Main The Revisioners

The Revisioners

Following her National Book Award–nominated debut novel, A Kind of Freedom, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton returns with this equally elegant and historically inspired story of survivors and healers, of black women and their black sons, set in the American South
In 1925, Josephine is the proud owner of a thriving farm. As a child, she channeled otherworldly power to free herself from slavery. Now, her new neighbor, a white woman named Charlotte, seeks her company, and an uneasy friendship grows between them. But Charlotte has also sought solace in the Ku Klux Klan, a relationship that jeopardizes Josephine's family.
Nearly one hundred years later, Josephine's descendant, Ava, is a single mother who has just lost her job. She moves in with her white grandmother Martha, a wealthy but lonely woman who pays her grandchild to be her companion. But Martha's behavior soon becomes erratic, then even threatening, and Ava must escape before her story and Josephine's...
Year: 2019
Language: english
ISBN 13: 9781640092594
File: EPUB, 1.09 MB
Download (epub, 1.09 MB)
 
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ALSO BY MARGARET WILKERSON SEXTON


A Kind of Freedom





For my ancestors, especially my father



The Revisioners



Copyright © 2019 by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

First hardcover edition: 2019



All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.



This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events is unintended and entirely coincidental.



Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Sexton, Margaret Wilkerson, author.

Title: The revisioners : a novel / Margaret Wilkerson Sexton.

Description: First hardcover edition. | Berkeley, California : Counterpoint, 2019.

Identifiers: LCCN 2019008282 | ISBN 9781640092587

Subjects: LCSH: Women—Fiction. | Race relations—Fiction. | African American families—Fiction. | Domestic fiction.

Classification: LCC PS3619.E9838 R48 2019 | DDC 813/.6—dc23

LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019008282



Jacket design by Jaya Miceli

Book design by Jordan Koluch



COUNTERPOINT

2560 Ninth Street, Suite 318

Berkeley, CA 94710

www.counterpointpress.com



Printed in the United States of America

Distributed by Publishers Group West



10987654321





I go forth alone, and stand as ten thousand.

MAYA ANGELOU





Contents





Ava 2017

Josephine 1924

Josephine 1855

Ava 2017

Josephine 1924

Josephine 1855

Josephine 1924

Josephine 1855

Ava 2017

Josephine 1924

Josephine 1855

Ava 2017

Josephine 1924

Josephine 1855

Ava 2017

Josephine 1924

Josephine 1855

Ava 2017

Josephine 1924

Josephine 1855

Josephine 1924

Josephine 1855

Ava 2017

Acknowledgments





Ava



2017



IT WAS KING WHO TOLD ME WE FORGOT THE PHOTOGRAPH. Twelve years old, but he’d been washing his own clothes since he was eight, and was often the one to remind me to take the trash out on Thursdays. I didn’t intend to place all that responsibility on him—he was a child—but he identified the holes in my capacity and dove into them. While I was filing motions for Mr. Jeff at Wilkerson & Associates, he was microwaving neat squares of beef lasagna. And now this, the picture my grandmother’s great-grandmother had had taken of herself, standing at the edge of her farm. Miss Josephine. Her husband had just died, and you could not miss that in her eyes, the loneliness. But you could also glimpse the pride: the rows of corn, their stalks double her height, the chickens at her feet. A smokehouse with shingles planked toward the roof like two hands in prayer.

“We could go back and get it,” King says.

I shake my head. “It’s too late,” I say, and maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but I’m afraid if I turn back, I won’t make it through the stained-glass doors of the uptown mansion in front of us. I hadn’t fully come to the decision to move here, more like the decision had wound its way through me, and if I had another hour, another drive east, I might just stay over on that side of town, where my mama would welcome me. But I was tired of disappointing her. She was hard on me when I was a child. She held so much promise when she’d met my father at Tulane. She was one of the only blacks on campus and she caught his eye though the only black woman he’d known was his housekeeper, Mary. Six months later, my mother was pregnant. My father went on to law school. She had planned on going too but it would have been difficult for her without a baby; with me, it was nearly impossible. Still she did it, all the while working odd jobs as a waitress, caretaker, stenographer. My father felt neglected and took up with a woman from his Civil Procedure study group. My mother said she was better off without him, but for a long time when she looked at me, when she answered my questions, when she tucked me in to sleep at night, I could sense her bitterness straining through her tight smiles.

“We better go in,” I say. “It’s getting dark,” and King lets out a tired sigh.

“Why can’t we just go to Maw Maw’s?” he asks. He’s been asking this all week and I repeat again what I’ve been saying.

“This is a good opportunity for us, King. A better school. We’ll see each other more ’cause you’ll just be downstairs.”

“Yeah, but living in this old lady’s house. This old white lady.” He pauses. “It’s weird.”

“No weirder than living with Maw Maw that one time. Probably better because she won’t be all up in our business. Plus this house is huge. Grandma Martha will have her wing, we’ll have ours. You probably won’t even see her.”

He sucks his teeth but he shifts in his seat and grips the handle of his backpack.

When I open my car door, he opens his too. We didn’t pack a whole lot. Our furniture is in storage, and otherwise we don’t own much more than our clothes, one lamp, some framed pictures of me and my mother when I was a child, me clinging to her waist like any minute someone might snatch her. We gather the little we can hold and walk up the long brick walkway, past the two-tiered angel fountain in the courtyard, through the iron lace gate. I use my key to open up and Grandma Martha isn’t at the door to greet us, but she’s already told me where we’ll stay and I know my way to the second floor. Her room is just beyond us on the third. King has never been inside and his mouth is open as he sizes it up, the grand crystal chandelier, the red upholstered chairs, the Oriental rugs over the mahogany floors, the paintings of her ancestors, their thin lips pressed together.

In his room, he sets his backpack down. Just to the side of his four-poster bed, a window looks out to the driveway where our beat-up white Camry seems out of place. The bed is the height of his waist. I remember at our apartment, he’d flop on his old one after school and here he has to climb on top.

“I told you the house was big,” I say.

“Too big,” he says back. “Too nice. I don’t even feel comfortable touching anything.”

I almost tell him he’s right, that he shouldn’t touch a thing, but I want him to feel at home here.

“You’re careful enough,” I say.

I hear a voice behind me.

“You don’t need to worry about this old stuff.” Grandma Martha. I turn to greet her. And she is how she always is: bracelets clanging and perfume wafting and ironed white button-down shirt and colored pants and smart sandals with her toes painted a mild shade of pink. She is seventy-eight and her wrinkles are fine; her hair clings to her scalp before it’s clipped at the base of her head into a winding bun. But I can still glimpse who she was when I graduated from college, when she wore a cream St. John suit with a matching hat, and even when I was four and she fed me squares of baker’s chocolate on the balcony, not too sweet because I wouldn’t want to lose my waistline.

“Oh,” I say, and a shot of relief flows through me because she has that way of putting me at ease. We didn’t see each other much growing up. My daddy went on to have a gang of blond-haired children and I’d only know their ages through the Christmas cards each year. Still Grandma Martha sought me out every summer, offered to pay for tennis and math and science camps. She’d arrange for my mother to drop me at her house, and there’d be a frilly Janie and Jack dress in my size waiting on the daybed in the guest room. I’d change into it, then we’d drive her olive-green Mercedes to lunch at Mr. B’s in the Quarter. For holidays, she’d mail me envelopes addressed to Miss Ava Jackson with a crisp $100 bill and pink barrettes enclosed. Anytime I’d meet her, my mother would preach on the way over, remind me of what I already knew: not to put my elbows on the table, to take slow, small bites, to say Yes ma’am, to never force my grandmother’s hand, and I obliged even though I knew Grandma didn’t care about that stuff. I told my mother that, but she never responded.

Once Grandma’s husband passed, the attention ramped up—Grandma bought prom dresses and makeup tutorials at Lakeside’s Stila counter. And when I had King, and my own husband started to drift, she’d watch the baby for me while I slept or got my nails done. She’d sit on the sofa in my modest two-bedroom and fold his onesies like she hadn’t had a housekeeper her entire life. Now she has more, a chef named Binh, a part-time nurse named Juanita, who even walks her up and down the streetcar tracks when the weather permits. Still, she’d called me one Saturday crying. She was lonely. I’d settled her down, then I’d confessed I wasn’t faring much better, laid off from my paralegal job, and she’d proposed I move in. A win-win, she’d said. A win-win, though at seventy-eight, she is not who she has been. She walks with a limp; she wears Depends and not just at night, but she’s always seemed mentally sound. She dresses and feeds herself, and she still has that softness to her that makes me want to tell her my secrets. She still makes me feel welcome here, and finally, like I made the right decision.

She reaches for King.

“It’s so good to have you,” she says, and she pulls him into her. I can see him still clenched up in his back, but he is polite like I’ve taught him and he thanks her.

“No, thank you,” she says. “I haven’t had children with me for I don’t know how long. It’s welcome, I can tell you. It will lighten up the place.”

“And you, my granddaughter,” she reaches out for me next. It is nice to hear her call me that, granddaughter. Growing up, I don’t think I ever heard her acknowledge the bloodline. The omission didn’t occur to me until I was older, but once I noticed it, I started offering her subtle chances to say aloud what we were to each other, but she wouldn’t.

“I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you would uproot your life like this,” she says now.

I don’t bother to say we didn’t have that many other options. I could have gone to my mother’s, sure, but there was her mouth to consider, and I couldn’t bear the cost. Besides, where would it land us? In a year’s time I’d still be in the same predicament. Grandma Martha on the other hand offered to pay me my other salary just to sit with her during the day. King will start tomorrow at the best public middle school in New Orleans. At the end of the year, I’d have enough for my own place, maybe just a townhome and probably one in the hood at that, but still, we could lay down some roots. I made good money with Mr. Jeff, and I got my bartending license to supplement once King’s daddy left, but I had to drag myself into Vincent’s every night, then back to Mr. Jeff’s in the morning. I’m not stupid, I know I should be grateful to have had a job at all, but from where I’m standing, with the antique writing table at my hip, and the signed oil paintings on the walls above me, it might be okay to start to ask for more.

“Well, I’ll leave you two to settle in,” Grandma says, and she hobbles off down the stairs, taking longer on each one than I remember.

She turns back and catches me looking.

“Maybe I’ll see you for dinner. Of course we don’t have to sit down every night, but since it’s our first one together, we’ll want to commemorate it, won’t we?”

I look at King the same time he looks at me. We had heard stories about the chef, whom Grandma has always called Bee-Bee, about the made-to-order meals, bread pudding, pastries with chocolate ganache. He smiles.

“That’ll be lovely,” I say.

I get up with Binh before dinner to tour the bar. As much as I complained about the schedule, I miss my bartending days, and out of respect, I still make a cocktail every night, pour a little bit out for my former self. Tonight it’s a gin and tonic, two parts gin, five parts tonic. I chill the glasses, then add the ice, pour the gin over the large cubes, squeeze the first lime before the tonic hits; the second lime is just the cherry on top really. I lean against the counter, take a sip, and set the glass down. It’s perfect.

Binh serves fried chicken and waffles with a side of sweet potato biscuits and rosemary jam. I’m supposed to be on a plan, but I have a weakness for breakfast food. I reach for two waffles and a biscuit, and I’m not shy with the syrup either. King eyes his plate with suspicion, Grandma’s old wedding china.

“I thought this menu might be more modern,” Grandma says, pleased with herself. She watches King eat with what seems to be fascination. He’s wearing his uniform: a Nike hoodie and athletic shorts with basketball tights underneath. At twelve, he is a head taller than I am, a chocolate boy with dredlocks that touch his shoulders. I married his father because I couldn’t deny the first boy who called me when he said he would, who told me he loved me before I fell asleep at night, but if I’m honest, there were other things. King’s daddy couldn’t have been blacker, and I was still lamenting my light skin, my checked-out father at the root of it. Even the Seventh Ward girls at school read oppressor in my face. I was a heavy child, still do shop in the plus-size section of most stores; I have more hair than most families combined, and I wear it out in a curly brown fro that almost touches my shoulders. It’s the style now, but it wasn’t back then. My mama didn’t let me straighten it, and the unoriginal children would call me Chia Pet and Free Willy, or sing He’s got jungle fever, she’s got jungle fever when I walked into the room. And my plan worked; nobody would look at King and not know he was a black child. Not only that, he’s cool in a way I never showed. When I’d pick him up from McMain, a posse would escort him to my car, but it had started to be more than the middle schoolers. It was the high schoolers as well, some of whom I recognized from the street corners.

Now he picks at his food.

I know what he’s thinking. White people know they don’t have no business serving fried chicken.

“Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to,” he sings from the old-school music I listen to on FM98 sometimes, and I reprimand him though I want to laugh. Grandma Martha stops me.

“Let him be a child,” she says. “You only have a few more years of it left. You better enjoy it because then they’re old and”—she gestures around the long table—“well, you’re left by your lonesome,” she finishes.

“You have us,” I whisper.

“Oh, sure,” she says. “I only meant, when I bought this table, I imagined I’d have my children around it forever, surrounding me, into my old age, but—” her face loosens and drags and then she picks it back up in a flash. “But here’s to new connections.” She lifts her glass of soda water, and I lift the gin and tonic I crafted, and King lifts his chocolate milk, and we clink them all together and I catch him smiling.

That night as I’m turning down her bed, Grandma Martha asks me to sit on the wicker bedroom bench across from her.

“This is so nice.” She extends her legs and pulls them back in in soft motions. She’s taken her medical alert system off and placed it on her dresser.

“Yeah, I mean your house is out of this world,” I say. The bedroom is immaculate, and about the size of my old apartment. There’s a cream-colored chaise lounge in the corner, a fireplace with a white marble mantel, a gold-framed mirror to my left.

“I’m not talking about that,” she says. “I’m talking about you.” She dips her hand down toward the room where King is staying. “The family. The life you built. King is so cared for, he’s so happy. I tried to do that with your dad, but I don’t think I got it right. I spoiled him is the thing,” she goes on. “He never had to work for anything, and look where it got him; I only hear from him every few months, and even then it’s just a five-minute call. Every year it’s a different woman. I never thought your mother was the right one, but . . .” she trails off, then starts right back up again, “at least there was you to care for.”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t around more, when you were growing up. You needed that influence, but I was trying to be a good wife. I was too caught up with the times. You know things were so different back then, but the child, the child just needs love. The child doesn’t see color, that’s what I’d always tell your grandfather but he couldn’t grasp it.”

If she wants forgiveness, I’m not ready to extend it, and I don’t say a word. I’m here though, and that’s something.

“And your father,” she goes on. “I never told anyone this, there was such a stigma around infertility back then, but it took me years to conceive him. It was terrible, heart-wrenching, almost wrecked my marriage from the inside out. I thought we wouldn’t make it through, but then, I came out with this perfect little baby.” She shakes her head at the memory. “That’s why I clung to him so.”

“Anyway,” she scrunches her face up in delight, “when I was a little girl, we’d run through the fields at night with our gentlemen callers, slip our hands in theirs. They’d try for second base, and we’d allow it, but we’d make them fight. Everybody looked up to Daddy. Even men his own age didn’t call him by his first name. Mr. Dufrene, they said. And the boys, well, they all wanted to be seen with a Dufrene girl.” She smiles. “All of them,” she repeats. “They’d start sniffing around once we turned thirteen, and after that we were never alone.”

I had brought the dinner’s gin and tonic upstairs with me, and I’m grateful for that decision now. I take a few sips; I wasn’t prepared for the stroll down memory lane is all.

She points to her jewelry box, and I lean over toward her bureau and pass it to her. She lifts a diamond necklace from it.

“You like this?” she asks.

“Very much,” I say. My mama had found religion in her New Age church and since then she’d say we had different strains of ourselves in the universe, like there was me here sitting with Grandma Martha, but there was the other version of myself who had finished college in four years, not seven, who didn’t eat mint chocolate chip ice cream at night, who married the right man, or at least divorced King’s daddy sooner. There was the version of myself who knew how beautiful I was, how smart, how kind. A version of myself who didn’t need an alarm clock because she had ambition ringing through her bones, and that woman attended balls where she wore that diamond necklace.

“It’s yours,” Grandma Martha says now.

“No, no way in the world,” I say shaking my head. “I could never. That’s not what this is,” I add just to be clear.

She stretches her cheeks in a quiet smile. “I was going to give it to you anyway. It will look so nice against your beautiful brown skin, and the other grandchildren, well, they don’t deserve the pot I piss in to be frank.”

I laugh. “But Grandma Martha, I saw the photo of you at your husband’s, at Grandfather’s, swearing in,” I correct myself. “You wore it then and it was beautiful. You might want to remember it that way.”

She shakes her head. “There will be a time coming real soon when I’ll be beneath the dirt and you’ll be above it, and there’s no jewelry in the world that’s going to spring me back up again, now is there?”

I don’t know what to say to that. She talks like this sometimes and I don’t like it. I hadn’t grown up with her but I am getting used to leaning on her, more and more each year.

“All right, Grandma.” I stand and kiss her cheek. “I’m just a floor away.”

I turn down her lights.

I check in on King on my way to my own room.

He’s unpacking his shirts, hanging them in the closet, but he looks like he’s been crying.

I pull him toward the bed and sit down beside him.

“It’s going to be all right,” I say.

“No, it’s not,” he says, twisting his dredlocks in a frenzy like he does when he’s concentrating or nervous, or sad. “I’m telling you, I have a bad feeling about this house. Didn’t you feel it when you walked in? It’s like walking into a refrigerator and shutting the door behind you.” He starts to whisper. “I have a bad feeling about her.” He nods in Grandma’s direction.

“About your great-grandmother?” I ask. “She’s family.”

“Not all kinfolk is skinfolk,” he says.

I laugh at that. “Boy, it’s supposed to be the other way around.”

“Nah, think about it, Mama.”

“Look,” I say. “Give it a month? If you don’t like it after that, we can figure out our next steps.”

He pauses.

“Fine, Mama,” he says.

He’s back to fiddling with his iPhone, and before I stand, sound bursts out. It’s that new Childish Gambino song he bumps. He doesn’t let me kiss him too long and then he’s laying his Nikes and Pumas out in the closet just so.

“We’re going to be okay here,” I say, but he doesn’t hear me, and the lyrics follow me out his door.



Too late

You wanna make it right, but now it’s too late



I set up the lamp I brought outside King’s room. It is a classic trophy lamp with a brass finish and a black shade. King would never say he’s afraid of the dark, but I know it soothes him to see an outline of the familiar when he wakes up before morning. I switch the light on, then go to my room, sink into my bed. The mattress is thicker and softer than what I’m used to. I’ve been running on adrenaline since I made the decision. Grandma had been looking for a companion for some time and I’d contacted Traveling Angels for her but then King’s school called; he had been in a fight. I’d driven straight over, and sure enough there he was with his eye already swelling, holding a blood-soaked napkin to his nose.

“You should see the other kid,” he’d joked, but I’d gone off on him.

“You know we don’t do that,” I said. “You know we don’t.”

And he’d tried to explain. This boy from the ninth grade was messing with his friend Nathan. He didn’t have a choice but to defend him. Wasn’t I always telling him to stand up for what he believed in? Well, he believed in his friend.

I’d told him I wasn’t raising a thug, but that night while he ate stuffed mirliton with garlic bread, his favorite, I watched him, my son whose newborn face I could still envision, and I wondered where I’d gone wrong. We had lived in a house when he was born. A modest one a few blocks south of Freret, and a policeman lived on one side of us, and a secretary lived on the other. Then King’s daddy left, and the rent inched up every month, first $30, then $100, and Mr. Jeff was a good man, but he couldn’t clone my paycheck. When it was time to move elsewhere, there was nowhere to go. Five years after Katrina, my neighborhood had bloomed. We had a white mayor and fancy restaurants that stretched a dozen blocks, but all I could afford was a redeveloped unit in what used to be the projects. With the neat lawns and fresh paint, you’d never know what the apartment had been, but the D-boys on the corner told on it, and I’d said to King that I wasn’t raising no thug, but I wondered at that moment if that wasn’t exactly who I was raising. I called Grandma and I told her she didn’t need to look anymore, that the companion would be me.

Tonight I’m walking distance from where I’d been but it might as well be a world away. Except for the security van that passes on the hour, there’s little traffic, and the crickets and the occasional wind chime are the only breaks in silence. I’m still tipsy from my drink, and I hit up Spotify for Sam Smith, set up a song for repeat. It was Byron’s favorite, mine too, and I don’t miss him, as much as I miss the fullness I felt being part of a unit, the depth and the purpose.



You say I’m crazy

’Cause you don’t think I know what you’ve done



It doesn’t take long to fall asleep but I wake up soon after, my right foot shooting forward as if in the other world I’d been running. I close my eyes, and a thread of the scene is back. My legs were pumping through water, clear enough to drink, but it smelled like rot. There was the thunder of horses galloping behind me, and out of their mouths streamed sentences I couldn’t grasp. King was with me, but he was a grown man with a different face, and just before I opened my eyes, I heard a shot ring out, and someone scream.





GRANDMA PULLED SOME STRINGS TO GET KING INTO HER neighborhood public school, and he’s nervous in the morning, wondering about his old friends, and barely eating the grits and eggs Binh prepared. I try to remind him of the positive ways the new school will be different, but he doesn’t say a word all the way through the carpool line.

He had told me he was afraid he’d be the only black kid in his class, and his worry wasn’t far off. There are a few sprinkled into the larger student body. Their mothers roll up in Porsches and Benzes; I can see from the car windows that the women are wearing suits, and they smile at me but they are fast smiles. I am not their own. But I’m okay with that because there are STEM classes at this place that you don’t have to pay for, a jazz band, a student-run literary magazine. King writes poems at night and sometimes I see them scribbled out on the dresser. Baby-love ones, though he’s never had a girlfriend: you be my earth, and I’ll be your moon, and I’m not saying he’s Langston Hughes, but everybody’s got to start somewhere.

It’s just a minimum day today, and King is buzzing when I pick him up. At dinner, he talks with his mouth full, but he’s so excited I allow it. There’s an assembly in the morning, he says, where kids give a speech about anything that’s bothering them. He got up and talked about moving to a new school.

“Afterward all these kids walked up to me in the hallways and introduced themselves. At my old school, somebody would have called me a punk, but here they were so”—he pauses—“nice.”

Grandma Martha is beaming.

“And that’s just the beginning,” she says. “You’re going to meet so many friends at this new school. Fine kids who will be good influences for you.”

His face suddenly turns, and he sets his fork down.

“I had friends at my old school too,” he says.

“Yes, yes, of course you did, but I’m just saying . . .” her voice trails off.

“We’re both just so happy you had a good day,” I say, and he seems to relax.

Spaghetti is one of his favorite foods, and he cleans the plate, then asks to be excused.

I clear the table, then help Grandma upstairs. I hadn’t noticed her outfit when she was sitting, the same classic button-down shirt with starched white pants that she always chooses, but she’s spilled tomato sauce from dinner and didn’t bother to wipe it. Even now, the red juice is running down the pant crease. Then too, there is an odor that wafts up from her, the unmistakable scent of funk. I almost ask if she needs help cleaning, but I see her heading into her bathroom, and I let it go.



KING IS SITTING ON THE EDGE OF HIS BED WHEN I WALK by his room. I go in and sit down next to him, rub the back of his neck like I’ve done since he was a baby at my breast. Sometimes he allows it, and sometimes he doesn’t. Today he sinks into me.

“What is it?” I ask. “You seem like you got a little down back there.”

“I don’t know. Just the way she said that thing about these kids being good influences. Like my friends weren’t good.”

“I hear you. I noticed that too,” I say. “But you have to understand she didn’t mean it that way. She’s getting old and she can’t always find the right words, but trust me. If anybody knows those are good kids, it’s her.”

He doesn’t say anything.

“You miss your friends, don’t you, buddy?” I ask.

He nods.

“How ’bout this? I’m off this weekend. We could go back to the old neighborhood. I’ll call Senait, we’ll set up something with her and Nathan and Issa, sound good?”

He nods.

“I love you, Mom,” he says.

“I love you more,” I say back.

Midsentence I hear a crash from just beyond the door and I rush to the landing.

Grandma is standing outside King’s bedroom. I gasp. I don’t mean to but I didn’t expect to see her there; not only that, her hair is never down the way it is now, and I see for the first time that it reaches her stomach. She has changed already, and her nightgown is pale and translucent; dark and light flashes of her naked body shine through. I look away.

“What happened?” I ask, my eyes darting behind her.

“Oh, this lamp just fell down. I swear I didn’t even touch it, just passed next to it, and it leapt to the floor.”

“Oh,” I say. It’s my mother’s great-great-grandmother’s lamp, the only thing of Josephine’s that we own. I don’t need to examine it to see the brass is chipped.

“I’m so sorry,” Grandma says. “I can have Juanita run out tomorrow and get you another one. I’ve seen this very thing in Nordstrom.”

“No, Grandma, that’s all right. Don’t worry about it. You just surprised me is all. I’ll walk you back to bed.”

Along the way to her room, she wants to discuss each picture we pass.

“That one is my wedding day,” she says, pointing to a black-and-white eight-by-ten. “He got the jewel. All the boys in the county would wait for us by the farm entrance.”

“Oh, and I see why,” I say back, not unlike the way I might respond to a toddler.

We keep walking. When we reach the room, I watch her navigate to her bed, wait to hear her mattress creak under her. She must know I’m still there because she talks the whole while, her back to me, first about the weather and then as the bed shifts, so does the topic.

“I hope you’re not thinking about leaving,” she says in a near whisper. I almost think I’ve misheard her.

“Oh? Of course not, Grandma. We just got here. Where would I go?”

She sighs. “People have their places. Their dreams. That I know. It always seems more pleasant in somebody else’s fields. But we’re good to you here, right?”

It is an odd question, but I am still thinking about that lamp.

“The very best, Grandma,” I say.

“Good. I love you, Ava.”

“I love you too, Grandma.”





Josephine



1924



THERE WAS NO QUESTION I WOULD CHOOSE THE HAMPSHIRE—he was already seven hundred pounds, fat off sweet potatoes, milk, beets, and turnips. This last week though I’d cleaned him out with corn because it wasn’t every day your only son got married. There would have to be enough pork to feed the parish.

At Wildwood, babies weren’t swaddled in white and dipped in water as soon as their color came in, and a man and his woman didn’t jump over a broom with their mother’s blessing. Once, an aunt who wasn’t really my mother’s sister fell hard for a man across the swamps. Tom, who didn’t like to be called Master, said yes, of course, and they slept in the same cabin that night. Besides that, no attention was paid, and though we settled Resurrection in the West Alexander Parish of Southeast Louisiana over thirty years ago, I still wake up every morning in disbelief. My gratitude is not close to wringing itself out, and out of thanksgiving, I make sure to do everything Tom, who made sure we called him by his first name, wouldn’t have done. I bore and raised three children but only one of them is with me now, a son, and for him to choose a bride. Don’t get me started.

And the Hampshire is the richest swine. My husband and I started out as sharecroppers on the edge of a bluff that toed the line between Mr. Dennis’s farm and the Mississippi River marshes. At first we didn’t fare much better here than Wildwood. We’d wake every morning before the sun rose to ride the mule to work on a dirt road straight along the water’s edge. But Mr. Dennis was a gambling man, a man who swallowed whiskey straight, and it was only so long before what he had was ours, three hundred acres of cotton, corn, cane, hogs, and cattle. His workers became our workers but we didn’t think of them that way. We divided the acres into tracts and parceled them out. We became a community together: we built a church, inside that a school, then a gristmill, a cane mill, a cotton gin that ground corn too. And if we had shingles, everybody had shingles; the same went for our milk cows, and fields to garden. Now that I’m old, my people’s hands are my hands. I say that to say things have changed, and it won’t fall on me to aim the rifle right between the pig’s eyes; to hang it, slit its throat, wash it, skin it, gut it clean. I have someone to do that for me now but I’ll still make the decision, point to the black boar with the white belt around the middle, because it has to be the finest.

The door swings open, and I know it is Jericho. With his long stride he runs the way other folk walk, the way I have started to hobble, hunchbacked, but I steady myself to receive him in my arms. He is a red boy, just like his daddy, and just like my husband, and his head, hair cut tight to his scalp, reaches my waist.

“You smell like outside,” I say, examining his dusty blue overalls. There’s a hole in the knee I would have to patch up that evening.

“I’ve been playing, Grandma.”

“Hmph. Well, it’s a bath for you tonight.”

He doesn’t say a word.

“You know what I mean, don’t you?”

He still doesn’t speak. Then, “What if I don’t want them to marry?”

I tap him more than slap him, right on his shoulder.

“Lord, deliver me. We’re grateful for Eliza,” I say like I’m reciting my morning psalm. “She’s kind to you, she knows her letters, she could probably learn you some better than that teacher we pay. She’ll take good care of Major and you too.”

He pauses, sits down, takes off his wide-brimmed hat, and taps his fingers against the hickory table. I can smell the lilies in a jar in the center. I get up on instinct and I pour him some cool lemonade. I still find new mercy in the fact this house belongs to me; that the pine boards overlap to keep the rodents out; the windows swing all the way open. There’s three bedrooms, one so large I can fit two beds side by side; I have an icebox instead of ceramic barrels, and I won’t ever run out of sacks of flour or my shelves of preserved raspberries and canned tomatoes, not if I live for ten more years, which I won’t. I watch Jericho drinking like his lips are a miracle to behold. Surely my own children drank lemonade. Surely they ran in and called for me over any other, but I don’t remember it. I don’t.

“Will she take care of me?” he sets his glass down. “I ain’t her child. Pretty soon she’ll start having her own and I’ll start smelling like fried skunk.”

“What do you know about fried skunk?” I shake my head but I understand his meaning.

“It’s from one of your stories,” he says, “the one about you escaping, when you were hiding in the swamps.”

“Nah, we didn’t eat no skunks; rabbit, coons, squirrels, possum stew with sweet potatoes, but no skunks, young man. Anyway, that’s enough of that,” I say because it is one thing to dip into the past but to be hauled up and tossed back in it, don’t get me started. Otherwise I don’t know what to tell him. “You been praying like I taught you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Add your worry to the list. I can tell you this: I asked for your daddy to find someone who would love him and love you and who would replace me when I’m gone.”

“Don’t do that.”

“Don’t do what? The only thing you can count on is the cycle of life. Anyway, she came in and I believe it’s God’s doing.”

“How do you know though?”

I pause. “I don’t. But I will say that I had a dream the night before he brought her home and there was a woman wearing yellow in it, walking through a tunnel waving, and when Eliza walked in, didn’t she have a daffodil in her hair?”

“I don’t remember.”

“She did. So cheer up. Go in the back and get clean; I’ve got to make these cakes; if you listen, I’ll fill one of them with that blueberry jam you like.”

He heeds, but I can tell when my words don’t take root. Either way, I head out to the garden with its tomatoes, greens and okra, the banks of beets, sweet potatoes and cabbage, and rows of crowder peas, woven through the corn. The yard chickens scatter throughout for seeds and insects. I pass the smokehouse, the well, then the pen, fenced in with zigzag rails. The best hog looks at me with begging eyes, but I point my gnarled finger at him anyway.



WE PILE AS MANY INTO THE CHURCH AS WE CAN FIT and still the doorway is jammed with witnesses. I sit in the first row of course. Jericho walks in next, his maple-wood skin shining in his dark blue suit, his head held high, till he slinks in right beside me. Next is a little girl whose father works the fields, reaching into a basket and sprinkling gardenias at her feet.

The organist presses down on the pedals, and we stand. Eliza might as well tiptoe into the church from the back. Her yellow skin is powdered smooth, and there’s a crown of daffodils woven into her curly bun. I could pick her up with one hand she seems so light, and she sails more than steps down the aisle. The crowd isn’t faking when they ooh and aah. They probably haven’t seen a bride so lovely, probably won’t again. I glance over at her side of the church. Jericho saw them headed in and said without meaning to, “Mama, those folks sho is dignified.” I know they are. Her mother, Cyrile, is a schoolteacher at West Alexander Colored Convent School, one of the first schools for blacks in the parish. She sits next to her son, Eliza’s brother Louis. People tell me he is hotheaded, and I can sense it, that his pale skin is quick to redden, and he fidgets, picking at his fingers even as his sister’s and Major’s hands join. Still his suit is hemmed so fine you can scarcely see the edge of his socks. I don’t like to compare people. It is like slamming God for making petunias and roses, but it doesn’t escape me I was born a slave. I can read some, and I made sure Major finished the fourth grade. But he works the farm now, and Eliza’s family lives at the intersection of General and Christie Roads. They come from the likes of the Doucets and the Chevaliers. And they have been free for as long as they care to remember.

I remind myself I had a dress made for this event, a pastel yellow silk crepe one with a drop waist and a bowtie at the neck, from a store so fancy I had to pay a white woman to make the purchase. I am a heavy woman—even now, the seams of this gown are straining against my sides—but I know I look good. Once I overheard a younger man say as I was leaving the sick and shut-in ministry prayer meeting, “That Josephine could be my mama but she lookin more like a sister.”

Now Jericho’s old preschool teacher stands and walks toward the pulpit, clears her throat, passes a look to the organist. The music starts, and the teacher is unsteady when she joins in,



Three gates in the east

Three gates in the west

Three gates in the north

Three gates in the south

That makes twelve gates to the city Hallelujah



But it doesn’t take long before the song rises from her gut.



Oh, what a beautiful city

Oh, what a beautiful city

Oh, what a beautiful city



And I might as well be standing up there with her, patting my hand at my side:



There’s twelve gates to the city Hallelujah

Walk right in, you’re welcome to the city

Step right up welcome to the city

Walk right through those gates to the city

There are twelve gates to the city Hallelujah



When the applause settles, the preacher rises from his chair on the pulpit, walks toward us, his voice bellowing even at the start:

“How many people in a marriage, members?”

“Two,” we’re quick to shout.

“What’s that?” And he cups his ear like he can’t hear us. “Say what?” he asks again. “Three, including Mama? No, no, four? Including brother and sister who still at home? No, not that either, members, it’s just the two of you. And God, and let him be the sounding board, let him be the sole advisor. You tell Janie and Paul a secret about your woman and you go home and lay your head on your pillow and you sleep it away like a bad dream, but Janie still thinking about it, and every time your woman walking by, Paul envisioning your private pain and he breathing in it its own spark of life. No, member. Noooo,” and he allows that word to linger so it escapes halfway between a sigh and a moan. “Nooo. And who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies. And virtue’s not something you can buy, is it? You either have it through the spirit of the Lord being implanted in you from birth or you spend your whole life searching. And Major,” he turns to my son wiping the sweat from his forehead, “Major, I think you got it, I think you might be one of the lucky souls on this Earth who found it.” He is nearly singing now, and he lifts his feet one by one into the air and pumps in slow heavy motion down the steps until he reaches the couple. “I think you got it, and when you got it, best to hold on to it with all your miiight.” And that last sentiment is so nearly a song that an ordinarily quiet woman who sang soprano in the choir with me starts clapping her hands and stomping her feet, shouting, “Yes,” slow at first, then faster and faster still. The preacher mingles his own words with her shouts, then he nods at the organist, and with everyone joining, even the children, belts out:



Let Jesus lead you

Let Jesus lead you

Let Jesus lead you

All the way

All the way from

Earth to Heaven

Let Jesus lead you, all the way



I stand too. I can hear my own voice, heavy but sweet, shining above the rest, and I’m keeping time with my feet, balancing on each alternately, and swinging my body when I can manage, singing all the while. Members behind me raise their rattles and tambourines and clamor down the aisle.



He’s a mighty good leader

He’s a mighty good leader

He’s a mighty good leader

All the way

All the way from

Earth to Heaven

Let Jesus lead you all the way



And some are down on their knees between the pews, their heads swaying to the front, then back again, and others are stomping in a circle around the pulpit, their words spewing out in tongues amid the chorus.



Let Him lead you

Let Him lead you

Let Him lead you

Let Him lead you

Let Him lead you

All down the highway

Let Him lead you

Just like He lead my mother

Lead my father

Let Him lead you

Let Him lead you



We all quiet down after a spell. Even before the dancing, it was hotter inside the church than outside it, and we sit and we fan the sweat glistening on our brows. I lift the cloth of my dress off my sticky skin. The preacher leans into Major and clears his throat. He asks him to make a vow to love Eliza until death does them part. The few times there was a wedding at neighboring plantations, the preacher would make the bride and groom promise devotion until distance, or white folks, intervened; it was different in other ways too. The groom wore patched pants, and sometimes Kentucky jeans. Major, though, is wearing his daddy’s old suit. With the white gloves and tall beaver, he could pass for my late husband. Same burnt orange skin, same tight red curls, same coal-black eyes, and I have to look away.

Now it is time to jump the broom, backward while the preacher holds it a foot off the floor. Eliza scales it, but Major’s foot hitches, and we all know what that means. The crowd laughs: “She’s the boss, now.” “Better lend her those pants now, boy.” Hearing those sentiments, as I walk back down the aisle, I try not to wince.

I can smell the food from the lip of the church, the sizzling fried pork and creamy custard pies, the greens, potato salad and yams, the spices I added to the meat and rice for boudin. I walk over to the grandest table and not too long after I sit, Jericho carries me a plate. I take a bite. Generally, I am hard on myself; my food in particular never seems to come out as good as my mama’s, but today it seems like she was leaning over my back shaking the salt for me, and instead of the Lord, I silently thank her. People approach as I eat. Sharecroppers from my own field; grown men and women I delivered and set in their new mothers’ arms; teachers who’d taught Major, and some work with Eliza now; Link, who reunited former slaves after the war. For the longest time, I’d push her to find my mama, and she traveled all over the state of Louisiana, in churches and white folk agencies too, but to no avail.

She sits down with her plate touching mine. She is wearing a simple skirt and blouse, a bucket hat. I compliment her on it all. She has a strong gap between her teeth; she is as long as I am wide, but our skin is the same dark brown, and when our arms touch, they could be of the same body. The sun is setting, and the heat is thin enough for wind to pass through. People have pulled out banjos, fiddles and drums for dancing, the Buzzard Lope and the Cakewalk. Link and I watch them for a long time, not needing to say a word to read each other’s thoughts.

“I had a dream about Henry last night.”

“Oh?” I look up. It is like the sweetness of the day brought out Link’s secret pain.

“He was standing right beside me; we were sipping lemonade on my own porch. But my heart was heavy. I don’t think he’s coming back.”

I shake my head, no. What is there to say? “Whether he does or not it’s best to assume the worst, be ready for that outcome,” I say.

She nods. She understands, but it is her son.

“You think Eliza’s mama cared for that carrying-on from the preacher?” Link asks.

I can tell she’s trying to get her mind in a good place, to allow herself to enjoy this day.

“I could see her people in the front row,” she goes on, “holding their mouths like they were drinking lemonade that wasn’t cut with enough sugar.”

“Whether they abide it or not, no way I would close a marriage ceremony without it.”

“I know that, but do they? People like that more into silent prayer.”

“Silent what?”

And Link lifts her shoulders and shifts her chest out and starts moving her lips but no sound comes out, and we are steady laughing. Eliza’s people walk by and I shut up on the spot, straighten up my face. It is no use though. They seem to sense they interrupted something.

“Was an awful nice ceremony,” I say with a smile.

“Very nice, exceeded my expectations,” the mother, Cyrile, says, her face still scrunched up like her breakfast didn’t agree with her. “And the food, we have to get going but I can smell you really know your way around a kitchen.” She must mean it as a compliment, but the way her mouth is set, she could be saying, Sister, you know you stewed those beans in an outhouse.

“You sure are missing out, Mama.” Louis is halfway through his plate, even standing up. There is a speck of barbecue sauce right under his chin, and I have an urge to wipe it off same way I’d do Major, but I hold my hand back. Anyway his mama does it for me.

“Well, we ought to be going now,” she snaps at him when he’s done, and he gulps a cup of sweet lemonade. His hair is slick and soft and he leans over and kisses my cheek, rubbing his belly as he walks away.

“She leaving miiighty early,” Link says.

“They do got to get all the way back north.”

“Still, her daughter’s wedding. I’d be the last one standing.”

“I don’t pretend to understand the ways of those people.”

I take another sip of tea; everybody else is having more than that, strawberry water with cane sugar and whiskey, and you’ll see the effects come an hour. The quietest men will swoop taken women off their feet; the softest women will raise their voices in their sisters’ faces, and I wonder all of a sudden about Jericho; he is with the children dancing to old Sally Walker, almost indistinct from the others, but I can see his eyes. Behind them, he is elsewhere.

My own child and his new wife are greeting people, making their rounds.

“They make quite the pair,” Link says.

“Who?” I ask.

“Who you think? The bride and groom. And she couldn’t look any prettier.”

“No, I suppose not.”

“Happy too. That’s the thing. Sometimes you see these people jump the broom and they can barely look each other in the eye. They just doing it cause they got a child need minding or mama who thinks it’s time to take up the family way. But not them. Seem like this was an idea all their own.”

“All their own indeed,” I say, and we laugh the way people laugh when either one of them could have spoken, their minds are so connected. It is a hearty laugh, from deep down somewhere, but it is light too because she knew the joke already.

They do look happy. It is hard to watch them period, but especially without Isaiah beside me. Most days I can pretend he is out on the farm; he spent most of his waking hours there and I didn’t begrudge him that. Those early years were the cotton ones. Working on the halves, Isaiah would fill a sack with fiber he pulled from the dried bolls, then carry the sack to the wagon, weigh it, dump it out clean, and some days he’d report picking over five hundred pounds. It didn’t matter though, not when it was time to settle up, and Mr. Dennis’s mouth would run in circles about the cost of seeds, tools, jackets, fertilizer; my husband couldn’t write enough to record, and even if he could, no white man would have read it; more times than not, we’d come out with fifty cents for the month. “This little bitty money,” he’d toss it at the table, but I’d stretch it, baby. I’d sell eggs and mend seams, and he’d fix clocks and guns, and we’d stretch it, and inside our house, we didn’t talk about Mr. Dennis. We didn’t think about him either. Because of that it is the nights that are merciless, the nights and occasions like these—

“You any keener on her?” Link asks.

I look at Link. We came here together after the war. Different plantations, but both motherless, we’d walk the turn row to town together. People say I have started to favor her, or her me, not just in the way we laugh with our heads back and our shoulders shaking, or because we say in our scratched-up voices all right instead of hello when someone greets us. No, our noses have plumped, our eyes have narrowed, the skin on our necks is slack, and more than once I’ve had to inform a young person we weren’t born sisters. I say that to say it is not possible to lie to her.

I shake my head.

“Time has a way of working that stuff out. And babies.”

“Lord willing,” I say. Though a part of me is afraid of their new family, on behalf of Jericho, sure, but also for me. I hadn’t foreseen living so long. Most people I talk to are half my age; Link got the sugar and lost three toes on her left foot, my son and his bride haven’t made it to my table yet, and though the pig was masterful, I have a taste in the back of my tongue like soot. When they finally reach me, it feels like the only way to purge that metallic flavor is to speak.

Before I can even say Congratulations, I start.

“Eliza, can I take you aside for a moment?”

She follows me to a part of the yard where the music isn’t swallowing our words whole.

“It was a beautiful ceremony,” she says. “And the food, I haven’t tried it, but everybody is complimenting us. I told them it was all—”

“Jericho James has just as much a right to Major as you do,” I cut in. “He’s his son.”

“I know that,” she talks in that squeak she uses and for the first time I want to lay her across my knee the way I would my own daughters. They aren’t with me—one followed her husband north and the other one followed hope in the same direction, but I’d take my own hand to them both if they hadn’t learned by now that there are times when it’s safe to let your voice ring out in this world.

My words are stuck in my throat. I didn’t expect her to mold to my touch.

“Well, if you know that, then you know he’s gotta start sleeping there like it’s his home. It was improper at first; boy needed a mama after his own run off, and I had to see to his meals, teach him how to use the bathroom, clean after himself, but now he’s older and I’m not going to be here forever.”

“I know that.”

“Oh. You know that, huh? Well, see to it that he sleeps with you beginning tonight then. First night will set the tone for the rest of your marriage. He’ll think of you a certain way if you let him know at the jump he’s one of you.”

“He is. Me letting him know that won’t be an act or a show, just the truth. Listen, Miss Josephine, I made a vow up there in front of that preacher and all of you to wed myself with Major, and I didn’t just mean Major, I meant Jericho James, and you.”

“Well, good then.” I nod. It wasn’t too often I caught myself speechless. I credit it to the fact that the girl knows her letters, not makeshift from the slave master’s daughter who wasn’t but nine years old herself, but from an actual teacher, who had been trained by a white woman. I was proud of that when Major first told me, but the more time went on it began to unsteady me. I had thought of the world a certain way, but a different picture of it had been painted and there were countries I hadn’t even known existed.

“All right then,” I repeat. “It was a mighty fine ceremony.” And I walk off adjusting my hat. I slip on the way back to my seat and more than a few young men reach for my arm, but I steady myself; even if they hadn’t been there, I would have been all right.



ON OUR WAY HOME, WE GLIMPSE THE NEW WHITE NEIGHBORS out front. They don’t live but a rock’s throw from me, the only property in my line of sight that I don’t own. The small farm used to be the overseer’s, and I can’t glance at it without wanting to spit. Now these new people grow a few crops: corn, and I’ve noticed them picking peas and bedding sweet potatoes. They moved in a few months back, just finished closing in their chickens with hog wire, but I haven’t ventured to say five words to them. Today, despite my misgivings, I feel like nothing can touch me.

“All right,” I nod, and tip my hat. A young couple, no kids yet. The man has always been the one to speak; I catch him some mornings selling fish from an ice chest. The girl just drags behind him like a dog enduring a bad foot. As we talk, guests from the wedding ride by on the winding gravel. Oaks flank the lane, which is just wide enough for one mule at a time. I know the full names of everybody who passes. They wave at me, then shoot one quick glance at the neighbors and speed off.

“We didn’t want to interrupt. We heard the noise out front. Sounds like you had a party.” This from the man of course.

“My son got married.”

“Married, huh? Well, congratulations. Who’s the lucky girl?”

I nod behind me though I know they can’t see that far back. “Gal in the white.”

“Well, I’ll be. We didn’t formally meet, but my name is Vern; this is my wife, Charlotte.”

“How do you do?”

They reach their hands out, but I know better than to take them. Most of their kind live closer to town and for that very reason, we try to stay put. Link’s nephew is the one to stuff mattresses and weave baskets; Isaiah’s cousins sell charcoal and animal traps; we run our own syrup mills, break our own horses, carve our own tables, cut our own hair, and aside from selling cotton or trading in the store, our paths and white people’s do not converge.

“Well, it’s been a long day,” I say. “I’ll be heading back in.”

“Of course, of course. We’ll be seeing you around then. Say, my wife could use some company during the day. I notice you’re home—”

I turn back to him. I would have been more surprised if Jesus had turned up at the front door and asked me for a cup of sugar. Not but one hundred feet apart in residence but this white man has his well and I have mine. Yes, our clotheslines only hang a few feet apart, but as soon as my items dry, I fold them into my drawer. It’s the white folks whose underthings swing in the night breeze.

“Listen, I got children and grandchildren who need me. Clients too.” I don’t deliver as many babies as I had in my youth, but some mothers still call. “I cook three meals and take in some laundry.” I raise my hands. I’m more than a little surprised at how my words have streamed out like they’d been waiting for him. “I’m still wondering when the Lord is going to add more hours to the day, but until he hears me . . .” I trail off. They laugh at the joke about God, and I close the door and click the bolt behind me.



I DON’T NORMALLY LOCK UP. IN FACT YOU CAN FIND ME rocking on my porch most nights until the wind cuts through my shawl. The Klan isn’t deep here like they used to be in Link’s sister’s side of town. Not only that, I’m still marveling at the change: down the hill, the houses were so close to the marsh mosquitos ate us for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert; either that, or we closed the windows and suffocated in the heat. Here the night air feels like God close up, whispering his secrets, and I’m liable to stare at the butter beans and mustard greens my husband laid the groundwork for like it’s the seventh day.

Today is different though. Aside from the wedding, which was of course a joyous occasion, it seems like those neighbors got something sticky about themselves they were trying to pass off, press inside me, and I need more of a barrier than normal. I collapse on my bed before I even take off my shoes. I don’t know how long I am out, but when I hear the knock it’s clear it’s been sounding for some time. I jerk up, reach for my kerosene lamp and light it. Like I said, there isn’t any Klan, not yet, but Link talked about them like they were supernatural, an army of ghosts riding around with bullets peppered through them. Not only that, there was burning and looting, lynching too. Link’s kin had to stay by me for two weeks last winter after those devils shot a man for standing in front of a white woman at the general store. The memory of it sits low in my mind today, and for that reason I look through the hole my son drilled through the door before I answer. Oh. It is only Jericho.

I open up fast, set a pot of milk on the wood stove to boil; there are always roasted peanuts and he grabs a handful and tosses them back.

He sits down at the table. I had heard Eliza tell Link that today was the best day of her life. She would never forget it, but Jericho looks like he won’t forget it either, only for opposite reasons.

“What is it? You look like somebody been hainted.” The fireplace is out but I reignite it, add a couple pieces of lumber to the pit.

He shakes his head but he doesn’t say a word.

“What is it? I thought you was sleeping over by them tonight.”

He shakes his head again.

I stand all of a sudden, and the pine floor seems to bend with my weight. The sadness is too much for me to bear. I only met his mama a few times, but I’d been shocked when she up and left a three-month-old in my arms. A baby who had gotten used to the breast, and I had to drip milk from my cows onto his tongue with a medicine dropper. I shudder each time I remember the nights: he’d rumble awake at the sound of my breath shifting and it would start up again, that interminable wail that I’d take to my grave. My life had not been easy by any account, and I was surprised to realize, old as I was, finished as I thought I was, that that wail would be the hardest thing I’d endure.

I reach for my coat. “Where is she? I told her it was your house. I told her if she couldn’t abide that, we wouldn’t abide her. In so many words, I told her that.” I can hear myself huffing. I have always been a little too quick to anger; anybody who knows me knows you never have to wonder what I am thinking, but that trait looks different on me now. I don’t have to see a reflection to know it can read as sad. I can’t always keep my footing these days.

“She told me I could stay there, Mama,” he says, reaching for my hand.

It takes a while for his words to hold; I had become so worked up.

“What do you mean?” I ask. “Then why are you here?”

“I wanted to be here, Mama. I didn’t want to be anywhere else.”

“Oh,” I sit down. The milk is bubbling, but I’d get it in a second. “Oh,” I repeat. “Well, I suppose that’s okay,” I say. Him staying is more than okay. “I got some pig lips I set aside for us this morning,” I say.

He nods. “I didn’t have much of an appetite earlier.”

“That’s understandable.”



THOUGH HE IS TWELVE WE STILL SLEEP IN THE SAME room, and when I am done with the dishes, I lie down on the bed opposite him. I close my eyes, a drift away from that other world, unrecognizable faces and names already pulsing inside my mind, when he pats my arm.

“Mama?”

“Yes, son?”

“Can you tell me the story again?”

“It’s too late,” I say. I don’t remember what I just gave up but it was sweet, I know that, as sweet as anything I can dredge up from my own, real life.

“Please,” he whispers.

I prop up on one arm. Maybe I spoil him.

“He’s a black man in this world,” Major has scolded me. “You got him used to sweetness when life gon’ be tart.”

“Somebody’s got to do it,” I always shout back. “Doesn’t make it any more tart because you have known sweetness. If anything, the sweetness levels it out for you.” That’s what I’d say, but I have no way of knowing.

Of course Major isn’t only protecting Jericho. He resents me. I didn’t tell my own children stories, didn’t have the time to, and if I had the time, I certainly didn’t have the breath. I was still a child crafting jump ropes from vines when I was ripped off that plantation, and it took me past adulthood to see straight again, to be inside my body when I was hauling the plow, hammering nails on the fences, planting the cotton, cutting the onions, thickening the roux, marching through the streets with the stink from white people’s dirty clothes wafting off my head, balancing water from the wells, washing and boiling the clothes. I used lye to make soap and wheat bran for starch. I’d hang skirts and short pants on plum bushes. Then I’d heat the iron on the stove, cover it with beeswax, clear it, wet the garments, and run that iron back and forth. At least once a month, a bell would ring for me and I’d carry my sassafras and castor oil to a screaming woman’s house to thin the time between her contractions. I soaked beans and braided hair and sewed dresses for my children, but I didn’t bother to tell them I loved them.

“Okay,” I say now. “What story should it be?”

“The one where you died and came back to life.”

I nod. That is his favorite, and as far as memories go, it is harmless.

“You not sick of that one?” I ask, buying time.

He shakes his head.

“All right then.”

I clear my throat and lean my head against the pillow. It is hard looking back. As close as I have to be to dying it is easier to look forward than to look back.





Josephine



1855



MY MAMA HAD TWO BABIES BEFORE ME. A SISTER AND A brother too, but I never met them. Mama said they had more sense than I did, that they only needed to smell the world to know there was nothing inside it for them. So she was relieved when I came out, when I breathed. She didn’t get close to me anyway, assuming I would catch on too, that I’d be gone any minute, but I stuck around. I held my head up, I sat, I stood, I fed myself cut-up swamp rabbits or fish, I spoke. I ran. And she wiped my mouth and hemmed my skirts; she taught me how to make beds out of dry grass and talk to white folks with my head down and my words dull. But she held on to her heart too; she didn’t let it lead her.

Then one morning she was boiling clothes outside the cabins, and Vera screamed for her to come quick. My mama dropped a wet shirt on her foot and didn’t flinch at the burn. She raced up to the cabin where Vera nursed all the babies too young to hold their heads up. Mama realized then that she was wrong—all the hope she thought she had buried with the other children had been there all along, snaking its way through her. She reached me, and it was too late, I was gone.

Vera closed my eyes, clutched my mama to her, and let her wail.

Still there was no use. Vera alerted Tom and Missus, and they told my daddy to carve a pine box, and Mama said the worst part was that she had let herself be fooled again.

They let her hold the body one night. She had to burn sage to keep the gnats and wasps off me, and she did the only thing she could do: she slept beside me on a pallet on the dirt floor. She was awakened sometime before dusk. She stood, but she said it wasn’t her feet she stood on. They were heavier with calluses and age, the feet of a woman who had worked in fields. She said too that she carried a weight on her she wasn’t accustomed to, and even climbing off her pallet was strenuous. The biggest change was in her mind: it had emptied out and narrowed in a way that relieved her. She knew to make haste for the swamplands. Don’t let the sun rise before you’re back, her mother’s voice sounded in her own mind, the same way she had taught her to stitch moccasins, or cut the watermelon for its rind to rinse her face. That voice was gentle but firm, not like hers, which was heavy as a man’s people said, and she knew.

She reached back just as the night sky was fading. She said a pigeon followed her all the way home. She didn’t have to run. She carried a skirt full of green berries, and she built a fire to boil a tea. I still wasn’t breathing, but she tilted my head and watched the liquid stream down my chin. Call those things which be not as though they were. She could hear her mama’s voice but it was her own trembling fingers that lifted the kettle, tilted the cup. It wasn’t until Vera walked in that I sat up and asked for water. They didn’t give me too much; they were nervous at first, but after I finished drinking, I wanted grits and they boiled them over the fireplace, ladled them with fatback, and let me eat bowl after bowl.

After that, Vera gave me the biggest piece of ham at dinner. I stayed out the fields and just played with Miss Sally all day long; she was the one taught me to read. I started seeing that woman then too, that long brown trail of a woman. She was from another world, but she felt like me; I mean, when she spoke, it felt like the words came out my own mind. Most important though, I got to sit with the Revisioners, sing with them, pray with them. Foresee with them.





Ava



2017



THE NEXT DAY, I RUN SOME LAST-MINUTE ERRANDS, GO back to the block for that old photograph of Mama Josephine, alert the power company, pay the balance on my storage, and then there is something that I’ve been putting off long enough. I need to see my mother. I’m always nervous to make that ride, and today is no different. I’ve never lived farther than twenty minutes away from her, but I still don’t visit more than once a quarter. Even then it’s out of obligation, not desire. I’ve been slow to get on my feet. Married the wrong man, majored in the wrong subject. I have a chemistry degree but can’t translate that into a job paying more than $40k, and that seemed like a lot when I was in my twenties and still married, but every time I looked up, there was another girl texting Byron, simple girls who spelled love luv, who sent half-naked pictures of themselves, their titties sky-high. I worked up the courage to put him out, I loved myself enough to risk it, but not three months after he was gone, I’d drained my savings flat. And that’s all right, I guess. I stopped ordering takeout from Martin’s Wine Cellar, started working weekends at Vincent’s. There was a balance scale set up in Mr. Jeff’s office, but he filled only the left side of it, so it drooped. I used to think that was how my life was, that the filled section was the reality and the empty one was my dreams, and I just had to come to terms with it. But whenever I’m about to see my mother, my self-acceptance begins to wobble.

I pull onto her block. She rented an apartment uptown after Katrina, then once she’d gutted all the walls, and replaced the roof on her old house in the Tremé, she insisted on going back. “Home,” she’d said. “Nothing like it,” though her block is all white now, mostly transplants. There’s still Miss Brown and Mr. Davilier on either side of her, but every other house is a short-term rental, and even Miss Brown is considering selling to developers.

I hear gospel music from the inside.



Give me You, everything else can wait



She doesn’t lock her door anymore, and instead of knocking, I open up. She is finishing one of her sessions. She’d owned her law firm for twenty years, ran it out of the Poydras Center, and she did well on divorces and slip-and-falls primarily, but when I went off to college, she closed up shop, decided to take classes to become a doula. That was around the time she stopped putting ham hocks and sausages in her red beans, started meditating each morning. I wasn’t surprised. My whole childhood, people would come from all over the city for her counsel. One day I leafed through the top drawer of her dresser and found, amid old obituaries and worn stones, scraps of paper asking for me to get the part in the play, for the client to win full custody. All those things had happened, and I was just then seeing her fingerprints.

She said working with the girls had changed her life, and I see the changes sometimes. She’s slower to anger, I confide in her more, matters I’d normally keep to myself, like how I felt when my divorce papers went through. Now her clients, about seven girls, circle around her with their eyes closed, their palms faceup on their thighs. My mother doesn’t look at me, just nods in the direction of the living room, and I know enough to remember what that means: sit down and shut up, and I oblige.

The girls start chanting as I sit, incoherent sounds but the blend of them together is like tasting my mama’s potato salad, the old version with the real mayonnaise. I close my eyes too. As much as it unnerves me to see her now, I miss this part, how sturdy she could be, how sturdy I was on account of growing up beside her. She would walk me to school every morning and tell me things with her hand in mine: three squeezes, for instance, stood for I love you. She taught me to visualize a white light encasing me, protecting me from harm. “Nobody evil can get through that light,” she’d say. “Nobody,” she’d repeat. And people tried. The kids always had a bone to pick with my color; my daddy didn’t come around but once every blue moon, but I got by all that. It didn’t break me, because there was at least a small chance that that white light she mentioned was blooming from inside me.

“Just breathe,” she says to the girls now. “Just breathe. Whatever comes up through the breath is okay. We don’t have to turn our back on it, we don’t have to look away. No, sit with it, welcome it in, ask it what it has to say. Remember, Yemaya, the Virgin Mary, and your own divine mother sit right above you. They’re always there: they’re threaded in your heart, they’re woven in your words, they move through you, there is nowhere you can be where they are not steady, holding your hand.”

My mother stands up and walks the room, cutting between women whose bellies sit on their legs. One woman with yellow hair threaded through her braids is sobbing. My mother leans down and squeezes her shoulder.

“Ask her to take it, beg her to relieve you of it. You can’t get rid of it without her; ask her to weed out all the jealousy, the pain, the heartache.” She looks around. “Somebody in here got some grief as big as this room; ask her to dig it out of you right now, and she’ll do it. Ask her to lift it off your chest. You don’t need it anymore.” She shifts to a whisper. “Feel her release it from you, she loves it, you don’t have to be embarrassed to hand it off, it’s her joy to receive it, see her cradle it, see her rock it in her love, and watch it turn golden. Watch it turn golden,” she repeats. She stands there for a while in silence, then she walks back to the front of the room and sits again. She just turned fifty-eight, but she seems lovelier each year. She doesn’t do makeup, doesn’t need to. Her waist-length dredlocks are wrapped in a bright blue-and-pink patterned scarf, and she wears a long cotton black dress that hugs her soft curves when it sways. She has cancer though. Has for three years, and won’t get chemo for it.

She calls it poison, and she takes her herbs and seems to live at the acupuncture clinic on Canal. I don’t worry about her in a way that shows, but in the back of my mind I’m always primed for the phone to ring.

She releases the girls in a prayer, and they approach her one by one to say goodbye.

“Love you, Gladys,” they whisper in her ear as they embrace.

They are teenage girls, many with two jobs, none with stable housing; they’ve got baby daddies and bills holding them below water, like me, but my mother has lifted them to another state just now, and it’s miraculous to behold.

When it’s just us, she walks over and tries to hug me, and I allow it for a minute but not much longer.

I know she’s not going to be happy with me, moving in with the other side, so I want to lay it out fast.

“Mama,” I say, but she cuts me off.

“Girl with the yellow braids lost her baby last time. She needs a lot of support. A lot of support.” She looks up at me like she’s coming out of a trance. “Anyway, I knew you were coming over today. I dreamed that I was on an airplane and we turned back before it ascended fully. Knew immediately what it meant.”

“Mama, what does an airplane have to do with me?”

“Expect the unexpected, it said. My grandmother, Lucille, she talks to me through transportation. Anyway, you look good, glowing. You off from work?”

“More or less,” I say.

“Uh oh. More or less, come into the kitchen. I’m going to need my tea for ‘more or less.’ Expect the unexpected,” she repeats as we walk.

Her kitchen was updated years ago but it still seems new with her granite island countertop overlooking the living room and the beige-and-coffee-brown tiled backsplash. Her floors are hardwood but there are Persian rugs that pop with color, piercing blues and orange and African masks on the wall from a trip to Zimbabwe two winters ago. She framed her favorite inspirational phrases, God is all there is. He is in me and he is me. There’s a pot of jambalaya on the stove. No sausage or shrimp inside, of course, but you wouldn’t know it from the smell, and I might as well be ten years old again wondering if I can have a scoop of ice cream after dinner for dessert.

“Mama, I moved,” I say.

She places a kettle of water on to boil and then walks over to stand beside me.

I know what she’s thinking, Again, and I wait for her to say it but it doesn’t come.

“It must be nice,” she says smiling. “You look happy, it must be nice.” She sounds almost desperate to believe what she’s saying.

“It is, Mama. I want you to see it. It’s really nice.”

“Well, where is it?” she asks. I hear the kettle go off. But she doesn’t get up to pour the water. She just looks at me.

“I moved in with Grandma Martha,” I say, and she takes it in. I remember when King was a baby and I would tell him no. He wouldn’t always react right away; sometimes he had to find his way over to the scream.

I keep talking to fill the void.

“She needed extra help at night. I was just laid off, and even when I was working, I was missing King. Some of the kids at school were after him. I told you about the fight.”

She nods.

“She’s paying me my old salary. Double when you consider it’s rent-free. Can you imagine what I can do with that money? No rent to pay. By the end of the year, I was thinking I could have enough saved up to buy.” I lower my voice. I’m scared just saying it. “A townhouse or something, nothing too big, but . . .”

She smiles, and I feel the release of the weight of the words inside me.

“What do you think?” I ask. “I would have asked you first, but it just came to me, like inspiration, you always say, and I didn’t want to have to ask for permission. I’m thirty-four now. I’m a grown-ass woman, and I guess I just got tired of running everything by my mama first.” I want to keep talking to smooth over the awkwardness building, but there’s nothing more to say.

She doesn’t respond for a while, just keeps staring at me.

“You did the right thing,” she says finally. “It seems to me you did the right thing.” She nods, while she thinks it over, like somebody tasting food, considering if she should add salt. “I mean, I always thought you would be such a good doula. If you wanted to try that now, it seems like it’d be the perfect time. You just have a special way with people when they’re not at their best. When you were a little girl, you’d always know when I needed an extra hug. On airplanes, grown people would sit next to you, tell you their secrets, stories they’d never shared with anyone else.” She stops herself. “Never mind, you did right, girl. I’m proud of you,” and she is that warm and loving woman I’ve glimpsed more with her clients than with me, but I’ll take it, especially because I never have to wonder what my mother is thinking. If she says it, it’s real.

“Thank you, Mama,” I say.

She goes for the tea.

“King in school,” she goes on. “You all closer with each other.” She is still nodding as she passes me my cup. “That all sounds right on, baby girl,” she repeats.

“Thank you, Mama,” I say. “I’m so relieved to hear you say that.”

She pauses to drink. “I’m not going to be here forever, you know.”

I set my own cup down. I hate it when she talks like this.

“It’s true, it’s true. Might as well face it, it’s the one thing we can count on. And you need to be self-sufficient once I’m gone, like you’re doing,” she adds. “Like you’re doing.”

I see her skin has become looser around the neck. I’ve heard enough this week about mortality, so when she suggests going to the back to work in her garden, I am right behind her.

She is nimble and quick on her feet. There’s a chair planted in the dirt and I sit and watch her while she knifes the stems of okra just above their caps. She talks while she works: she says that she still remembers the smell of the earth on her grandmother Lucille’s farm, that she never met her great-great-grandmother but that she knew she was a slave, that she’s been thinking about her more and more lately.

“Josephine,” she says, like I’ve never heard her say the name before. “Isn’t that pretty? I almost named you after her, but your daddy—” she shakes her head.

I tell her how happy I’ve been since I’ve moved, like all my mistakes from the past have been upended. I tell her about dinner the night before, how well I slept.

I lose time sitting there and when I look at my watch, it is after three, and I have to pick up King.

“Kiss him for me, you hear?” she calls out, running her fingers through the vegetables in her pail, and then she starts to say something, stops herself, then starts up again.

“And that lady, I know she’s good to you now,” she says. “And I’m happy for you, I am. But don’t forget you work for her. Don’t forget what she’s capable of. You’re her granddaughter, so it’s different, but I have to tell you, she wasn’t good to me. It was a different time back then, but I never forgot it.”

There she is, my old mother, but I don’t get upset hearing that. It soothes me rather; in this time of change, it is nice to be put at ease.

“Don’t get so caught up in the surroundings. Remember who you are. What did I used to tell you? Brilliant, beautiful girl. You have the power of your ancestors coursing through your veins.”

And I could have and I did. Until I met King’s daddy and twelve months later, I had dropped out of school and was cleaning up honey mustard sauce at the Burger King on Bullard. I went back to college when King turned two, finished even, but by then, the kids who had attended Ben Franklin with me had lapped me. I head west on I-10 now, get off on Claiborne, make a left on Napoleon, hit St. Charles. The Tulane girls run up and down the trolley tracks with their itty-bitty shorts on, and with the soft rhythm of the streetcars growing fainter in my ear, the mansions’ gas lamps flickering, I pass them by.





THINGS ARE SMOOTH FOR THE NEXT FEW WEEKS. I AM tentative at first, a new guest, asking where the dry towels are in the morning, tiptoeing around Binh to pour the rum for the Dr. No’s my boy at Cure taught me, but by the end of the week I have made myself at home. I am calling up to King about cinnamon rolls, reorganizing the pantry so my grits are in the forefront. King is rifling through the fridge on his own initiative to make double meat sandwiches and lying down on the sofa to play Fortnite. Of course he makes friends, but it’s different this time. They’re little girls mostly, skinny white ones with blond hair they pull back in scrunchies, which are in again I guess. The main ones are named Harper and Claire, they wear tight yoga pants and neon shirts, and they wait with him until I pull up; then they follow him to the car, passing him notes, and hugging him, all, “Love ya, King.”

And to my absolute shock and horror, he responds. “Love you too.”

“Love you?” I turn to the backseat as we pull out. “What the hell is that about?”

He laughs. “Mama, they don’t really love me, it’s just how they say see you soon.”

“They better damn well say see you soon then,” I say. “I don’t like that,” I add.

“Calm down, Mama, they’re nice,” he goes on. “You said you wanted me to get comfortable.”

“I didn’t mean that comfortable,” I mumble, but I hear him. It’s nice to know he’s relaxing. In our old house, he’d bus home alone, and scramble together fragments of leftovers from the fridge. Here, I heat up exotic meals from the night before and sit with him while he starts his homework. It’s strange at first. I’m always trying to vacuum or chop onions only for Grandma to remind me there’s somebody here to do that for me, but I start to settle into the quiet. I hadn’t known how tired I was until I had the chance to sit down.

On the other hand, every now and then I yearn for a space of my own. Nothing outright unpleasant has happened. But as big as the house is, sharing it with Grandma makes it seem like close quarters. I am privy to the sounds of her sneezing, her clearing her throat, her women’s group filling up the dining room table knitting personalized pussy hats and weeping about Trump. She takes a nap at noon sprawled out on the sofa and her mouth hangs open. She usually dresses like her old self, but sometimes she comes downstairs uncharacteristically, once without her teeth and then a different time wearing large gold rings I wouldn’t have known she owned strewn out on every finger. I haven’t smelled the foul smell since that first time, but I am always on the lookout for it, and as much as I love her, I didn’t grow up with her, not really, and the intimacy of her decline feels too up-front.

It’s not only that, I can’t sleep, and when I do sleep, I don’t stay that way. I wake up and stare at the window. I’ve been having the same kinds of dreams as the first night, ghastly dreams that light up a sickening feeling I can’t place, and I am up with a start but it’s hard to remember anything concrete, only that someone was chasing me and nearly at my heels.

It doesn’t matter. I don’t dare complain. My money is piling up in my top drawer, cash because Grandma says she won’t allow me to throw half away to the man. I don’t fight her on it, but I count the bills each night for comfort. And King is happy. Every day he shares something he’s learned: coding, playwriting, film editing. For a midsemester project, he and the girls put together a music video to “24K Magic.” The camera shook so much it made me dizzy, and the girls danced like, well, bless their hearts, it was sweet to watch. I was just glad to see King’s curiosity is being stoked, and he’s safe—that’s all that matters.



THE LITTLE WHITE GIRLS HE BEFRIENDS HAVE MOTHERS. One day I’m waiting outside my car for King and I see them hurrying over to me, turning to each other and whispering, then picking up their pace. I’m on guard because of how pressed they seem but if I read it right, they are also giddy. They both have blond highlights, their brown roots poking out to say hello, but one wears lipstick and high boots with leggings and one is in workout gear with her hair pulled back in a bun.

“Are you King’s mom?” the overdressed one asks. She’s already smiling like she just can’t help herself.

I nod.

“I’m Claire’s mom.” She holds her hand out.

“And I’m Harper’s,” the other one follows suit.

I wait for the problem, for them to say something crazy about King hanging out with their girls. I prepare my response. If I’m honest, it’s been there waiting. I’ll tell them that King has a charm, that people from all walks of life are attracted to him, that it’s always been that way. I’ll tell them it’s their girls who call him every night and who initiate the texts, I’ve checked the phone. I’ll tell them that it’s harmless, that all they’re texting about is Bruno Mars, the Weeknd, and Janelle Monae, and he teaches them slang from his old school, but he doesn’t use curse words, I make sure of that myself. If they want it to stop, I’ll tell them to tell their girls to leave him alone, that King has options. But they are still smiling.

“We think it’s so great that the girls have taken to him so,” the dressy one says.

“Oh?”

“Yeah, I mean they’ve always had each other. We went to Loyola together and the girls were in a nanny share, but it’s so nice to see them branching out.” This is from the athlete.

“I can already tell Claire’s more confident,” the dressy one says. “The teacher says she’s raising her hand more in class. She used to be so painfully shy, except with Harper.” The woman seems to be tearing up.

“We even have a name for them.”

“Three’s Company,” the athlete says.

“Three’s Company,” the dressy one repeats.

“I know it’s cheesy,” the athlete concedes, “but we think it’s so cute.”

“Did you ever watch that show?” the dressy one asks. “You’re probably too young. You look way younger than we do. We started late.”

“And I had to get IVF,” the athlete interjects.

The dressy one starts humming the theme song to the show, and the athlete joins her.

Sure enough, Three’s Company walk out now, arms linked, King in the middle. The mothers are singing, filling in the chorus with dance moves not unlike their daughters’ in the video. And a tension I didn’t know I was carrying seems to clear.

I’m so relieved I could join them in singing.

Instead we wave goodbye and get into the car. Grandma was napping when I left so King and I drive to Audubon Park for him to skateboard, then to my favorite snowball stand for a medium blue coconut cup for me and a large strawberry cheesecake for him. We walk down Magazine Street, window-shop in antique stores I can’t afford, and that used to bother me, but it feels like there’s a change on the horizon and I look in at the French side tables and armoires with an interest that feels justified, like it might lead me somewhere. The whole while I’m walking, I can’t get that song out of my head. I was too young to watch the show when it aired but Grandma Martha would play the reruns in the summer.



Come and dance on our floor

Take a step that is new

We’ve a lovable space that needs your face

Three’s company too



It’s dinnertime when I get back. King changes his clothes, and I look for Grandma Martha. She’s not downstairs or in her room. I check the library with its wall-to-wall bookshelves, Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, and a first-edition copy of To Kill A Mockingbird that Grandma Martha says she rereads each year. She’s not there either, and not in the study, the garage, or even out back in the yard with the fountain. Finally, I remember the laundry room and wind my way past the old servants’ quarters, and there she is, sitting in front of the washing machine hunched down, rubbing the crook in her neck. She’s wearing a bold pink sweater and red slacks. It would be unusual for her to choose just one of those colors, but her having paired them is alarming.

“Grandma Martha,” I say, approaching. “Is everything okay?”

“I’ve been looking everywhere for you, girl,” she snaps, and there is rage in her eyes.

She’s never spoken to me like that, but I am troubled more than offended.

“Are you okay?” I repeat.

“No.” She bursts into tears. “I can barely move my neck,” she says, “and you were supposed to be here.”

I settle in next to her when she won’t budge. I hold out my arms and she falls into them. Her face is wet against my chest. I look down and see a small line of blood trickling down her temple.

“Grandma, what happened?” I repeat, louder this time, reaching for a Kleenex in my purse. She says it’s nothing, that she didn’t notice her bathroom medicine cabinet was open, and I can see the flow of the blood has already ebbed. As she’s explaining, her medical alert goes off.

“Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”

She tells them it was a mistake, and she’s fine, and they hang up.

“Fix it,” she turns back to me. “Fix it, fix it.”

“Let me get a Band-Aid,” I say rising.

“No, not that, that’s nothing. I’m talking about the ache.” She points to the base of her neck, shouting all the while, until I am at work, curving my hands around her shoulder. She closes her eyes and moans, and I look away. It seems too intimate to witness so much pleasure, and to be the source of it. I am not quite sure what it stirs up in me.

“When did the pain start?” I ask to distract myself.

“About a month ago,” she says. “When I called you. It’s terrible, growing older, Ava,” she says. She is sobbing now. “You don’t know what to expect from one day to the next. Nothing stays the same, everything you thought you could count on is snatched out from under your feet, one at a time, in no particular order, no rhyme or reason.”

I am still kneading the spot, with the bottom of my palms now. “Nothing to be afraid of,” I say. “You got me now, and King.” I am still rubbing.

“For now, but you’re going to leave. Like today, I looked and looked, and you were nowhere to be found.”

“We’re not leaving, Grandma.” I say. “We’re staying right here.”

She pauses. “So everything’s going to be okay?” she asks, and she sounds like a little girl in a way that makes me want to both reassure her and pull her upright, remind her of her true age.

I’m too uncomfortable not to say something back. “Better than okay,” I say.

“You sure, Ava?” She winces all of a sudden.

“Did I hurt you?” I ask. I realize that despite how little she sounds, how powerless, I’m afraid.

“No, the opposite, you got it.” She wobbles her head back and forth. “Perfect,” she says.



LATER, KING EATS HIS DINNER FAST, THEN ASKS TO BE excused. I can hear him from the kitchen talking to the girls on three-way. I take my time clearing the table, then making my old favorite, measuring the Cocchi Americano, the sweet vermouth, even carving out the curl of the lemon peel. I am procrastinating checking on Grandma Martha. She has her nurse who comes by to monitor her bath most nights, but I have been the one to tuck her in since I moved in. Only tonight after her episode—which is still pressing on me—I’m not sure what I’ll find.

When I arrive upstairs, I am relieved to see she’s still sleeping away. I head back down to my own room and start to unpack. My great-great-great-grandmother’s picture has been in a box since my first week here, and I stare at it for a while. Every time I see it, I notice a new thing; this time it’s the fear in her eyes. She wasn’t only lonely, she was afraid, of being by herself in a world that she had only started to manage with her husband beside her. I hear a series of creaks above me, footsteps. Grandma was sleeping but she must have woken up. The nurse is up there if she needs anything. I wash my face and take my earrings off, lay them down on the dresser, and sit on the edge of my bed. I am about to lie down when I hear glass breaking, as sharp as if it’s my own bedroom mirror that has been busted. I race downstairs and check all the windows but they’re secure. I open the front door, and a black boy not much older than King is squatted in the next-door neighbors’ driveway, reaching inside their new Lexus SUV. He looks up at me and we lock eyes before he dashes away. The neighbors are out now. They want answers, and they look at me with disdain, like I was the one who caused the scene. After they examine the car, they call the police. It doesn’t take long for the officers to arrive and draft a report. One of them asks me if I caught a face, a vague description. I shake my head. “Nothing,” I say, and I turn back inside.





THE NEXT DAY I DRIVE KING BACK TO THE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD to see his friend. Central City has struggled, and you see it in the empty lots and boarded-up windows, but new restaurants and shops are popping up on O. C. Haley, and of course there are the neighborhood’s anchors: Ashé Cultural Arts Center where King and I would go for open mics and drum workshops; Café Reconcile where I’d treat myself on Mondays to red beans and bananas Foster bread pudding. As ready as I was to leave this place, in a way it’s a relief to be back, to see the older women sitting on the porches of bright shotguns snapping green beans, the young men kneeling over their front lawns, resuscitating old cars. We reach the apartments and I almost want to pull into my own spot. Crossing the lawn for Senait’s front door, we have to bypass flat bags of Lay’s potato chips and empty cans of Coke. I know it wasn’t Senait. I remember having to wake up every morning and sort through the trash some roamer had left on my stoop the night before.

When we get inside it’s just like old times. King grabs red soda and Cheetos from Senait’s kitchen and carries them into the back with the kids to watch YouTube videos. I sit at the table while my friend cuts chicken tenders for dinner. She passes me salt and vinegar potato chips and a jar of sliced pickles, and for some reason, telling her I’m not supposed to be eating that stuff makes me feel better about tearing open the bag, sliding my fingers into the juice. As she slices around the chicken fat, she catches me up.

“Sandra’s son’s girlfriend had the baby, a lil’ girl, and they named her Aubrey. She look just like her daddy.”

“And Destiny’s daddy got out the other week. They had a lil’ party for him but I had to work.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t take off, with his fine ass.”

“Girl, you know I tried, but I’m already only four days on, three days off. He ain’t worth losing my whole job.” She furrows her brow, like she’s considering what she just said. “At least I don’t think he is.”

We laugh.

“I miss you,” I say.

“Please, you got the maid and the butler and the cook.”

“I’m not gon’ lie, Binh can show you how to fry some chicken. He can show your mama too. I brought you some of his yaka mein.” I pat the Tupperware in my tote.

I pause. “I don’t know though. My grandmother, she’s family and all that, but it’s weird, living in somebody else’s house. And King’s the only black kid in his class. I don’t want him to become all golly gee.”

“Not golly gee. What the hell is golly gee?”

“You remember Carlton from The Fresh Prince?”

I stand up and start snapping my fingers, switching my hips, and she laughs.

“Seriously though, it might affect his self-esteem,” I say, sitting down.

“Self-esteem? I know you doing fine if you talking about self-esteem.”

“You saw the news?” she asks.

I nod. Two boys King’s age had been shot around the corner a few nights ago. One of them had died and the other one was hanging on at Ochsner Hospital.

“He’s going to live,” she goes on, “but that’s the worst part. They got him in the brain. He won’t be able to dress himself again. At least they didn’t kill him.” She shakes her head.

“You know I don’t like to be negative. I’m only bringing that up so you remember, you lucky you got King out of here,” she says.

I know that. “I’m grateful,” I say. I almost don’t say the next part. It seems extravagant, but I’m not as comfortable as I hoped I’d be, as I was that first night.

I pause again, then go on. “And then he hangs out with these white girls,” I say.

She looks up at that. “Not white girls.”

“Yeah, white girls. Claire and Harper.”

“Hmph.” She is dipping the chicken in egg yolks, then flour. When the pieces hit the pan the grease pops and sizzles. “You might want to watch that,” she says.

“I know,” I say. “That’s why I brought it up. I am.”

“Ain’t too long before they’re acting like he’s coming on to them or something.”

I shake my head. “Then again, the mothers are really nice. They came up and introduced themselves the other day. They were singing and—”

“Yeah, they’re nice today,” she cuts me off, “singing off-key and shit, but you better believe they’re watching, and if he even hugs those lil’ girls too hard.”

“Maybe you’re right.”

“Ain’t no maybe about it.”

I can see the chicken skin browning.

“You just be careful, girl. You don’t want to be going from one kind of danger to another.”

King walks into the kitchen and sits at the table beside me, takes out his phone.

“Aren’t you supposed to be playing with Nathan?” I ask.

“They don’t say playing, Mom,” he says, but he doesn’t budge either. For the rest of the time I’m there, he’s right next to me, and he only nods at his friend when it’s time to leave.



ON THE WAY BACK, I PROD HIM FOR ANSWERS—HE HAD been the one begging me to go to Senait’s—but he just offers up that middle school silence, so I let it go.

My mother calls when I get home. She’s in a good mood, says she had a doctor’s appointment in the area, and wants to stop by and see the new place.

“Of course,” I say. Ordinarily, I’d be hesitant, but lately it’s just been me and Grandma and I could use somebody else, even if it is my mother. I sit with Grandma until her nap, then I straighten up the pillows on the sofa, dust the shelves, vacuum the rugs though there is nothing on them. Still I am embarrassed at what my mother will see, the pictures of old white people on every wall. They are stern and unrelenting in their eyes, and I wonder for the first time how they’d feel about me eating off their china. I remember my great-great-great-grandmother upstairs and hurry for the frame. It is hard to know where to place her, but I choose an end table in the corner. You’d only see her there if you were looking, but once you found her, you wouldn’t misplace her again.

My mother is smiling when I open the door. I lead her in and she walks from one end of the living room to the other. She’s been here before and she doesn’t seem as awed as King was. She finds Josephine’s picture immediately and moves her hand out to touch it then pulls it back like something might bite her.

King comes bounding down the stairs.

“There’s my boy,” she says. She hugs him, then she reaches into her pocketbook for a tin can. Pralines. “I just made them,” she sings. “I think they’ve cooled.”

We sit down on the sofa, then he fishes for the biggest piece, takes a bite.

“Yooo.” He closes his eyes. “Yooo, Maw Maw, this is out of this world. This is better than the praline man that sells them for a dollar outside my old school. You could sell these, you know.”

She nods. “I know. None of that devil dairy in there either,” she says.

“You don’t miss it neither,” King says, reaching for another one.

She fidgets in her seat, still looking around. “So what, is it a holiday I didn’t know about?”

“Parent–teacher appreciation,” I say back.

“Um-hmm, seem like the better the school is, the less time they actually have you in there.”

King and