Tayari Jones: Silver Sparrow

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silver sparrow

also by TAYARI JONES

Leaving Atlanta

The Untelling

SILVER SPARROW

a novel by

Tayari Jones

Published by

ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL

Post Office Box 2225

Chapel Hil , North Carolina 27515-2225

a division of

Workman Publishing

225 Varick Street

New York, New York 10014

© 2011 by Tayari Jones.

Al rights reserved.

Printed in the United States of America.

Published simultaneously in Canada by Thomas Al en & Son Limited.

“A Daughter is a Colony,” on page vii, copyright © Natasha Trethewey.

This is a work of fiction. While, as in al fiction, the literary perceptions and insights are based on experience, al names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Jones, Tayari.

Silver sparrow : a novel / by Tayari Jones. — 1st ed.

p. cm.

ISBN 978-1-56512-990-0

1. African American families — Fiction. 2. Polygamy — Fiction.

3. African American teenage girls — Fiction. 4. Sisters — Fiction.

5. Mothers and daughters — Fiction. 6. Fathers and daughters — Fiction.

7. Atlanta (Ga.) — Fiction. 8. Domestic fiction. I. Title.

PS3610 O63S56 2011

813′.6 — dc22 2010048098

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

First Edition

For my parents,

Barbara and Mack Jones,

who, to the best of my knowledge,

are married only to each other

A Daughter is a Colony

a territory, a progeny,

a spitting image

like Athena sprung

from her father’s head:

chip off the old block,

issue and spawn;

a namesake, a wishbone—

loyalist and traitor—

a native, an other,

a subject, a study,

a history, a half blood,

a continent dark and strange.

—NATASHA TRETHEWEY

silver sparrow

PART I

Dana Lynn Yarboro

1

THE SECRET

MY FATHER, JAMES WITHERSPOON, is a bigamist. He was already married ten years when he first clamped eyes on my mother. In 1968, she was working at the gift-wrap counter at Davison’s downtown when my father asked her to wrap the carving knife he had bought his wife for their wedding anniversary. Mother said she knew that something wasn’t right between a man and a woman when the gift was a blade. I said that maybe it means there was a kind of trust between them. I love my mother, but we tend to see things a little bit differently. The point is that James’s marriage was never hidden from us. James is what I cal him. His other daughter, Chaurisse, the one who grew up in the house with him, she cal s him Daddy, even now.

When most people think of bigamy, if they think of it at al , they imagine some primitive practice taking place on the pages of NationalGeographic. In Atlanta, we remember one sect of the back-to-Africa movement that used to run bakeries in the West End. Some people said it was a cult, others cal ed it a cultural movement. Whatever it was, it involved four wives for each husband. The bakeries have since closed down, but sometimes we stil see the women, resplendent in white, trailing six humble paces behind their mutual husband. Even in Baptist churches, ushers keep smel ing salts on the ready for the new widow confronted at the wake by the other grieving widow and her stair-step kids. Undertakers and judges know that it happens al the time, and not just between religious fanatics, traveling salesmen, handsome sociopaths, and desperate women.

It’s a shame that there isn’t a true name for a woman like my mother, Gwendolyn. My father, James, is a bigamist. That is what he is. Laverne is his wife. She found him first and my mother has always respected the other woman’s squatter’s rights. But was my mother his wife, too? She has legal documents and even a single Polaroid proving that she stood with James Alexander Witherspoon Junior in front of a judge just over the state line in Alabama. However, to cal her only his “wifea” doesn’t real y explain the ful complexity of her position.

There are other terms, I know, and when she is tipsy, angry, or sad, Mother uses them to describe herself: concubine, whore, mistress, consort.

There are just so many, and none are fair. And there are nasty words, too, for a person like me, the child of a person like her, but these words were not al owed in the air of our home. “You are his daughter. End of story.” If this was ever true it was in the first four months of my life, before Chaurisse, his legitimate daughter, was born. My mother would curse at hearing me use that word, legitimate, but if she could hear the other word that formed in my head, she would close herself in her bedroom and cry. In my mind, Chaurisse is his real daughter. With wives, it only matters who gets there first. With daughters, the situation is a bit more complicated.

IT MATTERS WHAT you cal ed things. Surveil was my mother’s word. If he knew, James would probably say spy, but that is too sinister. We didn’t do damage to anyone but ourselves as we trailed Chaurisse and Laverne while they wound their way through their easy lives. I had always imagined that we would eventual y be asked to explain ourselves, to press words forward in our own defense. On that day, my mother would be cal ed upon to do the talking. She is gifted with language and is able to layer difficult details in such a way that the result is smooth as water. She is a magician who can make the whole world feel like a dizzy il usion. The truth is a coin she pul s from behind your ear.

Maybe mine was not a blissful girlhood. But is anyone’s? Even people whose parents are happily married to each other and no one else, even these people have their share of unhappiness. They spend plenty of time nursing old slights, rehashing squabbles. So you see, I have something in common with the whole world.

Mother didn’t ruin my childhood or anyone’s marriage. She is a good person. She prepared me. Life, you see, is al about knowing things. That is why my mother and I shouldn’t be pitied. Yes, we have suffered, but we never doubted that we enjoyed at least one peculiar advantage when it came to what real y mattered: I knew about Chaurisse; she didn’t know about me. My mother knew about Laverne, but Laverne was under the impression that hers was an ordinary life. We never lost track of that basic and fundamental fact.

WHEN DID I first discover that although I was an only child, my father was not my father and mine alone? I real y can’t say. It’s something that I’ve known for as long as I’ve known that I had a father. I can only say for sure when I learned that this type of double-duty daddy wasn’t ordinary.

I was about five years old, in kindergarten, when the art teacher, Miss Russel , asked us to draw pictures of our families. While al the other children scribbled with their crayons or soft-leaded pencils, I used a blue-ink pen and drew James, Chaurisse, and Laverne. In the background was Raleigh, my father’s best friend, the only person we knew from his other life. I drew him with the crayon labeled “Flesh” because he is real y light-skinned. This was years and years ago, but I stil remember. I hung a necklace around the wife’s neck. I gave the girl a big smile, stuffed with square teeth. Near the left margin, I drew my mother and me standing by ourselves. With a marker, I blacked in Mother’s long hair and curving lashes. On my own face, I drew only a pair of wide eyes. Above, a friendly sun winked at al six of us.

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