Debut novelist Amy Franklin-Willis, a Castro Valley resident, mines the fault lines of a Southern working-class family in The Lost Saints of Tennessee, released in February from Atlantic Monthly Press. Through the poignant, conflicting voices of 42-year-old Ezekiel Cooper and his mother, Lillian, the story follows Ezekiel’s evolution from the 1940s to the 1980s as he slips from his family position as anointed son into an unhinged, estranged middle age. Below, Chapter 24, narrated by Lillian.
Ezekiel tells me I never admit when I’m wrong. Says he never heard me once, his whole growing up, apologize for being wrong about anything. And, according to him, I was wrong about a lot of things. But see, my boy doesn’t understand. As soon as I admitted one wrong, the rest of them would all come tumbling down, and then where would I be? Collapsed in the middle of the living room floor with five kids and a husband to take care of?
Things got better slowly after we lost Cassie. Carter Sr. finally saved up enough money to run indoor plumbing through the whole house. Might sound odd to say that that cheered me up after losing a granddaughter, but it did. Cheered the whole family up. Violet and Daisy had been so embarrassed about not having it they never had any of their friends over. “What if someone has to pee, Momma?” Daisy would say. “I can’t tell them to go out back and do it in a hole in the ground. I won’t.” We’d never heard a sound sweeter than a toilet flush. When we tore down the outhouse, we made a party out of it—using the wood for a bonfire—and the kids, Carter Sr., and I danced around it like we were drunk.
Of course, not a week after the plumbing went in, I started nagging my husband about getting one of those new automatic washing machines we heard about on the radio.
“Lillian, haven’t you learned to be grateful for anything?” he said.
I had. I had learned to be grateful. For a few years I was grateful every day my children walked out the door for school, leaving the house quiet. Daisy led my brood, that sweet blonde hair of hers swinging in a ponytail down her back, the boys kicking rocks and tripping their way behind her, Rosie bringing up the rear trying to keep up with everybody. When they disappeared around the corner, I went back in the house and sat in the front room, not doing a thing, for a whole half hour. If the phone rang, I didn’t answer it. When one of the kids took sick, I nearly cried for losing my morning time. It was mine. More than once I bundled up an ailing child, got some cough syrup down her throat, and sent her off to school when she should have been kept at home. Was it wrong to do that? Probably.
When Ezekiel headed off to Mabry High School for ninth grade, my morning time came to an end. Carter couldn’t go to the high school. He was doing work at fourth-grade level. That angel of a teacher Miss Weaver went and got married, leaving Clayton for Jackson. She told the new teacher at the Clayton School about Carter, but Mrs. Lake didn’t think much of having a boy like Carter in class.
“He’ll be too much trouble, Mrs. Cooper,” she said. “And besides, what kind of example is he setting for the younger children? Why, there are eight-year-olds reading better than him!”
I didn’t think much of Mrs. Lake. So, Carter and I stayed home together. Part of me felt better with him at home. I knew he was safe. The past few years at school, he and Ezekiel started getting in fights with some of the other boys, who got meaner as they got older. Boys like Earl Smith, who called Carter “Dumbo” every day at school. Carter usually ignored him and anybody else who called him a name—that’s what I told him to do. But Ezekiel wouldn’t tolerate it. He launched himself on anybody who so much as looked cross-eyed at Carter. And then, when he did, Carter would have to jump in, too. They came home at least once a month covered in bruises, shirts ripped, a note from the teacher folded in a back pocket.
When the rest of the children went off to school, Carter cleaned up the breakfast dishes, swept out the house, and did whatever special job needed doing. He took after his daddy and was good with a hammer, so for those few years, he fixed our house more than Carter Sr. did. Miss Weaver had told me to keep up Carter’s reading and writing, so in the afternoon we’d have “school.” I’d make him read me a story and write letters to relatives who needed writing. Sometimes he’d start to rub his eyes and get a headache.
“Momma,” he’d say, “let’s rest. Let’s go swing a while.”
I needed a rest as much as he did. My son was a good head taller than me by then. Occasionally I’d rest my head in his lap, and the motion of the swing swayed me to sleep. Carter Sr. found us like that one Friday. We weren’t expecting him home since he was working in Memphis on an office building.
“Momma, wake up,” Carter said, touching my arm. “It’s Daddy. Daddy’s home.”
Clouds bumped one another in the blue sky beyond the porch. Rain was on the way; I could smell it. We would have to bring the laundry in from the line. We had time, though. At least an hour.
Carter Sr. strode up the steps, looking as handsome in his coveralls and work boots as any man I’ve seen, and stopped when he saw us. A smile lit his face. “What have we got here? My girl and my boy having a rest? Am I the only one who works in this family?”
He stood in front of the swing, arms crossed over his wide chest.
“Sit, Daddy. Come sit with us.”
“You think it’ll hold all of us? They’ve been feeding me good in Memphis.”
“Sure it will,” Carter said.
The swing groaned with the weight of him, but it held. He sat between us, one arm resting across my shoulder and the other around our son’s. The strong smell of cigarettes and the city clung to him. We all sat together, pushing the swing every so often, until the rain clouds became too dark to ignore. When I left to pull in the wash, Carter leaned on his father, telling him the story of Jitterbug—the rabbit he and Rosie found under the house the week before. The sound of my husband’s laughter reached me in the backyard, its deep rumble traveling through my bones and making me smile.
As Carter grew older, he liked to wander off. Sometimes I got busy cooking or listening to one of my radio programs and wouldn’t notice that he had slipped out the back door and gone for a walk in the woods. But about once a month he’d get lost and end up at the Culvers’ house on Highway 57, confused and crying because he couldn’t find his way back home. Then the call from Ann Marie Culver would come.
“Your boy’s here again,” she’d say. “You need to watch him better, Lillian.”
But I couldn’t watch him all the time. He was growing up. He was fifteen. He was sixteen. Seventeen. We all understood things would be different at home when Ezekiel went off to college. Since high school, Carter and Ezekiel had the same daily routine—the minute Ezekiel walked in the front door after school, he’d yell for Carter and the two of them would take off fishing or to play basketball in the yard or any old thing boys liked to do. Carter knew those days would be finished with his brother in Virginia.
I knew I’d miss Zeke, but my boy was getting out. It was the beginning for him. The next right step. Then law school. Or maybe medical school. Dr. Ezekiel Cooper. I liked the sound of that.
The day before Ezekiel left for school his daddy and I threw him a party. All of Clayton came over to the house. Carter Sr. barbecued thirty pounds of hot dogs and hamburgers. The girls helped me bake pies all week and clean the house, Daisy grumbling the whole time about making such a big fuss. We put the dining room table under the eaves of the back porch and covered it in plate after plate of baked beans, potato salad, corn bread, apple pie, peach pie, and the tallest hummingbird cake I ever made.
All of Ezekiel’s friends came, and he talked with Tommy Jackson and Bud Trent until Jacklynn showed up. Then the two of them put their heads together, talking real low, telling secrets, making promises I knew my boy wouldn’t keep. When Jackie lost their baby, I thanked God. If things had gone differently, Ezekiel would have been tied to her, to Clayton, forever.
“There’s a lot of people here to see you, son,” I said. “You should be talking to everybody.” I looked at Jacklynn. “You understand?”
Ezekiel kissed her on the cheek and let me lead him away. They’ll be finished soon enough, I thought. I dreamed about him meeting a girl from a good Virginia family, a wealthy family. Grandbabies sleeping in lace-covered bassinets. It never crossed my mind he might end up marrying Jackie anyway.
The longest face at that party was Carter’s. He stayed on the front porch away from everybody. I took him a glass of lemonade and a plate of food. Didn’t even give me a smile when I handed them to him.
“You all right?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
He kept his head down, stayed silent. I sat next to him, putting an arm around him. Carter sank into my side and scooted himself down so his head could rest on my shoulder. His long legs stretched out across the peeling paint of the porch steps. The sheer size of Carter puzzled me. The boy was gone.
“Your brother promises to write you every day, sweetheart. He keeps his promises. You know that.”
“You want to go with him, don’t you?”
I stroked the hair back from his forehead. “Ezekiel needs to go by himself this time. You understand?”
Noises from the backyard drifted toward us. Everybody talking at once. The bang of Carter Sr.’s new shotgun. Showing it off, I’m sure. Squeals from the kids shooting marbles in the driveway.
Carter pulled away from me. “It’s not right. I can read, Momma. I can learn like Zeke. Cousin Georgia needs help on the farm. I can do it. Let me go, Momma. Let me go, too. It’s not right for him to be there and me here.”
But it was right. It was exactly right.
“Son, you’ll be okay. You’ll see.”
Rosie came barreling around the corner and grabbed ahold of the railing. “Come play basketball, Carter. Zeke’s playing.”
Carter shook his head.
“Come on. Tommy Jackson’s on Zeke’s team. I need you.”
She hoisted herself up onto the porch and stood behind us, hands on her hips. “Time’s wasting.”
“Your brother’s a little sad today,” I said. “Maybe he’ll come later.”
Carter stared at his hands in his lap, lacing the fingers together like I taught him when he was a boy. Here’s the church, Carter, here’s the steeple, open the door and see all the people.
Rosie grabbed one of his hands and tugged on him. “We’re all sad,” she said. “That’s why we need to play now. While Zeke’s still here.”
Carter lifted his head then. “You’ll play when he’s gone, right? I’ll still have somebody to play basketball with, right?” “’Course.”
This got him up. I watched as they swung down from the porch, Rosie reminding Carter about Tommy Jackson’s killer jump shot and telling him how to block it as they walked to the backyard, the sea of friends and relatives swallowing them up.
Amy Franklin-Willis is an eighth-generation Southerner who was born in Birmingham, Ala. She received an Emerging Writer Grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation to complete The Lost Saints of Tennessee, her debut novel inspired by stories of her father’s childhood. She lives in Castro Valley.
The Lost Saints of Tennessee © 2012 by Amy Franklin-Willis; reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.