Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Another excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Ginny Bates. If you are already a familiar reader, begin below. The action in the story resumes immediately after my post three days ago. If you need background, check the links in the sidebar on the right, fifth item down, to get caught up.

September 2004

After lunch was cleared away, David asked to talk with Myra and Ginny about Myra's idea of buying a safe-harbor farm in Canada. He went to his room and got a folder of papers. He handed them across the dining table one by one to Myra and Ginny, sitting side by side.

"This is the record of an offshore bank account I set up, legally. It's in my name right now, but here's the forms to transfer it to one of you -- I'd rather it be you, Ginny, so I can claim it more easily as a family transaction. Once that's done, you can use the money in it to buy land, make improvements, whatever you wish."

"Christ in a handbasket, David, is this the balance?" said Myra, her face going pale.

"Yep. I've talked with Cathy about it, it will be counted against your inheritance, Virginia, it only seems fair" said David.

"Of course" said Ginny. "Even so, this seems like an excessive amount -- "

"It's not" said David.

"David, don't take this the wrong way, but are you cleaning out some of your assets prior to any possible divorce?" asked Myra.

David grinned. "Not officially. But Helen can't object to this, if it goes to Ginny. Plus, you know, she has money of her own."

"From Nathan and Viv?" asked Ginny. These were her deceased grandparents, Helen's parents.

"From the Shapiro estate, yes, but she had money all along. Enough to have been independent of me" said David. This was new information to Ginny, Myra could see. They'd be discussing this later.

David continued. "Here's a list of reputable realtors in the areas you're considering buying a farm, and I highlighted the two I've spoken with. They've each sent me a list of possible properties, according to the specs you outlined for me, Myra. One list is much better than the other, which makes me lean toward that realtor. The amount I've set aside is enough to purchase the farm, make the changes you wanted, and pay for ten years of taxes and upkeep. I know you've talked about renting it out, and that's feasible only if you realize you'll likely be claiming it as an investment with a yearly loss. It's hard enough for individual farmers to keep afloat these days as it is. If they're paying rent, it would have to be minimal to keep a decent farm going. You want someone you can trust, who'll take good care of the soil and infrastructure, not cut corners that deteriorate the value in order to make their rent. My accountant has prepared instructions here on how you can claim this as a tax deduction, and he also recommended you buy a property where the owner is already in residence, a family farm about to go under, where you infuse cash but they'll still feel like it's theirs. Extend to them the hope that in time they'll be able to buy it back from you. They'll take proprietary care of it, and if you never need to move there, in time you can sell it back to them. Or, as the case may be, they may become too old to continue farming it and you can sell it elsewhere in good condition."

"You've put a lot of work into this" said Ginny, looking through the neatly-collated sets of documents David kept passing them.

"I know what peace of mind means" said David. "My one request is that if flight becomes necessary, you'll take me and any other member of our family who wants to go."

"Of course" said Ginny, looking troubled. "But you don't actually believe we'll need it, do you?"

David paused. "History never repeats itself exactly. grandfather Louis left behind his siblings in the Jewish quarter of Brody. That entire branch of the family now is a blank page. We have no record of survivors. On Lena's side, yes, but not the Cohens."

Myra had the same feeling in her stomach that she'd had hurrying back to the car from overlooking Apochanko.

"Let me know what you decide, and if you need more money" said David. "Are you going to tell the children about this?"

"No" said Ginny, but Myra looked at her and said "Yes, we have to. Not about the threat, not pass on my -- our, fear. But that we're buying a farm in Canada, where it is, how to get there. Just in case they need to know. It's not a secret, and it will pose no risk to them to have the information."

"All right" said Ginny, a little short. From worry, Myra thought. "We'll need to go over all this with Alveisa. I want to transfer title to you, so it's not just me, and we'll have to find a way to do that without a second tax liability."

"We could go to Canada and get legally married there" said Myra. Ginny gaped at her for a minute, then burst out laughing when Myra's mouth twitched.

"Oh my god, you had me for a minute!" Ginny punched Myra lightly on the shoulder. David looked confused.

"You really do think I'm around the bend" laughed Myra.

"Often" said Ginny, gathering the papers back into a folder.

Allie and Edwina arrived shortly after 5:00, while Myra was still trying to deal with a ten-day backlog of mail. Margie was outside in the pool. When she saw Allie through the glass wall, she swam to the steps and started their way. Before she could start pumping Allie, Myra told her "Go get dressed, and ask Gillam to come down here, too."

Allie had printed out all the photos on her camera, some of them in 8x12 prints. They arranged them in order on the dining table. Myra sent Gillam to her desk for her magnifying glasses, "Both the big one and the one that lights up" she called after him.

"I also have all these on a disk for you" said Allie, handing it over. "In case that helps with deciphering things."

All of them pored over the images while Myra and Allie told stories -- about Nedrick, the Bluetick, the cotton field, the barbecue joint. Gillam picked up the stack of deeds and records, struggling with some of the terms and the handwriting. Margie, however, was zeroed in on the pictures of the valley that might or might not be Apochanko, using a magnifying glass to get such a close-up view it made Myra's eyes ache to watch her.

Margie looked up at Allie and said "There are aerial maps online that might help. I know how to access them."

"Go for it" said Allie. "Your mom has all these on disk."

"Can I use your computer?" Margie asked Myra.

"Yes. But not right now. I need to start dinner, and I want one of you to work with me."

"I will" offered Gillam.

"Is that all you have to share?" asked Margie, looking acutely at Allie.

"No, I have more. But I'll tell it as we eat" said Allie. "Let's go pick stuff for a salad." Margie followed her outside while Edwina began putting away the photos.

While Myra fried chicken, Gillam made mashed potatoes, steamed spinach, and cut up three canteloupes to chill in the fridge. Allie and Margie worked on the salad at the breakfast bar. David set the table and took Narnia for a walk. Ginny and Edwina went back to her study for a brief chat.

Chris and Sima got there as Myra was lifting the last piece of chicken onto brown paper to drain. She talked to them over her shoulder as she fished out crunchy bits from the pan to add to the gravy Gillam had made. She wasn't sure he'd cooked the gravy long enough, but he was trying hard.

Once they'd sat down and filled their plates, Allie took a bite of her spinach and said to Myra, "Remember those collards at the Bluetick? Like nothing else on earth."

Myra saw Ginny bristle unconsciously. Ginny grew collards year round, and they added tender, succulent leaves to soups, casseroles, and salads as well as their own side dish. Myra said "I bet we could recreate it if we used bacon fat and sugar liberally." Allie laughed. After another bite, she turned her head to take in Margie beside her and said "All right. Here's the main edition."

She told almost everything: About the bus rides from Birmingham to Russellville, about Asa Rascoe's parents, about the possible reality of Apochanko, about her being rescued by her grandmother and why, about living in the back room at Russellville, and then, finally, about her grandmother's relationship with Hulen Moffatt. Both children had stopped eating by the last. David had his arm over the back of Gillam's chair, in contact with Gillam's shoulders. Allie was holding Margie's hand.

There was a long silence. Margie said "I don't understand. Did he just not know?"

"He knew" said Allie.

"Then he just didn't care?" asked Margie, her voice rising.

"Not in the way we care" said Myra. "He wasn't honest with himself, much less with anyone around him. It's what racism does, it demands lies and secrets to keep going."

"Do you hate him?" asked Gillam hoarsely.

Allie looked at him. "Well, I don't love him" she said slowly. Chris laughed.

Margie stood up, fast, and backed to the breakfast bar, letting it stop her. "I can't -- it's so unfair, I can't believe it's true, how can this have happened to you? And your poor mama..." She burst into tears.

Allie reached her instantly, putting her arms around her. "That's right, let it out" she said. Gillam rose, also, then didn't seem to know what to do. Chris gave him a small shove, saying "Go on". He walked around the table and Allie pulled him in with her arm on that side. She murmured something to him and he began crying too. Myra asked what she'd said later, and found out it was a request that Gillam be sure to tell Carly he was still part of this family, she wasn't going to let go of him, either.

Myra watched them, churning inside. She thought about her rule that she not take her pain about race hatred to her intimates of color unless invited to do so. She thought that rule must be different for kids, had to be -- something had to interrupt the cycle of blindness and sedation. She looked at Chris, who had tears in her eyes.

The only thing Allie had not shared was about how she'd reacted when she realized her ancestry: Her rage. And the only thing Myra had held back was the incident at the grocery store. Only Ginny knew about that.

Eventually, they returned to the table, wiping their faces on paper towels. Margie said "Lately, all I see anywhere is race crap."

"It is everywhere" said Ginny.

They went on talking through dinner. Myra found herself watching Gillam's face. For years she'd still seen him as a toddler or perhaps a small boy when she looked at him, but now with the long hair, darkened by oil that left visible pimples at his temples and bangs, she couldn't escape the manhood he was growing toward. Which was maybe part of the point of his growing his hair out, she thought suddenly with a pang of guilt.

After dinner, Margie spread the photos back on the table. Gillam grabbed one of the magnifying glasses before she could hog them both. Chris and Sima joined their inspection.

When Myra led Allie and Edwina back to her study, she let Allie sit at her computer as she began explaining "These shelves here and here have reference materials connected to research and history. The middle two map drawers are exclusively dedicated to Southern maps. I've written down the best URLs for online research, but they're in my links list, too. Plus, here's the passwords to pay sites. I know you'd probably rather do this at home, but you're welcome to use my study while I'm gone -- we're taking Narnia with us."

Allie looked at Edwina. "We might. This is impressive, Myra."

"Not just a pretty face" grinned Myra. "So, here in this folder are guides to every census from 1920 back to 1790, what will and won't be on each one..." They all leaned over the pages as Myra went on.

Myra reminded the kids to pack before they went to sleep, they'd be leaving the next day immediately after school. The following morning, as she began packing her own bag, she said to Ginny "I've got so much knocking around my head right now, I am seriously dreading the prospect of having to make hours of conversation with Pat."

"She's not there" said Ginny. "I thought I told you. She on some training gig, won't be back until Sunday night."

"Hallelujah" breathed Myra.

They saved the visit to the outlet malls for Sunday after breakfast, Myra thinking it would keep Margie on good behavior until then. David went off with the boys, his arm over Carly's shoulder. Myra turned to Ginny and said "If I promise to not so much as raise an eyebrow over whatever you buy, can I please go to that cafe in the corner and write, leaving you to Margie?"

"Only if you drive home in the end of weekend traffic" said Ginny.

The cafe had fountain Cokes and a corner table with an outlet underneath. She plugged in her laptop and disappeared down the wormhole.

Three hours later, Ginny collected her. They were to meet Patty and Truitt for a late lunch. Margie was draped with bags, a carnivorous grin on her face. In addition to major outline revisions and a delicious two-page conversation between her main characters, Myra had written one complete poem and half of another. The poem was about Allie, and she wasn't sure what Allie would think of it.

It was painful to leave Carly behind. He looked like their changeling to her, despite his strong physical resemblance to Patty. Gillam was morose, pressed against his window on the drive home. Margie had on her earphones, and David sat between them reading the Olympia paper.

When they got home, the house smelled delicious. Allie and Edwina were there, papers strewn all over Myra's desk and daybed.

"We made chili" said Allie, coming to hug them. "Plus cornbread, and we picked the hell out of your garden."

"You been here all weekend?" asked Myra, grinning.

"A lot of it. We painted our hall Saturday morning, and decided it was nice weather for swimming" said Allie. "Listen, I've got a couple of things I really need to talk over with you."

"Before we eat?" said Myra. Margie had stopped at the foot of the stairs, listening.

"It could wait, but one of them -- I want to know what you think" said Allie. Margie set her bag on the floor and headed their way as Allie returned to the study. Allie offered Myra the chair at her desk, stacking papers to clear a spot where she placed a series of U.S. federal census printouts. Margie and Gillam crowded in. Ginny sat down on the daybed after Edwina cleared it as well, saying "C'mon, Daddy -- I mean, if that's okay..."

Allie nodded at her. Myra said "Margie, I need the magnifying -- oh, never mind, they're here." She looked at Allie and said "What's the question?"

Allie's eyes were gleaming. "Okay, we did what you said, started with what we knew for sure and worked backward. We found my great-grandfather Asa Rascoe, and Maybelle, on the 1920 Alabama census. Says he was born around 1867. Lots of other Rascoes around too, but we'll get to that later. Going back to 1910, we found him in Franklin County, with Nana as a little girl. Then on back to 1900. He's not married yet, he's living in a household with some other grown folks who are brothers and sisters-in-law, seems like, plus his mother, Feneda, on the same farm. But look here, Myra -- "

Before Allie's finger could trace across the line, Myra's experienced eyes saw the word. She said out loud "Holy shit! She says her mother was born in Africa!"

"Well, yeah, that's one thing" grinned Allie.

"Hold on a minute. If Feneda is, what, 54 in 1900, that means she was born in 1846, approximately. Which means her mother was born at least by 1830 -- but the U.S. outlawed importation of slaves from Africa by then. So, if Feneda is not mistaken -- the only way this could have occurred is if her mother was taken to the Caribbean first. Once they spent some time there, slavetraders could ship them to the U.S. as 'not from Africa', even though that's where they had been born. This might be a major lead, Allie."

"I thought so" said Edwina.

"But that's not the thing -- look here, Myra. They ask her how many children she's had, and how many are still alive. She says 11 and 5."

"Damn. Brutal loss" said Myra. "Outliving more than half her kids."

"Well, we've got the names of all five who are still alive in 1900, four besides Asa. But all of them are born after Asa, after 1867. After freedom."

Myra was calculating in her head. "She'd have been 21 when he was born. That's actually a bit late, for the time period."

"Well, she say she a widow but then when they ask her how long she been married, they wrote down 1860." Allie's finger jabbed at the slot.

"This happens often, Al, the census taker is just in a routine and they fill in the slot, even if it could be left blank. That's extraordinary, though -- this means you have the year of Ellick and Feneda's marriage. I don't think you'd find it anywhere else. There won't be a record of it anywhere else on earth." Myra felt a chill down her spine.

"So, they was married in 1860, but their first kid was born in 1867? Don't make no sense" said Allie. "And what I remember Nana saying is that he was the first child born in freedom. Implying there were children born to slavery."

Realization was coming to Myra. "Which means -- some of those six children not alive in 1900...maybe they are alive, maybe she doesn't know for sure. Maybe..."

"We found her and Ellick on the 1870 census. They got two kids, Asa and his little brother Rone, a newborn. In 1880 they got the other three, each of 'em about two years apart. I mean, she's 34 in 1880, she could go on having kids another ten or fifteen years, and the 1890 census is missing. But I just don't believe she lost six new kids to infant mortality or whatever after 1880. I think she had some of them before Asa...between 1860 and 1867." Allie's face was questioning Myra.

"I...agree. I think it makes sense. Which means -- something terrible happened before emancipation."

"Baby killing, or sold away from 'em" said Allie, her jaw tight.

"Maybe that's why they ran away" said Edwina. Clearly they'd been talking this over.

"Do you have any evidence yet for them running away?" asked Myra.

"No. I'm not sure how we ever will have. But -- my gut is telling me to listen, here" said Allie.

"Asa learned stonecarving from his daddy, which is usually a trade passed on to the oldest son" said Myra slowly.

"All his brothers were farmers" verified Allie.

"So he's the oldest surviving son" mused Myra.

"Or the oldest still with them" amended Allie.

Myra leaned back in her chair. "How you doing with all this, Al?"

"I had some moments here and there" Allie said cryptically, glancing at Edwina. "But -- I'm to the point where I'd rather know than not."

"I hear ya. Well, we're at that wall, the boundary between freedom and ownership. We'll have to work around it. I have lots of ideas, I can list them for you later."

"More deed records?" said Allie.

"Yes" said Myra. Allie nudged Edwina and said "Stock up on Dramamine. I'm not going back to Alabama without you."

"You got that right" said Edwina. They kissed tenderly.

"Shall we eat now?" said Ginny, standing up.

"Ya'll go on ahead" said Allie. "They's something I need to talk with Myra about, just me and her."

Margie looked obstinate. "Why can't I hear?"

"It's not about my family history research" Allie told her. "And I will talk it over with you, all of you later. But right now I need my friend."

Ginny pulled Margie by the arm, following Edwina into the kitchen. Myra slid over next to Allie on the daybed.

"What's going on?" she whispered.

Allie said in a low voice, "I got the autopsy results yesterday from my mama. She had cocaine in her system. It caused her heart attack, they think."

"Oh my fucking god" hissed Myra. "Where did she get her hands on cocaine?"

"Has to be someone on staff at that place" said Allie. "And -- it wasn't her drug of choice. She mostly shot up smack. So I'm wondering if she didn't know exactly what it was. Or how to use it, how strong it was."

Myra put her arms around Allie. "The hits just keep rolling in for you, don't they?"

Allie leaned against her. "It's gone to the cops, now. They lauching an investigation."

"Fucking well better believe it" said Myra.

"But my question is, once they find out who, do I file a civil suit against that fancy-ass place where I put her? Paid through the nose because it was so exclusive?" Allie's face was paler than usual.

"Well, Al. Are you asking me my opinion?"

"I know you don't believe in the criminal justice system" said Allie. "And it won't bring back my mama. Plus, if they arrest whoever gave her the drugs, then theoretically the problem is ended in that location."

"What do you think, Al?'

Allie paused for a minute. "I want to make them pay. I want their insurance company to give me a huge settlement. But I'm scared it's connected to the other -- I'm finding out such unforgiveable stuff, maybe I'm bent on vengeance and out of kilter, here."

Myra felt another shiver down her spine. To be asked her advice on this...

"What does Edwina say?"

"She say sue 'em. She say if I don't, I be sorry sooner rather than later. She say I can use the money to research my family all the way back to Senegal and publish the lesbian version of Roots." Allie grinned in spite of her serious tone.

"Then I'm with Edwina" said Myra. "I'll back you any way you want."

Allie's shoulders relaxed. "You know, My, I'm not going to be writing another Podinqo book. Not now I know what might be true."

"Yeah, stands to reason. It's too bad, though, Allie. They've meant worlds to so many kids, especially African-American children."

"Well...this weekend I been having images of another kind of book. I mean, yes, a kids' book. About a little girl who rides the buses of Birminham. And for her 11th birthday, she gets two presents -- one of them is a set of paints, and the other is a story book about Miss Rosa Parks. How Miss Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus not very far away, in Montgomery, the year this little girl was born. And everything changed. The first part of the picture book, it'll be like her pencil sketches in her Big Chief tablet, chiaroscuro. But once she gets the paints, and real paper, it explodes into color as her mind opens up."

"Oh, Allie." Myra's eyes filled with tears. "I can imagine how you'll do it."

"I still have that story book" said Allie softly.

"Was it from your daddy, too?"

"No. The card say it from mama. But it was wrapped in Nana's paper."

"Of course it was" said Myra.

Copyright 2008 Maggie Jochild.

1 comment:

kat said...

damn....there you go making me cry again....

family history anecdote: My cousin Hannah has a photo of our grandparents on her fridge. It was taken right when they were married. She looks so much like our grandma that a friend of hers looked at it and said "Hannah, who's that black dude you're standing with?"

we got a pretty good eye-roll out of that one.....