Authors: Tess Thompson
, a division of Evatopia, Inc.
Copyright © 2016 by Tess Thompson
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
his book came
to me in a flash after I attended my mother’s family reunion in 2008. It took years to write; the number of eyes on it over the years and drafts are too numerous to mention. I’m grateful to you all. You know who you are. Special thanks to Jennifer D. Munro for the editing of the first edition.
you to my mother’s cousin, Arlene, for the letters and essays between my grandmother and great-grandmother; they were a source of great insight and inspiration, as were the stories from my mother of her family and childhood.
o my early reader group
, along with all the fans who write me—thank you for your encouragement on those days when I think surely there must be an easier and more lucrative line of work.
o my little girls
, Ella and Emerson, thank you for the sacrifices and compromises demanded of you from your unconventional mother.
o my gay
and lesbian friends who’ve fought so hard for your right to legally love whomever you choose—your courage inspired many aspects of this book.
, thank you to the teachers of the world, who give of themselves every day in the most important job of all.
For Ella and Emerson
his book was inspired
by my great-grandmother, Beatrice Rains. She plays with the angels now.
the meaning of life? That was all—a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.”
To the Lighthouse
rom Jeselle Thorton’s journal
hen I came
into the kitchen this morning, Mrs. Bellmont handed me a package wrapped in shiny gold paper, a gift for my thirteenth birthday. A book, I thought, happy. But it wasn’t a book to read. It was a book to write in: a leather-bound journal. Inches of blank pages, waiting for my words.
Mrs. Bellmont beamed at me, seemingly pleased with my delight over the journal. “You write whatever ideas and observations come to you, Jeselle. Don’t censor yourself. Women, especially, can only learn to write by telling the truth about themselves and those around them.”
I put my nose in the middle of all those empty pages and took a deep breath, filling my lungs with the clean smell of new paper. Behind us Mama poured hotcake batter into a frying pan. The room filled with the aroma of those sweet cakes and sizzling oil. Whitmore came in holding a string of fish he’d caught in the lake, the screen door slamming behind him.
“Tell me why it matters that you write?” asked Mrs. Bellmont in her soft teacher voice.
“I cannot say exactly, Mrs. Bellmont.” Too shy to say the words out loud, I shrugged to hide my feelings. But I know exactly. I write to know I exist, to know there is more to me than flesh and muscle being primed for a life of humility, servitude, obedience. I write, seeking clarity. I write because I love. I write, searching for the light.
Mrs. Bellmont understood. This is the way between us. She squeezed my hand, her skin cream over my coffee.
Tonight, for my birthday present, Whit captured lightning bugs in a glass jar, knowing how I love them. We set the jar on the veranda, astonished at the immensity of their combined glow. “Enough light in there to write by,” I said, thinking of my journal now tucked in my apron pocket.
“They spark to attract a mate,” he said, almost mournfully.
“They light up to find love?” I asked, astonished.
He nodded. “Isn’t it something?”
We watched those bugs for a good while until Whit pushed his blond curls back from his forehead like he does when he worries.
“What is it?” I asked him.
“They shouldn’t be trapped in this jar when they’re meant to fly free, to look for love.”
He unscrewed the lid, and those flickers of life drifted out into the sultry air until they intermingled with other fireflies, liberated to attract the love they so desperately sought. I moved closer to him. He took my hand as we watched and watched, not wanting the moment to end but knowing it must, as all moments do, both good and bad, light and dark, leaving only love behind to be savored in our memories.
n a hot and
humid day in the middle of June, Nathaniel Fye rehearsed for a concert he was to give that night at the Howard Theatre with the Atlanta Orchestra. It was late afternoon when he emerged from the cool darkness of the theatre into the glaring afternoon heat and noise of Peachtree Street. He walked toward the large
that hung over the Hotel Winecoff, where he planned to eat a late afternoon meal and then head up to his room for a rest and a bath before dressing for the evening concert. Thick, humid air and gasoline fumes from passing automobiles made him hot even in his white linen summer suit.
Across to Singapore
, starring Joan Crawford, was displayed on the Loew’s Theatre marquee. What sort of people went to the moving pictures, he wondered? Ordinary people who had lives filled with fun and love and friendship instead of traveling from town to town for concerts and nothing but practice in between. All the travel had been tolerable, even exciting, when he was younger, but now, as his age crept into the early thirties, he found himself wanting companionship and love, especially from a woman. Lately, he daydreamed frequently of a wife and children, a home. The idea filled him with longing, the kind that even the accolades and enthusiastic audiences could not assuage. But he was hopeless with women. Tongue-tied, stammering, sweating, all described his interactions with any woman but his mother. His manager, Walt, was good with people. He could talk to anyone. But Nathaniel? He could never think of one thing to say to anyone—his preferred way of communication was music. When his hands were on the keys it was as if his soul were set free to love and be loved, everything inside him released to the world. He would never think of taking the astonishing opportunities his talent had afforded him for granted, especially after the sacrifices his parents had made for him to study with the finest teachers in the world. Even so, he was lonely. The disciplined life and his natural reticence afforded little opportunity for connection.
A young woman stood near the entrance of the Winecoff, one foot perched saucily on the wall while balancing on the other, reading a magazine. She wore a cream-colored dress, and her curly, white-blonde hair bobbed under a cloche hat of fine-woven pink straw with a brim just wide enough to cover her face. He caught a glimpse of his reflection in the door’s glass window, suddenly conscious of his own appearance. Tall, with a slight slump at his shoulders from years at the piano, dark hair under his hat, high cheekbones and sensitive brown eyes from his father but a delicate nose and stern mouth from his mother. Handsome? He suspected not. Just because you wish something didn’t make it so, he thought. As his hand touched the door to go in, the young woman looked up and stared into his eyes. “Good afternoon. How do you do?”
Porcelain skin, gray eyes, perfect petite features, all combined to make a beautiful, exquisite, but completely foreign creature. A beautiful woman. Right here, in front of him. What to do? His heart flipped inside his chest and started beating hard and fast. Could she tell? Was it visible? He covered his chest with his hand, hot and embarrassed. “Yes.” He lifted his hat. Oh, horrors: his forehead was slick with sweat. Yes? Had he just said yes? What had she asked him? He moved his gaze to a spot on the window. A fly landed on the glass and went still, looking at him with bulging eyes.
Her voice, like a string attached to his ear, drew his gaze back to her. “It’s unbearably hot. I could sure use a Coca-Cola.” With a flirtatious cock of her head, she smiled. She had the same thick Georgian accent as all the women in Atlanta, but there was a reckless, breathless quality in the way she oozed the words.
“Quite. Yes. Well, goodbye, then.” He somehow managed to open the door and slip inside.
The hotel was quiet. Several women lounged in the lobby, talking quietly over glasses of sweet tea. A man in a suit sat at one of the small desks provided for guests, writing into a ledger. A maid scurried through with an armful of towels. He wanted nothing more than to be swallowed by the wall. What was the matter with him? How was it possible to hold the attention of hundreds during a concert, yet be unable to utter a single intelligible thing to one lone woman?
He stumbled over to the café counter and ordered a sandwich and a glass of Coca-Cola. He allowed himself one glass whenever he performed in Atlanta during the summer. The heat, as the young woman had said, made a person long for a Coca-Cola. But only one, no more or he might never stop, and next thing he knew he’d have one every day and then twice a day and so forth. Sweet drinks were an indulgence, a dangerous way to live for a man who must have complete discipline to remain a virtuoso. If he allowed himself anything or everything he wanted, where might it lead? He could not be like other people, even if he wanted to be.
Waiting for his drink, he heard, rather than saw, the door open, and then the blonde woman sat beside him, swinging her legs ever so slightly as she perched on the round bar stool. “Hello again.” She placed her hands, which were half the size of his and so white as to appear almost translucent, upon the counter. She interlaced her fingers, rather primly and in a way that seemed to belie the general forwardness of sitting next to a man she didn’t know at an otherwise empty counter. He nodded at her, catching a whiff of gardenia he supposed came from her smooth, white neck.
“Would you like to buy me a Coca-Cola?” She peered up at him from under her lashes. Her eyes were the color of storm clouds.
What was this? She wanted him to buy her a drink? Had she hinted at that outside? What a ninny he was. Of course. Any imbecile could have picked up on that. Walt would have had her in here with a soda in her hand before the door closed behind them. He tried to respond, but his voice caught in the back of his throat. Instead he nodded to the man in the white apron behind the fountain, who, in turn, also in silence, pulled the knob of the fountain spray with a beefy arm.
“I’ve just come from the Crawford picture. It was simply too marvelous for words. I do so love the moving pictures. What’s your name?” She pressed a handkerchief to the nape of her neck where soft curls lay, damp with perspiration. What would it feel like to wrap his finger in one of the curls?
“I’m Frances Bellmont. You from up north?”
“Maine originally. I live in New York City now.”
Her gray eyes flickered, and an eyebrow rose ever so slightly. “I see. A Yankee.” He thought he detected an excitement as she said it, as if to sit by him were an act of rebellion.
“As north as you can get and still be an American,” he said. At last. Words!
“’Round here we’re not sure any of y’all are true Americans.” She took a dainty sip from her soda and peered at him out of the corner of her eyes. “Now wait a minute. Are you Nathaniel Fye, the piano player?”
“Oh my.” She turned her full gaze upon him. “That
interesting.” She had full lips that looked almost swollen. “My mother and I happen to be attending that very concert tonight. I don’t enjoy such serious music, but my mother simply adores it. We’re staying overnight here at the Winecoff. We live all the way across town, and mother thought it would be nice to stay overnight. Together.” She rolled her eyes.
Before he knew what he was saying, a lie stumbled from his mouth. “Party. Later. In my suite. You could come. Your mother, too.”
“A party? I’d love to attend. Do I have to bring my mother?” She sipped her soda while looking up at him through her lashes.
“I, I don’t know.” He stuttered. “Isn’t that how it’s done?”
She slid off her seat, touching the sleeve of his jacket like a caress. “I’m just teasing. We wouldn’t think of missing it. I’ll see you then.” And then she was out the door, leaving only the smell of her perfume behind, as if it had taken up permanent residence in his nostrils.
ater that night
, before the concert, he stood at the full-length mirror in the greenroom of the Howard Theatre, brushing lint from his black tuxedo jacket. Walt sat across from him in one of the soft chairs, scouring the arts section of the
New York Times
and occasionally making notations in a small notebook.
“I’d like to have a small group up to my room. After the concert tonight.”
“What did you say?” Walt, a few years younger than Nathaniel, possessed light blue eyes that were constantly on the move, shifting and scanning, like a predator looking for his next meal. He was once an amateur violinist who had played in his small town of Montevallo, Alabama, at church and town dances before he went to New York City. “Played the fiddle, but I didn’t have the talent to go all the way,” he told Nathaniel years ago, during their first interview. “But the music, it gets in a person’s blood, and I aim to make a life out of it however I can.”
Walt closed the newspaper without making a sound, like he was trying not to spook a wild horse. He stood, folding the newspaper under his arm. He had a slim build and wore wire-rimmed glasses. Receding light brown hair made his forehead appear more prominent than it once was. Despite his ordinary appearance, women flushed and giggled when he spoke to them. “Never, in five years, have you had folks up to your room. Much as I’ve asked you to.”
“I know,” Nathaniel said, shrugging as if it were nothing important. “You know I can never think of anything to say to people.”
Walt’s eyes were already at the door. “You want me to bring the music promoter I was telling you about? He’s keen to get after you with some ideas.”
Walt rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. “I’ll make sure no one stays too late. We leave for the West tomorrow on the early train.” He pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose. “Why the sudden interest in sociability?” He raised an eyebrow and punched him on the shoulder. “Could it be the young lady I saw you with earlier?”
Nathaniel straightened his bow tie. “How did you know that?”
“I was checking into the hotel when I happened to see the two of you at the bar. I saw her again at the restaurant tonight. Dining with her mother, if I make my guess. They’re almost identical.”
Nathaniel wanted to ask more but kept quiet. He took his pocket watch out of his trousers and set it on the table. His pockets must be empty when he played. He stretched his fingers.
“You do know who they are, don’t you?” Walt’s forehead glistened. He took off his glasses and waved them in the air. Nathaniel couldn’t decide if he only imagined the movement was in the shape of a dollar sign.
“Last name’s Bellmont.”
“Yeah, that’s Frances Bellmont you bought a soda for, my friend. The Bellmont family’s old money. Used to own half of Georgia. He’s a vice president over at Coca-Cola.”
Walt waggled his fingers, teasing. “I know you don’t care about such things.”
“Just be at my room at ten,” Nathaniel said, chuckling. “Before anyone else arrives. I’ll need you to do the talking.”
“My mama always said I was a good talker,” said Walt.
“One of us has to be.”
“I’ll get hold of some champagne. From what I hear, Frances Bellmont likes her champagne.” He slapped Nathaniel on the back.
“What do you mean?” A dart of something, almost like fear, pierced the bottom of his stomach.
“Just rumors. Nothing to worry over.”
“She likes parties. That’s all.”
“How do you know that?”
“It’s my job to know these kinds of things.” Walt put up his hand, like a command. “Stop. This is the first time I’ve ever seen you interested in a woman. Don’t ruin it by talking yourself out of it.” He left through the greenroom door, calling out behind him, “Good luck tonight.”
After the concert, Nathaniel went back to his suite and bathed the perspiration from his body, using a scrub brush and soap he imagined smelled like a woman’s inner wrist. He washed his thick, dark hair and slicked it back with pomade so that the waves that sometimes fell over his forehead were tamed. Using a straight blade to shave his face, he scrutinized his looks. Would he ever be appealing to a girl like Frances Bellmont? His eyes were brown and on the small side, if he were truthful. And his lips were thin, now that he really looked at them, although he had straight, white teeth. That was something. People were always telling Walt that Nathaniel came across as intense, and sometimes even the word
had been used. I’ll smile, he assured himself. Easy and fun, like Walt.
He hung his tuxedo in the closet and smoothed the bed cover from where he’d rumpled it during his earlier nap. Then he straightened the sitting room, disposing of a newspaper and moving several music sheets marked with his latest composition to the other room. Would people sit, he wondered? Or stand? He looked about the room. He hadn’t noticed much about it upon his arrival. All hotels began to look the same after a while. A crystal chandelier hung in the middle of the room, cascading like fallen tears and casting subdued light across a dark green couch with scalloped legs. A round table stood between two straight-backed chairs with cushions decorated in a complicated red floral design. Would there be enough room for everyone? How many did Walt invite? He should have asked. Despite his recent bath, he began to perspire.