From Chapter One
The Early Times Old Style Kentucky Whiskey tasted good for breakfast. I took another sip as I worked on my
third glass and reread a passage from an article my father wrote in a newspaper the year I was born. It was five o'clock,
Christmas morning, 1999, and I waited.
People, places, and things never really die because my mind holds them when I'm not paying attention,
like gene pools or circles or photographs connecting to the beginning of my life.
My hands danced across my face wiping tears away as I read the last
poem I'd written in my journal, after Blue Greene went home to take care of business, a prayer for my own healing. Birthdays
have a way of making me pray.
I observed photographs of my parents, myself,
and a love letter my father had written to me on the day I was born that I found hidden beneath my mother's mail in a top
dresser drawer when I was eight and discovered the scent of Chanel No.
5 perfume on my fingertips.
night, the hospital had called me before Blue Greene had. My father's pressure had been dropping all evening.
Daddy had been in a diabetic coma for two days.
Waiting for death a day before
my birthday when I was 12 gave me anxiety every birthday after that because I was always waiting for a phone call telling
me that someone had died. For 17 years, I've been waiting, only to find out that now, at age 29, I can't handle it.
I placed the phone's receiver back on the machine anyway.
I let the photographs and a love
letter fill a cave in my soul overflowing like the Gullah/Geechee heritage of Georgia I owned, but had never learned.
Inside the cave lived a dark mix that reminded me of tough roots, cypress forests, and peat moss that thrived on the shores
of the Okefenokee Swamp as well as the Ogeechee and Savannah Rivers that surrounded low country living. I never learned
the language my mother and father spoke whenever they wanted to share a secret about a murder in 1901 that kept my father
from sleeping comfortably most nights when he came to visit Mama and me when I was a child. But the language of photographs
and a love letter kept appearing on the walls of the cave that had grown in my soul along with the oak trees, especially on
my 12th birthday, when my mother's sweet whispers of her love for me disappeared.
That night, I learned the art of dancing people used to wipe tears away.
Photograph: Age 5, I was running away from Mama. She had the straightening comb. She wanted
to do my hair. The hair gel wasn't working because of the humidity. I had what she caled. "The frizzies."
I was under her bed hiding. She saw my foot. She dragged me from the bed across the floor with her 135-pound body.
She had the ironing cord, which she had taken the time to cut from an old iron.
The cord was blue. She slapped my behind. I was stunned She then sat on me. She put my hands behind
my back and tied Daddy's belt around them. She tied my feet together. She taught me not to yell. If
I screamed, she slapped me again.
Mama dragged me to the kitchen chair for the second
time in my life where I remained for four hours, tied up with the ironing cord and Daddy's belt. I wanted a Gheri curl,
but didn't get one. She heated the iron comb on the stove. The green Dax pomade was on the kitchen counter next
to two towels, a comb, scissors, a bottle of olive oil, essential oils of lavender, ylang ylang, and rosewood, and two-dozen
pink, medium-sized, foam curlers. It was a Saturday, and I was going to church Sunday. I had to look pretty.
No Gullah/Geechee words!
Mama put on music, B.B. King's, "How
Blue Can You Get" as she sipped whiskey from an orange juice glass. I remember the apartment we lived in on Crescent
Boulevard being cold, although we had heat, and the landlord was Greta Johnson. We lived in her brick house. At
the time, I resented that Daddy lived in a beautiful brownstone with another woman while we lived in a two-bedroom apartment
on the other side of town in a less than beautiful place.
Mama oiled my scalp carefully with
olive oil, slid Dax on the ends, and whispered, "I love you, baby. I don't want those people thinking I don't take
good care of you! And I don't want you to ever speak that Geechee talk like your Daddy. When I was your age I
spoke it, and people made fun of me when I left Eva Creek Island. They said I sounded ignorant. Well, I don't
want anyone to ever call my baby ignorant! Your Daddy speaks it to show people that it's a language that you should
be proud of and our heritage. But all people do is look at him like he's crazy and then make him say the whole thing
over in English! I stopped speaking that way the day you were born. You don't come from ignorant people, remember
She sipped whiskey. I hunched up my shoulders because I heard the iron comb being lifted from the hot burner
on the stove. It sizzled when it fried my hair. I didn't move until Mama said so. After four hours, she
untied the blue ironing cord and Daddy's belt, and promised never to use it again.
smiled and pointed to a large fishing boat that sat several feet away from the house. As she talked, about ten people
were streaming onto the porch to greet us, the young and old, toddlers and teens, and the familiar, yet distant Clara Rogers.
was 70, but did not look it. She wore a white uniform similar to the ones church ushers wore in spirit-filled Baptist
churches. Autumn told us that there was a praisemeetin' at night and Clara was an usher at The Memorial Heritage Baptist
Church of God, which was one hundred and seventy-five years old on Eva Creek Island. Tourist offerings and family
members of Eva Creek Island kept the church alive. Clara was reading a story to four toddlers who sat at her feet.
She slowly stood when she saw Autumn's car.
Fear sat on my stomach and annoyed me as
I watched beautiful people with flawless skin who spoke with rich Southern accents laced with sweetness, and oh, the food
they greeted us with! But for the first time in months, I craved Early Times Old Style Kentucky Whiskey.
who towered over Clara, hugged her lovingly, and planted a kiss on her cheek. "Mother I missed you so," he
said. He kissed the other cheek, and she hugged his waist and showed a mouth filled with ivory teeth and one gold front
."How you, boy? Ya' home now. Sho' glad to see you, baby.
My little man is home, ya'll. Lookit here. He a fine specimen for the ladies ain't he?"
fine ladies smiled and introduced themselves to him. "I'm Gertrude. How you?"
"This here, my daughter, Ella Wilson. I rekon' she 'bout your'
age, and a doctor too, and obstetatrician. Handles babies fine too." Gertrude said, mispronouncing her words
in a Southern accent.
Carmel smiled. A very fair skinned black woman about my age with blonde
hair and green eyes greeted him.
"Oh, Mama!" Ella said. She smiled
at Carmel. "Hello, Mr. Carmel. It's a pleasure to meet you. I've heard a lot about you. Maybe
we can have coffee when you get back from the Island?"
Carmel smiled. "That
would be nice, Ella. Thank you."
"My pleasure," she said, batting her eyelashes
at him the same way I had. I wanted to grab his arm and remind him about Zalia, whom I felt was more polished and prettier
than this Ella, but I couldn't get to him because another one of Clara's friends reached for Carmel's hand.
fine, strong, thing. I'm Bedelia. I used to baby-sit your bad self when you was 'bout six or seven, remember?"
I do, Miss Bedilia. You lookin' mighty good."
"Well, I keep myself
up now, honey. You know old Chuck wouldn't have it any other way! When them tourists stops by here, he bound to
find himself one of them fast city women. So I got to make sure I can keep up with the competition. The other
day I just bought myself my first thong! You know, Carmel, I got five children now. My daughter Louise in
the back there, baking up some red velvet cake. Remember that?"
yes, Miss Bedelia. I can't ever forget that. You make the best red velvet cake I've ever had. I finally
learned how to make it like you. My recipe is pretty close to yours. I manage a restaurant in Jewel Park, New
York. This here is the owner, sister Imani Jewel Henderson."
eyebrows lifted as she took my hand to shake it. I smiled. She said, "Why yes, Matthew Henderson's child.
I believe your mother was Miss Ruby Weaver. You not as light as her though. More like your father.
we'll just leave all of that alone for now, Mrs. Wilson." Autumn said, glancing at her with that devilish
grin. She then said, keeping her eyes fixed on Miss Bedelia. "Tie yuh mout! Come on Imani! Carmel!
Let's head toward that boat before the sun goes down...."