Black Umbrellas

By Jessie Atkin

California was lucky they'd seceded when they did since it rained so infrequently there. If only the rest of us didn't have to worry so often about the weather. The hardest-hit areas—Texas, North Dakota, Arizona, the South West in general—struggle a lot, which is quite a thing to say in a country like this. But the fact remains: you can only get help right after it rains. Who would have thought a woman would ever feel lucky being born in Louisiana or Alabama?  

Who would have thought, a mere decade ago, that we'd all grow to pray for rain, for thunder, for storms? Who would have guessed living in New York would be worse than living in Florida. The fact is, if you're waiting for it to rain, you're on a timeline, and Mother Nature, just like the United States, doesn't seem to care anymore about any of us. I'm one of the lucky ones. My timeline exists, but it hasn't run out yet. I've got a warehouse job starting in one week and, like all the female twenty-somethings before me, I understand what could happen when I step inside an environment largely inhabited by men. I need to protect myself.

That's why I'm out here in the dark, my one pair of shoes letting the slick upstate mud seep into my socks, trying to spot a black umbrella against a black sky. It won't really be up against the sky, it'll be sitting out on a front porch, or front step, or against a garage door, waiting to dry while welcoming me inside.

At least I don't have to travel from neighborhood to neighborhood; some women have no choice but to scour an entire county for an umbrella, with no guarantee one even exists. I have a neighborhood, named and designated by my cousin's boss's sister. Sometimes you have a connection to the chain and sometimes you don't. Crazy what we think is lucky these days.

There's no streetlight or lit doorbell, it's too expensive now to keep anything but a flame going in the night. I hunch into myself and squint at every faded number, every crumbling driveway. The air is heavy with precipitation and I know I have to find what I'm looking for before it starts raining again. Before the umbrellas are pulled back inside. My lungs feel oversaturated and it's hard to breathe. That may have nothing to do with the weather. It may just be me. Like some, I've never had to go hunting before. But I know the stories. 

I've heard of girls pulled over on the road before their fears can be fixed. Instead, they are exacerbated. Every worry they’ve ever had, in one moment, is again confirmed, every rumor proven, every reason verified. I've heard about women leaving the safety of a porch only to be beaten or killed for her efforts as soon as she reaches the street or, worse, her home. Many, many more are merely arrested. The newsmen tell us not to worry, not be scared. But we know better. We’ve always known. That's why the black umbrellas exist. It might be a new name, but it's an old system. We've always had to go underground to take care of our own.

I wonder if I will see a shadow, a line of women slipping through a door. I wonder if there will be anyone else. There are enough stories, but I don't suppose any of this would work if we caused a scene, made a spectacle, drew attention to ourselves. This is what they’ve always wanted—us quiet, seen when called for, but never heard. We're awfully quiet now, but that doesn't mean we’re sitting still.

I only see the umbrella because I'm looking for it. It's hidden in the night, in shadow, and at first, I'm not sure it's real. Perhaps, my mind is creating images. Perhaps I am alone. But no. The umbrella is there. It leans against the front door of a single-story ranch house. I cannot tell its coloring in the dark. I look over my shoulder, I hold my breath, I listen. But if anything is out on this wet and forlorn street in the dead of night, it has more experience than I do. I see and hear nothing. I approach the umbrella and the door. With a gloved finger, I press the doorbell and hear nothing.

Never knock, say the instructions, passed down from mother to daughter, mother to daughter—it's too conspicuous. A knock can be heard not just down a hall but down a street. A doorbell is only heard within. I wait. I wonder if the doorbell is working. I fear the umbrella, in the daylight, might not actually be black. Perhaps it really is merely sitting outside to dry now that the storm has passed.

I hold my breath. I wait for what feels like an age, then two. Finally, the door creaks open, pulled inward. A young girl, younger than me, a real girl, perhaps twelve, stands there, clad in red striped pajamas. She watches me from behind the screen between us. There is a nightlight on near her feet. The carpet beneath her slippers looks orange.

"Oh, I'm sorry," I whisper. "I must have—"

She holds a finger up to her lips. She pushes open the screen door and stands aside, allowing me to enter. Perhaps my hesitation is what she was waiting for. Perhaps, if she is the one to answer the door, anyone who is not supposed to be here—a police officer, a member of the FBI, a man—might also think he is in the wrong place.

She closes the door and leads me three steps down the hall. It is all I see of the house proper. She opens a door to a basement. The air below smells as if the wet air from outside has grown old in confinement. But there is a light at the bottom of rickety wooden stairs. An electric light. The stairs are really no more than planks, perhaps the girl and her parents nailed them down together. I nod to her in thanks, in silence. Silence is how this is to be done. We are used to being silent.

I descend the stairs. I do not hear the door close behind me. I can feel my heartbeat in my throat and hear the blood pulsing in my ears. I don't know if it's the light that shocks me, or the emptiness. The basement could be any other basement. It is unfinished, the floor is cement, the walls cinder blocks. Three women look up at me. One stands beside a workbench, though instead of saws and hammers it is covered in bottles, jars, and paper envelopes. She wears a nightgown. It is red, like the girl's pajamas. The other two women have hunched shoulders and wet feet. I recognize myself in the wideness of their eyes and the exhaustion in their faces. 

The woman in her nightgown turns back to the first woman. She hands her an envelope. "Brew it like a tea," she says.

"Just like tea?"

"Just like tea," she confirms.

The woman clutches the envelope to her chest and nods. This is all. She doesn't look at me as she steps back, though she does look around as if someone else could be watching us. As if this is a drug deal in a back alley instead of medicine being prescribed in a basement. As if we are here to buy things that will harm our bodies rather than preserve them. There is another door behind the workbench. She opens it and disappears. The next woman steps forward. I edge up behind her.

"Late or early?" the woman in the nightgown asks me. 

"Early," I reply.

She nods. "Two of the same then." 

I look at the woman beside me. She catches my eye and almost smiles. We are not alone, the almost smile says. If only we were allowed to smile. If only we could catch one another's eyes on the street.

The nightgowned woman pulls out two envelopes. They are smaller than the last one. "It's a six month supply," she says, handing one to each of us." Take one every night at the same time."

We nod in unison. I can feel small capsules rolling through the paper, caressing my palm.

"I'm sorry I cannot give you more," she says, ushering us to the other door. Beyond it is only darkness.

She's not the one who should be sorry. This moment was quick, but these years, these battles are long. Why should it be illegal to take medicine? But it is. It is illegal to be a woman, no matter what other words the newsmen use. They're not our words. They talk about life as if they understand what it is. How can they? They can't create it. That's why they're angry. That's why they want to control it. But we are alive already, and we have our own control. We find a way. Every time.