Over the Pass

Sweet Creek is a story of love, community, and the changing tides of time set in a town where trannies, lesbian cops, aging gay hippies, womyn's landers and rural couples come in search of a lesbian paradise. Two left over lesbian hippies, now in their 50's, Donny and Chick run the vegetarian Natural Woman Foods store. In Donny, a black lesbian and Chick, her lover, Lee Lynch continues to depict the struggles of working class butch lesbians and femmes.


Over the Pass

Chick was serving Clara and Hector White when the two city girls, hurrying out of the chilly December fog, tripped down the worn wooden step that led into the store. One newcomer cried out, "Hola! Somebody's going to get totaled on this thing!" The other looked up, lifted her backwards ball cap, ran a hand through her flattop hair, and grinned, looking sheepish.

Hector's brown eyes moved quickly away when they met Chick's. She knew he was trying to keep from laughing. Tourists were the only ones who didn't know about the step, and tourists, to Hector, were an endless source of mirth.

Chick had been tempted to do something about that step when she and Donny opened Natural Woman Foods on the edge of the town of Waterfall Falls eight years ago, but hadn't because it evoked for her the three-generation feed business that had preceded them in that old building. Sometimes, alone in the store with the hanging plants that festooned all the big windows, local handmade quilts suspended from the rafters, and a lazy fly looking for a way into the bakery case, she'd dream the stagecoach was on its way north from the port of San Francisco, coming over Blackberry Pass, laden with hungry passengers who'd seen a rainbow end somewhere on Stage Street.

Waterfall Falls, granted its first post office in 1861, now prided itself in year 2000 on its frontier character-and characters. Chick supposed she was one of them-a leftover gay hippie turned shopkeeper, she thought as she approached the booth Clara and Hector were sharing. She set down Clara's smoothie and salad and a sandwich for Hector, and waited for his teasing complaints. After eight years, she'd heard them all a dozen times each, if not about her food, then about Clara's cooking whenever she and Donny were persuaded to go for lunch or dinner out at the Whites' little ranch.

"You gave me the works again, Chick," Hector accused, examining sprouts that bulged from the bun like the fuzzy gray hair from under a cap that read, "A bad day fishin' is better than a good day workin'." Chick sold only wrapped sandwiches prepared by two enterprising women with a catering business in Greenhill.

"You eat that," Clara said brusquely.

Clara was too big for the booth, with legs that reminded Chick of small trees, shoulders that supported what would be respectable branches on any other trunk, and an incongruous pouf of home-permed white hair. Chick had scavenged the tall wooden booths, carved graffiti and all, from an auction and added two small round tables with mismatched chairs that she'd found at garage sales.

Hector, who matched Clara's six foot, one inch plus a basketball stomach, winked. "She thinks this rabbit feed will keep me jumping every time she gets a case of the honey-dos."

He took about a third of the burger in one bite and chewed it fast, biting off another piece like a ravenous woodsman. Clara was decorously removing her teeth into a napkin. She slid them into her coat pocket.

Chick checked over her shoulder for the city girls. The taller pale one in the cap rifled through bags of blue corn chips, jouncing a little to the electronic CD she played. The other, darker woman moved her fingers over an earth-mother image in the gift section. Both their bodies were turned away from the tableau at the booth, but broadcast alertness.

Outside, an empty wood chip truck rattled by. Until the rains started again, she guessed the mills would run at least two shifts. That would save a few jobs, but she'd come to dislike this time of year with its still, inverted air and an unnatural dryness that nurtured nothing but the decorative cabbages Donny had in her planters out front. This year the inversion had kept them fogged in for weeks. The whole town smelled like a pulp mill, and the air felt like suspended ice crystals that stung to walk through, as if the interrupted rain had frozen in place. People with allergies had trouble drawing breath and people with asthma were hospitalized. Burn barrels and old woodstoves filled the air with so many particulates that a warning system had been devised up in Greenhill-on "red" days only those with no other source of heat could burn.

She and Donny had traded in the huge old Earth Stove that had come with the building and put in a smaller, "high-tech" model which claimed to burn fuel four times-she had to laugh at what rural Northwesterners considered to be high tech. Chick missed the rain and feared global warming. She quickly banned such thoughts from her mind out of fear that her old depression would seep back into her, like this nasty constant fog seeped into walls.

She realized that Hector was waiting for her response and asked, "Honeydews?"

He was an always laughing, stalwart seventy-two. One leg jutted out from under the table, stiff from a logging accident. "Oh, you know," he said straight-faced, "honey do this for me, honey fix that?" His high-pitched machine gun laugh was a little ridiculous on a big mature man, but it was clearly genuine, shaking his whole body and rocking him, when standing, heel to toe.

Clara threw a cherry tomato at him. Hector caught it and popped it in his mouth.

The city girls had moved to the bakery case. They looked tiny compared to the old couple. Chick counted eleven piercings between them, that she could see, including a diamond-studded nostril.

"What's she do when she's got to sneeze?" Hector wondered aloud. By the look on his face, his question was real if rude.

Clara speared a squint at the city girls. "When I was that age, girls still wore white gloves to go downtown."

"We're about to start our second year in a new century," said Hector. "Like it or not, Mrs. White, New Year's Eve is only twenty days away."

Clara said, "We need to celebrate surviving the first year of that," with a gesture toward the city girls.

"I used to celebrate New Year's," said Chick. "Now I'd rather be sound asleep by the time midnight arrives."

"You and me both," Hector agreed. "But my party girl here always likes to start the new year awake."

"You know why. We need to be out with the animals when the fireworks scare them."

"You get fireworks out there?"

Hector told Chick, "You'd think it was the Fourth of July. That farm a ways up the mountain-I don't see any farming going on up there."

Clara interjected, "Maryjane. I bet you dollars to donuts it's maryjane they're farming. That's what they call it, you know."

Chick was afraid she'd burst out laughing. These were good people, Clara and Hector, but stuck in the days of Reefer Madness.

The darker, shorter city girl was inspecting the little goddess figurine in her hand. The fidgeter in the cap rolled a cold bottle of ginger beer between her hands as if she'd burned them. Chick couldn't tolerate their discomfort and wended her way to them, smiling when she noticed the way the fidgety woman was checking out her skirt-switching walk. It was how the women in Chick's family all walked, and she'd never regretted the attention it drew. She'd tested the mettle of a hundred butches by noting how frankly they watched her fat and provocative approach. She'd chosen a few lovers for their honest admiration.

"You two are a sight for sore eyes," she said with her gurgle of a laugh, her mother's laugh.

The woman who'd complained about the step had a hank of shoe-polish black hair overhanging the left side of miniscule sunglasses. She was the color of a tanned white person or maybe someone from Mexico. Her gaze was direct and challenging, yet her lips seemed set in an almost-smile that promised-Chick couldn't tell what, just that they promised. She wore a black turtleneck, a short black leather jacket, black slacks, and black thick-soled Doc Martens.

She stabbed toward the chocolate cookies with a slender finger. "Some of those." In answer to Chick's appraising look she added, "Please."

Chick eased a box of pastry papers toward them, and, with a finger tipped in glossy red nail polish, she slowly tapped the box, purring, "Help yourselves. Donny just baked them. Tuesday's cookie day."

"We'll remember that." The fidgeter set down the ginger beer and took off her cap to run her hands through her cropped hair again. She was dressed in over-sized cargo pants and a long-sleeved T-shirt emblazoned with a Day-Glo green kangaroo on a skateboard. She gave Chick an endearingly bashful grin as she reached to the post at the end of the bakery case and lifted a matching Day-Glo green Natural Woman Foods baseball cap from a display. She molded the brim until it was shaped like her other hat, then set it on her head and met Chick's eyes.

"Oh," Chick said. The blue of the woman's eyes seemed to leap out at her. Chick savored again the innocent surprise she'd seen earlier in those eyes as she sashayed to the bakery case. They always thought they didn't want a fat woman; Chick liked to change their minds. She'd begun making her own clothes long before plus sizes, when she was that rare creature, a lesbian flower-child in Chicago, then in San Francisco. She loved silken midnight blues, velvety deep greens, gauzy cottons wild with oversized flowers. She loved to see the look that came into her Donny's eyes at the sight of them.

She settled her cushiony bottom on the upholstered stool by the cash register and, trying to cool the excitement in her voice a little, asked, "You will be staying around here, won't you?"

Shoe-polish hair hesitated for a split second, then gave Chick a sudden brilliant, white-toothed smile that changed any assumptions she'd been about to make about the woman. Chick felt like she did when, in late afternoons on rainy days, the sun breaks through the clouds. "I'm Katie. This is Jeep."

"You've got good taste in women, Katie. I'm Chick Pulaski." With a laugh she added, "Like the highway. My father always said we owned it and-if we had a car-we could use it anytime we wanted-like everyone else in Chicago."

Jeep sauntered closer to ask, "Could we ask you for-ah-"

But Hector appeared at the counter, fishing through his billfold. "Hey, Chick," he asked, "why would a waiter rather serve six gals from LA bellyaching about Northwest rain than one from Waterfall Falls?"

Chick tried to glower at him. "Don't run these women off with your homemade riddles, Hector. I'd like them to stick around."

"Give a man a chance! Can you guess? It's because he'd get six times as much money!" He winked at Katie and Jeep. The man, thought Chick, would never learn lesbian rules.

"I only laugh because Hector's riddles are so pitiful," Chick told the new women.

Hector did a quick awkward shuffle from the counter and opened the door for three old women-two in Natural Woman Foods baseball caps (one neon yellow, the other neon pink), running shoes, and lined plaid flannel shirts stuffed into overall; the third in a skirt and cardigan sweatshirt embroidered with smiley faces-her hair, underneath a transparent plastic rain scarf, tinted blonde and beauty-parlor coiffed.

"Vivian! Myrtle!" called Clara. "Look at you, Naomi. I can't believe your little grandson's getting married this weekend."

"I need double ginkgo and glucosamine," Naomi explained, throwing wide her arms. "We leave for Coeur d'Alene in the morning."

Clara and her friends all talked at once as they headed for the vitamins via the day-old bakery specials.

"Gawd," Katie said when they were out of earshot. "I have never had so many retired breeders with motorized motels stuck in front of my car than on the trip up from the Bay Area!"

Jeep leaned over the counter and with a low voice said, "Solstice told us to stop here. She said you could give us directions to the women's land?" Laughing, she added, "Do you know how much that sounds like 'the promised land'?"

While the fog dampened the town outside, the smells from the baked goods case saturated the shop with cinnamon and warm honey perfume. Through the window Chick saw Sheriff Sweet, on horseback, ambling down Stage Street. The sheriff lifted her hat to the town councilman who doubled as the town barber and stood outside his shop. The sheriff generally ambled around town once or twice a week to exercise her horse and stay visible. The Chamber of Commerce provided free stabling because the tourists enjoyed this glimpse of the Old West and the shopkeepers appreciated such close monitoring. The sheriff only had one full-time deputy and ran things mainly with reserves. Donny was a proud reserve deputy.

"Who is that?" Katie asked, pushing her sunglasses down her nose. "I would so love to do a piece and call it, 'When the Law is a Lesbian.'"

"Our sheriff. Don't go pulling her covers."

Strangers were a treat, but some brought along a dangerous disdain for local customs. The long-closeted lesbians of Waterfall Falls were only in the past few years timidly mixing with some of the more established dyke immigrants who'd moved there during the early 1970s. During the northwest anti-gay ballot measure wars, the lesbian community had become increasingly visible and the Claras and Hectors had come to a startled acceptance of its members when they realized who their good if odd neighbors of twenty to thirty years really were.

Katie's manner made Chick cautious about giving these girls directions to women's land, but then she remembered that her own habitual come-on ways weren't much different from the sunglasses and haughtiness that were Katie's mask.

"We're lucky enough to have four of them in the county, and three more south of here. You probably want the bigger ones that have camping? That would be Dawn Farm or Spirit Ridge."

"Where Solstice lives," Jeep supplied, jingling her pocket change to excavate a folded slip of paper. "Spirit Ridge," she read.

Chick gave a helpless sweep of her arms. "I don't want to get you sweet visitors lost. The directions are pretty complicated."

Katie pulled pen and pad from a belt pack. "I find places for a living. Give me directions; we'll get there."

"That's city directions, honey. Here, I'd recommend catching up to your neighbors."

"Neighbors?" asked Jeep. "Did you ever think about that? Nay-bores?"

"It took me a minute," said Chick, laughing. "You're a punster. I guess you could have worse vices. But really, Clara and Hector are wonderful people. They'll lead you home."

Jeep stared at her.

"Don't look at me like I'm offering you as a sacrifice to straight rural America, good-looking," Chick said.

Katie removed her dark glasses altogether, eyes narrowed myopically, naked with alarm. "They know where the women's land is?"

Chick laid her fingers on Jeep's sleeve. "Follow them, honey. If you turn off on a muddy logging road by mistake, I don't think you'd be up for asking directions of some grubby guy killing Port Orford cedars with a chain saw."

"Gross." Jeep slowly pulled her arm away, like Chick's fiery fingertips could melt her bravado. Chick was reminded of Donny's butch arrogance back in Chicago-like Jeep's, only more so.

When Clara came to check out, Chick asked if the visitors could follow her.

"That would be no trouble," Clara said without hesitation. "You stick close behind Mr. White and me, girls. We're in the brown pickup with the volunteer fire sticker on the bumper. We'll let you know where to turn to head up the mountain. It'll be Northeast Blackberry Mountain Road you want." She paused and squinted at Katie. "You've got a four-wheel drive and heavy-duty windshield wipers, don't you?"

"Heavy-duty?" Jeep asked.

"You won't be on any super highway," Clara warned.

Katie took Jeep's arm. "We're going to be okay. My little Honda can do anything."

"I hope you're right," huffed Clara. "You could sit for a week on one of those gravel roads before someone came by. Or longer if you slide off into a canyon."

After Clara left, Chick filled a bag with the blue corn chips, the goddess figure, the chocolate cookies, and two organic sodas. She told the newcomers, "Clara's one of those doom and gloom people. You'll want to drive carefully, but we've been going up to Spirit Ridge for years in Donny's little pickup."

She was about to make change when Jeep said, "Wait!" and asked Katie, "Should we bring real food? I mean, they may eat weird stuff like tofu and brown rice."

Chick watched their quandary.

"I don't think we can ask those people if we can stop for McDonalds on the way," said Katie.

"There isn't one," Chick told them, laughing.

"You're shitting me, right?" Jeep asked.

Chick shook her head. "And the women on the mountain are every last one vegetarian, some more strict than others. You could bring some Gardenburgers up with you."

"Retch," said Katie. "Sorry, I don't do frozen compost." She grabbed two boxes of macaroni and cheese from a display at the end of the counter. "We won't starve."

A horn sounded outside. "I think that's your pilot car."

Katie and Jeep hurried across the old wood floor in their heavy shoes. Katie carefully maneuvered the step. Jeep, trying to open the bag of chips, stumbled up the step. She turned and gave them that embarrassed grin again. This time Chick noticed the dimple it put in her cheek.

She watched through a window as the city girls clambered into the Honda-insolent with bumper stickers-then took off after the rusted-out pickup. She gurgled a laugh again and felt an expanding warmth in her chest. It was good Donny wasn't the jealous type, the way she fell in love with every butchy new lesbian in town. Within moments, though, she felt her excitement fade and the familiar melancholy start to gather inside her chest like rolling San Francisco fog.

Goddess, she hated this. She was so content here with Donny. Her life had finally come together like a story with a happy ending. Why did the dim moods, another family trait, return each winter? She used to fix herself by getting high, but marijuana had turned against her years ago, filling her with ugly fears instead of peace. Now she got high on the little joys of life, like the appearance of a couple of new girls in town.

She forced laughter and said aloud, "I hope they're not too cool to thank the Whites."

Donny, who with her dog Loopy had been perched high up in the shadows of the narrow stairway to their apartment for some time, said, "Gayfeathers. It'll be a while before they remember their manners."

Chick laughed again and walked to the stairs. On her haunches, Donny scuttled down a few steps. Chick reached under the rail for Donny's hand. She remembered how Donny had nurtured some gayfeather plants all the way from a community garden in Chicago. A gathering of them thrived in their little plot out back of the store, nodding their flowers at the slightest summer breeze, like wild purple flags of encouragement. Donny had taken to calling gay newcomers to Waterfall Falls "gayfeathers." She squeezed Donny's cool hand in her own.

"Those two remind me of us when we first came," Donny said. "We thought we wanted to be country too. Remember when we found out that we got only two snowy TV channels and there was no Chinese restaurant up the street? They may go running to Clara and Hector to get rescued once they find out they're going to have to cook that mac and cheese on a woodstove."

"Or not," Chick said, moving back behind the checkout counter to slide onto her stool and pull an order book out from under a stack of recycled paper bags. "Neither of these gayfeathers looks like she'll scare off easy."

"Maybe," Donny conceded. "But I wouldn't look for them to stick it out side by side."

"I guess we'll see, honeybunch."

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