Smoke and Molasses

On Finding My Birth Family

Mike drove under the I-16 speed limit, but I kept my mouth shut. My right foot twitched to press the gas pedal to the floor, but we didn’t know each other well enough for me to make fun of his driving habits. All I really knew about him was that he was my brother, and he was four years younger than me, and in spite of adult education and family efforts, he still couldn’t read. “One four eight,” he whispered to himself, as we passed an exit sign about twenty miles out from the city of Savannah. Numbers didn’t seem to be as foreign to his brain as letters were.

At the end of the off ramp to Old River Road, a streetlight shone above the Yield sign. Below, it, the ribcage of a deer carcass lay on its side in the sand among picked-over leg bones. The stench wafted into the car, sweet and revolting. I inhaled into the back of my throat, not even disgusted at my attraction to both. Mike said nothing, but cracked the car windows to let in the March air and to ventilate his cigarette. Outside the silence inside the Chrysler, frogs chirped and peeped in the darkness. This was the first time we’d been alone with each other; earlier that day, he and his wife and my new sister and a gaggle of children had picked me up at the Savannah train station, the first leg of my reunion trip to meet my birth family.

“Old Tina might know,” he said. “She might.”

Tina was our mother’s sister, but at forty-four, she was only ten years older than me — not so old in my view. Maybe, I thought, Mike is calling her “old” because she’s the oldest woman in our family now. Our mother had died at forty-eight; our grandmother had died at fifty-three. Or maybe because old people are supposed to know the secrets.

“I hope so,” I said. “But I don’t care if I never find out. I’m just glad to have found you and everyone else.”

My eyes and sinuses were still raw from all the crying I’d done earlier that day, and it didn’t take much to get me started again. Sorrow rolled from the back of my throat in waves. My mother was not even dead a year. If only I had looked for her last year, or the year before that. Now, I would never touch her.

“I’m glad you found us,” he said, like he was reading my mind. He reached over to run his hand down the back of my head. “Your hair feels just like Momma’s.”

He let his hand rest on the nape of my neck. It was rough and warm and I wanted it to stay there forever. In spite of the differences between me — a Yankee lady lawyer — and him, we clicked into place. I loved him.

“You want to know who your daddy was, don’t you?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Well maybe old Tina knows.”

Earlier that day, the adults in my new-found family had exchanged skeptical glances every time Tina’s name came up. They knew that a couple of weeks before, as I planned this first trip South, Tina had told me over the phone she knew who my father was. Bit by bit, she doled out details, like she was dealing a slow hand of seven-card stud, stopping to exclaim over every card she dealt face-up. It was too much like the sort of fabricated statements I heard so often from my criminal clients, or the statements from neighborhood witnesses, and from the cops who made it up as they went along.

Being a public defender had taught me that people lie more in the courtroom than anywhere else. Maybe because freedom could be lost there as easily as a set of keys. Maybe because putting your hand on a Bible and swearing felt like getting a license to lie. All I knew was that only the worst sorts of liars, the sociopaths, denied the truth for no good reason; the rest of us lied only when we had something to lose. If Tina had been lying to me, was it because she had something to lose?

“It don’t seem right that we didn’t know about you,” Mike said. “Ain’t like we’re all high class.” I was puzzled, too. My existence had come as a surprise to him and everyone but Tina. Or so she had said. From what I knew at that point, their lives had been anything but Ozzie and Harriet. Most of my brothers had been to prison; some had been hospitalized for mental illness; some had been put in foster care. Why would anyone hide the fact that a baby had been given up for adoption? What did they have to lose?

Some facts were plain, though, like that my mother had gotten pregnant with me when she was fourteen and that a few months after I was born, she married the man who was the father of her next six children.

At a gathering of mailboxes, Mike turned onto a sandy road. I rolled my window all the way down and inhaled the cool night air that now smelled of pine and hay. The road curved sharply to the left, and we bounced into a driveway under tall trees. The headlights reflected off of something shiny and bright: a pile of cans and hubcaps. At the back of the lot I could make out a small trailer with rounded edges lifted high up on cinderblocks. A set of stairs, tilting to the left, led up to a door. Dim light seeped from a square window that looked like it was covered by a kitchen towel. The towel fluttered to one side.

The fluttering, the headlights announcing our arrival, and the yapping of small dogs inside the trailer made me expect Tina to come out onto the porch to greet us. But instead, we climbed the tilting stairs in near-darkness, and Mike knocked on the door. A long minute later, it opened to reveal a short, chubby woman with my hair, my eyes, my chin. She flung her arms wide, and I went to her, even as I saw the tower of Mountain Dew cartons threatening to fall on us both.

Her body was soft as my favorite pillow, and I sank into it. We stood in a motionless embrace for longer than I thought possible. Finally, her forehead pressed against my cheek. “Oh, darling, oh, darling,” she whispered.

She pulled back, took both my hands and led me to a round kitchen table, half covered with a collection of full ashtrays. She nodded for me to sit and took a seat next to me, still holding my hands, staring into my eyes steadily as if she dared me to look away. In the brighter light, I could see her slight widow’s peak, like mine, and her hands, which were as identical to mine as a matched set of gloves, just in a smaller size.

“It’s like looking in a mirror.”

I started crying again. It wasn’t like looking in a mirror, but close enough. Her cheeks were rounder than mine, the space between her brows and her chin more compressed, but the eyes, yes, they were the same right down to the odd freckle in one iris. “It’s like looking in a mirror,” she said again, holding my gaze. I kept silent.

She began massaging my fingers with precise pressure, coaxing each joint to open. Once she had rubbed each finger, she flipped my hands palm up on the table, still holding them, and slid the edges of her thumbs in circles in each of my palms. Her fingernails were long, unpolished, and thick. They pressed into my skin like they were dull butter knives, and I was the butter, being spread. She continued to gaze at me steadily, and I didn’t look away. She had the knack of touch, something I had been an easy mark for my whole life.

“A mirror,” she said again. A part of me — maybe the lawyer part — refused that, even though my hands were in her thrall, and so I still said nothing. Her thumbs kept working into my palms. She wore a St. Patrick’s Day t-shirt with a leprechaun on it; her arms were pale and smooth as oiled dough that’s risen after a gentle kneading. She kept hold of my gaze, but her pupils, which had been dilating and contracting in rhythm with her breath, shrank. A small defiance flickered. A slight uplift of the chin.

“A mirror,” she insisted.

“Yes, it is, it’s like looking in a mirror,” I said, not wanting to lose her thick, palpable love. Her pupils dilated again and she relaxed her chin. She smiled and squeezed my hands before letting them go.

Mike had been standing near the door; I’d forgotten he was there until Tina let go of my hands. My skin cooled at the shock of missing her touch.

“I’ll be back in a couple of hours,” he said, and when he bent to hug Tina, she detached her gaze from me, too, holding him in the same extended embrace with which she’d greeted me.

I took in the interior: one room that served as kitchen, dining, and living area, and a dark hallway leading off to what had to be a bathroom I was already afraid to use. Floorspace in the main room, which couldn’t have been more than twelve-by-twelve to begin with, had shrunk inside a barricade of debris that started at the walls. It looked like it had gradually crept toward the center of the room where I sat at the ashtray table. Two Chihuahuas, the source of the yapping that had greeted us, leapt along the back of a slouchy couch, then over to the top of a large television turned against a wall, then over a column of stuffed fruit cartons, and down to trash bags busting full of what looked like clothing, and back around again, over and over in a manic circuit. A slight odor of urine wafted up under the stronger smell of what was cooking on the stove, something with beans in it, I thought. Beside the stove, a sink filled with dishes, and beside that, a Cool Whip container holding a dozen or so prescription bottles. Nerves, she had asked me on the phone, did I have any trouble with nerves? Above us, an incandescent bulb hung from a chrome fixture that had been meant to hold a glass globe.

The door closed behind Mike. Tina and I hadn’t moved from the table. She pushed one sleeve of my sweatshirt up and stroked my forearm. “You have good skin. That’s the Indian. You tan right up, I bet.”

“That’s right.”

“Theresa — your momma — and me, we used to lay out on the sidewalk right in front of our apartment on Broughton Street in Savannah this time of year. We covered ourselves in baby oil and iodine and lay out in the sun until we looked like brown sugar babies. People had to step over us.” She held my hands again.

Two girls baking on a sidewalk on a warm spring day. The heat of the concrete warming their backs. The satisfaction of owning a piece of ground, of blocking a path. I believed it, and I hoped she was in a truth-telling mood and asked her to tell me about my father.

“Oh, your daddy was handsome. Your momma adored him.” She pulled a Virginia Slims cigarette from a case and lit it with a pink disposable lighter. “The smoke bother you? Your momma hated it. The asthma. You got that from her.”

“It’s okay.”

“Of course, she wasn’t but fourteen. He was a captain in the Army. She loved the uniform.”

“The Army? I thought he was in the Navy.”

She took a deep drag and held the smoke in, smiling at me indulgently. I was the person who knew nothing. “He was in both, dear.”

“At the same time?”

“Oh no, he switched over to the Army after a year or two. They let you do that.”

“What else?”

“He was a shift manager at Dixie Crystals. It was an important job, and he had a nice car, a convertible.” She took another drag and then poked out her lower lip and blew the smoke up, inhaling a little back in through her nose. “Yes, a convertible. It was a Corvette. Silver. They drove to South Carolina in it and got married.”

“How old was he?”

“He was twenty, just six years older than her, but Elton hated that they ran off. Elton was my daddy, but he wasn’t Theresa’s real daddy, even though he acted like she was his favorite. He was a bad man, dear. I’ll tell you about him later.” She took another drag of her cigarette, and then poked it around into one of the overflowing ashtrays until it went out. “Yes, Kent Smith. I can see him now with that blond hair and the sailor uniform. He bought your momma a ring with a diamond as big as a butter bean. You know what that is? I keep forgetting you’re a Yankee.”

“I know.”

“Of course, you’re not a Yankee. You were born right here in the South.” Another drag. “Elton took that ring away from her and pawned it. But never you mind about Elton. Your daddy was a good man.”

“And only twenty.” I couldn’t help myself. “He’d accomplished a lot by that age. The Navy, the Army, being a manager. The Corvette. The diamond ring.”

She lifted her chin at me again, and again I saw the hint of defiance that dared me to disbelieve her. What would reassure her? Was she like me, a slave to touch? Or did she just need me to admit my ignorance of my family’s entire past so she could be the story-teller, the wise elder?

I was sure she was lying about “Kent Smith,” and nothing I could see inside her trailer, even the yapping dogs, was something I could imagine being afraid to lose. Was she one of those who lied for sport, who would tell you she went to Star Market when she had really gone to Stop ‘n’ Shop? And if she was, would I ever be able to stop loving her?

The love was molasses. Sweet and thick like honey, but burnt, and bitter. Opaque. Sticky. I reached out and took one of her hands while she brought an unlit cigarette up to her lips with the other. She plucked the pink disposable lighter up and flicked it on, keeping one eye on me through its flame, as if the flame were a keyhole, and she were a little girl, peeking out to another world.

I didn’t want to blow away her smoke, even though it stung my eyes and dimmed the outline of everything in front of me. “Tell me more,” I said, adrift in the haze, needing any story at all.

Michele Leavitt is a high school dropout, hepatitis C survivor, and former trial attorney who writes essays and poems and sometimes wins contests. Her work has been published in venues including So to Speak, Mezzo Cammin, Hippocampus, and The Journal. A memoir excerpt, “No Trespassing,” won The Ohio State University’s 2010 William Allen Award for creative nonfiction. Her poetry collection Back East (Moon Pie Press) won the 2013 Michael Macklin Award. In 2014, EAT Poems published her audio chapbook of poems from the hepatitis C epidemic, Virus Conversations. She lives in Maine, where she co-direct the Honors Program at Unity College and teaches writing.

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