One nice Spring morning, my boss stood in the doorway of his corner office and shouted: “Miles! In my office! Pronto!”
I wished that he could've just come over to my newsroom desk and said it more quietly. But that hasn't ever been his way.
I sighed and shrugged to the reporters near me, then stood up and walked over to my boss.
He stepped aside, gesturing that I enter first. I did so. He shut the door behind us. At least it wouldn't be audible to anyone else, even if they could still see through the glass-window wall that separated us from the rest of the newsroom. He sat down behind his desk and I sat down across from him.
“Is there a problem, Boss?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I have a new assignment for you, Miles. I want you to interview the employees at the Polychrome Pantry. Give it your usual best and it'll be on the front page of our newspaper.”
“Any particular reason why or just report on how their business is doing?” I asked.
“There's been a change in employees both there and at the Three Sifters bakery,” he explained. “The two who now work at the Pantry got married recently at Joplin Park.”
“I'm not sure I understand,” I said.
“You ever hang out with the LGBTQ crowd?” he asked.
“Not usually, no,” I said. “Not that I have anything against them. Why do you ask?”
“The two employees at the Pantry are lesbians,” he said. “Not only that, but they're the couple who got married at the park.”
“Is any of that supposed to be a big deal?” I asked.
“To some people here in Dandridge, yes,” he said. “Maybe you can show that it doesn't really matter whether you're straight or not. That might change their minds.”
“Boss, I'm not sure if anything will change the fundamentalists who see same-gender relationships as flat-out wrong,” I said. “They think they're right and that the Bible agrees with them.”
Boss stood up and walked over to his office's solitary window, which overlooked the parking lot behind the building that housed the Dandridge Herald's staff.
“Miles, things change, whether everyone likes it or not,” he said. “Like evolution, it's not something that can be stopped, no matter how much people believe it can be. It's inevitable. I'd like things to continue changing for the better here in Dandridge. I don't want the narrow-minded or close-minded minority trying to force their beliefs and opinions on the rest.”
I didn't say anything. Sometimes Boss expressed himself and it was best to just listen until he finished.
“I might be risking a lot sticking my neck out like this. We might lose circulation. Some of it, most of it, or all of it. But I'd rather keep risking doing the right thing rather than keeping my mouth shut and letting the negative viewpoints dominate the discussion. Truth will always be far more important to me than hearsay.
“When I first moved here from Cleveland, things were worse than they are now. It wasn't easy making friends with the natives back then. You were foreign, even if you were still just as American as they were, and they didn't mind shoving your nose in it. But over the years, I've noticed that things have changed, however slowly, improving bit by bit. I don't want a relapse to happen. I believe that this entire town, not just one part of it, stands to lose far too much if we go backwards. We have to keep trying to do better, to treat each other more equally, to accept newcomers more openly.”
He turned around and faced me, but he didn't sit back down.
“Miles, when I first hired you, I wanted you to help keep the discussion open, honest, and moving forward. Despite any thoughts and/or feelings to the contrary, you've done so. Which I find commendable and I think the late Edward R. Murrow would agree.
“This assignment might not be in your comfort zone, but I think it's much too important to avoid. I don't have another reporter anywhere near as ethical as you are.”
“If you want me to say 'yes', just say so, Boss,” I said.
“I do want you to say 'yes', but I want it to be voluntary on your part,” he said. “Are you willing to take the assignment?”
I thought about it and what he'd said to me this morning. And nodded.
“Good,” he said.
“When do I start?” I asked.
“As soon as possible,” he said. “If you run into any problems, contact me. Email, phone, or text. I'll check my email inbox, my voicemail, and my text messages every hour if not more frequently.”
“You'll back me up, then,” I said.
He nodded. “I gave you the assignment. Which means I'm more responsible for the final product than you are.”
I stood up. “I'd better get going, then.”
Boss smiled, which was very rare for him. “I knew I could count on you. Good luck.”
When I arrived at the Polychrome Pantry about ten minutes later, I was happy to see that it was still as old-fashioned as ever, both in appearance and in function. As my grandfather used to say, “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.”
I remembered coming to the Pantry with my father sometimes after church, as a treat. They had some of the best bakery items in the county, with the Three Sifters coming in a very close second. It had been hard to choose between the cupcakes, the tea cakes, and other items. My father would smile at me as if he could sense the difficulty I was experiencing. “Just pick one, Miles,” he said. “You can always choose a different one next time.”
I opened the Pantry's front door and heard the bell above me jangling. I wondered how old the bell was. It looked like it could be fifty years old or maybe even a century old.
One of the two young women looked in my direction and gestured to me. I didn't want to rudely cut in line, so I stood patiently behind the eighth customer in line.
When it was my turn, the young woman who had gestured to me said, “Don't remember seeing you before. Your first time here?”
I shook my head. “I used to come here with my father after church when I was in elementary school.”
She looked thoughtful. “My mother probably would remember you, then. After my spouse's eldest sister died, we changed who worked at which bakery. My mother chose to work at the Three Sifters and my spouse joined me here. My name's Julie.”
“Miles,” I said. “I confess I'm not here to buy anything, though.”
Her left eyebrow rose, but she said nothing.
“I work at the Dandridge Herald,” I explained. “My boss assigned me to interview you and/or your spouse. If it turns out well enough, my boss said he'd put it on the newspaper's front page.”
“I see,” she said. “Unfortunately, we're usually pretty busy most of the time. But maybe you could come back here just before we close for the day? Then we'd have more free time. We could even go to Mama Laurenzo's for dinner and you could interview us there.”
“I'll let my boss know and see what he says,” I said.
She nodded and helped the customer behind me.
My boss okayed the interview's delay, just as long as I turned in the report before I went home or first thing tomorrow morning.
I returned to the Pantry a few minutes before 6 p.m. The last customer was just leaving. I stood aside to let them leave and then entered.
I didn't see the same young woman I'd seen this morning. Another young woman stood there.
“I'm sorry but we're about to close for the day,” she told me.
“That's all right,” I said. “I'm here to interview Julie and her spouse.” I explained to her what I'd explained to Julie.
She smiled. “I apologize for any confusion. You see, she meant me. I'm her spouse. Deborah. I used to work at the Three Sifters bakery.” She turned and called into the kitchen, “Julie! The reporter's back!”
“Be there in a minute!” Julie's voice called back.
“She seemed okay with the interview,” I said. “She even suggested having dinner at Mama Laurenzo's. I hope that's okay with you, too?”
“Oh, sure,” Deborah said. “That's where we first met, after all.”
They added up the money in the two cash registers and tidied up a bit. I offered to help but they said there wasn't any need. Once that was done, the lights were all shut off and we left the Pantry.
When we arrived at Mama Laurenzo's, I asked if we could have a quiet table. Maybe in a corner away from most of the other customers.
She looked at Julie and Deborah and then gave me a puzzled look. “Any particular reason why?”
“I need to interview them,” I said. “I work for the Dandridge Herald.”
“We're okay with it,” Deborah told Mama Laurenzo.
“And you will be fair and honest with them?” the latter asked me.
I nodded. “My boss wouldn't have it any other way. Nor would I.”
Mama Laurenzo looked thoughtful, then shrugged. “It wouldn't be the most unusual thing to happen here, after all. These two ladies first met here. Did they tell you?”
I nodded again.
“I introduced them,” Mama Laurenzo said. “They weren't exactly . . . okay . . . with it at first. But I knew they would become very good friends soon enough. And they were. I didn't expect them to get married, though. They let me cater the reception.”
Julie smiled at her. “As if we would exclude you, Mama Laurenzo. That was a wonderful reception.”
“And no one to interfere with it,” Mama Laurenzo said. “Come. I show you to your table.”
When we sat down, she continued: “The demonstrators . . . they had to stay outside. Shout all they like, but they can't bother any of my customers or I tell the police. So they shouted and shook their signs at the cars and trucks passing by for all the good that it did them.” She shook her head, sighed, then made a tossing gesture over one shoulder. “But that is all in the past. We are here today. What do you wish to order?”
We gave her our orders. She didn't write them down on a notepad. She simply nodded and went back to the main dining area.
Julie and Deborah glanced at me and then at each other. It almost seemed like telepathy to me. They were more like twins than non-twins. I wondered if they knew that this was the first time I'd ever interviewed lesbians. Probably.
I asked if I could put a portable tape recorder on the table and they nodded. I would transcribe from the recording when I returned to my newsroom desk.
“What would you like to ask us about first?” Julie asked me. “How we met? Our wedding? What it's like to be married to each other?”
“Anything you feel comfortable discussing,” I said.
“That could be almost anything,” Deborah told me. “I think you need to narrow your parameters at least a little bit.”
“How did you meet?” I asked. “Mama Laurenzo said it happened here.”
They both nodded.
“At a table in the other room,” Julie said. “Deborah was already sitting at it when I arrived. Mama Laurenzo suggested I might want to join her. I wasn't so sure.”
Deborah smiled at her. “You did seem a bit nervous, Jules.”
“Weren't you?” Julie asked her.
“A little,” Deborah said. “I'd tried to date boys, but it just didn't feel right. The dates didn't end badly, but the boys didn't seem to understand why I didn't like them. I didn't understand, either. But when Julie and I met here, it didn't take long before we seemed like old friends meeting for the first time.”
“What about you?” I asked Julie. “What were dates with boys like for you?”
Mama Laurenzo returned with our drinks and appetizers. Entrees were still cooking. They would be done soon, though. She left us alone again.
“I didn't date much,” Julie said. “But the few boys I dated just weren't my type. It wasn't until Deborah and I met that I knew why.”
“Did your parents mind?” I asked them.
Julie answered first. “My father had already passed away. My mother didn't mind. She was happy that I was happy, that I'd finally found someone who meant a lot to me.”
Deborah answered next. “My parents had both passed away. I couldn't be sure how my older sister Mara or middle sister Rachel would react when I told them.”
“How did they react?” I asked her.
“More supportive than I expected,” she said. “They were even there when we got engaged on Christmas Eve, practically cheering us on.”
“Did they come to your wedding?” I asked.
Deborah hesitated. I wondered if I'd stepped into an area I should've stayed out of. It's never easy knowing what to ask about and what to avoid when it's the first interview with your interviewees.
But she shrugged. “Mara died not longer after we got engaged. Rachel was my bridesmaid at our wedding.”
“And my mother was my matron of honor,” Julie said.
“How was the wedding?” I asked. “Wonderful? Better than either of you could've expected?”
Julie looked as if she wasn't quite sure how to answer at first. “Yes. Not that it didn't have its share of bumps along the way. Everything seemed just fine until the wedding started. Anti-gay demonstrators showed up. I was worried that they were going to try to stop our wedding.”
“They almost succeeded,” Deborah said. “But there was another visitor. Uninvited, but quite welcome.”
“Oh?” I asked. “And who was that?”
“Quentin Ngomo,” Deborah said. “He's a local attorney who works at the courthouse.”
“What did he do to stop the demonstrators?” I asked.
Deborah glanced at Julie.
The latter said, “He spoke to them. We couldn't hear what he said, but whatever it was, it worked. They stayed away until our reception here at Mama Laurenzo's.”
At which point, Mama Laurenzo returned with our entrees. She politely left us alone again.
“I think only an idiot would try to bully Mama Laurenzo,” Julie said. “They tried anyway. And then Quentin arrived with a police officer. The demonstrators backed off. Between Quentin and the police officers, the demonstrators knew that they had no option except to go back outside. Unless they wanted to be arrested for disturbing the peace inside this restaurant.”
“And who was the police officer?” I asked.
“Petra Davis,” Deborah said. “She and Quentin seem to be old friends. Not married to each other, though.”
“The reception was just as successful as the wedding had been,” Julie said. “So much fun. I don't think the reception ended until almost dawn the next day. You'd think we would've been tired by then, but we weren't. And when we went outside, the demonstrators were gone. Our guests threw confetti over our heads and I threw our bouquet in the air. Quentin's daughter caught it. He loaned us their car for our honeymoon. It was already decorated with 'Just Married' on the rear windshield and aluminum cans on strings tied to the rear bumper. I didn't care. I was just so happy that everything had gone so well. Who cared if everyone else knew it?”
She smiled at Deborah and Deborah smiled back.
“After our honeymoon, we returned the car to Quentin,” Julie went on. “Then we had to decide who would work at which bakery. We decided that it made sense if my mother went to the Three Sifters and Deborah came to the Polychrome Pantry. It's been unreal since then. Wonderful. Happier than I ever dared to think anyone could be.”
“I feel the same,” Deborah said. “No matter how long the workdays are, we leave together and live together in the same house.”
“And your customers and neighbors haven't minded?” I asked them.
“Not really,” Julie said. “They've been mostly supportive. Some have been like the demonstrators and tried to anonymously attack our house. Tomatoes and rolls of toilet paper usually. We just clean up after each time and eventually they gave up once they could tell we were staying no matter what.”
“Have you reported any of the attacks to the police?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Why? We haven't gotten hurt and the house didn't get damaged. Besides, it all faded away one day. Not that they've ever agreed with us. They still won't talk to us. They avoid us if we're on the sidewalk, sometimes crossing the street to stay as far from us as possible. As if we had some contagious disease.”
“Which we do, if you think about it, Jules,” Deborah told her.
Julie looked puzzled. “We do?”
Deborah nodded and held her hands. “It's called love.”
They both smiled.
“I guess that's it, then,” I said and stopped the tape recording. “Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed and being so open with me.”
“You're welcome,” they both said.
As my boss had promised, the interview was there on the Dandridge Herald's front page the next morning.
I'm happy to say that no one ever threw tomatoes and/or toilet paper at my house afterward.