Fiction · 11/04/2015

Keeping Up Appearances

My grandfather, Conrad Espy, owned Espy Enterprises, which in its heyday was one of the most successful black-owned companies in the Carolinas, something unheard of at the time. His company owned grocery stores, restaurants, barbershops and rental properties, making his net worth greater than that of most of his white counterparts. Decades after his death, the Espy name still held prestige in the Carolinas. Mom made sure of it.

My grandfather had helped build the magnificent, two-story home in which I’d grown up, the house with the curved, layered wooden deck out front that sprawled well into the yard. The house that looked out of place now among renovated modern homes with two-car garages and siding as white as toothpaste. The house that, from a distance, vibrated with the magnitude and wealth of the person who had once lived there, but up close showed the cracks and deterioration of the one who’d remained.

I turned my key in the lock. Mom sat barefoot on the sofa, watching Law & Order reruns, drinking a Bloody Mary, minus the celery. Seeing her gnarled toenails, I made a mental note to pick up a gift card for her during my next pedicure appointment.

“Lola, do you want to be a lonely old spinster for the rest of your life?” she asked as I sat beside her.

I decided to take the high road. “I’m doing great Mom, how about you?” She’d made it clear she’d considered my ex-boyfriend Selwyn perfect son-in-law material and was tapping her foot waiting for me to marry him.

“I guess I’ll have to adopt grandkids if I ever want to have any in my lifetime,” she added.

“You are a grandmother,” I said turning the high road into a low one.

She focused on Law & Order, pretending not to hear me. But I knew she’d heard. In our family, we were accustomed to act as if certain things didn’t exist, even if it walked in the room and sat next to you.

I resembled my dad, inheriting his skin, as dark as a Hershey’s kiss, his oval eyes, full lips and serious countenance. My sister Regina, as the old folk would say, looked as if Mom spit her out: short, curvy and light-complexioned, with freckles clinging to her face like powdered sugar on donuts. At least she had 18 years ago. The last time we’d seen her.

“How are you doing?” I asked Mom.

She’d kicked Daddy out of the house two weeks ago, after she’d discovered he was having an affair with Lara Fuller. Lara and I had gone to high school together, and I remembered that in our senior year, she’d been bragging about sleeping with everyone on the football team — varsity and JV.

“I’m doing as well as expected.” Mom stretched out her legs, flexing her polish-worn toes. “I’m still having a hard time facing the neighbors.”

I took a sip of her Bloody Mary, and then remembered I wasn’t a fan of tomatoes. “You didn’t do anything wrong. And who knows what’s going on behind closed doors in their houses.”

“That’s my point — it’s behind closed doors,” she said. “Not on display for the world to see.”

And what a display it was. The Evelyn Espy Royce I knew avoided public scenes. But the day Mom had found out — and at the moment when all the parents in the neighborhood were greeting their children when they arrived home from school and the mailman was making his rounds — Mom, ferocious and wild-eyed, had tossed Daddy’s belongings, including his prized Jacob Lawrence paintings, out on the lawn like garbage.

Daddy had grabbed his stuff, throwing it in his Lexus SUV with one hand, keeping Mom at bay with the other. I had made it there in time to beg her to let him get his things in peace, urging Daddy to leave before Mom completely lost it.

It had started when Mom found a sex video of Daddy and Lara. Daddy kept it in the shed out back on the very top shelf, underneath three two-pound bags of topsoil and a shovel. A shelf Mom couldn’t reach without the aid of a ladder, which she’d bought after Daddy’s frequent late night trips to the shed had piqued her curiosity, as well as his sudden purchase of a 34-inch flat-screen TV for the guest room, where he’d been sleeping most nights, ostensibly because he needed the TV to fall asleep.

So Daddy had returned from the barbershop to find everything he owned outside in the yard. He’d admitted he and Lara were together, going on a year now, and although he was sorry she’d found out this way, what relief he felt, since he’d planned to leave soon anyway.

Mom had refused to give Daddy the DVD or tell him where she’d put it, and he couldn’t find it, although he’d torn up the house looking for it, overturning couches and tables and beds. After he’d left, Mom had gone into her bedroom and reappeared with the DVD. As she plopped it into the player, I had run to the bathroom, leaned over the toilet and thrown up everything I’d eaten for the past week.

The first time Daddy left Mom — that I know of — I was ten years old. He’d left her for Della Foster, our church organist. I could accept Daddy not wanting to be here, but did he have to act in a way that embarrassed the family so much that, humiliated, Mom, Regina and I had to leave the church my grandfather help build, since Della still played the organ there?

Daddy had picked me up for a visit — Regina had been away at a track meet — bringing me to his and Della’s place by Eastland Mall. Back then, the mall sported a fabulous ice-skating rink and stood as one of the top attractions in the Carolinas.

When we arrived, Miss Della had appeared out of nowhere, holding a plate filled with warm chocolate-chip cookies and a glass of milk. Daddy’s shoulders had relaxed and the worried look on his face dissolved. I had grabbed two cookies and the glass of milk and sat cross-legged in the chair at the dining-room table. The chalk-white walls made the room appear large. It shocked me to see Daddy’s art hanging on the wall, Jacob Lawrence’s paintings about the migration of black people. These same pictures, which had once hung on the walls at home, looked foreign and out of place here. A baby grand piano nestled in the corner highlighted the otherwise-modest furnishings: a black sofa and loveseat and a wood coffee table with a checkered pattern.

Della looked as if she hadn’t missed a meal in her life, but not in a fat or sloppy way. Her presence demanded attention, even though her demeanor mimicked shyness. At church, while playing songs like “Amazing Grace” and “Guide Me Over Thou Great Jehovah,” Della, caught up in the spirit, could be heard moaning from the depths of her soul as she overtook the lead singer. The soloist was never offended, knowing that Della, in her unassuming way, didn’t mean any harm.

Daddy had flipped the top off a Schlitz beer can, causing a reactionary fizz on top. He’d reclined back in the chair as if he belonged here, as if he’d lived here his entire life. A stark difference from living with us, where Daddy retreated right after dinner to the guest room where he slept, reappearing the next morning, repeating the ritual night after night. He looked happy and peaceful here, as if my acceptance of Della’s cookies and milk absolved him of the hurt he’d caused by leaving us.

Della had patted my head in the same manner as she might a furry friend.

“I got just the trick for you,” she’d said, disappearing into the back of the house, and then resurfacing minutes later with a wide-tooth comb and a can of blue hair grease. Della had sat on the couch, and I’d rested on the floor, nestled between her hearty thighs. She’d popped off my rubber bands, causing my plaits, uncombed for going on two weeks now, to unravel. She’d sectioned off parts of my bushy un-permed mane, and then plaited my hair into four thick braids crisscrossed like jump ropes. A beaming Daddy had alternated between watching us and the television.

“You all right down there?” Della had asked, as she’d slathered the blue ointment over my head, which penetrated my hair like rain on desiccated soil.

I’d nodded, stuffing another cookie into my mouth.

When she was done, my hair had looked amazing. I couldn’t wait for my friend Camille to see it. When Daddy had dropped me off at home and Mom got a glimpse, she’d turned three shades darker, whizzing past me.

“I know you didn’t let that heifer put her hands in my baby’s hair!” she’d screamed at Daddy, pronouncing every word, every syllable, like my teacher, when she was teaching us to read.

“I think it look nice,” Daddy had said. “Lola certainly likes it.”

Mom had slapped Daddy so hard that I expected to see her handprint etched on the side of his face.

While wrestling with Mom’s wrist to avoid a repeat performance, Daddy had yelled for me to go to my room.

“She ain’t got to go nowhere,” Mom had said, sounding biggity. “She lives here, and you don’t anymore.”

A closed door couldn’t drowned out the yelling.

“I told you not to bring my baby around that whore,” Mom had said.

“Where in the hell did you think I was taking her?” he’d said. “I told you I was taking her to my house.”

“Well the next time my baby girl sets foot near your house will be when she’s grown, and I can’t stop her.”

Later, after Daddy had left, Mom forced me to squat between her legs while she jerked a comb through every one of my plaits.

“Big girls don’t cry,” she’d said, as I bawled so much I’d started to hiccup. “Heifer need to have her own baby instead of trying to steal mines.”

By the time Mom had finished, my head looked like an afro puff mess.

“Go get me my medicine,” she’d said.

I’d gone into her bedroom and opened her nightstand, retrieving the plastic bag filled with white tablets the size of baby aspirin. When I’d returned, she’d grabbed a handful of the pills and swallowed them dry, and then she proceeded to part my hair and plait it into the exact same style that Della had given me earlier that day.

Within the hour, “Best of My Love” by The Emotions was humming on Mom’s lips.

Daddy and Della had lasted a couple months, and then Daddy had returned home, causing a distraught Della to pack up and move to Raleigh. We returned to Bethel AME church, a family again.

“I guess when he’s with Lara, Viagra is his friend,” Mom said, sipping her Bloody Mary. “I bet when she has used him for every penny he’s worth, he’ll try to come back.”

“Would you take him back?” I asked. Part of me hoped that if Daddy returned, mumbling apologies and excuses, Mom would be strong this time. In the past, she’d cared so much about keeping up appearances that she’d always let Daddy come home after one of his “flings.”

She considered my question and then shrugged. “Probably not.”

I didn’t believe her. Neither did she.

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Erica L. Williams received an MFA in Creative Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She currently lives in Baton Rouge, LA. “Keeping Up Appearances” is an excerpt from her yet to be published novel, Savannah Road. Her fiction has appeared in Kansas City Voices literary magazine.