Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Her dead mother was alive.
Yet, days after learning the unthinkable, Parris was still unable to reconcile the truth with the lie she’d been nursed and nurtured on for three decades. The enormity of it echoed throughout the cool stillness of the one room church.
Her emotions shifted between disbelief and anger, anguish and shock to despair and back again. So she’d come here to the one place where she’d always found answers, balance and a quieting of her spirit.
But even here, the solace she sought was unattainable, a vapor that could be seen but not touched. The letter she held between her slender fingers was yellowed with age and now freed with the others from their hiding place behind her Nana’s stove, its wizened face crisscrossed by the fine lines of an unfamiliar hand, cracked under the onslaught of air and light.
Parris held the letter like one unfamiliar with a newborn—cautious, fearful, yet in awe of its mysteries. There were answers here, etched between the lines which she struggled to see. She knew it, could feel it. She knew if she just looked hard enough she would know why.
The words, though not addressed to her, connected her to the woman she’d only imagined. The woman that was buried on European shores after giving birth to her—or so she’d been told. Told so many times that she believed it, became part of the lie. She believed her Nana when she sat her down on her knee, looked her deep in the eyes and said, “your mama loved you so much gal, wanted you to have a little piece of somethin’ so bad that she begged those fancy doctors to save her baby no matter what. Yessir, that’s what she done for ya cause she loved ya. Even fo’ you got here.”
Imagine being loved like that, so hard and so strong even before you took your first breath. The thought of it filled all the empty spaces that the void of not having her mother left in her life.
And that’s the lie she told her friends when they asked where her mother was and why she lived with her grandmother. She told her truth. The only one she knew. Now what she knew was no more. The ache of it settled in her bones, squeezed her heart and stripped her throat raw.
What was she to do?
She bowed her head as the long shadow of the cross fell across her lap, deepened as the sun shifted, preparing to settle down for the night. She’d lost track of how long she’d sat on the worn wooden pew, its hardness softened and curved by years of hips and thighs that heaved, sighed and caressed it throughout the years.
Her green eyes, butterfly quick, flitted from one space to the next as a montage of images gathered around her. How many times had she walked the aisle as a child, a teen, a woman? How many sermons had she heard, christenings and marriages had she attended? How many songs had she sung in the choir? How many times had she looked out on the congregation to see her Nana Cora and Grandpa David watching her with pride? So many.
But how could any of this—all the things that she knew—be concrete when she was no more than an illusion? And if she was no longer real then nothing in her life could be either. With familiarity now a stranger, she had no choice but to create a new reality. And if not here, then where?
She’d come back, back to her home of Rudell, Mississippi to be witness to her grandmother Cora’s transition. The woman who raised her, loved her, taught her right from wrong, gave her the gift of music—lied to her. Lied. The word burned in her throat, stirring and simmering into something bigger than herself erupting into an emotion that was so unfamiliar Rage. Parris raged at Cora, raged at her for keeping the secret and nearly taking it with her to her grave.
Cora confessed on her waning breath that Emma, her mother, was alive, was living in Europe, that she’d turned her infant daughter over to Cora only days after her birth and never returned. The only connection Cora had with her daughter through the years was the intermittent letters that filled the tin box behind the stove.
Cora turned the letters over to Parris in the final hours before her passing. They revealed so much and nothing at all. Handwriting style, frequency, location, inquiries about the child she’d abandoned. Yet none of the letters collected for almost thirty years explained why?
Why was Parris unworthy of her mother’s love? Why did Emma give her away and never come back? Why was Parris told that her mother was dead? And why did the woman whom she’d idolized all her life keep the answers and take them with her?
Parris jerked around, startled by the noise behind her. Her gaze settled along with her heartbeat when she saw her grandfather crossing the threshold. She brushed the tears from her eyes only for them to be followed by more.
David swept his hat from his head and walked reverently down the aisle. She made room for him next to her.
“Been wondering where you been for so long,” he said in that cottony comfort voice that had cocooned her to sleep on many an occasion.
Parris sighed and rested her head on his shoulder of welcome. Her granddad was the only doctor in Rudell for decades. It wasn’t until about five years ago that another doctor set out her shingle. But it had taken many a dinner conversation, trips to the Left Hand River and loud debates in front of the general store for the townspeople of Rudell to come to terms with a new doctor—especially a woman. Things may have changed in the rest of the world but Rudell, Mississippi was no different than it had been in the early 1900s when her great grandfather Joshua Harvey was the preacher at this very church.
“Nana wanted me to go find my mother.”
She could feel David’s head bob up and down. “And what do you plan to do?”
“It’s what I’ve been sitting here thinking about.” She angled her head to take in his strong profile. “I don’t want to leave you granddad. What are you going to do out here . . . alone?”
He lifted his square chin just a notch. Not enough for someone who didn’t know him to even notice. But Parris knew her grandfather. That tiny tick meant he’d made up his mind and no amount of persuasion was going to change it.
“I’ll be just fine. This is my home. I stay here . . .and I can stay close to Cora.” His full lips pinched. “That young man of yours is up at the house, packin’ looks like.”
The dry muscles of her throat struggling for moisture tightened even more.
“Can’t sit here crying forever. Not what Cora would have wanted. She’d want you to get on with your life.”
“What life!” Her voice splintered the quiet of the church, cracking under the pressure of a question she couldn’t answer. She turned swollen, tear-filled eyes on him.
“The life you had, the life you gonna make. You have everything you need. It’s up to you to decide what you gon’ do with it.” He paused a beat. “I been listenin’ to you since you been back, humming a little, singing a bit. God and your grandma gave you a gift—the voice of an angel. Now you kin head on back to New York. Ain’t nobody gonna fault you none. But when you stand up and sing in front of folks, those notes won’t ring true. Every one of them is gonna have an empty hole in it.” He rubbed his jaw with a large, dark hand that had the power to heal. “Or you can go find your mama. Hear her tell you what you need to hear. When you do that the hole in those notes and that space in your heart will be filled.”
He kissed the top of her head. “Up to you. Whatever you decide you best hurry for that boy leaves without a goodbye.” He pushed up from his seat, wincing a little from the nag in his right hip. He made a mental note to ask Cora to rub some liniment on it. He squeezed his hat. The tiniest groan of pain pushed up from his gut, sputtered across his lips. He remembered. His Cora was gone. He blinked away the burn in his eyes with each step he took toward the door. Nearly a half century of loving one woman. He had no idea how he was going to make it. No idea at all.
Parris heard the church door squeak shut. Her slender body shuddered as a wave of sorrow rolled through her. Granddad was right. She couldn’t sit there forever. She needed to talk with Nick. Figure something out—about everything, including them.
She gathered her lightweight baby blue shawl that she’d brought along with her, gently folded the letter and put it in her shirt pocket. She took one last look around and walked out.

The sun was easing down behind the hilltops, playing hide and seek between the branches and leaves of the towering coves of trees that led to the Left Hand River and separated them from the white part of town. The air was filled with the fresh scents of rich earth, ripe grass, farm animals and simplicity.
That’s what she drew into her lungs—simplicity. The slow, easy pace of country living. She’d been home for just about a month and she had yet to see one person hurrying anywhere. There wasn’t an abundance of cars. The town was so small folks walked mostly everywhere. And if they did have a ways to go they hitched a ride.
Gentrification hadn’t touched Rudell. Somehow the townspeople were able to maintain their way of life without the onslaught of yuppies, buppies, condos, superstores and Starbucks squeezing the spirit out of them.
She walked up the path that led to her grandparents home, a neat two story structure, one of only a half dozen like it in town. Today was the first day that the front door wasn’t swinging open and closed from the trainload of grievers that had click-clacked through the house for three days. She’d swear that all five-hundred residents of Rudell must have come to pay their respects to her grandmother and dropped off everything from whole fried chickens, seasoned collards, peas and rice, mac and cheese, to fruit salads and peanuts. Granddad would have enough food for the next two months. And from the gleam in some of the widow’s eyes and the extra smiles on their red lips, he’d have company too.
A light went on in the window of the second floor, catching her eye. She watched the silhouette of her grandfather as he slowly sat down on the side of the bed and buried his head in his hands.
Parris shut her eyes for a moment and sent up a silent prayer to ease his heart. When she opened the front door, Nick was at the kitchen table. His suitcase, like a faithful pup sat as his feet. A medley of mouthwatering aromas harmonized in a “come sit down” tune and her stomach called back in response.
“Hi.” The faint greeting hung in the food scented air.
“Thought I was going to miss you.” He pushed back from the table, the old wooden legs of the chair tap dancing across the highs and lows of the aging linoleum.
“I couldn’t let you leave without saying goodbye.”
His jaw tightened as he nodded.
“What time is your bus?”
“Six. David . . . your grandfather said he would drive me to the station.”
Uncertainty made them sudden strangers. Instead of reaching for each other they sought the support of chair backs and table edges.
Parris squeezed and twisted the shawl between her fingers. “I can take you.”
“Are you sure?”
“I want to.”
Nick pushed his hands deep into his pockets to keep from reaching for her, to appear as casual and unaffected as she. He shrugged his left shoulder. “Cool. Ready when you are.”
She tried to meet his eyes but the questions that hung there turned her away. “I’ll let granddad know.” She hurried toward the stairs and went up.
The door at the end of the hall was closed, but unable to contain the light within, a sliver snuck out from the bottom and bathed the floor with a path of illumination that beckoned her. She knocked lightly on the door, listened to the rustle of movement and the creek of the four-poster bed.
A half-smile greeted her. “Was just resting a bit before I took your young man to the bus depot.”
“That’s what I came to tell you. I’m going to take him.”
The smile came full. He dug in his pocket and took out the car keys. “Drive slow.” He handed her the keys.
Parris grinned. “Is there any other way to drive in Rudell?” She leaned up and kissed his gray stubbled cheek. “See you soon.”
“I’ll leave a plate out for you.”
“Thanks,” she said over her shoulder. When she returned to the kitchen, Nick had already taken his bag and was sitting on the steps outside. She pressed her fingertips to her stomach to settle the butterflies that had broken loose. “Ready?”
He angled his head toward her then stood, the long lean lines of his body unfolding like the break of dawn—pure majesty.
“Sure.” He trotted down the four steps ahead of her and strolled toward the old Ford parked at the end of the path.
As Parris descended the stairs she couldn’t believe that she was actually letting him go back to New York without her. Initially, before the full ramifications of her discovery hit her, she’d told Nick that she wanted him to meet her mother. The raw excitement of finding out that her mother was indeed alive overshadowed the questions that began as a light summer shower before intensifying to an unstoppable hurricane ruining everything in its path. She was battered by the unrelenting winds and rains of confusion, weakened and shocked by the power of deceit, leaving her with only remnants of what she’d been able to salvage. She wasn’t the woman he’d met so many months ago when she shyly approached him for a singing gig at his nightclub. She wasn’t the woman who captured an audience and held them in her palm like the last strains of a Billie Holliday ballad. She wasn’t the woman who walked out on her boss slash lover, lost her job and her apartment.
She was someone else now and until she discovered who that someone was, she couldn’t be part of anyone’s life.
Parris followed Nick to the car. She opened his door first and his hand brushed her wrist. The jolt rocked them both. She stepped back, hurried around to the other side and slid behind the wheel. Nick tossed his bag into the back seat and got in next to her. This was the closest they’d been in days. She could feel the heat rise off his skin and settle around her. If she listened really close she could hear the steady rhythm of his heart. The air in her lungs balled up in her throat. She rolled down the window so that she could breathe and in the blink of an eye, tension crawled into the back seat and hunkered down for the ride—keeping them company.
Forcing herself to concentrate, Parris put the car in gear and slowly eased off heading toward the end of town and the bus stop. En route down the one main road, they passed the hopscotch of houses, built more for comfort and protection from the elements than design. Some were squat like overripe squashes, others were long and lean like the fields of cornstalks. And some, well they were just there. She waved at the familiar faces of porch sitters who’d come out to catch a bit of the cool evening air.
“I can only imagine how hard things have been for you,” Nick said, breaking the wall of silence.
Parris sucked in a breath.
“I want you to know that whatever decision you make about your mother, your life . . . your career, I’m here for you.”
“I know that.” She stole a look at him. “And I never told you thank you for coming here.”
“You don’t have to. I came because I wanted to. I thought you needed me.”
“I did. I still do.” Her sigh filled up the space between them,. “There’s so much happening inside me. I . . . I can’t explain it. But I have to work it out on my own.”
He reached for her, rested his hand on her thigh. “Don’t shut me out, Parris. Please.”
His fingertips were hot coals searing her skin, the heat winding its way to that place in her heart that had turned bitter cold. It would be so easy to let the warmth envelop her, wrap her in the comfort of it, until she drifted off to a dreamless slumber where the yesterdays had never been and there was only now and tomorrow.
What had happened between them in such a short space of time? he thought, frustration and sadness jockeying for position. He’d turned his life around so that he could be the man that she deserved. He’d cut off his ties with Percy back in New York, paid off his debt. He didn’t owe anyone. He could start fresh with a new club that was his and not controlled by mob money. She knew that. He’d told her everything. He’d worked quietly behind the scenes for months to get her a recording contract and even that didn’t put the light back in her eyes—the one thing she’d dreamed of, had worked for. He’d been so sure that coming here, being with her during this dark time in her life would show her how much he cared, what she meant to him. He’d envisioned them returning to New York together, taking the city and the world by storm. Something beyond finding out about her mother had changed her and in turn it had changed them.
The bus depot came into view. Parris’s heart beat a little faster. Tell him before it’s too late. She pulled the car onto the shoulder of the road and shut it off.
She turned halfway in her seat. “Bus should be here any minute,” she said instead of the words that really mattered.
“Yeah,” he murmured, opened the door and got out. He took his suitcase from the back seat and shut the door.
She stepped out and came around to where he stood. “I don’t even have a place to stay if I come back now,” she said, the words and the fear tumbling out. “I have no job . . .”
Nick’s hopes awakened. He gripped her shoulders. “Look at me.”
Slowly she raised her head and her gaze danced with the dark intensity of his. “We can work it out. We. Isn’t that what you want?”
“I don’t know what I want right now.”
“Then let’s figure it out together. Do what you need to do here and when you’re ready to come back we’ll make it work.”
“I don’t know how long it’s going to be.”
“It doesn’t matter.” The urgency in his voice competed with the sound of the arriving bus.
Parris’s eyes darted toward the bus and the line of passengers ready to board.
“Just come back to me.” He moved up to her, so close that he could feel the vibrations of her body.
The driver blew the horn.”All aboard for Jackson.”
Nick snapped his head toward the bus then back at Parris. “Promise me.”
Her lips parted to the blare of the horn.
Nick drew her tight against him, so that every dip and curve bent to his will. He kissed her like a Mississippi summer; hot, wet and long, stealing their breath.
“I promise,” she said as air rushed back into her lungs and she found herself standing alone on the curb as the bus pulled off. Tentatively she touched her fingers to her lips while she watched the bus kick up dirt and turn the bend. “I promise.”
Returning to the car she headed back, and for the first time in days she didn’t feel so terribly alone.

“So you let him go,” David said coming into the kitchen. He moved to the refrigerator and took out the pitcher of sweet tea, placed it on the table between them.
Parris used her fork to move the collards around on her plate, framing the yams and fried chicken breast. “He couldn’t stay and I wasn’t ready to go.”
“Nothing for you to do here. Seems to me that’s the reason why you left in the first place to pursue your dream. This town is too small for you. No dreams here.” He eased down into the hard-backed chair. He refilled her glass.
“Thank you.” She cupped the glass but didn’t drink. “I’m angry at Nana,” she blurted out. “So angry.” She bit out each word. “I know I shouldn’t be, but I can’t help it and the anger is eating me up inside.”
“Your grandmother did what she needed to do.” He glanced away. “What she had to do for everyone concerned. You have no idea the weight she carried all those years.” His voice shook with the passion of his convictions, rumbling right down the center of Parris’s chest. “So you can go on being mad, faulting other folk, being miserable or you can do something about it.” He stood, drew in a long breath. “All I got to say about it. Be sure to put the food up and turn on the porch light. I’m going to bed.”
She watched him walk away, his always ramrod straight back was suddenly stooped by more than he could carry. And she realized she’d done that, throwing one more boulder on his shoulders —her own weight of uncertainty..
She pushed up from the table. “I’m sorry, granddad,” she called out.
He waved it off with a swipe of his hand and took each step as if he were scaling the mountaintop.
The bedroom door opened and swung shut. She flinched.
She couldn’t be another weight. Granddad didn’t deserve that. And as much as she tried to convince him and herself that she was staying because she didn’t want him to be alone was all smoke and mirrors, a parlor trick. She was adrift and she was desperately trying to hold onto the preserver of a life that was familiar. But he was right. Her life was no longer hers and hadn’t been for much too long.
She glanced at the clock above the sink. Nick’s bus should be arriving at the Jackson airport station in another half hour at best. Possibility jumped inside her. She picked up her plate of uneaten food and scraped it into the trash. If she hurried . . . She bit down on her lip. She had her ticket. Her resources were limited. This wasn’t a big city. There were no all night car services. Her gaze rose toward the stairs, listened to the heavy footsteps that crossed the floor.
If she hurried . . . She sprinted upstairs, raised her hand to knock just as the door opened.
“I know all the back roads,” David said.
Her luminous green eyes widened followed by an awe-filled smile. She leapt into his broad chest and he enveloped her in understanding.
“We better get going before we miss him,” he said into her cottony soft spirals. He kissed her smooth forehead and stepped back.
She gazed at him and saw the familiar love brimming in his tender brown eyes. She nodded, spun away and ran down to the opposite end of the hallway to her room. Without thinking of anything except getting to Nick before he took off, she tossed her few belongings in her suitcase, snatched up her purse and ran out to meet her grandfather who had already started up the old Ford.

With granddad behind the wheel, Parris tried to relax and put her impulsive actions into perspective. She was on her way to catch a man whom she’d let go with no more than a whispered promise of “perhaps,” and now she needed to take him up on his offer to house and employ her until she regained some semblance of her life.
She hadn’t even offered to drive him to the airport, she thought, flinching inside. Her momentarily buoyant spirits began to sink. What if he’d reconsidered his offer?
“No use fretting about it,” David said, reading the frown lines in her forehead. “He’ll either be glad to see you or he won’t. And judging from the way he looks at you, I can’t imagine him being anything but a happy man.”
“From your lips to God’s ears.” She patted his thigh. “Thanks for this granddad.”
“Back home is where you need to be.”
They bumped along the back roads before suddenly emerging on the main highway. The road was empty. Their only company was the intermittent lights that illuminated the pitch black roads.
“What are you going to do, granddad, really?”
He sighed heavily. “Take one day at a time, sugah. I been thinking maybe I’ll turn one of those rooms into an office. Start seeing some of my patients right at the house. Cora always took issue with that. Said she didn’t want a whole lotta sick folk traipsing in and out of her house.” He chuckled at the memory and shook his head. “Yeah, she was something.”
Parris heard the wistful note in his voice. She could only imagine how difficult it would be for him. But hopefully his medical practice would fill some of the space that Cora had left.
Her granddad was the definition of country doctor. He still made house calls, had delivered half the babies in town, and had treated household generations. As much as she wanted him to come back to New York where she could look after him, she understood that he would never be happy there. The frenetic pace and the noise would drive him right back to the Delta.
“We should get to the airport in about twenty minutes,” he said.
Parris glanced at her watch. Nick’s plane was due to take off in an hour. Her heart thumped. She should probably call, let him know that she was coming. Maybe now she’d get a signal on her cell phone which she’d been unable to do since she’d arrived in Rudell.
She dug her phone out of her purse, studied it as if she’d never seen it before. David stole a glance at her.
“Let him know we’re only ten minutes away.”
Parris smiled at her grandfather’s intuitiveness. She pressed in Nick’s numbers and held her breath as the phone ran on the other end.
Just before the call went to voicemail, Nick came on the line. “Parris?”
“Hi, uh, we’re . . .I’m about ten minutes away. Don’t let the plane take off without me,” she said on a breath of excitement.
“They wouldn’t dare.”
She heard the laughter and relief in his voice and she began to think that just maybe everything would turn out all right.

Parris faced her granddad as they stood in front of his pickup. So many emotions swirled inside her: sadness, possibility, uncertainty, guilt, anticipation.
“I’ll write . . . often,” she promised as he held her close, stroking her back. “And I’ll come to see you as soon as I can.” She looked up into his eyes that held a hundred stories.
He kissed her forehead. “You keep your promise to your grandma, that’s all you got to promise me.” He squeezed her one last time before letting her go. “It’s up to you to make things right, for all of us.”
She frowned in moment of confusion. “What do you mean?”
“You’ll know.” His smile was tender. “Go on now, before you miss your plane and your man.”
Her throat clenched. “I love you granddad.”
“Love you too, sugah. Now go head.”
She reached down for her bag, gave him one last kiss on the cheek and hurried off into the small terminal to find Nick. Once inside the glass doors she took a parting look over her shoulder but David was gone. She drew in a long breath of resolve and hurried through the travelers in search of her future.

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