4thWrite Prize 2023: Bleach by Liberty Martin

Kansas, 1965

Whenever they would wheel out Miss Stain Away at the Easter parade I would think to myself, I
could do that. Half them white women ain’t even that pretty, they just look the part. Blonde hair,
blue eyes, long stick legs. Their bodies ain’t got no real shape, they ain’t got no lips. My skin is
more brown but people ask me all the time if I got Indian in me (which I do). And I got good hair.
You can’t see it now ‘cause it’s tied up but I got long hair, past my shoulders, and it moves.

It was about seven years ago that I decided to try for the beauty pageant. Yeah, seven years,
‘cause I was 19. Stain Away started in Allen, which is why they started sponsoring the pageant
and made it big in Kansas. Matter of fact, a lotta negroes moved up to Allen to work in the Stain
Away factories back in the day. Anyway, the pageant was a big deal here, ever since my mama
was a girl. You didn’t win no money but you got a lifetime supply of Stain Away cleaning
products and you’d be the face of the brand until the next pageant the following year. And you
were the star of the parade, of course. It was the kind of thing little girls looked up to, and the
prettiest little white girls knew that it could be their ticket. Get out of state, move around in
different circles, maybe even make a name for yourself. One girl starred in some commercials,
lives in Hollywood now (or so they say).

I didn’t want no fame, just options. It’s hard, getting out of Allen. I was learning how to type to be
a secretary, and I got an accountant to teach me some things, but I didn’t wanna do that forever.
I don’t know nobody who been to college. Sure, you can hop on a train and go wherever, but I
like to have a plan. I like to know where I’m going and what I’m doing. I thought, maybe if I could
get my picture and name out there as the first black contestant in an all white pageant, then
someone would ask me to go somewhere.

I also wanted to see if I could, you know? So I checked the fine print, read it front ways and
back ways, and there wasn’t no rule that said negroes can’t apply. Of course, there didn’t need
to be. I’d just be the first black girl to do it. All you had to do was fill out a form from the back
pages of the newspaper, write an essay, and send everything in with a photograph.

The photograph was the biggest hurdle. I knew a boy, Roger Gordon, who was a real whizz. I
met him in high school ‘cause we had to do a science project together. He made some crazy
invention and I did the calculations to make it work ‘cause I’m good at math. Roger had an
obsession with photos and tinkered with cameras, breaking them apart and putting them back
together, adding things to them. He made a dark room, I think it’s called, out yonder in
somebody’s abandoned outhouse. I figured he had a little thing for me, as local boys do, so I
asked him to take my photograph.

Now, luckily the pageant didn’t ask for a professional photograph. Even a cut out from a
yearbook would do, but I knew I had to be tactical. I needed to take the picture in such a way
that I didn’t look negro but exotic, like Sicilian or something. So I asked Roger, could you take
my picture so that my skin looks paler but you can still see my face? He said we can try. So he
tinkered with how the camera takes in light, we found old torches and shone them on my face,
and we messed about with different things until we developed the right kind of photo. It needed
to be light enough to be exotic, but not so light that you couldn’t see my face, and true enough
so that it didn’t look manipulated. We got one, just one, that balanced all those things. And then
I sent off my application.

I didn’t tell nobody I was applying and I made Roger swear not to tell no one. I didn’t want
nobody telling me “I told you so” if I didn’t get selected. But I did. And it was so much better
telling folks that I already got in than it would’ve been telling them that I was gonna apply. It was
even better showing them the acceptance letter when they didn’t believe me. A girlfriend told
me, if anybody was gonna do it, it would be you.

A few people asked me why I didn’t enter the negro pageant, my parents included. (Oh yeah,
you know about the negro pageant, right? Same thing but without the Stain Away sponsor.) I
said I had won little black pageants when I was a girl. I was homecoming queen junior and
senior year. I wanted to try something different. My daddy was annoyed ‘cause he didn’t want to
go to a pageant with all them white folks. Which is fair, ‘cause my folks had to sit in the back.
Daddy said they wouldn’t let me in there when I showed up. I said we’ll see.

I got my big dress from an old dressmaker who used to be on 2nd Avenue, a real sweet lady
named Miss Parks. She don’t make clothes no more but my mama used to go there all the time,
and she just adored me. Would always give me candy when my mama brought me with her to
the store. She watched me grow up. Always said something nice about my eyes, how she’d
never seen that color on a negro before. So I went to her for a dress, and would you believe that
she made me one for free. Once I told her it was for the Stain Away pageant she insisted, bless
her. She made a gorgeous satin number in this honey color that looked divine against my skin
tone. It had cap sleeves and a sweetheart neckline and a sheath skirt that hugged my curves
and matching gloves. You could not tell me that I wasn’t Lena Horne in that dress.

Miss Parks put the gown in a garment bag for me and I picked it up right before I went to the
town hall for the pageant. She helped me put another dress inside the bag—my Sunday best, a
cute baby blue swing dress that she also made a while back. Before I left Miss Parks gave me a
kiss on the cheek and told me how proud she was of me. I had to keep that feeling with me for
the long walk over to the white side of Allen where the town hall is.

There was an older white lady with horned rimmed glasses sitting outside at a desk with the
sign up sheet. Before I could even say anything, she told me it’s too early for the audience to
arrive and, besides, negroes use the back entrance. She said it real sweetly and slowly, like she
was talking to a kindergartner. I said, “No ma’am, I arrived at the right time. My name’ll be on
that list you got there. Melanie Roberts.” She didn’t even look at the list, just repeated what she
said. Slow and too sweet, like toffee stuck on your teeth.

I pulled out my acceptance letter from my handbag. I brought my library card with me too,
because it was the only kind of ID that I had and it had my name and address on it. I showed
both to her.

“Who did you steal that from?” Miss Lady said.
“Well, if I stole it, it would be from Melanie Roberts. But I am Melanie Roberts, ma’am,” I replied.
She ain’t like that. The toffee turned bitter.

She called for backup and two white men appeared. One of them snatched the letter and library
card from me, the other had a clipboard with photos of the contestants. Mister Clipboard flipped
through until he got to me. They looked at the photo and then they looked at me. And then they
looked at the photo and looked at me again. They hadn’t said a word but their quiet got real

Miss Lady said something like, “You can’t be serious,” and peered at the clipboard, and for the
first time she looked at the list of names on the sign-up sheet. The first man gave me back my
library card but kept the letter.

It was clear that they didn’t know what to do. The two men muttered amongst themselves,
leaving Miss Lady out of the conversation. It was just me and her staring at each other. She had
sat back down and I was still standing, shifting my weight between my feet but trying not to look
nervous. I overheard the men say something like, “If we don’t let her in we’ll only have eleven
girls,” and then, “Whether we let her in or not, we only have eleven girls.”

After a short while and some heavy sighs Mister Clipboard said, “Sign her in.”
“Pardon me?” said Miss Lady.
“Just sign her in, Betty,” said Mister Clipboard.

Miss Betty Lady huffed and puffed but did what she was told. I wanted to give her a look so bad
but I also knew that my luck was so spent that I was in debt. I walked right on in.

There were handwritten signs leading to a big hall in the back where all the contestants were
waiting. You could hear the girls chattering from outside. I entered the room to find a lotta
Mary-Beth, Mary-Sue and Mary-Ann types. Some simply pretty, others pretty simple. It was
hostile when I walked in. Very hostile. I admit that I hadn’t considered that—I was so caught up
in what I was doing in the pageant and performing for the judges that I hadn’t thought about
being alone in a room full of white women.

“Are you lost?” one Mary-Beth said rather than asked.

“No,” I replied, and I picked a chair—one closest to the exit—and sat down. I held my handbag
on my lap and I set the garment bag neatly behind me. The chair creaked and it was the only
sound you could hear in the whole room.

“Are you sure about that?” Mary-Beth continued.

“I’m competing,” I said. Somebody sniggered. Guffawed. A very ugly sound, not ladylike. I found
a new recipient for that glare that I wanted to give Miss Betty Lady. Back to silence. I decided to
use the attention that everyone was giving me.

“My name is Melanie Roberts. Look for my name on the list and you’ll find it. I applied just like
everybody else,” I said loud and clear.

Mary-Beth looked me up and down. She was standing above me. I looked her up and down too.
Nastier, meaner. She crouched down a little and loomed forward like she was about to do
something. Instinctively I moved back. Without thinking. And she smirked. She knew what my
body knew in that moment. She could’ve spat on me and I wouldn’t be able to do anything about
it, if I knew what was good for me. Then she stood up, turned on her heel, and walked away.
Slowly, the chatter resumed.

Nobody else spoke to me the entire time I was there. Not even the people running the pageant.
They sure did speak about me though. I heard shit like “well, she is pretty for a nigra” and
“actually, it works out better for us that she’s here.” I ignored them, and I decided that the lack of
conversation was best for me—I could focus on myself.

From my corner of the room I glanced around once or twice to size up everybody. That’s when I
saw Samantha Bridge. As soon as I saw her I knew she was my competition. She kinda looked
like Elizabeth Taylor, but with a bigger forehead. She was swanning around this way and that
way. You could tell that some of the other girls were intimidated by her. The men who were
walking about—you know, the janitor and crew setting stuff up—they was acting like she already
won the damn thing. She’d act so shy and bashful, but she was always looking to see if
someone was looking at her.

For some reason she seemed familiar. I thought, I know I seen that face before, somewhere.
Maybe a commercial or an ad in the paper? See, that would have been something, because the
pageant was amateur only. I thought, I gotta figure out where I know this girl’s face from. I even
went through different catchphrases in my head to nudge a memory.

Samantha looked at me dead in the eyes but once. One time. She was the only girl to really
look at me, to be honest, and it was an accident on my part because I wasn’t vying for her
attention like the rest of the room. I swear that heifer turned her nose up at me. But before that,
right before, when we really locked eyes for a couple moments, she looked caught. Like a fish
on a line. So she knew that I knew that something didn’t smell right. She never looked at me
again after that.

The pageant was just one day so it was real simple. In the first round they file everybody onto
stage to introduce us to the judges and the audience. They ask you your name, your age, where
you’re from, and a question about yourself and they score your answer. You get points for poise,
beauty and personality. The second round is the talent round and they also judge your costume.
I planned to wear Miss Parks’ new dress for that. When I did those baby pageants my special
talent was always something to do with math, because that’s what I’m really good at. I’d recite
the first hundred digits of pi or solve some complicated math problem on a chalkboard in a
certain amount of time. But I knew that they wouldn’t want to see a negro girl do math,
especially after she smuggled her way in, so I had decided to sing “It’s Only A Paper Moon”

We had a very quick rehearsal so we knew where to stand on stage. We were meant to be in
alphabetical order but they found a way to put me, Roberts, behind a Stevens, a Turner, a
Thompson and a Watkins. I just took it because, again, I knew my luck was already spent.
Rehearsal was when reality started to really sink in. But I couldn’t just leave—I had told too
many people and my folks were coming to see me. The only thing I could do was show out at
the pageant.

After the rehearsal they took us back into the back hall, told us to get ready, and locked us in to
keep the men out. It was suffocating in there—those heifers replaced the air with powder,
perfume and hairspray. Squeezed themselves into corsets and girdles. Stuffed their bras with
rubber and foam pads. Brought out all kinds of contraptions that I had never seen before. A girl
started crying (for what reason I do not know). Only time I ever wished for segregation.

I gotta admit, a few of them white girls transformed themselves. Went from Mary-Sue to Grace
Kelly in an hour. Created whole new waistlines and titties and complexions. It was the first time I
had seen foundation makeup. All I brought with me was some red lipstick, mascara and old blue
eyeshadow that was my mama’s. But my face don’t need much. I mainly focused on my hair.
Most of the others had an updo with pin curls and poodle cuts but I find that if I put my hair up
like that it looks like a regular hot comb. I didn’t sit up in that relaxer for nothing. So I put my hair
in a pageboy style to show how long it is and pulled on my baby blue church dress.

The first round went surprisingly smooth. The stage lights were real strong but I could just make
out my folks, my siblings, a couple cousins and an auntie in the back of the audience. I figured
the pageant people wasn’t gonna give me much time to talk with me being last and all, so I
prepared myself to be quick on my feet. They asked me why I applied and I said something
about Stain Away being at the heart of the negro community in Allen. I felt good about my
answer. They didn’t catch me out.

The pageant organizers had us watching the second round of the show in the west wing of the
stage. We could leave to change two acts before we were due to go on, then after we performed
we’d go over to the east wing. When it came time for me to change I was thankful to be alone in
the back hall. I planned to practice the song a little, walk around in circles for a bit, get some
peace of mind. Until I went to switch dresses and saw that my garment bag wasn’t zipped up all
the way.

I knew then. I just knew. But I didn’t wanna find out. I just stood there like a fool, staring at the
bag, my nails digging in my palms so bad I almost thought I drew blood. And then I remembered
that whatever the hell they’d done, I needed time to fix it. So I took a deep breath and found
out—someone had slashed the bodice of the dress, right across from the neckline to the waist.

The negro side of Allen is so far away from the town hall that there was no way I could run to
Miss Parks to fix it. I didn’t have nothing else to wear. I refused to wear my first dress again. I
couldn’t give them that. I had to salvage it. Put it on backwards. Find some way to pin the torn
satin under itself. Make the ripped front into an open back. Work something out. I grabbed some
spare hair pins and—God, I can remember it so clearly—I felt these tears burning up in my eyes
as I held onto that fabric. The moment my fingers got to that satin I didn’t know whether I would
fold it over or rip it up some more. The hair pins kept falling out of my hands. My mind was
racing through the faces of every single one of them white women—but then it could have been
one of the crew, or Mister Clipboard, or that Betty lady—it could’ve been all of them together.
They could’ve decided it the moment they let me in. They could’ve been laughing about it the
whole time, waiting. Wanting. Excited. Eager to tear me up. And then the dress was wet from a
kind of tears I’d never cried before. There was no sound, no sadness, just a hot, pressured
helplessness. I couldn’t even scream. At least children can scream. But I wasn’t gonna cry in
front of all them white people. Not with my folks sitting in the back. So I wiped my face with the
inside of the dress, I fixed it up the best I could, I got on that stage, and I sang my song. I might
have wavered a little but I sang my song. What did Samantha do? I can’t remember. Maybe go
to the newspaper archive in the library if you wanna know about that.

Anyway, sorry. Yes. I just wanted it all to be over at that point. They paraded us out again and I
had to turn my body so that you couldn’t see the ripped parts of the dress. Samantha won.
Them other white girls was holding their breath for second place. White sparkly paper confetti
came down and it got caught in Samantha’s hair like snow. They put a tiara on her head and a
sash across her body before she started saying some shit into the microphone, and hearing her
voice is when I finally realized how I recognized her.

Imelda Hawkins. Middle aged lady who used to go to my church and she was high yellow. Her
granddaddy was white, my mama told me. Husband had a similar background. She and my
mama used to count the offering together after church, and children weren’t allowed in the back
so me and Miss Hawkins’ kids would sit in the pews waiting on them. She had two daughters
and they were both odd and quiet. Uppity. You ask them a question and they turn around and
answer you like your breath stink. The younger one who was around my age looked just like
Imelda, but she was even lighter. So light she looked like a porcelain doll came to life. When the
older one reached high school age they moved to a different town. I hadn’t seen them since.

I almost fell over when I put two and two together. I think you can see it in the newspaper photo.
All them white girls smiling smiles that don’t reach their eyes, my face when I realized, and
Samantha. She was grinning. Not no winner’s grin neither. A thief’s grin. A slick grin, an
audacious grin. A grin of somebody who took something because they could. That’s how I really
knew she was that yellow bone girl I shared a church pew with back in Allen.

April came around and about that time they would put up the billboard for the new Miss Stain
Away. Except this time the billboard was for toothpaste. Toothpaste. Stain Away don’t even sell
toothpaste. Ain’t make one lick of sense. People got to talking. ‘Cause you see, people knew
that Samantha had won. Blacks didn’t really go to the actual pageant but it was in the papers
and all, so the new Miss Stain Away had been announced publicly. I don’t know if people made
the connection to the Hawkins family because the Hawkins kept to themselves for the most part.
As I said before, uppity. But you know how niggers can talk. Came up with all kinds of theories
with no facts. Like maybe her husband was beating on her so bad that she couldn’t take a
photo. Or maybe she was found sleeping with another man who put a baby in her. Maybe she
lied about her age. Maybe she ran off. But ran off with what? Window cleaner and soap? Maybe
maybe maybe maybe. I didn’t say nothing to the negroes in Allen. I kept my mouth shut.

Then the Easter parade happened and there was no Stain Away float. None. Not even a logo to
be seen. We waited all the way to the end and even me, I couldn’t believe it. Lord, that’s when
folks really got to talking. Before it was just women and men who be in women’s business, now
it was everybody. Because you gotta remember, especially with the older folks, near everybody
worked at the Stain Away factories at some point. If it wasn’t your daddy, it was your uncle or
your cousin or your neighbor. If you wasn’t making it, you was selling it or using it somehow. So
the whole confusion became more than just the pageant. People thought Stain Away was
closing down—that I can understand, except Stain Away is just fine. Going strong to this day. It’s
even expanded out west, I think.

But yes, what happened is that she killed herself. Samantha. Drank bleach is what I heard.
Probably didn’t have much else around. She had a husband—a white husband, of course—a
very nice white picket fence kind of life. I guess one thing led to another after the rumors started.
I don’t know how they found out about her passing, but if I knew then other people would’ve
known too. Write that in your article.

That’s the real reason why they don’t do the pageant no more, you know that right? Stain Away
pulled out, they didn’t have no funding, and they didn’t wanna answer no questions so they just
stopped it altogether. The drinking bleach thing came after. One nigger got the grand prize
under they noses and they shut down the whole thing. People think it was because of me, but
that ain’t the case. What’s that? No. No, I didn’t place. But I always knew that was gonna
happen, deep down. I just wanted to open doors for the next girl.

See, if I was her—Samantha—I would’ve done things differently. Better. If she wanted to do a
beauty pageant so bad, I don’t know why she didn’t go out of state. That wasn’t smart. She
wasn’t smart. If I looked like her I would’ve gone far away with my white husband, had my little
white babies in my white picket fence house, and done a white pageant in a different state if I
was that bored. But she was arrogant. She must have thought that nobody would dare say a
thing. Or, rather, that nobody would believe a nigger over her. Well.

The negro pageant still goes on though. It never had a big budget sponsor to begin with. I’ve
aged out of it, but people ask me why I never did it. My mama and daddy do too. They say, if
you had gone to the negro pageant you would’ve won hands down. And I say, but we all know

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