Jewell Thompson nosed her sedan into the narrow Philadelphia street. She had directions on the seat next to her, and also the letter. In her mind, a voice from the past, her grandmother’s, shouted: “We home!” which was ridiculous, since she’d never been on this street, or even in this section of the city, before.
Outside her noisy mind, rows of identical two-story brick houses squatted beside Cobbs Creek Park, muffled by heavy fog and a cold, early-spring, early-Sunday-morning quiet. She had to drive cautiously. No more than four or five inches separated her driver’s side from the curb or her passenger’s side from the parked cars, whose owners had carefully folded in their side-view mirrors. She slowed nearly to a stop when she saw house numbers that matched the return address on the letter. They were gold and white, painted onto a glossy black brick face. Prim white sills and lintels, like shirt cuffs, shone through the drizzle, and white lines traced the mortar.
When she’d left her house, Jewell had told her husband that she might, depending on the way things looked, knock on the door. Now, presented with the reality of this shiny black cookie jar of a building on the misty working-class West Philadelphia street, she doubted she’d have the courage.
In front of the house grew a large sycamore that had buckled the sidewalk. At the level of the second floor, mottled limbs reached out over the street and twinkled with tiny white Christmas lights. An extension cord connected them to the second-floor window. She couldn’t quite see, but it looked as if they’d drilled a hole in the storm-window trim for the cord, so as not to have to leave the window open. Jewell smiled to herself. Clever. She imagined that the lights made the little street feel inviting at night. A parking space under the tree beckoned, but it seemed too close and obvious, so she let her car roll forward one car length to the stop sign. Some bright, false part of herself congratulated her on the trip: There, done. Now I can go home.
Instead, she sat motionless at the stop sign. She did not even notice the large red pickup truck behind her, until the driver touched his horn. In her rearview mirror, she could see a man of about thirty, who seemed to fill the cab. He indicated the parking space under the tree, which he could not maneuver into with her car in the way. The truck would have to swing out very wide. Jewell crossed the intersection, put her foot onto the brake, and checked her rearview mirror again. The big, ocher-colored man was unfolding himself from the cab of the truck and stepping into the street. She shifted in her seat to see him better. He looked familiar.
The letter to her was folded in its envelope on the front seat. She’d read its block capital letters so often in the past week, she almost knew it by heart.
Dear Ms. Jewell Thompson,
I am looking for my mother, formerly Jewell Needham, the daughter of Bobo Needham, originally from the town of Gunnerson in Beaufort County, SC. Please let me know if you are that lady.
We lived in New York, in Harlem, I think, until I was about 7. Then I was sent to my grandfather Bobo Needham and his stepmother Selma Needham in SC, who also raised him.
Now I am 30 years old. I am doing well, I am a contractor now, and just received my first contract with the city of Philadelphia. I said that I wished I could tell you, and my girlfriend suggested that I write this, and she would try to find an address for me to send it to. I live with my girlfriend and her son. He is about the age I was when I was separated from my mother. That’s another reason I’m writing. Watching him grow has made me think about you.
I hope that you will agree to meet. If you are not the right person, please let me know. This could just be one meeting, if you like, it doesn’t have to be more.
Here’s my information for home or work. Email is best or cell.
That was Lonnie in the truck behind Jewell. She knew it.
Jewell remembered her son’s deep-set, coffee black-brown eyes, like her grandfather’s. A big gap between his front teeth came from her grandfather, too. When Jewell had allowed herself to think of Lonnie as a man, she’d fitted his seven-year-old face into the image in her head of her grandfather King’s old sepia-toned photo. Nana Selma had had a mantel built, sans fireplace, just to make a proper display, like an altar, for that photograph. It had been taken by a black photographer in Columbia, whom Selma referred to as famous. Later, when Jewell learned about African ancestor worship, she thought of that photo. Surely, the hulking farmer in his white shirt and stiff collar had seemed to live with them. Selma spoke to him as she walked by. She asked questions of him in passing, and seemed to receive answers.
King had been a big, pale man burned bronze by the sun. His head and neck and shoulders filled the frame; the wide mouth and jaw were set, as if against the coming misfortune. His deep-set eyes looked straight and unsmilingly from under dark, arched brows into the small room that his father had built and he had improved. Jewell had been afraid of those eyes and their judgment. Now she was similarly afraid of her son’s.
His letter had been perfectly cordial, but, surely, he had to remember what she had done, just as she remembered and could never forget, starting with the train.
Jewell had put him onto that southbound train and convinced herself that he’d be riding into a new, wholesome boyhood. “He’s much better off.” Recalling how far she’d sunk back then, she’d repeated it to herself through the years: “much better off.” And, until this moment, she’d mostly been able to keep herself from thinking about how very deeply he might hate her.
She stopped the car and watched him in the mirror. It looked as if he were even taller than her father, big and hulking like him, with a walk that rolled his shoulders side to side. On his head he wore a skullcap stretched over thick dreadlocks that reminded her of how unruly his hair had been when he was a boy. He unloaded from the back of the truck two boxes, walked them to the black-and-white house, and rang the bell. A young woman peeked her head out into the drizzle; slim, brown, animated, she waved her hands even as he shook his head no. She had big hair, too, twists or some similar style that poked out in all directions. She stepped onto the stoop and clearly strained to pick up one box and take it inside. They were open boxes filled with objects Jewell could not identify, except to see that the heavy contents seemed to slide when the young woman tried to pick up the top one.
He called to her. Jewell saw his raised hand make a dismissing movement, which the young woman ignored. Instead, she called into the house. A boy of about seven erupted from the doorway, danced a little moonwalk on the top step, then held the door for her, hands and legs moving in place. With that, she bent deep and hoisted and then carried first one box, then the other. Once the woman finished, the boy banged the door closed and ran shouting into the quiet street. Lonnie—Jewell called him that in her mind—pointed to the truck bed and spoke to the boy. It looked as if he was directing him to carry something else into the house. The boy climbed up onto the bumper and reached in at the same time that Lonnie pulled out another box. Instead of grabbing his own parcel, however, the child vaulted onto Lonnie’s back, laughing. Lonnie bent forward slightly to accommodate him, said something to him sideways, then stopped in the middle of the street to regard Jewell’s car and the woman inside it, watching him. He squinted pointedly through the dim drizzled light at the rearview mirror and opened his big hands in an impatient gesture that communicated: “What are you looking at?” to Jewell.
Flushed and embarrassed, Jewell took off too fast down the one-way street.
The next intersecting street went the wrong way to aim her back toward the expressway. One block more took her to a street that was stoppered with a police barrier around construction. Although she was turned around now and confused, Jewell decided, superstitiously, that her way home was blocked because she was supposed to drive back to Lonnie’s house and introduce herself.
Besides, she wanted to see him close up. She wanted to feel again the totally undeserved surge of pride that had filled her as she’d watched him, with his rolling gait and strength, and his relationships, whatever they were, with the young woman with hair as big and wild as his own and the boy who whooped with glee and jumped onto his back. She wondered if he still had his great-grandfather’s gap-toothed smile. How could such a person have burst, full-grown, into her life?
It was a strange feeling. The driver of the champagne-colored Lexus on the next block was studying him, and so intently that when Alonzo Freeman Rayne looked up and squinted into her rearview mirror, it was as if the driver didn’t register the challenge, but only continued to observe. Rayne stared at her hard. At first he thought she was a case of early-morning road rage, pissed off because he’d urged her forward to let him into the parking space in front of the house. But she had not seemed offended: no visible huffing and puffing, no flip of the finger. From what he could see at this distance, she appeared simply to have been watching, head to the side—was he imagining her smiling?—as if he were a movie.
It crossed Rayne’s mind that the woman in the car might be his mother responding to the letter he’d sent just three weeks before. His mother had smiled that day on the train when she left, a memory that clicked into his brain like the sound of an accident: not the image of her so much as the fact of the smile. Now it came back to him. And had Khalil not hopped onto his back, Rayne would have walked toward her, to get a better view or, if he didn’t like what he saw, to move her along.
From a distance the driver looked white. Did his mother, really? For years he’d assumed that he’d know her when he saw her, but now he knew that he couldn’t. He could only conjure bits of feelings about her or moments: he remembered the train, holding on to the fine material of her skirt, and then letting go. He remembered that she smiled at him with such love that in the years after, he could never believe the things his grandfather said about her. And he remembered the loss of her that seared him to his bowels; just the smallest incitement could ignite the rage that had made him want to burn things, burn houses, burn his own house, with himself in it even, in hopes that she’d come, see, smell, hear his cries, and finally, finally, love him.
In his adolescence Rayne had taken up boxing. His grandfather Bobo suggested it, having correctly gauged the depth of the boy’s sullenness. And, indeed, Rayne came to life in the Philadelphia gym of a man named Magic, who encouraged him and other young men to feed their hungers with closed fists. Rayne’s big, long arms knocked boys down. He would let a boy come at him with a hard chin, lean out and away from his fists, and then he’d come in close and hard with a few uppercuts that the opponent couldn’t have expected; then he’d rear back, feint a little, all this fast, so fast that his mind knew it in the body only, and couldn’t say it; then rock back on the heels and check for the other guy’s fear, see it, hold it in mind, then plant his feet, find the open millisecond, and throw in the hardest punch his opponent had ever taken—each time it was to be a better punch than ever before, the punch he trained for with the heaviest heavy bag Magic had, going at it again and again, past exhaustion, running harder and longer than the other boys, bringing all of it into his shoulder and arm—and slamming it into a young man’s chin. One time he actually sheared off a tiny bit of bone; he knocked one boy’s tooth out, and drove another’s back into his gum, laying open part of his face, shocking him, insulting him, rearranging.
One of Lillie’s Zen stories told about a man holding on to a branch with a tiger above him and a deep gully below. Rayne usually forgot the whole story, but that image described how he’d felt through much of his adolescence. The sense he had on the train that his mother loved him so perfectly, exclusively, in a way no one else could ever know, had not been confirmed. After all, she did not come get him that September when school began. She did not come back for him at all. But he held on anyway, because there was a tiger above and a gully beneath. Boxing helped him hold on, at least until Bobo went to prison.
Then, the discipline of boxing held him over into adulthood. It sopped up some of the anger that used to slosh into his sunny days and threatened to drown him in plain sight of the whole wide world. By the time Lonnie reached manhood, his own rage was not inevitably the final word, though great quantities of it had been compacted and stored in basement catacombs, not dead but buried alive, like the Irishmen he’d heard about who’d contracted cholera in nineteenth-century Philadelphia. They’d gone into comas, and been buried, only to wake up underground.
Sometimes he felt it stir with Lillie. It was not her fault, but since he’d moved into her house, she could get in there where the monster lived.
“There’s a guy came to the hospital to see his little boy,” she told him, “and instead of asking the kid how he feels, he just roars at ’im. Roar!”
“That’s what you should do for Khalil. He’d love it.”
“Nah, that’s what I’ma do to you when you get like that, because can’t nobody talk to you.”
Roar! It was their shorthand. He’d want to rip the head off something alive, but would go outdoors instead and trot along Cobbs Creek. You could do a lot of miles on Cobbs Creek. He’d wear himself out and come home spent, no need to roar.
Lillie had suggested, the year before, that he write his mother. At first it seemed to come out of nowhere, and it annoyed him. She told him that if he wrote the letter, she’d help him find an address. He’d told her that he was not trying to dredge anything up.
When you’re ready, she’d said.
He hadn’t liked the word ready.
The image of his mother in Rayne’s mind was of a flawless twenty-year-old beauty with dark, shiny hair, shining eyes, perfectly bowed red lips, and an expression of perfect contentment. It was from a photo she’d had taken and sent to Selma when they lived in New York. The caption, written in black ink, said: “To Nana Selma, from your rascal in New York—who won’t give up!”
Rayne had no personal memory strong enough to trump that stunning picture, which remained as sharp and glossy in his mind as it had in the bottom drawer where his grandfather Bobo kept it out of sight. When he’d first found it at age twelve, Rayne had just about lost the ability to see her face clearly in his mind. The image underneath Bobo’s old socks, which Rayne had gone to pilfer, appeared so beautiful that he burst into tears, right there in his grandfather’s dusty old bedroom in Selma’s otherwise fastidious little farmhouse. Rayne vowed that that would be the last time he cried for her.
Now the image stayed submerged, mostly, down at the bottom of his brain stem, quite perfect, engaged in a vague personal tragedy almost separate from himself. His memories of his mother had been surfacing since the letter, which he wrote the night after Khalil, squatting over a pile of junk just like this one, had ventured to call him Dad.
On this raw Sunday morning as he prepared to drive to Gunnerson, South Carolina, the creamy Lexus purred away and did not come back. Rayne decided that the Sunday-morning white lady was probably a real estate agent hoping that the latest foreclosure might be worth more than three dollars and eighty-five cents. Halfway through her two-year nursing program, Lillie had dropped behind in her monthly payments, with only a few years to go to finish off her mother’s mortgage. It was why he’d moved in with her. Who knew that six months into it Khalil, who’d been so cool for a year, would squat among the found objects—or Found Lost, as Lillie had scrawled on the back brick wall—and address him, secretly, with penetrating intimacy, as Dad with love that made him want to run?
But after the car drove away and did not circle back, Rayne dismissed the moment, finished unpacking the truck, and went inside quickly to lay out the stuff, say good-bye, and get on the road to his Nana Selma’s. He could almost hear her calling “Yoo-hoo!” as he did.
Yoo-hoo. You comin home? Or what?
© 2011 Lorene Cary
If Sons, Then Heirs
After World War II, the Needham family moved north to Philadelphia from South Carolina, leaving behind the tragic injustice surrounding the violent death of their patriarch, King. His devoted widow, Selma, remains on the old home place. Over the years, she raises King’s children, including his great-grandson, Rayne, on whom falls the responsibility of bringing the family together, saving the family land, and mending the rift with his mother.
If Sons, Then Heirs is a tour de force that explores the power of family secrets, bonds, and love. Rayne and the other characters face challenges big and small that mirror the experiences of families everywhere. But in the masterful storytelling of Lorene Cary, their voices are so distinct and unique that they will live in the minds of readers long after the last page is read.