Sunday, September 2, 2012

An excerpt in which Rex and Leo are briefly introduced...

...remember them, because they're going to be important

“Mother.” Though it was pitched quietly, Lillian could hear the irritation in her daughter’s voice. “We need to talk. Now.”

Sighing lightly, she levered herself out of the old, creaky rocking chair. She smiled to herself. I wonder if that creaking is the chair or my bones? She tottered over to check on the boys. Rex was laying on his side, curled around his teddy bear, a serene look on his face. Leo, on the other hand, was sprawled out on his back, his face twitching, reflecting the chaos of his dreams.  Ah, little one. If only we could help

“Mother!” Louder and sharper this time.

Lillian turned to see her daughter Rosalie standing in the doorway. She was backlit by the glow coming from the hallway, but Lillian didn’t have to see her daughter’s face to know that she was scowling. She gave each boy a quick kiss on the forehead, said a small prayer for them to her ancestors and moved to join her daughter.

Rosalie stepped back to let her mother pass, and then quietly shut the door behind her. She opened her mouth to speak, but her mother kept on walking. Sighing, Rosalie followed her.

Lillian walked to the far end of the hall and down the back stairs, saying nothing. She paused at the landing to look at the photo of her father and his brothers. It was yellowed with age, but she could still see the pride gleaming from their dark faces as they stood before the large house they had bought for their parents. She touched the frame lightly and spoke, mostly to herself.

“How proud they were, Baba and his brothers. The first house in the whole county bought and owned by a black family. Those men worked their butts off and saved every last penny. But it was worth it just for them to see the look on their mother’s face…” She trailed off.

“I know, Mama,” Rosalie’s voice had softened, “Guka told me about it before he died. Those last weeks in the hospital, all we did was talk about ‘the good ol’ days’. How difficult things were for a group of young black men who’d started their own landscaping business. But then he met Sho-sho and things improved almost right away. They were able to save the money for a down-payment on this house. She was his “lucky lady” – bad things never happened when she was around; at least not to him and his family.” The softness in her voice was replaced by stone. “And that brings me back to what I wanted to talk to you about.”

Lillian dropped her hand from the picture and looked down at her feet. She turned and continued down the stairs and into the little kitchen.

“My mama – your shosho – was a good woman,” she began, before Rosalie could start in on her. “She loved her husband and her family more than anything. She did what she felt was necessary to ensure their survival and their prosperity!”

Rosalie crossed her arms and leaned against the wall. “Mother, I obviously can’t know what life was like back then. I’m sure Shosho faced struggles that none of us today could handle. And, while I don’t condone all of the things she did – those that I know of, at any rate – I don’t condemn them either. This isn’t about her though. It’s about you. You and what you’re doing to the boys. It has to stop, mother. It’s going to stop!”

“Rosalie, darling, you don’t understand – ”

“You’re right, mother. I don’t understand. And, frankly, I don’t want to understand. It was bad enough that I had to grow up with all of that nonsense – ”

“Nonsense?” Lillian began to splutter. “Nonsense??”

“Yes, mother. Nonsense!” Rosalie snapped, slamming her palm down on the counter. “Do you have any idea what it’s like growing up in the “modern world”, yet having everyone in school calling you the witchy-woman’s daughter? Walking down the hall while everyone stares and snickers at you and finding “crazy voodoo bitch” scrawled all over your locker? Hearing, from your supposed friends, that all the ‘cool’ boys think you’re pretty, but none of them are brave enough to ask you out because they’re afraid your mother might put some bad juju on them?”

Lillian’s face crumpled. “Li-li, why did you never tell me these things?”

“Why? So you could put some bad juju on them?” She snorted. “It doesn’t matter, mother. Not anymore. And anyway, after I kicked a couple of the boys’ asses, they were more afraid of me than they were of you.”

Lillian smiled at that. She was about to praise her daughter’s childhood victories, but Rosalie kept on.

“I was strong mother; strong enough to handle the teasing and bullying. Ricky’s too young for – ”

“Rex may be small for his age but he can handle himself.”

Rosalie exhaled heavily; she was getting exasperated. They’d had this conversation too many times. “His name is Ricky, mother. He and Leo are – ”

That child is not your son!”

“Well, he is my responsibility. He has no one else. And he and Ricky are as close as – ”

“Brothers? Hah! You go ahead. Keep on seeing what you want to see.”

“What? What’s that supposed to mean?”

Lillian shook her head, changing the subject. “I do love that little boy, Li-li, I do. But – and I’ve told you this before – I ‘see’ nothing but trouble in that boy’s future.”

“Mother! That is enough! Leo is as much my son as Ricky is and I love him just the same. What happened to his poor mother – and that bastard boyfriend of hers – has no bearing on how I feel for him, and even less on how he he’ll turn out in ‘the future’ ”. She waved her hand dismissively. “Leo is a part of this family and he has received more than enough love, attention and affection to counteract any crazy ‘curse’ you think he may have inherited – ”

She was cut off by a scream that came echoing down into the kitchen. Lillian and Rosalie gaped at each other in shock. Together, they dashed up the stairs and down the hall to the boys’ room. Surprisingly, Lillian got there first. She burst into the room – Rosalie on her heels – a certain word on her lips, ready to defend her grandson...grandsons. Fortunately, there was no need for Lillian’s talents. Both boys were huddled in Leo’s bed, ostensibly okay, though Ricky lay in Leo’s arms, sobbing. Rosalie stopped in the doorway, giving the boys a thoughtful look, as though truly seeing them for the first time.

Lillian looked around the room, but could neither see nor sense any threat. “Dear Lord, child. What’s the matter?” The question was directed to Ricky. Though his tears had subsided, he was still shaking, his face hidden in Leo’s shoulder. It was Leo who answered.

“He had a nightmare, Shosh – uh, I mean Gran.” He caught himself at a sharp look from Lillian. “He’ll be fine, he just needs to shake it off and go back to sleep.”

Lillian ignored him and sat on the edge of Ricky’s bed. “Rex, honey, you come here. You come to Shosho and tell her what’s the matter.” He peeked out at her from the circle of Leo’s embrace. He shook his head and hid his face again; Leo squeezed him tighter.

Lillian stopped herself before saying something sharp. Ricky was upset enough without her adding to his distress by chastising Leo. That boy. He may be part of this family, but he wasn’t born into it. I’m going to have to remind him of that, remind him of his proper place. She decided that she and Leo would have a little chat in the morning. In the meantime, she graciously conceded defeat.

“Okay baby, you stay with Leo and try to get some sleep. Mama and I will be right downstairs in the little kitchen. If you need to, you just come on down and we’ll make you some hot chocolate, okay?” She gave her best smile and got up. She stood for a moment, looking at the boys. Then, with a sigh and a slight shake of her head, she walked out of the room. Once again Rosalie shut the door and followed after her, back to the kitchen. But this time she jumped right into it before her mother could speak.

“Why didn’t you tell me about Ricky and Leo?” Lillian heard and felt the anger in her daughter’s voice; she stood firm against it.

“What’s to tell? It’s plain as day, out there in the open for anyone to see. Provided you’re willing to see such things – willing to see the truth.”

“Mother, how long have you known?” Rosalie’s voice was chilly.

“Oh leave it be, child!” Lillian tossed her head in anger. “They’re still babies. They’re each others best friend and that’s enough for them for now. They’ll figure themselves out as they get older. They’ll understand their feelings when they are ready to. For now, just let them be.”

Rosalie sat down heavily on a stool, put her elbows on the marble-topped island and propped her head in her hands. “How could I not have seen this?” She was surprised by her own obtuseness.

Lillian grabbed two glasses from the cupboard and a bottle from the wine cellar built in to the wall next to the fridge. She sat opposite Rosalie and opened the wine. “Well,” she said, sliding in the aerator and filling both glasses, “if you spend your life determined not to be a “witchy-woman’s” daughter, there’s a whole world of things you’ll not be able to see.”

She took a large sip of her wine. “That’s not funny. Not at all. I’m a mother, I love my boys deeply and I would think I’d be able to pick up on such things.”

“I wasn’t trying to be funny. I was being honest. A lot of what we do, a lot of what we are, is taught and learned, certainly. But there’s a big part that we’re born with. And it’s like any other part of your body. If you don’t exercise it, it atrophies and withers. If you don’t regularly stop to smell the roses, pretty soon, you forget what roses smell like. And you, my dear, haven’t sniffed a rose since you were a very little girl. Much younger than the boys are now, as a matter of fact.”

Rosalie emptied her glass in two gulps and handed it to her mother for a refill. She looked down at her hands, twisting the heavy ring on her index finger. “All I want,” she paused and sighed. “All I want is for the boys to have a normal childhood.”

“Like you apparently never had”

“Yes, mother. Like I never had.”

“Then why did you keep that?” she pointed to Rosalie’s ring.

“What, this ring?” She looked down at it, then held it up to the light, a quizzical look on her face. “Mother, what are you talking about? Sho-sho left this to me in her will. You know that. You were the one who gave it to me. What does this have to do with anything?”

“That ring has everything to do with who and what we are: your Sho-sho, me, you – and especially Rex.”

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