The Kindest Lie Page 2

“Are your grandmother and brother doing a watch party tonight?” Tess asked. She and Ruth had met through a local Yale alumni group.

“I don’t know. I doubt it. I’m not sure what happens in Ganton these days,” Ruth said ambivalently, going from sipping her martini to draining the glass. When people heard the name Ganton, they thought of Fernwood, the auto plant that made parts for GM cars. The factory where Papa and Eli had worked for years. The town wasn’t known for much else.

“You better claim your people and stop trying to be bougie.” Xavier had a bad habit of dipping into every conversation. He grinned and bumped her shoulder with his.

He had jokes, but he had no way of knowing that Ganton’s very soil was a trapdoor, a gateway to nothingness that few people climbed out of. The welcome sign that greeted visitors bore no warning.

“I know this is not the child of Mrs. Shaw of Jack and Jill of America, Incorporated, talking.” Ruth made sure to enunciate each syllable in exaggerated fashion. Her imitation of Xavier’s mother irked him, and when she needed that ammunition in an argument, she used it.

“What’s this got to do with my mama or Jack and Jill?”

Penelope jumped in then. “I think what she’s trying to say is that if y’all had been alive in slavery times, your people would’ve been in the house.”

By now, they had an audience and it turned into everybody’s debate. Harvey said, “See, that’s what Obama wants to do. Even it out so those of us in the field can join you in the house, Xavier.”

Her husband’s mouth twisted at the corners, trying to stifle a laugh. “I’m telling you that we fell on hard times, too. Well, sometimes.” Xavier added that qualifier knowing how pathetic he sounded, trying to weave a poor man’s narrative from the finest silks of prosperity.

Ruth raised an eyebrow. “Okay, tell me this. When it rained outside, did it also rain inside your house?”

“No, but we did have that can of bacon grease on the back of the stove.”

Everybody hollered. Ruth shook her head, laughter snatching her breath. “Seriously? That’s about being Black or maybe just country, but not poor.”

“I’ll admit my people may have had a little money, but I didn’t.” Xavier slid his arm around her shoulders and winked. “When I begged for a G.I. Joe as a kid, they made it real clear I didn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. I lived in their house rent-free and my lease could be up with a quickness and without notice.”

“They were teaching you a sense of responsibility. That’s good parenting, babe, not poverty.” The rest of the crowd laughed or added their own hard-luck tales to the buoyant mood.

This game of who had been worse off crowned no victors, and to be fair, Ruth hadn’t been mayonnaise-sandwich-eating poor growing up, but they often missed that five-day grace period for their lease payments on the house.

“Hush, y’all, c’mon! They’re about to make a projection,” Xavier yelled.

Huddled in front of the television, Ruth and her friends watched the red and blue colors of the electoral map fill in, their collective breaths held. Xavier, gripping a miniature American flag, crouched close to the screen like he did right before the buzzer sounded at the end of a close Chicago Bulls game (during the lean years, mind you, not the Jordan glory days).

She felt Tess’s fingers dig into her shoulders when television anchors finally pronounced Barack Hussein Obama the forty-fourth president of the United States.

Her whole life, Ruth hadn’t dared to believe this could happen, and she almost forgot to breathe. A picture of the little house where she grew up in Ganton came to mind, its low ceilings and narrow hallways. Mama at the kitchen table counting money on the first of the month. Papa’s body quivering underneath his plant uniform as he tried to walk straight in the early days of his illness. Maybe, just maybe, everything they’d all been through had been for this. To get here, to this moment. To this man with the funny name. To this day in history.

Xavier whooped and gave her a ball-drop, New Year’s Eve–style kiss. The town house vibrated with their jubilation. Guests lifted their glasses and their voices in a toast to their own manifest destiny. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Harvey, who was usually the loudest in any room, rocking quietly in a chair with his folded hands pressed against his lips.

Then they rolled up the living room rug to do stepper sets and slides, with Xavier break-dancing like he was thirteen instead of thirty-two.

Somehow, she needed to store every part of this moment, burn it into her being, so it would still be real when she lived it again as memory. She wanted to scoop up this feeling, bottle it, and tighten the cap so none could seep out, ever. But at the same time, her instincts told her to share it. So, she opened the windows to give the neighborhood a contact high.

Keeping it old school, the Gap Band’s “Outstanding” blasted from the speakers and they took turns strutting down the Soul Train line. Xavier’s breath warmed Ruth’s neck, and from behind, he wrapped his arms around her waist, and they rocked gently to the beat. With his wife at home, Harvey managed to slide into a dance sandwich between Penelope and Tess, who always humored the old man. Their feet felt light and their chests, too, the weight of wait your turn, not so fast, and never having lifted, at least for one night.

Ruth and Xavier ate and danced until the sun poked through the blinds, bathing their town house in a groggy afterglow, spotlighting barbecue-stained plates and her high-heeled shoes slung in a corner of the room. In the early hours of the morning, Ruth lay on the love seat, the high still buzzing in her head, Xavier’s face inches from hers. She stared at his profile and ran her forefinger down his long nose to his lips, past his chin to his pronounced Adam’s apple. His skin tone reminded her of the rich Mississippi soil where Mama was born, with flecks of red and yellow just under the surface.

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