CHRISTMAS DAY, 1973
Louise couldn't figure out what Medford's problem was, which made her feel as angry as a Virginia tiger beetle stuck on its back. For the past week, he had been more restless than a church bell waiting for Sunday to roll around. To say that Medford was acting strangely was an understatement. Lately, whenever she and Medford were together, it seemed to Louise that his mind was preoccupied with something or someone else. In fact, just last week she'd called him several times during the evening and the phone just rang and rang. Usually he picked up the receiver no later than the third ring, because normally at that time he'd be home. Normally, he'd already be in bed, stretched out flat on his back, talking to her in a relaxed state of comfort. The other thing that made her eyebrow raise was when he came to visit her at the library last week and he walked right past her office in a daze as if he had forgotten the room where she worked. If it was another woman he was thinking about, and he had changed his mind about her, Louise thought she'd rather hear about it now, when they were only six weeks into the start of their relationship, than later.
She wondered whether or not she had done something to put him off, but that was a question she wasn't going to ask. She wasn't going to get involved in one of those "let's talk it over" conversations that usually carried on like crickets chirping endlessly into the night, that quieted down for stretches of time, then started back up again--same song, different day. She wasn't going to talk about his mood change at all, she decided. Well, maybe she'd be willing to participate in a conversation about them being together on a long-term basis, but she wasn't going to bring it up first.
At best, Louise told herself they'd had fun while it lasted and if it were over between them, she was ready to accept the end was near and move on.
It was Christmas Day and she wanted to crawl back into bed, but that wasn't an option because Nana and Granddaddy were preparing a holiday feast, having her and Medford and the family over for dinner along with several of their friends. Besides, Medford would be coming to her house to pick her up soon so she had better get ready, and she had better not be too evil by the time he got there. The good part was, they didn't have to travel too far for dinner since her grandparents only lived across the street.
Rummaging through her closet for something to wear, Louise turned her thoughts to her grandmother. She knew Nana would be expecting Medford to present her with a diamond ring for Christmas, since Nana had hinted at that on more than one occasion. But Louise also knew that as far as gifts went, Medford was as practical as straws on a broomstick, and more prone to giving long johns or socks at best, things that were useful and had a purpose, and that was fine with her.
Even so, Louise understood her grandmother's desire to bring Medford into the family. Nana thought that Medford would make a wonderful husband, not only because he was the son of Clement, Granddaddy's best friend, but because he was the perfect example of a rule-abiding Lemon City citizen. For over a hundred years, Lemon City's Rules were the foundation of its success and prosperity, with their purpose being to establish a strong sense of community and moral way of life. Lemon City's last rule, Rule Number Ten: SUPPORT THE COMMUNITY IN EVERY WAY POSSIBLE AND IMAGINABLE, was the soul of the town and the heart of its people.
Lemon City never took kindly to strangers and discouraged the influences that unknown forces brought along with them from stepping inside its borders. "Outsiders," as they were commonly called, were as unwelcome to Lemon City as a heat wave hovering over a crop of tobacco ready for harvest. Following The Rules was essential to the town's survival, and Medford was as devoted to Lemon City as the morning mist was to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Consequently, Louise knew that Medford, the perfect great-grandson-in-law, would be Nana's ideal Christmas present. It was too bad Nana would be disappointed, Louise thought. In fact, she was too, in a way. After giving in to Medford's advances, he was turning out to be weird, and Louise wanted to be as far on the other side of disappointment as she could get. Besides, six weeks wasn't enough time to warrant a commitment, even though it was something that had crossed her mind. In the beginning she was undecided about Medford, but before she knew it he had begun growing on her like Virginia creeper up a black oak tree. She had never been this wishy-washy about anything before, feeling as if she were sitting on a fence unable to climb down on either side. It was annoying to have someone catch her heart's attention. But if Medford was going out with other people, so could she. Nothing was stopping her from doing it, especially since being loyal to one man had never been her style to begin with. She had tried it before and it didn't work. At least Medford could have had the courage to tell her to her face, she thought to herself, and not mess around behind her back so she had to figure things out on her own.
How could she be so stupid? Louise asked herself as she snatched a wrap dress, held it up for scrutiny, and flung it back into her closet. She did the same with her black-and-white dress with squares, arranged in a geometric design that she hated now because it looked like a checkerboard and made her dizzy. She pulled out a suit with a belted, slim-fitting jacket and pleated skirt, held it out in front of her for a few seconds, then jammed it between the rest of her clothes hanging on the rack. Nothing appealed to her, and she resigned herself to not having anything to wear. She wasn't in the mood to show her legs, so she went to her drawer to pull out a crew-neck knit sweater to match a pair of flared woolen slacks, and hoped that her sister-in-law Elvira wouldn't show up too overdressed for Christmas dinner. If she weren't so upset with two-timing Medford, she'd go downstairs to the ground-floor apartment to ask Elvira in person, what she was going to wear, but the way she was feeling she didn't even want to pick up the phone and make holiday attire a big deal. She would leave that to her grandmother.
The last thing on Elvira's mind was putting on clothes as she and Billy lay naked in bed trying to make a baby. She and Billy lived downstairs from Louise, in the two-family house that Granddaddy built to keep his grandchildren close. Since her husband was the Lemon City Sheriff, and it was a holiday, she was taking full advantage of monopolizing his time on his day off.
For the six years they had been married, Billy and Elvira had tried to get pregnant. Enjoying an active sex life, they soon learned that frequency had very little to do with egg fertilization, yet they didn't let the odds discourage them from maximizing the process of bringing forth life. After spending several minutes between the sheets, Billy was becoming more exhausted as his wife was becoming more desperate. Reaching between his legs, Elvira attempted to inspire him back into the mood, but Billy gently grabbed her hand and pulled her to the floor. Excited that her husband might be interested in trying a new position, Elvira soon realized that she had misunderstood. Instead of more lovemaking, Billy joined her on the floor, getting down on his knees, putting his hands together to pray, "On this day, when a great gift was born into the world, please help us give birth to our own little baby." Then he folded his wife's hands into his and added, "Maybe this is the best way to get what we want." Billy clasped his hands over his wife's as they prayed for several minutes. When they finished their divine request, they were so filled with joy that they jumped back into bed and made more love, doing whatever they could do here on earth to help their prayer come true.
Nana and Granddaddy were careful not to get in each other's way. As he was making his traditional eggnog and she was preparing her special ambrosia, they were mindful to give each other adequate space in the kitchen.
In the Dunlap house, Christmas was the time for treats. On the counter and in the pantry, and wherever there was room on trays and tables on the back porch, Nana had baked lemon desserts--all presents she delivered to family and friends. There were lemon tarts, lemon cookies, lemon cakes with lemon icing, plain lemon cakes, lemon cupcakes with yellow frosting, lemon meringue pies, lemon marmalade, and lemon squares. The individual cups of lemon pudding and frozen homemade lemon sherbet that she couldn't wrap in a box, she saved for after dinner. Nana had almost as much fun with lemons as she did growing tomatoes in her garden, which everyone knew she was devoted to, and took quite seriously. For Outsiders, lemons were bitter and sour, but not for Lemonites. When they bit into lemons, they felt they were savoring history and swallowing sweetness.
Granddaddy was feeling cramped, surrounded by what he perceived to be a clutter of desserts that were more plentiful this Christmas than they had been in previous years. His wife had invited more people to dinner than usual.
"I hope we have enough room at the table for all the people you having here for dinner," Granddaddy said, taking four egg cartons from the refrigerator and placing them on the counter. "I hope we don't have to sit someone on the floor with the cat."
Saint, who was curled into a ball underneath the kitchen table where Nana was peeling lemons for her ambrosia, poked her head up at the sound of the word "cat." Then she lowered her head back into its original position and closed her eyes the way they had been before her nap was interrupted.
"I only invited Vernelle and Sadie and Theola--only three Ladies from Mt. Zion Baptist Church, and Clement and Bootsie." Nana paused, making sure she'd included everyone, then added, "Oh, and Ole Miss Johnson." She made a sour face that wasn't caused by the lemon juice that had squirted onto her cheek. "With the table extensions and the folding chairs, we'll all fit."
"Fit as tight as a big foot crammed into a little shoe," said Granddaddy, cracking eggs, separating the whites from the yokes. "Fit as tight as Clement is with his money, squeezing it so hard he could flatten out a nickel and turn it into a quarter."
"Including family, there'll only be twelve of us," said Nana, ignoring her husband, licking the juice that rolled down her arm from the lemon she had just peeled.
"Our shoulders will be kissing and our elbows will be knocking folks out the way. Loving shoulders and hating elbows. There'll be conflict at the table . . . love, hate . . . love, hate. All that emotional back and forth ain't right on Christmas day."
"Oh, Willie." Nana laughed. "Quit fussin'. It's only seven more people than usual for a few hours on one day. Stop acting foolish. We'll fit fine."
"It's only you that I'm thinking 'bout. If Faye didn't leave home last month, I know we'd only have our family over for dinner. Not that I have anything against inviting friends, I just think that you're overcompensating."
"What you mean by that?"
"Inviting all these people over to substitute for Faye's absence is making more work for yourself than you need to be doing."
"It's no trouble, spreading the joy and the love of the Lord on this day."
From what Granddaddy could tell, his wife had been spreading more than good tidings lately, putting on a few pounds in the past month since their youngest grandchild, Faye, had left Lemon City. Faye's decision to move away from home and leave town altogether was as unnatural as a black bear fleeing hibernation from the mountains in winter. No one had ever left Lemon City. There was no reason to. All the people had whatever they needed. The inheritance provided by their ancestors who were of the mixed blood from plantation owners, slaves, and Powhatan Indians, left a legacy that insured everyone a good education, a lifelong job, a wholesome family upbringing, and a supportive community. But Faye had her own ideas. She had made the decision to go against his wishes because she claimed Black Power was her calling and she had important dreams of her own. His wife had talked him into giving his granddaughter his blessing to go. The next thing he knew, Faye was on the train to New York City to start her own hair-care business, and he fought back the tears at the memory of waving good-bye to the back of her newly permed hairdo. Just when he had gotten used to her natural Afro, now she had gone and changed up on him again. Young people nowadays were fickle, he thought. He just didn't understand why they didn't appreciate life being predictable--like waking up to the sight of the Blue Ridge Mountains every day and having the skyline view be the same.
They had raised their grandchildren, Billy, Louise, and Faye, after their parents were killed. The tragic accident made them become tighter as a family and Nana even more determined to keep her loved ones close, which made her decision to let Faye go all the more difficult. She didn't want to sacrifice her expectations at the risk of her granddaughter's happiness, and now Granddaddy saw his wife's payback for the results of her generosity. Over the weeks he watched as she filled the gap with cooking, cleaning, crocheting, quilting, and doing whatever else she could find to plug the void.
Reaching up to the cabinet, Granddaddy grabbed the crystal punch bowl and set it down on the only empty space on the counter, which served as his makeshift work station since his wife and her lemons had taken over most of the kitchen.
"Faye is gone and she's not coming home anytime soon," Granddaddy said, hoping to help his wife move on.
"She ain't gone, gone. Don't talk like she's dead," Nana snapped. "At least she sounded happy this morning when she called to wish us a Merry Christmas." Examining the peeled lemons stacked in the bowl that were marinating in their own juice, Nana took inventory of the other items she had organized on the table for her ambrosia. The pecans and walnuts were cracked and mixed in one container, the pitted cherries were in their open cans, the peaches were swimming in their Mason jars, the bananas were sliced on the cutting board, and the miniature marshmallows were waiting inside their plastic bags. All she had left to do was cut open the fresh coconut and pineapple.
Excerpted from Playing by the Rules by Elaine Brown. Copyright © 2006 by Elaine Meryl Brown. 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.