June 20, 1967
Still queasy and relieved to be almost home, Charlene Connor turned right onto Middlebury Drive. Her parents’ empty house would feel sad and strange, but at least she’d have time to herself, peace and quiet to ask herself: What’s wrong with me?
There it was on the next corner – 32 Brookline Lane – the cozy little Cape Cod, white with black shutters. She used to tell her parents, “When I grow up you’re going to have to move out. Me and my husband are going to live here.” Now it was Charlene who would oversee the sale of the house – and she no longer wanted a husband nor to live in this quaint little subdivision.
She pulled to the curb opposite the house and was staring at it, expression blank, when at the bottom of the hill a car slowly nosed around the corner of Brewster Road and turned toward her. It was a black and white patrol car, with the familiar “Keep Dearborn Clean” emblazoned on its side. She’d naively thought that slogan was a simple admonishment not to litter – until a 5th grade classmate had rolled his eyes and said, “Everyone knows what that means: Keep the niggers in Detroit and out of Dearborn.” The cop, who looked like he was about twelve, pulled up next to Charlene and leaned over to the open window.
“Everything all right, Miss?”
“Yes, fine. I’m just sitting here thinking. I live there.” She nodded at the house.
“Oh, you one of Joe Connor’s girls?”
“Great guy. I served on the school board with him last year. You home from college for the summer?” He nodded at the back seat, which was piled with boxes, blankets, and clothing on hangers.
She nodded again. “I just graduated from U of M.”
“Well, congratulations and good luck to you, Miss. Take care.” He touched the brim of his hat and drove off.
She pulled into the driveway and got out to yank on the handle of the garage door, which slid up with a loud rattle. It would have been much easier to unpack through the front door, with the car standing outside, but she preferred not to advertise her arrival. Her best friend lived across the street, two doors down, and it wouldn’t take Kimberly Ann long to notice a candy apple red Mustang GT convertible in the Connor’s driveway. Charlene’s father had been almost defensive about this expensive graduation gift, saying she would need a dependable car to drive over to Grand Rapids to visit him. She knew the real reason – plain old guilt. He could, after all, have waited for her to graduate and settle into a job before he moved away and left her homeless.
In the garage she gathered up her bag of groceries and slipped out the pedestrian door in the back. She hurried up the walk and steps to the screened-in porch, where she unlocked the door that opened into the kitchen. Her father had warned her that no one had been in to clean, but the stack of dirty dishes took her by surprise. It was so unlike him.
Thirsty, she set the groceries on the countertop and opened the cupboard next to the sink to reach for a glass, but froze; her mother’s medicines still filled the bottom shelf. Charlene thought she might finally cry, but no. Not now. She stood for a moment with both hands braced on the countertop, before bending to drink straight from the tap. Then she turned around to hug the old Kelvinator refrigerator while she fished behind it for the cord and plugged it in. The loud cough and hum reminded her of its arrival many years ago – a surprise from Joe Connor for his wife Reggie.
“A new refrigerator!” Reggie had snapped at the hapless deliveryman. “Wouldn’t you think he could’ve at least asked me what kind I wanted? When was the last time he set foot in the kitchen?”
When Joe arrived home that evening – as always at 5:30 on the dot – Reggie had kissed his cheek and thanked him, but never missed an opportunity to loudly grumble about the racket “that thing” made.
Charlene put the groceries away and slipped past the dining table into the living room. Thank God the rented hospital bed was gone, but the long impressions its fold-up legs had left in the shag carpeting remained. She went to the hall broom closet for the bamboo rake they used after vacuuming. With a few quick strokes the marks disappeared and she rearranged the furniture, the way it used to be before Reggie got sick. Then Charlene pushed up some of the windows, hoping for a breeze; the weather was hot and humid and she was already sweating from that little exertion.
Exhausted, she trudged up the stairs to her room and flopped down on one of the twin beds. Why on earth did everyone else her age seem to love taking drugs? Almost two whole days had passed since her first – and definitely last – experiment with them and she still felt terrible. She had nearly drifted into sleep when she heard the distant ring of the phone. Too tired to race downstairs and answer, she rolled over and ignored it. It was probably her father, wanting to make sure she was home safe when she’d said she’d be. I’ll call him later, she thought.
But she was wide awake again. She propped two pillows against the headboard and idly picked up the wine-colored journal that lay on the nightstand. Her Aunt Olivia’s diary. What would Aunt Olivia have thought of all these spoiled college kids today, passing joints in dark rooms and mouthing idiocies they thought profound? Well, aren’t I a great one to judge? Charlene thought, closing her eyes and wishing she could eradicate the last few days. Aunt Olivia certainly wouldn’t have anything good to say about the appalling way Charlene had behaved out in California.
Olivia Killion was in fact Charlene’s great-great-great aunt, but Charlene felt more closely related to her than that, almost as if she knew her. Charlene had spent long hours wondering what had become of Mourning Free, Olivia’s friend and partner. The journal ended abruptly. Olivia was on her farm, planning to go over to the neighbors and then it just ended. Folded in the journal were two yellowed newspaper clippings from the late 1860s that celebrated Olivia Killion as a local heroine. OK Accommodations – Olivia Killion’s boarding house and a stop on the Underground Railroad – had become a tourist attraction. Had Mourning been there with her? Why had they left the farm? Where did she get the money to buy a boarding house? When Charlene was little she used to lie on a ratty beach towel in the backyard, staring at the sky and making up Olivia and Mourning stories, but was never satisfied with any of the versions she invented. She never came up with a happy ending she could believe in.
Finally she set the journal on the nightstand and stood, feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the things she had told her father she would do. First was to clean the house and make it presentable for the realtor to show. Then spruce up the yard, paint the picket fence out back, and clean up the garage. Once all that was done, she would begin packing – sorting everything into separate boxes for herself, her sister Rosalie, her father, the Goodwill, and trash. And somehow, along with accomplishing all of that, she had to figure out what to do with the rest of her life. How to become a normal person.
One thing at a time, she told herself. Just like Aunt Olivia always said. One thing at a time. And not today. For what remained of this day she would unload the car, shower, change the sheets on her bed, do a load of laundry, and have something to eat. By tomorrow she should have some energy back.
She let out a long sigh and went back downstairs, to the wall phone in the kitchen, and called her father at his new office in Grand Rapids.
“It’s good to know you’re safe at home. I tried to get you a while ago,” he said.
“I took my time getting here. Stopped for something to eat,” Charlene lied.
“I’m sorry I left the house in such a mess, but it was either get over here in a hurry or not at all.”
Charlene didn’t believe that. No new boss would have pressed him to move that fast, barely a week after his wife died. It was Joe who’d been in a rush – he simply couldn’t stand to spend another day alone in this house.
“It’s all right, Dad. I’ll manage just fine.”
“I could still get a mover to do the packing.”
“No. I want to go through everything. All those cupboards in the basement, the stuff from when we were kids.”
“Well, all right then. But if it gets to be too much . . . Have you seen anyone?” he asked.
“I don’t know if I mentioned it . . . Reeves is back, staying with his folks, and I hired him to help you out with the heavier stuff.”
She remained silent. She should have been furious with this lame attempt to throw her back together with the golden boy her father had been anxious for her to marry, but her black mood had lifted at the mere mention of his name. If Reeves had agreed to come work on the house, perhaps he didn’t hate her.
She flashed back to the morning – a few days after their Senior Prom – when Reeves had informed her that his full ride basketball scholarship to Michigan State had come through. Everything was set.
“How come you’ve never said anything about getting your acceptance letter from them,” Reeves had asked.
Unable to look him in the eye, she’d gotten up to take a paper from one of the drawers of the hutch. Eyes still on the floor, she’d handed him the letter from the University of Michigan. “I’ve decided to go to Ann Arbor.”
He sat through a long silence and his voice was restrained and unfamiliar when he said, “I know it’s a better school, but think of all the time we’ll waste, traveling back and forth.”
“The thing is . . . we’ve been together for so long . . . maybe we should stop seeing each other for a while. Go out with other people.”
Obviously stunned, he slowly got to his feet, saying, “I bet you didn’t even apply to State, did you? All this year you . . . you just lied.”
The coldness of his tone had been terrifying and the hurt on his face made her ache, but when he turned and walked out she didn’t run after him. Somehow she managed to harden her heart and it felt like a rock in her chest when she watched the door close behind him. He’d never called her again. She knew he was waiting for – and deserved – an apology. She should have crawled back on her knees. She’d picked up the phone many times, but always set it back in its cradle. She’d been feeling depressed and confused for a long time, but the one thing she knew for sure was that she wanted to escape her father’s version of her life, a script in which Reeves Valenti played a starring role. Reeves was going to be hard to leave behind, but she had two main defenses against her feelings for him.
He won’t waste any time pining away for me. I’m the one who’s going to be lonely. He’s going to be a big man on campus, with all kinds of girls throwing themselves at him. Even if I followed him to State, he’d be cheating on me right and left. And anyway, he’s better off without me. There is something wrong with me. Why don’t I act like other people? Think like them? Like to do the things they do? He’s used to me now, but once he starts hanging around with normal girls, he’ll dump me in a flash.
Returning to the present, she asked her father, “When you asked Reeves to work on the house, did he know I was going to be here?” Maybe now, she thought, after all this time, we can be friends.
“Well, of course he did. Now I know you’re probably mad . . .” His voice was not apologetic. He was using his “if only you would come to your senses and do as I say” tone.
She interrupted him. “You should have asked me, but I’m not mad. I haven’t seen him in ages. Except when Mom . . . at the funeral. And I wasn’t very nice that day.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear you are aware of that. I can’t imagine what got into you, ignoring him like he wasn’t even there.”
“I ignored everyone that day. I guess I wasn’t too worried about good manners,” she said, not hiding her annoyance.
“Charlene, you weren’t the only one . . .” He stopped, cleared his throat, and no longer sounded angry when he spoke again. “By the way, he got a job coaching at Edsel.”
“I know. Kim told me.”
“I bought that little sailboat I told you about. Why don’t you and Reeves drive over next weekend so I can take you out on it? Show off my sailing skills.”
“Stop.” Her voice was soft. “Please, Dad, just stop.”
There was a short silence.
“I left some money for you. Two hundred dollars, in the middle drawer of the hutch. For your groceries and anything else you need.”
“Thanks. You still liking Grand Rapids?”
“More every day.” She could hear the stress drain from his voice, now that he could talk about uncomplicated things, like pretty little Reed’s Lake and the great hamburgers they served at Rose’s Diner, a quaint shack right on the docks.
They chatted a while longer and then Charlene begged off, saying she was starving. She was in fact hungry and stood staring blankly into the open refrigerator, half-expecting her mother to come around the corner and ask, “Waiting for something to jump out?” Charlene made a cup of instant coffee, slapped Kraft American cheese between two slices of Wonder bread, and ate standing at the sink.
Then she shoved things around in the kitchen cupboards while she made a grocery list. Behind a tall carton of Quaker oats she found an unpleasant reminder – a half-empty bottle of vodka. Many years ago Charlene had come into the kitchen and found her mother taking a swig, straight out of just such a bottle. While Reggie screwed the top back on she’d mouthed, “Don’t tell your father,” and returned it to the cupboard.
Charlene had been dumbfounded; she’d never seen her mother anywhere near drunk, not even when her parents had friends over for drinks and everyone else’s speech became slurred. So what was with the bottle in the kitchen? Charlene blinked at it. And why is it still here? Dad did all the cooking for the last two years. Didn’t he find it? She sighed again. There were too many things about her parents she would never understand.
The next morning Charlene felt fine and decided to start cleaning the kitchen. She carried her record player downstairs and put a stack of 45s on the spindle. She was half-dancing to the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations while emptying the contents of the upper cupboards onto the countertop and dining table when the front doorbell rang.
Her heart pounded. What if it’s Reeves? She washed her hands, ran her fingers through her curls, and wished she had put on something nicer than cutoff jeans and an old T-shirt, but when she peeked out the front window his car was not there. Neither was his bicycle. An unfamiliar green sedan was parked across the street, but that must be someone visiting the Carters.
Expecting Kimberly Ann, she pulled the heavy door open saying, “I was just about to call you,” and then froze. A Black man stood on the porch, dressed in jeans and a black summer sports jacket over a black T-shirt and holding two bulky manila envelopes. It took Charlene a few seconds to recover from her astonishment.
“Good morning,” she said. “Can I help you?”
“If you’re Miss Charlene Connor, I have something that may be of interest to you.”
Charlene stared at the envelopes. “Yes, I’m Charlene. Are you from the realtor?”
“No. I’m an attorney, but not from any realtor. And this is . . . of a personal nature.”
She blanched. The first thought to cross her mind was that someone had taken pictures of her behaving badly at that stupid Pop Festival in Monterrey and now they’d sent this man to blackmail her. She knew it was a ridiculous notion, but still her voice quivered when she asked, “Regarding what?”
“It has to do with your ancestry. Your family tree.”
Charlene relaxed and then hesitated. She would not have invited a White man to come in when she was alone – not a complete stranger – and could not deny feeling even more leery of this extremely good-looking Black man. Ashamed of this fact, she couldn’t bear to keep him standing in the scorching sun, proving that Dearborn was no better than Mississippi – just like Malcolm X had said. She stretched her smile wider and pushed the screen door open.
“Then I guess you’d better come in and tell me about it.”
She saw surprise register on his face and also suspected a trace of contempt for the little White girl, who was trying so hard to act natural while her vocal cords betrayed her, sounding ready to snap from the strain.
“All right, thank you. It won’t take long.”
The record player’s automatic changer had replaced the Beach Boys with Wilson Pickett singing Mustang Sally and she willed the lawyer to notice – See how much I like colored singers – before lifting the arm and turning the machine off. She led him through the living room, past the dining table, into the kitchen, and out the back door to the screened-in porch.
“I’m sorry for the mess in there. Have a seat and I’ll get us some lemonade.” She had made a pitcher earlier and went into the kitchen to pour two glasses.
“Thank you.” He accepted his. “Kind of you.”
She took the cushioned chair opposite him and couldn’t help wondering if the neighbors could see through the screen well enough to tell that he was Black. He was so thin and wiry, his black T-shirt stretched tight across his abs, that she’d thought him younger. But now she noticed the gray in his short-cropped hair and the crinkles around his eyes.
“My name is Bates. Billy Bates.”
She thought she should have leaned over and held out her hand to shake his, but he was busy removing a sheaf of papers from one of the envelopes.
He finally looked up and said, “One of my clients has come into possession of a journal that was kept by a woman from whom I believe you may be descended. Olivia Killion?”
“Yes I am,” Charlene said eagerly. “Well, not from her, exactly. Her brother Tobey was my great-great-great grandfather. I can’t believe you’re asking about my Aunt Olivia – I was just reading her journal last night. But I have it here, right upstairs, so it can’t be her journal that your client has.”
He leaned back in his chair and took a long drink of the lemonade. “Delicious,” he said and set the glass down. “Interesting that you put mint leaves in it. Just like Miss Killion used to.”
Charlene’s eyes opened wide. “How do you know that?”
“As I said, my client has her journal – two journals actually – and I’ve read both of them. They’re the last two she wrote. What you have is the first one, telling how she came out here to Detroit.”
Charlene leaned forward, anxious to finally learn what had become of Olivia and Mourning, but a frown crossed her face. “How do you know about me?” she asked.
“I believe that a few years ago Reverend Tillson in Detroit asked you to speak to his Sunday school classes, about the activities of your Aunt Olivia as part of the Underground Railroad.”
“Yes. That’s right.”
That hadn’t been long after the Klan murdered three civil rights workers for trying to help colored people in Mississippi register to vote.
“When my client happened to mention the journals, I remembered my nephew talking about a White lady named Olivia Killion and a descendant of hers who had come to speak to them. You see, my nephew was one of those Sunday school children. So I asked Reverend Tillson how I could get in touch with you.”
Charlene leaned back and drank from her own glass, at ease. “I would love to read those journals. Where did your client get them?”
“I couldn’t really say.” He removed more pages from the second envelope and arranged the two piles together. “I had my secretary type out the contents of the second journal. This is a carbon copy for you. And on top here – I had these photographs taken of two of the pages, so you can compare this handwriting to that in the journal you have. My client has Miss Killion’s Bible too. I also photographed the front pages of it, where the family recorded all the births, marriages, and deaths.” He leaned forward and held the pages out to Charlene.
“This is so kind of you.” She rose, wiping her hands on her cutoffs before accepting the documents. “I’m just going to set them over here on the table, so I don’t need to worry about dripping lemonade on them. I can’t wait to find out what Olivia did for the rest of her life. Why she never got married and had kids.” She sat back down. “This is such a coincidence. One of the things I’m planning to do this summer is type out a copy of the journal I have. I’d be happy to make a carbon for your client, if he’d like. In fact I’d be glad to type out that third journal he has. I’d promise to take good care of it.”
“Well, we can see about that. I’m sure we’ll be in touch.” He got to his feet and held out a business card. “Here’s my number.”
“Thank you so much, Mr. Bates.”
“Okay, Billy. It was really nice of you to come all the way here.” She had often heard about the Dearborn police harassing Black drivers.
At the front door he turned to face her. “It won’t be easy reading,” he said. Then he looked at his watch and said he had to go.
Charlene closed the door behind him and eyed the mess on the dining table, but there was no way it was getting cleaned up before she found out what had happened to Olivia and Mourning.
Charlene washed her hands and raced upstairs to get Olivia’s wine-colored journal, which she set on the coffee table, next to the pile of pages Billy Bates had given her. Then she went to the den to fetch her father’s magnifying glass and confirmed that the handwriting did indeed look the same. It’s really hers, she thought. I’m finally going to find out what happened to Olivia and Mourning. She settled into the armchair and began reading, but her eager anticipation quickly turned to a puzzled frown. For some reason Olivia was back in dreary Five Rocks, baking cookies and frying apple fritters, while living with Jettie Place, the woman who had been her father’s mistress.
Charlene checked the dates. The last entry in the leather bound journal had been written in July 1841 and the first entry on the pages Mr. Bates had given her was dated January 1842. How, in just six months, had Olivia gone from clearing fields with Mourning on their farm in Michigan to working in a bakery in Five Rocks, Pennsylvania? And where was Mourning? Well, there were a lot more pages to read.
Before curling back up in the armchair she lifted the lid of the RCA Victor hi-fi console her father had bought for her mother the Christmas before last and flipped through the albums. She chose Johnny Mathis and settled in to read.
She was humming along to The Twelfth of Never when her jaw dropped. Aunt Olivia was pregnant? She’d had a baby? But why the heck was she staying with Jettie Place, of all people? Had something happened to her husband? Is that the sad thing Billy Bates was hinting at when he told me it wouldn’t be easy reading?
When the doorbell rang again she would have ignored it, but this time it had to be Kimberley Ann. Charlene already felt guilty for not calling her. Her hand was on the doorknob before she remembered that it might be Reeves. And when the door made its familiar whooshing sound over the front hall carpeting, there he stood – Reeves Valenti – or a made-over version of him.
Since the 7th grade he’d sported the same crew cut, clipped close because his hair was so curly, but now he’d let those blonde curls grow out past his ears. She was amazed at how good it looked on him – and that she hadn’t even noticed the drastic change in his appearance when he’d come to her mother’s funeral. The boy who’d lived in non-descript khakis, T-shirts, and scruffy sneakers was wearing flared white trousers, a clingy royal blue shirt, and brown leather Top-Siders. He looked tense, unsure of the reception he was going to receive.
She smiled and blurted out, “Reeves. Oh Reeves. I’m so happy to see you.” She pushed the screen door open. “And look at you! You look just like me, only prettier.”
And he did. Since she had given up sleeping with her hair wrapped around old orange juice cans, the same curls surrounded Charlene’s face. They could have passed for brother and sister.
“I don’t have your freckles.” He tried a grin as he stepped inside, but still looked unsure. “Thought I might get some tattooed on.”
Johnny Mathis was crooning “Hold me close” and that didn’t sound like such a bad idea to Charlene, but she stepped back and Reeves followed her into the living room, where she shut the music off.
After her initial outburst she had no idea what to say to him. No idea why he had agreed to her father’s request. I’m so stupid. Why did I turn Johnny Mathis off? I could have asked him to dance with me. That was what she felt like doing. Just touching him. Being touched. No talking.
Everyone had thought she was crazy to give him up. When she’d come home from college last Thanksgiving vacation her father greeted her with what might have been tears in his eyes, except that Joe Connor never cried, not even on the day he buried his wife.
He’d glared at her with his “this is serious” look, saying, “Your friend Kimberly Ann just told me Reeves is planning to get himself engaged to some girl he met at school. Kathy somebody, from Charlevoix. Going to propose as soon as he gets back to school after vacation.”
“I know. Kim called and told me last week.” Charlene had turned away, knowing what was coming.
“You know? Then what the hell are you doing here? Get your butt over there and tell him you’ve come to your senses. Before it’s too late.”
“It is too late, Dad. He’s getting engaged.”
“Engaged isn’t married. He doesn’t love that girl.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I know it and so do you. His own mother told me he’ll never find anyone he’ll love the way he loves you.”
“Loved, Dad, the way he loved me. We were kids and people move on. What if I died?” She’d lowered her voice to almost a whisper. She hadn’t been back to her mother’s room yet and didn’t know if she was awake. “You think he’d never love anyone else?”
“You didn’t die, Charlene. Except for your brain. That seems to have fizzled out.” He stretched his lips wide and emitted a sharp breath before his face settled into the expression he wore so often lately, the one that made him look desperate and helpless. “I know you think it’s none of my business, but what you don’t know is how much you’ll come to regret this stupidity.”
“I can’t change how I feel just because you think Reeves is supposed to fill in for the son you never had.” She felt sick to her stomach for arguing with him, while her mother was back in the bedroom, in constant pain and having to listen to this. “I’m going to see Mom,” she said and brushed past him before one of them started yelling.
Her mother had surprised her that day. Charlene sat next to her on the bed and Reggie took her hand and squeezed it. “You do what your heart tells you,” she said and pressed Charlene’s hand again. “Don’t let him bully you.” Then she’d turned her head aside, exhausted.
Charlene sat there for a long time, watching Reggie sleep. Her mother had never spoken to her like that before. You can’t die, Charlene wanted to shake her. I don’t even know you. Wake up. Talk to me. But Reggie had just had her injection of morphine and slept.
“How are you?” Reeves looked into Charlene’s eyes.
She knew he hadn’t gotten engaged. Their families lived in the same neighborhood and they had too many friends in common for her not to know. Kimberly Ann had married Rick Langford – Reeves’ best friend all through junior high and high school – and they were living two doors down, in what had been Rick’s parents’ house. Charlene and Reeves hadn’t spoken during the past four years, but – through Kim and Rick – they probably knew more about each other’s activities than some married couples did.
She smiled and nodded her head. “I’m all right. My exams were good. Obviously you know my dad moved to Grand Rapids –”
“Ah, Char . . .” He moved slightly forward, as if to pull her to him, but hesitated. “I’m so sorry about your mom. You never let me tell you. I cared about her too.”
“I know.” Charlene nodded her head again, her lips still stretched into a smile. “And she always liked you so much . . .”
Then her voice deserted her and tears finally spilled down her cheeks. This time she didn’t move away when he took a small step closer. She put her arms around his neck and let her head fall to his shoulder as great sobs overtook her. He held her close, patting her back like a little girl, until she finally stopped shaking and pulled away.
“Oh geez, shoot, look at that. Stupid me, I got snot and drool all over your fancy shirt,” she said.
“Sit down,” he said, guiding her to the sofa behind her.
He left the room and returned with a box of Kleenex and a glass of water. She turned away to blow her nose, wipe her eyes, and drink the water. He sat beside her and awkwardly put his arm around her shoulder and then just as awkwardly removed it. It would have felt lovely to collapse against him again, but she forced herself to remain rigid.
“Your dad hired me to do some work on the house,” he said. “Get it ready to show to buyers.”
“I know. He told me and I’m really glad you agreed. It’ll be so good to talk to you, after all this long time. And I need to apologize for how I was at the funeral.”
He shook his head as if to say, “Don’t worry about it.”
“You’re living here, with your parents?” she asked.
“Yeah, for now, but I’ll get my own place as soon as I get my first pay check. I got hired to teach and coach at Edsel.”
That’s a big surprise to no one, Charlene thought. For three years Reeves had been star forward of the basketball team at Edsel Ford High School and made All-State in his senior year. A local celebrity.
“If it’s okay with you, I was planning to come over tomorrow,” he said. “Get started painting the inside of the garage.”
“Sure, come whenever you want. You don’t have to ask me. I’ll give you a key. He didn’t tell me he wanted the garage painted. I guess he wants to cover up that big black stain on the wall from when I almost burned the house down.”
“Yeah. How’d you do that, anyway?”
“We’d been burning leaves by the curb and I thought the fire was all out and shoveled the ashes into an old bushel basket, to put out with the trash. But it was Saturday and trash day wasn’t until Monday, so I put the bushel basket in the garage.” She shrugged. “I guess the fire wasn’t out.”
Her throat had grown tight again and she could feel her face beginning to melt. That smell of burning leaves – her mother had loved it. She’d always come out to stand by the fire, holding a rake that she never put to any use and smoking one of her Tareyton cigarettes. Then she’d toss the butt into the pile of leaves with a funny motion, as if she were aiming for a basketball hoop. Charlene suddenly wished Reeves would leave, so she could go upstairs, crawl into bed, and bawl her head off.
Neither of them spoke for a long moment as he watched her struggle not to cry again and then reached for her hand. “I get it, C.C. You don’t want to be my girl.” He put his other hand over hers, making her feel pleasantly warm. “Do me a favor and stop thinking you can’t touch me, or talk to me, or cry on my shoulder without me whipping an engagement ring out of my pocket.”
“I don’t think that.”
“Sure you do. But you’re welcome to cry on my shoulder any time, no strings attached. I won’t say I haven’t missed you. A lot. But I do get it and I promise not to make you feel uncomfortable.” Then he managed a grin. “I bet you whaled on your poor dad for asking me to come over here.”
“No. I was feeling like crap and the minute he said you’d be coming over I felt a whole lot better, so I couldn’t get mad at him . . . I didn’t think I’d mind coming back here alone, but once I got home . . . He moved to Grand Rapids so fast, I hadn’t even been in the house since my mom died and all her stuff’s still here.” She held tightly onto his hand. “So I’m glad you’re here and I don’t have to do this alone. You were always my best friend. I hated thinking that you hated me.”
“I never hated you. I just couldn’t understand why. What I did wrong. You weren’t even mad at me or anything. That drove me crazy. So I think you owe me that – to tell me why. Don’t worry about hurting my feelings. Just say it, the way you would if it was Kim sitting here.”
She nodded, but looked miserable. Of course she owed him that, but she didn’t know how to explain it, even to herself.
“I will, Reeves. I’ll try anyway. But it doesn’t have to be now, does it?”
“No, it doesn’t have to be now. What’s all that?” He nodded at the coffee table.
She perked up. “You remember the stories about my Aunt Olivia?”
“The old maid abolitionist? How could I forget? You talked about her enough.”
“Well, I guess she wasn’t an old maid. Those pages are a copy of the second journal she wrote. I’ve only just started reading them – someone brought them over this morning, but she’s –”
“What do you mean, someone brought them? Some long-lost relative?”
“No, not a relative. This guy just showed up at the door and came in and told me she’d written two more journals, but he’d only made a copy of one of them.” She nodded at the pages.
“You let him in? You were here all alone and you let some stranger in?”
“He looked perfectly nice.”
“Charlene, you can’t –”
“I know, I know. Anyway, he said that if I want he’ll get a copy made of the third journal.”
“Who is this guy?”
She rose and searched through the pages for the business card Billy Bates had given her and handed it to Reeves.
“A lawyer? This guy’s a lawyer? So what’d he want?”
“Nothing.” Charlene shook her head. “It’s just . . . the person who has these journals is one of his clients, that’s all. And he knew about me because . . . Remember one time I went to talk about Aunt Olivia to some Sunday school kids?”
“Yeah, at that Black church in Detroit.”
She waited for him to ask, “So this guy you let in the house was Black?” But he didn’t.
“Well, Mr. Bates remembered about Aunt Olivia from that and when he heard about these other journals, he thought I might be interested in them. That’s all.” She picked a magazine out of the holder under the end table and fanned herself with it.
“I’d give good odds that’s not all.” Reeves rose and picked up some of the papers. “I mean, come on C.C. –”
“I wish you wouldn’t call me that. If I’m C.C. that makes you R.V.” Which wouldn’t be a bad name for you, she thought. You always were a great vehicle of recreation.
“Okay, okay. Listen Char, today we are not going to argue about anything. I had a peek in the garage,” he said. That’s one wicked set of wheels. You planning on taking me for a ride?”
“Sure. Are you hungry for a late lunch? Or early dinner? I’ve been dying for a Big Boy. My treat.”
“Yeah, I can go for that. But really, Char, about this lawyer. No way he paid someone to type all that stuff and then drove here to find you, just out of the goodness of his heart.”
She shrugged. “His secretary typed it. He’s paying her anyway. And maybe he had to be around here for something else.”
“Yeah, right. I’m sure this guy from a Black church in Detroit has a whole boatload of friends to visit in Dearborn.”
“So what sinister motives do you think he’s hiding?”
“First off, he’s probably going to try to sell you those journals. Or did he already offer them for sale?”
She grinned. “No, he didn’t. But I’m going to offer to buy them.”
He put both palms up in surrender. “Well, at least when he calls you back, try and act like you’re not really sure you want them. And don’t you call him. If he figures out how obsessed you are with your Aunt Olivia, he’ll say he wants five hundred dollars. I knew there had to be something fishy about this guy. What kind of lawyer shows up at the door without calling? He wanted to catch you off guard.”
When they were ready to leave for Big Boy’s she pulled him to stand next to her, staring into the framed oval mirror in the front hall.
“See, if you weren’t so tall, we’d look like twins,” she said.
At 5’10” he was short for a basketball player – especially one who’d played at a Big Ten school – but he seemed to tower over Charlene. She was 5’5″ but so small-boned she looked tiny. Charlene had always been jealous of Rosalie, who was the beauty of the family, tall and stately with long legs and straight blonde hair that moved. Charlene was cute. As a child she’d done some modeling for J.L. Hudson’s and one of the ads showed 5-year-old Charlene in a pink sweater with one big fancy button. The words “Cute as a Button” were emblazoned next to her picture. Even before that ad appeared Charlene’s cheeks had frequently been pinched by her mother’s friends saying, “Aren’t you just as cute as a button?” But after it ran, even strangers felt free to assault her in the street.
Over their hamburgers Charlene and Reeves talked mostly about their former classmates. When they came out of the restaurant Charlene handed Reeves the keys to the Mustang and he drove around town. Charlene felt like they were teenagers again, cruising the drive-ins, looking for their friends’ cars. When they arrived back at Brookline Lane he parked the Mustang in the driveway and got out. His body language said he was preparing to say goodnight.
Charlene touched his arm and said, “Come inside. I don’t have a very good explanation about what you asked before . . . but I’ll try.”
They sat together on the living room couch and she turned to face him. “I think you must know I never stopped . . . having feelings for you,” she began. “Even now it isn’t easy for me to keep my hands off you.”
She stopped, at a loss, and he waited. “I loved growing up here. I did. And I loved being with you. But . . . I don’t know . . . at some point I started to feel trapped. Not by you . . . by everything. My whole life was all laid out: Go to college, marry you, get a mortgage. Every Saturday you’ll take the car over to the Ajax, pick up your shirts from George Paul’s, and get your hair cut. After you get home we’ll work in the yard together. Every Sunday you’ll barbecue, every spring we’ll knock ourselves out during paint up/fix up/clean up week, and every summer we’ll either rent a cottage on Higgins Lake for a week, or camp up at Sleeper State Park.”
“Well, there you go, you had it all wrong. Every summer we’ll go to my parents’ cottage for a week.”
She smiled. “I know what you’re thinking, ‘So what’s wrong with that?’ And I can’t answer because there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a wonderful life. People all over the globe would kill for that life. I know that. It just . . . it just doesn’t feel like it’s supposed to be my life.”
“I don’t get you.” His face was blank.
“Have you ever been to a dairy farm? Seen those long chutes, so the cows all follow each other? I started feeling like one of those cows – chewing my cud and following everyone else up and down ramps.”
“You wouldn’t have to be like your mom, at home all day,” he said. “You could have a job, go to school, whatever you wanted.”
“I know that. I mean . . . I don’t know what I mean. I told you I don’t know how to explain it.”
“You spent too much time hanging out with those hippies over in Ann Arbor, buying into their crap about changing the world with love and flowers.”
“Not hardly.” Her voice had an edge to it.
“You didn’t go to all those SDS protests?”
“I did at first, but then they started chanting all that crap.” She changed to a cave man voice. “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is going to win.” She went back to her regular voice. “Like what? They’re praying for our guys to get killed? I’d die if they sent you over there.” She took his hand.
He looked at her the way he used to and she realized she had no right to say things like that. No right to touch him. So she rushed on talking and reclaimed her hand to push her hair out of her face.
“And the peace-lovers got so vicious and crude with that, ‘1-2-3-4, we don’t want your f-ing war,’ and ‘Johnson’s father should’ve pulled out,’ kind of stuff so I quit going.”
He smiled. “Four years in Ann Arbor and you still can’t say the f-word.”
“That’s never been one of my goals in life.”
“So you weren’t trying to break out of your cow chute because you wanted to be like the street people?”
“Heck no. If I’ve ever wanted to be like someone else it’s Olivia – the way she got so involved with helping people. And the way she had an issue that was so clear. No question about who the good guys were.”
“So you need slavery to come back, so you can feel good about helping on the Underground Railroad?”
“Don’t make fun of me, Reeves. I’m trying to be as honest as I can. I don’t have a clue what I want to do. Or what I can do. If Olivia were alive today she’d be going on Freedom Rides all over the place . . . but I’ve seen what the Klan does to people and I’m . . . I’m not that brave. And nowadays you don’t even know if they want White people helping them. All I do know is that I need time to figure it out. I guess that’s what four years of college was supposed to be for, but I was always studying or working or on the bus coming home every weekend. And ever since I found out my mom was going to die . . . it felt like I was living in a fog. Lately I’ve been thinking, maybe after I get the money . . . Remember that land in Kentucky Rosie and I inherited? Well, some hotel chain is probably going to buy it. So after I get that money, maybe I’ll go to Italy for a year.”
“Wow, that’ll really make the world a better place. Can’t hardly get more selfless than that.” He rolled his eyes at the ceiling, but then put his hand over hers and said, “Sorry.”
“No, you’re right . . . and I know going to Italy wouldn’t change anything. But at least it would get me away from my dad and all his great expectations, give me a chance to figure out what kind of a life I do want to live. So far I only know about the things I don’t want. Ways I don’t want to feel about myself.”
They sat in silence for a while. Then he took both her hands.
“All right, here’s the deal,” he said. “We’re going to be spending a lot of time together, so for these next few weeks you’ll make me real happy if you just do whatever you feel like doing. You feel like putting your hands on me, by all means. You want to invite me upstairs, just for old times’ sake, I promise not to feel like you’re taking advantage of me.” He grinned. “You want to get away from me, go off with Kim while I’m working here, so go. You talk to me about anything you want. Say what you really feel. You got something you need help with, ask me. Same goes for me. I don’t feel like helping with whatever you ask me to do, I say so. I don’t feel like seeing you today, I’m not here. I start seeing some other girl, I’ll tell you, but you don’t get mad. When the time comes for you to run off to Italy or Mars or wherever the hell you think you have to go, I kiss you goodbye with my best wishes. No one feels guilty. We don’t owe each other anything.”
A wide smile spread across her face. This sure is a new, improved version of Reeves, she thought, remembering how possessive and bossy he sometimes used to be.
Then he asked, “You remember that creep Rosalie went with all through high school, just because it got your dad ticked off? You ask me, one of the things you need to meditate on is whether you didn’t do the opposite. The way everyone always assumed we’d end up together and especially the way your dad got all hacked every time you had a fight with me . . . maybe you breaking up with me after high school was just your way of sticking it to him.”
She looked into his face and could see that he really did want to understand. Like any teenaged boy Reeves had acted like a jerk now and then, but the most important thing about him had never changed – he’d always been on her side. Even that day he’d walked away from her, crushed, she didn’t believe he’d been wishing her sorrow and suffering, a curse on her house.
“Well,” she said, “that might be part of it. It would have felt like an arranged marriage. Heck my whole life felt arranged. Only it’s not just that. But Reeves . . .” She put her hand back on his. “Can we stop talking about this? For now anyway? It’s starting to wear me out.”
“Sure.” He rose, obviously thinking he had been dismissed.
“Wait a minute. Where do you think you’re going?” Charlene went to the hi-fi console and turned it back on. “You don’t get out of here that easy. Not if you really meant all those things you just said.” She put the stylus down and Johnny Mathis began singing Wonderful, Wonderful. “Especially the part about putting my hands on you . . .” She raised her arms, beckoning him to dance with her. “You can’t stay too long,” she said as she stepped into his arms. “The neighbors will be taking notes on how late your car is parked out front. But at least you can leave through the front door – won’t have to climb out my bedroom window and jump off the garage roof.”