Set in Brooklyn, NY, McFadden's birthplace and current residence, narrator Kenzie Lowe tells an intensely moving story that begins with her childhood in the 1970's growing up with her abusive, alcoholic father, Hy-Lo. Everyday young Kenzie lives in fear that her too loud footsteps, her too high voice, will unleash the animal that lurks within her father. With every sip of liquor, with every hurtful word and stinging slap, Kenzie's fear and hatred of her father grows. To get through each painful day, Kenzie dreams of escaping Hy-Lo's prison and fleeing from apartment A5 forever.
Bernice gives an overview of the book:
Now and then I forget things, small things that would not otherwise alter my life. Things like milk in my coffee, setting my alarm clock, or Oprah at four. Tiny things.
One day last week I forgot that I hated my father, forgot that I had even thought of him as a monster, forgot the blows he’d dealt my body over the years and the day he called me to him and demanded that I show him my hands. "Are they clean?" he asked as I slowly raised my arms. "Yes, sir," I said and shook my head furiously up and down.
They were clean, in fact still damp from my having washed them. "Come closer," he said. "Come closer so I can see better," he said. I moved closer and closer until my small hands were right beneath his chin. "I see a speck of dirt," he said and stifled a laugh. I smelled the whiskey. It was whiskey then.
"A speck of dirt ... hmmm ... right there," he said and smashed the hot tip of his cigarette down into the soft middle of my eight-year-old palm. I’d forgotten that day, the broken ribs, and the feel of the hard leather belt that held his Levi’s up and left black bruises on my lower back and the underside of my thighs.
I forgot how the sound of my mother crying ate holes inside of me and ripped a space open near my heart. But worst of all I forgot about Malcolm, and for some reason I woke up early one cold winter morning and boarded two buses, traveling over an hour to sit by his bedside in Kings County Hospital.
By then he looked nothing like the beast I imagined from my childhood. The hands that had caused so much pain and left so many bruises were now shriveled and black, the fingers curled under like the ragged claws of a vulture. The fingernails were long gone, having decayed months earlier until finally flaking off and turning to dust as they hit the floor.
I sat for a long time watching him, while the winter sun fought to be seen through the dirty, cracked glass windows of his hospital room.
The room was heated but I did not remove my heavy jacket or the thick rust-colored wool hat that covered my head. Being this close to him made me shiver despite the warmth, and I dug my hands deep into my pockets, where my fingers were going numb at the tips.
He had less than half of his liver left, and bad blood circulated through his body, turning his once warm cinnamon-colored skin an inky black. The veins in his arms and legs were weak and thin; the only good vein left was in his penis, so that’s where they attached most of the tubes. Della thought that was funny and had smiled smugly when the doctor shared that piece of information with her.
Dozens of tubes ran in, out, and through every part of his body, like translucent tentacles, and I half-expected them to stretch out and enwrap me in their plastic grip.
Most of his teeth were gone and the ones that remained were the color of butter, buried in tobacco-brown gums. Never a big man, his small frame had withered so that his skin draped on his body instead of looking tailored to fit.
I watched him, and to my surprise my heart pulled in my chest as I remembered a Saturday a few years earlier when we still owned the house. The rain and wind were pounding at the windows, ripping away the petals of the tulips that filled the garden and tearing at the black phone lines hanging above the two-family homes that lined the neighborhood.
It was Saturday and no matter the rain and the gray of the day, the sheets needed changing and the laundry needed to be done.
Della’s hands were hurting. The damp weather was aggravating her arthritis, her fingers refused to bend, and her knee swelled and bulged through her pants leg.
I told her not to worry, I would change the linens on her bed and wash her clothes. "Leave my underwear alone," she said as she half-walked, half-limped her way to the kitchen. "I’ll wash those tomorrow when I’m feeling better." I just smiled and shook my head and then began stripping the sheets from the bed.
I picked up Della’s pillow first, removed its case, and then went for Hy-Lo’s, but I dropped it back down to the bed just as quickly as I had snatched it up. I stood staring at it for some time, trying to distinguish what I thought were tiny blooming roses camouflaged among the green-stemmed daffodils that sprinkled the mauve canvas of the pillowcase.
I scratched my head in confusion and checked Della’s pillowcase. No blooming roses there. I looked at the matching top sheet and bed ruffle. Again, no blooming roses.
My heart began to race and I could feel panic taking hold of me like a vice grip. The air became thin, and all at once I knew that the crimson rose-shaped figures were not roses at all, but splatterings of blood.
That dried sanguine fluid dragged me toward a knowledge I had been sidestepping for some time. Two, maybe three years at least. I had managed to ignore Hy-Lo’s bloated stomach and swollen face, disregarding the stench that seeped from his pores and hung thick in the air like smoke and settled deep into the upholstery. I chose instead to smile away the smell and his physical appearance rather than offer explanation when a visitor raised his or her eyebrows in surprise.
He was ill. More than ill at that point. My grandma Mable said he was wiping his feet on Death’s doormat.
Bernice L. McFadden is the author of seven critically acclaimed, award-winning bestselling novels; including the classics Sugar and The Warmest December which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and was lauded as "Searing and expertly imagined" by Nobel Laureate,...