In 1906 Horatio Applewood watched a white man slip a Belgian Browning, a five-shot rifle, into his father’s hand as barter for a rowboat he had built from scratch.
Horatio had already begun to count figures at age ten, calculating debts and dues owed to Goliath McCullough, affectionately known as Gohegan Man by friends and neighbors in Snake’s Haven. The boy maintained meticulous notes in a Roaring Spring marble composition pad he’d procured at the Snake’s Haven Five & Dime. Some pages were covered with doodles of rainbow-spectrum hot-air balloons and lithe circus performers and bales of hay and African elephants, their wrinkled heads ornamented with garish emerald crowns and copper coins.
“We’ll use this gun to hunt pheasants,” Gohegan Man told his son. The boat builder now had in his possession two prized guns: the Belgian Browning and a Winchester Model 1866 rifle, the latter gifted to him at thirteen by his own father, Phineas, who earned the rifle from a Yankee dandy who had nearly lost his life due to his habit of trickery at cards. Gohegan Man’s father helped the Yankee dandy escape—or, in this case, sail, just as he had done during the Civil War, stowing runaway slaves along the Atlantic coast.
On the rare occasions in 1906 when Gohegan Man was compelled to hunt with the 1866 Winchester, he noticed a shyness in the rifle. He would pull the hammer back and the gun would misfire, sending a flock of geese in tattered directions. Horatio was coming of an age to hunt, and Gohegan Man wanted to teach his son to shoot with a gun that would not blow off his head.
“A boat for a gun?” Horatio tapped at the numerical figures angrily. “That ain’t a fair trade. A boat for a gun and box of bullets?”
Father and son perambulated away from the marina and took a shortcut through Laundry Lane, where the washerwomen had fashioned a clothesline that functioned like a carousel from one end of the lane to the other and back around again, the names of the families whose clothes they took in demarcated by clothespins. The laundrywomen pooled their resources and worked in shifts: sharing half a dozen humongous wash bins between them, with crude pestles and mortars on wooden cylinders that beat out dirt and grime and stains on sheets and diapers packed with shit they would never have asked a stranger to clean. The cooperative permitted the women time to cook and tend to their own homes and children. And to avoid the damages to their skin caused by lye. Their husbands constructed a makeshift canal that carried the dirty wash water to the river, but the task of hauling clean wash water up the hill still had to be done manually, one bucket at a time. The washerwomen drew sticks to see who among them would do the waterbucket hauling, drawing sticks a second or third time if someone was found to have carried more than her share. Since their husbands often worked during the day and were too tired to haul water at night, they enlisted the aid of their children before or after school. Not all their white patrons were pleased with the cooperative’s ingenuity. Some would send clothes back for a second wash or ask for their laundry to be done “the old way.” Laundry is not meant to be done standing up. Laundry is meant to be done on one’s knees. How soft, your hands! And so, to appease some inclination for an old-fashioned and simpler way of doing things, Virginia or Bessie or Willa Mae or Romie, the founders of the Laundry Lane Ladies Cooperative, performed impromptu ceremonial old-ways clothes washings, bending over the bins and beating out dirt with rocks and stones in a way that appalled their souls, because the customer is always right, even when she isn’t.
Laundry Lane was a modest enterprise meant to ensure the kind of distance and autonomy some of the women had known on the Sea Islands before their families migrated to mountainous river towns in North Carolina and Georgia. Like Lee Yick, a Chinese immigrant arrested in 1884 for operating an unpermitted laundry in a wooden building, and who took his case to the Supreme Court, effectively ending a ban on Chinese-owned laundromats in San Francisco, the women of Laundry Lane also lived with the reality that laundry transactions were mercurial in both theory and practice. Still, a full day’s work seldom stopped the Laundry Lane Ladies from fellowship or small talk with friends and neighbors, especially the single women among them, who might wave after Gohegan Man to join them in respite or company when Horatio wasn’t in tow.
Horatio carried on about his father’s misbegotten sale of the boat for days. He’d find Gohegan Man out on their riverboat, casting for fish with his net, and scoff at his invitation to pick up a net and fish alongside him.
“How could you?”
Gohegan Man gathered the net in dripping folds. “A boat for a gun that no white man would let me buy but none can now complain about—’cause I came by this gun honest,” he said. “Papers and all.” By selling the small wooden skiff at a bargain, he was certain word of mouth would spread and bring in a steady clientele.
Horatio shook his head and drew diagrams in his composition pad. He broke down the hours his father had worked building the skiff, divided those hours into minutes and seconds, and multiplied them by the raw materials his father had supplied—free of charge—to construct the boat. The boy tabulated what such labor should bring in for a craftsman of Gohegan Man’s age and experience, and then showed his father the sorry deficit. There was nothing in the diagrams to chart Gohegan Man’s humanity. Only his skill and labor. The boat builder tried to think of when last he had seen such figures put to a man. His mind drifted to the kudzu-covered plantation house on McCullough Island and the dust-filled ledgers that listed the value of the men, women, and children the McCullough had once owned, his people among them. He encouraged Horatio to doodle more circus tents and refused to teach the boy to shoot the Belgian Browning. But Horatio persisted, reminding his father that the old man would not live forever.
“What if something happened to you? I’d be left twice an orphan. Seems like you’d want me to be able to fend for myself in this mean world.”
Horatio rejoiced in owning a weapon that could sock it to multitudinous birds: mourning doves, wild turkeys, pheasants, ducks, grouse, and quail. And Horatio was a stellar shot too, for it is true that the son often surpasses the father. He would pluck a partridge from the sky like it was nobody’s business. He would lie low in the grass and study his target before taking aim. He would climb a tree and steal an egg from a mother bird’s nest. Horatio would go door to door with varietal dead birds strung together on a wire, selling them for a nickel each. It became his Friday after-school habit to hunt birds while the other children tried the merry-go-round in the schoolyard or played hide-and-seek or stick ball or some other game to propel them into the weekend. Horatio might have killed half the birds in Snake’s Haven if Gohegan Man didn’t frown on him, killing birds for mere profit.
“It’s the same as killing fish. You just like seafood more,” Horatio said, taking a bite of red snapper his father had cooked over a fire and stuffed with wild dandelion greens and gold rice.
“You can’t just go and kill all the birds,” Gohegan Man told him. “You got to leave some for white men and Snake’s.”
Surrounded by mountains that seemed small until you scaled their steep summit, Snake’s Haven was founded in 1800, with no straight path that cut through the town. Even Main Street curved toward the river, forking left and then right with the homes of coloreds and whites divided left to right.
There was no mystery as to the origins of the town’s name. Every vantage point on the mountains offered a clear sight of the snakes that swam to shore, riding the surface of the raging river. If there was a storm or a threat of natural disaster, residents of Snake’s Haven were still in enough possession of their sixth sense to climb to the rooftops or break for the mountains to wait nature’s mood swings out. Three seasons of the year, the town lingered in dampness—humidity and fog rising off the water so that sometimes people could not see as far as the length of their arms, and often, if someone was prone to sleepwalking, which some were, he might stumble into the river. The river has a way of calling you, they said, and many somnolent souls found themselves caught up in its current, never to be seen or heard from again.
Gohegan Man took Horatio to a picture show, because a picture show was not something the boy could use for a profit—unless, of course, he owned the movie theater. At the Lost Eden Cinema, Horatio Applewood let his mind relax and his shoulders drop, and he sat back and nibbled on orange and yellow candy corn. Sometimes, he would rest his head on Gohegan Man’s shoulder and marvel at how a reel of film manifested itself as an image on the screen: The Impossible Convicts, a three-minute short about four prisoners who walked backward into jail and a documentary following a cable car along Market Street before the Great San Francisco Fire. When the movies ended, Horatio dashed upstairs to watch the operator respool the film, but the operator tsk-tsk-tsked at him, reminding the boy that his kind were not welcome in the operator’s booth: Get back to the colored section or never set foot in this theater again.
Horatio scorned the Lost Eden Cinema from that point on. He fell into reading Buster Brown. And that is how his children would come to love the comics, though they would prefer Westerns and superhero comic books most of all. Horatio read the Sunday comics once or twice before cutting them out and bartering them with his classmates for marbles and Chiclets, or to fend off the class bully. Even in this manner, commerce was his axis.
Gohegan Man held his tongue, for he knew Horatio had been hurt by the loss of his mother, and the boat builder could offer his son no easy answers. He had sufficient sins of his own. Enough, Gohegan Man told himself. Surely it was enough to get along morning to evening, one day to the next.
In 1935 Sarah Applewood moved into Gohegan Man’s riverboat, the day after her husband, Horatio, shot the old man dead over what she mistook to be a property dispute. There is nothing like a house to tell the story of a murder, and Sarah knew Horatio would ransack the riverboat for his father’s valuables and then set it ablaze to erase how Gohegan Man had lived as well as why he had died.
The night before, while Gohegan Man lay on a cold ice slab in the Snake’s Haven Morgue for the Colored, Sarah packed up her belongings: seven pairs of underwear, seven dresses, two pairs of shoes, three brassieres—white, black, and tan—a medium toothbrush and baking soda, a hairbrush and comb, and one tube of Max Factor lipstick. And because she could not stand the thought of Horatio’s hands on the fishing net Gohegan Man had made for him, the deaf piano teacher claimed the fishing net as her own. She woke twelve-year-old Ezekiel Applewood and signed for him to pack quietly and quickly while his father slept. Ezekiel Applewood moved around in the half twilight slipping clothes into his luggage. He did not question his mother in spoken English nor in sign language. They left Horatio sleeping soundly with no worries of the living or the dead. He had not had a nightmare or even a dream in years.
Cath Quincy knew everyone on McCullough Island, every mother in her first, second, or third trimester. The mothers who were trying would come to her in need of poultices and potions and herbs to grow a flesh-and-blood baby in their barren wombs—many before the itty-bitty one was little more than a thought, an idea the desiring mother couldn’t let loose. For some women, Cath believed strongly mothering should remain a loose idea, but being a midwife, she always stopped short of passing judgment. People wanted what they wanted, even if they found no satisfaction in it. She had never birthed a child herself, and it puzzled her that her patients refrained from questioning how a woman with no babies of her own should be given the authority to bring children into this world. One client, a middle-aged pearl diver who had given birth to seven children, confessed to Cath Quincy that she trusted Cath because she didn’t begrudge children, which was the way of many mothers. And perhaps this was true.
Cath did not recognize the face of the baby boy on her doormat; did not see the eyes of a mother she had rubbed with palm oil to soothe her aching back or the jaw of the proud papa burned with the for-life terror of a newborn father.
This was not the child of some man on his way out the door when he heard a new baby was coming, or a cousin prone to kiss too much, or any of the residents of McCullough Island. This child was alien to her. Cath hesitated before picking up the wee babe, feeling its strangeness, its otherness, a newborn starving for tit and for love. She tugged him to her heart in his swaddling blanket, which was an old dirty checkered tablecloth, and upon holding him for mere seconds, and seeing how his teeny, tiny, fisted hands pumped open and closed, groping for something, and his pink lips puckered, trying to suckle, surmised that the babe was raging with appetite. She went next door to the carriage house of Marjoram, who had three small children, the oldest being six. Cath said with no room for sass, “If you have fed your youngest, feed this one.”
“Who knew?” Marjoram said, looking Cath up and down. Cath paid the dense woman no attention because time was slipping out the door. “Between suckling them babies you need to take a comb to your hair, which is full of dust and dander. You will cause your tots to sniff and wheeze and cough all their lives.”
Marjoram nursed the baby perfunctorily, and when she was done slammed the door in Cath Quincy’s face. She laughed and sang to the baby as she carried him to the early part of town to regard the three tall circus tents that had been there for seven days but were now being folded up in the dawn. A circus, now wouldn’t you know? As a child, Cath had been smitten with the peculiar brilliance of circus whimsy, but now circus tents and circuses in general did nothing for her. The midwife took what little money she made and saved toward the day when she would travel abroad. She had not yet determined the destination. Her haven was somewhere overseas that held more wonders than those beneath a circus tent. When she was done delivering all the babies God required of her, a specific number situated on the edge of the sewing needles she used to stitch new mothers whole again—on that fateful day—Cath Quincy would put down her birthing box and never look between a woman’s legs again.
It was Goliath McCullough who confirmed Cath Quincy’s suspicion that the baby’s mother was not from their island. He was, at thirty, an unrepentant bachelor with a snow-streaked Afro to rival Frederick Douglass. Cath Quincy did not know what irked her about Goliath more, the fact that he still lived at home with his father and his father’s much younger second wife, or that a man who grew up surrounded by water displayed such thoroughly lackluster skills for fishing. Like the three little pigs, she thought, Goliath would do well to go out and seek his fortune. The other fishermen often made much sport of Goliath’s bad luck at sea. He could make a perfect fishing net but one that yielded little or no catch.
“Trade up or down,” the fishermen would tell him.
Goliath’s late mother had been a feeler, a feeler being nothing like a seer. Feelers were not inclined to do anything about their feelings, nor were they endowed with special powers to stop the dread or consequences their feelings had on their own lives, much less their loved ones. Cath could think of no more useless gift since feelings were seldom articulated until the moment a particular action or behavior transpired, by which point it was already a done deal, leaving one too late for heaven and just in time for hell.
“What them circus people been up to?” Cath Quincy yelled on the pier as the fishermen worked around her.
“Performing,” laughed one of them, a salty drunkard.
“Performing, indeed.” Cath rocked the baby. Half the men on the island had wives and girlfriends whose babies she had delivered.
She addressed Goliath directly without uttering his name. “Tell me what all they were up to under that big top.”
Goliath saw that Cath Quincy was holding a baby, cooing to it about treetops and babies will rock. Goliath started for the bow of the boat before more questions would be asked of him, and Cath Quincy strolled along the pier as he walked along the boat scrounging low like he was playing a game of hide-and-seek in plain sight. She half wondered if his back genuinely hurt.
“You well there, Goliath?” Cath asked.
“Well enough,” Goliath said.
Another man answered the question that Goliath avoided. “There was a great big pregnant woman who could somersault and land splits.”
“She still here?” Cath persisted.
“The circus party is gone. They left the workers to pack up behind.”
Goliath had seen the Magnificent Pregnant Lady perform on McCullough Island the night before she gave birth to the baby.
“Well, apparently, that great big pregnant woman left us with a precious bundle. All that damn somersaulting caught up to her,” Cath said. “Who wants him?”
As if on cue, the newborn began to wail. All the fishermen backed away. They had children and mouths to feed already, and here was the midwife asking them who wanted another one. They didn’t want him, and their wives sure as hell wouldn’t tolerate him. He might have been born on the island but he wasn’t from the island. He was without history or lineage.
“If I have to raise this child,” Cath said, “yours will die. God bless me with the gift of bringing teeny-tiny tots in the world. Not resting with them or sitting with them or raising them.”
The baby would not stop crying. The sound was torture to Goliath’s ears. He climbed out of the boat and joined Cath on the pier and reached out for the infant. The baby stopped crying when Goliath clutched it to his chest. The fishermen applauded, and Goliath put a cussing on them. “Go to hell! I’ll piss on your tongue as soon as give you water.”
The fishermen applauded even more.
“Look like Goliath found his livelihood!”
“Well, if he ain’t the proud papa!”
The baby’s hand reached for Goliath’s nipple and he slapped it away: “Nothing’s there, boy.” The baby cried in outrage and Goliath was immediately sorry for his transgression.
“My neighbor Marjoram’s got three mouths to feed. But she will nurse one more for what food you can bring to her table. At least until he cut his teeth on real food.”
“This is not for me,” Goliath insisted.
Cath took out a cinnamon stick. She put it in the baby’s mouth. “The universe begs to differ. What you gonna name him?”
Goliath was now pacing from side to side with the baby. “Do I have to name him now? I think I best talk to my people first.”
Cath believed that Goliath would now have to move on out of his father’s house—away from his crippled daddy and his daddy’s young pretty wife. A man with a baby requires a wife of his own. She didn’t say this, of course. In these matters, she kept solo counsel.
“Do it in your own time,” she told him. “The best names come that way. And in your own home.”
Cath Quincy’s voice echoed in the morning breeze as she put some distance between herself and Goliath. He would leave McCullough Island three years later, by which point his skill at making fishing nets was surpassed only by his skill at making boats. A profession that suited his personality and kept him closer to shore, where he would often use his favorite fishing net as a bassinet for his new son.
Horatio, he thought as the fishermen yammered at him. The name seemed to suit the little one.
Sarah and Ezekiel traveled down the hill toward the Snake’s Haven riverfront. They passed a hodgepodge of houses: craftsmen, Gothic Revival, shotgun shanties, all but a few erected by the owners themselves with help from neighbors and fellow churchgoers, though there were some who preferred the convenience of a mail-for-order house from the Sears, Roebuck catalog.
The Applewoods were among the least superstitious residents of Snake’s Haven, but even Sarah knew better than to go fishing without throwing a peace offering back to the river: earthworms, half-eaten fruit, boiled eggs, captured dragonflies for the snakes and frogs to feast upon. Her maiden name was Sarah Lester, but everyone in the town knew Sarah was the illegitimate daughter of Noah Baranski, the Jewish owner of Baranski’s Fine Apparel, where her mother, Valen, was the resident seamstress.
Sarah Applewood shamed her husband by stopping by the Snake’s Haven Funeral Home for Coloreds, which doubled as the Snake’s Haven Morgue, and paying for Gohegan Man’s funeral service with the money she earned teaching piano. When this unwelcomed morning news reached Horatio, he hastened to the funeral home and paid the funeral director for all expenses. Vanity, Pride, and their first cousin, Guilt, would not let Horatio be outdone by his own wife. He arranged for Gohegan Man to have a homegoing like the funeral processions in New Orleans. He paid for the local marching band, Lady Grey, horse-drawn carriages and hearse, and more flowers than the weeds in a dandelion field.
“I think you left something behind, my dear,” Horatio said, presenting Sarah with her well-intentioned funeral-service money.
Sarah was eating roasted oysters on the deck of Gohegan Man’s riverboat.
Horatio watched Ezekiel cast the fishing net in the calmest part of the water, timing his movements so that when the net disappeared beneath the water’s surface he could scoop up fish deftly and with ease.
“That’s my net,” Horatio said, stepping onto the boat.
“You leave Ezekiel alone,” Sarah signed, shucking her oysters and slurping on their meat in a manner Horatio found ditty and infuriating and, God help him, tantalizing.
“All the nets Gohegan Man got on this boat, why you got to take my net?”
“Why did you have to take his life?” Sarah asked, hands moving with fury.
“Woman, it is best not to speak from ignorance.”
“Then perhaps it’s best not to speak at all. Since the whole and half of what people say is ignorant.”
Horatio joined her on the wooden bench where she ate. “Sarah, the riverfront is not for respectable women.”
“Well, I must be a whore, then.”
Ezekiel stopped fishing with the net and went over to his mother and father. He was a nervous boy, easily agitated. He had loved Gohegan Man dearly, as much if not more than he loved his father.
“Ma, you aren’t a whore,” Ezekiel heard himself say. And he signed the words as spoke them, standing between his parents. He was pleasantly surprised by his own display of gallantry and courage.
“No, son,” Sarah signed, “I am not.”
“Tell me, how do you plan to live on this houseboat?” Horatio asked.
“One day at a time.”
“Sarah, I expect you back in our house before my father’s funeral.”
Horatio left his wife and son on the riverboat, but not before reaching over and grabbing a few oysters. He despised oysters on the half shell, raw or fried, but roasted they were a succulent delight.
Seven years into Prohibition, Horatio Applewood had joined the ranks of America’s first colored millionaires as a bootlegger, and with little fanfare. The same boats that Gohegan Man built served as carriers for some of the South’s best scrap iron, liquor, and other contraband up and down the Eastern seaboard. Horatio had foreseen Prohibition’s end from the outset, and by 1933, when illegal good times became legal again, he’d acquired a small fortune in property and investments to pass on to his son. Business ventures had been financed by Gohegan Man, with whom Horatio had shared partnership, including the Snake’s Haven Social Club, where Horatio retreated of late to sit alone and eat his oysters. He was now twice orphaned, but far better to be an orphan at thirty-nine than at birth. In truth, he didn’t know if his mother had perished or if she still lived.
The Magnificent Pregnant Lady was her stage name. Toward the end of her first trimester, the outer layer of her skin would change, becoming translucent and one could see the inner workings of the fetus or child within her swimming in its embryonic fluid without the aid of a modern-day ultrasound. Naturally, when the boy asked questions about his birth mother, Goliath—whom Horatio called Go-he-gone-man, crying as soon as his father walked out the door—told him everything he could remember about his mother’s performance: how she rode in standing on a white stallion with one knee in the air and Horatio swirling in her belly; how she somersaulted off the horse with Horatio somersaulting with her; the majestic red-sequined costume that left her belly exposed; how she danced like a ballerina en pointe; how she closed her act with a series of splits and nimble back bends, bowing her way backstage to standing ovations. In the five years that they remained on McCullough Island, the circus did not return, not once, but around 1906, when Horatio Applewood was ten, someone traveling through Snake’s Haven from Atlanta bragged about a pregnant lady with the baby insides of a clock on her outsides. Horatio, who, other than asking to learn how to shoot a gun, seldom asked his father for expensive things, now pleaded with Gohegan Man to take him to Atlanta to see his mother. As far as Gohegan Man knew, Atlanta was landlocked, and landlocked cities did nothing for him. It would mean leaving his riverboat, which was their home, and taking the train and staying in a hotel.
They arrived in Atlanta during the stifling heat of August 1906, a month before a race massacre would desecrate the colored section of Atlanta with fires. The city, which had reaped the benefits of Reconstruction and had some of the most elegant colored people Horatio had seen in his brief life, thrilled the boy. He turned to Gohegan Man and said, “One day I am going to go to college here.”
Gohegan Man said nothing, for he had a worrisome feeling that bringing the boy to see a mother he did not know, a woman who had abandoned him on a stranger’s doorstep, was awful, irresponsible, and, despite being well-intentioned, misguided. They booked a room for one night in an inn and, feeling rather countrified in their Sunday clothes, made their way toward Hamilton Avenue and the circus.
“I think it is better,” Gohegan Man said in a tone Horatio had never heard before, “to meet your mother than to see her perform. Performers like to go out after their shows or straight to bed. We are here for one night. I don’t want you to miss her.”
Horatio searched Gohegan Man’s face and accepted the lie. He had wanted to bring his Belgian Browning rifle to show to his mother. “Leave the gun on the boat,” Gohegan Man had said. “I’ll leave my fishing net too. This is no sporting trip.”
“My name is Horatio Applewood.” Horatio waited to see if his name would register with her, looking for a change in her face. He stood with his hands in his pocket at her dressing-room door.
His mother sat in a high chair in a red-sequined bodysuit with her round belly exposed. She was a small woman—much smaller than he’d expected—with a belly that seemed three times the size of her. She had small feet and hands and bright alert eyes and the graceful air of someone who was accustomed to strangers seeking her attention.
“You are one of mine?” the Magnificent Pregnant Lady asked.
Gohegan Man had gone to find buttered popcorn and other snacks—an excuse to give Horatio some time alone with his mother after she had agreed to see him.
“Yes, ma’am. I believe I am.”
“How old would you be, Horatio?” She said his name slowly. And then surprised the boy by standing up and crossing to a slate board in the corner. She added his name to a list that now made twelve.
She underlined his name for emphasis. “How old are you, son?”
“I am ten.” Horatio swallowed. He was mesmerized by the list. Equations unfurled in his head. Siblings and years and—her.
“Then I would have had you in 1896. I would have had you at the fair on the Sea Islands.” She paused. “The food was good there. But it took spice. Too much spice, and you didn’t agree with spice. Or maybe you liked it too much. Spicy gumbo heralded you into this world.”
“I don’t like spicy food,” Horatio said.
“Well, see there!” She smiled. And Horatio tried not to reveal his horror and fixation at the new thing growing inside of her.
The Magnificent Pregnant Lady crossed to her dressing table. Her hair was swept up over her shoulders in a bun. “My name is Peggy,” she said. She reached for a jar of red and black licorice candies swirling with each other. Horatio thought of the snakes in Snake’s Haven. There he knew what snakes were lethal. He wanted to go home, but he wanted to be here more.
The Magnificent Pregnant Lady cleared her throat. “A boy in search of his ma usually wants to know his father. A girl in search of her father will often ask after ma.”
“You got no idea who my pa is?” Horatio stepped toward her.
“Sometimes you meet people on the road. You aren’t a man yet, so you might not understand this. But you meet people, and they have more aches than you do. Sometimes, you see the curtains blowing in their windows. You see into their homes, and you see everything they have and realize they have nothing at all. You linger with them, knowing you won’t put down roots there. But you take a token of that person with you. In nine months’ time, if you carry to term and your child is healthy, you look down between your legs and marvel at what God has allowed you to put on this Earth.”
“Hadn’t you ever cared enough to keep one of us?” Horatio said, as slowly as she had pronounced his name.
She pointed to the first name on the list. “Joss didn’t like the circus life. He wanted schooling and the circus life brought him shame. Every so often I come across him. Joss changed his name to Joshua when Joss was a fine name, but what do I care? He finds me every now and again and says, ‘I got a jalopy, I got a big house in upstate New York. I got a fine wife, and you have good grandchildren who will be glad to know you. Let me relieve you of this circus life.’ But do he want to relieve me of this place for his sake or mine?”
“When I’m grown,” Horatio insisted, “I will do the same thing.” He had twenty dollars in his pocket, money saved from slithering in the grass for weeks and months, slaughtering birds. Twenty dollars that he hoped would entice her to come and leave with them.
“Don’t you bother,” she mouthed. “Sweet boy, don’t even bother.” Peggy offered Horatio the whole jar of licorice, as she had done the others before him. “Keep that jar and you will keep the best of me.”
Horatio lowered his head. Peggy rubbed her belly. “You should go.”
Instantly, a robust man appeared at the door. Horatio wondered if he had been at the door all along. The man looked like a circus ringmaster—in a top hat, white ruffled shirt, and black tails.
Horatio did not budge. His eyes were transfixed on the Magnificent Pregnant Lady’s stomach. He wanted to take his sibling. He wanted to rescue his sibling, for Horatio understood that the money he had saved, twenty dollars, would not entice this woman to quit the circus or keep any of her children. He had saved his money, every cent he owned in the world. He had not bought himself so much as a piece of taffy or a stick of chewing gum. He had not asked for seconds, so there would be leftovers for tomorrow. He had watched Gohegan Man look at him like he was an ungrateful child as he went out to sell dead birds. He had done all of this…for a horror show. Horatio’s brown skin flinted with anger.
His mother leveled her bright eyes with his. “There was a blushing man I met up with in Pittsburg. He blushed through his dark-brown skin, and you could see autumn on his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. He could have been your father. The arithmetic would be about right.”
“What was his name?”
Peggy looked down and away like she really was trying hard to remember, but came up short. “His name belongs to him.” She was really thinking about her own mother, born a slave in Alabama in 1825, among those last women experimented on by the man who would later be called the father of gynecology, J. Marion Sims. The Magnificent Pregnant Lady was a child born into freedom. The miracle child not bred on a human factory but born of love. The kind of love that should bring joy but brings unholy terror, an inability to separate the pain you have suffered from the child you have born and the ones who were sold away or died. How to tell this boy Horatio that she could not live with such terror. That children slowed you down: your heart second; your brain first. That you cannot undo memory, especially the memory of experimentation. Such memories insinuate their way into your bones. The ones she had not been able to expel organically from her body, the Magnificent Pregnant Lady had given a fresh start, which is always better than a curse.
Horatio was escorted out of the dressing room. He clung to the jar of licorice. There was sawdust on his feet and a smell of horse dung and elephants mingled with circus food. He wanted none of it. All he needed was his Belgian Browning. When he saw Gohegan Man coming toward him, munching on a bag of circus popcorn in his countrified suit, before the boat builder could utter a word he smacked the bag of popcorn to the ground. “Everything about this circus is tacky! I wouldn’t pay one red penny for this tacky shit.”
On a Friday night in 1935, Horatio Applewood came in through the rear garden, picking dwarf Seckel sugar pears as he strode toward his house. Stars shimmered like the gold nuggets some men used to fill their teeth. Sarah Applewood was not much to speak of in the kitchen, but she could make a perfectly fine pear tart. Yes, he would ask his wife to make a pear tart this weekend.
Horatio Applewood stopped in his tracks. Neither Sarah nor Gohegan Man noticed Horatio in the shadows. He watched as the boat builder brushed back a curled lock from Sarah’s face. Sarah smiled so wide it might have been a laugh if she still possessed the gift of sound. They walked in the garden, Sarah’s arm linked through her father-in-law’s.
“I love you, Sarah Applewood,” Gohegan Man signed and said.
Lo, it is never wise to eavesdrop or trespass on half a conversation and take a piece as whole. Horatio Applewood turned away suddenly, relinquishing the pears he held in his hand. Gohegan Man thought it was just a few fickle pieces of fruit fallen early to the ground. He did not know it was his only son. If Horatio had come a few minutes earlier or stayed a few minutes later, he would have seen Gohegan Man sign and say, “Sarah, how do you know your mother doesn’t still love your father? All these years she seemed to favor him.”
He would have seen Sarah reassuring Gohegan Man. “Have faith, Goliath. My mother loves you.”
He would have heard his father’s happy response, “I will ask for Valen’s hand in marriage, despite us gray and December. Now that I have your blessing.”
But Horatio had been fixated on his wife’s flat belly, which had seemed to balloon up nearly three times its size in the manner of something venomous and grotesque—Was this a vision?—and he had run away, shutting his eyes, mind, and ears to reason and common sense.
Horatio Applewood rarely permitted himself more than one drink. He had learned at a young age to sip slowly and infrequently. It set a bad example for the owner of an establishment to drink too much. The Snake’s Haven Social Club was closed on the Sabbath and, because Sarah and Horatio Applewood were feuding, there was confusion within the colored community as to whether they should sit on the riverboat with Sarah or take food to the Applewood house, which stood empty because Horatio was sitting alone in his bar. Behind the counter was the Belgian Browning, the first gun Horatio had ever owned, though not the one he had used to kill his father. Next to the Belgian Browning was the empty licorice jar. His Roaring Spring composition pad had long ago fallen to pieces. Horatio could not say why he still held on to the licorice jar, for he was not sentimental. Nor could he articulate why the sight of his son fishing on the riverboat with Gohegan Man’s fishing net had stirred him with such want and covetous feelings. What good were feelings? Still, toward the end of the quiet evening—no, he would never succumb—feelings sauntered through the front door of the Snake’s Haven Social Club like a troupe of ravenous circus performers, bedazzling and ruthless.