Dr. Paula suggested devising a family ritual as a way to create more intimacy in their relationship. An “emotional bridge” she had called it. A “family building block.” Lane had taken notes. Charles nodded like he did at cocktail parties, only his jaw was set, and Lane could see the vein in his temples pulse. “A hundred and twenty dollars closer to fine,” he said at the receptionist’s desk. It was his little joke. Every week.
As far as Charles was concerned, nothing was wrong with the way they had settled into their lives, the way everything had become routine. He seemed to Lane to be comfortable with accepting things as they were. A survival mechanism, perhaps, but it had stirred up something inside her lately that made her feel restless, as if she could never quite get to the place she wanted to be. So, she was surprised when Charles agreed to join her meetings with Dr. Paula. She wondered if he was more invested in keeping her happy than he was in changing things.
But six months of Dr. Paula was finally paying off. At least Lane thought it was. She was definitely less of an emotional hostage. Lane had inherited her father’s fire, which incarnate in the female form produced a combination of brashness and wit so as to cause most men’s hackles to rise. (“Lane, you do want to get married someday, don’t you?” asked her mother, who relegated angry women to either the category of lesbian or poor, misguided street urchin.) So when Lane met Charles, his composure seemed to come from a deeper well of serenity that would counterbalance her temper. He was unflappable, and that would be good for her, she thought. He just might wear down her rough edges. “Laid back” was what she had called it when they were dating. Charles was a laid back son of an obstetrician, she had told her sister Sophie when confessing their romance. An accountant. Partnered in a firm. From a good family. Of good breeding. Charles Douglass Harrell, III. She was certain they would approve. “And, oh yeah, Sophie…he’s black.” They were married within the year.
“Well, I suppose we should get a Christmas tree, you know, for the ritual and all…” Charles said, pushing back from the dinner table and finishing the last sip of his Merlot. “Jacob’s first real holiday. He can pull all the ornaments off the bottom limbs and eat tinsel.”
“So, you would give up going to Maryland this year?” Lane asked. “What about your sister?”
“She’ll live. Besides, I don’t see you telling your mother that we are going up to Maryland for Thanksgiving instead of coming to her little soiree, do you?” Charles had the habit of squinting and cocking his head to the left a bit whenever he used French derivatives. It was an endearing, yet equally contemptible gesture.
“What do you think?” Lane said.
Lane’s mother insisted on Thanksgiving at the family home outside Atlanta. Compliance to this mandate was the one rule Lane considered non-negotiable, and it seemed enough to placate her mother for several months. Ever since Lane’s father had died, her mother preferred to play martyr throughout December. “Your father loved Christmas so much that I just can’t bear to enjoy it anymore,” she had said. So, Lane and Charles always went to his sister’s house in Baltimore for Christmas and spent Thanksgiving incarcerated by the trappings of Southern hospitality.
“So, you’re serious. You want Christmas at our house this year? For everybody?” Lane asked.
“No, let’s make it just the three of us, nothing fancy…unless you want it to be fancy…whatever you want.”
“What will we tell people?”
“We don’t have to do it, Lane. It was just an idea. I’m just trying to follow doctor’s orders.”
Lane scraped the leftovers into the disposal and flipped the switch with the tines of a fork. She watched from the corner of her eye as Charles went into the den to turn on the Bloomberg report. She switched off the disposal and leaned a hip against the sink. He was trying, dammit. The least she could do was agree with him.
“Would you want me to cook a turkey for just the three of us?” she asked.
“We could have peanut butter and jelly as far as I’m concerned. Or Moon Pies and beer. Just as long as we do it as a family.”
“A new tradition,” Lane said.
“Just be sure it’s something you can live with, ok?”
Thanksgiving morning, Lane was rummaging through her mother’s attic on a reconnaissance mission for her childhood Christmas ornaments. As fastidious as her mother was, it surprised Lane that she had saved so much–boxes of hers and Sophie’s clothes, primary school artwork and play bills, Dad’s old black leather medical bag. She saw the box of ornaments towards the corner of the attic under some kind of fabric that was tightly wrapped and taped shut inside a plastic K-Mart bag. She knew exactly what the package was even before she could reach it. She had heard of the mysterious existence of the “slave quilt”–her father had spoken of it in his curious, intoxicated way (“a goddamn abom…abomination”)–she had even seen it once, maybe twice over the course of the years’ whirlwind spring cleanings her mother hosted. Somehow, the K-Mart bag had heightened the mystique of it. Hell, the last thing of any value she had found were some twenty-year-old Quaaludes from her older brother Greg’s abandoned stash, and as far as she could remember, they were also in a K-Mart bag. (Their mother had been a devotee for years, although she wouldn’t admit it to her bridge club.)
Lane hardly even looked at the quilt before she stuffed it back into the plastic. Just quickly enough to see that the blue and rust patchwork would not match her décor. This damn thing, as old as it was, was probably worth something! High on adrenaline, she felt as if she had looted the Smithsonian. She maneuvered the quilt and the ornament box down the ladder and brought them into the kitchen.
“I’ve been saving that for you, ” her mother said. “I’m glad you found it. That quilt’s been in the family a long time.”
“Where did it come from? Wasn’t it a slave quilt?” Lane asked.
“You know, if anyone knows about the quilt, it would be Cousin Avery,” she said. “Why don’t you ask him about it after dinner? He’d like that.”
“I’m sure he would, Mother.”
Avery always waited at the table while the other men sidled off full-bellied for the den to catch replays of field goals missed and games lost and won during the meal. It had always driven her crazy–him sitting there like some aristocrat while she and her sister Sophie cleared the table and put out dessert, watching with sublime pleasure as the women scurried about him. Once, Sophie caught him peering down her blouse. But now he was dying of cancer, and slow in doing it. Lane supposed people died the way they lived–Avery would linger around, haunting them long before he gave up the ghost.
Over the years, Lane preferred simple communications with her cousin, “Peas, Avery?” or “Really, that’s interesting, Avery, I didn’t know that about the boll weevil.” Now all she wanted to know was a little something about this so-called “slave quilt.” She didn’t care to relive the legends of the Brockton lineage. Yet Cousin Avery, in his dying quest to preserve the family’s collective memory would prove a valuable resource, her mother was convinced.
“Go ahead, Laney, ask him?” Her mother nudged her as she reached over her shoulder for the gravy boat. Lane stared across the table at her ancient cousin, focusing on the liver spots that stained his balding head as her mother disappeared into the kitchen. She had never been able to look him quite in the eye.
“By the way, Avery, you know anything about that old slave quilt?” She began to stack the silverware on top of her plate.
“You know, Avery, the one Mama brought over from the old farmhouse,” her mother said, retrieving the carving knife from the table. “Lane found it today up in my attic.”
“Oh yes, it was a beautiful place, young lady–The Haven, as they called it. Built from memory as a replica of the original plantation house in Alabama…with alabaster columns to the sky…high on a hill and just as fair as the Parthenon?”
“They have hills in Alabama?” Sophie asked.
“No, darlin’–this was up in the Texas hill country where our family fled during the War of Northern Aggression. The Brockton cotton plantation was in Alabama,” he said.
“The War of what?”
“The Civil War, Sophie,” Lane said. “You know, that little skirmish over slavery?”
Sophie modeled her best pout.
“Yes, we Brocktons–let’s see, that would be your great-great grandparents–had quite the cotton operation going, with over two-hundred head of slaves,” Avery continued. “Two hundred head of slaves,” he said. “Think of the tremendous wealth!”
It took a moment before the words took on meaning. Lane couldn’t believe anyone could say something so ignorant with such grace. As if there was nothing so holy as heritage. Six months ago, she would have had her sword drawn. But cancer had beat her to him. And besides, Lane was certain her mother and the rest of the family weren’t prepared for a re-enactment of the Civil War before pie. Certainly Charles wasn’t.
“Two hundred head!”
Head. Of slaves. Cattle. Livestock. It made her teeth hurt. The wealth. Lane was certain her tongue was bleeding. As if she should be proud of this–these not-so-distant ancestors, her blood. These were people she had never known, people her mother never talked about. Her great-grandparents? She barely remembered her grandparents. Who the hell knew anything about their great-grandparents? There were never any stories told, any witty anecdotes like there were about Dad’s family. Something about the farm…maybe? She wondered how much of it her mother even knew.
“Can you imagine…if you figure at four hundred dollars a head, back then…tremendous wealth!”
Head. She thought of her husband’s head, dark against the creamy upholstery of the La-Z-Boy in the next room, their son’s latte-colored face smooshed against his chest, resting in a puddle of sweet baby drool. A fantastic impulse to crack her plate over Avery’s Vitalis-lacquered skull both frightened her and made her want to laugh. Aunt Emmy’s good china. And they had already lost a place setting to Dad back in ’93 during the infamous Battle of Bourbon. Nobody even remembered what it had been about, only that Dad and Avery began shouting over their glasses of Gentleman Jack until Dad cracked an adamant fist down squarely on the table, splitting his stacked plates in two like a kung-fu master. (After that, the girls were forbidden to set the table in the English traditional manner.)
Thank God for Thanksgiving football games. Thank God the guys were in the den. Although Lane imagined that Charles would have reacted to Avery in the same way he reacted to everything, with that tedious Stoicism that made her want to pierce his forearm with her teeth. “Avery was just raised that way,” Charles would say. “You can’t blame him for that. Color makes a difference to him.”
Funny, she never really thought about the actual colors of their skin unless forced by some lingering wayward glance–black women at the mall or white men idling at stoplights behind the wheels of Ford F-150’s. Or now, with this plantation talk, this exposure of the Brockton tree’s knotted roots. Her ancestors would probably spin like tops in their graves if they knew one of their own had married a “Negro.” Not to mention spawned a mulatto child. She wondered if names even existed for the colors that they were. It didn’t matter, did it? Her name had never been Brockton. How much did the maternal side of the tree really count, anyway? The way she saw it, she was twice removed from any of the Confederate Brocktons, and happily so.
After the Battle of Bourbon, Avery had known his place. He was a once-a-year relative, the “no one should be alone on Thanksgiving” invitation. He and Dad would still get into things, but rarely did it evolve beyond a heated discussion of politics. Yet, once Dad had passed, nothing seemed to be off limits.
“Let’s see, four hundred dollars times two hundred head would be?”
“Gee, I don’t know…tremendous wealth?”
“Lane!” Her mother’s voice scolded her over the noise of running water. “Are there any other dishes out there?”
Ah, yes, the standard refrain, Lane thought. Designed to avoid the pitfalls of sarcasm, this secret code had allowed for many a Brockton woman an escape into the haven of the kitchen.
“No, Mother, there aren’t.” Lane stared at the table, peppered with silverware, wineglasses, and stray morsels of turkey. She sat down to face Avery. She would have to focus, as this really was simply about the quilt.
“So what about the quilt? Do you know whose it was?” Lane was pressing her finger against the tip of the carving knife and studying the imprint on her skin.
“Well, I reckon it belonged to your great-great grandmother, Lucretia. She or one of her daughters must have saved it from the ruins of the house once the Union soldiers razed the farm. They burned just about everything, you know, the Yanks. Set the South ablaze.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Lane could see her mother heading towards the table with two pies balanced carefully on the palms of her hands, Sophie carrying dessert plates in tow.
“Yes sir,” Avery continued, “They say your great-great grandfather, Phineas Brockton always said he’d rather his daughters marry a coal-black nigger than a Goddamn Yankee!” He chortled. “Boy, he sure hated Yankees!”
Lane saw the horrified look on her mother’s face before the knife pierced the pad of her index finger. “Damn!” She pushed away from the table and ran into the kitchen, sucking the blood from her wound.
“Really, Avery, such language!” She could hear the admonition in her mother’s voice and imagined her nodding her head towards the den. Towards the La-Z-Boy.
“What’d I say?”
The bleeding stopped, Lane turned to the sink to wash her hands. She could hear Sophie now, vying for Brockton artifacts.
“If Lane gets the old slave quilt, then I get Aunt Emmy’s tea service!”
“Sophie, please. Go call the boys for pie.”
Lane rummaged in a drawer for a Band-Aid. Sophie came in, setting the wineglasses in the sink.
“Is that how you intend to handle things from now on? By maiming yourself?” she asked. “Why not just have another glass of wine, instead?”
Lane shrugged, and wrapped the Band-Aid around her finger. Too tight. She took it off and threw it in the trash.
“Hard to feel sorry for him, isn’t it? Dad sure would’ve had fun with this. Remember how they used to go at it? Him and Avery? About everything from Vietnam to Women’s Lib?”
“Thanks.” Lane forced a meager smile. “I’m OK.”
“Wrap up the quilt in acid-free paper. I saw it on the Discovery Channel. Keeps the fabric from deteriorating.”
Sophie headed into the den to round up the men. “Just take good care of it, Lane. It is a family heirloom, like it or not.”
“Lane, honey? Could you bring in the whipped cream?”
“Certainly, mother,” Lane muttered.
The drive home seemed endless, as if she expected their house to appear at the crest of every hill, the lean of every curve. Lane couldn’t escape the thought of the quilt, now something much more than it had been only a few hours before–a relic, a souvenir. Now it was a menace, something to be ashamed of. She wanted to rid herself of this history. She wanted to shake off the Brockton lineage like a spider she suddenly discovered climbing her skin. How could she have been so stupid? It was a Southern legacy, she knew, and somewhere down the line it was inevitably her legacy. It was just so easy to look the other way–Dad’s family–it was all so romantic. Free-thinking German immigrants escape persecution. Come to America. Work hard. Get rich.
“I still can’t believe the Cowboys won that game. Aikman was on fire in the fourth quarter!” Charles said.
Always football. She supposed it was a simple way for Charles to be just one of the guys, but she didn’t understand how he could go on and on about it. Especially when there were much more important things to concern yourself with. Like the use of pesticides on produce. And the welfare system. All those things she had no control over. She wondered again what Charles would have done had he heard the things Avery had said. She tried to imagine him getting angry, causing a scene. She couldn’t, and even though it annoyed her, she envied his ability to remain composed. Even now, with a son to protect, she couldn’t imagine Charles getting riled up about anything.
“What’s the matter, Lane?”
“Nothing. Nothing’s the matter.” She had never been good at hiding her feelings, but then Charles had never been good at reading her mood. What was there to say? How could she possibly explain it to him when she couldn’t come to terms with it herself? She hadn’t even told him about the quilt in the first place–she thought it would be easier that way. Now she wanted to protect him from knowing who she really was. Where she came from. He would never have to know. More importantly, her son would never have to know.
Charles just wouldn’t understand, and she didn’t know how to make him understand. She wasn’t sure if she could remember what it felt like to be understood. It felt like you were high, she thought. Like some great cosmic WOW. Like you were connected. She remembered her friends from college, stoned out of their minds and passing a joint around the Jacuzzi at the Holiday Inn, insisting in hazy melodic drawls, “I really get you, man. I mean, I really do.” Life would be so much easier if everyone was high, she thought. Propping her head against her hand, Lane chuckled in defeat.
“What is it, Lane?”
“Nothing.” She leaned into the curve.
“You gonna tell me what’s got you so quiet?”
Charles brushed the hair from her face as she bent down to arrange the leftovers her mother had packed for them in the fridge.
“Avery say something to piss you off? Sophie? What?”
He was trying, and she loved him for that, even though she wanted more. She wanted to tell him about the quilt, about her shame in discovering her roots. How she was angry at her own denial. How she wanted to believe that color didn’t matter, even though it did. How she feared their children would one day see her as an outsider. But there were words you could not say. Head of slaves. Coal black nigger. She wondered about the things Charles didn’t tell her–like what they said at the barbershop or how it must feel to have a white woman serve you dinner, do your laundry, give you head. Jesus, was it like that? Dizzy, she turned to face him, hoping his eyes would ground her again.
“Lane, you can’t let every little thing tear you down. You have to be stronger than that.” Charles backed away from her and leaned against the counter. “For us. For Jacob.”
“What is that supposed to mean? That I’m not a good mother? A good wife? Well, I’m sorry, Charles, I’m not like you. I can’t just let everything slide…”
“I’m not asking you to. Is that what you think? That nothing affects me? It’s about living, Lane. You make the choice of how to do it. People are what they are. Don’t waste your time trying to change things.”
“We are changing things.” She hadn’t thought of it like that before, but it was true. She couldn’t help but wonder if she had had something to prove when she married Charles–sure, he loved her, he made her laugh–but there was something else, a thrill of breaking the rules. One more line to cross.
“Whatever Avery said, is it worth all this?” Charles asked.
“Do you even care?”
“No. What I care about is us. Let it go, Lane.”
She couldn’t sleep. She left Charles snoring face-down in the bed, his customary post-coital position. That damn quilt. Why couldn’t she let it go? Everybody had skeletons in the closet–vices, abuses, fetishes for that matter–there was no shortage of sickness in the world. Who could blame her for what her great-great grandparents did? She went downstairs to pour herself a Wild Turkey, streaming whispered curses after tripping over the cat. She retrieved the Marlboros Charles thought she had thrown away and Dad’s old Zippo from their hiding place, buried deep in the sideboard under the fancy dinner linens. Heading out to the porch, she looped her finger through the handles of the K-Mart bag and opened the door with her hip.
It was mild out, even for an early Thanksgiving. She could just barely make out the fog of her breath in the cadmium glow of the streetlight. She flicked open the Zippo and lit the candle they used in the summer to fight mosquitoes, and then a Marlboro. Holding the K-Mart bag upside-down, she shook the quilt out onto the floor in a heap before she spread it out to its full length on the porch.
Sipping Turkey between drags, she faced the fabric like an adversary sizing up the fight. The dim light muted the colors of the quilt into shades she couldn’t name, accentuating the contrasts of the pattern. Lane stared at the quilt until her eyes blurred, losing their focus in the geometric intimacy of triangle and square. In the corner, a dark, seeping stain overcame the pattern and she focused again. Blood. It could only be blood.
Grabbing the candle, she knelt down to examine the stain. She could smell the dampness of the fabric, the beginnings of mildew and rot. Blood for sure. It had saturated the cotton, leaving in its wake an amber corrosion. Birth blood, she imagined, or death. A wound of some significance. But whose? She was taken aback by a profound sense of history–nothing solid or real, just the sense that this thing had been present long before her, that someone created it, labored over it, admired and used it. That it had purpose. And she realized that all along she had romanced this quilt to be the blanket of slaves, not one made by slaves for a master. Never before had it occurred to her that something so intricate and beautiful would not have been permitted for their use, that they would not have been permitted to claim the very thing they created.
Shame and anger burrowed into her. She lit another Marlboro, tasted its stale tobacco and watched the blue flame of the Zippo echo the night breeze. For an instant, she thought she might drop the lighter and watch it catch. Light it up. Throw her drink on it, too, that’d do the trick. Kick over the candle. Burn it up. Burn the fucking house down.
The baby. Lane could hear Jacob crying, a faint twinge in her chest before audible sound. She clinked the lighter shut and palmed the hot metal casing. Charles wouldn’t get up, she knew from experience. Woman’s work. Part of the deal. Tapping out her cigarette, she slid back the rest of the bourbon and went to her son.
Jacob’s clinging limbs bound around her neck and hips, grateful for his mother’s presence. Lane could feel the whisper of eyelashes tickle the crook of her neck. She was overwhelmed by the desire to melt into him–to share his innocence again. To know nothing of anger and shame. She held him tightly all the way to the porch. The chill of night air hastened Jacob’s grip, and as Lane crouched on the quilt, she whispered in his ear, “This is the blood of your ancestors.” She pulled the fabric around them, the smell of it heady against their skin. They would stain this quilt with their lives–their blood and tears; their piss, shit, milk, sweat, sex–as if to say, “This is who we are now.”