My name is Willow Wood. In Indiana coal country, my surname is not unusual. Willow and Wood. Two trees. Because I cry easily, my family calls me Weeping Willow. Weeping Willow Wood. That’s me.
All the Wood men worked the mines before they were shut. My father would come home covered in coal dust, his face blackened. In good weather, he would stand behind the fence in the back yard, strip down and wash himself with the hose and a bar of Ivory soap. At first, the wet dust would cement to his skin, then fall off like scabs, revealing the clean pinkness underneath. His hair mutated from black to chestnut. Then, grabbing a towel, he would dry himself with quick rough strokes.
After he changed into the laundered and ironed jeans and shirt my mother had left for him, he would come into the house for a beer and dinner. It was late. He worked twelve hour shifts. If he was tired and scowled at me for not giving him even five minutes peace before pestering him, I wept. Weeping Willow.
After the mines closed, there were no jobs. While my father drank his unemployment check, I was studying hard in high school, getting all As, focusing on getting into college. Escape was on everyone’s mind among the kids I knew. The choices were college, the military, or simply driving an old beat-up Chevy with three-hundred thousand miles on the odometer as far as it could go before sputtering out. Wherever that was, they might find a job. Unless, like my younger sister, they got themselves pregnant at fifteen and forever after lived with parents in a trailer park destined for destruction when the next tornado hit.
The acceptance letter from the university arrived in April of my senior year. There was no scholarship. Strangely, it was only a provisional acceptance. I would be required to pass remedial writing and math classes. None of my teachers could understand why the class valedictorian, who had excelled in high school, would have to take remedial anything.
But I was just happy to be moving away and starting my new life. Tears of excitement dribbled down to my chin, along with tears of sadness for leaving my mother, knowing the hard years were not behind her and even worse years were just beginning.
I moved into the least expensive, oldest dorm at the end of the summer. It was not well-maintained. My room-mate, Marti, was from rural Indiana, like me. We both had long wavy brown hair and dark complexions. Marti’s thick eyebrows met just above her nose, and she had a faint mustache, like the other Italian women in her clan. When we unpacked our well-worn, unfashionable clothing, it drove home what else we already knew—we were both from poor families who wouldn’t be helping us with tuition or expenses. We joked about paying off student loans for the rest of our lives.
Even though her high school grades were worse than mine, Marti had a standard acceptance.
“Your’s is provisional? It has to be a mistake,” she said.
“What should I do?”
“I say start at the top. Go to the President or the top Dean. Stand up for yourself. If you start those remedial classes, I bet you’ll be stuck there. And it will be on your record. The ignorant miner’s daughter too dumb to spell or add.” Marti had more confidence than I did.
While she spent the next two days decorating the dorm room and exploring the campus, I went from office to office, trying to find someone to tell me what happened.
“You should have asked for an inquiry the previous April. Your high school administrator should have sent a letter. I’m afraid it’s too late for an appeal this semester. You will have to take the remedial classes,” I was told.
“Can’t I test out or something?” I had a lump in my throat.
“Not if you’re provisional.”
With tears streaming, I began my college career. Although the remedial classes were ridiculously easy, I was fearful that another mistake, like an erroneously entered failing grade, could destroy my future. Leaving home had already shaken me. In part, I wanted to drop out and return to my family. But then I would be a failure, nothing but a Weeping Willow.
Meanwhile, the student directory had been emailed to all of us.
“Oh my God!” Marti yelled. “There’s two of you!”
Quickly opening the document, I saw that there was indeed a second Willow Wood.
“Two Willow Woods? What are the chances of that! Willow is not an everyday girl’s name. And Wood—not rare but not common like Smith or Jones. Maybe they just put you down twice,” Marti said.
But one Willow Wood, me, was listed at being from my hometown. The other was from Indianapolis. Our dorms and phone numbers were different. It seemed that there were two Willow Woods.
“Do you think you two are related?”
“All the Woods of Indiana are probably related if you go back far enough. We could be, like, fifteenth cousins or something.”
“I bet the other one should have been the provisional acceptance. The letters mixed you up with her.”
By this time, I was sobbing. I wonder if my counterpart was also a Weeping Willow.
I went back to the offices I had been to on the day I arrived. I was told that it was against university policy to reveal any admission details about another student without the other student’s written permission. If the other student were to sign a Release of Information form, perhaps my questions could be answered.
“I say we pay a visit to this second Willow Wood. If she is an honest person, she will sign the form,” Marti said. “Anyway, you have nothing to lose.”
“She’s the one with something to lose. If they’ve mixed us up, she’s the one who should be taking remedial classes.”
“Regular classes are too hard for a student who needs remedial. You might save her from flunking out.” Her single eyebrow raised.
I was glad to have my out-spoken roomie supporting me. Without her, I might have despaired. She help me understand that this was more than a mix-up. It was an injustice. It had to be righted.
Marti had a plan.
“Tonight, I’ll go to the other Willow Wood’s dorm. I’ll tell her I’m looking for someone with a name like hers, but probably not her. Someone I knew from high school. Then I’ll apologize for disturbing her and leave. That way, I can check her out before we both talk to her.”
A few hours later, Marti returned. Unusually for her, she hesitated and didn’t look at me. She fiddled with her phone.
“What? Tell me.”
“So, I saw the other Willow Wood. I didn’t speak to her. Just saw her. She’s black.”
“Yeah. She’s black.”
One of my non-remedial classes was 20th Century History of Civil Rights. A few hours before, I had seen a video from the 1960s of the National Guard spraying black demonstrators with high-pressure hoses. The water struck with the force of a hammer blow. Many who were hit collapsed. Some were hit in the back as they ran. The mostly white class watched in silence.
“Did your family own slaves before the Civil War? Is that how you would up with the same last name?”
“My family? They were like yours. Coal miners. They didn’t own slaves. They were only a small step up from slavery themselves.”
Marti was texting and talking to me at the same time.
“You said all the Woods are related. Possibly, the other Willow Wood is part of your family.”
“How else would her first name be Willow? Aren’t most kids named after someone in the older generation? Maybe there’s a Willow Wood you are both named after.”
Tears streaked down my cheeks. The people I grew up with were all white. I had never given much thought to racism. It came to me like the strike of an axe.
I don’t want to be related to a black girl.
Marti was still texting. Without looking up she said, “Look. I’ve got to go meet someone. Maybe we can talk later.”
Immediately, she left. Was she pulling away from me because the other Willow Wood was black?
I paced around the limited area of the dorm room, sobbing out loud, not caring if other residence hall students could hear. I made fists to stop myself from tearing at my face, my dark skin, coal mine skin, dark-white skin, almost brown skin, skin that could have come down from a black great-grandparent.
Then I remembered. Sometimes my father would say when he was a boy, he was called “Black Dutch.” All the kids from families with swarthy coloring were called that. The Black Dutch kids would fight with the blonder Swedish kids. But Black Dutch people were still white, weren’t they? Now I wasn’t sure.
The university treated me like a minority student, assuming I was lazy or stupid. That was why I was in remedial classes, even though I was smart in high school. Or thought I was smart. A war within me had begun. I was ashamed of my shame. My shame was proof of my racism.
There was no opportunity to have a black friend in my home town. Now, I noticed African-Americans at the university. Or I noticed them in order to stay away from them. They were different from me. That’s what I thought.
Without a plan, I left the dorm and wandered around the campus. In the Student Union building, groups were hanging out in the lounges and cafeteria. Several black kids were sitting around one of the tables. I sat at an empty table nearby. They didn’t pay attention to me. Until they left, I watched them.
Am I one of you? Is that who I am?
Feeling nauseous, I raced to the bathroom and vomited in one of the stalls. While washing my face, I took a hard look in the mirror. My face seemed darker that when I last looked. It could have been a white face but it might have been a bi-racial face. Maybe it had always been almost black but I didn’t want to admit it.
Typically, I would have been crying by now. But I was dry-eyed. I remembered what Marti had said. Something unfair was happening. An injustice. It needed to be righted. Someone wronged me. In the mirror, I saw my my nostrils flare. Indignation was replacing shame. Back outside, it was dark. A clock-tower chimed twelve tones—midnight. Walking aimlessly, I picked up a rock from the landscaping. The President’s colonnaded house was nearby. I made my way around to the back. A large conservatory stretched the length of the rear. I launched the rock. It shattered a window. An alarm went off. I walked away.
The next morning, there was a knock on the door of our room. Marti wasn’t there. She had stayed out all night. It was the campus police. They waited while I dressed, then drove me to the security building. I was told that an infrared camera had taken a video of me throwing the rock. I was invited to see it.
“Yes. That’s me. Willow Wood. I broke the window.”
That same morning, I was suspended from school. The campus police escorted me to my room, watched while I packed, and drove me to the bus station. Marti never showed up.
I sat in the station mulling everything over. The provisional acceptance. The remedial classes. The suspension. The betrayal. Everyone would know. Marti would tell them. I would be the laughing stock of my class.
Buses came and went. The other Willow Wood had taken everything from me—my hopes, my college career, my future. It might as well have been her throwing that rock. Somehow, she had made me do it. Marti was probably in on it. Marti was probably with her that very minute, making fun of me, calling me Black Dutch.
Leaving my luggage and purse on the bus station bench, I walked back to campus. It was a long way. When I passed store windows, my reflection kept appearing darker.
I am toppling. Soon I will be dead. I will kill myself.
The tallest building in the university was the graduate student dorm, on the far side of the campus. I would go to the top floor, find an open window, and fling myself out. My teeth chattered.
Up ahead, a group of students were standing on the path. They were all African-American. Black. They looked my way. They were laughing. They were glad I was going to die. I looked around for a rock to throw at them. There on the ground lay a hose. It must have been left by a groundskeeper. The ground was wet around the nozzle. The water had not been turned off.
I picked it up and turned the nozzle to “jet”. Then I aimed it at the students and pulled the nozzle trigger. I got Willow Wood right in the back as she tried to escape.
Carolyn Geduld is a mental health professional in Bloomington, Indiana. Her fiction has appeared in The Writing Disorder, Pennsylvania Literary Review, Persimmon Tree, Not Your Mother's Breastmilk, Dime Store Review, Dual Coast (Prolific Press), Otherwise Engaged, and several others. Her novel Take Me Out the Back will be published in August, 2020. Carolyn recommends the Southern Poverty Law Center.