"Sit up straight, Quinn" Judy sighed.
Quinn slouched down even lower and continued to pick at her food. It was too hot to eat.
"Why can't we just get that new air conditioning thing?" she asked, feeling drips of sweat running down her forehead.
"Because it cost money, Quinn" her father replied, rolling his eyes at her brother in law, Carlton, who sat opposite from him.
"At least you're inside, Quinn" Carlton snickered. "Picture how the workers outside picking cotton must feel."
Quinn ignored him. She was too hot to bother coming up with a clever respond. The fan in the ceiling of the dining room didn't help much. Grace, the maid, had dark spots of sweat under her arms and on her back. Quinn took a sip of ice tea and waited for the rest of her family to finish eating.
"Will we have enough by the end of the month?" her father asked Carlton.
"I goddamn hope so" Carlton answered, "but those negros complain about the heat. Do you know what I say when they do that?"
"What do you say, honey?" Frannie, Quinn's sister asked.
"I tell them to go back to Africa then, it's so damn uncomfortable for them here."
Judy smiled politely. Frannie clapped her hands in amusement.
"Good man" Russell smiled. "Good man."
Quinn tried to fan herself with her hand. As she wanted was to go back to her room, turn on her hand fan and strip down to her underwear.
"I've got us some extra hands" Carlton said, proudly. "To help us get finished before the big shipment."
"I saw them this morning" Russell nodded. "They looked good, strong."
Carlton beamed. Quinn sometimes wondered who he loved more, Frannie or her father. He spent more time trying to impress his father-in-law by getting the cotton picking to go smooth, than he ever did to get his wife to swoon.
"There was a white boy among them" Judy said. "I saw him."
"He's some kind of mixed race" Carlton said, shrugging. "A Jew."
Quinn sat up a bit straighter. She had never met a Jew in her life. Actually, she had never ever met anyone who wasn't a Christian.
"As long as he pulls his weight…" Russell began.
"Oh, he will" Carlton promised him.
"What's his name?" Quinn asked.
They all turned and looked at her.
"Who, dear?" Judy asked.
"The Jewish boy."
"Puckerman, I think" Carlton shrugged. "Noah Puckerman. The boys call him Puck for short. Why?"
"No reason. Can I be excused please? I have to get ready for my date."
Richard Adams was the son of a doctor. He always wore grey suits on their dates. He always ordered her white wine and the chicken, just because she had once said that she liked chicken. And he was probably the man she would marry.
"How has your day been?" he asked.
"Hot" she replied, almost forgetting to smile so that he would understand she was joking.
He smiled back.
"I almost miss winter" he said.
She nodded and swallowed a piece of chicken. The restaurant had A/C and it was turned so cold that she had goose bumps all over her arms.
"Are you cold now?" he asked, carefully stroking her skin.
"Oh no" she assured him. "I love it."
Richard smiled. He was almost ten years older than her, 30 years old. He had a good job and nice house and a good background. It was a wonder that he wasn't married yet.
"You look lovely tonight, Quinn" he told her.
She smiled. Grace had curled her hair at the ends and sprayed with layer after layer with hairspray. She wore a little make up and a blue sundress. In her mother's eyes, she looked perfect. In her own, she looked just like Frannie.
They had met through Carlton. They had gone to college together but Quinn couldn't understand how they could have been friends. Carlton was loud and obnoxious while Richard was quiet and… dull. That was the best way to describe him.
"Quinn, I was wondering, I think it's time for you to meet my family."
"I have met your family, Richard. I met them at the Christmas Charity, remember?"
"Yes, but I want you to come to dinner."
Quinn smiled. The meeting the family. It was a sign of that things was getting serious. Soon, he would pull out a tacky ring and ask her to marry him. She shuddered.
"You're shivering" he said, covering her hand in his.
"Maybe I'm just tired."
"Think about the dinner, Quinn. My mother would like to get to know you better."
"I will" Quinn promised
"How did it go, Miss Quinn?" Grace asked as she helped Quinn get out of her dress.
"Fine, I suppose."
"Mr. Adams is a good man, Miss Quinn."
"I know he is, Grace."
She felt sticky again after the drive home. Richard had kissed her on the porch, held her tight with his sweaty hands. She needed a shower.
"Your mama would be very happy if you married him, Miss Quinn."
She stepped out of the dress. In an attempt to cool down the room, she opened the window. There wasn't really a breeze outside but it felt less stuffy with the sound of the wind rustling the cotton plants.
"Frannie's been married for almost four years now, Miss Quinn."
"You don't say."
She knew that her maid meant well, but she wanted to be alone with her thoughts.
"He's as good as anyone, Mr. Adams is."
"I know, Grace."
"You're 22 now, Quinn. You finished college. It's time you found a husband."
Quinn turned to face Grace, the one who had changed her diapers and made her food and consoled since she was a baby.
"Why do I need to find a husband, Grace? Couldn't I just find a good job that I like?"
Grace shook her head.
"Maybe in New York you can, Miss Quinn, but not here. Not in Arkansas."
"I'm going to bed" she said. "Good night."
Grace left the room. Quinn looked out the window again. Some of the workers were leaving the plantation. She couldn't see who they were because of the dark, but she knew some of them. Martin and Wallace, Grace's sons, had played with her before it she got too old and it became too inappropriate. A car's headlights flashed and lit up the grounds. She could see more of the men. Quinn recognized Matt and Eugene, hunchbacked and tired by the gates. And she saw the white boy. He had short, cropped hair, wide shoulders and big grin on his face. The Jew.
"How did it go, Quinny?" Frannie asked as they walked the edge of the plantation with baby James in the stroller.
James was the fattest, ugliest child in the world and Frannie's world revolved around him. Quinn couldn't understand how something so small could matter so much to someone as selfish as Frannie.
"It went fine."
"Rich would be such a good man for you, darl'. He's educated, like you."
"That's the only thing that we have in common?"
Frannie let out a false laugh.
"You're so funny."
Quinn dropped the subject. She raised her hand and waved at Martin who was loading a truck. He waved back. Next to him stood the new boy, the white one.
"It doesn't look right, does it?" Frannie whispered. "A white man, working with all those negros."
Quinn ignored her. Noah, that was his name. Apparently, the boy felt her gaze on him because he grinned and lifted his hat in greeting. She averted her eyes.
"I mean, he could do better" Frannie went on.
"Maybe he likes working here" Quinn suggested, still watching her feet, feeling his's eyes on her back.
"In the sweltering heat? For minimum wage?"
"People are different, Fran. Not everyone likes the same things as you do."
"So that's what they teach you in college…"
"Well, you wouldn't know, would you? Since you never went."
"I got married!"
"Is that supposed to be better?"
They both stopped. Some of the men watched them. Frannie took a deep breath.
"Look here, honey. You got to play around at school for four years. You got your degree in whatever. Now go and get your life started. Marry Richard and…."
"What if I don't?" Quinn asked.
Maybe it was heat getting to her but she wanted to fight.
"Is there a problem, ladies?" Carlton asked, appearing behind them.
He kissed Frannie's cheek and tickled James' tummy.
"Quinn's just being melodramatic" Frannie smiled.
"You shouldn't upset your sister, Quinn" Carlton joked, poking her arm. "She's carrying my baby boy inside her!"
They both giggled and Quinn walked away, leaving them with their joy over something as mundane as a baby.
Again that night, Quinn opened her window and watched as the last plantation workers went home. Noah was with them tonight yet again. He and some other guy shared a cigarette by the fence, talking about something and laughing. She liked his laugh, it was loud and real.
"What you looking at, Miss Quinn?" Grace asked.
"Just cooling down" Quinn lied, closing the window behind her.
"Mr. Adams called, you mother answered. He invited you to dinner at his mother's house on Friday."
"And I suppose mama said yes?"
Quinn nodded. She let Grace unzip her dress and comb out her hair before she crept down under the sheets.
"Your mama would be so happy if you came home from that dinner with a ring on your finger" Grace murmured.
"Two girls, she set to the world, your mama" she said, stroking Quinn's cheek. "One was polite and articulate and poised. And the other was beautiful."
Grace had told this story many times before but Quinn stilled asked.
"Which one am I?"
"Silly girl, you know you're the pretty one. Always were. Even when you were a tiny baby."
"I'm smart too, Grace."
"I'm sure you are, Miss Quinn."
"Why doesn't anyone care that I have a degree? That I can play the piano? Why does it only matter how I look?"
Grace made a disappointed sound with her lips.
"Don't complain that you have too much, Miss Quinn. Think of those who have no beauty."
"Right" Quinn whispered.
"You and Mr. Adams will live a very happy life together."
"If you say so."
Grace patted her cheek one last time and then got up.
"Good night, Miss Quinn."
"Good night, Grace."
Her mother bought Quinn a new dress for the dinner. It was very high fashioned; very tight and hard to walk in. Apparently, Jackie Kennedy had worn a similar one back in May.
"You could give her a run for her money" Judy said, kissing her daughter's cheek. "You are just as pretty as the first lady, Quinn."
"You make me long for being skinny again" Frannie sighed, holding a hand on her stomach.
As if her face would change just because she got rid of that bump. Quinn never bragged about her looks, but she knew that she was attractive. She had a symmetrical face, sculpted features, sharp cheekbones and big eyes. She had one the appearance lottery.
"Rich's gonna go ballistic when he sees you" Carlton snickered.
Quinn doubted that Rich would ever do anything as crazy as "go ballistic". He would smile at her and complement her dress and then stare at her face during the entire dinner. Just as he always did.
"I'm going outside to wait for him" Quinn said, not standing to be inside with her family any longer.
She leaned carefully against the gate, anxious to get dirt on her new dress. Her mother would kill her for that.
"Look at you" a voice said. "You dressed up, just for me."
Quinn turned. Noah Puckerman was walking towards her, cigarette in his hand and the hand in his pocket.
"Excuse me?" she asked.
"Or are you waiting for someone else?"
She rolled her eyes and stared down the dirt road, waiting to see Richard's car.
"I'm Puck" he said and extended his hand.
It was dirty but she had manners and shook it.
"The boss's daughter."
"I'm new here, just helping out with the pickin'."
"I know, my brother-in-law told me."
"Oh, so you're not Mr. Carlton's wife then?"
She shook her head.
"Nope. That would be my sister. The pregnant one."
Puck smiled again. He offered her the cigarette but she shook her head.
"Afraid you'll get cooties from me?" he asked, snickering.
"I don't smoke."
"Of course you do. All you pretty, rich ladies smoke."
He dropped the cigarette on the ground and stamped it out.
"Where you off to then, Miss Quinn, if you're not waiting for me?"
"My boyfriend's picking me up."
"Is that his car?"
Richard's red corvette drove up the road and parked in front of them.
"Well, you have nice time, Miss Quinn" Puck said.
She took one last look at his broad shoulders, toned arms and wide grin before she got into Richard's car.
"Who was that?" he asked.
"A worker" she replied.
"So they keep repeating" she sighed.
Richard's mother was in the fifties, had graying hair and a expression of constant skepticism on her face.
"Quinn" she said, taking Quinn's hand in hers. "How nice of you to come."
"Thank you for inviting me, Ma'am."
Mr. Adams was frail and old, maybe fifteen years older than his wife. He too shook Quinn's hand before sitting back down on his chair.
"I know your mama of course" Mrs. Adams said. "A lovely woman."
"She only has good things to say about you" Quinn lied.
There was probably nothing wrong with Richard's mom but Judy was the worst gossiper in the south of Arkansas. She had something bad to say about everyone.
"How's the harvesting going?" Mr. Adams asked. "Must be a lot of work for your father?"
"Oh no, not for him. He still works nine to five. The workers though, they have a hard time."
She smiled sweetly and Mr. Adams smiled uncertainly back.
"And you're brother-in-law, he helps out?"
"Yes" Quinn nodded.
"Carlton Barton" Richard said. "You know him, dad, he went to school with me."
His father nodded.
"A short, talkative boy?"
"That's the one" Quinn said.
A black maid served the first course. It was asparagus soup, one of Grace's favorite meals to make for Quinn when she was sick. Grace's had a bit more color though; this one was pale, almost gray.
"Thank you" she smiled at the maid, who blushed and disappeared.
"Richard tells us that you graduated from college this spring" Mrs. Adams said.
Quinn was the only girl she knew who had finished school. Frannie hadn't even bothered with college. Quinn's best friends, Brittany and Rachel, had both dropped out before junior year to get married.
"You're such a pretty girl, Quinn. You must like school very much."
Translation, if you're so pretty, why aren't you married yet?
"I do" Quinn assured her. "I loved every minute of college."
"What did you major in?"
"I majored in literature and minored in education, Sir."
Mrs. Adams looked relieved. She had probably been scared that Quinn would have majored in something, like business, that would actually give her a steady job.
"Well, reading and teaching, that's two important things for life."
"Quinn loves reading, she always carries a book in her purse" Richard told his parents.
Quinn smiled conformingly.
"I would love to work a library" she said.
"My dear friend, Mary O'Brian is volunteering at the white library in town. I could give her a call, see if they have room for another girl willing to help out."
"Thank you, ma'am."
But the truth was; Quinn didn't want work at a library that was preceded by the word white. She wanted to work a university library, old and dark, with endless shelves of books. And the word volunteer didn't suit her either. She wanted to work. Four years of college should make her eligible for a real job. But that sort of talk didn't fit in at the dinner of your future in-laws.
"It's always nice to do some good in society, don't you think?" Mrs. Adams went on.
"There are so many people you can help."
Quinn nodded again.
"The wives of our family have a great legacy of sending food to those poor people in Africa."
"They are used as slaves; did you know that, Quinn?"
"Yes, Ma'am. I did."
"It's such a pity, not treating them as equals."
The maid came back and collected their plates. Mr. Adams didn't even look at her. Mrs. Adams complained about the soup. Richard stared down onto his plate.
"Everyone should be treated like equals" Quinn agreed.
Richard leaned in and kissed her mouth. She kissed him back, without real interest or feeling. He cupped the back of her head and pulled her closer.
"My mother loved you" he whispered.
They stood behind a tree, outside the gates, far away enough so that Judy wouldn't see when Richard held her tight around the waist.
"I knew she would. You fit in perfectly with my family, Quinn."
"Thank you" she said even though she didn't know if that was the correct answer.
"It just feels right, doesn't it? You and me?"
He slid his hand down her side, over hip. She almost rolled her eyes. Was that the most vulgar thing he could think of?
"Richard, I want to work. You know, a real job."
He looked at her, confused.
"I just…" she began. "Why do you want to work?"
"To provide for my family."
"Is that it?"
He shrugged. He was thirty years old but looked like a teenager with his dazed expression.
"None of your friends work, Quinn."
"I know, but I want to."
He shook his head, smiling again.
"Darling, you'll be working – at home. Looking after the house and the help and the children."
He kissed her again. She sighed. There was no point. He didn't get it. No one did.
"Grace, would you rather be home with your children than work here?" Quinn asked.
She peered out the window even thought it was late and the workers had already gone home for the night. It was quiet outside, perfectly still.
"My babies are old now, Miss Quinn. They don't need their mama no more."
"Do you like working?"
Grace shrugged, like she had never thought about it.
"I've been working for your family since I was sixteen."
"That's not an answer" Quinn said.
"I don't know what you want me to say."
"Don't you think it's unfair, that you have to work, taking care of other people's houses, while my mother does nothing?
"It's how it is, Miss Quinn."
Quinn gave up. She finished her tea and crept into bed. Grace stroked her hair.
"You can't change the world" she whispered. "You can just live in it."
"Why can't we change the world?" Quinn asked.
Grace smiled as if it was a joke.
"You will marry Mr. Adams and I will take care of your babies, Miss Quinn."
"That's how it is?" she asked.
"Yes, that's how it is."
Quinn couldn't sleep. She spent all night biting her nails and reading a Henry James novel. As dawn broke, she heard voices. She saw Carlton herding a group of workers towards the fields. He talked to them like they were children, enunciating and using uncomplicated words. Quinn could see how the men rolled their eyes behind their backs.
"We need a good day from you today" Carlton told them loudly.
Noah Puckerman was the last one in the group. He had a cigarette lit in the corner of his mouth and sleepy look in his eyes. Suddenly he looked up at her and waved. She quickly hid behind the curtain.
"Who you waving to, Puck?" someone asked.
"My future wife" he snickered back.
"Oh dream on."
"We're meant for each other, Eugene, I'm telling you."
The men laughed heartily at him.
"You may be white, Puckerman, but that doesn't mean you're good enough for Miss Fabray."
"You never know" Puck said. "I might surprise you."
Quinn stayed hidden until the sound of their voices had died out. Suddenly she felt exhausted. She clambered down into bed and closed her eyes. How could a man's voice make her heart beat faster than Richard's kisses? It wasn't logical.