Judy Reene Singer's newest novel is a masterful story of the American experience. Between the past and present, between love and war, between the burdens of race and hope, a woman returns home to discover her father and a history she had never known.
Rachel Fleischer has good reasons not to be at her father's deathbed. Foaling season is at hand, and her horses are becoming restless and difficult. Her critical mother and grasping sister could certainly handle Marty Fleisher's resistance better without her. But Malachi, her 80-something horse manager - more father to her than Marty has ever been - convinces Rachel she will regret it if she doesn't go.
When a stranger at her father's funeral delivers an odd gift and an apology, Rachel finds herself drawn into the epic story of her father's World War II experience and the friendships, trauma, scandal, and betrayals that would scar the rest of his life - and cast a shadow across the entire family. As she struggles to make sense of his time as a Jewish sergeant in charge of a platoon of black soldiers in 1940s Alabama, she learns more than just his history. She begins to see how his hopes and disappointments mirror her own - and might finally give her the means to free herself of the past and choose a life waiting in the wings.
Release date: May 30, 2017
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 322
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In the Shadow of Alabama
Judy Reene Singer
Malachi’s my farm manager, and he always likes to tell me how nature separates dark and white horses. Or maybe, eventually, the dark and white horses separate themselves, he was never clear about that. Still, the white horse is ostracized. Shunned. Becoming an outcast, driven to live at the fringes of horse society, left behind to fend for himself, because his bright color can spell death for the rest. Malachi always squeezes his eyes shut before telling me that part, as though he has to first envision it.
“Funny thing about horses and color,” he says, finally opening his eyes and settling himself down with a grunt onto a bale of hay. His fingers fuss through the strands before selecting a thin stalk to slide between his lips. “Horses can’t help themselves, splitting apart like that. It’s always been that way; it will always be that way. It’s nature’s rules.”
It made sense to me. I could picture a white horse moving across burnt sienna hills like a flash of lightning slicing through a thunderous sky. It made sense, though I’ve learned not to believe everything Malachi has told me over the years.
Malachi Charge had come with the farm, along with the tractor, the extra motor for the well pump, and six bags of lime—although they were all in better shape than he was. When I first met him ten years ago, I couldn’t help but notice the slight tremor in his hands, the barely perceptible drag of his left leg, the pale cast of cataracts in his dark brown eyes.
“I’m seventy-five,” he told us then. He was six foot, thin as a tenpenny nail, and wearing clean but faded jeans, a short-sleeved yellow shirt, and a tan newsboy cap tilted back atop his thick white hair. “But I’ll do you a favor and stay on, because I been managing this farm for fifty years.”
Though the deed showed that our horse farm had only been in existence for eighteen, we didn’t quibble with him. We’re not farmers by occupation, David and I, only by optimism. And with David working in the city at a large law firm, and me putting in long hours in my home office writing books, we needed this man who seemed to be part of the natural order of farming.
Malachi is black, and we’re white, and we felt squeamish “acquiring” a person along with the farm in a sort of package deal, as if he were a piece of farm equipment. It didn’t sit right with us, and we were embarrassed by even the thought of it.
“You may as well let me live here,” he said, when I told him how I felt funny about it. “I got no place to go.” I guess it was that Robert Frost thing. Home is, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. He didn’t seem to have family, and so we told him of course he could stay on.
“I won’t be any trouble at’al,” he declared. “I got my Social Security.”
But we insisted on a regular salary and the title of farm manager, and then made things proper and official by naming the place Water-from-a-Rock Farm, because it seemed like that was what we were trying to get. He lived in the small cottage he had always lived in, behind the barn, except that we renovated it for him. And he continued to do what he had apparently always done: gardening, puttering, fixing things, napping the afternoon away, and being bossy.
It’s been ten years.
And Malachi, still wearing the tan newsboy cap, insisted on his last birthday that he was just turning seventy-five. Again. If it even was his birthday, since it floats from month to month each year, depending on his mood, needs, and circumstances.
“I could use a new winter coat,” he told me in the beginning of November, when the air started to chill. “It’s my birthday, anyways.”
I couldn’t say no to him, because he was my friend, my guide, and my father-substitute, but I couldn’t resist teasing him. “I thought your birthday was in May, when you picked out all those new plaid shirts.”
He just nodded and spit on the ground. “Yep. May, too.”
My career keeps me at the computer, but I make sure I get outside for a few hours every day. I need to feel the changes in the wind, see the sky moving through its expressions of grays and blues, and witness the tangerine pinks that sweep through at sunset in what the old artists used to call the Hudson Valley sky. I like to stand by the barn at night and stare up, looking for the first shift of stars and moon that heralds another gliding change of constellations and seasons.
Spring is the best.
I am always pleased how the flowers know enough to come back on time, how all the grass renews at once, how green things push out of the ground, filling in the dead spaces. The earth lies dreamless for months, brown and empty, then thin emerald blades glide up through the black loam, celadon buds, rolled up like tiny, tight cigarettes, appear on once-dormant sticks, everything obeying a simultaneous choreography. The protocol of brave gold daffodils, followed by an unvarying succession of grape hyacinth, yellow forsythias, pink tulips, purple and white lilacs. I finger the new leaves, gently touch the folded infant flowers, and wonder how they all know when it’s their time. How do they strike their annual bargain with the warm spring sun and cool nights? What summons them? The lengthening of days? The rains? Do they hold underground meetings? They come without bidding, they come in their time. I can’t figure it, but all these things make sense to Malachi because he knows nature.
“They can’t help themselves,” he says. “It’s in the rules.”
He told me once that he was born and raised in Missouri, and had farmed all his life and that’s how he knows things. He begins watering and tilling the soil as soon as the ground warms and softens, usually late April. He’s “waking the gardens,” he says. He prunes bare branches and sows seeds in little paper cups that he leaves on his windowsill and bosses me into buying more plants, more seeds, more bags of fertilizer, more equipment. He’ll stand with me a few months later, nodding proudly as I marvel again at small, curled lettuce leaves and tomatoes flowering yellow, and basil growing like a fragrant weed.
“What did you learn?” he would ask me. “What did you learn?”
And like a schoolgirl, I recite his lessons back to him. “Start your seeds early, be patient, make sure they get what they need.”
Foals come in the spring.
That is something I understand very well.
I breed horses, have bred them for years, and I understand the swelling promise of equine life that mares carry for eleven months. Though I never wanted children of my own, I think I understand how the mares feel when their bellies bulge out and shift from side to side. When their legs swell as they clumber around wearily, waiting to foal.
“I’ll sit up with her,” Malachi tells me when a mare begins to bag up, her udders engorging with milk, the area around her tail sinking in. Signs that she is ready to foal. I will watch her for hours, fretting, waiting, until Malachi finally pushes me out of the barn. “Go get some rest and let me do my job.” He sends me off to the house as evening falls. “Trust me.”
And I do. I trust him more than I ever trusted anyone in my life.
He finally summons me in the very beginning hours of morning, calling me on the intercom to come right now, and I rush to the barn.
A foal dives into its new life, head and neck centered between two small hooves that are sculpted like clay flowers, its long, spindly front legs reaching out for the world. It slips wetly to the ground, knowing what it must do next. An hour later, it’s standing.
I have to touch it. Tenderly touch the thumb-size nostrils set into a fine muzzle, the silky mane, the short, curly tail, run my finger over the pink gums waiting for teeth. I look into its dark eyes that know everything about being a horse right away. I am fifty-three, and I still don’t know everything about being a person.
“Now, go get some sleep and let me clean them up,” Malachi commands me, and I obey him because he has become my father. Because I have long given up on my own father, and I need Malachi’s care and management.
As I leave the barn, he’ll take a clean old towel and rub the foal down, gently talking into its lily-petal ears, slapping the bottom of its feet. Imprinting it, he tells me. Loving it, like it was his own child, holding it in his big, round arms.
“I made you tea,” he’ll say when I get off a horse, tired from training it, which is not my real job, only my joy. He’ll bring me a cup of steaming tea from his kitchen, holding it in his ever-so-slightly shaking hands, chamomile or dandelion or some other concoction he invented from the plants he grew and dried the previous summer. Or he will bring me whole wheat crackers spread with his favorite sardines—he tells me the best ones come crisscrossed—or sandwiches with tomato and garlic roasted until it’s melted, or burdock root and cattail sprouts laid across buttered toast and seasoned with salt. He’ll gently brush the hair from my eyes like a loving parent and hand me a bowl of one of his special snacks, shelled walnuts and sugared cranberries mixed with shredded wheat.
I grab handfuls and thank him, and he smiles. “Way back, was a time I used to cook,” he explains.
“For squirrels?” I joke, peering at the usual nuts and berries, but I eat it gratefully, thinking how much I love this man.
I stand at the fence that surrounds the fields behind my house and stare at my horses. Sixteen of them, broken up into small herds. The youngsters are in one field. The four broodmares with foals at their side, in another. Then my riding horses, of sorts, because they aren’t actually totally broke to ride yet. All of them black Friesians, glowing like seals. Except for Lisbon. He’s a Thoroughbred. And he’s nearly pure white. I adopted him from a horse rescue about three years ago. He came with a mysterious history that left him head shy and frightened, with nervous, rolling eyes that didn’t comprehend. It took almost two years before he allowed me to bridle him properly, without having to take all the straps apart and reassemble them around his face.
White horses are not considered white, of course. Malachi must have told me a hundred times they are called grays, even though I already know that. He always likes to point out how white horses are born dark, sometimes black, sometimes bay or chestnut. How the white comes slowly, a few hairs that start around the face, then creep down into the coat, more every year, until the horse has turned pure white. I stare at my hair in the mirror sometimes, and wonder when I will be called a gray.
Malachi comes up behind me while I am figuring out the yearlings. We stand by the back fence and watch them together. Four of them, black as the dark side of the moon, their long manes and tails falling in thick, curly tangles. These horses will never turn white; Friesians are forever black by nature. I watch them gallop past me, bucking and playing, legs carved like ebony balusters, tails flaring over their backs, held high with excitement. I bred them to sell, and he comments that they look too thin.
“Feed ’em some arsenic,” he announces through the ever-present piece of hay he chews on. “It’ll make their coats shine like glass. Plump them up, too, so they’ll sell fast. People like fat horses.”
“They’re well-fed,” I say defensively. “They get plenty of good grain and alfalfa. The vet says they look fine. He says young legs don’t need so much weight. That youngsters fill out as they mature.”
“Is that what you learned from the vet? Ha!” He pulls out the piece of hay and throws it to the ground. “Arsenic won’t hurt them,” he says. “Years back, we did it all the time. Called it Potter’s mixture. Cut your feed bill down. What with the economy, you should be cutting back a little, anyways.”
“No,” I say to Malachi. “You’re talking poison.”
“They won’t gain weight natural,” he says. “You can’t trust nature to do what you want.” He makes a face at my refusal and turns away from me. “Nature has her own rules, for her own self. She likes young horses lean; people like ’em fat. If you want to sell ’em, you can’t trust her to do right by you. You can never trust nature. Not ever.”
And, displeased with me, he mutters to himself all the way back to the barn.
Today, the phone rings incessantly. Three times before I finish my morning coffee. The barn phone rings six more times while I am outside with the horses, the jangling old phone sound amplified by the quiet morning air. I know it’s my sister Sandra, who is obsessed about being the first to spread news, good or bad, although she specializes in and relishes the latter. I feel guilty, but I don’t want to waste two hours on the phone impatiently struggling to be sympathetic.
My morning is spent riding. When I’m finished, I groom Lisbon with leisurely strokes, while Malachi grins at me, his hands on his hips. The barn phone is ringing again.
“Ain’t you never gonna call her back?” he asks.
“Maybe later,” I tell him, then pause currying mid-stroke to look at him. “You must think I’m awful, not answering.”
He shrugs. “It don’t make me no nevermind,” he says. “I never take calls from kinfolk.”
Early that afternoon, I return to the house and sit down at my desk to write. The voice mail is filled with messages from Sandra, ascending notes of impatience coloring her voice. The phone rings again, but now the caller ID reads Stanton, Brodie, and Brodie, and I snatch up the phone. That’s where David works.
David is not my husband. Though he has asked me to marry him a thousand times over the years, I have always said no. Getting married and “making it official,” as David says, I think burdens love. Taking in love should be voluntary and spontaneous, like air. You can’t have “official” air.
“I won’t be home tonight,” he informs me, and I get the familiar clutch in my stomach. “I have to catch up on some work. I’ll just crash in my office when I’m done.”
“I see.” But I don’t. He’s been getting home later and later. Finishing briefs, reviewing cases, busy with work, busy, busy, busy. I try to sound good-naturedly unconcerned. “No problem,” I say, then force an indifferent yawn. “I have a lot of work myself.”
“Talk to ya,” he says and hangs up. Not “love ya,” not “miss ya.” “Talk to ya.”
“Yah,” I reply to the dial tone. I hunch forward in my chair, dropping my face into my hands. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear at all. He used to say, “I love you.” He used to say, “I’ll be thinking of you,” and I liked hearing that. I wanted to tell him to come home. To just come home.
The phone rings again. “Hello?” I grab it before I look and answer breathlessly, hoping it’s him again. Oh no, the caller ID catches my eye. The number belongs to my mother.
“Rachel!” my sister blurts. “I’m in Phoenix. At Mom’s. Where’ve you been? I’ve been trying to get you for a few days now. Dad’s in the hospital.”
“What’s wrong?” I ask calmly. My father has been a frequent flyer at the veterans hospital this past year, so I am not terribly surprised. Or upset. There is no love lost between my father and me.
“His heart,” she says.
“Did they call in a geologist?” It’s an old joke between Sandra and me that his heart is made of stone.
“He needs a pacemaker,” she says, which is old news. His doctors have been suggesting the procedure for nearly a year. “He passed out three times this week alone. Mom wants you to come. Here’s Mom.”
I doubt my mother wants me to come to Phoenix, but before I can protest, my mother takes the phone.
“What do you want?” she asks me.
“Hi, Mom,” I reply patiently. “How are you?”
“My feet hurt.”
“Well, do you want to chat for a minute?” She doesn’t respond. “You know,” I add reassuringly, “it sounds like it’s time Dad got his pacemaker. Just like the doctor said.”
“We don’t trust doctors,” she replies. “You know how they are. They just want to get you in their clutches.”
“Doctors don’t have clutches,” I tell her. “Cars have clutches.”
It’s been a losing battle, trying to get my father to allow them to install a pacemaker. For the past few months, I would call my parents and spend fruitless hours trying to convince them to go ahead with the procedure. I hated calling, because I always had to wait through some twenty-five rings before my mother picked up, then go through the tricky process of defrosting her, because she was always a little angry that, no matter when I called, I should have called sooner. Another half hour would tick by while she summoned my father. After shuffling to the phone, he would abruptly hang up without even saying hello. I used to think it was because he has a hearing loss and wasn’t comfortable talking on the phone, but at some point I realized it was just his usual display of antisocial graces.
We called dozens of times, David and I, but after a while, my parents stopped answering. We could never leave a message, because my mother won’t have an answering machine in the house, certain that voice mails steal your identity. Nor would she leave a message on mine.
In a final gesture, David even had his best friend, a cardiologist, call from New York to personally explain the procedure. My father remained unconvinced, and even half-joked at one point that we might be trying to kill him so we could inherit his old penny collection. Defeated, I stopped calling them.
I never understood my father. That he had to be so spiteful, he couldn’t allow himself to be helped.
“A pacemaker is pretty routine,” I tell Sandra, after she gets back on the phone. “They do pacemakers all the time, and the VA’s been wanting to put one in at least forever.” I glance at the clock, hoping our conversation wasn’t going to last two hours.
“Well, Mom wants you to come and help convince him that now’s the time,” she replies. I know this is Sandra’s fantasy, that we are a loving family. I, the voice of cynicism, know better.
“He won’t listen to me,” I protest. “Besides, you know how he hates doctors. His dying will be their ultimate punishment.”
“Well, I just wanted to let you know,” she says. “You don’t have to come if you don’t want to. At least he’ll have one daughter here who cares about him.”
She does care, that’s the thing. She genuinely cares, and I don’t get that, either. When we were growing up, our father was always ferociously angry. Angry at everything, angry at nothing. All day, every day. He would make caustic remarks about Sandra’s chubbiness, her lack of academic ambition, her taste in friends, as well as her lack of proficiency in keeping the house in order while our mother ran her little gift shop. Sandra was all of seven, I was five. Incensed, I would defend her, until the criticism was turned on me, my relentless waste of time reading, my undeveloped culinary skills, my terrible attitude. As things ratcheted up, I would safely duck into our bedroom to weather the storm. Sandra always ended the argument with eyes blazing and a barrage of sharp words.
“Why can’t you try harder?” she would scold me when I burrowed under my blankets at night to cry myself to sleep. “Don’t get him so mad. Then he’ll love you.”
I would shrug her off, because I knew that he was angry about things that had nothing to do with us.
I was dimly, primitively aware, then grew certain as I got older, that somehow my father was broken, too broken to love anybody.
The secret that I had yet to learn was why.
Sandra finally hangs up after half an hour, but I knew she would call me back. She so badly needs to spin our threads together and knit us into the family she always wanted. Plus, she hadn’t yet given me her weekly installment of the Sorrows of Sandra, which include complaints about her indifferent husband, her belligerent stepkids, the sloppy dental work she got on her back molar fourteen years ago, and the ungrateful cat she adopted who pees on her pillow. She keeps herself in a constant state of unhappiness, so she is never disappointed with life. Sometimes I think if I were the cat, I would pee on her pillow, too.
Malachi and I are sitting on hay bales in the barn, eating sardine sandwiches and drinking tea. He made the sandwiches for our lunch, along with his old beat-up pale blue thermos filled with tea, flavored with very tiny, sweet figs. We take turns sipping from the metal cup. Of course, I cook for Malachi, as well. I bring him his favorite macaroni and cheese, or bowls of chili, or homemade soup, to make sure he eats something substantial.
“I’m not going to Phoenix,” I say defensively, between bites of sandwich and shooing away another enthusiast of his sardine sandwiches, Misha, the barn cat.
“Your father is meaner than a trapped possum,” Malachi comments. He had met my father years back, when we first bought the farm and my father was still able to travel. My father automatically hated the farm, calling it the biggest waste of real estate second only to Washington, D.C., and pronounced Malachi a con artist for leading me to believe that a horse farm was capable of making a profit.
Malachi takes a sardine from his sandwich and dangles it over Misha’s head. The cat bats at it with a striped gray paw and purrs while his sister, Lulu, sits quietly behind him. “If he’s dying, you gotta go,” Malachi says in a matter-of-fact tone before neatly dropping the sardine right into the cat’s mouth. He tosses another one Lulu’s way, and she sniffs it delicately before walking away.
“No,” I say. “It’ll just lead to more arguments.”
He takes a long sip from the cup, then pours out more tea and hands it to me. He looks dapper in his tan cap and blue sweater. Immaculate. But then, he never really seems to get soiled. Even when he’s wrestled a horse to the ground to medicate it, or has spent an hour shampooing the mud from its four crusty legs, he walks away without a smudge on him. “You could call him and wish him a speedy recovery,” he says.
“He won’t talk on the phone.”
“Then send him a get well card.”
“He rips up cards.”
He ignores my remark. “Some of them even play songs now,” he adds. “I seen them in the supermarket.” He throws his head back and sings off-key, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine . . .”
“He’s not my sunshine.” I finish the tea in one last gulp. “He rips up cards and he hates music.” I study the remnants of a fig in the thermos cup, wishing I could read my fortune in them. “I just can’t go,” I add. “I’ve invested a lifetime in being pissed at him.”
“Mmm-mm.” Malachi stands up and wipes his hands on a napkin pulled from his pocket, brushes off the hay that is clinging to his pants, takes my paper plate, puts it with his, and throws them out in the gray plastic pail we use for trash. Then he carefully screws the thermos back together. He is meticulous about things. “Lissen up! You got to go. You got to do it for you, not for him. Because if he dies and you didn’t go, you will spend the rest of your lifetime being pissed at yourself.”
I don’t answer him, but I know he’s right.
Malachi steps out of the barn, and heads toward the big field, before turning to me. “Maja is due any day now,” he says. Maja is my prize mare. Well-bred and elegant, and very much in foal.
“All the more reason for me to stay,” I reply, grabbing at an excuse.
“I can foal her out, been doing it for the past ten years,” he protests. “Don’t need you.” We’ve only owned Maja for four years, but I leave his statement alone.
“By the by, you know that colt out of Umberta could use some weight,” he says meaningfully. “He’s a bit ribby. Gonna be hard to sell if he looks like a skinner.”
“All her babies are ribby until they finish growing,” I say, then realize what he is thinking. “No poison,” I say. “Absolutely no poison.”
Later that night I help Malachi tuck the barn in. It is my favorite chore. We feed the cats, top off all the water buckets, rake the dirt outside the barn doors into a pattern of looping swirls, and turn the lights out.
The barn phone rings and I lunge for it, my heart beating hard. But it’s only Sandra.
“Rache,” she says, her voice pleading. “So, what do you want me to tell Mom?”
“Tell her that I can’t come,” I say. “That there’s nothing I can do for him that she can’t do. That I’m on a deadline to finish my book. And I have a horse farm to run. Two careers.”
“Did you forget I also have two careers?” Sandra’s words quicken with indignation. Retired from accounting, she is now a school crossing guard and also sells stuff from yard sales on eBay. “And I put them both aside to come here.”
“But you’re the good daughter,” I reply. “They expect you to be there.” All right, that was a bit too sarcastic.
“You can be a good daughter, too, Rache,” she says softly, waits patiently, then tries again to change my mind. “It’s not too late.”
“Yes, it is,” I reply.
“No, it’s not.” She waits. “Rache?” she says again. “You might not get another chance. You know, at some point, he really will die.”
“Humph,” I reply. We hang up. But she is right.
Malachi is watching me, waiting in the darkening doorway, the dusky sky draping around his shoulders like an evening coat.
“You worried ’bout more than your father, I ’spect,” he says, tilting his head to one side, which he does when he is about to say something I won’t like.
I give him a suspicious look. Malachi knows more about me than he has a right to.
“Uh-huh,” he says. He grabs the big sliding door and pulls at it. It moves slowly, inexorably across the opening, and I squeeze through before he finishes closing up the barn. “I can keep an eye on David.”
I avert my face so he doesn’t see the quick collection of tears.
“Hey,” he says, and I look up at him. “You forget, or maybe you never learned.”
He gives me a sardonic grin, then leans over and gives me a kiss on the top of my head. “Lissen up,” he says with a half smile, “for the next time he proposes. You gotta tie a rope on a horse, else he don’t know you want him to stay around.”
Boarding pass. Wristwatch. Boarding pass. Wristwatch. Ten minutes to boarding, and I am being obsessive, patting my hip, glancing at my watch, patting my hip, glancing at my watch.
It isn’t nerves. I have flown all my life. In fact, I spent most of my childhood around airports, because my father worked for American Airlines and frequen. . .
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