Down and Out in Flamingo Beach

"So what do you think about Quen getting married?" the woman asked, her eyes never leaving Joya's face.

Her ex-husband's wedding was not something Joya Hamill wished to discuss with a stranger. But the question had come out of left field, catching her totally off guard.

The woman had come up to her and her grandmother unexpectedly as they'd emerged from Flamingo Beach Baptist Church. The congregation of mostly African-Americans dressed in their Sunday finery stood catching up on town gossip. Joya had been gazing at the women in their elegant widebrimmed hats, stylish suits and hose, even though the temperature was well in the eighties, when the woman had swooped down.

Gathering out front was an after-service routine. Many came to church to see, be seen and catch up on Flamingo Beach's gossip. Later that afternoon these same people would be eating their lavish Sunday dinner while discussing the outfits and speculating on who was doing who. Everyone was fair game, and if you weren't up to snuff, guaranteed you would be trashed. As a result, the one Blackowned beauty shop in town did a thriving business on Saturday afternoons after paychecks were cashed.

When the church woman had first approached, Joya had thought she might be collecting for some charity, but she'd soon discovered that it was gossip she was after.

"And to Chere Adams at that," the woman continued. "I would have thought he'd would have gone for someone slimmer."

Mind you, the church lady was no lightweight herself. Now how to respond diplomatically without being rude? Not that she didn't deserve to be put in her place, but Flamingo Beach was a small town and it didn't pay to make enemies.

Joya let the warm Florida sunshine play over her cheeks. She tilted her head back, letting a balmy breeze ruffle her ponytail. She'd felt especially uplifted, even though it had been a lengthy Baptist service and the clapboard church had been warm and stuffy. She was a Catholic and used to a more somber mass. But she'd enjoyed the sermon because it was livelier than she was used to and the congregation took part. Joya had only gone because Granny J with her fractured ankle needed someone to drive her. And Joya just couldn't say no to Granny.

Joya continued looking around her. Granny J was engrossed in conversation with a customer who'd bought one of her quilts and didn't know how to launder it. But Joya knew she was still tuned into this conversation. The old lady's hearing was sharper than that of most people half her age. At seventy-five she didn't miss a thing.

"You must feel awful," the woman persisted, her eyes darting over to the area where Quen Abrahams, Joya's ex-husband, and his fiancée, Chere, were chatting with Jen St. George and her radio-personality husband, with whom she'd eloped. The two had scrapped an elaborate wedding and gone on a cruise. They'd gotten married at one of the ports of call.

"If you'll excuse me, I need to take my grandmother home," Joya said, attempting to walk away.

The woman made no attempt to move. She leaned in as if exchanging confidences, "Everyone knows that woman is Ian Pendergrass's ho."

Joya needed to put a stop to it now. She wasn't happy that Quen was remarrying, but not for the reasons most people thought. Quen getting married again was a reminder of just how single and without viable prospects she was. Flamingo Beach did not have the types of men Joya wanted. It was much too laid-back and too provincial. The moment Granny J's ankle healed and she was given a clean bill of health, Joya was out of here.

"I need to get off my feet, hon," Granny J said, breaking into the conversation. Her grandmother linked an arm through hers. "You'll have to excuse us, dear."

Granny J's fractured ankle in its soft cast was mending just fine. Yesterday she'd been out and about shopping for hours. Joya knew that the grandmother she'd been named after was just trying to get her out of an awkward and insensitive situation.

"We do have to leave," Joya said diplomatically.

"Will I see you at Quen and Chere's wedding?"

Looking visibly deflated, the churchwoman sputtered, "You're invited? You couldn't possibly be thinking of attending?"

Granny J, sensing Joya was about to lose it, tugged on her arm. "Honey, we really must go, my ankle is beginning to throb."

Joya wished the woman a nice day, and she and Granny J walked away. Out of earshot she said, "Thank you, Gran, for saving the day. I was one step away from cussing her out."

"Not even worth it." Granny continued smiling and nodding at the people she knew, which was everyone. They picked their way through the crowd, heading toward a Lincoln Continental parked in the handicapped spot. The car was way too big and Joya hated it, but Granny J preferred a lot of padding around her.

"Just in case my reflexes fail me, dear and I get into an accident."

Both Joya and Granny J were petite—maybe five feet two inches on a good day. Joya always wore heels and Granny J had a good fifty pounds on Joya. The younger woman had a milk-chocolate complexion. Her grandmother's was a smidgen darker. They both had gray eyes. Because of weight and the fractured ankle, Granny was a little slower in gait. She'd refused to use the cane the doctor had given her, stating, "Only old geezers use canes, and I am not an old geezer."

Truthfully, nothing was wrong with Granny's faculties. She could remember the history behind every quilt she'd ever made. Her memory went way back, and her unlined face made people who didn't know her believe she was at least a decade younger.

Joya depressed the remote button on the car's key chain. She was trying to hold the door open with one hip, and settle Granny J in the front when a deep male voice came from behind her.

"Hey, be happy to help you ladies."

Joya turned to see a towering, dark-complexioned man standing behind her. Though he looked as though he might be hewn from a rock, he was dressed in a gray suit, white shirt and red tie. He looked powerful. Joya surmised that he too had attended the church service. How come she hadn't seen him inside?

Yes, the church was packed, and they'd been seated in the pew up front that the Hamills had paid dues on for years!still!

Joya smiled at the man. "Thanks, that would really be appreciated." She relinquished the car door to his care.

His answering smile was a flash of white against ebony. His skin was smooth as velvet and his eyes were the color of toffee. His cheekbones were two slashes on the sides of his face, and his nostrils flared slightly. He was what her grandmother would call a hunk. She thought he was hot. Sizzling.

He held the door and waited until Granny J got settled, then in an easy movement he went around to the driver's side and held the door for Joya. "Thanks, Derek," Granny J said twiddling her fingers at him. "Be sure to give my best to Belle."

"Thank you," Joya added after she'd slid into the driver's seat. She caught his smile and realized how ridiculous she must look sitting on one of Granny's quilted pillows so that her feet could reach the pedals.

Derek, whatever his last name was, stood back watching them. Joya made sure Granny J had her seat belt on—the old lady had a tendency not to wear it— before starting up the car.

She waved to the Derek person and thanked him again.

"Step on it," Granny J ordered. "I have quilting to do."

Joya carefully backed out of the handicapped spot. "Am I suppose to know Derek?" she asked as they headed back to Granny J's Craftsman-style home which also served as her shop.

"He's Belle Carter's great-grandson. His name is Derek Morse."

Joya knew who Belle was. Everyone in Flamingo Beach knew the almost centenarian. She was going to be the same age as the town, and although she could no longer walk, her memory was right up there with Granny J's.

"Hmmm," Joya said, keeping her eye on the road, "I didn't know your friend Belle had grandsons that were professionals."

Granny J said nothing. Joya could tell her mind had returned to the quilt she was working on. Her grandmother lived to make quilts and she was always designing one quilt or another in her head. She'd taught Joya the skill when she was very young. While most kids were out playing, Joya sat in Granny J's shop brainstorming one Afrocentric pattern after another while listening to the history of the roles African-American women played in quilt-making and design.

They were on Flamingo Row now, otherwise known as The Row. It was where Granny J had always lived. Now it was considered the historical district and more and more stores were opening up. The narrow tree-lined streets had mostly Craftsmanstyle homes. Several of the owners lived in the back rooms or in separate buildings behind their shops. Flamingo Row was the street the town had been created around.

Joya parked the car at the side entrance and came around to help Granny J out.

"You'll be back for dinner," the older woman said, making it more a statement than a question.

"Of course I will.You know I never pass up a roast." She escorted the old lady inside and helped her out of her church clothes and into a comfortable cotton shift. Granny stuck one foot into a sneaker, poured herself a beer—a Sunday indulgence—grabbed a brown-paper bag of pork rinds, and took a seat in front of her big-screen TV with the remote. She picked up the quilt she'd been working on and examined it closely.

"I just don't get why someone as homely as Elda would want to put her mug on this." She was referring to the fact that her customer had insisted on having her features on every other block of the quilt. Granny had tried to dissuade her but Elda was the customer, and paying big money at that, so Granny had dutifully had the image transferred to the material as she'd wanted.

"I'll see you at four," Joya said letting herself out. She drove the Lincoln Continental across town, struggling to keep the huge automobile on the road and hating every minute of it. She much preferred her compact BMW convertible. In it she felt pretty and carefree. In the Lincoln she just felt old. She was thirty-three although she'd been told she barely looked twenty-one. Still she was getting up there, and if she was going to make any real money, she needed to do something about an alternative career, things being what they were with the airlines these days. Right before leaving L.A., she'd enrolled in an interior-design class. But she'd put that on hold.