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Fiction

Gramercy Park is Closed to the Public

Dex was on his way to Cornell in the fall and Luna had another year of high school. The looming separation impelled them to cling together that summer.

His appreciation for Black culture was sincere and infectious and he insisted she avail herself of activities the city had to offer—museum and gallery visits, comedy shows, and jazz and blues concerts—all things his intellectually curious father had exposed him to. Dex also recommended books by Baldwin, Morrison, and Ellison, plays by Leroi Jones and Lorraine Hansberry, and essays by W.E.B. Du Bois and George S. Schuyler. Luna found it embarrassing that her white boyfriend felt obliged to educate her on Blackness. But she enjoyed the attention. She didn’t tell him she already knew about most of the stuff he shared, because if she did, he might spend less time with her. Sometimes, in addition to recommending things, he actually provided them. When he gave her books, Luna didn’t mention that they were readily available in her own house.

Her father had long since stopped sharing literature with her and Sonnie, and he didn’t have time to take them on cultural excursions aside from the traveling they did most summers and on Christmas vacations. But he did have plenty of books and records at home. At first, she rejected them in protest of things she thought she didn’t like, but there was more to it. The idea of “exposure” to things she was supposed to take in reminded her of the awful lessons she endured when her father force-fed her Black literature for her edification.
She was open to Dex’s efforts. However, he was her primary interest, not the things he was showing her. She wanted to be connected to him and he apparently wanted that, too. Their links-in-a-chain mentality those summer months led to a few ill-thought-out decisions.

 

The choir was in full swing the day Luna decided to bring Dex to Grandma Mabel’s church. He was wildly curious about the experience and excited to attend.

Mabel was singing a solo that day. She’d had her hair braided the night before, and her scalp was still tender. She was in no mood for Luna’s nonsense.

First of all, they were late. The congregation was seated and the pews were full when the double doors opened and the two of them walked in hand in hand, up the aisle, wearing dungarees. Jeans. Designer jeans, Mabel later learned, but jeans nonetheless. In God’s house. Lawdamercy.

She couldn’t blame the white boy. What’d he know about church? He was a non-religious half-Jew. But Luna certainly knew better than to come up in church dressed like that.

Mabel had heard all about Dexter Gershon, but until then hadn’t laid eyes on him. He was the only thing lighter than a butterscotch candy in the sanctuary that day, and he stood out like a pointed hood in a crowd of ladies’ church crowns.

Heads turned and people started whispering. Leo, Mabel’s sometime special friend, was sitting in a front pew. She saw him take a look back at Dex and Luna and then turn forward again to look at Mabel where she was sitting up on the chancel with the choir. Then he dropped his bald head to his chest and his shoulders bounced with suppressed laughter.

Sonnie was there, in a suit, of course, because Sonnie had some sense. He turned, got an eyeful of those two fools, shook his head, and turned right back around. A couple of the choir members who’d known Luna since she was in diapers stared so hard you’d swear they were trying to push their eyeballs out of the sockets.

Mabel watched the two of them sit way over on the far left a couple of rows behind Sonnie, the only sliver of space available. When it came time for her solo, the choir faced straight forward, while Mabel pivoted toward Luna and Dex. She belted the lyrics at them almost as if she were telling Satan to take a hike even as the words were saying hold still and wait on the Lord.

 

As far as Mable was concerned, the brownstones on Convent Avenue south of 145th St. were even prettier than the ones down around Gramercy Park. The sidewalk was tree-lined and well-kept, thanks to Leo, who was president of the block association and lived down the street. Most white folks were still scared to visit Harlem, but this part of Sugar Hill was beautiful, and Mabel delighted in her big, three-story house. She’d grown up in the area. Her parents were schoolteachers. They bought a house and eventually invested in a second property they rented out. Mabel married a man named Cyril Darrell who earned a degree from City College and later became a supervisor in the post office. He was wise enough to take her family’s lead and buy real estate, too. When he died of pneumonia at forty, she was left with enough money to pay for her children’s education. She also got herself a job as a corrections officer at the New York Women’s House of Detention downtown. She paid off the brownstone when most folks with means were looking to get out of Harlem. When her folks died, she inherited their properties and retired.

The wide-eyed look on Dex’s face as he walked in told Mabel he wasn’t expecting her place to be as big or as beautiful as it was. White people thought Harlem was nothing but a crime- and drug-infested dump. Well, it was and it wasn’t. There was crime, and there were drugs, and plenty of drunks, too, but there were also enclaves like Strivers’ Row, Sugar Hill, and other areas where residents with pride took care of their neighborhoods. Harlem was full of folks with pride.

Mabel served lunch in her eat-in kitchen. She’d only been expecting Sonnie, but she had plenty of food. She always did. The four of them sat around her big oak table with their heads bowed and eyes closed as she said grace.

“Father God, we thank you for this food we’re about to receive and we give you all the praise in Jesus’ name, Amen.”

Mabel’s eyes were on Dex’s when he opened his. She smiled and held out her serving tray piled with barbecued ribs.

“Can you eat ribs?” she asked. “They’re not kosher.”

“Grandma,” Luna said.

Sonnie honked out a laugh.

“What?” Mabel said. “They’re not. I don’t know what he can eat and what he can’t.”

Luna flung her head back and sighed.

“My family doesn’t keep kosher, ma’am,” Dex said, taking one and then another. “I love ribs.”

“Hmph,” Mabel said, pleased. “Well, that’s good.” The kids ate fast and she was bored by the conversation, Luna bragging about Dex going to Cornell like Mabel was supposed to be impressed.

“Cornell’s very nice,” Mabel offered, her eyes on Dex. “Y’know, Luna’s father isn’t the only one with the outstanding education. My daughter June graduated from Yale.”

“Wow,” Dex said.

“And she went on to get her doctorate in history from Howard,” Mabel said. “You’re probably not familiar with Howard.”

“I am, actually, ma’am. Stokely Carmichael went there. So did Thurgood Marshall. You must be really proud.”

Mabel’s eyes, which were focused on Dex, widened. She blinked.

“I am,” she said, shaking off her surprise. “And you must know Sonnie got into Harvard.”

“So impressive,” Dex said, nodding. “Much more so than the minor Ivy I’m headed to,” he said, biting into a mouthful of meat.

Luna tsked. “Don’t say that, Dex.”

Mabel smiled. She appreciated his good sense to play humble. “You’ll get no argument from me,” she said.

“Grandma,” Luna snapped.

“I’m not going there, Grandma,” Sonnie said.

Mabel shrugged. “But you could.”

Dex stopped chewing. He froze a moment as if he sensed danger. “Uh, Morehouse is super impressive, too,” he said. His eyeballs pinged from Sonnie to Mabel and back to Sonnie. The young man smiled weakly before he began chewing again. He looked down at his plate.

Luna stared at Mabel.

Mabel sipped her sweet tea and kept calm. “Girl, I don’t know who you think you’re evil-eyein’ like that, but you’re gon’ learn today if you don’t wipe that fresh look off your face.”

Luna stared at her plate.

“And don’t you come back to church dressed like that again, y’hear?”

“Excuse me.” Sonnie stood up. “Sorry to leave this scintillating conversation, but Tony Brown’s Journal’s about to start.” He went into Mabel’s front room and the TV came on.

Luna sat there looking like she wanted to cry. Mabel wasn’t studyin’ Luna. She was gobsmacked that Dex was still putting food in his face. Six ribs, two servings of greens, and now he was helping himself to a second serving of macaroni and cheese.

“You don’t look like you eat this much all the time,” she said. “Where do you put it all, Dex? In your scrotum?”

“Grandma!” Luna was horrified.

Dex laughed and laughed. He almost choked. Mabel laughed, too. Luna turned the color of cranberry sauce and covered her face with her hands.

Dex said, “I don’t usually eat like this. But I don’t usually get offered food this good.” His eyes rolled up and he shook his head with a look on his face like he’d found the holy kingdom.

Mabel didn’t want to like him. But the boy practically licked his plate.

When he was too stuffed to take another bite, she sent him into the other room with Sonnie. Luna got up to wash the dishes. The girl hadn’t said much since Mabel scolded her. She seemed to have set her hurt feelings aside. She smiled. Didn’t complain about not using the “perfectly good dishwasher” the way she always did. She scrubbed the china and hummed a tune. Smitten. Mabel could practically see the cartwheels turning in her girly heart.

“Listen, Luna, I’ll admit, he’s not the worst one you could’ve brought up here, but I’m telling you, baby, you mix with those folks that way, you’re asking for trouble.”

Luna stopped humming. She exhaled with exasperation, like she knew better and Mabel was a silly old fool. “Grandma. Love doesn’t care about ‘folks’ in that way. Love doesn’t see color. It only sees the soul.”

Mabel purposely made a loud sound like she was sucking a piece of meat from between her teeth. “Yeah, well, love don’t run this world, chile. White folks do. And trust me, they ain’t lookin’ at your soul.”

Toni Ann Johnson won the 2021 Flannery O’Connor Award for her linked story collection "Light Skin Gone to Waste," selected for the prize and edited by Roxane Gay, and published by UGA Press in 2022.

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Poetry

“Miroslav Tichý,” “Miroslav Tichý, Untitled,” “The Subject Covers Her Face”

by Alisha Dietzman

Essays/Nonfiction

“Suzanne Somers’s Eggplant Cookbook”

by Brian Bouldrey