The next weekend the Rivers held a barbeque, their first since summer began. Erlon rose early to smoke the ribs, stoking a slow fire as the sun rose. He savored the time alone, as he always did; yet something felt off today. As if he were not actually here. The red of the meat, the smell of woodsmoke, the peppery tang of the rub—all only mist spilling out of a dream. He ought to be disconcerted by that, but he wasn’t. He didn’t feel a thing.
Anette did not start preparations till one or so when Miss June, their neighbor, arrived to help with the food, her granddaughter carrying a bowl of potato salad. Her hips swayed to Charles Bradley’s voice as she layered banana slices in a shallow tray and watched June peel sweet potatoes. In the living room Jadine watched cartoons, their manic sounds drowned out by the record player.
“Why you always put nuts in everything, Anette?” June grumbled as her hostess put her final touches on the banana pudding.
“Gives it that crunch,” Oscar answered as he let himself in, sauntering into the kitchen. “That’s the best part. That and the bourbon.” He winked at Anette.
“Child,” June arched her brows at him as she turned to stir the collards, “don’t get me started.”
“Good to see you, Miss June,” he laughed. He tipped his panama hat and slipped out back to see Erlon.
His brother, who had been at the pit for hours, gave a weary smile at the older man. “Here,” Oscar handed Erlon a small bottle of dark liquor. Erlon regarded it and shook his head, but after a moment he took a small sip, palming it back to Oscar.
“How are things between you and Anette?” Oscar asked.
“What?” Erlon gave a sidelong look, scanning his brother’s face through trails of smoke.
“Y’all talk about anything…notable…lately?” Oscar scratched his neck and looked away. “Look, uh, man, I don’t mean to pry. I just… Don’t leave important things unsaid, okay, is all I’m saying. I learned that the hard way.”
Erlon said nothing. He prodded the ribs and chicken, brushing them with fresh rub to top off the thin spots. If he wondered what his brother meant he didn’t ask. Oscar took another pull from the bottle and sat on the bench behind them, stretching his arms and taking in the smell of meat, the glow of low flame.
The food was nearly done by three, when the others arrived, though it took another hour before they all sat and ate. Lamar had come. He looked chill in his University of Wakanda shirt and ripped jeans, a new girl on his arm his father had never met. There were June and Jadine, of course, and Jadine’s mother this time, as well as two of Anette’s work friends and a young man Erlon didn’t know but who everyone else seemed to. He didn’t look like family, and Erlon didn’t ask who he was.
The first bite of rib alone made the day’s work worthwhile.
* * *
Across from Erlon at the table, Anette smiled and surveyed the throng of friends and family, her eyes reaching for joy in their faces as they ate and drank. She breathed in the mingling smells. Among them was something odd, unexpected. Notes of jasmine, gardenia, maybe wisteria, and something else, some aspect she couldn’t quite name. It must be Miss June’s strong perfume—or maybe Jadine had borrowed it again.
She closed her eyes and turned inward, dwelling on her other senses. The smokiness of the meat. The burn of hot peppers in the sauce and the tang of lime juice. The deep sweetness of watermelon. And the way the cornbread soaked it all up, the juices on her plate, both sweet and savory, greens and sauce, and made a new taste in the crumbling grit of the grain. Heaven.
To her right, at the far side of the table, Jadine was toying with her food, refusing outright to eat potato salad. Her little mouth shrank to a thin line as her mother fussed at her.
“That’s it,” the woman snapped when Jadine stuck her tongue out at her. “No dessert.”
The girl cried. Miss June shook her grey head and swallowed her bite. “That’s what comes of giving them participation trophies,” she snarked.
“I don’t know, June,” Anette found herself speaking. “Maybe we shouldn’t write off the culture of affirmation. Children—all people, really—either live up or down to the expectations we put on them. If we tell them they’re worthy, apart from what they do or achieve, how can that be bad?”
“That’s sweet, honey,” said June. “But I’m preparing her for the world she’s got to live in, not the one she should.”
“Again, Miss June, how will the next generations make a better world if they don’t see the possibility for it early on?”
June sighed and shook her head, wiping thin fingers on her napkin. She did not reply.
Anette caught her husband’s eye watching her with a quiet, questioning look. Her cheeks warmed. It’d been a good while since she’d spoken out like this outside of work, and she saw herself now through his eyes and the others’. She looked down at her lap and went silent.
“The mac and cheese is dope, Stacey,” Lamar said to Jadine’s mother, breaking the tension. The woman winked at him and he stabbed at another bite.
“I’m trying to tell you,” Oscar agreed.
The moment had passed, and the others seemed to have let it go. Still, it rankled in Anette’s mind. Something about the exchange felt…unsettled. And then there was that scent again, definitely coming from the neighbors’ side of the table. It reminded her of Tannile, somehow, and that irritated her, too. It wasn’t something she wanted to dwell on. Not in the midst of such abundance.
She put it out of mind and didn’t think about it again. Not till some two or three hours later, after seconds and thirds had been had, dessert eaten, and the leftovers covered. The adults had crowded around a card table on the patio, picking up tricks or egging on those who were.
Anette felt tired. She excused herself a moment and went inside, ducking into the bathroom. She closed the door and exhaled. Looked into the mirror. She studied her features there and smiled wearily.
And there it was again. It took her a moment to recognize it, but sure enough—that scent, hovering around her. It must have been from Jadine, must have rubbed off when she’d hugged her arm around Anette from behind to show her a bug she’d found in the grass.
Again she thought of Tannile. Anette unlocked her phone and scrolled upward to find that image. Sure enough, there was Erlon’s sister, glowering at her as she always had. That scent…it was lilies, she decided. That was the aspect she couldn’t identify.
She set the phone on the sink and looked up at her reflection. She shook her head, blinking. Her fingertips pressed her cheekbones. There, in her own eyes now, she could see the same look of defiance that nearly stole her breath when she saw it in Tannile.
It was taking form in her now, the slow realization of what that glare meant. Why now? she wondered idly. But it was just one of those things: the way you don’t know something and the next moment you do, and it feels like you must have known it all along. It wasn’t Tannile’s anger she saw in that photo. It was her own.
Have you forgotten?
And she had. Or nearly so: the girl she had been many years ago, bright and idealistic. Blocked and buried all these years, stifled by life’s disappointments and her own fear of her anger—of its power—and guilt for its impurity.
Something of that past self was staring out from the mirror. Anette shook her head, backed away, sitting on the edge of the tub. Her body shook. Moments flooded back to her, ones she hadn’t thought of in years. Hearing the N-word sung in nursery rhymes at age six, knowing even then there was something wrong with it. The bully in gym class who had teased a boy for his weight, her stepping in to defend him. The wash of feeling when she realized others didn’t take her ideas seriously, not the way they did when white kids spoke. Not even her parents, if only because of her youth. Sadness, then shame—and the way all that burned away in the wake of a righteous zeal.
Then there’d been Erlon. He hadn’t drawn her eye at first, quiet as he was, and then her shock at his inability to dance. You can’t think your way around dancing, after all.
But he was one of the rare few who respected her insight, her iron sense of how things should be. Not only what was broken in the world, but how it could be fixed. As much as life exhausted her with its banal cruelty, its casual injustice, she never gave up hope. There was always a way forward, she’d felt when she was young, and though the years had tempered her with pragmatism and the need to care for herself first, they had never dulled her appetite for justice.
Her parents had called it naïve. Others resented it, teased her for it. Boys from school hanging upside-down from fences, taunting her when she walked by, saying she had a stick up her butt. Girls avoiding her for not being fun enough at parties. Colleagues and mentors feeling threatened by her directness, her unvarnished truth.
Erlon, though, thank God, never did any of that. Instead he’d challenged her. He didn’t dismiss her, but pushed back at her ideas in ways that engaged with them and thus valued their worth. He always had another way of seeing things that helped her take in the fuller picture, just as her zeal and drive pushed him out of his inner world, and into a fuller presence. They complemented each other well, then and now.
But somewhere down the road she’d lost track of that anger. She had thought it was the wearing away of rough edges, the temperance of maturity and growth. Now she saw it again for what it was: a cleansing fire. The most valuable part of her. And she had buried it, stifled it, ashamed it meant there was something wrong, something dangerous about her, not quite respectable. Something she had to accommodate to the world, rather than the other way around.
Maybe she’d done it to survive. Maybe doing that had served her. But no longer. Lord, no longer. Justice seemed as distant as it ever had—perhaps even farther now in some ways—yet she could still see it. But her anger? Buried over. The fire? Tamped down.
Of course Tannile would scorn her. Anette had discounted herself in order to survive, and Tannile, whatever her limitations, whatever other flaws she had had—Tannile would never have done that.
“Have you forgotten?” she heard Tannile’s voice speak aloud in her ear and did not flinch.
“Well,” Anette said, “what if I have? How do I remember? How do I get it back?”
Tannile gave no answer.
* * *
Outside the sun was sinking and Lamar was beginning to make his goodbyes. He fist-bumped Jadine, hugged his uncle, jokingly flirted with Miss June. He turned to face his father.
“Inside, I think. She should be back soon.”
Lamar nodded. “I saw your photo on your job’s website,” he said. “You looked good.”
Erlon tried to smile, but it came from a strange distance. He looked inexplicably sad. “All right,” he finally said. “You take care now, son.”
Lamar went in to see his mother before leaving. A strange quiet seemed to settle over the yard. The card game was still going on, but Erlon stood behind the table and stared through the windows into the house. Though it was near, and looked warm and well-lit to his eyes, he nonetheless felt like a stranger.