Thought I would share the beginnings of a new story with you. I've been told by the powers that be that this beginning is not strong enough. I'd like to know what you think.
He called my mother a whore, appearing to spit the venomous word past his thin lips as easily as Reverend blew the gospel every Sunday morning. My mother’s heart had grown cold, the stare she gave him even colder, and it was at that very moment, that my understanding of adults, of women, and all their issues, spun into an embodiment of chaos.
I stood there in the hallway, the chill of the moment pervading the air, and though the temperature outside was well over eighty degrees, there in that foyer, I stood frigid, my limbs frozen in place from the cold. My body shivered as I felt the look my mother passed over his face, meeting his eyes with her own intense gaze. Her response was reserved, the comments directed at his manhood, piercing his ego like the sharp blade of a machete. Then, just as quickly as the litany of anger spilled out of her mouth, she stopped, in mid-sentence, the moment interrupted with my mother calling my name.
“Mavis? Mavis, what are you doing in this hallway?” Strolling to my side, she leaned to kiss my forehead, pressing her lips warmly against my skin. The cold expression that had crossed her face moments earlier had dissipated into thin air, rising to some unknown space to sit beside the hateful word my father had just called her.
“Mavis, it’s impossible to do nothing. Even if you’re inactive, you are doing something.”
My father appeared from the hallway behind us, ignoring both my mother, and me, as he brushed past on his way up the stairs. There were tears in his eyes.
“Hi, Daddy,” I called after him, waving a hand in his direction.
Looking back over his shoulder, he gave me a weak smile, nodded in greeting, then spun back up the stairs to his bedroom. The door slamming behind him was as harsh as the bitter expression he’d called my mother just minutes before. My mother ignored him, feigning disinterest as she brushed the hair from my eyes.
“I have a book signing tonight in New Jersey. If you would like to come, you need to eat something now so that we can leave,” she finished, stopping to adjust a wisp of hair that had fallen into her own face.”
“Is Zeke coming?”
My mother chuckled. “Your brother has a date. I don’t think he and his young lady want to join us at the bookstore.”
“No, we don’t,” Zeke said, bounding down the flight of stairs toward us. “But thanks for thinking of us. What’s up, buttercup?” he asked me, tousling the braids atop my head. “Where have you been?”
I beamed at my brother, reveling in the light of his pale eyes. No one loved Ezekial Perry more than I did, not even my parents. I had proclaimed this when I’d been three and Zeke had rescued me from Pucci, Miss Benchy’s bull terrier. From that moment, my big brother had been the next best thing to fresh air as far as I’d been concerned.
“I was outside,” I answered, pushing my hand into his as we all headed into the kitchen.
“Playing with the other beauty queens, were you?”
I nodded. “Miss Connecticut had an attitude though. She stomped home,” I said.
Zeke laughed. “Well, then she sure doesn’t deserve to be Miss Congeniality, does she?”
“Heaven’s, no!” I exclaimed with a quick shake of my head. “And old Miss Mac yelled at me.”
My mother raised her eyebrows in my direction. “What were you doing wrong?”
“Nothing,” I said, dismayed. “I was only jumping rope.”
“In that dress?” my mother asked, a frown creasing the lines of her face. “Mavis, you should know better.”
I shook my head in disbelief, amazed that my mother, like Miss Mac and Miss Benchy, would find the same faults to complain about. The moment was baffling. At the age of twelve, and although very much female, I usually had no understanding of the two old women, and even less of my mother. They just were, each of them sitting in anticipation of some transgression that they could leap upon, and dole out punishment for. Despite neither of the old women having any children of their own, it was as if they worshipped from the parental handbook of do’s, and don’t do’s, having memorized it from cover to cover. My mother, of course, ruled by her own set of laws. But no matter what I did or didn’t know, at the age of twelve, I could find no wisdom in the antics of old women like Miss Benchy and Miss Mac. And my mother, was a story unto herself.
The two old women sat on their respective porches daily, the two lanes of Abernathy Boulevard their dividing line. It was an unspoken boundary that neither crossed, Miss Benchy having been born and raised on one side of the tracks, and Miss Mac, on the other. We played dead center. Usually, it was me, the blue-eyed, white girl named Rosetta Taylor, and Ella Porter, the preacher’s daughter with skin the color of burnt toast. We’d jump rope, play Twister, lip synch to Destiny’s Child on the radio, toss jacks, and dodge the one or two passing cars that might intrude upon our summer playground. We had our routines and the old women had theirs.
“Mavis Antoinette Perry, pull your dress down,” Miss Mac had called from where she stood on the top step of her old home, uttering my full name with vague annoyance.
“I can’t help it, Miss Mac,” I’d responded, pulling at my yellow gingham sundress, the hem falling into place at knee level. “It just comes up when I jump rope.”
“Then don’t jump,” the old woman pronounced firmly, each word falling from her mouth like lead weight against a concrete floor.
Miss Benchy had risen from her own seat to get a closer look. She nodded her gray head, then pushed open the door to her screened porch. The two women eyed each other briefly, then turned on their heels to sit back down, barely acknowledging the other’s presence. Ella and Rosetta simply shrugged their shoulders, dropping the frayed clothesline to the ground.
“Wanna play hide and seek?” Ella asked.
Rosetta shook her head. “No, that’s a baby game.”
“What do you think them two do on their porches all day?” I asked, looking first to Miss Mac’s door, and then around to Miss Benchy’s.
“Them old witches probably thinking up potions to put on us kids when we go to sleep at night,” Rosetta, who was only eleven, said with a giggle.
I rolled my eyes. Ella joined in with her own high-pitched squeal. I was serious, and so I ignored the two of them, which irritated Rosetta to no end. She whipped her butter yellow hair from one side of her small head to the other, clasping her pudgy pink hands to her chubby hips.
“Do you wants to play or not?” she whined in exasperation.
Being my mother’s child, I didn’t take too kindly to Rosetta’s tone. I gave her my mother’s stare, the girl, I know you are not speaking to me like that glare, with my eyes pressed into thin slivers, and my wide nose flaring as though something in the air smelled bad. Rosetta sucked her teeth, then spun on the toes of her white sandals to head for home.
“I’ve got to go too,” Ella said, picking up the makeshift jump rope. “My daddy will be home for dinner soon and we have bible study tonight. Goodbye, Miss New York.”
“Goodbye, Miss Florida,” I responded, as we gave each other our beauty pageant wave, fingers pressed neatly together as palms floated from side to side, elbow–wrist–fingers, elbow–wrist–fingers. Taking one last glance towards the old women, I sighed, then headed up the front steps of my own home.
The door had been unlocked, and as I shut it behind me, careful not to let it slam, I could hear my parents arguing in the kitchen, the radio in the background turned up full blast. I paused, insuring there were no unsightly stains on the front of my dress for my mother to react to. It was a rare occasion that I would pause to study my reflection, but this dress was new, a Lord and Taylor’s purchase that my mother had permitted me to wear only after I’d promised to keep it clean.
There was a full-length mirror in the foyer of our old brownstone. My mother’s mirror, the gilded frame polished to a deep golden shine that radiated warmth throughout the entranceway. My mother would make note of her reflection as she entered and exited, because it was my mother’s nature to insure an appropriate appearance at all times. Being twelve, I truly had no need for the mirror. I was, after all, my mother’s child, her features imprinted in flesh upon my person, no hint of my father to be found.
My mother often boasted that we represented the beauty of all women of color, the rich burgundy of our complexions, wide noses, saucer-shaped eyes, and thick lips, a testament to everything God had ever gotten right. I rarely had want of a mirror, because all I needed to do was look at my mother to see my self. With my whisper thin figure, and legs like pencils, it was said that no one, but my mother, could have spit out the likes of me on the day I was born. Often, as I studied the reflection of the young girl staring back at me, my only envy was the spread of my mother’s hips, and the round of her bosom. Though envious, I trusted they would come soon, believing my mother when she said that my flat rear end and even flatter chest would only last but so long.
“So, who are you going out with?” I asked, turning my attention back to my brother as we both took a seat at the table.
The boy grinned. “You don’t know her.”
“I’m sure she’s no good for you. She’s probably a tramp.”
My mother slapped her palm against the table. “Mavis, you know better. You don’t speak ill of people you’ve never met and name calling is totally unacceptable, young lady.”
I cut my eyes towards Zeke, who looked at me with that stupid grin he was famous for. I apologized. “I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”
“You had better not. I have no tolerance for such disrespect.” The woman dropped a plate of food in front of me, her hands coming to rest on her round hips.
The sound of my father coming down the stairs and through the hall, squelched the conversation, and I was grateful for the interruption that stopped the ensuing lecture that sat perched against my mother’s tongue.
“I’m sorry,” he said, coming to stand by my mother’s side. “I didn’t mean to be so ugly. I was just…” he stopped, searching her face for acknowledgement of his apology.
My mother nodded, then smiled at him, the bend of her lips gently stroking the side of his face. “We can talk about it later,” she said, gesturing towards an empty plate on the table. “Supper is ready.”
“Hi, Pop,” Zeke said, the words doing battle with a piece of chicken in his mouth.
“Hello, son. The food smells good,” he said, reaching to wrap his arms around my mother’s waist.
I watched as he kissed her, their mouths twirling one against the other. I marveled at the ease with which they made up, forgetting the fray of anger that had consumed them minutes before. Anger set afire by my father’s jealousy.
My father stopped to kiss my cheek as he took his seat at the head of the table. In that moment, as we four sat together, my parents smiling faces beaming down upon me and my brother, I was proud to be the only daughter of Nicholas and Corynne McDaniels Perry, of the East Hampton Perry’s.
As the second child, born six years after their only son, Ezekial Giovanni, I never understood the references to East Hampton that my father was so fond of dropping in conversations, most especially since our East Hampton relatives never bothered to acknowledge us.
We’d been only once that I could ever remember, setting off early one Sunday morning to visit Grandmother and Papa Perry, but the visit had been exceptionally short. Grandmother Perry had said something to my mother that she’d taken offense with, and we were swept out the door like unwanted mice discovered in the kitchen pantry. Papa Perry had given Zeke and me, each, a ten-dollar bill, and a piece of peppermint candy. Grandmother had kissed Zeke goodbye, but her lips never made it to my cheek.
As much as I was my mother’s child, my brother Zeke belonged to my father. We do not look as though we belong to one another, Zeke, and I. He has our father’s pale complexion, his skin crying out for sunlight to brighten up its stark white canvas. His eyes are the color of honey, and his hair is a wealth of amber and gold waves that curl easily if allowed to grow too long. It had been many years later, and numerous evenings of eaves-dropping on my parents conversations, where I came to understand that Zeke being more white, than black, was why Grandmother had deemed to kiss his cheek, and not mine. My mother had cursed her for that, and so we no longer blessed the East Hampton Perry’s with our presence.
“May I buy books tonight?” I asked my mother as we traveled the Hudson parkway from our Harlem brownstone towards the Tanganyike Book Store in Newark, New Jersey. The question was met with silence as my mother’s eyes flickered from her side mirror, to her rearview mirror, and back to the four-lane highway. “May I?” I asked again.
“You may buy one book tonight, Mavis,” she answered.
I fell back into the silence, pleased that one book was promised to me and perhaps another could be finagled at the cash register. I watched my mother who still studied the road intently. Corynne Perry was a classic beauty, her rich, charcoal complexion like clear, black ice, smooth and sleek. Tonight, she wore her jet-black, shoulder-length hair pulled into a tight bun. She looked elegant, as she always did when she went on tour to promote one of her novels.
A best-selling romance author, my mother was infamous for her story telling. She wove tales of lust and seduction the way others breathed: easily, without thought, and very necessary for survival. My mother’s stories were everything she was: passionate, consuming, and fanciful. As I watched her, I braved to ask the question.
“Why did Daddy call you a whore?”
My mother cut her eye at me, the lines in her face tensing ever so slightly. She pursed her lips, her grip tightening against the steering wheel.“Why he called me such a foul name isn’t important, Mavis. What is more important is that I did not accept him calling me out of the name my mother blessed me with. Remember that. If a man gets away with calling you out of your name once, you can trust that he will do it again, and he will think that such is acceptable. It isn’t.”
“What if he’s angry? Was Daddy angry with you?”
“It is never acceptable, Mavis”
“What is a whore?” I asked, searching her face for an honest answer.
My mother laughed loudly, tossing her head from side to side. “Do you remember the character Rebecca, in my third book?”
I nodded my head, thinking about the woman my mother had given life to in between the pages of her manuscript.
“Yes. She was very pretty and she liked to spend all her time in bed with men,” I said.
“Well, some people would say that Rebecca was a whore.”
Confusion was painted across my face. “But I liked Rebecca.”
“Most people liked Rebecca. She was fragile, and naïve, and you wanted to protect her from herself. She could be her own worst enemy and she was searching for that one man who was going to make everything right in her world. Her mistake was allowing men to take advantage of her innocence before she was able to discover herself.”
“But why would that make her a whore?”
“It was all the time she spent in so many beds that made people think such of her.”
I pondered my mother’s statement. “Does Daddy think you spend your time in other men’s beds?”
My mother cut her eye at me again. “Your father can be very jealous. When he gets that way, he doesn’t think. That’s the problem and that’s why he thought he could call me such an awful name and get away with it. But enough. Now, why were you eavesdropping on our conversation?”
I shrugged my thin shoulders. “I wasn’t eavesdropping. You were just shouting when I came into the house. I didn’t know what to do so I stood there.”
Corynne nodded. “In the future, make your presence known. Otherwise you may hear something you might not want to hear.”
"Yes, ma’am. So why was Daddy angry with you?” I persisted.
She smiled. “Great passion will make a man do things he himself has no understanding of,” she said.
Pulling into the parking lot of the bookstore, my mother eased her vehicle into an empty parking spot and turned off the engine. She stared out into the distance, not really seeing the flow of bodies that walked excitedly towards the store’s front door, or my own bewildered expression as I sat waiting beside her.
She heaved a deep sigh, then smiled, the bend of her lips ever so faint. “I was about your age the first time someone ever called me that word. It was a boy in my homeroom class named Charles Davis. We were in the school auditorium and Charles had asked me to be his girlfriend. When I told him no, he stood up in the middle of the stage and called me a whore. I was furious but I didn’t say anything. Nothing at all. Then when I was in high school, my mother and I got into a horrible fight about a boy I was dating and she called me a whore. I didn’t say anything then either, but I promised myself that no one would ever again call me such a hateful word because that’s not who I was, nor was it how I behaved. Like I said, Mavis, never allow anyone to call you out of your name.” Her palm gently stroked the side of my face as she smiled down at me.
Corynne ended the conversation, making it clear that there was no more for us to discuss. As we walked towards the entrance door, I thought about the passion my mother always claimed she and my father had for each other. My mother often said that there was no greater gift than to be blessed with great passion, and that one day, I too, would find love just like theirs. I imagined my great passion would come on the same boat with my breasts and my hips.