The Warmest December

The Warmest December


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"McFadden's reissued second novel takes an unflinching look at the corrosive nature of alcoholism . . . This is not a story of easy redemption . . . McFadden writes candidly about the treacherous hold of addiction."
Publishers Weekly

"Riveting. . . . So nicely avoids the sentimentality that swirls around the subject matter. I am as impressed by its structural strength as by the searing and expertly imagined scenes."
—Toni Morrison, author of Beloved

"The sharpness of the prose and power of the story make it hard to stop reading even the most brutal scenes . . . The story feels real perhaps because it’s familiar . . . Or maybe, as Frey points out, the story is too vivid to be read purely as fiction. But in this Precious-style novel, genre is the least of our concerns."
Bust magazine

"This is a story that cuts across all race and social strata in its need to be told."
The Dallas Morning News

The Warmest December is the incredibly moving story of one Brooklyn family and the alcoholism that determined years of their lives. Narrated by Kenzie Lowe, a young woman reminiscent of Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John, as she visits her dying father and finds that choices she once thought beyond her control are very much hers to make.

Bernice L. McFadden is the author of seven critically acclaimed novels.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781617750359
Publisher: Akashic Books
Publication date: 01/31/2012
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 997,029
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Bernice L. McFadden: Bernice L. McFadden is the author of seven critically acclaimed novels including the classic Sugar and Glorious, which was featured in Oprah Magazine and selected as the debut title for the One Book, One Harlem program. She is a two-time Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist, as well as the recipient of two fiction honor awards from the BCALA. Her sophomore novel, The Warmest December, was praised by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison as "searing and expertly imagined." McFadden lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Now and then I forget things, small things that would not otherwise alter my life. Things like milk in my coffee, setting my alarm clock, or Oprah at four. Tiny things.

    One day last week I forgot that I hated my father, forgot that I had even thought of him as a monster, forgot the blows he'd dealt my body over the years and the day he called me to him and demanded that I show him my hands. "Are they dean?" he asked as I slowly raised my arms. "Yes, sir," I said and shook my head furiously up and down.

    They were clean, in fact still damp from my having washed them. "Come closer," he said. "Come closer so I can see better," he said. I moved closer and closer until my small hands were right beneath his chin. "I see a speck of dirt," he said and stifled a laugh. I smelled the whiskey. It was whiskey then.

    "A speck of dirt ... hmmm ... right there," he said and smashed the hot tip of his cigarette down into the soft middle of my eight-year-old palm. I'd forgotten that day, the broken ribs, and the feel of the hard leather belt that held his Levi's up and left black bruises on my lower back and the underside of my thighs.

    I forgot how the sound of my mother crying ate holes inside of me and tipped a space open near my heart. But worst of all I forgot about Malcolm, and for some reason I woke up early one cold winter morning and boarded two buses, traveling over an hour to sit by his bedside in Kings County Hospital.

    By then he looked nothing like the beast I imagined from my childhood. The hands that had caused somuch pain and left so many bruises were now shriveled and black, the fingers curled under like the ragged claws of a vulture. The fingernails were long gone, having decayed months earlier until finally flaking off and turning to dust as they hit the floor.

    I sat for a long time watching him, while the winter sun fought to be seen through the dirty, cracked glass windows of his hospital room.

    The room was heated but I did not remove my heavy jacket or the thick rust-colored wool hat that covered my head. Being this close to him made me shiver despite the warmth, and I dug my hands deep into my pockets, where my fingers were going numb at the tips.

    He had less than half of his liver left, and bad blood circulated through his body, turning his once warm cinnamon-colored skin an inky black. The veins in his arms and legs were weak and thin; the only good vein left was in his penis, so that's where they attached most of the tubes. Della thought that was funny and had smiled smugly when the doctor shared that piece of information with her.

    Dozens of tubes ran in, out, and through every part of his body, like translucent tentacles, and I half-expected them to stretch out and enwrap me in their plastic grip.

    Most of his teeth were gone and the ones that remained were the color of butter, buried in tobacco-brown gums. Never a big man, his small frame had withered so that his skin draped on his body looking tailored to fit.

    I watched him, and to my surprise my heart pulled in my chest as I remembered a Saturday a few years earlier when we still owned the house. The rain and wind were pounding at the windows, ripping away the petals of the tulips that filled the garden and tearing at the black phone lines hanging above the two-family homes that lined the neighborhood.

    It was Saturday and no matter the rain and the gray of the day, the sheets needed changing and the laundry needed to be done.

    Della's hands were hurting. The damp weather was aggravating her arthritis, her fingers refused to bend, and her knee swelled and bulged through her pants leg.

    I told her not to worry, I would change the linens on her bed and wash her clothes. "Leave my underwear alone," she said as she half-walked, half-limped her way to the kitchen. "I'll wash those tomorrow when I'm feeling better." I just smiled and shook my head and then began stripping the sheets from the bed.

    I picked up Della's pillow first, removed its case, and then went for Hy-Lo's, but I dropped it back down to the bed just as quickly as I had snatched it up. I stood staring at it for some time, trying to distinguish what I thought were tiny blooming roses camouflaged among the green-stemmed daffodils that sprinkled the mauve canvas of the pillowcase.

    I scratched my head in confusion and checked Della's pillowcase. No blooming roses there. I looked at the matching top sheet and bed ruffle. Again, no blooming roses.

    My heart began to race and I could feel panic taking hold of me like a vice grip. The air became thin, and all at once I knew that the crimson rose-shaped figures were not roses at all, but splatterings of blood.

    That dried sanguine fluid dragged me toward a knowledge I had been side-stepping for sometime. Two, maybe three years at least. I had managed to ignore Hy-Lo's bloated stomach and swollen face, disregarding the stench that seeped from his pores and hung thick in the air like smoke and settled deep into the upholstery. I chose instead to smile away the smell and his physical appearance rather than offer explanation when a visitor raised his or her eyebrows in surprise.

    He was ill. More than ill at that point. My grandma Mable said he was wiping his feet on Death's doormat.

    I collected myself best I could and gathered the soiled linens and carried them down to the basement. He was there; he was always there, sitting in his recliner in front of the television surrounded by old lamps, boxes that held long-forgotten items, and dusty, rusting gym equipment that hadn't helped a body in years.

    The washing machine was to his left and he rarely bothered to acknowledge anyone who came to use it, he would just lean forward, remote control in hand, and increase the already earsplitting volume of the television.

    But for some reason, on that windy, rainy Saturday, he turned and looked at me and I forgot I hated him and smiled. He did not return my happy face with his own, but gave me a queer sort of look before turning his attention back to the television.

    I looked at his balding head and the tiny sores that had begun to fester there, and I pitied him. A pity so deep and blue welled up within me like the sea, misting my eyes and blurring the image of the tiny blooming roses on the mauve pillowcase just before I dropped it into the soapy water of the washing machine.

    He moved a bit. His head turned left then right, and he squeezed his eyes so tightly that milky tears ran out and onto his hollowed cheeks. I looked away from him, past the other three beds and the sick men they held, toward the open door of the room. I wanted so much to get up and leave, escape back into the bright winter sunlight. I wanted so much to reach over and pluck a Kleenex from the box on the nightstand beside his bed and gently wipe the sick tears away from his face.

    Instead, I pulled my chair closer, hiding myself behind the green curtain that surrounded us.

    These were his last days and he would spend them on his back, tubes running in, out, and through his body. Orderlies would come in once a day to give him a sponge bath, maybe fluff his pillow, and make sure the sheet was tucked tight beneath his mattress. Visitors would look at him when their conversations waned, allowing their eyes to travel over his face, and maybe they would wonder who he was or who he had been. They might whisper, "Who's that? What's wrong with him?" but the people they confided in would not be able to give a response. Instead, they'd just shrug their shoulders, dismissing my father over their food tray.

    I blinked back the tears that I could not understand and focused on the beige wall behind his bed. There were bits of tape that still clung there, yellow and brittle reminders of a Get Well card or a banner from a relative of the patient who'd lain there before my father. Someone who got better, got up, and checked back into the world.

    Hy-Lo would never get better. Never stand up and stretch as if just awakened from a long nap. Never smile at the rosy-cheeked nurse as he signed his release papers or check the nightstand drawer a second time to make sure he was not leaving his Father's Day watch behind.

    Hy-Lo would leave the hospital almost exactly the way he came in: on his back with his eyes closed. Except this time there would be no heartbeat, not even the faint one that kept him alive now.

    I shivered again and pulled my collar up around my neck, folding my hands beneath my armpits and repressing the urge to stamp my feet for warmth. The sun was setting and the thermostat in the room rose five degrees. But my memories were cold and I was closer to him now. The heat would do me no good. Leaving would be best. Leaving would mean warmth, but I stayed until the streetlights glowed and the rosy-cheeked nurse placed a small soft hand on my shoulder. "Ma'am, eight o'clock," she said with a smile.

    I looked stupidly, at her. "Visiting hours are over," she said with an air that made me think she felt this was something I should know.

    "Oh," I said, and gathered myself to leave. I moved the chair back to its place beside the wall. I would remember just how close I'd gotten and perhaps tomorrow I would get closer.

    I walked briskly up the street and away from the dark, looming brick walls of the hospital. I walked with my head down, cussing my feet for having carried me there to begin with. I hated Hy-Lo and had for most of my life. The other part of my life was lost deep inside of me in a place where I was not yet able to reach.

    I had hated him so desperately that as a child I prayed for his demise more times than I care to remember. I'd even plotted to poison him by spraying his favorite drinking mug with Raid roach spray. In my mind Hy-Lo was a treacherous two-legged insect that made sudden and unwelcome appearances.

    I hated him so desperately that I cried it into my pillow when I was five and mumbled it beneath my breath at ten. By the time I was thirteen I was screaming it into his face and catching the callused palm of his hand across my cheek for doing so. He was a stone wall and my hostility was nothing more than paper tossed against it. Or so I thought.

    For years I believed, as I had as a child, that his absence would wipe the memories of him clean away. "That would be impossible," a lover of mine had once suggested, his hand moving across an inch-long battle scar from a belt buckle gone wild. "Hmm," was my only reply. He never saw me in the nude again.

    I hurried past a woman wrapped in colorful cloth and newspaper. Her hair was thick and matted and hung down to her neck in brown turds of filth and grime. She was bent over a garbage can, both of her hands deep into the waste and filth, rummaging through it as if sorting through her sock drawer.

    Walking past, I turned slightly to look back at her and realized that I was back where I had started, in front of the hospital. The concrete stairs lay before me, the silver specks it held shimmered beneath the street lamps, reminding me of a summer day in 1970 and the way the sun gleamed through the warm air that glided around me, setting the stage for the hate I would develop at the tender age of five.

    At that age life just was. It wasn't what it would become: black hours, and days on end when the only thing that mattered was the next drink and then later, the next meeting. No, life was suppose to be sweet at that age and the only thing you would have to count were the hours before the sun rose again, allowing you to lose yourself in the happy world of Crayola, cartoons, and blue Italian ice.

    In 1970 I was five years old and summertime was a playful woman-child that kept watch over me in the daytime and rocked my mother through her lonely nights. She was the intense heat and long sweltering nights that kept people out late, fanning themselves on the stoop of their five-story walk-up or sometimes forcing them out onto the rusted fire escape, where they would lie, half-naked on a bare mattress, and watch the heavy yellow moon until sleep stole their eyes away.

    That was where my first real memory took place, right there in the midst of summer, beneath a rain of clothes that fell from the fifth floor and landed around the small feet of Glenna and me. We were not yet friends, but would become the best of friends in time.

    Glenna and her mother had moved in just as spring slowly took winter's place. Our eyes had locked in the halls of our building during our daily comings and goings. Our mothers had traded nods and polite hellos, but no formal introduction had been made.

    On that summer day Glenna stood less than five feet away from me, her hair plaited neatly in six long corn rolls that began at the top of her forehead and ended in ropes that hung down her back. She had a yellow yo-yo that she held tight in the palm of her hand, allowing it to fall to the end of its string only when my eyes grew tired of watching her and moved to scrutinize something other than her clean white Keds and green jump-suit.

    We should not have been there, but it was hot in the house and Della had sent me outside to play beneath the oak tree, where the shade was cooler than beneath the steady whirl of the fan. I was lining up milk crates for a game of train, while Hy-Lo, my father, washed and waxed his car. His transistor radio sat cradled in the driver's plush green seat, spilling out the Jackson Five's song about love and the alphabet. Glenna had also been ordered outside.

    In only three short months Glenna's mother, Pinky, had become the talk of the building. She was infamous for her loud two-person parties. They all began and ended the same! Pinky coming in from the Blue Bar around midnight, stockings torn and wig akimbo; some man, some good woman's husband, behind her, his hand beneath her dress before she even got the key in the door. She'd put on Marvin Gaye and open her window, filling the courtyard with his sexy lyrics until someone hollered out, "Turn that shit down. Some of us have to get up in the morning!" But she never did.

    Her laughter would come in spurts, sailing above the music, reaching its own crescendo and then falling into a deep groan. Something would happen, perhaps a misplaced word or a denied carnal request, that would ignite an explosion of filthy words and flying fists that snatched Glenna and the rest of the tenants from their sleep.

    But there was no one sleeping on that day, not at three in the afternoon. This man did not stumble in from the Blue Bar in the middle of the night. This man had driven up to the apartment house, rung her bell, and greeted her with a kiss that caused my mother's face to heat and her eyes to drop. An old friend in town for a night. The night turned into twenty-one sunsets, ten matchstick covers holding simple names and seven digits, lipstick-stained collars, and two women too many ringing Pinky's phone and boldly asking, "Pablo there?"

    That afternoon he left quickly and on foot, Pinky's screams at his back violently shoving him forward. His lip was busted and bleeding and his cream silk shirt was ripped at the cuff. I blinked as he moved past me like the wind and around the corner to the Blue Bar. I looked at Glenna but her head was tilted back, her small hand shading her eyes as she looked up at her mother. The curse words came first, a string of indictments in Panamanian Spanish and broken Brooklyn English. Passersbys either stopped to stare up at her or lowered their heads and hurried on. My father stopped his waxing, turned off the transistor radio, and leaned against the side of the car. He lit a Camel cigarette and inhaled the coarse smoke. When he exhaled, he laughed and shook his head.

    The clothes came next.

    We stood, there, Glenna and I, our hearts beating in quick unison as polyester bell-bottomed pants and knit shirts came down around us. Then the shoes came flying down like grenades, sending us scurrying into the street for safety. We did not look at each other; our eyes remained on the boxer shorts and black silk socks that flew from the window like wingless birds.

    "He ain't never coming back in here! NEVER!" Pinky's affirmation could be heard from Nostrand Avenue all the way down to Bedford Street. It was a refrain every woman in that neighborhood had heard or said more than once.

    The clothes stopped coming and then she was on the stoop: Pinky, with her milky brown skin, carrot-colored hair on top and black roots on the bottom. She was wrapped in a red silk robe that barely covered her thick thighs and broad behind, and to make it worse, she had forgotten to knot the belt. Her breast, heavy and bruised, but still beautiful to the men that stopped to stare, played a swinging peek-a-boo with the audience that was gathering on the sidewalk. She did, thankfully, have on underwear; black nylon that barely covered her privates, lending onlookers a glimpse of the wild, black Panamanian hair that grew there.

    Glenna gasped but didn't move. Pinky was leaping down the stairs like Spiderman, cussing with each step she took.

    "Fucking asshole!"







    She hit the sidewalk and snatched up one of my milk crates all in one motion. I took another step backward, anticipating the outcome of that action. Pinky ran over to Pablo's cream-colored, four-door Cadillac and brought the crate down hard into the front window. It shattered and buckled beneath the impact. Then she ran to the rear window and repeated the deed, with increased force and intensity. The men that watched, forgot about the swinging breast and scrunched their faces against the destruction that was unfolding before them. She smashed each side window and then pulled an ice pick from the pocket of her robe and bent over, revealing her tight broad behind to the world, and sliced, stabbed, and jabbed at each of the four tires, until the air whistled out of them and they were dead. Then she crumbled into a heap of female ruin on the pavement.

    The crowd moved on.

    Della approached, at first with caution and then her steps quickened. Hy-Lo stood up and cleared his throat. Della shot him a quick unsteady glance but kept moving. I looked at my father and his mouth was hanging open.

    Della was also wrapped in a robe. Pink and white terrycloth patched in noticeable places hung open in order to accommodate the child that was growing inside her. Her hair was pulled back in a messy bun that had not seen a Saturday wash 'n press appointment in over a month.

    She knelt down beside Glenna's mother and coaxed her with soft words, until Pinky raised herself up from the pavement and pulled her robe closed around her body. They sidestepped the clothes that littered the ground, making their way up the steps and into apartment number A5.

    Our apartment had seen its own days of wrath. The white kitchen wall was tinged yellow in spots where no amount of scrubbing could completely lift the bloodstains away. That was the night Hy-Lo had come home from work early and found Della chatting on the phone, the sink piled high with dishes and the food still sitting in cold pots on the stove. There were few words passed between them before he hauled off and slapped her, breaking the vessels in her nose and splattering her blood, thick and red, across the wall.

    But for the moment apartment A5 was quiet and would be a place for Pinky to sit and cry.

    My father laughed at their backs as they walked inside. A loud, long laugh that chilled me and I shivered. He had a can of beer in his hand, his fifth for the day. He tilted it up to his mouth and finished it in one long swallow. He never looked at me, not directly, but he knew I was watching him and that my young eyes were filled with disgust.

    I blinked back that summer and saw that the old woman was staring angrily at me. "Fucking bitch!" she yelled and then gave me the finger before bending over, to show me her behind. "Kiss my ass!" she screamed.

    I moved on, feeling more insulted by the long-ago laughter of my father than the revolting invitation from the old woman.

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