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Lemon City: A Novel

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In this wry fiction debut, Elaine Meryl Brown plunges lucky readers into a gripping narrative of small-town hijinks and big-time hearts.

Rule Number One: Never marry an Outsider. If you do, the boll weevil will bite you back. Rule Number Two: If you can’t be honest, you might as well be dead.

Nestled in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains, Lemon City has ten rules, all designed in the best interests of its tight-knit black community. Granddaddy Dunlap knows all too well what can happen to folks who venture beyond Lemon City’s protective borders. He once had to venture outside town to identify his best friend’s body. So when his firebrand granddaughter Faye, returns from college married to an Outsider, he must act fast to keep her in Lemon City’s safe embrace.

It proves to be a challenge–and not just because the patriarch is distracted by the tensions arising from the heated tomato-growing contest for the annual county fair. Faye’s new husband, Harry, is a slick talker with a roving eye. Faye sees him as her ticket to New York City, where she hopes to fulfill big business dreams, but even the best-laid plans can be thwarted, as Faye discovers that marriage itself isn’t much of a honeymoon. No matter. She packs her bags, fully prepared to head north with or without her husband, when Harry turns up dead. Now the Dunlap family is trying to figure out–before the Thanksgiving turkey gets cold–who did the deed.

ISBN-13: 9780812970333

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Random House Publishing Group

Publication Date: 08-03-2004

Pages: 272

Product Dimensions: 5.19(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.56(d)

Series: Strivers Row Series

Elaine Meryl Brown is a former vice president of creative services at HBO and has held the position of creative director at Showtime Networks. She is an Emmy Award–winning writer. Brown has written for national publications including Essence and Women's World.

Read an Excerpt


thanksgiving day, 1973

If Harry were going to die, it was a good thing he picked a holiday. Since the Dunlap family was normally together on Thanksgiving Day, being under house arrest wasn't too much of an inconvenience.

With one eyebrow raised, Louise checked out the activity around the dinner table. She couldn't believe that her family seemed to be more preoccupied with eating food than with facing the possibility of any one of them going to jail. Everyone was carrying on like nobody had died, as if the only dark meat to consider was on the porcelain platter, not lying on a stainless-steel slab in the morgue. If anyone had asked her, that's where she'd say the real turkey lay, frozen on ice, not crispy, oven-baked, and carved on Nana's fine china. She knew they'd have to get their alibis straight. Before they all retired for the evening, she'd have to make sure they'd shared their stories so there'd be no holes when the sheriff came calling in the morning to question them. Even though Louise felt sorry for her sister, Faye, she also felt Faye should never have married her newly deceased husband. But it's hard to advise a baby sister, Louise told herself to prevent from feeling guilty, as she passed the turkey platter to Faye.

Faye jabbed the meat with her fork like she meant to hurt it. After lifting it onto her plate, she used her finger like a crowbar to remove the chunks of dark meat from the tines, much as she had pried herself away from Harry. Ever since she was a little girl, she'd wanted to have a husband, but she had never once considered that her marriage would end, never mind conclude with her husband on a cold metal slab. Under different circumstances, Harry's death might have been perceived as a tragedy. But toward the end of their relationship, there had been no love lost between them. Because the whole town knew their marriage was falling apart, Faye only hoped the finger-pointing wouldn't be aimed just at her, especially since her family had grown to dislike Harry, much like rust rapidly spreading across a cast-iron pan. She knew the townspeople felt she had picked the wrong husband and believed she had brought this mess upon herself.

Lemon City never took kindly to strangers, but Faye Dunlap was a nonconformist. She had broken the Outsider Rule and now her husband, Harry, was dead—dead as the turkey stuffed with a red apple, lying belly-up on Nana's knotty pine table covered with Lincoln lace. As Faye stared at the turkey, it reminded her of the last time she'd seen Harry, flat on his back on their living room floor with his stomach distended and a tomato lodged in his mouth.

This year, out of respect for the dead, there were no tomatoes tossed into Nana Dunlap's mixed-greens salad. Even though there were bushels of her homegrown tomatoes sitting idle in her backyard, Nana had used freshly picked radishes from her garden to add color to the lettuce and cucumber instead.

Granddaddy Dunlap bowed his head and said the grace. "Dear Lord, thank you for the food on this table this Thanksgiving Day and for bringing this family together—minus one. Amen."

Normally, when death sneaks up without warning and steals away a family member, the living feel robbed. That wasn't the case with Harry. He was a mean man and had deserved to die, but trouble hadn't died with him, not completely. His demise had raised suspicion about the family, making everyone at the table suspect. Now they were all under house arrest; they had to stay put until tomorrow morning, when the Jefferson County Sheriff came by to start the murder investigation.

If Granddaddy had told his grandchildren once he had told them a thousand times: never marry an Outsider. It was one of ten sacred rules that had protected Lemon City over the years, insulating the town like plastic wrap from the rest of the world, preserving its sacred customs. He had difficulty with the thinking of today's young people; their whole notion of "self" and "finding one's self" was disturbing to him. As far as he knew, young folks did what they wanted to do and didn't pay attention to the consequences. They totally disregarded the fact that their ancestors had already looked at life for them, so that all they had to do was listen and do what they were told. But no, today's young people acted on their own. And the thing that led them to this independence, the thing they referred to as "discovering their individuality," he didn't think was a benefit to the colored community in general. There wouldn't be a Lemon City if their ancestors hadn't stuck together, keeping the distractions that strangers brought with them at a distance. Being together as one and living life with common goals were the only ways the townspeople could survive. That was the reason The Rules had been invented in the first place.

Granddaddy and Nana were living proof that if you obeyed them, The Rules worked. Their forty years of marriage were the result of being grounded in their roots, being fed the same nutrients from the same soil. On the other hand, his late grandson-in-law, Harry Lee Thompson, had few roots; the roots Granddaddy had witnessed over the course of a year had grown only for his granddaughter, then withered and died. No, Harry was definitely not the husband he would have chosen for his granddaughter, Faye, but she hadn't asked him for his opinion. That's why everyone at the table was in this convoluted mess. He lifted the turkey platter and took a helping of dark meat, and then went back for two slices of white. He then passed the platter to his right, to his grandson, Billy.

Billy felt a sense of relief. The worry lines on his forehead had started to relax and the ache in his trick knee had begun to fade now that his pain-in-the-ass brother-in-law was gone. Harry's sorry ass was out of sight and never coming back. As much as it was his job to uphold the law, Billy knew from experience that there were just some matters that needed to be taken into your own hands. He helped himself to turkey, and then served his wife, Elvira, sitting next to him. Rationing food to Elvira was a habit he had developed at family gatherings over the past few years, as a way of helping her to manage her weight. Even though he loved that she was plump in all the right places, big-boned yet firm like hard rubber, he didn't want her to start jiggling like the jellied cranberry sauce that wobbled on the saucer every time someone bumped against the table.

Moving her eyes back and forth like an eagle trying to get close enough to catch its prey, Elvira watched as Billy calculated exactly how much she should consume at dinner. Knowing he enjoyed a sense of control, she let him go through his ritual thinking he was in charge. She would do whatever made him happy. If she got hungry later, she'd go back for seconds, even thirds, and not pay him any mind even if he cleared his throat or rattled his silverware on the table. There was no mistaking the meaning behind the way Billy took his time to serve her, the way he picked out each slice of turkey with such care that she understood he catered to her plate purely out of love. She looked across the table at Faye. She felt sorry for her sister-in-law, who hadn't had the chance to experience the kind of love only a good man knows how to give a woman. Now that Harry was out of the way, dead as a slug caught out in the sun after a heavy rain, Faye would find out. Turning her attention back to Billy, she saw he was topping off the turkey with brown gravy, limiting the passage of kidney and gizzard chunks onto her plate with a slotted spoon. He handed the platter to her and she passed it over to Nana.

Sitting opposite Granddaddy at the other end of the table, Nana was happy to have more elbow room, a little more space for resting platters and serving the meal, now that they didn't have to accommodate her granddaughter's recently expired husband, Harry. She didn't miss the tall, lanky, coffee brown body that reminded her of a stick of beef jerky, squeezing between her granddaughters Faye and Louise at her table. Regardless of the room they'd created for Harry, he never quite seemed to fit in. As she transferred some dark meat onto her plate, Nana noticed the air seemed to be lighter than usual, and the house appeared to be brighter, despite the fact it was an overcast and dreary day outside. Yes, indeed, the darkness had lifted. She was content to have her original family back together again.

Faye daydreamed about her dead husband at the Thanksgiving table, wondering whether or not he would have decided at the last minute to come up North with her, or if he would have chosen to stay in Lemon City. To get her attention, Nana pushed the cornbread stuffing under her nose. Taking the bowl from her grandmother, Faye scooped a tablespoon of the lumpy yellow meal onto her plate and went back to collecting her thoughts. She couldn't help feeling responsible for Harry's demise, as well as a strong sense of regret. If only she hadn't ignored the Outsider Rule, her situation might be different. How she wished she could start this part of her life over again, pick up from the day she'd met Harry on campus. Instead of stopping to talk to him when he called her, she should have kept right on walking and never looked back. Better yet, she should have had the courage to leave Lemon City on her own to begin with, instead of thinking she needed to be married in order to escape it.

"I still can't believe the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office took me off this case," said Billy.

"Billy, they had to take you off the case because of the conflict of interest," said Louise, not caring that she was talking with her mouth full.

"You can't investigate the death of your own brother-in-law, especially when the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office thinks you may have been involved," Faye added. "But if you're innocent, there's nothing to worry about, right? Who cares about who's doing the investigating?"

Billy's desperation to get involved in the case made Faye wonder if he had something to hide. Maybe she hadn't been the first person to arrive home and find Harry dead on the floor. Her brother's hatred for her husband was no secret.

"You got anything to worry about?" Billy shot back at her. "You're the one who allegedly found him lying dead on the floor."

"What are you trying to say, that I killed my own husband?"

"You were planning on leaving him, anyway. It would have been easier for you to leave if he were dead. No strings attached that way, now ain't that right?" He winked at his sister and stretched his leg underneath the table to work out the stiffness in his trick knee. When he snapped the joint back into place, there was a loud pop. Everyone used to wince when Billy released the pressure, as if the pain belonged to them, but now they were accustomed to the interruption and kept on eating as if the firecracker noise was a normal part of the meal and conversation.

"If you ask me, I say he had a heart attack," Granddaddy offered. "The man dropped dead and died. Plain and simple. Don't think that just because you're young that the ole ticker can't stop working." Granddaddy pounded his fist rapidly against his chest and then stopped suddenly when he started to cough. "Then I have this other theory," he added, trying to get back his breath. "Evil just came and got him. Reached its ugly hand up from hell and claimed its own." He lifted his arm above his head, pretending to grab something out of thin air, and dragged it down to the table to illustrate his point.

"Can we stop talking about death and dying?" said Billy's wife Elvira. "After all, we're at the dinner table, and this is Thanksgiving. Nana, these turnip greens are delicious. Did you cook 'em with pork or with smoked turkey wings?"

"I just don't like anyone messing around in my jurisdiction," said Billy, trying not to make the conversation sound too morbid as a courtesy to his wife. "I know how to do my job and be completely objective. The man was not my blood kin, and on this Thanksgiving Day, that's something to be thankful for." He raised his glass of iced tea in a toast. When he put it back down, he stuffed a piece of turkey into his mouth.

"Well, there's something I'm not thankful for," said Louise.

"What's that?" said Granddaddy.

"I'm not thankful that we had to cancel the Annual County Fair on account of Harry."

"You can say that again," said Nana. "He was bad news in general, but it's a shame he had to get specific and mess up tradition. He always did have a way of spoiling things."

"Ain't that the truth," said Elvira.

"He's still managing to do it, even from the grave," added Louise.

"He's not in the grave yet," said Granddaddy. "He's only in the morgue."

"Can we please stop talking about dead folks while I'm trying to eat?" Elvira's eyes widened. "Y'all hush, now. I'm trying to enjoy my food."

"Yeah, too bad about the Fair," Faye said to Nana, patting her grandmother on the hand. "This was supposed to be your year for Tomato Queen for a Day, winning the grand prize over Ole Miss Johnson, huh?"

"And I woulda done it, too," she said. "This year that crown had my name on it."

Nana took growing tomatoes to new heights, but no matter what she did, she couldn't achieve her dream, to be crowned "Tomato Queen for a Day" by winning the grand tomato prize at the Annual County Fair. There was no limit to what Nana could do with tomatoes. Experimenting with the juicy red fruit had led her to discovering recipes that were a testament to the diversity of her culinary skills. She added tomatoes to potato salad, deviled eggs, omelets, stews, casseroles, breads, and meat sauces. She served them barbecued, baked, broiled, scalloped, stuffed, grilled, canned, dilled, glazed with wine and brown sugar, made them into jams and piccalilli, fried them when they were green and baked green-tomato pie. Here came another year that would leave her without the crown, and she had been so close, which made the cancellation so much worse to bear.

The Annual County Fair was two years away from its centennial; Nana was determined to break Lurleen's hold as the reigning queen before the fair celebrated its one hundredth year. If she couldn't bring this victory to the Crawford name within a century, it would be time to turn in her garden gloves and tools and teach herself a new hobby. Perhaps she'd have to settle on the knitting she was doing for her unborn great-grandchildren to occupy her spare time.

Saint, who really acted more like a dog than a cat, jumped into Nana's lap, nuzzling against her mistress in a show of compassion and support. Grateful for the display of affection, Nana stroked Saint along her back and scratched the fur between her ears, making the cat purr like an engine. Guiding her gently back down to the floor, Nana fed Saint a piece of white meat from her plate to return the cat's dedication. Because Saint also loved tomatoes, Nana picked a radish out of the salad bowl and held it under her nose to see if she would like this new round, red vegetable. Saint took one sniff, turned up her nose and walked away.