A Wives’ Tail

By Bryan Alston Patrick

 

Martha kept an immaculate house. That was her job and she did it masterfully. The place was not only spotless but beautifully decorated. The fixtures and furnishings were stylish and creative.

When the neighbors came over for fondue, the ladies couldn’t figure it out.

“Where does she even find these pieces?” wondered Judith Manning out loud.

“I’ve never even seen this table in a catalogue,” marveled Mildred Myers.

Martha’s husband, Arthur—Arthur Pendleton—was the foreman at the auto plant in a town you’ve never heard of that back then recorded zero percent unemployment two years in a row. Folks said you could quit your job one morning and find another by that afternoon just walking across the street, such was the demand for labor.

Times were good. People were happy. And even in a subdivision full of people with plenty, Arthur and Martha were envied by many. And not in the scary spiteful sense. Arty and Marty, as they were collectively nicknamed, were fun and hip.

Arthur dropped some serious coin on a Grundig Majestic Hi-Fi. His record collection was second only to that of Cliff Pierson, a Negro who worked the assembly line at a time when the workforce was majority anglo and yet more integrated than at any time previous.

There were prejudices, for sure, but people working together every day get to know each other.

“Nothing vanquishes bigotry faster than collaboration,” Arthur used to say, proudly, often accepting a compliment from management because even they liked him, or at least they liked the results he got them in productivity, which would have been impossible without the level of cooperation he’d achieved, something rare in the eyes of the suited overseers. “When we build great things together we see how small the differences between us really are.”

It was one thing to say inspirational, platitudinous things but another to actually get his men working together.

Cliff and the other men of color looked up to Arthur and genuinely adored him. That Arthur stood up for them meant they worked and lived in peace with the white men at the factory. That they delivered top notch labor and efficiency meant they made his life easier when it came to collective bargaining, that which had bought so many of them nice homes, automobiles and clothing for their wives and children.

Most of the colored families lived north of the interstate. Cliff and his wife, Katrina, who everyone called “Kitty,” were one of only two Negro couples who lived in Sweet Valley. They were two houses down from the Pendletons and regular invitations meant they were accepted by all.

The Piersons attended every “Arty and Marty Party” and they also came to private dinners more than other neighbors.

Arty and Cliff were both really into music and sometimes they liked to get into the brandy and play records all night rather than small-talking a houseful of people more interested in the Lions, Tigers or Bears.

They were digging on everything from Lionel Hampton and Billie Holiday to Chet Baker, Duke Ellington, Patsy Cline, Little Richard, Elvis Presley and the new “hard bop” coming from innovators like Miles and Coltrane. That the two men had slightly divergent tastes only enriched the listening sessions.

Meanwhile, it so happened that Kitty and Martha shared a vibe as well. There was tension initially, mostly on the part of Kitty, who had naturally been treated as less than by most white women she’d ever met. There was a trust curve that took time.

On the other hand, Martha took to Kitty right away. She and Arthur had come north from Oklahoma, having grown up poor during the Dust Bowl and really struggled afterward. Arthur’s parents had abandoned him completely and disappeared—possibly perished in some sort of dust related incident—lacking the resources to feed and clothe him, crippled by shame and humiliation and grief.

Martha’s father had faired a little better as a scoundrel and an opportunist. An instinctive moonshiner who had started smuggling to dry counties at age nine, her old man made out alright during Prohibition when, tired of the back-and-forth, he used his know-how and connections to open up a Tulsa speakeasy that became a legitimate pub a few years later and the booze business was pretty much always reliable through good times and bad. He had no shortage of customers heading east from their devastated farmlands, searching for, if nothing else, the comfort and relief of a bottle.

Cliff and Kitty moved north from Alabama for even more obvious reasons. They rode the mass migration to industrial cities in search of better lives, comfortable income and the peace and comfort that came with politicians and the police they commanded who cared if nothing else about polls and public perception and the colored vote when it came time to run for national office.

All four of them were transplants who seemed to understand, more than their other friends and neighbors, just how good they had it.

“I feel like we’ve known each other for eons,” Kitty said, fork-testing a pot of braised oxtails she had been cooking all day in Martha’s kitchen.

Months earlier, Marty invited Kitty to come over and cook with her to feed a big group of neighborhood folks. The last of the ice between them melted away in a combination of steam and dry oven heat along with the latest Joe Turner record blaring from the den and upping the household temperature several more degrees.

In another suburb, rumor might have already gotten started if not for a larger demographic shift already underway. Most folks their age were having children. Some were on their third and fourth.

The Piersons and the Pendletons were among the very few childless couples. The others were the Anders and Miltons, who were considerably younger and just starting out, both husbands having been hired by Arthur at the factory less than a year earlier.

So, where gossip might have circulated about something weird going on between the two couples, something deviant or untoward, most of their neighbors regarded the Pendletons’ baby troubles as the great equalizer. Arthur was the smartest, best-looking and most affluent guy in the community with the prettiest, most charming and stylish wife.

The Piersons were not only childless, they were black at a time when there simply was no greater hardship in America. Far from eliciting suspicion or disdain from their community, the two most visible couples had their understanding and sympathy.

Had there been anything truly kinky going on in the way of bisexual swinging, nobody would have suspected a thing. In the eyes of their peers, the Pendletons and the Piersons were good friends because neither couple was able to have children and everyone else was busy and tired and more frugal from raising theirs.

“I’m afraid I don’t know what an eon is,” admitted Martha, who was bent over in a comfy, light cotton sundress, taking a casserole out of the oven.

“Well,” said Kitty, who was always reading books and magazines, “technically an eon is a major division of geological time but mostly folks use it to mean a really long time like you might say to a friend you haven’t seen, ‘say, girl, we ain’t seen each other in eons.’”

“I’ve heard that, of course,” Martha said, stooping in such a way that Kitty couldn’t help noticing a definite protrusion apparently extending from her tailbone, pronouncing itself through Martha’s underwear, slip and dress. “I guess I’m curious as to the distinction between an eon and an era, say.”

“An eon is longer,” Kitty said. “You can think of Sweet Valley as an era and the whole county as an eon.”

“Got it,” Martha said, lifting a hefty casserole tray with oven mitts on both hands from the rack to a large wooden cutting block on the counter next to the stove.

As she moved, bending her knees and grimacing with effort, the protrusion flared outward and upward in a way that could only be described as phallic.

Embarrassed, Kitty quickly shifted her eyes to her pot of dirty rice, from which she lifted the lid for a look and a sniff.

“Mmm,” Martha said with her back to Kitty and the stove. “That rice smells nothing short of scrumptious.”

The protrusion beneath her dress flared one more time and settled down or retracted enough to disappear in the natural folds of the soft orange-red polka dotted fabric.

“We’re having green bean casserole with dirty rice and oxtails,” Kitty said uncomfortably. “How modern.”

Martha turned around with her hands on her hips, making fists and smiling. “We are modern aren’t we?” she said. “The future of America right here. Forget the nuclear family. We’re the atomic family.”

Kitty managed a chuckle made easier by Martha’s light touch and good natured sense of humor.

Once the initial wave of discomfort passed, Kitty worked her way around to asking. She was a friend after all, almost definitely Martha’s closest. A friend would say something. A friend would not ignore a strange and disturbing appendage with no business wiggling around under a woman’s dress.

“I, um.” Kitty cleared her throat. “I have to ask you something.”

“Okay,” Martha said. “Sure. Anything. Ask away.”

“Did you hurt yourself?”

“I beg your pardon?” Martha said, genuinely perplexed.

Kitty gestured with one of her hands indicating her own lower back area. “Maybe around your hip or lumbar, or your,” she cleared her throat, “your tailbone.”

Martha blushed fast and deep rosy pink.

“I’m sorry,” Kitty said, “I shouldn’t pry.”

“No, no. That’s quite alright. I don’t recall hurting myself but perhaps something has slipped out of alignment.” Martha looked both ways, confirming the coast was clear as she prepared to say something indelicate. The new Sam Cooke record echoed pleasantly through the house. The boys were engaged. “Arthur mentioned that he felt something the other night.”

She whispered over the music.

“Felt something?” Kitty whispered back.

“In bed,” Martha whispered with exaggerated lip movements.

“In bed?” Kitty whispered back with a facial expression that was both interrogative and terrified. She obviously wanted to know what she didn’t want to know. “What happened in bed?”

“Well,” Martha said, still flushed but fading, “we were, you know.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Sometimes Arthur likes to,” this time she cleared her throat, “change positions.”

“Change positions how?”

“Kitty.”

“Are you trying to tell me Arthur likes to make love from behind?”

“Yes,” Martha managed with a hot rush of embarrassment that reddened her face all over again.

“Okay. I understand. Cliff enjoys that as well,” Kitty said. “I suspect that many men do. Assuming Mr. Darwin is correct, that’s the way our ancestors did it.”

“Yes. Well. I suppose that would make sense. Why should we be the only ones?”

“Exactly.”

“Everybody is just so secretive about everything,” Martha said. “You never really know.”

“Everybody has their weird little things,” Kitty said. “What did Arthur say about that.”

She pointed and waved her finger rather than choosing a word.

“He said, there. He told me, during, you know, while we were. Eh-hmm. He felt something, like a, um—a bone spur. He touched it lightly with his thumb. It didn’t hurt or anything. I thought perhaps my tailbone had gotten misaligned while I was housekeeping.”

“When was it that Arthur made that comment?”

Martha lifted her gaze in reflection. “Well, it was just the night before last. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday are our usual nights.”

“But not Friday?”

“Occasionally Friday. We always have that option. But Alfred Hitchcock is on and then Arthur enjoys playing his records. He typically buys a new one at the end of each week to enjoy over the weekend.”

“Okay, then. I think I understand,” Kitty said. “If I had to guess I would say that Arthur hasn’t seen what I just saw swishing under your dress.”

“Oh Kitty I think you’re exaggerating. I told Arthur if it didn’t clear up in a few days I would have Dr. Barron look at it.”

“At this point, I feel you should have Dr. Barron look at it.”

Kitty and Martha were both patients of Dr. Barron. He was a kind and compassionate man. They had both seen him regarding fertility issues. He had enrolled them in a special program conducted by the good people at Baird, the pharmaceutical branch of Terra Chemical, the second largest employer next to the automaker. Terra made all kinds of incredible molecules that brightened the colors of nail polish and paint for houses and cars. They made lubricants and sealants that protected the machines at the factory as well as engine parts, thereby shaving off production costs and increasing profits that might have been siphoned away by maintenance and repairs.

Not everyone realized that Baird was their subsidiary but it only made sense they would extend the benefits of their marvelous innovations from industrial machinery to the human body. Nowhere was the evidence of their benevolent endeavors more vivid than in their efforts to help barren women bear children.

 

<<<<>>>>

 

“Well, Mrs. Pendleton, I can understand your concern,” Dr. Barron began. “But I will say, for what it’s worth, I do not see any concern as to your immediate health. The protrusion.”

“It’s a tail, Dr. Barron. A tail.”

“If you insist. The tail isn’t normal, exactly, but it’s not unheard of.”

“Perhaps not to the producers of Wild Kingdom, but where I come from this is most certainly unheard of.”

“But it’s not causing you any pain?”

“None at all.”

“And you’re feeling fine in general?”

“I am.”

“Eating and sleeping normally?”

“I suppose.”

“Relations with Mr. Pendleton?”

“Normal, you could say,” Martha said, actively calming herself. “Or you could say he’s a little too fascinated by it.”

“You think he’s fascinated?”

“He can’t stop touching it while he and I are, eh-hmm, being intimate.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound like such a bad thing to me,” Dr. Barron said.

“I suppose it isn’t.”

“For now, I recommend you and Mr. Pendleton keep an eye on it.”

“You can rest assured Mr. Pendleton will keep an eye on it.”

“Very good then. If you, or your husband, notice that it changes in size, shape or texture, or any other observable characteristic, well, in that case, please make an appointment to see me at once. If Tracey gives you any guff about it, you just tell her I said you’re a top priority patient.”

“Perhaps you could tell her that yourself, Dr. Barron? So I don’t have to bother with it?”

“Of course, Mrs. Pendleton. You just take it easy for now. Know that you’re not in any sort of medical danger.”

 

<<<<>>>>

 

Two Wednesdays later, they were cooking over at Cliff and Kitty’s. Thelonious Monk had a new record out of Duke Ellington songs. Artie and Cliff were deep into it along with cigars and brandy. Kitty and Martha were in the kitchen together, not exactly ignoring the music but not listening either.

“Cliff must be excited about that new hi-fi of his,” Martha said.

“Oh he is.”

“I just hope it doesn’t play better than Artie’s system. I’ll never hear the end of it.”

“But it could mean you two coming over here more often,” Kitty said. “I don’t think I would mind that.”

“That would be a silver lining,” Martha said. “Although we enjoy your company at our place as well.”

She bent over to get into Kitty’s broiler for the roast. Kitty gasped and then quickly covered her mouth as though she might retract the noise she had just made.

“What is it, Kitty?” Martha said, startled and looking around for a pest on the floor.

“Nothing. I just.”

“Well, I’d think you saw a mouse running between my feet. Given that sound you made.”

“I’m sorry, Martha. It’s your.” She pointed at Martha’s hind quarters.

“Oh, this silly thing.” Martha smiled. “I saw Dr. Barron. He says it’s nothing.”

“Really?”

“It’s not dangerous. Arthur and I are supposed to keep an eye on it. Dr. Barron said to make another appointment if it changes, you know, gets any bigger.”

“But Martha, I just saw it the first time two weeks ago. It’s much bigger now than it was at that time.”

“It is?” Martha stood up suddenly, reaching around to get a hand on the tail through her skirt. “I suppose it does seem to have grown somewhat.”

“Hasn’t Artie said anything ?”

“Well, no, he hasn’t been, in the area this week.”

“They’ve all been putting in overtime at the plant.” Kitty nodded. “I wore a negligee to bed the other night you’d a thought was a burlap sack based on Cliff’s reaction—or lack thereof.”

Martha burst out laughing. “Oh, Kitty, you are the funniest person I think I’ve ever known.”

“Come on,” Kitty said, reaching for Martha’s hand. “That roast has another ten minutes to go. I’ll have a look at you in the powder room.”

 
 

“Ooh!” Martha said, looking at herself in the mirror, holding her skirt and slip up around her midsection.

“Does it hurt?” Kitty asked, lightening her touch.

“No,” Martha said. “I suppose it’s just tender.”

“Tender? But it doesn’t hurt?”

“Well, okay then, perhaps ‘sensitive’ is a better word,” Martha said. “Ooh!”

“What?” Kitty asked, noticing as the tail physically responded to her touch, almost as though it was reaching out to her, beckoning contact.

“What are you doing to it?”

“I was attempting to gently examine it,” Kitty said. “Are you sure I’m not hurting you?”

“Not at all. I guess it’s just become more sensitive since the last time that Arthur, handled it.” She exhaled loudly. “It’s quite intense when you touch it like that.”

“Just let me know if it hurts, though.”

“I will,” Martha said. “What does it look like?”

“Well, it looks like you. Your skin color, I mean. It looks like a part of you. It’s soft and smooth. Kind of velvety.”

“I want to see it.”

“Of course,” Kitty said, moving to a drawer above the hamper. “Try this hand mirror.”

Martha took the olive green racquet-shaped mirror and turned her back to the one on the wall, angling reflections so she could see her own backside.

“Oh my goodness, Kitty. It has gotten very large indeed.”

“Well, it’s even larger now than it was a moment ago.”

“Oh dear. If it’s growing that fast, well, this isn’t good. I will have to speak with Dr. Barron about surgery.”

Kitty reached for the tail again, stopping short. “May I?”

“Please.”

Kitty began lightly touching Martha’s tail again, repeating her hand movements from before. “When I do this, you see.”

The tail straightened and lengthened.

“Yes, I see,” Martha said. “Do that again.”

Kitty stroked the tail again, this time incorporating her thumb for two points of contact.

“Oh my, Kitty.”

“What is it?”

“Please do that again.”

“You mean like this?” Kitty stroked it again, using two fingers and her thumb, applying a bit more pressure.

The tail stiffened and lengthened noticeably. Martha inhaled sharply and reached for Kitty’s other wrist, grabbing it.

“You want me to stop?”

“No,” Martha said, as all kinds of feelings trembled their way into her voice. “Please don’t stop.”

“Okay,” Kitty said, continuing to stroke her tail. “Martha you’re shaking.”
“I know,” Martha said as her hips moved back and forth, coaching Kitty’s fingers. “Oh my goodness, Kitty, oh my goodness!”

Kitty threw a look toward the powder room door, wondering how loud they were being. She could still hear Monk tickling out interpretive swing on the piano. Cliff and Artie shouted “yes!” together at the end of a wandering, modulating phrase that to the uninitiated probably sounded like a child had waddled up to a piano for the first time and begun noodling instinctively.

When she looked back, Martha was teary in the mirror. Her face was deep red. She appeared transformed. Her tail coiled lovingly around Kitty’s fingers. She had let go of her skirt and slip, bracing herself on the vanity. Kitty had a parting look at Martha’s ample buttocks, pale in contrast to her own fingers still gently clutching as Martha’s velvety pink tail relaxed and softened in her grasp.

Finally, Kitty let go, guessing at the appropriate moment for something that had no established etiquette. She rubbed her fingers together, noticing moisture, and moved in next to Martha, reaching for the sink as their hearts pounded together.

She could hear Martha’s breathing slow eventually as she washed her hands in warm water. Martha moved away from the sink and began straightening her underwear, slip and skirt.

“I really should check on the roast now,” Kitty said. “I bet you it’s almost well done.”

“Oh, yes,” Martha said. “Good thinking. You should hurry along and tend to that roast.”

“Shall I fetch your handbag?”

“No, thank you, Kitty. I can manage,” Martha said. “You might let the hubbies know dinner will be late, get them another round of drinks.”

Kitty nodded, meeting Martha’s eyes in the mirror for just a moment and breaking it off.

 

<<<<>>>>

 

After an awkward beat at the grocery store, Martha pulled her cart up next to Kitty’s and the two of them shopped together as they normally did whenever finding themselves there at the same time. Kitty was often the only Negro customer in the store and, in such instances, the subject of scrutiny from the manager and assistant managers. Walking with Martha instantly reframed the situation.

Besides, they were so frequently seen together they would have been more conspicuous avoiding one another.

After the dairy and meat sections, they found themselves alone in the produce aisle. Kitty looked both ways and prefaced her question with one raised eyebrow.

“What?” Martha said, as though a nosy assistant manager was eyeing her cart for smuggled items.

“Has the situation, eh-hm, changed, at all?”

Martha looked both ways as well, now totally catching the attention of Gus the store manager, who could see them in the corner fisheye mirror from his register.

“I’ve been afraid to look,” Martha said.

“And Arthur?”

Martha shook her head. “They’re still pulling overtime at the plant, refitting the machines or whatever it is they’re up to. We’ve hardly seen each other in daylight, much less in the bedroom with our clothes off.”

“Do you want me to take another look then?” Kitty offered.

Martha checked again for prying eyes. Again, Gus noted her body language in the fisheye mirror. He penciled in his tiny notepad “espionage?” A second later he added next to it, “Russians?”

 

<<<<>>>>

 

“Now I have to tell you both this is highly irregular,” Dr. Barron began with Martha on the examination table and Kitty in the extra chair where a spouse or family member would normally sit. “Where is Mr. Pendleton in all this?”

“Mr. Pendleton is working extensive overtime at the plant for the next several weeks, Dr. Barron. As I’m sure must have read in the paper, they are refurbishing all the equipment with the same fabulous molecule they’ve been adding to the engine parts. But while they do that, they are still making cars.”

“Yes,” Dr. Barron said, “of course, you’re right. That has been in the paper. But I’m still on record here that a non-family member present in the examination room is anomalous.”

“Don’t worry, Dr. Barron,” Kitty said. “No one is questioning your competence.”

“I should hope not,” Barron said.

“Kitty is concerned,” Martha said. “She is the person who first noticed the, um, the growth.”

“And how did she do that exactly?”

“We were cooking together as we often do. I was taking a dish out of the broiler, stooping very low, you see, and that made the, um.”

“I could see there was something under her skirt, Dr. Barron. A bulging, for lack of a better word. I thought perhaps Martha had injured her, eh-hm, tailbone.”

“Ah-ha,” Dr. Barron said with some forced relief. “As a friend, you felt it was your duty to say something.”

“Of course,” Kitty said. “I know Martha would do the same for me.”

“Of course I would, Kitty.”

They smiled at each other. Dr. Barron became instantly uncomfortable.

“Now it’s one thing when I tell Kitty what you’ve told me, Dr. Barron,” Martha said. “It’s quite another for her to hear it directly from you. As a concerned friend, surely you can understand she would want that peace of mind.”

“Of course,” Dr. Barron said, “and I can reassure you both, once again, that there is no medical risk posed by this new appendage.”

“Is that what we’re calling it now?”

“It’s the medically accurate term,” Barron said.

“But Kitty tells me it’s more than twice the size it was in length when she first saw it. And it’s thicker as well.”

Kitty nodded firmly from the chair.

“Well, then, Mrs. Pendleton,” Dr. Barron took his tape measure from the pocket of his white coat. “Let’s have look. I have my initial measurements recorded in the file. We’ll compare those against what we come up with today.”

Martha looked unsure of how to move.

“You can stand with your elbows on the table if you like,” Barron said, “or, if you prefer, you can put your hands and knees on the tabletop.”

Martha smirked. “I’ll stand. As though I don’t feel enough like a laboratory rat as it is.”

Barron straightened the tape and held it taut in both hands as Martha got into position. Kitty took a clinical glance at the gown opening and politely averted, pop quizzing her vision with the eye chart on the opposite wall. Still 20/20.

“Yes, I see,” Barron said. “Mrs. Pierson’s estimate it turns out is quite accurate. My measurements show a one-hundred-ten percent increase in length and a sixty-five percent increase in circumference.”

Kitty and Martha met eyes for a moment, both knowing those numbers applied to the tail in its passive state. Clearly, neither of them was comfortable volunteering that information. Best to hear what Dr. Barron had to add before blurting anything out.

“Again,” Barron spoke and wrote in his file, “the appendage appears healthy and robust. No indication of inflammation or infection. No need for any additional medical action at this time.”

Martha turned around to face Barron, hiding her backside against the table. “That’s terrific, Dr. Barron. Thank you.”

“No thanks necessary, Mrs. Pendleton. I’m only doing my job.”

“I would like to know what caused this in the first place,” Martha said, “if you wouldn’t mind rolling up your sleeves and helping me get to the bottom of this.”

She and Kitty both suppressed tiny smiles forming at her impassioned stress on the word “bottom.”

“Well, now, Mrs. Pendleton, there is simply still much that we don’t understand about evolutionary biology.”

“I’m evolving, doctor? Is that what’s happening?”

“Perhaps. According to Darwin, we do respond genetically to our environment. Over time, changes do occur according to natural selection, phasing out unnecessary traits and characteristics while preserving those with utility toward survival.”

“Didn’t Mr. Darwin point out somewhere that our ancestors used to have tails but we no longer do?”

“These are theories, Mrs. Pendleton. We mustn’t be rigid in our appraisal.”

“Okay then, Dr. Barron, perhaps we should turn it around and view it in terms of utility.” Martha turned around physically to gesture at the gown opening, accidentally wagging in front of Barron, who registered the incident with the bulging eyes of a cartoon caricature of himself. “Is this going to help me prepare meals or balance my checkbook?”

She left a blank just in case but it remained blank. Barron was still reeling from the combination of perturbation and arousal. Kitty was trying very hard not to smile or giggle, biting her lower lip and skimming illustrated leaflets hanging next to the eye chart with names of new drugs for recently discovered “conditions,” “disorders” and “syndromes.”

“Perhaps it can wrangle a feather duster and go around behind me while I vacuum and straighten up, cutting my housekeeping hours in half. Maybe that explains what natural selection is doing here.”

“Please, Mrs. Pendleton,” Barron interjected. “I am trying to apply all my medical knowledge to the situation to be as helpful as I might. You can show me the courtesy of refraining from sarcasm.”

“I didn’t intend to be sarcastic, Dr. Barron. I’m sorry you took it that way. I’m simply combing my brain for anything that might explain what’s happening to me.”

“What about the nuclear plant?” Kitty asked. “Is there any chance elevated radiation levels could cause a mutation like this?”

“Oh, I should say not,” Barron said with instant conviction. “The plant isn’t even open yet and we all know that nuclear energy is perfectly safe.”

“What about the fertility treatments?” Martha asked, facing Barron again. “That experimental drug from Baird. Could that cause something like this?”

Barron appeared to consider it. “I don’t know that we could rule out something like that but you have to bear in mind here that several of my other patients underwent the very same treatments.” He motioned at Kitty. “Including Mrs. Pierson. None of them has come to see me about a new appendage.”

Martha huffed her frustration and crossed her arms.

“Is there anything you can think of from your own family history, Mrs. Pendleton?”

Martha met the question with smugness in her eyes. “You mean did my mother or my grandmother have a tail?”

“Or, if not a full fledged tail, possibly an elongated tailbone, something which might tend toward such a feature in future generations.”

“I can assure you, Doctor, if any of the women in my family had any sort of odd feature, it would have been concealed beneath petticoats and gowns and steel-reinforced undergarments, and hidden from society at all costs.”

“So, in other words, it’s a possibility.” Dr. Barron made another note in his file.

 

<<<<>>>>

 

Two Fridays later, Arthur came home elated. The work on the plant had been completed. Weeks of constant overtime were finally at an end.

“We are fully modernized!” he said with a fist in the air, nearly coming off his feet. Of course, he was standing in front of the hi-fi, ready to drop the needle into a groove.

He had a drink in progress and already the pomade in his hair had broken down so black strands were hanging over his forehead that would have otherwise been slicked back into place.

“Honey, you’re not excited enough,” Arthur said. “This means years of prosperity to come. You see, the company has invested heavily in this plant. It’s now one of only three in the country that’s fully state of the art.”

“That is terrific, Artie. I am excited.” She walked over to him for a hug and kiss. “I’ve just missed you is all, and sometimes it’s hard for me to keep the bigger picture in mind when you’re away.”

“Of course, Marty. I completely understand what you mean. I come home speaking in abstract terms about cost efficiency and management techniques as though it somehow makes up for me not being here and it doesn’t. But we’re a team you and me. I do my work at the factory and you do yours here, managing this household and all that entails with remarkable skill and efficiency and style. If the tables were turned I tell you this house would be a pig sty but that plant would be running smoothly as ever in your sure hands.”

“Why, Arthur. That is such an incredibly sweet thing to say,” Martha said. “But I know for a fact you would keep this house spick and span, although we might have less interesting furniture.”

They both shared a hearty, good-natured laugh. Arthur handed his drink to Martha for her to sip while he picked out the right record. Little Richard had a new 45 out that week. He had picked it up earlier but hadn’t played it.

“Before I put this on, Marty. I want to tell you, how very much I love you.”

“I love you too, darling.”

“And tonight, we’re going to do something very special and very fun, thereby making up for all this time we’ve spent apart these past several weeks.”

“Are we going out somewhere?” Martha said. “Tell me, because I’ve already begun preparing to make dinner.”

“Put everything back in the Frigidaire, honey. Because Cliff and Kitty are taking us out to the Negro side of town to hear Willie Dixon perform live with his band!”

 

<<<<>>>>

 

There was dancing and drinking and smoking and all manner of rambunctious mischief over at Smokey’s Bar & Grill. Willie Dixon and the boys were tearing it up on stage while Kitty, Martha, Cliff and Artie were all on the dance floor, cutting a rug together along with several other couples, most of them Negroes but not all. At least two other hip white couples had come out to hear the blues legend do his thing.

“This joint is positively jumping!” Artie exclaimed between songs. “Marty and I can’t thank you two enough for the invitation.”

He and Cliff shook hands on it. “We wouldn’t think of coming without you guys,” Cliff said. “You’re the biggest Willie Dixon fan I know. It just wouldn’t be the same without you here.”

“We gon’ do one more for y’all fore we take a break,” Willie said. “Those a y’all still got it in you to shake a tail feather, this one’s for y’all. This a new one, just now recently recorded by my good friend, Howlin’ Wolf, any a y’all know him.”

Artie whooped from the dance floor. His hair had come completely unglued. He was a sweaty mess. Cliff shook his head affectionately at his friend. Also the biggest Howlin’ Wolf fan he knew.

“Thank ya,” Willie said. “This one called, ‘Wang Dang Doodle.’”

 

<<<<>>>>

 

“Mercy,” Martha said, rocking on her feet at the end of the set, taking hold of Kitty’s hand to steady herself. “I believe I need to sit down for a bit.”

“Let’s do that,” Kitty said. “We’ll have us a rest and a glass of water.”

When they had made it back to their table, just the two of them, Kitty offered Martha the rest of what was in her water glass. Cliff and Artie, meanwhile, had worked their way through the crowd, closing in on Willie at the bar.

“I don’t know what it is, Kitty.” Martha wiped her forehead with a red cocktail napkin. “I don’t even feel I had all that much to drink yet my balance is off.”

“It’s the reefer, Martha,” Kitty said. “You’re not used to it.”

“Well, I should say not. Exactly when was there reefer involved?”

“The cigarette folks were sharing on the dance floor,” Kitty said. “That was reefer, rolled up with some tobacco.”

“Oh my goodness,” Martha said. “Everything makes sense now. The lights and the colors and that music. I’ve never experienced anything like that.”

“Cliff’s old pal, Walker Moseley, knows where to get the good stuff.” Kitty reached under the table and squeezed Martha’s hand. “You’ll be okay.”

“I do believe I will, Kitty,” Martha said. “Is it okay to say I think I like reefer?”

“Just don’t tell any of our neighbors.”

“I might just fancy a little more reefer before we leave tonight.”

“Maybe stay where you are,” Kitty said.

Suddenly, Martha took her hand and guided it between her thighs.

“Martha.” Kitty looked around for anyone watching. Nobody was. “What are you doing?”

“I can’t stop thinking about what happened, Kitty.”

Kitty looked away sharply.

“Are you ashamed? Are you repulsed by me?”

“Of course not.”

Martha’s tail curled upward, finding Kitty’s fingers. She responded, gently stroking it. Once again their hearts pounded together. Martha daringly reached between Kitty’s legs and ran her fingers all the way up the inside of her thigh, to the edge of her underwear.

Kitty looked around again with forced calm and removed Martha’s hand from between her legs, at the same time letting go of Martha’s tail. It had been rigid and throbbing in her fingers.

The boys returned to the table having had several shots of whiskey and two more beers apiece. They were snookered. Halfway through the second set, they all decided they should hit the road. It wasn’t a long drive home but it wasn’t around the corner either.

Martha jumped into bed all hot and bothered that night but Arthur fell asleep almost instantly, tranquilized by liquor and marijuana. She tossed, turned and yearned, finally caving in to self-satisfaction, writhing in an epic orgasm while Arthur snored away right next to her.

Meanwhile, Kitty and Cliff fooled around for a while and fizzled. Cliff had too much to drink. Neither of them said anything. They kissed goodnight and rolled over to their respective sides of the bed.

In the morning, they had breakfast and talked about the show, how great it was hearing Willie Dixon play live. How large he was in person. How interesting it was to see a bandleader on an upright bass rather than playing piano or guitar.

 

<<<<>>>>

 

The following Monday, Kitty and Martha bumped into each other at the grocery store again and again helped each other get their groceries home. Otherwise, they spoke of nothing at the store. Gus once reached for his notepad but they gave him nothing to write in it.

By the time they got the cupboards squared away over at Kitty and Cliff’s house, Martha’s tail was practically tearing a hole in her dress. Kitty saw it happening and headed straight for the second bedroom, leaving a trail of garments in her wake for Martha to follow.

Afterward, they smoked Lucky Strikes, lying next to each other, partially clothed.

“This can never happen again,” Kitty said.

“Of course not,” Martha said, failing entirely to hide her sadness.

But it did happen again. And again. And again. The “chance” meetings at the grocery store twice a week. Comparing bargains. Gossiping. Helping each other with the bags. Gus writing “commies” in his notebook.

 

<<<<>>>>

 

Kitty was pregnant it turned out, eliciting a strange response from Dr. Barron, who said “congratulations” but meant something else. He knew from conducting the study that Kitty was given the placebo. Nothing had changed for her. She was obviously not the problem to begin with.

Martha was given the actual treatments which combined with chemicals transferred by contact from Arthur to activate something in her dormant genetic inheritance. A chimera gene held over eons of evolution, useless until the situation and stimuli gave it a purpose.

All those petrochemical compounds, formed into tablets and capsules for oral administration, the endless permutations of chemistry and biology. Dr. Barron’s last conversation with Martha Pendleton had been apologetic and cautionary, suggesting without stating it outright, that he had been working for the company as much as for her and Kitty. They all worked for the company.

 

<<<<>>>>

 

“I’d say congratulation are in order.” Artie lifted a glass, genuinely thrilled for his friends. “No couple deserves it more.”

Kitty and Martha smiled across the table. Each of them had a glass of sherry going. Each of them carried a mystery.

Cliff was standing with Artie and the two men shook hands before openly embracing in public. There were other folks in the restaurant who appeared shocked by it. Others who knew the Piersons and the Pendletons thought nothing of it. The “Two Johnnies,” Manning and Myers, came over to personally congratulate Cliff and his wife on their good fortune. They had both worked with Cliff for more than a couple of years by then.

“But just wait’ll you got more than one of those little ankle biters running around the den,” Johnny Manning said. “You start sympathizing with the hobo life.”

Manning was one of the guys at the plant always trying to be funny but consistently missing the mark, often laughing so hard at his own line he seemed not to notice the absence of laughter elsewhere.

In that case, he’d had a couple and really went off on a guffaw right there in front of newly expecting parents. Nobody else was laughing. Manning actually noticed it.

“But, that’s hilarious. What’s wrong with you all?”

“Well, Johnny, perhaps it’s your delivery,” Arthur said with that trademark managerial diplomacy. “We understand you meant it as a joke yet it sounds like maybe you actually want to leave Judy and become a hobo. You can understand how we would be uncomfortable laughing because it might seem we’re endorsing such a thing, when in reality we don’t want you leaving your family or becoming a hobo. That would be an unfortunate outcome.”

“Yes, exactly,” Manning said. “That’s the aim of the joke, see.”

Five people were staring at him, perplexed.

“No, you guys. I don’t really want to leave Judy and our kids. The joke is sometimes it all gets to be so much you can see why someone might hop a train with a bottle of whiskey and never look back.”

“Except you would be living in a boxcar, John, sleeping on some damp hay that used to be a toilet for horses,” Martha said. “You wouldn’t have your wonderful job building automobiles with fellow men. You wouldn’t have the warm caress of a beautiful woman lying next to you in your bed, or the unshakable admiration of your children, always beaming up at their father, their big strong hero who puts the clothes on their backs and the food on their table.”

Johnny Manning was no longer joking and nearly in tears. It didn’t help that he’d been drinking. A maudlin outpouring was just one sentiment away.

“Of course, you’re right, Martha. I only meant it as a joke.”

He bid good night and returned to the table with his wife, Judy, and her friend, Millie, wife to the other Johnny.

“Gee wiz, Marty,” Arthur said quietly into her ear. “You really laid one on the guy. He was only going for a laugh. What’s eating you tonight?”

“Nothing, darling. I didn’t mean anything by it. I guess it just came out is all. I only intended to gently remind him of all the wonderful people and things in his life.”

“I see, well, you seem to have done that. You can’t be responsible for how someone else might take a remark made with good intentions.”

Martha nodded, a little vacantly.

“Maybe we should think about calling it a night,” Arthur said. “After what you said, I find myself in the mood for some of that warm embrace. How bout you?”

“That sounds nice,” Martha said. “I would like a moment alone with Kitty before we leave though. She and I have hardly shared a word this evening. Doesn’t seem right to me leaving before we have.”

“Of course, darling. I think you’re right on as usual. Let me get Cliff talking about the new Coltrane record. That should give you plenty of time with Kitty.”

“Thank you.”

“Signal me whenever you’re ready and I will agree with everything Cliff said, providing him the closure he’ll need on the topic in order to move on.”

“Sounds terrific, Arthur.”

 
 

“How can you congratulate me at a time like this?” Kitty said, furiously lighting a cigarette. It had gotten chilly in recent weeks. Fall was in full swing. Winter was coming.

The two of them huddled together in the hardware store doorway, all the way across the street from Louie’s Family Dining. Officially, they were “getting some air” but what they really needed was space.

“What was I supposed to say to our friends then, Kitty? Cheers, because I’m not losing my lesbian Negro lover but I’m gaining nothing? Unless one considers someone else’s ankle biter breaking one’s valuables a gain of some sort.”

Kitty was fuming. “Do you not understand what is happening here?”

She whispered angrily while forcing a smile that would read theatrically all the way across the street were anyone to come out looking. Their cover story was cover provided by the doorway. It was simply much chillier than anticipated. They had to duck in somewhere. That cold front caught them off guard.

“My best friend and her husband are having a child. What they’ve always dreamed of. Thanks to Dr. Barron and the good people at DynaChem.” 
 Terra Chemical had changed their name in certain regions to the more consumer advert friendly, DynaChem, freeing the parent company up to pursue the heavyweight military contracts they wanted without fear of straining public relations.

“Damnit, Martha. This baby isn’t Cliff’s baby.”

“What?” Martha seemed genuinely unsure where Kitty was going. “But I thought the fertility treatments from Baird finally came through for you after all.”

“I was given the placebo,” Kitty said. “This has nothing to do with that. I was never the problem.”

“How do you know you were given the placebo?”

Kitty smirked at her dear friend. Martha took a moment for synthesis and nodded.

“Because you and Cliff are Negroes.” She gently touched Kitty’s forearm. “Oh, Kitty. Sometimes this world is so cold and empty and cruel.”

“It’s actually just pragmatic, Martha. White folks, whether they know it or scheme it or not, would rather have more white babies in the world and less black babies.”

“But you are pregnant, Kitty—are you not?”

“Yes. I’m really pregnant.”

“But if not Cliff’s, then whose?”

“It’s ours,” Kitty said with a tight jaw. “It’s our baby, Martha. Yours and mine.”

“But.” Martha’s brain rocketed through calculations, implications and permutations, at the bedrock of which was her trust in Kitty. Her best friend would not lie to her. Never, not under any circumstances. “How could this be?”

“I don’t know but I’ve thought about it. A lot. Obviously,” Kitty said, stamping out one cigarette with the red toe of a pump and demanding another with curling fingers.

Martha hurried into the pack and fetched a fresh one for Kitty, who took it directly from Martha’s fingers with her lips. They leaned in for ignition, kissing cherries in the dark doorway.

“The best I can figure,” Kitty exhaled smoke into a cold wind that was gaining momentum as the front claimed more territory, “Baird put something in those fertility pills that interacted with something Artie brought home from the plant.”

“But other women took the pills. Their husbands also work at the plant.”

“Yes, but, just like Dr. Barron said, there is much they don’t know about how one’s individual genes respond to environmental changes. Plus, we have to remember that Arthur spent more time at the plant than anyone else, save for the Terra Chem technicians who came in first to do whatever they were doing to the machinery. Arthur would have been there for all that. It was his job to oversee it. He might not have been wearing all the protective equipment worn by the scientific types who know better. I think it’s possible he was exposed to a low level of something while you were finishing up the fertility trial.”

Martha’s eyes were wide in shock and realization. Her cigarette was burning down to her fingers. It had to be painful. Finally, she hissed and dropped the hot filter.

“What are we going to do?”

“I’m scared, Martha. I don’t know what to expect. I’m not sure what’s inside me.”

“What does Dr. Barron say?”

“He says I’m healthy and the baby has a strong heartbeat. He hasn’t suggested there is anything wrong at all.”

“So maybe you’ll have a normal baby and you and Cliff can raise it. He’ll never know the difference.”

“Either that or I’ll have a bouncing white baby boy or girl with a dinosaur tail on it,” Kitty said, almost cracking a smile. “What do you think Cliff will say about that?”

“Oh, Kitty, I don’t know if you’re being serious or funny when you say something like that. You know how you make me laugh.”

“I was making light,” Kitty admitted. “Frankly I don’t know what else to do. I certainly won’t be consulting any back-alley quack.”

“Don’t even joke about that, Kitty. Girls died from that where I grew up.”

“I would never.”

“Look at it this way, assuming the baby is normal and healthy, you and I can go back to sneaking around and Cliff will think he’s getting you pregnant over and over again.”

Kitty snickered. “You are so naughty, Martha.”

“It’s not me, Kitty. It’s the tail. You know it has a mind of its own.” Martha joked. “Turns out I can handle a feather duster with it but I keep knocking over the same vase.”

They burst out laughing in the dark doorway as Cliff and Arthur exited Louie’s in search of their wives. Both men shook their heads upon finding the two women howling with laughter as they had so often found them, upon walking into the kitchen for another beer, or returning to the back patio after leaving them alone for a few songs.

“What does Arthur say about it?”

“Oh nothing. It drives him crazy in bed and the rest of the time he pretends it’s not there.”

“You are kidding?”

“Not even a little. You know how it makes me feel. That really turns him on when I lose control. We made so much noise the other night I saw a light come on at the Myers’ house. Arty and I had to lay low, fearing the police might show up.”

They broke into hearty laughter again as Kitty noticed the boys across the street and waved to them, nodding that she and Martha were on their way over.

“What if it does have a tail?” Kitty chortled.

“Then the three of us will run away together, hop a train and live like hobos,” Martha said, holding Kitty’s hand as they crossed the street.