Fire and Wanda, Chapter 5, Scene 1


Berve was squeezing my wrist hard enough to break something as she rocked back and forth on the sofa laughing.

“I swear I will never forget the look on your face when you showed up to work the next day. Boy, you looked like you’d just seen the Second Coming, face all glowing like I don’t know what! And Wanda? Lord! The way she tried to step up in there all bold, telling jokes all loud? That right there let everybody who knew Wanda know something was up. And that look when you came through the door? With that quick little “Hey,” and a wave? Shoot, might as well have been a sign stamped on her forehead sayin’ the two of y’all slept together. Don’t know who she thought she was tryin’ to fool!”

“Yeah, well, I’m glad to see you laughin’ now, Berve, ‘cause you sure weren’t laughin’ much that night. I still remember the way you were looking at her, and that’s how I knew you knew. And remember the conversation we had after? After my shift was through? I was all ready to go on home, but you made me stay until your break came up. I honestly thought you were gonna read me the riot act.”

Berve’s face softened as she allowed her laughter to die down. She let go of my wrist, patted my hand.

“I started to. I did. But then I had to make myself realize you were a grown man. And Wanda was a grown woman. And whatever the two of you decided to do wasn’t none of my business. Besides, I’d already told you my feelings on the whole matter. What else was I gonna do? Spank you?”

“But you were still mad, Berve. I mean you were really mad. I hadn’t seen you that angry since I’d known you. That whole time we were walking down to the lunchroom, and you not saying a word or not even looking at me? I was worried we weren’t gonna be friends anymore.

Berve shook her head emphatically, then slid closer to me, taking both of my hands in hers.

“Never, baby. Never. But here’s the thing you need to understand about me, and about why I was so angry. And I may as well tell you now that I was way more upset at Wanda than I was at you, but that doesn’t even matter now…”


“You remember that first time when you asked me about Wanda, when you wanted to know what I thought about you being all hot and bothered over the girl? And you remember when I told you about how she’d been through so much?”

I nodded.

“Yeah…I mean yes. I do.”

I already knew where this was going, but I decided it was better not to interrupt. I knew a lot more about Wanda’s background than Berve thought I did.

“So how much did Wanda ever tell you about that? About what it was she did before she became a nurse?”

“She told me enough.”

“Pardon me for pushing, Alton, but what you mean by ‘enough’?”

I had to work hard to keep from squirming like some little kid in the principal’s office.

“I mean she told me enough about how she used to be a prostitute. About who Corinne’s daddy was, and what it was he had her doing up there in Memphis. About how Milton, her cat, is named after him. All of that. So yeah, she told me enough. All right?”
“Ever wonder why she told you? Young as you were? I mean, that’s not usually the kind of thing a woman tells a man about her past, do you think?”

“Probably not. But I figured she was trying to scare me off. She knew how I was starting to feel about her, so she figured if she told me something like that then I’d run away screaming. Didn’t work though. I told her I didn’t care and that I still wanted to marry her.”

Berve smiled.

“She couldn’t believe it when you said that. You shook that girl up more than you knew.”

“She told you?”

“Wanda told me a lot of things, honey. I figured you knew that by now. But don’t feel embarrassed. That woman really did love you, she did. But she also hated the fact that she loved you, if that makes any sense.”
“Not really. But then this is the first I’m hearing that Wanda loved me, and this is ten years later, so I guess it’s gonna take me awhile to wrap my mind around that before I’m ready to try and unravel anything else.”

“I hear you, but just think about it for a minute. I know it’s hard for you to put yourself in her position, but I mean, here you are close to a 40-year-old woman who’s pretty much given up on men in her heart…”

“What..? What you mean she’d given up on men, Berve? Wanda loved men. Probably too much. Why else…”

Berve was patiently shaking her head.

“OK,” I said. “I’m listening.”

“Alton, why you think she was messing around with married men? ‘Cause they were safe, that’s why. And because any married man who was still willing to cheat on his wife to spend the night with her just confirmed the view she had of men going back as far as she could remember. Wasn’t no man Wanda would ever trust, not really. And there wasn’t no man could tell Wanda he loved her and she’d let herself believe it. Not deep down. Matter of fact, Wanda pretty much looked at any man who’d tell her something like that as weak. Reason why she put up with that sick pimp Milton for so long is because she saw him as strong.

“But then here you come, Mister. Sure, you’re way too young, you don’t know anything about how it is out here, and you’re naïve. But you’re also the first man Wanda ever met – or at least that I heard anything about – who really did love the woman. Who didn’t want anything from her. All you ever wanted was just to love the girl, and she didn’t know what to do with that except to get angry. Angry that you weren’t older, that she wasn’t younger, that she couldn’t freeze herself in time and wait for you, that she couldn’t make herself not care about what she knew people would say and what they would think. That she couldn’t make herself not care about what she knew your mother would think. That she couldn’t erase where she’d been and what that life had done to her. But instead of trying to explain at least some of this to you – and Lord knows I did try to make her do better – she figured it was just easier to revert to her old ways and strike out at you. Make you hurt the way she hurt. That night when she put all those stars in your eyes, you know the real reason she did that was she was using you to get back at that married fool boyfriend of hers Donald. He’d been breaking promises to come by and see her for damned near a week, so that one night she decides to stuff her conscience in a box and call you over, saying to herself it’s what you’d been wanting all the time anyway.”

“She told me about that later, yeah…”

“Yeah, I know she did. And I know she never forgave herself for what she did, either.”

“Well, you know, Berve, it really could have been worse. I mean, I can think of worse ways of being punished, you know?”

Berve grinned, then shoved my shoulder.

“OK, boy. OK. But are you listening to what I’m saying? Is it making any sense at all?”

“It is, Berve, it really is. But I gotta tell you I’m still trying to figure out why she would ever leave me anything. Or what it is she would leave. Does that make any sense to you?”

“Sure. It makes sense to wonder, and I know if I was you I’d be wondering too. But think again about what I told you. You were the only one, Alton. The only one who really cared. I don’t think she ever forgot that.”

“So what happened to her after I left? I know several times when I called her she sounded…I dunno…just really sad. It’s not like I hadn’t heard her sad before, and you know as well as I do how her moods could swing back and forth, but those times when I talked to her she sounded like it was all it took for her to hold herself together.”

“Wanda was starting to unravel, she really was, and I think a large part of it had to do with that man she married. She never should have married him, and she knew it. But she was looking for that security. Looking for a father when she should have been looking for a husband.”

“You’re talking about that cop?”

Berve nodded.


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