Below is the excerpt of my novel-in-progress, presented as a headline reading at the 2007 AWP Conference, held in Atlanta, Georigia. (February 28-March 3)
My father, James Witherspoon, is a married man. He’s been that way since before I was born, when he met my mother, Gwendolyn, at Davidson’s downtown. She was working in gift-wrap at the time, and he came to her counter with the electric carving knife that he had bought his wife for their ninth anniversary. My mother says she knew that something wasn’t right between a man and a woman when the gift is a blade. I say that maybe that means that there was a kind of trust between them, that he thought he could give her such a weapon and still sleep peacefully at night. But I don’t have to tell you that my mother and I tend to see things a little bit differently.
The point is that James’s marriage was never hidden from us. “James” is what I call him. His other daughter, Chaurisse, the one who grew up in the house with him, she calls him Poppy, even now.
When most people think of bigamy, if they think of it at all, they imagine some bizarre practice taking place on the pages of National Geographic. Some of us in Atlanta remember one sect of the Back-to-Africa movement, headquartered in the West End. The women were dealt out four to each man. From time to time, you can still see them, resplendent in white trailing six paces behind their mutual husband. If you spend anytime in beauty parlors, you will hear tales of new widows surprised at the funeral by the other grieving widow and her five kids.
It’s a shame that there isn’t a true name for a woman like my mother, Gwendolyn. My father James is a bigamist. That is what he is. Laverne is his wife. She found him first and my mother has always respected the other woman’s squatter’s rights. But was my mother his wife, too? She stood with him in front of a judge just over the state line in Alabama, but to call her only his “wife” doesn’t really explain the full complexity of her position.
There are other words, I know, to describe a woman like my mother and when she is tipsy, angry, or sad, she uses them to describe herself: concubine, mistress, other woman, whore. There are just so many and none are fair. And there are nasty words, too, for a person like me, the child of a person like her, but these words were not allowed in the air of our home. “You are his daughter. End of story.”
If this had ever been the end of story it was in the first four months of my life before James’s wife, Laverne, gave birth to Chaurisse, his legitimate daughter. My mother would wash my mouth with lye to hear me use that word, “legitimate”, but if she could hear the word that formed in my head, she would go to her room and cry. In my mind, Chaurisse was his real daughter. I was just the outside child. With wives, it only mattered who got their first. With daughters, the situation was a bit more textured.
When I was a little kid, my mother and I used to spy on James’s wife, Laverne, and his daughter, Chaurisse. It doesn’t sound right when I say it. This is why I wish I had my mother’s gift for laying the truth in such a way that the result was smooth as water. As soon as I try to explain to anyone the way we lived they get this look on their faces as though having a father who had other obligations was like being an accessory to murder. It really wasn’t as scandalous as all of that. I have to agree with my mother that a lot of people suffer from a failure of imagination. They think there is only one right way to do things, only one right way to be happy.
* * * *
When did I first discover that although I was an only child, my father was not my father and mine alone? I really can’t say. It’s something that I’ve known for as long as I’ve known that I had a father. I can only say for sure when I learned that this type of double-duty daddy wasn’t ordinary.
I was about five years old, in kindergarten, when the art teacher Miss Russell asked us to draw pictures of our families. I was something of a competitive little kid, and I liked Miss Russell. I wanted her to notice me. So while all the other children got busy with their crayons or soft leaded pencils, I used a blue ink pen and drew James, his daughter, and his other wife. This was years and years ago, but I can still remember my drawing. I hung a necklace around the wife’s neck. I gave the girl a big smile, stuffed with square teeth. My own teeth had been missing almost a month. The pink hole in my mouth made me ugly and I knew it.
Miss Russell came up behind me and said, “Now who are these people you have drawn so beautifully?”
I was delighted. Miss Russell was a white lady, the only white person I had ever seen. It was like she had jumped out of the television set just to praise my drawing.
“That’s my daddy and his other wife and his other little girl. Her name is Chaurisse. She is the same age as me almost, but I am older.”
Miss Russell got a strange look on her face. “I see,” she said.
I didn’t think much more about it. I was still enjoying the memory of the way she pronounced “beautifully.” To this day, when I hear anyone say that word, I feel loved. At the end of the month, we kids brought all of our drawings home in cardboard folders. I laid mine out on the kitchen table for my mother and James to look at. My mother was making all the right kinds of noises, ooh and ah and James opened up his wallet which he kept plump with two-dollar bills to reward me for my school work.
I saved the portrait for last, being as it was so beautifully drawn and everything. I slid it out of the folder.
“Is that me?” James said. He smiled and I was pleased that he had recognized himself. (Now that I am a mother myself I understand how hard it is to identify the things your kids draw. What you think is a fish could turn out to be a palm tree.)
“Yes sir,” I said to him. “That’s you. That’s your hat.”
“That’s worth a two dollar bill right there,” he said.
“And is that me?” my mother said. “I like how you drew my hair so pretty.”
“No,” I said. “That’s not your hair. It’s his other wife. And that’s his other girl.”
The air in the room changed. It was like when John Marc, a little white boy whose mama worked with mine, came over our house and called us niggers. The air in the room stopped circulating. John Marc didn’t know what he had said wrong and neither did I because he said it in such a polite way. “I never been over a nigger-house before.” But we both knew something had gone horribly awry. I never saw him again.
This is how it was when I showed my mother and James my picture.
“Did you tell your teacher who was in the picture?” James said.
I nodded slowly, the whole time thinking that I probably should lie.
“James,” my mother said. “Let’s not make a mountain into a mole hill. She’s just a child.”
“Gwen,” he said. “This is important. I’m not going to take her out behind the woodshed and beat her.” Then he chuckled, but my mother didn’t laugh.
“All she did was draw a picture. Kids draw pictures.”
“I just want to talk to her,” James said. “Go on in the kitchen, Gwen. Let me talk to my daughter.”
My mother said, “Why can’t I stay in here? She’s my daughter too.”
“You are with her all the time. You tell me I don’t spend enough time talking to her. So now let me talk.”
My mother hesitated at the door and then looked over at me. “She’s just a little kid, James. She doesn’t even know the ins and outs yet.”
“Trust me.” My father said.
She left the room, but I don’t know that she trusted him not to say something that would leave me wounded and broken-winged for life. I could see it in her face. When she was upset she moved her jaw around invisible gum. At night, I could hear her in her room, grinding her teeth in her sleep. The sound was like gravel under car wheels.
“Dana, come here,” James said. I walked closer to him. He was wearing a navy chauffeur’s uniform. His hat must have been in the car, but I could see the ridged mark across his forehead where the hatband once rested. “Come closer,” he said.
I hesitated, looking to the space in the doorway where my mother had disappeared.
“Dana,” he said. “You’re not afraid of me, are you? You’re not scared of your own father, are you?”
His voice sounded mournful, but I took it as a dare. “No, sir,” I said, taking a bold step forward.
“Don’t call me sir, Dana. I’m not your boss. When you say that, it makes me feel like an overseer.”
I shrugged. My mother told me that I should always call him “sir.”
With a sudden motion, he reached for me and lifted me up on his lap. He spoke to me with both of our faces looking outward so I couldn’t see his expression.
“Dana, I can’t have you making drawings like the one you made for your art class. I can’t have you doing things like that. What goes on in this house between your mother and me, all of that is private. Grown people’s business. I love you. You are my baby girl, and I love you, and I love your mama. But what we do in this house has to be a secret, okay?”
“But I didn’t make a picture with us in it. I didn’t even draw this house. I drew you at your other house.”
James sighed and bounced me on his lap a little bit. “What happens in my life, in my world, doesn’t have anything to do with you. You can’t tell your teacher that your daddy has another wife. You can’t tell your teacher that my name is James Witherspoon. Atlanta ain’t nothing but a country town and everyone knows everybody. You have to learn to keep yourself quiet.”
“Your other wife and your other girl is a secret?” I asked him.
He put me down from his lap, so we could look each other in the face. “No. You’ve got it the wrong way around. Dana, you are the one that’s a secret.”
Then, he patted me on the head and pulled one of my braids. With a wink he pulled out his billfold and separated three two-dollar bills from the stack. He handed them over to me and I clamped them in my palm.
“Aren’t you going to put them in your pocket?”
And for once, he didn’t tell me not to call him that.
In the kitchen my mother sat the bowls and the plates on the glass table in silence. She wore her favorite apron that James brought back to her from New Orleans. On the front was a drawing of a crawfish, spatula aloft and a caption, “Don’t make me poison your food!” It was something that we used to laugh at.
James took his place at the head of the table and polished the water spots from his fork with his napkin. “I didn’t lay a hand on her; I didn’t even raise my voice. Did I?”
“No, sir.” And this was entirely the truth, but I felt different than I had just a few minutes ago when I’d whipped my drawing out of its sleeve. I wasn’t old enough to really understand on the surface of myself what had happened to me, what had transpired between my father and me. My skin stayed the same while this difference snuck in through a pore and attached itself to whatever brittle part forms my center. You are the secret. He’d said it with a smile, touching the tip of my nose with the pad of his finger.
My mother came around and picked me up under my arms and sat me on the stack of phone books in my chair. She kissed my cheek and fixed my plate with salmon croquettes, a spoon of green beans, and corn.
“Are you okay?”
James ate his meal, spooning honey onto a dinner roll when my mother said there would be no dessert. He drank a big glass of coke.
“Don’t eat too much,” my mother said. “You’ll have to eat again in a little while.”
“I’m always happy to eat your food, Gwen. I’m always happy to sit at your table.”
* * * * *
That night, after James had gone home to his real life, I took in my own reflection along with my mother’s in the narrow mirror attached to the top of my chest of drawers. Of course, James wanted to keep me as a secret. Who would love a girl with a gaping pink hole in the center of her mouth where her two front teeth used to be?
“What’s wrong?” my mother asked me.
“I want to be like that other girl,” I said finally.
She had been lying across my bed, like a goddess on a chaise lounge, but when I said that she snapped up. “What other girl?”
“His other girl, the one that is not a secret.”
“You can say her name,” My mother said.
I shook my head. “Can’t.”
“Yes, you can. Just say it. Her name is Chaurisse.”
“Stop it,” I said, afraid that just saying my sister’s name would unleash some terrible magic the way that saying “Bloody Mary” while staring into a pan of water would turn the liquid red and thick.
My mother rose from the bed and got down on her knees so we were the same height. She clamped her hands down on my shoulders. I could smell the traces of cigarette smoke in her tumbly hair; I reached out for it.
“Her name is Chaurisse,” my mother said again. “She’s a girl, just like you are.”
“Please stop saying it,” I begged her. “Stop it before something happens.”
My mother hugged me to her chest. “What did your daddy say to you the other day? Tell me what he said.”
“Nothing,” I whispered.
“Dana, you can’t lie to me, okay? I tell you everything and you tell me everything. That the only way we can pull this off, baby. We have to keep the information moving between us.” She shook me a little bit. Not enough to scare me. Just to get my attention. (It’s hard to be a mother; I know that now. There is so much you want to tell your little girl, and you can talk and talk but you have no way to know if it’s soaking in. So she shook me by my arms a little bit. It wasn’t a big deal.)
“He said I was a secret.”
My mother pulled me into a close hug, crisscrossing her arms across my back and letting her hair hang around me like a magic curtain. I will never forget the smell of her hugs in those early days when I was just a smaller version of her.
“That motherfucker,” she said. “I love him, but I might have to kill him one day.”
The next morning, my mother told me to put on the green and yellow dress that I’d worn for my school picture, two weeks earlier, before the teeth were lost. She styled my long hair with slippery ribbons and strapped my feet into pretty patent leather shoes.
“Where are we going?”
My mother turned off Gordon Road. “I am taking you to see something.”
I waited for more information, poking my tongue into the slick space where my nice teeth had once been. My mother didn’t say anything else about our destination, but she asked me to recite my “at” words.
“H-a-t is hat; b-a-t is bat.” I didn’t stop until I got to “M-a-t is mat!” By then, we’d pulled up in front of a small pink school building trimmed in green. Across the road was John A. White Park. My mother and I sat in the car a long time while I performed for her. I was glad to do it. I recited my numbers from one to one-hundred and then I sang “Frère Jacques,” which is a song in another language.
When a group of children spilled out into the yard of the small school my mother held up a finger to stop my singing. “Roll down your window,” she said. “And look out. You see that chubby little girl in the blue jeans and red shirt? That’s Chaurisse.”
I found the girl my mother described standing in line with a group of other little kids. Chaurisse was utterly ordinary back then. Her hair was divided into two short puffs in the front and the shorter hair in the back was held down in a series of tight braids.
“Look at her,” My mother said. “She hardly has any hair. She is going to be fat when she grows up, just like her mammy. She doesn’t know her “at” words, and she can’t sing a song in French.”
I said, “She has her teeth.”
“For now. She’s your same age, so they are probably loose. But here’s something you can’t see. She was born too early so she has problems. The doctor had to stick plastic tubes down her ears to keep them from getting infected.”
“But James loves her. She’s not a secret.”
“James has an obligation to her mammy and that’s my problem, not yours. Okay? James loves you equal to Chaurisse. If he had any sense he’d love you best. You’re smarter, more mannerable, and you’ve got better hair. But what you have is equal love, and that is good enough.”
I nodded as the relief spread all over my body. I felt all my muscles relax. Even my feet let go and settled themselves limp in my pretty shoes.
“Am I a secret?” I asked my mother.
“No,” she said. “You are an unknown. That little girl there doesn’t even know she has a sister, but you know everything.”
“God knows everything,” I said.
“That’s true,” my mother said. “And so do we.”