Walking Into Clouds

by Rick Beck

Chapter 18

Lady Day

Each day I woke with Cody on my mind. I smiled so much people might have thought I was crazy. I was crazy. I was crazy about Cody. I was crazy in love with him and I had no idea how it happened. Once minute I was picking him up off the floor, listening to him insult me, and the next thing I know, I'm in love.

I hadn't truly lived before Cody. While I agonized over being gay and what to do about it, the people in the forbidden zone were there all the time. Yes, there were the jerks and creeps, but Cody didn't associate with them. Cody associated himself with the truly indelible characters you might find in some archaic novel.

I was mesmerized by each of the people I met through Cody. I would have been put off by each of them in my former life. I had blinders on. I looked straight ahead, seeing the obvious, and looking no further than that. I had friends who were as forward looking as I was. We hadn't been taught to look around and experience things we might never be able to understand, but the experience is what life was about.

I already knew that I wasn't a nine to five kind of guy. I worked at Hitchcock's Market for a little more than minimum wage. I was treated like I was Mr. Hitchcock's son. He appreciated my contribution in keeping Hitchcock's independent market open.

I was working extra hours at the market, because the cashier quit over her wages. The other stock clerk didn't show up half the time. Especially Tiny didn't show up on the busiest incoming stock days. I didn't mind the work. You stay in pretty good shape moving the stock from the loading dock to where it was stored until I put the stock out where it belonged on the shelf.

It was a mom and pop shop that I discovered at thirteen and I bagged groceries for over a year before Mr. Hitchcock made me a stock clerk. It was after the regular stock boy left Hitchcock's for Kroger's, because the money was better. Any money was good for me at the time.

I lived at home and I made enough money to do what I wanted to do and still put money away out of each paycheck. I didn't want to buy anything big or expensive, and I still lived at home because my parents wanted me to stay home, until maybe I went to college. I maybe wasn't going to college any time soon. My school days were over and no one was happier about it than I was.

I just couldn't sit at a desk any longer and Hitchcock's gave me the freedom to move about and use my muscles. It was an indoor job with exercise and these days I was in charge of the loading dock and the stock storage area. I was my own boss most of the time.

I knew what to do and when to do it.

I met Cody in front of Gene's, but we didn't go inside this time.

"Vanilla is doing lasagna and she told me to invite you. She's in a super mood because The Review is going to let her sing a new Billie Holiday song this weekend. She said it's quite controversial and it had something to do with Billie Holiday's death."

"You are excited," I said. "It must be quite the song."

"I haven't heard her sing it yet. I'll help her carry her gowns to The Review this Sunday morning. The bar is closed until noon and they rehearse on Sunday mornings. I go watch her when she's performing a new song, because she makes a new gown for each song. She works at a dressmaker's shop across from Gene's," Cody said.

We were off to Vanilla's. It wasn't as nice as Floyd's. It was a bit rundown, but most buildings in and around the forbidden zone showed a considerable amount of age. It was one of the older sections in town.

I got a warm hug when Vanilla opened the door.

"Child, you haven't lived until you've had Vanilla's lasagna. I'm black Italian, you know?"

I wasn't sure I should laugh but I did and she smiled, so I was glad I didn't insult her heritage. Vanilla had on jeans and a flannel shirt. She was in full makeup. This time her hair was shaped up and back on her head. I was sure it was her hair. Brushed out it may have been shoulder length. I had no idea how Billie Holiday looked but Aretha wore her hair at a moderate length at the times I'd seen her on television.

"The lasagna needs to cool and I've got the garlic bread in the oven. I've got iced tea, sweetened, or Pepsi. Oh, and I have milk."

"Milk is fine with me," I said.

"Me too," Cody said.

We ate at a small table in the kitchen. I followed Cody there after Vanilla went in to take the garlic bread out of the oven.

"Only be a few minutes," she said. "I brought the gown home I was working on for my new number, Cody."

"I can't wait to see it. You showed it to me after you finished designing it. I thought it would look beautiful, but most of your gowns are," Cody said.

"Clete doesn't want to hear girl talk. I can tell. Don't worry. I won't make you put it on while I alter it, Clete," Vanilla said, as she sprinkling Parmesan cheese over the glass baking dish with the lasagna in it.

She put a saucer with two large pieces of garlic bread beside my plate. She only gave Cody one piece and she put hers on her plate before she dished me up a cheesy sauce dripping portion of the main dish. In another minute we were too busy eating to talk.

"Oh, this is good," I said. "Hot, but good."

"I grind my own Parmesan cheese. It has a marvelous taste when you buy a hunk and grind it as you need it," Vanilla said.

"It's wonderful," I said, and it was.

We didn't do a lot of Italian food at my house, if you didn't count ordering pizza to be delivered at least once a week. I had lasagna at Italian restaurants, but I was sure none was better than Vanilla's.

"How did you settle on Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin?" I asked.

"I tried Diana Ross. I tried Keely Smith," Vanilla said thoughtfully. "I don't mind telling you, Diana was hard for me to imitate. She has such a pure voice. About the time I was leaving school, I was dressing up like Aretha and singing two of her songs at talent shows. People loved it."

Vanilla stopped talking abruptly.

"Listen to me going on about myself. You don't want my life's story."

"How did you settle on Billie Holiday?" I asked.

"I didn't know a thing about her. That child had such a tragic life, you know? I saw the movie about her. Then I looked for anything I could find out about her. I managed to hear recordings of her singing some of her songs. She'd been dead a long time by then. I didn't hear the song I've been asking Big Lil to let me sing for quite a while. When I heard it, I wanted to sing it. It may have had something to do with her death. She was warned not to sing it but that didn't stop her. She had quite an influence on jazz. Lady Day was the lady of jazz in her day, but she died so young."

"Could I have a little bit more?" I asked.

"Child, I dishes up the first servin', after that you is on your own. Take all you want but clean your plate," Vanilla said with her deepest southern accent.

I laughed. Vanilla smiled and Cody ate.

Vanilla was many characters. She was the girl born in a boy's body. She was the entertainer, singer, and natural comedian, and she was a smart woman.

It had become easier for me to see her as a woman now.

Cody ate politely and listened.

"What's the name of your new song?" Cody asked.

"Strange Fruit," Vanilla said.

"I don't recall hearing that one," I said. "What's it sound like?"

"Child, I've got to prepare before I sing. I can't entertain you in the middle of dinner. A lady knows her time and the right place, you know," Vanilla said. "This ain't either."

"Just give me a few words and maybe I'll recognize it. My father has Billie Holiday records."

"Southern trees bear strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root," Vanilla said and half sung in a pleasant sultry voice.

"No, I don't think I've heard it. You have a nice voice," I said.

"Honey child, I'm going to keep this boy if you don't hold onto him."

Cody smiled.

"He's just adorable," Vanilla said.

I blushed.

"What's it mean?" I asked. "Those are strange words for a song."

"It don't need to mean anything. It's a song," Vanilla said in a voice that wasn't convincing.

"It was a song that got Billie Holiday in trouble. She was told not to sing it in certain places," I said, repeating the facts Vanilla had revealed.

"It's not for the dinner table, child. We'll discuss its meaning later."

I got up and took my plate to the counter and I put another hunk of garlic bread on it.

"Anyone want more garlic bread?" I asked.

"And the boy has manners. I know I'm in love," Vanilla said. "Can I keep him, please?"

I nearly dropped my plate when I started laughing.

"I got my hat pin with me, Vanilla," Cody said.

"Good thing too," Vanilla said. "He is cute, ain't he?"

"He is," Cody said.

I knew when my leg was being pulled and Vanilla was just the lady to pull on someone's leg a lot. She had a delightful personality and I felt at ease eating her lasagna.

I did my best to keep up with the fast moving conversation, but the words of the song Vanilla revealed kept me wondering. Why that song?

'Blood on the leaves, blood at the root,' and the oddness was the violence in the lyrics. I'd ask my father about it if Vanilla didn't come clean about the meaning.

Vanilla and Cody cleaned up after dinner. There wasn't room for three of us to be in the kitchen at the same time. Before long a most delicious smell wafted through the apartment. I didn't know what it was I was smelling, but I hoped it was dessert. I was getting hungry again.

Cody came out of the bedroom and he sat up against me and he took my hand in his. I kissed his cheek and he turned his lips on me. I kissed them and he kissed me back.

"She could be a star," Cody said.

"She's that good?" I asked.

"She is. You'll see."

"Are we going to see her again or are we on our own?" I asked.

"Don't be silly. We're her guests. You'll know when it's time to go."

"I can truthfully say, I'm never sure what will happen next with Vanilla. She is quite a character," I said.

"And you're about to see one of her characters in a minute," Cody said. "She's dressing up."

A few minutes later the bedroom door opened and Vanilla appeared in a beautiful blue and green gown. Her hair was down and she looked beautiful. As surprising as it was, that's when I began seeing Vanilla as a woman. As a man she was androgynous. As a woman, she was the real deal. I thought I might have a grasp on what a trans woman felt about her duel biological reality. "You are beautiful," I said, without hesitation or reservation.

"Child, you better quit making me feel like we are destined to make beautiful music together," Vanilla said.

"Can you sing to a banjo?" I asked.

"A shit kicker. I should have known," Vanilla said disappointed. "The lady does not sing to the twang of country music," she said. "The marriage is definitely out of the question, but you could change my mind if you really tried."

We laughed.

"You made that gown?" I asked.

"I did. That's how I make my money. I make dresses for a discerning clientele. Most of the girls who dress up are in my dresses," Vanilla bragged.

"Doesn't it get crowded?" I asked.

They laughed at my sudden sense of humor.

"When did you start dressing up?' I asked.

"Lord have mercy," Vanilla said. "I lived in an apartment building in Macon and on the top floor was a woman who dressed up. I don't know why, but I loved Suesu. One day, I was about nine, I went charging up the steps and I knocked at her door, but she didn't answer. I turned the knob and went in. I was harmless and I wanted to see Suesu. Uh huh, did I ever. The woman I'd adored since we'd met at the mailbox when we first moved there, wasn't dressed up. That's what she called it. 'I dress up,' she said. I'm sure I looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights," Vanilla said.

"She didn't have her wig on and she didn't wear her hair long, so it wasn't really Suesu to me. She sat me down and she told me that she dressed up, because she was a woman. When she was home by herself, and first thing in the morning, she wasn't always dressed up."

"It must have been a shock," I said.

"It was, but you know, I wasn't as shocked as I might have been. I knew immediately what she was telling me. I'm a nine year old kid and she's telling me that God mixed her body up when he had too many deliveries one day and she was all woman, but her doohickey was there in place of lady parts. Suesu had been dressing up since she was young. She had considered herself a drag queen and that was so negative that she just said, 'I dress up.' It don't take a genius to figure it out," Vanilla said. "Men don't dress up like women because they want to be like them. Men dress up like women because they are women and what ever else they say about it is so much bunkum."

"I told her about my feelings. She just nodded and she said, 'Uh huh. You're just fine, honey. I'll get you some things and you can dress up when you come up here if you like. If you dress up, you might not like it as much as you like me because I dress up, but you might feel like being dressed up is what you want to be doing one day.' She knew I was trans. She'd thought I was the prettiest boy she'd ever seen and that made her think I might be trans."

"That's amazing," I said.

"Yes, it is, and Suesu is responsible for me being this well adjusted lady you see before you today. She helped me find my identity. One day, after I was mostly grown, I left Macon and I never looked back. I was seventeen. I didn't even say goodbye to Suesu. She told me that I'd leave one day and I'd never come back to Macon, Georgia."

"You've never gone back?" I asked.

"One day I found myself at the bus station with a suitcase in my hand. When the ticket lade asked, "Where you be goin', honey child?' and I said, 'where's the next bus going?'"

"You didn't even know where you were going?" I asked.

"No, sir. I got on the bus and I've been here ever since, and I never went back. I fly my mama out here every now and then. I've got more brothers and sisters than I can count, literally. One of them stops by once in a while. None of them live in Macon any more. I feel a hundred years old. I feel like I left Macon a hundred years ago," Vanilla said. "I wish Suesu knew I was a singer, but even going back to see her would be too painful. I didn't leave much behind when I left Macon, Georgia."

"I know how you feel," Cody said. "I can hardly remember home. I didn't know where I would end up. I guess this is the place where the lonely hearts go."

"Ain't that the truth, but child, you ain't never had a home. You need to forget that place."

"Isn't that the truth," Cody said.

"You want to give me a hint about that song?" I asked.

"Child, let me feed you blackberry cobbler and maybe I'll let you in on what that song is all about," Vanilla said. "It ain't something I'd just tell any white boy."

I ate two bowls of blackberry cobbler. It was served in another glass casserole. When Vanilla put it on the table the blackberry juice was bubbling through the top of the cobbler. I burned my mouth on the first bowl, but that didn't even slow me down.

Cody had a bowl and Vanilla said she'd eat hers later. She'd filled up on lasagna but she didn't have hardly any.

"The song?" I asked, once we were back in the living room.

"White folks of a certain persuasion didn't think much of this song. Along with, We Shall Overcome, Strange Fruit was an anthem, and it was a battle cry. Black folks knew what that song meant. A lot of black folks had kin who ended up in those poplar trees down South."

"She died young," I said.

"She did," Vanilla said. "I heard a recording of this song. I always wanted to include it in my act. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar tree. Strange fruit blowing on a southern breeze."

Vanilla half said and half sang the words. There was a haunting quality to the sound she made.

"I don't get it. A poplar tree doesn't have fruit. Strange Fruit? So it's something that doesn't belong in a poplar tree," I said, trying to figure out the puzzle Vanilla presented to us.

"And if the poplar tree doesn't bear fruit, what else might be swinging in the tree," Vanilla said in a more serious voice than I'd heard her use.

"The South," I said. "White people of a certain persuasion wouldn't like that song. It's a lynching," I said as the image came to me.

Silence, in this case, wasn't golden. I was squirming. I thought of Jerome Bing and Vanilla and the history their people lived. As I could conceive how Cody survived on the street. I wasn't able to understand the extreme cruelty black people endured.

I knew what it was like to be hated. No one knew they hated me if I didn't tell them I was gay. I never hated anyone. Who is it that loves to hate? Why did anyone tolerate them? All men are created equal, which means women too. Who was it that thought he was so much more equal, he got to make the rest of us miserable?

"The line, 'Strange fruit swinging in a southern breeze,' is actually, 'Black bodies swinging on a southern breeze. I withheld the information to see if you'd figure it out. I must say you surprised me."

"That gives me chills, Vanilla. You have a sweet voice but that's a sad thing to be said about our fellow human beings."

"I'm glad you understand. That black body didn't fly up there. Someone put him there. Terrible people put him there, and that's why I want to sing that song. People shouldn't be allowed to forget those black people," Vanilla said sedately. "If someone ever tells me not to sing that song, I'll sing it louder and prouder than ever. It's what Billie did."

"I'll sing it for you since we've come this far. No one has heard it but I've been rehearsing it for a long time. I knew I'd sing it in my act one day."

Vanilla did sing it. Her voice was slow and melodic. It was as good as the blues singers I'd heard. It was quite a departure from the Vanilla I'd been introduced to and I'd just enjoyed dinner with.

"Now, I'll play a recording of Billie Holiday singing it. You've got to realize it is a reproduction of a record that was remastered."

The trumpet riff at the beginning of the recording reminded me of Jerome Bing. I smiled at what was the only pleasant part of the song. I didn't like Strange Fruit. I knew I needed to hear it. A lot of people needed to listen to it and work their way through what the song meant.

It seemed odd that I was meeting so many nice people through Cody, and yet there were nasty hateful people doing mean things to other people. What made some people mean?

"You sound just like her," I said. "You sound like Billie Holiday."

"Thank you, child. I don't even mind you're fibbing to me," she said.

"He's not fibbing, Vanilla. I've heard you sing Billie Holiday but when you sing that song, you do sound more like her," Cody said.

I'd lived in the white privilege zone. I had a handicap that no one knew about, because I could hide from the truth. I didn't like the way people like me, my people, were treated. Because of a biological anomaly, I fell into the five to ten percent of LGBTQ people. I had nothing to do with it but I wasn't going to deny myself happiness because a certain percentage of people were assholes about something that was none of their business. I didn't think anyone escaped without keeping some secrets.

"You got awful quiet, Clete," Vanilla said.

"You've given me something to think about that I've never thought about before. You have a lovely voice but that's not a nice song," I said.

"No it's not. I'm a character most of the time, but I knew when I was young and people told me I had talent, I'd eventually leave an impression. I'd never heard that song but when I found it, I knew what to do with it."

"It's difficult to fathom why there are so many mean people, and they all seem to be in plain sight. I know I'm hated. I never had to face it."

"Welcome to the club," Vanilla said. "The trick is not to care. Hateful people can make it tough on you but don't let that stop you from living the life you decide you want to live."

"I get that but it makes me angry that people put up with it," I said.

"Martin Luther King once said, 'The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty of the bad people but the appalling silence of the good people,'" Vanilla said. "If the good people aren't outraged by injustice, there's little hope that the arc of the universe will eventually bends toward justice," Vanilla said. "We do what we can, Clete. I can sing and you'll do what you do when you find your way. No one gets out of this life alive."

"I have no idea what that is. It doesn't worry me. I think I have time to find my destiny. I've gotten an education since I've met Cody. At sixteen he has better friends than I do. I don't have friends. Because I'm gay, I didn't want to make friends that might walk out on me if they knew," I said.

"We survive until we're able to find our destiny," Cody said. "Until you have control over your life, you can't have a destiny, because someone can snatch it from you and there's nothing you can do about it," Cody said.

"Ain't that the truth," Vanilla said.

"It is," Cody said.

"Well, I'm certainly glad I could have you two over so I could depress the hell out of you. It wasn't my intention. I realize Strange Fruit, the fact someone needed to write it says all that needs to be said. I believe it was written by a teacher and his wife, but don't quote me on that."

"The song isn't as depressing as what it represents is. I've never given thought to a lynching, but it isn't that far in our past. Knowing that there are men, not to mention women, who would participate in such a thing in the world with us is a travesty. It certainly shatters any illusion of there being justice," I said.

"Why don't we change the subject? I'll tell you something Suesu told me. A neighbor boy had drowned in a creek behind our apartments. It was one of those things a little girl never forgets. I didn't forget it. I asked Suesu, 'Why would God kill a little boy, Suesu? She needed to think on that. She didn't answer right away, but then she told me, 'In life anything can happen. It doesn't need to make sense or to be fair. We don't know why such things happen, but they do happen. Anyone who tells you they know why that little boy drowned is either lying or he's a fool,'" Vanilla said. "It's no consolation but in situations like that, 'why' can't be answered."

"When will you sing the song, Vanilla?" I asked.

"Sunday. We have dress rehearsal Sunday morning and we do an afternoon show and an evening show. Then I'll keep it in my act."

"Why Aretha and Billie Holiday? They're different types of singers," I said. "Aretha lets it all hang out and Billie Holiday is laid back."

"Aretha is more in my voice range. It's easier to imitate her voice. Not that anyone could sing like her, but I hold my own, and I am Billie Holiday."

"You are her?" I asked.

"The first time I sang a Billie Holiday song on stage, I felt her inside me. She was inside the song. I give into her and let her sing through me."

"I'll have to think about that," I said. "I'm sure people will enjoy the show."

"Vanilla would be famous if she wasn't trans," Cody said.

"Fame is a whole nother bag, honey. This girl gets to sing and the folks seem to like hearing me. I'm happy to have my little spot at the Review. Big Lil isn't an easy woman but she knows I bring her customers. Maybe one day trans women will be acceptable in polite company, but this country girl from Macon ain't holding her breath."

"You're young, Vanilla. One day you'll call your own shots," Cody said.

"Don't I wish. I appreciate your confidence in me, child. For now I'll settle for a little applause and a laugh or two when I tell a joke. Long ago my wish was to entertain people. I'm doing that and I'm happy with that."

"You are young," I said. "The first time I saw you, I had difficulty seeing you as a woman, but seeing you dressed up, you are an attractive woman with a fine voice. I'd pay to see you if I could get into the Review."

"You do know how to turn a girl's head. I once felt young, but I don't anymore. Trans folks like me carry an enormous weight. Being in public at a gay bar, makes me about as infamous as I want to be. I know the audience comes to see me, but every time I leave after a show, I am paranoid. I'm easy to recognize and I'm not just a face in the crowd," Vanilla said. "Dozens of trans people are murdered each year. Most of the time no one knows who kills trans people. I wouldn't want to say how high the death of someone like me would fit into the justice system, but I'd take odds it wouldn't worry most cops or prosecutors very much. They have more important things to worry about."

"No one should be able to kill someone and get away with it," I said.

"There's nothing I can do if someone decides they want to make me dead. So I take a deep breath before I go out in what can be a nasty world. I know there are people out there who would hurt me for the pleasure it gives them, but I'm not going to stop doing what I like doing because of some asshole who thinks he's God," Vanilla said. "When I see you kids. I see how you fit together. I can see the love you have for each other. You gives me hope that love will one day triumph over what this country has let itself become. Love trumps hate, but it takes time for it to catch on."

"Ain't that the truth," Cody said.

"Having you hear, gives me hope that in your lifetime the haters will all but disappear and nice people will run the world," Vanilla said. "I hope to live to see it, but I don't think I will."

Vanilla's words sent a chill through me.

Cody had some wonderful friends. Each was as unique and diverse as any people I'd known. They were real people. They were funny, smart, aware, and resigned, because in one way or another each of them is living on the very fringe. It was the same fringe that I lived on, but I'd never faced the reality of what it meant to be in one of those groups that received special attention from the mean and hateful.

I was a white boy. I was an athlete. I lived in an upper middle class neighborhood and I went to nice schools. No one ever looked at me and saw someone they thought they should hate.

People looked at Vanilla and Cody and they saw someone they hated.

"What I can't figure out is how such stupid hateful people get to run everything. We're the good people. We've got to hide who we are, if we can, so someone like that bozo at the rugby match doesn't do us harm. He took one look at me and growled, 'Who's the faggot.'" Cody said, "'What did you say?' Clete asked him. And the guy decked him. Pure meanness. That kind of guy should be kept away from good people. Why do we need to be exposed to that? I never did anything to him."

"From your mouth to God's ears, child," Vanilla said. "I think I met that guy, or do you think there be more than one of him?"

Using a super serious voice when she said it, Vanilla had us all laughing. It's odd how a dangerous man could get us laughing, but it was Vanilla's comedic timing that made the dangerous funny.

I hoped none of us met such a man in the dark, but it wasn't dark when Cody and I met him. He insulted Cody and decked me in broad daylight with a hundred people standing around.

Where do people like that come from?

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