For Latonya and for a long time there was only one man who mattered. And he was simply the coolest, the absolute baddest man to ever straddle the up end of gravity. A picture snapped some forty years before she was born had given her all she thought she needed to know. In it, her granddaddy Clark was turning a corner in a finely tailored suit, smoothing out the concrete in a pair of patent leather shoes. A cigarette hung from his lower lip while rectangular shades blocked harsh streetlight from blurry nighttime eyes already, no doubt, stoned.
Whoever took the picture was actually aiming the camera at her great-uncle Martin, up in front and flashing a toothy grin while an anonymous, light-skinned girl hung off his left arm. Latonya could just barely make out her grandfather near the edge of the frame, a thin shadow turning a corner to join them, his image so faded behind the veil of smoke he himself was blowing that his features were barely recognizable.
That’s all that was left of him. An old photograph she kept in her pocket for years and which only caught a glimpse of him in the background. Yet with one “look, there he go,” passed on to her by her mother when she was nine, Latonya had been marked for life: the man she loved most was a gangster strut in badass shades, creeping up behind somebody.
“Look, there he go. . . .”
Latonya was nine and her whole family was busy moving boxes into their new apartment, having recently relocated from Fayetteville, North Carolina, to Atlanta, Georgia. They had already moved so many times by then that nobody bothered unpacking most things. Boxes were simply carted around from state to state, from apartment to apartment, without any of them remembering what most of those boxes actually were anymore except heavy. But every now and then something got dropped and some small but important piece of their lives would tumble out. That morning the bottom fell out of an armload of cardboard as Latonya’s mother lifted it from the trunk of the car, unleashing a waterfall of warped blues albums that dribbled off the rear bumper and pooled around her ankles. She reached down and fished out a photograph wedged between Little Walter and Joe “Lemon Drop” Turner. She dusted it off and handed it to Latonya.
“That’s your great-uncle Martin, the one who raised me back in Louisiana, the one your brother is named after. And there’s your granddaddy Clark coming up behind him. You see him? Look, there he go—”
Latonya took the picture from her mother and brought it upstairs to the small bedroom she would be sharing with her brother for the next six months. She sat down on the edge of a still-bare mattress and stared at it for a good, long time.
After a while her grandfather’s image must have seared itself into the static of Latonya’s brain and would remain etched there for what seemed to her mother to be an eternity of adolescence. Old ladies who had known him crossed themselves out of instinct whenever Latonya entered a room as her mother spent the next five years carting her and her brother up and down the Eastern Seaboard. It seemed like there wasn’t a single state in the Union where they didn’t have some kind of people, and every house they entered had at least one old lady sit-ting on the couch, clutching a Bible, and watching soap operas with a shawl wrapped around her shoulders and a scrawny dog panting on her lap. Yet not even the flowery dresses and shiny shoes her mother stuffed Latonya inside, hot-combing her hair for family visits to ask for money or a temporary place to stay—no, not even pity could shield these old ladies from a phantom feeling of familiarity, a thin wisp of recognition, an uneasiness that wafted up the dog’s nose and made it yap incessantly until Latonya’s mother found another job or another man and the three of them—Mother, Latonya, and Martin—went back to wherever it was they came from.
“You know who that child takes after?” the old ladies whispered. But it had been so long since anyone had seen that fool or smelled his whiskey breath that they themselves could scarcely remember. Until Latonya opened her mouth. By the age of twelve the girl was already a habitual liar, but it took people a while to notice this because she only liked to talk about one thing.
Popping that faded photograph out of her pocket, Latonya spent a good portion of her childhood seated at somebody else’s dinner table talking nonsense while, in the chair next to her, her mother was busy begging someone to loan them a couple dollars—and the only reason anyone ever did was from feeling sorry for her brother, Martin, with his sadly big head, eyes, and teeth being dragged across the country on the arm of two such frightful females.
“Look, there he go. That’s my granddaddy,” Latonya said proudly. Then proceeded to tell everybody what she had decided was the story of his life. As if no one else knew better, as if he belonged only to her.
Just one faded photograph had done that. Turned her mind into a palace of inspiration. A palace full of big empty rooms just as rat infested as her grandfather’s last New York apartment had been. Oh, but Latonya swore she knew him. Claimed she was privy to all the intimate details of his life. Filled in the massive blanks of her origins with lies until she somehow came out his favorite grandchild. Conjured up an image so glorious and powerful that somehow she managed to manifest the look in his eyes.
you got the spark
Run around breaking
all the young girls’ hearts.
They know you wrong
but then you gone—tell
them that you love them
before you move on.
Why is it they always say
if you really got to go away
just tell me there’s a chance
you’ll be back someday.
“Girl, that old man wasn’t nothing but a dope fiend, dropping his seed from here to St. Louis. He treated your grandmomma just like a dog. Wasn’t anybody in that family any good except your great-uncle Martin, who you need to drop to your knees and thank Jesus for each and every night. He’s the one that took care of your momma. And every time you pop that shameful picture in somebody’s face and start telling stories you tarnish Martin’s memory.”
This was finally explained to Latonya when she was fourteen, by an old lady she met in Gainesville, Florida. The woman was so mean she wouldn’t let Latonya or her mother set foot in her house anyway, but she took pity on Martin and was the one who wound up raising him. Nearly knocked all the daydream out of the girl by the time she got finished cussing everybody out. Latonya was so stunned by the loss of her grandfather that it took a while for her to notice that the woman was taking the only real man in her life away from her too.
“How old was he then?” The woman snatched the picture from Latonya’s hands. “Thirty? I’m surprised he could still drag his sorry behind out of bed by then. Must have been all jazzed up about having Martin come to visit him. . . . Last time I saw him he was sitting on a bench in Washington Square Park, talking to himself. It was the middle of winter and he didn’t have any socks on.”
She handed the picture back to Latonya as her mother hugged and kissed Martin good-bye. Then the woman shut the door and her brother was gone.
After that Latonya became sullen. She stopped showing her picture to people and realized she didn’t really have anything else to talk about. A few months later Latonya’s mother settled down with a dishwasher repairman she’d met in Tampa. For the next few years Latonya got comments on her report cards like “doesn’t participate in class” or “seems to have trouble getting adjusted to her new environment. She should be encouraged to take part in more after-school activities.” But really, there wasn’t a Girl Scout troop, cheerleading squad, or softball team anywhere in the state of Florida that could have fixed what ailed the girl at that point.
Latonya was fourteen, eyes already opened, consciousness already formed. It was too late to go back to sew up the frayed edge of the raggedy childhood her mother had given her and which she had only survived by staring at that photograph for so long. For as far back as she could remember, every time she looked up she saw nothing but chaos and neglect, a whizzing blur of trees and blue sky speeding past the open window of a moving car. Reality was just like the sunset or a father: always on its way out the door. So she’d formed lies as sweet as she could make them because she could not as yet see any point to the truth.
That last old lady who stole her brother more or less broke Latonya’s heart. The next time Latonya dared take out her photograph it had already started to look different to her. She could see that the
woman had been telling the truth. But how do you hate something that is already a part of you? How do you become yourself without betraying that same evil look in your own eyes?
My old man was easy
he gave me his last name
then stole my momma’s money—now
ain’t that a shame?
My old man was greedy
gave me nothing but a smile
and the sound of him leaving
while my momma cried.
My old man must have loved me
because he gave me his eyes
so I can see what you’re up to
before you’re fool enough to try.
Nevertheless, at sixteen Latonya gave birth to a fat baby boy she named Willis, Junior, after his father.
Brother Martin, on the other hand . . .
Brother Martin, who was just like his namesake and never knew any better than to love everybody, found himself laid up with a mean, stingy old woman for the next three years. The first things she taught him were the correct ways to do her dishes, fold her laundry, and debone her fish. The last thing she taught him was how to properly massage her feet. Then she promptly informed him that anything else he needed to know he’d have to pick up on his own.
Of course Martin didn’t actually need anything except his precious momma. He spent three years making up excuses for why she hadn’t come back for him yet. While the old woman sat in her easy chair, watched soap operas, clutched her Bible, shook her head, and sighed.
But memories mold themselves to the shape of our will. The past keeps creeping along in dreams of need. It didn’t matter what that old woman said or did. She could no more make that boy not miss his momma than she could erase his big teeth.
That’s why, when he turned eighteen, Martin decided he would go find her himself. He packed his clothes and caught a bus to the town where she was living. Since nobody showed up to meet him at
the station, it wasn’t until he’d walked halfway to his mother’s front door that it occurred to him that she probably hadn’t bothered to tell her new husband about him. It would have made things easier, and since she had long since disgraced herself before every member of the family who had ever cared, there wasn’t anyone to come around and tell that she actually had two children.
He knew it was true as soon as his mother opened the front door. He saw the frantic look in her eyes, the way she slumped forward like it hurt to hug him. He received her tepid embrace with the same sad expression she remembered from the last time they’d seen each other, a look that told the world there would always be somebody around to love him. And deep in her heart she knew that leaving him to massage some old woman’s feet was probably the kindest thing she had ever done for either of her children.
Heartbroken, he asked, “Where is she?”
So that’s how they met up again: on the day of Willis, Senior’s parole board hearing. Latonya’s baby’s daddy was up for parole on the day Martin arrived. Martin turned a corner and saw his sister sitting on a metal bench outside the Center for Creative Unity with a Newport dangling from her lips and a fat baby bouncing on her knee. Black stockings, leather jacket, long fingers dipped in gold-plated acrylics. Frosted, overprocessed hair curling to one side of her face. In her last letter she’d told him she couldn’t wait for Willis to get out of jail, but now that it was actually about to happen she was starting to have mixed feelings about it. . . .
The two of them took one look at each other and realized they’d spent their whole lives loving the wrong fools.
Excerpted from The Last Suspicious Holdout by Ladee Hubbard. Reprinted with permission of the publisher Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2022 by Ladee Hubbard.