When did I first discover that although I was an only child, my father was not my father and mine alone? I really can’t say. It’s something that I’ve known for as long as I’ve known that I had a father.
Read the excerpt:
My session with the judges was not challenging. They seemed mostly concerned with whether or not I had done the work myself, trying to confuse me by quizzing me about the procedure for blending chemicals. They didn’t even ask me what I thought about the issue of acid rain and whether I thought it was going to destroy the whole world.
Irritated, I tossed my hair around while answering the questions. Girls my age would hem me up in the bathroom for flaunting my excellent head of hair, but the men on the committee fidgeted in their chairs as I shifted my curls from one shoulder to the other. Against my mother’s advice, I had applied a coat of liquid eyeliner, electric blue, to the pink rim above my lower lashes. It burned like crazy, but I just wet my lips and tried to look bored as tears leaked from my irritated and iridescent eyes.
One of the judges, a heavyset man with processed hair, said, ‘How did a pretty girl like you get so interested in science?’
The woman judge said, ‘Michael, that’s out of line.’
The other male judge said, ‘Michael, that’s a misdemeanor.’
I said, ‘I care about acid rain. It’s going to destroy the world.’
The three judges exchanged glares while I pulled on my rabbit-fur jacket.
‘Nice coat,’ the woman judge said.
‘My daddy won it for me in a poker game,’ I told them, rubbing my eyes with the backs of my hands.
I knew I wasn’t going to win a gold key. I could tell by the way that the judges looked at one another as I was leaving the small room. I searched the hallway for my sponsor, but she was nowhere to be found. The civic center was swarming with kids, all excited about the competition. Everyone from Mays High had to wear baby blue and gold shirts. I wore mine, as it was the only way I could participate, but I kept my rabbit-fur jacket buttoned and belted even though the building was warm.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned around to see the woman judge.
‘You put together a good project,’ she said. ‘But you really need to work on the way that you present yourself.’
I raised my penciled eyebrows.
‘Don’t get defensive, dear,’ she said. ‘I am telling you this for your own good. Woman to woman.’
I didn’t say anything. She gave my coat a little pat as though it were a pet and then she walked away.
I went out and stood in front of the civic center, holding a pencil to my mouth as though it were a cigarette. It was a goofy habit, a little tic I had picked up from James. He was always taking short breaks from whatever he was doing to smoke one of his Kools. Even though my mother let him smoke in the house, he sometimes stepped outside to light up, and I often went with him, standing on the patio and watching him hold the match behind his cupped hands. When he did it, it was like the only thing that was happening in the world was taking place just inches in front of his face.
It was November and freezing already. Spending my fourteenth-and-a-half birthday this way couldn’t have been a good sign for the year to come. Since I was hidden behind a white pillar, I went all the way and ground out my little golf pencil on the heel of my penny loafer. Commingled with the noise of cars zipping down Piedmont Avenue, was the sound of mewing. Peeking out from behind the pillar, what did I see? Chaurisse Witherspoon standing right in front of the glass doors, crying like her heart was breaking.
I wasn’t exactly shocked to encounter her at the civic center. All the public schools sent a few students to the fair. As my mother would say, ‘People are going to see people.’ So the sight of her wasn’t what had me all discombobulated. The thing that set off twitches at the corner of my mouth was the fact that Chaurisse was wearing a waist-length rabbit fur, too.
Shivering behind the column, I tried to think of a story that would let me believe that my father hadn’t lied to me when he gave me the coat. Why James would go to so much trouble to deceive me this way? It wasn’t like I hadn’t known all my life that I wasn’t his main daughter. If he had just admitted to buying the damn jacket in a store, I would have been prepared, in a way, for the possibility that there was one for Chaurisse, too. Why had he burst into my home in the middle of the night, letting me believe that he had seen this coat on the poker table, spread over a pile of chips, and thought of me, and only me?
It’s funny how three or four notes of anger can be struck at once, creating the perfect chord of fury. I thought about my father kissing my cheek with his rum breath. I thought about the guidance counselor and her smug talk about exclusivity. And who was the female judge to tell me anything about the way I handled myself? I looked out again at Chaurisse. The coat looked terrible on her, as it was my size, not hers. She couldn’t even button it up around her round middle.
I emerged from behind the pillar still woozy with rage, but I only planned to look at Chaurisse. I was just going to fill my eyes with her as I walked through the double doors. This was all I had in mind. Who would believe me, but this was all I had planned to do. No talking, no touching, just a good look.
This, I now know, is how people go crazy and do things they regret. Look at the woman who almost killed Al Green. I am sure she cooked those grits, fully intending to eat them for breakfast. Then he did something that set her off. After that, she probably picked up the pot, just to scare him a little bit. Next thing she knew and the boiling grits were all over his face. There was a name for that kind of thing. ‘Crime of passion.’ It meant that it wasn’t your fault.
Chaurisse stood in front of the civic center looking anxiously toward Piedmont Road, bouncing on the balls of her feet. She had quit crying but was sniffling and wiping her nose with the back of her hand. She looked over her shoulder and said, ‘Hi.’
I said hi back, while taking in the details of the jacket. It was the very same garment, right down to the crystal buttons on the sleeves. This was my sister. As I understood from biology, we should have fifty percent of the same genes. I took her in, searching for something common between us. James was all over her face, from her narrow lips to her mannish chin. I looked so much like my mother that it seemed that James had willed even his genetic material to leave no traces. I stared hard until I found something that proved that we were kin—stray flecks of pigmentation on the whites of her eyes. My own eyes showed the very same imperfection.
I must have lingered a little too long, because Chaurisse felt the need to explain herself. ‘I left my graphs at home. I’m so stupid.’
I shrugged. ‘It doesn’t matter. It’s just the science fair.’
Chaurisse shrugged back and said, ‘I worked hard on my project.’
Then a black Lincoln with tinted windows pulled up to the curb. I fondled the golf pencil in my pocket as Chaurisse clasped her hands in front of her. The driver of the car blew the horn with a reassuring little toot. My pulse quickened, and I was warm inside my coat despite the winter weather. My scalp tingled underneath my hair. I guess I knew on some level that it was only a matter of time before James discovered that my mother and I had not abided by the stern order to ‘stay away from my family.’ But who would have thought it was to happen like this, utterly by accident? My heart flopped around in my chest, and I felt my blood racing through my body. In a way, I was glad that it was happening like this, that James and I could discover each other’s deception at the same time. I only wished that my mother had been there.
My intention was to stand brave and defiant. I wouldn’t say a word; I’d just stand beside my sister wearing an identical coat, letting spectacle do all the talking. Maybe his words would ball up in his windpipe and choke him to death. I was so furious that I didn’t know that I was scared, but my body knew, and when the door to the Lincoln opened, my frightened neck turned my face away.
I heard Chaurisse call out, ‘Mama! Did you find it?’
I looked just in time to see my sister clap her hands together like a seal.
Chaurisse’s mother, Laverne, was nothing like my mother. She was round like her daughter and had that sort of let-go look that beauticians have on their days off. Her red-dyed hair was pulled back and fastened with a plain rubber band. A T-shirt that had probably been black at one time, was tucked into what looked to be a pair of pretty satin pajama pants. She seemed relaxed, silly even, as she waved the orange folder over her head. She did what she did without thinking it over first.
‘You mean this folder?’ she said. ‘What’s it worth to you? I was going to take it to the flea market and sell it.’
‘Mama,’ Chaurisse said, ‘you are embarrassing me.’ And then she sort of angled her head in my direction.
‘Hello,’ Laverne said. ‘You got yourself a nice coat. You girls are matching.’
I nodded. Laverne wasn’t pretty or showy in the way that my mother was, but she seemed more motherly to me. Her hands looked like they were born to make sandwiches. Not that my own mother didn’t take care of me. She laid out my clothes each night until I was in the fifth grade but never looked quite at home doing it. There was always the feeling that she was doing me a favor. Laverne was the kind of mother you never had to say thank you to.
‘My father gave me this coat,’ I said.
‘Mine, too,’ Chaurisse said. She reached out and stroked my sleeve and her touch was charged.
Twisting away from my sister, I said, ‘He won it for me in a poker game.’ I said this to Laverne and it sounded like a question.
With a little slackness in the jaw, Laverne said, ‘Come again?’
I didn’t say anything, because I knew that she’d heard me, and I could tell that what I said meant something to her. Her face creased and she looked a little less plump and satisfied. To my mind she always looked like a baby that had just been fed, full of milk and content.
Laverne said to Chaurisse, ‘Okay, kiddo. Good luck. I got to run errands.’
Chaurisse said, ‘Okay, thank you,’ and ran toward the building. I stayed out front until Laverne got back into the Lincoln. I couldn’t see her face through the tinted glass, but I could imagine it, her looking at me and my coat. She knew that this moment was important; I had seen it in the set of her mouth as she got back in the car. I turned away, not wanting her to memorize my face just yet. This was just the beginning. Some things were inevitable. You’d have to be a fool to think otherwise.
About the book
A Most Anticipated Book for 2020 according to The Sunday Times, the FT and the Guardian.
A breathtaking tale of family secrets, from the international bestselling author of An American Marriage.
‘My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.’
This is the story of a man’s deception, a family’s complicity, and the two teenage girls caught in the middle.
James Witherspoon has two families, one public, the other a closely guarded secret. But when his daughters meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows the truth. Theirs is a relationship destined to explode.
First published in the United States in 2011, and now available in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth for the first time.
About the author
Tayari Jones is the internationally bestselling author of four novels, most recently An American Marriage, winner of the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction. Jones is the recipient of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a United States Artist Fellowship, NEA Fellowship and a Radcliffe Institute Bunting Fellowship. She is also a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Born in Atlanta, Jones is a graduate of Spelman College, University of Iowa, and Arizona State University. She is currently professor of Creative Writing at Emory University and an Andrew Dickson White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University.