The following is from Anissa Gray's novel, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls. The Butler family has had their share of trials—as sisters Althea, Viola, and Lillian can attest—but nothing prepared them for the literal trial that will upend their lives. Anissa Gray is an Emmy and duPont-Columbia award-winning journalist at CNN Worldwide. She began her career at Reuters as a reporter, based in New York, covering business news and international finance.
I sit on the floor and rest my back against the bed. Glance down at my watch. Six thirty. Eva will be home from work any minute. No, this very minute. There’s the door.
And there’s her voice.
“I’m back here,” I yell in the direction of the front room. I catch myself squeezing and rubbing my fingers, nervously. A bad habit. I stop and slide my hands under my thighs.
There’s the quick click-click of Eva’s heels on the hardwoods. She appears in the doorway. I note the ponytail, a desperate, rushed, stop‑gap styling measure. And there are the puffy eyes. She’s not sleeping. Neither am I. She looks down at me, leans against the door frame, and crosses her arms. “What are you doing here?”
“I thought maybe I left a pair of shoes behind.”
“I’m pretty sure you took everything.” Her voice nicks, with its knife’s edge. She glances around the room as if to be certain all traces of me were removed when I moved out. Her gaze rests on what used to be my dresser, which was uncluttered by ornamentation even before I left. Her eyes return to me on the floor. “Do you want to tell me why you’re really here?”
I feel caught in a lie, but still I go on: “I guess those shoes could be in a box I haven’t gotten to yet.” In point of fact, I haven’t gotten to any of the boxes yet.
“What are you doing here, Viola?” This time her voice is quieter. The knife, sheathed. “What is it?” She looks at me closely, her eyes roaming over the topography of my face, and I worry that she’ll arrive at the truth. Isn’t it right there in the sharp, high ridges of my cheekbones? In the gaunt gorges of my cheeks? In the squared‑off formation of a jawline that’s unusually pronounced? She hasn’t seen me in days. She’ll notice.
I get to my feet quickly and turn my face away. “I just came for my shoes, like I said. I’ll just . . . never mind. I’ll go.”
“Wait,” she says. “You’re supposed to be in Michigan. You didn’t go to the sentencing?”
“I got held up. Work. I couldn’t make it in time.”
“You promised Lillian you’d be there.”
“I know,” I say, about to sit on the bed but catching myself. That bed doesn’t belong to me anymore. Nothing in this room does. I lower myself to the floor again. “Like I said, I wasn’t able to leave town in time.” I look over at our two khaki‑colored reading chairs sitting expectantly by the window. At the books on Eva’s nightstand: Written on the Body, Dream Work. At the empty nightstand by what used to be my side of the bed. “But I’m going to head up to Michigan when I leave here,” I say.
“Right.” Eva sounds unconvinced.
She sits on the floor beside me. Takes her pumps off and massages one of her high arches. She’s short, even in heels, but she has this particular kind of stature—self‑assurance, genuine earnestness—born of boarding school and Ivy League breeding. She stretches, and I smell home: the faded flowers and vanilla of her perfume; sweat from teaching and student meetings and all the things a good academic does in a day. A good academic. A good, honest woman.
I taste the lies at the back of my throat.
A confession comes up from out of nowhere: “I saw coverage on television. I watched it—stop looking at me like that—I watched it on my laptop.” Sitting there paralyzed on one of my moving boxes. With my car keys in my hand.
She gives me a look that says, It doesn’t have to be this way.
“Would you like me to go with you? Back home?” she asks. “You know I will. Even with things, you know, the way they are.”
“No. I’m good. It’s fine.”
She closes her eyes and pinches the bridge of her nose. Typical exasperation. “Viola, if you’d only—” She stops and shakes her head. “Never mind.”
“What? If I’d only what?”
If only you’d be more open; if only you’d go to couple’s therapy, like I’ve asked; if only you’d get any therapy at this point; if only you were a little less you; if only; if only; if only.
But Eva doesn’t say any of that. She shakes her head and says simply, “Your face. You look thin. I’m worried about you.”
She’s seen. I get up and head for the door. “I should probably get going.”
“Wait,” Eva says, raising her hands and wiggling her fingers for me to pull her up from the floor. When I have her back on her feet, she says, “I have mail. I was going to drop it off at work for you.” She stops and examines my face closely again. “Hasn’t anyone at work noticed? How thin you are?”
“No,” I say. “Because there’s nothing to notice. I’m under a lot of stress, clearly, and like any normal person, my diet is, well, it could be better.”
She shakes her head. “I’ll get your mail.”
I sit on the bed, suddenly too exhausted to care about the division of formerly joint‑owned property.
“You have something,” Eva says, coming back into the bedroom, flipping through the mail pile, and pulling out an envelope, “from Althea. It got here yesterday.”
“Thank you,” I say, accepting the pile. I look down at the envelope written out in Althea’s lovely, calligraphic handwriting. I trace the letters of my name and touch upon a memory. “She taught me cursive,” I say. “Or, rather, she made sure I was good at it. Did you know that?”
“No,” Eva says quietly, sitting down on the bed next to me and resting her hand on my thigh, like older, easier times. “But I’m not surprised.”
I nod, picturing Althea back then, when we were younger, with her Angela Davis afro, her bell‑bottoms and butterfly clogs. “She made me practice, relentlessly. And she would teach me new words, too. Simpatico. She taught me that word. Where would she have learned that? She wasn’t a word person.” I pause, thinking. I was the word person. I think sometimes she learned things she had no interest in, just for me. We’d sit together at the kitchen table, just the two of us. Practicing or talking or whatever. Even when we didn’t have any electricity, which was a regular occurrence, she’d grab a flashlight or light candles.
“I imagine Althea was a pretty dedicated teacher,” Eva says.
I’m thinking of what Althea used to say to me sometimes, as we sat together at that kitchen table: “You and me, we run together, Viola. Mama used to say that, and it’s true.”
“Althea was more than a teacher,” I say.
Althea was sister, mother, friend, all the world to me.
“I bet she wants to make things right, Viola,” Eva says, looking down at the letter in my hand.
“I don’t know.” Althea isn’t the contrite, introspective type. The last time I saw her, no, I mean the last time I argued with her, I told her as much.
You have too many blind spots, Althea, I said, deeply upset. And I worry that, even when you’re shown, you still refuse to see.
Actually, the last time I saw Althea was today, while I was sitting paralyzed on one of my moving boxes, watching that Michigan news report on my laptop, feeling something in me give way. I look at Eva. “The reporter said Althea collapsed while the judge was reading her sentence,” I say. I glance down at the letter, my throat tightening. “The reporter, he counted up all the years they got. Althea got five. Proctor got seven. They weren’t supposed to get that much time!”
She grabs my hand and holds tight.
“The twins. They’re effectively orphans now.” Just like we were.
“Viola,” Eva says, “you need to get home. Immediately. Lillian must be beside herself.”
I look down at my hand in hers and murmur, “She is.”
“I’m so sorry,” Eva says, raising my hand to her lips to kiss my fingers. I squeeze her hand and hold on for a moment. Then, I let go. I tuck my pile of mail under my arm and get up, looking again at our reading chairs by the window. Wanting nothing more than to sit in my chair while she sits in hers, both of us with a good book, like we used to. Me, blocking out crimes and punishments and the misfor
tunes of orphans.
“And really,” Eva says, “I can—”
“No, I’m good. Everything’s going to be fine.”
“Do you see what you just did, there? Don’t cut me off like that, Viola. I’m worried about you, okay? I’m worried about your family.
People, some of them at least”—she takes a beat to illuminate a truth about Althea—“some of them,” she repeats, “who’ve been my family for a long time. Why don’t you, for once, let someone help?”
“I told you, I’m fine.”
We stand, facing each other, on the edge of yet another precipice. “I don’t want to fight with you,” I say.
Eva presses her fingers to her eyes, spent before we even begin. “Neither do I,” she breathes.
“Look, this thing with Althea and Proctor, it’s unexpected and terrible,” I say. “But it’s done. So there’s nothing to do now except get up to Michigan and make some decisions about the best thing to do going forward.”
Eva lets out a resigned breath. “Fine. Go do that. By yourself.” I start for the door.
“Wait,” Eva says. “I know I’m not in a position to make demands on you anymore, but we spent fifteen years together. I know you better than just about anybody, yourself included right now. So I have to insist: Call me while you’re there, okay? Check in.”
There are the chairs, together. The bed: my side, her side. My empty dresser. Our room in our dream home that we shared for three years. A condo downtown, after years of living in an actual house in the suburbs for most of those fifteen years.
My eyes find her again. “I will. I’ll check in.”
“I mean it, Viola.”
I head out the bedroom door and stop in the kitchen. I take my keys out of my pocket and look at them for a moment. I slip my house key off the ring and leave it on the cool, concrete countertop. I hug my week’s worth of mail to my chest and leave. But not bound for Lillian’s.
Oldham County Correctional Facility
720 Smith Avenue, NE
Park Point, Michigan
Saturday, November 16, 2013
You okay? I’ d be lying if I told you I’m not still trying to get my mind wrapped around this. So much for the hopes of first-time offenders. Yesterday, I heard this brother say, “The community wouldn’t have stood for nothing less.” I acted like I didn’t hear him and went on about my business, but I wanted to pop him one because all I could think about was you in that courtroom, falling out like you did, down there on the floor, gone, and seeing Baby Vi back there crying in Lillian’s arms and Lillian looking at me like DO SOMETHING!
And the whole time, I’m worried to death about where Kim is. I swear to God, I’ve never felt so useless. It brought me to my own knees inside. In a lot of ways, I’m still there, this close to popping the next person who tells me what we deserve. I know we did wrong and we’ll pay for that, but you can’t tell me that that judge couldn’t have found something between a smack on the wrist and a beatdown. My man went for the beatdown with us, straight up.
I tried to write you the other day, right when I got back from sentencing. I started a couple of letters, but I couldn’t finish them.
I was in my Darth Vader Space, all darkness and doom, writing crazy stuff. You know how I get. I tell you, being able to play the “community guitar” is truly therapy for a brother’s soul. The guitar’s not a Gibson, but it’ll do. Your boy would play all day every day if they’d let me.
But man can’t live on guitar alone, so there’s the Prozac, which, I got to say, doesn’t look like it’s doing a damn thing. But I need to know, are you doing any better? I saw our friend up here today. He said he saw you and you were talking to him about his son and family like you usually do. He said you seemed okay. Is he right?
Anyway, I’m glad I waited a couple days to write. Guess what I saw this morning? We were finally able to get out after all that rain, and you know me, I was chomping at the bit while some people were complaining about the damp and the cold and this and that. I made it outside first and there it was, a deer standing out there past the fence on the edge of the woods. It was over on that end with the basketball courts. The deer was picking around in the brush, and there was sun coming down through the breaks in the clouds. It was the kind of thing you see on a postcard or something. Can you picture it?
And before the rest of the guys came out and scared her off, that deer raised her head and looked at me across all that distance between the woods and where I was in the yard. And I swear, this calm came over me that I get sometimes when I’m out hunting and I’ve been still for a long time before seeing something. It’s like me and whatever I have in my sights are both part of this natural order and there’s a rightness to everything. Feeling something like that when I was still so torn up from the sentencing, it was like nature was saying, There’s still beauty and light, man. That’s nature. That’s your true nature. What do they say? The better angels of your nature?
But enough of my philosophizing. It’s time for the most important thing, which is getting things set up for the girls now that we know what’s what. I just can’t get my head around the fact that we won’t be raising our own kids. No driver’s training, no prom, no dropping them off at college.
I hope this finally makes you see that you need to let the girls come up and see you. It was one thing to say “I don’t want them seeing me this way” when we were going through all of this waiting and the trial. But I’m not stupid. I know why you won’t see them. Well, I know why you won’t see Kim. But they need to see you. You got that now, right? Especially Kim. Did you read her letter I sent you?
And I may as well go ahead and say this. It’s time to stop going over and over which one of us did what and this and that. I made my choices, and I can live with them.
Before I close out, though, I wanted to tell you that that picture you sent was nice, so thank you for that. I’ll give it to her, your girl Mercedes is some kind of artist, but, still, please be careful. You know crazy can’t help but do crazy, so watch yourself with her,
please. I wish you’ d stay away from her like I asked you to, but when have you ever listened to me?
Anyway, the picture of you is beautiful, and I’m happy to have it. I couldn’t imagine a better anniversary gift. It looks a lot like you, and I see you’re standing in your special place, “River Girl.” There’s even our tree in the background. I’m looking at the picture now while I sit here writing to you. I have it taped up over my bunk. When I look at it, it reminds me of all the things that have survived through all this. That tree was here before either one of us, and it stood right through the Great Flood. Remember that because that has to be us, right? P
+A. Can you believe we’ve been married 30 years? And we made us two kids. That’s something we did right, isn’t it?
I’ve had this song running over and over in my head like a reminder that things can’t change us so much. Not for the bad, if we’re careful. Time for the hint. And yes, I still like doing this, which means, yes, we’re keeping it going, so stop trying to quit. Here we go. Hint: First time, end of time, flack.
I know I hit you with some B-sides the last couple times, but I’m taking it easy on you with this one. You know this song, young girl.
We’ll see each other when we do.
All my love,
From The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls. Used with permission of Berkley. Copyright © 2019 by Anissa Gray.