How Many Are Going to Uncle Bo Bo's?
Lula Jean Bevins stood in the doorway waving goodbye with one hand and holding a brand new old-fashioned royal-blue "flip" cell phone to her ear with the other. Close to noon, it was unusual for her, but she was still in her night clothes: a pale yellow duster, blue pajamas, and those fluffy, "poodle-headed" house slippers. As if she needed something other than always being surrounded by her three loyal canine children to show her undying love for dogs.
Ford, her 29 year-old son, waved back, then started backing out of her driveway. He figured his mother was calling ahead. Telling their close family friend, Mr. Juke, that he was on his way over to eat lunch.
Lula Jean eagerly accepted early retirement months ago at age 49, but she still got up every day with the chickens. "I sewed for 20 years at that dern'd shirt factory while I was raising three boys," is what she said to anyone who asked why she retired so young. "My husband died and left them all the money they needed to go to college. They don't need me that much no mo', so I'm taking two years off from working while I'm still young enough to enjoy 'em. All I'm gone do for two whole years is to relax, 'cause Lord knows I've earned it."
It was all a lie, Ford thought while studying his mother's expression. What she told people was her cover story. Those frown lines he saw etched across her usually smooth-as-silk forehead, and the "steely" look of determination in her eyes all revealed the truth: She wasn't trying to relax, and somehow, she was going to interfere in his love life. He just knew it.
All four of the disappointed faces in front of him provided all the evidence Ford needed. The verdict was in: Neither Lula Jean nor any of her three dogs liked his girlfriend one bit. And now, three sad canines were stealing cautious glances in his direction. They seemed genuinely hurt, like they knew exactly who was to blame for why they hadn't been allowed inside the house over the past several days. Ford's heart went out to them. Until they arrived three nights ago, he had no idea his girlfriend hated dogs.
It was the last day of February, but there was only a slight chill in the air. The really frigid air Ford felt was coming from the woman sitting next to him.The engine of the shiny silver Mercedes Benz SUV was purring as softly as a newborn kitten, and Ursula's disapproving glare in the direction of his mother's dogs was the loudest sound registering inside the luxuriously outfitted vehicle.
Ursula was behind the idea of renting the Mercedes for the drive to Mississippi. She'd insisted on it. “Make a good impression,” she said when he told her he’d be renting for the trip home. His six-year-old Toyota Land Cruiser had gotten him through and beyond Harvard law school and three Massachusetts winters. But now that he was doing well, financially, he wanted to trade it in and didn't want to put even more miles on its engine.
Sounding certain she knew the right buttons to push with him to have her way, Ursula laid things out for him, from her perspective. "You’re a Harvard Law grad, for God's sake. You've worked at the biggest oil and gas firm in Houston for four years, and you haven’t been home in three. It’s time for your folks to see the successful attorney you’ve become. Rent the Benz.”
Ford knew there wasn't a car in creation that would impress his mother as much as expensive material things impressed Ursula, but he wanted to make his girlfriend happy. Ursula's first trip to his hometown needed to begin on a happy note, and that's why he rented the vehicle she wanted him to rent. Now, surrounded by icy silence, he wished there was something the car could do to help make things better between his girlfriend and his mother.
Last night, before heading off to the separate bedrooms his mother insisted they use while they were at her house, his girlfriend told him she didn’t want to go to Uncle Bo Bo’s today for lunch. “Fine,” he said. "Don’t go.” But, as soon as he started getting ready to leave that day, she started getting ready too. He knew it was because she’d messed up badly the night before with his mother. Now she felt she had no other choice but to go. And that meant the scowl on her beautiful face wasn’t likely to disappear any time soon.
"Why Uncle Bo Bo's?"
“Tell me again, Ford,” Ursula said, even louder this time—as if he hadn't heard her the last time. “Why do you have to go eat at a place called ‘Uncle Bo Bo’s Fish and Grits? There must be somewhere else we could go."
"Besides the fact that I like the place," he said, "I'm going because I have a taste for some down-home, country-fried fish and grits." He forced a smile. "Is there something wrong with me paying a visit to a restaurant where I did a whole lot of my growing up?" He punctuated his last statement with a loud laugh only because he thought his words came out sounding harsh. He'd been working hard to keep things light and breezy that day, but Ursula was working his nerves. There was no way he could tell her how his stomach and his heart were longing to reconnect with a past that lived at Uncle Bo Bo's. He glanced at the woman sitting next to him. She hadn’t cracked a smile, hadn't said a word to let him know she understood. He decided not to care.
A long moment of silence passed before he spoke again. "You know you can stay at the house and eat lunch here . . . with my mom," he said. "That is . . . if you want to."
She heard him but decided not to respond. He decided not to care.
The last time he remembered being happy with Ursula was when they stopped on their way out of Houston. She had to go to her favorite coffee "shop," she said, before they got on the road heading to Mississippi. Her favorite spot was a place Ford found to be a little more than pretentious and arrogant, as exemplified by the owners decision to spell the word "shop" with two "p's" and an "e." One "p" and no "e" wouldn't have been arrogant enough. He never liked going to "hoity toity" places, but he always went to places Ursula loved, because it made him happy to make her happy. So, when she told him they couldn't leave Houston without stopping for coffee at her favorite place, "one last time," he didn't send her the scowl he could have sent her way. He simply smiled. Even when she rolled her eyes at him before saying, "I need this . . . before we get to a place where we'll only be able to go out for a coffee at a gas station."
"Do we have to go to Uncle Bo Bo's?"
The question forced him back to the present. He couldn't believe she'd asked him that question, again. Staring at his mom and her dogs, now in his rear-view mirror, Ford willed his eyes to stay on the road. Not just because he was driving, but also because he was exasperated. She'd asked him the same question at least three times in the last half hour.
They were on highway 84, just seconds away from the railroad tracks where, after crossing over, he’d make a left and they’d be in The Quarters. The countdown was on: How would Ursula react to the Quarters, the "tiny town within a small town." The community where he grew up. Would she relax and try to understand how special this community and Uncle Bo Bo's were to him? Would she at least pretend to think his old hangout was "quaint" and "folksy?" Or would she roll her eyes back and turn her nose up in disgust, as she did when she saw his mother's dogs all curled up and sleeping in the den three nights ago when they arrived?
The Quarters, a small settlement inside the town limits of Pleasant Valley, was a tiny hamlet. Ford knew it fell far short of being like the places his girlfriend liked to visit, but since he loved it, he hoped that would count for something. Nestled along the muddy waters of the Pearl River in south central Mississippi, he thought of this part of town as "cozy," and "homey." It was his plan to point out and tell Ursula about different people and places in town and in his old neighborhood; people and places that meant a lot to him as they drove by them on their way to Mr. Juke's place. But his girlfriend was in such a foul mood that day, he decided silence was the best strategy. Besides. It was wearing him out having to think about what it really meant that she kept asking why they were going to Uncle Bo Bo's.
Ursula didn’t know it, but his mother told him the night before, after dinner, that she didn’t think “this one” was the one. Never one to keep her feelings a secret, Lula Jean waited until Ursula went upstairs to get ready for bed, and then she told him straight-out, she didn't like his girl and she didn't think Ursula was right for him. He hadn't even told her he was thinking about proposing, but then, he didn't have to. Lula Jean had a way of just knowing what he or his two younger brothers were up to without them telling her even one thing. She probably knew he was thinking about marriage before he knew it. Now that he was all grown up, he knew it was definitely true what she had told him all his life: that she knew him better than he knew himself.
He released a weary sigh as he vowed, silently, not to see every little thing Ursula said or did that day as evidence his mother was right. Again. But no matter how hard he tried to stop thinking about the clashes between Ursula and Lula Jean, his mind kept wandering right back to the scenes of his girlfriend's latest crimes.
“How nice, never expected to see something like this … at least not here," Ursula said three nights ago when they arrived at his mom's house. Lula Jean had brought out an antique sterling silver tea service on a tray; something she inherited from her great Aunt Julia. She only used the tea service for special company, but Ursula, with her nose tooted high into the air, had made the rude comment, and then added, "Wealthy people own things like this, folk with maids and butlers to carry it in.”
It wasn’t so much what Ursula said that upset Ford's mother. It was more the condescending way she'd said it—making it sound as though his mother had no idea how nice her own tea service was. It was a triple insult as far as Lula Jean was concerned. Ursula had looked down her nose at her, insulted her home, and then insulted her intelligence.
Ford learned the hard way that Ursula's light, bright, damned-near white face always telegraphed to anyone in her presence when she wasn’t satisfied with something. It always telegraphed to anyone in her presence when she wasn’t satisfied with something. Her nose had been tooted upward since they'd arrived at his mother's house, as if she always smelled something foul. He knew it meant Lula Jean was too countrified for his girlfriend. It meant Mississippi wasn't the right state to be his home. It meant dogs did not belong inside a house. And it meant the mouth-watering, delicious fish and grits he couldn't imagine not having as part of his life was just too countrified for Ursula to behold, let alone think about eating.
No wonder Lula Jean did not like his extremely “high yellow” girlfriend. Right now? He didn’t like her much either.
From the moment they arrived at his mother's house, Ursula had looked down her nose at everything. Then, just last night, she made another rude comment. About the white lace doilies Lula Jean kept on the coffee table: the ones his late Aunt, his mother's only sister, had made for her while she was dying of cancer. Not caring enough to ask about the doilies, Ursula picked one up and said, flippantly, “Even though this is crude and clearly unfinished, the attempt ... it's courageous. The design is delicate and beautiful. Very intricate. It's actually quite sophisticated. In its own 'simplistic' way. Pity it wasn't made properly.” She didn't even apologize after he had pulled her into the kitchen and explained why his mother had quietly excused herself from the room. Ford felt pretty sure that incident was the one that etched the third big "X" Lula Jean placed firmly in her mind as three marks against his girlfriend. The dogs, the tea service, and then, the beloved doilies.
It was the worst time for Ursula to be on her worst behavior. Ford tried to remember if she had always been this negative. Maybe he'd gotten too used to overlooking the worst things about his girlfriend because he liked other things about her too much. Beautiful, poised, intelligent, highly educated, articulate, and career oriented, she knew how to smoothly navigate and "schmooze" inside the world he needed to fit into as a corporate attorney. He worked for a prestigious law firm where he once felt completely out of place, even though his work there said otherwise. Then, he met Ursula. He fell for her fast because she helped him learn, real fast, how to be confident and sure of himself in his new work reality. His career demanded he learn how to survive and thrive in a social world once completely foreign to him. Law circles that often called for high society luncheons and elegant, important dinner meetings. He felt grateful to Ursula. No. More than grateful, for all she had done to help him. She'd been there for him over the past three years, teaching him, being there for him, and helping him learn to fit in, seamlessly, in his new world.
Maybe, he thought, her attitude since they'd been in Mississippi, was her response to the stress of meeting his mom and being in his hometown for the first time. Maybe things would get better. Maybe she would mellow out once they got to Uncle Bo Bo's, a place where they could relax, away from his mother and the dogs. And the doilies. Perhaps all Ursula needed was time.
He took a slow, deep breath and then he exhaled just as slowly. He wanted to stop seeing his girlfriend's reactions to his hometown and his family as warning signs. He took another deep breath and exhaled again. It helped. He was beginning to feel a bit better about things. About Ursula. Sure. It could be hard sometimes to love her. But no relationship was ever easy. Or perfect. Besides. He owed her for what she'd done for him. For how hard she'd worked to help him in his career. She didn't have to do it. Even though they were a couple in a committed relationship, she wasn't obligated to help him, but she always had. And even though she was not shy about letting him know she expected what they had together to lead them to the altar, she never pressured him. When all was said and done, he was pressuring himself to see her as "The One." After all, she had done so much for him and, most of the time, he liked her as a girlfriend. So. He intended to do right by her.
Bernadette made sure she was the one cooking the fish and grits that day, because she knew Ford Bevins was coming. She knew exactly how he liked his food, and she wanted everything to be perfect. She also knew exactly how long it would take for him to get from his mother's house to Uncle Bo Bo's.
She couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t been in love with Ford Bevins. She always knew she wanted him to be her husband and she never kept it a secret from anybody. Not even from him. But she was sure he, and no one else, ever took her seriously. Nobody believed she was dead set on winning his heart. No one. Except Ford’s mother. Miss Lula Jean always knew she was serious about her oldest son. When she was growing up, whenever she started trying to decide what her married name would be: Bernadette Bevins, Bernadette Brown-Bevins, or Mrs. Bernadette B. Bevins, Miss Lula Jean was the only person who never laughed at her.
Ford's two younger brothers always laughed. Hysterically. They said she was the "Queen of Silly" to think Ford would ever marry her. Nathan was her age, exactly, and William was two years younger. Both of them still teased her about her crush every time they came home for the weekend from Jackson City University. But not Miss Lula Jean. She always just said, "Don't worry about how you'll write your name, baby. I promise. You'll know what sounds right after you both say "I do."
Evidently, Miss Lula Jean had never been joking, because Ford's mother called her the night before and asked, “You still planning on marrying Ford?” The woman who was most like a mother to Bernie had called to tell her what she thought of Ford's girlfriend. Even though the two women talked just about every day of the week, Miss Lula explained that she'd been busy with company, and that's why she hadn't called in several days.
“Yeah, Um still plannin' on marrying him,” Bernie said. She hesitated a moment, then said, “But . . .”
“Ain't no time for buts little girl,” Miss Lula Jean butted in. “He done brought home a woman this time, from Houston. And Bernie, he ain't never done that before.”
“I know." Bernie felt a truckload of sadness welling up in the pit of her stomach. "Everybody’s been callin' and tellin' me 'bout her," she said. "I didn't make it to church on Sunday, but Shay Nay and Nel and Jaylene, they all called and told me. Kind of ‘stuck up’ is what they all tole me 'bout Ford's girlfriend.”
“She all wrong for him is all I know," Ford's mother said.
Bernie thought Miss Lula Jean sounded really upset. "For real?" she asked.
"All wrong," Lula Jean said, again.
When Bernie heard the same thing twice from Ford's mama, she knew the woman was serious. After that, what Miss Lula Jean had to say kept the two of them on the phone for a whole hour. At first Bernie didn't quite understand what Ford's mama was trying to say, because it seemed hard for her to push the words she wanted to use out of her mouth.
"I don’t know if Ford is gone realize it . . . in time," she said. "But this ain't the woman for him, Bernie. And I need him to know it, befo' it’s too late. See. His brain still ain't thawed out from going to college in Boston, to Harvard. Now listen. He's gone be at Bo Bo's for lunch tomorrow. And you and me? Well. We got to do what we got to do to help him. 'Cause like I said. This girl? She ain't the one."
"But you said she don't want to eat lunch at Uncle Bo Bo's."
"That's what she told Ford tonight. But don't you worry. She'll be there. She'll go anywhere to eat long as it mean she don't have to stay here wit me and my dogs."
"Don't like Buster Brown, Kiki, or Rex, huh?" Bernie laughed.
"Naw, and they don't like her either. Now all I need is some folk to help me help my boy to see the same light all the rest of us lookin' at over here.”
Reunited, And It Feels So Good!
An extremely long—and silent—nine-minute drive later, Ford and Ursula were at Uncle Bo Bo’s. Even if Lula Jean hadn’t told him Mr. Juke was still running the place, Ford would have known as soon as he heard that song. They were still in the parking lot behind the freshly painted pink brick building when he heard it. Even outside, they could hear every word of the soul soothing sound of Peaches and Herb singing “Reunited.” It was one of Mr. Juke's favorite oldies, and hearing it made Ford anxious to see his old friend.
The smell of good food started filling the air as they turned the corner, getting closer to the front door. Southern-fried, steamed, broiled, barbecued, roasted, grilled, heavenly aromas—sweet and savory, tempting sensations were dancing wildly around him, each one distinct, battling to get to his nostrils first. As they got closer to the front door, the aromas blended together sensuously, tugging not just at his taste buds, but at his memories too. Memories that were clawing at and messing with his mind. Thoughts of never-ending crushes and love stories. Of hanging out with best friends on Friday nights after home football, baseball, and basketball games. Of awkward fumbling in the dark while learning how to kiss, and finally finding out, after Senior Prom, what could come after kissing. Memories of being so young he never thought he'd ever have to grow up. Memories of times and people and places he loved truly and dearly. Memories he would forever treasure.
For a fraction of a second, he had to fight an almost irresistible urge to flee; to turn around and run from his mountain of memories. Uncle Bo Bo's was too precious. It held far too many priceless treasures, things too important to him to run the risk of mixing and clashing with Ursula and her mood. Why not just leave, he thought. To please his girlfriend. He could turn around right now. He could take her anywhere else but here for lunch.
As he reached for the door, instead of fleeing, something in his gut told him being here in this moment was right. Not fleeing was the right thing to do. No matter what. As soon as he opened the door, Uncle Bo Bo's started working its magic, hard. In an instant, he faced the fact that he was inextricably "connected" to this. This place that was all about the real; the authentic. Good thing it wasn't a Sunday, after church. The music would be gospel, and a "come to Jesus" feeling would be so overwhelming and powerful—it would have been even harder to not think about moving back home.
His mind reached out to him with relief. It was good that it wasn’t Sunday. It was Tuesday, and it was a good day to be around the people, the places, and the town where he felt so much. Where he knew what mattered, and knew exactly where he belonged. Only now, with his Ivy League law degree and his uptown girlfriend, he wasn’t sure it could ever be home again. Not really. Not for him. He even had to wonder if he could ever fit in again here, as he wanted to. With Ursula by his side, it was hard to tell. And Ursula. Knowing her, allowing her to help him. She impressed him so much that he was thinking of proposing marriage. What did that say about him? What did it say about how much he had changed?
The song, "Reunited," made Ford want to see all his old friends. One in particular.
He nodded his head, motioning for Ursula to walk through the door first. “Good old Mr. Juke,” he said. When he looked at his girlfriend, the look on her face told him what he already knew. She was not impressed or excited to be at Uncle Bo Bo's. He decided to pretend the look he saw wasn't really there. “Baby, you got to meet my old neighbor. Remember I showed you the house we lived in, before Mama moved? Well, Mr. Juke's house is across the street from our old house. That old rascal is still running this place, still playing old school songs. That means he's still his old cool self!”
“That must be his name," Ursula scowled. "Why else would anyone allow people to call him Juke?"
“It’s a nickname," Ford said. He forced a smile. "It's short for ‘Jukebox James,’” I thought he had retired, but mama told me he's still running the restaurant. He’s the owner, see. An old grade-school classmate of Mama’s. Ruled the jukebox in here since he was a kid. That's an honor, you know. I mean, it means something, to me and to everybody who loves this old place.” He forced a smile at his girlfriend, still set on having a pleasant visit, in spite of her sour attitude.
The sour "how dare you bring me here!" stare Ursula sent back to him erased a lot of the joy Ford felt just a moment earlier. It reminded him that reminiscing at Uncle Bo Bo’s that day—with her, was not going to be any fun at all. She'd already tooted her nose high into the air to telegraph her disapproval of everything she saw. Her pale face had turned bright red with suppressed rage, and when Ford put his hand on her shoulder to show his concern, she pushed it away with a meanness that proved she was close to a mental collapse. In one blinding flash, Ford realized he'd made a colossal mistake. Not just in bringing Ursula to Uncle Bo Bo's. But in bringing her home with him. They'd been inside his old hangout for only a few seconds and her attitude had already managed to make a simple visit to a place he loved start to feel like hanging-upside-down-by-his-big-toes torture.
The Magic of Uncle Bo Bo's
Looking around, Ford thought there should be more people there on a Tuesday morning. Uncle Bo Bo's was famous for miles and miles around, and Juke never had to advertise to get customers. Where was everybody? Ford figured the low turnout had to mean the lunch crowd just hadn't arrived yet.
“Hey Y’all, welcome to Uncle Bo Bo’s!” A young woman's voice was shouting out to them from behind the wall separating the kitchen from the front counter. Soon the owner of the voice stepped from behind the wall and into the area behind the front counter.
“Hey, thanks!” Ford yelled back so the pretty girl greeting them could hear him over the music. He only glanced at her, quickly seeing she was a knockout. That's how he knew he had to be careful not to stare. After all, he was with his woman, and she was already angry that he'd brought her here, once again, to eat lunch. Looking away from the girl, Ford took another quick look around the place. Exhaling a deep sigh, he was convinced. Not much had changed. A new, Bluetooth enabled, high-tech looking jukebox was standing next to the old one, but other than that, nothing had changed. He felt at home here. It was home. In that moment, something nudged at him to do a quick double-take of the beauty who greeted them. She was still standing there, smiling, wearing a very short, body-hugging red waitress uniform and a bright yellow apron. A red and blue polka-dotted bandana pulled back her long, dark hair away from her very lovely face. Wait. That face sort of reminded him of someone he knew. It had the same big, romantic, hazel-brown “cat eyes” of someone he knew and loved. Those bright, friendly, trusting eyes were eyes he'd known and loved for a lifetime. But the smoking body that came along with them, it was all wrong. It didn’t belong, and it couldn't be, but he had to find out. “Bernadette?"
The young woman just kept staring at him, chewing steadily on her gum. Eying him intently, she frowned, right before a big smile overwhelmed her whole face. Showing all her teeth that were beautiful and white against the glowing reddish-brown darkness of her smooth skin, she gave him a quick wink.
Ford looked closer. “Bernie? Dette? Girl? Is that you? I can't believe it? Is that you?"
“Standford Bevins?" she said, speaking softly and still smiling. “Ford? Now you know this is me.”
Ford felt his heart leap inside his chest. "Oh my God,” he said, “You're all grown up, huh? Girl! Bernie? Git over here and give me a hug!”
Beautiful, dark-brown-skinned Bernadette Brown stepped from behind the counter, slowly and timidly, giving Stanford Bevins her biggest, brightest smile. She took a few quick steps, and then she jumped, flying into Ford’s arms so hard, she nearly knocked him down. As they embraced, laughing, he steadied himself by wrapping his arms around her, tightly. In a flash, swaying in time with the music in the midst of a heavenly reunion, Ford believed Bernie was just like Uncle Bo Bo's. She was sweet and savory, natural and pleasant, like a spring bouquet mixed with the aroma of baking chicken and chocolate cake. She felt good, like home was supposed to feel, and he couldn't believe how beautiful she looked, all grown up.
Hugging her with his eyes closed, when he said, “Reunited,” in time with the words of the song, his lifelong friend looked into his eyes as she said, “Hey, hey!” along with the chorus.
Bernadette leaned out from their embrace and stared at him. “You sho a sight for the sore eyes, Ford Bevins!" He smiled when she pretended to pound his chest with her fist. "Why you don’t come home no mo boy?"
Without even looking in his girlfriend’s direction, Ford knew Ursula was angry. Without turning toward her, he knew she was glaring through her overly made-up eyes with overpowering nastiness. He gave Bernadette another squeeze. Even if he hadn’t been so genuinely happy to see this girl, and even if he wasn’t basking in how good it felt to hold someone so real and down-to-earth in his arms, just being inside Uncle Bo Bo’s—taking in everything that happened there made him know for sure. Even if this unbelievable moment hadn't happened or felt so good, he'd still be wishing he'd left Ursula at his mother’s house. Or in Houston.
Reconnecting With "The Real"
Just hugging Bernadette made Ford feel in touch with something he’d been out of touch with, way, way too long. Unquestionably unpretentious, it seemed everything he loved about Bernie was in direct contrast to everything he knew about Ursula. They were two amazing beauties: One a sweet indulgence, like a creamy milk chocolate candy bar, the other a glass of watery-tasting skim milk, sweetened only lightly with a drop of honey. Good for you, but missing what's needed to pacify a hungry soul.
“You left right after I came home five years ago,” Ford said, still holding onto the hands of a young woman who made him feel alive and young. Her touch ignited throughout his body, uninvited thoughts of endless possibilities. “Mama told me you moved to Chicago," he said, "to live with your aunt.”
Bernadette leaned back with both hands securely locked around his, her eyes searching his, her bewitching cat eyes twinkling, assuring his heart this girl still adored him. Eyes he knew he would always love were now on the face of a very sexy young woman: One who adored him for him. The moment made one thing crystal clear. His on-looking girlfriend did not feel the way Bernie felt about him. And she never would.
“Yep,” Bernadette said. “Went up there and lived with Aunt Von, daddy's sister. Went to high school up there for a whole year. I had to leave here … when daddy married that gold digging floozy. Didn’t leave me wit no other choice but to leave.”
Remembering the house Mr. Juke razed to build a very fine home for his son and daughter, Ford said, “Biggest brick house in The Quarters couldn’t hold the two of y’all, huh?” Laughing, he remembered his mother already told him the story about the woman Juke married and divorced in the same year.
“Naw, and neither could the Fish and Grits. But 'til she left? I had to go," Bernie said. "Daddy was in love and wouldn't listen to me, and I didn't wanna claw his boo's eyes out. So I left. But a year was all it took. When that 'ho found out my daddy keeps his money tighter than them hoochie mama dresses she wore all the time, she left him. And dat's when I came back. They’re divorced now.”
“Good. Good. But wait," Ford laughed. "Why didn’t I see you when I was home three years ago?” He felt Ursula’s eyes burning a hole in the back of his head. Maybe ignoring her now would make her angry enough to tell him what was going on with her. Maybe she would take the negative energy he hoped was raining down on her by now and make it work for her instead. Maybe it would change her attitude into something positive.
“Yo Mama said you was working on a big case,” Bernadette said. “Miss Lula Jean said you was in and outta here so fast you couldn’t make it over to see us.”
“That’s right,” Ford said, “That’s right. Now I remember.” The conversation they were having was genuine, but what was in his heart wasn’t. He hated using Bernadette like this, and he knew she didn’t deserve to be caught in the middle of the ugliness between him and Ursula. But Ursula did deserve it. When Bernie embraced him again, he knew they both needed the extra hug. It had just been too long.
Bernie pressed her head against his chest. "I guess us country folk just ain’t important enough for you no mo.”
Ford smiled. “It’s not like that now and you know it.” For a moment, his guilt over what he was doing overwhelmed his need to wrench the truth out of Ursula. “You’re the only little sister I’ll ever have.” He hoped his girlfriend heard the words “little sister.” Were her eyes still burning into his back? “I should have made time to come by to see you three years ago when I was home. So. I’m sorry.”
“Promise you won’t let that many years go by again without coming to see me, okay?"
“I promise,” Ford said. “I won’t.”
The happy look on Bernie's face changed to a frown as she pulled loose from their embrace. Ford turned his head for a moment and caught a glimpse of why she pulled away. It was the scowl on Ursula’s face. What had broken the spell between him and Bernadette were the lime-green Fourth-of-July rockets shooting in Bernie's direction, straight from Ursula's eyes.
Feeling anger rising up inside, Ford turned his head back to Bernie, then he took her hands in his again, and then took a step back—to get a better look. If Ursula was looking for something to break up with him about, maybe this would provide her with what she needed.
“You better not stay away that long again," Bernie said. Looking deeply into his eyes, she held on tightly to his hands. "Else I’m gon start thinking bad things ‘bout you Mr. Stanford Bevins, Esquire.”
Thoroughly enjoying being admired, smiling slyly, Ford said, “Don’t tell me you’re calling me a poser just because I work in Houston for a big law firm.”
“Naw, you ain’t no poser, ‘Bubbi,’" she said, using his childhood nickname. “Least, not yet. But don’t ever do that to me again, or else I will start thinking you have turned into a poser.”
Hearing his old nickname ushered in a waterfall of Ford's memories. Coming from Bernie, "Bubbi" was a soothing balm enticing him to recall growing up in a loving home and family, with caring friends and neighbors, and being very young and blissfully happy. It was amazing how Bernie's voice warmed him from the top of his head to the tip of his toes. Thinking about his two younger brothers, both away in college, and seeing Bernie, the third member of their old "rat pack," made Ford miss them too. That's how he knew for sure. He didn't want to live without this. Without what all of being home meant to him.
“I've missed you, girl,” he said. He leaned in and planted a big kiss on Bernadette’s cheek.
“I missed you too big brother.”
Memory Lane ...
“Dette, when I was home five years ago? As soon as I made that turn into The Quarters, I saw you riding your bike with my little brothers right behind you. Remember that? I was headed to see Mama. She was still living across the street from you and Mr. Juke back then. And I laughed ‘til I cried when I saw you all dressed up riding your bike. You had your hair down, swept all over to one side, like your mama used to wear hers."
"Yo mama taught me how to fix it like that," Bernie blushed.
"Yeah! Your mama wore hers like that! And you … you had some crazy windmills on your handlebars. Cracked me up! That's still one of the funniest things I've ever seen!” Ford had to touch away tears that formed on the edges of his eyes.
Laughing along with him, Bernadette started blushing. “Yo little brothers made them windmills after they broke yo mama's green window shade. They was 'bout to get a whippin,' drivin' Miss Lula Jean crazy all day. So I was helpin' to git 'em out of trouble. We rode over to the store, but I got dressed up first. Just 'cause I knew you was coming home to visit . . . from law school.”
Something in Bernie's voice, the look in her eyes, made Ford feel like he wanted to stay at Uncle Bo Bo's the rest of the day. As long as Bernie was there. To explore memories, and maybe even consider possibilities. What was he thinking? Surely it was just nostalgia messing with his mind, reminding him about the "intense" childhood crush Bernie always had, on him. Then, looking into "grown-up" Bernie's eyes, he sort of wished Ursula hadn't come with him to Uncle Bo Bo's. But, there had been no other choice. No way could she have stayed at home with his mother without him. Not now.
Ford felt his stomach muscles tighten into a cringe when Bernadette glanced from him to Ursula. Then, in that honest, busting-down-the-door way his old friend had, paying no attention whatsoever to any of the rules of English grammar, in her Deep South, cornbread-and-okra-soaked voice, Bernie asked, “Who this is? Yo girlfriend?"
Ford turned toward Ursula. “Oh, please excuse me,” he said, looking back toward Bernadette, “for being absent-minded and rude, ladies.”
He could tell Bernie already sensed tension between him and Ursula. Bernadette had always been good at that—at sensing stuff. He sensed something too that now was crystal clear. Good thing a song started playing that took him to another thought. The tune was one Bernadette's dad branded as a staple at the Fish and Grits when the apple of his eye, his little Bernie, was just a little girl.
As if Ford needed a song to make him unable to get Bernadette out of his mind.
Back in the day, that song was played at least three times a day at the Fish and Grits. Mr. Juke made sure his only daughter always knew how much she was loved. And now the song, Bernadette, by The Four Tops, was just one more thing making this trip, this visit, extremely special. It was helping to make this time of being reunited with Bernie unforgettable. As if he needed a song to make him not be able to get out of his mind the image of Bernadette, all grown up.
As soon as the rhythmic and soul-stirring melody started to fill the air, the girl with the big hazel-brown cat eyes looked at him, and then she turned her head toward Ursula for a second. After tuning her face to him again, she smiled.
He pulled Bernie close again for hug number three. He was reuniting, for the first time since he'd been home. Not just with Bernie, but with Uncle Bo Bo's, The Quarters, and all the comfort and familiarity everything around him meant to his heart. Less than a second later, he set Bernie free and took two steps back. Knowing he had to keep the peace, he put a reluctant arm around Ursula’s shoulders. He knew she was now a boiling pot of hot water that he needed oven mitts to handle, but he had to try. Even though he was tired of trying. He was fed up with handling a boiling pot during his long-awaited trip home, and even though he felt like he was fresh out of mitts, he knew he had to try his best to reconnect with all the things he loved about Ursula.
“Sweetheart,” Ford said to Ursula, “I’d like you to meet Bernadette, a long-time friend of the family. I call her my ‘little sister,’ because she practically grew up in our home.”
“Oh, no,” his girlfriend said with gigantic frowns in her brow as she crossed her arms to match the dissatisfaction spewing from her eyes. “Don’t end the happy family reunion on my account.”
“I was five,” Bernadette said, “When I started staying over to Miss Lula Jean and Ford and his brothers’ house … after my mama died. They lived ‘cross the street from us back then, and my mama and Ford’s mama, well they was always best friends since grade school and high school. And Miss Lula Jean helped my daddy to raise me . . . after my mama went to live in heaven.”
Bernadette spoke so innocently and sweetly, even Ursula had to chill a bit. “Oh,” Ursula said, with green flares starting to retreat from her eyes. “I’m sorry to hear … that your mother died … when you were so young.” Forcing a smile, proudly but haughtily, she extended a pale and pink hand toward Bernadette.
Risking the feeling of a little hope, Ford thought maybe his girlfriend had learned a thing or two from messing up so badly over the past few days with Mrs. Lula Jean Bevins. Maybe all was not lost. Maybe there was hope for him and Ursula.
A Ghetto in Mayberry?
For a minute, Ursula wasn't sure she'd be introduced at all, let alone by Ford, as his girlfriend. Of course, she was his girlfriend. She was even almost certain she loved him, and that he was the one. He was a successful corporate attorney; smart, handsome, and great in bed. How could he not be the one? He was very nearly the whole package. Wouldn't she have to be a fool not to love him? Now, if he could just manage to leave his past behind and focus on their future together, even she could forget he'd been born and raised in a black, small-town version of a ghetto that made her feel like she was in "Mayberry."
Oh sure, she'd messed things up with his mother over the past several days. But she was planning on marrying Ford, not his mother. Anyway, the eight-hour drive from Houston had given her all the time she needed to frighten herself half to death. The mere prospect of meeting his mother had caused her to panic; something she never did. In her work life, and her personal life, she had always prided herself on being the epitome of "cool, calm, and collected." Then, to get there and find dogs being allowed inside the house. She told Ford's mother she was allergic to pet dander, even though it wasn't true. But that was Ford's fault; he should have told her his mother kept pets in the house. It would have provided a good excuse for her not to come with him on this trip, because there was no way in hell she'd ever share living space with filthy animals, no matter how clean they looked.
And then, there was the silver debacle and, of course, the infamous doily incident. She really meant to apologize to his mother for that one. After making what turned out to be extremely hurtful comments about a silly looking doily that was on the coffee table. She was only trying to make small talk, something she'd never really been that good at, and she certainly had no idea how to do it with simple-minded country folk. Then, once Ford took her aside and explained that the horrid little lace thing had been made by his aunt, his mother’s only sister, while she was on her deathbed, well; after that she was far too embarrassed to apologize. Ford thought she was being proud; arrogant. He always said she had too much of the kind of pride that goes before the fall.
All Ursula knew for sure was she wasn’t about to apologize to Ford for being “selective” about where she wanted to go, now, or after they were married. Once they were married, she'd have to inform him that when they wanted to plan an out-of-town trip together, this place, this Pleasant Valley, could not be one of their destinations. She would put him on notice that he’d be making all his visits home to Mississippi without her. Before they even arrived, she knew she wasn’t going to like any little “hick” town or any of its inhabitants, and she had no intention of pretending she liked this one.
Ford was happy, smiling the most heartwarming smile she'd seen on his face in days. Like just seeing this … girl … this Bernadette, was making him happier than he’d ever been with her. It was hard work, but she forced a big smile—one she felt sure looked genuine. After that, Bernadette took them to their table and after Ford helped her get seated, the girl put her hands on her hips, accenting how small her waistline was. If Ursula hadn't known Ford could never be with someone so … countrified and ignorant … she was sure she would be really jealous of what seemed to exist between this girl and her man. Besides, she was pretty sure Ford preferred light-skinned, intelligent, professional black women. Like her. For a man like her Ford, after three big strikes, little Bernie was definitely out. There was no way this girl could ever be Ford's type.
Still. Was she wrong, or did she detect a twinkle in her man’s eyes every time he smiled at Bernadette? Should she be worried? Nah! Of course not. No freaking way. Ford was as in love with her skin as she was. He always told her she reminded him of white women, for one reason or another. Bernie could never do that. Of course, she never knew if what Ford was saying a compliment or an insult, but she always decided to think of it as a compliment. How could it possibly be anything else?
She looked again, first at Ford, then at Bernadette. Turning away from them both, she rolled her eyes in exasperation and started trying to push away any feelings of jealousy that might be fighting to rise up in her. Again. What was she worried about? This little bumpkin was young and beautiful, sure, but she was a dark-skinned waitress who worked in a hole-in-the-wall diner. How in the world could this girl be Ford's type? Just listening to her talk, anyone could tell Bernie was as ignorant as could be. Laughing and chewing gum like a lumberjack on a lunch break. There was nothing of value this blast from the past could possibly add to the lifestyle Ford Bevins wanted to live. Was destined to live. No way could her man ever be attracted to this … memory in any way that a prize gem like her needed to be concerned about.
Looking around one more time, she saw Bernadette wave her hand to signal a waiter. A young man dressed in black slacks and a red shirt nodded and then hurried toward the kitchen area.
"Forgive me if I'm staring, Bernie," Ford said, "but I'm having a hard time processing how much you've changed."
"Stare all you want," Bernadette said, looking directly into Ford's eyes. "Yo Mama told me you was gone be real shocked to see me all grow'd up. I guess she was right, huh?"
The young man Bernadette sent away seconds earlier was already back delivering menus to their table along with two glasses of ice-cold water in tall, crystal clear glasses. Bernadette mouthed a silent thank-you to the young man before he scurried back toward the front of the restaurant.
“Shocked is right," Ford said picking up his menu. He looked at Ursula. "Bernie, ah. I been here a few times this week and ah, y’all still cookin’ the best soul food I ever tasted up in here."
“Where you think you is?" she asked him, very loudly, laughing. “You know we still out-cooking everybody in this here town. Cept maybe Richard Davis. Nobody can beat him, but we come close. Y’all take a look at yo menu. But if I was you? I'd order the collard green soup 'long wit the fish and grits. Do that, and then you'll know you ain't never gone eat no place than serve fish and grits better than we do.”
“Excuse me," Ursula said. She'd seen and heard just about enough of Ford's shock over the all-grown-up little Bernie. "Do you serve anything else in this … establishment … besides fish and grits? We’ve been here … a lot. But I haven’t ordered anything yet.”
“Yeah,” Bernadette said looking at her sideways. “It’s called Fish and Grits, but we cook everything up in here, girl. Fish and grits is the specialty, but we serve a lot mo' than that. It's just that's what made Uncle Bo Bo rich and famous!”
“Oh, I’m sure.” Ursula said. "Of course."
Ford was sure Bernadette winked at him when Al Green sang, "sho nuf in love with you."
When Ursula picked up her menu and put it in front of her face, Ford knew she was hiding either a smile or a smirk. She knew if he saw her face, he'd see how she really felt about what Bernadette said. It was clear she didn't think a place like this could ever make anybody rich.
Bernadette must have sensed Ursula's disbelief. She cut her eyes toward him, and then they looked at each other for a second before busting out laughing, loudly, together. Ursula put down her menu and stared at them with no sign of a smile or a smirk on her face. Maybe, he thought, it was an inside joke. His uptown girlfriend had no idea what rich meant in a town like this. Furthermore, he knew she didn't care at all that Uncle Bo Bo’s had produced an enviable lifestyle for Bernadette’s dad and granddad; something that wasn't easily achieved by black men in this small town. Especially those with only a high-school education.
"Let me go git y'all's waitress," Bernadette said. In a flash, she turned and was gone, leaving them to look at their menus.
The sound of high heels clocking against the hardwood floor made Ford notice more than Bernie's sensuous long legs when she walked away. He noticed she was wearing red high heels. She was in the kitchen cooking when they arrived, yet she was wearing very high heels.
“I thought she was our waitress,” Ursula said, jarring Ford's mind back to the more unpleasant aspects of his reality. In that moment, the jukebox started playing "I'm Still in Love with You," by Al Green. Ford was sitting near it, so he looked back at the jukebox. No one had put any money in it. That meant it was playing programmed songs.
After greeting several groups of customers, as she neared the front counter, Bernadette turned back and looked at him. Then, in the blink of an eye, right before she turned the corner and disappeared into the kitchen, Ford was sure that when Al Green sang, "sho nuf in love with you," little Bernie winked at him. Or maybe not. Maybe he just imagined it. It was true that Bernie had never made a secret of the fact that she had a gigantic crush on him when she was little. And when she was a teenager. But surely it had faded by now. Only what if it hadn't? Even if she did wink, it probably meant nothing. Just Bernie being Bernie. But what if … nah, it was probably all just his imagination … mixed in with a little wishful thinking, all conjured up by a lot of nostalgia. Surely, that was all he was feeling.
“She’s the hostess,” he said, struggling to keep his mind on Ursula, instead of on Bernadette. He was struggling to keep the song's lyrics from messing with his mind, making him believe he'd seen a wink on Al Green's "sho nuf in love with you." Looking at his menu, he purposely avoided Ursula’s eyes. “When her father retires," he said to make conversation, "I'm sure little Bernie will be the owner and the manager.”
“Oh, 'little Bernie' will, huh?" Ursula asked, mocking him. It was as if she was reading his mind and knew he wasn't thinking of Bernie as a little sister anymore.
"Guess that’ll be a great promotion for little Bernie," she said, "From hostess of a dive to owner and manager of a dive. I'm sure nepotism is the only way someone who speaks like she does could ever get promoted.”
Ford was doing everything in his power to hold inside the words that wanted to come out of his mouth. He wanted to keep peace between them, no matter what Ursula said or did. His girlfriend was a regional public relations director for a big retail chain, in Houston. An ace at her job, he couldn't believe how terrible she was at handling her personal PR. After a few moments of awkward silence passed between them, she asked the question that opened the door he'd waited all morning to have opened.
“And what the heck is a 'poser'?" she asked. "'Little Bernie' said you wuz just about to become one, so what is it?"
Ursula was staring in the direction of where Bernadette was greeting another group of customers. No doubt she was still fuming because earlier he’d held on to Bernie's hands a few seconds too long.
“Posers? Oh, you know the kind.” Ford said. "People from the hood that go away to college, get a little edu-ma-cation, and then after they make a little money, come back home posing and driving big old flashy cars ... acting all uppity and arrogant over something that amounts to nothing.”
He knew she knew he'd chosen his words especially for her.
Ursula was staring hard at her menu.
“I know one thing,” she said without looking up or away from the menu. "If you have to worry about whether or not your car will be where you parked it when you get ready to leave," she said, "that means you're not in a good part of town. And FYI: I'm never going to apologize for not wanting to live in any ghetto, whether it's located in 'Mayberry, Mississippi' or anywhere else. So, can we just order now and eat, so we can go?"
Now he regretted it. On the ride from Houston to Pleasant Valley, he'd told Ursula that Uncle Bo Bo’s, his favorite "hangout," was located in the heart of The Quarters on the end where he grew up. Not the nice part, the north end where most people now entered The Quarters, but the other part, he'd said, where everything was much more run down. Ramshackle buildings, blighted properties—some vacant, and he'd warned that she might even see a few street punks wearing "thug" clothes and bandanas, trying to look and to be tough.
He'd only been trying to prepare her not to expect the beauty and “curb appeal” she usually saw in neighborhoods she visited in Houston and Boston. But now he was regretting telling her so much. Perhaps he’d scared her, and maybe the way she was acting now was partly his fault. But it wasn’t all his fault. He’d seen Ursula’s “uppity” side many times before. The side that was created by the fact that she’d once been a little ghetto girl who dreamed of being a high society girl. And now that she and her family had made it out of the hood, his girlfriend was making damn sure she never found herself back in one. She was letting him know she felt The Quarters qualified as one of the places she'd never want to visit, let alone live in.
“Look,” Ford said. “This is not Baltimore. Okay? This is a little town in the rural fringes of Mississippi, where people still know their neighbors and still actually enjoy talking to one another every day. These people living in The Quarters? They're people, Ursula. Nice people, something you don't seem to know much about. They're parents who know their neighbors’ children, by name and age. The children? They know each others' parents and grandparents, their cousins, and their aunts and uncles. This is a beautiful little town, whether you like it or not. And there are beautiful, friendly people here that love and care for one another. This is not some ghetto in Baltimore, and,”
“Let’s just order lunch,” Ursula butted in. “Let’s just eat, okay? So we can go.”
Ursula had a way of registering sincere disapproval with her countenance. And when she wasn't performing on her job, she didn’t really need to say much to make a lot of people take an instant dislike to her. Ford realized now that he had been drawn to her, not just because she was beautiful, but because she had an air of confidence and sophistication about her that had intrigued him. But now he knew the air was mostly fowl, the sophistication was exaggerated arrogance, and after what he'd seen from her this week, he was definitely more puzzled than intrigued.
“No,” Ford said. “That’s not what we’re going to do. I came here to eat and to hang out a while. I came to see Mr. Juke and Bernadette and any of my old neighbors or friends that might drop by. And I’m not leaving until I’m good and ready. Any time we go to Boston,” he said, “I go with you to places I wouldn’t ordinarily go, because I want to be with you. I go because I want to see the places and know the people you care about. I thought you’d do the same thing when we got here, to my hometown. For me.”
He replayed in his head the many places they visited when they were in Boston together. They always stayed in the mansion her mother ‘moved on up’ to in the years since Ursula and her brother finished high school. He always went everywhere she wanted to take him, eagerly. To museums, art galleries, wine tastings, and any place her mother took them, to show him off to her “hoity toity friends.”
Ursula's mother was part of the “new money” set. She had come close to dying when a package delivery van driven by a drunken employee had smashed into her home in Baltimore, injuring her and killing her husband, her children’s father. The settlement from the insurance company was large enough for the family to move to Boston where Ursula's mom quickly created the reality she’d always wanted. The one she could never afford when her husband was alive and well, and working as a city bus driver.
What Next--After a "Fixer-Upper" Gets Fixed Up?
Before he met her, he’d never dated or even known another black woman like Ursula. She was an exquisite beauty, definitely different; the type of woman he believed he should be with. One with poise, polish, and professional savvy; one who would make a great wife for a successful corporate attorney.
They met at a charity gala his firm was co-sponsoring, and after they’d spent some time talking, he’d asked her out. Three years later, after going through bad times and good ones together, he'd starting thinking about proposing. She wasn’t perfect, but she had a lot of the qualities he felt the wife of a rich attorney should have. She had beauty and brains, traits that would be nice to pass on to their children. But she also had a nasty side that he was sure he'd only seen a small part of. There was more to her mood and attitude that he was sure he'd see more of after they were married.
He was sure Ursula saw him as a great "fixer upper." Someone she could mold into the man of her dreams. She had helped him master the social part of his career, and mastering that had made his promotions come easily because his work was always top-notch. He wasn't rich yet, but he was smart, good at his job, and he knew he was on his way. But what he'd seen from her today had him thinking twice about proposing to his girlfriend. He loved Pleasant Valley, his hometown, and now he wanted to know for sure that his future wife would at least be able to appreciate where he came from. Even if she never loved The Quarters the way he did. Being here today, with Ursula, was forcing him to look at things in a way he never had to before. If his mother was right, what he was seeing now--from the woman he'd planned on marrying, was looking a lot like a deal breaker.
“I went to church with you last Sunday,” she said, “to something called a revival, for God’s sake. I sat there with you through that long, 'whooping and hollering' sermon, while everybody around us checked me out. The whole time, I felt like it was a test and I was flunking it. I heard your hometown folk, those so-called Christians, all whispering and questioning whether or not I was your girlfriend or just a friend. They were so nosey and so busy minding my business. I heard them whispering about me too, and I tolerated all that ignorance from a lot of ignorant people. For you. I did that for you.”
Ford peered over the top of his menu. Yep, she was looking just the way she’d sounded. Like even the words she had to say about his hometown tasted bad as they rolled off her tongue.
“And after church … I went with you to that countrified buffet,” she said. The way her words came out removed any doubt that she'd enjoyed any part of being with him at his hometown church. “People actually brought food from home in cardboard boxes for Christ sakes. And then, as if that wasn’t bad en