San Francisco, California, 1960
The summer I was nine I climbed to the top of our hill, grabbing handfuls of dry sweet grass to pull me over jagged rocks. I stood looking out at San Francisco unfurled before me, a mix of winding streets that trailed into the sky, or tipped into the soft, blue bay. Sunlight strained to warm me through the fog, and people drifted like watercolors on a page, hues of dark and light, diverse as the world. We lived on Majestic Avenue, a cul-de-sac whose name fit perfectly with our family surname, King. Feeling crystalline and ever so shaky in the gusting wind, I stood at the top of our street and waved my arms to the city, queen of it all.
My sister, Kitsaun, almost two years older than me, thought she was queen. She climbed ahead of me to the top of the bluff, holding stalks of anise toward the sky, the scent of licorice sifting down to me. Sitting on a ledge, I could see our little house with red stairs that led to the front door, a mean cactus century plant with two-inch thorns growing near the driveway. Once, Kitsaun had fallen off the porch onto the spiny arms and I thought she was dead. She had long scratches and cuts that bled, and Mom laid her on the couch so I could touch her face and bring her food. “She’s a fainter,” Mom said. “She’ll be fine.” The next day she was back on the hill, waving her royal stems.
Kitsaun and I shared a bedroom at the front of the house. Every night I slept with my head under the covers, clutching my stuffed dog, Brownie. I tried to fall asleep right after prayers because I did not want to be awake by myself in the dark. Kitsaun’s bed was next to mine. She slept soundly under her flowered comforter—unafraid of the night. Morning light rose over the mountains of the East Bay and through the branches of a tall Monterey pine outside our window, and we could see the tip of the Bay Bridge glinting in the sun. We played hide-and-seek and “mother may I” with the kids on our block and some evenings we filled balloons with water and hid behind parked cars and bushes that poked us while we ran and smacked one another with wet, rubbery fun. We rode on coasters we made from planks of wood nailed to ball bearings, shrieking wildly as we careened down the smooth sidewalk, our hands clasping a circle of rope, a close-knit passel of friends.
My father, Saunders King, was a flinty observer of life, a man who spoke only when necessary. Singing was his language. He carried society’s racism and his personal view of right and wrong a knife’s blade beneath his steely control. His life as a guitarist and singer fulfilled him, and he tried to never compromise his art by working a nine-to-five job. Mom was an outspoken Irish-English woman who fell in love and married Dad, an African-American man, in the 1940s. She worked full-time in an era when it was acceptable, if not expected, that women stay at home with their children and sublimate their dreams and desires to help their husbands reach theirs. Mom loved working, and Dad loved being at home with Kitsaun and me during the day before going to his gigs at nightclubs. Our family was not at all defined by the traditional American mores of 1951, the year I was born.
Sundays, Dad would drive Mom, Kitsaun, and me across the Bay Bridge for church. Dad’s brother Ulysses was pastor of Christ Holy Sanctified Church, the Pentecostal house of worship started by their father, Judge King, and Sarah, their mo-ther. Dad would dress up in a shiny fitted suit with a wide tie like he was going to work. He smelled of Ivory soap and lime aftershave. Mom wore suits with stockings and heels. My favorite was pink mohair that felt like a rug. Kitsaun and I wore dresses with white socks and saddle shoes that made our legs look like toothpicks in boats. We both had hair that looked like we were in a perpetual wind. I wore a scarf tied tight around my head, pressing my waves flat. My bangs sat like a Tootsie Roll across my forehead. Kitsaun’s black hair curled around her face. She was taller and lankier than me, smart and funny, too. She enjoyed yelling and singing, often combining the two, like opera. Mom would laugh and tell her to quiet down, which she did while making dramatic faces of rejection.
Church service began at eleven in the morning with the choir marching through the front doors in their white robes with red satin collars. My eyes followed their feet as they stepped forward with one foot, held it for two counts, and then pulled up the foot in back, tapping lightly. The choir bounced like springs, singing about the holiness of God. And I believed. Church grounded me in the heavens, telling me through sermons that life was full of strife, but that God was a present help in times of trouble. Call on Him and you will find peace, their powerful voices sang.
Every summer, a few days after school let out, Mom and Dad took us to Grandmother King’s farm in Chowchilla, where the land lay out flat and dry, and when we walked down the road, a mirage of water shimmered in the distance. Grandmother wore a dress with a flowered apron over it. She spoke with a crinkle in her voice—never a bad word, either. She was not much taller than Kitsaun, even with her sturdy black shoes on, but strong spirited with a quietness that concealed her courage. Grandmother looked across her yard to the farmlands, as if she could see farther than the fields and pastures. I recognized a fire inside her, but she never spoke in a tone that was not gentle. She made a cup of hot water every morning, stirring in two heaping teaspoons of sugar and a splash of evaporated milk. She sat in a wooden rocking chair, her brown leather Bible open in her lap as she read and rocked, sipping her hot water. It was so scorching hot in Chowchilla that Grandmother never let us play outside between eleven in the morning and four in the afternoon. Every slow and sizzling day, Grandmother had Kitsaun and me wash and dry the dishes, dust the dining table, and fold tea towels. If we giggled and made fun of someone, Grandmother scolded our meanness—she didn’t believe in gossip or swearing. She had a funny way of saying “excuse me” after she coughed, but nothing after a loud belch—which may have been a custom from Louisiana, where she was born. Dad’s brother Judge lived with her, caring for the farm, because Grandfather King had died years before. Uncle Judge rose long before our dreams were done, to milk the two cows that lived in the tiny pasture. After our breakfast of Cream of Wheat or grits and eggs, Kitsaun and I followed Uncle Judge out to the chicken coop to toss corn feed to the hens and roosters. Once, when a chicken pecked my thigh, Uncle Judge wrung its neck and cooked it for dinner. I was grateful for the revenge, feeling the tender puncture where the beak had poked into my leg, but I could not swallow the meat that steamed on my plate. Where were the feathers, the head, the beady eyes?
At night, Grandmother put her teeth in a jar of water on the bathroom sink. It took me a long time to go to the bathroom without Kitsaun: The teeth looked so big in the glass. I would sit on the toilet and squeeze my eyes closed until I saw stars, wipe myself, and run out of the bathroom while pulling up my pajamas. Kitsaun and I slept on the sofa bed in the living room, the window open wide, without a prayer of a breeze—only crickets singing in the dark.
I learned about the peace of God in that house. Grandmother prayed morning and night, hummed hymns, and taught us Bible verses. On the dining table was a tiny wooden box that held little rectangular pieces of cardboard with scriptures that we read out loud before each meal. No matter how young, we were to pick out a pink, blue, or green card and stumble through a verse. No food passed our lips without a blessing. No sleep came until we said the Lord’s Prayer. Kitsaun and I had memorized John 3:16 before we knew how to tie our shoes: “. . . that God so loved the world, He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believeth on Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” We grew up knowing we were expected to live up to Grandmother’s image of a spiritual human being, praying for others and choosing good over bad. I still love the smell of cow pies when I drive in the country, because they remind me of hot, quiet days watching Grandmother’s cows chew their cuds while I turned cartwheels through sprinklers on the crabgrass with my sister. I still can’t fall asleep until I have said good night to God.
Every August, three of Mom’s four sisters converged on our house in San Francisco—Aunt Nita and Aunt Ginger from Chicago and Aunt Nomi from South San Francisco. Our living room, with the Sears Roebuck sofa, and a black-and-white TV beside the upright piano, became a land of stories and bebop music. Mom reminisced about picking cotton with her sisters in Arizona when she was five, how raw and pricked their fingers got. Dad remembered his first singing lessons with Mrs. Forsythe in Oakland. She had taught him to enunciate his words and sing from his diaphragm. Aunt Dini had introduced Mom to Dad in 1947 when Dad’s band, the Saunders King Orchestra, was playing at the Café Society in Chicago. She and Uncle Stan had become Dad’s fans listening to him in San Francisco at the Club Savoy. Our scrapbook had a photo of Dad in a sleek, dark suit and black bow tie, his white shirt stark against his smooth, charcoal skin. His eyes glimmered with starry light, his teeth straight and white beneath his mustache. He sang and played the guitar with his sextet, and often sat in with Billie Holiday, Charlie Mingus, and T-Bone Walker.
Dad played Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong on the turntable in our living room. Aunt Nita, Aunt Ginger, and Mom laid out cards for group solitaire in the kitchen. Aunt Daisy, Dad’s sister who lived in Berkeley, came over with fried chicken, collard greens, and sweet potato pies that she had made at her apartment late at night.
Dad smiled big, listening to the music and playing his guitar along with the records. He would curl his lip and shake his head if he didn’t like the intonation or choice of his notes. Our aunts snapped their fingers to the beat, and Daisy moved her head side to side, her arms bent upward like a funky Egyptian dancer. Our aunts said what they thought about each other and the world while pinching our cheeks and hugging us into their soft breasts. Kitsaun and I adored them and loved how alive our house became when we were all together. Late at night, voices buzzed, ice cubes were plunked into drinks, and Dad’s velvety tenor serenaded us through our bedroom door. Mom was the only one who didn’t drink, because her father drank and smoked himself to death. That didn’t seem to bother her sisters, who loved to make cocktails while Dad kept the music hot.
My first lesson in who I was came on a Saturday when I was nine. I had just come in from playing on the hill, and I was waiting for Mom to take Kitsaun and me to the Stonestown Library for our weekend ritual of borrowing books to read during the week. Mom devoured Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming; Kitsaun and I, Nancy Drew and young fiction. Mom, Aunt Nita, Aunt Ginger, and Dad were in the kitchen, sitting around the wooden table that I had poked my name into with a fork. Aunt Ginger pulled me onto her lap, her pedal pushers smooth against my legs. Her hair was a rusty red, and she wore it swept up into a French twist, which made her nose look pointy and her ears very small. I folded my hands across my tummy, and she rubbed her palms over my fingers. Mom sat across the table, her brunette hair falling softly onto her high cheekbones. She looked like a model in her navy blue dress with small white polka dots and a thin belt that showed off her tiny waist. Dad sat near the window, his legs crossed and a toothpick between his lips. Sunlight cut across his broad nose and high forehead. His shoulders were straight, the muscles in his arms showed through his shirt. His skin shone like the wet earth that slid down our street in hard rain. Aunt Nita stood at the sink in her ruffled housedress, pouring hot water over Lipton tea bags and stirring sugar into the pitcher. Her bleached hair was flattened in curls that were twisted with bobby pins; her blond wig sat on a Styrofoam head on my dresser. “Remember when they stretched the rope down the center of the dance floor, Saunders?” Aunt Nita asked. “Where was that?”
“That was a big night,” Dad said. “It was in Tennessee. Nashville, Tennessee.”
I wondered how a jump rope could reach across a dance floor. I had watched Dance Party on TV. Teenagers danced in a big crowd, jerking their arms and shaking their butts.
“Damn prejudiced Southern fools!” Aunt Ginger said. “Saunders didn’t allow them to separate whites and Negroes in the nightclubs he played.”
My throat tightened. Who wanted to separate the Negroes and whites? It wasn’t three o’clock yet, so I knew Aunt Ginger hadn’t poured her drink, but her voice spit with the same sneering drawl she often had by nightfall when she listened to Dad’s 78 rpm records over and over, drinking vodka and orange juice, hanging her head, and nodding while trying to sing along to “Summertime” or “Danny Boy.”
Mom folded the San Francisco Chronicle in half, Herb Caen’s column facing up so Aunt Ginger could read it later.
“Here, Jody.” Aunt Nita handed Mom a plastic tumbler of iced tea. “What happened that night, Saunders?”
“Well, we were touring the South. My manager and valet drove with me in the Lincoln. The other band members were in another car. When we arrived in Nashville, my manager paid the Musicians’ Union so we could play. But when we reached the nightclub, something wasn’t right.”
“Wasn’t Eddie Taylor in your band then?” Nita stood in the archway, clutching her glass of tea, her nails painted red like fire. “I sure loved the way he played that sax.”
Dad smiled. “Yes, Eddie was there. His was the first face I saw when we walked into the room. That’s how I knew something was wrong. He pulled me aside and told me the owner of the club, Mr. Casey, was going to put a rope down the center of the dance floor to separate the whites and Negroes.”
“What year was that, Saunders?” Mom liked to know numbers.
“Let’s see.” Dad whistled. “1944, 1945.” His eyes trailed off, and then settled on me. “You took your life in your hands going down South for any reason. That’s why my mother and father left Louisiana. I would rather raise Cain than take a backseat because of my race. They had to give it to me right, or not at all.”
Aunt Nita sat down at the end of the table. “What did you do, Saunders?” She made her eyes bug out as she did when Dad sang her favorite songs, and big tears plopped into her martini.
“My manager was still back at the hotel and I was too hot to wait for him. I told Eddie I was going to talk to Casey. He wanted to go with me. We walked to the office in back, and I set my guitar on the floor. Casey asked what I wanted. I told him, ‘Mr. Taylor tells me you’re thinking about stretching a rope across the dance floor to segregate the Negroes.’ I stared deep into his eyes to let him know I could see his soul. I told him, ‘I don’t play to segregated audiences. Never have. Never will.’ ”
“What if he had told you to take your band and leave?” Nita’s voice was soft.
“I knew he could throw me out or call the police. But we could work in other cities. We didn’t need to stay in Tennessee. It wasn’t the first time I had to stand up to racism. I had almost been shot in El Paso when the sheriff called me off a Greyhound bus because I wasn’t sitting in the back.”
I swallowed hard and shifted in Aunt Ginger’s arms. She squeezed me around the waist, and I could smell the sweet scent of her Juicy Fruit gum. “Are you okay?” she whispered in my ear.
Mom looked over and waved me to her lap. I ran to her and snuggled into her arms, my body trembling.
Dad made a clicking sound with his tongue against his teeth and said, “Mr. Casey just stared at me, so I picked up my guitar and walked back across the dance floor. Eddie Taylor followed close behind. I took long, slow steps so Casey could catch up if he wanted. ‘Saunders!’ he called. He was excited, all right. He told me, ‘We have two hundred people arriving in an hour. You can’t leave.’ I stopped. I was too mad to turn around. I wanted to take a swing at him. I could feel perspiration dripping down my back. I turned to Casey and said, ‘Man, I don’t play to segregated audiences anywhere. You want my band—no rope.’ ”
Dad pulled a white handkerchief out of his pants pocket and patted his forehead. Every word stuck right to my heart. I knew that what had happened to Dad in Tennessee was a lesson for me.
Aunt Nita’s voice cut in: “If you hadn’t gone back, your musicians would have followed you.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Space Between the Stars by Deborah Santana. Copyright © 2005 by Deborah Santana. Excerpted by permission of One World/Ballantine, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.