The Summer We Got Free, Chapter One (Excerpted)
Ava did not remember the taste of butter. It had been seventeen years since she had last moaned at the melt of hot-buttered cornbread on her tongue. She was not bothered in the least about it, because she did not know that she did not remember. At breakfast, when she dropped a square of butter on grits, or on yams at dinner, and laid a spoonful of either on her tongue, she believed what she tasted was butter. She did not know that she was only tasting milkfat and salt, the things that make up butter, which, of course, is not the same thing. She certainly did not know that the taste of butter was a thing that had once made her moan. Ava did not remember what it was to moan.
Standing at the green-checkered, Formica-topped table in her parents' kitchen, on a drizzly Saturday in August, Ava spread butter thickly on a slice of toast and yawned heavily. It was just after four in the morning, and she was still in her nightgown, a pale yellow, plain thing, and her hair was tied up under a kerchief. She was thirty years old, but she looked and felt years older, especially on mornings like this one, when the damp got into her elbows and knees and the joints of her hands, down in the marrow, and settled there. Buttering the toast, her fingers felt stiff and unwilling.
She placed the toast on a plate in front of her husband, Paul, who smiled tiredly up at her from his seat at the table.
"You look half asleep," she told him, as she poured him more orange juice.
"I'm alright," he said, chewing slowly.
They had been married four years, and this was one of their rituals. Whenever Paul took a night shift at the cleaning company where he sometimes worked, he had to skip dinner. By the time he got home in the morning he was exhausted, and didn't want to eat a whole meal and go to bed on a full stomach, so Ava got up early and made him a couple of slices of toast, and she sat with him while he ate. When they were first married, he took night shifts often, but over the years that followed he had taken them only when they needed extra money for something specific. Lately, though, in the last few months, he had been picking them up after his regular shifts at the hotel, where he worked full-time. This change had come about because he had finally secured a long-time-coming promotion at the hotel, to day manager, and, between the two of them, they were making enough money to afford their own house, and Paul was picking up the night shifts for extra money for a down payment. Twice in the last week, he hadn't gotten home until nearly dawn, and once they had only had time to kiss goodbye as Ava passed him on her way out to catch her bus to work at the museum.
"We got jam?" Paul asked.
Ava shook her head. “You asked me that already.”
“I did?” he asked, his eyes red and half-closing.
"You working too much."
He rubbed his eyes, and some of the butter from his fingertips left a tiny smear on his eyelid. "How we gone get a house if I don't work?"
"We already got a house," Ava said.
Paul sighed, and stuffed what was left of his toast into his mouth. "This aint our house, Ava," he said thickly.
Ava took the last slice of toast from the toaster and buttered it, thinking about this house and her husband's renewed determination to leave it, which she did not share. She had lived here almost her entire life, since she was four years old. And while she could not remember very much about her early childhood here, she could remember some things, like the day, twenty-six years ago, when they moved in, when she first saw the red wallpaper, which her parents had hated, but which Ava thought, and later convinced them, was the most perfect wallpaper anyone had ever hung. It had faded in only the last seventeen years as if it had been fifty years, and a grayness now lived inside the red.
Still, Ava had grown up playing hide and seek under this very counter where she now stood buttering Paul's bread, and playing jacks on this floor, underneath the kitchen table with her siblings. If she tried very hard, she could almost, but not really, remember how the jacks sounded when they scraped against the linoleum, and how the ball bounced. But the luster on the tiles was gone now, and whenever you sat a heavy dish on the green-checkered table it wobbled on its rusty legs. The glass vase that had sat for years in the table's center, which had been given to her parents by Miss Maddy, their across-the-street neighbor and then-friend, had held flowers from her mother's bushes out in the backyard. Yellow roses, fat and lush as bowls of paint. Their fallen petals like paintdrops on the tabletop. But the rosebushes were gone now, too, abandoned to the mass of strangling weeds that had suffocated the rest of the flower garden, and the vegetable garden, and had even attacked the back porch, where the weeds had crept over the banisters and up through the floorboards, which were loose and uneven now, just as they were in every room of the house.
And indeed there was an unevenness about the house itself, an eccentricity in its character, an imbalance in its light and air, so that in the daytime the sunlight coming in through the windows only cast itself into certain areas of a room, and avoided others, so shadows fell in odd ways, elongated in the wrong places or unnaturally cut in half. And when a gust of sudden air, sometimes hot, other times frigid, entered or left a room for no reason, as often happened, it sometimes took a person’s breath away.
But Ava had been read stories at bedtime, and lost baby teeth, under this roof. She had bled like a woman for the first time here, and for the last. And though it had been years since she had known any real joy within these walls, any bliss, years even since she could clearly remember old joys and blisses, she still felt a connection to the house, and a kinship with it.
Ava handed Paul the last piece of toast, then turned back to the counter to wipe away the crumbs there. Paul watched her while chewing. He did not understand why she felt so strongly about this one thing, about not leaving this house. Indifference was usually the most apparent feature in Ava's personality. It was a fact about her that Paul had noticed when they had first started going together, nearly five years ago now. Sitting on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where they had both worked, eating beef stew Ava had brought from the cafeteria where she was a server, Paul had invited her to see Buck and the Preacher with him after work.
"Alright," she'd said.
"You like Sidney Poitier?" he’d asked her, grinning, happy.
She shook her head. "Not that much."
"Oh.” His grin slipped. "Well. We can see something else."
"No, it's fine," Ava had said. "Anything is fine."
He had liked that quality in her then, because he had mistaken it for easy-goingness, and he didn't like fussy women anyway, women who had to have everything just so. Over time, though, he had come to see the downside of it. It wasn't that she always agreed with him about things. She didn’t. But when she disagreed, she never argued, and Paul felt this was because, whatever her opinion on a particular subject, she never felt strongly about it, and certainly not enough to fight over it. In all the time they'd known each other, they had never had a real fight. Paul tried to pick fights with Ava, sometimes, when he was very angry or frustrated about something and needed a fight. But as soon as he raised his voice she would completely lose interest in whatever they were talking about, and he would be left even more frustrated than when he started. It was only when it came to the subject of leaving this house that Ava was uncharacteristically vehement. Not in her tone, because she would not fight about it, but in her consistency. No matter what Paul said, no matter how much he insisted over the last four years, Ava would not even consider leaving that house.
"Don’t you want something that’s just for us?" he asked her now for the hundredth time, tiredly, passively, between bites of toast.
She glanced over her shoulder at him, and shrugged.
When she put the butter back into the refrigerator, a little bit got on the skin between her thumb and forefinger and, as usual, she did not really taste it when she licked it away....
Ava lay beneath her husband, listening to his soft moaning and watching the early-blue sky through the open curtains at the bedroom window. It was melty, streaky blue, the moon fatty yellow, the kind of moon she and her brother used to call savory because it looked like you could reach up and dip your finger in it and scoop yourself out a taste.
Paul shifted his weight from one elbow to the other. Ava could hear, mixed in with his moaning, the loose floorboard under the right side of the bed as it creaked with each thrusting motion he made. It had been loose for months, ever since they had brought the new dresser in and had snagged a nail in the floorboard while pushing the dresser against the wall. Paul had said he’d take care of it, but with all the hours he worked, and with all the other things that needed repairing in the house, he’d never gotten to it. I should fix that, Ava thought. It’s just a matter of a hammer and a nail. It won’t take more than a few seconds.
Paul suddenly stopped thrusting and squinted down at her in the dark. “What?” he whispered.
It took Ava a moment to realize that she had not just thought about the loose floorboard, but had said something about it out loud.
Paul frowned, and his frown was like a little boy’s. “That’s what you thinking about right now?”
“I’m not thinking about it. It just crossed my mind for a second.”
“You want me to do something different?” he asked her.
“No,” she said, putting her hand on his backside to let him know it was alright to keep going. He buried his face in the curve of her neck and shoulder, pushed himself deeper inside her, and groaned.
Ava stifled a yawn.
Twenty minutes later, when Paul was ready to come, he raised up onto his elbows and looked in her eyes, and Ava kissed him, softly biting his bottom lip the way she knew he liked, so that he came with a shudder, just as a loud crash and the tinkling sound of shattering glass rang through the house.
“What the hell is that?” Paul whispered, getting out of bed and fumbling for his drawers in the dark. When he got them on, he said, “Stay here, baby,” and crept out into the even darker hallway.
Standing at the top of the stairs, he felt a draft coming up that should not have been there. The light switch at the top of the steps that controlled the lamp at the bottom hadn’t worked for years, since before he’d even moved into his wife’s parents’ house. Peering down the staircase into the foyer, tilting his head to one side, he tried to catch any sounds coming up from the dark rooms below, but the house was quiet. He went slowly down the stairs, almost all of them creaking loudly underfoot, the sound filling up the dense quiet. When he got to the bottom, he flicked on the lamp, squinting against the small light that filled the foyer. Nothing looked out of place.
When he stepped into the living room, the curtains at the front window moved, and just at the same time he heard the front door open in the foyer behind him. He quickly pressed himself against the wall.
“Who’s that?” he called out, wishing he had put on his pants. “I got a gun,” he lied. “And I'm a pretty good shot, too. My daddy taught me. He used to take me out to the woods and let me shoot—” He stopped, frowned to himself, wondering why he was telling his life story to somebody who was breaking into his house, and why on earth he had called himself a pretty good shot.
Someone grabbed his shoulder. He turned, ready to fight, and saw George Delaney, his father-in-law, standing there.
“Jesus, Pop,” he said.
“What you doing?” the older man asked him.
“We heard a crash,” Paul said. “I thought somebody was in here.”
George crossed the living room and flicked on the overhead light. “The window’s broke. I could see it from outside, coming up the steps.”
The curtains hanging at the front window billowed a little in the small breeze that blew in. Paul went to the window and pulled back one curtain, and saw that half the window was shattered. Large and small pieces of glass covered one side of the worn, orange sofa that sat in front of the window.
“Goddamnit,” Paul said. “Not this again. I thought they was finished with all this.” He peered out into the dark street. “You see any of them out there?”
“They was gone by the time I walked up.”
There was a brick lying on the floor just by the coffee table, and George picked it up. On one side, in dark-colored marker, was written: Do not make a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live.
He frowned, and handed it to his son-in-law, who took it, read it, and shook his head.
“What the hell that supposed to mean?” Paul asked.
“It’s from the bible,” George said. “Deuteronomy.”
Sarah came down the stairs then. “What happened?” she asked, pulling her robe tighter around her against the cool air coming in.
“Nothing,” George said.
Sarah went to the window and pulled back the curtain. “It don’t look like nothing, Daddy,” she said, eyeing the broken window and all the glass, and trying not to stare at her brother-in-law in his drawers.
Paul held up the brick. “Somebody threw this.”
“Not exactly,” he said, and the three of them looked around at each other and laughed, all tired-sounding and with an underhint of something deeply sad, but still not nearly as disturbed as the laugh that joined theirs then, a loud, crazed, unhinged kind of laugh that made them all go quiet.
It came from the woman now standing halfway up the stairs, peering over the banister at them, a tight grin drawn across her face, a shock of gray-streaked hair sitting uncombed on top of her head, the housecoat she wore buttoned wrong, so that she looked lopsided and disheveled.
Sarah hurried over to the stairs, saying, “Go on back to bed, Mama.”
Her mother, Regina, continued down the stairs. When she got to where Sarah was standing, she seemed to notice her for the first time. “Move, goddamnit. How I’m s'posed to bust that preacher upside his head if you blocking my way?”
“Pastor Goode aint down here,” Sarah said.
Regina peered over the banister at Paul and George in the living room. “Well, y’all aint came down here at four in the morning for a game of pinochle,” she said. She looked right at her husband then. “You coming or going, George?” she asked him, because he was the only one fully dressed.
“Go back to bed, Regina,” George said.
She stared at him, not moving an inch, with an icy glare that made the cool air coming in through the broken glass seem balmy.
“Fine,” he said. “Then I will.” He walked out of the living room, back into the foyer, and went past Sarah on up the steps, and past Regina, who put her hands on her hips and watched him go. He could feel her eyes on his back as he reached the top of the stairs. He turned up the hallway and opened a door, glad, as always, that they did not share a bedroom, and then closed the door firmly behind him.
“I’ll sweep up this glass,” Sarah said, walking back towards the kitchen.
“I’ll help,” said Paul, following her.
Without Pastor Goode's head to go upside, or George to harass, Regina lost interest in the scene downstairs and went on back to bed.
Sarah cleaned up the broken glass, Paul moving the sofa so she could sweep behind it. When it was all swept up, he got a piece of cardboard from a box at the top of the basement stairs and taped it into the broken pane. “That’ll do for now, I guess.”
Sarah stared at the cardboard, a hard look of frustration on her face. She was two years older than Ava, and although there was a sibling resemblance, Sarah was thin and stick-like where Ava was thicker and curvier. She had a hard edge to her personality, too, Paul thought, that Ava did not have.
"I hate them," she said. "Everybody on this block. I hate every last one of them."
"They aint done nothing like this in two years," Paul said. "No letters. No calls. No sermons in the street."
Sarah just stared at the cardboard, looking angry and sad, and Paul patted her shoulder.
When he climbed back into bed, he snuggled up close to Ava. She, indifferent to all the commotion that had gone on, was deep in a restful sleep.
Ava awoke again at just after nine in the morning, brought out of sleep by the sound of her mother’s haunted mumbling coming down the hall. Regina, who was always Crazy on Saturday mornings, could be heard from her bedroom at the front of the house, all the way to Ava and Paul’s room at the back. Glancing at Paul, who was snoring softly beside her, she got up, pulled on jeans and a blouse with ruffled sleeves, and tiptoed out of the room and down the stairs, being careful not to draw her mother’s attention. She went to the living room and pulled back the front curtains to let in some sunlight. The cardboard taped into the window caused her to pause only a moment before she turned and walked through the dining room into the kitchen. Once there, she opened more curtains, the rain-cleansed sunlight splashing itself onto the dull red wallpaper. She made coffee, then went into the dining room, where she got out the ironing board and iron, and set them up by the dining room table. The basket of clean laundry she had left on the table the day before was still there, and she pulled out one of Paul's work shirts and began to press it.
When her sister, Sarah, came downstairs, she walked right by Ava without a word, on into the kitchen. After a while, she came back into the dining room with a cup of coffee and sat down at the table. "Pastor Goode’s up to it again."
Ava folded a just-ironed skirt and asked what had happened that morning, and when Sarah told her about the brick through the window, she said, "So, that's what that noise was."
Sarah sipped her coffee and looked thoughtful. "Just when Mama was thinking about moving.”
Ava slipped a skirt over the top of the ironing board. "If Mama was ever willing to move, we'd have been gone years ago.”
Sarah shook her head, "Only ‘cause they tried to force us out. Scare us out. She didn’t want to give Pastor Goode the satisfaction. But when they stopped, she started thinking about going. I saw her reading the paper one day, a while back, and she had circled some things in the real estate section. She don’t want to be here no more than they want us here.”
Ava knew that Sarah was wrong, that Paul had been the one circling things in the real estate section. Sarah wasn't a person you could disagree with casually, though. She took any contrary opinion, no matter how reasonable, or gently expressed, as a personal attack. So, Ava just kept on ironing and said nothing more.
A little while later, their mother came down the stairs, still looking disheveled, with a sweater on over her nightclothes, and a large sunhat on her head.
"You gone do some gardening, Mama?" Sarah asked her.
"I think my tomatoes is ready," Regina said, heading for the back door.
There were no tomatoes. There wasn't even a garden. But Regina disappeared through the back door looking determined.
"Daddy was out all night again," Sarah told Ava.
Ava folded the skirt she had just ironed, and laid it on the table with the other pressed garments.
"Where you think he go all the time?" Sarah asked, for the thousandth time.
Ava shrugged. "Nowhere. He just don't want to be here, I guess."
"Well, that's obvious, Ava," she said, rolling her eyes. "But he got to be going somewhere 'til after four in the morning. You don't want to know?"
Their father spent at least a couple of evenings a week away from home. Often, after dinner, he would tell them he was going out for a while, and they wouldn't see him again for hours. Sometimes Ava heard him returning at nearly dawn. It wasn't a new thing. It had been his habit for a long time, years, though Ava could not remember exactly when it had started. "I guess I'm just used to it," she said to her sister.
Sarah frowned. "You the least curious person I know."
Ava didn’t think she was not curious. She just didn't have the appetite for other folks' business that Sarah had.
"You used to poke your nose into everything when we was kids," Sarah said.
Ava did not think that was true.
When the doorbell rang, both sisters were startled by the sound.
"Ignore it," said Ava, sure it was one of their neighbors trying to start some more trouble. "They'll go away afterwhile."
From the kitchen behind them, they heard the back door open and shut with a thud.
"Shit," Sarah said. "Mama must’ve heard the bell.” She hurried past Ava and the ironing board, disappearing into the kitchen.
The doorbell rang again. Ava frowned, and tried to just keep on ignoring it, but when it rang a third time she put down the iron. When she got to the front door, she peered through the glass pane, and saw a woman standing at the edge of the porch, her back turned, looking out at the street. She could not see the woman's face, but nothing about the back of her reminded Ava of any of their neighbors on the block. Cautiously, she pulled open the front door, and pushed open the screen door just as the woman turned and came forward, smiling, saying, "Good morning," and Ava, for no reason she could name just then, reached out with both hands and took hold of the woman's face, and kissed her.
When their lips touched, Ava tasted color. For many seconds they stood there like that, one woman with her mouth pressed against another woman's mouth, in the doorway, until, finally, the woman took a step back from Ava, just as Sarah came through the kitchen door, following an excited-looking Regina. When they got to the foyer, they saw Ava standing there with the strange woman, both of them looking oddly satisfied.
Regina stared wide-eyed, not at the stranger, but at her daughter. “Ava?” she asked, as if she weren’t sure. She got close to her, peering into her face, searching, and after a moment she said, “Oh. I thought that was you.”
“It is me, Mama,” Ava said.
“No, I mean the other you. The first you. The one you used to be.”
Sarah eyed the woman at the door. “Who are you?”
“I’m looking for Paul Holly,” the woman said, sounding a little flustered.
“Oh. You a friend of his?” Sarah asked.
“I’m Helena. His sister.”
She looked nothing like her brother, Ava thought. While Paul’s face was round, hers was thin and high-cheekboned. His brown eyes looked nothing like hers, which were startlingly green. While he was slightly short for a man, she was slightly tall for a woman, and had long fingers, while her brother’s were stubby and meaty. He was handsome, but she was strange-looking, and had very short, very kinky hair, and glasses that looked bottle-thick. But the greatest difference, and the most obvious one, was the severe difference in their complexions. Paul was brown. But Helena was black.
Black as forever, Ava would say of her, years later. Black as always.
(c) 2012 Mia McKenzie All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or by electronic, mechanical, or any other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without expressed written permission from the author.