Pushkin and the Queen of Spades: A Novel

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Windsor Armstrong is a polished, Harvard-educated African American professor of Russian literature. Her son, Pushkin X, is an exceedingly famous pro football player, an achievement that impresses his mother not at all. Even more distressing, however, her beloved son has just become engaged to a gorgeous white Russian ?migr? who also happens to be a lap dancer.
For Windsor this predicament is no laughing matter. Determined to get to the bottom of it, she embarks on a journey into...

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Overview

Windsor Armstrong is a polished, Harvard-educated African American professor of Russian literature. Her son, Pushkin X, is an exceedingly famous pro football player, an achievement that impresses his mother not at all. Even more distressing, however, her beloved son has just become engaged to a gorgeous white Russian émigré who also happens to be a lap dancer.
For Windsor this predicament is no laughing matter. Determined to get to the bottom of it, she embarks on a journey into her own rich past: to her Motown childhood, where the Temptations danced across the stage and love came disguised as a sharply dressed gangster; to Harvard, where she endured the humiliation of being an unwed black teen mother; to St. Petersburg, where the verses of the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, great-grandson of an African slave, moved through her head as she made love to her own white Russian. The urge to protect her son has been Windsor’s only goal, but as she draws ever closer to the secret that has cast a shadow over her life, the identity of her son's father, she discovers that the half-lies she has fed her boy don’t add up to the beauty of the truth.
Balancing sharp-witted humor with profundity, sexiness with psychological depth, this is an exhilarating ride straight through the racially divided heart of contemporary America , which also probes the universal question of what it means to be a good mother. Pushkin and the Queen of Spades is a provocative, enormously entertaining novel that will change the landscape of literary fiction.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An utterly different, impressively original novel of ideas."—Ben Dickinson Elle

"Her Margaret Mitchell parody kicked up a firestorm. Now she returns with a bold new novel."—Troy Patterson Entertainment Weekly

"Randall lays bare racism and class consciousness (both black and white) with ruthless wit and riveting style."—Cathleen Medwick O, The Oprah Magazine

“[Alice Randall’s] new novel is an impassioned aria . . . stunningly gutsy, literate and original.”—Heller McAlpin Los Angeles Times

"Linguistically exuberant . . . The heart of the tale is in the lyricism of the telling."—Darryl Lorenzo Wellington The Washington Post

"Randall is a marvelous writer. . . . Pushkin and the Queen of Spades is a perfect book-club selection."—Rebecca L. Ford The Chicago Tribune

“Randall’s novel is encyclopedic in its forms, stories, and range of emotions. . . . [Her] characters live and tell amazing stories.”—Mary A. McCay, chairwoman of the Loyola University English department, The Times-Picayune

"Unyielding in its intensity. . . . this is intentionally provocative stuff, designed to open your eyes and make your heart burn.”—Barbara Lloyd McMichael Seattle Times/Post-Intelligencer

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington
Alice Randall gives us a character (and Windsor Armstrong is a great character), a situation, a pulse, a sense of the contradictions that life involves. The book isn't overwhelmed by the urgency to say something pithy, corrective and unequivocal. Better a fictional character's fumbling contradictions than unrealistic, arrogant or badly thought out answers. The story of Windsor Armstrong and Pushkin X humanizes the issues, and that in turn humanizes the reader.
The Washington Post
Library Journal
Randall's controversial first novel, The Wind Done Gone, a retelling of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind from the African American perspective, established her as a writer able to use great literature to create new, racially charged narratives. The story line here is equally promising: Windsor, a Harvard-educated, Afro-Russian scholar, was raped at 18 and elected to keep her son, Pushkin, named after the Russian poet and playwright of mixed-race heritage. Pushkin, now a famous football player, is about to be married to a white Russian lap dancer. Disappointed and confused, Windsor goes over her life, trying to ascertain where she went wrong. Randall's narrator jumps back and forth in time, and long stretches of the story become confusing at best, boring at worst. A chapter-long poem near the book's end is simply embarrassing, and the finale seems tacked on. Despite its many flaws, this novel, read by Lisa Rene Pitts, has much to offer and several memorable moments. Recommended for most public libraries.-Rochelle Ratner, formerly with Soho Weekly News, New York Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Black mother with a singular case of the blues. But Windsor Armstrong is not just any single mom: she's a Harvard-educated professor of Afro-Russian literature who got her doctorate from the University of London and has tenure at Vanderbilt University. Her only son is a star football player named Pushkin X (in case anyone doesn't know it, the great-grandfather of the Russian poet was black). Her Pushkin loves a lap-dancer named Tanya, a Russian emigre who is most definitely white. Windsor just can't help second-guessing her decisions: Should she have left her boy in someone else's care while she was getting a first-class education? And why does Pushkin have to ask a lot of nosey questions about who his daddy was? Can't he accept that Windsor was both his mama and his daddy and let it go at that? (No.) It's high time he understood his history-and in the process of bringing that understanding about, Windsor comes to terms with her own history. This includes, for no particular reason, an excruciatingly long doggerel poem: The Negro of Peter the Great, in which "Russia" is forced to rhyme with "the czar, would he cuss ya?" Randall, who ignited a brief media firestorm and legal battle when she dared reinvent Gone With the Wind from a black perspective as The Wind Done Gone (2001), founders in her second outing: literary references, cultural allusions, and snippets of black and white history are crammed into the narrative in a way that doesn't make much sense. The result: an intellectual's card game of 52-Pickup. Striking cover, scattershot prose. Not quite a novel, and not quite anything else either. Author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618433605
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 5/4/2004
  • Edition description: None
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Alice Randall was born in Detroit and graduated from Harvard in 1981. After a start as a journalist in Washington, D.C., she moved to Nashville to become a country songwriter. The only African-American woman ever to write a number-one country song, she has had more than twenty songs recorded. She is also a screenwriter and has worked on adaptations of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Parting the Waters, and Brer Rabbit. Alice Randall is the author of The Wind Done Gone. She was awarded the Free Spirit Award in 2001 and the Literature Award of Excellence by the Memphis Black Writers Conference in 2002, and she was a finalist for the NAACP Image Award in 2002. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Look what they done to my boy!

I want to say it, too. Pushkin strides across the screen of the television.
There is a television in my corner bar, one of the 219 million in America, and he’s up there on its screen. He’s a football player.
He’s a freak of nature. His hands are immense. His heartbeats are few. Fifty million people have watched him on a single Monday night. He has given a Russian girl a diamond ring. He means to get married. My son is a football player engaged to a Russian-born lap dancer, a girl named Tanya who danced at a club called Mons Venus.
There is a God and he’s punishing me. This much bad luck cannot happen by accident.

I have walked down to the corner to drink and disappear. It should be easy. A black woman in a hillbilly bar vanishes into the shadows of irrelevancy, especially when she wears preppy clothes.
It’s third and long. I’ve got to make something happen. I’ve seen too many wins and too many losses not to know.

I bought the beige dress; I will bite my tongue. Got me three fingers of Cutty Sark and half a Valium. My sweet son, my only-born one, is to be wed. I’ve got everything in the world but an invitation.
So here I am in Babylon on the Cumberland, trying to wish I’d never borne him. Professors of Russian literature do not spawn football players. Their sons do not marry lap dancers. And when they do . . . the professor is invited. It belongs to the professor, it belongs to me, to decline. I am a professor of Russian literature; she is a lap dancer. If I had stayed invited, I would not have gone. But I am no longer invited—the invitation has been rescinded. Pushkin’s enormous sable hand reached across a table and snatched it back.
After all I have done, I should have slapped his face. How many other women would have carried their pregnant eighteen-year-old selves all around Harvard? Every other woman I know would have aborted his unborn ass. Other mothers have only to say, “I changed your dirty, dirty drawers,” or “I sent you to the best schools in this country,” and their sons do what they want them to do. I can make both of those claims in both those languages. Why won’t he do right? Why doesn’t he comply? I could kill him.

I sound just like my daddy when I say that. I want to go very Marvin Gaye’s father on Pushkin. I’m crazy like my mother when I feel that, but I’d kill myself before I would hurt him. That’s a promise I made before he was born, a promise I have every intention of keeping. He can’t imagine that. If he could, he would stop telling me how much I am hurting him. I can’t listen anymore. I’m the mama and I know what is best. I know he doesn’t need to know who his daddy is and he probably shouldn’t be marrying a white girl. That’s what I know. When did he stop listening to me?

My grandmother could throw a book across a room at her sixfoot- tall sons, my father and his brothers, and they didn’t dare move.
They would let the book fly right toward their faces just because their mama had said, “Don’t make me go upside your head.” They respected her. They trusted her aim. They did what she wanted them to do till the day she died. Pushkin’s little white girl has provoked me to remember that black mother and what she was due and how sweet a black family can be, just in time for me to lose mine—again. I can’t stand to lose it twice.

Tanya’s very existence is cruelty. Thin—you see the daylight between her thighs when she stands; tall—enough to look him straight in the face; and pale—there is a preternatural whiteness to her hair, a queer mixture of yellow and silver and white. Tanya is striking. Even at twenty-two, she is not a girl. She’s one of those big-breasted, narrow- hipped waifish Amazons seldom found in nature. Gabriel teases me about Tanya’s breasts. He says if I had breast-fed his stepson, I would not be in this predicament. It’s hard not to laugh, but I manage.
That Pushkin would, or could, love Tanya, I experience as untenable, if unintended, sadism. That I could, or would, feel this way about his beloved, Pushkin experiences as unimaginable, if unassailable, proof of my insanity, or as a vestige of archaic, banal racism.

No: he feels something blunter, that I’m a racist bitch. I had imagined many brides for Pushkin. Not one of them resembled this creature, which, adding insult to oft-counted injury, is called Tanya. She cannot be named Tanya. She will not be called Tanya. It is too unfortunate.

Once upon a time a long time ago, broken straight through the center of my heart, soft violet tattooing tender parts, I let my brain be me. When I took my seat in a white-painted chair, flaking and cracking, to rock infant Pushkin, slung over my shoulder like a sacck of sugar, reciting equations—six plus six is twelve, fourteen minus two is twelve, three times four is twelve, two plus two plus eight is twelve, twenty-four ddivided by two issss twelve—did I know as I rocked and spoke on the beat that he was sucking in the patter of crazy truth?
There are many expressions of the same quantity, many identities for the very same number. Struggling to achieve some simple understanding of the nature of number kept me afloat, simple computations of small sums, a way to say, “Brain, don’t fail me, now.” A way to say, “The number man can.” A way for the brain to gratify equals reassurance. And now, so many years later, when I am mama to a boy any other mama would be proud of, my brain has failed me.
I love Pushkin like the moon loves the tide. Everybody heard me say, I love Pushkin. I said it over and over. I say, “I love Pushkin more than the moon loves the stars above.”

I speak that way, in superlatives ending in prepositions. These are not the flaws that matter. I would like to write that I used to say, “I loved Pushkin like the tide loved the moon.” But what I said was something with competition in it. Pushkin’s got competition in him.
Maybe that’s a good thing. For the most part, I can’t help but think it’s petty use Pushkin has put to my ambition.

I love Pushkin. He doesn’t believe that anymore. He has equated my rejection of Tanya with a rejection of him, equated my telling him who his father is with love. I won’t accept and I can’t tell. These are the flaws that matter.

The last time I said, “I love Pushkin like the moon loves the stars above,” Pushkin made a joke of it. He said, “But we don’t know if that’s Pushkin your son or Pushkin the poet. Maybe it’s just Pushkin the town, where, quiet as it’s kept, you kissed some white lips of your own, that you love.”

• • •

My meal arrives. It is the plate of food I always order when I eat in this place—grilled cheese sandwich, French fries, a cup of black coffee, and a Cutty Sark. There are twenty-seven fries.

Sometimes I need to eat a strip of potato fried in grease. It’s the oldest ritual known to me to which I still hold. Sitting in Nashville, slowly inserting the hot snack into my mouth, I can be in all my towns—Motown, D.C., Petersburg, Cambridge, and Music City—at the same time.

Everybody always leaves me very much alone. Which leaves me time to think.

There is a question I’ve got to ask myself. I don’t know what the question is, but I know there’s a question. After the second shot of Cutty Sark, I know what it’s got to be. I need to say, “Self, what the fuck is wrong with me?”

I hear Pushkin saying, “Moms, you all right.” They say in the South all the mother of the groom has to do is wear beige and bite her tongue. That is not true for this mother. I am not right. But I am trying to be. I am trying to be right in time for you. It is a week before your wedding. I am trying to get myself ready. Trying both ways I know. I’m going to write my way in or shoot my way out.

I’ve got a present for you. A manuscript. If you come to see me before your wedding, you’ll get it. If you don’t, I’m going to set a match to all my pages wrapped up in leather and ribbons.
I’m trying to figure out if there’s something I want to accuse you of, confess to, or apologize for. I know this: I don’t want to injure you and I don’t want to lose you. I would rather injure or lose myself.
Last week I purchased a gun, something very much like the gun the poet Pushkin used in the duel that ended his life. The man who sold it to me was pleased it was going to a significant Pushkin scholar. I am not a significant Pushkin scholar. I am a scholar of the significance of the shadow of Pushkin on his darker brothers and sisters in the United States. Pushkin is the great Afro-Russian, and I am the scholar of Afro-Russianness.

How does a black mother tell a black child the facts of life, when they are so often so poisonous? How did the poet Pushkin’s dusky mother do it? Can anecdote be some kind of antidote? Is intellectualism some kind of balm? Or do we all just lie till the day we die?

“Truth,” says my mother-in-law, “is a peculiarly risky proposition for a black mother.” She states my case exactly. But then she adds something: “A boy requires protection. A man requires truth.” Maybe that’s why so many black mothers seek to keep their sons as babies. Yet again I am guilty of a stereotypical sin.

I’m eating a lot of French fries these days. Precisely 204 in the last week. I’m going to get too fat to get into my size-eight beige dress. Rose will have to let it out.

A hundred years ago, in 1903,W.E.B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois was the first African American to graduate from Harvard with a Ph.D. and the first person, white or black, to have his book published in the Harvard historical series. Before Pushkin had his first real date, I purchased a first edition to give him as a wedding present. I bought my Souls at auction in New York. Nestling the ebony- covered tome with gold lettering away in one of my cupboards, I felt comforted, knowing we would never starve. If robbers came, they wouldn’t recognize the value of the volume. They would snatch up whatever little cash, electronics, and jewelry they found, leaving our treasure untouched and invisible to avaricious eyes. If flames came, I could catch Pushkin by the hand, tuck Pushkin’s patrimony under my arm, and get away clean. Spending that particular four thousand dollars made me feel safe. I had acquired what I understood to be a kind of permanent portable shelter, an umbrella of brilliant blackness for us to rest under.

I didn’t wait for your wedding. Or maybe I did. Maybe you married the NFL. I gave you the book just after your draft day.
That was a mistake.

Earlier this year, around Christmas, when I was still in and out of Pushkin’s house, I found that first edition of Souls on a shelf in his library.
It was stamped all over with pale faded rings from where it had been used as a coaster.

What I held up as a roof above us, the dignity of negritude, Pushkin understands as a barricade between us, the vainer trappings of the niggerati. Up to now I have craved the shelter more than I have feared the barricade.

If my head, if Pushkin’s mama’s head, is bloody and muddled now, maybe it’s because I’ve been bashing it up against the stony monument I have raised in my mind to Du Bois.

Du Bois received his A.B. from Harvard in 1890; I received mine from Harvard in 1981. Pushkin was admitted to Harvard, but he didn’t enroll. He went to Michigan. He played Michigan college football. That means something. I don’t know what it means. I just know this: he doesn’t share my memories. Pushkin hates Harvard; now Pushkin hates me.

Pushkin X. What is naming him for the best black brain and the fiercest black heart about?

Superlatives ending in prepositions again. I used to tell Pushkin the joke about the Negro student from way down South who made his way to Harvard. Push used to like to hear me tell it. First day of school, this student be looking for a li-bear-ee! Wide-ner Lie-bearee.
It’s the first time in Cambridge for this dark boy. He notices a blue-eyed, smart-looking chap. Our dark boy thinks “chap.”Walking across the campus paths spins thoughts of This Side of Paradise and Scott Fitzgerald into his mind. Our Negro student observes to himself, “That chap looks like he know where he be going. He look like he could be a friend.” Our night-bright son from way down South thinks this thought because he comes from a place so broken, the best friends he has are Nick and Jay from Gatsby. So he thinks “chap,” says “chap.” Says it right out loud because he stands six feet and five inches. Says it even if Jay was a gangster, or because Jay was a gangster, and especially because he was a gorgeous and doomed gangster.

At this point in the story, about the time Push was eight, I would always say, “Folks from way down South love the gorgeous and the doomed.” Then Push would embellish: “Particularly folks from our family, who were ever so beautiful and refuse to be damned.” Then my boy would wait for me to recommence with the telling, and I would start back to talking, looking right into Pushkin’s night-dark eyes. “So the brilliant Negro boy asked, ‘Where’s the li-bear-ee at?’ by way of introducing himself. And the golden blond boy, who had not read his Fitzgerald—this being nineteen sixty-three or four and Fitzgerald having fallen out of fashion with, and having yet to be rediscovered by, the academy—this sky-eyed Exonian who had been far too busy to be bored and thus had had no need to read every book in the local public Carnegie Li-bear-ee shelves, this new true-blueblooded Cambridge denizen, responded with patronizing grace, “At Harvard we do not end sentences in prepositions.” And the colored boy said, “I fix that right quick. Where’s the li-bear-ee at, asshole?”

After these words we would both laugh, my boy and I. And my boy, who I thought would never end his sentences in prepositions, learned to tell this story when his voice was still pitched high. His voice would run over and above mine and we would laugh. I loved him then. Or did I love my ambition in him? Or did I love knowing he would never make my mistakes?

So now he makes his own. Pushkin ’n’ Tanya. She says she comes from Pushkin the village. I don’t believe it. But life plots elegantly.
Maybe it’s true.

And maybe Sven Andersson was killed by a hit-and-run driver who didn’t know his name. And maybe somebody nailed forty dollars to a dope-house door.

Once I was the Negro student at Harvard. I lived there in the shelter of the shadow of W.E.B. Du Bois. I have loved Du Bois a good long while. Loved him like I love a man in whose arms I have frolicked.
Loved him almost like I love Gabriel Michael, my atheist husband named for two angels. Du Bois would have understood this. In his essay “Of the Training of Black Men,” he concludes, if I remember correctly, “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls.”

Observe one of the little-recognized habits of the oft-unrecognized African American intellectual—the making of friendships across the chasm of death, particularly the friendship of authors, especially white authors. Somehow friendships with dead white poets and novelists and theologians feel less disloyal than friendships with living ones. I shared with Pushkin my passion for Emily Dickinson.
Have I disclosed that once upon a time I considered Emily to be one of my very best friends? Did my love of Emily somehow prepare Pushkin to love Tanya?

Clearly, this subject is deranging me.

Pushkin, Harvard was the world I wanted for you, because it was the safest world my mind could imagine. Carrying you inside me, I had time to contemplate the reality: the world wasn’t very safe. I limped into Harvard and across the Yard as into my own particular Bethlehem, out of my own peculiar Egypt. Harvard was my havenhome.
How soon I would lay the baby in the manger! I read, and read again, the course catalogue. It became for me a sacred text.
Knowledge not included in the curriculum of Harvard University would not exist. I was careful not to taste any of the offerings of the psychology department.

So much to learn, so much to forget. So much of what I knew no longer existed. So little of who I was found reflection in the books and lawns of this new place—and that was a good thing.
And if I lost something to be valued in all that shedding, as I moved from D.C. to Cambridge, then it was nothing I valued. I was all about amputation and amnesia. Every loss was an unburdening that transformed survival from a possibility into a probability. Nothing not taught at Harvard was real.

I would be black and I would be brilliant and I would be safe. You would be black and you would be brilliant and you would be safe.We could live in an ebony tower. Harvard would help and we would do the rest. Facts not taught at Harvard did not exist. That is the lie that sustained me.

My bar and my house are both in South Nashville, near Vanderbilt.
Fisk is across town, in North Nashville. More and more these days, I find myself lost on the Fisk campus. I walk across the lawn in the afternoon light and stand in front of the statue of W.E.B. Du Bois erected opposite Jubilee Hall. It’s a sturdy work of art brought into being by a man who once upon a time cut my husband’s hair. Contemplating this likeness of Du Bois (created by an artisan who trained himself to harness volume by shaping the kink on the heads of future lawyers and doctors, Fisk and Meharry men, the curls on the heads of plumbers and electricians, and the lamby-wool crowning the heads of valets and chauffeurs), I am in awe of the artist who groomed and celebrated every head presented to him. I look at the sculpture of Du Bois and I feel joy. I remember the stocky presence of genius undeterred. Du Bois stands alone in his jacket with his books, striding, presiding over the campus in death as in life.
He is engaged with me.

I have also stood in front of the statue of John Harvard. I have a picture of my sister, Diana, and me standing there below John Harvard’s feet. We are smiling, wearing graduation gowns and mortarboards.
John Harvard is above us in a chair. The base of the statue is tall, taller than the statue itself. The base is of some light stone. It is rectangularly cut. The word Harvard is simply carved across the front. Atop this base is a bronze figure of a man in stockings and breeches, in some kind of waistcoat with some kind of gown, perhaps his academic gown, open and flowing. On his right knee is an open book. His left hand looks as if it were about to reach into his pocket, if he had such a thing. There are marvelous pompoms or bows, large and frilly, atop each of his shoes. Amid the busyness of the Yard, this is a statue of John Harvard at rest. His resolute, regular features with their refined, masculine bone structure are in repose as he looks up from his book. I have stood at John Harvard’s feet. I have eaten at his table, slept beneath his roof, and I am grateful for the privilege.
He is distant from me.

I wanted you to go to Harvard, but I wanted you to understand all this as well. It is as simple and complex as that. When Tupac screeches “Being black hurts,” I know it is true. And I lean toward those who know it too.

Where it hurts worst is in my mommyness.

This all started twenty-five years ago. I was eighteen, but I would not abort my son. My mother, Lena, ordered me to get an abortion.
She deposited funds in my checking account. I spent the money on baby clothes.

I couldn’t do it. I could hear Pushkin calling for my love. My cells could hear his cells sounding out to me, pounding out to me. And my soul could hear my body.My mind couldn’t hear one quick measure of that music. Knew for sure it couldn’t stand this baby. Feared its genes, feared birthing it, feared carrying it. Feared being disgusted by it. Feared disgusting myself. Thought for sure I’d gone to crazy. But that I left till now. Then, his self was calling to my self and I would not, could not, deny him. It was the first thing I knew about us. There was a hierarchy of needs, and his came first. I felt my soul expand.

Don’t hostages fall in love with their kidnappers? Wasn’t I held hostage by this baby? What a strange back door I walked into love through. Stockholm syndrome. Whether I was his kidnapper and he was my hostage, or I was his hostage and he had kidnapped me, or none of it applied at all, I have yet to get straight. But right after thinking I couldn’t do it, I decided to have my baby.
I started loving Pushkin, I loved him more than the moon loves the sun. Why has he betrayed me? Because I play Cordelia to his Lear, returning silence for question, while he plays Othello to my rival’s Desdemona, the only way you play Othello, tragically? Who is it I will not betray? What is it I meant to say?

Nothing. I meant to say nothing. Maybe, baby, silence don’t get it. Who said that? Somebody from Detroit.

Let me begin again. I live in Nashville, Tennessee. I am a professor of Afro-Russian literature. I got my doctorate from the University of London. I am forty-three years old. I have tenure at Vanderbilt and a son who is twenty-five. Everybody worships my son except me. He’s a football phenom. They call him “the Phenom.” He played in a Super Bowl before he was twenty-two years old. What can that mean to me? I wasn’t there. I couldn’t let myself be there. My undergraduate degree is from Harvard. He and I went to Harvard together.

No, we didn’t. That’s a lie. I so want it to be true, I say it as if trying out the possibility. But there are no new possibilities in the past—there’s just a robber-woman named Perkins in Detroit who took care of my boy when I went to school. Just a place called Motown where we, each in very different times, once both lived.
Standing where I stand now, I should have kept him with me. I could have put Pushkin in some kind of backpack or baby carrier, some Snugli, some sling, some thing, some fucking piece of cloth.
Pay me now or pay me later. How heavy could the baby have been?
Can you keep a three-year-old bound to your back? I don’t know.
I just know that I didn’t. I left him in Detroit. I went back to Cambridge. Is he punishing me now for abandoning him then? I don’t know what he did all day. I remember what I did: learn Russian, read Russian, speak Russian. Articulate a future for us. Seek an alternative to the English language. Abandon my mother tongue.
Find a new unspoken word for every important thing I wanted to say. Find a new alphabet for love. Show myself every day I can do something difficult. Love Pushkin; learn Russian. Twinned improbabilities.
Success at one became my proof of the possibility of success at the other.

I wish I had kept Pushkin with me. I wish I could have thought of Harvard as a welfare office. If I had asked this of it, if I had asked, I might have received. Daddy-Harvard is abundantly treasured. I did not ask.

And now Pushkin is marrying a white Russian lap dancer and insists on knowing who his daddy is.

I cannot even tell what upsets me more, the white girl part of this mess or the daddy part of this mess. If he knew the truth then, maybe he wouldn’t be making this mistake. After everything white folks have done to my family, Pushkin wants to give one a ring. If he knew, he would not do this. Maybe there is time to let him know. Then again, if he knew all our truths, maybe he would just be a different dark stereotype—black man behind bars. The first omission was but a cornerstone to a larger edifice. A mother’s work is never done. He needs protection.

Why won’t he simply accept the obvious? I was his daddy and his mama. Why won’t he let it be like that? And if he can’t let his daddy be me, why can’t he let his daddy beW.E.B. or Pushkin or Malcolm?
If I swallowed his daddy’s sin, why won’t he swallow my lie? Part of the answer has to be he doesn’t know how much sin and sorrow I had to swallow to bring him to life. That’s nobody’s fault but my own.
This is not the reprieve I desired. This is not the compensation I required.
I shock myself with my desire for emotional reparations, but I acknowledge the desire—it is real. I want the man who was my boy to sustain within his heart the judgment that I am the most beautiful woman in the world. I want my son to desire a woman who looks like me. Or, at the very least, looks like the girl I used to be.

He wants Tanya.

“Look what they done to my son,” sobs the Mafia don to the undertaker.
And I keep thinking about it. Pushkin is confounded by the fact that The Godfather is my favorite movie. He expects me to prefer Dr. Zhivago or Reds. High-tech hoodlums with assault weapons, not literature professors, watch The Godfather over and over, quoting the lines like a Bible. It’s part of the way they understand themselves.
“What in the fuck has that got to do with you, Moms?”

I smile and tell him the truth that makes sense to him. I say, “Anna Karenina is my second favorite movie.” He lets that be enough.

If I answer Pushkin’s question, who will it hurt? If I answer his question, who will he hurt?

I have never been so glad and never been so sorry that Pushkin knows so little about Detroit, about Motown, about the outlaw hoodlums who were and are my people. If he walked around with a pistol in his waistband, if he walked around like Daddy and the uncles, I could not begin to think of telling him the truth.

Don Corleone wanted transformation. He wanted things not to be as they were. You can only want that desperately; it is an audacious desire.

I want that. I have the audacious desire. I want Push to be Pushkin again. I want to harvest the seeds I planted. I want my son to be who he is not and want who he does not. I know this is wrong, but it is true. And it is nothing I have willed myself to do. It just is.

You just want your daddy.

A hard thing about hearing you call for your daddy is that it makes me remember calling for mine. The harder thing is knowing you feel about me the way I felt about my mother when she silenced my call and cut me off from my daddy. Rage. Rage at the mother for removing the father. I can’t do anything about that. The only way I can prove I am right and you are wrong is to answer your question, tell you who your daddy is and watch the news do its damage. I won’t do that. I won’t hurt you. That was my only rule. I would get to hear you say, “Moms, you were right.” I feel sure you would say, “I wish I didn’t know.” I would hear that. But I would see my tall man get shorter, my strong man get weaker. I have seen that happen in my family before, a big man get chopped down by a small piercing moment, or a big man who didn’t because a woman kept her mouth shut. I will feel your rage before any part of me makes any part of you small.

I turned on my own daddy for you. I cast him out of my mind, because I knew if he knew it all, he would never accept you. You make me glad my daddy is dead. If he was alive and he turned his back on you, I would turn my back on him. If he was alive, he would turn his back on you. You are making me remember things I don’t want to remember.
Tanya has provoked me into remembering people—not people that I don’t want to remember, people I am afraid to remember.
I don’t know how to remember who my daddy and his people are at the same time that I remember who your daddy is without putting a bullet in my brain. And I won’t have the strength to remember who your daddy is, and how to love you, if I don’t remember who my daddy is and who his people were. How is it you don’t fucking understand that?

I want to shake you and say, “Remember who you are! Remember who I am!” But you can’t remember what you have never known.
If you insist on the truth of your beginning, how do we get to any kind of happy ending? I never knew the answer to that, never figured any answer but to cheat, to lie about the beginning. Now you won’t let me cheat. You take away the win we have almost achieved and say, Play the game again with a clean whole deck. I say, There are no clean whole decks.

I will do what I have always done for you. Take the next step, ignoring the likelihood of failure. We are deep in the shit of truth.
Maybe the thing for me to do is to try to keep on walking. Like every other mother who ever lived in the world before me, I am prepared for the shit of truth by all my baby’s dirty, dirty diapers.

Then again, as we both know, I am not so well prepared. I wasn’t the one who changed most of your diapers. I made such a good life for you that that wasn’t supposed to matter. Your father wasn’t supposed to matter either.

It would not have been better for you, but it would have been better for me if I had let them wash you down a drain. They say Russian girls do it all the time. I wonder if she’s done it. I wonder if she’s done yours, done mine? I wonder if she’s done my grands? Done to me what I wouldn’t do to you. Not even when I was eighteen years old.
I was bold then, bold and cold. That first week I rocked you in my arms, crooning, “Baby, baby, don’t get hooked on me.” That’s the kind of crazy baby bitch I was then. But how did you know? How do you know? How is it that I, who was once bold and cold, am now only and vaguely old? How is it that I was betrayed, after I turned you every which way but loose?

Copyright © 2004 Alice Randall. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2005

    2004's Top Draft Pick

    In Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, Alice Randall mixes a spicy gumbo of Russian literature, Motown, and hip-hop that glides across the palate of the mind to rave culinary reviews. It¿s funky, hip, and sexy, yet sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and righteously poetic. When a Harvard-educated professor¿s football superstar son decides to marry a Russian lap dancer, her life becomes a retrospective of ¿where did I go wrong as a single black mother?¿ Windsor Armstrong thought she had raised her son, Pushkin X, to be a perfect reflection of herself: educated, erudite, and worldly, and sees his taste for the common as a direct rejection of everything she has ingrained in him, including her place in his life. Rather than retreat and wait for him to come to his senses, she writes a hip-hop elegy of epic proportions as a wedding gift in hopes of culling his forgiveness while desperately trying to respect his choices.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2010

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