, as they plunge a silver knife into the bottom layer of a tiered four-layer cake, iced sugar white, the standard toy bride and groom perched on top, the wedding date, June 14, 1984, spelled out in colored icing. Cameras flash. The crowd roars.
But Amber isn’t with them. She has seated herself at a small table, sipping punch, and humming to herself. She half hopes one of the high school girls will come sit with her. No one does.
And then there she is. The singer. Standing over her, watching her. Amber is stunned by the woman’s beauty, the strength of her gaze. Confused, Amber looks away; her face burning.
“You,” the woman says in her honey voice, “You are the most beautiful woman in the room. You,” she stresses the word, “you are one of us.” She smiles and is gone.
Amber looks around. Did anyone notice her standing there? Talking to her? A black woman making personal remarks. But everyone is still hovering near the bride and groom, crumbles of cake spilling from their fingers.
Was she making fun of her? No one has ever called Amber beautiful. Her nose is too big. Her mother says it’s elegant and makes her look Egyptian. But it’s too big; in fact, she is too big. Her cheeks are round, and where the collar bones of other girls stick out and their stomachs lie flat, Amber is soft, full. Her large dark eyes, her only source of pride.
But that isn’t the worst. The woman called her “one of us.” What did she mean by that? It scares her. What does that singer see when she looks at her? Does she see her swaying to the music, her eyes closed? Does that make her “one of us”? Or is there something else?
The singer is back on the stage, grabbing the mic, nodding to Mr. Striker. And then she is looking at Amber. She is smiling and singing right to her.
Amber looks away, her body rigid. She is terrified.
Nancy Bourne’s stories have appeared in Upstreet, Carolina Quarterly, The South Carolina Review, Blue Lake and numerous other publications. Several of her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. For a full list of Bourne’s publications, see nancybourne.us.
Since retiring as an attorney for public schools, Bourne has been writing stories, making pottery in her home studio, and teaching writing to prisoners and incarcerated minors.