An extremely heavy sigh left my body as my phone rang, again, interrupting me from finishing a press release. I leaned back in my oversized desk chair and pushed my long dreadlocks from my face. The only reason I had a phone was to keep in contact with my baby brother, Colby, CJ as we called him, and our elderly mother. At this point, I wanted to throw the phone out of the window of my office which was housed on the 23rd floor in the northwest corner of a 40 floor building.
“Cherish Singletary speaking,” I breathed heavily.
“Miss Singletary, this is Martha Smith from Healing Hands Assisted Living. This is about your mother Mrs. Ava Clark. She coded this morning due to cardiac arrest. We have tried to contact,” Martha Smiths voice faded away.
I couldn’t breathe, my chest felt as if a weight was being pressed into it and my hands began to shake. I’d always known this day would come but I wasn’t expecting it. I began to fiddle with the pens on my desk, I suppose out of nervousness. But what was I nervous for? Why was I afraid? My mother lived her life and she had no regrets. At least that’s what I thought.
“Miss Singletary, are you still on the line?” The thickness of Martha Smith’s Cajun accent brought me back to reality. “We need to know where you want Mrs. Clarke’s body to go or we will have to send it to the coroner’s office,” Martha Smith said in a dry tone.
I realized there was no sympathy in her voice. She just needed to get my mother’s body out of her room to make room for the next person.
“My apologies, Ms. Smith. I am trying to keep my composure. You can send her to O’Brien’s Mortuary on General Meyer. If you can, please fax me whatever paperwork I need to sign, my brother and I will be down tomorrow morning to take care of her arrangements. Thank you.” I tried to sound as sure of myself as I could. But I could feel deep down inside that, even at 35 years old, I was just as afraid now as I was when my Daddy died.
Mumbling to myself, I pulled into Colby’s driveway hoping that he was home alone. I made a mental note to call his gardener about these rose bushes that need pruning, as well as his geraniums. The man loved flowers but didn’t know a damn thing about keeping them alive. Taking a quick glance at the Marc Jacobs watch CJ bought me for my 30th birthday, I realized it was 1:45pm and I’d be waking him up. I rang the bell and Greta, Colby’s housekeeper, came to the door. She was always a pleasure to see, especially at a time like this. I needed a warm smile and gentle hug. We exchanged pleasantries and I walk up the spiral staircase to CJ’s room.
My baby brother had great taste in music and art. It showed throughout his home. He had hand crafted paintings that lined his staircase and it all had a similar theme, Jazz. When CJ wasn’t at his home in Houston, he traveled the country with the Soul Rebels Brass Band. Our Daddy taught him how to play the trumpet around age five and he’d been playing for almost 25 years. I swung open the French doors leading to CJ’s room and spotted him entangled in a massive amount of sheets, pillows and his duvet.
“CJ, I need you to wake up and listen to me.” I walked to his closet to look for a robe and continued to say what I had to say. “We need to head to The City tomorrow morning. I’ve booked a one way flight for us already. We have some important business to handle. Are you up yet? CJ, get your ass up please! This is important.” I could feel myself getting irritated as I threw a silk robe, monogrammed with a ‘C’, on his bed.
Rolling over and sitting up, CJ cleared his throat and answered me with a raspy voice, “What is it Cherish? My flight landed two hours ago and I’ve got shows booked for the next two weeks. Unless this is about Mama, can it wait?”
CJ shielded his eyes from the sun light as I opened the curtains hiding the extra-large gallery window so that I could see. My brother lived large, extremely large. It was a totally different life from what we grew up around. Living in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, we only had two bedrooms for our family of four. CJ and I shared a room all of our lives so it was only right that he now had a bedroom the size of the two bedroom house we grew up in as an adult. I walked into his closet and started pulling clothes for our trip. Looking at CJ on the outside, you’d never think he had the taste that he does. His body was filled with tattoos. The only part of his body that hadn’t been touched with ink was his face, his dreadlocks were much longer than mine and he kept them tightly braided into one braid down his back. In his closet, there were nicely tailored suits from Jos A. Bank and properly fitting clothing from Neiman Marcus.
“Cherish, I know you hear me talking to you. Is this about Mama? I went by and visited with her yesterday morning,” CJ stated as he stretched and walked over to his restroom. “Everything was fine, we went outside and we talked. She talked about how she was ready to be with Daddy again. How she knew that everything was okay with us and that you would always make sure I had what I needed. Damn, she’s gone. Isn’t she Cherish?” CJ’s voice started cracking and I could see his eyes well up with tears.
As I fought back tears, I said, “Everything is going to be okay. We are all we got and Mama was right. I will make sure you have what you need. I’ll always be here for you but we’ve got to go handle this now.” I told him.
I honestly didn’t know what to tell him. I secretly dreaded going back to New Orleans. It was part of the reason I hadn’t visited my mother since the day we decided on a hospice facility for her. Something about seeing her unable to do the normal things she used to do.
“Let’s just get to the airport for now,” I said. We’ll talk about everything on the flight there.” I tried to put on my most assuring voice as I embraced my baby brother in a hug. His body shook as he tried sniffling back his tears.
“Do you think we can have the driver stop at Spicy Kitchen? I’m starving sis.” CJ’s voice sounded like a child who hadn’t eaten in two hours.
We had just landed at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and I spotted our driver holding a clip board that read “Singletary” on it. I couldn’t believe CJ was worried about food and I also hadn’t realized that I needed to eat myself.
Sighing, I responded, “I guess so, CJ. We have to get to the funeral home in 45 minutes and we still haven’t been by Mama’s to get the insurance paperwork. Go get you something to eat and let’s go.”
We made our way to Spicy Kitchen, near Little Indian Village and CJ ordered his food, and came back to the car. I instructed the driver to take us to our home, the home that we grew up in. I needed to get inside and grab Mama’s insurance paperwork so that we didn’t have to pay out of pocket for her funeral expenses. She always took care of things and made sure that we never had to pay for anything.
As I walked up the steps to our home, I could hear Mama’s voice the last time I talked to her saying, “Don’t forget, all the important documents are in the lower right hand drawer of my desk. The keys are under the mattress, on your Daddy’s side of the bed. Everything is already taken care of. When the time comes, you handle the arrangements but it’s all paid for.”
Mama was always one step ahead of the game when it came to us. I hoped that when I had children I’d be like that. But by the way my career was going, I didn’t have time for anything but making sure my artists were okay and making sure my brother didn’t get the wrong woman pregnant. I’d seen how things unravel when something like that happened. Plus I wanted my brother to live as normal a life as possible.
The front porch of our house had plants that needed watering, geraniums that happened to be the same color as CJ’s. At that moment, I realized where he got that from, and I smiled to myself. Pulling the key to the iron gate out of my handbag, I realized Mama’s neighbor, Mr. Lewis must have been keeping the ivy’s from growing up on the house because they looked freshly cut for a house that wasn’t lived in.
As I walked inside, I realized that nothing had changed. All of our family pictures where were they’d always been growing up. Mama still had the couches covered in plastic. Boy did I hate that damn plastic, in New Orleans summers, you’d stick to that couch if you weren’t careful. I made my way to Mama’s office and her desk was neat, just like she liked it to be. After unlocking the drawer, I grabbed the file folder marked “Insurance” and locked the drawer back. Pausing for a moment before going outside, I felt a rush of emotion pass over me and I chose to ignore it.
Once I got back to the car, we drove to the funeral home. For some reason O’Brien’s didn’t look like I remembered it when Daddy died, as if they’d put in new carpet. There were large potted plants on either side of the doors and when you walked into the foyer, you could smell the faint smell of formaldehyde and the air was stiff and thick. We were motioned to Mr. Dupree’s office and given a little bottle of water with the funeral home logo on it. Mr. Dupree was a short, stout man with a Santa Claus-like beard and a shiny, black, bald head. His accent was thick and you could assume that he still spoke fluent creole French.
He led us to the casket selection room to pick out Mama’s casket and a chill came across the back of my neck. I reached for CJ’s hand and his reaction was quick, almost like he was looking for me to be right next to him so he would know what was going to be my next movement. The air in the casket room was warm and sticky, just like the New Orleans August heat. Maybe it was just the way I was feeling because I couldn’t believe I was sitting here selecting my mother’s casket. I really wanted this to be over. I moved away from New Orleans for a reason and now that Mama was gone, I had no reason to be here anymore.
Once we were finished making arrangements, I had the car drive us back to Mama’s house so that we could start preparing to pack things up. I had in mind to rent a U-Haul and bring everything back to store in my storage unit since I booked one way tickets. CJ had urged otherwise.
“I don’t know why you’re in a rush to pack up all this stuff, Cherish. Can we at least get Mama in the grave first before we just pack and empty the house? She left it to both of us to share. It would be good to fix it up a bit so that I have somewhere to stay when I have gigs in town. I hate paying for hotel rooms when I come home.” All the while as he talked he was rummaging through Mama’s dresser drawers and her armoire.
I rolled my eyes and sighed, “Okay CJ, I’ll wait. What are you looking for? You’re making a mess.”
Continuing to throw clothes over his shoulders and move swiftly from one part of the bedroom to another, CJ said, “The key, Mama told me she had the key in her drawer yesterday but I didn’t think to ask her which one.”
“The key to what? What does it look like? Why do you need a key? You have all the keys to her properties just like I do. You have a key to the safety deposit box don’t you? I asked looking just as confused as I felt. Rarely did Mama tell one of us something without the other knowing.
Picking up the clothing off the floor, CJ responded “She never told me what it was for, she just told me to make sure I got the key out of the drawer and I’d know what to do with it. She didn’t want to share it with me until she passed. So I guess we’ll find out together, Cherish.”
Frankly, I didn’t care to find out. I needed Saturday to get here fast so that we could have this service and I could get back to Houston, back to my king size bed. Back to my life. CJ and I decided to go to Zea restaurant and grab some dinner and turn in for the night. Tomorrow was going to be a big day for us.
Three months later, I walked up to the steps and covered my nose from the dense smell of mold and mildew. Pulling out my key, I looked back at my brother CJ, the look on his face was somber. We hadn’t been to our childhood home in the past three months. Everything was still locked up after we left to go back to Houston after our mother’s funeral and second line filled with Mardi Gras Indians dressed in their vibrant red, yellow, and orange feathers with intricate beadwork. Our neighborhood was littered with cracked mud. The houses had waterlines and orange spray paint outside ach one. I stuck the key in the iron work gate in front the house and unlocked it. It whined as I opened it. The water damage had warped all the wood of the front door and even though the door was locked, anyone could have come inside. I pushed it open and CJ followed me. The entire drive down, we’d argued about whether or not we should let the city buy the land or rebuild. We both had different opinions.
CJ donned his gas mask and rubber boots, picking up molded picture frames and moving them around. We were both careful not to step too hard on the buckling wood beneath us. There was a mold spatter coming from the ceiling down to the floor in a triangle shape. The spatter covered one of our family pictures. I watched as CJ’s face grew angrier looking at the conditions the further we got into the house. It didn’t bother me that this house was beyond repair. I wanted to sell it to the city and be done with the City of New Orleans all together. The city had brought me nothing but pain. CJ on the other hand, not so much. He wanted to save what was left of the house and renovate.
Glaring over his shoulder at me, CJ said “We should have come as soon as they opened this part of The City back up. We could have avoided all of this Cherish.” CJ picked up our father’s urn and started trying to wipe away the mold that had begun to grow around the tarnished gold lid.
“CJ,” I said “you could have very well come by yourself. You didn’t need me.” I tried to get him to help me pack up all of our mothers junk and nick knacks after the funeral and put it in my storage. But he wanted to wait. I grabbed papers off the floor, some of them still wet from the flood water.
Colby wiped his hands on his clothes and headed towards our mother’s office where she kept all her paperwork and I followed closely. When he had something on his mind, there was no stopping him. I stood, leaning on the now soft door panel and watched as he rummaged through damp paperwork until he found the key. No wonder he didn’t find it when we came down for the funeral, he was looking in the wrong place. He picked it up and smiled, showing 12 gold plated teeth, I breathed a sigh of relief knowing he’d found it. Hopefully this would add some closure to our trip.
CJ cleared a space off the desk enough for him to sit and held the key in his hand. It was attached to a faux rabbit’s foot. It was just one single key. What could it possibly open? Why did Mama have it? What made her leave it for CJ? All these questions raced through my head as I tip toed back through the house to grab trash bags out of the truck. I noticed that the couches had been moved out of their original spot. Like someone had looked behind them. I must not have paid attention to that when we came into the house.
Once I got back inside, CJ was still sitting on the desk, but he’d pulled his iPhone out and began scrolling through his contacts. I started getting rid of the soggy, wet paperwork and making a pile of things that we could keep. All the while, I was making sure that I didn’t step too hard. Seeing our home like this was extremely heart breaking. Our Daddy helped build this home from start to finish. Maybe that was the real reason why CJ wanted to keep the house. CJ and Daddy were extremely close. I used to be that way with Daddy until I became an adult and we just drifted apart. I clung to my Mama until she took sick. I hated seeing her that way and because of my career, I wasn’t able to be at her side as much as I wanted to.
I wrapped up the cleaning of Mama’s office and moved to my bedroom. It was still the same as the day I left for college. My bears had now grown black mold and my once white comforter was now brown with a musky odor. I moved towards the closet where I knew Mama kept other paperwork. There was a file cabinet.
“CJ, come help me in the back room,” I yelled. I wanted to pull this cabinet out and get it open to see what was in it.
Carefully stepping through the door of the room, CJ came with the crowbar and hammer. With two hard bangs of the hammer to the crow bar the top drawer of the cabinet opened and in it was a wooden box with a latch. I set it on top of the cabinet and started going through the carefully labeled files in the drawer. Mama was an extremely organized person and some of the documents were dated as far back as 1978. What on earth would a woman need documentation this far back for?
I never noticed that CJ had taken the box and went back into the office and he’d grown awfully quiet. Flicking through the files, I saw something that said Birth Certificates. I pulled that file and walked back into the office.
“Look at this, CJ.” I whispered to him showing him the paperwork. “There’s some birth certificates in here, but they’re not ours.”
He glanced over the contents and looked at me wide-eyed and said, “They have our birth dates though, so are they us? Why wouldn’t Mama and Daddy tell us this?”
Who are Eveline and Conrad Johnson? I felt my heart fall to the floor. Could my life be a lie? Were my parents really my parents and if not, who were my real parents? Was CJ my biological brother or did he have a set of parents out there somewhere? These were the questions that I’d never be able to ask my parents because they chose to keep a secret from us our entire lives. Regardless of the facts, CJ was my brother and I’d always take care of him no matter what.
“Cherish, there’s no father for these children. Does this mean that Mama gave birth to us and changed our names before she met Daddy? I need answers, I don’t like not knowing anything.” CJ’s face grew dark red in anger.
CJ fished for the key out of his pocket and stuck it in the latch of the wooden box. It was a perfect fit. He turned it to the left and the latch popped open. When he opened the lid, there were photos of Mama and some Jazz greats, like Fats Domino, Ellis Marsalis and Satchmo. She even had a photo with Mahaila Jackson. Under some of the photos was Mama, me, CJ as a baby and a man that we didn’t know. It surely wasn’t Daddy. The back of the photo had an address. We looked at each other and exchanged no words. I grabbed the photo, and the birth certificates and we headed towards the truck.
CJ’s questions popped out one after another, “Do you think this is our father? Do you think he’s at this address? What exactly are we looking for?”
Of course I hadn’t really thought anything through, I was just driving. Westwego was hit by Katrina just as bad as The Nine was, but I think it was still open. Once we crossed the Mississippi River, I stopped by the toll bridge and looked at my baby brother with tears in my eyes.
“CJ, truth be told, I don’t want to know. Can we just pack up the house and go home? I don’t think I can handle anything else,” I stuttered through tears.
“Cherish, we can’t just leave not knowing. Mama wouldn’t have told me that I would know what to do with the key if she didn’t want us to know.” The confidence in his voice was odd, a side to him I’d never seen.
I never thought my baby brother would be such a good big brother to me during a time like this. I was always the strong one. I continued to drive thinking of what we would be walking into, thinking of why Mama would wait until after she’d passed on for us to find out that we’re someone else’s children.
As CJ wiped my tears, he said “I can’t do anything without you. You’re my safety and we both need to find out the truth behind this. So can we please just go and get this over with? The sooner we go, the sooner we can know the truth.”
We pulled up to an abandoned building that matched the address on the back of the photo. It looked as if it could have been a night club, but it was boarded up with posters promoting Big Freedia’s next concert that had obviously been cancelled due to Katrina. My stomach was in knots as I watched CJ grab the crow bar out of the back of the truck and make his way to the boarded door. Whatever was behind this door was the beginning of a life we never knew. Or was it a life we knew already? Either way, we were about to find out.