Wednesday, November 10, 2004

How to Prune a Family Tree (Part 2 of 3)


THE CALLER I.D. DISPLAYED UNKNOWN CALLER again. The rings began sporadically, just after nightfall, the day after the end of the world. The next night the rings came in swarms, like hornets. When the ringing finally relented enough for him to dream, they returned even more fiercely like a blanket of locusts. This is when Leon leapt from his bed and ripped the cord from the wall so hard he toppled his bedside altar.

After a sunrise in quiet, Leon reconnected the phone and blocked the woman’s number. But the ringing resumed before he could even finish breakfast. The answering machine read: 39 MESSAGES. He had no desire to talk to the woman. Besides, as long as she was calling, it was a reminder that she wasn’t dead.


Though they had an estranged relationship, it was one which suited Leon perfectly fine. Tammy (which is how Leon referred to her) gave birth to him when she was only twelve; Zeke, the father, was eleven.

Holding the red-headed newborn as close as she could to her heart, Tammy returned from Grady Hospital on the bus next to her own mother, who was now a not-yet-thirty-year-old grandmother herself.

But before she would let the girl step foot back in their one-bedroom apartment, she, between drags on her cigarette, delivered an ultimatum:

“I’m raising one of ya,“ exhaling smoke into the infant’s face, “or none of ya. Now which is it gonna be?” And so it came that Leon was raised by Zeke Lattimore’s family.

But being rid of Leon wasn’t enough for Tammy’s mother. She was determined to white-out this dark blot in their family history altogether. So, she packed up all of their belongings in a rusted red Ford pick-up - which they borrowed - and moved as far away from Zeke and baby Leon as her money would take them - to an apartment complex in the next school district.

But Tammy’s mother, who could not see the future for all her hours flouring biscuits at Mrs. Winners, could not predict the stick of dynamite she would light in Tammy by forbidding her to ever see that niggerchild as long as Tammy lived under her roof; could not see that despite the Lattimore’s family fortress of concerted efforts, Tammy would continue to dream the most extreme means to see her baby - no matter how far she had to walk, no matter how many years she had to wait; could not know that, though Tammy failed every math class she ever took, she would accurately predict the day Leon would start kindergarten, when he would finally be free of the Lattimore family’s 24-hour hawklike watch and that she, even as a pimply 7th grader, would have already plotted their reunion, years into her future:

How the cloudless September sky would be a boundless sea of possibility that day she would play hooky from school; what MARTA buses she would take, what transfer point; what grown-up dress she would wear to subvert the undercover truancy officers; what wooded paths she would traverse after getting off the bus - Oh, just to be able breathe the same air as him.How she would hide out in the bushes, among the branches and the briars - just outside of the fence surrounding the graveled P.E. field, just to get one glimpse of the auburn-afroed boy, who she had not seen for five years, but whose blood was her blood, yet whose skin was not quite her skin, but oh, who undeniably was him because why else would her heart leapt like that the moment she saw him. He, of her own fiery red hair and her own smoke-gray eyes, who even, oh god, had her freckles; as she watched him skip rope and laugh and trip and fall and get up and, oh god, cry at recess under the open sky without even the threat of a cloud in sight.

Tammy’s mother could not foretell that this day would all be too much for a sixteen year-old heart which would burst from all that weight, sending Tammy bounding out of the branches and struggling over the fence, out, out, looking like a full-figured madwoman, but really being just a little girl, in a grown-up dress with grown-up shoes, running into the open field, out-of-breath, the wind in her hair, mascara streaming, racing, to touch him just once, to hold him just once, no matter what the cost, but instead to be denied, detained, and turned in by Mr. Lawton, who was, not very long ago, her own P.E. teacher.

But what the Lattimores and Tammy’s own mother’s restrictions could not stop, the law could. And after this episode on the elementary school P.E. field, the Lattimores put out a restraining order on her. And so, Tammy’s outraged mother moved again, to the edge of the known world - the end of the MARTA line - to start a new life - a life in which Tammy would fatten herself on sorrow and drown herself in spirits so that she might extinguish what she would find to be an inextinguishable desire - to hold Leon in her arms again.


To say that Leon and Tammy were from different backgrounds would be an understatement. Leon, raised in a house by a bank executive and a math teacher, was a Howard University graduate. Tammy grew up in apartment complexes, was raised by a single mother, and, well, didn’t exactly graduate from a university (or a high school, for that matter.) This difference, though the Lattimores were not terribly excited about the prospect of their eleven-year old son being a father, put the Lattimores in the privileged position of not needing Tammy or Tammy’s family - for anything. In fact, they prided themselves on it. As the papersack-brown Mrs. Lattimore so tactfully put it:

“God works in mysterious ways, and, naw, He ain’t always fair. But this time we lucked out,” she said, “with a light-skinned baby… with good hair!”


The day she turned 40, Tammy looked in the mirror and God revealed to her a short path to the grave ahead, and a fiery path beyond, if she didn’t right what had been made so wrong between her and Leon. That she was drunk when she had the vision, besides the fact that she had not opened a Bible in over a decade, should have been an indication that it perhaps was not God - nor a higher deity - Who was speaking. Which is how - despite her unanswered letters and cards, her photographs, and her phone calls, which all entered a bottomless pit called Leon - she wound up crashing opening night of the world premiere production of “Confessions of a Cornbread Queen,” just to show her support because that is, after all, what mothers do, and what families do and wasn’t that what she was, after all? Family, too?




“Don‘t call me that. My name is Leon.”

“I know. I’s the one gave it to you,” she cleared her throat. “This is Tammy, your Mother.”




“Are you alright, son?” He hated when she called him that.

“What do you think?”

“Well, I’m not alright, son. This is why I‘m calling.”

“Really? What’s wrong?” he asked, not even attempting to hide his enthusiasm.

“Well, I don’t know if you know this, but I came to see your play.”

“Really? I hadn’t noticed.”

“Yeah, I had a little fall.”




“Son, my fall was pretty bad. I broke my ankle, my hip, bones in my back - I even broke bones I ain’t know I had. They took me to Grady and once they got me stable,” she paused, trying to hold back tears, “they released me. They said there was nothing they could do for me. I’m doin so bad,” she began to whimper, “they sent me home… to die.”

“Oh, that’s terrible.” He held the phone, allowed her to bawl.



“I was wondering if you could do two things for me, son.”

”Sure.” For the first time in his life, Tammy was actually saying something that had Leon excited.


“I want you to come by and see me, son. Tomorrow, if you can. I want to just shake your hand, one time,” she said, “before I pass.”

“Sure, Tammy,” he said, this time a little more sincerely, “and what’s the other thing?”

“Just one time, can you call me,” she asked, “Mom?”

“Sure,” Leon said. “I’ll be there tomorrow. Then he added, reluctantly, “Mom.”

Next: Part 3 of 3 in my entry to the Creative Loafing Annual Fiction Contest.

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