The Kindest Lie Page 1

Author: Nancy Johnson

Genres: Fiction



No one talked about what happened in the summer of 1997 in the house where Ruth Tuttle had grown up. In fact, there were days she remained certain she had never given birth at all. Somehow, she convinced herself that her life began when she drove away from that little shotgun house in Indiana without her baby. She had been only seventeen.

A lie could be kind to you if you wanted it to be, if you let it. With every year that passed, it became easier to put more distance between her old life and her new one. If the titles of doctor and lawyer had signaled success back in the day, then engineer had to be the 2.0 symbol that you’d made it. And she had. With Yale University conferring her degree and lending its good name to her, there was no question. And if the proof weren’t in her pedigree, it manifested in her marriage to a PepsiCo marketing executive.

The upcoming presidential election stirred an unusual optimism in her husband, Xavier, and he fancied himself having everything new. First, he convinced her they should buy the new town house in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Then a new Lexus LX 570 that could easily seat eight. He wasn’t just angling for more leg room, either. Sooner rather than later, he wanted a baby. It’s time. When Xavier repeated those words, Ruth stretched her lips into a smile, neglecting to mention she was already a mother, if in name only.

On Election Night, a light snow fell outside their town house, reminding her of confetti after a sports championship. But they couldn’t get ahead of themselves. No one knew how this night would go. Pacing in their bedroom, Ruth tugged at the twists of her hair, and they detangled easily for once, loosening between her fingers, as she breathed in avocado and coconut and promise.

“You look good, babe.” Xavier splashed cologne on his neck and popped the collar of his mustard-yellow blazer. He was one of those brothers who had the confidence to pull off risky, bold colors. She wouldn’t call him conventionally handsome, but no woman in her right mind would kick him out of bed, either. Removing a stray thread from his lapel, she pulled him closer and kissed his full lips. “You clean up pretty nicely, too, mister.”

He smiled and they fist-bumped, something they’d been doing long before Barack and Michelle made it cool to some and subversive to others. He brushed by her quickly to answer the doorbell. “This is it. Game time.”

In the full-length mirror, Ruth took in her tall, bony build, with her twiglike legs. After searching many boutiques, she had finally found this jewel-toned emerald-green fit-and-flare dress that gave her the illusion of curves. Her wide, luminous brown eyes caught people’s attention first, as they loomed so large on her angular face. It had taken years for her to love her own dark skin, almost the color of their shiny new walnut hardwood floors. Before she left the bedroom, she dipped her index finger in gel and smoothed a few fine baby hairs at her temple.

Ruth could hear the booming voice of Harvey from the post office as she made her way to the living room. They’d become friends when he delivered mail at their old apartment building.

“Am I in Obama headquarters?” he said, debuting a little two-step, finished off with a spin.

Ruth hugged his neck and picked up a tray of their signature cocktail for the evening, handing him a chocolate martini. “You think we’ll make history tonight, Harvey?”

“I’m no betting man, now, but if we came out and voted like we were supposed to, I think it can happen.” The old Black man had yellowed eyes and a face creased with lines resembling the rings of a tree. He’d banked on retiring early, but when his wife got laid off from her job a few months ago, he’d had to delay his plans. Still, tonight, a flicker of light gleamed in Harvey’s eyes.

It felt like they were hurtling toward inevitability, and as guests arrived, the mood in their living room became electric. But were they setting themselves up for a fall? After all, their hope rested with a man whose name reeked of improbability with its questionable linguistic roots. Barack Hussein Obama.

She thought of Mama and Papa, her grandparents who had raised her. Even before Ruth’s mother walked away from their family, the woman hadn’t done much mothering, so her grandparents had taken care of her and her brother, Eli, since day one. She and Eli had entered the world with legacy status as living history with biblical names, the descendants of Hezekiah Tuttle, named for the king of Judah. Ruth smiled when she thought of an autoworker and a hotel maid setting up their grandchildren to be royalty from birth, and all she and Eli had to do was live up to their names.

Her grandmother had suggested that she be named Ruth. Papa had nodded in agreement, and so that’s what her mother chose. One syllable, old school and biblical. A name that Ruth’s grandmother said would at least get her to the interview. You couldn’t tell Mama that an ethnically ambiguous name could only take you so far and couldn’t inoculate anybody from a bigot or a bullet. Still, all that old-school planning had served Ruth well in chemical engineering, where being a woman was almost as much an anomaly as her Blackness. Like Obama, she, too, had been called articulate.

Guests jammed every square inch of the living room and kitchen, checking various television stations periodically for updated vote counts and projections. Penelope and Tess, an attorney couple who practiced intellectual property and antitrust law, respectively, brought rib tips from Lem’s on the South Side, which, through bulletproof glass, served the best barbecue in town.