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Congratulations to our contest winner, Penny Reigner! Story & interview are featured at CTN Books.

A Long Line of Love

Penny Reigner

It was during my 12th summer that I came to know love. Not the mushy doe-eyed love of a first crush, or the damnable love of too early in life bumbling sex. It was the recognition of love that comes from loss. It was that summer that grandpops died, and the summer I met my seed dad.

Grandpops had been sick for a long time, at least that is what Miss Sharon, grandpop’s lady friend said. But you could not prove that by me. He was the same ole grandpops who took me to football, baseball, and even boxing matches, right up to the day before he died.

That same day, he had given me his ‘don’t be raggedy’ lecture. Grandpops was all about looking sharp. He’d say “They see you before they know you. Hold your head up high, keep your crown straight and your skirts tight. Don’t be scared to let nobody know how smart you are! I’m doing my best to see that you know something ‘bout everything, fishing, fixing your car, basketball, cooking’. “See”, he’d say “You got to know a little something ‘bout everything, so nobody can get over on you “out anything.”

” Yes sir,”. I had heard that speech since I was potty trained and could run beside Grandpops on his errands. He took me every place with him because momma worked. Momma was a nurse at a hospital 40 miles outside of the ‘ville. She made good money, but worked long hours.

“That’s alright” grandpops would say, “You got me, and I got you. Living in the ‘ville ain’t no cheap sport. Somebody got to make the money, and somebody got to spend it”. He would laugh and then we would go shopping for whatever I needed and “some of what I wanted”. It was on one of our shopping trips that grandpops met Miss Sharon. I must have been six or seven. I thought they were just talking, but later Grandpops explained that he was ‘making time’. Miss Sharon owned a dress boutique right off “Reds” Boulevard. It was really Malcom X Boulevard, the main strip in the ‘ville, but somebody, somehow started calling it Reds Blvd, and it stuck.

We went to Miss Sharon’s shop looking for a new Sunday dress for me. Grandpops, said I had to represent every time I stepped out of the house, especially if I was stepping into church. Miss Sharon said, she did not carry dresses for ’little girls’, only the kind a ‘fully grown-ass woman looking for a grown-ass man would wear.” Grandpops was grinning when we left the store. “Baby boo, I didn’t get a new dress for you, but I got an address for me!” Ever since, Miss Sharon was Grandpops lady friend. She never came on our special outings, but she and grandpops would have their own outings. And on days, when Mama had off, grandpops would stay over Miss Sharon’s house. I never went inside, but one day, when his car was broke down, me and momma drove him there. Miss Sharon lived on Ida B. Lane, at the very top of the hill.

You see, the ‘ville, was where the rich Black folks live, at least that is what people who didn’t live in the ’ville would tell you. Grandpops always said if a Black man got two nickels to rub together, they say he was rich. “There ain’t no middle class if you black. According to the way they see it, you rich or you poor. I’m telling you Nisay, don’t let ‘em put you in the box. You be who you are.” But Miss Sharon must really have been rich. Her house was so big you had to turn your head from side to side to see the whole of it. It had a wide stone staircase that led to the main door and two small houses on either side. It was painted the brightest of white with a gray shingled roof and wide paneled shudders. Large lion statues stood guard at the entrance. “ A princess house” I was awed. “Baby boo, yours will be even greater.” Grandpops said as he kissed my forehead and climbed out of the car.

Grandpops was not a tall man. He would often joke that he would be 5ft 8 inches in heels if somebody would give him a pair. And he was not broad in build, but every man we’d run into greet him with a “hey big man, what’s shaking?”. One day, I said, “hey big man grandpops” and he laughed for a long time before saying, “grandpops will do. It’s the highest praise you can give me”. I didn’t know it then, but Miss Sharon said later, many women in the ‘ville would get in his face, but he would always say, “I got a girl”. She said he was talking about me, not her. Grandpops was pecan colored with chocolate freckles across his cheeks, and deep brown eyes with a fleck of gold in his right eye. He had a gap between his front teeth that was rarely seen, unless he had reason to flash a grin, mostly at me. Grandpops was against grinning. He said he wasn’t right for a Black man to be ‘skinning and grinning’ all the time with all the stress black folk had to deal with. Grandpops was beautiful to me and so I could understand how ladies would want to be ‘in his face.’

Everybody thought that Grandpops was momma’s dad cause we all lived together in the house on Standard Drive. Grandpops had never married and had only the one son, my seed dad. One time I had asked about my other grandmother. He said, “your momma’s momma is grandmother enough”. I never asked again. 290 Standard Drive was a large house on a large lot, with a shady backyard. It was the first house on the right as you turned off McLaren Pike into the ‘ville. Grandpops had one side of the house to himself. He had what he called a sitting room decorated with large glossy pictures of Black movie stars and other famous people. His black history room, he called it. His bedroom was furnished with a large hand carved bed passed down from his parents, cream colored walls and splashes of African print. Me and momma had rooms upstairs. But everybody mostly stayed together in the living room or the kitchen across from grandpops space.

Our house had been one of the first houses built when black people claimed the ‘ville as their own. Claytonville, ‘the ville”, had been flatland, owned by the Claytons, a white farm couple who hoped to grow it into an industrial farm. But what you wish alive, dies when you do. Their children sold off the land plot by plot in exchange for city life. At first, just a few doctors trying to escape the squeeze of saving lives in the clinic and running for theirs at night in the city, bought land and built houses. Big, bold, I’ve-made-it kind of houses with party rooms, pools and play yards. It was a haven from the rigors of race and their poor relations in the city. As grandpops said when he told the story, ‘you can’t keep a good secret, secret”. So very quickly the ‘ville became the place for African-Americans looking to live better than a black man could in McLaren or any other city. In short order, the area was built up, and incorporated. The city by-laws limited the ‘ville to 5000 residents, period. If you want to live in the ‘ville, you had to wait on death or have some can’t be turned down kind of money. The ‘ville was populated by professionals, entrepreneurs and those with independent wealth. Of course, people went into McLaren, whenever they wanted, but they didn’t have to. The ’ville had everything you needed, groceries, restaurants, a movi,e theater, clubs, churches, clinics, clothing shops, everything, except a hospital. Grandpops had inherited the house and a gentlemen’s hat shop, that he had sold before I was born. He had left the ‘ville only to attend Morehouse. When he came back an accountant, he had named the youngest member of city council and now 30 years later, he was one of the oldest. The city council kept taxes high by design, paid the mayor, police, and city workers well and enjoyed a quality of life and unity that no other city could boast. Troublemakers were run out of the ‘ville, by pressure from their peers. Everybody knew or knew of everybody else and no one wanted to lose the way life was in the ‘ville. It was funny, Grandpops said, there was no ordinance stopping others from living in the ‘ville, but it seemed that African-Americans were the only people who put their name on the waitlist for available property. “ I ain’t mad about it”, he’d say.

All I knew was the ‘ville. It and grandpops were my life.

The day he died was an ordinary day and that’s what did not make sense to me. There was no warning. It seems like I would have known or had some bad feeling, or something. But no, Grandpops drove me to school, the same as any other day. He was not sick or hurting and didn’t say anything about dying. He was regular grandpops. He gave me his regular, ‘be excellent and don’t be raggedy’ lecture before I got out of the car. Everything was regular, normal. So normal, I did not even wonder why it was momma’s car picking me up instead of grandpops. . And when she told me in her nurses voice that grandpops were ‘gone’, I felt confused. Grandpops hardly went anywhere without me.

I could see worry in her face when I didn’t say anything and alarm as I tried to run into his sitting room, where I could clearly see his graying red-brown head leaning over the arm of the chair. Momma would not let me go to him. She tried to hug me, but I felt suddenly like my stomach was coming through my bottom. I ran to the bathroom to throw up or push out whatever was inside of me. Other than a few drops of blood on the paper, there was nothing. Blood?, grandpops was dead, and I was bleeding, just like grandpops had told me I soon would. It was my womanhood. He told me to talk to momma about what that meant. She had told me in her matter-of-fact way about periods, pregnancy, and paternity. Now it was here. And grandpops was gone. Grandpops had died at home, in his chair. I heard momma on the phone saying to someone that she was “ It was nothing but God, that I switched with someone”.

It was the first day Grandpops had missed picking me up, ever. It was the first day my period started. It was the first day without grandpops and it was the first day I met Thaddeus.

There were no pictures in our house of Thaddeus, though he was grandpops only child. I never knew him. I mean grandpops had always been quick to correct me when I was too young to know and sometimes called him dad” I’m your grandpops, not your father”. He had always referred to Thaddeus as ‘your seed dad”. “The one who provided the seed that mixed with your momma's egg to make a beauty like you”. It never ever occurred to me to ask why his son, my daddy never called, never came or why there were no pictures of him. I guess I was already full between grandpops, momma and the love that free-floated in the ‘ville. And now that I think about it, no one in the ‘ville, teachers, other kids, Miss Sharon, had ever asked me about him. Grandpops never said anything about him. But one time, I heard him on the phone. Maybe he was drinking because he did not sound like himself. He was growling and cussing. I know I shouldn’t have listened, but I heard him say,” And he calls himself ‘The Day US”. I named that bastard Thaddeus, not The Day US, what does that mean? I ran upstairs. And sat in my window. Right where I sat now, waiting for grandpops to come back.

I sat in the window of my room all afternoon. Nobody came for me. I saw the undertaker load the black bag that surrounded grandpops. Mr. Jollee, patted momma’s hand before driving off. The ‘ville turned out for deaths, births, and weddings. I watched people bringing food and condolences. I watched Miss Sharon arrive and relieve momma of the grieving family duties, sharing what she knew people wanted to hear, “He was a good man, with a good life and died a peaceful death.” I was angry with Miss Sharon, mad at momma. They kept saying, “He’s in a better place”. There was no better place than being with me! Grandpops had said so again and again.

Miss Sharon was on the porch when the car pulled into the driveway. “Cassandra!” She called to momma with urgency. The driver’s door opened, and I jumped out of my seat when grandpops stepped out. It had all been a bad joke! I knew he would not leave me. I was out of my room, down the stairs, and almost on grandpops back, when the smell stopped me. It was a sweet, woody scent that was not grandpops. This was not my clean, sharp, creased grandpops, who said, “always look your best, you never know when the queen may stop by” . This imposter was dressed in baggy black draw-string pants and a black oversized shirt. He had an arm full of bangle bracelets and green sneakers. He had grandpops reddish-brown haze of hair, pecan color and even freckles. But he was taller, thinner. His voice had the same gravelly quality but is tone was hesitant, not hardy like grandpops. He said “you must be Nisay. I’m The-day-us.”

“This is your father”, momma put her arm around me and pulled me into her.

“Seed-dad”, I said softly. Then came the tears that had been fighting to flow all day. They ran faucet-like down my face, salting my tongue before sliding down my neck and ringing around the collar of my school uniform. I felt embarrassed in front of this stranger who looked so much like grandpops but was not. I wanted to blame him for grandpops leaving. I was mad, sad, but mostly lonely and confused. I cried and cried and cried, while momma held me close and “The-day-us” watched in silence.


Author Interview

CTN: Tell us about yourself, are you a professional writer?

Reigner: I am not a professional writer. My love of writing is an outgrowth of my love of reading and story. Reading or making up stories is like peeking into someone else’s life.

CTN: What was the inspiration for your short story?

Reigner: A Long Line of Love is the first chapter of the Book, A Long Line of Love: Stories of Wonder,Wisdom, and Weed. I wish I could say that one thing inspired me, but that’s not the case. I had many pieces of inspiration such as a book of history that looked at the development of independent African American communities, a conversation with a young girl who was so closely and lovingly attached to her father, that I could not imagine how she would react to losing him. There were many inspirations for the different chapters/protagonists.

CTN: Do you identify with any characters in the short story?

Reigner: Well this is the first story of a book of linked stories. In the second chapter, we learn more about Cassandra’s story (the nurse, the mother, the daughter, the daughter-in-law, the faithful, the angry). I think because she carries the full basket of concerns that many women have, I think she resonates most with me.

CTN: How do you want the story to inform, challenge or change the reader?

Reigner: I don’t know that I would expect or want anything from the reader other than to take in what might be the truth of someone else’s life or not. Hopefully, it provokes thoughts about the reader's own life and relationship with people or substances or reality.

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