Release date May 1, 2020
“Hey, Little Tea,” Hayward called as she and I sat crossed-legged on the north side of the verandah. “I bet I can beat you to the mailbox and back.” It was a Saturday afternoon in early June, and we’d spread the church section of the Como Panolian beneath us and positioned ourselves beneath one of the pair of box windows gracing either side of the front door. The front door was fully open, but its screen was latched to keep the bugs from funneling into the entrance hall. They’d be borne from the current of the verandah ceiling fans that stirred a humidity so pervasive and wilting, there was no escaping until the weather cooled in early November. The glass pitcher of sweet tea Elvita gave us sat opaque and sweating, reducing crescents of ice to weak bobbing smiles around a flaccid slice of lemon.
Little Tea stood to her full height at Hayward’s challenge, her hand on her hip, her oval eyes narrowed. “Go on with yourself,” she said to Hayward, which was Little Tea’s standard way of dismissal.
“I bet I can,” Hayward pressed, standing alongside Rufus, his two-year-old Redbone coonhound who shadowed him everywhere.
Little Tea took a mighty step forward. “And you best get that dog outta here ’fore he upends this here paint. Miss Shirley gone be pitching a fit you get paint on her verandah.”
“Then come race me,” Hayward persisted. “Rufus will follow me down the driveway. You just don’t want to race because I beat you the last time.”
“You beat me because you a cheat,” Little Tea snapped.
“She’s right, Hayward,” I said. “You took off first, I saw you.”
“It’s not my fault she’s slow on the trigger,” Hayward responded. “Little Tea hesitated, I just took the advantage.”
“I’ll be taking advantage now,” she stated, walking down the four brick steps to where Hayward and Rufus stood.
At ten years old, Little Tea was taller than me and almost as tall as Hayward. She had long, wire-thin limbs whose elegance belied their dependable strength, and a way of walking from an exaggerated lift of her knees that never disturbed her steady carriage. She was regal at every well-defined angle, with shoulders spanning twice the width of her tapered waist and a swan neck that pronounced her determined jaw.
Smiling, Hayward bounced on the balls of his feet, every inch of his lithe body coiled and ready to spring. There was no refusing Hayward’s smile, and he knew it. It was a thousand-watt pirate smile whose influence could create a domino effect through a crowd. I’d seen Hayward’s smile buckle the most resistant of moods; there was no turning away from its white-toothed, winsome source. When my brother smiled, he issued an invitation to the world to get the joke.
Typically, the whole world would.
“Celia, run fetch us a stick,” Little Tea directed, her feet scratching on the gravel driveway as she marched to the dusty quarter-mile stretch from our house to the mailbox on Old Panola road. I sprang from the verandah to the grass on the other side of the driveway and broke a long, sturdy twig from an oak branch. “Set it right here,” Little Tea pointed, and I placed it horizontally before her. But Rufus rushed upon the stick and brought it straight to Hayward, who rubbed his russet head and praised, “Good boy.”
“Even that dog of yours a cheat,” Little Tea said, but she, too, rubbed his head then replaced the stick on the ground. “Now come stand behind here. Celia’s going to give us a fair shake. We’ll run when she says run.” Her hands went to her hips. “Now what you gonna give me when I win?”
“The reward of pride and satisfaction,” Hayward said, and just then the screen door on the verandah flew wide and my brother John came sauntering out.
“On go,” I called from my position on the side of the driveway, where I hawkishly monitored the stick to catch a foot creeping forward. Looking from Hayward to Little Tea to make sure I had their attention, I used a steady cadence announcing, “Ready … set … go.”
Off the pair flew, dust scattering, arms flailing; off in airborne flight, side by side, until Little Tea broke loose and left Hayward paces behind. I could see their progression until the bend in the driveway obstructed my vision but had little doubt about what was happening. Little Tea was an anomaly in Como, Mississippi. She was the undisputed champion in our age group of the region’s track and field competition and was considered by everyone an athlete to watch, which is why Hayward continuously challenged her to practice. Presently, I saw the two walking toward me. Hayward had his arm around Little Tea’s shoulder, and I could see her head poised, listening as he chattered with vivid animation.
“You should have seen it,” Hayward breathlessly said when they reached me. “She beat me easily by three seconds—I looked at my watch.”
“Three seconds? That doesn’t seem like much,” I said.
“Listen Celia, a second is as good as a mile when you’re talking time. I’m two years older and a boy, so believe me, Little Tea’s already got the makings of a star athlete.” He grinned. “But we already knew this.”
John called from the verandah, “Celia, Mother’s looking for you.” I turned to see John walking to the front steps in his pressed khaki pants and leather loafers, his hand near his forehead shading his eyes.
“Where is she?” I returned.
“Inside, obviously. Last I saw her, she was in your room.”
For some odd reason, whenever my brother John had anything to say to me, he said it with condescension. His was a sneering, disapproving tone for no justification I could discern, beyond our six-year age difference. He was as hard on Hayward as he was on me, but Hayward never took John’s snide remarks personally, nor did he invest in what he called his holier-than-thou demeanor.
It didn’t take much to figure it out. From a young age, Hayward and I both knew he and John were two different kinds of men. Hayward once said to me, “John’s just a mama’s boy, which is why he calls Mom ‘Mother’ as if we’re living in Victorian England instead of Como, Mississippi. Don’t let him bother you. He has his own reality, that’s all.”
I skipped up the verandah’s steps and put my hand on the flimsy screen door.
“You should take that pitcher inside before you forget it,” John dictated, “and y’all need to pick up that paint.”
“I’ll get it in a minute,” I said, just to spite him as I stepped into the entrance hall. I couldn’t help it, it was my natural reflex in our ongoing contest of wills.
The light was always dim in the entrance hall, irrespective of the time of day. The carved crown molding on its high ceiling matched the dark walnut wood of the floor and door casings, which glowed in polished rosettes above the opening to the formal dining room on the right and the ample living room on the left, with the green-tiled solarium behind it. The entrance hall had a central catacomb feel and was always the coolest area of the house. In its cavernous elegance, footsteps were amplified on the maple floors during the months of June through September, then fell to a muted padding when Mom had Thelonious haul the crimson-and-navy runner from the attic and place it beneath the foyer’s round, centered table. At the end of the hall, behind the stairs, was my father’s den and attendant screened porch, but rarely did I visit the interior. My father was a private man, reclusive and solitary by nature, and whether he was in the library or not, the door was always shut. I had to skirt the gladiola arrangement on the entrance hall table. The floral design reached wide with flourishing arms toward the French credenzas against both sides of the walls. My reflection flashed in the ormolu mirror as I ran toward the stairs to find my mother. My hair crowned me with the color of night’s crescendo, dashing so dark it almost looked purple. I am 100 percent Wakefield in all that distinguishes the lineage, from the dark eyes and hair to the contrasting fair skin. There has never been a Wakefield to escape the familial nose; it is severe in impression, unambiguous in projection, straight as a line, and slightly flared. John and I are mirror images of each other, the yin and yang of the Wakefield, English bloodline. But Hayward was born golden, just like our mother, who comes from the Scottish Montgomerys, whose birthplace is Ayrshire. John and I possess an unfortunate atavistic Wakefield trait, though on me the black shadow is a ready silence, but on him it plays out as something sinister. John and I are individual variations of our father’s dark countenance, which is to say in our own way we are loners. People slightly removed. But Hayward got lucky, in possessing our mother’s shining essence. I could always see an internal light in their green eyes that set off their amber-colored hair.
I put my hand on the thick banister and climbed the stairs to the first landing, where my parents’ bedroom and living quarters unfurled like wings. The bay window overlooking the garden had its draperies drawn against the searing, silver sun. Walking into the sitting room at the right, I called for my mother, thinking she may be in the adjoining master bedroom. “I’m upstairs,” her voice descended. “Celia, come up. I want to see you.”
I mounted the stairs to the third-floor landing and found my mother perched lightly on the sofa in the alcove that served as a central area for the other four bedrooms. Behind her, sunlight filtered through the organza window treatments, highlighting the red in her hair. Her slender hands held a three-ringed binder of fabric swatches, the swatch on top a cool, blue toile. She patted the seat beside her and I settled softly. My mother was cultivated, circumspect, and radiated a porcelain femininity. Always, in my mother’s presence, I gentled myself to her calm self-possession. In my heart of hearts, it was my hope that the apple didn’t fall far from the proverbial tree.
“Tell me,” she said, “what do you think of this fabric for your draperies? We could paint the walls a light robin’s egg and put white on the molding. I think it’d be divine.” She looked around the room as if seeing it for the first time. “It’s time we got rid of the wallpaper in there. You’re growing up.” She laid her ivory hand on my cheek. “You’ll want this eventually. I think now’s a good time.”
I knew enough of my mother’s ways to know she was engaged in preamble. She was practiced at the art of delivery by discreet maneuver, and I suspected her impulse to transform my room had hidden meaning. “Why is now a good time?”
My mother looked in my eyes and spoke softly. “Celia, I’m telling you before I tell Hayward because I don’t want this to come from him. Your father’s going to be taking a job in Memphis, so we’ll be moving.”
“We’re moving to Memphis?” I gasped.
“Yes, honey. You’ll be starting school at Immaculate Conception in September,” she answered. “You know the school; its attendant to the big cathedral on Central Avenue.”
“But that’s a Catholic school, Mom. I thought we were Episcopalian.”
“We are, honey, but it’s highly rated academically. Your father and I think being exposed to a different religion will broaden your mind and give you beautiful advantages. We can come back here any weekend we want, and you’ll have a brand-new room when we do. You’ll have the best of both worlds, you’ll see. You’ll make new friends in Memphis, and Little Tea will still be here. It won’t be a drastic change at all. Try to think of it as an addition. There now, sweetie, don’t make that face. It isn’t the end of the world.”
But it was for me; Memphis intimidated me. Memphis was the big city compared to Como, and I found it cacophonous and unpredictable in its patchwork design. There was a disjointed, disharmonious feel to the city, what with its delineated racial relations. Parts of town were autocratic in their mainstay of Caucasian imperiousness and there were dilapidated, unlucky parts of town considered dangerous, which a white person never chanced. This much I’d learned on my visits to my grandparents’ house near the lake in Central Gardens. Blacks and whites never comingled in Memphis, even though they did coexist. But there was an impenetrable wall that separated the races, and I’d been raised in a footloose environment where it didn’t matter so much.
I took my teary eyes and sinking stomach to my bedroom so my mother wouldn’t see me cry. Through the window over the driveway, I watched as Hayward and Little Tea threw a stick for Rufus. I hadn’t the heart to run tell them our lives were about to end.