“A fast-paced, intriguing story...the novel’s real achievement is its uncommon perceptiveness on the origins and variations of addiction.”—The New York Times Book Review
One of the most anticipated reads of 2019 from Vogue, Vanity Fair, Washington Post, Buzzfeed, Essence, Bustle, HelloGiggles and Cosmo!
“The Mothers meets An American Marriage” (HelloGiggles) in this dazzling debut novel about mothers and daughters, identity and family, and how the relationships that sustain you can also be the ones that consume you.
The Butler family has had their share of trials—as sisters Althea, Viola, and Lillian can attest—but nothing prepared them for the literal trial that will upend their lives.
Althea, the eldest sister and substitute matriarch, is a force to be reckoned with and her younger sisters have alternately appreciated and chafed at her strong will. They are as stunned as the rest of the small community when she and her husband, Proctor, are arrested, and in a heartbeat the family goes from one of the most respected in town to utter disgrace. The worst part is, not even her sisters are sure exactly what happened.
As Althea awaits her fate, Lillian and Viola must come together in the house they grew up in to care for their sister’s teenage daughters. What unfolds is a stunning portrait of the heart and core of an American family in a story that is as page-turning as it is important.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Anissa Gray
You do a lot of thinking in jail. Especially when you’re locked in the box that’s your cell. Mine is about as big as the walk-in closet I had back at home, but in place of leather bags and slingbacks and racks of clothes, I’ve got bunk beds, a stainless-steel sink-and-toilet combo, and a compact, padlocked cabinet. The cabinet’s where you keep your valuables, like family pictures, commissary, and letters, including the one from your daughter that’s not addressed to you. The letter that, truth be told, you just can’t bring yourself to read, so you’ve got it tucked inside the Bible that belonged to your dead mother.
The Bible’s the one thing you read religiously, but not for scripture. You read it for the notes written in the margins. Then, when it’s lights out and you can’t read anymore, you lock the Bible up in the cabinet and crawl in your bunk. The top bunk, which you’re still scared of falling out of. You’d still be in the bottom bunk, if it was up to you, but your new crazy-quiet cellmate asked for that bunk in a way that made you feel like she might kill you as you slept on it, if you said no.
Now you lie here, wide awake, with the compact cabinet across the way and the sink-and-toilet combo near the foot of the bed, thinking and remembering because that’s all you’ve got here in the dark when sleep won’t come. And it hardly ever comes. I’m usually up thinking about getting out or what it was like before I came in or why I did what I did and how what I did compares to the next woman’s crime.
It’s always me versus Inmate X: I did this, but at least I didn’t do that.
I used to meet with the chaplain, somebody who’s seen everything. We’d sit in a little room that had a view to the outside, with him in his metal chair, black shirted, white collared, but casual in jeans. The type who probably plays guitar to youth groups in parks. He’d sit with his elbows on his knees, leaning forward with his back to the window while I stared past his pink, freckled bald spot to the jail’s front lawn and the flagpole.
“Don’t go comparing crimes like that,” the chaplain would say. “There’s no good in it, Althea. What you’ve done doesn’t have to define you.”
“Then what does?”
“Only you know that. No one can tell you who you are.”
I stopped meeting with him.
Who am I?
I ask myself that question every night I lay my head down in here. Althea Marie Butler-Cochran: round, dimpled face; rounding, dimpled body; smooth, light brown skin. There was a definition of me that went with that name, face, and body, but it’s hard to see it now, even though I still look pretty much the same, except for the jailhouse weight gain.
I used to think I was like a river. A mighty force of nature. A real river that I used to watch and dip my feet in, sitting out on the dock behind my house. You can’t see the river from the jail, but it’s out there past the barred-up windows. Past the recreation yard with the basketball court and beyond the patches of gravel and dry grass you got to cross before getting to the fence. Go over the razor wire, go out past the woods about twenty miles or so, as the crow flies. Touch down on the two-lane road underneath you. That barrenness on either side of you is farmland waiting for its season.
This road, beyond that fence and miles away as the crow flies, looks like it goes on forever because it’s flat and straight and all you can see are the miles in front of you. But you’re not far now. You’ll see the river I’m talking about. The Saint Joseph. I got baptized in that river. I got proposed to there. There’s a tree on the riverbank that has, or at least used to have, me and my husband’s initials: P+A Forever.
That river runs through the place where I was easier to define. The place that made me who I used to be. Althea Marie Butler-Cochran: round, dimpled face; rounding, dimpled body; smooth, light brown skin; wife; mother; daughter; sister; mighty force of nature.
The meeting of the Saint Joseph and the Portage Rivers gives the place I’m from its name: New River Junction.
“One river for each of my girls,” is how my mama put it. “Ya’ll two will run together,” she said. That was right after my sister Viola was born.
“Boys and men are earth and stone,” my mama used to say. “But you girls, us women, we’re water. We can wear away earth and stone, if it comes to it.”
I believed her.
And I believed I’d never leave New River Junction. I made promises to her that kept me bound there. But ever since that day the police came, I’ve been moving further and further away from home. It was a Friday afternoon, two Septembers ago. The leaves had just started to turn. I remember the turning leaves not so much because I’m the type to notice things like that, but because my husband, Proctor, is. That morning, on the way into our restaurant, he grabbed my hand and stopped me midstride.
“Look at that, Al,” he said, stringing his fingers through mine. “It’s here.”
He pointed over my head to the big, opened-armed oak in the yard. Up there, among the rustling green leaves, there was a burst of gold and burnt orange, the first sign of his favorite season. The promise of hayrides and haunted houses and the Halloween candy that he hoarded, always winking and saying, “Don’t worry. I’ll put it away for the kids.”
It was later that day that they came for us.
Me and Proctor were sitting at the long mahogany bar at the back of the restaurant, splitting a turkey sandwich and a beer. The red leather booths and the polished dark wood tables at the front of the restaurant were empty, just like always.
“Do you think this’ll be the night?”
Our dare-to-hope question about dinner service, not about getting arrested, was being asked. “Do you think this’ll be the night” our dining room fills up again? Even though we knew the answer to that question, it seemed like we’d make our bad luck worse if one of us didn’t ask it. We’d been asking “the question” for some three years, going back to when the paper mill started going under. Anchored on the shores of the Saint Joseph for more than a century, the paper mill was a sprawl of red brick and concrete with smokestacks belching into the sky. The rotten-egg stink was the life’s breath of the economy. “The smell of money,” everybody used to say.
But then came the layoffs and the loss of our regulars. Summer tourists from other lake and river towns disappearing. Other restaurants, stores, and small businesses trimming hours, cutting workers, or closing up.
“What’ve you heard, Althea? Who else is in trouble?” The few customers we had left would ask me that, as I let them have their pick of the empty red leather booths. “I don’t know how y’all are getting by with business being what it is,” they’d say, “but I’m glad to see you holding on and still being such a help to people, too. We need that now.”
“Do you think this’ll be the night?”
I was the one asking our dare-to-hope question in our empty restaurant on that Friday afternoon of the changing leaves two Septembers ago, when we heard the welcome bell jingle out on the door.
“You guys want to grab a table?” I said, looking in the mirror behind the bar at the reflection of the man coming through the front lobby. Officer Hopkins, a big corn-fed white boy who’d played football with Proctor in high school. A regular at the restaurant. Proctor swiveled around on his bar stool and called out, “Hey, Hop!”
Swiveling around, too, I saw a young, creamed-coffee-colored officer coming in behind Hop. A man me and Proctor knew mostly because we knew his family, the Jacksons. They were longtime members at my father’s church, where my brother pastors now.
Me and Jay Jackson traded polite nods, like always, as he walked with Hop toward the bar.
“What’s the word, man?” Proctor asked his friend.
I got up to grab some menus but stopped midrise when Hop and Jay gave each other a look.
“Um,” Jay said, rubbing his thumb along the bill of the police cap in his hand, “I don’t know how to say this, but look, we gotta take y’all in.”
I heard what he said, no problem, but there was something confusing about it. Like listening to somebody speak a different language but catching enough words to know they’re saying something about you, and it’s not good.
“You guys have done so much,” Hop was saying, sounding like things didn’t make sense to him either, looking around like he wasn’t really sure where he was. His eyes lingered on the pictures of the mayor, the city council members, and the city’s favorite sons and daughters posing with me or Proctor or the both of us. He looked at the two of us again, standing in front of him. “Hell, you’re the food pantry people. And everything you did for the people with the flood . . .” Hop said, trailing off. “And this place, do you know how many years me and my family ran through here for the Fun Run and how many times we had your big picnic right out there on the lawn with everybody? The whole community.” He pointed outside to the lawn, then his hand moved toward the handcuffs on his belt. “This has to be some kind of a mistake. I know it. But like Jay said, we have to take you guys in.”
Jay nodded. But that was the only movement any of us made. We all just looked at each other, me having taken my seat again next to Proctor. It felt like forever, but it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds before I finally felt myself getting up again. It didn’t feel like I was moving under my own power, though. It was like I was being dragged up by this slow understanding that, Okay, they’re here as cops, not customers. Not here to eat. Here for us.
And I felt this loneliness watching Proctor, as he started to realize it, too. He got to his feet slowly, never looking at me, not even one time. It was like something in him was leaning away as we stood there beside one another. When Hop and Jay went to cuff us, the whole time apologizing about having to follow procedure, I put my hands out but Proctor didn’t. When Hop said, “Come on now, man,” and reached for his wrist, Proctor resisted, not so much fighting as jerking like a child, twisting into a tantrum.
“Proctor, please,” I said, as cool metal clicked closed around my own wrists. “It’s Officer Hopkins.”
Maybe saying Hop’s title and full last name made Proctor see that this wasn’t his friend. This was an arresting officer. Whatever it was, Proctor stopped resisting. But he still wouldn’t look at me. He clenched his jaw, and his whole body closed off to me. His eyes filled with tears as he ran his big hand along the smooth, dark wood of the bar, petting it like a dog, before letting his hand rest there. He built that bar himself. Hop stepped back. The cuffs dangled at his side, glimmering in the afternoon light.
“Do what you gotta do, man,” Proctor said, finally.
Out in the car, as the cruiser pulled out of the parking lot, Proctor turned to look out the window at the restaurant’s taupe, Southwestern-style walls falling away behind us. I could feel the regret radiating off of him. And fear, too.
Bald. Tall and broad. Deep, dark brown. There’s a fierceness about Proctor that makes him look like maybe he belongs in the backseat of a police car, and you might assume that a man who looks like that will do just fine locked up. But you’d be wrong. I’ve known Proctor since we were kids. He’s a farm boy who moves to the rhythms of nature. A man nourished by everything that glows in it: bright fall afternoons; burnt orange leaves; and the sun shining through them. But he’s prone to a black-hole-in-the-soul kind of darkness that can suck every bit of light from this world.
I tried to imagine just how dark it might get.
But whatever I imagined in that moment, I couldn’t have pictured in my mind, not in a million years, what the end of that day would bring. Couldn’t have foreseen that I’d find out it all started with one phone call. And I never could’ve imagined the way I still feel about the caller. That feeling has made me a mother to nobody. And wife? I can’t even begin to tell Proctor about that feeling because it would forever change how he feels about me.
The last time I saw Proctor was months ago, when we stood side by side in court as the verdict came down: We the jury find the defendant, Althea Marie Butler-Cochran, guilty of conspiracy to defraud the United States . . .
As the reading of the verdict went on and on, guilty on almost every count, I turned and looked at him. But he still wouldn’t look at me.
Through the darkness of my cell, I can see Proctor. But through time, to that first time. Near the end of summer, 1977. I was standing in a graveyard, listening to a preacher give my mother over to the earth: . . . till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
I was twelve, hugging my little brother, Joe, to my side. Hanging on to my younger sister Viola’s hand, with my baby sister, Lillian, balanced on my hip. All of us Butler kids in pastels, pinstripes, and floral prints. The Easter clothes our mama had made for us just four months earlier. I squinted up into a blinding blue August sky, thinking, Mama will never be dust.
I was thinking of women and water.
“She’s not dust,” I said to my brother and sisters. “She’ll never be dust.”
Joe was pressing himself into my side, holding on to my leg. He was four years old then. To this day, he still clings a little. Viola, who’s always had her own mind with her own notion of things running through it, was six years old, but aging fast around the eyes. Lillian wasn’t even a year old. She couldn’t know what was happening to us. I don’t know if our father heard what I told them about our mother never being dust. He was standing off somewhere behind us, basketball-player tall in his black suit with his shoulders stooped. A man already a good ways gone in his retreat to the periphery of our lives.
And there was Proctor, in a boxy, too-big black suit. He was in the crowd of mourners beside his grandmother, peeking around her, looking at me. He found me later at the house with all the other mourners. I was sitting on the stairs by myself when he introduced himself.
“What kind of name is Proctor?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “An old man’s, I guess. My granddaddy’s.” He smiled and looked down at the cuffed sleeves on his suit jacket. “Suit’s his, too,” he said.
Then he asked if he could get me a plate, and I said yes because I couldn’t move. I was disoriented, struggling against this rip current of loss and new responsibility for my brother and sisters. I watched Proctor walk across the hall to the living room that seemed different and dark, even though the curtains were open to that bright August day. As Proctor disappeared into the dining room, headed for the table with the casseroles, side dishes, and fried chicken, he passed my father, who was kissing the wet cheeks of women and patting the padded shoulders of men, telling them, “It’s God’s will. You can’t fight against that.”
As I watched the churning, ever-changing circle of mourners move around my father, I thought, truly, if there was a God, He would’ve healed Mama and none of these people, these locusts, would be here taking over our house. Mama’d be making dinner right about now, like she was the day I found her collapsed on the vinyl floor. She’d be barefoot, wheat-colored skin glowing in the heat and harvest gold brightness of our kitchen. She’d be standing over the kitchen sink, wide hips swaying, probably humming “Changed” or something else from Love Alive, the album she played over and over. She’d be encouraging Viola to sing along, with Lillian balanced on a swaying hip. She’d be looking around the kitchen to make sure Joe wasn’t getting into anything. She’d be pulling me over to the counter beside her with her free hand, her hip bumping against mine as she swayed to the music, telling me to put the seasoned chicken in the paper bag with the flour and shake it up. “Now here, take the baby and stand back,” she’d say, pivoting from the counter to the stove. Skin-scorching grease popping as she put the floured, salted, peppered, and paprikaed chicken parts in the skillet with steady hands that had done this hundreds of times before. I wanted to see her do it hundreds and hundreds of times more.
How could a God say, No? There’ll be no more for you.
My throat clotted up with tears and grief and rage, and I couldn’t eat anything Proctor brought back for me. But I stayed there next to him on the narrow stairs, his thigh pressed against mine. He was big for fourteen. As solid and stable as earth and stone.
Here in my bunk, that moment presses in on my chest, a weight so heavy I can hardly breathe. I turn over on my side. I pull the itchy gray blanket up under my chin and stare through the darkness at the cabinet across the way, to where my mother’s Bible, with its broken spine and faded gold-gilded pages, sits locked behind the door. To where that unread letter from my daughter, addressed to Proctor, not me, peeks out from the pages of that Bible.
I curl up and close my eyes, trying to feel the pressure of Proctor’s thigh against mine. Trying to see him turn his face to me, just like he did when we sat together on those stairs and he said, in a quiet voice still finding its depths, “It’s gonna be all right, Althea.”
I whisper into the stale air of my cell: “We’ll see tomorrow, won’t we?”
And we’ll see what family of mine shows up, too.
“Besides you, Proctor,” I whisper. Unlike everybody else, he’s got no choice but to be there. “I bet you wish you’d left me sitting by myself on those stairs, don’t you?” I say into the dark.
Stay positive, I say to myself as I glance back (again!) at the double doors.
“I don’t think they’re coming, Aunt Lillian,” Baby Vi says.
I check the time on my phone. “Sometimes the Universe can surprise us. Let’s not give up just yet.”
Baby Vi gives me a weak smile and turns away. She folds her hands in her lap and stares straight ahead at the judge’s bench, looking weary. Most everything about her these days is a kind of tired, old-ladyish Why bother? ennui. And she’s only fifteen.
“It’s going to be okay,” I say to the side of her face.
Baby Vi looks at me again, her eyebrows knitting together, and I see my sister—her mom—in her face. There’s Althea’s brown-sugar skin, her dark doe eyes. And here they come, Althea’s dimples, as Baby Vi twists her mouth in a thoughtful way.
“How can you just keep saying it’s gonna be okay?” she asks.
“Because I believe it. The judge, he’s looking at a lot of stuff, like the great letter you wrote, asking for a second chance for your mom and dad. And the one from Uncle Joe.”
She nods, slowly. Skeptical but hopeful, maybe.
“And I did the best I could with my letter, so, I mean, that could help, too.” It would’ve been even more helpful if Althea and Proctor had letters from the rest of the family: Viola, our sister; Kim, Althea’s other daughter. If I’m honest, I’d have to admit my letter was pretty hard to write. I said everything I was expected to say, but not everything I think. I felt like an accomplice trying to deceive the court by hiding Althea’s full identity or something. And worse, I felt complicit in some kind of karma-dodging scam. Because, as much as I hate to say it, when I think about karma, which I do a lot these days, Althea and Proctor are probably in trouble.
“We just have to stay positive,” I say, more to myself than Baby Vi.
I really want to believe what Althea’s lawyer, a bookish-looking public defender, told Baby Vi and me when we ran into him outside the courtroom a little while ago. “The prosecution is asking for too much time,” he said. “Yes, the community probably wants to see a public hanging, but your sister and brother-in-law are first-time offenders. And for all they’ve done wrong, well, it didn’t start out that way. I think the judge will see that,” he said.
Baby Vi turns away again and stares in the direction of the judge’s bench. She reaches over and grabs my hand as I look over my shoulder at the double doors again. It’s getting way too close to time.
“You wouldn’t happen to know where your sister is, would you?” I ask.
Baby Vi pulls her hand out of mine and glances at me, like, Is that a serious question?
“I just, you know, Kim said she was coming today, so I thought maybe, I don’t know.” What? What did you think, Lillian? That this might be different from any other day out of the nearly two years you’ve had them? Did you think, when you saw Kim this morning, ignoring you in the kitchen, that maybe you finally managed to say or do something right (telepathically?), like those inspirational TV shows and movies where the bumbling relative or coach or teacher suddenly figures things out and becomes a flawed but effective authority figure who turns the troubled kid around? Did you actually think that, Lillian?
I look at Baby Vi, who’s still looking away. Guilt hits like a gut kick.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I shouldn’t ask you about Kim like that. What she does or doesn’t do, that’s not on you. That’s on her.”
“It’s okay,” Baby Vi says softly. But she doesn’t take my hand again.
Way to go, Lillian.
Baby Vi and her sister, her twin sister, couldn’t be more different. Definitely fraternal. I mean, Kim is full-on feral now. She’s out there who knows where, and I usually try not to make Baby Vi betray confidences. I don’t want her feeling like she’s selling out her sister. That’s something I never would’ve done. Okay, well, maybe I would sell out Althea, but never Viola, the sister who shares Baby Vi’s name. A woman who, like Kim, is a no-show, at least so far, despite promising me she’d be here.
Viola’s really going to leave me alone with all of this, isn’t she? A wave of nausea hits me. I hug myself, just as I realize I’m rocking a little, like a disturbed person. But isn’t all of this disturbing? I stop rocking. I close my eyes and draw in the deepest possible calming breath, but that only reminds me of taking in the deepest possible calming breath this morning as I sat with my cereal (while Kim ignored me), watching the news. The words The Big Payback popped up on the screen with dramatic music and video of Proctor and Althea, smiling, leading a reporter through the restaurant in better days. The anchorwoman said: “Disgraced restaurateurs and charity leaders to learn their fate today in court.”
They do want a public hanging.
People are still coming in, craning their necks, looking around for seats because the church-pew-ish benches are filling up. But there’s no reverent silence, like in a sanctuary. There’s this sickening, excited buzz as people push past each other to get the last few empty spots. Baby Vi and I have blocked off seats for Kim and Viola with our coats.
“I’m going to go out and try to call them, okay?” I say to Baby Vi.
She starts to say something, then stops and shrugs like, Whatever.
I tell her to give up the seats, if she thinks she needs to. “It’s not right for other people to pay for the fact that those two aren’t here yet,” I say.
I squeeze past the six or so sets of knees between me and the end of the bench, saying “Excuse me” the whole way. As I rush for the door, I spot Joe, sitting near the back of the courtroom. His smile is nervous, but the thumbs-up he gives is steady and sure. I return something close to the same. But I don’t stop. I wish he weren’t here.
Outside the courtroom, I call Kim and, as the phone rings, I try to think of the right thing to say. I don’t want to say anything that might set her off, and that’s hard because just about anything can set her off. I mean, just asking her if she wants to talk about what’s going on could get you a simple “Not really” or a door-slamming fit. There’s also the silent treatment or worse: her wanting to talk, but mostly just to say stuff that she knows will upset you.
I took Kim’s phone away after her first upsetting outburst, just after Proctor and Althea were convicted, but then panicked after she got home really late that night, so I gave it back, thinking, At least I can reach her if I need to. Nope, not so. Kim, as is the case now, doesn’t answer when I call. I leave what I hope is a neutral message: “Hi, just wondering where you are. We’re at the courthouse waiting for you.”
Then I text: We’re at court. Where are you? Let me know you’re okay. XOXO
She will, at least sometimes, text back. But I bet she’ll do what she usually does: show up at the house tonight, give me a look that dares me to punish her (and I wouldn’t dare because I haven’t figured out how without feeling like an oppressive overlord), then disappear into her room for the night and blast her stereo (the stereo that used to belong to her dad and is now considered government property, therefore, illegal).
I call Viola. No answer there either, which worries me. If she says she’s coming, she’s coming, even though she doesn’t come home from Chicago anywhere near as much as I’d like her to. And she always answers her phone, even if it’s just to say: “I can’t talk now, I’ll call you later.” I’ve been getting a lot of “I can’t talk now” lately. But this is the first complete no-show.
I stuff my phone in my back pocket and rush back into the courtroom. Our bench is full now, except for the space Baby Vi has saved for me. I squeeze past all the knees again, settle in next to her, and hold our coats in my lap like a security blanket. Baby Vi pulls her long legs up to her chest, like she’s trying to make herself small.
Lawyers are getting themselves seated at their respective tables.
And now, here’s Proctor being led out, shoulders squared and ready. He looks around the courtroom. His steady, bright eyes find Baby Vi and me. He smiles. Like always, it’s a smile that makes you feel like he’s got this. Like everything will go our way.
Baby Vi’s hand shoots up and she waves excitedly at her dad.
Proctor smiles wider and nods in her direction.
As the marshal points to Proctor’s seat next to his lawyer, Proctor keeps searching the crowded benches, looking for Kim. Not finding her, his eyes come back to Baby Vi and me again. He’s struggling to keep that smile now, I can tell.
Here’s Althea. That jail jumper gets me. Not that it’s easy to see Proctor in one, but it’s especially hard to see Althea that way. During the trial, she wore “very traditional” dresses that I got for her: “Maybe something an older woman might wear,” she’d said, telling me how to choose. As somebody who happens to have a lot of experience with the elderly (thanks to recent, unrelated events) I was definitely qualified to pick out something appropriate. Althea wore those flower-covered monstrosities, literally the most old-ladyish dresses I could find at dressbarn (really, you just may as well call them muumuus), like a drape over a nice piece of furniture you want to keep under wraps. Because the truth is, Althea’s all about looking good. She’s all blue jeans and blazers and swing skirts and heels. But more than that, she has this kind of straight-backed, proud way about her. That, she could never hide. I can see it now, even with her in that jumper, as she scans the crowd, with her chin raised and her head tilted. She sees us and smiles. Baby Vi waves again, but it’s a little hesitant this time. Althea keeps looking, searching the benches. She smiles again, I guess at Joe, but then her face falters as she keeps searching. I wish I could say she’s looking for Kim, but I doubt it. I think she’s missing Viola. That’s who she’s been asking about lately. She takes her seat next to her lawyer.
We get the order to rise, and the judge walks out. He’s a big Santa Claus–looking guy (but more white stubbly than beardy), which I’m hoping is a sign that we’re about to get a sentencing gift.
The judge says a few words about a case that, “after the longest time, is finally giving a wounded community closure.” The rest of what he’s saying is just courtroom garble to me, but now he’s nodding toward Althea and Proctor, asking if they’d like to say anything.
Proctor and Althea walk up to the lectern, with their lawyers close behind. The two of them look at each other, then Proctor speaks. “Thank you, Your Honor,” he says, his voice radio announcer rich. “I want to say to the people of New River Junction how sorry we are. It’s a community we’ve worked in and loved our whole lives.” He nods in Althea’s direction. “Me and Althea were born and raised in the Junction. We stayed to raise our family there.” His voice breaks. He lowers his head, clears his throat. He looks up again. “In the midst of some hard times, hard times for everybody, I know that.” He glances back at the rest of the courtroom, his steady brown eyes promising: I do care about people, despite what you’ve heard in this courtroom. He clears his throat again. “I hope we get a chance to make up for the bad choices we made.” He looks at Althea, signaling her to speak.
She shakes her head.
“Please know that I speak for the both of us, Your Honor,” Proctor goes on, “when I say, we take full responsibility. We never meant to hurt anybody.”
The judge nods. He looks from Proctor to Althea and says, “Throughout this trial, we’ve heard a lot of testimony about hard times and the choices people made. You had a whole community suffering in the aftermath of the Great Flood, and that community chose to come together to help each other. But the two of you, you chose to prey on the suffering and generosity of those people. And what’s more, you used your position as leaders in the community. You abused the trust people had in you.”
My stomach knots up.
“Before I go further, I would just like to read something here,” the judge says, as he puts on half-moon glasses and picks up a creased piece of paper from his desk. “It’s a letter from one of the people who suffered because of the choices you two made. I’d like to read something here that I think really speaks to the heart of things:
“‘The Great Flood did its worst. It washed away my family’s property and things we can never get back. That was an act of God, and we must accept that. But it was Althea and Proctor Cochran, people we trusted, who laid waste to the faith and loyalty of this whole town, holding their fund-raisers, taking our money, promising to help, but never delivering. We want to see justice done.’”
I whisper a mantra to brace myself: Everything works out for the highest good. I repeat it over and over in my head because, as the judge slowly folds the letter up, it’s like I can see the karmic wheel turning, roulette-style, over Proctor’s and Althea’s heads, spinning toward something terrible.
My mind goes into a kind of spin of its own, but I come out of it when I hear the judge say, “Having considered all of the factors, the court sentences you, Althea Marie Butler-Cochran, to a term of one year in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons for one count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government, to be served consecutive to a sentence of one year and three months for obstruction of justice. For wire fraud, the court sentences you to a term of one—”
But I can’t hear the rest of what the judge is saying because of what I’m seeing: Althea, swaying in a wind that only she can feel. There’s a loud crack! bam! and gasps all around as Althea slams into the table and collapses.
Somebody’s screaming, “No!” I glance over my shoulder to the back of the courtroom. It’s Joe. He’s pushing past people to get to the end of the bench, to help Althea.
The judge bangs his gavel, calling, “Order!”
Baby Vi grabs on and folds herself around me. I wiggle an arm free to hang on to her, covering her ear like I can somehow keep everything out. I whisper, “Everything’s going to be okay,” hoping my voice gets through.
Hugging her is like holding a scared, whimpering puppy just as the storm rolls in. And I think of her feral sister out there, grateful to God, the Universe, whoever’s listening, that Kim isn’t here. Because how much worse would she feel? After all, she was the one who called the police in the first place. The one who tipped the first domino that touched off the investigation, toppled her mom and dad, and caused a cascade of devastating losses that we’ve only just begun to see. Kim will find out the sentences soon enough, but I can’t imagine what she’d do or what she’d be feeling, watching this: her mom, dazed, being helped up from the floor by lawyers and a marshal; her dad, helpless and defeated, standing there watching.
I get my other arm free and hang on to Baby Vi as tightly as I can and whisper, “Safe,” willing that thought out to the Universe to Kim, wherever she is, as the judge picks up where he left off with Althea: “For making false statements . . .”
I sit on the floor and rest my back against the bed. Glance down at my watch. Six thirty. Eva will be home from work any minute. No, this very minute. There’s the door.
And there’s her voice.
“I’m back here,” I yell in the direction of the front room. I catch myself squeezing and rubbing my fingers, nervously. A bad habit. I stop and slide my hands under my thighs.
There’s the quick click-click of Eva’s heels on the hardwoods. She appears in the doorway. I note the ponytail, a desperate, rushed, stopgap styling measure. And there are the puffy eyes. She’s not sleeping. Neither am I. She looks down at me, leans against the door frame, and crosses her arms. “What are you doing here?”
“I thought maybe I left a pair of shoes behind.”
“I’m pretty sure you took everything.” Her voice nicks, with its knife’s edge. She glances around the room as if to be certain all traces of me were removed when I moved out. Her gaze rests on what used to be my dresser, which was uncluttered by ornamentation even before I left. Her eyes return to me on the floor. “Do you want to tell me why you’re really here?”
I feel caught in a lie, but still I go on: “I guess those shoes could be in a box I haven’t gotten to yet.” In point of fact, I haven’t gotten to any of the boxes yet.
“What are you doing here, Viola?” This time her voice is quieter. The knife, sheathed. “What is it?” She looks at me closely, her eyes roaming over the topography of my face, and I worry that she’ll arrive at the truth. Isn’t it right there in the sharp, high ridges of my cheekbones? In the gaunt gorges of my cheeks? In the squared-off formation of a jawline that’s unusually pronounced? She hasn’t seen me in days. She’ll notice.
I get to my feet quickly and turn my face away. “I just came for my shoes, like I said. I’ll just . . . never mind. I’ll go.”
“Wait,” she says. “You’re supposed to be in Michigan. You didn’t go to the sentencing?”
“I got held up. Work. I couldn’t make it in time.”
“You promised Lillian you’d be there.”
“I know,” I say, about to sit on the bed, but catching myself. That bed doesn’t belong to me anymore. Nothing in this room does. I lower myself to the floor again. “Like I said, I wasn’t able to leave town in time.” I look over at our two khaki-colored reading chairs sitting expectantly by the window. At the books on Eva’s nightstand: Written on the Body, Dream Work. At the empty nightstand by what used to be my side of the bed. “But I’m going to head up to Michigan when I leave here,” I say.
“Right.” Eva sounds unconvinced.
She sits on the floor beside me. Takes her pumps off and massages one of her high arches. She’s short, even in heels, but she has this particular kind of stature—self-assurance, genuine earnestness—born of boarding school and Ivy League breeding. She stretches, and I smell home: the faded flowers and vanilla of her perfume; sweat from teaching and student meetings and all the things a good academic does in a day. A good academic. A good, honest woman.
I taste the lies at the back of my throat.
A confession comes up from out of nowhere: “I saw coverage on television. I watched it—stop looking at me like that—I watched it on my laptop.” Sitting there paralyzed on one of my moving boxes. With my car keys in my hand.
She gives me a look that says, It doesn’t have to be this way.
“Would you like me to go with you? Back home?” she asks. “You know I will. Even with things, you know, the way they are.”
“No. I’m good. It’s fine.”
She closes her eyes and pinches the bridge of her nose. Typical exasperation. “Viola, if you’d only—” She stops and shakes her head. “Never mind.”
“What? If I’d only what?”
If only you’d be more open; if only you’d go to couple’s therapy, like I’ve asked; if only you’d get any therapy at this point; if only you were a little less you; if only; if only; if only.
But Eva doesn’t say any of that. She shakes her head and says simply, “Your face. You look thin. I’m worried about you.”
She’s seen. I get up and head for the door. “I should probably get going.”
“Wait,” Eva says, raising her hands and wiggling her fingers for me to pull her up from the floor. When I have her back on her feet, she says, “I have mail. I was going to drop it off at work for you.” She stops and examines my face closely again. “Hasn’t anyone at work noticed? How thin you are?”
“No,” I say. “Because there’s nothing to notice. I’m under a lot of stress, clearly, and like any normal person, my diet is, well, it could be better.”
She shakes her head. “I’ll get your mail.”
I sit on the bed, suddenly too exhausted to care about the division of formerly joint-owned property.
“You have something,” Eva says, coming back into the bedroom, flipping through the mail pile and pulling out an envelope, “from Althea. It got here yesterday.”
“Thank you,” I say, accepting the pile. I look down at the envelope written out in Althea’s lovely, calligraphic handwriting. I trace the letters of my name and touch upon a memory. “She taught me cursive,” I say. “Or, rather, she made sure I was good at it. Did you know that?”
“No,” Eva says quietly, sitting down on the bed next to me and resting her hand on my thigh, like older, easier times. “But I’m not surprised.”
I nod, picturing Althea back then, when we were younger, with her Angela Davis afro, her bell-bottoms and butterfly clogs. “She made me practice, relentlessly. And she would teach me new words, too. Simpatico. She taught me that word. Where would she have learned that? She wasn’t a word person.” I pause, thinking. I was the word person. I think sometimes she learned things she had no interest in, just for me. We’d sit together at the kitchen table, just the two of us. Practicing or talking or whatever. Even when we didn’t have any electricity, which was a regular occurrence, she’d grab a flashlight or light candles.
“I imagine Althea was a pretty dedicated teacher,” Eva says.
I’m thinking of what Althea used to say to me sometimes, as we sat together at that kitchen table: “You and me, we run together, Viola. Mama used to say that, and it’s true.”
“Althea was more than a teacher,” I say.
Althea was sister, mother, friend, all the world to me.
“I bet she wants to make things right, Viola,” Eva says, looking down at the letter in my hand.
“I don’t know.” Althea isn’t the contrite, introspective type. The last time I saw her, no, I mean the last time I argued with her, I told her as much.
You have too many blind spots, Althea, I said, deeply upset. And I worry that, even when you’re shown, you still refuse to see.
Actually, the last time I saw Althea was today, while I was sitting paralyzed on one of my moving boxes, watching that news report from a station up in Michigan on my laptop, feeling something in me give way. I look at Eva. “The reporter said Althea collapsed while the judge was reading her sentence,” I say. I glance down at the letter, my throat tightening. “The reporter, he counted up all the years they got. Althea got five. Proctor got seven. They weren’t supposed to get that much time!”
She grabs my hand and holds tight.
“The twins. They’re effectively orphans now.” Just like we were.
“Viola,” Eva says, “you need to get home. Immediately. Lillian must be beside herself.”
I look down at my hand in hers and murmur, “She is.”
“I’m so sorry,” Eva says, raising my hand to her lips to kiss my fingers.
I squeeze her hand and hold on for a moment. Then, I let go. I tuck my pile of mail under my arm and get up, looking again at our reading chairs by the window. Wanting nothing more than to sit in my chair while she sits in hers, both of us with a good book, like we used to. Me, blocking out crimes and punishments and the misfortunes of orphans.
“And really,” Eva says, “I can—”
“No, I’m good. Everything’s going to be fine.”
“Do you see what you just did, there? Don’t cut me off like that, Viola. I’m worried about you, okay? I’m worried about your family. People, some of them at least”—she takes a beat to illuminate a truth about Althea—“some of them,” she repeats, “who’ve been my family for a long time. Why don’t you, for once, let someone help?”
“I told you, I’m fine.”
We stand, facing each other, on the edge of yet another precipice.
“I don’t want to fight with you,” I say.
Eva presses her fingers to her eyes, spent before we even begin. “Neither do I,” she breathes.
“Look, this thing with Althea and Proctor, it’s unexpected and terrible,” I say. “But it’s done. So there’s nothing to do now except get up to Michigan and make some decisions about the best thing to do going forward.”
Eva lets out a resigned breath. “Fine. Go do that. By yourself.”
I start for the door.
“Wait,” Eva says. “I know I’m not in a position to make demands on you anymore, but we spent fifteen years together. I know you better than just about anybody, yourself included right now. So I have to insist: Call me while you’re there, okay? Check in.”
There are the chairs, together. The bed: my side, her side. My empty dresser. Our room in our dream home that we shared for three years. A condo downtown, after years of living in an actual house in the suburbs for most of those fifteen years.
My eyes find her again. “I will. I’ll check in.”
“I mean it, Viola.”
I head out the bedroom door and stop in the kitchen. I take my keys out of my pocket and look at them for a moment. I slip my house key off the ring and leave it on the cool, concrete countertop. I hug my week’s worth of mail to my chest and leave. But not bound for Lillian’s.
Oldham County Correctional Facility
720 Smith Avenue, NE
Park Point, Michigan
Saturday, November 16, 2013
You okay? I’d be lying if I told you I’m not still trying to get my mind wrapped around this. So much for the hopes of first-time offenders. Yesterday, I heard this brother say, “The community wouldn’t have stood for nothing less.” I acted like I didn’t hear him and went on about my business, but I wanted to pop him one because all I could think about was you in that courtroom, falling out like you did, down there on the floor, gone, and seeing Baby Vi back there crying in Lillian’s arms and Lillian looking at me like DO SOMETHING! And the whole time, I’m worried to death about where Kim is. I swear to God, I’ve never felt so useless. It brought me to my own knees inside. In a lot of ways, I’m still there, this close to popping the next person who tells me what we deserve. I know we did wrong and we’ll pay for that, but you can’t tell me that that judge couldn’t have found something between a smack on the wrist and a beat-down. My man went for the beat-down with us, straight up.
I tried to write you the other day, right when I got back from sentencing. I started a couple of letters, but I couldn’t finish them. I was in my Darth Vader Space, all darkness and doom, writing crazy stuff. You know how I get. I tell you, being able to play the “community guitar” is truly therapy for a brother’s soul. The guitar’s not a Gibson, but it’ll do. Your boy would play all day every day if they’d let me. But man can’t live on guitar alone, so there’s the Prozac, which, I got to say, doesn’t look like it’s doing a damn thing. But I need to know, are you doing any better? I saw our friend up here today. He said he saw you and you were talking to him about his son and family like you usually do. He said you seemed okay. Is he right?
Anyway, I’m glad I waited a couple days to write. Guess what I saw this morning? We were finally able to get out after all that rain, and you know me, I was chomping at the bit while some people were complaining about the damp and the cold and this and that. I made it outside first and there it was, a deer standing out there past the fence on the edge of the woods. It was over on that end with the basketball courts. The deer was picking around in the brush, and there was sun coming down through the breaks in the clouds. It was the kind of thing you see on a postcard or something. Can you picture it? And before the rest of the guys came out and scared her off, that deer raised her head and looked at me across all that distance between the woods and where I was in the yard. And I swear, this calm came over me that I get sometimes when I’m out hunting and I’ve been still for a long time before seeing something. It’s like me and whatever I have in my sights are both part of this natural order and there’s a rightness to everything. Feeling something like that when I was still so torn up from the sentencing, it was like nature was saying, There’s still beauty and light, man. That’s nature. That’s your true nature. What do they say? The better angels of your nature?
But enough of my philosophizing. It’s time for the most important thing, which is getting things set up for the girls now that we know what’s what. I just can’t get my head around the fact that we won’t be raising our own kids. No driver’s training, no prom, no dropping them off at college.
I hope this finally makes you see that you need to let the girls come up and see you. It was one thing to say “I don’t want them seeing me this way” when we were going through all of this waiting and the trial. But I’m not stupid. I know why you won’t see them. Well, I know why you won’t see Kim. But they need to see you. You got that now, right? Especially Kim. Did you read her letter I sent you?
And I may as well go ahead and say this. It’s time to stop going over and over which one of us did what and this and that. I made my choices, and I can live with them.
Before I close out, though, I wanted to tell you that that picture you sent was nice, so thank you for that. I’ll give it to her, your girl Mercedes is some kind of artist, but, still, please be careful. You know crazy can’t help but do crazy, so watch yourself with her, please. I wish you’d stay away from her like I asked you to, but when have you ever listened to me? Anyway, the picture of you is beautiful, and I’m happy to have it. I couldn’t imagine a better anniversary gift. It looks a lot like you, and I see you’re standing in your special place, “River Girl.” There’s even our tree in the background. I’m looking at the picture now while I sit here writing to you. I have it taped up over my bunk. When I look at it, it reminds me of all the things that have survived through all this. That tree was here before either one of us, and it stood right through the Great Flood. Remember that because that has to be us, right? P+A. Can you believe we’ve been married 30 years? And we made us two kids. That’s something we did right, isn’t it?
I’ve had this song running over and over in my head like a reminder that things can’t change us so much. Not for the bad, if we’re careful. Time for the hint. And yes, I still like doing this, which means, yes, we’re keeping it going, so stop trying to quit. Here we go. Hint: First time, end of time, flack.
I know I hit you with some B-sides the last couple times, but I’m taking it easy on you with this one. You know this song, young girl.
We’ll see each other when we do.
Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion
1. Early in the novel, Althea says, “I used to think I was like a river. A mighty force of nature.” What does she mean by this, and how does her view of herself change by the end of the novel?
2. Why do you think Baby Viola is Althea’s favored child? How does this affect Baby Vi, and what does it mean for Kim, who is so at odds with her mother?
3. Even in death, the presence of the Butler parents can be felt throughout the story. How do parental relationships affect each of the sisters and Joe?
4. How do you think Baby Vi and Kim will be affected by the long-term incarceration of their parents?
5. The relationships between Althea, Viola, Lillian, and Joe range from being warm to being incredibly fraught. How do the siblings understand or misunderstand one another in crucial ways?
6. Discuss Althea’s relationship with her mother and the significance of the Bible Althea later sends to Lillian.
7. The sisters all undergo transformations over the course of the novel. Discuss the critical changes each sister experiences and what led up to those moments.
8. When Lillian, who has been the caregiver for her nieces, urges Viola to take the girls, Viola is resistant. Compare the ways in which the sisters view and approach their family commitments and how that changes over time.
9. While family relationships are at the heart of the novel, friendships are crucially important as well. Which friendship pairings—Lillian and Nai Nai; Viola and David; Althea and Mercedes—were most resonant?
10. Late in the novel, Viola says, “I’m thinking of how limits become limber. Pliable, when pressed with the thing in you that cries out, endlessly, More, please.” Discuss how this applies to each of the characters and the title of the book.