The Freeman family—Charles, Laurel, and their daughters, teenage Charlotte and nine-year-old Callie—have been invited to live with Charlie, a young chimpanzee, as part of a research project. The Freemans know sign language and are to teach it to Charlie. Kaitlyn Greenidge’s debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, has just come out in paperback, published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Greenidge will read at Politics and Prose next Thursday, February 2 at 7pm. Joining her will be A.J. Verdelle, author of The Good Negress, also from Algonquin (see excerpt below). Both books can be purchased at the bookstore or online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
“THIS CAR doesn’t feel like ours,” I said.
“Well, it is now,” my father replied. “So get used to it.” Outside of the car it was dark and hot and early morning August in Dorchester. Through the crack of the window, I could smell every part of the city—every slab of asphalt, every rotting plank of wood siding, every crumbling stucco wall, every scarred and skinny tree—I could smell all of it beginning to sweat.
I sat back in my seat. I knew I was right. Our old car was a used silver Chevy sedan, a dubious gift from my uncle Lyle, a mechanic. The Chevy’s backseats were balding, the foam cushions peeling with faded stickers from some long discarded coloring book. The Chevy’s body slumped over its axis, slung way too low to the ground, so that when you opened the car’s doors, their bottoms scraped the curb.
The new car was a 1991 silver Volvo station wagon, next year’s model. The Toneybee Institute paid for it. It had a curt, upturned nose that looked smug and out of place beside the lazing sedans and subservient hatchbacks parked on our block. Being inside the Volvo felt like we were in public. None of us could bring ourselves to speak. We were all too humbled by the leather interiors.
My mother, in the driver’s seat, adjusted her rearview mirror. My younger sister, Callie, kept playing with the automatic windows until my mother told her to stop. Up in the front seat, my father tugged on his fingers one by one, trying to crack his knuckles, but the cartilage wouldn’t break. I shifted my legs, and the leather skin of the seat stuck to the backs of my thighs, made a slow, painful smack as I leaned forward.
“They know we’re no good with animals, right?” I moved again and the leather creaked beneath me. “I mean, you told them that?”
“What are you talking about?” My mother rolled down her window, began to fuss with the driver’s side mirror. “We’re great with animals.”
“We are not. We’re terrible with pets.”
“Well, that’s fine because we won’t have a pet.” My mother had been saying this for weeks. “Charlie isn’t a pet.”
“He’s a research monkey,” my father added.
“He’s a chimpanzee.” This was Callie.
“He’s more than a pet,” my mother corrected. “He’s going to be like a brother to you.”
My father said, “That’s going a bit far, Laurel.”
“What I’m trying to say,” she began, “is that we just have to treat him like one of us. Like he’s part of our family. We just have to make him feel like he’s one of our own and he’ll do fine.”
— Kaitlyn Greenidge
Twenty years after its initial publication, The Good Negress has been reissued by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. The A.J. Verdelle classic follows Denise Palms from her grandmother’s home in rural Virginia to 1960s Detroit, where her mother lives, from adolescence to young womanhood, and from a future of limited expectations to unheard-of possibilities raised by a demanding but idealistic teacher. A.J. Verdelle, who grew up in DC, will appear at Politics and Prose next Thursday, February 2, joining another Algonquin author, Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman (see excerpt above).
“TELL THE CLASS your name and where you’ve moved from, Deneese.”
I pull off my coat—it’s too short. I rather be standin there in my blue Sunday dress. Margarete had let me wear it even though she didn’t like it. Margarete does not like my clothes. She say all my skirts and dresses are too short and not new. She say I’m in Detroit now and I cain’t be wearin all remade clothes. She ask me who remade my things, and I tell her Granma’am and Miz Evelyn Ownes. She is shocked that I mention Miz Evelyn Ownes on account a the Owneses ain’t got a pot to piss in, she say, so how do they think they got clothes enough to remake for me. She ask me where is the rest of the things I wore down Granma’am’s, and I tell her I left them because they was even smaller than what I brought.
She lays all my things out on her bed. She holds her right hand to her back where I guess the baby comin is painin her. She say when she get a few dollars she gone buy me some new skirts and sweaters. She holds up my blouses and says they will be all right except that the collars is round like I’m a baby. “In the meantime,” she says, and then she goes into her chifforobe, I can wear this and this. She pulls out two skirts and three sweaters and one blouse. Both the skirts is brown—one is dark brown and the other is dark tan. Both the skirts is straight down and, since I am by then tall as Margarete, when she holds them up to me I can see that they will come to the top a my bobby socks. One a the sweaters is white and one is black and one is brown. They all button down. The blouse is cream colored.
I don’t like the clothes Margarete give me. They look like I am doin things I ain’t got no business doin. Once I put the skirts on, I can see they are too close, and the sweaters sit way up over my behind.
Now, I do like the pants she sent down home for me to travel in, and I secretly wish she would pull some more pants out the chifforobe, but then why would she when I cain’t wear those to school.
I asked Margarete could I wear my blue Sunday dress on my first day. She said no.
“Why don’t you wear a skirt and sweater? All the girls will have on skirts and sweaters.”
“I would like to wear my blue dress first, Margarete.” I drop my voice way low on the Margarete part.
She took a deep smoke from her cigarette. “When did you start callin me Margarete, Deneese?”
I had my speech prepared. “I don’t mean no disrespect, Margarete,” I rushed. Now, this first part was a lie. “I haven’t been round you in so long, sometimes I called Granma’am Mama. And, well, when I talked about you down home, I just called you Margarete,” I said. Another lie. I only called Granma’am Granma’am. And I only called Margarete Margarete when I was listenin to other people talk about her. But what could she know about how true it was or wasn’t. There was no way she could know what I knew, and I knew I did not want to call Margarete Mama anymore, not unless I had to, not unless she made me.
She looked at me a long time. “Are you glad to be back, Neesey?” she asked me.
I wait a minute to answer. “Luke edward done grown up handsome like Daddy,” I said.
“Don’t say that to him.” She laughs a little, blowin out her cigarette smoke. “He already thinks he’s Creation.” She looked steady at me.
“You can wear that blue dress if you want to, but you gone look like a little baby. It’s all right, you ain’t got enough clothes to avoid them skirts for too long. But don’t wear that white dress anymore, it’s not in season. I’ll get you a new white dress Easter,” she said. She was walkin out the room when she said, in summary, “I don’t know about this Margarete business.” She never said anything else about the Margarete business.
And so that is how I came to call my mother Margarete, and that is how I knew that we agreed on a few things: the power of changing subjects, the serious significance of the wearing of clothes, the control we have over the naming of names, and how in truth the change of name can change the person, even if the change is done in secret, or is done by somebody else. And how in the light of day nothing can be done to change the person back, there is no return to the prior name.
Excerpted from The Good Negress by A.J. Verdelle © 1995 by A.J. Verdelle. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.