You Can’t Do That to Gladys Bentley!
by Joe Okonkwo
Gladys’s fingers hopscotched across the piano keys, smashing out notes dunked in blues and dripping rhythm. It was her first song in her first set of the night. Her eyes hadn’t yet adjusted to the dark club, the stage lights’ blinding glare. She couldn’t see a thing outside the stage, but her explosive smile blazed as she winked and waved and nodded at folks in the crowd like she could see every face. They were too drunk to know any better. Eight years into this craze called Prohibition and folks still acted like Saturday Night was a bountiful Christmas with the ever-flowing, over-flowing gift of bootleg liquor. Especially at clubs like The Clam House where Gladys Bentley reigned, enthroned at the piano, moaning raunchy, sophisticated bluesy jazz and jazzy blues from 10pm till dawn. Her clothes were as sophisticated as her music. No gowns or feathers or horse hair wigs for her. No, sir. Gladys manned it up—all 250 pounds of her—in sparkling white tux and tails, white shoes, and white shirt and bow tie, all of it crowned with a tall, cock-angled white top hat. Elegant white dressing elegant brown. She was dapper. Dashing. Debonair. At heart, Gladys Alberta Bentley was a gentleman.
Her back up band pumped and bumped, ornamenting Gladys’s piano, lifting it till the melody soared. Gladys moaned out some lyrics.
“My brown bowl’s full of berries,
They’re ripe and juicy-sweet.
My brown bowl’s full of berries,
They’re ripe and juicy-sweet
I stick my fingers in my berries,
The juice knocks me off my feet.
Someone licked my juicy berries,
Lord, child, I had a fit.
Someone licked my juicy berries,
Lord, child, I had a fit.
When they said, I’ll stop it, Gladys,
I said, please oh please, don’t quit!”
Her eyes had adjusted now. The Clam House was packed. A cacophony of color. Whites up from downtown and Negroes down from Strivers Row and Sugar Hill. Men in suits and tuxes and chicks in flapper dresses with long strands of fringe drizzling off every inch. Negroes and whites mixed it up, drinking and breaking bread at the same tables. A Negro man fed broiled shrimp to a white woman, forking it into her buoyant mouth like feeding a child. A giddy group of Negroes and whites made toast upon toast with flutes of champagne like it was New Year’s Eve. White-jacketed, black-bow-tied waiters cavorted through the narrow spaces between tables, noses high in the air, backsides swinging, one hand carrying a tray, the other perched on a haughty hip. A pair of white queer men on the east side of the room caressed each other’s hands. On the west side a colored pair locked lips. A mixed pair frolicked at a table in the middle, white guy on colored guy’s lap, colored guy’s finger sunk in his boyfriend’s mouth. Mannish women—bulldaggers—white and colored—cut loose in suits and ties; their hair straightened, short-cropped, slicked back; arms tossed around the backs of their chairs, legs spread as wide-open as an invitation. Negro drag queens and the white drag queens held court in royal, breathtaking regalia, made up like movie stars, styled wigs glistening, and those girls’ gowns were more chic than anything on Fifth Ave. The queens’ curvaceous legs were crossed at the knee and swinging to the pulse of Gladys’s piano. The Clam House. A rollicking black-white island oasis set back from a brutal mainland. It was protected—oh so thinly—by the inhabitants’ madness for sex, their craving to cross boundaries, and their determination to desecrate taboos. And all of it galvanized by the inhibition lowering magic of bootleg liquor.
The place was packed all right. Every eye was glued to Miss Gladys Bentley. Of course. How could they not be glued to a 250-pound colored bulldagger smashing out blues? The spotlight made her smolder like a beacon in her all-white get-up as she dished out bawdy blues.
“Got a deep hole in my floor,
Come on, baby, don’t you tease.
Got a deep hole in my floor,
Come on, baby, don’t you tease.
My hole is wet and muddy,
Come on, baby, fill it, please.”
It was one of her naughtier songs, and that was saying something. The kind of Gladys Bentley tune that got The Clam House raided in the past, and would again. Gladys scanned the crowd. A couple of Negro stuffed-shirts walked out, snooty faces painted with disgust. Good, Gladys thought. Means I done my job. And she’d done her job when the queers hurled their heads so far back with laughter, their chairs nearly tipped over. And when the drag queens nodded their royal heads, Gladys sat up a little straighter on that piano bench, proud to have earned their sage approval. Most of the white folks reacted like white folks usually did, squealing like brats electrified by a delightful terror in a Halloween haunted house. It’s why they flocked to The Clam House, why they braved their way to Harlem: To be scandalized by the antics of wild and exotic Negroes. It was Gladys’s duty to give them what they came for. It was her pleasure to provoke. Offend. Shake shit up. Antagonize the stuffed-shirts. Challenge the high-brows who thought they’d seen and heard it all, disrespectfully let them know that there was no such thing.
“If you’re good to me, baby,
You can you slide down my muddy hole.
If you’re good to me, baby,
You you slide down my muddy hole.
So stop clownin’ round, baby,
Come send Gladys to her soul.”
She pummeled the piano in an extended interlude, a transformation from bawdy blues to rip-roaring swing; from tongue-in-cheek irreverence to jazz combustion. Gladys closed her eyes. Whirled in the music. Got fucking lost in it.
She opened her eyes, caught sight of Clement, her assistant, hovering on the outskirts of the crowd. He wore a double-breasted suit with a three-cornered silk pocket square. A pink pearl stick pin pierced his tie. This conservative ensemble was a far cry from the glittery gowns he swished around in when he competed in the drag balls. He pronounced his name Clay-MÓN, like he was French, though his ass grew up in Waters Grove, Alabama, child number five of six in a family of sharecroppers. Clement was a dicty—an uppity Negro. When Gladys accused him of it, he’d plopped his hands on his hips, the way colored women do when they’re about to set you straight. “Gladys,” he’d said, “you got a Cadillac, a chauffer to go with it, a $300-a-month apartment on Park Avenue, maids to clean your shit, and you callin’ me a dicty? Girl, puh-leeeeeeez.”
Clement now looked straight at her. He slanted his head toward a redheaded white woman seated by herself. Gladys grinned. Fourth time this week the redhead had been here. Always the same table, always alone, the only person sitting solo in the whole joint. Gladys knew she’d paid sweetly for the privilege—management hated seating anyone by themselves. The fewer patrons at a table, the less hooch to sell. The woman was young, pretty. In the turmoil of flapper dresses and beaded dresses and evening gowns, she stood out in her flat crepe frock and cloche hat. The frock was silk. She looked like a demure Lexington Avenue heiress, the kind of chick who spent her days lunching and shopping and going to tea, and evenings in her family’s parlor being courted by some robber baron’s plucky son. White gloves on her hands. A prim glass of sherry in front of her when everybody else was guzzling gin. She seemed light, weightless, in body, certainly, but in temperament, too. Girl look like she ain’t got no grit, Glady’s grandma would have said. She was looking at Gladys. Hell, everyone in the club was, mostly with boozed-out eyes. But this girl’s look was unvarnished. Soft yet unrelenting. Fuck, Gladys thought. My favorite kind of bitch. The kind who knows exactly what she wants.
And Gladys knew what she wanted, so she sweetened the raucous interlude, slowed it down, but kept the bounce. She returned the redhead’s unvarnished look, and sang:
“Got me a pale, redhead gal with a rosebud ’tween her thighs,
She lets me sniff that flower, the perfume gets me high.
I stick my finger through the petals, push it deep and slow,
Taste that finger after, it’s sweet as sugared dough.
I lick that redhead’s rosebud, leave it sopping wet,
I kiss her soft red lips—child, this shit’s good as it’s ‘gon get.
She sang right to her. Didn’t take her eyes off her the whole damn song. And the redhead never looked away, never lowered her eyes. By the end, the woman’s soft red mouth had parted, not in shock, but in accord. Eyes still sealed to Gladys, she removed her white gloves. Tossed them on the table like trash. Lit a cigarette. Blew a wisp of smoke that drifted about her like a gauzy veil.
Glady’s first set was over. She hefted herself up from the piano, walked to the lip of the stage, spread her arms out wide, and exploded that blazing smile again. The crowd awarded her a colossal ovation. Folks climbed on tables to cheer and whistle and thrash their hands together. She bowed and lumbered offstage, feeling the burden of her 250 pounds in her knees and feet. Good thing she was a pianist and could sit most of the night. Yeah, Gladys Bentley was fat. No one needed to tell her, but that never stopped them. Especially the critics, who lined up to slap her each time she opened a new act.
“The portly Gladys Bentley was in fine voice and did a large and exemplary job presiding at the piano, as always.”
“Gladys Bentley, or La Bentley as she is affectionately known, costumed her ample, buxom frame in her signature white tux and top hat and delivered a weighty romp of a performance in her new revue. Her manly, contralto voice carried well in the large theater.”
“Let’s pray the piano bench at the Harlem Opera House has sturdy legs because the fatso, masculine, smut-singing Gladys Bentley sits on it for two hours each night as she assaults the audience with songs more appropriate for a house of ill repute than for respectable Christian people.”
Now, accusations of obscenity and “smut singing” didn’t bother La Bentley one bit. She was a smut singer of the highest order and proud of it. But the shit they wrote about her weight made her a child in Philly again, when her mother chastised her for being too fat, too much like a boy. “I already got sons,” her mother would say. “Why can’t you act like the daughter I want you to be?” When people asked if she read reviews, she said no. But she read them all, and every single one that called her fat made her want to cry. She fended off the tears by being smuttier, more outrageous, more offensive. More masculine. They didn’t like that she was a fat, black bulldagger? Fine. She’d say fuck you by shoving all three in their faces.
Clement leaned against the wall outside her dressing room, smoking reefer. His clipped eyebrows curved like rainbows. The tight backstage area drowned in the reefer’s tangy smell. Clement smoked too much of that shit. He handed it to her.
“What you want me to do ’bout the redhead, Gladys?”
She inhaled a lungful and passed it back. A dab of lipstick stained the end. She didn’t know if it was hers or Clement’s. “What you think I want you to do, fool? Bring her white ass back here.”
She went inside her dressing room, slammed the door, threw her top hat on the counter. She studied herself in the mirror. A spot of makeup smudged her collar. A mess of sweat soaked the fabric around the armpits of her tux jacket and was spreading fast. She looked good in her tux. Custom made to fit. Gladys studied her face. Her hair was straightened and cropped short like the bulldaggers out front. A sharp little widow’s peak jutted from her forehead. Her short sideburns were trimmed neat. The hair at the base of her neck was a clean line. Mannish body. mannish hair, but a womanly face. I’m kinda pretty, she thought, with my shapely cheeks, my smooth, brown, perfect skin. She dropped into the makeup chair for a touch-up. Forty minutes before her next set. Gladys wore makeup onstage and off, just like she wore men’s clothes onstage an off. Toni, her makeup woman, went to work.
“I listened to that last song,” Toni said. She blotted the perspiration from Gladys’s face before applying a fresh layer of face powder. “You trying to get the cops in here? That song was an open invitation to a raid. We ain’t had one in a while.”
“We could use one,” Gladys said. “Good for publicity. White folks like coming to places that get raided. Makes them feel like they’re doing something dangerous. If there’s one thing white folks love feeling, it’s dangerous.”
“If you say so. Anyway, good crowd out there tonight. They love you.”
“ ’Course they do.” Gladys tightened her eyes at Toni, like the makeup woman knew something Gladys didn’t. “Why wouldn’t they?”
Toni ignored her. Toni had a pretty face and a pretty backside and big, delicious titties. But she was dark-skinned. Almost blue-black. In the Negro world, that was the mark of the devil. Toni was a singer and dancer, but producers—white and colored—insisted on café au lait skin and straight hair. With her mark-of-the-devil complexion, poor thing couldn’t get a gig dancing at the tail-end of a chorus line. This job with Gladys was likely as close to show business as she’d ever get. Toni wore the lightest face powder on the market. It made her look like a clown. Gladys felt sorry for her. They fucked around sometimes, usually when Toni was drunk and Gladys bored. But it was best to avoid sex with the women who worked for her, otherwise things could get…messy.
A knock at the door.
“Answer it,” Gladys ordered.
Toni’s hips rippled and rolled as she went to the door. They were wedged into a tight, satin dress. Gladys recognized it: Toni’s I’m-letting-you-know-I’m-available-tonight dress. Gladys shook her head. Bitch, just tell me you want some. Fuck this coy shit. Toni was out of luck anyway: Gladys was taken tonight. At least she hoped so.
Toni opened the door. The redhead stood there, left knee slightly bent. An unlit cigarette wilted from her right hand. In the light of the dressing room, Gladys saw just how red her mouth was, how vivid the contrast with her pale skin. A radiant strawberry bobbing on a pool of milk.
Toni sighed. “Another white chick, Gladys.”
The redhead looked past Toni like she didn’t matter. Her eyes were tied to Gladys’s. That unvarnished look again. Something raw about it. Something tactless and barefaced. Shameless. Gladys was grateful to have had her share of shameless women, but none of them wore it as well as this one with her proper heiress clothes. The white gloves were nowhere in sight.
“Another white chick?” the redhead said. “Is this a common occurrence, Miss Bentley? White chicks showing up at your dressing room?”
Miss Bentley. Gladys liked that. “Come the hell on in, sweetness.”
The woman floated into the room, her movements suave and fluid. She held up her unlit cigarette. “I’m out of matches.”
Gladys swatted Toni’s ass. “Light it for her.”
Toni fetched a lighter from a drawer, banged the drawer shut, lit the cig. The woman inhaled deep, exhaled deep. “You can go now,” she told Toni.
“Excuse you?” Toni said. “I gotta finish Miss Bentley’s makeup.”
“I’ll do that. Go on.” She heaved a patch of smoke in Toni’s face. “Get out of here.”
Toni was about to blow up all over her. Gladys acted fast.
“You heard her, Toni.” She pointed at the door. “Get the fuck outta here.”
Toni slammed the door so hard, the lights rattled.
Silence as Gladys and the woman sized each other up, like predators priming themselves for battle. A full minute passed, then two. The redhead inhaled. Her chest expanded, her shoulders lifted. Gladys did the same. One more moment passed before they burst out in grinding laughter that left their throats sore and their eyes steaming tears.
“You may have to find a new makeup woman, Miss Bentley. I think I drove that one away.”
“Child, please. She’ll be back. I don’t worry ’bout Toni’s shit.”
“What do you worry about?”
She pulled up a chair and lazily crossed her legs as if taking calm possession of the place. Gladys watched this performance and thought, I worry about this right here: a beautiful woman laying claim. This redhead wasn’t the first woman—white or colored—that Clement had brought back here. But she was the first to try to command the lead in the game of pursuit. Gladys preferred to. It kept her in control and the women in their place. Both were crucial. Especially when the woman was white.
“I worry ’bout my makeup getting done before my next set starts,” Gladys said. “You told Toni you was gonna finish it. Hop to it.”
The redhead stabbed her cigarette out in an empty coffee cup and went to work, picking up where Toni left off.
“What’s your name, sweetness?” Gladys said.
“Miriam. Miriam Townsend.”
“Hmm. Sweetness fits you better. That’s what I’m gonna call you.”
Sweetness smoothed rouge onto one cheek, then the other. “Suit yourself, Miss Bentley.”
“Always do. Call me Gladys.”
“Miss Bentley fits you better.” She put some red on her fingertip, and fondled the coloring onto Glady’s mouth. She stroked her lips. Top lip, bottom lip. Left to right. When she finished, she inserted her finger into Gladys’s mouth and held it there. Gladys was tempted to bite, show this woman who was in charge. But she licked and sucked on it instead, flashing a little peek at what she hoped was in store for later.
“Why you came in here the last four nights?” Gladys said. “What’s your story?”
“Can’t I come hear the best entertainer in New York without having a story?”
Gladys was disappointed. She thought Sweetness was smart enough to know she didn’t need to bullshit her way into Gladys’s good graces—she was already there. Had been since she parted her strawberry-on-milk mouth and scrapped those white gloves. The best entertainer in New York. Flattery so hollow, it verged on insult. Nobody needed to tell Gladys Bentley she was the best entertainer in New York. She already knew that.
Gladys shook her head and stiffened her lips to a sneer. Sweetness, so tall with daring only moments ago, seemed to shrink. She flushed red as she sat back down and fumbled to light a cigarette. Crossed, uncrossed, re-crossed her legs, and none of it with the elegance of when she first floated in there. Gladys had humbled the bitch. All it took was a head-shake and a sneer. Gladys girl, she thought, you still got it.
Gladys groaned a little as she hauled herself out of the makeup chair. She removed Sweetness’s hat and caressed her bobbed hair, twirling the silken red locks around her fingers. People like Toni envied this hair. Gladys simply marveled at it. It lacked the strength, the endurance of most colored hair. Expose this silk to too much sun, it might change color. Imagine. Hair not hardy enough to keep its color. Sweetness closed her eyes as Gladys raked gentle fingers through her hair. She was tempted to grip a wad of it and give that head a sharp backwards yank. Sweetness’s mouth trembled. She shuddered when Gladys touched her neck. Out front, the clarinetist spun out reedy notes that squeaked high and rumbled low; that scampered up the scale before shuffling back down; that widened in volume, then winnowed to a whisper and it was the kind of whisper Gladys made as she stroked the silk and spoke in Sweetness’s pale white ear, and Gladys knew the girl was quivering, that she was breathing fast, that she was hearing that whisper like a roar.
“Sweetness, I’m gonna ask you one more time and one more time only: What’s. Your Story.”
Sweetness rose. She primped her bobbed hair and put her hat back on. She smoothed her dress. She took a powder puff from her purse and patted her face. She took out a lipstick and spread a thoughtful, generous dose on her lips. She lit a cigarette. She shook out her shoulders and tossed her head. The bobbed red hair under her hat swung side to side.
“I’m from a prominent Fifth Avenue family,” Sweetness said. “My life has been tennis, private schools, cotillions, sojourns in London and Paris. Two years ago, my parents married me off to Mackenzie Townsend of the Park Avenue Townsends. Perhaps you’ve heard of them, Miss Bentley.”
Gladys loved being right. She had nailed Sweetness’s background, in style if not in exact substance. And she had heard of the Townsends. Rare was the day that the mighty Townsends didn’t get mentioned in the business or society pages. They were in oil. Barbarically rich, that family had more money than some small countries.
“Mrs. Mackenzie Townsend, huh?” Gladys said. “Sounds like one hell of a gig. Something must be missing, though, else you wouldn’t be up in here putting your pretty fingers in this bulldagger’s mouth.”
Sweetness had smoked to the end of her cigarette. She lit another.
“Mack is a good man. Loving to his family, generous to his friends and the people who work for him. Quite handsome, too—one of the handsomest men you’ll ever see. Before we married, he was the most desirable bachelor in the Northeast. I’m very fortunate. It may be difficult to believe, but things don’t always work out this well for women in my world.”
This shit was too good to be true. Gladys waited for the catch.
Sweetness dragged on her cig. “I do not love Mack and he does not love me.”
She explained that the marriage had been negotiated by their families like the corporate merger it was. She shrugged. “It’s simply how things are done in my world.”
She offered an intimate peek into that world.
“Mack and I lead separate lives. We do things together, of course—parties and the theater and charity things and such—to keep up appearances. Appearances are everything in our world. But he spends most of his evenings with his mistresses. That’s swell, because I spend most of my evenings with mine.”
“Does he know?” Gladys asked.
“I don’t know. And I don’t know that he’d care. Before we married, he said I could do what I wanted as long as I’m discreet and don’t cause a scandal. No scandals and no police, he told me.” Sweetness got quiet for a spell. Her pale face darkened. “Mack doesn’t hit me. But if I caused a scandal, I think he might. I think he might do worse than hit.”
The room seemed to get cold. Gladys shivered. Sweetness shrugged again and stabbed out her cig.
“We don’t have sex regularly, but he does fuck me from time to time. He has to. We’re required to produce an heir, male preferably.”
“It’s what’s expected in your world,” Gladys said. “But you still ain’t told me why you been in this club the last four nights in a row.” She pointed at the girl. “And don’t give me that best-entertainer-in-New-York shit.”
Sweetness opened her cigarette case, but snapped it shut. “But you are. I’ve known it since I first saw you.” She gave Gladys that soft, unvarnished look again. It evoked a vulnerability brusquely at odds with everything she’d done and said since floating into the Clam House that night. And something in Gladys stirred. Something rustled. A sparrow’s feather at dawn. A flickering jazz phrase. Something quiet, but might hold a holler inside it.
“A few weeks ago,” Sweetness said, “Some friends insisted on showing Mack and me a night on the town in Harlem. A night of jazz and debauchery in the wild jungle just sixty blocks north of us, they said. I wasn’t terribly enamored of the idea, but Mack was game.” Sweetness grinned. “You know, there are rumors that Mack has colored mistresses and an apartment in Harlem he fucks them in.” The grin flared. “I wonder if there are any half-colored Townsend bastards running around. That would something to hold over his head. I mean, I like the man, but you never know. Anyway. We came here, and saw you. I was fascinated. The white tux. The unearthly talent. That gorgeous brown face. That big, brown, unapologetically manly body. I sat at our table and fantasized about you in bed. Your big, brown body on mine.”
The quiet thing that had stirred inside Gladys released its holler. It echoed inside her, made her heart warble. Gladys Bentley took pride in having had lots of women. But she hadn’t loved a one of them. Never felt the rustling of a sparrow’s feather or a jazz flicker. She worried she might be unable to love, which must be as harrowing as being unable to see or hear. Worse, she feared her big, brown, unapologetically manly body was unlovable. But maybe she and this woman could love each other. For the first time she thought it possible. Possible was sweet. It made the holler inside want to step carefully into the world.
Sweetness took out her cigarette case again. She extracted one and tried to light it, but her shaking hands made that impossible. “But what I love most about you,” she stammered, “is that you don’t give a damn about anyone’s fucking expectations.”
Sweetness started to cry. Gladys got up, took her in her arms, pressed the girl’s head into her bosom. She let her cry a while, then went to the credenza, got a bottle of bourbon from a secret compartment in the side. She handed it to Sweetness who downed the liquor in gulps and growled beast-like as it sizzled down her throat. Out front, the sharp, burning yearn of the cornet heated the crowd. They cheered as the soloist ratcheted up the melodic fury to an unbearable degree. Gladys and Sweetness kissed, wet and sloppy, each face smeared with the other’s makeup, lips and necks and cheeks bruised and bitten, the teeth-marks red, angry, their desire for each other so aroused, they were almost crying.
The cornet eased. The kiss ebbed to a nibble. Gladys and Sweetness collected themselves. Sweetness adjusted her hat. Gladys noticed the girl’s nails. They were painted a daring red. Like blood at her fingertips.
“I…I want you, Miss Bentley.”
Sweetness was saying beautiful things. But women who said beautiful things might still fuck you over if the need arose. Gladys had learned to be cautious. Lots of women wanted her. The colored ones because she was famous, infamous, glamorous, rich. The white ones so they could act out exotic fantasies, learn first-hand if the primitive tom-toms of Darkest Africa drummed in Negro blood. Maybe Sweetness nursed those fantasies, too. Hell, probably did. But Gladys looked at the strawberry-on-milk mouth she had just devoured and decided to take her chances. She was about to tell Sweetness to get her ass over here for another kiss when they heard an uproar out front. Shouting and swearing. The thud of overturned tables and the shriek of smashed glass. Sweetness stepped into Gladys’s arms like that was the only place in the world to go.
The dressing room door opened. Clement leaned against the doorframe. He yawned. “Here we go again.”
“Where’s my goddamn car at?” Gladys said.
“Usual place. Where you think it’s at, girl?”
“What’s happening?” Sweetness said.
Gladys took her by the hand. “Police raid, baby. Let’s scram.”
They escaped through a back door and into an alley. A colored chauffer in a uniform held open the back door of a ‘27 burgundy Cadillac. Gladys and Sweetness climbed in.
“Miss Bentley, we forgot the bourbon.”
“Miss Bentley don’t forget nothing.” She reached under the seat and dug up some bourbon, opened it, chugged deep, passed it to Sweetness who did the same. Gladys coiled an arm around the girl. Sweetness nuzzled, close and tight. The chauffer gawked in the rear-view mirror. “What you looking at?” Gladys snapped, surprised he wasn’t used to this by now.
133rd Street was chaos. Cars, horns, people laughing, people screaming, people drunk. Traffic dragged up the street in a listless prowl. The Caddie inched along in the front of The Clam House. Police were loading whites and coloreds, men and women, queers, bulldaggers, and drag queens into a fleet of paddy wagons. Gladys saw Toni get scooted into one. She’d have to bail her ass out in the morning. Clement probably got away. Always did. The Caddie felt like the safest place in the world. Gladys wanted to stay there. She wanted to stay there a long time.
They kissed again, unaccompanied by any yearning cornet. The kiss erupted and would not be confined. Gladys pushed Sweetness back till she lay against the wall of the car. Her hand cruised under Sweetness’s dress. She clawed off her underwear and shoved her face in the plushness. She didn’t give a shit that the chauffer could see them or hear Sweetness moaning. He better not say a goddamn word, Gladys thought. Not one god—
Something bashed the window on Gladys’s side. Glass hurtled into the car. A jagged hole appeared in the window. An eye peered through it. A blunt instrument hacked at the remaining glass, spraying shards on the women as both screamed. A cop’s head appeared. He was red-faced and furious, clutching a billy club. He reached through what was once the window, latched onto a struggling Gladys, and tried to pull her out.
He looked behind him and yelled, “You two! Get over here!”
Two cops rushed over. They were Negroes. They yanked the car door open and dragged Gladys out as she writhed and flailed and wrestled. The door on Sweetness’s side opened, too, but she was helped rather than dragged from the car. “It’s all right, miss,” a white cop said. His tone was cool and soothing, as if calming a traumatized child. “He’ll be punished for what he did to you.” He placed his hand under her chin. “You have our word.”
“What he did?” Sweetness said. “No, you’ve got it all wrong. He—I can…I can explain.”
“Tell them, Sweetness!” Gladys shouted. “Straighten this shit out!”
But Sweetness didn’t. Sweetness looked like she was in a daze. Sweetness looked terrified. Sweetness saw the cops, the paddy wagons, the crowd swelling the sidewalks along 133rd. Sweetness was Mrs. Mackenzie Townsend of the Park Avenue Townsends. Sweetness had expectations to fulfill in her world. In Sweetness’s world scandal was not allowed. Sweetness’s eyes landed on Gladys. Sweetness turned to the soothing white cop. Sweetness said, “He raped me.” Sweetness was whisked into a police car. Sweetness was gone.
The paddy wagons were full. The Clam House patrons-turned-inmates watched Gladys through the wagons’ caged walls. She looked for Toni, but didn’t see her. She regretted being mean to Toni. She really was a good makeup woman. The red-faced cop stood in front of Gladys. The Negro cops twisted her arms behind her back so tight she thought they’d snap. She wondered if they’d ever seen her perform, if they’d bought her records, if they’d be gentler if they had. The police had raided The Clam House before. Had these Negro cops taken part? Gladys thought they must have trouble sleeping at night. Her chauffer lay face down on the ground, head swimming in a rising reservoir of blood. The red-faced cop struck Gladys across the face with his billy club. Blood poured from her mouth like a faucet. He lifted her head by her short-cropped hair and spat in her face. The Negro cops did not loosen their grip. Someone on the sidewalk shouted, “That’s Gladys Bentley! You can’t do that! That’s our Gladys!” The rest of the folks on the sidewalk and the inmates in the paddy wagons took up the shout. “That’s Gladys Bentley! You can’t do that to Gladys Bentley!”
The cops ignored them.
“There’s a special place in hell for nigger men who rape white women,” the red-faced cop said. “But until you get there, you got us to deal with.”
“I ain’t no man,” Gladys sputtered. Her lips had ballooned. She could barely get words past them. “I ain’t no man. I’m Gla—”
He struck her again. And again. Struck her until her white tuxedo was a canvas of splattered red.
Joe Okonkwo is an award-winning novelist, short story writer, and editor. His debut novel Jazz Moon, won the Publishing Triangle’s prestigious 2016 Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Fiction. He graduated cum laude from the University of Houston with a B.A. in theater and earned his MFA in Creative Writing from City College of New York. His collection of stories, Kiss the Scars on the Back of My Neck was published in August, 2021 by Amble Press.