I still live in Atlanta. All of us do — Mama, Hermione, and me. Mama still lives on Willow Street, in the house we moved to after losing the split-level on Bunnybrooke Drive. She stays there out of spite, I think. This way no one can forget the cruelty that life has done her. Hermione and her family live in a suburb called Lawrenceville, halfway to Athens, which is as far away as you can get without actually leaving town. I can picture my sister leaving us for good, moving to France, doing a Josephine Baker, wearing a dress made of fruit. She can likely envision such scenarios for herself as well. But she stays here in Georgia because of her husband, Mr. Phinazee, who is far too old to learn any new tricks.
I make my home in the West End. Little plaques affixed to the street signs insist that it is “The Historic West End,” a designation secured by real estate interests. For the last twenty years people have predicted that this area was on the rise. They point to Grant Park, which has become a Victorian oasis, smack in the center of town. It’s only a matter of time, they say, urging yuppies and buppies alike, until gentrification elevates the West End, the historic West End, too. I hope they are right. I only rent my house, so I have no real financial stake in the prospect, but I like the idea of imminent transformation and appreciation.
The West End is a hard place to wrap your mind around. My house is off People Street, not too far from the Wren’s Nest—where, depending on your take on things, Joel Chandler Harris either wrote or plagiarized the Uncle Remus stories. Just over a mile away is Spelman College, my alma mater, built where there were once Civil War barracks. And across the street from Spelman are some of the meanest housing projects in the South. I guess the only really consistent variable in the West End is that nearly everyone within a five-mile radius is black. From the bourgie girls I went to college with, all of whom seemed to be doctors’ daughters or professors’ kids, to my neighbors, cracked out and depressed, everybody is black. My landlord, crooked and mean, is every bit as black as the people who run the homeless shelter on the corner of Landrum and Cascade.
Lately white folks are moving into our neighborhood, one by one. I’m not bent out of shape about it. A gay couple, Jewish, according to my roommate, Rochelle, bought the pale yellow bungalow across the road, which has recently been restored to its turn-of-the-century splendor — wraparound porch and stained-glass panels in the mahogany door. Rochelle and I considered taking them a gift to welcome them to the neighborhood. She suggested baking cookies, but then we worried that they might not trust us enough to eat what we had prepared. The very idea of this offended us as though we had actually offered them the cookies and they’d refused. So we never introduced ourselves to them and they never introduced themselves to us.
Quiet as it’s kept, the house where Rochelle and I live is identical to the showplace across the street. Ours is a fixer-upper that hasn’t been fixed up yet. The paint flakes like green dandruff; underneath, the wood is dotted with termite tunnels. Inside, however, is much nicer. The wood floors might be paint-flecked and scarred, but you can still tell that it is good pine. In my bedroom there is a great old fireplace, but the mantels were stolen decades ago, when all the houses in the West End stood empty and abandoned. Still, the mantels can be replaced along with the crystal doorknobs and brass window cranks.
Last March, crackheads stole two potted ficus trees and a wrought-iron mailbox from the house across the street. The three of us—me, Rochelle, and my boyfriend, Dwayne—watched from my front porch. The porch is one of the best places in our house, despite the fact that it is not screened in. Our landlord let us keep the wicker patio furniture left by the previous tenants. There were two pieces, a love seat that could seat two people comfortably and three in a pinch and a high-backed throne that Rochelle called the Huey Newton Seat. At night we left the love seat on the porch, figuring that it was too bulky for crackheads to steal; but the Huey Newton Seat was stored in the living room when it wasn’t in use. “It’s a cultural antique,” Rochelle insisted. I told her that most people didn’t even remember who Huey Newton was, but she said that they would steal the chair anyway. It was like stealing a rare coin not because it’s rare, but because it’s a coin. It was a pain to haul the chair in at night — it was over five feet tall and the wicker was brittle with age. But Rochelle does what she wants.
Winter had just ended when my neighbor Cynthia and her cousin stole the Jewish guys’ mailbox and ficus trees. Dwayne and I had sat close and cozy on the love seat and Rochelle used the Huey Newton Seat. The day was cool, but the sun warmed our foreheads. It was the sort of afternoon that is hot and cold at the same time, letting us know that spring was ahead of us, but not quite allowing us to forget the winter behind. Rochelle and Dwayne had laughed as Cynthia, who lived three doors down, and her cousin dragged the dainty trees and their glazed pots down the repaved driveway. Dwayne said, “Remember the Alamo,” and this made us laugh. The mailbox was harder to steal. Together they tugged at the white post until it gave way, like a stubborn hunk of crabgrass. We laughed some more, now rooting against the taming and gentrification of our neighborhood. We delighted in the hardheaded nature of poverty, of a block that didn’t welcome change. We drank to Cynthia and her cousin, clicking the rims of plastic tumblers of lemonade, vodka, and ice.
So I’m not sure why I was stunned when I came home one May afternoon to find deep ruts in the soft wood around the dead bolt on my front door, the door itself hanging open just a bit, the way you do when you know company is coming and you don’t want them to bother to knock. Why did I stagger backward, a step or two from the opening, frightened and disbelieving at the same time, my eyes scanning the quiet road for a face that could explain things to me, straighten this whole thing out? Of course I knew that this wasn’t the safest of neighborhoods. My mother, who lives less than ten miles away but never visits, sends me news clippings snipped from the back pages of the Journal-Constitution, little news articles about rapes, murders, and drug busts in the West End. She keeps me informed so I will always be aware of how safe I am not. It wasn’t that I doubted the accuracy of the articles. Lying in bed, I often heard gunshots as distant as thunder and close as lightning. But I didn’t imagine that someone would one day dig out the locks on my door, rifle through my belongings, taking what they wanted, leaving the rest. This wasn’t supposed to happen to Rochelle and me.
We often joked that no one bothered us because everyone knew what we did for a living: nonprofit work at the Literacy Action and Resource Center. Even crackheads knew that there was no money in nonprofit. We’d borrowed this quip from Lawrence, our boss, who used the same rationale to explain why the Literacy Center—three miles away in Vine City — had never been vandalized, burglarized, or otherwise defaced. This, despite the fact that four homes on the block were boarded up, housing drug addicts and other vagrants. We really did believe that we were exempt from the crime in the area due to our vocation. Not because of our low wages, but because our neighbors understood that we were here trying to do something good. We taught people to read. Wasn’t that something that just about anyone could see was an honorable and decent way to spend one’s time?
I set my hand on the brass-plated doorknob, worn down to nickel from so many hands, too many twists. Then I curled my fingers back. What if someone was still inside? I tripped down the three crumbling stairs, dislodging clumps of old cement, and took a few steps to the jagged sidewalk. Where was the nearest pay phone? On the corner was a stump where a phone used to be. Across the street the Jewish men had installed a black iron fence with curlicues and other flourishes that kept people off their property. Along the border were knee-high hedges which, over time, would grow as high as the fence. It made sense to knock on their door, ask to use their phone, but somehow I didn’t want to admit to them what had happened.
Summer had come early this year. It was only the middle of May, but temperatures were in the high eighties and, if the weatherman could be believed, the humidity was seventy-four percent. My neighbor Cynthia sort of materialized in the thick air and moved toward me. She carried a canvas sack, the strap diagonal across her flat chest.
“What’s wrong with you?” Cynthia wanted to know when she reached me.
“Somebody broke in.” I worked to keep the whine out of my voice. No matter what had been going on inside my house, I knew that Cynthia had likely seen a lot worse. She was thin in the way that all crackheads are when they have been doing it a long time. Her forehead, blooming with white-topped acne, managed to be oily and ashen at the same time.
“You went in yet to see what all is missing? You called the police?”
“I didn’t want to go in. What if somebody is still in there?”
Cynthia said, “Don’t worry. They been gone.”
“You saw them?”
She nodded. “It was two men.”
“What did they look like?”
“Sort of regular,” she said.
I scanned her face to see if she was telling me the truth, but how was I to know what the truth looked like? My eyes kept drifting up from her yellowish eyes to her hair. It was straightened, held in place by hair gel that dried in great white flakes. But just over her ear, where Billie Holiday had pinned her gardenia, was a silver clip studded with pink and white rhinestones.
“That’s pretty,” I said. “Your barrette.”
“You want it?” she said, pulling it free.
I stared at it lying across the dark creases of her hand. Up close it wasn’t so nice. Many of the stones were missing, leaving dead rusty sockets.
“I’ll give it to you,” said Cynthia. “For two dollars.”
I patted my pockets. “I just have one dollar.”
“That will work,” she said. “You can give me the other one next time I see you.”
I held the dollar out to her, but she made no move to take it. The barrette bounced slightly in her vibrating palm. I plucked it from her hand. She, in her fast, noiseless way, covered my other hand in hers, almost caressing it before she slid the dollar bill from between my fingers.
“That’s a real nice hair bow,” she said. “Don’t forget about the rest of my money.” She raised her eyebrows and gave me a sympathy smile, just turning up the corners of her mouth without showing teeth. I looked back at my house, the front door still slightly ajar. From where I stood I could see that our two umbrellas were still stashed in the wire basket by the door. I slipped the heavy barrette into the pocket of my skirt and moved in the direction that Cynthia had gone. When I found a pay phone, I’d call Rochelle and tell her to come home. I’d call the police so they could write up a report. Then I’d call Dwayne and ask him to make things safe again.
Rochelle arrived first, having the shortest distance to travel. She’d been at work, bringing all the files up to date. She swung into the driveway, causing the gravel to jump like popcorn.
She hopped out of the car and trotted to where I sat on the curb. I almost gasped at the sight of her. Rochelle and I had been roommates for three years and we’d known each other since we were both eighteen. You’d think I’d be immune to her odd beauty, but her fantastic coloring — hair gone so gray that it was almost magnolia cream white and her deep brown skin — this was the sort of thing that you kept noticing over and over. My boyfriend, Dwayne, says Rochelle would be pretty if she weren’t so weird-looking, but I think that she wouldn’t be so pretty were she not so unusual.
“It wasn’t Cynthia,” I said.
“No,” Rochelle said, settling beside me on the hot curb. “Cynthia wouldn’t break into our house.”
“They say that the best way not to get robbed is to know your neighbors. People don’t rob people they know.”
Rochelle nodded, but we were both just parroting what we’d read in pamphlets about urban renewal. This was the kind of thing that we told our parents.
My mother had said, “Even if you form a relationship with the people on your street and they decide not to rape and murder you, what about the people on the next block over? They would slit your throat over a cup of purple Kool-Aid.”
“We can’t tell our parents,” I said.
“Depends on what’s missing,” Rochelle said. “Depending on what’s missing, we might have to tell them anyway.”
She was thinking of all the things she’d already bought in preparation for her wedding, namely her wedding dress — a voluminous crepe lisse affair, lush with gold thread and lace — which cost about as much as a decent used car. There were other items, the Baccarat bud vases and the china place settings that had already started arriving although the wedding was more than six months away.
“They wouldn’t take the dress. Burglars don’t steal clothes. They want electronics.”
“Aria,” Rochelle said, “we saw Cynthia and her cousin steal a goddamned mailbox.”
“I know,” I said, hoping to soothe her. “That was different. And anyway, Cynthia didn’t have anything to do with this.”
“Did you call the police?”
“Nine one one?”
“You know what Public Enemy said?” Rochelle asked with a smile.
“Nine one one is a joke?”
“No,” Rochelle said. “Crack killed applejack.”
“That wasn’t Public Enemy.”
“Well, whoever said it. That was way back when we were in high school. Do you think it’s getting any better?”
“I hope so,” I said.
The police came next. One guy in a blue and white Crown Vic. He instructed Rochelle and me to wait where we were while he made sure there was no one inside the house. I told him that Cynthia had seen two men leave. He wanted to know why Cynthia hadn’t called the police. “A neighborhood watch is supposed to do more than watch,” he said.
I shrugged, thinking of the afternoon that Rochelle, Dwayne, and I had just watched what happened to the home across the street.
It took less than ten minutes for the policeman to determine that the house was vacant.
“Is it in real bad shape?” Rochelle wanted to know.
“Is that your real hair color?” he said, reaching out to touch one of her silver dreadlocks.
Rochelle recoiled just slightly. I knew she didn’t like it when strangers felt licensed to touch her just because of her difference. The officer paused, but squeezed a hank of her hair between his fingers anyway.
“My hair’s been gray since I was a teenager,” she said.
“That’s a trip,” said the officer.
“What about the house?” I asked him.
“It looked okay to me,” he said. “Of course you are going to have to do a thorough look-see to know if anything is missing. But as far as I can tell, things seem undisturbed.”
A voice squawked out of his receiver, reminding me of the day of the accident. There were dogwood trees in our yard, but this time of year they just stood there leafy and benign.
We sat with him on the porch while he filled out paperwork. Rochelle signed on various dotted lines. As the policeman handed me the pink copy of the triplicate form, he stopped.
“You know who you look like?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”
“Penny, from Good Times. You look like Janet Jackson would look if she was a regular person.”
“Is that all?” Rochelle said, holding her hand out for the form.
He shrugged, moving all of his heavy equipment with his big shoulders. “You can go through and see what’s missing if you want. But really—your TV and stuff was all in there. Did you have more jewelry?”
He was looking at Rochelle’s engagement ring. It was somewhat smaller than a dime but plenty large enough to sparkle like a disco ball. She put her left hand behind her. “It’s just costume jewelry.”
The policeman chuckled. “You can save that lie for the crackheads.”
I gave him a careful smile and waited for him to leave.
Rochelle and I held hands as we crossed our threshold. The officer had been right. It didn’t look like anything was missing. The red, white, and blue Priority Mail boxes containing various wedding implements were still stacked against the living room walls. The small television still rested in the particleboard entertainment set, the VCR still attached.
“Do you want to look in your room first, or mine?” Rochelle said.
“Yours,” I said, understanding that there was much more at stake here for her than for me.
Her room was disorderly, but Rochelle was just that sort of person. I couldn’t say for sure if some burglar had left the drawers hanging open or if Rochelle herself had dumped the contents of her jewelry box onto her unmade bed. Rochelle regarded the tangle of silver necklaces and gold bracelets without reacting.
“Let’s open the closet,” she whispered.
“I’m sure it’s still there,” I said, although my heart was suddenly knocking in my throat. Of course it was still there. What I said earlier was true. No one forces their way into a house just to steal a wedding dress. And Cynthia had said expressly that the robbers were men. Only a woman would know the value of a wedding gown.
We stood in front of the door, still holding hands like girls on a field trip. “It’s there,” I said again.
“What if it’s not?” Rochelle said.
“It is,” I said, pulling open the door to the shallow closet.
When the doorknob cracked against the wall behind it, we both jumped.
“I see it,” I said to Rochelle. “It’s still there.”
She let go of my hand to touch a fold of creamy white silk. “Thank God. I was so scared.”
Moisture gathered in the corners of Rochelle’s eyes, but she rubbed it away with her shoulder. “I can’t believe I am crying about this.” She laughed a little bit. “It’s just a dress.”
I stretched my hand to stroke the dress too. I had been there with Rochelle and her mother when they found this gown, the one dress that satisfied them both. Opulent enough to suit Rochelle’s mother’s agenda, with the signature of Amsale, the Ethiopian designer, to calm Rochelle’s opposition to spending so much when people around us had so little. I was pleased enough to tag along, as a member of her wedding, the only bridesmaid. I’d been moved by each of the dresses that Rochelle tried on, whether they were strapless or high-necked, floor-dragging or tea-length. To me every wedding dress was gorgeous with promise.
I wasn’t jealous. This is true. I had regarded Rochelle’s wedding preparation as a sort of apprenticeship for myself. Hands-on training for my eventual jaunt down the aisle. I never believed then that it wouldn’t happen to me. There were some things that were promised to a person. Some things were your birthright. I was just waiting my turn.
“They came in here,” I said to Rochelle as soon as we stepped into my bedroom.
“Maybe not,” Rochelle said, taking her turn to re- assure me. “I bet nothing is missing.”
“That’s not the point,” I said, feeling suddenly ill. The nausea left me unsteady, like an overfull bowl of soup.
I didn’t own much that was of value to me, or to anyone else. What I do care about I keep in the top drawer of my nightstand. Seventeen monogrammed handkerchiefs, cheap cotton purchased at Zayre or Woolworth, one of those stores that have long since gone out of business. These were my father’s. The day after the accident, my mother gathered all his handkerchiefs in a basket for mourners to use and take away as souvenirs. Like personalized matchbooks from a wedding reception. I’d emptied the basket, stuffing them into the pockets of my gray wool coat. Also among my keepsakes was a mangy dust rag. Years ago, I’d been oiling my mother’s buffet when I noticed that the ragged scrap in my hand was a baby’s diaper. Maybe it had been mine, maybe Hermione’s, but I hope it was Genevieve’s. Under these items was the most personal of everything I’d saved: a cache of unsent letters I wrote to Hermione after watching The Color Purple three times in a single afternoon. The nightstand drawer was shut crooked on its tracks. Someone had opened it, fondled all my best things, and hadn’t found them to be worth stealing.
“I’m sick,” I said.
“Nothing’s missing,” Rochelle said. “Nothing’s missing.”
I sat carefully on my bed and willed myself to be completely still. I imagined the contents of my stomach roiling in waves, then settling, like water after a struggling swimmer has finally drowned. Rochelle’s hand was smooth and cool against my cheek.
Whoever had broken in had not bothered anything in the kitchen or bathroom. Rochelle’s prescriptions — some of which could be used recreationally, I supposed — were still in the medicine cabinet in their orange containers. The beer bottles still lined the refrigerator doors; the blue jug of vodka lay on its side in the freezer. Nothing was missing from my room either, though the drawers had been opened and the comforter pulled from the bed and heaped on the floor.
“It’s freaky,” Rochelle said. “Like they broke in just to look around.”
“It wasn’t Cynthia,” I said.
“No,” Rochelle said. “Nobody ever heard of crackheads breaking in without stealing anything.”
Without discussion we headed back onto the porch. I was a little bit scared, but more than that, I just didn’t like being in the room so recently occupied by a curious intruder. Despite Cynthia’s eyewitness account, the burglar in my mind’s eye was a woman, opening the jars and creams on the bathroom counter, sniffing, making a face. Mocking my choices and Rochelle’s. I thought that I could still smell her, that I caught a whiff of magnolia perfume.
“Sometimes I wonder what we were thinking when we moved in here,” Rochelle said, settling her narrow hips onto the Huey Newton Seat. “We’re not like these people, you know.”
“Maybe you’re not like them,” I said.
“Come on, Aria,” she said. “This isn’t a value judgment. Just an observation. You’re not like these people either. You didn’t grow up in a neighborhood like this.”
She was right. While I did grow up in Southwest Atlanta, this wasn’t my corner of that corner. My folks didn’t have money like Rochelle’s family, but I didn’t grow up in shouting distance of drug addicts. We had burglar bars on our windows, but they were the fancy kind, as much for decoration as for safety. The bars on windows here were metal and ugly, like braces on teeth. The house on Willow Street, the one we moved to after losing Daddy and the house on Bunnybrooke, didn’t have central air and there was no garage for our car, but the neighborhood was stable. People didn’t get killed. When someone broke a windowpane, they replaced it with new glass. No one taped plastic film over the hole, waiting for payday. But here on our block, entire houses stood empty, the windows secured with plywood, “No Trespassing” spray-painted in orange.
“I want a drink,” Rochelle said.
“We have vodka in the house.”
“If I don’t come out in five minutes,” she said, “come in and get me.”
She moved through the door in the way that she did things. She was unafraid, no matter what she had just said to me. Her kindness was like that. She didn’t want me to feel bad for feeling the way that I did. My sister Hermione had been that way when we were little. We had gone to the zoo together with our parents, each of us wearing yellow balloons looped to our wrists with cotton string. Somehow mine came untethered and floated upward, over the monkey house and the birdcages. When I began to cry, Hermione bit through her string, releasing her balloon as well. “Don’t cry,” she’d said. “I don’t have one either.”
Dwayne arrived just as Rochelle emerged from the house carrying a plastic pitcher of fruit punch and the frozen bottle of vodka. I was embarrassed at how pleased I was to see him. I hadn’t gone to Spelman just to grow into the sort of woman who feels all the tension drain from her body at the sight of her boyfriend’s car. It would have been better if I could have been more like Rochelle. She and Rod were in love definitely. Theirs was the sort of engagement of which everyone approved. Even Dwayne, who didn’t care too much for Rod, agreed they were made for each other. But Rochelle didn’t seem exactly grateful for Rod, the way I thanked God for Dwayne. My boyfriend was a large man, six feet four and solid in his oversized clothes. He was the type of man that made you just want to climb up and hide in his branches.
Rochelle seemed surprised to see Dwayne’s car at the curb.
“I called him,” I said. “You didn’t call Rod?”
“It is sort of Dwayne’s line of work,” I said, reminding her that there was a practical reason for him to be here. Dwayne is a locksmith and someone had just pried open our front door. Rochelle’s Rod was a nice guy, a dentist, the sort of man that any mother would embrace as a son-in-law. But he was only useful if you had a problem that originated inside your own mouth.
In a way, you could say that Dwayne is my first boyfriend. Not my first lover; I’ve slept with more men than I will easily admit. But Dwayne is the only man who had really claimed me. We’d only been going out for a month when he started referring to me as his “woman.” Rochelle laughed at this, saying it all seemed so “retro”; she and Rod called each other partners. But she couldn’t know what it means to me to be acknowledged in public like that. It’s been nearly a year and Dwayne has never come out and said that he loves me, but he doesn’t have to. More than one man has whispered those words to me, but none of them were telling the truth. When I speak, Dwayne stoops a little, angling his head downward, showing the world that he’s listening, that he cares what I have to say.
Climbing onto the porch, Dwayne gave me a quick kiss before looking at the damaged door or even saying hello to Rochelle. I smiled despite the situation as he knelt before the violated threshold.
“Shit,” Dwayne said. This was not the first time he had made a professional call to our house. Less than a month after I’d met him, I locked myself out of this same front door and he opened it with metal gadgets he stored in his glove compartment. He was so confident and competent inserting the silver prods, moving them this way and that, sweet-talking the door the way a farmer might murmur to a skittish cow. He talked to the lock, moving his fingers until it yielded.
On that day he had been pleased to be of service — our romance was still fairly new; we were still trying to impress one another, each of us eager to prove to the other that we could be useful. But now he seemed agitated. “It looks like somebody just got in here with a screwdriver. You can’t blame the lock. It’s a Baldwin.” At this he glanced over his shoulder at me.
I nodded. Dwayne had installed the brass-faced dead bolt himself.
“It’s the wood,” he explained. “A lock can’t be no better than the door you set it in. When is your lease up?”
“February,” Rochelle said. “Right after my wedding.”
“I can install you a four-inch dead bolt,” Dwayne said. “Maybe that’ll hold you over until then. February is what? Eight months away?”
I felt my pulse flutter at the very idea of measuring time in months, for there were dynamics to this situation of which Rochelle and Dwayne were unaware. Namely, that by February my own life would be different, my body too. I was almost three weeks late and had thrown up three times in four days. A person didn’t have to be an ob-gyn to know what that meant.
As I watched Dwayne rummage through his tool-box, I imagined myself telling him that we’d soon be parents. His face would be sober and serious, but then he’d look at me, searching my face for his cue. I’d give him a smile to let him know that it was okay to be happy, that this was a good thing. He might not say, right then, that he was excited, that he loved me, but there is more to life than what you do and don’t say to one another.
Dwayne removed the lock, leaving a clean hole in the door. “Rochelle, why don’t you just go and stay with Rod? He’s got a nice house.” Now Dwayne made eye contact with me. “And my apartment isn’t all that big, but I got a Medeco Grade One on my front door. Nobody can get past that.”
Again I felt my pulse move like something eager and excited.
“Is this a private moment?” Rochelle said. “I could go inside.”
“No, no,” Dwayne said. “I’m not trying to run you off. I’m just thinking aloud.” He slipped his screwdriver inside his collar to scratch his back. “I’m just talking. I know you two are determined to tough it out over here.”
I nodded yes and Dwayne turned his hurt face back to his work. I rose from the love seat and knelt beside him, my ring finger tracing the downy hairs at the base of his neck. When the time was right, once I had all the details from my doctor, I’d tell him my plan — I wanted to live here in the West End with Dwayne and the child that we would have by spring. He was convinced that our home had been broken into because of the neighborhood, but I knew the reason was that we were two women living alone. But if he lived here with me no one would force the lock, no matter how curious they were about what we kept in our drawers, no matter how much they thought they could get for our television set. We could live here and make a difference, be the kind of family profiled in the Sunday paper. Atlanta from the ashes and all of that.
Excerpted from The Untelling © Copyright 2012 by Tayari Jones. Reprinted with permission by Warner Books. All rights reserved.