Excerpt

An American Marriage

Tayari Jones

February 8, 2018 
The following is from Tayari Jones's novel, An American Marriage. Roy and Celestial are living an ideal life as newlyweds: he's a young executive, she's an up-and-coming artist, and they're looking to start a family. But their plans are put on hold when Roy is arrested for a crime he didn't commit and sentenced to 12 years in prison. An American Marriage was recently selected for Oprah's Book Club. Tayari Jones's previous novels include Silver Sparrow and The Untelling.

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who leave home, and those who don’t. I’m a proud member of the first category. My wife, Celestial, used to say that I’m a country boy at the core, but I never cared for that designation. For one, I’m not from the country per se. Eloe, Louisiana, is a small town. When you hear “country,” you think raising crops, baling hay, and milking cows. Never in my life have I picked a single cotton boll, although my daddy did. I have never touched a horse, goat, or pig, nor have I any desire to. Celestial used to laugh, clarifying that she’s not saying I’m a farmer, just country. She is from Atlanta, and there was a case to be made that she is country, too. But let her tell it, she’s a “southern woman,” not to be confused with a “southern belle.” For some reason, “Georgia peach” is all right with her, and it’s all right with me, so there you have it.

Celestial thinks of herself as this cosmopolitan person, and she’s not wrong. However, she sleeps each night in the very house she grew up in. I, on the other hand, departed on the first thing smoking, exactly seventy-one hours after high school graduation. I would have left sooner, but the Trailways didn’t stop through Eloe every day. By the time the mailman brought my mama the cardboard tube containing my diploma, I was all moved into my dorm room at Morehouse College attending a special program for first-generation scholarship types. We were invited to show up two and a half months before the legacies, to get the lay of the land and bone up on the basics. Imagine twenty-three young black men watching Spike Lee’s School Daze and Sidney Poitier’s To Sir with Love on loop, and you either will or will not get the picture. Indoctrination isn’t always a bad thing.

All my life I have been helped by leg-up programs—Head Start when I was five and Upward Bound all the way through. If I ever have kids, they will be able to pedal through life without training wheels, but I like to give credit where it is due.

Atlanta is where I learned the rules and learned them quick. No one ever called me stupid. But home isn’t where you land; home is where you launch. You can’t pick your home any more than you can choose your family. In poker, you get five cards. Three of them you can swap out, but two are yours to keep: family and native land.

Article continues after advertisement

I’m not talking bad about Eloe. Obviously there are worse native lands; a big-picture mind can see that. For one, Eloe may be in Louisiana, not a state brimming with opportunity, but it is located in America, and if you’re going to be black and struggling, the United States is probably the best place to do it. However, we were not poor. Let me make that extra-strength clear. My daddy worked too hard at Buck’s Sporting Goods by day plus handymanning in the evenings, and my mother spent too many hours fixing trays at the meat-and-three for me to act like we had neither pot nor window. Let the record show that we had both.

Me, Olive, and Big Roy were a family of three, and we lived in a sturdy brick house on a safe block. I had my own room, and when Big Roy built an extension, I had my own bathroom. When I outgrew my shoes, I never waited for new ones. While I have received financial aid, my parents did their part to send me to college.

Still, the truth is that there was nothing extra. If my childhood were a sandwich, there would be no meat hanging off the bread. We had what we needed and nothing more. “And nothing less,” my mama would have said, and then wrapped me in one of her lemon-drop hugs.

When I arrived in Atlanta, I was under the impression that I had my whole life ahead of me—endless reams of blank paper. And you know what they say: a Morehouse Man always has a pen. Ten years later, my life was at its sweet spot. When anybody said, “Where are you from?” I said, “The A!”—so intimate with the city that I knew her by her nickname. When asked about my family, I talked about Celestial.

We were properly married for a year and a half, and we were happy for that time, at least I was. Maybe we didn’t do happy like other people, but we’re not your garden-variety bourgeois Atlanta Negroes where the husband goes to bed with his laptop under his pillow and the wife dreams about her blue-box jewelry. I was young, hungry, and on the come-up. Celestial was an artist, intense and gorgeous. We were like Love Jones, but grown. What can I say? I always had a weakness for shooting-star women. When you’re with them, you know that you’re deep into something, none of that hi-and-bye stuff. Before Celestial, I dated this other girl, also born and raised in the A. This girl, as proper as you can picture, she pulled a gun on me at an Urban League gala! I’ll never forget that silver .22 with a pink mother-of-pearl handle. She flashed it inside her purse under the table where we were enjoying steak and au gratin potatoes. She said she knew I was cheating on her with some chick from the Black Bar Association. How can I explain this? I was scared, and then I wasn’t. Only an Atlanta girl could be so classy while doing something so hood. It was love-logic, granted, but I wasn’t sure if I should propose or call the police. We broke up before daybreak, and it wasn’t my decision.

Article continues after advertisement

After Pistol Girl, I lost my touch with the ladies for a minute. I read the news as same as anyone, and I heard about some supposed black man shortage, but it seemed that the good news had yet to make an impact on my social life. Every woman I took a shine to had someone else waiting in the cut.

 

What can I say? I always had a weakness for shooting-star women. When you’re with them, you know that you’re deep into something, none of that hi-and-bye stuff.”

 

A little competition is healthy for all parties involved, but Pistol Girl’s departure got up my skin like chiggers and sent me to Eloe for a few days to talk things over with Big Roy. My father has this alpha-omega way about him, like he was here before you showed up and he would be sitting in his same recliner chair long after you left.

“You don’t want no woman that brandished a firearm, son.”

I tried to explain that what made it remarkable was the contrast between the streetness of the pistol and the glitter of the evening. Besides: “She was playing, Daddy.”

Big Roy nodded and sucked the foam from his glass of beer. “If that’s how she plays, what’s going to happen when she gets mad?”

From the kitchen, as though speaking through a translator, my mother called, “Ask him who she is with now. She might be crazy, but she’s not crazy. Nobody would dismiss Little Roy without somebody on the back bench.”

Big Roy asked, “Your mother wants to know who she is with now.” Like we weren’t all speaking English.

“Some attorney dude. Not like Perry Mason. Contracts. A paperwork sort of person.”

“Aren’t you a paperwork person?” Big Roy asked.

“Totally different. Being a rep, that’s temporary. Besides, paperwork isn’t my destiny. It’s just what I happen to be doing now.”

“I see,” Big Roy said.

My mother was still peanut-gallerying from the kitchen. “Tell him that he is always letting these light-skinned girls hurt his feelings. Tell him he needs to remember some of the girls right here in Allen Parish. Tell him to lift somebody up with him.”

Big Roy said, “Your mother says—” before I cut him off.

“I heard her and didn’t nobody say that girl was light-skinned.” But of course she was, and my mama has a thing about that.

Now Olive came out of the kitchen wiping her hands on a striped dish towel. “Don’t get mad. I’m not trying to get in your business.”

Nobody can really satisfy their mama when it comes to the ladies. All my buddies tell me that their mothers are steady warning them, “If she can’t use your comb, don’t bring her home.” Ebony and Jet both swear up and down that all the black men with two nickels to rub together are opting for the swirl. As for me, I’m strictly down with the brown, and my mama has the nerve to fret about which particular shade of sister I was choosing.

But you would think that she would have liked Celestial. The two of them favored so much that they could have been the ones related. They both had that clean pretty, like Thelma from Good Times, my first TV crush. But no, as far as my mama was concerned, Celestial looked right, but she was from a different world—Jasmine in Bernadette’s clothing. Big Roy, on the other hand, was so taken by Celestial that he would have married her if I didn’t. None of this scored any points with Olive.

“There is only one thing that will win me any ground with your mother,” Celestial once said.

“And what might that be?”

“A baby,” she said with a sigh. “Whenever I see her, she looks me up and down like I might be holding her grandbabies hostage in my body.”

“You exaggerate.” But the truth was, I knew where my mother was coming from. After a year, I was ready to get this show on the road, creating a new generation with an updated set of rules and regulations.

Not that there was anything wrong with the way either one us was brought up, but still, the world is changing, so the way you bring up kids had to change, too. Part of my plan was to never one time mention picking cotton. My parents always talked about either real cotton or the idea of it. White people say, “It beats digging a ditch”; black people say, “It beats picking cotton.” I’m not going to remind my kids that somebody died in order for me to do everyday things. I don’t want Roy III sitting up in the movie theater trying to watch Star Wars or what have you and be thinking about the fact that sitting down eating some popcorn is a right that cost somebody his life. None of that. Or maybe not much of that. We’ll have to get the recipe right. Now Celestial promises that she will never say that they have to be twice as good to get half as much. “Even if it’s true,” she said, “what kind of thing is that to say to a five-year-old?”

She was the perfect balance in a woman, not a button-down corporate type, but she wore her pedigree like the gloss on a patent-leather shoe. In addition, she popped like an artist, without veering into crazy. In other words, there was no pink pistol in her purse, but there was no shortage of passion either. Celestial liked to go her own way and you could tell that from looking at her. She was tall, five nine, flat-footed, taller than her own father. I know that height is the luck of the draw, but it felt like she chose all that altitude. Her hair, big and wild, put her a smidge over my head. Even before you knew she was a genius with needle and thread, you could tell you were dealing with a unique individual. Although some people—and by “some people,” I mean my mama—couldn’t see it, all that’s what was going to make her an excellent mother.

I have half a mind to ask her if we could name our child—son or daughter—Future.

If it had been up to me, we would be all aboard the baby train on our honeymoon. Picture us laid up in a glass-bottom cabana over the ocean. I didn’t even know they had shit like that, but I pretended to be all about it when Celestial showed me the brochure, telling her it was on my bucket list. There we were, relaxing up over the ocean, enjoying each other. The wedding was more than a day behind us because Bali was twenty-three first-class hours away. For the wedding, Celestial had been done up like a doll-baby version of herself. All that crazy hair was wrangled into a ballerina bun and the makeup made her seem to blush. When I saw her floating down the aisle toward me, her and her daddy both were giggling like this whole thing was only a dress rehearsal. There I was, serious as four heart attacks and a stroke, but then she looked up at me and puckered her pink-paint lips in a little kiss and I got the joke. She was letting me know that all of this—the little girls holding up the train of her gown, my morning jacket, even the ring in my pocket—was just a show. What was real was the dance of light in her eyes and the quick current of our blood. And then I smiled, too.

__________________________________

From An American Marriage. Used with permission of Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2018 by Tayari Jones.




More Story
The Shortest Novels Written by 20 Authors You Should've Read By Now So you want to get into Pynchon (or Bolaño, or Morrison, or Woolf) but you're short on time—and perhaps on attention span?...