Coster Journal

Coster’s novel depicts two families who must find a way out of their struggles. Impacted by the struggles are the children, Gee, who witnesses his (step)father’s death, and Noelle, Margarita, and Diana who witness their father’s addiction. Their mothers, in their own way, must also survive their tragedies to ensure that their children have opportunities.

This story, at times, is emblematic of real-life situations, particularly lines that are constantly being drawn that divide families in the name of parental control over what their children learn at the cost of harming all children (here, think about book banning and eradication of historical knowledge). In other scenes, we read about gun violence, addiction, violence, family arguments, divorce, affairs, education, young love, sexual awakening, and other such themes and topics.

Choose a character or a scene that could be interpreted as a “real-life” depiction. How do you think the character or scene represents people or events that you have read about, observed, or possibly experienced?

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the authors’ imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental. Copyright © 2021 by Naima Coster Cover design by Sara Wood. Cover copyright © 2021 by Hachette Book Group, Inc. Hachette Book Group supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like permission to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact permissions@hbgusa.com. Thank you for your support of the authors’ rights. Grand Central Publishing Hachette Book Group 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10104 grandcentralpublishing.com twitter.com/grandcentralpub First Edition: March 2021 Grand Central Publishing is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. The Grand Central Publishing name and logo is a trademark of Hachette Book Group, Inc. The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher. The Hachette Speakers Bureau provides a wide range of authors for speaking events. To find out more, go to www.hachettespeakersbureau.com or call (866) 376-6591. The lyrics in Chapter 15 are from “Sombras” by Javier Solis Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Coster, Naima, 1986- author. Title: What’s mine and yours : a novel / Naima Coster. Description: First edition. | New York ; Boston Grand Central Publishing, 2021. Identifiers: LCCN 2020042924 | ISBN 9781538702345 (hardcover) | ISBN 9781538702352 (ebook) Classification: LCC PS3603.O86814 W53 2021 | DDC 813/.6—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020042924 ISBNs: 978-1-5387-0234-5 (hardcover), 978-1-5387-0235-2 (ebook) E3-01112021-DA-NF-ORI Contents Cover Title Page copyright Dedication 1: October 1992 2: November 1996 3: September 2018 4: November 1992 5: July 1998 6: August 2002 7: September 2018 8: September 2018 9: September 2018 10: September 2002 11: October 2018 12: October 2002 13: October 2018 14: November 2002 15: April 2019 16: December 2002 17: February 2020 Acknowledgments Discover More About the Author Also by Naima Coster For J & E Explore book giveaways, sneak peeks, deals, and more. Tap here to learn more. 1 October 1992 A city in the Piedmont of North Carolina The street was dark when Ray pulled up behind the bakery. The birds sang wild in the trees, the only things astir so early in the morning, the sky a deep and cloudless blue. His little boy, Gee, was asleep in the backseat, neat in his school clothes and fogging up the window with his breath. Ray lifted him out quietly, the keys to the shop jangling in his free hand. They walked around to the front, and the boy was already drooling on him, on his pressed collared shirt, red-and-pink plaid. “My good luck charm,” Ray whispered as he unlocked the gate, holding the boy close. Superfine stood near the corner of Beard Street, about a mile north of the city square. A neon sign hung out front, the window boxes planted with yellow mums. This part of town used to be where people would fuel up before driving out of the city, or if they were passing through downtown. There was a garage at the end of the block and a gas station where you could pay only in cash. Otherwise, the neighborhood was empty lots, onestory houses, a ballfield the minor league used in the summer. Wildflowers and busted tires swelled out of the plots of land where the old factories were boarded up. But in the past year, a brewing company had opened in one of the old buildings. They gave tours and served beer in tiny glasses. A lunch window had opened to serve chopped barbecue and hot dogs for a few hours every day. And there was Superfine, which was open from dawn until dusk. They served biscuits and breakfast pastries, coffee, in the morning. At lunch, they sold sandwiches and fresh-baked bread. In the afternoon, they added cookies and lemon bars, slices of chocolate cake. Customers trickled in on their way to work downtown or stopped by to sober up after drunk tours at the brewery across the street. Superfine was cheaper than the coffee stand downtown, and it was the only place this close to get a fresh ham sandwich, a biscuit and peach jam, coffee that didn’t taste like hot water and tar mixed together. It had been Ray’s idea to open the shop, although Linette was the one who bankrolled it with the money she got from her husband’s life insurance. They knew each other from a job at a coffeehouse an hour away where she had been the manager and he a barista. He’d worked three jobs then, but now Superfine was his everything. Ray set the boy down on the bench by the windowsill. He ran behind the counter to fetch a bottle of cold coffee from the refrigerator. He dribbled an ounce or two into a glass of milk, stirred it with his finger, and then took it to Gee. He was spread out on the cushions by the window, one arm flung behind his head, the other across his chest, palm flat, as if he were trying to protect himself, to cover up his heart while he slept. “Morning, my man,” Ray whispered. “Drink this,” he said, holding the glass to the boy’s mouth. Gee would have a longer day than Ray wanted him to. A little caffeine wouldn’t hurt him. “Daddy, why’d you bring me here?” “Well, it’s a big day for me. I thought you could be my helper.” Gee shone at the prospect, sat a little taller in the window. “Am I still going to school today?” “We go to school every day,” Ray said. “I’ll run you over when it’s time. Come on now, let’s get you an apron.” They had to fold the apron over twice so it would fit Gee, who was small even for a six-year-old. Gee laughed at the sight of himself in the mirror. He was missing one of his front teeth, a baby tooth he’d chipped so badly they’d needed to get it pulled, but he was still a beautiful boy: brown skinned and brown haired with big hands and feet for his stature. He had a cleft in his chin, and dimples, eyes that watered when he smiled. He had a hoarse whisper of a voice that Ray liked to joke was from talking too much. Gee was a truth teller: he liked to tell about what he saw, and he saw everything. It made Ray nervous that one day the boy would tell the truth about the wrong thing. They rolled up their sleeves and washed their hands in the sink. Then Ray sat Gee on a stool in the kitchen and told him to turn on the radio. Ray started folding up croissants and sliding them into the proof box. He made pretty knots of dough for the morning buns, sprinkled them with sugar. He explained what he was doing and sometimes asked Gee how much butter he thought he should brush on top of the biscuits, whether the dough had come out of the sheeter smooth. It was the only way he could let Gee help this morning. This was a day that could change their lives—for the shop, for Linette, but most of all for him and Gee and Jade. If business picked up after the story came out, like they hoped it would, Ray had a list of things he’d do—he’d buy Jade a ruby ring and ask her to marry him; he’d buy Gee a set of drawers to keep his things; they’d go on a trip somewhere, like Washington, DC, or Florida. He’d take pictures of Gee in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Jade in front of the cherry blossoms, all of them in front of the castle at the Magic Kingdom—they’d ask a stranger to take the shot, and put Gee in those funny ears. But first, the reporter, and the feature on Beard Street, the way it was coming back to life. We’ve got to steal the show, Linette had said, and Ray knew she was right. He was making a special just for the day—a devil’s food cake doughnut. He’d spent the weekend perfecting the recipe with Gee. What Ray loved about doughnuts was that nobody really needed them. Coffee, you could get hooked on to the point where you couldn’t live without it. But doughnuts—soft, rolled in cinnamon sugar, glazed, dripping with caramel, fat with fruit at the center—had no reason for being. They were his secret power, his mark on Superfine. Linette arrived at seven a.m., just before they were set to open. Gee was counting out quarters into the register, Ray listing the day’s pastries on the chalkboard menu. He had named his doughnut Gee’s Devil’s Food, which had given the child a thrill. Linette came in carrying an armload of gardenias in waxed paper. She looked ready for battle. Ray liked to tease her that he’d be an old man before she retired and left him the shop. She drank, on average, six cups of coffee a day, and she never stopped moving. She was all muscle and fat, gray haired, her face painted in a different palette of bright colors every morning. She brought in with her the scent of perfume and hair oil, a pair of shears sticking out of her purse. “You look tired, Raymond. Didn’t you know they were going to take our picture? I was counting on your face to bring in the ladies.” Linette laughed at her own joke, and Gee went running to meet her. He stopped short, waiting for her to react to him, to put her arms around him or pick him up. He could be like this—hesitant—as if he didn’t expect to get the things he wanted. Ray didn’t like to see him that way. “Go on and give Ms. Linette a hug,” he said. “Say good morning.” He measured coffee into the grinder and started the machine. “What’s my big boy Gee doing here?” “Daddy needed my help.” Gee pointed proudly to the sign with the name of his doughnut. “Devil’s food? But you’re too sweet. Does that mean this doughnut is going to be too sweet?” Linette sent the boy, laughing, off to wash his hands. When he was out of earshot, she turned to Ray. “Today of all days?” “He didn’t slow me down, I promise.” Linette shook her head and started putting the gardenias in tiny bloom vases she’d brought along in her purse. “Doesn’t that boy have school today?” “I won’t be gone more than five minutes when I run him there.” “I thought that was his mama’s job.” “He’s my son, too.” “What are his mama’s responsibilities exactly? Or were they done the day she pushed him out and handed him over to you?” Ray didn’t contradict her. He didn’t want to fight about Jade this morning. “That’s why I never had children, you know,” Linette said. “I didn’t want to take care of anyone but myself. I got enough of that when I was young. My mother—” “Birthed five children, and you raised them all. I know.” Linette liked to tell this story, as if everything there was to know about her had been decided when she was a girl, missing days of school to take care of her siblings and ferry them to the doctor. “Did you ever think that with all the things you do for the two of them all the time, you could be doing something for yourself? You could be taking a class. Getting your degree.” “Why do I need my degree? You’re still leaving me Superfine, right? Or are you going to cut me loose, Linette?” Linette polished the tables in the front room, somber now. “You can’t count so much on other people, Ray. Not even me. One day I’m going to die. Everybody dies.” “Well, hold off on dying until after that reporter comes.” Linette smiled and snapped her cleaning rag in Ray’s direction. He kissed her on the cheek, triumphant, and started setting the table for just the three of them. They sat by the window, drinking the fresh coffee, devouring biscuits. The whole shop smelled of devil’s food: thick chocolate, sugar, and starch. By seven thirty, the two front girls, Michelle and Michaela, arrived. They fawned over Gee, put on their hairnets, and a feud ensued over what to play on the radio. Linette settled it by putting on the gospel station, although she wasn’t religious. She did it to bring a blessing down on the shop, and all of them. They were all humming along by the time Ray withdrew to the kitchen and left Gee in the window seat, looking forlorn. The boy was one child with him—easy, bright—and another without him. The shop was full when Jade burst into Superfine, her sunglasses on, her hair folded into a side braid already coming apart at the ends. She was still wearing the gray leggings and Bad Brains T-shirt she’d slept in, underneath a tan trench coat. Gee leapt up to kiss her, and Jade let him and then held him away and asked where she could find Ray. “Why’d you take him?” she asked as Ray emerged from behind the counter. Her voice was high and thin, and the customers turned in their seats to look at them. “I know how to take care of my son.” Ray took her by the arm and steered her out to the street. “You all right?” “My head,” Jade said, pressing her fingers to her temples. She didn’t explain where she’d been last night, but Ray could figure. There was a restaurant off the freeway that she liked to go to with the girls from her class. They served frozen jack and cokes. “I had an alarm set. I was ready to take him. But I woke up, and everybody was gone.” “I didn’t want him to miss another day of school.” “I would have done it,” she said. Jade pushed her sunglasses up, and he saw last night’s eyeliner thick around her downturned eyes. Her nails were painted black, and she was wearing her lace-up boots. How pretty she was, how small, was all the more obvious in her dark, clunky clothes. He’d seen the pictures of her from high school right before she got pregnant with Gee—a black-girl goth who read comic books and hung out with nerds, dreamed about going to punk shows out of town if she could ever find a ride. It was a much older boy who’d gotten her pregnant, someone at the community college where she was taking a math class. He’d wanted nothing to do with Gee, so Jade lived with her mother until she met Ray and he said to her, Let’s find a place, the three of us. Jade stared at him, as if she were thinking of apologizing. “Did that reporter come by yet?” Ray could sense her mood shifting. She was penitent, maybe because she wanted him to bake the best he ever had and impress that reporter, or maybe there was no reason at all. Sometimes, Jade was tender, gathering up Ray and Gee in her arms, declaring how lucky she was to have a family that loved her. Other times, she tore through the house, kicking things that were out of place and going on about how she hated living all cooped up, and she hated her dinged-up car, and she hated that Gee was never quiet when she had to study, when she had two hours to sleep before her shift. “We’re just watching the door,” Ray said. “He’s supposed to come by before three.” “I’ve got an exam today, too. Drawing blood. I was going to practice on you last night, but I lost track of time.” “You were gonna come home and stick a needle in me even if you couldn’t see straight?” Jade laughed and covered half of her face with her hand. “No, I was going to find your vein. Pretend to stick you.” “You can pretend later. Tonight. You can show me how after you’ve aced it.” “Why are you so sweet to me, Raymond?” Ray leaned toward Jade and kissed her. She smelled of the musty couch where she’d fallen asleep, her rose perfume, the cream she rubbed on after a shower, naked in the bathroom, her limbs spread wide. She was all ribs and small breasts, a brush of hair between her legs. Ray groaned a little, without meaning to, thinking of her. They had been missing their time together lately, Jade hard asleep in the mornings before he left for the shop. Linette could say what she wanted about Jade, but she deserved, at least, some respect. None of her people had gone to school, and here she was, pushing, making a way. Who could blame her if sometimes she needed a break, to go out and have a few drinks? Ray kissed her again. “You deserve all the sweet things in life,” he said, and went inside to collect Gee. When they returned, Jade had her headphones on, a song roaring in her ears. Ray handed her coffee and a devil’s food doughnut, then kissed his boy two, three, four times. “Come and meet us after your shift. We’ll be at Wilson’s house. He called for a favor.” “What’s he want?” Ray asked. “Help moving furniture or something.” “He can’t ask one of his boys to do that?” Jade shrugged. “I never ask Wilson questions.” “I don’t like you going over there alone.” Wilson lived in a rough corner of the east side, but it wasn’t just the neighborhood that bothered Ray. Wilson was the sort of man who lied about the plainest things: how much he’d paid for a microwave, why he’d been fired from his last job. He teased Gee for his missing tooth, slapped Jade’s behind to say hello and good-bye. More than once, Ray had run interference for Wilson after he started an argument at a bar. More than once, they’d lent him cash they’d needed themselves. But Jade tolerated him because he was her cousin, and he’d been good to her. He’d bought her beers when she was sixteen, taken her to her appointments when she was pregnant with Gee. “Did he ask you to bring money? Who else is going to be over there?” “You worry too much,” Jade said, and kissed Ray good-bye. She pulled Gee along by the hand, and the boy leaned into his mother, content to finally have her eyes on him. Ray watched them walk to the corner. He felt distinctly that he was watching his whole life move away from him: the slender shape of Jade and her mussed hair, Gee’s backpack immense on his little body. He wanted to run after them and draw them back, keep them in the shop, where he could protect them. From what? From Wilson? Ray knew it didn’t make sense, these urges he got sometimes to hold everything he loved close, the occasional shock of how much he had to lose. Maybe he was nervous the reporter wouldn’t like his doughnuts. Maybe he’d poured himself too many cups of coffee. He moved to follow them, to give Jade another kiss, his boy another squeeze, but he knew it was just nerves. He stayed put. By sundown, they’d all be back at home. At noon, the reporter still hadn’t arrived, and Michaela and Michelle gave up their waiting and left for lunch. Linette sat in her office, a supply closet where she’d installed a fan, a hanging bulb. Ray was alone at the register, watching Beard Street out the windows. The passing traffic was sparse: a truck headed for the highway, the sleek cars pulling up to the lunch window. They wore suits, the people who came from downtown, and Ray had no idea what kinds of jobs they had. A pair of police officers came into the bakery for sandwiches, and a crew of construction workers, Latin American, for coffees. They were tearing down one of the old tobacco factories nearby. Eventually, the mechanic from the garage came in for his weekly sandwich, on the house. He was close to Ray in age, but he looked much older, a lean man with the beginnings of a paunch at his hips. He had a sunburned brow, a dark mustache, and no beard, and he wore his wavy hair hardened to his head with gel. He came into the shop, wearing aviators and a white polo shirt that somehow wasn’t stained with grease. “White, man? How you going to wear white to work on cars?” The mechanic laughed. Ray could hardly ever remember his first name, but he usually wore his last name embroidered on the pocket of his uniform: Ventura. “You just got to be careful, man. You need to do it like I do.” He was cocky, which was one of the things Ray liked about him. At first, he’d wondered if Ventura was gay, if he was flirting at him when he winked and bragged and pooched out his lips at him. But he’d learned it was just the way he talked, although Ray wasn’t sure how much of it was because he was Latin and how much of it was because he was from New York. Once, after work, Ray’s car wouldn’t start, and he’d walked up the street to the garage to ask if someone could take a look. They told him it would cost fifty bucks to tow the car, even if it was going just to the end of the block. One of the mechanics had agreed to help him push, off the clock, since his shift was over. “It’s all right,” the mechanic had said, “he’s my neighbor,” although they’d never seen each other before. He helped Ray get the car in, and the next day, Ray brought him a coffee and a sandwich. After that, the mechanic came by once a week for his lunch. He handed Ventura his sandwich, a cup of coffee. “The secret is I wear my work shirt over the white,” he said. “That way, when I leave the garage, I’m looking nice.” Ray shook his head. “Out here? For what? There ain’t nobody out here.” Ventura laughed and gestured at the two of them, as if they were enough of a reason. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his jeans and waved them in the air. Linette surfaced from the back, as if she had read their minds. “You’re due for a break, Ray. Go on and take your lunch, just don’t go too far.” “Yes, ma’am,” Ray said, and he and Ventura hurried out like boys given leave to go and play. They went around to the back of Superfine and lit up. “I’m buying a house. I told you?” Ventura said. “Out by the forest. We’re going to be living in the trees.” He smiled, all his good teeth gleaming, a gold chain visible underneath the collar of his shirt. Ventura always looked sharp. “My wife is packing us up right now.” “You’ve got two girls, right?” “Three. My youngest had her first birthday a few months ago. You only got the one, right?” Ray hadn’t bothered to explain about Gee, so he nodded. “It’s crazy, man. I thought I loved my wife—I do. But you’d do anything for your kids. It’s like something changes in your brain. They climb in there and take over. They’re the ones in charge. They don’t know it, but they are.” Ray figured there was no point in saying it wasn’t automatic. Something in him had been reordered when he met Gee because he’d let the boy come in and rearrange everything. But it hadn’t happened with his own parents: his father, who’d left him with his mother, or his mother, who left him to watch the kids she babysat, returning once in a while to drop off juice and chips and hot cereal, until she didn’t return at all, and Ray went to live with his grandmother until she died. He was twenty by then, and he met Jade waiting in line at the DMV. She was getting her first driver’s license, Gee nodding off on her chest, and she looked too skinny to be someone’s mother, her teeth pretty and wide and set apart, and Ray was there to change his last name. He figured he didn’t want anything in common with his mother, his father, so he took on his grandmother’s first name as his last, Gilbert, from Gilberta, and Jade thought it was funny. If he wanted to honor his grandmother, why change her name into a man’s name? “If you’re going to do it, you might as well do it all the way,” she’d said, and he’d known then that was how she lived her life, whether she was drinking or studying or screwing a college boy, or giving her opinion on a band or an election or how much sugar Ray put in her coffee. He’d seen quickly that he wanted to live just like that, all the way, with her. Ventura went on about the house. “It’s on the north side of the county. Feels like the country. There’s too much crime around here. I thought New York was bad. But every time you read the paper, there’s some kid who moved down here from the Bronx because his moms thought it would be safer, and he winds up dead.” Ventura fired an imaginary gun with his hand. Ray nodded. He had heard more than one story like that. “You get a good deal on the house?” “Almost nothing down, can you believe it? It’s not like I thought. They only care if you can make the payments on time.” Ventura squinted at the sun, running his tongue over his bottom lip. “You know, nobody in my family has ever owned anything. Not in Colombia, not here. But now I have something to leave for my kids.” Ray laughed. “Everybody’s talking about dying today. You got a disease I don’t know about or something?” “You think about it, man,” Ventura said. “You see the next generation, and you remember we’re on the way out. We got to leave them something to hold on to when we’re gone.” “Yeah.” Ray nodded. “Memories. Good times.” Ventura dragged on his cigarette, shook his head. “You can’t live in good times, man. You can’t live inside a memory. You need a deed with your name on it.” They could see downtown from the back of the shop, the compact cluster of brick buildings, the water tanks, a few newer towers made of glass. Beyond the city, to the north, rose a bank of longleaf pines. Even farther, the state park surged with trees blushing rose and yellow. Ray told Ventura about the reporter. “Then you should be thinking about a house. Start saving. Don’t you live on the east side?” “My whole life,” Ray said. Ventura shook his head. “You got to be thinking about schools. If your boy stays on the east side, his future will be over before it starts.” Ray shrugged. School was the least of his worries for Gee. The boy was quick. He’d be fine anywhere, as long as he got what both Ray and Jade had been missing: two parents, a peaceful home. That’s why Ray was always working on Jade. More than once, in a rage, she’d told him she was too smart for her life. What haunted Ray wasn’t the meanness of it, but the truth. “I’m telling you,” Ventura said. “If there’s something I’ve learned in this country, it’s that your address decides everything. You’ve got to get out.” “Maybe,” Ray said. Ventura had made the long journey from the country where he was born to New York to North Carolina. Why shouldn’t he be able to get to the other side of town, if he set his mind to it? Ventura drained his cup. “Life is funny. One day, you’re in the mountains picking coffee beans. Another day, you’re here, drinking coffee, with an American wife and a house.” “I know what you mean,” Ray said. He didn’t own a home, but he knew how he felt. One day, you’re a boy, home alone, giving a stranger’s baby your finger to suck on, and the next, you’re a man, with a boy of your own, waiting for a reporter to come and put your picture in the paper. “If we ever get a house, maybe we can have you all over,” Ray said. “For dinner or something.” It surprised Ray to say it—he and Jade weren’t the entertaining type, but maybe they would be, if they lived in a house. Ventura picked up the idea quickly. He smiled and snuffed out his cigarette on the concrete, working his way up to whatever slick line he was planning to deliver to send Ray laughing and seal their fifteen minutes of smoking and standing together, before they both went back to work. “All right, Ray,” he said. “But I want some real food. Don’t make us no sandwiches.” By two thirty, the reporter hadn’t arrived, and Ray was getting listless. He had been working nearly ten hours, Michaela and Michelle had left to pick up their kids, and Linette called the paper but couldn’t get through. “Maybe they got backed up,” she said. The shop was empty, in the lull before the after-work crowd came by. Linette said one day this would be their busiest time: when people came in for afternoon coffee and lingered. Women who stayed home with their kids, people who got days off, the university students. They just didn’t know about Superfine yet, but they would. They’d be better than Starbucks, and there was no Starbucks opening in town anytime soon. If there was something Ray admired about Linette, it was that she wasn’t afraid to dream, once you showed her she wouldn’t be doing all the dreaming alone. Ray called Jade from the phone in the back to ask about her test. “I got a one hundred at least,” she said. “That’s my girl. How’s that headache?” “I helped Wilson put everything out in the yard—he’s selling all his furniture. I want to lie down, but I’m fixing to get Gee.” “Let me get him. Nothing’s going on over here.” “You sure?” “I’ll bring you another doughnut. There’s a lot left over.” Jade softened, as if she knew it hurt his feelings to say out loud that his doughnuts hadn’t sold like he hoped they would. “Bring me two,” she said, and hung up. He was waiting for the engine to warm up when Linette came bounding out the back door. “He’s coming!” she called. “A reporter and a photographer. They’ll be here in half an hour.” “They starting with us?” “I don’t know.” Ray made to turn off the car, but then he thought of Jade and her headache. The truth was he didn’t need his picture in the paper, as long as the bakery made it in, some line about the goodness of everything he’d made. He told Linette that Jade and Gee were waiting on him. “But I need you here.” “I’ll be quick,” Ray said. Wilson’s house was no more than five minutes from Gee’s school, which was ten minutes from Superfine on the highway. Fewer, if he hustled. “I’ll be right back, Linette—you’ll see.” Ray yanked out of the lot and sped toward the highway. Gee was waiting in front of the school with his teacher. Ray signed the checkout clipboard and caught the boy up in his arms. He settled into the backseat, and Ray told him to buckle up, the reporter was coming, and they had to rush. Wilson lived in a neighborhood of battered brick ranch houses with empty, overgrown lawns. At least where he and Jade lived had signs of life: bicycles underneath the porches, plastic slides in the yard. And, still, it was nothing like the west side, where the houses had deep porches, ivory-white pillars, flower gardens. The apartment Jade and Ray lived in was an old millhouse that had belonged to tobacco workers. He had been told the east side was once a nice place to live before the factories closed and the city hollowed out, only the west side left intact. Maybe Ventura had the right idea, buying a house along the edge of the county. Maybe a house would satisfy Jade more than a ruby ring, a trip to Florida. Ray looked at Gee in the rearview mirror. “What do you think about living in a house one day? One that’s really ours?” “Our house isn’t ours?” Ray didn’t want to explain about rent and mortgages, and he wasn’t sure he knew how it all worked himself. But he wanted his boy to understand. “When a house is yours, nobody can take it away. It’s mine, and then one day, it passes on to you. It has your name on it. You know what a legacy is?” Ray turned onto Wilson’s street and put the car in park. He wanted to go on talking to Gee, but he knew he had no time. He turned to tell his boy to run up to the house, when he saw Jade and Wilson in the yard, talking to a man in a dark blue sweatshirt. His back was to the street, so Ray couldn’t see his face. He was hardly moving but Ray could tell something was wrong. Jade had her finger pointing at the man and she was yelling. Wilson had his hands stuffed in his pockets, and his face too nonchalant, like he was doing his best not to explode. “You stay in the car,” Ray said and unlocked the door. “Daddy?” Ray turned to face his boy. “You pay me mind,” he said more sternly. Gee nodded. He sat up taller in his seat, strained to peer out the window. Ray handed him the box of doughnuts. “I’ll be right back,” he said more softly, and scaled fast up the lawn. Jade said his name as soon as she saw him, and the man in blue turned around. He had a pale face, a toothpick dangling out the side of his mouth. He slit his eyes at Ray and said, “Who the fuck is this? Did you call somebody?” He pointed his finger at Wilson, who was tapping his foot against the ground. He was either agitated or scared. Jade was both, Ray could see. He went and stood beside her. “What’s going on?” he said. He was still wearing his apron, but he made himself look broad, his voice low. “Your cousin owes me money. Selling all this furniture isn’t going to make you enough to pay me back. And I’m tired of waiting.” “I already told you, I don’t have it on me,” Wilson said. The man in blue shook his head. “Then I’m here to take you to the bank where you can get it. Or I’m taking her to the bank—” He nodded at Jade. “I don’t care who it is. Somebody is going to pay me my money today.” He was shouting, and Ray wanted to take Jade, put her in the car, drive her and Gee back to Superfine, but he knew he couldn’t. This man wouldn’t let them off, he could see, and, if they weren’t careful, it would come to a fight. He didn’t want to fight him, not with Gee in the car. The little boy had his face to the window, his hand on the glass. “How much does he owe you?” Ray asked. The man said the number, and Ray shook his head. “I can’t help you with that.” “Then maybe she can,” the man in blue said, and he took a step toward Jade. Ray put his arm around her, even if it didn’t make sense, even if he should keep his hands free. She was looking away from the three of them, toward the car, watching their son. “That’s enough,” Wilson said finally. “Let’s go to the bank. Just leave my cousin out of this.” He inched his hand around his back. “What are you doing?” the man in blue shouted at him. “Hey, man, what you doing?” Before Wilson could answer, the man pulled out a gun, held it straight up to his face. Jade gasped, and Ray took her by the shoulders, pushed her hard behind him, but all the man in blue saw was Ray moving. He turned the gun toward him and shot. His daddy had told him not to move from the car, and Gee didn’t mean to disobey, but his body started going all on its own. He was running up the lawn. His mother was slumped over, like she’d been knocked down, too, and she was screaming. There were doors opening down the street, but Gee couldn’t turn to look—his eyes were set on his father, fallen down, like he had been playing a game where one moment he was up, and the next, he was splayed out. Gee wedged himself between the grown-up bodies to kneel next to his daddy. He felt his mother lifting him away. He fought and kicked to stay close. She lost her grip on him, and he sank nearer to him, the one he loved. He used his hands to pinch his father’s shoulders, his pretty ironed shirt, his favorite, red-and-pink plaid. Gee shook him, called out to him, but he stayed still. He stuck his hand underneath his daddy’s body, to prop him up, so he could hear. Daddy, he said. Daddy. When his hand came back to him, it was shining with blood. 2 November 1996 On the outskirts of a city in the Piedmont, North Carolina It was a Wednesday, newly November, and Lacey May Ventura was raking the leaves in the yard. Her fingers were red and sore, and it occurred to her to check the gas tank behind the house. In the Piedmont, winter never announces itself; the days turn toward the cold and away from it, the first dusting of snow arriving gently, without warning. Lacey May pulled up the metal lid and saw the needle on the gauge pointing down to 15 percent. She ran inside, still holding the rake, and dropped the heat down as low as she could stand. She passed the rest of the day in her good coat, a kettle boiling on the stove. She drank cup after cup of coffee to keep her hands warm, and by noon, she was shaking from all the caffeine, her fingernails tinged with blue. She wanted Robbie to call so she could ask how long 15 percent would last, but he didn’t. She called the agency instead to ask if they’d found anything for her yet. “It’s kinda hard when you haven’t worked in ten years. And all you’ve ever done is fry fries.” The receptionist spoke slowly, as if she didn’t expect Lacey to understand. “I’ve been raising my girls,” Lacey said. “I mean real work, out of the house. Employment.” “I’m pretty sure I could answer the phone.” “You don’t have any qualifications.” Lacey wanted to hang up on her, or to insult her again, but she couldn’t risk ticking off the woman who could move her folder down to the bottom of the pile. So Lacey mentioned how she had earned decent grades in high school, was quick in the kitchen, better behind the wheel than most. The receptionist was quiet for a while, then said she’d add a note to Lacey’s file and hung up. Later on, when she heard the school bus turn up the road, Lacey stationed herself at the door, her arms loaded with woolen things. The girls blazed in, chattering, their cheeks windblown, and Lacey handed them each a sweater and a pair of mittens, a scarf for Diane. “It’s winter in our house!” she said, and the girls caught on quickly. They dropped their bags and swathed themselves in the new layers, made a big noise stomping around the living room. Soon they were all explorers, sliding across a stretch of ice in Alaska. Somehow, Lacey became a sled, and the girls scrambled on top of her. Margarita pretended to be one of those racing dogs, so she got down on all fours and howled, which made the real dog Jenkins dart behind the couch to hide. They kept on their sweaters and scarves while they cooked grilled cheese, the yellow squares gobbled up faster than Lacey could set them in the pan. They were pleased when they were all allowed to lie down in bed with Lacey, and she didn’t make them crawl out from under the blankets to wash their hands. Jenkins dozed beneath them, and the girls watched their breath puff overhead. “That’s oxygen,” Lacey said. “It’s what we breathe. You spell it O-X-Y —” Her oldest, Noelle, was bright as a lamp, almost ten. She liked books about outer space and the ocean; she could be a scientist one day. Lacey considered her the one of her girls who could go the furthest. She was doing the spelling for her. Noelle repeated after her mother: “G-E-N.” Diane and Margarita burst into applause. The next morning the girls went off to school, all of them with pink noses and runny eyes. Lacey saw them down the hill, and she was jealous they were off to somewhere the thermostat was set much higher than fifty-five. She took a shower to beat the cold, and it was the most pleasure she had felt since Robbie went away. Had water always been this warm and good? Her hands set to work on every inch of her, and the heat seemed to sink in deep, underneath the top layer of skin—what was it called? The epidermis? She had learned the name in high school. It was only these last few weeks, since the nurse moved in next door, that Lacey started remembering she hadn’t been half-bad at biology. She had seen the nurse driving down the road to her shift at the hospital and thought, I could have been you. Sure, the nurse was fat and had no husband and left her boy with a babysitter overnight, didn’t even bother with the leaves in the yard, but it was probably seventy, seventy-five degrees over in her bungalow, and wasn’t that worth something? Lacey shivered, and wrapped her head in towels. She felt the sin of her wet hair. How much gas was she using now? How many percents did it take to heat the house every day? She opened all the curtains to let in the sunshine, thinking some light might warm the place. Half an hour later, she went around drawing them all closed because maybe she was letting in a draft. She had lived in the house for four years, ever since Robbie moved them all up to the north of the county, and still she didn’t know how it all worked. When she went to get dressed, she had a sudden, terrible thought: How did the water get heated? Did that use up the gas, too? She didn’t want to call Robbie’s old boss, but she did. There was nothing else to do. “I’m worried it might be bad for the girls. All this cold.” “Can’t you sell your food stamps?” “We’ve got to eat, Annette.” “Well, the cold never killed anybody. Take Robbie. He grew up in a tropical place, where it’s hot all the time, and look at how he turned out—” “Annette, I’ve told you, it’s not his fault. He’s got…” Lacey searched for the words, tried to remember the lawyer’s exact phrase. “A chemical unbalanced.” Annette sighed. “You played dumb for too long, Lacey May.” “All we need is a little loan.” “No, ma’am. Robbie already cleaned me out, remember?” Lacey May didn’t like when Annette brought up the garage. After all his years of working for her so faithfully, Annette had nearly turned him in until Lacey May showed up at Beard Street and begged for her to look the other way, just this once. All he’d done was sell off a few spare parts. “Anyway, aren’t you still getting those government checks?” Annette said. “How’d you burn through the money so quick?” When Lacey said nothing, Annette cursed. “You’re as shit-rotten as he is,” she said. “You don’t love those little girls half as much as they deserve.” Lacey put herself to bed, her hair leaking all over the pillows. The dog followed her into the room, whimpering. She drew three blankets up over herself and started talking out loud. Why’d you buy me this house if it was going to be so cold? Why’d you buy me this house if you were going to leave me alone? It had been good for a long time. They had bought this little wooden house, blue with white shutters, because it sat on a large patch of land at the bottom of a hill. Robbie had built the wraparound porch himself, and they used to sit out back and drink beers after the girls had gone to sleep. If they drank too much, he would take her right there on the porch. This is freedom, he would say. I can fuck my wife under a sky full of stars, if I want. He could slap her rump and pull her hair, and she could bite down on his finger, and Lacey wanted it all, how he handled her, how it could feel like they didn’t just own the house, but the whole hill, the woods, their own skin, one another. Those were the only times he was rough. He never hit her, or the girls, not even after he got real bad. He would scream and he would cry, but he raised his hand only if she asked him, and it was just a part of their way, as good a feeling as his cock prodding at the inside parts that made her sing. It had comforted her when the lawyer told her about the trouble in Robbie’s brain. It was why he needed the drugs, why he would disappear and get up to no good. It wasn’t that he had stopped loving her or the girls. It was like being sick, the lawyer had said, but it hadn’t made much difference to the judge. There was likely an event that had set him off—a catastrophic event, a tragedy. A trigger. Lacey May had tried to think of what it could be, but all the big things had happened long before. Robbie coming to this country, Robbie moving down from New York, Robbie’s mother dying in Colombia. There was the man he’d known from work, the one who left a little boy behind. Lacey had never even heard of the man until Robbie came home, turned on the news, and pointed at the awful picture on the screen, all the yellow caution tape spread over the lawn of a house on the east side of town. “They killed my friend,” Robbie had said, but, surely, it couldn’t have been that. No matter how she searched their past, Lacey May couldn’t find a reason. When she was all out of tears, Lacey May got the coin jar out from under the sink, patted Jenkins good-bye, and drove along the service road to the store. Inside she found a clerk and asked for Hank, and she waited for him by the coin machine, trading in all her pennies for a flimsy receipt that said she had earned nine dollars. Hank surfaced from one of the aisles in jeans and a neon-yellow worker’s vest. His hair was long, combed over so it hung down one side of his face. He waved her out the sliding doors and into the parking lot, where he kissed her behind the ear and lit a cigarette. “God, Lacey, you’re as pretty as you ever were. Do you know that? Your teeth are fit to eat.” Lacey hardly felt beautiful at all these days. Her eyes were red from too little sleep; she hadn’t been able to afford her good shampoo in weeks. But she did still have her smile, at least. She looked at Hank and turned it on, explained about the 15 percent. She had been careful and budgeted for everything except the gas. It hadn’t gotten cold yet since Robbie went away. She didn’t know. “You ever think about selling that house?” “Robbie wouldn’t like that. It’s the only thing we got to pass down to the girls.” “What good is the house if they freeze to death?” “Can you bring me on to work or not?” Hank tapped a cigarette out of the pack and handed it to her. She bent over his lighter, and when she straightened up, she saw he was staring at her. They had been teenagers together, all three of them, her and Hank and Robbie, when they were in high school and working at the Hot Wing. Hank had a face full of acne then, but it had cleared now to nothing but scars, dark shadows along his cheeks. He had always wanted her, she knew, and she had liked having him get things off a high shelf for her, or rush over with a washcloth if she burned herself with the oil. But Robbie was the one who had won her, and they forgot all about Hank until they came in to do their shopping with the girls, and saw him patrolling the aisles with his walkie-talkie and neon vest. “You know I got a place?” Hank sucked on the tip of his cigarette and let it dance between his lips. “I’ve got a yard and everything. You and your girls would fill it right up.” “You would do that for us? You’ve got an extra room?” “I’ve got a pullout in the basement.” “It would be tight, all four of us on the couch, but it’s better than letting the girls freeze—” Hank laughed and shook his head. “Lacey May, you never could take a hint.” Lacey looked at him, confused. “Let’s put it this way—if you stayed with me, it wouldn’t cost you nothing, but it wouldn’t be free neither.” The wind blew hard and kicked up the smell of gasoline from the pump at the edge of the lot. Lacey pulled her coat around her. “How would I explain that to the girls? They think their father’s on the coast working a fishing job.” Hank shrugged. “I’m a man, not a saint, Lacey.” She stared at the white button on his vest: TEAM LEADER. Until now she had never believed the stories she had heard about him. The rumor was that he gave the high school girls who stocked the aisles overtime and whatever shifts they wanted if they let him fondle their tits in the back lot during their breaks. It wasn’t the worst thing she’d ever known a man to do, but she wouldn’t have pinned it on a man like Hank. “I think I’ll go inside and get a few things for the girls,” Lacey said. She stepped around him and walked toward the store. Hank called after her. “You were always too proud, Lacey May.” With her nine dollars, Lacey bought a tin of coffee, another block of cheese, a magazine about TV stars and their weddings, and a fistful of bubblegum lollipops for the girls. She drove back with the heat on low so she could idle in the driveway for a few extra minutes with the engine on. When the girls clattered in after school, Lacey gave them each a lollipop, and Diane, who had lost three baby teeth to cavities, looked at her mother, as if to see if she were sure. Lacey nodded at her and said, “That’s right, sweetheart. Go ahead, let it rot your teeth.” She asked the girls to tell her what they had learned in school while she made their sandwiches and mixed chocolate powder into hot milk. Noelle sliced the cheese into perfect thin squares. “You could perform surgery with those hands,” Lacey said. “Gifted hands!” She’d heard the phrase before, but she couldn’t remember where. Noelle didn’t seem touched by the compliment. “How come Daddy doesn’t come back on the weekends? We’ve been to the beach—it’s not too far to drive.” Lacey gave her a little tap on the nose. “Cause that’s when they catch the biggest fish—something about the tide. When he calls, I’ll have him explain it.” “Is it still winter in our house?” Margarita asked, and Lacey kissed the top of her head. “Yes, ma’am. Isn’t it fun?” She turned on the TV. They watched a cop show, and the girls didn’t mention their father. They didn’t notice Lacey look away when the officers caught a burglar, wrestled him onto the shoulder of the highway. The phone rang, and Lacey leapt up. It was Robbie! He’d received the money she put in his commissary, and soon it would all be worth it. The girls would hear their father’s voice, know he hadn’t wanted to leave them. “Miss Ventura,” said a bland voice. It was the receptionist from yesterday. “Yes, this is Mrs. Ventura.” She waited to hear they’d found her a job, maybe in a laundromat, selling tiny bottles of detergent to people who had forgotten theirs, or a doctor’s office where she could label the samples of pee, point people to the bathroom. She had a good manner—her boss at the Hot Wing had told her so. She had her smile. Most of all, she wasn’t stupid. There was plenty she could learn to do. “Mrs. Ventura, the check you gave us with your application bounced. We can’t process any paperwork until you write another and refund the thirty dollars we got charged for your bad check.” “I had the money when I first wrote the check. Why’d you wait so long to cash it?” Lacey didn’t hear the receptionist’s answer because Margarita had started to cry. “Mama, I’m so cold. Why is it so cold?” “Cause Daddy left us,” Noelle said. “He doesn’t want us anymore.” Lacey dropped the phone and slapped her child. Diane tried to defend her sister and say they shouldn’t fight, so Lacey slapped her, too, and then Margarita for good measure, and sent them all to bed. She knew they would be warmer if they all gathered in her bed, but she let them cry softly into the dark. They were carrying on as if the heat weren’t on at all, as if she weren’t trying to do what was right. She hadn’t wanted to send the last of her cash to Robbie, but he needed all kinds of things in there: underwear and cups of instant soup. He needed money to place a call. In the night, Lacey went to check on her daughters. She sealed the covers around their skinny bodies like cocoons. They slept heavy. How lucky they were. How little they knew. They sensed his absence only in the few hours before bed—Lacey never got away from it. Diane woke with a fever. She was eating her cereal too slowly, and when Lacey touched her hand to the girl’s forehead, her skin was burning up. Noelle stood up from the table, hand on her hip. “You did this. This is all your fault.” “It’s sixty degrees in here!” Lacey screamed. “That’s the temperature right now in California!” She had made up the fact, but it sounded true. She started yelling that they were spoiled, ungrateful children. They’d be off to school soon where it was warm, while she was stuck here. “Well it’s Friday now!” Noelle shouted. “What’s going to happen on the weekend?” And while Noelle yelled at her, and Margarita started moaning about her daddy, Diane vomited on the kitchen floor. Jenkins started to lap it up, and Lacey kicked him hard. The girls nearly missed the bus, and Lacey had to chase it down in her slippers and her robe. The only girl who kissed her good-bye was sick little Diane, her face crimson, her hair sticking to her face with sweat. She knew she had to have the heat on by the time the girls came back. Lacey went to the shed for her rake and shears, then she walked across a quarter acre of woods to knock on the door of the fat, unmarried nurse. Lacey read the name on the mailbox—RUTH GREEN. She started rehearsing the lines in her head. It was a while before the door opened, and Ruth, fleshy and tall, stood in checkered pajamas, her hair in a big wet knot on top of her head. Lacey could feel the heat streaming out the open door. It licked her fingertips, her cracked lips. “Morning. I wanted to see if I could help clear out your yard.” Ruth Green stared at her as if she had no teeth at all. “You know, prune back the bushes, rake the leaves. Clear the gutters if you’ve got a ladder.” She realized then she should have changed out of her robe and slippers, put on her good blue blouse, her boots, dressed herself like a woman who worked. Ruth Green clucked her tongue. “Why would I pay you to clean up this yard when it’ll be covered up in ice in a few weeks?” Lacey wondered whether this nurse, whose lights were always on, whose house was warm, who had a babysitter watch her boy when she left, could ever understand what it was to have a husband, to love him with your bones. “My propane is down to fifteen percent. Probably ten now.” “That’ll last you till Monday when the truck comes around. You need their number?” Lacey explained her youngest had a fever; she was only five. They were making do with Robbie gone—it was just the heat. Ruth crossed her arms. “You see, the rest of us, we work. We don’t depend on the government or no husband.” “Maybe you could just lend me a few gallons out of your tank to hold us over.” “If you expect me to pity you, I don’t. You’re not the only one who married some son of a bitch who can’t take care of his own kids.” “It’s not his fault. He’s got a chemical unbalanced—” “They all do,” Ruth said, and she went to close the door. Lacey pushed her hand against the door. “My babies are freezing.” “This is real life, sweetheart. What did you think would happen?” “Please.” “You’ll find a way—that’s what women do.” “You fat cunt.” The nurse slammed the door. Lacey stomped through the woods, smashing down fallen branches under her slippers. As she neared the house, she heard the phone ringing. She ran to make it in time. “Robbie?” It was the school nurse. Diane had vomited again on the bus, and she needed to go home. Could Lacey come and pick her up? On the long drive to the school, Lacey found herself shaking. Margarita was the one who had spilled the beans. When her teacher asked her why she kept putting her head down on her desk, she said she hadn’t slept right because it was winter in her house. And since Diane threw up on the bus, it wasn’t hard to put two and two together. “I’m working on a solution,” Lacey said in the principal’s office. The principal shook her head and asked what was going on. It hadn’t occurred to Lacey that they didn’t know. Shouldn’t there have been a letter from court to the school? Wasn’t there something the government had done to spare her this moment? “My husband got high and stole a cop car. Not a black-and-white sheriff’s one, a regular one. It just belonged to a cop. It was parked in front of a bar downtown. He didn’t know.” “I’m sorry, Mrs. Ventura,” the principal said. “But after Monday, I’ll have to make a call. You’ve got the weekend.” Lacey went around to the classrooms and got all her girls. They drove home in silence, past the rows of houses in town, then fields and forgotten barns, the railroad tracks where they had to stop and wait for a train to pass. “Woo-woo!” sang Margarita, and it made Diane smile weakly, her cheeks pink. Back at home, she boiled cans of broth for the girls, peeled and dropped in potatoes, a tin of shredded chicken. And then she made grilled cheeses, too, and chocolate milk, and they carried it all into Lacey’s bed, where she piled blankets on top of the girls and then crawled in herself. “If one of us is going to be sick, we might as well all be sick together,” she said, and she kissed her girls on the nose. It was still light out, hardly past midday. “Aren’t you going to turn up the heat? You heard what the principal said.” Noelle still wasn’t looking at her, her ears flushed bright, and Lacey wondered whether she was catching a fever, too, or if she was just ashamed. “Hush,” Lacey said. “I’m going to tell y’all a story.” The girls squeezed in closer to their mother, even Noelle, although she probably only wanted to get warm. “Once upon a time, there was a princess, and she lived in a castle deep in a forest, with just her sisters. All the men were at war, and it was a kingdom with no old people, you see, so there was no one to show them how to live. How to fill the moat, how to feed the horses, how to keep the torches lit, and the dungeons clean—” “What’s a moat?” Diane asked, sucking on a Tylenol and making a face. Lacey told her to swallow. “So they saddled up the horses, and they went riding, far and far, over valleys and streams to a kingdom where they had heard the men went to war and never came back. The princesses there showed them how to do all the things they were afraid of—how to clean the stables and grow wheat, how to cast spells, and burn the dead—” “How to fill the moat?” “Mm-hmm—and when they knew everything they needed to know, they went riding back to their kingdom, all day, and all night, and they weren’t afraid anymore. They were all ready to rule. But they didn’t have to, after all, cause while they were gone, the princes had come home. They had won the war.” Noelle rolled her eyes. “Short war,” she said. “What a stupid story. They rode all that way and learned all those things, and then it doesn’t even matter.” Lacey wanted to explain that you should never give up a prince if the prince really loves you, but Noelle plugged her ears, and Margarita shouted that she wanted to be a princess, and Diane stood solemnly and asked for someone to go with her to the bathroom because she had to throw up. After the girls nodded off, Lacey slipped out from under the blankets. She shut off the light and went out to the back porch with one of the leftover lollipops from the supermarket. She cracked the hard candy between her front teeth and counted the days on her fingers since she had sent Robbie the money—five, and he still hadn’t called. Goddamn you, Robbie, she thought. Goddamn. She went back in the house, and she didn’t feel a difference anymore between inside and out. Lacey found her old address book in a drawer, and she went flipping through the pages until she found him there, alphabetized by last name. Gibbs, Hank. She carried the address book and the phone out to the living room. She muted the TV and dialed, waited for the ringing to stop. “I knew you’d change your mind,” he said, and Lacey, with her free hand, turned up the thermostat a full ten degrees. 3 September 2018 The suburbs north of Atlanta, Georgia The sun wasn’t up yet when Noelle went out to the porch to decide what to do about the party invite. The Suttons threw this party every year, and she’d gone to the first with Nelson when they moved into Golden Brook. It had been exciting, all their neighbors’ German cars, the crystal wineglasses, the women and men in crisp, creamy-colored clothes. They talked about local government, the community initiative to build a bigger dog park. It was like being cast in a minor role in a dull but pleasant movie. The shimmer was gone now—from the Suttons, their gabled house, and all of Golden Brook. Even the cottage she and Nelson had bought looked too small to her now when she drove up. The lawn, where she’d said she wanted to plant a garden, was bare except for the signs they’d driven into the grass to announce they leaned left, voted blue. It was warm, even in the early dark, and Noelle went out with her coffee, bottle of vitamins, a nail file, the invitation. She laid it on her lap while she scraped her nails into shape. How many things about herself did she no longer tend to? She hardly exercised; she drank too much; her hair was thinning at the ends. She took the vitamins, still, at least. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d read a play. This curve of Golden Brook was shaded by oaks so tall they must have been older than seemed possible. “From slavery times,” Nelson had said when they moved in. It was the kind of joke she had learned to laugh at over the years but would never make herself. If she went to the Sutton house tonight, at least she’d look the part. She’d put yogurt in her hair, shave her legs, smear on one of those citrus-smelling serums that promised to lift and tighten and erase. When she looked at Nelson, she could see the old adage was true—black don’t crack. She, on the other hand, had a fan of lines around her smile, her eyes. It didn’t bother her, really, to look older. It was more what the wrinkles signified: time was running out. It was noon in France, too early for a lunch meeting, too late for a morning shoot, so Noelle called Nelson. The phone rang and rang. “Sweetheart,” she said when she got his voicemail. “I’m almost happy you’re not here. If you were, you’d be stuck going to the Suttons’. You’re the lucky one, yeah? Love you.” She’d expected him to call more, even with the time difference, his work. But the way they’d left things—she couldn’t blame him. She dialed again. “I guess you’re working. I missed your voice yesterday. Call me soon.” Noelle felt her chest draw inward, as if she were getting narrower, shrinking. It was a sick feeling. She texted him. I can’t go to the Sutton party alone. These people make me feel like I’m in high school again. He would know what she meant. It was like keeping a secret, like passing, like choosing between getting along and being clear about who she was. She stared at the phone for a few minutes. Maybe he couldn’t talk, but he could text. She took her prenatal. She finished her coffee. She went back inside, turned her phone volume all the way up so she wouldn’t miss him while she was in the shower. When the phone rang, it startled her. She hadn’t really expected Nelson to call. She rushed out and saw that it was her mother, Lacey May. Noelle didn’t answer. It was a sick chain, she thought. Nelson ignores me; I ignore my mother. I hunt after my husband; my mother hunts after me. Noelle left the house in her exercise clothes. She knew exactly whom she’d ask to go with her to the party, to help her get through. And Inéz would say yes. She was sure. They had forged their friendship in that golden stretch of years in college when they would do anything for each other, when nothing was more solid or mattered more than the love of your girlfriends. They’d pierced each other’s ears, taken the bus to Babeland to buy dildos together. They had forgotten their families and clung to one another, as if their old lives might not ever resume. In the car, she tried Nelson once more—“Headed to the city, hope you’re getting the best pictures of your life”—then hung up and turned onto the freeway. Golden Brook was less than an hour from the city, her old life, and yet she’d let her days shrink to the circumference of a few miles. She could spend a whole day driving between the house, the grocery store, one strip mall, then another. She and Nelson had loved living near downtown. It was a proper city, not like home. The skyline was blue and gray glass, the buildings shaped like spaceships. Her heart gave a thump as she coasted through the streets. She rolled down the window, breathed in the flowering trees and exhaust. She reached the studio just as the class was starting. Inéz was at the front in a black leotard and tiny turquoise shorts rolled up to nearly nothing. She gave Noelle a quick arch of the eyebrows through the mirror, ignored the students as they filtered in. Her hair was pulled into a gumdrop-sized nub at the top of her head, her skin bare, her gold septum ring sparkling in her face. She was magnificent. Noelle stood at the back, reached her arms overhead as if she knew what she was doing. Inéz counted them in, Five-six-seven-eight. It was hard for Noelle to keep up, and it was only the warm-up. Her limbs were stiff, heavy. She hardly left the ground when she tried to leap up. She had to steady herself with her hand when she sank her hips to the ground. Inéz had a parakeet’s voice, high and sweet. That’s it! she shouted with enough gusto that it was almost convincing. At the end of class, Noelle hung at the back, watching the students hover around Inéz, as if they weren’t sure whether to say good-bye or simply leave. She was aloof and beautiful, mesmeric. In this way, she was like Nelson. Perhaps that was all Noelle had been doing with her life: collecting stars that never wanted to be collected in the first place. When the room was empty, Inéz found her. “Excuse me, ma’am, did you pay? I don’t remember you signing up for a class pass.” She crawled down to the floor where Noelle sat, bound her with her arms. “What are you doing here?” Noelle took her friend’s hand in hers. “I want to take you to lunch. When’s your next class?” “Is everything all right? Are you pregnant or something?” “Far from it. I need your help, baby girl.” Noelle drove them to a place on the Westside with tinted windows and small bistro tables. They ordered eggs, a coffee for Inéz, a glass of wine for Noelle. “God, it’s been forever. I thought you’d gotten lost up there in the country. Golden Hollow, or whatever it’s called?” “It’s the suburbs, not the sticks.” “Same thing. Nelson out of town? Where this time?” “Paris.” “But of course.” Inéz smiled and shook her head. Fourteen years ago, she was the most beautiful person Noelle had ever seen, and she still was now. Even Lacey May had referred to her once, when Noelle was home from college for Thanksgiving, as “that pretty dark girl.” She was no darker than her sister Diane, Noelle had said defensively, and then it troubled her that she had felt the need to point out that someone she loved wasn’t all that dark. Noelle took her wine down in gulps, and Inéz watched. It was eleven in the morning. “Don’t you miss it here, Nells? You must be bored out of your mind out there, without your work, your friends. Do you even see people during the day? Or just in the grocery store, as you roam the aisles searching for a chicken to roast?” It pained Noelle how accurate her friend’s parody of her was. “If these months had gone the way I wanted, I wouldn’t mind being somewhere quiet, with fresh air and green space.” “Green space? Do you hear yourself?” “I wanted a change.” “Well, you got one, honey.” Inéz poured a drop of maple syrup into her coffee, swirled the spoon around with grace. “Now, tell me everything. I’ve got to be back in half an hour.” “We’re a part of this homeowners’ association.” “Naturally.” “And there’s a party tonight. It would look awful if I’m not there, but I hate these things, especially when Nelson isn’t around.” “Nelson isn’t the best at parties though, is he? He just sits on the couch and pouts until someone asks him about his photographs, then you can’t shut him up. Or if he’s drunk, then he’s fun for an hour or so until he sobers up and gets sulky again. No offense.” Noelle knew her friend’s opinion of Nelson had turned sometime over the years. At first, Inéz, like all their classmates, had admired Nelson’s cool. But eventually, she’d tired of how he seemed to live without moods, impenetrable. Everything was fine, nothing was a crisis, but nothing was a tremendous pleasure either. She didn’t expect Inéz to love him, but she ought to leave him be. After a life like his, what did people want? For him to give a song and dance? He’d done enough. “Please, Inéz. Every time I go somewhere without Nelson, I get asked a dozen times, ‘Where’s your husband? He travels a lot for work, hunh? Must be lonely, hunh?’ It makes me feel like we’re doing this whole thing wrong.” Inéz looked at her, as if to say, Maybe. “Who cares what they think?” “It doesn’t help that we already feel like anomalies out there.” “Because he’s black and you’re white?” Noelle was taken aback that her friend would call her white—she knew about her family, her father, Robbie. She decided to let it slide. “Because we don’t have children.” Inéz seemed unmoved. “Please, I’d have much more fun if you came with me. We can get drunk and eat all their catered food, and then you can spend the night. I’ll drive you back in the morning.” “The booze better be good, expensive.” “It will be,” Noelle assured her. “Fine, but only because I love you. I’ll consider it a kind of social experiment.” “It’s my life.” Noelle leaned across the table to kiss her friend. “I know,” Inéz said as she swatted her away and drained the last of her coffee. Noelle spent the day in the city, waiting for Inéz to teach her last class. She parked in their old neighborhood. She and Nelson used to go for walks by the row houses, the rosebushes and hydrangeas in the front yards. Instead of going to church on Sundays like good Southerners, they went to the farmers’ market, made elaborate breakfasts at home while listening to podcasts. They drank coffee, then had sex in the living room, took turns pleasing one another. Then Noelle left for the theater to work, and Nelson to the arboretum for one of his long runs. He couldn’t go without ten or twelve miles on the weekend; it kept him calm, steady. So did the sex. She never made fun of his rituals, never let him go without the things he needed day to day. Now Noelle had no place to go, no apartment, no office at the theater, so she stopped into shops. She bought herself tea, then a cheap necklace made of plated gold, then a clip for her hair. She didn’t call Nelson because she was embarrassed at her small, dreary life. She filled the time with buying things, waiting out the day until there was someone to be with her again. Being a wife, it seemed, was mostly waiting. Waiting for a phone call, waiting to be thanked, waiting for a delivery, the plumber, her husband to come home, to ask whether she was all right, to slip a hand in her underwear. Waiting with her legs up. Waiting because it seemed a way to love him. It hadn’t bothered her as much when she was working, in the city. If he was remote, she knew it wasn’t because he didn’t love her. It was just his way. But now, without the theater, she felt that all she did was unnecessary; Nelson could fend for himself if he had to. If one shirt was wrinkled, he could wear another. If dinner never appeared, he’d make a sandwich. He could survive, handle his own needs; he was doing so in Paris. Perhaps that was why she had wanted the baby. To be needed, indispensable, at least for a time. Nelson gave the impression, always, of absolute independence. She was used to it, the off-and-on loneliness of feeling like an appendage to a man. She knew that becoming a mother was only a temporary respite. Any child would one day leave her; she could count on that. But wouldn’t it be worth it for those delicious years? A soft skull nuzzled into her neck, the tug of gums at her breast, that precious infant smell of powder, crusted milk? She knew it wasn’t modern. It was the kind of convention that her college degree and her years in the city were meant to cure, and they hadn’t. On the drive north, they got caught in traffic. Inéz rolled down the window to smoke, offered Noelle a cigarette. Noelle shook her head. “I’ve quit. Remember?” “Yeah, but you’re not pregnant yet. Come on. I saw you down that wine at lunch. How long have you been trying now?” “I’ve lost track.” Noelle fixed her eyes on the road. “There’s no shame in that, Nells. Is that why you haven’t been coming around as much? You don’t want to talk about it?” “It’s the distance. I’m far away now.” They sat for a while through the discord of honks and running engines. “I’m not going to let you off the hook that easily. It’s not right—the way you disappeared.” Inéz was staring straight at her now, her tongue pressed against her lower lip in annoyance, her head titled into her hand. “Have you even been back to the Electric House? They just did Orlando. An all women and femmes cast, beautiful costumes—a few of the nights were even sold out.” “I outgrew that place, Inéz. You know that.” “And grew right into Golden River?” Noelle pumped on the brakes a bit harder than she needed to. “I know you all find it backwards that I’m doing just what our mothers did when we could be doing anything.” “Speak for yourself,” Inéz interjected. “My mother always worked.” Noelle saw no point in defending Lacey May. She had worked, too, but she had taken no pride in it. She had gone about her life as if it were put upon her. Noelle refused to do the same. “I want a baby. What’s so wrong with that? Isn’t feminism all about getting to decide what you want?” “Not exactly.” “You could have visited me, too. Or is the center of all life Atlanta?” “Well, the idea of the suburbs is repulsive. And pregnancy—” Inéz shuddered. “Breastfeeding has always struck me as…bovine. What’s the big deal with motherhood anyway? I feel like I’ve got everything I need.” “I want the experience of mothering. I can’t explain it.” “Mothering. Is it a verb now?” “It ought to be.” “And Nelson? Is he as nuts about fathering?” “You leave him out of this.” “How can I?” “If I have to choose between you and my husband, I know who I’d choose.” They sat in uneasy silence for a while. Noelle felt a fervent thrum at her temples. She tapped her fist on the wheel. Inéz caught her fidgeting hand and kissed the knuckles. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But I’m livid, too.” “Because I moved away?” “Because you forgot about me, and yourself.” Noelle wasn’t sure how to answer her. Inéz spoke as if selves should be fixed, as if they couldn’t change. Noelle wasn’t choosing to make herself less. To become a mother was to multiply. The Suttons lived on a hill, their house flanked by a garage the size of the house Noelle grew up in. An immense magnolia was in bloom on their lawn, the porch strung with lights, the shutters thrown open. They had hired a small staff to pass around appetizers. Noelle breathed a sigh of relief when she saw they were white college students in cheap vests. Inéz took her arm as they climbed the steep hill, and Noelle wondered whether she was fully forgiven. A large mirror hung in the foyer, and Noelle took in their appearance quickly. Beside Inéz, she seemed somehow older, less vital. Her body was soft where Inéz’s was hard. She was tall and pale, her hair ragged. She had thought her green floral dress was sweet, but she could see now it was dowdy. Inéz wore a wine-colored dress, cut close to her waist, all her usual jewelry glistening. “You’re beautiful,” Inéz said, as if reading her mind. “Look who’s talking.” They turned into the living room, arms linked, where the crowd burst in welcome. They shook Noelle’s hand and asked, predictably, after Nelson, but Inéz saved her. They were fascinated and stood agape at the glamour of her life—a dancer! the city! single! so beautiful! And, although they’d never say it—black! Her life was a puzzle to them, and Inéz didn’t play it up or down. The two of them stole away as soon as they could, snatching bourbon and lemonade from a passing tray. “They seem so old,” Inéz whispered. “My grandmother is less astonished by my life.” “Welcome to the burbs, mami,” Noelle said, and they laughed. They found their way to the kitchen, the spread of bruschetta and olives, pungent wheels of cheese, dipping bowls of tapenade and oils, a few platters of quiche, a silver dish of spanakopita. “That’s the thing about white people in this country,” Inéz said. “They always want to be from someplace else.” “Not in North Carolina,” Noelle said. She imagined a spread with pimento cheese and hot-pepper jelly, crackers and deviled eggs. They filled their plates and went to sit somewhere they’d be left alone to eat and finish their second round of drinks, but the Suttons found them, the Radlers in tow. John Sutton was a willfully silent man. He listened more than he talked, his hair down to his chin, too long for a doctor. It was hard to know what there was to him, what he believed in. Nelson didn’t like him, any white man who didn’t spread his cards early on. His wife, Ava, was red haired and warm, impeccably mannered, but equally hard to pin down. They had two girls who played lacrosse. The Radlers were former North Carolinians, and Noelle felt that bond with them, although they’d lived outside Raleigh, on a farm with a house full of stained glass, chickens, and a band of sheepdogs. Brent was some kind of software salesman; Helene stayed home with their twins. Inherited wealth, Nelson had said, was the only way to explain it. Then he’d arched an eyebrow at Noelle and said, How do you think white people got houses like that in North Carolina? But the Radlers volunteered for the Boys & Girls Club. To Noelle, this seemed like an assurance. “John and Ava. Brent and Helene.” Inéz repeated their names, pointing at each pair with her hands pressed together in a steeple. “That’s right,” Ava said. “Around here, everyone comes in couples. If people get divorced, they move away.” She laughed. “Not as a rule, of course,” Helene chimed in. Inéz stretched her arms overhead, amused. “Of course,” she parroted. They politely asked Inéz about her latest production, and they nodded patiently, if confounded, as she explained it was an exploration of patriotism. The admission fees supported an organization working against voter suppression. “There’s an issue we can all get behind,” John Sutton said, and he raised his glass unironically. Nobody toasted, but they all drank. Ava looked toward the door as another couple swung in. “I do hope that new woman and her family show up tonight. Patricia—was that her name?” “I wouldn’t blame her if she didn’t,” Helene said. “Did you hear about that? The incident down at the pool?” Noelle reached for another drink, her third, knowing it didn’t matter. There was no life inside of her. “What happened?” John Sutton started to explain. “A new family moved in earlier this week. A nice couple. They’ve got a son about the girls’ age. Anyway, the newsletter hasn’t gone out yet this week, so we haven’t had a chance to announce their arrival. And this morning Patricia took her son down to the pool. She was reading a magazine, and he was diving in, splashing around.” “A very normal thing,” Helene interjected. “Yes, very normal—” Brent said. Inéz slipped her hand into Noelle’s, as if she knew what was to come. “To make a long story short, another resident confronted her. Asked if she lived in the community, said he hadn’t seen her around. He asked her for ID, and when she refused to give him any, he called the police.” “Oh God,” Ava said, although she’d certainly heard the story before. “It all got cleared up. She showed the officer her ID, her key card to the pool, and he left. But her son, I think, was very upset. And the other resident—” “Who was it?” Noelle asked. “Do you know that salt-and-pepper-haired man who’s always walking those dachshunds? Doesn’t stop to pick up their waste unless someone is watching?” “Such a nuisance,” Helene said. “Oh God,” said Ava again. “Well, what kind of repercussions will he face?” The group turned their eyes on Inéz. She had put down her glass. “I assume that what got left out of the story is what’s obvious. That Patricia and her son are black. Am I right?” “They’re West Indian, I believe,” said Helene. “Jamaican,” said Brent. “Well, this man is obviously a racist. Why else would he assume they had no right to be at the pool?” “Well, the newsletter’s late this week—” John Sutton began. “He owes them an apology,” Inéz said. John Sutton nodded. “He acted badly. An apology is not a bad idea.” “It’s an absolute requirement. At the very least.” “What a terrible welcome to the neighborhood,” Helene said, shaking her head, and Ava murmured something about the Lord and mercy, lifted another glass of sparkling wine off a passing tray. “I wonder what it will be like for him to go to school with your girls,” Inéz said pointedly to John and Ava. “I imagine the schools here are also predominately white? I hope for his sake that the neighborhood, at least, can be a place where he feels safe.” “Well, he was never really in any danger,” Brent said. “The police out here aren’t like the police in the city. They come to investigate, not to mow anybody down.” Inéz pushed her eyebrows together in puzzlement, disgust. “But you never can be too careful,” Brent went on, nervously now, and he turned to John Sutton. “Maybe you can put something in the newsletter,” he said. After the party, they sat on Noelle’s back porch to sober up. They drank coconut water and swatted at their arms, the citronella tiki torches doing little to repel mosquitoes. “I hope it works out for you,” Inéz said. “This life out here.” “I think I’ll invite that woman over—Patricia. And her family. Let them know they can count on us.” “You didn’t say a single thing during that whole conversation about the pool. That’s not like you, Nells.” “I know. But this is all I have right now. Those are my neighbors.” Inéz squeezed her hand. “Don’t get lost out here, love.” “You know, I was pregnant before.” “And you lost the baby? Christ, Nells, why didn’t you say anything?” “At first, it was this beautiful secret, just between Nelson and me. And by the time I was ready to tell everyone, it was all over. Nelson took it in stride, said there was nothing to do but accept it and try again.” “That man is so strange. And it’s not just thick skin either. It’s not normal.” “He’s not as unbreakable as he seems,” Noelle said, guarding her husband, his secrets. The first time Noelle had seen Nelson cry was toward the end of college. A girl Noelle knew from seminar had died. She and the girl had sat beside each other for months, shared notes, complained about the professor’s illegible handwriting. She had been sick, but Noelle hadn’t known. The professor made an announcement at the end of class. In her room, Noelle had sobbed, inconsolable, carrying on about the unpredictability of life, how they would all die, but they didn’t know when. Nelson had tried to comfort her. He put his arm around her, cycled through every aphorism he seemed to know about cherishing every day. When he couldn’t calm her, he grew more and more agitated, until finally he started to beat his own skull. He crumpled onto the floor and begged her to stop. There was no point in her suffering. It wouldn’t make anything better; it wouldn’t bring back her friend. She’d only derail herself. Noelle wound up rocking him, kissing him until he was still. They made love. They never talked about her friend again. “Why would he break when he’s got you looking after him?” Inéz said. “You’re the one I worry about.” “I’m not as blameless as I seem. I’ve been a mess. I think that’s why he took the job in Paris—to get some space.” “He’d be a fool to stop loving you.” Noelle shrugged. “We’ve been together a long time.” “So?” Inéz asked, defiant. “So have we, and we’ve sustained our love.” She smiled at Noelle, leaned her head back against the rocker. Noelle didn’t want to hurt her by saying it was different: the fuel needed to run a marriage, how exacting it was to be so close to someone, to see them with the same mixture of sympathy and scorn that you saw yourself. It didn’t even take an unkindness to feel let down by the person with whom you had vested your whole life. “He can’t be everything to you,” Inéz said. “I know, I know, never rely on a man.” It had been their mantra in college, even as Noelle had dated Nelson year after year. She didn’t believe it, but she knew it was what Inéz wanted to hear. “No, no,” Inéz said, the light from the torches coloring her face. “It’s got nothing to do with that.” Inéz slept beside her, her breath filling the bedroom with the kind of presence Noelle had been missing. Still, she couldn’t sleep. She ran a bath and brought her phone with her in case Nelson called. It was a new day in Paris. She sank into the hot water, dropped in the rose and calendula soak she had bought to help with fertility. The dried flowers bobbed in the bath. Noelle didn’t believe they would ever work, but all the witchy remedies gave her, at least, something to do. She could drink primrose tea to soften her cervix, take fish oil and go for long walks, treat conception like a fulltime job. It made her feel her odds were better. Nelson had said they could make another, but she wasn’t so sure. She’d never get pregnant if he weren’t around. Nelson told her not to think of the miscarriage as a baby but rather a little maybe she’d been carrying around that had turned to a no. But her child had been the size of a mango when she lost him. He’d been anchored in her, by blood, a new organ her body had made. She knew that babies were conceived and died all the time when they were just the size of seeds or nuts, but that knowledge had made no difference. The little maybe had been hers, a life she was waiting on. The phone rang and Noelle leapt for it. Finally. Nelson. She needed his voice, the sweet husk of it. The voice that came through the phone was coarse and female. Her little sister Diane. She called every once in a while, usually on mornings she was alone on a long drive. They had kept up their small talk over the years, as if all they needed to know was that the other was fine. Noelle loved her sister, but she’d lost track of her somehow, while she was busy running from Lacey May. “Chickadee, why are you up so late? Everything all right?” “Mama collapsed this morning. She fell right off the front porch.” A sick shock ran through Noelle. She remembered her mother had called earlier, and she had ignored her. If her mother was hurt badly, she’d never live it down—the prodigal daughter, now even worse than Margarita. “Is she all right?” “She’s awake now. Bumped her head pretty hard though.” “Well, all right. So she’s fine.” “The problem is she fainted cause she’s sick, Noelle. They’re saying she’s got cancer.” The word hit Noelle like a physical blow, a straight shot to the chest. “Not everybody dies from cancer,” she said. “She’s been asking for you. She’s going on about how she knows you won’t come, even if she’s dying, cause you hate her that much.” “Mama sure knows what to say to convince people of her way of seeing things.” “Maybe you should come home. What are you so busy with anyway?” “You call Margarita yet?” “Yes. She was as indifferent as you are. Some sisters I have.” “Well, what am I supposed to do, Diane? I’m not an oncologist.” “Then come home for me, goddamn it. Did you ever think I shouldn’t be the only one to go through all this?” Noelle could sense her sister seething on the line, little Diane who didn’t ask for things, who was good-natured and steadfast, the most peaceable Ventura. “Fine, I’ll come, but I’m not staying at Mama’s.” “You can’t stay with me—you know I’ve got a roommate. Things are tight around here.” “I don’t mind. I’ll sleep on the couch. You and Alma can keep your rooms.” “All right.” “I’ll leave tomorrow.” “Good. You better hurry up.” “Come on, Diane, ease up. I don’t like the way you’re talking to me.” “I don’t want to play peacekeeper between you and Mama once you’re here. Or you and Margarita, if she ever shows up. I’ve got my own life going on. My own problems. I don’t know why I always wind up stuck in the middle.” “Little sis, it’s only cause you’re not like the rest of us. You’re one of the good ones.” Noelle meant the words as a kindness, but Diane answered her with fury. “Just get down here quick, and try not to cause trouble once you arrive. You might not care about any of us now that you’ve got a family of your own, but this is for real. Mama’s got a tumor in her brain.” 4 November 1992 The Piedmont, North Carolina Jade put up a shrine to Ray in the kitchen. It was where he would have liked it to be. She hung his picture on the wall, potted violets underneath. She set out a fat black candle that smelled like tobacco when it burned, and nailed a wooden rosary to the wall. Jade didn’t believe in God, exactly, but if there were one, she wanted him to look after Ray. And so, each morning, she lit the candle in the early dark, squatted in front of the shrine, and tried to pray. She would start off talking to God and wind up talking to Ray. His voice was the one she wanted to hear. So far, she had heard nothing, but she went on kneeling at the shrine, expectant. If he had a spirit, he would still be around, trying to reach her. All she had to do was wait. At first, she asked for his forgiveness. It was her fault for getting him mixed up with her family—a crew of people she should have known to leave behind. She said sorry, and she cursed herself, cursed Wilson. Once, she was so loud, Gee woke up and crept into the kitchen without her noticing. She turned and found him leaning against the door, giving her a terrified look. She sent him to his room right away, told him everything was fine. She knew well that sadness was a contagion. So was rage. She couldn’t allow him to see her swallowed up by grief. Now, she mostly asked Ray for help. Help to rise early enough to do all the things that he used to do: fix breakfast and pour milk and wash dishes and iron clothes. Help to carry on. Help to find peace, whatever superpower had made Ray able to smile at life, keep cool, and be satisfied. That wasn’t her. But she had to find a way now, for Gee. And she was tired, so tired. It had been six weeks since Ray was gone, and she hadn’t felt this drained since her first days with a newborn. All those hours she spent alone in her mother’s house with a baby she didn’t know how to soothe or hold or feed. The only thing she knew then was that she had to control herself. She couldn’t lose her temper. He couldn’t see her weep. They learned about the world by looking at your face, listening to the tone of your voice. A baby couldn’t handle the raw force of her loneliness, her terror. And so, she had smiled at him, forced herself to stay calm when he spat up milk on her, to say sweet things she didn’t mean when she crawled out of the bed to feed him in the middle of the night. All that effort in those days, and still her son had wound up a boy with a father who was dead. Now, she found herself playing that same role again. She was even. She smiled at Gee. She turned to him even when she’d rather stay in bed. She pretended she didn’t miss Ray as badly as she did; she pretended it wouldn’t be near impossible for them to go on. She stopped herself whenever she felt she would overflow; it was far too much for such a little boy. On her first day off since the funeral, Jade sat at the shrine and waited on Ray. She was hollowed out, dazed from another string of bad dreams. Sometimes, they were benign: She was looking for Ray, wandering the halls of her high school, a corridor of empty hospital rooms that opened one onto another. She saw Ray ahead of her, and she chased him, but he’d vanish every time, just before she reached him. But other times, the dreams were terrifying. There was a fire, and Ray was walking into a smoke-filled house. There was a storm, and Ray was charging toward the center. There was an earthquake, and he was standing on the road, unshielded. Every time, she ran to him. Every time, he was going away from her. Jade sat cross-legged on the carpet, and she hurt all over. Her knees hurt, her hip bones, her jaw. Grief, she knew, could take over the body. The social worker had left her pamphlets that said so. The pamphlets included bulletpointed tips, as if mourning were like starting a new diet. Check the boxes, and you’d be on your way. Talk out loud to your beloved was the one she tried each morning at the shrine. So was Lean on your higher power. Another bullet point encouraged her to sit still and observe her thoughts, but she quit that one quick. Her thoughts were a dismal parade. We never got married and I’m still a widow. Ray looked after me and it killed him. When I graduate from nursing school, nobody’s going to be there. I don’t want to love anybody else. Gee won’t ever be able to unsee what he saw. Ray, where are you. Ray, can you hear me. Ray, Ray. Jade sat for a while, asking Ray for help, the only help he could provide —for an idea. She had to do something about the bills. Electricity, gas, the phone, the rent. She was late on everything. Things had been tight since she went back to school, but without Ray, it was worse. She and Gee were already on cups of noodles, canned beans, bread and peanut butter. The night before, Jade had scavenged dessert from underneath the sink: canned peaches that she and Gee ate together on the couch with spoons, taking turns to drain the syrup from the can. It had been easy when Ray was alive to ignore how much she depended on him. She loved him—that was clear—but he had guided her, too, in a way she would never have admitted. He was the one who administered their lives, who bought Gee the next size up in shoes, who turned down the thermostat at night, who bought detergent and set alarms, who drew a blanket over her when she fell asleep with her books, a drink. After several minutes of nothing at the shrine, Jade gave up and told Ray good-bye. The day was calling her, and Gee would be getting up soon. She kissed her fingers, touched them to his face. The photograph was from a day they had gone to the park with Gee. It was nothing but a flat field and a few oak trees, and she remembered being bored, wishing she were somewhere else, by herself for once, or studying. But Ray had amused Gee, making up games and running around, pulling up grass and tossing handfuls at their boy. It had moved her, how much he seemed to delight in Gee, how content he seemed with their life. She had taken the picture of the two of them. Without any intervention from Ray, wherever he was, she had to go on with the only plan she had: to move Gee in with her and rent out his little square of a room. Jade sat at the kitchen table and wrote out an ad. She wouldn’t get much for it, but it was better than nothing. She wondered about the odds of finding a woman, someone safe enough to let in her house. When she was done, she hauled herself to the stove, and made hot chocolate from two dusty packets she found in a cupboard. She browned bread in the oven, spread butter over the last two slices, and left the bigger one for Gee. She went to his bedroom and turned on the lights. “Up,” she said. A few minutes later, he was in the kitchen in his pajamas, frowning at her. “Mommy, it’s too early.” “We’ve got a lot to do today.” She pointed at his toast and chocolate. It was a command, and Gee sank into a chair, rubbed his eyes, and started nibbling at the crust. Gee seemed fine, more fine than she had expected. Sometimes, he moved too slow, took too long to answer her, but he snapped out of it when she shook him. He went to school and did his homework, watched cartoons and colored at the kitchen table. He was still seeing the social worker for now, but as far as she knew, he wasn’t doing much crying in there either. He seemed like himself, maybe a bit more turned off, but he had always been that way with her: somber, tentative. He was used to saving up all his play and sweetness for Ray. The biggest change was that he was asking her questions, and it made Jade suspect Gee didn’t understand what had happened at all. He talked as if there were a small chance Ray would be coming back. When the summer comes, who’s going to take me wading in the creek? he asked, as if she might say, Your daddy. Or Who is going to teach me to play ball? or Who is going to make my roast beef sandwiches now? Every question gave her a reason to break. Still, she answered him. What else was she to do? Jade found suddenly that she’d lost her appetite. She slid her toast onto Gee’s plate. “What do you think about getting a roommate?” “Like another little kid?” “No, like a nice lady. Somebody fun to eat breakfast with in the morning?” “A stranger?” “Some strangers are nice,” she said. “Some strangers are nicer than your own family.” “But I don’t want to live with a stranger.” Jade shushed him before he could say more. She knew whom he wanted to live with, and she couldn’t bear to hear him say it. “Finish up your toast,” she said, and he didn’t protest. He ate, rose to put his plate in the sink. He was such a pliant child, she often wondered how it was that he came from her. Jade reached for him by the shoulders, looked him hard in the eyes. “You know I love you, right, little man?” As soon as she spoke, she realized it had come out all wrong. It shouldn’t have been a question. Gee nodded at her and mm-hmmed, then shuffled back to his room to get dressed. She should have just told him— Gee, I love you. I love you, I love you. When they finished hanging the flyers, it was ten thirty, and Jade drove them to Superfine, where they could get free breakfast, and she could talk to Linette. They found it closed, the metal gate down, the windows shuttered. The mums planted in the window boxes were shrunken, brittle. Jade had a bottle of water in the car. She doused the soil, but it wasn’t hardly enough. “Should we get more water, Mommy?” Jade shook her head. “It’s too late.” “They’re dead?” She nodded. “And they can’t grow back?” “No, they can’t, baby.” She watched him puzzle over what it meant. She laid a hand on his shoulder, and the scent of the rotting flowers, the stale dirt, overtook her. She doubled over in front of the shop and vomited. Gee thumped her on the back. “Mommy, Mommy,” he said, and she snapped at him. “Jesus Christ, can you stop banging on my back?” He stared at her, his face twisted with fear. She caught herself, wiped her mouth, and cupped his little chin in her hands. “Come on,” she said. “We’ve got to find Ms. Linette.” She knew the way to Linette’s house by memory. It was a brick and white town house …

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