Late one April afternoon, Liselle stood at the large kitchen window rubbing her hands together for warmth. Gripping the phone to her ear with her shoulder, she acknowledged that early spring was her least favorite time of year. Letting the idea settle, she felt herself slide down into one of the chairs at the cluttered kitchen island. She had intended to stand and take this call, keep a straight spine and spacious diaphragm, but found she could not.
“Jail, Liselle. They’re gonna put his ass in jail.”
“But, Ma,” she said, half expecting to see a cloud of steam come out of her mouth. It was not cold enough for the heat to kick on, and yet the air inside her 150-year-old home in Northwest Philadelphia felt icy. “Just because the FBI said something doesn’t mean it’s true. What about Martin Luther . . .”
Verity let out an acid whoop of laughter. “You sound insane. Do I need to say that Winn is not Martin Luther King? Shit, these days, Winn up here looking more like J. Edgar—”
“Not funny,” snapped Liselle. She did feel an urge to laugh, but as if she were being tickled by someone bigger who did not love her. She imagined herself in the future, taking a panicked call from her son, Patrice, and resolved to do better than Verity was doing to comfort her, even as she suspected she would fail.
“We don’t even know if he did anything,” Liselle insisted. “Yes, this guy told me they’re going to indict him—but we don’t know what he did, or even what they say he did.”
The daylight was gray and the dark wood fixtures in the house weighed her down. She felt a gentle tugging, which, if she gave into it, would take her briefly out of her body. Her mother’s voice snapped her back.
“Liselle, are you listening to yourself?”
“Ma, look, I . . . I just want to know if you think I should cancel this dinner party.”
“Well, I’m not sure what’s being celebrated. Is it Winn losing the primary—which we always knew he would? Church Williams has held that office so long that you were bucktoothed and skinny when they swore him in.”
“Look, the party is to thank the folks who helped us.” Liselle felt sheepish at her use of “folks.” She had no memory of saying the word before Winn decided to run for office.
“Oh, the folks,” Verity said, on cue. “Did you invite the folks who are gonna get him locked up? Because somebody was talking to somebody, right?”
Liselle hadn’t even considered that she and Winn were potentially about to host an FBI informant. Would that person really have had the gall to accept their invitation?
“To the point,” Verity said. “You want to know if you should throw a party to thank these people who had nothing better to do with their money and time than to help you delude yourselves?”
“It wasn’t a delusion,” said Liselle, her cheeks warming. She had used the exact same word, “delusion,” in an argument with Winn early in the campaign, when there had been time to turn back, when she was trying to make him turn back. She was surprised and irritated to find herself defending his—and her—honor. But she persisted, as she often found herself doing when her mother goaded her. “Look, Ma, at one point in the polls—”
Verity laughed. “The polls! Where did he buy those polls? I hope he kept the receipts!”
“Look, can’t you just fucking say if you think I should cancel the party?”
Verity began to breathe.
Since she’d been “on sabbatical” from teaching (an unpaid leave, really), Liselle had taken yoga classes with a frequency that shamed her. She regularly tried out different studios in Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill during the city’s most productive hours. In her only neighborhood celebrity sighting of Sonia Sanchez, Liselle could not greet her, so galled had she been to be wearing spandex and clutching a BPA-free water bottle with a mat under her arm. But she had learned enough from the classes that listening to Verity’s loud exhalations reminded her of the practice of ujjayi: “triumphantly victorious breath.”
Liselle’s forty-one years of research suggested that no matter how distant, abusive, judgmental, unloving, and useless one’s mother was, one called her when things fell apart. One called one’s mother and told her things no one else knew, even if all she said in response was It is what it is/All I can do is pray for you/Just be glad you have a roof over your head/I told you so, but you wouldn’t listen/Oh, please, he was always like that. You made your choice/You know my money is tied up in this house right now. For weeks, since she’d spoken to the attractive gentleman from the FBI in the coffee shop, Liselle had wanted desperately not to call Verity.
Of course, part of the reason she hadn’t was that she hadn’t even been properly alarmed. It felt almost inconceivable to Liselle that Winn’s political ambition, so sudden and half-hearted, had led him into anything illegal. And yet she had not had the nerve to ask him the truth about what was going on, nor told him what she had heard from the FBI man.
“Liselle”—oh, the singular sound of one’s mother saying one’s name—“I don’t know why you’re suddenly so interested in my opinion. I haven’t seen you do a single thing I’ve suggested since you were seven. As long as Patrice—my poor Patrice—is okay, I don’t care what happens over there. It does not matter if you cancel this fucking dinner party, but maybe you could go back in time and cancel this godforsaken campaign, which was a huge waste of time, money, and tears. Then, after you look into that, you can go ahead and cancel this marriage too.”
Liselle hung up the phone and listened to her heart slamming away in her chest.
A thought reached out and grabbed her. With the same reckless spirit with which she’d hung up on her mother, she dialed another number she was shocked to find she remembered. “Is Selena there?” Then she left her name, number, and a one-word message, hanging up before the person who’d answered the phone could ask her about it.
Liselle had met the agent twice before his call. He’d been at one of Winn’s campaign rallies, though she hadn’t known who he was at the time. Later she’d run into him at the Chestnut Hill Café. She bristled with hatred, remembering his dopey name and the fact that he was a tall and extremely good-looking Black man. All of this had caught her off guard from the beginning. The next thing she knew he was calling the house “as a courtesy,” he said, to warn her that the FBI was pursuing indictments against Winn.
Liselle went over all of it again and again in her mind, while keeping her body in motion. She shuffled the piles of nonsense, making room for the catering delivery. She stacked envelopes and flyers, an expensive traffic ticket she hoped someone had paid online, an outtake from the family photo session they’d sat for in the early days of the campaign. The photo shoot had captured exactly what it was—the aftermath of a three-hour argument about the state of Patrice’s hair. She rewiped the spotless counter; it kept her from falling through the floor.
“When will all of this happen?” she’d asked the FBI man.
“Soon,” he’d said.
“I just don’t understand. You said he hadn’t done anything.”
“I know I didn’t say that.” He’d chuckled gently, sounding like a Quiet Storm DJ.
Liselle checked her watch, an unadorned black waterproof model with a silicone band. Winn had once tried to replace it, gifting her a platinum one that cost more than her mother’s monthly salary from the city Department of Licenses and Inspections. When he’d lost the primary, Liselle had quietly placed it back in its velvet box in her underwear drawer. Maybe she could sell it. Further, she wondered if you could collect life insurance on a spouse if they went to prison. Of course, she would go back to work as had always been planned, but could she and Patrice survive the genteel poverty of one private school teaching salary?
Less than four hours remained before the party; Winn would likely arrive not long before the guests. Before that Patrice would be home from school and Liselle had to plan what she would say, what she would do, how her face would look. (“Fix your face, Liselle,” Verity had often said when she was young.)
Years ago, when she and Winn had first started having people to dinner, Liselle had despised it. First there was the matter of having nothing to talk about with the menacingly dull lawyers at Winn’s firm. Then there was the fact that even as he rarely lifted a finger toward the execution, Winn micromanaged the plans. Even when Liselle was working full-time and took on the bulk of the management of Patrice, Winn felt perfectly comfortable turning up his nose at menu ideas, or insisting on the unused decorative plates only found in restaurants (“chargers,” they were called).
Along the way, as the years passed and Winn made partner, Liselle had become what guests described as “a gracious hostess.” She winced inwardly each time at the female weakness of the description, as well as at the pressure to keep up the act. And after every party she greeted the departure of the last guest with the triumphant sense of having come down alive from a small mountain. It would not be so tonight, she thought, when the end of the party might also be the end of everything else. Liselle toyed with an image of herself and Patrice moving boxes into her mother’s cluttered, dark house in West Philadelphia.
To think she had spent the day shopping for cheese and flowers—had gone to shops at either end of Germantown Avenue looking in vain for calla lilies. This was not like the movies, where things worked out for you because you were a sympathetic character. Experience did not bear out the religion that so many people clung to: “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Of course, God did that to people every single minute of every single day.
“This doesn’t feel real,” she had said to William McMichael on the phone. It was happening so fast, fast like the night they went to bed and there was a stupid old white president and when they awoke there was a smart, youngish Black one, such an unprecedented state of affairs that barely a decade before that there had been a bumper crop of shows and movies about the inherently comic situation of a Black president.
Liselle was no longer moving but standing still, limbs filled with sand, giving a respectful audience to these thoughts. She jumped when the doorbell rang. “Soon,” William McMichael had said.
As she walked toward the front door, terror at the back of her throat, she remembered hopefully that Jimena, her helper, was coming to prepare for the party. But the figure on the porch was neither Jimena nor the FBI.
“Hello, Mrs. Anderson,” said Xochitl, Jimena’s daughter. “My mom’s knees were bothering her. Sorry I had to ring the bell; we don’t have a key anymore.” Unspoken: Jimena used to have a key, but after Winn announced his bid for office, he had made a paranoid argument for changing the locks and not giving a new key to Jimena. Or to Verity, for that matter. (Liselle had overruled him on the issue of Verity.)
“That’s okay. I hope Jim—your mom is okay,” Liselle said. Unspoken: Xochitl’s name, which Liselle seemed to mispronounce each time she said it, as well as Jimena’s, which Liselle was also shy of pronouncing.
“She’s fine,” said Xochitl. “She’s just getting older, you know, so I help her out when I have time in my schedule.” Unspoken: Liselle had an old woman with bad knees scrubbing her toilets and loading her dishwasher; also unspoken: Xochitl, a PhD student and immigration rights activist, was lowering herself to work for Liselle, who had never finished, nor started, a master’s degree. “She may come by later if she’s feeling up to it.”
“Oh, nice,” said Liselle, pasting a smile on her face. Jimena and Xochitl working together always divided Liselle’s feelings. When she heard snatches of their gentle Spanish after a glass or two of wine at her dinner parties, Liselle sometimes entertained the thought that she was helping mother and daughter spend quality time together. On the other hand, she had no idea what they were saying and wondered if they were talking about her. She felt her ever twoness as the Black mistress of a tiny plantation.
“So, what do we have today?” Xochitl asked, returning the stiff smile. Even a fake smile (Liselle knew because she’d seen the real one) lit up Xochitl’s face. Liselle wondered if that was the kind of thing a slave mistress would notice—the lovely smiles of her slaves?
Liselle walked Xochitl into the kitchen and showed her boxes of frozen mushroom tarts, blocks of Gouda, the wheel of Brie, and gestured toward the serving dishes. Years ago, at a law firm dinner party, Liselle had picked up the frugal trick of providing one’s own Costco appetizers. No one much cared about the crackers at these things.
“The caterers will be here soon; you should listen for the doorbell.”
Xochitl looked up from the kitchen island, which Liselle had not completely cleared, though she’d arranged the trash into admirable piles. “Are you going out?” she asked.
“No,” Liselle said with the air of an apology.
“Anything else, Mrs. Anderson?”
“Please call me Liselle. Anderson is my husband’s name.” Liselle tried to soften the edge of her voice. “Or Ms. Belmont, if that’s more comfortable.”
“I apologize,” said Xochitl, shifting from one foot to another. “I hope I haven’t done or said anything to offend you. My mother really needs this job.”
“Of course. She’ll have it as long as she wants.” As she said it, Liselle realized this was less true today than it had been yesterday. They would not need household help if Winn was arrested and they became social outcasts of an uncertain financial future.
Many years ago, Jimena, whose husband had been repeatedly deported back to Puebla—the third time for good—had asked for help to pay for knee replacement surgery and Xochitl’s Catholic school tuition. The people who knew about these things had told Liselle that you did not get involved with housekeeping staff on that level. It could open the door to a continuous stream of requests and a tightening entanglement of dependence. Though Liselle had blamed Winn in her apologetic refusal, he had actually shrugged at the five-figure amount Jimena had requested. It had been Liselle who’d denied her.
Jimena had finally managed to get the surgery, but maybe too late. She walked with a limp. Xochitl had briefly had to transfer to a public school, where some girls had tried to set her long hair on fire, before she was rescued by a scholarship. Liselle was thinking that maybe if she had been more generous, the universe would not be bearing down on her family as it was.
“You didn’t offend me,” said Liselle. She imagined herself making a pot of tea, sitting down with Xochitl to tell her everything that was happening. It would begin when Winn had said, over an anniversary dinner nearly two years ago, “So, some people approached me about getting into politics,” and end with her fear that the FBI would barge in during her party. She pictured Xochitl’s compassionate and wise expression.
. . . , she would say, reaching for Liselle’s hand.
“I’m going to get to work then, Mrs., uh, Belmont,” said the actual Xochitl.
“Oh, of course,” said Liselle. As she headed upstairs to change her clothes and hide, she heard humming. Maybe Xochitl knew everything that was happening. Maybe she had set them up. Liselle could not decide which one—the fantasy that Xochitl would comfort her, or the fantasy of betrayal—made her feel more like she was wearing a hoopskirt and waving her lace fan at Xochitl, across a gulf, from the wrong side of history.
She knew it was a mistake to hug Patrice, but she couldn’t stop herself. At the sound of his feet on the stairs, she was in the hallway; once her arms were around him, she found it difficult to let go. Squeezing, she breathed in his sweaty-socks-and-oatmeal smell.
He wriggled and pushed her away, first gently, then with some firmness. “What are you doing? Dad here?”
“Does Dad usually come home before dark?” She laughed harshly. “It’s Xochitl.”
“Xochitl,” said Patrice, pronouncing the name slowly and looking (down) at her.
Liselle ignored the correction. “So, you’re going to Adam’s house tonight.” Earlier she had arranged this with Miriam Blau, who lived a few blocks away. Patrice and her son had once legitimately been friends, and now they were forced-family-friends, even as the families were barely convivial at this point. It was enough for Liselle for tonight.
Patrice wiggled his nose in distaste. “Nah, I’m good. I’m just going to go hit this homework, then put on a clean shirt and come eat fig chicken with the phonies.”
“Nope,” said Liselle. “This is too complicated tonight. You can go do your homework and play video games with Adam.”
“You know Adam does drugs,” Patrice said solemnly, one eye twitching. It was all Liselle could do not to laugh in his face. She thought of a conversation she’d had with Winn a few months prior; they’d collapsed merrily with laughter, agreeing that Patrice was a terrible liar. “How does he even get his one eye to do that?” Liselle had asked Winn. “He could never,” Winn said, gasping for breath, “go into politics.”
“Please just drop it, sweetheart. I’m sorry to uninvite you to a party in your own house, but Dad losing the election is not a very fun reason for a party anyway, right?”
Patrice muttered to himself, reminding Liselle of Verity. Then, as Verity sometimes did, he became abruptly loud. “You said Miriam was a ‘second-wave hypocrite menace.’ Remember that?”
Copyright © 2021 by Asali Solomon