The following is excerpted from Margaret Wilkerson Sexton's novel. Margaret Wilkerson Sexton was born and raised in New Orleans, studied Creative Writing at Dartmouth College and Law at UC Berkeley. Her debut novel, A Kind of Freedom, was longlisted for the National Book Award and the Northern California Book Award, and was the recipient of the First Novelist Award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association.
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.
When it was time to move elsewhere, there was nowhere to go.
“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 78 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 78, 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 12, 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 13, 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.”
“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.
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.
Excerpted from The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton. Used with the permission of Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2019 by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton.