An Excerpt from Inheritance, an unpublished novel
First she hears unintelligible voices as if they are coming from behind a closed door, then the lyrics of half-forgotten songs, and she finds herself singing one or two lines over and over. Now it’s gee ain’t it hard to love someone when that someone don’t love you. And she can’t think of any reason for that line to haunt her. She’s nearly seventy years old, a widow for nine years, certainly not in love. Visions come and go, pass swiftly before her, then disappear. Often she can’t seem to catch her breath. Is she going crazy? A hundred years before there would have been no doubt about it – a crazy woman, needing medical care. Even today, many women would rush to a psychiatrist who very likely would administer pills. But if this is madness it is nothing new to her. She’s had these bouts all her life, since she was a girl. They come and go within her, like a bad wind. Over the years, they have become easier, if only because they are well known. Occasionally, she is defeated, thrown about by fears and anger, wandering around nervously and aimlessly – her rooms, the neighborhood, her mind. Mostly through the years she has written – stories and novels about women and girls who suffer bouts of – well, madness seems as good a word as any, and the writing drags her out into the light again. She no longer fears the voices or the shadows that accompany them at times. Instead, she tries to read them as closely as she would a poem. She rubs her eyes, aching again. Perhaps she needs new glasses.
Ami Reed paces the room she loves, her work room, with its floor to ceiling book shelves, its comfortable chair covered in forest green velvet, the pile worn down in places to a threadbare silk. There she has sat over the years, dreaming up her stories, wrestling with their secrets, stories notable for their shape and layers of imagery, so that as with the intricate manifest content of certain dreams she herself cannot always see into the personal, latent meaning. She knows only that the finished story, or novel, calms and excites her at once, much like the feeling of waking from a vaguely remembered “good” dream. The long oak table is stained with rings from coffee mugs and glasses of wine, scratched with indentations from her pens, vague notes she has written to herself when she can’t wait the seconds it takes to find a piece of paper. She loves her worn desk with its visual record of her writing life, and she loves the wall covered almost completely with pictures. A guitar, drawn by her son Jake when he was five, the lines and perspective so perfect she thought he might end up a painter instead of the history teacher he’s become. Toulouse-Lautrec’s young laundress looking out a window, her wrinkled white blouse and hair loosening from a braid suggesting a dreamer, this print given to her by one of her favorite students years before. A series of photographs of her family: her husband Jacob reading, his glasses falling down the sloping bridge of his nose – taken a year before he died, and each time she looks at it he comes to her, as if he is alive within the photograph, or near it, or near her, as near as he had been in life. There is one of Jake as a new father, holding Samantha in the crook of his arm; and three of Sam herself – a joyful toddler, a defiant little girl, and a recent one from the previous spring in which you can see the young woman beginning to emerge. On a narrow wall near the window in a neat vertical line are twelve framed drawings she’s made herself, each one symbolic of one of her books: an image taken from a dream, a sketch of a central character, a design made while listening to a piece of music that had inspired her work, a photograph of Monet whose water lilies once opened a new door in her life.
She changes the CD from Bessie Smith’s blues to a particularly melodic Mozart quintet, hoping to get that damn line about unrequited love out of her head. Right now, all the doors feel closed. She had decided to stay away from the lake to avoid complications. Jake would be bringing his intended wife, Corinne Robinson, to meet Samantha; he had plenty to deal with; he didn’t need his mother there too. She had even relinquished her yearly summer journey with Samantha to the sea, the only sacrifice she minded, but the compensation would be all this time to work, she had told herself, and she had looked forward to becoming a hermit, lonely but productive in her comfortable home. Instead, she has the voices, the shadows, the unshakable anxiety each morning and disappointment each night. She’s accomplished nothing. Is blocked in a way she hasn’t been for years. And all, she has to assume, because instead of a new work of fiction, planned for months, she is writing these endless, fruitless notes, or letters, meant for Samantha who had – well, demanded it, saying she wanted “the truth.”
Well, she is a writer, she prides herself on knowing how to get at “the truth,” but not so directly, not unembellished stories of her own life. She isn’t a good reader of memoirs, let alone a writer of one. She keeps journals, but she has never wanted to turn those unshaped, private pages into public autobiography. Just getting her feelings out in words is enough to stem the tide of thought – and that is all she wants to do; contain the flood so as to separate it from that other flood – more intelligent and coherent, the words and stories that become her work. She does not want to be a public witness to her actual life. What she wants is the sharp pleasure of creating the beautiful shapes and structures, the images and echoing phrases she can somehow imagine out of the dust and mud roads in her mind. And if occasionally she wonders why she does not destroy all the journals at once in some huge bonfire in the backyard of Jake’s little cottage at the lake, it is a contradiction she can live with, at least for a few more years.
Yet here she is after all, trying to write something just as it happened, one part of her life – a central and defining part – her life as a white woman married to a black man. Her fear of focusing her life in this way begins in her throat. She swallows with effort. It tightens her chest and becomes a dull ache in her temples. Soon, it goes away, but she feels enervated, as if she has suffered a long illness and only just come back to ordinary life.
We met at a Civil Rights demonstration, she writes. Arms linked, singing Black and white together we shall not be moved. But no sooner does she begin than the other thoughts come, an unwanted disturbing wind of thought, and become a sentence on the page: Could it be that my white body felt it all differently from those other, darker bodies? She erases, tries to push the feeling away. They were linked together, had been fighting the same fight, interested in social justice in the same way. She has often scoffed at the idea that it was all an illusion – the camaraderie, the shared sacrifice – as people now claimed, but the bad wind returns and circles her and she has no idea what it means, let alone how she might eventually put it into words.
On the same day as she received Sam’s letter, asking her questions, Ami had gotten a worried phone call from her son. Samantha was acting strangely, he reported, echoing his daughter’s words, and she looked tired, was probably not sleeping well. She was moody, stayed by herself in the house most evenings. It was obviously a racial thing, he told his mother, it was clear the all-white village had been a mistake for some time, he’d been a fool – said belligerently, as if Ami were responsible for the decision to keep and use the house. Several times, Jake went on, having trouble himself getting to sleep, he had gone for a glass of water and found Sam in the kitchen, standing before the open refrigerator, eating steadily – leftover chicken, pasta, chunks of cheese she pulled off with her hand, and ice cream out of the container with a large spoon. Sam – he emphasized the sound of her name – who had always been so meticulous, so orderly, so controlled. He didn’t know what to do with her, or for her. Corinne had made every effort to befriend her.
Ami had tried to calm her son’s worries using stock-in-trade phrases – growing pains, a passing phase – assuring him it was completely natural if Sam was upset by Corinne’s arrival, however nice she had been. But she can’t shake her own anxieties. Sam’s questions have disturbed her. She’s read them over a hundred times by now, noting the quick leap to the last one, the first time Sam has asked so directly about her dead mother’s feelings about race. Her fear that her letter of response was inadequate has been confirmed by Sam’s silence, and so her first attempt has led to others until now she has over fifty pages of wandering, unshaped prose, none of which she has shown to Sam, about meeting, loving and marrying Jacob Reed.
Of all the people I have known in my life, she wrote, he was the most in tune with myself. Beneath all the superficial differences of belief – he a tolerant agnostic who allowed for all sorts of mysterious forces beyond his comprehension – a form of God, he was willing to allow; and I, a thoroughgoing atheist who feels utter disdain for the Catholicism of my childhood and a hearty dislike of all other religions too; even beneath the racial difference most people think of as defining in an absolute, essential way; beneath it all he was more like me than anyone I have ever known, and this likeness, over thirty-five years of marriage, was both comforting and erotic.
She had crossed out the last word thinking her erotic life was surely not the thing to share with her granddaughter, and that was the trouble with writing “the truth;” sooner or later you came upon truths that shouldn’t be written. She shuffles and stacks and reshuffles her pages. Then she cannot bear to look at her work another minute. She escapes the pile of printed sheets, the desk, the room and her apartment. The heat of the afternoon surrounds her as she steps into the street. She puts on dark sunglasses, stuffs her hands into the deep pockets of her eggplant colored smock and thinks of Orient, of the peaceful bay, the Sound beach at the end of Youngs Road where, during any other summer afternoon like this, she’d be swimming with Samantha, on the lookout for nothing more lethal than jelly-fish, rocked by gentle waves.
She should not have broken the summer ritual, Ami thinks, as she walks across the fields of Central Park, stopping at a line of benches facing the lake. Rowboats slip through the still water appearing almost stationary in the heat. For a moment, Ami sees herself and Jacob in one of those boats – vividly – as if their bodies, having once been there, were there still; as if memories were as real and present as the trees she sits beneath now, savoring what shade she can find. For a moment she relishes the thought – that like the old trees she and Jacob are still there, rowing on the lake where they had often rowed. No, she should not have relinquished her few days with Sam by the sea, the slow bike rides over flat curving roads, the old-fashioned ice cream parlor run by a jazz musician from the city whose conversation is as thick and sweet as his homemade hot fudge, the beach consisting entirely of smooth stones of pale lavender, coral and bright white that forms a graceful curve around the Long Island Sound. Ritual preserves memory. Predictable cycles and reliable habits get one through all sorts of dark. When Ami knows what’s coming, when things are in their accustomed place, she feels safe. She is not rigid, she tells herself, certainly not repressed. But like her granddaughter, she likes things to be under control.
She rises from the bench and makes her way back toward home, distressed by all the loose ends – the letter to Sam she cannot finish, cannot even satisfactorily begin; Sam’s mother’s tragic death and the memories Sam seems to want to dig up again; her increasing obsession with race. Well, she can blame her father for that. Jake had always emphasized it, first as a boy, causing his mother to feel as if he were closing a door on her in particular; then as a father, insisting his daughter’s complex mixed heritage did not change the fact that she was Black. (When he speaks, she can hear the capital letter, when he writes, she can see it.) She had insisted for all those years on their “sameness,” yet now she silences his attempts to argue with platitudes she finds remarkable to her own ear. Well, people are different, we agree to disagree. And if she knows, for a passing moment, that she is using words to obfuscate rather than to reveal, to hide and hold her son at a distance, she knows it only for that passing moment. Then she “forgets.” She thinks the quotes even as she buries the thought. She changes the subject to something on which they can agree – the recent election, the current war, the pleasure of a new recipe. Jake obliges. He loves his mother in a deep unspoken way and he has no need to be at odds with her at this point in his life. But he calls her less often. When he does, their conversation is short, pragmatic. When important things come up in his life, she finds he tells her after the fact, as with his decision to marry Corinne. What she doesn’t want at all is for Samantha to suffer from the discord between them.
She takes the next exit out of the park, stops in a corner market to purchase some salad greens for her dinner, a block of cheese, a baguette. She enters through the front room with its wall of windows facing the north, so that it’s cool on summer mornings and freezing in the winter. She loves the cold, loves to wrap herself in blankets, turn the music up loud and sit in that chilly room watching the city lights, getting rid of her wandering thoughts by writing them into her journal. Blood letting, she has come to call it, letting the impure blood pour out until what remains in her is a purer liquid, and from within that stream she can write.
She moves to her living room, its colors of beige, dark red and brown harmonizing with the music she quickly turns on, Ruth Brown singing Down and Out Blues, the wonderful sounds reminding her of the life outside her head. She counts on sound for this – low music, talk radio, even traffic noises comfort her in some way; she can hear her true voice, the one she wants to hear, only if some deeper, persistent chatter is drowned out by rhythmic sound.
She wanders back through her study, opens the beautiful wooden door she’d had made years before, enters her bedroom where she lies down on her wide bed covered with pillows and a dark red quilt. But her agitation will not be calmed. Sam’s letter has set her on this path where her memories – the very ones she believed to be so reliable – are breaking – shifting – fragmenting – and among the signposts of what she thought was “the truth” of her own history, blocks and interruptions appear. Worse, none of it is clear. The feelings might be as intense as any she has known, but – and here is the heart of her anxiety – the feelings have no words. She picks up the letter from the corner table and reads it again. How did Grandpa feel about having a white wife? What would my mother have felt? In the deafening sound let loose by those two questions, Ami has lost her own voice. Once again she feels old fears pushing, the threat of old angers she thought she had left behind. I don’t have black people or white people in my books, only people, she had written to Sam. Had she been a complete fool? Was some vast ignorance exposed in her work, the place she’d felt most in control? She grabs the pages she has begun for Samantha, shoves them into a folder and slams the file drawer shut. For a moment, everything tilts and spins, the room grows hazy. She lies down again. She is afraid of losing someone she loves and needs – perhaps more than anyone ought to love and need. And that person can only be her son.