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Chapter One: Punch Bowl


With a pitcher of juice in one hand and an ice-cold bottle of ginger ale in the other, I push the swinging door open with my back. Adult conversation buzzes through the downstairs of Henderson House like an infestation of bees. I zig-zag my way between swarms of wedding guests to the far end of the dining room. I’m the only teenager at the reception. Aunt Bessie offered to invite my friend Tommy, but I told her not to bother. The truth is, if Tommy was here, I wouldn’t be able to talk to Cousin Wahya today. I don’t know the next time I’ll see him and I’m sure he’s the only person who can help me.

I wait in line at the punch bowl and scan the room for Wahya. I’ve never seen half these people in my life. I know most of Aunt Bessie’s friends from the Baptist church ‘cause Mom and I used to go to the Wednesday Night Suppers with her. But I don’t recognize any of her friends from the office. Maybe these strangers know Uncle Frank. Huh, Mr. Davis is my Uncle Frank, now. Neat.

Mrs. Henderson’s crystal bowl holds court at the end of the dining room table. Mrs. H must have a million tiny crystal punch glasses. They’re heavy, even when they’re empty. A silver ladle sits inside the bowl. Its handle curves over the edge so it doesn’t slip and fall into the punch. The punch bowl usually lives behind the glass doors of the hutch over Mrs. Henderson’s sideboard. When light hits the bowl just right, the cut glass throws off a rainbow of colors in every direction. When I was five or six, my mom made me move to the other side of the table during dinner so my back would be to the bowl. Guess I was too busy watching the punch bowl to eat my veggies.

I used to beg my mom to ask Mrs. Henderson to make punch for us. I wanted to see the bowl out of the cabinet. I wanted to touch it and feel how heavy it was. But mom’s answer was always the same, “It wouldn’t be polite to ask.” Last March, for my thirteenth birthday party, Mrs. H finally made punch for me in the bowl. Mrs. Henderson’s housekeeper, Edna, said Mrs. H hosted parties all the time when Dr. Henderson was alive, but now the punch bowl only makes an appearance for special occasions. Who knew becoming a teenager was so special?

Once I reach the front of the line, I pour the juice into the side of the bowl and the bottle of ginger ale straight through the center of the ice ring. Mrs. Henderson froze some of the juice last night to make an ice ring. The juice ring floats in the center, keeping the punch cold without diluting it. Genius. The ginger ale pops and fizzes over the ice ring like a mini volcano. After the eruption dies down, I stir the punch with the ladle to combine the ingredients and I pour myself a small glass to sample. Sweet. Tart. Bubbly. Perfect.

“Hey, Johnny!” Aunt Bessie’s friend Mrs. Porter says, walking up behind me.

“Howdy, Mrs. Porter.” I set my punch glass down on a tray with other used glasses and pick up the empty bottle of ginger ale and the pitcher. “Sure was a nice wedding.”

“Sure was. One of my all-time favorites,” she replies. “I never lost hope your Aunt Bessie would find true love. How are you enjoying Tulsa?”

“So far, so good,” I say with a smile.

“Well, all the best to you and your mom. And your Uncle Eddie.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Porter.” I start back to the kitchen and take another look for Cousin Wahya. No sign of him in the dining room or the living room. I’ve been waiting over a month to talk to him. Alone.

“Well, hey there Johnny.” It’s Mrs. Henderson’s friend, Bertie Crane.

“Howdy, Mrs. Crane,” I say.

“How’s life in Tulsa?”

Guess it must be the only question people can think to ask me.

“So far, so good,” I say, again.

I’ve lived in Tulsa for a grand total of seven days. Mom, Uncle Eddie, and I left Henderson House last week. We moved for my mom’s new job. She works at Linn Brothers, the men’s clothing store. She used to work at the store in Bartlesville, but this summer she got promoted to manager of the Tulsa store. So far, all I’ve done in Tulsa is scrub. I look down at my raw hands holding the empty pitcher and soda bottle. Mom says our new house is in a great neighborhood, even if it is a bit of a “fixer-upper.” It’s a red brick house with brown trim and pointy rooflines.

When we first drove up, I was excited. The brick house looked nice and tidy from the street, but inside, it smelled ranker than a pig farm in late July. An old lady with more than a dozen cats used to live here. Mom said the cats were trapped inside for over a week before anyone figured out the old lady was dead. The first night we slept on the back porch ‘cause not one of us could take a deep breath inside. The next day, Uncle Eddie and I started scrubbing the house from top to bottom. Floors, walls, windows. Every inch. Last night was the first time we slept in our own rooms. My bedroom is on the first floor, across the hall from my mom’s. Uncle Eddie sleeps on the second floor in a room under the eaves. I’ve never had my own room before. When Mom and I lived in the boarding house, we shared the room next to Aunt Bessie. I’m not sure if all that scrubbing tuckered me out or if being alone in my new room made a difference, but I slept deeper than the ocean last night.

“Mission accomplished,” I announce to Mrs. H and Edna when I return to the kitchen. They make an odd pair, Mrs. Henderson, tall and fancy, and Edna, short and simple, but I can’t imagine one without the other. The two women stand in their usual positions behind the kitchen counter. Mrs. Henderson at the sink, Edna to her left. Mrs. Henderson’s beagle, Louie, naps in his favorite spot under the dinette. Louie’s paws twitch as he dreams. It makes me a little sad to think I’m only a visitor today. I don’t live here anymore.

When I was a baby, I lived in Wichita. That was before my dad died — I mean before John died. I have his name. I’m John Hammond Fuller, Jr., but my mother’s husband wasn’t my father. And my mother, well, let’s just say things have gotten so complicated over the last few weeks, I’m not sure what to call anyone anymore. I hardly remember John. He died before I turned four. That’s when we moved to Bartlesville and into Henderson House with Aunt Bessie.

“Thanks, Johnny,” Mrs. H says. “You’ve been a lifesaver today. Now, why don’t you get on out there and enjoy the party.”

“Will do, but if you need anything else, just holler.” I walk back into the dining room and hug the left wall to avoid the crowd at the buffet. Now’s my chance to find Cousin Wahya. I bet he and my grandpa are outside smoking. Mrs. H doesn’t allow tobacco in the house.

“Hello, Johnny,” Mr. Mogul says. He’s the co-owner of the ice cream parlor where I worked this summer before we moved to Tulsa. “You sure helped us out of a bind last month.”

“Glad I could pinch hit for you, Mr. Mogul. Has your cousin arrived to take my spot?”

“He gets in this evening. How’s it going in Tulsa?”

“So far, so good,” I say once more, chuckling to myself this time.

“New city, new school, new friends—you’ve got a grand adventure ahead of you, Johnny. I hope you find everything you’re looking for.” Mr. Mogul looks deep into my eyes, smiles, and offers me his hand. I give him a firm handshake like Uncle Eddie taught me. A shiver runs up my back. How can Mr. Mogul know I’m looking for something? I only worked at his store for a few weeks. Maybe it’s just one of those expressions grownups use like “Safe travels” or “Don’t let the grass grow under your feet.” Still, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard another grownup say they hope I find everything I’m looking for. Maybe it’s a sign. Mrs. Henderson is always talking about signs. A sign is just an angel pointing you in the right direction. I hear her voice in my head as Mr. Mogul nods and turns toward the mass of people at the buffet. The minute he walks away, I spot Cousin Wahya through the window. Sure enough, Wahya and my grandpa are out on the porch having a smoke.

If I can make it to the front porch before anyone else asks me how things are going in Tulsa—or my mother sees me—I might get my chance. I’m pretty sure Mom wouldn’t want me begging Wahya for help, but I can’t let this opportunity slip by. My gut tells me he is the right person to ask. Maybe the only person. I keep my head down and walk like I’ve got somewhere important to be. Holding my breath, I pass silently through a group of ladies from Aunt Bessie’s Sunday school class, still dabbing at their eyes with their handkerchiefs—overjoyed, no doubt, that the old maid finally found a match. I make it out the front door and onto the porch without anyone talking to me. I exhale. The air wraps itself around me, heavy and damp after the rain this morning, but the warm breeze outside is better than the sticky stillness inside. Grandpa and Cousin Wahya stand apart from the other guests at the far end of the porch, near the porch swing. Mom and I spent more evenings than I can count swinging back and forth on this porch while Uncle Eddie told family stories. Now, I’ve got some family stories of my own to figure out.

“Hi, Grandpa. Wahya,” I say, arriving at their side. It’s strange to walk up to them almost at eye level. Mom says I’ve been growing like a weed lately. I didn’t notice it much ‘til woke up one morning and all my pants were two inches too short. My grandpa’s over six feet tall and Wahya’s just a smidge shorter. Grandpa wears his hair in a long crew cut. His hair isn’t gray, it’s bright white and stands perfectly straight on top of his head, like a freshly mown lawn of white grass. Wahya’s hair is long, straight, and dark.

“Hey, Johnny,” Grandpa says, dropping his cigarette on the porch floor and stubbing it out with the toe of his shoe. Mrs. H isn’t gonna like finding cigarette butts on the porch. She put fancy silver ashtrays on every outside table for the reception to encourage “civilized behavior.” Grandpa wraps his arms around me in a big bear hug and pats me on the back three times.

“How’s my favorite grandson?” he asks.

“I’m your only grandson,” I reply.

“Smart, too,” he says with a chuckle. “And good looking.” He ruffles my hair.

Of all my relatives, I look the most like my Grandpa Blackwell. I don’t resemble my mom, my Aunt Bessie, or Uncle Eddie in the least. Mom says the three of them take after my grandmother’s side of the family — the Irish side. But since my grandma died before I was born, and I’ve never met any of my Irish relatives, I have to take her word for it.

“Wahya, Mrs. H asked me to unload a few more soda crates out back. Would you mind giving me a hand?” I ask.

“No problem, Johnny.” Wahya puts his cigarette out in an ashtray, thank goodness, and follows me.

“The rain’s let up. It might be easier to walk around the outside of the house and avoid the crowd,” I say. Wahya and I walk down the porch steps and cut across the damp lawn to the driveway.

“Sure is something, seeing Bessie finally tie the knot,” he says.

“Yup, sure is.”

We arrive at the garage. Someone left the door rolled up. We walk inside.

“What can I help you with?” Wahya asks.

“So, to be perfectly honest,” I hesitate, “we don’t need to unload any more soda crates.” My heart pounds. I’m not much of a liar, but my plan to lure Wahya out to the garage worked like a charm. “I was hoping I could talk to you about something.”

“What’s on your mind?” Wahya takes a seat on an old wooden box in the corner, and I pace back and forth. I’ve had an entire month to think about talking to Cousin Wahya and now that he’s here, I don’t know where to start.

“Is everything okay, Johnny?” he asks.

“Everything’s fine. But I have something to ask you.”

“Fire away.”

“Okay.” I stop pacing, take a deep breath, and look directly at him.

I used to think the person in my family I looked like was Cousin Wahya. Three years ago, I found out he isn’t actually my cousin. In fact, he’s not a member of my family at all. Uncle Eddie drove me and Aunt Bessie over to Claremore for Grandpa’s seventy-fifth birthday party. My mom said she couldn’t go because she couldn’t put in for a Saturday off from work, but I know she was lying. She can’t stand spending time with my grandpa. Nobody’s ever come right out and told me, but I’m pretty sure my grandpa went through a rough time when he drank too much and the drinking made him mean. Grandpa’s never been anything but nice to me.

At his birthday party, Grandpa told the story about Wahya. One afternoon when Grandpa was a young man, he went out fishing in Osage Territory and found little Wahya and his puppy abandoned in a ditch. Bandits had killed Wahya’s parents. Uncle Eddie said it was still the wild west back in those days and the Osage hills provided plenty of hiding spots for bad guys who needed to hide out. My great-grandparents took Wahya in and later, Wahya helped Grandpa run his general store, nicknamed the Pack and Run. Grandpa sold the store a while back. Now, Wahya works as a handyman in Claremore and takes care of my grandpa.

Aunt Bessie says Cousin Wahya was like a big brother to her growing up in Indian Territory. He’s about ten years older than Aunt Bessie and my mom. He taught Aunt Bessie how to fish and forage for wild berries. His puppy grew into an amazing dog who would do anything he asked. The dog’s name was Inola, which means black fox in Cherokee. My mom never talks about growing up in Indian Territory. She rarely talks about growing up at all. Sometimes I wonder if she was just born an adult. Mom doesn’t understand why I need answers. I sure hope Wahya will.

 I take in one more big breath.

“Last month, I found out that my mom is not my mother. I mean, she didn’t have me as a baby. And she made Aunt Bessie hide the truth for all these years to keep me safe, and it almost broke up Aunt Bessie and Uncle Frank when he thought Aunt Bessie was my real mother, but the truth is that my mom sort of adopted me from her other sister,” I blurt out all at once.

Wahya cocks his head to one side as if he is trying to collect all my words where they hang in the muggy air of the garage.

“Adopted you from her other sister?” he asks.

“Yeah, my mom’s sister, Aunt Rachel. Only, she’s not my Aunt Rachel—she’s my mother. Rachel died the night after I was born and Florence, my mom, took over caring for me. Sorry, I’m not sure how to refer to all the characters in my story. It’s confusing.”

“Rachel was — was your mother,” Wahya says, halfway between a statement and a question. He looks down at his hands for a moment and then back up at me.

“Yes, she was. Aunt Bessie says you and Aunt—” I stop myself, “she says you and my mother Rachel were pretty close.”

“We were,” the words catch in his throat, “pretty close. Of all the Blackwell girls, Rachel and I spent the most time together. In some ways, she was like a daughter to me. It was —,” Wahya puts his head in his hands for a moment. When he looks back up at me there are tears in his eyes, “it was hard to lose her. And so young.” He stares at me. “I gotta say, Johnny, you look so much like she did at this age.”

“Really?” A lump forms in my throat.

“Yup. She was a tall, skinny teenager with hair the same color as yours — not quite black, but not brown either. She wore her hair in two long braids. Those braids used to swing on her back when she walked. She never played sports like you do, but she was graceful. Come to think of it, you have some of her same effortless motion when you’re out on the pitcher’s mound.” Wahya pauses. “After we lost your grandma and baby Mae, your grandaddy got mighty sad. Rachel and I took over running the Pack and Run. We worked side by side for years. I have a box of photographs from those days. Got me a Kodak back in the early 20s and took a ton of pictures in the old store. Would you like to see them?”

“That would be great.” I swallow hard. I haven’t seen many pictures of Rachel. Mom has one photograph of the sisters, but it would be neat to see a bunch of photos of her and the store.

I try to remember all the questions I wanted to ask Cousin Wahya if I ever got him alone. I need to hurry before our time is up. “Do you know if she was seeing someone? Did Rachel have a boyfriend that summer before she left for Wichita?”

Wahya leans back against the wall of the garage and folds his arms across his chest. “Your grandfather was prickly about any of his daughters having a sweetheart. Nobody was ever good enough. If Rachel was seeing someone, she never told me. She wouldn’t have wanted your grandpa to find out and she wouldn’t have wanted me to have to lie if he asked.”

“Can you think back to that summer? It would have been the summer of 1928. I was—”

“You don’t have to tell me the year, Johnny. Trust me. The day Rachel left for Wichita is etched in my memory. I knew she was frustrated and exhausted. I figured she was tired of living under your grandfather’s rules, tired of taking care of him, tired of running a general store, and tired of working with me day in and day out. After a little adventure, I thought she’d come back home to us.” He sighs and leans forward. “I should have known something else was going on. Something bigger.” Then he looks up and smiles at me. “Something wonderful.”

“Do you think you could help me find my father?” I ask in a voice just above a whisper.

“Rachel must have told your, uh, mom or Aunt Bessie who your father is?” He straightens back up.

“I don’t think so. I’ve asked my mom, but you know how sometimes it’s hard to figure out if she’s telling you the complete story.”

“Yes, I’m familiar with that situation.”

“I think it’s difficult for my mom to talk about Rachel and it was a big deal for her to tell me at all. She’s worried I’ll find my real father and leave her, which is completely ridiculous.”

“Have you asked Bessie about your father?”

“With her engagement and the wedding and our move to Tulsa, there just hasn’t been time. I was hoping maybe you’d remember someone—someone special that summer.”

“I don’t know, Johnny. There were plenty of local boys who came in and out of the store and every one of ‘em had a big smile for Rachel. And that’s not including the number of young men who passed through town during harvest season.” Wahya shakes his head. “I’m just not sure where to—"

“There are you, sweetheart,” Mom says, walking into the garage. She looks nice in a simple, navy-blue dress. She said she didn’t want to upstage Aunt Bessie on her special day.

“Hello, Wahya.” She gives him a sideways glance. Did she overhear any of our conversation?

“Howdy, Florence. Johnny and I were just opening some more soda crates for Mrs. Henderson.”

I knew I could trust Wahya. I search Mom’s face for a squint or a twitch. Nothing. I don’t think she heard us.

“Well, no time for that now. Bessie and Frank are about to cut the cake and then they’ll be on their way.” She motions for us to follow her back to the house.

The three of us hustle through the kitchen door and squeeze our way into the jam-packed dining room just in time to see Aunt Bessie and Uncle Frank cut the wedding cake. The cake is three stories high and decorated all around with brightly colored flowers made of icing. Mom said Edna worked on it for two days straight. Everyone cheers as Aunt Bessie feeds a piece of cake to Uncle Frank. I’ve never seen my aunt so happy. She stares into Uncle Frank’s eyes as if he is the only other person in the room. He feeds her a bite of cake in return and rubs a piece of icing off her cheek as she giggles. Aunt Bessie has a great giggle—sort of high-pitched and jingling like the wind chimes Mrs. Henderson hangs in the trees near her garden. Edna and Mrs. Henderson cut the rest of the cake and Mom and I help pass out the pieces. Mom stays glued to my side. She may not have heard anything, but I bet she’s suspicious after finding me in the garage alone with Wahya. I won’t get another chance to talk to him today. I hope our quick conversation was enough. Enough to convince him to help me find my father.

Next Chapter: Chapter Two: Departures