Authors: Diane Mckinney-Whetstone
To the memory of my sister,
Gloria S. Chase,
To the fulfillment of the dreams
of the next generation:
Taiwo Whetstone, Kehinde Whetstone,
Aaron Chase Keys, Gerald Paul McKinney Mars,
David Anthony Abrams II
The grand stone Victorian tried not to show off, even…
The sun was hanging way back in the sky all…
They didn’t hold Til long. She begged the pardon of…
The aunts and uncles did hire a lawyer, who strongly…
Five minutes bled into ten to fifteen to an hour.
They landed on the porch, three piles of plaid wool,…
Tyrone did stay for dinner and made much over the…
Sunday, and Ramona was up early making salt pork and…
Clarise was trying to come back to her right mind…
That Addison Street row house was calm for a change.
Ramona tried to push the petrified look on Shern’s face…
Blue’s sherry-induced euphoria of Sunday afternoon had lifted this Monday…
Perry pulled the shade up on his two-way mirror that…
Shern and Bliss walked faster than normal on their way…
Ramona wouldn’t be going to see the apartment tonight after…
Clarise was on the way back. More than a week…
While Shern and the reluctant Bliss were huddled in the…
The storm hit. After midnight it started with pretty, twirling…
At first Ramona thought that it was the spanking sound…
Ness, Blue, and Show made a circle around Til as…
Addison blinked hard to shut out the gray sky barrelling…
Ramona curled herself tighter in a ball on the girls’…
The girls slept through the rest of the storm on…
The news of the girls missing spread through West Philly…
Clarise was back. Not back in the physical sense, with…
Perry stood on Hettie’s porch and called to his son…
Mae’s house was jumping. Typical of house-cramming gatherings kindled by…
Ramona sat back against the smooth leather interior of Perry’s…
he grand stone Victorian tried not to show off, even though it survived that sudden March storm, stood tough while the roof caved in on the house next door, and the front palladian blew out in the one across the street; a half-dead pin oak died for real and crashed through the attic of the house on the corner. But this house blushed inside, still intact with an endless center hall and windows that stretched from the floors to heaven, waiting patiently for Clarise and the girls to get back home. Finally, after all they’d been through leading up to the mammoth March storm, they so deserved this house with its pervasive elegance. Understated, though. Because Clarise knew better than to have an ostentatious house.
Clarise had been raised by her two aunts and two uncles, brothers and sisters to one another, who
earned their living making exquisite bar soaps, coconut and honey, by hand. The four had never married and shared a tidy Queen Street row house on the other side of town from where the sturdy, blushing house stood. They dunked their lives into bringing up Clarise, their dead fifth sibling’s only child, and had exceptional taste: the uncles; and thick-knuckled attitudes: the aunts.
The sisters were tough, hardworking, ample-chested, husky-voiced women who didn’t believe in indulging the child. They both had Georgia-clay red complexions; both were tall for the generation of women born around 1900. And even while they were raising Clarise, through the 1930s and 1940s, and packaged meats had caught on in cities like Philadelphia, the sisters were the type who always bought their pork whole and fresh-killed from the waterfront, drained it, skinned it, hacked it into ham and rump and chops while the brothers and Clarise covered their eyes.
The brothers were soft, immaculate, and artistic; they kept spotless bureaus and chifforobes, played the melody harp, cooked like the French. Both were the color of ginger: one tall and thin, back straight as a paper birch; the other, short and round, no neck, built like a mushroom. They adored Clarise, and from the time she was a baby they would conjure up desserts and make like magicians, pretend as if the tapioca, her favorite, had just gathered itself together from the mist in the air and settled on the table in front of her. They had to sneak, though,
when the aunts weren’t around, who insisted that too many sweets would turn Clarise into a weak, crybaby type of child.
Clarise was tough in her own right, at least when it came to crying. She could will herself not to cry and shut down her tear ducts so that no fluid fell. She wasn’t so tough when it came to men, though. She would go weak for men from the time she blossomed into adolescence. Had to squeeze her thighs together so she wouldn’t let herself go wide open every time she got a whiff of Aqua DiSilva, or Old Spice original, or Noxzema aftershave. She’d been well trained though, by the aunts, who, tough and celibate as they were, understood a woman’s nature, had watched Clarise’s strong-natured mother die a hard death from female problems: a growth, a ruptured vessel, a massive bleed, according to the doctors; too many lying men with their tainted naked things getting too close to their trusting baby sister, according to the aunts. They told Clarise what to look for when her own nature came down. Told her to run like hell from any man who said, “Baby, I’m for real.” Told her she’d do well to marry young.
So when Clarise was sixteen going on seventeen, and graduated early from high school because she was smart and had been skipped a grade, and Finch was walking through the streets of Philadelphia, taking leave and his final pay from the merchant marine ship where he’d duly served as assistant cook, he saw Clarise in the cream-colored graduation dress that had been hand-sewn by the uncles
with beads at the top and layers and layers of voile. Clarise took note of Finch’s eyes, how they went liquid for her like brown gravy seeping down the curve of a rump roast; she knew then he was the one she would marry even before he tried to woo her with his financial worth. He’d flash a wad of bills, lick his index finger before he peeled off the dollars to pay for their drinks at the Showboat.
But Clarise knew it was all for effect. The sailors whose ships always docked at the navy yard made similar spectacles of their earnings. Even when she was a child walking through the streets of downtown, she’d watched them, pausing before they went into the penny arcade, or Horn & Hardart, or McCrory’s dime store. They’d heist their pants up higher on their waists before digging deep in their pockets to bring up a mound of paper money. And if Clarise appeared even minutely impressed, she’d feel her aunt Til tug her arm. “Man with real money doesn’t flash it in public for all to see,” her aunt would say.
So even though Finch tried to show off his money, which Clarise knew meant that he was broke as a grasshopper in the snow, she sensed that he was the type to turn a dollar into twenty time and again. It wasn’t just the way he puffed his cigars and mashed his feet flat into the earth when he walked or the way he’d slap the backs of the men in the clubs, with a gregarious authority; it was the way the air smelled around him. Clarise had a heightened olfactory sense that revealed more about a person or
thing to her than her eyes could see. And whenever she stood within two feet of Finch, no matter how much his Old Spice tried to get in the way, she detected the unmistakably crisp scent of heavily inked, fresh-cut, new paper money.
Plus Finch was dark, meant the children they’d have together would have some color. She herself didn’t have much color. Her father was rumored to have been an Italian from the other block of Queen Street, so Clarise had an odd look: skin color like the shell of an egg when it wasn’t quite a brown egg, but not a white egg either; eyes the tint of a dusty gray dawn; long silky hair that went bushy when it was humid out; well-defined nose; nicely padded lips. She was often teased about her look. Would run home after school and stand straight as a board in front of the aunts, hold her tears like she was trying to keep from wetting herself. “They called me a half-white African,” she’d say.
“You tell them you as white and as African as their mommas,” her aunt Til would say.
“They called me shit-colored,” she’d say.
“You tell them shit comes in all colors, even black like their mommas,” her other aunt, Ness, would say.
The aunts helped Clarise to be tough and un-flinchable in the face of hurtful childhood insults. They knew firsthand the starchy taste of persistent teasing. Spinsters, they’d been called; old maids, hags, he-women, funny honeys. Had to teach their baby sister, Clarise’s mother, how to hurl the insults
right back when she’d come home crying, telling the aunts the names they’d been called. So they were expert when it came time to help Clarise become a master at quick comebacks to the assaults on her strange looks. Soon the other children were so terrified of Clarise’s ability to string words together like beads on a necklace, wrap them around some child’s neck, and send that child home crying and choking, they promptly stopped calling her half-breed, mulatto, massa’s child, witch’s nose. And even though her odd look as a child metamorphosed itself into an exotic form of beauty when she became a teen, she didn’t want her own children to tote the barge of her childhood looks. She knew Finch would dilute her looks in their children and give them thick, pressable hair and earthy-toned complexions. Not only was he dark brown, but he had very nonextreme looks: a normally round face, a typically short nose, eyes and lips that were neither large nor small. Plus he had nice, amply sized legs, an appetite like a country preacher, and his very chest expanded when he looked at Clarise, as if he were saying, “Right here, pretty baby, lay your head right here,” meant she wouldn’t have to worry about dying young like her mother did from the tainted, naked parts of lying men.
When the time came for Clarise to sneak out of the window on the Queen Street row house and spare her dear aunts and uncles the expense of a wedding, she wrote two letters. She’d had to write
only two letters because she’d known no other family, no grandparents, no cousins. One letter she left in the shed where the aunts cured their ham; she thanked them for advising her so well. The other letter she propped next to the uncles’ lead crystal sugar bowl in the center of the breakfast-room table; she wrote how much she’d miss their tapioca and begged them not to cry. Then she climbed out of the dining-room window into the alley that smelled of honeysuckle and bleach mixing well with Finch’s Colgate aftershave.
Finch stood there wide-backed, flat-footed, trying not to sneeze. He lit up the alley he was beaming so, and patting his breast pocket that held their bus tickets to Elkton, Maryland, where the justice of the peace was, and then to Atlantic City to the Cliveden Hotel on Kentucky Avenue for their honeymoon.
he aunts knew the very second Clarise snuck away from their home. Ness, the younger, softer sister, sat straight up in her bed when she heard the hushed giggles before they evaporated into the alley like blowing bubbles. She called across the room. “Til,” she said. “Til, she’s gone.”
“We knew it was coming,” Til said.
“But he’s a poor man, Til.”
“What colored man isn’t?”
“Daddy’s dead. Whole breed of colored men like
Daddy gone to glory. Probably looking down and shaking their heads at lesser versions of themselves that don’t even own a pot to piss in.”
“You think this Finch will do right by our girl, Til?”
“We did right by her.”
“Lord, yes, we did.”
“And she knows not to settle for less than what’s she’s used to.”
“Pray, pray she knows it.”
“Well, well. Thank you, Sister, she is strong.”
“And we got her inheritance stitched between the mattress springs should they really fall on hard times.”
“I’m so thankful, Jesus.”
“And our hacking knives stay sharp if he turns out to be the mistreating kind.”
“You a mess, Til, a natural mess.”
They laughed easy laughs, and then the air got stilted, as they both realized at the same instant it seemed the startling truth to Til’s words: how Til had almost made two separate spheres out of Line ’Em Up Larry’s face who’d lurked around after Clarise’s mother died, insisting that the toddler Clarise was his child and he’d come to claim her, to take her to live with his sister, Vie, and him on Bainbridge Street.
Til told him he was either crazy or drunk. Anybody could look at Clarise and see she was no seed of his, black as he was, blacker than pitch tar, plus everybody knew his pecker had been crushed long
before that short spell when he took up with Clarise’s mother, when he jumped bad with the Irish during the union riots and they crashed him in his middle with a fifty-pound bag of sand, so he just better keep his black ass away from their house. He didn’t heed Til, though. Came back again, talking about “my child, I’m here for my child, me and my sister, Vie, gonna raise my child.” And Til told him to just wait right there, she was gonna split him in half. He waited. That became a family joke between the brothers and sisters. If they were talking in superlatives about how stupid somebody was, they’d sum it up with “He’s stupid enough to wait in the living room while Til goes to get her sharpest hacking knife to split his head in two; in fact, if there’s anybody else around, he organizes a line and claims his spot at the head.” Line ’Em Up Larry survived, but that didn’t stop two burly detectives from arresting Til and charging her with attempted murder, spurred on by Larry’s sister, Vie, who boasted connections at City Hall, said she’d see Til under the jail. Til was found guilty but only slapped on the wrist with a suspended sentence since Larry’s sister was only a low-level clerk down at Family Court.
“Ness,” Til said, after they had both breathed and sighed and stirred up the bedroom air with remembrances of Til’s fight to protect their baby niece, “you getting ready to cry, aren’t you, Ness? I can hear it in your breathing.”
“I am. Won’t deny it. I’m just gonna miss our girl so.”
“And you thinking about her mother, right, Ness?”
“How can I not think about Baby Sis at a time like this and the painful ending to her too-short life?”
“Clarise will have a better ending, Ness. But you go ahead then. Go ahead and cry. Just don’t let Brother and Brother hear you. As it is, we gonna be wiping up their spilt tears for the next week once they realize our girl went and eloped.”
“All right, Til. Stop talking then. Just let me cry, and while I’m crying, I’m gonna pray for the peace and love of their union, and for their prosperity; I’m praying real hard for their prosperity.”
larise’s aunt Ness wasn’t the only one praying for their prosperity. Finch had moneymaking on his mind from the start of their holy matrimony. Clarise’s type of beauty begged for mink and silk. But before he thought about such large-scale purchases, he knew he’d want to keep her in sheer, lacy nightgowns. He’d noticed right away after he’d carried her over the threshold of their honeymoon hotel on Kentucky Avenue in Atlantic City and she’d unpacked the quality tweed suitcase that belonged to the uncles, there was only one fancy nightgown. Lord have Mercy, he thought, she’ll leave me for some other cat if I can’t keep her in good lingerie. He could hardly concentrate on satisfying her ap
petites that night thinking about that nightgown. She’d teased him so, played peekaboo and hide-and-seek with her one nightgown before she’d let him poke his fingers through the holes the lace made.
Finch just lay there staring at the ceiling that entire night while Clarise snored softly against his chest and lightly ground her teeth. Instead of counting sheep, Finch ticked off the mammoth hidden costs of having such a beautiful bride. In addition to nightgowns, there would be fine nylons, imported scents, luxurious skin creams, manicures, and pedicures, and even though he loved her hair when it went soft and bushy and looked like cotton candy, felt like it too when it bounced all up and down his chest to the rhythm of her body working his manhood like it had never been worked before, he knew she’d want to get that cotton candy hair pressed out on a regular basis, and not at someone’s kitchen table either; she warranted the finest, full-service salons.