I transfer the last cookie from the baking sheet onto a large oval serving platter—another one of Mom’s garage-sale finds last weekend. She furnished the entire house over two weekends of bargain hunting. Uncle Eddie’s right when he calls her a magician. It’s uncanny the way she can dig through other people’s junk and find the gems. The crunching of car tires in the driveway brings Mom racing into the kitchen from the backyard.
“Everyone is arriving at once,” she says, her voice quivering. Mom hands me the shopping bag. “Please put this somewhere, Johnny, while I greet our guests.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I take the bag. Through the side window, I see Uncle Frank’s Chrysler and Cousin Wahya’s old truck in the driveway behind our new clunker. People and dogs start flowing out of the cars. Yona and Louie are here. I stuff the shopping bag behind the garbage can and sprint outside.
“Louie, here boy,” I call. The beagle zips around the corner of the house to greet me. He’s so excited he looks like he might wriggle right out of his fur. His rump follows the rhythm of his tail, wagging from side to side. Big old Yona lumbers up behind him. I crouch down to rub Louie’s ears and Yona presses up against me so hard I almost fall over. “Good thing I’ve got two hands,” I say to the dogs. I slide one hand back and forth over Louie’s silky head and dig the fingers of my other hand deep into Yona’s thick brown coat.
“Hey, Johnny,” Aunt Bessie says joining us in the backyard. “How ‘bout some love for your human family?”
I stand and throw my arms around Aunt Bessie. She smells the way she always does, like rose water and hair spray. In less than a minute, the backyard explodes with people hugging and saying hello. You’d think no one had seen each other in years, when in fact, Aunt Bessie and Uncle Frank’s wedding was only nine days ago. I make my way over to Cousin Wahya. He wraps his long arms around my shoulders.
“I have news,” he whispers. “We’ll find time to talk later.” Does he have news about my father already? I study his face, but I can’t determine from his flat smile if he has good news or bad news to share, He turns away to greet Uncle Eddie, and my stomach flip flops.
When I asked Wahya to help me find my father, I never thought about him digging up bad news. What if my father is dead or worse—a criminal? Would I still want to meet my father if he was in prison? I clear my throat and swallow hard. Maybe I don’t want to hear Wahya’s news today. I could tell him I’ve changed my mind, that I’m happy with my family the way it is. I’ve spent the first thirteen and a half years of my life not knowing anything about my father, why upset the apple cart now? I could settle into my new life in Tulsa with Mom and Uncle Eddie and push the whole idea of finding my father to the back of my mind. My stomach churns again.
Who am I kidding? I’ve never wanted anything as much as I want to find my father. If finding him means meeting him in a prison or reading his name on a headstone in a cemetery, I don’t care. I need to know. There’s a hole inside me now. As soon as I found out I might have a dad, a dad who doesn’t even know I exist, an empty space appeared in my chest. And it grows a little every day. It’s like how when you don’t know something is missing, you don’t know to be worried about it. But once you realize you can’t find it, you’re a wreck. One time, I left my new baseball glove at my friend Tommy’s house. I didn’t remember leaving it there, so I wasn’t worried, but the minute I realized it was missing, I was a mess, pacing all over the house, looking high and low. Luckily, Tommy called and said he had my glove and would bring it to school the next day. I hardly slept a wink that night, worried something would go wrong. It wasn’t until Tommy handed the glove to me the next day that the heaviness in my chest went away.
“Earth to Buck Rogers. Come in Buck Rogers,” my grandfather says, sticking his head right in front of mine.
“Sorry. Hi, Grandpa. Welcome to our new home,” I slip my arm around him, and he pats me on the back. Three times. He always pats in threes.
I walk over and embrace Edna. Then I give her husband Douglas a big hug, too. It feels good to hug everyone today. I’ve made my decision. Whatever Wahya’s news, good or bad, I want to hear it. I need to hear it.
“Shall we tour first and eat later?” Mom’s voice rings from the back stoop.
“Tour first,” Edna says, setting a covered dish on the table in the shade.
“I second the motion,” Mrs. Henderson offers, placing a tinfoil-covered platter next to Edna’s. The professor offers Mrs. Henderson his arm and the tour of our little house begins.
Mom insists on walking around to the street and entering through the front door. I learn a few unknown facts about my house on the tour. Some rich oil man built the house for his mother-in-law in the early 1920s. The land for our neighborhood used to belong to the Creek Indian Nation, but a Pennsylvania man who was married to a Creek woman bought a bunch of acres back in the late 1800s. All the brick came from a local brick plant that used to be a big employer in Tulsa. Where did my mom get all this information? Of course, Mom leaves out the part about the previous owner dying and all the cats trapped inside with her. Luckily the smell is finally gone and as Mom likes to say, “No one will be any the wiser.”
“Is there one more piece of that delicious chicken?” Grandpa Blackwell asks glancing at the platter on the table.
“Just one,” Mrs. H replies, passing the platter to my grandpa. He takes the last chicken thigh and digs in. Mom was right, the older folks seem mighty comfortable sitting around the table and the quilts on the grass are fine for the rest of us. Yona and Louie are curled up and sound asleep on the other side of the tree.
“This really has to be some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had,” Grandpa says between bites.
“Well, don’t you worry, I’ve been handing down all my secrets to Bessie,” Mrs. H says. “She’ll be able to continue the tradition.”
Grandpa shakes his head, “I still can’t get over you learning to cook.”
“Stranger things…” Bessie says with a laugh and Uncle Frank puts his arm around her. They look perfect together.
“How about a story, Mr. Blackwell?” Edna asks. “Your children are always telling us what a wonderful storyteller you are.”
“Well, that’s certainly kind of them,” he replies. Grandpa runs a hand over his leathery cheek as he appears to consider what story might be appropriate for the situation. Every inch of his face is wrinkled—even his long, slender ears are crinkled with lines.
“Tell the story about Brother Wolf and the red bird, Grandpa,” I ask.
“I’m surprised you remember any of the Cherokee stories. It’s been a long time since I’ve told you one.”
“I remember that one. Please tell it, Grandpa.”
“Sure, Johnny.” Grandpa slides to the edge of his chair and sits up. He’s already a tall man, but something in his posture changes as he prepares to speak, and he grows even taller.
“Really, Daddy, do you have to tell one of those tired old children’s stories?” Mom moans.
“It’s not just a children’s story,” I say. “It’s a fable.”
“Isn’t it a myth?” she asks.
“No. I learned the difference in school last year. A myth is usually about gods and heroes and explains nature or the creation of the world. A fable uses animals to teach a moral lesson.”
“Told you he was smart,” Mr. Blackwell says to Wahya with a smile.
“Okay, it’s not a children’s story, it’s a fable.” My mom inclines her head in surrender.
“This was my favorite story when I was little, too. It’s how I got my nickname,” Wahya says. “Wahya means wolf in Cherokee.”
Grandpa clears his throat and begins. “There once lived a raccoon who loved to tease Brother Wolf. He teased him about his long tail, his shaggy fur, and his pointy ears. One day, the raccoon teased Brother Wolf so much that the wolf became angry and began chasing the raccoon through the woods. The raccoon, being clever as he was, kept ahead of the wolf.”
“I never understood how a raccoon could outrun a wolf,” Mom quips from her spot on the picnic blanket next to me. I don’t know why my mother always has to interrupt Grandpa.
“Florence, please be quiet,” Mrs. Henderson says as if she was reading my mind. “I’ve never heard this story. Continue Mr. Blackwell.”
“When the raccoon came to the river, instead of jumping in, he climbed a tall tree and waited.” Grandpa raises his arms high taking the form of the tree. Then he puts a hand over his bushy eyebrows. “The raccoon watched carefully to see what the wolf would do next. Brother Wolf saw the raccoon’s reflection in the water and thinking it was the raccoon he jumped in to try and catch him. But it was spring, and the waters were running swift and strong. Brother Wolf paddled and searched for the raccoon until he was exhausted and feared he might drown.
“Using the last of his strength, Brother Wolf pulled himself onto the riverbank and fell fast asleep. The raccoon quietly climbed down from his perch and while Brother Wolf slept, he plastered mud over the wolf’s closed eyes. When the raccoon finished, he ran off through the woods laughing to himself about the clever trick he had played. When Brother Wolf awoke, the mud had dried hard and firm, and he was unable to open his eyes. He began to whine, ‘Please, someone help me! I can’t see. I can’t open my eyes.’ But no one came to his aid.”
“Oh, dear!” Edna exclaims. “What happened to him?”
“At long last, a little brown bird heard the wolf’s cries,” Grandpa says. “‘What’s the matter Brother Wolf? Can I help you?’ the little bird chirped.”
Grandpa does a special, high-pitched voice for the bird.
“‘I can’t open my eyes. Oh, please help me see again,’ the wolf pleaded.”
He uses a lower, gruff voice for the wolf.
“‘I’m only a little brown bird, but I will help you if I can,’ the bird replied.”
“Oh, good.” Edna sighs with relief.
“‘Little brown bird, if you can help me see again, I will take you to a magic rock that oozes red paint, and we will paint your feathers red,’ Brother Wolf promised. The little brown bird began pecking away at the dried mud and soon the wolf could open his eyes again. True to his promise, Brother Wolf said, ‘Thank you, now jump on my shoulder.’ The wolf ran through the woods and took the little brown bird to the rock that oozed red paint. When they arrived at the rock, Brother Wolf plucked a twig from a tree branch and chewed the end until it was soft like the end of a paintbrush. He dipped the end of the twig into the red paint and painted the feathers of the little brown bird. When all his feathers were red, the bird flew off to show his family and friends how beautiful he was. And that is why, from that day to this, you will see the red bird flying around the woods in Cherokee country.” Grandpa inclines his head slightly. We offer a round of applause. Even Mom claps lightly.
“It was just as good as I remembered it,” I say. “Thanks, Grandpa.”
“Oh, it was wonderful,” Edna agrees.
Mom stands and begins collecting plates to take into the kitchen. I start to help her, but Wahya puts his hand up. “You sit and enjoy the shade. Johnny. I’ll help your mother.” He picks up the empty fried chicken platter, the almost empty bowl of potato salad, and the napkin-lined basket containing only cornbread crumbs, and follows my mom into the kitchen.
“What’s for dessert?” the professor asks.
“Well, Johnny and I couldn’t agree on whether we should make chocolate chip cookies or oatmeal cookies for dessert,” Uncle Eddie says.
“So, we made Oatmeal Chocolate Chip,” I chime in.
“Oh, my favorite,” Edna says with a broad smile. She knows I know they’re her favorite.
“I’ll go get ‘em,” I say, clambering to my feet. As I near the kitchen door, I hear Wahya and my mom talking. Given the crisp and controlled sound of Mom’s voice, I’d bet dollars to donuts they’re arguing. I stop at the screen door and listen for a moment.
“Your father is the only person sitting out there who doesn’t know the truth. It’s time to tell him,” Wahya says.
“I’ve spent my whole life avoiding ever telling that horrible man anything,” she shoots back.
“Florence, when are you going to realize your father is no longer the monster you remember.”
“Nothing will ever change the way he mistreated us,” she replies.
“No, nothing can ever change those dark days, but they were a long, long time ago. Your father has been sober since the day your mother died. You know as well as anyone, his temper left the house with the whisky bottles. He deserves to know the truth about Rachel and Johnny, and you should be the one to tell him.”
“Well, you’re the one who’s suddenly hell-bent on helping Johnny find his father, why don’t you tell the old goat?” Mom fires back, with a hint of venom I don’t recognize.
Before I know what I’m doing, I burst through the screen door. “Why don’t I tell the old goat,” I say. Mom stares at me, her green eyes the size of saucers. Wahya puts his hands on his hips and a broad smile crosses his face.
“It is my story to tell, after all.” I take another step closer to them.
“Oh, Johnny, honey,” Mom coos. “How long have you been standing there?”
“Long enough to know you don’t want to tell Grandpa about—,” I break off mid-sentence. My pulse pounds in my temples. I don’t want to sound disrespectful. “My complicated birth situation,” I finish. “Look, I’m happy to tell Grandpa, Mom. Really. Let me do it.”
Wahya’s smile turns to a smirk, and I think I understand its meaning—my mom’s getting off easy once again. Uncle Eddie tells plenty of stories about my mother convincing other people in the family to do her dirty work when they were kids. But this is different. I want Grandpa to know the truth. And she’s not convincing me to tell him, I’m offering. I look at my mother, waiting for a response.
“Well, if you’re sure you want to be the one to break the news to him, it’s fine by me,” she says, wringing her hands.
“Okay, it’s settled then. I promised the gang I’d bring the cookies out. After dessert, I’ll ask Grandpa to stroll down to the little park at the end of the street with me.”
“Do you want some company on your walk?” Wahya asks. “I’m only a little brown bird, but I will help you if I can,” he says with a grin.
“Thanks, a little company would be swell.” I reach for the platter of cookies on the counter. Once we’re away from the others and Grandpa knows the truth, maybe Wahya will share his news with me. And maybe his news about my father will be good news. Just the hope of it makes the hole in my chest feel a tiny bit smaller.