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Who Asked You?

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From the #1 New York Times bestselling author…“Remember Getting to Happy, Waiting to Exhale, and How Stella Got Her Groove Back? Well, you won’t likely forget Terry McMillan’s Who Asked You? either” (Raleigh News & Observer).

Betty Jean already has her hands full when her grown daughter leaves her two young sons in her care. In between dealing with her other adult children, two opinionated sisters, an ill husband, and her own postponed dreams—BJ still manages to hold down a job delivering room service at a hotel.

Her son Dexter is about to be paroled from prison; Quentin, the family success, can’t be bothered to lend a hand; and taking care of two lively grandsons is the last thing BJ thinks she needs. But who asked her?

ISBN-13: 9780451417022

Media Type: Paperback(Reprint)

Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group

Publication Date: 07-01-2014

Pages: 432

Product Dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

Age Range: 18 Years

Terry McMillan is the award-winning, critically acclaimed #1 New York Times bestselling author of Waiting to Exhale, Getting to Happy, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, A Day Late and a Dollar Short, The Interruption of Everything, Who Asked You?, Mama, Disappearing Acts, I Almost Forgot About You, It’s Not All Downhill From Here, and the editor of Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction. She lives in California.

Read an Excerpt


You Go First

Betty Jean

It’s my day off and I’m in the kitchen getting ready to fry some chicken. When the phone rings and I see my daughter’s name on the caller I.D. I’m tempted to let it go straight to voice mail; the only reason I decide to go on and answer it is because I’m worried it might have something to do with my grandsons. Plus, I don’t trust her. Trinetta is not in the habit of calling just to chitchat or to check on her daddy. She always wants something. Her life is one continuous emergency. Since I’ve got flour all over my hands, I wipe them on my red apron, pick up the portable, and tiptoe into the living room because the last thing I want to do is wake up Lee David.

“Ma, I need to borrow a hundred forty dollars today and I swear as soon as I get my check I’ll pay you back, but the good news is I might have a job and I was wondering if I could bring the boys over for a couple of days so I can study for the test? Please say yes, Ma. Please.”

“Did I miss hello?”

“Hello, Ma.”

“Is something over there getting cut off?”

“No. But it’s important. I swear to God, I’ll give you my check when it comes, Ma. I owe Twinkle and her rent is past due and if I don’t give it to her by six o’clock she’s gonna get evicted.”

“That girl who lives down the hall from you?”

“Yeah. Her.”

“Isn’t she a drug addict?”

“Twinkle? No. She’s got three kids.”

“You and Twinkle seem to have a whole lot in common, then, don’t you?”

“I ain’t no drug addict, Ma. I might dip and dab every now and then, but I’m a long way from being strung out.”

“I know I didn’t just hear you say ‘ain’t’ on this phone talking to me.”

“My bad. ‘I’m not a drug addict.’ Better?”

I rest the phone on my shoulder and brush my hands again on my apron. “Why can’t you get it from what’s-his-name?”

“His name is Dante. He moved out.”


“’Cause the Section Eight people was gonna raise my rent.”

“What a pity, and he was so helpful.”

“Ma . . . please?”

I hate it when she begs. And I know there’s more to this story than what she’s saying, but since getting the truth out of her is damn near impossible, I just say, “I’ll write you a check when you bring the boys over.”

“I can’t do nothing with no check, Ma.”

“Since when? You’ve managed to cash all the other ones.”

“I had to close my checking account. And please, don’t ask.”

“I swear to God, Trinetta. You just go from bad to worse.”

“Yeah, well, I had a good teacher.”

“What did you just say?”

“I said I shoulda had better teachers.”

“That is not what you said.”

“Can we not go there today? Please? I’m trying to fix a problem over here and I just need your help.”

“About what time should I look for you and the boys?”

“Between three and four. We gotta take the bus ’cause I had to let Dante use the car.”

“I thought you just said he moved out?”

“He did. But the only way he could move his stuff back out to his parents’ house was he needed a car.”

“Has he ever heard of U-Haul?”

“He didn’t have that much stu—”

“Forget I asked. When is he bringing it back?”

“In about a week or two, ’cause he might have a job opportunity, too.”

“Well, wouldn’t that just make you both lucky? Don’t answer that. But tell me this. And don’t lie, Trinetta. Did you pay the insurance like you said you would?”

“I paid half of it.”

“So, if you or Dante got in half of an accident do you realize who could get sued for their whole damn house?”

“We both very careful drivers, Ma.”

“You sound like a damn fool, Trinetta. You know that?”

“I’ll see you in a few hours.”

I just shake my head and head on back to the kitchen. I can hear these boards creaking under the carpet but I pretend I don’t hear it. I didn’t dare ask what kind of job she might be applying for that required her to study for the test, but I’ll just cross my fingers I won’t have to add it to the long list of things she didn’t end up doing.

Oh Lord. Did I just hear him move? Please don’t let this be a Commercial Break Nap. He only watched four episodes of Dora the Explorer and he’s got six more to go. Plus, I am not in the mood for entertaining him while I stand in this hot-ass kitchen in front of this electric stove in the middle of the afternoon with no air conditioner. It’s broken. Just like he is. And I’m right behind him. I can live without fried chicken. I’m just doing this to make Lee David happy. He doesn’t ask for much these days but he did manage to say, “I want some soul food,” and then flapped his bony little arms and made a clucking noise, which is why I’m in here suffering. It’s amazing what you’ll do for your husband, even if you never loved him but he convinced you he loved you so you went on and married him and had his babies. Hell, I could be ironing my uniforms or writing Dexter a long-overdue letter, or reading a good paperback instead of struggling to fix enough food to last two or three days, since I can’t be Julia Child every day.

Even though I propped that fan on top of four old encyclopedias and a phone book, it’s still not cutting it, so I go to Plan B. I open the door and slide a chair in front of it, then set everything on top of it, turn that oscillator on, but all it’s doing is pushing warm air on my behind, which is big enough to generate its own heat. I stick my head inside the freezer for a minute; inhale the cold, hoping it’ll spread inside my body, which of course doesn’t work.

I think I hear him stirring in there again so I lean my left ear toward the bedroom, but just to be on the safe side, I say, “Anything I can get you, Mister?” (Which is what I call him when I’m talking directly to him.) While I wait for the response I hope not to get, I tighten the strings on this apron, cup my chin in my palms, and press my elbows on the damp counter. I look out the window at the orange trees at the side of the driveway. Not a single leaf on any of them is moving. This feels too much like earthquake weather. I don’t appreciate this kind of stillness. We hadn’t been here two days back in ’71 when that 6.6 sucker hit at the crack of dawn. We had come from New Orleans and I thought what a fucked-up welcome to California this was. But like fools, here we are almost thirty years later. You kind of get used to your house shaking, and you almost feel grateful if nothing breaks or the walls don’t crack.

He clears his throat. So I carry on, making sure the oil is hot as I flick a few drops of water into a giant skillet and jump back. When a geyser shoots up from it, I know it’s ready. I wish I could get rid of this big old electric stove and get a gas one. And a Kenmore. Stainless. It took years, but our Sears card has a zero balance and I’m afraid to charge anything until I can be more certain about our future.

I pick up the Ziploc bag full of flour and sprinkle some seasoning salt, garlic powder, white pepper, and paprika inside it. Chicken breasts and thighs are piled up on a floral platter. These are the only pieces Lee David likes. After thirty-seven years of marriage, I’ve forgotten how much I used to love wings. I dip a few pieces in a bowl of whisked eggs, drop them inside the bag, shake them back and forth, and then place them in the skillet. I wash my hands in warm water, stand in front of the sink even though I should sit down, and start snapping string beans.

“Mrs. Butler? You got a big brown one from Dexter today. Want me to set it inside the screen door for you or leave it out here on the top step?”

“Inside is fine. Thanks, Mr. Jones. And you have a nice day.”

“Is that fried chicken I smell?”

I just chuckle. Mr. Jones has been our mailman since we moved into this house, and it doesn’t seem like he’s ever going to retire. He’s been a widower going on five years now. I don’t know how he manages to do so much walking, especially in those thick black special shoes he has to wear. “Stop back by when you get to Tammy’s and I’ll wrap you up a couple of pieces.”

“You are so very kind,” he says.

I walk through the dining room and living room and down one step onto the sunporch and pick up the mail. I recognize the bills by the color of the envelopes and set them on the buffet. I put Dexter’s big envelope inside the magazine pouch on the left side of my La-Z-Boy with a ton of his letters I have not read. I get one every week, sometimes two. I can’t read them like I used to.

I’ll be the first to admit that I probably could’ve been a better mother, and I’ve got three grown children to prove it. It goes without saying that I do love them. I’m just disappointed in how they turned out. Trinetta is the baby, and at twenty-seven she seems to have a hard time saying no to drugs and low-life men, which has made her allergic to working more than a few months at a time. Sometimes, it’s hard for me to believe she’s the same daughter who lived on the honor roll all during junior high school. But then between ninth grade and junior college she fell in love too many times to count and lost her mind. She also loved beautiful teeth and was on her way to becoming a dental technician when she got pregnant. Over the years, Trinetta tiptoed back and forth, and the last I heard, she’s only twelve units shy of being employable. I used to remind her of this small fact but she would just get defensive. She has given birth to three children. The last one was Noxema. Her daddy went to court and got custody after she drank some shampoo and had to be rushed to emergency. I wish he would’ve claimed those other two. Who they belong to is a mystery that may never get solved. In all honesty, I’m one step away from calling Child Protection Services on her if she doesn’t clean up her act soon.

My oldest, Quentin, likes cracking necks and backs, getting married, and getting divorced. He’s a chiropractor and lives up in Oregon, where hardly any black people live, which has made it very easy for him to forget he’s black. He enjoys being the token and hates the ghetto. He even calls me “Mother,” which gets on my nerves because it sounds so official, and he says it using the same tone as telemarketers when they ask for Mrs. Butler. I’ve told him about a thousand times I don’t like being called Mother, but he just ignores me. He was the same way when he was little. He doesn’t bend. Does everything his way, which is what has made him so difficult to like. Somehow, someway, he has made himself believe he’s superior to most folks. I don’t know how he got this way, and why he feels more like a stranger I just happened to give birth to. The only time I seem to hear from him is when he’s getting married or divorced. He’s on his fourth or fifth wife. I can’t keep up. One thing they all have in common is that they’re white. Not that I care. But why they all have to be blonde is what baffles me. On top of everything, Quentin has the nerve to act like he’s religious. He does not go to any church that I know of but claims to read the Bible every single morning. He must be a slow reader.

Then there’s Dexter. He’s in the middle. Another smart one who fell in love with stupidity. He’s doing nine to twelve years for carjacking a Filipino woman in a Costco parking lot in broad daylight using a deadly weapon (which to this day he claims was just a flashlight and not a gun). He and his high school buddy, Buddy, thought this would be a fun thing to do since the bus was taking too long and they were both high on that marijuana and Bud Lights. Dexter said they were just trying to get out to Valencia so Buddy could go see his girlfriend in the hospital who had just had his baby, and Buddy didn’t want to miss visiting hours. Dexter swore up and down this was all Buddy’s idea even though Dexter was also supposed to meet his girlfriend, Skittles, at Great America, that amusement park right down the street from the hospital. Unfortunately, that marijuana must’ve caused a temporary memory loss, because Dexter forgot that even stolen cars run on gas, which is why the highway patrolman didn’t believe him when Dexter told him the bright yellow Jetta with “Divina” on the custom plates was his.

If I had it to do over, I probably wouldn’t have had any kids. It’s too much responsibility trying to steer somebody else’s life when you’re still trying to navigate your own. Back then kids didn’t come with instructions, so you had to wing it. And based on all these modern books full of recipes on how to be a deluxe parent and raise damn near flawless children, I guess I’d have to give myself a C or a C– because apparently I did a whole lot of things wrong.

For starters, I didn’t always put my kids first. I mean I had needs, too. Back then, between them and Lee David, I felt just like a pie. Everybody wanted a piece of me and barely left me with a little crust. Plus, I had to work. I did not talk to them in what they now call an inside voice. I talked to them like they were hard of hearing. It was the only way I could get their attention and let them know I meant business. Plus, I didn’t like being a repeater. Saying the same damn thing over and over and over again and still not getting the results I was after. They were hardheaded. I’m proud to say I did not swear at them, but every once in a while they did hear me say shit and damn and oh hell no, and five or six or ten times the “F” word. Apparently this was supposed to ruin them but I don’t think that was what did it. I also said no a lot because many of the things they asked for were unreasonable. Or ridiculous. Time-outs hadn’t been invented yet, which is why if they disobeyed me, I sometimes popped their little behinds. I didn’t beat them, mind you, and never used any hand-held items. Again, my kids were hardheaded, so I doubt if sitting on a little stool in a corner would’ve worked on them anyway.

Lee David might as well have been one of the kids, because he was just as needy and actually competed against them for my attention. I think he won. But my clock was slow: it took about twenty years to admit to myself how bored I was being his wife. He was pleasant enough and a reliable father and all but sometimes he felt more like a good friend who wouldn’t go home. I guess it would be fair to say that I was just too lazy to divorce him. I also discovered that you can get used to a man, much like you do a household pet.

My mama raised four of us and she made it look easy. (I shouldn’t count Monroe, who was almost thirteen when she took him in after her sister died, and he was trouble from the start.) But I’m here to testify: Raising kids is not easy. It’s work. Hard work. And work you don’t get paid for. The worst part is when the little suckers grow up and don’t appreciate the time and energy you put into them. Mine seem to have major lapses in memory. What they remember most is how much I got on their nerves. What I didn’t give them. Not what I did. And they blame me for the things they didn’t bother listening to. As if I never taught them anything. Or, that it was useless.

As a mother, you can’t help but wonder where you went wrong and how much of your kids’ confusion is your fault. I probably should’ve read more fairy tales and more often instead of just on my days off, their birthdays, and Christmas. (Trinetta could already read by the time she was three and refused to let me hold the book.) It wouldn’t have killed me to hug them every day instead of only when they did something that made me proud—which I’m sad to say was not all that often. And maybe I could’ve got down on my knees and said their prayers with them instead of standing in the doorway listening. Then tucked them in like they do in fairy tales. Wished them sweet dreams. And kissed them on their foreheads. But I didn’t.

I won’t lie. I wish Lee David and I could have been a little more like the Cosbys. That both of us had graduated from college and become professionals. That we lived in an upscale house in an upscale neighborhood. That our home was full of modern furniture, real art, and real plants., with a guest room we used for guests. That we went on cruises and needed passports in order to go to some of the places we traveled to, and went out to dinner where they had valet parking. That we had a car worth being valet parked. What I really wish was that we never had to suffer from any incurable diseases, we laughed all the time, and cried mostly at funerals. It would’ve been nice to have enough money left over to donate some. That our children would grow up and make us proud and we would die old and happy.

Things don’t always go as planned, especially if you didn’t really have any plans, which is probably why Lee David spent thirty-nine of his sixty-five years lifting boxes at UPS and I’ve spent twenty-nine pressing a little button on thousands of doors and saying “Room Service!” It doesn’t matter anymore that it was (once) a five-star hotel in Hollywood, because in six more years I get to turn in my size-16 uniform and call it quits. And even though both of our pension checks and Lee David’s social security will keep us going, it won’t be the same. I live for those tips.

Unfortunately, I’m the only one in my family who didn’t get a college degree. But I do believe there’s more than one way to get an education. I’m far from dumb. I watch CNN and listen to NPR and I watch the National Geographic Channel and nature programs. I read every chance I get. Mostly novels because they take me away from all the bullshit that might be going on around me and it’s a good way to escape my world and move in with folks I don’t know. I don’t like murder mysteries or whodunits because I don’t need to read about death when I can go right down the street and see it. I don’t like romance novels because you always know how they’re going to turn out and I am not interested in grown-up fairy tales because I know for a fact that life is hard and there is no guarantee you’re going to have a happy ending. But I do believe that even if you make a left when you should’ve made a right, there’s still time to make a U-turn and go in the right direction. Fifty-six might be old to some folks but I think I still have time to improve myself. I just want to have something besides kids and a husband to show for my life.

I’ve been entertaining the idea of taking early retirement, depending on whether I can afford to live on it, and if I do, I might take some kind of college course or courses, depending. I have no idea what they might be, because I don’t exactly know what I like, or hell, what I might be good at. One thing I’ve learned is that I can change my mind and the world won’t come to an end. I have never had a vacation unless I count twelve years ago when we went to see our families in New Orleans, but that trip ended up costing us about as much as it probably would’ve to take a trip around the damn world. Begging, broke relatives mostly on Lee David’s side of the family came out of the woodwork thinking that just because we lived in California we must be rich. Anyway, I’m so sick of sunshine and palm trees I don’t know what to do. I want to go somewhere cold. I have never seen snow up close. Standing on Vermont Avenue looking up at those snow-capped mountains doesn’t count. They look like they belong in Hollywood. I don’t want to see anybody on skis, either. Don’t ask me why, but I have always wanted to make an angel and throw a snowball. Of course, all Lee David always talked about was buying a condominium in Palm Springs, but I told him I did not want to spend the rest of my life in a desert, burning up around old white people. But then ten years ago, when he was just fifty-five, he started forgetting little things and then things he shouldn’t have had to remember. It scared me and it scared him, so we had him tested and the doctor said he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. I thought he was too young, so we got a second opinion, and the diagnosis was the same. Lee David was pretty calm about it. “When it gets so that I can’t do for myself, BJ, put me somewhere comfortable. I don’t want to be your burden.” Then he started laughing. “And if it’s before you turn sixty, get yourself a boyfriend.”

I remember thinking: A boyfriend? I started laughing too. Of course he’s been slipping downhill these past five or six years and my older sister, Arlene, has been trying to convince me to go ahead and put him in a facility. I just ignore her. I don’t like anybody telling me what I should do, especially her. He’s not a burden. Plus, he’s my husband. I can’t just abandon him because I’m tired.

As things stand, Nurse Kim looks after him when I’m at work. She used to take him on short walks but his arthritis got really bad and then he lost interest in nature. She sponge bathes him (thank God, because my sciatic nerve can’t handle too much bending over). Nurse Kim is as sweet as she can be. Thirty years old and pretty enough to be on the cover of Essence magazine, not that Lee David even notices, but as soon as she walks in this house it’s like having a Christmas tree all lit up in here. Plus, she always smells like some kind of tropical fruit.

On weekends, when I need to run errands, Tammy, who lives across the street, comes over and “Lee-sits” as she calls it. The truth be told, some days I feel sorry for Lee David and other days I get sick just looking at him. This is when I wish he would just hurry up and die so I could hurry up and grieve and then live out what’s left of the rest of my life. It’s a horrible thought, but one I’ve had on more than one occasion, which is why I keep it to myself.

“Mister, you still in there sleeping?”

“Yep,” he says.

After snapping all these doggone string beans, I put most of them into plastic bags and freeze them. I don’t know why I’m going to all this trouble for two people. Wait! I forgot about the boys just that fast! I get a can of chicken broth out of the cabinet and pour a little into a boiler, drop a few strips of bacon in it and a few slices of white onion, and once it boils, I’ll put the beans I left out on the counter right on top of it. Sometimes I cheat and buy things I used to make from scratch and just doctor them up. Like I’m about to do to this potato salad I bought from Ralphs. I pop the lid on the plastic container and dump it into my yellow mixing bowl, and right after I sprinkle a few drops of vinegar, a pinch of salt, sugar, and paprika and start stirring, the phone rings.

I can’t see who it is from over here but I pray it’s a telemarketer and not either of my sisters: Venetia, who can talk all day about nothing ever since I warned her that if she started going on about the Lord I’d hang up, or Arlene, who likes to get you to talk about all the messed-up things going on in your life but won’t give you a clue about what’s going on in hers. She would’ve made a good talk show host. I move closer to the phone, since I don’t have my glasses on. It’s Claire Huxtable, a.k.a. Venetia. I stick the wooden spoon deep inside the potato salad so it stands up, and I answer against my better judgment. “Hey, sis,” I say, as upbeat as is humanly possible. “How’ve you been?”

“I’m good. Just checking in.”

“And how are the kids?”

“Oh, they’re fine. How’s Lee David?”

“The same. And Rodney?”

“In the clouds as we speak. Headed to Tokyo.”

I pull the spoon out, do a quick taste test, and then start stirring again.

“Betty Bean, you still there?” (She’s called me this since she was two years old. I like it.)

“I’m here, but I hear Lee David calling me, so can I call you back a little later on?”

“Absolutely. I’ll be here. Love you.”

Talk about raising kids by the book? Venetia gets an A+. She’s thirteen months younger than I am but people often think she’s the older one when we’re together. Her husband was rich when she met him, and I think that had something to do with his appeal because he’s still a long drive away from being cute. They live in Encino, not far from the Jacksons. Venetia wasted six years going to college and getting an MBA because she chose to be a stay-at-home mom. She spends Rodney’s money for a living, which is unfortunate because she doesn’t have great taste and she’s cheap, which is why she has a giant house full of corny stuff that doesn’t go together. It’s not too late to hire a decorator, but I have not figured out how to drop the hint.

She has been a slave to two spoiled-rotten brats who grew up and turned out to be as nice as they can be: Lauren and Zachary. They both played soccer. Both play the frigging piano. Lauren speaks French. Zach chose Mandarin. I guess that’s like Chinese. It goes without saying, they’re both honor students. Three million carpooling miles later, Zach and Lauren will be graduating in less than two years but Venetia still drops them off and picks them up. I cannot imagine what she’s going to do when those kids go off to college and their elderly dog, Pepper, dies. And what does she do with so much free time on her hands, since her husband lives on airplanes and in hotel rooms? Cleans all day. Every day. Things that aren’t even dirty. I think she has orgasms doing laundry. She folds and irons everything. Even sheets. With spray starch! Of course she can afford a housekeeper, but claims she doesn’t trust them.

No sooner do I cover the potato salad with a plastic lid and put it in the fridge than here comes Arlene calling. But I’m not falling for this. I wouldn’t be surprised if Venetia had called Arlene and told her to call me just to see if I would pick up the phone and have a long drawn-out conversation with her so then Arlene would call Venetia back and tell her and Venetia would know that I was just blowing her off. So I don’t answer it.

Sometimes I think they both think they know more about me than I know about myself. Arlene is my least favorite out of the whole clan but I tolerate her because she’s my sister. She is the one person who can get on all of my nerves at once. Why? Because she thinks she’s smarter than everybody since she got a master’s in psychology from Pepperdine. Venetia went to a state college and Arlene thinks Venetia’s credentials are inferior, but of course Arlene has bothered to share her true sentiments only with me and not Venetia because she is two-faced. Arlene also loves to tell people how to live their lives based on her standards, which is why I try to keep as much of my personal life as is humanly possible from her. I do share some things with Venetia because she’s been saved and doesn’t believe in gossip. It’s too bad Arlene hasn’t used any of the stuff she learned at Pepperdine on herself, which is probably why she now sells real estate. She was a therapist for years but in the black community you can go broke giving bad advice. Thanks to Arlene and Venetia, it has become obvious to me that getting a college degree doesn’t necessarily mean you’re smart. Or stable.

I’m not one to hold grudges, but some people who are mean-spirited as children grow up to be mean-spirited adults. Arlene is one of them. Forty-five years ago she looked at me and said, “That hairstyle was not meant for you, Betty Jean. I think you’d look much better with short hair,” and that little bitch took a pair of pinking shears and cut off seven inches of my hair. “Maybe not,” she said after looking at her handiwork.

I love her. But she has other qualities that have made it hard to like her. She thinks she’s better than us folks who live down here in the “hood,” as they now call it. She bought a split-level house thirteen minutes away, up there in Baldwin Hills, where black folks with two-car garages, palm trees in their front and back yards, gold credit cards, and money in the bank live. She has never been married, but that didn’t stop her from screwing other women’s husbands (I wonder what page this was on in her psychology books) and it didn’t stop her from having a baby either. That baby is almost six feet tall, twenty-eight years old, still lives with her, and has never paid rent, but that’s because it’s hard when you can’t seem to keep a job longer than a few months. Arlene always thinks the employer discriminates against Omar because he’s fat. She talks to him like he’s still fourteen, but I would never say anything to her about what I really think.

I tell Tammy. She’s my best friend. Lives right across the street. She’s ten years younger and happens to be white but she feels more like a sister to me than Arlene does. She’s a good listener and we can share our thoughts and feelings about things without judging each other.

Personally, I try to avoid friction at all costs and don’t like to argue or fight with Arlene or anyone else because it takes too much out of you. And what exactly do you win? Sometimes, I will clear my throat at the post office if somebody is taking all day to pick out what stamps they like, and even though I get to church only two or three times a year, I start humming “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” while standing in that long return line at Wal-Mart when the person ahead can’t find their receipt, or I squeeze my toes together when I take my grandkids to the playground and Trinetta acts like she’s forgotten what Clorox and lotion are for.

Arlene and Tammy have never gotten along because Tammy married a black man. The whole interracial thing has never really bothered me. Who you love is your business. Plus, I never knew love was a color. My biggest concern was always their kids. I felt sorry for them having to explain what they were year after year after year. And now, that they’re out of college, they still don’t know what box to check. I used to like her husband, Howard, but he broke Tammy’s heart.

“Thelma?” he yells from the bedroom, which is pretty much where he lives these days. Thelma is my name today. She was the girl Lee David was going to marry back in New Orleans but then Thelma—apparently attracted to the family genes—ran off to Shreveport with his brother. That’s when Lee David turned to me. And at