"In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream"
Memphis, Tennessee, August 28, 1963
"Merlin, there's no place to sit," Arthur grumbles, peering into the dimly-lit elementary school gymnasium.
It is a sea of people, some talking excitedly, some sitting quietly in metal folding chairs, pensive, lost in thought. Waiting anxiously. Arthur scans the crowd, his eyes dancing across the myriad shades of brown in their faces, ranging from tawny sand to the deepest mahogany. Here and there sit a few pale, peachy-pink faces, but the crowd is largely Negro.
"So we stand," Merlin shrugs, looking casually around. "Gwaine said he was coming; I don't see him… Wait, there's Aaron. I know him, come on," Merlin tugs Arthur's jacket sleeve and they weave their way through the crowd towards Merlin's friend.
"I don't understand why we can't just watch this on TV at home," Arthur mutters, and Merlin shushes him.
As they make their way through the throng, Arthur is expecting to get strange looks, maybe even accusatory stares. I was afraid that I would feel like the enemy here, but everyone seems… accepting. They're looking, but not staring.
"Aaron!" Merlin exclaims, tapping a very short, very slender black man on the shoulder.
"Hey, Merls, what's shakin', Irish?" Aaron says brightly, holding his palm out flat.
Merlin slaps it, then clasps his hand briefly. "Thought we'd come out and join the party," he says. "This is my friend, Arthur."
"Hey, Artie, nice to meet ya," Aaron greets him, and Merlin chuckles as he watches Arthur try not to bristle at being called "Artie."
"Good to meet you, too, Aaron. I, um, prefer Arthur, though." He shakes the small man's hand warmly and smiles equally warmly, to soften the blow.
"Ain't no thing, man, just keepin' it loose," Aaron shrugs.
"Have you seen Gwaine?" Merlin asks.
"Naw, man, he ain't gon' be here. He won't close up his place," Aaron laughs.
"He said he was coming," Merlin mumbles, hugging the wall briefly as a young couple squeezes past him, muttering their "excuse me"s as they pass.
"Shut up, the lights are going down," Arthur prods Merlin, and they attempt to get comfortable in the back corner of the crowded gym.
"He is so inspirational," Gwen whispers to her brother in the dim, tears shining in her eyes as she watches the broadcast, Dr. King's face on the screen of a large television on a cart positioned at the front of the gym.
"Yeah," her brother agrees, glancing at her rapt face with its shining eyes. "I just hope important people are listening. Really listening."
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Elyan hears his sister's breathing hitch into a quiet sob. She is crying now, and she is not alone. Gwen reaches into her purse and withdraws a handkerchief, nothing more than a small square of white linen with a G embroidered on the corner by her own hand, and dabs her eyes. Elyan puts his arm around his sister.
"I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers."
"You're thinking about your students, ain't ya?" Elyan leans over and whispers in her ear. Gwen nods, dabbing both her eyes and nose now.
"That's all I want for any of them. To grow up knowing that they matter," she says, her voice shaky.
"They know they matter. You tell them they do," he reassures her. "You are the best kindergarten teacher at this school, Gwen. At any school, black or white."
"Thanks," she sniffs.
They sit quietly for a bit, listening to the speech, punctuated from time to time with various outbursts from the crowd, ranging from quiet "Mmm-hmm"s to shouts of "Preach it, Dr. King!"
"And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'"
The crowd erupts as one, rising to their feet, cheering, applauding, whistling, hugging everyone around them.
"Wow," Arthur says, walking out of the school.
"I know, it was brilliant, right?" Merlin says, bumping into his friend as someone brushes past him.
"You were right. It was better watching it that way than at home, alone."
"That was the best speech I've ever heard, Merlin. It wasn't even a speech. It was a…"
"A sermon," Merlin supplies.
"Yeah. Hell, if I could orate like that, I would never lose a case," Arthur says.
"That's what hit you?" Merlin asks, incredulous. He stops, looking right and left. "Where the bloody hell did I put my car?"
"I knew I shouldn't've let you drive," Arthur mutters. He grabs Merlin's elbow and tugs left. "And yes, I got the message he was layin' down. I'm just sayin' he was a really powerful speaker and I wish I was that good."
"He's had more experience," Merlin laughs, dropping behind Arthur as their path narrows again.
"Well, I was payin' attention to more than just his words, I tell you what," Arthur says, turning and looking back over his shoulder at Merlin rather than looking forward. "I learned a lot more than you did, I guaran—oof!"
Arthur stops short, feeling something small and soft collide with his chest and then disappear.
"Oh, Lord, I'm so sorry, miss, here, let me help you!" he exclaims, reaching his hand down to the petite woman whom he has just toppled. She had just come around the corner as Arthur reached it, not paying the least bit of attention.
"Ow," she mutters, lifting her arm to inspect her elbow. There's a scrape that will very likely be joined by a bruise by morning. "Thanks," she looks up at the man she ran into, slightly surprised to see a handsome, blonde-haired, blue-eyed man looking down at her, his face a mask of worry and remorse. She puts her purse strap back up on her shoulder, places her small hand in his, and he helps her to her feet. She smoothes her skirt and tries to collect herself while he stammers on.
"I'm so sorry, I wasn't watching where I was walking at all, it's completely my fault," he says, apologies still falling from his lips. "How's your elbow?" he asks, turning his head to look at it, even reaching up with his hand a moment before thinking better of it and dropping it to his side.
She lifts her arm and pokes at it and then carefully picks a small piece of gravel out from where it stuck in her skin. Arthur digs into his pocket for a handkerchief, his head down, when he feels someone shove his chest.
"Get away from my sister, cracka! What the hell do you think you're doin'?"
"Elyan!" Gwen yells, pulling him away from Arthur. "It was an accident! He hasn't done anything except apologize!" She pokes her brother hard on the shoulder.
Elyan glowers at Arthur, and Gwen puts her hands on her hips. "And that is no way to talk to a fellow human being, Elyan Thomas! Weren't you listening in there? Didn't any of his words get into your hard head?"
"Hey, I saw him knock you down!" Elyan defends himself, but he knows he's going to lose this battle. "Then he leaned over you, and…"
"He was helpin' me up, fool," she says, reaching out and snatching the proffered handkerchief, which has been dangling from the end of Arthur's frozen hand as he stands there staring at the arguing siblings. "Thank you," she says softly to Arthur, pressing the cloth to her elbow, dabbing the little spots of blood that have risen to the surface. She hisses, sucking air in between her teeth.
"I'm really sorry. I should know better than to not look where I'm walking."
Gwen smiles at him. "It was an accident. I think I'll live, but I'm not sure about my brother." She narrows her eyes at Elyan again, who has the decency to look apprehensive as his sister glowers at him.
"Go easy on him. He's just lookin' out for you. You're lucky to have a brother who loves you," Arthur says.
"Yeah, real lucky," Gwen rolls her eyes.
Elyan steps up again, peering at Merlin now. "Hey, do I know you?"
"Well, you don't look familiar, but…" Merlin thinks, scratching his head.
"We all look alike to you, is that it?" Elyan starts, his tone accusatory again. Gwen gives him a look.
"No! I have a terrible memory for anything except music," Merlin admits.
"Yeah, I'm his best friend and he forgets my name about every third day," Arthur pipes up.
"Music… you play piano at Gwaine's, don't you?" Elyan asks, snapping his fingers as he thinks.
"You're really good. Gwaine's is a great place, but I keep wonderin' how long they'll let him stay open. You know, because he lets in coloreds."
"That's why I keep working there. He pays lousy, but he's not a bigot," Merlin says.
"I like your accent. Where are you from?" Gwen asks Merlin, handing Arthur his handkerchief back.
"Keep it, I've got plenty," Arthur says. "Or throw it away. I don't think that blood will come out anyway."
"Ireland," Merlin says. "Been here about a year."
"Welcome," Gwen says, smiling at him. "Well, thank you for your help," she says to Arthur, looking down at the cloth in her hand, absently rubbing the fabric between her thumb and index finger. She notices that the material is soft and fine, and that the little AP monogram in the corner is professionally done, not hand-stitched like hers is. So he has a bit of money. But he's kind…
"Least I could do, since I knocked you over," Arthur says, smiling apologetically.
"Have a good day, and thanks again," she says, and starts walking, her brother following.
"Wait," Arthur calls, stepping towards them. "What's your name?"
"What's yours?" she asks, turning around and looking at him, hands on hips again.
"Arthur," he says, "and this is Merlin." He holds his hand out.
"I'm Guinevere," she says, stepping slowly over and clasping his hand. "But most people call me—"
"Gwen!" Elyan calls, several yards away now, looking very impatient. "Come on! Dad's waitin'!"
"And my brother Elyan," she sighs. "He does mean well, just…"
"I understand, don't worry about it," Arthur smirks. "It was nice to meet you, Guinevere." He releases her hand gently.
"Nice to meet you, too, Arthur," she smiles back at him, a twinkle in her eye that Merlin puzzles at.
"Enjoy your evening," Arthur grins and tips an imaginary cap to her and saunters in the direction of Merlin's car, Merlin himself jogging to catch him up.
"What was that?" Merlin asks.
"She was really nice," Arthur says casually.
"And?" Merlin prompts.
"Very pretty, too."
"I can't say a colored girl is pretty? Is that against the law?"
"No, but you didn't answer my question. What was that?"
"What was what?"
"That look that passed between you. You looked like you were sharing a secret about something."
"Oh. I maybe slipped her my card when she shook my hand," he admits.
"She might need legal assistance one day."
"If you expect me to believe that your only motive for slipping her your business card is professional, then…"
"She was pretty, wasn't she? And nice. Smart, too," Arthur says, grinning again.
"Wonder why she didn't say anything about the card…" Merlin muses, unlocking his car door.
Arthur just smiles.
Walking in the opposite direction, Gwen peeks at the card Arthur had palmed her. Pendragon Law Offices is across the top in block lettering. Then, below, Arthur Pendragon, Attorney at Law. Below that is an address and phone number. She slips it into her purse with his handkerchief, deciding that Elyan doesn't need to know.
She turns to her brother now. "What in tar nation is your problem, anyway?"
"Huh?" Elyan looks at her, affronted.
"You were very rude to them, and they were only trying to help me."
"I don't trust 'em," he mutters.
"Arthur and Merlin specifically, or all white people?" she snaps at him.
Elyan says nothing.
"You, yourself just said in there that you hoped that important people were listening to Dr. King's words. Sounds to me like you were too busy hoping that the rich white folks were listening to bother listening yourself," she scolds.
"I listened," he protests.
"But you didn't take it to heart. He was talking about treatin' everyone with fairness and kindness, not just colored folks. Equality for all races. Did you hear him once say, 'Don't trust whitey, he's only out to take your money and rape your womenfolk?' No," she presses on, not giving him a chance to answer, "you did not. Arthur and Merlin seemed to me like nice, trustworthy young men. You even said you recognized Merlin."
"I recognized him; doesn't mean I know him."
"Well you can't know someone until you give them a chance."
"I'm not sure about the other one. That blond Mr. Charlie seemed like a spoiled rich white boy if I ever seen one."
"Saw one," she automatically corrects him. "And so what if he does have money? He came out to hear the speech just like you and me, which tells me something about him, even if you don't see it."
"He's trying. He doesn't agree with the way things are. He wants things to be different, too."
They walk quietly for a bit.
"You know I ain't got no love for white folks, and even more so after what happened with Mama."
"I know. But her dyin' wasn't the doctor's fault. She had the cancer, Elyan. Yes, the doctor was a bit—"
"He was a jive-ass honky racist turkey," Elyan provides.
"I was going to say 'condescending,' but I suppose that'll do," she chuckles.
"Gwen, you don't see what I see when I'm out on jobs," Elyan says, stopping now to turn and look at her. "I go to some big house to put in new kitchen cabinets or repair a bookcase, and I see them rich white folks with they pretty lil' colored maids, and most of the time, Mister is either – what was that word you used? Condescending. Or downright mean. Or worse, tryin' to get more than the girl is gettin' paid for."
"Every time?" she asks.
"Not every time, no," he admits. "But enough to make me fret a bit when a pretty white boy is nice to us. And he sho'nuff had money, I could tell by the way he was dressed. I could see my face in his shoes!"
"Elyan, thank you for being concerned, but I can take care of myself. I'm sorry that you have to see what you've seen, but I still say that you can't judge every white man based on the actions of a few white men. That's just as unfair as what they do to us and you know it."
Elyan scowls and shoves his hands into his pockets.
"Don't let your grief paint every picture black, baby brother," she says, nudging him with her elbow. "Mama died five years ago. Things have changed some since then. Still got far to go, but it's gettin' better. And if she knew how you were behavin' now, she'd sure enough come down here and tan your hide but good!"
"Prob'ly," Elyan says, laughing a little now. "'Sides, it's not likely we'll be seeing those two boys again anyway, right?"
"Right," Gwen says, her mind drifting to the card in her purse and the handkerchief she has vowed to clean back to sparkling white. It also drifts, unbidden, to the peculiar wobble her stomach did when Arthur said her name.
It was nice to meet you, Guinevere.